Our $200 Christmas

December 12, 2013


We have a $200 Christmas budget this year.  I feel neither sad nor deprived about this.  We’ve been leaning into simplicity over the last few years in order to focus on what’s important.  This is just an extension of our goals around voluntary simplicity or frugality.  How did we get to the $200 amount?  It’s the amount that we have in our virtual Christmas envelope.  Let me back up a few steps.  Charlie and I have been fundamentally pro-budget since we’ve been married.  Over the years, as Charlie’s income has gone up, our spending to the budget has declined.  We would do a budget, track our spending, but then mostly use it as a tool to look back and see how we did.  We had considered going to a total cash budget, but we were both enthusiastic about travel hacking and maximizing airline miles on credit cards.  Thus, we put off the cash budget.

We have periodic budget meetings.  Over the last few years, they’ve been (roughly) quarterly and mostly grim.  In other words, we spent more than we wanted to.  We were continually frustrated with ourselves.  I usually brought up the cash budget, and Charlie usually wanted to continue to try to get our acts together financially and optimize airline miles.  Over and over again, we seemed not to be getting ahead.  Not saving as aggressively as we wanted to, although we knew that we should be able to with Charlie’s income.  In early autumn, Charlie did some detailed analysis for our spending over the last year.  What he found made us both get a catch in the gut.  We were actually spending more than Charlie’s salary.  I know.  Rookie problem.  The reason we were able to keep going and not go into debt is that we were making ends meet using his bonuses.  Our lifestyle didn’t seem over the top to us.  It just seemed sort of normal. Normal for Menlo Park.  Which is to say normal here is different from “normal” in other areas.  Menlo Park is the hub of venture capital.  So, there’s a lot of money here.  People have a lot of cool stuff.  Really big, nice houses.  Cool cars.  Which is all fine, except that it can distort your sense of what is actually normal.

This is where my being involved with poverty alleviation gives me a bit of perspective.  Being involved with issues surrounding poverty helps me remember what’s true.  What’s true is that most people on the planet live in a space the size of my dining room.  What’s true is that access to clean water is considered a clean water source less than a mile away.  With that definition, 345,000,000 people still don’t have access to clean water.  What’s true is that if your family earns $35,000 a year, you’re in the top 1% of global income earners.  So, I can look at Menlo Park and set my norms based on that.  Or, I can learn about what is actually normal for the majority of the world and re-set my norms based on what I know to be true.

This has led our family to an attitude of abundance.  I recently took an on-line class from Brene Brown.  It was wonderful for so many reasons.  One of them was that there was a ton of emphasis on practicing gratitude.  Practicing gratitude is different from “trying to be grateful”.  Practicing gratitude is like practicing yoga.  You actually have to make yourself slow down and be grateful.  There is a mindfulness and an intentionality.  Sit down and write about those things for which you are grateful.  Write them down.  Look at your list.  Ponder it and add to it.  Once you start down the rabbit hole, you find an unending list.  I know where my next 365 meals are coming from.  My kids never go to bed hungry.  I have shelter every single night.  I have central heat.  My kids have access to a great education.  I’m married to a man who I deeply love and respect- and who feels the same way about me.  We live in a safe neighborhood.  I have five places in my house where you can turn on a tap and get fresh, drinkable water .  We have access to hot water whenever we want it.  I don’t even have to heat it myself.  If my kids are sick, I take them to the doctor without even thinking about it.  Which is to say, we are rich.  There is plenty.  There is more than enough.

This attitude of abundance was incredibly helpful when I looked at the $200 in our Christmas envelope.  Knowing how good we already have it, I can look at our $200 budget and realize how rich that is.  Because we started our new budget on November 1, we only had two months to save for Christmas.  Thus, $200.  Next year we’ll likely have more money to spend.  That being said, I like our Christmases to be quiet and peaceful.  There is so much to gaining white space in your Christmas.  I’d love to hear from you in the comments on how you’re slowing down or spending less during this holiday season.

Click on my other posts below on slowing down during the holidays.

Christmas with White Space

The Gift of Nothing

Hundred Dollar Holiday

Advent Conspiracy




Minimizing toys can be tough and emotionally loaded.  My husband and I are on the same page with minimizing toys, which makes it much easier.  But, getting rid of toys can cause relational tension with your kids and family members.  We told our family about our one-in-one-out policy.  Knowing that for every toy that came in, one would go out was hard for them.  Some felt sorry for our children.  But, neither my husband nor I feel sorry for our kids for having to make choices.  They can’t have everything they want- they have to choose and focus on only those things they most value.


