Memorabilia and Diminishing Returns

Attic of Memorabilia

Have you ever heard of the law of diminishing returns? I heard about it back in my Introduction to Economics class in college. In simple terms, it means that the incremental output/benefit you get from an incremental increase in the amount of input/work tapers off over time (holding all other variables constant).

For example, imagine you have a factory where the workers make clear plastic shoeboxes (the typical example is cars, but since I’m a professional organizer, I’m going with one of my favorite organizing tools). Initially, adding more people to the factory floor will yield a rapidly higher number of shoeboxes. However, as the number of employees increases, the factory floor will become crowded, people may disagree on how to best make shoeboxes, bored workers may start checking social media, etc. As a result, although the yield of shoeboxes will continue to increase, it will be at a slower rate. Eventually, you could add so many workers that the factory floor becomes too chaotic to be productive, and your yield could actually decline (this is called “negative” — as opposed to “diminishing” —returns).

This all sounds a little technical. For my visual readers, look at the picture below. You see that early on, each increase in input results in a large increase in output. As you move right along the graph, you see that there comes a time when more input only yields a small increase in output.

What does all this have to do with memorabilia? I believe accumulating memorabilia yields diminishing returns.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine you have one small box of memorabilia. The old Bing Crosby Christmas song The Littlest Angel comes to mind, in which a young angel has collected a few items from his time on Earth:

A butterfly with golden wings
A little piece of a hollow log
Two shiny stones from a river bank
And the worn out strap of his faithful dog”

You may not be excited about the idea of a hollow log, but picture whatever has great significance to you. Looking through this box gives you pleasure and helps you feel connected to good things and happy times in your past. Periodically, you open it up, look through your treasures, and enjoy reminiscing. Storing your sentimental possessions isn’t hard because it is only one box. You have a positive feeling about your memorabilia.

Now let’s consider another scenario. In this case, you have an attic full of boxes, bins and bags holding memorabilia. Some of it belongs to you, some to deceased relatives and some to your children. There is so much, in fact, that you aren’t even sure what is up there. The attic is often freezing cold or uncomfortably hot, very dusty, and inconvenient to access because of the pull-down stairs needed to get up there. In fact, you can’t remember having ever gone up to spend time enjoying your memories. Instead of bringing you joy, the memorabilia feels almost like a weight on your shoulders. You feel you should be organizing it and probably getting rid of some of it, but you never have the time. You take some comfort in knowing you have these keepsakes, but you wonder if keeping all of it is the right decision.

In my experience, when it comes to memorabilia, less is more. A few items with sentimental significance are treasures, while a house full of them is a burden. Toss in heirloom furniture (or other large pieces) and your space can easily become overrun with items you lack space and/or energy to appreciate.

So what is a healthy approach to keeping and storing memorabilia? This is what I suggest:

  • Give every family member a memorabilia storage container. A plastic bin works well, as does any box, or you can designate a drawer in an empty cabinet. Make sure there is one per person.
  • Place the memorabilia storage in a (fairly) convenient location. It doesn’t have to be in the entryway, but it shouldn’t be so hard to reach that you resist putting things inside and instead pile them up on the counter.
  • Develop a “flow” for your memorabilia. For instance, the trophy your child just won goes on the shelf over his bed. To make space for the newly arrived trophy, remove an older piece of memorabilia. If your child still feels an emotional connection to the older item, put it in his box.
  • When the bin/box/drawer gets full, empty it out and assess the contents. Typically, you will find at least a couple of items that you saved in the past, but which now don’t feel so special. Clear out enough that you have some room to grow inside.

The key is to have a process in place so pieces don’t end up being randomly thrown into containers and shoved away out of sight. As an added benefit, most people find the process of periodically looking through their box of treasures to be fun. After all, you’ve kept this memorabilia specifically because you want to be able to look at it, talk about it and share the stories it triggers. Imposing a limitation on how much you keep (i.e. no more than fits in your bin) is a great way to balance your desire to connect with your past while living in the present.

*     *     *     *     *

How much memorabilia do you have? Do you have a great tip to share on how to curate a collection?

22 thoughts on “Memorabilia and Diminishing Returns”

  1. I find that knowing how to honor memorabilia is part of the trouble. You gave really great illustrations of how the memorabilia/treasures can become more of a burden than a joy. I, too, advise my clients to have one container per person and to periodically go through the container to see if the items within still resonate. The trick is to keep to the rule of only having one memorabilia or treasure box and not succumbing to the urge to get more storage to hold an ever increasing amount of memorabilia.

    1. That is the trick exactly! Having that “one box limit” is a great guideline. I find this trick works for many different items in our lives. Setting the boundary in advance helps keep things from getting out of hand!

  2. Ah, my fellow Whartonite, love your econ reference! Having just inherited (chosen to keep) family memorabilia, I can attest to the law of diminishing returns. Two “tricks” that helped me were to take photos of things I wanted to remember, but didn’t want to keep and to put into use things I would like to keep. I am using old cotton shirts to make a quilt. I kept a few old ceramic pots to organize in my pantry and so on. That way I see those items every day in real life use and they make me smile. They help me, not hinder me, in my day-to-day life. I tried not to keep very many tchotchke memorabilia items. If I couldn’t put it to use, I took a picture (mostly 🙂

    1. Good times in the mass Econ class, right Susan? I love that you are getting your pieces out where you can see them and enjoy them. That is so smart! I’ve made t-shirt quilts for both of my girls, and they are easy to grab and use in college or the basement or wherever. I had a client the other day who came across a book she had given her mother when she was a little girl. Her mother has now passed away. She didn’t really want the book to read, but hated to get rid of it. We snapped a photo and I sent it to her. A book of photos of special belongings would be a wonderful way to collect precious memories:)

  3. Memorabilia is my Achilles heel. I love keepsakes and it’s hard for me to let go of them. But, as the kids get older, I’m realizing that it is taking up way too much space. I do scrapbooking, and each kid has at least 7 small scrapbooks that document their entire school career. At least I am streamlining it down to 3 pages for that year of school. My future plan is to go through my childhood albums and reduce them down to one or two books from five books now. I like to reduce memorabilia clutter by half because it shows the space I recovered from the purging process and it still allows me to enjoy my keepsakes.

