My clients hear that question all the time.

When they complain about the backpacks plopped in the middle of the kitchen floor, or the car keys that can’t be found when needed, or the pile of missing mail from two days ago…whether its backpacks, keys, or the incoming mail – whatever it is – I ask, “Where should that item live? Where is its home? We know where it doesn’t belong – where does it belong?”

This question is usually met with an eerie silence. That’s the problem in a nutshell, folks: you can’t put something away if it doesn’t have a home.

Keys on hooks by the door

Keys on hooks by the door

So: establishing a home is step one. The right spot should be logical, practical, and doable. Your child can’t slide a backpack into a cubby that’s four feet above her head, and it doesn’t make sense to walk through three rooms of the house to put away your car keys. Remember: logical, practical, and doable.

Step two is developing the habit of actually putting the item where it belongs, and that takes time.

Have faith – we humans are smart cookies. We can be trained to establish new routines so that, over time, hanging keys on a hook by the door will become a habit. Teach your child that the backpack goes on a reachable peg every day when she comes in from school. Put the incoming mail in that one designated spot so you can find it when you’re ready to process it, and in a matter of weeks, maybe even days, some common daily frustrations will actually be eliminated by answering that one simple question: Where should it live?

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iStock tall stack of papers

Stacked Files

I work with many clients setting up filing systems and sorting through years and years (and YEARS!) of accumulated papers. The question I’m asked most often is, “How long should I keep paper stuff?”

As a former accountant, I’m comfortable answering. I add this disclaimer, however: when in doubt, seek advice from your tax preparer or financial advisor.

I recommend shredding documents you get rid of in these common categories:

Utility bills: Unless you take a home office deduction, there is no reason on God’s green earth to keep these. You can access your history online. I’ve automated utility bills so I get ZERO in the mail. The only papers in my “utility bills” folder is a bill from each provider with our account number and their emergency contact information.

Bank statements & credit card statements: In theory, you get your statements, you reconcile their numbers with yours and… that’s it. You don’t need to keep the statements.  Pull copies of tax-related cancelled checks and pop them in your “tax return info” folder.

Investment statements: It helps to understand why you keep the ones you keep so you can better understand why it’s ok to get rid of the rest.

Certain investment data is necessary for preparing a tax return. BUT. You only need the annual statement that summarizes investments you bought or sold, interest and dividends you earned, along with details of any contributions or withdrawals to/from IRA accounts that are reportable on your tax return.

Therefore, you can shred monthly or quarterly statements from investment accounts when the new ones arrive.

Keep statements that show purchase details until you sell an investment; you’ll need purchase cost and sale price to calculate a capital gain or loss on your taxes. If your investments have been with the same firm, they’ll have that historical data. If you change firms, give them purchase information for any investments you’re transferring so they have it for future reference.

If the concept of shredding any of these on a monthly basis is too far outside your comfort zone, try keeping one year’s worth and then shred.

Consider signing up for electronic statements for any of the categories I’ve mentioned. (resist the temptation to print or you’re right back where you started!)  You can still file e-statements in an electronic folder, but it significantly cuts down on the daily flow of paper into your life, and who wouldn’t love that?

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It’s officially here. Are holidaylights_thumb.jpgyou enjoying this holiday season, or have you let the hub-bub and hoopla get the best of you?

If it feels like there’s still more to do than time to do it in, prioritize. What MUST you accomplish, what would you LOVE to get done, and what will you do IF time permits? At the very least, make some notes about changes you’ll make for next year. Oh, and put those notes somewhere you’ll actually FIND them when you want them.

Santa shouldn’t be the only one making a list and checking it twice – have your to-do lists with you at all times; I keep notes and errands on my smartphone using Wunderlist.

My holiday gift lists are in google docs: one for hubby, each kid, and all other family, friends, Secret Santa, and charity presents. I list ideas as they’re given or thought of, and fill in purchase details so I stay within budget and get the right number of gifts for stocking stuffers. I hang on to receipts until I know stuff fits, works, and is a keeper.

