December 2021 Book Reviews: Part Two

The first book reviews of 2022 are here! Earlier in December, I shared reviews for the first half of the month since many of them were holiday themed. You can read all about the books I read and their reviews here. Today I’m covering the three books I read in the second half of the month: two holiday reads and one memoir. Let’s dive in!

Christmas in Paris by Anita Hughes

Christmas in Paris: A Novel by [Anita Hughes]

After calling off her wedding a week earlier, Isabel decides to go on her Parisian honeymoon by herself. While enjoying the view from her hotel balcony, she accidentally locks herself out of her room and luckily is rescued by Alec, the Frenchman staying in the room next door. Alec is also nursing a broken heart after a failed engagement and the two start to spend time together. When they run into a fortune teller in a street market in Paris, her prediction makes Isabel causes Isabel to become singularly focused on finding a way to make that prediction, and her happily ever after, come true.

I do not like to be super negative with reviews, but wow oh wow I did not enjoy this book. This was very nearly a Did Not Finish for me. There was way too much time spent on Alec and Isabel’s flashbacks to their previous relationships and not nearly enough time spent on present-day relationship development to make it feel believable. The plot was unrealistic and jumped all over the place and the characters seemed superficial and shallow. I found myself getting especially annoyed with Isabel – she seemed fickle and immature both in her previous relationships and in her present day self. There’s a lot of luxury and Parisian references, but it didn’t feel particularly Christmas-y and there were too many aspects of the plot that just felt trivial and bizarre to me. I unfortunately cannot recommend this one at all.

Duke, Actually by Jenny Holiday

Duke, Actually: A Novel by [Jenny Holiday]

Dani Martinez is post-men. After her soon-to-be-ex-husband left her for a woman twenty years his junior, she has decided to shift her focus away from men and dating and onto getting tenure at her job as a professor while preparing to be the best woman in her best friend Leo’s wedding. Max, or rather, Maximillian von Hansburg, Baron of Laudon and heir to the Duke of Aquilla, is also going to be in the wedding, which some may consider surprising since he was formerly engaged to the bride-to-be. While there was no love lost in that failed engagement, Max has no interest in fulfilling his family’s wishes and marrying their next choice in bride. Still, he goes to New York to pretend to care about his parent’s wishes and there he meets up with Dani. The two strike up a platonic friendship that continues to grow over time. As the wedding approaches and they become more and more important to one another, it seems like the friendship may in fact have grown into something more.

Once I started reading, I realized that the author had previously written a book about the love story of Leo and Marie, the couple getting married in this one. Dani and Max were both in that book, and it seems like they even met briefly there, so at first it did feel like I missed a step. It wasn’t really a big deal, and once the story got going it didn’t matter, but there were a few references to the past book and how they initially met that threw me off a tiny bit. Despite that, I enjoyed this book. It is set around Christmas time and does have Christmas-y references, but Christmas is not a central part of the book. Instead, it’s all about Max and Dani and how they develop a close friendship that turns into something more. I am a sucker for a best-friends-to-lovers storyline – Justin and I were really close friends before we ever started dating, so these storylines have a special place in my heart. I loved Dani, I loved Max, I loved how they supported one another, I loved the character development, I loved the side characters, I loved picturing the setting in Aquilla. I found it to be an enjoyable holiday(ish) rom com! It does fall in the rated-R category for some steamy scenes. I thought Max and Dani were convincing and charismatic and I was rooting for them the whole time. I enjoyed it!

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In this memoir, Michelle explores her childhood memories of growing up in Oregon as one of the few Korean children in the community, traveling to Seoul in the summers to visit her mothers family, and her relationship with her now-deceased mother over the years. Through vast descriptions of Korean food and culture, she weaves stories of her life, family, grief, hope, personal dreams, and identity.

This book was chosen by my book club and I had high hopes for it. It’s on tons of bestseller lists, I’ve seen rave reviews online, I’ve heard podcast interviews with the author – it was all set up in my mind to be an astonishing memoir to read. And in reality, it was . . . fine. Many members of my book club agreed: there’s nothing wrong with it, but we couldn’t quite understand why it was so hyped up? While the author has found success in an Indie rock band, none of us had ever heard of her before so we were starting from ground zero. There are a lot of Korean food references, and as someone who is not a big fan of Korean food, I wasn’t interested in that much of it. It feels kind of strange critiquing a memoir like this because it was clearly very personal for the author, who vulnerably writes about so much of her life and family. I did enjoy reading about the mother-daughter dynamic and their family in general, and the way the author writes about her grief is both touching and relatable. I didn’t not like this book, but I think it was too overhyped in my mind and definitely didn’t live up to the high standards. It’s a solid mid-range memoir for sure, and if you are a fan of the author’s music or particularly interested in Korean food and culture, it’s worth checking out. But if those things don’t interest you, the book may be overhyped for you as well.

What have you been reading lately?

Project Pause: How I spend my time in between home projects

Since finishing up the laundry room renovation about a month ago, I’ve been in a home project lull . . . and I’m kind of loving it. There have been stretches this past year where I basically just jumped from one project right into the next, and while that often felt energizing and exciting, it also got to be exhausting and overwhelming at times.

I really and truly making our home feel special. It’s something I’ve been doing for years and years in the various places I have lived- loooong before I ever dreamed of sharing about it online. But I have noticed something since I started really sharing my projects on this blog and social media a couple years ago- the pressure to constantly create and produce content is real. I see other accounts constantly pumping out renovations and projects and it can start to feel like I need to be doing that too. The truth is though, for me that is not at all realistic or sustainable. I have time constraints and budget constraints, not to mention – I have a life to live! I want to be a present mom and prioritize my marriage and spend time with friends and family and travel and spend time on other activities outside of home projects.

All the algorithms may want consistent posting and more more more, but I feel happier, healthier, and more satisfied with my overall life when I have a balance of projects and time in between. I really value taking some space in between projects. I regularly pause from sharing things on social media. I need that bit of margin to keep from burning myself out! Since I’m currently in the middle of one, today I thought I’d share some of what I do and how I spend my time when I’m in the lull between home projects.

