Day 7 of the January Money Diet – Give Something a Little TLC

In case you’ve just joined us, the January Money Diet is a challenge to take a 31-day break from nonessential spending. You can learn more about the money diet here — and jump right in!

Bicycle maintenance at Happy Simple Living

Photo by Joe Photo

“If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves.” ~ Emily Dickinson

We honor our possessions when we take good care of them. A quiet January is the perfect time to tackle a few maintenance tasks. Perhaps your garden tools could use a good cleaning and sharpening, or maybe it’s time to defrag your computer’s hard drive and update all the programs. Or maybe your bike could use a good tune-up, or you feel like washing the windows or polishing the furniture.

I’m going to sharpen the knives and rub a tiny bit of vegetable oil into the wood handles of our cooking utensils, so they don’t dry out. I’m going to hand-wash a couple of cashmere sweaters, and if I get super-motivated I might try that intimidating “clean” feature on the oven.

Many of you left happy comments on Day #5′s post, when we repaired something that was broken. I felt happy, too, and I bet you’ll experience similar feelings with this task. It’s strangely satisfying to stop buying more, and instead turn our attentions to the nice things that already surround us.

Homework assignment #7: Is there something in your immediate vicinity that could benefit from some maintenance or “spit and polish,” as my dad used to say? Give one of your honored possessions a little care and attention — and be sure to let us know what you do.


Win a Deluxe Happy Simple Living Gift Basket

In honor of the January Money Diet, I’ll be giving away a gift basket of home and garden goodies plus several books at the end of the month. On January 31, 2013, I’ll draw one random name from everyone who commented during the month and that lucky person will win the gift basket. I hope you’ll stop by often this month and share your own ideas, thoughts and experiences about taking a 31-day break from nonessential spending.


About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Day 2 of the January Money Diet – Plan Your Meals

Play your meals at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Brian Zim

“Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying.” ~ Fran Lebowitz

During the January Money Diet we take a break from nonessential spending. Since meals are considered essential, however, we do get to spend money on groceries. But lest we get carried away, this month we’ll challenge ourselves to eat really well while also spending much less. One of the best ways to trim the food budget is to create a meal plan.

I’ll be honest; a typical month in our household usually includes several restaurant meals and the occasional Chinese take-out dinner. Cooking every meal at home is usually a significant area of savings for us during the January Money Diet, especially if we plan carefully, cook low-cost meals and watch for savings on seasonal items at the store.

If you participated in yesterday’s “Shop At Home” challenge, you likely unearthed some pantry items that you can utilize for meals this month. Take a few minutes to make an inventory of your other basic ingredients so you can use up food from the freezer and refrigerator this month. I find it easiest to plan a week at a time, and if you’re a list-maker like I am you may want to access one of these handy meal planning worksheets from our friends at Unclutterer.

It’s far more economical to plan meals using the grocery store circular for inspiration, so you can choose meals that utilize seasonal, lower-priced ingredients. I also keep a running list in a small notebook of meals my family especially likes; then, when I’m low on inspiration I can review the list and get some ideas for sure-to-please meals.

You may want to rely on some easy favorites and plug them into certain nights of the week. For instance, Sunday night is homemade pizza night here during the month of January. (Here’s my homemade pizza recipe, including detailed instructions and photos.) If you make a big batch of pizza dough early in the month and freeze the extra rounds of dough, you’ll have an easy, economical meal half-prepared with very little work or expense.

Soup is another great choice in January, as are slow-cooker meals. To keep things simple, you could, for instance, designate Mondays as casserole night, Tuesdays as stir-fry night, Wednesdays as soup night, Thursdays as pasta night, Fridays as Crock-Pot night, Saturdays as Cook-on-the-grill night and Sundays as pizza night – or whatever fits you and your family.

For breakfast, I like to make a big batch of breakfast burritos and put them in the freezer. We also like homemade Greek yogurt and fresh-baked granola.

I won’t get into couponing and online grocery games, because we all have varying amounts of time that we can devote to shopping and cooking; if you’re a whiz at saving coupons, that’s all the better! Just try to figure out the meals you want to prepare and serve for the next week, take advantage of seasonal foods and specials, stay within your budget, and purchase the groceries. You’ll be way ahead in the challenge to spend less and eat well this month.

If you could use a little recipe inspiration, check out Taste of Home for reader-tested recipes and comfort food, the food section of the Pioneer Woman’s blog for hearty, easy meals, and my friend Michele Morris’s blog Cooking With Michele for more upscale offerings.

Homework assignment #2: Plan every meal for the next 7 days, utilizing what you already have on hand and taking advantage of any good deals at the grocery store. Share a few of the meals you plan to cook in the comments section below.

I’m so glad we’re in this together, and I hope your new year is off to a very good start.

