How Much Is Sentimental Value Worth?

How do you place a monetary value on something you once found priceless? A growing number of people who are underemployed or scraping by on unemployment checks are asking this very practical question as they need to sell personal items to make ends meet.

Women in particular have found themselves facing the tough job of parting with things of great sentimental value, such an engagement ring from a deceased fiance, or big-ticket items that simply remind them or their former life among the fully employed. Reluctantly, they're turning to online marketplaces like Ebay and Craigslist to do it.

Melissa, a 33-year-old single mom in Brooklyn, NY, was laid off in September 2008 and has since had to part with many of her belongings. The hardest thing to let go of was a print by Emmi Whitehorse. She wrote in her blog that the print made her feel grounded: "It really symbolized the birth of my daughter and then my move to New York. More than that, it symbolized freedom, my abilities to prevail." To Melissa, this work of art meant much more than any amount of money it could bring.

But life happens and is expensive. In October 2009, Melissa parted with her beloved print. She wrote, "I never thought I'd see it gone, but this was a tough summer, and I needed to let go of some of my things. Sigh. No one said being a single mom in New York sans child support would be easy, especially after being laid off from a job." The day after she delivered the print to its new home, she says, "Contrary to my busy and productive nature, I stayed in bed all day, exhausted by life–quite forlorn and despondent."

Julie, 28, a commercial interior designer in Milwaukee, WI, was laid off nine months ago. She's planning to sell a diamond ring that has been passed down from her grandmother to her mother and then to her. Given that it's a tough thing to sell, at the very least she wants to make sure she gets every cent of her asking price. "It has 22 diamonds and a platinum setting. But it's a cocktail ring, not an engagement ring, so I am having trouble finding a buyer who will give me over $1,500 for it." (Compare your salary to an interior designer's.)

Alex, 32, was the assistant director of the Las Vegas Art Museum before it closed in February 2009. She immediately went through her closet, trying on everything and purging anything that didn't work. A lot of it went to Goodwill, she says, "but barely worn designer dresses, shoes and handbags went on eBay." Taking good photos of all the items and then listing them was time-consuming, she says, "But it was worth it in the end. After our first round of postings, my husband and I made almost $1,000!"

After finishing her closet, she turned to her shelves, where she had hundreds of books, and decided to sell as many as she could. She says the paring down process changed her relationship to stuff. "As I've been reevaluating my life, I've decided that my book shelf isn't an indicator of how smart or well-read I am," she explains. "My life view and thoughts are the product of all those books I've read and are the true indicator of how smart I am."

She adds, "It's such a refreshing feeling to get rid of all this stuff cluttering my life and obscuring me from who I really am and, more importantly, who I want to be."

Hope the women selling their heirlooms and favorite things can find a philosophical upside to their own house-clearing.

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