Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How to do Christmas on a (very) tight budget: Wrap-up

About a month ago I was unemployed. I was looking around me, listening to the radio and watching the TV and everywhere I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that Christmas was coming (a month before Thanksgiving!) I was overwhelmed and stressed. Very stressed, because I had no idea how we were going to get down to Oregon to see my sister-in-law and her family for Christmas, let alone give gifts to anyone. I was on the verge of telling our parents that we just couldn't do anything for Christmas this year, when I got a job. And everything changed.

Suddenly, we could afford things again. We are working (slowly) on building up our savings, paying off debts and basically getting our feet back under ourselves. Along with the ability to pay our bills, we suddenly had the freedom and money to buy Christmas gifts for our families. However, having the freedom to do this is one thing, but actually using our entire budget for Christmas is another.

Frugality is not synonymous with the word cheap. While many people may think it is, it really is not...if you are creative. One of the things I have enjoyed so much this year is being creative. Whether that meant finding a simple, but sentimental gift or searching Craigslist, Freecycle, Amazon (used books) or our local thrift store for something used, there is something exciting in the thrill of the search, and the process of trying to find something exciting and fun to give.

You know what? I think I'll do this every year!

Check out my other posts on doing Christmas on a tight budget!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!! Today my husband, sister, mother-in-law and I are gathering together to eat what I hope will be a delicious Thanksgiving meal! Since it's my first one I can only hope things turned out alright! Since it's Thanksgiving, I thought I would take the time to post a list of the things I'm thankful for. This is by no means all-inclusive, it's simply what I thought of off the top of my head! I am sure there are many many more things to be thankful for!

1. My job. I'm SO thankful that I am finally employed. Having the extra paycheck will make a huge difference in paying off our debts.

2. My family. Both extended and immediate. They are all wonderful and I'm so lucky to have them.

3. Our health. Currently everyone in our family is healthy. I'm not talking colds, I'm talking big things like cancer. We are all healthy and happy and I'm incredibly thankful for that.

4. My kitties. They seriously make me laugh every day with their antics! And I love when they cuddle up and sleep with us!

5. Our house. We are lucky not only to have a roof over our heads, but to own that roof as well. It's been a blessed year for us.

6. My husband. As we approach our one year anniversary I'm so thankful that we met each other and got married!

7. My marriage. Everyone says the first year's the hardest. Well, it's been tough, but we've made it through.

8. Snow! Yes, even snow because it is so beautiful!

9. Friends who pimp out my Mary Kay business. I've had several new orders lately which has been awesome!

10. Our local thrift store. They have provided me with several Christmas gifts!

11. Freecycle, without which we wouldn't have 2 couches and a Christmas gift for my mom!

12. Craigslist, without which we wouldn't have our coffee table and numerous other things I've bought (and sold!) for less than their retail price.

13. Oatmeal. It is delicious and yummy and warming on a cool winter morning!

14. A garage, where my car is parked safe and sound and free of snow and ice!

How about you? What are you thankful for this year?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How to do Christmas on a (very) tight budget: Guest Post!

The following is a guest post by my sister, Laura. Enjoy!

If you’re like me, there are some people in your life that are just difficult to shop for. You could get them a book or a TV show, but they just have so many! A hand-crafted gift is awesome, but what if you’re not particularly hand-crafty?

This is where I like to fall back on the old standby: yarn crafts. I worked at a fabric store for three years when I was in high school, which exposed me to the world of crafting--sewing, knitting, quilting, the whole nine yards. Now, I’m not a great crafter, but I can handle knitting and crocheting just fine.

This is why I decided to give two of my more, shall we say, earthy-crunch friends... (drum roll please) knitted coasters!!
Pictured: An awesome gift idea.