Hugs to all of you brave dieters,

P.S. If you’ve joined us, today is Day 2 of the January Money Diet — a 31-day challenge to take a break from nonessential spending. Care to join us? Just jump right in and start saving! I’ll also be giving away a gift basket chock-full of home and garden goodies plus several books at the end of the month. On January 31, 2013, I’ll draw one random name from everyone who commented during the month and that lucky person will win the gift basket. I hope you’ll stop by often this month and share your own ideas, thoughts and experiences.

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Christmas Countdown – How’s It Going?

Maddie the Christmas dog at Happy Simple Living blog

Our dog, Maddie, is a good sport about dressing up like Santa

“I enjoyed Happy Simple Living’s ‘All Done by December One’ series, and even though I didn’t finish everything for the holidays by the first of December, getting a big head start this year made all the difference. I’m definitely feeling more relaxed.” – Gail

How are your holiday preparations coming along? Did you get all done by December 1? Despite my best intentions, let me just say that I didn’t! I still have a few more gifts to pick up, plenty of gift wrapping to tackle, and I’ve yet to write the holiday letter that will accompany our Christmas cards. But overall we’ve simplified this year, and that combined with getting organized earlier is making this holiday season mellower than years past.

Even if your ‘To Do’ list is longer than you’d like, you can enjoy a more peaceful season. Ask yourself a few questions like these:

  • Do I have to put out every ornament, and every single decoration I own? Could I put a few less things out this year and enjoy the simplicity? (For some inspiring, simple holiday spaces, you may want to check out the Happy Simple Holidays board on Pinterest.)
  • Do I have to do everything this year that I’ve done in past years? What if I didn’t send cards, just this one year? What if I used easy, recyclable gift bags instead of wrapping everything with fancy ribbon and bows – just this Christmas?
  • What if I spent less on gifts this year? What if I promised myself that I wouldn’t get in that mid-December frenzy that so often results in overspending and credit card debt? What if I just relaxed, and did a little less?
  • What if I scheduled some down time this season? What if I x’d out an afternoon on my calendar for a massage, or made time for a nice walk, or just spent a lazy hour reading?
Clark Griswold at Happy Simple Living blog

I know how Clark feels!

I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s not always easy to cut back. As we speak, I’m looking out the window at the pretty outdoor lights on all of my neighbors’ houses. We live in a cul-de-sac where the other five families decorate the outside of their houses with lights. I’ve done it, too, even though it means that Yours Truly must climb on a ladder to hang the lights – definitely not something that comes naturally to me. But this year, ours is the one dark house and I’m thinking about skipping the lights. Our Christmas tree is glowing through the front window, and it looks nice. I’ll let you know if I successfully fight off the temptation!

Need a little more inspiration? These bloggers share their ideas for simplifying and saving money in these weeks remaining before Christmas:

What Mommy Does posted these handy, downloadable gift lists.

Edward Antrobus wrote about holiday decorating on a budget.

Tackling Our Debt shared ideas for fun, inexpensive holiday presents you can make yourself.

The Kitchn posted 40 homemade gifts from the kitchen.

The Happy Homeowner shared 120 Holiday Gifts Under $20.

Studenomics wrote about how to save money during the holidays.

How’s this holiday season going for you? Are you able to cut back a bit and enjoy yourself? Are you finding ways to enjoy the season without over-spending? I’m pulling for you, and we’d all love to hear your ideas and thoughts.


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P.S. Have you signed up for the January Money Diet yet?

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Your Best Holidays Ever – Week 4 and a Plan for Holiday Meals, Food Gifts and Christmas Goodies

Christmas cookies at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Dan McKay

Welcome to the fourth installment of “All Done By December 1,” our group effort to get organized for the holidays early so we can enjoy the month of December and actually experience the joy and wonder of the season. Last week, we worked on wrapping, packaging and Christmas cards. After exploring our own hopes for a simpler, more meaningful Christmas 2012 in Week 1 and whittling down the gift lists in Week 2, we also began acquiring and wrapping a few presents.

I’ve started a special Happy Simple Holidays board on Pinterest with easy Christmas ideas:  decor, wrapping, gifts, foods and do-it-yourself projects. Do you have a holiday-themed board on Pinterest, too? Be sure to share a link in the Comments section below so we can all visit.

This week, we’re going to create a plan for the food of the holidays. When you think of all the extra cooking, baking and serving we do during the Christmas season on top of everything else, it’s no wonder our expectations sometimes fall short of reality.

