Changes

Sorry to neglect you guys. There have been some HUGE changes in my life the past few months. HUGE.

1. My sons were diagnosed with sensory disorders (autism, developmental delay, and ADHD & Asperger's Syndrome, respectively. More info here and here).
2. My mother is battling breast cancer. So are two of her three sisters (she's out of contact with the third).
3. We bought a house.
4. Honestly, many more things that I just don't want to think about right now :P

I haven't abandoned the blog completely, and even hope to post some advice on frugal home buying and frugal home improvements in the relatively near future. But right now I'm just TIRED.

Valentine's Wreath

*I still have a few Christmas posts to catch up on--I got sick on Christmas Eve, and there hasn't been a SINGLE day since that every person in my house was healthy! In any case, I'll come back to it eventually, but I wanted to get this wreath up before Valentine's Day passes!*

I was inspired to do this one after reading Tabitha's post over at Happy Cake Crafts. I saw her post around the time I was packing away all of my Christmas decorations, and I was having some trouble throwing away all those ornaments we made. So I thought, "I wonder if I could recycle some of those into my Valentine's wreath?" And away I went . . .



This was the base wreath I used. I have had this $1 wreath since 2001--the beads and whisps of silver vine wrapped around it were left over from my wedding! And No, I didn't take them off. It might have looked better if I had, but I didn't want to. I can occassionally be stupidly sentimental :P



These are the items I kept from our Christmas tree for the wreath--Applesauce & Cinnamon Hearts and metallic chenille stems bent into the shape of words. I had also laid aside some of the adorable paper birds we made, but SOMEONE decided those were trash.



All of these materials were salvaged from Christmas gifts I received, and would have otherwise ended up in the trash. There are some wide red satin ribbons with velcro on them that were on pajamas that I didn't end up using for this project after all, but I'm sure they'll find a place in a future project. The narrower red grosgrain ribbon over on the left came from a small bath set Santa left in my stocking, and the red cardstock is a tag that was on the pajamas. I wish I had taken better pictures just of the card, because I'm very proud that I used it again rather than just toss it out.



And this is my ribbon stash, from which I pulled a two-yard piece of red ribbon. I bought these ribbons in 'sachets' at Joann fabric (they are also available at Hobby Lobby and most other craft stores). The sachets usually contain about 30 pieces of ribbon, each 2 yards long, and they sell for $1-$2 a bag usually. I always look through the side of the bag to see if there's anything in there I want--the gorgeous ribbons in the picture were sharing a sachet with what look suspiciously like bra straps :P. Still, though, Joann was having a sale, and I bought all of these (plus my rejects, which filled another tote this size) for about $3. The pink ribbon I ended up using for the hearts is not pictured-I bought it on clearance for $0.10.

See how I did such a good job of taking pictures of my materials? Well, then you should forgive me for not taking pictures as I went along :P Since I don't have photos, I'll do a quick overview of the steps, then show you the finished product.

1. Assemble all materials you may want to use. Having some thin florist's wire, glue or hot glue, and double-sided tape on hand might also be useful.

2. I cut the piece of cardstock into the shape of a heart, punched a hole, and threaded the grosgrain ribbon through it. If you look closely, you'll see that the cardstock is embossed with a bird surrounded by vines--I tried to make sure the bird was roughly centerred.

3. Next, I threaded some of the pink ribbon through the Applesauce & Cinnamon hearts, being careful that they were suspended in the opposite direction as the cardstock heart (ornaments from the left side, cardstock heart from the right side). This isn't necessary, of course--just personal preference.

4. I wrapped the sheer ribbon around the wreath, then tied it and tucked it into the back. I didn't glue it or tape it to make it easier to change the wreath.

5. Next I suspended the hearts from the wreath. I hung the ornaments from the backside of the wreath first, then the cardstock heart from the front side to give it a bit more dimension. You can't see it in my less-than-stellar picture, but I tied a large floppy bow at the top of the wreath with the excess grosgrain ribbon.

6. I tucked the words (and a heart) around the wreath.

That's it! Easy as could be, cost me nothing since I had everything around the house, and now I have a touch of girly on my front door. With three little boys, it's about the only touch of girly in this house :D



I do think it is a bit bare, and adding those three little birds would have taken care of that. But with just a tiny bit of tweaking, you could do the same thing with a tired wreath around your house!

Other ideas:

I don't have time for my favorite spring wreath project this year, but if you manage to do one, please send me some pictures so I can post them on the blog!

Materials: Wire clothes hanger, either two boxes of clear sandwich bags (not ziploc, the fold-over type) or a box of white kitchen trash bags, decorations.

Bend the clothes hanger into a rough circle. If you chose white trash bags (my favorite, but definitely more work), make yourself a cardboard square template about the size of a sandwich and cut the trashbags into squares (don't worry about perfection at this point--you can do clean up later). If using sandwich bags, unfold the 'lip' on each bag as you go (You could also cut each one into two squares by cutting all the seams and across the bottom, but that's a lot of extra work, and the wreath looks about the same whichever method you use). Tie each square onto the hanger, making sure you turn them slightly as you go to create fullness. As you go along, occassionally push all of the tied squares to one side of the wreath, both to give you room to work and so you can see the progress you're making. When the entire wreath is covered, grab a sharp pair of scissors, hang the wreath on a wall or door, and step back from it. You'll easily see any ragged edges that need to be trimmed. Once trimmed, decorate as you wish. For Valentine's day, you can easily bend the wreath into a heart shape--though I suggest doing this AFTER tyying the plastic on!

Frugal Holidays: Handmade Decorations. The Best Things in life . . .

I've heard dozens of endings to 'the best things in life . . . '. Small packages, are free, whatever. But today, I found myself thinking that the best Christmas presents come home in my children's backpacks. My preschoolers' packs were such a treasure trove today that I honestly feel like I should send their teacher a thank you note! And of course, since they're projects for small children, they could be easily and frugally replicated, even made more sophisticated, by an adult. or not--they're seriously precious as they are :D




These snowmen are cut out of a thin, quilted fabric (not sure if you can find this fabric for a good price, but placemats from the dollar tree should work). They then have black glittery fabric hats, tiny black craft dots for the buttons and eyes, a scrap of fabric for the scarf, and tiny scraps of fabric for the mouth and nose. Cut it all out, glue it together, and you're done.



This one is from my kindergartener, and they may have bought kits (or even premade ornaments) but you could easily replicate this one with craft foam or even wood. Find a coloring book picture of a train engine (Like these or this one )to use as a template. Cut out the base train from craft foam and a piece of cardstock. Cut out the smaller pieces from a different color of craft foam. Cut a rectangle slightly smaller than your picture in the craft foam, where the 'engineer' would sit. Put it all together :D




These were made from craft foam, but you could also make them from cardboard, cardstock, construction paper, or even disposable plates! Again, just cut out the shape and glue on whatever you have lying around for the features. And of course, you could do them in actual gingerbread, and use chocolate chips, candy, and/or icing for the features.

I definitely saved the best for last--these next two are my favorites. They would also make lovely gifts for grandparents or other relatives.






*no idea why this is on it's side. I'm going to have to do some research on blogger's photo uploads :( *

This is not an ornament I've seen done before, but it is beautiful (at least to the mommy of the handprint owners :P). Put white paint on the child's hand, and gently induce them to grab the ornament (one of my twins' smeared his a little). After the paint dries, use permanent markers or paint markers to draw the hats and other features necessary to turn each 'finger' into a snowman! Turn the ornament around, write the child's name and the year, attach a card with the poem, and you're done. In case you can't read it, the poem on the attached card is:

These aren't just five snowmen
As anyone can see
I made them with my hand
Which is a part of me.
Now each year when you trim the tree
You'll look back and recall
Christmas of 2010
When my hand was just this small.


*sorry it's on it's side. No idea why :( *

This one isn't technically an ornament, but I love it so much I wanted to include it. My mother has two of these, framed--one I did, and one my brother did. The handprints are (of course) the child's handprints, and the poem in the center reads:

Sometimes you may get discouraged
Because I am so small
And always leave my fingerprints
On furniture and walls.
But everyday I'm growing
I'll be grown up someday
And all those tiny handprints
will surely fade away.
So here's a final hand print
Just so you can recall
Exactly how my fingers looked
When I was very small.

And now I understand why my mother always gets teary eyed when she looks at those framed prints my brother and I made.

