Cross country move on a budgetLike most people, I’m not a big fan of moving. It’s just exhausting.

But for someone who hates moving so much, I sure do move a lot. A few years ago, I made a big move from Texas to California. I’d saved up a small “Relocation Fund” in case I couldn’t find work when I got here. I needed to make that money last as long as possible. So I had to relocate for as cheap as possible. Here’s how I did it.

Pare Down…Strategically

I wanted to take as little with me as possible. Of course, “as little as possible” turned into more than I expected. If you make a list of all of your stuff, chances are, you have way more junk than you realize.

Some cross country movers advise getting rid of everything to make the move really cost-effective. But I’ll be honest–I had a hard time doing that. There were a lot of items I decided to keep, because I felt it would be wasteful to get rid of them altogether and shop for new stuff later.

Still, I wanted to travel as lightly as I could. The less I had, the cheaper it’d be to relocate.

Typically, I don’t have trouble letting go of stuff. But there were a few items I wavered over leaving behind. So I used a basic rule-of-thumb when deciding what to get rid of. With each item I had trouble letting go of, I asked myself: Will I likely buy a replacement in the next two years?

If the answer was yes, I left it behind. At that point in my life, most of my belongings were Ikea cheapies and garage sale/curbside finds. So I said “yes” to a lot of stuff.

Think Beyond U-Haul

Are PODS still popular? They certainly were when I was planning my move. In case you’re in the dark, PODS are mobile storage units you can fill with stuff and  send to your new address. They seemed convenient, so I considered them. And then I found out they cost a small fortune. So I started looking for other options.

Everyone’s go-to moving solution seems to be U-Haul. For my cross country move, U-Haul was still an expensive option. With the mileage expense, the cheapest truck I could find would cost me nearly $1,000 total.  (If you have few belongings, you might consider hitching a U-Haul trailer to your car for a cheaper rate.)

Despite my purging, there were a few pieces of furniture I planned to take with me. As mentioned, I didn’t want to blow my budget on new furniture once I got to California. So I had to weigh my options. I started researching other truck rental services: Budget, Ryder, and Penske. Penske offered a rate of $450. No extra for mileage. We filled it with my crap, and we hit the road.

Collect Packing Materials Early

One thing I was damn sure not going to buy for this move: boxes. After working in retail and seeing how many boxes just get tossed out, I can’t bring myself to spend money on boxes.

But I’m also not a big fan of dumpster diving. So I started saving boxes at work. I checked with different departments and asked if they could set them aside for me. I asked friends and family, too. To ensure I’d have enough, I asked early on–maybe four months away from my big move. I also started saving newspapers. By the time I had to start packing, I had plenty of boxes and packing material to use.

Related: Brokepedia’s Guide to Saving Money on Travel

Prepare for Hidden Costs

I’m an organizational freak, so I love lists. I make a lot of lists. I make lists of lists I want to make.

So as soon as I decided to make a cross-country move, I started listing all of the extra costs. Of course, there were obvious expenses: an apartment deposit, moving costs, etc. But there were a lot of smaller expenses that added up, too. For example:

  • Vaccinations and required health documentation for my cat to travel

  • DMV costs for a new California driver’s license and vehicle registration

  • Deposits and connection fees for utilities

What I Wish I Did Differently

Overall, I was happy with the cost of my move, considering how expensive it could’ve been. I ended up spending much less than I anticipated. But there are still a few things I wish I’d done differently:

Stocked up on cheap(er) stuff

Everyday stuff seems to cost a little more in California, plus, sales tax is higher than it was in my home state. I kind of wish I would’ve stocked up on some pricier, evergreen items–batteries, for example.

Also, there are products I used to use that I can’t seem to find here. My go-to face cream, for example, was four bucks at the H-E-Bs in Texas (I miss you, H-E-B). Here in L.A., my face cream is nowhere to be found. We don’t use face cream here, we just buy new faces. Kidding! (kinda.) I can order it online, but then I have to pay shipping and state sales tax. Thankfully, my mom is lovely enough to send me my favorite Texas goodies every now and then.

Timed my move better

I moved during the summer. On a weekend. Chances are, I could’ve saved money on quite a few things by timing my move better:

  • Gas/Air conditioning

  • Hotels

  • Truck rental

Mapped out my gas trips

Oh, if only I were as frugal as I am now. I would’ve mapped out my gas stops. I might have even purchased discounted gas gift cards.

Taken advantage of my employer 401(k) match

When I decided to move and switch careers, I knew I might end up being a self-employed freelancer. But I didn’t think what that might mean for my retirement. Looking back, I wish I would’ve taken more advantage of my employer’s 401(k) match. After all, that was free money. And I love free money. Womp womp.

Sure, a cross country move is a big pain in the ass. But it’s also incredibly exciting. Moving to a new place? With new scenery? New neighborhoods, new friends? That’s pretty amazing. A lot of planning and a little outside-the-box thinking can help keep a cross country move the exciting milestone it should be.

Photo: graham


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Kristin writes and makes videos about money, the economy, travel, and more. You can find her stuff at Lifehacker, New York Magazine, the New York Times, and more. Learn more about her here.