Saturday, January 31, 2009

Eight is more than enough

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I received a very interesting email about the octuplet birth earlier this week. The author writes:

As you may already know, a woman recently became only the second person on record to deliver 8 babies.

BUT, today news reports indicate that she is a 30-something single mother living with her parents and already had 6 very young children.

She's now the single mother of fourteen very young children, living in a 3 bedroom home with her parents.

An elderly neighbor went on camera and said, "What? I'm supposed to be excited? In this economy?"

Even further, this single mother of 6 children had 8 babies after receiving fertility treatments.
[Ed: This turned out to be a situation of implanting frozen embryos from prior fertility treatments.]

Nobody knows the reason and can't really judge the mother, but aren't such stories surprising in this economy?

Apparently, the woman's father is traveling to Iraq to work on contracts so he can make money to support the economy. A parent supporting a daughter who opted to have more children?

I'm sure there's so much more to this story, but the details so far really capture the attention.


This story absolutely captures the attention. Many people I know can hardly look away. I haven't had that much exposure to the story because I don't have television and if the New York Times covered it, I've missed it. I did find a recent Yahoo news article that filled in some of the details I hadn't heard.

All I can say is. . . wow.

Now, I'm not a parent, and I'm not likely to become one. I think kids are great and I like spending time with them (my SO has two), but I'm 40 and my biological clock has never kicked in. At this late date, I'm pretty confident that it won't. I don't think there's anything wrong with that: not everyone is meant to be a parent, and I don't think my current financial situation (hello, college fund?), career, or home life are conducive to having kids anyway.

Clearly, I have no parenting street cred. From the interested observer's perspective, however, I do think that some people have children for the wrong reasons and/or before they are fully prepared to face the responsibilities of being a parent, and that makes me feel really sorry for the kids: there are plenty out there who get a raw deal, and it's not their fault. I think this situation falls into that category. Consider these points:

1. Multiple fetuses are frequently subject to premature birth, and premature births are linked to an alarming number of short-term and long-term medical and developmental problems, including brain bleeds, intestinal issues, and learning disabilities.

2. Multiple fetuses can overwhelm the mother's physical resources, causing risks to her health.

3. Octuplets never occur naturally for a reason. The expression It's a vagina, not a clown car! makes me chuckle, but a more serious way of looking at it is that human beings are simply not designed to have litters. This is both for physiological reasons (see #1 and #2 above), and because of the way that human beings develop. Most parents I know find raising a couple of kids spaced out in age to be a rewarding but exhausting job. When you have eight newborns, how does any parent get to spend the time and energy necessary to pay attention to and fully bond with each child and encourage learning, playing, and emotional development? In this case, what happens to the six kids who came before that? The only way I could possibly see this situation working is if there is tremendous family and volunteer support, but the Yahoo article suggested that the grandmother thinks her daughter is nuts and doesn't really want anything to do with it. Meanwhile, Grandpa's heading back to Iraq to work as a contractor. Regardless of whether he wants to pitch in and help, he simply can't.

4. I think responsible parents wait until they have the financial resources to support their children in place before embarking on parenthood. I realize that in a lousy economy, financial security can vanish in an instant; nevertheless, it seems to me that it's incumbent on parents to make a best effort to provide the kind of financial environment that will assure safe and relaible housing and income to be able to support their children.

I'm not saying that poor people shouldn't have children. I am saying that no one should embark on parenthood with the expectation that it's okay to rely on public support as a given. To me, that's irresponsible and unfair to taxpayers.

So who here thinks that a single mom from a non-wealthy background with eight newborns, fourteen children in total, and a horrified family isn't going on public aid?

Anyone?

Anyone?

The only conclusions I can draw from these points are that this woman had children because she wanted them. I find it hard to believe that concern for the children's physical health and overall well-being ranked as any kind of a priority. That's terribly, terribly unfair to the children, as well as unfair to the taxpayers who will most likely be supporting them.

