How We Decluttered Our Home in 30 Days Before Moving Abroad

downsizing and decluttering before you move abroad

Whether you’re moving a short distance, relocating to another country, or putting your stuff in storage, deciding what to do with a lifetime’s worth of accumulated possessions can be stressful and overwhelming. Here are some tips on how to declutter before moving, things to consider and how we stay uncluttered after the move.

Declutter Before Moving: a little backstory

Do I really need that dress or those shoes I have”t worn in years? What about those amazing books on my bookshelf I read over a decade ago? Wait, I can’t get rid of that macaroni necklace my son gave me when he was five years old!

Why do we hang on to all of this stuff?

If you’ve ever complained about too much clutter, moving, whether it be to another city or another country, is the perfect milestone to comb through your belongings to purge and declutter.

Not only will it simplify your move, but living clutter-free can improve your mental state. In the words of Peter Walsh, professional organizer, writer, and media personality, “you will emerge lighter and liberated.” 

In a perfect world, we could keep it all, but the reality is, sometimes we can’t. 

We had a little over 30 days to declutter and pack before moving:

Although we had moved many times, this was an unusual move, even for us.

There were a lot of unknowns in our lives at that time.

We were cutting our losses and leaving the high cost of living in California after long-term unemployment and temporarily moving in with my aunt in Montreal while my husband and I looked for new jobs. 

The hard part was purging and decluttering a lifetime of possessions down to the size of a single storage unit, where our belongings would stay for no more than one year. That’s how long we thought it would take us to find new jobs and a new home to live in with our three children. 

Storage is expensive, so we said goodbye to many of our possessions, one of our cars, old toys, too many knick-knacks, a lot of furniture, our son’s optimist boat, clothes, books, and so much more. 

Picture of Kieran sailing his optimist boat at a regatta in the San Francisco Bay

Our plans changed; we move to France:

We arrived in Montreal with about ten suitcases (2 per person). 

Six months into our job search on the East coat, Blake and I made the crazy decision to stop looking for jobs and move to France to spend a family year abroad.  The economy was still in pretty bad shape in 2010. We hoped the economy would be better when we returned.

With our things already in storage, all we had to do was apply for French visas to live in France for a year and find a place to live.

Six months later, After a few trips to the French consulate and a lot of paperwork, we landed in France. It was almost one year to the day when we left California.

We landed in France, thinking we would return to North America in 12 months to collect our things from storage, but things don’t always work out how you plan them.

Blake: Locking up the new, smaller storage unit in Nort America in March 2017. Crazy times.

We never left France.

We lived in Marseille, France, for one year, then we moved to a small French town in Provence, and two years turned into three, then four, and five years. 

In 2017, after living in France for six years, we decided to travel back to our storage unit in North America and purge even more of our belongings in the event we ship our things to France “one day soon.”  When we flew back to visit family every summer, the storage unit was an extra pitstop in our travels. 

As we rummaged through our things in the storage unit, we only kept the things we were willing to pay to ship to France and some sentimental stuff (family heirlooms, a vintage dresser from Blakes mom, some childhood things and pictures). We got rid of all electronics, mattresses and bedding, which was mildewy after six years, toys, more clothes, hangers, appliances, books, rugs and more. 

It was challenging to comb through our belongings in the storage unit with everything was crammed and stacked in boxes. It took us three days and a few garage sales in front of Blake’s sister’s house to whittle our things down to fit into an even smaller storage unit. 

Two years later, in 2019, we decided the summer of 2020 would be the year we would finally ship the remaining things in our storage unit to France. All we had to do was visit the storage unit during our annual family visits and do one last purge. 

Unfortunately, COVID 19 foiled our plans. 

To this day, we still have our things in our storage unit. 

You have more stuff than you think.

Have you ever felt your anxiety and stress level rise at the thought of guests coming over and felt the need to clean and organize before they arrive?  That could be the clutter affecting your mental state of mind and maybe the dirt too. 

Even if you don’t think you have a lot of stuff and clutter, look again. Aren’t most of our closets and garages filled with things that we should get rid of but can’t and don’t?  

For our big move, even after we decluttered, sold and gave away what we thought we didn’t need, we still couldn’t fit everything in the moving truck, which meant it wouldn’t fit in our storage unit.

At the last minute, we had to get rid of more stuff that we hadn’t planned on parting with, which at the time was difficult and heartbreaking, but we did it. 

That’s when I realized how much stuff we had and vowed never to let things accumulate into clutter. 

Blake in the storage unit looking at all of our stuff

Why is it so hard to let go of your stuff?

Our possessions embody who we think we are, our hopes, memories and even status.  These “things” give us security, bring us comfort, love and tell a story. 

So we keep our stuff to justify our purchases and possessions.

For example, when we opened that storage unit door for the first time after six years, I had this sinking feeling in my heart.

I remember asking myself, “why did I keep that dresser that I didn’t like”? Why did I hang on to that purse at the back of my closet? Do I need 20 pairs of high heels? What are the kids going to do with boxes of old childhood toys? 

