Coming home from a vacation should count as part of the vacation. End on a high note. Coming home late, exhausted, and knowing you have to get up early to go back to work is bad enough. Add the suitcases full of dirty laundry. THEN add the disaster area that was created while you tried to pack. No thank you! Planning in advance prolongs the excitement and anticipation of the trip. Planning meals around using things up can be part of this fun, and it can also help to defray the cost of the trip.
There are two main ways to use up food in advance of a trip. One, just eat the stuff. Two, cook it and put it in the freezer. (You can also ask some friends or roommates if they want it, but chances are that they’ll just wind up throwing it away).
We decide which way to use stuff based on how well it freezes. Once I tried putting a bag of carrots directly into the freezer, and let’s just say that didn’t work out very well! Right before a trip is no time to be experimenting on novel food preservation methods. Let’s just do things that we already know how to do.
Eat it now: Salad greens, leftovers, fresh fruit, anything you can juice
Freeze it: Anything that could go in a soup, pot pie, or stir-fry. Any bread or baked goods.
It took me forever to learn to do this, but I now plan meals over a 3-5 day time period. I buy frozen entrees for more like 1-2 weeks at a time, and canned foods for a few days, but the fresh produce circulates over a much briefer period. There are three reasons for that. Our fridge is small, I have to carry all our groceries over my shoulder while walking half a mile, and, most importantly… there’s no need for me to buy more. They call it a “store” because it “stores” things.
My previous method of shopping involved buying stuff out of curiosity when I didn’t actually know how to cook it, buying stuff I did know how to cook without having a meal plan, buying stuff on sale, and generally feeling like there was a “right amount” of food to buy. The result was more or less chaos. A kitchen full of every possible spice, herb, condiment, shape of pasta, and random item like umeboshi plums or canned chestnuts… but nothing that would actually represent A DINNER. As it turns out, the vast majority of stuff we buy for flavor has few to no calories. That sense of safety and security that comes from stockpiling food is a false sense of security. In crisis conditions, it won’t fuel us for very long. Thus, if we’re saving extra food at the behest of anxiety, we should be making sure that it represents whole meals in the least perishable format possible.
That’s a lesson for a different day.
What we’re focusing on right now is the OPPOSITE of crisis conditions. We’re focusing on being AWAY from home, on NOT having a stockpile of supplies. What we want is to avoid coming home to a bunch of moldy, spoiled food, all of which represents\ both a waste of money and a cleanup hassle.
Once I came home from a trip and I was talking on the phone with the man who is now my husband. Clearly I was not thinking about how long I had been away. (I think it was Thanksgiving weekend). I grabbed a container of soy milk out of the fridge and started to take a swig. Instantly my honey was subjected to a stream of swearing and gagging. The soy milk had gone bad. Approximately a single molecule of it touched my tongue, and I learned that the major function of the taste buds is to protect us against being poisoned. This is some limbic-system, deep survival stuff right here. I was scrubbing my tongue with a toothbrush and gargling with mouthwash. Then I poured out the offending container and everything in it came out in chunks. And that is the story of how I started meal planning before trips away from home.
The steps involved are simple.
Don’t go to the grocery store if you can avoid it. Definitely do not go until after you have taken inventory of the perishables in the fridge.
Try to use up all the perishables. That means “things that go bad.”
If your fridge is empty the day before you leave, great. Just get tacos that night or something.
A lot of typical American households have enough food in the kitchen to last for at least a month. Many frugalites and debt-payoff champions have proven this hypothesis by eating only the food supplies they have on hand until they run out. This can be harder to do when you realize that your stockpile includes three jars of mustard and five separate salad dressings. Also, how does someone wind up with two jars of capers?
One thing I like to do is to make a pot of soup and put it in freezer containers for the night we come home. The soup simmers while we pack our suitcases. Then we don’t have to stress out about what we’re going to eat when we get home, either. We can put off grocery shopping until the next day. We can also splurge on grocery delivery, which we used to do when our grocery store was more than half a mile away.
Travel anxiety is hard. I have found that it really eases my mind to take out the trash before I leave for a trip, and then do a final perimeter check. I can lock the door behind me, carrying the image of my clean and tidy apartment, with clear visuals in my mind that show I haven’t forgotten anything, and we won’t be coming home to a mess. Nothing but fun times ahead!
Ready for a fiesta of gender stereotypes? We’re packing for a trip, and I asked my husband if he would be willing to be my test subject. I’m setting a timer so I can find out how long it takes him to pack. I want to know the secret of how to pack like a man. I’m going to pack my own bag right alongside him. Here we are in the time dimension. Ready? Three, two, one, and GO!
Okay, no, wait. He’s saying something really interesting!
“If it took me half an hour to decide what to take on a trip, it would be crazy! I mean, seriously, I could pack all the clothes in my closet in my big international bag and just check it, and I would have all my clothes. I don’t know if it would necessarily fill all that bag up. What filled it up on the trip to Hamburg was that I was taking my big heavy coat.” - My hubby, spontaneously writing half of this post for me
He’s onto something there. As an aerospace engineer, he’s expected to dress professionally, but not exactly in a fashion-forward, on fleek kind of a way. He used to buy his pants in a stack at Costco, until he figured out that he can get them on Amazon Prime. Likewise, if his shirt collars start to fray, he wanders into the nearest men’s clothing store and comes out with a few replacements. The main considerations are 1. Size and 2. Whether he already has a polo shirt in that color. He maintains a specific number of pants and shirts: 6 pairs of work pants, 3 weekend pants, 5 short-sleeve work shirts, 3 long-sleeve work shirts, and what he describes as a “glut of t-shirts” at 8 total. His “thing” is having a lot of empty space between hangers. Now can you start to see why packing a suitcase is not difficult for him?
