Thursday, December 25, 2014

8 Things to Throw Away and Forget About

"the books I have to read" by conejoazul is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Forget about spring cleaning - winter is the time to go through things and clean. You’re stuck inside, you may have extra days off around the holidays and you need to make room for all the things you received as holiday gifts. If you hate to throw things away, these items (courtesy of Apartment Therapy) are things you can get rid of and never look back!

Coffee Mugs: Many people mindlessly collect mugs, much like business cards or matchbooks. There are instant, affordable souvenirs to mindlessly reach for and/or to accept as gifts. Harmless enough gestures at the time, there’s no denying their tendency to linger without true purpose. You’ll always reach first for your favorite morning mug, and ignore the rest of the porcelain in the back of your kitchen cabinet.

Travel Size Toiletries: Are you one of those people who just grab the hotel shampoo and soap, and stuff it in your luggage, even if you don’t need it? If you have a huge stash that you’ve squirreled away somewhere, think about paring down the collection.

Old Medication: It feels weird to get rid of something that requires a medical license procure. Yet most pills in your medicine cabinet are woefully out of date, or you have no idea what they were originally prescribed for. I’m all for pushing the expiration dates beyond what’s recommended, but do toss the ones that are dated from 2005 or that you have no idea what they are.

Vases: These breed faster than rabbits, especially those generic FTD-type vessels that lack personality. If you’ve ever been gifted flowers, you know these are unwelcome interlopers amongst actual useful glassware.

Food Storage Containers: These are the refrigerator gifts that keep on giving. They are cheap to acquire, yet just precious enough to cling to — without realizing that you really, really don’t need as many as you have. Take a moment to get rid of extra lids, super stained plastic ones, and the ones you never ever use. (I’m just realizing that I have “favorite” Tupperware. Kill me now.)

Party Supplies: Paper plates, napkins, and candles hold such promise and are hard to resist - of a perfect evening with friends and convivial conversation, decorated just so. Host enough events and you find yourself overflowing with extras and odd men out.

Craft Supplies: Every DIYer and crafter's Achilles heel is that fabric stash, that beautiful yarn waiting for the perfect project, and your fifty types of glue. You have enough stuff to make until the Apocalypse at this rate, so time to cull the collection, use what you have, or get rid of it.

Books: Don’t worry about the classics, go for the cheap thrillers in paperback you have lying around — the ones clogging your nightstand and needlessly crowding your shelves. Most likely you won’t pick up these same books twice, especially in today’s digital age. Let go of that visual notch in your literary bedpost, and free yourself from housing an entire library.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

5 Things to Take Care of Before Your Holiday Travels

"Stuttgart Airport at dusk" by Andrei Dimofte is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The time is almost here for those long-awaited days off and heading out of town for the holidays! Of course you’ll remember to pack and wrap all of the presents, but there are some things to take care of before you leave that are probably at the bottom of your list, if they’re even on there at all. Don’t forget to take care of these quick tasks, courtesy of Apartment Therapy, before you leave town!

1. Clean out stinky spots
The trash cans (not just the kitchen one — think about cans in your bathrooms, office or bedrooms), dishwasher, fridge and coffee maker can all be nightmares to come home to if they've been left full of stuff to rot and get stinky while you're away. Empty them all out before you go, but also give them a quick swipe to clean them.

2. Security check
Doors, windows, garage door — are they all closed and locked? Are blinds and curtains closed? Are you leaving a car at your place? Make sure you don't have any valuables in sight. Leave a light on or check your light timer. Can you go a step farther and lock gates to your home and other entrances, too? Make a quick sketch of your floor plan and all the things that need locking, and make check marks as you walk around the house. You can keep that sheet with you as you get on the road in case you get any of those "did I lock that?" feelings.

3. Save energy and protect from damage
Unplug all your electronics. Check the heating system and your water heater — are they turned down low to save energy? Even consider shutting off the water lines to your washing machines to avoid leaks or accidents while you're away. Make sure all your appliances are turned off like the stove, oven, coffee maker and others.

4. Water plants
Give all your green lovelies a nice long drink before you go, and move them to the optimal spot in your home — where the best light is and a spot where they won't get cold drafts (if that's something they wouldn't like).

