10 Best // Tools for Organizing Finances

January 30, 2014

although i'm still struggling in this area (numbers, math, blah), i am getting much better at getting my finances under control.  i have debt to pay off, like student loans, and i wanted to learn how to budget.  because i've honestly never done that.  in college, when i charged too much, my mom would call to tell me to hide my credit card at the bottom of my laundry bin for awhile (remember my laundry pile?)  so i've never been one to actually track spending or receipts.  but this year i'm looking at it as just one more thing to organize.  it's much less scary for me to approach it as an organizational project as opposed to a spreadsheet full of equations.  here's some great ideas i've found so far to help get your finances in order:

learnvest.  or mint.  i can't pinpoint why it is that i prefer learnvest over mint but i do.  it's been said that learnvest is from a woman's point of view, maybe that's why.  but both are free, so you have nothing to lose by testing them out.  just put in your account info and tracks where your spending is going.  you can also make budgets to help you reach your goals.

maydesigns.  if spreadsheets are too complicated and you're still a pen and paper girl like me, you can get a customized budget journal from maybook for $22.  pick your cover, your monogram, and then select the budget journal inside pages and get to work!

52 week savings plan.  it's a great little tip to save up for something, without it seeming like a huge burden.  there's printables to help you keep track of how much is adding up in your little jar, whether you want to add in increments of 25 cents or $1.  if you start now, you'll have a large savings by the time holiday gift shopping season rolls around - that's what i'm doing!

30 day money plan.  i started here (and i combined days to get it done faster.)  it details each step you need to take to understanding budgeting and get on track to save you money.  the days also include ideas for trimming your spending - all helpful!  if you're ready to dive in and seriously organize your money, this is how you get started in just 30 days.

a finance binder.  many people prefer to have everything in one space, and they use a binder to keep track of all their printables.  you can include your budget, your bill payment schedule, info on your loans, pretty much everything in one place.  that link will take you to iheartorganizing, one of my favorites.  a bowl full of lemons also has a wonderful budget series to explain the binder process.

dave ramsey.  this seems to be the system that most people have the biggest success with.  i have no doubt that reading the full book will be helpful (this is my next step) but i've been finding a ton of very good summaries and free resources by searching his name on pinterest.  think of it as the cliffnotes version.

receipt scanner.  if you itemize your taxes, you know that receipts are important to keep around.  but it's also important to keep receipts for big purchases - some of them have warranties that last for years.  that's a lot of little financial paperwork lying around, so if you aren't storing it in a binder, scan it with the free cam scanner app and toss the paper version.  cam scanner syncs with drop box and other storage solutions, so you'll always (digitally) have your receipts.

cash envelopes.  the system that dave ramsey recommends.  but cute makes everything easier, right?  etsy has a ton of options of either ready made patterned envelopes to fit your system, or a ton of instant download printables to customize to your liking.  you could also use something like this, to contain your cash, receipts, and write down your spending.

bill calendar.  like the cash envelope system, a dated bill calendar like this one can help you see at a glance which bills you pay that month and when, with pockets to hold your statements, before and after you've paid.

the last one isn't so much a tool as some interesting information.  your meyer-briggs personality type influences how you view money, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.  as an estj, i'm a protector.  yeah... til i start online shopping.  what are you?

how are you working on your financial goals this year?  what's keeping you on track?

(p.s. i'm always pinning financial organizing ideas, so follow me here for more.)

A Harry Potter (Marathon) Party

January 29, 2014

so.... yeah.  this happened.  natalie and i marathon watched the harry potter movies.  it started with the idea that we needed to re-watch all of them.  then we decided we'd do it all in one weekend.  which morphed into a party, like "we're going to make all these themed foods and drinks and invite all these people."  we quickly realized we're a tad busy lazy ok fine, we just don't like that many people.  so it went back to the idea of just me and her, watching all 19+ hours of harry potter movies in one sitting.

because adults do that.  i mean, we're adults.  and we did it.  ergo, it's a legitimate thing.  so i highly encourage you to do it as well.  the 8 movies will total you 19 hours and 40 minutes.  this does not accounting for the time it takes to change out dvds and go to the bathroom.  it's quite an endeavor to take on, and i think we would have made it if it wasn't for all that snow and tundra weather.  natalie was at my house, and it would have been very difficult for her to return to her husband if she hadn't left exactly when she did, which was after the 5th movie.  so we had to reschedule the last 3, but i'm alright with it.  it was a valiant effort for one day, and two days just means more time for jello shot house cups.

oh yes, that's what's in those martini glasses.  a cup for each house, just jello and vodka.  served alongside those butterbeer cupcakes i told you about.

(jello shot 'house cups' - berry blue, cranberry, island pinapple, and lime)

just look at them.  if that's wrong, i don't want to be right.  four martini glasses full of jello shots between two people obviously meant drinking games.  we ate a spoon of jello during the 4th movie for every time someone said 'muggle' 'voldemort' or 'tri-wizard tournament.'  10 minutes in we decided it wasn't going fast enough and changed the rules to add 'harry.'  i do not recommend this unless you're really in for the long haul.  as you may imagine, they say harry a lot.  who knew?

and that, my friends, is how you marathon watch the harry potter movies in a very non-kid friendly way.

oh yeah, hawkeye was there too.  she slept the whole time.  except when she woke up to eat our snacks.  her and i are both hufflepuffs, in case you were wondering.  that's what i'd want to be, because they have iowa's colors.  personality-wise, i'm a slytherin, but i don't look good in green.  natalie is a gryffindor.  and the discussion of which house you'd be in is absolutely an appropriate topic of conversation at any age.  it could still happen.