If you have too much on your plate, cut back. Say no. If there are things you don’t enjoy or don’t have time for, stop. I haven’t sent Christmas cards in a kazillion years. When I quit, guess what? Nothing bad happened.

I used to bake a bunch of different cookies – I’ve trimmed it down to our favorite three kinds, and that’s plenty.

Hubby and I turn gift wrapping into a fun event throughout the holidays with a cozy fire, a glass of wine, and everything we need to create beautiful packages. It’s one of our favorite holiday traditions. If gift wrapping isn’t your thing, make the switch to gift bags – they’re easy breezy and still very festive.

If you hate the holiday crowds, do your shopping online. If you don’t like online shopping, think strategically and logically, and plan your trip to maximize what gets accomplished.

Agonizing over gift ideas? Try gift cards, baked goods, or something homemade if you’re crafty AND have time. Postage stamps, return address labels, and envelopes are great for seniors who don’t need more “stuff.” Instead of exchanging gifts, why not plan a lunch date, go see a movie, or have dinner and drinks together.

Decorating can be simplified, too. Our decorations are packed in bins labeled by room, and my room-by-room computerized list tells me where each item goes. If I add something new (and get rid of something old!) I update the list. It eliminates the frustration of trying to remember where things go. If there are décor items you no longer use, donate them – there are folks out there who have nothing.

Don’t expect people to read your mind. If there’s something you’d really appreciate as a gift, say so – surprises aren’t all they’re cracked up to be! If you’d like to be included in holiday festivities, speak up.

If you know someone who will be alone, include them in one of your holiday traditions. Be a light that twinkles for someone if darkness weighs heavily on them this time of year. That’s a gift you can’t put a price on.

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I don’t know how holiday meals work at your house, but around here we do NOT mess with tradition!pumpkin-pie_thumb.jpg

It actually makes things easier because I know exactly what we’ll be eating – no new recipes to learn, no new ingredients to buy – so I computerize my shopping list for each holiday meal.

These are simple Word documents, nothing fancy. I keep notes about what size turkey, ham or tenderloin I need depending on the number of guests, and what time to put the pies in the oven.

My Thanksgiving list, in part, looks like this:

Stuffing:

  • ___ 1 bag seasoned croutons
  • ___ 1 carton chicken stock
  • ___ Celery
  • ___ Onion
  • ___ Butter
  • ___ Salt
  • ___ Pepper
  • ___ Sage

Squash:

  • ___ 2 medium-sized butternut squash
  • ___ Butter
  • ___ Brown sugar
  • ___ Nutmeg, cinnamon

Whipped ­­­­­­Cream:

  • ___ 2 cups heaving whipping cream
  • ___ Sugar
  • ___ Vanilla

You get the picture, right? Before shopping, I check the pantry and refrigerator, putting an X next to items I have. Then I mark things off as I shop, since I usually buy things in a few different trips.

It might seem silly, but it saves me time AND money. How?

  • I don’t forget anything, so there are no frantic, last minute trips to the store.
  • I don’t buy items I already have. Spices are expensive, and who needs multiple containers of sage?

Speaking of spices, here’s a helpful chart regarding their shelf life.

I’m in favor of anything that makes life easier as we head into the busy holiday season, how about you, any time-saving tips you’d like to share?

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It’s a fact: clutter can be overwhelming. buried in papers

Whether it’s a four-day pile of unopened mail or years of accumulated papers, there comes a point when tackling it becomes daunting.

Maybe it’s the hall closet filled with linens you no longer use. Perhaps the spare bed is overflowing with unworn clothes and you can’t muster the energy to separate what fits and is flattering from what’s outdated or no longer appropriate for your lifestyle.

Here’s the thing. The longer you wait for the perfect time or enough time to tackle the entire clutter project, the longer it’s going to build and build and nothing will get done and trust me when I tell you: clutter’s negative energy can affect you mentally, emotionally and physically. It can damage relationships, sometimes tearing families apart.

Fear not; I bring you tidings of great joy – well maybe not of great joy, but of hope. No matter how big your clutter issue is, it is not hopeless.

