Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Creating A New Year's Mission Statement

It’s almost December 31st, and if you’re a compulsive list-maker like me, you are in the process of making up your New Year’s Resolutions. Actually, I enjoy this exercise so much that I celebrate New Year’s Resolution Time twice a year- once in January, and once in September, at the beginning of the new academic year. And yes, they are usually the same, year after year, and like the rest of the world, are usually forgotten or broken by 11am January 1st (or the day after Labor Day!)

Most experts say that the key to keeping resolutions is to make just one, and make it your highest priority. And that is the key to efficiency, which is my number one priority this year: sticking to one goal, and making everything in your life streamline toward it.

But I have so many things I want to do better this year, ranging from health to finance to specific ‘bucket list” things I’ve been putting off. One “thing” cannot encompass it all.

But how about a “mission statement”? What if, instead of checklist-type resolutions, we all sat down and tried to come up with one clear, catchy statement that would express what we really wanted out of 2010?

A single mission statement’s greatest gift is simple: focus. As in a company, any activity outside that statement means you’re getting off track. Mission statements help prioritize daily activities, remind us of what we know we should be doing anyway, and are flexible enough to incorporate unexpected opportunities and challenges that arise during the year.

And perhaps most importantly, a “mission” indicates a path, not an achievement that is gained, lost, or “broken.”

Defining our mission this year is going to lead to less waste in our time, spending, and opportunities: if something helps our mission, it’s in. If not, it’s out. We can stop chasing rabbits down holes all year and focus on what we have predetermined is important.

So let’s do it- be people on a mission this year. I’d love to hear yours.

And for the record, so it’ll be in print, here is mine:

To fully utilize and appreciate all that has been given to me, and desire nothing more.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"You Know Where the Bakery Is?"

I must have been in a very giving mood when all those sign-up sheets were passed around at the beginning of the school year. According to my email inbox, I signed up for every holiday volunteer opportunity possible – especially baking requests. Me. Bake.

The latest “friendly reminder” email came into my iPhone while I was waiting for a class at the gym. Apparently alarmed by the change in my breathing and appearance, my favorite work-out partner, a 90-year-old dynamo from New York, asked what was wrong. One minute and a thousand words later, I had explained the reasons for my stress.

She had one question: “You know where the bakery is?”

Huh. Yeah, I did.

I got rid of more than just my stress level by taking this amazing woman’s advice and going to the bakery (or buying slice-and-bake, as I ended up doing). I also let go of my ego.

The only reason I had for wanting to bake *homemade* cookies was not because I thought they’d be more appreciated by my 7-year-old clientele, but because I wanted people to say “wow- these are great cookies!” to my face, and “how does she do it all?” behind my back. Now, no one is going to say either of these, but the cookies will still be enjoyed, and that’s the point.

So let’s all look at our remaining holiday to-do list and see where our ego can be removed to make way for a more efficient, yet still excellent, final product. If the smile will be just as big on someone’s face by doing it the easy way, for Heaven’s sake, do it.

It just may put the smile back on yours!


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Coupons Your Kids Will Actually Love

A few years ago, our entire family went to Ireland for Christmas to visit my husband’s family. The trip was fantastic, but did present itself with one problem: how on earth were we going to do presents? This was about the time airlines were getting very strict…and expensive…about luggage, so we needed to get very creative about gift-giving for the kids.

That’s when I stumbled on a fabulous article in Richmond Parents magazine in which the mom-author described her now-almost-grown-kids’ favorite annual gift: the coupon book.

Started as a money-saving technique and continued due to popularity, this mother gives her kids a hand-made set of coupons, most of which have little or no money value, as their main gift. You read right.

In this fabulous book, the coupons are not made up of “$10 shopping at Target"; "a new bike you pick out…” or the like, but rather an entirely different set of “gifts” the kids adore.

The first type of “coupon” allows the children to break rules. “One night of unlimited TV”, or “One week of not making up the bed” are the most memorable. By giving her children a chance NOT to do what they normally have to, she both reinforces the necessity of the rules the other times of year (“Oh, you didn’t make up your bed? Well, I guess you just used your coupon!”) and allows for some slack.

The second set of coupons involve attention. “One lunch date alone with Mommy”, “One hour of Daddy playing the board game of your choice.” This makes the kids feel important, prioritizes quality time together, and is priceless yet free.

The final set involves things one might allow the kids to do anyway at times, but sets clear limits. “One box of any cereal you want”, “One sleepover with 3 friends invited”. These coupons allow a parent to say “yes”, but then be able to stop saying “yes” even though she said “yes” once before….you know where I’m going with this.

The sky’s the limit with these books, but for us, they have moved beyond a financial or weight-limit “emergency gift” and become the backbone of our holiday gift planning. Making up these coupon books for our kids allows my husband and I to sit back and think about fun things we want to do in the upcoming year (“camping trip to the Outer Banks”), encourage budding interests in our children (“one afternoon playing tennis with Daddy”), and give attention to those needing it the most (“one week of tuck-ins alone, just with Mom”).

And yes, it saves tons of money too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Need Gifts" instead of "Filler Gifts"

There are two things kids look forward to most Christmas morning- getting stuff they want, and opening stuff…period.

Rather than filling the landfill and emptying our wallets by buying a bunch of “filler presents”…you know, the gifts you buy just so the kids will have more to open…why not set aside things we were going to give them anyway and wrap up those?

Your kid may be desperate for a new pair of pants – can she wait a few weeks and open them Christmas morning? The robe hook for her bathroom door? The box of hand-me down clothes you’ve just received? All are gifts.

And what about the everyday necessities we automatically buy for our children that they take for granted, like extra school supplies, socks, picky-eater cereal, granola bars? These, too, can be wrapped up and presented as the gifts they authentically are.

No, none of these gifts will be our children’s favorite to open, but that’s not the point. They will enjoy the act of opening them, and then get really excited when the few “real” special gifts emerge. And, rather than be left with a bunch of stuff they will never use, they’ll be left with a bunch of stuff they will simply use.

This may seem like “cheating” to you, but ease your conscience. The youngest children won’t know the difference, and the older ones are old enough to turn it into a family game (is this a “want gift” or a “need gift?” ) and start learning a valuable lesson: anything given to them for free IS a gift, and should be enjoyed and appreciated.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Truly MAGIC Beans for Santa

So just how exactly DOES Santa keep track of how good or bad your kids have been?

I stumbled on a “little known fact about Santa” a few years ago that has given my kids a tangible measure of their behavior during the holiday season – one that serves as a fantastic discipline tool and a way to make the countdown to Christmas a bit more bearable!

I heard through the grapevine that Santa collects dry beans on Christmas Eve to bring back to Mrs. Claus to make soup for all the elves Christmas morning…and in exchange for these beans left out for him, he will swap them out for jelly beans! But what makes these dry beans so special is that each bean left for Santa Claus represents one good deed done by a child that holiday season!

Unwrapping a book a night may be my children’s favorite holiday tradition; this one is mine. The first week of December, I buy a few bags of dried pinto or lima beans, then set them in a shallow bowl next to a glass canister within arms reach of my children (you’ll be surprised how pretty this looks, too). Every time anyone says or does something nice, a bean is dropped in the jar. Yes, I also take one out when they misbehave.

Over the weeks, the beans add up, as does the Christmas spirit and the good habit of doing nice things for one another. Sure, the kids are ridiculously obvious and manipulative at times about it: “Here, Sis, let me help you walk down the hall to the bathroom…Mom, is that a bean?” but I couldn’t care less. For around $5 I get improved behavior, a reason for the kids to want Christmas morning to wait a few more days, and another gift for the kids to be excited about Christmas morning.

I heard the Easter Bunny does this too, by the way….

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Month of Gifts from your Bookshelves

We’ve already established that kids love to open presents (hey, so do I), so what better way to jump-start a new, leaned-down gift-buying season than give the kids MORE gifts to open…and to open now, before Christmas!

Sneak into your kids’ rooms and take off the shelves any book remotely related to the Holidays- think outside the box, as anything with “snow” or “winter” will work, too. Surprised at how many you have? Hopefully you have enough to read one a day all the way until Christmas morning. If not, you may want to hit the library and check a few out.

Now, wrap each book as if it’s a gift (maybe make a discreet mark to identify the library books in case you need to renew them mid-season!) and place them in a basket by your couch. (Green tip: I wrap with newspaper then draw a stick-figure Christmas tree on them). Every night, allow your kids to pick one “gift” to unwrap, and read the book together.

I have done this with my children for a few years now, and it is possibly our favorite holiday tradition. We start December 1st, and read the last one Christmas morning. All year, I look out for holiday-themed books at garage sales, thrift stores, and library rummage sales, so am able to sneak in a few new ones amongst the old favorites.

This fun new tradition does a few things: it forces our family to sit down together every night to take a moment to celebrate the season; it allows my kids to get their “gift fix” right when they think they’re going to DIE if they can’t open that gift under the tree yet; and it even serves as a discipline tool….the child with the best manners at dinner gets to open the book that night.

This is something you can start tonight, even if you don’t have all the books yet, and is a great first step in our attempt to stretch out the season!

NEXT POST: An Advent game to improve your children’s manners all season long!


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Advent over Excess...a guide to stretching out the season and stretching your dollars

Upon opening the last gift on the Christmas morning when my uncle was 7 years old, he stood up, walked over to the family tree, turned off the lights, and declared, "Christmas is over."

It was probably before 8 A.M.

While he has been teased endlessly about this blunt statement (obviously- I'm writing about it 50 years later), how many of us are guilty of at least empathizing with this mentality? Christmas is irrevocably linked with presents, and the entire holiday season seems to build up to that climax- with a hard crash to follow.

