Why I am Even Happier We Gave Up Cable

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We gave up cable several years ago, because it seemed incredibly expensive to have our DVR service.  We loved it when we first had it, because there really were not many options out there for accessing shows and movies.  Then Netflix and Hulu Plus came along.  We decided to give it a whirl a few years ago, and we honestly haven’t looked back.

With these two subscription services we pay only about $20 a  month, v.s. over $100 for cable.  That’s a huge savings over time.  We’ve used streaming services for several years, and I am totally sold on the experience for many reasons.

First, here’s the dish on both services.

Netflix is the world’s leading Internet television network with over 50 million members in nearly 50 countries enjoying more than two billion hours of TV shows and movies per month, including original series. For one low monthly price, Netflix members can watch as much as they want, anytime, anywhere, on nearly any Internet-connected screen. Members can play, pause and resume watching, all without commercials or commitments (Info provided by their website).

What I love:  NO COMMERCIALS!  You can customize profiles.  There’s something for everyone in the family.

What I’m not so hot about:  I wish more new content was added more frequently.  The romantic comedies list is basically been there, done that for me (but we’re talking over my life time, not just since we subscribed to Netflix).

Hulu is an online video service that offers a selection of hit TV shows, clips, movies and more on the subscription service Hulu Plus. Instantly stream any current season episode of primetime TV shows.  Explore a wide array of acclaimed movies and documentaries, including hundreds of titles from The Criterion Collection. Also discover Hulu Original Series.

What I love:  You can watch your favorite t.v. shows the day after broadcast (The day after broadcast watercooler talk is a thing of the past, so I don’t feel deprived by having  to wait a day to watch something.  Besides, we usually waited a couple of days with our DVR too).  You can create a favorites list.

What I’m not so hot about:  They only bank 5 episodes of current shows, so while you don’t have to watch them right away, there is a shelf-life.  No current CBS shows.  The commercials get repetitive.  Beware scrolling through the new content and popular lists, especially in the movies section.  There are many graphic images that you may not want to explain to your kid(s).  (This sounds like a lot of negatives, but the few pros outweigh the cons).

More about what I love:

1)  No or limited commercials.  Netflix does not have commercials and Hulu Plus shows limited commercials.  I cannot even begin to express how awesome it is that my daughter has basically grown up without watching commercials.  We don’t have to contend with the toy and food commercials marketed to kids.  No begging for the current hot toy.  In fact, we were at a birthday party recently and the hottest toy from last Christmas was one of the gifts.  I hadn’t even heard of it.  Also, we recently found out why we are really happy we don’t have to sit through commercials.  When the season premiere of The Flash was aired, the whole family was too excited to wait one day for it to show up on Hulu Plus (kiddo loves her superheroes).  What we encountered at 7:00 on a weeknight were advertisements for erectile dysfunction and a show called Jane the Virgin where she ends up pregnant without ever having sex.  Yep, that’s totally appropriate for a 6 year old.  Thank goodness we were able to distract her through them.  Needless to say we will wait and watch the rest of episodes the next day.  There are limited commercials on Hulu Plus, but I have never encountered one that I would feel uncomfortable about my daughter watching.

2)  Customizable.  Both systems allow you to personalize your experience.  My favorite is probably Netflix.  What is great about this is on our one account we can have 3 different profiles–one for each member of our family.  Why this is cool…  We can each select what we want to put on our playlists.  The grownups don’t have to have the kids movies and my husband doesn’t have to put up with my romantic comedies.  Why is this even necessary?  Another cool feature of Netflix is that after watching and adding to your playlist for a while, the service starts giving you suggestions.  Because you watched this, you might like this…  Which is one reason why our own profiles is so handy so you’re not getting tips based on someone else’s preferences.  Also, since the kiddo is a kiddo, she is locked in to only searching through the Kids version of Netflix on her profile and she won’t accidentally stumble upon something not kid-friendly.  Hulu Plus is also customizable to a point.  You can add shows to your “favorites” and they also keep track of your most recently watched.

3)  Our favorites are all in one place.  Both Netflix and Hulu Plus offer access to t.v. shows, movies, and documentaries.  Almost all of our favorite t.v. shows are on Hulu Plus.  The one bummer is that current CBS shows are not available–but it was just announced that CBS is going to be releasing it’s own streaming service.  Since many of our favorite shows are on CBS, this is great news for us.  And this is the BIG reason why I am so very happy we have Netflix this week.  Back when the Winter Olympics were on, we decided we would give cable one more shot–and we wanted to see the Olympics.  We had cable for a month.  The only things we watched were the Olympics, HGTV, and the Food Network (and a little ESPN).  Not really worth the chunk of change needed for the fancier DVR our cable company now requires.  Last night I made an amazing discovery.  Tons of Food Network and HGTV shows that we all love are now available on Netflix!  Are they the brand new episodes?  Probably not, but several season of each are included and that’s mostly what we watched in re-runs anyway.  Are all of the shows included–no, but all of our very favorites are.  My daughter was thrilled when we told her, and so am I.  (She loves Guy and the Property Brothers).  This is unscripted programming that we can get behind and all watch and enjoy as a family.  I am super giddy about this new development.

4)  We can access them pretty much anywhere.  The nice thing about these services is that you can basically get them anywhere you have an internet connection on a supported device.  Since most of our house is run through devices on Wi-Fi, this works really well for us.  We have run them both through an Apple TV, game systems (both Xbox, Wii, and Play Station), and a tablet.  My mom runs hers through a blu-ray player that has these and other streaming services built in.  And that’s just in the house.  If we connect to Wi-Fi somewhere else, we can still access our profiles.

5)  We watch t.v. with purpose.  One of the things I noticed almost immediately when we cut out cable was we didn’t waste time channel surfing anymore.  When we sit down to watch t.v., we do so because we want to be watching a specific show or want to find a movie to enjoy.  You might not think this is a big deal, but it really is.  If you have t.v., think about the amount of time you spend just blindly flipping channels when you really haven’t found anything worth watching.  I know I would be up way later than I should have been just browsing for no real reason and then regretting it later.  And, we never have the t.v. on for background noise.  Even if my husband and I are spending time together (and working at the same time), we choose shows we want to watch and are not locked into what is currently being broadcast or saved in a DVR list.

