Simplifying Christmas

After the longest Christmas break I have ever known (literally, not figuratively) the kids started back to school today and routines seem to be slowly creeping back in.  I’m frustrated with the lack of writing I’ve done through December, but the month seemed to be full of “urgent” things (not necessarily “important” things) and I spent it trying to keep my head above water.  Now the holidays are done and the calendar is comparatively empty.  Hopefully January will be slightly more productive–in lots of ways.

While I didn’t do much writing in December, I was constantly thinking of things I wanted to write about.  I apologize in advance if I end up dumping some of them out in January.

My favorite discovery this Christmas was a guide to gift-giving that a friend referenced on Facebook; she’d seen it in our local paper.  They referred to it as “the four-gift Christmas:”  “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read.”  I was so excited for this little saying; I’d been struggling with the vague idea of “I want a smaller Christmas,” but defining what that looked like was nearly impossible:  what does that mean??  Once I read that phrase, I realized that the items we’d gotten the kids could be plugged in to those categories and I only needed two more gifts to be done.  (One admission:  we actually did the five-gift Christmas, because I think it’s incredibly unfair that Santa gets to be the hero each year:  my husband and I supplied a “want” gift, too.)  The definition of “need” was also something I wrestled with; let’s be real, these kids don’t need anything.  So I decided the word meant “useful” and things fell into place well.

(I do think that next year I’ll do more investigation into what grandparents are getting the kids.  If I had known that my daughter would be receiving hairbands from each set of grandparents, I would not have made them her “something to wear.”)

The other nice situation about Christmas this year is that so much of what we received was to replace something else.  A new comforter (out with the old!).  A new bread machine–that really, consistently works!  (Away with the broken one!)  So instead of filling up our house with another layer of accumulation, it’s been much easier to really apply the “one in, one out” rule.

Just a few thoughts on simplifying Christmas…I hope everyone has had a great holiday season and is enjoying the return to “normal!”


What a bargain!

I was scrolling through houses on the internet recently, as I am wont to do, and found an astounding price on a home a few miles north of us.  “Astounding” as in $100K cheaper than the other homes for sale in the neighborhood.  I assume it was a foreclosure, and as I scrolled through the photos, I was amazed at how genuinely beautiful the house still was–even with carpeting pulled up, and flooring missing in some rooms, you could see it was going to be a gorgeous home for someone; probably very soon.  Someone, somewhere, is about to get an amazing bargain.

I do wonder about the consequences of that choice, though.  If it’s a family who will slide right into the neighborhood effortlessly, or if it’s a family trying to reach up, just a bit, and finally score a house “in that neighborhood;” a house that would normally be out of reach but which suddenly is surprisingly achievable.  That house purchase could start the dominoes falling…

Now that they have a bigger house, in a nicer neighborhood, they have to furnish it, and fill those extra rooms they didn’t have before.  Then they’re sending their kids to school with other kids who are better off than they are, who have x and y and z, and suddenly they feel the need to get the same for their children.  Every day they’re surrounded by people who have “stuff” they don’t have, “stuff” they aren’t able to afford….but somehow that doesn’t stop them from buying it.

Maybe not.  Maybe the house will be filled with the “just-right” family; a perfect fit.  Or maybe it will be filled with a family who truly doesn’t care to keep up with the Joneses.  I just hope whoever moves in thinks through their decision.  It could be a really expensive bargain.

My new favorite question

A friend posted a link on Facebook, and the title sucked me in:  Why We Love to Hoard.  It seemed like something right up my alley, so I read it (I encourage you to; it’s a really interesting read).

But towards the end the author wrote a sentence that completely changed how I’m clearing stuff out of our home:

“…for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it?”

Wow.  That is the question, isn’t it?  All those things I’m keeping “just in case,” or “for later,” or “for someday”….if I didn’t already have it, would I ever go looking for it?  I’m seeing everything in my home with new eyes.  And it works both ways:  there are some things that are suddenly totally justifiable to me, because yes, I’d go out and buy them again in a heartbeat.  I would buy this again.  Or, the irreplaceable mementos of grandparents; the things you can’t just go out and “buy again” because they don’t exist anymore:  the “keep the quilts that great-grandma made” kind of items.  