But at least the mom got what she wanted. Isn't that all that matters?

Discuss.

Read more...

Friday, January 30, 2009

A question and a preview

Kids have been highlighted in blogworld quite a lot lately, and I'm not noticing that just because I'm dodging double-wide strollers all over Manhattan. I'm seeing a lot of posts out there about the Duggar family, who have eighteen kids and a reality TV show. Two posts about the Duggars that really intrigued me from the family finance perspective came from Fabulously Broke in the City and Dog Ate My Finances. If you don't have a lot of background on the Duggar story, they have some interesting perspectives to share.

Another story that's hit the news this week is about the woman who had octuplets. (One of the commenters on Dog's post threw out a quote someone made up about the Duggars that applies to this situation as well: It's a vagina, not a clown car!) A very nice reader asked me to write a personal finance post about the octuplet birth, and I should be able to get that up on Saturday.

In the meantime, however, I really have to wonder what role family finances played in these parenting decisions. For those of you who have kids or who are thinking about having kids, what role did finances have in your family planning and why?

Read more...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Unstimulated

In general, I'm not a fan of stimulating the economy through cutting taxes: my impression is that public spending is a more efficient way to kick-start the economy. With 71,400 jobs gone since Monday, though, I'm starting to come around to the idea of doing a tax cut for people who are getting hit the hardest in this economy. I'm changing my mind on this simply because I don't think public spending growth will be fast enough to slow down the bleeding, particularly if it's focused on rebuilding aging infrastructure, which I think would be a great use of public investment dollars.

President Obama's proposed tax cut is a $500 jolt ($1000 for couples filing jointly) that's targeted to low-income and middle-income working people, phasing out completely at $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for couples. If I understand the proposal correctly, it'll be accessible either by adjusting withholding or as a refund from filing federal income taxes.

I won't get a tax cut, but that's fine; I didn't get a rebate during the last economic stimulus package, either. Assuming that the Obama plan goes through Congress relatively unscathed, will you benefit from the tax cut? If not, how do you feel about that? Do you think the plan should be amended to include a broader range of people who will benefit?

Finally, if you are likely to get a tax cut, what do you plan to do with the windfall?

Read more...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

That's why they call it a stereotype

The question I received earlier in the week about communication dynamics between men and women in my work environment made me think of a different male-female situation I've seen. I can't tell if I'm drawing bad conclusions from a relatively limited reference group, or if this really exists. Maybe you can tell me.

Specifically, I've noticed in my workplace that while women are strongly represented at the senior executive level, the women who make it in the big leagues seem to have a similar dynamic: on the whole, these women appear to be either

a.) Never married
b.) Divorced, no kids
c.) Married, no kids

Most of the women senior leaders I have contact with fall into categories a.) and b.)

Meanwhile, the men who are senior leaders at my workplace are overwhelmingly married with kids. . . but their wives rarely work.

The superficial generalization I've come up with is no shocker: based on appearances, my guess would be that many of the women in senior leadership positions made a conscious choice to focus on career instead of family. Meanwhile, the male senior leaders haven't had to make that choice because their success gives them the bandwidth not to need a second income, which leaves more space to focus on career success.

I'm not saying that that's how it is. I'm merely saying that that's how it looks.

What do you think: Are those observations and the conclusions they seem to suggest all a bunch of hooey based on your experience, or do you see a grain of truth in there somewhere?

Read more...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mars and Venus go to the office

The following email came in last night from a reader, and I thought it was worth sharing:

While my company is diverse, the executive and senior managers are predominantly male. Among those considered high performers, it appears that the females work very hard while the males bond through joking and sports talk. A female may have a great sense of humor and be a big sports fan, but it's not quite the same. I accept this as a reality, but I'm wondering if you see the same thing.

Reader, my experience is limited because I've been with the same employer for many years, but in my workplace I don't see that as much. The women who are high performers absolutely work very hard, but so do the men. As far as my personal experience with bonding goes, I bond with my closest male colleagues (who are all very witty) through joking and an ongoing insult-fest. We like to say that sensitive little flowers in our environment would shrivel up within two weeks.

