How Balanced Is Your Budget?

 

I love seeing everything at once in my tiny, organized pantry!

I love seeing everything at once in my tiny, organized pantry!

I’m bracing myself for a barrage of hate mail for posting this, but my recent discovery has brought me such freedom that I simply must shout it from the rooftops!

I’d like to think I’ve proven myself as a reasonably frugal consumer. When I say “frugal”, I mean that I am budget-conscious and put some effort into finding decent bargains while also recognizing that my time is at least as limited as my finances. 

First an admission: I do not coupon (gasp). I found it to be too time consuming and confusing. On top of that, in order for couponing to work, you have to actually remember to give the cashier your coupons…oops!  I used to be a regular shopper at warehouse stores like Sam’s and Costco because of the low per-unit price you could get by buying in bulk. But then I realized that while spending $400 in one week for 3 different items may save me money in the long run, my short-term cash flow was precisely that…short. So I began shopping at a discount grocery store that stocks mostly off-brand products but where the prices (and the quality) are at least as good as the coupon and warehouse deals without the hassle or the huge outlay.

Finally, I had managed to secure a low unit cost without having to purchase a high quantity. I began to see the benefits of fitting normal-sized products into my tiny pantry (pictured above…I just love my pantry). Gone (eventually) were the 2-liter bottles of soy sauce and vats of olive oil. Crackers, pretzels and cereal were no longer going stale before they could be consumed. I was able to reclaim part of my garage for storing other items besides overflow food. And it no longer took the National Guard to help me unload all the groceries each week.

Unfortunately, I kept buying more cans and boxes than I actually consumed each week out of pure habit…”just to have some on hand”. I still had one large shelf reserved in the garage for storing all my extras. In the garage, mind you…where I hate to go. I would send the kids down to get stuff for me, so I lacked a keen sense of what was actually there. I was always buying things we didn’t need and not buying something we did need simply because I assumed we already had more of it down in the garage.

And then something happened to knock some sense into me. I fell down the stairs and dislocated my shoulder…badly. I could no longer carry as many groceries and was forced to shorten my weekly shopping list to only what I knew we would use in the next week or two. 

Eureka! Now I can fit everything into my pantry where I can easily see at a glance just what we need. Everything is fresh and actually consumed rather than wasted. Putting the groceries away is quicker and easier, and I now have even more room in my garage. I feel so FREE!

All of this has made me realize that being a “frugal” consumer means respecting not just your financial and time limitations, but your space limitations too. My father used to always say, “Space is at a premium.” It surely is a precious commodity to be used wisely. Don’t squander your spacial budget just to stretch your financial or time budgets. Find a balance of all three.

How do you balance your financial, time and spacial budgets?

Note: Your Sam’s or Costco membership may still be worthwhile for purchasing household items, office supplies, electronics, etc. at a great price or for when you are feeding a large crowd. I am not suggesting you ditch it!  Just don’t let bulk purchases of regular groceries eat up all your space.

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The Inconvenience of Conveniences

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

Is your bread machine covered in flour or in dust?

I recall the look of complete amazement and bewilderment on the face of my British friend as I described to her, sometime back in the late ’80’s, how a drive-thru bank worked. I’m not sure if she was impressed by the ingenuity of such an idea or astonished at the sheer laziness of an entire culture where such a phenomenon would even be needed, much less commonplace.

Indeed, we Americans seem to be almost obsessed with an ongoing demand for more and more “convenience”. As though drive-thru restaurants, pharmacies and dry cleaners are not enough, we now have curbside pickup, hands-free concierge service on our cell phones, and remote controls that open our car trunks for us from 50 feet away. Of course, being the queen of laziness, I love it all and can’t wait for the day that someone invents an exercise machine that allows me to burn calories and tone muscle while napping.

But if we aren’t careful, our never-ending quest for convenience can become downright inconvenient, particularly when it comes to all those “convenience” kitchen appliances: juicers, bread makers, rotisseries, countertop grills, food dehydrators and vacuum sealers. Look around you. Are the appliances that are intended to conserve your time just consuming valuable the real estate in your home?

