Making Our House Smarter, One Light at a Time

Update: Congrats to Stacey G., the winner of our Leviton Decora Smart giveaway!

I love our house to pieces, but it's not very smart. We don't have a "smart" thermostat or any smart appliances, light bulbs, home security systems, etc. We do, however, have the Amazon Echo and the Echo Dot, so when Leviton gave us the opportunity to try their Decora Smart light switches, plugs and dimmers that work in conjunction with the Echo, we jumped at the opportunity.  

Make sure to scroll to the bottom of this post to enter our giveaway - you could win some Decora Smart switches, dimmers and plugs to try in your own home!

My husband completely geeked out about the Decora Smart technology and its ability to allow us to adjust our lighting in our favorite rooms simply by saying a few commands to the Echo or tapping a few buttons on our iPhones. He's really into this type of thing even when it's not "smart" by today's definition (he's done all of our electrical and home audio wiring), so when you add sleek modern technology to the mix, it's even more exciting for him.

Our first step was to decide what rooms would really benefit from this smart technology. Did we really need smart switches in our formal living and dining rooms that don't get used very often? Nope. But we did think it would be pretty fantastic to be able to go hands-free in our most-used rooms in the house: the playroom, the den and the master bedroom.

All three rooms have different reasons why the smart technology is useful, so I'll walk through how the Decora Smart products have made our lives easier in each place.

First, the playroom. This is the room where we first worked with Leviton on the decorating challenge - remember that? I loved my office so much. It's changed to accommodate the kids, but it's still one of my favorite spots in the house.

Just to the bottom left of the G bookshelf, you can see our Decora Smart plug that makes our gold task lamp from the thrift store suddenly a product of the 21st century.

We have another Decora Smart plug hidden behind the changing table that allows us to turn on this bike lamp with our voices, as well. The two are connected so they come on at the same time when we want the lights on in the playroom.

The playroom was the perfect place to try the Decora Smart plugs with Wi Fi technology, which allow you to turn on anything that plugs in to the wall--in our case, two lamps-- using your voice. (We used the Decora Smart line with Wi Fi technology that works with Amazon Echo or Google Home, but Leviton also has Decora Smart products that work with the Apple HomeKit or Z-Wave Plus Technology.) We spend a ton of time in the playroom with the kids, and as you can imagine, twin toddlers are a handful. To be able to walk into a dark playroom at 6 a.m. with a squirmy toddler in your arms and simply say, "Alexa, turn on the playroom lights," is an amazing luxury. It falls in the category of "I never knew I needed this but now I really don't want to function without it" category right alongside back-up cameras in our cars. (Seriously, what did I do before I had a back-up camera in my SUV? Somehow I survived before I had that technology, but I'll never go back to that.) Plus, it's just cool.

We took a quick video on my phone to demonstrate. (Pardon the noisy toddlers.)


The den is our happy place, where we go at the end of long days to curl up on the sofa and watch movies. My husband wanted an ideal home theater experience, so he'd already installed various recessed and overhead lights with dimmers to allow us to go from regular mode to full-on "movie mode."

See those three recessed lights above our built-in shelves? We used a Decora Smart switch with a dimmer to allow us to adjust those lights through our phone and/or voice command.

Since the husband is the real movie geek around here, I had him demonstrate how he takes the den from regular mode into "movie mode." Please enjoy our lack of professional video skills and general goofiness/discomfort being on camera. :)


Lastly, we smartened up the lights and ceiling fan in our master bedroom. As I mentioned before, we have twin toddlers. That means sleep is sacred. I do not mess around with my sleeping situation, and I embrace anything that makes it easier to catch some extra Z's. Thanks to the infomercials of my youth, I have always dreamed of clapping my hands and having my lights turn off automatically without me getting out of bed. Now I can do that by simply asking my pal Alexa to turn on the lights. Alexa already wakes us up in the morning, tells us what's going on in the world and plays music for us, so why not turn on our lights? Smart technology is so cool, am I right?

