Decluttering with a little help from a friend

Back on the 18th Nov Sabine left a comment about how her friend Debbie had helped her with an emotionally difficult declutter job on memorabilia that was cluttering up her garage. I asked her if she would be kind enough to write a blog post to share with us all. She gladly accepted the challenge and the post below is the result of her effort. I am sure you will all enjoy it and feel free to leave comments and questions for Sabine because she would love your feedback.

Let me also say thank you to her friend Debbie for being there for her when the going got tough. Decluttering isn’t always easy but the hard part can be a lot less daunting with a friend there to back you up.

So without further adieu here is Sabine’s story.

The back wall of my garage is lined with shelves, the shelves stacked with plastic tubs. Until recently (pre-365), a lot of other stuff was jammed onto the shelves. And in front of them. All over the floor, really.

And scariest of all were the tubs labelled ‘memorabilia’. I left them for last while I was working through the garage, five in all. These were supposedly things I had kept for the good memories, but just looking at the tubs made me anxious. In the last five years I had never opened them to enjoy the contents, only to stuff more things in.

Part of my dread, I realized, was not knowing exactly what was in there. If I went through them, would there be unpleasant surprises? I had appeared to have kept just about everything that had passed through my life in my garage, why wouldn’t it be the same with memorabilia? Like many people. I’ve got some unhappy things in my past. What if going through the tubs made me think about that stuff? I didn’t want to. 

Nor did I want to keep looking at those tubs. Five 20-gallon tubs. That’s 100 gallons of memories! But tackling the garage bit by bit built up my tolerance, I guess. I had thrown away so much worthless stuff (and half my bras and underwear, by accident- oops!) and it felt SO good.

When all that was left between me and a garage I would be happy to enter, were those five tubs, I worked up the courage to face them. Sort of. I asked a friend to help.

Deb has been decluttering her home at the same time I have (and reading 365). We commiserate, and egg each other on, and she really understands the emotional component of decluttering.

She came over, we had a nice lunch, and lined up the tubs. We started with the one I thought would be easiest: my kids’ old clothes. And it WAS the easiest, both in terms of the memories all being good, and how easy it was to let items go. The surprise was there was quite a bit of stuff where I was thinking, “Why did I ever keep this?” They were easy to toss, and it gave me confidence.

I ended up with three items to keep out of about 40, and about 12 items I photographed. The pictures will go into our album, with a note about the memories they evoke. Two pages, instead of twenty gallons.

Well, it was good I started with the easy one. When I opened the next tub, I actually had to put the lid back on and take some breaths, before opening it for real. It was filled with kids’ school papers and jumble. Just the sight was a mental overload. I got a sick feeling in my stomach. Deb was a big help. She kept saying, “It’s okay. One thing at a time.”

I took out a handful and went through it piece by piece. Once I had begun, the stomach tension went away, but each new handful brought a separate flare of anxiety. Once she saw what my criteria for going through it was(I was sorting first), Deb asked if she could help, making sure I knew it was fine with her if I just wanted her to back off. The perfect helper! She did a rough sort for me, and we winnowed the two tubs of kids’ stuff in less than an hour.

At this point Deb started giving me deadlines, ’cause she could see I was bogging down in the sheer volume. “Twenty minutes to get through this tub!” I flipped out a little, but it got me going, and made me remember I wasn’t doing this to save everything, but to choose the best. And at the bottom of the tub, I realized she let me go over the twenty minutes: it just made me focus. Good ploy, Deb!

Then I went through child by child, and chose what to keep. That part was fun. I chose items that were indicative of each child, found some great stuff to frame and enjoy on our walls. We took a break and moved the piles of keepers, recycling, shredding, etc. It made a good mental as well as physical space, and I could see I was making progress.

The fourth tub was a surprise. More than half of it was just junk (legos, bobbypins, flashlights) that had gotten stuffed in there by mistake during one of my panicked clearouts. Super easy to deal with.

Then the biggie. Memories of my childhood, my father who raised me (now dead), my mother (with whom I have a difficult relationship). This is where the tears came. But I looked at everything. I found items to toss (a perfect attendance plaque from my father’s work-what?!?) and items to keep (a letter he wrote to his boss, turning down a prestigious promotion, because he needed to stay in his current job for the sake of his children’s stability). Items to offer my children (my grandmother’s jewelery which had no meaning for me, but they thought was retro-awesome).