As with anything else, it’s all about choices. Choose which convenience you want…drive-thru burgers, or easier homemade burgers? Vacuum packed groceries you can freeze for fewer trips to the store, or door-to-door grocery delivery? Be realistic and consider your lifestyle and current needs to determine which you will really use. If you want to keep the food dehydrator, fine. USE IT! Commit to it. Let go of that notion that you’ll use it “someday”. If “someday” ever does come, the newer models will be better, even easier to use, and probably worth the cost of buying a new one, so there’s no need to keep this one around and in your way until then (unless it’s Grandma’s old ice cream maker and you are keeping it for sentimental reasons…but that’s another post). Realize that there is nothing convenient about having to move the juicer every time you need to find a glass for your store-bought juice. ALL conveniences require some type of sacrifice–time, money, space, accessibility–so choose wisely.

I have a bread maker I bought about 15 years ago but rarely used because it was too big to store on the counter and required too much effort to get it out when put away. Storing such a large and infrequently-used appliance in my tiny kitchen was a luxury I could no longer afford, so I gave myself an ultimatum: either start using the bread maker regularly or get rid of it. Thus I re-organized my kitchen to make it easier to access my bread maker and  have started using it at least weekly to make homemade dough for pizzas, pita bread and hamburger buns from pre-measured, homemade mixes I toss together once a month or so. I am choosing the convenience of having easier homemade pizza over the convenience of ordering pizza delivery, but that’s a personal choice. The point is, you need to evaluate your current needs and priorities and stop allowing your convenience appliances to inconvenience your life by either finding a way to make using them easier or getting rid of them to make room for a different kind of convenience.

By the way, unused space is a pretty versatile convenience of its own. Just saying.

My (Not So) Secret Hoard

After nine months of procrastination, excuses and cancellations, I finally had my “annual” physical yesterday. I had been dreading this since January, knowing that my likable yet firm and forthright nurse practitioner was going to lecture me about my hoard. Yes that’s right…I’m a hoarder…a hoarder of calories. And just like all the hoarders on my favorite “Buried Alive” TV episodes, my years of hoarding have finally started taking their toll and are doing some real physical damage to the hoarder home…in this case, my body.

It’s not exactly a secret to anyone who sees me that I like to eat and hate to exercise. I’ve struggled with maintaining my weight for most of my life but really began losing the battle after I had kids, not unlike so many people who lose their tenuous grip on organization and time management when the demands of life begin to outgrow the number of hours in a day. In fact, there are so many similarities between getting fit and getting organized:

  1. Both require long-term patience and determination
  2. Both involve a lifestyle change that must be maintained in order to be successful
  3. Both are freeing and empowering and remove obstacles to fulfilling your potential
  4. Both are immensely rewarding and lead to a better quality of life
  5. Both are more likely to be successful when accompanied by the support and encouragement of others

I have a triathlete friend who wishes her house looked like mine. I wish my body looked like hers. Put us together and we’d be one smokin’ hot room mother!  I went over to her house a few months ago to give her some organizing advice. It was the first time I’d seen her house, and she nervously met me at the door, admitting that it was hard for her to let me in (it truly wasn’t that bad). As I was leaving, she asked if she’d be seeing me up at the pool this summer, and I replied, “The way you felt about letting me into your house is the way I feel about putting on a bathing suit in public.” I didn’t make it up to the pool this year…clearly my friend is more courageous than I am!

My nurse practitioner has given me three months to start clearing out my hoard “or else” (meaning that another lecture from her will be the easiest part of my next appointment, I’m sure). So I find myself in the role of encouragee after months of playing the encourager.  I hope it will make me better able to relate to my clients’ struggles and find compassionate ways to encourage them. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

In the meantime, if you see me stuffing my gob with cupcakes, remind me that “it’s all about making choices”.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst” –William Penn

It’s that time of year again…when life returns to its usual hectic pace after the lazy summer months. Four days into the new school year, I’ve finally finished celebrating. Now it’s time to put away my martini glass and batten down the hatches, because we’re about to get hit with a hurricane of homework, extracurricular activities and PTA events.

I’m a person who loves routines–no, needs routines–in order to function well. I  find that it helps to be able to go on autopilot for everyday tasks so that I can save my brain power for when I really need it, like understanding what those international laundry symbols mean. (By the way, if you have the same problem, here’s a key that you can print out and tape above your washing machine for future reference.) Routines are a great way to make sure you are squeezing in all of your repetitive, must-do tasks that, if forgotten, could be problematic…like going grocery shopping, doing the laundry, and brushing your teeth. But what happens when you have a one-time or less essential task or activity, like fixing the broken closet door or making time for friends, or getting a physical? Where do they fit in when your day is already packed to the gills with work, housework, homework, grocery shopping, chauffeuring the kids and laundry? Chances are, they get deferred until you have some “free” time. And when is that? When your kids leave home  or you retire? (I’ve been told by those in the know that that golden goose is a myth, too.) Or worse, they happen when the fact that you have deferred them for so long leads to some crisis that makes them suddenly essential, like discovering you are really sick.

