Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

Packrat Purgatory

Packrat Ethic meets Finite Space.

Packrat Ethic meets Finite Space.

What if you had to reduce the sum total of all your worldly goods into a new home measuring just 8′ x 26′? Not an 8×26 storage unit, but a living space complete with closets, couch, desk with computer, dining area with benches or chairs, bed, complete kitchen with stove, oven, microwave and refrigerator, cookware and servingware, lamps and lighting, TV and associated gizmos, bedroom, bathroom with sink, toilet, tub/shower and medicine cabinet, furnace and air conditioner with ductwork, space heater, water heater, water and waste tanks, all clothing for both hot and cold weather, and all of the hobby crap and books that you amuse yourself with? Don’t forget aisles that give you complete access from end to end, and no fair stacking boxes or bins from floor to ceiling unless you can tie them down for transport along roads rough enough to make an earthquake seem like a great improvement.

Now imagine that you do not subscribe to the “if I haven’t used it in a year, I throw it out” mantra. Imagine that you are a devout and devoted packrat. Things inside and out break and must be repaired (with tools). Clothing gets permanent stains and tears. Electrical and plumbing problems occur. Just replace things? Just have whatever it is fixed by someone else? I forgot to mention that your budget has been reduced to one third or less of what you’re used to. Every trip to the store for things you previously threw out costs real money, fuel outlay to get there being the added insult. Little to no money for repairs, Big Macs, RV campgrounds, or storage units for that matter. Blow too much, and you get to choose between no gasoline, beans and rice for your two squares, or no heat – and that’s if you’re lucky. Oh, and don’t get sick.

It’s a sobering change for a packrat, practically like heroin withdrawal to an addict. “Oh, but it hurts! It hurts! Just gimme a Crescent wrench, or a little 10-gage wire, please!” The hard truth is that, if you cannot stow it without clogging aisles or making furniture unusable, it gots to go. But fortunately, like Captain Kirk in the Kobayashi Maru Test, I cheated. I have the Mighty Furd pickup truck stuffed to the gills, too. The bed is full, and the passenger seat is shoved and angled so far forward that even a single passenger is out of the question unless I want to listen to their face squeaking against the windshield. It would look funny though, at least until they killed me.

Yes, I’m a packrat. When I moved from one house to another after twenty-five years, I filled two dumpsters that were each the size of a school bus. Oh, I felt shame about that, yes. But then I noticed that when I guiltily discarded a few more items later, a repair would pop up, and I wouldn’t be able to find that part I’d been saving all those years to deal with such things. It’s not in here! Then I realized, oh snap, I threw that away last year! Twenty bucks down the drain for some stupid little component, now made in China and not fitting very well. When I moved into the Enterprise, I filled a slightly smaller dumpster after giving away or donating many pickup-loads of furniture, equipment and other items, family heirlooms included.  I also had to rent part of my son’s storage unit for things that were eclectic, but too valuable and niche to chuck or donate. I’ve covered those in earlier posts. One word: eBay. I did that this last summer, and except for a safety deposit box at a bank, I’m all in. There is no unmentioned “secret storage” at friends or relatives, either. This is it. Whew!

I know, I know, there are a few RVers out there that have done the exact same thing in an even smaller package, but usually they have no other options, or don’t plan on doing this forever, or have a larger budget, or can’t do the repairs that I can or stay immobile for 3 weeks at a stretch, and have gotten rid of things that must now be replaced with cash, when the time comes. It should be a very long time before I have to pay for clothing or tools, music, movies, or things to do. Keep in mind that I’m currently living entirely on savings, so the concept of a budget is not just a theory for me. Oh, I’m so very proud of myself! But before you keel over from my patting myself on the back, keep reading. It gets worse.

The perception tends to be that if you’re camping for free in a trailer out in the middle of nowhere, your expenses must be zilch. All you must need is a few T-shirts and shorts. Not so. It’s comparatively cheap, but even a hermit must cough up for the necessities to live well. Although full-timing can be done quite affordably, the expenses are still considerable. Depending on how much I travel and where I stay, my total monthly costs range from $600 to $1,800 or more, not including “surprise” items like repairs and replacements. One still needs to eat well to stay healthy, stay warm, dry, and clean, and get to sources of supply on a regular if infrequent basis. One still needs to look like a vacationer instead of someone down on his luck.

Out in the boonies, being a packrat can be a positive thing, but there is a natural tension between being under-provisioned to deal with everyday things (which raises costs), and having to haul around too much to conveniently carry. And if you carry something, it must be able to be located to be useful. Once you pass a certain threshold, that’s a challenge in itself. If you can’t find something you packed away somewhere, it effectively no longer exists, and that costs money and creates waste. Organization is handy, but space constraints sometimes put a crimp in that. Not everything can stay clustered together in bins and closets.