5. Make sure your neighbors have the info they need
If your neighbors are watching your home for you while you're away, make sure they have keys to everything, phone numbers (and alternative numbers) to reach you if there's ever a problem. If they're watering plants, make sure they know how much and when to do it. Let them know if you'll need the garbage cans brought in or to the curb. Typing up a quick FAQ sheet to leave for them is often helpful.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Last Minute Apartment Cleaning

"clutter" by Alex is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The holidays are a hectic time of year for anyone, but add the stress of hosting people at your apartment, and a whole other layer unfolds - you need to decorate your place, order or cook food, send out the information and more. All this in addition to buying and wrapping gifts. Let’s say your stretch your time too thin - what can you save for last? Cleaning your apartment. Doing a quick clean is actually not as bad as it sounds. Just follow these easy tips from Apartment Therapy:

1. Clean the Three T's: Toilets, Tabletops, the Television. What? The television? Yup! Most living rooms are centered around your tv and the amount of dust that hangs on it, your Netflix stack and dvd box set pile that's off to one side could be tell tale signs of why the rest of your house isn't exactly spotless. Plus if you sit chatting in the living room, you'll be staring at it wishing you would have moved it. Toilets and tabletops are a bit more self explanatory, but important none the less.

2. Stash with Efficiency: When company drops in we've all been in a situation once or twice where things get tossed in a basket and shoved in the spare bedroom or closet. It's a quick solution, but it can be done with more efficiency so you can find your stuff later on. Add things to your basket according to the room they go in. That way when company leaves, you can remove the items easily without making 100 trips across your house or apartment to put things where they belong.

3. Pet Hair: Even if you have a sparkling clean house, if your sofa is covered with a layer of dog or cat fur, it suddenly looks less tidy. Keep a rubber glove or your favorite pet hair busting product on hand to knock it all down in a few sweeps.

4. Dishes Be Gone in Seconds Flat: Please don't judge me for this tip. Admitting that I've done it more than once is punishment enough alright? So here goes. Put your dishes in your oven. Wait, what? If you pile your dishes in the sink then it looks like you threw them all in there at the last minute as everyone knows you can't really wash dishes in that manner and you'll still look like a slight slob, even though you have clean counters. Instead, grab a baking sheet and stack like items together and slide them in the oven. They'll slide right back out, be prestacked and ready to be washed so you can recover from the guilt you just gave yourself for following through with this tip. Side note: don't preheat your oven... even by accident... until they're removed.

5. Spend 5 Furious Minutes on Your House Everyday: Isn't that cheating? We're talking about last minute company here, not preparing all week long for them to come! True, but think about how much you can clean in those few minutes before they arrive. 10 blocks isn't much. With traffic and parking and walking up your stairs, 5 minutes is a safe estimate. Bring that panic to your life every day and clean with the same intensity for just 5 minutes and your house will always look better for it. Plus, you still have time to watch Raising Hope without telling yourself you'll pick up on commercials.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Host a Holiday Happy Hour

"Cocktail anyone?" by Dana Moos is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Whether you’re hosting Thanksgiving or want to have friends and family from out-of-town over for a gathering, happy hour is the way to go! Why? It’s cheaper, more casual and less stressful - especially if you’re cooking Thanksgiving dinner, too. Follow this advice from The Kitchn for a happy Happy Hour!

1. Buy your appetizers.
The last thing you need is one more recipe to make! Pick up some shrimp and set it out with a quality cocktail sauce. Buy some nice pickles and ask a friend to set them out with good crackers. Keep it easy.

2. Ask someone else to bring the appetizer.
Or, instead of buying the appetizer at all, delegate your most prompt and on-time friend to get to your house a little early with a platter of something tasty.

3. Pitcher cocktails are the way to go!
If you want to go past beer and wine, then don't just set out a few bottles of booze. Make a pitcher cocktail the night before; no mixing, no shaking, and very festive!

