Monday, December 27, 2010

A simple life inventory can help you live well in 2011

Some time ago, we dubbed life in our busy household “blissful chaos,” with emphasis on the “chaos.” It’s sometimes so chaotic, in fact, that my husband and I can do nothing more than laugh and fall into bed at night, exhausted. In the midst of all the busyness, it can be tough to move beyond what often feels like a series of small crises (like having to fish a Matchbox car out of the toilet or a pebble from someone’s nose).

Even as our children get older, we’ll trade one kind of busyness for another. We’ll swap diapers and toddler beds for things like dance classes and T-ball. We recognize that the pace of our lives isn’t likely to slow down.

Nevertheless, we agree that we don’t want to get swept up in busyness for its own sake. Instead, we want to know that we’re using our time and money with purpose and intention. That’s why we decided to take a small “life inventory” of 2010, asking ourselves questions that include, “What specific activities brought us the most and least joy this year?” “What were our greatest financial successes and missteps?”

Focusing our time with our summer activity list helped us to squeeze in lots of simple pleasures that we might not have otherwise experienced. We flew kites and had a squirt gun fight, roasted marshmallows in our backyard fire pit and built sandcastles. On the other hand, my husband and I both agree that we spent far too much time on the computer this year and wasted precious energy trying to keep the house picked up during the day when we’re home with the kids. On both accounts, we’d rather be investing in the lives of our children and in our relationship as a married couple.

As for our financial successes, we are fortunate to have had many in 2010. Those successes include paying off our minivan and saving enough money to install a gas stove in our home. The latter was possible as a result of reigning in our food budget and funneling the money we saved to help us reach our goal.

We also fulfilled a promise to our children and brought home three fluffy chicks last spring; those same chicks are now roosting in the coop that my husband and his father built. Our hens are also finally giving us a few eggs, which has been cause for much excitement around our house.

As for our missteps, these include making a small tactical error during a construction project and ending up $800 over budget, waiting until the last minute to do our Christmas shopping (which meant major budget strain this year), overspending on food some months, and failing to rethink our retirement account contributions. And though we were able to complete a number of projects around our house, we had to dip deeply into our savings account to do so. This means that we need to focus on rebuilding our account in the coming year.

By recognizing what we did well and what we’d like to improve on, we’ll be more prepared to set realistic goals for 2011.

What went well for you this year? What areas of your life could use improvement? In any season of life, taking a simple inventory could help you focus your time and resources on the things you really want to accomplish. I’d encourage you to pause in the busyness of this season, and in your life as a whole, to look back at 2010 and use what you learn to chart a course for the year to come.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Comfort on the go makes traveling easier

I often joke that the key to parenting four young children is to always have food. A stick of gum or a piece of candy works wonders in the grocery store. A sucker is a little bit of magic when we’re on the homestretch of a long trip. A few crackers can stall before-lunch anarchy.

In other words, small comforts, made possible with just a little bit of planning, can make life easier, and generally more pleasant, for our busy family. Our wee ones are less apt to melt down, and we do a better job of keeping our budget intact when we’re prepared for outings. This is true whether we’re heading out for a day of running errands, or taking a trip across the state, such as the one we’re planning this holiday.

No matter what your personal situation, you’ll be better prepared to deal with the stress of holiday travel when you plan ahead. You’ll also save money when you take time to make some relatively small travel preparations. After all, who hasn’t been so desperate in an airport that you resort to eating a $6 pretzel, or been so famished that convenience store beef sticks, packaged alongside unrefrigerated cheese, suddenly look appealing?

While it’s impossible to account for every possible travel glitch—lost luggage or sketchy roads, for example—you can be ready to deal with two inevitable aspects of traveling: hunger and boredom. We’re able to deal with the former by picking up special food items in the days leading up to our trip. These include treats like juice boxes and crazy-long licorice ropes.

Just the sheer anticipation of something out of the ordinary helps our children deal with the seemingly endless prairie stretched out before us. And though the idea of a foot of licorice may not be appealing to you, you can plan for your own kind of travel indulgences.

For road travel, for example, you could brew your favorite coffee at home and take it along in an insulated Thermos. Or you can buy yourself candy you love, or pack your own boxed meal for an airline flight. Make homemade granola or simply stock up on your favorite energy bars. With preparations such as these, you’ll make a small upfront investment, but you’ll save money and feel more satisfied in the long run.

As for dealing with travel boredom, we have our own specialized coping mechanisms. Namely, these include new or favorite books and CDs, stickers, and pocket-size notebooks and crayons. When the situation gets really desperate, we break out press-on tattoos and the aforementioned suckers. We’ve even been known to stop at a park and brave subzero temperatures, just as a way to get everybody out of the car and break up the trip.

Again, press-on tattoos and wintery romps in the park probably won’t suit you, but getting a free download for your digital reader or checking out books or back issues of a magazine from the library could be an appropriate (and budget-friendly) substitute. An audio version of a book is yet another way you can pass the time during your travels – especially if the plot is a thriller guaranteed to keep you alert during long hours of driving. Or you could even write a few handwritten notes or finish a knitting or embroidery project, if these kinds of pursuits interest you.

Amid the busyness of the season, take time to pack a few comforts to pamper yourself and your family. A little planning goes a long way toward making us calmer and happier during stressful holiday travels.

Friday, December 10, 2010

One simple change can make life, money management easier

In a house with four children, I can easily become besieged by laundry. It mounts quickly, but takes hours to tackle all the tiny socks and spaghetti-stained t-shirts. On any given day, there is a load of laundry sitting somewhere, waiting to be stain-treated, washed, dried, folded, or put away.

Laundry isn’t complicated (unless you end up drying a piece of wayward gum, which has been known to happen at my house), but it is a process that can be overwhelming. That’s why I decided to remove the hampers from my children’s rooms and set up a canvas cart with three separate bins.My children now drop off their dirty clothes in a centralized location, where it immediately gets sorted by color. When one bin gets full, I can do laundry without having to walk all over the house dumping out hampers and sorting clothing.

My experience with the laundry cart reminds me how valuable one small change can be. Though I’ll never be free of laundry, I have found a way to streamline the task. In the same way, you will always have to deal with money, no matter how much or little you have. Too often, people get overwhelmed by the idea of getting their finances under control. When they don’t know what to do first, they often end up doing nothing.

You can learn to manage your money effectively by making one small change at a time. Start by asking yourself, “What isn’t working well?” For example, do you have a habit of paying bills late and ending up with late fees? Do you scramble when the holidays approach, then overspend on your gift purchases? Do you eat out more often than you would like?

Once you identify one area you would like to improve, then you can consider a simple solution. Suppose you want to stop paying your bills late. Start by putting your bills in one place and setting aside one or two specific days every month to pay them. If necessary, set up e-mail reminders or ask a trusted friend to keep you accountable.

If you want to build an emergency fund, set a relatively small goal--$500 to $1,000—and sign up for an automatic payroll deduction. You’ll never miss what you don’t see, and you’ll be encouraged when your savings balance grows each month.

If you want to spend less eating out, pack your lunch the night before. You can also stock your desk or work area with hearty, non-perishable foods such as trail mix, dehydrated soup mixes, granola bars, juice boxes, beef jerky or almonds. In a pinch, you can eat what you have on hand, and you won’t be tempted to dash out and buy something instead.

Planning ahead can help you rely less on convenience foods, too. You could cook and freeze several meals for later. My husband’s thrifty 89-year-old grandmother does this, creating complete, individual meals for herself. Even learning how to cook one or two new dishes can help you to spend less on expensive, ready-made food.

Advance planning also can help you avoid the last-minute holiday crush. If you can’t avoid it this year, start fresh in January. Make a gift list at the beginning of the year. Then, commit to making or buying just one gift a month; come next December, you—and your budget—won’t be stressed.

Ultimately, you’re in the best position to decide what solutions will work for you. Starting small will let you build on your success, allowing you to get your finances under control one simple change at a time.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Find budget-friendly holiday items in your own backyard

As I prepared to host Thanksgiving dinner for 20 guests this year, I contemplated buying a decorative porcelain turkey for my table. At $20, it wouldn’t have broken the bank, but it was an expense I hadn’t planned for. Plus, I would have had to find a place to store the colorful gobbler for the 11 months of the year that he wouldn’t be gracing my table.

