Don't Buy Random Crap for Your Loved Ones

You’ve heard of The Five Love Languages, right? If not, the basic premise is that people tend to prefer to give and receive love in one of five ways: words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, gifts, and quality time. Once you and your loved ones figure out your individual love languages, it can help you show love to each other more effectively. In fact, if you’re not sure what you prefer, there’s an online quiz you can take to find out!

Recently, I’ve watched my clients struggle with the gift giving love language. Specifically, they have family that lives very far away and misses them very much, and shows their love by sending them inexpensive gifts regularly. While I haven’t met the gift givers in person, it’s clear to me that these gifts are sent out of an abundance of love, with absolutely no ill intent.

However, there are serious side effects to a regular gift giving routine.

  1. Those gifts add up fast. In thinking of one client in particular, her mom likes to send her costume jewelry, cloth bags, cute glasses and dishware, and general tchotchkes. My client, like many of us here in San Francisco, lives with her boyfriend in a one bedroom apartment. It’s plenty of space for them and their cats, but there just isn’t enough storage to accommodate the constant inflow of gifts. 
  2. Those gifts cause serious guilt. My clients tell me that they don’t want to donate these gifts because they know that if the giver found out, they would be hurt. The gifts, in effect, become an emotional burden and an extension of the guilt my clients already feel over living so far away from their loved ones.
  3. Those gifts can cause relationship strife. I have a couple of clients who deal with continuous gift giving from both of their moms. They are each uncomfortable with dealing with so much stuff from their own mothers, but end up taking that frustration out on each other and the other’s mom. While this is so common for all of us as humans - we redirect anger at a person we can’t confront to the people who see us every day - it’s completely avoidable in this case.
This is what years of inexpensive gifts looks like after I've helped a client decide what's important to keep... and what's not.

This is what years of inexpensive gifts looks like after I've helped a client decide what's important to keep... and what's not.

People whose love language is gift giving (and I am one of them, so I know of what I speak!) sometimes struggle with the idea that a gift could be a bad thing, and they often don’t know how to communicate their love in other ways that feel just as effective. So, I have a few suggestions!

  1. Take a picture of the cute tchotchke, send it to your loved one, and tell them why it made you think of them. How fun is a random loving message in the middle of the day? You get all the benefits of gift giving, like reminding someone that you love them and showing that you understand what’s special about them, without any of the downside. This also gives you the opportunity to see whether or not your loved one actually wants that item! If they text back “hahaha, love that, I miss you too!” then the thought was enough. But a text that says “OMG I need this!” means you have the green light to send a gift!
  2. Give experiences rather than objects. This is something my family has wholeheartedly embraced as part of our gift giving tradition and we all absolutely love it.  You get the gift giving experience - opening something, the surprise, the feeling of being special to the giver - and then you get to extend it by talking about the upcoming event, planning for it, then doing it and reminiscing about it after the fact. My sister gave me a trip to Jackson Hole for Christmas a couple years ago and it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten!
  3. Direct your gift giving energy to people who are in need. Every holiday season, my husband and I adopt a family through Compass Family Services, and take great joy in making their Christmas magical. I love giving to friends and family, but it's even more rewarding to give to people who truly need and appreciate the gifts.
  4. Save your gift giving effort (and budget) for select occasions. Often, people send many cheaper gifts because they feel that the number of gift giving occasions should be maximized but they don’t have the funds to purchase high quality gifts that often. When it comes to gifts, like many other things in life, I recommend going for quality over quantity. Two high quality, beautiful gifts per year will give your loved one all the surprise and delight you crave, and because you have the extra time and money to spend on selecting it, chances are much higher that they will use and love the gift.
  5. When in doubt, just pick up the phone and say “I love you.” Because that’s what we’re all really trying to do with gift giving, right?
This not my family's Christmas, but the gifts prepared for our adopted family this past holiday season!

This not my family's Christmas, but the gifts prepared for our adopted family this past holiday season!

I, personally, will never stop loving the process of opening a present that someone has selected just for me, and then watching them open something I know they’re going to love. But I love it even more when it’s a truly special moment and not just a regular thing.


What I'm Organizing

I always keep my Christmas decorations up through the new year - it all seems like part of the same festive season to me, especially when we host a New Year's Eve party like we do most years.  But the time finally came to move on so I spent a couple of hours last week putting everything away.  I didn't take any pictures this year, but this post from January 2015 still just about covers it!  The same concept holds true with all things: organize them as you put them away so that there's no extra work when you take them out again.

