My Funny Valentine

Valentine’s Day.  A day full of love, romance and scattered rose petals or a made-up holiday perpetuated and capitalized by the greeting card and flower industries?  I admittedly fall somewhere in the middle.  I think it’s a crock to make such a big deal about February 14th.  I do, however, appreciate the sentiment behind it so whether you choose 2/14 or another one of the 364 days of the year, it’s nice to take some time out of your day to show your significant other a little extra love.

Somehow I literally forgot to post last year’s budget-friendly Valentine’s Day recap so here we are.  With 12 days left to make your plans, here’s how Jefe and I celebrated last year in hopes of giving you a little inspiration.

To start, for the last 4 years, Jefe and I both agreed “we’re not doing anything.”  And every year without fail, we’ve both done something for each other.  My gifts have varied, but Jefe has been pretty standard with beautiful flowers (thank you 1-800-Flowers!)  He’s not a romantic flowers kind of guy so it’s always a pleasant surprise when they show up, always at the office.

Flowers at the office

Flowers' ride home

Don’t throw away the box!  Repackage them for the trip home and no spills!

Last year, I was a little strapped for cash so I had to get creative and turned to Pinterest for budget-friendly inspiration.  There were thousands of options, some cute, others VERY tacky, but the things that caught my eye the most – food.  They say the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, right?  Since VDay last year was on a Friday and Jefe would have just gotten home from a trip to NYC, I decided I’d make him his favorite for dinner – steak.

Dinner was a simple enough gesture though that I felt I needed to kick it up a notch.  So dessert was to be my special surprise.  Thanks to my Pinterest inspiration and Jefe’s unfailing love of root beer floats, I came up with this adorable little tag:

Valentine Float My Boat

Valentine Float My Boat 2

Then I attached the tag to a 4-pack of gourmet root beer (the vanilla ice cream patiently waited in the freezer.)

Valentine Float Root Beer

But that still didn’t seem to be enough so I whipped up a batch of brownies (Betty Crocker to the rescue!), pulled out a heart-shaped cookie cutter and went to town.  A treats box with gift tag later, and I had a great little set up.  To top it off, I grabbed one of our drinking straws, cut out a red heart from construction paper with 2 slits and added it to the straw.

Valentine Heart Shaped Brownies

With the places set though, the table looked a little bare (notice the vast void of blackness at the top of the picture).

VDay Place Setting 1

So I scrambled around the house for a few accessories to jazz up the space: flowers swiped from the bookshelf, votive candle holders stolen from another shelf, and I pulled out our fancy candle sticks.

VDay Place Setting 2

VDay Place Setting 3

I stood there staring, wishing I had a non-holiday table runner to really finish it off.  That was when I remembered Sherry of Young House Love fame (R.I.P. tear….) had previously used scarves to finish off a few spaces.  Next thing you know, I was rummaging around for my red infinity scarf and voila!

VDay Place Setting 4

All in I think I spent about $30 between supplies from Michael’s (gift tags, string, treat boxes and heart cookie cutter) and the grocery store (brownie mix, root beer and ice cream).  So you don’t need to get too fancy just to spread some extra love.  It was a bit cheesy, but I didn’t care and Jefe certainly appreciated the effort (and the brownie/root beer float mega dessert he had later that night!)

VDay Place Setting 5

Head on over to my Pinterest page to see some additional ideas that caught my eye for your own VDay inspiration!

Home Sweet Home

Christmas decorations always give any apartment that extra homey factor that many of our starter (or 2nd or 3rd or 4th) apartments are generally lacking.  I’m pretty proud of how cozy and “at-home” I felt with our home this holiday season – we thoroughly decorated and made merry with lots of friends of 3 different occasions, filling our home with not just holiday cheer but memories.  Now that the decorations are down and our place seems to be lacking in that “je ne sais quoi”, it got me to thinking about what really makes a house (or apartment) a home.

