Sunday, February 28, 2010

DIY project: Kitchen backsplash step 1

Matt and I have talked about installing a kitchen backsplash for the past two years. We moved into our house three and a half years ago and we are the house's second owners (the house was built in 2002).

This is why we want a backsplash. Our kitchen is very white: white appliances, white cabinets, light wood floors, and a granite that is light (and not our favorite).

Two items to note in the photo below: 1) Doc's insistence on a cameo appearance, and he is feeling normal-ish after his health scare this week. 2) The flowers on the island are what Matt bought me on Valentine's Day. Buy your flowers at Whole Foods! Cheap and last not buy them at Costco, they die overnight.

Here's a close-up of our granite to help you see what we're working with:

So kitchen backsplash step 1 is figuring out what you want your backsplash to look like and ordering the materials. I am happy to report we placed the order for our materials Saturday aftenoon.

Here's what we went through to make up our minds:

1) In December I spent several hours looking for online inspiration. I couldn't find many photos of kitchens with backsplashes that looked much like our kitchen. Not too many people have white cabinets, or if they do, they are not posting their home-improvement projects online. I finally found one look that I liked that included white cabinets and our granite color, and the backsplash was made up of dark tiles.

2) In January Matt and I visited the Mosaic Tile Company in Chantilly, Va., and we worked with an incredibly helpful sales rep. She picked out a sample of our white cabinets and a sample of our granite and played around with color combinations. She agreed with us that we needed a dark tile color and ideally a non-busy pattern or even just solid color because we're trying to complement some busy granite. Thirty minutes and many tile-combinations later, we found an awesome look: rectangular slate tiles of different lengths that fit together like a puzzle. The varying lengths of tiles made for a very modern look. The tile comes in square-foot sheets. The downside: a sheet costs $27.15, and we're covering about 16 square feet. So, not too cost effective.

3) In mid-February Matt and I visited Home Depot. The Mosaic Tile Company puts Home Depot to shame. Home Depot has increased its ceramic and glass tile selection, but you're still not going to find nearly the variety you'll get at a specialty store. After about 30 minutes of searching, though, we considered these incredibly economical black subway tiles ( a 3"x 6" tile costs just 57 cents, or $4.56 per square foot). Still, we weren't in love.

 4) Three's a charm: yesterday Matt remembered that hidden behind a shopping center near our house there is a store called Circa Tile. The showroom is only about one-fourth the size of Mosaic Tile Company's massive and beautiful showroom, but Circa Tile still has great selection and, in our experience, better prices.

It was at Circa Tile that we found this little gem, rectangular slate tiles of various lengths. Sound familiar? It's almost identical to what we found at Mosaic Tile Company, but this tile costs $16.99/square foot rather than $27.15/square foot.

So the nice sales rep at Circa Tile let us bring this sample home to try it out in our kitchen.
We were sold. We went back over our kitchen sketch and triple checked all our measurements. We basically have five sections where we will be adding our backsplash.

Here's the whole kitchen sketch, and you can see where I added in red our triple-checked measurements:

And here are the five areas in our kitchen where we'll be adding a backsplash soon:

Area 1: to the left of the sink (coffee maker zone!)

Area  2: tiny space between the sink and the ledge (dead zone)

Area 3: to the left of the sink (canister land #1)


Area 4: to the left of the fridge (canister land #2)

Area 5: to the right of the fridge (toaster oven province)

Our total square footage for the backsplash area is 15.8 square feet, so we'll round up to 16 square feet.

We hopped back into the car at 1:40 on Saturday afternoon, which was good timing because we did not realize the store closed at 2 p.m. Our friendly sales rep informed us that the company that sells our tiles has started making the tiles in 5 square foot sheets and charges customers $6 for broken cartons (a response to the bad economy). You're supposed to order about 10 percent more tile than you need to account for breaking and human error, but our tile is somewhat unique because of all the tiles' different widths and lengths that allow you to more easily fill in gaps. So we were originally just going to order 17 square feet, but there was the possibility we would have to buy one more square foot while we were in the midst of our project, and then we'd have to pay another freight charge and another broken carton charge. 

It made the most economical sense to get 18 square feet at once and only pay the broken carton fee once and the freight charge once. We also went ahead and bought our grout because the tile store has much more selection than Home Depot and the price is the same. We went with a grout that is several shades lighter than our tile, which will help accentuate the patterns of our tile.

Here's the price break down right now:
  • Midnight Random Strip Cleft and Honed (the tile) 18 square feet -- $305
  • TEC light pewter sanded 25 pound grout -- $21.95
  • Broken carton charge -- $6
  • Taxes -- $16.69
  • Total: $350.46
We will have to pay the freight charge when our materials arrive, and that will be about $30.

This is by no means cheap. If all goes according to plan this entire project should cost around $425. Doing the installation ourselves will be a test of wills, but we already got an estimate for the installation from a contractor, who told us he would charge at least $600 for installation alone. When we originally dreamed up our backsplash a couple years ago, we imagined our total costs staying below $500.