Stop looking at the big intimidating clutter picture and start breaking it down into manageable bits. Clutter’s ability to overwhelm diminishes when you chip away and begin to see progress. Remember that fable of the tortoise and the hare? Slow and steady can win the race.

Instead of thinking, “I need ten hours to open and process the mail,” try this: “Each day I will open and process today’s mail PLUS ten pieces from the backlog piles.”

If there are papers everywhere, gather ‘em up. Fill a bin or two or ten. Start sorting into broad categories: Shred/Recycle/Toss/File/Pay/To Do and dig in. Put on some music that will calm or energize you and focus for a set period of time. Make it a game: see how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes and do a little more tomorrow. Instead of just watching a sitcom, use that as a timer and sort a bin of papers. TV AND progress – win-win!

Don’t focus on the roomful of clothing. Get up 15 minutes early and try on three  items in the pile. Decide if you want to keep, sell or donate, then move on with your day. Wash, rinse, repeat.

If it’s a hodgepodge of clutter, pick something and gather “like with like” – all wrapping paper, all books, all seasonal decor, all garbage – whatever it is, gather it up and attack the room one “thing” at a time. Where should those books live? You can’t put something away if it doesn’t have a home…

Ok, that’s a blog post for another day so I’ll leave you with this “What About Bob” movie clip that I reference with clients all the time:

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Clutter-clearing garage sale season is upon us! Before you commit, ask yourself this one important question, and be honest:

Garage Sale Success

Garage Sale Success

Do I have enough to sell to make it worth my time and effort, or should I just donate everything and be done with it?

If you decide to proceed, go through the house looking for items to sell. Pick an area where you can gather everything that’s “gotta go” and encourage other family members to add to the pile.

Here are my top ten tips for having a successful garage sale:

  1. Get other neighbors to join in. People are more likely to come if they can hit a handful of sales in a row.
  2. Advertise in your local paper, on Craigslist and facebook. People scan listings and plan their routes, so make sure they’ll find your sale. If you have big-ticket or unique items, include photos in your online ads. 
  3. Signs should be big, easy to read, and neatly written. Quality signs signal a quality sale – half the success is in your marketing and advertising. And remember, people need to read signs from a moving vehicle!
  4. Price everything, and price it to sell. It doesn’t matter if you paid $10 and it’s practically new; if you’re not using it, the main goal is to get rid of it, not to recoup your cost. Use the computer to research prices.
  5. Display items on tables; hang clothing on a rack/clothesline. People don’t like to stoop to the ground or rummage through messy piles of stuff.
  6. Put “like with like” so people looking for tools will readily find them, books are all together, holiday decorations are easy to see.
  7. It pays to clean things. A damp microfiber cloth works miracles on dusty glassware, dishes, and decor items.
  8. Be willing to haggle. If you know you want $25 for something, either mark it, “Price Firm” or mark it $29 so you can come down and still get what you want. BUT! It’s also ok to say “no” to a ridiculous offer. I’ve told people I’d rather donate something than sell it for what they’re offering.
  9. Make sure to have plenty of change on hand. I recommend $75 broken down like this: $27 in ones, $25 in fives, $20 in tens, plus $3 in quarters. That should be enough to get you started. People will offer you a $20 bill for a $1 purchase.
  10. Have a check-out table and keep smaller, easy-to-steal items near you on that table. I’m sorry to say, sometimes people help themselves to things that are easy to pocket or highly desirable, such as collectibles, jewelry or video games.

After the sale:

  • Schedule a charity pickup for leftovers the day after your sale. Promise yourself the stuff is NOT going back in the house. It’s time; let it go. However:
  • Relist leftover big-ticket items on Craigslist if you want to take another shot at selling.

If you can, time your sale to coincide with another event in your neighborhood such as a festival, garden walk, or real estate open house. Anything that attracts people is a good thing when you’re having a garage sale.

The more effort you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. Make it a fun experience for people – offer treats, have some lively music playing, mix and mingle and even if it’s not true, act like you’re having fun! People are more likely to buy from someone with a smile than from Grumpy McGrump.

