"This is your money. Stop wondering where it went and start telling it where to go."
Dave Ramsey The Total Money Makeover
"This is your money. Stop wondering where it went and start telling it where to go."
Dave Ramsey The Total Money Makeover
My husband and I moved four times in our first four years of marriage, then bought a house and stayed there for eight years.
When we moved to a larger town for a better job, we sold our first house for about 50% more than we had originally paid for it I thought we had done well. But after subtracting the amount we had spent on home improvements over the years, I realized we had actually made far less on the sale.
We rented an apartment in our new town so we could get to know the area before deciding to buy another house. Our rent was approximately the same as our previous house payment, but of course it didn't qualify as a tax deduction the way our mortgage interest had.
Imagine my surprise when we filed taxes the next year, took the standard deduction, and realized that it wasn't that much less than our mortgage interest had been. We had paid thousands of dollars in interest every year in order to save a few hundred dollars in taxes.
We lived four years in that apartment, and bought a house when our children were 8 and 11 years old. They were excited to finally stop sharing a bedroom.
Six years later, in 2007, we sold that house and made just enough to use as a down payment on a brand new, slightly larger house. We were a bit over-extended with the new housing costs, but we figured that with cost of living raises and my new part-time job we could manage.
That was a mistake. In 2008, not only was there no raise, there was actually a cut in pay. And my new job was cut also. This was not according to plan, and by the time we paid for our daughter's wedding in 2011 we had serious credit card debts and an underwater mortgage. Millions of people were in the same situation.
Fortunately, our lender accepted a short sale in 2012, and we moved back into an apartment.
And here we are, eight years later, out of debt, with well-funded retirement accounts and reasonable rent. Our 800-square-foot apartment more than meets our needs.
I realize that's not the American Dream. With 80% of the US population preferring single-family home ownership, and only 8% preferring apartment or condo living, we are outside the norm.
In European countries, however, more people live in apartments than in detached houses. My uncle has lived in Germany for decades, and he and his family have always lived in small apartments. That's not unusual – 62% of Germans live in apartments.
My husband and I are very happy apartment dwellers. I think that if you stop to consider the benefits, you might actually agree.
1. Less effort
Any living space requires upkeep, but less space means less time spent cleaning and tidying. Chores don't feel overwhelming, so it's easy to keep up with them. Vacuuming takes less than 20 minutes, and caring for a mini garden on a balcony may be pure joy compared to mowing, watering, pruning, weeding, fertilizing, and raking an entire yard.
2. More ease
Some people love working on their house, but if that's not how you want to spend your weekends, vacations, and extra money, apartment living frees you from the obligations of home ownership. It's not lazy, it's an intentional choice to focus on other things.
3. Less clutter
Apartments are generally a lot smaller than houses, and that means you have a lot less space to accumulate possessions. This forces you to be vigilant about clutter. In a house, you might have a basement, attic, garage, or shed where you can stash things you want to keep "just in case." In an apartment, extraneous stuff is obvious, and so you learn to edit.
4. More connection
Unlike a house where a family might be scattered in various separate rooms, in an apartment you tend to gather together. You might use your kitchen table for meals and also as a desk, and spend a lot of time together there. Even if I am watching TV in the living room and my husband is reading in the bedroom, we're only about a dozen yards apart. We have breathing space, but we're present for each other.
5. Less conformity
As an apartment dweller, you realize that you don't have to get caught in that work/spend cycle just because everyone else is doing it. You're free to explore other avenues to well-being.
6. More financial freedom
What trade-offs are you making if you decide to upgrade to granite countertops or if you need to replace your HVAC system? If your money is always going toward home projects and repairs, then maybe you don't travel as often as you would like, or you don't buy those season tickets, or you don't pay for organic food, or you don't give as generously to causes you care about. Apartment living lets you build your budget around what's really important to you.
Our way of life isn't for everyone, but for us a minimalist lifestyle in an 800-square-foot apartment has brought more contentment and stability than our years as homeowners. Challenging the American Dream might be a positive choice for you too.
Photo by Alexandar Todov on Unsplash
Don't get me wrong. I love the occasional filet mignon dinner. I enjoy live theater. It's wonderful to stay at Glendeven Inn on the Mendocino coast.
