It’s that time again, time to move! We’ve been eating up what we have on hand, and this has led to some interesting revelations. What are we doing when we’re coasting along in default mode, and how does it compare to what we would rather claim to be doing on some sort of survey?
Our freezer is almost completely empty right now. We decided to get ready to move immediately after coming home from vacation, when we hadn’t been shopping yet. That was the first disruption. HALT! Eat what we have and try to avoid bringing home anything new.
The second disruption happened when I also skipped my occasional “stocking up” trips. One of our frugality tricks is to wait until certain staples go on sale, and then buy as much as we can fit. Since we haven’t had a pantry for the past couple of years, this means freezer stuff. It keeps, it’s at eye level, and it’s a very limited space, so we know we can’t overdo it.
This would definitely be the point when I would plan to fill up the freezer with entrees to last 1-2 weeks.
The third disruption was when we noticed we were running out of oatmeal and declined to go to Costco. There is truly no point to going to a warehouse store immediately before loading a moving van, especially when you plan to live closer to said warehouse store afterward.
As with any area of complexity, there are multiple inputs here, all with different causes and all with different effects.
As our freezer has gradually and steadily emptied out, it is becoming apparent that I harbor some major fantasies about leisurely hot breakfasts. Now more than half of what is left in there consists of breakfast foods. That does sort of solve the low oatmeal reserve problem.
It has also become apparent that we tend to eat certain foods more quickly than others, and some orphans have been hanging around. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are two containers of homemade soup in the freezer, and one of a special katsu sauce that I batch-cook because it is incredibly messy.
This makes it theoretically possible to eat an actual “home-cooked” meal in our new place the very night we move in!
Something else came up in the surprise pantry assessment. My hubby found my carefully hidden, freezer-burned non-dairy chocolate brownie ice cream. It’s probably been in there, what month is it? Six months or more? It was under my stash of vegan white chocolate chips from New Year’s Eve 2017.
Yes, it’s true, no matter what I eat or claim to eat, I always have a stash of dessert foods hidden away somewhere. Twenty-five years ago it was a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the back of my desk drawer, kept at work so I wouldn’t have to share with my boyfriend. Now it’s - well, it’s whatever I feel like - considerately hidden from my abstainer husband.
Abstainers have to avoid temptations entirely, because otherwise they will immediately cave in. Moderators like me prefer to have the temptation on hand, just to know it’s there, like a fire extinguisher. It’s just as unfair for me to prominently display treats around my husband as it is unfair for him to require me not to keep any in the house.
I learned to be a moderator from my dad, incidentally. He would get three Cadbury chocolate bars for Christmas, one plain, one with dried fruit, and one with nuts. They lived in a desk drawer next to his favorite chair. Sometimes, while reading a book, he would unwrap one of these, snap off one rectangle, and nibble at it. Just one. Not every day. Those chocolate bars - you can imagine how I knew, a little kid staring at candy - would last him for months. I learned to associate moderation with higher-quality candy! That’s probably why, in our fruit bowl, I still have a few pieces of candy left over from Halloween, over nine months ago.
What else do we have in our pantry, now that we’re aiming for nothing?
A dozen or so jars of homemade soup stock, canned four years ago when we had a much larger kitchen. Likewise home-grown and canned tomatoes and collard greens. Are we going to cook from scratch more when we move to a new place and have a conventional kitchen again?
A few different kinds of flours and sweeteners, kept in the fridge for lack of space. Again, bought when we had a bigger kitchen and more counter space for baking. Are we going to do more of that, or are we wasting money by buying more than we use?
Condiments, so many condiments. We seem to keep accumulating mustards and capers and barbecue sauce and salad dressings, no matter where we live or what we’re doing. At least they are current, since we definitely started from zero when we moved to this region.
Behavioral research indicates that moving is the best time to start new habits. Thinking about when we first moved to this apartment, things have been different. We’ve eaten a lot more prepared foods and we’ve done very little cooking. We’re fitter, though, because we started taking classes at a gym instead of leaving our workouts up to fate. We used to alternate which one of us cooked, but it’s been very haphazard in this tiny studio kitchen.
Now what we want to do is to set careful intentions about our new place, because if we don’t, we will certainly fall into default behavior. We’ll have our first grocery shopping trip to fill up our ghostly, echoing fridge. What’s going in the basket? What will we bring home, what will we cook, what will we eat?
Most importantly, where will I hide my treats?
We’re moving again. When? I dunno. I just know that this is not the place where we are going to retire. Our lease is up this fall and I want to go sooner rather than later. This is the method that I use when I want to shake things up a bit.
Most people don’t plan their moves. In my experience, this is one of THE most commonly procrastinated human activities. I know it because when I do home visits, there are universally always boxes still sealed from the last move, often many years in the past. Nothing personal. People just suck at moving.
One thing I know is true. If something stays sealed in a box, then nobody needs it.
If they did, they would have found it and opened the box and gotten it out.
I’ve moved, I think, 27 times as an adult. Add to that all the people who I have helped pack or move or unpack, and all the clients I have helped do space clearing years after the fact. It’s a lot.
Working with hoarders has been a great refresher for me. Every single time I come home from a home visit, I get rid of another bag of stuff. I even start thinking about my own belongings while I’m still on site. Why do I have so many books I haven’t read? Why do I insist on keeping certain garments even when they’re threadbare and it drives my husband nuts to see me wearing them?
I don’t have much as a general rule, because I formally downsize on a regular basis. Even so, I’ve found that moving requires a culling both before and after a move. First there’s all the stuff you shouldn’t pack in the first place, like empty paper sacks, and then there’s all the stuff that won’t work in the new place, like furniture that won’t fit.
The difference between me and most people is that I actually DO the work that should be done here. I actually DO go through my stuff and get rid of a bunch of things before we move. Then I DO go through it the second time while I’m unpacking.
This has been made easier by our tenuous existence inside of a 612-square-foot studio apartment over a year and a half.
