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

Last updated on August 12, 2023

how to get rid of everything you own

Many things related to planning my round the world trip surprised me. More things completely overwhelmed me. And a few I even came to enjoy. One of those surprisingly enjoyable activities?

Purging my belongings. I needed to get ride of everything I owned, and I kinda loved it.

(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 supports a major life goal.  I like knowing that my belongings don’t own me anymore. By the end of what I called “The Great Los Angeles Purge”, I was free to flit off on a whim. What’s not to like about that!

Why Declutter and Purge Your Belongings?

how to purge before you travel and embrace minimalism
My niece and I traveled for six months with just this luggage. I had already gotten rid of everything I owned, and although she had a roomful of stuff back home, six months of traveling inspired her to minimize her piles of crap once we got back.

Traveling the world for a year forced me to get ride of almost everything I owned. When I bought my 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. Given that I planned to store my essential belongings at my dad’s house—photos, mementos, etc.—that distance actually made some things easier.

Keeping my larger belongings—my couch, desk, bed—was out of the question. Other things fell into the grey zone. Was it worth driving the item back to Florida if I was positive that I would need it whenever I next lived in the U.S.? (Which turned out to be 15 years and counting living and traveling abroad.)

Getting into the spirit of the purge is important when scaling down your belongings at this level. My route the world trip was the biggest thing on my horizon for years. Few things before or since have compared to that dramatic life change (having a kid surpassed it, of course). At the time though, I knew that to really embrace the point of my world travel—to minimize and experience life at its fullest—I first needed to get rid of everything I owned.

Deciding What to Purge and What to Keep

getting rid of your belongings is really hard!
These boxes hold printed out photos. Back in 2008, life wasn’t nearly as digitized as it is now, and I could not see getting rid of these mementos. Instead they went in my trunk and I drove them back to Florida.

To scale down my belongings and avoid paying for storage during my travels, 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).

How to Declutter, Purge and Sell Before World Travel

I got rid of it all and left to travel with just 55L backpack
After I got rid of everything that I owned, my few belongings in the world fit into these two backpacks.

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 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? What about in five years? You should want the item long past your trip, otherwise it should go.

If you’re on the fence, imagine unpacking your boxes in a year: Will you remember that this item 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’s a good chance that you shouldn’t keep it.

But while practicality is important, sentimental value should also be considered. Do you have any items that hold significant sentimental value, such as family heirlooms or items with sentimental value? Those are keepers.

Just remember that future you will have a slew of new travel memories, souvenirs, and photos to add to the next home you furnish, so keeping the minutia of your life is not necessary.

2. Get Strict With Yourself and Halve Your Collections

tips to minimize and get rid of belongings
I halved my collection of books right away when I was getting rid of my belongings. There were many meaningful books that I either kept or gifted to friends, and I eventually learned to just pass on books as soon as I was done with them. I left this book in Bali.

If you’ve collected a set of items—books, figurines, cups, ornaments—pick a reasonable number that at least halves your collection. This forces 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 low figure. You can find many joyous new things on the road that will bring you joy to look at in the future.

The process of weighing items against each other helps you figure out which really have meaning in your life. Using a low number forces you to prioritize and assess ruthlessly.

3. Ask a Friend to Help You Purge

ask a friend to help you declutter belongings
You don’t have to do this alone! Rope in some friends to provide perspective when you’re getting rid of your belongings—you might not want to actually get rid of everything you own, but rather most of it.

It is far more fun to purge everything you own while sharing a glass of wine and chatter. I was lucky to have two very good friends available for the two Big Purges in my life.

When I moved to LA, I used this same tactic on all of the things I had collected from my childhood and years in college. A lot of those things just didn’t need to make the move to LA.

Friends nearby are necessary because they will help you focus on your goals and stay true to your intentions to declutter, downsize, and purge.

In both purges, I had set clear goals for my life. The first time, I moved to LA to work in the entertainment industry. The second time, I was preparing for my yearlong trip. Both friends helped me see the bigger picture when I was mired in sentiment and attachment. They supported me and cheered me on for my good purge decisions, talked me down from the crazy decisions of things that I thought were perfectly reasonable to cart around, and reassured me that I don’t, in fact, have to keep that hideous blouse my mom bought me last Christmas.

4. Determine if it’s Replaceable

you don't have to get rid of everything
This is what I had packed to drive back to my parents. So, I didn’t initially succeed in getting rid of everything, I kept many photos, books, and mementos, but it was a great first step to minimizing my belongings.

