Preparing for house guests

For those of us who celebrate, the holidays mean that you’re likely to have house guests. Some will stay for a day, while others will be in it for the long haul. My wife and I play host to several far-flung relatives every year, many who stay for a week or more. It’s great to be around everybody, and a little planning makes it even better. The following are a few organized ideas you can employ to make the whole experience better for everyone.

Pre-visit

Before the gang shows up, there’s some preparation that needs to be done. I suggest you begin by delegating. There’s a lot to be done, and taking it all on by yourself is a bad idea. First, write down what needs to be done before everyone arrives. Next, divvy up who’s going to do what. Not only that, but set a start date and deadline for each task. That way, projects like “ensure that all bath towels are clean and available” and “wash all bed linens” not only have a due date, but a person in charge. Make this list public to everyone in your home so that accountability isn’t a mystery to anyone.

Next, prioritize. The lists you generate while working on the above will probably contain many items that must be done, as well as some that would just be nice to get done. From there, I suggest making three lists:

  • Priority A: Do or die, must be done.
  • Priority B: It would be nice if these things happened.
  • Priority C: Aspirational goals. Everyone will have a great time, even if these items are not completed.

After making this list, you’ll have a real good handle on what must be completed to pull off a successful and relatively stress-free hosting, and what’s nice but not crucial. Then, act accordingly.

During the visit

My family is not content with sitting around. They like to go, see, and do. This is a lot easier when the going, seeing, and doing have been defined ahead of time. Make a note of who’s “on point” for a given activity well before the guests arrive. Who will drive to caroling in town? Who’s in charge of dinner? Having those questions (and more) answered ahead of time will benefit everybody.

When my extended family goes on summer vacations together, we create sign-up sheets for determining who wants to do what. It might sound overly formal, but it helps the 13 of us stay on top of things without a doubt.

It’s also important to be flexible. The schedule isn’t the end-all and be-all of your time together. It’s merely a formalized suggestion. There will be times when plans change. Go with it. You’ll have a much better time than trying to stick, unyieldingly, to the itinerary.

Finally, don’t forget the little things or the regular routine. Who’s going to make breakfasts? Or take the dog out? Run to the dump or turn the laundry over? Answering these questions ahead of time is a good idea.

Odds and ends

Here are a few tricks that my wife and I have used at home with great success. First, we put a folder full of take-out menus in our guests’ bedrooms. That way, they know what’s around and can make their own plans if they like. Also, make a “Boredom Jar” like the one I described earlier this year. To make one, print many answers to “What can I do?” onto thin strips of paper. Next, glue them to popsicle sticks and stick them into a jar. Now, when the kids ask, “What can I do?” just point them to the jar.

Hopefully something here will work for you. Good luck and have a great holiday season.

Organizing and storing your Fourth of July decorations

Independence Day 2012 has come to an end. Some of you may have hosted barbecues, others lit off fireworks, and there were likely many of you who dressed up both the inside and outside of your homes with decorations sporting the traditional red, white, and blue.

Just as with any holiday, once the festivities are over, you’ll need to take down your decorations and put them away until next year. The key is storing them so that you can find everything you need when that time rolls around again, keep them out of the way of your normal living paths until then, and store them safely so as not to invite bugs or pests into your home or the decorations. But, before you run out to get containers, keep these five organizing principles in mind:

  1. Gather like items together. As much as possible, keep all Fourth-of-July-related decor together so that they’re easy to find. Better yet, keep all banners together, all wall hangings together, all table cloths together, etc. Once packaged up, store them adjacent to other spring/summer items in your holiday storage.
  2. Make them accessible. Put your items away in a spot you can get to fairly easily and safely. If you have to move other things out of the way to reach them, it will be difficult to get what you want and to put them back when the time comes. Also, you don’t want to end up in the emergency room of your local hospital.
  3. Label your containers. Put a label (write “Fourth of July” or add an American Flag sticker) on your boxes to help you remember what’s inside the boxes without having to open the containers. It’s helpful to put a list of the contents on the outside of the box as well (e.g. two wreaths, one box of streamers) so you know how much you have and don’t go off buying duplicates in the future.
  4. Keep some original packaging. If the items are delicate, try to store them in their original boxes for additional protection (e.g. plates, paper crafts).
  5. Keep the good stuff. Only store items for the year that are in good condition and that you plan to use again. Trash or recycle broken items. Donate or give away items to friends that you no longer want but are still in good condition.

Only after you sort and organize and know exactly how much storage you’re going to need is it a good idea to buy containers. And, if you already have storage containers, you won’t need to buy anything at all.