I start the timer. He gets out his suitcase, which is stored inside that big international bag he mentioned. He makes neat stacks of his shirts, pants, socks, and undergarments. He puts them in the suitcase. He goes into the bathroom and comes back with his shower kit. “Okay, done.” I pause the timer. 7:33.
SEVEN MINUTES AND THIRTY-THREE SECONDS!
I ask him, “So you’re probably not even going to give that bag another thought until we leave, right?” He nods, and then says, “Well, I’ll probably look in it again the night before and make sure I have everything.”
Okay, halt. That’s the exact opposite of what I do! My method of “making sure I have everything” is to do a complete perimeter check of our apartment, opening and shutting every single cabinet and drawer and looking to see what’s there. Of course I also do that because when we’re going to be away for a while, I want to make sure there aren’t any loose ends or open loops around the place. I’m far more concerned about the state of our home than I am about what’s in my bag. The logic behind that is that I can always get anything I need on a trip, but I can’t do anything about our apartment remotely. (Not yet, anyway). I want to walk in the door on our homecoming and know that all I have to do is unpack.
I start the timer again. While my pet engineer has been packing his suitcase, I have been wandering in and out of the closet, pulling things out, counting, and wandering back in to hang things up. In the time it has taken him to pack his suitcase, I have chosen everything I’m going to wear… but it’s strewn on the bed. Our packing methods are different. Also he was sort of dominating the suitcase-packing station, also known as “our bed.”
I load up my suitcase, zip it up, wander out to the living room to retrieve my sandals, load up the shoe section, get my shower kit, and zip up. Stop the timer. 10:33.
This is the difference between us: I spent 50% more time packing because I was in the Place of Indecision, fussing over what to wear.
Why’s that? Why does it take me longer to decide?
I’m like, the weather forecast predicts temperatures ranging between 50 and 85. He’s like, *SHRUG*
I can’t stand having my bra straps show. Him: Not Applicable
I have more than one color range in my wardrobe. He doesn’t, and that’s by design.
My main secret to packing light is that I plan everything around bringing as few pairs of shoes as possible. I want to spend the majority of my time in sneakers, or at the very least, I want to bring a pair so I can sneak off to run (or at least walk fast). Whatever dressier shoes I’m bringing, I want to keep it to one pair, so it’s either going to be black, brown, or metallic. That tends to minimize wardrobe choices. I have a strong suspicion that many of my sisters in luggage try to bring as many shoe options as possible, so they don’t have to decide.
The irony here is that if you refuse to make decisions at the packing stage, you’re then forced to make them every time you get dressed. On a lot of trips, that’s going to mean one set of decisions in the morning, another in the evening, and possibly a third set in the afternoon. Personally, if I want to play dress-up, I can do it at home without having to lug a huge heavy suitcase everywhere. When I’m traveling, it’s all about the DESTINATION and the EVENTS, not what I’m wearing.
I care about whether I’ll be cold. I care about whether my straps show. I do NOT care what other people think about my outfit. Anyone who is going to judge me by my clothes is going to find a lot more not to like! It’s a highly efficient way of weeding out potential non-friends. Although honestly, I think most people are oblivious to what others are wearing; we’re just trying to look right for our next selfie.
I can actually pack my suitcase in five minutes. I took a video of myself packing the last time I went on a trip. That time, it took me about forty minutes to decide what to wear and get everything ready before I started. I was dressing up more, and there were finicky tasks like picking out earrings. That was a four-day trip, while this is an eight-day trip. I’m thinking that five minutes of decisions and five minutes of packing is pretty good!
Why am I relatively fast at packing? Like my engineer husband, I start with a system. I only buy things that fit me and that fit into my plan. My fitness regimen keeps me in one clothing size, the same as it’s been for the last three years. At least 80% of my wardrobe consists of business casual clothes that I wear almost every day; they’re appropriate for most occasions. I limit myself to six main colors, and any variables in those colors are going to be expendable garments like tank tops, workout gear, or sleep clothes. I don’t keep a single thing that I feel “iffy” about. NO THREES! On a scale of one to five, I’m only going to wear fours and fives. Why would I wear anything other than comfortable, flattering clothes that fit and are easy to wash? I’m not going to play defense lawyer for garments that don’t do anything for me.
I’m still putting way more thought into it than the man in my life puts into what he wears. We’ve talked out the option of my simply getting the same haircut he has, and mimicking his wardrobe, but we both rejected that plan. I’m still 50% higher maintenance, by mutual agreement. Still, ten minutes to pack a suitcase is pretty good… she looks around and whispers… “for a girl.”
Coming home to a paper stuck in your front door can be chilling. I always think it’s an eviction notice, even though there is no rational reason for me to think this. This time, it was a notice that we are having our bi-annual apartment inspection. It was dated the previous day - clearly false - but it probably was left within the 24 hours mandated by law. The trouble was, we didn’t see it until the end of the workday. Someone would be coming between the hours of 9 and 4:30.
It’s 6 PM and an inspector is entering your home tomorrow at 9 AM, whether you’re home or not. Are you ready?
What do you suppose I did when I came home at 6 and saw this notice?
Some of my people have been evicted due to squalor and hoarding. A couple of them have had it happen more than once. It’s extremely shaming and traumatic. Games have rules, though. If you enter into a contract with someone, you either uphold your end of the contract, or you break it, and if you break your contract, you pay the penalty. It is a simple and harsh truth. If you want to be free to live how you want and interact with your stuff however you want, you have to own your own place. Even then, there are community standards.
This is me we’re talking about, though. I saw the notice, and this is what I did.