When we first moved into this unit, we had three boxes left over that had nowhere to go. It was mostly pantry food (and, as it turns out, the sewing machine). I had them stacked up next to our dining chairs, and they were unbelievably annoying.
Too stubborn to throw them away, though!
(Many types of food can’t be donated to the food bank, such as flour in a canister, homemade soup stock, or anything in a container that has been opened).
I finally managed to unpack those last three boxes one day while my husband was at work. Let me tell you, he noticed the moment he walked in the door.
It’s easy to be a minimalist in a normal-sized suburban home. That’s because they tend to have tons of closets and cabinets, and you can hide all your stuff.
In a studio where almost all the available storage is on open shelving, suddenly you don’t look like such a minimalist any more! Anyone who comes over and uses our bathroom is going to get a view of our closet, with almost all our worldly goods, not to mention our laundry hampers.
I’m determined to get ready to move, and I want the unpacking process to be even easier than it was last time.
The last time we moved, I unpacked a lot of stuff as we went. We had a friend - a truly amazing person to whom we owe a major debt - come over and help us hand-carry our stuff from one building in our apartment complex to another. Every time I would bring over a load, I would put it where it belonged, starting with the shower and the fridge. By the time we finished late that night, the bathroom was completely unpacked, the bed was made, all our clothes were set up, and the kitchen was half done. We were able to get up the next morning, shower, dress, and make breakfast like nothing had happened.
The main area where I’m focusing as I manifest our next relocation is the kitchen. I’m planning around eating up everything in our fridge and freezer, including condiments. This means the only grocery shopping we’ll really be doing is to buy fresh vegetables. I always wonder how we wind up with so many different flavors of mustard and salad dressing, and that continues to be a question that will probably never be solved.
Doing the closet is a fairly quick job. It takes my husband ten minutes because he’s all about the capsule wardrobe. It will probably take me more like an hour. Then maybe a half hour for the bathroom cabinets.
The other big challenges are our paper file box and the books.
At some point in our relationship, I seem to have passed the baton of book collecting to my hubby. Almost all my reading is digital these days, while he has been doing an unprecedented amount of business travel, which generates a lot of paperback books. Books add bulk and weight to the moving boxes more quickly than anything except clothes, so it’s worth putting in extra focus here.
As for papers, we try to be paper-free as much as possible, yet still they tend to accumulate. I keep hoping that one day we can scan and shred what’s left and be done with it entirely. Papers tend to take the most concentration, and the more they pile up, the harder the job is. That’s why I insist that we purge the file box every year. I refuse to spend more than an hour at a time on this odious task.
I’ll do an inventory of household cleansers and all the random boxes, bags, and bottles that our pets generate.
This time, we’re hiring professional movers again, at my husband’s insistence. I know the job will be easier for them if everything is orderly and streamlined when they arrive. I also know they’re going to unpack in the most random way possible, so the less we have, the better.
Watch this space as I demonstrate how quickly I can manifest a nicer apartment, or maybe even a house!
This is how it went:
December. Decide we want to move to a place with lower rent. Coincidentally get notice TWO HOURS LATER that our rent will increase $200 a month. Shrug.
January. Negotiate lower rent with property manager. Spontaneously decide to look at a “junior one bedroom” unit and realize we like it better. Apply for a unit and get it. Give notice.
Two months after we decided we wanted to move, we were sleeping in our new, cheaper apartment.
Two weeks elapsed between when we started packing our old place to when we finished unpacking in our new place.
I packed four boxes a day for the three days before the move. We could have done more, but in a 680-square-foot apartment, there isn’t very much room for a staging area to stack boxes.
My husband has alternate Fridays off, and we spent a couple of hours packing on the Friday before the move. Then we took off to run some errands and see a movie.
Moving Day was a Saturday. We had breakfast around 8 AM. Then we spent an hour filling out paperwork in the rental office before we could pick up our keys. A friend came over to help us move at 10 AM. He left around 1 PM. We were done packing, hauling, and cleaning at 11 PM, including two meal breaks.
Because we moved from one unit to another within the same apartment complex, there was no way for us to use a moving van. Both units are down a walkway from the parking lot. We had to use a dolly and a rolling skidder, or simply hand-carry everything. The move would have gone much faster if all we’d had to do was to load and unload a van.
By mid-afternoon, the place was already livable. We had set up and made the bed, hung the shower curtain, loaded the fridge and freezer, unpacked the medicine cabinet and all the bathroom cabinets and drawers, put away most of our clothes, set up the couch and the pet crates, and unpacked the kitchen drawers. From that point it was possible to go to bed; wake up, shower, and dress; and make breakfast. We carried on hauling boxes.
On Sunday, we finished unpacking our clothes. I set up the entire kitchen while my husband set up his work station. We unpacked all but a small stack of boxes. We cooked dinner for the first time in our new home.
Monday and Tuesday were ordinary workdays. We unpacked the remaining 20% and found spots for everything.
On Wednesday, I waited around for the internet installer and caught up on laundry.
On Thursday, we left town for the weekend.
On Sunday afternoon, we made a to-do list. We gave away some furniture and the now-empty moving boxes.
We kept the rental car an extra day, since Monday was a holiday, and dropped off a load at Goodwill. We also picked up a few things at IKEA and the Container Store.
Now all that’s left is to hang pictures! We’ve found that it’s best to save the final decorating touches for at least a few days, while we get used to the space and the light levels. Sometimes we change our minds about where furniture will be, and it makes more sense to get that settled before pounding nail holes in the walls.
Because we didn’t have very much stuff to move, we were able to take our time. We had photos and measurements from our first viewing of a similar unit, and we’d spent time at our weekly status meeting drawing out diagrams and figuring out what went where. Many of the early loads got unpacked directly into their place, partly because we needed to reuse the empty moving cartons. I had a small “box of holding” that I used to do each kitchen and bathroom drawer separately, while carrying a small backpack with stuff from the fridge and freezer. I would walk over, unpack the box into its new drawer, unload the backpack, and do something like hang up the shower curtain or put sheets on the bed. This meant about a ten-minute turnaround. With this method, we eliminated the middle stage of a dozen box towers, all labeled ‘MISC.’ It was like magic!
