Transition and Stuff

Moving Sale


Two years ago exactly we were in the process of repatriating (moving “home” to the U.S. after 7 years in China).  Our lives became consumed with the quest to reduce all of our belongings into 8 suit cases.  We failed but just barely.  

Part of my transition back to the States was discovering something that I really hated about myself.  I have never been a stuff guy.  I have plenty of issues but materialism has just never been one of them.  All of the sudden, though, I was feeling overwhelmingly greedy and sorry for myself.  Walking through the homes of our old friends I could feel my internal organs ranting.

“They have furniture!”  my gut would say  “IN TWO DIFFERENT ROOMS!!”

To which my heart would respond, “and look!  Cutco knives!  The whole set!  We don’t even have spoons!”

My lungs would gasp and mock,  “oooooh . . . an air purifier . . . must be nice.”

It was the most pathetic midlife crisis I have ever heard of.  I couldn’t even fathom daydreaming of a red convertible.  I just wanted a bicycle . . . and maybe a TV.

Our friends, whom we were once on a level with stuffwise, had continued to move forward on the timeline of accumulation, uninterrupted.  We, on the other hand, had downsized the entirety of our possessions to what would fit on the plane . . . twice.

There was considerable jealousy and subsequent guilt.

That was two years and several dozen yard sales ago.  Now my organs are freaking out once again because . . . frankly . . . we have too much stuff.

And we’re leaving again.


This is what I (along with my organs) am learning about transition and stuff:


yard sale 21.  Yard sale equity is not a sustainable, long term, financial model

We spent two summers restocking our lives with other people’s stuff.  Then we tried to sell it all to different people in one day.  While I did make a hefty 200% profit ($2.25) on one of our lamps I spent way more than that on donuts for our employees (pictured here).  On everything else we either broke even or sold at a loss and at the end of the day we still had 85% of the stuff we had at the beginning of the day.

As the most ironic financial consultant in the world I feel you should know that if you’re looking for a reliable investment strategy to provide peace of mind and security in your retirement . . . buying new stuff and selling it all every two years is not it.

That will be $200.  We accept housewares and kitchen utensils.

2.  Stuff generally demands more emotion than it is worth

Playing lifeboat with all of your possessions (especially when there is more than one of you) can be painful.  Deciding which things make the suitcase and which things don’t is an organ wrenching exercise.  Dollar values.  Sentimental values.  Can I get this there?  Will I use this?  Will I wear this?  Will this fit?  If I keep this what do I need to leave behind?

Everything is connected to story or a memory and there is only so much space to go around.  There is much growling and showing of teeth.

Now plug that into a yard sale and watch the tension consume you.  “NO – I will not take 50 cents for my drill bits!  I love those drill bits!!  Now GET OFF of my property!”

It’s a sensitive time.


yard sale 33.  It’s ok to let go of stuff

The sweetest moment of our yard sale came as we were cleaning up.  My wife and I both shared a sense of sarcastic irritation — “Great.  Now what?”

Another yard sale?  Please no.

Sell it online?  12 emails to set up a time for someone to come give us two dollars for our spatulas? . . . uh . . . no thank you.

Give it all away?  Argh.  We can’t keep doing this.

Frustration mounted and we were both at a loss.  Finally I made a suggestion.  Let’s wrap our heads around giving $100 worth of stuff to the Thrift Store.  That won’t kill us and we could thin out this pile of mess.

Moments later we realized that there were very few things that didn’t fit into our $100 category.  We took it all to the garage and put it in two piles . . .

  • Thrift Store stuff (most everything)
  • Stuff worth selling online

We felt much better.


4.  It’s ok to NOT let go of stuff

We still have a looming layer of things that didn’t go in the yard sale.  Bigger items that we are still using, have invested more in and would definitely feel the pain of zero cost recovery.  I am a terrible (albeit self-aware) businessman.  I love to make a profit but I would prefer for you to just have it.

“Yeah we’d love to get $10,000 but  . . . aw heck, just take it.”

I’ve had to wrestle with my own lack of materialism.  The whole notion sounds ridiculous to the cut throat entrepreneur but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling (misplaced) guilt for putting price tags on stuff that I could give away.

Recovering what we have paid does not (necessarily) equal greed.


5.  Stuff is not people

When I think about how I want to spend these last few weeks, running a flea market doesn’t even make the top ten.

People.  That’s how I want to spend my time.

I want to make new memories with people that I’m going to miss.  I want to take pictures with people I love at places I love.  I want to sit around a fire and stay up late.  I want to get up early for coffee and donuts.  I want to have cookouts and eat stupid amounts of meat.  I want awkward eye contact and healthy goodbyes.   I want to go kayaking with my best bud.  I want to eat family dinner on paper plates while sitting on a blanket in the middle of an empty living room floor and watching a movie on the iPad because . . . once again . . . we don’t own a TV.

