Monday, December 31, 2018

3 Ways to Start the New Year With Optimism

Happy New Year's Eve Day!

I want to take a short break from writing about all of the healthy, minimalist, unprocessed foods that the Standard American Diet (SAD) has neglected for far too long to tell you that I appreciate you, dear readers.  I hope that we can all make 2019 a year of positive change, full of gratitude, joy, and purpose.

Here are three ideas that might inspire you:

1.  Pick a word.

Choose one word to define what you want to experience this year.  Maybe your word will be freedom (from debt, from regret, from fear).  Maybe it will be joy, mindfulness, or gratitude.  If you desire to get fit or lose weight, you might choose health, movement, or even vegetables.  Once you choose your word, let it influence other choices you make.  Let it be your mantra and your guide.

2.  Make a plan to get out of debt.

A load of debt is absolutely no fun, and can stress you and your family every single day.  When my husband and I were in debt (with an underwater mortgage, large auto loan, and about $12,000 in credit card debt), every paycheck was impacted by the need to pay at least the minimum on every bill.  We had no money to go on a date night, pursue hobbies, or even to buy extra gas to visit out of state family members.  Every time something not in the budget happened (it could be as simple as taking coats and suits to the dry cleaner, or needing to replace a bunch of worn out underwear), it was a big deal.  We had no money except what we needed to pay bills and buy basics like groceries, insurance, and auto care.  Debt made us anxious, stingy, and no fun.

What an awful way to live.  We could have been smarter.  We could have traded in the car for something cheaper, and figured out ways to bring in a little extra income.  Just a bit of budget flexibility could have kept us from continuing to use our credit cards for "emergencies."

What we really needed to change was our mindset.  We needed to see paying off debt as a challenge that would make us stronger and smarter, as well as bringing incredible freedom.  Instead, we focused on the burden and the entrapment of our situation.

If you are in debt, then you know about all of those feelings.  And the absolute best way to start 2019 with more energy and hope is to picture yourself out of debt, with a small nest egg for emergencies.  No more reliance on credit cards!  You don't need them.

A lot has been written about getting out of debt, and I'd like to recommend Dave Ramsey's work.  The Simple Dollar is also a good resource.

But the most important first step is your attitude of hope, excitement, and the can-do feeling that you don't have to be held hostage by your debt forever.  You can live now, and plan for the future, rather than be shackled by what you owe from your past.  You can breathe freely, and face each day knowing that you are in charge of your life choices, not your debt.

3.  Take small steps and a long view.

It's so easy to be discouraged when you expect yourself to change overnight.  Debt that took several years to accumulate won't be vanquished in a month.  Ditto for the extra weight you want to lose, or the clutter you want to purge.  But change that comes in small steps taken consistently adds up to something amazing!  That's where it helps to take the long view.

Yes, today I'm "x" number of pounds heavier than I want to be.  I can either give up and decide I'll always be fat (nope), cut out all foods except broccoli and quinoa (and completely fail before day one is over), or start taking small, achievable, daily steps in the right direction (take the stairs, eat fruit instead of cookies, get outside, add a vegetable).

Small steps on a long journey will get all of us where we want to go.  Little and often -- that's the key.

Friday, December 28, 2018

It's Not a Diet, It's a Lifestyle

Skip the diet.  Just eat healthy.

If you're like me, you've tried lots of diets.  Some work better than others.  But even when I've had the most success, I've found the weight loss impossible to maintain.  When "diet" means "give up entire food groups forever," I eventually, inevitably fail.  And I gain back every bit of weight.


Not only is so-called "yoyo dieting" bad for your heart, it's definitely hard on your self confidence and motivation.  Why diet at all?  I see other people eating foods I deny myself...what's wrong with me?

Turns out the process of dieting actually slows our metabolismCutting out entire food groups can lead to malnutrition.  The concept of a healthy, balanced relationship with food seems lacking in most diets.  Yet I think that's exactly what thin people have.

So I'm not going to diet.  I'm going to gradually replace processed food (including food marketed as "low carb," "low fat," "gluten free," and "sugar free") with real food that actually nourishes and energizes my body.

Interestingly, those wonderful real foods are the most basic, minimalist foods around.  Vegetables, fruits, unrefined whole grains, full-fat dairy, whole eggs, seeds and nuts and pastured meats.  Herbs and spices.  Water.  It turns out the best foods are minimalist.

What should I eat?

Start with some short-term challenges -- kickstarter plans.

The No-No Plan

Drop these ten things for 21 days and see how you feel by the end:

no cake
no candy
no chips
no chocolate
no cookies
no fast food
no ice cream
no soda
no white bread
no white pasta

The Six-Week Plan

Week by week you adopt improvements until you're using all six strategies:

Week 1:  Add real, whole fruits and veggies to every meal.  Make some of them raw.
Week 2:  Stop eating fast food.
Week 3:  Give up refined bread, grains, chips, and prepared cereals.  Switch to sprouted grain bread, brown rice, rolled or steel cut oats, and whole grain pasta.
Week 4:  Stop drinking soda and sweetened coffee drinks.
Week 5:  Eat bean-based meals four or five times a week.
Week 6:  Stop snacking.  Eat your calories in three meals a day.

Limit sugar.

Over and over, I read that the number one thing you can do for your health is to limit sugar and other sweeteners.  Now that the holidays are over, there's no excuse to have large amounts of sugar and flour in your diet or your kitchen.  Why not get rid of your stash?

Eat breakfast.

Eating breakfast helps you burn more calories throughout the day.  If you're not used to eating in the morning, or don't feel hungry, start small.  Let your metabolism adjust to being active early in the day.

Eat whole fruits, don't drink them.  Smoothies, even green ones, can be sugar bombs, and pulverizing all the fiber in a blender robs your body of the chance to burn more calories while digesting it.

The best breakfasts keep you feeling full with fewer calories.  Here are six options.

  1. 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats cooked (or soaked overnight) in 1/2 cup whole milk, topped with fresh (or frozen and thawed) fruit and chopped almonds
  2. 1/2 cup leftover cooked brown rice topped with an over easy egg, halved grape tomatoes, chopped red onion, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, served over baby spinach
  3. 1 slice Ezekiel bread toast with 1 tablespoon natural peanut butter, served with 1/2 cup full-fat plain Greek yogurt and fresh fruit
  4. 2 egg omelet made with steamed or sautéed veggies and topped with shredded cheese
  5. 1 small baked sweet potato (you can do it in the microwave) topped with 1/2 cup full-fat cottage cheese, sprinkled with cinnamon and chopped walnuts
  6. 1/2 cup canned low-salt black beans mixed with 1/2 cup fresh tomato salsa and some diced avocado, wrapped in a warm corn tortilla 
Make lunch the largest meal of the day.

With your metabolism revved up in the morning, and no snacking, you should be quite hungry by noon.

Eat bean-based dishes several times a week.  Not only are beans rich in protein, they're packed with both soluble and insoluble fiber.  The process of digesting beans burns extra calories, and both types of fiber help lower insulin levels so your body stores less fat.