Is a streaming service right for you?  There are many streaming services out there, and you should consider a few things before jumping in.  Check what will really work in your budget.  While both Netflix and Hulu Plus are less than $10 per month, you also have to consider the cost of the internet service, the machine you are going to stream it on, and your wireless router (we had to upgrade at one point, because as I said before most of our house runs off of our Wi-Fi and we were seriously causing ours strain).  There are also other services out there besides Netflix and Hulu Plus (these are just our personal favorites).  We also have Amazon video through my husband’s Amazon Prime account.  We do use this every once in a while, but it’s definitely not one of our go-to services.  Generally I only use it when I looking for something I am not finding on the other two services–because we can only use it easily through our game system.  I also heard that HBO is going to offer its own streaming service!  But, they do add up over time.  Consider the cost of Netflix, Hulu Plus, CBS and HBO streaming, and an Amazon Prime account.  If you get all of these are you truly saving enough money?  One good thing is that both Netflix and Hulu Plus will let you try their services out for free for a certain length of time (one month, I believe) to make sure it really is for you.

Why I am even happier?  I kept saying that if cable would just let us choose which channels we wanted and only pay for them, I’d might reconsider.  But, now I don’t have to, because the only two channels that we really watched on cable now provide shows through our streaming service.  I am a very happy camper.

Do you use a streaming service?  What are your favorites?

Nerds: Not Just a Sweet Candy

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One day  a few years ago, my daughter asked me what a nerd was.  I smiled, because I knew she hadn’t heard this term on the playground.  She hadn’t seen it on a tv show where someone was making fun of someone else.  She saw it on one of our favorite YouTube channels.  My reply, “Nerds are people like us, sweetie.”  And, I said it with a smile.

I then gave her a shortened version of the quote from John Green (above).  I explained that nerds are people that really like something and are excited about it–like we are with books, or video games, or movies, or… and the list went on.  I explained that her mom and dad were nerds and said it with pride (her dad’s a bit of a geek too, but that’s something else entirely.)

P.S.  I have this poster hanging in my office at work and absolutely love it.  You can get your own by visiting his online store–DFTBA which stands for Don’t Forget to Be Awesome (another poster I have hanging in my office at home).  I was totally a Nerdfighter way before John Green was a household name.  I tried to get his books in kids hands as much as I possibly could–so I guess I was a John Green fan from way back.  (He’s  the author of The Fault in Our Stars in case you are confused).

I am so happy to be able to embrace my nerdiness and I am even more glad that my daughter is growing up in a world where there are groups of people like the Nerdfighters, tv shows like The Big Bang Theory, and books like The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth.  For most of my life, I have had typical nerdy tendencies–nose always in a book, could quote endless information about movies, that kind of thing.  And, while I embraced it all through my teen and young adult years, I definitely did not grow up in the culture my daughter will.  One where nerds are celebrated, embraced, and part of the popular culture.

Thanks to social media and YouTube, you can express your love and enthusiasm for all the things once considered “nerdy” and be embraced whole heartedly.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the number of subscribers for any of these YouTube folks:  The VlogBrothers (Hank and John Green–he’s way more than a YA author.  Check out the Art Assignment and Crash Course to get a taste).  Yogscast (these guys hilariously play video games and narrate their experiences–some swearing at times so be forewarned.)  Rosanna Pansino (our favorite!).  She hosts a “show” called Nerdy Nummies (the one that started the conversation mentioned above with my daughter) and makes baking creations based off of “nerdy” pop culture like Star Wars, Frozen, Guardians of the Galaxy, Pokemon, Mario Bros. etc.  If you or someone you love is a nerd and loves to bake or eat, check her out.  Last night, we stumbled upon Lindsey Stirling.  She makes these crazy videos of her playing the violin and dancing to some really cool music–like Star Wards, Zelda video games, Mission Impossible, Assassin’s Creed, and much more.  She also does covers of popular songs like Radioactive and Thrift Shop.  She outright called herself a nerd after one of the videos.  Woohoo!  And for a little bit of science, check out The Slo Mo Guys from Britain.  They conduct crazy experiments and film them in slow motion.  Super fun!

In the past people like Rosanna and Lindsey probably wouldn’t have been able to make a living doing what they love and celebrating their nerdy side.  But, with millions of subscribers and views on YouTube, now they can.  I cannot wait to see what comes next from people who are passionate about what they love–and how they choose to express themselves.  And, I can’t wait for my daughter to continue to see that it is ok to be excited about something that makes you happy and that it is perfectly wonderful to embrace your creativity.  Who knows?  Maybe she’ll make a living off of it someday…  And maybe she’ll just really enjoy and embrace life.  I’m pretty ok with that too.

 

 

 

Audiobook Awesomeness!

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I have a daily commute that isn’t long by BIG city standards, but it is longer than I have had in the past (about 30 minutes each way). And, I also spend quite a chunk of time driving around town making visits as part of my job. This adds up to quite a bit of time in the car. What this has made me aware of is how much I do not like broadcast radio. And it’s for the same reason I’m not a big fan of broadcast television–the commercials! I completely appreciate why commercials are there, but I don’t really want to listen to them.  So, what’s a girl to do?

I could stream Pandora, but that would eat up my data. I could load music onto my iPhone, but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet (and I’ve had an iPod or iPhone for a large number of years). I could travel with a book of cds and jam out to my favorites from when I actually bought discs. (I did start doing this in the last week so my kiddo and I could listen to music together. Radio ads sometimes are not very kid friendly!) None of these are very appealing to me for my work hours, though.  (Total first world problem, I know).

What I have found that I absolutely love is audiobooks. The bookworm should listen to books–duh!  A few years ago, I discovered audio books. I started out borrowing books on CD from our public library–mostly fiction titles. I’d keep the large case of discs in the side pocket of my car and switch them out as needed. While fun, the options offered were limited. Then, I discovered Overdrive. Our public library has an Overdrive account, and with my library card, I can borrow an even wider selection of audiobooks! The best part–it was super simple. (Their website gives great tips on how to set this up or ask you public librarian). And the best part is that the audiobooks connect to the bluetooth in my car, and I can listen to audiobooks through the car’s speakers. I’ve sort of gotten off my fiction kick for now and have been enjoying some non-fiction titles.  Many of the books I listen to have to deal with the concepts of happiness, work/life balance, organizing, and all the things I write about on my blog. Here’s a few of my favorites from the last several months.