I found funny things. Thank you notes for wedding presents I had forgotten to mail (22 years ago!). I tossed the ones to people who were dead, or divorced, and mailed the rest. They all enjoyed receiving them, with my note on the back, explaining.

I asked my sister if she wanted anything, and then…it was done.

My goal had been to get down to two tubs. It was down to one.

All but one item provokes good memories (working on letting go of that last item, but I’m just not ready yet). When I want to revisit memories, I know it will be a good, and easy, experience. I don’t need to let dread stop me.

Deb and I put everything away, and had dessert.

I felt wonderful. Amazed that I had done it. Writing this post three weeks later, I can only remember a few of the things I tossed (old spelling tests for one). I let this junk clog up my life, my spirit, and my garage for years, and it was such trivial stuff I can hardly remember it now. It kept me from enjoying the things worth keeping. What a waste. I don’t feel guilty. I do feel like a valuable lesson was learned.

And the aftermath! After Deb left, I couldn’t stop. I was so charged up, I tackled my photographs. I now have twenty years of negatives on CDs and the rest lined up to do bit by bit.

I am glad I waited until I had done quite a bit of decluttering. I had developed the skills to assess the stuff, and ask myself questions about what was worth keeping. And I don’t know if I would have had the courage to start, without Deb. Guess I’ve also learned which jobs are just too much to tackle alone.

Lesson learned? Yes. This week I came home with a theater program, looked at it, remembered the enjoyment of the performance, then tossed the paper. Yay!

Today’s Declutter Item

In keeping with today’s post theme my declutter item for today is a bunch of old birthday cards I had kept from my 40th birthday. It was a lovely day, my hubby sent me off to the spa for a facial, a manicure and a full body massage while he prepared dinner for our guests. I don’t need these cards to remind me of that. The tattoo however will be there for life.

More of my own memorabilia declutter

Something I Am Grateful For Today

Finally I felt well enough to tackle the housework today. It feels so good to know everything is clean. My son wanted to cook pizza but there was no way I was going to let him mess up my kitchen. He can cook pizza tomorrow, today is for enjoying seeing everything sparkle.

“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” Brother David Steindl-Rast

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow

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Continue reading with these posts:

  • What is right for you? I often get comments from people contradicting my suggestions regarding what to declutter and pleading their case on why they keep certain items or collections of things. Avid readers […]
  • One readers clutter nemesis I received an email from Christie this week asking for some advice. I'll launch right in with her email, followed by my advice, and then I would love you all to add your thoughts on the […]
  • Stuff x Emotions ~ A guest post by Andréia It seems funny to talk about emotions and feelings when talking about inanimate objects that can be replaced, but we place emotion and feelings on stuff all the time. It can be good or it […]
About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. Fantastic Sabine! What an inspirational story and what a great friend you have! !!!!

  2. Sabine, this is a great post. I need to recommend this method to a couple of people I know will need help like this. I’m so proud of you for making it through.

    Colleen, thanks for asking Sabine to write this post.

    Everyone, we have just learned that we really need to move. The owners of the 55+ community where we live are changing tactics and it will not be a good thing for us. We can’t afford the changes they are making. So we need to sell our place and find somewhere else to live. We hate to leave our place because we really like it especially because of all the windows. The good thing is that Mom said “We need to start packing and as we do we need to weed out this junk I keep hanging onto.” I’m dancing a jig here girls.

    • Hi Deb J,
      I am sorry you are being forced to uproot yourselves, that is a shame when you are happy where you are. But look on the bright side, your mom is going to purge for the move. WooHoo!!!!! As the saying goes, very cloud has a silver lining.

    • Thanks, Deb J, for your kind words. (I’m proud, too. I thought I’d never be able to do it!)
      Good luck on your move. It is especially hard when you don’t want to do it. I’m glad your mom is up for weeding out. What a silver lining!

  3. Sabine this is a wonderful and inspiring post! I’m so happy for you. You were so courageous to tackle those boxes. I know exactly how hard this was for you; I’ve been there. After three years, I continue to sort through stuff after the loss of my precious hubby. There is very little left now, but I’m sure I’m not finished yet. Each year it gets a little easier. What a wonderful friend you have in Debbie; she’s a real treasure.

    • She really is!
      One of the good experiences was finding the great stuff among the memorabilia. I had been so filled with dread about facing the bad memories, I hadn’t even thought about the good stuff. Reading my father’s work letter filled me with gratitude for all he had done for us. Here’s to you having likewise experiences with your husband’s things.