A hearty vegetable soup has at least as much nutrition, and far fewer calories and fat, than a big green salad with cheese, croutons, and dressing.

Eat spicy foods, which trick your taste buds into being satisfied with smaller amounts of food.  Cayenne pepper (and its cousin, tabasco) contains capsaicin, which has been proven to reduce appetite and boost the body's ability to convert food to energy.  Here are some other spicy wonders:

  1. Black pepper contains a compound that may interfere with the formation of new fat cells.
  2. Cinnamon helps improve insulin sensitivity, especially when used on starchy foods such as oatmeal and sweet potatoes.
  3. Eating just 1 teaspoon of prepared mustard can boost metabolism for several hours, and may reduce belly fat (this doesn't apply to honey mustard).
Twelve other foods that burn belly fat:

canned chunk light tuna
full-fat plain Greek yogurt
green vegetables
peanut-only peanut butter
eggs (including the yolk)
whole grains

Eat dinner early.

Eat dinner no later than four hours before going to bed (6:00-6:30 pm).  You want to have approximately 12 hours of fasting every night in order to regularize and improve your digestion.

Cut portion sizes by using a smaller plate.  It tricks your mind into thinking there's more food, and limits what you can pile onto your plate.

Don't eat until you're full; eat until you're not hungry.

Nine healthy (and tasty) substitutes for not-so-healthy foods:

Instead of white rice, eat brown or wild rice or quinoa.
Instead of French fries, eat a small baked potato with its skin.
Instead of white pasta, eat whole grain pasta.
Instead of prepared cereal, eat old-fashioned rolled oats.
Instead of sour cream, use full-fat plain Greek yogurt.
Instead of mayonnaise, use Dijon mustard.
Instead of croutons, use chopped raw nuts and seeds.
Instead of fried chicken tenders with ranch dressing, eat grilled chicken with salsa and lime.
Instead of a bacon cheeseburger on a white bun, eat a burger on a whole grain bun with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and grilled onions

Give your sweet tooth real food.

If you're craving something sweet, eat a serving of fruit.  1/2 cup berries, a few cherries, a ripe peach, an apple, a slice of watermelon, or a banana should satisfy your sweet tooth.

Alternatively, enjoy about 1 ounce of dark chocolate (70% cacao or greater).

Studies show that some scents are natural appetite suppressants.  If you crave sweets, burn a vanilla-scented candle or sip some peppermint tea.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

15 Things To Do Before You Try To Lose Weight

Did you step on a scale this morning and panic?

I did.  The month of December undid most of what I accomplished in October and November.

However, I've been doing some research, and I think I have some smarter strategies for attempting to normalize my weight.  I'll be sharing those over the next several posts, just in time for the new year.

I combed a lot of resources, but I'd like to mention how especially useful the Eat This, Not That website has been.

Before you try to lose weight:

  1. Make a list of reasons why you want to lose weight.  Seeing the benefits of your resolution on paper will help keep you motivated.  Write your reasons on several sticky notes, and post them on the refrigerator, the bathroom mirror, your closet door.
  2. Keep track of everything you eat for one week, before you make any changes.  Include all of it:  the few bites of your husband's dessert, the mac and cheese your kid left on his plate, every little bit.  You might not realize how much you're eating until you see it written down.
  3. Don't diet.  We've all tried every fad and gimmick without long-term success.  Diets don't work!  And if you feel deprived, you'll never make it past a few weeks.  Learn to appreciate food as delicious fuel, and slowly replace processed food that cannot properly energize the body with real food that can.  After a while this will become natural, and will cease to be a daily struggle.
  4. Tell at least one other person what you're doing; tell more than one person if you like.  Sharing your resolution will give you motivation out of the sheer embarrassment of having to admit you gave up or failed.  And receiving encouragement from others when you succeed is a great boost!
  5. Ask for help.  Do you have a friend or family member who has successfully lost weight and kept it off?  Someone who has lowered his cholesterol or controlled blood sugar without drugs?  Reach out to that person.  People really do like to help others.
  6. Clean house.  Get rid of processed, sugary, fatty foods, and restock your pantry and fridge with real, whole, healthy foods.  If you have to have snacks for other family members, store them in one cupboard which you can avoid opening.
  7. Plan ahead in order to change old habits.  Plan meals for the week and make a list for grocery shopping.  Do some meal prep in your down time; for example chop veggies, cook a double batch of whole grains, fill a bowl with washed fresh fruits, or brown a pound of ground turkey for 5 Ingredient Chili.
  8. Decide how you'll handle events like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, holidays.  Will you allow yourself some "cheat foods?"  What kind and how much?  Set a limit for yourself, and get a commitment from your significant other to be especially supportive during those times.
  9. Don't beat yourself up.  Let the past stay there.  Your old habits are going to gradually die as you replace them with new ones, but that will be harder if you continue to mentally shame yourself.
  10. Don't let yourself give up.  The occasional slip doesn't mean all is lost.  You didn't gain the weight overnight, and you won't change your habits and lose it overnight either.  But don't just throw up your hands and order pepperoni pizza!  Get right back into your healthier habits.  Master that habit of starting again - it's a key to success.
  11. Change your coping mechanisms.  Chances are that some of your long-term eating habits are ways that you cope with stress, loneliness, boredom, or other negative feelings.  So when those feelings come up, you have to consciously choose to deal with them in a new way:  talk to someone, take a walk, sit in the sun, meditate, write in your gratitude journal, make and drink a cup of tea.
  12. Plan for a "cheat meal" once a week.  You never need to feel deprived, since no foods are permanently off limits.  Consequently, you'll crave them less.  But remember, this is a "cheat meal," not a "cheat day that turns into a cheat week."  Eat one serving of the food you've missed the most.
  13. Plan to reward yourself.  When you reach a milestone, treat yourself to a massage, a facial, a new piece of clothing...something meaningful that doesn't involve food.
  14. Take a 2,000 IU vitamin D supplement every day, and plan to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes in the sun, if possible.  Make sure your hands and face are exposed to get maximum health benefits.  New studies show that obesity, especially abdominal fat, is linked to vitamin D deficiency.
  15. Keep track of good things that happen.  Start the new year with an empty jar.  Every time you lose five more pounds, or resist an unhealthy food, or notice you have more energy or clearer skin, or feel celebratory without needing a drink or treat food, write it on a piece of paper and put it in the jar.  Next New Year's Eve, empty the jar to see all the awesome stuff you accomplished.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Favorite Carol

Happy Christmas Eve!

I'd like to share a favorite Christmas carol which I've loved since I was about four years old.  I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of my parents' hi-fi, listening to Julie Andrews' glorious voice.

The Wexford Carol

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending His beloved Son.

With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas day;
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.

With thankful heart and joyful mind,
The shepherds went the Babe to find,
And as God's angel had foretold,
They did our Savior Christ behold.

With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas day;
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.

You can listen here, if you like.

Enjoy this special day and night, leading into the Christmas celebration tomorrow.

