Car accessories that are worth the investment

Frugality is a big part of the uncluttered lifestyle. When I say “frugal,” I mean thrifty and never wasteful. That said, there are certain things I’m willing to spend a little extra money on. While changing a flat tire in the snow last week, a few automotive options came to mind. Here’s a list of auto accessories that I think are worth the expense.

Jack

A compact, portable floor jack is worth the cost. This aluminum, 1.5 ton model from Pittsburgh Automotive could be just what you need. For starters, it’s so much easier to use than the scissor jack that probably shipped with your car. Consider that you’ll have to turn the nut on the scissor model 25–30 times before your car is elevated to an adequate height, while a floor jack will get in there in about five pumps. Likewise, a floor jack will slowly and safely lower your car within a few seconds, while the scissor jack requires 25–30 more twists, this time counter-clockwise.

There are some cons to consider as well. First, it’s heavy. At 31 pounds it’s heavier than your scissor jack. It’s also big; the compact model I’m suggesting is 23 x 10 x 7 inches (the handle can be removed so it’ll fit in your trunk). Lastly, it’s more expensive than the “free” jack that comes with the car.

I fell in love with the portable floor jack the night I was struggling to lift our Mazda. After many minutes of effortful turning, the jack itself slipped and the car came down upon it, crushing it. I called AAA and a worker arrived with a portable floor jack. He had my car raised and the tire off in about 90 seconds. That’s when I was sold.

Spare tire

Speaking of tires, I like to have a full-sized spare. Here in North America, it’s a good purchase decision. But that isn’t the case everywhere. I know that in Europe, for example, many cars don’t come with spares at all – not even a “donut” (half-sized spare) because there are service centers all over the place. In that case I would recommend paying extra for the donut.

Here in the States we get the half-sized spare, or donut. It’s meant to be a temporary fix that gets you to a service station. You shouldn’t exceed 45 m.p.h. with those things and they really aren’t the safest. Since a flat can strike at any time, and service stations are often few and far between here in the U.S., you could be stuck with the donut for several days. I recommend getting a spare rim for your car (find a local junk yard to save some money) and a good quality tire. Your local tire shop will gladly put the tire on the rim for you. Yes, it takes up more room than the donut, is heavier and expensive, but as far as safety and convenience are concerned, it’s well worth it.

Floor mats

Next, I’ll recommend heavy-duty floor mats, if you live in the right region. Here in New England, we have Sand Season, Snow Season and Slush Season. They’d be overkill in Texas, for example but if you experience winter, read on.

Several years ago I purchased these Weather Tech mats for our little Volvo and I love them. Unlike other heavy-duty mats, these are designed for the specific make, model and production year of various vehicles, so they absolutely fit and stay in place. Ours endure summer beach sand, autumn mud and frozen winter nastiness easily. To clean, simply snap them out and hose them off. They aren’t cheap – you’ll pay about a hundred dollars – but I’ve had the same set in my car since 2008 and they look great.

Other suggestions

Here are a few more quickies. An auto-dimming rear-view mirror is a nice upgrade, especially now that so many cars seem to have those weird blue headlights that seek out your retinas and burn them to cinders. This “car cup” charger for long road trips when everyone wants to be fully juiced.

I’ve debated recommending factory-installed GPS with myself and I still don’t have a definitive answer. That’s mostly because I’ve never experienced it. I just used my phone, which is portable and reliable. I bring it into a rental car, for example. Of course, not everyone has a smartphone with GPS capability, so I’ll leave this one hanging. Perhaps some testing is in order.

Lastly, let’s talk about road-side assistance services like AAA, CAA National, OnStar, etc. They day you need help (especially when you’re far from home) is the day you’ll recognize their value.

Remember, “frugal” doesn’t mean “cheap.” It means nothing is wasted, including your money. While these add-ons are expensive, I think they’re worthwhile investments. Let me know if you agree.

