Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review of My Extra Income

Yesterday I wrote about my good fortune in getting a holiday bonus from my day job. Believe me, I am well aware of how very lucky I am, especially when there are still so many people out there who are out of work. I am very grateful for my job, and the benefits it offers. Though, like everyone, there are days I occasionally dream of giving it all up and living in a shack in Fiji, I've been at my job almost 11 years now and have no intentions of leaving anytime soon!

Since I haven't done it in a little while I thought I would do a review on my extra income - what I earn over and above my day job wages. Though I finally have my finances rolling along like a well oiled machine, I am still actively perusing additional income. I've got a whole lot of goals on my horizon* and most of them require cash. Here's what I've been up to lately...

Rental income - I continue to have a tenant for the apartment (knock on wood!) Things have been pretty quiet in that area lately. She doesn't know it yet, but I am contemplating doing a house project for her, come spring. Next month I will get my tax worksheet from the accountant, and I am expecting a decent tax return - mainly because since my home has a rental unit, I can write off 25% of the house painting job. I am considering investing some of that back into the apartment. She has asked for a new refrigerator in the past. Hers works, but it is a tad ragged. I've already had to work on it twice and since it is a bit older, parts for it aren't cheap. It would be a good business decision, and again, something I could write off, and hey - happy tenants are good tenants!

Part Time Jobs - I still have a hodgepodge of part time jobs. My jobs, as you might recall, are all sporadic. I am not sure I would be able to do a regular day in/day out, 20 hour a week second job. (Well, I probably could if I had to, but I think it would take quite a toll.) My jobs all offer me a little work here and a little work there, never so much that I get too burned out. Part Time Job 1 offers scattered 4-5 hour shifts and Part Time Job 2 offers 1 week of work, 3 times a year. One of those weeks was in October. While the hourly pay isn't all that impressive, I get in almost 40 hours, so it's a nice bump when I add it to my regular income. In addition, I was offered some freelance work that month that was really exciting. It something I had never done before and was interesting, fun and really rewarding. Again, if you take the hours put in versus the return, the rate was pretty low, but it was work I loved doing and it helped my bottom line. I was paid for that work in November.

Currently I am picking up several shifts over at Part Time Job 1. With the holidays, they've had a lot of shifts available and it just so happens most of my coworkers are extremely busy right now. I offered to pick up a few extra shifts to fill in the holes. I pretty much worked every day through the last holiday weekend and have three more shifts coming up. Yay!

Surveys - I still do surprisingly well with surveys. I mean, I don't make a ton, but I usually manage to get anywhere from $10 - $15 a month. Okay, that's not enough to retire on, but it is around $120 a year I make on lunch hours or while waiting for reports to print. You can read a past post I wrote about the surveys I do (and see links to sign up for them if you want) here.

Bank Interest - Again, with interest rates the way they are, I am not rolling in dough from my interest! But you know what I love about interest? It is practically free. I do nothing to get it - the bank just adds it into my account each month. I love that!

Book Sales - Despite selling some nice high ticket items lately, book sales in general have been slow. I know this is my fault. I have proven to myself time and time again that if I am actively working on my book sales, I make more money. For awhile there I got busy and was coasting a bit, then I ran out of books to list. However, people I know have been clearing out their closets and generously giving their old books to me, so I have a box full of books waiting to go up for sale. That is something I need to make happen ASAP. Generally, when I am working at it, I can make an extra $60-70 a month on book sales.

Mystery Shopping - I used to do pretty well on mystery shopping, or at least get a free meal a month, but lately this has dried up! The only things I see offered are too far away or age compliance shops for places that serve liquor. They want shoppers who are under 30, to see if they get carded. Since I am over the age limit (and getting further all the time....) that rules me out. Ah well....

And that is pretty much it, other than the unexpected windfall! Looking ahead at my calendar, if all proceeds as normal, it looks like I will have a fairly good variety of part time work through June, which is when everything dries up for the summer. Here's looking forward to a good 2010!

* Some of my goals are going back to school, fixing up my home for possible resale when the market turns around, and some much needed work on the cottage. Plus I have some purely financial goals, like having 6 months of emergency funds stockpiled away!

Photo by: elycefeliz
via flickr

Read more

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Money Decisions for December... Again

Sooo.... guess who got a rather handsome Christmas bonus?

Actually, it isn't a Christmas bonus per se'. My company offers profit sharing. They split the year end profit sharing into two checks - one that you get before Christmas to help with the holiday shopping, and one they give out in January - after the books are closed and the actual figures are known. It is an extraordinarily nice benefit, and you can see it made a big impact on last's years numbers as well. (Please note that not all the money you see in the sidebar is from the bonus though, some was from my freelance work and I have had some nice book & DVD sales. I even sold Night Slave!)

Now... what to do with it? The obvious thing is to pay down my debt. I still owe my Mom for the loan she gave me for finishing painting the house. In fact, $350 of the money in my sidebar there has already been sent to her. It's a bit tricky though. When she gave me the money, she was so incredibly sweet about it. She told me she wasn't going to charge interest and I could just pay her back $20 or $30 whenever I had it. She also said she wanted me to keep track of it, and she wasn't going to worry about it one bit. Isn't that nice?? But, if you've been reading my blog for awhile, you know that isn't how I work. With each check I've been getting from my part time jobs, I've been saving a little of it for my emergency fund and giving mom the rest. So far, I have sent her $800 - two $350 checks and one $100 check. Each time she gets one, she tells me how hard it is for her to take my money since she knows how hard I work for it. She's such a dear.

So, I owe her $1900 yet. I could turn around and just pay her off. It is probably what I should do, but for some reason, I am hesitating...

Part of it is what Mom has been saying about how she feels about cashing those checks. It makes her feel bad. She is well aware that it is a loan and I am simply paying her back, but she wasn't expecting big lump sums. If she has a problem with $350, imagine how she'd feel with a $1900 check!?! I'm not sure she'd believe me that it really was okay.

But, that's not the only thing... there is something else, and I don't know how to describe it. When I get money like this, my impulse is always to split it up a bit - make the most out of it. If you look at the post I wrote about last year's bonus, you'll see I split it up. My current urge is to take a portion of my bonus and send it to Mom as a repayment, take another portion and put it in my emergency fund and a final portion and invest in one of my larger home improvement projects. I keep thinking that I could send her another $400 - $500 now, and then kind of pace it out over the month. That will still be a lot for her to take, but I think she'll do it. Then again, maybe this is selfish, I don't know. I originally really wanted to pay her back before Christmas, and this would let me do it. Yet at the same time, my range hood microwave hasn't worked in 6 months, and there are a lot of good deals right now. For a couple hundred bucks I could have that fixed finally. Or perhaps get a bed that doesn't hurt my back, since I have been sleeping without a box spring for 18 months.

On the other hand, it isn't like this is the only money I'll be getting. I'm working a ton of shifts at the part time job through December, and I should be getting another profit sharing check in January. (That one will most likely be a bit less. It usually is.)
It is a strange thing. How come when I get a $400, I can fairly easily turn around and send Mom $350 of it, but once the money coming in gets over that $1,000 mark, I can't do the same? It must have to do with large numbers - it has to. I have to have some kind of block or something. Whatever the reason, it is how I feel. And I guess the reasons don't have to be logical. I am an extremely logical person - who is known for looking logic in the face and doing the exact opposite. I mean, deciding to get $900 a month over your income to keep not one, but two homes, is not at all logical - yet I did it.

So what to do? Follow my head, which says just pay mom back in full or follow my gut which says do it a little at a time? The good news is, I don't have to decide now. I send out my checks through online bill pay, so it doesn't cost me a thing - not even a stamp - to cut multiple checks. I can send out what I am comfortable with now, then see how I feel throughout the rest of the month.

Photo by: _ES
via flickr

Read more

Monday, November 30, 2009

Follow Up On Excercising to Combat SAD

Well it has been a little over a month since I started exercising in the morning to combat my Seasonal Affective Disorder. I thought I would write a post to follow up on how it has been going:

Actually, it has been great! Now, don't get me wrong, I don't pop out of bed singing in the morning... exercise is not some magic bullet. However, it has made a huge difference. In my post about SAD and its effects on me, I tried to explain what it was like for me to wake up each morning when it's been dark. For some reason, the lack of light in the morning has really hit me hard. Setting back the clocks at the time change helped a bit and it was a bit lighter in the morning, but only for a week or two. Today when I woke up it was as dark out as if it were midnight. Before I started exercising regularly, this made it incredibly difficult for me to get out of bed. Have you ever taken cold medication and had it knock you out, and then try to get up? You know that feeling like your limbs are made of lead and your head is underwater? It was something like that, except that when it happens under the influence of cold medication, you can pretty easily laugh it off. Maybe not at the time, but later anyway. When it isn't the result of something you can control though - and it happens morning after morning - it become depressing very, very quickly. There were times that I found myself wondering if having a job was worth it. Not that I would actually act on that, but these ridiculous (though regularly occurring) thoughts show how bad it was getting.