All of the books mentioned below are also available in print form if that is your preference!

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Happier At Home

I just finished  listening to this book from the author of The Happiness Project (one of my favorite books!). I had the paper copy and was about part way through (a few years ago) and got too busy at the time to finish (then or since). I am so glad the audiobook version was available so I could enjoy it again and finally finish it.  What I love about her writing style is that she doesn’t force her ideas or opinions on you. She clearly says, this is what works for me, here’s what research/history tells us, now go out and figure out what works for you. I think I also really like that she sets manageable goals that revolve around a monthly theme. The organizer in me appreciates that.  And, she doesn’t pull any punches.  She explains how she sabotages herself and what she knows are not the best parts of her that she is trying to change.  A very honest and thoughtful look at to the nature of happiness.

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think

This book was really interesting.  There are 168 hours in each week–and it focuses on how to make the most out of those hours by focusing on your core competencies (or the things that matter most to you).  If they aren’t part of your core competencies, then you don’t do it.  One suggestion she had was to keep track of how you spent your 168 hours and see where you were really spending your time.  That might be helpful, but the thought of doing so overwhelms me because my schedule during the day is so scattered.  While I’m not sure if I agreed with everything in here, I certainly gained some valuable insight into how we plan and maintain our schedules.  (This book is mentioned in both The Happiness Project above and Say Goodbye to Survival Mode below!)

Making Habits, Breaking Habits:  Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick  by Jeremy Dean

Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don't, and How to Make Any Change Stick

 

This book provided some really interesting ideas about habits.  He starts out by explaining how 21 day rule is a myth.  In many books and programs, they explain how you can change or add a behavior if you stick with it for a magical 21 day period.  The origin of the 21 day myth is very interesting, and that’s only the first few chapters.  He explains many studies that have been done over the years in relation to habits, and how they can help us learn how to wire our brains in such a way that we accept a new habit more easily.  This is one I think I may have to go back and either read the paper version or listen to the audiobook again to really get everything out of it.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead

Just to give you a heads up, Sheryl Sandberg is the COO (Chief Operating Officer) at Facebook.  This was a really interesting book to listen to.  It focused more on the role of women in leadership positions, but it also really talked about how work life balance is not really the right term for things, because there is no way to really have a balance of both.  I also found her personal history and insights quite fascinating–and would recommend the read just based on her history of being on the ground floor of both Google and Facebook.  I also really loved her idea to call herself, instead of working mom, a career loving mom.  The negative connotation is taken away with this term in her mind, and I agree.  I love my career and I love being a mom.  Very interesting read.

Say Goodbye to Survival Mode by Crystal Paine

Say Goodbye to Survival Mode: 9 Simple Strategies to Stress Less, Sleep More, and Restore Your Passion for Life

I recently started following Money Saving Mom on Facebook, and I was surprised to find out that one of the audiobooks from my public library was written by this blogger, so I gave it a shot.  Survival mode is that harried, craziness that I think I’ve been living in the past month, so listening to this book the last few weeks hit at the right time.  She gives some good tips in here and again talks about that work/life balance.  She even mentions the book 168 Hours in one of the chapters!  The book was interesting enough to keep me listening, but I’m not sure if I would have made it through the print version.  P.S.  The book is narrated by the author, which I think gives it a more genuine feel.

An Invisible Thread by Laura Schroff

An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny

This book gives us a glimpse into what the world would be like if we all took a moment to help one person in need–and to see how that one act can change both the giver and the recipient.  Laura almost didn’t stop to give money to an 11 year old panhandler named Maurice.  In fact, she walked right past him.  But, she stopped, turned, and decided to buy him lunch at McDonald’s.  That one act led to years of friendship and mentorship–on both sides.  Hearing their story of friendship and both of the back stories that led them there was riveting.  I was so enthralled that I spent almost an entire day listening to their story.  I highly recommend this one.

Cover Images from http://www.barnesandnoble.com

Have you read or listened to anything lately that stuck with you?

 

Fall Craziness Has Invaded My Life Once Again

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Last week, when I wasn’t able to post to this here blog…again, I remembered why there was a chunk of time when my blog fell by the wayside.  Sometimes life gets nuts.  I’m talking full on crazy nuts–and while you have control over that chaos, it doesn’t really feel like it at the time.  Work was crazy with meetings and planning presentations and getting programs underway and an endless stream of stuff that needed to be done well and done quickly.  The fall semester is also when I teach a class at a local university, so I add in grading time each week which can be anywhere from 6-12 hours depending on the assignment.  And, we started back up with Girl Scouts again, and I am the primary leader which means doing all the planning, shopping, and communicating for the troop.  And, while we meet only once a month and do outings only once a month, this volunteer activity takes up a larger chunk of time than you would think.  Add to that volunteer time that I spend putting together online info for a state professional organization and reviewing books for my district and a professional journal. Just looking at my professional and volunteer time makes my head want to explode!  Plus, I want to still keep up in my home routines for cleaning, meal planning, exercise, etc., spend some fun down time with my family, and do some fun fall activities around town.

The title of this post is “Fall Craziness has Invaded My Life Once Again…” but I’m not sure if I would have it any other way.  I really do love my job and the fall is one of the busiest times because we plan a lot of professional development activities, attend a ton of trainings, and spend a bunch of time supporting our new hires.  Once October comes around, things settle down a little, but August and Sept are just plain busy.  I’ve taught my fall class for several years now, and I truly enjoy it–and wouldn’t give it up because I also gain so much from it personally.  And while my husband doesn’t understand the amount of time I put into Girl Scouts, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.  It’s an activity I remember fondly from when I was a kid (and my mom was one of our leaders) and I want to have that same connection and fond memories with my daughter.  My volunteer time adding items to a website and reading books do add to my total hours in the week, but not enough to truly be draining (plus who wouldn’t want a volunteer job where all you do is read!).