Friday, December 21, 2018

This Holiday, Dispense Spiritual WD-40

It's the time of year for family togetherness.

And while that can be wonderful, as we share memories, inside jokes, and that comfortable sense of belonging with our loved ones, it can also be stressful.  Not all memories are good, and no relationship is without its bumps.

We love to sing about "peace on earth, goodwill to all."  But how can we actually live at peace, when there's so much potential for stress?

Areas of disagreement cause stress.

Sometimes it's the "no go" areas, the things that are left unsaid, the subjects we don't touch on, that can make an otherwise happy gathering unsatisfactory.

To avoid disagreements, I don't talk about politics or some religious topics with my family, since I know we have different opinions.  That strategy may keep things civil, but I realize I've sacrificed any chance for my siblings to really know me, and I've given in to the assumption that we can't possibly understand each other or find common ground.  That's lonely, and reduces our interactions to trivia.

I do think the holidays are a bad time to deliberately press on areas of disagreement.  If I want a more frank discussion with my siblings, with the hope that we will at least be able to air differing points of view in a respectful manner, I should be attempting that at other times of the year.

What if someone else brings up a contentious topic?  Don't allow yourself to be drawn into an argument.  Just change the subject.

Lack of forgiveness causes stress.

When you're with people you've known all your life, there are bound to be a few areas of friction.  There will be instances in which you've been less than loving and kind to each other over the years.

It's hard to forgive, but it can also be hard to carry a grudge.  That requires remembering past hurts and nurturing our sense of outrage.  It's not a comfortable way to live.  But I'm certainly childish enough to remember some ancient insults and disappointments.

How can I become more forgiving?  Anne Lamott, in talking about this subject, suggests that we remember what a miracle it is that we are even here, and how amazing it is to even be part of a family.  I am very fortunate to have grown up in a family that was mostly functional, as did my husband.  In holding them to an unattainable standard of perfection, I wrong them.

When I carry resentment or bitterness, I clearly demonstrate that I too am in need of forgiveness.  Lamott goes on to say,

"Earth is forgiveness school.
It begins with forgiving yourself,
and then you might as well start at the dinner table...."

If you are the one who has caused the injury, why not make a phone call to apologize?  Perhaps you can make it right today.

Envy causes stress.

Envy is poison to a relationship.  The family member who has been unusually successful in a career, whose child made it to an Ivy League university, or who enjoys large financial resources can stir up comparisons and jealousy among other family members.  Sometimes the one with advantages can't stop talking about them; other times you are the one who doesn't control your resentment, even if they aren't bragging.

You can't enjoy the holiday while comparing your home, your budget, or the number and size of gifts under your tree.  Wanting more than what you have just leads to depression at any time of the year.  For your own sake, cultivate your sense of appreciation.

If you have a family member who tends to brag, ask yourself why he feels the need to do that.  Maybe he envies something about your lifestyle.  If you're the person in an enviable situation, be humble, be generous, and make it clear you're interested in hearing about other people's trials and triumphs.

Abuse causes stress.

In situations where there is true abuse, even if it is in the past, you may need to strictly limit the time you spend with someone, even if they're family.  If your mother can't stop berating and belittling you or your child, you probably don't want to spend any part of the holiday with her.  In the interest of maintaining a scrap of connection, you might choose to meet on neutral ground, such as a restaurant, for a meal either before or after Christmas.  Keep the visit as short and sweet as you can, but calmly leave if the abuse starts.

Indifference causes stress.

Don't ignore the older people at your gathering.  Listen to Papa's stories about his WWII experiences, and pay attention to Grandma's memories of working as a phone switchboard operator in the early 50s.  This is your heritage, and it's real history.  And you know these loved ones won't be around forever.

And since we're on the subject, why take the time to be with family if you're just going to ignore them once you're together?  Can we please, just for the day, turn off the TV and computer and set aside our phones?  The people right in front of us are human beings.  They are more important than anything we can access with our devices.

This is the time of year for peace.

Let peace begin inside yourself, peace with the past and with who you are now.  As far as it depends on you, let interactions with others be positive.  You can't control the reactions of anyone else, but you can choose to be a dispenser of grace.

"Grace is spiritual WD-40....
The mystery of grace is that God loves...Vladimir Putin and me
exactly as much as he loves your new grandchild."

Anne Lamott 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Celebrate the Solstice

This Friday, December 21 is the winter solstice this year.  This is the day the northern hemisphere is pointed at its farthest distance from the sun.  This occurrence is also known as "midwinter," even though in modern meteorology the December solstice marks the beginning of winter.

The winter solstice has been celebrated for thousands of years.

Many symbols we associate with Christmas, and use in celebrating the birth of Jesus, have actually been used by people all over the world in connection with the winter solstice.  Early Christian leaders chose December 25 as the celebration of Jesus' birth (which many Biblical scholars believe actually occurred in the spring) because it coincided with the Roman festival "Birthday of the Invincible Sun."  By Christianizing the festival and its associated symbols, the early church offered a way for new converts to understand the miracle of Jesus, the Son of God, coming as a human baby to be the Savior of the world.

Observing the solstice is a great way to be aware of the natural world.  

Pay attention as the period of daylight grows slowly shorter until the solstice, which marks a reversal of the sun's ebbing presence in the sky.  It's a good reminder of the blessings of change, growth, and new beginnings.

10 ideas for celebrating the solstice:

  1. Go outside and watch the sunset on Friday, December 21, or watch the sunrise on Saturday morning.
  2. Evergreens represented eternal life to ancient people, because unlike other plants they did not seem to die in winter.  Holly, ivy, pine, fir, cedar, and juniper are all ancient symbols of life, rebirth, protection, and prosperity.  If you don't already have a live Christmas tree, make a wreath from evergreen cuttings, or take a walk in the woods or a park to collect evergreen cones.
  3. Some ancient peoples lit bonfires and offered sacrifices to coax the sun to return at the solstice.  We can simply light candles.  Natural beeswax candles are especially appropriate, since the wax is a renewable product of worker bees who feed on honey.  Honey starts as nectar, which is produced by plants using energy from the sun.
  4. Appreciate this dark time of year by taking a drive around town to view Christmas light displays.  If you have outdoor lights, consider letting them shine all night.
  5. The ancient Norse called this time of year "Jul" ("Yule") meaning "wheel."  The seasons of the year follow an ongoing cycle we can count on.  If you have a fireplace or an outdoor fire pit, burn an oak log for Yule.
  6. Create a Christmas tree for wild birds.
  7. Invite others to a solstice meal.  Sharing food implies faith that the seasons will return as they should, ensuring future harvests.  A solstice meal could feature fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains.  
  8. Though most of us today are blessed with an overabundance of food, for ancient people, winter was a time of starvation.  Make a generous donation to your local food bank, or volunteer at a soup kitchen to help feed those in need.
  9. This is a great night to go caroling.  Carry lanterns or flashlights to bring light as well as music to your neighborhood, and include songs that mention solstice symbols, such as "The Holly and the Ivy," "Oh Christmas Tree," and "Deck the Halls." 
  10. Use your slow cooker to prepare some wassail to enjoy after caroling.  You'll need:
8 cups (1/2 gallon) apple cider
2 cups orange juice
1 large navel orange
16-20 whole cloves
4 (3 inch) cinnamon sticks
4 (1/4 inch thick) slices fresh ginger, smashed (optional)

Wash the orange and cut it in half through the "equator."
Stud half the orange with the cloves; thinly slice the remainder.
Add all ingredients to a 4 or 5 quart slow cooker; stir together.
Cover and heat on the LOW setting until flavors combine, about 3 hours.
Ladle into mugs and enjoy!

