Thursday, April 28, 2011

Excuse you, Google Maps

I sometimes ride my bike to work, on a route that I got mostly from Google maps bicycle directions back in September.

I might head out to visit my mom after school tomorrow, and I'm planning on biking to work, so it would make the most sense to bike out there as well. It's pretty far, but actually shorter than my commute (thats sad). Anyhow, I looked up the route, and it gave me three routes.

And then it said, "Or take public transit (1 transfer)".

....what exactly are you trying to say Google maps? Is it too far for me? Can I not handle it? What gives?

I looked up my regular routes and I guess the beta version has made a lot of changes. The route it says to take now is different, and I might try parts of it out tomorrow (more angle streets, which are a timesaver). But I still can't get over the part where it keeps telling me to take public transit.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day!

This week is my spring break, and I took a road trip with a couple friends earlier in the week.

We saw some adorable new designs of Chico sacks. And these nifty collapsible water bottles (I don't remember what they were called). And as we purchased a couple items and pulled our own reusable bags out of our purses, we talked about how pretty much everyone we know carries a bag these days.

The Chico ones are a little expensive (I got one for a Christmas gift many years ago--they fold up in to their own little pouch), but they have them everywhere now. All the grocery stores sell them, and most places give you a little back (like five or ten cents) for using your own bag. But these little pocket ones (Office Depot has them for super cheap) are great, because they fold up so tiny you can put them in anything at all. No more forgetting.

Back in December, we had an assembly, and they talked about if everyone would just Do One Thing, it would make a huge difference. Carrying bags is just one option. You could turn off lights when you leave the room. Turn off the water while you wash/brush/whatever. Try to combine trips so you drive less.

We asked all our students to make one pledge for Earth Day last Friday when we did our energy bike assembly, and I hope you can too...or if nothing else, just think about it! (It's ok to pick something easy, too!)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Earth Month: Save Some Energy

Today was parent conference day at school, and seven of my students had a fabulous time forcing pretty much every person to walk in the school to take a "save energy" doortag (four designs! available in English or Spanish!) or other flier. They were nothing if not enthusiastic, and they reached a ton of people.

Their basic message was turn it off or unplug it and save money. They've been prepping for this for awhile, since we were originally supposed to do it on the day of the blizzard. It's funny how much people don't realize how much small moves can help...so let's figure it out!

Through my club, I have a Kill-a-watt
Source
You plug it in to the socket like normal, and then plug your appliance etc into it as you usually would, and it measures how much energy it uses. Fun! (For me at least.) You can see how many watts it has used over time, and can also see other data about various electrical measurements I do not understand.

I've measured various things over the years (my humidifier=really really bad...I now use pans of water under the radiators. Christmas lights are also bad, which was very depressing. On the other hand LED lights are ugly, so I'm not sure what the answer is there). And I thought it would be fun to measure more things now, so...
What do you want me to measure?

If it has a plug (and I have/use one) I can find out how much energy it uses. I'll also do something with phantom load, which is the amount of energy things use when they are plugged in but off. I'm hoping as part of Earth Month to finally get around to installing my Smart Strip as well.

Let me know in the comments what you're curious about, and I'll start collecting some data!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Happy Earth Month!

source
It's Earth Month! For the past several years, I've run a recycling & conservation club at my school, and I'm also a volunteer environmental speaker for the City of Chicago (so if you're having an event and want someone to come talk about something conservation-y like work composting*, recycling, conservation issues or rain barrels*, you can request one--fun!)

As part of training for both of those things I've learned lots of really interesting stuff, and I hope to do a couple entries each week about different environmental issues.

Get excited for:
  • Recycling
  • Energy Conservation
  • The Kill-a-Watt
  • Water Policy (which I know sounds super boring but is actually pretty interesting)
  • The Energy Bike (assuming I have actually managed to schedule it to visit my school)

Happy Earth Month!

*I don't talk about those, but other people do.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Money Matters: More on Mint

Its been awhile since I talked about Mint. If you got started with it too, it takes awhile to really figure out what's going on, and how you can best use it.

We got started a few months back by getting accounts in there, so that it would have time to build up some data. Then, I gave a quick overview of the different components. Hopefully, all of your accounts are in there, and you've been checking in every week or so on your transactions. You should also have made some guess budgets, and have probably been revising them. Some of the alerts are useful; some make no sense for quite some time ("You spent $1,000 on rent. You usually spend $173.42 on rent.") as they average over a shorter period of time and apparently confuse themselves.

Anyhow, for me, I was looking for a good big picture of my spending and to help me plan. After setting up my budget categories and spending for a few months, I started noticing some things that confused me or just didn't match the way I spend or what I was hoping to track. I'm not in debt, nor am I an overspender, so this isn't something I need to monitor obsessively and some of the (over) categorization was making it confusing to get a quick overall picture.

Mint auto-categorizes transactions, usually pretty accurately. My problem was in things I won't spend regularly on--I'm looking at you, stamps. Or a magazine subscription. I don't spend enough (or frequently enough) on little things like that to have a budget for them, but I do want to know where and how they're adding up. For me, what made the most sense was to pare down my categories into the following:
  • Home (with Home Improvement & Furnishings subcategories)
  • Auto & Transport (with a Gas & Fuel subcategory)
  • Food & Dining (with Groceries & Restaurants subcategories)
  • Charity
  • Travel
  • Bills & Utilities
  • Shopping
  • Gift
  • Personal Care
I know some people will want more categories than that, but for me it made things simplest. For things that are technically "Pharmacy" like shampoo, I categorize them as Groceries as well. I buy both food and drug items from both food & drugstores, so instead of splitting out purchases or trying to remember if that CVS purchase was detergent or eggs, I call it all groceries. I never overspend on shampoo etc anyhow, so I don't really need careful tracking.

Other than that, if you don't see it on the list, its probably "Shopping". There are subcategories under that like "Clothing" "Books" "Sporting Goods" and "Hobbies", and I categorize things that way, but it all pulls from the same budget. I don't spend enough on any one category for it to need its own bucket, and as long as I stay within my overall budget, I'm not too concerned where my money goes. This is especially true since I often spend in cycles. I might not buy any new clothes for several months and then want to refresh my wardrobe, or have a shopping spree at Michael's.

Along those lines, there are a couple of options when you set up a budget, including to set up a budget for "every month", "every few months" and "once". The idea behind it is to help you budget for things like auto insurance, which is only due once a year. However, this confused me. I swear it double counted my auto insurance, and I think my way is much easier:
Mint also allows you to rollover a budget, and virtually all of mine do this. That means I put aside an extra $70 a month in my "Auto" budget, and by the time my car insurance is due, I've built up enough of a surplus to pay that money out of my regular budget. And I still have that "on average" idea of how much I spend in a month. This also works well for things like Personal Care, where I put only $25 each month, not even enough for a haircut. But I get my haircut infrequently, and if I have the money in that account, I won't feel guilty using it on a manicure either. I also "save up" for bigger things using this method, instead of Mint's goals. I put money into my travel, home improvement and furnishings accounts, and know that as long as I don't go over, I can do any home projects I want that fit within the budget. The goals are great if you need to regularly transfer money (like to pay off debt) but if you're just trying not to spend more than an average of $100/month on furnishings, I think my method is way easier (and I didn't get confused, like I did with Mint's saving up feature, or yelled at, like I did with goals). 

Although this makes me recategorize things sometimes to make it more streamlined, it gives me a good (and quick!) overall picture of my spending that I find really helpful. If you want to use a similar method, think of the places you're really interested in monitoring and where you spend enough to be able to see trends, and make smaller categories for those. For everything else, make life easier and don't create a zillion budgets!