It didn't matter how much sleep I got, either. I tried going to bed earlier and that just made it worse! Even if I felt like I was going to be able to fall asleep when I went to bed, once the lights were off I became restless and ended up being awake far past my normal bedtime, which meant I was overly sleepy on top of everything else!

So, a little over a month ago, I began exercising...

I am getting up 40 minutes earlier than I was. That gives me time to get up, get into my workout clothes, go downstairs and turn the lights on, then exercise for 25-30 minutes. I'm not doing anything terribly strenuous - some yoga stretches and light aerobics, mostly. (In the evenings, I try to do another hour, but that depends a bit on how busy I am. I've been able to do it most nights, though.)

The exercise has made a big difference. I still wake up wishing I could sleep in a little longer, but it's that normal "weekday wishing it was the weekend" feeling. It isn't depressing at all. As a coworker of mine who gets up really early said - "it isn't getting up an hour or two earlier that is hard, it's the first five minutes." In my case it isn't even that. The first minute I open my eyes I might be wishing the alarm hadn't gone off, but a moment later I am dressed and downstairs, and by then, everything it fine.

I'm feeling really good and glad to have shaken that depression. In addition, I've gotten the side benefit of losing a little weight. It seems the past few busy months have taken a bit of a toll on my waistline. I managed to eat pretty healthy, but I was eating rather late at night. I'm talking dinner at 10:00 p.m. - or much, much later. In my younger years this was no problem, but I have finally come to accept that, now that I am in my late 30s, my metabolism has changed. The late meals were not good for me, and that will be something I will have to work on when I get busy again. Anyway, the exercise has been great and I am now pretty close the same weight I was when I was married (which was the last time I had a scale.) I have to believe that those few extra pounds weren't helping my sluggishness any either!

I received a lot of supportive and interested comments on the original post. If you are dealing with SAD, I encourage you to check them out - along with this advice from my friend Tracey:

I too, have difficulties with SAD and everything you said is awesome!I am sure you have done your homework on this, but medically SAD is thought to be caused by lower levels of the hormones/chemicals Melatonin and Serotonin in the body. It is also considered an Environmental Psychiatric condition, so all that you're doing to change your environment is wonderful!

I strongly dislike taking any medications/supplements, etc..But when it gets really bad for me I take Melatonin in a small dose. There is a very respected health-food store in our area (you know the one), and they are VERY educated on SAD and can recommend anything from vitamins to different teas to help. is a great reference for SAD. And has a lot of info as well.

Here's hoping to a happier winter!

Photo of figure in Cobra pose (one of the poses I do in the morning) by: The Other Martin Taylor
via flickr

Read more

Friday, November 20, 2009

Happiness is... Free Recipes

Today, I fell in love with Google, all over again.

I am pretty good at hunting things down on the internet when I need something, but every now and then I forget to even look. Today I was able to use Google to quickly and easily find two recipes I thought I had lost.

Back when I was married, my ex and I did a lot of cooking. Naturally, we owned a ton of cookbooks. We also were fond of cooking magazines like "Food and Wine" and "Cuisine." Since I'm the type of cook who enjoys being in the kitchen in part because I like making and trying new dishes, that gave us all the more reason to buy a lot of cookbooks.

When we split, the cookbooks were roughly divided up. I got all of mine that I had before the marriage and some that were gifts to me while we were married. He kept the ones we had bought together or that were given to him. For the most part I was absolutely fine with this division, but later I realized that in his books were two recipes I loved... and missed.

It is very rare that I miss a recipe. As I said, part of the reason I like to cook is to make something new. My father was the same way. He liked to make a recipe once, maybe twice, and then he was pretty much done with it. You really had to cajole him to make something if he was bored with the recipe. His apple pie was a prime example. My father made the best apple pie ever. Seriously, I have yet to have a pie that rivals his. Heck, I wish I had a tenth of his pie crust making skills! As I recall, he enjoyed making the first few - it was a challenge. For years after that though, it took begging. Mom would buy bushels of apples, which she kept on the three season porch. We knew then that it was time to start asking for homemade applesauce and apple pies. Mom made the applesauce, so we could get that pretty easily, but the apple pie took some work.

Now that I cook myself, I understand his reluctance. Once I've made something more than a few times, it stops being fun for me and starts becoming work. So, the fact that I actually miss recipes is really saying something! I didn't really want to buy the cookbooks that these recipes were in again - it seems a bit silly to buy a new cookbook for just one recipe. I did consider, briefly, going into a bookstore and attempting to find the cookbooks and then copy down the recipe there, but this wasn't quite as easy as it sounds either. While one of them would probably be fairly simple to find, (it was in one of the Mayo Clinic's cookbooks,) the other was from a "Food and Wine" supplemental - somewhere between a magazine and a thick cookbook, it wasn't the kind of thing likely to be on the bookstore shelves. I had no idea where I could get that from again, especially since I didn't remember exactly when it came out. So, I was pretty sure one of the recipes was lost forever. ...that is until today, when I typed both of them into Google and they popped right up!

They are:

Chili Dusted Pork Chops

Shrimp and Mango Curry

(Really both of these are summer dishes, but I was thinking of them because I have both pork chops and edamame in my freezer right now. )

I bring this up for two reasons - 1) I was incredibly happy to find both of these without having to spend a penny and 2) it was a instant object lesson in keeping it simple. Seriously, for the last year and a half, whenever I thought about these recipes (which happened every now and again this summer) I would think about going to bookstore with a pad of paper and a pen or trying to order these cookbooks used online so I could get a good deal on them - it never occurred to me until today to simply type "shrimp mango Mayo clinic" into Google and see what showed up on the search results! It was just reminder that it's frequently a smart idea to start with the easiest and less expensive options first - you can always get more complicated later!

Photo of the pile of cookbooks by: pirate johnny
via flickr

Read more

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grocery Shopping Review - Meal Planning from the Market

A few months ago I started buying my groceries on the envelope system. For the most part, it is working really well. My food budget for the month is $125, so I take that out around the first of the month and tuck it in a special spot in my wallet, then just spend that when I shop. I have gone over a few times, usually at the end of the month when something unexpected comes up, but I am not going over by very much (or very often) and I am going over my budget a lot less than when I was using my debit card instead of cold hard cash.

This month I started my grocery shopping by going to the farmer's market. You might not think there would be a lot at a farmer's market in Michigan in November, but you'd be wrong! There was a ton of produce to choose from. As part of my effort to soak up sunshine before the winter darkness sets in, (and me trying to get a bit more exercise,) I walked down to the market on a crisp fall morning. I bought celery, carrots, beets, leeks, onions, Brussel sprouts (still on the stalk - I love that!), ham, turkey, eggs, kale and potatoes. There were also tons of things I didn't buy - squashes of all colors, pumpkins, apples, radishes, parsnips... the list goes on and on.

Anyway, you might already be seeing the problem with my trip... I bought a lot of root vegetables and you know what? Root vegetables are heavy!! I was so tired bringing home my haul that I had to stop over at a park on the way home and just sit on a park bench for awhile and rest my arms! It was good though, more exercise than I planned on certainly (next time I buy that much I'll bring my car!) but overall a worthy trip.

The next thing I did was start putting together my menu...

Normally I put together my menu and shopping list before I hit the market, but it was fun to change it around a bit and instead let the market inspire my shopping. I piled up all my produce on the dining room table, got out a couple of favorite cookbooks, grabbed a cup of coffee, and then picked out my menu according to what I had. As I figured out how I was going to cook each thing, it got put away. And while doing that, I also made my shopping list for the additional ingredients I was going to need (and, of course, added the nonfood items like aspirin and window cleaner to my shopping list.)

I then went through my coupons and hopped online and found a few more. As I did, I broke my list into parts depending on where I wanted to shop. More and more I am hitting certain stores for certain things, rather than getting everything at one big megamart. For example, I got those locally grown products at the farmer's market, then I went to a small butcher shop/market for some other meat and produce I couldn't get at the farmer's market. Next I hit Save-A-Lot for some canned items, aluminum foil and dried lentils, Rite Aid for pharmacy items (I had a $25 gift certificate) and finally the megamart for the last items on my list - and the ones I had coupons for.

So basically, when it comes to fresh vegetables and meat, I buy it locally and look for the best quality. I may pay a little more than at the megamart, but I am okay with that.

I do try to use Save A Lot for canned and dried items that I don't have coupons for. It isn't one of my favorite places to shop, but their prices are so low, it is worth the trip.

I waiver between CVS and Rite Aid for pharmacy type items. It just depends on who is running the better deals.

