My son and I tackled a big project this summer. We had a vision to create a cool, shady spot under the trees for a small table and chairs.
The location was in a wild, overgrown area of the south side of the house that had always been a jumble of weeds and vines and bushes and sapling trees. Here’s the “before” photo:
On Demolition Day, my son used a handsaw to cut and clear all of the trees and bushes. I was his assistant, dragging and piling the branches. After several hours, much of the overgrowth was gone and a sense of the new garden begin to take shape. It was a very therapeutic day.
Later, we dug and cut and yanked out smaller stumps and roots. I spent many hours on my knees hacking at the hard clay soil, and began to sense a spiritual parallel.
So I started praying and asked God to clear out the deadwood and weedy, overgrown places in my heart. I asked for help to let go of some things that still weighed on me, and asked for healing of past hurts and disappointments.
At one especially difficult point during this time of hacking and introspection, the ground was so hard I felt like there must be a brick beneath my spade. And guess what?
There was a broken brick buried in the ground!
When the stumps and roots (and brick) were cleared, I asked for a renewal and refreshing of my spirit. I prayed for inner peace to foster quiet time and reflection, and a new place for creative ideas to grow.
A neighbor was giving away an eighth-ton of rock, so I loaded three buckets in the back of the Toyota and drove the four blocks to his house. Over three days, I made numerous trips carrying manageable buckets of gravel and spread it in the new place under the trees. It was just the right amount of stone.
We hung a string of lights overhead and a hummingbird feeder in a tree. A bright green metal table and chairs from Target fit right in the space, and a coleus plant added color.
Our dear friends Debbie and John brought us perennial shade plants in memory of my son’s dad and my former husband, Jose, who passed away this year. This is “Sea Heart:”
A stray hollyhock seed blew in and planted itself at the entrance of the garden, where it bloomed with the showiest fuchsia blossoms all summer.
The garden is such a peaceful place to drink coffee and listen to the birds and write in my journal.
Several friends visited throughout the summer, and the space was as cool and pleasant as I once dreamed it might be.
The tiny space will always need maintenance. Vines try to creep back in, and weeds push up through the rocks.
But now there is a small garden flourishing in a place that was once neglected and overgrown, and I am so very grateful.
May you find a clearing amidst the noise, space to grow, and unexpected beauty in the days to come.
Have you been enjoying the summer?
And when I say “enjoying the summer,” what I really mean is, have you been enjoying the foods of summer?
Here in Colorado, the local sweet corn is hitting the farmer’s markets and grocery stores and it’s a race to eat as much of it as we can while it’s at its finest.
This easy recipe is one that I developed for my cookbook 101 Things To Do With Bacon (Gibbs Smith, Publisher), and I think you’ll love the way the sauteed bell pepper and bacon enhance the sweet, tender fresh corn. It’s a great dish to serve at a barbecue or potluck, and it can easily be multiplied for bigger groups.
Southern Fried Sweet Corn with Bacon
6 ears fresh sweet corn, husked and cleaned
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced
6 slices bacon, cooked, drained and crumbled
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, slice the corn off of the cob and scrape each cob into the bowl to release the milk.
Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a large frying pan. Add the bell pepper and cook until softened. Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender. Stir in the crumbled bacon, salt, and pepper and cook 1 minute more. Makes 6 servings.
Hugs and enjoy the weekend,
On a recent Friday afternoon, we headed to Estes Park, Colorado to spend the weekend with dear friends who live in the pretty mountain town. Instead of taking the I-25 highway, I chose the more scenic route through my home town of Boulder.
Traffic wasn’t too bad, and my son and I chatted as we drove through Denver, Broomfield, over the big hill into Boulder, and north through Lyons. As we headed up US-36—the final stretch that would take us to Estes Park—I groaned. A large truck was on the road ahead, with a long line of cars behind it.
The single-lane road has occasional passing lanes for just this kind of scenario, and with each stretch of the double lane a few cars would speed up and manage to get around the truck. When it was finally my turn, the road was especially steep and windy. My right foot was pedal to the metal as I sped up and tried to pass the truck. A black SUV was right on my bumper, and my knuckles were clenched tightly around the steering wheel. A sign indicated that the passing lane was ending, and I still wasn’t around the blasted truck.
