downsizing to upsize: how I went from a one bedroom to a five bedroom with half the stuff

The box in my arms is heavy. Heavy is good, it means I’m about to feel lighter. As I heft it onto the GoodWill counter, a woman politely asks me if I need a donation receipt. I smile and shake my head, beelining for the door, like a coffee addict who’s name was just called into a crowded cafe. I hit fresh air and wait for the ensuing endorphin high. I’m not kidding. Purging my things gives me a rush.

I know what you’re thinking, “common, giving to Goodwill is obvious, what’s the real story of how you downsize your stuff and upsize your home?”

Step 1. Buy nothing, get something

Have you heard of a Buy Nothing group? Well if I smoked cigarettes, this group would be the wholesale store, where the cigarettes come in cases instead of cartons. Where all you can see from the outside are dusty windows plastered with every faded brand logo in history, Joe and the Marlboro Man rubbing elbows like the cancer-peddling bros they are.

A Buy Nothing group is simple: a geographic community (typically using Facebook as a platform) gives to each other without expectations. Post anything, ask for anything, borrow or keep, it costs nothing.

What are some things I’ve given away on my Buy Nothing group?

 

  • a Baby Jogger
  • a high chair and play mat
  • cake ingredients
  • art supplies
  • costumes
  • toys
  • sports equipment
  • cook books
  • too many bags of kid’s clothes to count
  • life vests (so basically I’m a lifesaver right?

    😉)

What are some things I’ve gotten off my Buy Nothing group?

 

  • toddler shoes for my daughter
  • running shorts for me
  • a coffee thermos to borrow
  • a BOB stroller
  • moving boxes
  • cloth diapers
  • an Uppa Baby stroller
  • lots of new friends and a sense of community

You’ve bought something off Craigslist right? You know the curt efficiency, the lurking safety concerns, the mutual suspicion of being ripped off? Yeah, none of that is present in a Buy Nothing exchange. The mom I get the diapers from laughs in her doorway, her now potty-trained son on her hip as she gives me helpful washing tips. I can’t welch on her because I’m not paying. There is no urgency, just two parents with likeminded ideals yucking it up.

If giving to Goodwill is an endorphin rush, then giving to my Buy Nothing community is like biking to the top of Portola (big steep hill!). So much joy and excitement, knowing I not only get to dispose of something, but I get to do it in a way that gives new life to the item and happiness to a neighbor.

Is this all too California-egalitarian for you? Are you scoffing behind your screen? I don’t blame you, it sounds too good to be true. It turns out though, all you need is a culture for it. The San Francisco Buy Nothing group has over 7,000 members and thousands of success stories. Trust me, do yourself a favor and go find a group now, or start one of your own! Even if you’re not moving homes like me, this is a fantastic way to streamline your living space.

Step 2: A packable life

Is it becoming clearer how I went from an overstocked apartment to eight suitcases? Now it’s time to pack everything up. Moving internationally is the gold medal of Olympic packing. Well, maybe it’s bested by van life packing, so lets call it silver.

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How much stuff should you pack? Minimalism is in the eye of the beholder. From an outside view, my SF life might have looked minimalist: a one bedroom apartment, no car, no storage unit, ten pieces of furniture, how much could I really have to begin with? The answer for me is too much of one thing and not enough of another.

I had too many possessions but not enough space. Too many shoes and too many obsolete iPhone chargers but not a dinning room table, not a space for my kids to sleep that wasn’t also my space to unwind with my husband. So I KonMari’d my life (kept what sparked joy within me), and passed on the excess.

The mechanism of international packing is akin to spring cleaning: dump everything onto the bed or floor and start making piles. Unlike cleaning, there’s the added challenge of how to get your stuff from this country to that county. Some people ship boxes internationally or employ an international shipping company. These options are expensive and near impossible depending on your destination. Some people pack up their car and drive across the boarder (only available if your destination is over land, not sea). And then people like myself research the price of every major airline’s check’ed baggage fees. Spoiler alert, they’re all basically the same. It cost us $375 to move everything (for you math-whizzes, the extra cost was overweight luggage). It could have been less, but we chose to fly to LA for a few days first.

If you want to know exactly what I packed, let me know and I’ll post solely on the packing and flying experience.

Now, do I really only own what’s in those suitcases? Full disclosure, no.

Both my aunt and parents are holding on to boxes of my stuff. If you’re already an on-point minimalist, you might ask “what could be worth keeping that wasn’t worth taking to Mexico?” The answer is unoriginal: my wedding veil, a few quality pieces of art that I love, my two winter jackets that I’ll wear again, old photos I haven’t yet digitized.

Is my new house only populated with eight suitcases? Yes and no. I may not own more than those eight suitcases, but I am using more than that. The home we rent is semi-furnished. I have a dining room table (a literal dream come true), mattresses and couches, a coffee table and night stands.

If you’r renting abroad yourself, I highly recommend picking semi-furnished over fully. Yes I will have to buy a few kitchen items (I brought the portable ones with me), and since I only packed sheets for my bed, I’ll need to buy ones for the guest beds, but all the excess stuff that a fully-furnished apartment boasts, is missing here.

