Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Dreaded Basement

I have to admit that I've put off writing this piece for a while. Basements are tough areas to keep organized and clean, mostly because they tend to be used as a storage facility for your family's randoms. But, I must say that generally speaking, basements have amazing potential to become useful in a variety of ways.

One reason I've been putting off writing about basements is because there is so much variance from one basement to the next, which makes it tricky for me to write something concise that everyone can benefit from. Everything I say here will greatly depend on the configurations of your basement and really, how much stuff you have in it, what you use your basement for and whether or not you have kids. So, knowing that, read on...

As with everything, I like to start by taking a general inventory. What is in your basement? Go through everything you have down there. Figure out what is vital to your existence and what can move on to another family or the landfill. Once you have made your final selection, do a very, very, very, very deep clean. Basements are usually stinky and often left unclean on a regular basis.

Unless your basement is the size of a small shoe box and you literally only use it for storage, I would advise you to create zones for your basement. These zones are to help you to identify the purposes of the basement. Do you use your basement just as a super large storage room? Is your basement a part of your living space? Do your kids use this space as a play room? Is your basement finished or unfinished? Is your basement a "man cave"? Do you keep your sewing and scrapbooking and other hobby projects in the basement? Is your basement your tool room? Does your basement have actual finished rooms or is it one open space? Can you entertain in your basement? Those are some questions I came up with off the top of my head that may help you to identify various zones for the space. If you've got a lot going on in your basement creating zones will help unify the space as a whole while giving each area its own function.

Before I move on, I must caution you to consider if it is possible at any given time for your basement to either flood or get damp floors. Knowing and preparing for this can be a lifesaver if you ever have to deal with water in your basement. That said, consider shelving that is off the floor or plastic storage bins if you must store things on the floor.

This space is like any other in your home. When you create your zones think about how you can best organize each individual zone. Most zones have different capabilities and needs. Consider using plastic storage bins (from super teeny to huge gigantic tubs), cubbies, any variety of shelving, baskets, a set of drawers of any kind, file cabinets, cardboard boxes, buckets or specialized organizational paraphernalia for things like tools, scrapbooking or housing a hobby collection. Place your items nicely on a shelf, on the ground, on a table or wherever works for you in your zone. Make everything look nice, write a descriptive label and move on.

The vital part to this overhaul is following through. After you use something from your zone make sure to put it back where it goes! This sounds so incredibly trivial but I think this is the most common misstep of anyone and everyone. You need to follow through. You worked so hard to clean out your basement and create an organizational system that works for you and looks nice, so why would you not follow through by putting things away? Reward yourself if after one, two, six, twelve months goes by and you still have a wonderfully organized basement. That is something to celebrate - especially if you have a basement like some I have seen.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bills in a Box by Jean Chatzky

This article was from "'Make Money, Not Excuses': Bills in a Box" by Jean Chatzky on Chatzky gives you a very in-depth look at her organizational system for bills - what you should keep, what you should toss, how you should store it and how long you need to save important files for.

You probably think you have no idea how to sort and organize your finances. But in fact, you have a very good model. You know how to clean a closet. And you are going to use the very same skills to get your financial paperwork in tip-top shape.

In this exercise, a file box with a carry-handle becomes your closet. If you don't have one, you can pick one up at any office supply store and many drugstores. If you'd prefer not to spend the money, that's okay. You can use a filing cabinet or a drawer that can accept hanging folders. My preference is for the box, though, because it's portable. If you want to pay bills on your wireless laptop while sitting outside on your back porch, you can tote the box with you. If you need to visit your accountant, you can take it along so that you'll be able to answer any of his or her questions. Once you have the box, here's what you need to do.

Get the Right Stuff
When you clean your closet, you need to have the right hangers for pants, sweaters, suits, and so forth. When you organize your finances, you need office supplies.

* Hanging folders (Note: If you are married, get hanging folders in three different colors so that you can see quickly what's yours, what's mine, and what's ours.)
* Sharpie markers (if you have neat handwriting) or a label maker (if you don't)
* Manila folders
* Stamps and envelopes (so you're not always wasting time scrounging for postal supplies)
* Post-it notes
* Letter opener (to avoid paper cuts)
* Stapler
* Calculator
* Pens and pencils

Put the Box to Use
Before you start filing, neatly label your hanging folders. My suggested categories are: Taxes, Insurance, Health Care, Banking, Retirement/Brokerage (retirement accounts are many people's brokerage accounts), Credit Cards, Home, Auto, Legal, Estate (for a copy of your will, living will, health-care proxy, and other estate-planning documents), To-Do, To-Be-Paid.

You may also want folders labeled: Pets, Kids, Mom and Dad, Benefits, Flexible Spending, Travel.

