One of the most common questions I get is “What organizing tools should I buy to get started?” My answer is simple: “Nothing!”
You don't have to spend a lot of money getting organized. While it may be tempting to purchase cute canisters for your pantry or boutique baskets for your closet, it is wiser to spend your decorating dollars on the spaces your guests will actually see than on organizing the stuff that's kept hidden behind closed doors. And contrary to popular belief, all those cute bins and cool gadgets from The Container Store don’t come with a lifetime supply of magic fairy dust that will automatically transform your home into an orderly oasis. Not to mention that going on a pre-organizing shopping spree, while a fun way to procrastinate on actually tackling your project, can end up becoming overwhelming and wind up adding to your problem of having too much stuff. The good news is that you are likely already surrounded by the best, most versatile tools on the market...you just don’t realize it! And all these items are easily adaptable if/when your needs change, unlike that task-specific gadget you paid too much for at your favorite home goods store.
December is Top Tips Month here at EasyPeasy Living, and this week I'm sharing 16 of my favorite things...ordinary, everyday objects most people already have lying around the house that, with a little creativity, you can transform into extraordinary tools for staying organized or just making life a little easy peasier. Be sure to follow @EasyPeasyLiving on Facebook and Instagram, where I’ll be sharing my top five most favorite favorites in the coming week. I may not have a magic wand, but these little gems are the next best thing.
First a word of caution: resist the temptation to hoard any of these. Most will be in pretty constant supply, so you can afford to wait until you have a specific need to begin collecting.
OK, here we go!
I recently saw a picture of a wedding gown made from 10,000 plastic bread bag clips. That may be a bit extreme, but there are lots of practical uses for these little plastic doohickies:
I love lighting candles to cozy up my home on long winter nights! From October through March, I enjoy snuggling up in front of their warm glow each evening. My favorites are the jar candles because they are less messy, keep their shape, and - best of all - the glass jars can be cleaned out and re-purposed to store all manner of things once the candle inside has burned itself out. Jar candles come in so many shapes and sizes, so the storage opportunities are endless. You can even fill them with something wonderful and gift them! Some of my favorite things to store in them:
Contact Lens Cases
Do you get a new case every time you buy solution? Don’t throw the old one out! These miniature lidded containers yield super-sized space savings and convenience, especially when travelling. Tuck them into your purse, backpack, fanny pack, suitcase or camping gear. Here are just a few of the many things you can store in them:
“Disposable” Food Storage Containers (such as Take-Along or Ziploc containers):
Closet and cabinet organizing is all about function and how to fit, find and access what you need as efficiently as possible. That's why I love these inexpensive containers for storing everything from pretzels to pencils. They come in varying sizes and are transparent, airtight, versatile, stackable and easily labeled. Best of all, you can pick up as many as you need for next to nothing and easily find them at most stores that sell housewares or groceries. Or just go "shopping" in your recycle bin.
Keeping small items organized can be a challenge. I love it when a gift or purchase comes packaged in a box with dividers, but you can also purchase plastic divided boxes at most craft stores or home goods stores that are stackable and easily transportable. Here are just a few ideas of things to store in them:
Life changes fast. Sometimes you need a low-tech communication device that travels well and can change right along with it. The dry erase marker isn't just for white boards, my friends!