Little White Lies

January 28, 2014

admittedly, i have a great affinity for little white lies.  i tell them believably, i wouldn't say often but often enough that the thought occurred to me just how good i am at them.  heck, i'm an only child who pretty successfully blamed the bad things i did on the dog.  poor crystal.  it's a skill i've really honed over the years and while some people just have no poker face, i doubt you could ever tell when i'm lying.  some lies, like the fact that i'm allergic to cherries, are so deeply ingrained that i now believe them myself.  i guess i picked an ideal career, huh?

now it's not as though i tell some life altering lies like pretending to be a doctor or faking a major illness.  it's more like... i claim to have plans when i really just want to avoid someone or sit on my couch all night and watch netflix.  and i know i'm not the only one who does that.  (though, the older i get, the more likely i am to just say 'no, i'd rather hang out with my dog.'  feelings be damned.)  or if i don't want to eat something, i tell people i'm allergic to it.  this is my favorite little white lie.  i'm not actually allergic to shellfish, but people put up less of a fight to try to get you to eat it so i just tell them i'm allergic instead of 'seafood smells like death, why would i put that in my mouth?'  i'm also allergic to cherries, energy drinks, kale, and licorice, to name a few.  my close friends (like john, tara, betsy) are aware of that this is a lie and just laugh.  but i still say it, every time.  it's just easier.

everyone does it.  it would be hard not to.  you do it every time you're nice to your evil in-laws.  you do it every time someone shows you horrid wedding photos and you tell them the bridesmaids dresses were so pretty.  you do it when you tell someone their cooking is the best ever.  hell you do it when someone says 'how are you/things?' and you say 'fine, you?'  so i'm still on the fence about whether or not i consider this a bad characteristic.  because i really was going to title this post 'my worst trait' until i thought more about it.  miranda lambert's song makes it sound pretty evil, but i actually tend to think that being a (skilled) white liar is a good thing.  i spare people's feelings, everyone gets what they want, and it just all around promotes efficiency, let's be honest.

or maybe it is my worst trait and i'm just blind to it.  but i really don't see the point in telling a bride that the bridesmaids dresses she picked were actually horrible and they'll never wear them again.  who benefits in that scenario?  it's not like she's about to do her wedding all over again.  we're definitely taught that lying/liars are bad, but if i say 'yeah you picked nice dresses, they're pretty' does that make me a bad person?  i certainly have a lot of bad traits but i'm struggling to see how that's one of them.  unless there's just some secret nice way out of that situation that i should be taking up instead.  until i figure out what that is, i guess i'll keep embracing my little white lies.

what about you - can you tell those little white lies or can everyone read you like book?  or are you solidly in the 'honesty is the best policy' camp?

Obscure Old TV Show Favorites

January 27, 2014

90s television was 100 times better than what's on today.  children's television, really.  everyone remembers the classics - clarissa explains it all, boy meets world, full house.  but some of my favorites are completely obscure and people tend not to remember them.  they were probably all one season long.
remember these?

land of the lost.  a dad and his two kids drive a jeep through some sort of time warp and end up in the land of dinosaurs, where they build a treehouse and befriend baby dinos.  short of the 'i'm the baby, gotta love me' song i was so fond of in the show 'dinosaurs', i was never interested these creatures otherwise.  there's really no reason for me to have love for this show, but i most certainly did.

space cases.  according to the internet, you must have been a big nerd as a kid if you liked this well.  i was never aware that i was a nerd, but obviously i was because i thought this show was great.  it was about kids who sneak on a space ship and get lost in space. i think i just liked catalina's hair.

the secret world of alex mack.  apparently this is hit or miss these days.  my grade year seems to know exactly what this show was, but go up or down a couple years and people are clueless.  it's larisa oleynik, pre-10 things i hate about you, pre-pretty little liars.  she's a tomboy who gets covered in chemicals after a crash and suddenly she has weird powers she can't always control.  it was pretty fantastic.

hey dude.  another hit or miss like alex mack - a dude ranch full of trouble making teens, anyone else a huge fan of this one and can still sing the theme song?  (man that line makes me want to add higher ground to this list, but i know that's 2000)

ready or not.  i was only 9 when this premiered, which means some of you were barely born.  it was a typical teen drama (drama back then, not like dawson's creek drama) that followed two girls, amanda and busy, and it actually ran for 5 seasons.  i seem to be the only one of my friends who watched it though.

more honorable mentions:

flash forward.  i clearly just love jewel staite.  the fact that she was on this, space cases, and later in firefly, that just seals the deal that i had great taste as a kid.

brotherly love.  the lawrence brothers, i mean, how could you resist?

so weird.  she filmed paranormal things.  i think a few episodes actually creeped me out.  i was a kid, give me a break.  and erik von detten was in it, and you know my love of brink.  he was probably my most beloved actor back then.

the adventures of pete & pete. my cousin and i saw danny tamberelli in a restaurant in universal studios when i was 15 and she 8.  we were both equally excited.

legends of the hidden temple.  ok, this one isn't so obscure.  i hope.  this was my favorite.  so imagine my sheer glee when i went to india in 2005 and found a channel of all old nickelodeon shows.  that played legends of the hidden temple for hours and hours at a time.  it was my favorite part of the whole trip.  sometimes, i remembered which team won, like some deep part of my brain still retained that knowledge. #teamsilversnakes

what were your favorites, 90s kids?