Just as we’ve done every time we’ve moved, we’ve gone through two stages. We got rid of a bunch of stuff that we knew wouldn’t fit before we even started packing. We had a pretty solid estimate of how many boxes we’d need, and we bought sixteen small book boxes and ten large boxes. It would have helped to have another half-dozen small boxes, but we were fine without them. After the move, we had another round of culling to do. Even on the first day, we knew that our next move will involve even less stuff than this one did.
The point of minimalism is to focus on what is most important to you in life. Experiences, not things, and it should also be emphasized that the experience of daily life is most important of all. We prefer to live in a streamlined space where we have room to relax, room to cook, room to live. The better we get at this, the more we can enjoy fringe benefits, such as an efficient, straightforward minimalist move.
Note: I continued my twenty-five-year streak of getting my full cleaning deposit back. This amount was roughly equivalent to what I spent buying myself a nice new wicker easy chair for the front porch.
We’re moved into our new “junior one bedroom” apartment. That’s real-estate-ese for “studio apartment that costs more.” There are a lot of legal restrictions in real estate that encourage truth in advertising, but in reality, you have to check it out for yourself. Beware the “peek view,” for instance. Lean over and see it for yourself before you pay a significant markup. We’re much too frugal to ever take a hotel room with a view, and daily living at home can cost even more. Anyway. Suffice to say that our studio isn’t a “studio” because it comes with a room divider. It’s missing a lot else, almost all of which is kitchen storage.
What I’m going to do is to break down the numbers behind the decision to let go of what can be very emotional attachments to very aspirational kitchen items.
Aspirational items are things we buy because they symbolize a better life. Often, they never get used; they just sit there, trophies toward an image of ourselves that we don’t like enough to live it out every day. Aspirational kitchens are so full of stuff that very little cooking goes on in them. They’re like showrooms.
A stand mixer is the big one for a lot of people. By “big,” I mean physically big, because these things are almost always too tall for the available cabinets. They live on the countertop. This is part of why they’re aspirational. They’re designed to be seen and admired. The stand mixer symbolizes a capital investment in that kitchen. I BAKE. These things are expensive for most people, and the decision to let one go would be emotionally impossible for many.
I never bought one.
I could have a stand mixer if I wanted, sure. I could buy one today. I just refuse to give up that much countertop space. The other reason is that if I baked often enough to justify the kitchen real estate it would require, my husband and I would both probably gain 15-30 pounds the first year. When we choose where to live, we can base the decision on a kitchen without needing to accommodate the huge, expensive, weight-gain-inducing stand mixer of the aspirational kitchen.
Moving right along!
What are some other large, aspirational kitchen appliances?
Instant Pot: $80-$150.
Espresso maker: $35-$700 (!?!)
Bread machine: $60-$100.
Pasta maker: $25-$160
Food processor: $30-$200
Note that we decided we would keep our Vitamix even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels. We use it every day. I’d get rid of a bunch of shoes before I’d get rid of my fancy-dancy blender, because it argues for itself through constant use.
There are tons of other kitchen appliances, of course. They’re popular gifts. I’ve given several of them myself. Ice cream makers, deep fryers, grills, waffle irons. The more of them there are in a kitchen, the harder they are to store. (Kitchens are designed around contemporary trends, and those trends change every decade). The harder appliances are to store, the harder they are to remove and use. The harder they are to use, the less they get used, adding to the feeling of FoMO and the sense that no, I can never let go of anything, because I haven’t gotten my money’s worth out of it.
IT’S WORTH SOMETHING!
This is the funny thing. I just gave away some kitchen appliances I had owned for years, over twenty years in one case. When I looked up what it would cost to replace these things, many of them cost less now and have more features. This happened with a hand-me-down microwave oven that my brother passed on to me during my first marriage. It was almost the size of a dishwasher, it had a dial, and it cooked really slowly. It’s hard to say no to “free.” We did, though, after a year or so. We gave away the free microwave, and I’m sure the next owner also gave it away, because you couldn’t sell that thing. Maybe in 1987 you could have. Now, in 2018, if that thing is still around, you’d probably have to pay someone to take it.
We downsized and accepted a kitchen downgrade because we crunched the numbers. We’re saving over $400 a month on rent. If we’d stayed in the unit where we lived last year, we would have had to pay an additional $200 a month. That’s a LOT of money just to hang onto a few appliances, even if we used them all day, every day. Which we didn’t.
We let go of a blender, a crock pot, a rice cooker, a bread machine, and a bunch of canning jars. For our purposes, it’s irrelevant what they originally cost, because what matters is their replacement cost. (If we don’t miss them and we never replace them, then the replacement cost remains zero). We’ll pretend we’d just buy them all over again.
Replacement kitchen appliances: $30 + $30 + $30 + $100 + $25 = $215
Time to amortize through lower rent: Two weeks
In reality, we’ll never replace that old blender because we already did, with a nice Vitamix. I was only keeping the old, cheap blender because I had a spice grinder attachment. We’ll never buy another crock pot or another rice cooker because we’d just upgrade and get an Instant Pot. We probably won’t buy another bread machine because my husband enjoys making bread. (It was something I used because kneading bread aggravates some problems in my wrist). These were things we had because we had them. Our ability to recognize the difference between the lifestyle we actually live, and the aspirational lifestyle we wish we lived, helps us to save the money that could one day bridge that difference.
Would I know what to do with a huge, expensive house in an expensive neighborhood? Sure I would! I’m quite sure I’d be just as good at shopping and buying and choosing high-end, high-price items as anyone else. I just couldn’t bring myself to go into debt to do it. The decision to make temporary changes for a better strategic position is an easy decision, when it’s obvious what the tradeoffs are. I’m not “giving up” my nice kitchen appliances for a kitchen downgrade. I’m TRADING what are really some fairly trivial items in order to save thousands of dollars on rent for a certain specific period of time.