Adult beverage variations:

Replace the orange juice with 1 (750 ml) bottle of dry red wine.
Make the wassail with the orange juice as described above.
When serving, spike each cup with 1 ounce brandy, bourbon, or rum.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Christmas Ghosts

How do you celebrate the holidays when you're haunted by sadness and regret?

The former residents of Paradise, California (about 50 miles from where I live) must dream about the Camp Fire inferno that destroyed their town.  They're mourning the loss of homes and businesses, safety and security.  Some have lost livestock, pets, and family members.  They might be wondering, "How can we celebrate Christmas now?  What is there to celebrate?"

Like the victims of this devastating fire, many of us are haunted by ghosts as Christmas draws near.  Not apparitions, but memories and feelings of hurt, heartbreak, disappointment, and hopelessness.  We've lost family, friends, marriages, dreams.  I can't help but think of my dad, whose birthday is the day after Christmas.  He died as a result of the cruel degenerative neuromuscular disease ALS more than twelve years ago.  I recently got news about another loved one that makes me anxious and sad, and I cannot resign myself to it.  I'm haunted by the wish that things could be different.

Struggle is part of life, so I'm sure we have this in common.  And that's actually helpful when it comes to living with Christmas ghosts.

Find a friend you can talk to.

There's an old saying, "A burden shared is a burden halved."  It might sound trite, but it's true.  We can sympathize with each other's hurts because we've experienced them too.  Your friend doesn't need to be in your exact situation in order to listen and commiserate, and he can lift your spirits just by being there.

Here's another old saying by Saint Francis of Assisi:  "It is in giving that we receive."  We've all been taught to help others and to share unselfishly, but with modern fMRI technology it's been proved that helping others activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex.  Altruism is actually pleasurable for humans.

Find a way to volunteer your services.

Volunteering connects you to others and strengthens relationships.  This in turn relieves stress and depression.  It provides a sense of accomplishment, which will bolster your feelings of self worth. Helping another person can take your mind off your own worries and provide meaning and purpose, which will improve your outlook on the future.  Generosity not only helps others, but increases your own health and happiness.  It's a win-win situation!

"One act of thanksgiving made when things go wrong is worth a thousand when things go well."  Okay, that one's a challenge.  Yes, it's pretty easy to feel thankful when the sun is shining and all is right in your world.  Why shouldn't we feel grateful when our needs and wants are met?

Find something...anything...for which to give thanks.

The real test is being grateful even when life gets hard, especially when you're hurt by an event you don't deserve.

We need to change our response to adversity.  But how?

It's a choice, and something that takes practice.  To lose your home and livelihood in a wildfire, but still be able to appreciate the outpouring of help from friends, family, and thousands of strangers is an art.  To sit nearly immobile in a wheelchair and yet express gratitude to your caregivers and interest in their lives and families is a triumph.

I can mourn my dad and the long decline that ended in his death, or I can be grateful for all he did for me, for our relationship and the good memories I have of him.  I can fret and fear this new situation involving another loved one, or I can give thanks for his honesty and for how much I'm going to have to learn because of this challenge.

When my husband and I had to give up our house after the 2008 economic downturn, we could have decided to blame others and become bitter and mired in our own mistakes.  Instead, we chose to be thankful for the opportunity to start over and to find out how little our happiness depended on where we lived or what we owned.

Can we possibly give thanks for our Christmas ghosts?  Losses and disappointments make us better people if we gain wisdom, faith, and compassion as a result.  As Ebenezer Scrooge learned, regret is a springboard for change.  I pray that the fire victims, and all of us, will let this holiday transform us.


Donate to help victims of the Camp wildfire

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

100 Ingredients for a Simple, Cozy Christmas

What makes Christmas cozy?

I sat down with a pen and paper to answer this question.  Here are my answers.


1.     driving into the mountains to cut a fresh Christmas tree
2.     making simple ornaments together
3.     coming into the warm house after a long tromp in the woods (or the park)
4.     singing Christmas carols around the piano
5.     helping a neighbor or a stranger
6.     watching the classic black and white Miracle on 34th Street together
7.     stargazing on a clear winter night, well bundled against the cold
8.     enjoying a therapeutic massage on a heated table
9.     being a Secret Santa
10.   baking and decorating cookies together
11.   reading Christmas books, such as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, aloud to each other
12.   walking through a neighborhood bright with holiday lights
13.   collecting canned goods for the local food bank
14.   singing "Silent Night" under the stars on Christmas Eve while holding a small taper candle
15.   watching a toddler open his gifts and play with the boxes and wrappings rather than the toys


16.   a long, soft knitted scarf
17.   a cashmere turtleneck
18.   a Pendleton wool shirt, soft from many washings
19.   a cotton waffle weave Henley-style shirt
20.   favorite jeans
21.   a well-worn leather jacket
22.   merino wool socks
23.   L. L. Bean fleece-lined boots
24.   a hand-crocheted poncho or wrap
25.   flannel pajamas

Food and Drink

26.   spicy gingerbread cookies
27.   a steaming mug of cocoa
28.   a bowl of salty, freshly popped corn
29.   a kettle of soup gently simmering on the stove
30.   my mother's savory corn pudding
31.   crisp, sweet apples
32.   warm sourdough bread slathered with butter
33.   juicy clementines
34.   roasted sweet potatoes
35.   a latte with pretty foam art
36.   cinnamon toast
37.   balsamic glazed Brussels sprouts
38.   oatmeal with raisins and a drizzle of honey
39.   a pot of Earl Grey tea
40.   homemade pumpkin pie with fresh whipped cream
41.   chicken roasted with olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary, and lemon
42.   buckwheat pancakes with real maple syrup
43.   mulled wine
44.   meatloaf and mashed potatoes
45.   using your mother's or grandmother's recipes

Every Day Home and Hearth

46.   a merrily crackling wood fire
47.   glowing candles
48.   a comfy high-backed chair
49.   a soft rug beside the bed
50.   sparkling glass canisters
51.   leather-bound books
52.   a round pedestal dining table
53.   an extra blanket on the bed
54.   lamplight
55.   English ironstone
56.   a well-loved Teddy bear
57.   polished wood
58.   a ticking clock
59.   cushy throw pillows
60.   a quilted coverlet