For this project, we went with a high-end product, though we could have gone even higher. Our philosophy here is that, unlike paint colors, which are easy to switch out, a backsplash should last for a very long time. Also, our kitchen is so white right now, and we do not plan to change the cabinets, and while we do have plans to install stainless-steal appliances, that will be a slow process we'll handle as appliances stop working or we outgrow them. For now this investment will be something we'll enjoy in our home and we hope the future owners of our home will also enjoy.

Our tile arrives in a week, and then when we have time on the weekend we will start the installation process. 

In the meantime, we're getting educated about installing tile, and we'll share that info tomorrow.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tip 38: Return address rubber stamps

To round out mail week, I thought I should mention a new return address method that I love: the personalized rubber stamp. My sister-in-law Amy bought an adorable return address stamp, which I coveted, and then I decide to order my own.

Tip 38: If you're in the market for a return address stamp, The Stampin' Place's Web site is the best place I found online in terms of selection and price.

You can order pre-inked stamps (the most expensive option, at $25.95), self-inking stamps (the mid-level choice, at $22.95) or the wood-mounted red rubber stamp (the cheapest, at $15.95). Because I was making my first return address stamp purchase, I opted for the cheaper stamp variety for this trial run, so wood-mounted rubber stamp it is! After looking at all the options, I actually settled on my first love, the one just like my sister-in-law got (she has good taste!). Here is a link to the specific stamp I purchased, their product PR-90: Circle return address.

The stamp arrived quickly. It was formatted perfectly, and I've been loving it.

Here's what it looks like from the top (after my magical blurring skills to hide our address).

Here's the rubber portion of the stamp.

Right now I have two colors of ink. This is part of the reason why I decided to get this wood-mounted stamp -- so that I could easily change colors and not spend a lot of money. I have black ink and gold ink. I love the look of gold ink on red paper.

When it comes to sending business mailings, I stick to the free return address stickers we have in excess from various charities, but for fun personal mailings I prefer this more personalized stamp.

Next up....home improvement take 1: purchasing tile for a kitchen backsplash.

Tip 37: Doggie care: In sickness and in rice

Thursday night was rough. When I got home late from work Thursday evening I noticed that Doc (our smaller yellow Lab mix) was making some hacking noises. It didn't happen too often, but then it went into full effect Thursday night, and neither Matt nor I slept very well or very much.

Friday Matt took Doc to the vet, who gave Doc a physical exam, including especially checking his throat and his stomach, and the vet thought, as we had assumed, that Doc must have swallowed something. But Doc was happy and wagging his tale and showed no negative symptoms (other than the hacking) so the vet figured it would pass in time. In the meantime, he gave us this little word of wisdom...

Tip 37: When you have a dog with a stomach ache, feed it one cup of cooked rice, because rice will still give the dog essential nutrients, but it will not further upset the dog's already upset stomach.

We should add to this: After you cook the rice, let it sit for about 15 minutes to cool. We did not do so, and the rice was too hot for Doc at first, but he still was determined to eat it quickly no matter what.

The rice started out in the bowl, but it quickly made its way to the wall, and the rug, and Doc's paws.


The rice solution has worked well, and only 24 hours after his visit to the vet Doc is doing just fine. I am still going to guess that Matt and I will have the pleasure of being woken up in the middle of the night tonight when something like a bottle cap or a sock or a child's toy comes out of Doc's mouth, but for now things are fine, and the rice did its job.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tip 36: Forever stamps

Stamps can be cute, but another thing that's cute in my book is saving time and money. This is why, though I often am nearly tempted otherwise, I try to follow...

Tip 36: Stick to purchasing forever stamps for your mailing needs.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like when I was a kid a stamp cost 25 cents for about 15 years, and then all of a sudden the price of a stamp increases every year, sometimes it even feels like multiple times per year. While I realize that last part is probably an exaggeration, I just don't send enough mail to even make it through one pack of 20 stamps before the stamp rate increases. The beauty of a forever stamp (currently the ones with the Liberty Bell image) is that even if you find yourself facing a rate increase mid-roll, it doesn't affect you.

The worst part about buying cute stamps is then having to go back to the post office to get smaller stamps to add to the original stamp.

Also, I rarely buy stamps at the post office because I try to go there as infrequently as possible. Instead, I've had success:

1) Buying stamps at grocery stores. How many other people do this? Usually when I ask my cashier for a pack of stamps he or she can get a little flustered and call for back up. Still, I love killing two birds with one stone, so I love the convenience of grocery store stamp purchasing.

2) Buying stamps online. I tried this for the winter holidays, and it was worth the $1 service charge to avoid waiting in line for decorative stamps at the post office. If there's anything worse than waiting in line at the post office, it would be waiting in line at the post office in December. Somewhat ironically, it took longer for my stamps to arrive in the mail than it takes most of my mail to arrive, but I wasn't in a rush.

3) Buying stamps at ATMs. When select ATMs ask me, "Would you like to purchase stamps?" as I end my transaction, sometimes I say, "Why yes, I would!" Again, it saves another trip to another undesirable place and it doesn't cost any more.

