Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Best Gift Is Helping Others

SWAGG is a free mobile app (download here) that lets you shop smarter using your mobile phone. Buy, send or swap SWAGG GIFTS and organize your old school plastic gift cards.

For every download of the app between now and Dec. 31, 2010, SWAGG will donate $1 to Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) , up to $125,000.

Clever Girls Collective and SWAGG are sending a pair of movie fans to the Sundance Film Festival! Download the SWAGG app and then visit the Ultimate SWAGG Getaway Sweepstakes site to enter to win a trip for two to the Sundance Film Festival. Entry deadline is January 3, 2011, 11:59pm, PST.

I've had the chance to get several amazing gifts over the years, from my Strawberry Shortcake dolls when I was five to a replacement for my stolen engagement ring a few years ago. I've always tried to give as good as I get, though, and I've managed to find several perfect gifts for my loved ones.

But the best gift I ever gave would have to be one from Christmas 2008. It was a rough year for us - Aaron had been laid off earlier in the year, leaving us with no full-time income. By Christmas we had blown thru our savings, and while we were in no danger of losing our house thanks to family, we were still living with only the basics. It made me really consider what was a need and what was a want, and it made me extremely grateful for all we did have.

Out of nowhere, we received an anonymous Christmas card in the mail - no return address, no signature - and enclosed was $100. I couldn't believe my eyes, as this was more cash than I had seen in months. My daughters could have Christmas gifts from us!Yet in my heart I immediately knew what to do with at least part of it.

Just weeks before I received this card, I discovered our local YWCA family shelter was in need of supplies. They were asking the public for baby supplies - diapers and formula, especially, but also lotions, baby wash, etc. - as the cold weather and recent economic downturn (that we would later realize was the start of the recession) had the shelter filled to capacity. This shelter is the only one in our city where a family can stay together, receiving job services, tutoring for the kids, and family support until they can get back on their feet.

While we were running very short on wants, these people were short on needs. It only made sense to divert some of my unexpected gift to help this shelter. I ended up using most of that $100 to buy diapers and formula, and also asked friends at Johnson & Johnson to help by providing samples of baby wash, lotion and powder, which they were happy to send me.

I then loaded the back of my SUV with everything I had and took it to the shelter. They were so appreciative for the supplies, telling me that they sometimes have less than a day's worth of diapers to go around. Looking at the families gathered in the common area, with small children playing with well-worn toys while their parents watched with sad eyes, I knew this was the right choice to make.

It felt great to provide a gift that would genuinely help someone in need. And by participating in this act of giving, I was reminded of just how lucky I am for all that I have.

Full disclosure: Learn more about the coolest new app that revolutionizes the whole shopping, gifting, and gift card-organizing experience and Download the SWAGG app to your iPhone or Droid. I was selected for this sponsorship by Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Smart Grid: A New Way To Look At Energy

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to gather with a group of local bloggers at Alana's (amazing restaurant with to-die-for food!) to learn more about the GridSmart program through our local energy provider, AEP. Like most readers, I pay my electric bill each month, groaning at how much I'm spending but never really thinking about how much energy we're using or how that energy is managed and delivered to us.

AEP is starting a pilot program of SmartGrid technology (provided by Silver Springs Networks) in the northeast corner of Columbus to evaluate if this technology could help better manage energy consumption, reduce outages, save consumers money by allowing them to participate in choosing how they pay for their energy use, and develop more environmentally friendly ways to save and generate energy.

At the moment, a meter reader comes to our house each month and we get a bill for the total amount for that month. I can't tell if I'm using a lot of energy one day and not as much the next, and I have little control over keeping track of my energy usage during the month. Now imagine that my meter was digital with a chip that constantly transmitted data back and forth across a secure network between my house and AEP. This network is vast and allows the energy company to manage and track energy in regions, in neighborhoods, and even your own house. I'd also have complete access to my home's energy usage with the ability to track it down to fractions of an hour.

old meter on the left, digital smart meter on the right

One enormous benefit of this new technology is reducing the number and length of power outages. If the meter can communicate back and forth with the power company, they won't need to rely on phone calls to tell them there is an outage - the system will tell them who has no power and where the problem is. Also, power can be re-routed for many people with this network, making it easier to get the lights back on even faster for most people. Another component will feature a battery-backup to be shared by several neighbors, so your power can shift over to a local battery backup until repairs can be made.

This new technology will also allow consumers to opt in to new models for buying their electricity. Energy consumption is highest during the afternoon, especially in the summer when everyone is trying to keep their homes cool. New pricing options might include paying a lower cost for off-peak energy usage, but a slightly higher cost for peak periods - this would be perfect for families who are out of the house during those hours and don't need a large amount of energy during that time. Best of all - you can opt-in only if the plan fits you!

