Friday, February 28, 2014

Five Tools for Financial Peace

Since PEACE is the word I have chosen to focus on in my life this year, I have naturally been thinking about how to actually achieve peace in my life. It seems that some things are more anxiety-inducing for me, and therefore much more difficult to feel peaceful about.

I came upon Zig Ziglar's Wheel of Life while browsing the internet a few weeks ago, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. In order to achieve balance in life (and in my case, to achieve peace), one needs to make sure each of these 7 areas is getting balanced attention. I am finding that my anxieties are always rooted in the areas that are out of balance somehow. In the case of career, it's because that area is getting too much focus. And in the case of family, it's because that area isn't getting enough of my time.

So, I'd like to focus on ways to find balance and peace in each of these areas.

Since my word for 2013 was ABUNDANCE, and part of my goal last year was to figure out how to be a more wise steward of the money we are so blessed to have, I figured I'd start with financial peace. I definitely learned a lot, but like many things in life, if you don't keep working at it, it's super easy to fall behind. And that is exactly what started to happen around Christmas time and we are just now--at the end of February--starting to get things back into better control again.

Following are five ways that we are beginning to find financial peace. I say "beginning," because I don't think I can have total peace in this area until we are completely out of debt and have a substantial savings. But I do feel peace about the path we are currently on, and that's a very good thing.

If you're living paycheck to paycheck and barely keeping afloat with finances, even though you're working hard, here are five essential tools to help you get ahead financially and finally find the financial peace you are looking for. #overstuffedlife

1. Budget

You knew this would be first, didn't you? Before you click away in disgust, may I tell you that I used to be completely against budgeting? I hated it, and mostly I didn't do it. Every time I actually tried it I failed spectacularly because stuff would always come up. I could never keep my spending under the limits in every single category, and it just made me feel like a failure.

Enter YNAB (You Need a Budget). I have several friends who swear by it, so I downloaded the free trial one day in desperation. I was so sick of living paycheck to paycheck, working my guts out, and barely keeping our heads above water in the finance department as we struggled to pay our every day bills, plus credit card and student loan debt.

YNAB is not just a budgeting software--it teaches you real skills along the way. The company offers a ton of free financial webinars and sends you emails full of wonderful tips to help you find financial peace. I was completely hooked after my 30-day free trial. In that 30 days we were able to really start to get a handle on things, and within another couple of months I had a new washer and dryer that we paid for with cash. In the 18 months we have used YNAB we have managed to pay off over 10,000 dollars in credit card debt and an end to it all is actually in sight. That has never happened before. We have built up our savings, are more aware of our expenses, and are just in a much better place financially overall.

As far as the budgeting goes? YNAB's philosophy is simple. You will go over every month. But the system accounts for that and helps you stay on track even if you have unexpected expenses. Because who doesn't have unexpected expenses?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Can Winter Be Over Now? Please?

I am thinking of having a blog category for all of my complaining observations about the snow. I thought that last winter was insane, but apparently there is plenty more insanity to be had. This past week we broke the standing record for most consecutive days below freezing temperatures. And many local people (I am not one of them) are gunning to break the standing record for highest snowfall.

Want to know what that record is? 390 inches. Who wants to break this record? If you are this person you are now in charge of our snow removal. We are currently at 264 inches and WE DON'T HAVE ANYWHERE LEFT TO PUT THE SNOW! (Observation, not complaint.)

Here are more of my current winter observations:

This is the state of the swing set as of Friday, February 21. There is even more snow on it today, thanks to Winter Storm Seneca.


I took this photo through my office window so I didn't have to go outside, so it's not great. But can you see how high the snow is in the corner there? I think the only reason my very small dog has not outright walked over the fence is because she is smart enough to know that she would much rather be in the house and warm.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Things As They Really Are - FHE Lesson Printable

I don't know what happens at your house, but at our house, we have a problem with moderating electronic devices. Rules are in place, and mostly followed, but I don't like the way my children would rather sit in front of a screen instead of go outside and play, read a book, play with toys, play games, or even play with friends. In fact, when they are with friends, they often want to sit in front of a screen.