So instead of bringing home the turkey, I sought inspiration in the grocery store and bought a half-pound of unshelled mixed nuts, a few pears, and as many red apples, which cost me less than $10 (and that have the added benefit of being consumable). Then I “shopped” my own home for items I could use to complete my display. I used brown craft paper to make a table runner and filled three glass hurricanes with my grocery store goodies. As a finishing touch, I wound gold ribbon through the hurricanes and scattered harvest-colored paper leaves down the center of the table.

Inspired by the idea of using what I have on hand, I plan to use creative, budget-friendly ways to decorate for the Christmas season, too. That effort started this weekend with some evergreen boughs leftover from a cut tree. I plan to use the boughs to make a wreath and a garland for the picket fence in front of my house. I’ll also make a garland from pinecones collected from our yard and repurpose a few unworn (and itchy) wool sweaters into handmade ornaments and stockings for our children.

The idea of using what you have on hand can be applied to budget-friendly gift giving, as well. With a little time and ingenuity, you can transform everyday items into special gifts. Using a book about drawing that I picked up in the discard box at my library, for instance, I plan to frame pictures of my 3-year-old son’s favorite cars.

I may even try drawing him a Volkswagen Beetle myself. I’ll also transfer one of my daughter’s drawings onto linen I have in my stash and embroider it to capture a piece of art she’s created. For my other son, who is so smitten with baseball that he draws and cuts out paper bats and balls, I could cover a pillow with a baseball jersey. Or, I might trace one of his drawings onto a favorite, outgrown shirt and sew it into a small stuffed toy.

As you decorate your home this year or look for gifts to delight your recipients, start by surveying what’s around you. For example, branches collected from your yard and tucked into a small vase make a perfect foil for hanging handmade or miniature ornaments; the end result could become a centerpiece or serve as a hostess gift. Store-bought paperwhite bulbs planted in an old wooden bowl or a thrifted pot—embellished with Spanish moss and a satin ribbon—make an elegant gift or mantle display.

Food items made with inexpensive ingredients and presented in creative ways also make memorable gifts. With a few simple ingredients, you can make hot fudge sauce and present it to a friend or a child’s teacher in a Mason jar with a handmade label. Or you can tuck loose tea and a jar of honey in a pretty vintage tin you’ve been saving.

Décor and gifts that start with items in my home and yard give me a special sense of satisfaction. They require more imagination than money, and the results are uniquely personal and original. Look around your own home or yard this holiday season – you never know what wonderful ideas you’ll come up with.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Holiday Manifesto

I’ve confessed before that I have a knack for making things far more complicated than necessary. It’s a trait that often leaves me scrambling and my husband tearing out his hair. “Why can’t anything just be simple around here?” he’s been known to ask. Though I’ve balked at his question over the years, I have to admit that my husband is right: simple is better than complicated.

Yet it’s easy to make things complicated, without fully realizing I’m doing it. Perhaps this is no more the case than when it comes to the holidays. Holiday schedules fill up too quickly, the gift budget gets stretched, the dinner menu keeps growing and the days seem to morph into one another, sometimes becoming one frenetic blur.

To help keep us focused on the simple things we enjoy, we’ve revived our manifesto idea from last summer and created a Holiday Manifesto. Together, we’ve made a list that will help us to be intentional with our time and money and to savor the best of the season.

List suggestions for our manifesto run the gamut from traditional activities, such as sledding and making snow angels to more unique ideas that include making super hero ornaments and homemade peppermint ice cream. At the urging of our stick-obsessed four-year-old son, we plan to play broomball on a local pond. We’ll also work on building a snow fort and roast marshmallows in our backyard.

Like our summer list, the suggestions our children offered tended toward the simple (except making super hero ornaments, perhaps). And almost all of the ideas we compiled will cost virtually nothing.

When my husband suggested we add “have a slumber party by the gas stove” to the list, for example, the kids got so excited that I thought they’d jump out of their skin. Their excitement had me recalling my own childhood memories of camping out on the living room floor, of waking up and seeing the twinkling lights of our Christmas tree. Dragging out sleeping bags and sprawling out on the floor couldn’t be simpler, but it’s very likely that we’ll be making memories that last a lifetime.

My own contributions to our Holiday Manifesto include sending out Christmas cards (the first time I’ve done so in more than 11 years), making candy bar hot chocolate with real whipped cream, and decorating our home with natural elements we already have or that we can forage from our property.

Some other items that made the list include decorating cookies, singing Christmas carols, and baking an apple pie. Perhaps my favorite suggestion came from my six-year-old who thought we should make sleeping in one morning a priority. For parents who almost always get woken by the sound of four pairs of stampeding fit, sleeping in would indeed be a welcome treat.

The point of our list isn’t to put pressure on us, but to give us a visual reminder of how we really want to spend our time this holiday season. To make your own list, you might try taking stock of what you did last year. What did you truly enjoy? What activities seemed to cause chaos and stress? What did you want to do but didn’t?

With answers to these questions, you can craft a list that will help you to prioritize how you want to spend your time and your money this year.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Family gifts inspire imaginative play and memory-making

Our Christmas list this year includes 13 children who range in age from 7 months to 13 years – nine nieces and nephews and our own four children. When there are so many children, with such a wide age range and such divergent interests, it’s challenging to buy gifts that are personal, meaningful, and that stay within our budget.

To give personal and meaningful gifts that the children (and their parents) will appreciate, we try to focus on family gifts. Instead of spending $15 or $20 per child, we choose to pool the money we’ve set aside to buy a gift that is of higher quality and that the entire family can enjoy. When it comes to settling on exactly what we’ll buy, we use a list of focused questions. First, of course, we have to ask: “Does the gift fit into our budget?” Then we ask, “Is the gift built to last? Does it have multiple uses? Will the recipients enjoy the gift over a period of time? And will the gift help the recipients to build memories?”

It may sound like a tall order to answer yes to all these questions, but we’ve found plenty of gifts over the years that have fit the bill. Last year, for example, we bought a restaurant-quality waffle maker for the family with a trio of teens and tweens. And while it may not have been an awe-inspiring gift to a 10-year-old boy, I know he’s already eaten his weight in home-cooked waffles. His parents save money and no longer rely on boxed waffles from the freezer section. Plus, the gift gives this family the opportunity to build memories by starting a tradition of Saturday-morning waffles.

This year, we plan to continue giving family-focused gifts for our nieces and nephews. For the youngest recipients on our list, which include boys ages 2 and 7 months, we plan to buy a set of wooden, interlocking blocks. It’s a gift that will allow the unsteady hands of a toddler to build curved walls and tall towers. The boys and their parents will be able to play together with these blocks for years to come.

Art supplies, including scented colored pencils, bright beeswax crayons and tempura paints, are on our list for another family with two children. For yet another family, we’re giving games that suit the ages of the children and that will allow them to play with or without their parents. Still another family with girls ages 5 and 2, who love to spend time in the kitchen with their mother, will receive a gingerbread mold for making their own little villages and an accompanying storybook about gingerbread men.

We plan to apply the same principles to the gifts we buy for our own young children, focusing on quality gifts that they all can enjoy together. In the past, such gifts have included a wooden kitchen and a giant pop-up tent, both of which have inspired many hours of collaborative and imaginative play.

Though we’ve not made any final decisions about the gifts we’ll give them this year, we do have a few ideas that include a play parachute, an “ice cream ball,” where you drop ingredients into a canister and roll it back and forth until you make ice cream, or some new additions to their collection of dress-up clothing.

Birthdays and holidays can be rich opportunities to invest in the lives of the children we love. Ultimately, we hope our gifts will spark their imaginations – or perhaps help them discover a talent or interest that can bring them joy for years to come.

Friday, November 12, 2010

What’s for lunch? Small choices add up to big changes

When we found ourselves away from home last week at lunch time, we were faced with a decision. Should we dine at home on leftover baked macaroni and cheese and garlic-roasted cauliflower? Or should we eat out?

Our children were hungry and had overheard the lunch conversation my husband and I were having. They favored eating out and were shouting their opinions from the back of our van. We had fully intended to indulge our own desires (and theirs), when something made me rethink the decision.

