Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tip 11: Google calendar

I used to be a big proponent of the day planner or the hand-written calendar. I like tangible items, checklists, items to cross off. That is, I used to be, until I discovered...

Tip 11: Sign up for Google calendar

Most people I know already use Gmail as their primary personal e-mail program, so adding on the perks of Google calendar is a small endeavor with a lot of perks. Here's why I love it:
  • Calendar views: You can see your day's agenda, one week, or one month.
  • Calendar sharing options: This is probably the best aspect of this program. You can choose which users have access to your calendar and vice versa. So, Matt and I share calendars. All of his items are in blue and mine are in pink (cute, I know). When we want to make plans, it's great to see both his agenda and mine simultaneously. There are some communal calendars to choose from as well, such as one that gives you all US holidays.
  • Scheduling events: You can create one-time events, but you can also create recurring events. So, our dogs get their monthly medicine each month on the 15th, so I set that up as a recurring event, or at work I have meetings that happen once a month, and I can schedule them accordingly. I love the "set it and forget it" concept.
  • Importing events: The Google calendar program allows you to take invitations, such as Evites, and automatically plugs the event information into your calendar.
  • Event reminders: Much like the Outlook calendar, the Google calendar sends you an alert when an event is about to take place.

Like all things organization, the trick to using Google calendar is to put in your upcoming events as soon as you find out about them. Thankfully, Matt is good about this as well. And, Droids come fully equipped with all Google programs, so it's easy to have my calendar on me at all times. Yes, Google is taking over the world and my life, but I am kind of OK with that.

Next up...organizing all your cords!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tip 10: Mint.com

Big post...now we've hit the double-digit tips! Welcome to technology week!

Last Saturday I posted about Saturday routines. Another Saturday routine I did not share before has to do with checking in on all my finances. For this purpose, lately I've consolidated all my online finances into one site by following...

Tip 10: Use Mint.com to create a budget and track your spending.

When I tell my friends about this Web site, I get looks of skepticism. I know a lot of people are afraid of financial Web sites such as Mint.com, fearing breeches of security and whatnot, but if you already use online banking or online bill pay or view your credit card statements online, then this is same idea and same level of security. And this isn't just my opinion...I researched online newspapers to find out what financial experts had to say about this site. I have a healthy fear of identity theft (and healthy fear of a lot of other things, no doubt), but I feel as confident in Mint.com as I can in any web tool out there. Of course, do some research yourself and see what you dig up.