The directions are ridiculously simple, ready?
Cast on 24. Knit until it reaches the desired size. Cast off.
Stick your gorgeous, finished product on your coffee table and let people stick their cups on it. Tada!
I used a size 5 needle because I wanted the stitches to be small and tight. I also used a wooden coaster I had around the house as a template and I consulted with my (avid knitter) best friend to determine the gauge before I set off.
Depending on how tight or loose your stitches are you should check your work against a template coaster sure you’re on track. After you make your first coaster, I would use that as your template so that your set is all the same size.
I chose my yarn based on two things: price and color. Caro’s favorite color is bright yellow, and Aubrey’s is green, so I knew which colors to get. I also knew that I was making coasters, not a sweater or a scarf or gloves, so when you get to the yarn store don’t get seduced by the 17 dollar skein of malabrigo yarn. I know, it’s hard, but resist! It will not respect you in the morning. Instead, allow yourself to fall in love with the simple, uncomplicated nylon-acrylic blend. I got two 1.75 oz skeins for eight bucks. For those keeping up with the math, that’s a four dollar present (plus the labor, of course).

The coasters don’t look perfect, but I don’t mind and neither do my friends, because they know I worked hard to show them how much I care.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Delicious 7 Layer Bars! AKA Magic Bars

Every year for Thanksgiving (or really any family get-together where my family was the one to bring the dessert) my mom would make 7 Layer Bars. We never called them Magic Bars, but I guess that's what they really are, since there isn't exactly 7 layers in ours.
Anyway, the recipe comes from the back of a can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk. I love this recipe not only because it's delicious, but because you can bake it ahead of time and freeze them! It's perfect holiday baking and this year for Thanksgiving I made this recipe on Sunday, when I had time. I will freeze the bars before they all get eaten and we will have them alongside pie for dessert on Thursday!

The ingredients are simple and cheap for this recipe (another reason I love it!)

1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 (14 ounce) can EAGLE BRAND® Sweetened Condensed Milk (It doesn't have to be Eagle Brand, but that is the one I typically use, mostly because the recipe is on the back!)
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
OR 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips and 1 cup butterscotch chips
1 1/3 cups flaked coconut
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees F (325 degrees for glass dish). Coat 13x9-inch baking pan with no-stick cooking spray.
Combine graham cracker crumbs and butter. Press into bottom of prepared pan. Pour sweetened condensed milk evenly over crumb mixture. Layer evenly with chocolate chips, coconut and nuts. Press down firmly with a fork.
Bake 25 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool. Cut into bars or diamonds. Store covered at room temperature.

Easy! This recipe takes no time at all, but even when you don't have any time, you can cook it ahead and freeze it! What's not to love?
I didn't take a picture of my bars because a. I'm a little lazy and b. I wanted to get them into the freezer as soon as possible before they got eaten!

Source: Allrecipes.com

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Playing for the team instead of cheering them on

Now that I've finished my second week of work and even acquired a first paycheck, I'm feeling pretty good about my new job. I'm enjoying being out of the house all day, even if it means I get home late, eat, go to bed, and start all over again. That is OK if it means that I am able to contribute monetarily to our little family.

I was discussing this with B, my sister-in-law, recently. B and I have bonded lately over similar situations. She has been married just over a year, and spent her first few months of marriage unemployed and at home as well. Her husband was working outside of the house, but B was like me...stuck in the house, bored, an unintentional housewife.
Thankfully B was able to get a job and get out of the house, but she was there for me when I was still in the house. Going crazy, to some extent. This week, when I received my first pay stub, I was so happy, and I knew B would understand.

"Isn't it nice to be playing for the team, instead of just cheering them on?" she texted me. I hadn't thought about it that way, but yes, that is exactly how I was feeling. Despite the fact that the paycheck was small since it was only for one week because I came in the middle of a pay period, I was contributing. I was making a difference in our day to day life and it felt so good!

Now don't get me wrong. As I sit here and write this I keep thinking that I was contributing to our family, at least I was supposed to. I was cooking dinner, doing laundry, sweeping, vacuuming, basically keeping the house in order. At least that's what I was supposed to be doing. I won't embarrass myself bore you with the details of what my days really consisted of, but they weren't very productive.

