Is it better for our family to ship our furniture overseas or to buy replacements on the field?

“Consider how the host culture may perceive you.”

Should you ship a forty-foot container full of everything you think you might need? Perhaps. Beyond the financial and logistical considerations, may I suggest that you think about the impact you and your family can have (positively or negatively) in doing so. Will it help your initial relations with your target people group or will it create barriers? Will you be perceived one way if you arrive (or your container arrives) with (literally) a ton of possessions and perceived differently if you purchase locally sold appliances and furniture?

There’s no pat answer for these kind of choices but please take the time to consider that these decisions can have ramifications beyond the balance in your bank account.

Answer from Stephen, who has served with Christar in China for twenty years.

Editor’s note: For a powerful story about this, read the article Eighteen Barrels and Two Big Crates.

“It depends.”

Where are you going? We live on an island. Things are very expensive here. A broken down, beat up and stained couch can cost $3000.00. But other things we can purchase easily. If you can purchase it locally and it’s affordable I would say to do that first. It helps the local economy for one. I try to purchase whatever I can to help people’s small businesses and to relieve the poverty around me.

That said, some things I just cannot get. And for us, it was cheaper to fly some things in rather than ship. We bought a used SUV at auction, loaded a trailer behind of things that would fit into it, then drove to Florida, rented a car, unloaded and returned the trailer, then loaded up the car (everything but the driver’s seat). We drove that to the shipyard and shipped it. We took the rental car to the airport and brought along whatever we could.

Whatever we couldn’t fit into that SUV we have either flown in via a missionary service or brought in a suitcase, or bought here. Customs is a huge issue for us, too. We paid more for customs than we paid for purchasing the vehicle.

Ask a lot of questions and do your research. Getting onto a social media site and joining some expat missionary groups and then asking questions helped us a lot. As to that couch, we never got one. It was cheaper to invest in some Walmart patio furniture which we flew in and put together when it arrived. It’s cute, lightweight, and functional.

Answer from Janis who has served in the Philippines and Haiti for fifteen years.

“View re-furnishing your home as part of your enculturation process.”

We shipped a washer and dryer and a minimum of furniture to Colombia. Later we shipped the same plus more furniture from there to Guatemala. In the end we decided we would never ship furniture again. It really depends on where you are going, the ministry you will be involved in, and your mission’s policies.

If you will be in a city or country with access to a good assortment of furniture, it works to buy most of your household furnishings there. The process of buying furniture overseas is a great cross-cultural experience and gets you acquainted with the realities of business in another country. View it as part of your enculturation process.

With appliances, the voltage in your destination country is crucial, but the quality is also important. Note the cycles of the electricity in country. Electrical timers like those in washing machines usually work off of the cycles and are affected (60 cycles in the US versus 50 cycles in some of Latin America). Electronic timing devices like those in microwaves and stoves usually aren’t affected. Missionaries on that field can give good advice.

An advantage to buying furniture where you are going is that the nationals who visit you will feel more at home in your house if your place looks like and is furnished like theirs. These small things decrease the distance between you and them. Your glad acceptance of the nationals and the way you share your home with them will of course still be the most critical component.

An added note: When you ship things, you pay to pack them, pay to move and store them, pay to ship them, pay customs upon receiving them, and then patiently try to recoup what was broken or lost in shipping. In our move from Colombia to Guatemala, we had an excellent company and most things arrived well, but we paid almost as much as the items were worth for shipping, and then the same amount again in import expenses (to our surprise).

But there was a catch, our organization allowed us to raise funds to ship anything and everything but did not allow us to raise funds to buy things at the new location. If you sold off your stuff at garage sale prices that was all you had to replace them with in the new location. We literally shipped the waste baskets because we couldn’t afford to replace things. Odd, but true.

Answer from David, who has served for twenty years with One Challenge in Guatemala, Colombia, and the US and currently serves with Mission Data International.

“Look for good deals on shipping, or buy local.”

Containers may be shipped overseas for around US$2500 to $4500 for twenty- to forty-foot containers. I have heard stories of missionaries getting good deals at military bases overseas as soldiers leave and have to sell a lot of furniture when they leave. If you go to the field overseas you may ask questions regarding new or used furniture or visit furniture stores (if available). See a list of overseas shipping resources for some other helpful info on this. 

Answer from Kenneth, webmaster of a missions resources website.

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