Next, label manila file folders to put into each of the hanging folders. Suppose you have three credit cards—MasterCard, Discover Card, and Banana Republic. You'll want a manila folder for each of them labeled with the year: MasterCard 2006, Discover Card 2006, Banana Republic 2006. When the year turns to 2007, you will make new manila folders labeled "MasterCard 2007," "Discover Card 2007," and so on. Once you pay your taxes and close your personal books on 2006, you can take all the 2006 folders out of your box and move them to a file drawer in which you have hanging folders set up in a similar way. That way your bills-in-a-box filing system remains portable, and you will be able to put your fingers on any important piece of paper at any particular point in time.

You'll eventually get good at figuring out what category needs its own folder. Give yourself leeway to create the folders you think you will need.

And that's it. Now you're set to start organizing using the Four Ds.

The Four Ds #1: Dump
Here are the steps you need to take. I call them the Four Ds. And remember, this is merely a big closet you're cleaning. It just happens to be a closet full of paper.

If you clean a closet as I do, the first thing you do after you buy hangers is pull everything off the racks and toss it onto your bed or the floor. Do the same with your bills and paperwork. If it's all sitting in a pile on your kitchen table, then move it to an area that can be messy for a little while. This can take anywhere from several hours to several days, depending on how much stuff you have to plow through and how much time you have to devote to the process. One thing is certain: You don't want to have to move your workstation halfway through.

Next, go through the other repositories for your bills and paperwork and add those to the pile. Your briefcases, tote bags, desktop, pocketbooks—every one of them should be given the once-over.

The Four Ds #2: Distribute
When cleaning the aforementioned closet, you separate your clothing into piles—things you want to keep, things you want to toss, and things you're not quite sure of. With paperwork, you do the same.

Take the statements or bills out of their envelopes. Open them to full size (unfolded they take up less room). Staple the pages of each month's statement together so they don't get lost.

If you find a bill that needs to be paid, write a check on the spot, put it in an envelope and stamp it so you don't have to deal with it again. Then immediately record the transaction in your checkbook register. Don't let the fact that you're spending time getting organized result in late fees on your credit card bills.

Then put the paperwork into the proper folders, oldest bills first, so that when you open a folder the newest statement is right on top.

The Four Ds #3: Diminish
In 2004, the American Journal of Psychiatry published results of a study that said chronic hoarders—people who seem to save things with more passion than the rest of us—have decreased activity in the parts of the brain used for decision making and problem solving. In other words, there may be a clinical reason why you can't decide what to keep and what to get rid of. That's why you need rules. With clothing, the rule is: If you haven't worn something for two years, it goes. With bills and paperwork, the rules vary depending on what you're looking at. ATM receipts need to be kept only until you receive that month's bank statement and verify that the numbers are correct. Tax returns have to be kept for years and years.

Here's a list to keep you straight. Make a copy of it, then tape the list to the inside top of your file box.

Keep as long as you have the underlying asset (such as a house or a car):

* Insurance policies
* Receipts for important purchases like technology, art, antiques, rugs, jewelry (or anything else you may need a rider on your insurance policy to cover)
* Receipts for renovations or other investments made in the property
* Titles
* Warranty papers

Keep forever in a safe or safe-deposit box; and keep a second copy, if possible, in your attorney's office or another safe location off-premises:

* Adoption papers
* Appraisals
* Birth certificates
* Citizenship papers
* Custody agreements
* Deeds
* Divorce papers
* Financial aid documents
* List of credit card numbers, bank and brokerage statements, and insurance policies, and toll-free contact information
* List of important contacts (lawyer, accountant, doctor, children, parents, etc.)
* Military records
* Powers of attorney (medical and financial)
* Stock certificates
* Wills/Living wills


* Credit card solicitations
* Marketing material included in bank and credit card statements

Throw out after ONE MONTH or when you reconcile with a bill or bank statement:

* ATM receipts
* Prospectuses and other information about investments you are considering making (if you're not going to read them, toss immediately)
* Receipts for purchases (assuming you're keeping them or there's no warranty)

Throw out AFTER ONE YEAR or when end-of-year consolidated statements come in and you have filed the taxes for that year:

* Bank statements
* Brokerage statements
* Cell phone, cable, telephone, and Internet statements (except when deducting for work-related expenses)
* Credit card bills
* Pay stubs
* Social Security statements
* Utility bills

Throw out AFTER SEVEN YEARS (when no longer needed for tax purposes):

* Child-care records
* Flexible spending account documentation
* 401(k) and other retirement-plan year-end statements
* IRA contributions
* Purchase records for investments
* Records of charitable donations
* Records on houses you've sold
* Tax returns and backup documentation

What should you do with the stuff you toss? Shred it! A crosscut shredder for at-home use can burn through five sheets of paper at a time. Heavy-duty machines can even cut through old credit cards. You can buy a decent machine for about $100 to $150. And if there's not too much paper to go through, you can tear it up yourself!

