Using Google Docs to Save and Organize Owner’s Manuals

Over the past year and a half, we’ve accumulated a LOT of owner’s manuals.  We purchased new appliances for last year’s big kitchen renovation, and more recently, had to purchase some new tools when we were building our banquette.

Any time we buy a piece of equipment that comes with an owner’s manual or user’s manual, I usually take it an put it in a bin that I have designated for manuals.  I don’t spend much time, (err, really any time) organizing the physical copies any more than that. I don’t alphabetize them or sort them by type. (Although it is always tempting after seeing the cute ways that folks organize them like here and here, I just don’t think the time investment is worth it for us).   I just dump the manuals the bin and, if I need to use it in the future, I can usually find the one I’m looking for in just a few minutes.

But, I do take an extra step to organize the manuals electronically!

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Every few months I’ll open the bin and search for electronic copies of the manual online.  I do this simply by Googling the title of the manual, and a .PDF version of the manual will typically appear in one of the first few search results.  So for instance, for our miter saw, I just Googled “hitachi c10fch2 safety instructions and instruction manual,” which were words on the cover of the manual.  Then, I save the electronic copy to a Google Docs folder that Ken and I share called “Manuals.”

I just recently went through a huge stack of manuals and saved them to our Google Docs folder.

We still keep the hard copies in our bin, because a lot of times its easier to refer to the paper copy when you’re trying to figure something out, but this way we always have an electronic backup in case we lose our hard copy!  As an added benefit, this also serves as a good basis for a home inventory.  We know the names and model numbers of many big ticket items in our home in case we were to ever need them for insurance purposes.

How do you organize your owner’s manuals and other paperwork from your purchases?

Organizing Information using a Wiki

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It’s another snow day here in the DC area!  Grilled steaks were on the meal plan for tonight, but we’ll have to see if the grill is accessible in a few hours!  Typically I’m a huge fan of winter grilling.  Grilling in the summer always just seems too hot!  But grilling in the winter?  It’s like hovering around a warm campfire in cold weather.  So cozy!

Grilling in the Snow?

 

organizing-information-using-wikiOne of the downsides about having a lot of ongoing technology projects in our home is that, go figure, things can break! Error messages, equipment troubles, signals that randomly get interrupted. You name it, it happens. And sometimes it can take a while to figure out what is broken and how to fix it. But then, 18 months later, we experience the same problem again! Only to have forgotten the solution we figured out over a year earlier!

That’s when we came up with the idea of a house wiki. It’s like Wikipedia, but on a much smaller scale. And only for us! When Ken troubleshoots something on, for instance, our arcade, he’ll type up a brief description of the problem and the solution on the Arcade page on our house wiki. Or, he’ll enter the different coding lines for different aspects of our video distribution system.  We have all the instructions for registering a new domain using our domain registrar service and setting it up using our hosting service (which, of course, begs the question … why are we always registering so many domains that we need to memorialize instructions for it!?)

We’ve also expanded the use of our house wiki for other things. There’s a page that lists all our frequent flyer and hotel loyalty numbers. There’s a page with our health insurance information, packing lists, and even a page dedicated to all the details and itineraries for future and past vacations.

I’m a die-hard spreadsheet fa

n, and Ken and I continue to share different documents and spreadsheets with each other on Google Docs, but I must say that there are some HUGE benefits to keeping things organized on a house wiki instead of in a bunch of spreadsheets.

Does anyone else organize their personal lives using a wiki?

Thanksgiving Week Action Plan

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Thanksgiving is just a little over a week away!  Since this will be my first year hosting Thanksgiving, I want to make sure things go as smoothly as they can.  So I am doing what I have done for other major events like this in my life … creating an Action Plan!

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One week before Thanksgiving: Finalize grocery shopping list for Thanksgiving Day meals, and schedule the order with the local grocery delivery service called Peapod. I try to avoid the supermarket during crazy times of the year (like Thanksgiving or Christmas weeks!). I’ll probably just have to make one trip to Trader Joe’s that week, since they have much more reasonable prices on things like cheeses. I’ll schedule the order to be delivered on the Monday before Thanksgiving.

Sunday before Thanksgiving: Clean out fridge.  Monday is the last “garbage man day” beforeThanksgiving, so I want to make sure that we purge any old food items from the fridge to make sure we have enough space!