I know this was a lot, so let me know if there's anything else I should have covered! What has your experience with Mint been?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Party of the Year

Last night was a bittersweet one for me. For the last five years, I taught (math) in the the JROTC academy at my old School. JROTC is a fantastic program, and they do tons of cool activities with the kids, one of which is the annual Military Ball.

This was my fourth and final one--I had a blast, but it's sad knowing it was my last. My kids are seniors now. They planned this, they were the ones sitting at the head table, etc. I won't really know next years kids, and it won't be the same.

My favorite Division 146 girls
But enough of the weepy stuff...Military Ball is SO FUN.

It's held at a cheesy banquet hall (this one was actually pretty nice)
Porretta's
They include the centerpieces etc...at the last one our package included the wedding cake (?!), so it was in the middle of the dance floor. Colonel cut it with a saber.

Military Ball can be described as a cross between Boy Scouts & the Prom. The girls wear dresses, the boys (the ones that are in JROTC and not dates) wear their uniforms. The evening starts off with the saber team marching in. They do a little formation thing, and then line the sides of the dance floor (to the left and right in the photo above). Then the MC announces each member of staff (those are the student leaders) and their dates. Each of them has a different rank, and so the sabers do a different twirling* motion. For the Battalion Commander, they do their thing and then all bow down. It's pretty awesome. And I knew a lot of the kids being introduced and sitting at the head table this year, which was fun.

Anyhow, then the saber team goes back to attention, and the Color Guard posts colors (I love posting colors--its a cool military ritual, and our kids are really good--they've done it at Cubs games and everything). Then, in all our formal wear, we say the pledge of allegiance and someone sings the Star Spangled Banner. After that is dinner, which is just, you know, high school dance dinner, and then they announce royalty.

My awesome friend & also former coworker did the announcing, and I did the presenting. This should mean I got the easy job, since I basically hand things out. But there are four tiaras (one for each level), 3 scepters, a crown and then sashes too for the king & queen.
But four slightly different sets
 And everything is taped and plastic-ed together within an inch of its life. Which we didn't realize until she read the first name and I could tell that tiara was never coming out. Which was ok, because I was about to give the LET 2 tiara to the LET 1 princess just as soon as I could set that sucker free. Oops. Also, I do not have a future in tiara placement. I was worried about messing up hair and I couldn't figure out where it should go, and so I mostly just plopped it on their head with a worried look on my face. Some photo op I make (and some mom made me re-tiara her daughter--I tried to look less concerned for that one). The sashes at least I've got down, thanks to beauty pageant themed Sorority rush party back in the day. And scepters are easy. 

We even got JROTC coins in recognition of our help, and the student speaker gave me a shout out in his speech ("Like Ms. C, who is over there eating her ice cream!"--awkward!). Then the dancing started up--probably not like any dances you go to, as the music that's the biggest draw is Bachata, a Puerto Rican dance music.


Anyhow, it was a blast, it was fantastic to see so many of my students, I miss them like crazy, and now I can't wait to see them again when they (OMG how did this happen) graduate.

*I bet what you do with a saber should not be called twirling. But whatever.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Happy Birthday Sister!

I finally made up to Milwaukee to visit my sister this weekend. Her birthday is Monday, so my dad came up for the day on Saturday as well.

It was my first time seeing her new place, including the new-new couch (since the first one didn't fit). And, um, boxes. After the whole couch debacle, all she had was a papasan chair, a couple bookcases and a coffee table. When the second couch finally came (and fit) she was kind of used to some of her random items. Like using the microwave box for an end table.

We put an end to all that--we did some shopping and got her two new end table lamps (darn it--the one I rejected from my living room got rejected from hers too. Want it mom?), as well as a new end table. And my dad brought up a floor lamp. Her room looks so. much. better. (I'll add some pictures in later). She was very resistant to losing those boxes, but we got 'em out while she wasn't looking.

We also went fancy for our mutual favorite meal--Saturday we made waffles (in the Grilleration, hahaha) and Sunday we did crepes. Our first one turned out terrible, but we totally got the hang of it by the end.

We had dinner at Roots, which I actually had walked by before--it looks really cool.
Roots
After my dad left, he called to tell us there was some sort of super moon* that won't happen again for a long time, so we bundled up and walked out to a point on the lakefront to see it. It was very bright, so I guess it was super, and the walk was fun either way.

It was great to see her, and hopefully I'll get back up here faster this time!

*This is unverified and in fact I have no idea what it means. My dad said it and we just believed him.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Back on the Road!

It's finally time...I rode my bike today!  It's been stuck at School since December 4, when the weather turned halfway through the day.

 [And then I tried to find a picture on the internet and post it here--my bike is awesome but, um, dirty and in the basement right now. My bike is like a secret bike, and no pictures of it exist. Or they've all been destroyed. Or something.]

The high was in the upper 50's, it was sunny and balmy and not too windy, and I totally needed a good bike ride.  I wasn't even slow or anything--right at my normal gear, although as I was feeling all proud of myself for not being as pathetic as anticipated, I hit a bridge and had to downshift like four gears. (Yes, you can laugh at me tomorrow when I can't walk, which is highly likely.) It took me only a little over an hour, right on par with my usual time--and not bad at all for 13 miles.

I started* bike commuting back at my old School, a nice 3 mile commute. It took almost the same time as driving, so it was no different. And, added bonus, I hate working out so it took care of that too. Then I moved a mile further away. It was a quick adjustment though. Just a few more minutes on the bike (or in the car).

And then. I switched jobs over the summer. If I haven't mentioned before, one of the things I don't like about my new School is that it's really far. The commute sucks. That was a principal thing I was upset about when I got the job--how would I ride my bike?

Until I realized the only thing stopping me was myself (and, you know, sanity). It's a little more involved now--I can't just wear the flats I'm going to wear to work (and sometimes most of my outfit). I never used to carry water, but now I need it and have to stop at the park for the drinking fountain when I forget. And after a flat** incident last fall, I have a little emergency kit that I don't know how to use. I think my plan is to flag down a sympathetic cop, as no one on the south side actually rides bikes.

Anyhow, I probably need to go get a spring cleaning and tune up and whatever else, but it's great to be back on the streets!

*I was really obsessive about starting. I actually walked the entire route first so it would look familiar from my bike. It seemed very brilliant at the time and took three hours. I did learn how much I dislike Cortland.
**Your tire can be really low but still ride-able. My pressure should be between 60-85 I think, and it was at 30. When you realize you have special valves and cannot in fact fill up at the gas station, RIDING TEN MILES IS REALLY DUMB. You won't be able to walk for three days. Sometimes I am too tough for my own good.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Glass boxes

Last fall, in the Crate & Barrel catalog, I saw this:
Crate & Barrel

And I decided I really, really needed a glass box. I cut out the picture and put it on the fridge (to remind myself? For a hint for Mark? Who knows.) Even the small one is pretty pricey at $49.95 though, and while I really really wanted one, I don't have a rock collection like they show. Or really anything else that is just begging for a glass box.

So I didn't ask for it for Christmas or anything, I just idly wanted it. And then when we went to pick up a gift at West Elm, there it was:
West Elm
They're smaller than the Crate & Barrel ones, and also a good bit cheaper. This I can do. So I picked one up when B and I had our shopping spree. It looked so nice on my coffee table, if a little, well, empty. We had some M&Ms in the candy jar, so I put those in. Which mostly looked (unsurprisingly) random.

