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This summer, Husband and I have been somewhat concerned with how our neighbors feel about each other – most look with suspicion on everyone in the area, and since so many people work away from home, they don’t get a chance to figure out who all the regulars in our area are. We’ve tried to combat this in two ways – taking more walks in the neighborhood, and giving out bags of welcome gifts.

The welcome gifts in each bag cost less than 5 dollars – we made some cute home to-do lists, bought tiny citronella candles (for the buggy nights in our backyards), got a bottle of water and a packet of seeds, and added all the recent flyers of local events we could find. Whenever someone told us or we noticed that we had a new neighbor, we’d go over to their house and leave this simple gift on the doorstep, with a note tied on to explain who we were and that we were just glad they were in our neighborhood.

So far, we’ve gotten close to 15 of them distributed, because the neighborhood is large and dense and has a lot of houses selling or getting rented recently. Still, there is more we could do, and we’re going to do so – it seems like such a simple, inexpensive thing to remind people that the whole neighborhood isn’t out to get them: most likely the neighbors are just like them, busy and a little stressed but mostly good folks who want to be safe themselves and, in some cases, provide a safe home for children.

Do you have ways that you reach out to new neighbors to help them see that the neighborhood is a good and safe place? How do you deal with negative comments between neighbors and avoid letting it get to you?

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Husband and I have conceived of a lot of ways to make sure we don’t spend too much each month. We are making all our payments, and we are saving some, so it can be tempting to think that whatever is left we can just spend till it is gone – but we’d love to live well within our means, since you never know how long both of us will keep our current jobs.

To do this, though, we don’t want to completely cut money-related fun from our lives. So we’ve been making a lot of decisions based on 3 questions that I think most of us could stand to use, even if you have more than enough money in the bank.

Does this bring me closer to people I care about? What I’ve realized is that many of the things I consider spending money on are things that I could easily exchange for other ways to be happy – going for walks, cooking at home, watching movies we already have in the collection, working in my garden. What I do want to spend money on, though, are fun (or just novel!) experiences with friends and family. I wouldn’t spend 40 dollars on a ticket to an amusement park by myself, but I try to let go of the purse strings when it only applies to me.

Will this be a momentary or lasting part of my life? I see grabbing fast food on my way home from work as a momentary pleasure – nothing wrong with it, but the investment value is so much lower than a copy of a book I loved, or a yoga class that will give me new moves I can try at home. For things that are more likely to be momentary pleasures, I tend to try to use coupons or shop secondhand (not for fast food, haha), because I know I don’t mind scrimping a little on the temporary things.

Is this the time, or can I sit on the idea for a couple weeks? Most of the time, anything that isn’t needed right this minute for an urgent purchase is a good thing for me to think on for 2 weeks. Often, the caprice of wanting to buy a new thing will pass in 2 weeks, and if it doesn’t, I’ve usually thought of a zillion other good reasons to buy it, which makes me more confident. Not to mention, 2 weeks is long enough to figure out where the cheapest place to get it is, and what discounts might apply.

So you see, I don’t really deny myself per se, but I try to prioritize, and I’m always thinking about whether I’d prefer to save that much money or spend it on this thing. After all, it is a zero-sum game, and I want to think about the alternatives to making these choices. It has served me well so far, though I can always afford to be more prudent. I think we are all in that boat.

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wine

I have had a few years of sampling wines, and let me tell you: the grocery store aisles are getting old for me. I know that I can make a special trip to the specialty wine store miles and miles away, and I do once in a while, but I don’t drink a ton of wine, I just like trying something new when I do. So when I got a flyer about Bright Cellars, I was tempted to try it out.

This is a subscription service, and I’m sure many of you have already heard all the ideas about subscription services: why bother with a service that sends these things to you when you could get them yourself at a store? I do agree that many items can more easily be purchased individually, but wine is an exception, in my mind, because of a dreaded problem I call, “the one bottle problem.”