Living Room - Jan 2014

Our current living room

I’ve lived in LA for 7.5 years now and I can honestly say that Jefe and my’s current apartment is the first one that really felt like home.  When you live 3,000 miles from your nearest and dearest and are living on a limited budget, finding a place where you feel at home, especially in the urban sprawl that is the greater LA metropolis can be very difficult.  It’s taken me 7 years.  Now that’s not to say that it will take everyone that long, but it might.  So how do you combat that nomadic feeling that your “domicile,” for lack of a better word, just feels temporary?  That it’s not just a white box where you spend the hours you’re not in the office?

Croft Ave Apt - Moving Out Day

Our last place (aka – “The Big White Box”) on moving day

The first thing that is most important is the bare bones.  The physical space itself.  When home hunting, you need to think about:

a) Budget.  This is obviously you’re starting point.  What can you afford?  And is that number really what you want to spend?  Or would you rather go a little lower so you have extra cash for things like drinks with friends?  (Or if you’re like me, for Sallie Mae….)

b) Location.  Your neighborhood is a real contributing factor to your overall happiness.  My first place in LA was near USC, just off-campus while I was in grad school.  I quickly learned that I was on the WRONG SIDE of “off-campus”.  I couldn’t go out after dark by myself, neighbors were not friendly, and nothing was walkable.  It also lacked quite a few amenities both in the unit and nearby.  No one wants to have to drive 45 minutes in LA traffic to get to a Target.

My USC Hood

My former USC Hood – Its not too bad in the daylight…

c) Features.  What’s important to  you to have in your home?  Do you despise dishes and absolutely must have a dishwasher?  Or do you value a guaranteed parking spot at the end of a long day?  Make a list of your absolute must-haves.  And no, a girl (or guy) on a budget may NOT put “walk-in closet” as a must.  They don’t exist on a budget.  If you’re lucky enough to find one, you hold on to that unicorn because they are very few and far between.

My unicorn - Current Walk In Closet

Our Unicorn – The walk-in closet in our current place before we moved in

Now, make your list of “it’d be nice to have’s”.  Things like a washer & dryer in-unit.  Central AC.  A fireplace.  Once you have both of your lists and your budget, you’re ready to start your search.

The Search – I love looking at apartment listings as I’m always intrigued by architecture and design.  But you may not be like Sledge so you’re not inclined to just ALWAYS be looking at places.  But I do recommend that you start early.  Months in advance.  You never know what you’ll find and how long it will take.  Example: last summer Jefe and I briefly discussed looking for a bigger apartment.  We were outgrowing our 1 bedroom with open floor plan but we weren’t in any rush as our lease was month to month.  So I casually started doing my research as to what was available within our budget in our desired area.

Doing your research will help you set realistic expectations and ensure that you get the most bang for your buck.  In our case, I found a place rather quickly that from my research told me was a steal for the price with everything it had to offer.  Although Jefe and I didn’t think we were quite ready to move as we had hoped to have some more time to save up, the apartment was too perfect of a fit for our needs to pass up.  We had to rearrange a few things financially to make it work, but in the long run, we’re now in a place we can call home for the foreseeable future.  It’s somewhere we can just BE for awhile and feel settled.

So how did I find it?  Each city has it’s on idiosyncrasies when it comes to apartment hunting.  For example, in LA, Craigslist is a fairly safe bet up to a certain price point.  Once you start looking for nicer, better maintained units particularly on the westside, you may want to consider purchasing a monthly membership to Westside Rentals for the duration of your search.  Certain landlords ONLY post on that site in an effort to attract the right type of tenants (reliable with a steady income above a certain threshold).  I would only recommend this if you’ve gone the Craigslist route and have continually come up empty-handed.  What’s $50 if it leads you to the right place that will save you money in the long run?

Westside Rentals

I can’t speak to other cities, but I do know what a BEAST apartment hunting can be in New York.  I’ve never done it myself and from friends’ horror stories, I think I’m quickly aging out of my desire to move to the isle of Manhattan.  It’s like the Hunger Games out there.  And don’t even get me started on broker fees.  So what’s a single gal in the city to do?  I’ve only heard one success story of someone finding a place via Craigslist.  It was in Harlem but I’m still skeptical it was as easy as a simple Craigslist search; there had to have been a catch, right?!