It's Patriot Day in the US, the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11.
It's generally thought of as a day to remember the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but it's also a time to be thankful for all of the first responders who risked their lives, and the many others who pitched in to help and comfort those who were affected by the tragedy.
Today is the perfect time to volunteer for an organization that improves the lives of others, spreading kindness and offering hope. You might also give a monetary gift to such an organization, drop off a bag of groceries at your local food closet (or some food and treats at the animal shelter), or simply pick up garbage in your neighborhood or the park.
Today is also a good time to write one or more thank you notes to the people who have made your life better. Your parents, grandparents, pastor, or a friend would love to hear from you. If you have children, I know their teachers would appreciate a note of thanks. An appreciative text message or social media post would undoubtedly make someone's day.
It's fire season in California, and firefighters all over the state are battling blazes. Remember them, and pray for their safety.
Wear your face mask, and be sure to thank the grocery clerk, bank teller, delivery person, or barista who serves you and wears a mask all day every day for your safety.
We're all busy, and we all have a lot of other things to do today. But a life of maximum gratitude and minimal stuff means we can always take time to appreciate all of our blessings. We never have to wait for a designated holiday to give thanks or do a kindness for someone else – it is always appropriate.
Just a reminder to you (and myself!) that a life of gratitude is the path to happiness and contentment.
Thank you for reading.
Thank you to Wilhelm Gunkel for sharing this photo on Unsplash.
Say a man wears a navy or charcoal suit with a white dress shirt every day. The only change he makes is his tie. Former President Obama did this, explaining, "I'm trying to pare down decisions. I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make." To which almost everyone said, "Cool. That makes sense." When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wears jeans, a gray tee shirt, and a gray hoodie every day, or any other man wears Levi's and a white Oxford button-down as a daily uniform, people either make no comment, or decide that the look is "iconic" and makes a lot of sense for a busy, important man.
However, if a woman wears a signature outfit every day, most people write her off as unstylish and/or unfeminine. People wonder if she's letting herself go. When Hillary Clinton went through a period of wearing dark pant suits (the closest parallel to the outfits of her male counterparts), she was labeled "dowdy" and "boring." Michelle Obama is constantly praised for her style savvy, as if that's the only thing she has going for her.
It's really a double standard.
While it might be fairly common for men to wear variations on the same outfit every day, for women it is harder to achieve the same kind of wardrobe simplicity. As Susan Sorokanich, a 60ish interior decorator explains, "You need to have a lot of self-confidence in your choices." She wears a black boat neck shirt with three-quarter sleeves and slim-fitting blue jeans, adding jewelry or a scarf for variety (much like a man who owns several snazzy ties to go with his navy suits). She'll don denim shorts if she's gardening, and black trousers if she's meeting a new client or going out for dinner. "I don't waste any time shopping for clothes or deciding what to wear every day," says Sorokanich, who's been dressing this way for nearly 20 years. "It's been so incredibly liberating."
Women do feel social pressure to wear different outfits every day. Every time I've written about a capsule wardrobe, I've talked about ways to accomplish that even with a small number of clothes. And maybe the socialite or royal doesn't dare wear the same thing twice. They probably need wardrobe mistresses and on-call couturiers. But the rest of us aren't on display.
What would happen if a woman pared her wardrobe to a single outfit (with multiple copies, of course, so that she always has clean clothes)? Would it actually streamline her mornings? Would people notice and think she wasn't professional? Would it get boring?
It turns out that most women who experiment with a uniform find it a pleasant experience. Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief at Fast Company, found that her outfit of a black turtleneck with a black skirt worked well for school drop-offs, on-camera TV appearances, and dinners out. She varied lipsticks, earrings, belts, shoes, and bags for different situations. She was surprised by the lack of reaction to her outfit, and believes that her clothes were so inconspicuous that people did not seem to remember what she wore from day to day.
Matilda Kahl, creative manager at Sony Music, chose a white silk blouse and black trousers for work (adding a black blazer if it was cold). She enjoys wearing different color shoes – "That's my little creative channel," she says. Kahl has noticed an increase in productivity since she stopped focusing on what to wear.
