We’re downsizing to an 881-square-foot house. Before we begin the full-scale packing and hauling, we follow a process which I’ve decided to call “anti-packing.” This is a mystery beyond the ken of ordinary folk, who relocate only rarely, and are thus confounded by the effort involved. Overwhelmed, they throw everything into dozens of boxes labeled MISC and figure they’ll sort it all out after the move. This is why self-storage is a thirty-billion-dollar industry and why ¾ of garages can’t accommodate an automobile. Read on, if you are lucky enough not to be in the midst of a move, so your next relocation will be easier.
The minimalist stance is that we own only what is valuable to our lifestyle. We start with first principles. Standing in an empty room, what do we need to add? What do we use? What makes our life comfortable? Note that this is the opposite of default mode, in which we stand in a full room and grudgingly ask what we could conceivably remove. This is also why default mode is to move to a larger home every time we feel we can afford it. We think we don’t have enough space or enough storage, rather than that we may be spending too much time and money carrying home too many items for the available space.
Space is a valuable thing in its own right. Calculate the cost per square foot in your home, and it may be a little unsettling how much it costs every month to keep an extra bookshelf or tub of fabric. My husband and I have learned that we prefer sleeping in the smallest room that will fit our bed. (Cozy!) We’ve also learned that we don’t need three bedrooms for the two of us, although it’s far easier to find a rental house with three bedrooms than with two. A larger house takes more work to clean. It also tends to draw excess possessions to it, in the manner that a black hole draws things into itself. We’ve elected to change course and pilot the little spacecraft of our marriage in the opposite direction.
Our tendency has been to overbuy and overstock several categories of things. We have a running joke about paper towels, because when we were still only platonic friends, I helped my husband clear his garage, and we found four cases of paper towels. We laughed really hard at the excess of this. A couple weeks later, he found yet a fifth case. Anyone with a Costco membership knows the temptation of buying family packs and cases and economy size jars of everything. If you have the space, why not? We both also have a default tendency of buying books. Our real problem, though, was that we were both independent bachelors when we started dating, and we both brought all our furniture and housewares to our first shared home. Other than buying a new bed in place of our two old beds, we had double, triple, or quadruple everything. The house was big enough to fit it all, and conflict was avoided.
Minimalism is about making decisions. We decide we want to live a certain way. We decide the details. We decide to take action and make the necessary changes. For a pair of newlyweds, this involves exploring everything about each other’s taste preferences and shaping a lifestyle together. Again, most people do this by default, never speaking up even when there is something that makes them shudder every time they lay eyes on it. Nothing about a dream life happens by default, inertia, unspoken opinions, delay, passivity, or going along to get along. He’s challenged me about the out-of-control pantry and I’ve challenged him about his decade-old collection of junkyard motors and robotics parts. (Mine: costs money; his: has potential to earn money). We hear each other out, always remembering that the important thing is to enjoy each other’s company as much as possible. It’s our relationship with each other, not our relationships to our stuff and each other’s stuff, that matters.
Anti-packing is identifying things from the current home that will not be going to the new home. Anti-packing means saving the effort of packing, hauling, schlepping, and unpacking as much as possible. The obvious place to start is to take out any and all recyclables. We once had professional movers who packed a wastebasket with trash in it! Cleaning out the fridge, using up any containers that are less than half full, finishing off bottles of lotion or shampoo or detergent that are nearly empty, can save a surprising amount of volume in packed boxes. From the day we decide to move, we stop “stocking up” on groceries and plan meals around using up everything possible from the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Sometimes it’s possible to decant the contents of a big container into a small container, such as pouring the remnants of a gallon jug of olive oil into a smaller bottle. Over the course of a couple of weeks, dozens of jars and bottles and containers can be used up and anti-packed.