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Before you accuse me of “sour grapes” regarding the hoopla surrounding Marie Kondo’s best-selling book, hear me out. I think this is much more a case of brilliant marketing than of a brilliantly-written organizing book. Just look at that title:

  • Life-changing: Many clients have actually said, “You’ve changed my life!” so using that phrase was pure gold.
  • Magic: Ooooh – that sounds way better than “physically exhausting” or “emotionally draining,” right? But getting organized, while invigorating and exciting, can also involve a lot of hard work.
  • Tidying up: This sounds more pleasant than “de-hoarding” or even “de-cluttering,” but in my mind, “tidying up” is what you do right before company arrives: put away the unread newspaper, the dishes drying in the rack, and make sure the guest bathroom is clean.

The third time I read this, I used green tabs to mark passages I agree with and pink tabs to mark passages I disagree with:

My tabbed edition

This would be a much longer post if I cited every aspect of her process I take issue with, so I’ll focus on the six primary points I find impractical, puzzling or problematic:

  1. Marie says there’s only ONE correct order for “tidying” by category as listed here:
    • Clothes –She’s generally opposed to hanging clothes for a variety of reasons, but in my experience clients are more likely to re-hang a shirt than to lovingly fold it one very specific way and place it in the drawer one very specific way. Hanging often prevents things from becoming a pile on the floor.
    • Books – No one ever rereads a book, she says, and if you own a book you’ve never read, you’ll never read it. If she wants to save info, she RIPS THE DESIRED PAGES OUT OF THE BOOK! (Yes, I just shouted that. As a book lover, this is wrong on so many levels.)
    • Papers – The most time-consuming to organize, we usually save for later unless it’s the client’s primary goal. See #2.
    • Everything Else: CDs, DVDs, accessories, electronics, household goods… again, in this very specific order. Her “everything else” category is too extensive; any one of those areas might be where we start if it makes sense.
  1. You only need three folders for paperwork. Hahaha! Whew, good one, Marie Kondo! In spite of my diligent efforts to eliminate paper, not everything can be maintained online. Mari says it’s better, easier, and less stressful to quickly know that you don’t have the paperwork you need and to simply take action to get it. How is that easier? I’d run myself ragged if I didn’t have a well-maintained filing system. Take a look at my situation:
    • I run a business – this requires paperwork for insurance, payroll, taxes, financial reports, expenses, professional affiliations and more.
    • I manage our household – there are financial, medical, and insurance files, auto records, household repair records, etc.
    • I handle my elderly mom’s paperwork – and maintain paperwork for deceased loved ones. You need to keep things like death certificates.
    • We own income property – again, lots of necessary files.
  1. She dislikes organizing bins or totes. Marie says words on bins create commotion in your mind. However, she loves using shoe boxes. I’d rather see matching plastic bins labeled and lined up on a shelf than a row of mismatched shoe boxes that don’t contain any shoes. Where do all those empty shoe boxes come from, anyhow?
  1. Only keep things that “spark joy.” Blech. That phrase doesn’t apply to the utilitarian or necessary items in our lives. Maybe this is a translation issue, but I’m sick of reading, “Does it spark joy?” No, my toilet plunger does not spark joy. Here’s how I query clients when reviewing their stuff:
    • Do you need it?
    • Do you use it?
    • Do you love it?
    • Do you have a place to appropriately and respectfully keep it?
  1. Marie keeps her kitchen tidy by drying her sponges, towels, dishes, etc. on her veranda. She proudly explains that she doesn’t need a dish rack! She puts dishes in a large bowl and sets everything outside to dry. Gah! Her book is peppered with this type of suggestion and I can’t imagine it makes sense to anyone.
  1. Other examples of impractical Mari Kondoisms:
    • Empty your purse every night, put the contents in your closet, thank your purse for its service, and refill it in the morning. *sigh*
    • Take the shampoo, conditioner, and soap out of the shower every day, dry them off, put them in a cupboard, get them out the next day. You just know, three times out of five you’d get in the shower and say, “Dang. Forget the soap again.”
    • Keep your books on a bookshelf in your closet, where you also keep your keys, jewelry, and all other personal belongings. She says forget about “frequency of use” storage/placement.
    • Putting things away creates the illusion that a clutter problem has been solved. Huh?