Others, though…yeesh.  It feels like I need to go back through the house yet again, from top to bottom, and just weed.  Because heaven knows that there are dozens of things lurking in this home that I would never in a million years actively seek out to “obtain” again.

“Acquired Traditional”

I joke that our home is furnished in “acquired traditional,” but I truly realized recently that our home really is put together from hand-me-downs.  Not in a sad and decrepit way, but in a “wow, we’ve gotten a lot of furniture from grandparents” kind of way.  My daughter sleeps in my old bed, which was my grandmother’s (on my father’s side) bed.  We have a desk in our front room where I scrapbook, which belonged to my grandmother on my mother’s side.  Even the dishes stacked in our kitchen cabinets belonged to my grandparents.

I was thinking about this recently in light of the idea of “accumulating.” As I started to really evaluate our rooms, I found that often, passed-down furniture outnumbers store-bought furniture; quite drastically, in some cases.  Our front room is a perfect example:  four pieces of furniture; three of which are from family.  The dining room:  four pieces of furniture, counting the table and chairs as one item; again, three of those items are from family.  (Which is why, if pressed, I would give away my table over my corner cabinets.  The table we found at a huge furniture store.  The cabinets were my great-grandmother’s, and come complete with a story attached.)

Why does any of this matter?  Why is this suddenly on my mind?  Because there’s a foreclosure in our neighborhood that’s about $46,200 less than the current mortgage we hold.  The wheels are turning in my brain….could we move?  Should we move?  One of our biggest reasons for not moving again has been to make sure the kids don’t have to change schools; in this case, they’d be staying put, so that excuse is out the window.  So this is a real possibility.  Could we do this?

I’ve driven by the house about five times over the past week.  It’s definitely a “fixer-upper.”  How much of that $46K would end up being spent on “fixing-up?”  It’s listed as a four bedroom, but it’s technically three, plus a bedroom added to the basement.  I’m not a fan of kids sleeping in basement bedrooms….

The list goes on and on, with little “not-quite-right” and “wouldn’t-quite-work” items.  Honestly, though, the biggest problem boils down to our (read: my) hand-me-down “stuff.”  I might not be big on a lot of “stuff,” but the bit I keep is apparently very important to me.  If I don’t have a place to put the piano…or the corner cabinets…or the desk…I don’t think I want the house.

If we ever decide to truly downsize, once the kids are grown and gone, making decisions about what to do away with is going to be exceptionally difficult.  I’m currently choosing to look at the upside of this situation:  I have a beautifully furnished home full of wonderful memories of wonderful people.  As my kids get older, they’ll be hearing stories about these items and learn why they make me smile.

Back to Basics

After my post about “How far we’ve come,” I was asked about how I was going to get “back to basics,” what I was going to do to move in the direction of a simpler home.  I could think, immediately, of a few things, but the more I thought about it the more I thought of….so here are some ideas.

First, there’s the obvious:  those moments where I decide that “today I’m going to tackle that drawer…..”  or shelf, or cabinet, etc.  Not an entire closet; just a bite at a time, to make sure I finish what I start.  I’ll go through each item, decide if it’s something we use or if it’s better off blessing someone else, and box or bag up what needs to leave the house.  But that’s only a bit part of the whole.  For lack of a better word, I’m going to call this a “lifestyle adjustment.”  (That sounds really snooty, doesn’t it?  I just mean that there seems to be a need to change how we think about stuff before we can conquer it.)

I also keep brown-paper grocery bags stowed away around the house.  There’s one in our closet, so the minute I try on a shirt I haven’t worn in a while and realize why I haven’t worn it in a while, I can change immediately into something different and add the shirt to the bag.  I keep one in the laundry room closet, so that once I’ve told one of the kids, “Last wearing on those shorts!” (or shirt, or whatever), I can add the item of clothing to the bag the minute it comes out of the wash.  I also have a nice basket on one of the shelves in that closet (about 9×13, and deep), where I put things destined for the thrift store.  This is, admittedly, where fast food toys go to die; but it also holds lots of other things that are preparing to move out the door.

