live with less: ephemera


I go on about decluttering a lot, but for good reason, I think. Living with less crap in your home has three big benefits:

It gives you more space. I’ve mentioned before the idea of pricing up the square footage of your home that is devoted to storage; how much are you paying for all that space? What else could you use it for?

It gives you more time. Less stuff means less time spent arranging, sorting, tidying and hunting. It also makes it a lot quicker and less annoying to clean.

It sets you free. I’m cynical and scientific, so when I say this, I do not mean it in a spiritual sense; rather that somehow, letting go of your past possessions helps your brain let go of past experiences too. I can’t explain it any better than that, but time and again I have seen how clearing my clutter makes space for new thoughts, perspectives, ideas and experiences in my life, and I can’t help but correlate the two.

Have I convinced you? If you love your current level of possessions, for the aesthetic, or just for the pleasure it brings you, then you probably don’t need to read on.
If however, you’re like me and constantly striving to simplify, then hello friend! This month I’m focusing on ephemera – a lovely little word that the OED defines as “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”. Here’s my somewhat ruthless approach:


  • Magazines, newspapers, catalogues; store these in a basket, and call that basket the paper recyling bin. Empty it, into the fire or the recycling collection, every week.
  • Go paperless with as many bills as possible. Open your post over the bin; keep only the actual letter/bill. If it’s vitally important & needs keeping forever, file it. Otherwise, stuff in a box marked with the year, & shred and burn the contents after a year has passed. (Feign a house fire if this gets you into any sort of trouble…).
  • Prune back your book collection. Are books ephemera? My new stance is yes, or, at any rate, they should be. All but the most magical of tomes should be destined for rehoming after you’ve read them. Do not dedicate your square footage to a giant monument of ‘things you have read’ and ‘things you haven’t read but would like people to think you have when they visit’. Perhaps a bit extreme, but I have turned all my book spines to the wall; it looks prettier, but more importantly it removes any temptation to ‘say something’ with my book collection.
  • CDs and DVDs. Their moment is gone. Sell the lot and buy a netflix/Rdio subscription.
  • Christmas cards, birthday cards, letters, postcards, newspaper cuttings, thank you notes. Make an Evernote notebook called ‘Sentimental’. Use the scanner app to photograph any you can’t bear to part with. This frees you up to discard the paper copies, that only ever sit in boxes gathering dust & guilt, in my experience.
  • Children’s artwork. Such a toughie – Orla is churning this stuff out now like a Kaizen production line these days. My first step now is to look at a picture together and have her tell me about it – enjoy it, really admire it, display it for a few days, and then accept it has served it’s purpose. I save a few favourite pictures to laminate and use as place mats, and save the biggest ones for giftwrap for family birthdays. When really special things come along, we’ll probably keep them, but I know we can only really cherish a precious few, and I’m not ready to fill up that quota yet. So we photograph any favourites, and then sensitively discard.
  • ‘Treasure’ – seaglass, pinecones, pretty rocks, dried flowers… Fun to gather and enjoy for a while, but the joy is generally in the finding, not the keeping. Let them go back to nature and hunt for more.
  • Noticeboards & fridge doors – take everything off, magnets included. Photograph anything on there that is actually useful, add the dates to your calendar. Discard the rest – including the magnets!
  • Souvenirs– do not mistake these things for memories. True memories are in your head, not your hands, and cannot be lost by donating or discarding an associated item. You still went to Paris, whether or not you keep the ticket to prove it. šŸ˜‰

How do you manage this type of clutter? Do you like to hang onto this stuff, or are you on the ruthless end of the spectrum with me? Do you think I have a problem? šŸ˜‰ I’d love to hear your perspective.

  • Rebecca Harrison

    I should heed your advice, cos I’m going to go missing and then be discovered decades later beneath a book mountain.