Most important of all, I’m always going to value my ability to cook in my kitchen and make use of my space. There are no items, no matter how aspirational or expensive, that are valuable enough to clutter up my work area or my countertops.
Most people are never going to voluntarily move to a smaller house or apartment just to save money. Streamlining the existing kitchen so that it can actually be used can feel like a major lifestyle upgrade. Eat through the majority of the pantry stores, get rid of most of the dishes or plastic storage containers, or reevaluate the appliances and other kitchen accessories. Create clear counter space and focus more on the meals than the hardware. The point of a kitchen is to cook in it, not to have a kitchenwares museum.
We moved this weekend. This takes up a lot of mental bandwidth, which is okay, because the thought and strategy that we put in has made it easier each time. Most people move frantically, procrastinating until the last possible minute, and then keep a bunch of unsorted boxes labeled MISC until the end of time. This is an expensive, time-consuming, distracting, maximalist way to do things. We do it in two phases.
In the first stage, we’re looking at all of our stuff and asking it to justify its existence. Why does this object need to be in our home? Is it worth the space? It’s our policy to live with a short commute, and that usually means a smaller living space. More square footage is the compensation that builders offer in exchange for spending your free time on the freeway.
Here are the assessment questions:
That first question is revolutionary, because at some point we realized that we could offload the cost of ownership of almost everything we possess. We need A bed, but we don’t necessarily need THIS bed, or our OWN bed. What would happen if we got rid of everything? We’d live in a hotel and stop owning furniture or housewares. No big deal really. In fact, we kinda talked about it on our honeymoon. The only real reason that we don’t do it is that hotels discriminate against parrots. Can’t imagine why! *wink*
Second question: Do we use it every day? This is somewhat subversive, because we often keep things that we think we SHOULD use every day, like a yoga mat. Asking the question reminds us that sometimes it’s better to rearrange our stuff and our schedule to accommodate the neglected item, the lifestyle upgrade.
Third question: Would we inevitably have to buy it again? For instance, we originally bought backpacking gear for our Iceland trip, even though we already owned quite a lot of car-camping equipment. The trip fully amortized the cost of the backpacking gear, but we continue to use it several years later. We could technically buy a new $250 backpacking tent and spend maybe a thousand dollars on new backpacks, sleeping bags, and gear every time we went on a trip. If getting rid of it all means we can afford a smaller apartment, and we save more than $100 a month on rent, then it costs us to keep it. Another way to frame this is, would it be cheaper or easier to, say, give away our bed/couch/whatever and order a new one to be delivered to the new place? Usually no but sometimes - YES!
Fourth question: Have we used this since the last time we moved? If the answer is no, then we’re virtually required to get rid of it. If the answer is no, we also have to ask, how about the move before that? When WAS the last time we used this thing? With each pass, fewer things get through the filter.
Fifth question: Will it fit in the new place? I had a lot of resentment and sadness about giving up my ten-top dining table, and the first time we moved it, you couldn’t open the front door all the way because the darn thing filled our entire dining room. Then we lived in that house for six months and had to move again. I hadn’t had a single dinner party and we hadn’t needed the table at all. I found acceptance and remembered that I can always buy another one for $400 at IKEA. Or we can rent a picnic area or take people to a restaurant.
Sixth question: How much would it cost to replace? We won’t live in a studio apartment forever. Well, maybe we will if Godzilla arises from the sea and steps on our building on the way to raze Los Angeles. One day, we’ll have a larger home and we’ll put more stuff in it. Probably. Getting rid of something now is just... for now. For this year. Every single thing that we have ever owned has cost less than what we’d pay in additional rent to keep it all. We’re saving over $8000 in rent this year due to our move, and that covers a lot of objects.
Seventh question: Is it going to survive the move? This question is why we avoid keeping sentimental objects. It’s simply too crushing and heartbreaking to watch something get smashed or ruined. Professional movers broke the teapot my grandmother made and they gouged a four-inch scar into the surface of my dining table. They’ve crumpled my original artwork, scattered my manuscripts and notecards, and generally caused me to swear off of professional movers entirely. I’d rather live out of a suitcase than pay people to wreck my favorite stuff. Which means if something is my favorite, I can’t keep it. Does that make sense? I have to preemptively detach my emotions from inanimate objects because they die on me.
Eighth question: Has it outlived its natural lifespan? A pair of socks is only good for so many wears. A spatula can only cook so many meals. Stuff is consumable. Moving is when we hold things up and assess them. Broken! Threadbare! Dangerous! Stained! Energy inefficient! Separated from its accessories! Past Me called and she wants her jeans back.
That’s the first stage of space clearing. We’ve basically gotten rid of everything that’s irrelevant to the way we live today.
Stage Two: Does it fit?
Stage Two is pretty straightforward. We have drawer dividers that don’t fit in the new drawers and shelf organizers that don’t fit in the new shelves. We have furniture that won’t fit due to door and window placement, ceiling height, or smaller rooms. We have power strips and lamps we don’t need anymore. We have art or decorations or throw pillows or other housewares that now clash with the paint and countertops. As we put things away, we set aside a staging area for stuff that doesn’t work. Sometimes it gets repurposed, like a plastic storage container that goes into a different room with a different category of contents. Usually, we find that we’re fully ensconced in the new place and there are a couple of bags’ worth of “organizers” we don’t need. We’re not emotionally attached to this type of object, so when we realize it won’t work in our newest home, we shrug and donate it.
As minimalists, we tend to see our stuff as a potential obstacle as much as anything else. Throughout the year, we’re culling and setting aside and pulling out various things. The cracked coffee mug, the shirt with the stretched neckline, the uncomfortable pants. Our baseline stuff has argued for itself. What may sound like a complicated process really isn’t, because 80% of our stuff is obviously necessary to a comfortable, efficient life. The two-stage moving process merely serves to slough off the excess. We stay light and unencumbered, focusing on the life we want to have, rather than the stuff we want to have.
Ooh, have I got some hot gossip for you! Just as I typed that, my little parrot said, “WHEW!”