The idea of “one-in-one-out” is gaining ground with the kids; they’ve realized that we’ll take a trip to the used book store if they have a stack of books ready to sell.  This is actually better than one in/one out, since the ratio usually ends up being something like one in/five out; but since they come home with cash they still think they’ve got the better end of the deal.  It’s also become easier with clothing:  we bought you those shoes to replace your worn out ones seems to make a lot of sense to them, and out the trashed ones go.

Finally, though….this is where the “lifestyle adjustment” begins.  I had a friend call recently from a store she was at, offering to pick up water bottles for my kids.  Stainless steel, with the kids’ names on them, on sale for 99 cents.  (99 cents!!)  And I said….no.  Because I know we already have two stainless steel water bottles, one for each kid, plus a Hello Kitty water bottle my daughter kept at school, plus two nice plastic water bottles….you get the idea.  I know we don’t need any more water bottles; regardless of how cool or how cheap (or how thoughtful my friend was).  The reality is, we don’t need a lot of things.  But I have to change my lifestyle; my mindset; my heart about what is a “need” and what is a “want”…..and maybe, at some point, admit where purchasing a “want” might be okay.  I have to change our buying habits; and we weren’t big spenders to begin with.

That’s the hardest part of the process:  the heart change that has to take place to say, “Thank you, Lord, for the abundant blessings you have given me, and now I will be content with that.”  Even better, to say “Thank you, Lord….what would you like me to give away today?  May I be content with less.”

How far we’ve come…..

I’ve made all my snobby pronouncements about how people waste time on the internet:  too much Facebook, too much Twitter, too much Angry Birds, etc.  I can sit on my high horse and make those comments because I’m rarely spending time on them.  Checking in on Facebook once a day hardly takes over my life, and I’m not on Twitter at all.  I’ve even (gasp!!) never actually played Angry Birds.  Maybe if I did I’d really like it…..but I haven’t bothered to try it yet.

So now I’ll ‘fess up to how I waste my time online.  (And I can really, really waste some time with this.)

I look at houses.

It started out of necessity:  every time we’d move and be, literally, house shopping, I’d hop online and look at houses; sorting which might be a possibility and which we could rule out.  Even after a move, though, and even now when we’re done moving (knock on wood), I love to look at houses.  When I’m driving the kids to school, or coming home from the grocery store, seeing a new “For Sale” sign in a yard prompts an immediate thought of Oh!  I’ll have to look that one up!  The app on my phone should be disabled, and instead I downloaded another local real estate app.  (Because some listings have more photos, that’s why.)  I can spend an embarrassingly long time scrolling through “Nearby Homes For Sale.”  When it was a hundred degrees last summer, I humored myself by looking at houses in Maine.

I have absolutely no pangs of discontent as I look; I’m not dealing with envy or jealousy, or frustration with our own home.  (I like this house so much that my response might be something like, that’s a cool house, but I’d rather have mine.)  I’m not desiring “more” or “better.”  I just like to look at houses.

What’s fun, on occasion, is to pull the map over to where our first home was; to zoom in on our old neighborhood and click to see homes for sale.  Looking through those photos, all those little identical ranch homes…it really does take me back to where we were, years ago.  And I’m torn about the change in our standard of living.

Our first house had three bedrooms and one bath, which would have provided our (then non-existent) kids with their own bedrooms; though I suppose one bath could have made for some occasional discomfort.  It had a living room and a nice-sized eat-in kitchen and a one-car garage.  Laundry hook-ups were in the kitchen.  What more, really, even now, do we need?  Admittedly, jobs dictated moves, but I wonder if we’d stayed in that town how long we could have lasted in that home; how long we could have made do with what we had and made it work–probably pretty well, actually.  At what point would we have been crowded and uncomfortable, with two kids in that little house?  Would we have just sent them outside more often?  At what point would I have been completely frustrated with a one-car garage?  When would I have decided that huddling in a hallway listening to tornado sirens wasn’t enough, and I wanted a basement, now?  I truly don’t think we would have stayed there forever.

