Building on a Budget

Since the last post was on tightening up my finances, let’s continue down that path and explore how to keep that wallet fat with a building hobby.

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Spoiler alert: it might be physically intensive. Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

It should be noted that “building hobby” refers to personal projects – cabinets, potting benches, weird little tables, etc. Do not skimp on materials for projects where doing so would risk safety or where the materials need to withstand significant weight or weather conditions. You don’t want to use old, termite-chewed posts for the new pergola beside your house because when that thing falls, it’ll take out your gutters and a chunk of roof.

Projects begin with a plan.

The plan is the step where you have the most control over your project’s expenses. Say you want to make a basic storage bench to keep by your front door for shoes. You have some scrap wood, but some of the lengths are a bit short. Also, some of the pieces are stained or blemished.

Rather than set your heart on a polished wood throne of a bench, maybe your storage bench will be low to the ground with small cubbies. Cover it with some old paint and add height on top of the bench with some cushions from a thrift store.

I look for inspiration on pinterest, as well as higher end stores like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn. Once I have some ideas in mind, I’ll search for build plans that others have made, such as those over at Ana White. While I’ll ultimately draw my own plans, it’s good to check over the plans of others to make sure I’m not forgetting a step.

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One of the first things I built when I moved into my house was a storage unit for my entryway. Six years later, it’s still as solid as the day I built it.

Get your supplies second-hand.

Like the cushions in the bench example above, second-hand supplies are a great way to drastically cut down on expenses for the stuff you do actually have to buy. This isn’t exactly a new concept, and most frugalistas will tell you to a) determine whether or not you really need the thing, and b) if you do need the thing, buy it used. Getting supplies second-hand, whether you find stuff on the curb (make sure it’s marked for take-away!) or buy from a re-store, also saves the environment some grief.

Check around for stores that sell reclaimed building supplies. One of my favorite places in New Orleans is The Green Project. I build this entry table with a cabinet door and wood I found there:

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The other materials were paint (of course), modeling clay for the fish, clear floral gems for the “bubbles,” and resin to seal everything in.

While The Green Project is a place local to my area, there are several options where you might find free or cheap building supplies:

In terms of paint, you can usually find discounted buckets by the paint desk at Lowes or Home Depot. That probably won’t be the cheapest option; however, it might be better quality than something that’s been sitting in someone’s garage for who knows how long. If your project involves wood that needs to stand up to prolonged exposure, old or poor quality paint might lead to cracking and rot.

Or recycle an old project.

This option is more feasible if you’re years into building stuff and don’t have anyone around to complain when you start tearing apart bookcases.

My master bedroom has an old little alcove. One year, I decided to turn it into a reading nook, complete with a padded storage bench and bookcase. However, it was dark and tight. I ended up just reading on my bed most of the time.

Eventually, I needed to build a hide-away cabinet for a massive new litter box that now resides in the living room. Out comes the reading nook. Supports for a bench became supports for what my friend called “The Shit Shack.” Plywood and fiber board transferred over too, and the only thing I had to buy for the project was a bit of contact paper that looked like marble to class up the inside (oh – and to make cleaning easier). A new kitty W.C. for less than the cost of a bag of litter!

A note on tools —

Many of the places where you can find reclaimed building supplies also have secondhand power tools. Be careful, though, as these are often sold “as-is” and might not be returnable if they don’t work. I got lucky and inherited my first tools from my granny. Over the years, my parents have also gifted me with more tools for Christmas and my birthday.

If you have time to wait, try to purchase your tools around Father’s Day, when home improvement stores have sales.

If buying isn’t option, your area might have a tool “lending library.” These are community, co-op-type spaces where you can find low- or no-cost tools to borrow. Many also hold free or inexpensive workshops or offer volunteer opportunities where you can learn or hone your skills.

An even cheaper option? Make friends with your neighbors and borrow their tools. Return them cleaned and in excellent condition, ideally accompanied by a six-pack or a tray of cookies.

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Tightening My Belt

Normally, I’d say I’m somewhat thrifty. I regularly check on my bank accounts. I make myself wait on major purchases. If I need something, I research deals and coupons, or I wait for sales.

But this year? I’ve spent a little more wildly than normal this year.

