Category Archives: Household Tips

Kitchen Storage Solutions

I can’t believe I’m going to share a picture of my kitchen drawer with you, but whenever I come across an organizing tip that actually works, it’s hard to resist sharing the news. My sister gave me the idea, which she got from a book about organizing your stuff. I think it might have been The life-changing magic of tidying up by Marie Kondō.

Downsizing and organizing seem to be popular themes these days. For the past month, I’ve been watching my recently retired neighbor hall things from her basement to either the trash or a pile destined for Goodwill. On the other side of me a neighbor unloaded some tomato cages, two of which I gladly took. There are entire podcasts devoted to convincing you to get rid of stuff.

Generally, the rule here is “Don’t let it in the house.” But swept up in the celebration of the team’s new logo, I caved and took a free Timberwolves t-shirt that was shoved into my hands on the way out of the arena. It wasn’t a good color for me. I didn’t like the cut. Was it supposed to be a souvenir? Fortunately I have some neighbors who are Wolves fans and they were happy to take the shirt and some other souvenirs. Basically we’re just trading stuff over here.

Another trick is to “Use things up.” When you get that candle on Christmas Day, get the matches out. Light it. Enjoy it every day until it’s gone. If you save it, pretty soon you’ll have two candles and then three. People will get the idea that you collect candles. Then you’ll get even more until you won’t live long enough to burn them all. So use the lotion. Eat the candy. Drink the wine. If it’s not for you, give it away right away. I mean, nobody wants a box of half eaten candies or a candle that was lit once and then stored where it collected dust until it came time for your estate sale.

For the stuff you do keep. Put it away. Even if it’s ultimately a contained mess like my kitchen drawer with the food storage containers, having a place to put things is a start. Until recently, I saw no reason to improve this isolated chaos. It was easy to toss things in willy-nilly and not such a big deal to fish things out as needed.

But when my sister mentioned this storage method where you store things vertically, I wondered if would work for this drawer. I arranged things and it worked great. The real test would be whether the system could more or less maintain itself. After having used this organizing tip for several months now, I’m hooked. It works for socks. It works for t-shirts (should you collect too many freebies). Towels. It works great. It also indicates when it’s time to recycle deli containers I might save. If it doesn’t fit, it’s out. Not wedged in. Not off into an auxiliary storage area. Out.

So here you have it folks.

My kitchen drawer.

Kitchen Storage

My kitchen drawer. The container lids are stacked vertically in a shoe box.

Getting More Space Out of Your Kitchen With What You Already Have

Lid Storage

I thought, “When I’m 90 it’s not going to be so easy to fish out these pans and lids from a cramped lower cabinet.” Then I realized that it’s driving me nuts now! So I removed some minor irritations by using certain spaces and some objects in unconventional ways.

Kitchen Storage

Pan lids are stored by maximizing underused space at the top of the stairway to the basement.

Pan lids are within easy reach, hanging just around the corner from the kitchen at the top of the stairway to the basement. Some lids hang on picture hanger screws. Others are resting on a two-dollar thrift store find, a rack we were using for mail.

Kitchen Storage

The ledge along the staircase keeps the lids out of the way.

The ledge along the staircase gives enough clearance so that the lids don’t obstruct the path or make it likely that they’ll get bumped.

Storage for pans, spices, paper towels, potatoes, onions, garlic…

yyyyy

A shoe rack used to hold pans.

Commonly used pans are where I can easily grab them.

Pans on shoe rack.

Pans on shoe rack.

In addition to saucepans, the shoe rack can hold often-used spices, a bowl for garlic (we’re out of garlic, it’s the blue and white bowl) and paper towels. More pans hang on the wall and sit on top of the radiator below. Baskets hang from a plant hanger and hold potatoes and onions.

Where do you put a kitchen utensil holder, knives and cutting boards when there is no counter space?

Getting around limited counter space.

Getting around limited counter space.

Storing the kitchen utensil holder in the cabinet freed up precious counter space. With open wall space also scarce, it’s a good solution for us. I also liked using what we already had. Brian’s Red Sox bucket was nice and roomy and lightweight. So instead of getting stored and forgotten as many souvenirs do, we get to enjoy it every time we reach for a wooden spoon!