But over the weekend, I fixed it. I keep a bunch of stuff for when I eventually start to scrapbook (I make cards, but Mark hopes I will make us a scrapbook someday). I pulled some "us"* stuff out of my box, arranged it in the glass case, and now it looks way better:
 In case you're curious, I put in tickets from two concerts we've been to, a photostrip from the City Museum in St. Louis, the punch card from a corn maze we did when our Couples Group went on a retreat last fall, the sticker from the Apple Cider Century (my very first organized bike ride!) and of course a turtle. I didn't put too much time or thought into it, but so far I like it!

What would you put in a glass box? Anyone have any better ideas?

*True Story: My first thought was...."Hmmm, I could put my rush nametags in there" I saved them because they tend to be very elaborate, and they would look cool. But I might be just a bit too old for that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Paid Off

In other news, I'm pretty sure* I own my car now.

My car was the first thing I ever took out a loan on. I know in general its bad to have loans, but I've never carried a balance on anything, and it seemed like it would be wise to prove I COULD pay something back if I wanted to. But it always makes me feel guilty when I read personal finance blogs.

In my case though, it wasn't a terrible decision. First, I could have paid cash if I'd wanted to (and could have paid my car off at any time). Second, my interest rate was 2.9%. And third, I'm pretty sure it made my credit score go up.

I can't be certain about the credit score thing, because I didn't know my exact score shortly before I bought my car, but it's always been in the mid to high 700's. When I bought my condo a little over a year later, my lender's score (they always use the middle one of the 3 bureaus) was 806.

Anyhow, I feel more affectionate towards my car now that I own all of it. This is silly, since yesterday I didn't own $185.15 of it...which is like the floormats or maybe a wheel**. But anyhow, now its really-really mine, and my only remaining debt is my mortgage.

Hooray for me!

*I have automatic payments set up, and this last one was for the remainder of my loan ($185.15) so I assume that takes care of it. But who knows...I paid it off early, so maybe there is something else I need to do.

**I did the same thing with my condo, where I put down 25% and then amused myself deciding which specific part of my condo I owned. Conveniently, it has four rooms. I decided I owned the dining room. If I ever have problems with the bank, can I give back say, the living room but keep the dining room??

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Now THAT'S Progress!

I made some changes to my living room two weeks ago, and almost 2 weeks in, I'm really liking it. The new lamp and rug are winners for sure (as is my random glass box). The jury is still out on the pillows. Several people who have stopped by think they look great, but Mark and I still feel like they're too white--something more cream would be better.

This is what we started with:


Anyhow, here's where we are now:
Doesn't the rug make a huge difference?
 Several things are placeholders right now:
  • The chair was in the dining room. 
  • So was the lamp that is now on the mantel
  • We still want a new coffee table
The jury is also still out on those pillows:


I know the colors aren't great, and the couch definitely looks good with light-colored pillows. We just think they're too light. It's tough to tell, but the blanket on the chair is cream, and the pillows are white. They are off-white enough that in the store with all their white-pillow friends, I was like "oh, they're cream." But not really.

As for the chair:
We both LOVE it. It was a 16th birthday present for me. [When I moved in we couldn't figure out where to put it, and my mom put in the corner of the dining room by the windows, telling me I could sit there to...look at cookbooks? We all laughed since she was obviously just trying to justify the placement (it's right next to the bookshelf with the cookbooks). But surprise surprise, she's right. We DO sit there and look at cookbooks.] In the living room? It just looks too old-fashioned for me. I'm trying to get away from the look of the coffee table, and the chair isn't helping. I think I found a new chair already, but I'm probably going to wait and ask for it for my birthday.

I'm also on the lookout for a lamp for the mantel; the one that's there right now doesn't really work. But at least now I know I want a lamp there. And it helps fill that 11 feet of space.

Anyhow, what do you think?!?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Dear Connie

I'm sorry I'm an idiot sometimes. I'm not sure why I didn't file a homeowner's exemption for my county property taxes. At first I thought you were being mean to me (which I probably deserve for being so dumb), but you weren't. You were one of the most helpful telephone service people I've ever talked to.

You told me:
  • Which two forms I needed
    Where to find them and precisely what they were called (It's a "Homeowner's Exemption Certificate of Error"--and you even mentioned it will say C/E Number, but I shouldn't worry, as that's for office use only).
  • What I needed to include
  • Where to take it when I fill it out

And then, you kept going. You mentioned that my assessed value went up, and gave me several steps to go through and places to try to get it adjusted.

And also, after I get my paperwork filed, you explained that I needed to call my mortgage company--but make sure I talk to the Escrow Department--to have my payment adjusted down again.

You're the best government employee ever, Connie. Thanks!

Seriously? This woman was SO HELPFUL. She was the one who mentioned the assessed value and how to get it adjusted. She also did not have to walk me through how to get my mortgage payment adjusted back down, especially in such great detail.

And in case you screwed up your taxes too, never fear, fixing them isn't that bad!

I had to fill out a form to make it correct for this year, then a certificate of error to make it correct for last year, and then submit a phone bill* showing I had service at this address. I also now have a list (including the phone number!) of places to call to try to get my assessed valuation down. Awesome.

I know no one really cares about my taxes, but there's more here: Don't psych yourself out. I knew I messed up and was afraid fixing it would be a pain. But putting it off wouldn't have helped, and now I feel so much better. Take something you've been procrastinating on and DO IT!

*I could have used my license, had I bothered to change it.

Never mind

Remember how we were choosing paint? And then trying to find a new lamp and table?

All because this:


is too dark and heavy and old-fashioned. So we thought maybe we could paint it a lighter color of gray, and it wouldn't look so dark. And I could get a lamp (I thought glass would look nice, but didn't have specifics) in a lighter color; still large but not so heavy and dark looking. With a lighter coffee table... maybe that would do it.

Then when we were hanging out with M & B, who are awesome (she's more like me than anyone I know, he's one of Mark's closest friends). B also happens to have a design background, a well-decorated condo, plenty of opinions and unfortunately, no job right now. When we mentioned the paint again, he said he really thought the rug was doing a lot to make it look so dark. See above. (Then make fun of me/us for being dense--that did not even occur to Mark or I.) He thought maybe if we switched out the rug, we wouldn't even need to repaint. A smaller and lighter colored rug would show off my wood floors, which are in good condition and hopefully be a paler base for the room.

Oh.

So we rolled the rug partway up (it's really big and we didn't feel like moving every piece of furniture out of the room). And it looked...great. Lighter, more open. Brilliant. So B and I spent the afternoon shopping on President's Day. We hit Crate & Barrel, and then headed over to Pottery Barn and finally West Elm. We saw a couple of decent things at the first two, but at the last we hit the jackpot (the double jackpot, considering my discount there!). First thing we saw?

The one on the left
A glass lamp! I didn't have an actual idea of what I wanted, but I was thinking a glass lamp--perfect! We wandered around and finally got to the rug wall...where we found this:
It's less brown and more cream in person
The gray of the walls? Check. A medium to dark tan, like the couch's base color? Check. A cream base, to lighten up the room? Check. Perfection!

We also found some pillows (that I don't love--they looked more cream/less white in the store, and at home they're white--but the idea is a good one). We picked up the lamp, rug, pillows, and a glass display box that I irrationally really want (even though I have no idea what I'm going to put in it). We went back to my place, and pulled out old rug, put the new one down, and then B took some stuff out and grabbed things from other rooms. Its totally not done yet, but getting there.