Frugal Holidays: Snowcream & variations

You can thank Tabitha over at Happy Cake...and Other Fabulous Things for inspiring this post. She made buttercream flavoured snow cream, and her recipe uses skim milk.

I'm not sure if it's an Appalachian thing or if snow cream is universal, but Tabitha and I were both amused to find out we had both made snow cream the morning of our second big snow of the season. As I mentioned, she used a more modern recipe, while I used my grandma's traditional recipe :D

Ingredients:
1 giant bowl of snow (I used a large popcorn bowl)
1 can of sweetened condensed milk (the small cans)
about 1/3 cup of sugar (to taste)
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract

Stir it all together and enjoy! For those who have never had it, snow cream has a different texture than ice cream. It almost feels sandy or gritty--don't worry, it's not dirt, it's the ice crystals. The mixture will also look odd in the bowl (a little dough-like) but it's supposed to look that way.

As Tabitha and I chatted about our snowcream, I mentioned that I wished I had had some peppermint extract to add in, or even cinnamon. Which led us to talk of schnapp's, and how yummy snowcream would be with some Buttershots or other flavoured liqueur. Experiment to your hearts content--if your roads are as bad as ours, you shouldn't be driving anyway! :D

This morning, my six year old asked for his own version of snow cream. He really doesn't like 'sweets' that much (yeah, definitely not MY genes there), and he was very specific about what he wanted. We should give him a bowl with just snow. Then we should put more snow into a glass, cut an orange in half, and squeeze the juice over the snow. He's eating that right now, and seems to be as enthralled with it as his parents are with snow cream.

Handmade ornaments: A few I missed

Our tree is probably 80% complete, and I find that I'm ok with it being a work in progress. I'm surprised by this, since usually I spend a few days getting the tree 'perfect', then the next couple of weeks freaking out everytime someone brushes against it, wants to add something, or god forbid MOVES an ornament :P

There are several orphan ornaments on our tree that haven't yet made it into blog posts (like the chenille stem 'snowflakes' my six year old made that I forgot to take a picture of), but here's a few of the one hit wonders.



Tried to do some snowflakes with Victor. Problem was, I forgot how to fold them, so he got frustrated when he cut his first one, unfolded it, and it was just a mess :P So, we have two large ones on our tree--one John did to remind me how to fold the paper, then one I did--and a tiny one that I did from the middle I cut out of my large one. This is a pic of the tiny one--my favorite, of course :P



**You can view the bow and instructions HERE.**

This 'onion ornament' is just strips of scrap construction paper. The center strip is the shortest, the next two out on either side slightly longer, then longer on the next two until the last two are the longest. I lined the tops up until they were even, put a staple in, then bent each of the other strips until they were even with the bottom of the center (shortest) strip, then stapled again. After finishing it, I decided I didn't really like it, and that there was no real value in trying to make them with the boys. The next day, I saw it was on the tree. Honestly, this was in the middle of my fever, so I just assumed I had done it without thinking and went on with my day. A few days later, I had this conversation with Victor.

V: Mommy, did you see the onion ornament on the tree?
Me: yes, I did see it. Why?
V: Because I put it on there.
Me: You did? Why?
V: Because onions have layers, and ogres and people have layers, too, and it's important that we all remember how pretty those layers can be. That onion ornament shows the pretty layers.

Who could argue with that?




This is exactly what it looks like, and so much more :D My son brought this picture of a gingerbread man home from school. Victor is incredibly intelligent--as in, his IQ is in the 130s--but he has been having serious adjustment issues at school. His fine motor skills aren't that great, and he hates anything involving drawing, coloring, or writing (things he thinks he isn't good at). This is the first picture he's brought home of something he drew that he was proud of. Yes, an 8.5 X 11 inch sheet of paper looks a little awkward on my Christmas tree. But that's exactly where this masterpiece belongs, as a testament to how hard Victor has been working the past few months.

Pictures

I'm adding some pictures to the posts from the past few weeks (you're welcome, Tabitha :D). They're not great--I took them with my cell. Sorry about that. I wanted to get some pictures up, and the big camera was just too much hassle :P I don't feel quite as much like a walking germ factory any more, but there's still some sinus and breathing issues, and I'm SO tired :( I have no energy for the millions of things I have to do in the next eleven days!

Anyway, Enjoy! And here's our tree so far:

Fun with your kids

I'm sick. Like, so-miserable-I-woke-myself-up-two-dozen-times-with-whining sick. And my husband had the audacity to refer to this plague as 'just a head cold'!!

In any case, I'm not really blogging tonight. I just thought I'd send my three readers over to Tabitha Black's Happy Cake . . . blog for her latest post, 'Crafting With Kids." There are some great (and frugal) ideas to help keep the munchkins busy on the upcoming snowdays. You might even find a few that will keep them from destroying the house while you're sick in bed :D

Handmade Ornaments --Birds of a feather . . .

Fever or just wry sense of humor is to blame, but so far I've come up with "Birds of Foam Never Leave Home" and "Birds of Paper Flutter and Caper". Yes, I know they're both groan-worthy. Give me a break :D

This may be my favorite ornament so far. I stole the template from This project over on Martha Stewart's site. I actually printed out two copies of Martha's template, cut them out, then glued them all onto one sheet (you can fit 6 onto one sheet). I didn't do this so much to save paper but rather to make it easier for my little ones to color them. I printed them out onto construction paper, let the little ones choose which color paper they wanted, then turned them loose with some crayons. After they were done, I cut them out and assembled them. They're really cute on the tree-the construction paper is just thick enough to hold it's form, but fragile enough that they flutter and move just a little.




This is one of the ones the boys did.


This is my favorite. Amazing what you can do with construction paper and crayons.




A few more.

We also did a few in craft foam. The craft foam ones are more 'polished', but my little ones can't really help decorate those, and they don't look as fragile on the tree. With older kids, though, the craft ones could be really nice, because of all the embellishments you could add.




I'm sure there are other designs out there that would look just as awesome, and possibly even more materials. I'm currently brainstorming a way to do them in fabric that doesn't involve a pound of starch or lots of layering and sewing :P. One note--I hated what my oldest calls the 'tails' on the template I used, and actually just nixed it on several birds. I played with placement, cutting a slit, using glue, and I just never got a 'look' that I loved. Maybe it's just personal taste, but if we do these next year, our birds will be tail-feather-less :D

Handmade Ornaments--Words to live by


This is an uber-simple one that I found in Ready Made magazine this month. In the magazine, they used the idea to make placecards for dinner, but we used it for the kid's names as well as holiday words (Love, Joy, Peace, Hope). Simply bend chenille stems (pipe cleaners) into the shape of the name or words of your choice. I printed the boys' names out in a regular word processor file in a script font (I can't remember the font size, but it was about three inches high). This is to use as a guide, and honestly I found it unnecessary after I had done a few, and did the words freehand. It did take two, sometimes three pipecleaners to make the boys' names, which are 5 and 6 letters long. I used metallic chenille stems in green, red, gold, and silver that I had picked up for $0.50 for a pack of 50 at a thrift store, but I just saw similar ones at the dollar tree this weekend.



One minute to express your gratitude

No matter what your position on the wars we are involved in, the state of the country, or the military overall, we have hundreds of thousands of service men and women away from their homes and families right now so that we don't have to be. While I may disagree with the politicians, I have infinite respect and support for our military service members.

This site allows you to send a postcard to a service member. It literally takes a minute--choose a card designed by a child, then either choose a pre-written message or write your own, and tell them where you're from and your name (I put 'A Grateful Mom'). That's it. One minute of your life to brighten the day of a service member.

A frugal ornament we won't be trying.

UPDATE: After much discussion, we ARE going to use this technique. YEAH!! We needed something spectacular for the topper, and our six year old insists a tree topper MUST be a star, so we're going to attempt this technique for the star for the top of our tree!! I'll try to post a pic!

I ran across this idea this morning, and it's great!! Beautiful ornaments for your tree, very inexpensive, and a science lesson for the kids! My only fear is that my sensory-issues three year old would try to eat them, and part of the reason we skipped 'real' ornaments this year was because I'm tired of calling the pedi about something he's put in his mouth--I can only imagine the reaction if I told him he ate Borax!! :P Anyway, ingredients and materials for this one:

Pipe Cleaners/Chenille stems
boiling water
Borax (The same Borax used for my frugal laundry detergent is perfect)
Jars or containers deep enough to hold your ornament suspended in the solution
string and sticks, pencils, or other objects to suspend your ornaments from.

