the easiest holiday hostess gifts

Sunday, December 3, 2017
One of my favorite go-to hostess gifts - a Nest candle with a pretty bow atop it

If there's one thing that is certain, it's that each December, our calendar becomes a beautiful mess of family commitments, gatherings with friends, cozy meals with neighbors, and squeezed in between, time to kick back and appreciate our own decked halls, aglow in late-night candlelight.

Yet sometimes, when the rush of the season feels overwhelming, these celebrations begin to feel more like obligations ... I can't count the number of times that either me or my husband has had to convince the other not to simply give up and nap on the couch instead. It's normal, I tell myself, for a homebody like me to sometimes require a pep talk before a seemingly fun night out.

The good news is, I never regret swiping on some lip gloss and getting myself out the door once I've done so. And every day, I'm truly grateful that we have friends and family that are able to carve out time to connect and clink glasses during the busiest time of the year.

To make life easier on those hectic holiday weekends, I've started stashing some of my favorite hostess gifts into a "gift box" (essentially, a giant storage container in the closet) so that they're ready to grab-and-go when needed. 

Here, a few of my favorites:

  • A good candle. Candles can sometimes fall into the bucket of thoughtless gifting, but when they're a quality make - like my personal favorites, Nest or Capri Blue - they're almost always immensely appreciated. I love the seasonal Birchwood scent by Nest, and the above photo was snapped before dinner at one of our good friend's new homes. I tied on a gold bow with a sprig of faux greenery to spice things up.
  • Fresh bread. On Saturday morning, I make a beeline to the Amish baker at the nearby farmers market. Whenever she's not sold out of her Cheddar Garlic Bread, I buy a loaf for myself, and if I'm in need of a hostess gift for the weekend, I grab another. To make it a bit more presentable, I like wrapping it up in a festive tea towel (Anthropologie always has some fun options, but you can also find far less expensive options at craft stores and other kitchen stores.)
  • Sweet-smelling kitchen products. The scent of Mrs. Meyer's Iowa Pine kitchen soap and counter spray almost makes me enjoy wiping down our granite. You can find gift sets of smaller sized products at shops like Target; or try Williams Sonoma's range of holiday scents and gift sets, which are equally delightful.
  • Breakfast goodies. After an evening of company, there's nothing I appreciate more than an indulgent breakfast waiting for me the next morning. Yes, the sink might be full of dirty dishes and the floor is likely covered in sticky wine spills and crumbs, but by God, I'm eating a cinnamon roll first. That said, a loaf of banana bread, a round tray of ready-to-bake or baked cinnamon rolls or bakery english muffins with a fancy jam fit the bill in my book.
  • A classic drink. Whether it's a bottle of bourbon or a bottle of red, nobody turns a nose at boozy gifts. Scope out the best buys at Trader Joe's here and then drape a Christmas ornament around the bottle's neck. Voila!
  • Fancy fromage. I adore this mini marble cheese board that's just about $10, but it'd look even better with a creamy cheese tied atop with kitchen twine. Again, check out Trader Joes for delicious cheese picks at great prices. 
If you're in need of more ideas, don't ever rule out the power of a small bouquet (pre-arranged in a mason jar is just fine; in case the host is busy when you arrive).

But more important than any hostess swag is simply to be gracious, grateful guest. Breaking bread with folks is a time-honored tradition and quite frankly, cleaning a house and keeping food warm can be hard work, am I right? So, arrive with a smile, offer to help, and as soon as you're ready, return the favor and send an invite to your own table.

banishing the missed-opportunity mentality

Monday, November 13, 2017

One time when inspiration always finds me: while traveling. Here, in Seward, Alaska, this past summer.
If you were the type of person who paid attention to the overwhelming amount of advertisements aimed at consumers (we're exposed to up to 4,000 ads per day, studies claim), you might begin to believe that we live in a world that worships youth. Oh, wait. We do live in a world that worships youth ... whether it's fast, electric cars or overpriced beauty products, the "face" of Consumer Carly is typically unblemished, unlined and unstressed. Marketing is a tricky mind game.

