Woman packing a small suitcase

Where Do Digital Nomads Leave All Their Belongings?

Sure, you can become a minimalist — and many travelers do. But there are other options.

The longer you travel as a digital nomad, the more you realize just how little you need to be happy. But when you’re staring at a fully furnished home or overflowing storage unit, it’s difficult to think about a life with less, let alone figure out what to do with everything.

When I first started moving from place to place, I pared down a one-bedroom apartment to just one carload of stuff. It felt like a Herculean achievement—and it was. But in the years since, I’ve narrowed down my belongings even more. I’m down to just two suitcases with tech gear, clothes, and a few sentimentals. I’ve digitized, sold, or donated everything else. Considering how much I used to love shopping, I’m still surprised by this turn of events.

My story is not unique among nomads, but it’s also not the only template out there. If you have a home full of treasures you love, there’s no need to get rid of it all, especially all at once. Your relationship with your things is a deeply personal one, especially when it comes to irreplaceable relics and family heirlooms. If you don’t feel the urge to become a minimalist, there’s no pressure. It may unfold naturally or it may not. You have a few alternatives.

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Set realistic expectations

The average American has 300,000 items and one in four has a self-reported clutter problem, reports NBC News.

Just know, upfront, that going through all of your stuff is going to feel overwhelming at times. Even when you start strong, it won’t be long before decision fatigue sets in. That’s why setting a goal is so important. You’ll need to lean on your “why” during those tough moments you just want to give up.

Before you start sorting through your stuff, find some room in your calendar to tackle this project consistently every week, like four hours every Sunday until it’s done.

Now would also be a good time to set a clear(ish) goal, so you know what to aim for. If you want to galavant around the globe with just a few suitcases, then your process is going to look far different than, say, renting a car-size storage unit.

Sort your stuff

On a free weekend, go around your space and assign your stuff into three main piles: yes, no, or maybe. You’ll be working through the “no” items, first.

While you might be tempted to tackle the bigger items early on, like couches and tables, you’re going to need those comforts until you move out. Save those for last. 

Instead, start with your mid-size belongings, like sports equipment, old tech gear, seasonal clothes you have boxed away, and large collections of photos, books, and movies.

In my opinion, it’s best to leave your most sentimental items for last. When I first started, the thought of getting rid of anything from loved ones was too much. By the end, I was fine with it. You might want to build up a bit of stamina before you go for the heavy-hitters.

Digitize your documents

Anything that lives on paper—photos, artwork, letters, mementos, books—can be digitized and stored in two places: the cloud and your hard drive. Use both to keep your files protected.

To scan things with your phone, download the Adobe Scan app. For photos, try PhotoScan by Google Photos or send in your collection to a photo scanning service. I had a great experience with Legacybox. I took snapshots of the hard copies on my phone (just in case), then sent them a big box of photos to turn into high-res digital copies.

We can’t forget about books. As painful as it was to part with my collection, I never got around to reading all the titles I brought into the house. It felt better, karmically, to recirculate them into the community for others to enjoy. Why leave them on my shelf collecting dust? That’s not what books were made for. Instead, I switched to digital copies via Audible and Kindle.

List your items for sale

When I first experimented with minimalism, I sold 90% of everything I owned at a garage sale and put the rest into a 65-liter backpack with a one-way ticket to Europe.

Ten years later, on my second experiment with minimalism, I turned to online marketplaces. I’m not going to sugarcoat it: selling your stuff online is both liberating and disappointing. You’ll realize just how much you spent versus how much you can get for it now. 

There’s nothing to teach you the true value of a dollar faster than selling a high-ticket item for 50% or less than its market value. A few years back, for example, I spent $1,000 on a gorgeous DJI drone. Three years in, my highest offer on Craigslist was $250. Ouch.

You’ll also want to set the minimum price you’ll accept. If you list an item for $100 and it takes you two hours to list it, go through the responses, and hand it off to a customer, that’s $50 per hour. Not bad at all. But if you list something for $10 and you spend hours going in circles with people trying to sell it, that item could be far more trouble than it’s worth.

You can list your odds and ends on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or OfferUp. For tech, see what Back Market will offer for a trade-in. When I had trouble selling an old phone on Craigslist, they offered me $160. For clothes, list your items on Poshmark (a second-hand clothing marketplace) or take your lightly used garments to a local consignment store. When someone buys it, you’ll get a cut.

Make a pile of donations

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus—who together make up The Minimalists—have an awesome rule to fall back on. In general, if something costs you less than $20 and you can get it in 20 minutes or less, it’s safe to get rid of it.

There are few things more satisfying than putting a bunch of unused items into a pile on the floor and filling up four or five garbage bags to bring to a homeless shelter. You can also donate your items to your loved ones, a house of worship, a domestic violence shelter, a local charity, or a thrift store. A simple Google search in your area will reveal the best fit.

Put your stuff in storage

If you’re lucky enough to own your house, you can put your belongings in the garage or a spare bedroom and rent the rest of the space to tenants. Be sure to store your stuff in fireproof and waterproof containers. You’ll also want to digitize backups of your most precious items, like family photos.

If you’re leaving your home behind and you know you’ll be back reasonably soon, ask your friends or relatives if they can store a few boxes in their garage. Save jewelry and legal documents for a security deposit box at your bank, which will run you anywhere from $20 to $60 per year, depending on the size.

On the other hand, if you have more than a few boxes and you have no clue when you’ll be back, a storage unit is a solid option. While it’s the most priciest option on the list, it’s still cheaper than leaving your home as-is and paying the rent or mortgage while you’re gone.

Tips for downsizing

Give yourself plenty of time to sort through your stuff. I would not recommend trying to do it all in one weekend. Not only could this be physically impossible, but downsizing can be an emotional process. Letting go is not easy; if it was, everyone would be doing it.

While you’re sorting, it can be incredibly motivating to listen to The Minimalists podcast. I also loved the book “Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism” by Fumio Sasaki. Of course, no article about stuff would be complete without a nod to Marie Kondo, a professional organizer whose hit book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” topped the New York Times best-seller list. As a rule for life, she says, only hold onto the items that truly spark joy.

Last, but certainly not least, experiment with your daily routine. As a thought experiment, find out just how little you need to get by. Try to build a week’s worth of outfits with just a few items, for example. Or put your endless bottles of lotions and potions under the sink for a week. Do you even notice if they’re missing? Probably not, but it’s worth finding out. The faster you identify your essentials, the easier it will be to ditch the rest and go see the world.

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