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



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.


I love this piece from Creative Heart Studio on Etsy. This is my prayer for my daughter. This is my prayer for all women. This promise of strength and dignity. It is the destiny for which we were created. It was marred by the Fall, but God wants to restore us to this dignity. And we get to participate in that. This is my prayer each time I make soap. May it bring dignity and strength and redemption.

Happy Earth Day 2013!

Today, I want to give you some suggestions for how your family might reduce your paper usage.  Our family has reduced our  paper usage a good bit over the last few years, and I would love to share that with you.    We don’t have our environmental act completely together.  While I love the zero-waste movement, we haven’t tackled that at this point.  We have trash every week.  I still use some plastic products.  But, we have taken some steps to reduce our paper usage that have been fairly easy and haven’t added a lot to our weekly work load.  Don’t take all of these on right now.  Just pick one and make it a habit.  If you try to do too much at a time, you’ll wind up doing nothing.  Here are some ideas:


1.  Consider replacing paper towels with bar mops.

We stopped using paper towels several years ago and purchased some bar mops to use instead.  They see heavy use in our household.  They are our kitchen towels and our cleaning work horses.  I have “special” towels that I use for absorbing oil from fried donuts or oven-roasted potatoes.  Keep these oil soaked cloths and use them only for these greasy occasions- this will help all your other kitchen towels to stay thirsty.   As you can see, these towels are heavily used.  I don’t use bleach, so mine get stained.  I would love to be able to show you a beautiful stack of pristine towels, but that’s just not realistic if you’re using them for everything from dusting to cleaning up carrot juice spills.


2.  Consider replacing paper napkins with cloth napkins.

This is fairly easy.  Buy some cloth napkins, and start using them instead of paper napkins.  I have a lot of cloth napkins.  I have some from when we first married that I still use.  They are easy to throw in our pack on days when we eat away from home.    You will not need to change these at each meal, or even every day.  Each person in our family has their own napkin ring, so we can use our napkins for several days before replacing them.


3.  Consider replacing kleenex with handkerchiefs.

This is a very easy place to begin.  Buy a dozen handkerchiefs and start using them instead of kleenex.  If I have a guest who wants a kleenex, I just give them toilet paper.


4.  Consider replacing toilet paper with wipes.

I put this one last because it’s the most fringe.  It might ick you out.  But, our family replaced toilet paper with wipes several years ago, and it’s just not a big deal.  Here’s how we do it.  If you come to my house, I will have toilet paper for you ;-/.

I’m guessing you’re wondering if these habits contribute significantly to our laundry.  I do 1-2 loads a week of towels, wipes, handkerchiefs and napkins.  I do them separately and add vinegar to the rinse to keep them nice and thirsty.

What about your family?  Have you tried any of these?  How’s it going?  Any new habits for Earth Day this year?

Sowing Gratitude

March 5, 2013

In a little over a week, Charlie and I will be doing a beans and rice lenten fast with our church.   We’ll be doing the Hungry for Change  program from Trade as One.  For five days, we’ll be eating the type and amount (read:  simple and less) of food that 2 billion people eat globally- those living on less than $2 a day.  I’m looking forward to doing this fast in community with others at my church- sort of.  I say sort of because it was hard when we did it last year.  I’m painfully aware of my humanity.  My children both groaned when they found out that we would be doing Hungry for Change again.  Because they know.  When I get hungry, I get grumpy and short-tempered.  When I am hungry, I tire easily and am mentally fuzzy.  So, why?

  • Because scarcity breeds gratitude.
  • Because I want to be in touch with the experience of the world’s poor.
  • Because I want to hear God.
  • Because I want God to change me.
  • Because I want to be used by God.
  • Because I want to understand fasting better than I do.

In closing, I want to share one of the results of our fast last year.  Gratitude.  The fast last year sowed deep gratitude in my heart.  While gratitude is wonderful, I’m praying that my gratitude will push toward change this year.  I’m praying that my feeling of gratitude won’t stop with just being a word and a feeling- but that God would use my gratitude to push toward justice and change.  But, gratitude is a start.  Here is my gratitude chart from last year.  I would love to hear from you if you’ve fasted in the past.  Did it change you in any way?  I’d love to know.


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?

Homemade Laundry Detergent

August 31, 2012

I’ve been using homemade laundry detergent for over a year.  Thanks, Tommi! Although I was initially hesitant to try it, I’m now a big fan.
The big draws for me are:

  • It’s very inexpensive- I’m guessing I spend about $5/year on detergent.
  • It works well.
  • There is no packaging to recycle.  It makes environmental sense.
  • It’s easy to make. It takes about ten minutes once you have the ingredients.

There are a lot of recipes on the web.  You can find the one from the Duggar Family website that I used here.  You’ll need a five gallon bucket with a lid to store your concentrate, as well as a liquid laundry detergent bottle from previous use.  I’ll show you how I did mine below:


4 cups hot water
1 bar Fels Naptha
1 cup Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda
1/2 cup borax
I picked up all of these ingredients at my local Ace Hardware.

Grate the Fels Naptha into a pan.  Turn the stove on low with some water in the pan.

Heat soap and water stirring constantly until the soap melts.  My friend Rose just uses boiling water and does this step in a bowl without using the stove.

Dissolve the washing soda and borax with hot water in your five gallon bucket.

When the Fels Naptha is melted into the water, mix the Fels Naptha mixture with the washing soda/borax mixture.  Make sure all the ingredients are dissolved.  Now, fill your bucket to the top with hot water and mix well.  I like to use a whisk.
My other pictures of the process came out blurry, but it’s pretty simple.   The next day (or when you want to fill your laundry detergent bottle), you’ll need to mix your concentrate thoroughly.  The top with be more like a solid-ish gel, and the bottom will be more liquid.  A good stir will fix this.  You now have five gallons of laundry concentrate.  Each time you need laundry detergent , fill your bottle half way with the concentrate and then fill it the rest of the way with water.   Shake very well, and your detergent is ready to go.
I have a front load washer, and it works very well.