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10 Mostly Reasonable Tips for Unpacking After a Military Move

by Erin Whitehead - April 11th, 2022

Congratulations! After a trying military move, your movers have delivered your household goods to your new residence, and it’s time to set up your new home. A military move is stressful enough, but unfortunately, the move doesn’t end the day your boxes are delivered. Now someone (i.e. you) has to do all the unpacking. Luckily, we've got you covered with these ten tips for unpacking after a move.

Military moving tips: When should you unpack after a PCS?

All of your belongings have arrived, mostly in one piece. The movers are long gone, and now you are left with the daunting task of putting your new household together. Like many military families during a PCS, you asked the movers to set up the furniture in the appropriate rooms. You may have even asked them to unpack a room or two, like the kitchen. But then the piles of belongings start to take over. You decide to leave most of it packed in boxes so you can unpack it at your convenience.

And now, you are staring at the mountain of boxes that inhabit each and every room. You’re thinking, “Why in the world do we have so much crap?!”

10 tips for unpacking after a military move

I did a very “scientific” polling of my Facebook friends, many of them military members or spouses. I asked them to share their very best tips for unpacking after a military move. As someone who has lived in 12 different homes during 17 years of marriage, I have a few tips of my own. What resulted is a list of ten MOSTLY reasonable (and sometimes ridiculous) tips for unpacking all that crap.

Please add your mostly reasonable tips in the comments. It takes a village to keep us sane through all these military moves!

Side note: PCSgrades wants to hear your opinion of your military movers - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Share your reviews and help other military families in the process!

1. Take your time

You don’t have to kill yourself to get everything put away in the first week following a military move. Sure, you probably need to get the kitchen and bedrooms squared away before exploring your new town. After that, though, it's time to embrace your new adventure. Taking a break can help you (and your family) avoid serious meltdowns.

Need some ideas for adventures near your new duty station? Check out our free area guides designed to help you discover all your new favorite places.

Put some of those boxes in the garage and give yourself a break. Just think, it will be like Christmas in three months when you finally get to that box marked “sporting equipment” and find the mixing bowls you thought were lost forever!

2. Get it all done right away

Oh, yes. I realize this is a major contradiction from the first tip here. But none of us are cut from the same cloth, right? Some people prefer to get unpacked from their military move as soon as possible. While I may be able to put the boxes aside and worry about them later, it might literally drive my next-door neighbor to drink heavily if she doesn’t just buckle down, pull three all-nighters hopped up on Starbucks, and get the entire house (curtains hung and wreath on the front door) completely squared away.

If you are the kind of person who might be found roaming the neighborhood in a bathrobe, carrying a box of wine, chanting “no more boxes, please NO more boxes” over and over, by all means, just get it done. I will even congratulate you on how fast you did it even though I might secretly be plotting to shave your eyebrows off in your sleep.

3. Sell all your boxes at auction and just start over

Be honest. We have all thought about it. One day, I am going to be in complete awe of someone who actually has the nerve to do this.

Can you imagine? All of your stuff is delivered, and you host a big auction where people bid on your boxes and take them away without you opening a single one. Bidders will never REALLY know what they get, because “kitchen appliances” MIGHT mean a kitchen aid mixer and coffee maker, or it might mean half a bottle of motorcycle oil, a shower curtain, and half broken Christmas ornaments. Going once, going twice… SOLD! Now, let’s go shopping!

Seriously, though, if any of you have ever taken this approach, we're going to need to hear about it. Please post in the comments.

4. Hire some help

Yep, you heard that right. At the VERY least, hire a sitter to keep the kids entertained while you are putting stuff away.

Bonus tip: If the kids aren’t around when you unpack, the toys you couldn’t get rid of before the PCS can be thrown into a “donate” box before they are “reminded” of that toy they never play with.

Secret bonus tip: this also works with spouses who tend to hoard certain items. However, please use caution when employing this technique. It’s been known to cause marital discord. 

You can also hire a teenager who wants to make a few extra bucks to unpack boxes and help you get things put away. They can help unwrap the 3,000 pounds of paper that are taped around every single object from your kitchen. Or maybe they can help flatten and recycle boxes from your garage to keep the space clear while you make progress. I hear the peace of mind is well worth the money to do this, and it’s something I intend to do on our next move. (Let’s be honest: I should probably hire someone to come unpack the half dozen boxes that are still in my house from our military move over a year ago).