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 worth neither the hassle nor the fees.

Basically, if you get rid of an item now, will it be expensive or difficult to replace in the future if you need it? If the item is something that would be expensive to replace, it may be worth holding onto it. But really ask yourself if the item is even necessary—would you, in fact, buy it again if you sold it or could you streamline and start fresh?

5. Donate What You Can’t Sell

Find a new home for your beloved belongings that are still in usable condition. I put an open add on Craigslist for a “leaving the country” sale, noting that every single item must go. I had a great turnout. 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 on a flash a sale like this, when people are already in your home looking around and are good with tossing you another tenner for that cool mixing bowl set you own.

If you’re in a smaller market, consider listing the big items on Craigslist. Then 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.

How to Slowly Get Rid of Everything You Own

slowly get rid of things
You may not have to get rid of everything all at once. If you’re not constrained by strict time limits, consider pausing on your big purge, and assess why and chart a strategy. That’s the best way to avoid regret.

If you’re planning a long-term trip many months or years from now, then you can take a long-term approach to decluttering before your trip. Or if you have a year or more timeline to minimize. This means a slow and steady process of downsizing your life and getting rid of the nonessentials.

This is a softer approach, and allows you to be certain you won’t regret getting rid of an time. And for travelers, 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 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 in plain sight will force you to consider each item carefully, ensuring it goes into the right place.

Start with the smallest and least sentimental items.

When it comes to decluttering, starting small can make a big difference. Begin with items that have little sentimental value and are easy to part with, such as old magazines, expired pantry items, or clothes that no longer fit. By starting with small items, you can build momentum and gain confidence in your decluttering abilities.

When I bought my ticket initially, I had five months to declutter and downsize, but I knew I wouldn’t do the serious purging until the end. For that reason, I began that very day with a small box of old makeup that I never used. It wasn’t a difficult decision to part with these items, but it helped me get into the mindset of decluttering and made it seem very real that I was working toward my goal of long-term travel.

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.

Store paperwork online—ready yourself for the completely digital life you’ll need to leave when you’re on your trip. The bonus is you won’t have to file and store these items.

Then start trading items one for two. For each new shirt, knickknack, or new thing that comes into the house, two things must go into the charity box.

Focus on progress, not perfection.

Decluttering is a process, not an event, and it’s important to give yourself time to make progress at your own pace. Don’t feel like you need to purge your entire space in one day or even one week. Take it one step at a time and focus on making progress, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.

When I was decluttering my book collection, I found it overwhelming to tackle it all at once. So, I decided to set a goal of getting rid of just one book a day. This allowed me to make progress without feeling overwhelmed, and over time, I was significantly downsized my book collection.

What I Stored Before Traveling the World

keep some belongings!
You still need clothes to wear and things on which you can cook, so you’re not getting rid of every single thing you own, even if you’re traveling and giving up your home. But, you can do a pretty good job of minimizing your belongings.

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 the core of my book collection was something I will value even in 10 years—and 15 years later that has proven too. Though the books are all still at my dad’s house, I love perusing my bookshelf during visits and saying hi to my old friends.

I also hauled other things like photos, family mementos, 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!

Resources to Effectively Get Rid of Your Things

books to read to help you minimize
There are some great books that can help you learn how to better manage the process of downsizing your belongings and getting rid of what you don’t need. Buy digital copies of the books to read on your phone or e-reader, so you’re not adding more stuff before you even get started.

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.

My Long Process of Getting Rid of My Belongings

2009 Update: After my yearlong 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. After another big trip to the Salvation Army to get rid of even more things that I still owned, and 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 that I had purged in mass. Florida only has a few weeks a year of winter, and I never go anywhere cold, so it ended up feeling like a big waste of money to rebuy sweaters, wool socks, and the like.

There are many 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 my mementos and am glad that I still have a few knickknacks and memories from my two years living 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 still 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 world travel 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, when I got rid of nearly everything that I owned.

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.

2023 Update: I now live in Barcelona and have gone back to owning things. It’s a very strange feeling to know I own far more than I can carry on my back. But the years of minimalism have taught me to avoid clutter. I use Buy Nothing groups to source baby gear and toys, and to get rid of things as my toddler son ages out of them.

Despite now being part of consumer culture again, the lessens I learned from getting rid of everything I owned in the early years of my travels have allowed me to feel less anxiety over the “stuff” and taught me to make do with what I already have.