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Apt2B: L.A.'s Local Resource For All Your Home Needs

When I started my first job in consulting, I went in with soaring expectations and a shiny new collection of Brooks Brothers suits. I'd studied hard for my case interviews, researched the firm at length, and knew in my soul that it was the ideal place to build my career.

I utterly despised it within a week of my start date.

And by 'utterly despised,' I mean sleepless nights, mid-day tears in the bathroom, and an unshakable urge to flee. And, if I am being totally honest, a confidence-shattering case of doubt in myself and my ability to make big decisions such as choose a career path. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was that drove such a deep emotional response in me, but I didn't want to suffer through the time required to reflect. I wanted out, ASAP.

I began frantically applying for jobs, ranging from Starbucks barista in Chicago to operations analyst for a company in Japan. One day after I accepted a role that would take me far from Washington, D.C., my friends and my relationship with my now-husband, I met a woman at my firm's office who sensed my distress and gave me the best career advice I've ever received:

"Colleen," she said, "Never run from, only run to a position. You need to figure out what you want, and then take logical steps to get it." She asked me to slow down and take time to complete a simple exercise in structuring my thoughts, and if I still wanted that job afterwards, I should be confident moving forward.

Taking her advice helped me to make the right decisions to design a life that I really wanted, and I'm convinced that my life would be dramatically different today if I hadn't completed this honest assessment of myself. In fact, I saved my original notes and revisit them periodically to see if I need to refine anything. It's strangely comforting how little has changed.

So, without further ado, here's the simple method I used to design the life I wanted:

#1 Get three sheets of plain white, eight-and-a-half by eleven inch computer paper out of your printer.

#2 Label one page "Things that I dislike."

#3 Set a timer for 60 minutes.

#4 Without judgement, list every possible thing that comes to mind in that hour when you think of your dislikes.

These can be aspects about a job, a boss, a city, an apartment, relationships, you name it. If you feel like you can go for longer than an hour, feel free to keep writing.

My list included things such as "Sitting in traffic," "Being micromanaged," "Laziness," "Negative attitudes," "Downtime and boredom," "Making pivot tables," "Sitting in a cubicle all day long," "Talking on the phone," and "Feeling like I need to fit a mold."

#5 Set that list aside, and take a second clean white page and label it "Things that I love."

#6 Set a timer for 60 minutes.

#7 Same as with your dislike list, absolve yourself of judgement and list every possible thing that comes to mind in that hour when you think of things that bring you joy.

Again, if you feel like you can go for longer than an hour, feel free to keep writing.

My list included things such as "Having time to spend with Wes every day," "Interacting with positive, thoughtful people," "Exploring new places," "Being challenged and pushed to my limits," "Feeling like the work I do matters," "Bikram yoga," "Helping clients to solve their problems," "Being friends with my co-workers," and "Making lots of money." (She said don't apply any judgement!)

#8 Set that list aside, and take a break from both lists for a day.

#9 After taking some space, get your "dislikes" list and a red pen.

Go back through each item on your list, and ask yourself: "Is this non-negotiable?" If yes, circle it in red pen. This is something you absolutely CANNOT have in your ideal career/life/relationship. It's a subjective assessment, but be as honest with yourself as possible and pay attention to how you're feeling when you're making that call.

For example, "Being micromanaged" is something that I absolutely cannot stand and would not be able to tolerate in a job. That's circled on my list. "Sitting in traffic" is something that's negotiable on my list, because I don't have the same abhorrence towards it. (Thanks largely due to books on tape and really great coffee travel mugs…)

#10 Next, get your "loves" list and a red pen.

Go back through each item on your list, and ask yourself the same question: "Is this non-negotiable?" If yes, circle it in red pen. This is something you absolutely MUST have in your ideal career/life/relationship.

For example, "Being challenged and pushed to my limits" is circled on my list, as is "Feeling like the work I do matters," and "Interacting with positive, thoughtful people." These are all aspects of a career and life that I absolutely needed.

#11 After identifying the non-negotiables on each list, take your final sheet of paper and label it: "My Life Filter."

