The Big Sort: 9 Tips for Shedding Stuff Before You Move Overseas

When we moved to Australia from the U.S., it required a LOT of “take this or not?” decision making. Dealing with a glut of possessions is a first world problem, to be sure – but prepping our belongings for our international move was still way more time-intensive, and at times heartwrenching, than I ever would have initially guessed.

You have probably heard of the KonMari method of decluttering, but this was even more extreme than that; to hell with if an item sparked joy – did that item spark enough joy to justify paying an exorbitant amount to have it moved completely to the other side of the world? And if so, what were the chances it would survive the trip, or would even ‘work’ there? No, this was far more akin to Swedish Death Cleaning, and responsibly shedding our possessions became a major part of my daily life for several months.

Here’s what I learned during that long process–and what I wish I had known.

  • Start with what can’t go. We quickly learned that while we could take some electronic items, like our laptops, if we bought new Australian cords, the majority of our electronics wouldn’t function in Australia due to the different voltage. (There are converters you can buy, but they work better on some items than others, and were simply not worth buying for every item due to their price point.) We also learned we simply were not allowed to bring many items (like our pet bird, sadly, as well as many handmade and natural artifact items, our current mattresses, etc.) due to strict Australian customs law. Rehoming our pet was a sad reality, but we were able to investigate options, and luckily, my mother was able to take him in. Starting with the stuff that simply can’t go with you isn’t necessarily “easy,” but it is clear and a solid place to start.
  • Start your plan for your house and vehicle(s) ASAP.
    Starting early meant we had time to get things ready without rushing.