Organizing pet clutter

I have two dogs that I love dearly, Batgirl and The Bug. But boy, do they bring on the clutter — toys, leashes, food, treat bags, beds, shredded toys, slobbery tennis balls, and my favorite, fur — lots and lots of fur. If you’re a pet lover, I suspect this sounds familiar. Fear not! Your furry friend need not be a source of incessant clutter. In this article, I’ll share tips for keeping pet clutter under control and out of sight.

Let’s start with something simple: food. This will be easy or difficult to stash away, depending on the pet. A small container of fish food, for example, is easier to store out of sight than a ten pound bag of dog food. For that reason, I’ll focus on the latter.

While Bug loves his food, I don’t love the unsightly bag that his kibble comes in. To keep it stored away yet accessible, I needed a nice looking bin. The answer was one of these “half barrels” as it fits my home’s decor and is something I don’t mind looking at. It easily accommodates a large bag of dog food plus a bag or two of treats. If you have a spare cabinet that you’re willing to dedicate to pet food, even better. Just make sure it’s convenient for you, but not your pet, to access.

With that sorted, let’s move on to toys. My dogs are worse than toddlers when it comes to carpeting the floor with a huge mass of toys in various states of ruin. Pets are super cute and we love buying toys for them but the more they have, the more we must pick up, so we limit the number of toys they have. We have a small basket that sits on the floor that holds the half-dozen toys they have access to. Occasionally we go through the collection of toys and get rid of anything that’s badly damaged or potentially harmful. For example, that stiff rubber chew toy can get quite misshapen and potentially scratch their gums. Throw those toys away.

Leashes and harnesses are the next thing on the list. I bought a dedicated hook to hold these items and I installed it on the wall right next to the back door. That way it’s out of sight yet very convenient when I need it. You don’t want a dog who needs to “go” waiting around while you hunt for the leash, trust me.

Now, a controversial subject — pet clothes. I don’t like them. Yes, Fido looks super adorable in that little sweater. Perhaps he’s prone to cold and genuinely needs that doggie argyle. In that case, I understand. Keep him comfortable and warm. But the goofy outfit that’s meant only to delight Fido’s human is not my cup of tea. If your pet actually requires clothing, find a convenient, safe place to store it. Preferably near the leash.

Finally, the items you don’t use daily like a carrier, shampoo, outdoor toys, and so on could all live in one location. Perhaps a large plastic storage bin, or a shelf in the basement or garage, clearly labeled.

Pets are members of the family with all that entails, including the clutter. It doesn’t take much to gain control of it, and it’s just as easy to let it get out of hand. Set up a few stations, buy some nice storage containers, and enjoy your pets even more.

Organized wardrobe for men in their 40s

As 2017 begins I find myself closer to 50 than 40, and that means change. I pay closer attention to my diet, my children are becoming teenagers and words like “investments” have entered my vocabulary. Lately I’ve also been taking a good look at something else — my wardrobe.

I’ve always been a “jeans and T-shirt” kind of guy. A baseball hat and a pair of sneakers have rounded out the look that has been my unofficial uniform since I was in high school. It’s casual and comfortable, but there is one little problem — I’m not in high school anymore.

To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13:11, it’s time to put childish things behind me. In this case, the wardrobe of my youth. In this article, I’ll describe how to organize a respectable wardrobe for a man in his 40s. I’m not an expert in the world of fashion or style (see the previous paragraph for proof), so I scoured the internet for some direction, which I’ll share with you here.

Edit

Step one is to edit the wardrobe. I suggest actually laying everything out on the bed to get a good overview of what you’ve got. First, note items that you haven’t worn regularly because of size, condition or style, and set them aside. Next, ID the items that you’ve kept around for their sentimental value but stopped wearing long ago. Finally, anything that’s simply worn out – those old sneakers, for example – go in yet another pile. With that done, it’s time to say goodbye.

You’ve got several options here. Items in good condition can be donated to local charities. Clothing that someone wouldn’t buy in their current condition should be re-purposed as rags, dress-ups for the kids or even “work clothes” for painting, gardening, engine repair, etc. Additionally, some Goodwill stores recycle these well-worn clothes to be used again, but in a different form.

