Storage units are like security blankets for baby nomads.
So many of us head out on the road with the core bits of our former stationary life crammed into a big “climate controlled” box somewhere, ready and waiting just in case nomadic life doesn’t work out.
For others, it is more about punting – putting off logistics that can be deferred until later in the rush to get out the door and on to the adventures ahead.
But almost inevitably – a few years down the road the money spent on storing so much “stuff” ends up exceeding the cost of replacing the bulk of it all.
The former security blanket turns into an anchor – a huge looming purging chore that needs to be handled to get out from under an annually increasing and increasingly annoying monthly bill.
We’ve seen this pattern with other long term nomads. After about 4-8 years on the road, they decide it is time.
Time to purge, and break free from storage.
Though I wasn’t planning to return to traditional life anytime soon, I was also considering mixing in overseas backpacking and other various adventurous pursuits. I was also intending to continue participating in Burning Man every year.
To maintain maximum flexibility, I set off with a storage unit deliberately designed to function as a walk-in-closet. I had bookshelves full of books I wanted to read, a media cabinet easily accessible filled with my DVD collection, a wardrobe and dresser set up to make it easy to swap out seasonal clothes, and a big area set aside for all my desert camping gear and Burning Man outfits.
The core logistical reason was to have a place to supplement the insanely small amount of space I would have.
And since I was going to keep a storage unit anyway, this made it easy to also utilize the rest of the space to store stuff I didn’t have time to go through or wasn’t ready yet to part with.
Since I only gave myself about 2 months from the time I decided to hit the road until I actually would – having a storage unit handy allowed me to (just barely!) make my goal.
That was then. And a storage unit used to honestly make a lot of practical sense.
But seven years have passed, Cherie and I have merged lives, we have a much larger mobile home now without nearly the need for seasonal swapping, and our routing and family priorities have made a west-coast storage unit something that we haven’t even been able to visit for over three years now.
After all – if you haven’t even seen something in three years – do you really still need it?
And even more pertinent, what started as a $75/month expense had slowly crept up to what was now $144/month!
This is the storage unit business model – they get your stuff packed away at a low rate, and then slowly “boil the frog” knowing that your stuff is held hostage. It is too valuable to easily walk away from, and too much of a chore to move to another location!
Fighting the Storage War!
Even though it had once served a practical purpose, I’ve been ready to get rid of my storage unit for years now.
But doing so isn’t a quick chore that can be handled in a day, or even a week.
We initially considered tackling the storage unit as one of our first stops after we bought the bus in 2011, but family needs had us wanting to keep our focus elsewhere. And ever since, we just haven’t been anywhere physically close enough.
We even considered flying out to try and handle it, but the logistics of doing so were just overwhelming and expensive – especially with everything else that was up in our lives.
Now at last was time. But we didn’t have much of it.
We set a very aggressive goal for our time in Sacramento – to completely clear out and eliminate the 10′ x 10′ storage unit… in just 2 weeks!
Why only 2 weeks?
Well, between extending our volunteer time at Cape Blanco Lighthouse and needing to get to Austin by Thanksgiving, it was just about all the time we wanted to provision for the chore.
Cherie also knows that I do best with intense deadlines so I can go into hyper focus mode, and I knew that she wouldn’t be able to survive much longer than that going stir-crazy in the gravel parking lot that is the CalExpo RV Park.
It was time to purge.
The easy way out would have been to just hand over the storage unit to an estate sale service, or even to auction off the entire contents ‘Storage Wars‘ style.
But this wasn’t just a bunch of random stuff – everything here had initially been stored for a reason.
I had already been through a huge purge when I set off to go nomadic, and another big one two years before that when I sold my house and moved to a San Francisco apartment.
The stuff that remained was the survivors – everything left meant something to me, or was there for some other reason.
I needed to go through everything personally one last time, and make decisions about what could be moved onboard the bus with us, what could be sold, what should be donated, what could I find new loving homes for, and what few treasures and mementos I wanted to get to my parent’s house (where Cherie already has a few similar boxes) for long term storage.
Immediately upon arriving in Sacramento we went straight to the storage unit. With such a short timeframe, there was no room for dilly-dallying – despite some fellow nuRV’er friends Bill & Debby staying in the same RV park.
We had very little time to be social – we had to get right to it.
Our first visit was mainly a triage – to remind ourselves after over three years away of what was actually there, and to determine if 2 weeks was even possible.
We loaded up a cart’s worth of stuff we knew for sure was destined for the donation center, and took some pictures of the larger furniture items so we could get them listed on Craigslist.
I also had decided it was time to part ways with my old parameter setup, so I took pictures to pass on to the local flyer’s mailing list. The collapsable flying machine had proven to be impractical to carry with us on the road, and had grown obsolete and was suffering from neglect.
On the way home from that first afternoon visit, we dropped the first loadoff at the local Goodwill. It felt good to have made a very small dent – and you have to start somewhere.