If this is how many of us secretly feel, it is no wonder that we overspend and overstress with the presents- we want the "moment of Christmas" to last, and if there are only a few presents under the tree for our loved ones (especially our kids), then Christmas just doesn't last long enough and isn't a big enough deal.

So how do we cut back this year without cutting short the fun?

By stretching out the other stuff... and therefore conciously turning Christmas into a full season that brings joy, peace, and cheer to all...including yourself.

So, in the relaunch of my blog, we will explore easy and inexpensive ways to make this Holiday season exactly that...a full season...enabling us to end the guilt, the credit card debt, and the landfill waste by making Christmas bigger than the gifts under the tree.

Read tomorrow about how to give your children something to unwrap every day between now and Christmas morning...without spending a dime.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Time to Write and a Time to Play

I've been playing this summer.

After the first week at home, with no camps, sitters, or exotic trips immediately on the horizon, I decided to put writing on hold for a bit and concentrate on making this summer as wonderful as possible for the kids. And it has been wonderful.

Because we live in Virginia, my kids still have quite a few weeks to go before starting school - therefore, my "finish line" is not quite here.

I've mentioned before that I believe in, and crave, "seasons", and feel that the key to full efficiency and appreciation of life is to fully live in one you are given before moving onto the next. This has been my season to play, relax, plan, and think....and embrace, rather than resent, the constant need for my attention still craved by my all-too-quickly-growing-up-kids.

In a few weeks, they will all be in elementary school...all of them! That is my season to write.

And I have so much to write about- my husband's new job (hooray!), his constant travel (not so hooray, but not without some meaningful and interesting perks to our lives and marriage), my own successes and failures in occupying the kids on the cheap for 12 solid weeks, and the catch-22 of suddenly being able to spend a little money after having saved for so long.

I have a lot to write about.

So thank you for sticking with me, and I promise I'll be around more from now on. I may have some exciting changes coming down the way, and I'll take you with me.

And I hope that you have also had a summer where you have allowed yourself a holiday from at least one "should" and embraced one "can" that's only around for this season.

If not, you still have time. Especially if you live in Virginia.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

My Daughter's 4-year-old Teacher

Week one of Summer –for my preschool daughter, that is. During these few weeks between when preschool ends and the elementary schools break for the summer, I have traditionally turned to traditional camps to offer enrichment, education, and (let’s be honest here) babysitting services for my energetic and still- clingy youngest child before “real” summer kicks in and we can go somewhere.

This year, those camps were not in the budget, so she is left with just ME. Sadly, “just ME” right now is fresh out of creativity, energy, and time to devote solely to her. I have SO MUCH to do before the school year ends and have horrified myself at how often I’ve turned to suggesting “just watching a little show” as a quality activity in order to buy myself some time…and peace.

Then a friend asked if I could watch her daughter for a morning, and the world changed.

In an instant, my daughter was immersed in a world of adventure, make-believe, and creativity. Our neglected sandbox became an exotic beach. Old dishes serviced a formal Japanese tea ceremony. Tuned-out classical music from NPR inspired an elaborately choreographed ballet recital.

In the remaining 2 hours, my daughter had an art lesson, a fashion consultation, a lecture on butterflies, linguistic training, a yoga class, a guided imagery exercise, and a model-parenting seminar.

I did none of these things. It was all done by the friend.

This 4-year-old’s fresh perspective and appreciation for our toys, plus her unique interests, talents, and creativity served as the best teacher, coach, motivator, and babysitter for my daughter imaginable. My daughter did, thought, liked, appreciated, and conjured up things she never would have done on her own, in a structured environment, or, most of all…with me.

Yes, I had to occasionally wipe a bottom, hydrate and feed when necessary, or help with a tricky zipper, but other than that and staying within sight, I did absolutely nothing...but write, concentrate, file, email, and congratulate myself on my amazing parenting skills.

And to think her mother thanked ME when she picked her little girl up!

So, don’t feel guilty if the money isn’t there this year for camps, classes, and elaborate enrichment activities. Just see if any of your neighbors need a favor…


Friday, May 29, 2009

A Holiday from Guilt and Routine Can be Enough

We were supposed to go camping over Memorial Day weekend, but it didn’t work out. Therefore, to make up for the lost opportunity, we spent the first 2 days of the long weekend living life to the fullest. We had 2 incredible cookouts with friends, a full Saturday of baseball games, outdoor exercise, socializing, and even 7 ½ hours of amusement park rides. We more than made up for any lost camping weekend.

Then when the REAL holiday came around Monday morning…we were completely and utterly exhausted. We all woke up at the regular time, but it just seemed to be taking us forever to motivate to do anything. “What a waste!” I immediately thought to myself. “We could have done THIS and THIS or THIS….” What kind of “holiday” were we having at all?

But then I realized that we were having a “holiday” in the original context of the word. We were having a holiday from something, rather than to somewhere.

We had a holiday from school. A holiday from work. A holiday from cleaning the house (that one was mine, by the way). A holiday from our alarm clock.

A holiday from guilt and obligation.

And that alone was enough to make it a wonderful vacation.

A vacation should give us a discernable break from our daily routine, lifting the pressure off of us long enough to allow us to catch our breath, live life a little differently, and then fully return to our work with renewed energy and purpose. If we are not getting this feeling of “ahh” both during and after the vacation, it’s probably because we are doing one of the two things: a) putting pressure (and therefore, guilt) on ourselves to do too much in the effort to live an entire year’s worth of FUN in that one holiday, or b) not breaking out of our usual habits enough to make it feel any different from what we do every day. My friend Sarah called this type of vacation, “My life, just in a different place.”

A vacation doesn’t have to be expensive, long, or even far away to do the job- it just needs to be different and guilt-free. So, from now on, as long as those parameters are being met, I am going to try to kick back, relax, and refill….and teach my family to do the same.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Summer Inbox for your Kids

Today is the first day of summer for me…in a matter of speaking.

Today was my daughter’s last day of preschool for the year, so “summer” in the sense of “no structure, no alone time for Mommy, no morning routine” has begun. I get to ease into full-blown summer a bit due to my two sons still having weeks left at their elementary school, but today’s end-of-the-year preschool program served as a major wakeup call for me.

I need a plan.

Other parents I’ve talked to have a plan. It comes in the form of daycare, babysitters, and more varieties of camps than I knew ever existed. Some sounded absolutely wonderful. And absolutely exorbitant. But absolutely wonderful enough to get self-conscious about my organic, camp-free summer agenda where almighty ME is fully in charge of ensuring my children’s brains and bodies don’t turn to mush.

So, back to that PLAN.

I’ve written before about locating and attending free summer concert and theater series, library story hours, vacation bible schools, museums, parks, and the local sites in order to wonderfully and frugally create an enriching, educational summer. But after getting the “what can we watch?” question from my daughter in the first 5 minutes of “summer” today, I realize we need more than that. We need structure in our day, too, not just our week.

Then I spotted our soon-to-be-unused “homework center” in the corner of our dining room. These three simple stacked horizontal files serve as their “inbox” during the school year. They know to go there, and go through, whatever’s in that box before even asking to watch TV.

What if I could create a summer “inbox”? A mix of fun, education, and structure (not too much- this is summer after all) that the kids would know to turn to first before sliding into the lazy brainlessness that all teachers bemoan every September as they are forced to repeat the last half a year just to bring the kids back up to speed.

A Library book could go in the inbox. A note card with a single question to investigate, plus a website link. Torn out or printed out worksheets. A new crossword or Soduku book. A choice of one of three activities to do outside. A journal, with one prompt question written at the top of the page. A few individual activities, then one group adventure that requires your kids to cooperate. The possibilities are endless. And easy to think up.

And, in the end, a reward…hopefully in the form of a happy mommy who has had enough moments of peace and quiet to give her children her complete attention, energy, and love.

Better than any camp.



Monday, May 18, 2009

A Weekend with no job, money, or plan

Yesterday afternoon was different from most Sunday afternoons in my household.

Unlike most weekends, we had NOWHERE to go. Nothing we had to do. The morning rain had cancelled the t-ball game. I had no freelance singing work. The house was actually reasonably clean, and the kids had clean underwear in their drawers for tomorrow. My husband had no urgent project to complete.

Nothing we had to do.

This should sound like Utopia, right?

But it wasn't. I was grouchy, and for once, I knew why. I knew that after about half an hour of "nothing to do", the petitions would start coming. From the kids, it was the inevitable "can we watch something/eat something/buy something" mantra that I dread. From the husband, it was the inevitable, "Let's come up with a PLAN."

Now, my husband uses the word "let's" when talking about planning something fun the same way I use the word "let's" when talking about fixing something. We both mean "you."

I hate planning "fun" all the time. Sometimes I don't feel "fun." Sometimes I don't WANT to be "fun." Sometimes I want to just be.

The problem is, when I don't plan something fun, the natural, lazy tendencies of my kids (as with most kids, I would venture) will steer toward the remote control or candy cabinet. My husband will find a project to do, and we will end up spending the afternoon in a distracted, disconnected stupor of media babysitting, individual projects, and unsupervised snacking. At the end of the day, my husband and I may feel so guilty over the wasted day that we'll go BUY SOMETHING to make up for it.


So, it's now back on me to PLAN something in order to save us all from this inevitable doom, right?

Well, yesterday, I learned that wasn't so. Yesterday, I learned that there is another option, and I didn't plan, watch, eat, or spend a thing: I asked my husband what HE thought would be fun, and we immediately and unquestionably went along with it.