In this room we used two Decora Smart switches - one with a dimmer and one without - so we could control the four recessed lights and the ceiling fan.


 And in case you're wondering, the app is very simple to use. If you'd rather control your lights with your phone instead of your voice, you can do it that way as well.


And now for the fun part: GIVEAWAY TIME!

Would you like to make your home smarter? We are teaming with Leviton to give away a set of Decora Smart switches (a regular switch, a dimmer switch and a plug) worth $135 so you can try them yourself.

How do you enter? Leave a comment on this Facebook post explaining what room you would choose for the Decora Smart technology, and a winner will be chosen at random. The contest is open until midnight on Friday, July 14. Good luck!

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Custom DIY Media Cabinet

After living in this house for four years, we've gotten to the point where we have the major projects completed and we're starting to look around for smaller upgrades, little improvements we can make to our existing stuff that ups our game a little bit. Case in point: the media cabinet in our den. It wasn't anything special; it was just a damaged cabinet we got for a great price in the "as is" section at Ikea that I'd gotten really good at ignoring.

It wasn't until I was watching a recent episode of The Weekender, an online home improvement video series from Lowe's, that it even occurred to me that we could just build our own media cabinet and make something so much better than what we already had. In episode 9 of season 2, they designed a sleek media storage cabinet that spanned the entire length of one wall in the client's living room, providing tons of functional storage below an equally stylish mantel that ran the full length of the wall. It was a different style than we needed for our den, which is much more traditional in its architectural details, but the tutorial gave us the basics we needed to understand the process and customize it to our own home.

The husband outdid himself on this media cabinet, am I right? It's even better than I envisioned when I sketched it out.

DIY media cabinet

Ahh, so pretty! But before I share a million photos of our new cabinet, let me start at the beginning.

When you're building a custom piece of furniture and can design anything you want, it's overwhelming. I started sketching out concepts, and I was all over the place. I didn't like any of my ideas and that was frustrating. What finally helped me land on the winning design was picking out something we already had to inspire me -- in this case, I decided that I would use the custom DIY photo frames we made for the den to provide direction for the media cabinet. I loved the mix of the raw wood with the sleek black frames, and the touch of white really brightened up the frames against our dark grey walls.

Here was my initial sketch:

This cabinet was designed to be much bigger than our previous cabinet, scaled to match the width of both the TV and the speakers on the side so that it would be visually balanced. The overall design is modern but not too modern because we softened the hard edges by adding the shaker cabinet doors and the cutest chubby bun feet. (Picture me holding these bun feet up in our local Lowe's and embarrassing my husband by singing "I like big buns and I cannot lie." It was magical.) I decided to go for the white/natural paint scheme because our entire den has a nice mix of white and natural wood textures, so I thought it would be right at home. The matte black pulls added the perfect tie-in to the black photo frames, TV and AV equipment. 

Once I finalized my design, I handed the baton to the husband and told him to make me a gorgeous cabinet. And because we have twin toddlers and busy work schedules right now, he did his best to squeeze in carpentry time on weekends, during naps and late at night.

We put some considerable thought into what wood to purchase. I had no idea there were so many different types of plywood. It's mind boggling when you're standing in that aisle trying to figure out what to buy. (It makes me grouchy, but my husband thinks the lumber aisle is just delightful.) This is a helpful resource for how to choose the right plywood for your project. I didn't really care about the wood that would be painted white so I let Scott figure that out, but I did pick the wood for the doors because I wanted the right tone for the wood grain to shine through.

The box is built with one 4x8 sheet 3/4 inch maple plywood along with one 2x4 sheet of oak plywood. He used the maple for the outside and the top shelves (the part that would eventually be painted white) because one side was already primed to help with the painting process. He used the oak plywood for the bottom shelves inside the cabinet doors.

The cabinet doors are made with 1/2 inch oak plywood, and he used 4 select pine appearance boards (1 inch by 2 inch by 8 feet). You need to add the trim so that you have a smooth, finished edge instead of seeing the layers of the plywood. The backing board is a 2x4 sheet of 1/4 inch luaun plywood.

