Sunday, October 26, 2008

Get Organized to Save Money

Tip of the Week, October 12, 2008

The news from the financial world has been downbeat and troubling for the past several weeks. As banks go into tailspins and stock markets continue to plunge, it's easy to worry about your bottom line. While organizing can't do much to undo the damage that's been done on a macro level, it can help ease the strain on your personal finances. Here are three things you can do to save money (and a bit of stress) during these financially trying times.

1. Get your accounts in order.
When the news from the financial world isn't good, it can be tempting to turn a blind eye to what's happening in your checking, credit card, investment, and retirement accounts. But while most financial professionals advise us not to obsess over our numbers, it's more important now than ever to get on top of what's happening in your accounts.

If you don't already have a basic filing system for things like account statements, receipts, and other financial paperwork (or electronic documents), now is a good time to create one. This doesn't have to be an elaborate setup; a file folder for each account, or a 3-ring binder with some tabbed dividers, will give you a spot to stash important financial records. (If you keep your records electronically, set up a folder for each account in your computer's Documents directory.) Before you file things away, take a glance at them to make sure the numbers add up. If you're shocked by what you see (didn't know you were putting quite that much on your credit card each month?), consider devising a monthly budget that will help keep expenses in check.

2. Organize problem areas to avoid buying duplicates.
It's a familiar scenario: you need item x (a particular ingredient, say, or a tool required for tackling a specific home improvement project), and while you're sure it's around somewhere, you can't for the life of you find it. So you go out and buy a replacement, only to have the original turn up soon thereafter.

Spending money needlessly on buying things you already have but can't find is frustrating, and it contributes to unwanted clutter. Put a stop to this habit by taking the time to clear out and reorganize areas of your home or office where things tend to go missing: the pantry, the linen closet, the supply closet, and so on. Start by gathering like things together and then weeding out what you no longer need. Once you've pared things down, stash like with like (all spices together, all toiletries together, all extra office supplies together) in a spot that's close to where you use them. While you're at it, create an inventory of what you have and where it's stored. Keep this list in a convenient spot and refer to it the next time you're on the hunt for a particular supply.

3. Set up an effective bill-paying system.
Late fees on bills are unlikely to break the bank, but they can add up quickly, and paying them means you're basically giving away money that could almost certainly go to better use elsewhere. And late payments on things like credit cards can lead to other fees and penalties, which can rapidly spiral out of control. Keeping tabs on your bills and when they're due can go a long way toward helping you avoid paying extra.

If you receive all or most of your bills by mail, it's critical to have a basic mail processing system that will allow you to separate the important stuff so it doesn't get lost in the stacks of everything else. (This Tip has info on setting up a system for incoming mail.) If you get all or most of your bills electronically, consider using your e-mail program's filters to have bill notices automatically delivered to a special folder so they're less likely to get lost or overlooked in the midst of everything else in your Inbox.

Of course, keeping tabs on your bills is only half of the process: you also need to be sure to pay them on time, which means having enough money in your bank account to cover the expenses. I recommend making a list of all of the bills you pay on a regular basis, when they're due (around the first of each month, halfway through each month, etc.), and what the average payment on each bill is (or a range of averages). With this list in hand, schedule time on your calendar about a week before each bill is due to check your bank balance (so you can avoid overdrafts) and then arrange a payment.

If you don't need to worry about having enough in your bank account to cover your monthly expenses, consider setting up automatic bill pay for most of your recurring bills. When each bill is due, your bank account will be debited automatically, saving you from having to worry about ensuring that you've paid on time. (Even if you use automatic bill pay, though, it's smart to review your bills each month to be sure they're accurate.)