Both the open-ended, soft kind or the hard, hinged eyeglass cases make great storage receptacles for so many objects inside your drawers, purse, backpack or suitcase. Here are just a few things you can store inside them:
One of the best ways to save space is to equip yourself with multi-taskers. Why buy and store a gazillion different toxic and expensive cleaners, stain removers, disinfectants, and whiteners when all you need is one bottle of this multi-purpose miracle? (Well okay, you should probably buy more than one bottle of it for all these uses.) Hydrogen peroxide has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-mold, anti-fungal and anti-mildew properties and is non-toxic and environmentally-friendly. And while it may be worth its weight in gold, it has a price tag you'll love almost as much as its versatility. Use it to:
Let's face it...we are all lazy about something. Embrace your laziness and make it work for you! These little turntables come in a variety of sizes. A few places they can help you spin into action instead of spinning your wheels include:
There's a reason our mothers and grandmothers kept a supply of these around! They’re economical, environmentally-friendly, reusable, versatile and inexpensive! Sold in most grocery or home goods stores by the dozen for about a buck per jar, they are a worthwhile investment. Or just befriend someone who likes to give homemade jam as gifts! Here are just some of the many ways you can use them around the house:
I always keep a stash of these on hand because they are so versatile. In addition to the obvious, use them for:
They say a picture paints a thousand words, but a picture frame can say a lot about how organized and creative you are! Try one of these ideas for putting yours to work for you:
Every well-stocked toolbox contains sandpaper, but you'll want to reserve a spot for it in other areas of your home when you see all its uses! Use it in your:
Shoe Pocket Organizers
With this little organizing trick in your pocket, you'll create storage space you never knew you had. Those transparent plastic or mesh shoe holders you hang on the back of your closet door are nothing less than a pocketful of miracles when it comes to maximizing on your vertical storage space! Here are just a few ideas for what to store in them:
So simple and low-tech, it's easy to overlook the power in their pinch! Next time you are near a dollar store, pick up a pack of those spring-loaded wooden clothespins. They will perform all kinds of little jobs around the house to make your life a little easy peasier. A few examples:
Maximize your vertical space with tension rods! No hardware or tools required to install these wherever you need to create storage.
And all these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg! Go on Pinterest or Google or just use your own imagination to find additional uses for each of these things. If you find a new one or have a favorite thing of your own, share it with me before December 27 for a chance to win a copy of James Clear’s bestselling book, Atomic Habits. (To learn more about entering the 2020 Top Tips Contest, visit www.easypeasyliving.com/news.)
With a few of my favorite things, getting organized without any fancy organizing tools will be easy peasy!
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Several years ago, a neighbor friend of mine who knew that my husband and I wanted to get in shape offered us--FREE--a treadmill that had been sitting idle for some time in her basement. We were ecstatic! That treadmill was just what we needed to transform ourselves from couch potatoes to svelte beach bodies by the time bathing suit season rolled around (well okay...give or take 50 pounds). Best of all, the price fit right into our meager (read: nonexistent) budget. We’d have to be crazy to say no to that...right?
While impulse purchases are a real thing, most of us actually do weigh the cost vs. benefit before we acquire something new. Thus, something free + something we want = YES! So why are our closets and garages so crammed full of stuff we never use? Clearly, we are miscalculating something. Perhaps we're leaving something out of the equation. I propose the correct formula should be:
Financial cost + Space cost + Convenience cost + Opportunity cost = True Cost
Most of us don’t see past the money and never even think about the last three components of this equation, probably because they are difficult to quantify. But omitting them from the equation altogether is how we wind up feeling disorganized, frustrated and suffocated by all our stuff. Let’s take a closer look:
This is usually the primary and often the only cost we consider when deciding whether or not to acquire something new. If you want proof, look no further than the ridiculously long checkout lines at your local Dollar Tree. How many times have you bought something just because it was “such a great deal”? And note that I keep using the word "acquire". That's because considering the cost of something applies even to--especially to--items for which we paid no money at all. Interestingly, the more money we pay for something, the less willing we are to part with it once we realize it was a poor purchase. And the longer we keep it in some vain attempt to “get our money’s worth” out of it, the more it ends up costing us...in space, in convenience, and in opportunity. As my husband and I would eventually discover, that $0 treadmill was most certainly not free, after all.
Ah space…the final frontier! Most people completely underestimate the value of empty space. We see it as something to be consumed instead of recognizing the important role it plays in keeping us organized and sane. Every single item you own--from vegetable peeler to king-sized bed--costs you valuable space. Like money (and cake), you cannot keep (have) it and spend (eat) it too. Overspending your space--or cramming as many objects into your empty spaces as you can--leads to clutter, visual noise, stress, and sometimes even guilt. The more spacious your environment, the easier it is to maintain and control. Purging items you no longer need/use makes it infinitely easier to see, access and keep organized the things you do. That “free” treadmill ended up costing us significant space in our small basement.