Granted, we've had that Polar Vortex thing and going outside was not an option. But we still have plenty of books in this house. We also have plenty of American Girl Dolls and Barbies. We even have an extensive collection of board games. In short, there is no shortage of indoor activities in our home that do not involve a screen.

Yet the screens--iPod, iPad, iPhone, computer, television--are always the first choice. Even for the adults in the house. And I'm sick of it.

A Family Home Evening Lesson based on Elder David A. Bednar's talk "Things As They Really Are."

The Maestro and I decided to address this little issue in a Family Home Evening recently, and I wanted to share what we did with you.

I based the lesson on this wonderful talk by Elder David A. Bednar: Things as They Really Are. It's a very long talk as it comes from a BYU Devotional, but it's worth the read. I read it myself and pulled out a few things to discuss with the kids, but I focused on the two questions at the end:

Does the use of this technology or media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?

Does the time you spend using this technology or media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways? 

We showed the kids this video which includes several excerpts from the talk, but most importantly the aforementioned two questions.

I made a handout for each of the girls to put somewhere where they can be reminded. In order to make it, I had to text myself from Bria's iPod and yes, there is an autocorrect mistake in it that I didn't catch. It just makes it all the more realistic, right?

Things as they really are printable handout--iPhone
To download a .PDF of this handout click HERE.

After our discussion, we had each member of the family come up with a few alternatives to sitting in front of a screen and we wrote them out on a poster which is now hanging in the kitchen.

Good Alternatives to Electronics: Things As They Really Are by Elder Bednar FHE Lesson

Just in case you don't feel like deciphering everyone's handwriting, here is our list:
  1. Read a book 
  2. You can do a lot of other stuff instead of playing on electronics (I'm not sure Sophia understood the activity right away...or she just wanted to be all-inclusive!)
  3. Study
  4. We could be more physically active
  5. We could play fun games together
  6. We could do art or a craft
  7. Doing our zones and cleaning our "temple" home.
  8. Practice our instruments
  9. Cook something with our family
  10. We could play with Puccini
Have we had a miraculous reduction in electronics usage? Nope. But we did have a wonderful discussion with the girls and they all understood the reasons why we should honor our physical bodies more and not spend so much of our lives in front of screens. And I think they're trying to make sure that what they are doing on their devices is conducive to the Holy Spirit.


I do have a 7-year-old who is still having regular fits that she can't be on electronics as much as she'd like. But even she is working on it. Baby steps, right?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Frozen Lion King

The second place statue for fraternities had a Lion King theme. And don't let the blue sky fool you--it was almost 30 degrees below zero and I froze my butt off getting these photos. The blue sky is sure beautiful though!

They did a lot more with ice this year due to the inhumanly cold temperatures. This statue did a lot of ice shapes--not really 3D, but cool nonetheless.

IMG_7555Winter Carnival webIMG_7553 Winter carnival webIMG_7552 Winter Carnival webIMG_7549 winter carnival webIMG_7547 Winter Carnival webIMG_7545 winter carnival webIMG_7544 winter carnival webIMG_7543 winter carnival webIMG_7542 winter carnival webIMG_7541 winter carnival web

Unfortunately, I did not catch a photo of the whole thing. That would have involved crossing the street, and by the time I had shot all of the above photos, I could no longer feel my face.

But at least the sun was shining!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How to Keep Your House Clean When You Don't Have Time to Clean

Back in 2005 when I began this blog I thought I was pretty busy. I was the mother to two young daughters, I was Relief Society President in a large LDS ward, my husband was never home because he was working on his doctorate, I taught a handful of voice lessons, and I sometimes (very sometimes) performed. And I thought my life was completely overstuffed.

I think I might have keeled over and died if I could have looked nearly ten years into the future and seen how busy I am now! I haven't made much of a secret of how "overstuffed" my life is on this blog, but it still surprises me sometimes. And I regularly have anxiety attacks when I look at my planner.