No rugs, no art, no trinkets or lamps. Is it sounding bleak?😂 For me it’s tranquil. The empty spaces are fine just as they are, or they provide room for my own taste, for that one new piece of local art, or a DIY project with my kids. Go tranquil, go semi-furnished.

Step 3: Upsizing

Millions of families live in similarly-sized accommodations to where I was months ago. To say it’s an impossible living situation is to minimize their experiences. Of course you can make it work (I’m proof of that). But it’s tough. If you want to be a minimalist but dread the thought of living in a Tiny House, remember, minimalism isn’t a set of rules, but rather an ideology of reducing the excess that clutters your heart and mind.

I have a five bedroom house now. Is that “minimalist”? Probably not, (I’m still aspiring) but it’s my minimalism right now, and my eight suitcases fill this home in a barely-noticeable way that gives me peace. In SF my minimalism was out of necessity, here it is out of desire.

Here I sit on my lanai (veranda) watching my kids toddle about the yard (oh my God I have a yard!), and I don’t feel the need to fill the space. The space itself is what I needed, that it my minimalism, and I increased my home by five fold in order to get it.

 

— Lavender

 

why Mexico?

More time, more space, less stress, fewer expenses, more adventure, where should I go?

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Moving first in your mind

There is a moment in the beginning of every expat’s preparatory journey. A moment after you’ve checked a bunch of countries’ exchange rates but before you’ve hit up the US State Department’s Travel Advisory site, when you think “wow, I could go anywhere!”

This of course, is not the case.

Not that you couldn’t or shouldn’t go anywhere, but that somewhere in this glob of beautiful languages and delicious cuisines, there is the best place for you to go now.

Perhaps the largest filter in your strainer is language. Are you interested in language emersion? If not, that greatly helps limit your destination to English-speaking countries. Are you interested in a language the the State Department rates as difficult (like Arabic) or easy (like Spanish)? A language that is spoken by many, or few?

Or perhaps language has little baring on your interests, so on to the next filter. Does a westernized locale with all the amenities that provides appeal to you, or is living in a vastly different cultural environment more your style?

Now continue a generalized, no-google-required filter. Do you want to be in the tropics? The mountains? A city? A village? Once you’ve narrowed down the general wish list, start looking at specific countries.

I chose Mexico. Is that the country for you as well? I’ve made a flow chart to help you decide:

Moving to Mexico_Flow3

Dig deeper

Flow charts aside, you do your research. If you’re like me, this means staying up past your bedtime, awash in the glow of your laptop, testing how many windows Chrome will let you open at once. I first believed Costa Rica was the country for my family; Latin American, ecologically rich, yummy gallo pinto, maybe too touristy, but worth the trade-off for safety.

So why Mexico? It checked boxes that Costa Rica couldn’t. When moving abroad, I find these framework questions helpful, especially when debating between two desirable countries:

  1. Does saying aloud “I life in (X) county” make me smile?
  2. How many hours in a plane is it back to my home country?
  3. Can I afford to live there? Or more specifically, can I afford the lifestyle I want there?
  4. Is it a place friends and family will visit me if I want them to?
  5. Would this place feel like a vacation or a home?
  6. Am I challenging myself enough? Or too much?

And if you have kids you can add….

  1. Are there schools or childcare options that work for me?
  2. Are there pediatricians that meet my needs?
  3. will my kids smile when they get to our new home?

Once you’ve answered these questions, the nitty gritty research begins.

Back in San Francisco, as I was gleefully clicking through Trip Advisor accounts of various waterfalls, and blogs about hiking the cloud forest, I came across the term border run. What is a border run you ask? It means crossing the border (in Costa Rica’s case every 90 days) in order to renew your Tourist Visa.

Two kids, carseats, stroller, diaper bang and at least one suitcase across the border every two months?? “What a great excuse to explore the neighboring countries” the optimist within me chirped. “I’d rather sit on a  chair of thumbtacks every two months” my realist shouted back.

If you’re thinking of moving abroad, visa viability is a big concern. Mexico’s visa process was much more amenable to our life situation. Unlike other Latin countries, you can get a visa even if you’re not a retiree (Pensionado) or don’t own property. And if you choose to live on a tourist visa and do border runs (which I do not recommend), at least you get 180 days. The irony of Americans doing border runs to stay legally documented in Mexico is not lost on me.

Interested in visas? let me know and I’ll do a post on the topic.

Picking Mexico

Of course Mexico had far more appeal than just legal practicality. Mexico is massive. Imagine a foreigner moving to Florida and saying they understand US life. What about NYC? What about Rural Wyoming? You cannot box Mexico into one ecological, social or culinary experience. The ability to travel the country, to transition climates and cultures really appealed to me. The proximity to the US (4.5 hours direct to the Bay Area) was a selling point too.

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But mostly, as a native of Southern California, I felt like Mexico was a neighbor I needed to know better. After all, I was born on what was once Mexican soil.

Still not sure where to go? This may sound too “vision-board-y” but do it anyway. Make yourself a list of words that currently represent your life (e.g. fast, convenient, fun, repetitive) and a list of words  you want to represent your life. Do you see a pattern? A theme? I’m guessing you do. Somewhere on this planet is the best place for the life you want now.

 

— Lavender