    • This is why we need fat reserves. *hands you cake*

  • I definitely need to take note! I keep so many tiny little souvenirs and ridiculous pieces of ephemera. I once found a plastic fork (!!!) that I had been holding on to for years, long after the reason for keeping it had been forgotten. That was pretty embarrassing! I am trying hard to become a more ruthless, less cluttered me. Thanks for the advice and inspiration šŸ™‚

    • Hahaha, oh dear, I wonder what wonderful story that plastic fork once held! Glad I could help a bit. It’s so tough – there was a time when I was even sentimental about bus tickets!! x

      • Who knows! It was probably related to a boy I liked or something like that, hehe! Imagine being sentimental about bus tickets…*shifty eyes* haha! Thanks for the help, we’ll see how it goes šŸ™‚ x

        • Hahaha! Ah yes, the good old days of stealing a used fork because a boy left his DNA on it. We’ve all been there! ;D

  • BritW

    All good advice mama, and I quite agree. I’m not full-on minimalist…I love books and sewing/painting supplies too much (oh, and color!), but I do believe in keeping it pared down to what you actually use or find very beautiful. Less stuff = less cleaning in my book, which makes me a very happy girl. šŸ™‚

    • Thanks Brit! I’m definitely not full on minimalist either – I strongly suspect anyone coming to my house after reading these posts would be pretty disappointed! I think we fall into the same category – keeping the things we love, paring down the rest šŸ™‚

  • megan

    I have a bad habit of holding on to things because of sentimental value. I do need to de-clutter and go through things that are no longer necessary. I often get to these moments when my home just seems way to full of “stuff” and I start throwing things in bags and hauling them off to thrift stores. But, I have to admit that I actually have a couple jars full of sea shells and white sand that I just will not part with. I don’t just keep these jars for sentimental value, but they also take me back to that place. And I try not to buy cards for friends and family because I know they become clutter and they will get thrown away. Instead I make them a card, no big deal if it’s tossed because no money was wasted.

    • Sentimental value is so tricky, isn’t it? I think my stumbling block is I struggle to recognise when that value has passed, and keep hold of things because they *used* to mean a lot. I’m getting better though.

      Your jars sound wonderful, and I hope you don’t ever want to part with them. I write these lists to sound do-able and general, but of course there are so many wonderful exceptions (like a big box of sea treasure a friend recently gave me that I certainly wont be parting with! ) x

  • Helen Stephens

    I think my house is a bit like a gypsy caravan, too small for the amount if stuff, but I love seeing stuff everywhere. Having said that, every now and again I reach my limit of clutter and have a big clear out, it is definitely good for the soul.

    • A gypsy caravan indeed, but because it is magical and full of surprises, not because it is full of stuff! It’s funny, I never see other people’s stuff as clutter – I guess it’s to do with knowing the value or lack of value in my own possessions. And being a bit obsessive! haha x

  • Joelle McNichol

    This, plus the Marie Kondo I just read, is spurring me on in having a massive, much needed declutter. I can’t wait to be done.

    • The Marie Kondo book is super inspiring, isnt it? (If a little bit bonkers). Good luck with your declutter! I wish I had the time to do a full KonMari cleanse right now!

  • CaliMel

    love this! im still getting rid of stuff, and its always fun to read your stuff because it inspires me to keep going to! – missy

    • Ah, we’re totally partners in decluttering Missy! I’m glad I help you along! x

      • CaliMel

        Definitely! I also just realized I put the wrong “too” in there this morning. *dies of embarrassment a little* I was telling my coworker about the Magic Book this morning.

  • I agree on getting rid of clutter wholeheartedly but knowing that my 16 year old friend touched and pored over the letter I am reading after a happy find whilst digging through my attic, or seeing something on a screen that resembles said letter, sorry, it’s not cutting it (and in honesty I’m not great at finding work files I need let alone discovering sentimental digital archives). It just becomes information or a feelingless archive and the very reason I kept a letter in the first place was the feeling of holding it knowing it had been in someone else’s hands. But then I deal in stationery and designing paper goods that people will want to keep so it’s a bit at odds with my soul really.