Now, I don't want to indicate that I've never given my husband a chance to plan a family activity. It's just that when I do ask his opinion, I always think about whether it's a good one or not. Then I'll agree or disagree, and eventually we'll try to come up with a compromise. Yesterday, I was too tired to argue, and even though his plan sounded boring and problematic from the start- load up all kids and all bikes in unpleasantly cool, cloudy weather and go for a hike/ride around our city's downtown river island - I just shut up and agreed.

It was the best afternoon any of us can remember.

Throughout the afternoon, not only did we go along with every idea of my husband's, but we went along with the kids' ideas of "fun", too. Why not? I had nothing better to offer, for "once." Every side trail they wanted to explore, every rock that needed to be picked up, every fascinating bump in the path that needed to be ridden over...over and over again...was allowed, repeated by all, and celebrated. And it was fun. I had no idea that skipping rocks for a complete hour could hold my attention. I saw parts of the island I had never before been to. I never hurried up, cut off, redirected, or suppressed any idea that was offered, and we all benefitted.

I allowed my family to plan, and they were actually good at it. What they wanted to do was fun- for all of us. When given the paramaters of sugar-free, money-free, and tv-free, they proved that they could drive the cruise ship for a while, and do a better job of it than me.

As the long summer ahead looms without a lot of camps, money, or even solid plans, I am cautiously optomistic that we may be in for the a fantastic couple of months...as long as I remember to hand over the reigns and enthusiatically grab my riding hat!


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The key to making all tasks meaningful

I would love to say that my days are filled with exciting, important tasks that have a lasting impact on society and the world at large. That I could point to everything I’d done at the end of each day and say, “See? Look at all I have accomplished! Aren’t you so glad I was here?!”

Unfortunately, I find that at the end of most days, there is no tangible evidence that I have done anything at all with my day.

If I clean the entire house, top to bottom, while the kids are at school, it is destroyed again by bedtime. If I make a beautiful meal, it’s scarfed down instantly or, worse, thrown away (those ungrateful brats!). New dirty laundry appears faster than I can carry the clean laundry back upstairs, clean toilets last as long as the time it takes my boys to drink a glass of water, an hour spent reading to my children is forgotten the instant I need to make just one phone call, …do I need to go on?

Since the effect of everything I do seems so fleeting and unnoticed, it’s tempting to either stop doing it altogether (*note: don’t try this- it actually does get worse if you ignore it…I tried), or just resign yourself to never making an impact on the world past what you can barely remember yourself.

But I think I may have found a cure. A single trick that will make anything and everything we do during our day have meaning, impact, and joy. A single act that will keep every minute of our day unwasted.

Before beginning any task, I have started to ask myself the question, “Is there any way I could be helping someone, loving someone, while I’m doing this?” And the answer is almost always “yes.”

I’m learning that I don’t have to ignore my mundane, but necessary, routine…or complete it…in order to get around to the “important stuff” that actually lasts. They can be done at the same time.

Here are some of the questions I’ve asked myself this week:
While I’m cooking dinner for my family, could I make some extra to freeze for a future sick neighbor?
-Could I walk my child to school instead of drive in order to love the Earth?

-Could I get my exercise today by mowing and weeding my elderly neighbor’s lawn instead of just going for that run?

-When I clean the house today, could I pick all of the areas my husband most cares about instead of just the ones that drive me crazy?

-While waiting for my son to get out of baseball practice, could I write a quick note to my aunt?

-As long as I’m playing with my own child, could I call my neighbor and offer to watch her child, too?

-Can I ask my daughter to help me fold laundry so I can find out what’s bothering her today?

-Could I teach my son how to cook this meal as I’m doing it?

-Can I remember, and write down, what went wrong with this procedure so that I can help others avoid it in the future?

-As I’m waiting in this long line, could I cheer someone up?

If I can do this throughout my day, every day, then nothing I ever do will be meaningless or wasted. There still may be nothing tangible to "show" for my day, but hopefully there will at least be something at the end of it all to show for my life.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Life in the Interruptions

As you can probably guess, I do not like it when people waste my time.

I put myself under a lot of pressure to be an ultra-productive mother, wife, housekeeper, neighbor, volunteer, employee, and citizen, and the only way I can get this accomplished is if I work FAST. I believe that 99% of the things I’m doing are important, honorable, unselfish. Good things, that need to be done.

And so I have my LIST. My “inbox”. My set of criteria for what I am supposed to accomplish each day that will prove to myself and the world that I am worthy of respect, responsibility, and good karma. Every day, my list is growing, and I love that feeling of “being on a roll,” when the day just opens up and allows you to amaze yourself with how much you can get done.

But then, along come the interruptions.

Little bundles of knees and elbows that sit in my lap and try to type along with me while I’m writing, just desperate for any attention and time they can garnish. Older, slower interruptions that want to chat in the grocery store line when I’m already running late. Tiny, invisible interruptions that invade our childrens’ bodies and give them a fever just bad enough to keep them out of school, one at a time of course, and wipe out entire WEEKS of scheduled meetings, workouts, and any chance of concentration.

And those are just the small interruptions. What about the bad medical diagnosis? The corporate layoffs? The terrible late-night phone call that changes everything?

How on EARTH am I supposed to get everything done that I’m supposed to under these conditions? If ONLY I could control everything around me, then I would amaze the world at what I would get done. I SWEAR if everyone would just GET OUT OF MY WAY and give me ONE HOUR, ONE WEEKEND, or better yet, ONE MONTH to get everything in order that I just KNOW I’m supposed to be doing, THEN I will be able to slow down and listen to you, and play with you, and spend time with you, and…love you…like I should be doing now. I’m so sorry.

Life IS in the interruptions.

In the end, I’m not going to be judged by how far I got through my own fabricated inbox, but how I dealt with the universe’s interruptions. Whenever someone or something enters into my day unannounced, it’s arrogant and ignorant of me to automatically assume that what I had planned was more important.

Yes, the job must be finished, dinner (in some form, at least) must be cooked, and you will find me running down the highway naked and screaming if the house is not eventually picked up, but that should not be what my day is about. That’s just the boring, mundane stuff. The stuff that I can come up with on my own.

People, and opportunities, are the ones that interrupt the routine. And that’s something I don’t want to miss out on anymore.

I don't want on my tombstone, “She kept a good house.”


Monday, May 4, 2009

Harnessing The Blahs

I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as a wasted emotion or thought. That each blip that enters out brain is there for a purpose, and that it is our job to make full use of it. I have personally witnessed in my own life and in others how anger, grief, jealousy, pride, and a host of other seemingly negative emotions can be turned into something productive and healthy.

But I have a hard time with simply The Blahs.

Unlike true depression, The Blahs usually occur just for one day, and can render an entire 24-hour period useless. This unfocused, gray feeling of general discontent and lack of motivation is so hard to work with because it just feels like…nothing. It’s hard to harness “nothing” and turn it into anything good.

Today, I am having one of these days. It’s raining. Again. It’s Monday. I just got back from my college reunion and I miss my friends and have realized the next time we’ll all be back together again, we’ll be over 40. My house is a wreck. Again.

The traditional female American response to this nebulous emotion is to grab a credit card in one hand and a pint of ice cream in the other, hoping to fill the void of nothingness with something that feels good, even if it’s just for a second. Then, of course, The Blahs double.

But not today. Today I refuse to give into this feeling. I refuse to waste an entire day of my life. I am determined to come up with a formula, once and for all, that would cure this condition, once and for all. And I think I have it.

If The Blahs are about nothingness, then they need to be filled with something. Something that would not have been accomplished that day had the blahs not occurred.

And because The Blahs are accompanied by an extreme lack of motivation, that Something has to be easily attainable.

Enter the 10 minute cure.

I set the kitchen timer and gave myself the following tasks to be done today, each for only 10 minutes:

1. Do something productive.
2. Do something self-indulgent.
3. Do something nice.

Earth-shattering, I know. But I decided to try it. So, for 10 minutes I cleaned out 2 drawers in my kitchen that have been sticking due to the explosion of clutter trapped inside. A little while later, I unapologetically read a magazine…in the middle of the day! And finally, in 10 minutes I wrote a letter to an elderly friend, made a thank-you snack package for my kids’ bus driver, picked flowers to bring to the preschool teachers, and planned dinner for my neighbor with a new baby.

None of these things would have been done without the occurrence of “the blahs.” This feeling has now had a purpose, a productive outcome, and…an end.

They’re gone, and my day is back.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

15 Minutes from Gorgeous

We all know those women who always look perfect. Some are simply natural beauties who look fantastic no matter the outfit, humidity level, or lighting situation. Then there are the others who have never been caught in public (or in private, we will swear) without every hair, eyelash, and coordinating pumps-purse-pedicure in place.

I have never been accused of being any of these women.

Rather, I am the woman at the meeting who always looks like she is on her way to, or just coming back from, the gym. Even if I have no intention of exercising that day. My first glance in the mirror is often when I’m brushing my teeth…at night…and if I’m being completely honest, sometimes I’m quite horrified at the image I see…the image every single person I’ve encountered during the day has seen.

That being said, it may surprise you (and many of those lucky people encountering me on my worst days) that I actually do have a pretty high standard for myself in terms of my appearance.

Here it is: I want to be 15 minutes away from being fabulous, at all times.

As long as I know that, within 15 minutes, I can transform myself into something sexy and attractive (well, at least to my husband), I can walk through my day, and my grocery store, with confidence and pride, despite the oatmeal on my shirt and greasy ponytail from yesterday’s spinning class. And as long as the “transformed me” makes a public appearance regularly enough around town, I feel that my image can be properly upheld.

