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How to downsize gifts and heirlooms

December 14, 2023

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Welcome to the second of this series of articles dedicated to helping you to downsize, declutter and rightsize your life, brought to you by Ryman Healthcare in conjunction with organising and decluttering expert Peter Walsh.  


Today we are tackling one of the more challenging aspects of downsizing – what to do with gifts and heirlooms. Whether you need to free up space in your own home or are helping someone else to downsize, this is a task that can feel daunting and emotionally charged.  


Although it might be tempting to box everything up and hide it away to deal with another day, that just passes the problem down the road to your future self or to your family.  


Fortunately, there are ways to downsize gifts and heirlooms that honour and remember the past whilst enabling you to rightsize your life for the present day. 


Use the kitchen table test to identify the real treasures 

Previously, we learned that clutter is usually divided into two main categories: Memory clutter and I-might-need-it-one-day clutter. 


Gifts and heirlooms often fall into the memory clutter category. You may worry that if you let go of the item you will lose the memory, or you might feel that getting rid of the item is dishonouring the memory of the person who gave it to you. So, you hold on to it as if you are holding on to treasure. 


However, most items that hold a memory are not what Peter would call real treasures, and by thinking slightly differently about what makes an item a treasure usually makes it easier to decide what to keep and what to part with. A genuine treasure is something that represents the peak experiences of your life or the most important moments from your family’s history. It is an item that is truly irreplaceable because its worth is not measured in monetary value, but in the meaning it holds for you.  


This is where Peter’s kitchen table test comes in very handy when looking to downsize.  


“The number of treasures you can keep are the number of items that can fit on your kitchen table – it’s a good rule,” says Peter.  


“While this may sound arbitrary, I have found time and again that your kitchen table is always proportionate to the size of your home. By using it as a measure of the number of treasures you keep, not only does it set a clear limit, but it also forces you to focus on what is truly most important to keep close and preserve.


“Choose the items that have the most positive memories, that make your heart sing and by keeping those you will surround yourself with the real treasures of your life.”


Think of the memories and associations attached to each item and keep only those that remind you of the happiest times. Not all gifts and heirlooms are associated with positive memories, so if something reminds you of a negative or painful moment, it’s okay to let it go. Or if an item has no significance other than you’ve had it a long time, then it can go too because you won’t miss it. 


These treasures should feel like a highlights reel, where you pick one thing that represents the best memory of a person, moment, experience or event in your life. For example, if you have inherited a lot of heirloom fine china that you never use, pick out a couple of pieces that you particularly love, and put those on the kitchen table to keep. Or if it means little, now is the time to let it go.  


Once you have placed your true treasures on the kitchen table, put the rest aside for the moment. 


Find creative ways to display the most important items 

Now you have identified the treasures that you truly wish to keep, it's time for the fun part. These items displayed on your kitchen table deserve their place in the spotlight where you can enjoy them every day.  


This is where you can get creative with display options and think outside the box a little.  

Peter shares an example of a woman who lost her beloved grandmother and packed up the house into storage for 26 years because she couldn’t face getting rid of anything. 


“I asked her, ‘what’s the single most enjoyable thing you did with your grandmother?’, and the answer was baking. 


“So, we dug into the storage unit and found rolling pins, cookie cutters, hand-written recipe cards, you name it, and we built a shadow box to display it all in the kitchen. Every time she looks at that it makes her heart sing, it brings her grandmother back in a real way, it provides a talking point and a way to relive those memories. By displaying the most important items in this way – the treasures – suddenly everything else in the storage unit seemed insignificant.” 


Let go of the rest, in a way that feels good to you 

Now you have defined your genuine treasures and decided how to display them, what are you going to do with all the items that didn’t make the cut?  


Although it may initially seem challenging, letting go of these items can actually be a rewarding experience, not just for you, but also for others who will benefit from them. Here are some suggestions. 


See if anyone else in your family would like them 

Check in with your family members to see if any of them are interested in any of the items. Maybe there are younger members of the family who could use some of them to help set up a home and would like something that reminds them of their family history. Just make sure they know there is no obligation to take anything that they don’t really want. 


Consider selling them and putting the money towards a good cause 

If the items have monetary value, you can try selling them, either online or through a shop specialising in antiques. Maybe the money could go towards a family occasion or donated to charity in memory of the person who gave you the heirloom. 


Give the items to charity 

If the items are attractive or useful but not particularly valuable, it’s probably not worth the effort of trying to sell them. However, giving them away to charity means they are more likely to end up in the hands of someone who needs them and will cherish them.  


Embrace the opportunity to be found in decluttering 

Downsizing heirlooms and gifts can be an opportunity to connect with family members, create space in your home to display your genuine treasures, and discover the freedom to create new memories without memory clutter holding you back. 


If you’d like to learn more tips from Peter, you might enjoy our next article in this series, which offers solutions to the very common problem of how to declutter and organise photos




About Peter: 
Peter is the author of seven popular decluttering and organising books, including two New York Times bestsellers. His most recent book Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life is a step-by-step handbook for successful downsizing. 


Born and raised in Australia, he moved to the US in the 1990s and started his first series, Clean Sweep, for Discovery’s TLC Network. 


After 120 episodes of that show, The Oprah Winfrey Show put Peter under contract, and he was a regular guest on her show for the final five seasons. 


He’s currently working on the fourth season of his Australian series Space Invaders.