There seems to be an endless list of benefits that are possible from the experience of moving to and experiencing life in another country, and one of the more subtle among them is that it tends to force you to value things less and experiences more. Unless you are the rare executive for a multinational company that will ship any and all of your possessions around the world for you, you’ll be getting rid of plenty of stuff and you’ll be less likely to replace it with new stuff in the future.
Even moving across town is a wake-up call for many people as they start looking at their possessions in a new way because they either have to move them or pay someone else to do it. But when you move to another country it’s taken to another level, where you will realize that you own 25 pairs of socks and that you should probably bring no more than 10.
Collecting loses all appeal
In my youth I collected vinyl records, peaking at over 2,000 pieces before I started rebuying the good ones as CDs. I loved my record collection, until I started moving from one apartment in Hollywood to another, and then a lot less when I moved from Hollywood to New York City. For some weird reason, until I moved across country I would rarely even throw away weekly entertainment magazines, even though I’d almost never look at them again. They were easy to throw away (or recycle, really), when the alternative was to rent a larger moving van and then a larger apartment once I arrived.
I think nearly everyone “collects” things early in life, and those who rarely or never move tend to just keep collecting, but how valuable do those collections tend to be? If anything they can sometimes end up preventing people from taking advantage of opportunities. “No, I can’t move into that smaller and cheaper home because where would I put my unicorn collection?”
When you pare down your possessions for a move abroad you’ll realize how pointless many of them are, and later you’ll probably realize how little you actually miss them. I think the act of collecting is a human trait that most people fall into, and it serves a purpose for people who never move, at least in some cases.
Perhaps better still, once you have moved abroad you start thinking about each new purchase in a new way. For those who’ve retired to a new country it might be different, but for the rest of us who will likely move back or move elsewhere at some point, buying nick-nacks or hard-cover books or new shoes in 5 different colors to match all your outfits is easy to resist. Once you’ve gone through the pain of throwing away things you hoped to keep before you left, you realize that physical goods can be an anchor.
The storage dilemma
I’m guessing that many or perhaps most expats have a storage unit in their home country that they continue to pay for by the month. It’s just about impossible to get rid of everything before you move, and it seems crazy to pay to ship things like high school yearbooks and expensive jackets that you might not need in your new climate. So you put things in storage and then pay $100 or $200 or more per month to keep them there.
When I left the US I thought I might be gone 6 months or maybe longer, but at this point it’s been well over 2 years and it looks like I won’t be back there for at least another year or two. When I add up the cost of storing these remaining items for all of this time it will begin to approach the cost of replacing them all with new things (which would be better in most cases). It actually haunts me a bit each month. It would cost me enough to pay for another year of storage to fly back and get rid of more stuff, but even if I did I’d still have things that I want to keep, so it goes on and on.
From speaking to other expats, I’m not alone in this storage situation.
My advice to my future self or to others who are about to make this move is to be as aggressive as possible when getting rid of things instead of storing them. Then get the smallest and cheapest storage unit you can find. I know someone who is paying well over US$200 per month to keep things they would have gotten rid of if they knew it would be this long. I’m sure people leaving places like London or New York City could easily pay double or triple this amount for a storage unit, so for them it’s even more important to be ruthless and pare down as much as possible, then get rid of even more.