Category Archives: Simplicity

Assembling a home from scratch

Last weekend, Tony and I finally moved into an apartment in the city where he’ll be teaching this fall (and hopefully spring). We were very lucky to have lots of help from both of our families.

We’ve only been married for a little over two years now, but in that time we’ve built a frugal collection of furniture and other items to fill our home. I was so proud of the compliments we received as our parents helped us unpack and arrange our furniture.

“I love this table.”

“What a lovely lamp.”

“This bed is so nice.”

In our culture, it seems that pride in the things we own most often comes from the expense. Many people collect fancy, overpriced items to fill their homes, and the things they own become a status symbol for their financial success.

I was proud for the opposite reason. Each time someone commented on a piece of furniture or some other item in our home, I was struck by the fact that we’ve assembled all of these things from a hodgepodge of resources — and most of them were very inexpensive or free.

  • The full-sized washer and dryer that were given to us after helping some friends move into a new home.
  • The couch that I bought second-hand for $30.
  • The bed that was passed down to Tony from his grandparents.
  • The coffee table and side tables that were given to me in college by the older couple who owned the bowling alley where I worked.
  • The chair and ottoman that were given to me instead of being dropped off at the thrift store after I saw them in the back of a co-worker’s truck.
  • The television that we bought second-hand from a friend.

The prospect of furnishing a home can be overwhelming when you’re first starting out. Furniture stores prey on newlyweds and new homeowners with 0% interest deals. It’s easy to walk into a furniture store and spend thousands on brand new furniture and appliances. But with a little imagination and ingenuity, it’s just as easy to assemble a beautiful home for next to nothing.

If you’re planning a move, now is the time to start scouting out yard sales, browsing Craigslist, and letting friends and family know that you’re on the lookout for gently used home furnishings. Look at each piece you find with a creative eye. It may look old and worn, but ask yourself if it would benefit from a new coat of paint or an inexpensive couch cover. You’ll be amazed at what you can find for drastically lower prices than in stores. And each well loved item will add a little extra character and history to your home.

Apartment hunting simplified

There is nothing I hate more than the instability of moving, and I especially hate the long, arduous process of finding a new place to live.

I’m not usually a procrastinator when it comes to this sort of thing. But we’d just moved, spent two weeks in Europe, and I was struggling with morning sickness and pregnancy-induced laziness, so I decided the apartment search could wait until after July 4th. It is now July 7. We’re moving in 3 weeks. Yikes.

Sadly, I’ve run out of procrastination time. So tomorrow we’re heading up to Fort Wayne to scope out some apartments. We’ll hopefully have a lease signed and a move date set before we come home.

This isn’t the first time I’ve used my abbreviated method for apartment hunting. We drove to North Carolina and chose our apartment in two days last time we moved, and it ended up working for us for three years. Hopefully we’ll be that lucky this time. Here’s how I’ll be spending my day today and tomorrow:

Scope out apartments online before visiting.

If you’re moving to a new city, this step is crucial. But even if you’re making a local move, you can save yourself a lot of time by eliminating apartments or rental homes that won’t work for you. There are many online services that allow you to search apartments by price, amenities, and other features. My favorite is Rent.com, because they offer a $100 bonus if you tell your landlord that you found the apartment on the site. (We moved into a place in August, and received our bonus in November.)

Make an itinerary based on locations.

If you’re traveling to a new city to look at apartments, take the time to map out the places you want to see. Visit them in an order that makes sense to save yourself time and gas mileage. There’s no sense criss-crossing the town three or four times to visit multiple apartments.

Ask to see the actual unit.

In some states, landlords won’t show you an actual unit until the previous tenant has moved out and you’re ready to move in. If this is the case, don’t sign a lease until you’ve seen the unit. It’s easy to dress up a model, but you need to see where you’ll be living to make sure any problems will be fixed before you move in. If you can’t see the unit until the tenant moves out, but you have a really good feeling about the place, see if you can put down a deposit to hold it until the tenant moves out and you can inspect the unit.

Negotiate before you’re ready to decide.

The time to strike a deal with the landlord is during the apartment hunting process before you’ve made up your mind. Leasing agents are anxious to fill empty units, and they’re often willing to make a deal to entice you to choose them, especially if you’re a reliable renter with good credit history and income. We’ve negotiated new appliances, new carpeting, reduced rent for the first month, reduced security deposits, and reduced pet fees just by asking during the tour. Don’t wait until you’re sitting in the office ready to sign the lease. Ask for these things when you’re “just looking,” and you’ll be more likely to get them.