Holiday Décor

61.   a wreath made with fresh evergreen cuttings
62.   vintage cardboard and mica Christmas villages
63.   a large bare branch in a pitcher, hung with gilded pine cones and strings of cranberries
64.   brown paper packages tied with red strings
65.   outdoor luminarias or snow candles
66.   a festive family photo in the perfect frame
67.   strings of Christmas lights
68.   a glass bowl filled with favorite shiny ornaments
69.   vintage Santa mugs
70.   a family heirloom creche


71.   a full moon in the deep blue early morning sky
72.   bare trees in silhouette against a winter sunset
73.   new-fallen snow
74.   the scent of a fir tree
75.   cardinals
76.   the constellation Orion rising in the east on a clear, cold night
77.   alpine glow on a snowy mountain
78.   mist on the winter-green Sutter Buttes
79.   robins
80.   holly, pyracantha, and nandina berries


81.   cuddles with your partner
82.   friends around the table talking and laughing
83.   children cooperatively playing a board game or building with Legos on the rug
84.   a friendly cat curled in your lap
85.   your family piled together on the sofa
86.   a visit with an old friend
87.   hugs and kisses from your loved ones
88.   a companionable dog at your feet
89.   a toddler contentedly leaning against you as you read a pile of picture books together
90.   sharing happy memories and inside jokes

Sounds of the Season

91.   Julie Andrews singing "Joy to the World"
92.   sleigh bells
93.   carolers
94.   Nat King Cole singing "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting...")
95.   laughter and ho-ho-hos
96.   the silence of a snowy forest
97.   festive music from The Nutcracker
98.   cheerful calls of "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays"
99.   the sound of rain on the roof as you read a favorite book cozily by the fire
100. Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas"

What makes Christmas cozy for you?   

Monday, December 10, 2018

Give Without Buying

You don't have to shop in order to give.

Giving is an act of generosity and thoughtfulness, and those qualities aren't sold in stores.  Here are thirteen non-consumer gift ideas, large and small.

  1. Make a phone call.  Spend some time catching up with a friend or family member you aren't able to see often.
  2. Do something fun together.  Go on a day trip to the beach or go on a hike.  Pack a picnic lunch and meet at a sunny spot in the park.  Get together to bake cookies or to watch a favorite movie.
  3. Donate to their favorite charity.  You can give money, but sometimes the best gift is your time.  Help with a local river cleanup, volunteer at the animal shelter, ring a bell for the Salvation Army, or maybe plant a tree with the Arbor Day Foundation.  Take a picture and send it to your loved one. 
  4. Embellish a plain notebook with scrapbook paper and stickers.  Label it (Your Friend)'s Gratitude Journal.  On the first page, write a list of reasons you are grateful to have this person in your life.  Thank them in writing for all the ways they have blessed you.
  5. Give someone a foot or shoulder massage.  Watch their stress melt away.
  6. Serve brunch or dinner.  Invite a few family members or friends.  Cook your favorite dishes, set a nice table, light candles.  Enjoy each other's company.  Alternatively, prepare the food for your friends' freezer, and give them the gift of a ready-made, home-cooked meal.
  7. Write a letter.  Written correspondence is more personal and durable than a digital note can ever be.  Its uniqueness and warmth, and the effort expended in producing it, make it more valuable today than ever.
  8. Share your expertise.  What do you know how to do?  Cook, garden, sew, paint a room, work with wood, repair a car, replace a faucet?  Do a job for someone, or offer to teach your skills.
  9. Collect family lore.  Recipes, memories, anecdotes, pictures.  Ask for contributions to be sent digitally, then print and compile them in binders.  
  10. Reuse old jeans.  Make an apron, a tote bag, or a comfy pillow.  There are tons of tutorials online.
  11. Give someone a valuable possession of your own that you think they'd like to have.  Examples:  a piece of jewelry, a vase or candle holder, a musical instrument, a favorite book, a Le Creuset casserole, a classic leather bag, an heirloom photograph.
  12. Create a treasure hunt.  We did this at Christmas and on birthdays, and our kids loved it!  Instead of putting gifts under the tree, hide them throughout the house.  Create a trail of written clues with silly puns, riddles, or poems, or challenge them to complete "heroic tasks," such as "Play 'Silent Night' on a kazoo!" "Say 'Merry Christmas' in a foreign language!" or "Name at least four of Santa's reindeer!"
  13. Design a "Gift of the Month Club."  Make a decorated scroll listing twelve tasks (such as babysitting, washing their car, raking leaves, etc.) or homemade items (such as cookies, bread, jam, roses from your garden, upcycled luggage tags, etc.) you can give throughout the coming year.  Of course you'll arrange dates and times to suit your recipient's schedule.
These gifts will surprise and please your loved ones while keeping you far more creatively occupied than any shopping trip.  Happy giving!

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Pre-Christmas Clear Out

December is a great time to declutter.

Not only can you make room for the tree and for gifts, but you can help the whole family feel less overwhelmed by holiday bustle and stress.  A Pre-Christmas Clear Out benefits everyone in so many ways:
  • You're free to enjoy the fun of the season.
  • You're prepared for guests.
  • You're aware of how much you already have, causing gratitude and contentment.
  • You're aware of what your family needs, so you can suggest suitable gift ideas to those who ask.
  • You begin the new year feeling more in control of your home, already started on the road to less clutter and more freedom.
You're extra busy, so this clear out is not an intense purge.  It's a quick, refreshing chance to set the stage for all that the holiday will bring.  None of these projects should bog you down or take more than an hour or so; in fact, several can be done in about fifteen minutes.

Feeling ready?  Let's begin.

Start with your children's spaces.

Much of holiday gift-giving centers around children, which is wonderful.  But even if you're pleading for restraint from family and friends, chances are your kids will receive more than they need.  Increase their pleasure for receiving new things by teaching them to clear out some of the old.
  • Throw out toys that are broken or missing pieces.
  • Toss the freebies that came with kid's meals or as party favors.
  • Remove toys your child has outgrown, and let him donate these to a daycare center, preschool, or family homeless shelter.
  • Trash hopelessly stained clothing.
  • Donate outgrown clothes in good condition.

Streamline your closet.

Simplify getting dressed in the morning or ready for evening activities by paring down your wardrobe to what you actually use and what makes you feel confident and attractive.
  • Give away clothing that isn't right for you (not your color, cut, or style)
  • Return clothes that still have the tags on, unless you can make a plan to wear them this month.
  • Donate clothes that don't fit.
  • Toss stained or ripped clothing, or cut up for rags.
  • Give extra winter gear to a homeless shelter.

Declutter your kitchen.

This is an area where the unused and unnecessary can really hinder efforts to celebrate the season, since so many holiday rituals and traditions involve food.  Make meal and treat preparation 100% easier.
  • Clear the pantry of foods past their expiration date, and food you're never going to eat.  Toss the outdated, and give usable items to the local food bank.
  • Throw away old foods from the refrigerator, and empty it completely.  Mix 2 cups hot water, 1 cup white vinegar, and 10 drops lemon essential oil in a spray bottle.  Spray inside the fridge, let sit for a couple of minutes, then wipe with a damp cloth.  Restock.
  • Donate duplicates, such as extra gadgets, novelty mugs, your third set of dishes, and any small appliances you bought during the year (or received as a gift last Christmas!) that haven't become well-used, go-to items.
  • Delete the junk drawer.  You will never need 59 rubber bands and 48 twist ties.  Or Taco Bell receipts.  Or power cords and keys for items you no longer own.