Yet, more and more, I see this notion that youth is the spring that feeds opportunity make appearances outside the realm of marketing. Among smart, savvy people (like myself, thank you very much) that should know better. 

In moments when I question the progress made against my goals - personal and professional - it's all too easy to look toward the people who have made significant achievements years, maybe even decades, before we pin-pointed what our goal might be. Not only is youth an underlying and pervasive message in nearly every ad that's placed in front of us, it's also the focus of magazine headlines and morning news shows. Young billionaire entrepreneurs seem to be spreading like a bad cold. Good God, where are they all coming from?! 

Even within the walls of the Financial Independence community, we've placed an unrealistic expectation on what stage of life is ideal to begin plotting investment strategies and an early retirement plan, potentially leaving a large majority of people feeling as if they may have missed their chance before they've even begun. I've come to think of this as the missed-opportunity mentality. It's a dangerous train of thought. 

While investing a large portion of your income as early as your 20s gains you early access to the magic of compounding interest, it hardly leaves the rest of us (like me, in my mid 30s) out in the cold. 

In that same vein, the concept of starting a side hustle that will generate additional income, is another financial life hack that's often aimed at younger folks, but undoubtedly applies to all ages. For that matter, if you've stumbled on something that you love doing that can also make you money, there is no wrong time to start, stop or transition into a new career. 

Life is simply too short to allow excuses like age to hold you back, but many of us have undoubtedly wondered:

- I don't have a creative bone in my body; is there really a side hustle that I can be successful at?
- Will I ever be able to catch up if I'm just starting to invest in my 40s?
- Is it possible to be an entrepreneur at 30, 50 or 65? 
- I've carved out a pretty decent life; shouldn't I just be happy with what I have?

Well, if everyone thought that way, we'd have missed out on some pretty impressive talent. (How's that for a segue?)

  • Patricia Field - of Sex and the City styling fame - met Sarah Jessica Parker at age 54, launching her career into new territory and eventually five Emmy nominations and six Costume Designer Guild Awards.
  • Julia Childs didn't publish her first cookbook until the age of 39 (or later, according to differing accounts). And it wasn't until her 50s that she made her first television appearance.
  • Designer Vera Wang was a figure skater and then a journalist, before entering the fashion industry in her 40s and becoming widely known for her chic apparel.
  • Ray Krok (have you seen the movie, The Founder?) was in his 50s when he bought his first McDonald's franchise.
  • Tim and Nina Zagat - of the restaurant rating guide that bears their name - left their careers as attorneys in their 40s to turn a passion for dining into the company that it is today.

One of the greatest gifts that we have as a human species (again, taking leaps and bounds with my theorizing here) is our ability to inspire and be inspired. Call it a trait; call it a learned behavior. But dig deep to find it the source of it within yourself. 

Because no matter your age, your education, or your career history (or lack thereof), all you require is inspiration to find - and then take - your next step.

In short, let's make a little pledge, shall we? Let's banish the missed-opportunity mentality and instead, put our efforts toward believing in and building one another up. 

Naysayers are a dime a dozen and they're all too easy to find, especially those who gave up on their own "crazy ideas" long ago. 

But people who dream big, lofty goals and take steps - even baby steps - to work toward them, who encourage others and choose to believe that a wealth of opportunities are available to all (rather than success as a selective and rare achievement) ... now THAT is the person I want to be and THOSE are the folks I want to clink a glass with. 

doing good + giving back along the way

Monday, November 6, 2017
Image may contain: sky, cloud, mountain, outdoor and nature
Charting a course for charitable giving isn't easy all the time // Photo: Denali National Park // Copyright: SlowDowntown.com
In conversation, a very long time ago, I heard my grandmother muse, "charity begins at home." 