  1. New turfstone driveway
  2. Turning my front yard into a garden
  3. Expanding my shed and turning part of it into a greenhouse

All of these projects together total more than the average American family spends on food (groceries and eating out) and entertainment in a year.

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Like this but replace the food with lumber, and the plates with lumber, and all the utensils and jewelry, and – you know, everything is lumber now. Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

That sounds outrageous. It feels outrageous. But I planned for these projects, and they were all paid for in cash. And, ya know, I love coming home and being greeted by a big, beautiful garden – sprigs of gaura waving in breeze, pink and orange zinnias blooming in clusters of little petals, butterflies skipping around on cosmos. Seeing a lawn that was overgrown 95% of the time (because when you mow in Louisiana, it stays neat for about two hours) depressed the heck out of me.

But some things are changing. I’ve spent the past several years renting out part of my house on AirBnB. I’ve met people from all over the world and, overall, hosting has been an excellent experience. My occupancy rate is around 85%, and while it’s deeply satisfying to provide a safe and comfortable place for visitors to our quirky, creative city…

Y’all, I’m tired.

Low-level stress underlies my every day. Will someone accidentally letting the cats outside? Will the next guest is going to rate me poorly because they expect me to play board games with them every night, even though they won’t say anything to my face about it*? And though I find cleaning satisfying, scrubbing the toilet can be a total skeezefest.

That combined with the stress of my regular job means that some days, I teeter on the edge of a meltdown.

What does all of this have to do with “Tightening My Belt”?

Renting out my rooms brings in extra money – usually at least $1000 per month. Those of you who can do math and followed the link at the beginning of this post will realize that amount easily covers even the most expensive of project-years. In non-project-years, that extra dough means I can get away with just sorta watching my finances but not counting every penny. That makes me sound like a slacker, but I do regularly budget.

My favorite tool for tracking expenses is Microsoft Excel, and I’ve tailored it over the years to suit my needs.

Budget example

Everyone should have some way of tracking his or her money. There are programs and websites to help with this – You Need a Budget, Mint, and the Personal Finance subreddit are solid places to start.

I love the flexibility of an Excel spreadsheet for budgeting.

In the image above, you can see how I track sources of income at the top (“Inflow“). Then I split my expenses (“Outflow“) into broad categories that are divvied up into more narrow areas. Based on studying my spending habits, I’ve estimated my expected expenses. Those are compared with what I’ve actually spent to then determine what’s “Left in the Pot.”

At the very bottom of the spreadsheet, each of the Outflow columns are totaled, and this is used to calculate the Balance at the top of the sheet (Total Inflow minus Actual Total Outflow).

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Oops – looks like I’ve blown past my budget in this example…

The final column (“Percentage“) shows my Expected Outflow as a percentage of my Total Inflow. In other words, if I want my hobbies to be 5% of my total planned income, I can adjust the Expected budget for that category until I reach 5%.

How should a budget be split up?

If you search, “How to budget,” many of the top results describe 50-20-30 rule. These guidelines put 50% of your income to living essentials (mortgage, transportation, food, etc.), 20% to financial goals (savings, debt repayment, etc.), and 30% for things you want but don’t need (travel, toys).

I sort of follow the 50-20-30 rule. On my “essential living” costs like mortgage and utilities (the category I’ve named “Bills”), I aim for less than 40% – preferably closer to 35%. Electricity and water are how I can control the percentage here because my usage impacts the cost. Unlike 50-20-30, my transportation costs are not included here, because that’s a highly flexible category for me (I live in an area where it’s possible to bike to work).

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Photo by Hossam M. Omar on Pexels.com

Once I set my “essential living” category, I consider how much I want to save or invest that month. Rather than basing this off my Total Inflow, I have it set as a percentage of the Balance predicted to be leftover at the end of the month’s expenses. The primary reason I’ve done this is because I’m trying to shrink my budget right now, but I still want to save. I’m in the process of adjusting my Expected Outflow numbers to be as conservative as possible, while remaining realistic. Failing to meet the high bar set for savings because you were too harsh when predicting your food budget can be pretty discouraging.