1. Fashion your ornaments out of your pipe cleaners. I think snowflakes would be pretty. You could also do spirals, abstract shapes, spell out someone's name or Merry Christmas (another idea I saw in Ready Made this month, and one I might be trying later), whatever shapes suit your fancy. If you feel artistically-challenged, then how about bending your pipe cleaner around a cookie cutter to get the shape?

2. Suspend your ornament from your stick or pencil. Be sure it fits inside the jar, bowl, or other container you've chosen, and that the stick is long enough to balance across the rim.

3. Mix together your solution with a ratio of 3 TB (Tablespoons) Borax to each cup of boiling water. One teacher said she did this with her class, and they used 2 Cups of Borax to 10 Cups of water. Stir until Borax is mostly dissolved.

4. Submerge your ornament in the solution. Leave in the solution for 12-24 hours. Then pull out your beautiful, crystal covered ornament and enjoy! Out of reach of children :P

Source Article

Advent

We don't really 'do' advent, for a multitude of reasons--not the least of which is that it usually ends up with a bunch of little toys or extra candy calories that I don't personally feel really add to the holiday spirit. But I did want to prolong the holiday a bit, and have some special family time. So, in addition to our homemade decorations, We set our guidelines for what we wanted our advent to be:

1. It had to involve time as a family.
2. No candy or trinkets.
3. It had to somehow extend the joy of the holiday.

So, each night, we're sitting in front of our Christmas tree, as a family. We read one book and sing a Christmas carol. It's our goal to do this every night from now until Christmas Eve. We even started one night early :P

Reflections

It all started with some lovely ornaments at the quarterly consignment sale where I love to shop. We were at the presale, and I saw them--nine gorgeous, vintage, hand-blown glass ornaments, in their original boxes. Price $2. I resisted at the presale, thought about them all week, and when they were still there at the half price sale, they had to be mine! $1 for ornaments so similar to the ones I remember from my childhood--the ones my grandmother passed down to my mother, and my mother guarded as carefully as possible from little hands--that I couldn't stop thinking about them.

But we're doing a handmade tree this year, right? We put the tree up, I made and Victor hung the Recycled Magazine Paper Chain, we've done several ornaments and have plans for more. What was I thinking!?

I brought my ornaments home and put them on the shelf near the tree, seeing the faded red boxes every time I glanced in that direction. I considered packing them away with my others, giving them to my mother, donating them to goodwill. And every time I saw that box, I had another memory--my mother gently covering my hand with hers as I hung one of those treasured ornaments, my grandmother and I picking strawberries (and eating them with heavy cream and sugar), each of my sons' faces the first time our eyes met, the first time they nursed, the first time they said 'mama'. A glance at the faded lettering on those boxes brought up the sound of my grandfather's laughter, the feel of my dad's hugs, the sound of my entire extended family singing Christmas carols. Somehow, these ornaments weren't discarded glass to me. They weren't even a nostalgic piece of my childhood. To me, these ornaments simply represented history, old and recent, holiday and every day. Little pieces of me, reflected by Christmas lights on glass ornaments.

I lasted almost a week, then I hung them on the tree. Not just ON the tree, IN the tree--nestled behind the branches, near the center of the tree, where they'll be less tempting to little hands. Even when I pulled them from the box, I was telling myself I just wanted to look at them, inspect them, make sure they hadn't been broken when Nathan accidentally knocked them to the floor. It wasn't until I pulled them from the box and held them up to the lights of the tree that I made the decision to hang them. If I had had to think about it, search for hooks (the previous owner had left hooks on them), or even had someone else been in the room and asked me about it, I wouldn't have hung them. But in that second, it was the right thing to do.



To be honest, I hung them so completely inside the tree that I can only find them by careful searching, but it doesn't matter--I know they're there. And these ornaments, somehow, are different from the ornaments I bought nine years ago, for our first married Christmas. Even though they're the same style, *I* am not the same. This was not an impassioned search through ebay, thrift stores, and antique stores, looking for the perfect ornaments to create the perfect tree for the start of our perfect life. No, this was a chance meeting. Not what I planned, not what I was searching for, not even what I thought I wanted, and yet the perfect thing. A perfect reflection of my life this past year.

So, my handmade tree will have (at least) nine vintage ornaments, that item per item probably cost less than some of the other handmade ornaments that will end up on there. Nine small pieces of glass that with each glance reflects to me a tiny piece of who I am, why I am, where I am. I don't know why these ornaments mean so much to me, why they called to me, why I am nearly obsessed with them. But at five thirty this morning, when Nathan & I were sitting in the floor reading "Llama Llama Holday Drama" because he couldn't sleep again, his eyes roamed across the tree, and just for a second, I saw one of the ornaments reflected in his eyes. I don't know if he saw it, or if he was busy staring at the lights, or if he was simply lost in his own Nathan world, but for just a moment I saw the man he might become, roaming through a thrift store, and smiling as his eyes land on a box of vintage holiday ornaments.

Happy Holidays.

Handmade Decorations: Cinnamon & Applesauce Ornaments



If you do an internet search for 'cinnamon ornaments' or 'cinnamon applesauce ornaments', you'll find dozens of different recipes. In general, the recipes are one part 'wet ingredients' to just over one part 'dry ingredients'. The main wet ingredient is applesauce, the main dry ingredient is cinnamon, so you CAN make them from a dough made entirely from cinnamon and applesauce. I combined several recipes, and ended up using approximately 3 cups applesauce (that's how much was in the jar)and 1/4 cup of white glue to approximately 3 cups cinnamon + a half cup of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and ginger. I mixed it all together and made a very sticky dough, and that's when it all went wrong :D

Mix all your ingredients together into a dough. If your dough is too sticky, you can add more cinnamon, put the dough in the refrigerator for a while, or both. *I* followed the directions on a recipe that said 'roll your dough between two sheets of either plastic wrap or waxed paper'. For the first batch, I rolled my dough between my waxed paper to 1/4" thick, as suggested. The thing about waxed paper is that it is, in fact, a very thin paper with some wax on it, so if we get it wet enough, as this dough did, the paper starts to disintegrate. Halfway through cutting them out, I gave up, salvaged the ornaments I could and put them in the oven, kneaded more cinnamon into my dough (while trying to be sure I picked out all the disintegrating waxed paper), then popped it into the fridge for two hours. I flipped the first batch of ornaments every 45 minutes for 2.5 hours, and there was minimal curling. For the second batch, I sprinkled more cinnamon onto my counter and rolled the dough to about 1/2" thick. This batch is currently still in the oven. They were already starting to curl a bit when I turned them after 45 minutes. Keep in mind when choosing your designs that these shrink quite a bit as they dry, so you'll want your cut outs to be at least 20% bigger than you want your finished product to be. You can also let them air dry, but they need to be turned every few hours, and it might take several days for them to dry, depending on how thick they are.

Cost for about 5 dozen ornaments:

Applesauce $1 for jar
Cinnamon 2 large jars $1 each (found these at the dollar tree)
Cookie cutters (or you could just make cardboard patterns and cut them with a knife)

I had all the other ingredients already, which is why I added them, so $3 plus less than $1 in materials I already had for 5 dozen ornaments, equals less than $1 a dozen, even if you spend $1 on a pack of cookie cutters from the dollar tree.


Things I would do differently if I were to do these again:

1. I think I'd leave out the glue. I'm not sure exactly what it's purpose was supposed to be, but this dough was SO sticky that I nearly tossed it into the trash after fifteen minutes.
2. I'd roll it out thicker than I did the first time--these shrink quite a bit as a they dry, so 1/2" to 3/4" is what I would try.
3. Plastic wrap, not waxed paper.
4. SIMPLE cookie cutters--my son tried to use some cookie cutters that had details (like a snowman with the features, scarf, etc drawn in) and the dough stuck to it.



These smell divine, and it is very easy to knead unused dough and re-roll it (especially important if your helper, like mine, sees no need to actually cut one ornament near another when he can space it just far enough that you can't fit another between them). Those are the only things I liked about this project. I was nervous about letting my six year old help, and wouldn't allow my 3 year olds to help--I was afraid that the spices would irritate their skin or get into their eyes. The stickiness was probably due to the glue, but it made this the most frustrating project I've done EVER! Worst of all, my husband took one look at them and said "They're not really very festive, are they?" Which, all things considered, was much nicer than what Nicky said--he pointed at the pile of dough on the counter and said "EWW!! Poopy!!!" :P Still, though, with some homespun fabric tied through them, these are very much in the primitive style that's in right now, and they're not very expensive.