Bring a notebook and a camera.

If you’re looking at several places, bring a notebook and a camera to help you keep things straight. Take notes about the price, amenities, pros and cons of each apartment, and snap a few pictures to help jog your memory when you’re making the decision.

Don’t be hasty.

Make sure you check out every apartment on your list before you make a decision. Leasing agents are salespeople, and they’re good at convincing possible tenants to SIGN NOW. Don’t make a decision until you’ve seen and compared all of your options.

Take time to decide.

Once you’ve seen all of your options, go somewhere quiet to compare and contrast. When we visited North Carolina, Tony and I narrowed our options down to a few favorites, then we sat down for lunch at a diner with all of our notes and thoughts. We talked about price, location, and other pros and cons before choosing the place that would best suit our needs. Looking over our notes after taking time to process all of our options made the decision a lot easier.

Be ready to seal the deal.

If you’re traveling out of town, be sure you have enough money in the bank to pay for an application fee, security deposit, and first month’s rent. Also make sure you have all the information you may need to apply, including references, pay stubs for income verification, and valid identification.

Include all special deals in the lease.

When you’re ready to sign the lease, make sure the leasing agent includes special offers that were discussed during the negotiation process. If they promised you reduced first month’s rent or a lower pet fee, make sure the lease says so. The same goes for promised renovations and other perks. If it’s not in the lease, they’re not legally obligated to provide it no matter what was said, so don’t sign until it’s all in writing.

Photo by thetruthabout

Preparing for baby

Disclaimer: I plan to be pretty open about baby stuff here. If you’re not into the baby thing, please feel free to skip these posts. I’m trying to keep baby posts down to one a week since I know I have readers who don’t have children. I realize that with posting so light lately, it seems like a lot of my posts are baby-related. I promise that once I’m feeling better and my posting schedule gets back to normal, I’ll be balancing baby posts with finance and other fun stuff. As always, if you have questions or suggestions for topics you’d like to read about here, please send me an email.

This weekend, I’ll be 14 weeks pregnant. That means I made it through the first trimester! Yay! Unfortunately, I’m still not feeling a whole lot better. Everyone, including my doctor, keeps saying, “Any day now!” I’m thinking if I don’t feel at least a little better by next week then it’s time to call my doctor and tell her she’s a BIG LIAR.

I’m kidding. Sorta.

I’m also considering taping my days so the footage can be shown to high school health classes to caution teens about the risks of unprotected sex. Because seriously, you guys, pregnancy hasn’t been pretty for me so far.

Kidding again. But not really.

Now that I’m through the first 14 weeks, it’s time for me to start planning a little. There is so much to consider, and I don’t want to be overwhelmed, so for now I’m just starting to make general plans for the birth and how I want to care for my newborn.

With Tony teaching part-time and me working from home, it’s likely we’ll be on a pretty tight budget for at least the first year of baby’s life. Not surprisingly, a lot of my plans are focused on raising a baby frugally. But money isn’t the only thing I’m considering.

I’m feeling overwhelmed, so if you’re a mom with experience in any of these areas, I’d love your input. Let’s keep it positive, though! I don’t want to hear about why I can’t do this or that.

Natural birth

I’m preparing myself for an unmedicated natural birth. My mom gave birth this way four times, and it’s something that I’ve always known I wanted to do. There are a million different factors, and I realize that circumstances don’t always allow for completely natural birth, but I’m sure going to try!

I’m reading up now on how best to prepare myself for a safe natural birth, and I’m registered for a Bradley Method childbirth class starting in July. My OB is on board as much as she can be — she basically says natural is fine with her, but we’ll have to discuss induction or other options if the baby or me is in danger. I would have preferred a midwife, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a midwife in my insurance network.

Breastfeeding

Formula is expensive, guys! Breastfeeding is practically free. And studies show breastfeeding is good for mama and baby. So I’m going for it! The hospital where I’m giving birth is one of 92 in the country deemed “baby friendly” by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. That means they follow best practices that ensure a good start for moms who choose breastfeeding. Every bit helps! But I know that education and preparation are so important for successful breastfeeding, so I’m doing all I can to hold up my end.

