Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Make the Most of Your Meals (Part 1)

Welcome to part one of a new series of posts on meal planning, grocery shopping, and generally saving your sanity in the kitchen and at the food store.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you might wonder what else is new in blog land. Lots of frugal women are posting about the need to plan your meals and trim your grocery budget to $50, even $30 a week.

Huh? In what non-Montgomery County, PA, area do they reside?

Maybe it's doable. I'm going to ask you to come along with me on a several week experiment and see if I can improve my spending, reduce the amount of food that I waste* and increase the quality of my diet.

Posts over the next few weeks will cover a number of topics:
  • Creating a meal plan
  • Shopping smart
  • Stocking your pantry
  • Using your freezer
  • Making the most of leftovers
  • Couponing
  • Reducing prepackaged and processed foods

So, let's get started. I invite you to leave me a comment; let me know if there is a specific topic or question you want to see me address, or go ahead and challenge me to get down to the dollar amount of your weekly grocery budget.

*Look for another post about a FASCINATING book that I just finished reading. Did you know that the average American throws away about 15% of their groceries?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Simplify Your File Management

It's just another one of those silly things that you will do later. When there's time.

But there never is.

Or, at least, you never take the time.

What in the world am I talking about? The file system on your computer.

How much time do you waste skimming, searching, and double-clicking in a day? It all depends on the quality of your file system.

Back when I was a working girl, I shared a lot of network files, and I saw the good, the bad and the ugly. The worst offenders were the unfiled files hanging out at the end of the network folder, where you could have scrolled horizontally for about five minutes. (For all the policies and procedures, there never was one about saving files to the main folder. Ugh.)

Here is a great article from a techie perspective that really hits the no-no's of file management. Warning: it's a very complete post.

The system on my home computer got a little loose, especially after I stopped working from home. In general, I try very hard to use basic common sense with the folder structure and file names. I'm doing a little better now, but when my desktop looked like this, the 17 items started making me a bit crazy and I knew it was time to do a little cleanup.

Though I am no computer geek, I'd like to share my own two cents about file management.
  • Ask yourself if you really need a shortcut on the desktop for things that you can easily find on the Start Menu. (Remember you can customize this as well as the task bar.)
  • Try to limit the number of folders or files to what fits on your screen without scrolling. If there are more than 10-15, see what you can group and make more folders or sub-folders.
  • Group files by project, rather than format. Think twice before you make a high-level folder called "labels" or "letters." (This may be okay if it's a subfolder under a project with date information.)
  • Use a YYYY/MM/DD format in file names (as appropriate) so that you can easily sort correspondence such as memos, invoices, quotes, etc.
  • If you use Outlook or another task-management software, schedule a meeting or make yourself a monthly task to take 15-20 minutes to review your file system. Use this time to find a home for stray files, delete unnecessary drafts, and do other tune-ups. You will make up for that time later when you can quickly put your cursor on information that others wasted time looking for.
  • Remember that any organizational system should grow and adapt as the way you work grows and adapts. If your company just changed from a team-based organizational structure to a function-based structure, your file system needs to change, too.
Do you have some other advice to share? Please do.

p.s. If you are looking to improve the way you use your time in a day, check out this idea.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Recipe Roundup, Reprised (Part 3)

I just can't help but say it...


The recipe project is finished! The dessert binder (containing 120+ recipes) is compiled and in the kitchen cabinet!*

(If you missed what the fuss is about, click here and here.)

So, now it's onto the maintenance phase, where I make new recipes that appealed to me and see if they are good enough to type up and add to the binder.

In case you are interested, here are some that I just added:

Chicken and Pineapple Skewers
Chocolate Fudge Cookies (they really satisfy that girl's-gotta-have-chocolate craving)

*A very special thank you to my Mother-in-Law, who made it possible for me to spend several hours alone at the library so I could make a final push and get the remaining recipes typed up. You're a blessing to me, Mom.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Boxes, Boxes, Everywhere (Moving)

I was asked (somewhat recently) about how to pack for a move.

It's shameful, really, because I think the customer who asked me has already completed her move. Still, I'm going to share a few thoughts, because it seems the housing market is getting back on track and people are moving. At least, I am seeing more real estate signage in my neighborhood than I have in a long time.

My disclaimer: I have only moved twice in my post-preschool life, not counting college. The first time I was too young to really help and the second time was to my current "married" home. However, I spent nearly a decade working with senior citizens downsizing to a retirement community, so I have watched a lot of moving decisions taking place.

In no particular order, here is my advice:

Toss, Sell or Donate
This one is a no-brainer. There are some things that are simply not worth the work of packing and moving. There is no better time than the present to Freecycle, have a yard sale (if you have the energy), list things on eBay or Craigslist, or leave them at the curb. However, do not toss old linens until after the move; you can use them as free packing material.