Kondo states, “You must sort by category, in the correct order, and keep only those things that inspire joy.  Do this thoroughly and quickly, all in one go.” It’s not unusual for a client’s home to have a full basement, a packed attic, and a two-car garage filled with everything but cars; yet my clients have experienced long-lasting success using my “baby steps” approach.

Marie Kondo’s one-size-fits-all approach does not address hoarding or chronic disorganization. In those cases, her proposed method might actually do more psychological harm than good.

I’ve been organizing clients’ homes and lives for nearly twelve years. Whether working one-on-one or presenting a seminar on organizing, I stand by my five-step approach to tackling any organizing project, no matter the content or quantity:

  1. Start small – I encourage clients to “baby step” their way to success. Get started by breaking large projects into small manageable segments.
  2. Like with like – you can’t decide which coffee mugs to keep and which to donate until you gather them all together to review. This applies to any grouping in any order.
  3. Categorize – Decide what you’ll keep, distribute, sell, donate, recycle, or toss.
  4. A place for everything, and everything in its place – you can’t put it away if it doesn’t have a home.
  5. Maintain and move forward – As you complete one area, maintain it and move on to your next project.

Although Marie Kondo touches on some of these points in her book (thus, those few green tabs) I think her process is unrealistic. For most organizers, where we begin and the pace of our progress is based on the individual client, their situation, stamina, needs and goals.

As my website simply states, “Being organized is about finding what you want when you want it.” At Home Solutions, the mission is to help clients create a home or work environment that is functional, visually pleasing, and meets their current needs.  

I’m sure she’s laughing all the way to the bank, but her book gets a two-thumbs-down review from this experienced professional organizer.

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When is a bargain not a bargain?

Do you ever get caught in the vicious clutter-creating cycle that goes something like this:

  • You buy something you really don’t need and probably won’t use
  • You tell yourself it was worth it because it was on sale
  • You have no idea where to put it when you get it home/it gets delivered…
  • …so it sits in a bag/box/corner where it’s joined by more “bargains”
  • And now you won’t get rid of it because you paid good money for it

Sound familiar? I see this regularly when working in clients’ homes, so you’re not alone.

How can you break the cycle?

  • Before making ANY purchase – especially an impulsive one, ask yourself:
    • Do I need it?
    • Will I use it?
    • Where will it live when I get it home?
  • If there are certain stores (brick and mortar OR online!) you can’t resist, proclaim a 30-day moratorium on visiting them. Break that habit of impulse buying!
  • Take things out of the shopping bags/open delivered packages. It’s too easy to ignore something you can’t see.
  • Create one designated area for pre-purchased gifts and “shop the house” when an occasion arises.
  • Donate new/unused items to non-profit organizations for their fund-raising gift basket raffles.

Trust me when I say that retail therapy rarely produces long-lasting, positive results.

 

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There’s a saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”  Yes, it’s a graphically horrifying phrase, especially given the “lolz kitten” craze that threatens to collapse the internet with its sheer magnitude. But it’s a saying that goes back 200 years and I’m using it to make my point. I promise, no kittens were harmed in the writing of this post. Adorable kitten

Here, have a look at an adorable kitten.

My point? If someone tries to tell you there’s only one right way to organize something, (which, ironically, always happens to be their way) you shouldn’t automatically believe them.

Take socks, for example. Maybe you want to sort and organize them by color. That’s cool. Or maybe you want to organize them by type: winter, sneaker, dressy, or sports socks. That can work, too. Or maybe by height: anklets, crew, knee-hi…see my point? Where I will most likely flex my professional organizer muscle is if the quantity of socks you own threatens to take over the entire dresser, leaving no room for anything else. There is such a thing as too many pairs of socks.

