Friday, November 28, 2008

Affording Christmas Part II

This is a tough year for many people, especially considering the holiday season is approaching and many of us are wondering how we can afford to do what we want to do for our loved ones and our communities. A few years ago my husband and I decided that we wanted to be able to relax financially during the holidays, and our first step was to create a Christmas savings account.

Did your Grandmother have one of those "Christmas Club" accounts? Mine did. I remember riding to the bank in her car when she made her deposits, and she explained to me what she was doing. She put a little in each month, and then she would withdraw the money in November or December to use for her Christmas shopping. When my DH and I sat down to discuss our strategy, this idea immediately came to mind. We decided to deposit a set amount immediately each month into a separate savings account that would only be used for holiday expenses. By using a traditional savings account we were able to withdraw anytime we wanted during the year instead of waiting until the crazy shopping days just before Christmas. This enabled me to attend the ornament premiers in July (yes, I am one of those people) and catch discounts and other promotions when they happened. After our first year we decided to also include travel expenses in our savings, so we slightly increased the amount we deposited monthly so there would be no year end surprises with airfare.

Once we know our lump-sum for the year, I create a spreadsheet (a pencil and paper list would be fine, too--I just find I work better if I feel I'm being technical). I make a list of all of the people to whom we will be giving gifts, and I also include things like Christmas Cards, stamps, gift exchanges for work, baking and cooking costs, decorations, unexpected expenses, etc. I divvy up our total amount available and record any gifts or other items we buy. As long as our total costs are less than or equal to our budgeted costs, we're doing pretty well!

Are you unable to divert part of your income to a savings account for the holidays? Here's a tip: Use coupons, but instead of handing them to the cashier take a walk to customer service. They will give you cash back for your coupons. Take that cash and stash it away until you can deposit it.

I realize that I'm publishing this on Black Friday, and many of you could have used this information a long time ago. Just read it today and bookmark it for January 1st! Also, check out last week's post on ways to afford Christmas right now (some of the strategies would be great for padding your savings account, too).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Affording Christmas Part I: Finding Money

I love Christmas. I turn into a giggling freak this time each year. I love the atmosphere, the music, the camaraderie...everything. I love it so much that I actually miss it the rest of the year--I visit Christmas shops in July just to get a hit of the Christmas smell. The trouble is that much of what I love at Christmastime involves money, and who really has enough of that?

I'm also one of those crazed gift-givers who actually get a rush from giving other people things. That of course, does cost money, and over the years I've developed some strategies for affording the holidays, particularly the gift-giving part of them.

1. Always look for the promotion. Buying make-up? Is there a free gift available? Buying ornaments from Hallmark? Can you spend $x and get a free stuffed animal or reindeer shaped candle? Headed to Target? They run specials where if you buy $x of a certain brand they will give you a gift card for $x. Look for the freebies out there, and then ask yourself, who might like this? Can I get more for my money?

2. Check your wallet. Did you receive a stack of gift cards last year? Did you use them? Two Christmases ago my husband received a gift card from a men's clothing store. He never used it. I found it and used it to help buy several shirts for him last Christmas, and he was happy to have the shirts regardless of how they were purchased. Gift cards are really hard to wear, so use those bad boys for something a little more practical!

3. Check your mail. In the past week I have received a $10 off a $10 purchase at JC Penny's and a coupon for a free "anything in the store" with any purchase at Bath & Body Works. Um, I'm pretty sure that "free" is a good deal anywhere. Use those coupons, and don't let them expire!

4. Keep the change. Last month alone I accumulated $40 in spare change. Imagine if I had collected change all year...that's quite a few gifts.

5. Fives only, please. I read about this in a magazine once. The writer refused to spend $5 bills. When she received one as change it went straight into a special part of her wallet, and then into savings. I did this for a while, and before too long I had collected nearly $200 in $5's. Add that to the spare change, and you have a great nest egg for Christmas spending!

6. Don't avoid the drug stores. CVS and Walgreens (and probably others--those are just the two we have here) run extremely good sales at this time of year on things you wouldn't expect like toys and decorations. I'm looking at a stack of batteries that I essentially paid nothing for this week and don't even get me started on the amount of candy I got there this month. Their clearance sales are awesome, too. Need some free money to spend there? Transfer a prescription and get a $25 gift card!

So, pull out those seat cushions and see what you can do! Do you have other ideas? I'd love to hear them!

PS: Check back next Friday after you get back from the mall for my family's long-term strategy for affording Christmas, and stay tuned for our evolving philosophy concerning Christmas spending.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Escarg...oh, no, you didn't! or "Them's snails!"

One of my most favorite scenes from Little House on the Prairie was when Mr. Edwards and Charles were eating in a "fancy" restaurant in one of those big cities they always visited for business. They decide to order something really nice, and the waiter suggests the escargots. The men order their "es-car-gots" and when the little morsels arrive at the table, both men are outraged--"Why, them's snails!" they shout as they leave the restaurant in a fury.

I went on a cruise with my husband's family last weekend to celebrate his lovely grandmother's 80th birthday. It was the first cruise for our family of three, and we were told before leaving that we should be prepared for the wonderful food. Guess what? It was wonderful, and there was plenty of it. On the menu for our formal dinner evening I did spy something that always makes me giggle, and well, gag--the incredibly luxurious escargots bourguignon. Them's snails, for us simpletons.

I feel like I have a pretty adventurous pallet, but personally I find a plate of snails, excuse me, escargots, to be one of the most vile dishes I have ever tried to eat. They taste like grass and dirt. What about the delectable garlic butter sauce, you say? Well, I would prefer to eat that on something not disgusting like pasta or vegetables. I may even prefer to eat that on actual grass and dirt rather than consuming an escargot.

So, back to the cruise. I am a Frenchie-Francophile (that means "lover of France" for those of you raising your eyebrows) who has actually lived in France and has been served "escargots done right" and I can imagine no greater punishment than being forced to eat a plate of smelly, once-slimy creatures swimming in fat, garlic, and herbs. My brother-in-law (a very cool guy, by the way) ordered the escargots as his appetizer. He won't eat a fresh tomato, but he will eat a plate of slugs in sauce. I don't get it. Is it the luxe factor? I have a theory on that.

I think it went something like this: Two con men are walking through the woods searching for provisions for their next meal. One looks down at the ground and inspiration strikes. "Hey! Remember how we tricked that emperor into walking around naked? Well, there's plenty of snails here--let's see if we can get the rich people in town to eat them! Get out the garlic butter and herbs!"

It couldn't possibly be that someone saw it as a good idea. Who would seriously look down at the ground and say, "Check out the slime trail that thing's leaving! Looks like good eats to me! Quick, get the garlic butter and herbs!"

Oh oui, Somewhere out there is a dead Frenchman who is laughing hysterically saying, "I so wasn't serious about that! You're not really going to eat those are you???" With a French accent, of course.

An actual escargot de bourgogne. (Apparently a homeless escargot.)
This picture was taken in 1998 in the woods near Autun, France in the region of Burgundy.
Amazingly I was able to take this shot without succumbing to the urge to reach down, snatch him up and eat him.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Saving Dinner!

November is Meal Planning Month over at the FlyLady site and it couldn't have come at a better time for us. We have just finished a Once A Month Cooking (OAMC) session and the meals we prepared need to last until after the New Year, so if I don't plan well we may be out of food before Thanksgiving!

My meal planning strategy is facilitated by knowing what is in my freezer. I took the list of meals we prepared at OAMC and I printed a blank calendar from Outlook. I also opened our family calendar to see which nights we would need dinner as well as which nights we might not. I noted any evenings where one or more of us would not be home as that changes my cooking plans, and I recorded anything important on the no-longer-blank calendar. I then tried to complete the meal calendar by assigning dishes to the remaining days. A typical week looks something like this:

  • Monday: Sweet Soy Chicken with Rice
  • Tuesday: Mexican Torta
  • Wednesday: Ekklesia (This is our church's weekly dinner--yay! No cooking!)
  • Thursday: Chicken and Rice Wraps (My husband would night be eating with us that evening due to a meeting, so we would have something easy to prepare in small quantities. These are great just defrosted in the microwave like a burrito!)
  • Friday: Pizza or Spaghetti (We eat this every Friday night and it is not a freezer meal)
  • Saturday: Panko Parmesan Oven-Fried Chicken Salad
  • Sunday: OYO (On Your Own) Night! We eat whatever we want, but it's every man for himself. Usually, this is my cereal for dinner night!)

