Friday, February 3, 2012

A great place for beauty and Anti-Aging

I love sharing the gems I find and things I love, which is part of why I write this blog. So today my tidbit for those readers interested (like I am!) in anti-aging solutions and natural skincare and cosmetics is the blog Truth-in-Aging.

I was researching the ingredients in my children's skincare products after Liam was born and stumbled upon this great gem. I've been reading it for several years now and repeatedly go back to it to research products and read about new ones.

The blog is run by Marta Wohrle, a former journalist who (like many of us) had a million half-empty bottles and jars of products that never worked sitting on her counter. As she learns about products and potions, she shares the information with her readers. The Ingredients Spotlight on the site is a wealth of information - I discovered there is a shocking amount of toxic substances in many cosmetics. This searchable glossary is where I often go to find what an ingredient is supposed to do and whether it is toxic. Marta and her team are excellent about finding clinical research to back up claims about efficacy and toxicity.

They often have reader reviewers, and some time ago I "won" the opportunity to try an intriguing product in exchange for a review when I was done. Apparently I did a pretty nice review, since they have since invited me to contribute more product test reviews - in fact, I'm soon to start testing my fourth product. I like doing it, and I like reading and learning from the blog. I hope you like it and find it informative too!

Here is a link to my latest review.

Enjoy and start educating yourself!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

So Momma, you want an Education? - Part 2 The best laid plans...

As I said in my last part of this series, my biggest mistake I have made is failing to plan for my return to school. Now, that said, I know better than anyone that life throws you a lot of curveballs and planning isn't always easy or possible, BUT... if you are reading this, chances are you're considering starting or finishing a college degree program. So even if you're just dreaming about it, there ARE things you can do to plan for and achieve it - even if schooling is years off for you!

1. Get yourself in a good place.  Being a mom/dad and student is very stressful - both physically and emotionally. Before setting out on that path, make sure to have YOU in order. Its time to assess where you are at and make changes. Make an appointment with your doctor and make a check of your health. Make changes that are necessary NOW - long before you start classes. Starting an exercise routine, healthier eating habits, and getting more sleep will become a habit that will serve you well once you take on the extra responsibilities of school. Are you in a good place mentally? If you're feeling uncertain, stressed, or sad, or if you don't handle stress well, the extra workload is only going to compound that. Talk to a professional and work on coping techniques - they can be a real lifesaver later. Get in the habit now, and it will be one less problem area for you later.

2. Build a Support System. It takes a village. Never more have I understood this than as a Student Mom. If you're like me, you might not even realize how much you need support until its just not there. So often I feel like an island, floating off by myself, with nothing nearby in sight to cling to. Neither you nor your family should feel this way! So start by listing the resources and people you have to turn to in times of need - friends, family, spouse, and other outside organizations such as a church group or professional society. Do they support you in your educational goals? One great tragedy is that my decision to pursue my degree has shown me the true nature of my friends and family. I had to sever ties with my best friend of 20 years when she flat out told me not to finish school and that she thought it would ruin my marriage (well, that and a host of other transgressions). It was the most painful thing I've ever had to do, but I learned that it just wasn't a friendship built on true love and mutual appreciation, so I had to let it die. I've had to distance myself from family members who do not understand my desire to complete an education. Be prepared for the people who are negative and bring you down - they are out there. There are people who will think you are selfish - that if you are a Mother that you are not allowed to pursue anything outside of the total fulfillment and needs of your children and spouse. Thankfully, I have found that new people will emerge that WILL understand and support you - classmates, professors, professionals in your field, fellow student parents, and friends whom you may not have been super close with in a long time. These people are your angels! When things are bad, they will lift you up, and when things are good, they will be happy and share your joy. Anyone who cannot do this with you... you either have to be prepared to walk away from or at least temporarily distance yourself from their influence. No matter how much you may want them to care or support you, if they cannot do so, they will only be poison. Float your educational goals and ideas past friends and family... you will likely know quickly where they will fall. My own parents just don't seem to understand. I still love them with all of my heart but I find my family and I are happier and more positive when we spend less time with them. I view it as a temporary sacrifice and hope eventually I can be closer with them. Embrace those who will be a positive voice, and be prepared to distance yourself from those who just cannot. A negative reaction doesn't necessarily make them bad people and it doesn't invalidate your desires and feelings. If it is important to you, it matters. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Keep positivity around you.

My Spouse and best friend, Neil. I couldn't do this without him!

