Ask Unclutterer: Receiving unwanted gifts

Reader Wendy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

What do you do when you come from a culture where gifting is part of etiquette? For example, when my daughter turned one recently, my mother who happened to be visiting from our home country brought back TONS of clothing (whether the right size or not) and toys for my daughter. It was overwhelming. Most of the items are either not usable in the near future, or my daughter has no interest. I don’t have a problem going through and donating or re-gifting, but it takes so much of my time! Should I just talk to my mother although she may get upset? Thanks!

I know it can be frustrating to be bombarded with stuff you don’t need. And, the smaller your space, the larger that frustration can feel. As frustrated as you’re feeling, though, the last thing you should do is tell your mother that she can’t give your daughter gifts.

Showering grandchildren with gifts is one of the joys of being a grandparent. It is clear that your mother is thrilled to have your daughter in her life, and one of the ways she is expressing that is by giving her as many wonderful things as she can. As much as it feels to you like a burden, her generosity is a blessing. Not all kids have grandparents who show interest in them or give gifts or are alive.

Remember that it’s the act of gift giving that is important, not the gift itself. Tell your mother thank you for being so generous with your daughter. Accept the gifts, write her a note of appreciation (have your daughter do this when she learns to write), and then decide what you want to do with the items after your mom has returned home.

Keep the things your daughter wants or that you think she can use in the near future. Donate to charity clothing that won’t ever work for your daughter. Re-gift toys that weren’t a hit with her. If your mother purchased items in the states, see if you can return the unwanted items for ones your daughter can use. It does take time, but not more than a few hours, and it won’t damage your relationship with your mother.

Although you can’t tell your mother what to buy for her granddaughter, you can suggest to her what your daughter needs and wants. Two months before the next gift-giving holiday, let it slip into conversation if your daughter needs or wants specific items like a new bed or new shoes (and what size) or a membership to the local zoo or dance lessons. If she’s computer savvy, create an Amazon wishlist and let her know about it to help her brainstorm gift ideas.

Don’t pressure your mom into buying things your daughter needs or wants. Don’t give her a guilt trip or hint in any way that you have been disappointed with gifts she has given in the past. Just let her know what your daughter could use, and then let it go. Whatever your mother decides to give is up to her, and her act of gift giving should be sincerely appreciated — irrespective of if you keep the gift or not.

As a final note, I want to point out that some of my son’s favorite things are gifts generous friends and family members gave to him that I never would have purchased or thought my son would have loved. Conversely, some things we put on his wishlist that we thought he would love, turned out to be total duds.

Thank you, Wendy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Five stress-reducing strategies for the holidays

December is one of the most stressful times of year. If you don’t watch out, you could end up crying and in a terrible mess of anxiety. Here are five things you can do now to reduce the clutter and stress at the holidays:

  • Make a list. Whether it’s a grocery list, gift shopping list, or list of things you need to do — write it down. Once it’s out of your head and onto a sheet of paper, you’ll stop cluttering up your mind with the items and stressing out about trying to remember it all.
  • Check it twice … or as often as you need. Once you’ve made your lists, be sure to review them and/or bring them along with you. A list isn’t good to you if you don’t have it when you need it, where you need it. A to-do list should be reviewed regularly, until all items are completed.
  • Find out what’s naughty. Walk around your home and/or office with a laundry basket or box and pick up any items that are out of place, and then put them away. Do you have a used glass on your desk that should be returned to the kitchen? Do you have shoes in the middle of the living room floor that belong in your closet? Reduce the stress caused by visual clutter by putting everything back in its place.
  • Find out what’s nice. Take time each day to enjoy some down time. If you meditate, meditate. If you do yoga, do yoga. If you simply want to sit and drink your coffee in silence for 10 or 15 minutes, do that. Give your brain some much needed time off each day during this busy season.
  • Get ready to travel out of town. If you’re traveling or even if you’re staying put, now is the time to confirm all of your reservations — travel, hotel, dinner, movie — or those of your guests. The less you leave up in the air, the less you’ll worry about your plans between now and then. RSVP to parties, find out what you’re supposed to bring to holiday dinners, or even learn which friends are coming into town you’ll want to see while they’re visiting their relatives. Get everything on the calendar and be ready for as much as you can.

