What about the Stuff???

“A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” ~ George Carlin

Moving Day

Living aboard a boat or in a tiny house. That thought crosses lots of peoples’ minds, apparently. It’s a beautiful, romantic thought. But then comes another thought – not as romantic. That second thought is about your stuff. It is paralyzing to think about dealing with all the accumulated stuff that life has piled on you throught the years. At least, that’s how it seemed for me. We had lived in the same house for 22 years. When I say the amount of stuff we had accumulated was overwhelming, that is a huge understatement. Every closet, it seemed, was full of things kept “just in case” or for sentimental reasons. And so many duplicates! Did I really need four pairs of red heels? Three slightly different 1.5 quart saucepans? Why did I have four bottles of soft scrub? Who knows? But that kind of excess wasn’t going to cut it on the boat; I knew that.

So, how to begin the process? For me, it ended up having two phases: One, a leisurely, one-small-bite-at-a-time, year-long effort, approached with the ambition of someone under no time constraints whatsoever (read: no ambition, really…) and the other, a three week mad dash like my hair was on fire, ending with hauling a trailer containing all the things that remained to the boat to move aboard. I recommend a more balanced approach. Your blood pressure would thank you, I am sure!

We knew we were moving towards living aboard for some time. It was not a spur of the moment decision. The kids were grown and moved out. Our parents were relatively healthy. We were both stir crazy for a change. Our house was better suited to a family than a couple, and we had a lovely boat that we wanted to spend more time aboard. It was time. So, over the course of a year, I cleaned out closets, dressers, cupboards, armoires, all those places where stuff goes to hide. We had one garage sale during this time, but, for the most part, everything went to the local outreach center, or in the trash. Which begs the question: why was I saving stuff that was ultimately deemed trash? I don’t know, but I sure was…

For the second stage, then, I wasn’t exactly starting from scratch. But I had not touched the attic yet. Alan hadn’t touched the garage. And I still had way too many books, clothes, and shoes. I felt I would have plenty of time after we put our house on the market to deal with all that. How wrong I was! Neither of us were prepared for the speed with which the house sold. We didn’t even get it listed. It sold on a rumor that we were thinking of selling. Nice problem to have, I know, but it really sped up the timeline. A week after the potential buyer looked at the house, we signed a contract. What I though was going to be a three month or so window was now effectively three weeks. Yikes!

So what did I do? This was my approach:

1.Sentimental Items – All sentimental items went to the person I felt they would mean the most to, if I decided they were worth keeping at all. I tried to be conscious of NOT passing along clutter to my friends and family! That meant that I shared the heirlooms, but not the huge box of school papers from my kids’ early school years, for example. I did give them their awards and report cards, but spared them the decision I was facing about what to do with all those adorable handwriting exercises about Dick and Jane. I remember their school years fondly; the papers were not neccessary for that. Which brings me to one important point that may help others going through this process. As I looked at all the things that were supposed to help me remember my life, I realized that I had not seen the things in years, but had revisited the memories often. I realized that the map is not the territory. These things were not my memories; I still had those. Then I could let the things go with much more ease.

2. Friends and family – We let friends and family claim anything they wanted first, and marked them sold or let them take them. The friends who bought our bedroom set and washer and dryer were kind enough to let us keep them until we took off. Awesome!

3. Estate Sale – We had time for a one day estate sale. That was it. We pulled a couple of all-nighters getting ready, advertized on facebook, craigslist, the local garage sale sites, and put out a dozen or so signs. We recruited the help of one of our daughters, my niece, and my Mom for security and help – lots of rooms means you need more eyes and hands. At the crack of dawn, we started letting people in, and by the end of the day, we had made a pretty good dent. But really just a dent. If you go this route, remember, you are selling used merchandise. It will go for pennies on the dollar; don’t be offended by low offers. Your goal is to get rid of it all, so wheel and deal! Take those pennies and run. If I had had more time, I could have made a bit more on the sales using ebay and craigslist, I think, but I did not have that luxury!

4. Donate – At the end of the day, there was still a lot left, to put it mildly. And much of it very nice. I inventoried (you will learn that I love spreadsheets…and tax write-offs) several car loads of clothes (they don’t sell at garage sales), kitchen ware, bedding, and the like, and took it to our local outreach center. Let me tell you, whoever shopped there in the next week found some awesome bargains!

5. The “Free Estate Sale” – Even I get tired of listing and hauling things, so, eventually, we called it quits. We piled everything on the driveway and I put an ad in the “free” portion of craigslist entitled “FREE ESTATE SALE”. That got a lot of attention! The text said “If it is on the driveway, it is free. Don’t knock. Just take it!” Let me tell you, people were out there all night. And they took everything. Half empty cans paint? Yes! Kids magazines? Gone! Shoes that weren’t nice enough to donate? Hasta la vista!

6. Papers – Of course, we had tons of papers dating back decades. All our old tax returns, paystubs from our earliest employment, etc. Some of this has to be kept, but most needed to be destroyed. We found a service that would do this, and dropped them off. We had a few boxes of files and other “have to keep” items. One of my daughters volunteered her attic for those. It certainly wasn’t enough to merit a storage rental, and we owe her thanks for the space.

And suddenly we were free to go! I think it was ultimately easier because we had to hurry – not much time to over-think it. Of course, we did bring too much to the boat – as you can see in the picture. We are still figuring out where it all goes, and have hauled many more boxes to Goodwill since we’ve been here. But it was a strong first effort, I think!

I know there are as many ways to approach this as there are cruisers. What did you do with your stuff? What did you do differently? I’d love to hear your comments!

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2 Comments on "What about the Stuff???"

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Melissa S. White

I love the ‘free estate sale’ idea. We put stuff out at the curb all the time with ‘free’ on a sign and it’s usually gone by noon. I have a feeling that when the time comes to move out of the house and onto the boat, a ‘free estate sale’ will be happening here.


It was quite the eye opening experience, downsizing to a boat, after so many years in a house. And doing it in a matter of days instead of months was very challenging. I am delighted to have come through the transition. It is liberating!