The Four Ds #4: Due Diligence
Now that you have a "system," all that's left to do is maintain it. For that, you need three kinds of upkeep.

1. Daily Upkeep
What is the quickest way to turn a neat closet into a messy one? Toss today's dirty clothes on the floor. Every day, when the mail comes in, open up your file box, and open the bills one by one. Write checks (by hand or electronically), deduct the amount of each check from your check register (or electronically—watch as the bank does it for you), stamp the envelope, and put it directly in the mailbox to go out the next day or on the counter with your keys so you'll remember to take it with you the next time you leave the house. Do not procrastinate and say you'll pay bills later, after you've had dinner, after you've had a glass of wine. Start this task and finish it in one swift motion.

And what's Plan B for the night that just doesn't work? The baby is crying, the dog poops on the floor, dinner…oh, heck, you can't even think about dinner. You'll be lucky if you can grab a bowl of Raisin Bran in time for the Friends rerun at 11. In that case, put all the bills that need to be filed in the same place—in your "To-Be-Paid" folder. Whatever you do, don't start separating them into separate folders. Don't put the insurance bill in the "Insurance" folder, the credit card bill in the "Credit cards" folder. You'll never see those bills again, and you'll get hit by late fees. Give yourself a break and deal with your bills as soon as you can, preferably tomorrow.

2. Intermittent Upkeep
Every time you open a new account, take out a new insurance policy, or do something else that requires record keeping, immediately make a new folder. Print a label, and figure out where the folder goes. The first thing that goes into the new folder is the contract you signed, so that if you ever need to refer to it, you know precisely where it is.

3. Annual Upkeep
Every year, after you've filed your taxes, remove last year's manila folders from the file box and place them in another set of hanging files in a filing cabinet or drawer. It is important to arrange both sets of files in the same way so that you'll know precisely where to find any document. You will even be able to tell another person where to find a particular document if needed.

Women spend an average of 55 minutes every day searching for stuff, including 8.2 minutes looking for a receipt. Now that you're organized, wouldn't you like to turn that extra hour into extra cash?

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Containers, Containers, Containers

If you're starting a huge organization overhaul of your house for this years' spring cleaning mission and notice that you need more storage containers, read on! There are countless different forms of containers that you can use for home, car or office storage. I'm certain that I don't even know of all of the storage containers sold in stores these days. I have a select group of favorite types of containers that I use frequently throughout my home and home office. I took a lot of pictures of containers that I use throughout my house to hopefully give you an idea of how to be more creative.

My utmost favorite container is a clear plastic storage box, shown below. Sorry to choose brands, but I really, really like Sterilite storage containers. I use the 4 quart storage box for storing random things (crafty stuff, markers, thank you cards, office supplies) under my bed. It's great (check out the picture) - it is ultra convenient and all of that stuff is contained and hidden nicely under my bed. I label each box and know exactly what I'm going to find when I open it. Other than the 4 quart storage box, I use the drawer system and many other sizes of storage boxes. They really can store anything.

Some containers that I have become a big fan of recently are bowls or coffee mugs (countless storage capabilities - paperclips, buttons, rubber bands, lip balms, sewing tools, loose screws...), gift boxes (use the largest one to store all of the smaller gift boxes that you accumulate), any type of basket or tote or bucket ( I use a cute nickel bucket to store Post-it notes and another one for greeting cards), shoe boxes (endless possibilities here - I store some small tools in one in our linen closet), old jam jars or other glass jars, cardboard boxes and deli counter containers/other reusable storage containers. Just be creative! Look around your house - I'm sure you can come up with some type of container that can benefit you and your family. Get your kids involved too. I'm sure they'd love to paint a shoe box or create a label for a storage container or proudly display their new marble and rock collection in a parent approved jar.

Specifically for your office, depending on the type of office you have, I think that drawer organizers are exceptionally fantastic, as well as small cups or bowls on your desk to store odds and ends or loose change in, not to mention filing cabinets and file trays to keep your papers organized and off of your desk, as well as a dedicated container for your emergency kit or personal materials - assign a drawer and place your items in a basket or a toiletry tote.

Above are some photos from around my home. We'll start with my Sterilite drawer set in my den- the top drawer is the "junk drawer" where the tape, batteries, envelopes, super glue, etc. belongs. Middle drawer houses the cords and wires - each cord is wound up and secured with a zip tie. This sounds a bit anal, but trust me, if all of those cords were in there without being individualized I would never get to the one I want. The bottom drawer (not pictured) is just extra paper, notebooks and folders. Next stop is the linen closet where we store some basics plus the extra household items. In the linen closet I use a 4 quart container to store medicines and first aid supplies, a perfume box to store my nail polish, a bucket to hold cleaning supplies, and a wire basket to keep my sunscreen in. Lastly is a view of my bathroom cabinet under my sink. My favorite part of that space is the platform that is on the right side. I have a bucket where I store hair products and a sectioned container that stores hair accessories, then back in the left corner is a small basket with perfumes in it. I can't imagine what the space would look like without containers!