Where it gets a bit dicey is adding these commitments to the other main focus of my life–my home and family.  I want to make sure we have a home that is well cared for and meals that are good for us, but I don’t want to spend a monumental amount of time doing so.  Which is why I established my routines to begin with.  I spread out the cleaning “chores” during the week so they wouldn’t all pile up on the weekend and so I wasn’t spending valuable family time cleaning the bathrooms.  I meal plan and do intentional grocery shopping and meal prep to save time during the week.  But in the last month, something had to give.  And it wasn’t going to be my family or my professional responsibilities.  So, maybe the carpets didn’t get vacuumed for closer to 12 days than 7.  Maybe we ate out a tiny bit more this month.  Maybe the laundry stayed folded in the basket until the following week when I needed the basket again.  Who cares?

And that is truly what I’m here to talk about today–because it has been weighing on my…heavily.  Who cares that the bathrooms didn’t get cleaned on Monday?  Who cares that we ate out two nights in a row when the meal plan and shopping said otherwise but my tired self and husband said forget it?  Who cares that my morning exercise routine went down hill for a week?  The answer is that I do.  There are times when I feel guilty that I haven’t accomplished the goals I have set for the day.  When I long wistfully for the time and energy to do everything.  But, I know I can’t really and truly do everything without having  some sort of breakdown.  I know.  I’ve been there.  In fact, there was one day this week I was so drained I spent half of one weekend day sleeping and another large chunk of it hanging out and reading with the kiddo.  I just needed one day to just be still, but I still felt a little guilty about it later when I looked at all I didn’t get done.

So how do we balance all of this crazy stuff we call life?  I don’t have any hard and fast answers, but I think we have a few things we can do to feel less guilty and harried.  1)  Give yourself grace.  This means if something doesn’t get done exactly when or how you want, let it be ok.  So, we had take-out dinner two nights in a row.  We still had dinner together and that’s more important to me.  I just shifted our planned meals down a few days.  2)  Celebrate the small victories.  I may not have gotten up to exercise every morning this week, but I did take my vitamins everyday, made a veggie juice drink for the hubby every day, and had my daughter all gussied up for spirit week every day.  These are all things that were also important to me and I needed to celebrate them and not just focus on what was not done.  3)  Don’t let the chore chart bring you down.  Making and setting routines is supposed to be helpful and not something that makes us feel bad.  If it’s making you feel bad, either something needs adjusted in your set routines that isn’t working or maybe there is just something going on in your life right now that you need to get past in order to get back in the swing of things.  Either way, take a moment to reflect and re-evaluate.  I know I will be.

So, I wasn’t able to do anything cool with organizing or crafting or food related in the last few weeks to blog about–but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to say.  And, as I have said many times before, this blog is not only for anyone who happens to stumble upon it, it is a way for me to think through and think about the important things in my life.  While some people would say that giving up my weekly blog posts would definitely add less to my to-do list, I don’t want to give it up either.  I have always been a writer, and I know I express myself better this way.  So while not the most exciting post for anyone else to read, this was definitely something I needed to do…for me.  Think about what you need to do for you today and go do it!

Under The Sink –Rethink

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Sometimes you try something and it just doesn’t work out.  The sink under the kitchen seems to be a pain for many people–and I’ve seen the pins to prove it.  A few years ago, I organized under the kitchen sink and even did a spiffing up update in January with the rest of the house.  But, something just wasn’t working right.  Somehow, piles had grown where order once was.  And, every time I reached for something under the sink, something else fell over.  I found myself getting frustrated which led to me getting lazy and stuff was just getting shoved wherever it would fit.  Not cool.  This is what it looked like this morning.

The before...  You can see how if you grab one thing another thing will for sure tumble out too.

The before… You can see how if you grab one thing another thing will for sure tumble out too.

While the above picture is not terrible, it was definitely a space that was giving me grief.  I had a plan, but I will admit that I made an organizing mistake when I was rethinking how I wanted this space to look.  I had seen how someone used stackable bins to organize their under the sink area.  I thought I might give it a shot.  While at the store, I spied a set of 3 stackable bins and knew for sure they wouldn’t stack more than two high under our sink.  But, I was ok with that.  I also knew that I should have measured my space before I went to the store (that was the mistake as you’ll see below), but I decided to wing it.  I could always take the little guys back if they didn’t fit.

It's amazing that all this stuff fit under here!  And, that most of it fit again when I put it back.

It’s amazing that all this stuff fit under here! And, that most of it fit again when I put it back.

I started out by removing everything from under the sink.  I think part of my problem was that I was collecting things under there with the “just in case” mindset–which is a definite way to build clutter and cause chaos.  After removing a few items (glass jars, old cleaners, etc.), I attempted to add the bins to the left side–no dice.  One would fit, but the garbage disposal got in the way to stack the bins.  They did fit on the right side, but the black caddy wouldn’t fit on the left.  After some thinking, I decided the caddy isn’t really necessary.  I never take these items anywhere, so they don’t need to be portable.  The caddy will get resued somewhere else–not sure where yet.  I wiped out the bottom of the cabinet, and put everything I was keeping back.  Everything we use frequently is up front in the white bins.  The other items are located behind and are still easy to access.

Here is the finished product!

So much better!  I did some cleaning in the kitchen after moving everything around and it worked great!

So much better! I did some cleaning in the kitchen after moving everything around and it worked great!

This whole process took about 20 minutes.  Sometimes a quick rethink and refresh is all something needs.  Are there any small places you have organized but have made a big impact?

Why the Public Library is Not Just for Kids

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Courtesy of http://www.ala.org

So, why is the public library such a cool place for adults? There are tons of places where you can get free stuff–but do you know of anywhere you can get all of these in ONE place?  And, for many of them, you don’t even have to leave your house!

1)  Books.  I’m talking strictly about books for adults here.  We all know the public library is  a great source of books for kids, but how about for adults?  Our libraries are a great way to get your hands on the latest books (you can even put a hold on it and they email you when your book is in and ready to pick up!).  Don’t have time to sit down and read a book or prefer your e-reader?  Can’t physically make it to a branch?  No problem.  Download an audio book or an ebook!  I love listening to ebooks during my commute and can easily download books to borrow on my Kindle–and I don’t have to worry about late fees because it is automatically returned on time.

2)  Recipes.  I am not a big fan of cluttering up my kitchen with endless cook books, but I love to be able to find new recipes to try with my family.  Borrowing recipe books from the library is the perfect solution.  I can browse through a book, snap pictures of the recipes I like, and return it without adding another book to the pile.  Plus, this saves me money.  So many times there are only a few recipes I like out of a book, but I don’t know that before I get my hands on it.  This way I don’t waste money on something I might not even like.  (Same is true for novels.  If I don’t like it, I can just return it without worrying about the money spent).