So do you just ask for a trusted friend’s broker info?  That option gets pricey VERY quick.  But word on the street is that there’s hope.  Now I’ve never used the service myself, but for those of you longing for a shoebox to call your own in the concrete jungle of New York, there’s a new startup that I hear is doing wonders for the way Manhattanites apartment hunt.  Urban Compass, recently profiled by Bloomberg and TechCrunch, is trying to change the game.  I’ve played around with the search functions and have to say it’s definitely worth checking out if you find yourself searching in NYC.  The best part is you can easily focus your search on specific neighborhoods.

Urban Compass

In general though, apartment hunting can suck.  But by doing your homework, you can hopefully find a place to call home sooner rather than later.  Some things I looked for during this last round of hunting:

  • Lots of natural light – I’ve lived in a cave-like space before.  No fun.
  • Original hardwood floors – They give a space character and add warmth.
  • A more house-like layout – This is one of the biggest factors to making our current place feel less like an apartment and more like a private house.
  • Architecture features – These are obviously not necessities, but really can give a place character.  Archways, built-in bookshelves and fireplace mantles (regardless of whether you can actually light a fire) go a long way to making a place feel less like a cookie-cutter white box.
  • Open mind – This isn’t so much something I looked for but something I tried to keep.  No space will be perfect unless you build it from scratch.  So, if an apartment is 99% perfect, think about how you can take that imperfect 1% and make it work.  Example 1: how can you minimize that horrid, pink bathroom tile to make it livable?  Get a larger shower curtain, hang the tension rod higher off the ground and more of the tile will be covered!  Example 2: Hate those gilded brass kitchen knobs?  That’s an easy fix with a trip to Home Depot for a value pack of brushed silver handles.

Once you’ve found your place with the right bare bones, it’s on to the fun part – decorating!  But we’ll save that for another time.

Home Sweet Home

Happy New Year

Happy New Year friends!  I hope everyone had a restful and relaxing holiday.  I’m still nursing my second cold in the last 3 weeks so it’s been slow going on the restart here at Chez Sledge.

What is it about the last 2 Decembers that they just flew by?  Another holiday season, I blinked, and next thing you know Jefe and I are hauling our sad, dry skeleton of a Christmas tree to the curb for recycling. We had all sorts of plans this year, most of which we accomplished.  It did, however, leave little time for blogging.  So here’s a little recap of the Holidays with Sledge:

Black Friday – Jefe and I continued our tradition for the 5th year in a row of braving the masses at Disneyland.  It truly is the happiest place on Earth and best place to start getting in to the holiday spirit.  Everything is covered in lights, ornaments and general festiveness.  This year we decided to try out a few new restaurants as we’ve done all of the rides so many times.

After watching CHEF, we were craving beignets and heard raves about those shaped like a Mickey at Cafe Orleans.  Our lunch was delicious, especially Jefe’s Croque Monsieur, but we were left so full that there was no room for beignets.  Sad Mickey :-(.

For dinner we trekked over to California Adventure to Carthay Circle.  It looked like something you’d find in Beverly Hills in the 1920’s.  Just a stunning combination of art deco meets spanish mission.  And the food was good enough to rival any trendy restaurant in Weho.

Disneyland - Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Disneyland - Jefe & Sledge

 

The next day we piled in the car and headed to our favorite tree lot to pick this year’s winning Noble Fir.  After little deliberation, we decided on the fullest pine tree I have ever tried to decorate.  He stood about 7 feet tall.  We debated whether we could have gone taller, but the 8-9 foot Firs were not looking nearly as Noble.

Chauvet Farms Tree Stand - Culver City

The Noblest of Firs

We invited Jefe’s parents over that night to help decorate and quickly realized that next year, we can definitely go with a taller tree thanks to our 9-foot high ceilings, but I’m still more than pleased with this year’s selection.

Holiday Coffee Spread

 

A holiday coffee spread to invigorate for tree decorating!

So the next 24 hours we spent decking the halls.  The only new addition to this year’s festive artillery was a $2.99 traditional star tree topper from Ikea and a few ornaments from Disneyland.

Morning Coffee Done Right

Hines Ward Ornament!

