How to Let Go of Stuff Guilt

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How to Let Go of Stuff Guilt | Declutter Without Feeling Guilty | Decluttering Ideas | Get Rid Of Clutter | Clutter Free | Home Management | Home Organization | De-Clutter Your House | Cleaning Ideas | Cleaning Tips

What is it about stuff and guilt?

Over the past couple of months, as I have found myself doing lots of interviews to promote the release of my new book Unstuffed, this is one question that has come up again and again and again–why do we feel so guilty about all the stuff in our lives?

We feel guilty about getting rid of clutter because we may have paid a lot of money for it, or because we don’t want to be wasteful, or because someone gave it to us, or perhaps even because it represents all the things we said we were going to do and then didn’t. (Hello craft supplies!)

But whatever the reason for keeping it, this hanging on to clutter causes a different kind of guilt–the guilt that comes from feeling like our lives are cluttered and out of control.

It’s a never-ending guilt cycle!

Believe me, I totally get it.

In my own life, my husband and I have struggled a lot with this very issue, especially over the past few years.  You see, in 2011, my dear mother-in-law, Marie passed away, leaving behind an entire house–84 years worth–full of things. There were clothes, furniture, boxes of paper and notes. There were photos and jewelry, knickknacks and books. It felt like it would never end.

The thing is, all this stuff wasn’t just a meaningless pile of junk we could simply discard and move on from. These things were her belongings. They were her memories. They meant something to her, and it was hard to think of just tossing them out so coldly, like a lifetime of holding on to things wasn’t worth keeping.

My daughters with their aunt Linda.

But then, just two years later, my sister-in-law Linda suddenly passed away.  She had been extremely close to my daughters and it was a devastating blow.  As her closest relatives, we again were responsible for taking care of all the things she left behind, and we had another entire house full of stuff, two people’s lifetimes of belongings—neither of which belonged to us.

The guilt was terrible.  In fact, at one point my husband broke down, saying “it feels like I am throwing her life away.”

But we also knew, deep down, that we couldn’t keep it all.  We were already buried.

And the reality was that my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law were so much more than just the stuff they left behind.  They were kind and generous and loving and smart and funny and so much more.  Equating their lives with a pile of stuff was only cheapening their memory.

We finally had to come to the realization that memories and stuff are not the same.

And we had to let it go.

The reality is that at some point, it is no longer practical, healthy or reasonable to hold on to things we don’t need simply because you’re trying to hold on to a memory. It’s no longer reasonable to keep items that don’t fit the needs of your family. We can’t force our families to conform to some idea of what our house “should” look like when it doesn’t serve our actual needs.

In the case of my husband and I, we had to assess and make hard choices. We went through the items and we condensed it down to only the things we really needed. I kept a few high-quality items that were very meaningful to me. I also knew these were things that would both last and probably end up being something my daughters would want.

Why We Become So Attached in the First Place

One of the reasons we become so attached to items is because of the idea of scarcity. We are blessed with mostly abundant lives where we’re able to meet our needs and have enough.

For many of us, growing up we might have been faced with times of hardship and times when we struggled. Maybe we saw our parents struggle to bring home a paycheck or put food on the table. If you had grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression, you saw the after-effects. Often they would save all kinds of items—paper, packaging, wrapping, rubber bands—all because they knew what it was like to have nothing.

In our lives today, most of us are so blessed because our needs are being met. We might struggle, of course, but usually we’re able to at least feed, clothe and shelter our children. It makes perfect sense why those who have been through the trauma of poverty might now hold on to things a little more intently.

Similarly, if you’ve gone through a traumatic experience, you might hold on to items because you identify them with happier memories. We use this sort of “magical thinking” to ward off bad experiences. Or we may believe that holding on to items will somehow shield us from the pain of loss or grieving.

This can be one of the most difficult things to work through when it comes to letting go of stuff. Oftentimes, we may need to talk to someone about our struggles, whether it’s depression, anxiety, a reaction to grief, or a traumatic event. When we’re holding on to emotional baggage, it can literally become physical baggage we carry around with us.