Life gets really inconvenient when you lack space. If you’ve ever watched one of those hoarder shows, you’ll be struck by how much more effort it takes them just to accomplish everyday tasks like cooking a meal or taking a shower. When your access to the items you need is restricted, it takes more time, energy and effort just to get them out and use them...much less to put them away again when you're done. Pretty soon, you stop bothering to put things away at all. This leads to clutter, chaos, frustration and a sense of defeat as you either lose items or they continually get in your way.
Also, the more stuff you accumulate, the less visible everything becomes. If you can’t see what you have, you’ll either buy it again or you won’t use it at all. So why are you keeping it? And owning too many belongings makes you less nimble...the sheer inconvenience of moving all that excess stuff out of the way in order to make home improvements or repairs can lead to procrastination, sometimes causing or worsening damage and costing even more money in the long run. Before you know it, you’ve increased the financial cost of ownership well beyond your initial investment.
Remember our treadmill? Well, we had to sacrifice some of the space we had been using for sorting and folding laundry just to make room for it. This made doing the laundry an even bigger chore than usual. Laundry baskets often ended up stacked up on the treadmill because there was no place else to put them. Talk about a motivation killer! If you think I’m going to do laundry first just so that I can exercise, think again! In my book, Exercise + Laundry = Forget it! The convenience cost of that treadmill in doing laundry was huge, not to mention that actually being able to use the treadmill itself was so inconvenient, it ended up just sitting there collecting dust for months. So why keep it? Good question!
What are you missing out on because you’ve acquired too much stuff? If you had just said NO to some of those “great deals” would you have had the money to go on a weekend getaway with your sweetie? If you could've just made do with fewer kitchen gadgets, might you have more space to share your love of cooking with your grandchildren? If you cleared all the “some day maybe” stuff you paid good money for out of the guest room closet, would you be more likely to entertain overnight guests?
It was summer when we said yes to that treadmill, so we forgot that the only spot we had available to put it in is where we normally put our Christmas tree...right across from the fireplace, next to the big recliner where my husband reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to the kids every Christmas Eve before bed. There was no room for our tree in the basement that year. No enjoying the beautiful lights by the warm glow of the fire. That treadmill ended up costing us a valued family tradition that Christmas, and it was truly a bummer.
The good news is that you can mitigate the costs of the things you own if you just ask yourself a few simple questions before you acquire anything new:
We’ve all made mistakes in saying yes when we should have said no, but that doesn't mean you have to keep paying the price for your error. That treadmill? We gave it back to our neighbor and joined the gym instead. You see, we concluded that the financial cost of a gym membership was worth what we would save in space, convenience and opportunity. Don’t let what you paid (or didn’t pay) for something interfere with righting what's wrong.
With a little honest contemplation about the true costs of ownership, even saying no to a blowout sale can be easy peasy!
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Raise your hand if you’ve ever used a first aid kit, makeup kit, or sewing kit. 🙋If so, you’re already familiar with the concept of what I like to call “kit (or “task) organizing"...storing all the items you need to perform a specific task or complete a certain activity together. We tend to do this naturally with certain items, such as cooking and laundry, but there may be other opportunities you've overlooked.
Why organize this way?
Think about the steps required to complete a task...any task. Step number 1 is always to assemble all the tools and materials you need. At least it should be. Otherwise, you end up having to interrupt the task to go find what you need, and who has time for that? Well, kit organizing takes care of the first step for you. Assuming you remembered to put your tools and materials away the last time you performed the task, you only need to get out your kit again and voila! Everything you need is right there!
An even bigger benefit to organizing this way is that it’s actually much easier to put your tools and materials away when you're done. Rather than putting the scissors back where the scissors go, and the tape back where the tape goes, and the ribbon and gift wrap back where they belong, you simply put everything back in your gift wrapping kit and store that away for next time. Let’s face it...searching for the scissors and tape because they didn’t get put back in the right place the last time you used them is often the most challenging and time-consuming part of wrapping a gift. Kit organizing just simplifies the getting-out and putting-back (and consequently, the finding-of) everything you need to complete your task.
What’s the best way to store kits?
