At the beginning of my nomadism I owned exactly one box of books, one tub of clothing, a set of backpacking gear, two shoeboxes of memorabilia, a daypack, and a laptop. Everything fit nicely into the back of my little 1990 Honda Civic.
My personal possessions, circa 2005
Now, at age 33, I own more clothing, more books, more memorabilia, a lot more backpacking gear, two boxes of business documents, kitchen gear, a printer, a guitar, a snowboard, tree climbing gear, and a bike. And it all fits nicely into a five-by-ten-foot storage unit for which I pay 32 dollars a month.
Your strategy for dealing with stuff will depend on how much you own, your lifestyle, and the goodwill of the friends and family in your life. Three approaches to consider:
- Take everything you own with you, everywhere you go
- Keep unused possessions at your parents’ or friends’ houses
- Keep unused gear in a storage unit
Taking everything you own with you works well for minimalists who 1) own a car and 2) find themselves migrating between different work locations where they can let their possessions explode into each new living space. I did this for four years as an outdoor educator. When I wasn’t living a car-based life, I left my car (and all my stuff) at my parents’ house. This strategy doesn’t work if you don’t own a car or if you need to park your car in high-theft areas.
Keeping stuff at a parent’s or friend’s house is a straightforward and inexpensive storage strategy when you’re getting started as a nomad, but I don’t recommend it in the long-term. Why? Because I think you can compromise the relationship with your parents or friends by using them as a storage depot. They might generously offer the space in the beginning, but down the line, they may no longer know if you’re visiting because you actually want to see them, or if you really just want to access your stuff. For this reason, I’ve only stored belongings at other people’s houses for brief periods of time.
Keeping stuff in a storage unit is the most honorable long-term strategy and the logical next step after you’ve realized that your nomadism isn’t a passing phase. A 5-by-5 or a 5-by-10 unit will do the trick for most people. Prices vary wildly, trending with the local cost of living. I’ve paid $25–$100 per month for 5-by-10 units in California and Oregon. With a storage unit, you always know where your stuff is, you know that no one is touching it, and you’re not bothering anyone when you come and go.
A few more strategies for dealing with your stuff:
Follow the Car Rule for as long as you can. Restrict yourself to only owning what can fit in your car. This makes migration between locations or storage units a much more reasonable prospect. Follow this link to see how I packed all my stuff into my Subaru Forester in 2014: http://bit.ly/blake-subaru.
After the Car Rule, follow the 5×10 rule. Don’t own anything that can’t fit into a storage unit. After a decade of following the car rule, I finally graduated to the 5×10 rule. It was the bike that pushed me over.
Avoid owning bulky possessions like furniture that make self-storage expensive and migration difficult.
Ruthlessly trim your possessions that 1) you haven’t used in the past year and 2) aren’t deeply significant memorabilia like photos or love letters. For me, this means periodically donating my accumulated books and clothing to charity.
Digitize all important documents like medical records, passport, tax documents, birth certificate, etc., so that you don’t need to return to your storage unit to access them.
Dealing with a Car
Unless you’re spending all your time traveling abroad, hopping between Alaskan Fisherman Model jobs, or migrating exclusively between dense urban areas, you’re going to need a car. Most nomads consider it a crucial part of their personal freedom (I certainly do). Here are a few strategies for dealing with one:
Don’t worry about registering your car in a new state until you’re sure you will be there for a long time. I’ve had out-of-state plates on my car for three to 12 months at various points. Technically you’re supposed to register your car within 30 days of moving to a new state, but what does “moving” mean if you’re only going to be around for four months or so? I’ve never gotten into trouble for failing to register in a new state, nor has any other nomad I know. One exception: if you’re going to park it unattended on the street (e.g., outside your parent’s house) for a long time, neighbors will get more suspicious if it has out-of-state plates.