    Selling a house is something that could easily have been overwhelming on its own right. Luckily, many months earlier, at the very, very start of my husband’s job search, I asked a realtor friend of ours if she would do a quick, less-than-one-hour walk-through of our house with me to help me prioritize what we should focus on in the event we ended up relocating and needing to sell. I can not stress how much her quick once-over helped me over the course of the year. Thanks to her sound advice, we knew some things weren’t going to show as well as they deserved, so we repainted, repaired, or cleaned them up while Nick looked at, and applied for, jobs. When it turned out we definitely would need to relocate, we were pretty much ready (house sale wise), and that same realtor helped us sell it to just the right family. So, during the home sale process, we were able to focus instead on pairing down our vehicles (a motorcycle, and two cars) in stages, instead of stressing about the house itself. We sold the motorcycle, then the smaller car of two cars, because we knew we’d need the SUV’s trunk for hauling donations. Doing these things in stages allowed us to take the time we needed to properly prepare and market these bigger-ticket items, and gather offers from all the available potential buyers to make the right financial decisions. When we decided to sell our SUV instead of taking it with us, we worked a couple of weeks ahead of our move with the buyers so that they paid and took ownership the day before we our international flight, which turned out to work great for both of our families.
  • Shed bulky items like furniture as soon as you realistically can and then move to expensive things. Prioritize your shedding so that if you run out of time, you aren’t left with (for example) a perfectly culled drawer of silverware in a kitchen still quite filled with heavy furniture and appliances. Start with the physically largest items you aren’t keeping, then move on to the most expensive of the smaller items next. You can live a few weeks without a couch, and it’s better to get some money by selling something large to the right buyers a little earlier than ideal than give it for nothing to Goodwill the day before you move.
  • Document your donations. You are going to have to get rid of so much more than you think. So, so much more. Looking at a box of bric-a-brac, it’s only human to say to oneself, “This is not worth entering into; I’m just going to drop it off at Goodwill right now because I am dog ass tired.” Please drudge up the energy for a couple minutes documenting work. One box is not much, but you are going to easily shed 60% (or more! – we did!) of your possessions when this is all over – those individual boxes add up. I can’t tell you how many carloads I took to Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, SmART (an art supply nonprofit) and so many more donation sites – but I can tell you the calculated value of the goods because I tracked it (and scanned the donor receipts) and it’s truly an eye-popping figure. Keep up with what you are donating, and make tax time reflect the reality of the many usable goods you are straight-up giving away during this crazy time.
  • Deal with heavy, numerous items (like books or record collections) holistically and thoroughly. Our family had shelves and shelves of books that necessitated a plan of its own. First, we put some that were truly priceless to us (a signed Truman Capote book, etc.) in a small box to store at my Mom’s. The ones we deemed worthy of keeping and risking the boat journey, which was a very small portion of our books, we set aside. Then we got to work on selling – some of the higher end books (signed, antique, etc.) went to our local high-end reseller for first choice, and the rejects from that, as well as all the rest of the books, went to McKay Used Books for their standard payout. Finally, the books McKay’s didn’t take that were still in good condition were donated. Once we knew “the book plan,” putting the plan into action became infinitely easier. If this sounds like a lot of work, it was. But doing it this way meant that we got as much money as possible for our extensive book collection, and we documented the donations we did to worthy groups of the others.
  • Reduce paper to as close to “none” as possible – especially photos. Here’s the harsh reality – if something is going to get moldy on a cargo boat traveling around the world, it’s going to be your paper items. If you cherish your paper photos and film, you need to scan them and save them to the cloud, and that includes photographs, esp. as photo albums are heavy and tend to be easily affected by humidity. One of the best gifts I gave myself during this all-consuming move was making use of a professional photo scanning service to finally digitize all (and I mean all) of our physical photographs, film and old video. I knew if the cargo ship sank, or humidity seeped into our container, our family’s photographs and memories would still be safe and accessible.
  • Remember that nothing is easier to transport than money in your bank account. Think through your donation decisions and don’t be afraid to try to sell things for what you think they are worth, especially if you have a few months before your move. Selling a little at a time, taking decent photos for online ads, writing up a proper description of certain items…yes, it takes more time, but it is going to net you way, way more money for your belongings than a fire sale a couple of days before. Look around your room right now – there are many, many things you would let go for $50, $100, or more, that you wouldn’t for $0, $5 or $10. It’s just human nature. Post those things early, at a price you would consider fair if you were a second-hand buyer, and see what sells before you put it out for a yard sale or donate it. (I learned the hard way this does not include clothes, even designer brands. I wasted some time on that fruitless activity and won’t bother next time.) I made it a weekly habit to post a handful of household, furniture and kids items on Nextdoor starting a few months ahead of our move, and I began to have regular buyers who would scan to see what I had recently posted because they had similar taste or styles. Due to this process, we sold nearly everything we posted, and had far more cash in our bank account to rebuy secondhand items as needed when we got to Australia.
  • Say a proper good-bye to items that you will miss. It can be sad to realize that you can’t take this or that with you to your new home across the globe. It may sound cliché, but take a photo of each of those things, or hold them in your hands one more time, or take a few minutes to make sure that you are donating, or selling, them in a way that minimizes your feeling of loss. Maybe you don’t want to get rid of a few of your child’s memory-laden old playthings; instead of donating them to Goodwill, you might consider seeing if any of your friends’ kids (or relatives) would be interested in them. Knowing they will be used by other kids you care about may make parting with them infinitely easier. During this process, I ended up donating or giving away my wedding dress and many other items I had assumed I would always have. Knowing that I had worn it one final time, just around the house, before I did so (silly as it was) made it much easier.
  • #bestpinatafillerever
    Get creative! There will be a lot that you won’t know what to do with. Think creatively! For example, with two kids, we had a lot of “just fine but coming with us” little toy items to go through. Instead of disposing of them in the trash (they were nicer than that) or by donating them (since they wouldn’t have garnered much money at a thrift shop), we used them to stuff the piñata at our 5 year old’s birthday party in May. It was a big hit – a piñata full of much-better-than-average loot in an eye-watering variety.

These are just my immediate thoughts. I’m sure I will remember things over time! The main thing with a major decluttering project like this is to be tenacious. You are going to remove one layer, only to find another. Don’t give up! You can do this. Think of it as a chance to audit the items you have surrounded yourself with and to start as fresh as possible. Every item you shed responsibly will leave you with less and less physical, and metaphorical, baggage. Start now, and just keep going.

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