My husband actually mentioned our first home recently (commenting that we would have had that house paid off by now), and I asked him if he thought we would have stayed put, if jobs hadn’t interfered.  He smiled and pointed out that I would have found some classic Craftsman bungalow closer to “downtown” and we would have ended up there instead.  (Sigh.  So true.)

I look around three moves later, though, to see the accumulation of the fourteen years of stuff after that first house, stuff that has grown and expanded to fill the space offered, and I do wonder how to get back to what we need.  To peel back the layers of excess and get down to the basic needs of running a home.  Not a bare, spartan home, but not an extravagant home, either:  a comfortable, peaceful home, where people have what they need and aren’t buried by any more.

Simplicity vs. Responsibility

I recall a conversation I had with another mom during a sweltering swimming lesson one miserable summer day.  We were discussing our children’s jobs around the house, the things they did to help out, and I commented that the habit we were working on that summer was loading the dishwasher.  Each meal, each snack, the kids were responsible for taking care of their own dishes—which meant I had better be on top of emptying the dishwasher.

“Why can’t they do it?” she asked.

“They could, but most of it is too high up for them to reach.  It would involve climbing on a chair to put things away, so I take care of that part for them, right now.  That’ll be a new habit for another summer,” I joked.

“Don’t they have their own plates?” she asked, looking genuinely confused.

“Well….we have a drawer with their cups,” I admitted.  “But other than that, we all use the same stuff.”

“Oh, gosh, you need to get them their own stuff, plastic stuff that doesn’t break, so they can learn to take care of it.  Then it really is their responsibility to load and unload their dishes and their cups.”

I really chewed on that one for a while.  I absolutely saw her point of teaching responsibility, of kids caring for their own things.  But at what expense?  An entire extra set of plates and cups?  Was I willing to sacrifice simplicity, and accept a potentially huge amount of clutter, to teach that lesson right now?  Would the gain, the lesson learned, be worth it?

I finally decided the answer was no.  Extra plates?  Bowls?  Cups?  Where on earth would we put it all?  As the kids grow up, as they get taller and more able to reach the upper cabinets, we can move on to dishwasher emptying.  Right now, we can focus on loading:  loading only one set of dishes.

“Everyone has one but me”

Intentionally having less is not always easy, especially on the kids involved in this process.  I was reminded of this each time my son’s class earned an “electronics day” as a reward at school.   They could bring in their handheld games to play for a set amount of time…..but he didn’t have any.  Fortunately, he’s always had very understanding teachers who would set up a computer game or let him hang out with a friend who did have one of the devices.  (Because watching over someone else’s shoulder is a lot of fun, right?)  This was one instance, though, where when he came home saying “Everyone has one but me,” I absolutely believed him.

What to do with that information, though?  I wasn’t going to run right out and buy him a Nintendo DS “because everyone else has one”—what on earth kind of message would that be sending him?  He hadn’t cared enough to ask for one for a birthday or Christmas until this past year.  We held out for quite a while to see if that desire held steady, and when it did, he finally (he would probably repeat, FINALLY!) got a DSi for his 8th birthday.

I’ve been pleased at how it hasn’t taken over his life.  He’s never been my TV kid, so I guess I shouldn’t have worried.  It lives downstairs, so there’s no possibility of him staying up with it into the dark hours of the night (that’s what books are for).  He plays with it some, and puts it away, and moves on to other things.  The biggest difference has probably been that “electronics days” are no longer dreaded events in this house.

I know that this is only the beginning.  I know, looming in our future, we’ll be hearing about video games and cell phones and tablets….the list goes on and on.  As a mom, I hate when my child is the one “without,” just as much as he hates being the one to stick out and be different.  But if you asked me what our priorities are, knowing that how we spend our money reflects our priorities, these things really don’t make the list.

HOW many?

My son was getting ready for church, and couldn’t find any white socks.  As he finished his breakfast, I had a running commentary in the back of my head; something along the lines of, What do you mean you don’t have any white socks?  I just washed a load of whites after our trip.  I remember washing all your white socks.  How can you possibly not have any white socks?   Thankfully, I kept it to myself.  (Well, I might have said it out loud a little bit.)