Time is like money and available calories: limited and once gone, you can’t change your mind about how to spend it. Anyone on a food or financial diet will tell you that advance planning is the only way to avoid wasteful spending, yet few of us put that much advance thought into how we will budget our time in order to fit everything in.

Start with plugging the leaks and becoming more efficient:

  1. Multi-task by returning phone calls while you are doing something mindless, like laundry or cleaning (invest in a bluetooth if you need to).
  2. Turn wait time into productive time by storing your reading in a tote you can take with you to appointments or other places you are likely to be kept waiting.
  3. Carry paper and pen with you so that you are always prepared to write a letter, make a To Do list, or create a shopping list or menu plan during unexpected wait times.
  4. Keep a “Stuff we need” list in your wallet or phone for those times when you have a few minutes to kill and are near a store.
  5. Delegate tasks to your spouse or kids or hire some help for chores like cleaning, tutoring your kids, or yard work. It may be the best money you ever spent.
  6. Organize your home so that you spend less time looking for things, shopping for things you already have, or putting things away. This also makes delegation easier if everyone in your home knows where to find things and/or put them away.

Next, prioritize according to your core values and current needs. Which comes first, health or friends? Financial security or time with the kids? There’s no right or wrong answer, and the answer isn’t always going to be the same for every situation. Sticking to your new diet and exercise program during your lunch hour may be more important right now than having lunch with your co-worker friend, but it may not be as important as lunch with the friend who is moving halfway around the world or was just diagnosed with cancer.  And it may not be as important once you feel more confident that you will get back on track the next day. Perhaps your kids are your priority, but  the financial security you need to provide them with a key opportunity means you have to work overtime for awhile, even if it takes you away from them for now. My point is to make conscious, well-thought-out choices about your time after weighing everything. Don’t just let life happen to you by default. Grab the wheel and decide what direction you want to go in. It is okay to say no to something!

Finally, stop feeling guilty about spending time on you. (I’m Catholic, so guilt comes really easy to me and I struggle with this one.) You are the most important person in your life. Without you, none of it matters, so you should be a top priority. If you need to exercise or meditate or shop or nap in order to feel refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of your seemingly endless To Do list, then do it! Nothing kills motivation like resentment, and that is what you will end up with if you don’t take time out to tend to your own needs from time to time. Put it on the calendar, just as you would a doctor’s appointment or parent-teacher conference, because it is just as important.

As my mother-in-law likes to say, “You’re a long time dead”, so make every minute count while you can!

Choose Your Setting

I have a 7 year-old son and a 9 year-old daughter. They both insist–rather frequently–that they plan to never leave home. This is sad news, because I really had my heart set on A) seeing them happily married with children of their own some day; B) replacing all the scratched up furniture and stained rugs at some point once they were no longer around to ruin the new stuff. I’m reduced to hoping that my son will eventually revert back to his original plan of becoming a hobo. Maybe then I could at least get some new end tables.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my children very much, but I’d be lying if I said that boarding school never crossed my mind when I read “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened” scrawled in red crayon on my daughter’s dresser. For some reason, I was under the impression that once she was old enough to watch Harry Potter movies, she’d be past the stage of coloring her bedroom furniture. Apparently I failed to figure the need for proper set design into the equation.

Anyway, the point is that I love my home and want it to look nice. I feel good when I can look around my living room and see all the pretty things I picked out to decorate it. It makes me smile to see the framed photos of the people I love sitting atop the sideboard, and I enjoy sitting on the comfy sofa watching a favorite TV show or blogging on my laptop without being surrounded by chaos, dirt or mess. Sure, there’s a small price to be paid to maintain this order, but 10-15 minutes here and there to tidy up is worth it to me. Like everything else in life, it is a choice…just like the choice I am making to keep my son, despite his recent failed attempt to make a ghost costume out of one of my pillow cases using scissors.

Once upon a time, you made an important choice too. You chose your home, and you were excited about it. You chose the color on the walls (probably), the sofa you sit on, the rugs you walk on, the desk or table you write on. And you were excited about them too. When you look around your home today, what do you see? Are you still excited about it? Are you still able to see all your favorite things? Is it the environment you chose, or just the one you tolerate?

Life is short. Make sure the set design is appropriate for the story you hope to live.