Now, I recognize that I am extremely fortunate that I have a spouse who agrees that my educational goals are important and vital to our family to thrive. I know I am blessed. I have witnessed some of my fellow students who have spouses who are not as supportive... and sometimes not supportive at all. Many times, a spouse who is negative or voicing concern is doing just that - VOICING CONCERN. They worry about YOU and the immediate family- your mental and physical health, the time you will take away from your family and kids, and the financial impact your education will have on the family unit. These are valid concerns, many of which you may have also worried about. Communication is vital! Talk with your spouse about why you want your education. Plan together what your educational goals are and how it can better your family. Involve your spouse in all of the planning and preparations. This is a big investment for them too - financially, emotionally, and from a workload standpoint. Your spouse will likely have to take on extra household duties and other responsibilities to help you achieve that degree -so it is vital that you both agree on the goals, the plan, and the action steps that you will all have to take as a family. If your children are old enough, get them involved as well. Talk to them about why an education is important and what it means for your family- not just you but how it can make a difference for them too! Make sure they understand the changes in the family routine that may have to take place in order for you to finish your education. And most of all - communicate that no matter what you are a family! You stand together. They support you for now and you will be there for them when they decide to attend college. And do it. Make the commitment to each other now and decide what you will - and won't - sacrifice for each other. Doing this now will go a long way to family harmony. These are the people who love us, and whom we love best - we need to anticipate how our decisions and pursuits will affect them. Talk about it and work at it until an agreement can be reached.

Now... if you have a spouse who is flat out opposed to your education (and there are some who are!), you need to find out why. Ask questions. Get them to talk about their misgivings. Most often, they are just insecure or worried about the impacts your education will have. However, even if you've discussed your feelings with them and they will absolutely not see your side, help from a professional intermediary may help. It has always been my opinion that if your spouse knows you, loves you, and wants the best for you and your family, they will be honest with you. Be prepared to hear hard truths that you may not want to hear - and think about what your spouse has to say. Sometimes they know us better than we think. Listen without anger or judgement to their concerns and take time to consider if perhaps they could be correct. If they cannot give you a good reason for their opposition OR if you both seem to have vastly different life goals, you may need to evaluate what is more important - your happiness (assuming your education is vital to your fulfilling your personal happiness) or your marriage. Be prepared to discover some painful and dark truths. If a compromise cannot be reached, you might have dire decisions to make. BUT... for purposes of this blog, we are going to assume even the most difficult situations can be overcome with love and communication! Right? RIGHT!

3. Adopt a routine/schedule now. Again, being in the habit of doing something is going to serve you well when finally entering the classroom. So get yourself and your family on a routine. Get up regularly at a time that allows you all to have a healthy breakfast, get dressed and out the door without stress, and if you need to, schedule your day to ensure you can get everything you need (and want!) to do completed. Before bedtime, pack lunches and have everyone lay out what they are going to wear the next day - this can save valuable minutes in the mad dash to get an entire family out the door on time. I pack the lunches, day care bags, and lay out the clothes for the kids and myself before bed because otherwise I will forget things in the morning! In fact, this semester I'm planning on showering right before bed and blow drying styling my hair... that way my husband and I aren't both trying to get through the shower and use the bathroom at the same time in the morning. I'll just have to touch up my hair and do my make-up while my husband showers, then I can relinquish control of the bathroom to him. You should schedule time to rest and spend time together with the kids, each other, and get a short work-out in too!
Desmond "vacuuming" for Mom.

Routines will also help when trying to keep the household from falling into chaos and epic filth while attending school. Make out a list of household cleaning duties and divide it up among the family. Even small kids can help with more than you probably realize - incorporate putting away their toys into their bedtime routine - even my 17 month old has fun with this "game". Have each person in the family do one thing to help make or clean-up after meals - while you do dishes, have the kids sweep the floor. My four year old loves helping mom dust while I vacuum, etc. Even if you won't be returning to school for a year or two, having your family life organized and in a good habitual routine is something you can do NOW to best prepare you and everyone involved. I admit that this is something I have not always done well in with in the past, and it is the single biggest thing I am working to change in my last year of school.

4. Get used to living with less. Much less. This is something we had to learn to do very quickly, as my return to school was very sudden. Things were very painful that first year back, but through help from friends, fellow students, and lots of research, I've found ways to cut back and live with less in order to make finishing my education possible.

