Christmas Shopping Tips

Okay, Christmas is right around the corner – 56 days to be exact – but who is counting, right? I am looking at our list and checking it twice to make sure that our budget will cover all we need to do this holiday season. Budget? Who budgets for Christmas? We do. Starting the year before, we make a plan for the following Christmas. By looking at what worked and what didn’t last Christmas, we are able to determine what we will need or want for the upcoming years’ Christmas budget. Here are the steps that we take.

We make a list of every person we need to buy gifts for and every event that we can think of that is going to cost money. Include all relatives that you normally buy for but also include other gift recipients like teachers, bus drivers, babysitters, etc. Events that are on the list include pictures with Santa, riding the Pink Pig (an Atlanta Christmas tradition), parties and the like. Also be sure to account for travel expenses, shipping expenses, Christmas cards and any special Christmas giving.

Now that you have your list go through and give an estimated amount that each item will cost. Even if you are not exactly sure, at least give it some kind of dollar figure.

Total up the entire cost of Christmas and divide by 12. This is the most important step that we take to make Christmas both stress and debt free. We save all year long for the expenses that will occur at Christmas. For us, we typically save $100/month for. This goes each and every month into a special savings account that we have designated for Christmas. The money does not get used for anything else so that it is waiting for us when the holidays roll around.

Now, here comes the fun part. I use several survey and search sites through the year and save my rewards or points from those sites to help offset Christmas. The ones I use the most are Swagbucks.com, MyPoints.com, e-rewards.com, MySurvey.com and mycokerewards.com. With the points or rewards that I collect on these websites, I am able to normally cover at least 3 presents on my list at no cost to me. I could probably do more than that but I have been known to use my rewards during the year if I am in a pickle and need a no cost birthday present or two. Most of the rewards that I redeem are in gift card form from various stores including Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, Gap, Amazon, Blockbuster and other popular retailers. I treat this like a little game I play with myself to see how many points or rewards I can rack up all year long. You will be surprised that it doesn’t take long to accumulate enough points to get a nice little gift card and it doesn’t cost a dime.

One of the biggest money saving tips that I use at Christmas is to use my envelope system at Christmas. I make an envelope for each Christmas category (gifts, events, travel, etc) and put the money allotted for those expenses in that envelope. Then I attach my list to the envelope so I know how much is assigned to each item from the list. As I spend from the list, the money comes from the envelope. When the envelope is empty, then the spending stops. Using this method, there is no after Christmas credit bills to dread or regrets on how much was spent.

Christmas can be a fun and pleasurable time if you plan and prepare. Go grab a piece of paper and start a plan today. It is never too late (or too early) to start!

My version of Grocery Shopping

It sometimes feels like a full time job to feed my family.

My typical grocery shopping experience goes like this – plan my list Monday-Wednesday including looking at sales flyers for various local grocery stores, matching up coupons and menus, making the list, heading to a minimum of 3 grocery stores each and every Thursday, arguing with atleast 2 cashiers and going home paying 1/2 what I would have paid if I had not done my homework. It is the only way that I have figured out to do it and feed my family for no more than $480/month. This past month (October) we have cut the grocery budget as we are trying to hit our baby step 3 goal of having a fully funded emergency fund. We felt that if we could cut $80/month from the budget, it could help us reach the goal by our deadline of December 31st. So, grocery shopping has been a little tight around here. Today I decided to look at the math and see how it breaks down to feed the family on $400/month including everything that this house runs – paper products, toiletries, health & beauty and most special items like candy for Halloween. Here is the breakdown (we will assume an average 30 day month):

3 meals/day x 30 days = 90 meals
$400 divided by 90 meals = $4.44/meal
$4.44/meal divided by 4 people = $1.11/person/meal

Ok, where can you go and feed a family for $4.44 for an entire meal? Only the grocery store. These are regular meals too – all dinners include meat, most breakfasts include eggs and a breakfast meat (either sausage or bacon) and lunches are typically sandwich items. These also include desserts, beverages and any extra entertaining or guests. The only way to be able to do this is to plan out our meals, eat what we buy, stick to a list, and use coupons.