If you’ll be storing a flag for the year, it is respectful to treat it well. If dirty, you can hand wash it in mild detergent. Or, if you prefer, you can dry clean it. According to the Federal Citizen Information Center (FCIC), some dry cleaners offer complimentary cleaning services for U.S. flags during the months of June and July. The FCIC also suggests keeping flags in an area that is well ventilated. Store it in an area you would other fine textiles, like a linen closet, instead of in an old garage, basement, or attic.

Flags are typically folded in a triangle which can require two people to do properly. Once it’s folded, put it in a triangular flag case or a container lined with acid-free paper made to hold nice linens.

Post-holiday cleanup, part 3

We linked to an article in Post-holiday cleanup, part 1, which described ways to dispose of a real Christmas tree. Storing a fake tree, however, can be a task that worries even the most uncluttered of us.

In my home, we collapse the tree and keep it in its original packaging when not in use. If you didn’t hold onto your original box, or if it’s impossible to fit the tree back inside of it once it has been used, here are some storage alternatives:

  • Artificial Tree Storage Bag — With a price tag below $5, this appears to be a cost effective option with the benefit of having a handle for transporting the tree in and out of storage
  • Artificial Christmas Tree Box — This option is more expensive, but because it is flat you can stack things on top of the box the other 11 months out of the year
  • If you aren’t seeking something aesthetically pleasing, large leaf and lawn bags could work nicely

Post-holiday cleanup, part 2

Ornament StorageStoring ornaments throughout the year is a bit of a pain, but it is necessary if you own them. Ornament sets usually come in flimsy and not very user-friendly boxes.

A couple years ago, we finally ended up purchasing a few Christmas ornament storage boxes, very similar to the ones pictured at right. The boxes are easy to store and protect the ornaments well. The boxes are not fool proof. If you drop them, you will most likely shatter quite a few of your ornaments. So, if you have antique ornaments or fragile ones that you do not want to lose, you may want to upgrade to a container that has some padding that will protect your keepsakes a bit better.

Post-holiday cleanup, part 1

Over the course of the next few days, we’re going to explore that sad time after the holidays when decorations and gifts must find a place to be stored or disposed. Putting away a menorah or Christmas tree or New Year’s party hat is never as much fun as bringing it out of storage or buying it. And, for a number of us, it’s cold and cloudy outside and the temptation to procrastinate the whole affair is pretty strong. Our couches and blankets call to us to sit for a while longer and relax while digesting all of those holiday meals.

I want to ease into this discussion a bit–it is only Jan. 2, after all–and provide you with some links that you can peruse from the comfort of your couch. No need to be called to action just yet. Consider this “research.”

  • Here is some advice from our readers on handling holiday cards: What to do with holiday cards? Recycle!
  • Jan. 6 is the traditional day for taking down your tree, and here are tips on how to get rid of your real tree: How to dispose of a Christmas tree
  • Want to make space for all of your child’s new toys? Here is some advice from Matt on that subject: Out with the old, in with the new
  • Too much gift candy sitting around your home tempting you? Freeze it in small zip-top bags and bring it out in small portions over the next few months.
  • Want to regift an item but wonder if it’s horribly tacky? Read MSN Money’s advice on regifting: 12 rules for regifting without fear
  • Need to return or exchange an item because of damage or ill fitting size? Start by doing a Google search of the brand name and the phrase “how to return and exchange an item.” In some cases, you’ll need a gift receipt and tags, so be sure to know what you need before taking on the crowds in the stores.
  • Wondering what to do with leftovers from all of your holiday meals? Wonder no more! Rubbermaid has helpful advice: Leftover Safety
  • Need to replenish your home bar after all of your festive parties? Get help making your shopping list from Boston Cocktails: Stocking the Bar

Tomorrow, Matt will dispense his wisdom on how to properly store all of your holiday ornaments. In the meantime, sit back, breathe, and be glad that you have until Halloween before the madness starts again.

What to do with holiday cards? Recycle!

Two of our readers provided creative suggestions for how to recycle holiday cards in the comments section of Matt’s Holiday gifts: Out with the old in with the new post. Not wanting to have them lost in the shuffle, I wanted to pull them out to everyone’s attention.

From Jan:

I recycle my Christmas cards. They arrive in the mail, I read them, I cut the writing off the back, I turn them into a Christmas post card with a friend’s address, stamp and short message and repost immediatly.

From Kate:

Once the holidays are over, I “massacre” [cards] into gift tags for next year using a pair of pinking shears.

Great ideas!