I'm a little more restrained with my team, because I need them to respect my guidance and strategic direction and it's hard to achieve that in the context of continually lobbing verbal potshots over the fence. Similarly, I want to give my bossman the space to be my boss, so although we have a great relationship and kid around a lot, there's definitely more reserve in that relationship than there is with my peers.

I think context in this case is important: my division at work is heavily male-dominated at all levels except administrative support. I am the only woman on my team, and I know several teams in related divisions with no women at all. With the exception of the supervisor-direct report relationships I outlined above, I've found that the way to get along and get ahead is to dress very conservatively, play with and fight like the guys on their own turf in the workplace, and hang around with their wives at family-oriented events so I don't get accused of impropriety.

I doubt that what I do reflects reality for the vast majority of women in my workplace, which as a whole is far more gender balanced than my area; it's hard to say, because I just don't work with many women on an ongoing basis. Having said that, I've definitely noticed that the ones who are already where I want to be in ten years have forged solid relationships that cross organizational boundaries, so finding a way to do that is a high priority for me. As a bosswoman and mentor, I encourage both men and women looking for guidance to be mindful of their body language as well as their verbal communication, and continually put effort into developing relationships and networking throughout the organization.

That's my experience, but I'm sure there are many other perspectives. Commenters, what say you?

Reader, thank you for a very interesting question and topic; I can't wait to read what others have to say. Check back this weekend for a different kind of perspective about men, women, and the workplace. In the meantime, if you have other topics you want to see on deck here, please feel free to shoot them over to frugal.zeitgeist (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!

Read more...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Coming up for air

January 20, 2009: I'm still going forth all guns blazing at work, but I blocked an hour out of my calendar to watch history in action.

Welcome, President Obama. I hope this presidency will be one for the ages.

Last week, a friend asked me to take a look through his online dating profile and provide feedback, so I took a short work break a couple of nights ago to review it. (It was very good.) I used the same online dating site once about seven years ago, and I remember that I struggled with the question of whether to disclose my salary range. I ended up not doing it both because I felt weird about disclosing that kind of information to complete strangers, and because I saw a number of people I knew on the site and didn't really feel like disclosing that kind of information to people I knew, either. I figured that if I wasn't willing to say what I made, I shouldn't use income (disclosed or not) as a criterion for deciding whether to make contact with someone or not. I think that was the right decision for me.

Current or former online daters, do you disclose how much money you make on your profile? Does someone else's income range (or refusal to disclose his or her income) affect your interest in that person as a potential romantic partner?

While you're reading this (and hopefully answering it!), I'm back to work. This won't last forever, but as grateful as I am to still have a job, it's kind of starting to feel like it.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Weekend roundup: the frozen edition

New York peaked out at a high temperature of something like eighteen degrees on Saturday. I made it out for a run and a trip to the grocery store, but I went into hibernation for the rest of the day. While I was trying to stay warm this week, here's what went on in the Frugal Blog Network:

Kelly at Almost Frugal shows that there are ways, believe it or not, to wring blood from a turnip.

I feel Frugal Babe's pain: A few years ago, my dishwasher also suddenly went belly-up and I bought a new one.

The Frugal Duchess weighs in at the New Year with thoughts on diets.

Dana at Not Made of Money helps you visualize a life without consumer debt.

It's deja vu all over again: Tight Fisted Miser gives you the Best of 2008.

That's all from the snowy trenches, where I'm going to put my head back down and get back to work. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

Read more...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The one bright spot in the recession

**Tumbleweed**

It's been quiet around here, I know. I'm under the gun on some big deliverables at work so I've been working and sleeping all week, nothing else. Lost four pounds in four days, woohoo! Things are going to continue to be a little more sporadic than usual here for the next week or two, but it won't last forever.