I first suggest assessing what you really NEED. For instance, I had a Blackberry phone with a data plan, and so did my husband. It was costing us $190+ per month. We realized we didn't use the data services enough to really warrant the expense - we found we usually were at home or on campus or somewhere were a computer was available to us. So we cut back to a simple cell phone plan for each of us. We now pay $80 per month for BOTH phones. No, they are not fancy. Yes, sometimes I miss fancy. But... you have to decide where your priorities are. We also decided to cut out cable TV. We found that we were DVR'ing many of our shows, and most of them were on local television stations. With the advent of online streaming video content, we found we don't really miss cable TV. We bought a good digital antenna and we receive local signals in High Definition. In fact, the over-the-air HD is BETTER than what we were getting through cable! We DO still pay for cable internet service, and we sprung for a Netflix account where we get streaming content. But, we went from paying about $110 per month to $45 per month. And you know? Quite frankly when classes are in session, I rarely have time to watch TV. The kids love PBS and streaming Netflix for their shows, and my husband has discovered many awesome TV shows and movies that he was missing out on. When I actually have free time, I love Netflix because its totally on-demand. I can watch a documentary or a movie or whatever I want whenever I want!

We moved from a 3 bedroom duplex to a 2 bedroom apartment that had heat included to get rid of the "surprise" enormous heating bills of our Wisconsin winters. In doing so, we sold off a ton of our unnecessary stuff on Craigslist and made some cash. Its amazing what you probably have that you really don't need. I had lots of home decor items that I no longer had room for once I had a smaller home. So I pared down and just kept my favorite things. It means less to move later too!

Start looking carefully at your grocery bill - this is the NUMBER ONE place we cut back. We went from spending about $900 per month to just about $400-$500 a month on a family of four - and I think we could still pare it down more! Now, it helps that our son switched from drinking formula to soy milk. But the biggest changes we made that made the difference were finding better places to shop and making a meal plan. That's it. Two things. That's not so scary is it? It just might take some research and asking around.

Instead of shopping at the "convenient" local food store chain, we started going to Aldi. Yup... Aldi. I admit, I was always too snobby and afraid to go there in the past, despite friends that sung its praises. It took fellow students telling me how to shop there to convince me to try it. Yes, everything is "store brand", but our family has come to be some of Aldi's biggest fans. I'll have to write a bit more about how to shop Aldi at another time... it's too long to do here. While we're on the subject of store brands, are you still using name brand formula and/or diapers? STOP! Even with a coupon, they are usually more expensive. With my first child I clung to the name brands, but a year into his life realized the store brands were every bit as good! We really like Target's Up and Up baby formula and Diapers. For wipes, I prefer the thicker brand carried by our local grocery store chain. Our oldest still uses Pull-Ups at night - but buy the Walgreens brand - they are awesome, work well, and cost a ton less. Start trying new brands out - you'll be surprised. For the big ticket item on the grocery list - MEAT - we heard through word-of-mouth about a local butcher shop that was cheap and good. And they are! We cut back our meat consumption considerably and substituted eggs, peanut butter, and tuna for much of our protein needs, and then go to the meat market for the cuts we plan to eat that week.

That brings me to the last grocery savings - PLAN  YOUR MEALS. When payday is coming, I pull out my cookbooks and poll the kids for what we want to eat for the next two weeks. I decide on some favorite recipes and things that are healthy and easy to grab-on-the-go and plan them out for the three meals and snacks. Then I shop my cupboard - if I have certain ingredients, I keep them off the list so I only buy what I need. It keeps our pantry neat and costs down! When possible, if I'm making a recipe that calls for an odd ingredient (for example, buttermilk, which I don't often use) I will try to select another recipe that will use more of that ingredient so the remainder won't go to waste. I like making buttermilk dredged pan fried Tilapia one night, then using the rest of the buttermilk to bake banana bread or use in pancakes later. We spend about $160 at Aldi for two weeks of basic groceries. We aslo have to supplement unusual ingredients from another store and buy more milk and soy milk since many things don't last two weeks. But we've gotten the bill down to half of what it was. And my goal is to do even better!