4. Keep the appetizers very light.
Think crunchy and cold, not savory and hot. Think pickles, not cheese balls. Think shrimp, not hot dip. For our California Thanksgiving Outdoors we made some simple boards or relish trays with pickles, light chickpea dip with fresh vegetables for dipping, and some crackers. All very easy and pretty! Read some more of our readers' favorite Thanksgiving appetizers here:

5. Designate a host to keep an eye on appetizers and drinks.
Last but not least, you shouldn't be refilling ice buckets or sangria pitchers while trying to make gravy. Designate your partner or a friend to play host and make sure everyone is having a good time with a glass topped off.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Try These Tricks in Your Living Room

"IMG_1016" by Shawn Cornelius is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Holiday decorating usually leads to rearranging some furniture, which doesn’t sound like a lot of fun on the surface. However, this allows you the opportunity to experiment with the layout of the room and its furniture. Or maybe you’ve been looking for an excuse to switch things around, so you should take advantage of the opportunity! Try these tips from Apartment Therapy, and who knows, you may love your new layout so much that you decide to keep the Christmas tree up year-round!  
1. If you have room, pulling your furniture away from the wall can make conversational groupings seem cozier, and the room seem a lot more spacious.

2. Try replacing your coffee table with a smaller table, big enough to hold a book and a few drinks, that can move around the room. The space freed up by the coffee table will make your living room seem a lot bigger.

3. A bookcase behind the sofa is a great way to add a little texture — and a little storage — to your living room. (Naturally, things you don't use as much go directly behind the couch.)

4. Mixing old and new pieces is a great way to add energy to any room.

5. Balance heavier pieces with lighter ones to keep a space from feeling too clunky. The lighter pieces in this room — the coffee and side tables — provide a nice counterpoint the sofa and dresser.

6. Hang a picture ledge above your sofa for a statement-y look. If you get tired of your current pieces, you can easily switch them out.

7. Color is the key to mixing a lot of things together in a harmonious way. There's a lot going on in this living room, but the preponderance of white keeps all the different elements from becoming too overwhelming.

8. Every room can benefit from a touch of gold.

9. Keeping everything low (including the art) is a great trick to make a room look bigger.

10. Paired chairs don't have to match — try mixing two pieces from a similar era with different shapes.

11. When in doubt, add a little bit of black.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Should You Get Rid of Your Furniture?

"Repurposed trunk" by Paris on Ponce & Le Maison Rouge is licensed
under CC BY 2.0
Furniture can be an expensive investment, depending on the quality of the pieces. Because it can be so costly, throwing furniture away should be a last resort. After evaluating these steps from Apartment Therapy, consider donating it or giving it to a friend in need and, then, if all else fails, toss it.

1. Can it be used for in another room, maybe for a different purpose?
Consider the other rooms of your house, and consider your household needs. Something that you don't want in one room, might serve a different purpose in another. I had been using a small dresser as my daughter's changing table in the nursery for the past couple of years, but now that she is a toddler, she doesn't need it and the dresser was just taking up space. At the same time, I had been needing a bed side table. After deliberating about its fate, I realized the dresser might work as a nightstand. I packed up the contents of the changing table dresser and moved it into our room next to our bed. Voila! It turned out to be the perfect height for a bed side table and so it will stay.

2. Can it be updated?
There are several ways that you can give your old furniture new life with a couple of simple updates. If you are tired of your coffee table that you've had since college, take a good look at it and determine if you can give it a new coat of paint and a different style of table legs. Maybe your old dresser can be spruced up with some beautiful hardware and that might inspire a whole new life out of it. If you know how to reupholster chairs, try a whole other color or pattern to change it up.

3. Can you take it apart to use its various parts?
I've determined that our coffee table needs to go, but recently I've been eyeballing it again to see if I could use its parts of other purposes. For example, I can take the legs off and then paint the table top with chalkboard paint, and stand it up in my daughter's room as a chalkboard. Or maybe I could replace the skinny legs with sturdier ones, add some cushions and turn it into a bench for our foyer area. Maybe you have a dresser that is falling apart but each of the drawers are still in good shape; paint the drawers, add a couple of table legs, and turn that into a side table.

4. Can you sell it?
It is always worth trying to see if you can sell the item through a service like Craigslist. Check your local listings, see what similar items are being priced at and put it up for sale with a couple of good pictures. You can take the money your earn from that sale and put it towards that new replacement item you are saving up for.

5. Do you have room to store it?
If you have room to store it, consider putting it away in that attic or basement. Especially if the item has good bones, it might be worth keeping around. You might end up needing it, liking it again or gifting it to a friend or family member who needs it in a few years. Even if you don't recognize a need for it in the present moment, the item might meet a need in the future.