Start the Roomba in our bedroom, because that was the chore of the day
Start a load of laundry
Finish making dinner
Put Roomba back on the charger
Sit around relaxing with my husband for three hours
Put the fresh sheets on the bed that I had washed that morning
Go to bed at 10
Wake up at 7:30
Clean bathroom, because that was the chore of the day
Take out the garbage and recycling
Wash my breakfast dishes and wipe out the microwave and sink
Then it was 9:00 AM. What did I do next?
Start another load of laundry
Dust the entertainment center while making a business call
Note that it was 9:30 AM
Sit around for the rest of the day waiting for the inspector to show up.
What would have happened if I hadn’t done any of those chores?
Well, we would have eaten dinner and breakfast regardless. We would have made the bed together, because sleeping on a bare mattress is not our idea of fun. If I hadn't done any of the chores, there would have been a full laundry basket, the garbage and recycling containers would have been full, there would have been dust on the toilet tank and hairs in the tub, the entertainment center would have been a little dusty, and the inside of the microwave would have had some food splatters. All of this would have been acceptable. Cumulatively it would have been acceptable!
The worst-case scenario would have been a dirty, sticky oatmeal bowl sitting in the sink. But why would I ever leave a crusty oatmeal bowl as a booby trap for Future Me to clean up? Past Me has washed several thousand oatmeal bowls over the years. It’s about 10% of the effort to just do it right away.
The point of this anecdote is that doing a few chores every weekday pays off. Our place never really gets dirty. The laundry and dishes and garbage never really build up. There are never really stacks or snowdrifts of papers piled up. I spend about 40 minutes every weekday doing chores, so I always have weekends free, and when we leave for a trip, it’s not a big deal. I don’t like coming home to a messy house; it’s a lame ending for a vacation!
Also, legally, our property management company can send an inspector or repair person inside our apartment with 24-hour written notice. Even if we’re not here to see the notice. This is what I would want if, say, our upstairs neighbor left the tub running and the water burst through our ceiling.
We have a week-long trip planned next month. Our pets will be boarded, so we wouldn’t have to worry about our dog being surprised by a man in uniform, which would presumably entail a lot of barking. We wouldn’t know to get ready for an official representative of the landlord, though. However we had left the place would be the way it looked upon inspection. That means JUDGMENT AND CRITICISM with potential legal and financial ramifications.
I clean my house because I know how, because I don’t think it’s a big deal, because it doesn’t take very long, because my husband and I both like it better, because I was taught to believe that it is a form of hospitality and welcome to guests, because happy people don’t live in a big depressing mess, because my reputation is involved, because it’s faster than leaving things to wait, because it makes my life easier, because I choose not to live the alternatives, and, lastly, because not cleaning my house could cause me significant hassle and inconvenience. These hassles include eviction and losing my cleaning deposit, among who knows what else.
Someone known to me wound up on the local news due to squalor. It happens. If I wind up on the news (again), I would hope it would be for something positive I did. Never go viral for the wrong reasons.
I freaked out a little when I saw the inspection notice, even though I know that I didn’t really have anything to worry about. I had no idea what to expect or what the inspector would be inspecting. Inside the cupboards and cabinets? Inside the appliances? Under the sinks? Would they be looking for specific things like water damage or insects, and would I have any idea what kind of inspection that would involve? What was bothering me was WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW, which is always a trigger for thinking I CAN’T HANDLE IT.
The truth is that we can all handle just about anything except for uncertainty. The Place of Uncertainty is not supposed to create a mini-vortex inside my own apartment!
What really happened was that the inspector knocked at 3:10. The dog barked and I put him in his crate, and then I opened the door. The inspector asked to come in. He went straight to the smoke detectors, checked them, and left.
I’m not even sure he was here for a full 60 seconds.
It’s possible that if our place had been fully hoarded, the inspector might have said something. I talk to a lot of repair people, delivery people, construction workers, landscapers, movers, and first responders, and they all say they’ve seen it all. They definitely do notice. In the case of apartment dwellers, it’s a question of whether they are asked or required to report anything like that to the property management company. Probably not. There is an extremely broad range of mess that is just considered standard in our culture, and that’s fine.
As for me, I’m relieved that my biggest annoyances with the inspection process were the false date, having to wait around, and having my dog bark. I can go back to chilling out in my nice clean (and tiny) apartment for the next six months.
This is for all the people who get worked into a tizzy when it's time to pack.
That used to be me. I get so starry-eyed about traveling anywhere, including a run to the town dump, that my first impulse is to start running around and trying to get ready. In my mind, my packing list includes every single item I own, subtracting only the things that won't fit, like my bed and my stove. Stuff I have hanging around that I never use suddenly seems to be a prime candidate for cramming into my suitcase.
Dumb things I have packed on multiple trips even though I never, ever used them: plus-size Super Scrabble board; buckwheat travel pillow that I finally realized I hate; eye mask that always winds up turning into a headband; luggage theft siren; hardcover travel journal I never wrote in; entire cookbooks; money belt; phrase books; luggage locks. There's something so bewitching about travel doodads and travel gadgets. It's almost as bad as the kitchen widgets aisle.
The more experienced a traveler I become, the more I realize that you really just need yourself, enough ID to get through customs, enough clothing to not die of exposure or violate local sumptuary laws, and enough money or credit to get yourself from here to there, and possibly to get out of trouble. I think it's possible to go anywhere with just the clothes on your back, your phone, your passport, and a credit card (hopefully one with travel rewards). In a few years, you won't even need the passport OR the credit card; you'll just walk through various doorways, and you won't even need to blink or wave your hand.
Ah, but we live in the now-future, not the then-future. In the now, we still need a certain amount of STUFF. We still WANT a certain amount of ADDITIONAL stuff, for comfort and for emotional security and to quiet the demands of the anxiety-gnomes that live in our bellies.
