Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Month: December 2014 (page 2 of 3)

Decluttering the Scariest Room (Weekend Project)

I did it! After nearly three months of de-owning, I’ve finally finished every space in the house EXCEPT the basement storage room. I saved it for last because it looks like this:

Cleaning the Scariest Room

Storage & Craft Area

Cleaning the Scariest Room

Workshop & Exercise Area

It’s also holding the most memories, useless junk, and dust of any room in the house. My original goal was to get the clean sweep of the house done before the end of the year so I could realize the tax benefits of any donations I make. At this point, I definitely won’t finish, but this weekend, I felt like I needed to put in my best effort anyway.

I got halfway done with the room.

Cleaning the Scariest Room

Here are the steps I took to tackle this crazy mess.

Advice for Decluttering the Scariest Room

  1. Start with one shelf or drawer and move methodically from one end of the room to the other.
  2. Work in 90-minute cycles. I learned this trick by reading Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte. 90-minute cycles seem to line up with your body’s natural rhythms. If you work for 90 minutes, then take a short break, you’ll be able to work longer and have higher quality output.
  3. Make a list of things to come back to. If you have all the time in the world, don’t skip things. However, I am specifically looking for items to donate before the end of the year. That being said, I skipped my box of childhood photos (which I know I want to digitize later – perhaps I’ll throw a photo scanning party!) and my file cabinet (I can come back to that in a few weeks). I also left my husband’s keepsakes alone. He needs to go through those himself.
  4. Clean as you go. Once you’ve pulled everything off a shelf or out of a tub, take a minute to clean it. It made me feel much better to remove two years of dust.
  5. Label, so you’ll be able to find the stuff you still use (which should be most of what’s left) without making the room explode again.
  6. Involve hot chocolate. Everything is better with hot chocolate.

Next weekend, I’ll try to do the other half and get our final batch of stuff to Goodwill — just in time for a relaxing week with family and the New Year!

Email Christmas Cards (Quick Tip)

Christmas Card 2014

I love getting Christmas cards in the mail, especially the ones with news from friends who I don’t talk to often. We’ve sent Christmas cards every year to a growing list of people in the six places we’ve lived since Nathan and I were married ten years ago. Last year, however, after we’d just sent a birth announcement for our second daughter, I decided that the trouble of sending physical cards to our entire list three months after we just sent something else wasn’t necessary.

Instead, I sent Christmas cards only to family and friends for whom we don’t have email addresses. For everyone else, I sent an email with a short note and our Christmas card attached.

I apologized for not sending a physical card, but used the baby as an excuse and called it an experiment. I figured my close friends would pull me aside and say something like, “Hey, you know, sending Christmas cards electronically is rude and you probably shouldn’t do that ever again.” Perhaps some people did think that, but no one told me.

Instead, I got responses; immediate responses from people who I hadn’t heard from in months or years. The e-Christmas card actually started a conversation! It was an invitation to catch up in a way that physical cards don’t allow. It was so great that we’ll be doing it again this year.

Reasons to Send (at least some) Email Christmas Cards

  1. Save money when you don’t have to buy stamps and envelopes or print your own cards.
  2. Save time (at least a little). You could blast out a big email to everyone at once, but I recommend sending individual notes, which are far more personal and elicit an actual response.
  3. It’s easy because you don’t have to check-in with people who moved asking for addresses.
  4. Reconnect immediately with friends and family.
  5. Get started. If you’ve never sent a Christmas Card before, emailing them offers an pretty low barrier to entry.
  6. No physical object for your recipients to display and clean-up later.

Sure, it’s not quite the same thrill as holding a real, physical letter in your hand, but what’s the point in sending a letter if you never hear anything back?

Overwhelmed: A Book Review

Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte

I was drawn to Brigid Schulte’s new book as soon as I heard the title: Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. It immediately sounded like my life. I hoped that Schulte, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the Washington Post, had found the answer to why we, as Americans, are so overwhelmed and what we can do to fix it.