Related to this, I have a friend who stores her cups and glasses in a drawer. When her kids were little she wanted them to be able to reach them so they could help unload the dishwasher. The point is, you can do what you want. Make it work for you. For me, I see the kitchen as a workshop.

Getting more room out of the pantry for canned goods

Canned goods storage.

Canned goods storage.

Putting canned goods on a sloping rack made the bottom shelf of the pantry more functional. I can see everything at a glance. I got the idea from another blogger (I’m sorry, I don’t recall which one) and it works great!

What’s next for my kitchen?

Painting – I’ve been painting the house and the kitchen will be included in this. Now that I’m mostly done with the basement and the living room, the dining room is next. Once that’s done, the color consultant will come back to help me with the kitchen.

New Counter Tops – Right now we have tile on the counter tops. I dream of grout-free counters.

Floors – The wood floors throughout the first floor of the house need to be refinished. I’m not sure when we’ll get to this, but that’s the plan.

Island – I can get more space with an island that can be rolled from in front of the dishwasher, where it would normally live. The extra prep space would be dreamy. I saw a good example of what I want at the Black Sheep, a pizza place in downtown St. Paul.

Medicine Cabinet Storage Tricks

Storing pharmaceuticals.

Office storage solutions for sorting cough drops and Band-Aids?

There was a website I needed to finish. Then there were raspberries to preserve before a quick trip to Rapid City. Oh, and what to do with the tomatoes? I couldn’t get everything done that I like to do before a trip – mainly cleaning the house. I didn’t sit down at 3 o’clock for a break as planned. Instead, I checked things off the list until the garage door shut and we sat in the alley debating whether to take a bucket of worms from my vermiculture system home for the nephews to see. I would have to find another way to be the fun aunt.

It turns out that wrapping kids up in a blanket and swinging them as if they were in a hammock (Hey! We forgot to say

One for the Money
Two for the Show
Three to Get Ready and
Four to Let Go!

)

or dragging them chariot-style across the lawn was probably more fun than red wigglers. Until Sioux Falls, I was certain that I would regret leaving them behind; I never did.

In the alley we also considered our route and made guesses as to which was least likely to be choking with straggling rush hour traffic. We sailed west on I-94 for about a minute and 20 seconds before I hit the breaks. It was stop-and-go until south of the suburbs.

Brian has never understood why thoroughly cleaning the house is part of the ritual of hitting the road and from what I can tell from the comedy channels on my Internet radio, he’s not alone (and neither am I!). While I thought this was about the simple pleasure of coming home to a clean house, I’m just realizing that it’s also about the surprise and the feeling of being cared for. While keeping a clean house is an excellent way to care for yourself (or someone you love*), it can be a grind. The laundry is done until I change my underwear. And by the time I’ve dusted a bobble head (ahem) in one room, a spider has begun reconstruction in the next. There is rarely enough time or the distance to enjoy the results of my labor. But if I change the sheets before getting out of town, when I come home not only will there be fresh linens to enjoy, there will be the perception that someone else made the bed (or vacuumed the staircase, or polished the baseboards, or shined the mirror, or washed the windows)…for me.

And then there are those household organizational tricks that you can keep rediscovering because they maintain themselves. For example, pictured here is another use for a desktop storage container, which has the prestigious honor of having not only been spared the Goodwill pile but of being something I did “find a use for someday.” The open bags of cough drops and the flimsy boxes of Band-Aids and other odds and ends that can clutter up the medicine cabinet were driving me nuts. This was a perfect solution. The clear containers make it easy to see what’s what and the rotating base maximizes the corners of closet shelves without compromising easy access. For better visibility, tear off and date the box covers to use for labeling the containers.

Clear containers lets you see what's inside.

Clear containers let you see what’s inside.

A rotating base maximizes closet corners.

A rotating base maximizes closet corners.

*There are many stories I could tell about helping people clean and getting help cleaning my house. Right now I am thinking of Dawn who had the good sense to make me wash the dishes after my dinner party, a distraction from an upsetting breakup. Late into the night, everyone except for Dawn started to file out. She stayed behind to help with the dishes, which was the last thing I wanted to do. I told her that I would take care of it in the morning; I wanted to go to bed. She would have none of it. In my depressed state, she feared that waking up to a mess would send me over the edge. So, she washed and I dried -or the other way around- until everything was in its place.