Never forget to send a card with Jack Cards

With holiday card sending season on the horizon, my husband and I have been trying to decide what we want to send this year. While researching our options, I learned about the website Jack Cards, which is an incredibly helpful service for busy people. It’s more than a holiday card sending service, it’s a service to use throughout the year to remove the stress of buying cards and stamps. An explanation of their service from the website:

Jack Cards is designed for busy people who value sending a handwritten birthday, anniversary or ‘miss you’ card but find it hard to get to a card shop or post office on time.

Based in San Francisco, California, Jack Cards uniquely focuses on delivering pre-scheduled ready-to-go (stamped and addressed) greeting cards to the sender just in time to write their own personal message inside and drop it in the mailbox.

Registration for the service is free, but you pay for the price of the card, shipping the card to you, and postage to the card recipient (domestic and international postage are both available). They have bulk discounts when you buy 5 or more of the same card, which you might do for the holidays. Jack Cards has a very strict privacy policy, so none of the information you give to them will ever be sold and is stored safely. The hardest part of the process is setting up your “My Planner” section, which involves answering questions about the type of cards you wish to send and providing contact information. Setting up the “My Planner” section, however, takes much less time than heading to the store to buy cards and stamps numerous times a year. How involved you want Jack Cards to be in the process is your decision — they can pick out cards or you can do it, they can write a message or you can, they can address the envelope or you can, they can mail the card or you can.

For busy people who like the art of sending handwritten cards, Jack Cards is a terrific service. If having someone else involved in the process isn’t for you, check out “Birthday cards and reminder systems” for tips on how to get cards out the door on time.

(Pictured card by Bumble Ink, available through Jack Cards.)

Wrap it up in silver

One of the things I discovered during my uncluttering process is that silver wrapping paper works for every gift-giving occasion — weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, baby showers, housewarming, etc. — and when you only have a few tubes of wrapping paper to store, it takes up very little space in a closet. A simple wrapping storage solution can easily handle all of our paper and supplies.

Before using silver paper, I’d been trying to use brown butcher paper for all my wrapping. However, I felt the brown paper was too casual for some occasions, like weddings and anniversaries. I ended up buying small batches of wrapping paper whenever a more formal gift-giving experience arose. The same was true for using fabric bags, and fabric puts a storage burden on the person receiving the gift. I also like the idea of reusable gift bags, but these only work on gifts that coordinate in size to the bags, so you have to store multiple sizes of bags for all different types of situations. Plus, reusable gift bags can be significantly more expensive than wrapping paper and after a couple uses start to show signs of wear. Silver wrapping paper doesn’t have any of these disadvantages — it’s inexpensive, always appropriate, fits all different sizes of gifts, can be recycled, and it doesn’t put a storage burden on the gift recipient or the gift giver.

Silver wrapping paper is in stores in abundance this time of year, and is when I typically stock up my wrapping supplies for the next 12 months. (For some reason, silver paper is much more difficult to find at other times of the year.) Before children, my husband and I could usually survive on two tubes of silver wrapping paper a year. Now that we have a son, we’ve decided to pump that number up to four.

The best deal we’ve found this year is at Ikea. Their SNÖVITA gift wrap (available only in stores) is just $1.99 a roll for 2 ¼ yards:

If you can’t find silver wrapping in your area, a white or a gold wrapping paper might also be a signature wrapping that could work in all situations the way silver does. Whatever style you decide to use, consider a method that will help to keep your wrapping paper clutter to a minimum in your home.