I have never purchased stamps at Costco, mostly because I do not need insane Costco quantities of stamps.

An exception to my forever-stamp rule is when I am about to make a bulk mailing, which is rare, and by bulk I mean more than 20 items, or one book of stamps worth. This is why they produce those wedding and holiday stamps.

Next up...adventures in dog parenting: dealing with a sick puppy (another brief interruption of mail week, to return Saturday afternoon).

Bonus green product post: Fun new alarm clock

Three weeks ago when Matt's cheap, old IKEA alarm clock ticked its last tock, I did not mourn its loss. Instead I danced a jig. I hated that alarm clock. It was plastic and puke green, and IKEA doesn't appear to carry it anymore.

So of course I had to replace it. I scanned some favorite blogs and found this neat post on re-nest: Eco-Friendly and Stylish Alarm Clocks. Sounds good!

One missed package and one trip to the post office later, I have this. (Side note: Yes, it's really annoying that they made me sign for my $30 alarm clock, but whatever, it came all the way from Hong Kong):

A triangular block of wood?!
No, silly, a funky alarm clock, the likes of which you have (probably) never seen.

By day it is, in fact, just a block of wood.

By night it transforms into an awesome time, date and temperature reader.


I haven't figured out how to make the temperature part accurate, but I haven't tried that hard either. One day it read 63 degrees, which would be nice, and then the next day it read 19 degrees. On both days it should have read between 35 and 40 degrees.

What makes it eco-friendly? The fact that during the day you press a button and the clock goes into sleep mode, conserving energy. It also came in very little packaging.
What doesn't make it eco-friendly? The fact that it came by way of Hong Kong, which is pretty far away, and then on top of all that I had to go to the post office when the package could have been left on my doorstep. Oh well.

Where can you get yours? Here, from this weird little company called Homeloo.

The irony? Matt thinks the light the alarm clock gives off at night is too bright. So I think I will take my Sony Dream Machine that I've had since I was about 14 and put it on Matt's side of the bed, and I'll take funky eco clock for my side. After all, I'm not as light-sensitive as he is.

Next up....back to mail week!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tip 35: Card organization #2

Oh joy! You got a card in the mail. Now what?

Tip 35: Keep cards on display for a week surrounding a big event, then either a) recycle the card b) prepare to use the card or c) file it away.

Let's break this down:

A) Recycle the card. This one is the easiest option. If the card doesn't contain much besides a signature and maybe a not-so-sentimental one or two liner, I usually recycle it. After a week on display, straight to the bin.

B) Prepare to reuse the card. If you like a card enough but don't necessarily need to hold on to it for sentimental reasons, cut off the front flap of the card, the part containing the cover art. Somewhere down the road you may glue a piece of cardstock to the back of this cover and write a nice message. Done! Until the day for reusing the card arrives, file it in your card file (see yesterday's post). I haven't yet reused a card myself, but I have received some from friends and thought it was a nice idea, so today I saved a couple wedding-card covers.

C) File it away. I am not a romantic person, but I am a hugely sentimental person. I know that may seem like a contradiction in terms, but it's really not. Yes, I cry every time a bride walks down the aisle, whether in person or on TV, and I will cry at some movies sometimes, but I'm a pretty even-keel person. But I love preserving memories. And I love getting an amazing card.

So, my hall-of-fame cards make it to my DIY card file. This is not to be confused with my other card file, the one where I keep all my cards-in-waiting of their big debut in someone else's mailbox. Instead these are the cards that compose my make-shift adult yearbook. (Don't you miss yearbooks and writing in them and getting a yearly affirmation as you and all your friends exchange feelings?)

Here is what my card file looks like. The box is something my mother gave me when I was in high school.

The dividers I made myself using pretty card stock paper and my favorite Post-It Durable tabs that I am starting to use everywhere.

The tabs read:
  • Holidays
  • Special feelings -- Translation: cards where friends and family say incredibly nice things about your relationships. The name comes from what my best friends from high school say when we're about to get emotional.
  • Our wedding -- I meant to make a scrapbook of wedding stuff, but this is good enough, and our wedding was three and a half years ago, so that's never gonna happened. With this, special feelings are within reach.
  • Love letters -- I have kept every note Matt and I have written each other. There were a lot in the beginning of our relationship. The ones of the present are short and sweet, I like to think because the longer you're with someone the harder it becomes to define why you love each other. It just is. This year for Valentine's Day I made seven little paper hearts with goofy messages on them and hid them all around the house so Matt would find them during his daily routine (on the remote control, on the [lactose-free] milk carton, inside his shower). Somehow this seems more apt than the longer letters of yesteryear.
  • Invites/programs -- Yes, I am that person who saves invitations to your wedding. Maybe it will come in handy for you someday. I also saved your wedding program. I love these things. Maybe one day when I start a stationery business these will be useful.
I also keep every card a student writes to me, but those I keep at school in a special folder devoted to happy teacher items, like awards, kind words, my published teacher writings, etc.

Why do I keep cards? For those crappy days when I don't have much energy, or for those times I'm just cleaning out the house and get nostalgic. And because I find gems like this: a wedding card from my friend who wrote, "May you two build a beautiful world in each other." It made me cry today.