On the days I go into work (3x per week), I get ready and leave the house shortly after the girls get on the bus. I teach from 9:00-3:00 with a quick lunch break, and then I run home to meet the girls getting off of the bus. Most afternoons are either spent running them from music lessons to orchestra to girl scouts to church activities to school activities. Once we are home, the time is spent helping them with homework, getting dinner on the table, helping them practice their instruments, refereeing arguments, trying to get them to do their chores, and hoping to get a little cleaning done myself.

I once thought that the two days I have off during the week would allow me to spend a lot of time cleaning. I was pretty naive to think that, though. Many of those days turn out the way Valentine's Day did and are full of commitments and errands. Plus, I have to fit at least 7 hours of working from home in somehow. And what about spending time with The Maestro, practicing my own music, or getting in some much-needed me time? And then there's that whole business about actually needing to sleep for a few hours each night.

Cleaning my house comes in dead last. Which is really quite sad considering how much I adore a clean house.

Everywhere I look there are great cleaning schedules posted. These overwhelm me nearly as much as my life does. Having to do whatever cleaning tasks are on the schedule in a day where the rest of my schedule may not allow for it just stresses me out further. As great as they are, these types of schedules are just not for me. (I did, however, use a schedule like this when I was a mostly SAHM with great success.)

I have learned a few tricks these last couple years of being back to work, though. And (when I am good about doing them), my house actually stays fairly clean. Definitely not deep clean, but clean enough.

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1. Let go of perfection 

This may be the hardest thing for me. I do want my house to look perfect at all times, but that is obviously not possible for me right now. I could hire a live-in maid, but that is not why I went back to work. I went back to work so we could get out of debt for once and for all, so I have to keep that goal in mind when I come home and see all of the unfolded laundry or the newest messes the girls have made. "Clean enough" is a new mantra for me. And sometimes "clean enough" means that I have to close the door to the playroom or just put the dishes in the sink without actually doing them.

And I'm okay with that.

2. Cut the clutter

A house that isn't full of stuff stays cleaner. I know it's super hard to stop the continuous influx of things that walk into your front door, but I've been working hard to do just that. I am much less likely to buy something that I don't have a specific need for these days, no matter how cute it is. And I have no problem filling large boxes full of stuff and donating them whenever I can.

I'm not a big Fly Lady person, but I absolutely love her 27 fling Boogie, and employ it often. It simply means to quickly walk through an area in your home and find 27 things to get rid of--whether it's trash or things you don't use anymore.

Want help cutting the clutter? Join my 31 Day Challenge!

3. Get things organized

If you have a larger block of time available for housework, try to use some of it to complete an organization project. Most organization projects can actually be accomplished fairly quickly (see some of the quick organization projects I've done HERE) and go a long way towards keeping the whole house clean. When you have a system that works—"a place for everything and everything in its place"—the whole family tends to do better at putting things back where they go.

It's a slow process, but definitely one that is worth devoting some of your precious cleaning time to.

4.  Choose the ONE thing that needs to be done most right now

It's easy to look at EVERYTHING that needs to be done and feel like giving up. But I have tried hard to step back and see what needs to be done the most and do only that when I have limited time. Sometimes that's the dishes or the laundry, sometimes it's mopping and vacuuming, and sometimes it's cleaning toilets. Sometimes it's just cleaning up all the junk that's piled on the dining room table.

5.  Set a timer

I often have 15 or 20 minutes from the time I get home from work to the time the bus drops off my girls. Sometimes I have 5 or 10 minutes during my lunch break (I usually come home for lunch since I live so close to campus) or between commitments. When I have these little pockets of time, I occasionally set the timer and go to town on one room. (Sometimes I choose to waste that time on Facebook instead, but I've let go of perfection, so it's all good.)

When I do choose to set the timer I am always amazed at how much I can accomplish in just a few minutes.