Musings on children’s birthday parties

Next week is my son’s first birthday. To celebrate this event, I’m making him a Dinosaur Train cake and some homemade orange popsicle flavored ice cream, both treats my husband and I plan to consume in significantly larger quantities than what my son will. (He’ll likely wear a good portion of his servings.) We’re not having a traditional party, but we’ll video chat with grandparents and cousins when he opens (rather, when we open) the gifts they generously sent to him. We might go to a park or the zoo if the weather is nice.

My expectation is that his second birthday celebration will be similar to this and he won’t start having parties with friends until he’s at least three, four, or five years old — whenever he requests a more standard party. Until then, we’re keeping things as low key as possible.

Before I became a mom, I never understood the lavish parties parents in my area throw for their kids. I’ve heard of some events that easily cost parents thousands of dollars, and guests to the party end up leaving with bags of goodies more valuable than the toys they brought for the guest of honor. I know I won’t ever throw a party like this for my son (sorry, kiddo!), but I’m at least starting to understand why parents do.

As a parent, you want the world for your kid. You want your child to be liked by his classmates, you want your child to be happy, and you want to celebrate his life. A basic swimming party with hamburgers can easily cost a hundred dollars — spending 10 times more once a year on a birthday party wouldn’t seem like such a big deal, especially if you’ve got the disposable income to do it. Research even shows that experiences make you happier than physical possessions.

My parenting philosophy and budget don’t include renting elephants, night clubs, and cruise ships for my son and 100 of his acquaintances, though. I’m more interested in teaching him to appreciate adventures than extravagance. I want him to respect people more than glamor and glitz. And, I hope he learns that the things that matter most in life don’t usually come wrapped in shiny paper with bows.

I don’t judge the parents who go all out for their child’s birthdays — for all I know, they’re teaching their children the same values I’m hoping to teach mine, just with the addition of a really great party once a year. A simple party is what works for our family, however, and I hope my son won’t be an outcast or disappointed by our decision when he’s old enough to know what a party is. If we stay in this area of the country, his birthday might regularly fall on the last day of school, which he might even see as party enough.

An uncluttered liquor cabinet in time for New Year’s Eve

With only five days left before New Year’s Eve, many people’s minds are already turning to their next round of celebrations. I’ve already started to think about the holiday — what resolutions will I make, what silly hat will I wear to the party, and what specialty drink will I have?

In the celebratory spirit, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about keeping an uncluttered liquor cabinet. Similar to traditional food pantries and linen closets, most liquor cabinets have a bad habit of things going into them faster than items coming out. Before you know it, you’ll find you have three open bottles of vermouth, two dripping bottles of Rose’s lime juice and another of the grenadine, and five bottles of the exact same type of gin. (Well, at least this is what I found lingering in my liquor cabinet.)

Start by pulling everything out of your liquor cabinet and setting it on your dining table. Group like items together — shakers with shakers, vodka with vodka, etc.

Now, evaluate what you have. Unless you are a serious socialite, you probably don’t need to own three martini shakers or nine bottles of rum. Pull out any excess or expired pieces. (Expired? Remember that vermouth is made with wine, so after a few months lingering open in your cabinet it starts to taste “off.” I haven’t found evidence that it’s actually bad for you, but its flavor is definitely shot by the time it’s been open for a year. Bailey’s can curdle, and some sweet liqueurs will fade.)

Pour down the drain any liquor past its prime. Freecycle or Craigslist extra bar utensils (now is a great time to do this as other people are gearing up for their NYE gatherings). And, start calling your friends throwing end of the year parties to see if they might want to take extra bottles off your hands. Either that or decide to throw a party yourself to work through the extras.

When putting bottles of liquor back in your cabinet, consider these storage tips from the article “What is the Shelf Life of Distilled Spirits?“:

Tips for increasing liquor shelf life:

  • Keep opened bottles sealed tightly. Use the original cap, a replacement cork or the wine corks that also take the air out of the bottle.
  • Never store liquor with speed pourers unless you’re using them, these allow air to get inside the bottle.
  • Avoid exposure to extreme heat or cold. Also, keep your liquor cabinet away from an exterior wall.
  • Avoid bright, direct light.