To eat out, we would have driven past our home (and perfectly good leftovers waiting in our fridge), had to wrangle four squirmy, overtired children into a restaurant, and would have spent about $30 on a meal that we would have only marginally enjoyed. It didn’t exactly make sense to eat out when we considered all of these things.

So we went home and ate our leftovers, eating food we’d already paid for and that tasted better than the fare we might have driven out of our way to get. It seems so simple now, but making decisions about how and what to eat aren’t always so easy. In fact, food can be downright complicated.

We eat because we need food to survive, but the way we eat is influenced by many factors, including our habits, social circles, our lifestyles, our jobs, and our expectations. Once we start a pattern of behavior, it’s difficult to examine just why we do what we do. We just keep doing it because it’s what we’ve always done.

Maybe you are so accustomed to always being busy that it seems natural to order take-out or buy frozen lasagna. Perhaps you’ve never felt comfortable in the kitchen, so you feel it’s easier to buy convenience foods. If you’re single, it can be more palatable to eat out than to eat alone. If you have a large family, it can be overwhelming to come up with new meal ideas every day, so you rely on prepackaged foods instead.

Over the last several months, my husband and I have become increasingly aware of how we spend our food dollars. To break out of our own patterns of behavior, we had to acknowledge that we wanted to make a change. Then, we had to find the motivation to help make this change possible.

One particularly effective method for creating change has been to ask ourselves, “What if we did (x) instead of (x)?” For example, if you’re tired of eating lunch out but never seem to have the time or motivation to pack one, what if you spent an hour preparing make-ahead meals instead of watching television? Or what if you got out your slow cooker and tossed in the ingredients for a meal instead of scrambling to make dinner when you got home?

What do you really want? What choices could you make that will help you reach your goals? For example, if you made your lunch instead of buying it, how much money might you save? What else could you do with that money? Perhaps you want to build up your savings so you have an emergency fund, or you want to buy a new car or computer. Maybe you could take a vacation.

It might take months of choosing to pack your lunch instead of eating out to save enough money to reach your goal. But when you’re enjoying your car or relaxing on a sunny beach, will you regret those burgers you didn’t eat?

With thoughtful planning, the choices you make now (including eating leftovers) can pay off in satisfying ways in the future.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Eat well on a budget without an expensive overhaul

During a discussion with friends about meal planning, one woman declared, “We don’t eat cheap food.” I immediately bristled, then fielded a barrage of my own mental questions: What did she mean by “cheap food”? Was it packages of dehydrated noodles and boxes of macaroni and cheese? Fast food? Red beans and rice? Does my family eat what she would consider “cheap food,” I wondered?

The exchange reminded me that what we eat can often be as much a social issue as a personal one. In essence, my friend’s statement drew a metaphorical line: cheap food is bad; expensive food is good. When I found myself on the side of “cheap,” (we enjoy boxed macaroni and cheese and eat fast food on occasion) I realized it’s easy to end up feeling excluded when you aren’t eating the “right” foods.

It’s true that there are many so-called cheap foods with little nutritional value, but I balk at the idea that there is a point of perfection, a food utopia, when it comes to eating. I also vehemently challenge the notion that you have to spend a lot to eat well. Instead of striving for perfection in your eating habits, it’s much wiser, and more productive, to focus on making progress.

If you’re like me, “eating well” means striking a good balance. I shop for nutritious foods my family likes and that fit into our budget, and l look for ways to integrate more organic foods into our diet. However, it can be difficult to know how to find this balance, particularly when you consider that organics typically cost more and can sometimes be more difficult to access. But eating well doesn’t mean you need to push for a complete – and expensive – organic overhaul. You can start small and make a few significant changes.

These changes can start with the help of two key shopping lists. To help consumers prioritize which organic foods they should focus on buying, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a published list of foods proven to retain the most residual pesticides. These foods, commonly known as the Dirty Dozen, include seven fruits: peaches, apples, strawberries, blueberries, nectarines, cherries, and imported grapes. Five vegetables round out the Dirty Dozen list: sweet bell peppers, celery, spinach, kale/collard greens, and potatoes.

he EWG has another, perhaps more practical, shopping list known as the Clean 15. As the name suggests, the Clean 15 is a list of 15 foods known to have little to no pesticide contamination. The list includes foods such as avocados, onions, sweet peas, sweet potatoes, watermelon, grapefruit, and cantaloupe.

With these two lists, you can look for produce that fits your budget, while considering which foods you may be willing to spend more on. You might find, as I did, that there are organic produce choices that cost the same or less as the non-organic variety. Last week, I bought a pound of organic Bartlett pears for $1.99 a pound; the non-organic variety was the same price. I also bought a bunch of organic grapes for the same price as the conventional ones. I did spend slightly more to buy organic Fuji apples ($2.19 a pound, compared to $1.59), but they were literally the best apples I can recall having ever eaten.

For me, those tasty apples – a food that is delicious, good for me and won’t break my budget – is how I define eating well. Next week, I’ll share how this definition of eating well has changed the way I shop and cook for my family.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Budget challenge: Can organic foods be good for your wallet?

Something unexpected has happened as my husband and I have looked more closely at how we spend our food dollars. As we began paying closer attention to what we were spending on food, we gradually became more aware of exactly what we were eating.

In other words, our spending and eating consciousness were both awakened. Now, when I walk the aisles of the grocery store, I consider how the price of one item will influence what I have left to spend on other things. I’m also more apt to think about the nutritional value of everything I put into my cart.The results of this combined awareness have prompted us to prepare more meals at home, led us to rely less on convenience foods, and taught us that eating well doesn’t necessarily cost more. We’re eating tastier, more wholesome foods than we ever have before, and we’re spending half as much as we used to. We’ve reduced our monthly food budget (including groceries and eating out) from $900 to just over $400.

Some small, yet significant, changes have made this possible. First, I’ve started making more of the foods that we once ate at restaurants or bought as convenience foods. For example, we no longer buy what my children have deemed “cardboard pizzas” (a telling descriptor). We enjoy rolling out our own dough from an old family recipe (find the recipe below). I invested in pizza stones so I could achieve that restaurant-quality crispiness. I’ve also introduced some new recipes; caramelized onion and goat cheese pizza is our new favorite.

Second, I’ve begun to prepare more vegetarian meals, enjoying dishes such as baked macaroni and cheese, vegetable fried rice, and parmesan risotto. If I use meat in a dish, it’s more as a complement to it, rather than the main focus, such as the pancetta I used in minestrone I made last week. These dishes may sound like gourmet fare, but they are surprisingly easy to make, and my children love them.

I’ve been including more whole grains and vegetables in our meals, and I’ve started looking for more simple, approachable ways to prepare wholesome foods for our family. That is what motivated me to visit a local organic market a few weeks ago, where I was greeted by Vinny Alessi-Narr, one of the store’s owners.

With a squirmy 2-year-old on my hip, I struck up a conversation with Vinny. I explained how I (and many others I know) understand the importance of eating well, but we sometimes feel that organic foods are prohibitively expensive. Vinny made a case for why it’s worth it to pay a bit more for organic foods. Most significantly, he maintains that organic foods are more nutrient dense, therefore meaning that a person will, by nature, eat less. (This resonated with me particularly well, considering that all six of us in our family have legendary appetites—just ask our friends and family.)

I asked Vinny point blank, “Is it possible to eat the way you’re suggesting and still keep my budget intact?” His unwavering answer was yes. So, I asked Vinny if he was up for a challenge: help me find practical, affordable ways to include more organic foods in our diet.

Since then, we’ve roughed out a plan for doing just that. Together, we’ll be looking for simple ways to eat well for less money and exploring which organic foods represent the best value. We’ll also be adapting and creating family-friendly recipes that are wholesome and affordable.

m looking forward to learning alongside Vinny and sharing this new knowledge with you in the weeks to come.

Mama Mia's Pizza Dough

1 pkg. yeast (or 2-1/4 teaspoons)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 c. warm water
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 1/2 c. flour

Disslove the yeast in the water. Then add remaining ingredients. Beat vigorously for 20 strokes (or use the dough hook attachment on a stand mixer). Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, covered.