10 Best // Ways To Avoid People

January 23, 2014

i think the highlight of my month might be the one weekend where i stay in and do nothing.  i'm okay with admitting that, because i know i'm not alone.  it's relaxing and rejuvenating to stay in and watch tv while you tackle your laundry or catch up on blogging.  here's some more ways you can stay in and avoid people this weekend:

blogging: or meet a blogger really - mary is getting married in less than 100 days so go tell her congrats!  and see which planner she got for 2014.  if you read my blog, i know you're just like me and dying to see what everyone's planners are for this year.   no?  just me?

shopping: i've been etsy obsessed lately.  i mean, i think i am always but recently i've found myself turning to etsy for just about anything.  gotta love the ability to shop in your pjs from home.  i really want earrings from here.  (but ooo what color?)  i'm also looking for a little jewelry dish but i haven't found one i love.  something that fits the ring and necklace from john that i wear daily, so i can keep it on my nightstand.  any ideas?

netflix: i'm binge watching parenthood right now.  i put this one off, and i don't know why.  i thought i wasn't going to like it but i really do.  also, please watch the worst movie of all time, the haunting.  pretty please.  do it.  it'll make you think less of liam neeson, but he needs to be knocked down a few pegs anyway.

drinking game: margaret introduced me to the house hunters drinking game.  i know what i'm doing during the inevitable marathon that will be on tv!  (it's not drinking alone, hawkeye is there.)

learning: learn your wine pairings!  and possibly taste test all of them... learn what wines to pair with which girl scout cookies and which wines to pair with the usual tailgating foods.  perfect to get ready for the super bowl!  for, this information is way more important than which wine goes with steak and which with seafood.

cooking: if you're on the healthy new years kick (like so many of us are) vanessa has been posting some great healthy recipes lately.  use her ideas to get inspired for dinners for the week ahead, and prevent getting blindsided into order pizza.  again.

reading: i'm nothing if not honest.  it's a great read - what will you be honest about after you read it?

cleaning: wash your makeup brushes.  no, seriously, if you have time for nothing else on this list after contemplating your busy tv lineup, at the very least, wash your makeup brushes.  you'll be amazed at the grossness that comes out - and at how well the brushes perform again after you clean them!

and if all that fails and you're bored on sunday, go get a tattoo.  just not one of these.

happy weekend!

Chicago // Date Night Ideas

January 22, 2014

there's so many, many things to do in chicago - restaurants, navy pier, millennium park, bars, zoos, museums, even mini-golf.  yet there's so many nights where we're debating what to do or even where to eat for dinner.  sometimes having 400 options makes it hard to pick just one.  so i complied my favorite go-to date night ideas.  sure, i love going to the shedd aquarium, watching live bands, or seeing a bears/cubs/blackhawks game, but i'm talking about my favorite ideas for what to do when you're just thinking last minute 'what are we doing tonight?!'

my personal favorite date idea is definitely wine tasting (or beer tasting.)  chicago now has a winery right downtown.  it's near my place, in the west loop.  city winery has tastings and tours, and it also has a full restaurant for a complete date night.  you can even make your own wine, with custom labels!  it's a pretty fun place.  there's also a lot of wine bars/restaurants scattered around chicago, so you're sure to find one no matter what neighborhood you're in.

stand up comedy is something chicago is well-known for.  it's the birthplace of second city, which has had so many famous people come from there i couldn't even list them all, from belushi to fey to wolfe.  second city is a fantastic date night.  they have the main stage shows as well as shows on the smaller stages if you're on a budget/out of planning time - they are just as hilarious and likely to have last minute tickets available.  since second city is in the heart of old town, they also offer dinner and show packages with a lot of nearby restaurants.  personally, i just eat downstairs (literally, right under the place) at adobo grill.  and by eat, i mean drink margaritas and scarf down inhuman amounts of their made-table-side guacamole.  like wine tasting, second city isn't the only improv game in town so you're sure to find more options near you.

you can also bring out your competitive side.  downtown chicago has a dave & busters.  this shocks city dwellers as much as it does out-of-towners.  but yes, it exists!  i've made john take me there, it's a lot of fun to get competitive and act like a kid again.  i dominated him in air hockey.  there's also sluggers, in wrigleyville, which has indoor batting cages and carnival type games like skee ball.  you can even try your hand at bowling at 10 pin, which i hear is a celebrity favorite (i've never seen one there though.)

drinks with a view is a great quick date option, if you're not planning on a whole dinner.  there's so many places with great skyline views and though the martinis at the signature lounge on the 96th floor of the john hancock building will run you upwards of $12, the price is worth it.  i also recommend the terrace at trump tower (if you go on a wednesday/saturday during the summer, you see fireworks at eye level) and the shanghai terrace at the penninsula hotel.  obviously these places serve food as well - but it's expensive.  best to have just a cocktail or two, and maybe an appetizer.  the view is something that shouldn't be missed.

restaurants with a (different) view is a great option for an extended date (and you can find places with cheaper options than where you'd go just for a few fancy drinks).  i mean, the whole city is also on water.  well not on it, but you know what i mean.  the restaurants that border the lake are limitless and there's also new options constantly popping up along the river, which winds right through the loop.  (i practically live at south branch during the summer.)  you can even take water taxis to get to them if you wanted!  there's a lot of fancy options, but my favorite has to be bridge house tavern - because you can add bacon to anything on the menu for $2.  if that's not a reason to love a place, i don't know what is.  and for a completely casual option, try lizzie mcneill's, an irish pub right on river before it heads out into the lake.  it's perfect for summer because you can enjoy all the outdoor seating with your pup.  well, hawkeye enjoys it at least.  she gets a hot dog.

what are your favorite date night ideas?