The megamart becomes the last step. Before I used to go there first and get everything, but now I pretty much only get there what I can't get elsewhere - or when I have coupons.

It's been working well - my savings tend to even out. I may spend a little more on free range eggs, but I save on the non-produce items. All in all, its a system that is working for me. Here's just a few of the things on the menu for this month:

Tex-Mex Turkey Chili
Risotto with ham, portabella mushrooms, carrots and peas
Quiche with turkey sausage, leeks and mushrooms
Homemade onion soup
Grilled chicken salad with artichoke hearts
Steak, oven roasted beats and Brussel sprouts with pecans


Photo by: freeformkatia
via flickr

Read more

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Experience with Giving Through Freecycle

Last week I was insanely busy at my office. We are going to be moving at the end of the year, and last week we started cleaning out our storage area. We need to get some units cleared out so that they can start moving them over ahead of time. Well, since going paperless quite a few years ago and having gone through several downsizings, we have accumulated a ton of miscellaneous office supplies. Most were gathering dust in the back. Since we don't use them anymore we don't want to move them over to the new office, where we have considerably less storage space.

The first thing we did was go through and take all the stuff we wanted to get rid of and put it all in one spot. Then we encouraged employees to help themselves. Then we donated a ton to to a couple of charities (churches and preschools.) We still, however, had some things left - and those I decided to Freecycle.

I am going to give you my personal views on working with Freecycle-ers. Let me state these are merely my opinions after 5 solid days of giving away office supplies, getting emails from over 100 people and giving things to over half of them. Your experience in your town might be completely different. First off, I love the concept of Freecycle. Basically you post what you have, and people who are interested email you and then (theoretically) come pick it up. Here we were looking at this huge pile of "office stuff" and my boss and coworkers wanted to pitch it all. But the hippy in me, combined with my inner frugal Dutch woman, could not bear to see all this perfectly usable stuff go into a landfill! On the other hand, I didn't have time or energy to deal with eBaying it. I didn't want to make trips to the post office, package it all up, then still have to deal with what didn't sell. Besides, I didn't have that much time - everything had to be gone in a week. Essentially I just wanted to wave a magic wand and make it all disappear. My magic wand was Freecycle....

I would post an item on Freecycle, say 500 used manila folders. (They are perfectly good if you turn them inside out or great for craft projects.) I would very clearly ask people to tell me how many they needed. When they responded, I would give them driving directions to the office and ask when they were picking them up, and for a name to hold the items under. Once they responded, I would grab a scrap paper and jot their name and the day they were coming, and put it on the item. I had a holding area for items waiting to be picked up and I had sections for different days. That way when someone showed up I could easily grab their stuff for them. This part all went pretty well... the quirky part was dealing with the people themselves.

Here are my little rules for Freecycle-ers:

1.) I immediately delete any emails that use text speak. First of all, this is a completely personal thing - I hate text speak. It feels incredibly disrespectful to me. If you can't take the time to type the word "you" I don't want to attempt to have a conversation with you. However, there is a practical reason to delete these emails as well - people who are too lazy to type, are too lazy to return emails. Every time I broke my own rule and responded to a "Will U Save these 4 me?" email they never responded with a name or time for pick up. In fact, not one person who used text speak actually picked up an item. Nothing irritates me more than me taking the time to set something aside for you and you not even bothering to come pick it up.

2.) If someone can't follow the directions in my post, they are going to end up being a pain. This little lesson took me a long time to learn. I would write, in all caps, at the bottom of each post, "PLEASE, TELL ME HOW MANY YOU WANT. This helps me distribute these among everyone who is interested." For example, I had 6 working 19" monitors. Big fellas, these were monstrously heavy and took up a ton of desk real estate - but hey, they worked - and I was giving them away free. People would say they were interested, but not how many they wanted! Well, this just makes more work for me, because now I have to check - and in the meantime I was getting deluged by emails. I finally learned to give away items to the people who responded properly first, then if I had anything left, I would offer it to the non-direction followers.

Amounts weren't the only directions people had a hard time following, though. For example, on the monitors I included in my post the size and weight, and encouraged people to bring someone with a strong back to carry them. Well, you guessed it, I ended up offering one to one of the people who didn't tell me how many they wanted. Who did she send to pick it up? Her 60+ year old mother, who was about 5'3" and maybe 100 lb soaking wet and her father... who had a broken back! Seriously, I couldn't make this stuff up. Guess who (while wearing heels) ended up loading it into their van.... yeah....

3. People who can't follow driving directions are wackjobs. Okay, I know this sounds horribly judgmental and I am not known for my keen sense of direction myself, however, as bad as this sounds, it's still true. I don't mean wackjobs in a scary sense, I mean it in that kind of affectionate, slightly frustrated, roll your eyes kind of way. I gave everyone very clear, very simple directions for how to find our office. Of the 4 people who called from the road to get directions - every single one of them was a wackjob. I'm not sure the correlation between not being able to follow driving directions and being wacko, but there you are. Maybe they not only dance to their own drummer but they drive to their own navigator?

Two of these folks wanted to talk to me forever afterward. These were not comfortable conversations - these were "conversations" where I pretty much didn't get a word in edgewise and where I kept hoping a coworker would rescue me. One of them went by her "stage name" which was vaguely uncomfortable to for me to say. Lady Fallopian Tubes, (not her real stage name, but close enough) completely creeped me out. The final directionally challenged wackjob called three times, apparently not believing 1) my driving directions, 2) the hours I said we would be open, 3) that we were really an office and 4) that we would actually give away all these great used manila folders and monitor stands. Sigh.... I think he wanted to chat too, but I pretty much gave him his items then hustled him out the door.

4. When you find a good one - give 'em all they can carry. Some of the freecycle-ers were great! They followed directions, picked their things up on time and thanked me, and then left. They were awesome! These folks I loaded down - not only with what they originally wanted, but they were the ones I emailed later with a "Hey, I also found this... could you use it?" One of my favorites was a gal who was opening her own law office with four of her fellow recent grads. I hooked her up - she said it was like Christmas! That's me... helping the Michigan economy 1 box of legal sized green hanging folders at a time.

5. Freecycle helps everyone - even though the week was rather hectic, I feel really good about it. Not only did I keep a lot of stuff out of the landfill, I also managed to unload things we would have had to pay to get rid off. We had hundreds of pounds of broken and/or unusable (by us) computer, printing and fax equipment. To have that picked up and recycled would cost us about $.12 a pound. Thanks to Freecyclers - especially the local Steelworker's Union who took 3 broker Phaser printers (at 100 lb+ each), 3 broken fax machines (65 lbs each) and all the supplies we had for each (thanks guys!) I saved the office quite a bit of money. I like that a lot.

Photo by: fatmandy
via flickr

Read more

Monday, November 9, 2009

Style on A Dime... or Less

So, I've been writing about redoing my home to fit my style. A couple of weekends ago I tackled another room - my living room. Once again, I was able to completely change the feel of the room - without spending a penny.

First let me tell you a little about the room. It is fairly large room, roughly rectangular in shape, and painted an odd sort of gray green. The paint is matte, which was undoubtedly chosen to hide the waves and ripples in my 100+ year old plaster walls. The color reminds me of a Victorian doctor's waiting room - think dull, slighty depressing, grayish olive green. Obviously I did not choose this color, and someday I might change it, but I have to say that despite the fact I am not crazy about the color, they did a good job painting it.

This is the front room of my house. If you imagine a horizontal rectangle, the top line across has windows to my front porch. The front door is in the top right corner and the entryway to the rest of the house is in the bottom right, making an informal hallway. Originally my couch was on the short wall facing that hallway (the left side of the rectangle) and all the furniture was based off that.

The couch, and its matching chair, are incredibly striking, and part of the reason I don't mind the paint color - they make it work. Once again (as with most of my furniture) this was passed on to me by a friend. The couch belonged to my friend Tracey and it is in her rich, decadent, exotic and unforgettable style. First off, both the chair and the couch are huge. That was actually the reason I ended up with it - when she moved, it didn't fit into her new place... literally, they couldn't get it through the front door. So, she ended up storing it in her father's garage. Well, at the time I had an empty living room and offered to at least get it away from the car fumes and garage mice and store it at my place. It barely fit in my house - we had to take off both doors from the house, all the legs and finials off the couch, and then it took three men (one sober, one tipsy, one three sheets to the wind) and a time space continuum to get it through the door. I've always told Tracey that if she wants it back, it is hers... unfortunately I am not sure it is coming out without a saw!

