How to organize your own childhood memorabilia

12 April 2018

Today I want to chat about a topic I don’t think I’ve ever seen covered on a blog: how to organize and simplify your own childhood memorabilia. There are plenty of resources out there for streamlining your kids’ stuff, but how about those of us still drowning in our own memories even while trying to organize memories for our kiddos? I’ve got some thoughts and a few things that have worked for me, and thought I’d share them today!

how to organize childhood memorabilia

When I moved to North Carolina almost ten years ago (!), I had no idea how long I’d be here, or how long I’d be in my new apartment. I packed my UHaul with my clothes, furniture, some books, and some decor from my parents’ house, but left the vast majority of everything I didn’t use on a daily basis in my room at home. (Thank you, parents, for being okay with that!!)

Over the next few years, whenever I went home to visit, I would make a point to spend a little time sorting through what was left in my room: clothes, binders and notebooks from school, old toys, decor. Little by little, I got rid of what no longer had meaning to me and was better able to take inventory of what was left.

Likewise, every time my parents drove to North Carolina, they would bring a load of my stuff. With each new delivery, I’d sit down and sort through the pile, again keeping only what had meaning to me.

How did I decide what had meaning to me? I know a lot of people keep things because they think their kids might want to look at them someday, but that is not the driving force for me. Sure, there are some things I would love to share with my kiddos down the line if they express interest. For me, though, the reason I keep things is to remind myself of my story. “Finding a career” advice often encourages us to think back to our childhood passions, as they’re supposed to point us in the direction of our life’s purpose.

That is definitely true for me. One of the greatest passions of my life is writing, and I LOVE being reminded of how early this passion started for me and all the ways it grew throughout the years. Accordingly, one thing I’ll never give up is the picture book I wrote in second grade. The story was basically a rewrite of my favorite chapter book at the time (ha), but it was the first time I remember someone taking a special interest in this part of my identity: my teacher had the book laminated and bound, and she even sent it to the principal to read (who wrote a note in the back!).

As you all know, I am not very sentimental, but am HUGE on the power of stories. At their best, any mementos I keep remind me of who I am, what I’ve overcome, and where I’ve triumphed. They aren’t clutter; they bring me joy.

To summarize, here are my best tips if you’re staring down your own pile of stuff:

1. If possible, start early (before you have kids!). I’m so thankful I started early, because I had a LOT more free time on my hometown visits before June arrived, and a lot more time to sort through piles once back home!
2. If you aren’t sure, keep it. This might be controversial advice, and if you’re having a hard time letting go of anything at all, please disregard. But, if you’re making good progress and are just hung up on a few items, I would suggest you keep them. Purging can be a gradual process, and there’s usually no need to torture yourself to let something go if you’re not ready, even if you don’t think anyone would understand why you’re keeping the thing. You can always get rid of it in a few years if it’s no longer meaningful to you :)
3. Have a reason for what you keep. This is the necessary follow-up to tip number two! If you’re putting something in the “save” pile, try to articulate why you’re keeping it. It could be as simple as the thing brings you joy, but it shouldn’t be because you feel like you need to keep it or people would judge you if you let it go.
4. Don’t be afraid to purge gradually. For me, sorting through memorabilia isn’t a one-and-done thing. Whenever I have the itch to streamline or want to clear out a little more space, I go back through my things and cull a bit more. It usually ends up being every 2-4 years for a major look-through, with little trims off the edges here and there. For example, my Irish step dancing trophies hung on through several early rounds of purging. I kept all but the most significant trophies for a few more years, and then last year, I decided I was at peace about letting those go, too.
5. Take ownership. Out of sight, out of mind, right? If you’re lucky enough to have parents who have stored your stuff over the years, it’s so easy to just avoid the situation altogether. But that’s not fair to your parents, and it’s not fair to you, either! Get it into your own house so you’re forced to deal with it.

Once I slimmed down my entire collection to just the things I loved, I made a simple storage system. Currently, I have three big boxes and three little boxes in our guest room closet.