The Universe Wants Me to Eat Kefir

Do you ever get the idea that the universe is trying send you a message? When my friend Dan was considering a move to the Lone Star State he started to see Texas license plates everywhere, a little far from home where we lived in South Dakota. A tarot spread confirmed that a big change was coming, with the card of death routinely showing up in his Celtic cross.

Reading “the signs” can be tricky. Feeling out of sorts, are we trying to line up with our destiny? Or do we seek the blessing of a higher power to do what we simply want to do: Quit a job? Get a divorce? Become a Texan? Or do we just want to escape the limbo of chronic indecision? “If only the universe would tell me what to do!”

Brian isn’t one to mystify a spell of bad luck or a happy coincidence. I can’t imagine him looking for clues in the tarot, not even when he was 20, a good age for that kind of stuff when we’re dying to know how things turn out. Yet he will acknowledge “blue ice moments”. We were at Target the first time we noticed experiencing this cosmic connection. I thought of blue ice and then he appeared with an armload of it. It seemed so random, not like the times he brings milk home when we need it.

The last time I encountered a psychic I was with my mom in Times Square. For fun we paid five dollars to a palm reader who had set up shop next to a veteran selling fashion watches and “designer” handbags. Sonia told my mom – the mother of six grown kids – that she would give birth to lots of children. Looking deeply into her gypsy eyes, my mom invited Sonia to take another shot. She didn’t get the joke.

Guidance isn’t in the cards or in our palms, although it might be in the license plates we happen to notice. We’re swimming in guidance!

When I was working on a project distributing compost bins to neighbors, one of the participants randomly told me about the cure-all that is kefir and offered to give me starter grains. I had no idea what she was talking about, but trusted her testimony that this yogurt-like wonderfood was a pro-biotic that promoted digestive health. It was also a good source of protein, calcium, B vitamins and phosphorus, all essential for good health. While I was curious and had intended to accept the free “grains” needed to get a batch of kefir going, I never got around to it.

Months later in the dead of winter I was at my community garden tending to an experimental composting project (I’m not trying to suggest a compost connection here, but wouldn’t it be lovely!). There I met a man I took to be Vietnamese. The garden was on his rounds and he’d routinely stop by to ask about my project. One day for no particular reason he mentioned kefir. It was hard to catch everything he said, but I gathered he was extolling its health benefits. We exchanged email addresses and he sent me some information. While interested, again I dropped the ball.

Years later at a dinner party I could not turn down an offer of kefir grains as they were right there. I took them home and as directed “fed” my grains – actually a combination of bacteria and yeast – some milk and then proceeded to neglect them. Fortunately, the colony survived and I’ve since had a chance to incorporate kefir into my diet. As for the health benefits, I’m inclined to think that there might be something to it, although I don’t have enough experience to say what is real and what is hype. Does kefir promote a general sense of well-being? Two random strangers felt compelled to tell me that it does.

The universe might also dial us by scolding friend.

“I thought you were smarter than that!” Al said, taking a swig of coffee. We were having breakfast at Parka on East Lake Street, which was nice but perhaps a little too precious with its tiny sushi plates. A tablespoon of hash browns, no matter how perfectly seasoned or beautifully presented, is going to leave me hungry.

“You need to have a will!” Al apologized for being a downer, but I appreciated the push. Brian and I had been meaning to write our wills ever since we had heard about a case where a gay couple was operating under the assumption that having both of their names on the title of their jointly owned house would protect them from probate. It didn’t. We saw that article years ago.

The same week Al and I had breakfast, I uncharacteristically stopped on a channel where Suze Orman was preaching the gospel of personal finance. “You. Need. A. Will.” According to Suze, we also needed a medical power of attorney, a living revocable trust, and something else that slips my mind.

Fully informed now, I bolted upstairs where Brian was hunkered down with the cat and a book.

“Do you think it means anything?”