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Get Motivated!

The hardest part of getting organized, especially if you have a long ways to go, is becoming motivated to get started. I completely understand why people procrastinate and keep putting off their organizational overhaul. Sometimes the best motivation is reaching out to family and friends and asking them if they can help you get started so you don't feel so overwhelmed. Even positive encouragement from friends can make all the difference in the world. Get your kids and spouse involved and delegate responsibilities to them and any other helpful helpers you are lucky to have.

If there is something that I am dreading doing, this can be anything, I like to create a list of what needs to be accomplished. This helps me see an outline of what I have to do, then I can make notes about when I will get it done and what needs to be done first. A list like this can be anything from organizing the junk drawer to a complete home organization kick. I like to plan ahead for these kinds of things so I have at least a day or two to get in the right frame of mind about what I am about to conquer. Consider even putting this on your calendar. I marked March 20th for my spring cleaning start date.

If you can afford to, think about going to an organizational store and purchasing some fun new storage containers, file storage items, or a new set of shelves to give you a fresh new look in the space you are organizing. If that is not in your budget consider moving some things in your house around (or look at my post about free & inexpensive organization). Look at your various storage units and shelves and see what you can switch around to create a new change. Or, if you have lots of scrap wood or other materials that you can use to construct a storage container - have at it!

Instead of dwelling about how much darn work it's going to be, consider what the new change will be and how that will positively impact your life.

Here's a story that will hopefully provide some inspiration. I have a hoarder in my family. Her home was in such bad shape that it was to be condemned. My family stepped in to go help her clean it out and remove her messy buildup and dangerous clutter. It took seven to ten of us a full day - at least 12 hours - to remove half of the piles. But, the point is that she could have never done that herself in even a week's time, so we had to get over there and help her. Sometime's that's what it takes. If you have a friend or family member like this, he will probably not reach out to you for help. It's likely that this person doesn't even see this as a problem. So, take the initiative and go over there armed with a box of trash bags and a mask and a really good attitude.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Cleaning!

Happy Spring! After the winter most of us have had it is certainly hard to believe that spring has officially arrived. The changing seasons are always a great reminder to me that I need to go through my home and clean everything out. I always take advantage of this time to get rid of the things that I no longer use or need instead of finding a spot for them in my storage areas. Spring cleaning is a very commonly used term in households, but I think that we should all do a better job of doing some seasonal cleaning, not just limiting it to spring cleaning.

My definition of spring cleaning is not just switching out the winter clothes and house wares with the spring clothes and other seasonal items. To me, spring cleaning is all about going through your home and doing a huge deep clean, de-clutter, re-organization; and the minor detail is bringing out your spring clothes and switching out the snow blower for the lawn mower.

I've never been one to accumulate too many senseless things, probably because of the number of times I've moved in my life. I can certainly understand how easy it must be to accumulate 10, 20, 30, even 60 years worth of belongings in a home that you've lived in for your entire life. This spring can be your chance to let go and get rid of some old papers, files, clothes, magazines, decor, tools, antiques and even appliances, and live in a more organized, clutter-free home.

The least stressful way to go about this, if you ask me, is to dissect your home room by room. Start with a fairly orderly room and work towards the worst areas of your home. If you start with the worst of the worst you may give up hope because it is so bad, but be reassured because it will just get easier. Spend much of one day each weekend for as long as it takes you to complete each room and when you're done do something great to reward yourself.

• Use the changing seasons to remind you that it's time to go through your belongings. Donate clothing you haven't worn in six months.

• Make a task list that will help you to outline what you need to accomplish. Prioritize it and even make a timeline. Allot a certain amount of time for each project every weekend.

• Take this time to attack the piles around your house. Go through papers, file them if they need to be saved, or recycle them if they are just collecting dust for no reason.

• Use plastic bins to keep out-of-season materials, such as clothing, decorations or miscellaneous items.

• Transition in-season home and lawn maintenance or other outdoor equipment to a more accessible place in your garage or shed. Move the out-of-season equipment to a safe spot that is out of the way.

• Tackle that bottomless pit in your house, whether it's a storage room, closet, or a corner of the basement. Go through the contents of the area and get rid of what isn't in use. Find a permanent spot for what you really do use.

• Go through your children's toys and belongings. Every last thing. Seriously. Kids grow fast - if it doesn't fit and can't be recycled to a younger sibling, donate it. If the kids' toys are broken, get out the trash can or the tool belt. If you notice toys being pushed further and further back on the shelf, or things they haven't touched in six months, donate them to charity.