Divide dough into two balls. Roll out onto corn meal-dusted cookie sheet or baking stone. Top with favorite ingredients. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and just beginning to brown.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The best gifts are simple, caring or memorable

Why is it that gift giving, a social ritual intended to bring joy to those we care for most, often ends up causing so much discomfort? We fret about what to buy the person who has everything. We buy because we feel pressured or obligated to do so. We worry that the gifts we buy won’t be enough (or the right size). And we buy what we cannot afford.

To understand a little bit more about these issues and to offer some practical advice on how to make the best use of a gift budget, I decided to turn the tables, so to speak. I canvassed my co-workers, friends, and family and asked them a simple question: Given the opportunity, what would you like the gift givers in your life to know about you?

As I collected their responses, a few themes began to emerge. The first of those themes centered around people explaining what they don’t want: a gift the giver cannot afford, no matter how beautiful or useful it might be. Along the same lines, others said they don’t want anything extraordinary or expensive; they’d prefer practical gifts they would rather not buy for themselves. “If I ask for socks or dishcloths,” said one friend, “it’s because I really want them.” (New socks, in fact, were another prevalent theme.)

This sentiment, of receiving practical, even consumable gifts, was echoed by others as well. “The gifts I appreciate the most are those I do not have to store or find some place to put,” declared one of my co-workers. Specifically, respondents mentioned receiving a quarter of beef every year, wood to build a small deck, and flower bulbs and seeds as gifts that continually remind them of the giver.

Still others explained the pleasure of receiving gifts that say, “I know you,” even if those gifts cost almost nothing. Surprisingly, my husband says the best gift I’ve ever given him was serving him biscuits and gravy, his favorite breakfast, in bed. Someone else told me that a birdhouse made from materials salvaged from her parents’ house is among the most treasured gifts she’s received. Another friend, who relishes the sheer pleasure of opening gifts, reflected on a time when someone gave her 40 small gifts to celebrate her 40th birthday. None of the gifts were expensive, but together, they made a big impression on her.

Gift recipients also cherish personal presents that illustrate how well gift-givers know them. A handmade shooting bench for the marksman, a photo album chronicling a family trip, or garden herbs for a cook’s countertop all fit the bill, according to those who shared their gift savvy with me.

Experience gifts, such as tickets to a dinner theater, a day at a water park, or a wine- tasting event, rated highly among respondents, too. These types of gifts have the advantages of being both consumable and personal. One of my own most memorable gifts was tickets to see musician Arturo Sandoval. I can still recall watching in amazement as the band’s drummer pounded the bongos so feverishly that I thought he might pass out.

Some liked surprises, when it comes to gifts, while others preferred more predictability. But above all, gift recipients said what they really want aren’t presents that are costly or complicated, but simple things that help them make lasting memories or that just say, “I care about you.”

Simple, caring, memorable. Keep these words in mind this holiday season. Thoughtfully investing your time and gift-giving budget in those you love will be a joy for you and those on your gift list.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The best gifts come from paying attention

When I look around my home, I catch glimpses of the gifts my family and I have received from my nieces and nephews—the star-shaped jewelry box made in an art class and given to celebrate my 30th birthday, a decoupaged egg, and brightly colored hand-knit scarves. Virtually everything is handmade. The small clay sculptures one of my nephews crafted, for example, are each in a shape befitting the recipient. Mine is in the shape of a carrot as a nod to my love of gardening; my husband’s is a football to represent his affinity for the game.

Each gift bears the stamp of the giver. One of my favorite gifts is a laminated bookmark with a picture on it of a cow jumping over the moon. On the backside, the giver signed his name. Below that is a wayward bug that got caught up in the craft project, smooshed flat in plastic laminate and forever serving as a reminder of the boy who gave the gift.

These treasures, simple as they are, embody the true spirit of gift giving. These are gifts given without compulsion or guilt. And they reflect the givers’ careful thought, the power of their keen observation, and their ability to work within the resources available to them. If only we were all so adept at that kind of gift giving.

Instead, we tend to give gifts out of compulsion, worrying that they won’t seem like enough. Or we choose the most expedient or more expensive option, for the sake of time or appearances. And too often, we fail to work within our resources and end up overspending on gifts.

Before the Christmas shopping frenzy begins, I want to pause and view gift giving through the eyes of a child. I never once had a conversation with my young nephew about loving my garden, yet he was in tune enough with my interests to make me a handmade gift that literally said, “I know you.” I want to do the same for the people in my life.

If you haven’t already, start paying close attention to what the people on your gift list want and like. What are their goals and hopes? What excites them? It’s a simple exercise that sometimes gets overlooked. When you have this information, you can start thinking about the type of gift that makes your gift recipients feel most alive, and will be most satisfying for them to receive.

By intentionally looking at your friends’ and family’s hopes, dreams, talents and hobbies, you could come up with a wealth of gift ideas that will truly please those on your Christmas list this year. If finding gifts that fit your loved ones’ goals and hopes seems too overwhelming, start smaller. Take your cues for gift ideas from favorite colors, foods or music, for instance.

Gifts given with thought and intention don’t necessarily have to be expensive. In fact, they can run the gamut from store-bought to thrift-store finds to handmade goods. For the people “who have everything” and seem impossible to shop for, consider a gift of time or service. Give the gift of tickets to a concert you’ll attend together, or a gift certificate to wash your grandparents’ car, or the gift of babysitting for a busy mother.

Now, before the full crush of the holiday season is on us, start thinking about your loved ones and begin formulating gift ideas. Next week, I will talk more about how to plan your budget and shopping carefully to give gifts from the heart without overspending.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Festive kids’ birthday parties start with colorful traditions

This is a busy month at our house; three of our four children were born in October. This means lots of celebrating and potentially lots of extra expenses. Our life is plenty complicated and our budget amply tight, even without hosting three birthday parties in one month. So we aim to keep things as simple as possible, while creating traditions and rituals to honor our children.

Drawing on tradition helps our children anticipate their birthday celebrations, giving them something to look forward to year after year. Our family’s traditions are designed to give our children a sense of stability and continuity. What’s more, creating traditions teaches them that, while gifts may be a part of their celebration, presents are not the focus of the entire day.

We’re still building these traditions, and we have plenty of room to embrace more as they grow older. Right now, the day of their birth starts with a special-request birthday breakfast, served on a special breakfast-in-bed tray. Anything goes, though they tend to stick to typical breakfast fare, with a few twists. Our soon-to-be 6-year-old asked for chocolate chip banana bread in the shape of a butterfly (easy enough to do by using a butterfly cookie cutter on an individual slice of bread) and not-from-concentrate juice, for example.

After breakfast, we’ll hang our birthday wreath on the front door (made with a straw form and 170 balloons—that haven’t been blown up) as a signal to all passersby that we’re celebrating a birthday.

As for the party itself, we let our children each choose a specific color theme that we weave into everything possible – tableware, clothing, gift wrap, decorations, the evening meal and cake. I wish I could say our children weren’t taken with licensed characters (everything from princesses to Spider-Man), but they are. We might include one or two character accessories, such as tattoos or party napkins. Otherwise, we draw on what we have on hand as much as possible and buy a few carefully chosen items.

Last year, my 2-year-old son requested an all-orange birthday, which worked particularly well because his birthday falls close to Halloween. I served orange Jell-O blocks and small cans of orange soda. We ate off orange plates and enjoyed cake frosted in the same hue. In fact, our children start talking about the shapes and colors of their cakes long before their birthdays arrive.

This is largely because my mother-in-law has introduced them to her tattered cake book, with bright pictures of dozens of different cakes. She used the same book to create cakes for her own children and now continues the tradition by making birthday cakes for her grandchildren. My mother, too, uses her talents to help build tradition; she creates a handmade card for each of our children every year. Lovingly rendered, these cards will become part of the archive of my children’s lives.

My daughters are sharing a rainbow-themed party, complete with a rainbow cake with fluffy marshmallow clouds, a bunting banner in rainbow hues, a giant rainbow-colored number “6” piñata, a fruit tray arranged in rainbow succession, and the requisite Jell-O.

There will be another party later in the month—for a boy who is smitten with red, and Volkswagen Beetles, and hitches. We’ll marry these three loves into what he has dubbed his “red slug bug hitch birthday.” His grandmothers, I’m sure, are already thinking about how they’ll render a red slug bug with a hitch into a cake and a card.

