decluttering,  marie kondo,  minimalism,  motherhood

The life changing magic of bagging it up (even if it was a gift)

I’m going to hone straight in on sentimental objects in this next installment on minimalism and decluttering, because without a doubt it is the area that trips more people up than perhaps all other categories combined, and also because it turns out a lot of the people who read Mama Needs Coffee are moms (hi, moms!) and moms get a lot of stuff given to them for their precious ones, everything from Christmas gifts to hand me downs from the neighbor kids.

Moms, lean in close today, because I’m going to unload some heavy artillery in the form of what I hope will prove, ultimately, to be self love: you don’t have to keep anything in your house that you don’t like/ doesn’t serve your family.

(insert disclaimer about toddler underwear and your husband’s whatever collection here)

A toy that is super annoying and makes your kids fight like animals: get rid of it.

A dress your best friend in college gifted you in your early twenties (and which fit in your early twenties): bye!

A decorative engraved flask with your husband’s college nickname on it he got as a groomsman gift … in 2007: see ya. (Obviously ask him first. But it couldn’t hurt to gently inquire when the last time he sipped from said flask was.)

A hulking, dark wood bookshelf that doesn’t match your home, is totally not your style, and is mostly just a clutter magnet …but your now-deceased grandmother left it to you when she died? Oy. Tough one, right? But still, goodbye. Before I delve into my explanation for being so hard hearted, I want to take a minute to unpack the meaning of gift giving.

When somebody gives you a gift, there are a couple mechanisms at work. At a fundamental level, a person gives a gift in order to express some kind of affection, appreciation, or commitment.

We give wedding rings on our wedding day to symbolize the covenant we make with our spouse. We give a beautiful necklace or a bouquet of flowers to our moms once a year to commemorate their motherhood. We slip Starbucks gift cards into our teacher’s hands at Christmas time to express our gratitude.

These are all good, beautiful reasons to give gifts.

We give smaller, less significant gifts too, all the time. A scarf for a birthday present. A rosary from a meaningful pilgrimage somewhere, a book you think someone will love, etc. What is really highlighted in these more common gifting occurrences is the intention: you’re essentially saying to someone, “hey, I was thinking of you!” or “I missed you while I was on this trip” or maybe “I hope this helps you take your mind off the difficulty you’re enduring right now.”

Gifts are transactional in nature, at least for human beings.

We give to express some kind of emotion, and in return, we’re usually hoping for joy, a smile during the unwrapping, a warm hug or, at the least, a heartfelt thank you. Even if the gift is given with no strings attached, rare is the giver who isn’t hoping to elicit pleasure from the receiver.

When my mom, for example, gives a gift to one of my children, she is giving them a tangible expression of her love. And that’s what makes it so hard to part with grandma toys, right?

Wrong! Hear me out. That tangible expression of love? It actually happens the moment she hands the gift over. It helps to think of a gift the way you might think of a hug or a kiss: offered, accepted, received, over.

What happens to the item itself after we’ve gone home and assessed whether we have room for it in our life is actually kind of beside the point; my mom was able to communicate her love to her grandchild, and her grandchild, hopefully, acted appropriately grateful in return.

This is an especially important realization to come to when you have someone in your life whose love language is gift giving. I’ve found far more success with graciously accepting the gift and then deciding after the fact whether or not it fits in my life than in trying to reprogram the giver to switch to giving ballet lessons or zoo passes.

You can definitely make those suggestion! Don’t get me wrong. But know that they may not stick, especially if the person you’re dealing with is an avid and enthusiastic shopper.

One of the most frequent criticisms I hear about minimalism is that it’s impossible to maintain with the constant influx of gifts. My first thought is wow, how loved are we to have gifts coming in constantly?! My second thought is (and this is NOT a critique of someone who genuinely expresses love through gift giving) what an incredibly materialistic and consumer-driven society we live in, that people are constantly giving and receiving gifts year round.

