Since I returned to the US in September 2010, I’ve moved six times. This includes the first six months I was half living out of my car and half crashing with the big-hearted friends and family members that would take me in. But even before that, I moved once every year or two for my whole life. As a result, not only do I have some skills when it comes to packing up and relocating, but I’ve also come to enjoy it.
I’ve said I was a sucker for a fresh start, and I mean it. Moving to a new country or just a new house is a great excuse to dispose of all the junk that I accumulate as soon as I stand still. Tiny gifts and party favors, impulse purchases and underused appliances, half-empty bottles of shampoo and excess Christmas decorations clog my living space until I feel like I’m living in a Goodwill showroom. Freeing myself of this life-clogging detritus makes me mentally lighter.
But the other side of the story is the weeks of packing up stuff I don’t need and living like a vagabond who hasn’t figured out how to pack light. The actual hoisting and schlepping of heavy boxes is also outside my skill set. That I am not a strong person doesn’t matter when the heaviest thing I carry is a purse full of books. But when it comes to packing and the work of actually moving, I am at a distinct disadvantage. And more than anything else, moving can be psychologically and emotionally trying when your haven from the concrete jungle has become an unfamiliar wasteland of boxes and newspaper shreds.
So in order to minimize the stress and maximize the excitement, here’s what I do when I have to move across town:
1. Get boxes for free. Cardboard boxes can be surprisingly pricey at local packing stores or the post office. If you have a few weeks left before the big day, talk to managers at your local restaurants and stores about getting clean, dry boxes to pack your stuff. Show up early in the morning or late at night when there aren’t so many customers who need attention and they’ll be happy to give you whatever they would otherwise toss out back. And if you’re going to enlist friends to help you, get as many boxes as possible. Friends don’t like friends who try to move their apartment grocery bag by grocery bag. Trust me…
2. Get a Sharpie. There is nothing like this ubiquitous marker for labeling boxes. And while I’m on it…
3. Label your boxes. Pretty straightforward advice, but if you skip this step (maybe because you forgot to get a Sharpie), you’re looking at a few more days of “now that we’ve found the lava lamps, where the hell is all the silverware?” In my experience, unpacking takes even longer than packing, but you’ll be able to prioritize better if you know what’s in the boxes without even opening them.
4. Pack early and often. I have the attention span of coked-up ferret, so spending six hours on a Saturday PACKING ALL THE THINGS is not an option. As soon as I get my hands on some boxes, I start packing up all my beloved books, my out-of-season clothes, my decorative items and the kitchen appliances that I use least. I end up living in what looks like Legoland for longer than is strictly necessary, but I get a lot of peace of mind from packing everything in a deliberate and organized fashion. Also, I’m often surprised what I can do without in the weeks leading up to a move: probably 75% of what I own makes my life a little bit more comfortable, but it isn’t necessary. Bonus: When I realize how little I need to keep myself warm and fed, I’m motivated to spend less for at least a few weeks.
5. Hold all your calls. During the week or two that my life feels most disheveled, I drop the obligations and hobbies that I can afford to skip. That might mean I miss a few days running or don’t write as much as I planned to every day, but it keeps me feeling like I’m on top of everything. And staying calm and collected during the move helps me get back on schedule faster once it’s all over.
6. Get creative with packing materials. When I was a kid, it seemed like there were always newspapers on hand to use for packing fragile items. But who owns newspapers anymore? I grab up the free local papers as I see them, but my most plentiful packing material is actually plastic bags. I usually have two or three bags full of bags hiding under my sink: They work really well for wrapping breakables and as filler for not-quite-full boxes of odd-shaped items.
7. Clean ahead and behind. A decent landlord will make sure your new place is good shape before you move in, but if that’s not the case, get over there and clean it up before you bring any of your stuff inside. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll probably have to clean your old place before you turn in your keys, too. Don’t pack up all the Comet and Windex before your old place is sparkling!
8. Put an empty box in every room when you think you’re almost done. No matter how many times I move, it always surprises me to see how much “not that much left” can be. Just assume you’re going to need some extra boxes and keep them on hand for those last crazy hours when you’re trying to get out of there. Trying to move a bunch of loose odds and ends is tedious and a good way to break things.
9. Call for reinforcements. Good friends will help you move for beer and pizza, but you need to give them a few weeks’ advance notice. Be a good friend yourself and have most everything packed and ready to go before they show up. The real angels will stay a little later and help you clean, too, but be mentally prepared to have to do the dirty work yourself. If you won’t be able to rally the troops, research some moving companies ahead of time. Get quotes from a few different companies, but make sure they’re binding not-to-exceed estimates so the guy with the clipboard doesn’t have the opportunity to become an extortionist. Take pictures of any valuable items so you have a record of their existence and their condition. Get insurance if it makes you feel more comfortable.
10. Unpack as fast as possible. It’s stressful for us human animals to have all our creature comforts wrapped in cardboard. The sooner you turn your new place into a home, the sooner you’ll be able to get back into the swing of things.
Hey! After I drafted this, I came across these neat tips on apartmenttherapy.com for reusing packing peanuts.