Downsizing Possessions Before You Move: A Step-by-Step Guide

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There are two types of people who move overseas. Some plan to relocate permanently, while others who intend to eventually return to their homeland.

How you go about downsizing possessions partly depends on whether you plan to return. But either way, you’ll need to decide what’s worth keeping and what’s not.

Even if you don’t plan to move overseas, these tips will still help you completely declutter your house. These tips are based on our own experience. Read on, then leave your thoughts below.

Downsizing before a temporary move

I get it. Replacing stuff can be expensive.

If you’re only moving overseas for a season, you may want to keep certain items for when you return. So you’re left with 2 alternatives:

Store it. In my opinion, you should only consider this if something is expensive or difficult to replace. In that case, you’ll either need to ask someone to keep it for you or you’ll need to rent a storage unit. Before you decide to do this though, ask yourself:

  • How long will it be in storage before I use it?
  • How much will that storage cost me? Less than buying it again later?
  • How will I get these things back, if and when I need them?

Lend it. If you plan to return, perhaps you know someone who needs a TV, table or sofa? Let them use it while you’re gone. We’ve done that a few times. Win-win.

Downsizing before a permanent move

If you’re not coming back, your options are:

Get rid of it. That’s what this article is about.

Ship it. It can take weeks to get your items, so be prepared. You’ll need to hire a company that specializes in overseas moves. Big companies often use subcontractors, so do your due diligence to ensure they are reliable, and don’t skimp on the insurance.

Bring it with you. We’ve lived in 5 countries, and each time we’ve carried only what we could fit in our suitcases. Moving to the east coast from Albuquerque, we only took what we could fit in our car.

When work required us to move overseas, we didn’t know when (or if) we might return. We did know we wanted to sell our house and that we didn’t want to pay for storage. This left two options: keep it or get rid of it.

Man selling lamps and other bric-brac at a market in Cairo

Should you ship everything you own?

It’s impractical to take everything along. Not only would it cost a fortune to ship, packing everything up is a lot of work. It’s at times like these when you’re smacked in the face with an unarguable truth: Fewer possessions make for easier moves.

There are so many advantages to downsizing and decluttering before you move … or actually, even if you plan to stay where you are. It creates more space in your head to think – physical clutter can be really mentally draining. There is so much less to concern yourself with. Science has proven it.

Maybe monks have discovered something here. Simplicity is good. If we’re honest, most of us no longer care about, need or want most of the things we own anyway.

Monastery hallway is a reminder that getting rid of clutter is good.

How to downsize before you move

First of all, if you want to downsize before you move, you need to know what you’re dealing with.

Realizing this, we began by deciding what was coming with us. Major mental adjustment: If it wasn’t coming with us, we didn’t NEED it.

The hardest thing about downsizing and decluttering is

allowing yourself to let things leave your life.

Before we go further, I want to mention something that’s SUPER IMPORTANT! To avoid later arguments, don’t do this alone! When it comes to downsizing possessions to move, everyone needs to be in agreement with what is essential and non-essential.

Get an old notebook and set up sections:

  1. Photos, keepsakes and other mementos with sentimental value (things you can’t bring but don’t want to discard)
  2. Expensive items with value (jewelry, electronics, tools, appliances, etc.)
  3. Household items in good condition (kitchen items, linens, etc.)
  4. Clothing, books and supplies to give away
  5. Other

Then take an inventory of everything in the house. We went room by room, moving clockwise from the door. Closet shelves, drawers, curtains, furniture, rugs, everything ended up one one of those lists.

ⓘ TIP: Beginning with the easiest room gives you an immediate sense of accomplishment.

Decluttering action plan

Then create an action plan to deal with each list.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which order you do these in, as long as they all get done.

1. Photos, keepsakes and other mementos that we can’t bring or toss out

Give things to people who will appreciate them. Photos, furniture, keepsakes … why not distribute your heirlooms now? They’re going to get them eventually, anyway.

Besides, wouldn’t you rather watch your heirs enjoy your precious mementos while you’re alive?

ⓘ TIP: Do you know a young couple just starting out? Give them a call; maybe you can bless them with the things you can’t use.

2. Expensive items worth a lot of money

Caveat: If you think something might be valuable, research it online before you sell it for pennies. In certain cases, you might do better with an estate sale or auction house.

As we went from room to room, we moved the sellable items to a central location. We chose to use the garage because it was out of the way and already had Dan’s tools and sports equipment. Alternatively, consider having a portable container delivered.

Next step: research current prices on sites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist. List the prices in your notebook.

After you’ve finished listing everything, it’s time to sell it. We had the best success with Craigslist, but if there isn’t one near you, do a websearch for “websites like craigslist” or “sites where you can sell your items for little or no cost.”

Sign up and list your items. The notebook prices will come in handy when people come to buy.

ⓘ TIP: Be willing to negotiate, or use a phrase like “first $50 gets it.”

3. Household items worth something

While a yard sale can be rewarding, it’s a lot of work to price everything, advertise the event, and hold the sale.

There are other options that take a little less effort. You can advertise on or set up a table at a local flea market. Either way, you’ll still have to price everything.

You can also look for an ad for an upcoming garage sale. Contact the person in charge and ask if they’d mind if you had a table at their event. Multi-family garage sales generally get better attendance.