• Throw a garage sale! Who doesn't need to make a few extra bucks in these tough times? That can be your incentive to get rid of more stuff.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Story

I like to believe that my organizational habits came from my genetics, but maybe it was just the environment I was raised in. Both of my parents are pretty organized, but not to the extent I am. I think that I combine both of their organizational strengths into one well-rounded organized individual. This blurb is hopefully to inspire you even if you didn't come from an organized home or if the organized gene skipped a generation. Don't worry, there is a point to this story. :)

The first thing I remember about my organizational habits was my "schedule" that my childhood nanny created for me when I started kindergarten. The schedule was in the form of thick cardstock with a picture and explanation of what was to happen on school days and it hung from the wall right next to my bed. I remember being mesmerized by this schedule - probably more so the pictures than anything - but I followed it and looked to it for direction when getting ready for the day.

Ok this one is totally crazy, I realize, but it's true: when I was younger my family would create chore charts, especially for the summer, and I think there was a schedule built into the chore chart, too, but I actually looked forward to doing my chores and I got really excited about the whole concept of creating a chart with my list of chores to do. Of course there were stickers involved, which probably added to the excitement.

As I got older what I looked forward to was creating my schedule for getting my homework done, working ahead on projects for school, planning out my outfits and being the social planner among my friends. When I was in grade school I never ever missed an assignment in school, nor did I turn one in late. I also noticed that in high school and certainly college when I started getting busier and busier that I was able to do better in school and that I enjoyed my time more. I think this is because I had to really balance out my schedule and fit things in and really plan ahead and maintain complete organization. That did wonders for me, apparently, especially in college. The busier I was the better my grades were (what's the psychology behind that??).

Now as an adult I in a sense have less on my plate (I realize that will change when I have kids in 873 years!) so I take this time of peace to write my blog and hopefully inspire you to become more organized.

I have a friend from college who was an overly involved student who was juggling an insane amount of classes, jobs, a fraternity and a few very time consuming student clubs/organizations and was not very organized to say the least. I'm glad he took the initiative to become more organized because he told me that over the course of a spring break one semester he read a book that was designed to help people become more organized and it was a revelation for him. Ever since then he was just about as organized as I am - it's as though the skills were there, just locked up in the back of his brain and this book held the key to open that door. I'm telling you this because even if you didn't grow up fanaticizing about making a chore chart or scheduling homework time it is still completely possible for you to become an organized individual. I know this is kind of an extreme case, but hopefully you can be inspired by him to make some changes to your life and lead a more organized life.

Again, I am just trying to promote change in your mindset to make you more aware of the possibilities and what you can do. Happy organizing!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Free and Inexpensive Organization Ideas

Free Organization Ideas
• Cardboard boxes from local stores
• on the "free stuff" section
• Swap tricks and tools with friends
• Used (and washed!) food containers or the plastic containers at the deli (just ask!)
Very, Very Inexpensive Ideas
• and other similar websites (don't forget e-bay and Amazon)
• Garage sale/estate sale
• Flea market
• Check out stores that have filed for bankruptcy and are liquidating their inventory

If I had to choose my favorite free organizational idea it would definitely be cardboard boxes. They are super easy to track down - just go to pretty much any store and ask if they have a few cardboard boxes left over. I particularly like liquor store boxes because they tend to be pretty tough and sturdy. As long as you are using these boxes to help you become more organized and not just as a hiding spot for your junk this will be great. Cardboard boxes are especially great because you can stack them really easily and get them out of sight onto a shelf or in a closet and you can write on the outside exactly what the contents are. Not to mention they're free and reusable!

My idea with sending you to the free stuff section of Craigslist is that you can find bookshelves, filing cabinets and other organizational tools there (not to mention other amazing things). If you can't find anything you're interested in consider putting a posting up listing what you are looking to find. There are other websites out there that are similar to Craigslist, some more local or regional, that allow you to give things away for free or a low cost and also are designed for item or service swapping. By the way, I love the concept of service swapping. I'm always willing to go help someone organize a room or their house in exchange for something else, like a haircut, handyman service or photography and framing services.

One of my best friends and I are known to swap clothing and jewelry and other little things that we just don't use anymore. I've heard of a lot of people doing this with house wares and even furniture. My thought is that if you have a friend or relative who has some cool baskets or buckets or whatnot, consider doing a trade or a swap. If you have cool stuff to give - even if it's not organizationally related - think about switching things up a bit and giving yourself a change. Even if you have nothing in exchange it can't hurt to ask a friend if she has anything that you could use to help you become better organized.

There are certainly many more inexpensive ideas than free ideas on where to find organizational materials, but it's much more fun to find things for free. Seek out a garage sale or an estate sale for a great deal - the family really just wants to get rid of things so I bet they will be willing to bargain with you. Aside from that, the number of businesses filing for bankruptcy is on the rise. This means that the businesses with large inventories are liquidating their products. Again, they just want to get rid of their stock - they may not be as willing to make a deal with you, but you can find some good stuff to keep you more organized. Check online for a list of recent retailers that filed chapter 11.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Organizing Through Your Cell Phone

Though I have a PDA, I'm apparently old fashioned because I just use my cell phone primarily for phone conversations and text messaging. I am amazed at the capacity and capability of some of these ultra high-tech cell phones. My newest organizational revelation is to get organized by using your cell, mostly because you carry it with you wherever you go.