Getting rid of some of these things can lead to feelings of regret, guilt or an admission to failings. There is also the fear that you may need it one day.

I rationalized keeping things by listening to that little voice in my head: 

  • “I might need it one day. (fear)
  • I can’t get rid of that; it’s brand new. (admission of failing to use something I bought)
  •  I paid a lot of money for that. (guilt)
  • Those toys have sentimental value. (guilt)
  • And on and on and on. 

Be Brutal: Keep things because you love them.

The best advice I can give you is to BE BRUTAL when you declutter.

Don’t let feelings of fear or regret dictate what you keep or don’t keep. Keep things because you love them, or as Marie Kondo, author of the bestselling book, “The Life-changing Magic Of Tidying Up,” says, everything you keep must spark joy. I’ve listened to her audiobook several times. 

Get help from professionals who know how to declutter: 

My second best advice is to get help. It can be a professional decluttering service. If you call Canada, the US or the UK your home, here is a list of some decluttering services for every budget. 

However, I recommend learning how to declutter and organize yourself so that you can stay uncluttered going forward. Here are some books I recommend. 

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

The book that sparked a revolution and inspired the hit Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo:

Mary Kondo is a Japanese cleaning and organization consultant who's method of organizing is known as the KonMari method. It consists of gathering all your belongings, one category at a time, and keeping only those things that "spark joy". 

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05/28/2022 12:11 am GMT
How to Organize (Just About) Everything

More Than 500 Step-by-Step Instructions for Everything from Organizing Your Closets to Planning a Wedding to Creating a Flawless Filing System and more.

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05/28/2022 12:09 am GMT

Where & How to start decluttering:

There is no one size fits all solution to decluttering but in general, where you start isn’t as important as how you go about doing it.

Should you declutter by room or by category (type of items)?

In some cases, the logical thing may be to go room by room:

  • Bathroom: Bathrooms tend to be a place where things accumulate over time. Look for expired medicine, toiletries, cosmetics, makeup and beauty tools etc. 
  • Kitchen: Like bathrooms, a kitchen is also a place where things accumulate. Look for expired food, pans and appliance that never get used etc. 
  • Garage: If you have a garage, you probably store things there that haven’t been used in years.
  • Home Office: Look for old Documents, instruction manuals, office supplies etc. 

In some cases, you should declutter by category: 

Mary Kondo, the Japanese organizing expert, recommends decluttering and sorting through your things by category. I like this method.  Decluttering by category means you can sort through your things in chunks and focus on that one task. It reminds me of the efficiency of an assembly line.

There is something satisfying about marking whole categories off your list as completed vs running around like a chicken with your head cut off, cherry-picking things here and there. 

Here are some examples of decluttering categories:

  • Clothes, shoes, jewelry, purses, hats & accessories: Use the 80/20 rule. Don’t keep anything that you haven’t worn in years, doesn’t fit, is old, torn or outdated. This would be an excellent time to create that capsule wardrobe. 
  • Books: I highly recommend getting rid of all your books. One of my biggest regrets is keeping boxes of books. They take up space to store and are heavy to ship. Keep a few favourites and get the rest on a kindle.
  • Toys: 
  • Electronics and gadgets: Sell, recycle or donate your old electronics and gadgets-printers, laptops, TVs, monitors, cell phones, cameras, tablets, cables, etc.
  • Holiday decorations: Pass on or give away most and keep the family favourites. (ornaments, decorations, lights, wreaths, artificial trees, etc.)
  • Lawn and garden equipment: Sell or donate all your lawn and garden stuff. They take up space in storage and are too expensive to ship. (rakes, shovels, hoses, lawnmowers, blowers). These are all things you can purchase if you need them in your new home.
  • Craft and Sewing Supplies: This is the perfect time to get this stuff decluttered and organized
  • Large appliances: Refrigerators, washers and dryers are big and bulky. Is it better to sell and replace it later? 
  • Small appliances: If you haven’t used something for months, you probably won’t miss it.
  • Furniture: These are probably the biggest and heaviest things you’ll have to move. Is it better to sell it now and replace it when you arrive in your new home? 
  • Food: Start eating down the food you already have—canned goods, pasta, crackers and cookies, flour, etc. Or donate it. 

 Leave the sentimental items for last.

Sentimental items are the hardest things to part with. No one is asking you to get rid of your photo albums, but do you need to keep every single birthday card you ever received or every stuffed animal your child has ever had? 

Make a system: Gather and put things into organized piles.

As you go through your things, collect everything in that category and sort them into four piles as you go through them. 

For instance, if you’re going through your clothes, collect every single article of clothing you own, even the winter stuff packed under your bed. Pile everything on the floor or bed and start sorting them into one of these piles. 

  1. KEEP PILE: The things you love and must keep
  2. DON’T KEEP: This pile will be sold, given away, donated. 
  3. TRASH: Keep a trash bag on hand for things you want to toss.
  4. MABYE PILE: You will go through this pile after you’ve gone through everything for this category.

When you’re done, go through the “MAYBE PILE” and decide to keep it or donate it.