Monday:

  • Peapod grocery order that I placed the previous Thursday will be delivered.
  • Ensure that all recipes are printed, put into protective sleeves, and readily accessible for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday prep.
  • Prepare french baguette dough and biscuit doughs. Refrigerate dough.

Tuesday:

  • Pick up “Thanksgiving Survival Kit” from local produce store. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from our nearby produce store called Nall’s, that they are offering a “Thanksgiving Survival Kit,” which includes items like rolls, celery, carrots, cranberries, fresh herbs, and all sorts of other yummy things for $40 per kit. I jumped right on that offer!
  • Bake one serving of baguette dough prepared the day before, and and bake some cornbread. Allow to air dry for the next few days for stuffing. Will use the remaining baguette dough on Thanksgiving
  • Create prepared “recipe bags.” I’m still debating whether this one will be worth the time, but I’m considering creating pre-packaged “bags” of ingredients for each meal I will make on Thanksgiving Day. For instance, pre-chop the celery, onions, and herbs, and grab a stick of butter, etc., them put them into individual plastic baggies. Then I would place each individual plastic baggie into one larger baggie, and label it as “stuffing.” That way, when it’s time to make the stuffing, I can just grab the bag and toss. While the amount of time will probably be equal, it might make Thanksgiving Day prep and cleanup go a lot faster
  • Set up folding tables and chairs, set tables to the extent possible (tablecloths, vases for centerpieces, charger plates, etc.)

Wednesday:

  • Pick up turkey order from butcher.  We ordered our turkeys fresh from an amazing local butcher that we use all the time.
  • Purchase flowers from local produce store for simple centerpieces.  Similarly, if Trader Joe’s doesn’t look too ridiculously crowded, I may buy the flowers there, since they are located right by the butcher where I’ll be picking up the turkeys.
  • Begin turkey brining process.  Let turkeys sit in brine until Thanksgiving Day.
  • Commence Baking? Depending on how I’m feeling about food preparation progress, I may bake a few goodies, like some banana bread, chocolate cake, or and/or cookies. We’re ordering pies from a local pie shop, so we’re all set on dessert, but I’d like to add a few homemade goodies to the dessert table if possible. However, if things are feeling rushed or overwhelming on Wednesday, I’m going to skip the baking.  I’ve done these marathon baking sessions before around Christmas time, and they really only take about 2 hours, including cleanup.
  • Finish setting table
  • Set up “beverage area” to the extent possible, putting out glassware, beverage tub, etc.
  • Do a quick cleanup of house

Thursday (AKA Turkey Day!):

  • Put Turkey #1 in oven for roasting
  • Put apple cider in our coffee urn (which we purchased to have warm beverages at our wedding) for slow warmup. Make sure to add some cinnamon sticks in the urn, and place coffee mugs nearby.
  • Make stuffing, set aside (do not bake yet)
  • Make cranberry sauce, set aside
  • Ensure ingredients are set aside to make gravy when turkey eventually comes out of the oven
  • Ken departs home to pick up pies from local pie shop and buy a bag of ice from 7-11.
  • When guests give notification that they are on their way (approximately 1 hour drive):
    • Put baguette dough in oven to bake
    • Make mashed potatoes, put in oven to stay warm
    • Set out other appetizers (veggie tray, shrimp ring, cubed cheeses, crackers, baguette slices when ready)
    • Put soda two liter bottles, bottles of beer, and white wine in beverage tub filled with ice. (Ken’s family doesn’t really drink, so let’s be honest here, the beer and white wine will be for me)
  • At some point after guests arrive, begin deep frying Turkey #2 in electric turkey deep fryer.  Deep fried turkeys cook much faster, and since the cooking method seems to be quite the novelty, I’m assuming folks may want to watch the turkey as it begins to fry.
  • Put stuffing in oven as turkey begins to fry

 

So, there you have it!  As with every plan, I’m sure there will be some tweaking as things progress, but I think this covers pretty much everything!  I actually feel a lot better having this all down in writing.  Although that’s a lot of bullet points, many of them won’t even take more than a few minutes, so I think it’s definitely doable.

Organizing Cables, Parts, and Other Gear

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Ken and I have lots of ongoing projects in our house.  Which means we have a lot of STUFF. Small parts, large parts, short cables, long cables, spare computer parts, and normal tools and hardware.