Before my work-life balance went kaboom (and I'm not complaining, because I'm lucky to have a job), I had to take a couple of hours on the weekend and venture out in search of a dress.

Why a dress in this rotten economy?

I go to one or two black-tie events a year, and one is rapidly approaching. I don't buy a new dress every year; on the contrary, I'm happy to re-run and swap them in and out, so I have a total of three that have been to nine or ten events. I always bargain-hunt for these things, so while the cost per wear isn't as good as I'd get from, say, a suit, it's not that bad. This year, I have to do a, a, a thing in front of a large group, so I didn't really want to play the re-run game again. Instead, I set a budget of $70, and it was off to the races.

The day I had set aside as D(ress)-day happened to coincide with a great big clearance sale at Loehmann's, an outlet for higher-end women's clothing in New York. Several commenters responded to an earlier post bemoaning the travails of suit shopping by suggesting that I go to Loehmann's, so that seemed like a good place to start.

Loehmann's: Two thumbs up for selection and variety in sizes. I made the rounds and scooped up about ten candidates in minutes. The trying on process was a little more distressing. I won't bore you with the details, but I can see why some of those numbers didn't sell at the original price. Between unflattering cuts, improbable colors, excessive poof and the fact that some of the long dresses looked like they were wearing me, I started to think that the whole thing was a great big waste of time.

The second to last dress made me change my mind. I picked it up thinking it was a long shot, but when I tried it on I knew it was the right one: the color works (which was a surprise), it flatters in all the right places, and it had a nice balance between glam trimmings and sleekness with no poof whatsoever. Sold!

(If it was $70 or under, I mean.)

The dress was originally $336 retail. By the time Loehmann's got their hands on it, it was marked down to $109.99. The dress had a red tag on it for $92.97, but the sale that was on at the moment was 40% off of everything, with an extra 10% off. That brought the final price down to $50.20.

I was so pleased that I decided to see if I could find any shoes that would keep me from having to remember to take my work pumps home the week of the event, all while staying within the original $70 budget. It took a little poking around, but I ended up with a pair of black stiletto sandals marked $125 retail with multiple discounts applied by Loehmann's. By the time the sale rolled around, they were $31.97; after the additional sale discounts, they came down to $17.26. $67.46 for a dress and shoes was still under budget, so I was quite content by the time I breezed towards the checkout.

I decided to swing through the dresses one more time on my way. Loehmann's stock rotates so fast, I learned, that by the time I was done trying on a series of dresses, there were new ones out that I hadn't seen. None of them really caught my eye. . . until I got to the clearance rack.

I couldn't believe my eyes. I had seen a beautiful dress in the spring and immediately thought about it for the events I go to (which were long past for 2008 by the time I saw the dress). There was only one, and it was a size 8 petite.

I turned over the tag and nearly had heart failure. Original retail price: $185. After multiple markdowns, the clearance price was $29.97. With the additional sale discounts, it was down to $16.18.

I tried it on. It fit perfectly and hit all the right spots.

I tried the other dress on again. I liked it as much as I did before.

Well, what would you do?

I probably should have just put back the $50 dress and kept the $16 dress. Instead, I dithered.

And dithered.

And dithered.

Finally, I gave up and decided to buy both dresses and the shoes, a most un-frugal decision. The rationale I beat my smarter self down with was that my job looked pretty stable, that I don't have any debt, that both dresses were better than anything I was able to find last year, and that the events I go to that require the fancy-ass dresses in the first place aren't going away. Having a dress all ready for next year could even be a motivator for making doubly sure that I don't gain weight between now and then.

At the checkout, I had one last pang of guilt as the sales clerk started ringing up my purchase. That's when I had a pleasant surprise: because I'm on Loehmann's mailing list, I was eligible for an additional 15% discount applied to the entire purchase before the 40% and 10% discounts kicked in. The end result looked like this:

Dress 1: $42.67
Shoes: $14.66
Dress 2: $13.76

Total: $71.09, $1.09 over my original budget for one dress.