While the process of consuming the consumables is ongoing, the next step is to anti-pack the largest items, such as appliances and furniture. Typically, a rental house will not have a fridge; we got lucky this time, because our old fridge has been limping toward obsolescence, and now we can recycle it and put off buying a replacement until the next time we move. My guideline is to always immediately sell, donate, or give away anything that is too big to fit in my newest dwelling. Most people will put such “valuable” items in storage due to the Sunk Cost Fallacy, paying hundreds of dollars more than the replacement cost of a new one. I simply quit seeing a storage unit as an option. Every time we have relocated, it has been to a different city, and there is no logical place for us to maintain a storage unit, even if such things were free. The cost factor, though, makes a storage unit pure, unadulterated folly for anyone who is not running a thriving business out of one. I have never heard a justification for a storage unit that made any fiscal sense to me, and believe me, I hear many such speeches. Cut it loose and pay off your credit cards or build a savings cushion.
The next category to anti-pack is the decorations. Pictures and mirrors, plants, figurines, vases, centerpieces, candles, and bric-a-brac may or may not match the new place. We left a set of fireplace tools behind when we moved away from our first house together. The next two places did not have a fireplace. The current house does, although due to air quality we never dreamed of using it, and the new house does not. If we ever need fireplace tools again, it will be a minimum of four years since we let go of the last set. This is an example of how storage doesn’t make sense. If we stay in SoCal or move overseas, a set of fireplace tools would continue to be irrelevant to our life. It’s the same case with picture frames that are incompatible with the wall color or window placement of a new room. By the time I live in a place that is compatible with the décor of a past home, it may be outdated or we may no longer find it attractive. Better to pass it on to someone who will enjoy it now, rather than cling to the idea that we can somehow extract more value out of it at an unspecified future date.
Personal items are probably the toughest category for most people. This category includes clothes, books, non-digital music and movies, keepsakes, papers, electronics, sports equipment, hobby supplies, toys, and procrastinated projects. There is technically a finite end to the amount of this stuff that people will accumulate, but the bounds expand with the available real estate. We don’t have to anti-pack as many personal items because we have a policy about acquiring them. When we left the Sacramento area, we decided to divest ourselves of our CDs and DVDs, and we now have precisely 5 DVDs that are not for workouts. (One is my husband’s appearance on BattleBots, and you can see why we keep that). I have struggled with my propensity to collect unread books, but I have held firm and disciplined myself, and I now have maybe 20% of the amount of books I had when we first got married. Whenever we upgrade our electronics, we pass on the previous version. We both have a lot of sports equipment, not to mention a treadmill and an elliptical, and every time we move, we reevaluate our interest in each activity. That’s the point of minimalism, again: Checking in and making sure we are extracting full value from our physical surroundings and our possessions. If we have it, it should speak for itself and justify its presence.
Our new house is 63% of the size of our present house. It has four rooms rather than six (apparently bathrooms are not included in a formal room count). We’re dropping a bedroom, a bathroom, a pantry, a dining room, half the living room, half a bedroom, half a linen closet, and the coat closet. We’re picking up a medicine cabinet and bathroom drawers, a few extra kitchen drawers, a larger refrigerator, a detached laundry room, and a larger garage. Because of this, we are anti-packing our refrigerator, washer and dryer, 10-top dining table and chairs, our current couch, and probably a faded old easy chair. Also being released are the decorations I made for the apartment I had when we started dating 9 years ago.
Moving frequently makes for a number of clear watersheds in the timeline. I can pick something up and remember where I lived when I got it. This helps to establish how long I have had something. I can divide the price by the number of years, arriving at a yearly cost of use. Say I have a folding bookshelf I bought for $40, and I remember that I bought it in 1995. At 20 years old, it’s cost $2 per year. When I eventually let it go, I can smile, knowing I certainly got my money’s worth. If I spent the same $40 on something I never used, keeping it just means I’m paying extra rent to store something useless in my personal environment.
Not every move is a positive move. Not everyone looks forward to a new home that may be a disappointment in many ways. (BTDT). In our case, we’ve been able to wait and choose and find a place that really suits us. We love it! It’s still in the final stages of remodeling, but in our minds, we already live there. Our current house is more like a motel room every day. It’s easy to let go of attachments to material things from an earlier stage of life, when you look forward to the next stage and see it as an improvement. Anyone can feel that. It is possible to move in the direction of a better life, with focus and frugality and organization and flexibility.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.