Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Making the Holidays Last

I love this time of year--from Labor Day until New Year's Eve, I am on Cloud 9. I love the holiday displays (and by holidays, I mean Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's) and the holiday foods--a little too much! I could easily celebrate everything all at once before October even begins, so I've come up with some rules for myself to keep me from going overboard.

1. September is apple and birthday month.

2. No candy corn or pumpkin-flavored anything until October 1st. I love pumpkin (especially in pancakes), but I stop eating it before summer begins so that I'm really craving it by the time the season gets here!

3. We decorate with pumpkins after October 1st. I don't decorate much for Halloween, so these are the precursors to our Thanksgiving decorations.

4. November 1st is the first day of Thanksgiving decorations. We add harvest-y things to the pumpkins that are already there. Candy corn is finished for the season on this day, also.

5. Christmas officially debuts in our home on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The decorations are set, and we prepare our Advent calendar. We give ourselves from that Friday until December 1st to finish our preparations so that we can enjoy the entire month of December.

6. I'm not a big fan of Black Friday shopping, but I do seek out a Starbucks after the crowds have dispersed a little to get my first Peppermint Mocha of the season.

7. December 1st is the first day we open our Advent Calendar, and we open a door every day until Christmas. Christmas candy is allowed as well as cookies, cakes, boiled custard and eggnog, and anything else our little hearts desire (applying the rule of moderation, of course!).

How do you make the seasons and holidays count?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Doing the hard work so you don't have to...

I just peeled the paper from a gazillion crayons to make molded crayons for the goody bags at my son's birthday party, and I thought I would give you a few tips on how to do it more efficiently! (I was pretty slow getting started, but once I figured out a few things it was smooth peeling!)

1. If you enjoy mundane and agonizingly slow tasks, then by all means scrape that paper with your fingernail (this also gives your fingernails a nice multi-colored hue--saves money on nail polish, I guess). I took an Exacto knife and cut a line lengthwise in the paper. For many of the colors, the paper will then come right off. (Unfortunately the tip of my finger also nearly came right off--be careful!)

2. For some reason there are colors that really like to keep their paper. In my experience, the more yellow in the color, the more modest the crayon. The deeper purples and blues also had disrobing issues. This led me to tip number...

3. Stick them in the freezer. After other failed attempts at skinning the stubborn ones, I cut the slit in the paper, popped the bag of unpeeled crayons in the freezer, and waited. Once they were nice and chilly, I took them out, and guess what? The paper practically fell off of them!

Happy peeling!

Oh, goody!

When it comes to birthday parties, my favorite part is making the treat bags for our guests. My little guy turned two today, and here's what I did for the goody bags for his party:

I like to go heavier on the non-candy items, so this year we used party bubbles, a punching balloon (I saw these at the store and had so many fun memories of birthday parties gone by--I just had to get them!), molded crayons, a Halloween package of Teddy Grahams or Ritz Bitz, and a Dum Dum sucker. (It is really nice to have his party so near Halloween--we're able to get some neat things in the perfect sized packages!)

Of everything I put in the bags, the molded crayons are my favorite. Through trial and error I learned some pretty nifty tricks for preparing the crayons a little more efficiently, and they looked so pretty sitting in their little stacks getting ready to be bagged...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

If only I had known this sooner!

As you know, I am a bit of a coupon junkie. I'm learning a little bit every day about how to make saving money work for me, and there are several things I wish I had known sooner!

1. You can use a Buy One Get One Free coupon on a Buy One Get One Free sale to get both items free. Don't spend time trying to rationalize this--you'll go crazy. Just go with it.

2. Some stores allow you to use a store coupon AND a manufacturer's coupon at the same time for the same item. Recently I purchased two bags of Bird's Eye Steam Fresh Vegetables. Each was priced $1.79. They were on sale for 50% off, therefore I got two for $1.79. I had a manufacturer's coupon for $1.00 off of two bags, thus my price went down to $.79 for two. I also had a store coupon for $.55 off of two bags, thus the price went down to $.24 for two bags. That's $.12 a bag!

3. Some stores allow you to use two coupons on a Buy One Get One Free sale. Olive Oil this week was BOGO for $11.99. I had two coupons for $1.00 off of each bottle, thus my final price for two 32 oz. bottles of olive oil was $9.99--that's only $4.99 for each bottle (that was originally $11.99)!

4. Stores will gladly answer your coupon questions! If you feel hesitant about a deal, call the store first and ask anonymously. I've even called corporate offices and said, "I have a coupon question." They are happy to have you as a customer, and they will tell you what you need to know so that you can avoid any hassles when you get to the store.

There is so much to learn about coupons and rebates that I couldn't possibly fit it all into one article, but this is a good foot in the door to saving tons of money on groceries. Do you have any money-saving tips? I would love to hear them! What works for you?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Doing Laundry MY Way

Laundry...why does it have to be so much trouble? It always piles up while I wait to have a full load of a certain color, and by that time everything is dirty and we're digging through laundry baskets for something to wear!

So, I made up my mind to do one load a day. I was still sorting colors and separating the towels and the kitchen towels, and it worked for a while. The problem was, there were still all of these laundry baskets sitting around, and if I missed a day, yikes! Everything overflowed!

Well, I've started doing laundry my way, and I'm much happier because of it. We put our clothes directly into the washing machine like it is a laundry basket ("shouting out" stains as we go), and in the morning I start the wash. Once the load is all washed, dried, and folded, we start over again. I wash everything together. Even a towel gets thrown in from time to time, and guess what? Nothing happens. I've always been under the impression that the world would stop turning if towels were washed with dress shirts, but so far there have been no galactic abnormalities of which I am aware.

