Tiny: A Story About Living Small

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about paring down my possessions and buying items more intentionally with the hopes of living a simpler, fuller life. Since that time, Nick and I moved from our 2-bedroom apartment into a larger 3-bedroom home and had a baby, which meant acquiring a whole new breed of stuff. (Boppies, Bumbos, and bassinets, oh my!) Even so, we tried to be conscious of what we were bringing into our home, borrowed some larger baby items that could be returned to their rightful owners when we were done with them, and generally tried to continue being conscious consumers.

But still. When you move into a house with a basement — that wonderful, unfinished cavern of spaaaaaace for storing belongings out of sight — thing slowly start to pile up. A few baby outfits turns into bins of baby outfits, turns into disassembled baby gear that was used all of five times, turns into seven bins full of stuff that your mom brings over from her basement now that you have your own basement in which to keep the entirety of your childhood memories…

It adds up.

Over the last few months I’ve attempted to tackle a new room or space each weekend and unclutter a bit, and it’s felt good. Really good. Nick even noticed a change in my demeanor after the basement and mudroom, two of the spaces that were getting to me the most, were majorly cleaned up. I donated a bag of my clothes to Goodwill, sorted some of Graham’s clothes for consignment, got rid of a bunch of plastic things in the kitchen that we’ve slowly been replacing with glass and stainless steel anyway, and generally felt like I could breathe again after freeing up a little space in our home. It felt liberating, and again forced me to reflect on the fact that we actually have far more space than we truly need; it’s just that our space is not always being used to its full potential because of the things that we choose to put in it.

This past weekend, we watched a documentary on Netflix called Tiny: A Story About Living Small, which follows the story of a man who builds his own “tiny house” to live in — a 130 square foot house built on a trailer bed — and tells the story of several others who have decided to live in tiny houses. Apparently, there is a whole tiny house movement happening; these are not mobile homes or RVs or small vacation getaways, but genuinely tiny houses that are lived in year-round and have been planned out in such a way that every inch of space has a purpose. They are often built on trailer beds because that allows the owners to get around building codes (most towns have a square footage minimum that must be upheld for new construction), but for the most part they stay in one place.

Tiny: A Story About Living Small via Claremont Road blog a tiny house | source

We loved seeing how people used their spaces creatively, how they still managed to make them feel warm and uncluttered, and how genuinely happy the homeowners were to be living in such a small space. Some chose to live in a tiny house because of financial reasons while others made the decision based on environmental impact, but the overarching theme was one of a peacefulness and contentedness that the tiny house owners shared.

So… we’re building our own tiny house!

I’m kidding. We’re definitely not. It’s cool and all, but whoa. We couldn’t do it, especially with a toddler. Admirable, for sure, but a bit too extreme for me.

Watching the documentary has further inspired us, though, to strive less for a bigger space and more for better use of our existing space. It’s a conversation we’ve had a lot in the last several years: preventing ourselves from feeling like we “need” a certain amount of space because it’s what others have, and how thoughtful planning and being fully conscious of every item we bring into our home can make all the difference in feeling like we have enough space. It’s so easy to get caught up in feeling like our home should be a certain size based on how others around us are living; when our parents were kids, didn’t their parents buy a modest home when they got married and just pack in as many kids as they ended up having? Today, there seems to be some unwritten rule that you start out with a starter home, and move your way up to a forever home, and the amount of space you have is much more important than the way you fill that space.

Tiny: A Story About Living Small via Claremont Road blog the interior of the tiny house from the documentary | source

The most important factor to us in where we choose to live is our quality of life. Because of that, we currently rent a 3-bedroom rowhome in a town that we love. Now, don’t get me wrong: 3 bedrooms is plenty of room! I fully recognize that it is much, much more than so many people have. Still, to some, our home would probably be considered a starter home because of its square footage, the lack of a garage, the small yard, and the fact that we share walls with neighbors on either side… but the more we’ve thought about it and talked about it, the more we’ve realized that we could continue making it work for us for many years. We want to make it work for us because we love where we are geographically, and that happiness is much more important to us than any walk-in closet or 2-car garage could be.

We could certainly have a larger home in a town that we love less, and we could maybe even own that home, but what would be the point? If having the ability to walk to the market, the park, the post office, and my favorite gift shop all in one fell swoop makes us happier day in and day out, and that means renting a slightly smaller home, we think that is a pretty amazing trade-off.