UPDATE: After giving it a few weeks for the frustration to wear off, I actually like these ornaments :D Part of the problem with the dough, I think, was the glue, and part of it was simply inexperience on my part. I may actually do these again someday, but I won't add the glue, I'll add more dry ingredients, and I'll pop the dough in the refrigerator to chill before trying to work with it.

Handmade Decorations -- Recycled Magazines

I found THIS tutorial yesterday, and I went NUTS over it! I love package bows, have even been known to tuck them into the branches of my tree (or my hair :P), but they really just seem like an unnecessary expense. I'm also not crazy about the shiny-metallic colors, and once again, that plastic ribbon can not be healthy for a kid to chew on. These bows are made from magazines, and they tend to have a nice, slightly muted color scheme, and they're paper, so if your child or pet munches on one, it's no big deal. They're super easy, too, and almost addictive--once I got into the rhythm, I didn't want to stop making them!



A few notes:

1. There's no way these bows take 30 minutes, unless you count how long it took my brain to figure out exactly how to twist-and-loop the paper strip to make it just right. After the first one, they take just a few minutes each.

2. The length of the strips isn't as important as the proportions--I used one set of much longer strips to make a larger bow, and a set of shorter ones to make a smaller bow. The shorter ones were harder to manipulate, and harder to put together. The final loop covers a LOT of mistakes, but play with it a little to make sure you get the look you want. I made a few with final loops that were too big or too small, and they just didn't look right.

3. I used a stapler to put my entire bow together. This caused some crushing issues. In the future, I'll use a stapler to put everything but the final loop on, then glue or tape for the loop. You could also, of course, use glue or double sided tape for the entire project--I just like my stapler.

4. Pay attention to the color scheme of the page you choose. I was recycling a Wine Spectator magazine, and the colors of the ads tend to be much more sophisticated than the ads in say Woman's Day or Family Fun (which I won't be cutting up anyway, thank you very much. That mag ROCKS! :P), which are brighter and bolder. The pages I chose from Wine Spectator were shades of brown, grey, and white, and were very well-suited to adult or men's gifts.

I was thinking about the lack of garland or beads for our tree, and used another page with a similar color scheme to make a paper chain (just like in elementary school--cut multiple strips of paper of the same length, form the first strip into a loop, glue or staple, push a second strip through the loop to form an interlocking loop, staple, repeat until you get the length you need). Once again, I LOVED the look of the sophisticated colors from the magazine!! I was balking against the idea of brightly colored construction paper on my Christmas tree, and I think this will be a nice substitute--with the added bonus of recycling a magazine to make it :D



UPDATE: I still love the idea of the muted color scheme, but you can see in the picture of our tree overall that you should be careful about how you put it together--my chain has a few feet of alot of white, a few feet of a lot of orange, a few feet of a lot of brown . . . You get the idea :P Those darker colors seem to 'disappear' into the tree, and I'm not sure I like that (there is paper chain draped the entire length of the tree, a total of five rows, but in my opinion you can only really see the three rows in the middle)



But the chain itself is still nice, in my opinion, and I'm quite glad we chose to do this over using the beads or tinsel garland we've used in the past.

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I ran across this idea while searching for more holiday crafts using recycled magazines. Not sure if we'll do it, but it's cute :D

Christmas Tree & Ornaments (scroll to the bottom for the links to directions)

Frugal Holidays Pt 2 Handmade Decorations

The first year my husband and I were married, I scoured antique shops, ebay, and thrift stores to put together a collection of vintage ornaments, just like the ones I remembered my mother having when I was a kid. For the first couple of years we were married, my husband joked (with a half-frightened look on his face) about how long it took me to decorate our tree every year. I spent hours--sometimes days--making sure that each of those beautiful ornaments was hung perfectly. Soon, though, we realized why my mom always had a 4 foot tree on a 2 foot high table until my brother and I were teens--those gorgeous ornaments are not only tempting to little hands, but also dangerous. So, the vintage ornaments are packed away, never to be seen until my own children are teens. The past few years our tree has been a combination of plastic and wooden ornaments with a few handcrafted or special ornaments thrown in, but this year, we've challenged ourselves to do something different.

1. At least 90% of our tree decorations will be handmade. We will have electric lights, and possibly a few special ornaments. I'm wishy-washy about the topper, but everything else will be made by hand.

2. Everyone in the house will contribute. Noone wants this to become another craft project mom obsesses about, and what's the point of a handmade tree if all of the kids aren't involved?

3. As much as possible, materials will be recycled rather than purchased.

4. There will be little to no glitter (it's messy, and I'm not convinced it's safe to eat--Nathan WILL eat it. His shiny-obsessed, texture-exploring mind won't allow him to resist.)

5. I will not freak out if something is not perfect, but rather enjoy the beauty of it's imperfection.

I'll try to blog about each different project, as well as some that I'm interested in but may not get to. I hope you enjoy it, and please don't hesitate to post/email your own ideas!

Frugal Holidays, Pt 1 Pumpkin Tartlets

I didn't REALLY abandon my blog. I just ignored it shamelessly while dealing with life's insanities :D But I'm going to try to get back into the swing of things. I've challenged myself to blog at least 3 projects a week through Christmas, focussing on bringing the insanity of the holidays under control. I may muse on my reasons for doing this later, but right now, I want to talk pumpkin.

Last week, the twins' preschool class had a Thanksgiving celebration, and I wanted to cook something. Problem was that I also had 3 writing assignments, 3 quizzes, and an exam due BEFORE the party! So I headed over to verybestbaking.com to try to find a quick, easy, and frugal recipe. My back up plan was a pecan pie from walmart's bakery, which cost $7 for 2 (2 to give 16 servings, and also because the cashier dropped the first one, then put it into the bag upside down!! There was NO WAY I was taking that to school :( ). I found this great little recipe with a 15 minute prep time! I had the ingredients on hand, but I've listed the prices beside the items most people wouldn't already have in their kitchen:

100-Calorie Pumpkin Pie Tartlets
Ingredients
16 (2 1/2-inch) foil baking cups (>$1 pack of 50)
Nonstick cooking spray
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch (~$1 for a box)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites
1 can (15 oz.) LIBBY'S® 100% Pure Pumpkin ($1.50 for Libby brand)
1 can (12 fl. oz.) NESTLÉ® CARNATION® Evaporated Fat Free Milk ($0.69 for generic)
1 cup fat free whipped topping ($1.50 for a bowl--I actually paid $2 for reddiwhip)
12 small gingersnap cookies, broken into 1/4-inch pieces (Bag of unbroken cookies $2)
Directions
PREHEAT oven to 350º F. Place baking cups on baking sheet with sides. Spray each cup with cooking spray.

COMBINE sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger and salt in small bowl. Beat egg whites in large bowl. Stir in pumpkin and sugar mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk. Spoon 1/4 to 1/3 cup of mixture into each prepared cup.

BAKE for 25 to 28 minutes or until knife inserted near centers comes out clean. Cool on baking sheet for 20 minutes. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Top each with whipped topping and gingersnap crumbs.


A few notes:

1. I don't know if it was because I used my stand mixer to make the batter or what, but I used 1/2 cup of batter per prepared cup instead of the 1/4 to 1/3 in the recipe, and I still made 21 tarts instead of 16. Good news for calorie counters--same ingredients, so fewer calories :D

2. I'm not sure you really NEED the foil cups instead of the more cost effective paper cups. I had some foil ones left over from my son's Star Wars party and just used those, but I may try the paper ones next time just to see what happens.

3. I bought cute little gingerbread man-shaped gingersnaps, sprayed some reddi-whip on each tartlet, then stuck my little ginger-man into the whipped topping whole. It was an adorable presentation, but a mistake taste wise--the gingersnaps really add to the flavor of the tarts. If you choose to decorate as I did, be sure to either sprinkle crushed cookies as well OR use some melted butter to make crusts in the foil cups before baking. I think I'm going to try the second method for Thanksgiving.

I estimate that this recipe cost between $7-$8, counting fractional amounts for the spices, cooking spray, sugar, and cornstarch (ie, since I had them on hand, I didn't include in the estimate the cost of an entire container, but rather the approximate cost of the amount I used). This made 21 servings, so for the sake of easy math, less than $0.40 per serving for what turned out to be a very impressive-looking dessert.