You can use your phone as a timer, but I have found that it actually distracts me more (Oh! Let me just check Facebook again before I set the see how that happens). To eliminate the distractions, I use this type of timer. I love it. It takes no time to set and you can choose from 4 different set time periods on each cube. Click here to purchase: Cube Timer. (You can buy one at a time or a set of four.)

6.  Do a 15 minute clean up before bed

Similar to setting a timer, making it a habit to do a quick clean up for 15 minutes before you go to bed makes a world of difference. The kids can easily help with this, too. 15 minutes multiplied by 5 members of my family is a lot of cleaning time!

Again, using my favorite timer is a must! It's kind of fun to use, too, so the kids really like it. Besides, they get even more distracted with phones and ipods than I do, so there's another good reason to have a dedicated timer!

7.  Multitask wisely

Multitasking isn't all it's cut out to be. I find I actually accomplish less when I'm trying to do too much at once, and several studies have shown this to be true.

Instead, I try to focus on one thing at a time. If I am cleaning my bedroom, I stay in my bedroom until it is clean. If there are things in there that don't belong there (and believe me, there always are), I set them outside the door until I am finished. As tempting as it is to go put them right away, I find that once I do that I am suddenly caught in the whole If You Give a Mouse a Cookie scenario and end up working very hard but accomplishing very little.

I do actually multitask certain things. Today I listened to the opera I am learning while I did the dishes. I can easily work on my memorization and notes while I simultaneously clean the kitchen, which is a fairly mindless activity. I can fold laundry and help Chloe practice her piano at the same time, which is another thing I did today. I have taken to "reading" audio books or listening to General Conference talks from my church while I clean, as well. These types of multitasking tend to make the job more enjoyable, too!

8. Employ your children

I've recently written about our latest system for chores, but it's important to remember that as long as you have a system that's working now, that's good enough. I ask my children to do quite a bit more beyond their daily cleaning zones. The three of them are commonly asked to get the dishes done and the kitchen cleaned up after dinner, for instance. They may complain about this, but they turn up the music and laugh and giggle together while they get it done. And it saves me so much time.

I usually ask them to do one or two simple chores after school, too—things that can be done in five minutes or less. And on Saturdays, they each have some sort of deep-cleaning assignment. At least, they do if our Saturday isn't already taken up by a million other commitments. Nothing is better than a free Saturday for getting the house in shape!

I believe that our children should learn to work hard. Since they live in this house too it's important for them to have a sense of responsibility in keeping it clean. I love that when they do a big cleaning project they get a little frustrated if another family member messes it up. They start to see a little bit how Mom and Dad feel, and the end result is that the house stays cleaner longer.

So that's it. These 8 strategies have helped me keep my head above water with the housecleaning when I barely have time to breathe.

What are your best tips for cleaning house when you don't have time to clean?

Monday, February 17, 2014

How I Know I Married a Musician: Part 9

The other day Bria had to do her practicing after school because she had slept in (and really, it's so freaking cold nowadays that who can blame her for choosing to stay in a warm bed?).  I think one of the primary things that motivates her to practice in the morning when nobody else is awake is that she doesn't get any parental feedback--especially from The Maestro.

Because he simply can't help himself.

During her practice session, Joel came in and turned on the metronome because she was rushing the tempo in parts. This annoyed Bria greatly, and she asserted herself where the violin is concerned.

Bria:  Dad, I'm not going to be a violinist when I grow up.  Just so you know.

The Maestro:  You can be anything you want when you grow up, as long as you use a metronome.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Here Comes the Sun...and the Insanity

  • Bria played a whole violin concerto today at a recital and I am so proud of her.
  • She's just happy it's over.
  • I am LOVING the sunshine we've been getting lately.
  • But it has been incredibly cold.
  • Fortunately, I have a heater.
  • I do not have a sunshine maker.
  • Bria joined the volleyball team.
  • Opera rehearsals are starting tonight.
  • Both of these are just more to add to the schedule.
  • I think we need to buy another car--this one car business is getting to be super difficult.
  • We had a lovely Valentine's Day on Friday.