As for the sentimental T-shirts, here are a few ides for dealing with those. A few years ago, my wife took several of mine and made them into a beautiful quilt that I keep on the bed each winter.

Lastly, consider handing down anything that’s still decent to your kids. My 13-year-old looks pretty cool in dad’s old Van Halen T-shirt.

Be honest about size

Well not size as the number printed on the clothing tag. I’m talking about how the item fits. I mentioned the fact that I’m not 18 anymore. Back then I played soccer and my shape was a bit different from what it is today. That said, I’ve bid goodbye to the slim-cut jeans, pants, and shirts that I wore long ago. Now, this doesn’t mean that I need to start going up in size. In some cases it means simply moving from a slim-fit to straight-leg style.

Items your closet should have

At this age, you want to be prepared for several eventualities, from a clothing perspective that is. Weekend events could bring anything from weddings to softball games. Here’s what you should have around so you’re not scrambling at the last second.

  1. A suit. One that fits and looks good.
  2. A nice hat. It might sound silly, but my wife is sick of the sweat-stained Red Sox hat that I love so much. I recently got one of those tweed caps and it looks a lot better.
  3. Decent loungewear. A 20-year-old can get away with brightly logoed boxers and a T-shirt on Saturday mornings. I have several pairs of what I call “lounge pants” (essentially flannel drawstring pants) and decent, solid-color tees. Just don’t wear your lounge pants out of the house. Ever.
  4. Dress shirts. Somewhere between three and six of them depending on your lifestyle.
  5. Shoes. Sneakers are for kids. Have a brown pair and a black pair, something casual and something dressy.
  6. Socks. Invest in a few pairs of quality black and brown dress socks that won’t slide down your legs and wrinkle up between your toes. Leave the white gym socks for the gym.
  7. Accessories. Get a brown and a black belt and a couple of good quality ties that coordinate with your dress shirts and suit.
  8. Pants. Have at least one decent pair of jeans and a few pairs of casual pants in your regular rotation.

As I said, I’m not fashion expert. But I do want to dress like an adult. With a little effort, you too can organize a respectable wardrobe. We “men of a certain age” have to stick together, and look like grown-ups while we do.

How to organize your Facebook backups

For better or worse, many of us share a lot of information via Facebook. Everything from weekend plans to photos of lunch get posted, shared, tagged, and shared again. After a year of use, that’s a whole lot of memories and data uploaded to Mark Zuckerberg’s little creation. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a local backup, safe and sound? You can even organize regular Facebook backups and keep them stored nice and tidy on a drive of your own. It’s easy to do. Just follow these steps:

  1. Log into Facebook and go to the Settings page. You can find it by clicking the disclosure triangle on the far right of the page. A menu appears. You may have to scroll a bit to find Settings.
  2. On the left-hand side of the Settings page, make sure General Settings is selected. There’s a list on the right. At the very bottom, you’ll see “Download a copy of Facebook data.” Click that link.
  3. You’ll be taken to the download overview screen. Simply click “Start My Archive.”

What exactly is backed up? As Facebook explains it:

“Timeline info, posts you have shared, messages, photos and more. Additionally, it includes information that is not available simply by logging into your account, like the ads you have clicked on, data like the IP addresses that are logged when you log into or out of Facebook, and more.”

Like me, you might not want or need all of that information. Unfortunately, there is no way to pick and choose what is backed up, at least as of this writing. Also, there is potentially a lot of sensitive information in the resulting archive. Keep it in a safe location.

Once you click Start My Archive, Facebook will get busy creating your backup. Soon you’ll get an email with a link. Click it, and you’re taken back to Facebook one more time. At last you’ll have the opportunity to share the zipped (compressed) file to your computer. Navigate to that folder and explore the archive.

You’ll find a file labeled “index”. Open that file for a HTML page linking to all of the files you downloaded. Photos, for example, are in a folder called Photos, and sorted by album.

If you’d like to have an app take care of this for you – and grab data from several other social media services at the same time – consider digi.me. It offers free software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS that will back up posts from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and several other social media networks to your local drive.