Not only is the furniture big, it is in rich, gorgeous colors. It is deep brilliant red, black and gold in an intricate combination of tapestry fabrics. The back and arms of the couch are very tall, which is why it was so hard to get it through the door. In addition to the couch there is a big overstuffed chair, which is almost a love seat, (except that the lovers would have to be pretty skinny to sit side by side,) and a huge square ottoman. Honestly, this is not furniture I would have chosen, I think I would have been too scared to be that bold! My friend Tracey, however, is fearless when it comes to furniture selection and she has stunning taste. The best part (for me,) is that this furniture works with the room and the paint color. The warm elegant colors of the fabric keep it from being dark and cold. Since this room is kind of a formal parlor room (no tv here), it all works together well.

Also in the room are a few other big pieces, the grandfather clock my father built, a glass coffee table and few other things. This was what I had to work with...

The first step was to clean out the room - everything, except the couch, chair and grandfather clock, had to come out! I pulled, pushed and carried everything from the photos on the walls to the rug on the floor into my dining room. Then I pushed the couch and the chair over against the wall with the windows and got out my trusty Murphy's Oil Soap. After a good sweep I got down on hands and knees and once again washed the hardwood floors. When one side was dry, I pushed the couch and chair over and did the other side. (I did not move the grandfather clock. It is a pain to move and I hate doing it alone. It was fine right where it was.)

Since the couch is the largest piece of furniture in the room, that was the piece I needed to place first. I wanted to do something different with it, but my choices were limited. I was thinking about focal points - what do I want people to look at? I had had it against the wall opposite the doors, which frankly, isn't that much of a view. I don't have a fireplace, tv or piece of great art (common focal points) in there, so what to do? I put it against the windows when I was washing the floor, and could immediately tell that wasn't going to work. As tall as it is, it blocked out half the light. Besides, these are pretty much floor to ceiling windows, I was afraid of sun fading the material. I couldn't put it opposite from where it had been - that would put it directly in the path of anyone entering via the front door... they'd have to somersault over it to get in!

Really, that just left one choice, so I put the couch on the wall opposite the windows. This not only changed the flow of the room, it made the the windows and the grandfather clock into
focal points - perfect! Now it looked like I was trying to make the room make some kind of sense. Next I positioned the rug and the chair. As I did, I noticed another effect that I liked. Because the couch was now on the "long side" of the rectangle, it shrank the room up a bit. In the past, because furniture was on both "short sides," the room felt pretty big and distant. It was fine if I was in there by myself or sitting on the couch with a friend, but when I had people over, I noticed that the furniture made the people sitting on opposites sides of the room really distant from one another. If you were sitting on the couch and someone else was in the chair, with the big distance between you and the ottoman and coffee table in the middle, you almost felt that you had to holler to the other person! Changing the placement made the room a lot more intimate and better for conversation.

As before, I brought in only the furniture that I wanted. Here is something that is crazy to me - changing the way things were arranged made more space... again. Just like in the last room I did. In fact, I actually added one of my chairs that had been in the library (it is gold, so it matches), a large side table that hadn't worked with the new library lay out, and a lamp.

Here's another quirky thing - when I had the furniture how I wanted it, I went to work on the pictures. I have two large framed prints that had been hanging over the couch. All the time, I knew I had hung them too high. It is a fault of mine, I always hang art to high. Recently though, I read something in a design book about figuring how how high you want to hang your art... then lowering it 3". This has been great advice! I've used it a couple of times now, and sure enough, things look better. I was dreading rehanging these pieces - they are so, so heavy and my ex had put them up with big molly bolts. It was going to tear up my walls.

But then something happened... even though the prints were too high behind the couch, that changed now that my gold chair was in front of them. My gold chair also has a tall back - even taller than the couch (it comes up to my shoulders when I am standing next to it.) I put it in front of the prints and a low bookcase nearby and poof! It worked. The prints no longer look like they are hanging in space. Believe me, I wish I could tell you that it was planned, but it wasn't. It just all came together... like magic.

There was only one problem when I got done with the room... now my dining room was full of things I wasn't going to use, from both my living room and my library room!! My next project was to clear that out. I now have a holding area of furniture in my basement that I need to make decisions on. I will either pass it on via the "undeeda" network (you needa chair? I gotta chair.) or sell it in next year's garage sale... or find a new home for it in my own home as I finish up the rest of the rooms in my house.

I am really pleased with this project so far. I am slowly, room by room, making the spaces in my house my own, without spending any money. Now admittedly, I have cleared out some areas that I look at and think, "I need a new _____ for there." but, I am not in any particular rush to go out and buy. I also am rather happy with the deep cleaning each room is getting. It had been awhile since these floors were scrubbed, the furniture vacuumed, the windows washed. I'm also going through each room as I finish with it and making a dream list - writing down everything I would do if I had an unlimited budget. Some things are big and out of my price range, like installing a gas fireplace in the living room, but others are very doable on my budget, like giving the metal register covers a fresh coat of black paint.

My next room will either be the dining room or the bedroom. The dining room will be the easier of the two, so it will depend on how much time I have. The dining room, though, has some potential for big projects, so we'll see if I feel up to tackling it. In the meantime, I have two great rooms that I love and feel very, very comfortable in.

Photo by: Browserd
via flickr

Read more

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Frugally and Naturally Fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

If you live in a part of the world where you have dramatic shifts in climate during the seasons, you are probably familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Here in Michigan I know a number of people who are affected by it, some severely. In those cases it goes beyond a temporary case of the "winter blues" or "fall doldrums," it is a level of depression that can affect their jobs, relationships and overall health. I've been lucky. In the past I have not been very affected by season change, in fact, I love fall and winter, so I look forward to it. This year, however, has been a little different.

SAD is caused by a number of things, but one of the biggest causers is the change in daylight. Here in the Midwest our days are getting shorter at a fairly rapid pace. The lack of natural light is hard on the system. Personally, I am having a problem with the lack of light in the morning. Now when I talk about struggling with these fall mornings, most of my coworkers roll their eyes and make comments about me not being a morning person, but that isn't what is going on at all. To explain the difference, let me give you a little history:

I've worked at my present job for 10 years now. For the last 8 or so, I have worked a slightly odd schedule. For three or four years I worked 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and for the last few I have worked 10:00 to 7:00 p.m.. Now, I like these schedules. In fact, if I worked at home and could set my own hours I would probably work on the 11 to 8 shift, because that is when I am the most productive. However, I wasn't doing that shift because I hated mornings, nor was I sleeping in until just before I went to work. I liked these schedules precisely because they allowed me to exercise in the morning or do things around the house. In May, my boss eliminated the 10 to 7 shift I was on and the last hold outs, a coworker and I, shifted to 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.. And you know what? It has been fine. I've had absolutely no problems all summer with the new schedule. My only minor complaint is that I miss extra hour at the end of the day when things were quiet to get things done in the office - but the mornings were fine.

Then, mid October that all changed...

At first I thought my difficulties with mornings had to do with my busy schedule, but it didn't feel that way. It felt bigger, darker somehow. I don't really have good words to describe this, but when the alarm went off in the morning, it felt wrong to get up - unnatural. I felt like I was struggling underwater, fighting to get up and get out of bed. It was starting to affect my mood.

After my schedule eased up, but the trouble with the mornings didn't, I realized what was going on. Just a couple of months ago, getting up hadn't been a problem at all. Now it was like climbing a cliff. It had to be because of the seasonal change.

Now there are fairly expensive ways you can combat this - you can purchase sunlamps and light boards to sit by. I also found a fabulous clock that has a lamp in it and it slowly lights up the room and wakes you with soft melodic chimes. It is fabulous and very cool... and over $200. That is just silly, when a simple digital clock costs less than $10 and I can use my cell phone as an alarm for free. Another option is to do what many older Michigan residents do - just move to a warmer state for a few months! None of these are really in my budget though, so I had to find alternatives. I really didn't like the way I was feeling and felt I had to do something about it.

Daylight savings was last weekend and that helps some. This morning when I got up, the sky was a pale silvery gray, but there was light, and that was great to see. But let's face it, that is only a temporary fix, the days are going to continue to get shorter and January and February are long cold, dark months here in Michigan. Here are my solutions:

Get Enough Rest at Night - Okay, this might seem obvious, but remember, my problems with mornings do not stem from lack of sleep. However, I don't want to compound my problems by not getting enough rest. So, I am making sure I am in bed by a reasonable time each night.

