Saturday, May 3, 2008

Gifts That Never Stop Taking

Our lives continued to be cluttered for years. We moved into a smaller place to save on rent, but paid for a storage unit in the meantime. We bought a house with as much storage space as we could afford, albeit still way below what the bank said we could afford. We moved into our house with one child and we filled up our basement and attic. By the time our next child came along, we still had to ask, “Where will we put him?”

While our parents pestered us to get a bigger house, we kept working to rearrange. With every holiday, our adoring relatives packed more and more toys around our children. I spent more hours moving boxes from one location to another than I spent time playing with my children and working as a writer. I felt suffocated and depressed. I dreaded Christmas because I knew that I would spend January trying to figure out where I would put all the new presents. February, March, April and May would be spent getting ready for the massive garage sale. If I had spent that many hours working a part time job, I would have made a lot more money than I did at each garage sale.

Five years ago, when Extreme Home Makeover first came out, I sent in a tape. In looking over my audition tape and then watching the show weekly, I realized something poignant. I didn’t want my house razzed to the ground, I just wanted to come home and not have to move boxes from one place to another. The show crew left behind rooms that were open and simple in their elegance. The children’s rooms were geared toward one hobby or another, not every hobby known to mankind.

The night I came to this conclusion, I didn’t get up and bulldoze my basement, but something did change inside of me. I stopped making Christmas lists for one thing. If our moms pry it out of us at the last minute then that is eleven months out of the year they are not buying for us. I recently went so far as to limit the number of gifts to one at Christmas and one at birthdays. No more large presents at Valentines Day and baskets bigger than the Easter Bunny’s. No more carloads at Christmas and UPS boxes that fill up our porch.

I also found books and magazine articles on organization and clutter control. Slowly connections began forming in my brain about how our clutter affected our finances:
  1. We pined for a bigger house instead of using what we had.
  2. We ate out a lot because I spent so much time digging out instead of cleaning up.
  3. My time to make money was profoundly limited not by time spent with the kids but by time spent managing the kids’ stuff.
  4. Worst of all, we missed time together as a family DOING enjoyable activities because we were so busy OWNING things we never got around to DOING.
Diligently, we began to dig out. Hubby at first resisted, unwilling to spend the time getting rid of things, especially gifts or things that we might need. He gave in to my pestering because he feared losing me more than he feared losing his stuff. Later, he realized that the less we owned, the more time I had to spend my weekends with him.

This weekend my husband rearranged a set of shelves under our basement stairs and cleared out our last fortress of outright storage clutter. He looked around afterward, rightfully proud of a job well done and commented on how hard we’ve worked over the last year and a half to turn the basement into a place where living can happen. I had to agree but I think that the job started when we brought that first load from both sets of parents and began to merge not only our lives but also our stuff. After ten years of marriage, we’ve finally become one. I’m extremely proud that we’ve come so far and confident that we'll keep going, getting better.

If you’re interested in living instead of mere ownership management, here are a few of the books that helped me along the way.

Organizing From The Inside Out by Julie MorgensternIt’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh
Also, try out the Fly

You can also Google "Clutter Services + Your Area" and find nearby professionals who can help you clear out.

Gifts That Keep On Giving -The Love List

Clutter costs money. The more stuff you have, the bigger the house. The bigger the house, the bigger the house payment, not to mention electric bill, storage facility fees, pest control, allergy medicine, crane operator... Here are a few tips for limiting what comes into your house through the various special occasions. These are also considerate gift ideas if you are shopping for friends or family who are cutting back.

1) When getting married, scan for what you really need at the moment, not what might look good in your future billiard’s room or your retirement condo. Furnish your kitchen and your bathroom sparcely. When you can afford a big house, then you can certainly afford to buy more items after you sign the deed. If you expect a lot of money doled upon you, set up an account with your bank or travel agency so that people can contribute to your college loans or your honeymoon fund or better yet, a down payment on your first house

2) When friends offer to throw a baby shower, ask for a diaper shower or gift certificates for formula. You could also ask people to contribute toward something big you’d like for the baby like a camcorder or nice camera. Babies do not need a room full of toys and certainly your friends can give you hand-me-downs instead of buying new..