I still hate shopping.

But I think I love you, Loehmann's.

(And thank you to the commenters who suggested that I go there!)

Read more...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Your (not so) finest hour

You know those moments where you do something so horribly wrong and embarrassing that even years later, the very thought of what you did makes you squirm? CNN had a great article today about most embarrassing moments as they relate to work.

I can't tell you my most embarrassing work moment just yet because there are just so many to choose from, but I'll give it some thought. How about sharing yours in the meantime?

Read more...

Monday, January 12, 2009

An accounting dilemma

Ten years ago, I made a relatively minor mistake on a tax form. I realized I'd made the mistake after I filed my return, so I phoned the IRS to tell them about it and hopefully fix it. The person I spoke to wasn't very helpful: all he said was Don't worry, we'll catch it and let you know. They did catch it and they did let me know, but it wasn't for a year. By that time, my mistake had racked up several hundred dollars in penalties.

That year, I started working with an accountant. I found this guy through a colleague who had been going to him for years. He was a CPA with a day job, but he moonlighted doing returns during tax season. He didn't need the money: he was over sixty, lived modestly, and saved most of his income. He simply liked doing taxes.

Last week, he died.

I'm very sorry about my accountant's passing. He was a great guy (never managed to convince me to spend my refund on shoes, though, despite ten years of trying), and I really appreciated both his attention to detail and his company while we sat together and plowed through all my paperwork. He also managed to navigate both me and my ex-husband through the tax issues that come along with a very, very nasty and prolonged divorce. While I don't know how things worked out with my ex-husband, I never got hit with an audit.

I can find another accountant; that's not the problem. The dilemma is this:

What happens to all my private information that's stored in his home office?

I've been doing a lot of digging over the past few days, and I found out a few things that, knowing this guy, shouldn't have surprised me. To put it bluntly, he prepared meticulously for his own demise. His partner found documentation containing a recomenndation for tax preparation services that was to be passed on to all of his clients. In addition, apparently he had brought an IT security consultant to his home for consultation on how to permanently and irretrievably wipe his PC. He left contact details for the consultant and instructions to bring him in to erase client data. Finally, he also located a commercial shredding company and left contact details and instructions to have them shred his paper files.

I am both very impressed and deeply appreciative that my accountant thought so far ahead. My concern is simply this: How do I go about getting written confirmation that all of these things were done without sounding (and feeling) completely heartless?

Read more...

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Weekend roundup: The layoff edition

This week was rough. I'm glad to still have a job, but I sure feel bad about all the people that filed out of the office carrying boxes throughout the first half of the week. Better days will come, but they can't come soon enough.

Here's what happened in the Frugal Blog Network while I was quietly freaking out:

Kelly at Almost Frugal put together a handy list of tips for turning resolutions into reality.

Frugal Babe is considering a change of scenery based on the drop in home prices.

The Frugal Duchess thinks being two-faced would be good for all of us.

Dana at Not Made of Money gives you the skinny on frugal ways to lose weight.

Tight Fisted Miser went went back to finish his degree.

If you want to read about an unusual and tragic tax dilemma, come on by tomorrow night.

Read more...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The unluckiest woman in the gym

All she wore was a towel.

I stood in front of my locker, nearly down to my skivvies. Yoga class was over and I was headed for the steam room and then the shower.

The woman in the towel opened the unlocked locker a few feet down: empty. She opened the one next to it: empty. As she worked her way towards me, she got more and more agitated.

Lost something? I asked.

Yes. I was in the shower and now my clothes are gone!

She moved to the next row, flinging locker doors open faster and faster.

I didn't stick around to see how it ended, but it wasn't hard to guess what might have happened. When I went to lock up my own stuff, the first five unlocked lockers I opened all had clothes, shoes, and purses in them, completely unguarded.

I hope she just forgot where she stored her clothes. Getting clothes stolen during a class would be bad enough. Getting them stolen while in the shower? Unthinkable.

A good combination lock costs no more than ten bucks.

