Sell all your stuff

sell all you stuff

Last updated on May 7th, 2020

An interview with Al and Shelly McCullough

Vanessa recently took the opportunity to ask Al and Shelly McCullough of a few questions about their nomadic, minimalist lifestyle.

In 2014, Al and Shelly sold most of what they owned in Canada and headed for Panama. We found out how they dealt with the transition, how they overcame any obstacles along the way, and how house sitting now features in their lives. Their answers are fascinating, enlightening, and often very entertaining.


Vanessa: Was there a “light bulb” moment that initiated the plan to sell up and travel?

Al: I think it was when the company I was working at closed. It was yet another disappointment in a string of IT cubicle jobs for me. Downsized. Restructured. Company Closed. Clearly IT wasn’t where I was meant to be.

Shelly was the driving force behind the life change though. We had a “retire at 50” plan, which we changed to “Freedom 45”, then “40”. Finally we just said, “screw the plan – let’s just go!”

To answer the question, it wasn’t so much as a light bulb moment, but more a series of events that transpired, expediting the process.


Vanessa: What prompted the move from Canada to Panama?

Al: An easy transition in regards to spelling. Switch a ‘C’ with a ‘P’ and a ‘D’ with an ’M’ and you easily go from Canada to Panama.

In all honesty it was the lower cost of living, back when our Canadian dollar was much higher, so we could figure out what to be when we grew up, but moreover, to have some fun and enjoy life.

Too many people save for a retirement that doesn’t last that long (if they even make it to retirement). We weren’t looking for a retirement lifestyle, or to do intense backpacking travel across the world, we just wanted to do something totally different for us. That, and we wanted to escape Canadian winters – even if only temporarily.

We had visited a few parts of Panama in 2012 and loved it. It’s a beautiful country with something for everyone. Sure it has problems and faults, but so does any country. We poke fun at things that happen in Panama – as do many expats and locals – but it’s like that girl you have a crush on so you pull her hair. We do it out of love.

Vanessa: Did you sell your property as well as all your possessions?

Al: No. We opted to rent out that asset. We don’t make any money though – the bank still owns the home which means the rent covers the mortgage.

Vanessa: Have you always been minimalists at heart?

Al: Looking back, we think so. Even when we first started living together we always purged clothes each spring and fall to gain closet space. After we bought a home it seemed we would have a yard sale every so often to get rid of extra stuff we somehow accumulated
We don’t like to use a label of calling ourselves “minimalists” though. We tend to say “we live a minimalist lifestyle”. It seems there are some people that think there are rules to being a “minimalist” – Ha! We don’t think that way. It seems “judgy”. We just tell people to “do more stuff with less stuff and live a minimalist lifestyle”.

It also seems like it’s a buzz-word right now, but we probably are exemplary “minimalists” and it’s a lifestyle we don’t think we’d change. Having less stuff makes life much more simple, and it does allow us to do more too.

Vanessa: How easy or hard was the process of getting rid of stuff?

Al: Pretty easy actually. There were a few items we didn’t really want to let go of at first, but after we took a picture or two and started putting stuff up for sale we got hooked on selling stuff.

At times it could be frustrating – mostly with online ads. You’d get people say, “I’ll take that – be there by tonight at 6pm”, only to never show up or ever contact you again. Countless times that happened. And of course there are the insult offers – both online and at a yard sale. If something is listed at $100, chances are I’m not taking $20, so don’t start there.

The worksheets we created for our eBook, “Sell All Your Stuff and Move Abroad” were actually used in our process, which is why we included them. Our estate sale was very well organized, too, and we did have several people say so. Planning ahead for a move of that magnitude just made things easier.

Vanessa: What was the hardest thing to let go of?

Shelly: My Himalayan salt-lamp. I loved it and sold it for less than half of what we paid for it. Just stuff though, can’t let stuff hold you back. In hindsight I should have just given it to someone in the family.

Al: Not really anything. I didn’t sell my tools though and instead stored them at my sisters, in case I ever need them again. At least she’ll get to use them if necessary, or her kids will. Tools don’t hold value for some reason and I wasn’t going to have some schmoe offer me $10 for my cordless DEWALT drill. I’d rather see family get better use of stuff like that.

Vanessa: Do you have a secret stash of stuff in someone’s attic?

Al: Oops, jumped the gun! In addition to my tool stash above we have a few boxes of files, one photo album from our pre-digital-camera-era wedding, and some cold-weather clothes (boots and jackets) in case we have to return to Canada in the middle of winter.

Vanessa: Describe any emotional impact as a result of selling everything.

Al: The feeling of being free. It’s like a weight is lifted and you’re so much lighter – figuratively and physically. You realize you put all this money and effort into a lifestyle, and where did it get you? Buy a house, fill it with stuff, go to work to pay for said stuff. For what?

In the two years leading up to our move we often said we had too much house. It was a raised bungalow with well over 1600 sq ft (150 m2) of living space. Way too much for two people.

When we look back at the waste though, we don’t feel bad about it. Nor do we wish we had a flying Delorian to take us back in time to redo things. We’ve just learned from it – but that’s what life is all about. If we settle somewhere again we know we’ll do things TOTALLY different when it comes to “stuff”.

Vanessa: Did you get any negative feedback from family and friends?

Al: We lost contact with some friends and family completely, but whatever, stuff happens. For the most part people have been really positive about what we did, and are doing.

Our recent trip home was a nice reminder of that. Various family members put up with us for two weeks while we stayed with them.

Shelly’s brother let us use his car for a few days, urging us to put as many clicks on it as possible because the lease was coming up. And her parents let me tile their back-splash. So did my uncle actually. That was nice of them!

Vanessa: What’s the most positive outcome from selling all your stuff?