  4. Oh Sabine, thank you so dearly for sharing your inspiring experience!!! You are very brave indeed!

    On a bit of a different subject.. I share with you all that the movers arrived today (2 days early) to pack and ship our household goods over the ‘pond’. Luckily, thanks to this blog and the support and ideas of Colleen, Cindy and readers/commenters, we were ready to accomodate the 2 day early situation (good solid decluttering over the past years one day at a time). We had already set aside what to keep out for our use, the rest could be easily packed and loaded onto the moving truck. Honestly, whilst all our ‘stuff’ was being packed, all that mattered in my heart was my kids and husband. The rest is just ‘stuff’, and I didn’t even care a bit about it. It can all be replaced. My kids and husband are priceless and un-replaceable!!!!! Thank God for blessings!

    • Fabulous attitude Annabelle. One year when we moved I actually hoped that the shipping container would fall off the truck between Brisbane and Newcastle and destroy all our stuff. There were a lot of old hand-me-down furniture and cheap and nasty stuff (all that we could afford when we first got married) that I would have been glad to see the back of. Low and behold a similar situation did happen to my brothers stuff and I was so jealous. Those days are gone now and I am happy with what I have but like you say it isn’t important, family is what counts.

      Good luck with the pre-pack and uplift of your sea-freight and when they come to pack up your air-freight make sure they check every drawer. We had to send our kitchen drawer contents by post when we left America because they forgot to pack them and we didn’t check. Luckily I opened one by force of habit when we needed a pair of scissors and found the stuff before it was too late. Long story about the continued cock-up with the post but needless to say it was about six months and two trans-pacific journeys for it before I got to use it all again. Being that it was the best of the best I was pretty keen to have it back.

    • Thank you, Annabelle. And I’m impressed with your ‘early’ response. I am not there yet.

  5. Great post Sabine, but… Colleen – a tattoo?! Is that a photo of it we can see in the pile of cards?

    • Yes Snosie, I got it around my 40th birthday and I love it. Gun leaves and gun nuts, very Australian.

      • Wowee! You rad mumma!

        • Reserve your excitement the result was a tattoo revolution in the family. The kids are covered in them and the husband has two also. Mine & hubbies are out of site for the most part but the kids, no so much. Are well they would be easily identified in a crisis I suppose. Cut half 🙄

          • I had a tattoo on my left ankle about 8 years ago now and when I got home and showed the kids my then 18 year old son refused to believe it was real – he said i couldn’t take the pain! I told him I’d been through childbirth so let’s talk about pain! He soon realised it was real 🙂

          • Me n hubs are both inked. Mine are mostly outta sight but hubs are everywhere, this is one area that we are maximilist 🙂 I have at least 2 more planned and plan on becoming ‘one’ tatoo lol
            Sharron x

            • Confession time. I would like to turn the gun nuts and gum leaves into a whole back piece of Australian wild flowers that drape over my left shoulder. The only trouble is the cost, I would rather the money go towards an overseas trip. I do love the tattoo idea though.

              Funny story. My daughter works in a shoe store and occasionally she encounters people who feel obliged to make detrimental comments about her tattoos. One day an older lady made some comment about the anchor tattoo on her arm so my daughter put her right in her place. She told the lady it was in remembrance of her brother who died of cancer. Of course this wasn’t true but she figured one unsolicited comment was worth one little white lie to make the woman think twice about ever doing that again. She’s a cheeky little thing. I wonder where she gets that from. 😉 🙄

              • LOL Colleen…I don’t know why some people feel compelled to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t do. I have a friend who tells me the thing she likes most about me is that I never tell her what to do. I don’t like having the responsibility of suggesting stuff because if the person does what I suggest and then it goes wrong, then its my fault!

                • You are so right Low Income Lady because the first person they are going to point the finger at is you when things go pair shaped.

                  I have had this issue with decluttering advice. A friend started to follow my declutter advice and then realised she needed something that she had hung on to for 6 years but had just decluttered. Needless I heard all about it but I didn’t care and to borrow the item from a friend for this one time she will “need” it in the next 6 years.