The thought of a compromised or hacked social account sends shivers down my spine. If you feel the same way, take the time to back up these services. You’ll be glad you did.

Get organized for winter home maintenance

Winter brings its own list of required tasks. I’m not talking about shoveling and salting, though that must be done, too. The colder months are a great time to get the following maintenance done so that you’ll be prepared for the harsh weather and ready for the infamous “spring cleaning.”

First, attend to your best friend during the winter months: the furnace. You really ought to have annual maintenance performed by a pro, and the start of winter is a great time to get that done. With that sorted, there are other tasks you can easily perform yourself:

  1. Change the filter monthly. On mine, it’s a big square filter that easily slides in and out. My local hardware store carries just the size I need. If you’re unsure, ask your service pro or even the nice folks at your hardware store. I use Google Calendar to remind me to change the furnace filter monthly. In the reminder notes, I jotted down the size of the furnace filter so that it’s easy to look up when I get to the hardware store.
  2. Adjust the ducts/dampers. My house uses forced hot air for heating and cooling. Each winter, I adjust the dampers a bit to ensure that hot air is forced to the bedrooms. Just be sure not to close off air completely to any level or room.

Next, step outside, grab the ladder and prepare to clean the gutters. No, it’s not an enviable job but winter storms will fill them with debris from nearby trees quickly. Additionally, heavy show and ice could cause them to pull away from their mountings and fall from the house entirely. While unpleasant, it’s an simple chore to complete:

  1. Wear long sleeves and gloves
  2. Use a good, reliable ladder. When I worked as a custodian I was introduced to the Werner 6 ft. Fiberglass Step Ladder, and I loved it. It is lightweight, reliable, and steady as a rock.
  3. Throw down a plastic tarp or a drop cloth to catch what you clear out. It’s much easier to clear away like that.
  4. Use a scoop. You can buy one if you like, or just use the kids’ beach shovel. They won’t be needing them for weeks.

If you have a fireplace, get the chimney inspected. Flammable creosote builds up and must be removed. Your local chimney sweep can take care of that for you. (When I was a teenager my father had me clean our family’s chimney. It wasn’t pretty. Don’t be like my dad. Hire a professional.)

Finally, clean vents that lead outdoors: the hood above the stove, the clothes dryer, etc. Also, when it does snow and you’re clearing the walkway, make sure to free these openings, too.

Regular home maintenance saves you money in the long run, teaches valuable skills, familiarizes you with how your home works, and helps prevent big issues down the road. Put these things on your calendar and rest easier every winter.

Apps to easily organize storage bins

Three years ago, I mentioned a fun trick in a post about digitizing user manuals. Basically, it works like this:

  1. Save the manual in an Evernote note.
  2. Use that note’s unique URL to create a QR Code.
  3. Print that code on adhesive-backed printer paper.
  4. Affix the code sticker to the washer, drill, etc., for instant access to its manual.

Bella Storage does a similar thing for storage totes but it reduces the number of steps and apps, and greatly enhances the result. The app, available for iPhones and Android, is the heart of the solution. When you’re putting items into a Bella storage bin, use it to note the contents, give the bin a name (“Halloween decorations,” “Summer clothes”, etc.) and give it a category, like “holiday” or “sports.” Lastly, add a location.

Later, when you’re looking for that one swimsuit, the jack-o-lantern carving tools, or the bike helmets, Bella tells you what bin it’s in and where it is located. It works in the other direction, too. Simply walk up to a bin, scan the code on the side and “see” exactly what’s inside. You don’t need to pull it down and lift the lid.

Of course, there are other solutions that offer something similar. Box Me Up works much the same, and has both a mobile-friendly, browser-based interface as well as an Android app. Another option is I.M Organized, which lets you inventory all of your stuff by simply scanning a bar code, and also generates QR Codes for you to affix to boxes or bins.

Finally, there’s the DIY method I mentioned earlier.

Good luck! Try out any of these apps for quick retrieval of your stuff. Happy storing!

The organized tool box: eight tools you need

My grandfather’s garage was like a wizard’s lair.