And even more exciting, I had game club two nights later, and one girl (who has been to my house several times) walked in and asked if I got a new couch. "It just pops...I love it!" So obviously its a good change. And it looks so much lighter, we don't need to paint now. I need to find pillows that are a better fit, we need a cream/natural chair and a new coffee table would still be nice, but I'm super-pleased with where we are now. Thanks B!

What do you think? Good switch?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Young & Broke

I have a (younger) acquaintance who is in the will-do-anything*-for-money stage. Join this committee? Is it paid--heck yes. Work overtime? Absolutely. And so on. Thing is, it seems like it goes a little far at times--pretend I did more work than is reasonable and expect to get paid for it? Yep.

I was commenting on this to a mutual acquaintance, musing on why you would try to pull that (I don't think it's something they would get fired for, but it seems clearly dishonest. Enough so that you'd be likely to get called out for it.) She pointed out that we were all that young once. We didn't make any money before.

Which...kinda.

I mean, I make a decent wage, but you don't often hear of a teacher-millionaire. I make sure to spend my money wisely (and never more than I have) and I was lucky enough to graduate--twice--without significant loans.

I assume at least one of these things is not the truth for this acquaintance. And I'm sorry for that. Clearly the pressure he feels for income compels him to work ten hour days 2-3 days a week. It really makes me proud of my decisions that give me the freedom to turn things down. Extra money is nice, but because I don't have that pressure of need, I can consider what I really want. Time or money? It's good to be able to choose time.

And, as kind of a post-script, after two recent bills and a talk with a friend, I realize I've completely messed up my property taxes (I honestly thought I HAD a homeowners exemption. I don't.) And paying $300 extra each month? Not fun. And an extra $1,320 to make up the difference? Ugh. But I can. And I will. (And she says when I fix my mistake I get the extra money back, which makes me feel much, much better).
*Ok, not anything-anything, but anything at work.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Updates

I need help.

Or I guess more specifically, my living room needs help. I have a perfectly nice living room. Sure, the paint is a little dark. But the furniture is all pretty nice (even if I didn't pick most of it). It's just...kind of boring. And it feels like grandpa's study.
(Ironic, as my grandpa's study is actually filled with light colored furniture. But you know what I mean.)

It's a lovely rug, and my grandma gave it to me. The couch I don't love, but it's a nice couch, in good condition and I already have it. It seems silly to replace things I already have. I want to buy a leather chair eventually, but this room will still look...stuffy.

But a couple of weeks ago N came over for dinner and girl time. I was saying I really wished my place looked a little more...updated, but didn't want to get rid of the rug or replace the couch. And she (brilliantly) suggested two fixes:
  • new coffee table 
  • new table lamp
Genius. Yeah, the couch will still be plaidy. But hopefully with the walls painted a lighter gray, and a new table and lamp, the room will look lighter and a little more modern.

So this afternoon, I set out hunting. And I found one I like.
Pier 1
The shade is fine, if maybe a bit more blingy than I'd like. But I really like the base. It isn't gold or silver, its kind of champagne. And the finish and shape I think make it traditional enough to fit in with the rest of my stuff. Its an inch or two taller than the one I currently have and I think would be enough of a presence on the big table.
The big table on the left. With the lamp my dad handed down on it.
And the coffee table. I can't believe I never thought of that--N is totally right. It's a really traditional shape, as you can see in the first picture. I also think less wood would help. I'd love to get a glass and metal coffee table, but I'm worried it wouldn't quite "go" with the rest of my stuff.

I do like my current oval though, so in my head I will get an oval table in glass and metal. Except I can't find one. I like this one:

Pottery Barn
But its a) not oval and b) maybe too...rustic to go with everything else.

The best oval bet I could find is this one:

Amazon--but I found it other places for cheaper
I think I like it, although I did like the idea of metal. I want something simple and NOT-curvy though, and instead a lot of the stuff I'm finding has curlicues and swirls and such. Exactly what I'm trying to avoid. They're both the same price (for me) so that doesn't help.

What do you think...one of them? Either? Neither? What about that lamp? I have really bad taste--please help!

(Oh, and what about these pillows for the couch? They're also a champagne color.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

My Week in Review

I've had a crazy, full-of-misadventures week at School.

If you don't know, I teach math. It's technically algebra, but my kids generally test at or below the 5th grade level. Not the brightest bulbs on the collective chandelier, but many of them are quite nice. Some of them, however, are chronic bad decision makers, have some "issues" etc.

So, highlights from my week:

  • Two kids who cut my class by walking out of the building after 2nd period were shocked they got caught. They figured it would be untraceable, because no one was looking at the cameras right then.
  • Two girls got suspended (during FIRST PERIOD) because one of them brought tequila to school in a water bottle and they got trashed in the bathroom. My co-teacher says, "I thought it was vodka?" and the assistant principal replies, "We're Mexican. We don't drink vodka."
  • When I said I couldn't go to the basketball game because I was going to visit a friend who recently had a baby, a student suggested I "get pregnant so you can tell us how it feels." (When I told my friend, she said, "Bad. Tell her it feels bad. And uncomfortable." Pretty sure its the kind of thing you do for the baby, not to see how it feels.
  • Our resident drug dealer (who impressively managed to get expelled from two other schools by November of his freshman year) carved his tag into a desk. He got arrested and 10 days suspension. Possibly this will convince his mom that the problem is not everyone else. But unlikely.
  • The vending machine guys were here filling up the machine in the teachers lounge when I went to make copies. I asked if they had purple skittles (my favorite) but they didn't. He asked me if there was anything else I wanted, and I was like, "Oh, no, that's ok" and started to leave. But they called me back over and said, "No, here, take something. How about this? The new caramel Milky Way? Have you tried it?" and handed it to me. And then they said "Take another one. What else do you like? A Snickers? Reeses?" And as I'm looking at their bin, still a little confused, they found Starburst. "It's like Skittles! You like those?" So they gave me three. And a bag of chips. 9 (I think) snacks later, I walked out. I think they think I'm cute.

Kids. What's the funniest thing that happened in your week?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dinner again?!?

So, when we last left off, I was actually managing to get dinner together, but it still confused me. Narrowing down what we were trying to do (come up with plan, make it healthy and on sale if possible) made it a lot easier.

On Sundays during lunch, we would look at the sales fliers, clip some coupons and then talk about what we wanted to eat. I pass the flier over to Mark, he looks at it, says "Oh, ____ is on sale, what about _____?" (For some reason, only I get ridiculously stressed out/confused over meals).

Once we plan the weeks dinners (throwing in a few ideas for lunch and breakfast for extra credit on occasion), I make a grocery list. One of the things we had to tweak was when to plan for...I prefer to grocery shop during the week (on my way home from work--or at least I did when I was at the Old School). So I have to promise to shop on Monday, when I already work late because the Recycling Club meeting is that day. Ugh. So we are trying Wednesday to Wednesday with moderate success.

I think the big thing that has really helped us is making a shared calendar in Google for meals (I know. This whole thing is ridiculous, and it feels even more absurd writing it out. It's nice of Mark to humor me, no?). We spent maybe 20 minutes going through and putting meals on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays (over planning doesn't go well--we don't know what will come up, and then we shop for--and waste---food for meals we don't end up eating). We filled in the whole month either with favorites we already know or a quick perusal of magazine recipes I'd clipped (I love cooking magazines). Now we can just check in and say, "Still good with x, y and z?" and change one if we want.

It's also finally gotten us to try some of the things we thought sounded good, but never do because we always revert to something we already know, like the Scallop Risotto we made for Valentines Day.