Little Life Win // Perfect Timing

January 21, 2014

nothing brightens my day like perfect timing.  let's be honest here of course - i'm never late.  i plan for things to go wrong, like terrible traffic or a delayed train, so even if the worst happens, i'm still prepared.  but nothing compares to the feeling of none of those things happening.  it's easy to get frustrated at traffic jams and complain about the train never getting you to work on time, but i like to counteract that with appreciating every moment that i don't have to wait.  the little things, those that make it the perfect lucky day like when you can:

beat that red light.  not the time when it turns yellow and you gun it, but the time you're cruising along and you sail under it right when you see it turn yellow.  it's like it waited just for you.  and you know it's going to be the best day ever and you should probably buy a lotto ticket when it happens for 4 lights in a row.  smooth sailing, straight down the street.

walk up right when the train/bus/cab is arriving.  do you know how rare that is in the city?!  almost always you've either missed it by inches or you sit around waiting and wondering (particularly with those metra trains that claim to run on an hourly schedule but rarely ever do, and cabs who come 5 at a time but then never again for 20 minutes.)  catching your transportation perfectly on time is a godsend.

beat the timer.  i never unload the dishwasher as fast as i do when the microwave is counting down 30 seconds until my food is ready.  all of the sudden i'm in competition with this ticking clock and the race is on to get every dish in the rightful spot before the buzzer dings.  the ability to finish and stop the timer on 1 second is one of the most gratifying moments ever.  graduating high school/college/ law school?  acing a final or a job interview?  nope, still second place to the feeling of unloading the dishwasher with 1 second to spare on the microwave.  i'm not sure if that makes me crazy or just uber competitive, but i might need to reassess my priorities here...

but if it's made it's way to internet meme status, clearly i'm not alone in this.  alternatively, maybe we're all the same amount of crazy.

regardless, perfect timing is easily one of my favorite little ways to win at life.  is it just me?  am i the only one who gets intense satisfaction when i change the radio station in time to hear my favorite song start?  or flip to the right channel right when a disney classic is starting?

Mid-Month Resolution Excuses

January 20, 2014

january 1st was on a wednesday, that week was already shot.  i might as well start on february 1 instead.

well i'm too fat to go to the gym, i need to diet first.

the gym is too crowded with all the other resolution people.  i'll wait until it dies down.

it's so cold out.  i can't exercise, or get to the store for health foods.  it's -5 degrees and dominos delivers.

i am watching less tv.  netflix isn't technically tv.

i was drinking when i said i'd give up drinking.  that can't count, i was drunk.

i can't diet until after the superbowl.

i was going to walk more, but it's been -40 degrees.

i'd be better at budgeting, but i've been having to take cabs with this terrible weather.

my planner hasn't arrived yet, i can't get better at scheduling until it gets here.

i was going to pay my credit card, but then all the christmas present charges hit.

i can't really deep clean until i get this place organized.

i can't organize until i get rid of some things.

i can't get rid of anything without my spouse's/roommate's approval, and they've been too busy.

i was planning on being less stressed, but look at how hard all these resolutions are.

i went to the gym... i mean, that one time, i did.

well.... here's to 2015!  kidding, it's only 3 weeks in.  get back on the horse!

Blogging Questions Answered! (via Twitter)

January 17, 2014

last weekend, as part of blogging weekend, i also crowd sourced a bunch of blogging related questions on twitter.  i summed up some major points, but definitely check out the links to see the full twitter conversation (and to see who said what, which is always fun.)

best advice you'd offer a newbie blogger? - find out here!

some lessons learned:
1. readers can smell fake or forced content.  be yourself and don't jump on a trend just because everyone else is.
2. use photos. (man, i need to work on this one, don't i?!)
3. please make sure you're not a no-reply blogger - bloggers want to respond to your comments! if you don't know/aren't sure, tweet sarah.  she's a huge help.
4. researching and organizing ahead of time can really help you feel less stressed and make sure your content accurately reflects you.
5. build a network by responding to comments and commenting on other blogs.  it's much more fun and helps you grow when you have friends cheering you on.

who do you love to sponsor? - find out here!

some lessons learned:

why would you unfollow a blog? - find out here!

some lessons learned: 
1. don't always take it personally.  you or the reader may have had a change in circumstances that have led to a difference in blog content and taste.  it's okay to grow apart!  understand that only talking about one very personal part of your life will probably push some readers away who can't relate to that.
2. giveaways is a fine line to walk.  if they're outweighing your content, you're not going to have those 'real' readers, the ones who comment and interact.  your numbers will be inflated with people who only follow for free things.
3. sponsored content is another fine line to walk.  take care to accept sponsored content only when it accurately reflects your blog.  and never let the sponsored posts outweigh your own real content!  they want to read you.
4. you have to be a friend to make a friend.  if someone takes the time to comment, you should respond, maybe check our their blog.  they won't keep coming back if they feel ignored.

how do you attract readers, those who interact and comment, as opposed to silent followers? - find out here!
this was a tricky one, and we're still looking for answers.  it's something kelli touched on here and it seems a lot of people struggle with this.  here's what i can offer, though i'm still working on it too - respond to comments.  i respond to every comment, every time.  if it's a new name, i do not look at the blog first.  i respond to the comment, then go check out the blog.  therefore, i do not fall into the trap that a lot of 'big' bloggers do, in that i respond to everyone equally, no matter their size.  sadly, some people pick and choose who to respond to.  if you ignore people, especially 'little fish' (which is dumb, you were a little fish once too) they will likely not return and they will 100% stop leaving comments.  if you're 'too busy' to respond, you need to prioritize your time and sacrifice time you're spending elsewhere.  get off pinterest, shut off the bachelor, organize your incoming email, do whatever you need to do to respond to your comments.  content comes first, then responding to comments.  if you have to, hire someone.  it's a service i offer and many other virtual assistants do as well.  but you must respond to comments if you want to grow and attract those who comment.  this is how you keep them coming back, and how you get them to refer you to their friends.  no one would say 'ohh! stephanie has a recipe for those cupcakes!' to their friends if i wasn't responding to their comments and thanking them for their feedback.

what would you add to any of these?  feel free to respond here, or keep the conversation going on twitter!

10 Best // Life Lately

January 16, 2014

1. went to the sears tower (i'm a chicagoan, it will never be the willis tower) with tara and we went out on the ledge.  to cross this off both our 101 in 1001 lists.  it. was. terrifying.  tara had actual tears.  i mean, my legs were still weak when we finally got downstairs and outside, but at least i didn't cry.