Graduation? There’s a gift for that. Wedding season? Off to Bed, Bath and Beyond. New baby? New blanket. Moving houses? I’ve got a vase for you. Made up holiday? Here’s an appropriately themed trinket. And so on.

One super easy way to break the cycle in your family or circle of friends is to start giving only consumable gifts, with rare exception. You’d be hard pressed to name an occasion that can’t be improved upon with a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers.

Think of it this way: we’ve all got probably too many coffee mugs in our cupboards and scarves in our closets. Many of us are struggling to find balance and peace in a cluttered house, as evidenced by the massive market for all things minimalist.

And then there’s this: lots of people are struggling to balance their finances, especially around Christmas time, and may actually find it pretty taxing to buy gifts not only for their immediate family, but also for a widening circle of friends and acquaintances.

Giving begets giving, and that’s not always a good thing. Make a pact with like minded friends or family members that you’re letting each other off the hook next year, and make plans to go see a movie or go out for drinks together instead.

Finally, it might be helpful to think like this: the perfect gift is a unicorn. Rarely, if ever, will someone’s vision for what you’d love/appreciate/need/wear/etc line up with the reality of what you actually love/appreciate/need/wear. I have a friend who is uncannily good at picking out earrings for me. I own maybe a dozen pair of earrings total. 3 of the 12 were gifts from her.

My husband, on the other hand, whom I deeply love, has given me exactly zero pairs of earrings which I both love and wear. And that’s not to say he hasn’t tried to give me earrings (love you honey), but just that his taste and mine are imperfectly matched.

I think that’s probably more typical than nailing it, every time. You’re not going to give – or receive – the perfect gift more often than not. Rare are the opportunities when your tastes, budget, and selection match perfectly with the recipient’s interests and style. Don’t expect to find a unicorn every time! And don’t feel bad when you don’t. They’re rare for a reason.

Where I’m going with this is, you only have room in your house for unicorns. If something in your house, a gift or not, is not a unicorn, set it free! No guilt. (And hey, it might be someone else’s unicorn, and how thrilled are they going to be to find it for half price at the Arc?)

So accept gifts graciously, donate or repurpose gifts thoughtfully, and give gifts mindfully.

With this knowledge in mind, remember that a perfect gift that ticks all the boxes is exceedingly rare, and feel new freedom in being able to assess the things you have been given as gifts with clear eyes. Because they have already performed their fundamental purpose, whether or not you actually like or use them. What a relief.

If you do end up giving away something that was a gift, say a little prayer for the person who gave it to you as you bag it up. Think fondly of a memory you have with them, something that you can hang onto long after the gift itself is faded or useless, and release yourself from the unnecessary burden of hanging onto it – or to any guilt.

24 Comments

  • Claire

    This is spot on!!!!: “what an incredibly materialistic and consumer-driven society we live in, that people are constantly giving and receiving gifts year round”. I would so much rather go out to dinner with friends than exchange gifts and add to the clutter in my small house. I have always done no-gift birthday parties for my son (he collects donations for the animal shelter instead). He gets so many gifts already, I can’t even imagine the volume if he got gifts from friends at his birthday party on top of it. On a related note, when I invite people over and they ask what they can bring, I often say “nothing” because I have a child with allergies, and it’s usually easier for me to handle the food myself. I’m always thankful for the offers, but sometimes I honestly don’t need anything. When that happens, said guests seems to feel obligated to bring me a gift instead. But in keeping with the spirit of your blogpost, next time I will feel thankful for that box of Russell Stover chocolates, and I will feel no guilt about sending it in to work with my husband the next day.

