Friday, December 31, 2010

Temporary office space (aka working with what you've got and the beginnings of a 2011 wish list)

Let's drop my usual "less is more" attitude and get materialistic for a few minutes. All things considered, I had a pretty good year in terms of acquiring fun new toys (thanks to fun money, saving and patience, and some help from Rob in regards to an early Christmas gift). Most of these toys relate to my growing hobby and side business of photography.

First, I have a shiny new high-resolution computer monitor, perfect for editing photos.

I have an awesome camera:

I have a legit copy of Adobe Creative Suite 5 Web Premium (purchased for 20% of retail cost thanks to my old University discount).

And I have my own photography website, to keep me busy and inspired.

These things were all new in 2010. Life is good!

Except I forgot to set up a workstation for my fun new toys. Rob and I usually just sit on the couch with our laptops, so we don’t really have a formal desk area.

Backing things up, I will remind you that we do have plans to convert our attic bedroom into an office/studio (read more about those plans here or here). But that area is currently used for storage while our basement is ripped up. So I started debating locations for a temporary home workstation.

The dining room was my first choice since there’s a lot of room (and I used to spend long hours there doing homework and writing my thesis).

Our dining room - back in my thesis-writing days.

But then Rob complained that I was never hanging out in the same room as him. I consider it a good sign that my husband wants to spend *more* time with me, and not the other way around. :)

So I set out to convert a corner of our living room/kitchen into a makeshift office. The challenge? Not buying a thing. Ok, here comes a before and after.

Before: our mail-sorting and paperwork cart:

After: My temporary office:

I’ll admit this isn’t the most ideal set-up, but it will work fine for now. Our mail cart is actually an old microwave stand that my mom gave me when I was in college. It has a little drawer, where a keyboard fits perfectly inside. Another shelf is the perfect place to set the laptop. I use the bottom basket to hold our modem, power cables, and random other techno-cord-garbage (scientific term).

You’re probably wondering where I put the mail and paperwork-related boxes, right? (Just humor me.) In the dining room, I set up a little portable table (we have a couple of these, they were around $10 at Target).

This location actually makes sense since it’s closer to the front door/mailbox. The other boxes found a new home on the bookshelf.

I keep an old 60s camera and an old film camera on display near my photography books.

Note: Eventually we want to buy this buffet to complete the dining room. It matches our table. So the mail/paperwork will easily be contained by this future furniture purchase.

Until then, we'll just enjoy our temporary work place. and improvised mail and paperwork station.

A haiku related to this situation:
Work with what you have
Need home owner improv skills
You know how it goes.

I’d still like to buy a real desk, but this set-up will work for the time being. It’s especially handy to have now that I occasionally work from home. I do long for a real chair though, as 8+ hours on the dining room chair gets pretty uncomfortable. A desk, chair, and buffet are at the top of my 2011 house purchase wish list, and I plan to post the rest of the list later this week. Stay tuned, as those marketing people like to say.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

New furnace cost break-down

If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you might recall that our furnace was red tagged (deemed not safe for use) and shut off last February. We had no choice but to buy a new one.

This is what a red-tagged furnace looks like. You know... in case you were wondering.

We found an affordable option that was also energy-star rated. By the time it was installed (err installed properly, I should say, since it took a few tries), it was mid March and the worst of winter was behind us. So I was eager to see how the new more-efficient furnace would work in the harsh Minnesota winter.

The green giant outdoor thermostat was a nice "extra" included with our home purchase.

So here’s the furnace cost break-down.

The furnace that we purchased ended up costing $3123.96 with all taxes and installation. It would have been a few hundred more, but the installers made some mistakes and had to come out and fix it. We complained (since each mistake left us without heat for a longer period of time), and they refunded us for a few hundred dollars (to cover the installation, mostly).

Since this furnace is energy-star rated, we qualify for the 2010 tax rebate. We will apply for this in February during tax time, but we’re slated to get roughly 30% of the cost back. That’s $937.19 that will go back in our pocket.

That brings the cost of the furnace down to $2186.77.

Since this furnace is more efficient, it should (in theory) save us money each month that we use it. I found this to be true in the summer, when our gas bill was as low as $14.79 (in June). In previous summers, it was at least double that. But I was most interested in seeing how the furnace performed when it was being used every day, all day, as in the winter.

Now a few things to note. Last year we kept our indoor heat set to a frigid 58 degrees. Why’d we do this? Because we’re both tough and cheap! (You can read about my indoor winter survival kit here - it’s a good list.) But even with our heat that low, our heating bill for the last full month with the old furnace was a whopping $186.14. I know that may sound crazy to some of you, but we have an old house with poor insulation. It didn't make sense for us to throw our money away trying to keep this drafty house warm. And of course the furnace was old and not very efficient as well.