2. date night with john, we went to the cheesecake factory and took photos with the giant christmas tree at the base of the john hancock building.  this was my first instagram picture to get more likes than a photo of hawkeye.  her highness has been dethroned.

eventually i'll post the photo of one of the gems found while cleaning his place - the card i gave him for high school graduation.  in 2005.  i even signed it 'love, stephanie' back then and he kept it all this time.  aww cute.  ok, no more sappy shit.  moving on.

3. in addition to checking the sears tower off the 101 list, i also went to high tea at the drake with my mom, made perfect chocolate peanut butter fudge (only 3 ingredients!), gave all clutter-free holiday gifts, and went shopping on michigan avenue when it was all christmas decorated, and bought my fancy bedding.  this brings me to 46 out of 101 things checked off.

4. my christmas gift from john.  (ok one more sappy thing, sorry i lied.)

5. holiday party with my best friends from law school.  even caitlin made an appearance, all the way from canada.

6. harry potter weekend with natalie.  yes.  we marathon watched the first 5 movies and it was everything we anticipated and more.  the second half only got delayed because of the weather being snowy and -45, and we'll be finishing up next weekend.  don't worry, i'll share more of these details soon.

7. 'stache! remember my predictions, that i'd see them at least 10 times this year?  one down, 9 to go.

8. new years was awesome.  i stayed in this year with john.  we watched the horrible things that went down on tv (chicago announcer mark giangreco was bombed, he just was awful but so hilarious), plus a marathon of hardcore pawn and the movie the internship.  oh and a 3 am showing of the haunting, starring liam neeson and catherine zeta jones, which is on netflix.  i remember seeing this in theaters as a kid, and it was just as god awful terrible then as it is now.  you have to watch it.  you have to.

9. quinn taught me how to say 'two beers please, my friend will pay' in vietnamese!  which is probably the coolest one on my list of languages i can now say that phrase in - spanish, italian, french, german, and vietnamese.  yup, vietnamese wins.  cross that off my 101 list too, which brings me to 47/101.

10. hawkeye.  perfectly, adorably asleep... on top of my planner.  my planner, guys.  what a conundrum.

Cocktail Cupcakes // Harry Potter Butterbeer

January 15, 2014

i first saw the golden snitch cupcake idea here.  with adorable wings and all.  i don't have the patience for wings (sorry.)  so i decided to just make the 'butterbeer' part of it.  with edible gold glitter of course.  alright well ... i decided to make a cheater version.  if you've never had butterbeer (they sell it at the harry potter theme park) it's very very sweet, like a butterscotch flavored cream soda.

well here's my cheater version: for the cakes, mix 1 box yellow cake mix + 12 ounces cream soda.  mix just these two ingredients together and bake for 12-15 minutes at 350 degrees.

for the frosting, i could have made the butterscotch buttercream i made here.  but i honestly was out of time and just grabbed a container of vanilla frosting at the grocery store.  true story.  then i stirred in a couple (3ish) tablespoons of buttershots, the butterscotch schnapps.  just enough to taste it, but not to make it runny.

i frosted my cupcakes and topped them with gold glitter.  and that my friends, is how you make super easy cheater harry potter cupcakes in 20 minutes.  ok, maybe 30, gotta let the cakes cool before frosting them.

adorable, right?!  these are very soft cupcakes, because of the cream soda, so natalie and i opted to eat them with forks to create less mess.  and they were delicious.

makes you want to grab your wand and stun some deatheaters, right?

Get Organized // Minimalist Home Decor

January 14, 2014

i finally crossed getting my fancy bedding off my 101 list.  it included a new duvet cover (in white) and matching pillow shams (in white) and these super luxurious and way too expensive sheets my mother bought me (in cream.)  apparently, i care very little about the dirt factor... whatever, it matches my glorious gold bed frame my mom also bought for me, back in high school.  there's a sheet set in dark gray too, which is probably more practical.

the reason i felt comfortable with crossing this off the list was because i realized that these few things were enough.  i decided last year, with my word of 2013, that i simply needed less.  less of everything, but most importantly - less stuff.  and while i love the catalog-y look of matching sparkly throw pillows and a monogrammed roll pillow, those things aren't necessary.  i'd have to put them on the bed every morning just to take them off every night.  and repeat.  more stuff, more work, more things to clean?  no thanks.  one pretty bed, with the necessary side tables, and a lamp later, i decided my bedroom was to my liking and i was probably just done.  no paint, no things on the wall, no curtains.  just the way i liked it.

this is also referred to as minimalism.  not the extreme kind.  because 'real' minimalists just sleep in a one room apartment with a mattress on the floor.  but it's the basic idea of minimalism, which i've fully embraced for every room in the house (besides my bar cart. there's nothing minimalist about my bar cart with it's striped paper straws and flagged olive picks, but i can't bring myself to part with it.  but my stylescope says it's a must anyway.)  i have just one framed photo, nothing on the walls, and certainly nothing that could ever be categorized as a 'knick-knack.'  just the thought of knick-knacks makes me panic a little.  but even without these things, my apartment doesn't strike me as empty.  it's clean, organized, has everything i need.  plus a fun bar cart and a cozy blanket, with squishy couch cushions that give it the right amount of 'lived-in.'  especially when i light the bajillion (rough estimate) candles i have.  one day, when i'm not renting any more, i would love to paint my walls. haha kidding. hire someone to paint my walls.  paint would be a nice touch to make it look homier, without adding anything i need to clean.

nothing gets you organized like being a minimalist.  if you don't have the stuff, you don't have anything to organize.  i don't have to find spots for the extra pillows, because there are no extra pillows.  funny how that works.  my bathroom was easy to organize, because i just don't have a million products to put in it.  my living room is easy to clean, because i don't have a dvd collection to dust.  so yes, i have tons of tips and ideas for getting organized, but the biggest and most important one - just get rid of it.  and i don't mean store it in your mother's attic.  i mean assess your attachment to the item, take a photo of it, and let it go.