Hopefully this will keep for working for us me. Mark was volunteering at church on Sunday, and I was supposed to figure out dinner. He told me to make whatever. And I worked myself up and could not figure out what to make. I spent twenty minutes walking from my computer in the living room into the kitchen to look in the fridge, then pull my recipe file, then look stuff up on the computer. I almost called Mark. And then I reminded myself it was just dinner.

How do you get dinner on the table? Do you find it to be way harder than you thought it would be?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lovebirds

Happy Valentines Day!

I'm babysitting a frog right now. It's all good though. He's just sitting in his seat (he did fail a test last period though).

Not this actual frog. Bigger.
 Anyhow, the kids have gone all out for Valentines Day. I heard on the radio that no one gets more valentines than teachers, but I'm sure that refers to elementary teachers, since I've only gotten one thing. However. The boy who got the frog above got his girlfriend a white teddy bear. It's almost as big as she is (she's tiny, but still). Tons of kids have bouquets etc. And I passed no less than seven people selling Valentines stuff once I got off the highway. On 51st, there are at least 3 pretty major set-ups by the K-Mart, with people setting up 2-5 folding tables with all kinds of different stuff.

I was marvelling at all the Stuff with another teacher, and we wondered what they do with it all. I got a super big teddy bear once, and it was really tough to figure out where the heck to put it. Not to mention the amount of money they must have spent on all that stuff.

I know that probably makes me kind of...Grinchy (?...not cupid-y? something) but I don't see the point. I had brunch with the girls yesterday, who asked me what I was getting Mark.

"Nothing."
[Surprise. Raised eyebrows.] "...oh. What is he getting you?"
"Nothing. I assume at least."

These girlfriends are both single, so I'm sure they find it really disappointing, but I have someone who COULD give me stuff on Valentines day...which doesn't mean he actually NEEDS to. Especially if he's getting me something just for the sake of getting it for me. Silliness.

What's your take on Valentines gifts?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tax time again

So I filed my taxes back in January (although they won't be processed til sometime after tomorrow, because of changes in tax law, apparently). But I also got a pretty big refund...no good, since that means I'm paying too much and not making interest on it.

Obviously, the magic formula is to withhold exactly the right amount. I wouldn't want to owe a whole bunch at the end of the year either, even if I could easily cover the difference. So I did a little research, which basically said to consult the IRS withholding calculator (well duh) and then complete a submit a new tax form. I'm actually able to change my tax form online, so I logged into that system as well.

You're supposed to have your most recent pay stub, as well as last years taxes, so I grabbed my paystub and pulled up a pdf of the taxes. I got through the first two pages quickly (because the first one is easy and the second one is about kids I don't have), and then...I stopped knowing the answers.

Enter your total 2011 contribution to a tax-deferred retirement plan, FSA or HSA. I know what those are. I know I have an FSA, and I'm fairly sure I have a tax-deferred retirement plan as well (is that a TSA? I know I have that...) But if I do have that tax plan, I don't what the contributions are, and neither number is on my last tax return. The last item on retirement link identified my Tax-Sheltered Annuity, and I'm hoping thats my 403(b) deferred savings I see on my paycheck, at $50 per check ($1200/year?), and my FSA is $15.39 each pay period, which I'll assume means $360 per year. Both of these things make me nervous, because some deductions are taken monthly, but neither amount is huge (especially the confusing FSA amount...how much did I put?), so I don't think I'd be off by too much. I'm also not sure if I deduct all of those amounts out of my summer paychecks. (Teaching paychecks work funny, so thats not unlikely). Anyhow, I ballparked that one at $1500 and moved on.

At this point, I'm going: note to self, next time don't say you have two jobs when one of them barely counts and you already know it isn't the problem. (I have $1000 of income. Please.) (Also then it gets mad because I stopped entering the numbers for that job and I had to go back and fix it.)

Enter an estimate of your 2011 adjustments to income, including alimony paid, deductible IRA contributions, and education loan interest: was my next stumbling block. Mostly because I'm not sure what that means either. I don't have the examples, but do they mean are you getting a raise? Because I am. One in March and another in August.

I left it blank. Because obviously I have no clue what I'm doing. Then I moved on to the next page, all about itemized deductions. (At this point I actually walked away from the computer to procrastinate for awhile, because I was confused). When I returned, I determined that those words looked familiar and pretty much copied all the amounts off of my last tax return. Hopefully they're still the same. I already know I want to increase my charitable giving, so I did change that.

My results came back (I was nervous for that last question, since I was pretty much out of answers and worried there would be a whole 'nother page of things I don't know). In case you care, I should have 4 exemptions, and I only had 1. This should give me a refund of $675, which is fine with me, particularly since I probably answered some questions wrong.

I just finished it up by updating my W4 online (poorly formatted...I'm pretty sure I did it right, but all the legal stuff always makes me nervous, and I worry I'm going to accidentally say I don't owe taxes or something. When really I just couldn't figure out which button to push.)

Looking at last years taxes, I overpaid by about $200/month, so that hopefully means I'll be seeing an extra $100 each paycheck. Nice!

Any questions? (Who am I kidding...I would not be very helpful. But at least now I know where to go to make an attempt at fixing it!)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dinner's Getting There

Last summer, we started trying to work out everything we wanted dinner to be:
  • healthy
  • easy
  • delicious
  • not too expensive
  • something we both like
It turned out to be harder than anticipated. Part of the problem was that it's generally a bad idea to try and do five things at once. Particularly when you're generally a big dinner-fail. And we were also trying to plan lunch and breakfast.

My sister plans her meals by the week, and tried to help me as well. On our 17 hour drive from Tahoe to Colorado over the summer, she helped make a list of different meal options we could try. This was pretty good, but I like to use coupons too, and so I wanted to find stuff that was on sale, and also I wanted to plan in advance, and when should we be going to the grocery store and how many meals do we shop for and and and and. (I know. I gave myself a headache too. And probably Mark.)

So. We talked over what to do (Mark was ridiculously patient with this part. I was frankly pretty ridiculous.) We decided to have only two goals for right now:
Plan the meals in advance so we know what we're having before 6 pm.
Buy stuff that's on sale.

To do that, we said we'd look at the sale flyers to get ideas, and try to plan meals around those things. And if we couldn't? Then, whatever, we'd just pick a recipe and buy the stuff full price. More important to get the eating on track than save money. And it worked! It totally helped us focus our thinking.

I said, hey tomatoes are on sale, Mark said, how about Caprese salad? And then, how about pizza? And that was pretty much it. Except I still spend way too much money (relatively speaking) and am buying food with no use in my mind, which of course means a good bit of it goes to waste. But at least this time the actual planning went pretty simply. And I don't think I bought quite as much too much food as last time. Part of our problem is that our plans end up changing throughout the week (not surprising considering our social circles) so we don't know what exactly to plan for. I expect that to be an easy, if eventual, fix though.

The problem with this week is a) I spent a fair amount (although some was on stock up food that I'm certain will be used, like cheese, butter and cream cheese). And I also have a good bit of perishable food still hanging out in my fridge. Darn.

But we're definitely getting the hang of it!

Snow Days!

Yesterday and today were my second and third snow days EVER (I've lived in Chicago my whole life...pretty sure I got gypped). It's pretty awesome, really. [Which explains why I wrote a post and then scheduled it for five minutes after the last one. Not working makes me forget the date. Ooops.]

When we woke up, the dining room windows were frosty.
And the street was covered in snow.
It started up snowing again for a few hours in the morning. I had some crazy views from my window--it was so quiet, anything I heard anything, I jumped up. And for good reason. Once it was a snowmobiler headed down the middle of the street. And then...I heard a loud noise. Plows? Digging us out?