“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” –- Linus Pauling

I try to make a point of going through my storage area at least once or twice a year to pare down things I no longer need and to stem the tide of the post-Christmas or post-party chaos that sometimes creeps in and threatens to take hold in there. I have a couple of “memorabilia” bins that had been added to quite a bit since the kids started school and had not been looked through in quite a few years, so I decided it was time to take a look and pare down the contents to just the items that were really worthy of taking up that valuable space.

One of the things I found in there was my old “idea folder” of holiday crafts, kid activities and recipes that I had begun collecting back when I was single and bored and hoping to someday have a family, which would naturally come with oodles and oodles of time and energy for executing all these brilliant ideas. It was pretty amusing to realize that there had once been a time when I actually thought I’d someday master the culinary expertise required for making individual edible violin desserts out of a pear half with chocolate frets and spun sugar strings like the one featured on the cover of a Harry & David catalogue. Seriously, Valerie?!!!

Clearly I was living in a fantasy world where work, laundry, grocery shopping, menu planning, homework tutoring and ironing do not exist and motherhood is all about making homemade herb and cheese crackers, cupcakes that look like Sesame Street characters, and hand printed wrapping paper. I obviously didn’t count on having children who were picky eaters with little desire to decorate sugar cookies and with more interest in finger painting outside in the mud and acting out a pretend episode of Scooby Doo Meets Darth Vader than creating faux stained glass Christmas tree ornaments out of tissue paper. If you had told me this cold, hard truth back then, I would have been devastated, but life has a funny way of changing your priorities. Sure, there are moments when I wish my kids shared my love of crafts and baking, but I wouldn’t trade my little actress and Picasso for anything in the world. I delight in watching them show their creativity in a million different ways that are uniquely their own and take pleasure in surprising them with mine on special occasions. The truth is that now that I am a wife and mother, I would rather spend my time cuddled up with my kids watching The Lion King or using my imagination to come up with creative ways to teach them their table manners.

Easy peasy living isn’t just about getting organized and managing your time more efficiently. It’s about keeping your goals in sync with your priorities and adapting them to life’s ever-changing perspectives. I thought about keeping the “idea folder” for a time in the future when the kids are grown and I once again have time to indulge in learning how to make individual edible violin desserts, but I quickly realized that I would prefer to keep that space available for remembering what my children and I actually did do together instead of what I might (or, more likely, might not) do someday in the future by myself.

How often do we hold onto things that might benefit us someday and by doing so give up something that most definitely will benefit us today? Throwing out the idea folder not only freed up about 6 inches of space in that bin, it freed me from my regrets at not having accomplished my outdated, unrealistic goals of yesteryear. And most importantly, it gave me permission to move onto new goals, to collect new memories, and to rid myself of all the “someday” stuff hogging up valuable space in my brain as well as my storage area. If you are storing materials for use in projects from your old someday idea folder, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How important is this project in the grand scheme of my life? If it is really that important, why haven’t I completed it yet?
  2. If it is truly important, do I have a firm plan in place for when and how I will complete the project?
  3. Do I have a clear vision for how I will use these materials, or is it just a vague sense that they might come in handy “someday”?
  4. Will completing this project improve my quality of life or that of someone I care about?
  5. Will completing this project make me feel more fulfilled or make me a better person?
  6. Could these materials be put to good use by someone else who is more likely to actually use them?
  7. Did I even remember that I had these materials or what I had been planning to use them for?

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have dreams and visions for the future. I am a bona fide Pinterest addict, after all. Just be sure you update your “idea folder” from time to time, whether it be in your head, in your computer or stashed in some dark corner of your storage closet. Throw out those ideas that once made sense but are no longer relevant. Realize that storing a lot of stuff for “someday” carries overhead. Just how much overhead depends on how much you are storing and for how long. Don’t be afraid to re-evaluate and delete an old dream that is no longer in sync with your current priorities. Life is too short and space is at too much of a premium to spend it on storing regrets.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

In my son’s first grade class, they have a color coded behavior system similar to the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorist activity alert system…a similarity easily understood by anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with first-graders. It goes something like this:

  • Green –  you’re following directions and making good choices
  • Yellow – you’ve been warned by the teacher to knock it off already
  • Orange – the teacher is already so sick  of you that she’s bouncing you to another class so that you can become someone else’s problem
  • Red – you’ve pretty much blown the whole day and now you have to lose recess time
  • Blue – you’ve been invited to the principal’s office; declining is not an option

Every day, the students color in a calendar in their binders with the color they were on that day, and these calendars get sent home for parents to see at the end of the month. My son’s calendars are usually the color of fire…red, orange and yellow, with perhaps a spec of green or blue thrown in just to balance things out a bit. If you knew him, you’d find the color scheme fitting.