Wash It Up--Make Your Own Laundry detergent, Pt 3

I have now been making my own laundry detergent for four months, and I LOVE it. It costs SO much less than commercial detergent, works great, and is super easy to do. My standard recipe is now:

2 cups oxygen detergent (I use the generic one from the dollar tree)
1 box baking soda
1 cup washing soda (aka soda ash, I order it from Alice.com)
1 cup Borax (also ordered from Alice.com)
8-10 drops of essential oils

The oxygen cleaner comes with a scoop (about 2 tablespoons, I would guess) and I use one scoop of this mixture per load of laundry.

In the past four months, I have spent about $15 on making this detergent (not including the essential oils). As I stated in an earlier post, I do, on average, 3 loads of laundry a day, so this detergent has cost me approximately $0.04 per load, versus $0.15-$0.22 per load for commercial detergent, a savings of more than 70%!!

Earlier posts on this topic:
Frugal in the Laundry Room
Wash It Up: Make Your Own Laundry Detergent Pt 1
Wash It Up: Make Your Own Laundry Detergent Pt 2

Quick cleaning tips

1. To clean a coffee grinder, put 1/4 cup of uncooked rice in and run the cycle. All the built-up coffee and gunk comes right out!

2. For the coffee pot itself--run the entire cycle with vinegar instead of water, and of course no coffee. If your coffee pot is extremely dirty, you may need to do this a couple of times. Follow up with plain water.

3. Alternately, you can use alka-seltzer to clean your coffee pot. Fill the reservoir with water and drop in 2 alka seltzer. Once the fizzing stops, run the cycle. Again, follow with plain water.

4. Those alka seltzer can also be used to clean a toilet. Drop in 3-4 tablets and let it work for about 20 minutes. A quick swish with the toilet brush and you'll be set! This is a great way to clean your toilet before using the Scrubbing Bubbles Toilet Cleaner gel disks, which I LOVE.

Wash it up--Make your own laundry detergent, Pt 2

When I posted this article, I promised to follow up when I made my next batch. The first batch (made from Ivory soap, Borax, and Washing Soda) cost less than $3 for the entire batch, and lasted about three weeks (or for 50 loads or so of laundry). While it cleaned my clothes well, anything washed in cold water (which is most of my laundry) was left with tiny flakes of undissolved Ivory soap on it. So for the second batch, I followed my friend Amanda's recipe--2 cups of 'oxygen' cleaner (she used Oxiclean, I used a generic version from the dollar tree), a cup of washing soda, and a cup of borax. I've been using this batch for about a week, and it works very well, dissolves well, and leaves my clothes very clean. I only have two issues with it, one of which is entirely my fault :P.

First--There is a fine dust that is stirred up when I open the container I keep the detergent in. I'm not sure what it is, and it makes me a little nervous. I try not to breathe it in, and I won't even open the container with one of my boys nearby. This 'dust' may be absolutely nothing, but I'm not comfortable with it, and I certainly would recommend a different recipe for asthmatics. As I didn't notice it with the first batch, I suspect it's the oxygen cleaner, but again, I can't be sure.

Second--this is the one that's my fault. After the first couple of loads, I noticed that my clothes didn't smell. At all. They didn't smell BAD, they just didn't have a scent at all. So I added some essential oils to the mix. I intended to add some Jasmine, but for some reason when I reached into the collection of oils, I grabbed a lavendar & chamomile mix my husband once bought me because it was supposed to help with insomnia. I'm not a fan of lavender anyway, and now when I do my laundry my entire house smells like little old lady :P So, you can add 8-10 drops of essential oils of your choice to this mixture. But I don't suggest chamomile & lavender :P

For other tips on saving money in the laundry room, go to this post.

Quick Tip--Non-Skid Socks

Thanks bunches to Tabitha Black for this one.

Non-skid Socks cost $3 and up a pair, but with wood, laminate, and vinyl flooring becoming more popular, they are more and more necessary to keep little feet warm. My twins spend a lot of time in footie pajamas, but the non-skid stuff on the bottoms of those wears off long before they outgrow them. Thanks to Tabitha, I now know that I can make my own non-skid socks or repair worn footie jammies for pennies! All you need is a bottle of dimensional paint ($0.97 in the craft section of my local walmart). Just follow the instructions on the bottle. I think Tabitha said she stamped or drew designs with hers--I just drew lines. Works great. Thanks Tabitha!! Be sure to check out Tabitha's etsy shop--her handmade jewelry is beautiful AND affordable!

Frugal in the Laundry Room

We have five people living in our house. Of those, one is a preschooler, and two are toddlers. In addition, the two adults try to workout daily, and one of those wears heavyweight sweats to work out in. All of this adds up to about 3 loads of laundry a day. Commercial laundry detergent costs $0.15-$0.25 per load, liquid fabric softener another $0.10+ per load. Add the costs of bleach ($0.05-$0.10 per load), dryer sheets ($0.03-$0.07 each), water and electricity, and our family could spend over $500 a year on laundry alone!! While $10 a week doesn't SOUND like a lot, $500 a year could pay for a mini vacation for the entire family.

Laundry detergent is a big expense when doing laundry. The absolute cheapest way to go is to make your own. I recently made my first attempt at powdered detergent, and will be following a different recipe soon. It's REALLY easy, and I love that I know exactly what's in it, and can adjust the ingredients to accomodate my sons' sensitive skin. However, if making your own is not for you, there are other ways to cut costs in the laundry room.

1. Coupons + sales can cut your laundry detergent budget in half or more. When you find a GREAT deal on a detergent you like, STOCK UP. As long as it doesn't freeze or boil, the detergent should be just fine, and it's not like you won't use it eventually. A local grocery store had Purex detergent on sale 2 bottles for $3. At the same time, there was a coupon out for $1 off a bottle, so I utilized a coupon clipper and literally cleared the store shelves TWICE. This was over two years ago, and I'm just now running out of detergent. With inflation, this detergent is now selling for about $4 a bottle in my area, so by storing the detergent in a corner of my garage, I saved well over $500 on laundry detergent over the past two years.

2. Use less detergent. I once read a post on a forum I vist by a mom of six who was complaining about laundry detergent only being available in 'concentrated' forms, because for years she had only been using about a tablespoon of detergent per load. At first, I thought it was insane. Then I tried it. As long as the clothes are 'normal' dirty, rather than heavily soiled, I can use about a tablespoon of commercial detergent PER LOAD without a noticable difference in performance! I kept track for one bottle--a bottle labeled for 32 loads did 67 loads, and my clothes were just as clean as they had been using the recommended amount of detergent. Try using half the recommended amount, and see if there's a difference in your laundry if you're skeptical. Everyone I know who has tried this has said there was NO difference in the cleanliness of their laundry. If you follow just these first two steps, cutting the costs of detergent by 50% and using half as much per load, you will save 75% on your laundry detergent costs.

3. Substitute another product. While it takes a bit of trial and error to get the amounts right, you can substitute dish soap, hand soap, shampoo, or bodywash for laundry detergent. In general, you only need about a tablespoon per load. As these products produce more suds than your average laundry detergent, you should NOT use this option in a HE machine. Also, don't use products with added conditioners, lotions, etc, as these can build up on your clothes (though a cup of vinegar in the rinse should take care of that problem, in a pinch). Dawn dishwashing detergent is the absolute best product to use when washing greasy clothing or kitchen towels, so if someone in your household is a chef, short order cook, or mechanic, you should definitely add Dawn to your laundry room.

4. Fabric Softener. If you use both liquid fabric softener and dryer sheets, then your fabric softener costs could easily outpace your detergent costs. Of course, you could only use one or the other. You can also use alternative products--for example, green² Laundry Dryer Balls are $8 for a 2-pack on Alice.com. These go into your dryer instead of dryer sheets, each one lasts up to six months, and they not only prevent static, but also cut drying time by up to 25%. (A couple of tennis balls tossed into your dryer along with your clothing will also decrease drying time, and allow you to dry bulky items like comforters or ski clothes). White vinegar is an AWESOME fabric softener and rinse agent (you know how your towels tend to get kind of stiff and scratchy after a while? That's from soap and detergent build up--a cup or so of vinegar in the rinse cycle and they'll be soft and fluffy again!), and is also a disinfectant that is safe to use on dark clothes--VERY important if you have little ones in the house! I use two downy balls for my laundry--one holds about a half-cup of vinegar, the other about a half capful of my favorite liquid fabric softener (Snuggle Exhilarations Lavender and Sandalwood Twist smells DIVINE, and is about $4 for a 50-load bottle at my local walmart). I also add vinegar to the wash cycle for any clothing that needs disinfecting. And the vinegar rinses clean, so your clothes do NOT smell like vinegar.