Read a book (or three or four)

It’s no secret around here that I love to read, and while I am sometimes able to read while in the midst of a project, I often just don’t have the time to juggle both. My “free” time comes in three major chunks: when the kids are in preschool two mornings a week, after they’ve gone to bed, and on the weekends when Justin is home or we have grandparent help. When I’m in the middle of a project, I might be able to squeeze in a chapter or two here and there, but there just isn’t much time leftover for reading. When there’s no project going on, it feels like such a treat to just cozy up with a book and get swept up in the story.

Dream up possibilities

When a project is going on, I try my best to keep my mind focused on the tasks at hand. There are decisions to make and work to be done and it keeps my brain fully occupied. When I’m in between projects, my mind has some room to just breathe and dream. For me, the dreaming stage is just as important as the focused “doing” stage! With the exception of the $0 bathroom update I did last year with virtually no prior thought or planning, I need to live in a space and devote time to really thinking about it before jumping in to a renovation. Without a project taking my focus, I can allow my mind to meander and just have time to dream about possibilities. I walk through spaces and sit in rooms and let myself dream big, even if I know it’s likely not feasible to actually implement a certain idea. I try not to rush decisions or force my brain to think about a certain space; some of my favorite ideas have come unexpectedly with a room or project that wasn’t even on my radar until my brain wandered there one day. I know I’m getting ready to work on a space when my thoughts about it are consistently the same – it’s like my dreams have been honed in on a specific vision and I’m ready to proceed!

Plan a future project

From the Pinterest board for one of my future projects…

Planning is different than dreaming. With dreaming, no ideas are off limits and I just allow my mind to think of possibilities and ideas. Once my dreams have gathered into a clearer vision, I start using some brain power for planning. This doesn’t even mean I’m ready to jump into a project, but I might be ready to start gathering actual inspiration to hone my vision even further. I’ll start a Pinterest board or a saved folder on Instagram. It often starts with just one element that I love; for example, with our bedroom renovation, I knew I wanted a navy upholstered bed so my planning began around that. I’ll save anything that inspires me! If it’s an item way out of my price range I still save it because if I really love the look, I can usually find (or even make!) a dupe for less. I enjoy starting the planning stage way before I’m actually ready to start a renovation because having no time constraint takes the pressure off and allows me to cultivate ideas and items. I enjoy when a space feels carefully curated with unique items that feel like me and my family rather than just buying everything at once.

Budget

This is kind of like the Part Two of the planning stage. It takes time to save up for projects, but both Justin and I really value paying for them as we go and not accumulating debt just because we want to update something. While I’m planning for a future project, I’m also saving money, thinking about an appropriate budget, and coming up with ways to maximize whatever amount we have.

Clean/Purge/Maintain

It might not be glamorous, but time off from projects gives me the space to really maintain the home. I spend time deep cleaning rooms, purging closets, and tidying drawers and cabinets. I take things we no longer want or use to my local thrift store, textile recycler, or ReStore. I do things like swap out seasonal clothes for my kids or sort and store the items that no longer fit them. I go around with a magic eraser and clean marker spots and dog hair off the walls (gross, I know, but that’s the reality of our house!) I re-caulk around the bathroom sinks. I give my plants some TLC, which can be anything from transplanting into bigger planters, dividing them into two, propagating new ones, trimming off dead leaves, etc. I touch up paint and freshen up bedding. Basically, when I don’t have a project going on, I have the bandwidth to deal with a lot of the little things that go into keeping our home feeling cozy, comfortable, and (mostly) clean.

REST

Admittedly, I have a hard time slowing down and truly resting. Whenever I have a break, like if Justin takes the kids to swimming lessons or my parents take the kids for the weekend, I feel like I need to maximize the time and take advantage by being productive. But I’m coming to really appreciate how rest IS productive. Taking time to shut my brain off and just exist is a treat. I enjoy taking an evening to just do a puzzle with Justin or spend a lazy Saturday morning lounging in bed with a good book. I like snuggling on the couch with my kids and watching a movie or just talking about whatever they want. I revel in strolling the aisles of a thrift store looking for nothing in particular, ready to snatch up an unexpected gem. There is something so refreshing and rejuvenating about just slowing down and spending my days more intentionally – it’s something I’m continuing to make an effort to prioritize!

When we first moved in, Justin and I both knew that this house would become a labor of love. We saw so much potential in making it our dream home, but we also knew that it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s been important (and fun!) for me to enjoy the full process, both the projects themselves and the time in between. Taking time to pause is essential for me to have space to dream, plan, budget, enjoy other hobbies, maintain our home, and just rest. I’m enjoying this little break and it will likely last through December. That being said, I’m definitely also dreaming and planning for 2022 and I’m getting very excited for the projects I want to tackle next. Next year is going to be a great one, but first I’m going to finish this one strong with relaxation and quality family time.

Tutorial: Creating the Look of Wallpaper with a Stencil!

The laundry room “wallpaper” is finished and I’m in love!

For this small but mighty room, I wanted the look of wallpaper but without the price tag. I was especially inspired by these wallpapers:

Source: Spoonflower

I found this stencil at Hobby Lobby and knew it would give just the look I was looking for! I decided to do the entire room instead of just an accent wall and I love the impact that it made. Today I’m sharing the process I used to create this look (for less than the cost of one roll of wallpaper!)

Materials

-stencil (I bought three of this one)

foam paint roller

-paint tray

painter’s tape

repositionable spray adhesive

small foam brush

-small level

-scissors

-paint

-drop cloth to cover furniture from adhesive overspray

latex paint remover + soft cloth

An important note: I have tried using painter’s tape to keep the stencil in place and for me, the inside of the stencil still shifted too much and created messy lines. I now use repositionable spray adhesive, but the caveat is there is a lot of overspray! If you use the spray adhesive, you will want drop cloths on everything before you start, particularly furniture. Luckily my flooring was vinyl and the spray residue could be easily cleaned up, but if your floor is really nice wood or carpet, you will want to cover your floors as well.

Starting in the top left corner of a wall, I sprayed approximately 3-4 small bursts of the spray adhesive directly on the wall and pressed down my stencil in place (since it was the basis the entire pattern, I did use a small level to make sure the first stencil was perfectly level). To line up all subsequent stencils, the edges of the stencil had little leaves that were meant to match with the next pattern.

In other words, when I lined up the next stencil, a few of the cut outs would line up with leaves that were already painted. All I had to do was make sure those were aligned and I knew my stencil was in place.