And then we have kitchen cupboards. Some folks say dishes should go above the dishwasher for ease in putting them away. Others say they belong near the table for ease in setting it for dinner. Neither is right and neither is wrong. It might depend on who’s doing the emptying or the setting, or it might depend on the configuration of your cupboards and the quantity of your dishes. Food storage clutter

Speaking of cupboards, one thing I know for sure as an organizer is 90% of my clients relegate WAY too much real estate to plastic food storage containers. Raise your hand if this looks familiar!

There’s an organizing tip currently making the rounds that suggests the best way to store sets of sheets is to fold them and tuck them inside one of the pillowcases. Martha Stewart posted the tip in 2011, so it’s hardly new. I personally wouldn’t take time to fold and stuff sheets INTO a pillowcase, only to have to pull them OUT of the pillowcase to put them on the bed. But hey, if you love the idea and it helps in some way, have at it with my blessing. I will suggest that for a more streamlined, “professional” look than what Martha’s picture shows, turn the sets around so the closed edge of the pillowcase is visible.

My thoughts on how many sheet sets is enough? Two per bed should suffice, with the addition of two per season if you like to use flannels in cold weather. So often when organizing linen closets, we find sheets for mattress sizes that haven’t existed in the home in decades.

People ask me to teach them the “right way” to organize something and my answer is usually, “I won’t know until we discuss what is and isn’t working.”  That’s the part I like best: finding out why something isn’t working and figuring out what will work better based on their unique situations.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the current craze in organizing: Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” – the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Let’s just say I haven’t drunk the Koolaid, and I’ll tell you the many reasons why.

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It’s officially here. Are holidaylights_thumb.jpgyou enjoying this holiday season, or have you let the hub-bub and hoopla get the best of you?

When it feels like there’s more to do than time to do it in, prioritize. What MUST you accomplish, what would you LOVE to get done, and what will you do IF time permits?

Santa shouldn’t be the only one making a list and checking it twice – have your to-do lists with you at all times; I keep notes and errands on my smartphone using Wunderlist.

My holiday gift lists are on excel spreadsheets: one for hubby, each kid, and all other family, friends, Secret Santa, and charity presents. I list ideas as they’re given or thought of, and fill in purchase details so I stay within budget and get the right number of gifts for stocking stuffers. I print the lists, carry them in my store coupon organizer, and update them a few times throughout the season using receipts for purchases made.  I hang on to receipts until I know stuff fits, works, and is a keeper.

If you have too much on your plate, cut back. Say no. If there are things you don’t enjoy or don’t have time for, stop. I haven’t sent Christmas cards in 15 years. I liked to write personal notes in each, but when it turned into a chore, I quit. Guess what? Nothing bad happened.

I used to bake a bunch of different cookies – I’ve trimmed it down to our favorite three kinds, and that’s plenty.

Hubby and I turn gift wrapping into a fun event throughout the holidays with a cozy fire, a glass of wine, and everything we need to create beautiful packages. It’s one of our favorite holiday traditions. If gift wrapping isn’t your thing, make the switch to gift bags – they’re easy breezy and still very festive.

If you hate the holiday crowds, do your shopping online. If you don’t like online shopping, think strategically and logically, and plan your trip to maximize what gets accomplished.

Agonizing over gift ideas? Try gift cards, baked goods, or something homemade if you’re crafty AND have time. Postage stamps, return address labels, and envelopes are great for seniors who don’t need more “stuff.” Instead of exchanging gifts, why not plan a lunch date, go see a movie, or have dinner and drinks together.

Decorating is simplified, too. Decorations are packed in bins labeled by room, and my room-by-room computerized list tells me where each item goes. If I add something new (and get rid of something old!) I update the list. It saves time by eliminating the frustration of trying to remember where things go. If there are décor items you  no longer use, donate them – there are folks out there who have nothing.

Don’t expect people to read your mind. If there’s something you’d really appreciate as a gift, say so – surprises aren’t all they’re cracked up to be! If you’d like to be included in holiday festivities, speak up.

If you know someone who will be alone, include them in one of your holiday traditions. Be a light that twinkles for someone if darkness weighs heavily on them this time of year. That’s a gift you can’t put a price on.

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