“Don’t do your PhD at the same university you went to for your bachelor’s, and don’t postdoc at the same university you got your PhD from. You need to demonstrate success in multiple environments.” I heard this advice many times during my PhD training, and this is the path I followed: I did my undergrad in California, my postbac in Maryland, my PhD in North Carolina, a fellowship in DC, and now I live in Washington (for my husband’s first post-PhD Real Job). While there are certainly some PhDs who choose to stay in one certain city or region, the norm is to move a couple times or many times, even internationally. All this moving takes significant time and money to execute, especially once you start collecting possessions you actually want to retain. This article outlines how you can plan and prepare for a frugal long-distance move so that you minimize the cost to you in money, time, and stress.
How Much Will Your Move Cost?
The price of a move runs the gamut from quite inexpensive at a few hundred dollars to quite expensive at several thousand or even on the order of $10,000 once all costs are accounted for. The main factors are:
- the distance,
- how many people and how much stuff you’re moving,
- how much labor you choose to outsource, and
- the wind-down and start-up costs in each city.
On one end of the scale, if you’re a single person and your possessions amount to a suitcase and a box, moving will be fairly inexpensive, perhaps a few hundred dollars for the transportation and whatever your start-up costs are in your new city (e.g., up-front rent and deposits).
On the other end of the scale, if you’re moving your family and all your stuff from a full house, your transportation costs will be quite high, your wind-down and start-up costs may be high, and you may choose to outsource some of the labor associated with moving to keep it time-efficient.
Buying and selling homes also add layers of expenses that I will not cover in this article.
Components of a Long-Distance Move
Long-distance moves can be expensive both in their direct costs and lost income.
The expense components of your move include:
- Transporting yourself/your family, including housing and feeding in transit
- Transporting your possessions, including storage in the new city if necessary
- Transporting your car(s)
- Packing materials and labor
- Wind-down expenses for your old residence
- Start-up expenses for your new residence, including scouting trips if necessary
- Unpacking labor
It’s also vital to plan for the income side of the equation. How much time will you take off between the end of your current position and the start of your next position and what does that translate to in missing dollars from your typical income? How much will maintaining your health insurance cost during that period up until you are covered by your new position?
There is often a trade-off between time and money when it comes to moving. Fast transportation costs more than slow transportation for long-distance moves, but slower transportation may necessitate more time away from work. It costs more to outsource labor such as packing, but if it allows you to take fewer days away from work it may be worthwhile.
When and How to Plan a Frugal Long-Distance Move
Moving long-distance is a major project with many moving pieces, so you should start your planning as soon as you know where you’re headed (if not before!).
Where Will You and Your Stuff Go?
Determine where your new home will be or at least when you will decide where to live.
This requires researching the housing market local to your new position.
If you plan to rent, figure out approximately when you need to sign a lease relative to your start date. The answer may be “not until you arrive in the city” or “several months in advance.” Know that you will have to conduct your housing search in earnest in the month or weeks leading up to that time, which may involve an additional trip to the new city.
If you plan to buy prior to your arrival, it’s never too early to start familiarizing yourself with the housing market and choosing a realtor.
Of course, finding appropriate housing is enormously important to your life and finances, but determining when you will take possession of your new residence will likely impact the method(s) you choose for transporting yourself and your stuff. Namely, when you and your stuff arrive in your new city, where will you/it go? Do you need to arrange for storage for your stuff and lodging for yourself for a period of time before you take possession of your new home?
How Will You and Your Stuff Get There?
Tackle the transportation question. You, your possessions, and your car(s) might travel together or separately, so there are a lot of combinations of methods available. Consider the cost, time, and stress involved in each method.