3)  Movies.  Our public library has movie and tv series DVDs to rent…for FREE.  We even get to keep them for two weeks!  A much better deal than trying to squeeze a movie into a 24 hour (or less period) before zooming it back to the Redbox.  I totally need to take better advantage of this for our Friday night movie night and check out what great kids movies they have on hand.

4)  Music.  Just in the last year or so, we are now able to download music for free to Android and Apple devices using Freegal.  You can download up to 3 songs per week–that you get to keep FOREVER!  I have not tried this yet, but I want to soon!

5)  Magazines.  Many public libraries keep current issues of popular magazines on hand.  So, if you won’t want to deal with a paper subscription at your house, you can always stop by your local branch and browse.  We can also access over 100 magazines digitally!

6)  Internet.  Public libraries are a wonderful source of free internet for families who do not have access (which is more than you would think).  If you do not have internet at home, you can generally use a computer at the library.

7)  Classes.  Our public library has an agreement with an online class company that if we log in using our library card numbers, then we can take the class FOR FREE!  You just have to make sure you take the assessment at the end or you may have to pay.  Last year I took a photography and cooking class this way.  It was really simple, and I was able to do it on my own time.  The company also offered classes in things like computer applications, hobbies, and personal growth.  They even have online foreign language classes through Mango Languages!

8)  Programs.  Sure, public libraries provide great programming and activities for kids, but what about adults?  Check out what the branches in your city have to offer.  Ours offers computer skills classes, Yoga and Zumba for adults, crafting sessions, writer workshops, book clubs, genealogy workshops, and much more.  Again, all for FREE.

This list is just a brief peek at all the FREE services a public library can provide for you!  Get out there and use this fabulous resource, and don’t forget to let everyone know how much the library does for you and your family.  Just as our budgets shrink, so do local budgets–which fund libraries–speak up and let your city governments know what the public library has done for you lately.

What is your favorite thing about your public library?

 

Super Cool Kids Video Games–Top 3

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In our house, we play video games as a family.  It is something my husband and I both did as kids, and we enjoy sharing with our daughter.  We do try to keep the amount of time we play in check (which isn’t hard, because life gets busy).  When we do play, we have some tried and true favorites that are always great.  I’m going to highlight a few of these and explain why they are awesome.  For those of you who are not video game aficionados, I will explain some of the terms you may hear thrown around and that are included in this post.

The first thing we do when we look at purchasing a video game is to see what types of reviews it has received.  Just because a game is based on the hottest kids movie this year, does not mean that it is going to be good or easy to play.  Husband’s Note: Many, if not most of the movie-licensed games that are released in conjunction with films are cash grabs, capitalizing on the fact that most kids will see the familiar characters on the front of the box and parents won’t know any better… so be wary of these types of titles!  And, since many video games can cost upwards of $50-60, it pays to do your homework.  This generally falls on my husband’s shoulders as he keeps up on the video game industry more than I do, but you can easily find reviews online.  Many games are also available at places like the Redbox, so you can check them out before committing to buy.

Next, we see what platform (console, hand held, computer) or system (XBOX 360, XBOX ONE, Play Station 3, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, Wii, WiiU, 3DS) the game is being released for.  Check and see if the game is available on a system you own or are willing to purchase.  If you do not have a gaming system yet, again, do your homework.  Really consider what you will be using that game system for and who will be using it.  We have experience using a variety of platforms and consoles.  We found that there are quite a few kid friendly games available for both the XBOX 360 and the WiiU.

We tend to purchase games that can be bought for a variety of platforms.  This means that the same game is available for multiple consoles–Xbox, Wii, 3DS, PS, etc.  In fact, we have bought games from franchises (a franchise is when a game has multiple incarnations of itself) for a variety of platforms and consoles.  All of the games discussed below are part of a franchise and we have played many versions of each–and most are available for a variety of platforms and systems.

My Top 3!  (not in ranked order)

Skylanders

The first video game our daughter REALLY got into was Skylanders.  We purchased the first Skylanders game (Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure) for the Xbox.  One thing you need to know about the Skylanders games is that you need a portal and game statues to be able to play the game.  You cannot just get the disc.  The concept behind Skylanders is pretty cool (and certainly lucrative).  The players used in the game are based on small statues you purchase separately from the game (the starter pack comes with a few but there are MANY more).  You place your statue of choice on the portal–which plugs into your console–and that is the character you play as in the game.  But what is really cool is that the little statues keep all the character’s stats inside of them.  Each character can be upgraded through game play to have new powers and to become tougher.  This information is not stored on your game system, it is stored on a chip inside the individual statue.  This means, you can take your statues to a friends house to play Skylanders and they will retain all of the upgrades you did at home and add any you get at your friend’s house.  Pretty cool.

Games:  There are 3 versions of Skylanders available now with a 4th coming out just in time for Christmas 2014.  Each version of the game is similar in nature, but adds a new type of character.  In Game 1, you have your basic Skylanders.  In game 2, they added Giant characters that have special abilities.  In Game 3, Swap Force characters were added.  You can separate the top and bottoms of these characters and swap them with the top or bottom of another character to make “new” characters.  Game 4, you will be able to use special crystals to trap enemies who you can then play with as allies.  In each game, the Skylanders are defending Skylands from the evil Chaos (he is not at all scary) who is trying to take over the world.

Why I like this game:  It is very easy to play.  Our daughter has been playing Skylanders games since she was 5 and was successful from the beginning.  It is a two player game (which means you can play as a family.  My husband and I will often take turns playing levels with her).  There is a LOT to the game play.  Each level has items to collect and achievements to earn in addition to working your way through the general story line.  While there is a monetary investment in the little statues (they range in price and can sometimes be found on sale for B1G1 50% off), you actually get quite a big bang for your buck in game play.  Once you have finished the main story line, there are lots of other ways to enjoy the game.  You can go back to each level and make sure you have found all of the extras, you can do side challenges, you can play through favorite levels to earn experience points or money to upgrade characters.  We finished playing the main story of Swap Force 6 months ago and are still enjoying the game.