Similar to how you sorted items on your dining table, return items to your cabinet storing like things with like things. Put shorter bottles in front and taller bottles in back so that you can always see what you’re storing.

Also, check out the fun book Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails. Have fun starting the new year with an uncluttered liquor cabinet!

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Don’t forget! If you’re in the Chicago area, join Erin and some of the Unclutterer staff at The Book Cellar on Monday, December 28, any time between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m.

An uncluttered holiday gathering

If I were hosting a holiday meal this year, it would probably involve lots of steamed and pureed vegetables, baby cereal, and maybe — if my guests were lucky — a few bottles of wine. Thankfully for the people in my life, my new-parent brain is not responsible for hosting any holiday gatherings.

Before sleep deprivation, when I would throw a dinner party of any kind, I kept three principles in mind:

  1. The gathering is about creating joyful memories with guests.
  2. Going overboard typically makes people uncomfortable.
  3. Simplicity=sanity

Regarding the first principle, good conversations are often all it takes to create joyful memories with guests. If you’re in a kitchen, removed from your guests while you cook and work the party, you’re not creating memories with anything other than your oven. Plan and prepare your meals ahead of time, have a bakery or restaurant fix the most time-intensive items, or invite people over for only one part of the meal (like appetizers or dessert).

The second principle is true in most situations. If you are stressed out and things are “too perfect,” usually your guests pick up on the tension and never feel welcome in your space. Invite people fully into your home, let them see that you’re human and that you care more about them being comfortable than recreating an idyllic scene from a movie or magazine.

The third and final principle is also true in most aspects of life. You can’t drive yourself to the point of exhaustion when you keep things simple. Only having a few, important tasks on your to-do list will keep stress levels low and your priorities (the first principle) in check.

Good luck, and I hope your holiday gatherings are a success!

Suggesting disposal

Professional organizer Scott Roewer sent me a Christmas card this year with an uncluttered message printed on the inside of the card. After the seasonal greeting and his signature was the phrase:

“This card expires January 2, 2010, at which time it should be recycled.”

Scott got the idea from Jill Revitsky, a professional organizer from Pittsburgh, who produces a line of greeting cards for organizers. On the inside cover of each of her Clearly Noted cards she includes the phrase:

“This card is good for one week — Then you have my permission to toss it!”

Unfortunately, I’ve already mailed my holiday cards, so I can’t do something comparable this year. However, I’m definitely going to add a similar sentence to my cards in years to come:

“You should immediately recycle this card or run the risk of it turning into a monster that will eat your arm.”

Okay, so maybe not exactly that, but you get the idea.

Organizing a party pantry

I was recently given a copy of the book Simple Stunning Parties at Home by its author Karen Bussen. In the book, Karen suggests organizing a “party pantry” so that “when it’s time to throw a dinner party or a wine and cheese night on the spur of the moment, I look [to it] for design inspiration, and I pull together all the elements I need.” She lives in a small New York City apartment, so her party pantry isn’t large or cluttered. She recommends a “small closet, a cupboard in the kitchen, or an antique hutch — whatever works for you.”

One of the reasons I have committed myself to living an uncluttered, simple life is because I want to be able to enjoy time with those I love. Being able to invite friends and family over to the house on a moment’s notice is important to me, and an uncluttered home makes this stress-free and simple. Having an organized party pantry makes these surprise events even easier — and so I’m working to create one in my kitchen.

