Eliminating Material Possessions/Letting Go Part 1: First Steps

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Chevy van parked on street under streetlamp
Photo by Julian Schultz on Unsplash

You’re going to do it! You’re going to move out of your sticks-n-bricks home, hit the road, and live nomadically. The problem is, you have so much stuff. How are you going to fit everything you own into your rig? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re probably not going to be able to take everything you own with you on the road. If you’re living like the average American, you probably have more possessions than you can shove into a van, car, truck camper, pull-behind trailer, or even a large motorhome or 5th wheel. Today and for the next three Wednesdays, I’ll share my ideas for purging your material possessions as well as what you should keep for life on the road.

You’re lucky if you can purge before you leave your conventional home. Whether you’re hitting the road in a week, a month, or a year, your first step will be to cull your possessions mercilessly. You will need to look at every single item you own and decide whether it has a place in your nomadic life. Overwhelming? Yes. Necessary? Also yes.

Small camper parked immediately to the side of a dirt road
Photo by Leo Foureaux on Unsplash

Be prepared to go through the culling process several times. You may think you’ve done a great job by selling and donating 50% of your material possessions only to find you still have 75% more things than will fit in your rig. You may stuff your rig with belongings and after a week or a month (or a year!) decide you can no longer live with all the material possessions you’ve crammed into your space. That’s ok! Downsizing may be an ongoing process for a long time.

Many people have written books or developed systems designed to help other people declutter and organize. Some of these people have good ideas, but remember they are trying to help you live better in a conventional sticks-n-bricks home or an apartment. Such methods are not intended for people planning to move into a van or RV, much less a car or an SUV, and won’t be presented with folks like us in mind. By all means, look into the methods available, but be prepared to pick and choose the tips that will work for you.

Some systems for organizing will be based on you buying things. You may be advised to buy baskets, storage cubes, drawer organizers, dish racks, or any number of other things. There’s no shame in not wanting to or being able to rush out and buy more stuff. Think about what you already have that might work before you buy anything. Maybe you own storage containers that would work for what you want to do. If not, maybe you can build what you need. Have a look at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore or other thrift shop for items you can use before you buy new things.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Recently there has been a lot of talk (and many jokes) about a method for purging that encourages people to discard all items that don’t “spark joy.” Joy is great. I’m all for joy. When it comes to clothing, jewelry, shoes, and decorations or knickknacks, sure, jettison anything that doesn’t spark joy. However, some items are utilitarian, and you may only experience joy when the object allows you to get things done. You may not feel joy from your tire jack or can opener until you change a flat or open a can of beans, but you still need to carry those items with you every day.

Another school of thought is that you should only keep items that serve multiple purposes. When I lived in my van, almost nothing I owned served more than one purpose. A potholder is only a potholder, a spoon is only a spoon, and a can of Fix-of-Flat is only a can of Fix-a-Flat. Yes, an item that serves more than one purpose is great, but I suggest you take this “multi-purpose” advice with a grain of salt.

When you’re ready to start your culling process (and it’s never too soon to begin), I suggest you take it one room at a time. Get some containers to hold the items you’re going to get rid of. I suggest you use 18 gallon plastic tubs, but cardboard boxes or large garbage bags work too. Don’t fill overfill your containers; you want to be able to move them when necessary.  

Label one container “trash.” Into this tub you will put items no one wants, such as used razor blades, sticky rubber bands that have lost their elasticity, dry ink pens, and outdated medication. (Please dispose of old medication properly.)

Label the second container “sell.” Into this container you will put everything you think you might be able to sell. You probably want your wallet to be as fat as possible when you hit the road, so try to sell as much as you can. You may be surprised by what bargain hunters at yard sales will buy! Whatever you don’t sell, you can donate later. (In the third post in this series, I’ll give you a list of places where you can try to sell your belongings.)

Label the third container “donate.” Into this container you will put the things you want to give away. If you already know you want to give the quilt your grandmother made in 1926 to your great-niece, go ahead and put it into this container. During your first go round, you will probably have more items in the “sell” container than in the “donate” container, but as things don’t sell, move them over to “donate.” (In the fourth post in this series, I will give you lots of suggestions about where to donate things.)

As you fill containers, put all of the items you want to sell together in one area. Put the containers holding items to give away in another area. Don’t get the items mixed up. Having the containers labeled will (hopefully) keep you from getting confused. Keep these containers away from items you’re not tossing.

Interior hallway of a storage unit facility
Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Label another container “storage.” Into this container you’ll put items you don’t want to get rid of but you don’t want to carry around in your rig. I suggest you put as little as possible into this container!!! I am mostly opposed to storing belongings. If you’re paying for a storage unit, you’re basically letting your money float off into the wind. Before paying for storage, ask yourself how difficult it would be to replace the items you’re thinking about storing. Also, how much would it cost to replace the items? Could you replace the items with less expensive or used items? If the items are easy to replace and would cost less than the equivalent of a couple month’s storage fees, consider ditching the items and replacing them later if you need to.

