Thursday, June 07, 2012

Are You Living in 2 Places? Tips for Managing the Back-and-Forth

Twice in the past, my husband and I lived apart, maintaining two households while we pursued opportunities or finished obligations.
Fire King Coffee Cups
Vintage Fire King Coffee Mugs
by Julie @ Frugally Retro, on Flickr
Creative Commons License

Recently, someone asked us a hypothetical question about a potential opportunity. If it came to fruition, we would need to live apart for a little while. Without even looking at each other and almost as if we had rehearsed, we tag-teamed each other as we explained how we would handle the logistics of splitting up our household temporarily. We knew who would move, where the children would go to school, how we would manage the dual households.

The person who asked didn't think we could do it. But my husband looked as confident as I felt because we've been there, we've lived apart. And we could do it again because sometimes living apart temporarily is what it takes to make life work.

Here’s what we know for sure: If you’ve lived in two places at the same time, something like this has happened to you:

Open cabinet and reach for coffee.
Discover empty canister.
Swear you’ve been burglarized because you know you bought coffee.

And, you probably did. At the other house.

You don’t have to have a bi-coastal glamorous job to find yourself in this living situation. You might be a graduate student living away from your spouse; a professional needing to live temporarily near a client; moving on to the next location before your spouse can cut ties and get there; staying in a corporate apartment for weeks at a time; or your fiancĂ© lives one state over and you visit every weekend.

It sounds extremely exciting until you can’t find your deodorant in August.

Some people move seasonally, spending a few months away and then moving back. Each move is temporarily permanent in that you wouldn’t buy a new carton of milk before closing up one house and opening the other. But this living is different.

The kind of dual living I’m talking about is the kind where you’re in one place for a few days or weeks and then at the other place for a few days or weeks and you go back and forth so often that you recognize the pilot on the flights you usually take.

This kind of back and forth occurs so frequently that you forget which house has paper towels. Today, I have a few tips for this kind of dual living. I hope you add yours to the comments.

Pare Down Your Existence

Living in two places is time consuming: two sets of bills, two kitchens to fill with yogurt, two bathrooms that need shampoo, and so on. To make this type of living efficient, try to pare down the time it takes to maintain two households. Find one grocery store and just make do, instead of going to two or three on weekends to get the things you love. Order groceries online if you can. Shop at one drug store or shop from an online drugstore and have things delivered. Pay bills online in one sitting each month, if possible. Use a service like Carbonite (my favorite) to have your documents backed-up and accessible at both places.

Stock Up and Shop Wisely

Buy two of the basics. Do not travel back and forth with cosmetics and toiletries. Think of how much time you’ll save not packing these each time you travel. And, if you fly, you won’t have to get out the quart-sized plastic bag and have it x-rayed. Some things to double-up on: running shoes & work-out clothes; cosmetics; toiletries; laptop cords; medications; black trousers or a little black dress, black dressy shoes, and neutral blazer (you can do so much with these wardrobe staples); office supplies (sticky notes, pens, pencils, stapler, etc.); regular medications, if feasible; and other times you use every day.
Shop at as few stores as possible. The basic reason for this is that you need to use your time efficiently in both locations. At home—where the spouse and friends and possibly children are—you don’t want to run around shopping at a bunch of different stores. At the away location, you want to focus on the work and probably don’t have time to shop anyway.

Keep “store” lists rather than shopping lists; this way, you’ll know you need paper towels from the away-home store rather than the home-home store.

Buy when it’s efficient. I like a certain brand of cosmetics, and so when I needed make-up at my away-home, I would buy it when I was home-home because I knew which store sold it and how to get there quickly. I could be efficient with this purchase and it didn’t take up room in my suitcase.

Routinize the Back and Forth

Write some lists and put them in sheet protectors. I printed fresh lists before each trip, but later learned that sheet protectors and dry erase markers would have eliminated the need to keep reprinting. These lists save your sanity and make packing/leaving or arriving/unpacking a lot easier.

Month-long travels. This is not what your luggage
should look like for back-and-forth visits!
Packing Checklist: There are some things that you will not want to have two of but must not forget: electronic devices, power cords for these devices (although after leaving my laptop plug behind one too many times, I bought a spare). You might need to always take medication, keys to other house, or keys to the car in the airport parking garage at the other end, etc.

Some things, like refilling prescriptions, might need to be done in one location. Add these things to your Packing Checklist so that you remember to check them before you leave. If you need anything, add it to your store shopping list.