When you only buy one bottle at the grocery store, it’s helpful in the fact that, most likely, you’ll make the wine last, you’ll drink it for a special occasion, and your bill will be friendly. However, that does mean that you never have a selection to choose from, so even if you are consuming 4 bottles of wine a month, you only ever get to pick from one bottle at any given time – so whether you are eating fish tacos or steak, you are always at the mercy of whatever bottle looked good.

Bright Cellar solves the problem by delivering your monthly ration of wine all at once, and you get to pick from those 4 bottles – sure, you could also buy 4 bottles at once at the grocery store, but I tend to get decision fatigue trying to make a decision about just one bottle, much less 4. I like getting the package and being able to choose from among my concierge-picked selections all month.

If you want to investigate further, check out Bright Cellars – when you order a subscription, you get to rate each bottle you try which makes it fun to evaluate with a friend or family member after each glass. Husband and I like that you can bias your box toward red or white wine or let the concierge surprise you instead.

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Untitled design-3

I think that it is often a sign of life being pretty good for people if they see themselves as mostly in control of what happens to them. This can backfire for many, because when the unexpected happens, they aren’t just disappointed by the effects of a challenge, they are also aghast: THEY are in control, THEY are never caught offguard. It can shift someone’s entire worldview.

Why would I know all this? I’m this person. With my to-do lists and my plans and my future dreams, I’m the girl who thinks she’s in control and who loses her mind when something makes her feel trapped.

In the context of marriage, Husband and I have been talking about this. After all, there are many things we have to decide together now, and some of those decisions don’t go my way. What I’m realizing lately is the title of this post, and it has been so helpful: We have options inside this trap.

I fixate on being trapped, on finding ways to get free or get my way. Truth is though: it’s all a trap. If I get out of this one, there will be others. Here, trap just means inescapable realities – I have to go to work, I have to get medical attention, I have to fulfill my promises in my marriage, my family, and my friendships. But that’s just the thing: these traps are also the things that make our lives so meaningful. I’m not actually happy when I’m free; I’ve had times in life where there were no obligations, no people who needed or wanted things from me. It’s not really a goal worth striving for.

Not only are we never really out of the trap, the trap is also usually more than just one option. We have things we can do within them: if something turns out to be wrong, or not what we need, we can mitigate it.

I know this is all incredibly vague, but lately, I’ve just been grappling with how many things are now decided in my life: marriage, home and place of residence, work trajectory, and much of my future, it seems. But I have to remember that all of those things are just plans: some of them will change, some will grow and become things I could never dream of. There are options in here, even on this fairly defined railway track.

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I love cooking, but I never seem to have everything a recipe calls for all at the same time. It’s been a problem (I used to have a whole blog about it!) for a long time, though it often results in messy, unattractive, and DELICIOUS meals.

This is the story of one thing I got right. I attempted this recipe from a well-known blog, Healthy Nibbles and Bits, and it TURNED OUT PERFECTLY.

The only thing I was light on was the cheese itself, and that didn’t end up mattering – the roux that becomes bechamel (the thick white sauce, often used in things like fettucine alfredo) contains only milk, butter, and flour, and then gets beefed up with the butternut squash puree. It tastes rich and flavorful without being full of cheese.

Certainly, I put some shredded white cheddar in it and topped the whole thing with some cracker crumbs and parmesan, but serving for serving, it was way more vegetable than cheese, and for that I’m thrilled; the seasoning was lovely too!

Two other things I loved about this recipe. I’m a proud owner of a GoSun solar stove, which I will talk about more later, but suffice it to say that my neighbors see me, whenever the day is really sunny, loading up a long skinny GoSun Sport with vegetables to cook out in the sun. It was nice that I didn’t have to use my oven for the whole process of cooking the squash; I cubed it up and cooked it outside in the sun before pureeing it and putting it into the mix.

The other fun thing: the butternut squash itself was grown in my backyard! I have so many squash I don’t know what to do with them (boil them, bake them, put them in a stew…) so this was a great use for what has turned out to be a plentiful crop from the backyard. It’s also just fun to know that sun-power has grown the squash and cooked the squash in the GoSun. Once I had the puree though, I baked the whole macaroni and cheese dish inside.