What can’t be accomplished in 15 minutes? A decent figure. White teeth. Clear, smooth(ish) skin. These are the things I make sure are in order, and don’t mind spending a little time and money on.

What can be accomplished in 15 minutes? Absolutely everything else, provided I’ve chosen wisely in my hairstyle and makeup regimen.

So why not just go the extra 15 minutes in the morning and always look great? Because it just doesn’t work that way for me. Trying to constantly look great, in nice clothes, with perfect makeup, slows me down. Wearing nice clothes prevents me from taking the stroller to pick up my daughter from preschool. Instead, I grab the keys. I’m more restrained in my playing with the kids, blitz-cleaning the house, or heading outdoors. And it’s uncomfortable.

But worst of all, when I concentrate on my appearance, that’s what I’m doing…concentrating on my appearance, instead of something else. It distracts me from better, more important things.

So yeah, I care about what I look like, and that’s why I’ll surprise you sometime by showing up to your house, school board meeting, or girl’s night out looking like a completely put-together person. Just to let you, and myself, know that I still can. But for the rest of the time, I consider it a waste of time, energy, and focus.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thinking Twice about Who Gets My Money

Today, I did something I normally hate doing- I paid retail for a hardback book. It was the latest “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” for my son, and though I could have probably held out for it to come to the library, I decided to splurge. My son will be thrilled, but honestly, the thought of his happy face wasn’t what tipped me over the edge in pulling out my wallet- it was the store selling the book.

This adorable, boutique children’s bookstore struggling to stay afloat moved into our neighborhood a few years ago, replacing a God-awful “American Opinion” store filled with skin-heads and secret late-night meetings.

This store deserves my money.

In the past few months, since my husband’s company shut down, I have, for the most part, spent as little money as humanly possible. But when I do decide to splurge, I am trying to make sure the person, or institution, getting our hard-earned (or hard-SAVED, now) dollar is worthy of it. That it is the kind of business we believe needs to still be around a year from now.

We’re all facing the conundrum of needing to save money for our own private benefit, but spend money in order to keep our economy alive. To make peace with this, we need to remember both sides of that coin with every purchase: what, and who.

This is the only way we’re going to like the way our world looks when the dust settles.


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Back When Parties Were Fun and Easy

Remember when we used to judge a party just by how big it was? When all we had to do to have a party was say, “Hey, I’m having a party Saturday night”, and maybe, maybe buy a keg?

And when we went to a party, we didn’t even notice the person’s house (sometimes we didn’t even know whose house it was) or whether or not there was food. We simply got excited about how many cars were lining the street and how loud the music was coming from the backyard.

We just noticed people.

I am, of course, talking about my single days (or college…or high school), and part of the allure of people meant, for me, guys. Nowadays, of course, I am not out scooping for guys (my husband will be happy to know), but I still think that we’ve lost something in our more mature married life in making get-togethers about the wrong things.

Nowadays, when we have a party, it’s so much more work. We are taught by countless magazine covers, talk shows, and Sunday morning columns that we need to have an immaculate house, be a fabulous cook, and carefully orchestrate the guest list, theme, and party d├ęcor to have a successful gathering. Now, I do know some women who pull this off beautifully, and actually seem to be enjoying themselves in the process, but for the rest of us, we tend to spend our own parties in mild state of hysteria trying to be something we’re not.

And here is the inherent problem, and the source of our stress: we have shifted the focus from our guests to ourselves, and honestly, we are all paying the price for this.

We are getting together less often. And when we do, it’s stressful and expensive. And not as much fun.

Now let me point out that this adult phenomenon does not occur everywhere. All over the world, and even in neighborhoods across the United States, there are people getting together regularly, in groups large and small, without any stress or large cost or maid service or decorating theme or even a single hour frantically scrubbing their bathrooms.

And here is the most likely place to find them: among people who are used to not having any money. Village festivals, large family reunions in playgrounds, neighbors in lawn chairs in the front yard, and, yes, twenty-nothings standing around a backyard keg- these gatherings all originate from the simple desire to just have fun, be together, and escape the daily grind. No one gets credit for a “fabulous spread” or “incredible hostessing skills” or “unbelievable house.”

And everyone has more fun.

So let’s all vow to get together this summer more often, and take some advice from people who know how to have a good time. Don’t worry about cleaning up- we don’t care. Just tell us what to bring over, and we’ll be there.


Friday, April 24, 2009

A Free Education and Year of Entertainment in One Hour

I am a different kind of person when I’m reading a good book. No line at the grocery store, hour in a waiting room, or evening spent watching my husband channel surf is wasted, or begrudged- I have my book, and need nothing else.

The problem is, I don’t always have that good book, and so live in a state of mild discontent and wasted time until someone comes along with a good recommendation, or suddenly reach a breaking point where I grab my keys and my wallet and drive to Barnes and Noble, sanctimoniously turning down their offer to become a “member” for $25 extra for the third time this month because I “never come here.”

There is a better way, and it takes less than an hour and can cost nothing.

We just need a plan.

There is a free, fabulous education out there that will turn us into the best-read person we know and fill every minute of down-time in our lives with life-changing wisdom and entertainment. And all we need to do to get it is spend the next hour doing the following steps:

1. Gather up all the used paperbacks in our house, and put them in a box or paper grocery bag.

2. Locate a used book store in our city

3. Create a LIST of all the books we’d like to read, and print it out. The older the book, the more likely we’ll find it.

Here are some lists I’ve found:

For all those books we should have read in school but didn’t:



Or just to catch up on Oprah’s book club:


If we’d like to get our children in on the action:



4. Now take our trade-ins to the used bookstore, open an account, and while they’re sorting through our books, hit the aisles with that list! Don’t be surprised when they give some books back- just find a place to donate them later.

Now…we should have an amazing stack of hours and hours of reading sitting by our beds, ready to be grabbed. When we get through it, we’ll go back to the bookstore, trade them in, and start all over.

Of course, the library is always there, too.

Now what else do we need to get us through the next year? Just a good cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending on the time of day, and we’re golden.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A New Life for Old Toys

I’m in that dangerous mode again…clean out mode. It happens a few times a year. While others may hoard, my illness is the need to go on “purging” rampages where no child’s drawing, high school yearbook, or family heirloom is safe from the circular file.

Don’t get me wrong- what can be recycled or donated will be. But I do tend to get rid of things very quickly, and sometimes have regretted my quick trigger finger.

But this year, I’m trying something different. The clutter in my house has GOT TO GO, but instead of immediately giving away my kids’ unused, under-appreciated, or just-too-complicated-and-messy-to-bother-with toys, I am putting them away into what I’m calling, “the summer toy box.” In this box will contain toys, activities, and crafts to be taken out... one at a time.. to be done with me.

With the creation of this box (or closet, depending on how much stuff I find), I hope to do a few things: 1) find new life for good toys that never got their day in the sun, 2) allow my kids to occasionally feel like they’re getting a new treat (without my spending anything), 3) force myself to actually sit down and play with my kids, and 4) give myself an instant answer to the question, “Mom, what can we doooo?”

The best candidates for this box are toys and activities that require some parental guidance and set-up. Those are the toys in my house that tend to sit unused, or get immediately and irrevocably scattered, because I didn’t have the time/energy/focus/patience to sit down properly with my kids to show them how to do it. But now that they’re locked safely away, I can bring them out at my convenience, when we actually have the right amount of time to devote to them.

The only purchase I’ve made to aid me in this endeavor is something I usually don’t buy- Ziploc bags. With one package of gallon-sized bags (that can be reused many times!) I can create single craft projects as I slowly clean the house. I can ensure that every last piece of the puzzle will stay together. I can grab just one bag to throw into the car for swim meets, baseball games, or picnics.

So, in this summer of fewer camps, babysitters, and vacations than in years past, hopefully finding a new life for old toys will help us actually slow down and play with our kids and avoid the watch something/buy something/eat something trap of desperation parenting.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Eating Organic on a Budget

We are all looking desperately for ways to cut the monthly budget, and like many of you, the first place my eye goes is to the grocery bill. I mean, we could survive off Ramen noodles for the next month (I did in college, didn’t I?), so this can be a tempting gold mine of cost savings in desperate times.

However, more and more research is coming out about how bad all the “cheap” food is for us (be sure to catch “The Unhealthy Truth” coming out in May by Robyn McCord O’Brien and go to www.allergykids.com for more information on this). We’re actually already spending less of our income on food than at any other time in history, and by choosing the cheap fillers of corn syrup, soy, and GMO’s, our children are paying the price. Childhood cases of food allergies, ADHD, Autism, and Asthma are through the roof, and tons of research (that I firmly believe) links it to the JUNK that’s in our food.

Another horrifying statistic is that just 100 years ago, Americans ate less sugar in an entire year than we now eat in a single day. It’s not that we’re loading up on desserts- this sugar is in our meals and “healthy” snacks!

So, how do we balance these two forces that are crashing down around our heads: the need to buy more expensive food AND the need to spend less money? Here are a few things that I’ve found that will at least help you get started on both eating more healthily AND cutting your food budget:

Buy frozen: Research has shown that frozen fruits and vegetables can be even healthier than fresh ones (often picked unripe and shipped long distances). Obviously, local, organic, and fresh is best, but frozen isn’t as bad as you think.

Start with just the essential organics: The most important things to buy organic are milk, eggs, chicken, and beef. If you can’t swallow the price of organic meat, at least go “all natural” with no antibiotics or hormones.

Eliminate corn syrup: Double-check your bread, granola bars, peanut butter, crackers, and kid snacks, and cut this ingredient out. This one step will do wonders for your kids health.