Downsides:  The statues do cost money.  True, you do not have to buy a bunch of statues to play the game; in fact, you can finish the game with the few that come with the starter kit.  However, you cannot get into some of the side missions within levels if you don’t have characters from the various elements (earth, fire, water, air, life, tech, magic, undead).  And in addition to the regular versions of the statues, there are also special versions that are only sold at certain retailers (like the Legendary ones at Toys R Us) or times of the year (Santa or Easter egg).  It can get out of hand easily.  Also, with the newest version of the game (Skylanders: Swap Force) you had to get a new portal, so everyone had to get the starter pack.  This worked out for us, because we bought it for a different console, but it’s an added cost to consider.  (One nice thing is that all of the statues we had for the first two games worked for the new game too.  This works going up, but not going down.  Most, if not all, of the newer statues don’t work with the older games.  Still, you get a lot of value for the statues that you have purchased 2, even 3 years ago).

And since I talk about organizing here ALOT, let’s talk about storing all of these little guys.  You really have to consider if you have the space.  We used a small tub and kept it near our tv in our family room.  This worked ok, but we had to dig around to find characters and some sort of got forgotten at the bottom.  When we added new DVD shelves, we designated two small ones to displaying the Skylanders.  This seems to work out a bit better for us, because we can see all the cool little characters.

 

Lego Video Games

 

 

In addition to the genius who thought up having people buy statues as characters, some other smart guy thought it would be a good idea to make Lego video game versions of popular movies.  Seriously, how had nobody thought of this earlier!  We have played Lego games on a multitude of consoles and platforms over the years.  My husband and I started out playing the Lego Star Wars and Indiana Jones games together because it was something I could easily get into–and is not bloody or scary or requires me to walk and point a gun at the same time (this is much harder than it sounds because you use both joysticks on your controller.  Just trust me on this).  We really enjoyed them.  When my daughter was small, we played the Pirates of the Carribbean Lego games, and I felt safe with her watching us play this because the “violence” is very cartoonish and silly.  (i.e.  Chewbacca pulls of the arms of Storm troopers and it makes a popping sound.  When an enemy is defeated, he disappears from the screen).

When she was old enough to start playing games with us, we picked up a few of the Lego games for her to play too.  And just an FYI, the Lego games in the beginning of these franchises are not as forgiving and easy to play as some of the ones released in the past few years or so.  I think Lego Star Wars and Indiana Jones would frustrate her.  She has played Lego Batman (Batman 2 is much harder), Lego Harry Potter, Lego Lord of the Rings, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, and Lego Hobbit.  There is a Lego Movie-based game as well as a Lego Underground title which we haven’t purchased but look really great on the newer consoles.  More on which ones we love the best and why later.

In the Lego games, there are two ways to play each level.  There is the Story mode and Free play mode.  In each level you collect studs (little Lego shaped coins) and must collect a certain amount in and finish the level to unlock Free Play mode.  In Free Play, you can change the character you are playing as which allows you do go into areas and complete tasks that the characters you have to use in the Story mode cannot do.    Because you can do so much more in Free Play mode, we would try and finish the level on our own the first time (when she was younger ) and now we generally try and help her through the level the first time so we could get to the free play.

Another cool thing in each of the later Lego games is a more open world concept (meaning a space you can walk around in and do things outside of a general story line).  The open worlds in Lego Harry Potter, Lego Lord of the Rings, and Lego Marvel Superheroes have definitely added to the value of this game.  In each of these games there is an area where your character can walk around and do mini-missions to unlock gold bricks (which you can use to buy or unlock cool stuff), add new characters, collect studs (the currency in the game), or just explore.  Quite honestly, this is her favorite part.  I think we spent 3 times as much time just walking around Middle Earth as we did finishing the story line of Lego Lord of the Rings.  She likes being able to go where she wants and be who she wants.  And, as a parent, it is much easier to regulate time in this open world area.  You can easily say 20 minutes of the game if you are just wandering around where some levels take longer than that to complete.

One recommendation I have is to go online to find cheats for the codes you need to enter or red bricks you need to find in the story mode to give your characters added benefits.  In most of the games, you can multiply your stud total by certain amounts (which allows you to get to the magic stud total to unlock free play much faster), be invincible (which is totally helpful for little kids), fall protection (which can be totally helpful for moms who fall off stuff alot and have trouble with jumping puzzles), and much more.  I have had good luck with http://www.ign.com and http://www.famefaqs.com to get cheat codes.  They are also a great place to find information on walkthroughs (someone actually writes out what you need to do in each level to find all the stuff!).  I love walkthroughs when we get stuck in a level and can’t figure out what to do next–especially when my husband isn’t there to lend his expertise.  Beware, there are no cheat codes out there for Lego Hobbit that are very helpful and you have to earn the codes in fairly complicated ways which makes the game much more challenging (which for some might be ok, but it is frustrating to the mom and kiddo).

 

Mario Games

 

Mario and Luigi are video game characters that most people have at least heard of if they have not actually ever played a video game.  And, they are exclusively for the Nintendo consoles–the most recent one being the WiiU.  My husband and I grew up playing Mario games, and we love being able to play them with our kiddo.  The Mario game my daughter was most looking forward to was what we lovingly refer to as Cat Mario but is really called Super Mario 3D World.  We call it Cat Mario because one of the powers the characters can take on is a cat costume–total winner for the cat-loving kid.  This is actually something we can all play together, because you can have more than 2 people playing at a time and you can pick which character you want to be (Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad, etc.).  There is a main play for this game where you progress through levels and are trying to free fairies captured by Bowser.  In each level, you have extras to earn in addition to finishing the level on time including green stars and stamps.  There are multiple worlds (levels) and within those are multiple sublevels.  There is quite a bit of game play to the main story line.  AND, we discovered that once you beat Bowser, you unlock a number of additional (and very, very challenging) worlds.  Some of your main play worlds and most of your extra worlds need a certain number of green stars to unlock them.  So, if you didn’t get them all the first time, you can go back and replay levels to capture all the green stars.  There really is a lot of game play for the amount of money you spend on the game.

 

Another really fun game we got this year is the newest Mario Kart game.  It is also for the WiiU and is super fun.  Those of us who have played previous versions of the game will appreciate the inclusion of some levels from the past as well as the addition of new levels.  You do not need anything special to play this game beyond the regular controls.  Again, it is something that we can all play together as multiple players are possible.  AND, another super cool thing is that you can play online with friends.  My daughter and her cousin (who is her same age and does not live near enough to just pop over and visit) can play this game together.  They challenge each other to races and can even speak to each other through the microphone in the WiiU pad.  I really like that feature.