These days the laundry isn't always done. Geoff swept the floor this morning and cleaned the litter boxes while I threw a load of laundry in and changed the sheets. These days we are both contributing a little more, but things are more even, and I love it. These days, we are playing for the same team, and I am loving every inning of this game.

Don't forget to check out my series on doing christmas on a tight budget! This Tuesday is the last post, and it's a guest post!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How to do Christmas on a (very) tight budget: Play to your strengths

My other posts in this series are right here.

Today's tip on doing Christmas on a (very) tight budget is to play to your strengths. The key to saving money on gifts, I think, is homemade, thoughtful gifts. Do you love to sew? There are many many tutorials for things to sew, from clothes to purses, to baby items. If you own a sewing machine this is a great tip. Unfortunately, I'm not a very big sewer so this tip isn't exactly up my alley.
One thing I do enjoy, however, is very simple projects. In years past I have knitted scarves, and this year I plan to make a pocket scarf (pictures and tutorial to come, when I get my act together!)

However, if I have any strengths, they would be in the kitchen. I enjoy cooking, though I enjoy baking much more. This year I am compiling a book of recipes that I have found online, tried out over the past year and enjoyed. I am including side dishes, main dishes and bakery items in my book. Staples has a really nice presentation binder that I plan on putting my recipes into. I will print the pages off at Staples at a low cost per page, and the whole present will cost less than $10! This is what I consider to be a nice gift, and it will be something a few of my younger family members will be getting, specifically my sister and brother-in-law, another newly married couple.

Playing to your specific strengths will not only make your gift-giving time easier, but it will also mean a little more to the people you are gifting to because it's something that they know you enjoy, it's personal and it's homemade. As always, remember that not everyone wants to receive a personal, homemade gift. Some would much rather have a material object. Use discretion in deciding who to you want to receive your homemade gifts.

You will want to tune in next Tuesday for the last post in this series which will feature a very special guest post by my sister!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Holiday swaps

I may be working hard to do Christmas on a budget this year, but that doesn't mean I don't want to get my furry little friends a gift, too! They may or may not (most likely do not) understand what the heck Christmas is, but I do like to spoil my fur babies sometimes!

(This is one of the few pictures I have of them together! Though I know they like each other, they are more often seen rolling around and playing than cuddling together.)

That is why, when I saw that there was a pet blog swap going on, I decided I needed to jump on board! The directions are here, and it's super simple and inexpensive (max $10!) and I can't wait to see what type of animal I get to shop for!

So how about it? Are there some furry friends in your life that need a little holiday loving? Don't forget that they need some love too!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting stuff done

I have to tell you a secret. I'm obsessed with The Frugal Girl. I'm pretty sure she doesn't know I exist, but I like to think that we'd be friends if I knew her in real life. You know, if I wasn't living roughly 3,000 miles away from her.

Anyway, she is doing a new series on productivity that I've found, so far to be very interesting and relevant. You see, ever since I started my new job I've been, well, busy! This is exactly what I've longed for, so I'm loving it, but the fact remains there are things around the house that continue to pile up during the week, things that I need to take care of on a daily basis not just once a week on my weekends off. Laundry is accumulated (for two people we seem to have an awfully lot of laundry), dishes fill the sink, litter boxes need to be cleaned...you get where I'm going. (I will warn you, this isn't rocket science, but if you're anything like me you need a reminder every once in a while!)