While it's easy to feel that things are out of your control during these financially murky times, remember that there are things you can do to retain some power over your money. This month, focus on tackling the three organizing projects above to take back control of your finances and to keep a bit more cash in your pocket. It's one investment I promise will pay dividends.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A More Organized Kitchen, a Healthier You

Tip of the Week, October 5, 2008

For most of us, the kitchen is one of the most important rooms in the house. It's also among the most likely to gather clutter, both in terms of stuff that doesn't really belong in the kitchen (think toys, books, and many things that get dropped on the counter throughout the day) and in terms of food, cooking gear, and other supplies that technically do have a rightful home in this space.

Clearing your kitchen of this clutter makes it easier to prepare nutritious meals and snacks, which in turn can contribute to your health and that of your family. Here are 5 ways to get your kitchen into shape so eating well is a snap.

1. Go on an alien-hunting mission.
Are there things lurking somewhere in your kitchen that don't belong there? Perhaps there's a stack of mail that never made it to your home office, some toys that got lost on the way to the playroom, or a few tools that got stuffed in a drawer here rather than being returned to their homes. Now's the time to weed these items out and put them where they belong. Clutter of this sort makes the kitchen feel more chaotic overall, and can also make it more difficult to do what you really want/need to do here, which is store, prepare, and eat food.

2. Show a little ruthlessness.
If your kitchen drawers and cabinets are stuffed to the hilt with cookware, gadgets, plates, and glasses, chances are some part of the meal-prep process is an annoyance, because you probably have to pull out several things to access the one thing you actually want. Give yourself a break and break up with the kitchen stuff you don't really, truly, honestly use on a regular basis. If you're attached to things you pull out only once a year (such as that Easter bunny cake pan), store them in high cabinets or in bins in the attic, basement, or garage.

3. Repeat Step 2, with feeling (and food).
Another significant source of kitchen clutter, and one that can do more damage to your health and waistline than holiday-themed dishware, is old, inedible, unwanted, or nutritionally void food. So once you've finished weeding out the supplies you no longer need, want, or use, turn your attention to your pantry, fridge, and freezer.

Your goal here is to clear out food that's well past its prime, that you're unlikely to eat, or--and here's the kicker--that makes you feel bad, whether physically or emotionally (or both), after you've eaten it. If those bags of chips leave you with a stomachache or a gray cloud over your head, out they go. Those chocolate bars that aren't tasty enough to really fulfill a chocolate craving? Adios. Overly processed foods? Things that are "guilty pleasures" a bit too often? So long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, adieu.

4. Do some rearranging.
With unwanted stuff out of the kitchen, it's time to do a bit of tweaking to make the room a healthier and more functional space. The idea here is to make it as easy as possible for you (and the other members of your household) to prepare and eat decent meals and snacks. This means storing everyday cookware, gadgets, dishes, and glasses in easily accessible spots in your cabinets and drawers so you can find what you need without hassle when it comes time to cook meals or set the table.

In terms of food, aim to have the things that will give you the most nutritional bang for the buck in the most prominent spots in the pantry, fridge, and freezer, with the treats and "sometimes" foods relegated to the second tier. If there are kids in the house, put healthy snacks (granola bars, nuts, fruits, and so on) in drawers or on shelves that are easy for little ones to access. Am I naive enough to think that this will stop kids from climbing up on the counter to get to the cookie jar? Nope. But I do believe it's an important step in encouraging them to think twice about what they eat.

5. Develop and maintain a new awareness.
Finally--and this may be the trickiest step of all--challenge yourself (and the others in your household) to become more aware of what winds up in the kitchen, as this can have a direct bearing on what winds up in you. In so far as possible, keep the kitchen clear of stuff that doesn't belong there; if you find that you do need non-food-related things in this room (such as envelopes, stamps, and pens for paying bills), give them their own dedicated space, rather than letting them encroach on food storage or prep areas.

Challenge yourself not to reclutter the kitchen with unneeded supplies and gadgets. A few versatile, high quality kitchen wares will be far more useful to you in the long run--and will take up much less storage space--than a bunch of single-purpose gadgets. Here as elsewhere, quality trumps quantity.

