Be ruthless: how to move the army brat way

Guest post by Kacey
Families begin move into new Army Family Housing - 11 March 2013, Camp Humphreys, South Korea

I was a military brat from the age of six, and I eventually joined the Air Force. I’ve moved eighteen times that I can remember, and I know I missed one or two that happened before my conscious memories start. Suffice it to say, I’ve learned a thing or two about packing up one’s entire life and hauling it off somewhere.

My last move was interesting because of the circumstances: my daughter and I had been living with my dad in his four story, three bedroom townhouse in northern Virginia. Before we were married, my husband lived in a four bedroom, two bath house down in Florida. He got out of the Air Force and moved up to be with us, and of course we wanted our own place. Renting was our best option, since I’ll probably be reassigned in less than two years, so we found a two bed, two bath apartment around the corner from Dad’s place.

Are you doing the math yet? We had a LOT of shit to cram into a relatively tiny apartment. Here’s how we did it:

Be ruthless

This was my mantra when I took on the task of downsizing. I set rules and forced myself to abide by them. When I packed my closet, these were my rules:

  • Remove clothes from their hangers one by one. Sort them into “keep” and “go” piles.
  • At least half of the clothes must go in the “go” pile, including any that I hadn’t worn in over a year, didn’t currently fit, or I didn’t like much.
  • More sorting! Sort the “go” pile into two bags: trash and donate. Pack “Keep” pile for moving and trash or donate “go” bags as appropriate.
  • When I arrived at my new apartment, I went through the same process when unpacking my clothing. That is to say, I halved my wardrobe before I packed it, and halved it again when I unpacked. I know it doesn’t seem to make much sense to move things just to turn around and donate them, but this made it a lot easier for me to gut the monster that was my wardrobe. I did the same thing with books and decor items.

Cut yourself some slack

This applies to one very specific category of stuff. For me, it was my collection of steel-boned corsets and other Dragon*Con-esque costume pieces. I didn’t make myself get rid of any of those things. Every person in the house gets to pick a “slack” category… but choose wisely.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

We made a concerted effort to make sure that every room of our new home held something of him, something of me, and something of our daughter in it. This helped it feel a lot like “our” space, instead of “mine” and “yours”.

The all-time number one piece of moving advice

I learned this as a kid, but confirmed its universal truth for myself in my last move. Set up your bed first. Because then, at the end of unpacking day, you have something to fall down onto.

After it’s all over, that downsizing from six bedrooms to two was a huge pain in the ass, but it was also a freeing experience.

Comments on Be ruthless: how to move the army brat way

  1. Thanks for this article- it’s very good timing for me! My husband’s about to get his first duty assignment in the military. There’s a good chance we may be moving internationally, and I’m already worried about having to get rid of a lot of “things” (I’ve always been somewhat of a packrat). My issue is, I always second-guess getting rid of things, because I always think maybe I’ll want it later on. Or I feel like I’m “wasting money” by getting rid of clothes I only wore a few times. How do you get past those doubts to be okay with getting rid of more than half your clothes (or other belongings)?

    • There are two ways I know to get rid of doubts:

      1) For the strong-willed: be ruthless. Really, really ruthless. Anything (ANYTHING) that doesn’t fit, clothing-wise, goes. After that, take a really honest look at your lifestyle – a lot of people shop for their “fantasy selves” (“of course I’m the type of person/want to be the type of person who will wear this sundress/blazer/lingerie/jeans/pile of fancy dresses”) Evaluate what you ACTUALLY wear and what you ACTUALLY do, and what you wear while you’re doing it. Keep those. Get rid of the clothing that fits fantasy-you rather than real-everyday-you.

      2) For the stuff you really love, but can’t justify keeping/bringing: clothing swap. Seriously. It’s a great way to get rid of a huuuge bag of clothing, and it’s a lot easier to get rid of pieces you love but don’t wear if you know that they’re being worn by people you like AND that you have the option of borrowing it back in the future if you really can’t live without that one piece of clothing.

      Also, for quilters (and I say this from personal experience): don’t move while saying that this stack “will become quilt pieces”. Either cut it into squares/shapes and pack those up (thus making it easier to quilt AND pack), or get rid of it. The eternal stash of unprepared fabric is no one’s friend, and will make your friends pissy if they have to carry everything up/down flights of stairs when you move!