Homemade Pizza! Fun and delicious.
Now... as for dining out. Do I even need to say it? DON'T, unless it is a special treat or unavoidable. (We keep things like delivery pizza or Chinese Take-out or McD's to twice-per-month treats to celebrate things - like Mommy's 4.0 semester, or Liam doing something particularly good, or Daddy having good sales numbers at work). That fancy coffee in the morning or fast food lunch adds up quickly, both in the budget and on your waist. I KNOW - It is VERY hard when life gets busy not to be tempted. I, too, have those days where I've left the house at 7AM, commuted, had internship or class all day, then picked up the kids from daycare and commuted 45 minutes home, it's been a 12 hour or more day and we are all STARVING. What can you do? What we've done is found healthy snack options that we can grab and keep with us at the office, in my bag, or wherever hunger strikes. Granola bars or dry breakfast cereal, crackers, nuts, apples, bananas, and other fruit can be tossed in my school bag.  Cans of soup or frozen meals (kept at the office) for my husband are helpful as well. I don't always have time to drink my coffee in the morning since it takes time to brew - so instead of buying it, I take my travel mug and several bags of my favorite tea. When I get to campus for class, I go to the cafe or into our department office to get some hot water (or microwave some from the water fountain), put my tea bag in and TA-DAAA! No fuss hauling it in the car and spilling it on your clothes, (and how DO you carry a travel mug while also carrying a wiggly 17-month-old and your school books while herding a four-year-old across campus anyway!?!) its nice and hot, and even great quality tea bags are pretty inexpensive. You could probably do the same thing with instant coffee, but I haven't tried it yet.

Other things I've done to cut back? We bought a trimmer on sale, and I have been cutting my husband's and kids hair for the last year. I've gotten very good at it, and the electric clippers has paid for itself many times over already. I have also foregone the salon myself... I color my own hair at home, and go to Cost Cutters and pay $7.99 for a haircut. Recently I have re-kindled a friendship with an old high school friend who is a stay-at-home-mom and ex-stylist. I plan pay her to cut my hair - its less expensive than my former salon, I get a great haircut, and my money goes to someone who really can use it! Talk to fellow moms and students - you might each have skills you can trade.

We buy my husband's work clothes at our local Goodwill Store. Yup. And he is well dressed too - better than me and very often in designer duds! We found the Goodwill in the more affluent parts of town are a goldmine. We have bought dress pants, shirts, sweaters, and other business attire there - sometimes with the tags still on them - for about $3-5 per piece. We can spend $30 and get my husband 4-8 pieces of new clothing, when I used to spend that for one pair of new dress pants on sale. It takes some digging, but its worth it. Likewise, we shop at Children's Orchard, a resale shop, for all the kids clothing. We usually find what we need. If not, we cruise the sales or get hand-me-downs from other parents we know. And, in return, we give away our boys' outgrown clothing to other friends. Some items, like foundations (socks, underwear, bras, etc) and shoes, you can't really get used. So for those we wait for good sales at our favorite stores to purchase those.

I also make many of my home cleaning products. It is more eco-friendly, better for our health, and saves us a ton. Liam loves helping momma shave the soap to make our laundry detergent. It doesn't take more than 10-15 minutes to make a batch every few weeks, and it only costs a few cents per load. Our laundry is cleaner too.

We drive two old cars. My husband's 1997 Saturn is a two door and not ideal as we have to contort ourselves to get the kids in their carseats in the back. It is not very pretty but it runs and is paid off. As a result of its age, insuring it is cheap too. We will drive it until it dies. We most often haul the kids in my 2002 Subaru wagon because it has four doors and lots of storage. It also is paid for. Yes, it has dents in it. No, its not uber fancy. BUT... it's reliable and paid for. Again... what are your priorities? A new car? Or the education that help you get the job you want, make you happy, AND allow you to probably buy that newer car? Exactly!

So start cutting back NOW. Then there is no "culture" shock to deal with when you finally do get to school and have to cut back. Take the difference and put it in savings toward school expenses. You will be glad you did later.

5. Take stock of your financial assets. I know, you don't have a tuition bill yet. But now is a good time to look at your overall financial picture and figure out what resources you have and which you do not have available to you. If times get tight or you have an emergency and you need the dough to finish your semester, its good to know what resources you might be able to tap. What is your available credit on  your credit cards (assuming you have any.) What do you have in checking and savings accounts? Home Equity? A 401K and IRA? Are withdrawals available to you, or can you loan against it? Do you have stocks or other investments - and how long does it take to liquidate them out if you need money? You might not necessarily want to tap these resources and hopefully you never need to, but its very good to make a list of everything you have and how quickly you can utilize it for needed emergencies. Its helped us in a pinch a few times.