Ok, I promise to be way more practical and less sentimental in my next posts.

Next up...bonus green product post!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tip 34: Card organization #1

It's day four of mail week, and so far we've looked at how to get rid of mail (shred and recycle!), how to cut down junkmail (lots of helpful Web sites!) and how to manage bills (use e-bill and online bill pay). But none of those are very fun. You know what is fun? Actual mail. You can be a part of sending actual mail in the actual mail...

Tip 34: Use (buy or create) a greeting card organizer with dividers so you can easily store cards for special occasions.

My greeting card organizer was actually an unintentional purchase. It's from Costco, and it came filled with cards pre-sorted in various categories. I can't remember if I bought this or if Matt's parents bought this for us (a likely scenario), but I used up the cards long ago and kept the box as a helpful organizational tool.

Here it is from the outside. It's about the width of two side-by-side shoe boxes. (Side note: I love the way it closes: there are magnets on the front flap and right inside the box that make a satisfying "snap" when you close it.)
Open it up, and find these nifty dividers.

Here are the divider categories, in case you can't read them all:
  • Gift enclosure cards
  • Birthday
  • New baby
  • Get well
  • Sympathy
  • Thank you
  • Wedding/love
  • Friendship/blank
I have a couple cards in each section. I'll go to a Hallmark store maybe twice a year and stock up on cards. There have been a lot of wedding cards in the last four or five years, and now the trend is baby cards (pattern, anyone?). I try to get cards with certain people in mind so that I can avoid generic or boring cards as much as possible. I file them away in here to save for the wedding, shower, anniversary, birthday or baby's arrival.

How do I remember your birthday? I put it into my Google calendar, and I made it an event that reoccurs annually so I'll never forget!

In the front of second half of the box I have a bunch of blank cards and stationery, which are great for quick notes. While the vast majority of everyday communication with my friends takes place electronically, and I know a lot of people send e-cards or even just e-mails to celebrate events (and I do that, too) I still like to send my long-distance friends some occasional mail love. Doesn't getting a card in the mail make your day?

I've also increasingly gotten into making cards. If you've been following this blog for a while, you might recall that as a child I teamed up with some pool friends to create a "Beaded Apparel" company, where we would sew beads onto shirts. Well, I also ran a company called "Everything Cards, Etc." where my neighbor frenemy (not you, Rene) and I would make cards in her grandparents' basement and sell them from a table on the side of our street. Kind of like an alternative to the lemonade stand. As silly as it was, I kind of missed making cards. So, I started it up again. Now my main supply for my greeting card box is some envelopes I bought at Michael's and some cardstock paper.

If you want to make a box like this yourself, take an over-sized shoe box, take some cardstock paper to serve as dividers, and go to town. I would not have purchased this if I didn't inadvertently own it already.

Next got a card in the mail. Now what?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tip 33: Reduce your bill (mail)

First of all, I realize this is the latest I have ever blogged in the day (and I bet some of you were thinking, "Maybe today will be the day she breaks her blogging streak!"). Well folks, this post is primarily late because I just got home from my monthly book club (yes, I am a huge proponent of organized activities, obviously, and I will blog about its evolution later).

I wish I could tell you how to reduce the number of bills you receive in a month and how to reduce the amount you owe each month, but the only thing I can say is ask for special deals, especially any perks you may get through your employer, and/or threaten to switch to a different service (we're mostly talking about TV, cell phones, Internet...good luck negotiating with the power companies, though I am sure someone succeeds here). At most, though, this knocks $10 or maybe $15, $20 off your monthly bills, but not enough to retire at 35 (my dream). What I can say, though, is that if you haven't already....

Tip 33: To further reduce the amount of paper that comes into your house, your need for shredding and recycling, and to reduce your chances of a late payment, conduct all of your bill pay online.

Up until a year ago I was still holding on to doing some of my bill pay through snail mail, namely for our mortgage. I don't know why I stuck to this. I think it was partially because I didn't trust online bill pay for everything (but still did for most things), and partially because our mortgage company would charge an incredibly high fee for every mortgage paid through their site. It made no sense. Then Matt said, "Why don't you use our bank's Web site for online bill pay?" Why didn't I think of that? Setting it up takes about two minutes, and the payoff (in time) is huge.

Here's how our monthly bills work:

1) As teachers we get paid once a month, on the last work day of the month. Some of my non-teacher friends think this is outrageous and don't know how we cope. The answer is, it's very easy: your bills are due once a month.

2) I manage all the daily household finances. Matt knows way more than me about the stock market and the intricacies of loans, so I let him handle that, but I'm more type A and never miss a payment, so this is my strength.

3) The only paper bills we receive in the mail each month are: 1) mortgage statements, which I file into a special binder only for mortgage documents and 2) the water bill, which we get once every three months and the company will not do e-bill. I love e-bill. I try only to keep one copy of the most recent water bill on file and shred the rest.

