A Little Advice… Embrace Purging & Right-Size your Belongings

how to purge before you travel and embrace minimalismMany things related to planning this round the world trip have surprised me. Some overwhelmed me. And some I even came to enjoy. One of those surprisingly enjoyable activities? Purging my belongings. (What does this say about what it takes to amuse me?!) What can I say, it turns out that I like sorting, organizing, and cleaning when it has an end goal.  I like knowing that my belongings don’t own me anymore. By the end of what I am calling “The Great Purge of 2008”, I will be free to flit off on a whim. I quite like that part of it all!

Why I Needed to Purge For This RTW Trip

This RTW trip forced me to purge almost everything I owned. When I bought that one-way ticket to Australia, I lived in Los Angeles. My parents live on the opposite side of the country — Tampa Bay, Florida to be exact. That made some things easy. Keeping my larger belongings (couches, desk, bed, etc.) was out of the question. Other things fell into the grey zone. Getting into the spirit of the purge is important though. This trip has been the biggest thing on my horizon for years. That will take some changes in my life to match. To prepare trip, I decided to move no more than one carload of things back to Florida. That meant I needed to halve my wardrobe (I participated in two weddings back in Florida, so I couldn’t leave it all behind). I tossed 90 percent of my knickknacks — anything without meaning and sentimentality was automatically out. Then, anything that was cost-prohibitive to replace when I return stayed. And then there are the few essentials that could have been purged but I weighted the joy the bring me over the practicality — I am looking forward to returning to my favorite pair of well-worn jeans.

Purging is an acquired skill. It’s also a skill members of my family sorely lack. I collected stuff just like most people. I saw something, if I had the cash, I bought it. With a year or more of travel ahead of me, however, I am ready to simplify. My life will be streamlined to a single backpack, so it makes sense to really take a close look at the belongings that won’t be with me for an entire year.

The other side of downsizing? As much as my friends and family love me, my LA friends weren’t overly enthusiastic about the prospect of storing dozens of boxes for me. And storage prices were out of control. And paying for storage seemed a little wacky since most of my larger furniture had the distinct look and feel of college dorm-room (ie. worn-out, purchased off of Craigslist, and unattractively mismatched).

5 Tips for Purging Before Your RTW Trip

One woman's advice on how to scale down your belongings before setting out to travel the world.The greatest help throughout the purging process was having a good friend help me pack everything — thanks Lisandra! Lisandra sanity-checked the knickknacks I tried to keep. With her questioning gaze, I was able to let go of that irrational attachment and toss those that weren’t linked to strong memories. This means that the very cute stuffed rabbit from an acquaintance — straight to goodwill.

Here are few steps that should help you assess your belongings when you’re packing up your house/apartment before a long-term trip.

1. Think About the Future You Using This Item

Project yourself into the mind of the future version of yourself. Can you picture this item being a part of your life in a year, in five years. If you unpack your boxes in a year, will you remember that it’s missing. Ask yourself: “Will I notice this item/knickknack/shirt is missing?” Most often, the answer is no. Even if you like the item, if it’s not a part of your current, conscious life then there is a good chance that you shouldn’t keep it. Also, remember that future you will have a slew of new travel memories, souvenirs, and photos to add to your future place.

2. Set a Number and Stick to It

If you’ve collected a set of items — books, figurines, cups, ornaments — pick a reasonable number that halves your collection. This will force you to really assess which items are a part of collection because you enjoy them with genuine pleasure, and which you have collected merely because of the hobby. And for some things, you can go more drastic. Agree to keep five knickknacks. Or ten. But make it a very drastic figure. The process of weighing items against each other helps you figure out which really have meaning in your life. The low number forces you to prioritize and assess.

3. Ask a Friend for Help

It is far more fun to purge while sharing a glass of wine and chatter. I was lucky to have two very good friends for the two Big Purges in my life. When I moved to LA, I used this same tactic. Even more than what I have already said about the insight from friends, they will have a much clearer ability to help you focus on your goals. In both purges, I had set clear goals for my life. The first time, this was moving to LA to work in the entertainment industry. The second time, it was to prepare for this yearlong trip. Both friends helped me see the bigger picture when I was mired in sentiment and attachment. This meant bolstering support for the good purge decisions, talking you down from the crazy decisions of things to cart around, and reassuring you that you don’t have to keep that hideous blouse your mom bought you last Christmas.

4. Determine if it’s Replaceable

This one is a biggie! Furniture and picture frames? Many of these things are completely replaceable and hold little to no sentimental attachment — purge it. Photos store more easily out of the frame, and furniture is downright pricey to store. Unless you have a serious investment in your furniture (and you might, so ignore me if you do), storing it for the year is often not worth the hassle, nor the fees.