We may not live in a truly tiny house, but I look forward to making it feel tiny in all the ways that really matter.

12-24 Month Favorites: Books

There are days when Graham’s toys go untouched because we’re spending lots of time outside or we’re busy going on adventures, but one thing we still do a good amount of every day is reading, no matter what else is going on. I love how much Graham loves his books, and that reading time together usually also means snuggle time (bonus for Mommy). He definitely goes through phases and will be obsessed with a certain book one week and won’t even notice that same book the following week, but for the most part the titles below are all in heavy rotation in our house.

favorite books: 12-24 months | Claremont Road

ILLUSTRATED FAVORITES 

1. Little Blue Truck
A wonderfully illustrated book with lots of fun animal sounds, this is currently the book that Graham demands we read to him when he wakes up in the morning and when he wakes up from his nap.

2. Otis
I love this sweet story of a tractor and calf who become best friends; the illustrations all have soft, muted colors with pops of red and yellow, which is a nice departure from the sometimes blinding colors of children’s books!

3. I Love You Because You’re You
This one makes me teary on the regular, as the illustrations of a fox mother and son go straight to my sappy heart. Graham loves pointing out all the details in this one, like the cookies, the ball, and the broken airplane toy.

4. Flip, Flap, Fly!
A sweet and pretty exploration of different types of animals, this is another adorable mom-and-baby story told through rhyme.

 

ERIC CARLE CLASSICS
These were some of the first books that Graham ever really paid attention to and showed an interest in. They’re simple, charming, and I love Eric Carle’s illustration style — not to mention the fact that they’re great for learning colors, numbers, animals, etc. From Head to Toe is the latest we’ve added to our collection and it’s SO FUN to see Graham act out all of the movements. Perfect for a two-year old!

6. The Very Hungry Caterpillar

7. The Very Quiet Cricket

8. The Very Busy Spider

9. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

10. From Head to Toe

favorite books: 12-24 months | Claremont Road

BABY LIT® FAVORITES
I could not love these books more — literary classics turned into primers for learning colors, numbers and the like — and we need to continue building our collection. They’re simple stories that leave lots of room for the imagination (such as the 5 marriage proposals page in Pride & Prejudice that we add hilarious commentary to for Graham), and the illustrations are undeniably adorable. You can even buy prints of the illustrations from illustrator Allison Oliver’s site.

11. Pride & Prejudice

12. Moby Dick

13. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 

BEDTIME STORIES
We (and as a result, Graham) are creatures of habit, so we typically rotate the same few books during his bedtime routine. It has created a nice, predictable routine… which I’m sure will change now that I’ve said that. The below books are mostly short and sweet, and are perfect for prepping the little guy for sleepy-time. Big Dog… Little Dog is a sentimental favorite, as Nick and I both loved it as kids. Funny enough, we’re missing the staple Good Night, Moon from this line-up — we will have to get a copy of that to add to our library, stat.

14. The Going-To-Bed Book

15. Time for Bed

16. Big Dog… Little Dog

17. Good Night, Gorilla

 

I’d love to know what you’re reading to your little ones… what should we add to Graham’s bookshelf this year?

All images via the links above; opinions are my own. Claremont Road is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Parenthood, So far: Thoughts on the First Two Years

The old cliché really is true: the days are long, but the years are short. Here we are, approaching Graham’s second birthday, even though it seems like just yesterday we were celebrating his first birthday and waiting with bated breath to see when he’d take his first steps. Now he’s a running, climbing, jumping, chatterbox, jokester toddler who surprises us with something new each day. Naturally, I’ve been doing a lot of sappy reflecting, grasping all that I’ve learned in this whirlwind new role. Here are just a few thoughts/pointers regarding the millions of things I’ve learned.