Draw a line down the center of the page. On one side, write "NO" and on the other side write "YES." Copy each of your non-negotiable items from your "dislike" list into the "NO" column. Each of your non-negotiable items from your "love" list goes into the "YES" column.

This is your life filter, the facts that you'll use to evaluate any step in your life that you're not quite sure about. It's a structured way to understand yourself, your needs and wants, and eliminate some of the noise that tends to distract us into decisions that might not be quite right.

I took my filter and applied it to the job I'd verbally accepted, and realized that it would lead me to a position that had many aspects listed in my "NO" column and just a few listed in my "YES" column. So, I turned the job down - confidently. This filter helped me to not only have the resolve to stick it out until I found the right fit (the firm and group that I'm still working for, years later), but has helped me to make many big, life-altering decisions.

My career, my relationships with husband, my family and friends, the city I am living in, and many other aspects of my life have been impacted by this simple exercise. The "Life Filter" might not be right for everyone, and I'm sure there are a lot of methods out there that people use to help design their lives.

If you've had a similar struggle, I'd love to hear what helped you through it and the methods that have worked well for you!

P.S. The "life inspiration" cards pictured are by one of my new favorite artists, Oorn. Her work articulates some of the themes on my life filter!

Maybe it's just me, but I tend to get stuck in wardrobe ruts that conjure that all-too-familiar feeling of "closet full of clothes but nothing to wear." Getting in a rut with my closet makes me doubt my taste and purchasing decisions, and inspires the need buy something new.

Since I've cut myself off from retail therapy (the cure for that sort of wardrobe ailment), I've started to find new ways to overcome boredom and get my creative juices flowing. These ideas might make me sound a little crazy (if I didn't already...), but they really work for me:

#1 Organize your accessories into cliques

If you follow my Instagram account, you know about my tried-and-true "bag and shoe of the week" strategy for traveling. Well, I've expanded that strategy to include accessories beyond just the basics. Creating coordinated accessory cliques consisting of bag, shoes, sunglasses, hat, scarf, etc. based on commonalities such as complementary colors, diverse fabrics, and similar metal tones was a game changer for me. 

In the photo above, I put a lot of thought into black-and-white straw hat, black-and-white silk scarf, nude leather tote and simple unadorned rubber sandals. They are my Switzerland clique, perfectly neutral of color and guaranteed to play nice with whatever items of clothing I introduce to the combination, be it a black silk shift dress or a shapeless green potato sack of a dress.

My group of structured orange leather tote bag, purple suede sandals and Lucite earrings, on the other hand, would not play nice with all items of clothing and require more thoughtful selections.

Creating these cliques in my closet has established easy foundations for building a variety of outfits and opened new possibilities for certain pieces of clothing I wouldn't have pulled otherwise. Of course, cliques have certain members that float between them and are just frameworks for organizational purposes such as when you need to quickly pull together a dinner party (or an outfit for a dinner party).

#2 Speaking of cliques, befriend the weirdos in your closet one at a time

One weirdo in my closet is the pictured and aforementioned shapeless potato sack of a dress. It's French and I've always loved it, but avoid wearing it due to it's controversial and hard-to-style nature. I made a commitment to wear it this summer after it spent a few years sitting dormant in my summer box. Combining it with the Switzerland clique added some simple-yet-much-needed class, and made me feel fabulous wearing it. I added bright red lipstick, wore it out for a Saturday, and got compliments all day. It was sort of like a Princess Diaries success story for my potato sack.

#3 Hide your favorite things from yourself

Psycho, yet effective: if I have my go-to items within arms reach in my closet, I'll wear them over and over again. So I packed up my favorite items and put them in the back of our foyer coat closet. This helped to refocus my attention on less worn but equally amazing pieces. I rediscovered a few old pairs of shoes this way and have been getting a lot more creative with my work wardrobe when packing.

Added benefit is that the same exact feeling of excitement you get when buying a great new piece is conjured up when you find those forgotten items you hid from yourself a few months earlier. I know this for a fact out of the sheer excitement I had when I found my favorite blue silk Tibi shirt while searching for my feather duster a few weeks ago.

#4 Choose a theme for the day, week or weekend

One theme I've been choosing lately is "I'm going to the beach" when I actually have no plans to do so. This helped me to wear an amazing but very short LaRok dress that I love but never wear out in the city. Instead, I resign it to being a beach cover up. A couple weeks ago, I put it on with my swimsuit and wore it running errands and meeting friends for lunch. Shocker was that no one was shocked: I got over my mental hump and now comfortably wear it for many occasions.

Other themes I choose include "I'm going on a first date" when I have dinner with my husband, or "I am a high powered CEO" when packing for my work trips. 

#5 Rearrange your closet in the order you get dressed, and by "like item" and color

This took a few tries, but I realized that the way I was organizing my closet wasn't conducive to the decision-making required to have great style. I follow a structured process when getting dressed, starting with selecting shoes and coordinated bag appropriate for my day's activities, and then select bottoms, tops or dresses afterwards. I arranged my closet in the order I get dressed and it changed my thinking: I have shoes and bags right up front when I walk in, then have sections for skirts, pants, shirts, and blazers. Each section is sub-divided into like item and ordered by color, resulting in a nice little ombre balance to all of my things. Taking this strategy with organizing my closet helps me quickly assess what will go with whatever item I have on hand to wear.

Of course, I am not perfect and have to spend a little time every week keeping my system organized. A few minutes each week to get everything in order has paid dividends for me and I truly think that I'm getting so much more wear out of the things I own because I can so quickly identify and find them with this system.

Alright, that's all for now, hope you find some of these ideas helpful in getting more use out of your own wardrobe! If you have any ideas that work well for you personally, I'd love to hear them (and use them)!

One of the secondary reasons that I embarked on this 'no new things for a year' challenge was to dial back my spending and make a change to my lifestyle to test whether I could walk away from high-salaried corporate life for a freelance creative venture of my own. 

No matter how much money you make, there's a sense of freedom in questioning how you spend it and realizing that you can do less and get better results. Although this is a concept that I intuitively understood, I knew that long term success required me to learn more about personal finance: it's a topic that makes me incredibly uncomfortable for a number of reasons but not least of which is my utter lack of thought, planning and strategy in that arena.

For years, the extent of my personal finance strategy was to simply make sure I was living within my means, paying my bills on time, and saving a little every month. Obviously, I knew there was more I could be doing, but the topic bored me, long term plans scared me, and I didn't really understand investing.

When I started thinking about what I really needed to live a comfortable life, I did some research and came across "I Will Teach You To Be Rich," Ramit Sethi's simple guide to accumulating wealth. It's sort of a "get rich slow" scheme. In addition to describing the most pragmatic perspective on how to think about money I've ever heard, Ramit outlines very simple steps you should be taking with your money to make the most of it.

People, I took copious notes. As in, disregarded the guy sitting in seat 4C and just kept elbowing him as I furiously scribbled away in my notebook. Then I researched them, talked to my husband and have implemented in full. Although I highly encourage you to read the book (arguably the best $7.13 I've spent this year), here's a summary straight from my plane seat…

Key takeaway: You don't have to change your lifestyle to improve your financials

When I think about saving money, my mind wanders to an image of me sitting forlorn on an old futon in windowless room, eating lukewarm ramen noodles out of a Styrofoam cup. When I think about making money, I imagine scenes from Wolf on Wall Street and feel a sense of shame that my ability to decipher the NASDAQ ticker is somewhat reminiscent of my ability to decipher my 6th grade French textbook.

Ramit argues that becoming wealthy doesn't require a lifestyle overhaul, and has NOTHING to do with investment strategy. Your personal finance strategy should enable your lifestyle. With small adjustments and some thoughtful planning, you can actually spend more on what you care about in the long term. But first, you need to establish the right foundation and set up a system to manage your finances… and it's simple to do. Here's the short, step-by-step version:

#1 Stare your finances in the face

Gather the facts on your current financial position: this includes debts, expenses, savings, what you have coming in, and where you're spending your disposable income. This is your current financial position.

#2 Figure out your 'non-negotiable' expenses

If you want to improve your financial position, you need to consider what expenses are important to you, be it a beautiful apartment in a desirable location, designer bags or traveling the world. When I sat down to really think long and hard about my non-negotiables, it was a surprisingly short list.