Least to Most Used
Begin by packing the things you use least often, but still need at the new house. This includes holiday decorations, fancy dishes, infrequently used kitchen appliances, out-of-season clothing, spare linens, or guest room items.

Deplete Supplies
Once you have a settlement date nailed down, start working down supplies of pantry items, frozen food, toiletries, paper products, etc. It will be less to pack and less to arrange in the new home. Plus, it will give you time to establish a workflow in your new kitchen or bath before you commit to an exact place for everything.

Hit Up Your Family
Yes, you may want their help on moving day, but perhaps you can borrow a corner of their basement or garage to store some things for a few months. This will cut down on the work of moving day and will get some boxes out of the way so you aren't tripping over them while you are still trying to live your life.

If possible, try to obtain a floor plan of your new home. If that's not possible, sketch one on graph paper or somehow get the rough dimensions of your rooms. This will help you map out furniture placement and give you a rough sense of what will need to go where. A general idea is helpful; planning this out to the square inch is not a good use of your time. It's unrealistic to think you can know exactly where you will want things from day one.

Set Aside Essentials
Pack a suitcase for each family member. The suitcases should contain clothing, toiletries, towels, bedding, medication, toys/games, etc. that will be needed in the first 24-72 hours at the new house. This will eliminate scanning dozens of boxes when you are so tired you can't see straight.

Likewise, plan simple meals or arrange to order takeout for the first few days. You may even want to freeze meals ahead of time so you can just pop something in the oven for dinner. Don't forget to have beverages (and snacks!) on hand; all the extra trips up and down, in and out, will make everyone thirsty.

Label and Date
Of course you will label the boxes by room, so that the movers can put the boxes in the right rooms. May I suggest buying some shipping labels and printing them out with large, clearly legible text? Put them in the same general location on the box (or both top and side) for quick reference. Have a box with really important items that you'll need almost immediately? Mark that with a star, yellow dot, etc. so that you can quickly distinguish it's important.

Also, I'd like to challenge you to put a date on each box. Yes, they will all have approximately the same date as your moving day. But, if you happen to stumble across one of those boxes--still unpacked--three years from now, you WILL think twice about whether you really need the items inside.

Create a Staging Area
This is not always possible, but if you have a large garage, entryway or enclosed porch, use it as a staging area. The movers should still take furniture to designated rooms, but the rest comes to the staging area first. This way, you have a bit more control over the influx of items. This is a great place to leave some of the decor items that you will want to decide on long after the first day. 

Go through your current home one final time. Snap pictures of the family out front if you want a sentimental photo. Keep your eyes open; it's almost inevitable that something will have been missed in packing or moving. When my family moved during my elementary school years, the movers had somehow missed an ENTIRE ROOM of furniture. Glad my Dad checked that before signing off. And, you won't hear the end of it if a favorite stuffed animal somehow gets left behind.

If you are buying from someone who is downsizing, while you are upsizing, see if you can buy any furniture from the seller. It will be a win-win situation.

Do any remodeling, painting, cleaning, or appliance installation possible before you move in.

If you really need some extra time, talk to your bank about a bridge or swing loan. This type of financing fronts you money to settle on your new home before settling on your current home. It affords you a time overlap and cuts down on stress.

Readers, and more experienced movers, have I missed anything?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Visual Clutter = Emotional Zap

When I was little, I wanted to be an architect.

Like many of you, I played Legos for hours and hours, probably several months' worth of my childhood. My patient mother vacuumed around the pieces spread across the living room floor. Every time I built a house, it was comprised of rows in the same repeating color pattern--red, yellow, white, blue, black.

What can I say? Order is in my DNA.

Now that I am (supposedly) a grown-up with my own home, I still like to look around and see order: clear counters, clear floorspace, and clean lines. Somehow it gives me a little boost to look around and see that order.
[Not my actual house, but it's nice to dream.]

When my home doesn't have much visible counter or floor space, I notice my pulse quickening as I pigeon step over toys, shoes, dishes, or, like today, swim accessories.

I'm learning that I just have to take the five or ten minutes to clean up before we do the next thing. And, unfortunately, this means forcing the issue with younger ones. I want to have the kind of house where we pick up before we leave for an errand, or go outside, or go up for naps. If we do this, Mommy will be more emotionally prepared to play and less emotionally distracted.

Maybe you can get on my case and ask about my progress...thanks!

As a side note, we had our carpets professionally cleaned a few months ago. I am still wishing I could have kept the special carpet comb that the gentleman used to make all the fibers stand up and look so tidy. But, on second, thought, it might become a very unhealthy obsession.