Those words, coupled with what I now reflect on as her very intentionally led life, sang in my ears. They can, of course, be translated to mean a variety of things. Charitable priority should be given to relatives. Your community should be the core of your giving nucleus. Your commitment to giving back as a family grows charitable children. Whatever it was that she specifically opined, I couldn't say.

But what I can surmise is this truth, that I believe so many of us living intentionally have come to know: Look to your family, your block, your neighborhood if you want to create immediate impact. 

So many of us, day in and day out, plan to donate our time, belongings or hard-earned cash to the worthy causes that speak to our hearts. But at the end of the day, or right around April 15th, intentionally giving back is often near the very end of our to-dos. And instead, guilt languishes every time we toss another donation pledge pamphlet - that came with a sheet full of tacky return address labels - into the recycling bin. (Here is where I confess that if I *think* there may be return address labels inside, I don't even open the envelope, lest I be guilted into storing, and then never using, said personalized clipart stickers.)

In a city like Detroit, where we live on the cusp of several severely undeserved communities, it seems especially easy to choose among philanthropic efforts that are ripe with opportunity to create big and diverse impact. And it's true; whether your passion lies in supporting the arts, helping the homeless, working with children or greening our grounds, you can do so while benefiting the larger good.

So, which is the best and most impactful way for you to weave charity into your life ... and budget?

There's hardly a clear answer, and there is definitely no one-size-fits-all answer. Currently, our giving bucket includes a mix of planned monetary donations, (admittedly fewer than we'd like) volunteering opportunities, as well as what I'm dubbing "spontaneous giving" - a goal to give as a random act of kindness when we feel compelled.

Side note: Right now, our "spontaneous giving" goal is measured quarterly if for nothing else than to keep it on our radar. It might look like a $100 tip to a particularly helpful server at a restaurant, or an anonymous gift of a needed item to a friend or neighbor. I'm not sure how this will turn out or what it will look like, but I do know that some of the most heart-warming memories of my childhood included unassuming offerings like these, and it's important to me that we factor that into our larger efforts, and not let opportunities slip us by because we're too busy to have recognized them. 

Your giving strategy might be entirely monetary because you travel for work and can't squeeze out a free Saturday, or it may be largely volunteer-based because your budget doesn't allow for an extra line item.

The single most important thing - for you, and for others - is that if you are feeling called to give, you find a way to give. Not only does it collectively lift your community, it honestly, truly lifts your soul and spirit, too. (Giving for the end result of feeling like a better person is selfish, I know. But let's embrace the ability to help others, in helping ourselves, and helping the world. Kumbaya.)

Giving opportunities abound. Here's a few to consider if you have not already:

Put it on autopilot
Nearly every organization today makes it easy to set up monthly donations online, allowing you to commit as little as $10 a month, which goes a long way over the stretch of a year. Having this money withdrawn automatically from your accounts makes contributing a breeze, and is also particularly handy when tax time rolls around and you need to document your donations.

If you have a corporate job, check to see if your company doubles employee giving efforts (many do!), which means that you'll effectively be responsible for double what you've committed - a massive return for the organizations in need.

In Detroit, we support Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries on an annual basis, contributing to their holiday adopt-a-family programming as well as Thanksgiving efforts.

Roll up your sleeves
If time is what you've got to offer, non-profit volunteer opportunities are easy to come by thanks to websites like Volunteer Match, which links interested folks with activities in their area. Keep in mind, however, that many neighborhood organizations are understaffed and over-committed, making administrative tasks like marketing volunteer opportunities - or even returning emails and phone calls from would-be volunteers - decidedly difficult. (There have been numerous times that I've reached out to organizations for more information or to donate my time and efforts, and simply haven't heard back.) Keep trying.