I'm actually working with a really fun couple right now who belatedly realized the wisdom of organizing first.  They just bought their first home in San Francisco and, given that they were both busy with work and family and holidays, just had everything quickly packed and moved from their apartment.  They called me after spending a few weeks trying to unpack in their spare time and realizing that they needed to seriously declutter and create some organization systems in the unique nooks and crannies of their new home.  While I wish I could have started their project before the move to make it easier on them, it's still so much fun to help them set up their new home!

What organizing projects are you planning in the new year?


The Halls are Decked

I love the Christmas season and everything that comes with it, I always have. And when it comes to Christmas décor, I’m very much a traditionalist: I like simple, homey touches in red and gold.  It’s a literal and obvious style, especially given the current trend toward subtle holiday decorations in muted tones, but it feels more welcoming and cozy to me.  And if I want my home to be one thing, welcoming is it!

On the left, my dream advent calendar: a solid wood replica of Fortnum & Mason, schlepped back to the US by my doting sister and sister in law!

So, I’ve accumulated my collection of ornaments, nutcrackers, figures, and other festive items over the years, rather than trying to create a total look from scratch. I did buy large boxes of inexpensive red and gold ball ornaments before our first married Christmas just to tie everything together, and there were so many that I now use them as vase filler and even made a garland for our family room fireplace with them!  That is literally the only DIY you will see in my house, I promise.  I am so not a crafty person!

In foreground, a traditional German Christmas pyramid I picked out in Berlin, with a bakery theme instead of the traditional nativity!

I keep it simple with the greenery, too.  Costco has everything but the tree that I need, and I’m there once every couple of weeks anyway: cedar boughs for the hearths, a fresh wreath for the front door, and ribbon to add a little extra zing to said wreath.  Some years I get poinsettia plants, but I still haven’t figured out the best place to deploy them in the new house.  

We always get our tree from Delancey Street - great service, and their trees are always fresh and beautiful!

The centerpiece, of course, is the tree. To me, the tree has to be real, and it has to be a Noble fir.  The smell of the tree takes me back to childhood, when I would literally stand among and branches, stick my nose into the tree, and sniff… I was kind of a weird kid.  I also love to have an eclectic tree filled with memories, rather than a pristine themed tree, so every ornament we have ever been given goes up.  It all started in 2009, when one of my mom’s best friends threw us a Christmas ornament shower.  Plus, my mom signed me up for an annual silver bell ornament – they’re a beautiful addition and a sentimental record of our Christmases together.  And then there’s my husband’s best friend, who makes it a point to give us a so-ridiculously-ugly-it’s-awesome ornament every year!

Sad photobombing dog in cone is confused about why I'm standing outside in my slippers in 49 degree weather.

Finally, I love adding some lights to the outside of our house.  I am uncoordinated at best so I’m not about to be climbing on ladders to trim our doors and windows, but we do have a little magnolia tree next to our front door that can accommodate a few oversized ornaments and light garlands.  I’ve always loved these lighted balls for outdoors, and found them this year at Costco – brilliant!

This evening, we’re going to light a fire in the fireplace and kick back in the glow of the Christmas tree.  I hope you find similar peaceful moments during this holiday week!


What I'm Organizing

Deep breath in, deep breath out: we're into the home stretch of the holiday season!

There are two major hurdles for my holiday season every year: planning our holiday party, and Christmas shopping.  Said party went off without a hitch on Saturday night, and I just placed the final present order this morning (turns out it's hard to find a Sophie the Giraffe that will ship before Christmas...).  So now, I'm taking a breath, and savoring this last week of the festive season.

Oh yes, and there's the matter of wrapping those presents!  I generally sit down to do them all in one fell swoop.  I make an event of it: gather all the presents and all my wrapping materials, blast my ever so cheesy Christmas song playlist that I originally put together circa 2002 (so there are some amazingly bad boy band numbers on there), and perhaps sip a glass of spiked eggnog (Clover makes the best in my opinion, and Maker's Mark bourbon fits right in on a chilly evening).  

