We got a storage unit. I broke my own rule. If I keep this up, next I'll be getting cable TV and running up credit card debt on professional manicures and iced coffees. Then we'll never be able to afford a vacation again! Okay, who am I fooling? None of those things will ever happen. I like money way too much. We got a storage unit because there was actually a sound business case for it.
When we went to the storage facility, I interviewed the manager. I am helpless against my fascination with the curious American phenomenon of storage units. About ten percent of Americans rent a storage unit. To me, that is huge, especially because a lot of those units are shared by couples or families. It would be really interesting to know the number of individual adults who rely on storage outside their main living space. Go ahead and add in all the adults who store stuff at their parents' house, why don't you?
Some people use their storage units as part of their workday. The facility we used apparently had a few contractors, painters, and landscapers who stored their tools and materials. That makes a lot of sense for security reasons alone. Access for a truck is probably easier than at most homes. Someone could rent a cheap, small apartment and still run an equipment-intensive business. This all came as a surprise to me, because in my professional work, I had never before known of a storage unit that actually earned its keep. What a truly novel concept.
Our storage unit didn't pay for itself. At least, I assume it didn't. The purpose was to enable us to move as quickly as possible when my husband got a great job in a new city. We had only twelve days to make the move. We decided to store our stuff and stay in an Airbnb while we looked for a place. This was a matter of convenience that cost us about $300. The breakdown was two van rentals instead of one, and the price of a month's rent on the storage unit. It would be nice if we had gotten prorated rent, but there wasn't any margin in that for the storage facility. Why not rent out our nicely broom-swept unit twice in the same month?
Is it possible that we broke even on this deal? Maybe. It's hard to know, but maybe.
With our backs to the wall, desiring to move our stuff directly from our old home to a new home, we might have made an expensive choice. We might have grabbed the first option we saw. In our experience, the rental market in our region is very tight, and even calling within three hours of an ad posting is no guarantee that the place is still available. We got our last place because we were the first of 83 callers; I saw the listing within five minutes of posting, and my husband arranged to drive over to look at it moments later. We definitely would have made an offer on the very first place that remotely met our criteria and took parrots. There are three options in this scenario: pay the same, pay more, or pay less. This city being what it is, you get less for more money, like tapas or sushi.
Paying less is usually not paying less. There are plenty of run-down properties on the rental market here, many evidently in such bad shape that the ads don't even include photos. What you get in a shabby, older rental house is the worst of everything. Poorly weatherized with old, inefficient appliances, running up your utility bills, usually adding insult to injury by having slower internet, too.
The $300 we spent on double moving vans and a month of storage works out to $25 a month for a year. That could go up like a flash in the pan. In the context of rent or energy inefficiency, it's barely noticeable. There's no way to know, but it's entirely possible that this finagling of the storage unit actually did pay for itself. More likely I am just trying to make up a nice little story to assuage my guilt over "wasting" money.
We sold our car back to the dealership this month. This is salient. We knew when we planned this move that we had a large windfall check coming our way (two cheers for Volkswagen) and also that our monthly expenses would be dropping. We could afford to do something ridiculous like move all our worldly goods twice in eight days, knowing that this would be a one-time expense.
This story has a happy ending. We found a great apartment right on the waterfront. It's super tiny, even smaller than the tiny house we just vacated, but the location really can't be beat. We can walk to the library, grocery store, dry cleaner, hair salon, post office, pharmacy, and pet supply in less than half a mile. Having that buffer of time to look at rental listings and visit the neighborhood in person made all the difference. It was worth the extra two days of schlepping and hauling. It also gave us time to do another round of culling on our stuff after we had seen our tiny new space.
The sad ending with most storage units is that people get them without an exit strategy. Nobody ever chooses an end date. There are people in my life who have spent over $10,000 on storage units over the years, and people who have lost the contents to auction, and people who have done that multiple times. For such a unique part of our culture, we haven't yet figured out how to have storage units make sense in our lives. I'll never stop wondering why so many people make such an expensive choice, a very costly way to postpone decisions. Think of all the other ways that money could be spent!
As uncomfortable and scary as it can be, the Place of Uncertainty is where everything juicy and interesting happens. Certainty is the death of curiosity. Knowing exactly what you're doing all the time is a pitfall of the fixed mindset; it means you're not learning or growing or changing. Ah, but it's so nice and secure and comfortable to be certain! Why would anyone ever give that up, even for a moment?
The most fascinating thing about the Place of Uncertainty is that it can feel terrible at the time. Confusing! Stressful! Frustrating! Lonely! Expensive! Depressing! Not knowing what to do next can break people. We're talking total life derailment. In retrospect, though, these points in the timeline can barely register. We may forget we ever felt that uncertainty entirely. Usually we remember it as a mere speed bump. Just a little blip.
An example of this is when my husband and I went to Spain last year and decided to follow what I call the Wing-It Method. We landed in Barcelona with no plans. We didn't know a single person. Not socially, not professionally, not through a website... we just knew zero people. We had nowhere to stay, no way to get there, and no idea what we would be eating for dinner. There was a really intense ten-minute period in the airport terminal where we were having a bit of an argument. The wifi was slow and we were not getting information instantaneously, the way we might at home. We had to find a campsite, learn the bus system, and find places to buy food and propane canisters. It felt not just daunting, but nearly impossible. Ten minutes later, we had all that information and an action plan, and we were merrily walking out to the bus stop, which was only a few yards away the whole time. In retrospect, it's very hard to express adequately the sense of foreboding and misery that comes from standing in the Place of Uncertainty, even for those scant ten minutes.
The Place of Uncertainty demands full attention. Full System Two thinking. Total mental bandwidth. Standing in the Place of Uncertainty is no time to be distracted or futzing around with one's phone. This is precisely why it's such good discipline. We force ourselves into unnatural and uncomfortable situations, when we have no real idea what to do, because we need to stretch our concept of what we are able to handle. Eventually, what used to be impossible or intimidating becomes doable, maybe even routine.