After a month or so with my newly-tightened budget, I’ll reassess how I figure out my savings/investment goal. All that said, though, right now I’m at about 25% of my Total budget example 3Inflow.

The rest of the categories have greater flexibility and “lower” priority. It feels weird to say food is a “low” priority, but I still have quite a bit of wiggle room there. Right now, it’s less of a concern to me than building my savings. On that note…

How much should you keep in your savings account?

At the bare minimum, aim for 6 months’ worth of your expenses (Expected Outflow). A more comfortable amount for me is 12 months because I’ll occasionally use a few “months” to pay for larger projects. If I do this when my account is at the 12-month mark, I can still maintain a safe emergency cushion. In other words, what I consider my savings account is half emergency fund and half rotating major expense fund.

So how are actual expenses tracked?

budget example 5Each month of my budget is actually a pair of worksheets in Excel. “A” is what you’ve seen so far – categories, totals, and comparisons. “B” is where we get down to business.

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I track the date, where I spent the money, the amount, and the type of expense. At places like Costco where I buy a broad variety of things, I’ll split the receipt across the relevant categories. In the image above, the selected box also has an arrow because it contains a list directed linked to the narrow categories on the “A” sheet. In other words, if I need to switch around my categories titles, it’s just as simple as rewording whatever is on “A.”

If you want, you can use my Excel budget too.

Use it as it’s made or tailor this budget to suit your financial lifestyle. The downside of using something like this is you have to regularly devote time to entering every expense (as opposed to many of the professional products that automatically connect with your accounts). However, this one’s free, it’s easily tweaked, and I feel a bit more comfortable without having my accounts connected to another entity.

Download the Example Budget Spreadsheet here.

How will tightening the belt impact my projects?

As I mentioned in the beginning, this was an extremely busy year for big projects. Moving forward, my projects will either be small-scale – i.e. laying a few basic 12″x12″ pavers – or they’ll be made from recycled resources. Fortunately, I have quit a bit of scrap wood leftover from the shed and fence.

In terms of gardening, I have a pretty good handle on growing most of the plants I favor from seed, which can be a tiny fraction of the price of a mature plant. The subtropical climate where I live also encourages lush growth, so long as there’s enough water. As to the latter point, I have a pretty good irrigation system in place in both my front and back yards.

I’m in a privileged position to cut back while maintaining a satisfying lifestyle. Necessary infrastructure, like the aforementioned irrigation systems, is already paid for and in place. My savings account isn’t quite where I’d like it to be, but it’s still plenty to take me through an emergency. I receive regular paychecks and have access to good healthcare. Being in a position where stopping (temporarily or permanently) a secondary source of income is possible? That’s a luxury, and I’m thankful for the choice.

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*Story time: a couple spent a week with me. We chatted a bit when we crossed paths in the kitchen or living room, same as I’ve done with guests for years. The couple was always smiling and seemed happy. A few days after their departure, they left a scathing review, stating that they’d felt totally unwelcome and had wished to place board games and have much longer conversations. After 100+ 5-star reviews, I was shocked and took the poor review very personally for a while.

There are a huge range of accommodations on AirBnB, ranging from hotel-like experiences to basically couch-surfing and communal living. If you’re looking for a host who will be a huge social part of your visit – someone to eat dinner or watch movies with – that will be advertised on the listing or it should be clarified through messages before your stay.

Wherever or Whatever Your Home, Plant a Garden

Scroll through the gardening subreddit, and you’ll see a variety of gardens. Some users own vast spans of land in lush, green countryside. Others live in the desert or at the base of rocky mountains. More than a few post photos of tiny gardens along windowsills in offices or a collection of pots along a balcony.

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Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I’ve been spoiled. For almost all of my life, I’ve had ground in which to dig. There were a few exceptions – my college dorm and the apartment in which I resided in Pittsburgh – but for the most part, gardening for me was as simple as choosing a spot with good sun, digging a hole, and tucking in a pansy or a tomato plant.