4) We pay the following bills through these means each month:
  • The mortgage is due the start of each month, so that's set up through online bill pay. I don't do automatic pay for this because it's such a huge amount and I want to see it go through (though I realize I could set up automatic pay).
  • The credit card #1 is paid online through the card's site at the start of each month. I do this manually. Also, we charge almost all of our everyday expenses mostly to keep track of all purchases and our budget, but we pay the card off in full every month (and we save a lot of money each month, too).
  • Homeowner's association dues are automatic bill pay at the start of each month.
  • Auto and home insurance (one charge) is automatic bill pay at the start of each month.
  • Electricity is automatic bill pay at the middle of each month.
  • Gas is something I pay manually through the company's site at the middle of each month.
  • TV/Internet/cell phone (one charge) is automatic bill pay at the end of each month.
  • Water is every three months, and I pay this manually through bill pay.
  • Credit card #2 has occasional small charges, so we pay that off through the company's site as needed.
5) For the smaller items that are not set up for automatic bill pay (gas, credit card #2, water) I pay those bills as soon as I receive the e-bill email notification. For the larger items that are not set up for automatic bill pay (mortgage, credit card #1), I pay those bills at the end of each month on pay day. It's fun to have (what seems like) a lot of money in our account for about 8 hours.

It may seem like a lot to manage, but it's actually not. Here's my formula: I see a lot of money in my bank account = sign it's time to hand some money over. I get an email notification = time to pay a smaller bill. Everything else is taken care of for me. If you're a control freak like me and you're worried your automatic bill pay won't go through on time, never fear: it is more reliable than you are.

Lastly, just the other day I experienced one of the negative side effects of having paper bills laying around. Because we always get paper copies of the water bill in the mail, and this month was water month, I was looking at this month's bill the other day and thought I had not paid it. Then I realized if I had not paid it, it was overdue. Then I logged onto bill pay and realized that I had, of course, paid it the day it arrived in the mail, but my heart raced a tiny bit when I thought I would have to pay a $3.50 late fee and tarnish my perfect record.

Even though junkmail and bills are yucky, there are some better sides to mail, too. Let's start looking at some of those tomorrow!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tip 32: Stop the (junkmail) insanity!

Warning: While I am a believer in short-ish blog posts, today's has to go a little longer, because there is a lot to say about junkmail!

Tip 32: To keep most of your junkmail from ever reaching your door, sign up for one or several online mail removal services.

In early 2008 I signed up with a site called ProQuo to remove Matt and me from a seemingly endless mound of mailing lists. This free site took me off credit card offers, circular and value-pack (or ValPak, which is also online!) coupon mailings, and copious amounts of catalogs. By March 2008 I had reduced our junkmail from about eight pieces a day to about one or two a day. Even better news, those credit card offers that I loathe basically ceased to arrive. Then, oddly enough, in the last month I've noticed that we're starting to get more junkmail than we have in the last two years. I think it's because ProQuo took us off some lists for just two years.

So, I went back to the ProQuo site the other day. It looks like a generic "site under construction." Then I remembered getting an email from ProQuo about a year ago that said this:
The site I loved, that offered its services free of charge was now going to make me pay? No thank you. And now, apparently, the site hardly exists, at least at this moment.

Back to the drawing board! Without ProQuo, what options do I have to painlessly remove myself from junkmail lists for free?