      • i too have the second guessing problem. what i have been doing (which only works if you have a bit of time) is this- i am ruthless as possible when weeding out those things i don’t need and i pack them up to donate. i then wait one week until i actually drop off the bag of clothes. that gives me time to change my mind, but generally once it’s bagged and ready to go, i have already mentally let it go anyway. but it makes me feel better knowing i have a chance to take things back!

    • I have the same second-guessing problem, compounded by the fact that frequently, when I do get rid of something, I need it a week later. It’s immensely frustrating.

      I’ve found that the best way to get myself to let go of something is to say “It’s time to let someone else love it now.” I think of the joy another person would get from whatever it is, and it makes it feel more like spreading happiness rather than wasting stuff.

      And now that I write that, it seems like a very woobly crunchy sort of thing to say, but hey, whatever helps, right? 😀

  2. Amen! I wasn’t an army brat, but I did move 4 times in 4 years with my family as a teen, and I became a pro at packing and downsizing. I recall one time I threw out 2 boxes of stuff because, as I explained to my aghast mom, “Well, I didn’t open them since I packed them the first move, so…clearly I don’t need whatever was in them.”

    (I don’t actually recommend this…turns out I’m pretty sure I threw away a lot of useless papers — fine — but also some Trixie Belden books…oops)

    Still! The point still stands: be ruthless.

  3. My little sister always reminds me that clothing and towels that are no longer fit for donation are often usable as bedding at animal shelters.

    • Animal shelters are great but you can actually donate clothes/towels/bedding that isn’t usable anymore with the rest of the clothes you’re donating. It’ll be sorted from the wearable/sellable stuff and sold as rags or even recycled.

  4. Me, boyfriend and daughter have moved 5 times in the last 4 years and this advice rocks! we definitely had to learn the art of purging and its still going.

  5. We keep a donation box in the closet. Every so often, especially around the changing of seasons, I’ll look in a drawer and say, “I never wear/use that.” It goes straight into the box. Of course we do bigger spring clean purges of stuff throughout the year, but this helps us keep the clutter in our small apartment to a minimum. Whenever the box fills up, we take it to the nearest thrift shop for donation and start all over again. It helps us feel a balance between accumulating more and fighting the clutter.

  6. I’m moving next Monday, so this is just in time. Actually, I’ve been pretty good about downsizing because I’m a lazy person. The reward of getting rid of things is that I don’t have to haul it and unpack it, which is in itself a great incentive. Also seeing how much of my apartment I can fit across one wall is pretty cool.
    And when I feel myself getting wishy-washy, I just watch an episode of hoarders.

  7. I’m a Navy brat. My wanderlust is so ingrained that I’ve lived in six different homes just in DC alone (all four quadrants) and, overall, am in home #23. The longest I’ve lived in one house has been my current situation (mid-century modern apartment) for the past six years. Even though I’ve stayed put, as it were, I get so itchy about changing that I rearrange all the furniture at least once every couple of years.

    Moving is cathartic for me. That said, the day of moving (though I find it energizing and satisfying) is generally hated by everyone else, so I try and make it as smooth as possible. If I may add a couple more tips onto Kacey’s great list…

    1. Move clothes still on hangers and still in drawers. I don’t know why people pack clothes. What’s the difference between a box and a drawer, really?

    2. If you’re moving within a few hours of driving distance, you’ll probably be tempted to save all your kitchen condiments, baking powder and soda, bottles of ketchup, etc. But, really, throw that stuff out. Use it as an opportunity to replace all your spices (something you should do every six months anyway).

    3. In addition to your bed, unpack basic hygiene stuff (soap/shampoo/conditioner/deodorant/toothbrush/toothpaste/towels). You’ll be happy you did.

    4. Put a casserole, paper plates and forks and a big knife in a bag in the freezer the night before the move. The next day, as soon as the last load is coming into the new house, throw the casserole into the oven. You have no idea how much more satisfying it is for the troops to the pass around plates of enchilada casserole than order a cardboard pizza.

    5. Send the least productive person to the store to get milk, TP, and beer towards the end of the day. There’s always one person who shifts to “supervisor” mode half way through the move. He needs something productive to do!

    • “1. Move clothes still on hangers and still in drawers. I don’t know why people pack clothes. What’s the difference between a box and a drawer, really?”

      If you have cheapo drawers, it’s the weight. I tried this one time and broke off a small piece.