3) When you send out birthday party invitations, ask for disposable gifts. Crayons, bathtub paints, sidewalk chalk, movie tickets . . . all these gifts will be used up within a certain amount of time. They won’t have to be sold three months later at a garage sale. My mother-in-law once gave the boys window markers. It was one of the funnest gifts we ever received along these lines. The boys stood at the window to draw for hours and I did not have to store one single piece of paper before or after.

4) Ask for activity gifts. If grandparents want to shower their grandchildren with something, have them shower them with time spent somewhere fun like the Zoo, Children’s Museum, a train trip . . . You know, all those expensive activities they want you to do with them but expect you to pay your family’s own way. By the way, grandparents, I can tell you that my kids can tell you everything they’ve DONE with their grandparents, but they can’t walk into their room, pick up a toy and tell you who gave it to them. If you want to buy love, buy a ticket to Six Flags.

5) When Christmas rolls around and people want to know what you, the adult, want for Christmas, ask for something you really need or want to do. Over the last several years, I’ve asked my parents for and received Lowe’s Gift Certificates. With my Christmas money, I’ve replaced our toilet, planted spring flowerbeds, painted my room, put a fence in back of the house, stained said fence, replaced our outside water spigot, and put insulation on the water pipes in my basement. Many people don’t like to buy gifts to fulfill a need, but I can tell you that fulfilling a need creates a feeling of relief. I end up more grateful. I’ve also asked for clothes and movie tickets because I love date night with my husband. My mother-in-law and cousins do a great job picking out clothes for me. So far, no movie tickets, but I’ll keep asking.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Gifts That Never Stop Taking

When we registered for our wedding, Hubby and I used the scanner like a magic finger. . .

I want that, that, and that.

That would be nice to have.

I’ve always wanted one of these.

POOF! Be careful what you wish for.

We never really thought about what we would do with all the presents if we actually got everything we asked for. When we arrived home from our honeymoon, we opened a whole room full of presents from everyone in our lives that loved us enough to buy off our outlandish registry. We opened china place setting and iced tea makers, crystal saltshakers and Dremmel tools. Of course we didn’t actually have any place to put any of it. For the next several months we created cubbyholes to stow away wedding gifts that we rarely used.

At the same time that we opened every small appliance known to mankind, we didn’t open flatware, plates, and glasses. The same couple that went snap happy with the scanner (that would be us) had to wait for more holidays before our parents were able to fill in those gaps. The fault certainly didn’t lie with all our relatives who dutifully bought off our registry. The fault lay with us and we slept in that bed. You know the bed. All our fine china was stowed under it.

In addition to the wedding presents, we also cleared out all our stuff from our parents’ homes: all the stuff we saved from childhood, the dining room set Boyd’s parents no longer used, all our dressers and an extra queen sized bed in case we had company. Our first apartment was a nice two bedroom, two bath. We had a kitchen bigger than our present house. Somehow, within a matter of months, we only had walkways. Our living room furniture was crammed into the dining area and our big dining room set filled the living room. So did the upright piano neither of us could play and the eight Ramada chairs I bought when the hotel remodeled. You couldn’t actually walk around the table to sit down. Company climbed from one chair to the next to get to their seats. And I can’t forget to mention our bikes. With nowhere left to hang them, we hung them over the piano and the dining room set. “Watch your head as you climb to your seat . . .”

We were not paying for a place to live at that time. We were paying for a place to store our stuff for our future. We just happened to sleep in our storage facility. In September, after marrying in July, we found out (surprise!) we were going to have a baby. Our first thought was not one of joy. Our first thought was, “Where are we going to put it?”

In the coming months, the same relatives who loved us enough to buy from our wedding registry also loved us enough to shower us with baby gifts. We stacked them up on top of everything and hung them from our bikes on the ceiling. We moved some of our dressers until we could squeeze a crib at the foot of our bed. I spent the same amount of hours moving our belongings from one place to another that most people spend working a second job. I didn’t feel like a “messy” person, because everything was orderly and clean, but I did feel exhausted and depressed. I felt useless, like my entire life was being wasted moving boxes from one place to another the way a child moves the puzzle pieces from one square to the next until suddenly a smiley face takes shape. I never saw the smiley face.

Looking back, the tragedy was not that we were in debt and got pregnant sooner than we planned. The tragedy was that we were holding so tight to our future that we forgot to enjoy what life brought us: a beautiful child, full of smiles and kisses, bright eyes and big hugs. We didn’t even have time to play with him because we were so busy moving boxes from one place to another.

To be continued . . .