Welcome guests.

Even if you aren't hosting overnight guests, you'll want to be ready when your neighbor drops by and your cousin brings his fiancé to dinner.
  • Prepare a hot drinks tray with a selection of tea bags, honey, cocoa packets, peppermint stirrers, a small pitcher for milk, mugs and teaspoons, and an insulated carafe for hot water.  Just boil the kettle and serve your guest.
  • Inspect the linen closet.  Repurpose stained and frayed items (pet shelters welcome old towels), donate duplicates, and wash or air out items you haven't used since last winter.
  • Put clean sheets on the guest bed and an extra blanket folded across the foot.
  • Remove items stored under the bed.  Either donate them or find another place to store them.
  • Free up space in the closet for a luggage rack and a few empty hangers.

Refresh your bathroom.

In the bathroom, pristine and uncluttered beats crowded and grungy every time.
  • Dump half-used products you didn't like down the drain (where they'd end up anyway) and recycle the bottles.
  • Discard unused or expired medications in a sealed plastic bag mixed with coffee grounds or kitty litter to discourage scavengers.
  • Toss old makeup and simplify your routine.  Do you use three types of foundation or five shades of lipstick?  Keep only your favorite.
  • Use your nice towels and get rid of the mismatched junk.
  • Clear the counter of all but hand soap and maybe a scented candle or reed diffuser.  Store products you use every day in the space freed by decluttering.

Live in your living room.

For many of us, the living room has become the place where we watch television.  Wouldn't you rather encourage conversation, board games, reading, and listening to music?
  • Make space by permanently removing one or more pieces of furniture.  Do you need a couch, a love seat, and three arm chairs?  Can you wall-mount the TV and remove the entertainment center?
  • Move the television to a side wall, rather than the focal wall.
  • Arrange seating to face each other, rather than the TV.  Place a low table in the center of the conversation group.
  • Fill a basket with holiday books, and make it convenient to play music.  Keep some favorite board games nearby.
  • Remove all knickknacks and dust the tables, shelves, and mantel.  Maybe it's time to let go of items you barely notice any more!  Leave end tables clear, and choose one item, such as the creche set or a blooming poinsettia, to decorate the coffee table.  Display groups of candles or your Santa figurines on the mantel.  Decorate the tree and call it done!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Less Stuff, More Satisfaction

There are dozens of free and low-cost ways to celebrate the holidays.  Plenty of time-saving strategies.  A lot of discussion about giving experiences rather than stuff.  But spending less, saving time, and giving fewer tangible gifts won't necessarily lead to a happy minimalist holiday.

Minimalism is about keeping only what you need and love, making space for things and activities you care about by discarding things and activities you don't.  Simply cutting costs and clutter may leave you feeling stingy and unsatisfied.

Buy and do less in order to experience more fulfillment.

Happiness comes from meeting needs and desires.  So to achieve satisfaction, you must discover what you need and want.  Take some time to ponder these questions.

Why are you celebrating this holiday?

It's easy to go through the motions, to work at a to-do list simply because it exists.  But any holiday is just a date on a calendar until you give it significance.

So why exactly are you celebrating?  Is it the religious aspects of the holiday that have the deepest meaning for you?  Maybe so.  But maybe the lights and sparkle and upbeat atmosphere excite you the most, regardless of any other meaning assigned to the holiday.  Maybe the season is just a great excuse to party.  Maybe you love to cook, bake, craft, or decorate, and the holidays are the perfect excuse to indulge that interest.  Maybe what you most desire is a sense of hope, peace, kindness, and goodwill.

Try to uncover what is essential to your celebration, then limit your purchases and activities accordingly.

How do you set limits?

Leo Babauta, author of the blog Zen Habits, asks

"If you have 50 things on your plate,
will you really have time to eat all those things?...
Will you enjoy all of them?
What if you only limited your plate to five things?

You could choose your five favorite holiday activities, and ignore everything else.  Or if parties and get-togethers make you happy, accept only five invitations.  Five is an arbitrary number; the point is, don't wear yourself out trying to make every gathering, but choose those with your favorite people or venues.

If baking cookies is your thing, bake only five kinds to mix and match for all of your gift trays, or even pick just one kind as your signature specialty.  Or choose to spend plenty of time baking, and don't worry about decorating every last corner of the house, if it's a job rather than a joy.

If singing Christmas music is important to you, you probably won't join five choirs.  But I've sung in three choirs, with three sets of rehearsals and three sets of concerts, and I was so busy it just became a chore.  Opting for one choir would have been more enjoyable.  And by all means, quit choir or anything else if the only reason you're there is guilt or habit.  The choir is better off with members who are fulfilled and excited by the activity; you are better off doing something that thoroughly satisfies you.

To choose means to say "no."

In a culture where we're encouraged to say "yes" to everything, saying "no" can be hard.  But "no" is a word of self respect.  It's a word that sets boundaries and offers freedom.

Of course, there are some things you really must do, whether they make your heart sing or not.  Getting your child to every rehearsal so she can dance with her class in The Nutcracker may be something you can't skip.  But it was her choice, right?  She really loves it, right?  She's humming the music and practicing her moves at home with no prompting from you, right?  Because if she's not, and if ballet is just something you think is "good for her," then maybe this was a time to say "no."  Maybe the opportunity to work at something truly satisfying has been sacrificed for the sake of pride, conformity, fear of missing out, or lack of imagination.

Challenge yourself to make true choices.  As Leo cautions,

"Don't just widen the floodgates because you don't want to choose.
Choose, and your life will get simpler."  

Simpler, and more fulfilling.

Who do you want to spend time with?

Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, store clerks, strangers?  That's a lot of people.  A lot of time and energy.  Do you really want to spend Christmas Eve with one set of relatives, Christmas morning with another set, and then go to an office party Christmas night?  Maybe you do.  But make it a conscious choice, not a "command performance."  Maybe you'd rather have all of the relatives come to your house, or maybe you'll visit one set this Christmas and the others next year.  Maybe you'll say "no" to the Christmas night party, opt for caroling with your kids instead, and enjoy a night out with work friends on New Year's Eve.

Time and attention are the most valuable gifts you can give.  Choose your recipients intentionally.

During the holidays, and always, less is more.

Fewer social and volunteer commitments means less frantic rushing, and more energy for the activities that have the most meaning for you. 

Fewer decorations means less fussing and cleaning, and more relaxed time for fun with family and friends. 

Fewer fancy foods means less weight gain, and more to give to those who lack the basics.

Fewer mall-bought gifts means less debt and more creativity.

You say you want more?