Getting Up Earlier - This sounds like the opposite of what I just said, doesn't it? Here's the thing, I'm trying to get to bed in time to get 7-8 hours of good sleep, while at the same time planning on getting up a half hour earlier than I was. I am doing it for two reasons: The first is that I am finding it is much better for my body and mental health if I get up a little earlier and allow myself time to slowly wake up, than it is hitting the snooze button and getting an extra 8 (or 16, or 24, or 32) minutes of bad sleep and then having to rush to make it out the door in time. The other reason I am getting up earlier is -

Exercise - Honestly, I hate exercise, but the effects are tremendous. I am getting up and doing 15 minutes of yoga stretches and 10 minutes of light aerobics. Nothing too strenuous, just enough to get the blood flowing and the brain synapses firing. Then I am doing another (more active) hour at night. I've been at this a week now and I already feel so, so much better. I used to take yoga classes regularly, but when life got busy and I was stressed, I stopped going. Isn't that always the way? When we get stressed and life is rotten, we stop doing the exact things that are best for us, like exercise and eating well - just when we need them the most! Which brings me to -

Eating Well - I have been trying to balance out my meals a little better lately. I always try to eat well, but I tend to go on kicks where I ate the same kinds of foods a lot. Currently that "kick" is having a small portion of some low fat meat and two veggies. One of the big problems with this time of year is the heavy amounts of food and calorie laden dishes. I'm trying to improve my overall health by eating well and getting a variety of nutrients. While there are some different studies showing the value of vitamins in fighting SAD, I figure whatever I can do to improve my health will help!

Drinking Water - Lots of it. In part this is because I have been exercising more, but also this time of year is very hard on skin. I have very dry skin and with being inside in artificial heat, my lips and skin can crack. Lots of water helps. It also is a good beverage for the evening, because unlike many other beverages (pop, juice, alcohol) water doesn't effect sleep behavior. That doesn't mean I am cutting out my hot chocolate or hot cider with cinnamon, it just means I am trying to have them early enough that the sugar and caffeine have time to get through my body before bedtime, and I am washing everything down with big glasses of water.

Getting Sunlight - This has not been easy the past couple of weeks, as we've had a lot of rain and cloudy weather, but when I can, I am opening my blinds and letting in the sun. The best place for me to do this is work, where my office gets quite a bit of light in the morning. Since Seasonal Affective Disorder has to do with the lower amount of natural light, I'm trying to soak up the sunlight when I can.

Turning on the Lights in the Morning - Yes, frugal me is actually turning on lights! I am such a Scrooge when it comes to my electricity bill, but not when it comes to my mental health. I am turning on the lights in the morning as I move about the house a lot more than I have in the past. It is a psychological thing, but it helps.

Appreciating the Season - The final thing I am doing is trying to take time to notice and appreciate these beautiful fall season. The leaves are mostly down now, but fall is a beautiful time of year. Winter is too. I'm trying to remind myself to be grateful for the changing days.

How about you? Do you have Seasonal Affective Disorder or know someone who does? What tips can you give? As I said, I've been making these small changes over the last week or so and really noticed a difference, what works for you?

Photo by: gato-gato-gato
via flickr

Read more

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Automatic Budget

I haven't been writing about my budget a lot lately and I realized it's because I don't think about it as much as I once did. It took me over a year, but finally my budget is almost completely automatic! It is absolutely fabulous.

Let's take a look at some of my monthly expenses and how I am taking care of them each month:

Mortgages - I have two properties, each with two loans. All of these payments are taken care of every month with online billing.

Life and Auto Insurance - Since my home insurance is paid out of escrow, these are the only insurance costs I have. Both have odd billing dates - the auto is semiannually and the life is quarterly. Basically what I did was add up the cost of both over the course of the year and then divide by 12. Each month that amount is set aside in a special online savings account I have just for Insurance. When a bill comes in, I just transfer over the money from the account and pay it online.

Utilities are a bit different...

Gas at the house, and both electric and gas at the cabin, are on budget plan billing so each month I owe the same amount. I have online billing just pay those three bills automatically. Electric at the house is one of the few checks I actually cut each month (though, of course, I do it through online billing.) I did it this way because this was one area where I was really working hard to decrease costs. I think I have pretty much gotten it as low as it is going to go, so I am considering doing the budget plan for this one too. It is so nice to have a set number each month - then I can just schedule to pay it and it goes.

Cell phone - My cell phone bill is one of those ever changing bills. I have no idea why. Fortunately, it is almost always within $5 or so of what I plan on, but it is off enough that I cut this bill separately. Trash and water I treat just like insurance - I estimate the amount I will spend for a full year, divide by 12, then have a little bit put aside each month.

In fact, that is how I handle all the rest of my bills. I have a car registration fund, car maintenance, Christmas, and emergency funds - all which take out a little each month. I hate getting surprised by bills, so this way I am ready when the time comes.

For the two things I spend the money on the most - Groceries and Home Improvement, I have gone to the envelope system. I take $125 for groceries and $100 for home improvement out in cash and keep them in separate places in my wallet. Since doing it this way, I almost never go over, and usually I actually have money left over. The only other two things in my budget that are slightly unpredictable are Entertainment/ Dining out and Buying gas for my car. Since I started focusing on trying to only dine out with other people and making it a social occasion, I have really cut down my bill. I still miss dining alone, but having the extra money in my pocket is worth it. As for auto fuel, I always come in under budget - maybe because my budget is set too high. I still expect gas prices to rise.

Essentially, the way my life is structured now, I know that unless I am dining out - any time I use my debit card I am outside of my budget. This knowledge has scaled down my spending a lot. When I do use the card, I know why I am doing it and how much I have to spend. Same thing with cash that doesn't come out of the grocery or home improvement funds. Doing all this may sound like a lot of work, but it means that I don't think about it during the month. I just stay on track and everything else takes care of itself.

Photo by: massdistraction
via flickr

Read more

Friday, October 30, 2009

Easy Ham and Bean Soup - Great for Fall

Before I started the busy week last week, I decided to cook up a big batch of bean soup. High in protein and low in fat, this turned out to be a healthy way to have a quick meal. Plus, once it was made, I could just heat it up and go. Here's how I made it:

1 bag of dried beans
1 Ham shank
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
celery (I used some from a leftover mixed veggie tray, approximately 3 stalks.)
carrots (Same as above, about 3 or 4 full sized carrots)
2 bay leaves
olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 smoked pork chops ( about a 1.5 pounds.)

You can chose just about any dried beans for this, or a mix of different kinds. I used navy beans because I am particularly fond of them. There is a market here in town that has a fantastic meat department and they also carry some local produce, including Michigan grown dried beans. They cost a little more than beans at the local megamart, but I like knowing they were locally raised and my purchase supports Michigan farmers. This market is also where I got the meat for my soup...

This soup is really flexible, in fact, you could leave the meat out all together and go with a vegetarian option. Another choice would be to add a small style pasta at the end for a bean and pasta soup. In my case, I had gone to this market specifically for their ham, unfortunately, they were out - but they had some at the smokehouse and it would be in the next day. Frankly, that was the best answer they could have given - now that's a real butcher! Since I didn't want to wait until the next day, I got the smoked pork chops instead, and let me tell you - they were awesome!

The first step is to rinse off the dried beans and sort through them. (Small rocks can occasionally get in batches of dried beans.) Then soak the beans overnight.

The next day, chop up the carrots, celery, garlic and onion. Put a small amount of olive oil in a big soup pot and cook the veggies cook lightly over low heat in a little olive oil. Toss in a small amount of salt (you can always add more later, but wait until you know how salty your ham is,) some fresh ground pepper, and the bay leaves. Cook until the onion is translucent. Add the ham shank.

Some information on ham shanks and ham hocks: Real hams have bones. This may be shocking to some of you who are used to the boneless pre-shaped kinds, but those are to ham what bologna is to steak. Artificial hams have been processed and then squeezed into a ham mold and died pink. A true ham is a cut of the hind leg of a pig. The shank is the section of the bone that ran through the ham. A hock is the sort of "handle" at the end. Ham shanks and ham hocks tend to be less expensive cuts of meat. My ham shank cost $2.59 a pound, and it was a pound of smokey, salty, hammy goodness that made an amazing broth! Now, a shank has a big bone running right through the center so there isn't a ton of meat, (which is why I bought the pork chops,) but for flavor - hocks and shanks are fantastic!

Now drain and rinse the beans. Put the drained beans in the soup pot with the veggies and shank and add 6 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down to medium low heat. (You want regular bubbles, but not a full rolling boil.)
Cook until the beans are tender. It was 2 hours for me.

One note here on cooking times - I told you what I used, but I always recommend paying attention to the manufacturer's suggested cooking times when it comes to beans, rice or pasta. They know their product best. As you get to the end of the cooking time, check regularly to see if they are done. Personally, I love these long cooking recipes because they are just so easy. I can put everything in one pot and let it cook while I go off and do other things, making sure to swing by and stir occasionally, of course.

When the beans are tender, remove the ham shank and set it on a cutting board to let it cool. Meanwhile, cut up the pork chops into soup bite sized pieces. (Since they are smoked, they're already cooked, which is why I waited until the end to add them. No sense over cooking them.) Once the pork chop is added, cut all the meat off the ham shank, discarding fat and bone. (Hint: ham bones can be kept and cooked again to make great stock. I like to keep them in the freezer in a freezer bag until I have enough to make a new batch of stock.) Once all the meat is added, cook for another 20 minutes, just to let all the flavors meld.