I have also simplified what I use in the wash. I use a detergent with color-safe bleach already added, and I only use white vinegar as a fabric softener. This way everything gets "bleached" and it doesn't matter if a shirt that requires fabric softener is washed with a pair of pants that forbids the use of fabric softener. So far, no problems there, either!

It works for me! Do you have any deep, dark laundry secrets?

Be sure to check out Rocks in My Dryer for more Works for Me Wednesday articles!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Caramel Apple Tartlettes

Apple season is coming, and here is the "fruit" of my labor from a recent kitchen experiment!

Caramel Apple Tartlettes

1 prepared, unbaked pie crust, rolled flat (I used a pre-made crust that comes already rolled--keep it simple!)
2 medium, tart apples
1-2 T butter, melted
2-3 T caramel ice cream topping (or your favorite caramel sauce), warmed and fluid

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Peel, core, and thinly slice the apples. Set them aside for the moment.

On a floured surface, roll the pie crust and press any tears to mend them. Use an apple-shaped cookie cutter to make around 12-14 pie crust apples (my son helped with this). Brush them with the melted butter, then sprinkle them with a dusting of cinnamon.

Arrange the thinly sliced apples on the apple shaped pie dough pieces. (I tried to arrange them so that they gave the apple shapes a 3-D appearance) Sprinkle them again with just a dusting of cinnamon. Take the caramel, and using a spoon, fork, or small sandwich bag, zig-zag the caramel over the apples.

Bake the tartlettes at 350 degrees for 11-13 minutes. Check on them when you begin to smell the cinnamon emanating from your kitchen. When they are done, the crust will be baked and the caramel will have oozed over the apples. The apples should be tender. Remove them from the pan to cool, and be careful with small children--the caramel will be VERY hot for a few minutes.

We devoured these straight from the cookie sheet, but they would be wonderful served as a garnish for ice cream.

What is your favorite recipe that uses apples?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Isn't art supposed to be messy?

I was perusing the art supplies at our local Supercenter the other day, and I noticed the growing number of "mess-free" items for sale. The markers that only work on special paper have been on the market for a while, but that day I saw "mess-free" fingerpaint. Wait a minute--isn't that going too far?

I mean, isn't art supposed to be messy? Look at the masterworks of the greatest artists of all time--can you imagine what Monet's Nymphéas would look like if his mother had given him "mess-free" art supplies to play with? I bet Van Gogh made a huge mess before he was done with Starry Night.

I'm not an expert, but many of you are--what do you think? Are clean hands really worth it?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Coupon Crazed

Why I Clip Coupons:
I like to save money, and in some cases I can acquire merchandise FREE of charge (the legal way!). I believe that it is my job as the shopper of the house to help our budget by cutting costs whenever I can. Also, I actively look for deals that I can use to make contributions to our local food bank.

How I Clip Coupons:
Sunday is a big day in our household. After a great morning at church and Sunday school, we head to the grocery store and grab a copy of the newspaper. Later, usually after the rest of my family is asleep, I get to work.

I have two traditional coupon organizers, each with thirteen pockets. Before I add the new coupons to them, I go through each section to remove any expired coupons. This is also a great time for refreshing my memory as to any coupons I might have forgotten I had. Once that's done, I clip what I need and sort them immediately into my organizers.

I have changed my ways a little when it comes to what I clip. At first I clipped everything, but I didn't really understand how to make coupons work for me. At the end of the month I had stacks and stacks of coupons that were not used and then expired. I couldn't find anything I really needed because of the volume of the little pieces of paper in my organizer. It was also impossible to search for something at the grocery store without an embarrassing avalanche. I gave up because I wasn't saving much money and I was doing a lot of work in the meantime.

When I started staying at home with my son, I decided it was time to get serious. This time, I only clipped the coupons that I knew I would use. I threw away quite a few without clipping them, but the ones I kept were generally redeemed. In the meantime, I researched a little and learned how to stack coupons and pair them with store sales to save more.

Recently, after a coupon conversation with a fellow clipper, I realized that I could do more good if I would clip all of the coupons in the weekly inserts. There were many deals--most of the time for items I could have had FREE--that I wasn't getting. So, I'm back to clipping everything, but I've changed my methods just a bit when it comes to how I organize them.

How I Organize Those Valuable Pieces of Paper:
When I clipped only the coupons I knew we would use, I organized them by brand name so that I could easily find them. At the time, I was very brand specific in my purchases, so this worked well. When I started clipping everything, however, on the off chance that I would get a deal I wasn't expecting, this was no longer practical. I needed to organize by category so that I could quickly find coupons of a certain type instead of a certain brand.

I divided my coupons into categories that I created, mostly based on location in a typical grocery store. For example, one of my categories is "Cereal Aisle," and in that section you would find coupons for cereal and cereal bars. The "Bread Aisle" category holds savings for bread, peanut butter, and jams and jellies. My shopping list is also based on the layout of my most-shopped stores, so this method works for me.

My latest problem is that I have a ton of coupons and they are a bit cumbersome in the two 13-pocket organizers I use (one pocket per category). I have decided to add an index card file to my system to hold the coupons I'm really only keeping "just in case." For example, we don't have any pets, and I never clipped the pet product coupons, but I have realized that if it's a good coupon and I can get the pet products for FREE, that would be a great donation to our local food bank. I don't want to carry around a wallet full of pet food coupons that I won't use, though, so they stay at home in my card file until I find an ad that compliments them.

It Works For Me:
My organization is not a perfect system by any means, and it is certainly the product of trial and error, but it works for me. What works for you?

Organization is only the beginning! Check back soon for more coupon posts!