Here are the Valentines we ended up making this year:

Valentine you're one in a Minion

Chloe made these adorable little Twinkie minions, complete with "Valentine, You're one in a Minion!" cards. We got the idea HERE.  I bought the supplies and helped her make the first one and she went to town and did all the rest herself with minimal help from me. They were a big hit with her classmates.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Spending Valentine's Day With the Ones I Love Most

I looked at my planner at the beginning of this week and saw that February 14 was going to be pure insanity. I was totally bummed out because I knew The Maestro and I wouldn't be able to fit in any sort of date and that it would be hard to even enjoy the day at all. I was angry because my house is always a wreck by Friday and I look forward to having the day off from teaching to get caught up on housework. I knew just by glancing at my schedule that not much housework was going to be going on. And I was just plain overwhelmed, as I'm sure anyone would be.

Crazy Valentines Day

As I prepared myself for all I had to do the night before, I remembered a quote by Elder Uchtdorf.

Refocus on What Matters Most

The problem was (and usually is) that I couldn't exactly just call and cancel all of the commitments that were making it difficult for me to rejoice. Sophia was student of the week and was looking forward to bringing Mom, Dad, Puccini, and her violin to school in the morning for her final little show-and-tell session. I had volunteered to pop popcorn all morning for the 5th grade weekly fundraising effort in the cafeteria and Chloe was really looking forward to finally having her turn since I haven't had a chance to volunteer yet this year. Class Valentine's parties for Chloe and Sophia were all afternoon and I had signed up to bring veggie trays. Bria had two very important violin rehearsals and a church Young Women activity. And I had a work assignment to photograph the play that is currently showing at the university.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Our Newest System for Chores and Allowance

I'm always trying to find a good chore system that works. In other words, something that motivates the girls to do what they're supposed to do with minimal nagging from me. We've gone through sticker chart after sticker chart, we've tried chore buckets and clipboards (I do actually still use the clipboards for Saturday jobs, but they don't work for the after school stuff, I've found), we've done a whiteboard where I just wrote up a new chore every day, and who knows how many other things.

One thing we've never actually done is attach allowance to the chores. I finally decided that maybe money was going to be the only motivating factor for my children, and I think we've finally found a system that we will stick to because so far it's working beautifully. Better than anything else we've ever tried--I just wish I'd actually thought of it myself!

Back in November, Shawni at 71 Toes wrote about her chore and allowance system. (If you don't read her blog, you really should--I am inspired by her every time I click over.) As soon as I read it, I knew that it was what we should try, no matter how fundamentally against allowance I was. We implemented it before Thanksgiving and the girls were SO EXCITED to finally have a way to earn money of their own on a consistent basis. (Before this, if they wanted to earn money, they could do extra jobs around the house but they rarely asked and just complained about never having their own money.)

Here's how the system works at our house.

Each girl has a little chart that I tape up in the kitchen each week. It has spaces for morning, practice, zone, and reading.

Yes, my children are quite creative when it comes to marking off their chores.

Morning=made bed, picked up floor, brushed teeth

Practice=1 hour of violin practice for Bria, 30 minutes of piano practice for Chloe, and at least 20 minutes of violin practice for Sophia. (Sophia is going through a bit of a difficult practice phase right now, so if we can get in 20 minutes it's usually a huge triumph!)(If you have a child going through such a phase, I wrote some ideas to help that back HERE.)

Zone=Each girl is in charge of an area of the house for one week. The three areas I give them to be in charge of are living/dining rooms, bathrooms/laundry, playroom/blue room. (The blue room is a small room off of the living room that sees a lot of traffic--it's really an enclosed back porch of sorts.)


Reading=They each have to do at least 20 minutes of reading each day after school. I also have started grouping homework in this slot as well. Mostly for Sophia who is going through a difficult homework phase right now. She's actually going through a just plain difficult phase right now--perhaps the winter is getting to her like it is to me.

Each day, they are to do their list and mark it off. Once it is all finished, they must have a parent sign them off. I'm the mean one who usually makes them do a few more things in their zones before I'll declare it good enough, but The Maestro usually signs them off if it looks like they tried. Guess who gets asked to sign off more often?