    I’m also not a fan of digital music particularly, part of my very being was flicking through cd’s and records on a Saturday afternoon after work, you can’t flick through MP3’s, its just not the same. That having said, we have over a thousand of the things now and it’s getting unmanageable so I suspect we will succumb to digital at some point (and theres no time for rack mooching any more anyway sadly).

    • Yeah, it’s such an individual thing of course – a bit hard to capture that in a snappy list, though! I found that those sentimental bits of paper made me feel slightly panicked and stressed, and it got worse the longer I kept them. Something to do with guilt and old emotions and what-would-you-grab-in-a-housefire conversations!

      R has a huge stash of vinyl, and I see the appeal of that. CDs were never my thing – too lazy to put them away, and cases were always cracked and imperfect. I do get what you mean though – there are certain sensory activities that go with real, tangible possessions, and I absolutely agree that those should be the things we hang onto. For me, it’s soft woolen blankets – I probably have enough for the whole village! x

      • A. just got the worlds ugliest record player (I’ll be replacing it with a Crosley at the first opportunity) for the vinyl he’s had gathering dust for years – I think he and R have something to have a good chat about next time we meet if he’s a vinyl fiend too.
        You can never have too many woollen blankets living in a single glazed house, I’m about to go and cozy under one with the fire on (blasted weather, either snow or be 25 degrees, just get on with it!). x

    • PS I was reading ‘the happiness project’ book in the bath the other night, & she made each of her children a folder for all of their birthday cards, party invitations, etc for each year of their life. She was thrilled to be so organised and imagined giving them to her girls when they left home, and I read it thinking, NOOoo! To me, that just sounds like such a burden – I’d never be able to throw it out, but I’d never want to look at it either! I immediately went and threw all of Orla’s christening cards in the bin. #ruthlessmama

      • Wow. ALL of them!? We keep the cards from us as we try to write something about the year of their life just gone and wishes for the next (sounds very corporate work appraisal now I write it down but it’s nicer than that, promise) and they seem to serve as an anthology of what they were into that year. D is turning in to a hoarder tho and you have to “disappear” things overnight as he’d keep every last scrap if he could (you heard his comment when we met with you about Orla’s nice tickets…).

      • TheDaydreamerDiary

        Oh my, I am not there yet. Definitely not. This being said, I am already overwhelmed by all the drawings and whatnots our eldest brings back from school – they are slowly taking over shelves, space behind doors etc. BUT I do relate to the idea of passing them on to the girls when they get older. This is probably just parents being silly (sentimental) because, if I am being honest, I cannot recall going over that kind of stuff ever when I grew up.

  • TheDaydreamerDiary

    Very useful bullet list – I am trying to follow your lead by using my Kindle more and more, it counts, right?! Books are my favorite belongings and even though practicality is pushing me towards the digital world, handling a book is an entirely different experience. Trouble is… I am probably too sentimental to give in šŸ˜‰

  • I love this! Thank you so much for sharing! Your inspiration and transparency is so refreshing and is an important message for our society to hear. We live such fast paced lives and it would greatly benefit us all to slow down and declutter šŸ™‚

  • I’ve just started replacing cookery book paper copies with kindle versions. Well, all but my very favourites which I love to just sit and look through with a cup of tea on a quiet afternoon.

    And I smiled when I saw that you use evernote for sentimental stuff – I’ve just started doing the same so as to have less paper around.

    My biggest [current] problem is what to do with the hundreds of polaroid photos & negative I have from film cameras. I’m leaning towards scanning them all and then ditching the originals. And then trying not to make too many more!