With that, I  wanted to share a few thoughts on toys:

  •  Resist toys that do something to entertain your children.  Talk.  Move.  In my opinion, these toys lose their novelty quickly.
  • Lean towards toys that require something of your children.  Designing.  Pretending.  Creating.  Building.  Crafting.  Decorating.
  • I love wood blocks.  I bought a heavy set as soon as I was sure that Charlie wouldn’t hurt his sister with them.  These are one of the items that I’m planning to hold on to even after my children are gone.
  • Trains are wonderful toys.  Although our children have outgrown them, I get them out regularly when young children visit our house.  Charlie and Elizabeth are more than happy to help their younger friends by building track- not because they want to, mind you.  They’re being helpful.  ;-/
  • Legos are wonderful.  After the initial project is built, there’s so much room to build and create.  I love what our children come up with.
  • Our Playmobil toys have seen a ton of use.  For several years, the kids would get lost in their created universes.  My kids often set up scenarios that included wood blocks, legos and Playmobil.
  • Art.  I keep a well stocked art cabinet.  If the kids are bored, we get the bin out and talk about the possibilities.  There are hot glue guns, potholder kits, yarn, knitting needles, embroidery supplies, felt, sculpey clay, paint, paint brushes and heavy paper.
  • Board and card games.  So much to be said here.  Board games have helped my children practice the habit of being a good sport.  Throughout life, they’ll benefit from being able to win and lose graciously.  Our current favorites:  Dixit.  Forbidden Island.  Skipbo.  Jumbling Towers.  Aquarius.  When I’m playing with Elizabeth, she still often opts for Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders.
  • We go through the kids toys about every six months.  The kids choose which toys they’re ready to part with.  If they haven’t played with a toy in the last six months, might be time for the toy to have a new owner.
  • Our back yard is our best toy.  The kids still spend hours creating rivers in the back yard with the hose on a trickle.  They love to set up Playmobil villages, rivers and dams.  They pretend for hours.
  • I can’t recommend a rebounder highly enough for home schoolers.  Whenever our children have a hard time settling down, 3-5 minutes of jumping helps them calm down and focus.  We still use it several times a week.

Perhaps this list doesn’t sound so minimalist.  It’s definitely not as lean as some minimalists.  Minimalism is a process for our family.  We’re trying to live simply with only the items that we find beautiful or useful.  Yes, we could cut the number of toys.  We’re trying to tread lightly with our children.  While we would love for them to grow up embracing simple living, they are not minimalists right now.  We love our kids more than we love minimalism, and we don’t want to have conflict over belongings.  As we move toward my older child’s pre-teen years , we want to spend our relational capital carefully.  We have found that as all our belongings are more and more simplified over time, our children have gotten used to getting rid of what they don’t play with.  They often suggest it before I do now.  So, it truly hasn’t been a battle.

What about you?  Thoughts on great toys for toy minimalists?

In the autumn of 2008, our family went to L’Abri outside of Boston.  It was a watershed few months that has changed the trajectory of our family’s story.  During our time at L’Abri, we lived in one bedroom.  While it was snug, it was also sweet.  It was all we needed.  We had a small bin of toys and some basic homeschooling supplies.  We were all living in one room, and the kids were happy as clams.  We have such sweet memories of waking up early and sipping our coffee in the  L’Abri library as the wood stove took the chill off the autumn New England mornings.





We had been struggling for years with various issues around God and faith.  When we left L’Abri after three months of study, we were changed people.  We believed down to our toes that God loved us and that He had come for us.  We were grateful not only for heaven in our future, but for the here and now.  This changed everything.  It changed how we viewed money.  It changed how we viewed our time.  It changed our view of careers and giftedness and children.  It rocked our world in a wonderfully life-changing way that messed up all our plans.  In a way that we totally wanted to get on board with.   It changed what we wanted.   Because we wanted way more than the American dream of the big house and fancy car.  Now we wanted in on God’s plan of redemption.  Now we wanted in on making the earth a more just place.  Now we wanted in on preventing human trafficking and on chipping away at poverty.

