Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Book Nook

Our living is really short on wall space so I've been keeping an eye out for a tall narrow bookshelf for quite a while. I found one a few weeks ago at a nice secondhand/antiques store. We also have had a cabinet which I picked up at a garage sales a few years ago that was in need of some re-purposing and a makeover. So before the snow flew last week, I got to work painting these. I did this in our kitchen because it was the only place suitable with enough warmth and good lighting to do a decent job. I had recently removed the cupboard doors.I painted both pieces with part of a gallon of Oops Paint in a color called Oriental Silk (Behr), which happens to closely match another piece of furniture in our living room. After allowing plenty of time to dry, my kind husband secured them to the wall with shelf brackets to prevent any tipping accidents.With plenty of room for books, curriculum, puzzles and even tractor parking, the new combo is a hit! I used an extra old bed pillow and made a cover to coordinate with the room with some fabric from my stash.

bookshelf - $19
oops paint - $5
shelf brackets - $2
cupboard - $3
Total - $29 for a great new addition to our living room.

Proof of enjoyment:

Small successes make me happy!

Monday, January 26, 2009

$100 January Grocery Challenge - Part 2 - More than 100 bucks

Since I had already spent the $100 in the first part of the month, it was unrealistic to think we'd make it out of the month without some further expenses. But I'm not calling this a complete failure because I have been far more selective about needs in these last couple weeks and we have been eating through the pantry and freezer. If times were truly lean, like a loss of income or something really severe like that, you can bet I would be doing better on this. But since we do have funds to buy more, we are not going to go without say, things like milk and cheese and fruit and veggies.

So, here's the oh-so-exciting rundown of the last couple weeks of grocery spending.

2 steaks (These were a splurge for a good Friday night meal. Does anyone else feel like weekend meals should be better than weekday meals?)
Total cost after markdown: $3.45

2 lbs. cheese
1/2 gallon organic chocolate milk (marked down = m.d.) - treat for kids
2 gallons milk
1.25 lb. bananas
4 pints organic heavy cream (drastically m.d. to $.49 each - for making ice cream or some such thing)
16 oz. organic sour cream - m.d.
2 jumbo cookies - 1 for a treat, 1 for a friend having a rough week
Total after discounts and coupons, and with about $2 overcharge for them missing some of the markdown stickers...grrr: $14.10
Side note: I hardly want to seem like a problem customer, but I have had this problem many times at this store and am growing tired of it, but really 75 cents here and 75 cents there does add up.

King Soopers
4 pints blueberries
4 avocados
Total after sales: $8.00

big bag of tortilla chips
big pack of tortillas (My attempts at making these have failed and I was taking a burrito meal to a family.)
Total: $7.00

2 gallons organic milk - m.d.
2 pints milk - m.d.
8 oz. sour cream - m.d.
3 lb. baby carrots
7.65 lb bananas
16 gala apples
12 navel oranges
6 grapefruit
3 red bell peppers
2 cans diced tomatoes
Total after sales, markdowns and coupon: $24.59

Expenses as of January 13 = 103.49
+ these expenses = $160.63

Observations & Activities:
- We are now running low on lots of things, but will make it through the month without further purchases.
- We are running low on diapers, which has led me to using our cloth diapers once again while at home. I'm not sure why I just haven't used them more because they are perfectly good and we have never had a leak. I would like to use them a lot more now until Smiley is potty trained.
- For frugal cooking this week I cooked up a big pot of dried black beans and I made yogurt which is much cheaper than buying it. The kids still prefer store-bought yogurt, but will eat this. My most successful method is this: 1. cook milk on stove until bubbles form on top 2. transfer to corningware and cool to 120 degrees 3. add about 1 cup yogurt (the starter), 2 tsp. vanilla and maybe 1/2 cup honey 4. stir well and cover with plastic lid 5. carefully transfer to tight-fitting cooler bag, zip it up and leave it all day 6. transfer to fridge and enjoy the next morning and beyond.
- I'm very thankful for the cheaply acquired stockpile of personal care items as buying those as they have been needed this month would have significantly raised our total for the month.
- Also, if we would have needed to purchase much meat this month, our total would have been higher.
- All our cold cereal is gone so I'm going to have to use the other breakfast options from the original menu I planned. I'll need to allow a bit more time to do this.

To finish up the month, here is the menu for this week.

