Monday, February 23, 2009

Reconsidering Storage Units

Tip of the Week, February 15, 2009

At a recent networking dinner, I spoke with a woman (I'll call her Kelly) whose rented storage unit was seriously dragging her down. Kelly recognized me from a previous meeting, and she told me she thought of me every time she went to her storage unit, which is crammed with stuff. We talked a bit about what she keeps in the unit (books, clothes that don't currently fit, a few pieces of art, and lots of miscellaneous stuff), and then Kelly told me that she was annoyed at having to pay $200 per month to house these things.

$200 per month. I asked Kelly if she spent $200 a month on anything for herself. She was quiet for a few moments and then said that no, she didn't. So I asked her what she could do with an extra $200 each month. Pay off my bills, she said. Put money aside for savings. Be able to afford a glass of wine at dinner meetings like this one, rather than simply watching others drink while I stand empty-handed.

I gently pointed out to Kelly that she is spending more each month on her stuff--stuff she doesn't particularly like or care about--than she's spending on herself. She smiled a bit forlornly and said she hadn't realized that before. That's not how it should be, she said.

Rented storage units may seem like a great way of stashing excess stuff without cluttering up your home, but they can very quickly get out of hand. If you spend money each month on storage, consider a shift in your thinking: it could save you hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars every year. Here are a few ways to reconsider your storage space.

Think about why you need it
Off-site storage units can be really useful: they're very convenient in times of big transitions (such as getting married and blending houses or dealing with a loved one's things after their death), great for valuable collections such as wines and antiques that you have plans for but don't have space for in your home, and helpful when you need a place to put things in the short term (while on an extended trip, for example).

Very often, though, I see people use storage units to stash things they're not using and may not even want but don't want to make decisions about. In cases like these, folks are paying a premium to be able to put off making some choices. Decision-making can be difficult, and it does take time, but I strongly believe it's well worth it not only to save you the expense of paying for storage, but also to clear your life of things that are dragging you down.

Think about what else you could be doing with the money you spend
Kelly had several ideas right off the bat for ways she could be better using the money she's currently spending on storage each month. If you're paying for storage and are carrying any sort of debt--especially credit card debt--you're ripping yourself off, because your money would be far better spent paying off what you owe than it is paying a storage company.

Even if you're not in debt, there are likely several other ways you could put your money to better use, especially in a time of economic difficulty like this one. And if you're spending more on housing your stuff each month than you are on doing things for yourself, you're giving your things more worth than you're giving yourself. I'm 100% willing to bet that they don't deserve that preferential treatment.

Put time limits on your rental
If you've rented a storage unit as a temporary way station for your stuff while you go through a life transition, travel, or work on selling or giving away things you don't need, make a deal with yourself that you'll honor the temporary nature of that set-up. Sign a month-to-month (or, at most, six-month) lease if at all possible, and make a firm promise to yourself--as well as to anyone with whom you share finances--that you will empty and relinquish the storage unit within a very firmly defined period. Keep a running tally of what you're spending each month so it's harder to ignore your storage space, even if it's off-site.

Chip away
It's not always possible or realistic to empty a storage unit in one fell swoop, and trying to do so can be utterly overwhelming. That said, I strongly believe that it's utterly within your power to visit your unit weekly and to commit to sorting through the stuff in one corner, the contents of a few boxes, a few pieces of furniture, or what have you. Decide that the things either truly deserve to be in your life (and then follow through on that by bringing them home) or that they don't, in which case now is the perfect time to sell, donate, or trash them.

Chip away at the contents of your storage unit a little at a time and you should soon be able to downsize to a smaller unit, and then to give up your unit altogether. The results? A significant savings of cash, which you can immediately put to use elsewhere, a sense of relief at clearing from your life stuff that's not meant to be in it, and the satisfaction of knowing that you're more important than your things.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Get Organized, Be More Competitive in Business

Tip of the Week, February 1 and 8, 2009

Week in and week out, we witness the impacts of the current economic recession on businesses and employees throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Companies large and small have folded, and those that have survived are realizing the need to get their acts together in a way they may not have had to before.

It would be overly simplistic--and inaccurate--to believe that getting organized could have prevented the business failures we've seen recently. What I believe is true, though, is that companies (especially small ones) that are more organized have a better chance of survival than those that aren't. We also might see that employees who are more organized and more productive seem better bets to their employees than their peers whose disorganization may be costing the company money.

Here are five reasons why it might be worth making the effort to get your business--or your own workspace and work habits, if you're an employee of someone else--organized. I've adapted these from the book The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber.

#1: A business that looks orderly says to your customer that your people know what they're doing. While organization goes far beyond how things look, visuals are often what make the strongest first impressions. Think about the businesses you trust the most and are most impressed by. Are they relatively neat and orderly, or are they chaotic and cluttered? An organized business gives the outside world the sense that things are running smoothly.

#2: A business that looks orderly says to your people that you know what you're doing. This actually goes both ways: if you're a business owner or a manager, being organized gives your "people" (i.e., your employees) greater confidence in you, and if you're an employee, organization sends a message to management that you're on top of your work. Of course it's true that there are supremely competent managers and employees who don't have neat-as-a-pin workspaces, just as there are incompetent folks with perfectly clear desks. We're not talking perfection here: we're talking enough organization to let others know that you have things under control.