If you don't believe that, recall your first driving lesson.
My husband and I ran full speed toward the Place of Uncertainty this month. He accepted a tantalizing new job offer in a new city, and we only had twelve days to somehow get ourselves and our menagerie over there. From my current vantage point, sitting on the couch in our new apartment, the timeline seems clear and obvious. Yes, of course: we boarded our animals; reserved an Airbnb, a moving van, and a storage unit; packed everything we own in three days; loaded the van and cleaned the house top to bottom in one day; stored our stuff for eight days and moved it twice; and found the perfect apartment within six hours. Looking backward, it seems to make sense that we are 90% moved in to our new place exactly one month after the initial job interview! While we were living it, though, it felt like that one month was equal to a thousand years.
Making decisions depletes willpower and mental bandwidth. A job change plus relocation involves thousands of decisions. What to wear to the interview? How to phrase the thank-you note for the interview? Where to live? Should we pack or get rid of each of the ten million trillion billion objects in our house? Where do we put everything in the new place? What do we eat, when our kitchen infrastructure has been shattered into multiple cardboard box towers? The natural coping mechanisms for this mental exhaustion include overeating, quarreling, and standing idly with one's hands hanging limply by one's sides, mouth hanging open, hopefully not making a noise that sounds too much like UHHHHHH.....
The last month has been exhausting for us. Our sleep schedule was all over the place. We are both gimped up from being middle-aged, sleeping in an unfamiliar bed for a week and a half, and moving all our worldly goods twice in eight days. I rolled over in bed the other night, twitched my foot, and was seized by a cramp in my calf so strong that I had to push my foot down with my other foot before it would release. I mean, we are SORE. This was hard. It was physically tiring, mentally draining, and emotionally challenging. We said goodbye to a city we had grown to love, our nice neighbors, our nice yard, and a very significant number of our personal possessions. On the front end of it, having roughly zero idea where we would eventually wind up, it could have been traumatizing. We really didn't know if there would be a happy ending, other than that we would have each other.
There was a happy ending. It didn't come down from Fairytale Land. We created it. We pushed through our feelings of confusion, exhaustion, and uncertainty and kept working until we got what we planned to get. We knew we wanted the job, we knew what city we wanted to live in, and we knew how much we were willing to pay. If we hadn't found what we needed the first week, we would have extended our Airbnb stay or changed to a different one and kept looking. The task itself wasn't complex. Usually nothing in the Place of Uncertainty is really complicated; it only feels like it. It's our willingness to endure these feelings that leads us to victory, to a sense of progress and hopeful optimism in our lives.
We tried an experiment on this, our most recent move. If I'm counting right, this is the sixth time we've moved in eight years of marriage. The idea was to track what is in each box so that we could find anything we needed. We've never done anything like this before, so I thought I'd report back on how it worked out.
Answer: It was AWESOME! Still is, in fact, because we started unpacking on Saturday afternoon and we only have seven boxes left. That means we're already 90% done!
It worked like this. We went around the house, visually estimating how many boxes we would need of each size. This worked really well; we were short about five small boxes at the very end, but otherwise we nailed it. Then we set up a numbering system so that we could both number boxes while working independently. My series started at zero and his started at 100.
We didn't do anything about trying to keep boxes of the same size together. We didn't stage them in numerical order. They didn't get loaded on the van or stacked in storage by numerical order. They were simply numbered and labeled. My husband taught me to write the number on all three corners on the same side of each box, so they would be visible from the top, front, or side.
The labels are the most important part, aside from the inventory list. We started with the ROOM and then a few of the key items in the box. Such as: BEDROOM, machete, yoga mat, ukulele. Getting the boxes staged in the appropriate room in the new house is the most important part. This is why I don't believe in the concept of 'miscellaneous,' also known as MISC (the dreaded misc). Everything is "a thing I use in this room." If the room a thing belongs in is not clear, then it is probably a useless thing.
The inventory is the slightly more complicated part. It's especially complicated when you accidentally delete it off your phone and then have to hunt it down. (Don't do that). It could easily be done with paper and pencil; index cards might be useful. We only had about 70 boxes, so even a handwritten list would not have been unmanageable. I dictated our list because my phone has speech recognition. I would list the number of the box and then list off the contents in detail - more detail than we wrote on the box itself. For instance, Box 106 included a pair of ski gloves. I was able to indicate that the base of the blender went into one box, while the pitcher went into another box of more fragile items. Like that.
Having this inventory while we unpack has been incredible. It is SO helpful to know what you're getting into before you open a box. There have been several occasions when we needed something specific and were able to go right to it, such as the dog's bowls, the mattress pad, and the power strips. In some cases, we were even able to figure that certain boxes could go on the bottom of a stack with more urgent boxes on top.
Almost everything on this move was boxed up. In previous moves, we have always wound up with a lot of loose items. Last time, we made a couple of trips per night over about a week, and I hand-carried the most fragile stuff, one load at a time. That method makes it really challenging to estimate how many boxes you'll need, and thus there are never enough. The van winds up being full of all kinds of loose items, like garden hoses and lamps, and it's really hard to unload. All the loose things are much harder to unload than they were to cram into every available nook and cranny of the moving van. I am now a total convert to boxing every possible thing, even myself if that means I can hide and avoid having to carry another mattress down a ramp.
We have had professional movers twice, once when they stored everything for three weeks between homes. While professional movers are incredibly hard-working people with great spatial skills, I would rather avoid ever having to hire a service to do this job again. After a certain point, they just start carrying things in and setting them down wherever they fit. Last time, we had a floor lamp next to the toilet, because, isn't that where everyone puts their lamps? They even pack wastebaskets with stuff still in them. I can honestly say that with this move, we were more organized than professional movers. That is when minimalism really starts to pay off.