I'm going on a trip, arriving past bedtime Friday night and getting home at dinnertime Monday evening. That's three nights, two event days, and two travel days. In the world of logic, this implies pajamas, toiletries, and three changes of clothes. Even a tiny child can count to three outfits. They may not match, but even a child can put together three pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, and three sets of tops and bottoms. Why is this so much harder for adults?
It's hard because when we feel anxiety, we pay attention to it. We listen to the anxiety-gnomes. We let the anxiety-gnomes start making the rules. Every single weird idea that pops into our heads, fed to us by these mischievous creatures, suddenly seems brilliant. The later at night or the closer to departure time, the more compelling these anxious thoughts will be.
The visceral cord is pulled at midnight. "HEY! You know what would be the best idea? Find 18 more things to put into that suitcase that you already had to sit on to zip shut!"
The sooner I start packing, the more stuff suddenly acquires a magical, numinous glow, practically demanding that I bring it with me. I won't just cram it into my suitcase; I'll cradle it in front of me, like a capybara I've dressed in a cunning little outfit. Look at all my extra shirts! Look at all my extra jewelry! Look at all my extra shoes! I have packed multiple backup redundancies, but they are the best ones!
WHAT IF I get invited to a totally unexpected social occasion at the last minute?
WHAT IF I change my mind and want to wear something I didn't bring?
WHAT IF the weather is completely different from the forecast?
All right, what if? What happens to you when these things pop up at home? You HANDLE IT. You DEAL WITH IT. You GET THROUGH IT SOMEHOW. Or, nobody even notices and it's totally not a problem and you can't believe you went through such a big fuss.
The reason I can pack lightly with little to no packing anxiety is that it's the confluence of multiple systems, created carefully by me for this precise reason. I live lightly with few possessions because I desire to remain mobile. I want to be flexible enough that I can do those last-minute social occasions. I want to have enough grit to deal with emotional challenges. I want to be decisive enough that minor kerfuffles don't distract me.
Big stuff: critical, urgent, emergency. These things tend to involve first responders. My job in these situations is to avoid being the cause of the emergency, help if I can, and stay the heck out of the way if I can't. Nothing of this caliber has ever happened to me or any of my companions on a trip.
Medium stuff: My brother constantly seems to sprain his ankle when we go on vacation, and then he stubbornly limps around on it. This is concerning but not trip-canceling.
Minor stuff: I once got billed over $400 for a casual meal for three, and it took 20 minutes to straighten out. Annoying, but not even worth Facebooking.
Beneath notice: Minor stains and clothing repairs; being put on hold; having to change rooms; long waits in restaurants; loud neighbors; socks don't match; run out of shampoo; etc. etc. etc.
Back to the systems. I have a capsule wardrobe. This means that I only own clothing that fits today, that I like wearing, that I wear often enough that I know exactly how functional it is. Almost all of it is washer- and dryer-safe. Everything I own has to go with at least three other things in my wardrobe. I basically wear six colors (black, gray, navy, white, red, and purple). I can fit an entire seasonal wardrobe in my larger suitcase. Packing clothes is easy for me because I'm just bringing stuff I wear at home.
Also, I don't really care what other people think about what I'm wearing. If you don't like how I look, I'm sure you'll get over it eventually.
Other systems that I have in place undoubtedly include a few I don't recognize as systems. I plan my wardrobe before I go to the store. I have a chore rotation, so my laundry is always caught up and my apartment is clean, one room per weekday. I have a grocery system, so there's always something in the kitchen that I can eat on my trip. I have a cash flow system, so almost all of my travel is paid for by reward points, and I can afford to pay for the occasional travel snafu. I have a fitness and nutrition system, which is why I've remained in the same clothing size for the past three years, and I don't have to maintain a buffer of larger and smaller clothing sizes. I have a sleeping system, so I can handle occasionally waking up at 4 AM to make a cheaper flight. I have a system for getting ready, so I know I need 40 minutes. For all the anxiety that we feel when it's time to pack, there are equal portions to feel for scheduling, money, meals, getting the house ready, and generally feeling like we can handle a greater load on our mental bandwidth.
Anxiety is cumulative. Every system we put into place creates a thread of reliability, something that can ease a fevered brain when it's time to sleep. Organizing our thoughts also organizes our emotions. Knowing what we want helps us to make firm decisions, and those decisions help us to focus on experiences and logistics rather than equipment. We can call those nervous feelings by name, bringing them forth from the shadows, and get down to the business of simply packing one outfit per day. We can remember that we're traveling for a purpose, and keep our attention on that purpose and nothing more.
There are a million parallels between money and body weight (and clutter, when it comes to that). Anything we learn about one usually works as a useful thinking tool for the other. One of these tools is to use our metrics to calculate a trend line, using our past behavior to predict our future results. When we want to take better care of Future Self, it is helpful to evaluate by the month, not the day.
Why by the month and not the week? Most of our bills occur monthly. Rent or mortgage, car payment, student loan, electric bill, gym, internet, cable, storage unit, phone bill, all that stuff shows up monthly. We can break down our quarterly or annual bills, like car insurance or roadside assistance, and plug in a monthly cost for these as well. It gets tricky when we have to work out an estimate for our variable weekly and daily expenses over a month, because we usually don't like the answer.
I think some of this attitude comes from having an allowance as a child. We want to feel like we can have fun with as much of our money as possible. We work so hard and we're so tired so much of the time, and we have to drive in traffic and follow a dress code... surely we're entitled to splurge and have a treat from time to time? This is all well and good for Present Self, but not very kind to Future Me. We don't realize how much we're sacrificing to preserve that sense of fun and freedom.