Renata Briggman, real estate agent and mother of two young children, has opted for a uniform of black trousers, white tee shirt, gray blazer, black ballet flats, a silver necklace, and a slim red belt. On weekends she wears black jeans and a denim jacket; in the winter she wears black boots. She used to look into her crowded closet and feel that she had nothing to wear. Now she says, "It's saved me hours. I get more compliments and feel more put together. And nobody notices the uniform. We assume that other people are paying attention to what we are wearing when they are all really more focused on their own lives."
Kate Rose, a self-described "plus-size person," says, "I've found I never had the same amount of choice in trying to find things to wear as my smaller friends.... The lifelong struggle of trying to find a way to look acceptable to the world every morning, especially as a fat person, was making me extremely unhappy." (I can relate to this.) When she bought multiple copies of a black dress she liked, she felt more confident about getting dressed every morning. Ms. Rose enjoys being creative with belts, cardigans, jewelry, and hats, and reports that "wearing the same thing every day has been the single thing I have done this past year that has contributed to the satisfaction of my day-to-day life."
One secret to dressing stylishly and well with a smaller wardrobe is to limit colors. This doesn't mean you need to dress all in black. A capsule wardrobe can certainly include bright color. The trick is to choose a base color. A base color is a neutral that can be worn with many other hues, such as black, brown, navy, khaki, gray, or denim. This is the color you want to use for trousers, skirts, jackets, cardigans, suits, and dresses that you wear over and over.
Look in your closet and pull out the trousers, skirts, suits, or cardigans and jackets that you wear most often and feel most comfortable and attractive in. Do they share any colors in common? Many of us gravitate toward one or two base/neutral colors. One person might find that she consistently likes and chooses black and charcoal for trousers and jackets; another person naturally chooses navy, while a third gravitates toward shades of brown. I like black and dark wash denim.
The color(s) that we like to put on below the waist, or wear as a jacket over trousers and a shirt, or over a skirt and a blouse, make the perfect base color(s) for a capsule wardrobe. More than that, this color guides our choice of shoes, belts, and bags. If you consistently choose gray skirts and suits, for example, you don't need brown shoes.
Do you already own two bottoms and two tops in a favorite base color? Perhaps you have black trousers, a black skirt, a black jacket or cardigan, and a black and white striped shirt. You can combine these four items into four outfits:
These pieces by themselves are not very exciting, and that shirt is certainly going to be over-worn, but they constitute the first four pieces of a 4x4 Wardrobe.
Now see whether you already own two more bottoms and two more tops in the same or a complementary base color. I own the group of four I've already described. I also own another group of four: black jeans, dark wash denim jeans, a black and white patterned top, and a denim jacket. I can combine the second four items into four more outfits, PLUS I can mix and match both sets of four into even more combinations.
You get the idea. There are actually 24 ways to wear these 8 items. But there's still not much color in my wardrobe, and those two tops are being seriously over-used.
That's why the next four pieces in your 4x4 Wardrobe are all tops. They can be all different colors, if you want. They all simply need to look good with your base color(s). My four tops all have subtle tone-on-tone patterns, but each is a different color: periwinkle blue, rosy orange, mossy green, purple.
Once this third group of four pieces is added to the first two groups, all 12 pieces mix and match into 72 outfits. Wow!
To recap, I've chosen twelve pieces of clothing in three groups of four. I have black trousers, a black skirt, black jeans, and dark wash jeans. I have a black draped cardigan and a denim jacket. I have two different black and white tops and four tops in other colors.
Of course, I also own shoes. Mine are all black: heels, loafers, sandals, demi boots. I have one black belt and one black handbag. I wear one necklace and my wedding ring every day, but you might choose to own more jewelry or even a few scarves to embellish your outfits.
If you work in a nice office, you may need a career 4x4 wardrobe and a leisure 4x4 wardrobe. Follow the guidelines I've described. If you live with weather extremes, you might need a different wardrobe for each season (or at least for fall/winter and spring/summer). You'd still have a curated selection on any given day, even though you'd own more clothing.