Imagination-laden parties offer my entire family the gifts of shared fun and warm memories. And that’s the best birthday present I can give any of my children.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Bargains are good but memories are priceless

Last weekend, I stopped at an auction, edging my way into a garage packed full of boxes and piled high with almost anything you can imagine—a vintage cherry pitter, crumbling hat boxes, dusty books, lamps, tools, picture frames, and linens. Auction novice that I am, I could feel my pulse quicken and heat rising in my face as I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other buyers, clutching my bidder number in my clammy hands.
I bid on, and won, a number of items, at prices that made me inwardly congratulate myself. It wasn’t until hours after I got home and unloaded my things that my buying high started to dissipate.
I didn’t overspend, and I scored some interesting and useful finds, but now I had four full boxes of stuff that I had to sort through, clean, and find a place to put. More than that, it was strange to think about how it might feel someday to have all of my belongings laid out on a table for strangers to scoop up at the highest bid. And the initial novelty of buying something new can fade so quickly that it’s almost shocking.
The auction helped to remind me (again) that ultimately, it’s not possessions, but experiences I add to my life that give me the most pleasure. The contrast—between the short-lived buzz of spending money and the lasting satisfaction of rich experiences—seems that much more poignant when I reflect on how I spent the rest of that weekend with my family.
I watched as my children darted around a free kids’ carnival, with a face-painting booth and enough jumpy-type toys to leave them laughing and breathless. Later, my 4-year-old son got to indulge one of his truest loves: balloons. He stared in awe as he watched ballooners set up for an early-morning launch, literally squirming with excitement. I have a dozen photographs that capture the pure joy he felt in being so close to something that lives large in his world.
Amazingly, he still had enough energy to join the rest of the family on an afternoon hike on a trail near our house. He and his siblings rambled along uneven paths and collected sticks, shiny rocks, and brilliant, red rose hips. The baby bumped along happily in her stroller. We all collapsed into our beds, enjoying the kind of rest that only comes from this kind of tired.
We hit yet another nature trail the next day, where we navigated a bridge so high it made my stomach lurch and where we followed the path to the sounds of rushing water. The image of my ever-determined 2-year-old negotiating the slippery side hill by himself is still fresh in my mind. So is the feeling I had when we rounded the last bend of the path to see a cascading waterfall. We were close enough to feel the misty spray, offering cool relief on a warm fall day.
I reflect on these moments with such detail because they are etched into my mind, because they are already powerful memories, and because I want to remind myself that what I truly want is to invest my time and money in relationships and experiences.
As poet Carl Sandburg once quipped, “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent . . .” How do you want to spend yours?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Secondhand finds can be great problem solvers

Shopping secondhand is more than just a quest for inexpensive objects. If you focus on price alone, you could end up with a mishmash of goods that clutters your life and even strains your budget. But careful, thrift-focused shopping can help you organize and beautify your life while stretching your money.

Control your home’s clutter: If you want to make the most of thrifted finds, evaluate your home to identify ways you want to improve the livability of your space. Then, when you shop, look at everyday items with fresh eyes, and you may find unusual ways to enhance your home.

For example, if your entryway is constantly awash in a sea of junk mail, hats and gloves, coats, book bags, and serves as a repository for all those things that don’t have a permanent home, the clutter becomes a source of stress and makes it difficult for you to find the items you need. You could conquer the clutter by buying bins, racks, and hooks at a home improvement store. Better yet, you can look for thrifted solutions to creatively resolve your entryway problems. Sturdy fruit crates outfitted with casters can hold recyclables, winter gear, or pet supplies. Old doorknobs mounted on a piece of reclaimed lumber can become coat hooks. Rimmed cookie sheets lined with smooth stones can serve as boot trays. A piece of vintage pottery or small basket can hold keys or loose change.

When you look for secondhand items to repurpose, choose objects you will truly enjoy having in your home. Such carefully chosen, reused pieces can add flair to all your living spaces. A silver tray can hold your remotes on your coffee table, serve as a place for outgoing mail, or become a place to set your houseplants. A bongo drum or a stack of vintage suitcases can become a side table. A hobnail cake stand on your countertop can keep readily-used spices close at hand.

You can employ similar strategies to hold craft supplies, sports gear, small toys, or anything else that tends to float around your house. In my home, I use retro canisters I scored for $1 at a thrift store to hold tiny pieces for our wooden train set. Secondhand wooden bowls corral all the found treasures—feathers, shiny rocks, pinecones—my children insist should come indoors. An old wooden toolbox organizes first aid supplies and medicine.

Dress up your wardrobe: Secondhand finds can punch up a tired or uninspiring wardrobe, too. A thrifted brooch or silk scarf can infuse new life into an old jacket. A splashy tie can update a classic wool suit. With a little creativity and some DIY skill, you can shorten a secondhand skirt, transform a formal dress into a sassy cocktail dress, or embellish a plain t-shirt with embroidered flowers.

Prepare for the holidays: Save yourself the hassle of last-minute shopping and big credit card bills by scouring secondhand stores for items that can become distinctive gifts. A dozen chocolate chip cookies or cupcakes are instantly elevated to gift status when they’re presented on a piece of thrifted china. Pretty teapots (that no longer have their lids), gravy boats, and small silver cups make lovely vessels for flower arrangements. A thrifted flower pot scrubbed clean can hold new gloves and seeds for a gardener. Or you may find a piece of art or unusual collectible that suits someone on your holiday gift list.

Whenever you shop secondhand, look for items that have the potential to make your life better. Look past their obvious uses and consider their possibilities. You never know what useful treasures you’ll discover.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Well-organized stores, lists make secondhand shopping easier

I bought my first pieces of thrifted furniture when I was in college: a small oak table with four matching chairs. Some 15 years later, that table and chairs are still with me, having undergone a few DIY transformations with paint and upholstery and having seen five apartments and three different homes. They’ve stood the test of time, both in their classic style and in the quality of their design.

As much fun as I have thrifting, it truly isn’t just a way to shop, but an entire lifestyle that comes with many rewards. For me, that’s part of the beauty of buying secondhand. Thrifting gives me the opportunity to search for and bring home beautiful and useful things that I love—and that last. And this is all without having to spend more than I can afford.

This isn’t to say, though, that buying secondhand is always easy. It takes patience, mixed with some creativity and persistence, to furnish our home and outfit ourselves with thrift store and secondhand finds. Over the years, I’ve cultivated my “thrifting eye” and developed strategies that help me to maximize my time and money.

For the best finds, I stick to clean, well-organized stores. I generally shop in well-lit stores with a clear pattern of organization. That way, when I get to know a store, I know exactly where to look for craft and art supplies, children’s books, and original pieces of artwork, for example.

Knowing what I’m looking for helps, too. Thrift stores usually have a lot of inventory, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff. If you have a list of items you’re looking for, you can quickly cut through the visual clutter. If I know I’m looking for size 7 pajamas for my daughter and a winter coat for my 4-year-old son, for instance, then I can focus on the clothing racks or bins. I can also plan purchases ahead of time so that I have the right size snow boots tucked away for when my child needs them.

When my needs are so specific, I don’t always find what I’m looking for right away. That’s why I visit my favorite shops often—once a week, if possible. Thrift stores tend to move merchandise quickly, so if I don’t find what I’m looking for one day, chances are good that I may find it another time. I tend to hold out for items that truly fit my wants and needs, rather than settling for something because “it will do.”

I also don’t buy something simply because it may be “valuable.” If I like something, I have a specific use for it, and it fits into my budget, I buy it. Sometimes, an item may end up being inherently valuable, such as the Roseville pottery sugar and creamer I bought many years ago, but I never purchase anything with the idea that I’ll resell it.

In fact, I shy away from items that will eventually cost me more time or money. I don’t buy dry- clean only clothing, for the same reason I generally don’t buy a piece of artwork that will require framing or a piece of furniture that needs a structural repair. Those good deals could ultimately become expensive purchases.

