Don’t Let Your Windfall Turn into Clutter

As a writer, I’m not paid weekly; I’m paid monthly. Every month, it’s a different amount, depending on my book sales. Once in a while, there’s a surge of sales, and I’m paid a lot more than usual.

That’s exciting, but it’s also dangerous, because it’s very tempting to take that money and buy new clothes, new bedding, new furniture….what I want to buy usually depends on the size of the windfall.

The true danger lies in the fact that I know how easily I fall into the trap of wanting more things, which is how I got into the overcluttered life in the first place. Not only was I good at accumulating stuff, but when I got new stuff, I often kept the old stuff because “We paid a lot for this,” or “Someone might need this.” That kind of thinking is one reason that I ended up with a big house full of stuff plus two full storage units. If you tend to let cash burn a hole in your pocket, you may be prone to accumulating stuff, too.

Even if you’re paid weekly, you can still end up with a windfall in the form of an annual bonus or a much-larger-than-expected tax refund. Then there are the larger sums: your Uncle Ernie leaves you $5,000 after he dies, or you finally win the state lottery’s $25,000 prize.

I immediately put extra cash into a savings account so I don’t spend it impulsively. But that doesn’t mean my brain has stopped thinking of ways to spend it. However, my family and I worked very, very hard to get rid of all our excess possessions, and we enjoy living in our small, clean, uncluttered house now. We do not want to go back to living with too much stuff. Sometimes it occurs to me that we could buy a house that’s a little bigger than what we have now, to accommodate our growing family of grandchildren when they visit. But I fear that a bigger house would just mean more places to accumulate things.

So what to do with the windfall? How can it benefit us without overloading us with the wonderful things it might buy? I’ll share some ideas next time.

Decluttering a Working Kitchen, Part 3

Whether the eating area in your house is located in the kitchen, next to it, or in a separate dining room, the table in it is likely to be a magnet for anything you need to set down instead of taking time to find a place for.  That’s why it’s so hard to keep a table clear of everything except place settings.

If you eat in front of the television, this may not be a concern for you. But my family likes to eat at the table where we converse while we eat (no phones allowed), so a clear table is a necessity.

It’s also a necessity when I’m cooking, because our kitchen has so little counter space. So when I bake cookies, there may be a few cooling racks on the kitchen table. Every year, we decorate dozens of Christmas cookies on that table. We even set bags of freezer meals on the table while assembling them. But whatever we put on that table, it has to be gone before suppertime so we can eat.

In a small house, it isn’t just food that ends up on the kitchen table, as I noted in my e-book, Secrets of Small-House Living:

Most rooms in a small house need to be multi-functional, and the eating area is no exception. Our kitchen table sometimes serves as a gift-wrapping station, a crafting area, a work area (especially at tax time), and a parking zone for the groceries as they transit between the driveway and the kitchen. For that reason, we’ve had to get in the habit of keeping it clear. We can’t let it become a catch-all, because we need that space, even when no one is eating.

Often the mail tries to pile up on our kitchen table. I go through it daily, shredding and filing, but occasionally I can’t get to it. It’s amazing how quickly other papers are magically drawn to that spot! Before I know it, I’m sitting down to dinner next to a paper pile. I have to be very diligent to stay on top of that potential mess.

If you have children at home, I’m sure your table attracts far more than just paper. But even for us, it’s been a challenge to find other places to put the things that are so easy to throw on the table:

It helps to keep some filing places nearby. There’s a small basket on the wall, near my calendar. That’s where I put the bills. A few nearby kitchen drawers hold personal financial paperwork, sale flyers and coupons. Junk mail goes straight to the recycler or shredder. Everything else goes to the far end of the table, which is near the basement door. I’ve gotten into the habit of taking whatever’s on the far end of the table down to the basement with me when I pass by. (The basement is where we keep our filing cabinets.) Some days I feel like I’m just taking pieces of paper up and down the steps. But there’s no room upstairs for a filing cabinet.

Inside the kitchen cabinets that face the eating area, I keep information taped to the doors. My phone number list is there; it includes our doctors’ and dentist’s numbers, among others. (I’m old-school, so I don’t keep it all on my cell phone.) The insides of kitchen cabinet doors are great places for keeping information that needs to be easily accessible.

Since I wrote that, I did make a change in how I do things in the eating area. I got tired of constantly taking papers down to the filing cabinet in the basement. So I now keep an accordion file in a large kitchen drawer next to the table. Every six months or so, I take that accordion file to the basement and file everything. Then I bring it back up and put it in the drawer. It saves me a lot of steps, and allows me to easily access recent files.

