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Ask Jes: Are knick-knacks really clutter?

This advice column first appeared in the Albany Times Union on July 23, 2020.


Dear Jes, I collect knickknacks, everything from trip souvenirs to Precious Moments and other small collectibles. Friends and family also gift me cute little things for birthdays and holidays. My husband does not appreciate these items and complains that my collections are nothing but clutter. On the one hand, I feel like he does not understand how much I enjoy seeing them. But then I also wonder if maybe he is correct? Are my knickknacks nothing more than clutter? Am I just overthinking this? Can you help me figure this out?


Sincerely, A Confused Collector in Cohoes





Dear Confused Collector, Clutter is subjective; after all, one person's trash is another person's treasure. But when the other person in the adage is your spouse, these treasures can cause endless disagreements and make you question your emotional attachments.

Observing other people's possessions in many contexts has led me to identify four defining characteristics of clutter. This list can be an objective guide to help you get more clarity around all the collections in your home.


1) Clutter: anything that impedes movement or reduces effectiveness or efficiency. My initial attempts at understanding clutter began with defining the word. Dictionaries have multiple definitions for clutter, and this adaptation comes closest to my practical observations. Clutter is anything standing in your way or making life somehow more complicated - physically, emotionally, or financially. You can apply this definition to your collection of knickknacks by asking yourself: 

  • Do my collectibles physically block access to other items my family needs? If yes, it's clear that these items impede movement in your space and reduce the efficiency of accomplishing daily tasks, therefore fitting this definition of clutter.

  • Does this knickknack bring me joy, or am I keeping it because of guilt or indecision? If the answer is the latter, these items might be emotional clutter manifesting as indecision and guilt, which are clear impediments to progress.

  • Does the purchase of these knickknacks add to my debt and hinder my financial goals? Debt is financial clutter and an important consideration when thinking about collections or future purchases. If your collectibles are standing in the way of meeting your financial goals in a timely fashion, they qualify as clutter under this definition.

2) Clutter: anything in your home without a home.

Proper home organization dictates storing like items together in a space that comfortably fits the entire collection (this is referred to as the collection's home). By nature, knickknacks tend to be displayed throughout a home; however, the space in your home must still be adequate to display the collection comfortably. If your knickknacks exceed the storage and display space in your home, your home will look and feel cluttered.


3) Clutter: anything in your home without a function. Items in our home that have no function in our current lives (such as old technology or toys our children have long outgrown), or have lost their functionality (such as a broken vacuum cleaner) are clutter. The function of a knickknack is to bring us joy or remind us of a happy memory - a legitimate purpose for an item.


It is often difficult to determine if an item is genuinely serving this function. Beware of the "cute" trap. If you find that you want to keep items because "it's cute," remember this helpful acronym: C.U.T.E. = Can't Use This Ever. Be honest with yourself about "cute" things that don't truly bring you joy or elicit positive memories. Feel free to pass these items on.


4) Clutter: anything you no longer want to maintain. Everything we own takes time, money, and energy to maintain. Items become clutter when we don't have or want to spend the time, money, and energy required for proper maintenance. When the burden of maintaining an item outweighs the joy of owning this item, it has become clutter.


It is straightforward to figure out the time and money required to keep up a collection; it's more difficult to calculate how much energy we devote to our things. For example, an item that causes constant friction in a relationship takes more energy than an item that is universally loved. Being mindful of the total cost of maintaining an item, including energy spent, will help in your clutter assessment.


Confused Collector, collections can be confusing, and clutter looks different for everyone. Understanding these four characteristics common to most clutter will help you decide if your knickknacks are still treasures or if it is time to pass some of them on.

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