When you leave your car with a friend or parent for a long time, ask them to drive it once every few weeks (for the health of the car) and, if it’s living on the street, to re-park it in a noticeably different location so that neighbors don’t think it’s abandoned. Lastly, call your car insurance company to see if you can save money by downgrading your coverage—but remember that if someone else will be driving your car, you need to maintain at least basic liability coverage because insurance follows the car, not the driver.
Having (or Faking) a Permanent Address
Perhaps the easiest way to make a nomad squirm is to ask for their “permanent address” or “physical address.” What an antiquated notion, we protest! But until we enter the age of fully-digital identities, we’ll need to continue appeasing the banks, government agencies, and other institutions that want to designate a single point on this earth where they can send us angry letters if we really piss them off.
Here are some ways to deal with this:
Go digital/paperless whenever possible. If you’re receiving paper bank statements or cell phone bills, you’re giving yourself an unnecessary headache. If you read magazines, get the digital version. There’s very little in this day and age that must happen via postal mail.
Use a mail forwarding service’s address as your permanent address. (I explain what a mail forwarding service is just below.) All of my banks, credit cards, and the IRS send mail to my forwarding service, which I can access from anywhere in the world.
For state-based business registrations, provide an in-state address (of a friend or family member) but designate the mailing address to be your mail forwarding address. Alternatively, hire a “registered agent” to act as your in-state address for legal purposes (google that phrase to learn more).
When you must have a physical address, use a parent’s or trusted friend’s address. I’ve only had to do this with the DMV and state-based healthcare, neither of which will let me designate an out-of-state mailing address. Oh well—can’t win them all. Thanks, dad.
The Power and Magic of Mail Forwarding Services
I initially received my (very minimal) mail at my dad’s house. Later I had it sent to a friend’s house in Oregon that I visited a few times a year. I didn’t ask either my parent or friend to play postmaster and notify me anytime something new arrived; they simply accumulated the mail, and I picked it up every once in a while. This works for a lot of nomads, and it worked for me for a long time.
Then came the IRS debacle.
In 2011 my business accountant made a simple error, and the IRS sent me a letter demanding thousands of dollars that I didn’t actually owe. This letter sat at my friend’s house in Oregon for months while I was leading a teen adventure in South America. The IRS became increasingly irate, sent more letters, and began threatening interest charges for late payment. When my friend finally noticed and forwarded me a scan, I suffered a few days of terrible stress at the prospect of financial armageddon.
My accountant cleared up the mistake, but this wasn’t a situation I ever wanted to be in again. I needed more control over my postal life, and I didn’t want to ask my friends or family to vet every letter that showed up in their mailbox. I wasn’t compensating them for this not-very-fun task, after all, and as with storing my stuff, I didn’t want to visit them only to collect my mail.
That’s when I discovered mail forwarding services—one of the most useful tools in my nomadic life. I use a company called Mailbox Forwarding; another company, Earth Class Mail, is their main competitor. Both cost around $20 a month.
Here’s how these mail forwarding services work. First, you sign a one-page U.S. Postal Service form that gives the company legal permission to accept and open mail on your behalf. They give you a street address (mine’s in Michigan) with a private mailbox number, and you start having your mail sent there. When a new piece arrives, they scan the front of it and email you the scan. Then you can ask them to open the mail and scan the pages inside, which they also email you. How cool is that!? You can also have them forward your mail to any address in the world for a small fee, shred mail, and even deposit checks for you. And they filter out junk mail automatically.
Mail forwarding has enabled me to stay on top of my mail wherever I am in the world. It’s proven invaluable for receiving, digitizing, and confirming paperwork sent to me for my teen adventure trips. It means that I’m not giving my parents’ or friends’ address out to the world and potentially subjecting them to junk mail on my behalf. Obviously, I’m a convert. That’s why I say: If you get a lot of mail, and you can afford a forwarding service, get one. Good nomads don’t shove the practical responsibilities of life—mail, cars, and stuff—onto other people.