If you have gone through these factors and determine that you have no more use for it, and the item is still in working condition, make sure to donate it to your local thrift stores. Give someone else a chance to squeeze more life out of it!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Be a Stress-Free Holiday Host

"Guest room" by Uriah Welcome is licensed under CC BY 2.0
It’s the most wonderful time of the year...okay, and maybe the most stressful. If you are entertaining friends or family from out of town at your home, the stress levels can increase exponentially depending on what type of house guests you have. However, if you set reasonable expectations for you and your guests, their stay will go quite smoothly! Try following these tips from Apartment Therapy, and who knows, maybe you’ll have such a good time that you’ll want to host Airbnb guests year round?!

1. Properly prep the room — Clean sheets are a must, of course, but also think about things like hangers, a glass for water and a phone charger. If your guests are sleeping in a multi-purpose room like an office, try to clear the surfaces and put away personal items so they don't feel like they're snooping into your affairs simply by staying.

2. Stockpile essentials — No guest wants to have to ask their host for extra toilet paper or toothpaste. Set out a few extras of the essential things they might need and avoid awkward rummaging around in the linen closet in the middle of the night. And fyi, an extra blanket at the end of the bed is never a bad idea.

3. Be crystal clear — Don't make your guests guess what's okay to use or do in your house. You want them to feel comfortable, and the best way to make that happen is by giving them them the full scoop right off the bat. Is all food and drink up for grabs? Are there rooms that are off limits? Especially important when hosting a crowd, getting everyone on the same page will prevent problems all visit long.

4. Write everything down — If you're leaving your guests or a house sitter alone in your home then they're going to need something to refer to. Sure, you told them to jiggle the handle of the downstairs toilet and that the TV needs to be on channel three, but trust us, too much info all at once means they retained very little. Write it all down to save them frustration and prevent any house disasters to boot.

5. Give your guests a schedule, but don't smother them — It's great to spend time together (that's why they're there) but remember that downtime is important, too. They may have a few things they want to do solo like going for a run in the morning or seeing another friend in your town. As the host, strike the perfect balance by planning a few group activities with some breaks in between (which will also give you, the host, some alone time). Say something like, "This afternoon is free time but we'll see you at home for dinner at 7," so everyone knows the plan and can organize their time accordingly.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Happy Budget-Friendly Thanksgiving

"Thanksgiving Turkey" by tuchodi is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The holidays can be a stressful time of the year, especially if you’re living on a tight budget. In addition to your regular monthly spending, there are also presents, decorations and extra outings to take into account. The holiday season kicks off with Thanksgiving, so let’s explore how to save money on this holiday so you have a little more to spend on Christmas. Try these tips from Apartment Guide:

Handling the Turkey
Many grocery stores run promotions on their turkeys, offering them up as loss leaders. The turkeys are a standard part of the Thanksgiving dinner, so you’re going to buy one no matter what.

The grocery stores want to get you in the door to purchase all the extra fixings that go along with this meal. Some stores offer free turkeys if you have enough reward points through their programs, while others price their turkeys at under $1 per pound.

If you have the space in your fridge and you don’t mind waiting for the turkey to thaw, get even more for your money by opting for frozen turkey. It takes a few days to completely thaw a turkey, so keep that in mind if you want to go this route. Avoid running the turkey under water to thaw it out, as this results in a dangerous temperature level for food safety.

Keep an Eye on Coupons
Another way to cut down on your Thanksgiving meal costs is by maximizing coupon use for your local stores. Check the grocery store sites and manufacturers’ websites the closer you get to Thanksgiving. Wait for your grocery stores to coupon match existing coupons so you get double the value.

Create a Meal Plan
Before heading to the grocery store, create a complete meal plan so you don’t end up purchasing far more than what you actually need. When you purchase only what you need, you won’t have to worry about significant food waste after the festivities.

After all, you’ll have plenty of leftovers to deal with in the week after. Another benefit of creating a meal plan is having a concise grocery list to consult when you’re making your purchases. To save the most amount of time, organize your grocery list according to the aisles in your store.

Skip the Boxed Options
Boxed and prepackaged sides are tempting when you’re cooking for a large group, but creating everything from scratch is less expensive, healthier and gives you better control over what you’re putting in the food.

Stock up on ingredients such as butter, flour, eggs, sugar, bread and other essentials necessary for creating classic Thanksgiving dishes. Many recipe sites provide step-by-step instructions, or even videos, to help with creating these dishes. You don’t have to be a master chef to create a memorable Thanksgiving for your friends and family at your apartment.