When I was a boy I knew that I could ride by bike to my grandparent’s house at any time and get something fixed. I’d hop off my bike at the base of the stairs, bound up to the porch, open the door and stride in like I owned the place (families don’t need to knock). After my grandmother gave me some warm 7Up in a tiny can, which I didn’t like but drank out of respect, I’d ask for my grandfather, who was in one of two places: the basement or the garage.

The basement was an uninteresting place, full of the things that basements are full of. The garage, however, was something different entirely.

Garlic hung drying from the ceiling. Toys my father had played with decades before dotted the walls, dusty and forgotten. It was quiet and dark as under-powered lightbulbs did the best they could. Along the far wall there was a pegboard on which hung every tool you could think of.

That’s what I was after.

The tools were neatly arranged, a magic marker outlining each space’s occupant. Nothing on the wall was new. Instead, this army of stalwarts had earned their spots on the pegboard through years of reliable service.

Trouble with my bike? Fixed. Skateboard acting up? Fixed. Nuclear-powered rocket capable of reaching Earth orbit?

OK not that, but my little-boy imagination thought it was possible.

As I got older, the inevitable started to happen. What once appeared larger than life seemed to “shrink” and become more manageable, more real. Think of the time you returned to your old elementary school gym as an adult, or even a favorite public playground. “How did I ever think this place was big?” Eventually I learned that the massive collection of tools was really a set of nine useful, effective pieces of hardware that allowed granddad fix or repair almost anything.

Today, those are the same nine tools I keep on hand. You might have project- or profession-specific additions, and that’s fine. For example, this list overlooks woodworking, an electrician’s tools and more. But as for a basic set of tools, you can’t go wrong with this collection. New home owners, college students in their first apartments or anyone looking to adopt a “handy” lifestyle, this is for you.

A reliable hammer. A hammer can be used to drive nails, remove nails and start small demolition projects. Go for a 16-ounce model, as they’re the most versatile. While my grandfather had a hammer with a wooden handle, I’ve since opted for steel, as wood can split. The Estwing E3–16C is a fantastic choice for around twenty bucks.

Screwdrivers. I bet you guessed that screwdriver would follow hammer. Phillips screwdrivers have been around since 1936, and their companion flatheads are also very much still in use. I also use the flatheads to open cans of paint, but I know that makes some people cringe. If that’s you, get one of these. In my experience, Wiha makes nice, precision-made screwdrivers with comfortable handles and fantastic overall build quality. The 30295 Screwdriver Set is a good one to own.

You can get away with one Phillips and one flathead if budgeting is a concern, but you’ll be glad you have a selection of sizes if you can swing it.

A tape measure. “Measure twice, cut once” is the adage that old-timers have passed down for generations. Since I’m better at the former, I make sure I have a good tape measure around to help me with the latter. I’m partial to the classic Stanley 25’ PowerLock because it’s the one my grandfather and I have seen take a lot of abuse like drops, falls, being smacked with a hammer…all without affecting performance. Plus, it gives a very satisfying “SNAP” when retracted.

A crescent wrench. I have a love-hate relationship with crescent wrenches. On one hand, they replace a slew of other wrenches. On the other, I’ve experienced wobbly jaws that won’t hold their shape to the point of driving me crazy. I use a Channellock 8WCB WideAzz Adjustable Wrench. The lower jaw does not wobble around and, unlike many other models, it’s got a nice, comfortable handle. That’s precisely what you need when you’re wrenching down on a stubborn nut.

And yes, you can use a wrench to drive in small nails, but please don’t.

A cordless drill. Sure, you’ve got those nice screwdrivers but a drill can add/remove screws quickly and efficiently, as well as perform a whole number of additional tasks. Find one with multiple speeds and a reverse function. While you’re at it, pick up an extra battery that you can keep in the charger. It’s no fun to pick up the drill and discover that your only battery is dead, delaying your project by a couple of hours. I’m a Porter-Cable man myself, and the PCC606LA 20-Volt 1/2-Inch Lithium-Ion Drill is a very nice drill.

