You know how they say sometimes people look like their pets? It's hard to tell whether we choose companions who resemble us, or whether we come to resemble them as time goes by. I think the same thing happens to married people. Live together long enough and you start finishing each other's sentences, referring to yourselves in the first person plural, and wearing matching outfits. That part is a total accident. My husband and I were winding up in color-coordinated shirts before we even started dating. I mention it because yesterday we both wore lavender, and I didn't see what shirt he had on until he got home from work. It's uncanny. As much as we start to merge our tastes and behaviors in certain ways, as much as we pick up each other's turns of phrase, our personal possessions start to blend and merge, too.
An example of this is this particular ceramic travel mug that looks like a paper cup. It has a little silicon sleeve that looks like a cardboard sleeve, and a silicon lid that looks like a plastic lid. I bought it for myself before we got married. At some point along the way, I lent it to my husband, and he adopted it. He's convinced it's his, and at this point, it is. What's mine is yours, babe!
We don't share everything. Maintaining privacy is one of those things that many people let fall by the wayside, but I firmly believe that abandoning it undercuts romance. You start to become more like roommates, or, heaven forfend, siblings. Some doors should be kept closed, both figuratively and literally. It always strikes me as strange when couples share email or social media accounts, especially since they don't cost anything. We need to know which one of you is talking! It's weird! Make a Venn diagram of the two of you and make sure that it doesn't overlap completely.
We're in the end stages of moving to a new place, and this yours/mine/ours division has become more pronounced. There are still a few boxes left to unpack. This always happens; the last ten percent usually takes longer than the first fifty percent. It happens in our case because I'm a professional organizer and my husband is...not. I unpack all of my stuff, all of "our" stuff, and part of his stuff. I'll never do all of it, because he has a lot of high-test electronics equipment, and I don't want to be held responsible for banging it up. Also, if I organize it, he'll never be able to find anything again. It's a mark of respect.
What I've learned in working with chronically disorganized homes is that people often don't feel like they have permission to dispose of certain things - even when they live alone! The boundaries between yours/mine/ours can be quite blurred. 'Ours' might include family heirlooms, adult children's belongings, stuff left behind years ago by former roommates, or even random bits that "came with the house." Almost every time I have taken occupancy of a new house or apartment, there have been various amounts of things left behind, such as cleansers, hardware, plant pots, lamps, or even furniture. This happens when even the landlord is hesitant to make an executive decision and just get rid of stuff.
Someone needs to be the boss of the house. Preferably this is an adult human being. When there is no adult in the alpha role, the leadership position will quickly be filled by a child, a pet, an influx of vermin, or even a relative who drops by occasionally. When nobody is managing, no decisions are being made, and chaos will be the default.
Families generate a lot of random clutter. It just happens. The bigger the household, the more guests and visitors, and the more forgotten books/CDs/headphones/hoodies, etc. All it takes is for each household member to leave one stray item laying around per day, and by the end of the week it's total bedlam. Controlling this does not have to be the job of any one person, but it can certainly be the suggestion of any one person. The best person to catalyze an organizing spree is actually a small child. They love being "bad cop." Pick the bossiest kid. Tell them nobody can watch TV until everyone puts their stuff away. Tell them, whoever finishes first gets to pick the movie/choose the music in the car/sit in the best chair, or whatever is the juiciest prize in your household. Tell them that if everyone can get the job done while asking you zero questions, maybe there will be dessert afterward.
This method only works for items that belong to someone. Either it's yours or it's mine. When it's "ours," things get more complicated. It turns out that almost everything in most homes is "ours." The furniture and appliances. The towels. Everything in the kitchen, including the scary leftovers in the fridge. The carpets and cabinets and tiles and shelves. The lightbulbs, the windows, the blinds, the doorknobs, the light switches. The car. The mailbox. The junk mail. EVERYTHING. When you think about it, everywhere other than your house, there's a facilities manager, a landscaper, a custodian, or a janitorial staff. School, work, the store, the library, the gym, the post office, the park... everywhere else, someone is paid to make sense of it all. We just expect to walk down hallways and stairs that are free of clutter, to use countertops that someone eventually wipes up, to have ready access to chairs and tables put there by some interior designer at some point. At home, nobody manages the infrastructure.
Someone needs to pick up the wand. Someone needs to take charge and make some decisions. Do we even need this? Are we using it? Does it need to be stored right here? How often should this get cleaned? Once a year, or not until we move out? The boss/leader/manager does not by any means need to do all the scutwork. What needs to be done is to delegate. Someone needs to be putting away clean dishes. Someone needs to be cleaning floors. Someone needs to be making sure the washer and dryer are switched over. These don't all need to be the same person, unless of course you live alone.
What helps the most is to cut back on clutter. That's mostly going to be "our" stuff. A cluttered house takes 40% longer to clean. Who is going to decide what clutter can be removed, though? What's needed is for someone to take ownership of "our" stuff long enough to make those decisions. This can go, this can go, that can go. Do it as a group if necessary. Life will be easier - yours, mine, and ours.
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?