Understand Your In-Season Options
One thing that drives up your costs is attempting to buy produce out of season. Not only do you get lower quality produce, you’re also paying a premium because it is shipped across the country, or even internationally.

Watch for the in-season options in your area, such as Brussels sprouts and other late harvest vegetables. If you must have something not in season, go to your frozen food section. These vegetables are flash frozen when harvested, so they are at peak quality compared to the out-of-season produce offerings.

The exact type of produce available varies based on your geographic location, and if you’re lucky, there may be a farmers markets continuing into November to provide you with farm-fresh produce.

Consider a Thanksgiving Meal Potluck
Want to really cut down on the cost without asking your friends and family to pitch in monetarily? Ask them to bring side dishes, drinks or desserts for a Thanksgiving potluck. A potluck is also great if you have vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free or friends with other dietary restrictions who worry they won’t have anything to eat beyond a veggie platter at your dinner.

If possible, create a collaborative list so all your guests see who is bringing what to your get together. With a collaborative list, you won’t end up with three bowls of pasta salad and no extra desserts. Handle the basics yourself, such as the Thanksgiving turkey, gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce.

What tips do you have to offer on saving during Thanksgiving?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

9 Ways Around Renters' Decorating Rules

"living room" by moon angel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Once you move into a new apartment home, it’s easy to start envisioning what you would like to do with the space. However, these thoughts sometimes include painting, wanting to change fixtures or flooring, and other ideas that simply aren’t allowed in a rental unit. But, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Try these tips from Apartment Therapy to get around common decorating rules for renters.

1. Oversized art and removable wallpaper are great ways to take the sting out of not-being-able-to-paint pain
For color lovers and those who love customizing each home they live in, nothing can sound more terrible than learning you can't paint your rental. But instead of accepting a life of beige, get creative and bold with oversized art (you buy or DIY) and even temporary wall paper.

2. Great color can come from furnishings, too
In the same sense, just because you can't splash color all over your walls or ceilings doesn't mean you can't have a home bursting with an exciting color palette. Use the creative energy you would have put into painting your walls to paint furniture, or get wild and buy patterned and colorful upholstered pieces. Take chances on DIYing hued rugs, and stretch your design muscles with colorful accessories. The best way to make sure it feels like a cohesive look connected to your space is to spread color around the room, from top to bottom and side to side.

3. Plants are a great way to hide things you don't like
There are plenty of ways to disguise elements in a rental you don't love, but none perhaps work as effectively and as easily as a cleverly placed plant. And bonus: plants always make rooms feel alive and more rich, so it's good to add anyway.

4. Good window treatments can make a room feel finished
Whether you hate your all-white walls or your apartment doesn't have an architectural element to save its life, great window treatments can do a ton to improve the look of an entire room. Consider every element of the window treatment — from height (think about hanging them a little taller and wider than you think to make windows seem more prominent). And curtains are also a great way to add color and pattern to an otherwise bland space.

5. Splurge on elements you can take with you
Those who always hesitate to put money into a rental need only reframe their thought process. Invest that hard-earned cash into elements you love, that you can take with you, and be ultra careful with choosing the kind of items that will be flexible enough in function and style to work in plenty of future residences.

6. Bad floors aren't a design death sentence
The thing about bad floors is that even if you can't pull them up, you can still do a lot to make them better. From laying down temporary flooring to just using a lot of oversize rugs, bad floors aren't a design death sentence, even if they aren't made of the material of your dreams.

7. It's fine to make stealth changes, but keep track of them
Too often renters jump to disguising unwanted design elements first, without realizing they can remove and replace with what they want, while keeping the original elements for putting back when they move out. From light fixtures to awful vertical slat blinds to doors, just remember to keep track of the changes you make, how to re-install them later and where you'll be storing them so you don't lose your deposit.

8. Creative storage solutions are vital for any spaces
Whether you've got one paltry closet or many, it pays to take the time to consider how to better store things, from seasonal wardrobe options to your pots and pans. There are plenty of ways to create storage when you don't have any, and a lot of ways these storage solutions can be non-damaging, easy-to-install, take-with-you-later options for renters.