              • What a fun idea that is! I have had LOTs of comments, mostly of the kind, ‘what will you do when your old and wrinkley with tatoos’ my most daring reply has been ‘Well i’ll be old and wrinkly WITH tatoos’ duh!! Wish i could be as brave as your daughter!!! I just wander why people think it’s okay to comment on them negativley. I was brought up to say nothing if you can’t say nothing nice…..
                Sharron x

                • Hi Sharron,
                  I love the old and wrinkly question as well. I figure when I am old and wrinkly I will have plenty of other ailments to keep me occupied rather than worry about how wrinkly my tattoo is. Anyway I will have a great reminder of how outrageous I could be and hopefully, even then, still are.

    • Thank you, Snosie! I learned just as much writing it, as doing the tubs. Very worthwhile for my understanding of what I went through.

  6. A gum nut tattoo! too cool…

  7. Great post Sabine! I feel that the oldest stuff is the hardest to deal with. I could not let go of one of my son’s toddler outfit. He loved wearing it and it brings so much good memories. Taking it in picture would not have been enough, so I asked my son, now 10, to hold the tiny outfit, and then took the picture. Then, I felt that was it, a page was turned. My son is now a pre-teen, a double digit boy, and there is no more need to hold on to this toddler outfit. It’s going to the thrift store, and I feel so happy to finally let it go.

    • I love the idea of having your son holding up his old outfit. That really encompasses the feeling that one gets looking at old baby clothes. ‘Here is your child, and once he was so small. Look at him now!’

  8. I enjoyed your post. I found it liberating to give my kids all of their own paperwork and photo albums (incomplete of course!) to them when they graduate from college or get married. I felt a great burden lifted. It is their stuff and now they can deal with it. If it doesn’t matter enough to them to keep it, then why should I worry about it! I had a friend, who was much older than I am, who’s daughter had lots of stuff at their house. She told her daughter that she was going to bring it to her and her daughter said that she didn’t want to clutter up her house with it. I thought it was funny. It is alright to clutter up her mom’s house, but not hers. My husband’s mother went through some stuff and gave us some stuff of his growing up. I wish she had just thrown it all away. Now it sits around collecting dust. It isn’t important enough to him to take the time to look through it and if he did, he would have a hard time getting rid of anything. It isn’t my place to throw away old papers of his or old puzzles. My sister in law threw away a lot of stuff and I wish she had been there to throw this stuff away. Too many times people don’t want to deal with the clutter so they dump it on their kids. That isn’t fair to the kids either. I think the best thing is to keep things cleaned out along the way and then no one will have a lot of junk to have to worry about when kids move on.

    • You are absolutely right Spendwisemom. Parents shouldn’t foist the stuff they won’t deal with on their kids and kids should dump there stuff on their parents when they leave. I think the rule of thumb should be that if you care for it so little that you don’t look at it why keep it in the first place, get rid of it and don’t burden someone else with it.

    • Ooh…that’s a good thought. Not important enough to take the time to look through, but too important to throw away. Contradiction, indeed. I can probably target some piles like that in my life. Guess I better take the time.

  9. Oh Sabine,
    Well done! I think that will be my very last “declutter” – I just don’t have the courage to face two large suitcases and several A4 boxes of my daughter’s early “treasures” – I must have save every bit of kindergarten “art” and all her early “offerings”, school and otherwise, and now of course, I haven’t looked at them in years – she is 23 and still in the same city as us, and doing adult things. One day, I must trim them down to a single box or less, so we can enjoy them, rather than store them. I think you have motivated me to rethink the space they take up!

    • Hi Ann,
      I think it is time you and your daughter got together and had a good time sorting those boxes. In fact there is a great comment about this very thing that I dug out of the archives and added to this Friday’s favourites. If your aren’t looking at the stuff and she cares so little that she left it with you then there is a good chance it is just clutter. She will end up having to deal with it one day so why not have a lovely time going through it together while you reminisce.

    • I was shocked when I translated it to gallons. A gallon of junk seems so visceral, compared to ‘a tub.’
      I am glad I left this for my last declutter (for the garage, at least). It really did help having experience. And a friend. Can’t recommend that part of the experience highly enough.

  10. That’s a wonderful story Sabine, and how great to have such a good friend to help you do it!

  11. Yes Loretta, you said what I was about too!

    Thanks for the post!

  12. Wow, Sabine… I am so impressed. I have boxes in my garage which are the equivalent of your tubs. They are labeled (old school papers, old t-shirts, 3-D memorabilia, Q’s baby clothes, etc.) so you would think I would know what is in them, right? But… no. And then the file cabinet full of old teaching supplies – ack! I know this is all a problem of aspiration clutter, as Colleen describes. I’m afraid looking through those boxes will remind me of all I wanted to be and never became.