So these are just a few suggestions of how you can begin to prepare for your return to school long in advance. You'll likely notice one very important aspect I left out - selecting the College or University you will attend. That will be the topic for the next part of this series.

As always, there are many ways to prepare - particularly when cutting expenses. I'd love to hear some of the things my readers do to save money and other ways people have prepared themselves for classes.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

So Momma, you want an Education? Part 1 - My History. A lesson in what NOT to do.

I'm writing this series because I have several mommy friends who have expressed interest in getting or finishing their college degree. As my profile indicates, I am a college student and a mom, so I thought I could share some of the things that have worked well for me... and others that did not. I hope to offer my friends and dear readers more guidance than I had. Because I had NONE. Through this series I will  provide tips on how to select a school, how to prepare for your return to school, how on earth to you can pay for your education, time management tips and tricks, and many other useful tidbits. These were learned the hard way by yours truly, and I share them in hopes they will make many people's educational journey better.

This section is a bit of my history. To understand what to do - or NOT do- you have to know a bit about where you've been. Since most of my dear readers probably do not know this story, I'll fill them in on a bit of my background so they can understand bits that I may refer to in future parts of this series.

I was totally unprepared to step back into college when I began at Mount Mary College in 2008. I had begun my bachelor's degree 12 years earlier, at age 17. I went to University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse for two-and-a-half years, only to run out of money and have to move back home to Milwaukee. There I married my college sweetheart and got a respectable job. Said job was comfortable, if not my dream, so I stayed and bought a car, a house, and got a dog. I tried finishing my degree for a short time with Cardinal Stritch University's Adult Learning Program. I went to classes one night per week and studied one class at a time, and completed about 3 classes per year. It was a great program and very adult-friendly - it allowed me to keep my "day job", which I loved. But I left it because I was in the Information Technology Management degree program, and I realized after a few classes I just didn't have the passion for computers that it would take to do well at it. Not to mention the program was new at the time and I saw some problems with the curriculum- for instance, when taking a class called "Fixing and Repairing Personal Computers" it might help to have REAL computers to take apart and work on. I was learning from reading a book, and I could do that on my own!

Fast forward about 6 years, and I found myself now divorced. The house, three cars, my painting business, and the dog were all gone. I was working in a Customer Service job and wanted to improve myself. I enrolled in the most convenient and low-cost University in the area - University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and decided to major in English. I had always liked to write, and felt that I could do some sort of business communications work with the degree. After all, I had almost 3 years completed on a 4-year degree, so finishing with ANYTHING would be good. And English was versatile, right? I showed up for my first class, Shakespeare, only to find my recently estranged boyfriend was also in the class. I was panic-stricken. What do I do? Did he think I was stalking him? I swear, I didn't plan to be in the class with him! It just happened to be the only class I could get at the time; getting the classes you needed at UWM was next to impossible. Interestingly enough, he motioned to me to sit in the open seat in front of him. After class, he asked if we could go have coffee and we talked a lot and had a nice time. I am now married to that estranged boyfriend. BUT...I digress.

After 3 classes at UWM - an excellent Shakespeare and Film Authorship class, and then a Robert Frost Poetry class that was a total JOKE, I had a 4.0 GPA, but didn't feel I was learning all that much. And certainly not anything valuable. I wanted to go to a school where I actually was challenged. I took a tour of several area schools, in particular Mount Mary College because they had a true Business Communications major.

Classmate Kendall in the basement hall that inspired it all!
On my tour of campus we walked through a basement hallway and the guide pointed out the "Interior Design classrooms". I gazed in and felt a tightness in my chest. The students were bent over drafting tables, working diligently. The room was covered in samples of materials and the display case outside the classroom in the hallway showed projects done in the classes. They were BEAUTIFUL. I felt that pang of longing for a creative career... the kind of career I had begun training for all those years ago at UW LaCrosse. I had wanted to be a Theatrical Set Designer. Wouldn't an Interior Designer be quite close to that? But... that practical little voice inside my head told me "Don't be crazy, you have tons of English credits - you'll be done faster if you do English. Besides, there are no jobs in Milwaukee for Interior Designers." Somewhere in that self-dialogue was also my childhood and upbringing; I could hear my parents' voices telling me "Artists don't make any money". I was quite certain they'd say the same thing about Interior Designers. But that glimpse into the classroom that day haunted me for a very long time afterward.
One of my fellow student's AMAZING and beautiful boards! Work by Holley Bakich LEED GA