9. Customizing is worth the time, money and energy in a rental
I do this more than I'd like to admit, the thought that because it's not some forever home I own it's not worth customizing. But it is. Stick to your budget, get creative with DIY projects and push the limit of what is allowed, but at least do something!

What are some of your creative decorating ideas?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Organize That Clutter

"Desk Experiment 001" by Josh Lambert Pearson is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Unless you’re Felix from The Odd Couple or Monica Gellar from Friends, chances are you have clutter in your life to some capacity. It’s almost easier to clean and organize when you’re moving and are forced to go through everything; but if you have lived in the same space for a while, you might need to do some decluttering. What are some everyday tips you can use to keep up with the clutter? Try these ones from Apartment Therapy:

1. Live within your means.
This is an idea I got from one of our Apartment Therapy videos, and I think it's a wonderful place to start if you're aiming for a simpler, less cluttered life. What 'live within your means' means for your home is this: let the size of your home dictate how much stuff you have, and not the other way around. If your closet is bursting at the seams, instead of dreaming of a bigger closet, why not try paring down your clothes to fit the space you have?

2. Purge often.
Even if you get to a point where you have only as many things as will comfortably fit into your space, stuff has a way of accumulating. So set aside a time, a few times a year, to go through your things and get rid of the ones you don't use anymore. You'll feel so much lighter, and your home will thank you.

3. Have a place for everything.
'A place for everything, and everything in its place.' Almost a cliche, but still some of the best organizing advice out there. A bit of further advice: if you have lots of things in limbo on tables or countertops or the floor and are struggling to find places for them, maybe you need more places. This is where clear plastic shoeboxes or a filing cabinet or maybe just a console with lots and lots of drawers can come in handy.

4. But don't underestimate the importance of a junk drawer.
Every household has those little things — pens, tape, twist ties, whatnot — that get used a lot but don't really have any logical place to go. Instead of agonizing over finding a home for every little thing, keep a junk drawer. The last few little bits of clutter get swept in there, and you're done.

5. Become a habitual putter-awayer.
This is probably the hardest part of this whole list for me: the 'and everything in its place' part of #3. I try to tell myself that it's a sort of game, kinda like one of these for adults. Put the bottle opener back in the drawer! Hang that skirt you didn't wear back in the closet! But ultimately, I think the easiest way to make sure you put things away is just to do it, and then keep on doing it until it's so habitual that you wouldn't ever think of not doing it. When you see how much better your home looks, you'll be that much more motivated to keep fighting the good fight.

6. Store things where you use them.
Be smart about where you store things. Not having to walk halfway across your home to put things away will make #5 that much easier.

7. Stop clutter before it enters your home with a landing strip.
Even if you're conscientious about what you buy, it's easy for clutter to sneak its way into your home in the form of junk mail, freebies, what have you. That's why setting up a landing strip by the front door is so brilliant: because clutter has to come into your home somewhere, and you can stop it right at the source.

8. Go paper-free.
Scanning all the documents you've been hanging onto may seem like a daunting task, but once you're done, they'll be easily searchable (plenty of apps, like Evernote, allow you to search scanned documents for certain words) and you'll have that much less stuff to manage.

9. Realize that life is about experiences, not things.
We're constantly being bombarded with advertisements that try to convince us that a happy life is all about having the latest stuff: a new car, an outdoor kitchen, an ice cream maker. But studies have shown, over and over (and my own experience has borne out) that it isn't the things in our lives that make us happy: it's our experiences that we treasure most. So the next time you're tempted to buy more stuff, ask yourself if the money wouldn't be better spent on a vacation or a nice night out. Bonus: you won't have to find a space for these things in your cabinets.

10. Forgive yourself and try again.
Remember that nobody is perfect, and nobody's home is perfect. Even the homes you see in the magazines aren't perfect — it took a whole team of stylists to make them that way. So if you have an off week, or two weeks, or month, and suddenly your house is a disaster, don't panic. It's never too late to forgive yourself and try again.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Grocery Planning 101

"Thanksgiving Supplies" by Phil! Gold is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
We’ve all heard the saying “never go grocery shopping hungry,” but that isn’t the only rule we should keep in mind when we’re at the store. Like many things, the prices of food keeps increasing, so how do we stick to a budget? Heck, how do we even set one in the first place? We’ll demystify grocery shopping in ten steps, with these tips from The Kitchn.