Kinda. They cleared my street with a FRONT LOADER. It was pretty awesome. HE was pretty awesome. We headed outside after he had passed to check out my car. I was lucky enough to get an end spot (they're way easier to get out of; you don't have to worry about hitting anyone when you gun it to peel out of your spot). But that only does so much against that much snow. I forgot to get a picture before we started, but you can get the idea with the pictures above, and this one, showing my street after it was...off-loaded? Plowed? Better-ish?

My car is behind us, but its all the same. I was on the left side of the street on the next block. We grabbed a shovel and got to it. I actually was picking up large snow-boulders and putting them off to the side (Side note: I HATE it when people push the snow into the street--we all need to drive there! Stop being lazy and move it to the edge!) And then. Then! Guess who came back?! The best construction operator ever! He front loaded all my snow away! See!

Mark's pretending he moved alllll that snow by himself.
 
All that behind Mark. He just scooped it up and shoved it out of the way. So I can totally get my car out now, which is great. I'm still scared to do it though...I'm worried about where to park it when I get home. I'm getting a ride with a co-worker (who has a garage) tomorrow. I'm planning on taking the bus down to her place, a mile away. She keeps texting to tell me to just drive (rather have Mark drive) and my spot won't be gone that early. Still makes me nervous though. And snow and parallel parking are both things Mark is unfamiliar with. Making him mix the two at 6:30am seems a little unfair. We'll see what the buses look like.

After we wrapped up Mission: Car Liberation, we headed out for a walk. We marveled at the huge mountains of snow that was getting piled up on every corner.
Notice the stop sign. That's A LOT of snow.
 The front loader hadn't gotten to the next block over yet.
The snow was so crazy deep. It amazes me. I made Mark take pictures of me waist deep in snow, but I won't bore you with those. But! I did take the opportunity to make a snow angel. In the middle of the street. Fun!
I've got on boots, snowpants, hats, the whole 9 yards. It's like I'm 12.

And then we went back inside. I was actually quite productive. I took down the old Spacemaker cd/radio in my kitchen, went through and reorganized all my files and got some nice leisure reading in. Today we made bread, and I cleaned out the front hall closet and some other random places. I feel so productive! Its like I got a bonus weekend in the middle of the week. Now I go back to work for one more day, and then there's ANOTHER weekend. Magical!

Did you get a snow day?

Oh, and all these pictures are by Mark. All the pictures are always by Mark. I don't have a camera and I'd be really bad at using it if I did. He's going to make me take some of my own one of these days, but it won't be pretty.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Credit Reporting

Mint.com had an alert that I hadn't updated my credit score recently. They said it would help them find the best offers for me.

Sure, whatever.

Former credit rating: Excellent. Current credit rating: Still excellent.

But it's a good idea to check on your credit report every once in a while to make sure everything looks the way you think it should. So I went over the annualcreditreport.com (or rather, google sent me there. I know there are fakes that pretend to be the government site but aren't, I think thats the real one). There are three bureaus and you get one free report per year from each. Theoretically, this means you should alternate and pull one per year from each of them on a rotating basis every four months. Ha. I'd like to pretend I'm that dedicated, but I'm just not.

Just in case though, I only pulled one (TransUnion. It was first on the list). And I saved it with the date, so I would know when I got it.

It wasn't too exciting, although there were a few interesting things. I have several accounts I don't quite recognize. Some were open/active for a short time only, but others are long term. I assume some of them are ones my mom put me on as an authorized signer (they've showed up in the past). My mom also had good credit, but it freaks me out a little. I don't actually have anything to do with those accounts. I made very few of the charges and wasn't responsible for paying them, and it's unnerving to think that (had she made mistakes) it would have affected my credit too.

I'm mad at Citibank all over again looking at my report. It should be my longest account, but it's been switched over multiple times. The first two were security breaches, but the last made me really angry (and I've started using my Discover card primarily, with the Citibank Mastercard only when someone doesn't take Discover). I had a pretty good card, the Platinum Plus Select or something. Then this summer, this all happened, and in this order:
1. I got a letter cheerily telling me my type of card was being closed out, but I would be enrolled in a new type, that would have "many benefits". Not, mind you, better benefits, or more benefits. Just "many". And of course, worse. Basically, my rewards was (presumably) too costly, so they stopped having it at all. Annoying. This would happen "later."
2. I logged into Mint to check my account balances and notice I have dozens (!?!) of balance transfers. Each transaction made on my citibank card now shows up three times: on my account that I have a card for, then a balance transfer, then on the new card.
3. I don't HAVE a new card, so I log in to citicard to determine that I now have two accounts. Thanks for letting me know.
4. I call citibank to ask what the heck is going on.
5. They tell me its no big deal, the new card will be here any day now, and the balance transfers are no big deal. (They are...its really confusing to keep track of every transaction three times.)
6. Almost two months later the new card comes.
7. I continue to have issues where some stuff switched over automatically and others didn't (so my AT&T cell phone somehow knows my cc number changed and charges correctly; my home phone, also AT&T, missed the memo and wanted me to fill out forms).

Plus, now it looks like I don't have any accounts open over 4 years, which is obnoxious.

The other interesting thing was the account review inquiries. These aren't available for anyone else to see, but tell me who has asked to view my credit. There were four of these, and two were a surprise. Bank of America pulled my credit in the fall (but that was probably to send me a credit card offer or something). And my Bank of America mortgage pulled my credit in January. Interesting. Just making sure I'm still doing ok? Checking in? I didn't know they did that. Everything's fine, and it doesn't matter, but...who knew.

Have you pulled your credit report recently? (And if you haven't, go do it now...it literally took three minutes!)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snow Day!

Looks like six more weeks of winter, huh? I bet the groundhog can't even get out from underground, much less find his shadow in all this blinding white.

Yesterday it took me over two hours to get home from work. I usually take Lake Shore Drive, since traffic isn't as bad as on the Kennedy, but yesterday I decided that it said both were terrible and the Kennedy sounded safer (no lake front winds). Turns out I'm smart. People were stranded on the drive (including people who got on right around when I got home, near that exit), for over nine hours. Cars, buses full of people, everything. Crazy. The Chicago Tribune says some people abandoned their cars.

The snow on the cars is really light because it all blew off in the high winds, but the drifts around them are crazy. I have a co-worker a mile away (with a garage) and I think it'll be easier to get to her place than try to set my car free.

The district took forever to decide to call a snow day for today, but at 3:30 yesterday they finally did. Hooray! This is my second snow day in my life (the first was actually a "dangerous cold" day, but whatever). The high school I attended has cancelled classes only five times (the fifth is today!) in over 140 years.

Five minutes ago, I heard a noise outside. Thinking it might be a plow, I ran over to the window. Instead, a SNOWMOBILE came down my city street. That's how you know things are crazy!

I'm taking my free day to clean up my filing system, take out the spacemaker radio in the kitchen (too much space) and do nothing. Hooray! Happy snow day!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gold Star for me!

I have had a super-productive two days...and today I did my taxes!

I got a discount on TurboTax through Bank of America, so it was about $20 to e-file my federal return. They can do the state for you too, but state taxes are typically pretty easy. So for $37, I'll re-input my info into Illinois' interface myself, thank you.

I've been collecting forms since they started being released two weeks ago. I don't mind doing my taxes but I had a near-breakdown last year from trying to hunt down missing forms, not having logins work for online accounts I rarely use, etc. So I learned from my mistakes and started early. You do it too--go right now and download two of your tax forms so they're ready when you actually feel like doing your taxes!