(A note about the GoSun link: it’s connected to my blog so that if you too get excited about solar cooking and buy something using that link, I do make a commission. However, I don’t use affiliates randomly; I already loved and was writing about GoSun before I chose to use the affiliate link!)

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4 hour workweek.jpgOne of the best ways that Husband and I find to get to know each other after all these years is to listen to an audiobook in the car together and talk about it when thoughts come to us. Lately we’ve been listening to the 4-Hour Workweek, which is by no means a new book, but I was intrigued to hear what Tim Ferriss had to say.

The book has a fairly simple premise: he wants people to think outside the 9-5 box and find ways to make the work they must do more efficient. The simple version is doing things like working remotely for the company you already work for, so that you can travel more, flexibly choose your best hours for the work you need to do, and have more daylight for other pursuits you care about. The more complex version involves coming up with some kind of product, going through Ferriss’ process of pricing and advertising it, and then slowly automating the sale of that product by hiring outside groups (distributors, shippers) to manage the whole operation, while you continue to take a cut.

The cool thing about this idea, if it works, is that even a simple product could provide you enough residual money that you could do whatever you like best with the rest of your time. Sure, you have to put some time in at the outset, and possibly some money for prototypes and advertising, but ultimately the formula works if (AND IT IS A BIG IF!) you make something that people want.

While I’m not going to run out and make a product tomorrow, I am intrigued as to whether any of my readers have launched a business at some point; it is something that appeals to me for the future and I’d like to hear about success stories, even the most humble kind that don’t make you fabulously wealthy like Tim Ferriss.

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I am growing to love my little city in the Midwest, and one of the big ways that this happens is by getting involved on Saturdays. There is always something going on during the warm months, and so Husband and I keep our eyes peeled for things to try.

We met K, the volunteer coordinator for the city, and she immediately recruited us for a pretty fun job: serving beer! The city puts on free concerts all summer to benefit the town, but since many people want to drink an icy cold one with their musical evening, they need someone to distribute the beer to the many thirsty fans. Obviously, the city could pay bartenders, but they can bring better bands and make a more sustainable program if they have volunteers take the cash and hand over the cans.

We had gone to these concerts before, bringing our camp chairs and watching the river pass by as the music twanged out over the city. It was fun, but since we don’t know that many people in town, we felt like it was less fun than it could be. The opportunity to volunteer introduced us to other volunteers every night, and meant that we were always having nice quick conversations with people who were purchasing their beverages.

It’s not a big sacrifice to spend an afternoon or evening handing out beers, and it makes it a little cheaper for the city to offer great entertainment to the citizens. By the end of that first summer, we preferred our times in the beer tent to the relaxation of just sitting and enjoying the concert! What’s more, we now have friends who are also avid volunteers around town, and they purposely sign up for the same beer booth nights as we do, which makes for a great social time. There’s nothing as fun as accomplishing something difficult together, so even the busy nights are great.

What little things do you do to support your hometown or city? It doesn’t have to be a big sacrifice to make you more connected to your place!

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Build Capital!

I want this blog to have a personal finance component, partially because I’ve been writing for a few personal finance sites and have the topic on my brain, but also because I think that such an important part of life for us compulsive messy planners is to plan for the financial future.

I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about the in-between times in life – perhaps you don’t have a job yet but you are aiming to get one, or you have a low paying job that you would like to eventually pay you more, or you want more freelance work than you have but cannot seem to find it. In every case, there is the temptation to rest easy in between work, or to just apply like crazy for more opportunities. I would argue that there are other, more valuable ways to build your future income.