Despite the books’ length and small print, it was a page-turner. Not in the sense that a good fiction book is when you can’t put it down, but Schulte, an overwhelmed, working mother herself, seemed to know my life situation intimately and kept hinting at solutions. But, for nearly the entire first half, the book never got to them. I couldn’t put it down because I thought that maybe if I read just a few more pages, I would get some answers. I was getting rather depressed. Finally, one night, as I was explaining to my husband how the U.S., in the early 1970s, was on the verge of creating a universal childcare system that would allow mothers the flexibility to work and peace of mind that their kids had quality, affordable childcare waiting for them at six weeks old, but that Pat Buchanan campaigned heavily to keep mothers in the home, I lost it. I started balling and trying to explain to Nathan through my sobs all of the ways our culture has stacked the deck against working parents and against equality in workload between spouses so badly that most of us immediately assume that women’s careers should take a backseat and men belong in the office working long hours. At that moment, I wasn’t sure where Schulte was going, except that she made me want to run for office and make sweeping changes to the way we support working parents.

It was a true catharsis. After that, the book turned a massive and very welcomed corner. What Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a Harvard-trained Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Davis explains is that the myth of women always being at home and the men working is completely false. In fact, when humans were in hunter-gatherer mode, children actually spent 60% of their daylight hours until the age of 4 in the arms of “alloparents“. We lived in communities where grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbors and older siblings were always around and everyone helped each other. Mothers would go off to gather food and alloparents would watch the children. That’s how humanity evolved and we, as women, shouldn’t feel bad for leaving our kids at home or in childcare with others.  Hrdy explains, “It’s natural for mothers to work.  It’s natural for mothers to take care of children.  What’s unnatural is for mothers to be the sole caretaker of children.  What’s unnatural is not to have more support for mothers.”

Schulte then talks about Jessica DeGroot’s organization, the ThirdPath Institute, which helps men and women find the balance at home they need for both spouses to live sustainable lives. Whether that comes from one or both parents working flexible schedules, getting more help at home, or splitting the chores more equitably, there are many, many families who have found a balance by discussing their needs, working hard and finding their own balance together. One of the most interesting things researchers have found is that when dads and moms take the time to have parental leave from work alone, both tend to share chores equitably for the rest of their lives and both parents have close relationships with the kids, not just the mother.

The book was further split into three sections: work, love, and play and my favorite section of the book by far was play. Play is so important that without it, our brains don’t develop properly. Many people, and especially women, tend to save true play for the end of their to do list, which never arrives. Think about it, when was the last time you lost yourself in something completely engrossing that was just…for fun?

There are plenty of bright spots in the book. A women’s group called Mice at Play goes on adventure playdates (without the kids) to ride rollercoasters or soar through the air on a flying trapeze, simply to stretch women out of their comfort zones and have fun. The book goes into great detail about how families and communities work in Denmark, the happiest country on Earth. Here, the whole society is built to encourage free time. People work strict 37 hour weeks and take every second of their six-week paid vacation time. The newspapers focus on people’s leisure activities and, in fact, working long hours is not seen as productive, rather it’s seen as inefficient. Inside a Danish household you won’t find a lot of furniture or paper or kids’ toys; they simply don’t value material wealth.  You also won’t find the mother doing most of the housework or childcare, most Danish families split all activities nearly 50-50.

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, find the time to read this book. To help carve out that time, use one of Schulte’s recommendations: pick ONE thing to accomplish everyday and do it first.

Christmas Tree Alternatives

Christmas Plant

The debate rages on over whether to get a live christmas tree or an artificial one.  From a minimalist perspective, an artificial tree is an unattractive option given the storage space needed to keep a tree you won’t use for 11 months a year.

What doesn’t surface often in debates are some very creative Christmas tree alternatives. Year-to-year, I don’t remember our individual Christmas trees at all.  They blur together into one big Christmas tree memory.  What I do remember is the year we decorated a broken chair and the years we had a Christmas Hibiscus, which fit perfectly into our tiny North Dakota apartment.

You don’t have to keep putting up a regular Christmas tree! Here are a few Christmas tree alternatives to make your holidays brighter and easier.