While Brian doesn’t believe that God was speaking through Suze Orman, he agreed that we need to get our wills in order tout suite. In the meantime, I’ll hope that our procrastination doesn’t bite us in the ass. Brian, on the other hand, isn’t worried. “I have faith that we’ll survive at least another week.”

Parting with the Bank

The consequences of subprime mortgages and credit default swaps were surfacing when we decided to buy a house. It was 2007 and a buyer’s market, which meant that we had to sift through a lot of overpriced shitboxes because the starry-eyed heirs to some of these pee-soaked rehabs hadn’t heard the news: The party was over. Anyone who could was waiting out the storm. We made two offers over nine months. It was exhausting.

In the meantime, I was working at the Minnesota House of Representatives where I was hearing from distressed constituents who were facing foreclosure. These cautionary tales and some unexpected advice would frame my approach as a first-time buyer, which was to get out of debt as soon as possible. I made a spreadsheet to help us with this goal and have since cleaned it up to share here (2007 Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. Note: Downloading this .xlsx file may cause your anti-virus software to warn you.)

Why be aggressive about paying off our house?

One day at work as I waited for my turn for the microwave in a cramped but lobbyist-free zone, a co-worker told of feeling trapped by a house he could not sell. He was “underwater” and – on top of that painful reality – paying almost two hundred dollars a month in mortgage insurance. Mortgage insurance? What’s that? “Avoid it if you can”, he warned. “It’s a terrible feeling to hand over that kind of money and have nothing to show for it.” I had a lot to learn.

As it turns out, to avoid mortgage insurance – designed to protect the lender from loan defaults – the buyer must make a down payment of at least 20 percent. So that was it. I came home and announced that if we couldn’t afford to do that, we couldn’t afford it. While I might have been a little puffed up with resolve that I had no right to have, we managed to swing it.

Another random tidbit of information came from a friend who wasn’t convinced that we were buying at a good time. “Wait until the prices hit bottom. They’re still going down.” This otherwise sage advice lost out to our sanity that was being threatened by our neighbor, the dipshit. On the other hand, making one extra mortgage payment every year was something we could do. As any mortgage calculator will show, extra payments can significantly reduce the payback period of a loan, slashing the cost of interest by thousands. After playing with a few of these free calculators online, I found myself wanting my own spreadsheet that I could understand, customize and edit more easily. So, I made one and it has helped us stay on track with some simple financial goals.

By simple, I mean simple. “How fast can we pay off the house?” That was the question, not whether we’d come out ahead if we made other investments instead. You’ll have to go elsewhere for that advice. All I can say is that hearing about the unraveling of lives that started with a balloon payment, a rate adjustment or a late payment and referring the broken men and women at the center of these stories to Lutheran Social Services for last-ditch help with foreclosure prevention made an impression on me; I was driven more by a desire to part with the bank than what might be generally considered to be shrewd financial planning.

I recently shared my spreadsheet with a friend who – just like me – didn’t realize what a difference an extra fifty dollars towards the principle of a loan can make when paying down your debt. You’re welcome to download it here. Please be advised that I do not guarantee that there aren’t any mistakes in this spreadsheet. Disclaimer aside, maybe playing with some numbers will inspire you to set some goals and get out of debt sooner rather than later. And, of course, if you have any corrections, requests or suggestions regarding this spreadsheet, please let me know!

About the Spreadsheet

Download here – 2007 Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet. Note: Downloading this .xlsx file may cause your anti-virus software to warn you.

Input your Data
Enter your data (house price, down payment, interest rate, etc.) in the green cells. Other cells cannot be changed, but are calculated fields. If you want to unlock the spreadsheet to add some of your own calculations, let me know and I’ll give you the password.

Default Extra Payments
Enter the amount of the extra payments you plan to make on your mortgage every month (Column B, Line 15). As with other variables, you can try different numbers to see how it affects the financing costs and payback time. In the event that you have a change to your default extra payment any given month, you can indicate this in Column F next to the corresponding date in Column G. For example, if by default I am going to make an extra payment of $150, but for the month of February 2014, I can only do $50, I would enter that amount in the column next to February 2014. If there is no change to your default extra payment, leave Column G blank. Keep in mind that $0 is not blank. Instead it means that you are paying $0 as opposed to your default extra payment.