Parenthood, So Far: Thoughts on the First Two Years

Motherhood doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and that’s okay.
I loved my son with every ounce of my being the moment I laid eyes on him, but for a long while I had no clue what I was doing. The books I read and preparations I made taught me nothing about how to truly handle the emotions and changes-every-second craziness of parenting an infant, well through the entire first twelve months. (If I’m being honest, it didn’t really feel like it “clicked” until he was 16 months.) The first year of his life was truly about survival for me; I felt much more like a rattled student in some absurd, completely overwhelming Parenting Academy where you are tested on your capacity to catch spit-up mid-air without getting any on your clothes, and your ability to rush to the changing pad just before the blowout becomes a real problem. I attended a weekly mom’s group that my lactation consultant started for moms of newborns, and for so many months, I felt like I just observed what the other moms did and took their lead without truly feeling like I knew what I was doing; I was waiting for it all to feel like second nature, but it took a very long time for that to happen. I felt like an impostor amidst other moms who took to their new role like pros from the start. Looking back, I recognize that year one was just a complete whirlwind of emotions and newness, every single day, but year two has been when I truly felt like I became a mother. A wipe-my-spit-on-your-face-to-clean-it-off, know-you’re-about-to-scale-the-furniture-even-before-you-do-it, can-get-you-dressed-without-you-even-noticing-because-I-rock-at-distracting-you mother.

You begin to really appreciate all the tough decisions your parents made on your behalf, and realize how scary it is to make decisions for your own tiny human being.
I can now fully appreciate how bad-ass it was of my mom to pull me out of my first dance recital, at age three, because she didn’t want me being objectified while shaking my butt on stage in an Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini. Other parents probably thought it was a cute and harmless routine, but my mom, she of the female art school education during the Gloria Steinem era, knew that it was setting me up for a future of valuing my own self-worth based on my appearance, and she took a stand. It was a statement I didn’t understand at that young age, and I probably didn’t even realize it was happening, but that decision she made for me is something that stays with me still today. There are a lot of tough choices that go into parenting, and I hope Nick and I will do Graham proud when he someday looks back at the decisions we made for him.

Never plan anything important during naptime.
The day you plan that important conference call during naptime “because he always sleeps at least 2 hours” is the day your child will revolt against naptime, complete with ear piercing, heartbreaking screams and flailing arms smacking the crib. Kids have an uncanny ability to know exactly when you’re realllllly counting on them to behave a certain way, and that is the moment they will ensure that it all goes to hell. In other words: naptime is never, ever a given. Anything you are able to accomplish during that peaceful time is simply a bonus, but the moment something depends on it happening, it won’t.

You will buy crap you said you’d never buy, including experiences that your kid will not remember.
I never understood why parents pay for things like DisneyWorld or, on a much smaller scale, Day Out With Thomas, for small kids who will have no recollection of that experience as they grow up. Now I totally get it (and I have the Day Out With Thomas tickets to prove it). Yes, it’s all part of the larger mastermind created by Very Intelligent Business People who exploit the emotional pull that parents feel to make their kids happy. But damn if seeing that huge grin that appears the first time your kid lays eyes on Mickey/Thomas/whoever live and in person (er, in engine?) doesn’t make it all worth it. Embrace the crap and the experiences, and just enjoy those grins and gazes of wonder.

One day your kid WILL stop hating the car seat.
I promise — it really will happen. One day, magically, out of nowhere, your child will actually giggle and be pleasant for an entire car ride, and it will drastically improve your life.

Date nights happen very rarely.
…And when they do happen, they usually entail talking about your child (who is asleep at home while you are paying someone to watch your tv), and getting home no later than 10pm. Your human alarm clock will wake you up when the sun rises the next day, anyway, so staying out late is much less tempting than it used to be. Soak up those date nights when you can, or create mini date nights at home when you can’t fathom paying a sitter.

You’ll get a lot more sleep in the second year… but may be just as (if not more) tired.
The energy level of toddlers is NO JOKE. Graham typically sleeps 11 straight hours at night and another 2-3 hours at naptime, and it’s no wonder — when he’s awake, he never. stops. moving. Ever. No, really: ever. While we put him to bed at 7pm, have a few hours to ourselves to do work, catch up on housework, or maybe watch tv before we go to sleep ourselves, we’re still completely pooped at the end of the day after running with/after him for hours on end. It’s a different kind of exhaustion from the sleepless newborn days, and it does feel more gratifying because you’re getting a lot more laughter, kisses, and snuggles in return, but it is still pure exhaustion.