The goal is to end up with three piles, 1) keep pile, 2) don’t keep pile, 3) trash pile. Now, look at all the piles to see if you would like to make any changes. Maybe the “KEEP PILE” is too big. Move more things to the giveaway pile.

Once you’re satisfied, you can begin packing everything up and mark it as completed on your checklist of things to do. 

What to do with things you’re not keeping

You can donate, sell, or invite your friends and family over to pick through the things you don’t plan to keep. You can also leave the items still in good condition on the curb with a “free sign” and see what happens. 

We sold a lot of our things on Craigslist and eBay and had several garage sales. 

If you have things you need to take to the dump, consider hiring a service to come and pick everything up; otherwise, you can rent a truck and take everything yourself. 

Give yourself plenty of time.

Don’t procrastinate until the last minute because the last thing you want is to run out of time. Start as early as you can; I suggest at least 3 months in advance if you can. This gives you enough time to sell your items if you need to. 

I like to declutter in the morning when I feel fresh and not rushed, but I can understand some people prefer to do it in the evening. I 

Moving Abroad: If you’re shipping your items internationally.

If you’re moving abroad and plan on shipping your belongings overseas, check your destination’s customs regulations for new residents—specifically, Taxes and Banned or Restricted Goods. 

Taxes, banned and restricted goods

Here are a few examples of someone moving to France. 

  • TAXES: If you’re moving to France, you may import both personal effects (clothing, jewelry) and household items (furniture, dishes, bedding, rugs) duty-free and tax-free if you meet certain requirements. One of them being that your items arrive within 12 months of your arrival in France.
  • PROHIBITED: When moving to France, certain things are prohibited for importation(plants, drugs, cleaning solvents, paint, ivory, matches and more).
  • RESTRICTED: France has a list of restricted items that you can bring in the country if you get special authorization or pay special duties and taxes (guns, tobacco, alcohol and pets).

Is it worth it to ship internationally?

Couches and other bulky items are expensive to ship. Ask yourself, is it better to sell your couch and buy a new one in your new country rather than pay for the shipping?

Your appliances may not work in another country without adapters and converters. 

Moving: If you’re putting your things in storage:

If you’re moving and plan on putting your belongings into a storage unit rather than shipping them, here are some things to consider. 

  • It’s cheaper to rent storage units that are not in major cities.
  • If you can, try to store your stuff near a friend or family member and leave an extra key with them, just in case.
  • The length of time you leave your things in storage should determine what you keep. Will it be years or months? 
    • If it’s years, get rid of electronics. They go obsolete quickly.
    • Mattresses and linens can get mouldy and weird in storage, especially if your storage unit isn’t climate-controlled.
    • Hangers take up a lof space and are cheap to replace.
    • Boxes of books take up valuable space and can be replaced. 

Simple Rules To Live Clutter-Free: Learn from our moving and decluttering mistakes:

We made a lot of decluttering and downsizing mistakes when we moved, but we learned some invaluable lessons, and we now live “relatively” clutter-free.

For the first few years in France, we had the mindset that we would be returning to North America, so I found myself asking, “Will this fit in my suitcase?” If not, would I be willing to leave it behind or sell it once we decide to move? 

This forced us to keep our belongings down to what we could fit into our suitcases. The last thing I wanted was to accumulate more stuff and sell or get rid of everything again before moving back.

I also think I was traumatized by the whole decluttering experience, and as a result, I turned into the “clutter police” in our family. Everything in our house has to have a purpose and a place where it belongs. If something in the house isn’t used or doesn’t serve a purpose, it doesn’t stand a chance of staying in our home.

I won’t even let anyone keep more than a handful of books at any one time because of the ordeal we had to go through in decluttering our vast book collection. 

You can read about how we decluttered our huge book collection here. 

Here are some simple decluttering rules you can use to help you stay clutter-free:

  1. Leave room to grow: Don’t overpack your bookshelves, bathroom cabinets and pantries. If you need something new, you’ll have nowhere to put it. That’s a recipe for clutter. 
  2. Use the one in one out rule: If my closet is full, and I buy three new shirts, I will donate three items from my closet. 
  3. Purge often: You’d be surprised at how quickly things accumulate and sneak into your home.
  4. Have a place for everything, and everything in its place: All that stuff cluttered on your desk and coffee table is clutter that needs a permanent home.
  5. Use your junk drawer or junk basket as an inbox: Go through it often to empty it regularly. 
  6. Go paperless or paper-free: kindle books, scan your documents and store them in the cloud. Opt for electronic bills vs paper bills mailed to you. Use apps to keep notes. I use Asana, but Evernote is great too. 
  7. Buy for your needs:  Buy things you need and will use, not for the one-off things that happen once in a blue moon. 
  8. Use clear storage baskets and label them for similar small items: glue, pencils, pedicure supplies.
Photo of Annie André:

Annie André

About the author 

I’m A Bilingual North American With Thai And French Canadian Roots Who's Been Living In The South Of France For Over 10 Years. I Love Writing Weird, Wonderful, Interesting, Forgotten, And Fascinating Articles For Intellectually Curious People Amazed By France, French Culture, And World Travel.

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