Think about how far from the stored items you’ll be if you need them. If you stay in the same town as your storage unit, it might make more sense to store some belongings. If your spare forks are in New Jersey and you’re in Oregon when you need a replacement, paying the monthly fee to house the spares has been pretty much pointless.

If you’re planning to pay to store family heirlooms, you may want to ask yourself why. Are you saving the items for a family member who can’t take them now? If that’s the case, let the family member pay to store them! Are you sure the family member really wants the items? Perhaps the family member can’t take the items because they don’t want them. Now would be a good time to have a frank discussion about the expectations surrounding the responsibility for family possessions, who wants to inherit what, and who could care less. Maybe everyone in the family would be happy to sell the heirlooms and split the money. Maybe everyone would be fine with giving the heirlooms to a third cousin once removed who’d really, really like to have them.

Even if you don’t have to pay for storage because you’re keeping some things at a friend’s or family member’s place, consider what a headache this might turn out to be. What if the person storing your belongings moves? Will that person resent having to move your things too? What if there is a fire or flood and your items are destroyed? Are you belongings covered under your friend or family member’s insurance? What if you and the person storing your things have a fight? Will you ever see your belongings again? I have stored my possessions with individuals, but I suggest you avoid doing so if you can.

If you want, label one more container “to deal with later.” Into this container you’ll put items like CDs you want to copy to your laptop or external hard drive, letters and photos you want to scan, and financial documents you need time to look through. Again, I suggest you don’t put too much into this container.

Next week I’ll give you specific information about what I think is worth keeping and what I think is better left behind. I’ll cover categories like clothing, shoes, bedding, books, crafts, and tools. In the meantime, I’ll give you some general suggestions for how to decide what should stay and what should go.

sweaters and shirts on shelves in a closet
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

As you go through each room where you’re currently living, look at one item at a time. For practical items (clothes, umbrellas, kitchen gadgets), first use the one-year rule. If you haven’t worn or used the item in at least a year, toss it directly into the “sell” or “donate” container. If you haven’t worn or used an item in a year, you probably won’t suddenly need it while you’re living in your van or RV.

If an item passes the one-year test, consider if it is practical for your new lifestyle. Can you even run a stand mixer, bread machine, or microwave oven off the power system in your rig? Do you need a pair of strappy high heels while you’re exploring national parks? If you’re not going to use an item, don’t carry it out to your rig.

As you consider items, ask yourself if you could make a life change that would make the item in question obsolete. Could you get a haircut that leaves your hair easy to style, thus doing away with your need for a curling iron, hairspray, and barrettes? What if you stop coloring your hair and left behind boxes of hair dye kits? Might now be the time to limit the amount of makeup you wear so you need to lug around fewer cosmetics? Could you do most of your cooking in one cast iron skillet instead of dragging around an assortment of pots and pans?

Think about items of which you have multiples. Do you need all of them? Must you have 5 (or 8 or 11) plain black t-shirts? Do you need several pairs of flip flops? How many hair scrunchies can one person use? Can you made do with one pair of winter gloves? Do you need multiple pairs of reading glasses or sunglasses? Pick your favorite of what you have many of and jettison the rest. Having a couple of spares of small things like glasses is fine, but don’t go overboard.

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

For some items, it is a good idea to consider the joy they bring. If you’re going to have one bowl, sure, use the one that makes you happy. If your wardrobe is going to include only three t-shirts, choose the ones that fit best, look good, and feel most comfortable. If you’re going to allow yourself one book, make sure it’s one you really want to read.

If it helps you get rid of things you can’t possibly take with you anyway, think about the joy another person will get when they use an item you give away. Another hiker will appreciate the backpack you can no longer use. Your sibling may love to have the fancy cloth your mom put on the table every Christmas. Your spare blankets will bring warmth to homeless folks during the winter. Just because an item is no longer a part of your life doesn’t mean its usefulness is over.

Some items will be easy to toss into your “sell” or “donate” containers. Others will be a struggle to part with; it’s ok to sit with those decisions for a while. Just remember, living nomadically will bring benefits that a Def Leppard t-shirt or a food processor never will. Watching a beautiful sunset or seeing a full moon rise over the ocean will make your nomad’s heart soar. Traveling with the weather so you miss the worst of the heat and the cold is freeing in a way all the shoes in the world can never be.

If you’re a nomad, how did you downsize before you hit the road?

