Traveling the World, One Year at a Time.
Episode 2: Zero-Sizing
By Al Race
[Editor’s Note. This is the second installment in a series of articles from Al Race that chronicles the whys and hows of traveling the world in retirement on a limited budget.]
“If you want to fly, ballast you must unload.” —YoKo
(Note: YoKo is an imaginary guru of zero-sizing, a combination of Yoda and Marie Kondo. YoKo’s wisdom has guided our process to strike back against an ever-growing Empire of stuff. Major motion picture not coming soon.)
The long-planned retirement dream my wife and I have patiently waited for is about to become reality: Traveling to a different country every year for the full year (See Bucket #446). Sounds exciting and even romantic, right? But actually making it happen quickly runs into some complications. One of those is this: We are selling our house and do not want to pay for a storage space to keep a lot of stuff we won’t use for ten years or more. This requires the ultimate in downsizing—what we’ve come to call “zero-sizing.” So how do we get rid of all the stuff we’ve accumulated over 40+ years without overflowing the landfill?
This is a challenge that is not limited to people who want to travel for ten years. Our situation may be earlier and more extreme, but it’s something we all must deal with sooner or later, because, well, you can’t take it with you and all that. Dealing with it sooner means your kids won’t have to do it for you later. And trust me, dealing with it now also brings an incredible sense of freedom and flexibility. Stuff may bring us some measure of comfort, but stuff also weighs us down. Stuff limits our options. Stuff clutters our lives. So here’s a step-by-step guide to getting rid of your stuff.
Step 1: Adjust your Attitude.
“It took you 40 years to accumulate things; overnight you will not rid yourself of them.” — YoKo
To start our travel plans, we have to be able to fit everything we own into a few suitcases and a tiny summer cabin that is already fully equipped. But we honestly had no idea how much stuff we had until we tried to get rid of it all. We’re far from hoarders, but we did raise four kids and have a house that fit everyone—and all their stuff—at one time. Every closet, every drawer, every nook and cranny has stuff. It can be overwhelming once you start poking around. Boxes of photos and letters we had moved from apartment to apartment to house to house for decades; books we’ve already read, yearbooks, recipe books, and scrapbooks; CDs and records; drawers full of scrap paper, pens, scissors, rubber bands, and twist ties; long-unused toys, skates, and games… Do these sound familiar? How about all the tools, mismatched screws, and household supplies we had accumulated? How many of those did we really need? To say nothing of closets overstuffed with clothes we rarely wore; towels, blankets, and sheets we never used; shoes that hadn’t gone for a walk in years. All of this must go.
But don’t underestimate the emotional toll of sorting through everything and making micro-decisions. This is one reason you need to take your time. As the real Marie Kondo says, if something still sparks joy, don’t part with it right away. If it once brought you joy, thank it for that and let it go. Seriously—if you take a moment to appreciate what something once meant to you or did for you, then admit that it no longer has a role in your life, that can make it easier to say goodbye to it. We attach strong emotions to our stuff and it’s important to acknowledge them, experience them, and move on.
And remember you can keep some things, especially if they take up little space. If you have five keepsakes from your grandmother, keep the smallest one that still feels meaningful to you (and try to foist the others on your children!). Music, photos, documents, scrapbooks—all can be digitized and archived on a hard drive. We’ve even scanned bulky, awkward scrapbooks and then printed trim photobooks from Snapfish or Vistaprint that fill far less space. At some point, you’ll need to become more ruthless in your approach: As we near our deadline, we’ve had to switch from “will I ever need this?” to “do I really need this?” to “where the hell will I put this?”
But it all takes time. We’ve been at this for well over a year—and a pandemic year at that!—and we’re not done yet. Give yourself that time, and it won’t feel so daunting. We decided we would do one thing every night that would move us toward our goal. List something for sale. Clean out one drawer. Upload ten CDs or one photo album. No matter how tired we felt at the end of a day, having done one small thing to make progress actually made us feel better. It helped us move from “OMG” to “we’ve got this.”
Step 2: Know What You’ve Got. Make Piles.
“To achieve true lightness, into each dark corner must one go.” — YoKo
To avoid feeling overwhelmed, it really helped us to get methodical. We started in the basement, went room by room, closet by closet, and worked our way up to the top floor. Along the way we pulled everything out and created piles to “donate,” “sell, ” and “digitize.” We put the “keep” stuff back where it was, and carried a trash bag with us to fill up along the way. Then we made piles within the piles: things that were easy to part with; things that we valued but had no value to others (obscure art, family keepsakes, photos); things we’re still using but want to sell at some point. You can always move an item from one pile to another later. You can use laundry baskets and plastic bins to make the piles more orderly. Create a “triage room” where everything you are donating can go until it leaves the house. Whatever system works for you, as long as you have a system that enables you to put your hands on everything in your house and forces you to be intentional about it.