Breakfast: oatmeal, fruit, yogurt
Lunch: leftovers of beef split pea soup and/or baked rigatoni, bread, baby carrots
Dinner: Homemade macaroni and cheese (using up bits of Velveeta, shredded cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream & frozen buns for the breadcrumb topping), mixed vegetables, lime jello

B: oatmeal, bananas & blueberries, yogurt
L: leftovers
D: black beans cooked with red pepper and onion, brown rice, sour cream & cheese, cinnamon ice cream (homemade)

B: cooked millet, applesauce, yogurt
L: canned soup, crackers or biscuits, carrots
D: sloppy joe casserole with biscuit topping, green and yellow beans

B: apple/carrot/squash muffins (make a big batch on Wed.),
L: snack lunch: meat, crackers, fruit, carrots
D: pork chops, mashed sweet potatoes, vegetable

B: fruit & milk/yogurt smoothies, muffins
L: I'm drawing a blank...we'll eat something :)
D: company? large turkey pot pie, dutch apple pie, maybe they can bring a salad or veggie?

B: waffles (from freezer), fruit
L: pork roast, mashed potatoes (from freezer), glazed carrots
D: shepherd's pie, whole wheat rolls

B: cinnamon rolls (prepared on Saturday, baked in the morning), fruit
L: BBQ pork (crockpot) on rolls
D: caramelized garlic chicken, mashed potatoes (if there are any left) or fries, fruit or vegetable

Then we will have one more week of sort of slim pickings before a big stock-up again. It is funny when you start to think of going to Costco or grocery stores and buying all the groceries you want as a real luxury or extravagance, but such is the case for us right now.

For some real menu planning inspiration, visit I'm An Organizing Junkie!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Making the Most of Flex

We realized in late October that we were running long on our medical and dental flexible spending account. What a blessing to have a year where we didn't need to take our children to the doctor other than for a yearly wellness check! We are blessed also with generally good health with no ongoing expenses for continual prescriptions and medical supplies. But if you know us, we hate to have money lost in an account like this just because we didn't have events which required the use of this money. After gathering and submitting all receipts we could think of we still had a bit more than $100 left.

So I read up on the qualifying expenses for this account and headed out to Target on New Year's Eve to see if I could make use of these funds. Most over-the-counter medications and vitamins are surprisingly not covered. As I was checking out I had the cashier confirm that each item was noted on the receipt as a health item. I ended up with $82 of first aid items (perfect for restocking our first aid kits), a night guard and some orthotics for my bad feet. Since I still wasn't sure if these purchases would qualify, I put the bags away in the closet and had my husband submit the receipts by fax. Then in the event it didn't go through, I could still return the merchandise since the items were not urgent needs. Thankfully these purchases did qualify under our plan so we were able to use up most of what was left in our account for the year. I know I could have gotten closer to the exact dollar amount if I would have added it up more carefully and gotten more for my money if I would have had coupons, chosen the Target brand, etc., but at that point, on the last possible purchase day, in a very busy store with three young children in tow, I was more than satisified with my effort and the outcome.

Monday, January 19, 2009

More and Less in 2009

I know we are a few weeks into the new year, but I just had some time for reflection and goal-setting this past weekend. Here's what I aspire to in 2009 and some tactics I plan to use to move toward those aspirations.

More of Him, less of me
- being in the Word and praying daily
- memorizing the book of James

More connection, less isolation
- getting together with other women at least once a week for a simple playdate, coffee, etc.
- setting up a schedule and following through with calling friends and family who are far off

More thanksgiving, less comparison
- making a written list that we add to daily of things we give thanks for

More order, less clutter & chaos
- clean and organize one shelf, cupboard or drawer per day
- sell one item or donate one bag of excess stuff each week
- think long and hard before bringing more stuff into the house, and follow the one-in-one-out principle

More moving, less sedentary living
- 300 workouts this year will push me to move more, so far, so good. I'm charting it and have columns for 20, 30, and 45 minute and 1 hour workouts. I've already become good friends with our new treadmill and will use varying incline and speed, and hand and ankle weights to change it up. I also plan on 2 workouts per week in water aerobics classes and getting out for walks or hikes when the weather and schedule allow.

More nutrition, less junk food
- We are a work in process.

More early mornings, less late nights
- to better meet the needs of my family and move in the right direction with these goals

More time spent creating, less time spent in front of this computer screen
- limiting computer time each day
- spending more time each week to do creative things I enjoy like sewing, gardening, etc.