The first step was to make all of the cuts using a table saw. 

Then he used his Kreg jig to create pocket holes to join the shelves to the box. If you know someone who wants to get serious about carpentry, my husband was raving that the Kreg jig is a must-have item. (Father's Day gift, anyone?)

Once he had the pocket holes, he applied wood glue and used his impact driver to drive screws in and attach the shelves to the box.

Slowly but surely, our media cabinet started to take shape. 

He used 1-inch L-brackets to connect the top piece to the rest of the box without having to have screw holes in the top of the board.

Next step? Trim! He used his miter saw to cut the pine board to size and attached it to the box with wood glue and finishing nails.

Once the trim was finished, he used wood filler to conceal the seams and nail holes. If you haven't worked with wood filler before, you simply plug the seams and holes, let it dry and then use sandpaper to smooth the surface before painting.

It was amazing how much more polished the cabinet was once he finished the trim and added the bun feet. This is when I started getting very excited. I'm his biggest cheerleader during these projects, ha!

Then it was time to make the cabinet doors. He measured the dimensions of each bottom opening in the cabinet for his cabinet faces and then ripped 2.5" strips of the same plywood to create the shaker details. 

Finally, it was time to paint! We really dislike painting, but he sucked it up and did a great job. He used a 4" foam roller to apply two coats of primer and one coat of white paint (left over from the trim and built-in cabinets in our den) to the box and one coat of semi gloss polyurethane to the doors. We also used the poly to stain the bun feet, and they ended up matching the doors really well even though they are different types of wood.

After attaching the cabinet pulls to each door, he started installing the cabinet doors. I wanted them to pull down because I thought that made more sense with the proportions of the doors. They are wider than they are tall, so I thought it would be weird for them swing open like normal doors. We used the same inset hinges that they used in that Weekender episode and they work really well. 

Side note: We will need to baby-proof this cabinet quickly because I can see the twins opening these doors over and over just like every other cabinet in our home!

Lastly, he attached the backing board with finishing nails and used the hole saw bit for his drill to add a 1.25" hole in the back of each upper compartment to allow for the cords to pass through.

Then we were finally ready to let our new cabinet shine in our favorite room in the house!

I am so pleased with how all of the cabinet's finishes feel right at home in our calm, cozy den. The warm of the wood doors really works with our accent chairs and travertine floors. Our previous media cabinet was a medium grey color that blended in with the walls, but this new white cabinet really pops and brightens up that side of the room.

Of course I had to put my feet up and test the view from my favorite spot on the sofa!

This cabinet definitely took some time and effort, but we are so pleased with the result. It's a huge upgrade over our old media cabinet, and it makes this room feel so much more custom and expensive. I'm so impressed with my husband's ever-growing repertoire of carpentry skills. I'm already scheming about what custom furniture he's going to build us next, and he has no idea!

Let's talk about The Weekender:
The Weekender is a Lowe's original series that shows you how five simple projects can transform a room in one weekend. It features super-talented home blogger Monica Mangin of East Coast Creative, and it's really a great resource. I love the online format because I can watch it whenever I want. They are shorter than regular home makeover TV shows, so it's easy to squeeze two or three episodes into my lunch break at work. The project ideas and tutorials are really smart and easy to follow. You can watch it on the Lowe's YouTube channel or Apple TV, Roku and Fire TV. (We're Apple TV people ourselves.) If you're an interior design junkie like me who lives for a good room makeover, you should check it out.

This post is sponsored by Lowe's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support this blog.

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How We Stretch a Dollar

If you've followed this blog for a while, you know we take pride in saving money. We hardly ever buy anything at full price. If you come to our house, we'll beam with pride as we tell you which pieces of our furniture and decor came from thrift stores and garage sales. We buy appliances and electronics from the as-is section without blinking an eye. We just love a good deal.

Some ways to save money are obvious, while others a little more crafty. I thought I'd list off some of our best cost-saving methods here on the blog because I like nothing more than helping others save a buck. Because you know what's better than saving money? Helping someone else save money too so that you have someone to high-five about it!