Holiday giving to others beyond your close family and friends

During the holidays, I would love to give something to everyone in my book club, my knitting guild, my neighborhood, my co-workers, etc.–but that just isn’t a possibility. See, I do not have bank accounts overflowing with cash like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates, so I can’t always give as much as I would like to give. When it comes to giving gifts beyond my close family and friends, I’ve discovered many ways to give that continue the generous spirit:

  • Baked goods. Easy to make, inexpensive, fun, consumable.
  • Secret Santa. Group members draw names and then buy gifts for only the person whose name has been drawn.
  • Homemade, useful, themed gifts. Book club members get homemade bookmarks, co-workers get homemade velcro cord ties to curb cable clutter, etc.
  • Group charity. Instead of everyone bringing gifts for each other, the group sponsors a needy family or gives a needed item to a local charity.

The list of ideas is seemingly endless. I’m identifying these ideas just to get your creative juices flowing. You’ll notice that I don’t suggest “white elephant” type gift exchanges because often they produce unwanted clutter. If you don’t want the singing, plastic, wall-mounted fish, it’s pretty likely your friends or co-workers don’t want it either.

Please feel welcome to post additional ideas in the comments!

Reader suggestion: Reduce holiday clutter and rent your Christmas tree

Reader Sillahee, in the comments to Uncluttered Holiday Decorations, tipped us off to an amazing holiday rent-a-tree program in Portland, Oregon, that we wanted to bring to everyone’s attention. From MSNBC:

“The trees are taken out of the ground, roots and all, put into pots, and delivered to families in the Portland area. Soon after New Year’s, Fogel [founder of The Original Living Christmas Tree Company] and his crew pick up the trees and deliver them to parks, school districts and other groups who pay around $10 to have the trees planted on their property.”

This is such a terrific idea! I was disheartened to read in the article about the program that this is the only known rent-a-tree company in the United States. If you’re an entrepreneur living outside of Portland, this is a definite niche that you could fill. No clutter. No mess. Good for the environment.

Thank you, Sillahee, for sharing the link!

Reader suggestion: Weeding out unused holiday decorations

Reader John sent us the following tip:

Every year, when we get out all of our Christmas decor, there are always some items that don’t get put out, and just stay in the boxes. Last year, we realized that if it’s not worth setting out, it’s not worth storing either, so it got pitched or donated. This year, we did the same as we decorated.

A terrific idea, John! Thank you for sharing it with us.

2007 Unclutterer Gift Giving Guide wrap up

We hope that this year’s Gift Giving Guide has provided you with uncluttered inspiration. Here’s a wrap up of all of our suggestions for 2007. Remember, as you create your lists for others, to consider the impact of your gifts this holiday season!

2007 Unclutterer Gift Giving Guide:

We’re already looking forward to next year’s guide and unearthing even more uncluttered solutions. Happy Holidays!

2007 Gift Giving Guide: Online giving

This installment of the Unclutterer Gift Giving Guide explores the virtual world of online subscriptions.

Subscription services like Consumer Reports, Lexis-Nexis, and a flickr Pro account make great gifts. As opposed to physical subscriptions, these online services keep clutter out of your gift recipient’s home.

A subscription to Audible is a great option for book lovers on your list. Music lovers might enjoy a gift certificate to iTunes. For movie enthusiasts, you might consider Amazon’s Unbox or TiVo-Unbox pre-payments.

In the past, I also would have suggested The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times is now free to the public, and rumors are flying about The Wall Street Journal heading that way, too. So, those are off the list.

Flower of the month and fruit of the month clubs are subscriptions that allow you to give something tangible throughout the year, but impermanent additions to a home–and you can order them from the comfort of your home.

When you are trying to keep clutter out of your gift recipients’ homes, consider virtual gift options.

Uncluttered holiday decorations

If you decorate your home with holiday decorations, you probably have everything up already. But, if the decorating bug hasn’t yet hit, and you’d like to try and decorate without cluttering up your home, try to choose decorations that do not have to be stored away for eleven months of the year. Here are a few things to consider:

Buy real: Instead of buying an artificial wreath, tree, or garland, go for the real thing. When the holidays are over you can dispose of them instead of using up storage space. Conifers can be easily added to your compost pile.

Poinsettias: This traditional holiday plant can brighten up any room and needs zero storage space after the holidays.

Go easy on the knick-knacks: Don’t make the holidays an excuse to litter your home with dancing snowmen or a sassy Santa Claus. The holidays do not make it alright to clutter every inch of clear space. Instead, play holiday music when guests come into your home to set the mood.

Handmade: If you have children, take time to create some homemade edibles. Spending time with you children and creating something together is a good idea any time of year.

To achieve a comfortable balance during the holidays, try and keep your decorating to a minimum. If you do decorate to the fullest extent, you may spend most of your holiday season worrying about your decorations and how you will store them the rest of the year, and not enough time celebrating with loved ones.