In Detroit, I've really enjoyed spending a couple of Thursday mornings with Open Door Ministry (based at the Fort Street Presbyterian Church), which includes assisting in providing hot meals, fresh clothes, haircuts and other basic needs to the homeless and underprivileged folks in our area. The organization is routinely looking for volunteer support from those who can give up a Thursday morning, and also accepts clothing and warm-weather accessory donations, as well as body care products or care packages (clean socks, toothpaste and toothbrush, etc.).

Join a board or pick up a pro bono client
Mix pleasure and profession by offering up your talents to an organization in need of assistance. Both me and my husband have served on non-profit boards in our area, in fields that we support, and while it's by no means an easy gig, it's a great, tangible way to give back.

Go glitzy in the name of good
Let's be real. Some of the best parties are thrown in the name of big, charitable causes. Think black tie galas and pricey dinner tickets. We don't budget for too many of these types of things, but we do have an absolute blast when we choose to attend them. When we're in a gaggle of friends or colleagues, even better. After all, who can have a bad time when the wine is flowing?

Make sure that a portion of every ticket directly supports non-profit initiatives and is tax-deductible, too. You should receive a receipt for tax purposes whenever you make an applicable purchase.

Spend smart
Consumerism at it's trickiest. Many times, retailers will offer certain products around the holidays that when purchased, donate all profits to charity. Now, if you're going to buy the product (or one just like it) already, I think this is a great idea ...

In Detroit, Capuchin Soup Kitchen runs a retail bakery called On the Rise. Justifiable cinnamon rolls. You read that right. By shopping (grocery or otherwise) at locations where profits are sunk right back into the organization, you're getting far more bang for your buck. Cinnamon rolls, people. Cinnamon rolls.

Have you put a plan in place for your giving? And if so, what ways do you give back, and how do you prioritize your giving? 

drinking your greens: my favorite juice recipe

Monday, October 23, 2017
One for you and one for me // Copyright: SlowDowntown.com

There was a point in my life when I would wake up early every morning to press vegetables through the juicer. Not so much, these days. 

But a weekend? A gloriously cloudy fall weekend, nearly demanding that you stay under a blanket and off the rainy roads? Well, I can definitely manage some juicing then.

And every time that I do, I get a little jolt of joy. Nothing but fresh fruit and vegetables. And {nearly} all the goodness from them, squeezed down and simplified into one little meal. Breakfast perfection for someone like me whose stomach doesn't crave big meals in the morning.

Fresh juice options weren't always plentiful in my little neighborhood, but they're not so hard to find any longer. Even though, I'm a sucker for the far less expensive method of simply juicing my produce at home, made ultra easy with Saturday runs to the farmers market.

My go-to recipe, which is less of a recipe and typically just what I have on hand, works perfectly with my hand-me-down juicer: 

Three-Minute Sweet Greens

- 1 apple, any variety (or "sweetener" of your choice - carrots or pears also work)
- 1/2 celery heart (typically, five stalks, including the leafy innards)
- 4 cups baby spinach (packed tightly into the juicing column, two cups at a time)

Steps: Wash all produce. Chop apple into quarters, and run through juicer. Juice all celery stalks. Turn off juicer and pack spinach into juicing column; turn on and run for a few beats longer than normal, allowing the spinach juice to flow as you turn off the juicer switch.

Finally, carefully remove produce discards and place once more into the juicer column. "Re-juicing" allows additional nutrients to be squeezed out, and more fibrous particles to make it into your drink. 

There you have it. Simple. Healthy. And actually, pretty damn good. 

Smoothie sidebar
One of my best friends who happens to be a dietitian routinely reminds me that blending foods is healthier than juicing them, given that when blended, all of the fiber remains in the smoothie (whereas it's left behind as pulp when juicing). With that in mind, I spend most of my time blending these days, and end up with less food waste that way, too. 

practicing self-discipline {my mini clothing ban}

Monday, October 9, 2017
Stuff. Stuff.