Let me start with the most important principle of saving money in the Grantham household:

Saving money requires hustle. Let's take the main way we save money, doing DIY projects. Does it take longer and require more effort for us to do things ourselves, like when my husband saved us thousands by installing the backyard turf himself? Absolutely. But sometimes it's worth it. And you know those extreme couponers we hear about? They have my utmost respect. That takes serious dedication and hustle to run down those grocery bargains.

Luckily for me and our family's bank account, my husband doesn't have a lazy bone in his body. He will always pick up a penny off the ground, if you know what I mean. He calls it "money efficiency." (Yes, I rolled my eyes when he told me that.)

These are some of his favorite hustle tactics to save us money:

Embrace reward and loyalty programs
We've been huge fans of the Southwest Airlines credit card for a long, long time. We put as many of our living costs on this credit card every month and watch our Rapid Rewards grow and grow. Our pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was a Companion Pass, which allows one person to fly for free when the other person is flying. Unfortunately we finally earned it right before I went on bed rest with the twins. UGH! But even still, we were able to use it for 4 free flights during the twins' first year of life.

The key to that strategy is that you want to be able to pay off your credit card balance each month or you might find yourself in credit card debt. If you can comfortably pay off your monthly expenses before being charged interest each month, consider putting them all on a credit card with rewards to earn some extra value while you spend.

Call your cable/phone/internet provider
 This is something my husband does every so often, and it fascinates me every single time. He calls our cable/phone provider as soon as they raise our rate and negotiates it back down to the promotional rate, which is always a savings of at least $30 per month. He will literally stay on the phone with them for more than an hour because you know how hard they make it. That's where the hustle factor comes in. I would probably give up and just pay more, but not him. And he always, always wins. If you're not getting your provider to budge, mention that you've researched their competitor's prices and you're more than willing to switch. That usually gets their attention! When you're talking about a standing monthly fee like internet, phone, cable, etc., that money saved really adds up.

Buy secondhand, but be smart about it
Remember when I said we love to buy from thrift stores, Craigslist and garage sales? We do! We have scored some major, major bargains that make our house look like a million bucks. A recent favorite? This Restoration Hardware chandelier cost us $400 on Craigslist (which is admittedly really steep for a Craigslist purchase by our normal standards), but it retails for more than $1,100 on RH's website and it is the crown jewel of our patio. I LOVE IT SO, SO MUCH. Hooray, Craigslist!

Our rule of thumb when buying secondhand is that we want it to be at least 50% off retail price. Exceptions might be made if it's a one of a kind vintage item, but for things like the West Elm office chair we bought two weeks ago, we Googled it first to make sure we were getting it for at least half price even though it was practically brand new in box. If somebody is selling an Ikea dresser for $150 that sells for $200 new in the store, we're passing.

Sell your stuff
Not only do we buy a lot of things on Craigslist and Facebook, but we make a point to recoup costs by selling stuff whenever we can. And when I say "we," I mean Scott. He is so good at this! He started purging things a couple months ago - a car seat here, an old iPhone there, my dusty elliptical - and not only have we gotten rid of tons of clutter, but we are $1,000+ richer than when he started back in January. That's literally $1,000 we wouldn't have if he wasn't willing to randomly meet people in parking lots and spend a few minutes posting our stuff in the Facebook marketplace.

One of his favorite things to do is buy stuff on Craigslist or Facebook for really cheap, use it for a little while and then sell it for either the same price or even more than he paid originally. He's done this many, many times with tools and electronics. He'll see something better pop up on Craigslist, and he'll quickly sell his old tool for a profit before going to buy the new one. He's like a Craigslist ninja.

Not interested in the Craigslist life? Perhaps you're a single woman who isn't too keen on meeting strangers to make the exchange. You can try some other selling tactics, such as selling your gently used clothes (Plato's Closet, Clothes Mentor, Kid 2 Kid, Once Upon a Child). I do this a lot for our entire family's clothing and then I donate the rest. Or you can do it the old fashioned way by having a garage sale.