We got rid of three carloads of stuff before our move, after holding a yard sale and eliminating roughly another carload. After we saw our new apartment, we realized that a lot more would have to go, and we dropped off the equivalent of another pickup load, mostly consisting of plastic garage shelving. By far the easiest way to take inventory and pack up for a move is to get rid of as much stuff as possible first! Start with the fragile stuff and continue with anything irregularly shaped or hard to pack. Fill grocery bags with as many small items as you can bear to eliminate. When you are twelve hours in on moving day and haven't had dinner yet, you will thank yourself.
Moving does not have to be a horror show. The better organized and the more streamlined, the easier it is, and the sooner we can all get back to relaxing and playing with our phones, the ultimate proof that we don't use, need, or even enjoy most of our possessions anyway.
Things get complicated. Life itself gets complicated all the time, of course, and the things in our lives can add to that complication. An example of this is when my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we had TWELVE DAYS to move or accept a four-hour daily commute. This is when theory meets practice.
We had three things to do. The priority was for my husband to fill out the numerous Human Resources forms for the new job. Second was to find a new place to live. Third was to pack our stuff and vacate our house. Oh, and the timing just happened to fall during the same week we were getting rid of our car. The game was to balance the schedule, the finances, the transportation, the pets, and the material goods in the optimal way.
Bonus rounds: try to get a refund of prorated rent from our current landlord if he can get a new tenant in early; find a new home with mass transit access; find a new home that does not cost more than the current place but also takes exotic pets.
Due to the tight timeline, we realized that we simply wouldn't be able to pack up the house and look for a new place at the same time. There was just too much to do and it was too far to commute to screen new places. We made the unconventional decision to move our stuff twice, using a storage unit as a temporary stopping point and sleeping at an Airbnb. If we owned as much stuff as the standard American household, this would have been crazy talk.
Everything we own fit in a 20' moving van.
The next constraint was that we were moving to the beach, and there are two basic choices in our price range. A sad shack with no garage or yard, or a relatively nice apartment. There were very few houses available at any price, and they included: two that were only available for a 3-5 month lease; one with NO HEAT that recommended using space heaters in the actual ad; one with a bedroom too small to contain a king-size mattress. The standard seemed to be original 1960's linoleum, no dishwasher, and sub-600 square feet. Meanwhile, the apartments all included gyms and a long list of amenities, some of which were nicer than a few hotels where we've stayed. Hmm. Depressing hovel, or permanent vacation? Apartment it is!
A 680-square-foot apartment at that. A two-car garage is 400 square feet if that tells you anything.
I should take a moment to talk about the dream job. Space mechatronics. My husband is an aerospace engineer, and after 24 years, he's finally getting the chance to work on what he wanted to do when he was still in school. He's so excited it's completely adorable. Honestly I think he would sleep under his desk if that's what it took to get this job. Living in an apartment instead of a house is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff, especially an apartment on the beach.
The standard response to most unconventional choices is I COULD NEVER DO THAT. That statement is never literally true. It's only emotionally true. Anyone CAN move to a new place. Anyone CAN get rid of physical possessions. It's not complicated. We decided several years ago that we would relocate anywhere for the right job. We also decided that our lifestyle was more important than our stuff.
This is how it worked out:
Got boxes at 6:30 PM on Tuesday
Picked up moving van at 10 AM Friday
Finished loading van AND doing full move-out house-cleaning by 8:30 PM Friday
Moved entire contents of van into storage unit between 12 and 5 PM Saturday
Found and applied for apartment on Sunday
Started new job on Monday
Reserved rental van on Tuesday
Picked up keys for new apartment on Friday
Picked up van at 8:30 AM on Saturday and returned it at 9:30 PM
Unpacked from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM on Sunday
Dropped: one bedroom, two-car garage, laundry room, yard, 48 square feet of living space
As of right now, the bed, couch, and dining table are set up. I was able to cook a proper meal in the kitchen. We still need a shower curtain, but over the weekend we turned an empty apartment into an 80% functional, messy home.
We were able to accept the job offer and relocate in only twelve days because we had the savings to cover double rent, move-in fees, and a security deposit, pet boarding, two van rentals, and a storage unit; the credit scores to get accepted in the new place; the physical ability to pack and haul our own stuff twice in the same week; and the emotional wherewithal to downsize and get rid of an entire garage's worth of tools. Yes, we get to live our dream life and play on the beach now. It came as the result of being stringently frugal savers and yet profligate in donating and giving away anything that wouldn't fit in a 680-square-foot apartment.
If you could live your dream life, what would you keep and what would you give away?
Do you have a dream life?
Which do you spend more time thinking about: your stuff or your life?
As we finish our first week of the nomad life, I think it's fair to say that we've passed novice level. The difference between 'nomad' and 'vacationer' is that you're trying to do your regular workweek without your regular home environment as a support system. That infrastructure tends to fade into the background until it is disrupted. What have we learned?
Power outlets are far more important to our marriage than we had realized. We're staying in a room with only one wall outlet, two phones, three tablets, a laptop, and a Bluetooth. Plus it took my husband until the fifth day to remember where he put his backup battery. Thank goodness for the travel splitter. Electricity is the new coffee.
No matter how carefully you try to prepare and bring all the important stuff with you, there will always be something in storage that you had no idea you would need. This time it was our marriage license. If you can't tell we're married by looking at us, wait twenty minutes. Nobody can fake a long marriage.
Sleeping in a bed two sizes smaller than your customary mattress = challenge. Welcome to the game of blanket tug-of-war!
Cooking in someone else's kitchen is almost as weird as sharing a bathroom with total strangers.
Cooking without access to a fridge takes some imagination. Planning not to have leftovers is a totally different chapter of home economics than our usual methods. We never realized how much we rely on condiments that require refrigeration until now.
The only truly hard part is missing our pets, wondering what they are doing, hoping they are sleeping okay. We could probably never be "real," full-time nomads because there's no way we could bring our critters on the road without living in an RV. Our goal in life is less driving, not more, so that isn't going to happen.
What do we truly need during an average workweek? Not as much as one would suppose.