4. Things you can’t sell

Give home improvement items (paint, extra flooring, wood, nails, etc.) to friends, a church, or Habitat for Humanity’s ReSale store. We gave a bag of construction odds and ends to a particularly nice man who had paid full price for a power tool. It doesn’t take much to make someone happy. 🙂

Donate your clothing to a homeless shelter, or an animal shelter.

We donated our best books to the library. The others went to the curb, with a big sign that said “FREE! HELP YOURSELF!”

Some local junk dealers will haul things away if you have items they may be able to sell.

ⓘ TIP: Books are heavy. Since moving overseas, we’ve realized how useful Kindles can be. I love my Kindle Oasis and highly recommend it. Learn more here.

5. Discard the junk.

Rent a dumpster. It will save you the time and expense of hauling everything to the dump yourself. When you’re eliminating a lifetime of junk, it’s far more than any weekly trash service can handle.

As soon as our dumpster arrived, we began in the basement. All the stuff we’d been holding on to “just in case” or “needs just a minor repair.” went into the dumpster. No exceptions.

The empty basement was so inspiring and freeing, that we attacked the rest of the house with gusto.

Basic rule: If it’s chipped, broken, ripped or stained, toss it. Don’t donate it. Due to time, staff, and financial limitations, charities rarely repair donated items.

6. List the house

You’ll probably want to stage the house before your agent takes photos. Now is the time to call moving companies for estimates.

7. Box up everything for shipment.

When you’re packing, bubble wrap is your friend. Tape the boxes securely and mark each box to indicate which room the contents belong in. We found that round colorful stickers were perfect for this. (Blue=kitchen, yellow=bathroom, etc.)

As a security measure, it’s best to NOT list the contents on the boxes themselves. It’s best to number the boxes and list everything on a master sheet. My grandfather lost a valuable arrowhead collection because he didn’t follow this rule.

8. Ship or sell your vehicles.

Once you find a reliable company, shipping your car overseas is easy. They’ll walk you through everything.

If that won’t work—perhaps because the car’s steering wheel is on the wrong side—you can sell your car or give it to a friend or family member. For us, it was easiest to simply title our car in our son’s name.

Discovery: The hardest thing about downsizing and decluttering is allowing yourself to let things leave your life.

Life is full of downsizing opportunities

Thinking back, this is not the first time we’ve been reduced to little more than a suitcase full of possessions.

  • The first time was when I moved back east from California. I was 24 then and two of my four suitcases got lost in the move.
  • A few years later, my then-husband and I loaded everything we owned into our old Ford Maverick and left Albuquerque with our 5-month-old daughter. Aside from 2 suitcases each, most of what we took with us was baby paraphernalia. (Come to think of it, we didn’t have much then, either.)
  • I lost more during my divorce. Most of my precious possessions were family heirlooms, and the bank foreclosed on my ex before I could retrieve them. Losing everything was bittersweet. I lost cherished mementos while starting a new life.
  • In 2004, Hurricane Charley hit our (furnished rental) home in Florida while we were out of town. We returned to find no roof and a soaking wet home. Happily, our photos survived, but a lot of other things had grown moldy and ended up on the curb.

I’ll bet you can think of a few yourself. Feel free to share your experiences below.

Downsizing to leave

Downsizing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re reduced to a few suitcases. True, that’s all we took, but we left a lot of things behind for staging the house while it’s on the market. Our son would stay in the house for security. If and when the house sells, our son can have the furniture in his new place.

We kept the family heirlooms and mementos. Well, actually, our children did. They now have the clock Dan’s grandpa made, photos of my great-great-grandparents in the original frames, a few pieces of Granny’s furniture, and two pillows my great-grandma quilted. That’s the way it should be; they would get it when we pass on anyway. I pray that they will cherish them as much as we have.

Toddler sucking his thumb in a hammock

Tips for downsizing

Here’s our most helpful tip: Take “just in case” out of your vocabulary.

Remember, for everything you carry/ship/move adds weight and cost. Almost everything you need is available there (often for less money). Besides, if you can’t find exactly what you want, you can always order it online and have it shipped.

If you’re not sure you’ll need it, don’t take it.

Go room by room, and don’t move on to the next room until the current one is complete.

A minimalist lifestyle is decluttered. These people in Cambodia don't own much, but they have all they need.

How does downsizing feel?

Oh. My. Goodness. We had never expected how remarkably freeing it is to be rid of unnecessary things! All that clutter had also cluttered our minds.

And we’ve given our children the gift of less emotional trauma as they go through our possessions after we’re gone.

What about you? Have you ever downsized, or do you have any other tips for decluttering?

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to around 60 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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2 thoughts on “Downsizing Possessions Before You Move: A Step-by-Step Guide”

  1. I’m curious why you kept re-accumulating with each move an all of the “disasters” that occurred along the way….seems like the universe was trying to tell you something 🙂 ?

    I too have been through similar circumstances and learned that WE ARE NOT OUR THINGS, THERE IS MORE TO LIFE THAN STUFF


    • Nope, the universe wasn’t telling us a thing. It didn’t need to, because we rent furnished homes and only spend money on things we need. Each time we downsized, our possessions became fewer and fewer. The only time we accumulated things was when we had to buy baby stuff or combined homes.

      But you’re right, there is more to life than STUFF.


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