How to Purge, Organize and Store Your Photos and Keepsakes

February 23, 2022

Tips for purging and storing photos, artwork and mementos. 

Purging family keepsakes, photos and children's artwork can be SO overwhelming. 

As with any major decluttering project I take on, the process of sorting through and organizing these mementos has taken a lot of time!

Though I had no idea it would take me this long. I started the process of going through all of our most treasured photos and memorabilia last summer and just finished, nine months later! 

I've learned a lot through the process and wanted to share some tips with you. :) 

I decided I wanted to store everything all together when I was done. The bookcases I built in our basement have provided a ton of storage for us, and I knew this was the perfect spot!: 
gray built in bookcase DIY

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When we installed the awesome electric fireplace a few months ago, I moved all of our games and toys from that long wall to these cabinets. 

I still had plenty of room, so one of those cabinets is now a storage spot all of our family photos and stuff from our kids' childhoods. 

I had five main "paper" items to sort through and store: 
  1. Small photos -- we had eight photos boxes FULL. 
  2. Medium to large photos -- things like school and family photos. Some of my old family photos (some nearly 100 years old!!) are HUGE, and I wanted to find a way to enjoy them but keep them protected. 
  3. Kids' schoolwork -- PILES of school projects ranging from tiny to huge. 
  4. Mementos from travel and school like report cards, music programs and ticket stubs.
  5. Greeting cards -- more on that in a minute! 
My first step was to go through everything and decide what to keep. 

The key word there is KEEP -- one of my favorite parts about the Konmari decluttering method I've used for years is that it teaches you to hold on to items you cherish, instead of trying to decide what you want to give up. 

There is a difference, and I find this way SO much easier. 

If I don't love something, I no longer feel guilty donating it. And if I LOVE it, I no longer feel guilty for keeping it, no matter how silly it may seem. 
It really is freeing to purge the clutter this way!

My first part of this project was sorting through thousands of photos. It took me a loooong time to do this.

Family photos and a small box of items are the only things from my childhood that my Mom was able save from move to I cherish those photographs.

Because of that, a few years ago I would have felt bad about tossing ANY photos. But I've learned if I don't know the person in a picture and the people in my life who do (say, my Dad), don't want the photos...I can toss them. 

I can toss blurry photos I took from the bus windows on Girl Scout and school field trips. :) 

I can also throw away doubles from all of the rolls of film I took in middle and high school. (I did text some to friends to see if they wanted them.) 

It was SUCH a great feeling to toss a ton of the photos that were cluttering up the ones I wanted to enjoy. I whittled the photos down from eight boxes to five. 

I use these simple cardboard photo boxes and my last set held up for ten years!: 
white photo storage boxes

If you need a bunch, the pack of 12 is way less expensive per box.

We also had random large storage boxes and plastic portfolios with larger pictures that wouldn't fit in those small boxes. I shared what I found for this big stuff last year. 

These portfolios with plastic sleeves inside are the perfect solution!:
binder portfolios for storing photos and art

I'm SO happy I found these -- they have solved so many storage issues. They come in six sizes, from 4x6 up to 11x17 inches, and are ideal for both photos and artwork. 

I started the process when I talked about these last summer, but just finished everything this week!

Every single photo or paper keepsake bigger than the photo boxes has gone into these portfolios, from the large pieces of artwork and family photos:
binder for extra large school artwork
To the medium sizes: 

portfolio for large kid artwork

And even the smallest -- I put multiples of things like tickets and small programs in one.

I sorted them so we can easily find what we're looking for: 

5x7 photo storage portfolios

These binders are awesome
  • Each one, no matter the size, has 24 sleeves inside. I filled them back to back, so 48 items fit inside. 
  • They are really durable -- the plastic sleeves don't budge and the covers are wipeable and strong. 
  • The portfolios come in a few different colors and look nice and clean when lined up together. 
  • Your items will be protected from dust and even moisture -- but they are not sealed. 
  • I love that the binders lie flat when open, it makes it so easy to look through them! 
I wanted an easy way to label the portfolios, so did some looking around and found these sticky plastic label pockets
plastic sticky sleeves for labels

They're sticky enough to stay on the covers (so far!) and you can easily change out the paper label if you change the contents. 

I made labels on my computer, and then found these printable business cards that are the perfect size. So for my next labeling spree (I'll share with you soon), I will print them out and tear them apart instead.

My final items to tackle were the greeting cards. I used to feel silly for keeping these, but I'm over that now. :) 

Looking through old cards from my family and friends makes me happy, and over the past few years I've realized it's OK to keep stacks of them. 
YOU get to choose what you cherish and want to keep! 
I don't think many people keep cards like I do, because it was hard to find a storage solution for these! I finally found these awesome plastic greeting card organizers
greeting card organizer

They come with a bunch of plastic dividers you can label as well, but I only used a couple per bin.

I got a box for each of us, and only kept what I could squeeze in would fit. It was tedious considering I started with a pile four times this size, but it was also so much fun to read back through our sweet anniversary, holiday and birthday cards. 

It took FOREVER to go through them all...I only picked my absolute favorites, and my greeting card bin is already full: 
greeting card organizer with lid

I may have to go through them again before my next birthday. ;) 

Now this cabinet is home to all of our paper keepsakes and photos. I love that everything is organized:
keepsake memento storage in cabinet

It's so much easier to find specific things now! 

I'm still trying to decide if I will try to put all of those photos into photo albums one day. I'd like to have them in a book and easier to look at, but man...that would be a huge job!

Maybe I'll tackle it in a few years when we're empty nesters. 😢 I'd love to create a series of those photo books you make online someday. 