Christmas Tree Alternatives

  1. Living trees – Buy a smaller, potted Christmas tree and plant it in the spring.  You’ll be able to enjoy your Christmas tree year-round without any environmental guilt.Living Tree Home
  2. Rent a tree – If you live in California, you can rent a Christmas tree.  It comes in a pot, you return it after Christmas, and it keeps growing and is rented again next year.
  3. Decorate a houseplant – Many people have rather large houseplants already and they make great temporary Christmas trees!  For many years, we had a Christmas Hibiscus, which brought so much more (tropical) warmth into our lives than a traditional Christmas tree.
  4. Decorate the wall – You can create a beautiful, one-of-a-kind tree out of paper, lights, or even a chalkboard and chalk on your wall.  Excess storage space is minimal and everyone will appreciate your unique spin on the Christmas tree.

    Painted Tree

    Photo Credit:

  5. Decorate something else – This is where you can get really creative and have some fun doing it.  One year, our computer chair broke just before Christmas and, instead of hauling it off to the dump right away, we made it the centerpiece of our Christmas lives.  It even gave us more space for boxes because we could stack them on top of the tree!

    Chair Christmas Tree

    We clearly weren’t trying, but I laugh every time I think of this “tree”.

  6. Cut your own Christmas tree – Avoid the crowds at Home Depot and head out into nature with your family.  There are many places to cut your own, live Christmas tree in the DC area and all over the US.  Turn the experience into a memorable event complete with a stop for hot chocolate afterwards.
  7. Branch out – Select an interesting branch from your yard, pot it, and decorate it.  It may not bring the traditional Christmas tree green indoors, but it can be a lovely reminder of what makes winter beautiful.

    Branch Tree

    Photo Credit:

  8. Don’t worry about a tree at all – We do a lot of things because they are tradition.  Traditions can make things special, familiar and give you something to look forward to, but when a tradition starts to become stressful, it loses its fun.  If shopping for, untangling lights, feeding, and disposing of a Christmas tree no longer inspires the Christmas spirit, stop doing it, and use the time to start a new tradition.


Get a Raise & Sneakily Increase Savings (Quick Tip)

Sneakily Increase Savings

In the first few months of my career, when my husband and I were fresh out of college, a dual income family without kids, I put only enough money into my 401(k) to get my company match, which was 6% at the time. As a software engineer going from my $8-an-hour job in the campus computer labs to an entry-level, salaried engineering position, it felt like we’d won the lottery. We were rich!

I quickly became very interested in saving more. Time, with its magical compounding interest, was on our side and I wanted the option to retire early. Now was the perfect opportunity to start saving more – and we did – but we were saving to buy things we thought we needed like a second car and a house.

When I got my first raise, I did something that many savings experts suggest and I’ll be very thankful for when I turn 59 and 1/2. I formed a habit that I’ve kept up to this day.

Every time I get a raise, I raise my retirement savings at least 1%. Next time I get a raise, I’ll save 50-100%.

This way, no matter what is going on with our finances, we sneakily increase savings on a regular basis. The additional money is pulled directly out of my paycheck so I don’t notice the increase and I still enjoy the feeling of getting a raise in take-home pay. My first raise was around 3.5%. So, I increased my 401(k) savings to 7% and still made an extra 2.5% take-home. It’s easier to save when you never had the money to spend in the first place.

I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. Sometimes I don’t get raises (like when we have historic economic collapses), but I’m up to 12% going directly into the 401(k) and we’ve also got Roth IRAs.

We’ve moved funds around and had them split almost evenly between Roth and traditional accounts (not knowing whether we’ll be in a higher or lower tax bracket in 25-30 years). This month, I decided to move more money to a pre-tax account so we could have a bit more in our paychecks to save outside of a retirement account (it made a huge difference – I’m getting $60 extra each paycheck). I’m not worried about recalibrating back to the 50/50 Roth/traditional split because every time I get a raise, I’ll increase our Roth contributions by at least 1% until we’re balanced. It’s a simple trick that takes one minute to accomplish each year and we’ll reap the benefits later.

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