      I’ll agree with the hangers, though. From old closet straight to new closet!

  8. I am not a army brat and never have been, however when it comes to gutting the excess out of my life these are basically the rules I live by. My mother is a pack rat and growing up I hated clutter, now as an adult I make it a point to clear everything I don’t touch/use/wear out at least twice a year. I call it my ‘purifying’. Nice to know that I am not the only ruthless woman out there. :]

  9. Great post! I was thinking about writing one on the same subject; I just moved for the fourth time in two years. I’ve actually never lived in one home for longer than 2 years and have moved a total of 22 times that I remember. And I’m only 20! My mom and I like to joke that we live like gypsies because of our frequent moves.

    I would like to add to use suitcases. There is no point in trying to track down a ton of boxes when you have perfectly good suitcases, duffle bags, and book bags. And they don’t have to just hold clothes. Books, kitchen things, household items. They can all go in.

    Also, books are heavy. It’s much easier to carry a lot of smaller boxes or suitcases than it is to have one GIANT box full of books.

    One last thing: don’t just be ruthless when it comes to clothing. Moving so frequently has kept me from hoarding a lot of unnecessary things. If you can’t think of three good, justifiable reasons to keep it, throw it out or donate it. Now, you can cut yourself some slack as mentioned above for certain things (my high school senior letters got to stay because they’re a great pick-me-up and for that reason only) but don’t get slack happy. You have to consolidate and those helping you out will be happily surprised when you don’t have too many boxes.

    Good luck to all on any future moving endeavors! 🙂

    • Absolutely agree with the small boxes for books. The ones that reams of paper come in are a perfect size/sturdiness if you can get your hands on them. When I was pregnant with my first we hired movers and they were very appreciative of the fact that I had packed all of my books in about 25 small boxes instead of a few big ones. The guy in charge actually told me that he’s repeatedly had to have people re-pack their books because they’ll fill up a huge box with them.

      This goes for anything heavy of course. If it’s heavy and bulky (large pots and pans come to mind) and you have to use a bigger box just fill up the box with lighter stuff.

  10. One big drawback to the constant moving is that you get so used to it that if you stay in a place for more than a year, you don’t purge properly. My husband and I, for some strange reason, now go through a what we call the “Big Clean” every year on New Year’s day. We didn’t decide this, it just sort of happened. And we go through all of these steps, and move furniture etc on this day.

    The one thing we have implemented in storage for our seasonal stuff that we don’t want to purge and buy new like Christmas decorations and camping gear. I’m thinking of doing the same for clothes (actually storing the winter sweaters for the summer and same with the shorts and sun dresses in the winter). This will either be genius, or terrible. Not sure.

    Great article!

    • … Doesn’t everyone put away their summer things in mid autumn and their winter things in mid spring? :/ Okay, so I usually leave one or two tanktops/sweaters in my closet year-round, for those out of season temperature swings, and they don’t go into boxes so much as that bottom drawer of my dresser that I hate opening and closing, but still. I thought everyone did that!

  11. Just in time for my impending August move! Perfect!

    I’m a horrible packrat, and I hate moving with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, so this post is very welcome.

  12. Despite my hoarder tendencies i love to move because i *know how*, for exactly the reasons you stated! Once you have a routine down, moving is not hard at all.
    Some tips of my own:
    LABEL ALL YOUR DAMN BOXES. seems obvious, but tomorrow you’re going to realise you don’t remember where that thing you need RIGHT NOW is.
    Pack like with like, and put all of your cords/chargers/extensions cords/multiplugs in one bag and put them somewhere obvious when you unload, as you’re going to need them pretty quick.
    I have a system for packing some odd things (like my Living Dead Dolls collection) so i already know everything else that is in the box labelled “LDDs”, but if you don’t, make sure you’ve still got some sense to it – make it all the nicknacks off one bookcase in one box, wrapped in all the teatowels, etc.
    Put the bed legs (if you’ve got screw-off ones) in your handbag or cords bag as part of the absolute last load you move – you’re not going to lose the mattress but you need the legs to set it up! Also, i tend just to roll all of the blankets and linen off the bed up together and throw them in like that, then they can just be unrolled and the bed remade.
    If you’re moving into a house make sure to turn the hot water on the FIRST LOAD you unload. by the time you’re finished you’re going to want a shower, and i don’t mean a cold one!
    ALSO: carry a craft knife on you at all times. By the time you’ve unloaded the last boxes, you are not going to remember where the damn knife is to unpack, plus it’s handy for various other things!
    That’s all i can think of for now, i tend to move every year/second year, so i have this shit organized. Except of course i have to epicpurge by the end of next year so i can move overseas. Aim is two suitcases and two boxes. we’ll see how that goes!