Christmas table at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Scott Brenner

In order to get everything done by December 1, you may wish to consider some new, do-ahead options when it comes to food preparation for this year’s holiday. Let’s begin by thinking about all the extra food we hope to prepare between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grab a piece of paper and jot down any special meals, parties, potlucks or other events for which you’d like to prepare food, plus any food gifts and Christmas goodies you’d like to make. These are the things on my list:

- Our contribution to the neighborhood progressive dinner (appetizer, main course or dessert)

- Food gifts for friends, relatives and teachers

- Christmas cookies for the holiday cookie exchange

- Christmas cookies for family nibbling

- Five dinners prepared ahead and in the freezer, so we can be spontaneous and have fun in December

- Christmas morning brunch

- Christmas dinner

Wouldn’t it be nice if it this year all of your holiday meals could be planned in advance? What if all the ingredients could be purchased ahead of time, and every part of the meal that could be made in advance was tucked away securely in the freezer?

Christmas stollen at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Whitney in Chicago

Of course, you may not wish to prepare every single thing on your menu in advance, but if you start planning now about the parts of the meal you can make in advance, you can watch for deals on ingredients at the grocery store and get organized. Here are some recipe ideas:

Next, think about any food-related holiday gifts you’d like to make. Imagine the calm, serene feeling we’d all have if our food gifts were made and tucked away in the pantry, all prettily packaged and ready to give. It’s completely possible if we simply get started now. Here are some ideas for make-ahead food gifts:

Christmas cookies at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Erik Abderhalden

Finally, if holiday baking is one of your family’s favorite traditions, perhaps you’d love to have some cookies prepared ahead of time so that you could decorate them together during the month of December (like these Make-ahead holiday cookie recipes from Simple Delicious Magazine). Or you could simply prepare the dough in advance and freeze it, leaving the baking for later. Or even just gather some recipes and ideas now, so when the holidays roll around you’ll have a plan in mind and already know what ingredients you need.

I usually roll, cut and bake a large batch of gingerbread cookies in mid-November and freeze the unadorned cookies. I wrap them in layers of parchment paper and put them in zip-lock bags (that I can reuse, of course). To thaw, just remove them from the freezer a couple of hours before you plan to decorate them. Since the cookies are already baked, you can sit around the kitchen table with the kids, piping and spreading icing and adding decorations to your heart’s content. Be sure to put some Christmas carols on!

Christmas cookies at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Sushiesque

Your Holiday Homework (HoHo!) is to make a written food plan for all of your holiday meals, food gifts and Christmas goodies. If you do plan to make some food gifts this year, see if you can prepare or acquire the ingredients/jars/packaging for some of those gifts. Do what you can with the time and resources you have. The important thing is to just begin!

How are your preparations going so far? Have you made a dent in your list of preparations, and gotten some of your tasks done early? Share your experiences in the Comments section below, and here’s to your happiest Christmas ever,

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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Your Best Holidays Ever – Week 1 and Your Own Wish List

Cute Santa at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo by Jazz Man

So…what do you want for Christmas?

Today begins our new challenge, “All Done By December One,” a month-long series about bringing harmony to the holidays. If you’ve signed on, it’s likely that you’re hoping the 2012 holiday season will be different in some way. Perhaps, like me, you struggle to get everything done by December 25 and you long for a simpler, more meaningful celebration of Christmas. Or maybe you’re looking for some ideas to get organized, save money and have fun. Perhaps you’re tired of running yourself ragged trying to prepare for what should be a season of joy and peace.

No matter what your motivation is, I bet you put a lot of thought and energy into trying to give your loved ones and friends a special holiday. But I’m thinking about you as I write this, and I have a very important question for you:

What would you really like for Christmas this year?

The first step in creating a plan for this holiday season is to spend a little time thinking about the Big Picture. Your Holiday Homework is to find a quiet place to curl up with a journal or a pad of paper. Close your eyes for a few minutes, and think about the holidays. If you like, you can say a prayer and ask for divine guidance. What sorts of ideas, longings and images come to mind?

Quiet Christmas at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: D Kinney

Start making a list, and write down any crazy thing that pops into your mind. Maybe you’ll do these things and maybe you won’t, but the important thing is to capture all of those thoughts and ideas so you can begin to shape your celebrations.

Write down the big things and the small things. Maybe you long for more family time together. Perhaps you want to simplify, and reduce spending and over-consuming (and that embarrassing, too-big pile of presents under the tree). Or maybe you want to think of some creative ways to bring more spirituality into your celebrations.

Christmas joy at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Richard BH

Perhaps you want to try some new activities. Maybe this year you want to make a gingerbread house. Or perhaps you want to go snow-shoeing. Or cut down your own Christmas tree.

Christmas sleigh ride at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Jumpy Jodes

Maybe you want to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. Or snuggle on the couch with your kids and watch Christmas movies. Or read the Christmas story from the Bible as a family. Or make homemade peanut brittle. Or crochet an afghan for your grandma. Or meet your girlfriends for shopping and martinis. Whatever it is, write it down!