Ultimately, the key to keeping your eating area clear of clutter is to make sure you have places to put the things that end up on the table. Backpacks should go on coat racks by the door, or on your children’s bed posts. Groceries should be put away promptly. If these things have a place to go, they won’t be left on your table. And having a clean table goes a long way toward making your kitchen, and in fact your main living area, look comfortable and uncluttered.

Decluttering a Working Kitchen, Part 2

Cleaning out that spice shelf in one cabinet resulted in so much neatness that I became inspired to keep going. I used the same principles that helped me get the kitchen set up when we first moved here. As I stated in my e-book Secrets of Small-House Living:

I had to eliminate kitchen items I really didn’t need anymore, if I was being honest with myself, especially the duplicate items we all seem to have, such as:

multiple utensils

more serving dishes and platters than we ever use at one time 

damaged items that I thought I would have fixed someday but was surviving without

far too many glasses, mugs, bowls and cups

multiple layer-cake pans (went from five to two)

cutting boards (went from four to one large and one small)

I did keep my two sets of measuring cups, because I often use them both when I’m cooking, rather than take time to wash one out in the middle of a recipe.

I also kept my old bread maker after finding my Zojirushi at the Goodwill for $5; both machines are old, well-made and hard to find, so it’s worth having a backup. But I keep the backup in the basement because there’s no room in the kitchen.

It’s amazing how some things multiply in those cabinets, especially mugs. I also found I had a few too many utensils in one drawer because for a while I was on a search to replace a beloved spatula, so I kept bringing them home, each one better than the last, until I had five!

I had already gotten rid of the excess bread maker a few years ago, because I no longer make bread or rolls as often as I once did. In its place in the basement sits a brand new hand mixer, waiting until the one I use now completely dies (it doesn’t sound too good but it still works).

If you’re having trouble giving up items you don’t really use very often, if at all, consider this:

Now, I’ve never been one to collect small appliances, so I only ever had the basics, and when we got here, I even got rid of the toaster because we didn’t use it. But I’ve known people who had egg cookers, rice makers, tortilla warmers, rotisseries, electric cheese graters, electric can openers, iced tea makers, electric fry pans, baby food makers, electric woks, fondue pots and hot dog cookers, all crammed into every nook and cranny of their kitchens, and most of them collecting dust. People with big kitchens can do that if they wish. But when you downsize to a small kitchen, you don’t have room for a collection of rarely used appliances. You need to prioritize.

If you use something daily or even weekly, that’s one thing. Otherwise, keep only multi-purpose items. You don’t need a hot-dog cooker; just cook your hot dogs on the stove, or microwave them. Unless you have arthritis or other dexterity issues, surely you can survive with a hand-held can opener and give up the counter-hogging electric can opener. As for the rotisserie, if I put one in my kitchen, there’d be no counter space left to do anything.

Even if you have a large kitchen, why keep items that you never use? Give priority to keeping multi-purpose items, like a good-quality, cast-iron frying pan on which you can cook eggs and warm tortillas, or a nice pot in which you can make rice and cook hot dogs, thus replacing four appliances.

And if your kitchen is small, like mine is, and you still have more equipment than storage space, consider converting a nearby closet to kitchen storage, as my husband did:

You can also repurpose storage areas. When we bought our small house, it had a narrow broom closet facing the kitchen. It barely held a broom and a vacuum cleaner. After my husband saw my collection of kitchen appliances and other items that wouldn’t fit in the kitchen, things I used regularly like a crock-pot, food processor, cookie sheets, cooling racks, etc. he told me he thought I needed additional storage more than a broom closet. Despite my initial misgivings, I let him put horizontal shelves in most of the broom closet, with some vertical shelves across the middle. As a result, I can now keep all of my must-have small appliances and supplies in there, plus there’s room for cookbooks on the top shelf and a basket of cleaning supplies on the floor. You can’t imagine how much I use that former broom closet when I’m cooking. He even put a hook on the inside of the door for my apron. The broom is now in the attached garage (just outside the kitchen door) and the vacuum is in the guest room closet. His idea turned out to be just what I needed.

Going forward, there is something else you can do to keep from having overcrowded counters and cabinets:

One more idea for maximizing kitchen space: when an item breaks, try to replace it with something smaller. Recently yet another coffeemaker died on us. Instead of buying the same model with its large water tank and bulky glass carafe, we chose a more diminutive 12-cup percolator. It works great and takes up much less space.