In addition to the obvious tableware, Karen suggests having snacks and condiments with long shelf lives in your party pantry. I’ve always struggled with knowing which types of snacks work well as appetizers or finger foods, so I found this list extremely helpful (from page 23):

  • Packaged plain breadsticks
  • Jars of olives, pickled jalapenos, stuffed grape leaves, and roasted sweet peppers
  • Pistachios and mixed nuts or trail mixes
  • Dill pickles
  • Bottles of my favorite pasta sauce and a few types of past
  • Boxes of crispbreads and crackers
  • A variety of unusual chips (root vegetable, pita, tortilla, and others)
  • Dried fruits (apricots, cranberries, cherries, and golden raisins)
  • Plain microwave popcorn
  • Dried Italian sausages and salami
  • Biscotti and other cookies

Obviously, you wouldn’t need to keep all of these items in your party pantry. Rather, this is a list of possibilities for things that are good to store and serve. It is also fun to finish the rest of the jar or box of snacks after your guests leave. My mouth is watering just thinking about this list.

What snacks and supplies do you have on hand for unexpected guests? How do you organize your party pantry? Tell us about your setup in the comments.

Need motivation? Send an invitation

One of the most fun ways to motivate yourself to unclutter your home and/or office is to invite someone to visit. Whether you decide to throw a party or just ask your cousin over for tea, it’s nice to have a reward for getting your space into shape.

During the fall and winter, I often nest. Stuff comes into my house, but it’s difficult for me to get equal amounts of stuff out of it. My solution is to throw a holiday wine and cheese party every year. I have to clean out the refrigerator to make space for the hors d’oeuvres, I purge all the clutter in the house, and I make sure that everything I own has a “home.” I also call in a service a few days in advance to help me get all of the nooks and crannies that usually get overlooked a good cleaning. Then, after all of my hard work, I get to celebrate my orderly space with my friends.

When I worked in a traditional office, I would set up a meeting time with my boss and invite him/her to my space. The day before the meeting I would dust, go through what was on my bulletin boards, and get my office into its best state. Sure, my boss came by my office every day, but he/she didn’t usually spend more than a few seconds relaying information to me. The sit-down meetings were motivation to really improve my office.

If you’re looking for a push to get you uncluttering and organizing, check your calendar and send an invitation.

Electronic invitations save time and money

Love them or loathe them, electronic party invitations are very convenient. To me, they are what you use when a paper invitation is too formal for the event (drinks with friends, coworker’s birthday celebration in the conference room), but you want people to know that you put some level of planning into it (ordered an ice cream cake, spent all day Saturday cleaning the bathrooms in your apartment). They save you time from having to pick up the phone and call every one of your friends.

E-vite has been the standard electronic invitation system that people adopted. There are a lot of color and theme options, people feel comfortable clicking on an e-vite link from their e-mail, and it doesn’t take a computer programmer to figure out how to use the service. But, I’ve never looked at an e-vite and been impressed from a design perspective:

It’s busy. Everything on the page is competing for my attention. (Although, I do like this new Clothing Swap Party invitation template. A great idea for a party.)

A new player has jumped into the electronic invitation market, and it is MyPunchbowl. It has all the same features as Evite, and the added benefit of the invitations actually looking like invitations.

There is less clutter on the invitation page, it’s obvious where to find information about the party, and it integrates with a number of electronic calendar systems. There are other features, like potluck planning and gift registry information, that are nice. But, to be honest, I just like the uncluttered look of the invitations. (And no, I didn’t really have a botox party.)

Both Evite and MyPunchbowl can save you time and money when you want to invite people to a casual event.

(Thanks to Erin Kane at RealSimple.com for introducing me to MyPunchbowl.)

All-in-One Card Stamp

Ji Lee, creative director for Google Creative Lab, created an “All-in-One Card Stamp” to make card sending simple.

Why buy many cards for different occasions if you can have an “One Card for All Occasions Stamp”? It saves time, money and headache.

I wholeheartedly agree that it saves time, money and headache, but I don’t know how my specific group of loved ones would respond. I think they would laugh the first time they received a card from me, but on second and third mailings it would start to wear thin. Utilitarian? Yes. Solution for everyone? No.

Still, I like it’s practical nature and that Ji Lee was thinking of ways to reduce clutter. What are your thoughts? Uncluttered and cool, or over-the-top minimalist?

(via NotCot)