Building maintenance just dropped by for a scheduled “pre-move-out inspection.” We’ve lived here for ten months and they’ve already had two inspections, supposedly to test the smoke detectors. This particular maintenance guy has been in our place a couple additional times, most recently when our neighbor’s sink backed up into ours and nearly flooded our kitchen with filthy brown water. Since we have a nodding acquaintance, I thought I’d take the opportunity to interview him a little.
He had a clipboard, and I could hear him scribbling notes. I was basically exploding with curiosity. What was he checking? Was he doing what I thought he was doing?
You know I spent an extra hour on housework this week, just to get ready. I think it would be easier for me to go out naked in public than to have my home inspected. The thought makes me completely paranoid. Are they going to check my linen closet and see if I’ve rolled all my towels in the same direction? Are they doing a white-glove check and making sure I’ve dusted the slats in the heat registers? Will they be pulling out the crisper drawers in my fridge?
I didn’t want to dump all this anxiety on the poor guy, who reminds me quite a bit of my brothers. I just wanted to open the door to chit-chat and hear what he had to say.
“Are you checking the power outlets or something?” I had heard him turning light switches on and off, and it would make sense that the electric outlets would be on the list.
He showed me the form and gave me a copy, explaining that we would get a rundown of the charges after we move out. They’re looking at whether they need to paint, shampoo the carpet, repair the kitchen countertops, or do any other obvious repairs. Fair enough.
Then I leaned in. “I work with hoarders? So I was just curious. A few of my clients have been evicted for hoarding at some point.”
Maintenance Guy grinned. He told me that the biannual “smoke detector inspections” are really “habitability checks.” They specifically do it to check for mice, rats, cockroaches, and any other vermin that would affect other tenants in the building.
He also told me that his dad used to hoard and that they worked on it together.
I KNEW IT!!!!
I freaking knew it.
Our complex purports to be a “club” and touts its resort-like setting. What that means is that due to the grounds, the amenities, and the location, they can charge top-end rents for what would be a sad shoebox anywhere else. These are tiny, dim rooms with low popcorn ceilings, shag rugs, ailing old plumbing, and no air conditioning. We like to think it’s to encourage everyone to hang out by the pool and avoid being indoors. All that being said, the owners clearly understand the value of beachfront real estate, and they protect their investment.
I guarantee that a hoarding or squalor case would not make it in this building past the six-month mark.
I have indeed worked with a few clients who have been evicted for hoarding. One of them has had it happen at least three separate times. It’s happened to a few people in my social acquaintance as well. While it is very sad, we have to understand that games have rules. We have to use our powers of discernment and do things that make sense in empirical reality.
Hoarding doesn’t just attract vermin. It can also damage the infrastructure of the building. Our apartment has three floors with eighty units, and probably a hundred tenants, plus a couple dozen dogs, cats, and my parrot Noelle. There’s a garage underneath. The floors of any building are only rated to support a certain amount of weight. Hoarding can stress joists and cause a floor to collapse. Maybe a home owner who lives alone can decide that that’s okay, a risk she’s willing to take. When you live with a hundred other people, you do not have the right to risk other people’s safety, or the physical integrity of a building that does not belong to you. So that’s one thing.
Stacks and piles can also obscure serious problems, such as water leaks and black mold, not to mention evidence of vermin infestation. Each of these is a problem that can and will affect neighbors, their pets, and their homes and possessions.
The scariest thing about hoarding, though, has to do with fire safety. A room that is packed with things (any kind of things) has a lower flash point. The flash point is the temperature at which the air in a room basically ignites. It can create a massive fireball. Now, the problem gets more complicated. A fire is going to start faster and spread faster in a hoarded room. That will be compounded if a lot of the material in the room is combustible, like cardboard boxes, books, magazines, papers, shopping bags, food packaging, and fabric. Even before adding thick, black smoke to destroy visibility, it’s going to be hard to get across a hoarded room and reach a door or window. The weight load will cause the floor to collapse more quickly. Add it all together, and it’s almost like someone deliberately set a boobytrap to kill firefighters and emergency workers. Oh, and neighbors.
I said that about a hundred people live in my building. About 3-5% of the population hoards, so we can guess that without the “habitability check,” three to five of my neighbors would be serious hoarders. Several of my neighbors are smokers, too.
There are a lot of buildings in this complex, and we’re packed pretty tightly together. We live in an extreme drought area, and it’s been this way for several years now. We had a dry winter. A fire that started in one building would put at least 1500 people at immediate risk. That doesn’t include any of the tourists or workers at the marina or the beach or the wedding facility or the hotels or restaurants directly adjacent to us. Only two months ago, my commute was delayed due to the Skirball Fire. We could smell and taste smoke from the wildfires while sitting in our living room. We made evacuation plans. Fire is not a hypothetical risk for us.
It’s hard to write about this topic, because I know from my work that hoarding and squalor are intertwined with toxic shame and trauma. My desire is to encourage readers to find the courage to rise up and break free of hoarding. You deserve better, and so do your neighbors. I just wish there were a guaranteed way to talk about distressing ideas, also known as “reality,” without possibly triggering someone into a shame spiral.
The thing about hoarding is that unlike many other struggles, it’s possible to do the external, visible work rather quickly. You can basically erase all traces of hoarding, unlike, say, cutting behaviors or track marks from IV drug use. Just release the excess stuff, do a deep clean, or maybe relocate. A property manager or developer can come in and repair flooring, walls, window frames, or any other damage. Good as new! For all I know, the person who lived in my current apartment before me did just that.
T minus eleven days and counting. We’re moving again! Probably time to start kinda thinking about packing. Eh, or not. Moving only has to be a big hairy traumatic hot mess if you have a lot of stuff to pack.
I’ve helped out on several moves when the household had barely started to pack and it was already moving day. This is how it normally works. Nobody has done much of anything because they’ve all fallen victim to the planning fallacy, which is that humans are extremely poor at estimating how long it will take to do something. There aren’t enough boxes; maybe there are no boxes at all yet. Any time someone got up and started thinking about maybe finally getting around to doing some packing, 80% of the time was consumed in helplessly standing around, arms hanging down, gawping at random corners of the room, and then wandering off. Nobody counted on how much stuff was hidden from view in closets, cupboards, and drawers. This is all before factoring in the cleaning. Then the helpers show up, thinking all that’s being asked of them is to carry neatly taped cartons out to a van. HA.