You can make your own dryer sheets. I have already said I LOVE that designer scent fabric softener, but I don't like to pay for the 'matching' dryer sheets. So, I keep one capful of fabric softener mixed with a quart of water in a lidded container in my laundry room, dip a sponge or old washcloth into the mixture, squeeze out most of the liquid, then toss it into the dryer with my clothes. This mixture lasts for 20 loads or more, at a cost of about $0.08 per batch, or less than 1/20 of the cost of those designer dryer sheets. Plus my hands smell awesome afterwards :P


5. Wash your clothes less often. Bulky sweaters and jeans take up a lot of room in the laundry, so airing a pair of jeans and a sweater and wearing them one more time before washing is a great way to cut down on laundry costs. Towels may also be hung to dry and used again (I tend to dry my babies on a towel at night, then hang it to use myself the next morning. Be careful doing this with family members with sensitive skin, though--your soap or shampoo could cause a rash or eczema flare up, and taking care of THAT will cost a lot more than doing an extra load of laundry.

Wash it up--homemade laundry detergent

I recently made my first foray into homemade laundry detergent. I wanted to attempt the version that was easiest to store and required the least amount of work to make, so I grated two bars of Ivory soap, and mixed it with one cup of Borax and one cup of washing soda (also known as soda ash). I was less than ecstatic with the results--while it works fine in hot water, clothing washed in cold water tends to come out of the machine with little flakes of ivory soap all over it. I have taken to using it only for whites, linens, and dark towels, and pajamas, and using purchased detergent for our clothing. Considering that I do an average of 18 loads of laundry a week, using this homemade detergent on 2/3 of them still saves us a significant amount of money (It works out to about a nickel a load, versus about $0.15 a load for Purex or about $0.22 per load for Tide). However, I will be trying a new recipe next week, substituting oxygen laundry booster for the ivory soap. In the mean time, I put two tablespoons of detergent directly into the machine before the laundry for my whites, and I put two tablespoons into a mason jar with a cup of hot water to use with dark towels/pajamas. Since homemade laundry detergent does not have added rinse agents, I also add vinegar to the rinse cycle to help rinse the soap out. I put my vinegar into a downy ball and drop it in at the beginning of the wash.

Here are a few sites with laundry detergent recipes if you'd like to try it yourself:

Ten Homemade Laundry Soap Recipes
Make Your Own Laundry Soap
The Simple Dollar: How to make your own laundry detergent and The detailed visual guide
Suite 101: Making your own laundry detergent

If making your own laundry detergent isn't for you, you can still save money in the laundry room. Check out Frugal in the Laundry Room for more.

Wrap it up--Frugal Gift Wrapping

I refuse to spend a significant portion of our Christmas budget on wrapping supplies that will just end up in a landfill. Whether it's to save money, the environment, or both, here are some ideas for frugal gift wrap.

1. Children's art work. While we all think our little Picassos are geniuses, there's only so much refrigerator space. Choose a handful of pieces that you love from throughout the year, label them with your child's name and the creation date (or year, if you're doing it all at once :P), put those into the time capsule, then use the rest to wrap gifts. Grandparents especially will enjoy the hand-crafted wrappings, your children will have the pride of knowing they created it, and it won't cost you a dime.

2. Sunday comics. These are especially good for wrapping children's presents, but are also good for adult presents, especially if you see a particular strip that person will appreciate. Be sure to wrap so that the strip you like best is highlighted on the top of the present.

3. Craft, Mailing, or construction paper. If you like the idea of child-created gift wrap but don't have or want to give up your children's art, then have them create more. Wrap the gift in plain paper (I use construction paper for small gifts. Craft or butcher paper works well for larger ones. You can also use freezer paper). Then turn the kids loose with some markers, crayons, or stampers & ink pads. Gorgeous, one of a kind gift wrap for pennies!

4. Reusable shopping bags. I always sign up for the 'free' ones companies give out throughout the year, but I usually end up buying the larger ones for the holidays. They tend to be within $1 pricewise of a similar size paper gift bag, but they hold up better to travel (important for those of us who transport our presents hundreds of miles) and can be reused after the holidays. It's like giving two gifts in one :D

5. Recycle. I'm sure you know someone who collects the scraps of gift wrap to use again next year. I don't tend to do that (really, with three children, there's not much more than scraps left), but I DO save and reuse paper gift bags from Christmas and birthdays. I definitely follow the 'once is not enough' philosophy when it comes to gift bags--you should be able to use them at least a couple of times before they go to the landfill.

6. Collect containers throughout the year. I love to buy baskets, pretty boxes, and other unique containers at thrift stores and yard sales throughout the year and then use them for gift wrap--much like the reusable shopping bag, it's like adding an additional gift. You could also get your kids to decorate containers (such as oatmeal boxes or flower pots) and then use them for wrapping gifts. In my opinion, most gift wrap is going to be thrown in the trash, so if you can get it for free or make sure the giftwrap is reusable, you've not only saved yourself some money, but also kept something out of the landfills.

Frugal Birthdays Part 2--Adult Birthdays

It would seem like saving money for birthdays would be the same no matter what the age of the birthday boy/man or girl/woman, but that simply is not the case. As we get older, it seems our priorities changes, and certainly our parties change--a party at the local pizzeria or cake, balloons, and pin the nose on Elmo might be great for the pre-school set, but in general in just won't work for adults :D. Generally, though, a lot of the guidelines are the same.

1. Know your recipient. There is a lot more room for error with a child's birthday than an adult's birthday--a child is excited to celebrate every single year, while adults sometimes would rather just let their birthday pass without a thought. If the person in question is depressed about this birthday, or just doesn't like being the center of attention, a large and loud party would be be more of a trial than a celebration. A diabetic? Then you probably don't want to buy a sugar-laden cake. A busy parent or grandparent of little ones? Then breakable knick knacks, no matter how beautiful or sentimental, are probably NOT the way to go. Just knowing your recipient can take a lot of stress out of birthday planning--and gift giving. (see Giving the Frugal Gift--coming soon!)

2. Prioritize. Adults tend to focus on different aspects of their birthday than children, but the same advice applies--don't go all out on every aspect of birthdays, just choose one or two areas to focus the largest portion of your budget and go low-key with the others. This actually tends to be easier with adults than children, since most adults will tell you point blank what they do NOT need more of!

3. Plan ahead. Yes, I'm saying it again--the best way to save money is to plan for an event rather than wait. If your mother's birthday is in April, and you're thinking of jewelry, then try hitting the jewelry stores for the after Christmas or after Valentine's day sales. Dad's a fisherman? The fishing equipment sales in my area tend to be at the end of the summer or around Father's day. Thinking of an 'over the hill' party for your sibling this year? Then pick up black party supplies right after Halloween, and grey/silver just after New Year's. And if you always seems to be the one who plans office parties, then take a minute whenever you're at the party store or a big box store to look for clearance or sales. I recently purchased a box of 12 children's birthday cards at Wal-mart for less than $4--perfect for the upcoming birthdays at my son's preschool, and a LOT better than spending $2 or more per card for each event. You can do the same for adult birthdays.

4. Do it yourself. If you're throwing a party, the more you do yourself (or get others to volunteer to do), the lower your costs. If you want to have a large family party for an adult, there's no reason you can't make it a pot luck dinner. If you'd rather do something more formal, how about asking guests to bring specific things, whether it's appetizers, wine, or side dishes? Rather than hire expensive entertainment for a formal party, find out if your local college or even high school has a string quartet or a jazz band that would be willing to play for a fraction of the cost. You could also get a tech savvy guest to make a DVD compilation of videos or photographs of the guest of honor throughout the years, and either play it as the 'big event' for the party, or just keep it on loop throughout. Or if you're a southern country girl like me, just ask your guests to bring their guitars, and make sure they have a comfortable place to get together--a porch or gazebo works great in the summer, a family room when it's cold. Your guests will entertain themselves--and each other--there will be no additional costs, and it will add a personal touch to the party.

