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Saturday, September 3, 2016

So You Want To Work Abroad: Tips On Dealing With All Your STUFF

I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I put if off because I wasn't sure how to make it useful to anyone.  After all, different people in different stages of life have different quantities and qualities of STUFF.  Someone moving overseas directly from a college dorm room will have fewer possessions to think about than a family with a house, kids, and pets.  Similarly, different overseas jobs have different policies for transporting your stuff.  Some employers expect to help their new employees transport a large amount of household goods; others expect you to carry anything you want in suitcases on the plane.

I'd say we fit somewhere in the middle.  We didn't have a house, kids, or pets, but we had been out of school long enough to have acquired a fair amount of stuff.  A lot of our furniture was either hand-me-downs or IKEA, but we had some pretty decent kitchen wares.  In terms of transporting stuff, our employer was willing to reimburse employees up to a certain sum for good transported within the first six months.  At first, they said that shipping boxes through USPS was the best option, but then after we had shipped quite a few boxes, they said it was best to just pack a lot of suitcases.

Anyway, this post will be about lessons we learned from transporting our stuff to our specific job in Kazakhstan.  It will include things we did right, as well as things I would do differently now.  With luck, anyone contemplating a move abroad who stumbles upon this will find something useful!

  • Decide what you need to take with you first.  Then decide what to do with the rest of your stuff.  What do you need while you're working overseas?  Think about clothing you will need, things you might need for your job, material for any hobbies you might have, etc.  Don't be too skimpy here (for instance, you might want more than one pair of pants in case you fall and tear a hole in the knee), but not too expansive (you probably don't need ten pairs of pants).  How much stuff did you end up with?  Is it possible to transport it given the parameters of your specific job?  If not, you may need to cut down.  If there is anything you have in large quantity--whether it's shoes, craft supplies, framed family photos, or anything else--you probably won't be able to conveniently take your whole collection with you.  From our experience I will also say that if you are an academic and need lots of books that aren't readily available in-country to conduct your research, you should seriously reconsider taking this job.
          We sort of thought of this issue in reverse.  We first decided what we were going to put in 
         storage (having decided early on that there were things we didn't want to part with that were not
          practical to take to Kazakhstan).  Then we started either discarding things or shipping them off
         to Kazakhstan.  The end results were that we had more stuff over there than could comfortably
         fit into our apartment, a lot of stuff was held at customs for weeks (we actually had to buy Scott
         a second winter coat over there because the box we shipped his coat in was held up at customs),
         and we had to pay hefty customs fees to get a lot of our stuff, some of which naturally broke in
  • Think creatively about transporting items.  Many jobs overseas offer plane tickets home as part of the compensation package.  Our job in Kazakhstan was generous in that it would pay for tickets twice a year.  One thing I wish we had done looking back was to think about what we needed from August to December, and pack/ship only those things initially, with the idea of picking up more of our stuff later on.  If you aren't planning on traveling back to your home country, are any friends or family planning to visit you?  Maybe they would be willing to to bring you an item (or even a suitcase of items).  If nobody is planning to visit you, you might be able to pay a cash-strapped teenager or young adult in your life to pack and ship boxes of things.  If you can't store those items with anybody, you could designate a small storage unit as being one with the "nice to have" items, or put them in clearly labeled boxes at the front of a larger storage unit.
  • On a similar note, don't rule out using storage units.  I originally hoped to get rid of everything we weren't taking with us to Kazakhstan because I didn't like the idea of paying to store stuff I wasn't using.  If you can do that, great!  It's probably easier that way.  But storage is a relatively small price to pay compared to replacing household goods.  Aside from a few small "what was I thinking" items that I attribute to mental fatigue, I was very grateful for all the things we kept in storage because they were all things I didn't have to buy again.  I recommend climate-controlled storage, even though it costs more.
  • Consider keeping a list of any immediately useful household goods you store.  This isn't the biggest deal in the grand scheme of things, but it would have been nice to know that the shower curtain rings were going to be in the last box I opened before I bought a new set at Target.
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter.  It's fine to pay to store things you like and things you can use when you return to your home country.  But if you have something like ratty old furniture that you've always wanted to replace, now would be an excellent time to sell it or donate it.  There is no point paying either to transport or to store things you don't really like.
  • You can get money from selling things, but donating things gets them out of your way faster.  Sometimes, you really just need to get some stuff out of your home quickly in order to better sort and pack.  Donation is great for that.  Selling can be great, too, but with these caveats:  (1) It will take time and effort that you may need for some other aspect of your international move, (2) Most secondhand items will not net very much money, and (3) You may not be able to get rid of things on the schedule you want if you sell.  I would suggest worrying more about selling big ticket items (your car, etc.), and not worry too much about finding a buyer for your used gym shoes.  That being said, some methods of selling smaller items work better than others.  I may write a future post about my experience with those.
          It also pays to think creatively here.  Scott's TA was aware of our situation, and expressed 
          interest in buying both our car and any household good we were interested in getting rid of.
          I'd like to think we came up with a win-win:  He got a lot of household goods for a low price.
          We got some money for our household goods, and we were able to continue using them right
          up until the end before we moved.  Would we have made more money selling these items
          individually?  Maybe.  But it would have taken considerably more work on our part, and 
          we had plenty of other things to deal with at the time.
  • If you're being reimbursed for transporting household goods, keep a good paper trail.  This may not be as big of an issue elsewhere.  Kazakhstan is a very paperwork-oriented place.  We were told to keep receipts from shipping/extra luggage fees, and to keep any customs forms.  It turned out once we got there that we also had to provide credit card statements with the same charges as were on the receipts.  So, use credit cards, rather than cash or check, to pay for any shipments.  If you are going with a spouse/significant other, and only one of you is being employed, it's probably a good idea to make sure to use the credit card that is in the name of the employee.
  • Buy a luggage scale.  I was too cheap to buy one initially.  I figured that with my lack of upper body strength, if I could lift a suitcase even moderately comfortably, it must be less than 50 pounds.  It turned out I was stronger than I thought, and I had to engage in a horrible suitcase shell game on the airport's dirty floor while wearing the pants I was going to wear for my entire trip.  Gross.
  • Try to look at this as an opportunity.  In spite of the aggravations, I now view the massive declutterings we had before moving to Kazakhstan and before moving back to the US as very positive because they showed me that I had too much stuff, and that I could get rid of a large portion of stuff without it adversely impacting my life.  You would think that I would have learned this through my many stateside moves, but it turns out that international moves are just aggravating enough to really drive the point home.
          I will probably never be a hardcore minimalist.  I like craft supplies too much, for one thing.  
          Also, when I see something pretty, I will probably want it, at least fleetingly.  This is 
          particularly true if I feel like I'm getting a good deal on the item in question.  But I've 
          started to approaching acquiring stuff a little differently, since I've decided that stuff can 
          be as much a liability as it is an asset.  I've decided that there are very few (if any) things 
          that we could always use extras of.  I've decided that "just in case" items are very often
          "just taking up space" items.  When I buy things, I've decided it's often better to spend a 
          certain amount of money on the one item that I really want or will really be useful, rather
          than spend the same amount of money to get multiple items that aren't quite what I want.

          By having less stuff overall, I can keep a better handle on what we have.  I know better what
          we might really need, and it's easier to keep our apartment clean-ish without having to store
          excess stuff everywhere.  I imagine some people learn these lessons without having to move
          across the world, but since that's what it took for me, I take that as a positive aspect of the

Happy moving to all, and don't let your STUFF keep you down!

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