I haven't forgotten the Final Four! So far we've only discussed a 4x3 Wardrobe, which really might be adequate (I'm doing a 30 day challenge with only 10 pieces, after all). These final pieces are for fun and/or practicality. So you can add whatever you want, love, and will use (of course, they must mix and match with the first three groups of four). For summer, I've added a black and white dress, denim capris, a teal/aqua shirt, and a black tank top. In the winter, I like to have a couple of black silk turtlenecks for layering, an extra pair of denim jeans, and a multi-hued crocheted shawl (of course I have a coat and rainboots too).
The 4x4 Wardrobe is a fantastic tool for creating a minimalist closet. It can help you buy less clothing that you love and wear more often and with greater ease.
P.S. Thank you to Janice at The Vivienne Files for the general idea of the 4x4 Wardrobe.
Photo by Hailey Moeller on Unsplash
Introducing my newest book, Simple Money: Achieve Financial Peace and Abundance with Minimalism, available now on Amazon!
Minimalism doesn't mean lack and deprivation. Minimalism is a tool that helps us find happiness by steering us in the direction of what we truly desire.
Physical clutter can be obvious: that unused treadmill, those stacked up boxes, or the pile of knickknacks, mail, and various remotes on the coffee table. But financial clutter, such as debt, overspending, and a fuzzy understanding of what we owe and where our money goes can be much less apparent. When we let go of financial clutter, we create more resources to accomplish the things we really care about.
I'm not a financial planner or investment guru. I grew up knowing I would have to work and figure out how to pay for the things I needed. I've budgeted and run the accounts for our household, both when we were underwater on our mortgage and overburdened with credit card debt, and as we have climbed out of that situation to a life of abundance.
Simple Money can help you:
Life is better when we use money to achieve our dreams, and Simple Money can help you along the way.
Simple Money is available now on Amazon, in paperback and as an ebook (Amazon's Kindle editions can be read on any phone, tablet, or computer with their free app).
Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash
When I was in college, I spent two summers traveling all over the western part of the US and Canada, singing with a choral group. I took the ferry from Seattle to Victoria BC, saw snow falling on hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone Park on July 4, toured the amazing Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico, and hiked the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall in Yosemite, as well as singing concerts in nearly 150 venues. I lived for ten weeks each time out of a single suitcase (and a garment bag for concert attire).
I learned to love the minimal completeness of packing for travel. You can be weighed down by multiple pieces of luggage that have to be checked, hauled around, unpacked and repacked, or you can enjoy the agility of a single rolling bag.
Of course, you have to consider carefully which clothes you'll need, which toiletries and accessories. You might include a book or a journal; you'll surely bring your phone and charger. But you have only what you've chosen to take with you. It's the ultimate in decluttering.
There's something very freeing about living with only a fraction of your possessions. You have mindfully curated a collection of the things you use and love the most, and in my experience, you still have plenty!
For the month of September, I've decided to metaphorically live out of one suitcase (I'm not considering kitchen items). My suitcase will hold ten items of clothing, plus underwear, nightwear, and basic toiletries. It holds my laptop and cords, my current crossword puzzle book, and a zipper bag with my current embroidery project. I'll also have my purse and its contents (including my phone, on which I have several unread books).
FYI, the ten items of clothing include a pair of black jeans, a pair of dark-wash blue jeans, a black and white dress, comfortable black leather sandals, and six tops. I've limited my colors to black, white, dark denim, periwinkle blue, mossy green, and rosy orange (a sort of deep coral). I have one necklace and my wedding ring that I wear every day.
This is what I might take on a long holiday (although I'd probably include some sturdy athletic shoes too). In fact, when you're not loaded down with the contents of a packed closet and dresser drawers, or a hobby space, an office, and a library, life can feel like a vacation.
Do you want to join me? Take the challenge and see what you learn from it – what you miss or don't miss, what unexpected events or challenges arise, how fewer clothes impact your laundry situation, if getting dressed every day is easier or not, whether this is crazy or actually doable, etc.
And if ten items in your suitcase just seems too confining, try twelve or sixteen items. The purpose is to try living with a limit – the actual limit you choose can be different from mine.