5. Get a "PCS partner"

You’ve seen TV shows with a wife swap or a home decorating swap, so why not a PCS unpacking swap? Here’s what you do: Find a friend who is also PCSing at the same time. Agree to travel to your friend’s house (and they to yours) to do all of the unpacking, sorting, and organizing of each other’s household goods. It’s always easier to organize someone else’s crap, right?

The rules are simple: you can each organize the home how you see fit and also get rid of anything you deem ridiculous, like that empty beer bottle collection or 500 yards of fabric you are MEANING to use for a Pinterest project.

Yeah, I couldn’t do it either. I’m actually having major anxiety just typing it. But, it might work for someone. Let me know how it works out for you. If nothing else, join with another military spouse to have an unpacking party at your place. You provide the snacks and drinks, they help you unpack and put everything away. Then, you can return the favor.

6. Enlist the whole family to help unpack after a move

As one of my friends said, “I am not the only person who will be living here. Everyone needs to help!” If your spouse is still on leave, tackle the big rooms together (like the kitchen). Give teenagers the freedom to organize their own rooms. No, it may not be done the way you will do it, but who cares if the underwear is in the bottom drawer instead of the top drawer, right? At least it is done, and you didn’t have to do it. Smaller children can be given smaller tasks, like unwrapping all the stuffed animals (because, clearly, they needed to be wrapped in paper) and putting them away.

7. Send your entire family on vacation and do it yourself

Unpacking and organizing an entire home following a military move can be a great bonding experience for some families. For others, it's armageddon.

Having help is great, unless it’s not. Whether or not to enlist your family's help is completely a personal choice. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I love you all fiercely. Now, you all need to leave for five days so I can get this house put together. Send me pictures, try not to drive your Dad crazy!” Then crank up your favorite tunes, try out all the food delivery services in your new town, lock the doors, and get it done!

8. Have a "moving in" yard sale

Have boxes and boxes of stuff that just don’t fit or feel right in the new house? Not really excited about keeping that dresser in the kitchen because there is literally nowhere else to put it now that your bedrooms are smaller? Instead of piling it all in the garage, HOPING the stuff will fit in the next house, just have a yard sale and get rid of it! You can make a few extra dollars to buy curtains that actually fit in your new living room. And you might even meet some neighbors in the process.

Just be sure to follow this one rule: If it doesn’t sell, it must be donated. Don’t let it come back into your house once you have decided it can go! Take it to your base consignment store or local charity and say goodbye forever.

9. Get rid of those boxes and paper

It can be tempting to save boxes and packing paper for a personally procured move (PPM, formerly called a DITY move) next time, especially if you're moving within a year. But it might not be worth it; boxes and paper are a breeding ground for bugs and rodents. (Okay, let’s all take a minute to breathe). The point is, once unpacked, you want to get rid of that stuff as soon as possible.

Post “free boxes and paper” on your local spouse page or Craigslist, and you can probably get rid of them pretty quickly. But always, ALWAYS remember personal security. Don’t ever publish your address online. It’s a better idea to take your spouse with you and meet someone in a public place.

You can also call your local recycling or trash pick-up service and ask them what their policy is to pick up bulk items. Many places will do it for free or a small fee. You just have to call ahead and schedule a pickup date.

10. Just live in a van down by the river

Moving frequently is enough to make even the most organized, level-headed person consider selling everything and buying a tiny home or an RV. In fact, there are military families who choose this route and manage NOT to kill each other.

I reached out to a few of these families for comment, but they were too busy questioning their life choices to answer my email. (I kid, I kid). But as someone who actually lived in an RV for three very long, anxiety-ridden months (where I consumed too much wine) with a husband, toddler, teenager, and a dog, I don’t recommend it for the majority of folks.

Living in a tiny space for a short period of time did teach me that we really can live without as much “stuff” as we think we need. I also considered how to better organize the stuff we do need into just about any space that we live in.

Military moving tips: Lessons of a military move

A military PCS can be tough. But the frequent moves we experience in military life can teach us valuable lessons about how we prioritize "stuff" in our lives.

No matter how you choose to deal with the process of unpacking - getting it all done at once or taking your time - we can probably all agree on one thing: The most important “stuff” isn’t stuff at all. It ends up being the actual people with whom we share our white walls. Those possessions we try and make fit into whatever space we find ourselves living in until the next set of orders are issued? They just don't matter in the grand scheme of things.

Erin Whitehead

Erin Whitehead recently made her final move to Florida where she is enjoying the beautiful beaches, sweet tea, and southern football rivalries, now that her husband has officially retired from the Marine Corps.