The other reason we hold on to stuff? Simply because it comes on in! If we aren’t constantly and diligently “fighting the flow” of stuff into our homes, it can pile up and multiply like bunny rabbits. I swear, no matter how little I purchase for my children and how few gifts they receive, there is somehow always a surplus of incoming stuff!

My daughters' bedroom after we cleaned out all their toys: just a bed, furniture and pink curtains.

When I took my kids toys away, I think people had visions of my daughter playing with a corncob doll like Laura Ingalls Wilder in an empty bedroom. I can assure you all, my daughters have a stunning amount of stuff, no matter how much I throw away.

When I went on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic through Compassion Bloggers, I was pretty astounded and humbled by the staggering weight of true poverty. The very fact we have soft beds, a roof over our heads, food to eat, clean clothes to wear, and water to drink puts us leaps and bounds ahead of most of the world in terms of abundance.

With a sweet friend in the Dominican Republic during my trip, where I realized just how much we truly have.

Recognizing what we have and the items we need versus simply “want” can be a life-changer when it comes to stopping the flow of stuff. You may think you NEED another candle, a black long-sleeved tee, or a pair of running sneakers that match your hoodie, but really? Most of us truly have enough.

Having the Courage to Let Go

Once you realize how much you have and what you really need, it can be easier to let things go. It also helps to recognize the deeper underlying reasons you might be holding on to items.

It isn’t easy. At all.

But I’ve found it helps keep reminding myself that people and stuff are not the same, and that I need to let go of anything that is not currently useful, despite who gave it to me, and despite how much it cost.  When I approach the task of decluttering with those guidelines in mind, it helps alleviate a lot of the guilt.


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One simple way to help you get through your purging process is to take those items you can’t seem to part with and simply put them away for a while. Send them on a little vacation. Clear the surfaces of your house—clear the bookshelves and the knickknacks and the countertops and the nightstand. Take those “decorative” items and put them away for about eight weeks.

After the eight-week period, bring them back out and consider whether or not you really missed them. If you still aren’t sure and you can’t quite bring yourself to let them go, ask yourself if it would help to know they’re going to a good home, where they will be appreciated and used.

I find this method to be particularly effective with things like clothing, kitchen appliances and other items, which are useful but not often used. If someone else can find a purpose for them, it’s time to set them free!

Clothes can be tough to declutter, but look through each item hanging in your closet and decide which ones you love.

Once in a while, you might even shock yourself: you might forget you even put some of these items away. A few years ago, before I cut back to a 40-hanger closet, I put away my “hot summer” clothing (it’s Florida, so there’s not a huge difference between summer and winter clothes) and brought out my fall items. I’m ashamed to admit, I made it clear until the following June until I realized I had completely forgotten about some of the items I’d put in storage. That was when I knew it was time to cut back on some of my clothing.

The three questions I find helpful are:

  1. Do I really use this?
  2. Does it work and is it in good condition?
  3. Do I really like and want it?

If you use these three screening questions, you can determine if almost anything is serving your needs. You do, of course, have to get past the idea of “I like and want everything I have.” It seems to be the question that trips up most of us. Of course we ‘like’ most things in our home, but do you REALLY like it? Sometimes when our homes become too full, it’s hard to see the things we REALLY like because they’re buried among the things we kinda-sorta of like.

I’ll be honest–this guilt thing is something I’m still working on.  There may always be things that I end up holding on to because I feel guilty, but ultimately the freedom that comes from letting go is worth fighting for.

Let Go of Stuff Guilt: How to Get Rid of Clutter Without Feeling Bad


  1. May 20 at 11:45AM

    I feel this, Ruth. Lately I’ve been reminding myself that it’s ultimately not the objects (gifts, souvenirs, etc.) that matter, but the relationships behind it all. And if I can still invest in those relationships, then that’s what I should do. It’s help me get rid of so many things, while still holding on to what matters. Thanks for writing this!