  • Jm

    My mom is an Amazon prime fanatic, buying us gifts ALL THE TIME. Which overall would be nice, if they were gifts that we’d use or have want of. We literally have a bag of brand new, full price crap that we bring to goodwill every few weeks. It’s easier to do, because she lives far away and doesn’t know. It irks me to no end though, knowing how much $$$ she spends our kids and us which is totally wasted. Which, I know, I should have a talk with her about what we allow our kids to play with etc etc. I have had that conversation many times, but she just doesn’t get it?? (Or dementia is setting in? ) Or she KNOWS my kids would loooove this, because it’s something SHE always wanted. How do you have that conversation without crushing the one you love,
    who is a gift giver, but you know can’t afford to give this many gifts? Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      I honestly think it’s not possible to change someone’s hardwiring that way, especially if they’re older. But maybe you could resell them in like facebook marketplace or eBay or something like that, of course at a big discount, and use the money to buy something your kids do need/want? My only other thought is hide it all and never buy another Christmas or birthday gift for another kid’s party ever…

      • Jenny Uebbing

        And then you could be like mom, thank you for this organic cotton onesie you bought* the baby!

        *(after I sold off of half a dozen of your Fisher Price new-in-box treasures for $18 dollars net)

      • K

        Yes, I second selling items. My MIL peruses TJ Maxx/Marshall’s etc all the time. Every time I see her she has new clothes for the kids (it used to drive me crazy too!!) In the past we have had to help my parents-in-law financially so it’s doubly frustrating to receive stuff we don’t need & also know somehow we’re paying for it too. Anyways, I just started collecting the items we’re not going to use & I keep the tags on. I sold a lot of it at a local Moms Resale. 50% of the proceeds go to benefit the local school and I put the 50% we received in each kid’s savings account. My MIL almost passed away last year & has serious health issues. I know the shopping is a result of old wounds & I also know it’s a way to show love. I’ve had to learn to let go. Although, when she gave my kids 30(!!!!!!) Christmas gifts, it was very hard for me to let it goooo. I’ve stored a lot of those toys as well for Toys for Tots!

    • Cami

      Oh wow, this is my mom too. Except she doesn’t have the budget to buy as much as she’s like. But she’s got a shopping problem for sure. And it seems she gifts to make herself feel something she needs. I grew up getting gifts I never wanted. She wasn’t into asking what I wanted, she just bought stuff. I’m a fan of really thinking of great gifts for people. I enjoy it. But I do care about the interests and needsof the recipient. I try asking now for gifted experiences rather than stuff. It’s great when it works out.

  • Diana

    YES! Gifts are SO HARD to get rid of but I’ve been getting a lot better at it. And not feeling guilty. And the more I find to get rid of, the easier it gets!

  • Melissa

    I am having trouble with this very thing now. I want to clean out stuff but (1) my husband is such a pain in the butt! Everything I try to pitch or bag up he questions. And (2) I’m having a hard time with giving up the “my mom made/bought that for me/my kid. She’s been gone for 5 years now and I feel like I’m losing memories! I know I’m not though, it’s just a little harder to do than I expected.

    • Lauren

      I’m sorry for your loss. We have a number of baby clothes my great-grandmother made and they’ve been iep so I can’t throw them out but really they’re so delicate at this point they aren’t practical for wearing. Have you considered making a memory box in one of those deep display frames? That’s my plan. We’ll keep and display the nicest/most important ones and let go of the rest.

    • Jenny Uebbing

      Melissa that sounds so hard! I like the idea from another commenter about making a memory box with a few carefully selected and beloved things. If you have Netflix,there is actually an episode specifically about grief, and I thought it was really well done. As for your husband, I’d ask forgiveness rather than permission if it’s not something that is indisputably “his” and not common property of the household…and do your decluttering when he’s at work, haha.

    • Julie

      Pictures. Take a picture of the (or those) item(s) and then put it in a scrap book with the memory in writing–voila! You keep the memory but without having to have the clutter of the item(s)!

    • Claire

      Regarding the husband issue: my husband is the same way, especially about books. (In fact, there are many book-lovers out there who are very opposed to the minimalism movement because they think that every home should be full of overflowing book cases. I love books myself, but unless I plan to reference a book again in the future, I can’t justify it taking up space in my small house.) When I de-clutter, I don’t interfere with things that are personally his, such as books that he brought into the marriage. But anything else is fair game, and it does make a difference. Not to say it’s easy. I just donated a lot of very good books, including some good Catholic books. But I honestly felt that donating them to our parish library would be a better option, so others can enjoy them. I can borrow them again if needed, and there’s so much information online now that I could no longer justify holding onto them. As far as secular books, most can be accessed from our library system if I need to reference them in the future. If we ever move, I will ask my husband to seriously consider what he wants to hold on to and go to the trouble of packing, but until then I’m making good headway just decluttering my own things.

