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Diploma Dilemma: Reader Wonders What to Do With Old Accolades

Updated: Mar 30



Hi Marni, I’m usually pretty good at decluttering and getting rid of things, but something is holding me back, said the email I received last week.


My husband recently passed away. He was well-known in his field, and now I’m faced with LOTS of diplomas and certificates that we’d had professionally framed and put in his office. It always made him happy to see them, but eventually he ended up putting them in a (huge) box and they sat in our garage for 5-6 years before he died. I don’t need them for any reason I can think of, but I hate to get rid of them in case there’s a reason for keeping I don’t see. I’ve been thinking about perhaps just taking photos of them all and giving away the frames. I guess I could keep the actual papers in a file, but would prefer not to unless I should. Any thoughts?


Betty, Celebration, Fla.


At some point all of us will face (or have faced) Betty’s diploma dilemma. While I have my opinion, which we’ll get to, I ran the loaded question by three decluttering experts.

Professional organizer Sue Marie Bowling, owner of ThatOrganizer.com, said, “Guilt can compel us to keep things for the life we lived, not the life we are living.” (Let that sink in for a minute.) “Your reader seems to have little emotional attachment to the physical evidence of her husband’s achievements. She journeyed through those accomplishments with him, so has the memories. However, for the rest of her family, a digitized record of her husband’s accomplishments would help ensure that they are not lost to history.”


Mitch Goldstone, owner of ScanMyPhotos.com, recommends scanning and saving the originals “These precious records hold value to more than the person who earned them,” he added. “They are more than a bragging right. They are part of your family’s history and should be preserved.”


Note: If you are going to save these paper pieces of history remove them from theirframes, insert them in acid-free page protectors, and store them in an archival quality box, in a place that won’t get too hot or won’t flood.


Interior designer Mark Brunetz, the author of Take the U Out of Clutter, had this suggestion: “As a tribute to her husband, Betty should upcycle the certificates. Commission a local artist or art student to take the most meaningful certificates and create a mixed media piece of art that reflects the wife’s current style of décor. This way, they can be admired daily in a whole new way.” And you have just one framed piece, not 10.


All good advice. However, to really resolve what’s at the core of the diploma dilemma we need to dive a little deeper. My test for what to save and what to let go of boils down to three words: Need, use, love. You must answer yes to one.


For instance, you should save birth, death and marriage certificates because you might need them, and they matter in genealogical records. But academic diplomas are arguably useful only as long as the person is alive, the same way a drivers’ license is useful. My degrees expire when I do. My family has my permission to toss them when I’m gone.

Here are some other considerations when working through that pretzel knot of whether to keep a loved one’s diplomas:


  • Whose is it? These diplomas aren’t yours. If the person who earned it has died, the degree is not going to benefit anyone else. Yes, it represents an accomplishment, but the person’s life work is a testament to that. Letting go of the physical symbol does not erase the achievement, nor does it diminish your love or respect for that person.

  • Play it forward. Ask yourself, if you don’t deal with it, who will? Often our decision to hang on is merely thinly disguised procrastination. Not dealing with stuff is a way of dealing with it. “We’ll just put it in a box, and let the kids decide.” That is how the giant generational snowball of stuff rolls forward, growing and weighing down those we least want to burden. Now your kids have to deal with the pile of procrastination, and feel obligated not to break the chain. Is that what you want?

  • Does it prove something that can’t otherwise be proven? Colleges keep records of whom they graduate. If there were ever any doubt that a family member got their degree from a particular institution, you could find out.

  • Is this an exception? Certain diplomas do have historic significance. If they belonged to, say, someone who became a Supreme Court Justice, or who walked on the moon, or was the first person in your family to graduate from college, or if it were signed by someone famous, then you might have something worth hanging onto.

  • Would saving it make a difference? Call me unsentimental, but I do not need to see my grandma’s high school diploma. When I came across my mother’s bachelor’s degree in nursing diploma after she died, I took a long look at it, thought about her life and her nursing career, and let it go. Did I scan it? No. Did I put it in an archival box? No. Do I love her less? No. Do I appreciate less the fact that she modeled for me how to have a profession and a family? No. That is all in me, and in my girls. Should you do what I did? Not necessarily.


Betty, your husband already telegraphed that his diplomas had served their purpose. When his career wound down, he boxed them up. You answered your own question. I don’t need them for any reason I can think of. And you are right. Scan or photograph your husband’s most important diplomas, only if that will make you feel better. Don’t be afraid to let them go. It’s really okay.


CAPTION: Ditch the diploma? School diplomas belong to those who earn them. Once that person is gone, they’re generally of no use to anyone else. Photo courtesy of dreamstime.com.

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