Haunted by the Ghost of Your Past: The Things Americans Can’t Seem to Let Go Of

Haunted by the Ghost of Your Past: The Things Americans Can’t Seem to Let Go Of

We’ve all been there — holding onto things we should have let go of a long time ago. From old love notes to a prom dress to your very first cellphone (one of those indestructible Nokia brick phones, no less), we all hold on to a lot of things. We’re all haunted by the ghosts of our past (belongings).

We were curious about exactly what it is that fills up junk drawers, backs of closets, garage shelves, and dusty attic boxes. So we set out to find out what belongings Americans can’t seem to let go of. Our survey found that we all hold onto different things for different reasons — but the one thing most of us have in common is that we wish all those old belongings weren’t in our houses anymore.

Some of our most interesting findings include:

  • The most common item people can’t seem to let go of is clothes, followed by old tech gadgets and movies.
  • Nearly one in three people say they’re holding onto old exercise equipment that they no longer need or use.
  • 44% of people have kept an old letter from a friend or family member, and 41% have kept one from an ex-love. Men are far more likely to hold on to their old love letters than women are.
  • In fact, men are much more likely to feel sentimental toward their old belongings than women are.
  • Still, sentimental value is the top reason people say they don’t want to get rid of their old things.
  • Despite that, 60% of people say they’d prefer to store their old belongings somewhere other than their home.

What Things Do People Hold Onto?

What Things Do People Hold Onto

The most common thing people keep, yet never plan to use in the future is clothes. 54% of people say they hold onto old clothes.

That was followed by old tech gadgets (kept by 52% of people) and old movies (kept by 45% of people).

The items people tend to hold onto vary by their gender. According to our survey, men are more likely to keep old tech gadgets (59%), followed by love letters from an ex (51%) or old letters from friends and family (50%). Women, on the other hand, are more likely to hold onto clothes (54%), old gadgets (43%), and jewelry (42%).

most commonly held onto items by gender

Many people hang onto old items (even if they no longer need them)

For the most part, the items that most people can’t seem to let go of are just old things they no longer need:

Many people hang onto old items (even if they no longer need them)

  • 37% of people say they still have old magazines or newspapers.
  • 28% of people say they have old exercise equipment.
  • 43% of people say they hold onto old books.
  • 36% of people say they hold onto old CDs and vinyl records.
  • 33% of people say they hold onto old home goods (small).
  • 29% of people say they keep old furniture.

Many people are sentimental about past connections — and keep items that reflect that

Some of the most common things people hold onto are items that have sentimental value, especially when they have to do with past connections.

Many people are sentimental about past connections — and keep items that reflect that

  • 41% of Americans say they still have an old love letter from an ex.
  • 44% say they have an old letter from a friend or family member.
  • 37% say they still have an old yearbook.

Interestingly, men are a lot more likely to hang on to their old love letters — 51% of men said they have one, compared to just 29% of women.

men keep old love letter more than women

Some people keep things that are a little… strange

Not everyone is just hanging onto clothes and gadgets. Some of the things Americans don’t want to let throw away or donate … strange — especially if those items are connected to their families. For example:

  • 22% of people still have an old pregnancy test.
  • 18% say they’re hanging on to their child’s baby teeth.

Surprisingly, one in five (20%) people say they still have an old retainer, even if they no longer use or need it.

Some people keep things that are a little… strange

Why Do People Struggle To Let Go of Things?

There are a few reasons people said they tend to hang onto items from their past, but 65% of people said the items they can’t part with have sentimental value. What’s surprising, though, is that men are more likely to be sentimental about their belongings than women are.

Why Do People Struggle To Let Go of Things?

  • 63% of men hold onto clothes and fashion items because of sentimental value, versus 50% of women.
  • 55% of men hold on to household goods due to sentimental value, compared to just 29% of women.
  • 56% of men keep old entertainment items because of sentimental value, nearly twice as many as women who do the same (32%).
  • And 67% of men hold onto items connecting them to people no longer in their lives (like those old love letters), compared to 63% of women.

But sentimental value isn’t the only reason people hang onto their belongings. 39% said it’s because the items may become relevant to them again in the future, and 31% said it’s because the items might become valuable.

reasons people keep old belongings

Those top three reasons remain the same for most types of items:

  • For fashion items: 57% say they keep them because of sentimental value, 44% because they may use the items again in the future, and 32% because the items might become valuable.
  • For household goods: 43% because of sentimental value, 40% hope to use them again, and 28% because they may become valuable — but also, another 28% say they keep these items because they just don’t know what else to do with them.
  • For entertainment items: 45% because of sentimental value, 42% because they may use them again, and 32% because they hope they’ll become more valuable.

Most people say their belongings define them

Another reason people struggle to let go of items from their past is because they see them as a part of their personal history.

Most people say their belongings define them

Only 29% — one in five — said they had no personal connection to their old belongings, but “just have them.”

Several respondents also believe that letting go of items would “close off” a part of their life. 65% of people said getting rid of those things would give them “full closure” that they just don’t want.

These feelings of being defined by material things are stronger for men. 87% of men said items define a part of them or their personal history, compared to 73% of women. And 73% of men were unwilling to seek closure about items from their past, compared to only 55% of women.

emotional reasons to keep old belongings

60% of People Want to Store Their Things Outside of Their Home

Last year, we surveyed Americans about their home sizes and possessions, and found that one in four Americans outgrow their home within two years. One major factor for that? How many belongings they have.

So it should come as no surprise that, despite not wanting to let go of their old things, many Americans are frustrated by the space they take up in their homes.

60% of People Want to Store Their Things Outside of Their Home

When asked if they’d like to store their old belongings elsewhere, most people (60%, to be exact) said yes.

23% said they want to keep those items in their homes, and 17% said they’d like to get rid of old belongings.

Survey Methodology

We surveyed 1,000 Americans on Sept. 30, 2021, using Pollfish.com.

Survey respondents came from 47 states and the District of Columbia.

Their ages were:

  • 0.7% ages 16-17;
  • 10.49% ages 18-24;
  • 26.67% ages 25-34;
  • 36.86% ages 35-44;
  • 13.09% ages 45-54;
  • 12.19 ages 55 and up.

54.85% of survey respondents identified as male, and 45.15% identified as female.

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