Why do I love Mint.com? It's got everything a super-organized person could want:
  • Cost: It's free.
  • Time: It takes little time to set up, and the payoff is significant. When you sign up, you link to your online accounts, and each time you log in the information from each account is automatically updated within minutes. It's one place to see your checking and savings accounts, credit card transactions, investments, loans, properties and whatever else you might like to add.
  • Put everything in a category: After signing up, a Transactions tab allows you to categorize all your purchases. Mint already knows how to categorize most of the chains out there, so it will, for example, know that your credit card purchase from Gap was for Clothing. But, if you happened to buy that item as a Gift, you can manually change it to that category, too. For local and lesser-known establishments, you have to manually change the Transaction category once, but for every time after that, Mint changes it automatically. So, for example, the first time a charge from my favorite restaurant, Coastal Flats, appeared in Mint, it came up as Uncategorized, but after I labeled it as Restaurant, it has been automatically labeled for me ever since (and there have been quite a few trips to Coastal Flats in the past six months).
  • Budgets: You can create a budget for anything and everything. In my Mint budget, I include fixed costs (mortgage, cable/Internet/cell phone bill, HOA dues, car insurance, gym dues, newspaper subscriptions) as well as more flexible costs (gas and electric bills, clothing, home goods, entertainment, restaurants, gifts, even groceries). After tracking our spending for a few months, I was able to make spending goals for our family that are fairly precise. When you look at the Planning tab on Mint, you see all your budgets. When your budget is colored green, it means you are in the clear; yellow means you are close to meeting the budget; and red means you have exceeded your budget for that month. Budgets can start fresh each month, or you can choose to roll them over into the next month. So, for example, I keep our grocery budget on a month-by-month basis, but I allow the clothing budget to roll over each month (this is good in months where I spend little on clothing, but bad in months like January when technically I won't be allowed to buy clothes again until March thanks to my incredible January spending!).
  • Budget for less-frequent purchases: You can also budget for items you do not buy on a monthly basis. For example, though small, our water bill arrives once every three months. Even though I don't need to put money aside to pay that $80 seasonal bill (we will still be able to eat), I still have it set up in Mint because I like to remember what I need to pay and when. I also create budgets for pet medications which we buy one every few months (always more expensive than it should be), and car maintenance that we have to do a couple times a year.
  • Sign up for e-mail or mobile alerts: When you first sign on to Mint, you get a list of alerts: your credit card bill is due next week, you exceeded your budget for clothing (sigh, again), your checking account is getting low...whatever. If you're the kind of person who might not sign in to Mint regularly, you can also opt to receive such alerts over e-mail or your mobile device. If you opt for it, Mint will also send you an e-mail weekly financial summary that highlights your biggest purchases that week.
  • CHARTS! DIAGRAMS! GRAPHS! You can do all these things with a click of the button. Click on the Trends tab in Mint to see a pie chart showing you how your spending from that month breaks down in every category. You really get a sense of where your money is going. And that's just the start of all the visuals Mint provides....this is both exciting and at times scary.
So, if you want to create a budget, or you don't care about budgets but just want a quick, easy and free way to track your money, give this a try.

Next up...Google calendar.

Saturday fun posts

In literary news this week, you probably heard about how that guy who got famous for writing The Catcher in the Rye died. If you know what I'm talking about, you might enjoy this tribute from The Onion: Bunch of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger.

And, as far as photography is concerned, how cool is this?!: Ghost in the Photo Machine. Looks like a fun project.

More organizational stuff soon...

Friday, January 29, 2010

Tip 9: Canisters

It's the end of the week, you've cooked all your meals, and now you have some leftover ingredients.  What do you do?

Tip 9: Invest in some quality canisters!

Today's post is dedicated to my friend Laura, the one who inspired me to fill my house with canisters, and who decided to go ahead and have her first baby yesterday (way to go, Laura!). After seeing Laura's beautifully organized pantry, I knew what I needed...lots and lots of canisters.

But I bought some and they broke. The problem? Plastic latches. Never again! (Apparently, Crate and Barrel no longer sells them, either.)

These ones below from Linens n' Things look nice on the counter, and they hold our most-often used items: flour, sugar, kosher salt, coffee beans. Now that Linens n' Things is out of business, you can find them at Bed Bath and Beyond.

For inside the pantry, I have loved these Oxo Pop Containers that come in both square and rectangular shapes. They are not the prettiest, but they are super heavy duty and will increase the shelf life of your food. We use these more for bulk items: dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, Goldfish crackers (of course), and more coffee beans. Buy these canisters at Bed Bath and Beyond, too, and don't forget your 20 percent off coupons!
Speaking of coffee, I buy my beans from a coffee company called Crop 2 Cup. The owner buys beans directly from the farmers he knows in Uganda and then sells them to us Americans. The beans are great quality, the price is good, and the shipping is always fast. Plus, you feel slightly more connected to your cup o' joe.

That wraps us up for food week, though I am sure there will be more food-inspired posts in the future!

Next up...technology day 1: Internet finances.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tip 8: Best food magazines

I am not from a family of chefs. There are no recipes passed along from generation to generation, except for maybe Grandma's potato salad recipe. As a young adult, I've struggled with trying to find new items to cook. Enter, food magazines: a cheap source for inspiration, and a way to encourage recipe organization. I recommend you...

Tip 8: Subscribe to several food magazines for at least a year.