The emotional comfort of having "enough" savings is something I wish I could bottle, so people could get spritzed and have a whiff. One waft of that fragrance would be a major motivating force. There is such a huge psychic difference between having a major, unexpected expense with no savings, or having a savings cushion and then having an extended run of good luck. It starts when you realize that you already have enough in your checking account to pay all of your rent and bills this month and next month, with some left over.
There's always something. I personally have been laid off, had major medical expenses while uninsured, received erroneous tax bills, been billed for equipment I had already returned, had engine failure on road trips (more than once), had the primary vehicle die, and I don't even want to talk about how many veterinary emergencies. There is a guarantee for expensive disasters that is much stronger than the guarantee of finding cute shoes or a "can't miss" sale. It feels so unfair and boring, when what we want to feel when we spend money is the internal fireworks of delight and dopamine.
The trouble is that spending money in search of that fun, exciting feeling doesn't always deliver the desired emotional payoff. That's true even today. Then there's the deferred sinking feeling of dread when we realize we've been overspending. We never see it coming, because the last thing most of us are going to do with our free time is to estimate our monthly spending on a graph.
I know exactly how I would do it. I'd start out with a $5 green tea soy latte and a $3 pastry, plus tip. Then I'd have an $18 lunch, sometimes more because I really should be eating more salads. Then I'd do a little shopping and spend $70 on books, plus tax, and maybe a new top. Ooh, I'm so busy, better text my honey and convince him to take a Lyft over to meet me for sushi and a movie! I could happily spend every day like this, much less spreading it over a week or two. It would feel so natural and easy, I wouldn't even realize that my burn rate was roughly $200 (a week? A day?), not including rent, utilities, vacations, gifts, debt maintenance, or special occasions. My daily splurges almost automatically become routine daily requirements. Then I'm chasing my tail, trying harder and harder to get that feeling of luxury and sparkle. I feel deprived when I have to "skip" what I can't afford in the first place. This is why scarcity mindset is so much more expensive than abundance mindset.
Planning for the future is a gift to myself. It takes imagination, especially because most people don't bother to do it, but I can get emotional juice out of putting money aside for Future Me: Next Year and Future Me: Age 60 and Future Me: Age 80 and Future Me: Who Even Knows. It also takes imagination to find comfort and excitement in the routine. There is no specific price tag on a sense of abundance, just as there is no upper limit to the amount that still will not satisfy a sense of deprivation. I can be cheerful eating homemade lentil soup, and bored and resentful at a five-star restaurant. I can sit with the realization that none of the tinsel and glitter I see are really going to satisfy me the way the actors in the commercial look satisfied. Nothing I have ever bought has ever made me jump into the air with my knees four feet off the ground and my arms in the air, I can say that much for sure.
Extrapolating my habitual activities over a month prevents me from fooling myself about "unusual" days or weeks. It's harder to write off my behavior as anomalous or claim it doesn't count for some reason. All the birthday cake and candy I had this month counts, just as I probably don't eat broccoli or cabbage as often as I mentally tally it. All the trinkets and treats I buy count, just as all my unfair bills and fines do, and I probably don't save money at nearly the rate I'd like to believe. I'm just trying to live in reality, to understand my own proclivities, and to make sure I'm really living up to my own standards and preferences.
An underrated advantage of estimating our monthly expenses is that it enables us to estimate our annual expenses. The reason we do this is that we can then estimate how much we would need to maintain our current lifestyle if we were financially independent. What seems impossible today can, with sufficient data, seem nearly inevitable four or ten or fifteen years down the road. Extrapolating into the future induces optimism.
This is one of the best decluttering books out there, and I can tell for two reasons. One is, obviously, that I read it. The other is that mixed in with the reviews are a few talking about how incredibly helpful it is, and at least one by someone who has read it three or more times, working slowly through the chapters and then starting over again. Andrew J. Mellen is a professional organizer, and this book really can help you to Unstuff Your Life!
What makes Unstuff Your Life! different from other organizing books is that Mellen pauses frequently to address hypothetical responses, criticisms, naysaying, and pushback from the reader. A book with every possible negative and resistant response would be a million pages long, and new pages would be added as fast as they could be typeset. I can always tell when someone is too far down the Readiness Scale to work with me when I start hearing the monologues I call "let me explain in meticulous detail why this could never conceivably apply to me."
At the beginning of the book, Mellen addresses the problem of why we can't find things, and the process of wandering around and setting something somewhere without creating a memory. Good stuff. He also goes into the nature of procrastinating by not understanding that time applies to our plans, and explains the thinking errors behind "bargain" shopping that leads to consumer debt. So much of what we do as organizers is not emotional work, but mental homework, explaining the difference between default thinking and organized thinking. Mellen includes several lists of questions to delve into this mental homework. "What's the difference between an excuse and an explanation?" "Does your stuff seem to have a life of its own?"
Another thing that Unstuff Your Life! does very well is to teach how to categorize objects and make decisions about them. This always sounds obvious to organized people, but I can tell you that it feels like mysticism to my people. The intellectual failings behind hoarding are being unable to see individual items as a group or a room, and being unable to devise functional systems. I say this because my people are extremely intelligent and creative, and they like to see themselves as A students. It helps to frame "being organized" as an academic skill well within the reach of anyone who has a solid grasp of grammar and punctuation (and, frankly, most who don't).
The truly best parts of the book are when Mellen shares conversations he has had with his organizing clients, or, in one instance, his own mother. In one, he walks a client through why she would keep an expensive jacket, but not an ex-boyfriend, even though he was "expensive" too. In another, he talks a client through the painful realization that the broken clock she inherited from her father is not actually her father. These are bittersweet, funny, and entirely relatable.