  • Amanda

    But what if your mom interprets you giving away something she gave you as you rejecting her? And isn’t there any further hope on the part of the giver that you’ll think of them when using that gift?

    • Jenny Uebbing

      I think normally there is that hope, but what she described is more like chronic gifting that overwhelms the receiving party, so I think giving away what isn’t useful and thanking mom sincerely for having thought of her grandkids is a win/win.

  • KM

    Some of my fondest early childhood memories are spending Saturday mornings decluttering my closet with my Dad. In high school, I dusted my room on Sunday’s “to prepare for the week ahead.” My mom still jokes that I had the cleanest room in the house. Just setting the stage here. I was super particular about my room & what I kept. One year I decided all my Sacrament gifts from First Communion & Confirmation weren’t my style so I put them in our parish garage sale. My mom realized it at some point. They all sold! It’s still a family joke. The nice thing now is my immediate family & closest friends know this about me & don’t buy me gifts anymore. My mom gives me the Blessed Is She Planner for Christmas every year & that’s it. It’s the best.

  • Alix T.

    I have been minimalist since middle school, and since then, I’ve only ever asked for a) warm socks, b) nice pens (both colored and black), and c) gift cards for eating out. I’m in my mid-30s now, and that’s still all anyone in my family ever gets me – I love it!

    Now, regarding my kids (the only grandchildren on either side of the family), is another matter… Part of what frustrates me about a gift-giver doing a lot of gift giving (or giving things we’ll just give away) is the environmental impact. First, just looking at the cheaply-made plastic toys my kids are gifted physically hurts me – I know they won’t survive this generation and will end up in a landfill for many many generations. It is also likely that the workers who manufactured them were not working in the best of conditions, and the materials the toy is made of likely had a significant environmental impact. I’ve also seen how much Goodwill-type stores are just overflowing with things, and I cringe when I see that the first thing my in-laws want to do after giving my kids gifts is immediately opening them all, when I know they are going to be given away, and it would be much easier/more appreciated to regift them to a family in need if they were still in their original packaging. My in-laws always like to say “grandparents get to spoil their grandkids” and I’m like…why? If you didn’t feel the need to do that with your own children, why do it with mine? I honestly do not get it.

    Anyway, I am thankful that my family is generally more conscientious of this (probably because they are used to me!), and the guideline of “buy something that will survive for my children’s grandchildren” seems to have worked pretty well, plus it typically means the gift is somewhat expensive, and thus there are fewer gifts of higher quality. And despite me doing a lot of inward cringing when my in-laws bring presents, I am very grateful for their generosity and love for my children. I just wish people put as much thought into all the different factors that go into manufacturing said gift and its lifespan on this planet, beyond just “I gave something I think the child will like, thus I feel good.” But, I am an INTJ, and am prone to overthinking.

  • jeanette

    I think you agree that there is a distinction between sentimental and symbolic: Some things call up memories, and those are sentimental memories, which though sweet to recall are not really bound up in keeping the object in any way. It’s more likely that the thing has long outlived its purpose in your life, but you just didn’t do anything about it (often these things just get packed away or buried deeply somewhere and unexpectedly pop out when we are cleaning out a closte, going through a box of stuff or packing to move). Other things are more symbolic and call up a remembrance of someone very important in your life. The things that are sentimental are not going to make you feel a loss if you get rid of them. The ones that are symbolic are slightly different and become “keepsakes” for more than a sentimental reason. If it is the last tie you have to someone, especially someone deceased, you might treasure it in the same way you would a photo. We are sensory people, after all. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching all can call up memories. I think it is important to honor memories of people and relationships, and that is different than sentimentality. I also think quantity is a telling thing: if you hold onto too many remembrances, maybe you need to let go of most of them and keep only the most significant ones. I don’t think one needs to feel any guilt about keepsakes that have meaning and aren’t excessive. Keepsakes which are few in number are not clutter. Don’t sweat it. We really do not need things and shouldn’t form unhealthy attachments to things, but tangible remembrances are normal, as long as they don’t weigh one down.