Our last move took the two of us eight hours, and that’s what fits in a 680-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. When we moved out of our newlywed house, it took a team of four professional movers three days.
I singlehandedly packed an office during a certain person’s move. (Not a client; clients pay me!) After three months’ notice, nothing had been done in what was the most disorganized, crowded room of the entire house. An entire wall of bookcases, photo albums, VHS tapes, and various binders. Two desks. A computer and all its multifarious peripherals. Art on every wall. Various tchotchkes and conversation pieces. Snowdrifts of unsorted papers. It took me three hours. If it had been my own stuff, I’m sure I could have spent three years fondling it and fussing with it.
Most of us do.
When it’s someone else’s stuff, it’s fairly easy. We look at it and estimate its weight and volume. Professional movers are great at this; they do it all day, every day and they know how many dishes or books fit in a carton. We can scan someone else’s personal belongings and visualize them going out the door, up the ramp, into the van, and back out again. We know full well that we’ll still be working at 10 PM because there’s a LOT.
When it’s our own stuff, we can’t see it as bulk, as mere dross to be measured and analyzed. It’s our stuff! It’s... it’s ourselves, really.
This is because the majority of our belongings stand in for the intangible. Our stuff isn’t stuff to us, not at all. It’s our aspirations, our character and personality and intentions. Stuff is one of the many ways that we try to exist outside of the time dimension.
The clothes that don’t fit, that don’t match any of our other clothes, especially the clothes we’ve never worn even once - they stand in for our image of a possible future. The unused fitness equipment that stands in for our intention to make a total physical transformation. Even the vegetables spoiling in the fridge, they represent ideas and possibilities.
There are three types of things:
In the first category, I include art. A planned room, a room of comfort and fun and relaxation and purpose, tends to look intentional. It says, this is our taste and this is how we like a room to look and feel. That’s awesome. It’s exciting to step into a room like this, even when it expresses a wildly different taste unlike my own.
In the second category are all sorts of things. They hang around mostly due to inertia, because we haven’t taken the time to assess and realize that we don’t need, want, or like them anymore. Sometimes, the stuff we no longer use is kept because we use it to store our memories. We’re surrounded by the past, not always even our own past, but our family’s past. Legacy and heritage. We may have no idea of what our own taste might look like because we believe we have to keep and display the stuff that was handed down to us. Keeping things we don’t use is a way of living in the past, outside of the time dimension.
In the third category is aspiration, stuff we still think we’ll get around to using one day. It also includes a certain amount of guilt and shame over money and time we’ve wasted, over our bodies that fail to magically transform, over our total misunderstanding of how goals work and how habits are changed. We also fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we should keep stuff because of what it cost, not realizing that keeping things incurs a carrying cost. Keeping things we believe we’ll use eventually, despite the evidence of today, is a way of living in the future, while also preventing that future from materializing.
When I accustom myself to living in rooms filled with things I don’t use, they become wallpaper. I quit seeing them. They aren’t on my to do list, they aren’t on my agenda, they aren’t blocked in my calendar. I exist on one timeline, and my things exist on another. It’s almost like they live in an alternative dimension that I can’t visit.
The gift of the nomad is that a relocation stops the clock. Time’s up! We evaluate every piece of furniture and all our individual housewares. Moving frequently really makes clear that stuff is a hassle. I don’t feel like cleaning and wrapping and packing and hauling and unwrapping and wiping down and organizing anything unless it’s worth it to me. Sometimes, at some point after the sixth time I’ve handled such an item, I’m just done. I can’t even.
Why do I have a pepper mill? Do I even grind pepper? Does this thing even work anymore?
What would happen if I got rid of it?
That’s the first question. It goes like this:
Do we use it every day?
If not every day, would we need to buy it if we got rid of it?
Have we used it since the last time we moved?
Will it fit in the new place?
How much would it cost to replace?
Is it going to survive the move?
Has it outlived its natural span of use?
In the time dimension, we can always buy stuff for Future Self later. It’s senseless to carry around aspirational “one day” items we don’t use now, because at that future point on the timeline, the one we would actually use may be of better quality or a different nature entirely. Like when I Finally Lost the Weight and the aspirational size eights I had kept for all those years were too big.
In the time dimension, we don’t keep things that belonged to Past Self. Past Self used them, and the maximum value was extracted. It cost what it cost. Maybe Present Self is more frugal and gets a lower cost per use, and when that’s true, it’s because of lessons that Past Self paid for. Stuff we aren’t using anymore was the cost of tuition. Let it go back to the Stuff Place.
Time’s up. The day has passed, the week has passed, the month is almost up. This is how the years go by. At any given moment, we’ve been surrounded by a different assortment of objects that properly exist along a continuum. Baby Self had a crib and a stroller and a high chair. Grade School Self had a child-size bicycle and child-sized clothes and shoes. Twenties Self had rickety mismatched furniture and obsolete electronics. Today Self carries the memories of those rooms, those scenes, those times. Today Self just doesn’t want to carry them all up the ramp into the moving van.
We’re moving. Again. Each time, we get a little better about this thing called ‘minimalism.’ The first principle of minimalism is that our stuff should serve us, not the reverse. The second principle is that what we keep should be determined by its function and use in a particular space. The things we would use in a backwoods cabin would not be the same package as the things we would use in an urban loft or a suburban house with a garden. This is why we reevaluate every time we move: floor plan before stuff.
We just visited an empty apartment. What did we do? We took pictures for reference. I keep a measuring tape in my work bag, believe it or not, and we used it. We took pictures of the location of the power outlets. We took pictures of the insides of the cabinets and drawers. We measured the depth and height of the shelves and marked up the digital photos. The next step is to reevaluate our stuff based on whether it will fit the space available.