Charlie and I both remember the moment.  He had been out of work for several months, which precipitated the trip to L’Abri to begin with.  We had been living quite contentedly in this one room at L’Abri.  We were shaken with gratitude to our cores.  Grateful to be loved by God.  Grateful to have a faith that we could look our kids in the eye and defend.  We were grateful for a new perspective on life.  Grateful that God had changed our hearts.  Expectant for what God was going to do.  So, there was this moment when we walked back into our hilltop house in the Bay Area.  This house that Charlie was having stomach pains over.  This house for which we were in debt up to our eyeballs- and would be for the next thirty years.  This house that I loved with our garden, honeybees and chickens.  And, it was just all too much.  Too much mortgage.  Too big.  More than we needed.  This was the moment when we started wanting less.


Halloween at L’Abri


Snuggled up in our room at L’Abri

It took a while to listen to that.  We were mortgaged up to our eyeballs, and the real estate bubble was freshly busted.  We knew that we were going to lose a ton of money.  And we did.  I’m convinced that God doesn’t pry our hands off our money.  But, I felt Him asking us to open our clenched fists.  Slowly, we felt them begin to unclinch.  I began reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes daily.  Praying for wisdom and a Godly perspective on money.  We began to read books and blogs on Minimalism.  Charlie and I both felt the financial loss.  2 1/2 years later, it still stings.  Please don’t hear what I’m not saying.  I love Dave Ramsey.  I love budgets.  I love financial planning.  But, this was a time when we felt God calling us to clear the deck and start again with less.  We felt God calling us to trust Him with our finances.  We were fortunate to take a tiny sum out of our house.  While it was a difficult financial loss, we were grateful not to leave the house in debt.

As we got the house ready to put on the market, we started our journey to less.  It was painful and relationally costly at times and wonderful and freeing.  We got rid of silver tea sets and antique furniture and dressers and chairs.  By the time we moved out of that house, our load was about 50% lighter.  Since that time, I would guess that we’re down to about 30% of our original possessions.  While it hasn’t been easy, it has been good.  It’s allowed us to live well in our 1100 foot rental.  It’s allowed us to run our small business within this small space.  It’s allowed plenty of room for games and for homeschooling.  We have plenty of room for our backpacking equipment and soccer gear.  It’s allowed mental space and more peace.  It’s brought about simplified wardrobes,  simplified art supplies and a simplified budget.  But, we have plenty of room for those things that we find beautiful or useful.

We still talk about those early L’Abri mornings around the fire.  They are a sweet memory etched into our minds.  Because they represent what we want.  Shelter.  Warmth.  Relationship.  Faith.  Messy community.  Intellectual stimulation.  Meaning.  Literature.  Art.  Beauty.  Work worth doing.  We want more L’Abri in our lives and less frantic.  More relationship and less financial stress.  More family and less workaholism.  Less distracting stuff and more of the good stuff.

We’re not sure what’s next for our family.  But, we are looking forward to the journey.

Three Words- 2013

February 26, 2013

For the past few years, I’ve chosen three words on which I want to focus.  I’ve had some trouble narrowing and choosing my words this year.  There’s so much that I want to do and be.  Areas where I want to leave space.  Areas where I want to grow and change.  Areas where I want to work a bit harder or focus a bit more intensely.  Having to choose just three words was more difficult this year than it has been in previous years.  We’ll see how it goes. But, this year, I’m choosing margin, simplicity and community.


Margin was one of my goals last year.  While I did ok with it, I feel like I need to focus on it again this year.

Physical Margin

I want to continue to protect my sleep.   I’m working through a soft tissue shoulder injury from swimming.  I need to protect my time in order to do my exercises daily.  In the end, I want to be back in the pool and working out with my masters group.  While I’m hoping to be able to do all four strokes again, I may have to kiss butterfly goodbye.  Exercise is an investment in my mental wellbeing and future health.  Whether it’s walking or swimming,  I need to be moving at least five days a week.

Relational Margin

I want to invest in my relationships with Charlie and my children foremost, then in extended family and friends.  In order to do that, I need to not let my iPhone or computer suck my time away.  Charlie and I need regular dates in order to sow into our marriage.

Financial Margin

I want to continue to save money and to live frugally.  Gotta love Dave Ramsey.  In 2013, we want to move forward in his plan to financial freedom.

Spiritual Margin

I want to give my spiritual growth time and energy.  I want to spend regular time reading the Bible and praying.  I want to make myself accountable to other women in my faith community.  