Even with all my prep, once I got started I realized I was missing two things: my student loan interest form (which I was able to look up) and the amount of property tax I paid. This was my first full year paying property taxes, and the deduction was pretty big. On the one hand..yay! Look at all the money I get back!! On the other...it's not like its a present from the government. That's my money, and I let them hold onto it for a year. I'm a better money manager than the government, and can make interest if I have that money!

That means I need to adjust my W-4 from my primary job (School), as I doubt the other two (Store and Tutoring) had a big impact. So I know WHERE to find it, but not really WHAT to do. Do I just change it by the amount I was refunded this year? I'll have to look into it, but I'm still proud of getting my taxes done before the end of January*.

*Even if they can't get filed til after Feb. 14 because I itemized deductions. Oh well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Dinner time, Part I

I started this project waaaaay back in mid-summer. We've been making baby steps ever since, but I think its most useful to talk about things in order (and, um, we haven't improved all that much, so maybe writing about it will help). At that time, I wasn't really working and Mark worked full time. Our schedules remain similar, but he comes home from school around 6 instead of work.

Meal planning and grocery planning is something I've been wanting to do for awhile. Mark and I eat most of our meals together, and it stresses.me.out. I'm not sure why it bothers me so much, but I think its because I thought this would be easy. It wasn't even something that it occured to me could be difficult or annoying. And we just cannot make it work. (I was really frustrated this summer. Probably something about too much time on my hands. I'm better now. Ish.)

On a sample day, I get home around 5 or so (I leave for work before7). Mark comes over usually after 6, by which time I'm hungry. And I'm trying not to eat something, because it should be dinner, but he wants to chat and relax and catch up. And I'm STARVING. After that, he wants to discuss several options for dinner. I no longer care, because I'm so hungry. I suggest one or two things, he doesn't like them, and we both end up annoyed (me more so, because I'm annoyed and famished). Mark genuinely likes cooking, but he isn't big on having a plan or scheduling. So its no big deal to him if he doesn't figure out what's for dinner til 7 and eat til 8:30. Part of this is laidback-ness, part is having a day that is altogether later than mine (my schedule is dictated by my workday, and I eat both other meals earlier than he does; I also eat a lot less).

I think I had in my head that you just figure out a plan and it comes together. Never did I think I would be totally miserable every night. Mark knows it bothers me, but he isn't sure what to do either. (This has actually been an issue since the worst-anniversary-week-ever*.) So he tells me he doesn't care, which is not true at all, just that he has no interest in dealing with it. He just isn't into almost every meal I come up with. The obvious remedy would be meal planning, but I'm so frustrated by the whole issue that I'm overwhelmed and don't know where to start. And Mark just wishes I could work it out and cheer up about it already. I'm too hungry to cheer up.

So I spent half my weekend reading everything Trent has ever written about food, and trying to come up with a plan. I heart Trent, so that was fun, but I was still a little lost. And Mark isn't always the best listener, so when he gets frustrated he mostly a) repeats himself and b) ignores whatever I'm saying. So he'll say "x" and I'll say "Agreed, thats a great point" to which he'll say "X" and I'll say, "Yeah, definitely, and what about Y?" And he'll say, "I really think x". Its a little frustrating.
I made out a list of the meals we needed and wrote down what we needed to buy (which sounds pathetically simple when I write it...but there are so many little decisions involved, it doesn't feel like it).

*Which I will tell you about sometime. It involves bad food, a work event and possible criminal charges.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I like the gray one!

(This post is by Mark)
We're trying to pick a new paint color for the living room. We've gotten lots of compliments on the handsome gray we have there now, but the color simply sucks any light out of the room, especially at night. So, time for a new paint job!

We'd both like a gray paint, and we agree it should be much lighter. So, during this morning's expedition to Home Depot, we looked at some paint samples.

Somehow, being at Home Depot with hundreds of colors, fluorescent light, and little brochures with rooms that look way more fabulous than what we've got now make the process feel overwhelming. So, we snagged a bunch and brought them all home.

Personally, I like the gray one.



So does Mary.

(Note: the photos make the colors much more intense than the actually are--they really did all look gray at Home Depot...)

Fortunately, it was pretty easy to whittle the choices down to four for the gray (and the green for the bathroom). Actually, it was phenomenally easy. Being in the space and seeing the colors in natural light made it obvious which ones were too yellow or too blue or too whatever.




We've got the samples on the wall and after another brief talk this evening, I think we should just throw caution to the winds and let 'er rip!

Time for samples on the wall!

Mary now:
I worry about the contrast of the grays, especially in natural light. I don't want the walls to look dirty but I also don't want them to be too dark. The answer is probably going to be picking up some samples to paint squares, but I don't want to rush into that either.

On the one hand, its better to buy the samples and get the colors right, but the samples cost money too. If we consider our swatches in enough light, different locations etc (which we've been doing), we won't waste money on samples we should have known were wrong. I'm just not sure where the line is...is four samples overkill? Can we narrow it down more? Or will we eliminate the one thats best because we cut too early? Decisions, decisions.

How do you pick out paint colors? Do you think its impossible too?

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this riveting miniseries.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Progess Made & Questions Asked

We went to Home Depot this weekend. We had a list of things to do: check out some furnishings we still need, pick up paint swatches, price countertops and buy hooks.

I keep a running list in google docs (two actually) so that we know what kinds of things we should be looking for. Mark's the type who buys stuff "because its a good deal" and knowing what we actually need is a good check point for him. So I have one list called "Stuff we need" creatively named to include small household items we need want. On it is things like serving spoons, a carving set, new towels, etc. None of it is pressing, but all of them are things we would love to steal from my mother recieve as gifts or pick up if we found a great deal. The other list is "Around the House" and we put it together pretty recently. Its a room-by-room list of things we would like to change about the room. It includes things like furniture and art for the walls, as well as projects we want to do (like those darn bathroom walls).

Although I learned that Home Depot isn't just for hardware (and we did look at the Home Decorators Collection for rugs) we were mostly there for business. We started with rugs, and found a couple of good and affordable options for the porch (although now I'm thinking of maybe painting the concrete floor instead). Then we hit the paint aisle...I'd tell you more about it, but Mark actually wrote a post that I'll put up soon all about it (how sweet of him!).

Finally it was the moment of truth...the kitchen department. My realtor told me I would want to upgrade to granite before selling, and if I'm going to shell out for something, I better get to enjoy it myself. I'd be planning on around $1500, but had no clue how realistic that was. Our plan was to get three quotes, and this would be the first. We priced out Kashmir White and White Spring (guess who picked the more expensive one. Young House Love has the first one, and I took their reminder to think about what it would look like all over the place to heart, shooting down one sample after another with too dark, too spotty. My kitchen right now has light gray laminate countertops and I love how it looks. So I want basically that, but nicer.

According to the consultant's calculations (based on my meticulous floor plan...I'm a math teacher; I always* measure right), I have 26.69 sq. ft of granite needed, including the four inch backsplash. On top of the granite cost, here's what Home Depot says I'm looking at:
Undermount sink prep 235
Undermount sink         269--I should be able to buy separately online for less
Tearout old counters   200.18--we might be able to do this ourselves
Plumbing disconnect     65
Plumbing reconnect     350--we might be able to have both of these done ourselves--I belive both of my parents can do minor plumbing, and I doubt redoing the faucet and dishwasher are very complicated.
All this bonus stuff comes to an extra 884, so I sure hope we can save at least parts of it. The countertops themselves run $1400 to $1900 for the amount I need, for a total between $2500 and $3000. The good news is: a) there's no tax on this, since its an installed product (Mark's brilliant question) b) Home Depot has 10% off til Jan 31. But still....