As newlyweds, we moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath suburban ranch house with a two-car garage and a yard. It was about quadruple the amount of living space that we have now. Every time we have moved, we’ve downsized. First we lost half the garage space and half the kitchen space. Then we moved, and both got cut in half again. Number of square feet has a little bit to do with how we use our living space, but it’s not everything. The function of the space has a lot more to do with closets, cabinets, cupboards, shelves, and drawers.
Most people, given a choice, would take more built-in cabinets and shelving over a larger living room. Am I right?
What we miss the most about our previous homes isn’t square footage. It’s having a coat closet, a linen closet, and a pantry cupboard.
The containers and dedicated storage that we need is determined by all the small incidental things we own. Sure, we’ve had to get rid of things like our ten-top dining table, when they physically would not fit in a smaller room. Sometimes the walls are just too short, sometimes the available space is broken up by doors and windows. Sometimes something won’t even fit through a door! This is a problem when it was originally moved in through a sliding door, or when it was carried in as a flat-pack shipping container and assembled in the room.
We almost had to get rid of our couch the last time we moved because it barely fit through the front door. By ‘barely,’ I mean that we had to do naughty things to the hallway light fixture to make it work.
In our new apartment, the floor plan does not allow for a dining table. It has a kitchen counter that works as a bar top. Our current arrangement is a bistro table with tall chairs. We’ll be able to use the chairs at the bar, while removing the legs from the dining table and storing it somewhere. Top contenders are flat under the bed or vertically in the closet behind our hanging clothes.
Okay, so we only keep things we actively use. They have to earn their keep. How do we know?
The most important thing to us is that we can live our lives in our home. Walk from room to room without turning sideways or stepping over anything. Cook in the kitchen, sleep in the bedroom, relax in the living room. Work at the desk, get ready in the bathroom. We’d rather live out of a suitcase in a basically empty room than have to live among piles of dishes, laundry, and papers.
That’s a false dilemma, though. It’s totally possible to live a comfortable, fulfilling, efficient life in a maximalist house. The priority is simply to be able to get around easily, to have systems that create the absolute most free time and mental bandwidth possible.
Second priority is that we can both be happy without annoying each other. Anything that causes persistent problems, quarrels, arguments, or irritation has to go. We’d be better off owning two dinner plates than having a maximalist kitchen and nagging each other about whose turn it is to wash the dishes.
We have pets, and they’re a consideration, too. It’s not fair to Noelle to leave a charging cable out where she can reach it, because it’s in her nature to want to put her beak through it. (Tally so far: five charging cables and one set of earbuds). It’s not fair to leave laundry in dog zone, because Spike can’t resist grabbing shirts or socks or underwear and running around whipping them over his head. Pet-proofing is the kind-hearted way to keep our fluffy little dorks out of trouble.
The thing about downsizing is that it’s not permanent. Stuff creeps up on us. We have the same cultural exposure to massive volumes of cheap consumer goods as everyone else. We buy stuff in bulk or on sale, we come home with souvenirs, we upgrade, we receive gifts. All of a sudden, the place is full again. It’s not like getting rid of a few boxes of clothes or books or plastic storage containers means we can never own anything again. It’s reversible.
We assume that the new stuff we might buy in ten years will be nicer and more attractive than what’s available to us today. That’s especially true for electronics! It’s also true, though, for the bulk of what most people store in their homes. Food, right? Clothes - probably won’t fit us the same way in ten years. Our mattress - probably won’t be nearly as comfortable in ten years. Entertainment - books, magazines, movies, music - probably won’t even be in the same format in ten years. It also raises the question of whether our interests will still be the same a decade from now. Won’t our favorite authors and musicians have put out anything new by then?
We think back to the stuff we owned when we were in our twenties. I had a rock-hard futon and a bookcase made from boards and bricks. My computer was an 8086 with an amber monochrome monitor! I was six, no, seven clothing sizes bigger back then. My hubby wore his hair in a mullet, and that’s all we need to say about that. We’re, um... mature enough now to realize that our stuff does not define us, and that much of it is even embarrassing for us to even admit that we ever liked or used.
Stuff comes and goes. We can wave goodbye to it. We can take pictures of our various living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms, saying “thanks for the memories!” If we wouldn’t want anyone to see evidence of how our rooms really look, that’s something to consider. Let’s reevaluate whether our personal belongings are really helping us to live happier, easier, better lives. Floor plan before stuff.
There are a million myths about exercise. One of them is that it leads to weight loss, which is silly. Another is that you just go to the gym and "work out" and live happily ever after. The truth is far more complicated. Our bodies are very efficient in adapting to anything we ask them to do. That means that whatever workout we choose, within a few months, it will seem relatively easy. That's why it's called a routine. It's true what they say, that today's challenge is tomorrow's warmup. We want to periodically reevaluate our physical activities and make sure we're getting the most of our sweaty-fun-times.
The best time to start a new habit is right after you move or change jobs. That way, it just seems like starting a new chapter, or a new book. There was that time when I lived at 123 Main Street, lounged around on the couch watching Game of Thrones, and ate a lot of cereal for dinner. Then I moved to 1212 Shakethatbootay Street and suddenly I was in training.
'Training' is somewhat like working out, except for something very specific, in the same way that shopping for a wedding dress is somewhat like regular shopping.
Two and a half years ago, I ran a marathon. I over-trained and injured my ankle, and the road to recovery was long, significantly longer than 26.2 miles. This is one of the many reasons that we must periodically reevaluate our workouts, so that we don't hurt ourselves. I had heard of cross-training, but I didn't truly understand what it was. It means that no matter how often you dream you are wearing a unitard and a handlebar mustache while crossing a finish line at the Olympics, you do have to mix it up and not run every single day.
Cross-training means that some days of the week you do one activity, and other days of the week you do something very different. Ideally, this will be a mix of cardio, strength training, and flexibility. There is no end to the information out there on physical culture. What tends to happen is that you dabble a little and read an article here and there, and then you get sucked into the vortex. The more you read, the fitter you get, with the catch that you are also more aware of how slouchy and slow you really are. Well, I don't know about you. You might be able to deadlift a tractor tire. I myself look very much like the bookworm I have been since I was two years old.