Al: We’re lighter and can move around almost at will. We don’t waste money on material items. We still buy stuff, but we think long and hard about how badly (or desperately) we need an item.

Sometimes we buy things that make moving around easier, like smaller luggage. Other times we just hold out as long as possible until we actually NEED something. Case in point – I needed a new pair of socks. I had three pairs as of October 2015. Then a dog ate one at a house sit. Just one sock – a Tilley brand too, and they’re expensive! I didn’t make that up either.

We later learned that the dog has a fetish for women’s undies too (thankfully none of Shelly’s). Thus, I was reduced to five socks in total, and two of those socks were in pretty rough shape and had no elasticity, so in reality, I had only three socks. Sadly, two of those were black, and one was white, so it’s not like I could mix, match or interchange the three either.

Well, I sucked it up recently and bought a 4-pack of socks for $10 CAD. If you know me or have read any of my bios, you’ll know I HATE SOCKS. That’s probably why it took so long.

So, yeah, that’s a positive outcome I guess. That, and we’re just more positive all round. We try to find a positive in any situation. We try not to judge. We try not to let things bother us anymore either. Except when it comes to socks!

Vanessa: How did or does house sitting feature in your travel adventures?

Al: It’s allowed us to live rent-free which has helped us start our business and build our brand. Contrary to popular belief, becoming a blogging sensation doesn’t happen overnight – and anyone telling you how they did just that is, “full of stuff”.

House sitting has also allowed us to envision not only where we can see ourselves living for a longer period of time, but what kind of home we’d prefer too. Oddly enough, one of our favorite house sits was an open-concept, one bedroom home with plenty of room for two people, but not excessive. And they had 3 dogs and 3 cats!

We think we’ll continue house sitting for a while longer, but even in the event we do settle again, we will still use house sitting as part of our travel plans whenever possible.

Vanessa: What’s the longest time you’ve spent anywhere since leaving Canada?

Al: We spent almost 18 months in Panama. Initially we lived free of charge as “Property Managers”, then we rented for about four months in town before some friends asked us to house sit for a further three months.

From there we bounced around expat homes in town for another two months, and then bounced around the greater Panama City area house sitting for the remainder of those 18 months – save a brief stint house sitting in Nicaragua and a few border runs to Costa Rica and Colombia.

Vanessa: How far ahead do you plan your life?

Al: We live life in three month intervals. It’s really based on where we’re house sitting, and most house sits aren’t too long in duration – three months is actually the longest we’ve done, so that’s how far out we plan.

Of course, we used to have this grand plan of working until we were 50 and then we’d retire early. That “plan” got thrown out the window after we moved to Panama. You don’t know what life is going to throw at you, so why save and save and plan and plan.

We’re all about planning when we need to though. Like our upcoming house sits in BC – we need to plan a few events and activities we want to do because blogging involves pitching companies for free stuff in return for a sponsored article (and an adorable stick man drawing, of course)!

Vanessa: Who is the creator of “stick man”?

Al: That was me. When we first started we weren’t sure if the stick man would stick around (pun totally intended). So many people have mentioned how much they enjoy him, that we’d never think of getting rid of him now.

We’re even wondering if we should have a contest to name him!

Vanessa: What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve made?

Al: One time we had to sacrifice three chickens, a goat, and a young virgin to an erupting volcano in Nicaragua. Hey, it’s their custom … kidding, it was only a goat and two chickens.

But I’d have to say for us we sacrificed comfort and routine. Comfort is such an easy thing to find when you think about it – especially the rat-race type of comfort. You know when and where your next paycheck is coming from. What time you need to go to work. The route to and from work, and how long it will take. What you’ll eat for dinner and when. Who to call to get something fixed. And no hassle returns at stores!

Routine is something we haven’t had since we left Canada for Panama. Every day in Panama offered a new experience – good or bad. As we’ve transitioned into this house sitting travel lifestyle, well, every house is different. Every animal is different. We do get into a routine at each house sit, but when that sit is over it’s time for a new routine.

We don’t have a lot of money, so we need to find ways to make it, and you need to draw on ALL of your skills to do so, which also means being flexible with your schedule.

Vanessa: Do you have a special piece of stuff that you can’t part with? Aside from electronics…

Shelly: YES! I have a massager called “the stick” and I take it everywhere! It’s small enough to fit in my suitcase and it comes in pretty handy after a long day of walking or sitting in a bus, plane or car for several hours.

Al: Hair clippers so Shelly can “cut” my hair. We did this while living in Canada before our move too. Haircuts for men cost about $5 in Panama, but in Canada they were about $15 to $20. So we’ve saved quite a bit of money on monthly haircuts over the years for a pair of $40 clippers. Yeah, I’m a cheap bugger!

Vanessa: Would you ever return to your old lifestyle?

Al: Not the rat-race cubicle lifestyle, at least if we can avoid it, we won’t. We’d consider a remote-working type of role, but only on our terms. We don’t want to work eight straight hours anymore.

Seriously, at the places we both worked, we rarely saw ANYONE actually WORKING for eight hours. There were people on Facebook, YouTube, or wasting time walking around the office finding people to chat with about last night’s episode of Real Housewives. I had coworkers who would sit and watch movies at work. And this was at two different jobs!

For us, we want to get up and stretch, go for a run, hike, or bike ride. Maybe we want to call it a day at 3pm and enjoy the sunshine! Maybe we don’t want to start until 10am, or noon. It’s these kinds of freedoms that the corporate world needs to start embracing.

We have talents. We have skill sets. We have a great work ethic. But we don’t have a desire to waste several hours a week on stuff when a lot of those hours aren’t truly necessary.

Vanessa: Anything else you would like to add?

Al: Yes, do more stuff with less stuff!

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