Well, remember that estranged boyfriend? He became my real boyfriend. He was finishing his last semester at UWM in English (with an emphasis on Creative Writing) when we found out we were pregnant. Whoops! We didn't exactly plan on THAT! So I was 3 months pregnant at his May graduation when Neil proposed to me. Liam was born on November 11, 2007 and we were married when he was 8 months old on July 19th, 2008. I had still been working in Customer Service and Sales Support jobs to help get Neil through school, and when I found I was pregnant I had put plans for school on hold. When Liam was born, I was working for a prestigious downtown China and Gifts shop as a salesperson and I loved it. I was content for a time. I liked my job, I liked the people and my customers. I loved putting together a tablescape for someone; helping them create a look. I started thinking about Interior Design again. I realized that in my heart of hearts, this is what I really wanted. Not English! I wanted to work with clients, solve their problems and creatively meet their needs and desires. Through a business group, I met a local "Green" Architect who gave a lecture on buildings that were eco-friendly. I had NO idea anyone was doing this kind of work. I invited him to lunch so I could just get to know him and find out more about what he did. I was fascinated. I wanted to create healthier more eco-friendly buildings too!

About this time the company transitioned me into the "Corporate Gifts" sales position for which they had hired me, and everything fell apart. I realized I had gotten on a sinking ship. It was October 2008, and the economy had crashed. People were losing their jobs. The one thing big companies were NOT spending money on were fancy gifts. And here I was... a totally unnecessary employee. Sales weren't happening. I couldn't even get any companies to talk to me through mailers or phone calls or networking events. They slashed my draw (I was commission-based with a draw system so I could have steady income) to a point where I couldn't even afford to put Liam in daycare. I would pay more to work than not to. Every day I was there, I was digging my family into a deeper and deeper pit with our daycare provider. Neil and I sat down over a bottle of wine and talked about what to do next. We agreed that it was God giving me a sign that getting my Interior Design degree was what I should do. I left my employer on Tuesday. Saturday I met with the head of the Interior Design Department at Mount Mary College - Pamm Steffen. After talking with her about what Interior Design REALLY was and what to expect, I was convinced more than ever this was the right choice for me. I was enrolled and began classes the very next week.

Because of the situation, I never was truly able to prepare for re-entering college. That has been my biggest mistake and the source of much of my woe as a non-traditional student.  Through this blog series, I hope to help other Moms (and Dads!) avoid some of the mistakes I have made so they can grow and learn with reduced stress and anxiety to themselves and their families.

SO... dear friends and readers... let me be your poster child for what NOT to do.

My next post: Pre-reentry Preparation for entire family. Weee!

Friday, December 23, 2011

On the verge of a new year. New format. Kinda.

So... I've not written in awhile, and I just wanted to make some changes on the cusp of the New Year. I've decided to broaden the scope of my 'lil blog to incorporate everything I want to talk about. So...yeah... that means I will write about ANYTHING... rather than just narrowing my focus to inexpensive Kid-friendly design. Although there will still be some of that  - it will just be smattered in with whatever other things might be on my mind. It could be design related. Or school related. Or kid related. Or my latest thoughts on Sustainability or review of natural beauty products. So, my 3 dear readers, be prepared for anything. I know... you can't WAIT, RIGHT!?! Oh... the adventure!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When is somebody going to design the perfect (affordable!) apartment?

My husband and I have to move our family. It's not on a whim, its a financial necessity. The duplex we live in is costing us an unbelievable amount to heat in winter and since its my last year of full-time school, we just have to cut back.

So for the last 3 weeks, we've been searching high and low for a place to live. And let me tell you, the current economy has completely changed the rental landscape. Two years ago, when we moved in here, we had shoddy credit but still had our pick of 3 wonderful duplexes. Now, anything in the lower price ranges in a two bedroom place are renting before we can even get an appointment to see them. Then when we DO see them, we're suddenly getting turned down for credit... despite having an impeccable rental history and references from our landlords. This was never a problem before. Then add in the current economy where everyone (including our family!) is trying to cut back and there is a glut of people trying to find a low-cost place to live. All the people who would normally have been creating vacancies by purchasing homes are gone, so fewer rentals are coming into the market, and those that do are: a) Being very picky about who they rent to and getting snapped up quickly OR b) a really sad place or in a bad neighborhood. We've never quite seen anything like it!