No matter how many moving boxes I get, I always run out. I have tried and tried and tried to learn to estimate correctly, and I always round up on the most I think I'll need, and I'm always still short. This time it was only by five small boxes. The trouble is that five small boxes of small items can represent dozens of things scattered in every cabinet and drawer. As usual, it's the fiddly bits. For most people, the fiddly bits turn into MISC (the dreaded misc). Don't leave them alone in the dark.
What happens is that we have a moving van that is 90% packed, it's getting late, we have an appointment to hand over the keys, and we're scrambling to fit in the last of the fiddly bits. No more boxes and no time to go find some. We wind up with paper and plastic grocery bags full to bursting and ready to tear or tip over. This time we even had to use a plastic bag from our dinner delivery. It's no fun to pack this way, and it's even less fun to unpack the van this way. After collecting everything that has rolled out, it takes a half hour of extracting the fiddly bits before we can start unloading the boxes and larger items.
With this move, I finally decided to get to the bottom of the problem. I realized that I always had fiddly bits left over because I clean the house top to bottom when I move out. We couldn't pack the cleansers until last. I had never taken the time to evaluate whether I really needed every single bottle at the last minute, or how much space they take up. It turns out to be exactly one box for laundry stuff, and one apiece for the cabinets under the kitchen and bathroom sinks. Gee, that's not so hard!
A household move is often the culprit behind a cluttered, disorganized house. There will be boxes taped shut from previous moves, and sometimes for several moves before that. What happens is the standard plan:
1. Household cannot deal with the upcoming move
2. Nothing is packed, cleaned, or organized until the last possible minute
3. Not enough boxes
4. Friends, family, or professional movers help by tossing anything that will fit into any box they can find
5. Every single box is appropriately labeled 'MISC'
6. It's impossible to find things when it's time to move in to the new place
7. No way will everything fit anyway
8. Repeat with next move, only it's significantly less organized than the previous move
The natural tendency is to blame the movers and carry a grievance, while drastically underestimating how much free labor was supplied. Nobody owes anyone free moving help! Pizza and beer are not enough. I priced movers in my area and they earn a rate of $30-60/hour per person. Essentially, if we have boxes of MISC packed for us by our friends, we should feel incredibly grateful, and even more so if they gave up precious free time on their days off.
We've done our last two moves alone, partly because I now have a profound distrust of professional movers packing my things, and partly because we can move ourselves. It's cheaper. We're strong enough. Everything fits in a 20' van. We have a really hard time moving our Cal-King mattress, but that's ten minutes of intense struggle, and we can handle it. Even the time I nearly knocked myself unconscious by smacking my head on the doorframe.
What the heck are people moving? For most households, the kitchen is the problem area. Lots of tiny, sharp, and/or fragile things with odd shapes and accessories. I freely admit that our kitchen is not minimalist. I still have the material capacity to cook and serve a meal for a dozen people. That's down from two dozen. We used to have two dining tables, and we filled them every week. I miss those days, but downsizing has helped me to realize that, guess what? That's what restaurants are for! If we have another get-together for two dozen people, we can rent a picnic area at a park. We keep questioning what we are keeping and what we can let go. Keep the friends, let go of the extra stuff.
Furniture and appliances are big and easy to track. They tend not to be the problem, although certainly they're the last things most people will consider letting go. Most people seem perfectly eager to keep every appliance and large piece of furniture they've ever had, and somehow try to wedge themselves in around the bulk. The fiddly bits tend to consist of:
Paper (junk mail, advertising circulars, catalogs)
Children's/pet toys (LEGO, crayons, tiny accessories like Barbie shoes and action figure weapons)
Office supplies (pens, pencils, paperclips, tacks)
Bits of hardware (nails, screws, nuts, bolts, washers, mystery hardware from various products)
Clothes on the floor in various rooms (laundry area, every bedroom, every bathroom, most hallways, many living rooms and kitchens)
Decorations by the dozens
Every object left on every flat surface (every table, every countertop, every desk, every windowsill, every toilet tank, every refrigerator, every dryer lid, many stair steps, most chairs, some couch cushions)
A box of MISC (the dreaded misc) may thus contain some plastic food storage containers, a handful of junk mail, a child's sock, a paperclip, some pennies, and a book. This box will never be unpacked. It will never be unpacked because just opening it and looking inside could give anyone a bad case of swirly eyes. Nobody is going to spend the five minutes to carry this box from room to room, sorting out the fiddly bits and putting them away.
Thus we start to see that the fiddly bits have never been put away. They can't get unpacked in a new home because they were never unpacked in the original home. They can't get put away because there's no 'away' to put them. How can a friendly mover pack them "correctly" when nobody has ever known where they should go?
The only solution for the fiddly bits is to treat them like weeds. Decide whether this is going to be a showpiece garden, a casual yard, or a nice setting for a haunted house. Then spend a certain amount of time every week scouting around and controlling the overgrowth to the degree that is acceptable for your standards, whether aesthetic or functional. When it comes time to move out, the results of this regular maintenance will be readily apparent, one way or another.