As with so many other categories of possessions, most of us wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time. My bet is that you'll be happier with fewer wardrobe choices than with whatever is cluttering your closet right now, but you won't have a chance to realize that unless you test it out.
Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash
I was living and making decisions on autopilot, but one day, as I decluttered my closet for the umpteenth time, my eyes were suddenly opened.
I spent a lot of time organizing my closets and drawers, and regularly donated bags of clothing to charity. Since that was the case, I couldn't understand why my closet always felt too full. It must have escaped my notice that I went shopping almost every weekend and on most lunch breaks, just for "entertainment." I didn't always buy things, but the more you browse, the more you are tempted.
My wardrobe was like a revolving door, yet I wondered why I could never save any money. Yes, the connection should have been obvious, but I enjoyed all of my new goodies (at least for a while), so it was easy to ignore. When I finally linked my shopping habit to my empty bank account, I stopped shopping almost overnight. From then on, I wore and enjoyed the clothing I had, donated the fashion mistakes that were cluttering my closet, and eventually got to the point where I only replaced items as needed.
Instead of giving all of my hard-earned money to the mall, I enjoyed the security of a growing savings account, and I loved using and caring for what I had. It made me appreciate everything so much more.
Eventually I realized that all of the shopping had been partly about boredom, and partly about needing to fit in and be fashionable. At least some of my self-worth had been involved. Once I stopped shopping and focused on other things – more satisfying pursuits – my self-worth increased. You know, the better you feel about yourself, the less you are influenced by whatever other people are doing. You become more independent.
So constant clothes shopping receded into the background. But a new challenge waited.
After we bought our first house, I started shopping for home goods. I constantly had plans for painting, putting up wallpaper, adding a French door, enlarging the patio, or setting a unique holiday table. We built a shelving unit that covered an entire ten-foot-long wall, and filled it with books and art and knickknacks. I collected figurines and limited-edition plates, antique quilts and other American folk art. I bought lots of toys for my children.
I was no longer a clothes-horse, but once again I would regularly declutter things I was tired of. I'd donate some items, have a yard sale with the rest, make a little money, and go out to buy other stuff, spending even more money in the process. I was back in the consume/donate cycle.
Then two things happened. My husband and I had opened individual retirement accounts soon after we were married, and over time we had slowly added money to each account. I decided I wanted a brick hearth and a wood stove installed in our living room, plus new furniture. We emptied our IRAs to pay for it, since our credit cards and home equity line of credit were maxed out.
I cannot describe how stupid that was.
We had to pay taxes on the amount we withdrew PLUS a 10% penalty because we were nowhere near retirement age. Such a waste.
The second thing happened in the mall book store when my eye happened to land on Elaine St. James' book Simplify Your Life. Two sentences in the Introduction caught my eye:
I decided that if the two of us... had gotten so caught up in the frenetically paced lifestyle and rampant consumerism of [the 1980s], there must be other reasonable people out there who had done the same thing, and who were now looking for practical things they could do to simplify their lives.
Wise men and women in every major culture throughout history have found that the secret to happiness is not in getting more but in wanting less.
"Not in getting more but in wanting less."
I didn't want a fat mortgage, maxed-out credit cards, depleted IRAs, a tax bill, and a long list of home improvements. I was out of control with my revolving door home, filled with items I would buy, declutter, and sell cheaply only to go out and buy even more. I had two children under the age of six, and I wanted to home school them. I wanted more time, more freedom, more creativity, and less worry, hassle, and debt.
Once again, it was like waking up, and I finally made the connection between my constant shopping and home alteration and our lack of money, free time, and satisfaction. I had been stupid, but never wanted to get caught in the same mistake again. I didn't want to be a discontented, insecure person. I didn't want to envy what other people had, and I didn't want to make my house the center of my life. We had spent our money as if having some sort of showplace was a priority, and I finally saw how little value that held for me. There was so much more that was worth our time, money, energy, and talents.
This wasn't a lighthearted time, but we realized that it was possible for us to change. That did add a ray of hope. There were many steps along the journey.
Can you relate to this at all? Have you ever justified a shopping habit by regularly donating used items to charity? Is there an area in your life that is claiming most of your time, money, and effort even as you're starting to sense it is not going to be fulfilling in the long run?