Finally, I asked him to go check the basement.  They are constantly playing “gymnastics” down there, and invariably socks get removed, never to return upstairs.  I thought a basement search might turn up a missing pair.

The minute I said the word “basement,” his eyes got big.  “Oh, yeah,” he said, and then, with a slight British accent (please don’t ask why), “I forgot about Blanket’s sock machine!!”

He returned from downstairs with fourteen pairs of socks spilling out of his arms.  Not fourteen socks, mind you, but FOURTEEN PAIRS!!

Twenty-eight socks, now sitting on top of my washing machine, challenging me to see how even the mundane “stuff” in our lives so quickly multiplies and becomes overwhelming.  It’s sneaky….one day you have a perfectly reasonable amount of (fill in the blank), and then one day you look up, and you have twenty-eight of them–or another ridiculous number.  It seems to happen so slowly, so gradually, until that moment when it hits you:  How on earth did I end up with so many socks/magazines/food storage containers/insert your item of choice here?

In this case, not all were his; the bounty was fairly evenly divided between him and his sister.  But even seven pairs of socks seemed excessive when I realized that my daughter’s sock drawer was already full.  (Apparently girls have cuter socks that are much more difficult to let go of.)  🙂

That’s my new challenge to myself:  to look around and do a “number check.”  How many of (this) do I really need?  How many do I really use?  Would my excess be better off blessing someone else?  Is it time to pass this on?

Maybe I’ll start with our books…. (Ack!)


Months ago, I moved our unused computer armoire and a chair into my son’s room, to be used as “Lego central.”  It gave him space to store his stuff and a nice, large area to spread out on to build; plus, you could close the doors when he wasn’t using it and his room would suddenly (magically!) look cleaner.  He loved it.  For about two days.

The reality is that my kids would always rather be close to the rest of the family, and not “banished” upstairs in their rooms.  So Lego building usually happens on the dining room table.  The giant cabinet sat in my son’s room, unused except for storage.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been evaluating what he really needed in his room.  The wood-tone cabinet is ginormous (around 2′ x 3′, and 5′ high), and his room isn’t that big, and if the thing isn’t being used for what it was intended for, why is it still in there?  It seemed like what he needed was some place to display the items he had built, not a place to actually do the construction.  So I painted a tall, narrow bookcase white; six shelves that might show off his creations.

I’d talked to my son a few times about changing things out; he’s not the kind of kid where you can just redo his room and expect him to be happy with the surprise.  He had gotten to the point where he completely understood the idea of “why are we keeping this in here?  I’m not using it,” and once I heard that understanding, I started asking permission to change things up; once permission was granted, I started warning him that he might come home one day to a change.

Tuesday was the day.  I moved the cabinet out, and moved the bookcase in.  I rearranged two other furniture pieces in the process, and I took away his area rug to run through the washer.  The difference was incredible.  (I actually think removing the rug made just as much difference–now there’s a big expanse of carpet, instead of the floor being “broken up” into smaller parts.)

His first response was, “Mom!  I like it!  I really like it,” which eventually shifted to “I love it!”  Finally, he lay on the floor, arms and legs splayed out everywhere, and yelled, “Space!  I have space!”  And that was the word he kept going back to for the rest of the night.  “I have space!  Look at all this space!”

If that is the response of a eight-year-old confirmed pack rat, how would the rest of us feel with more space?  I don’t mean “a bigger house” more space, I mean “clearing out, getting rid of, making room” more space.  I think we’re fooling ourselves when we think “If I just had a bigger house;” in reality, if we had a bigger house, we’d just buy more stuff to fill it up and then moan (again) about how we needed a bigger house.  Instead, work backwards.  Edit.  This is what I have; what can I get rid of?  What am I not using?  What is just taking up space?  Or, the definition of our computer cabinet:  What was a good idea in one house, that is not working in this one?  What one item would make me feel twenty pounds lighter if I got rid of it?  Is there someone I know that could really use this item?  Or do I just need to donate it to a charity?

There is something very calming about having space around you; space to move, space to breathe.  What can you get rid of today that will contribute to “space,” and that feeling of a more peaceful home?