Ways to transport yourself/your family:
- Car (yours or a rental)
- Cab of a moving truck
Ways to move your possessions:
- In a car (yours or a rental)
- Moving truck/trailer driven by professionals
- Moving truck or trailer driven by you
- Shipping (mail, bus, plane)
- Luggage with you while traveling
Ways to move your car(s):
- Drive it yourself
- Trail it behind a moving truck
- Ship it
- Hire a driver
Some of the simplest combinations of methods for long-distance moves are:
- Fast and expensive, lots of stuff: Fly yourself with luggage and hire professionals to move your possessions and your car
- Fast and inexpensive, little stuff: Drive yourself and your possessions in your car or a rental car
- Fast and inexpensive, lots of stuff: Drive yourself and your possessions in a rented moving truck trailing your car
- Slow an inexpensive, little stuff: Fly yourself with luggage and ship your possessions
- Slow and inexpensive, lots of stuff: Drive your own car with possessions, ship remaining possessions in a pod or boxes
There are many transportation configurations possible, so settle on the one that best conforms with your desired amount of time off, how much money you have available for the move, and the degree you want to be involved with the transportation of your possessions. Be sure to get quotes from several providers of each service you are considering.
Settle on the Dates and Book Everything
Negotiate and finalize your end date for your current position and the start date for your new position. If you are using a professional moving service at any stage, book them as soon as you know the dates. Some services book out weeks and months in advance, and the summer is the busy season.
Prepare for the Move Logistically and Financially
Use the months and weeks leading up to your departure date to prepare for the move to make the final days as smooth as possible.
1) Designate a moving fund
In an ideal situation, you will pay for your move with cash, even if it will later be reimbursed by your employer. Set aside the total amount of money you expect to spend on the move, start-up expenses, etc. plus an extra 10% or more for unexpected expenses.
The more time you have leading up to the move, the more opportunity you have to redirect some of your ongoing savings rate or to earn additional money through side hustling.
If paying for your move with cash is not possible, carefully consider the least damaging type of debt available to you, e.g., a personal bank loan or a 0% interest credit card, and make a plan to pay it off as soon as possible with your new paycheck.
2) Start collecting moving materials for free
You’ll likely need at least some moving materials, e.g., boxes, packing material, tape. Boxes can be readily sources for free in your community. Ask nearby grocery and liquor stores when the best day is to pick up their excess boxes. You can also check craigslist, Freecycle, and Buy Nothing for free boxes. Collect boxes from these sources regularly over the weeks leading up to your move so that you can cover most or all of your needs. Don’t expect to find all the free boxes you need the day before you start packing!
If you end up buying new boxes, consider reselling them once you’ve finished with them to recoup some of your costs.
Packing material is more difficult to reuse so you can check some of the same sources for free material but you may need to buy some of your own.
3) Pare down your possessions
Generally speaking, the less stuff you have to move, the less expensive your move will be. Of course, if you sell vital possessions, there will be a cost to acquire them again in your new city. But think of your move as an opportunity to declutter and make sure you only retain what is most useful and/or important to you.
The possessions that you use frequently will have to be packed up or disposed of last, but in the time leading up to your move, you can go through your less frequently used possessions and either pack them or get rid of them. Selling your possessions is a great way to pad your moving fund, and the more time you give yourself in this process, the more likely you are to be able to sell your stuff. You can also give away your possessions that still have life in them through Buy Nothing or Freecycle or donate them to nonprofit organizations like Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, etc. Your possessions without remaining value can be recycled or, as a last resort, put in the garbage.
Execute the Move
All your planning and preparation will pay off once you start your move! In the final days leading up to your departure, you will pack everything up and clean your old residence. It will take a lot of work so don’t try to cram it into too little time. If your movers show up and you aren’t fully packed, they will pack for you and charge you an arm and a leg!
A couple final tips:
- Make sure to pack the things you will need during your move or upon getting into your new place separately and/or with clear labels. You don’t want to have to open all your boxes to find a saucepan or your work clothes!
- Be prepared to spend above your normal levels on food as you pack and unpack your kitchen and as you devote your free time to packing instead of cooking.
- Enlist your friends and family to help with packing and even childcare while you pack. (But return the favor when you have the opportunity!)
To hear my personal story of how my husband and I moved cross-country for his first post-PhD Real Job (not very frugally!), listen to my podcast episode dropping 5/27/2019!