If I were a man, I would probably be more embarrassed about my lack of upper body strength, although it's pretty typical for a runner. As a middle-aged lady, it just means I can pass for a schoolmarm. I would say 'librarian' but most of the librarians I know can kick my butt.
Here I am, finally unpacked in my new apartment. Despite the past few weeks of packing and hauling and unpacking boxes, I haven't been working out much lately. By 'lately' I mean two years. My daily workout has been walking three or four miles, punctuated by the occasional yoga class. I'm feeling tense, crooked, slouchy, sloppy, weak, and tired. Welcome to your forties, right? WRONG! I refuse to feel like an old lady until I'm at least eighty. I know how good it feels to be in great physical condition, and I want that back. Now it's time to reevaluate my workout.
It starts with the brutal truth. All the truly rewarding journeys in life do. If you want to be wealthy, it starts by confronting your financial balance sheet, including any and all debts. If you want to be organized, it starts by confronting all your disorder, including anything you've procrastinated or hidden from yourself, such as a cluttered storage unit. If you want to be strong, well, that starts by finding your weak points. In my case, that includes chronic neck and shoulder tension, a weak core, and a sadly flat marathoner butt. I know from working with a trainer that I need to strengthen my core, glutes, and quads, and I need to work on hip stability. The strength training exercises that I do will therefore be different than what another athlete would do, such as a swimmer or tennis player.
Check that 'need to.' Whenever we find ourselves saying 'need to' or 'have to' or 'should,' we're telling ourselves and others that we're trying to fulfill a duty or obligation or responsibility. It's helpful to reframe it as 'want to.' IF I want to run another marathon, THEN it will be helpful if I do high-knees to strengthen my hip flexors. IF I want to release my shoulder pain, THEN I ought to start running again, because the micro-movements of pumping my arms really help with that. I WANT TO cross-train effectively so I can do what I love (or used to) without hurting myself. Faster and farther than ever before.
If I scrape the barrel, I can remember how happy I was when I ran all the time. I felt like my mood was at a 9 out of 10 most days. Regular Me runs at more of a 7. Chronic Illness Me runs at more of a 4. I've fluctuated back and forth through health and illness, happiness and pain, enough times to confirm for myself that Workout Me is the version I prefer.
One of the most interesting questions is not "Why should I do this?" It is actually "What is the most I can do, and how do I find out?"
I used to feel defensive about my activity level, and I felt the need to painstakingly lecture people and train them all about my various health problems, so I could prove (to them? to myself?) that I not only didn't have to exercise, but that I could not. Ever. Then I gradually realized that my state of health involved variables that I could control. One day I woke up pain-free, and I finally understood. If I was careful, if I kept records and tracked data, if I paid attention - I could stay pain-free. When the novelty wore off, I started to wonder what else I could do, and so far I haven't found anything that I could not. Why be satisfied with 'good enough' or 'oh well'? Why not try for HECK YEAH?
My plan is to run on the beach at least one day a week, as soon as I can figure out the tide charts. I'm also looking for a pleasant hilly area for my other training days. Next is two days a week when my husband can strength-train with me in the apartment gym. We're getting our bikes fixed, so we'll play around with that, and maybe I'll drop in on some classes around town. Whatever I do over the next few weeks probably will not bear much resemblance to what I wind up doing a few months further down the road. The important part is to continue to reevaluate, making sure I'm making the most of this earthly body while I still can.
An elliptical trainer
A stair stepper
A ten-top dining table
Ten dining chairs
A ten-foot ladder
Five sets of garage shelving
A shop vac
A circular saw
A metal bandsaw
A hydraulic jack
A weed whacker
A set of sawhorses
A fire extinguisher (we kept one)
Various scrap lumber
An insulated lunch bag
A travel mug
A salad bowl
A box of plastic food storage containers
Three potholders, two made by me
A coffee mug
A gravy boat
Three muffin pans
A glass baking dish
A roasting pan
A metal breadbox
A cake rack
A butter dish
A pasta maker
Four drinking glasses
Eleven wine glasses
A bottle of wine
Two tea balls
Three kitchen knives
A pasta server
Two sets of tongs
Three sets of measuring cups
A kitchen timer
A bag of refrigerator magnets
Two kitchen aprons
A dust mop
A plastic dish tub
A shelf organizer
An old jacket
A travel pillow
A set of colored pencils
A box of crayons
Three packages of index cards
A package of Post-It notes
A roll of wrapping paper
A stack of blank books and sketch pads
A box of CDs and DVDs
A CD organizer
Five thumb drives
A box of photographs (digitized and stored in the cloud)
A bulletin board
Three picture frames
A set of flannel sheets
Two bedspreads with pillow shams
Two bed pillows
Four throw pillows
Five small moving boxes full of fabric
Two sewing machines
A rotary cutter and cutting mat
A set of pottery tools
Two embroidery hoops and an embroidery frame
A set of gouache paints
A bag of paintbrushes
Three folding tables
Three milk crates
An extension cord
A coil of rope
A set of closet rod hardware
A package of wall hooks
A set of gardening gloves
A bag of seed packets
A set of loppers
A 12-pound sledgehammer
A pick hoe
A weeding fork
Two toy crossbows
A box of sprinkler heads
A box of drip irrigation hoses and supplies
A box of PVC fittings
A dryer duct cleaning kit, still in the package
A box of wooden hangers
A pair of rubber boots
A set of camping mugs
A set of tomato cages
A hummingbird feeder
A computer keyboard
A wicker hamper
Five wicker baskets
A set of wooden drawers
A wooden trunk
A plastic drawer organizer
A small jewelry box
A ten-foot shelf
Four board games
A bag of old shoes
A bag of old clothes
A box of sequined fruit
No idea how many books
Three potted plants
A bag of paper grocery sacks
Everything in our fridge and freezer
Sixty-two moving boxes
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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