Unstuff Your Life! can teach you how to do everything. Sort your mail, make emotional decisions about old magazines, calculate the cost of your storage unit, figure out what does and does not go on your kitchen countertop, set up a sorting area, define 'trash,' sort photos and sentimental items, and know for certain which papers to file, shred, or recycle. Most of us were never formally taught how to "be organized" or clean house, and this is where Andrew Mellen comes in. This book is something rare, a readable and amusing unstuffing manual.
Favorite quote: "If everything is precious, nothing is precious."
I only found it because I dropped something behind a shelf. Moving a storage tin to reach it, I discovered a very large black spider in its web. Compounding this moment of surprise was the fact that I was talking to my mom on the phone. The conversation went something like this: "Blah blah blah BLEARGHughohmygahhhh sorry what?" Then I had to wind it up because I really wanted to take a picture of the nefarious interloper, but I needed my phone camera. Sorry, Mom, that's really interesting but there's this spider to investigate...
Years ago, I decided to start carrying spiders and insects outside rather than crush them. The main reason is that they leave horrifying greasy smears on the wall. The whole time I'm wiping them away with my Magic Eraser, I'm thinking "spider guts bug guts spider guts..." There's also that gruesome crunch of the exoskeleton being cracked, or eight spider eyeballs popping off, or whatever. The occasional extra leg joint left behind on the floor. If I wanted to do crime scene cleanup, I would - I hear there's good money in that. I'm not squeamish, I'm... KIND! Yeah, that's right. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
My husband happened to be home, so I let him carry out the big scary black spider. He caught it in a plastic container, because it has a lid, and examined it out on the balcony.
"Um, babe? It has a big red hourglass on its belly."
We agreed to crush it, rather than release it to get back into our apartment, or one of our neighbors' apartments.
We had only lived in our new apartment for three weeks. We had carefully unpacked and set up each and every item from every box. If there had been a giant hairy black spider in any of the boxes, presumably we would have found it. It had to have come in either through the front door or the sliding patio door, since we don't actually have any windows. Either that, or it got in somewhere when it was tiny and then began growing when it was comfortably hidden away. None of these options are very reassuring.
Our dog has a habit of picking up spiders with his mouth, tossing them around several times, smacking them with his paw, and then wiping his cheek on the remains. Not great if this ever happens with a venomous spider like a black widow. I did some research, and venomous spider bites can cause paralysis and death in dogs and cats.
Here's the thing: spiders get in. They like nice, warm, dry hiding places. There is probably at least one spider in everyone's home at all times. Almost all spiders are totally harmless, and even beneficial. There are a few, though, that do bite humans, causing wounds that you probably don't want to see in Image Search. I have a relative who needed emergency treatment after a bite from a black widow spider. We need to discriminate about whether we tolerate spiders in our homes, and which type they are.
My clients tend to be very laissez-faire about, well, a lot of stuff, but particularly about spiders and vermin. Almost all of them will point out spiders in the cobwebs on their ceiling and say, "That's my pet." Believe it or not, it's also quite common for my people to tolerate mice and rats in their homes, even though I can give you at least fifty reasons why this is a horrible idea. They tend to be skeptical about mainstream health and safety information in general. Fire safety, germ theory, vermin... *shrug* Whatevs.
On the other extreme are the sensitive souls who are so alarmed by the prospect of finding a spider that they use it as an excuse to avoid moving anything. There might be a spider in that closet! There are definitely spiders in the shed/garage/attic/basement... There might be a spider behind that box! Or IN that box! Cue full-body shudder.
This, to me, is the best possible reason to clean up. There might BE a spider in there. Better find it before it carries your cat into its web! If there's a spider anywhere in my home, I'm going on a search and destroy mission and I'm not stopping until I find it. Spike is right there with me, sometimes dispatching the poor creature before I can get it into the Eviction Container. I'm not waiting around until it crawls into my bed, which has happened more times than I care to share.
One morning I woke up and saw a pretty darn big spider crawling on my sheets. Not fully awake, I reached my arm out and crushed it with my finger. I felt it squirm. THEN I woke up all the way.
I first went camping at age two. Part of the wilderness lore I was taught included always checking your shoes before you put them on. When I'm camping, I stuff my socks into my shoes or boots after I take them off, to discourage any spiders, scorpions, or anything else from crawling inside. At home, I keep all my footwear in a hanging shoe rack, where I hope it would be a great deal of trouble for some crawly thing to discover them and try to make a home inside one. I still check, every shoe, every time. Once I left my shoes on the floor and found a cat toy inside, presumably from my roommate's cat. Gee, uh, thanks?
I also make sure to put my laundry in the hamper, again because I don't want to create an enticing new home for anything that has more legs than I do.
I would no sooner dream of putting on clothes I had left on the floor overnight than I would eating leftovers out of someone's fridge blindfolded. The idea of pulling on a pair of pants with a spider hidden inside one leg is scarier to me than... now that I think about it, it's literally scarier to me than walking down a dark alley alone.
The main difference between my home and the homes of my clients is that I have a lot of visible bare wall. I don't have stacks or piles or box towers for stuff to hide behind. I don't have a lot of bulky furniture. Even though our apartment is under 700 square feet, we have plenty of breathing room around our stuff. I was able to find the big black widow spider behind our shelves because those shelves are for active use storage. Nothing sits in one place for very long before it is taken out, used, and put back.
My contention is that we should be intentional about our homes. Everything we own, everything that comes through our doors, and the way everything is arranged should be exactly as we choose it to be. Sometimes we are temporarily beset by unintentional additions, such as junk mail, fruit flies, or the occasional still-mobile creature carried in by one of our pets. Part of our plan for intentional living should be to figure out what to do with unwelcome interlopers, removing annoyances as they come up. Hopefully we won't have to smear them on the wall.