This is pretty commonplace, but it often pays to bundle services from the same company to negotiate a better rate. Not only does this work well with cable, internet and phone providers (not to mention car/home/life insurance), but you can try it for household services, such as "sharing" a lawn maintenance service with your neighbors so they only have to come to your neighborhood once to do 2-4 lawns in one stop.

Research and shop around
It really pays to do your due diligence before you make a big purchase, especially if you know exactly what you need. The internet is an amazing tool for comparing prices on any item under the sun. We'll spend days or weeks researching an item before we purchase. Not only do we compare prices, but we read reviews and study the features very hard to make sure we're getting the best value out of whatever product we're planning to buy.

Side note: Those daily sale sights we love so much (I personally look at Zulily almost every day before bed) do not always have the best prices. If you put something in your cart on a flash sale site, google it before you make the purchase. Sometimes the actual manufacturer is selling it for that exact same price on its own website in the clearance section. Make sure your "flash sale" is really a good discount before you buy it!
Price match
Did you know there are many companies who will match their competitors' prices even if they don't advertise it? We've had success price matching at big hardware stores, electronics stores and even stores that specialize in baby gear. Most of the time we just look up the Amazon price on our phone, and if it's cheaper than what we're about to pay in store, we just show them the Amazon price and they'll match it. The main requirements are that it must be the exact same model number and it must include the shipping cost.

We really don't buy anything without searching for price comparison first, even when shopping in person. Your phone is always a resource. Just tonight, we were standing at Target about to buy a wagon for the twins when we looked up the same wagon on Amazon and noticed it was more affordable there. That little bit of knowledge saved us $30-$40, and when I got in the car I bought it from Amazon.


We are not fans of having a lot of different credit cards for rewards (we only have Southwest) but we do participate in loyalty programs. In fact, I just earned $10 from DSW today because of some recent purchases. If the loyalty program is free and you shop there a lot, what do you have to lose?

Never buy anything at Hobby Lobby or Costco without their customary 40% off a single item coupon. In fact, never buy anything from anywhere without Googling it first to see if it has a coupon! This is especially true for online purchases. All it takes is entering the "[store name] discount" into your search bar to see if you can get a percentage off or even just free shipping. That extra 30 seconds is well worth it. 

Save on skilled labor
My husband has a couple of his own rules when it comes to finding skilled labor for the right price that have served him well so far. When possible, he tries to find skilled professionals (roofers, contractors, plumbers, etc) that are not employed by big companies. He looks for small companies or even one-man shops that don't have the overhead of a big company because that is often reflected in the prices. He judges a company by its website - if it's too nice, he keeps looking! That may not work for everyone, but that's one factor in his decision. And he always takes the extra time to get more than one price for every project just to be 100% certain that he's getting a fair deal.

If you are willing to contribute to the labor of the project - the grunt work or demolition, for example - you can offer to work with the professionals to get a bigger discount. Not only do you save money, but you usually learn new skills while you help them out. He did this with our huge patio cover project. He hired a professional framer and roofer - individuals, not companies - and worked alongside them during the entire project, helping with whatever he could while they did the highly specialized work.

Buy your own materials
If you're doing a big home project, consider buying your own materials to make sure you're not paying a middle man to track them down. Buy your own shingles for a roofing project. Buy your own paint even if you've hired painters. That way they can't mark up the cost of materials and you ensure you're only paying for the labor.

One thing I want to add is that I do believe time is money, so with each of these options you have to weigh the value of your time spent versus the money saved. Sometimes it simply isn't worth it.

As you can see, we aren't extreme couponers. I tried couponing for groceries and toiletries once, and I was really bad at it. You have to play to your strengths. Rest assured that we are not rich folk - he's a teacher, and I work at a nonprofit - so every little dollar saved helps.  I was raised to celebrate saving money and shopping the sale rack, and I get a little adrenaline rush every time we score a great deal.

Now that we've shared our tips for saving money, what are yours? Do you have anything to add to the list? I'm always looking for new ways to pinch pennies!

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