Work clothes with matching shoes
Phones and chargers
Something fast and easy for breakfast, like protein bars
Warm pajamas, at least when you're used to a million blankets at home
Our own pillows, because SPOILED
As it turns out, the biggest challenge we've had has been access to important documents. They're the only things you can't just replace at the store. Our desktop computer is boxed up in our storage unit, so we've been fortunate that various information we have needed has been available in our cloud storage. We're getting better at this. I had a copy of my previous marriage license, but not the current one. Revision control fail! The desktop is 9 years old now, and we're getting ready to upgrade to a laptop, especially since the hard drive crashed right before the move and we had to pay to get our data backed up. (Then it magically started to work again, go figure). It's weird how much more important our virtual, intangible, non-physical stuff is than our actual stuff-stuff.
What about all our stuff???
Living with almost every single thing we own in a storage unit for a week and a half has been an eye-opener. We're supplied with furniture and appliances and housewares, as we're in someone else's home, and it turns out that it doesn't matter so much which bathtub or vacuum cleaner or microwave you have. As long as they're functional, they're basically interchangeable.
What about entertainment? Sure, we have some books, DVDs, board games, and sports equipment in storage. It turns out, though, that we haven't missed them at all. Almost everything we do for casual weeknight entertainment involves the internet. As long as we have wifi, we can get almost any book, movie, TV show, or lizard video we could ever want.
What the heck is in the rest of the boxes? Take away the furniture, sheets and towels, dishes and pots and pans, cleansers, power strips and extension cords, and all the things that make a house impersonally functional, and it really depends on the person. What makes our home into our home is:
Our taste in art and music
In a lot of households, those core elements are represented by hundreds or thousands of individual items. A lot of them are decorations, a lot of them are books, a lot of them are clothes, a lot of them are souvenirs and photos. It's not so much the types or categories of things as the quantity of them. How much do we feel we need in the pantry to truly feel nourished and supported at home? How much do we feel we need in the clothes closet (and on the floor) to feel that we truly have options in self-expression? How many books, magazines, etc do we feel we need to truly feel content that we will never be bored? How many of our memories do we feel need to be represented in a physical format? How many projects do we feel we need to have in progress to truly feel that we will never die? How much of our stuff insulates us from uncomfortable emotions?
Here are some uncomfortable emotions that come up during the nomad life:
Anxiety about misplaced objects
Awkwardness around strangers
Nervousness about one's habits, noises, and smells bothering others
Annoyance when others' habits, noises, and smells bother us
Jealousy over scarce space, power outlets, countertops, blankets, etc.
Strong desire for more privacy
Desire to cook soup and sleep in one's own bed as new ultimate fantasy
Mysterious realization that there is nothing to do "around the house" but relax and read
When we get the keys and drive the moving van up to our new home, we'll be doing it with a new perspective. We had a yard sale and gave away three carloads of stuff afterward. Already we have a list of more things that won't fit or that we won't need. We're learning with every trip that we really need very little to feel like ourselves, to feel at home in this world. Very little but a larger mattress and more power outlets.
Money and no home is an awful lot easier than a home and no money. We're officially nomads right now, which is the technical term for when you have no fixed address but you do have an income, plenty of money, great credit, health insurance, renters insurance, and a strong social network. Without all of those underpinnings of privilege, we're...well, we're homeless. No home and no car. We don't even know what city we'll be living in next month.
Society doesn't really know what to do with a pair of university-educated, middle-aged people with no forwarding address. We had trouble putting a hold on our mail. We had trouble renting a storage unit. We had trouble arranging to return our internet equipment. I had trouble getting a check from one of my side gigs. Everything is done through computer forms with required fields these days. This will be totally different a decade from now, as more and more people enter the distributed workforce. It's already started. Young professionals will insist on working remotely, setting their own schedules, being evaluated primarily by their output and results rather than Butt-In-Chair Time, and changing locations on a whim.
Why own a car or a house if you don't want to and don't need to?
My husband and I decided seven years ago that we wouldn't bother trying to own a house until we retire, if then. We're open to the possibility of coming into a windfall and using it to buy a rental property, but it's not Plan A. Home ownership is like gambling in a casino, except that with real estate the bank, rather than the house, always wins. The first five years of mortgage payments are almost entirely interest. Our bet that we wouldn't stay in one city for a minimum of five years has proven to be prescient. The further we go down this road, the more assured we are of our combined ability to predict trends. We've preserved our ability to cut strings and relocate to better career opportunities, and it's paid off.
When we left the dealership where we sold back our car last week, my husband clearly had a moment of panic. It doesn't bother me; I didn't even learn to drive until I was 29 and I only owned a car for three years. I loathe driving. I made an offhand comment that he later told me struck him as profound. "We do this on vacation all the time." It's true. We never rent a car on vacation because we're either backpacking, in a major urban area, or in an historic area of archaeological interest. Finding our way around on mass transit or chatting with cab drivers are things we pay good money to do with our leisure time. That statement made everything click into place for him, and now he's digging it. It stimulates our sense of adventure.
Right now we're staying in an Airbnb in an affluent neighborhood. It's much nicer than where we were living before. The houses here have whimsical features like balconies, stained glass, decorative ironwork, three-car garages, and actual turrets. The week is costing us the equivalent of a week's rent in the house we just vacated, minus utilities, plus we don't have to do any chores. This is where privilege confers the magical feeling of vacation on our spurious, temporary case of homelessness.
Let's pause a moment while I turn off the flippancy and talk about real homelessness. I have worked at a homeless shelter and for an affiliated transitional housing program, as well as a drug rehab center. I'm familiar with the incredible complexity of the homelessness epidemic, and if I had to pick one social issue I was allowed to care about, this is the one. My husband and I live in a region that has 40,000 homeless people, which is about 1/3 greater than the population of the city where I grew up. There is nothing funny about it. While most people who live on the streets are back in some kind of housing within 3-4 months, those who remain are stuck in a rigged game. Many have jobs and can't earn enough to get back into lodging. The longer you're out sleeping rough, the harder it is to look presentable and the harder it is to compete in the job market. I get so upset about this issue that I sometimes find that my hands are shaking and I am squirting rage tears.