It wasn’t until two years ago, when I was packing up my two-bedroom, one-person condo to move into a one-bedroom, two-person home that I realized just how many “things” I had accumulated over the course of three years in my solo home. Between piles of unworn clothes, stacks of books, and miscellaneous small appliances, it became glaringly obvious that all of my perceived self-control was maybe, er, nonexistent.

The excessiveness was shocking at first, and then disappointing, and then just kind of disgusting.

What I hadn’t realized during my slow and steady compilation of of consumerism was that all of these “things” that I dreamt would make my life easier (i.e. that “perfect” dress for the party; that “necessary” cupcake holder for the birthday girl’s treats – seriously) were actually becoming the bane of my existence. A new piece of clothing here and there meant that I was spending my Saturday organizing my closet. The odds and ends that didn’t have a proper place to be stored were lugged into the garage to move elsewhere … eventually. And slowly, all of it – all of the crap – was mounting bit by bit on top of my shoulders, creating this weighty feeling that nagged at me constantly.

A clean house was never really a clean house when there were bags of donations waiting, books needing sorting and shelving and shelves of décor needing dusting.

And now, two years after having moved into our one-bedroom condo, I find myself again feeling the pull of all of the things have crept into our closets and cabinets. Worse yet, in an effort to pare down and store seasonal clothes out of reach, I've actually - slowly - repurchased seasonal wardrobes without ever pulling out the clothes I'd originally packed away temporarily.

A few weeks back, I'd found myself feeling exactly as I did when I was clearing out my condo two years ago: generally disappointed with myself.

My splurge of choice had become sale-priced clothing. Not clothing I needed. Not even clothing that I actually loved, I'm ashamed to say. Just clothing that I thought was a really good deal. Dresses and tops that I don't need, that aren't really much different than what I already have, and that at the end of the day, I don't even have room for.

I didn't know how to take myself to task for this sort of spendy behavior other than to grab a sheet of paper and underneath the word "Goal," write "Do not purchase any more new clothing in the year 2017."

For those strong-willed people who laugh at such a feeble challenge, let me tell you, it's a first step. For all my budget mindedness, retail therapy is my personal slippery slope.

It took all of about 20 minutes before the first promotional email caught my eye. And since then, even I have been shocked by how quickly a good deal can usher me into a rabbit hole of online browsing that has ended with multiple items in my virtual cart (alas, I haven't actually purchased anything yet).

The lure of consumerism is hard to kick. Economist Richard Thaler, who just won the Nobel prize for his research on human psychology as it relates to money, has proven it. We're fickle creatures and we like to be happy and generally comfortable, and as such, treat ourselves accordingly.

However, while abstaining from widening my wardrobe, I've found the tiniest bit of pleasure in holding myself accountable. This shouldn't be surprising, since self-disciplined people have been found to be happier than their counterparts. The key - I believe - is in viewing and appreciating our goals as a healthy dose of self-discipline rather than deprivation. 

Note: I should point out that while I've never considered a clothing ban before now, I have been inspired by the stories of both Cait Flanders and Liz of Frugalwoods.com, who have taken on and completed much more lofty goals. I don't anticipate that I'll live up to their level of commitment, but I will let you all know for long I'm willing to hold out.

Have you attempted similar challenges to get back on track or meet a goal?

working for the weekend

Monday, September 18, 2017
Image may contain: food
Making time for more meals around a table ... // Copyright: SlowDowntown.com
As someone who trudges into an office space Monday through Friday, with work travel frequently blurring into my weekends, I place an extremely high value on my "free" time. But let's be honest, those glorious hours when we're off of work are hardly "free."

Between rummaging through the refrigerator for dinner inspiration, running errands and squeezing in a bit of time to binge watch my current Netflix obsession, there's barely time left to sum up the energy for our closest friends, let alone broader social circles.

And more than anything, I try to avoid those commitments that you squeeze in partially out of guilt and partially because you just want so badly to enjoy the company of great people. Because when it comes down to it, anytime that I'm trying to force fun, it just doesn't work. Forced fun makes me grumpy.