A level. I know there are level apps for the iPhone and Android. I can almost see my grandfather rolling his eyes at those. Go out and get yourself a good, 24″ level. Remember the whole “measure twice, cut once” thing? This will help with that.

A handsaw. My grandfather’s handsaw was like one of those that people play with a bow. They’re great, but I struggle with saws that cut on the “push” stroke. Maybe it’s my technique, but I always get hung up on the material being cut. The Shark 15″ Carpentry Saw cuts on the pull stroke, and I like it much better. It’s faster and more comfortable for the way I use a saw.

Vise Grip. Behold, your extra set of hands. When you need both hands to work on something but a third to hold it still, the vise grips come into play.

Here’s a quick note before you go out and assemble your collection. Don’t be afraid to spend a few dollars on quality tools. I’ve thrown away more junky screwdrivers than I care to admit. Also, Rome wasn’t built in a day so feel free to buy quality hardware a bit at a time, here and there. Soon enough you’ll have a pegboard worthy of a grandchild’s bike or skateboard.

Or rocketship.

Expand Evernote’s usefulness with the Web Clipper

Here at Unclutterer, we love Evernote. I’ve often called it “my external brain,” and consider it just that. I’ve used it to create a digital journal, manage recipes, and Erin has used it to organize her busy family life. Today I’ll talk about an oft-overlooked feature: the web clipper.

Evernote’s web clipper can be added on to your web browser to act as a useful go-between from the internet and Evernote. That is to say, it lets you quickly move information — links, articles, quotes, etc. — from a web browser to Evernote without requiring you to open the software. It’s fast and saves a lot of time. Today, I’ll show you the basics of using the Evernote web clipper.

Installation

Go to evernote.com/webclipper to download the version your browser needs. You’ll be guided through the simple process. From there you’re ready to go. To do what, exactly? Let me explain.

Use

I’m using Safari for Mac in this article. While there will be slight variations across browsers and operating systems, everything will be largely the same.

I often use Evernote to save online articles I’d like to read later. I can save the URL, open Evernote, find the appropriate notebook, create a new note and paste in the URL, but that’s too many steps. The web clipper makes it much easier.

Once installed, just click the little elephant icon that launches the web clipper (the installation process will put the icon front-and-center on your browser for you). When you do that, a new window appears (right) with five options:

  1. Article – Save the entire article as you see it.
  2. Simplified Article – Save just the text, stripping out ads and other non-essential images.
  3. Full Page – Grabs everything you see on that web page.
  4. Bookmark – Only grabs the URL.
  5. Screenshot – Takes a screenshot of the web page (or a portion thereof).

Below that you’ll find the “Organize” section. From the drop-down menu, select the notebook you’d like to use as a destination. You can add tags and even “remarks” (brief notes to yourself) for future reference and context. It all takes a fraction of the time you’d spend by launching the software itself.

Grab only the text you want

This is a super cool feature. As soon as you click the little elephant, you may notice a little yellow square next to your cursor. This is the highlighter, and it lets you grab just a portion of the the text on a page. Simply click and drag to highlight it in yellow, then click Save on the Web Clipper.

Share your clips

Once you’ve grabbed a clip, you might want to share it. After clicking Save as described above, you’ll be presented with a new window that offers to share what you’ve just saved. Click the drop-down menu for several options, including email, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and more. This is useful if you’re coordinating information for a family trip, group work project, and so on.

This was just a brief overview and I hope it prompts you to check out this often-forgotten feature. It saves me a lot of time and lets me save a lot of great info I might otherwise forget.

Tips for cleaning and organizing the car

Winter always prompts me to clean and organize the car. I’ll add a good scraper for the snow and ice, a pair of gloves, a blanket and the next thing you know I’ve given it a complete overhaul. Here’s how I keep the cars tidy and uncluttered.

I know this isn’t possible for many of you, but I like to keep the rear seats folded down. If you’ve got kids, this might not be an option. My wife drives a mini van that’s typically used to haul our offspring around, so my little two-door car is usually free of that duty.