Suddenly I became conscious of how tense I was.
What was I doing? Why did I so desperately need to get around the truck? We weren’t in a hurry, and we didn’t have a specific time we needed to arrive. If anything, I longed for a relaxed drive up the canyon. I didn’t want to race up the winding hill, so why was I doing exactly that?
I eased back and let the SUV driver blast by me, kicking up a trail of gravel as he narrowly cut in front of the truck.
I took a deep breath and settled back a good distance from the truck. I followed it at a nice, mellow pace all the way into Estes Park. The sky was so blue, and the mountains were glorious. I did my best to ignore the cars that tailed me during the single lane stretches, and enjoyed the drive.
Later, I thought about my tendency to hurry, hurry, hurry. How often, I wondered, do I focus needlessly on getting somewhere fast — at the expense of my peace (and sometimes, my safety)?
Honestly, I think it’s mostly just a bad habit.
I want to break the habit of needlessly hurrying.
I want to develop the habit of being present and taking my time.
I want to enjoy the journey, don’t you?
Hugs, happy weekend, and here’s to a more leisurely pace,
P.S. You might enjoy this related post, “The Amazing Bliss of 10 More Minutes.”
Let’s eat cake! Happy Simple Living is 10 years old today.
It’s hard to believe that a decade ago today, I wrote my first post for this blog. Here’s how it looked back then:
“Baby Steps” was a scintillating retelling of my replacing the lightbulbs in the garage door opener fixture with CFLs to save energy and money. Back then CFLs were relatively new and rather expensive, and the bulbs often gave off light that was both flickery and fluorescent (“It feels like a cheap motel,” my son famously said when I installed them in the hallway).
I first named this blog “Urban Homesteader,” with a goal of turning our suburban house and yard into a sort of mini farm. However, some other urban homesteaders trademarked the phrase and started taking legal action against people who used it.
Fortunately, this happened at exactly the same time I realized I was too lazy to raise chickens.
So I reframed the blog’s focus to better fit my heart and goals, and changed the name to Happy Simple Living.
Since then, I’ve posted about hundreds of topics ranging from Bindweed to Pine Mouth.
(Note: If you get Pine Mouth from eating bad Chinese pine nuts, your face will look similar to the graphic above for 7 to 10 days.)
The most popular post, by a landslide, is a recipe I shared for homemade Greek yogurt.
I never could have anticipated the hundreds of questions and comments this post would generate, and it’s still the most-visited page on the site five years later.
We’ve even had controversy here! Surprisingly, both posts had to do with my dishwasher.
When I wrote about substituting vinegar for rinse aid, one reader accused me of being a conspiracy theorist.
Then I wrote a bad, bad, bad post about how I arranged silverware in the dishwasher. This post generated a hateful discussion on Reddit, which still makes me feel oddly proud. I have since repented and now fling my silverware in the basket with reckless abandon.
Seven years ago, I decided to start the new year by taking a 30-day break from spending and the annual January Money Diet was born.
Since then, thousands of people from all over the world have participated in the money diet. Our annual financial fast has even been featured on television and by publications like Forbes and U.S. News and World Report.
Through it all, the thing I love best about blogging is connecting with YOU. Your comments and ideas and thoughts make writing this blog one of the most fun, fulfilling things I do. You truly put the “happy” in Happy Simple Living.
To celebrate a decade of fun, I’m giving away two signed copies of my new, hot-off-the-press cookbook, 101 Things To Do With Beer.
This book will help you add some “hoppiness” to every meal, with recipes for appetizers, breads, soups, main courses, sides, desserts, and sweets. Beer adds amazing depth and flavor to so many recipes, from Beer Battered Apple Fritters to Beer-Simmered Chicken Tacos, Garlic Parmesan Onion Rings and Chocolate Stout Ice Cream. Many of the recipes can also be made with nonalcoholic beer.
This spiral-bound cookbook won’t be available in stores until September 6, but two lucky readers will receive one of my early copies.