 

Xmas Tree 2014

Stockings

DSCN1910

DSCN1930

Nutcrackers!

 

More Nutcrackers

 

Nutcrackers!!!

Holiday Cards

 

Little Village

The following weekend Jefe and I jetted off to New York to celebrate my birthday and decorate tree #2, Jefe’s brothers.  We did it last year and it was so fun to be able to continue the tradition this year.  I also managed to drag Jefe to the ballet for the first time to see “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center, did some holiday sight-seeing, did an awesome #museumhack tour of the Met and caught up with my high school friend Beth!

The Met

NY Public Library Lions

Rockefeller Tree

The ballet!

SM #1 and #2

This brings us to mid-December already!  After 5 months of living in our new place, we finally decided to host a housewarming / holiday / birthday party.  Things were a little harried prepping for guests so I didn’t manage to get any photos but I can say that Trader Joe’s can make a mean appetizer.  You really can fool anyone in to thinking something was homemade when it’s fresh out of the oven and artfully displayed on a Santa platter.  I’m pretty sure 95% of the food we offered came from TJ’s.  Seriously, it’s the best way to host – no cooking, just artful arrangements.

Falalala

Falalala sign courtesy of Oh Joy!’s line at Target

By the following week, Jefe and I were packing our bags to head back east.  Within the span of 7 days, we slept in 5 beds and traveled via UBER, plane, train and mom’s automobile.  We made merry in Los Angeles, Lancaster and Tyrone, PA and New York City.  It was quite the whirlwind.

Family Cousins

Cousins reunion in Tyrone, PA

Jefe & I Xmas Eve 2014

Jefe & I on Christmas Eve

Casey & his Elf

My brother Casey and his “elf on a shelf” (our nephew Raylen)

And here’s a little tour of my mom’s place all decked out.  I get the Christmas love honestly…

Mom's Dining Room

No fireplace means stockings go on the chairs 😀

Mom's - Dining Room

I love me a good tartan tablecloth!

Mirror on display

I love this old window-turned-mirror.  Wouldn’t be Xmas without some lit garland though.

Mom's Xmas Tree 2014

Excuse the lack of focus.  This was prior to 9am and I hadn’t had ANY coffee yet….

And some of Christmas in NY (Jefe was so bummed he missed the Met #museumhack tour, we went again!):

The Met - Again!

30 Rock

Time Warner Center

And then I caught the plague which had me laid up on my mother’s couch for the next 5 days.  New Years Eve was spent with my family, one good friend who braved my contagion thanks to a hearty dose of antibiotics, and a piping hot mug of green tea.  No champe this year for the Champe Champ.

Then Jefe and I headed back to LA where we undecked the halls and dragged our poor tree out to the curb.  Nothing makes me sadder than seeing Christmas trees on the side of the road.  Their time is so short….

Packing Up

Leftover Candy Canes

We have a lot of candy canes to get through in January….

Boy and his toys

Jefe got distracted from un-decorating by a Christmas present…

And to wrap it all up, one final shot of our beautiful tree of 2014:

Christmas Tree 2014

Sledge is Back… Again!

For those readers still sticking with me, thank you!  I know it’s been awhile; the day job has taken a bit out of me the last few months but the flip side is all of those hours came with a long-awaited promotion!

But I’ve missed all of you and my little design projects.  So there’s definitely going to be more to come in the next few weeks, especially with Christmas right around the corner!

For now though, here are a few little teasers:

Fall Dining TableAnother quick fall update to our dining area.  I saw that great footed bowl at Target a few months, but couldn’t bring myself to spend the $40 on it.  Flash forward to 2 weeks ago and it was $10.95 in the clearance section.  Bam!  New bowl for my gourds.  Jefe knew he couldn’t fight it.  Home decor on clearance is my Achilles heel.

 

Fall Flower ArrangementTrader Joe’s has been selling some knockout fall bouquets the last two months.  For $8 I can get two of them that are overflowing, pop them in my glass pitcher and I’ve got a beautiful, full fall arrangement.  The yellow candles are also from the Target clearance section for $1.99 for a set of 2.  I may have grabbed more than one pack…

I’ve got a fun DIY dry erase board coming your way that is perfect for any Boston Red Sox fan in your life (yes, that is Green Monster Green for those wondering).  Jefe got this as one of his birthday presents this year.  Instructions to follow (along with our plans for the very unfinished office).

