Friday, February 27, 2009

Rethinking your need for a babysitter

I have very few hours completely to myself, and the few hard-earned ones I've gained this year through preschool are precious. Even with all of my 3 kids in some sort of school this year for the first time (hooray!!!), between sickness, bizarre school holidays, and other unexpected events, I have to seriously use my hours with no kids at home wisely.

So when I do find myself completely alone, I have one golden rule: not to do anything I could possibly do with a child. Things that are simply easier or more pleasant to do by my myself do not count- it has to be impossible.

What's more, I've learned that some things I was doing during my "alone time" were actually more pleasant and meaningful if I waited to have the right child with me.

That is the key- matching the task to the right child, at the right age.

Now, my "to do" list often has a specific child tagged to it, giving me more hours in my day to not only get things done, but find precious quality time with my kids.

I encourage you to make a list of everything you typically do when you hire a sitter or have the kids in preschool, and then see if any of those things could be done with your kids after all.

Here is my basic formula for how I "triage" my tasks according the company I'm keeping:
  • One baby at home: Okay, you can seriously do almost anything with a person who can't interrupt, run away, or demand a change in scenery. Never hire a sitter for errands, taking a run, or meeting a friend to talk when you have a baby this age. Right now, they're content to just be with you, and face-to-face stimulation provided by a shopping cart is more valuable than any development class. Whenever I babysit my little neice, I grab my shopping list, and we have a blast.

  • One toddler at home: Toddlers want to copy everything we do, and want us to keep talking to them. This is how they learn. So any chore you have where you can meet these conditions, it's better to be with them than without. If I slow down (never easy for me!) a tiny bit and set up a "parallel play" scenario where our toddler has her own broom, mixing bowl, "computer", or "list", I can have a buddy that will keep me company while I cook, vacuum, rake leaves, mail letters- you name it. I try never to fold laundry without my daughter, for there is nothing she loves more than folding towels. Go figure.

  • Older child 4-7: Now that I have 3 kids, getting alone time with one of the older ones is rare and precious. I've actually found that the waiting room in a doctor's office has become one of my favorite places to bond and talk with one child at a time. More than one kid is a disaster, but doable in an emergency. One kid: a golden opportunity. My middle child, now 6, is my favorite waiting room buddy, and relishes getting my undivided attention.

  • Older Older Child, 8+: My oldest son is just now getting to the point where it's fun to take him to the grocery store and Target again, by himself. Now that he's old enough to know the value of a dollar and I've taught him that he's not going to always get a special treat whenever he walks into a store, I've found that it's valuable to bring him shopping with me to be part of the decision-making process of a family budget. We get to talk, strategize, and work as a team. Good habits to learn for both of us!

So what is still on my list that can only be done by myself? I've narrowed it down to one thing:


And yes, I'm completely alone now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Ounce of Planning over a Pound of Spontaneity

I love being spontaneous- as long as I've planned for it ahead of time.

I'm actually not joking. I don't really like locking myself into plans weeks in advance and having to follow a strict schedule when it comes to fun, entertaining, vacations, or just good old leisure time. When the moment comes when I am able to relax and have fun, that's exactly what I want to do.

Which is exactly why I don't like complete spontaneity- it means I end up wasting too much of my hard-earned free time DOING, thinking, scurrying around- all while my husband and kids are already in vacation mode.

And as with most women, it falls on my shoulders in the family to make "spontaneous" seem effortless. I have to come up with exactly what we're going to do, how we're going to do it, and how everyone's going to have fun every second of the process. Everyone but me.

And spontaneity leads to overspending - we know that.

So I have found that the only way that I can enjoy something in the moment is if I have laid the groundwork for it ahead of time. Here are some of my favorite tips:

  • Entertaining: Why not simply have a "signature dish" that everyone anticipates when they come over, and just stick to that? Always have that stuff on hand, and never feel pressure to do more. Make it something you can freeze or that you simply open. Look for my upcoming blog on suggestions for what this "signature" style could be.

  • Saturday Mornings: My least favorite question in the world is, "What are we doing today?", the question I get around 10am every single Saturday morning. However, trying to plan something fun during the week for Saturday is met with apathy and irritiation. So, I literally keep a list of potential activities that are divided into good weather/bad weather/willing to travel. Then I let someone else make the decision.

  • Weekend Getaways: Same thing as Saturday mornings. Keep a wish list, complete with contact information and prices. I've found that this list is something my family enjoys talking about in advance, which ensures that any option we spontaneously choose will be popular with everyone.