I love my stuff . . . but I love my people more.


So these are my guidelines:

  • I will get stuff out of my way so I can spend time with people.
  • I won’t stress about losing money on my stuff.
  • I won’t stress about making money on my stuff.
  • When I can I will bless people with my stuff.
  • When stuff creates an awkward situation I will call it awkward and move on.
  • If my family owns stuff that gives them security or builds their confidence then I absolutely want them to keep it.
  • I will not lose time with people for the sake of stuff.

That’s my plan . . . I’ll let you know how it goes.

For those of you whom transition is just a part of life — What’s your story?  What’s your secret when it comes time to buy, sell, give, keep, pack, repack and unpack stuff?




  1. As this arrived at my inbox I’m sorting stuff for a yard sale this weekend, probably the first of a few. Our first transition is a temporary one from the home we are selling to the one we will rent for approx 10 months before leaving the country. The hardest part for me (so far) is requiring my son to give up his stuff. And we’ll likely have to trim down his stuff twice more before we’re done. 🙁 hard, but good.

    • Feel your pain Tina. We’ve been through the refining process with both of our kids. Painful.

  2. I wrote to you a year ago, I think, saying that we would be repatriating after 40+ years in Japan. You asked that I let you know how it went. It went well. Very well, in fact, because while we had already planned a number of things listed in your “10 ways to…” blog lists, we saw that some important ones were missing. Fortunately, we were far enough out from our departure to make some adjustments, and those made a lot of difference now that we look back on the whole year.

    One thing we did was to determine that we would be very “present” in our work and relationships until a certain point in the school year. After that point (3 months before actually leaving our home and moving to a transient apartment), we gave ourselves permission to begin to pack, to start giving away things, to schedule final times with friends, and if it was a nice day, to go sightseeing! We gave ourselves permission to work hard, and to have fun. It was great.

    Closing accounts does take longer that one would expect (even with the language), and, having not done that for decades, with the advent of technology it was surprising some of the “links” we had to close!!! For example: My husband turned 65 the month before we left. Unbeknownst to us, he was automatically registered in the nursing care section of the National Health Insurance! We got an unexpected refund which was a pleasant surprise.

    One thing we did that really helped right at the end: We stayed near the airport before we left, and went sightseeing on the last day in the country! We had never explored that area, and everything was done, so why not? It was a wonderful day of remembering—seriously, “re-membering” ourselves over the decades as we grew from newlyweds in 1972 to empty-nesters in 2014. We also talked about the need in the coming months to allow ourselves time to discover who we are in our “new” culture. Visiting one’s passport culture is very different from living in it; there is far more to learn than how to use an ATM.

    As to the stuff: We decided early on that we basically could not put a price on our life together. So in the end we sold a couple of pieces, and we did sell the car as seed money for the next one in the US. We looked at things we had and asked the question, “Who would enjoy using/having this?” It became an absolutely freeing and joyful way of saying goodbye. I know that every time my friend uses the crockpot, she will think of me…and that will be repeated over and over with other families. We found a Japanese family who were repatriating from PNG, and an email thread of “things to give away” became a weekly and then daily exchange.

    One final word on “stuff”…it will always be with us, and it takes multiple times through to cull it. We made a rule: If we had not looked in the file for more than a year, or could not determine what was in it without opening it, we pitched it. No fair looking through it at all—it just slows down the packing process.

    So, thanks for writing these blogs; I still read them because really, transition is the stuff of life.

    • Martie! Thanks for the update. Such great wisdom from people who have done (and are doing) it well. You’re an inspiration. To be able to say that repatriation after 40+ years went “very well” is a tremendous statement of hope for a lot of people who are wondering if they are going to survive. Thanks for the encouragement. Blessings on your continued transition.

  3. We have lived 25 years in five different countries and now back in the U.S. for almost 8 years. We changed electric currency 4 times so replaced everything that plugged into the wall that many times. A U.S. Stand mixer will not work correctly on a transformer. At some point my mom told me of someone who woke up to find her house on fire. She pushed the piano out the window and carried the pillows out with her. That story is one would I tell myself often while sorting and packing because it gave me the freedom to get it wrong: to take things I wouldn’t need (US baby safety outlet covers in Hong Kong) and leave things behind that would have to be replaced (too many to count but the by then teenaged boys’ Legos given to friends is the first thing that comes to mind). My need to get it right had made me so miserable that I was making everyone else miserable. And giving special things away was one of my pleasures. Thank you for sharing these. It brings back good and bad memories.

    • “The freedom to get it wrong” — Love it. This whole thing is miserable if we never learn that. Thanks.