Cloth Diapering

Yep. I’m doing it! According to Green Baby Guide’s figures, cloth diapers can save you as much as $1757 over the course of your baby’s diapered years. This number may be off depending on a wide variety of factors, but money isn’t the only reason cloth diapers appeal to me. They’ll keep my newborn’s 10-12 diapers a day out of the landfills, too.

I still have a lot of research to do on the subject, and I suspect the most valuable research won’t even happen until after the baby is here and we can test different methods. But as of now, I’m drawn to a prefolds/cover system, which seems to be the cheapest and simplest option. Expect more on this topic as I learn more about it, though!

So that’s what’s been on my mind. I’m already overwhelmed, and I haven’t even started looking at cribs and car seats. Yikes.

Photo by aliedwards

iPhone apps that make my life easier

My friend Kacie is thinking about getting a smart phone. She’s been asking me lots of questions about my iPhone, and she requested that I share some of my favorite apps here. Okay!

As someone who doesn’t talk on the phone a lot, I use it more for browsing the Internet and applications than I do for talking. If you’re like me and you’re not a big cell phone user, you might consider getting an iPod Touch instead. Having instant access to the Internet without wi-fi is a really convenient perk, but it’s not necessary if you don’t want to spend the extra money on your cell phone bill.

Here are the ways that the iPhone has made my life easier:

Maps

I am perpetually lost. I have a terrible sense of direction, and even when someone gives me explicit directions, it’s easy for me to get turned around anyway. Now that I have GPS on my iPhone, even if I take a wrong turn, I can map a new course to help me find my way back. The maps aren’t also completely accurate, but they’re usually accurate enough to help me find my way.

Scheduling

I’ve never been able to get it together enough to use a day planner. I always forget to enter appointments or lose the thing entirely. My iPhone calendar is the closest I’ve come to organizing various dates and appointments. I love that I can choose multiple times to alert myself, and because it’s my phone, I check it frequently enough to see when things are coming up.

Comparison shopping

Have you ever bought something for what you thought was a great price, and then kicked yourself later when you found it on sale for cheaper somewhere else? It seems that no matter how much comparison shopping you do beforehand, it’s easy to end up in this positive. I always do a quick search on my iPhone before I buy to make sure that no one else is selling it for cheaper right now.

Road trips

The iPhone has absolutely changed long car trips for us. We invested $30 in an FM transmitter that allows us to broadcast the iPhone through a radio station. In addition to letting us play music from my iPod library, it allows us to listen to episodes of This American Life on its incredible iPhone app and catch up on the news with the NPR News app. We used to burn a ton of CDs with music and podcasts before hitting the road, but now all we need is my tiny little iPhone.

Skype

I haven’t actually tested this yet, so I’ll have to follow when we get back from Europe, but I’m planning on using Skype to help us stay in touch with family while we’re out of the country. Roaming phone and data charges are incredibly expensive overseas. I plan to keep my phone on Airplane Mode while we’re out of the country. This basically turns it into an iPod Touch. I’ll still be able to connect to wi-fi where ever it’s available, which means we can use the Skype app to make phone calls at much cheaper rates. If we connect with other Skype users, it’s even free.

Online banking

Because we keep the bulk of our money in savings accounts, our checking account balance is typically pretty low. It’s really important that we keep up with transactions to make sure we’re not overspending. I often log into our checking account to make sure all of the bills are withdrawing as they should. I also use the Mint.com app occasionally to check our budget and see how we’re doing.

Fitness

The Couch to 5K app made training for my 5K a lot easier and more.

Social Networking

While it’s not the most productive use for a smart phone, connecting to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks where ever you are is a definite perk for smart phones. It makes waiting in a long line much more bearable, and it’s definitely fun to snap a picture and immediately upload it to Facebook or Flickr when I see something interesting.

Do you have a smart phone? What are your favorite ways to use it?

Disclaimer: I was not compensated for this post in any way by AT&T or Apple. But it sure would be nice if they sent me a new iMac. :)

Photo by chanc

Turn off the lights to conserve energy & save money

This past Saturday, cities and households throughout the world observed Earth Hour. Once a year, families, businesses, and cities shut off the lights for one hour to raise awareness about energy conservation.

