Family heirlooms: Give them away at milestone celebrations

The distribution of family heirlooms is a little creepy in my book: someone dies and I get a present. I like presents, don’t misunderstand, I just wish that a family member didn’t have to die for me to get it.

My grandmother is aware of my aversion to these inheritance practices, and so gave me her set of silver as a wedding present. When she gave it to me, she told me the story about the silver and how she worked to make money to buy it, piece by piece, during the 1930s. Had she waited to give it to me after her death, I likely would have had another set already and would have never known the delightful story of how she purchased it. Now, when I use it, I think about her, that wonderful day, and her generous gift.

My advice is to give family heirlooms away at appropriate milestone celebrations. Grandfather’s college ring should be given to a grandchild on his or her graduation with a note about it and a photo of grandfather wearing it. The rocking chair you used in your daughter’s nursery should be passed on to her the day she brings her first child home. When you give her the chair, include a page from your diary when you talked about rocking her to sleep in it and a photo of her in your arms. Don’t hoard your treasured heirlooms, instead give them away at appropriate times with heart-felt explanations of why they are valued.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Avoiding children’s party clutter

As an adult, you can write “No Gifts Please” on birthday party invitations and guests usually respect these wishes. It doesn’t work this way for children’s parties, however, or for baby showers or even random trips to grandma’s house.

Children love gifts and people love giving children gifts. It’s the way of the world. Gifts, although well intentioned and truly appreciated, can still end up as clutter.

For example, my friend Kristine received 14 baby blankets at a shower her mother threw for her when she was pregnant with her second child. She ended up keeping a couple that were hand knit, one that was quilted, one that could easily be laundered, and then gave the other 10 to charity. She was extremely thankful for the generosity people showed toward her and her future child, but there was no way that she could store or ever use 14 baby blankets.

When having parties for children or baby showers for new parents, there are some things that you can do to help keep gifts from becoming clutter:

Baby Showers

  • Establish a baby registry. Amazon has an online registry where friends and family from across the country can purchase items for expecting parents. These lists help to focus gift giving toward things that new parents need. Yes, it is sterile and soul-less, but it also is considerate and useful.
  • Throw a “help the community” party. When my friends adopted a baby from China, they had a baby shower where people brought gifts for the Chinese orphanage. When the couple traveled to pick up their daughter in China, they took the blankets, books, and clothing to the other orphans in China still waiting to be placed with families.
  • Have a “pamper the parent” party. Before a baby arrives, mothers and fathers are often the last people on everyone’s minds. Remind the parents that you’re thinking of them, too, by having a day at the spa where guests can join the expecting parents in manicures, pedicures, and massages.

Children’s Parties

  • Have a theme party. On a child’s first birthday, have a “stock the library” party where attendees bring their favorite children’s book. If your child can’t get enough of trucks when he’s two, ask for attendees to bring truck gifts to his party. A focused theme helps to target gifts toward things that will be used, and also helps the gift buyer when trying to think of what to bring.
  • Have an adventure party. In lieu of gifts, let party attendees know that there will be a small fee (I’d try to keep it to $15 or less) to white-water raft or ride in a hot air balloon or be admitted to Six Flags. This is probably an approach best suited to older children. Other parents will thank you for not having to buy a gift and for taking their children off of their hands for a few hours. Plus, your child will remember the experience for a lifetime. Remember, too, that family members still will likely give gifts, so there will be presents for your child to unwrap at some point during the day.

Let’s hear from parents about other ideas for good gift-giving parties in the comments.

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

Making your resolutions a reality

On either the last day of the old year or the first day of the new year, many of us created lists of resolutions. If you’re like me, getting organized appeared in some fashion on this list. For example my specific resolution back in 2008 was to get my laundry mess under control.

Generating the resolution and committing it to paper or a hard drive is a terrific way to start the process. Unfortunately, though, the resolution won’t become a reality unless more work is done. (Wouldn’t it be great if just writing it down was really all it took?!)