Turns out, there are several: -- this site is run by the Direct Marketing Association. It's free. Signing up only takes a moment, but unlike ProQuo, which used to remove me from many mailing lists with the click of just one button, DMAChoice makes me sort through contact information for lots of companies. This is useful for removing my name from auto insurance company lists, such as AllState and Geico that must send me at least an offer each week. So, it provides me with email, phone and mail contact info, and of course I choose the email option, open a new message and type a generic "To Whom It May Concern: Please remove me from your mailing list" message. -- If you sign up for DMAChoice and you want to get your name removed from credit card offers, you'll be directed to this site. I was also directed to this site back in the day when I thrived from the wonder that was ProQuo. This site is a joint venture among the four major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, Innovis, and TransUnion. (When you get your credit report or you have a credit check run when you're applying for something like a home loan, you will get lots of numbers from these agencies, or all except for Innovis, which has never shown up in our reports.) The site says:
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), Equifax, Experian, Innovis, and TransUnion, are permitted to include your name on lists used by creditors or insurers to make firm offers of credit or insurance. The FCRA also allows you the ability to "Opt-Out", which prevents Consumer Credit Reporting Companies from providing your credit file information for firm offers of credit or insurance that are not initiated by you.
Removing your name through the OptOutPrescreen site will take you about two minutes. Even if you have no plans to use DMAChoice, this small step is probably worth it.'s National Do Not Mail List -- The name of this is slightly deceiving because I think it makes people link it to the National Do Not Call Registry, which is a government-run program. This Do Not Mail List is run by, a direct marketing company. But, I will cut them some slack because this is yet another free site, and it's also exceptionally easy to use. Enter your contact information, receive an email, confirm an email, and then get another email in return. I just did this one today as an experiment, and I got this nice little email in return also encouraging me to add my name to the OptOutPrescreen site as well as the DMAChoice site. So, I think it's safe to say that I have pretty thoroughly covered my bases. -- This is another free site that used to link through ProQuo, and it has been amazing at reducing my catalog intake. I personally don't like to browse catalogs. I'd rather check store Web sites because by the time I scan a catalog the store has already sold out of my size anyway. Better to know what I'm getting into by going straight to the source and checking size/color availability for any clothing purchases. One word of caution: Even though CatalogChoice is awesome at keeping you off mailing lists, once you make an online purchase at certain stores (I'm talking to you, JCrew and Victoria's Secret) you will need to immediately remove yourself from their mailing list again because they will love to send you weekly catalogs. Returning to CatalogChoice or even sending a customer service email should do the trick. -- Here's a site I have not and most likely will not try, but I thought I'd throw this one in here because it's often mentioned when it comes to junkmail removal. The site promises to reduce your junkmail intake by 80 to 95 percent, which is nice, but that's also what the free sites can accomplish. Additionally, the site promises to achieve these results for you for five years, eliminating your 41 points of junkmail, but it also costs 41 pounds. The site justifies this cost by saying that it equals 2 cents per day, but to me that's still $41 more than free. The site also claims in its FAQ section:
There are some companies that offer free services which might sound similar to, but if you read the fine print you’ll find out that they do NOT provide the complete five-year service that provides. Some services only stop catalogs, not the rest of your junk mail — like credit card offers which can lead to identity theft. Others only stop a portion of your junk mail — just from the companies that are part of their group. Some that claim to stop your junk mail actually make their money from direct mail companies who very much want to send you their marketing mail. removes your name from the DMA (Direct Marketing Association) list, which applies to the companies that are members of this marketing trade association. You can contact DMA yourself, but you will find this is not a complete solution since they don’t stop credit card applications and many other forms of junk mail (such as PennySavers, ValPak, etc.)
Still, I just don't buy it (pun!). If you want to do it yourself and for free, you may have to visit two or three sites and spend a little more time, but I don't think what this site offers is $41 better than what I can achieve for free in about 5-10 minutes max.

Here are a couple quick recommendations for using these sites:
  • Make sure they're free.
  • Make sure they're easy to use. (This is part of my argument against DMAChoice; it seems needlessly complicated.)
  • Avoid ones that expect you to send a letter in the mail because, let's face it, that's both: 1) annoying and 2) ironic, and you're never going to get around to putting that letter in the mail. I've been there.
  • With his or her permission, also remove other people who share your address. Most likely they want you to anyway, so encouraging your friends and loved ones to go as green as possible and reduce clutter is always a good idea.
  • As with so many things related to organization, be patient. It may take until May for you to really notice a reduction in your junkmail, but it will be worth it.

So, now I'm hoping that my junkmail purge round 2 will go well. I'll keep you posted on the results.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tip 31: Shred it, shred it good

Welcome to mail week! When I talk to my friends about the organizational struggles that get them down, mail is usually at the top of the list. It's something that, whether you like it or not, you have to deal with six days a week (so I guess it's appropriate to start mail week on a Sunday!). I've adopted several strategies for dealing with the mail that comes into our house. Most of it gets immediately recycled. The mortgage statements get filed away in a special folder for housing papers. Then there are the credit card offers, which I absolutely hate. Here's what I do...

Tip 31: Make a "to shred" pile, place it on top of your shredder, and keep your shredder out in a space which will make you likely to shred often.

I am moderately concerned about security and the nefarious people who engage in identity theft, so I try to leave as short of a paper trail as possible. I've tried really hard to get myself off of almost all unsolicited credit card offers, but they still come through occasionally. I take out all the envelopes and additional papers inside the credit mailing and recycle those; then I find the papers with the numbers at the bottom indicating some aspect of my identity. I don't just want those papers in the recycling. So, I shred.

I used to keep my shredder inside our office closet. But then I had to get it out from behind some other stuff before I could use it. Now I just keep it in a little corner next to our office closet, and I keep it unplugged. Keeping it unplugged is not only a way to avoid vampire electricity usage, but it's also an extra safety precaution. Once I have a few documents to shred, I plug it in and go to town.

At ease, sir

I bought this Auroa AS660CM shredder at Bed Bath and Beyond back in 2003, and it has not let me down. (BB&B doesn't sell this model anymore, but it's similar to this one in size and price, and this new one claims to handle staples, too.)  It says it can accept up to six papers at once, but I usually play it safe and stick to about three at a time. I do not feel like buying another shredder anytime soon.

Ready for my close-up

What do I do with the shreddings? I can't just put them in my recycling bin. Most recycling companies won't accept shredded paper. I have used them as packing material when sending items in the mail. I have also thrown them away, because I ran out of uses for shredded paper. If I had a small animal, like the never-ending collection of gerbils I had in elementary school, I could use them as lining for the bottom of their cage. Or if I composted I could add them to that. I read that some people use the shreddings as a layer directly underneath mulch as some sort of natural pesticide. I might try to in the spring when we bring our herb garden back to life.