A few final thoughts on organizing keepsakes and memorabilia: 

  • I realized very early on in this process that this is mostly for my benefit -- I don't expect our kids to want any of this later, but I hope they will! The elementary school artwork especially is something I keep because I love it, but I'm not sure our son will want to take that someday. We will see!
  • I have three regular sized storage bins that I use to store bigger items like baby blankets and books, christening clothing, childhood items, etc. 
  • We keep some t-shirts that our son has grown out of, and someday I plan to hope to have my aunt make them into a quilt. 
  • I've created a space for our son to start putting away some of his childhood toys he wants to keep as well. He's so good at letting go of things, but I also love that there are so many items he wants to keep for his kids. :)
  • I plan to gather all of our yearbooks and put them in this cabinet as well. ALL the memories in one place!
  • If you have small trinkets like matchbooks, postcards or magnets, you can display them in a shadow box like this. It would be a cool way to get your favorite items out where you can enjoy them! 
  • Avoid storing keepsakes in locations that get extreme temperatures like attics or garages if possible. 
My husband and I have cleaned out two of our parent's homes after their passings, and no matter the size it was emotionally and physically exhausting. Doing this gives me some peace of mind about what we are leaving to our two kids. (This cabinet is a fraction of what I started with!)

I purchased the storage items over the nine months, so it was nice to break the cost up a bit. I recommend starting with a few and seeing what you'll need as you go. 

Have you figured out a solution for your keepsakes? It is overwhelming to you too? I took my time so it was a long process, but totally worth it!

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  1. Thank you for this! I have been putting off this type of organization for YEARS but I like how you did it and the products you used. Seems reasonable! THANKS!

  2. Thank you for sharing this! I keep everything…even cards and my children’s artwork ( I just love it!) I actually make a gallery wall of it in the hallway of our home. I have wanted to go through things for a long tine but get so overwhelmed but I feel like I can do it now with your ideas you provided.

  3. You aren’t alone!! I’ve saved every birthday, Valentine’s Day and yes, even Christmas cards that my hubby and I give each other! I have cards and letters from my deceased parents that I hold dear because it’s like I have a part of them here. I need to organize them. Thank you!

  4. A few years ago, I bought the Epson FastFoto Scanner to scan all 55+ photo albums that I had. It was a total of over 35,000 photos. Before buying the Epson, I used a flatbed scanner and it took me a month to do one album. After the Epson, I did the remaining albums in about 9 months. It's great because you can put a stack of same size photos on the scanner and it feeds them through in about 1 second each. The quality is very good too and it even color corrects old photos. It is pricey but well worth it!! We've since gone through all of our kids and family memory boxes as well and scanned everything and burned all the originals (I didn't want them in the trash). Now all of our memories are on the cloud and all the family can access them easily and no one has to have boxes in their basement. I use Dropbox and I can access my photos from my phone, which is great when we are out and want to find an old photo of something and I can just pull it up and view it from anywhere at anytime.

    1. This sounds amazing! The fact that it feeds them through would be a huge time saver. Thank you!

  5. Thrifty is spelled wrong on your photos. 🤔

    I just finished scanning all my photos. It took me months to do. And then I tossed them most of them. We downsized our home and just didn't have any place to store them. I plan on making photo books sometime soon. Now I'm working on scanning my Mom's photos. It's a very big job, but many of the old photos weren't looking so good anymore.

  6. One thing I've learned to do is take pictures of things/scan in photos. That way I can keep the item virtually and not need to take up space with it in my house. I have the pictures/scans on my computer, uploaded to the cloud, AND on a backup hard drive so I'm not concerned about losing them. For me, especially with the little items, the reason I love it is for the memories associated with it, not the item itself, so as long as I have a picture to trigger the memory, I can let go of the item.

    1. SO true, great point! I feel the same and did that with a lot of our son's baby clothes and blankets.

  7. Thank you for the inspiration! I know I have to do something with everything that I have… Four kids is a lot of “stuff” but I am not super sentimental so I do not have piles and piles of artwork. I do, however, have thousands upon thousands of photos :/
    Your storage solution seem reasonable and I will look into those. I, like you, love to save cards. I will go in “fits” and get rid of a lot but there’s something about throwing away my grandmothers’ handwriting that hurts.
    As an aside, there are so many ads in your post as I’m reading it on my iPad that I almost closed it. I was just so super interested in the topic that I kept going and the ads became less toward the end but they were extremely distracting and took away from the content at the beginning.

    1. Yes, I had to adjust some things because my ad network increased the number of ads. They are back to normal again. :)

  8. Container Store has plastic bins with 12 4x6 containers in each that I labeled. I think Michael's also has them. A friend scanned old photos & put them in a printed book (like shutterfly).

  9. Sarah, I'm a card keeper too. I have the very last cards my dad gave my mom right before he was killed in a freak accident when I was 12. I am especially fond of keeping cards from my children (hand made are the best!) and from my sweet husband. We never know what tomorrow may bring and holding onto these mementos may one day be all we have besides the memories in our hearts.

  10. One thing I learned from my mom before she past is she consolidated everything for me in a trunk or two. The special items, like a vase etc, she typed up notes about why she loved it and left them inside each item.
    I too then created a trunk for each of my kids filling them to the top! First paycheck, pictures, school art. When they each found their permanent homes I delivered their trunk. They may do what they want and then keep what is important to them.

    1. What a wonderful idea!! I absolutely love this, thank you for sharing.

  11. When we became empty nesters I also started a bin for each kid. Over the years as I came across their items and mementos I dropped them into the bin. I had the newspapers from their day born, favorite childhood doll, school and college papers, report cards, newspaper articles, etc. When I was confident that I had run out of finding their items I gave the bins to them. They are adults and may keep some items and not others but I did my best to preserve for them.


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