Dry Erase Board Preview

 

And last but not least, a little preview to my first holiday project of the season:

West Elm Design Love Fest DIY Garland

Will have more for you guys next week!

 

 

Falling for FALL!

Autumn is my jam.  Nothing makes me happier than a crisp fall day mixed with cable-knit sweaters and hot apple cider.  But sub-80 degree temperatures is as close to fall that this Angeleno is gonna get.  We were blessed this weekend with highs in the 70s and lows in the 60s – I even had to grab a throw last night while reading!  Go ahead and roll your eyes East Coast readers – after the heat waves we’ve been experiencing, 60 degree temps feel down right frigid.  And I’m loving every minute of it.

With that in mind, I’ve been fully embracing this bit of fall we had this weekend.  I spruced up the place with a few pumpkins, some burnt orange mums and my favorite fall table runner.  I even splurged on a glass pumpkin candy dish at Target which is regularly $7.99, but was 20% off thanks to my favorite new app – Cartwheel.

Mini pumpkins!

Mums & fall runner

Pumpkin Candy Dish

 

I grabbed that Yankee candle too (Apple & Pumpkin Picking scent) as I needed a more fall “smell” in the apartment but it’s not my favorite.  I’ve tested countless pumpkin-sceneted candles in the last few weeks but have yet to find one I truly love that doesn’t give me a headache.  I’m open to any recommendations if you have found a good one!

Pumpkin Candy Dish & Candle

But the main purpose of today’s post is to actually share a recipe with you!  Anyone who has ever done Weight Watchers is probably very familiar with this one, but for those that aren’t, I wanted to share the world’s EASIEST pumpkin muffin recipe.  Now that a huge figurative weight has been lifted off me at work, I’ve decided it’s time to refocus on some literal weight and get my ass back in shape.

Now for the recipe.  You’ll need:

  • 1 box of spice cake mix (any brand will do)
  • 1 can of pure pumpkin
  • 1-2 egg whites (not necessary, but it gives the muffins a bit more of a cake-like texture and makes them a little less doughy)

Spice Cake mix

Canned Pumpkin & Egg Whites

Follow the directions on the cake mix box for cupcakes.  Most boxes recommend preheating your oven to 350.  While that’s preheating, mix together the pumpkin, cake mix and egg whites.  The batter will make anywhere from 12 to 18 muffins, depending on how large a muffin you want.  I err on the side of smaller muffins as I know I’ll be eating more than one no matter what size they are.

Next I scoop the batter in to the pan.  To make clean-up easier, I line the pan with cupcake liners.  It also will keep them from sticking together once they’re done as I just store them in a large ziploc.  For easiest portioning of the batter, I prefer to use my ice cream scoop.

Pop them in the oven.  I usually set the timer for 15 minutes, then check them with a toothpick (or knife if you don’t mind the gapping hole it will leave, which I don’t).  As I’m still learning the intricacies of my own oven, I popped them back in for another 4 minutes. Once they’re done, let them cool for a few minutes before devouring.  They’re not the prettiest things, but they sure are good.

Pumpkin Muffins!

For those of you counting points, if you divide the mix into 18 muffins, 1 muffin = 1 point.  But if you’re like me and eat 3 in one sitting, 3 muffins will set you back 4 points so just make sure you’re doing the math accurately.

As I’ve been making this recipe for years, I have altered it a few times.  Once I even slathered them with some WW friendly cream cheese icing and passed them off as pumpkin spice cupcakes for a pot luck.  No one knew they were eating half the calories of the real things.  So feel free to jazz them up however you see fit.  As I’m a total baking novice, I can’t advise on how they bake if you, say, throw in some raisins or nuts, but I’m sure they’re just as tasty.

My favorite way to eat them is for breakfast with a piping hot cup of coffee and my Steelers on TV.  It makes for a perfect Sunday!

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