As I read my food magazines, I rip out recipes and organize them into my recipe notebook. I know that if I don't do it immediately, it will never get done, and why waste time reading the same magazine twice?

Here are my favorites, in order:

  1. Everyday Food -- I cannot sing its praises enough. This magazine is made for people like me -- people with limited cooking skills, limited time and limited funds. Many recipes are healthy, too. And, the magazine is perfectly organized into segments with recurring features. Here's one of my favorite recipes: chocolate pecan pie bars.
  2. Cooking Light -- As the name implies, all recipes are geared toward healthy living. Recipes are more complicated than Everyday Food recipes because they usually require more time and ingredients, but it's a useful resource for helping you get out of your routines and become a more advanced cook. Here's a good weekday dinner: chicken souvlaki.
  3. Martha Stewart Living -- This magazine is my overall favorite magazine, but it only ranks third in my list because many recipes are just more advanced versions of what I find in Everyday Food. But, I have to highly recommend this chicken enchiladas verdes recipe.
  4. Wegmans' Menu magazine -- Here you'll find the ingredients list and step-by-step instructions for repeating many of the items you'll find in the prepared foods section. I look at this magazine because I get it for free in the mail. One observation: you can get the same information by asking the people who work in the prepared foods section of Wegmans or any other grocery store to give you an ingredients list for the foods you like. We did this at Wegmans for our favorite Greek pasta salad (which also happens to have its full ingredients list online!).
If you can only afford or only have time for one food magazine, stick with Everyday Food. It's by far the most practical. And, if you have the time to browse online, you'll find almost all the same recipes. I just like reading magazines!

Next up....canisters.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tip 7: Organizing your recipes

Maybe you're one of those people who can whip up a recipe out of thin air. A little of this, a little of that, presto! I, on the other hand, cannot, and I have found this effective means of organizing my recipes...

Tip 7: Make your own recipe notebook.

Here's what you need:


Next, you need an organizational system that makes sense for you. My notebook sections are:

  • Drinks
  • Appetizers
  • Soup and salad
  • Sauces and dressings
  • Side dishes
  • Main dishes
  • Pasta
  • Desserts
  • Breakfast
  • Cooking class (for recipes collected at cooking classes...I've taken them at Sur la Table and L'Academie de Cuisine and 2941)
  • Take-out menus

To maximize space and minimize cost, don't forget to put at least two recipes in each sheet protector.

Finally, you have to stay on top of your recipes. Anytime I see anything I like in a magazine or online, or I get a recipe from a friend, I file it away in a little plastic sheet inside my binder. This organizational system works well also when you're trying to plan a weekly dinner menu or you're bringing food to a potluck. Need a dessert? No problem, check the Dessert section!

Next up....food magazine recommendations.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tip 6: Grocery lists and pantry items

First of all, a follow up on yesterday: the French onion soup was a major success! I am so pleased because we tried a different recipe about a year ago and it totally flopped. So, if you have about an hour to make a soup, this is the way to go. It's not an hour of actual labor. The most difficult task is caramelizing the onions, and that just requires some occasional stirring. Thankfully, the recipe calls for few ingredients, some of which I already had on hand because I've learned to follow...

Tip 6: Keep a pantry stocked with staples from several food genres.

We make a decent amount of Asian food, a decent amount of pasta and homemade pizza, and we sometimes make a dessert. So, I've learned to keep the following items on hand so that when I actually make the grocery list, it usually just involves fruits, vegetables, dairy and proteins.