Chore checklists and zones

If they are able to mark off all 20 boxes in the week, they will get their full allowance. If they miss one mark, they get half. If they miss more than that, they don't get anything.

Shawni has given her children the opportunity to earn back one mark per week by memorizing a scripture or poem she assigns to them. I decided to try this out as well, and that's been nice. I haven't actually had to employ it much, but when I do it's really cool to see my children working on memorizing a verse of scripture to earn back a mark.

I try very hard to not remind them and let them be self-reliant. I figure if they really want their allowance, they'll do it. And as you can see by the marked up checklists, this is true. I will admit that some afternoons when I am especially frazzled I remind them multiple times, but like I said, I'm trying not to do that.

Sophia is my only child that has found the obvious loophole in this system: once you miss three marks you may as well not do anything else for the rest of the week. She's a smart cookie, that one. I did find a way around that one, though. Absolutely no screen time if you haven't marked all four boxes that day. To her that is (unfortunately) more motivating than money. The allowance is just a nice little bonus. Turns out I'm smarter than she is, after all!

We've been doing it this way for about three months now and the girls are still consistently motivated to do their chores/practice/reading. There are a few kinks to iron out--mostly in the process of signing them off and making sure that they are doing the chores well and not just stuffing things into random drawers, for instance. (I actually found some dirty socks and a few other strange odds and ends stuffed into the drawer where I keep tablecloths in the dining room.) But mostly it's been working like a dream, and I am eating my words about not believing in allowance.

Not only has allowance been nice to motivate them to work, it has helped to teach them about tithing and savings, and it's been really wonderful to be able to tell them they are welcome to buy things with their own money when they ask for something at the store.

More ideas for helping kids with chores:
Is Your Room Mommy Clean? A Printable Checklist
Tame the Summer Chaos: Chores, Reading, Snacks
Six Things That Will Help Any Mom Stay Sane

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Frozen Toy Story

Last Thursday, The Maestro and I took the time to see some of the snow statues. Winter Carnival is such a big deal that there is no school, so neither of us had to teach. I always look forward to this little date with him every year, but holy cannoli it's never actually been this cold. The wind chill was 27 below at the time we were looking at the statues, and the regular temperature was also below zero. I was completely bundled up, had a scarf covering the majority of my face, and I couldn't handle being out in that weather longer than a few minutes a pop.

So. Not as many photos as usual. I took some of the three big fraternity statues, and that's it. But, our Winter Carnival did make it into The Huffington Post, so if you'd like to see a few more photos, you can look HERE.

The first statue we visited was the third place winner in the fraternity competition. The theme this year was "Nostalgic Films from Childhood Days, Come to Life in Frosty Ways" so naturally there was a whole lot of Disney and Pixar going on.

This one was a Toy Story Western theme.

IMG_7538 winter carnival webIMG_7536 winter carnival web

Look closely, and you can see that they made alphabet blocks to spell ANDY.
IMG_7534 winter carnival webIMG_7533 winter carnival web
IMG_7531 winter carnival webIMG_7530 winter carnival web
IMG_7529 winter carnival webIMG_7540 winter carnival web
I couldn't get a really good photo of the entire thing, but I always like to be able to show you the scale. These things are truly monstrosities!

This year there was a lot of ice incorporated into the sculptures--like the Barrel of Monkeys on this one. I think it was due to our extreme cold this year. Ice is something they can work on indoors when the weather is too freezing for outdoor work (there are rules that state the students cannot work on the statues outdoors when it is colder than ten below zero out). Also, it's so freaking cold that the ice isn't melting. Usually the ice elements don't last more than a day or so, but this year they are still going strong after nearly a week.

I'll put the rest of the photos up soon---never fear!