Contrary to the mental image you may have in your head, a “kit” doesn’t necessarily always involve a cute little carrying case. Many may, but what makes it a "kit" is not what kind of receptacle it's stored in, but rather that all of the items in it center around a specific activity. Some kits may include large items that take up an entire closet, while others are better stored in a small, transportable pouch. How you contain it depends on what type of task/activity it’s used for and where that activity is performed. Tasks that are always performed in the same location and have room to store the kit there don’t require a carrying case. For example, if you always put your makeup on at a makeup table with drawers, you can just use a drawer to hold the components of your makeup kit.
Conversely, if you like to do your nails at the kitchen table but don’t have room in the kitchen to store your nail kit, putting those items in a small bag you can retrieve from the bathroom makes a lot of sense. Anytime you have to carry stuff around, having everything already stored in a transportable receptacle makes it more likely you won't leave something behind by accident. Open caddies, small backpacks or totebags, lidded or open bins, baskets and zippered pouches are all great options for containing your kits. Pick the one that best suits how you use that particular kit.
Kits aren't just for home use!
Kit organizing can be particularly useful for items you use outside the home. Grab-and-go activity bags for trips to the pool, sporting events (or practice), or picnics take the stress out of preparing for fun outings. Being already packed and ready whenever the mood strikes will make you more likely to go enjoy yourself! And you'll be less likely to forget something if you've invested some forethought in what belongs in your kit and store everything together between outings. Just make sure you remember to remove anything you've accumulated during your trip that doesn't belong in the kit before you put it away.
What should go in a kit?
Chances are, you are already organizing this way for some tasks/activities. If you store all your camping equipment together, that’s a camping kit. But there may be items you can add to your existing kit to make life even simpler. For example, does your camping kit include all the "staples" you routinely take camping with you, such as paper towels, aluminum foil, and utensils...or do you still have to retrieve those from the kitchen each and every time you pack for a camping trip? It may not always be feasible to store everything you need in your kit, due to space or financial considerations. The idea is to make your kit as complete as you reasonably can in order to simplify assembling and putting away your tools and materials before and after use. (Tip: for camping or other away-from-home activities, consider including with your kit a list of additional items you know you'll always need to take with you but for one reason or another cannot store with the rest of your kit. This will help ensure you don't forget something.) How often you use your kit will also determine what goes in it. If you go camping multiple times each summer, it may be worth investing in a second set of cooking utensils to keep in your kit; if you only go every couple of years, perhaps not. Think about the types of tasks/activities you perform most frequently and make a list of all the items you use. Begin building your kit from there.
Would having any of these kits assembled and ready to go make your life simpler?
It’s never a good sign when it starts raining in your garage…especially when your kitchen is above the garage and you’ve just stepped in a wet patch near the dishwasher!
So yes, we need a new dishwasher and no, there is no room for one in our budget right now. At first I was so busy being grateful that it wasn’t an issue with the kitchen plumbing that I forgot to groan about having to hand wash all my dishes for the foreseeable future. It didn’t take long for me to remember just how much I hate it. I mostly hate not having any room on my tiny counter to put all the clean dishes and how quickly I run out of dry dish towels since I don’t have a drainer and have to drain them on a towel. (I’m actually anti-dish drainer because I think they invite you to leave the job unfinished and take up valuable space even when not in use.) But once I figured out that I could use the empty dishwasher as my drying rack, my perspective began to change. I began to see the silver lining to this cloud and realized that what at first seemed like a curse may indeed become a blessing.
For one thing, washing and drying dishes is something everyone in my family can do…even the more “spatially challenged” among them. My kids have finally completed the Dishwashing Badge in our Life Skills Badge Program. My husband is more sensitive about helping with dinner clean up, and I don’t have to worry about whether the bowl I really want to use is going to take up too much space in the dishwasher later. Maybe now we won’t have to take out a second mortgage just to pay the water bills that also fund my daughter’s showers. (She’s the only 11-year-old I know with permanently wrinkled hands.) And once the kitchen cleanup is done, it’s done…no more dishes to put away later since I ascribe to the dry-them-and-put-them-away-now philosophy.
Best of all, I’m no longer worrying about what will happen if my dishwasher breaks…I already know. My children will enjoy an excuse to play in some sudsy water before school. My husband and I will giggle and flirt as we snap dish towels at each other. I’ll imagine my mother, now gone to her rest, washing that very same serving spoon back in our kitchen on Timber Trail Rd. The clean scent of the dish washing liquid will remind me of my grandmother’s kitchen.