I'm a one-bag traveler. This only really matters when I travel, which is four or five times most years. On a daily basis, though, having only one bag is the absolute essence of minimalism. A single daily bag becomes a reliable tool for consolidating the gear and information that are most important in daily life. A single bag is vital to the holy grail that is Being Organized.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I OWN only one bag. It means all my DAILY STUFF is in one bag.
I currently have one work bag, two daytime purses, three evening purses, and a beach tote. This is because I haven't gotten around to getting rid of the two purses that are getting shabby after ten or so years. To me, having extra bags leads to guaranteed confusion, lost objects, and late departures. No bag ever made is pretty enough, or even useful enough, to make up for unnecessary hassle and irritation.
For local trips, I often just put my wallet and keys in my pocket, like a man, if I actually have pockets, because women's fashion is a conspiracy.
Ideally, my purse and work bag would be one and the same. In practice, I need a larger bag two days a week, and I don't like lugging it around more than I must. It's like when the rocket boosters separate from the space shuttle.
Purse: Wallet, phone, keys. Pen. Sunglasses. Lip balm. Tissues. Hair tie. Coin purse.
Work bag: Backup battery, adapters, and headphones. I carry sunblock and deodorant because of the climate where I live, and a small vial of Aleve because I'm superstitious. Mini emergency toothbrush, a wet wipe, and a stain treatment pen. Protein bar, and emergency sandwich if I'm flying. Folding grocery bag. Sweater. This is the maximum amount of paranoia gear I carry in my work bag, in addition to my tablet and phone. The most important object in this cavernously large bag is the EXTRA SPACE it provides for me to run errands.
I timed myself transferring items between bags. It took 57.71 seconds.
My husband commutes via bus, and he carries a backpack. It has his laptop and charger, glasses case, sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone, backup batteries and adaptor, headphones, and pen. Today, it also had a notebook, textbooks, and calculator because he's studying for a new professional certification. The most important feature of his backpack is the EXTRA SPACE it has for his lunch or a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I just asked him, "You don't have any receipts or anything in there?" He shook his head no, casually, like if I asked him if he ever debated what color of socks to wear with his outfit.
Parents whose kids are still at home will probably be thinking, "Easy for you, but we have kids." I know this because parents use this reply in every possible situation. The truth is that people who travel in packs have even more reason to organize and streamline their daily stuff. If you don't like dealing with tears in the morning, assuredly, your kids don't either. Checking kids' school bags and resupplying diaper bags in the evening prevents a lot of frustration before it has a chance to derail your family life.
Now that we've done the exposition, the key to Single Bag Theory is the strategic loading and unloading of the bag. The bag is Command Central. Since I don't need my wallet, keys, or sunglasses inside my home, they just stay in the bag. I never have to look for them. I know where the bag is because I always put it in the same spot when I get home. If I need to take something somewhere, like outgoing mail, I put it directly into the bag. This way I don't need a container or flat surface or special furniture; our apartment is so tiny that we don't have a foyer or hallway or mudroom or any of that. If we didn't have a system for our daily bags, then we would have a nonfunctional kitchen with counters covered in junk. That's just an objective fact.
Unloading the bag means making decisions. What am I carrying at the end of the day that is not strictly necessary to my next trip out the front door? Generally it is groceries or sundries I bought, receipts, mail, extra paper napkins, and the occasional piece of trash or recycling. Most of us carry receipts more out of habit or concern about identity theft than because we actually DO anything with the receipts. I try to avoid having receipts printed out at the check stand whenever possible. I do categorize my expenses in my finance app, but I only save the receipts with split expenses. This means that if I went to a restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, or other place with only one category of expense, I don't need the receipt for my purposes. If it's something expensive like electronics, I'll save it until I'm sure the item works properly. Most of our mail is junk mail, and almost everything that's left is outer and inner envelopes, brochures, and other useless inserts. We pay our bills electronically. Process and shred or recycle. Most of my trash sorting happens while I'm waiting at bus stops. When I check the contents of my bag at the end of every day, it only takes a quick glance and a few seconds to pull out anything weird or silly. I'm weird and silly enough without giving myself chiropractic problems lugging extra junk on my neck.
My smartphone takes the place of many of the items I used to carry. I no longer need a bulky paper day planner or address book or notebook or calculator. I no longer have tons of scraps of notes, phone numbers with no name on them, shopping lists, directions, or map printouts. I've developed the habit of setting alarms and time- and location-based reminders, because otherwise I know the fallibility of my ADHD mind. I need to be wondering about stuff like whether crows can be trained to pick up litter or whether there will ever be a wall-climbing scrubbing robot, not whether I've forgotten to order parrot kibble or where I put my keys. That's the point of all this, the point of Being Organized. We have more important things to do and more interesting things to think about than our daily stuff.
Having only a single bag has a magical way of making us more organized. Suddenly we know where our keys, phone, and glasses are. Suddenly we know where to look for our little scraps of notes. We start to be less late, and finally on time for things, because we can just sling the bag over one shoulder and go straight out the door. All the little rays of wandering attention we have aimed all over the place start to merge into a thick beam of focus. Having one bag can help us both look better and feel smarter, and what a magical bag that is!
By this time of year, almost nobody is talking about New Year's Resolutions anymore. We still have more than half the year left, but usually we've already given up on ourselves. Caroline Arnold has a better idea in Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. We can make the changes we really want to make by focusing on tinier, faster, easier steps.
It isn't always obvious how to go about breaking a big project or life change into smaller, more manageable pieces. If we had the idea, we'd be doing it, right? Small Move, Big Change has countless examples of microresolutions that real people have used. Simply reading them has a tendency to spark connections and clicks that make these changes seem easy and manageable. Because they are personal, they're memorable in a way that boilerplate advice often is not. The book covers such a huge range of topics that there is bound to be at least something transformative for everyone.