When you can, DO buy organic: strawberries, Chilean grapes (tons of pesticides!), peppers, spinach, cherries, peaches, Mexican Cantaloupe, celery, apples, apricots, green beans, and cucumbers.

Don’t bother buying organic: avocadoes, corn, onions, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, non-Chilean grapes, bananas, plums, green onions, watermelon, or broccoli.

Buy Organic, Free Trade Coffee but brew it yourself. After your morning is over, turn off your coffee maker with just a little coffee left in it, and when you need a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, don’t buy a chemical-laden Diet Coke- make a cold iced coffee (with real sugar, not sweetened chemicals).

Eat Less. Yes, I said it. We Americans try to lose weight and save money by finding the cheapest low-calorie “health” food we can buy, and then eating tons of it. Instead, let’s eat something real and authentic, enjoy it, and then stop eating.

Let’s start with just this. There are plenty more things we can do to be more healthy and save more money- and we’ll get to those in good time- but starting with these simple steps is a good start for both our bodies and our budget.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Wasted Effort and Purchases on Young Children

The day is coming when my three kids will be embarrassed by wearing hand-me down clothes. The day is coming when they will know all the brand names of clothing, cars, shoes, and sporting equipment. Someday they will start noticing the size of people’s houses, the quality of hotel rooms on vacations, and the furnishings in their friends’ homes.

But that day has not yet come. So why are so many of us spending loads of money on these things NOW?

The answer is simple- we are doing it for ourselves. We like to see our kids in cute clothes, magazine-quality bedrooms, and picturesque vacation settings. And there is nothing wrong with any of this, as long as we can afford it and admit our motivation behind it. But we’re not really doing it for them.

I’ve seen friends (and myself) get themselves into serious financial trouble using the excuse that they “want to give their kids the best.” But we all need to realize that kids see things very differently than we do, and their version of “the best” can be very different from ours, and much, much cheaper (and easier!) to accommodate.

My own young family’s life provides more examples of this phenomenon than I can count- almost all due to my breaking my own rule here. The adorable clothes I thought my son would love were cast aside for the one ratty t-shirt that had a blue fish on it. My 18-month-old’s favorite animal at the National Zoo (4 hours, one hotel room, and 4 restaurants later) was a DUCK. The coolest room of any of my sons’ friends is the one that has a Star Wars poster in it.

We are overshooting, and paying the price for it.

If you have young kids, put away your guilt about not giving them “the best” and instead, give them what they want- your attention, your peace of mind, and a more secure financial future for the things that really matter: a good education, some great experiences they’ll actually remember, and maybe just a few of those nice clothes when they know how to appreciate them.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Always choose Outdoors over Indoors

Spring is taking its own sweet time in arriving in Virginia this year, but we are getting just enough pretty days to make us start craving the outdoors again.

The few beautiful, warm days we have had have driven home a strong point to me- that the great outdoors is the greatest economic equalizer in our society. No matter how much money we have, or don’t have, all of us living in the same city feel the same temperature and see the same amount of sunlight as everyone else. Same with the beautiful trees, flowers, birds…they are there for all of us.

The great outdoors also has another gift for us- saving money. I’m realizing that by making one simple choice at every opportunity- choosing outdoors rather than indoors – almost anything can be made more affordable, meaningful, and enjoyable:

Entertaining: Now’s the time of year for us all to come out of our winter cocoons and get together, but it doesn’t have to be in your home! You can always host a casual get-together in your backyard, but even simpler is to organize a gathering in a park or public garden. Taking it outside relieves the stress on you to be the “hostess” responsible for providing the beauty of the surroundings (Mother Nature will now take care of that), and helps make the event be about the simple act of getting together, not showing off your house.

Entertainment: I’m always amazed at the price of an indoor concert ticket compared to the quality of the bands you can get at free outdoor concerts. Another fabulous quality of an outdoor venue is that you can walk away with a screaming baby. If you keep a basket filled with hats, sunscreen, balls, bubbles, a few snacks, and a blanket near your front door or in your car, you’ll instantly be ready to head for a quick escape outside OR stretch out an otherwise just-fun-for-adults outdoor event…rather than heading for the nearest ice cream shop, Target store, or remote control when boredom hits.

Transportation: Before you grab your car keys, take an instant to ask yourself if you could possibly get there on bike or foot. This has probably been my most life-changing habit in terms of my wallet, body, and carbon imprint. Traveling this way makes it almost impossible to overbuy (you have to carry it home) or impulse buy (you’d have to walk there); it burns calories, saves gas money, and cuts down on “down time”- your transportation is your workout.

But choosing the outdoors over the indoors is more than just trying to live cheaply. We are actually doing something pretty profound- we are choosing the world’s beauty over our own. Living indoors requires us to fully decorate and control our environment- with our vision, our taste, our possessions, and our energy. Everything just reflects ourselves. To live outdoors is to be about something bigger, and to relinquish control over every sound, temperature, view, and living creature allowed access to our lives.

So let’s get out there, and take a break from trying to create the perfect world within our imperfect possessions. To do otherwise is such a waste of this beautiful gift of Spring!


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Your philosophy as your style

It’s hard not to envy other people’s homes. At least it is for me. I couldn’t care less about fancy cars, designer clothing, or country club memberships, but if someone has a fantastic house, perfectly decorated in my kind of style, with pieces I’ve drooled over in magazines, then I may need to give myself a little mommy timeout while I get over myself.

When others have more than we do, and that thing they have costs money that we don’t have, it’s hard not to fixate on the fact that what we have as…well, less. Less of something good. Less than they do.

This is when it is so important to have a philosophy behind your spending habits. For me, “saving money” never counted as a legitimate philosophy. It felt too self-centered and empty, lacking any focus or higher cause. It’s also too tied to career success, indicating that you should ideally need your philosophy less and less as time goes on, rather than engaging in a lifelong pursuit of its perfection.

This is why the green movement and the current economy are so complimentary…one hand washes the other. Green living gives a higher cause to habits that otherwise could be viewed as nothing more than “doing without,” and the lack of disposable income curbs our appetite for thoughtless waste and consumption.

Now is the time for us to spread the message of Wastelessness…while people are looking for ways to feel better about not having a lot of money. The dots to be connected between our spending habits and our impact on the Earth have never been closer together.

As long as I keep my philosophy in mind, I can see my possessions, or lack thereof, in the light of their true beauty. My garage-sale finds are beacons of sustainability, not cheap imitations of my neighbor’s new designer pieces. My home’s smaller square footage clearly translates into a smaller carbon footprint. Every worn piece of furniture still gracing my living room is an empty space in a landfill.

In this light, my home and my style are so much more. Just as the dieter doesn’t feel down on herself because she didn’t eat the huge piece of chocolate cake, I do not feel less of anything.

I wouldn’t feel this great if I was just doing it for a higher number in my bank account.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Wasteless, Authentic Decorating Style

The predominant decorating style in my town is ornate silk upon silk.  In so many of the beautiful homes of my friends, the windows and furniture are flowing with gorgeous silk, tasseled, printing material.

So, I decided I wanted to do the same.  That is, until I found out how much silk curtains cost.  Literally ten times what I'd been expecting.

So, do I buy silk curtains and try to replicate the look as best I can? Fill my home with ornate budget-priced items that kind of look nice and rich?

Not a good idea.

The look my friends have was recognizable and authentic.  I did not want to have the house that was the cheap imitation of their style.

My decorating aspirations were not doomed, however.  They simply needed to go in a different direction.  There were tons of other styles out there...I just needed to find one that authentically matched my budget and taste.

I found my answer near the arctic circle...Scandinavian design.  I don't mean IKEA (I do love that store for certain pieces, but not for my whole house) but the clean lines, lack of clutter, and celebration of "negative space": intentionally bare walls, floors, and windows.

What's so great about this style is that even if it's not your ideal style, you can use it as a "step one" in decorating, and then add to it later when you have the money and opportunity.  It looks so much better than buying a bunch of cheap stuff just to fill the space...or, of course, going into debt buying furnishings you can't afford.

What also works well with this style is working backwards...a "reverse makeover," if you will.  If you can't stand the style you have now, you can give your home (or even just one troublesome room) a clean new look by simply getting rid of things and not replacing them.  

To avoid making the room look bare, look for examples of Scandinavian style for inspiration.  Here are some of my very cheap and easy tricks that can help give an otherwise bare-looking room the intentional look of Scandinavian minimalism:

-Go monochromatic:  the things you leave in the room should be of neutral, similar color

-Bring in some nature: a glass bowl filled with pine cones, sticks in a vase,  a green plant.  Brown and green on beige is a classic Scandinavian color scheme.

-Get some "modern art".   This is fun.  I've seen three looks that do well with this style: black and white photographs in black frames,  funky splashes of color in light wood frames (have any kid's art laying around in drawers?), and neutral-colored abstract paintings on canvas frames (my friend Molly captured this look in her home years ago when she simply painted 5 canvases in a single color, then a 6th in a contrasting color, hanging them all over a large wall in 2 rows of 3...fantastic).  

I encourage you to at least give this style a try if you're itching for a new look in your home.  It's cheap, easy, low-risk, and green.  Even if you just have one room to play with, creating one beautiful space that celebrates simplicity, nature, peace, and clarity can help remind us of the needs to duplicate those values in other aspects of our lives.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Wasteless Decorating: Add To, don't Take Away

I love old homes, and have never lived in a house that was built later than 1936. I don’t think I’ll ever trade the character, charm, and quality of construction found in older homes (and neighborhoods) for the convenience and freshness of a new house, no matter how tempting those giant closets and standard kitchen/family room combos get.

Upon inheriting an older home, however, you also inherit something else: the taste and style of the previous owner. Some of these things are easily correctible with paint and some wallpaper-removing tools. It took me less than 3 days upon house closing to get rid of the peach walls in my dining room.

Other things are not so simple. The white wall tile and powder blue countertops (and matching striped walls!) in my kitchen are my best (and worst) examples. These 80’s-inspired decorating choices were going to require a costly renovation, a blind eye, or some major creativity on my part.

The first two choices were not an option for me when we bought our house, so I was left with the third. I found my inspiration and salvation in the wise words of designer Christopher Lowell: Add to, don’t take away.

This sounds counter-intuitive to saving money and waste, but actually works like a charm. If you have something you don’t like, don’t tear it out or replace it, just add to it.

Take my white tiles. By adding pictures and other painted tiles on top of them, the eye now goes directly to my additions, not to the plain tiles themselves. And my blue countertops and striped walls? I added a chocolate brown coat of paint below the chair rail, and now my dated color scheme is instantly modern.

I carried this practice through to the furnishings in my house, too. The off-white walls and light blue comforter in the master bedroom that before were so plain looked fabulous when I added 2 brown throw pillows and brown curtains. My ancient wooden couch got a new life when I took the whole frame outside one afternoon and painted it with a matte black. I even recovered the worn pink cushions myself with a sturdy taupe fabric…all for $40. Is it my dream couch now? No, but I’m proud of it, and with a few more pillows, it’ll be great. Someone even asked me if I got it at Restoration Hardware.

The plain mantelpiece we felt needed replacing looked fine once we added a $0.99 candleholder from Pier 1. The old worn carpet in the basement? Completely rejuvenated with a few old throw-rugs leftover from the kids’ old rooms.

So many things could avoid filling landfills if we just add a finishing touch of paint, hardware, fabric, or wood trim to it. Just think of all the time, energy, and money you’ll save, too, if you spend an extra few minutes trying to turn something ugly into something else before you just toss it and replace it.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Wasteless Decorating: Choosing Increased Function over Increased Beauty

Every time I earn a little extra money (which is in short supply nowadays, of course) my thoughts first turn to my house. What piece of furniture can I finally buy that I’ve been wanting? Can we install granite countertops? Replace the old rug?

So, if my thoughts always turn to decorating, why is my ancient couch still the first things guests see upon entering the house?

Because the couch still works, and other things don’t. I cannot justify simply replacing something that still serves its function. People can sit down and talk just as easily on this couch as they could on its nicer-looking replacement. Ditto with my countertops. My artwork. The rugs.

There are some things in my house, though, that just don’t work right, and for me, those are legitimate candidates for replacement. We replaced our small square breakfast room table with a round one, which has cut down on elbow fights and helps facilitate conversation. Adding two extra chairs to the furniture arrangement in the side room allowed it to become a separate meeting area, away from the distractions of the TV and kitchen.

In other words, I am vowing, for the meantime at least, to only spend money on things that DO SOMETHING. That work for me in making my life easier in some tangible way; that allow me to do something that I otherwise could not have done. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it honestly rules out a lot of wasteful spending.

So, to tackle your decorating “wish list”, try the following exercise: Make a list of all the things that you wish you could replace in your home. Then divide the list into two parts: beauty and function. For today, concentrate on the function list. Pin down exactly what you wish you could DO that you cannot do now. See if you can create that function using what you already have. If not, you have a legitimate purchase on your hands.

So, what to do about all the ugly things left on that “beauty” list? Check out my next post on how we’ll tackle those…a pretty house is important, too!


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Think Twice Before Buying Nice Things

This morning, my 4-year old daughter proudly showed me her latest masterpiece…drawn with the stash of Sharpies I thought I’d hidden well in my drawer. Needless to say, both the paper and the kitchen counters were covered. Almost all of it has come off.

Instead of flying off the handle, all I thought was, “Thank God we hadn’t yet gotten around to installing granite…” And the more I think of it, we probably never will.

I’ve had similar incidents, and subsequent thought patterns, with all of my children and most of the furniture throughout my home. The violence of my reaction is in direct proportion to how nice the ruined item is, of course, which brings me to the inevitable question, “What’s the point in having something nice?”

If the point is because you actually enjoy something more the nicer it is, then fine. But I find that often I’ve felt compelled to upgrade something I own because I’m worried what other people will think, not because I actually get more enjoyment out of it.

The kitchen counters being the first example. Honestly, what do granite countertops DO over formica? Yet, every granite purchase comes with extensive instructions on how to CARE for your new countertops. I never, ever CARE for, or about, my formica.

The second huge example in my home is our living room couch. I love it, but it’s old. I mean really old. My baby pictures were taken on it. But every time I think about replacing it, another kid spills a drink on old reliable, and I nonchalantly brush the stain off with my hand. Should I really trade that peace of mind for the admiration of my houseguests? Which couch would enhance my life more? I already know the answer.

Kid’s clothes serve as yet another example. Yes, my children look adorable in their smocked, monogrammed, matching ensembles (all one of them), but whenever they wear them, none of us has any fun. The kids can’t run, climb, or take a bite of food without my blood pressure and voice going up. If they’re in their usual second-hand treasures, however, the world is their mud pile. I couldn’t care less.

Money is so limited nowadays; we need to be sure that when we do splurge on something nice, it is something that truly brings us joy, not stress and extra work. The next time you think about acquiring a new possession, make sure it’s not going to possess you instead.


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Home-School Your Kids This Summer

Summer is looming. It may not seem so with the lingering cold temperatures and the constant rain in the East Coast, but it’s coming. While summer is fabulous in many ways, those of us with children at home understand the challenges that 3 long months with no school can present. Especially this summer.

Like many of you, I have to cut back this year on summer camps, babysitters, and vacations. So how do we get through this summer without going crazy? Without our kids dying from boredom, atrophying in mind and body, and feeling every pinch of the economic crisis?

Ladies, it’s time to home school. Just for the summer.

And like any good teacher, you need a Plan. A Lesson Plan. Just as a teacher prepares for a successful semester in the classroom, you can be preparing now for a full, enriching, fabulous summer with your kids that you will always remember.

So let me dust off my old teacher’s hat and share my strategies on how to prepare a lesson plan (or “Unit Plan” would be more accurate, for you teachers out there):

-State your objectives. What is your goal for your kids this summer? What kinds of things would you like your children to learn or develop? Reading? Manners? Social skills? Empathy? Nature Awareness? Concentrate on just a few and write them down.

-Set up “classroom rules”. All good teachers are able to get their students to behave much better than they normally do at home. They set high standards, and have clear consequences and rewards. At home, we can (and should) raise the bar, too. If the rules are coupled with a fun weekly reward, the kids should rise to the occasion.

-Do your research and grab your calendar. This is the fun part. Go online NOW and read your paper. Write down anything and everything that sounds interesting and fun that’s coming up this summer. Where we live in Virginia, there are tons of outdoor festivals, state parks, free concerts, library story times, pick-your-own blackberry farms, you name it. Not to mention all the regular museums and tourist attractions we tend to ignore. If you write these things on your calendar, you will avoid having to think when asked the question, “Mom, what are we doing today?”

-Team Teach: Let some of your friends in on your new strategy, and work together. Invite other kids along on some of your adventures, and allow other parents to reciprocate. Ergo, your free babysitting.

-Have an “emergency lesson plan” folder. Veteran teachers always have a backup plan for when the VCR breaks, the activity ends early, or something just plain doesn’t work. At home, we also need to have some contingency plans for rain, illness, or just miserable humidity and heat. Start a file with ideas that appeal to you.

-Read. Every teacher will tell you that this is the key to success- not fancy camps, exotic vacations, golf lessons, or tutors. Just read. Go to the library. Have a set time the kids read each day, with and without you.

We can all have a wonderful summer, despite (and I argue, because of) our lack of economic resources. By taking action now, we can ensure that our kids will want for nothing in terms of education, activity, and attention – even without spending a dime.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Praise of Bad Days

We have had a terrible day. Today, our family dog, “Cooper”, had to be put to sleep. Yes, he was old and in pain, but I’d known him for longer than I’d known my oldest child. He was my firstborn, and my beloved only child for years. Then, when my oldest human child was diagnosed with asthma, we had to send Cooper away to live with my parents. That may have been the hardest parental sacrifice I’ve made to date. And now he’s gone, and I wasn’t there to say goodbye.

Yes, it’s been a bad day. Sure, people have had worse- much, much worse, but it was still pretty crappy. So, needless to say, I didn’t feel much like writing today, and thought it would surely be a waste of time anyway.

But then I realized that maybe this is exactly the kind of time in which I should write. Exactly the kind of time when some of the greatest masterpieces, epiphanies, and feats of courage and greatness have occurred-during the bad days. Every war seems to inspire fabulous volumes of poetry, literature, art, and music. Most major religions were founded during “times of troubles”.

Come to think of it, even the most appreciated art itself seems to be about bad times…and what people do about them. Heck, everyone knows a comedic film is incapable of winning an Oscar- we need war, addiction, infidelity, illness, pain, poverty, paralysis, death.

So what is so special about pain?

Pain draws people together. Success, happiness, contentment, talent, health…they’re what we all desire, but they can actually separate us from each other. They can foster resentment in others and self-centeredness in yourself.

But pain? That’s something we can all relate to, and something that forces us to need each other. It equalizes us, humanizes us, and humbles us.

The great ones are those who recognize this fact and put it to good use. Instead of ignoring the emotions, burying the memories, or building up walls, they feel and think their way through it until it can be explained and expressed in a way that reaches others.