Parents’ intuition is real.
When Graham was 9 days old, he was not acting like himself. I felt like something wasn’t right, so we took his temperature, found that it was just a little high, and called the pediatrician on call (it was a Sunday, of course). I remember telling the doctor over the phone that I felt like he was disoriented and out of sorts; he was looking through me instead of at me, like he usually did. Looking back, I kind of marvel at the fact that I could read so much from a tiny human I’d only known for 9 days, but my gut knew that something wasn’t right. We took him to the ER and it turned out he was indeed a sick little guy. He ended up being admitted for three days until his fever dropped and they could determine whether it was a viral (good) or bacterial (bad) infection. That is standard protocol for any baby that young, but it was still such a scary experience for us not knowing what was wrong with him. I’m so glad we trusted our instincts, and it was a good lesson to learn early on to always listen to your gut.

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a parent?

Lemony Lemonies: My New Obsession

If you follow me on Pinterest, specifically my baking board (aptly named “things I should not bake but ultimately will“), then it’s no surprise to you that I have a weakness for desserts of the lemony variety. It started innocently enough in high school with the occasional Tastykake lemon pie from the cafeteria vending machine; over time, the obsession grew, and now it is my life’s mission to find the most delectable lemon desserts on the planet.

I recently stumbled upon my favorite one yet: Bakerella’s Lemony Lemonies. They are the density and consistency of a brownie, but made of all lemon-goodness. Aside from zesting a few lemons (which my friendly assistant husband took care of for me), it’s low on the labor scale and high on the quick-and-easy scale. They were also really simple to cut after being chilled, which was a bonus — there’s nothing more annoying than baking a pretty and delicious treat that looks all wonky once you cut it. I made these for a get-together last Saturday, and they were the perfect summer treat after lunch. (Personally, I think they’re best chilled, but you be the judge!) I may or may not have been polishing them off all week… just ask my waistline.

Bakerella's Lemony Lemonies | Claremont Road

Head on over to Bakerella to see the full recipe — and get baking immediately, would ya? You’ll thank me later.

Listy McListerson

I love making lists. Scratch that: I NEED to make lists. Sometimes I don’t know where to begin with a task if I don’t have a list telling me what to do.

I still love a good ol’ paper list, but I also have three different list-making apps that are invaluable when I’m on the go. Paper lists often get lost but my iPhone is essentially always nearby, so it’s easy to jot things down in a few seconds when I remember something we need at the store or a work task that needs to be completed.

Below are my top three can’t-live-without-them apps that I think any list lover will find useful.

Top Three Apps for List Lovers

TeuxDeux
I use TeuxDeux as my daily to-do list for work. There is a mobile app as well as a desktop interface that perfectly serves my needs, and bonus: it’s sleek and beautifully designed (by the fabulous SwissMiss). It’s always open in a tab in my browser while I work, reminding me of today’s tasks that need to be completed, and I can also see the next 5 days at a glance. It’s simple to add tasks, move them around, and strike through them when I’m done (the best part for any list-making addict, amiright?) There is a place to add “someday” tasks or lists, but otherwise it is pretty fuss-free and simple. The mobile app is great for adding things that I think of when I’m away from my computer, but I definitely use this app the most when I’m sitting at my desk. There is now a $24 fee per year, which is rather steep, but after already having been sucked into it while it was free for several years and not finding a better replacement, I decided to pay for it in order to keep being able to use it.

KeyRing
Nick and I use KeyRing to keep records of all our rewards or club cards on our iPhones (so we don’t have to carry them around in our wallets or on our key rings), and we also use it to keep track of three shopping lists: grocery, Target, and Trader Joe’s. We add items as we find that we need them and the lists are synced, so whoever gets time to go to the store first can pick up what we need. I love that you can also connect a photo to an item on the list — if Nick is going to Target and doesn’t know what kind of moisturizer I need, I just take a picture of the item I’m running out of at home so he has it to refer to on the list.

Wunderlist
We used to use Wunderlist for our shopping lists before we discovered that we could use KeyRing for that purpose (which makes the most sense at places like Giant where we need to scan our club card — the app is already open if we are also using it as our shopping list). However, I still use Wunderlist for personal lists, like packing lists for weekends away, thank you cards that need to be sent, party planning prep, etc. It has a nice looking interface, which of course makes me enjoy using it!

What list making apps do you use?

Treat yo self

Shortly after Graham’s first birthday, I started feeling really down, and I realized that was due in large part to the fact that I hadn’t done much to take care of myself in a while. The first year of his life was all about survival; since we made it through that first year and, dare I say it, things had gotten a bit easier, it became clear that I needed to get back to taking care of me.