5. Give the gift of time. Adults tend to have birthday parties only on 'big' birthdays--the decade marks, 75, anything after 80 (as well they should!). Also, there are usually more people willing to share the financial burden of the party--whether it's siblings, spouses, adult children, or friends--than you have with a child's party. However, the gifts for adults tend to be much more expensive than those for children, but they don't have to be. Thought and time tend to mean a lot more to adults than to children, and there are a lot more precious memories for adults to treasure. A scrapbook that cost you $15, but includes pictures from the person's entire life may be more treasured than an item you spent hundreds of dollars on. Parents of young children often don't get time to themselves, so offering to babysit while they have a date night costs you nothing but an evening, and will be MUCH appreciated. Perhaps your mother would enjoy just having a quiet lunch with you, or you could compile a book/cd/dvd of childhood stories and memories from your father--a gift for him AND your children. I think in our overly commercial society we sometimes forget that 'It's the thought that counts' only applies if you actually put some THOUGHT into the gift--a $50 bath set in a scent that makes the recipient's children sneeze is not nearly as thoughtful as $2 binder filled with stories and anecdotes you have gathered from her friends and relatives. (See Giving the Frugal gift for more ideas--coming soon!)

6. Get creative. Who says a birthday has to be about cake and presents? My favorite birthday celebration ever was the year our oldest was a five month old newborn--hubby took the baby, a pack of diapers, a box of baby cereal, and a 24 hour supply of pumped milk to my parents' house. He cooked me a nice dinner while I had a long shower, I had dinner by candlelight in my favorite flannel pajamas, I was asleep by 9, and I slept until 11 the next morning. To an exhausted mom, there IS no better gift than uninterrupted sleep. A friend of mine likes to spend her birthday doing volunteer work with charities she supports but doesn't ordinarily get time to work with, and any friends who ask what she wants for her birthday are asked to donate a few hours of their time as well. Instead of a gift card to a restaurant, make a few freezable dinners so that your recipient can have a quick dinner whenever they wish (just make sure you include cooking instructions!). If you live nearby, how about volunteering to do some yard work or home repairs or improvements? Then, every time your brother opens the cabinet door that no longer sticks or sees the yard he didn't have to mow himself, he'll think of you and his birthday. Again, the important thing is to let your loved one know you were thinking of them, and that you were willing to put in the extra effort to make their birthday special. The amount of money it cost you won't even be a consideration.

Frugal Birthdays, Part 1--Children's Birthdays

It's been LONG time, but let's see if I can't get back in the swing of things :D My oldest just turned 5, so we've been thinking a lot about ways to cut costs for birthdays without reducing the celebrating. Here's some of the things we came up with. This post will be focussed mostly on children's birthdays, and I'll do one a bit later on adult birthdays.

1. Prioritize. Just like any other aspect of frugal living, it's imperative that you know what is important to YOU about birthdays. If it's the gift, then put the largest portion of your budget there. The party? Then splurge on decorations, favors, or location. The cake? Then give yourself free reign in the cake department, and cut corners elsewhere.

2. Ask the birthday boy or girl. A teen or even tween will be able to plan their own party within a budget--and if they can't, then it's a great chance for you to teach them budgetting skills. But even younger children can tell you what's important to them. At 4, my oldest didn't care about anything other than having balloons and a Thomas the train cake. This year, he didn't care at all about the cake or the decorations, as long as the party was at the local kid's pizza place. The place charged about $10 per person, but since that included cake, drinks, pizza, game tokens, plates, cups, hats, and a small favor or two, we cut out a lot of extras (we brought our own ice cream and bought a $2 pack of balloons that we blew up ourselves) and still managed to stay within budget.

3. Plan ahead. I know I say this on almost every post, but there is NOTHING that will save you more money than planning ahead. I can promise you that every single person you know will have a birthday within the next year, so do not wait until the week before to think about parties, gifts, or other things birthday related. Right after Christmas is a great time to buy red and green party items (which can be used both for birthdays and for Valentine's day and St Patrick's day, respectively). If you're pretty sure your son wants a spiderman party, but his birthday isn't for another three months, then pick up some plastic spiders for the cupcakes right after Halloween. Many stores have large clearance sales on toys in January (just after Christmas) and in September or October (just before they get their Christmas stock in), so be sure to stock up for upcoming birthdays then, too. And not just for the birthday child--a $3 doll at 90% off in late January might make an excellent party favor for a March birthday, at only $0.30 a guest. On an off-topic note, this is also a great time to stock up on toys to donate to Toys for Tots or other programs during the holiday season.

4. Do it yourself. It costs less than $5 to buy a cake mix and icing and make a cake yourself. Even if you want to do a character cake, you can buy cake kits online or at any party supply store for only a few dollars, as well, depending on the character or the intricacies of the kit. And I recently discovered that a local party store RENTS those expensive shaped pans than you use once and then never use again for less than $5 per pan for a 3 day rental. Some paper, markers or crayons, and tape or glue can go a long way towards activities for kids at a party, whether it's a craft or art project for them or a 'pin the wheels on the engine' game you made before the party. And if you're eyeing a particular craft kit for your child's party that looks like it might be a little over your budget, take a stroll through your local craft store with a list of materials and see if buying them in bulk and putting the kits together yourself would be more cost effective. I recently saw holiday craft kits for $2 each that I thought would be nice for my son's preschool, but two dozen of them would cost almost $50. Looking through the SAME craft store, I can buy enough craft foam, googly eyes, chenille stems (pipe cleaners to us old people who remember pipes :D), and glue to make three dozen of them for about $12. Sure, I might have a little more prep time putting them all together, but no more than a half hour, and a half hour of my time is certainly worth almost $40 in savings.

5. Go generic. I don't mean buy the store brand cake mix (though feel free to do so :D). But for a child's party especially, those character plates and napkins can really add up. Focus on what you think will make the most impact, do those in your theme, then fill in with generic items. For example, our twins' second birthday was a Sesame Street theme. I bought a Big Bird pan at a yard sale for $1 and rented an Elmo pan for the second cake (it's really important to me at their age that they get their OWN cake to tear into). Three cake mixes, four tubs of icing, and some paste food coloring, most of which I already had, brought my total cake costs to around $12, plus about two hours of my time. While I was at the party store renting my pan, I also bought some Sesame Street party blowers that were on sale ($2 for 2 dozen), a giant Sesame Street pin something on something game ($3), a pack of 24 sesame street cupcake picks (those little things you stick into the tops of cupcakes, $2), a pack of generic cupcake liners ($1) and plain yellow and red mix and match cups, plates, napkins, table cloths, and cutlery. (another $10 for enough for 30 people, with extras). I then raided their room for stuffed elmos, big birds, and anything else Sesame Street. The gift table got an Elmo bedsheet as the tablecloth, and we pinned an Elmo toddler-sized comforter on the wall behind it, with some of the Sesame Street toys sitting on and around the table. The game I bought went onto another wall as decoration (I thought maybe the older kids would want to play the game, but they didn't :D). The red and yellow theme looked awesome with random Sesame Street toys as centerpieces, and there is nothing easier, in my opinion, than cupcakes for the guests. All the decorations, the cakes for the boys, and the cupcakes cost us just over $30-- less than the price of a large sheet cake-- everything looked great, and the boys had a great time.

6. The cake. I have seen cakes at birthday parties that cost $50 or more. If it is ultra important that your child have a certain cake or their birthday will be ruined, then by all means, make sure they get that cake. But if you just need a cake--even a theme cake--there are ways to cut the costs. Check into doing it yourself--it may be easier than you think. If you absolutely do NOT want to do it yourself, then how about a smaller cake with some cupcakes? A 1/2 sheet or 1/4 sheet cake is usually significantly less expensive than a full sheet cake, and you can even buy the cupcakes from the same place if you don't have the time to do them. You can also do PART of the cake yourself and save some money. My mother in law was having a small party for my oldest, and literally two hours before the party he decided he NEEDED a Thomas cake. Since he had his 'official' birthday party the week before at home, we hadn't been planning on a cake at all. My ever creative mother in law hit the grocery store for a ready-made birthday cake ($8, I think) and a tube of brown decorating icing ($2), then the toy aisle for a small set of Thomas toys ($5 or so), took off the Happy Birthday sign, put the Thomas toys on the cake, and used the icing to draw tracks all around the cake. It took only a few minutes to put together, looked great, and was at least half the price of ordering a character cake from the store. Plus, he had the toys to play with later.