Tony and I observed the tradition with candles, an game of Battleship, and Jones Soda root beer, and it was actually a lot of fun. It reminded me of summer power outages when I was a kid when we suddenly had to find creative ways to entertain ourselves.

Shutting off the lights doesn’t just conserve energy, though. It also reduces energy costs and promotes quality time with family. Shutting off computers, televisions, and video games — even for an hour — is a great way to reconnect. All of the benefits made me wonder — why don’t we observe Earth hours more frequently?

Every year, my older sister and her family shut off the lights, eat canned foods, and enjoy an entire weekend with limited energy use. For them, the tradition is a chance to embrace simplicity. It’s also a reminder of how life would be without electricity.

If you’re trying to conserve energy and lower your electricity costs, consider a weekly or monthly “earth hour.” Stock up on candles and flashlight batteries, and plan a fun night with these power-free activities.

  • Play board games or cards.
  • Tell stories.
  • Read or write by candlelight.
  • Prepare a meal that doesn’t require electricity.

How did you observe Earth Hour?

Boxed in

The image you’re about to see may disturb you. Viewing this image is not recommended for people sensitive to clutter, disorganization, and mess. Potential side effects include headache, shortness or breath, difficulty concentrating, and severe writer’s block. View at your own risk.

This is the current state of my guest room and, consequently, the current state of my brain:

Somewhere under this pile of boxes and junk there is a bed and a desk and even a floor. Sadly, you can’t see any of that.

This mess has been accumulating for the past six months. At Christmas, new things left a lot of our old stuff homeless. Of course, I should have been getting rid of things then. But a funny thing happens when I know a move is coming. I start putting things off.

“I’ll be going through everything in a few months when we’re packing. I’ll deal with this then.”

Clutter began to accumulate a little at a time. A few boxes here; a pile of books there. We couldn’t decide whether we should sell our old TV, give it to Goodwill, or bring it with us — into the guest room it went. We¬† bought a used TV, and it was shipped to us in its original packaging. We thought it would be nice to keep the box so we could pack the TV in it when we move — into the guest room that went. A co-worker kindly gave us a trunk load of good moving boxes. I’m sure you see where this is going.

Now this room haunts my nightmares. I just keep closing the door tight, trying to pretend that mess isn’t there. Unfortunately, it’s a symptom of a much bigger problem, though. The guest room is ground zero, but there are tiny little catastrophe zones throughout our apartment. Closets, drawers, cupboards, shelves — all piled with junk I’ll have to sort and pack.

We’re moving in about 6 weeks. During my least anxious times, I tell myself that’s plenty of time. But then I open that guest room door, and I’m reminded of just how much I have to do.

What I mean to say is I have a lot on my mind right now, and a to-do list that’s a mile long. I do most of my writing on the weekends, and unfortunately that’s also the only time I can focus on decluttering, packing, and planning. My brain looks a lot like that room right now, and sorting out the mess to find inspiration is becoming harder and harder. Something has to give.

Since I started this blog almost two years ago, I’ve updated most weekdays. For the next 6 weeks, I will likely be posting every other day. I don’t plan to disappear for days or weeks at a time, but cutting down a little will help my sanity immensely.

I can’t guarantee that this will be the last time I whine. Please be patient with me as I attempt to navigate a lot of stress.

How are you doing? I’m happy to join your pity party if you’d like to whine a little. :)

On your mark, get set …

Tomorrow afternoon, we set sail for a four-day cruise to the Bahamas. I so need some sunshine and relaxation.

Taking time off from my day job was easy. Unfortunately, taking time off from my own to-do list, worries, and work isn’t so easy.

It’s been months since we took real time off to relax, and no matter how much I plan to relax in Europe, I know better. With all the travel and things to do, I doubt we’ll have much time to just be.

Our trip this weekend is different, though. We don’t have high expectations or a long to-see list. I have no itinerary and no plans. We planned for this cruise to be our chance to recharge and refresh ourselves before the craziness coming up. The past few months have been hectic, and the months ahead will be even more so. We need to take some time to ourselves to reflect on what’s coming up and prepare for what’s ahead.

So I’m requesting time off from myself. I need a few days to collect my thoughts. I need time to read a book without feeling guilty about everything else I should be doing. I need to spend some real time with my husband talking and planning for the near future without work between us.

Tony is guilty, too. With his thesis due at the end of next week and graduation quickly approaching, I feel like his computer has become permanently appended to his lap. It’s rare that I’m able to pull him away from his work for a real conversation.