To enter, simply answer this question:
What does happy simple living mean to you?
Whether you share a tip, or a story, or your philosophy, or an idea, or your goals, or how much a beer cookbook will enhance your life, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts. Simple leave a comment at the bottom of this page and you’ll be automatically entered to win a signed copy of 101 Things To Do With Beer.
Even if you live in Antarctica, please enter because this drawing is open to every reader around the world. It will run through midnight MST on Monday, August 1, 2016, and I’ll announce the lucky winners on August 2.
Thank you for these ten years of exploring how to live simply and happily. You make the journey 101 times more fun!
With hugs and gratitude,
UPDATE: Congratulations to Julie, who won the cookbook. Keep reading for more giveaways in the future!
I’ve known Steve and Jan Berger for 11 years. I first met Steve, a writer, when I joined the Colorado Author’s League and he was the organization’s president. Over the years we’ve gotten to be friends, and last fall when we were at a gift show selling books together we started talking about finances. Steve and Jan told me they were retiring and enjoying life, and since they’re youngsters and both in the creative arts I wondered how they’d done it.
The Bergers have a shared philosophy about spending and an unusual way of saving money that has worked splendidly for them. I thought their story was fascinating and inspiring, and they generously agreed to let me share it with you.
First, a little background: Steve and Jan have been married for 39 years. Jan is a successful graphic artist, and Steve is a writer and author. His novels include acclaimed titles like Ursula’s Yahrtzeit Candle, The Fifth Estate and his newest mystery, Fat Chance. Jan designed the books’ striking covers.
The couple lives in a beautiful home in a Colorado community located between two state parks. They own an income-producing rental property, they live debt free, and are now comfortably retired. They are on the waiting list for the new Tesla 3, and are taking a cruise from Greece to Venice this fall.
In short, they live a good life.
Keep reading to find out some of the ways they’re worked together to build a solid financial foundation.
Q: As a couple, you seem to agree philosophically about how to best manage your finances. Since this is an area that many couples struggle with, can you share any insights?
A: We both believe in open communication about money. It’s like building a house; you have to be on the same page, or you’ll tear each other apart. It’s helpful to have shared goals and agree on a financial strategy, and trust is key.
Both of our parents came out of the Depression, and they influenced us to be thoughtful about spending and always save a percentage of our money for a rainy day. Being rich was never our goal, but we wanted to have enough.
Q: Can you describe your unusual system for saving money?
A: It’s simple, really. We round up expenses to the nearest dollar, and we round down deposits. So if we spend $39.12 at the grocery store, we enter $40 in the check register. If we deposit $157.89, we add in $157.
We also put every “found cent” into the slush fund: birthday checks, tax refunds and refund checks all go into the kitty.
You’d be surprised how small increments of money, saved steadily over time, can grow.
(Here’s one of their actual checkbook registers, so you can see their actual process which includes credit card purchases as well as checks. When the statement arrives, the funds have already been set aside to make the payment:)
Q: If your checkbook register shows a different balance from what’s actually in the bank, how do you keep from getting confused?
A: Steve uses Quicken to track every penny, and reconciles the balances on a regular basis. We move the slush fund to an interest-bearing account periodically.
Q: Do you use credit cards?
A: Yes, but not in the typical way. We use no-fee, cash-back credit cards for every expense we can charge. Our current favorites are issued by American Express and FirstBank Visa. We pay the balance off every month and never accrue interest. We’ve found that a cash-back card is a better deal for us than cards that offer airline miles.
Q: What are some of your money-saving strategies?
A: We try to control recurring expenses. For instance, we installed solar panels when we could afford them so we won’t be at the mercy of the utility company that will continue to raise rates for the rest of our lives.
We’re also on the list for the Tesla 3, an all-electric car with a 200+ mile range priced in the mid- to upper-$30,000s. Available in late 2017, we will be able to charge the batteries off our household solar panels. We believe it is a given that oil prices will go up again. So we will be saving money, controlling expenses and, not insignificantly, helping the environment and contributing to the mitigation of climate change.