More time engaging with my children, less time chasing deals
- Even though I want to be a great manager of our financial resources, shopping at multiple stores for groceries and personal goods is taking a toll on me so I need to cut back. I hope to choose, based on the sales available, just one grocery store to shop at each week.
- Shopping without my children whenever possible.
- I want to be intentional to spend time reading to and with my kids each week and also spending time snuggling with them on the couch, playing on the floor, baking with them and having fun training them to be contributors to our household.

Here's to a happy, healthy and whole 2009!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Closing the Door on 2008

After being in British Columbia for Christmas, my parents came to visit us for New Year's. They were able to stay for a while this time and we enjoyed the unhurried visit with plenty of time for building legos, going out for lunch, going to the zoo, playing games, a bit of shopping, reading time with the kids, and games and games of Ticket to Ride after the kids went to bed. And we even lasted until midnight on New Year's Eve and saw the fireworks off of Pikes Peak!

Sister having fun showing us her giraffe tongue at the zoo.

With almost 3 weeks of seeing our kids with both sets of grandparents, we see what we are missing by not living near either set of parents. But it makes the times together all the sweeter.

Smiley is always on the move. This position is indicative of the way he lives, on the edge.

A fun shot with Nana and Papa at the zoo.

Thanks for coming, Mom and Dad!

Worth the Trouble: Closet Makeover

For months we've had a problem with our boys' closet. Everything was out of order, the space allotted for their clothing was too small which led to overflow, which led to frustration, which led to me not even wanting to bother putting away their clean laundry. In short, the space and system that used to work just wasn't cutting it anymore. So I began to think about what we could do, within our means, to make it functional once again. We needed a dresser to contain all their clothing and also serve as a changing table. So the secondhand search began.

2 weeks + undisclosed # of hours spend on Craigs List + 12 trips to thrift stores + $10 more than the budget + 2 minutes spent cleaning item (no refinishing time!) = 1 dresser and 1 happy mama

What can I say? I am easily pleased and I love order.

Before = chaos

After = order

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Enjoying the Great White North

I think the best gift we got this Christmas was lots of fresh snow in an area not known to have a white Christmas very often. My husband's parents have a beautiful property, though in the 12 years years I have been on the scene, I have never seen it snow-covered like this. The kids had a great time sledding, helping make a giant snowman and just wandering around in the snow. Their parents enjoyed the time outside, too!

These memories, too, are unexpected and precious gifts!

The Great Christmas Tree Hunt

We had a blast going to find and cut down the Christmas tree shortly after we arrived at Grandma and Grandpa's, even though it was a very frigid day.

This girl loves snow and outlasted her brothers outside almost every day.

We had a beautiful morning out with the family, a memory that will be long-remembered!

Colorado Christmas

I can't believe how fast Sportster is growing up and becoming more helpful! And he took his job of fluffing the tree seriously. Sorry about the shadow on the photo. It seems with travel, we will be a "fake tree family" for many more years.

Every year we travel for Christmas as we alternate years with both of our families. So we have taken to making our own celebration here at home before we leave. We try to make this just a time to slow down, hang out together, open gifts and keep it simple. This year, as we looked at the schedule, our best shot was the first weekend of December so we went with that. We also put up our tree and a few other decorations that weekend. With the number of gifts the children receive, it is probably best to spread out the fun to avoid being overwhelmed. I don't think we went overboard, but we did give the kids more from us than I think we ever have, just because we wanted them each to have a big gift this year. These big gifts were sourced online, through Craig's List and at Goodwill, but appealed to what would be fun and meaningful to each one. I was happy to see the excitement over the hand-knit gifts I made for the kids, too. For the other gifts, I had been shopping throughout the whole year and adding to the stash as I found things they would enjoy at excellent clearance prices.

Looks like Smiley will need to grow into this one.

Smiley on his new Radio Flyer, complete with bell.

Sister by her new dollhouse, found unfinished at Goodwill
for a mere $7.99 and painted by mom with love.

And Sportster ready to assemble his new table hockey game which has already yielded hours of fun with dad, and more than a few lessons in sportsmanship.

And a couple weeks later, Sportster and Sister had the opportunity to be part of a Christmas pageant at our church. They really enjoyed being part of the choir and seeing the production unfold. Their choir was supposed to be dressed as animals from the Friendly Beasts song, so Sportster chose to be a camel and Sister chose to be a dove. I don't feel very gifted in the costume department, but was pleased how these came together as the deadline for costumes approached, and I even had 20 minutes to spare after finishing before walking out the door to their rehearsal with costumes in hand! :)

We really enjoyed our "family Christmas" at home with our kids and enjoyed taking it easy, taking time to open their gifts and giving them time to fully open their gifts and play with them as we went along. We definitely need to remember to allow lots of time for that activity next year.