1. Track what you actually spend for a month.
Before you can make a realistic grocery budget, you have to have a realistic idea of what you usually spend. You might spend more on food (including drinks and eating out) than you realize. Start tracking what you spend for a month. Keep your receipts.

Whether you use a spreadsheet or a Word document, or just paper and pencil, it can be helpful to divide your food expenses into itemized lists. Drinks: coffee, tea, soda, alcohol, juices, mixers. Fresh produce. Frozen meals. Baking items. Meat. The key is to track everything that you consume.

2. Budget per month, but plan per week.
I track my income monthly, so I also track grocery bills monthly. Some people track weekly; it's a personal preference. I've found it's easier to stick to a monthly grocery bill, as I often go for two weeks without shopping. On the other hand, it is equally key to plan your meals per week, to avoid eating out or ordering in. I suppose you could plan your meals for an entire month, but for me that's not realistic. Having a rough idea of what we'll be eating for breakfast, lunch, and dinner helps me shop accordingly.

3. Name your priorities.
I'm learning to tell myself, "If this, then not that," as I shop for groceries. There are certain items that I prioritize for my wellbeing, such as fresh foods and basic whole foods. Towards the end of a month, I'll nix fringe items before cutting out my priority items, such as that new flavor of tea, juice, optional toppings for meals, and desserts.

4. Don’t eat out.
Just don't do it. Eating out is the Trojan horse of grocery budgeting. It sneaks into your monthly budget and destroys everything you've worked so hard for. Dramatic, yes, but true. We eat out for special occasions or with friends, but have made it our personal policy to never eat out as a response to laziness. Knowing your priorities and keeping basics, frozen double batches, and quick meals on hand can help with this.

5. Prize (and plan) variety.
...Or you will eat out, unless you have a willpower of steel. Plan variety into your grocery lists to stay well and keep food enjoyable. Some people can eat ramen for a month in the name of saving money. I can't. However, I'm also the kind of person who finds something they love and wants to eat it endlessly... a habit which always results in me tiring of that food for months afterward. So I try to plan budget-friendly meals that I know I'll enjoy, and rotate those meals throughout several months.

6. Keep a fridge list.
Keep a running list on your fridge and write down items that you need as soon as or shortly before you run empty. This is a basic tip but it can make all the difference between grocery runs that result in spending sprees or incomplete shopping.

7. Learn to love your leftovers.
They are your friends. They will feed you while protecting your budget. Invest in a good set of glass food storage containers—your food will last longer with better flavor. Plan meals that make good leftovers, and if you're feeling ambitious, make double or triple batches and freeze.

8. Don’t be duped by coupons.
Coupons are great — if they are for items that you need and from brands that you like. Too often, coupons trick customers into buying unnecessary items "because it's a good deal." Furthermore, generic versions of many items in the coupon book are even cheaper than the price you'll pay for a discounted name brand item. So if you find a coupon for an item that you usually buy, celebrate and purchase. Otherwise, steer clear and seek out cheaper options.

9. Stock when there’s a sale, but don’t overstock.
Sales are the cousin of coupons: they can often dupe customers into buying more because it's "a great deal," not because they need that item or can even use that quantity. On items that keep well, stock up with sales.

But a common mistake is to buy a few extra items of each product, thinking that you're saving time and money by not having to return later to the store. I did this for years before I realized I was still shopping at my usual rate, buying a few extras of this and that each time, which was inflating my grocery bills. Unless you live hours from a grocery store, this sort of pseudo-bulk shopping isn't helpful.

10. Take the time to comparison shop.
The suggestion of comparison shopping is inevitably met with a chorus of voices protesting the efficiency of "driving all over" just to find cheaper items. And I would have to agree. I used to shop at a closer grocery that was more expensive, than transitioned to a larger, cheaper store much further away, then began shopping at three different stores, with a separate list for each. Now I'm back to shopping at the closer store that's a bit pricier. Time and driving costs must always be factored into budgeting. There are still a few items that I will buy once a month at the larger, more distant store, but I don't have the time to go to several stores on each grocery run.

However, I also comparison shop within stores: some items are cheaper in the international aisle, or the yogurt in the organics aisle, for example, might be on sale when my usual yogurt selection isn't. So pick the stores that are most efficient for your shopping, familiarize yourself with your options, and make a plan.

What other grocery shopping tips to you have? Are there any apps you have found useful?
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