Again, as we could afford it, we’ve replaced almost every light in the house with LEDs, which has reduced electrical usage, leaving more generating power from the solar panels for our use and to go back into the grid until we get our Tesla; then we’ll use it to power its batteries.
We belong to Costco and purchase things like stationary and checks there. We also bought our refrigerator at Costco, after researching models and determining that they offered the best value.
We both like to cook, so we prepare most of our meals at home. We’re also fortunate that we’re in good health. We think part of this is due to reduced stress from not having to worry about money, which means not having to spend as much on healthcare, which means less stress.
Q: Do you ever use coupons?
A. Yes, but only on things we’d buy anyway. Using the same criteria, we also take advantage of sales.
Q: What is your philosophy about spending?
A: We invest in quality and value. We use Consumer Reports to research every major purchase. We always save our receipts in case there’s a problem with something we buy.
We don’t go shopping to buy things and improve our moods. Doing this is hollow. It might bring very temporary enjoyment, but it doesn’t last. To get that feeling again, people just go out and buy again.
We prefer to buy what we need and take pleasure in its functionality, amusement (like some of the art we’ve splurged on), and lasting pleasure––because it works well, saves time and energy, is cost-efficient and reliable.
Q: What are some of the best things you’ve ever spent money on?
An antique, blue, Chinese rug for our living room after we went from carpet to hardwood. We both absolutely fell in love with it, but it was 2.5 times what we had mentally budgeted. We negotiated the price down 20%, which made it only 2 times more than our mental budget, but we had the money, so we bought it. We still enjoy it every day.
[Steve:] A few months ago, Jan saw an ad for a beautiful, expensive, ring. Half joking she said, ‘If you ever want to buy me jewelry (which we rarely do), you can get me one these rings.’ I tracked down where the ring is sold––Boulder–– and finagled a trip up there for fun and lunch. Our walk after lunch took us down the Pearl Street Mall to the only place in Colorado carrying that jeweler’s wares. You can guess the rest.
One of the best things we’ve done with money is to give Jan’s former boss, who was very good to us for more than twenty years, a gift card for $500. That made three people very happy at a time when she could really use the money.
Our other splurges include a couple of self-indulgent trips to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs in New Mexico, including massages, great food and a serene setting with nothing to do but relax and enjoy. Steve took Jan to Italy for one of her birthdays, Jan took Steve to Washington DC for one of his, and we took Steve’s dad on a trip to Hungary. We like to travel and consider it one of the best things to spend money on since the experiences last a lifetime, as the mother of one of our friends always said.
Q: Any final thoughts?
A: To be honest, we’ve actually never though this much about what we do with money. We think it’s because we’ve adopted many of these practices as needed, not all at once, and just assimilated them into our lifestyle. We do consider ourselves very fortunate for many reasons, and don’t take our good fortune for granted or feel particularly exceptional for these material achievements. To us, money has always been a means, not an end.
Thank you, Steve and Jan, for generously sharing your money strategies and giving us insights into how you’ve made a comfortable life through shared goals, open communication and smart spending.
How About You?
Readers, does Steve and Jan’s advice resonate with you? Do you have advice to add about strategies that have worked for you, either as an individual or as a partner in a relationship or family?
Would you like to see more real-life stories about how people manage their money?
I always love hearing your thoughts and comments.
For the past few months I’ve been trying to help my teenage son cope with the sudden death of his father. I’ve also been dealing with my own emotions, along with some changes in our lives. I suspect that nearly all of you have experienced loss or hardships, so you know what it’s like to be knee-deep in challenges.
During this unsettled season, the garden has blossomed like crazy in spite of just the barest efforts from me. After ten years of moving gravel and hacking at clay clods and digging in compost, this is the year the garden chose to reward us with a most glorious display. I know there is a lesson in there somewhere, or maybe not exactly a lesson but a reminder of the startling beauty and hope that can appear at unexpected times.
The other silver lining is that I feel blessed with some of the most incredibly supportive family and friends on the planet. Our family has been so deeply comforted by the people who have lovingly cared for us. Being on the receiving end of their kindness has filled me with gratitude.