Nevertheless, it is possible to scour thrift stores for goods—that with just a small tweak—can give your wardrobe or your living space flair on a slim budget. Next week, I’ll share ideas for taking a fresh, creative look at secondhand items and using them in practical, beautiful – and even surprising – new ways.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Secondhand shopping yields practical, beautiful finds at bargain prices

A few weeks ago, I admitted that thrift and secondhand stores can be a serious point of budget vulnerability for me—my Achilles heel. Still, in making such a declaration, I didn’t explain why my family shops at these stores in the first place. When I shop carefully, I can use the money we save to fund our family’s goals, such as buying a new vacuum cleaner that can handle pet hair and the volume of dirt brought indoors by our four children.
Whenever possible, we scour secondhand stores for things we need. We dress our children (and ourselves) almost entirely in secondhand finds. We buy nearly all our winter gear, such as coats, snow pants, and boots at thrift stores. And we buy virtually all of our household goods as seconds too, including kitchen supplies, bedding, furniture, even paint, all at a fraction of what it costs to buy these items new.
In the process, we don’t have to sacrifice beauty, utility or quality. In fact, buying secondhand often allows us to purchase things we wouldn’t be able to afford in traditional outlets. Some of our recent great finds include the $2.50 black cocktail dress I wore for our anniversary dinner this year, the Italian leather boots I bought for $8, the classic pinstripe suit my husband found for $4, and a handmade quilt I recently bought for $20. Even our large collection of original artwork came from secondhand sources, each costing less than $20 apiece.
Friends who visit our home often remark on our finds. “How can you afford to buy so many pieces of original artwork?” a friend recently asked. “All the gallery pieces I’ve seen cost hundreds of dollars.” She didn’t believe me at first when I told her that I found every piece of art we have through secondhand sources.
Another visitor, who has interior design training and who is well acquainted with my thrift-focused shopping habits, registered the same kind of surprise when she came to our home for the first time. “Your home is warm and comfortable . . . and doesn’t look like a thrift store.”
These comments reflect a common misconception about thrift stores: buying secondhand means forgoing good looks. On the contrary, some of our most remarkable pieces—mohair chairs with an intricate nail head trim, a giant painting of the Moulin Rouge, a nearly-complete set of vintage china, and an Art Deco lamp—came from thrift stores or other secondhand sources. Sure, you’ll find flotsam and jetsam, garish lamps and brown plaid sofas, but there are plenty of unique and practical goods if you’re willing to look for them. A found thrift store treasure is also satisfying because it isn’t just something you can go out and buy anywhere – often, it’s an unexpected, one-of-a-kind find.
Buying through secondhand sources allows us to support small, local businesses and organizations that use the proceeds of their sales for worthy causes in our area. What’s more, buying the things we need secondhand qualifies as a “green” choice, as well.
Outfitting ourselves and our home this way does take time and patience. It helps to use a few tried-and-true bargain-hunting strategies. And if you overdo thrift-store shopping, you’ll defeat the purpose of trying to stretch your budget. But when you know what you want to buy – perhaps a painting, a grater for your kitchen, a dress for your daughter, or a chair for your desk – and you shop with purpose, you can reap some wonderful, affordable rewards. Next week, I’ll share some of my best strategies for shopping effectively in thrift stores and secondhand shops.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Share the cooking and the fun for a simple, affordable party

I have a large sign that reads “Keep it Simple” hanging above my kitchen door. More than kitschy art, it is a valuable reminder for me, a woman who has a history of making things far more complicated than they need to be. This is particularly the case when it comes to entertaining.

Even in college, I made elaborate meals for my friends. One year, I made a honey-glazed smoked turkey studded with golden pecans, a sweet potato soufflé, and bourbon cream pumpkin cheesecake. The fact that I remember precisely what I made for Thanksgiving 15 years ago speaks volumes about my sometimes over-the-top entertaining personality. (I also remember my horror when one of my guests literally flicked all my perfectly-placed pecans off the turkey before he started carving it.)

I probably spent more than a week’s wages and hours of prep time on that meal. While I may not be serving pecan-studded smoked turkeys these days with my four children underfoot, there are plenty of ways I can entertain without being tied to my kitchen or busting our already-slim food budget. These ideas for entertaining can satisfy my desire to be among friends, while helping me live up to my “keep it simple” mantra.

Revive the Progressive Dinner. This is a fabulous way of hosting a party. You get all the benefits of a true dinner party with fraction of the work and expense. Round up enough friends willing to host part of a meal at their home—drinks and appetizers to start, followed by salad at another home, a main course at a third location, and top the evening off with dessert at the last home.

Host a Punched-Up Potluck. Determine an international theme—Mexican, French, Chinese—and encourage guests to bring dishes reflecting that country’s cuisine. Or draw on a favorite film to create a memorable evening: all things chocolate for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” bruschetta, artichokes in Hollandaise sauce, and chocolate cream pie for watching “Julie and Julia,” a green salad, a variety of cheeses, fresh fruit, and champagne to mimic the fare in “Babette’s Feast.” Screen the theme-inspiring film after dinner.

Set up a Buffet. Elevate simple, well-liked foods—such as baked potatoes, pizza, pancakes, hot dogs, ice cream, omelets, or tacos—by asking guests to bring complimentary toppings. Chili, caramelized onions, sauerkraut, an assortment of mustards, shredded cheese, tomato wedges, pickle spears, chutney, and spaghetti sauce are all options to round out a hot dog buffet, for example. To ensure a wide variety, you may want to assign a specific topping to each guest.

Plan an Activity. Serve satisfying one-dish meals appropriate for the season: baked macaroni and cheese or potato soup are perfect for a fall or winter soiree, for instance. Then plan an activity to get guests engaged with one another. Try pumpkin carving, setting up a game of lawn darts or bocce ball, roasting marshmallows in the backyard fire pit, playing board games, or showing an outdoor movie, using a projector and a large, white sheet.

Hosting a potluck-style party gives you a chance to indulge your love of entertaining and also gives your guests a chance to shine. Encourage them to bring the dishes they especially enjoy preparing. Ask one friend to make her famous salsa as an appetizer, for instance, and another to bake his luscious brownies for dessert.

These budget-friendly parties are simple to host because most of the preparation can be done in advance. That leaves you more time to relax and enjoy your guests – and, simple or fancy, that’s the point of a great party.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Investing in yourself pays off in fulfillment, satisfaction

I never realized how precious time was until I had children. For instance, where I once showered with leisure, I now consider it a good day if I can make it through a shower without someone pounding on the door or trying to peel back the curtain while I’m shaving my legs. In fact, some days even getting a shower is a triumph.

From the moment I wake up, someone, somehow, is demanding my attention. Our needy basset hound wants a drink, or to go outside, or to come inside. Meanwhile, a child wants a snack, a piece of gum, a tissue, a puzzle, a pencil sharpened—the list is seemingly endless.

It can be easy to live by what a friend calls “the tyranny of what has to be done.” Bills need to be paid, laundry done, dinner served, bathtubs scrubbed, checkbooks balanced, whether you’re like me with small children, or in any other season of life.

In truth, time is a lot like money. If you don’t have a plan for how you want to use it, you can easily end up squandering it. Or at the very least, you can misallocate it, spending it in ways that ultimately bring more frustration than satisfaction.

By carving out time for activities that make your life better, you lay the groundwork for increased happiness and a greater sense of fulfillment. You won’t be so apt to get bogged down in all of life’s have-tos. In other words, deciding on specific ways to use your time allows you opportunities to invest in yourself. And in so doing, you capitalize on your best asset: you.

Take a few minutes and consider how you are using your time right now. Are you happy with the tenor of your days? If not, what can you do differently to budget your time more effectively? What do you like best about your days? What do you like least? What would you like more than anything else to accomplish?

Once you’ve decided what you want, then you can look for ways to free up time to do it. A friend buying a new house, for instance, has decided he won’t get cable when he moves. He wants to invest the time he used to spend watching television on taking MBA classes. He’ll also be able to use the money he saves to help pay for his education.

To help me make better use of my time and focus on ways I can invest in myself, I made a list of 36 things I want to do before I turn 36. The list runs the gamut from reading Anna Karenina to learning better photography skills, to making time to go dancing, to cleaning out and organizing my freezer. Some activities on my list, such as tackling the freezer, will pay dividends in the future. An organized freezer leaves me more room for make-ahead meals, which frees me up to enjoy the company of my family in the evening, instead of scurrying to get dinner on the table.

