Downsize your home to live on a boat - 6 steps to help you get started

Want to downsize your home to live on a boat?

Every liveaboard sailor and cruiser has gone through the painstaking process of sifting through their worldly possessions to decide what goes on the boat and what goes somewhere else.

It’s one of the most difficult things you’ll ever have to do. Not physically so much as emotionally. Which is why so many people put it off.

It’s funny how things like your blender, rowing machine, or Beanie Baby collection might be delaying your dream of moving aboard and sailing away.

Mel and I have lived on a boat since 2012. As bloggers, we get dozens of emails from people who are preparing to become full-time liveaboards. They ask for advice on everything from anchors to zip ties. 

They’ve taken the navigation courses, got certified in CPR and First Aid, and have watched every YouTube sailing channel and read everything ever written from the Pardeys to John Kretschmer.

But when we ask if they’ve begun downsizing, we hear responses like:

“Oh, we’ll do that once the house sells.”
“We’re afraid to go into the garage.”
“We have no idea where to begin.” 

It’s understandable. As a society, we’ve accumulated so much stuff that the idea of going through it, sorting it, and donating or throwing it away is so overwhelming that many never even attempt it. 

A University of California study revealed that women’s stress hormones spike when they are tasked with decluttering their home. The emotional and physical effects that dealing with clutter exacts on the mind and body keeps many people stuck. 

Here are some other startling facts:

  • 25% of American homeowners can’t fit a single car inside their two-car garage 
  • The average American spends over 6 hours a week (~13 days per year), looking for things they know they own, but can’t find 
  • And 80% of what we own, we never even use 

So before we get into the tips on how to downsize, it’s important to understand why it’s so hard on a fundamental and psychological level.


Understanding Our Attachment to Stuff

In 1932, Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget published a study that determined our attachment to stuff begins shortly after birth.

It strengthens through adolescence and into adulthood, where we link our stuff directly to who we are and what we’ve achieved in life. Cars, jewelry, and clothes accentuate our personalities. Houses become beacons of success. 

In the 1960s, behavioral economist Richard Thaler discovered what he called, the Endowment Effect, which states that we ascribe more value to things simply because we own them.

He found that people will actually pay more to keep something they already own than they paid for it initially, even when there is no reason for the attachment.

A clear example of this is when people put their stuff in storage, where they’ll pay thousands of dollars a year to keep things they probably don’t even remember are in there.

Why We Get So Sentimental With Items

How to downsize your home to live on a boat: 6 steps to get started want to downsize your home to live on a boat? %

The hardest part when it comes to downsizing your home is usually parting ways with sentimental items.

Maybe you’re having a hard time letting go of the old tools Uncle Frank gave you. Uncle Frank taught you how to sail. Without him, you might not even be considering this incredible adventure of living aboard and sailing to exotic places.

You’ve attached the memory and those positive emotions to the object. It reminds you of those early days. You just can’t give it away or you’d be giving away the memory as well. Right?

Let me to tell you, Uncle Frank is not in that lawnmower. The memory is yours. It belongs to you, not the object itself. 

If you can’t let go of it entirely, take a photo of Uncle Frank’s gravy boat and create a folder on your computer labeled “Memories.” You’ll always be able to look at the photo and connect to the memories associated with dear Uncle Frank.  

It doesn’t stop there. Not only do we attach people and positive memories to our stuff, we attach future hopes and dreams. The oil paints and easel you’ve kept in the attic for 20 years represent what could be. Someday, I’m going to start painting again

Your shoe or watch collection may remind you of a time when you were financially successful. Whatever it may be, these are all real emotions that can be processed in a healthy way. 

I touch on all of this and more in my book, Downsizing for Tiny Life: Go From a House Full of Stuff to a Life Full of Adventure.  And right now, I’m going to give you a sneak peek at my 6 easy tasks to help you start downsizing today. 

By the end of task 6, you’ll be so good at breaking up with your stuff, you might even make a break-up playlist. 

6 Steps to Help You Downsize Your Home

How to downsize your home to live on a boat: 6 steps to get started want to downsize your home to live on a boat? %

Step 1: Create Four Piles

Simple. In the guest room or the garage, doesn’t matter. One pile is labeled “KEEP.” One is labeled “SELL.” One is labeled “DONATE.” The last is labeled “TRASH.” From now on, whatever you come across during this process goes into one of these piles.