Monday, February 10, 2014

How to Make Heart Bokeh for Valentine's Day

Bokeh is the beautiful blurred background you see in many photos--such as the bokeh you see in Christmas light pictures (click HERE to see my tutorial on how to achieve bokeh--numbers 3 and 4 on the list). The camera lens renders the bokeh as circles or octagons, depending on how open your lens is. But did you know that you can make the bokeh any shape you want to with one simple trick?

All you need is some paper, tape, and scissors and you are ready to have some fun with your camera! I thought it would be really fun to do some heart-shaped bokeh for Valentine's Day, so I just made a heart cut-out in some paper, cut the paper down to fit right on my lens, and taped it on.

How to make heart bokeh

Two things to be aware of as you do this:

1. Make sure you don't tape the paper on to the focus rings, or your camera will have trouble focusing.

2. Make sure your heart (or whatever other shape you choose to use) is facing the right way on the lens. Keep in mind which orientation you will be shooting in, too. If you're shooting in a portrait orientation, make sure you know exactly which way you like to hold the camera so you don't end up with upside-down hearts.

I set up a background in my living room to do this little photo shoot. The Maestro got me this awesome backdrop stand for my birthday about 6 years ago, and it's really handy to have, but you could just as easily tape something to the wall or drape fabric over some chairs. There are also lots of tutorials around the internet to make your own PVC pipe backdrop stands. However, I do love my backdrop stand, too. It stores nicely in a bag and is really easy to set up and take down, and I didn't have to make it myself! (This Backdrop Stand is very similar to what I have.)

Photography set up

I don't have a ton of room in my house, nor do I have a ton of light. So I waited until the light was coming through my southern facing windows perfectly to do these photos. (The one good thing about the polar vortex has been more sunny days up here where we rarely see the sun in the winter.)

Custom bokeh backdrop and lights

For the first photos, I used a large piece of dark fleece. I sewed a pocket in it for the crossbar of the photography stand, but it also serves as a warm blanket to watch movies in at our house. I then draped some red Christmas lights over the fleece. No worries that the cord is white, when we take our photos it won't show up too much.

custom bokeh photo set up

I set an ottoman about 6-8 feet in front of the lights. It's important to have your subject be a good distance away from the lights to get the best looking bokeh.

Ready to see the magic?

Make a custom bokeh

Pretty amazing, huh?

In order to get the bokeh, you're going to want to shoot with your lens wide open (again, for better instructions on how exactly to get the bokeh in your photos, click on my tutorial HERE). I have the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera Lens on my camera for these photos. It's an amazing and very inexpensive little lens, and especially wonderful for bokeh photos like these.

I also put a white paper backdrop on. The red lights don't show up as brilliantly against the white background, but it still turned out a pretty fun photo for Valentine's Day.

How to make custom heart bokeh

If only my children cooperated as well as my dog does for these photos. I guess holding treats up behind the camera just doesn't quite do it for them the way it does for her! (And do you love her haircut? I took these the day after she got it--poor girlie is freezing to death, but was looking a little like a muppet and it had to be done.)

You can use this fun custom bokeh trip with whatever shape you like--stars, hearts, squares, triangles, letters--go crazy with it and have fun!

I'd love to see your results if you try this out--share them on my Facebook page.

More Photography Tutorials:
Two Secrets to Better Snow Photos
Four Creative Ways to Photograph Your Christmas Lights
Make a Blog Banner in Photoshop Elements

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Three Girls, Two Recitals, and a Snow Statue Sneak Peek

In the elevator leaving one recital and running to the next. It'll have to do for a Sunday photo on this crazy day! (The day Sophia isn't wearing cheetah print for one of these photos is the day pigs fly.)
Today was a little insane. And for a Sunday--the supposed day of rest--that's really saying something!

Of course there was our normal three hours of church. But today was also The Maestro's first Sunday since he got called into the Branch Presidency that he was actually in town. So he left early this morning, which left me to get myself and three girlies ready for church. I thought we did pretty well, considering we left the house before church actually started AND we got there before the opening hymn began, even though we were officially about five minutes late. I'll do better, but man, I am not a go-getter in the mornings.