But relaxed, laughter-filled, wine-and-cheese-induced fun... now that's rich. That is the sort of stuff that feeds my soul in the most satisfying way.

Last year, one of my wise friends gifted me Shauna Niequist's book Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes and it sparked the tiniest fire within me. It took that anxious "I can't cook a damn thing" attitude and turned it upside down, smacked a smile on it and patted it on the back. It taught me that what's important - people and warm, cozy food and candles and a bottle of red wine - are really all that you need. Nothing fancy. Not even matching place settings.

And with that, it all became clear. My desire not only to accept more invitations, but to extend more invitations, became not only easier - but critical. Part of slowing down in my life meant intentionally carving out precious space for family and friends and then creating a comfortable and inviting space for it.

In his TED talk, "What Makes a Good Life?," Robert Waldinger digs into data gleaned from the longest study on happiness to date. Study participants - now in their nineties - continue to prove that what matters most is not career or money, it's strong and connective relationships, and the ability to maintain and nurture them.

And for those of us who fall into the that's great but I really, really don't have the time category, I found an incredibly interesting nugget of information in the recent New York Times' article, "You Don't Need More Free Time," which politely bashes the notion that you just need an extra hour in your day. Even if you were somehow granted your existing income without having to work for it throughout the week, you would still reach your optimum well-being during the weekend, it surmises. That's because everyone yearns to experience life with others, and in the "real world," most folks are trudging their way through the work week.

Balancing the quiet and calm of time spent solo with purposeful and powerful interactions among my favorite people is my current sweet spot. It's a goal that I've set for myself, and that I'm having a blast attempting to achieve.

Has a book or movie triggered you to re-evaluate your daily life?

moving out of the fast lane

Monday, September 4, 2017
On a walk at the cottage // Copyright: SlowDowntown.com
Growing up, our household was a slow-friendly sort. Where traditional "living rooms" in the typical American home often go untouched, ours was a well-used respite from the TV ... a big, long couch and cozy chairs all faced one another, and through my entire life, I congregated there for not only lazy morning conversations over coffee, but some of the most important discussions ever had with my parents.

That sort of leisurely dialogue - legs outstretched and magazines always within reach - seemed so normal to me. It wasn't until after college when a guy that I'd been dating seriously (notably, one who didn't last) complained after a few visits home about all that time spent talking without the comforting buzz of a TV nearby. Apparently, it made him uncomfortable. (Hello, red flag.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm probably clocking in far too closely to the average adult, logging significantly scary amounts of screen time per day. But, I'd like to think that reliance isn't part of the equation in my case.

That said, one of the most instrumental parts of my life growing up was Northern Michigan. In our family's small lake cottage, without cable or internet... but with fishing and baking and napping and Boggle, we had plenty of space and plenty of quiet. We spent quite a bit of time there and it was, without a doubt, my favorite place. It didn't teach me to slow down; it forced me to slow down.

It's been sold, for several, necessary reasons. And I miss it terribly.

But really, slowing down is only part of the process. The other piece, which I feel is pretty critical, is simplifying. And that is where I find myself now.

With a busy corporate job, a relatively new marriage, a bevy of demanding amazing friends, it's hard to reserve time for, well, nothing. But I'm craving quiet. A space for reflection. Time to melt butter, spill flour and fool around with new cookie recipes. And do you know what I've found? That only happens when I've carved out time for me, when I've said no to obligations or commitments that weren't soul-filling (but soul-sucking).

We live on a busy street, but just because we look out onto a constant whir of traffic does not mean that we're meant to match is pace. Here in the little oasis we've established, I'd like to declare home our hideaway.

I'm not entirely sure how, but I'm making it my mission to try to find out. And if you'd care to follow along and track our hopeful progress, I'd love to have you.

Have you felt the urge to pump the brakes? And if so, what first steps have you taken? 

I loved this little wooden bridge.
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