Leaving Checklist: Write down—even if it seems ridiculously simple—what needs to be done each time you leave one place. Your list might be:
  • Lock patio door
  • Lock windows
  • Turn down heat/air conditioning
  • Turn off coffee pot/oven/etc.
  • Etc.
Make this list your own. Go over it right before you walk out the door. You will not worry about whether you turned off the coffee pot later. And believe me, after you’ve done this back and forth travel for awhile, you will forget whether you did at least one of these things. You’ll be on the runway, ready for take-off and panic: Did I unplug the iron? Have a list for here and there with items that are pertinent to each location.

You need these lists at both ends because they are sanity savers.

TIP: One of my colleagues printed a list and placed it in a clear luggage tag and placed it on her suitcase. She packed from that list.

Arrival Checklist: Create an arrival checklist for yourself. This list isn’t as important as the other lists, but it’s like a rapid detox in that it will help you assimilate back into this life quickly. The list might include:
  • Unpack
  • Drinks/walk/chat with spouse/friends
  • Go through the mail and toss out the junk.
  • Make a plan or co-construct a loose plan with your friends or spouse. How will you use your time at this location?
  • Set up details for your return to the other location right away and then focus on being present in this location. For example, do you need plane tickets? Cab reservations? A train ticket? Do you need to confirm someone will feed your cat? Take care of these details right away so that you don’t have to worry about them during your time at this location.
  • Add to your Leaving Checklist at this location anything that you absolutely cannot forget. I once left a set of graded papers in Houston. FedEx and a colleague saved me, but if I’d had the papers on my checklist as a do-not-forget item, I might not have needed saving.
TIP: Make sure someone has a spare key to your living quarters in both places.

Try to Be Reasonable About Working at Home-Home

If you are going home-home and you have a spouse or friends who are counting on seeing you, be reasonable about the amount of work you take with you. It’s rather ridiculous to take the time and energy to get there only to hide and work the entire time.

Sign Up for Frequent Flyer and Frequent Stay Programs

Sign up for frequent flyer or stay programs and then be consistent with your choice in travel or hotels. Signing up for some airline credit cards comes with a benefit like a free baggage allowance when you fly.

Expect Exhaustion

While you are away from home, you will necessarily work hard and you’ll be exhausted when you arrive home-home. When you are home-home, you will try to pack in as much good stuff as you can and you will arrive back at the away-home exhausted. When you walk in the door at the away-home, the weight of the work week ahead may hit you like a wave. Go through your Arrival Checklist, even if you are tired. You’ll be able to jump in faster and less stressed if you do the list.

Expect exhaustion. Do a few things to help you manage the exhaustion, even if you can’t overcome it:
Amy's entrees are my favorite.
  • Stock up on foods that won’t spoil quickly so that if you can’t shop immediately, you have something to eat.
  • Leave yourself a note on the counter reminding you of anything you need to do to jump back into work. Your note might say, “Remember big meeting is TOMORROW” (meaning the day after you return). Re-entry is easier when you know where to start.
  • Lay out your clothes for the day after arriving back at your away-location before you leave. (That way, the shoes you want to wear won’t be there rather than here.)
  • Give yourself a chance to go to sleep early once in awhile.
I haven’t mentioned how this works with children, and I’ve done it with one child. I’ll save that for another post.

Meanwhile, add your tips to the comments. How do you make this situation work?


  1. Nice tips, thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Anonymous8:59 PM

    Nice to know I'm not the only "crazy" person in the world to live in two places. :)

  3. Anonymous4:34 AM

    I've been doing this for 4 years between France and the UK. It was tiring but exciting. After a while it worked very well.

  4. Anonymous10:45 AM

    Thank you, this is very good advice. I find that the little things are the most stressful (did I pack my makeup? Did I bring enough to wear?). I'm taking your advice and buying a few things; it's worth it for the peace of mind!

  5. Questions though...How did you tell people you were meeting/potentially dating about your living situation? How did you explain your situation?

  6. Anonymous4:51 AM

    And i thought i was crazy doing this cause of my job in both in two cities in my country Greece a year now with a 60km distance between them.happy to hear that people do this in diferent countries!!

  7. Anonymous5:50 PM

    Thank you for this great post. My husband & I (empty-nesters) are about to embark on bi-coastal living between Boston & Portland. I don't have a job so I'm planning to spend a few months at a time out there with him and then back here for a month or 6 weeks and then back there. We have a 24 year old in Boston and a 22 year old in FLA. We did a stint in Belgium for 3 yrs so I know the stresses but I wasn't sure if I'm nuts to do this. I don't feel nuts after reading your post. In fact I don't feel worried at all but everyone else thinks we are crazy! And not to mention what the real Debby-Downers tell us about how our marriage will suffer. I feel pretty confident in our relationship and I feel like after 32 years of marriage - we should be able to handle 6 weeks apart every so often. We just go with the flow. (sounds like we should fit into a Portland lifestyle just fine)! Well, thanks again.