Maybe you have been preoccupied with the wrong things, perhaps in an effort to fit in, or feel worthy, or simply because you're bored. Maybe you're not sure what you will do if you're no longer filling your life with shopping, social media, an unfulfilling job, or constant busyness. Maybe you're only just now starting to question whether this is really going to be worth your life energy.
Have you started asking yourself, "Is this all there is?" Have you been caught in a cycle of consume, donate (or sell), consume some more, purge again, consume, consume, purge a little more... on and on and on? It's not too late to break that cycle. Your age and situation don't matter. No time is a bad time to stop living on autopilot and start making real choices for what really matters to you.
Photo by Nikola Duza on Unsplash
PlS. If you enjoyed this post, watch for my new book Simple Money: Achieve Financial Peace and Abundance with Minimalism, coming soon!
It's not just the current and seemingly insurmountable political divide in America – human beings are really prone to extremes. In education, for example, the pendulum swings all the way from rote or programmed learning on one side (boring, but easily facilitated by computers) to discovery-style, discussion-based, hands-on learning on the other (which leads to deeper thinking, but may leave students light on concrete facts). In another circumstance, we have hoarders on one side and location-independent, live-out-of-one-backpack proponents on the other.
The challenge is always to find a compromise which takes the best of both approaches (as in education), or a happy medium that meets the needs of the majority of people (as with minimalism, which seeks to meet essential needs and a few strongly-desired wants without excess).
When it comes to work, I think most of us fall into one of two extremes:
I just spent nine hours in front of my computer. Again. I took only three short breaks, and spent maybe ten minutes outside. I even ate lunch at my desk.
I know this isn't healthy, but still it happens much too often. Maybe it does for you too. And now we're getting our kids ready for distance learning, which will require them to spend hours a day in front of a computer.
Technology has always been touted as progress, the revolution that will change the world. And I certainly use technology. I don't publish this blog on parchment, after all, and I'm not keeping cool in this August heat by means of a servant wielding a palm branch.
But as we keep breaking boundaries and changing the way things work, sometimes we lose sight of the fact that some of the best (and healthiest) solutions are low tech.
I'm going to use what I think is an urban myth to illustrate, because it really does make my point. (That's an awful pun too, as you'll see. My apologies.)
It was the 1960s, and NASA was having trouble coming up with a reliable replacement for the pen. You see, in space, with no gravity and no air pressure, pens don't work very well, which is bad news for astronauts who need to keep a log or do some calculations. Millions of dollars went into research to develop a zero-gravity pen.
The Russians, faced with the same problem in their space program, used a pencil.
What's the lesson? Sometimes the best solution is the easy one. Sometimes we complicate the problem by looking for a new, high tech solution. Sometimes, when we're busy using our smart phones to look up yet another piece of trivia, we forget to pay attention and think. We tend to fall for the newfangled, designed-for-a-problem-we-didn't-really-have gadget, instead of simply using the tools that have worked in the past and still work just fine.
I'm reminded of people my age or older who swear they can't get by without their _______ (fill in the blank with your favorite piece of modern technology), even though they lived the majority of their lives perfectly well in the pre-smart phone, pre-Internet world. How did we ever manage to live productive, independent adult lives in the olden days?
Our kids are growing up even more shackled to the latest-and-supposedly-greatest tech than we are, and it might be good to take a step back to a less mechanized way of life before we hook everyone up to a virtual classroom for distance learning this fall.
I'm thankful for many modern technologies, but there are always consequences to our desire for ever more speed and convenience. Those consequences too often include uncounted tons of plastic waste and toxic electronic waste. They include dissatisfaction with last year's technology and the constant pursuit of the next big thing. They include a skewed work/home balance and an unhealthy tendency to substitute virtual activity for physical activity in the real world. And they include a lot less connection and intimacy with our families, friends, neighbors, and communities.
Let's take a little vacation from modernity.
1. Go camping.
Okay, maybe it's too late to plan a camping trip before school starts. You can still do some of the wonderful things you would do while camping, such as:
My older child turned 5 in 1994; my younger child was 16 (and ready to go to the local community college) in 2007. During those 13 years, my kids did not go to school.