And that's it! It is fabulous with fresh pepper added at the table! YUM!

This recipe made a ton of servings. I don't know how many, but I am guessing 10 or 12. Some I froze, but most I ate. It is a great fall soup - very warming and very filling. All told with buying the beans, chops and shank, I spent about $10. For ten servings of soup - that comes out to only a $1 per serving! The soup takes awhile to make, but once made, it was less than 3 minutes to heat it up, perfect for on-the-go meals, and so, so much healthier than fast food!

So, what is your favorite busy week food?

Photo by: Roger Smith
via flickr

Read more

Thursday, October 29, 2009

First Room Completed!

When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of being a slob. What is it about that age? Is it part of establishing our own identity or perhaps a little passive rebellion? Or is it biology? Do teenagers need more sleep and therefore don't have time to pick their clothes up off the floor? Whatever the reason, the older I got, the more I grew out of it. Having my own apartment was finally what killed my slovenly ways. I pretty quickly realized that if I didn't clean up, no one else was going to do it for me! I also found out that it is a lot easier to clean a tidy house. I am not a fan of cleaning, though I like my house that way, and it seems a lot easier to take 2 minutes to put something away when I am done with it, then to spend precious hours on Saturday cleaning the whole room. This system works great... right up until I get extremely busy, and that is when my teenager tendencies return.

So, as you might have guessed, the house took a nose dive for the worst during the week of the 19th, when I was busier than a one armed paperhanger! On top of normal home wear and tear, my freelance work was very crafty and thus I have craft items strewn hither, tither and yon. My dining room looks like an art class tornado hit it. On Thursday I decided I had had enough. The phrase "tidy room, tidy mind" kept floating through my head, and I knew I didn't have a tidy room in the house. I decided to take the time to put one room in order so I at least had one place I could sit in my house and not feel stressed out.

I chose to work on my library. As I mentioned yesterday, library sounds fancy, but really the room is just a den. It's a small room off the dining room where I have my TV and a few bookshelves, but I love the sound of having a library, so that is what I am going to call it! In any case, when my sister moved out of her old house, I told her she's welcome to store things at my place until her new home is ready. After all, the one thing I have plenty of is space! So when the movers came by and put her yard care equipment in my empty garage stall and her furniture in my spare bedroom, they also dropped off the furniture she was giving me. However, I hadn't exactly prepared the room for new furniture, so it was sort of just crammed in there any which way. I spend a lot of time in this room, so it was the one I tackled...

I tried at first to kind of cheat and just move the two old chairs I didn't want out of the room and put the new furniture in, but that didn't work. The room just didn't "flow" and the bookcases kept getting the way. Finally, I accepted the inevitable - in order to make this work, I was going to have to take almost every single item out of the room and start fresh.

So, out came the old chairs, the new-to-me furniture, the lamps and the decor. I tried to cheat on my big 6' bookshelves and only take half of the books off and then slide them to the middle of the room... but eventually I realized that if I was going to do this, I had to do it right. Every book had to come off and the shelves had to be moved out of the room along with everything else. I even rolled up the rug and took the pictures off the wall. The only thing I left in place was my TV. It is in one of those big armoir cabinets and because of where the cables and electrical plugs are, it can really only go in one place in the room. There wasn't any point in moving it.

Once everything was out, I realized this was one of the few times I could easily deep clean the walls and floor. I swept the room (I have hardwood) and then reluctantly threw on a jacket and headed to the store. I hate leaving when I am deep in cleaning mode, but I needed some Murphy's Oil Soap to do it right. Back at the house I mixed up a bucket and scrubbed the floor "Cinderella style" on my knees. I also cleaned the windows and got out my duster with the extension pole to clean the crown molding. When I was done, I rolled the rug back out and vacuumed that. I was finally ready to set up my room.

I've mentioned that I have been reading some design books lately; they talk a lot about the focal point of the room. In my case, the obvious focal point is the TV, so it made the most sense to put the couch facing it. This seems horribly obvious, I know, but at one point I was considering putting the couch against a different wall that would face the door. The point though, is to have rooms that are functional. If I had had two focal points - say a TV and a fireplace, I might have to really think about what I wanted to be the main area of focus, or how to make the two work together. Fortunately in this case, it was easy.

Once the couch was in, the next thing was the bookcases. After all, what is a library without bookcases? I was trying to place furniture by size - start with the big stuff and work my way down. As I was putting the cases into place, I noticed a number of nicks and dings, so out came the Old English polish (fortunately, that I had on hand.) Eventually, after polishing the bookcases and then going ahead and cleaning each item, I got each piece of furniture in the room just the way I wanted it. One piece didn't fit though, I had a smaller antique bookcase that had been in the room, but it just didn't quite work with the new arrangement. Then I had a brainstorm! My antique bookcase is fairly formal, so I took it into my living room (which is a rather formal room) and removed from there a fairly modern bookcase, which just happens to be fairly close in color to my new-to-me furniture. (Yes, I have lots and lots of bookcases.) The swap worked great, both cases look better in their new rooms.

Now with the furniture in, I moved to the art on the walls. I ended up swapping two pieces and moving another one over about 6 inches from where it had been hanging. Once that was done, all the books were replaced and then I started on the decorations. I decided to listen to the design experts and go with the "less is more" style. I wanted cozy and comfortable, but not cluttered. I ransacked other rooms, grabbing freely from other parts of the house and picked only things that worked with the colors and style I was putting together. When I was finally done, I sat down on my couch and looked around with pleasure. Not only was I really happy with the way things came together, to my surprise I actually have more room rather than less. Why, I even have two walls now that I want to find art for. However, I am going to wait to find just the right thing - no running out to get something just because I can.

Over the last week, the library has become my haven. It is where I read, relax, even work on projects. It is my favorite place to be. Just the other night I lit some candles, grabbed a favorite book and then closed the door to rest of the house. I never close that door usually, but that night it just felt right. As I was telling a friend of mine the other day, I am so happy with how the library came out, I actually tidy it up before I leave it. If I throw an afghan over my legs while reading a book, when I am done, I fold it and put it back. I mean, I don't worry about it if I just get up to get a glass of water or something, but every night when I leave the library I look around and make sure that everything is in its place - throw pillows are on the couch, afghan folded, coasters put away, etc.. My mother has told me that she loves her condo so much that sometimes she just sits and looks around it; I always thought she was a bit wacky. Now I am starting to get it.

There are a few more things I would like to do with it. If I had the money, I'd love to replace the windows with some historically styled energy efficient ones. When I was cleaning them I could feel the drafts coming in - brrrrrr. (This is why I spent almost my entire home improvement budget this month on weatherproofing products.) There are also some smaller things that I can do: get the art for the walls, replace the ugly cheap brassy door knob, fix some of the floor molding, that kind of thing. But for now, I am completely happy with it. And the cost?

$3.99 for Murphy's Oil Soap.

That's a price I can live with! Who says home decorating has to be expensive? Of course, the downside of all this is that all the stuff I didn't put back in the library is now cluttering up the dining room, and the living room is still torn up from where I took out the bookcase. In other words. every room surrounding my little haven is a disaster!! Ah well, that's what this weekend is for. I am hoping to tackle another room. I need to work in the yard, but Saturday it is supposed to rain. If so, you'll find me in my living room, hair in a ponytail and dust rag tucked in my back pocket, looking around and figuring out what to move next!

Photo by: 정호씨
via flickr

Read more

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Three Questions for Finding My Style

Just before I started thinking about style and how I want my home to look, I got two offers for "Uneeda" furniture. (Uneeda as in "Uneeda chair? I gotta chair you can have.") The first was for a small dining table. I've mentioned in the past that I have an incredibly ugly dining room table. Sadly, this new-to-me lovely little table could not replace the unattractive one in my dining room. My dining room is rather large, and this is a small breakfast nook style table - sharp but not right for that room. Still, I thought I could use it for something else, so I accepted it.

My other Uneeda furniture was a living room set from my sister. It's a couch, love seat, chair, coffee table and side tables. She'll be moving into her new house soon and wanted to get rid of her old stuff and start with something fresh for the new place. So, she offered the set to me. I snapped it up in a heartbeat.

In both of these cases, I didn't think about it all that much before I accepted these gifts. I've always been able to make various pieces work together, and since I didn't have any real plan, I just figured I would accept them and then figure out where it'd go later. Now that I have been working hard on my home, that is going to change. When it comes to new home furnishings, whether I am buying them or whether I am getting them for free, I am going to start asking myself three important questions first...