I keep the rear seats folded down for two reasons. First, it saves on wear and tear on the seats. Next, it expands the tiny “trunk” area (I have a hatchback, technically a trunk). That way if I have several bags of groceries or other space-hogging cargo to haul around, I can just put it inside without having to lower the seats first.

Speaking of the trunk, those of you who actually have one, might want to invest in an organizer like this one from High Road Organizers. The compartments will keep most cargo from moving around as you drive, and the Velcro on the bottom keeps the organizer in place. If you don’t need it, the whole thing folds up and can be set aside.

I also keep emergency equipment in the trunk. A nice kit like this contains flares, jumper cables, rain gear and more. It’s easy to overlook these kits but they are an important investment.

With the trunk sorted, let’s move towards the front of the car. Those with kids will probably need a container of some sort for snacks, books, tissues, and so on. A portable shower organizer will work, as it can fit between seats. Some will suggest hanging an organizer on the back of the front seat, but I find that it just gets in the way of rear-seat passengers.

My favorite piece of car-organizing hardware is the humble carabiner. Get yourself a big, chunky one like this and behold the myriad of uses:

  1. Hang clothing (or your purse, if you carry one)
  2. Hold umbrellas
  3. Clip on re-usable grocery bags
  4. Bring home dry cleaning
  5. Anchor down large cargo

I have one on each side of the car and I use them much more often than I thought I would. It is well worth the $10.

Now, a few little tips to help you keep the car in tip-top shape.

  1. When you get gas, take a minute to toss trash.
  2. Empty tissue boxes make great car-sized trash bins.
  3. Put important papers like registration, service history, etc., in a small accordion binder.
  4. Keep a stash of zip-seal bags for cleaning up any number of things.

It’s relatively easy to keep the car neat and tidy. For more on the topic, check out our articles on organizing the glove compartment and five things to keep in the car.

Reduce key chain clutter with Key Ring

In the world of retail, customer loyalty programs are designed to keep shoppers going back to the same store over and over. They often employ those little plastic “loyalty cards” that many of us have dangling from our key chains and cluttering up our wallets and purses. While the rewards can be nice, the cards are just one more thing to keep track of, carry around, or simply lose — unless you make them digital.

Key Ring is an app for iPhone and Android devices that lets you store all of your loyalty cards on your phone. I’ve been using it on my Pixel and I have to say, it’s pretty darn handy. Plus, it let me seriously reduce the amount of clutter on my key chain and in my wallet, which I appreciate very much. Here’s a look at this clever little app.

I’ve been using Key Ring on an Android device. The iPhone version, while generally the same, might have slight variations in functioning that are unique to iOS.

Setup

Setup is simple. After installing the app, you’ll be prompted to create an account by adding your email address and a password. That’s it. From there, you can start adding loyalty card information.

Adding a new card is just as easy. You’ll find a “+” at the top of the screen. Tap it, give the app permission to access your phone’s camera and take a picture of the bar code on your card. The app will recognize it right away and it’s ready to go.

My hesitation with solutions like this is always the same. I’m always afraid that when asked for a loyalty card and I present my phone, I’ll get a confused look from the cashier. Or, the equipment the cashier has access to won’t accept a bar code that’s on my phone’s display. Fortunately, that has not been the case. I’ve had success at the grocery store, electronics store and elsewhere.

More than loyalty cards

Key Ring offers even more benefits than just storing cards and reducing key chain/wallet/purse clutter. If you allow the app to have access to your location, it can find sales in the area, let you identify favorite sales for later reference, and even create shopping lists. You can browse store coupons and even have the cashier scan them, right from your phone. There’s no need to fumble with flyers and slips of paper.

In the weeks that I’ve been using Key Ring, I’ve grown to love it. It’s well laid-out, simple and effective. Plus, it does exactly what it says on the label. My key chain can attest to that.

How do you remind yourself to do something?

As I sat down to write this week’s Unclutterer articles, my smartphone beeped a reminder, “Grace ballet at 12:00.” I was glad to receive the prompt and reflected on how crucial my smartphone has become when it comes to reminding me of what I need to do and where I need to be.