Now, money certainly doesn’t buy happiness, but it sure can buy a few pick-me-ups to make a girl feel good. Here are a few things that have done wonders for my soul and self-esteem lately.

Treat Yo Self: Claremont Road blog

Urban Decay Naked 2 Palette
I actually bought this a while ago, but it is the self-gift that keeps on giving. I’ve never been much of a makeup girl, because I’ve never really been great at knowing what makeup looks right on me. I heard enough people rave about this thing that I decided to give it a whirl, and it’s a really great palette that makes it fun (and pretty fool-proof) to do my eye makeup. I definitely don’t wear eye shadow every day, but I wear it more often now that I have this.

Blakeley boots
Early last winter began my search for the perfect riding boot. The pair I had were about five years old and not looking so great, and the leather was stretched out enough that I didn’t thing it was worth having them resoled if they still wouldn’t be a great fit. I sure love Frye boots, but couldn’t stomach the price tag, so I looked around for a pair that would be less than $200 with the same timeless look. I ordered several pairs from Zappos, but unfortunately none of them quite hit the spot — most were too loose around my calves. Then my mom told me that the Blakeley boots I had pinned on Pinterest were on sale at Lands’ End, I ordered them in Cognac, and the stars had finally aligned — they were perfect! I pretty much wore them every day over the winter, and they put a little pep in my step each time I put them on. I’ll surely be wearing these for several more winters to come.

Wacoal bras
Being professionally fitted for a bra is one of the greatest things a new mom can do for her self esteem. I go to a local shop called Gie Gie every few years to get measured, and most recently went a few weeks ago (and left feeling like a new woman). It turns out I have a brand that fits me perfectly, Wacoal, so now there’s no more guessing when I’m in need of new bras. If you’ve never been professionally fitted (i.e., at a place where they know what they’re doing, NOT Victoria’s Secret), go. Do it. Now!

Stitch Fix
Since the baby weight is mostly gone but my old clothes are looking a bit sad and drab, I’ve been in need of some new wardrobe staples and a few statement pieces to spruce things up and feel like a stylish member of society again. A friend referred me to Stitch Fix, and after receiving my first Fix last week, I’m officially hooked. The things I love most about it are that you don’t need to subscribe — you can schedule a Fix whenever you want, and only pay the styling fee once you’ve scheduled one — and that I’m being introduced to pieces that suit my taste and figure but may not be things that I’d pick out in a store if I saw them on the rack. You can keep as many or as few pieces as you want, and send back the rejects in the prepaid envelope included with your Fix. As long as you keep at least one of the five pieces that are sent to you, your styling fee is applied to your final purchase, so you can’t lose. I kept three of the five pieces that I received so far, and I’ve tweaked my style profile to better reflect my sizes so my next Fix is even better.

What have you done lately, in the words of Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle, to treat yo self?

The Big ONE: Graham’s First Birthday

Last September we celebrated a very special day: Graham’s first birthday!

first birthday party | Claremont Road

We always knew we’d have a party of some sort, but the details didn’t come together until the months leading up to it. We settled on a family party at our home, and decided we will save inviting Graham’s friends for when he’s a bit older.

I initially thought a nautical theme would be fun… and then within about a day of adding nautical details to a Pinterest board, I started to feel myself getting stressed and overwhelmed by possibilities. That was all I needed to throw the theme straight out the window, and instead a fun color palette of blues, aquas, and greens became our focus. Best decision I’ve ever made! It saved us grief, money, and made it a whole lot easier to not go overboard with any details. (And, as you can tell by the colors of this blog design, I was certainly in my element.) I picked up inexpensive decorations and plates whenever I came across them, mostly at Target and our neighborhood 5 and 10, ordered a dozen colored balloons in mixed hues and a big silver number one balloon at Party City, and made a banner with paper I already had in my stash.

first birthday party decor | Claremont Road

I designed the invitations and had them printed by one of my regular print vendors that we use at Curious & Co. I absolutely adore how they turned out!

first birthday party invite | Claremont Road

I was (and still am) so, so proud of how the cake turned out. I love to bake, but I’m mostly a cookie girl and I had never baked a layered cake and decorated it myself before. I went back and forth about making a cake from scratch, but my wise sister-in-law told me there is nothing wrong with a boxed mix, and I decided she was very right.