I write any side dishes or ingredients that I need on the calendar as well as any thawing instructions, then I stick the finished chart on the freezer so that I can see it any time.

If you're new to meal planning and are unsure where to begin, may I also recommend You'll find a link to it on the left side of the page. Leanne Ely publishes a free daily e-newsletter that provides recipes and helpful tips for feeding the family, and if you're interested she also has an enormous selection of freezer recipes for purchase that take minutes to prepare. If you need LOTS of help with meal planning you can purchase a weekly Menu Mailer where she gives you recipes and shopping lists for the entire week. Personally, I have purchased several of her freezer recipe sets including Chicken for the Freezer and Heart Healthy for the Freezer. The Moroccan Chicken with Honey Couscous is a favorite in our OAMC group. (Sorry for the advertisement, but I really do love Ms. Ely's products!)

So, that's what works for us! We eat well and we don't spend as much money at restaurants anymore...what works for you? Check out Crystal's site for more helpful hints!

Thursday, November 6, 2008


We're under quarantine. OK, so it's not as serious as it sounds--my little guy has what the doctor is calling bronchitis and he is contagious, so we are home bound for the rest of the week. It's kind of strange, too. This week and next should have been two of the busiest of the season for us, and suddenly with a fairly high fever and a few coughs, we have nothing to do except dose medicine and drink fluids.

There is another side to this as well--we're supposed to go on a cruise next weekend with my husband's family (pretty much all of them, in celebration of his dear grandmother's 80th birthday), and I'm a little concerned about this change in health. We can't cancel really cancel our reservations, and I'm pretty sure a family of sick people wouldn't be too welcome on the boat. I believe I read a clause in the informative booklet we received that says something like, "Sick people will be left to fend for themselves at the nearest port of call." Yes, I'm paraphrasing a bit, but I do have a feeling that we would be locked in our stateroom before Captain Stubing would allow his ship to become a floating lazaretto. So somehow we have to nurse our son back into health while keeping our own hands clean and germ-free...yikes. I can't even estimate how many times I was on the receiving end of sneezes and coughs today...

Donna lent us this book, and it has come in quite handy!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Toys We Love--Maple Landmark

I absolutely love the Maple Landmark company in Vermont! They make classic wooden toys and home decor along with a slew of other neat gifts. Their products are American-Made and guaranteed safe for our little ones.

This year we are giving our son a Midget Train set and a few Scoots. Who could resist a train that's called the "Chocolate Pudding Train?"

Midget Train

Fire Truck and Police Car Scoots

We are also giving our son and our nephew one of their Semi-Trucks. Being a Kentucky girl, I fell in love with this one as soon as I saw it!

What on your Christmas list this year? Check out Rocks in My Dryer for other great toy ideas!

Monday, November 3, 2008

'Tis the Season to GIVE!

A few days ago we received the annual holiday newsletter from our local charitable organization, and in it was a reminder about the beginning of their food drive as well as an article about their "Giving Tree"-type campaign. Usually I read the newsletter and then throw it away, but this issue I kept. I looked at the list of food items and then I looked at the pile of coupons on my dining room table, many of them for great products that my family just doesn't use. I decided then and there to challenge myself this year: I'm going to give as much as possible to those two campaigns while spending as little as possible (so that I can give more).

Before I continue, please hear me--I'm not writing this for any reason other than 1) to hold myself accountable, 2) to hopefully get some great ideas from you on how to accomplish this goal, and 3) to possibly inspire you to join me in giving. That being said...

Yesterday I started my quest by getting FREE Crest Pro-Health toothpaste at CVS. With my coupons I actually earned $1 on the purchase. Toothpaste is not quite food and really isn't a great Christmas gift, but I had to start somewhere. I then went to Walgreens where I acquired two boxes of Celestial Seasonings tea for FREE--They were 2 for $3. The Walgreens Easy Saver Rebate book has a coupon for $1 off of 2 boxes and I had 2 $1 off 1 box coupons from a previous Sunday paper. Those are considered food donations, so I'm on my way!

So, if you see any deals, let me know! And if you want to post your ideas for helping your community, please leave comments! I don't have to tell you that many people are feeling the crunch this year with recent economic events. If we can give of ourselves, our time, our abilities, our talents, maybe we can show others the Light that is the Truth of this season...

Happy Giving!