So it made me wonder... I think most people are looking for the same ammenities in a home/apartment. But yet, new construction apartments (at least in my area) are just not planning for these. In my mind, most people want the same things I look for: Safe location, good sized rooms with decent layout, modern conveiniences like a washer and dryer in unit, dishwasher, and parking for two cars. Then there are some practical requirements - enough counterspace in the kitchen to actually cook anything and enough cabinets to store food and dishes. A hard floored dining room - because with little kids, a carpeted eating area is just a disaster to keep clean. A storage area that is big enough to actually store seasonal items like bikes. You'd be amazed at how few places actually have these things.

Is it possible to design an AFFORDABLE family-friendly apartment building with all the conveniences? After this search, I sure wish I could build some real-estate! What about you, dear readers? When renting (now or past) what were you looking for in a home?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Furniture Rehab - Paint Tips

How did I do it? Here was my process:

1. CLEAN IT - Clean the piece you plan to paint very well with a grease fighting cleaner such as TSP (when using TSP, you MUST rinse off any residue afterward). You can also use denatured or rubbing alcohol to rub down the piece to take off any grease.

2. SAND IT - You need to give the paint and primer something to stick to - particularly if the finish was very smooth or varnished in any way. For previously painted, varnished, or polyurethane finishes a 120-180 grit sand paper works well. Use a sanding block or paper to get in small areas or areas where you don't want to sand off details - like edges. But do yourself a favor and hit the large surfaces with an electric sander - unless you need an arm workout.

3. PRIME IT -Now, as a former painter, I have to say that I constantly lecture about the need to PRIME your surfaces properly before painting. Primer will help to seal in stains and ensure better adhesion of the paint to the surface - this is particularly important for items that have a very smooth surface or that will see a lot of wear-and-tear. Some of my favorite primers are Zinsser B-I-N and Kilz, both of which are alcohol-based and require denatured alcohol to clean up. They have some wicked fumes, so use them with excellent ventilation or outside if possible. They will seal in stains like oils, marker, wood resins, etc. If you don't need to seal the surface but need good adhesion - like say on a kitchen counter or tabletop- you could use a water-based primer. My favorite is Benjamin Moore Fresh Start - that sticks to just about anything. If you're painting a dark color paint, I recommend tinting your primer to a 1/2 shade of the color - or grey. That way if you get a chip, it shows less than if you see white primer. It also allows you to do less paint coats!

That said, I BROKE my cardinal rule on my living room table. WHY? Because I know my son will beat this table up mercilessly. I had a smaller table I had primed and painted that was showing white primer on all the chips and I didn't like it. So with this table - which I was painting black - I wanted any chips and dings to show woodtone. I also didn't mind if the piece looked distressed and a bit rustic, since the styling suited that sort of feel. So... I broke my own rule... I cleaned, sanded, and then applied the paint directly to the piece. And the results? EXCELLENT! The black acrylic paint has help up very well, and dents and dings just add character to the table!

4. PAINT IT - Select a color and paint. But HOW? If it is a small piece, or you want a very even and glossy smooth finish (like on a chair) I always opt for spray enamels - I like Krylon's paints for sheer range of color and quality. They have everything from Chalkboard and Iridescent sprays to basic flat black and grey. If the surface is likely to take a beating and/or I want a more handpainted or rustic look, I will often brush or roll on an acrylic paint. Acrylics are a bit more flexible when they dry and don't tend to chip quite as much as spray enamel, and I find them easy to touch up too!

Huzzah for spill-proof bubbles!

For every terribly designed toy or kids item, there are many good ones. My most recent delight cost me a whole $6.99 at Target a few weeks ago. It makes one of my son's favorite outdoor playthings a whole lot easier on mom. Now we finally have neater BUBBLES.

My son LOVES blowing bubbles. We do it all spring and summer long until mom just can't puff them out anymore. But the worst part, as most parents know, is the sticky mess the bubble soap makes all over the kids, you, and the driveway and nearby plants. Invariably, the kids want to hold the bottle with the liquid and just as invariably they knock it over or drop it and there goes all the bubble liquid. Tantrums generally ensue.

But NO MORE! I don't know HOW I missed this thing but some genius has designed a spill-proof bubble liquid container! Apparently it's been around quite a long time. I guess maybe it's just because I didn't have kids until recently. But I must say - I could kiss them! I sincerely hope they are making millions on the design, because it has (albeit in a small way) made my life easier and happier.