7. Get creative. If you think of a birthday as an extra special play date, it's a lot easier to plan--and a lot less stressful. Some ideas that don't take a lot of time or cost a lot of money:
A. Tea party. Use your child's tea sets or your own (if you're brave!). Serve different types of tea for older children, or juice for younger. Either ask the guests to come in 'fancy dress' OR set up a 'dress up' station for the start of the party, complete with clothes, shoes, hats, and jewelry. Serve sandwiches cut into small, fun shapes, cookies, and miniature cupcakes. Add some crowns and you have a Royal Tea Party, crazy hats and playing cards and it's a Mad Hatter tea party. Be sure to use nice tablecloths (even plain white sheets can look nice if you pin some bows or flowers on to the edges) and place settings (paper plates are fine, but try to find metallic ones--just after New Year's is usually a great time to find these on clearance) to make the party feel extra special. Other Fairy Tale Party ideas
B. Building party (great for a child who likes Handy Manny or Bob the Builder) Use purchased pound cake and other candies to make an Edible Excavator Cake (instructions from Family Fun Magazine). You can also serve 'dirt cups'--small cups of chocolate pudding with crushed oreos on the top, with or without gummy worms for decorations. Activities may include providing paint/other materials to turn a giant appliance box (ask at your local appliance store) into a house in the yard, using legos or other building blocks to build structures, or even just a play-doh building table, with play doh toys or cookie cutters. Other ideas for Car or truck Themed Parties
C. Race Cars. There are SO many things you can do with a race car or car themed party. Give a group of kids a box of blocks and a box of matchbox or hot wheels cars and they'll be busy for hours!! You can also build ramps or race tracks in advance, and then have the children race their cars (giving away 'racing cup' favors or prizes). Or you can use boxes to make 'cars' before the party, let the guests decorate their cars, then have them wear their cars for a giant race. If you have the space, make sure you set up 'pit stops', either with refueling centers and/or mechanics for the cars or snacks and drinks for the drivers. Put a few adults in mechanic overalls and you've got a party theme!
D. Sleepovers. Children love sleepovers almost as much as their parents dread them :D. Press a couple of teenagers or pre-teens, depending on the age of your guests, into service as both supervision and entertainment, and your night will go a lot easier. Choose a couple of age appropriate movies, set up sleeping arrangements in one large room or in a tent or two for a camp out, and plan a couple of activities such as manicures, facials, or game playing (board games, darts, twister, karoake, whatever you have and is safe/appropriate for your group). A word of caution, though--no matter what the age of your guests, do plan to supervise closely, and even after all of the children are asleep, make sure you have another adult who can switch off checking on them every hour or so, both to protect them from bad choices and to be available should they need something, whether it's to call home, get a snack, or just to be reminded where the bathroom is. Other Sleepover party ideas

8. Don't have a party at all. I put this one last because many people can not imagine skipping a party for their child's birthday--and to be honest, I'm probably among them, as the days my children were born are among the highest of holidays in my mind. However, just because you skip having a party does not mean you don't observe the day. Perhaps you could take a trip--either a day trip, to a zoo or other attraction, or even a weekend camping trip. You could have 'your child' day, where the birthday child gets to choose everything for the entire day, possibly including what everyone wears (pre-teen girls seem to have the most fun with this one), what foods are served, and what the family does with their time. Or just have a quiet family day at home, marveling at how you managed to create this being whose day you are celebrating. After all, birthdays should not be about the cake, or the presents, or the party, but rather about celebrating the day that the birthday boy or girl was born. And if I've learned anything from my children, it's that counting your blessings doesn't cost a thing.

How to Get Sick without Killing your bank account

I haven't posted in a while. That's because each of my three children got sick, one at a time, and now that they are mostly recovered, I'm sick. It has not been a fun couple of weeks in our house, nor a cheap one--having someone sick in our house is always a stretch of the budget, with doctor visits, medications, 'feel better' items (whether it's special Popsicles or a new video game) and more, having a sick child can cost us hundreds of dollars. Here are some ways we've tried to bring the costs down without sacrificing care--or sanity.

1. Ask the doctor for medications. And not just samples of prescriptions--many doctors also have over the counter medications they can give you. We get about half of the children's tylenol & motrin that we use from our pediatricians office, at no additional cost. If they don't have the medications, ask if they have coupons--you can still save a few dollars.

2. Buy generic. Children's ibuprofen is the same medication whether it is labelled motrin or Kroger brand. Tylenol has had TWO recalls in the past couple of years on their children's medications--I actually trust generic brands better than the name brands at this point! In addition, some hospitals or clinics that have their own pharmacy have brands of medication I've never seen in stores (Q-pap, for example, which is a children's medication brand) that tend to be much cheaper than brands you can buy at retail stores.

3. Substitute. Our twins had severe acid reflux their first year or so, which meant that every time they got sick, the reflux was irritated, they were in danger of dehydration, and we started a pedialyte regimen--at a cost of $100-$200 PER ILLNESS, depending on how sick they were and how long it lasted. Last week, the pediatrician we saw pointed out that while plain water wasn't what my son needed to replace what he had lost throwing up, I could mix 1 cup of water, 1 cup of salt, and 1 cup of sugar, along with any flavoring I wanted, and it would have the same effect as pedialyte or Gatorade. When my twins were four months old and teetering on the brink of failure to thrive due to their reflux, I would never have considered this option. But now that they are older and stronger, it's a great alternative--and costs pennies per gallon, when I have paid $5 per quart for pedialyte.

4. Know your own shopping habits. When I am sick, I am the absolute best person to send to the store, because I will buy exactly what is on my list and nothing else. Some times, I won't even finish the list :P But when one of my sons is sick, I'm the worst person to do the shopping--suddenly a $50 video game or toy seems like a great idea if it MIGHT make my sick child smile. If this is you as well, find someone else to do the shopping when your little ones are sick.

5. Indulge sensibly. If you are sick, you probably aren't spending a lot of money (unless you're shopping online or on QVC :P), so it's OK to spend a little extra on the orange juice you like but don't usually buy, or for a paperback that you usually wouldn't read but would like to (my husband calls these my 'trash literature'-I enjoy them, but they really don't have any value other than entertainment :P), or a toy or game to help keep your child occupied. But be sensible--even sick, there's no reason to spend $75 on a new video game when a used $20 game from a pawn shop would keep your child just as entertained.

6. Stock up on sick-day supplies when you're well. If you have children, chances are someone in your house is going to be sick at some point. So when you see spray disinfectant on sale (or even better, free or close to free after coupons), buy a few extra and stash them in the closet. Same goes for hand cleaner, tissues, chicken noodle soup, cold medicine, or anything else you might need when you're sick--for me, being sick or having a sick child and having to pay a premium price for something that was on sale recently or will be on sale soon is like adding insult to injury. When your local library has a used book sale, spend $5 or so on some books that you or your child would like to read if you were stuck in bed for a few days. I always have a couple of toys or games stashed away in my 'gift closet' in case of a birthday party invitation that arrives unexpectedly--add a couple of items that you can pull out if your kids are sick, too.

7. Miss work judiciously. Depending on your job, it could cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars to be sick or to have sick children, and here in the real world, bosses don't always care that you're sick or you've been up all night with an ill child. And to be fair to bosses, the world doesn't stop just because your house has been invaded by the plague, so somewhere, someone is still depending on your job getting done. However, especially with the pandemic flu we are currently facing, it's important to STAY HOME if you are contagious. If you have a sinus infection and you're miserable and you go to work anyway, then you may gross out a few neighbors, but mostly you're torturing yourself. But if you have a virus and you take your germs out in public, you never know who is seeing you right before visiting their elderly parent or newborn niece. Do not risk killing someone else to prove you are super strong--if you are sick, stay at home.

8. Keep some comfort food in the freezer. I LOVE homemade chicken noodles soup when I'm sick (or, honestly, anytime I want comfort food), so I keep all the ingredients on hand all the time--a bag of egg noodles, some frozen chicken breast, and some chicken bouillon and I'm good to go. I also try to keep things on hand that might tempt a sick child's appetite. If I have some frozen dinners already in the freezer (pasta dishes, like manicotti and lasagna, seem to freeze well) then I'm not as tempted to get pizza or fast food--which also means I'm keeping my germs at home :P

8. Don't get sick. Of course, this is the best way to save money. Eat well, take your vitamins, use good hand washing, avoid enclosed spaces when possible, and make sure your kids do these things, too.