I was watching Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the other day and he had a guest who was showing off the Palm Pre, which had this neat looking application that was like a Post-it on the screen of the phone. To me, that's pretty amazing. Not only does it save paper but it can help keep you organized. I have to believe that most cell phones have some type of to-do list function, but the iPhone, BlackBerry and the Pre (which hasn't been released yet) have really cool applications that allow you to make a to-do list on the main screen of your phone. I don't have an iPhone, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was an application for a grocery list right there, too. How handy! If you've got that ability literally at your fingertips at any given moment that's sure to keep your brain fresh on what you need to accomplish.

I've heard of some people recording messages to themselves on their cell phone with a reminder that they can play back at a later time. This can be handy for a short grocery list, a reminder of what errands you need to run on the way home, a list of movie times or anything that you could write down on a little note but maybe don't have one.

Many, if not all, cell phones have a calendar function that helps keep track of your appointments, birthdays and things you need to get done on a certain day. It's especially handy if you can synch your cell phone to the calendar on your computer because sometimes it's easier to use the computer to make appointments than the small cell phone. Take advantage of this to help keep your days organized. Since most of us bring our cell with us everywhere and anywhere this will help remind you where you need to be and when.

Cell phones are great assets to someone who is trying to be more organized. Take a few minutes to understand the organizational capabilities of your phone and figure out a way that will work for you to get more organized by using your cell phone. Let me know what applications you can find that help you!

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Organizing Your Kitchen Cabinets

I really enjoy coming home from the grocery store and unloading my purchases and organizing them into my crowded cabinets and refrigerator. I've come to the realization that most people just cram their food into the cabinet wherever they see an opening. My take on that is a bit different. The images in this post are actually from my kitchen.

A quick but important aside: my brother is here visiting from Minnesota and made quite a few comments on how I must not spend any time doing anything other than organizing my kitchen. I said, "I organized it once and now I just follow through by putting things where they belong. That way it will always stay organized." It's as easy as that!

My food cabinets have zones. I love organizing everything by zones. For food, I have zones like boxed goods, rice, pasta, canned goods, spices, baking products, hot chocolate and the "extras" zone where I store my backup products. The products I use most are in the easiest spots to reach, and I only place things on shelves where you can see the items from the floor. If I don't see it I won't know that it's there. The way you lay out your food cabinets will totally depend on the size and the geography of your kitchen.

Ideally I would like to have custom cabinets at some point in my life. I think that a custom pantry would be a dream come true. If I could create my own pantry it would have lots of drawers, sliding shelves and an area specifically designed for spices. If you are considering remodeling your kitchen I would encourage you to look into custom cabinets or at least specialty cabinets that allow you to specialize the design of your kitchen to the needs of your organizational challenges.

For those of you lucky ducks who have unlimited storage space in your kitchen, consider yourself blessed! You should be able to easily fit your countless small kitchen appliances and electronics just fine with some basic organization and a little bit of effort. For the rest of you... all you need to do is get creative and figure out how you can maximize your space. If necessary, get some type of rack to hang from the wall or ceiling to get your pots and pans out of the way. Some of the ceiling racks can double to store things on top of the actual shelf (think baking pans and sheet pans, etc.). Display your spices in a cute spice rack on the counter or stove; throw your flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking chips, etc. in a cute glass canister on the counter to make room in the cupboard; store your sheet pans and other baking pans inside or under the oven; or if your cereal boxes are too tall to fit in the cupboard transfer them to a Tupperware container that fits nicely on your shelf. There are tons of tricks about maximizing your space - just be creative. The best trick I have is to clean out your cupboards and throw away stuff you really don't use. You'll be amazed by the amount of space that opens up.

One of my absolute biggest pet peeves in the kitchen is reusable storage containers. I hate, hate, hate messy reusable containers that you have to dig through to find the lid that fits. Normally, I don't like to promote brands, but my favorite reusable storage container is the Gladware with interlocking lids. I love these because they stick together and are easy to find, and they also don't fall over and make an even bigger mess (and they're cheap!). I recently moved and when I did I threw out all of my other storage containers to start fresh. If you have like 1123 different types of storage containers I'm assuming this frustrates you. Consider starting over and only buying one brand. It probably won't break the bank. BUT - if you don't want to waste, definitely use your largest container as the home base and stack the containers according to size inside of the largest container, then arrange the lids on the side or under the base depending on their size.