If you don’t set a course of action and stick to it, then your resolution will be nothing more than words on paper. I want to walk through my process attack, which is loosely based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, to help you see how lofty goals can easily become experienced reality.

  1. Commit your resolution to writing. It doesn’t matter if you write your resolution on an index card, in a Moleskine notebook, or in an virtual Evernote notebook. Formulating your idea into concrete words helps you define your purpose and gets you started on your path to change.
  2. Reflect on your resolution and identify your motivation for change and where you see yourself once the resolution is complete. If you can’t see where you’re headed or why you want to get there, your resolution is pretty much destined for failure. There is no need to establish any other form of reward system, because you’ll see yourself succeeding! In my case, I need to imagine the calm I will have from not having piles of laundry cluttering up the floor of my laundry room.
  3. Brainstorm methods for completing your resolution. Even if the ideas seem ridiculous, write them down anyway. What are all of the ways that you could possibly reach your goal? What steps could you take? What is currently standing in your way? What resources could you obtain to help you get what you want? Empty all of your thoughts on the matter onto a piece of paper.
  4. Evaluate your brainstormed ideas and create what Allen calls “keys” to organization. “Identify the significant pieces. Sort by (one or more): components, sequences, priorities. Detail to the required degree.” This is the stage where you create your plan.
  5. Once your plan is set, make decisions as to the exact steps you will follow to achieve your goal. Without these concrete steps, you won’t know how to move forward. For my laundry resolution, my exact steps involve a lot of removing current barriers to success. (Buy light bulbs on Saturday morning at the grocery store to replace burned out bulbs in the laundry room.) If you’ve never written an exact step, or what Allen names “next actions,” you may want to read the entry on this topic on Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders GTDwiki here.
  6. Start!

Good luck to everyone with their organization resolutions! Feel welcome to tell us about your process for success in the comments section to this post.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

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 our 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 immediately.

From Kate:

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

For even more great ideas, check out the comments below and our other post on uncluttering holiday greeting cards.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in 2007.

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 an elf on every shelf. 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.

Organizing gift wrapping supplies

Tubes of gift wrap are cumbersome and always find a way to cause a mess. If you don’t already have a designated storage system for your gift wrap, then you may want to consider putting one together or purchasing a pre-made system.

I use the Gift Wrap Organizer (pictured), which has served me well over the years. I hang it in my office closet and only pull it out when I use it. I purchased tape and scissors specifically to be stored with the gift wrap so that everything is in one spot when I need it.

I keep five tubes of wrapping paper in the storage sleeves: One roll of heavy, plain white (for wedding and anniversary gifts), two rolls of holiday paper (one with a snowman print and the other a solid gold), a conservative stripe (for father’s day and male birthdays), and a neutral with polka dots (for mother’s day, female birthdays, and baby showers). If I had children, I would probably have a sixth tube of printed, youthful paper. In the front pockets I have stored bows, ribbons, and clear scotch tape. The side pocket holds a pair of scissors. The top back pocket holds white, cream, pink, and blue tissue paper. Finally, the bottom back pocket holds 10 gift bags in varying sizes (most of these are recycled from gifts people gave to me).

I found other pre-made systems that would work well, too:

Keep gift wrap from causing a mess in your home with a self-made or purchased organization system specifically designed for this purpose.

 

This post has been updated since its original publication in October 2007.

Using wedding registries to avoid gift-related clutter

I have mixed emotions about wedding registries. On one hand, I tend to agree with Miss Manners, who recently wrote:

Registries are never proper, not for weddings, not for baby showers and not for birthdays. Not for christenings, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, sweet sixteens, graduations, engagements, coming out, announcing gender, changing gender, getting a job, losing a job, buying a house, divorcing, retiring or dying.

It is simply never polite to ask someone to buy you a present. Everyone is just going to have to go through life’s milestones without the explicit intention of reaping material rewards.