People are drawn to nature. Studies have shown that being around plants calms us, increases our concentration, decreases our stress, and fosters our compassion for others. Caring for something living makes us feel more alive and connected to the world. My friends who have houseplants speak of forgetting to water them in the same guilt-ridden tone as if they’d forgotten to give their dog breakfast. Most plants, however, have the benefit of not needing attention more than once a day, if that.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s break this down even further. Whether it’s one ficus or an acre of sunflowers, caring for plants calls us to act (consciously or not) in several ways that can positively extend through the rest our lives:

Responsibility

Someone or something depends on us, and we are important to them or it. Without us, that person or thing will wither. At the end of the day, we all need to feel needed.

Compassion

By embracing responsibility for something even as small as a plant, we practice compassion. Like my friends who forgot to water their houseplant a few paragraphs above, by physically caring for something, we also learn to emotionally care for that thing.

Mindfulness

One of the ways gardens calm us is by encouraging a state of mindfulness, which roots us in the present. Gardening revives the senses and surrounds us with sensations – a prickly leaf, the refreshing scent of lemon grass, dew drops shining in the sun. Working with plants forces us to be slow and attentive.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fortunately, even just looking at nature or going for a walk can provide some of the same calming, de-stressing power of gardening. Even the photos in this post should give you a little boost – searching for them gave me one! But there’s really nothing like the hands-on work of caring for your own plants.

When I lived in that apartment in Pittsburgh, I felt chained in. I really missed having a little bit of yard in which to dig around. And I’m kicking myself now because I barely made any attempt at a patio garden. I figured it wouldn’t work because I only knew how to grow things in the ground. But since I’ve lived in my house, I’ve grown things in raised and ground-level beds, in pots and troughs and hay baskets, in cheap plastic cups and specialized water-retaining planters. In doing so, I’ve come to realize that the set-up tends to be the same, no matter where you grow:

1. Study Your Location

How much space do you have? Is there full sun? Shade? Sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon? Is the soil soggy or sandy? Is it a place where squirrels like to dig? Or do you have pets that will want to nibble on the plant? At the very least, you’ll need to know space, light, water, and “predators.”

2. Know Your Resources

If you only have one store nearby that sells plants, it can be frustrating to build a huge list of amazing plants based off of internet research, and then arrive at the store to find nothing like what you hoped. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some idea of what’s in stock nearby. Of course, you can order plants online, but like anything else, if you’re just getting started, it’s a good idea to see the plants first-hand. Home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot will have a selection, but I also see plants outside grocery stores and pet stores. Farmers markets can also be a good source, particularly because they’ll probably have plants that grow well locally and are in-season.

3. Bigger Can Be Better

For folks just entering the garden game, stick to mature plants. Seedlings and seeds might be cheaper, but it’s really frustrating to nurture a seed only for it to die because you watered it a little too much. Mature plants are a lot more forgiving and you need fewer resources. It’s totally find to stick to them forever, but for the serious gardener, growing things from seed can be a fun and gratifying challenge. Keep in mind that depending on what you’re growing, seeds might require additional equipment – a humidity cover, seedling soil, etc.

4. Protect Your Plant

Protection means everything from mulching to fencing to hanging an indoor plant out of a curious cat’s reach. Unfortunately, sometimes you aren’t aware of dangers to your plant until after it’s in the ground (and you suddenly discover that squirrels just love to dig in that patch of earth to bury their nuts). But hey, you’re checking on it regularly anyway, right? So you’ll be able to adapt and help that plant thrive.

Much of the rest is just knowing your plant. Succulents needs much less water than bushy flowers with thin leaves. Butterfly bush roots will rot in boggy soil. The first year may be a rough one, but the second year will be easier.

You’ll learn and a little bud of pride will bloom in your heart.

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The Evolution of a Pond

I’m rarely satisfied.

This trait is both beautiful and terrible. It pushes me to achieve more than I ever thought possible, and yet I almost never feel truly finished with anything – projects, writing, etc. I know that I can always improve.

In Season 1, Episode 7 of “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell describes two types of artists. Picassos seem to create pieces quickly (but often meditate on the piece long beforehand). Cézannes remake the same song, object, etc. over and over until reaching a “final” product.

Although I think and plan, I am a Cézanne.

I’ve previously traced my chicken coop designs over the six years I’ve lived in my human coop. But long before I ever decided to get chickens, I started thinking about ponds. I’ve always loved the water – gentle splashing, smooth reflections of light. The moment I started looking at houses to buy, in the back of my mind, I was also planning my first pond.