  • Giving: BoldBold You know those magical women that show up on a neighbor's doorstep with a casserole the instant they hear of bad news? I've realized the only way I can become one of these women is with a deep freezer. You can stock up on quiches, pumpkin breads, or casseroles to give away in two ways: either donate an afternoon to batch cook a bunch of things to give away, or regularly make two of something when you're cooking for your family, and freeze one. Many more of my blogs will concentrate on easy, wasteless charitiable giving.

So let's all be more fun and spontaneous now that we can do it in a way that we might actually enjoy it ourselves!



Friday, February 20, 2009

A New Way to "Shop for Free" in Catalogs

I love catalogs.

I think it goes back to my childhood when my brother and I would earmark every page we liked from the fat Sears Roebuck catalog that came out before Christmas every year, hoping someone would get the hint. I'd even give myself an imaginary spending limit and spend hours using up that money, over and over...but that's another story...and set of issues...

But nowadays, Santa is not bringing us our wishlist, and even fantasizing about doing any shopping seems masochistic or dangerous.

So should we throw away the catalogs and stay off the internet?

Not necessarily. Not if you can train yourself to use catalogs in a completely different way.

I still pour over catalogs and magazines, tearing out pages and circling my favorites- but never with the intent of spending a dime. I use them to help me put together outfits, furniture arrangements, and decorating focal points using the things I already own.

Here are some special secrets I've found to making it easy, fun, and instantly gratifying:
  • In furniture catalogs, look at what's on the furniture rather than the furniture itself - it's what makes the peice look so great to begin with! The "merchandising" done by the catalog's designers can quickly and easily be copied using what you already own. Your creation doesn't have to match exactly- the main thing is to use items that are the same scale as the ones in the picture.

  • If you're dying to update your wardrobe, tear out 5 pictures of great outfits (not individual dresses- that won't work for this) and tape them around the periphery of your bedroom mirror. Next time you have an extra minute to get dressed, try to find that ensemble in your closet. I bet it's there.

  • Concentrate on how models and movie stars are wearing their clothes, not what they are wearing. Are jeans inside or outside the boots? Are bags over the shoulder or worn diagonal? Belts high or low? What colors are being thrown together this year? All of this can be mimicked instantly.

  • Look for pictures of things you already own - then study why they look good. Do you need to add a belt? Put a plant on that table? Rearrange the chairs? Change the shoes? If it's good enough for a magazine, it can look great on you or in your house.

Catalogs and magazines can truly be wonderful resources in giving you the "fix" you're craving when it's impossible (or at least unwise) to go on a shopping spree. AND, if you follow this formula, you may find out that you like, and use, the stuff you already have a lot more than you did before.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Living the day you're given

I had so much I wanted to get done today.

If you could see my house right now, you would totally understand and maybe even offer to help. I even had it all written down (one of my favorite things to do- lists!) and it was a beautiful balance of exercise, mundane but satisfying chores, and a few things that were actually very important. All of this needed to be done to make way for the second list I had made detailing the fun activities I had lined up for the weekend.

Then I heard the coughing around 4am. You know- the bad kind. From more than one bedroom. Then I started coughing. And shivering. And some other stuff.

So now, I am facing a legal and moral minimum of two days in which my kids must be kept out of school, and I have a decision to make. Do I rally myself as much as possible and get at least half of my "to do" list done despite the obstacles?


I have been given a completely different day to live than the one I had down on that list. I have a day that I couldn't have lived otherwise- a day with two of my three kids within arms reach for hours on end.

To try to stick to that list would be a waste- in more than one way. Besides the fact that it will take me three times as long to do each item as it will be in a few days, I would be wasting something more- the day I was meant to live NOW.

Today is really just a dramatic example of something I'm discovering about every day - that if I stay in tune with the signals my own body, mind, and surroundings are sending me about the kind of day it's going to be, then I will always get done what I was meant to do that day.

Some days, I wake up with a complete burst of energy. Those are the days I should just knock out a bunch of mindless and tiring chores. Other days, I'm particularly introspective. Those are good writing days. When a bunch of friends suddenly appear, that's my signal to get "productive socializing" done that day (time is never wasted when it brings you closer to someone). Sometimes, my kids are unusually content to occupy themselves, and so I can tackle a project with more concentration than usual.

But I need to wait for these signals, and give up some of my compulsive control issues. Not always easy.

Yes, we all have things that must be done on a daily basis, but much of our "to do" list could be done at least weekly. That way, we can pick the right day and time and mood to match the task at hand. We will also find that if we do this, we'll also be doing more meaningful tasks because we're paying better attention to the true needs of the day.

It's the equivalent of swimming with the current rather than against.

I believe each day gives us the exact number of hours we need to successfully and meaningfully live that day. We just need to be sure we know what day it is.