5. Donate What You Can’t Sell

If you live in a big city, you can find a new home for a lot of your beloved belongings. I put an open add on Craigslist saying that it was a “leaving the country” sale and every single item must go. I had a great turnout and I asked everyone to name their price on the little things and no one was allowed to leave empty handed. Things like silverware and plates are hard to sell on their own, but easier to sell in a sale like this.

If you’re in a smaller market, consider listing the big items on Craigslist. List the pricey ones on eBay. And for those items that don’t meet the stringent “save” guidelines, donate them. Pick a charity shop you love, Goodwill and Salvation Army are nationwide, and you can even receive a receipt for a tax write-off.

Go Slowly As You Save For Travel 

If you’re heading out in many months/years, then you can take a long-term approach to decluttering before your trip. This means a slow and steady process of downsizing your life. As your travel fund grows, your belongings diminish. Here are a few tricks and tips for decluttering and purging over a longer period:

  • Donate one trash bag a month. Choose a time and make it a monthly date with your belongings. Perhaps the first weekend of every month you and your partner or family go around the house and fill a garbage bag with things you’d like to donate. Do this once a month and you will see a gradual lessening. It’s also great because you have time to psychologically detach from items as you get into the process. Trust me, you will never run out of things to add to the bag.
  • Designate three boxes per room for: trash, give away, keep. This particularly works if you have a few months, not years. Keep these three boxes in each room and then as you have a free moment, or as you’re passing through rooms, move items into the boxes where they belong. The constant reminder of the boxes will force you to consider each item carefully, ensuring it goes into the right place.
  • Do a “Five Things” Challenge once a week. Like the trash bag, this is about a slow and steady decluttering and simplifying. The good thing is that every family member can participate and it’s fairly fast and painless (at first), especially if you do it consistently each week.
  • Prevent new things from entering the house. File paperwork immediately or store it online. Start trading items one for two. Each new shirt/knickknack/thing that comes into the house, two things must go into the charity box.

In the end, my car was still packed to the brim on the cross country drive. That being said, I purged ruthlessly for this trip. I decided that my book collection is something I will value even in 10 years. I hauled other things like photos, family momentos, and clothes. Other than that, I succeeded in pairing down my life to a handful of boxes that all fit in my trunk. Not too shabby.

Now it’s your turn. If you’re planning a round the world trip, purging is a big step. Your next steps might include my massive travel resource page to help plan other aspects of the trip, and the A Little Adrift hand-curated travel guides. And I hope that sharing my own pre-travel purging journey was helpful!

Need More Resources on De-Cluttering and Purging Before Travel?

Even if you have the room and luxury of not purging before your next trip, consider stripping yourself down: minimalism is the new pink. There are a good number of online resources. This post from Zen Habits is a great start, and this one has some other great ideas. My friends Warren and Betsy wrote a great guide about purging before a trip, Getting Rid of It and then there is always this highly rated but kinda wacky Japanese approach to decluttering, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

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2009 Update: After my year-long RTW trip I headed home for the holidays and discovered that 20 percent of the “stuff” I had hauled across the country last year was just that … stuff. Afater another big trip to the Salvation Army, my material goods tying me to the earth are even fewer!

2011 Update: I went through boxes that my parents had stored from childhood. The Great Purge, and the intervening three years, taught me that there are things that are a pain to rebuy, mostly just warm-weather clothes I purged in mass. Then there are the things that I am glad remain: the memories. I know there are some who get rid of all things, preferring to remember moments and not things. I like those memories and am glad that I still have a few knickknacks and pieces from my time in L.A. It reminds me that we can also go too far in intentionally wiping away our footprint to embrace minimalism. So, those childhood boxes. I reduced them down to just one and half. And I took nine bags of things to the Salvation Army. But if I ever have kids, I have some things to pass down. And in the far future I have some things to help me job the sweet memories, and the sad ones too.

2017 Update: As I land in different spots these past few years, everything takes on a different light. Purging before my RTW trip served me well. I have never regretted lessening my belongings and getting rid of the bulk of my things. That said, in more recent years I have added in a few items here and there that I had to rebuy because they were a part of the Great Purge of 2008. Mostly, this has included nicer outfits to wear to conferences and business meetings. I have a collection of travel gear that I’ve tried out over the years. The stuff I stash now is different. Because I still live outside of the U.S. for most of the year, the bulk of my belongings are still portable, though I admit I have more than I can drag around at any given time. I will find a place to live within the next year, and I will likely begin to buy things like cups-plates-decorations once again. But the Great Purge, and my continued travels, taught me that a little bit of “stuff” goes a long way.

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