Lump Payment
The idea of a lump payment is that you might want to save money with the intention of putting it toward your mortgage someday, but want the security of having access to cash in the meantime. This could help you make your regular mortgage payments in the event of a layoff, for example. Otherwise, this money could be used to pay off the house when what you owe, which goes down every month, matches what you have saved, which goes up. I did not factor in an interest rate for your savings.

Summaries
There are three summaries you can see at a glance. One factors in your extra payments, another does not. This will make it easy for you to compare the two scenarios. Finally, there is a third summary that factors in your extra payments and a lump payment.

Avoid these hangers

HangerHangerSprucing up for spring means having a good way to put stuff away. If you do, you’re more likely to stick with a system to keep things organized. So, I’m a fan of hangers that are designed specifically for pants and bought a stash of them a few years ago when I reorganized my closet.

HangerDon’t make the same mistake I made. Avoid these wooden slack hangers that are plastic around the neck of the hook. As much as I have tried, I can’t find a use for these headless wooden slats, which is an almost certain end to the last of my premium-priced hangers with their seductive velvet padding.

Hanger

The hangers that come with garments in the store have lasted.

Hanger

Slack hangers can also be used for boots! This hanger is all metal and has been around forever. I’m not sure where it came from or where to get more.

Homemade Laundry Soap

When I was a young adult, I had friends who were devout Amway distributers. My former church youth counselors, Frank and Mary Ellen, took the vitamins, used the laundry soap and personal care products and they aspired to become Amway Diamonds, which meant a lifetime of financial security. They could retire early.

So it was Mary Ellen who first gave me an education on laundry detergent “filler”. Amway’s product didn’t have it. While somewhat ironic and perhaps true, Mary Ellen the Amway dealer considered commercial laundry soaps to be a total scam where a pound of sawdust was sold with every pound of soap. Since then I have watched boxes of Tide and other brand-name laundry detergents mysteriously shrink by about two thirds.

Non-Toxic Laundry Soap

A Sample of non-toxic laundry soap from a Community POWER recipient

Non-Toxic Laundry Soap

Recipe: Non-Toxic Laundry Soap

Flash forward to a presentation of the 2011 Community POWER grant recipients where I was giving a report on a residential composting initiative I coordinated. There I heard about one project that set out to debunk the more-toxic-more-suds-the-cleaner hoax and taught residents how to economize while reducing their environmental impact by – for one thing – making their own laundry detergent. I went home with a sample of the detergent and I tried it for the first time last week.

Non-Toxic Laundry Soap

This cheese grater did not work very well for cheese. But it worked great for soap.

In the load that I did using the sample, there were a few soap flakes that did not dissolve. It wasn’t the end of the world, but certainly not something you can expect the average person to accept. I’m wondering if this can be resolved when I make a new batch of detergent with more finely grated soap. As I recall from the presentation, any bar of soap will do. However, I’ve noticed that other recipes favor Fels-Naptha soap. I’m going to use what I have.

Here are other recipes for laundry detergent you could try:

Non-Toxic Laundry Soap

Less soap. Less Money. Less Space.

Non-Toxic Laundry Soap

3 TBLS is enough for a large load. Normally I would have used 1 scoop. Either way, if you’re not reading the directions and measuring the soap, you are most likely wasting money.

As a bonus, in addition to using less product (1-3 TBS), the powder fits in less space.

One blogger assures us that the lack of suds you’ll notice when using your homebrew is not a problem. She’s right. In the 1960’s marketers pushed suds as a way to tell that the soap was working. Today, we’re warned that too many suds indicate overuse. In addition, high efficiency washers have created a demand for low-suds products again. Marketing fads can be confusing.

Writer Michael Pollan says “Don’t eat what you see on television.” Given the detergent filler Mary Ellen warned me about 20+ years ago and a deceptive suds campaign that added no value but only aimed to distinguish one product from another one just like it, and given the overall advertising tactics that are turning us into neurotic Lysol junkies, I wonder if we shouldn’t apply that rule to all products advertised on television: Don’t buy them.

I think I’ll try it. 2014. Resolve to be Clean.