That holds for food, too. You don't need to go to extremes, but stocking your kitchen with delicious, nutritious whole foods (which are often cheaper than their highly processed, nutritionally dubious counterparts) and keeping treats as treats--rather than making them everyday occurrences--will give you a serious boost in the healthy eating department.

This month, before the winter holidays start to descend on us in full force, take some time to give your kitchen a healthy makeover. You'll get a clearer, more functional kitchen, and a new outlook on how you eat.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Organizing Homework for Success at School: Part 2

Tip of the Week, September 28, 2008

In last week's Tip, my friend Mike Richman, teacher of English at New Design High School in New York City, offered suggestions on helping kids keep track of their homework assignments and how to create an effective homework area.

This week, Mike shares his ideas on teaching students basic organizing ideas that they can apply to keeping their backpacks, lockers, and desks from descending into chaos. He also offers some thoughts on what educators can do to help their students succeed with homework.

How can kids keep their backpacks, lockers, and desks from being insane?
This is definitely subject to the kinds of behaviors I see you writing about each week: taking time to edit out unneeded paperwork, creating behaviors around putting papers away instead of folding them in half and shoving them in the middle of a text book, separating papers and books from school supplies by keeping them in different compartments of a book bag...all these things are important.

But kids frequently don't know how to do these things without some direct instruction from an adult and parents shouldn't necessarily assume these things are always taught in every school. Many kids get to high school with a need to learn certain organizing behaviors. Sometimes, it's not until they agree to stay after school and go through their stuff with me, having a conversation about how to stay organized and actually organizing their stuff together, that I see a change.

Schools that do teach this kind of thing tend to teach them almost as an afterthought under the umbrella of "study skills," but I think that's likely a disservice to how complicated these skills are and how much practice kids need with organizing. It could very well be its own class, but I'm sure that's likely not to be a top priority when budgets are tight and priorities skew toward the "three R's" of school.

[Note from Emily: Like teachers, Professional Organizers-many of whom are also parents, and a good number of whom came from the world of education-have recognized the need to teach kids basic but essential organizing skills so they're prepared for success in school and in life. Thus was born NAPO in the Schools, a program in which Professional Organizers work directly with students in the classroom to teach them how to get organized for life. For more information on the program, visit http://napo.net/public/napo_in_the_schools.asp.]

What can teachers do to help kids approach homework in an organized way?
This one is hard. I teach with a requirement that my high school students have a binder, but that's only a part of it. I use language around the binder in every aspect of my teaching--things like "Take your corrected work and put it in the Returned Work section of your binder" come out of my mouth as often as any instruction around literature. What's more, I show them how using their binders is useful in terms of scanning scores in the returned work section to guesstimate their grade so they can use their "returned work" binder section as a tool to monitor their progress in the class.

I organize my teaching around the binder so that I do things that fall into the categories they put on the tab dividers in their binders. We do vocabulary and that work goes in the "Vocab" section of their binder. We do essay work and you can guess where that's going at the end of class, and so on.

Ultimately, when I did my Master's research on homework I learned that kids have all kinds of strategies for doing homework but I wasn't, as a teacher, making space in my classroom for them to share those ideas. When I got kids talking about how they did homework, tips and tricks for doing it efficiently and effectively, I found they could help one another so much. Not only could they help one another but the fact that such instruction wasn't coming from me made the info all that more "authentic" because it wasn't wrapped up in a perceived "lesson from the teacher," which can automatically turn kids off.

[Note from Emily: While working with Mike to write this Tip, I called his classroom phone number to hear an example of the voicemail message he leaves there each night. In the message, he recapped the homework assignments for each of his classes and-this part was my favorite-said that part of the assignment for his 9th grade students was to bring to class a cleared-out and organized binder. The incentive? A quiz grade. For kids as well as adults, a bit of a reward, no matter how small, goes a long way toward motivating them to get organized.]