Once you have done this, you can begin gathering information and taking photos of the items you want to sell. Measure dimensions, describe items, figure out how old they are. For some, you’ll want to do your homework. I had two antique pocket watches from my grandfather and decided to keep one and sell the other. I found online that there are collectors of certain watches, and learned what has value. I learned the language of collectors: the gears inside are called the “movement”, they contain a certain number of “jewels”, a “hunting” watch has a case that closes over its face. I learned that some people only want to buy them to melt them down for the gold, while others collect and treasure them. All of this was fascinating, but also helped me sell the watch at an appropriate price.
Other research is more mundane, but helps you figure out value and pricing – just searching for a similar item on sale on eBay can give you a good idea. But make sure you do an “advanced search” and look for items that have sold. That will give you a truer sense of what someone might pay, as opposed to what someone wants to get.
Step 3: Let It Go.
“For everything, there is a price, even if that price is zero.” —YoKo
If you lack time or motivation, and have plenty of money already, you may just want to donate everything you don’t need. Though even donation centers won’t take some things, like stuffed animals and mattresses. We learned from an insider that if something doesn’t sell quickly at ReStore (the Habitat for Humanity resale store), they may just smash it and trash it. If you decide to donate things and you want to take the tax deduction, be sure to check with your tax advisor. I use an app from Intuit called It’s Deductible to log in every item we donate. The app calculates the value each time you donate to a given charity and creates a report at the end of the year. Last year we had about $4000 worth of non-cash contributions like this, so we saved almost $1000 in taxes.
But some things you just know are worth something, and if you have the time and inclination, you can sell them—and you don’t have to host a yard sale to do it. In addition to local used record stores and book stores, we’ve used Craig’s List and eBay, as well as apps like OfferUp and DeCluttr, and we have even sold more than 60 books as an Amazon used-book vendor. All have their pros and cons, but we have had the most success selling things locally with Facebook Marketplace. Marketplace has a national reach if you want it, but also has local “yard sale” groups you can join to list things. Some are specific to furniture, high-end goods, or free stuff; most are limited to a few towns around where you live. You can check out a prospective buyer’s profile (and they can check out yours), communicate securely via Facebook Messenger, and can receive payment in cash or via Venmo—and Facebook doesn’t take a cut, unlike, say, eBay. (They just target you with ads…)
We have often been surprised at what sells quickly and what doesn’t. The old turntable I expected would go since LPs are popular again, but a cassette tape player? Sold in 10 days. Barely used, five-year-old bookshelf speakers? Still waiting. Two old brass barometers? Sold in a week for $50. End tables, bedside tables, bunk beds, funky old chairs—all sold. We had a huge original painting (created by a long-ago ex) in a custom frame that had been stashed away for years. We thought the frame might possibly be of interest to an artist so we posted it for free. Snapped up instantly by people who loved the painting—proving us wrong and the unappreciated artist right after all!
And then there was the chain mail shirt. Yes, chain mail — what knights of old wore into battle. One of our sons went through a phase; what can I say? Sold in a week to an artist from New York. When the artist’s sister, who lives nearby, came to pick it up, she was surprised by how heavy it was, but said, “I pick up all kinds of crazy things for my sister.” And our son was pretty pleased to get some money for his long-forgotten chain mail. (Our other son started a collection of decorative knives around the same time. Coincidence? Hmm. Anyway, we’ve found that these faux-medieval and ninja-style knives, intended to be displayed, are nearly impossible to sell or even give away because the online platforms have algorithms that disallow “weapons”. Just goes to show that defense is more lucrative than offense.)
A few final tips for online sales:
- Be prepared to be ghosted by people who express interest and never show up. So don’t mark something as sold or tell people it’s unavailable until you have been paid.
- Take numerous pictures from various angles in good lighting.
- Creatively described items sell better: a box of old nails, screws, and brackets went nowhere until we called it “Hardware Store in a Box”.
- Be friendly—you may meet some interesting people. We have!
Step 4: Freedom!
“An unbeatable lightness from selling I promise you will feel.” —YoKo
I admit, it sometimes feels as if we will never get to the bottom of the piles. But each time we take a load to Savers or Goodwill, we feel lighter. And with each thing that leaves the house, our travel plans become just a little more real. We celebrate each departure as one more step on our journey. Instead of focusing on what we no longer have, we talk about what we’ve gained: freedom from the stuff we didn’t even know was weighing us down. (And enough proceeds to finance our first few flights to somewhere amazing—or maybe bring our kids there to visit.)
This process has also given us an incredible opportunity that too few of us have: to spend time, mindfully, with the things that actually have meaning to us. To go through that box of letters one more time—or decide not to, if it’s too painful. To listen to those old albums one more time. To appreciate the photos of family and friends from different times in our lives. And then, to let them go as we turn to the future.
About the writer
Al Race has spent most of his career focused on children, education, and communication. Seeing more of the world and living simply have been on his mind since he was a teenager. He is looking forward to his first summer of not working since he was 13 (Bucket Age 64!).
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