The summer transfer season is almost here! Will your shipment weigh in under the limit? Will you be moving from a tropical mansion to a tiny European flat? Or from a reasonably-sized Spanish colonial to a 3BR 1BA rambler in Northern Virginia? Where will you put everything? (And where did all this junk come from, anyway?)
While Foreign Service families are generally much better about keeping their clutter under control than “normal” families, thanks to moving every two to four years, it’s still amazing what can accumulate during the course of just one tour (especially if you are stationed in a country with great handicrafts!) Furthermore, State Department weight allowances are not overly generous when you consider that essential items such as computer desks, entertainment cabinets, and sufficient bookshelves are not usually included with Embassy housing and must either be shipped along with other personal effects or purchased at post. Books, magazines, and videos tend to pile up at posts where English is not the local language and libraries are non-existent.
So, the weeks preceding departure from post are often accompanied by anxiety over whether or not one will be “overweight.” Some families go to great lengths to keep all their possessions, mailing dozens of boxes to themselves, flying with multiple trunks and suitcases, or paying fees for excess weight in their sea shipments.
The Cyberspouse believes that every Foreign Service transfer actually represents a unique opportunity for families to prioritize and weed out their possessions, resulting in a more organized, less cluttered household.
How often have you heard a Foreign Service family member say that the upside of living in temporary quarters was that the realization that the family actually needs very few belongings on a daily basis? Even children occupy themselves remarkably well with just one or two boxes of toys and games. The household goods shipment is often welcomed with a mixture of delight and dread, especially by the spouse, who is almost certain to be doing most of the unpacking!
The Cyberspouse is not suggesting that we all reduce our possessions to 600 pounds of air freight, of course. But one indisputable fact of Foreign Service life is that every item that we pack represents another item we will eventually have to UNpack. That alone is enough to make anyone reconsider keeping their extensive collection of trinkets, knick-knacks, and collectibles, not to mention books, computer games, mountains of toys, and clothes that haven’t fit since your last post.
There are also significant psychological benefits to decluttering. We all know how nice it feels to give our belongings to someone who needs them, but it can also be wonderfully liberating to sell, donate, give away, and otherwise unload “excess baggage.” It could even be considered a healthy part of the process of saying goodbye to a post.
Foreign Service families have a significant advantage when it comes to decluttering. In general, our possessions will always be in high demand wherever in the world we are. In poorer countries, of course, almost any donation is welcome. All we have to do is offer our extra belongings to the housekeeper’s family, or to a local orphanage or church. Locally unsuitable items, such as NTSC videos, are usually welcomed by the CLO office or school. But, even in wealthier countries, there are often large expatriate communities that are in need of English-language books and videos, for example, along with charitable organizations that will happily take American clothing and toys. Large expatriate communities can also support garage sales and flea markets, often as fund-raisers for schools and other community organizations.
The question, therefore, is not whether one will be able to unload items, but how one wishes to dispose of them. While the Cyberspouse is all in favor of donating to charities, there is nothing wrong with making a little extra money from selling things either, particularly when home leave or transfer expenses are imminent. Again, remember that your items are probably in more demand overseas than they would be at home. Particularly if you are surrounded by corporate expatriates, who do not have APO or diplomatic pouch privileges, it is not at all silly to advertise your small appliances, old Disney videos, paperback novels, or much-loved American toys, and to charge a respectable price for them as well.
Chances are that you will be surprised at how quickly these items disappear if you just get the word out. Several methods come to mind.
- Place an advertisement in the Embassy newsletter. The major advantage to this method is that your advertisement will be seen by a select group, presumably reliable people that you don’t mind dropping by your house to pick up a coffee maker or VCR. Other American employees may even be able to pay you by check, or with cash dollars, which is useful when you are about to leave the country and don’t wish to accumulate a lot of local currency. However, this is a limited market, especially at smaller posts.
- Use your personal network. For example, many American and international clubs overseas now have email lists. Join the club, if you aren’t already a member, and if the organization rules permit, send your advertisement out to this list. Not only will the members see it, but chances are they’ll forward it to their friends, who will forward it to their friends, and so on. Your ad will probably be seen by most of the English-speaking expatriates in town within a matter of days (or hours!).
- Advertise at the local international school. Even if you do not have children at the school, the administration will probably not mind if you post your ad on their bulletin board: most schools consider this to be a service to their own communities. (Or, just ask a friend with children at the school to post your ad).
- Post an advertisement at a local English-speaking church (see schools, above.)
- Ask around about local flea markets and “white elephant” fundraisers. Schools and women’s clubs often sponsor these events. Or, get together with two or three other families who are also leaving post and have your own private garage sale, if the security climate permits. Not only can this be a great way to unload your stuff, but it can be a fun community event as well.
Once you’ve sold off a few things, or at least made a list of things you intend to sell, move on to the giveaway phase. (You might even decide that it’s quicker and easier just to give away everything and not bother selling-that’s fine too!) The same methods listed above apply. For example, the Cyberspouse recently gave away several items-a large box of American women’s magazines, fifteen years’ worth of National Geographic magazines, and some Czech canning supplies–simply by sending an email to her local women’s group email list. No item remained unclaimed for more than 24 hours, and the recipients were delighted to have them.