  2. May 20 at 03:32PM

    We also cleaned out my daughter’s room when she was 8. Everything went into the basement in bags and boxes. We started cleaning the basement out this year and found some of the boxes untouched (8 years later)! Oops. Hopefully will be completely finished with decluttering the entire home by the end of summer.

  3. MEL810
    May 20 at 04:02PM

    You do not how extreme this is until you have had to clean out the house of a hoarder. My half-sister passed away and left me her house and all it’s STUFF! Stuff on every surface, in every corner; about 20,000,000 pieces of Corning Wear. I like Corning Wear and have a few pieces of it but she could have set up an Army battalion with the amount I found in that house.
    I donated over extra large lawn and leaf 75 bags of clothes to Goodwill and the domestic violence shelter. Many of these clothes were brand new and still had tags on them.
    She had tons of baby clothes? she was 68 and childless. (The baby clothes were donated to the local pregnancy center, still trying to figure out how to off load all that Corning Wear.)
    She had neglected some of her basic bills such as the septic system and the vet bills for the dog in pursuit of all kinds of stuff.
    I used to be a sort of a pack rat but nowhere near the morbid level of my half-sister who makes me look like a minimalist in comparison.
    Had we been close, I would have tried to get her help but alas we were not. She kept me at arms length.

    • Anonymous
      May 21 at 02:03PM

      Have an estate sale to sell the Corning Ware. It is a hot seller.

  4. May 20 at 04:19PM

    I had this issue when my mom passed away. My dad decided to move out of our old house and we had to decide on the spot what we really wanted to keep of hers or not. It was a really upsetting and stressful day because I felt like I had to decide what of hers to keep right then and there and ended up taking more than I REALLY wanted.

    My boyfriend has a lot harder time getting rid of his things. He keeps going back to this logic of well I only have this amount of stuff, even though his stuff is making everything else cluttered. How should I talk to him/ convince him that not all of his stuff is worth keeping? Especially if it’s been in a box for over a year.

  5. May 21 at 04:52AM

    Oh I struggle with this so much! Some things seem to have so much meaning to me. A lot of times if I’m just struggling with parting with an object for sentimental reasons, I’ll let myself hang on to you it for a couple of months longer and truly contemplate keeping it. Or, I try to repurpose it in a way that’s more appropriate to keep. For example – I had a great time at Mardi Gras in Mobile with my friends and came away with a ton of beads. For the longest time, I sat with them in a bag in my closet. Then, one day, I glued them to a black canvas and features the medallion that had the year on it. I threw away any of the beads that didn’t fit, and I was able to display them in a meaningful way.

  6. Candice Mangum
    May 21 at 10:10AM

    I like my stuff. I don’t have a lot of clutter, but what I have, I like. I get a lot of enjoyment out of most of it.

    But when I die, I know that much of what makes me happy will not make my kids happy. It’s just stuff. I hope they will send on what doesn’t make them happy to someone else who might be happy by it.

    I am sure I am not the only one that thinks this. I think most of our families would not want us to be burdened by their inadvertent “gift” of a household when they die. While I would not like the idea of useful items being thrown away (I hate waste) I hope my kids will hold a massive garage sale and only take what is precious to them!

    • Josie
      May 21 at 05:51PM

      I agree with Candice above. I too like my stuff and cleared out a lot clutter.
      No one should think or expect their children to keep all of their stuff. I don’t. My fear(?) is they would get a dumpster and all would be tossed. I would like if they would pass the many collectible/antique items to people or the Goodwill or have a garage sale. As they do not care about old/antique things and MANY others do feel it is a treasure. I feel it would be a sad waste in a landfill. Of course, I am dealing with 30 yr. old kids that think “Ikea” is the greatest & the dumpster would be the easiest & quickest way to sell the house and get the money!!!….I will be dead & I really won’t care!!! lolololo

  7. May 25 at 09:11AM

    Ruth, I love this post! When entering college, I definitely had to learn to part with things to sell to pay for school. Now my husband says I throw too much away! But I recently just blogged about learning to say no, which goes along with being content and appreciating what you have!