I poured a small amount of paint (I used Sherwin Williams Alabaster in Eggshell finish) into a paint tray and rolled a six inch foam paint roller in it. I then rolled it over the ridges in the paint tray several times to make sure it was evenly coated without excess paint.

I rolled the roller lightly over the stencil several times until the wall color disappeared and the insides of all the cut outs were white. It’s better to have less paint and roll over the stencil several times than to have excess paint and roll once – it helps keep lines nice and crisp!

Once the stencil was completely painted, I peeled it off the wall from top to bottom and started the process again for the next stencil. I did not wait for the paint to dry before laying the next one – the paint didn’t smudge because I just pressed straight down and didn’t slide the stencil around.

I worked my way across the wall in columns, working from top to bottom and moving from left to right across the wall.

I had three identical stencils and my process was to use the same stencil 10 or so times in a row, then clean it and while that one was drying, use a fresh one for the next 10 or so stencils. The key is: you must clean your stencils as the paint builds up! I learned this the hard way, but without cleaning them, paint slowly builds up more and more, making the cut outs slightly smaller each time until it gets to a point where paint can’t even get through anymore. I cleaned mine after 10-12 uses but you’ll have to judge based on how much paint buildup you’re noticing on your stencil.

I used latex paint remover spray and sprayed it all over the coated stencil. I just sprayed it directly on my floor since it was vinyl, but you might want to do this on another surface or put down a protective layer over your flooring.

After letting the spray soak in a bit, I very carefully dabbed up the paint with a cloth. Because it was latex paint, I could also gently use my fingernails to clean out the paint built up in the cut outs. I tried to be as gentle as possible – aggressive rubbing will bend or even potentially break the more fragile cut outs. It was a little tedious to get clean, but a necessary step to prolong the life of the stencils and keep the pattern size consistent throughout the room.

Once the stencil was clean, I just let it dry completely and then could use it again!

When it came to corners and edges, I followed the same process as much as I could. For an outward corner, the process was fairly straightforward. I just lined up the stencil on the wall, left the overhang alone, and carefully rolled over the wall portion.

I’ll admit, the corners didn’t always get lined up absolutely perfectly but overall I’m really happy with how they turned out! The pattern is busy enough that mistakes just blend right in.

For working around inside corners, trim, ceilings, and baseboards, I used the roller to get as close to the trim work and edges as possible, but there was always a small gap left behind.

Once I had worked my wall entirely around the room and all the full stencils were complete, I started cutting up the stencils to finish the edges. I attached it to the wall with the spray adhesive like before, but instead of the roller I used a small round foam brush to dab paint lightly all the way to the edge.

I had to be strategic about cutting the stencil up, making sure the places that needed the biggest section of stencil went first, then I went in order from biggest amount of stencil needed to smallest. I did not worry about taping the trim, because once the walls were finished I was going to paint over the trim anyways.

I did use painters tape in the inner corners – I placed tape in the very corner on the wall perpendicular to the one I would be painting so that I could get paint all the way to the very corner without painting the other wall. I unfortunately forgot to take pictures of that step but just imagine in the picture above, if the trim was actually another wall making a corner. By taping it off, I would have had a nice crisp corner instead of the smudged paint that you see on the trim.

I did have to use a tiny paint brush to do a bit of freehand work to connect the pattern in some corners, particularly the final corner pictured below where there wasn’t enough wall left for a full stencil to make the pattern complete. Luckily it’s such a busy pattern that I don’t think you can tell at all!

Overall I am SO happy with how this wallpaper turned out. The lighting in the space isn’t great for photographing, but here’s a few pictures in both natural and artificial light to give you an idea of how it looks now:

There is still SO much to do in the room, but just having the walls completely done makes it feel so much better! Still to come: painting all the doors, swapping out knobs, replacing the light fixtures, and building shelves above the washer and dryer. Slowly but surely this room is coming together!

I’m working on this room as part of the Fall 2021 One Room Challenge. To see all the other participants, click here.

ORC-Guest-400x218.png

Inspiration for a Guest Room Update

When Justin and I started our bedroom renovation, the #1 thing on our lists was to upgrade our mattress to a king. My plan had then been to move our old queen mattress down to the guest room (which had just been a full size). It felt like such an easy solution to upgrade our guests as well! Except, if you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that “one simple change” is rarely ever just one thing . . . and this time was no different. Enter: project spiral.

20200227_151337
The guest bedroom “before” with a full size mattress

The full size mattress had been sitting on an old metal frame that we thought would easily extend to fit a queen. Long story short, it did extend, but we did not have faith in the integrity of the metal bars going across at that length, so we decided to just get a new bedframe. Except all the bedframes we liked were platform beds, which would not work with our old queen mattress + box spring combo. Before we knew it, the project had spiraled to getting a brand new bedframe and memory foam queen size mattress. But wait there’s more! We realized the increased width of the mattress made everything feel too tight with the nightstands, so we needed to swap those with the smaller ones from our bedroom upstairs. And! All the queen size sheets we used in our room don’t match the bedding we have in the guest room. Oy vey.

Current Guest Room with new bed and swapped nightstands

What started out as “one simple change” has now spiraled into a much larger project. It’s kind of crazy but at the same time, I’m thinking “why not go all in?” When I wrote a “one year later” post about the guest suite renovation, I mentioned that I was itching to add some interest to the white walls with a wallpaper or something. This project has already expanded beyond our expectations, so let’s just tackle that now too, right?

Unfortunately, since this is entirely a result of a project spiral, there’s no budget for wallpaper. I just can’t justify spending several hundred dollars on wallpaper and installation (we do a lot of DIYs around here but after the playroom accent wall, installing wallpaper isn’t one of them haha). So I’m going a much more cost-effective route: stencils!

I’ve never stenciled a wall before, let alone a whole room, but I’m feeling pretty optimistic so far and I’ve been gathering lots and lots of inspiration!

This is one of the earliest images I saved when I started dreaming about adding something to the walls and it remains one of my favorite choices. I love the organic, soft flow of the olive branches and I love the varying shades of green throughout. I want to imitate the subtle differences in leaves, but I also want to infuse a little more color in my palette.

Credit: Home Depot

I love this color palette – give me all the muted shades of green and pink! – but the actual pattern itself is larger and busier than what I’m looking for. I also don’t like how all the flowers line up precisely and prefer a little bit of a looser pattern.