The peace of mind is worth it.

Read more...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

L is for layoff

It's been a rough week: my employer finished downsizing today.

I survived. A great many people didn't.

If you're currently employed, are you worried about your job right now? What's your backup plan if you are?

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Monday, January 5, 2009

RIP, Frugal Shredder of Doom

RRRRRRRRR!

Friday, December 12. Well in the midst of another one of those hot-cha-cha New York City nights of excitement, I fed another few sheets of junk mail into the Frugal Shredder of Doom.

RRRRRRRRR!

I looked at the pile of stuff with my name on it, which, despite my best intentions, had grown alarmingly during the course of the week.

I hate letting the mail pile up for exactly this reason.

RRRRRRRRR!

The pile didn't seem to be getting much smaller, so I added a few more sheets to the stack I was about to shove in. The Frugal Shredder of Doom was rated to handle up to twenty-four sheets of paper in one go, so I figured that giving the steel jaws a little challenge would be all right.

I stuffed my collection into the shredder's gaping maw and stood back to watch.

RRrrrrplonk

Uh oh.

The paper was sticking out of the trap and not moving. I tugged; nothing.

That's what the reverse button is for, right?

WHEEEEEEEeee

Still stuck. Forward we go!

Zuhzuhzuhzuhzuh

Backwards!

weeeeee

Forward!

zuh. zuh. zuh.

Despite seeing the law of diminishing returns in action right in front of me, I kept my finger on the forward-reverse switch. Imagine my surprise when the Frugal Shredder of Doom began smoking.

I turned it off, sat back, and stared at the Frugal Shredder of Doom. Papers? Big-time stuck. Shredder? Not doing so well, apparently, and there was no way to get the papers out.

I took a pair of scissors and cut off the part sticking out of the shredder. I then took a deep breath and hit the forward button again.

RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR BANGBANGBANGBANG SPROING!

The Frugal Shredder of Doom, he was no more.

I was mad at myself, because this was totally avoidable. The good news was that the shredder was less than a year old, so it should still be covered. Right?

Right?

Right?

I scurried to the Expensive Appliances Receipts cabinet. Dishwasher? Check. Refrigerator? Check. Air conditioners? Check. Shredder?

Shredder?

No check. No check, and no damn receipt, either.

And then I remembered.

The shredder and I had been doing just fine for six months with no sign of problems, so a month or so earlier . . .

I shredded the receipt.

Go ahead and laugh. I would if I were you.

The greenest thing to do would have been to get the shredder fixed, but I didn't do that. I felt too betrayed. Besides, the only shredder repair people I could find in my area say in their ads that they only service commercial shredders, against which even the Frugal Shredder of Doom is dinky in comparison.

While I was out West, I spent some time perusing shredders on the internet, reading reviews (there is actually a website dedicated to reviewing shredders for action and quality, if you can believe it), and comparing models and prices. While the Frugal Shredder of Doom did its job admirably well to a point, it obviously wasn't able to handle as much paper as advertised. I ultimately decided on a model by the Fellowes company that is rated to handle fifteen sheets of paper at a time, runs for twenty minutes continuously, has a seven gallon bin, shreds in crosscut confetti instead of strips, shreds CD's and credit cards but not hands thanks to a built-in sensor, and is overwhelmingly highly rated except by disgruntled consumers whom I suspect might actually be fellow shredder abusers. The retail price from Fellowes was $349.98, but I found it online for $151.95 including shipping.

The Less Frugal Shredder of Distinction isn't as tall as the Frugal Shredder of Doom, but it's much more sturdy. Unlike the Frugal Shredder of Doom, it waits for me to switch it on before it starts roaring. I haven't worked up the nerve to challenge the Less Frugal Shredder of Distinction on more than ten pieces of paper at a shot, but it's attacked those ten like a powerhouse. In the meantime, I'm out $151.95 in the Stupid Tax, and it's all my own fault.