1.) Does this item fit in with my home plan? As I have mentioned, I am trying to figure out my style when it comes to my home. To help me do this, I'm putting together a three ring binder about what I love. It has photos from magazines, quotes and ideas from designers, and a section on the colors I want in my home. I'll write more in depth on it later, but essentially this notebook is going to be my guide to turning my house into a home. So, the first question I need to ask from now on is, does this work with what I want? Is it the right colors, the right style, the right look for what I want? Do I love it? Even if it is free, I am not going to take something just because I can. If it doesn't work, I am going to learn to say, "no thank you" and let whatever it is go to someone else - hopefully, someone whose style it is, and who will truly love it.

2.) Is it something I can use? This includes all the questions like: Do I have room for it?, Is it functional?, Does it work for my lifestyle?, Will I really use it? For example, a fabulous chair that is completely uncomfortable isn't something I can use. A perfect piece of artwork - that is too big for the wall I want to hang it on, a crystal vase that gathers dust in a box somewhere, candlesticks that let wax drip all over - all these kinds of things are not only unpractical, but they use up space that could be put to better use. My goal is to make sure that whatever comes into my house is something I something I will use.

3.) Can I afford it? This one should be fairly obvious, and it is... when I am sitting at my computer thinking about finance. When I am in the store, however, that is another matter! At the same time though, I put these three questions in this order for a very specific reason. If the answer to the first two questions is yes and the last one is no, that doesn't mean I need to rule it out. It just means that I need to save up and budget for it. The last year has taught me a lot about how to budget!

Now, how would my latest furniture acquisitions have held up? The living room furniture from my sister would have been a firm "Yes" on every question. I had the perfect place in my library. "Library" makes it sound pretty fancy, but the truth is it just a room where I have my tv and books - some people might call it a den. I, however, have wanted a library room since I was a little girl, so that is what I am going to call it, by gum! The only problem with this room is that I didn't have much in the way of seating. I had two chairs which were called "church pews" by those being generous, and "we're not watching movies at your house" by the less subtle. Needless to say, most of my friends found my two chairs less than comfortable! So, my sister's set was perfect. Just as importantly, it is in the colors I like, the style I like and it matches the walls in the room perfectly.

The dining table is another story. The price was certainly right (free), but when I said yes to it, I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do with it, and what's more, the color of the wood is far lighter than I would have picked. Fortunately for me, it worked out perfectly. I ended up putting it in the spare bedroom, where I am going to have my home office. I got rid of my falling apart, cheap-o computer desk and replaced it with this lovely table. I've always liked tables as desks - they seem so clean and tidy. (I have all my office "stuff" in a set of rolling wood drawers to the side of it.) I think the reason it works so well is that that room is painted a fairly dark taupe... with white and black splatter paint. No, I did not do it. It was done by one of the former home owners, and I see why they did it. I have a 100+ year old house with plaster walls in that room. Naturally, not a one of them is straight. The texture effect hides a lot of cracks and bubbles and wavy walls. Someday I may repaint it, but in the meantime, the room is pretty dark. The light wood of the table works perfectly in that room. I put it on a black and off white rug I had, and it came together beautifully, the whole room is now a mix of dark taupe, black and tan.

So, in this case, my lack of a plan and the gift of a table worked out perfectly. But now I have a look for the room and so in the future, I will know what else can go in that room... and what can't. Basically, it is a level of simplicity - using just what I love and just what I can use.

I'm very excited about redoing my home this way and truthfully, there is a level of peace that comes with it as well. There is something very relaxing about having a plan and knowing what you want to do - it certainly takes a lot of the stress out of it!

Photo by: pillowhead designs
via flickr

Read more

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sweet Dreams of You

Last night I had a rather odd dream. I know reading about other people's dreams is usually about as boring as watching grass grown in winter, but bear with me for a moment, I'll keep it as short as I can:

I was at a party, a kind of early afternoon, late morning brunch thing. (Those of you who have been to bridal or baby showers know the atmosphere.) A friend of mine who is quite religious got up and spoke to us about how he'd been struggling and unable to talk to God lately. He decided that the solution to his problem was to talk to friends and family about the things that were really bothering him. So he bravely stood up before us and started talking; he told us all deep dark fears in his soul and the struggles he had been going through. By the time he was done we were all in tears.

Then he asked all of us, no matter what our region, to get into groups of four and talk about what was going on in our own lives. He asked us to be brave and pour out all the things that we had bottled up inside. Moved by his example, we all started to gather to do as he asked.

But there was a problem. Since this was his party, it was with his friends. They were all people I knew, but few were close to me. They weren't people I wanted to talk to, but finally I joined a group... but then I still couldn't talk. In my group the first people to talk went on and on about their lives and I listened closely, at the same time trying to gather my own thoughts. Then when it came around to my turn, suddenly everyone got up and switched seats and formed new groups. This happened time and time again, I would sit with people, try to be a good listener, but then when my time came, the group split up. I was starting to feel pretty rotten about the whole deal.

Then the groups started forming in 5s and 6s and so on as people who were good friends started joining up and making larger groups. They were all talking, and it went from being something deeply meaningful to just chit chatting. Over in a corner, I spotted one of my best friends sitting all alone and with relief went over to talk to him. He is a great listener and was perfectly happy to sit and let me talk, so I marshaled up all my thoughts and just then.... we were both distracted by some craziness that was happening right outside the window! Agh. I never get did get to talk. That's when I woke up.

So what does all this mean? Well, I think it is a pretty good reflection of my week last week...

Last week was insanely busy. (This week will also be fairly hoppin', but not nearly as bad as last.) I was working mornings at my day job, at the part time job until 1:00 a.m. each night and, at the same time, working hard on my freelance project any free moments I had in between. All the while I was also trying to get enough rest, eat well and keep my house in some sort of order. (Did moderately okay on the first two, failed utterly on the last one.)

At the both part time and freelance jobs I work with a lot of friends, however, I've been so busy that it seems I never get a chance to talk to them. Anytime we got past, "So, how are you?" something popped up and one of us had to rush off. That's normal, we were working after all, but I think the whole combination of running from job to job, trying to get tons done and not having a lot of time to relax, combined with the fact I haven't been able to write in my blog, it all boiled up in my subconscious and came out in that odd little dream!

The truth is, life is actually going quite well. I don't have any big things bothering me, besides the usual money concerns. But I have missed being able to take a quite moment and write on my blog and read other people's blogs. I also have been thinking a lot about my friends and family and I think as soon as this last crazy week is done, I need to spend time with them.

In other words, I've missed you all - lots.

Photo by: curiousyellow
via flickr

Read more

Monday, October 19, 2009

Temporarily Out...

Just a quick note, I will be insanely busy this week - this is where all my part time jobs all have to be done at once (I'm even taking time off my 40 hour day job.) I am actually a bit overwhelmed by it all, but it will be exciting to see how everything turns out... and to get those checks, of course!

I still have lots to write about, but might be scarce until next week. Have a great week all!

Read more

Friday, October 16, 2009

Three Questions to Finding Your Own Style

At the bookstore, I put all the magazines that I didn't want back in the rack and slipped my trusty "This Old House" and "This Old House Interiors" under my arm. My graphic designer friend headed off to the art book section and I meandered over to the books on home design. One of them immediately caught my eye. It was called, The House Always Wins: Create the Home You Love-Without Busting Your Budget by Marni Jameson. Well, all right! That sounded perfect. I grabbed a comfy chair and settled in.

The first few pages had me hooked! The first chapter was all about figuring out your own sense of style and creating a plan. It was fabulous - and funny. Mrs. Jameson is very self depreciating writer and her own decorating horror stories populate the book. I enjoyed reading it so much that I ended up buying it along with my magazines.

Since finishing "The House Always Wins," I have to admit I was slightly disappointed with it. The first and last chapters were fabulous, but the middle sections of the book were really written with a different kind of consumer in mind. In the beginning and end of the book, the author talks about finding your own look, waiting until you have the money to buy - and not settling for something you hate, just because you can afford it. She writes a lot about how to make the right decision the first time, so you don't waste time and money on things you ultimately don't like. I found all of this information incredibly helpful.

However, in the middle chapters she goes step by step through designing the ideal home - basically from the joists on down. In other words, this book is fabulous if you were building a new house or a condo and were overwhelmed by having to make all the decisions on everything from flooring to light fixtures. She helps you build a plan. The book would also be great if you were moving into a new house and were in the process of deciding what of your old stuff stays and what goes... and what you need to buy for the new place. But for someone like me, who has a house full of stuff and not planning on moving anytime too soon, it kind of misses the boat. I was hoping for a little more on how to use what you already have.

The other problem I had with the book was the idea of "a budget." The author and I have two entirely different ideas of what that means. She seems to think nothing of hiring a $800 an hour designer to help her buy stuff. Me? I don't have $80, let alone $800 an hour. Now, in her defense she makes a very good point - occasionally it makes sense to pay a professional on the front end so you don't make more costly mistakes later. Hey, that is why I had a pro paint my house rather than attempting to do it myself, but with the number of consultants she called, I kept thinking, "Good grief - you're a freelance writer, so how can you afford this? What in heaven's name does your husband do for a living??"