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About Blaize Sun

My name is Blaize Sun. Maybe that's the name my family gave me; maybe it's not. In any case, that's the name I'm using here and now. I've been a rubber tramp for nearly a decade.I like to see places I've never seen before, and I like to visit the places I love again and again. For most of my years on the road, my primary residence was my van. For almost half of the time I was a van dweller, I was going it alone. Now my (male) partner and I (a woman) have a travel trailer we can pull with our truck. We have a little piece of property, and when we're not traveling, we park our little camper there. I was a work camper in a remote National Forest recreation area on a mountain for four seasons. I was a camp host and parking lot attendant for two seasons and wrote a book about my experiences called Confessions of a Work Camper: Tales from the Woods. During the last two seasons as a work camper on that mountain, I was a clerk in a campground store. I'm also a house and pet sitter, and I pick up odd jobs when I can. I'm primarily a writer, but I also create beautiful little collages; hand make hemp jewelry and warm, colorful winter hats; and use my creative and artistic skills to decorate my life and brighten the lives of others. My goal (for my writing and my life) is to be real. I don't like fake, and I don't want to share fake. I want to share my authentic thoughts and feelings. I want to give others space and permission to share their authentic selves. Sometimes I think the best way to support others is to leave them alone and allow them to be. I am more than just a rubber tramp artist. I'm fat. I'm funny. I'm flawed. I try to be kind. I'm often grouchy. I am awed by the stars in the dark desert night. I hope my writing moves people. If my writing makes someone laugh or cry or feel angry or happy or troubled or comforted, I have done my job. If my writing makes someone think and question and try a little harder, I've done my job. If my writing opens a door for someone, changes a life, I have done my job well. I hope you enjoy my blog posts, my word and pictures, the work I've done to express myself in a way others will understand. I hope you appreciate the time and energy I put into each post. I hope you will click the like button each time you like what you have read. I hope you will share posts with the people in your life. I hope you'll leave a comment and share your authentic self with me and this blog's other readers. Thank you for reading.  A writer without readers is very sad indeed.

8 Responses »

  1. All great info / advise Since I down loaded when I moved from the east coast to the southwest I felt better and realize I didn’t reall “need ” all that xtra “stuff”. ‘Since moving into a small apartment I had to down size again which is all good Makes you feel lighter and realize you still have enough stufff that you need to live comfy with what you have. Great article

    • Glad you liked the article, Kodey. Thanks for sharing your experiences with downsizing. As you can attest, downsizing can be an ongoing process, not something to be done only once!

  2. I found “snowbirding” it for a number of years helped tremendously in downsizing. Having a home base to come back to every summer. The longer you spend out the more you get a feel for what you really do need on the road and what was just hopeful fantasy (why did I pack four skirts?) also, not missing everything you left at home makes it so much easier each summer to further reduce the volume. When I’ve been on the road for two months I take a pad of paper and write down what I miss the most that I left at home. Seriously it’s hard to think of what clothing you left behind you want to keep. I write down what pictures are truly the most important to me, what art, family heirlooms etc. some heirlooms you find nobody wants or that it’s more expensive to ship to someone than what it’s worth. I visit estate sales sometimes and that’s a real eye opener too. Most families box up everything in a persons house, or get someone else to do it and sell everything off without ever looking at it! So I try to remember that my stuff is more likely more important in my own mind than anybody else’s and that we are only caretakers for awhile….then really it should go to the next caretaker. It’s truly liberating when you downsize… it can be addictive.

  3. Thanks for the tips! I’m still a bit away from actually hitting the road, but these ideas are useful even in everyday sticks and bricks life. We all have too much stuff, and clutter is not good for the soul! I get depressed walking into my cluttered bedroom and feel so much better when things are neat and orderly. I use some of these ideas when I travel, it always amazes me how much stuff friends pack and they in turn think I’m nuts with just my carry on. But I’m much happier not shlepping tons of stuff around. (Of course I usually end up helping them shlep theirs, but that’s a story for another day…) I hope you have a peaceful and happy 2020, and perhaps we’ll meet up sometime on the road.

    • Glad you found the tips useful, Lynda. I agree, the ideas in the post are not limited to only nomads.

      I hope your 2020 is also peaceful and happy , and maybe we will see each other on the road!

  4. I do store some things with family, but every time I visit, that pile decreases. My attitude when I moved into my rig was if it causes me anxiety to leave something behind because I’m afraid I might need it, then bring it. That anxiety eased as I actually lived on the road and saw the reality of not needing it or at least being able to get one pretty easily if it turned out that I would someday. I have unloaded a lot of things along the way and gotten better sleep. Sometimes there is no substitute for seeing for ourselves whether we should keep something or not.

    That reminds me that I am actually due to pull all of my possessions out of the van for another round of downsizing. What fun.

    • Mason Jar Revolution, I absolutely agree that there is no substitute for seeing for ourselves whether something is worth keeping. I hope my posts on the topic of letting go of material possessions conveyed that getting rid of belongings is both a personal decision and an ongoing process.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. It’s great when my readers can learn from each other.

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