Links

The Soap Conflict, Thomas WhiteSide, The New Yorker, 1964.
“As the level of detergent suds in the American kitchen approached the stifling point a counter-movement set in. It started with a detergent called All; Procter & Gamble then put out Dash, with ‘low suds’ & ‘safe suds.’ Were suds good or bad?”

Vintage Commercials

Low Suds

Without Bleach or Bluing

With Bleach

Newspaper Tubes

Star Tribune Plastic Bag

Plastic bags with the morning paper are optional.

To avoid the plastic bags that come with our newspaper subscription, we are getting a Star Tribune newspaper tube. It’s such an easy solution for something that has been bugging me a long time. It just took a phone call to the Strib (612) 673-4343.

Decluttering for the New Year

It's All Too Much, Peter WalshWe went to Rapid City for Christmas and, motivated by a book I found while there, I returned ready to take a closer look at our home to see what might be encroaching on our corner of paradise.

Peter Walsh’s workbook, “It’s All Too Much”, begins with an assessment that would suggest that a family intervention isn’t imminent.

“Do you need to clear off the kitchen counter to prepare a meal?”

No.

“Do you regularly misplace your car keys or checkbook?”

No.

“Do you have to remove laundry… to get to your bed?”

Not usually.

Yet there’s a reason why I walked out of Books-A-Million with a receipt. We have kitchen gadgets that we do not use. I couldn’t do my taxes tomorrow without taking a day to gather the necessary papers and I feel daunted by a stash of plastic bags that is ever growing thanks to our newspaper subscription.

I was also drawn to some of the exercises in the book. The “I might need it one day” and the “It’s worth a lot of money” excuses for hanging on to stuff are quickly neutralized. Not being a huge hoarder myself, I was surprised to notice that I relied on some of them. It was liberating to be ready with a sensible response:

“If I can’t use it today, right now, for who I am in the life I am living, I don’t need it.”

As clutter piles up over time it becomes invisible. So, in the “What I see – What I’d like to see” exercise where you note in detail what is in each room, you learn to see again.

The “Room Function Chart” was another eye-opening exercise. Room by room you are to note the current and ideal function of a space. Based on that, you can determine what is needed and what must go. Doing this exercise, I discovered that our office was serving too many functions. I had been struggling to find a credenza/armoire/cabinet with very specific dimensions and features so that we could reduce the footprint of stereo cabinets and whatnot on the crowded floor. But then I realized that if we quit using the office/video-audio studio/guestroom for overflow clothing, there would be ample room to serve these other purposes. As a bonus, the search for furniture that doesn’t exist could finally stop.

We need to live within the space that we have. I have always believed in Rule #1 and for the most part we do okay. We certainly aren’t paying for storage, which was the subject of a sermon at my parents’ church back in Rapid. The preacher said, “We fill our houses to the brim, packing every closet until we can’t get into them anymore. We stuff the attic with things we will soon forget. When that’s full, we move boxes we never unpacked from our last move into the garage. Then we rent climate-controlled storage space. If it weren’t for the bill, we would forget about that too. Why do we need so much stuff?”

Rule #2 prioritizes the use of space. So, not only do we have to live within the space that we have, the space must make it possible to easily do what we want to do. Keeping this in mind, it is suddenly much easier to choose between a few jackets that I never wear and having easy access to my collection of taped interviews.

Shoes

I don’t wear them. They’re out.

While difficult to overcome the temptation to move clutter from one spot to another, I won’t be able to do that now without remembering Rule #3: “One room’s clutter is still another room’s clutter.” So, I have a nice little pile of stuff accumulating for the Goodwill, the used bookstore, and Craig’s List.

As I worked through some very tiring exercises, I thought of friends for whom clutter is a constant issue and considered whether this book might be a nice centerpiece to a support group. It might be. I thought of people who are relocating to warmer climates or with a job and who have no choice but to look at and handle absolutely everything they own. Whether they decide to pack it all up or dispose of certain things in one way or another before loading the truck and moving on to the next chapter, they’ll have to make a lot of decisions. I wonder what I would decide about the shoebox full of dried out pens that occupy prime real estate in my closet.