However, the practical part of me knows people are going to create registries, and they do help avoid couples getting gifts that get shoved to the back of a closet. If you’re going to create a wedding registry on Amazon or elsewhere, consider the following to help ensure the gifts you receive won’t become clutter.

You won’t develop a whole new personality after the wedding.

If you’re an introvert and throwing a fancy dinner party for 12 makes you shudder, it won’t suddenly sound appealing after you get married. If you tend to eat take-out meals and easy-to-prepare foods, you’re unlikely to become interested in gourmet cooking in the near future. So select items that match the person you actually are, not the person the registry checklists might presume you are. If your tastes and interests evolve later — as they certainly can, in unpredictable ways — you can get what you need for future-you when that time comes.

Consider the other members of your household.

I have cats who eat cut flowers, so vases would never go on my list. And any quilts and other such bedding needs to be machine washable, because hairballs happen. Consider what items may or not be appropriate given your specific family members. Do you need to avoid easily broken items? Are there medical conditions to take into account?

You still need to store the stuff.

Make sure everything you’re asking for will have an appropriate storage place in your home. And if you’re considering things you’d use once or twice a year — sports gear, Thanksgiving dinner kitchenware, etc. — consider whether or not you’d be better off renting or borrowing these items rather than owning them.

Consider items beyond the traditional housewares.

Your registry can incorporate consumables (such as wine) and experiences (such as museum memberships). Another option: Ask for donations to a charity of your choice. Rather than looking for cash donations, some couples have created registries of things they will turn around and give to local homeless shelters or other nonprofit organizations — making it clear to the gift-givers that this is their intention.

Add items to your registry as carefully as you would choose them if you were buying them yourself.

Are the items on your list things that you’ll love having in your space? Alternatively, are they just really practical items you need to have? (I once got a couple the paper shredder that was on their registry.) If not, consider whether they really belong on your list.

Wedding gifts we still use 16 years later

Way back in the year 2000, my then girlfriend and I decided to get married. We created a gift registry, as so many engaged couples to do. As a pair of young people with very little in the way of “real world” possessions, we asked for many things we thought we’d use for years. Fortunately many of our friends and family obliged and a year later we found ourselves happily married with a pile of new stuff.

Sixteen years later, there are items from that registry that we still use every day and others that were donated/tossed/given away long ago. Here’s a list of the few keepers that still see active duty.

Dishes

The first item we registered for was a set of dinnerware from local potter Steve Kemp. We loved Steve’s work and thought, “What the heck. Maybe someone will buy us a setting or two.” We ended up with full service and those very plates and bowls are still in daily use at our house. Yes, I’ve broken a few but that’s what anniversary gifts are for, right?

Flatware

My mother was raised in Oneida, New York, home to Oneida flatware and, before that, The Oneida Community (I’ve been inside the fabled “Mansion House” many times). My maternal grandfather worked for Oneida, designing flatware. Of course, I had to have a set, which we asked for and received.

For the first few years, I kept those utensils tucked away until Christmas other other “special” occasion. Eventually I decided that that was silly and now we use the Oneida flatware every day.

We didn’t ask for things like knifes or pots and pans, as we inherited sets of each, which we’ve since replaced.

Bed

As two single people we had, of course, two twin beds. As a gift we received a queen sized bed with some nifty storage compartments and it’s still in use.

Stuff we asked for, have, and never use.

Wine glasses. My wife and I drink wine maybe once a year. Yet we requested and received a set of wine glasses, figuring we’d be entertaining wine-loving friends. That hasn’t happened yet, and to this day a set of pristine wine glasses sit idle in a cabinet. The same goes for the blender. Again, we’ve used this maybe a dozen times over the past 16 years. The thought of fresh fruit smoothies every morning sounds great until you have to make them and then clean the blender.

Items we no longer own

First things first, if you’re reading this and you’re the person(s) who gave us any of the following, I’m sorry! We tried, honest. Let’s start with the bread machine. At the time when we got married, these things were very popular. Toss the ingredients inside, hit a switch and presto, you’ve got bread. The bread machine we owned was huge and took up a massive amount of counter space. So it sat in the basement until we decided that we wanted to use it. That day never came. The same goes for the ice cream maker. Oh, how charmingly naive young couples are. “We’ll make ice cream! It will be great.” Add a few kids to the mix and you realize there’s no time for that. Away it went.