The thing that keeps me from getting unbearably haughty about living full-time as a cheapskate in a mid-size travel trailer is my discovery that once you cover the basics of food, shelter, warmth and amusement (like writing for this blog), then anything over that does not really add much to personal happiness. Personal happiness can’t be improved by acquiring more stuff. Old news, I know, but some things you have to prove out see if they actually apply to you personally. Once you have the basics covered, ladling on more things doesn’t really affect quality of life, no matter what the ads say. You don’t need the latest gizmo, the latest upgrade, the look, the image, the toy, or anything else that promises what it can’t deliver. It has to be in you already, right from the get-go.

Fundamental happiness aids one’s ability to bounce back from setbacks and to view problems with a perception that is more influenced by the longer view. Problems no longer dominate thoughts, and no longer look like showstoppers. They are nuisances to be gotten over with in order to devote more of one’s energies into greater goals. As one who has a “melancholy” temperament mixed with a healthy splash of “phlegmatic” (which sounds like a respiratory problem), finding handles on this kind of thing is groundbreaking stuff for me. This basically “glass half-empty” baseline means that it takes a conscious effort for me to see past a myriad of problematic details and see the big picture. It’s work to get to that point – for me.

What helps? Less stuff. Once past reasonable basics, having more stuff and more services signups merely introduces more distractions, more upkeep, and more expenses to deal with. If you have all that you need to be happy and satisfied, more can actually be counterproductive. You have to find a way to earn more, and find the time to deal with more. That takes additional resources and energy, and staying busy does not equate to staying on-purpose. It’s hard to live deliberately and make sound, undistracted choices when you’re struggling to keep up with the Joneses or look good to your peers. It can be difficult to resist the relentless tides of fad and fashion, because they promise that you will be a better you. In actuality, they distract you from being your true self, and from living purposefully.

So, am I advocating living a minimalistic lifestyle? Uh, no. Packrat-ism, recovering or otherwise, is a world apart from minimalism. To me, there are parallels in many extremisms. A fashion and makeup junkie or “he who dies with the most toys wins” addict likes to likes to show off the latest and greatest. They tend to think it defines them. So does the extreme minimalist, only in reverse. They take great pride in bragging about what they don’t have. I’m talking about having what you need – by your own measurement – and not a whole lot more than that. And I used the word need, not want.

I’m talking about being yourself and living more in alignment with your dreams, whatever they may be. If that’s summer and winter homes and vacations in Vail, so be it. Just notice however, that if you were stripped of these add-ons, that the parties you’re invited to would diminish, since it’s because of affluence and influence that you were invited. It’s much more rewarding to be invited to a gathering just because of the kind of person you are. You can’t lose who you are, regardless of fads or the economy or your financial resources. You can mask it with add-ons and lose track of it completely, but the real you is always in there somewhere. That’s worth pursuing, don’t you think? Do you have a dream for your life? Since time is finite, are you making room in your life for it?

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10 thoughts on “Packrat Purgatory

  1. Man how I relate to this post……I’m selling two of my three personal homes….they were mostly storage sheds for my planned retirement of homesteading a farm and my hobby of restoring old cars into hotrods….
    My brother and I have spent years preparing for our dream retirement only to find we both have health issues that prevent all the hard work we had planned on…lol
    So now that I have found RVing is so helpful for me and my health I’m downsizing.
    I have been a hoarder of sorts so cleaning house is a real pain…..and there is the emotional factor of what if I need this????
    I’m packing my 5th wheeler and as I look at it I have to wonder if the axels can handle all the stuff I want to pack into!!!!

    I just finished a plumbing repair….leaking water lines at the water heater.
    Please check out my latest projects with the trailer…solar, water lines


    • I hear ya, brother. Thanks for commenting. Preparation work aside, you just may find that RVing lowers your overall stress – it did mine, and that’s the only point of reference I have. “What if I need this” is what keeps my rig as stuffed as it is, and additional experience may just slim that down a bit. Felt good, finally after Year One, giving my Sawzall to a good friend who could use it. Anyone restoring old cars as a hobby is a packrat on steroids, so my hat is off to you. I really like your blog (bookmarked it), and can say with confidence that you are going to be one popular guy wherever you camp! Once you hit the road, I’ll be hoping to cross paths.

  2. Hey Doug! The clock is ticking down on the kick-off for our plans. 2 years from now retire, get rid of everything and Susan & I plan on traveling the world with no more than 4 suitcases each. We firmly believe we can do it. How well did Ebay work for divesting yourself of goods?. I worry it may be more trouble than it is worth. Advice?

