By Nicole Paitsel
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
One step at a time.
That handy cliche has become the mantra of our household, as my husband and I put in extra hours at nights and on weekends to build a playroom and, in general, improve the flow of our home.
From selling furniture to painting, moving computer desks and hanging TVs, it is a project that has stretched us for weeks. And it has brought to light a general disorganization that pervades our lives and costs us money.
It is in that spirit of improvement that I pledge to undertake one frugally-focused organization project each month.
Here’s my plan, along with some tips from the experts.
1. It’s the binder, baby
I’m blaming the clearance shampoo.
After months of testing what coupon shoppers call “the insert method,”, keeping the coupon inserts whole, I’m moving back to the binder.
Successful couponing hinges on an organizational style that fits your schedule and work flow. More and more, I need to cut down on the at-home preparation in favor of scanning the sales once I am in the store.
During a recent grocery shopping trip, I saved 73 percent on toiletry and pantry items, but I spent two hours wandering the store only to purchase a little more than a dozen items. Much of that time was spent searching for a coupon that would yield free shampoo since I found an unadvertised clearance sale.
Organizing my coupons in clear baseball card pockets will allow me to scan my stash quickly against the sales tags on shelves.
You can find tips on organizing your own coupon stash from local bloggers like thecouponchallenge.com and momondealz.com.
2. Budget-friendly spreadsheets
Keeping our monthly bill level below our income has, thankfully, never been a problem. Frivolous and miscellaneous spending, that’s another story.
But, mostly, having a set amount of money each month to spend on activities, entertainment and, gasp, myself, will be freeing.
Instead of never feeling able to splurge, I will know exactly how much that splurge can cost.
This is where my husband’s love of spreadsheets comes into play. To get started most advisors suggest tracking your income and expenses for the past year. This will give you a clear understanding of where the money is going and if there are any holes you can plug.
For us, it is a great tool to show whether our goals are actually materializing as financial priorities.
There are tons of free budget work sheets online. One of the most flexible and in-depth was put together by Andrea Dekker at the blog SimpleOrganizedLiving.com. This Microsoft Excel work sheet will work on most Windows-based computers, and it organizes categories of spending in a clear, but flexible, way.
3. Be crafty
My 3-year-old son wanted to use Popsicle sticks to build a lion puppet recently. I knew I had some, but where? So, on our next trip to the store I picked up a new package.
Crafts, school work sheets and art supplies are abundant in our house, mostly because I keep buying materials that we already have stashed somewhere else or could make by repurposing another item.
From cardboard boxes to more decorative shelves, the key is containing like items in the same spot. Consumer Reports’ ShopSmart magazine offers an idea with the inexpensive Prant boxes from Ikea ($7-$13). You can stack the wooden boxes, clipping them together with binder clips, to create a wall unit that is the fraction of the cost of a pre-built piece.
The idea also gives you decorative freedom to paint the boxes, or part of the boxes, to match your decor.
4. Conquer mountain
Mary Frances Ballard, the Newport News author of “Orderly Places,” suggests one simple way to manage the mountain of paperwork that flows in and out of a house: Use a small, vertical file box.
“This simple inbox basket can be as large or small as the family requires, but should hold the papers vertically in sections so they can be retrieved as soon as needed,” she says. “Some frequently used categories include bills, to do or respond, to file (permanently), to read, receipts, coupons, etc. Vertical sorting and storage allows easy access in finding a specific item later on.”
5. Birthdays to note
I am terrible about remembering birthdays, so I have set aside July, my own birthday month, to organize my greeting card stockpile and create a birthday master list for my family and friends.
Consider the binder method for this task, as well. Greeting card companies like Hallmark sell such card organizers, but all you need is a three-ring binder and six to 12 binder folders with pockets. (July is a good month to purchase office supplies, too).
Each folder represents a month (or two, if you want to double up). You can mark the dates to remember on the front of the folder and house the appropriate greeting cards inside.
As you come across free card offers, which are occasionally available from vistaprint.com or cardstore.com, you can enhance your stash on the cheap.
6. Fall into sales
I am hereby proclaiming August as my month of fall sale preparation.
As part of the Paitsel “clean-out-the-closet” month, we will sell our outgrown clothes, tidy up our toy selection in preparation for the holidays and take advantage of the consignment offerings.
Local moms have reported a boost of hundreds of dollars, the perfect addition to my Christmas savings account.
7. Wrap it
Oh, how I have Martha Stewart wrapping paper dreams and a dollar store budget.
I also have a small mountain of wrapping paper scraps, unused bows and dried-up stickers. So before I run headlong into the beauty of shiny paper and spiral-curled bows, I must take stock of my inventory.
And, since my storage space is limited, my frugal plan is this: Buy solid-colored or generically-patterned paper that will work for many occasions. Gold and silver works well for wedding gifts and bridal showers; red paper can work for Christmas, Valentine’s Day and birthdays, as can most other solid-colored paper.
I’m also going to take Ballard’s tip and “think up.” The wall space above my washer and dryer would be a perfect fit for a do-it-yourself wallpaper rack.
8. DIY holiday gifts
Teachers, co-workers, the soccer coach, school administrators, bus drivers, party hostesses. The list for holiday season gifts seems endless.
But this newly organized shopper is setting aside October as “Do-it-yourself” month. Since this is not one of my natural strengths, I plan to steal a page from someone else’s crafty book and stick to one or two small projects.
You can get a plethora of ideas from the new social media website pinterest.com. Blogs like oneprettything.com, maybematilda.com and howdoesshe.com offer ideas with step-by-step instructions and photos to help you along your craft journey.
9. Freeze it
Freezer cooking is making a comeback among those in the frugal community who strive to stock up when prices hit a low. Though November may not seem to be the best month to try out a new freezer cooking strategy, the idea is that it will free me up to bake more goodies and spend less time on nightly dinners.
Crystal Paine, a blogger for moneysavingmom.
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com, dedicates a section of her website to freezer cooking recipes. The idea is to spend one afternoon a week preparing meals that can be frozen. On that busy weeknight, thaw one of the prepared meals.
Also on her website, Paine includes an ingredients planner, a recipe planner and a master prep list for freezer beginners like me. The “Master Prep List” helps Paine organize all of the recipe preparation work, like chopping onions and browning ground beef.
“You’ll save a lot of time and effort by doing all the prep work first,” she says. “And when you get to the actual putting together of recipes, you’ll just fly through them.”
10. Stow presents
As my youngest daughter’s birthday is two days after Christmas, I am thinking about more than just Christmas Day when I shop for toys. But holiday toy sales, and after-holiday sales, can be the best time to stock that birthday party closet for the rest of the year.
One of my prouder organizational moments in 2011 was the foresight to pick up a baby crib discounted by 90 percent from a toy store. I had rewards points from holiday purchases, and I was able to pick up five birthday gifts without taking a penny from my checking account.
Finding the space to store those great buys was another project.
Perhaps that is a project for next year.