It took some effort to make the list, but I’m already reordering my days to accomplish what I want to do. I’ve replaced the usual stack of design magazines on my side table with a hulking copy of Anna Karenina, and I’ve started using up the 10 pounds of rhubarb in my freezer to make way for this year’s harvest. And finishing each item on this to-do list will be a pleasure. I’ll be richer for the skills I’ve learned, books I’ve lingered over, and moments I’ve taken to simply enjoy life.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Summer’s budget-friendly wish list leaves warm memories

We’re still plugging away on our Summer Manifesto, the list our family made at the beginning of the summer that detailed what we wanted to accomplish during these fleeting days. I’m amazed by how the list shaped our days and helped us make priorities. I’m even more in awe of how this simple list gave us such a sense of joy and anticipation.
When I poked the tiny zinnia seeds in the garden this year, for example, I had my daughter alongside me, already talking about how we would pick the vibrant blooms and put them in a vase on her dresser. I always like to watch the garden grow and change, but this year we eagerly awaited the seedlings and watched as the buds turned into waves of riotous color: magenta and blazing orange, fire-engine red and dusty pink.
Before “pick zinnias” made it onto our list, I hesitated to pluck them from the garden because I never wanted to leave a gap in my flower beds. But this year, we have zinnias everywhere, including my bedside table and my daughter’s dresser. Even my boys wanted to pick their own flowers to have in their room. One small packet of seeds, costing just a few dollars, has brought the best kind of satisfaction.
Though the boys caught the enthusiasm of garden zinnias, they were even more tickled with the idea of a family squirt gun fight. When we were writing the list, my oldest son’s initial request was for “a war, with water and guns,” which I recall him saying ever so slowly and methodically. To fulfill this request, we picked up five guns in a single package for $5 and took them on one of our camping trips. When we busted out the guns, there were squeals of delight all around.
The duel went on for over an hour, while we dipped our guns in the river, bobbed and weaved, ran and giggled. It got even more interesting when my husband’s father brought out a pump-action squirt gun with a crazy, powerful spray. In fact, after having seen our manifesto posted on the mudroom wall, my in-laws brought kites along, too, to help us fulfill another item on our list. Luckily, they came across high quality kites that a teacher friend no longer wanted. It was fun to see other people become so invested in our summer goals.
We still have to squeeze in making red popsicles and pitching a tent in the backyard, having an outdoor tea party and going on a picnic with balloons before the last days of summer get away from us. The children behind these requests haven’t forgotten a thing on the list.
However, even if it turns out that we miss something, we know we have been able to savor the best of the season. It has occurred to us that there are just as many ways that we’d like to celebrate fall, so we’ll be making a new list soon. I already have a few contributions in mind that I’ll be certain to include in our Fall Manifesto.
These include making a pumpkin pie from scratch with the small golden fruit in our garden, jumping in a pile of leaves, visiting an apple orchard, and celebrating the first snow of the season with candy bar hot chocolate and popcorn.
What this manifesto-making has reminded me is that we can find pleasure and contentment in the simplest of things. With a little brainstorming, a piece of poster board, and permanent marker, we’re bound to continue making little moments into lasting memories.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Feeling deprived isn’t part of our budget plan

I’m surprised by my naiveté. When I declared that we were taking a serious look at our food budget and attempting to cut it in half, I thought the decision was largely a dollars-and-cents issue. We reasoned that we’re spending more than we wanted, so we just needed to cut back.
The situation is far more complicated than I first thought. In the last few days before I went shopping again, breakfast was utter chaos. Our three oldest children were so frustrated that we had run out of our customary breakfast fare that they were all crying. Honestly, I felt out of sorts too, grumbling to myself when I was out of coffee and half and half, and feeling crabby when I had to field questions about what we were having for dinner.
I didn’t realize how much we depend on the familiarity and convenience of certain foods. When we ran out of yogurt and didn’t have the kind of cheese we like, for example, we felt deprived. Those feelings of deprivation mean that the pendulum of our food budget adjustments has swung too far the other way.
While we don’t want to spend thoughtlessly on food, we don’t want to be slaves to our budget, either. We want to be as intentional with our food dollars as we are with other parts of our budget. We still want to shop and eat in ways that leave us feeling happy and nourished.
As my husband and I discussed our budget for the coming month, we talked about the parts of our plan we need to revise. But our cost-cutting food plan also has benefits that we like. First, we both agreed that we were glad we raised our budget consciousness and learned that it’s possible to scale back what we spend. Now, we can adjust our food budget so we have more freedom to buy what we enjoy, but not so much flexibility that we return to our old ways. For now, we’re increasing our bi-weekly budget from $150 to $200.
Second, we want to continue using the cash-only approach to eating out. Having a specific parameter in place makes meals out an event we can look forward to, not just a budget-gobbling habit. Though we blew our eating out budget the first week, we stuck to our plan and spent only what we had set aside. When we went out to eat at the start of another two weeks, the opportunity excited us.
Third, we both appreciated how some upfront meal preparation paid off over the following two weeks. I bought hamburger in bulk (at a phenomenal price) and made spaghetti sauce, meatballs, sloppy joes, and taco meat all at the same time. I froze the meals in family-size portions, so we could pull out what we needed the night before and spend just a few minutes boiling noodles, grating cheese, or making a quick side dish to get dinner on the table.
Finally, we want to revisit our list of goals – such as buying a woodstove – that prompted us to trim our food budget, and we’ll create a more specific plan to accomplish them. If we’re going to continue making changes in the way we spend our food dollars, we need to see tangible benefits. Right now, we’ll take the money we’re saving and transfer it into an account we’ve earmarked for our goals.
Even with a few bumps along the way, budgeting can work. We’ll keep adjusting our budget until we find a balance that lets us save money while shopping wisely and eating well.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Use frugality to fund your goals

For all my frugality, I still have an Achilles’ heel, a small but significant point of budget vulnerability. Ironically, thrift stores, those bastions of economy, sometimes threaten to sabotage my well-laid plans.
The notion of a beautiful lamp, just waiting to be unearthed, a vintage cashmere cardigan lurking in between polyester blouses, the possibility of finding retro tumblers for our 1978 pop-up camper literally quickens my pulse when I walk in my favorite shops. But when my husband recently suggested I create a thrift store fund, I realized it’s time to rethink those frequent forays.
His suggestion reminds me that frugality isn’t an end, but a means. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much money I save on a pair of thrifted designer shoes, if buying them is keeping me from reaching my goals. I can string together as many frugal practices as I can conjure up, but this misses the point of living with thrift.
Frugality for frugality’s sake can make you feel like Sisyphus, the king in Greek mythology who was forced to spend eternity pushing a giant boulder to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. If sticking to a budget (or the very idea of starting one) feels like drudgery, or even a punishment, it’s time to see your budget through new eyes.
Using frugal practices as a way to get what you want is empowering, even exhilarating. It’s packing your lunch, not as a way of denying yourself the pleasure of a meal out with friends or coworkers, but as a means to use the money you would have otherwise spent to take your dream cruise to Alaska. It’s kicking the habit of buying new books in favor of borrowing titles from the library so you can buy a new sewing machine or jigsaw.
Without something to motivate you, your budget can become a giant stone in your life. One way to nudge that stone from its place is to write down five things that you love. Don’t censor yourself while you’re making your list—just write.
Maybe travel or music makes you feel fully alive. Perhaps it’s the notion of living by the water someday or opening a business that excites you. Photography, crafting something with your hands, horses, writing your memoir, finally getting all of your family together, being debt free—whatever stirs within you—write it on your list.
Next, choose something from your list and begin thinking about ways you could indulge this passion. If it’s photography, could you use your favorite photograph to make a canvas print for your dining room? Or what about getting a new camera or taking a photography class to sharpen your skills?
When you settle on a way to tap into your passion, estimate how much it will cost. Say you want to make a 20-by-20 inch print of the starfish you snapped at the beach, which you find will cost around $100. Now ask yourself how you can adjust your budget to save the money you’ll need.
You can use coupons when you shop for groceries and stash the money you save. You can calculate what you spend on eating out each month, cut that amount in half, and squirrel away the savings. Funnel all your change into a jar, or be more adventurous, and color your own hair instead of going to the salon.
Whatever cost-saving measure you take, be diligent to use the money to help you reach your goals. The lesson for me in all of this is to be frugal, but always with purpose.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Determination, imagination essential for sticking to a budget