i might just be crossing off 'fully decorate my apartment in my style' next.  because it is decorated in my style.  minimalist.  at least it is for now.  if you're thinking about embracing minimalism/simplification this year, i think you rock.  start here and here.


i've heard in some blog feedback that a lot of you love my posts on organization (or are inspired by my instagram photos.)  i love them too and i'll definitely be bringing you more, but i also want to direct you to steph.  yes, another stephanie, apparently we stephanies are organizing fiends.  she too is a de-clutterer, but seeing as how she has 3 pups and a pack rat husband, and is a home cooking, flower planting, holiday decorating queen of the hausfrau, she doesn't have the luxuries of total minimalism like i do.  she gets rid of what she can, and organizes the rest.  for fun.  it is fun we swear.  so if you're sitting here thinking 'that's great, but i have way more stuff!  i could never get it all organized like you!' then you need to check out life according to steph.  because she is proof that it can be done, even if you have the things to host thanksgiving or fully decorate a home for the holidays.  you just have to make a plan and get down to it.  oh yeah, and she has a full time job in an office that she commutes to.  no excuses!

Let Me Just Confess

January 13, 2014

i wear pants, especially jeans, multiple times before washing them.  pants never get dirty, man.  it's science.

i'm a notoriously bad sleeper.  tossing and turning, never able to fall asleep.  until i take my melatonin, then i'm out like a light and i sleep until morning.  it's such an extreme difference, it's like i'm not even the same person.  melatonin pills are the greatest things ever invented.

i don't care which way the toilet paper roll faces.  up, down, sideways, not on the roll, i don't even notice.  with all of the little details i concentrate on in my day, toilet paper simply isn't one of them.

i don't 'do' t-shirts.  i don't like how they fit, i don't like how they look (sloppy), and i just plain don't wear them.  not to bed, not to work out in, not on game day.  i don't necessarily mean cute fitted t's from victoria's secret pink line with blinged out logos.  those are acceptable because they fit well (but to be honest, i don't wear many of those either.)  i really mean the baggy, cheap, usually free t-shirts people collect from advertisers of alcohol or buy at concerts.  i own 3 t-shirts.  fitted vs ones - chicago bears, iowa hawkeyes, and kentucky wildcats.  the end.

i love my hair.  i just do.  is it weird if my favorite feature about myself is my hair?  because it is.

i'm ridiculously intolerant of lateness, if i don't know it's coming.  john time is +30 minutes.  megan time is +1 hour.  eleni runs on greek time so i'm just excited when she show up at all.  i anticipate all of this, so it's okay.  what's not okay is unanticipated super lateness without any text or phone call.  you and i both know you're on your phone constantly.  show up on time or text me that you won't.  radio silence plus lateness equals inexcusable.

i'd rather buy it than diy it.  even relatively easy stuff.  sure, i probably could tape fabric over an ugly box to make it a pretty box.  but i'd rather just buy the pretty box.  i can't think of a single thing i'd actually diy.  crafting is not my strong suit.  if it were possible to fail girl scouts, i would have.

i strongly dislike nature.  another girl scout failure.  i've never camped.  unless it's a snowy blizzard or a field with a horse, the outdoors can bite me.  woods, camping, the beach - yuck.  just, gross.

i'd rather eat the same food every day.  i don't know how to make a dietary acceptable version of this but i would love to eat the same breakfast, the same lunch, the same dinner, every single day.  i don't like variety and i can be a pretty picky eater.

i want this outfit to be (a) in my current size and (b) an acceptable choice for every day wear.

Blogging Resources (Part 2)

January 12, 2014

blogging resources part 1 can be found here.

as i previously posted, we're spending the weekend working on all things blog.  i asked yesterday if what other resources people had to add.  here are their tips!

the sits girls are having a build your tribe sign up.  connect with other bloggers in your niche and spend one week working together on activities and just generally meeting new people and support each other with comments, re-tweets, pins, etc.

she also said "i use tweetdeck for scheduling posts.  it has a dashboard or online version.  you can schedule tweets but also create lists for different groups of people and it creates a column for each list so if you want to separate certain bloggers or sponsors etc it will let you do that for you.  also karen from sew many ways has almost 50 blogger tips on her blog for just about anything you want to know how to do."
from elizabeth at southern finesse:
"hootsuite seems complicated but trust me you can learn the base level stuff like scheduling tweets in no time. after you get used to using it for scheduling then you can play around and see if you like any of the other features."

"there's a program called evernote (http://www.evernote.com) that's free to download.  you can create little "notebooks" to organize things.  you can add urls, create checklists, and it comes with an add-on for your browser so if you find something online you want to add to a notebook, you can just click the button in your browser and it syncs up with the program.  i believe they also have an upgrade you can pay to get as well.  i was using this to keep track of my sponsors and making sure I was tweeting enough, doing the requisite posts and e-mails, etc.  it's a great program and really easy to get the hang of."

she recommends back east blonde - "her blogging pinterest board is one of my favorites to raid and she often has great blogging related posts and helpful information, and I'm sure she'd answer any of your questions if you tweeted her as well."

from tara at starletta designs:
she has a wonderful post, just like this one, full of links to the blog resources she compiled!  so check here for even more help!!

next weekend, i'll have another post for you full of the things people offered up during blog talk on twitter - advice for newbies, blogs to sponsor, why they unfollow a blog, and more.  (it's just a little more labor intensive to compile, so i need a longer time frame, sorry!)