    1. Each person is different. If you are a scrapbooker (I did them too!), this is a hobby, which has another value in your life. Most of us want to keep things that we have made or created. Continuing to focus on finding a way to pursue your hobby, honor your memories and keep the clutter at bay is wonderful!

  4. I love this post! It makes so much sense to me. I’m actually pretty good about sentimental items. I have a plastic box with cards I’ve received throughout the years, two yearbooks and a book my mom kept chronicling my school years. I’m trying to be just as minimal with my son, but boy it can be hard! The graph you included in your post is a helpful visual that proves more isn’t always better.

    1. I always enjoy a good visual:) It is hard with the children. I know now that I kept way too much. It is all still in my attic as even my married daughter has no space for it in her small urban apartment.

  5. Hi Seana,
    Great post. Memorabilia is a hot topic in our clearing clutter group. Its right up there with paper. I love the idea of the one box per person with their treasured items and go through them every once in awhile to keep it all reasonable. When I think of stuff that is stored away in a box, easily forgotten it really just stresses me out. I have an attic in my house which is empty and I plan to keep it that way. I do have a few boxes around though that I need to go through. Currently, I am planning to sort out some old photos which I know can be an overwhelming task but it is time to do it.

    1. I haven’t met many people who have an empty attic… I am impressed Kim! Photos are a special sub-category of memorabilia. I’m thankful for organizers who specialize in photos as this can feel daunting, especially with the complexity of digital photos!

  6. I Seana, I enjoyed your post on Memorabilia. It’s a topic that holds importance, and as Professional Organizers, we understand how difficult it is for others to “let go.”

    1. It is hard for all of once the heartstrings get involved. As a parent, I know I treasured (and kept) everything. I can see now that wasn’t the best strategy. I could have used my own advice back then!

  7. WE stopped taking pictures on our various trips because we realize they are meaningful only to us. instead we just enjoy the trip and the memories we hold. There are certain trips which were especially meaningful and we keep those pictures. WE do bring them out and enjoy them periodically, but I agree less is more and I am trying to be better about sorting through things.

  8. My mom was really good about helping me edit my memorabilia at the end of each school year. I probably collected about 3 to 4 boxes of things by the time I was 17 and left the house. My mom was nice enough to go,d on to them since I didn’t have a permanent residence. I know that many parents do this for a long time. At a point after my husband and I bought our house, my mom kept asking me to take my boxes of memorabilia. Somehow I kept delaying until one day when she had them ready in her entryway. I spent about an hour going through them and whittled it down to one box that I brought home. The rest went. Time truly has a way of helping us sort the most meaningful from the least.

    1. I agree that this is a common scenario. I’ve worked with clients who received those boxes from parents and need to go through them:) I’ve got boxes in my attic for both of my girls. Although one is married, she lives in a small apartment and doesn’t have space to take them. For the time being, it isn’t difficult for me to keep these items, but some day they will need to go, and then she can decide what to keep. I know I held onto too much, but at this point, I feel it is is up to them to decide what matters most.

  9. I like the idea of giving everyone a memorabilia storage bin. Although in my house, everyone would have more than one. It’s hard for me to let go of things because I’m afraid of forgetting importance things, or of being forgotten. It’s a real thing. With my father’s death, I do have a small box of things of him, but nothing more than that.
    I was looking for my birth certificate last week to renew my driver’s license and found a whole bin of my old papers and letters. There were entire conversations and even PEOPLE that I had forgotten until I looked through this stuff. That’s my fear. It’s all in my brain, but not accessible.
    Tamara recently posted…Dealing With Noise Phobias In Dogs This SummerMy Profile

    1. Well, I hear that fear Tamara. And looking through hand-written notes can be very special. The lack of those these days I think is a sadness… texts just aren’t the same. It all comes down to finding a balance that works for you, between having some triggers to help you remember, and living in a space that has sufficient ‘space” for your current life. Some may choose to keep more, while others don’t desire that strong connection to the past. Each person should decide for herself. If you have the room to keep more than one bin per person, that’s fine! I do believe individuals differ on the importance of sentimental items, so it is freeing to allow each of us to choose the situation we desire.

  10. I have a large Rubbermaid tote as my “treasure box” and when it got too full, I transferred all the paper items to a Bankers Box. I rarely add anything new anymore though, and I have actually thrown out stuff I’ve had since childhood.

    1. I’m getting to that point where I’m not adding much anymore as well. In fact, I’m starting to think about culling it all down so I don’t leave a heap of stuff to my children which means nothing to them!

      1. I’ve often said, “When I’m gone, this whole box can be thrown out,” but it’s hard to accept that something that’s so important to be is of no value whatsoever to anyone else.

    1. With six of you in the family, having a healthy boundary of one box per person would be important. If each person had 3 or 4 boxes, that could get unwieldy quickly:)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.