I tried something new this week, something novel and different that I haven't done since I got married. I got up with my husband in the morning. Geoff has to be at work (which is 30 minutes away) at 7, which means the alarm goes off at an hour I'm not exactly comfortable with: 5 am. I realize there are people out there who have to be at WORK at 5 am, heck, I used to be one of them when I worked at Dunkin Donuts! Since then, however, I've come to enjoy my sleep. Perhaps a little too much. (In my defense, however, we have a pillow top mattress that makes it difficult to get out of bed some mornings!) As a result, I have gotten more sleep in the past 10 months than I think I've ever gotten in my life. We got to bed early because Geoff gets up early. I typically get up and see him off, then go back to bed until 8:30 or 9. I realized this week, however, that this really isn't the best use of my time, especially since I now have chores to take care of along with a full day of work.
So I tried getting up with Geoff, and you know what? I didn't die. I didn't fall asleep at my computer, but I did get things done! The first day I tried this I made coffee, sent Geoff to work with some, loaded the dishwasher and cleaned the sink. Thankfully Geoff threw in a load of laundry, put some laundry away and we both lost the cat. A productive morning, and that was all done by 6:30 am! When Geoff headed out I sat down with a full hour to myself of poking around on the internet. I typically do this anyway, but there was something different about this time. This time around I actually had time to play without making me late or run around to get ready. I gave myself until 7:30, at which time I showered, dressed, put on makeup and headed out by 8:30 (though I usually get to work at 9:30 I was meeting someone that particular morning).
The best part of this whole thing, however, was the fact that I felt so good! Sure, it's early, and getting out of bed at 6 am isn't exactly fun, but it was necessary, and will continue to be necessary through this season in our life.
Next week I'm going to actually take The Frugal Girl's advice to heart and try to get to bed at a reasonable hour every night, but baby steps.

Like I said, this isn't rocket science, and most of you probably have been doing this for years, but it's taken me 10 months and a job to kick my butt out of bed, but I'm so glad it has.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What AM I doing??

I have had several comments asking what I'm going to be doing at work ever since I announced that I have accepted a job. I haven't intentionally left you all in the dark by keeping it a secret, the truth is I had very little knowledge of what I would be doing before my first day on Monday! Now that it's been a few days, however, I am a little more aware of what is going on here. Think of this post as a Public Service Announcement.

I am working for a company that provides rides to people with disabilities. The clients are often getting rides to doctor's appointments, the grocery store, the bank or other things like dialysis. My job will be to direct the drivers (dispatch), make up the driver schedule, enter data like invoices and gas receipts, basic office jobs like that.

It isn't glamorous, and it's far from what I want to do for the rest of my life, but for now, I'm enjoying it. A job gets me out of the house and it's a small office, with one woman that I work with directly here, a few owners of the company that come and go and the drivers, of course. I love that it is relaxed and family friendly. On Monday I heard my manager working with a driver to arrange daycare for her daughter. L (my manager) was so accommodating to the driver that I was touched. I think I will really enjoy working here, once I actually know and understand everything that's going on. For now I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed and am trying to adjust to a new schedule, but I'm happy and eager to see where this job takes me in the future.

So there you have it, the answer to your burning question of what the heck is my job and what am I doing??

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to do Christmas on a (very) tight budget: Think used

"A book always keeps something of its owner in between its pages." (Cornelia Funke, Inkheart)

It won't come as a surprise to you that I love books. I come by it genetically, my grandmother, mother, father and sister all love to read. My father started reading to me when I was a child, and I almost always ask my sister to read to me while we drive alone. What can I say, we are a family who loves books!

Today's Christmas shopping on a (very) tight budget is: think used. There are many places were you can get used books: Amazon.com and Half.com are two online retailers that sell used books for a much lower price than new books. There are also used book stores scattered around everywhere; here we have Half-priced Books which is a very nice, very large used book store! Today I bought three books for my sister and only spent $5!

Now, this tip is not recommended for people who are picky about their books. You can often find a used book that is in very good (like new) condition, but I have found that more often than not it is obvious that they are used. My sister couldn't care less, and I couldn't either, but some people might take offense to this, so be careful.

Books aren't the only thing you can buy used, however. My sister loves TV shows, and collects them on DVD. However, have you ever bought a drama on DVD? They typically go for between $40-50! This is a little steep for me, so I like to look for them on Amazon.com too! I get a list from my sister (make sure you know which seasons they need if you are going this route!) and for half that price I can get one, maybe two seasons of her favorite shows. It's the same with movies. If you are worried about your DVDs skipping, buy them from a seller on Amazon that guarantees they will play. Often these are larger sellers who make sure their DVDs are playable before selling them. And don't forget the video games for your video game lovers out there! GameStop is an excellent place to buy used games.