Maybe what your heart is telling you is that you need to do less this year. Perhaps you wish you could eliminate some exhausting traditions or create more time for quiet and reflection. Write that down, too.

Christmas birdfeeder at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Walt Stoneburner

Chocolate truffles at Happy Simple Living blog

Photo: Fiona Shields

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I want you to include at least one special thing that you want for Christmas this year on your list. It could be a box of luscious chocolate truffles, piano lessons, a soft scarf, a new pair of boots, a special book – whatever is calling to you. I know, I know, we’re used to thinking of everyone else’s needs first. We’ll get to those next week, but for now I want you to to focus on YOU. Promise me you’ll think of a special indulgence just for you and add it to your list, okay?

Your homework this week is to write out your own holiday wish list, and tuck it away in a safe place where you can refer back to it this month. If you’re so inclined, feel free to share some of your ideas in the comments section below. (If you want to take a peek at my list, I’ve posted it here. I’m sure I’ll be adding to it as I read your ideas!)

By mindfully considering your Christmas celebration, you’re taking an important first step toward shaping this special season of joy. Next Monday we’ll begin working on specific plans to help you accomplish the tasks of Christmas earlier this year, leaving you some time to truly enjoy the weeks leading up to the celebration.

Meanwhile, here’s to your best, happiest holiday season ever,

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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

Your Best Holidays Ever: All Done by December One

Simplify the holidays at Happy Simple Living .com

Photo by Loyal O.A.K.

September is upon us, and the Halloween decorations are out in full force at the stores – reminding us that October 31 will be here before we know it. It’s still 16 weeks until Christmas, though. That’s a long, long way off…or is it?

Each year, I aim to get organized a little earlier for Christmas so our family can actually spend time together enjoying the holiday season. We’ve simplified some traditions, stopped buying more Christmas decorations, and made the transition with a number of friends from less gift-giving to more experience-sharing. Still, December always gets hectic – a far cry from the fun and relaxation I want our family to experience during this season of joy.

Unplug the Christmas Machine at Happy Simple Living .comSeveral years ago I read a most inspiring book, Unplug the Christmas Machine, by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli. The authors conduct workshops to help people explore what might be missing from their holiday celebrations, and guide them to make some thoughtful adjustments to put the love and joy back in the season.

What the authors discovered is that most of us long for a simpler, more joyful expression of the holidays — with fewer presents, less shopping and debt, less pressure and stress, more relaxed time with our families, and a deeper sense of the spiritual meaning of the season. Can you relate? I know I can.

And what about our kids? The authors have determined that these are the four things children really want for Christmas:

  • A relaxed and loving time with the family.
  • Realistic expectations about gifts.
  • An evenly paced holiday season.
  • Reliable family traditions.

What creates stress, from my point of view, is that we try to do too much in too short of a time frame. Too often the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are filled with decorating, driving, shopping, wrapping, shipping, cooking, cleaning and rushing. Being in a rush makes for hurried decisions, often resulting in too much spending and the remorse of too much debt in January.

But what if this year could be different?

I invite you to join me in an experiment that I’ve entitled “All Done by December 1:”

Simplify Your Holidays at Happy Simple Living blog

What if all of your holiday tasks could be done by the end of the day on Saturday, December first this year? What if you had three glorious weeks in December to do special things with your family and friends, without once setting foot in the post office or shopping mall?

The concept is simple. Each Monday starting October 1, I’ll send you a post with ideas and your Holiday Homework (“Ho Ho”) assignment, for five weeks. Together we’ll make a written plan of holiday tasks we want to accomplish by December 1. We’ll make a budget. We’ll share gift ideas and make gift lists. We’ll make a plan for the coming 60 days to gather gifts and stocking stuffers, bake and freeze cookies, take family portraits, make dinner reservations (my personal favorite), and accomplish whatever’s on your own personal list of important tasks.

Along the way, we’ll share our ideas and thoughts about simplifying the holidays, making eco-friendly choices, spending less, having more fun, and creating breathing room to experience Christmas on a deeper level.

If you’re “in,” share a comment below and make sure you’re signed up to receive Happy Simple Living’s posts by e-mail. Both of these tasks will get you entered to win your own copy of Unplug the Christmas Machine, which I’ll give away September 30. To spread the holiday love far and wide, if you share a link to this post on Facebook or Twitter, or post the above “All Done By December 1″ banner on your blog or website, you’ll get additional entries. Here’s a quick tweet you can copy:

Dreaming of less hectic holidays? Join @HappySimpleLivn in Oct., be done with holiday tasks Dec. 1. Free sign up now:

Thanks for joining me on this journey, and here’s to your best holiday season ever.


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About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.