Another proposed program - called SmartCooling - would give a communicable digital thermostat to homes with the agreement that on summer days of extremely high energy usage the power company could increase your thermostat by up to 4 degrees for a couple of hours to help with the burden on the grid. In exchange, you'd receive an $8 credit on your bill every month, including months when it's not needed. And you could opt-out at any time, either for a single event or for the entire program all together.

Personally, I love these ideas and only wish this program was already in my part of Columbus. I'm a control-freak over my money, so being able to see daily or even hourly energy usage in my home would be awesome. I'd get a kick out of trying new things and seeing how much of a difference it made in our usage.

Some might argue that the SmartGrid technology is an intrusion and affects our privacy, but I don't see the argument. The privacy and encryption controls used by AEP are similar to the ones used by banks for online banking. The number of people who would have access to my private records would be small, and honestly, I don't care that much if people see how much energy we use.

Knowing that AEP would be able to better predict and prepare for peaks in energy use and therefore reduce their need for additional fossil fuel burning plants is well worth any minor risks to privacy. And having fewer and shorter power outages is an enormous benefit as well. I see the GridSmart program as a way for AEP to be more transparent with consumers about energy generation and consumption. And hey, digitally reading the meter is way better than having a meter reader tromping around my backyard!

SmartGrid technology is the way of the future, and Columbus is lucky to be one of the early-adopter markets. Other cities have integrated the SmartGrid technology ahead of us with great results, and I'm hopeful we'll see the same benefits here as well. Saving money through better use of resources, all while providing greater access to my personal energy use information and making me a more informed consumer sounds like a great idea to me, and I only wish they'd hurry up and implement this in my part of Columbus!

The GridSmartOhio website also features a huge amount of energy savings tips even if you're not on the pilot program. Take a look to learn how LED Christmas lights can save you money, and how to recycle your energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs. 

Full disclosure: I wrote this post after attending an informational luncheon on behalf of Silver Spring Networks and Mom Central Consulting and received a gift bag and gift card as a thank you for taking the time to participate.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

12 Weeks Until Christmas: Week 3 Declutter Week (GIVEAWAY)

We're down to the last few weeks before Christmas, and now its time to focus on the little details. For my family, clutter is something that seems to sneak up on us every week, and no matter how I try to keep it tamed down, it keeps coming back.

Here are some tips for decluttering your house before the guests arrive:

- Papers from school seem to be one of the greatest sources of clutter. The more kids you have, the more the paper clutter grows. Set up a bin or folder by the door, along with a calendar. When taking papers out of your kids backpacks, immediately put any important dates on the calendar, then recycle those papers. Anything requiring you to fill out a paper should be placed in the folder so you can find it when you have time to fill it out. For younger kids, homework can also be kept in the folder to make sure nothing gets lost.

- Another source of clutter is kids' artwork. Oh, don't get me wrong - they're all beautiful expressions of creativity, but you know we can't keep every drawing, macaroni art and and watercolor painting. To cut down on the clutter, start by picking out your favorites to keep and display. Select a box to keep in a closet where all kept artwork can go after new artwork replaces it. What about the ones that don't make the cut? They don't have to be gone forever - take a digital photo of each masterpiece before you toss it so you'll have a memory of it for years to come.

- Put everything in its place. So much clutter is simply stuff that needs to go back to its home. It's easy to leave something sitting out when you're in a hurry. Take the time to return everything to its proper home. If it doesn't have a drawer or box or container, find a spot for it or get rid of it.

- Don't be afraid to label it! Labels can help you find things quickly, and make sure everything gets returned back to the right place. This makes it easy for any member of the family to find what they need quickly and - more importantly - get it back to where it belongs! A personal labelmaker is worth the investment to help with this task.


To help you with your decluttering, I'm giving away a Dymo personal labelmaker and 2 refill cartridges! 

To enter, leave a comment below sharing what kind of clutter is the hardest for you to manage in your house! (mandatory entry)

For additional entries:

2. Leave a comment here with your best tip - other than the ones mentioned above! - for decluttering your house. (one entry - separate comment)
3. Follow me on Twitter @mommystory and tweet this contest leaving me a link here in the comments. (one entry)
4. Write a blog post about your own tips for decluttering your house and link back to this post. (1 entry - leave a comment here with your link)

Giveaway will close on Sunday, December 12 at 11:59pm ET. One winner will be selected by random drawing to win the labelmaker. Winner has three days after being contacted by e-mail to respond or another winner will be chosen in his or her place.

Good luck!

Full disclosure: This Dymo labelmaker is provided fully by myself. I was not approached by the company and received no compensation at all for this giveaway. Model #LT-100T.