  4. Our family has gone through the process of paring down to 2-suitcases each 3 times (twice to China, once to Albania). While it is somewhat painful and always challenging, it also brings a great reward of feeling delivered from the burden of STUFF. [btw, my organs rattle at the big screen TVs when I walk through someone’s home]

  5. Yep! We’re culling our stuff once again too. I’ve got a big box labeled “thrift store”, a big box labeled “consignment”, a bunch of plastic bins labeled “stay here” and a room full of suitcases and stuff labeled “go with”. At the end of the day, three weeks from now it all has to either get on the plane with us or be packed in my in-law’s basement where it won’t bother them for the next few years. A bit daunting, but we’ve done it before and will do it again. The kids’ toys are in Ziploc bags waiting to go in the suitcases, culled early in the process so we can make slow decisions about what is precious. Thanks for your honest post. I totally resonate!

  6. Totally understand this feeling, though I’m sure we will have many more challenges in this area to come.

    We left for Budapest after one year of marriage… which was nice because there wasn’t too terribly much to leave, but hard because nearly all of it was sentimental. “But this was our very first clock/couch/food processor to have as a couple!” Also, I think I sold our older but perfectly good clothes washing machine for $50. I kinda felt sick about that when I remembered how much we paid for it. And yes, a year later, we still have those “oh man, it would be nice to have a car/TV/dishwasher/house-that’s-not-a-basement-turned-apartment” moments when we visit other missionaries.

    For me, the challenge is to keep from judging others that have more than I do… because it’s usually just a coping mechanism to sustain myself in a time where we don’t have quite as much as I’d like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we aren’t tied to a lot of stuff, and living in the lap of luxury while on financial support isn’t wise, but just because someone has a dishwasher or heated floors doesn’t mean you’re a better missionary or Christian than them. Stuff is stuff, whether you have more or less than you would like.

    Thanks for this, Jerry.

  7. Hey, Jerry the Culture Vulture. I have a few questions for you about intercultural business. Can you contact me via email, please?

  8. Our transition was hard but admittedly blessed by retirement from the military. Photograph for sentimentality. Let the trimming process leave behind physical quality. Elevate the skill of not buying when you can. I hope your excellent blog will produce paths to earning great load$ of ca$h.

  9. Jerry, enjoyed reading this. I hope to see you in China in July. Before going to China for just two years, I gave away so many things to my children, grandchildren, family, and riends. Books, teacups, quilts, collections, stuff. Now I enjoy seeing these things in their homes and don’t have to care for them:) But my two years of pared down living are among the best memories of life. Simplicity . . . the most generous are often the ones with meager means.

  10. We brought all our stuff with us to China (all most) – but we had to move to another living place after 1½ year. That was a challenge, because we need to get rid of some of it. We had some of the same thoughts as you guys, so today we only have the thing here that we actually care about. It is a releasing feeling to get rid of it and we at the same point learned that “stuff” isn’t important!

    • This is an excellent post. Do you follow Bea Johnson ( She is the queen to getting rid of superfluous.

      I know you know a lot about China and many others following you do too. I will go to work for 3 weeks in Beijing in July and will have 4 days to myself before coming back to Budapest. Any tips? I don’t think I really have time to go to Shanghai (unless really worth it). I’d like to see rural China. Where to around Beijing? Thank you. Catherine

  11. In the process of repatriating. I came to Mexico City 8 years ago a single girl and am leaving with a husband and my two babies. We just sold all of our stuff and are staying the last three weeks in a friend’s house. Best decision ever! We needed a “halfway” house before we left. We are spending the time with friends and are done with the stuff. Thanks for your blog…it’s been a breath of fresh air tonight.

  12. Oh man I hear you. Putting people before stuff – word. I am glad my mom visited my last 3 weeks in China, for several reasons of course (connecting people who know me was a big one), and one of those reasons is that I pushed my procrastinating self to get rid of stuff early and not leave it till the end. Of course, I still ended up coordinating pick-up of a few big items in the last week, and going through the house with a friend piling everything left into “trash” and “donate to new staff” 36 hours before departure (it’s amazing how much was left), so if I had it to do over again I would move some of that up by a month if possible. But all in all and considering my personality, I think it went pretty well. Jia you! And let me know if I can help at all with the process, from here or by stopping by sometime. ~Lily

  13. After moving back and forth a couple times, I realized that at $109 per 70 pound suitcase or $159 per 50 pound or whatever it costs now… the shipping is still cheaper than buying new stuff. This allowed me to pack up much of my kitchen gadgets without guilt. It was so easy to unpack, and PRESTO a kitchen.

    Now, what to do about the books…..

  14. My family spent 7 years in China and returned to the US in May of 2013. Very close to y’all!

  15. Thank you for writing this article; it came at just the right time for us. We are leaving Africa after 12 years to move back to America. We came with 4 suitcases and 2 backpacks. We are leaving with 10 suitcases, 5 carry-ons, and 3 children. At least that’s what we hope. In the meantime we are trying to formulate a strategy for giving/selling our stuff and trying to find the right balance between the Urge to Purge and being good stewards of our resources. I truly appreciate your writing and humor in the midst of a massive transition.


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