first birthday party ombré cake | Claremont Road

Standing in the cake mix aisle at Target, I Googled the top rated cake mixes, and Good Housekeeping told me Betty Crocker SuperMoist Golden Vanilla was a good choice. That was enough to convince me: I bought two boxes to make my layered cake. I also purchased food coloring gel to make 3 of my 4 layers different shades of aqua/teal for an ombré effect. The batter was so bright and fun! I should have taken pictures. But no matter, because they still looked amazing once they were baked, too. I baked the layers the week before the party and froze them until the day before — this actually seemed to make the layers even more moist, and also meant I wasn’t baking the day before the party. Win-win.

first birthday party | Claremont Road

When it came time to decorate, I used canned buttercream icing in between layers, and then watched this video tutorial to learn how to create an ombré effect with the icing on the sides (using more food coloring to achieve the colors I wanted). I loved that imperfections just added to the charm, and I am still so in love with the final result! I didn’t have any fancy tools or a lazy Susan to spin the cake like in the video — I just used my cake stand and a spreading knife to go around and around until I was happy. I added edible pearl details around the top edge and blue crystal sugar to the center as the final touch. I ordered 6″ tall white candles on Amazon to top things off.

first birthday party | Claremont Road first birthday party | Claremont Road first birthday party | Claremont Road

The cake was delicious and every last bite was gone in a flash!

We tried to keep the food as simple as possible in terms of preparation, but still made sure we had plenty to feed to our guests. We ordered a few large hoagies and sandwiches and cut them into smaller pieces; I put Nick in charge of getting lots of fruit, veggies, and cheeses to put some trays together (much less expensive than buying pre-made trays), my best friend brought a yummy spinach dip, and I made cupcakes in addition to the cake, in case some guests preferred chocolate cake. I topped the sandwiches and cupcakes off with little flags that I made from washi tape and toothpicks, after I saw how cute it looked when Amy from The Nifty Foodie did it.

first birthday party | Claremont Road first birthday party washi tape flags | Claremont Road first birthday party cupcakes and washi tape flags | Claremont Road

I ordered a bunch of square Instagram photos of Graham from PostalPix and hung them on twine with mini clothespins around the house; my best friend helped me string banners of multi-colored, varied length streamers that we hung in doorways and outside to greet our guests. I printed the outline of large letters (in one of my favorite fonts) on a few different shades of paper that I had in my stash, and cut them out with my X-acto blade to make a banner that we hung on my grandmother’s large mirror in our dining room. Truth be told: the banner stayed up until it was time to put up Christmas decorations! I was sad to take it down and will probably break it out for as many of Graham’s birthdays as possible.

first birthday party | Claremont Road first birthday party DIY banner | Claremont Road first birthday party | Claremont Road

Because it was just too easy and I couldn’t resist, I made water bottle labels, too.

first birthday party DIY water bottle labels | Claremont Road

I definitely had fun with some of the details (I am still me, after all), but I didn’t let myself get stressed out, which was key. We had a great day with our little guy and our families, and it was so bittersweet to celebrate the end of our first year as a family of three (and the fact that Nick and I survived the first year of parenthood — hooray!).

We are positively crazy about this kid.

first birthday party | Claremont Road first birthday party | Claremont Road first birthday party | Claremont Road

Graham’s favorite toys: 6-12 months

As Graham is swiftly approaching 18 months old, it’s high time I share some of his favorite toys from the past year! First up: his favorites from 6-12 months. It was such a fun time seeing him become more interested in his toys and learning/growing along the way. In my pre-baby world, I would have said we don’t need toys that make sounds or play music, and we’d love to have all wooden toys. Well, when it comes to making your kid happy, sometimes those ideas go out the window!

baby's favorite toys: 6-12 months | Claremont Road

1. Fisher-Price Brilliant Basics Stack & Roll Cups
This was a gift from a good friend of ours and it was a HUGE hit — the cups stack together, they connect to form different sized balls, and they make a fun sound if you tap them together. They also come with a little yellow rattle ball that Graham was obsessed with. He could play with it alone, or put it inside one of the balls to shake around. At 17+ months, he still likes to play with this toy every so often. It’s also a fantastic gift at a reasonable price if ever you’re in need of something for a little one over 6 months — I bought it for a few other kids we know and heard the same rave reviews from their parents, as well.