  13. I’m a terrible packrat and about to move back to the States after six years in Japan. It’s been very freeing to get rid of so much stuff. Some thoughts:

    We knew we would be leaving about a year in advance. I knew I needed to purge my clothes. It was easier to put things in a bag and stuff it in the bottom of my closet for a few months than to get rid of it immediately. When I was seeing [insert item of clothing that I never actually wore] on a regular basis, I loved it. When it was out of my sight, I forgot about it. Made it much easier to get rid of later when I’d forgotten that I had it to begin with!

    The earthquake happened pretty soon before our late honeymoon to Australia. We were confident it would be safe here (Yokohama) when we returned, but just in case we shipped two small boxes of things we’d be devastated to lose. It turned out that a lot of things I thought I needed didn’t even register when it came down to packing those boxes. Clearly they weren’t that important, and being able to donate my National Geographic collection to my old school instead of pay to send it home has been very freeing.

    Getting rid of things you don’t love is really freeing. I don’t need half of what I think I do. I’m going to be much more mindful about what I bring into my house in future, and be better about regular cleaning and sorting. Fingers crossed, anyway!

  14. I’ll second the “leave clothes on hangers”. I like to take 4-8 inches of rod-hanging space, worth of clothes, and gently wrap all the clothes up around the hangers, so that they don’t poke other things or get all spread out. Put several of these piles into a suitcase, then on the other end, just pull the bundle out, unwrap, and hang!

  15. I wish i would have read this as soon as it hit my inbox. we just moved, like the last two days. lol but still looks like we followed it pretty tightly anyways. lucky for us we new we’d be moving out of our last place so most of our lives were still in boxes from the last move.

  16. as someone who doesnt move that often, i actually do a lot of this anyway. im a college student living in an apartment, and go home about once a month or so. ususually, when i get sent home, its it with a large bag of food for me and my roommate. one thing i try to do every time i head home is to take some clothes (or blankets, books, shoes, etc) back with me that i either dont use or doesnt fit. that way, if its something i like, i can keep it without it cluttering my tiny room, or if it doesnt fit, i can give it to my sisters or mom.

  17. So… any advice for cost cutting? We can’t really afford it, but have to move this summer (Actually our 3rd cross country move in 2.5 years, but that’s another story…). Renting the truck is cheaper than the little uhaul trailer?! For all the frequent mover ladies/ men, how do you save money on it? Obviously purging helps (and is the best feeling), but my husband argues if we have to rent the big truck anyway, why purge.

    • I moved five times in four years, and mostly packed and unpacked with zero help (thank god for family who could help with the hauling part!). It’s a hassle to say the least and I don’t enjoy unpacking… so, lazy moving tips!

      Not only don’t take stuff off the hangers, don’t even pack them. Rip a small hole in the bottom of a large black trash bag, slip the hole over a group of hangers, tuck the ends of the clothing into the bag and tie it up tight underneath the clothes. Clothes are protected, toss them in the backseat of the car, hang them back up, and rip the bags off. Done.

      Also, there is no greater way to wrap breakables than with stuff you already have. Towels, washcloths, (clean) rags. Especially dishes, but also knick knacks. Pillows and small blankets are great for stuffing into the top of a box to keep stuff from shifting and also keep them from getting too heavy. Trash bags are great for moving clothes, pillows, blankets… anything that’s reasonably light and can be stuffed. Less boxes is always better!

      Label each box with the room it goes in. If it’s not clear to a stranger which room is going to be which, when you arrive tape a little index card on the doors. Friends and family helping won’t have to keep asking “where do I put this?” and you don’t have to move boxes to their correct place later.

  18. I’ve moved a bajillion times – my husband and I have been in our current place for two years and it’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere. My best tip for moving: get a largish plastic tub in a loud color (ours is red) and load it with things you know you’ll want right away: paper plates, toiletries, toilet paper, shower curtain, etc. Move it first, then put it out of the way (the bathtub makes a good place for it) and grab it again at the end of the first day when you don’t want to go digging for a fork or a towel.

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