Blogging Resources

January 10, 2014

i'm spending this weekend concentrating on blogging.  betsy and i are really going to focus on writing more posts so we have a lot of scheduled posts stored up.  i'm also going to work on things like organizing social media and cleaning up my readers/pinterest.  literally 2 full days of blogging related goodness.

if you want to join us, we'll be hanging out all saturday and sunday.  we can do a google hangout or chat on twitter.  ask me anything!  i'm no expert (except on organizing and planning posts, don't forget, i have over 200 post ideas scheduled.) but i can absolutely direct you to someone who is.  plus, chatting on google hangout is a great way to bounce ideas and keep you from getting bored while you work.  or ya know, if you just want to hear my very chicago accent.  if you're interested, leave a comment or tweet at me, or e-mail or carrier pigeon, whatever, and i'll give you all the info!

and please, feel free to use the comments here to ask questions or chat with people, someone reading probably has an answer for you!

in the meantime, i really wanted to get together a list of great places you can turn to for blogging help.


kelli at she crab soup.  she wrote a wonderful 'be a better blogger' series and it's the perfect place to start.  she talks about everything from readers/followers to creating a blog mission statement.  if you want to get your blog organized this year and really find your voice, this is very helpful to read.

sarah at venus trapped in mars.  she does saturday sessions and it's a real help.  she covers sponsorship, pinterest, layout, and more.  i know nothing in the area of design, cool graphics, blog buttons, etc.  but sarah devotes these posts to helping you learn just that.

i informed both of these ladies that i'd be featuring them and they were very gracious to extend their help.  they are both looking forward to any tweets, e-mails or comments you want to send them, they love to help and will gladly answer questions!!  and just to chat in general or offer advice.  i mean, sarah's supposed to be working, you're really helping her out.  you can tweet sarah here and kelli here.


scheduling tweets.  this is a life changer.  i'm a straight up twitter ignorer.  it's true.  i binge on it for 3 hours and then forget i have it for 5 days.  not good news for my sponsors.  so i schedule tweets - 4 per week day, 3 or 4 hours apart, re-tweeting my sponsors and friends and promoting posts with the click of a tiny button in my browser's toolbar.  that way, they're spaced out - still visible but not annoying with 20 tweets in a row.  right now i'm using the free version of buffer app.  you only get 10 scheduled tweets with this (2.5 days for my 4 a day system), and i don't want to pay for the upgrade, it seems way too expensive.  part of my goal this weekend is to research similar programs so i can see if something else exists to help me with this but also always a few more than 10.  any ideas?  i'll keep you updated.  for now, i know hootsuite is an option but it's a little too complicated for what i need.  but if you're just starting out, try buffer.  it's very easy to use so you can get used to the idea.

picmonkey.  yes yes everyone knows, edit your photos with picmonkey.  but i'm here to throw my two sense in - agreed, use it, and don't be scared to upgrade to the paid version.  tool around on the free and if you see yourself wanting to use things with little crowns next to them and getting rejected, just buck up and pay and consider it an investment for your blog.  it's inexpensive ($30 a year i believe) so if you use it often, it's well worth it.

ifttt.  which stands for if this then that.  pretty much you can schedule 12 million things and not ever have to think about it again.  and it's all free.  you sign up and link your accounts and then make your own 'recipes.'  if you create a new post, then it automatically updates it to twitter.  or facebook.  and other things not even related to blogging, like auto backing up your contacts, saving instagram photos to your dropbox, getting the weather texted every morning.  it automates everything you could possibly want regarding your technology, so you never have to waste time again.


media kit.  some people aren't sure what they are or if they need one.  most people don't know how to make one.  i'm one of those people, and i learned from the blog maven.

blog calendar.  i use the notepages in the back of my planner, but i used the free monthly pages here to sketch it all out first.  if you need more planning pages to keep track of ideas or sponsors, try this free one here.

do you have anything to add?  any advice, favorite bloggers, or apps you use?  hopefully i'll be finding more great things and writing a second post  on them tomorrow (so i can credit you with your advice and finds!)  what other help are you specifically looking for?  i also have a blog pinterest board, so follow that if you want the updates quickly.

10 Best // Items To Keep On Hand For Guests

January 9, 2014

parties, at least at my place, always go hand in hand with having guests stay the night.  sometimes (like tara, now) they come from out of town and other times (like megan, always) i like to get them to a state where they're incapable of driving home.  my punch is legendary.

of course, it's easy to know the basics - you should have pillows, blankets, extra towels, an easy place to plug in electronics.  but beyond the linen and toiletries basics, i like to have a stocked up fridge and pantry, which my friends know they're free to rifle through at any time.  and they do.  it's important to have things that will last more than one weekend though, in case it doesn't get used.  these things are also perfect to have on hand if someone drops by unexpectedly and you'd like to offer them something.

pre-made dip. and chips of course.  the classic tortilla chips go with anything, and salsa is usually a crowd pleaser.  my other go-to is always trader joe's spinach and artichoke dip.

frozen appetizers. these are perfect for late night, when you're past the hour of getting pizza delivered.  there's a ton of options, though i usually have tgifriday's jalapeno poppers on hand.  once your oven heats, they're ready in just 10 minutes.

crackers. carr's are a classic for a reason.  they go great with other things you might have on hand, like dips, cheese, spreads or olives.

frozen dessert. try the pepperidge farm golden 3-layer cake, which comes in 11 flavors.  you just slice off a frozen piece and it defrosts to delicious soft cake in 20 minutes.

coffee and tea. and an easy way to make it.  my keurig is foolproof, it takes just a minute to make your coffee and most people can figure it out without explanation, which is great if my guest is up before i am.  everything is out on the counter already, including mugs and sugar.  and i always point tara to the stores of tea bags, because she does not need the caffeine coffee has.

bottled water. my tap water is fine, though i also have a brita in the fridge.  but i do keep bottled water on hand.  mostly for my dad who won't drink regular water but also for friends who might want to take one for the road.  i also have sparkling water for the lovers of fizzy drinks because i never buy pop, and because it makes a great mixer.

spiced nuts. the classy way to go for instant snack food and looks so pretty set out in a bowl on the table.  when it's my parents, this is key.  when it's my friends, i know better, and i buy nacho cheese doritos instead.  refined palettes, clearly.

frozen breads. notice i love the freezer trend?  things just last longer in there!  plus i'm not much of a freezer-user otherwise, so i have space to spare.  baguettes freeze nicely to go with your dips and trader joe's has amazing frozen mini croissants, which are perfect for breakfast.

popcorn.  you can microwave it as your guests are coming up, and the house suddenly smells delicious.  it's a struggle not to constantly eat my stored popcorn though.

and if your weekend guests are anything like mine, a healthy stock of pedialyte.  the ultimate hangover cure.

happy hosting!