How about more purpose and more quality.  Less hassle and more happiness.  Less stuff and more satisfaction.

Monday, December 3, 2018

A Silent Night

The modern celebration of Christmas is anything but silent, isn't it?  We seem to do more, go more, buy more, eat more, drive more...and it all adds up to noise!  I know it seems Grinch-like to complain about noise at Christmas, but I think we all crave a bit of calm this time of year.  Just consider our response to the song "Silent Night."

"Silent Night" is one of the most beloved carols in the world.

It was declared "an intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO in 2011.  It's been recorded hundreds of times by singers in every genre, and Bing Crosby's rendition is the third best-selling single of all time.  For many who go to church on Christmas Eve, singing "Silent Night" with family and strangers while holding a lighted candle is one of the highlights of the season.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
'Round yon virgin mother and child,
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

What is the appeal of this simple song?  Is it the melody, a beautiful lullaby with a rocking lilt?  Is it the words, which speak of an awe and wonder that lead to peace and rest?

The candle-lit "Silent Night" that we love is the still point between the bustle of holiday activities and the excitement of Christmas morning.

It's the eye of the storm.  The holiday whirlwind can be a lot of fun, but I think we also need a bit of quiet and contemplation.

Why not give yourself the gift of at least one silent night this holiday season?  Take a break from baking and wrapping and Christmas card addressing.  Turn off the TV, the computer, your phone, and the oft-repeated jangle of Santa songs and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."  Take a few deep cleansing breaths and get ready to enjoy some awe and peace.

Choose a clear night, if you can.  Bundle up and take a walk to admire your neighborhood's holiday lights.  Stroll.  This isn't a race or a workout.  If there's a park near you, walk away from the busy street so you can see the moon and stars.  The winter constellations are so brilliant!  My favorite is Orion, with the orange star Betelgeuse, diamond-blue Rigel, and the incredibly bright Sirius following behind.

For just a few minutes, sit on a bench in the silence and the darkness and the radiance of the sky.

Make your way back home.  In a quiet room, light several candles.  If you're in the living room, turn on the Christmas tree lights and start a blaze in the fireplace or wood stove.  Sit quietly and sip on some hot cocoa, hot cider, a glass of wine, or some herbal tea.  Continue to breath deeply, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the candlelight.

If you start to feel sleepy, why not go to bed early?  You can always get up early and do the chores you feel are pressing.  Or you can catch up on needed sleep by getting up at your usual time.

If your mind is awake as you sit in silence and firelight, you could write in your gratitude journal, or read a Christmas story such as "The Gift of the Magi," "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey," or "The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree."  Sure, these are children's books, but the stories are timeless and true to the heart of Christmas.

If you feel even more inspired, why not draw a picture or write a poem?  I don't consider myself a poet, but last year I was inspired to try.

Shadows long,
Sun goes down,
Lamps turned on all over town.

Moon in mist,
First star's light,
Long awaited Christmas night.

Joy and peace
Come to you,
May Christmas fill your heart anew.

End the evening by softly singing "Silent Night," or play it on an instrument if you know how.  Even though it means using your phone or the computer, you could listen to Bing Crosby's 1947 recording on YouTube, or check out recordings by Stevie Nicks, Kathleen Battle, and Pentatonix.

You may love this light-filled, quiet interlude so much that you want to make time to do it more than once during the season.

Alone, or with your family joining you, a Silent Night may be the making of your holiday.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A Handmade Christmas

There's still time to hand make gifts for Christmas!

Several of the following projects can be finished in a couple of hours while you're watching a holiday movie.  Some can be done by your kids or with their help.  All are useful or will be used up, so they won't contribute to anyone's clutter.

For the family
  • Using large needles and chunky yarn, knit or crochet a cozy throw.  If you're not sure of an appropriate color, choose ivory.
  • Gather quart-size glass jars and grocery store ingredients for homemade bean soup mix or cookie mix.
  • Roll up some beeswax candles.
  • Tie a fleece blanket.
  • Create a wall calendar using Shutterfly

For Her
  • Knit or crochet a soft and cozy scarf or shawl with variegated Red Heart Unforgettable yarn.
  • Mix up some sugar body scrub.
  • Sew some therapeutic hot/cold rice packs.
  • Embellish a sweatshirt (there are hundreds more ideas online).
  • Make a laminated bookmark with your own art, a poem, dried flowers, or even embroidery.  Give it along with a favorite book. 

For Him

For Kids
  • Knit or crochet a warm hat in chunky Premier Sweet Roll yarn.
  • Collect tree branches to make a set of blocks.  Add a few Schleich animals who can live in the structures created with the blocks.
  • Use scrapbook supplies to embellish a plain notebook for a personalized journal.  Include a pack of gel pens with your gift.
  • Paint a rock, or a family of rocks.  Put together a kit so they can paint their own.
  • Pack a dress-up kit in an old suitcase.  Visit a thrift store (or your own closet) for items such as costume jewelry, scarves or bandanas, a tutu, a plastic tiara, an old white dress shirt, an old leather vest, an eye patch, hats, a plastic sword, a black cape, a wand, old sunglasses, a belt, a feather boa, an apron, purses and play money, an old lace tablecloth, whatever you can find that seems fun!

We give gifts to show our love, right?  Making a gift with time and care adds even more value for your recipient.  So get creative today! 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

7 Ways to Be a Minimalist Parent During the Holidays

By late November, toys have been relentlessly advertised for months.  Long lines of children wait to meet the mall Santa, encouraged to ask for whatever they want.  Letters to Santa, some asking for dozens of toys, are mailed.  At school, the dominant conversation is about who wants what and whether their Christmas wish will come true.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles, even kindly strangers on the street greet kids with the question, "What do you want for Christmas?"

In this atmosphere, the minimalist parent can feel like a Grinch and his kids can feel cheated if the holiday haul seems inadequate.

You've read the latest studies confirming that children are happier with fewer toys.  They're less distracted, more creative, and more engaged in their play.  They imagine and make do more effectively.  With fewer toys, they're more likely to take care of what they have, and the whole family benefits from less clutter and frustration.

So your values are clear.  How do you implement these values without sacrificing fun and festivity?  Here are seven ideas for turning your child's focus away from "I want this" and "I want that" this holiday season.

1.  When it comes to making your children happy, time together is the most important gift of all.

Gather the kids and have a family conversation about what the holidays would be like without any presents.  Would you still have fun?

Of course you would.  Ask the kids to come up with specific things you could do together that everyone would enjoy.
  • You could visit Grandma.
  • You could make fudge.
  • You could go caroling with your friends.
  • You could drive into the mountains to that tree farm you like, and spend the afternoon hunting for your favorite fir.
  • You could make tree ornaments and play Christmas music while you decorate.
  • You could drink a lot of hot chocolate.
  • You could go see the "Nutcracker" ballet.
  • You could read holiday stories aloud.
  • You could make care packages for the homeless.
  • You could take a drive and look at all the twinkling lights around town.
  • You could build a family of snowmen.
  • You could watch "Elf."
  • You could invite all the cousins for a sleepover in front of the Christmas tree.
There are so many enjoyable things that can be part of the holiday season even without presents.  As you can see, once the ideas start rolling, the list can grow and grow.  You could post the list on the refrigerator, or write the ideas on separate strips of paper and put them in a decorative jar.  Whenever there's some free time, choose an idea and make it happen.  You'll find yourselves walking in the park to collect pine cones, or making a gingerbread house, or ice skating.