 

If you are into being frugal, I highly recommend these games as you get so very, very much game play for your dollar.  One way to save costs is to wait for the game to go on sale or even to wait a few months until the game drops in price in the store or to check out used game stores.  Husband’s Note:  One idea though–when you go to used game stores, consider purchasing the “new” version of the game even if it is $5 more than the “used”.  New purchases put revenue back into game developers’ pockets, while used purchases put money directly in the game store’s hands, leaving nothing for the developer who actually made the game.  That’s something not a lot of people consider when they are trying to save a few bucks.  So, if you like a game, support the developer–that’s the mantra we have in our house, anyway.

A special shout out to my hubby for reading through and adding to this post to make sure I got all my lingo and facts correct!

These are my top 3 choices for Cool Kid Video Games.  What are yours?

Back to School–Helpful Tools

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The first week of school is behind us.  As a household with two educators and one kiddo in school, that first week can be a doozy!  Along the way, I have found a few tools that I find invaluable when getting us ready to face the first day of school and every day after that.  Some of these are new and some are old favorites.  Enjoy! (P.S. I was not paid for any of these reviews, nor given free products to review.  These are just things I happen to like).

1)  Martha Stewart Write On Washable Labels available at Staples.  I LOVE these things.  Basically, you write on them with a permanent marker, let it dry, and stick it to an article of clothing (or perhaps something else).  Then, you can wash said item of clothing and the label does not fall off or rub off!  I have been using these for a few years, and we have washed them many times without incident.  Here’s where I use them: On tags inside coats, inside the lunch bag, inside the backpack (I put it in multiple pockets), and inside of shoes (when we were at daycare).  This way if anything gets lost or someone else at school has the same thing, our items can easily be identified and make it back to us.

image courtesy of Staples

2)  Hole punch for Arc Notebook.  This is really just a way to help me keep better organized–and with all the activities and meetings we have during the school year, I need all the help I can get.  :)  I have been eyeing the hole punch for the ARC system offered by Staples for a while.  I have both a large and small version of this disc bound system.  (If you’ve never heard of these, they are customizable notebooks and planners.  Other companies offer similar items as well).  But, the hole punch made for the ARC planners is over $40 and it is gigantic.  And, to be honest, I wasn’t going to pay that much for a hole puncher.  So, I hemmed and hawed, because I wanted to be able to put some laminated items like my daily activity log in my planner.  I almost went to Staples to see if their copy area would punch it for me.  Then, I stumbled upon this baby on Amazon.  It is made by Levenger and was $19!  Score!  (I also got free shipping, because I was on a trial with Amazon Prime).  It is a portable disc bound notebook punch.  It only does a few sheets at a time, but it handled my one laminated sheet like a champ.  Since the larger punch only does 8 sheets at a time, I didn’t really think I was losing out on much.  You can also lock certain parts of the punch to make it work for the smaller notebooks.  Loving it so far, and it fits easily in my work bag.

 

image courtesy of levenger.com

 

3) To pack lunches, we like to use reusable divided containers.  This way certain foods don’t touch and we aren’t using a bunch of containers or sandwich bags to store everything.  I did learn last year that cleaning them in the dishwasher all the time leads to some troubles with the plastic getting brittle.  This year, I will be hand washing them instead to hopefully help them last longer.  And, the kiddo is packing her own lunches this year!  This little guy seems to help her keep everything sorted.

 

image courtesy of rubbermaid.com This is the divided rectangle–which we are using right now. We’ve also used an off brand and the Ziploc version as well.

 

What are some of the tools you use to get your school year off to a good start?

Homemade Large Dice

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I am one of the leaders for my daughter’s girl scout troop–and we are headed into our second year of Daisy scouts.  I learned quite a bit last year about running meetings and working with younger kids (most of my experience is with high schoolers).  One thing I know is that we needed to get the girls into more of a routine and also up and moving.  We meet right after school, so they need to shake their wiggles out a bit before settling back down.

So, in addition to a caper chart and meeting schedule (which will be an all in one sort of thing–I’m still working on that), I wanted to design some activity dice to use at the beginning of meetings.  My vision was for two different dice–one with song names on it and one with an action related activity.  One of the caper chart chores (for those of you who have never heard of a caper chart–it is basically a way to assign tasks to the girls for the running of the meeting) would be for one girl to roll the song dice and one to roll the action dice–then lead the song or action.  These would help us get our meetings going and give the girls something to actively do.  (I also freely admit I stole this idea from our wonderful former children’s librarian for how she started storytimes).

Now the question was, how to make the dice?  I wanted something easily portable that I could customize and would be fairly cheap to make.  Off I went to search Pinterest for suggestions.  I found many good ideas that included paper mache or  foam cubes or cardboard boxes.  I checked out my local Michael’s and at first could only find wooden blocks (to heavy) and florist Styrofoam (both white and green).  But, each dice would cost me at least $5 each (minus the 40% discount for one)–too pricey.  One of the pins I saw showed how someone used a gold foil gift box shaped like a cube to make her dice (she covered it in craft paper).

The supplies I used to make our dice.

The supplies I used to make our dice.

As a last ditch effort, I searched the small gift bag area, and after a few minutes of scouring I saw tucked low in a corner, small cube shaped gift boxes!  Hooray!  I found a size I liked–4 inch square.  They had both larger and smaller, but I thought this would be small enough to be portable and big enough to be fun.  I picked the craft paper type box, because I thought it would be easier to write on than the slick white option they also offered.  Then, on the way to the cash register, I passed a little shelving area with $1 stationary items and found little 3 inch square cards in solid colors.  On a whim, I grabbed those to put on the sides to give the dice a little color.

The finished product.

The finished product.

Yesterday, I put it all together.  I simply taped the open edges of the boxes down (I could have used a more transparent tape, but I had this on hand.  I don’t think they’ll care).  Then, I cut the little cards in half.  Luckily each side was colored, so I could get two sides out of one card.  I wrote the names of the songs and actions on the cards with a thin sharpie marker.  Next, I rolled pieces of tape for all four corners of a card and stuck it to one side of the cube.  I figured this way we could change the songs or actions fairly easily part way through the year or next year if we wanted without destroying the dice.