The Different Ways We Try to Help
A tragedy can bring out different reactions in people. Some people can’t cope and disappear, and I understand. Some imagine how they would handle a particular situation, and say things or offer advice in an effort to smooth over the pain. I’ve caught myself doing this in trying to comfort my son. The fact is that I can’t exactly understand his pain because my daddy passed away when I was 46 years old, not thirteen.
In times of trouble, perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of others’ well-meaning-but-misguided suggestions and comments. My experience is that judgment from others in the midst of our grief adds uncertainty and feelings of guilt that are just too heavy to bear.
So I’ve been especially sensitive recently to the moments when I start to judge the actions of others. This is a habit I’m really working hard to break. I am not in someone else’s situation and I have not experienced their particular pain, so I am wholly unqualified to offer anything but empathy.
When a little righteous thought creeps in, I try to shut it right down and offer up a prayer instead. Or I do what Richard suggested to Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, and send thoughts of light and love.
To get out of my own head, I recently explored some other folks’ difficulties from an empathetic perspective.
Please Don’t Judge Me
A new business owner confides to his friend that he is exhausted from working long hours. “You need to delegate more, and stop trying to do everything yourself,” says the friend, who has never tried to start a business. Please don’t judge me, the entrepreneur thinks. You can’t imagine the responsibility I feel for each employee who’s working overtime, how tight our finances are, and the myriad moving parts I’m juggling that simply can’t be managed by anyone else.
A mother takes her mentally challenged son out for a quick cheeseburger. While they’re waiting to order, the boy starts screaming and knocks over a stack of plastic trays. The other patrons, whose children are not mentally challenged, look at her disapprovingly and shake their heads. Please don’t judge me, she thinks as they leave. You have no idea how isolated we feel. You can’t imagine how much I was hoping to successfully pull off this small outing. You don’t know how fiercely I love this boy, and how desperately I want him to have a good life.
A man learns that he has a cancerous tumor and must have his kidney removed. He is afraid, and asks for prayers about the surgery on a Facebook post. “Your attitude directly affects your health, so stay positive!” writes an acquaintance, who has never had cancer. “Remember that God gave you two kidneys!” writes another. Please don’t judge me, he thinks. You can’t imagine facing surgery and chemotherapy while trying to work and support a family. You don’t know what it’s like to look at your children and fear that your time with them may be cut short.
A woman is trying to work up the courage to leave her verbally abusive, unemployed husband. A long-married friend points out that at least he’s not physically abusive, and suggests that she keep working on her marriage for the sake of their children. Please don’t judge me, the woman thinks. You don’t know what I’ve endured, and how different he is behind closed doors. You can’t begin to imagine how scared I am to set this boundary and advocate for my safety and respect.
A couple loses their precious teenage daughter in an automobile accident. A decade later, they still sometimes feel sad and tear up when talking about her. The husband overhears a friend, who has never lost a child, say, “How long is this going to continue? Isn’t it about time they moved on? It’s been ten years.” Please don’t judge us, he thinks. She was our baby girl, and we never even had a chance to say goodbye. Time has lessened our pain, but we still miss her and think about her every single day.
Love is the Answer
Last week I wrote words of gratitude to a dear friend: “You listened to me, you let me cry, you cheered me up, you sent me a great book, you understood my difficult schedule and still made time to meet me for lunch and come over, and I’ve never felt like you had any judgment or criticism or agenda with me.”
Ahhh, what a blessed gift her support has been–and how it has buoyed me. Think of those who supported you at your darkest hour, and I bet they surrounded you similarly with love. When people are hurting and we don’t know how to respond, sometimes the finest thing we have to offer is gentleness and kindness.
As a result of my recent experiences, I hope to pay it forward and get better at giving simple love and solace when others are hurting.
How About You?
Was someone especially helpful and kind to you when you needed it most? What made you feel supported and loved?
Did you receive unsolicited advice, criticism or judgment during a tough time? How did you feel, and how did you respond?
I always love to hear your thoughts and experiences … and I hope your garden is thriving this summer, too.
Hugs and happy June,