It's my time to shine...tearing through the credit card companies...

What have you done with your shreddings?

The most important lesson for me has been to keep my shredder easily accessible, and this has kept unwanted mail from becoming overwhelming.

But as I mentioned earlier, I have successfully cut down on much of the junk mail we receive, eliminating much of the need for shredding to begin with.

How did I cut down on junk mail? Stop by tomorrow!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tip 30: Hanging necklaces

I am the owner of quite a few pieces of chunky jewelry. I outgrew my little jewelry box fairly quickly. Now my jewelry box that once housed everything only houses my earrings, bracelets, and nicest small necklaces. For chunky jewelry, I follow...

Tip 30: Use a hook system to hang your necklaces on the wall as an artistic, organized display.

The nice thing about jewelry, unlike, say, tube socks, is that it tends to be pretty. I bought a four-hook hanger from Bed Bath and Beyond for $6.99 (if you're browsing in the store, these items are in the closet section). It is intended for hanging sets of keys, but it works perfectly in its new role.

Here's what it looks like:
This display hangs in a corner of our bedroom over a low dresser and next to a large mirror where I get ready each morning. Even though I tend to overlook jewelry at 6 a.m. when I am rushing to make it to work on time, by having my fun jewelry visible it makes me more likely to grab one from a hook. It also forces me to purge my necklaces every once in a while, because there's only so much space and I don't want this display to get more crowded than it already is.

Of course, there are lots of options available for such a display. You could buy separate hooks and stagger them in such a way on the wall to increase the visual interest. You could probably get extra creative and take something like an old wire hanger, sculpt it into a pretty design and hook your necklaces onto it. I've also seen ladies who are fortunate enough to have changing rooms or huge walk-in clothes hang their necklaces in this manner, but tucked away in these changing areas.

Whatever you do, take those big necklaces out of all those boxes (or the random drawer where you've thrown them) and make a piece of functional art!

Next up....let's talk mail! Mail week begins Sunday!

Friday, February 19, 2010

DIY weekend idea: headboards

I remember when I used to watch Trading Spaces (in 2003 or something, is that show even on anymore??) one thing almost every show had in common was the do-it-yourself headboard. Need to make a bedroom look better? Make a headboard! But the problem I always had was that the headboards were usually staple-gunned into the wall, creating a potentially problematic situation when it's time to move out. Instead, I decided to use photo frames to create our DIY headboard.

Here's what it looks like from a distance (note the symmetry of the end tables and matching lamps...those were Crate and Barrel wedding registry items)
And here's what it looks like from closer up

The frames are all exactly the same. Although I am a huge fan of the wall frame collage where you piece together frames of different sizes like a puzzle, I intentionally wanted these frames to be exactly the same size, shape and color to create the illusion of the headboard.
To keep up with at least one principle of feng shui, I have kept photos of other people away from our bedroom. Apparently by having photos of your family and friends in your bedroom you bring them into your relationship, and we clearly don't want that. So, these photos are taken from memorable locations and memorable moments: a trip to Costa Rica, our honeymoon in Maui, our college campus (or dare I say Grounds), the spot where we got engaged, wine tasting in California, and the St. Louis arch (which is architecturally interesting but not particularly sentimental for us). I need to add a photo or two from our cross country trip, and I will no doubt add a photo or two after this summer's vacation.

We have high ceilings that form a trapezoidal shape, so our headboard is framed underneath the trapezoid to lead the eye up the wall.

If you don't have a headboard, consider making one this way rather than the old-fashioned Trading Spaces way. It's more fun and more personal.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tip 29: Grout, grout everywhere

I hate grout. I understand its purpose, but I ultimately wish it didn't exist because it is notoriously difficult to clean. I have found a decent solution...

Tip 29: Use a homemade paste of castile soap and baking soda to clean your shower grout.

Dealing with grout requires patience, but by applying this paste and waiting for a little bit, you will be rewarded.

Here's what you do:
1) Get a bowl. It does not need to be very big. You are only making enough paste for today's cleaning. A cereal bowl should work!

2) Pour a couple tablespoons of baking soda into the bowl.

3) Pour some castile soap over the baking soda, enough to cover it, maybe about one tablespoon.

4) Mix the baking soda and castile soap together until it forms a paste (think: toothpaste consistency). I use the same brush I'll use to apply the paste to the tile to mix the paste.

5) Apply the paste to your grout and wait. I suggest about 30 minutes.

6) Rinse the paste from your grout. You might use an old cloth, sponge, paper towel, or maybe just pour some water from the shower onto your tile.

7) If you're not satisfied, try again. You might have some nasty grout issues that require extra TLC. We've all been there.

I only use this grout-paste on the bottom third of my shower. I've noticed that the top portion of my shower doesn't get nearly as dirty and therefore doesn't need the detail work.

I have to admit. I cheat a little. I still use my Method Daily Shower cleaner. I buy the refill bottle at Target and add it to an old spray bottle.

Fortunately, the non-toxic Method product contains few ingredients and no intense smells. Still, I know it's not the greenest, but it does keep the shower pretty clean. Anyone have an even better solution?