Namely, I expand the idea of capital. Capital being the investable resources you have at your disposal that might at some point yield something. The traditional definition of capital would be your ‘nest egg,’ or whatever money you have to use to invest in ventures that matter to you. But I’d argue that there are so many other kinds of capital:

  • social capital, or the people you know and the people specifically who know you, trust you, like you, or want to see you succeed. This is sometimes discussed as the importance of “weak ties,” the people who aren’t your inner circle but who would still do you a favor or help you if they were given the opportunity.
  • educational capital, or the skill sets and knowledge base that you have. In the past, it was pretty much impossible to further one’s education without money to pay tuitions, but now with courses on sites like Coursera and Udemy, as well as many others, you can start the learning process during your “downtime” and end up with a skill that increases your pay in the future.
  • locality-driven capital, which might be social or might be otherwise. I’m referring to the ways you contribute to your city or town and to non-profits that matter to you. Have you volunteered with them? Have you cleaned up the streets in your neighborhood, which long-term makes property more valuable where you live and helps people take pride in their space?

Sure, you can wait until a great job comes your way, but you can also find an hour or two a day to meet new people, take a course online for free, or volunteer to make the place you live a better place. I’m trying to do a little of this every week, and I hope that long term it enriches my life, whether it also grants me more wealth or not.

What do you do to increase your various kinds of capital?

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But I'm getting older

I read someone’s post the other day about “feeling 22” and realized that I was in a unique position – I am the same age as Taylor Swift, so when the song 22 came blaring over the airwaves 6 years ago, I was able to sing along loud and proud. 22 was a big year for me – graduating college, moving to Texas for summer work, and moving to Spain for a job. I also met so many new people, kept up with old friends, learned a new language.

Early 20s were an important time to me, but late 20s are now a different kind of important. I didn’t realize it at the time, but once I could answer the question, even a little, of “What will I do with my life?” there was a huge loss of stress. That stress was replaced with a different, in some ways harder question to answer: “Am I doing this right/well/do I want to do it any more?”

In my mid-20s there was a lot of joy over finding jobs that were a good fit, continuing my education to become more specialized, and finding the person I wanted to marry. After all of that, my life has gotten… tame, in a somewhat surprising way. Now that I have answered a lot of those questions for your 20s, I’m trying to figure out what is to be done with the years I have left before 30, and what the next challenge is.

One of the big ones for me is learning to love the place I live – neither Husband nor I are natives of this place, but through getting work and buying a house we found ourselves committed to this small midwestern city. We’re trying to find the people in the city that fit with us, but even more so we’re trying to figure out what positive impact we can have on our community. This wasn’t what I was doing when I was Feeling 22, but it feels just right right now.

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Flora & Fauna.pngSo Husband and I are volunteers at a food pantry, and at some point, we were asked to sit at a table at a fair and tell people about volunteer opportunities at the pantry. We thought we’d be there anyway, and we were happy to do it, so I said yes. We were planning this a while in advance, but I assumed – so dangerous – that I would remember.

This just doesn’t work in the Messy Mapmaker household. Sometimes, I have a problem with making too many to-do lists, and sometimes I have a problem with making too many plans, but once in a blue moon, I remember why I tend to overcompensate with the documentation-of-the-future thing: because I forget! I let things slip out of my mind like a sieve, and honestly, Husband is even worse. He remembers things later than I do, so in practical situations, I am always the first line of remembering.

Except when I’m not; we were both feeling kinda “meh” on the day of the fair, and so we decided not to attend – if we’d remembered our commitment, we would have gone for sure, but because we’d assumed in the first place, we forgot how compellingly we needed to go. We only remembered an optional event, not a required-attendance commitment. We let down some friends (it wasn’t the end of the world), but what bummed me out was that I want to be reliable among my friends. I want to be a person who you know will show up.

And that’s why I’m redoubling my writing-it-down efforts: not just writing commitments down somewhere, but writing them all down in my planner (I will share about my planner soon; it’s amazing). That way, when I get that creeping feeling that I’m forgetting something, I can check and not be surprised. It’s so simple, to either make sure I write it on a piece of paper and transfer it later or immediately add it to the planner.

How do you make sure you don’t let others down when it comes to planning for the future? Share your best tips in the comments.

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