I approach present wrapping in much the same way I approach everything else: keep it simple, keep it classic.  I bought the wrapping paper and ribbon you see here at Costco 2 and 3 years ago, and it's still going strong!  There are definitely more flamboyant options, but they usually carry some good classics like this silver stripe and the white ribbon - which can do double duty for various events other than Christmas as well.  Then I just slap on a sticky gift tag and call it good!


What I'm Organizing

Every year we host a holiday open house.  We had so much fun the first year that we kept going, and now it's turned into a major occasion for all of our friend groups.  At this point, people now have Holiday Party Friends: the people they didn't know before they started coming to our parties but now look forward to seeing every year.  

From Holiday Party 2012: picture taken in the kitchen of our old condo because let's be honest, that's where the party is.

It's never exactly easy to host a party for 60+ people over 6 hours, but it doesn't have to be a struggle either.  Here's how we do it:

1) We want a casual, comfortable vibe.  This means we go pretty minimal on the non-essentials.  Decor is limited to our usual Christmas decorations, glasses and utensils are disposable and ordered in bulk on Amazon, everything is served buffet style, and the soundtrack is jazzy Christmas carols from my husband's Spotify channel.

2) The most important things are food and booze.  In order to not kill ourselves, we purchase pre-prepared where we can and stick to cold/room temperature fare.  We also condense the list of drink offerings to make it easy for everyone to serve themselves: we offer one signature cocktail (with the nonalcoholic non-fizzy ingredients mixed ahead of time so non drinkers can still mix up something fun), champagne, and beer.

3) I get obsessed about one thing: homemade desserts.  I learned to make and frost a layer cake before I knew how to boil water, so as weird and over the top as it sounds, I have a hard time being able to serve a dessert I didn't make myself.  Again, I don't want to go nuts, so I keep it simple and do things like cookies and brownies (Cook's Illustrated's molasses spice cookies have been a HUGE hit) that I can make in big batches.

4) We keep the party adults only.  The older we get, the more of our friends have children, and of course we love them!  But kids (especially the under-three set that dominate in our social circles) at this party would be a logistical nightmare: our house is so very not childproofed, it gets really crowded, and people are having a lot of fun.  I know I wouldn't want to be trying to keep track of a little one in that environment!

4) We keep traditions alive.  There's always some kind of clandestine liquor consumption going on, from a tequila shot bar to cherry cordial from Croatia mysteriously passed around in our bedroom to half the party trooping into our scary rats and bats basement area to sample my husband's whiskey collection.  My husband and I always wear plaid pants (can be spotted in photo above).  We always eat burritos before everyone arrives because we always forget to actually eat during the party. And it's always loud and warm and a bit of a mess and we wouldn't have it any other way!

Hope you're enjoying your holiday season!


Organize the Season's Greetings

I am, at heart, something of a traditionalist.  My mom sends beautiful Christmas cards every year, and I always loved looking through the cards we received from friends and family.  I always knew that when I grew up, I'd send out holiday cards of my own. 

However, as I hope you know from reading this blog, I am all about decreasing stress, clutter, and pressure to conform.  And wow, holiday cards can create some serious pressure!  My mom would fret about The Christmas Card Photo starting in January, and would either dress my sister and me up in matching velvet dresses in the backyard or corner us on a family vacation for a photo shoot, both of which we detested!  And today, the family-industrial complex (with an assist from Pinterest) might have you thinking that every family undertakes an expensive formal photo shoot with carefully coordinated outfits and props for their picture-perfect holiday cards.  I've heard more than one person say that they just don't do holiday cards because it's too difficult, or they feel like their cards wouldn't be worth it.

Christmas Card Photo Shoot antics from yours truly, circa 1992

I'll be the last person to judge if you don't want to send holiday cards.  It’s not for everyone!  But if you're interested, here's how I organize the process for minimum stress and maximum payoff.

1)   I keep a master address list in my Google Drive folder.  It started with our wedding guest list and has grown from there as our family and friend circles expand.  The second a piece of mail with address info hits my mailbox, I can make a quick edit then and there, so that I don't have to spend a ton of time searching down addresses at the end of the year.

2)   I don't try to take a specific Christmas Card Photo. Every year I use a candid photo of the two of us, ideally looking relatively silly, plus one of the dog for the back side of the card.  The general theme of our cards is always levity!

3)   I start early.  I pick our photos and card design a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, and press the order button when a nice coupon hits my inbox!