This year, I have left the furnace at 62 degrees. It feels like a heat wave in comparison to last year’s 58. I knew that the new furnace was more efficient, so I thought I could get away with a couple extra degrees (and believe me - they help). So now that our furnace was been running all day, every day for a month in the winter, can you guess the amount for our latest gas bill (November)? Are you ready for this? $66.48.

Wow. Our gas bill is ⅓ of the amount it was last winter, and that is more impressive since we’ve had our heat set 4 degrees warmer.

Because I like to do math (no, really, I’m a nerd), I wanted to see how long it will be until the furnace has paid for itself (meaning the money saved on monthly gas bills is higher than the furnace price). So, in this most-non-scientific estimate, I will say that we save the amounts below each month that we run the furnace (based on comparisons between this year and last, averaged out over the months given). Of course we save more money by ratio in the winter months since we do so much more heating. And I do only have partial data for this year, but I will update this post in a few months when I have all the information (and will see how accurate I was with my calculations).

Monthly savings:
Winter month (November, December, January, February) = $115 per month, $460 total
Fall/spring months (March, April, September, October) = $30 per month, $120 total
Summer months (June, July, August, September) = $21 per month, $84 total
Total savings per year (estimated) = $664

Therefore it will take 3.3 years for the furnace to have paid for itself (and for us to really feel the benefits of this purchase). Not bad, eh? And of course, we added some value to our house by updating an important appliance (and one that is safer than our previous one). So that’s good too.

I hope this information is helpful for anyone thinking about replacing their furnace. We didn’t have a choice in the matter, but if you do, it’s worth taking the time to do a cost analysis.

*Note: I’m not sure if the energy savings rebate is still available. I heard it was discontinued, but I also saw information that said it’s valid until the end of the year (2010). So more research is needed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Two years in the Chateau, and we're doing fine

Home ownership is like many other aspects of life. By that, I mean that things don’t always go as planned.

And that’s ok.

We received a card in the mail the other day from our realtors. They informed us that it was the two-year anniversary of when we closed on our house. The date almost slipped past us, unnoticed. I appreciated the reminder, but it made me realize how the last two years, though great in their own way, are not exactly what we had in mind when we moved into this place on that cold December afternoon.

Like many first-time homeowners, we had (have) big dreams. House renovation and remodel costs money, but we are good savers. We figured we’d plan, save, and execute. Wrong.

Here are the things we imagined we’d spend our money on during our first two years:

  • Adding a bathroom (and popping out the roof to add a dormer) in our attic bedroom
  • Putting in a jacuzzi tub in our main level bathroom
  • Building a garage

Dream bathroom -- hey, it could happen! Image source

As you probably already know, none of those things happened. The upstairs bathroom idea was tabled (possibly forever) after we realized how expensive it is to add plumbing and a dormer. Without a dormer, we also weren’t sure if we’d have enough room to even add a bathroom without making the area seem cramped and tiny. Similarly, we realized we couldn’t afford a new garage at this time (didn’t realize how expensive it is to pour concrete). The jacuzzi tub is still something we want to do, but it involves a lot of work and probably would require us to re-tile the bathroom since we have to rip out the current tub. It would definitely be time-consuming. So far, we haven’t had the courage to put our only bathroom (and shower) out of commission for the time needed to finish the project.

So what have we spent our money on in the past two years? Well:
With many of these things, we had no choice in our purchase since our existing item broke (and needed replacement). But you know, that’s how the cookie crumbles. I’m still happy and grateful to own a house... (Well.. pay money on a house mortgage, that is. Some day we’ll own it.)

Dear readers of mine, this is a perfect time for you to chime in. What did you dream about when you were signing the papers at your house closing? Did it happen, or did life take an unexpected turn? What were your unplanned purchases during that first year or two? I am genuinely curious whether our situation is A-OK normal or just the outcome of some bad luck. So get yourself down to the comment section and weigh in. Pretty please?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blizzards, unexpected purchases, and rolling with the punches

You probably heard about this on the news already, but we received some record-breaking weather up here in Minnesota last weekend. Twenty-some inches of record-breaking, actually. It was pretty brutal. It came down fast and hard on Friday night and didn’t let up until late Saturday. It wasn’t just snow though; this was a full blizzard with wind and limited visibility. We were snowed in.

Murphy's dog house

I can’t recall ever receiving this much snow at one time. This created quite a conundrum for people in older neighborhoods like ours. With our postage-stamp yards, there was simply no place to put this much snow. And with two feet of snow in our driveway (higher where it drifted) and no snowblower, snow removal was a daunting challenge. Our driveway faces an alley, and the other 3 sides face our garage door, our 6-foot tall fence, and our neighbor’s driveway. We had no choice but to move the snow through our narrow gate and into the backyard. Making matters even worse, one of our double-gate doors was totally frozen into the ground and not budging. So we had to go over the fence or through the door opening. It was rough.