It can be more fun to give items to people you know than to an impersonal charity, and in any case, local charities may not be able to use your NTSC videos or copies of Better Homes and Gardens. Don’t be embarrassed to give away these things just because the recipients happen to be comparatively wealthy! Consider it to be a form of recycling.
Some other ideas for giving away your stuff:
- Ask your Community Liaison Office Coordinator if she would like books, games or videos for her own lending library, or to present to new arrivals that don’t have their shipments yet.
- If you’ve pared down your children’s books and magazines, ask the local international school if they would like the extras for their library, or for a fundraising book sale. The Cyberspouse can attest that watching little kids joyfully walking away from a book sale clutching your children’s outgrown books is very gratifying!
- Send your books and collectibles to the AAFSW Bookroom. These items are sold during the annual AAFSW Bookfair and year-round in the AAFSW Bookroom. Profits benefit a number of worthy causes. If you are posted to an Embassy, you may send the items to the Bookroom via pouch at no charge. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Register at www.bookcrossing.com and participate in a global library! Members download bookcrossing labels to put in their books then leave the books in any public place to be found by another reader, who repeats the process. The website logs the progress of bookcrossing books, some of which have traveled around the world!
- Give outgrown children’s clothes, toys, computer games and videos to a neighbor with younger children. In the Cyberspouse’s experience, what goes around comes around. Give, and you are virtually guaranteed to receive in kind from someone with older children one day.
- If someone admires your Bolivian whatchamacallit, or your Icelandic thingamabob, and you’ve been wondering why you ever bought it (and packed it, and unpacked it, and packed and unpacked it againÖ.) just give it to her to remember you by.
- Another great use for those whatchamacallits and thingamabobs is to donate them to a fundraising white elephant sale or auction. If there are no organizations holding such an event before you leave, you could just ask if anyone would like to store the items until the sale. Your donation could even be the inspiration for a church sale!
- A friend of the Cyberspouse’s who is very active in her own church has a “Blessing Box” by her front door. She puts outgrown children’s clothes, etc. in the box, and her frequent visitors take whatever they want. She reports that the box empties very quickly!
One potential obstacle to lightening your load may be the understandable reluctance of your children to part with their belongings. Children are rarely impressed by arguments in favor of “less clutter” or “less unpacking for Mom at the new house.” The Cyberspouse believes that it is a mistake to push too hard on this front when children are already nervous about a move. (She is also opposed to sneaking things out of the house when they are asleep!) Instead, consider offering incentives. For example, you might let them keep the money from selling their toys at a flea market. Or, you might offer to buy them one book that they really want for every 25 outgrown books they can put in the giveaway box, or one new computer game for every ten outgrown ones they can findÖetc. You might even conduct your own family fundraising drive to pay for a kid-friendly vacation on the way to your next post.
These incentives could also be applied to spouses, or even to yourself! Is there a painting by a local artist that’s just a little bit out of your range that you’d really like to buy before you leave? A beach vacation you’d like to take before heading off to Ouagadougou? Consider “earning” it by selling your extra stuff!
It can also be helpful to involve your children personally in the rewards of giving. Instead of anonymously dropping off a bag of toys at the local charity shop, let your daughter give her Barbies to the little girl next door, or to the gardener’s daughter, and enjoy the resulting goodwill herself. Many children get so excited about giving things away that you will actually have to make sure they don’t give away too much!
Finally, the Cyberspouse recommends that you start this process several weeks, or even months, before your move. As the packout date gets closer, everyone’s nerves start to fray, including your children’s. This is NOT the right time to make decisions about selling or giving away items. At the very least, start making lists several months in advance, perhaps as part of that general home inventory that we’re all supposed to make before we move. Discuss the to-sell and to-give lists with your family members and start to say goodbye to your stuff ahead of time. You might even put some items out of sight for a while “just to see if we miss them.” (You won’t.)
No one really likes to move. But you can turn it into an opportunity to streamline and simplify your life with just a little planning and organization. Try to visualize how wonderful it could be to unpack twenty fewer boxes in your next house than you did when you arrived at your current one. Or, imagine packing out with no worries that you might exceed your weight allowance. Top that with the satisfaction that comes from knowing that your former possessions are being used and loved by those who really want them, and you have the recipe for a highly successful Foreign Service transfer.
Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home by Linda Hetzer. Click here to order this book from Amazon.com.
Making Peace With the Things in Your Life: Why Your Papers, Books, Clothes, and Other Possessions Keep Overwhelming You and What to Do About It
by Cindy Glovinsky. Click here to order this book from Amazon.com.
Let Go of Clutter by Harriet Schechter. Click here to order this book from Amazon.com.
Kelly Bembry Midura is a Foreign Service spouse and AAFSW ‘s Content Manager.