How about you? Have you ever given someone a used book, DVD or game?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Time to say goodbye

Today, I say goodbye. Goodbye to daytime TV, staying in my pajamas until noon and mid-afternoon couch naps. Goodbye to lazy mornings drinking coffee on the couch and playing with Facebook all day.

But hello to something else!

(Image courtesy of Google images)

Starting today, I am officially employed! Yes, I will join the wonderful world of a 9-5 job* and I couldn't be happier!
*Technically my hours will be 10-6, but whatever, same thing.
I'm eager to see what this means for our relationship. Some of the household duties that I have so terribly taken under my wing will have to be divided, and there will be nights when I don't get home until very late, due to my previous commitments. I also foresee Geoff putting dinner together more often, since he will be home at 4, and I will be home about 6:30.

Whatever this next season of our life brings, I have to say that I don't think I will miss the daytime TV and my lazy mornings! (Well, I might miss them a little bit, in about three months, but for now, I happily say goodbye!)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Deliciously non-healthy soup!

Growing up I loved soup. Two different kinds, in fact. Campbells chicken noodle and Campbells tomato soup. That's right, I had no taste! Although I later discovered that adding fat free cheese to the tomato soup makes it very yummy, there is nothing quite like a good, hearty soup.

(Image courtesy of Google images)

Sadly, I wasn't to discover a good hearty soup until very recently. I have never been a creative cook, and I, unfortunately enjoy some very bland foods. I am trying very hard to branch out, however, especially since I married someone who does not do bland foods! Therefore, I've been experimenting more and more with my cooking. Obviously over the summer I did not cook soups, but a recent drop in temperatures has led me to try a few new soups!
One, a hearty tomato soup is a recipe of my grandmother's that is delicious in the winter. I will share that recipe soon, but for now I want to share the Homemade Baked Potato Soup that I recently discovered thanks to The Frugal Girl! I have to say that this is amazing. For someone who loves Panara's Baked Potato Soup, I enjoyed making 6 times the amount of soup for the same price! Or close to, anyway.

With 1 1/3 cup of butter, a cup of sour cream, nearly 2 cups of cheese and a pound of bacon, this recipe is nowhere near as healthy as I should be eating right now. However, I must say that it is not only delicious, but made 7 servings for Geoff and I! And bonus, it was a hit with the hubby!

I did make it slightly more healthy, however, and it didn't seem to suffer. (Although, thankfully since I never tried it with full fat, I don't know what else to compare it to, which is good!) I used light sour cream, skim milk and light cheese (not fat free, though I'm sure that would work too, since it gets all mixed up in there). Even better, I was able to use up some potatoes that were growing eyes! (Don't worry, I cut that part off)

So, what kind of hearty soups do you like in the winter? And a big thank you to the Frugal Girl for turning me onto this recipe!

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Christmas of firsts...

This Christmas is both exciting and bittersweet. It's a Christmas of firsts, for me. It's our first Christmas in our new house, and our first Christmas as a married couple. Unfortunately, it's also my first Christmas away from my family, and my first Christmas where I won't be in Massachusetts, participating in the traditional activities we every year.
However, it is not the first Christmas I will be sending out photo cards!

I have been a fan of Shutterfly for a while now, and have used them for several years in the past both for Christmas cards and regular photo prints. I can't wait to order our holiday cards this year! I haven't decided if I want to go with a card with several photos like this...

Or a card with just one, like this one:
I also haven't chosen the picture yet either, but have no fear, I will one of these days!

One of the things I love about Snapfish is the variety of cards and other things you can order. For example, did you know they have Christmas gift tags? How fun would it be to wrap all our gifts and put a personalized tag on them! Of course then I'd have to remember whose gift belonged to whom, but I'm sure I could work that out.