How do you celebrate Christmas at your house and manage gifts and travel and Christmastime celebrations in your church and community?

Being Together and Giving Thanks

I'm really behind on posting from the last few months of activities in our family, but here are a few pictures from Thanksgiving with my family. It was great to be together this year and to give thanks, even though it has been a very challenging year in so many ways. God is good and carries us through these hard times.

Smiley enjoying a new book with Nana.

One of the shots I took of my sister's family. I really had fun with my niece and liked this grain bin background.

The continuation of an annual tradition, all the sons, whether by blood or by marriage, peeling potatoes for the big meal. One set of hands arrived later.

Tractor rides all around. Smiley liked it more once the door was closed and the noise was reduced.

Sportster and Sister hamming it up before Thanksgiving dinner.

We have much to be thankful for!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

$100 January Grocery Challenge - Part 1

Well, we are almost halfway through January and it is not too surprising to me that I have already spent every last dollar I had allotted for groceries this month. I'm finding it difficult not to buy when things are at a price that only comes along once or twice a year and to break from the stockpiling mindset that I usually have, to buy items when they are at their rock bottom price. Anyway, here is the breakdown, along with a little commentary.

Alberstons - 2 transactions to get the best deals
8 boxes Quaker cereal - We go through Life really quickly!
3 boxes oatmeal packets
1 canister old-fashioned rolled oats
4 boxes granola bars
1 box breakfast bars
2 cheese sticks (the kids were hungry for a snack and I grow tired of telling them no)
4 packages pepperoni
4 packages Canadian bacon
Grand Total after promotions, sales, coupons & bag refund were deducted= $27.11

King Soopers - went there because we needed to kill some time before going somewhere else
1 package whole grain hoagie buns - marked down (m.d.)
4 packages turkey sausage links - m.d.
1 package turkey bacon - m.d.
1 large package pepperoni
1 jar of our all-time favorite dressing/pizza dip that we haven't had in a really long time
1 package chicken thighs - m.d.
Grand total after coupon, sales and bag credit = $13.26

2 gallons milk
3 bottles of cranberry juice
2 boxes of Capri Sun
2 boxes of packaged cookie/cracker snacks - purchased because they were part of a deal with the juices and drinks and some will be kept in the van to help us avoid stopping somewhere for a meal to tide us over until we get home
2 small containers sour cream - m.d.
5 - 4pks. of Activa yogurt - m.d.
1 quart organic half & half - m.d.
2 cottage cheese - m.d.
1 organic cottage cheese - m.d.
3 lbs. bananas
3 avocados
2 lbs. organic whole wheat macaroni
6 - 4pks. of fruit cups, bought because they were marked down to $.70/pack
3 boxes yogurt fruit snacks, bought because they were marked down to $.50/box

Grand total after sales, coupons, and bag credit = $36.02, though it should have been $4 lower (coupons I forgot to give them when I checked out...argh! And I only bought some of those items because of the high value coupons I had.) and $2 lower ($1 off per gallon of milk based on a mailing I had received which is linked to my loyalty card) and $.75 lower due to a dairy markdown sticker they skipped. I may or may not go back to customer service for these savings. It was not worth it that day, a busy Saturday morning with a customer service line 6 people deep at a store that has not always treated me very kindly.

plastic wrap - cheapest kind, we've been out for weeks
dishwasher tabs - had a great coupon
Grand Total = approx. $5.00

25 lbs. flour
huge can of tomato sauce
huge can of crushed tomatoes
big bag of tortilla chips
5 cheese take-and-bake pizza - purchased because there was a coupon and I had nothing else at home which could be fixed quickly for lunch that day, but still $7.00 could buy a whole lot more if I would have been more prepared
Grand total after pizza coupon = $22.10

So, I am just over $100 for January and am not planning any more purchases unless they are absolutely necessary, like milk and fruit and vegetables. I do have to be honest and say that I did stop at King Soopers to get some free-with-coupon deodorant today and ended up spending $3.50 from my allowance on 6 organic apples and a bag of marked down cherry chips...random, I know. But I thought they would be fun for Valentine's cookies. Although I didn't mind spending my allowance on this today, I don't plan to make a habit of that, since we have determined that our allowance is for each of us to spend as we please and not on goods for the family unless we REALLY want to.