  8. gloria
    May 30 at 02:56PM

    I would get rid of so much but my husband is a hoarder. He retired from racing cars and now feels the need to have every tool available. Our apartment building has garages available to rent for tenants- he has 7. His so-called friends give him the junk and he takes it all. He has everything from school and growing up and kept all our children’s stuff too. My daughter has become a minimalist but my son is his father but with techno stuff. No one will listen to me about getting rid of. Now I do it when I’m alone and pitch. He’s even bad with groceries and afraid he won’t have. We are moving Apts so I need some ideas and HELP. We have trash scrappers at our building so somebody gets it. A garage sale is not feasible. What can I do? His memory is good so if I move or get rid of something he notices.

    • MEL810
      May 30 at 05:56PM

      Hoarding is not just being a pack rat with a bit too much stuff. It is an emotional/psychological disorder that is akin to obsessive/compulsive anxiety disorders and from your description, your husband is a full blown hoarder.
      Some communities have hoarding disorder support groups and therapists that work with the people and their families. There is a lot of information online about the problem.
      Here’s the link to a Google search I did on it:
      Good luck and God bless you because it is a tough thing to deal with!

  9. June 29 at 07:36PM

    This is a very eye opening article. We also struggle with this in our family. I recently started going through our garage and I had to do it by myself because my husband tends to hoard belongings. It is so hard to get rid of things when you are emotionally involved in some way. I am so sorry about your losses. God Bless.

  10. Wendy
    February 13 at 09:21PM

    Awesome points! I’m struggling to reframe my thoughts on memory keeping. It’s very difficult. I’m glad I’m not alone!

  11. April 8 at 01:06PM

    Very good a lot of information. Only one statement I don’t like ” No matter how much I throw away”. That is something that is hard for several of us to deal with I like recycle or giving to the needy. Thank you for all the information.

    • Ruth Soukup
      April 9 at 08:15PM

      Hi Evelyn,
      You’re right, I like donating or recycling as much as I can. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  12. Gwen B.
    May 9 at 03:47PM

    Retirement and aging have made me realize I must get serious about the clutter in my home. I am trying to go through one room at a time but as others have mentioned it is difficult to let go.
    Your article and comments of others is very helpful. Plan to go through one room and/or closet at a time and use the 3 questions. I am looking forward to the freedom and peace that comes with a less cluttered life.

  13. Ernest W
    May 29 at 10:11AM

    Thank you for your article. “Equating their lives with a pile of stuff was only cheapening their memory.” You have described what I have been struggling to put into words.

    Problem is there is so much stuff, that very valuable items are mixed in with the “junk”, it is impossible to tell. We had from my late grandfather, hundreds of vintage camera equipment and parts. Expensive names such as Leica were there.

    My grandfather died in ’96 and my parents let the stuff sit in the basement for over 10 years because of the guilt factor. Finally in the mid 2000’s with the popularity of eBay, they allowed me to go through and list the items.

    All of the camera gear had fungus and was almost worthless. What would have sold at auction for tens of thousands of dollars… could have helped our son with college… was practically worthless. We were lucky to find people who were collecting either for quantity or spare parts. But the lenses in particular were basically gone.

    I am not trying to boil this down to intense practicality, but what would have been better for the family would have been to handle it quickly and efficiently. Now the son still has student loan debt and living with parents. He will be burdened not only with the grandparents’ possessions but also to guilt of the parents’.

    I promise that if/when I have a family, to leave them only with truly valuable and sentimental pieces and explain the meaning. I will not burden my future family with a house-full of junk and bad emotions that go with it.

  14. Bev
    June 12 at 09:09AM

    My biggest problem is keeping things because I think I may have used for them in the future. How can I change my thinking?