4)   I use a comprehensive soup-to-nuts online card store to save time, effort, and my own sanity.  I’ve used Apple and Tiny Prints in the past, but my current favorite is Minted: they have the best and most customizable designs (because I like to have a little fun with the text), and you can order absolutely everything including stamps directly from them.







For me, holiday cards aren't something I’m obligated to do, they're about staying connected.  Our family and friends know that my husband and I are fun and just slightly irreverant, and our holiday cards are, too.  Stay tuned for a peek at this year's!


Taking Down Christmas

I adore Christmas.  And even though I finally gave up believing in Santa around age 11 (my ability to suspend disbelief has always been… impressive), the season remains the high point of my year and I try to recapture all that childhood magic by decorating my house for the holidays.  But now, it’s the first week of January, the tree looks fried, and it’s time to face the fact that Christmas is over.

The process of “taking down Christmas” is never fun and only made bearable by the fact that I have a good system in place.  An additional bonus of organizing as I put away means that when the holidays roll around next year, all I have to do is put on some Christmas music, pour an eggnog, and open up the boxes – no digging through storage for random items and trying to remember how pieces of things go together.

Here’s how I do it.

)   Large décor items go in the boxes they came in.  These things are often oddly shaped and delicate, making them difficult to store together, so I just put them back in their original containers.


1)   Small décor items go in one big box.  Anything breakable gets wrapped in something softer, but ultimately my collection still fits in a box labeled “Xmas Décor” in my 22 year old handwriting!

2)   Ornaments go in these great storage boxes I found on a deal site one year.  I am often wary of single use storage solutions, since they can create more clutter than they resolve, but for something that is stored on a high shelf for 11 months of the year I think these are perfect.  They fit most size ornaments, keep everything from rattling around and breaking, and you can’t beat the price!

There are two exceptions: first are my four large McKenzie Childs ornaments given to me by my aunt and mom’s dear friend.  They’re just too big and breakable, so I keep them in their original boxes.

The second is my set of Wallace collectible silver plated sleigh bells.  My mom has collected these since she was married in 1980, and the growing stacks of colorful little boxes remain a key memory from my childhood Christmases.  She registered me for the annual bells when I was engaged in 2009, and I’m loving watching my own collection accumulate – 6 so far!

Finally, everything gets stored on the top shelf in our laundry/storage closet.  Out of sight, and out of mind, but importantly creating relatively little visual clutter in a space I do use very frequently.

The one thing I’m not currently satisfied with is my approach to storing Christmas lights.  I coil each string individually and wrap the ends around before plugging them into each other, which does cut down on tangling while in storage.  However, all bets are off once I try to put the lights on the tree since the coils fall out pretty much immediately, and it bugs me that the light strings just sit around uncontained when they're being stored.

I’m strongly considering purchasing the matching light storage box to increase uniformity and cut down on clutter.  If you have a great way you store Christmas lights, please do let me know in the comments!

It's not just for Christmas: I use this approach with many other areas of my house.  I find that the best time to organize is when I'm putting something away, because than it's always ready for me to use.  


No-Nonsense Tip for Holiday Entertaining

Organization can get real, and on that note I just had to share this excellent tip from Joanna Goddard: The #1 Item You Need For Houseguests

You’ll find the bathrooms in my house fully prepared with this set from Restoration Hardware.  Attractive and always at the ready!

Which reminds me... we're having our annual holiday party this weekend, and part of the preparation is making sure our guest bathroom is fully stocked.  The essentials?

I joked with my husband before we were married that I’d know we’d “made it” when we started buying fancy hand soap from Williams Sonoma instead of the grocery store brand.   I picked this soft green scent since it’s subtle and unisex.

Everyone needs to blow their nose now and again, but there’s no need to look at a basic Kleenex box.  I use this Pottery Barn cover because it’s attractive and also easy to clean – a must in bathroom situations.

I always light a candle before guests start arriving so no one has to fiddle with matches when there’s a line for the bathroom.  I’m seriously persnickety about scented candles – I find most of them too strong or cloying – but I found this one at the Jonathan Adler store in my neighborhood and love the mild scent and simple, clean look.

My mother in law gave us cute monogrammed holiday towels last year that I love to display, but they’re not great at actually drying off your hands so I always hang fresh hand towels as well.

And of course – there’s never such a thing as too much TP.  Words to live by.