    • My head spins whenever I hear your “4 suitcases” plan, though if you’re going to travel instead of reside, that’s the way to go. Even to move to a house, shipping stuff could be very disappointing. I’d hesitate to use eBay or Craigslist for more ordinary household items if I was under the gun, as it can be overwhelming to keep track of everything and deal with the nice folks who bid and then don’t pay up or show up. I consider most everyday items to not be worth it. Some guy happily bought the hot tub on Craigslist for good money, and hauled it away. I also Freecycled some desks and office partitions that were virtually worthless, but too large and heavy for me to move. A lot of folks there are dealers who think they can resell it, and I let it be their problem. I only used eBay to get rid of my film cameras and old R/C model car equipment, because it was worth surprisingly good money there. If I’d donated them to Goodwill, most of them they don’t have the clientele to ever buy it. It’d eventually be landfill. Meagan & Tom are pretty good for item by item advice. What an exciting countdown you have!

  3. Hi,

    I found your blog from comment over at Bob’s Cheaper Living website. Congrats on the one year! I was laughing so hard I was crying reading this. You are a great writer! I’m in the process of downsizing and what a pain it is. I feel the need to keep everything just in case and I know for sure that is not going to work in a small rv or van. The longer it takes the more I want to toss in the garbage or donate.


    • Thanks for coming on over and commenting, Tina, and flattery will get you everywhere around here! Yes, the abstract concept of downsizing is a pleasure, while the process of doing it feels like an opportunity to make serious blunders. It may or may not help to step back repeatedly and ask yourself, “what do I want to be able to do in this thing, and what will I probably not care about, realistically?” As far as a lot of stuff goes, I kept picturing my probable daily life (as best I could imagine it), asking myself whether this item would seem quite so important to me out on the road. It’s not for everyone, but I’m a big believer in having a Plan B, or a backup of some kind in case one of the critical trailer systems goes down. A little spare water or way to access some from the source, some candles, some alternate source of heat. That has proved its value. Still, the mental tyranny of “just in case” really can drive you nuts during downsizing. Eventually, in frustration, you say, “to hell with it!” and chuck it or throw it in the Donate box. Odds are about 90% that you’ll never even remember it again, let alone need it. Maybe I should do a post on how a van is an entirely different animal from a small RV, and not just in space available. The “life support” systems are not very similar. That affects downsizing choices going in. Maybe that post should be sooner than later…

      • Michael on said:

        Yes, Doug, as someone who hasn’t yet made the leap into mobile living, but has been considering either a van or a small RV, I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the differences.

        One thought I’ve been trying to get more clear on is the seeming paradox between space and weight availability in RV vs. van. I’ve read that most RVs are so loaded down with heavy built-in furniture and appliances, etc., that there’s not much cargo weight allowance remaining. Still, they do have a good deal of space (especially if one isn’t too careful about piling stuff on couches, etc. A 1-ton (or even a 3/4 ton) van, by contrast, has plenty of weight capacity for hauling one’s stuff, but the space available is far more limited than an RV. What have you found?


        • Michael, I’ve found just what you describe. Actually, thanks to Tina, I’m about halfway through a painfully long post on the basic choices from a strengths/weaknesses viewpoint based on what I’ve seen personally, rather than a purely generic abstract. It will hopefully help people who are starting with open choices to knock out some of the unsuitable ones.

  4. Hi Doug,

    I would also like to hear what you have to say about a van and RV. What is really pushing me to get a van is I don’t have to deal with all the “house” things that can go wrong and need to be fixed. It would be less expensive to get a cargo van and customize it. The space in an RV or trailer sure is nice, but having to tow it just stresses me out thinking about it.

    I have some land in NM that I plan on having a little cabin built. Then I can leave the items I don’t have room to take on the road with me. And when I need a place to just stay put for a while I don’t have to worry about it.


    • That little cabin thing sounds kinda nice, Tina! A place to venture out from when it’s too hot or too cold, depending on its altitude. If you already have a decent tow vehicle, the additional costs of a used van versus a used travel trailer can be similar. But you also point out one of the drawbacks of a travel trailer or motorhome: the “systems”. I’m getting into that a bit in the upcoming post, and I’m also lumping vans and converted cargo trailers into the same basket, because each offers the freedom to have rudimentary systems that are unlikely to fail the way more sophisticated and convenient RV systems do. Give me a few days to spit out the post though, as the weather here is such that I can’t in good conscience pound my office battery pack all day. (I write slowly, and have to dig through a vast wad of photos.) By the way, towing a small TT or cargo trailer with good ground clearance is not too much of a challenge. It’s the big ones that will get you on edge at times. Still, with seasonal touring, you just may not need a comfy trailer when a van will do nicely.

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