This one is similar to the one above and isn’t as precisely lined up. I actually really love this one and wish I could consider it for the guest room, but at $92/roll, it’s just not a realistic option for the entire guest room. I’m definitely keeping it in mind for Vi’s room down the road though!

Coffman 33' L x 20.5" W Wallpaper Roll
Credit: Wayfair

Okay, I am not a bird person, but there are still a lot of things here that speak to me. I like the white background. I like the varying colors of green in the leaves and I really love the subtle pops of color (particularly pink and yellow!) in the flowers. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration from this one!

Here are a few other photos of wallpapered rooms that I’m drawn to. While none of them show exactly what I have in my mind for the guest bedroom, they are all giving me inspiration for the feel I want to create in the space.

I purchased a few of these stencils from Hobby Lobby and I’m going to test out different color palettes (I’m thinking shades of green with small touches of muted yellows and rosy pinks). Once I finish up Vi’s birthday gift, my focus is going to shift on getting this project done and then updating the bedding to coordinate. We have guests coming on September 10 so that is my timeline for finishing – just over three weeks away!

ORC Week Four: Cozy Layers on Our New Bed

It’s week four of the One Room Challenge and it’s hard to believe, but we’ve reached the halfway point. I feel like this past week was a productive one, but there is still SO much to do in the next four weeks!

ORC-Guest-400x218.png

This past week, my focus was on our bed. We’ve had our adjustable base for a couple weeks now, but both our bed frame and mattress finally got delivered so we could put everything together!

We’ve known we wanted to update our bed for a long time now, so I’ve been looking at beds and headboards for months. I really wanted an upholstered headboard in a dark moody color and I didn’t want it to have lots of detail. We also didn’t want a low profile bed or a short headboard – it doesn’t seem like this is a huge list but it was really hard to find something that fit my criteria! Finally I came across this one and it was love at first sight. The streamlined look was just perfect and while I originally thought I wanted green, I’m so happy with the navy color! It says online that it doesn’t work with an adjustable bed, but we just didn’t put the slats in the middle and our adjustable bed fit perfectly!

I love the look of crisp white bedding, but I knew that wouldn’t be a practical solution for us. Honestly, I don’t know how people keep white sheets and blankets so clean! Maybe Justin and I just have oily faces or something, but pillowcases always tend to discolor a bit over time? Plus, we have kids and dogs in and out of our room all day – white sheets just aren’t something we’re going to do. Since the headboard is a neutral backdrop, I wanted to have some fun with colors and patterns. It took playing around a big and trying some different arrangements, but I finally found a combination I really like!

I love the mix of graphic prints on the accent pillows mixed with the floral print on the sheets. It provides just the right amount of interest and contrast without seeming too busy for me.

We also did a little nightstand swap – our nightstands went down to the guest room and the guest room nightstands came up here. We’re definitely enjoying the increased drawer space and I think the larger nightstands (these are about 2 inches wider and 1.5 inches taller) feel like a better scale with the king bed.

This progress feels good and we’re loving the new bed, but we still have several things to tackle. My to-do list still includes: paint (a paint chip deck I’ve been waiting on has finally shipped and should be here soon!), baseboards, sconces, rug, curtains, and finding a new dresser and vanity table. I forsee some thrifting in my very near future . . .

Be sure to check out the other ORC participants here!

Bedroom Sources

Upholstered Bed

Nightstands

Cream Pillows

Green Pillows

Lumbar Pillow

Quilt

Floral Sheets + Throw, both from Target (no link available)

Transforming our Kitchen for under $600!

I love a good budget-friendly DIY and today I’m so excited to share our kitchen refresh – a low cost transformation using paint, repurposed materials, and a few simple swaps!

At the beginning of 2021, one of my goals was to paint the main floor of our house. Every wall was brown and the whole space felt dark and dingy, so I decided to lighten everything up by painting the walls (Sherwin Williams Alabaster) and trim (Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray). The more rooms that got painted, the more the kitchen just felt out of place.

Justin swapped out the old recessed light bulbs for these LED options a couple months ago and that change alone went a long way in updating the look of the space, but I knew I wanted to do a bit more. We have dreams of completely renovating the kitchen (the current layout does not work well for our family) but that won’t happen for several years. In the meantime, I decided to do a low-cost, big-impact facelift that would help the space fit in better with the rest of the house.

The previous owners had made a few updates shortly before selling and one of the updates was new quartz countertops. While the style isn’t my first choice, the countertops are high quality and I didn’t want to alter them. The black quartz has a lot of veins in shades of brown, taupe, and gold so I wanted to work with that even though I was moving the kitchen away from all the brown.

I chose Sherwin Williams Link Gray for the cabinets (you can find the full painting tutorial here). The color is very hard to accurately capture on camera – it’s a warm, versatile color that changes from green to gray to blue depending on the light. You’ll notice that there is even some variation between pictures in this post because the look of the cabinet changes depending on where I stand to take a picture!

The previous owners also updated the backsplash, but unfortunately, it was a big miss for us. It only went up about halfway to the cabinets, there were noticeable gaps between the backsplash and outlets, and visible seams in between the sheets of backsplash tile. In our opinion, it did nothing to help elevate the look of the kitchen and we wanted to take it down.

Using two putty knives and a hammer, I was able to peel the old backsplash off the wall. The drywall was a mess behind it, as it appears they had torn down a previous backsplash and then just put the new one up over the torn drywall paper. This was a fine solution on the interior wall, but for the exterior walls, especially around the sink, we wanted to create a better seal. I used primer over the torn drywall, then a layer of joint compound, then another layer of primer (after lightly sanding the joint compound) to create a smooth surface.

When we demoed our home office, we removed beadboard from all around the room and we saved every piece so we could repurpose it for backsplash. Justin cut away the parts with previous outlet holes and cut every piece down to fill the entire space from countertop to upper cabinet.

We used scrap wood with a rounded edge from previous projects to trim out the ends under the cabinets and top around the bay window. I used paintable caulk to fill in all of the seams between pieces and edges and then painted everything, including the window trim, Sherwin Williams Agreeable Gray. The windows themselves got two coats of Sherwin Williams Tricorn Black. I also ran a bead of clear caulk along the bottom edge of the beadboard to keep everything sealed off from water. To complete the look, we swapped out the old almond colored outlets and switches for white ones and I painted wooden switch plates to match the beadboard.

I also swapped out our hodgepodge of counter stools for these steel and wood ones from Target. It took me a long time to find stools that had a back (Justin’s requirement), worked with our color scheme, and didn’t cost more than $100 per stool. I’m so happy I found these – they’re comfortable, inexpensive, and look great!

I mostly shopped my own house for pieces of decor to finish out the space but I did purchase a new kitchen rug from Target and a small, locally-made maple cutting board from a small business. These little details helped make this space feel complete!

We still plan to swap out the fluorescent light fixture but other than that, this kitchen refresh is finished! It has made such a huge difference in the way our house feels and even though we’re still planning a bigger renovation someday, this has made me love our current kitchen a lot more in the meantime.

Budget Breakdown

Liquid Nails – $4.57

Joint Compound – $6.64

New outlets (two GFCI), switches, and wooden plates – $21.96 (I saved almost $40 on these items using Menard’s Rebates!)

Cabinet Paint – $41.71

Counter Stools – $365.90

LED Recessed Lights – $74.83

Kitchen Rug – $20

Maple Cutting Board – $35

Total Cost: $570.61

I already had the primer and paint for the ceiling, trim, windows, and walls since I’m using the same paint throughout the main floor, so this wasn’t an additional expense. We also had all the caulk, painters tape, brushes, tools, etc. from previous projects. So while it might be hard to recreate this exact project for the same amount of money, I do think it shows that you don’t need to spend a ton in order to see a big difference!

A Quick Makeover for Justin’s Office

Yesterday I spent about three hours doing a flash room makeover to a room in desperate need of some help: Justin’s work office!

Justin works in the healthcare field and moved into a new office building in January 2021. Since moving in, he had done virtually nothing in terms of decorating his office space and asked me to help. Here’s what the room looked like prior to my, shall we say, intervention:

Not exactly an inspiring space, huh?

When thinking about what to do in the room, there were some obvious challenges. The room is painted the same color as all the other rooms on the floor and it’s obviously not our building so we couldn’t make any permanent updates. There’s no window, so I couldn’t use natural light or bring in real plants, and the light in there is fluorescent, which isn’t flattering to work with. While we couldn’t make any changes to the room itself, I was excited to think of ways to bring in interest, character, and functionality despite those limitations. My goal was to make this room more comfortable and reflective of Justin while still remaining functional and professional.

A bookshelf felt like an obvious choice to create some interest and offer a practical storage solution. I chose to create one large unit out of three Ikea Vittsjo shelves – I loved that these metal shelves brought in black accents but the slim frames and open back and sides kept them from overwhelming the space. In lieu of the glass inserts the Vittsjo came with, Justin and I made long shelves out of plywood (tutorial coming soon!) for a more substantial look. I love that the wood tones also help the shelving unit tie in to his desk.

I used a variety of wood tones, storage baskets with natural fibers, and faux plants to bring in warmth, texture, and life to the space and incorporated black and metal accents to keep a masculine vibe. A mirror placed on top of the shelves helps reflect the light and mimic the effects of a window.

While I wanted these shelves to look good, they also needed to be workhorses for storage. Justin has a lot of books, magazines, and papers he needs to be able to reference easily, plus several things he likes to have quick access to (coffee, mints, etc). I kept all but the largest of his books arranged vertically so he can easily pull what he needs from the shelf and corralled all his magazines in a black wire storage basket so they’re easy to flip through and find the one he’s looking for. His loose papers are now stored in simple file folders and stay neat and orderly tucked in a black file organizer.

His coffeemaker sits ready to go next to some other drink options and a medium sized basket above hides all his Keurig cups.

Another basket now discreetly stores his stash of mints so he can grab one easily as he walks in or out of his office.

I wanted to be very intentional about sprinkling little tidbits of Justin’s personality throughout the bookcase. A beer stein from a trip he took to Europe, a hat box that belonged to his maternal grandfather, and a little wooden engraving of The Lord’s Prayer given to him by his paternal grandparents – these sentimental items reflect his history and heritage.

A worn piece of scrap wood on the top shelf provides rustic sculptural interest while giving a nod to his passion for woodworking and salvaging old wood. I also purchased the digital downloads of two minimalist line drawings from BFF Print Shop, one with a father and son and one with a father and daughter, and displayed them in thrift store frames that I spray painted black. I love that they’re an artistic tribute to Justin’s role as father but the clean lines and black and white color palate keep them from feeling too busy among the other items. All these personal touches take the room from being a standard workspace to something that is distinctly Justin’s.

The grid-like pattern of the shelves combined with all the books, papers, and frames created a lot of sharp angles so things like the clock, rounded bookends, a circular basket, and the organic feel of all the leaves throughout helped soften the overall look.

On the wall to the other wide of his desk, I also included a gallery wall of black and white family photos. Justin faces this wall when seated at his desk and he wanted to be able to see us throughout his day (melt my heart!) I chose a mixed finish look with gold, silver, and light wood frames and kept all the pictures black and white for a more coordinated look.

I added a lamp and small faux plant to his desk as well to create a cozier feel for his desk and give him an option if he needs a break from the fluorescent light.

Given the limitations we had in this office space, it was never going to feel quite as homey as, well, our home; however, Justin spends so much time here that it was important to have a space that feels comfortable and inspiring. It turns out, the office didn’t require a complete overhaul to achieve that! I think this is true for any similar space. Maybe you work in an office (or are transitioning back to it soon) or you’re renting your current home or apartment and can’t make big changes or maybe you just don’t have the budget for a big change in your home – a functional piece of furniture, items with varying degrees of warmth and texture, and glimpses of personality throughout can be enough to totally transform a space!

Sources (note: anything not listed is either thrifted, old, or no longer sold)

Bookshelf: Ikea Vittsjo (tutorial coming soon!)

Faux plants: here, here, here, and here

Father and Son Line Drawing (digital download)

Father and Daughter Line Drawing (digital download)

Black Wire Basket

Black Clock

Keurig K-Mini

Round basket

Rectangular basket

Gallery Wall Frames: here, here, here, and here

December 2020 Book Reviews

Happy New Year!

I’m starting off 2021 with one of my favorite things: book reviews! I read seven books in December and I regret to say, several of them were lackluster. This time of year, I want to cozy up by my Christmas tree and read something that gives me all the holiday feels, but unfortunately some books were just duds. Luckily, I ended the month with some really great reads that redeemed my reading stack and gave me the holiday spirit I craved just in time for Christmas.

And just in case you missed it, earlier this week I rounded up my TOP TEN books of the entire year. My favorite reads of 2020 plus a few honorable mentions – you can find them all in this blog post.

Jingle All the Way by Debbie Macomber

Jingle All the Way: A Novel by [Debbie Macomber]

Listen. I’ve read this author before and knew what I was getting into. I knew to expect it to be cheesy, squeaky clean, and predictable but I just wanted a quick and easy read full of Christmas spirit. The cover has a snowy farm scene with presents and a sleigh so I assumed this would put me in a festive mood. Unfortunately, this didn’t do it at all. The first half of the plot takes place in Brazil, which doesn’t exactly give me the holiday vibes, and then the Christmas-y second half wasn’t enough to redeem the story. Without the benefit of warm fuzzy holiday feels, the story just felt overly simplified, cheesy and honestly a little silly. I found myself skimming and rolling my eyes in many places. I don’t really even want to keep talking about it. If you’re a Debbie Macomber fan, I’m sure it’s fine, but I just didn’t get the holiday coziness from reading it like I had hoped and can’t recommend it.

25 Days ‘Til Christmas by Poppy Alexander

25 Days 'Til Christmas: A Novel by [Poppy Alexander]

It’s been four years since her husband died, and single mom Kate is ready to bring some of the magic back into Christmas for her son Jack. Coming up with new activities for each day leading up until Christmas, one thing she doesn’t plan on is connecting with a handsome stranger who is also struggling to feel joy this holiday. Can Kate and Daniel find their own holiday magic with each other?

This had all the makings of a PG-rated, Hallmark-y, perfectly fun holiday read to kick off December but unfortunately, it was a big miss for me. First of all, the pace moved super slow (fine for some books but didn’t work for this one). Also, there were SO many plotlines, some of which felt completely unnecessary to the story. I think the point of many of them was to demonstrate the intense financial pressure that Kate was under, but it was overkill. We get it, Kate is struggling to provide for herself and her son. No need to pile on more and more side stories that reiterate it. To top it all off, the romance part of this completely flopped for me. So much time was spent on the smaller plotlines and the same issue of Kate’s struggles that we didn’t get to actually see much of her and Daniel’s developing dynamic, resulting in their whole relationship feeling disconnected and overreaching. Had the plot been streamlined to 3-4 storylines and more time been spent on their budding romance, I think it could have worked. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and this was a big fat “meh” for me.

The Tourist Attraction by Sarah Morgenthaler

The Tourist Attraction (Moose Springs, Alaska Book 1) by [Sarah Morgenthaler]

Graham begrudgingly runs a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that has become a runaway success in his hometown of Moose Springs, Alaska. The only problem is, most of his clientele are tourists staying at the town’s upscale resort and he hates tourists. Or at least, he hates them until Zoey appears in his restaurant on the first day of her long-awaited dream vacation. Ready for adventure and enthusiastic about experiencing as much as possible, Zoey makes Graham realize that maybe not all tourists are awful.

Honestly, as my follow-up to 25 Days ‘Til Christmas, this book started out feeling refreshing and fun. It’s not Christmas-y but the Alaskan small-town setting is adorable, the characters are likeable, the plot was interesting. Unfortunately, I can pinpoint the exact moment things changed for me 1/3 of the way through the book. A particular line stood out and I realized that the writing was starting to feel juvenile. The feelings, thoughts, and motivations of characters were getting overexplained and the conflicts got sillier and over the top. And this was page 130 – the point in a rom-com where things should be picking up and getting better. Which brings me to another point: rom-coms should be 200 pages, 250 at max. This book was four hundred pages! That is just too long for a rom com, and this book would’ve definitely benefitted from a pare down. All that being said, there were enjoyable parts of this book and since it’s part of a series (I have a soft spot for rom com series featuring overlapping characters in charming small towns!) I decided to give the next book a shot. It falls mid-range for me – not the best, not the worst, a decent C+. Which brings me to the sequel . . .

Mistletoe and Mr. Right by Sarah Morgenthaler

Zoey’s best friend, the rich socialite Lana Montgomery, has risked a lot to get her company to invest in building luxury condos in Moose Springs. Even though she grew up vacationing there, loves Moose Springs, and thinks this plan will ultimately benefit them, the locals are not at all happy with the project. In fact, the attractive pool hall owner Rick seems to be the only local on her side. With Rick by her side, maybe Lana can get everything her heart desires – for the town and herself.

I actually enjoyed this book a lot more than the first. I thought the writing was better, the characters were more developed, the romance was more convincing and it certainly didn’t hurt that this book took place at Christmas so I was all about the festive vibe. It helped that this book was the second one in the series so the author could just expound on what she had started in book one and not explain so much. I also just liked Lana and Rick’s dynamic a lot more and found this book to be a more entertaining read than the first. Again, this book clocks in just shy of 400 pages which is way too long, and it did have one semi-absurd plotline but luckily it didn’t dominate the book like I feared it would. Overall, this series isn’t going to be a top recommendation for me, but it’s a decent choice. I believe there’s a third book coming and while I’m not dying to read it, I’ll likely give it a chance if I come across it when it’s published. I think it’s also worth noting that these book fall in the leaning PG-13 area (pretty tame romantic moments; things are implied but there’s nothing descriptive or graphic at all). That can be hard to find in a rom com these days so if that’s a preference of yours, these might be good ones to check out.

Match Making for Beginners by Maddie Dawson

Matchmaking for Beginners: A Novel by [Maddie Dawson]

Blix is old and misunderstood by her high class Southern family, but with her great-nephew’s fiancΓ© Marnie, there is an instant connection and understanding. Blix is a matchmaker and she sees herself and her skills reflected in Marnie – so much so that when Blix dies she leaves her beloved Brownstone, complete with her unfinished tenant “projects” to Marnie. Marnie decides to comply with the unusual stipulations of the inheritance, soon finding herself using her own matchmaking skills to pick up where Blix left off.

I needed a bit of a Christmas break mid-month so I picked this one that has been on my TBR list for a long time. It was really interesting because you kind of know from pretty early on who the main character is supposed to be with, so it becomes less of a story of her love life and more a story of everyone else’s. There are plenty of loveable, eccentric characters and a very unique plot line. I loved the setting in Brooklyn and the family vibe of Blix’s community (it made me want to move in to the brownstone!), and I loved the ways that Marnie used her matchmaking gifts. It’s kind of predictable in that you know what Blix’s matchmaking plans were, but also not predictable because the way that things unfold is unexpected. I liked the pace of writing and the fact that there were multiple storylines but it never felt like too many. I didn’t enjoy the path that Marnie’s own plot line took a few times, but it wasn’t enough to turn me off to her character altogether. I found myself rooting for all the tenants and their happiness and thought this was a charming, quirky, and enjoyable read.

One More for Christmas by Sarah Morgan

One More for Christmas: A Novel by [Sarah Morgan]

Gayle has a successful career and is an inspiration to countless women, but her relationship with the two women who matter the most – her daughters – has been estranged for years. After an injury leads her to question the decisions she’s made in the past, she reaches out to her daughters to try to mend the relationship. Samantha and Ella are skeptical but agree to spend a destination Christmas together to see if they can reconcile with one another.

Now THIS one was a winner for me. First of all, the setting was just awesome – a snowy Christmas at a lodge in Scotland!? Yes please! I’ll be on the next plane. I also loved the amount of characters: enough for a good variety but not too many that it felt overdone. Then the characters themselves had great depth – they were flawed, yet likeable. I also loved that the plot’s solid foundation was about Gayle, Ella, and Samantha’s relationship with one another but other side stories were mixed in to help you understand each one a little better and give a fuller picture. I loved the exploration of how our past experiences shape our actions, for better or for worse. I loved watching the relationship between the three women; it felt authentic – not too fluffy or sappy, but real emotions, struggles, hopes, and strides toward reconciliation. I adored the supporting characters and felt like they had just enough time – not too much to distract, but woven in well to create a nice rounded narrative. It also does a really great job of striking the right chord with including romance without that being too much of the focus or too little of a side story. It was just a really enjoyable and festive read that is a perfect choice for reading by a roaring fire or the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree! Highly recommend!

A Wedding in December by Sarah Morgan

Rosie calls her family in England one evening to tell them her great news: her boyfriend of three months has proposed and they are getting married in Colorado at Christmas, only four weeks away! She urges her parents and sister to come join her but doesn’t bargain for what she’s getting when they arrive: parents trying to hide the news of their impending divorce and a sister bent on stopping this wedding from happening.

Thanks to loving One More for Christmas after so many festive duds, I quickly checked out another Sarah Morgan book to squeeze it in before Christmas. I’m so glad I did because this was another winner! The basic formula for this book was the same as before – alternating point of view chapters with each of the three women. I enjoy this kind of storytelling and liked all of the characters. Once again, I loved the setting and found myself wanting to visit this picturesque ski lodge in Colorado at Christmas. I liked the characters and their relationships and I liked the fact that romance was included but the main focus was on family dynamics. I found myself rooting for each character and kept wanting to read more about each one. It’s a good pace of writing and a good length of novel. I kind of wish that I hadn’t read these so close together because they do feel a little similar, even though the plot lines were different, and I think I would have enjoyed more space in between the two reads. I also think if I had to choose between the two, I’d give One More for Christmas the edge as my top pick this month. Even so, this is another book I’d highly recommend as an excellent choice paired with a cozy blanket, a cup of hot chocolate, and a twinkly Christmas tree.

I had a few more festive reads on my list, but I got a little burnt out by Christmas and I’m ready for a change of pace, so I’ll save those for next year. Here’s to another great year full of great books!

A Roundup of All Our 2020 Projects!

If you follow with me on Instagram, you may have seen that Justin and I are currently in the middle of our last project of 2020: building a play kitchen for our kids’ Christmas present! With only three days left until Christmas we’re definitely in crunch time; you can follow along @simplifythechaos to see if we pull it off in time. Fingers crossed!

2020 has been a year full of projects both big and small and I thought it’d be fun to spend some time today re-capping everything we did this year, One positive to all this time spent at home means we were able to tackle a few projects that we weren’t expecting to accomplish and it’s fun to look back and see all the changes our house went through!

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It’s hard to count how many total things we did, because many rooms included multiple projects, but overall we addressed 11 different spaces in our house and also a DIY present for my baby niece. Let’s take a trip down memory lane!

Guest Bedroom + Bathroom

The very first project we completed was a huge renovation to our guest suite (little did we know just how few guests we would end up having in 2020!) We completely gutted the guest bathroom . . .

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. . . and the guest bedroom got upgraded with a new window, fresh paint, updated trim, and a more functional linen cabinet!

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Dresser Makeover

I love quick, inexpensive, and high impact projects so I loved this $50 dresser makeover I completed for my new baby niece’s bedroom!

Basement Refresh

Our basement has a very large living space and while I have more planned for the future, it was nice to spend some time on a few quick updates like removing old trim, painting, and adding some accent pieces.

Simple DIY Book Shelves

In the early days of social distancing, Justin and I had so much fun making these little bookshelves for our DIY Date Night!

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Secret Nook

After finishing up those little shelves, I was inspired to give a little makeover to the little secret nook under the stairs. It may only be 7 square feet of space, but this little room now packs a big punch!

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Scalloped Wall in Vi’s Room

When I was pregnant, we didn’t find out the sex of the baby so the nursery was just plain white walls that felt pretty lackluster. I enjoyed using leftover paint from the dresser project to create a simple scalloped accent wall for the nursery and it made a huge difference!

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Basement Kitchen

I joined the One Room Challenge and spent 8 weeks renovating our basement kitchen. This was FULL of DIY projects: painting floor tiles, painting cabinets, installing a butcherblock countertop, painting laminate counters, and new window trim. It was a huge and incredibly rewarding project!

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$1500 Kitchen Renovation!

Patio Entryway

Directly to the left of the basement kitchen, the floor tile wraps around to the door out to our patio. Since I had painted the tile already, it made sense to give this entryway a much needed organizational and aesthetic refresh as well. My favorite part? That yellow door!

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Modern, Bright Entryway Makeover

$0 Bathroom Makeover

We have an extra bathroom off our laundry room that doesn’t get regular use, but is visible from the door leading from the garage so it is seen every time we come in and out of the house. It was an eyesore! I didn’t want to put money into it since eventually I’d love to gut the space and extend the laundry room, so I did a makeover using only materials we already had. I LOVE how it turned out!

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$0 Bathroom Makeover

Basement Dining Room

For the space in the basement between the TV/lounge space and the kitchen, we created a little dining area. Justin built a table (I’m so impressed!) from scrap wood that was left from the previous homeowner and I spray painted some chairs I found for $2 each on Facebook marketplace.

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Budget Dining Room Transformation-3

Kids’ Bathroom

We gave a quick and easy cosmetic update to the bathroom that our kids share – a fun, bold paint color, a new light fixture and mirror, and functional updates like DIY shelves and towel hooks.

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Home Office

And lastly, perhaps my favorite renovation so far, was our home office! This room was also full of DIY projects: the vertical shiplap, the trim and crown molding, and of course, those glorious built ins! I love, love, love this room!

WHEW! That’s a wrap on our 2020 projects. While I’m already dreaming of what we might do next in 2021, it’s nice to just take a minute to sit back, enjoy our home, and be grateful for all we were able to do this year.

Shopping Small for Simple Toddler Christmas Gifts

I looked at my calendar today and was startled to realize that Christmas is next week. Next. Week! This has been such a strange year that has felt so surreal and slow at times, yet here we are so close to Christmas!

Our tree is set up with my favorite ornaments taking front and center!

Our Christmas celebrations look a little different this year for many reasons, and one unexpected thing that is changing this year for us is gifts. As in, I’m actually going to give our kids some. Ha!

I’m a pretty minimal-ish person and while I do love gifts, I don’t like getting stuff just for the sake of having presents. Last year, we left the gift giving mostly to grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. and kept our family Christmas very small and simple (I even wrapped up some library books for LJ to unwrap and enjoy for three weeks until they were returned – it worked like a charm!)

This year, I decided to ramp up our celebration a bit for two reasons. One, LJ is getting older and understands more of what’s going on – it’s so fun to see his pure joy and excitement opening presents, even small ones. And two, this year has been a hard year for small businesses. This pandemic has caused many small businesses to take a big hit and it became extra important to me to support them with my purchases.

Each year, I try to be intentional with the gifts I personally give my kids and the items that we put on our wish list. Last year, I wrote a post about non-toy gift ideas and also one about intentionally gifting toys with a greater purpose (fair trade, sustainable, eco-friendly, small business, philanthropic mission, etc. The post also includes my favorite brands/shops!) and my philosophy hasn’t changed, so those are good posts to check out to see where I get ideas for gifts. Disclaimer: I understand that items that fit these categories often cost more or are less accessible, and I recognize both the convenience and affordability of big box stores or online companies like Amazon. My children of course get gifts outside of these preferences and that is 100% OKAY. I’m certainly not perfect (you’ll see a couple things I got them are even from the dollar bins at Target) and I don’t expect anyone else to be! While these are goals/preferences, they’re by no means requirements and we’re grateful for and appreciative of each and every gift regardless.

While all the other things listed above are important to me, this year I focused on small businesses first. I tried my best to include products on my kids’ wish lists that are made by smaller brands, but I also encouraged our families to consider purchasing more mainstream toys at local small businesses if possible. A few things on my kids’ wish lists this year were:

PlanToys play food – I love this company’s sustainable mission: sustainable material, sustainable manufacturing, sustainable mind. Bonus that my mom was able to purchase the food and beverage set, breakfast set, veggie set, and fruit set from a locally-owned small business!

A screengrab of Vi opening a PlanToys phone at Justin’s family’s Christmas – she loves it!

Cuddle + Kind dolls – these dolls are high-quality, adorable, and fair trade PLUS with each purchase, the company donates money to humanitarian organizations that provide meals to those in need. Vi has two dolls already (Penelope and Stella) that she carries around everywhere and this year we asked for either Mia or Charlotte.

Bows from Etsy shops – I love having cute bows for Vi and supporting a small business at the same time. I particularly love this one and this one.

Books – We requested books from local small businesses for both kids!

Chalkfull of Design – LJ received a personalized name chalkboard from this small business this year and he’s so excited to practice writing his name!

As for the gifts we’re personally giving this year, I still didn’t get a ton of things, but I did get more than originally anticipated since I wanted to support local small businesses. I thought I’d just show you what I got!

Since Vi is only one and still doesn’t really understand what is going on (and we all know how I feel about clutter haha), she isn’t getting as much as LJ. Even so, I know she’ll love these items! Both she and LJ currently love bathtime so I snagged a few bathtub finger paints for her stocking. The Poke-a-Dot book was found at a small business in my parent’s hometown and I’m so excited for her to unwrap it! She loves books and this one makes fun popping noises that I know she’ll have fun with.

LJ has a few more items since he’s older and understands what is going on. He’s going through a phase where he requests a band-aid for every “injury” (a small bump on the head, tiny scratch on the finger, etc) so he’ll love the PJ Masks bandages! I purchased a cute little tractor + wagon and some farm animals at a locally-owned toy store in Justin’s hometown and I know these will be huge hits for him! I’m putting the tractor and bandages in his stocking and wrapping up the coloring book and animals.

If you follow me on Instagram, you might know that we’re currently in the process of building our main present for the kids: a play kitchen! They’ll be getting play food from other relatives, but since our Christmas is first, I wanted them to at least have something to unwrap and play with when they receive the kitchen. I found this adorable Melissa and Doug cookware set at a local small business and it’s perfect!

I’m also going to wrap up this cute African basket so they have something to carry their fruits and veggies in. I found this at another small business in Justin’s hometown and will wrap it up and let Vi open it since she didn’t get as many gifts as LJ.

While I’m so glad we were able to shop small for many gifts, I want to reiterate that we’re not perfect or expecting anyone else to be. If anything, I’m hoping that by being transparent about all the things I’m giving our kids, both the things from the Target dollar bin and the things from local small businesses, you’ll be encouraged to find a balance that works for you. Maybe that’s trying to find just one gift from a small business. Maybe that’s just focusing on stocking stuffer gifts from small businesses. Maybe it’s asking family members to try to shop small for gifts for you or your kids. For me, the goal isn’t perfection, it’s to try to be more intentional when and if I can. πŸ™‚

Of course, Christmas is certainly about more than just gifts, and we incorporate a lot more than presents into our celebrations, but knowing a few of these gifts helped support small businesses this year does make the celebration seem sweeter. I can’t wait for Christmas morning!