Sometimes we need something to break to realize how truly unimportant it is. And often in our never-ending quest to simplify our lives, we end up complicating them instead. The modern conveniences designed to free up our time wind up stealing our opportunities to forge that time into something memorable. Think about your funniest family anecdotes. Chances are they felt like catastrophes at the time. (Someday I’ll share my “Mom in a Manhole” story…a real family classic.) Next time “disaster” strikes, look for the hidden blessing instead of feeling cursed.
I suppose we will replace the dishwasher eventually, but I’m not in any hurry. It might be kind of fun to share KP duty with my sister after a family holiday meal just like the old days. But only if she dries.
I hate grocery shopping! Once upon a time it was fun, back when I was young and single and only cooked because I wanted to. Back then, I could meander through the aisles for hours, dreaming about the days when I had a family to cook for and imagining all the tasty, fun foods I'd make. In my little dream world, my well-rounded and appreciative children would be eager to try new foods, and there would always be oodles of time for teaching them to cook in my spacious, always-clean-and-tidy kitchen. It was a Betty Crocker Utopia. Ha!
In reality, grocery shopping with two impatient and whiny kids is like playing Supermarket Sweep, American Ninja Warrior, The Price is Right, and Survivor all at once...where the only prizes you win are gray hair, frazzled nerves and a big fat bill at the end. Oh, and then you get to cart all your stuff home and put it away. And we haven't even come to the Hell's Kitchen part of the show!
The only way I can win this game is to limit the number of times I play to once a week. That means making sure I don't forget anything, which means creating a list. I've tried those pre-printed lists you check off, using electronic lists (many versions) and even creating my own list each week, but nothing seemed quite strong enough to numb the pain to a bearable level. The lists were never comprehensive enough or not arranged the way I liked, and crossing off (or deleting) items as I put them in the cart was too cumbersome a task to perform while simultaneously trying to prevent my kids from hiding in the freezer case or climbing the piles of giant rice bags. And in my frenzied rush to get out of the store before being kicked out by the manager, I was always forgetting some key ingredient I needed.
I finally came up with a solution that's been working really well and has even gotten some positive comments from fellow shoppers, so I thought it was worth sharing with you guys. After consulting my pantry, fridge, freezer and cabinets, I created a comprehensive list of everything I typically buy. (I've been using this list for a few months now and haven't discovered any major omissions yet.) It's organized alphabetically by category. While store layouts vary, the categories are fairly standard. You may skip around from category to category on the list, but you will usually find the majority of items within a category together in the store.
The best part about this list is that it's reusable and easy to check off. You see, it fits on the front and back of a single sheet and thus can be laminated or placed into a plastic page protector and used with a dry erase marker.* Hang it on the fridge and add to it all week long as you think of things you need to buy. Check off any additional items you know you will need before heading to the store. Scanning the list itself will even trigger your memory of things you need to purchase. Then as you shop, simply rub off the check marks with your finger as you put items in your cart. No pen required! (This leaves the other hand free to yank your kids back BEFORE they pull the bottom orange out of the neatly-stacked pyramid.) Hang it back up on the fridge when you get home, ready for next week's round.
Feel free to download this printable PDF and give it a try, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a FREE editable version you can customize (created in Microsoft Excel).
And for my fellow suffering moms out there: I've discovered that assigning each kid an item and having them race to see who can retrieve theirs first not only keeps them occupied and teaches them where to find things in the store, it saves my energy for more important things...like chasing the shopping cart they are coasting downhill to the car.
*Laminating the list stiffens it, making it easier to write on or rub off and preventing it from creasing in your shopping bag. If using a page protector, place the two sheets back to back with a piece of cardboard in between to achieve the same effect.
By now you should know that I'm a big fan of keeping things simple and affordable. One of my favorite places to practice this is in the kitchen. Some of the best culinary inventions were born of a need for frugality, convenience, or both (Think pizza, soup, and croutons). For someone like me who is one part lazy, two parts budget-conscious and three parts control-freak, finding ways to reduce waste in the kitchen satisfies my need for easy, cheap yet homemade cooking in one fell swoop. What could be better than saving myself time, money and guilt all at the same time? (Well, besides eating all the yummy results of my efforts?) All it takes is a freezer, a little planning and a few new habits in order to get started.