After church we had another church meeting, and then I had to run the girls to Bria's violin recital. We should have been more on time, but I stayed at branch council a little too long, and then couldn't find parking, the elevator was slow, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  Bria was second on the program and we walked in just as the girl who was first was playing her beginning notes.

Consequently, Bria didn't feel very mentally prepared and had to start over in the middle of her piece. She did it with grace and aplomb, but that has literally NEVER happened to her. She always manages to get into some sort of zone when she's playing her violin publicly. Afterwards she told me that her brain fell out--"plop onto the floor"--when she got up there. It took her a little by surprise to lose her brain like that, I think. But it's a good reminder of how important that mental preparation is!

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Is Your Room Mommy Clean? Printable Checklist

A few weeks ago, I told you all about how Sophia struggles to keep her room clean. And when I say she struggles, I mean she REALLY struggles. You can click HERE to read all about it, along with my less-than-perfect reaction to the gigantic mess. It's really hard to be the mom, sometimes.

And being the mom requires constantly thinking of really great solutions to problems like the eternally messy room. Not only do I not want to have to clean it myself each day, I want her to learn to be self-reliant. I want her to know how to make her bed. I want her to understand the importance of keeping our homes clean.

I think Sophia's biggest issue is that she gets overwhelmed when she sees the big mess (who wouldn't?), and doesn't really know where to start.

So, I made her a checklist. I hung it up in her closet so that she can refer to it as she cleans up.

Is your room mommy clean? A printable checklist for children who struggle cleaning their bedrooms.

This picture cracks me up.  One whole wall in her semi walk-in closet is a bulletin board. I love the stuff she puts up there. And my checklist printed out crooked, but I don't care because it's still serving its purpose. It matches her mish-mash better anyway.

To download:

If you are on a desktop or laptop computer, enter your email in the form below.

If you are on a mobile device, please click here to see the form.

The printable will be sent directly to your email.

Ultimately, I hope that she will be able to figure out how to keep her room from becoming a national disaster, but for now, the checklist is helping her recover from each disaster she has.

Making her bed by herself is still hard (and she has these really adorable day beds, but they are difficult even for me to make nicely). But we're working on it--she's doing a great job. I'ts amazing how just having a few little instructions can make a world of difference.

Do your kids have a hard time keeping their bedrooms clean? Download this printable checklist to help them to get those rooms "Mommy Clean!"

(I told you her room could get messy.)

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Friday, February 07, 2014

Suave Professionals® Moroccan Infusion Body Care Review and a Chance to Win a $1000 Gift Card!

This post is brought to you by Suave Professionals® and BlogHer.

I recently had the opportunity to try out some of Suave Professionals® latest and greatest skincare products. And the opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time, what with my 40 below temperatures due to our favorite polar vortex (I wonder how many times I have now typed the words “Polar Vortex” on my blog?) and a lot of VERY dry skin.

Part of my dry skin issue is totally due to my long, hot showers. When it’s this cold I simply can’t get warm, so I go strip all the oil out of my skin by staying in the shower way longer than is necessary. Also way hotter than is necessary.
Enter the Suave Professionals® Moroccan Infusion Body Care line. I received a body lotion infused with Moroccan argan oil, and a Dry Body Oil Spray, designed to absorb instantly and lock in moisture. Suave Professionals® Moroccan Infusion features authentic argan oil from Morocco, a lightweight miracle oil known to be rich in nutrients and antioxidants. The new premium range leaves skin looking and feeling beautifully silky and radiant and is clinically proven to moisturize as well as other, more expensive, products on the market.

I have been using Suave’s line of hair care that also contains Moroccan argan oil, and have been totally pleased with the results. It is so much more affordable and my hair looks just as great as it does when I buy more expensive hair products. Knowing this, I was excited to try out the body lotion and Dry Body Oil Spray.

No surprise, I loved them.  More importantly, my skin loved them.  My girls, suffering from polar vortexed skin as well, also tried it out and really liked the products. They smell great, but the scent isn’t too overpowering, and they really feel wonderful on your skin.