If you’re considering a move overseas and—like most middle-class North Americans—you have accumulated a lifetime’s worth of stuff, you will need to do some serious downsizing.
Let me tell you from experience, it’s going to be hard.
We have reduced the size of our family household substantially over the past few years. In the course of several local, regional, cross-country, and intercontinental moves, we have managed to shrink the volume of what we own to about half what it was five years ago. The process of chiseling away at the layers of our existence was not only physically challenging but mentally exhausting.
Our most drastic downsizing step came with a cross-country move that had us transitioning from a home of more than 2,100 square feet to one of less than 1,000. After three weeks of spending virtually every waking hour going through our belongings, item by item, making decision after decision on what to keep, sell, donate, recycle or throw away, my brain felt like mush.
As we now plan our next adventure—which will involve keeping a small pied-à-terre in Canada and travelling lots—alas, we need to shed more ballast.
“Here we go again,” I told myself, as I tried to remind myself what I’ve learned from our past experience.
Here’s what I came up with… my 10 tips for how to deal with all your stuff in advance of a move to a new country:
#1: Start early.
This is really the most important piece of advice I can offer.
Even if you’re not 100% sure yet about your plans, start the downsizing now. Getting rid of clutter is a great idea whether you are moving or not. How deep you go can depend on how your plans firm up over time (or not), but you have nothing to lose by getting started today.
If you get cold feet about moving overseas, you’ll at least have a tidy, uncluttered house. If you do end up taking the leap, having this step out of the way will save your sanity and allow you to focus on the other million things that will need to get done in preparation for your move.
#2: Downsize over several rounds.
I don’t think I could have gone from where we were five years ago to where we are today in one fell swoop. Start with the easy and obvious things—anything that’s broken, chipped, scratched, ripped, or outdated. Any clothes that don’t fit anymore. All those “oh, but I might need this one day” items in the basement. Anything you have multiples of. You get the idea. Once you’ve gone through your entire house, give yourself a couple of months and then start over and go through everything again.
#3: When you know for sure you are going through with your plans and a moving date is looming, shift your focus to what you absolutely want to keep.
Box up what you want to take with you (other than anything needed for your daily life, of course) and set it all aside. Label these boxes carefully and maybe mark them with strips of neon-colored duct tape. I used different colors—one for moving and another for storage for boxes of items I didn’t want to take but didn’t want to get rid of.
Then deal with everything that’s still left. This is your last round of downsizing. Everything you are not taking with you or putting in storage must go.
#4: Sell big-ticket items on Kijiji or Craigslist.
Things that sell easily and fetch a reasonable amount of money are furniture, electronics, sports equipment, and camping gear. Don’t waste your time with low-value items such as kitchen things, clothes, and decorative items.
#5: For lower-value stuff, hold a garage sale.
It’ll also be a fun way to socialize with your neighbors and fill them in on your plans. However, if you are not the garage-sale type or are simply running out of time, do a “garage give-away”! As soon as you have a box full of items, place it in your driveway or front yard with a big sign that says “Free—Please help yourself.” You could boost traffic by advertising your garage give-away in the Free Stuff section on Kijiji. You will make a lot of people very happy and save yourself trips to the thrift store or, worse, the landfill.
#6: In between rounds of decluttering, digitize your music collection and your photo albums.
Convert your CDs with an app like iTunes and store your collection on an MP3 player, external hard drive, or in the cloud. You can search the internet for instructions for how to do this.
Photo albums and photos from the pre-digital age are going to be a lot more work. You can scan individual photos or entire album pages with a scanning app such as Google’s PhotoScan (the results are much better than simply photographing your pictures) and organize them into digital albums on an external hard drive or in the cloud. It is a time-consuming process (hence tip #1), but you’ll also have fun looking at all those pictures, and the reward is that you can take your albums with you wherever life takes you.
#7: If you are a bibliophile, books might be a challenge.
There’s something warm and cozy about a wall full of well-stocked bookshelves. However, pound for pound, moving books does not give you good value for money. And you will probably not reread your books anyway. Time to let go of your personal library and get your reading material from the public library. Or go digital. Use tip #5 to rehouse your books.
#8: Enlist help.
This is a sanity-saver. Having friends help you make those countless small decisions is priceless, especially when you are on your second or third round of downsizing. They will look at things through different lenses, without any emotional attachment or feelings of guilt. If you’re lucky, they’ll even bring wine!
#9: Do not buy anything new.
Do not allow any additional stuff into your house. Make do with what you have. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually surprisingly difficult to implement. If you are tempted to buy something, press the pause button and think about it for a day or two. In most cases, the urge will have passed.
Tell your family and friends not to give you any gifts unless it’s something you can eat, drink, or experience. Or ask for a donation in your name to one of your favorite charities.
#10: Last but not least: Hang on to things that are really meaningful to you.
No matter how light you want to make your move, there will be non negotiables… things that you want to keep (and put in storage, if necessary).
For my husband, it’s his guitars. For me, it’s mementos from when our kids were little (although some of that could probably be digitized, come to think of it), our art collection (which is not valuable but meaningful to me), and my photos and photo albums (which I will keep in storage, even after digitizing them).
With our next move on the horizon and not much “fat” left to cut, we’ll be focusing on tips #6, #7, #9, and, eventually, #3.
Whether we will also need to put into action tips #4 and #5 will depend on whether we decide to sell our current house or keep it and rent it furnished.
The good news is that, as hard as this next round of downsizing is going to be, we are already ahead of the game by starting now.
Which brings us back to tip #1!