thrifty moving

used moving boxes via Craigslist

The other day, I did an actual count and realized I've lived in at least 21 separate dwellings so far in my early-middle-aged life. That means I've almost doubled the American average of 11.7 moves, with additional household moves still ahead. So to me the moving process feels almost normal: Here I go again. I suspect the wanderer bug runs in my genes.

As a college student, I made use of my mom and step-dad for their helping hands, car trunks, and truck beds, packing things up with free newspaper and needing only a few boxes because of not owning more than a bedroom's worth of stuff, plus some basic kitchen and toiletry items. (Newsprint I later stopped using since it smudges everything—hands, glasses, vases—and moving is dirty enough, but at least newspaper is cheap or even free.)

shadows on used moving box

Then when I was married, I did what most lower-middle-class Americans do when moving: I went to U-Haul and bought a box of pristine packing paper, new plastic mattress bags, and sets of small, medium, and large brand-new moving boxes, packed the stuff up myself, and then paid movers to heft it up or down stairs and into and out of the rental truck because the ex and I had few local friends to ask for help, and our families were scattered across different states, mine at least seven hours away. (A big burly mover wearing a back support one time asked me as he was carrying a big cabinet on his back down a set of stairs to always please unload my filing cabinets before moving, for which I still feel mortified.) We did that a couple times, paying for movers. I believe it cost around $2,000 for us to move up from the Bay Area to Portland in 2007, which to me now is a mind-blowing amount but was definitely less than what our possessions were worth used—though not a lot less. Yet it was still cheaper to move them than replace them, which is the most important thing to consider when moving: Is the stuff worth less than it costs to store or move? (Rich people can of course just pay other people to do their dirty work for them. But paying for storage units is just silly; a storage unit means a person has too much stuff.)

woven baskets (natural storage)

But then my personal and financial circumstances changed. I returned to begging for boxes from grocery stores, which worked out okay, though such boxes are not made for household moving, sometimes containing air-holes; plus, things like banana boxes might contain dried-on sticky fruit juices. Liquor and wine boxes are much better for moving than produce boxes, both stronger and cleaner; though on the small side, they're at least easier for someone like me to carry herself. Grocery stores will also give away larger boxes that once held things like paper towels and toilet paper. But the begging process can take time and multiple trips to multiple stores on select days specific to different stores.

What's even better is using Craigslist to find free boxes. You can certainly pay for used boxes and packing materials on Craigslist and save money compared to buying them new, and for some, this is the easiest way to go: one big load and twenty dollars up front. But if you have more time than money and temporary access to a large vehicle, you can also find people willing to give their boxes away for free just because they want them out of their garage "TODAY!!!" or simply to be generous. That is community reuse.

free Craigslist moving box

The free boxes and packing paper I've gotten on Craigslist are invariably clean. (Dirty ones, of course, I just wouldn't use. Do double-check any boxes labeled "kitchen" or "bathroom" for stains, as they might have contained seeping liquids.) Cardboard boxes are made to be reused multiple times, so it's not only cheaper to do so for the individual but better for the environment: fewer trees needing chopping, fewer chemicals polluting the waterways, and so on. I used to store my moving boxes whenever I had the space, knowing I'd need them again. But since, as long as the global economy keeps tick-tock-time-bombing along, there will always be a fresh crop of moving boxes, it's better to free up that living space and declutter by passing those used boxes on to someone else in a big reuse cycle.

I've been sitting here writing this morning in a mostly empty apartment (while I should have been packing), sunlight streaming in the main window. I downsized a queen mattress through the magic of Craigslist into a full-size futon to free up a little bedroom space. I'm selling off the pricey vintage chocolate velvet mohair down-wrapped sofa and instead bought a funky ethnic-print cotton velour sofa for cheap from my favorite thrift store (no, it doesn't have bugs, and yes, we're steam-cleaning it), one I won't worry so much about ruining and that's deeper and better for lounging, though still in my favorite tuxedo style. Most of my furniture has been or will be sold off and the remainder—the metro shelving, woven storage baskets, the teak bookcase, a small wooden chest, a couple lamps, a few mirrors and pictures, my plants—moved in multiple trailer loads over a few weeks on evenings between rainstorms. (Though I usually try to move house during the summer when the weather's clear, this particular move was unexpected and poorly timed, so we've had to dodge clouds.)

It's a major boon having a good friend who's a furniture refinisher with big muscles, a hand truck, moving dollies, and his own trailer. A former teacher, Jeff half-jokes that in his new reseller profession he's just a glorified furniture mover. But this way, I didn't have to rent a truck. In between packing up my kitchen, I'll be planning how to pay him back—maybe partially in back rubs.

red geranium (November 4, 2014)

Moving house is chaotic and stressful, no matter how organized we are. Personally, moving always makes me feel inadequate—not strong enough, not energetic enough, not minimal enough. No matter how much stuff I sell or give away, when faced with all those stacked boxes, it still feels like I have far too much, my mind scrolling through cultural metaphors of drowning and being weighted down. Possessions are literally weighty, their mass felt every time we lift a box—physics in action.

But even though the process is hard—living in limbo for weeks, hands roughening like sandpaper, muscles straining, the to-do list a mile long—I appreciate moving house regularly because it forces me to reexamine my life as evidenced in my possessions. Our stuff is proof of who we are or were or want to be: our interests, taste, personalities, and propensities. Why keep stuff for a dropped hobby? Or, in reverse, where's the stuff for the hobby we've always wanted to try? Do our belongings represent the life we want to be living? Do we like the life we're living now? That's worth some extra self-reflection.

So for me, it's the staying in one place beyond a couple years that starts to feel weird. Eventually I'd like to change that. I'd like to feel at home somewhere, put down roots, grow a garden, collect more friends—all while reducing my overall acquisition of stuff. This last month, amid all the downsizing, I've been devouring library books on tiny and hand-built houses, books by Lloyd Kahn, Dee Williams, Paul Oliver, Ryan Mitchell. In giving up so much of the furnishings Americans are trained by corporate marketers to buy out of manufactured need (You are full of holes: Fill them with purchases), I seek a light at the end of this messy tunnel—a little dream home to make real.

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