  • I live in a house taken over by clutter. Last week I took three bin bags to the charity shop and two bin bags of cards and papers to be recycled and raise funds for our scouts. I’ve three children so they generate a lot of stuff. It is a constant cycle of accumulating and clearing. In the past year my mother died and we had to empty her house for selling. This really changed my view on possessions. It is such a huge huge task. I have a few pieces of lovely ceramics and jewellery from her and they make me feel closer to my parents and make me smile. Finding her seventy year old school reports was fab but finding her forty year x rays was a bit too much…I’m definitely conscious of streamlining my stuff so it’s not a burden.

    • Ah Minnado – I feel for you, and understand exactly what you mean. Just having one child generates a steady stream of new stuff in our house – dealing with three times as much, plus the clutter from a previous lifetime is a momentous task. Well done for all you have done so far!
      I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your Mum. I have watched people clear the homes of my Grandparents and vowed to never make Orla or another loved one do this for me; it’s devastating for anyone to have to sort through so much personal stuff, and decide which formerly treasured possessions to keep and which to discard. I firmly believe we all have a responsibility to do this for ourselves while we can!
      Best of luck with your decluttering. I have another post – live with less’ (it should be linked above) that you might find useful – I sometimes have to refer back to it to keep myself going! šŸ™‚ S xx

  • Erin

    You weren’t kidding when you said your approach is ruthless! I could never get rid of my cards and letters, although I think I need to join you on the books. DVDs is a hard one for me as I spent so much time and money buying them over the years; I think I need to ditch the movies apart from the ones that are hard to download, and keep the tv series I own. It really is a tough one for me; I’m such an ephemera junkie!


  • Hannah

    I accidentally commented on the wrong post, so here is my comment on the correct post (oops!):

    I really love this post. It is so important. I’ve struggled the past four years that I’ve been practicing minimalism with sentimental clutter the most. When we moved into our last house, my craft room (I kid you not) was filled to the ceiling of boxes of crap (mostly paperwork) from my childhood that my mother and grandmother had kept for me. I will never forget the stressful many, many hours I spent going through all of that paperwork. I’d leave that room feeling depressed, overwhelmed, and burdened every. Single. Time. I ended up throwing out seventeen packed-full black trash bags (the biggest ones you get to clean leaves in the yard) of that paperwork. And since then I’ve gotten rid of so much more. I was a writer and an artist (I started drawing and writing at age three), so by the time I was twenty-one, it was a ton to go through. After the loose papers I’d thrown away, I still had over one-hundred journals and sketchbooks of poetry, essays, thoughts, stories, diary entries, etc., and one day I just couldn’t take the stress of going through it anymore and bagged it all up and sent it out of my life. The past is, to me, meant for the past. The stress of living my life again through my writings and drawings was just way too much. I am twenty-four now, and I have two more boys than I did then, and I can assure you I will never do to them what was done for me. No one wants to go through paperwork they didn’t even know was in existence the day before. And I don’t ever want to be the bearer of that weight in their lives.

    All that being said, I do keep photos in folders of each year and then each month of that year in my computer. We have five photos of our family strung up on a wall in our sitting room, and that is all. And we go through the pictures on our computer all the time. It’s so fun because they are in order to see how everything changes through the years. At the end of each month, I put the pictures from mine and my husband’s phones into it’s appointed folder. I make the folders for the new year on the last day of each year, to make it easier on myself to organize.

    Minimalism and slow living has really changed my life for the better, and if you are struggling with the sentimental clutter, I highly recommend just getting rid of it. It is so, so, SO freeing.

  • Emma Mummy’sMunchkins

    I love this post. I recently wrote about how I have started a ‘decluttering journey’ and that it somehow makes you feel like you’ve cleared your head; like you declutterrd mentally as well as physically. I knew I had a way to go still but after reading this I think one would say I hoard.

    I don’t by the way! I’m definitely not a hoarder I like my house way too much to treat it that way, but I do like to, um, hang on to stuff!

    Your bullet pointed list might just come in handy to help me continue my journey along the decluttering pathway I have recently found myself upon!

    Thanks for sharing this ?