What I wish we’d asked for

If I had a time machine, I’d go back to the year 2000 and ask for the following:

A decent, basic set of tools. You can get a way with cheap tools for a while, or skipping some essentials entirely, but starting off with a high-quality starter set is well worth the investment.

A rice cooker. We didn’t buy a rice cooker until a few years ago and we’re amazed at how useful, compact and efficient it is. Everybody should own one.

A full set of Pyrex: 1 cup, 2 cup and quart measuring cups; 8×8 cake pan; 2qt, 3 qt and 4 qt baking dishes. You can’t kill these things. They last forever.

If you’re getting married soon, consider creating your wedding gift registry with Amazon. They have a vast selection of gifts at various prices. Your guests will know exactly what you want and your guests will appreciate that the gifts can be automatically delivered to you.

When shopping for wedding gifts, consider giving something that the couple likely wouldn’t buy themselves. Personally, I lean towards the practical. It’s kind of boring, but let’s be honest. There’s no time for making ice cream.

How to wrap gifts without paper

Every year I get a few comments from Unclutterers about the wastefulness of wrapping paper. It’s there for a few minutes and then it’s gone and tossed into the trash.

Now, I understand that wrapping paper adds to the festive feeling of gift-giving. A carefully-wrapped gift can express caring and affection for the recipient. I love a well-wrapped gift, but I can see the other side, too. If you’re in the anti-wrap camp, here are several ideas for clever ways to wrap gifts without paper.

Cloth

A beautiful cloth can make a gift look fantastic. Furoshiki is a type of traditional Japanese wrapping cloth that’s perfect for oddly-shaped packages or gifts. It’s also a great choice when a scarf or beautiful cloth is part of the gift.

If you want to give this a try, download this beautifully illustrated PDF from Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. Likewise, the video below provides a nice step-by-step for a popular method.

You can also re-purpose decorative napkins, old curtains or scrap fabric. Simply stitch them together for a fun, vintage look.

Lastly, I found this great idea using a cable knit sweater , some ribbon and decorative pine cones. It’s clever and looks great.

Re-purposed paper

For many, the issue is the single-use nature of wrapping paper. One thing you can do about it is re-use decorative retail bags. Here’s a great example using holiday-themed grocery bags from Trader Joe’s . Likewise, you can buy an inexpensive stamp like this and some scrap paper from the printer, junk mail, etc. and create great-looking wrap.

When I was young, my mother would occasionally wrap presents in the color Sunday comics from the newspaper. It always looked great and I thought it was a lot of fun.

Containers

You can buy a gift bag. It’s not my favorite solution, but it’s there. If that’s not your thing, consider these other fun packages and gift wrap.

Here’s a great tutorial on turning a cereal box into a lovely and charming gift box. Likewise, here’s a tutorial on using a Pringles container to present beautiful, customized gifts.

I hope this list was helpful. A thoughtfully-wrapped gift can say as much as the goodie it contains. And yes, paper is not your only option. Have fun wrapping! And don’t worry, there’s plenty of time left.

Organize a game night

Entertaining at home is a great way to spend time with family and friends, and is often a less expensive option than meeting at a restaurant. One suggestion for what to do is to host a game night. With a little preparation and careful game selection, you’ll have a fun event.

Make a plan

Whenever you invite guests to your home for something beyond “let’s hang out,” it’s good to make a plan for your evening in your head. In the case of a game night, decide in advance if you’ll serve food, what games you’ll offer to play, how long you’ll spend playing games, what activities you’ll provide beyond playing games, etc. You don’t need to write anything down or tell your guests your plan, but take at least some time to organize the flow of the night and how you can make it a good experience for everyone.