There was, however, one a set of questions in the front of the book that really set me on fire and motivated me. She suggested asking yourself these three questions...

Who am I?
Where do I come from?
Why am I here?

The question "Who am I?" gets at the heart of the matter and asks what you need in a house. A family of five is going to need something different than single woman, a sports lover has different needs than a book lover, and so on. Here's how I answered that question:

I'm a single divorced woman who loves to read, cook, garden, make things and work on projects. I have a small in-home business of selling books and I blog. I am a landlord. I am also extremely busy - I have multiple jobs and I do a lot of volunteer work. I do occasionally like to entertain, but it is usually either small gatherings of close friends or my annual big holiday party.

From this little paragraph I jotted down the following statements:

- My home needs to be a haven - a place I feel safe and comfortable.
- It needs to be organized and low maintenance because I am so busy.
- I need good working kitchen - I need to be able to get to everything I need.
- I need space for art, for working on my crafts and projects.
- I need a workshop and outdoor storage for tools.
- I need a home office for my computers and my files.
- I need space for my book selling business.
- I need a place for storing and displaying my personal books, as well as places I enjoy reading.
- The house needs to be as energy efficient as I can make it because of my tight budget, and sound efficient as I have a tenant.
- Entertaining should be a component in the house, but does not need to be a main focus.
- I need to be able to unwind at home. I want to be able to blow off stress when I get home.

I also jotted down some words that I want to use to describe my home:

Elegant, comfortable, warm, cozy, beautiful, happy

So, what did this tell me about my home? Quite a bit! Some of it was rather surprising. For example, one thing that I immediately realized is that I need to reorganize my kitchen cupboards. See, when my husband and I moved into the house, he and his daughter unpacked us. (I don't remember where I was at the time, working maybe?) Anyway, she arranged the kitchen. Then when I was separated, I just took a few things and left. My ex didn't change much either. So, when I moved in back, it was just easier to put things where they were. Essentially, I am working with a kitchen that was put together by the daughter of my ex-husband!

Now some things make sense - the glasses are by the sink, the silverware by the dishwasher, but a lot of it does not flow well for someone who loves to cook. I am always having to crouch down or get out my stepladder. It's logical - from my ex-stepdaughter's point of view - not mine! In fact, just recently I re-arranged three drawers to make them work better with how I cook. Instantly it felt so much better and made me just a little bit happier - and it cost nothing to do.

Keeping with the kitchen theme for a moment, the other thought that occurred to me was to get more and more off the counters. Because I am busy, I want to just wipe down the counters and go. Sure, I'll leave out the things I use every day, but other than that - I'm scaling way down. These are the things that I am really excited about. They aren't things I would have thought of, but these little changes are big to me. I remember when I first moved in thinking that I didn't like the way my ex's daughter had arranged a few things, and that I would fix it later, but out of convenience or compromise, I never did. Is it any wonder my house hasn't felt like my own?

The next question the author's list was "Where do I come from?"

I grew up in a home with handcrafted furniture that was made by my father and a mother who had very expensive taste in home furnishings, so I appreciate well made pieces. I am especially attracted to beautiful wood pieces in deep rich wood colors. I also have an appreciation for art, particularly local artists, and interesting objects that look handcrafted. I like things that appear to be “one of a kind.”

For a few years my mother owned an antique booth and I spent a lot of time there, so I love 1800s Victorian furnishings - elegant, decorative, rich with detail. This also fits my home, which was built in this era. I am sentimental and like having things that were given to me around me, along with photos and other objects that remind me of loved ones. That might be part of my love of antiques - creating my own history. I like things that have a story. For example, when I look at my friend Shelly's rocking chair, I remember our first annual Ladies Garage Sale. When I wind the Grandfather clock my father built, I remember all the stories it carries - not all of them good, but all a part of my life.

The final question on the list was, "Where am I?" and it referred to your neighborhood. The idea is that you can't change a tiger's stripes, and while the architecture of a house doesn't have to dictate how you furnish it, you may not want to do country in a New York penthouse or Modern in an old barn, unless you are very, very bold. My area is made up of older homes built mid to late 1800s to early 1900s. These are Victorian homes, frequently wildly painted, many with lots of details like gingerbread and decorative cornices. It is also an artistic community. My neighborhood has many of the newly popular restaurants, bars and shops. There is also a big interest in green technology in my area. My neighbors are a lot of college and post college aged people, as many of the homes have apartments in them. These are the kinds of people who like liking in quirky apartments and old houses.

This last question really just solidified what I was feeling about style - blending artistic with traditional. Keeping the Victorian style, but not being hemmed in by it. It is one more step towards figuring out this whole "style-thing."

Actually all these questions were helpful, and they pointed out a bunch of min-projects I can do, like cleaning off my counter tops, that will help make my house more functional, without spending money. If you are interested in picking up the book, you can find it here:

Before and after photos by: srbyug
Via: Flickr

Read more

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More on Figuring Out My Style

So now that I had some ideas on color, the next thing I did was walk around my house and see what other common elements leaped out at me. I envisioned one of those design boards like they have on the home design TV shows. What else would go on that tray? Metals were fairly easy for me, I like silver, pewter, copper and cast iron, but I am not a big fan of brass or gold tone metals. For example, I have a few bright brassy gold door handles that I just hate. I think my problem is that when those metals are done cheaply (and boy howdy are those some cheap handles I have,) it really shows in gold tones. In comparison I also have a number of antique copper and steel colored door handles, and while I don't think they were high end when they were put on, I love them.

I then looked at wood tones. I have pretty much every color wood under the sun in my house, from ultra bright white woodwork, to every shade of beige and brown, to deep cherry red and even black. In furniture, my taste tends to run from medium brown to black. My mother was fond of a color called "Golden Oak" and most of the furniture my father built is in that stain. Frankly, it is a bit too light for me, which takes the pale Scandinavian maples and ashes right out.

On my tour through my house, I noticed something else as well - another common design element. I love spirals. Now, this is something I have always known, but I didn't expect to see it in my home furnishing, yet sure enough, there it was. I have spirals on the rug in my library room, and so much of my furniture has ornate, curving designs. All this was really starting to pull it together for me.

The next thing I decided to do was to take some of Tracey's advice and go look at design magazines for photos of things I like, so I headed out to one of my favorite bookstores. The bookstore is located next to a Marshall's, and you know what? Just for fun I took one of my two store credit gift cards that I was unable to spend before. This time I went in with the shape of a plan in place. In no time I picked out three fabulous things that fit my home decor perfectly, that I love, and that are in my new colors! I know it is too soon to be shopping, really I want a better plan first, but this was kind of a mini celebration of being on the right track!

At the bookstore I met up with a friend of mine, a graphic designer, and we looked through magazines while sipping hot apple cider in the cafe. It wasn't long before I realized something...

Labels are kind of useless. Country, Old World, Modern... they don't really work for me. My taste is entirely too eclectic. Telling a friend recently that I liked well crafted wood furniture, they said "Oh, you should look at Mission." I replied, "I love Mission... until I don't." A Mission styled coffee table or rocker? Fabulous! I am all over it. An entire living room in Mission? Looks great in someone else's house. Or another example - I don't consider myself a fan of Country, with gingham plaids and geese, but show me a rustic wooden farmhouse kitchen table and I am in love. I also don't think of myself as being Modern, but hold up a bold colored rug with simple geometric designs and I am trying to decide if it would look best under the country kitchen table or the Mission coffee table! It's like high school, very few people could be pigeonholed entirely into the labels of jock, nerd, stoner etc. - no matter what the movies of the 80s tell us. Sure, there are a select few who are all one thing; my mom has a friend who did her entire house in log-cabin, as in rustic furniture with deer and moose and so on. My mom says it is cute, and I am sure it is, but most people I know have a mix - a little of this and touch of that. It is as individual as the person themselves. Just like yesterday I made up labels for my family and friends (which might not at all be what they think of themselves) I'll be making up my own label.

That label may end up having something to do with the word "Victorian." After sorting through several magazines at the bookstore, only two had enough photos in them that I wanted to take them home, and both were by This Old House. It fits - I have an old house. It was built in the 1800s! My antiques tend to come from the early 1900s to the art deco period and late 1930s. I love the ornate look, but even though I might be willing to add Victorian to my description I won't let that limit me - I won't be covering my house in doilies. (Actually, I kind of like doilies, but they are a bit fussy. My friends tease me that I am a 90 year old woman in disguise... I think I just proved it.)

Looking through the magazines also helped me realize what I don't like. While my graphic designer friend was oohing and aahing over bright teal walls with chartreuse chaise lounge chairs and purple couches, I kept thinking, "Not in MY house!"

Photo by: Maia C
via flickr

Read more