Smartphones didn’t become commonplace until about ten years ago. However, I existed back then and I can’t recall the reminder system I used in the “dark days” before pocket-sized computers.

I realize that not everyone favors electronic reminders that vibrate, beep and flash and that got me wondering. How do you remind yourself of what needs to be done?

We’ve discussed many reminder systems over the last ten years . In 2010 we described a system that uses Google Calendar to prompt future action, and two years ago we pointed out a few ways to get things done while avoiding lists and reminders entirely. There are fantastic apps out there, too, like Due.

I’d be lost without my smartphone when it comes to reminders. I’m curious, what is your chosen reminders system? Sound off!

Can a digital assistant help you stay organized?

There comes a point in your life when you think, “I could really use an assistant.” School, work, kids, and a myriad of other things demand more and more of your attention. I don’t know about you, but the luxury of a personal assistant is not in my budget. With that in mind (and my wallet firmly in my pocket), I turn to artificial intelligence like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant .

These technologies, and others, are the so-called “digital assistants” that their respective creators hope will become the hub of our future lives. Today they’re good at streaming music, setting kitchen timers, and performing a few other mediocre tricks, but can a digital assistant help you stay organized?

For me, the answer is a qualified “no.” Before I explain that qualifier, let’s look at the “big three” of digital assistants.

Siri

Apple purchased the digital assistant “Siri” in 2010, and has since integrated the service with its iPhones, Apple TVs, and Macintosh computers. As for productivity and organization, Siri is great at setting calendar events, creating to-dos, and reading and composing texts and emails. When connected to smart home devices like Wemo Switch wall sockets and Hue lights, Siri offers a bit of control over household products as well.

Google Assistant

Google’s Assistant, made a splash last year as the marquee feature on the Pixel and Pixel XL smartphones. Today, Assistant can be found on Google Home and elsewhere. It’s helpful for many of the same tasks that Siri handles.

Alexa

Amazon’s Alexa currently resides on the Amazon Echo and Dot. While very useful, it is restricted to your home. Alexa can play music, play games, set timers, read off your calendar, provide news updates, control “smart” devices like Hue lights and so on. Unfortunately, Alexa can’t find you a hotel or help you drive to your Aunt Tilley’s house. She can — and this should not be a surprise — buy products from Amazon.

It’s not as fun as the computer on Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise, but it’s still fun.

And brings me to the qualified “no.” All of these technologies have nailed one aspect of artificial intelligence in our daily lives: fun. It’s cool to talk to a gadget in your home or your phone and have it follow your commands. My kids are delighted every time they use our Echo to add an item to a shopping list or to turn the kitchen lights on.

Fun yes, but “helpful” is pushing it.

I can usually complete the same task with my computer or smartphone, and often faster. But that’s not the real hang-up here. When you look at these three, really look, you see them for what they are – middle-men.

Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant don’t really get things done for you, they provide information that helps you get things done. That’s helpful in its own way, but it is also what prevents me from recommending these technologies as true organizers. Siri can locate a hotel on a map, for example, but it won’t make reservations. Alexa can read my calendar, but it won’t tell people attending my 2:00 meeting that I’m going to be late.

Speaking of calendars, here’s my next point.

To use digital assistants effectively, you’ve got to hand over a lot of information including your calendar, contacts, and certain preferences. Some people may be uncomfortable sharing all of that. All of this leads me to my favorite digital assistant, and it doesn’t even talk!

Google Now

Google Now (or “Google” as the iPhone app is called) doesn’t have a personality like the others. It offers no jokes or quips like its companions. However, backed by the power of Google, it excels at providing information.

On my phone, Google Now notices where I am (I’ve enabled location services) and it lets me know when to start driving to appointments, what local traffic is like, where to find good restaurants, where the car is parked, and so much more. It has me saying, “Wow,” much more often than the others do.

None of these are truly “assistants,” but they’re on the right track. In a few years voice-controlled assistants will be true organizers. For for the time being, stick with Google Now.