Now I'm going to play with my kids.

-The Wasteless Mom

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Cheapness" vs. "Wastelessness"

Many a well-meaning friend has teased me about being "cheap". I've heard it all. A few say it with more respect in their voices than others, but in general, the spending habits of our family have been a source of amusement for years. I play along and smile and don't apologize for any of it, of course.

Except that I completely disagree with them. I am not "cheap" at all, and feel that this word has a dangerous connotation that will keep many of us away from wise spending habits in an effort to simply avoid that label.

I am simply unwasteful with my money. There's an important difference.

Cheapness affects others in a negative way. Cheap people allow others to pick up the tab, produce inferior goods, and don't share. Cheap people also cheat themselves of true quality when it presents itself.

I never mind paying top dollar for something when it is worth it. And sometimes, it is. Friends were flabergasted when we paid $400 for the perfect jogging stroller, went on a Disney cruise, and took the family skiing in Aspen. These things were important to us, we had the money for them, and there was no leaner substitute that would suffice. These purchases were not a waste.

I can also share. In fact, one of the main reasons that I refuse to waste money is that if I do, then I can't give as much away to the many worthy causes so desperate for our help nowadays. I still need to give more than I do, so I need to find more ways to cut waste.

The list of things that I will not spend money on is too long for one blog- that list will keep me going for years here.

But here's the imporant thing: I am not depriving myself - or my family or friends - of anything by not spending on these things. Quite the opposite- I am saving myself the aggravation, emptiness, and worry that comes from using up resources on things that are just not worth it.

And what's a complete waste for me may be a justifiable necessity or worthy splurge for you, and vice versa.

Take restaurants, in my case. You may love taking your kids out, but it is not a "treat" for me to take my kids to a restaurant- they're too loud (my kids, that is). My husband and I don't enjoy hiring a sitter to go out to a restaurant by ourselves, either, because we know if we just waited an extra hour to eat, our kids can be asleep and we can enjoy a nice date without spending an extra dime. If we want to go nuts, we order takeout.

It's all in the attitude.

We as a society need to stop feeling deprived if we don't have the same "fat" in our budget as our neighbors around us- neighbors who are very likely unable to sleep at night due to the size of their credit card balances and second mortgages.

And for those of us slashing our budgets, voluntarily or otherwise, in order to tackle those things keeping us awake at night, we need to see our new lifestyle for what it is- simply leaner and less wasteful, not "less" of anything of value.

Did anyone who ever lost weight ever see it as a "loss"?

-The Wasteless Mom

The beginning of Wastelessness

As I begin the launching of The Wasteless Mom, I need to start with a disclaimer.

I am not completely "wasteless." In fact, there are some serious blind spots in my daily habits and general awareness that you, the reader, will be able to call me on, and hopefully give me advice about. I often find myself "discovering" things that others have known about for years.

What I am is someone who abhors waste...Italicwaste of any kind: waste of money, of time, of talent, of energy, of the Earth's resources, of opportunities. Every day, I look for ways to minimize waste on every level, and believe that this skill is critical in these hard times.

As for my qualifications, I have always had a unique talent for doing almost anything cheaper, easier, and faster...and having a blast in the process. In high school, I never pulled an all-nighter, but made great grades. I simply studied faster and better. In college, I was the student who always had leftover money in her account at the end of the semester, allowing me to even take a trip to the Bahamas once without having to call home for more funds. In my first job after graduation as a part-time history teacher making $13,000 a year (in the recession of 1994), I was able to move out of my parent's house, go out at night with friends, and still save $100 a month into my mutual funds and contribute $2000 to my IRA. I still don't know how I did that....

And now, I am a married mother of three, facing the same challenges we all are in this to give my family the best life possible in a time when we don't seem to have enough of anything. None of us has enough time, money, help, talent, sanity to do it all.

Or do we?

My mission in this blog is to help us all (myself included - this is a journey, not a pulpit) discover and utilize the time, money, resources, and opportunities surrounding us every day that are simply ours for the taking.

I plan to share my practical advice on personal finance and time management in how they relate to every aspect of family life: parenting, cooking, health, decorating, marriage, fashion, fun.

But I also plan to do something more- to help you discover how joyful and meaninful this path can be. I see limited funds and time as a blessing, not a burden. I face these economic times with hope and faith that we are all going to come out of it as better people.

I never feel deprived when I choose the leaner path - and neither do my kids. In fact, we are all discovering blessings we never before knew existed: both material and spiritual.

By eliminating the "fat" and waste in our lives, we are all going to help create something more meaninful, joyful, and sustainable.

Be excited about it. I know I am.

See you next time!
-The Wasteless Mom