Snacks

A party means snacks and with games involved, this area needs some extra attention. Stick with non-messy options. You don’t want gunky fingers all over your game pieces. Dry snacks like plain popcorn, nuts, sliced cheese, hard candies, and crackers are a great option. Napkins are good to provide, even if you provide snacks on the clean side.

Location of your snacks is another consideration. If you’re going to have snacks and games on the same table, make sure there’s enough room for each. Smaller serving bowls/plates are good to have in multiple locations to reduce having to pass items. Or, pull up a smaller table next to the game table to be the snack center. Even a card table with a nice tablecloth will do the trick.

Keep it small, at least at first

While it’s tempting to bring a crowd over for that hilarious party game, keep the party small, at least at first. I’d recommend four or five, that way everyone can play the same game. Otherwise, you risk breaking the gang up into two groups, which is fine until you’re running back and forth trying to teach two games at once or refilling snack items.

Select a variety of game options

Game selection is important and can make or break your event. Plan on having several titles ready to go, but not so many that you overwhelm guests. You’ll also want to have several types of game available, to accommodate tastes and skill levels. Lastly, make sure you know how to play each game you’ve selected, so you can teach them easily.

Party games

This genre of games are obviously great for a party, as the emphasis is on getting everyone laughing rather than identifying a winner. They’re even better toward the end of the evening after a couple bottles of wine have been opened.

Telestrations. Think telephone meets Pictionary. One person draws an image, the next guesses what it is, the next draw’s that guess….on and on. Always hilarious.

Wits and Wagers. A trivia game that asks questions you feel like you should know the answer to, but almost no one does. Like, how wide (not long) is a NFL football field? How many days in a school year?

Card games

Cards are familiar, even if the game isn’t. The following are two options that are easy to learn and a lot of fun.

Love Letter. In this fun, fast-paced deduction game, you’re trying to pass a letter to the princess, while your rivals try to prevent that from happening.

Sushi Go!. This is a set-collection game, similar to rummy, but with super-cute sushi. The premise is that you’re in a sushi restaurant, watching all of the delicious choices go past. Score points by making sets (most dumplings, rolls, etc.) and gain other bonuses. A round of play goes pretty quickly.

Strategy games

Ready to level up? The following are a couple of games with a little more “meat” to them.

King of New York. In this game, there’s a little more going on than in other titles. Each player is a B-movie style monster rampaging through the Big Apple. You must damage the city and each other, while conquering the five boroughs and avoiding that pesky army trying to take you down. It’s a great-looking game with big, chunky dice to roll. Who doesn’t love that?

Seven Wonders. You lead one of seven great cities of the ancient world in this game. Gather and manage resources to build the seven wonders of the world.

Wind-down

Finally, recognize that some guests may be tired of playing board games after only a couple rounds. Have a dessert or coffee ready, so everyone can chat and unwind a bit before the evening ends.

For me, playing tabletop games is a tremendous way to spend time, get to know people, build memories, and laugh. Even if you haven’t played a board game since the first time you ID’d Colonel Mustard in the study with the candlestick, consider giving an organized game night a try.

Re-gifting done right

I’ve been a fan of re-gifting ever since I received a well intentioned, expensive, but off-the-mark gift: a large serving bowl. I don’t do the type of entertaining that would require such a bowl and it would have taken a lot of storage space. Just as I was pondering what to do with it — donate it, probably — a dear friend mentioned she was attending the wedding of a relative she wasn’t close to, and she was trying to decide what to bring as a gift. Suddenly, both of our problems were solved.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be like the very embarrassed Tim Gunn, who needed a last-minute present and re-gifted a Tiffany pen he’d been given after judging a design competition. Unfortunately, he didn’t take a good look at the pen, which he learned (when the gift was opened) was inscribed, “Best wishes from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.”