They didn't have computers either, until we got our first desktop in 2001.
We lived in three different houses during that time. The largest was just over 1200 square feet, but for four years we lived in a two-bedroom home of about 800 square feet.
Both of my children have earned college degrees with honors.
And yet I never spent a ton of money on school.
If you have children beginning distance learning this fall, you've probably seen a lot of social media images of the ideal "home classroom" situation. These usually involve a separate "school room," a desk, and organizational items such as a large white board and a lot of cute, matching storage containers.
If you're starting to panic that you don't have a spare room for your home school, and you don't have a dedicated desk for your 6-year-old, don't. You don't need a conventional classroom setup or even a dedicated room. You can set up distance learning in the dining area or living room. Just focus on the basics: a clean, flat surface, comfortable seating, good lighting, minimal distractions, and a space to store school materials.
1. Find a flat writing surface where your child can sit comfortably.
This can be one end of the kitchen table or counter, if your child doesn't have a desk. Completely clear the surface and commit it to school needs during the day. It's best to have a chair that offers back support. If your child is so young that his legs dangle when he sits, set up a footstool or even a box so that he can rest his feet.
Just as your child may move from class to class at school, you could arrange different study spots in your home. While she may need to sit in front of her laptop for online class meetings and lectures, she could sit on a pillow at the coffee table to do math homework or to study a history text.
2. Provide ample light and a power source.
Eye strain can occur if you try to focus on a computer screen for too long in a dimly lit area. If you can put the table or desk near a window, that would be ideal. Natural light is both physically and mentally healthy. However, good overhead lighting or a reading lamp will also promote vision hygiene.
Access to a power outlet is also important, but avoid having to stretch a cord across the floor where it might be a tripping hazard. As you do for your phones, create a spot where laptops can be charged every evening so they are fully charged for morning school. They can be plugged in again during lunchtime, if necessary, in order to avoid a stretched cord.
3. Maintain a rhythm to your days.
Just as you would if your child were going to school, get up and eat breakfast at the same time each day. Plan regular breaks during the time your child doesn't need to be online, and encourage him to be outside during those breaks, perhaps taking a short walk in the neighborhood (while practicing social distancing). Have him learn to prepare and clean up his own lunch.
Set a time for school to be over, and help your child learn to clean up and put away his school materials. Use containers you already have for your child's distance learning essentials. Pens, pencils, markers, rulers, scissors, etc. can go into a shoebox. Binders and paper are cheap right now, but don't overbuy. One binder with dividers and paper may work for each child, as most of their work is going to be submitted online.
4. Remove distractions.
Make sure toys are put away before bedtime so they are not in evidence while your child is trying to concentrate on learning the next day. In fact, he may find it easier to "go to school" in the kitchen or living room and then "go home" to his bedroom and his toys or hobbies.
Turn off the TV and radio. In fact, they are probably distracting you too. Many studies show that we actually concentrate and learn best in silence. If you have more than one child who is distance learning, get each a pair of headphones so they can listen to their online lessons (or TED talks for kids, or a virtual museum tour) without distracting each other.
Now is the time to declutter for a calmer, more focused learning environment. The whole family is home, so make it a family affair!
5. Introduce variety.
Just as your child might sometimes sit at the coffee table instead of her regular school area, she could copy a list of spelling words, brainstorm essay ideas, or simply read a book under a tree in your yard (an old-fashioned clipboard could provide a firm writing surface). If it's stormy or too hot to take a break outside, stream a yoga lesson for kids (there are tons on YouTube), or play some favorite music and have a dance party.
6. Supply as many books as you can.
In the Internet Age, communication skills are more important than ever. Reading is the key to increasing all of those skills; it's the stepping stone to success in school and any career. Just as with anything else, the more you read, the better a reader you become. So if you're going to spend any money on school supplies, spend it on books your kids will enjoy reading just for fun.
Your child's teachers are working very hard to make distance learning as worthwhile and productive as possible. With a little planning and very little money, you'll be able to set up a learning space that will work great for your child.
P. S. If you enjoyed this post, you might like my book about children and reading, The Magic of Words, available in paperback and as an e-book on Amazon.
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash