Circle of Stones: Interview with Nicola of Whichname?

February 26, 2010

I remember that the first time I visited Nicola’s blog, it was because I saw her blog name in a comment, and was super intrigued. It turned out to be a great thing, as I have been a daily reader ever since.

Hands down, what attracts me most to Nicola’s blog is her honesty. I am one of those people who loves to be inspired, but who also wants to feel connected, and able to relate to the person that I am reading. The honesty that Nicola puts forth, and the passion with which she writes creates all of those things.

While Nicola’s blog focuses on her family, her creativity, and her journey towards a balanced and simple life, she also writes a column for the Examiner on living on less. Frugality is a very serious issue in today’s world, and Nicola has certainly helped my family to find our way through some tough times.

The circle opens. Welcome Nicola

Heather, I can’t tell you how surprised and flattered I am to be included in this circle of stones. Thank you.

Give us a sense of your family life

We live in a small house in the beautiful, diverse San Francisco Bay Area, a stone’s throw from where my husband, Mike, and I both grew up. Mike’s job demands some very long days from him and I am now home full time with our two children. Mike’s work schedule plays very heavily into our current reason for being frugal, our desires to strive for balance, and goals to change this arrangement so that we can have more time together as a family.

Mike and I have been together for 14 years now and married for 8. He’s my best friend. We have a 5 year old girl, Isabella (who goes by Lala or Bella much of the time and are how I often refer to her on my blog), and a 2 year old boy, Finnian. Isabella is in kindergarten now at a small, music intensive charter school, which we are all extremely happy with. Finn is with me full time. We seem to fill the days with constant entertainment by loving, eager grandparents in the area, stretches during which my brother is here quite a lot, a small playgroup, and I am very blessed to have a close friend with girls our kids’ ages. Once a week I borrow her two year old so she gets time off, and once a week she takes Finn, giving me a break.

Mike and I grew up in the same city (how we got together is its own story and he and my brother are best friends), so when we decided to start a family, we chose to settle here to be near our families. It was important to us to have our kids know their grandparents intimately. Being near extended family has been a blessing and a challenge. We were so fortunate that both our moms retired shortly before Isabella was born and she was in their care for a long stretch after her birth, when Mike and I both had to return to work.

You write the amazing blog Which Name? as well as a column for your local newspaper on simple and frugal living in every day life. How did this subject come to be of such importance for you

That is such a compliment coming from you, Heather! I grew up in a frugal household. My parents worked really hard to earn the lifestyle they wanted for themselves and for my brother and me. It paid off and that is a powerful lesson. I never felt deprived, I never remember wanting for anything, and I felt empowered knowing how to have control over my saving and spending. My parents learned a lot about respecting money and working hard for it from their parents. To this day, my paternal grandma is quite frugal and inspires me with her lifestyle to strive for balance in mine. I have always been frugal, but the reasons for it have changed as my life has changed. Mike has always been frugal as well, although his reasons for it were different than mine when we met. He and I never argue about money, which is something I try never to take for granted.

What kind of changes have you had to make since having children to keep both a sense of beauty and creativity alive, but on a budget

Prior to having children, Mike was the more creative of the two of us. In college, he needed a bed and didn’t have the money to buy one, so he borrowed some tools and built one. That opened the door to a passion for woodworking. He has a head for details, so he picked it up quickly and has made some beautiful pieces of furniture and other crafts over the years, often from recycled materials. When pregnant with Isabella, we bought our home and his woodworking skills have been put to use slowly updating our fixer-upper. Before Isabella, I would not have called myself creative, although I grew up in a home with a amateur photographer for a dad and a weaver and librarian for a mom. I suppose all I was exposed to got tucked away for the day I had children of my own.

We’ve made a number of changes since the birth of our daughter 5 years ago, the most significant of which was my move to a full time roll at home when my grant-funded job ended just after the birth of our son. Since that time, my own sense of self has gone through several lifetimes as I adjusted from the roll of a working parent of one child to the roll of stay-at-home parent of two. It was during this transition that my creative juices really began flowing. I was really struggling with who and where I was in my own life until Finn was around 1 year old. Then, in February of last year, I happened upon the photography blog, Shutter Sisters, where they were hosting a “one word project.” The idea was to pick a word and then photograph and post daily on that word’s theme for a month. It was February and I chose “love.” For some reason, that was a change point for me, despite photography not being part of my daily world prior to that. For the next couple months, each month, I focused on a creative theme of some sort. February was photography, March was food, April was sewing. By the time I hit May, I felt so much more settled in my life with my kids. I felt as though I had so much more happiness within myself because I was focusing on something for myself, separate from (although so often inspired by) my kids, and that made me a better mom. It also propelled me into the blogging world, both in the attention I paid to my own blog as a creative way to express myself, and in my interest in other blogs as a source of inspiration and community.

I think it is the nature of children to inspire beauty and creativity. One cannot be passionate about their children without beauty and creativity. It wasn’t until I embraced this that my artistic side came out. Now I see beauty in so many little things and I rediscover so much every day, just watching my children discover new things.

Budgeting and creativity are symbiotic. Frugal living thrives on creativity. If you want to spend as little money as possible, you have to get creative with how you use the money you have. In our home, our creativity dominates as cooking, sewing, photography, paper art, and woodworking. I buy thrift store bedding for sewing material, I use a hand-me-down sewing machine, we’ve used a simple point and shoot camera for the past 5 years, we use recycled paper and cardboard, and we love salvaged wood.

You have a wonderful series through your blog on finding balance. Can you share a bit about how that is going for you, and what your thoughts were when you first wrote it

Last year, our family challenged ourselves to try to buy nothing new for the year. We had successes and failures, and learned a lot. The process led to a huge number of changes for us as we tried to incorporate all we had learned, and I felt there were just not enough hours in the day to do all that we needed and wanted to do. As we rolled into 2010, this feeling was hitting me intensely in a stressful, not just exhausting, way, and is what ultimately pushed me to strive for better balance.

As I mentioned above, Mike is gone from the home a large part of the day. We have extended family demands on our time that we try to meet in a realistic and healthy way, and we live in a fixer upper. Our schedule has felt unsustainable. Our goals are to take a step at a time towards balancing our needs and wants for each day and for our life on the whole. Mike and I have been wanting more. More time together outdoors, more personal creative time, more sleep, more exercise, and some day, we want to live somewhere a bit more rural and be a bit more self-sufficient. Not all of this can happen overnight, but identifying it together really helped me realize what our priorities are and to start shuffling our schedule to make some of those things happen. (Much like a budget, in fact! Take a little time from one place and add it to another, so it is with money in a budget.) Friends and family, both offline and on, have seen a little less of us, but I am certain they all understand and support our efforts to step toward balance.

I am really pleased with how it is going. Although I posted several times in January about striving for balance, it wasn’t until the beginning of February that I took the plunge to commit myself publicly to a monthly goal. My goal for February has been to shut the computer for the bulk of the day. That has been very successful and I am almost embarrassed to admit that the kids and I are more in sync (dare I use the word rhythm?) and there are fewer squabbles as a result of my not being distracted by email and blogs. Technology is amazing, connecting, and informative, but it can detract from a peaceful home. I have been missing my regular visits with my blog friends, however, and catching up is hard. Mike has his own goals, which I am not blogging about, but I am supporting in any way I can. He is passionate about woodworking and old cars, so among his goals is making more time to devote to these creative outlets.

Do you see that your children are better adjusted in a materialistic world for all that you have shared about how to live with what we have, rather than trying to accumulate more

My brother recently laughed and commented that mine might be the only children who know what arugula and bok choy are, but don’t know any of the Disney characters. I know we aren’t alone, but I took that as a compliment! We don’t watch television, so they don’t see advertising, but Isabella is now exposed to a more materialistic world through school. The exposure hasn’t made her more materialistic or greedy beyond what is age appropriate, and for that I am grateful. I hope as they get a little bigger, our frugality will have the same impact on them that my parents’ had on me. I do feel as though there is a balance in teaching our kids a mature way to handle money while not leaving them with feelings of deprivation. Our daughter recently began receiving an allowance. Inspired by family friends, we have divided it so she saves half and is allowed to spend half. The spending half is kept in her own wallet in my bag, so that when the “I wants” happen at the store, she has her own money to count out and spend if she has enough. She has a passion for shoes, so recently spent her entire wallet full of spending money on a pair of used shoes.

We live in an incredibly materialist world. This bothers me so much, more for environmental reasons, than economic ones. It is in part for this reason that we spent a year trying not to buy anything new. That challenge brought forth the observation of how much one can accumulate used, for so little spent. One can acquire quite a lot, so being frugal doesn’t always mean non-materialistic. It is for this reason that, this year, we are allowing new purchases again, but what we bring into our home must be useful or serve some purpose.

What brings balance and joy to your life, and the life of your family

Time together, outdoors, always leaves us feeling refreshed and rebalanced. Even if the moments are short or scattered (we do have young children, after all), if we are focused on ourselves as a family, our time together is very grounding for me.