Arnold starts with sleep as the best area to start making microresolutions. I couldn't agree more. Most of our failure to have perfect "willpower" (a fantasy creature that only exists in storybooks) is due to tiredness. Too tired to even get ready for bed! As she picks apart her own issue with sleep procrastination, we can't help but compare her routine with our own. A busy, married working mom with a young child, Arnold's struggles are totally relatable.
Small Move, Big Change can help us get more sleep, save money, be on time, get organized, get fit, lose weight, and get better performance reviews at work. Best of all, there are ideas for how to transform relationships with our romantic partners, family, friends, bosses, and colleagues. We start to feel like maybe we can handle this pesky old Resolution thing after all. Small Move, Big Change is definitely a path in the direction of greater happiness.
The highest-order compliment I give is to designate someone as Useful. This means that the person is a worthy candidate for my zombie squad. It's a simple shorthand for a complex set of attributes. It's entirely possible that I don't meet my own standard for Usefulness.
The first component of being Useful is to be a strategic thinker. The Useful person sees problems before they become problems. This is why the Useful person tends to know when to open doors or grab the other end of a heavy object. A full-on Useless person, on the other hand, tends to spend a lot of time in exactly the wrong place. Useless people cause accidents and spills, and stuff tends to get broken around them due to their inattentiveness.
My dog is both Useful and Useless, which is allowed because he's an animal. He is Useful in that he's vigilant, he eliminates vermin, and he always lets me know if a package has been delivered. I have watched him crush a spider with his paw, note that it was still moving, and crush it some more until the job was done. He also has a habit of trying to walk between my feet, especially when I'm carrying groceries or a laundry basket. He has knocked me over. He likes to dig up fresh seedlings from the garden. When he was a puppy, he destroyed nearly a dozen pillows. All of these things are pretty darn Useless. He likes to sleep on my feet in the winter, though, and that's so Useful that it balances the accounts.
A Useful person tends to have interesting skills that I don't have. I am a gleaner of skills, and I will try to absorb these abilities as quickly as I can. Often, though, I'm weak in an area and will have little hope of mastering it in this lifetime. Orienteering is one example. I have trouble telling left from right and I have no innate sense of direction. It's Useful to me to have someone around who is good at these things. I can offer a skill that seems like it would be closely related, but isn't: I have an eerily photographic recall of where objects are stored. I can remember the location of every object in my house and most of the visible objects in every house where I have spent significant time. I have helped people find their keys and other possessions over the phone from 3000 miles away. This is Useful for my work as a professional organizer - I can still recall the positions of visible objects from a Level 3 hoard. I can't navigate but I can find all the stuff, and my husband is the opposite.
A Useful person is solution-oriented. This means the focus is always going to be on solving a problem and moving forward. A Useless person prefers to vent about problems, cultivate allies who have an opinion about problems, and create drama about problems, while the problem continues to fester. The two groups tend to have mutual antipathy. Sometimes solving a problem looks a lot like "judging" anyone who didn't contribute to the solution. Why, I don't know. In my roster of Useful people are a few people who are abrasive, occasionally annoying, yet I can appreciate that they will reliably solve problems and get things done.
A Useful person lets the results speak for themselves. Useful people are often very surprising. You might know them for years and never know that they have a bunch of Useful traits. I was rocked back on my heels one day when I was walking with a friend and he ran into someone he knew from an old job. Suddenly they started signing to each other in ASL. Never thought to mention it, huh? Having a set of skills builds confidence. You can go through your day having interesting conversations or kicking back and relaxing. It may not occur to you to mention the skill to people. Maybe years will go by and you won't need to demonstrate the skill. Suddenly, bam, Useful!
Useful people are altruistic. This is part of why I fell in love with my husband. He took night classes and became an Emergency Medical Responder, just because. Since then he's been first on the scene at a couple of traffic accidents. I've been with him on a couple of occasions when someone collapsed, at the coffee shop and on the bus, and it's awe-inspiring to see that shift into superhero mode. We are fortunate enough to have several friends who have been Useful when someone else was in trouble. It makes you love them all the more for the way they unselfishly come to someone's aid, and also because they've just demonstrated that they deserve a spot on the zombie squad.
My most Useful moment was probably late one evening, when my friend's car had broken down in a small town where everything had already closed for the day. He was trying to replace the fuel filter, and the single tiny nut that held it in place fell into the gravel. We were parked at an abandoned gas station. There were about forty million bits of stray hardware in that gravel: springs, washers, screws, paperclips, bottle caps, bits of alien spacecraft, you name it. Somehow, with the sun going down, I FOUND that nut. My freakishly keen eyesight and ability to pick objects out of undifferentiated piles became my superpower that night.
Sometimes we're Useful without realizing it. I was waiting at a crosswalk one day with about a dozen other people. Almost everyone jaywalked. I always wait for the light, because I don't trust automobile drivers at all, and I would hate to be blamed for being pasted by a car. When I crossed the street, the last remaining pedestrian spoke to me. He was an elderly man and his eye was running with fluid. He told me that he was partially blind and that he counted on people like me to help him know when it was safe to cross the street. I hadn't even noticed him until then. I can't take credit for it; all I can do is to proceed with others in mind. Try to be the person that Future Self will need in times of frailty.
I hope I'm Useful at least some of the time. I don't want to be a "consumer." I don't want to be a complainer or a whiner. I don't want to get in the way. I don't want to annoy people unintentionally. (If I do it, hopefully it's on purpose!). At least I can try to be neutral, offsetting the irritation of my very existence by the occasional helpful act. At best, I'd like to be the one people count on when they think, "Who would I want with me during the apocalypse?"
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.