Because the weekends are when I do most of my writing for this site, posting may be light next week. I hope to catch up early in the week, but there’s no telling what my schedule will be like when we return.

After this trip, it’s time to get serious about packing our lives and moving north. It’s time to prepare ourselves for a new home, new jobs, and what will surely feel like a new life. So much is changing so soon. I hope we’re able to stop the clock, if only for a weekend.

Photo by lynnoel

Simple ways to save time and reduce stress

As I try to stay sane for the next couple months despite my mile-long to-do list, I’m looking for quick and easy ways to reduce stress.

Here are a few things I’ve tried in the past few weeks that have helped immensely.

Plan ahead.

At the beginning of each day (or each week), take a few minutes to make a rough outline of what needs to be completed and when. It may feel like you don’t have time to stop and regroup before you tackle the day, but making a game plan will help you prioritize tasks, manage your time more efficiently, and keep you on task.

Delegate and ask for help.

It may seem like you’re on your own, but chances are your support network is more willing to help than you think. Enlist your spouse, children, or co-workers to handle appropriate tasks on your to-do list. Once you’ve mapped out your game plan for the day or week, figure out which tasks would make the most sense to outsource.

Deal with it now.

I have a tendency to let a million little things pile up in my life. I leave a ton of emails in my inbox. I let the junk mail pile up on the kitchen table. I wait until the last possible minute to do everything.

If you want to cut your stress instantly, try taking care of those little bothersome things right away. Archive or delete every email as soon as you’ve read it. Throw junk mail into the recycling bin as soon as you’ve read it. Wash your dishes as soon as you finish eating. By taking a little time to take care of this stuff as it happens, you’ll reduce the total number of items looming over you on your to-do list.

Make your health a priority.

You may be tempted to give up relaxation, exercise, or sleep in favor of work or chores. When you sacrifice your health, you’re not at the top of your game, which will lead to less productivity. Take the time to take care of yourself, and you’ll get more done in less time, leaving you with more hours in the day when your work is done.

Photo by charliedees

Setting boundaries to maintain my sanity

With everything that’s happening right now, I’ve been more than a little overwhelmed. I’ve been thinking of ways to cut down on stress and make time for the things that relax me.

The line between work, home, and work-at-home has become too blurry. Chores around the house are being neglected, and I feel like I’m constantly “on the lock.” I’ve decided to set some boundaries for the next couple months to keep me focused and give me time to chill out.

No laptop in bed.

One of the things I miss most when life gets hectic is reading fiction. When I’m stressed, nothing is more relaxing than forgetting about my to-do and immersing myself in a book. Stress also leads to insomnia for me, especially when I’m working right up until I try to sleep. Reading before bed calms me and takes my mind off the stress in the moments before I sleep.

Solution: I’ve banned myself from bringing my laptop to bed with me. For the past week, I’ve been forcing myself to read instead of work or plan, and it’s definitely helping me sleep better and relax a little in the evening. It also gives me an opportunity to spend time with my husband without our laptops between us.

Set time limits.

Since I work full time throughout the week, I do the bulk of my personal planning and projects on the weekends. Since the weekends are my only chance to relax, working too much on Saturday and Sunday cuts back on my “me” time. I feel like I spend all morning working and the afternoons are eaten up by errands and household chores.

Solution: Weekend days are now “work days” with the same limits. I work 8:30 to 5:30 on the weekdays, so why should I be on the clock non-stop on Saturday and Sunday? I’ll spend weekend mornings planning, writing and working until 2 p.m. From 2 to 5:30 p.m., I’ll get household chores done, but the weekend evenings are mine to relax, exercise, and spend time with Tony.

I’m making myself and my family a priority.

I think we all have a tendency to put what we can on the back burner when time is limited. That means that the things and people we love most often get the shaft. I’m definitely guilty of this. If I’m busy, my work out is the first thing I cut. After that, I’m likely to sacrifice time with my husband if I’ve got a lot going on. But why should the things that are most important to me take a backseat?

Solution: The things that are most important to me are non-negotiable. I’m limiting “overtime” when it comes to personal projects. During the times that I’ve allotted to myself and my family, taking me time and being with my husband are the only things on my to-do list.

Have you set boundaries for your sanity? What would your rules be?

Photo by redvers