(Mortified update: Yesterday right after post my Mortified story I had a real-life mortified experience. Remember how I had to renew my passport? And remember how my old passport contains the world's worst photo? Well, I thought I would never see that again, but I guess I didn't realize I'd be getting my old passport back in the mail. How Mortifying!)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Entertainment idea: Get Mortified

Part of being organized is planning fun activities for your free time, so let's take a break from cleaning and filing and ponder life's wonders...

A few months ago I read a Washington Post magazine article about the Get Mortified tour and I was immediately intrigued. The general idea is that some 20-30-40-somethings read from their childhood diaries and other writing they found buried in their parents' basements. The readings, of course, are mortifying but oddly therapeutic. I visited the Web site and learned that the latest installment of the Get Mortified tour would be heading to D.C. on February 10. So, I bought our tickets in advance at $10 a pop (plus a $1 service charge).

Then the snow postponed the show.

So it was rescheduled for last night.

Matt and I made it to Town nightclub right off U Street and across the parking lot from the 9:30 Club. We again made the mistake of driving (must learn to rely on public transportation!). The roads were horrible thanks to everyone being back on a normal schedule and the piles of snow blocking parking spaces and driving views, but we managed to still get there a few minutes early. It was a standing-room only crowd (not too many seats to begin with, so most of us stood anyway). Scheduled to start at 8, the show really started more like at 8:25, probably because the organizers were trying to make up for the horrible transportation situation, so I won't dock them any credit for that one. The whole event lasted a little more than an hour, and it was totally entertaining.

We heard from:
  • An early-30s female who read from her summer camp diary.
  • A mid-to-late-30s female who read from the travel diary her parents forced her to keep during her teenage family trip to Europe.
  • An early-30s male who read letters written to him by his crazy first girlfriend.
  • A late-30s male who shared his original art detailing his obsession with Barbara Streisand.
  • A late-20s male who read the letter he wrote to his high school crush (but thankfully never gave her).
  • A 40-year-old male who shared the poetry he wrote and read to friends and lovers at inappropriate times.

The audience, mostly composed of people in their late 20s and 30s, was really supportive and laughed at all the punchlines, and there were many. It's a nice reminder that everyone had major insecurity, dramatic thoughts (and actions), and generally bad writing skills when they were teenagers. Too bad the show is 21-and-over because this would be probably the best therapy for middle school kids. Great reminder that the cool kids weren't really that cool after all.

Too tired last night, I searched for my childhood diary this afternoon. Victory!

Funny thing about this diary cover: I was never allowed to take ballet classes as a child.

But I kept it locked as a child, and of course I no longer have the key. I was ready to cut the lock off, but turns out just some light pulling does the trick.

Even though I wrote in this diary sporadically for five years (from the ambitious ages of 6 to 11 and somewhat shockingly not as a teenager), I only left behind enough reading material to fill about 20 minutes.

Here are my favorite observations:
  • My first diary entries contain the following dates in this order: January 14, 1989 [the day I broke my arm]; February 27, 1989 [the day the doctor removed my cast]; January 31, 1989 [the day I went to the Children's Museum, apparently with a broken arm]; September 7, 1987 [the day my sister Ashley was born]. This might explain why today as an adult my to-do lists always include items I have just completed, just so I can chronicle my progress.
  • I kept track of every snow day and every day I stayed home sick from school from grades 1 through 6.
  • I vowed to never forget the wonder that was the March 23, 1989 Belvedere Elementary School International Day. I have no idea what this was. Apparently my class was Sweden.
  • I wrote about the first time my little sister successfully used the bathroom by herself (for the record, that day was May 11, 1989).
  • May 30, 1989's entire entry: "Today I found out that this year is the worst year of my life." Little did I know...
  • November 26, 1989: "And for when I grow up these are my friends..." Shout out to Amber for being the only person on the list who is still my friend. I'm not even Facebook friends with the others. Man, gosh!
  • November 27, 1989: "Here is a poem by me: 'Children playing soccer/A group of girls talking/and wind blowing their hair out./ The laughter of the children is so happy.' This may help me when I am older." Yes, it will help me share a ridiculous entry on my blog.
  • I definitely wrote several entries about organizing my room/my parents' house at the ages of 8 and 9. Awesome.
  • Apparently I did not eat dinner on April 15, 1990, and as a child I could not appreciate the tax-day irony of that fact. I wrote, "These are tough times! Boy, are they!"
  • The summer of 1990 I spent a few days at Ocean City. Here are my thoughts from that entry: "When we got [to the beach] this thing started with Saddam Huessin [sic]. See, he will no longer give us gas. We think there will be war. We are sending turps (millitary) [sic] there to Iraq. And besides that there might be an earthquake east of the Mississippi River on December 4." So worldly, so wise, so bad at spelling.
  • To bring us full circle to the present, I extensively chronicled the 1992 winter Olympics. If you need stats, check my diary.
Dig through your basement, dust off your diary, and then, in the spirit of Get Mortified, share it with someone else. And then buy your tickets to the next Get Mortified show near you!