Whether your freezer is stocked full of ice cream and frozen pizza or you use it primarily for taking advantage bulk deals on meat and other expensive ingredients, here are a few items you can store in this under-utilized appliance to you save time and money and reduce waste:
The sky is the limit on other things you can freeze, from lemon zest to extra frosting or cookie dough. Be realistic when you are shopping and only buy what you need, but when you find yourself with obviously more than your family can easily consume, freeze it before it goes bad. Not only will you reduce waste, but these little gems just may come to your rescue the next time you find yourself in a pinch.
Share the wealth! Comment below and let us know what you save and how you use it.
Update 2/28/2015: I have discovered an even more convenient way to make the vegetable broth. Just dump everything into the slow cooker and cover with water. Cook on low for several hours and before removing the vegetable scraps and straining the broth. This broth is amazing in this slow-cooker potato soup recipe from Budget Bytes (replaces the chicken broth).
I recall the look of complete amazement and bewilderment on the face of my British friend as I described to her, sometime back in the late '80's, how a drive-thru bank worked. I'm not sure if she was impressed by the ingenuity of such an idea or astonished at the sheer laziness of an entire culture where such a phenomenon would even be needed, much less commonplace.
Indeed, we Americans seem to be almost obsessed with an ongoing demand for more and more "convenience". As though drive-thru restaurants, pharmacies and dry cleaners are not enough, we now have curbside pickup, hands-free concierge service on our cell phones, and remote controls that open our car trunks for us from 50 feet away. Of course, being the queen of laziness, I love it all and can't wait for the day that someone invents an exercise machine that allows me to burn calories and tone muscle while napping.
But if we aren't careful, our never-ending quest for convenience can become downright inconvenient, particularly when it comes to all those "convenience" kitchen appliances: juicers, bread makers, rotisseries, countertop grills, food dehydrators and vacuum sealers. Look around you. Are the appliances that are intended to conserve your time just consuming the valuable real estate in your home?
As with anything else, it's all about choices. Choose which convenience you want...drive-thru burgers, or easier homemade burgers? Vacuum packed groceries you can freeze for fewer trips to the store, or door-to-door grocery delivery? Be realistic and consider your lifestyle and current needs to determine which you will really use. If you want to keep the food dehydrator, fine. USE IT! Commit to it. Let go of that notion that you'll use it "someday". If "someday" ever does come, the newer models will be better, even easier to use, and probably worth the cost of buying a new one, so there's no need to keep this one around and in your way until then (unless it's Grandma's old ice cream maker and you are keeping it for sentimental reasons...but that's another post). Realize that there is nothing convenient about having to move the juicer every time you need to find a glass for your store-bought juice. ALL conveniences require some type of sacrifice--time, money, space, accessibility--so choose wisely.
I have a bread maker I bought about 15 years ago but rarely used because it was too big to store on the counter and required too much effort to get it out when put away. Storing such a large and infrequently-used appliance in my tiny kitchen was a luxury I could no longer afford, so I gave myself an ultimatum: either start using the bread maker regularly or get rid of it. Thus I re-organized my kitchen to make it easier to access my bread maker and have started using it at least weekly to make homemade dough for pizzas, pita bread and hamburger buns from pre-measured, homemade mixes I toss together once a month or so. I am choosing the convenience of having easier homemade pizza over the convenience of ordering pizza delivery, but that's a personal choice. The point is, you need to evaluate your current needs and priorities and stop allowing your convenience appliances to inconvenience your life by either finding a way to make using them easier or getting rid of them to make room for a different kind of convenience.
By the way, unused space is a pretty versatile convenience of its own. Just saying.
Update 1/5/2014: It's been five months since I originally posted this and I'm happy to report that I am continuing to use my bread maker very regularly. If you have a bread maker that's collecting dust, start using it to make home made pizza dough, rolls and pita bread from one of our EasyPeasy Mixes. You'll save money and will be amazed at just how quick and easy it is. Trust me! You'll never go back to eating that store-bought cardboard again!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.