  15. Cam
    July 13 at 07:43PM

    Thank u for giving me permission to throw stuff out. I did a yard sale a few months bad I made $2 after dragging all my stuff to thelawn, putting up signs and standing out in the heat for 3 hours. Finally yesterday I dragged all that stuff out of the garage and threw it in the trash. It felt so good I went through my kitchen and living room and trashed a bunch more stuff. The big release was when I threw out my 300 dollar mbt I will tone your butt sneakers that I barely worr that I have tried to sell and no one would even take for free. It was such a relief to just throw them in the trash. A dumpster came by later in the day and I noticed he left empty handed. One man’s trash is still just trash. Thank you

  16. Jodie
    July 19 at 10:54PM

    Thank you Ruth for posting this. I now see how my feelings of guilt have kept me and my house overloaded. I will use these techniques to start clearing out my clutter, which will make my husband bery happy.

  17. August 22 at 11:28AM

    6 years ago my best friend died. She asked me to set her affairs in order and being disabled I knew where everything was in her house. I was able to alert her family to the high value and sentimental items. They chose whatever they wanted then 6 days later they said they were walking awaye. I had already sterilised her home in hope she would leave hospital so we assumed it would just be a small run to the dump before handing keys back to landlord. We were met with a trashed house which was still full. I broke down but made it my mission to help as many people as I could starting with her chosen charities. We asked friends and neighbours to choose anything from house or garden. Garden was amazing. Full of pots and greenhouse. Poor families received the cooker fridge microwave etc. The wool 3 full bin liners went to knit blankets for charity. We worked tirelessly and when we left the house only had 2 carpets that needed taking up but was otherwise empty. I was glad I knew her wishes and was able to help so many. I was traumatic but healing too

    • Ernest W
      August 23 at 08:03AM

      That is a great idea. Less fortunate people can use the items, they do not go to the dump, and it helps remove the guilt. Thank you for posting this.

  18. August 22 at 11:41AM

    I forgot to click the box to notify me of replies to my post just now

  19. sulkyate
    August 26 at 08:31PM

    In our culture, we are taught we can never have enough. In the past, I tried to declutter by going through closets, holding items. I loved or needed everything. I decided to go though my entire house and every closet and drawer and compile a household inventory list. Once I completed the exhaustive list, I finally got it that I had more than enough, too much. Instead of holding everything and going through an emotional battle, I downsized from the list. After the deletions, I saw that I still had plenty. A nice side benefit was an accurate listing of my possessions for insurance purposes. Saved some money there. Good luck to all.

  20. Cheryl
    December 7 at 11:01AM

    Great article and love the comments! For those who may worry that their possessions may be a burden for their loved ones or totally unwanted when they pass on, maybe while you’re still living, why not invite them to take the things they would love to have that you can part with now? That way, you can “declutter” some things plus enjoy knowing each got what they wanted. If someone in need could use it and you’re ready to part with it, do it while you’re still living! Why leave it to your loved ones to sort through?! In the process of this myself right now. It’s going in phases. They will be invited multiple times before I’m finished purging my house. Loss of close loved ones is hard enough without having to go through EVERYTHING they owned! It’s YOUR stuff. If you have young people, you could sell things of value and leave the $ for them. What do you want to leave those you love?, a burden or a blessing?