After both Rob and I hacked away at it for a full hour, we had finally dug out the cars, but we still had a giant pile of snow to move to the other side of the fence. I’d had enough, so I sweet-talked Rob into dipping into our house fund account in order to purchase a snowblower. He was on board, so long as he could check craigslist first for a good deal. (You know that husband of mine is semi-obsessed with craigslist).

We moved this snow pile from the driveway. That's a six-foot tall fence.

The neighbor's yard overfloweth with snoweth

Rob-dawg didn’t let me down. He found a $1500 snowblower for $500 AND he talked the guy down to $450. Of course we were wondering why someone would be selling a working snowblower right now, so we got some back story. This guy had the snowblower for years and loved it, but it wasn’t working last winter during the infamous ice storm. He didn’t spend too much time trying to fix it since it was so cold outside, and instead went to Lowes and bought one that was almost identical. In the spring when the weather was nicer, he replaced a part on the old blower, and it was good as new. He was able to provide the manual and a full maintenance history (along with a diagram of the part that he had fixed). Good deal. Off we went to home.

Rob spent another hour, roughly, clearing out the huge snowpile in the driveway and also helping out our neighbors. (Side note: Many of our neighbors have huge, new snowblowers, but none have ever offered to help when they see us out shoveling. This is in contrast to North Dakota, where I grew up, where neighbors always helped each other out. Rob and I trying to change the karma dynamic on our street by helping with ours.) We couldn’t use the snowblower on our front sidewalk (since there are steps) or on our porch (since the auger would ruin the wood). So the two of us spent another hour shoveling. If you’re keeping track at home, that’s... a heck of a lot of shoveling.

For those of you who don’t live in the Midwest - let me explain that shoveling is a highly physical activity. I would like to add that this was not the light and fluffy kind of snow. This was thick, heavy, and often compact (as in the small hills left by the snowplow). But I like to think that I’m a tough wife. I’m not the kind of girl who is going to sit inside while my husband breaks his back out there in the cold. Sure, I complained a bit (hehe), and I later skipped the Jillian Michael DVD I had intended to do (too sore). But the point is - I think of Rob and I as a team, and we’re stuck with the crappy parts of home ownership together. Whether it’s carrying 2000 pounds of concrete, lifting 30 sheets of drywall, or shoveling literally tons of snow.. we are still a team. And I’m glad to have Rob on my team.

And speaking of the crappy parts of home ownership... I have more to share about last weekend. After all that work on Sunday, I was truly looking forward to a hot shower. Instead, I got a cold shower. We went downstairs to find water all over the floor, and our water heater was leaking and not working. Rob went online and did some troubleshooting. After trying a few things, it was determined that we will need to purchase a new water heater. Crap. I’ll post later about which one we chose and how we installed it (because although it has been purchased, it’s not yet installed).

So we did a lot of unplanned spending last weekend. You know, all I can do is roll with the punches and feel fortunate that we follow a strict budget that forces us (allows us) to save money for emergencies like this. I’m sore all over, and I had to take a cold shower. But I can be grateful that we live in a time with cell phones and waterproof boots and snowblowers and other modern day conveniences. I can’t even imagine what winters were like for my grandparents. I was stranded at home, but at least I wasn’t alone. As I mentioned, I’m so glad that I have Rob on my team. Snow removal, water heater replacement, and being snowed in would be 10,000 times worse without him. And for that, I have a lot to be thankful for.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Furniture placement is important, yo

Someone recently told Rob and I that we say "dude," "yo," and "wack" a lot. I can dig it. I lived through the 90s. It's like our language, yo. (There I go again. I never would have gotten away with this when I wrote for newspapers.)

I've got a few minutes and want to do some blogging. How's that for an intro?

My girl Kelly over at Tearing Up Houses recently featured an impressive before-and-after. Look at how furniture placement makes a huge difference in this room:

It's virtually the same furniture, but they moved the couches and switched up the hanging TV and mirror. They did add a rug and change the lamps, but those are minor things considering. I'm always telling people that a cozy and inviting room has to have defined space, an imaginary outline... and I think she did a great job with that here. Even though the space is technically a a little less open with this arrangement (which many people fear), the room doesn't look closed off or cramped. Nice job, Kelly.

Unrelated, but we received an early Christmas gift from our cousin Elle. We are going to a Doomtree concert tomorrow! Doomtree are a local hip-hop collaborative with boatloads of talent. I'm excited. Now if you'd told me 10 years ago that I'd be a fan of rap music, I probably would have laughed. Yes, I can admit I was close-minded about this particular genre. But there's a really interesting local hip-hop scene in Minneapolis, and it's not the stereotypical rap that I heard growing up. To my ears, this music sounds wholly positive, encouraging, accepting, intelligent/thought-provoking. And those are sentiments I can get behind. There is meaning here.