Not having somewhere to live could be a mildly interesting challenge, or a fun vacation, or a temporary logistical hiccup. It could be, it could be. It could be if we had the societal will. We throw away 40% of our food production and we have nearly 33 MILLION storage units, every single one of which is big enough for a live human being to sleep under a roof at night. We simply choose to value hyperconsumerism over human lives. When I think of all the dumpsters full of edible food and all the billions of boxes of worthless junk tucked away in climate-controlled environments, while veterans, the elderly, and mentally ill people sleep on sidewalks, it boggles my mind. I can't understand it at all. One is too many.
Ahem. Sorry about that. Back to our regularly scheduled possibility thinking, abundance, optimism, and minimalism.
So, yeah. My husband and I found the keys to our temporary home in an envelope in the mailbox. The hostess wasn't even home; she just wrote us a note and let us in. Full access. For all she knew, we could be axe murderers or meth dealers. We've never used Airbnb before and have no references or reputation points yet. The payment cleared and my profile photo didn't have horns or facial tattoos, though, so here we are. Trusted and welcomed. Money and no home is a mere blip in the system for us, nothing more than an anecdote. We're the lucky ones.
Every time I have a yard sale, I swear I'll never do it again. It tends to take about five years to forget how dumb I think yard sales are, and then I hold another one and remember. I'm in the middle of one right now, so I'll share how it's been going. I have plenty of time, because only one person has come in the last hour and a half.
We've made $109 in three and a half hours so far. That works out to $31.14 an hour.* Divide that by two people, why don't you? This has been the first really beautiful sunny spring weekend of the year, and we could be walking our dog at the duck pond, but instead we're both hanging out in the driveway trying to sell our old junk.
I put up ads on Craigslist and Nextdoor, plus a couple of big neon poster board signs on the corners near our house. The ads listed roughly the categories of stuff we were selling: tools, housewares, kitchen stuff, games, fabric and crafts. I clearly wrote '10-5' on the signs and put 'please, no early birds' in my ads. This means that people started coming only a little over an hour early instead of 7 AM. By 10:00 there were about eight people lined up at our gate waiting.
What this means for you is that you should have price tags on every single item before going to bed the night before your sale. We started setting up at 8:30 and it really wasn't enough time to haul everything out and set up tables. Plus, we were constantly being interrupted by people calling questions from the gate. (They are looking for specific things like furniture, electronic games, baby stuff, or collectibles, and if you don't have what they want, they'll leave).
Until I finally shut the garage door, every single person who came wanted to look around in the garage. This is a universal law. People will make insultingly low offers for the stuff you actually use, such as your appliances, vehicles, bikes, tools, camping equipment, and, of course, the folding tables you are using for the sale. Har de har har.
I priced almost everything at one dollar. A few larger items were marked at $2 or $3, and my husband priced out his shop tools and garden tools, mostly in the $5 and $10 range. At these prices, some people were still willing to walk away empty-handed even after showing interest. Don't expect to make more than 1970's yard sale prices for your stuff. We had three large boxes marked 'FREE' and most of that stuff is still sitting there. You can hardly give it away. When people make an offer, we say yes.
Our motivation for holding a yard sale is that we're moving. We're also (spoiler alert!) getting rid of our car later this week. We didn't want to have to pack, haul, store, and unpack extra boxes of stuff, much less buy the moving boxes for the extra stuff. Anything that anyone buys (or takes away for free) is one less item we have to arrange to discard. I got a message about a church fundraiser for a cause I support, which is building housing in the Third World, and we can drop off anything that's left over afterward. Hopefully there will only be one carload by then.
A few things on the tables right now are items that failed to sell on eBay for 99 cents.
The thing is, our stuff isn't worth anything. Neither is yours - no offense. Everyone already has four houses' worth of stuff crammed into one house already. Everyone already HAS a kitchen full of stuff they don't use, a garage full of stuff they don't use, and closets full of stuff they don't use - some of which they bought at someone else's yard sale. You almost have to pay people to take it.
Material possessions tend to be surrounded by fallacies and cognitive bias. We fall for the 'sunk cost' fallacy every time, paying higher rents to continue to store stuff we don't use because we can't bear to let it go. We think the stuff we own has appreciated but that other people's virtually identical stuff is worth only those 1970s prices. I'll sell you my old coffee mug for $12.99 but I'm not paying more than fifteen cents for yours, buddy.
The only thing that is true is that stuff is worth its usefulness to us. If we are not using it, it has zero worth. If we are paying for a storage unit, or for a room in our house that is only used to store junk, then our stuff has a NEGATIVE VALUE. When we found that we would have to pay an extra thousand dollars a month in rent to get a place with a garage in our new city, we understood that it was time to downsize. Even the garage. Even tools. Even stuff we like and use that's in great condition. We're not going to have a yard anymore, not for the foreseeable future, and storage units in our area are going for $200-$300 a month. Eff that. That's our vacation money!
We're in a 728-square-foot house already, one that came with a garage and a laundry room. We'll most likely wind up in a little condo or apartment. That's what it's like when you want to live near the beach. Many people would say (even if nobody is asking them) that I COULD NEVER DO THAT. We believe we can't live in a small space because we think our material possessions are actually body parts. They are organs that we need in order to biologically function. We cannot cognitively process the effort of imaging ourselves without our clutter, stuff, and junk. The reality is that we really only need a bed, a couch, a functioning kitchen, some towels, our electronics, and three weeks' worth of clothes for each season. I say 'functioning' kitchen, but most people's kitchens are not functional at all. Rate your home by whether your meal prep, laundry, housework, and financial systems are working in your life, not by how much you think your belongings are 'worth.'
Grand finale: Between 2 and 3 PM, only one person came by, and he spent $1. Not a single person came between 3 and 5. We made a total of $146 in 7 hours, for a return of $20.85 an hour, again divided by two people. Considering what we both earn per hour in the marketplace, it was sheer unadulterated lunacy for us to waste our weekend on this kind of activity. Price your free time at double the rate you earn at your job, unless of course you hate having free time.