Big boxes:
— Middle school and younger: report cards, “books” I wrote, school pictures, newspaper clippings, dance memorabilia, a story journal my Dad and I used to pass back and forth, diaries…
— College: my acceptance letter, favorites papers I wrote, event programs, graduation cards, volumes of the literary journal I was published in…
— Random: this box could probably stand to be culled but includes a bunch of the mixed CDs John made me in our early years of dating, my four high school yearbooks, a scrapbook of our first year of dating, and the DVD of my final Irish dancing show, among other things

Little boxes:
— High school: commencement program, newspaper clippings, AP exam results (ha), my diploma, programs from events…
— Our wedding: one of each piece in our paper suite, my bouquet ribbon, particularly meaningful cards we were sent, our wedding film DVD, our wedding photo CD, our newspaper announcement…
— Our life together: LOTS of notes we’ve written each other over the years, notes from friends, souvenirs from our honeymoon, a small painting of our cats, a copy of each of our Christmas cards, my baby shower invitation…

You might want to keep more or less than I have – and that’s totally fine, as long as it aligns with what you value and you have the space for it! :)

Friends, I would love to hear: is this something you struggle with? Where are you in the process of getting your own childhood things in order? What system have you landed on?

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April 12, 2018 8:30 am

My parents saved very little from my childhood so I’m reading this with a little bit of jealousy in my heart!! I wrote so many books as a child and would do anything to see one of them.. as much as I LOVE purging (I’ve literally been in a constant state since Christmas) it’s almost as important as not being a hoarder to know which meaningful things are special to keep.. so I loved this list!

April 12, 2018 1:48 pm
Reply to  Victoria

Yes! I imagine at some point I will write a post about how I am organizing memorabilia for my kids, and that’s an interesting question to consider: my parents didn’t keep everything, so how did they KNOW to keep the things relating to writing, creativity, etc.? I’d imagine it was a combination of it being obvious that those things were the most special to me, and obviously they did keep some stuff that I’ve since thrown away! :)

April 12, 2018 9:49 am

This is super timely for me as I’m currently planning a trip home! My parents are moving soon- my mom is in major purge mode! I’m in a unique situation since I live and work overseas- the vast majority of my childhood mementos are still at home. Every time I head home I attempt to clear things out but you’ve motivated me to be a bit more ruthless in the process this time!

One of my tips (especially to younger girls) is to have your favorite t-shirts made into a quilt! Not an original idea but having this one item stand in for so many other mementos really helped me get rid of a bunch of other things.

The hardest thing for me is books and photos! I don’t know what to do with old photos so even though half of them are blurry and of people I don’t know anymore, I just keep hanging on to them.

Bethany Howe
April 12, 2018 11:40 am

My parents just recently downsized to an apartment, so I was faced with having to go through some of my childhood things, mostly things from high school and college (my parents kept a lot of my elementary memorabilia). It’s interesting to look back and see papers that I’ve written and agonized over, old SAT scores, yearbooks, etc. I mentioned to my husband that it’s almost a shame to get rid of all my work from college (I kept everything – notes, exams, papers, etc. from ALL my classes), since so much hard work and time went into it, until he pointed out that they served a purpose – to get my degree. After that, it was easy to remember that all those papers and tests had their time, and I was able to recycle them without feeling guilty.

I have no system, though. Everything is on the top shelf of my closet, stuffed in a Vera Bradley bag, ha!

April 12, 2018 12:13 pm

I’ve been on an on going quest to down size! Memories I seem to put last, but in a few recent reviews, like you mention, I’ve slowly decreased the amount of things each time. Well, while adding to it as my parents have been giving me things with each of their visits or my trips home. I’ve been thinking about what I like to keep around and found the most joy in individual photos. I have a few scrapbooks I created from years at camp, and kept my senior yearbook, but my favorite thing has been to look at loose pictures. The curiosity in not know what will come next, it loosely being organized by time but not stringent, there’s an organic nature to revisiting the past. It’s also easy for me to look at an individual photo and think, does this bring me joy, do I want to revisit this moment/memory and if not easily let that photo go (vs. an entire album I made!).

Organizationally we currently keep memories in nice container store boxes throughout our living room shelves. My husband and I each have a childhood box (plus some misc yearbooks or awards in the basement), then our “love” of things from our relationship, and I’ve started a box for my daughter. I agree with you that reviewing things once and being done doesn’t resonate. Periodically reviewing, and revisiting memories and then letting go of what no longer feels important is part of the beauty of holding on to these things, and letting them reshape over time.