#3 Scale back on 'negotiable' expenses

Cut back on every possible expense that does not support your top priority or priorities. For me, that meant cutting out things like coffee shops, frequent fancy dinners, manicures/pedicures and Sephora runs which sometimes ended up costing hundreds of dollars in the course of a month. And that outrageous cable package for my husband… Netflix it is, folks!

#4 Pay off debt

This should go without saying, but paying off any debt should be priority number one.  There's a lot out there on debt payment strategy, but fundamentally you want to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

#5 Set up auto-pay on all of your bills

You'll never miss a payment or pay a fee again. Those cute little fees add up.

#6 Decrease your APR payments

If you're paying for anything on an installment basis (a credit card, a loan, a car, etc.), you can sweet-talk your way into a lower annual percentage rate (APR), or what you are charged for the full year for that loan. Just pick up the phone, and politely ask them to decrease your APR by 50%. If they say they cannot do it, continue asking for a supervisor until you find someone who can grant your wish.

#7 Increase your credit score

Assuming you've paid off debt and are paying all your bills on time, the easiest way to increase your credit score is to ask for a credit increase on all of your cards and DON'T SPEND ABOVE YOUR CURRENT CREDIT LIMIT. This is actually genius: 30% of your credit score is your credit utilization, meaning how much of your credit you've spent. If you have credit increases, but aren't spending it, your score goes up. And your interest rates go down. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-bang. It's that simple, people.

#8 Open a high-interest online savings account

Ramit recommended CapitolOne, I researched it, and it's the best interest you can earn on money that's just sitting in savings (between 0.6% and 1% depending on how much you've got saved). And there are zero fees. None.

#9 Open a Schwab online checking account

Read my lips (ok, read my typeface): no ATM fees, free checks, free bill pay, and 0.6% interest earned on any balance. It cannot be beat. You have to open a brokerage account with your checking account, but it's free and you don't have to use it. Downside is that there are no Schwab brick and mortar banks if you like getting the free lollipops, and it takes a couple of business days to access your money should you need to make a large payment beyond what can be offered by your billions of now-free ATMs.

#10 Automate transfers

Between your sparkly new Schwab checking account to your high-interest savings account, and any other accounts you might want to set up. CapitolOne will let you set up as many savings "accounts" as you want, so you can earmark for things you want such as a kitchen renovation or a $4,000 purse (see 'non-negotiable expenses' in #2 above).

#11 Max out your 401k

Sadly, I hadn't been doing this and have lost a lot of free money. If you've got a corporate 401k, figure out what your company will match, and max out that percentage. Then sit on it and watch the dollars roll in. Your 65-year-old self will thank you (in addition to judging your 25-year-old self for wasting what could have been 401k match dollars on TJ Maxx shoes). Live and learn.

#12 Open a Roth IRA at a discount brokerage

It doesn't matter what brokerage, as they are all the same (no offense to any brokers who may be reading this). Ramit says that playing the stock market gets you no real returns in the long run. So open one, max out your contributions, and don't touch it until your anti-wrinkle cream routine becomes a fruitless venture.

#13 Create a spreadsheet to keep everything in one place

Make it an extremely simple document so you can manage it over time. Put all of your financial accounts (banking, credit cards, loans, etc.), login/passwords, interest percentages, monthly contributions, etc. into one place so you've got the ability to check in and keep your system working seamlessly. And obviously store it in a safe place.

That's it, now you can sit back in your La-Z-Boy recliner and watch the money build up. I'm kidding, of course, because no reader of this blog would voluntarily own a La-Z-Boy nor would just let this passive personal finance system be the end of the story. The whole point of this is to set up reliable structure that enables savings to become automatic, and also focuses your disposable income on what you actually care about. I really love Ramit's tip for having separate, labeled "accounts" to save for the things on your non-negotiable list. Imagine how much more free you'd feel traveling, knowing that you've earmarked and already have saved the thousands it's going to cost!

As you increase your income over time, this system can also flex to accommodate additional accounts and investments.

If you have any other tips for making the most of your money, please let me know in the comments!

(And, last but not least, special thanks to my friend and cousin Becky Howe for the artsy photo above...)