My last tidbit on that is that if you have a lot of loose items in your cabinets (I'm talking like taco seasoning or yeast packets, a little thing of cake icing or a pack of candles) consider storing them in a little basket or even a reusable storage container (as opposed to throwing it away!). I have a small container that has my cake/cupcake decorating supplies, which works great because they're all contained in one bucket. I also like to use the reusable storage containers to store nuts, brown sugar, dried fruit and other foods that should be kept air tight

I live in a fairly small condo in downtown Seattle, so my space is limited. One of the few things that I like about how my kitchen was constructed is that the cabinets are very tall (but that means if I put something on the top shelf I have to climb on the counter to reach it!), but the flipside of that is that they are very narrow. They are only about 8" deep and the shelves are non-adjustable (really, who would install non-adjustable shelves in kitchen cabinets??). This makes it tricky. As much as I absolutely hate to do this, I store my super tall cereal boxes on top of the refrigerator. And, if I'm confessing that, I also store my full loaves of bread and full containers of bagels or English muffins up there because I don't have a bread basket that's big enough to hold them on the counter. So, you caught me, not everything in my kitchen is perfect! But I do my best to work within my limitations.

My two takeaway points: be creative and follow through about keeping up your organized kitchen!

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Organizing Your Finances

A pressing issue across our nation right now of course is the economy. I'm not a financial planner, nor am I by any means a financial expert, but I do know that it is pretty easy to let your pocketbook get the best of you if you don't account for what you are spending your hard earned money on. My best suggestion for getting your finances organized is to create a budget. And stick with it. I've also heard (and experienced) that if you write down every penny that goes out of your wallet you become more aware of what you're spending your money on - the idea here is to pin point areas that you can cut out. This is where the budget comes in. Budget for everything you are planning on spending money on - I'm talking about buying lunch at work, your daily Starbucks, cigarettes, etc.

I have included a mock-up of my budget, of course I have changed all of the monetary amounts. But, I want to explain to you how easy it is to create. Take a glance at it and notice all of the different columns and inclusions. You can modify this however you want, but I think that it is a relatively realistic budget, but of course you probably have different expenses than Steve and Sally do.

I created my own document using Microsoft Excel that outlines my monthly expenses and income. If you're not comfortable using formulas in Excel, go to and you can download various templates for all sorts of different budgets. Those templates will have all of the formulas and you can pick and choose what you want to include. There are many other online or computer programs that can help you to create a budget, or if you prefer, you can just create one by hand. So, browse the web and find a budget worksheet that works well for you. Some websites that come up on a search may be beneficial in helping you find things that you can eliminate from your monthly expenses.

Below is Steve & Sally's monthly budget. If you click the image it will enlarge so that you can read it.

Some things to note:

The budget that I created is for the most part very much set in stone. If you have a lot of variable expenses that come in to play, like kids sporting expenses, emergency car service fund, or Christmas gifts, you may want to add a column in your regular monthly budget that includes some wiggle room that you have already claimed to use for those variable expenses. In Steve and Sally's budget that is where the miscellaneous column comes in.

I also really like the idea of setting aside money for a rainy day. Yes, this is saving money, but to me, it really is just setting it aside. You're planning on spending it once it accumulates, instead of putting it in a high-interest account. This "slush fund" can be included in your budget too - but should be kept separate from any investments, savings or retirement fund contributions, as well as your disposable income.

Lastly, if you are in any amount of debt, make sure to include paying off credit card bills or loans in your monthly budget. I think that it can be very beneficial to include a plan of how you will pay off your $10,000 credit card bill, or whatever it is. I have to believe that if you sit down and create a plan of how much you're going to throw at your credit card bill each month and determine how many months it will take you to be in the black again you'll have a sense of relief that it is possible to get it paid off.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don't Forget...

Especially as we get older, it seems that we become more forgetful. Forgetful of where we put the keys, forgetting to grab the outgoing mail, and, perhaps most frustratingly, forgetting to get the tartar sauce at the market. I'm no doctor, but hopefully I can help you with some tips on how to remember where you stored the remote last night and not to forget the tartar sauce. Remember, it's all about changing your mindset to be on "organized."

As someone who suffers horribly from ADD, I understand perfectly how invigorating it can be to be doing one thing and then space off into another world. Some things I do to cope with that are to write things down - like to-do lists. If I have a thought of needing to do something I immediately write it down, otherwise chances are high that I will forget. This goes along with a grocery list, a list of the errands I need to run, what I need to do to get out the door in the morning and what to pack for a day of skiing. In this category is also a simple to do list for my daily tasks that need to get done. To do lists are ADD people's saviors, if you ask me!

When I need to do something before I run out the door, or if I need to remember to take something with me when I leave I always set it directly in front of the door or leave a note on the door or in front of it. That way, I have to go out of my way to avoid it. This helps tremendously, but I have noticed that unless I place it in the way of opening the door it doesn't always work. Yesterday I set a sweater on the table next to the door to take with me to a hockey game and completely forgot it. I should have hung it from the door knob.