Here's a few photos of one of the Doomtrees (in my language, you can make anything plural) that I took at Grand Old Day 2007 or 2008. Can't remember. But I do know that it was with my old 3 megapixel camera that I take to concerts. I wouldn't take a nice camera for fear of damage or theft. But this little trooper of a camera has been dropped, been rained on, and had champagne dumped on it. It's still clicking.

Hopefully I'll be back soon with more.

If you want to give Doomtree a listen, here's a good start. This song is a little old, but it's a classic.

Later, friends. In the meantime, help me keep that 90s slang alive. WORD.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fitness minutes, Photoshop, and more

Since everyone loves a list, here are the top 5 reasons why I haven't been blogging much lately:

  1. You know, the holidays. Busy time of year.
  2. I've been working on another creative project (more on this below)
  3. I haven't had Photoshop for a while. My 30-day trial ended, and I no longer have access to it at work or in the computer labs since I switched jobs. No Photoshop. That means no photos. It's not fun to blog without photos.
  4. My brain is tired. I've learned so much at my new job! I like it a lot, but when I get home, I just want to lounge on the couch with Rob and watch 30 Rock or...
  5. The Walking Dead. We just discovered this show and have quickly watched all existing episodes. I never thought I'd be a fan of a zombie TV show, but it's great. Very well written and acted. Give it a watch if you have cable (it's on AMC). And if you don't have cable, you can buy the episodes for $1.99 from Amazon Video on Demand. Amazon is awesome because you buy the rights to stream the episode unlimited times (from any computer) AND you can download it (to keep) on two different computers. Way better than iTunes in my opinion. (Not affiliated -- disclaimer for the naturally skeptical cats out there.)

So about that creative project I mentioned in item No. 1. It's no secret that I enjoy photography. A year ago in November, I wrote the following on this very blog:

I recently spent a weekend taking pictures, and I realized that it might be my favorite activity. Ever. And since I enjoy it so much, I think that's a good indication that I should make it a higher priority in my life.

Shortly after, I built an online portfolio to share some recent shots. It was a fun little endeavor, but there were a few problems. For one, I was limited by the point-and-shoot camera I had. And two, I hadn't really done any real photo shoots to build a portfolio. No portraits. Nothing. Now a year after shelling out all my fun money for my first d-SLR, that's all changed.

That said, here's my brand spanking new photography site, which also represents my side business: Kristi W. Photography

Most recent photo shoot:

If you peruse the new site, you'll see that I've been busy this past year, shooting everything from engagement photos to newborn pics, senior high school portraits to family shoots, weddings and even some pets. It's truly been a blast to meet some new people, get some good portfolio builder, and learn more and more about this craft that consumes me. I really feel fortunate that I have photography in my life. I've been interested in this field since I was around 8 when I received my very first camera (a "Where's Waldo" 35mm kid's camera). Back then, I used to develop film at Osco Drug and then compete at the county fair against other kids who also liked their cameras. By age 15, I got into a summer program where I was able to use a darkroom for free (though I still only had a 35mm point and shoot). In college, I rented a film SLR from the school to take a semester-long photography class that also focused on darkroom development. After college, I was pretty much a broke paycheck-to-paycheck kinda soul who definitely couldn't afford a "real' camera, but I made due with my inexpensive pocket Canon point-and-shoot (and had a great time doing it). It's kinda crazy to think that this moment of my hobby was so many years in the making.

Everyone needs a passion(s) in their life. I feel incredibly lucky that I finally have the means to pursue mine.

I'm shooting a wedding in mid December. And another in early January. Words can't express how excited I am.

And now that I'm devoting more and more time (and money) to photography, I decided it was time to fix No. 3 on my list above. Using my student and staff discount while I still had it, I was able to purchase Adobe Web Premium Creative Suite for only 20% of the retail cost. That's an incredible deal. The best part about this situation is that I now have a legit license that I can upgrade until the end of time.

I'm excited about Photoshop and my new website. Oh, and I'm excited about fitness minutes! Last month, I started keeping a log of all the extra fitness and general activity that I've been trying to do during the day. I use a Google Docs spreadsheet to record my "fitness minutes" which includes traditional workouts and exercise (usually my workouts are essentially circuit-like training combining cardio and strength) as well as the smaller bits of activity that I fit in throughout the day (like a walk in the skyways during my break at work). In my first month of logging, I recorded more than 800 fitness minutes! That's more than 13 hours of extra activity that I wasn't getting before. I'm proud of that, but it's also easy to fit in extra activity when you know that every little bit counts. So maybe this will inspire someone else out there to start logging your fitness minutes? It only takes a few seconds each day, after all.

So that's what's new with me. What's new with you? Sorry to be absent from the blogosphere, but I'm working my way back. You know you can't get rid of me that easily.

Until next time...

someone else's words

"Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others." - Buddha

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