It’s so interesting what some people want to keep vs. others! Last weekend I passed on keeping all my report cards and my elementary school reports, but kept our annual class photo (we all look like such 90s kids!). One of my favorite things is a little leather journal I kept while being an exchange student at 16. What that book contains — from the mundane daily notes to bigger concerns is really special. That little blue notebook represents such vulnerability and growth to me.

April 12, 2018 5:06 pm

Great post! I am guilty of having a a few HUGE boxes from when I packed up my childhood bedroom carelessly and quickly at the excitement of moving into the home my (at that time fiance) and I had just purchased. Those boxes sit, touched only a handful of times to dig out something, in our basement 5 and a half years later. Grand ideas of cleaning them out during my 4 weeks of maternity leave before my due date were squashed when baby boy (now almost 2) arrived 3 weeks early. I enjoy your blog so much because of posts like this-unique, motivational, and a reminder we all need to hear! I’m a full time classroom teacher now which leaves me so aggravatingly busy, and my personal grand plans (finishing our 2017 family photobook… organizing and decluttering areas of our home…) fall to the wayside.

April 12, 2018 6:16 pm

This is a great post! This is something I struggle with. I want to keep everything. I’m a very sentimental person but I often think of all the things I have in my possession. Are my future kids REALLY going to need this? But I’m a lot like #4 that you listed… I purge gradually because I like to hold onto things. I revisit something, that I think I need to keep, at a later time and usually my feelings towards it have changed.

April 15, 2018 4:59 am

Emily, thank you for writing this post! Exactly the encouragement I needed to tackle this “issue” in my life. I was the last child to leave my parent’s house about 7 years ago and my parents were very gracious in letting me leave my room the way it was. I hardly took anything with me. Today, all of my clothes are out of the closet but most of my childhood stuff is still in that room. Every time I visit them I want to go through it and purge but during these weekend trips there is never enough time and honestly I don’t want to spend the precious short time I have with family stuck in my room. But I will have a little free time this summer and I’m inspired to set aside a week at my parent’s house to sort this out and finally get it out of my head. Thank you for the inspiration – I will put it on my powersheets right away ;-)

April 16, 2018 6:13 am

I so appreciate your insight on this!! I’m going to Texas at the end of the month and I don’t think my mom is going to let me leave until I finally clear out the last of my stuff in my room there. Thankfully, I’ve grown much more ruthless over the past few years and there isn’t a ton of stuff there to begin with (considering I only ever lived in that room during summers)…other than the stacks of magazines under the bed :P I’m going to try your box system so that hopefully, everything can say neatly tucked away in 2-3 boxes until someone can drive it up.

April 17, 2018 5:03 am

This is so amazing Em – and something that has always been a little thorn in my side.
My parents didn’t keep anything of mine and back in the day, unless you printed photos, they were never kept.

I took it upon myself to make two files of my Junior School and Senior School years and sadly that it all I have left but it includes school photos, reports, certificates and awards etc – and it’s better than nothing. Thisis exactly why I am so pedantic about keeping memory books and boxes and stored photos on hard drives for my girls to enjoy their memories one day x

May 5, 2018 7:29 pm

I’m getting SO much better at this! I used to hang on to EVERYTHING. Now, I’ve learned how to better decide what has meaning and what feels like an obligation to keep. Something that helps me when I’m going through memorabilia is that if I don’t want to take time to read a note or look through a keepsake NOW, I’m probably not going to want to look at in 5, 10, 15 years, either, so out it goes. Another great tip I learned from my mom is to keep important and meaningful documents and cards in a binder with sheet protectors. I’ve kept cards from my Great Great Aunt Mattye, for who I’m named, my job offer letter, my sorority initiation certificate, and other meaningful paper items. It’s very compact for storage, and the sheet protectors make it very easy to look through and enjoy the things I chose to keep.
I do have a question—how do you only keep ONE of your wedding invitation, Christmas card, etc? I always feel like I need to keep 3-5 just for good measure! I mean, what if something happened to one (or two or three) of them?! Ha. I’d love to hear your perspective on this.