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On our way to organizing, June 2010

Most folks know that organizing is an ongoing process.  That organizing isn’t something that you “do” and then are done with. We know this, so organizing our stuff is a continual, ongoing process that we refine as time goes on.

But I will say that there was one pivotal moment that helped us get our “stuff” organized.  Ken and I had been living together for over a year (about 3 months in his one-bedroom apartment, and after that in our town home), and I realized that I never knew where anything was in the house. Ken had his “system” for organizing stuff, and typically he knew where things were.  So if I needed an extension cord or a screwdriver, or whatever, I always had to ask Ken it was.  And it drove me NUTS.

He kept things in large blue bins and some Ikea baskets on Expedit shelving (pictured below), but there were always multiple categories of things in each bin or basket. And there were countless “miscellaneous” bins.  I felt completely helpless and reliant on him if I needed to find something.  He concurred that his system was not optimal, but described himself as too lazy to fix it. So I stepped in.

In June 2010, I just started dumping out all his bins and baskets and organizing things into piles. Unfortunately I don’t have any photographs of the process, but it took about a month, working on it mostly on the weekends.  I organized things that looked similar into piles. I also had a “WTF pile” containing things that I could not figure out.  And Ken would help me categorize and organize the WTF pile.

Here are some of the Ikea Expedit baskets in the laundry room when our system was less than optimal.  While it might not look terrible, inside each basket was a disorganized mess.  Plus, the Ikea Expedit shelving was not very efficient because we have surprisingly tall ceilings in our laundry room, so the low shelving wasted a lot of that vertical space.  We also had some cheap plastic shed type storage things that were also completely inefficient. The pegboard was a great solution that we added early on, and the small red drawers were also great, but the drawers lacked labels.

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Cheapo Plastic Storage “Sheds”

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Small parts storage drawers

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Pegboard

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And here are some photos of Ken’s blue bins that took over our guest bedroom, both on the bed and in the closet.

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All of those photos were taken in late 2009.

We decided that we would create a shelving system in our laundry room to store our items.  We also realized that the blue bins, even the smallest ones, were too large for most of our needs. We converted our storage to smaller bins from Target, and only used the larger Rubbermaid Roughneck blue bins for much larger items.

We took a trip to the Container Store, and bought an Elfa shelving system, which we were already familiar with because I had an Elfa system desk and closet in my home office.

This was how our shelving system looked when we first put it together in the summer of 2010 and added all of our newly organized bins to the mix:

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ONE MILLION TIMES BETTER than the old system, no?  (Forgive the crappy cell phone quality. I only have iPhone photos of the system from this iteration of our system).

That was in June 2010.  Over the years, we have tweaked our system and added even more shelving to our laundry room along the perpendicular wall.

We’ll talk more in future posts about what types of bins we use, what we keep in the bins, how we manage to stay on top of keeping everything organized, and how our organizational system has evolved.

Creating a Meal Plan and Grocery Shopping Plan

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Many of my friends and family always struggle with the age-old question:

“What should I cook for dinner tonight?”

This seems to be a never ending struggle in their lives.  I feel a little guilty to admit this, but, here goes …

It’s not a struggle for me.

I’m not sure why meal planning comes naturally to me. Perhaps it’s my need to compulsively plan things?

It’s not like I grew up in a meal-planning-disciplined family.  Quite the contrary.  It was certainly a struggle we had in my parents house when I was growing up.

Mom: What do you want for dinner tonight

Me (or dad): I don’t know, what do we have available to make?

Mom: Not much.

Mom goes to the grocery store the next day, yet we still never could figure out what to make for dinner in the subsequent days.  And most of the time, we’d end up going out or ordering out.

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Ever since I have been living on my own after college, and even now that I’m married, I have always planned out my meals, went shopping at the grocery store to buy the ingredients I needed for the meals, and ate my meals I planned out.  Sure, there are occasional disruptions, like going out with friends for dinner one night instead of making my meal.  Or perhaps I was at a work conference that offered a huge lunch and I was only hungry for a smaller, lighter dinner.

So to be honest, I really don’t understand why more people don’t do this.  I don’t understand how people eat or grocery shop without a meal plan.  But, since it seems to be a struggle for most folks I know, I thought I would offer up my tips.