In hopes of ending my career as a shredder killer, I also spent some time on my vacation reading up on shredder care and feeding. This particular shredder comes with a recommendation that the jaws be oiled every time the bin needs to be emptied, which is no hardship given that the bin is large and the pieces inside are small, and I've promised myself to take scrupulous care to do so. I also have committed to not overstuffing the jaws anymore (you would think that it wouldn't have taken me four dead shredders to learn this), because there are few things I hate more than paying the Stupid Tax.

Have you paid the Stupid Tax lately? How?

Read more...

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Weekend roundup: the happy new year edition

2008 is gone, and I could not be happier. There have been many good points, but it's also been pretty rough in some ways, too. I don't expect things to get better in the economy anytime soon, but I hope they won't get much worse.

And with that dour optimism, here's what happened in the Frugal Blog Network this week:

As part of her Best Of series, Kelly at Almost Frugal reposted an entry about living with a chronic condition and how it relates to financial stability. Having not one but two lifelong auto-immune disorders myself, I can really relate to the health part of her article.

Frugal Babe tackled thecontroversial issue of buying a used car seat.

The Frugal Duchess shared some timely information from EarthStink about cutting home technology costs. I had a bad business relationship with EarthStink and wouldn't buy a service from them again under any circumstances, but the tips are actually pretty good.

Dana over at Not Made of Money eats a whole lot of chicken, and she has fifty - fifty! - great recipes to share with you.

Tight Fisted Miser believes in getting things for free, and he made a list of things that no one should ever have to pay for.

That's all for now, but check back here tomorrow night if you want to read about how I broke the Frugal Shredder of Doom, and how I plan to repent of my abusive ways.

Read more...

Friday, January 2, 2009

It's great being Type A!

Happy New Year!

Things have been quiet around here for the past couple of days because I've been busy following an annual tradition: the New Year's cleaning frenzy.

It's not that I only clean at the beginning of the year; that would be gross. I do regular cleaning once a week, or once every two weeks in a pinch. The New Year's cleaning frenzy is the first of two annual cleaning binges where I clean everything, and I mean everything in my apartment. Every single shelf gets dusted. Every single drawer gets decluttered and reorganized. The refrigerator gets cleaned, counters get scrubbed down, kitchen and bathroom floors get the hands and knees treatment, glassware gets washed, the sofa gets fabric treatment, clothes get weeded out for charity, and it just keeps on going like that until it's done. This year, it took nine and a half hours split over two days, and it was backbreaking heavy labor.

It looks nice in here, though.

I'm not Type A about everything in my life, but I have a few outlets for semi-compulsive behavior, and this is one of them. You don't have to be wired like I am to get organized and stay organized, though. Here are a few tips for dumping your clutter and upping your home organization game.

Useful or beautiful
This is a great rule of thumb for keeping new clutter from coming into the house: If an object doesn't serve a purpose or isn't aesthetically pleasing, don't bring it home. I can't tell you how many times this rule has kept me from making a bad purchase on a whim.

Sentimentality has limits
I don't think it's wrong to want to keep mementoes of important occasions or special people around, but too much of that turns into a clutter bomb pretty quickly. When deciding whether or not to save something for posterity, it helps to consider how important the object is in the overall big picture of your life. You can also decide to save sentimental items for a period of time (three months is a good benchmark). As long as you commit to doing the follow through review to see if these items still maintain the same significance they did a few months earlier, in some cases the passage of time makes it a whole lot easier to say goodbye.

I've never done this myself, but some people suggest taking a picture of the item and then getting rid of it. I think it would make it harder for me to part with things instead of easier, but maybe you'll feel differently.

One in, one out
If you bring in something new, get rid of something old. Ideally, it should be comparable to what you're bringing in (e.g., one suit comes in, one suit goes out), but if that's not practical, then just get rid of something.

If you can't find something to donate to charity, then most of the time it's a good indication that you don't need any more stuff in the first place.