2. Baby Einstein Take Along Tunes
This toy saved me on many a car ride — and still does when we’re nearing a meltdown. The music is classical so it doesn’t bother me, there are two volume levels, and it was one of the first toys that Graham would really grip onto and not let go of. Once he figured out how to push the big button to turn the music on himself, he was even more in love. The beads are a nice help for teething little ones, and this is easy to throw into my purse or diaper bag if we’re on the go. Best feature: it has an “off” switch. It’s amazing how many kids toys that make noise can’t be turned off.

3. P’kolino Fishing Hole Size Sorter
I loved watching Graham’s little brain work as he tried to figure out how to get the fish in the holes with this toy. It was a great way to see his hand–eye coordination improving over time as it became easier and easier for him to figure out, and he still pulls this toy out to play with on a daily basis.

4. Playground Ball
Any old rubber ball will do, and Graham loves rolling his little dodgeball around through the house. So far, all of our lamps are still in one piece.

5. Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Fun with Friends Musical Table
My best friend lent this to us and we only just returned it to her last month. It was one of the first toys that Graham really interacted with for long periods of time, and also one of the first things he pulled himself up on to stand. Sure, the music and sounds got a bit annoying. But as the parent of a pretty clingy little guy, I was thrilled when this toy would buy me a solid 10 minutes to do something around the house, so I didn’t care that much about the noise! He played with it daily until he was 15 or 16 months.

6. Melissa & Doug Deluxe Chomp & Clack Alligator Push Toy
To be fair, Graham got this on his first birthday, but he took to it immediately and began walking on his own after just a few weeks; I think had he gotten this push toy a month earlier, it would have helped him to walk even sooner. I sort of loved hearing the cute click-clack sound rolling through the house, and seeing him so very pleased with himself when he made it to his destination.

7. Battat Electronic Keychain
He loved to carry his little keychain around, chew on the keys, and make noise with all the different buttons. This was another lifesaver on the occasional fussy car ride, and an easy toy to throw in the diaper bag.

8. Remote Controls (not pictured)
Don’t even try to trick your kid with a “play” remote control. Babies are smart and they want the REAL thing. Even when we took batteries out of old or unused remotes and gave them to him to play with, he still wanted the real thing (particularly the Verizon remote that lit up). When in doubt, household items for the win!

All images via the links above; opinions are my own. Claremont Road is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Canceling Cable

2013 was an expensive year for us, with hospital bills, unexpected costs of raising a child (newsflash: they’re expensive!), and just generally boring adult stuff that added up. Over the last few years we have cut back significantly on holiday spending, we rarely eat out anymore, I haven’t bought many new clothes for myself at all in the past year, and neither of us has a habit like smoking or Starbucks that adds up over time — but we were were still feeling stretched.

I have always justified the cost of cable by saying that it was our main source of entertainment, given that we rarely go to restaurants anymore and I can’t even remember the last time Nick and I saw a movie together. It was how we treated ourselves! We deserved something, right?

…Then I got a Verizon bill in December that was our first since our initial two year promotion ended, and I thought that maybe justifications like that were why we were feeling so stretched financially. I decided to really look at how much money we’d be spending on cable over the course of a year — and it wasn’t just cable, but also DVR and a landline that were part of our bundle — and see if we could cut back.

Here’s where it gets sticky and the cable companies suck you in: at first I asked about only canceling our landline that we really never use, but doing so would actually not change our bill at all AND it would take away our “free multi-room DVR for life” promotion. (The “free” part of that is of course not REALLY free, because we were still paying each month to rent the DVR boxes, but I digress.) So we’d be paying the same amount with less to show for it.

Grumble grumble grumble.

I thought about it for a few days and called again to discuss a few other scenarios — what if we drop the landline and change our cable to a package with less channels? What if we drop the landline and (gasp) get rid of the DVR that I love and adore? What if we only have one DVR because in reality we hardly ever use the one in the bedroom? The person on the other end of the line patiently ran through several scenarios with me, but the end result was always pretty much the same: we would cut out quite a bit but barely make a dent in our bill. (And that’s how they convince us all to get all of those things in the first place.)

It was then that we decided to take a drastic measure and do something I never thought we could do: we canceled cable altogether.

Yup, me: TV lover and pop culture aficionado, without cable. Take a moment to let that sink in.