  • Dan

    Along with screen time, I believe clutter to be one of the modern plagues attacking societal health, as I sit on my computer in a cluttered house. As the stay at homer, im the grease on the gears. Things grind to a halt if I stop. I tell my superhero wife that clutter is like pitching pebbles in my grease, to which she replies “but grandma gave me that pebble.” Because the gears don’t stop turning, my effort to keep the grease pebble free is all my own. That is my constant burden. I read on you’re blog a parent’s primary job is to maintain peace in the house. Ive thought about that responsibility, added grease, and prioritized it. I’ve always been a minimalist and cant wait to teach my 3yr old the joys of it, if my wife doesn’t get to him first. She can make the money and the babies and my heart skip a beat now and then, but i’m the grease, needed right now(i’m sure of it) to clean and de-clutter. To maintain peace.

    Very rarely do people give of themselves, they’re time or energy, they’re thoughts or effort. But these are the only gifts worth exchanging, and because they are too expensive we give each other the cheap effortless alternative. Wine is totally ok though! Vinum Laetificat Cor Hominis! Thank You Jenny, You’re Cool

    • Melissa

      As the mom of a couple very high strung kids and as an anxiety sufferer myself I can totally attest to the fact that clutter makes everyone CRAZY (or crazier than normal) and therefore I don’t feel bad about spending time cleaning and decluttering. I know there’s the whole “excuse the mess, my kids are making memories thing” and we do have a lot of messes, but if they don’t get cleaned up we are all worse off for it mentally and in lots of other ways also. So we clean 🙂

      • Dan

        ….And so we clean! A 3 yr old, another bundle of joy due in a week, and 3 dogs. I had no choice but to turn cleaning into something spiritual. The first couple weeks of it I felt like I was dropped into a tub of ice. 3 years later and im just finding my sea legs, and am in awe of anyone who is taking care of littles fulltime. Us Men have no idea, a couple hours of “hanging with the kid” is not in the same ballpark as doing it all everyday. Just Wow! I think Jenny said motherhood is a slow strangulation of the ego. Similarly, for men being the primary caregiver is the greatest lesson in humility available to him, for nothing so much reminds you of what’s really important than taking care of others who are helpless. I think it was D. Tutu that said God tells everyone of us “You’re the only one who can do it”. Thanks for your reply Peace and Grease!

  • AnneMarie

    I love this post so much!!!!! I spent a lot of my life thinking that I had to indefinitely hang onto gifts, but when I finally realized that I don’t need to keep every gift I’ve been given, it was really freeing. I think one of the things that can make it the hardest (echoing what others say) is that often, relatives show their love by gift-giving. And if those relatives expect to see the gift when they visit, that can make for some tricky situations. Thankfully, I’ve found that we haven’t had too many difficulties (yet)-but I know this will continue to be something we need to face as the years go on!

    I also want to add that some people who have helped me a lot in the area of decluttering are my elderly neighbors. The lady next door is about 80 years old, and she has honestly told me-many times-that she has way too much stuff lying around. Stuff that she has neither the time or energy or desire to care for. She has drawers and cupboards full of photos of her relatives and stuff that her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids have drawn for her-but there’s just so much, and she doesn’t know the last time she’s looked at any of it! I think that sometimes, we can think that we’ll need all of this tangible stuff for when we’re old and want to look back on life, but at least for my neighbor, she doesn’t want to sit around and pore over these things all day-she wants to chat with her family and friends, go coffee & clothes shopping with her best friend, do word puzzles, and cuddle cute kids who stop by.

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