If you follow my blog, you already know that we’ve been clearing out our house.  I’m loving the way our space feels.  I want to continue to pursue simplicity in our environment at home.  For us, this means not owning too much stuff.  It also means maintaining what we do own so that our home runs smoothly.  We’re pursuing a rhythm of cleaning our house so that we stay on top of it and don’t get overwhelmed by it.  We’re pursuing a rhythm of giving each of the children 15-20 minutes of our time each week dedicated to keeping their rooms de-cluttered and picked up.  We’re pursuing simple food.  Simple isn’t always easy.  The article on junk food from the New York Times last week reminded me how much I want our family to eat fresh, whole foods.  As you know, this takes time and effort.  I want to spend time and money here so that the way we eat matches with what we value.  Over the last few years, we’ve lost sight of pursuing fresh, whole, healthy food as we’ve been getting our company started.  Time to get back on the horse.


Frankly, I stink at community.  It’s always seemed elusive to me.  I want to be good at it.  I want to pursue it.  I have friends who are great at it and who talk about it a lot.  But, I’m not good at it, and I want to be.  So, I want to sow into community this year.  Charlie and I are great with sitting at home and reading a book in our spare time.  Having two strong introverts leading our household makes it easy to just stay at home.  Which works just fine until it’s not fine.  Until we’re lonely.  Until we don’t have the support system that we need to live the lives we want to live.  So, this year, I’m not going to focus on getting community.  I’m going to focus on being the community I want.  I want to be the lady who takes people dinner when they’re having a hard time.  I want to regularly have people in our home for meals.  I want to have kids playing at our house.  Even if the noise bothers me.  I want to sow community in my faith community.  So, I’m looking for opportunities.  I want to be ready to say yes when I see an opportunity to sow community.  It completely goes against my introversion, but I want to change in this area, and I’m ready to lean into my discomfort and my desire to just go read a book.

What about you?  What are you working on in 2013?

For ten days this January (and February), we’re decluttering our house from top to bottom. We’re using Tsh Oxenreider’s ten-day plan from her book Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living. Links to the first nine days are listed at the bottom.

I’m about a week late wrapping up our household declutter.  What can I say?   Business and kids/homeschooling were a higher priority than decluttering.

We’re all but finished (sort of).  Let me explain.  Oxenreider devotes day 10 to decluttering your entrances.  She also suggests that you stick to it just a bit longer and clear up any clutter from your yard.  Our entries are pretty clear as it is.  I went outside yesterday and wiped down the windowsills on my front porch, along with the porch light and mail box.  It felt great to spiff it up just a bit and clean up the dust and cobwebs.

Here’s the front entry outside.


And inside.


Here’s the entry off the driveway.


But, our shoe room is part of our entry.  It’s a tiny room right off the master bedroom.  When we walk in our back door from the garage and driveway, we go straight to the shoe room and store our shoes in our shoe bench.

Our challenge is that our shoe room is also our soap processing room.  It’s where soap batter sits while it’s saponifying after being poured into molds.  It’s where we keep our indoor supply of de-canted coconut oil and shea butter.  It’s storage for packaged soap and for all soap packaging supplies.  So, it’s filled with eco shred and boxes and packaged soap and labels and files . . . This is the sticky part of running a business out of a smallish (by American standards) house with no dedicated home office.  It’s cozy.  With it also being the room where we store our shoes and where the kids are apt to drop their backpacks, there’s a lot going on in this little space.




Getting the shoe room de-cluttered and organized isn’t something that we can tie up right now.  We need to sit with it for a bit.  We need to see what the rhythm of life is going to be as demand increases for our soap.  We need to come to a pain point of seeing what’s not working before we jump ahead and spend money or time on any sort of solution.  At this point, I’m observing our work area and thinking about what would be helpful.  I’ve created a board on Pinterest to check out what others have done with small home offices.  I’ll let you know when we make progress on getting this space squared away.  I’m definintely looking forward to it.

That wraps up our decluttering project for now.  I’ll warn you- it’s addictive.  Clearing our space has felt so good that we’re wondering where we can push a bit more.  It feels so good to have the floors clear with no piles that need to be dealt with (other than the shoe room, of course).  It’s easier to clean.  It’s also such a hassle to get rid of stuff that it’s made both of us much more wary of bringing anything into the house.  For now, I’m going to enjoy the clear space and have a cup of tea.   Thanks for reading about our journey!

Day 1: Trash and surface clutter

Day 2: Living Area Day 1

Day 3: Living Area Day 2

Days 4 and 5: Kitchen

Day 6: Bathrooms

Days 7 and 8: Children’s Bedrooms

Day 9:  Master Bedroom

For ten days this January, we’re decluttering our house from top to bottom. We’re using Tsh Oxenreider’s ten-day plan from her book Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living.   Please see the links at the bottom to read about our entire household declutter.