The great ones can express and share empathy, and empathy is what we are all seeking in our friendships, our art, our spirituality. Someone or something that can put into words what we knew we were feeling but couldn’t quite express.

And empathy never comes from the good days.

So don’t wait for the good days to do something good. Don’t squander the pain, mistake, heartbreak, depression, sickness, boredom, frustration, or failure just in order to “get over it” quickly. It could be the greatest gift you have to give.

I won’t go so far to say you should “rejoice in your suffering”…but maybe I’m finally starting to understand that phrase a bit more.

Goodbye, sweet Cooper.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Wait Just One More Day to go Shopping

I’ve been amazed recently by just how much food I have in my pantry that I never seem to get around to eating. Instead, I just serve my family the same old favorites, over and over, and the rest of the non-perishables meet the same fate as the “other 90%” of my closet: they gather dust and take up space.

So I’m trying a new trick to stretch my budget that seems to really be working. When I absolutely have to go to the store, I wait one more day.

This practice has turned out to have multiple benefits. First, the obvious. Spending $150 at the grocery store every 8 days instead of 7 will result in an annual savings of $978. But what I’m also finding is that I’m getting more creative in my cooking, eating a greater variety of foods, forcing my kids to try new things, and throwing away less.

So how would this practice translate to other purchases? Would waiting one extra day to buy everything result in significant savings?

Definitely. First, there’s the elimination of the “impulse buy.” By waiting that one extra day, you may forget about the purchase altogether. In that case, you obviously didn’t need it to begin with.

But what if it is something you really need, and now? The extra 24 hours may force you to find an adequate substitute already in your possession. In fact, I’ve often found that I already owned the very thing I thought I needed to go buy when forced to look within my own house. Embarassing. Other times, by simply mentioning to a friend “tomorrow, I’m going to go buy (fill in the blank)”, I’ve suddenly found myself the new owner of exactly what they were getting rid of. The Universe is funny that way- if you ask, you’ll often receive.

And if after 24 hours you do find that you still need to go shopping, you will have possibly had time to research a better price, pare down your list, or couple the shopping trip with another errand- all resulting in saving time, money, and gas.

So, don’t feel like you can never get what you need. Just wait one more day for it.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wasteless Birthday Parties for Kids

My daughter brought up the subject of her upcoming 4th birthday on the very day that my husband was laid off from work. Perfect. Now, as I was desperately trying to scrape together a revised, even-more-stripped-down-than-usual budget, I had to add “fantastic birthday party” to the extra column of our budget spreadsheet dangerously labeled “miscellaneous”?

How could I pull this off without letting someone down: my stressed-out husband, my trusting daughter, or my own conscience that rebels against the abhorrent waste that surrounds the mega-business of the party industry?

My salvation came from 2 unexpected sources: my grandmother’s estate, and my daughter’s words.

First, my daughter. Far from being immune to the Great Marketing Machine, my daughter wanted a “Barbie Rapunzel Birthday” with all the little girls in her preschool class. Here we go- the plates, the dream castle, the plastic and goodie bags and themed games and on and on and on…right?

No. When questioned further, my precious 4-year-old-to-be clarified that a Barbie Rapunzel Birthday meant that you had a Barbie candle on your cake.

Seriously? That’s it? CAN DO, sweetie. One Barbie candle. Check.

The second lifeline came from something I initially begrudged: my inherited “demitasse set” from my late grandmother’s estate- you know, those tiny, tiny little fragile teacups you never see anymore. Too nice to give away, too fancy for my usual style, too small for my monstrous caffeine requirements.

But quality. And fancy. And completely useless unless used. Even if it’s by clumsy little hands that may break one or two in the process, these cups were meant to be used, and now they will be, in my daughter’s Barbie Rapunzel - Fancy Dress Birthday Tea Party. It’ll be fabulous, fancy, and completely free of waste. And free of destructive boys.

My daughter’s true wishes revealed and the gift from my grandmother provided me two lessons about how to avoid wasteful spending, energy, and consumption in children’s parties: 1) Our children’s wishes are simpler than we think, and 2) the best inspiration for a party can come out of desire to use something great you already have.

What do you have at your disposal that would make for a great party? A huge sandbox in your backyard for a beach party? A chef’s kitchen perfect for a cooking party? A large garden for aspiring gardeners? A trunk full of flowered hats? A collection of old 45’s for a sock hop?
Give your possessions a new life rather than condemn a bunch of paper and plastic to an instant eternity in a landfill. The only person that will notice the lack of costly disposable extras will be you

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How the Irish Saved Entertaining...for me

This St. Patrick's Day, I am going to honor my husband and relatives living in the Emerald Isle by passing on the secret to their famous hospitality- a secret that has saved me countless hours of work and anxiety, and countless dollars (or Euros) in grocery bills.

The Irish are famous for their hospitality because they never make it about themselves- only about being glad to see you.

When you are received into an Irish home, it is warmly and without apology about the mess, decor, or lack of space. Until the 1980's, no one in Ireland had any room to spare that could be designated for "entertaining", so you simply cleared off the papers from the kitchen table and pulled up chairs.

And when you sit down at that kitchen table, you are immediately offered 3 things, and usually 3 things only: tea, cookies, and sandwiches.


No cooking, no waiting, no scurrying around. Right there, plopped on the table, is a teapot, some milk (you must, must accept milk in your tea...otherwise you'll look like an ignorant Yank), cookies (usually store-bought), and a plate of sandwiches, cut into fourths, that you just grab and stuff into your mouth.

Irish entertaining is hospitality at its purest. By it's very nature, it can't be about your home, your fabulous cooking, your obvious effort...it's just about the conversation and the joy of being together. No ego involved.

Your host actually enjoys herself, and talks to you the entire time without scurrying around the kitchen. You can sit for hours talking, actually enjoying yourself, because there's never the feeling of putting anyone out.

This menu is appropriate for any time of the day, any day of the year.

So, today as you remember your green and your Guiness, also remember to pick up a box of tea (Barry's Gold Blend Irish Tea is our favorite, found in World Market and some grocery stores), some good cookies (Cadbury's are acceptable), and basic sandwich fare, and you will be truly ready to offer Irish hospitality at its best.


Friday, March 13, 2009

When kids need to HAVE something when they DO something

I never feel deprived when I can’t have something, but I feel ridiculously sorry for myself, or my kids, when we can’t do something.

Back when we were dating, my husband and I agreed that we would always choose doing over having, when it came to our spending priorities. So, we do lots of cool things, in my opinion, without having to feel like we have to also buy things to have in the process.

For example, we ski all the time, but with pretty old gear. We travel the world, but camp, stay with friends, or choose “quaint” over “fabulous.” We go to concerts, events, day trips, even theme parks, without having to get the t-shirt, the poster, the expensive lunch, or the souvenir.

Then along came our kids. Of course we want them to see and do, and so they have.

But….kids seem to need to have when they do. And there is a multi-billion dollar industry that knows this. Everywhere we go, we have to walk through a gift store to reach the exit sign. At every outdoor event, there is someone selling a $12 balloon or $15 spinny light thing that will break in the car on the way home, and every other kid has got it. And in addition to the spinny thing, they need the sugary thing.

What starts off as a quality, affordable family outing can turn into a depressing pile of plastic, sugar, and credit card debt, just so the kids can “get something.” It’s enough to make you not want to go anywhere at all.

Then one day, a friend of mine brought along a bag of lollipops to keep in the car after a day at a theme park. Low and Behold, the promise of that one lollipop at the end of the day allowed my kids to turn a blind eye to every “make your own sand sculpture out of colored edible sugar” stand we passed.

Could it be this easy? Are kids that cheaply bought off? The answer is YES, and the younger they are, the cheaper. They just need Something, and if you bring that Something along with you instead of buying it there, you will spend almost nothing.

Here are the Somethings that have worked for my kids, and I encourage you to stock up now for your next special outing. Just DON’T give these things to your kids all the time, or the magic will be ruined:

bag of lollipops
glow sticks
popsicles (for when they get home)
a turn taking pictures with your digital camera
a turn holding the flashlight
a wrapped toy from the dollar store (lifesaver at Disney World!!)
their own notebook and crayons to keep a journal

Yes, it would be great if kids didn’t need these things every time they got to do something, but they’re just kids, and I myself am tired to trying to completely fight that concept.

When they get older, I am going to give them a set amount of money to blow at the beginning of every season, and when it’s gone it’s gone. They’ll learn quickly.

But right now, I love being able to spoil them with a 20-cent glow stick when we’re out late at night. They couldn’t be happier.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Traveling "Windows of Time" for Young Families

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we love to travel. Every year, my husband and I get away by ourselves at least once (thank you Mom!), give each other several opportunities to go off on our own, and then drag the kids around everywhere else.

Some vacations have been more successful, of course, than others, and some have been a downright waste because the kids were not at an age where they could appreciate it or make it remotely fun for us.

Oh, if only I had known then what I know now.

As it turns out, I have discovered that with one notable exception (you’ll see), it is always possible and fun to travel with your kids, provided you pick the right vacation for each “age window.” Since my oldest is 8, I can’t give first-hand advice on what to do with teenagers, so will stop there. But please, please heed my advice if you are a brand-new family starting off, because, again, I would have loved to have known then what I know now:

A non-crawling, nursing baby: Oh, please, please, don’t squander this time away! You have no idea how easy a baby in a bucket who cannot crawl or fuss about solid food is to travel with! Now is the time to visit family and friends (especially ones who will help you nap). Now is the time to travel abroad. Go for it! Please do not wait until your baby is “a little older” and crawling or walking before you take her on a plane and in public places with dirty floors!