    • Hi Lori in OR,
      perhaps you are what you were meant to be. The ideals we have for ourselves is often society driven but sometimes life has are greater say in the matter. I get so tired of society’s idea that being a full time mother and a good housewife are somehow letting the side down. Well I know what side I am on, the side of my family and society can think what it likes. Like that we should all work our asses off to become rich in money, buying lots of crap we don’t need to make the even wealthier more wealthy while the people who are required (just as much) to produce the stuff get paid a pittance.

      I know I have worked damn hard over the years, more for others than for myself, and there is no shame in that. My husband makes more than enough money to keep us comfortable while I take care of everyone’s physical needs. We are a team and no doubt you have been part of your own team. Be proud of what you are and don’t let society dictate what that should be.

      Go through those boxes girl and be happy for who you are and don’t be sad about what you weren’t meant to be.

      And thank you for listening to my little soap box tirade but this is one subject that just gets my dander up.

    • It was a nice surprise, finding some of those items weren’t memorabilia after all. By now, I’ve learned how to deal with junk. You might try whatever you think would be your easiest category, and see how much of it is really good baby clothes (for example). There might be a stack of old dish towels in there! Hee.

  13. Thanks Sabine, a true inspiration.

    And Colleen, your gratitude comment made me laugh because I love seeing a lovely clean kitchen and hate messing it with having to make dinner.

    • It is nice to know I am not alone Rebecca. The best part is he ended up staying at a friend’s house last night so I haven’t had him here nagging me to do it today either. You wait though he will get home about 4pm and be wanting to do it then. Too bad so sad I am going out to dinner tonight and I am not dealing with that mess before I leave. Just call me the wicked birth-mother. Hee Hee 😆 The kids need to know that the world doesn’t always revolve around them. After all doesn’t the saying go ‘When mum’s happy everyone is happy!’

      • My boys think MUM stands for Mean Uncaring Monster because I ask them to do housework! shock horror!

        • They will thank you in the long run I am sure. You should hear some of the stuff my son says to me, all in jest of course because he knows whose really the boss. Sweet darling that he is. 🙄

    • Thank you, Rebecca. And I’m with you on the clean kitchen. How nice to wake up to one (not always the case in my home) and feel like I can do anything easily in there.

  14. Sabine, that is amazing! And what a good friend you have. Go both of you!

  15. This is one of the best decluttering stories I’ve ever read! Thanks Sabine!

  16. sabine, your story almost made me cry.
    I had a similar situation a couple of months back where I helped a good friend of mine. I constantly made fun of her shopping-habits, and when she invited me to declutter her stuff (because I am “rude enough to tell her the truth”), I only then understood what kind (and also intensity) of emotional ties she had there. And how hard it was for her to let go. there was a small panic attack that we managed and there were tears, but I kept her going, giving up was not an option. in the end we had a very good evening with laughter and a lot of cocktails, to celebrate her new life…
    She is now doing it. She is wearing all those clothes that I asked her to wear otherwise they will go too (like in your story deadlines and limits helped a lot). She is using all the “too pretty to use” items now in her daily life. She is selling the rest on fleemarkets and is giving useless clothes away to friends or charity. She isnt buying that much stuff anymore (maybe she is doing that secretly, I am not so sure) and she is finally considering tackling some other issues on a professional basis.
    I found that as soon as you start tackling your stuff and dealing with things that you rather want to forget, you get the strengh to tackle other issues as well. Admitting you have problems and noticing that you really want to change your life isnt just valid for decluttering… At least thats what my mind change of minimalising and then decluttering (with 365 less things) did with me. I have a new lifestyle now, not just in terms of consumption, but for example on health with a change of diet and starting with sports…

    • Lena, your friend is lucky to have you. I know I could not have done this at this point in my life, even with the desire to do so, without Deb. And I wanted to do it NOW, not wait until I was strong enough to do it on my own. Yay for great friends!

    • Well done Lena on both accounts. Firstly by being such a help to your friend who clearly needed your guidance and also for turning your own life around.

  17. What a great story Sabine, your friend Deb sounds like my kinda gal 🙂 I love the positive impact it has had and that you have learned a new life skill.
    Well done!!
    Sharron x