The one we have is called the No Spill Mini Bubble Bucket and it's made by Little Kids. There's also a BIG bubble bucket and a bubble tumbler that is "individual size". What I love is that all three can be turned completely upside down and they don't spill. The wand fits inside and comes out ready to puff out bunches of bubbles.

Now, if they just can make mom with bigger lung capacity, we'd be ready to rock. Oh wait, that's why I also bought the Extream Bubble Gun by Placo (also available at Target) for when mom just can't puff another puff... then battery power takes over.

Yar there me hardies! This be a cool kiddie room!

WOW. That's about all I can say. When it comes to creativity, many of us as designers never get the opportunity to do something truly over-the-top. Not so for Steve Kuhl. This Pirate Ship room he designed for a client is truly awe inspiring.

Now, most of us would never have the budget to do something this  big, but still, there is some inspiration to be gleaned from his work. And nevermind the debate about if it's "too much" or if it's safe (you can get away with a LOT in residential construction!) - it really is just plain COOL!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Furniture Rehab Part 1 - Work what ya got baby!

So if you're as strapped for cash as my family often is, you've read my last post and thought "Well, Michelle, buying something distressed looking would be a great design option if I had any money to do that!". Well fear not, gentle reader! Fortunately you can re-design your space in a kid friendly AND very cheap way by rehabbing the furniture you already have. What it takes is often some creativity, some tools, paint and primer, and searching through the stuff you already have lying around and using it creatively.

As a former painter, paint and color is ALWAYS the first place I begin to liven up some of the things I already have. It takes a little know how to do it well, but it isn't expensive.

For instance, I had a huge coffee table/trunk in my living room that I had purchased about 10 years ago.  I loved all the storage and functionality of the piece, and it was solidly made, but the finish had gotten trashed over the years by moving, dogs, and kids. It was an eyesore.  You can see it here in the lower left of the picture.Rather than taking ages to refinish the wood, I decided to give it a new look with paint.

Here it is after one coat of black acrylic paint. Like new! It seriously looks amazing. The can of paint cost me about $8 and there is so much left that I can use it for plenty of other projects. I ended up doing three coats on this table.

But refinishing your stuff doesn't have to stop at paint. What about using glue and decorative papers, newspaper, sheets of music, or family photos to decoupage items? Or scraps of leftover wallpaper or fabric work great for inside of shelving units or applied to small objects. You can use what you have lying around like some old scrap-booking papers or purchase some remnant fabric and the glue only costs a couple of dollars. This also tends to disguise furniture that is pretty badly damaged. You can also do mosaic on pieces with mirrors or broken tiles, dinnerware, or whatever you have lying around or can get cheaply or free! Feeling glizty? Pick up some gold or silver leafing kits at the craft store to apply to items. 

You can also repurpose things like old placemats (try adhering them to cabinet or hutch doors and trim with molding) and woven window shades (cut them up to apply to items for decorative trims or insets). If your piece of furniture has glass, why not change it out for color, or Krylon makes a glass frosting spray - which keeps little fingerprints from showing as much and the unsightly stuff inside better hidden!

Don't stress - Distress!

So let's face it... we want to have a beautiful home with nice furniture, but the common complaint I hear among parents with young (or even teen!) kids is that nice/expensive furniture will just get all beat up. So they continue living with the stuff they have, even though they hate it. So how can you buy better furniture but not have to stress about the toll everyday living can take on it?

Don't Stress - DISTRESS!!! Selecting furniture items that look great with dents and dings can make both your design aesthetic and your family life happy! You won't need to freak out when your expensive new piece is ruined by a scratch or dent. You don't have to keep the kids out of the family room just to keep your stuff nice.

When choosing furniture, parents with particularly rambunctious kids (or renters whose stuff gets dented and dinged in transport and moving) may want to consider how a piece will distress. A piece that is already rusticated will benefit with age from some dents and dings, and you won't have to tear your hair out if your brand new furniture gets damaged - more distress adds to the charm! Distressed furniture is easy to live with and can be incorporated into any design from traditional to modern.

You can purchase "new" from many different sources such as Restoration Hardware, Ikea, Viva Terra, etc. Don't have the cash to buy it new? Look for antique or vintage furniture at your local flea market, Goodwill store, or even curbside on trash day!

And of course, distressed doesn't have to mean wood. These are some GREAT metal twin size beds that would be super cool for kids well into their teen years : Weldhouse Twin Beds 
There are lots of great ideas for distressed items if you are looking to purchase new furniture. Next blog post... finding it used and rehabbing old furniture. Stay tuned!