Observations & Activities:
- I could do far better with this month's goal if I just stayed out of stores or sent my husband for the few essential items we needed. I think I am just so used to grocery shopping that it has become a (bad) habit to buy more than we need.
- I need to avoid grocery shopping to fill time. Even if I find good deals, I'll still be going over my budget.
- So far our meals have been fine and I anticipate that through the end of the month, though I wouldn't want to have this grocery budget long-term.
- The items listed above seem like a lot more junk than we usually buy. Keep in mind that this is not representative of our whole diet. The more balanced menu plan is here, which uses up other ingredients we had on hand at the start of the month.
- I did cook 1 of the 4 turkeys that was in our freezer, and divided the meat into meal-sized portions, cooked the carcass down to get all the little bits of meat off the bones and made wonderfully rich bone broth which was the base of a good turkey soup with homemade noodles. Yum! And we will still get at least 3 more meals from that one bird. I don't love turkey, but if I space out those meals, it should be okay.
- As I review my menu plan, it seems that very few of the dinner entrees are quick and easy, but convenience comes at a cost I'm not willing to pay right now.
- The more time-consuming the meal is, the more I feel I lose when my kids are picky and whine about or simply choose not to eat the meal I have made. We have never catered to our children at dinnertime at home, but somehow they don't mind holding out until breakfast, a meal they all enjoy.
- My husband supports me in this challenge, but has also given my complete freedom to up the budget if I need to buy more. I still hope to carry on with this month's plan as long as possible, though.
- It would be easier to carry through with the plan if we kept our dining out budget at its normal level instead of drastically reducing that, too. But this kind of plan does make you much more purposeful in planning dinners at home and anticipating the few times we'll eat out this month. True to form, we've already consumed our free Chick-Fil-A meal. We never seem to tire of that place! This leaves us with only 1 more dining out experience this month. Yikes!
- Meal sequence has been determined mostly by what needs to be used first so it doesn't go bad, reducing overall waste.
- I still have a balance on Walgreens gift card if I need something essential like milk.
- Our cupboards and freezer are still full!

Overall, this challenge is going okay for me. What goals have you set for yourself this month in your budget, the kitchen, or elsewhere?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What's Cooking in January?

We seem to have food in abundance around this place, a freezer, pantry and fridge filled to the brim. I'm not sure how it happened, but I think bargain shopping and then being away for Christmas are to blame. So, as we start the year fresh, I'm hoping we can use up what we have so much of and take it easy on the grocery budget this month. My goal is to spend only $100 for the month, but we'll see how that works out. Here is the menu I made using what we already have in the house. I anticipate a milk and produce run or two, but otherwise I think we are set. This menu has been printed up and posted on the fridge for easy reference. I don't assign days to each meal since this gives more flexibility to cook to suit the weather, what needs to be used the quickest and what we are in the mood to eat. As we eat a meal, I cross it off the menu to keep from getting confused.

January Menu
Goal – use what we have on hand, mostly only dairy & produce purchases

navy bean & ham soup, focacia bread
vegetable beef stew, cheddar biscuits
spinach tortilla (homemade) quesadillas, fruit salad
beef & yellow split pea soup, crackers, jello
black beans & rice, queso or cheese, apple slices
homemade pizza, fruit
turkey, mashed potatoes & gravy, veggies
sloppy joe casserole w/ biscuit topping, mixed vegetables
turkey soup w/homemade noodles, fresh bread
turkey pot pie
broccoli cheese soup(w/ frozen grated squash), fresh bread
shepherd's pie
frozen pizza, steamed veggies
spaghetti & meat sauce
chili, cornbread
free meal with receipt at Chick-Fil-A
meal at Red Robin with remaining gift card and coupon
carmelized onion pork chops, mashed sweet potatoes, green vegetable
meatloaf, mashed potatoes, carrots

Lunches – served w/ fruit or vegetable
fried egg & cheese sandwiches
snack lunch: meat, cheese, crackers
macaroni & cheese

Breakfast Items
grapefruit, bananas, oranges, apples
cold cereal & milk
millet porridge
ham/turkey/cheese egg cups
oat waffles
apple carrot WW muffins
blueberry scones
scrambled eggs
sausage links
turkey bacon

Snacks & Baking
homemade WW bread for meals
brown sugar shortbread
apple crisp
caramel dutch apple pie
rice krispie squares
pumpkin bars
lemon poppyseed muffins
potato chips & dip
crackers & herb cheese
rice cakes
string cheese
homemade bread & jam