If we had this sale to do over again, for the purpose of having fewer donations to pack into our car, we would have run it from 9 AM to noon and quit after that. We only made $37 in the three hours between 2 and 5. We could have had our sale, dropped off donations, and gone to the park for the rest of the day, or lounged around reading, or really anything other than wishing and hoping someone would come and pay us for our old junk.
We did donate a carload of stuff to the charity rummage sale, and no, not everything fit in one load. We'll take another one or two carloads over tomorrow before we get rid of our car. It's time to shift gears from 'how much could we get for this' to 'they need it more than we do.'
We're halfway through packing up our house. This house is 728 square feet, with a detached garage and laundry room, meaning it's about half the size of our previous house. We've downsized quite a bit. Now seems like as good a time as any to try out an experiment in organizing our stuff for the move. I have no idea whether this will turn out to be a good idea or not! This is a peek into our thought process and the way we tackle our strategic planning.
I had the idea of doing a running inventory as we pack. The idea was to number each box in the notepad app on my phone, with brief notes about the contents. That way we could theoretically track down specific items while we are unpacking. This is more relevant than usual for us during this particular move, because (spoilers) we will be living in The Place of Uncertainty for a week or two, and all of our stuff will be in storage. There is a slight, but real, possibility that we might have to bust into the storage unit in frantic haste, and I'll be darned if I'm going to scramble around untaping 65 boxes to find whatever it might be.
(What could such an item be? Something that can't be simply bought at a store or accessed locally in a short enough time frame? A passport or some other vital piece of paperwork maybe. I dunno. The point is just to test out this system).
The first issue I had with my box inventory idea was that we would be working independently in different rooms. Our house is small, and it's physically challenging for both of us to be in the same space while any boxes are on the floor. How could we number the boxes without duplicates? I suggested that we split by odd and even numbers. It turns out that there is actually a computer science solution to this!
"You start with one and I'll start with 100."
"But there are 65 boxes... Yeah, I guess that'll work."
[I think he means he'll work backwards from 100, which he doesn't realize, because 'ludicrous' doesn't come naturally to him]
We eventually clarify that he is working forward from 100, 101, and so on. Then he comes back and tells me that actually, I should start with Box Zero. I am humoring him because I figure other people will know what he is doing with these arcane things called numbers.
The box numbers are written at all three corners on one side, so that they are visible from the top, the front, and the side. They are labeled with the destination room.
We have something like five different sizes and shapes of boxes. Most of them stack, which is helpful. While we have been packing and assigning numbers, we have used whatever box was the most appropriate size, so there is no muss or fuss over packing in any kind of order. The boxes are being stacked in the garage staging area by size, and roughly by number.
There are two more organizing points still ahead of us. One is the order in which we load the boxes onto the van. The next is the order in which we unload the boxes into the storage unit. Anything we want to go into the front of the storage unit will need to be loaded into the back of the van, meaning it goes on first. It's like a train car going one direction up the track, then reversing and going the other direction on the track. ON with the important stuff, followed by the caboose. OFF with the caboose, followed by the important stuff, right behind the rolling storage unit door.
We are working out the next point as we go, which is, How do we know which boxes are important?
Answer: ALL of the boxes should be important, or why do we even have them?
That is not so helpful from an immediate, Where IS That Thing? standpoint, though. We can go in any of several directions, but first we need to figure out what we need on Day One in the new place. This is going to vary depending on your situation - our hypothetical was a family with six kids and three dogs, and the kids need to be ready for school first thing Monday morning.
Beds and bedding. Towels and shower stuff. Clothes and shoes. First aid/meds. Pet supplies. Breakfast box with bowls and spoons. Dish soap, sponge, and dish towels. Toilet paper and hand soap.
We have solved most of this for our own move using kanban. We can tell at a glance where our most important stuff is, because it's visually distinct from the packing boxes. We have both already packed our clothes for the week in our suitcases. My husband has his work backpack with important papers for his first day at his new job. I have my own work bag, a bag for shower stuff, and another bag I am referring to as my pacifier. It's full of books and will undoubtedly have more random, useless stuff in it by moving day, none of which I will use at all, but at least I won't be climbing the walls wishing I had it.
There will be a few VIP boxes for our first day in the new place. The bedding - the comforters and pillows are in two of the three wardrobe boxes, which are much larger than the other boxes. We will want to mark the box with the bowls and plates, and another box for sheets and towels. We can do this with any combination of colored ink, stickers, a symbol (like a star), stacking them in a separate staging area, or possibly with box tape designed for the purpose. (There are sets marked with the different rooms of the house, like Caution tape, which frankly some houses could use throughout the year...)
When it comes down to it, almost everything we own is either there because we have room for it, or for comfort. We aren't really emotionally attached to such things as laundry detergent or ice cube trays, we just use them. The more often we move our household from place to place, the fewer the things we want around us, because it turns out that there is a shocking amount of stuff to haul, even for basic comfort purposes! Sheets and towels and plates and bowls and forks and spoons and spatulas and extension cords and cleansers and sponges and mops and brooms and a dish rack and a fan and dog shampoo and ye gads, where did all this stuff come from??
Usually we are unpacked and settled in within about three weeks after a move. This means no lingering cardboard boxes. No MISC (the dreaded misc). This time, so far, looks like the most organized we have been, and this is our sixth move together. Soon we will find out whether this system has any merit, and whether we can unpack in any less time.
Garages are for cars. Did you know that? Weird, huh? That's like someone claiming that dining tables were originally designed for eating meals. It's bananas. About two-thirds of people who have a garage don't park their car inside it, and 90% say they only would if someone had tried to steal their car. It's funny that other than the house itself, most people's most valuable possession is their car, and yet we leave them outside while making room for boxes of old high school yearbooks and holiday decorations we bought for 99 cents. In our case, there are two reasons we don't park in the garage: 1. Someone carpeted it, and 2. We no longer have a car. That's a post for a different day. Let's go back to the process of packing and moving all the junk from a garage, since it's a near-universal conundrum.