This process simply makes it clear that the best, most memorable parts of the holiday season have nothing to do with receiving gifts.  They don't need to cost a lost of money.  It's the time and togetherness that make them so valuable.

2.  Establish minimalist gift-giving traditions.

This could mean one large gift plus smaller "stocking" items, or one gift for the whole family plus one gift for each child, or the semi-traditional "one thing they want, one thing they need, one thing to wear, and one thing to read."

3.  Buy fewer gifts, but ones that are strongly desired.

Get ideas by paying attention to what your kids are saying and doing on a day-to-day basis.  What do they choose for their free time?  What activities would they like to try, or become more involved with?  What skills are they interested in acquiring?  What do they ask you about?  If you're noticing these things, you can pick up lots of gift ideas without ever engaging them in the "I want..." mindset.

4.  Don't browse for wants.

Whether online, at the mall, or in an old-fashioned catalog, don't go looking for things to want.

5.  Ask relatives to bring requests for gift ideas to you, not the kids.

I always appreciated such requests, because it was clear the grandpa or auntie in question really wanted to choose a gift that would be appreciated by my child.  But when they ask the child directly, it encourages more and more thoughts about stuff they want.  Plenty of wants come up in ordinary, advertisement-filled life.  Why encourage it?

6.  Involve your children in choosing, making or purchasing, and wrapping gifts for others.

Kids love to be generous, so foster that.  Encourage them to focus on what others (such as teachers, grandparents, or cousins) might want, need, or like to have or experience.

7.  Make charity an important part of your holidays.

Make sure your kids know there are other kids who don't have toys, or enough clothing or food, or even a family or a place to live.  This isn't meant to inspire guilt, but to emphasize the abundance your family has and may sometimes take for granted.  Participate in a local toy drive, volunteer at a soup kitchen or food bank, or donate an animal through Heifer International or World Vision. 

"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.   
Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"  
 Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas 

Monday, November 26, 2018

A Gift List For People Who Actually Need Gifts

'Tis the season for "Best Gift Ideas" lists in every magazine.  These tend to be trendy, expensive, and full of soon-to-be clutter.  They also seem to be for people who have everything they need and most of what they want.

Here in northern California, devastating fires have destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.  While insurance will eventually help most people recover, many are currently homeless, jobless, and needing to move elsewhere to start over.  I haven't seen any "Best Gift Ideas" that would have value for them.

You may have friends or family who are seeking work, others who are in "starter" or other low-wage jobs, some who are paying off student loans or consumer debt, who are living on a fixed income, or who are living frugally in order to save toward a goal (a car, a house, their kids' college, etc.).  You don't want to insult someone or come across like a financial know-it-all, but you don't want to ignore the situation either.

A recent poll shows that young adults with student debt overwhelmingly prefer money to pay the debt, rather than a typical holiday gift.  That's probably true for anyone under the burden of debt, unemployment, or dependence on Social Security.  Haven't we all been in situations where just a little help would go a long way toward making life simpler and less stressful?

Why not give a gift that can make a difference?

Let's spread a little comfort and joy.  Suggestions are listed by category, but there's plenty of overlap.  Gifts in one category might be perfect for someone in a different situation.

For the currently or recently unemployed
  • Make a utility payment.  Your brother mentioned he's fallen behind on the electric bill.  Why not offer to pay the next one, or help him catch up on back payments?
  • Make an insurance payment.  Whether it's auto, homeowner's, or health insurance, having a policy canceled for lack of payment is a potential disaster.  Offer some peace of mind.
  • Give groceries.  You never want anyone to choose whether to pay a bill or buy food.  Give a grocery card in the largest amount you can afford.
  • Give gas.  Not the kind from your homemade chili (though they might appreciate a batch of that for their freezer), but the kind to get them where they need to go.  A gas card is a boon to anyone short on cash.

For those just getting started
  • Pay the deposit on their new apartment.  It's a wonderful housewarming gift.
  • Buy transportation.  A 30-day (or longer) transit pass for their city will give them lots of mobility.
  • Give a treat.  Your niece barely has money for rent, let alone fun.  Give her a movie theater gift card, a restaurant gift card, or some other splurge she'll enjoy.

For those paying off debt
  • Make a student loan payment.  Almost 70% of students polled would receive this gift with thanks.  The rest might too, if it were offered.
  • Teach a skill.  Share your frugal-living knowledge.  Offer to teach and/or buy basic equipment for gardening, cooking, sewing, home DIY, auto maintenance, etc.).
  • Bring in experts.  If a book (such as Your Money or Your Life, The Complete Tightwad Gazette, or The Total Money Makeover) has helped you toward financial freedom, give a copy to your friend. 

For those on a fixed income
  • Pay a medical bill.  Medicare doesn't pay everything, and unpaid medical bills are some of the most depressing.  Lift some of that burden.
  • Provide a jump or a tow.  Especially if their car is older, a one-year AAA membership will help them feel more secure.
  • Offer free labor.  When money is tight, things are left undone.  Offer to do yard work, home repairs, carpet cleaning, or whatever is needed.
  • Share an outing.  When money is tight, luxuries are cut.  Take your aunt for a manicure and then to lunch.  Take your mom and dad to a play.  Don't just give the tickets; give your time.

For those using frugality to reach a goal
  • Give family fun.  A one-year membership at the zoo, aquarium, or a favorite museum is worth far more than the cost.
  • Pay for extras.  Your sister and brother-in-law want the best for their kids (that's why they're saving for college).  Offer to pay for sports or music lessons that aren't in their budget.
  • Support their efforts.  Give a gift that enables frugality, such as a programmable slow cooker for easy homemade meals, an electric clipper and some shears to banish $30 haircuts, a cold brew coffee maker and a pound of coarsely-ground organic coffee to replace expensive take-out brews. 

Think of gifts in terms of the value they'll have for the recipient.

You may feel sorry for a friend who's had a tough year, but you're not giving out of pity.  You care about his self respect.  Communicate your thoughts with a brief note:

Dear Aunt Faye, a gas card doesn't seem very exciting, but I wanted to give a gift I was sure would be used.  At least you won't have to find a place for it or keep it dusted!
Dear Brian, student loans are no fun, especially when you're just starting out.  I had some myself, which is why I'd like to help with a payment.  If that makes you feel weird, you can just pay it forward to someone else someday.
Dear Jean, you've done a great job keeping things together for the kids since the divorce.  I'm glad you felt you could confide in us about some of your financial challenges, and I hope you'll let us help out a bit as our holiday gift to you.
Give gifts that make a positive difference, and they'll bring comfort and joy now and in the future.