Lesson. Learned.

I'm not sure why my estimate of $1500 was so far off--probably all the bonus stuff didn't quite get taken into consideration. I'm thinking about what to do. I have plenty of money in my savings (I'm very very very patient. Also, cheap.) so I could afford to do it right now, but its more than what I earmarked. Mark, on the other hand, is all "oh, lets just do it", so its hard to be as level-headed about things. I'm still holding myself to getting two more quotes, and we'll see how things look once that's done.

Despite everybody else and my own mother having opinions about what I should do, this seems like a good decision. My kitchen is pretty nice as it is, but has white appliances and laminate countertops. I actually dislike stainless appliances, so that isn't happening...but I think the granite would be enough to send my kitchen into "really nice" territory. And, even if it does run me over $2000, I know its one of the things eventual potential buyers will look for, and is commonly touted in ads etc. I just need to decide when the right time is.

If you're following along with Mint, I hope you have your account all set up. I'll post a follow up next week about monitoring your account in the beginning--don't stress about anything but getting your info in there and correcting any mis-categorized transactions.

*How much do you want to bet I regret saying that?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Re-furnishing, Part 2: At least it was cheap

After I bought a new buffet/console/cabinet/whatever for my living room, I was ready to tackle the piece that was just for fun. And, bonus, it's for the only room that wasn't largely decided for me based on what furniture was passed on to me.

I have a 4 x 8 enclosed porch (with jalacy* windows). It faces north, but I'm on the second floor and its painted white, so its pretty bright and pleasant and sunny. It got the leftovers when I moved in: my ultra-versatile kitchen table with both leaves flipped down, and then from my sister: a Target floor lamp, 2 non-matching chairs and a small bookcase. That was actually a little more furniture than it really needed but I had it all so why not. The table just had random stuff on it, but it was helpful to use as an extension table when we wanted to host our couples group of 10 for dinner. The bookcase had one shelf of books and then some puzzles and a couple throws. It was a little crowded (the bookcase was on one side of the door, which put a chair kind of in the doorway), but it worked. We would sit out there and chat sometimes.

Flash forward to this summer, and my sister needed the table for her new place. And wanted her small bookshelf back. So I was left with the lamp and two chairs. Both chairs are cheap, so while they work fine for now, its totally reasonable to want to replace them someday. That makes this the only room I actually get to choose, all by myself.

The first order of business was replacing that table. But I didn't just want a table--I wanted CLOSED STORAGE (my holy grail). When I moved in, Mark tentatively asked if someday, if he moved in, we could get something besides bookshelves. I owned nothing with doors (and my place has: built in bookshelves on both sides of the fireplace, two more bookshelves in the dining room, two tables + former console table with shelves underneath and more)...and my new place isn't exactly closet-heavy. (But hey, you take what gets passed on!). Anyhow, if I was buying something, I better be able to put things in it and not have to make them look pretty. I know, I obsessed over this with the living room thingy too, but can you really have too much closed storage?

More on the look of the room as it, you know, actually comes together, but I determined I wanted to keep it light and airy--I wanted white. A cabinet, so it would always look clean. No specific kind of cabinet. One with a roughly similar footprint to my table (around three feet long, normal depth and height, with doors). That was it.

So I checked out Pottery Barn. Maybe Pottery Barn Kids. West Elm? Crate and Barrel? CB2? World Market? (Seriously people?!? I have no standards--why is nothing even passably close?!) All I wanted was something: a) white b) with doors. I could get a bookshelf and put baskets on it, but that isn't what I wanted. I wanted doors. My sister saved the day when she suggested I try places like Lowes and Home Depot. My Home Depot (the one on Halsted) has a Home Decorators Collection in it. Apparently, its actually a totally separate store and they get all offended if you think they're the same. Um, you're in the Home Depot. Whatever.

And lo and behold, two kinds of white cabinet! (Actually several, like a one-door or a three-door, but I needed a two-door). The one with a drawer across the top looked perfect and it was 20% off. I'd budgeted up to $200 and figured I might have to go higher, but it rang in at just $120. Sweet! And if they ship to store and you pick it up there, shipping is waived. Win again! A week later, and that flat-packed cardboard box was chilling in the corner of my living room.

So I opened 'er up, laid out all the pieces, picked up my allen wrench and got to it. Everything went fine. It was mildly frustrating to get the cabinet doors to line up, but I'm pretty sure thats always the case. We proudly put it at the end of the front porch, and the fit was great. Just what I was going for!


Side note: The next day I opened the door to the porch to admire my handiwork and UGH! I was bowled over by the stench. My new piece of furniture REEKED of chemicals. Eeeeew.

Calls to my mother, Google searchs, and various attempts to fix it ensued. Advice was actually pretty hard to come by, mostly embedded in posts about other things (so I couldn't find much with google). I ended up putting baking soda all over the thing. I had the time and space for it to hang out without stinking up my house, so I wasn't terribly urgent about it. It ended up taking SIX WEEKS to fully fade.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, it sounds like wiping it down vinegar or putting charcoal briquettes in it would also work. And don't buy furniture from China. It does NOT seem to be a low end problem though. Another really helpful post was from a lady in a bird users group in NY whose new Pottery Barn furniture was off-gassing so badly she was concerned for the health of her bird. I don't like birds so much, but if I had a small animal I probably would have worried too. Unfortunately I have no advice on how to prevent this, but try those tips if you ever find yourself with really smelly furnishings.

*Jay came to my second walk-through of my condo solely so he could say this word. This is probably not even how you spell it. I would describe them as "flap-y windows" which means they have horizontal glass panes that move together, much like shutters. You can see them in the picture above.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Greener Clean

Mark's old roommate would give us cleaning products for free all the time (he got them from a family member who worked for whoever makes Scrubbing Bubbles. I have lots of Scrubbing Bubbles.) So now I have a ridiculous amount of cleaning products, some of which are similar but not quite the same. Fun Fact: Did you know there are four a billion different kinds of scrubbing bubbles? I have four. I'm not about to get rid of something that was free, but there are so many that they have nowhere to go. Add to that our recent recycling resolution* and we were in serious need of some space. So on Saturday, I took everything out of the cabinets under both sinks and from under, around, etc, my clawfoot tub. You could see these, they weren't really hiding. Pretty tacky. 

I didn't end up getting rid of anything, but I was able to put things that were duplicates (or close cousins...looking at you, 4 kinds of scrubbing bubbles) way in the back so that other things were able to hide. Now I just need to use that stuff up for good. (I wrote this Sunday and today we finished off a bottle of Clorox Clean Up--yay!)

The next step is figuring out what I want to use/make for green products. I've seen a couple of good articles on this like this one and this other one on Young House Love, as well as the resources here. Those are all good places to start, and I'm going to use them as I finish off the rest of my non-green cleaners and am ready to go greener. And part of the reason I want to start thinking about this now is because I may want to save some of those bottles--it's much greener to reuse them than go out and buy new ones. 

*I have a blue metal bin that lives next to the chair in the dining room for recycling. Because I only drink milk, I mostly have paper to recycle and it fits nicely. Mark does not exclusively drink milk and recycles cans and bottles. These drive me nuts. Also, its not very logical to have the recycling in the dining room if its kitchen-y stuff (in my defense, most of MY recycling is paper, so it made sense in the past). Plus we had this big red bucket hanging out with the army of cleaning supplies--not cute. So we put a bag in the bucket and put it under the sink for (ta-da!) recycleables. I feel better already.