Why do we have so much stuff and not enough room for it? What is it about garages that makes them like the Bermuda Triangle of clutter?
Garages are not fun places to work most of the time. Usually they are not insulated, which means they are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. Usually they are very dim. Usually they have lots of holes to the outside, which you can plainly see if you stand in your garage during daylight with the doors closed and the lights turned off. That means bugs, spiders, and sometimes bigger and creepier things. These are reasons not to go in the garage at all, much less to use it as a fabulous workspace. If you wonder whatever happened to your former passion for a neglected hobby, the poor ergonomics of your garage may be to blame. It's definitely one of the major reasons any given garage is a mess. Who would want to go out there, for even an hour, and when would they do it?
There is never a good time for space clearing. It's never going to be fun and you're never going to be in the mood. It's just a question of having a pressing reason to do it by a certain deadline - such as relocating.
Every garage is a tangle. Ours is like many - a combination space. It had:
A laundry area
Old paints and brushes
Winter storage (coats, scarves, gloves, etc)
Bicycles and a unicycle and a tub of motorcycle gear
Lots of shelving units of different styles and materials
Stuff the previous tenants and the owner left here
Boxes of memorabilia
Yard sale/eBay stuff
Empty shipping boxes
Empty product boxes we planned to reuse
Stuff that didn't fit in the house (like a too-big dry erase board)
Artwork we weren't decorating with in this house
Stuff we didn't know what to do with
Stuff that needed repairs
Materials that We Might Need One Day
Stuff we didn't know how to get rid of
I see the garage as a Man Cave, even though I can and do use shop tools, fix things, build things, and do garagey-type stuff. I just never had my own personal garage until after my husband and I got married, and I'm used to doing my projects on the back porch or wherever. My husband is an engineer and ex-logger - think TOOLS and lots of them - and he has a lot of gear-intensive hobbies like hockey that demand storage space. I figured I would give him the garage as a hands-off interference-free zone. That's why I had no sympathy when it came time to sort the garage. Have fun with that, babe! [runs off chortling]
I told him I would do the kitchen. I'm sweet that way.
The first thing we did was to hold a one-day yard sale. There was zero traffic for most of the day. We only sold maybe 1/3 of what we put out, and we only made $146. That was it for us. We had already tried and failed to sell a bunch of stuff on eBay, even for 99 cents. We decided that it simply wasn't worth any more of our time to try to extract a few dollars from the things we had left. We made up our minds to donate everything to a charity rummage sale, and we did that in two trips. These included a few items we had already moved as many as six times, without using them, and we know we won't be missing them. Little emotion here other than relief, and feeling silly that we hadn't done it sooner.
The second thing was to make some strategic decisions, like so:
Are we going to have a garage in our next place? In perpetuity?
What about a storage unit? For how long? Where?
How are we going to spend our time at the new place? After that?
What hobbies are important to us now, versus 10 or 20 years ago?
We're moving to the beach (spoilers) and almost none of the listings we have seen include garages. It also turns out that the nearest storage facilities are in other towns entirely. Also, (more spoilers) we just got rid of our car. So if we kept too much stuff, we would find ourselves in the position of having to pay $200-$300 a month to store things, take a cab to go to the next town (and back) to get stuff (assuming it would fit in a cab), and do it again to put it back. The prices were shocking. When we listed off what we thought we might not be able to fit in a small home, it seemed dumb to pay to store it.
Backpacking gear (fits in a closet, because we carry it all on our backs)
Tools (what if a pipe bursts late at night?)
Guest bedding (for those prices, we'll get you a hotel)
Stuff we never use - what, with our vacation money? I think not
Due to our major lifestyle policy changes and strategic decisions, we knew we could get rid of whole categories of things. Gardening tools. Automotive repair tools. Shop tools. The ladder. Materials for things we "might make one day" that we never did in our last eight years together. We estimated the replacement prices for these items, some of which we sold, and realized that it wasn't a big deal to us to buy a new one if we needed to. It would be less expensive to replace ALL OF IT than to rent a storage unit for one year. Six months, actually.
Storage units are emotional decisions, not logistical decisions, and almost never financial decisions.
We looked at our hobbies and our new region, and realized there were certain things we would probably do more often. My husband has a wetsuit I've never known him to wear once, but he used to, and now it's plausible that he will again. It still fits. We have bikes that we haven't ridden together in a long time, but now that we are car-free they are suddenly relevant. The dog has a floaty vest that my dad got him, and suddenly that seems like a really key item to have. Thanks, Dad!
The poor hubby set to work. I helped to come in from time to time and bring mental bandwidth. There were some decisions that felt a bit overwhelming. Decision fatigue leads almost immediately to physical fatigue, and sorting through MISC (the dreaded misc) can feel like trudging through waist-deep molasses. We got through it, though, and found that we had enough room to set up a staging area for our moving boxes. It took about three hours.
Imagine having less in the garage than you do in your house. Imagine being able to use your garage space - for any purpose at all.
Imagine if you actually DID all the aspirational activities that are represented by the clutter in your garage.
Imagine if your honey-do list no longer included 'clean the garage' and you could just sleep in every weekend and go to the park instead. Or the beach!
The first thing we did when we found out we were moving again was to start sorting the kitchen. Literally. We had a brief conversation, and then we walked into the kitchen together and started opening cabinets.
Most people probably would not do this!
Moving is different when you've done it so many times that it's made you into a minimalist. This will be our sixth move as a married couple, and we haven't even had our eighth anniversary yet. We've downsized each time. Now, every time we prepare to move again, we just have to ask ourselves, "Have we used this since we moved here?" If not, out it goes.