But you know what? It’s been a full month now, and it turns out that it’s not so bad. I still have plenty to watch, and I’m wasting less time watching junk just for the sake of watching television, so there is even a huge bonus to our new set-up.

We still get all network stations in HD, plus PBS and a few random stations, with the bare-bones “local” package from Verizon that goes along with our FIOS internet (it costs the same as if we only had internet, so kind of a no-brainer). We already had AppleTV, my Christmas present to Nick a few years ago, which we use to watch Netflix and listen to music through our television; there are also AppleTV apps for ABC, PBS, and some others. As I mentioned, we have Netflix streaming, which is $7.99 a month, and, to be able to watch current shows more quickly after they air since we rarely have a chance to watch them when they’re live, we decided to also subscribe to Hulu Plus, also $7.99 a month. This is essentially a replacement for DVR since almost everything we used to record is available on Hulu Plus.

For shows that are not available on Hulu or Netflix, chances are they are available online. One of my guiltiest pleasures is Pretty Little Liars (yes, I am, in fact, a fourteen-year old girl), and it is available on ABCFamily.com or the ABC Family app the day after it airs.

Wondering how that all adds up? Here’s the math…

Money saved by cutting cable, DVR and landline: $73 per month (including taxes)
Cost of Netflix and HuluPlus: $15.98 per month

TOTAL SAVINGS PER MONTH: $57.02
TOTAL SAVINGS PER YEAR: $684.24

We’re still enjoying the same shows we always did, so I’d say that’s a big WIN all around. I honestly hardly notice the difference, and I waste much less time watching episodes of Friends on TBS that I’ve already seen 15 times. As much as I love Friends, my time is too valuable to watch the same episode for the 16th time, amiright?

Have you taken the plunge and canceled cable? Or have you taken any other drastic measures to save money?

Christmas cookies

Huh? Christmas cookies? It’s late-January, crazy woman.

I know, I know. I meant to post about these before Christmas, but as usual with my life these days, I fell behind. Still, though, I wanted to share my Christmas cookie successes for readers to bookmark for next year, if you feel so inclined!

I made four types of cookies this year to gift to neighbors, our landlord, some family members, and Graham’s teachers. I tried to find unique recipes that would look colorful and each have a distinctly different taste. My baking recipe Pinterest board is slightly out of control, so I started another private board to hone in on just the recipes that I was considering for the holidays. After some intense internal deliberation, the winners were:

Ultimate Chocolate Chip cookies (with pretzels added)
My old standby that never fails me. My newest trick is to crush up some hard mini pretzels and add them in, too, in order to bump up the crunchy-and-salty factor. (I don’t add the rest of the salt that the recipe calls for… just a pinch, since the pretzels are plenty salty).

Red Velvet Sugar Cookies
These were delicious and so rich — the cream cheese frosting is really what took them to a whole new level. I ended up needing to use all of the red gel food coloring I had to get the color right, so make sure you have plenty if you’re making these!

Eggnog Cookies
If you like eggnog, you will love these! I actually made a mistake the first time I made them — the recipe calls for three cups of flours, but my mom-brain couldn’t remember if I had already added two or three cups. The dough still seemed a little runny, so I went ahead and added another cup. The dough then ended up being much easier to work with, and the final result was a batch of deliciously cake-y cookies. Wouldn’t you know that when I made them a second time and correctly added three cups of flour, the dough was a bit runny and I found it hard to work with. So, accidentally adding a fourth cup of flour ended up making them better, in my opinion! The frosting (more like a glaze) was amazing and the perfect addition. Just a note that if you make these yourself, be sure to have plenty of flour on-hand to sprinkle on the finished dough before working with it — it is very sticky.

Peppermint Sugar Cookies
I’m not a big mint fan, but since I was baking these cookies for others I thought I’d give this recipe a whirl. Nick was my taste-tester and he gave them two thumbs up. Mine looked much flatter than the photos from the original recipe, but overall were easy and fun to make and still added some fun color to my cookie tins.

The photo above is what my final cookies looked like. Not as picture perfect as the images in the original recipe posts, but not too shabby, either — it goes to show that recipes found on Pinterest can actually work out for the average human who enjoys baking but is far from being a master baker!

For full recipes, check out the links above for each type of cookie. What great cookie recipes have you discovered lately?