Oxenreider devotes day 9 of the household declutter to the Master Bedroom.

I’ve already done a lot of decluttering in our bedroom, but we had areas that we hadn’t touched since we moved into our rental two years ago.

Book Case

Charlie and I took all the books out of the book case. We kept only those books that we re-read yearly or that we can’t get at the library. Among the books we kept were C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia  and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We also kept all my books on poverty and human trafficking. They’re niche books that address both of these topics from a Christian perspective. I don’t expect that I’ll be able to get them from the library. I want to be able to re-read and loan out all these books. I gave away almost all my other books. Here are some that went:


Here’s what our book case looks like now.


We also have a built-in book case devoted to library books.

Our Closets

Charlie and I share two closets. One has shelves where we put all our folded clothes. The other is where we hang all our hanging clothes. We don’t own a dresser. My clothes are already pared down, so I only had a few things to give away. If you’re curious, you’re welcome to read about my year-long experiment in living with less clothing here. Charlie was ready to do a deep purge on his wardrobe. This is delicate territory. Purging ones closet. I asked him how involved he wanted me to be. He said that he would do it and ask my opinion when he wanted it. That plan seemed to work well.

Here’s what went:


Here’s what he wound up keeping:


In our other closet are his folded clothes, which are mainly socks, underwear and work out gear.

We also took everything out from underneath our bed. Included were keepsakes for both our children. Letters from mine and Charlie’s courtship. Portfolios where I keep the children’s artwork. My wedding dress is also under our bed. I wore my mother’s 1957 wedding dress for our wedding, and I’m not ready to give it a new home at this point. There were more than a few dust bunnies to chase away.

My Two Favorite Things

Below are my two favorite things about cleaning out our room.

First, our cozy reading nook.   I love this little corner in our room.  It consists of two mis-matched chairs with a home-made table and a lamp from freecycle.  Charlie and I love this space.  He works from home on many Fridays.  He and I often hole up in our room for a few minutes and share a latte or maybe even a quick lunch.  Elizabeth also reads to me here.


I also love our simplified bed.  The inspiration came from my friend Jacki’s blog.  We took the duvet off and just left it plain.  It’s been bugging us for a while.  It constantly needed to be adjusted, and it was a pain to get it on and off for cleaning.  So, we took it off.   I just throw it in the washing machine about once a month.  So much easier!


We are now officially in the home stretch.

Click on the links below to learn more about our household declutter:

Day 1: Trash and surface clutter

Day 2: Living Area Day 1

Day 3: Living Area Day 2

Days 4 and 5: Kitchen

Day 6: Bathrooms

Days 7 and 8: Children’s Bedrooms

Day 10:  Entrances

Why Less?

February 1, 2013

Yesterday was the last day of January, and thus technically the end our the Simpson Family De-Clutter. In the next few days, I’ll be sharing about the last two days of that process. For today, I wanted to take a bit of time to revisit why we’re doing this. Why do we want to own less stuff? I know that there are minimalists out there who are trying to get others to join the club. That’s not really my goal. In fact, if you visited my house, you might not even guess that we’re trying to be minimalists (especially with the stack of Craigslist and Freecycle stuff in the living room that’s slowly making its way out). We have stuff. We have children who have no interest in minimalism. We homeschool. So, there are school books and art supplies and math manipulatives and . . . . I could go on. I don’t like white walls. Right now, I have no orchids in my house. None of my furniture is modern. In other words, while we want to own less, we are very much still in process, and we’ll never meet the modern sleek minimalist ideal.

We just want to own less so that we can concentrate on what’s most important. How does owning less help with that?

  • It frees up our finances. If we’re not spending on lots of stuff, we can be more generous.
  • It gives us more time for those we care about.
  • It reduces our visual distractions. The less cluttered environment is more peaceful and calming.
  • It decreases the amount of time spent cleaning. Moving around piles. Picking up tchotchkes to dust around.
  • It eliminates the shopping habit as entertainment.
  • It brings white space. Both in our physical environment and in our schedules.
  • The white space helps me to bump into myself. Face my own stuff. Face the future of freedom and promise and possibilities. Make actual decisions instead of letting life come as it will. Deal with the question of what I really want- which is incredibly scary. If we face that question, then we have to make decisions. We have to take responsibility for those choices, which is terrifying and fantastic and life-giving.

So, there you have it. Some of the motivation for our ten-day declutter. Time to get it wrapped up and to get on with the business of living life in 2013.