We started with the kitchen because it's the most complicated area of the house. This is true for most people. All those drawers and cupboards are deceptive! We forget that each shelf and each drawer represents its own moving box. Half the stuff is either fragile or sharp. There are a lot of nesting items that don't look like they take up much volume, until they have to be packed, that is. There are also a lot of things with lids, or things that used to have lids, or lids that used to have things. There is a reason why so many horror movies have a scene in which a poltergeist makes all the cupboards open at once and all the utensils fly into the air. Although, a lot of kitchens look like that most days of the week...
Most people's kitchens are overwhelming on most days. It is the home of the domestic power struggle. A sink and countertops loaded with dirty dishes, sometimes overflowing onto the floor. Trash, recycling, and compost waiting to go out. A fridge full of spoiling food and scary leftovers. Sometimes there is a backlog of at least three hours' hard work before any packing could even be done. THIS IS RELEVANT. If ever there were an area of the home in need of systems, the kitchen is that place. Lack of a system coupled with clutter and excess is the recipe for disaster. Add in food hoarding, and we're back to the horror movie theme again.
We started with the kitchen. We started with the kitchen BECAUSE it's the hardest room in the house. We started with the kitchen because it's the heart of our home. We started at 6 PM, and we were done in time for my husband to cook dinner and wash dishes afterward. By 'done' I mean that the countertops were clear and nobody would have known we were planning to move.
All right, what is it that we did?
We started with a strategy. What do we do in our kitchen and what stuff do we need? When we first got married, our house was bigger than both our bachelor houses put together. The kitchen was ridiculously huge. We both moved in our full bachelor kitchens, and found that there was still space left over. (I filled it). We also had open shelving in the garage, and a bunch of stuff went out there. Partly because we had so much room and so much kitchen capacity, we entertained a lot. We would have as many as twenty people over every week. We wound up accumulating a lot of serving platters, extra utensils, and extra cutting boards, potato peelers, and the like so that guests could cook with us if they wanted. We had two dining tables and enough chairs for everyone, except for the night we had to put a couple of people on our camping coolers.
Then we moved.
I was really emotional about wanting to hang onto all our stuff for entertaining. Just because the dining table filled the ENTIRE dining room from wall to door didn't mean we couldn't still have big dinner parties! Then we moved again, and my ten-top table physically would not fit in our house. Not unless we wanted to sleep on it at night, anyway. I had to adjust my emotional attachments.
Time went by. I started looking at all this stuff with a more analytical eye. I realized that, even when we had two dozen people one Thanksgiving, I still had more serving containers than we needed. What if I only kept enough so that everything we had was in use? Did I really need three gravy boats? We had the space, and most of these things were stored in high cabinets where I didn't see them on a daily basis, but I let them spin in the back of my mind. When we went into the kitchen preparing for our next move, the emotional homework was already done.
I stood on a chair and handed things down to my husband. It went like this:
I decided that we didn't need the majority of our plastic food storage containers. He was relieved. We have various shapes and sizes of glass and ceramic baking dishes with lids that can do the job. We also have dozens of Mason jars for canning that can certainly hold leftovers.
We realized we didn't need four muffin pans, three corkscrews, seven mismatched ramekins, and various other redundant redundancies.
We both pulled out personal items we knew we weren't using, such as my old work Thermos and a coffee mug that was a gift from his ex-wife.
I got down all of the big platters and serving dishes I'd decided to let go, plus a vase and other random items. Most of that stuff was there because 1. We had it and 2. It fit there.
We decided we needed to replace our knives and the pancake flipper.
I pulled out a set of little bowls I use for mise en place, because I have two sets, and he convinced me to keep them because I use them every week.
Suddenly we turned around, and the entire counter was covered with stacks of excess kitchen clutter!
The weird thing about space clearing in a kitchen is that you can usually remove a truckload of stuff, and it won't look like anything is missing. Our kitchen is definitely still functional - we cook together when we're backpacking, and we can do everything we need to do with a pot, a pocketknife, and a portable propane stove. We still have silly things, like an angel food cake pan and a skull-shaped cookie cutter, that we virtually never use. All we did was to get rid of the 10-20% we knew we didn't use at all. It took 35 minutes.
This was the first pass. We do the second pass after we move into a new place, when we are confronted with the configuration of a new kitchen. So far, we've always found at least a few more items that won't fit, and we've never once missed any of them.
Our kitchen system works like this: Six large plates, six small plates, six nesting bowls. Eight drinking glasses. A dozen sets of flatware. Teacups. That's all we need for eating meals. All of these items come from matching sets, so they're all the same size for portion control purposes, they nest, and they all fit into one dishwasher load. This is key. When the dishwasher is full, the cupboard is empty. We run it at night and he unloads it first thing in the morning.
We have a set of pots and pans, one of each size. When one gets used, it gets washed right after dinner, it sits in the drying rack overnight, and it gets put back in the cupboard the next morning. Weird, huh? Three dishwasher-safe cutting boards. A stack of nesting food storage containers in two sizes, for leftovers, but no more than would fill the freezer. Once the containers are full, something needs to get eaten up or there's nowhere to put any further leftovers.
We take turns cooking and cleaning the kitchen. We used to alternate, but recently we agreed to trade nights and do our own cleaning, mostly because I cook much more elaborate dishes and he was getting stuck with more of the cleanup. If there are leftovers, either the other person will cook them on their night, or they will sit until the second night. About once a week, one or the other of us will root around in the fridge and freezer, planning a meal with the goal of finishing off a container of something. A condiment, a leftover, half a cabbage, or whatever is there. We've been on a conscious plan of culling our pantry, where most things aren't replaced after they are used up, because we don't need to have 175 different flavors in our pantry every day of the year. They call it a 'store' because it 'stores' things.
The week that we pack and move, we won't cook. We have part of a package of paper plates and bowls hanging around, and we'll use those. We have some compostable forks. I have three days' worth of backpacking meals, and we'll microwave those. We could always go out, but I hate that feeling of having cardboard particles in my hair, being totally exhausted and grubby, and wandering into a restaurant looking like I got trapped in a warehouse overnight.
We're moving again. We started with the kitchen, because every other room looks easy in comparison.
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.