Some advise a fifth pile for items you’re going to put in storage. If you’re going all in, I don’t believe in paying to store items unless absolutely necessary. You’ll spend a lot of money to realize you lived just fine without them. 

Step 2: Gather Your Luggage, Gym Bags, and Purses

Go into your attic, basement or closet and gather up those dusty old suitcases and gym bags. Half of them have broken zippers or missing straps.

Ladies, I know you have purses in that closet that you rarely use but just can’t get rid of. They might only match one outfit. Gather them up! Put them in one of the four piles in Step 1.

Step 3: Pull Your Doubles

Downsize your home kitchen items

Start in the kitchen. Open every cabinet and drawer. Pull out all of your stuff. You’ll be amazed at what you have doubles of.

Keep only what you need. Pots for cooking, enough place settings for however many of you there are (and maybe a guest or two).

Put the doubles in one of the four piles in Step 1. Put the rest (i.e. what you think you’ll need) and put it in a box as if you’re moving. We’ll tell you exactly what to do with those boxes in Step 5. 

Step 4: Build a Capsule Wardrobe

Downsize your home with a capsule wardrobe

A capsule wardrobe will change your life. Organization bloggers, minimalists, and fashion experts have known this secret for years.

Simply put, you minimize your wardrobe so that you have no more than 30-40 items. After all, we only wear about 20% of what we own.

The key is to keep (or purchase) items that mix and max with eachother to create a myriad of outfits for all seasons. You can do this by choosing neutrals for your base items (black, white, khaki, grey) and then more colorful pieces for outerwear or accessories (cardigans, scarves, jackets).

Shoes and outerwear count toward your 30-40 items. Workout clothing, pajamas, and underwear don’t.

Try it for three months without buying anything new. You’ll be amazed how much mileage you get out of a pair of khaki shorts or a nice grey cardigan. 

We recommend reading The Curated Closet, a great book on building a capsule wardrobe.

Step 5: Pretend It’s Gone

Once you’ve separated your items into your piles, put everything not in the KEEP pile in the garage or a spare room. For one week. You’re going to pretend these items are gone forever.

If you decide during that week that you absolutely, positively can’t live without something, go get it from the bin. But have some self-control here. Think about the big picture.

At the one-week mark, trash, sell, or donate everything.   

Step 6: Go Digital

For boaters, this is a game changer. Music and books are easily converted. I know e-readers are unromantic, but let’s be honest — we can’t keep 100 books onboard. They get damp. They mold. It’s not pretty.

Save your magazine tear sheets and recipes to Pinterest or Evernote. Consolidate whatever you can into the digital world. The cloud is your friend. 

Your Belongings Do Not Define You

All of our lives, we’ve been programmed and conditioned to believe that our stuff defines who we are. Reprogramming can be uncomfortable, but it’s not impossible. And it doesn’t have to negatively affect your health or your relationships. In fact, quite the opposite. 

Once you get out from under all that clutter, you’ll see the benefits physically, emotionally, and even financially. Aside from that, donating to schools or local veterans groups makes you feel great. 

When we downsized our home to live on a boat, we found a single mom in our neighborhood. Seeing her eyes light up when I handed her nearly-new kitchen appliances put it all into perspective for us.

We downsized our 2-bedroom house (plus guest house and storage shed) to a 35’ sailboat where we still had empty cubbies! 

I know what you’re feeling. I’ve felt your fears. Trust me, once you go through this process, you’ll look back at your former cluttered life and wonder how you ever tolerated it. 

More Resources if You Want to Downsize Your Home

For even more tips on how to downsize your home, here are some resources:

Get our book: Downsizing For Tiny Life: From a House Full of Stuff to a Life Full of Adventure. This is our signature step-by-step method for doing some extreme downsizing.

Enroll in our online course: Downsizing For Life Afloat. This is based on the same strategy and principles as our book, but with more resources and personalized support via a Facebook community where you can ask questions, get encouragement, join challenges, and more.

No matter when you plan to live on a boat, it’s never too late to start simplifying. That way, when you do get ready to downsize your home, you’ll have a head start, and more importantly, it will be easier because you’ll already understand the psychology of attachment and it won’t be as hard to let things go.

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