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.
We're just visiting. Staying in a stranger's home is by turns convenient, titillating, creepy, funny, and surprising. I feel really naughty writing about it, but if I swear not to include any identifying details... is it too much like reading pages torn from someone's diary without knowing who it was? Ah, what the heck, I'm going in.
The first thing we noticed was that the owner mentioned the supposed property value in the Airbnb ad. Not just in the ad copy, but in the heading! Not sure how common this is, but it reminded me of the time I went on a blind date with a (short) guy who mentioned his height three separate times in his ad. I thought it was funny to care so much about how tall you are, since I'm not tall either, and it's even funnier to care about the street value of a house you aren't planning to sell. I thought it was so funny that I looked up the property tax records online and saw that they were overstating the case by about ten percent, just like the short guy.
While I was snooping around in the public records database, I looked at the square footage and the number of rooms. Well over three thousand square feet. Also FIVE TIMES LARGER than the apartment we're moving into! The number of bedrooms was a bit of a mystery. I was guessing six, but apparently it's four. That doesn't count the parlor with the curtain that has been converted into an extra bedroom.
Almost every square inch of this house is covered with decorations or objects of some kind. There were seven pillows on our bed. The dresser in our room has: a large picture in a frame; a large mirror; a fake plant in a pot with a ribbon on it; a coffee pot; a word sculpture. Every single piece of fabric in the house has a pattern on it, no two alike. The wastebasket in the bathroom still has a sticker on the front that says GENUINE MARBLE. On a trash can!
The kitchen is so full of high-end groceries, appliances, and decorations that it's almost unusable. There are at least three separate coffee contraptions. One of them has a sticky note saying not to use it because it's broken. ...? It's one of the biggest kitchens I've ever seen, with the most pantry cupboards, and yet the counters are covered with food, and there's more tucked into the bookshelves. One such item is a gallon can of tomatoes.
I can smell clutter. I mean that I can physically smell it. This home is magnificently abundant, although on the absolute opposite end of the style spectrum from my own minimalist tastes. It's rococo, it's baroque, it's shabby chic, it's Victorian, it's country cute, it somehow manages to be all of those things at once. Mirrors and marble and beads and velvet and gilt and plastic fruit and brass and tassels extraordinaire! It would be possible to separate out at least three distinct style statements and decorate at least three large homes with them, and in fact that would make a great show on HGTV. Much of a muchness of a multifarious many. Is it clutter, is it just bounteous overflow? That's a matter of purely personal taste. What I was seeing wasn't what I was smelling, though. Where was it?
As a side note, the clutter smell is to be distinguished from the wide variety of odors that come with squalor. I have worked in squalid homes that contained virtually no physical possessions. That's more common than one would guess. This house falls in a different sector of the Venn diagram, the house that is full of stuff but is physically clean. I bumped into the maid in the hallway. If there was a real hoard here, it wasn't visible from public areas.
My husband spotted it. He's almost a foot taller than me (sorry, Blind Date Guy) and we notice different things. The three-car garage has clear glass windows. He glanced that way as we were walking down the driveway, and he gasped. Later, he told me that it was completely hoarded. Well, it's a garage, what do you expect? Just because someone has a three-car garage does not mean that one or two garages' worth of space will be kept clear for cars. Why not keep your high-end luxury automobiles in the driveway and use the garage space to store heaps of stuff?
There is some sadness here. We've been around nearly a week, keeping to ourselves because we've been spending our days hauling heavy objects and resolving the myriad administrative details of moving house. All we want to do is sleep. What we've noticed is that there are, we think, eight people including us under the roof. All the doors are constantly closed. Nobody seems to be eating meals together; tonight we made dinner in the microwave and there was a lonely plate of food sitting out on the counter, waiting for someone. It's really hard to tell, but in addition to the two Airbnb rooms there seems to be at least one full-time extra tenant living here. Possibly there are adult siblings. For such a large house, a house with two living rooms, a formal dining room, and a seventy-inch TV, nobody is spending time with anyone else. It suggests the possibility that the rooms are being rented out like a boarding house, to help make ends meet.
The obvious question to me is: why not simply downsize to something affordable? Something happier? Something easier to maintain?
Granted, not everyone can bear to live in a small space. Our new apartment, the one whose keys we await in a few days, is almost exactly the same size as the three-car garage at this very maximalist house. It's funny to think that this house is still more than twice as big as the three bedroom, two bath house my husband and I lived in as newlyweds. We thought that place was cavernously large and that we had packed it full of as much stuff as possible! De gustibus non est disputandum.
We are very lucky to have the option to rent this room, the room in the very maximalist house. The linens smell fresh. Nobody interferes with us in any way. The neighborhood is so quiet at night that you can hear a leaf falling on the lawn. We've never been able to offer anything like this to our Couchsurfing guests; a foam pad crammed next to our desks and a bunch of racket from our pets is what you get at our house. Where there's plenty, there's always plenty more. While I won't be adopting these interior design strategies in our new place, we'll remember staying here with fondness and a certain amount of humor.
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.'
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.
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