Another fun idea is to send Thanksgiving cards out! If you can get your act together prior to Thanksgiving, this is a great way to kick off the Christmas cards that flood your mailbox. This way you get your picture cards in early so everyone can enjoy them, and they don't get lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately for me, I did not get my act together early enough this year, but maybe next year!

Of course for me, nothing beats a good Christmas card! I always have the hardest time picking out a card because they are all so good! My favorites are the ones with snowflakes on them.

Great news! Bloggers, if you want 50 free Christmas cards too just click here and fill out the form! And maybe you can help me decide which one I should choose!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

How to do Christmas on a (very) tight budget: Think sentimentality

Grandparents love pictures. Lets face it, they don't need more stuff, they've spent a lifetime collecting stuff. What they do need, and will really appreciate, is a nice, framed picture of you and your husband, your kids (this is a huge hit!) or, in my case, their grandkids...at their wedding.

This is the picture I chose for Geoff's and my grandparents. It may sound narcissistic, but grandparents, especially ones who live further away, love photographs. And when you give them a nice picture of your kids, it's a gift that never goes wrong, since kids change every year! I get my pictures printed at www.photoworks.com where 4x6 photos are 15 cents and 5x7 are 99 cents. Tada! With a nice frame (ranging from $5-20, depending on where you shop) that was a very simple $21 gift.

For me, $21 isn't bad...but multiply that by the 4 grandparents we are buying for makes it $84, which, for me, is a little much. So, I decided to think outside the box a little bit, today. I recently found a new thrift store locally, and I visited it today to see what I could find. Now, I know what you're thinking. Thrift store shopping for Christmas gifts?? Seriously, Megg, I think you're stooping a little low this time. Well, bear with me.
I was able to find a few frames that were suitable for my purposes! I spent $8 total (not counting the $6 vest I found for me!) and found three excellent frames. One of them has something sticky on the glass and will need a few screws tightened, but it's in great condition otherwise. The second will need something sticky removed when I take the price tag off, and the third is this frame from IKEA, still wrapped in its plastic and only $2.99! Granted, I spent a good 20 minutes poking through the frames to find a few halfway decent ones, but it was worth it to me.

You don't have to go my route for frames, of course. Though I don't have a Hobby Lobby near me, I hear they have excellent frames that are often on clearance or sale. Michaels also has excellent frames that are very often on sale, and Marshalls or Ross also have inexpensive decorative frames for sale. Where you get the frame doesn't really matter, the most important part is the picture that goes inside. The memories you are giving them inside that frame are priceless.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Goal update for October

I'm getting frustrated with my goal posts. I think I will try to revamp the goals I have, as these don't seem to be working out for me.

Here are the results of October's goals:
1. Get a job, any job.
Still nothing. Had a few more interviews but nothing so far.

2. Plan dinner meal menu every week.
I think the first step to eating at home again is planning the menu. Next month I'll worry about the budget.

I did this for about 2 1/2 out of the 4 weeks this month. This is something I need to keep up with better. One of the weeks I didn't take care of this was the week we had guests so we ate out a lot.

3. Send out Idaho reception thank you cards.
Um, nope. However, I made progress. They are now sitting on my coffee table, in plain sight.

4. Walk the neighborhood at least 3 times a week.
This one was tough, mostly because we had guests for 2 weeks in October and it's started the fall rain that is common around here. Many evenings it's rainy so we haven't gotten out to walk like I'd planned.

5. Donate boxes in the garage so we can park a car in there.

Ah ha! I did this goal! My car is currently parked in the garage! Score!

November goals:
1. Get a job, any job. (If I make this a goal often enough then it will happen eventually, right??)

2. In that vein, apply for at least three jobs a day (more if I can find them!)

3. Write 5 Idaho reception thank you cards a day.

4. Clean off the counters and cabinets in the garage and set up Geoff's ham radio and modeling things and my scrapbook stuff in there.

5. Complete the majority of my Christmas shopping/making of gifts. 

Wish my luck...I don't seem to be very successful at this whole goal thing.

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