These was so super simple, and the best part was it was really inexpensive.  The boxes were $0.79 each and the card packs were $1 each.  And, I only used part of each pack, so I have cards left over for another occasion.  Each of the dice only cost about $1.25!  I am very happy with the result, and I think this will be a fun way for the girls to begin their meetings this year.

Here’s a list of what I included on each one–chosen with input from the kiddo:

Songs:

5 little speckled frogs

Down by the Bay

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old (Girl Scout Song)

I’ve Got Something in my Pocket (Girl Scout Song)

Magalina Hagalina (a song I learned as a Girl Scout.  Very silly.  My daughter loves it!)

Roller’s Choice (just to mix it up, because I wasn’t going to put Let it Go as an option).

 

Actions (some of these are songs, but they are action-y songs!).

Hokey Pokey

Head Shoulders Knees & Toes

Dance (to a song on my phone)

Jumping Jacks, Jump Rope, High Knees (for a little cardio)

Bean Bag Game (I have some home made bean bags and we can play a variety of games with them)

Roller’s Choice

 

How do you think you could use homemade dice in your life?  I can image a bunch of different ways.  Since you can design the sides however you would like, the possibilities are endless!

Simple Kitchen Organization Tips

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Sometimes simple really is better.  Here are a few quick tips for kitchen organization I picked up along the way or that I stumbled upon on my own.  Each of these tips has made organizing one small part of my life in the kitchen a bit simpler and made it easier to put things where they belong.

1)  Clean/Dirty Magnet.  I remember my grandmother having one of these when I was a kid made out of wood that stuck to her olive green and harvest gold dishwasher.  It was a bit clunky, but you knew for sure that it would stick, because you could not mistake the outside of the dishwasher for anything but metal.  I always thought one of these might be helpful (since at times dishes get piled on the counter or in the sink when other family members are not sure), but I had convinced myself that the outside of our dishwasher would not hold a magnet.  I’m not sure why.  So ,when I saw this quick tip on the YouTube channel “Do It on a Dime”, I thought, let’s give it a shot.  And, guess what!  Magnets do stick to our dishwasher.  Here’s hoow to make your own Clean/Dirty magnet.  Start with a freebie flat magnet like businesses sometimes give away.  If you have a label maker, all you do is simply print out one strip that says “Clean” and one that says “Dirty”–I added designs, because, why not?  Then, just cut down the magnet to fit your strips!

This is actually pretty small in size, so it isn't obtrusive--just big enough to do the job.

This is actually pretty small in size, so it isn’t obtrusive–just big enough to do the job.

2) Pantry Storage–Part 1.  Over the door storage has really helped us in our small pantry.  It corrals some of the things we use frequently and that aren’t all that easy to store on wire shelving.  On the very top of the wire shelves (not pictured here) are some cat related supplies like brushes and cat treats.  The next shelf features some rolls like foil and wax paper and  a box of zip close bags.  It’s the bottom shelf, though, that I really want to focus on.  This one handles quite a few jobs.

On the far left there are four “crystal light” or generic version containers (two behind and two in front).  The two in the back hold straws (this is so very very helpful, because they are not constantly falling over).  The two in the front hold things we are keeping for the kiddo’s school.  We found out last year that they collect pop tabs for the Ronald McDonald house, so there is one for those.  The one next to it holds all our “box tops for education” or other such things you can cut off of household items that give money back to the school.  (I tried using baggies for these, but this sounds lazy, but the opening and closing of the bags was a pain.  I like to drop them in the top of these small containers much better).  The little orange basket from Ikea holds the little bag clippies from Ikea (which are awesome!).  And, finally, a few more zip top bag boxes.  Storing them vertically saves a bunch of space and makes it easier to grab a bag when needed.

Super helpful to keep things from falling all over in the pantry.

Super helpful to keep things from falling all over in the pantry.

3)  Pantry Storage–Part 2.  Labels.  To begin, I use black baskets in my pantry to store items as the wire shelving is kind of a pain in the behind.  To make sure items make it in the right place and people don’t eat food that is intended for recipes, I labeled each basket.  My previous labels were pretty specific (Rice, Pasta, Sauce or Mac & Cheese and Soup)–which honestly didn’t work all that well because there were always exceptions.  So, I decided to go the more generic route this time.  When I ran across these chalkboard stickers in the dollar aisle at Target I grabbed them without even really knowing what I wanted to use them for until I thought…hmmm…pantry labels!  I tried the chalkboard marker (also in the $1 aisle) and it was terrible.  I looked high and low for a decent one that wasn’t part of a huge set and struck out (if you know where to buy one let me know!).  Instead, I went with a silver marker I found several weeks later in the dollar bins and was finally able to complete my labels.  To make them, I took some brightly colored card stock, laminated it, and cut the corners with a corner rounder.  Then, I stuck the labels in the middle.  To attach them to the basket, I rolled a piece of duct tape to the back of the label and stuck it to the basket.  Then, I took a flat piece of duct tape and placed it over the holes to cover the duct tape roll.  I did this with the previous labels, and amazingly, it came off pretty easily when needed.

Now the labels are less specific, but still get the point across.  One row has two baskets labeled Meals (which hold items used for recipes) and one basket labeled Meal Prep (which holds items like soy sauce, marinades, cooking oil, etc.).  The shelf below holds a basket for Snacks (crackers, granola bars, etc.), Lunch (mac & cheese, soup, etc.), and Misc (drink mixes, peanut butter, jello, etc.).  So, basically, one row is off limits for general consumption and the other is fair game.  I think the labels turned out pretty cute.  Sometimes a simpler label really is better.

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New, simpler labels.

New, simpler labels.

4)  Olive Oil Dispenser for Dish Soap.  Ok, so I’ve seen quite a few times on Pinterest.  I chose to try this because it would look pretty and take up less space on my sink top.  Overall, I do like the effect, but I notice that the metal top oxidizes quite frequently.  If anyone has any tips or ideas on how to handle that (for right now, I just rub off the rust every now and again), pass it along!  I’m wondering if maybe something with a plastic top would be better…

I really, really want to love this!

I really, really want to love this!

What quick tips do you have for organizing your kitchen?