Fill the Ambivalence Box
I forget where I read this, but the Ambivalence Box is simply a box to put things that probably should be decluttered but which are hard to let go. The box gets put away for a year: if you haven't gone into in in all that time, then it should be dumped without ever opening it again.

Make decluttering a habit
Instead of going on a binge once a year, taking a few minutes once a month or so to do a clutter sweep in the house will take you a long way towards keeping the clutter monster at bay. I do this along with the annual binge, but keep in mind that this is a really small apartment: fighting clutter is a daily battle because it can become a problem in no time at all..

Moving away from decluttering and more towards getting and staying organized. . .

A place for everything, and everything in its place
Everything in your house needs a home. Once it has a home, it needs to be put back there when you're done using it. Not later on, not tomorrow: right when you're done with it.

Sounds simple, right? There's actually more behind this concept than just sticking things wherever and hoping they stay there. For example. . .

Like goes with like
Toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss. They should all be stored together so that you can go to one spot to get them, and back to the same spot to put everything away. When I reorganized my bathroom shelves tonight, I did it on the principle that since there are two shelves, one can be for things that go in the body (prescription medications, dental equipment, earplugs, Q-Tips) and the other can be for things that go on the body (soap, razors, lotions). I think it'll be a lot easier to maintain than what I had before, which was essentially shoving things wherever they fit and kicking the door closed before it all fell out.

Opening and closing
If you can't comfortably open and close a drawer without having to shove things down or open a closet without having things falling on your head, you have too much of whatever's in there. Assuming that you organized on the principle of like goes with like, it should be fairly straightforward to go through the different sets of things to figure out what needs to be tossed.

If you can't see it, you won't remember it
Have you ever bought repeats of something because you couldn't find the original? I have. I've found that if I can't see things, I won't remember they're there, and eventually I'll end up with a repeat. Storing like with like helps prevent that, but it's also important to be able to see what I have when I open a cupboard or a drawer. As a bonus, not having to rummage also keeps everything much neater than digging around.

You don't have to get crazy with it
There's a store in New York called The Container Store that only sells stuff to put stuff in. Crazy! If the container is right smack out there in the open, then sure, I want a nice one. If no one's going to see it, I'd rather repurpose cardboard boxes, old drinking glasses, or other little throwaway containers. It's a heck of a lot cheaper to do it that way, too.

Handle mail once
Don't let mail pile up: Open all of it when you come home and sort it into whatever filing system you use: bills, letters, holiday cards, junk mail, whatever. Anything you don't need can go straight into the shredder.

If you want less incoming mail in the first place, you can reduce your junk mail load by doing a few easy things:

1. Sign up for online bill payment
2. Go to the Direct Mail Marketing Association's DMA Choice site and register to opt out of junk mail advertising
3. When you donate to a charity, specify either in the donation or in a follow-up that you do not want the charity to share your contact details with any other organization, and get confirmation that the charity will respect your privacy

Set boundaries for newspapers and magazines
In my apartment, newspapers go out at the end of the day, fully read or not. (Sometimes I keep one or two sections back, but then they go out within 24 hours.) Weekly magazines get one week. Monthly magazines get one month. How often do you go back to those things anyway once a couple of weeks have passed? I don't, so there's no point in keeping them around.

Make your dang bed
Seriously. If there is only one thing you can do in thirty seconds that gives your room an immediate organizational facelift, this is the one!

Once you get into a mindset of not creating clutter and instead keeping things in an orderly way, these simple guidelines can become a habit that you don't really need to think about; you just do it.

This isn't to say that life suddenly becomes a marvel of organization at home. My front closet and bathroom cabinet are ongoing hot spots, and I really have to work to get them under control once they start junking up. Also, if you have a hoarding or squalor problem, these tips probably won't do a lot for you because they're simply corrective measures: they don't even begin to touch the root causes of squalor or hoarding. There are websites out there that address those issues, though, and the Google can help you find them.

Do you have a decluttering or organizational goal for 2009? Let's hear it in the comments.

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