Since becoming a mom, I have gotten much better at asking for what I need, limiting my commitments to those I can handle, and accepting help. And good communication with those around me brings me comfort and calm.

And at the risk of repeating myself, stopping and appreciating the little things really does help me appreciate all that we have. We are incredibly fortunate!

What do you find to be your most fulfilling activities, as not just a mother or wife, but someone seeking out a creative and fulfilling life

I am excited and motivated every time I complete a project, no matter how small or how successful. I long to be more self-sustaining, so I find doing it myself, no matter what “it” is, is incredibly fulfilling, even if it is trial and error. We learn as much from mistakes as successes, sometimes more.

I am fulfilled when I sneak a moment in for crafting. Lately, my head has been brimming with ideas, but little is coming to fruition. Soon!

And these days, often just as I am hitting a breaking point, it is something trivial that slows me down, calms me, and brings me a smile; teaching my daughter to tie her shoes, sewing something simple yet useful, baking bread, taking a walk with my children, playing with pebbles at the beach, noticing the way the sunlight is peeking around a rain cloud and bouncing off the cherry blossoms. These small things fulfill me.

What have been the best parts of sharing your knowledge and life with the online community
Without a doubt, the reciprocation. I have learned a lot from this online community. I feel I have somehow lucked into the most motivating group of individuals, all of whom are kindred spirits.

You have an incredible honesty about you Nicola, and I think that it really draws people to you. How hard is it for you to make the decision to put yourself out in a world of people that you have never met

The honesty has come easily for me. In fact, I think sometimes I am too forthcoming! I have gotten much better at moderating myself on my blog and writing thoughtfully, rather than hastily. It is actually easier for me to put myself out there on my blog, knowing that I am not sitting with anyone, saying what I am saying face to face. My mom, my grandma, and some of my friends read my blog, so I would get caught if I tried to make life sound too perfect, I do wonder what they really think, and I do get self-conscious about some of my more personal posts when they come up in conversation.

This is all a work in progress for me. It is never my intention to preach to others, because I am not yet at the point of living one hundred percent of my own beliefs, and I don’t have all the answers. Blogging has helped me admit when I am wrong (it is right there in writing!) and the process of thinking and writing helps me let go.

Life isn’t perfect, and although I am increasingly finding the need to focus on the positive to keep myself moving in a positive direction in my own life, I know I am not alone in the daily trials we all encounter. I am so motivated by other bloggers who “keep it real.” They have been motivation for me to do the same.

What do you consider to be the most important principles in living a frugal life

Frugality is a tool that allows you be in control of your money, not the other way around. Living a thrifty lifestyle forces you to be aware of how and where you are spending your money, it frees you to spend money on the parts of your budget that mean the most to you, and one of the most positive things about it, for me, is how closely linked frugal and environmentally-friendly living are.

For people who are interested in a more simple and frugal way of life, what would be your best piece of advice

I think simple and frugal living are tangential and related, but separate paths. Sometimes, being frugal can be outright complicated. I am still on my own journey towards simplicity. Perhaps, if I had to choose one word to define the goal of my steps toward balance, it might be simplicity, so my advice would be one step at a time. I think advice on how to be frugal can be a bit more practical. For that, I urge anyone interested to start by keeping track of all your spending for at least a month. Even now, when I do this, I am continually surprised at how much can slip away on the most mundane purchases. With this knowledge in hand, you can see where how you spend your money, where you spend the bulk of it, and you can decide what your priorities are. This is an excellent starting point from which to create a personal budget.

Nicola has put together a super quick project that reuses a child’s or adult’s dress shirt, and that may I just say I fell in love with yesterday afternoon. I was in need of some creativity, but I literally had about 6 minutes to spare. I read through the project, and made one for my husband’s laundry while traveling. Thank you Nicola

Hanging shirt bag

The weather here has been fickle, but in a recent burst of sunshine, I cleaned my outdoor clothesline, lugged my basket of laundry outside, and cringed at my clothespin bag. I wanted to replace it, didn’t have much time, and wanted to use materials I had on hand. The resulting bag took 5 minutes to make and used a button up shirt of my son’s. Simply press, button closed, and straight stitch the bottom hem shut. For good measure, stitch the sleeves shut as well.

I inserted a child’s sized hanger, filled it with clothespins and immediately began using it. The bag could be decoratively used for anything: small toys, diaper wipes or accessories, small books, socks, you name it.
You can use an adult sized shirt and hanger for this project as well, and use the result bag for laundry or other bigger, bulkier items.