It definitely helps to be consistent with where you keep things, like keys, the remote control and your shoes. If you constantly move things around I can imagine it would be tough to remember where you left your glasses. In my house, there is only one spot where keys go, one spot where the mail goes - then one spot where it ends up if it remains unopened for more than two days, one spot where the bills go, and one spot where the coupons are stored. This helps me dramatically to remember where I put things - otherwise I'd be useless when it comes to that. But, if you ever wind up on my doorstep, I can tell you where everything in my home is because each item has its own "home."

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Where to Shop

I have some favorite places when I'm shopping for something related to organizing. Most of my ideas come from catalogues or displays that I see. There are some really great stores and catalogues that you can check out if you're looking for some new, fresh ideas. Sometimes the best finds come from random local shops, so don't overlook those and skip right to the chain stores.

My favorite national organizational stores are: Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma (very limited organizational materials, but very inspirational), Target, The Container Store, Crate and Barrel, Bed Bath and Beyond, California Closets, Sears (I only like this store for outdoor and garage-type organization) and The Home Depot/Lowes (you can find some great bargains!). Most home stores will have great organizational concepts that will pique your interest.

I love looking through catalogues that have great ideas on how to better organize your home in a design-friendly manner. HomeGoods, Home Decorators Collection, Lillian Vernon and Improvements are some catalogues with great pictures and organizational design concepts.

There are tons of magazines that offer an article here and there about organizing something specific, but some I like in particular are: Real Simple, O at Home, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Martha Stewart Living and Cooking Light. There are a few organize-specific magazines out there, but they can be tricky to find.

Also, there are countless websites with more tips and suggestions, but I'd rather you read mine.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Organizing Yourself as a Parent

One of my favorite excuses of people who constantly run late is to blame their tardiness on their kids (I hope you picked up on the sarcasm). Sorry! That doesn't cut it with me. Just because you have kids doesn't make it more acceptable to be disorganized. It means that you have to organize yourself differently because you're not only responsible for yourself but you're responsible for those munchkins too. There are tons of images of "planner pads" in this post that will give you some tips.

Just as I said in my last note, organizing yourself starts with motivation. You need to want to be organized. Talk to your spouse, if you have one, and figure out how to organize your family's day-to-day activities. This requires basic planning and communication. Then, if your kids are old enough, involve them in the conversation about how you are going to organize your family. Once your family begins its organized life you must hold yourself, your spouse and your children accountable for sticking with it. If you don't, the whole concept could crumble.

I don't have kids myself, but if I were to inherit one today here's what I would do: make a schedule and stick to it! I do know that kids love boundaries and love to know what to expect. The basis of your schedule totally depends on your family, the ages of your kids, the season and a whole lot more.

For those of you parents who have overachieving kids who are signed up for tons of extracurricular activities, my advice to you is to make a separate schedule with the kids' after school activities. Here's how: print off a blank month-long calendar and assign a different color marker to each child, then color code each activity on the calendar throughout the month. To further organize yourselves as parents, make a symbol by the activity to denote which parent is in charge of transportation - better yet, assign a symbol for carpooling, too. I think that communicating with your spouse about potential conflicts as well as who is responsible for being the taxi is very essential to being an organized family. Other alternatives are to get a weekly or monthly dry erase calendar, find a notepad with a weeklong schedule layout, get a family tracker notepad or have the kids help you by decorating a large calendar that you can hang on the wall.

As for running late... I understand that there are days when little Benny just does not want to cooperate, but for the most part your kids should be ready to head out the door with you each morning. On time. Help them to set out their clothes the night before, pack their backpack or their diaper bag before bed, get their lunch and snack together ahead of time, set their shoes and coat out by the door. If your kids are old enough to do these things themselves I hope you will hold them responsible for planning ahead - this will only help them in the long run. Also, if it helps, create a morning schedule for the kids outlining what needs to happen in order to get out the door at x O'clock and hang the schedule to where they can follow it. Do the same for preparing ahead for the day to come.

Things to factor in when planning family activities (of course depending on the age of your kids): are you interrupting nap time?, will this overlap with a meal?, what snacks and drinks do I need to bring?, is it going to rain or snow?, do I need to bring sunscreen?, will the kids get dirty?, is it a long drive - what will the kids do in the car?, are there scheduling conflicts?, do I need to bring a change of clothes?, do I know how to get there? Figure out the answers to these questions and plan ahead to make a seamless day for your family.

Some other helpful resources:,,, Parent magazine, Child magazine, watch Jon & Kate Plus Eight on TLC or keep reading this blog. I'm sure I'll come up with more ideas to help you and your family stay organized.

The planner pads featured in this post were used from, where you can purchase these fantastic organizational helpers.)

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