I spent the next seemingly endless days (just two weeks!) heading over to the storage unit every morning to sort through things.
I’d usually come back for an early dinner, and would often return to work right up until the storage unit closed each night at 10pm. As we have a wee Mini Cooper as our toad, I needed every last cubic inch of space to haul stuff to Goodwill or back to the bus for Cherie to start attempting to sell, so there were only a few days that Cherie was able to join me.
One of those times, we together hosted a live video chat from the nearly full storage unit:
I’d attack a box (or bookshelf) at a time, sorting through things and constantly shuffling stacks, usually photographing things as a way to mentally capture something as I physically released it.
It was a slow but steady process compressing down 40 years of life history. But really – what future employer is ever going to ask the see my elementary school diploma?!?!
Cherie did an incredible job coping with being stuck without transportation in a very non-scenic gravel lot at CalExpo, helping as best she could to manage Craigslist ads and coordinate communication. She researched values on things potentially worth selling later on eBay or Amazon, and as things overflowed into the bus she did an awesome job keeping herself (mostly) sane and our small space as minimally cluttered as possible. She also tackled some big projects of her own.
In the end – I made 12 car load trips to the donation station, and five trips to sell books at a local used book store.
We had several folks reach out wanting to meet up with us while we were in the area, and we unfortunately had to turn down any invitation that didn’t include ‘I’d like to buy your….’.
We were however able to manage some limited social time with old friends who took the time to travel up to Sacramento from San Francisco to take loads of treasured items back with them. Those were very meaningful breaks.
Three days before our 2-week goal, we knew that the end was in sight and we intentionally allowed ourselves to admit temporary defeat to take a sanity break. There was just no way we could keep this pace right up until the end. We were both exhausted, missing each other and Kiki, and Cherie was going stir crazy.
We took an entire day off from purging and spent the day together to recharge – mostly by napping and doing laundry.
We extended our stay in Sacramento by 3 nights to give us more time to handle everything. We knew we were in site of clearing out the storage unit by our 2-week goal, but not of also handling logistics to ship stuff to far-away friends, making final donation runs and packing everything into the bus.
So we were good with the knowledge that we had kept to the intention of a 2-week purge, and were still well on track for a non-rushed repositioning to Austin by Thanksgiving.
Friday afternoon, just 17 days after we landed in Sacramento – we picked up the final load from storage together, masterfully re-packed up the bus and even had time to host an impromptu ‘happy hour’ to meet some of the folks who had reached out to meet-up.
Here is a last-minute live video Q&A session we did from the EMPTY storage unit:
Our Tips for Purging
We have an article on purging in general to get ready to hit the road. After this experience, we’d like to add the following tips:
- Craigslist is great, but when on a limited time scale and working out of a gated storage unit complex – it is sometimes more annoying than useful. We did sell some stuff, but dealing with haggling customers and arranging meet-ups at the unit all the time made the experience less than satisfying.
For the same reason, using Freecylce wasn’t ideal. We’d still have to arrange meet-ups and take time away from purging to meet folks at the gate to let them in. Not to mention the effort of setting up a local Freecycle account, and still having to list & describe items. We knew enough to just skip this avenue if we were to keep the pace.
- The most surprising resource was using my personal Facebook page. I started out just photo documenting stuff I was purging to share it – but in the process I was able to discover a bunch of old friends down in the Bay Area (and some further afield) who would be happy recipients of the items. We found a lot of good homes this way, and were able to combine pick-ups with social time. Score.
One thing I was dreading disposing of was my massive old computer magazine collection – some dating back to the early 80’s, and a whole lot of archives from when I was the Technical Editor of Imagine Publishing’s ‘boot’ Magazine. But via Twitter, I made contact with the Internet Archive project, and through them was able to find some awesome volunteers with a truck willing to take in the entire collection as a donation. Score!
- Take lots of photos – not just of the items you’re purging to create memories, but of your progress. Looking back at how the storage unit looked before we started helped remind us each day that we were indeed making substantial progress.
- Take enough time to check and see what some of your old stuff is worth – most books and DVD’s are worth surprisingly little, but rare titles that you might never expect can surprise you. And I never even imagined that there was a stock market that tracks the daily fluctuations of the prices of Legos!
Flip through things before you toss or donate them. I found $160 CASH hidden inside one old book! Score – there’s one month of storage unit fees instantly re-cooped.
- And most importantly – if you are spending 12 hours a day alone in a storage unit, it helps to have a stuffed bear to talk to. I don’t think I could have made it without him..
And… We Won!
The storage unit is completely empty – everything ended up sold, donated, gifted, shipped or stuffed into the bus.
Here is a brief photo time lapse showing the progress over 17 days of purging…
We feel accomplished to have done so much in so little time, and kept to our priority of doing it in a responsible way.