Basic supplies:
  • oils: olive, canola
  • vinegars: balsamic, white wine, red wine, apple cider, white
  • flour
  • sugars: regular, brown, confectioner's
  • salt: table, kosher
  • peppercorns
  • spices: allspice, ancho chile, basil, bay leaves, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, ground coriander seed, crushed red pepper, cumin, curry powder, dill, garlic powder, garlic salt, ground ginger, nutmeg. oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, turmeric
  • vanilla
  • yeast
  • honey
  • Texas Pete (a staple in our house, at least)

Baking items:
  • light corn syrup
  • cocoa powder
  • espresso powder
  • baking powder
  • corn starch
  • semisweet chocolate chips

Asian-inspired items:
  • soy sauce
  • rice vinegar
  • Sriracha hot chili sauce
  • fish sauce
  • sesame oil
  • Asian noodles

Other dry or canned goods:
  • a couple types of pasta
  • crushed tomatoes
  • rice: brown and jasmine
  • beans: black, pinto, kidney

In our freezer you'll often find:
  • ginger (this is how you make your ginger last for a long time)
  • bread (for turning into bread crumbs)
  • shrimp
  • chicken
  • fruit (for smoothies)

And we try to always have these items in our fridge:
  • milk
  • eggs
  • unsalted butter
  • lemons/limes
  • dijon mustard
  • pizza sauce
  • cream cheese
  • maple syrup
  • red onion
  • bell peppers (they last so long!)
 By knowing what we have in our freezer, fridge and pantry, we minimize our grocery list.

Speaking of grocery lists....my shopping experiences have been revolutionized since purchasing a Droid phone. I downloaded the free application called OurGroceries (also available for iPhone and iTouch) and now I can make a list and buy all the items on the list in record time. Here are the great things about this program:
  1. You cross off items as you go, and they get sent to the bottom of your screen. There's maybe nothing more satisfying than electronically crossing something off.
  2. You can change the quantities of each items you need. So, type apples, and then increased the number needed to six, and a little 6 appears next to apples.
  3. You can share it with another phone. So, Matt and I walk around the grocery store and we can both look at the same list AND check off items simultaneously. I was about to get some apples, but looks like Matt just got them. How do you like them apples?
  4. It saves your data, so next week when you need to type up a new list and you type A, it brings up all the items you've bought that start with A (and yes, I am type A).
  5. You can have multiple lists going at once. So, I'll make my standard Wegmans grocery list, and I'll have a separate one running for Costco or Target or Bed Bath and Beyond....whatever! I even made a "Wish List" of more expensive items I'd like to eventually purchase, and of course Matt has access to that one...hint, hint.

Now I'm inspired to make next week technology week!

But for now....food week!

Next up....organizing your recipes.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Tip 5: Dinner menus

This week I'm inspired to write about food. Last week was such a busy week at work that food mostly consisted of take out and leftovers. But this week is all about food. So, while I sit here drinking my sparkling wine (because it's Monday and that's what you do) and waiting for my onions to caramelize, let's get to...

Tip 5: Make a weekly dinner menu for four to five nights of meals

Why four to five, you ask? Because one or two nights you'll inevitably eat leftovers, and you likely have plans with friends or plans for some awesome cheap eats at least one or two other nights.

I'm a creature of habit when it comes to breakfasts, lunches and snacks. But I need different dinner choices each week. Before I started making a weekly menu, I found every evening a little stressful. How would I make a decision on the spot with so many choices, so few ingredients and so little direction? Now, my menu is my guide. Matt and I make the menu on Monday because that's grocery day. I hate going to Wegmans -- a.k.a. "my grocery store" that everyone else infiltrates -- on the weekends. Monday the shelves are fully stocked, the people are away, and I maximize efficiency. More on grocery lists later.

In case you're wondering what's on the menu for this week, here we go:

These are in no particular order, except for tonight's soup, which we decided to make now because we bought bread tonight too, and Matt is a bit of a fresh-bread snob.

We got all the ingredients for this week's dinners, snacks, lunches and breakfasts into three grocery bags. We spent $81.

Next up...making your grocery lists and stocking your pantry.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tip 4: Coupon organization

My Sunday morning ritual, likely held by countless others, involves clipping coupons from the newspaper circulars. Until about a year ago, I would clip, but then never actually use the coupons, until I discovered to...

Tip 4: Use a coupon file

I found my little wonder-worker at Target. I can't seem to find it anymore online, but this one from The Container Store is a similar idea (and it's an awesome store!).

Keep your file with you whenever you go to a store (I just always have mine in my purse), and remember to include coupons you get in the mail along with online coupons. The trick to staying organized is to immediately put any coupons you receive into your file. Don't forget to purge your file at least every month or two.




Find a system that works for you. Here's how I've organized mine:
  • Wegmans -- for the grocery store I love and their occasional coupons I get in the mail
  • Personal care -- for toiletries, make-up, medicine, first-aid
  • House care -- for cleaning products, batteries, Ziploc items
  • Grocery -- for any food items
  • Stores -- for shops that frequently send me coupons, such as World Market, Ulta, Hallmark, CVS, Michaels
  • Clothes -- for any clothing store, particularly Ann Taylor Loft and their bazillion coupons, or those receipts from stores like Banana Republic where you complete an online survey to get 20% off your next purchase
  • Restaurants -- these mostly tend to be from take-out places, such as Baja Fresh, or the occasional coffee shop, such as Caribou
  • Car -- for all those oil change and inspection coupons from Mr. Tire
  • Dogs -- for food and treats
 As a bonus, my file has a front pocket where I store gift cards and discount program cards, and it contains a zipper pouch where I file receipts I may need later (as a teacher, I keep all receipts from my personal classroom purchases).

Next up...planning a weekly dinner menu!

Bonus post: Dog washing

I received my first reader request for a post about dog washing, since that was on Saturday's agenda. Here's what I can say about washing your (large) dogs inside during the winter:

1) It is not the preferable method. I highly recommend the ole hose-them-off-in-the-driveway method, but that's only effective between about April and October.

2) Wait until your bathroom is in need of a cleaning. There is no point in starting with a clean bathroom, because no matter what you do, you are going to get a little messy.

3) Don't bathe your dog too often. My Puppies for Dummies book recommends bathing Fido no more than once a month, if even. We're on more of a once-every-six-weeks routine with Max and Doc. Of course, our boys aren't rolling around in the mud, and if we've taken them to the beach they will get a bath sooner, but dogs don't produce oil like humans do, and too-frequent bathing leads to dry skin. 

4) Have all your supplies on hand before you begin: dog treats, large cup, two towels per dog, dog shampoo (this one is our favorite, made by AvoDerm, the same people who make our dog food).

5) Use a shower stall, if you have one. The dogs cannot shake all over the place and get out before you're done with them.

6) Lure them into the shower stall with treats.

7) While the water is running over the dog, speed up the process by filling up that large cup and soaking Fido. The same applies after you've lathered up Fido -- keep filling that cup to rinse him and therefore speed up the process.

7) Now comes the difficult part: drying. This is where it's best to have a buddy to help you out. Because I'm the one in the shower with the dogs, I ask Matt to hand me the towels. Then I dance around to get the dogs to shake out, and they oblige. Finally, I spend a few minutes drying each dog. Then, Matt grabs the dogs and ushers them downstairs to the deck, where they sit outside for a few minutes while Matt dries them off more (we don't want to be too mean in the dead of winter).

8) After the dogs are completely dry (one to two hours later) furminate! This is an ideal time because they are shedding a little bit more post-shower.

This process takes only about 10 minutes per dog, which isn't too bad. I like to wash them on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m. because then I can listen to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on my shower radio.

And, get ready to clean your bathroom!

Next up...Sunday coupons!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tip 3: The 5-45 rule

During the week I get home from work and have very little energy left for household chores. This week especially I was working 10 or 11 hour days (and still bringing some work home), so I had little energy for anything at home besides eating, cuddling with Matt and the dogs, and maybe reading a magazine. But, on a Saturday morning, I am suddenly energized. This leads me to...

Tip 3: Follow the 5-45 rule

Spend five minutes every day doing a little straightening, a little organizing, a little cleaning. Then, find that one time in the week where you have the motivation to spend 45 minutes on the same types of tasks.

During the week my five minutes mostly go toward putting away my lunch bag, school materials, and clothes, and cleaning up from dinner.

But Saturday morning is a whole different story. I turn into an organizing, cleaning and straightening machine. This morning for my 45 minutes I:
  • emptied trash cans
  • cleaned some lingering dishes from last night
  • ran the dishwasher...or, Matt did
  • wiped down the kitchen counters and the stove top
  • watered the house plants (one time per week in the winter has been enough for my little troopers)
  • microwaved the kitchen sponge (apparently this is a thing you should do that I am only now finding out about...kills bacteria!)
  • cut up the button-down shirt Matt ripped a hole through Tuesday morning into pieces to serve as rags, and saved the buttons for a yet-to-be-determined button project -- perhaps sewing them onto a decorative pillow?
  • discussed the weekend game plan with Matt
  • responded to lingering e-mails
Here's the side story about Matt's shirt: It was not a great loss, seeing as we bought that shirt at Old Navy soon after college graduation nearly seven years ago. But, the more important note here is that after arriving home from work Tuesday evening Matt said to me, "If you're wondering, that shirt is sitting out for you because I ripped a hole through it, and I thought you might like to cut it up into rags." He knows me so well.

Next up....bonus post: bathing the dogs!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Tip 2: Dealing with doggies

My husband Matt and I live in a townhouse with plenty of bathrooms, bedrooms, and dogs -- 4 bathrooms, 3 bedrooms, and 2 dogs, to be precise. In total between Maxwell and Doc, our Lab mixes, there is approximately 170 pounds of dog here, and therefore a lot of dog hair. Matt and I are neat freaks. Max and Doc, not so much.

After realizing that dog hair was getting me down, I made my third and final New Year's Resolution:

Tip 2: Furminate (daily!)

This little invention is an investment at first, but with frequent use it pays off. In fact, after my first two weeks of daily furmination, Matt, our resident vacuum-cleaner-operator, discovered that we reduced the pet hair in our house by at least one-third based on how many times he had to empty our vacuum cleaner -- two times in a house-vacuuming session instead of the usual three! I am sold.

At first, you'll need to spend about 10 minutes per animal per day, and I say animal because they make one for cats, too. Then you can spend just a couple minutes per animal per day to maintain what you started.

Of course, my dogs would rather eat the Furminator.

Next up...weekend routines!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tip 1: Flossing

My first New Year's resolution was to start a blog. Done. My second was to floss every day, mostly to stop lying to the dentist (I am the world's worst liar). So far, so good. Here's my trick:

Tip 1: Floss in the shower

While your hair is getting wet or you're waiting for the water to heat up, take those two minutes to floss.

Like all things organization related, once you make it part of your routine, after two weeks it starts to stick.

By the way, my shower caddy contains some of my favorite things, starting with the caddy itself.
Caddy: from Bed Bath and Beyond
Shower radio: from Amazon (made by Sony)
Curly hair conditioner: from Graham Webb (also available at Ulta)
Curly hair deep conditioner: Ouidad Deep Treatment Conditioner
*This last item is a splurge, but it's worth it for that once-a-week repair.

Next up...resolution #3!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Launch party in my slippers

In late December I told myself I wanted to start a blog. Then I told my husband and my closest friends. Fifty-seven discarded names later, here I am.

My philosophy of life is that organized people save time, money and maybe even the environment (more on that in future posts!). My goals always involve finding ways to be healthier and happier, and being organized helps me achieve both goals. I believe in routines, plans and being resourceful.

My philosophy of blogging is to be specific and keep it brief. I am a highly practical person and a journalism teacher who loves the inverted pyramid. So, be on the lookout for short-and-simple daily posts where you can read the first few lines to get the gist, or continue reading for some more fun.

Thanks for joining me!