Before I dug into the ground the first time, I had a few goals for my water feature:

  • a small waterfall
  • fish
  • to be able to hear the water through open living room windows.
  • within reach of an outlet (for the waterfall)

The most obvious location was right outside my side door. There’s a covered exterior outlet, and the side door leads straight into my living room. Perfect!

I started digging and pretty quickly ran into a thick PVC pipe. Okay, so my pond would be two levels: the end with the PVC pipe would be about six inches shallower than the far end. I figured it actually worked out pretty well for water circulation because the deeper end held the pump and filter box, and a hose ran the water from the box to the waterfall at the shallow end.

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This first pond was basically a hole with a sheet of pond liner on the clay (what passes for dirt here), some river pebbles along the bottom, and pavers around the rim. I built the “waterfall” out of stones and old concrete chunks I found around the yard.

What that picture doesn’t show is the leaves that constantly rained onto the water from an oak tree overhead. The tree provided nice shade that kept algae at bay, but it made cleaning the pond a constant struggle. Those little rectangular pavers were also inching into the water too.

That said, the pond was cute and met my initial needs. It was enough low enough that the chickens stopped by for water breaks. The few goldfish that called it home seemed pretty happy too.

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Here it’s not as pristine, but the goldfish enjoyed the creeping jenny trailing into the water. I also added a second layer of pavers around the perimeter, which improved the stability. However, the leaves were still an issue, and the chickens kicked mulch and debris into the pond every time they went near it.

The biggest issue with the first pond? Look how close that wall (and the house foundation) is to the pond. Although the pond likely wasn’t deep enough to permanently impact the foundation, as a new homeowner, I grew nervous (ditto with the weight of the water on that PVC pipe). Having a hole so close to the foundation just wouldn’t do for the long term.

The second pond was a little bit away from the house, but still within reach of the outlet. The distance was maybe eight feet? I also wanted an above-ground pond to combat the mulch-kicking from the chickens.

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Rather than buy a bunch of pavers, I decided to build a wooden frame and make my own “pavers” out of Quikrete. They weren’t gorgeous, but they were cheap and functional. As there was no obvious place for a waterfall, I opted for a fountain in the middle.

Actually, what I really wanted was to a hand holding a sword coming out of the water – a la Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake – with the sword acting as the fountain. I tried to build one out of a plastic sword and a manicurist practice hand, but I just couldn’t get it to work. Years later, I’m still sad; the Sword-in-the-Lake fountain would’ve been awesome.

You may notice that this pond had the added benefit of being a nice gathering point for a sitting area. That wooden post between the benches is part of a pergola I built not long after rebuilding the pond. The only thing is, this space was cramped. The pond was also a bit too small because I opted not to dig down more than a few inches before building up the sides.

But the biggest issue with this second version? My own desires and aesthetics. I yearned for mountain streams and curving water. The above-ground pond looked too constructed. I wanted something more natural and meandering, like the creeks of the North Carolina mountains where I used to hike. So down came Pond 2.0.

For the third pond, I started digging again. I laid out ropes and hold water hoses to approximate a winding creek. It would have a waterfall at one end and a pool (with the pump box) at the other. A second waterfall would separate the “creek” and the pool.

Fortunately, I was able to reuse all the pavers – bought and made – and the pebbles. I had to buy a few more bags of pebbles, though, because this new pond was quite a bit larger than previous versions.

Around the same time I was building this version of the pond, I had four ducklings quickly growing to adult size. One of the reasons I wanted to build larger was to give them a space (in addition to the repurposed bathtub in the coop) in which to splash around. Water isn’t required for ducks, but they sure do love it.

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The only downside of having a duck pond is those silly birds are also ravenous murder birds. I can’t really keep fish or any other living thing in the pond. Even the cleverest goldfish with plenty of hiding spots has eventually gotten snapped up.

This past summer, though, I tried an experiment and fenced off the upper pond with poultry wire. I added some aquatic plants and let the algae grow, hoping to create the perfect environment for toads and/or frogs. My end goal is to establish a toad or frog community for pest control in the gardens (which are only a few feet away from the pond).