Thank you so much to Nicola for taking the time to share her sweet life and incredible knowledge with all of us.

To learn more about Nicola, please visit her blog, as well as her frugal living section of the Examiner.

Happy weekend!

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Joy February 26, 2010 at 1:15 pm

I'm so glad you included Nicola in this series. She's so fascinating, and I really enjoyed getting to know her better through this forum. 🙂


Francesca February 26, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I love this hanging shirt bag Nicola put together: such a simple and frugal solution to a (clothespin) problem – which is the reason I was drawn to Nicola's blog in the first place, her constant quest for solutions and for improving her life (and the world).


cat February 26, 2010 at 2:00 pm

I just love her…she's commented on my blog as well and i find myself going to her's when i need a dose of inspiration…thanks for the wonderful interview and introduction to this beautiful mama!


adirondackmama February 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Ahh Nicola…she and I seem to have issues seeing each other's comments( darn IntenseDebate!), but I really love her blog. Such great ideas and energy, that girl has.

Such a wonderful interview as always, Heather.


Gypsy Forest February 26, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Lovely 🙂 Nicola is such a sweetheart and that little project is now on the to do list for me 🙂


larissa February 26, 2010 at 3:10 pm

What a wonderful interview – i really enjoyed meeting Nicola! i will definitely check out her space as we have been practicing living simply and buying very little lately. i love that she carries her daughters wallet in her purse so that her girl can make her own purchases. i too have started giving my kiddos a large enough allowance so they can do the same but i leave it up to them to remember and carry their wallets and when they forget i have to make them a loan – while that provides a great learning opportunity it's not nearly as cool as counting out your own money at the store. thanks for this interview Heather. Have a wonderful weekend!


Earth Mama February 26, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Another great interview… Heather and Nicola. Nicola is definitely a very inspirational blogger for sure. I'm so glad that I have found her and such an inspirational blogging community here.



kyndale February 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Congrats Nicola! What a great interview!!!


Nicola @ Which Name? February 26, 2010 at 4:13 pm

heather, thank you so much for inviting me to participate!


Andrea February 26, 2010 at 5:05 pm

Wonderful interview. As I find myself at a time in my life when I want/need to simplify and scale back again, she provided just the inspiration. Thanks to both of you.


Kyce / Old Recipe February 26, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Thanks for giving us a chance to know the wonderful Nicola a little better.


briar February 26, 2010 at 7:15 pm

alwayss enjoy the circle of stones, and find inspiration in them – thanks x


Kelly February 26, 2010 at 8:37 pm

One of my daily reads, what a treat to read this interview. Thanks!


Its_Lily February 26, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I love Nicola's blog and I'm delighted to see her as a part of the Circle of Stones. I wish I could meet her in person.


AG Ambroult February 27, 2010 at 2:55 am

SO glad to have found Nicola this past year, she has inspired me more than she may suspect. She took the words out of my mouth when she said that she feel like she "lucked into the most motiviating group of indivduals, all of whom are kindred spritis"

that shirt bag is fantastic. Cracked me up and it's just my styule of sewing 😉


GinnySheller February 27, 2010 at 4:17 am

Thanks for featuring Nicola, I do enjoy her blog.


Nicola @ Which Name? February 27, 2010 at 6:58 am

still, julia?! unless you have commented on my blog really recently, all yours are coming through now and i check my spam filter every couple of days. darn technology!


renee @ FIMBY February 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Thank you Heather for interviewing one of my favorite bloggers! Thank you Nicola for the thoughtful answers, your usual honesty, candor and creative (& intelligent spirit). I personally think more of us mama bloggers need to spend less time on-line, myself included. It's hard. But your example is encouraging.


Imene February 27, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Lovely interview. I am glad to get to know more about Nicola. I love visiting her blog and reading her comments on mine.
Thank you for a chance to get to know her better


renee February 28, 2010 at 4:34 am

So enjoyable, I feel I learned much more about Nicola, thank you for the interesting interview.


jessica February 28, 2010 at 1:10 pm

This was terrific! I loved finding and then reading through Nicola's blog! I completely agree with her views on simple and frugal living…she is so eloquent!


Jennifer February 28, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I too love Nicola and her blog! I have to agree that we are in a wonderful group of kindred spirits here. The hanging shirt bag is something I will definitely be making; I've envied my mom's clothes pin bag for years! Now I can make my own!


kerry March 1, 2010 at 7:46 pm

I just love this series Heather. So glad to see Nicola's interview here.


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