Thursday, April 30, 2009
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
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
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 décor 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
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
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
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.