  21. claire
    December 30 at 04:02PM

    I have a different problem then most. when I had money, we spent it and purchased so much stuff, every time a new stereo came out my husband had to have it. every time a new and better computer came out I had to have it. Every type of new technology item, I had to have. I have things still wrapped and never opened that cant be used because technology would change every 6 months. I loved sales and purchased anything that was 50% to 75% off even if I had 20 of them at home. My husband had to purchase every VHS and DVD on the market for 30 years or more. My bookshelves are full plus any other places I could find to put them. I purchased so many clothes, that I do not know what I have and probably wore only half of them. I have clothes from when I went to HS and I am now 71 years old. My husband has 10 suits that dont fit, shirts still in the bags and tags on, old tv’s he refuses to get rid of. I have tuna cans he keeps for his nuts and bolts…..never uses them, just buys new ones instead of wasting time looking for what he needs. He would misplace a tool and purchase a new one, easier then looking for it in a thousand tools and 6 tool boxes and when he used them they would stay where he used them. I had 6 storages to put stuff in every time I had company for Christmas, just to make room for them and leave the stuff there and never look back, just keep paying the bill. We purchased 3 20 ft containers and filled them up with stuff. toilets, bathtubs, sinks, fans, plumbing, Christmas stuff, furniture, electronics, toys, etc. (still there) I have art supplies, office supplies, big monitors still in boxes, I can go on and on. We purchased a warehouse 1200 square foot 20 feet high……filled. This is not junk!!!!! Now I have no money, the economy has taken a toll on our life, everything I did in my life was wrong, I dont know how to straighten it out. I have given a lot of stuff to salvation army, mostly clothes and stuff I could part with, but what stops me from giving everything away is that I need the money and no one is willing to pay for anything in todays market. No one cares about this stuff or wants it. most kids today want to know what a knick knack is. All my valuable llardo and swarovski crystal that we old people spend hundreds of dollars for is going for $5.00 and $10.00 at auctions. NO ONE WANTS CLUTTER ANY MORE. Garage sale, flea market, ebay, craigs list….you can spend the next 5 years and you will not be able to sell the stuff without getting stressed out and I do not have the time to spend doing it. My husband and I work all hours just to pay the bills, so learn from someone who made big time mistakes………… your money and stop buying stuff, it is more fun to enjoy life then have a house full of “JUNK” that not even your family wants.

  22. Jo Scheck
    January 30 at 01:02AM

    When my son passed away in 2016 I went in his cabin and turned off his fan and tv. When we die we take nothing with us. He was a extreme minimalist, but I still was stressed going through his things. I have since sold most my furniture and possessions, as I would never want my only surviving child to go through any kind of stress. I asked her what she wanted and she said her house is decorated in her tastes and she does not want my stuff. She likes my needlepoints, but it’s not her style theme. What is left will be auctioned off even the house. She works full time so all they have to do is send her the check. Be kind to your kids. Don’t burden them if you truly love them.

  23. March 13 at 02:27PM

    Paper is such an easy thing to build up! I hate all the mail we get to buy this or that or give to us or us. The news paper is filled with so many sale fillers! I have about three collections not too bad, most I got boxed anyway…’s just the physical act of getting rid of them. I am almost 70 yrs. old. I have a heart issue, but I can do things. I just get so tired so easy. I can wake up that way. I have NO ONE to help me. I don’t want to leave a mess for my brother to have to do it when my husband and I are gone. I don’t know what to do. I try to do a little everyday. I have 3 bedrooms, 2 baths and living room and kitchen……..almost 50 years worth! Not like on t.v where hoarders are crawling over everything and there are dead critters and bugs. This is just so depressing to me I try to leave home everyday. I don’t want to be here. Help!

  24. Kathryn Robertson
    April 24 at 10:49PM

    Thank you for a great post. I keep clothes that Don’t fit because they were given to me and mean I can make do and don’t need to buy more. I struggle with the “I paid good money for it.” Mostly. I struggle because much of my stuff represents me.ories of lived one’s. I am not ready to minimalize yet, but I plan to read and reread and reread this post until I am. Thank you!

  25. June 22 at 03:15PM

    Thanks for sharing! I can’t believe how swiftly stuff can pile up too! It is a constant battle.

  26. Lydia
    September 19 at 09:31PM

    There is no year on this post or comments, but I want to tell Tori to look for free or subsidized household help. My small city has home helpers for which a program pays over half, or all, of the cost. If there’s really nothing available, try a private charity. A church, for example,might have some ladies who will happily help you with your problem.

    I’m spending my tax refund on a private cleaner this month to get me out from under my two rooms of junk (plus the rest of the house, only it’s packed less tightly!). I can’t really afford it, but my rental home was sold and I’ll have to move. I’m nearly 70 and was a collector of vintage and antique everything for forty years. Many things from my youth will have to go. I’ll never wear that tiny dress again, and my tastes in art an decor have changed.

    I urge you to DO something. EVen if you can only work 5 or 10 minutes a day, do that! Eventually, you will be free.

    Love and best wishes,

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