Next time, we’ll look at decluttering the eating area.

Decluttering a Working Kitchen

What do I mean by a “working kitchen”? You have a working kitchen if you cook. So many people these days eat in restaurants or pick up fast food even though they have a fully outfitted kitchen at home with all the latest appliances to impress their friends and their Instagram followers. That’s not a working kitchen. That’s a showplace that needs to be dusted occasionally.

But those of us who cook on a daily basis have working kitchens, and we have to work to keep them that way. We don’t leave the mail, backpacks or briefcases on kitchen counters because we need that space to work (and it’s not sanitary). We may or may not have the latest appliances, but we use our appliances regularly, so we can’t have anything blocking them. If we have knick-knacks or decorative pieces, they are up on shelves or on windowsills, not where we do our actual food prep. We cooks are a busy, picky bunch.

That said, as time passes, it’s very easy to allow clutter to creep into our kitchens if we’re not paying attention:

  • Someone buys us a hand mixer for a gift but we already have one we love; now we have two.
  • A child makes a large decorative platter for us at a ceramics studio and we add it to the stack of platters in a cupboard.  
  • An unsuccessful clothes-shopping trip is redeemed when we discover some cute, brightly colored spatulas and tongs in the clearance aisle. Not that we needed more, but they were irresistible.

Occurrences like these over several years can result in overstuffed cupboards and drawers that slow us down and frustrate us when we’re in the middle of making or baking something. Clearly, it’s time to declutter our kitchen.

In my e-book Secrets of Small-House Living, I describe how my family moved from a very large house with a huge kitchen to a much smaller house with a tiny kitchen. It was quite an adjustment; I had to give up a lot of kitchen equipment that I just couldn’t fit into the few cabinets we have.

Five years later, I’ve decided that our kitchen is actually quite efficient, despite its small size. Being u-shaped, it gives me everything I need within a few steps. The challenge is making sure that its small storage areas hold only what I need.

One person’s needed item is another person’s Goodwill donation, so what I share here may not fit with how you outfit your kitchen. But the principles are the same.

The Counters

An excerpt from my e-book:

But after my children left home, I had trouble cooking for fewer people. I thought I was going to have to retrain myself, so that I would stop doubling or tripling recipes. But since I’m blessed with a husband who actually likes eating the same thing two nights in a row, I finally realized that I could keep cooking in quantity, as long as I saved some for leftovers and froze the rest. (This meant more nights where I had a homemade, precooked dinner just waiting for us.) The same principle applied to baking: I could keep baking dozens of cookies as long as I froze most of them (left on the counter in a container, they would soon go stale, something that never happened when our children lived at home). So I felt like I’d found a solution to the question of cooking for an empty nest.

But when we downsized to our small house, my habit of cooking large became instantly constrained by our tiny kitchen. There was no place to set down my giant cookie sheets and casserole pans unless I kept the counters completely clear. …I didn’t want to give up my habit of cooking large, because it saves money and time (there’s the same amount of clean-up whether you make one dozen cookies or six dozen, after all.)

Keeping the counters clear is still the reigning principle in my little kitchen, because I need every square inch of counter I can get. Since we don’t have a dishwasher (there’s no room for one), we use part of the counter next to the sink for a drying rack. The microwave eats up a little more counter space. I must have what little is left so I can work. That’s why I regularly purge the counters of anything that isn’t essential.

This past Christmas, my husband gave me a small aquarium and some fish. The only place it could go is the far end of the kitchen counter. So before he set it up, I got rid of everything in that area. I had to make decisions about what needed to stay nearby, and what wasn’t essential. Several items went into drawers. My overflowing recipe box and clear recipe card holder had to be pared down; I filed many recipes that had stacked up there, and rewrote some on index cards so they could go in the box instead of being stacked on top. (These recipes were newspaper clippings or printouts from the Internet.)

There were some spare spice containers that were used often enough that I’d left them on the counter near the stove. I couldn’t fit them into the overflowing spice shelf in one cabinet so I’d left them on the counter. But they had to go, so I emptied out the entire spice shelf, pitched old spice containers (and some empty ones), and then neatly organized the remaining spices on a stacked shelf I found at the Goodwill for a few dollars. It really looks nice now, and no more spices on the counter by the stove:

Next time we’ll consider decluttering the cabinets.