#3: A business that looks orderly says that while the world may not work, some things can. Think of a business that has weathered the recession thus far. I'd bet it's one that has straightforward, honest business practices and that has maintained a comfortable level of organization as the world around us has grown more chaotic. By and large, we tend to be drawn more to companies and individual advisors (like CPAs and financial planners) who seem to be calm, organized, and in control than to those who don't make us feel like we've found a port in this storm.

#4: A business that looks orderly says to your customer that he can trust in the result delivered and assures your people that they can trust in their future with you. While, again, there are hundreds of reasons that businesses might fail, many of them having little to do with organization, an orderly, organized company gives the impression that it's stable, trustworthy, and here to stay. And while being an organized employee is not necessarily insurance against being laid off or downsized, it can give you as the employee a greater sense of being in control.

#5: A business that looks orderly says that the structure is in place. A lack of sustainable structure is one of the biggest reasons that businesses fail, not just in times of economic chaos, but also when times are good. Companies that are organized can give others the sense that the business's foundation is solid.
Though Michael Gerber focuses on the looks of organization, remember that being organized--especially to remain competitive as a business or an employee--is mainly about having the systems and habits in place that will allow you to focus on what's really important and to be more efficient. Truly successful companies and employees not only look organized and act organized but are organized. Achieving more order in your professional life won't necessarily guarantee you success, but it can certainly put you ahead of the pack, particularly in these difficult and competitive times.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Save Time and Money with Meal Planning

Tip of the Week, January 25, 2009

Have you ever stood in front of an open fridge at, say, 6 p.m. waiting for some sort of meal-planning inspiration to strike? I know I have--and I also know that at the end of a long day, it can seem like a monumental task to decide what to make for dinner. My friend Connie Johnson, a fellow Professional Organizer (her company is Routine Matters) and mother of two, has a great way to avoid early-evening, pre-dinner chaos: she plans what to cook in advance with a weekly meal plan.

I recently sat down with Connie to learn more about how she organizes her meal planning and what the benefits of the process are. Here are some of her tips and ideas.
  • Choose which meals you want to plan. Connie generally plans out only dinners, but she does so with an eye toward what dinner components can also be used as part of her daughter's lunch the next day (such as roasted chicken for dinner that could become part of a sandwich for lunch). If you have a large family or specific dietary requirements, you might opt to plan breakfast and lunch each day in addition to dinner.
  • Use a planning system that works for you. Though there are a number of online or software-based menu planning systems available, a simple notebook or binder might work just as well (or better) for you. As with any system, the one you choose needs to be something you're comfortable using and can stick with.
  • Get others involved with planning. When both of Connie's daughters lived at home, the family would create a meal plan as part of their weekly meeting. Now that one daughter is away at school for much of the year, the process is a bit less formal, but Connie still enlists her at-home daughter in the process of browsing through recipes and deciding what they'll eat each night.
  • Consider family schedules when you plan. Part of Connie's process is taking a look at activities she and her daughter have scheduled in the week ahead. On days that are particularly busy, dinner is bound to be something fairly quick and easy to make; more involved meals are slotted for evenings with less going on.
  • Aim for variety and seasonality. When planning meals, Connie takes into account the local produce that's in season and the variety of foods her family has been eating, with the goals of including as many fresh foods in their diets as possible and of reinforcing the USDA's food pyramid.
  • Find smart ways to include take-out and frozen foods. If you have the time, effort, and energy to cook all of the components of your meals from scratch, great. If not, consider using take-out or frozen foods as building blocks: add fresh vegetables to frozen ravioli for a quick and healthy main dish, for example, or cook a pot of brown rice to replace the white rice that typically comes with take-out Chinese food.
  • Look for customizable dishes. If you're cooking for several different tastes or dietary needs, look for meal items that are flexible and customizable. For example, when Connie's older daughter, who's a vegetarian, is home from school, dinner might be pasta with a vegetarian-friendly sauce and a side of meat for the family's omnivores. This prevents having to plan for and cook multiple dishes for different family members.
  • Use your plan to create a grocery list. Once she's created her meal plan, Connie lists a few days' worth of dishes on an index card and, next to each dish, lists what she'll need from the grocery store in order to make it. The card accompanies her to the store so she doesn't have to worry about forgetting any ingredients. (Connie shops a few times a week, but if you tend to hit the store less often, list the whole week's dishes and their ingredients on a card before you shop.)
  • Stay flexible. Finally, remember that even the best-laid plans can sometimes go awry. If Wednesday rolls around and you decide you're not in the mood for the Wednesday dinner you'd planned, switch it with Thursday's meal. Since you'll likely have the recipes for that meal handy and the ingredients in stock, the switch can be a simple, stress-free one.
Take a few minutes this week to create a meal plan for the days ahead. The payoff? Calmer, more focused meal prep, less money spent on last-minute, last-ditch takeout, and more time to actually enjoy meals with your family.