Stephanie ... the Babysitter?

January 8, 2014

the new year had me thinking back on years past - how exactly did i spend my new year's eve before i could (legally) celebrate at the bars?  i remember being at my friend jessica's house a couple of years, a few with my parents, and one in particular in college where i kept it quiet so i could tailgate bright and early in orlando, florida for the hawkeyes bowl game.  but what else?  there's been a lot of new years in my 29 years of life, and i only have memories since age 19 and a few smatterings of memories before that.  so i asked my mother.

apparently, i babysat.  yes, the champion queen here of hating all things baby and child care related, used to babysit.  i don't know which is worse, the fact that i actually was responsible, for any period of time, for someone else's spawn or the fact that i don't remember any of it.

sure, i remember watching my friend's siblings a few times.  that hardly counted, they were kids that i knew and were a little older.  and most of the time, my friends were there - they were just going through the dramatic 'just cause i'm oldest doesn't mean i'm your built-in babysitter!' phase.  basically, i got paid to hang out with my friend while her sisters who were old enough to entertain themselves watched television and did homework.  i just had to make sure the four of us didn't set the house on fire.  and when they complained they weren't tired enough to go to bed, i made them run laps around the dining room table til they 'felt tired enough.'  easy peasy.  not real babysitting.  i've always operated under this impression that i've never really babysat for anyone.

this is not the case.  according to my mother, i made mucho dinero by babysitting for families around the neighboorhood, specifically kids right down the street, on holidays.  this was an ideal situation for everyone - i was too young to enjoy things like new year's eve, might as well babysit; the parents could actually celebrate with real champagne and not kid-friendly sparkling grape juice; parents were willing to pay top dollar for a kid willing to babysit on a holiday; and i lived around the corner so no one had to drive me home.  i could see how this was an excellent plan on my part.  i just don't remember any of it.

not. one. bit.

i have no clue who these supposed kids are, i don't remember the houses, i don't remember what we did or how i entertained them, whether we stayed up til midnight or not, and most shockingly for me - i don't remember the money.  me, the girl who used to sell her halloween candy for quarters and could probably tell you 97 other ways i was similarly a childhood cheapskate.  you'd think i'd remember banking big babysitting bucks over the couple dollars i earned making rebecca runs laps around the table.  (she's about to get married, lord i'm old.)

mostly, i attribute this to my disdain for children.  i clearly blocked out all of these memories.  or maybe my mom is just lying to me.  does this kid look like a responsible babysitter to you?!

I Don't Feel I Need to Explain My Art to You, Warren

January 7, 2014

today's annoyance is a little thing called criticism.  and my biggest pet peeve relating to criticism.  i bet you think that i'm about to talk about how annoyed i get when people leave mean comments or criticize your writing, and how, instead, they should just not read it.


one of my biggest pet peeves, particularly related to blogging and writing, but really whatever career or hobby you're in, is the inability to handle criticism.  true, gently suggested, helpful criticism or nasty, anonymous, not much you can do about it criticism.  they're all in the same category of someone wants you to change what you're doing, and you have the choice to accept it or not.  unless you never leave your house to interact with people, you're going to get criticized.  you should.  it helps you grow as a person.  and i worry that years of 'everyone gets a participation trophy!' have softened people into thinking that no one should ever get criticized and we should all just get along like the 'she doesn't even go here' girl.  well that's not real life.

i happen to be of the 'if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen' mentality.  i apply that to anything one chooses to spend their time doing.  acting, opening a restaurant, interior decorating and yes, writing.  what is it about blogging/writing that makes people think they're exempt from criticism?  criticism makes you a better person and a better blogger.  suck. it. up.  you put it out there for people to read.  you want comments, you want page views, you want followers, and if you didn't, you'd make everything from your blog to your instagram private.  if anyone in the world could stumble upon your writing, then the "if you don't like it, you can leave" sentiment doesn't really apply.  the world is not sunshine and rainbows.  not everyone is going to love you and most of the time, they'll tell you to your face they don't love you.  just because you're now behind a computer screen, that means everyone should love you and no one should tell you the things they don't like?  you're not 8 years old, and neither are your readers.  you put it out there for others to see, then you accept the good with the bad.  no, people probably shouldn't stalk you and constantly tell you the horrible things you're doing or leave 'you're fat and ugly' comments.  but neither do they need to 'click the little x and not read it.'  if the comment is stupid, laugh it off and move on.

i get criticism about this here blog all. the. time.  in the form of comments, e-mails, notes on other sites, in real life from my friends.  things i should change, things they don't like, stuff they hate hearing about.  i have never once complained and i have never once uttered the words 'if you don't like it, leave.'  and i haven't passively allowed any of my friends and readers utter them either. (a) if i need to defend myself, i most certainly can and (b) well, i don't need to.  it's just a little feedback.  some comments have merit, some don't.  decide for yourself which is which, thank the person leaving the comment, and either make the change or move on.  stop being a 'woe is me' petulant child, rallying your friends to support you in a raging outcry against the 'haters.'  it's as obnoxious as it is fruitless. 

because every time i see someone ignore all the wonderful comments and instead cry over one solitary bad one i just think, in my best ron weasley voice, "she needs to sort out her priorities."  so feel free to leave me your feedback comments any time.  i can take it and keep doing what i like to do.  if you can't do the same, maybe you're not really enjoying what you're doing in the first place.

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