It seemed to take forever – but I also didn’t have a good idea on when tadpoles appear in New Orleans. Then sometime around June, I realized little black dots were scooting around the pond!

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Pond 3.0 has worked well so far. It’s definitely my favorite design, and my qualms with it stem from structural choices. For example, the waterfall separating the upper and lower pond leaks water and is less of a “fall” and more of a “seeping pile of rocks.” I’ve also struggled to control algae at times because the pool sits in direct sunlight for much of the day (fortunately, the algae issue seems to have worked itself out, probably due to the ecosystem self-balancing).

I love ponds, and my favorite designs also skew towards more natural states. I enjoy watching plants and animals grow, develop, and interact. That’s probably why I also love creating gardens – it’s not just about growing plants. Gardens, for me, involve creating a natural community. Then, I just step back and observe.

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Clean up Your Life

When I was nine years old, there were three things I wanted to be: a fashion designer, Gwen Stefani, and a maid. (At the time, who knew that I could’ve just been Stefani and knocked out two goals at once with her L.A.M.B. line?)

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The. Coolest.

Clearly, two of those goals are slightly more exciting than the third.

I was a standard American kid who hated putting away her clothes and making her bed. And yet, I knew how satisfying it felt to be in a clean space. When my dresser was arranged and my floor was vacuumed, I could think more clearly and focus on the important things (like Gwen Stefani’s killer style – blue hair and eyebrow rhinestone?!). I could find what I needed (Barbies) and see what I had (more Barbies).

Plus, Saturdays were family chore day, so I learned from a very early age to associate cleaning with family time. I fondly remember Saturdays where my mom told me to choose some music and we’d open the side door to let in a breeze while we washed windows and mopped.

(side note: if I ever have kids, I’m absolutely involving them in chores as young as possible. It may seem like trouble at first, but it can pay off for years afterward.)

And yet, even knowing the benefits and remembering the warm memories associated with cleaning, I still struggle on a daily basis. Not to make excuses (I’m definitely going to make excuses), but I’m also the sole caretaker of a 1600+ square foot house with pets. I balance taking care of the house and yard with a full-time job.

I blink and the house is dirty again! And I don’t have room in my schedule to clean until next week! Even as a single woman with zero human dependents, my life is hectic. I have a ton to get done everyday, and although much of it is self-imposed (gardens, shed rebuilds), I’m not yet willing to cut those joys out of my life.

In the past few years, I’ve made an exciting discovery: a magical pocket of time exists every day. It’s the quiet hour or two while the rest of the world is still sleeping, or has maybe just awoken. Demands haven’t started to pile up, and the time is mine to do as I please.

In other words, I’ve started cleaning first-thing in the morning.

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I was already in the habit of waking early to exercise, so my morning cleaning bursts started with wiping down the counters after strength training. This grew into starting loads of towels, scooping the cat box, mopping, vacuuming…

Truth be told, I’ve actually started slacking off on exercise in favor of cleaning. Of course, a lot depends on whether or not I have people over (what kind of a monster wakes someone at 6am with a vacuum cleaner?). But nearly every weekday morning, I clean.

Not only does my morning tidying habit mean there’s less to do on the weekends or evenings, but I get the same degree of satisfaction from a morning scrub-down that I did from exercise. I start the day with a sense of accomplishment, which is almost better than a good cup of coffee.

As opposed to the evenings, when I’d rather work on projects or read, I actually want to clean in the morning. And after I’m exhausted from work, I can find my tools or notebooks or whatever, because I put things back in place when I was clear-headed that morning. I don’t have to get frustrated when I search my whole house for the stupid screwdriver and end up collapsed on the floor and feeling like a failure in life (it’s a slippery slope, folks).

Breaking large tasks into smaller pieces isn’t exactly a new or unusual concept. Rather, that advice is touted for everything from saving up for retirement to writing a novel. The morning cleaning method falls into this same pattern, although unlike a lot of other larger goals, it’s not really designed to ever be “finished.” Dust will fall, cats will shed. However, waltzing around with a podcast in my ears, a coffee mug in one hand, and a dust cloth in the other is a pretty darn good way to start the day in perpetuity.

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