Crawling baby, eating baby food: This is honestly a very hard time to travel. Your baby wants to crawl, but there are few places in public where this is safe or sanitary. Your baby cannot eat regular food, so you have to lug around or buy baby food everywhere, and if you’re traveling abroad, it can be very difficult to find your brand. And don’t even try the beach- babies hate it at this age and will eat sand within the first 10 seconds. And everything else. This is a great time for friends and family to come to you instead of the other way around.

Toddler: This is a great time to take a vacation that interests you, the parent. Toddlers need to be able to run around (planes are challenging), and see things, but they are pretty easy to please. This is NOT the time to take them to Disney World or plan another “fantastic” trip for that child to enjoy. They won’t appreciate it, and you’ll be disappointed. I made this mistake when I took my then- 15 month old son on an “educational” trip to Washington, DC. After a full day of the Smithsonian and the National Zoo, the only things he showed interest in were the ducks at the zoo and riding the escalator. Could have done that at home!

Child, ages 3-5: Now your child cares about and appreciates his surroundings. He will love the beach, though will prefer the hotel pool. Disney World is debatable, though my 3-year old loved it. This age can still be easily entertained, so you could combine a trip you would enjoy with small side adventures for the kids, and they will be thrilled.

Child, ages 6-9: This is a golden time for kid-oriented family vacations. Your kids are in school full-time now, so you’re actually craving, and needing, more quality time together. They will remember, cherish, and enjoy it. Plus, they’ll be a real pain if they are bored on a less child-focused trip. Now, they want to be with you, want you to play with them all the time, and have an unlimited supply of energy. Load up on the memories and enjoy.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Redefining "Down Time" - Part 2

A few days ago, I talked about how I get my best creative thinking done when stuck in an airport terminal, doctor’s office, or boring lecture- time I would have previously defined as “wasted down time” before I realized what a gold mine of productivity it could be.

Today I want to talk about the other forms of “down time” that occur in my daily life that I’ve learned to reclaim as ultra-productive:

Time in Transit: The number one way I’ve eliminated this as down time is by walking everywhere humanly possible, turning it into my zero-carbon workout. But when I do need to drive (and when I run and walk, actually) I use it to clear my mind to make room for the random inspiration to hit. I write it down when I reach my destination (I even keep a notebook in the stroller). And if a child is with me, that is focused conversation time- no radio if the trip is under 10 minutes.

Waiting in a parked car (often for a child to get out of practice, etc.): This relatively short period of time is perfect for the 2-minute burst of kindness, organization, or friendship. By keeping a tote bag filled with greeting cards, my backlog of Cooking Light magazines, my day planner, and my file folder broadly labeled “to read”, I can give short but important tasks my full concentration, provided they are ones I can quickly put down.

That awkward 20 minutes before you need to be somewhere: If I am at home with this amount of time left, I know there’s no point in trying to concentrate on anything, so I clean. Very fast. I get tons done because I know there’s a definite end to it (I don’t particularly like cleaning), and it’s fun to race the clock. If I am away from home, I call my mom. She’s somehow always available to take my call, and 20 minutes is enough time to listen as well as just talk.

The line at the grocery store: I learned this one from “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson. Instead of getting annoyed by the length and perceived human causes of my waiting time here, I’ve started to use it to observe without and learn from the people around me. It’s fascinating. Carlson calls it being an “anthropologist” in your own home town. It’s wonderful training on becoming less judgmental, impatient, and self-absorbed.

When other people are wasting my time: The useless board meeting, the acquaintance who corners you in the store to talk, the repairman who leaves you waiting for hours. This is the hardest area for me- I am not known for my patience. But I am learning to play another mind trick on myself to not only make this time productive, but to keep myself from exploding from rising blood pressure. I imagine myself as a therapist or a consultant, and then try to analyze WHY this hold-up in efficiency is happening, and what I am supposed to do about it. If it’s because someone is feeling lonely or avoiding her next activity by spending time with me, then I believe I was meant to be there for that person at that time. If it’s because a process or institution is inherently flawed, then I can learn from its mistakes to avoid them in my own life. Either way, the time can provide some precious lessons.

Again, I keep seeming to come back to the issue of control – something I have a hard time letting go of. No time needs to be wasted, as long as we fit the activity to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and give up the iron-clad “to do” list we composed that morning when we had a perfect vision of how every minute of the day would go.

Connect to your surroundings rather than fight against them, and you’ll find that every minute of your day can be filled with purpose, joy, and meaning.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Redefining "Down Time" - Part I

As I write this, I am sitting in an airport, waiting for my flight out of Dallas to go see friends in Colorado. Yes, I am without the kids. And yes, I am doing an internal happy dance right now. I'm so excited to see my friends my and am anticipating a fabulous few days.

However, the part of the trip that I was to talk about now is NOW…waiting in the airport. This is actually the leg of the vacation that I was anticipating the most: the time, by myself, in the airport and on the plane.

In the four hours since I kissed my gorgeous kids and husband goodbye, I have come up with concepts for 47 blog entries, planned my entire summer, and finished “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell – the incredible book that’s been sitting by my bedside table for months.

And I’m only halfway to Colorado.

Why has this time that so many other people dread become such a goldmine of productivity and creativity for me? Because I knew it would be, and I was prepared for it.

The realization came in my mid-20’s that I was at my creative best when I was stuck somewhere I didn’t really want to be, by myself, for a relatively long period of time. Boring and unnecessary lectures, doctor’s waiting rooms, airport terminals.

With a single thought, I erased a huge chunk of my life that I had previously defined as “down time” and replaced it with hyper-productivity.

So, now that I’m in the airport typing away, I have to ask myself, “Why can’t I get this much done in the hours after the kids are in bed?” I’ve decided the answer has to do with control. Right now, I am not completely in control of my situation or surroundings, so I have to turn off that part of my brain. As it turns out, that part of my brain, the part that scans every inch of my “domain” at home in order to mentally print off my exhaustive “to do” list…that part hinders my creativity.

But the airport, and the doctor’s office, and the lecture hall are not my domain. And I don’t find them particularly interesting, so they don’t distract.

The key to making sure these moments happen is to be prepared to recognize and utilize them. Had I not had a pad and pen, this time would have been wasted. Had I purchased the indulgent vampire novel I was eying in the airport bookstore, this moment never would have happened. Ditto for the Texan microbrew that was calling my name at the bar.

Take a moment for yourself and find the “down time” in your life that could be reworked and rethought. It could be totally different from mine. Then prepare for it. Get excited about it.

Tomorrow, I will write about the other forms of down time in my life that empower me to other kinds of productivity, besides creative thinking.

And by the way, I wrote this entire post during the walk between Gate A11 and C31, sitting down to write between thoughts, all the while surrounded by people who look bored out of their minds.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Living Off Winter's Harvest

We're in the midst of an "economic winter"- there's no denying it. There are no blantant opportunties blooming around us. No low-lying fruit to effortlessly pick off. No abundant harvest to reap.

It's winter, and we're all feeling it. As with all animals, it's time to bunker down, conserve, and ride it out in the faith that spring will come. And some of us are facing a much harsher climate than others.

However, nature has a way of providing animals a way to survive this season. For some, it's excess fat. Others: a stash of acorns. Still others, a long sleep.

Yes, it's winter for us, but we what many of us are forgetting is that we have also just came off a large harvest. While our money stash may no longer be there, we probably all still have a lot of STUFF that we've built up and never used. Stuff we've ignored, wasted, underappreciated, or squandered.

So now's the time to find that stash in your home and not just survive on it, but enjoy it. If you're anything like me, you'll be shocked at the amount of stuff you have hidden in your home that will carry you for a long time, in many different ways:

  • Food: Start here. Go through your freezer, pantry, and frig and make a list of all the ingredients you have. Then try to plan an entire month's worth of meals from it. With the exception of a few quick trips to the store for a very few items, I bet you can do it. If you need help, http://www.cookinglight.com/ has a feature where you can enter an ingredient you already have, and get a list of recipes using it. And remember, none of us facing bankruptcy or forclosure is too good for cheap coffee, frozen vegetables, or domestic beer!

  • Toiletries: Inventory the half-used bottles of shampoo, toothpaste, lotion, hairspray, etc. and put them all in one place. Then use them. And they don't have to be your favorite brand.

  • Clothes: Now is the time to Bolddiscover the otherItalic Bold90% of your closet. Spend an indulgent afternoon trying on absolutely everything you own, but, contrary to former advice, not with the purpose of getting rid of what you don't like, but in order to like what you already have. Make it work. And if some things seem out of date, try just changing the shoes and the belt- that can instantly update the whole look.

  • Entertainment: This is probably a gold mine for you. Remember all the classic novels you bought and never read? The unfinished crafts in your basement? That huge pile of old music CD's? Pull them out and make yourself a pile, vowing to get through them before you go "consume" anything else. I will never, ever get through the great books I thought I couldn't live without...and never opened.

  • Kids' Activities: BoldKids are even worse than we are about ignoring the abundance of toys and treasure around them, so they will need our help in this. It's all about the presentation. I went around my house and gathered up all the overlooked toys, books, coloring books, and crafts, and put them away in a closet. Now, every time my kids express boredom or criminal deprivation over not having something new, Voila! They appreciate the "new" toy (even if they recognize it) more than ever before. A good lesson for all of us.

Have fun with this. How wonderful that all of those purchases that seemed so important at the time are finally getting their day in the sun! And never overlook the positive environmental impact you are making by using what you already have.

In the words of Sheryl Crowe, "It's not getting want you want, it's wanting what you've got."

-The Wasteless Mom