Get Your Household Into Shape for the New Year!

“Lose weight” is a typical New Year’s resolution. It carries special significance in the Foreign Service. In just a few months, many of us will be packing up to move. Will your shipment weigh in under the limit? Will you be moving from a spacious tropical house to a tiny European apartment or DC-area townhouse?  No matter what the scenario, more stuff equals more stress!

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, it is still amazing what can accumulate during the course of just one tour–especially if you are stationed in a country with great handicrafts! Also, large items not included with Embassy housing, such as computer desks and chairs or child-sized furniture, must often be shipped between posts. Books and DVDs tend to pile up in countries where English is not the local language and libraries are non-existent.

So, the weeks preceding departure from post are often accompanied by great 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 suitcases, or even paying thousands of dollars for excess weight in their shipments. These could all be considered solutions to the problem but do not take advantage of a real opportunity to organize and streamline a household.

It is an 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 their extensive collection of trinkets, knick-knacks, and collectibles, not to mention books, mountains of toys, and clothes that haven’t fit since two posts ago.

We actually have a significant advantage when it comes to downsizing our households. In general, our possessions will be in high demand wherever in the world we are posted. The question, therefore, is not whether we will be able to unload items, but how we wish to dispose of them.

In poor 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. Even in wealthier countries, expatriate organizations are in need of English-language books and DVDs, and charities will happily take American clothing and toys. Large expatriate communities can also support garage sales and flea markets. Schools and women’s clubs often sponsor these events, and will take donations from anyone in the community.

Donation is a great option, but there is nothing wrong with making a little extra money, either. 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, Disney DVDs, childrens’ books, 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 television. 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.

Many American missions, clubs, and international organizations overseas now have email lists or Facebook groups. If the organization rules permit, advertise your wares. 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.

 Post an advertisement at a local English-speaking church (see schools, above).

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.

You may decide that is quicker and easier just to give away even saleable items, or things that might be accepted by charities, such as craft supplies. You can use the same outlets to give items away as you do to sell them. I recently (and quickly) gave away yarn, quilting supplies, and foam floor tiles on one of our local expat Facebook groups. Don’t be embarrassed to offer these items for free. It is just 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 DVDs for the CLO library, or to lend 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.
  • Freecycle, a network of email lists for giving away items, is now international. If you are in the DC area, or if you are comfortable in the host country language overseas, you may want to sign up for a local group. Browse worldwide groups at
  • 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 again) just give it to her to remember you by.
  • Give outgrown children’s clothes, toys, computer games and videos to a neighbor with younger children. It takes a village, after all.

Speaking of children, their sometimes indiscriminate reluctance to part with their belongings can be a problem. Kids are rarely impressed by arguments in favor of “less clutter” or “less unpacking for Mom at the new house.” It is usually a mistake to push too hard on this front when children are already nervous about a move. Instead, consider offering incentives. 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 donation box (or offer to buy them an e-reader!).

If bribery is not in your parenting handbook, try 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 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!

If you are moving this year, start downsizing now. As the packout date gets closer, everyone’s nerves start to fray. That 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.)

Finally, try to look on the positive side. 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.

Whether your next packout is this year, or two years away, 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 home. Most importantly, enjoy the satisfaction that comes from knowing that your former possessions are being used and loved by those who really need or want them.

Kelly Bembry Midura was formerly AAFSW ‘s Content Manager. She blogs at

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