But done with care, re-gifting can work just fine. If you feel any guilt about it, let Miss Manners put your mind to rest. In Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior she wrote that returning, donating to charity, and re-gifting are not rude “if the rule is strictly observed about protecting the donor from knowing. This requires fresh wrappings and logs of who gave what, and a ban on yard sales and re-gifting anywhere near the donor.” (If the gift-giver has specifically told you returning or re-gifting is fine, that’s a different situation.)

Paul Michael, writing on the Wise Bread blog, has listed a couple additional cautions:

  • If you suspect the item you got is already a re-gift, you can’t take the risk of re-gifting it again. (I think you could still re-gift if you were giving to someone in an entirely different social circle.)
  • Don’t give outdated items. If you’re going to re-gift things like electronics and clothing, do it while the electronics are still current models and the clothing is still in style. As Michael wrote, “The older the brand new item becomes, the more obvious it becomes that this is a re-gift.”

And you’ll want to match the gift to the recipient just as carefully as you would if you were buying something new. Even for a Secret Santa type of gift situation, where you may not know the recipient well, you want to give something the receiver has a decent chance of appreciating. As Genevieve Shaw Brown wrote for ABC News, “Never re-gift ugly.” (But if you are giving to a white elephant gift exchange, ugly is just fine.)

One final caveat: Don’t keep things around for ages thinking you’ll eventually re-gift them — you don’t need that clutter! If no person or occasion comes to mind within a month or two, you’re probably better off returning, donating, or selling the item.

Holiday preparations you might overlook but will save you time and energy

For those who celebrate winter holidays, December is usually time for family, friends, and lots of preparation. A good amount of what is on your to-do list is obvious: shopping, cleaning, and cooking. But not everything is as obvious, so the following are six items that you might overlook but can still plan and organize for during your preparations. Doing this work now can help your holidays (and winter) go more smoothly.

Make room in the coat closet. Incoming guests arrive with bulky coats and hats that must be stored away during their visit. I don’t know about your house, but our coat closet is pretty full before anyone new arrives. Prepare now by making some room and a few extra hangers available. Also consider, if you live in a snowy climate, guests might arrive with wet hats and gloves and slushy boots. You’ll want to have a plan for where you’re going to put those additional items without making a mess, too.

Prepare bad weather gear. Tell me if this sounds familiar: You need to shovel a mountain of snow, but the shovel is across the yard and in the shed? That situation is not ideal. Before the first flakes fall, I get my shovels, bucket of salt, and scrapers for the car out of the basement and into their winter storage locations. Now, when the snow falls, you can start shoveling right away as all of your equipment will be ready and you won’t have to worry about your guests slipping and falling.

Plan ahead for post-holiday light storage. Holiday presents mean, among other things, an influx of cardboard boxes. If you don’t already have an organized light-storage method for after the holidays, keep a few of those boxes because they’re perfect for storing holiday lights. Break the box down flat and then cut the boxes down into their individual sides. Wrap lights around the cardboard squares/rectangles prior to storage. They won’t tangle and you can even leave a note to yourself on the slab of cardboard yourself: “Kitchen window,” “Tree.”

Outfit an ornament repair center. Many people have an eclectic collection of holiday ornaments, from the inexpensive pieces you picked up on a whim to the old, sentimental decorations with high sentimental value. It’s a bummer when they need repair and it’s a real problem when you’re not equipped. A little glass adhesive, some pliers, a wooden stick or a pin-tool (for applying adhesive), a razor blade, and plastic gloves will serve you well.

Make shelves and food easily viewable in your refrigerator and pantry. There’s nothing like opening the spice cabinet and being confronted with the backs of several dozen little plastic containers. Where was the allspice again? It’s like a memory game, and it’s not fun. Turn everything with the label-side out for easy reference or write on the lids with a permanent marker the shaker’s contents if you can’t see all the labels.

Set tables the night before a holiday meal. I’ve spent a whole day cooking only to notice that, just as the final dish has finished cooking, the table is not set or decorated. Before you hit the bed at night, set the table and save yourself a lot of time the next day. This is a great activity for children, too, if you’re looking for ways to get them involved.

Have a great — and organized — holiday season.