My plan to dramatically scale back my family’s food budget is in full swing. Last week, I withdrew $200 in cash from our bank account--$50 for eating out that I tucked into an envelope for later, and $150 to buy groceries for the next two weeks.
With cash in my wallet, I headed into the grocery store with four children, a calculator, and – unknown to me – a smuggled toy hammer. The scene played out like this: while I tried to concentrate on shopping, my 4-year-old used said toy hammer to pound on cereal boxes and ripe cantaloupe. Meanwhile, my 2-year-old attempted to hoist a $6 watermelon and topple pyramids of apples.
After I confiscated the hammer and contained the hoister of watermelons, I pulled out my tiny pocket calculator, so worn that half of the numbers and symbols were missing. The baby on my hip batted the calculator from my hand several times. I had to let my 5-year-old steer the cart so I could keep a running total of everything I was buying.
At the end of a stressful hour in the store, I rolled up to the register with $147.30 worth of groceries in my cart. Overwhelmed with relief to have stayed within my budget and to be leaving, I reached for my debit card and paid for my groceries. I was loading my car when I realized I’d forgotten to use the cash I pulled from my account. Nobody said this budget-conscious shopping was going to be easy or go smoothly on the first try.
When I got home, I finalized my menu and thought about lessons I’d learned already. First, I realized that if we are to stick to a new grocery plan, I’m going to have to retrain my brain and concentrate on what I’m doing. This means leaving the kids at home and making a more comprehensive list.
I’ve always paid attention to sales and compared price per ounce, but I now need to ratchet up my efforts. I weighed grapes and apples (which I’ve admittedly never done before) and thought about every item I picked up. I didn’t just toss our old standbys into the cart, but thought about more cost-effective ways to eat the foods we enjoy. Instead of pudding cups, for example, I bought prepackaged cook-and-serve pudding at a fraction of the cost. I plan to refine this even further and make homemade cooked pudding with the recipe my mother used every week when I was a child.
Second, I acknowledge I’ll face a few budget hiccups. I had to plan a meal for a group of 11 women, and for a family camping trip. These situations were both out of the ordinary, but still required me to stay within the limit I had set. A budget won’t help me if I break it every time something unusual comes up.
So, I got creative with my menus. For the camping trip, several families worked cooperatively to make meals. I agreed to make breakfast, which allowed me to use items I already had in my pantry and freezer to make two pans of pull-apart caramel rolls. They were a big hit with the crowd and kept my budget intact.
For dinner with my friends, I prepared an elegant meal of homemade miniature quiches, a garden salad with greens from my own patch, rhubarb soda, and apple crisp . I was able to pull it off by imaginatively using resources I had available to me – and that will be the key to living well on a budget.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lower food bills can move us closer to debt-free lifestyle

I wish I could say that after all these years of writing about money, I’ve reached some sort of financial nirvana, a place where our budget effortlessly hums along. In truth, we hit budget bumps and have starts and stops every month like everyone else. Nevertheless, even if it were possible to find perfection, that isn’t the point of a budget.

A budget isn’t a static template that we lay over our lives; it’s a spending guide that flexes with our family. For us, one of the most exciting things about a budget is that it constantly offers us opportunities to see our finances with fresh eyes. When we see where we’re spending, we can shift our priorities.

It turns out that we’re getting ready for a major shift in our family budget. When we recently calculated our total monthly food expenses, we faced a sobering truth. In June, we spent over a $1,000 on food for our family of six, and in the five months prior to that, we averaged over $800 on groceries and eating out. We know we can do better. We want to do better.

We’ve challenged ourselves to cut our food budget in half, not as a way to be stingy, but because we want to stretch our money. We’re looking for creative ways to get the things we want and need with the money we have. Ultimately, our goal is to be entirely debt free, so we plan to take half of what we save on food costs and apply it to the principle balance on our mortgage. We’ll devote the other half to projects for our family. We want some fun things, including a family trip and a playhouse for our children. Some practical items, such as a new vacuum and a woodstove, also are on our list.

Cutting our food budget in half may sound like a daunting task. How will this even be possible in a family of growing children who are voracious eaters? We’ll start with what we spend on eating out, which averages over $200 a month. By packing snacks and lunches instead of heading for the nearest fast food restaurant, we’ll whittle down what we spend on eating out to $100, which we plan to take out in cash and keep in an envelope. When the cash is gone, there’s no more eating out that month.

We’ll use the same all-cash approach with grocery shopping, because I know how easy it is to spend more than I’ve planned. Case in point, when I stopped at the grocery store with four items on my list for a camping trip, I walked out with 10 and spent three times as much as I had planned. With cash, that won’t happen.

We’ll also have to carve out more time for food preparation and change the way we do some of our shopping. This means rethinking items we mindlessly put in our cart, including pudding cups and granola bars. Juice won’t be a morning mainstay, but will become an occasional treat. Even pantry staples like egg noodles (Here is the Cowgirl's Country Life blog where she has a great recipe for Chicken and (Egg) Noodles) that seem inexpensive will be foods I buy the ingredients for and prepare at home - for a fraction of the grocery store price. We’ll keep trying different strategies until we find budget-stretching ideas that truly work for us.

I’ll be sharing my journey to reduce my food bill with you in future posts. And I encourage you to share your best cost-cutting ideas with me. E-mail me at or leave comments below. Adventures in frugal living are more fun when we experience them together.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Children never too young to learn value of frugality

Sometimes, living a frugal lifestyle means my husband and I go against the grain of modern society and its demands to have the shiniest, biggest and best of everything. We put value on making the most of our money and living within our means. We like simple pleasures that are richly rewarding but don’t break our budget. We live frugally, not as an end unto itself, but because our frugality allows us to have a life we desire. Frugality isn’t about deprivation (or about washing out plastic sandwich bags or reusing sheets of tinfoil). It’s about finding new, less expensive ways to get the things we need and afford more of the things we enjoy. It is a creative challenge.

We work hard to “walk the talk” of frugality with our children. We are teaching them to spend money wisely and carefully consider what they want. As our children learn thriftiness, they share the satisfaction and rewards of this kind of lifestyle. We have to consistently teach them how to live this way, so we’re dedicated to intentionally using our resources well.

For example, we have a 5-year-old daughter who desperately wants a scooter. I’ve seen them in retail stores for $30 to $50, but I’ve also seen them at rummage sales on occasion for half as much. We’ve told her that we will spend up to $20 on a scooter, so this means that she can contribute some of her own money, wait for a retail sale, or hold off buying a scooter until we stumble upon a secondhand one. Since we’ve set a budget, we don’t have to say “no” to the scooter when she asks. Instead, we can remind her to keep an eye out for what she wants at a price we can afford.

These types of conversations, when we discuss what we can and cannot afford, are common in our home. To us, it’s important to demonstrate to our children that we have a limited amount of money and that we need to make wise choices about how we spend it.

It’s also important to us that our children see how planning ahead can be a way to enjoy life and still keep a budget intact. Throughout the year, we pick up inexpensive gifts that we tuck away in our birthday box. Right now, we have cupcake kits, rolls of stickers, a floor puzzle, books, and sundry other items in our box. When one of our children receives an invitation to a birthday party, we can avoid an extra trip to the store and a last-minute scramble to buy a gift. We can choose a present from the box instead. And, by stocking up on gift wrap when it’s on sale, we also have paper and ribbons ready. Planning and buying ahead pays off for us with stress-free solutions when birthday parties roll around.

We’ve also discovered that planning fun activities close to home stretches our money and gives us many opportunities to spend family time together. In fact, we’ve found that the more often we’re away from home, the more we tend to spend. So we try to plan activities nearby that cost little or no money and that draw upon a child’s natural affinity for simple pleasures. We take picnics, blow bubbles, wade in the creek, go for walks, fly kites, and run through the sprinkler.

As they grow, we know our children’s likes and interests will change. We know they may want and need things more costly than a $20 scooter – but they don’t ever have to outgrow loving affordable, uncomplicated things.