Ironically, he starts each day wanting to be on green. We talk about what it takes to stay on the “green path”, which leads to privileges, play dates and being able to buy lunch at school, and how to avoid taking the wrong fork in the road toward “red land”, where everyone has to go to bed early and there are no TVs. We’ve gone over it a million times, but being a child, he has difficulty remembering that his ultimate destination is dictated by all the millions of small choices he makes throughout his day.

How often do we adults forget that too? We complain about how un-fulfilling our jobs are, how full our calendars are, how cluttered our closets are, how messy our homes are, or how tired or lonely we are. Yet we fail to recognize that these are the destinations we chose when we came to a fork in the road.

When I was a young woman, I spent many years having my heart broken by one jerk after another, until I finally realized that the single common denominator in each of these failed relationships was me. Me and my choices. I finally figured out that what I had been seeking and what I was hoping to find were two completely different things. I had been dating men who came from similar backgrounds to my own, assuming that it meant they shared my goals for the future. I wanted a loving and caring man who was travelling on the same road as I and with whom I could share my journey through life. But I had somehow wandered astray onto a different path and had been looking in all the wrong places and getting lost. When I finally found him, I almost didn’t recognize him. He was nine years my junior and living on the other side of the Atlantic, having been raised in a family vastly different from my own. Fourteen years later, we are (slowly but steadily) reaching our goals…shared goals based on conscious choices and reinforced by our mutual determination to help each other reach them. It has not been an easy or an even path, and sometimes one of us has had to carry the other over the rough spots, but the journey has made us closer and we both know the view from the summit will be spectacular when we reach it!

I’m guessing some of you are saying, “But Valerie, what does this have to do with organizing?” Well, everything, to be frank. Being organized is nothing more than making deliberate, well-thought-out choices. What do I keep and what do I toss? Which things should be stored in the most accessible places? Should I store this item with these things or with those over there?

My mother used to regularly complain that she did not have enough cabinet space in her kitchen. My sister reported that when she helped her move, she found no fewer than TWELVE muffin tins. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Sis: “Mom, why do you need twelve muffin tins?”
Mom: “Well, I like to have some ready to go in the oven, some already in the oven, and some cooling all at the same time because it makes the baking go so much faster.”
Sis: “And how often do you need to bake 144 muffins at the same time?”

And I would have argued that the amount of time she saved during one baking session a year (at most) because she could do all that at the same time was lost ten times over through having to move those tins around to make room for the things she used every day. I noticed when I visited her once in her small home that she had numerous sets of matching glasses crammed into various locations throughout the house. When I asked her why she needed so many, she replied that she liked to have plenty of pretty glasses on hand for when she was entertaining. I guess it never occurred to her that  even if she filled every inch of her tiny trailer home with guests, she would have had to serve at least four or five rounds of drinks to use up all those glasses at once.

She was making choices that didn’t make sense without even realizing it. We all do it. Are you choosing to live in the past or in the present? Are you holding onto that dirty, smelly cast from when your now-grown son broke his arm when he was five in the vain hope that it will bring back that sweet little boy from your past? Because it won’t, and it is taking up precious space in your present. If you must, take a picture of the cast and then throw it away. And what about those old acid-wash jeans from high school that you are hanging onto so that you can say “I did it” once you lose enough weight to wear them again? Do yourself (and everyone else) a fashion favor and get rid of them. A before and after picture is way more compelling, and you will have earned a brand new outfit you can actually wear out in public without embarrassing your companions. It may be “just one pair of pants”, but added together with all the other useless items you are choosing to keep for the wrong reasons, they represent a lot of overhead.

Life isn’t something that just happens to you. It is something you make happen through your choices. If you are too tired, maybe you need to schedule some down-time on your calendar. If you are too lonely, reach out to others with similar interests through volunteer activities or hobby groups. If your closets are too cluttered, choose to give away the things you don’t use to someone who will (see EasyPeasy Quick Tip #2: The Pick-up Line)  If your job is drudgery, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate your career choice. Remember  that needs and priorities change over time so your choices should too. Once upon a time, that house you bought was your dream home, but it may be time to upgrade or downsize as you enter a new phase of your life.

It’s a lot easier to chart a course and choose the correct forks in the road when you know what your destination is. Where does the “green path” lead in your life?