 

 My Meal Planning Routine

My meal planning routine has evolved over the past eight years from my life as a single professional living on my own and surviving on an entry level salary in a very expensive area, to the current stage of my life as a married, full-time professional woman.  So I’ll offer my current meal planning workflow, and then in future posts, discuss some of my previous workflows, since they might still be valuable to other folks.

1.  On the first Friday of every month, I open up my “Monthly Meal Planning” spreadsheet in Google Docs.

2. I enter dinner recipes for each day through the first Friday of the next month (so basically four or five weeks worth of meals).  I exclude days that I know we won’t eat dinner at home, like if we have a family party to attend, or if we’ll be out of town.

I usually pull recipes from Paprika, the recipe manager program that I use to save all the recipes I find online or in magazines.  For the monthly meal plan, I try to mix in some of our favorites, along with at least one or two new recipes to try that month.  I’ll talk more about how I find and manage recipes in a future post.

Here’s a partial entry for October to give you an idea of what the spreadsheet looks like:

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3.  I review the recipes that I entered for the month to check for various things.  For instance, did I add Mexican food recipes two days in a row?  Or, since I have two recipes that call for a half of a container of Ricotta Cheese, maybe I should make those recipes one week apart instead of three weeks apart, that way I can use the same Ricotta cheese container.

4. After the meal plan looks pretty good, I review the ingredients required for each of those recipes for the first week (I only shop for groceries one week at a time).  It does not matter if I have made that recipe 50 times before, I always check the ingredients!  If I need to buy the ingredients from the supermarket, I add it to the grocery shopping app that I use, called Grocery IQ.  If I’m not sure if I need to buy the ingredient, I check out our pantry or fridge to see if we have it.  I repeat this ingredient review step each subsequent week that I go grocery shopping.

5. Armed with my shopping list, I check my coupon organizer to see what coupons, if any, I have for items on my shopping list.

6. I go to the grocery store on Wednesdays to shop for our weekly groceries!  In addition to what is on my shopping list, I also have a pre-populated list of food staples that we buy every week, or just about every week, like milk, bananas, lunch meat, etc.

7. I get home, Ken helps me unload and put away the groceries, and we’re all stocked to cook our meals for the next seven days!

Is this the system I’ve always used?  Nope, but it’s mostly been close variations of this.  (For instance, when I was single, I used to make fewer meals each week and then just eat leftovers for several days).  Is it perfect?  Nope.

 

Some Room for Improvement

I would like to get better at stockpiling items we like when they are on sale.  For instance, I only buy the cereals we like when we’re running low.  Same thing for things like butter and salad dressings and soda.  Because of this, I’m not always getting the best price. Believe me, when we’re down to two cans of soda and I have to pay $5.29 for a single twelve pack during my weekly grocery shopping trip, it pains me.  But at the same time, while it may cost us more money, this system saves me a lot of time because I don’t have to stalk the weekly ads.  I would like to get in the habit of doing that though in order to cut back on our grocery bill.

I would like to get better adding some light lunches and special weekend breakfasts to my monthly meal plan.  I feel like we struggle a lot with what to eat for weekend lunches, and since I work from home two days a week nowadays, I really need to work on planning my lunches better.

With regards to other lunches at work, many times I bring leftovers from the night before, especially if it’s a pasta or beef-based meal.  If it’s chicken, I don’t bother.  I hate microwaved chicken leftovers.  Other than that, I’ll usually buy lunch.  I’ve given up on feeling guilty about this.  A lot of times it’s just easier.

Most mornings I just eat cereal or get an egg sandwich made at the grill at my company’s cafeteria.

In general, I really like to cook.  But there are some occasional days when, despite having the ingredients on hand and knowing what meal to make, I just don’t feel like cooking.  If I got home late from work, or had some unexpected evening errands to run, I might not feel like cooking when I get home.  So, we usually try to have some basic frozen items on hand, like frozen pizzas, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, etc.  To avoid eating these more processed foods, I would like to experiment with some freezer cooking recipes, that way we can eat a home cooked meal that’s already been prepared.  But one issue with most freezer meals I’ve found is that they have to be left in the refrigerator overnight to thaw before they’re ready to be cooked.  Since the nights I don’t feel like cooking are generally last minute and unexpected, I don’t know if freezer meals would work for that purpose.

So, there you have it.  Seems simple enough, right?