I addressed meal planning in another post so I won’t go into it again but let me say that by planning out our meals, we are not as tempted to eat out or to run to the grocery store to grab something for dinner. This saves a lot of money on the grocery bill. I try to only shop 1-2 times per week. I do 1 large shopping trip on Thursdays and then I do a fill in trip on Mondays (milk, eggs, fresh fruits and vegs). If I have planned a meal and realize that I don’t have an ingredient that I need, I either find a substitute, leave it out or make something else. I do not run to the grocery store for miscellaneous items.

I also plan the meals to eat what we buy. If we have chicken, we eat chicken. If we have spinach, we find a way to use the spinach. I try to not throw out anything that can be used. I don’t like the idea of people in the world going hungry while we throw out perfectly nutritious food just because we decide we don’t want to eat it. That includes the dreaded word – leftovers. I typically cook to have very few leftovers hanging around but if they are in the fridge, I work hard to incorporate them into our menu plan. It is not uncommon to find my kids packing leftovers in their lunch boxes or for us to have a “clean out the fridge leftover night” for dinner.  If it was good enough to eat the first time, it is good enough to finish off the second time. Waste not, want not.

My best friend at the grocery store is my grocery list . It is also a very unforgiving taskmaster for our family while we are shopping. My kids know that if it is not on the list, it isn’t going in the cart. I have a white board in my kitchen that is used to keep up with the list during the week. If we run out of something or if someone wants something special, it gets written on the list. If it makes it to the list, it either gets purchased or it gets back ordered until it goes on sale or I have a coupon (or even better, both!). If you want it and you don’t write it on the list, it will not get purchased. We don’t give in to impulse buys, they will kill a grocery budget.

Coupons are one of the easiest and most complicated parts of my grocery shopping trip. They are easy because they are readily available and instantly save you money on your groceries. They are complicated because every store has a different coupon policy and a lot of cashiers aren’t trained to know what their store’s policy is. I watch the sales fliers every week and match up what is one sale with what coupons are out there and what we will be eating that week. My favorite stores will let you use a manufacturer coupon in addition to a store coupon for the item you are purchasing. So, when it goes on sale, I combine both coupons and get items for very cheap and often free. For example, we drink coffee in our house but I only like it with flavored creamer. When creamer goes on sale, I can often find it for $1.50 or less. If I use a $.50 manufacturer coupon that doubles to $1.00 and pair it with a $.50 store coupon, I will technically save $1.50 on the item or in essence get the item for free. There are several ways of combining coupons and sales that will yield wonderful deals and I will cover that in more depth in a later post.

Grocery shopping is a lot of work in my household and I know that it isn’t for everyone. If you are on a tight budget, try to incorporate some of these tips in your shopping trip. If your budget isn’t tight but you don’t want to give up free money, at least try to use a coupon or two. There is not reason to pay more than you have to to feed your family.

Pumpkin Scones

Last week I made a batch of pumpkin scones. I am in love with scones. Imagine what would happen if a biscuit and a muffin had a baby. That is a scone. Flaky like a biscuit but soft and sweet like a muffin. Heaven on earth. Being that it is fall and I love pumpkin, I decided to try my hand at pumpkin scones. The result? Beautiful. My dear sweet husband was forced to eat three in one day. Poor baby. Needless to say, they last almost no time at my house. So, this morning, with the rain gently falling, I decided to make another batch of pumpkin scones. Only this time, I documented the process so that everyone can see how easy it is to make them!

Note: I already had pureed pumpkin from the roasted pumpkin I made a few weeks ago. If you don’t already have that, you can roast a pumpkin (very easy, don’t be intimidated) or you can buy canned pumpkin – although I think fresh tastes the best! Here is a link to roasting your own pumpkin- http://www.elanaspantry.com/how-to-roast-a-pumpkin-in-10-steps

Step by Step:

Ingredients
Flour and Spices
Cutting cold butter into the flour mixture
Mixing Wet ingredients into dry ingredients
Mixed up dough
Dough rolled out waiting to be cut
Dough cut into triangles
Cut and ready for baking
Fresh from the oven
Ingredients for Icing
Icing all mixed up
Drizzle icing over cooled scones
Ready to eat!

Here is the recipe:

Pumpkin Scones

Makes 8 scones

For Scones:

2 cups all-purpose flour
7 tablespoons sugar
1-tablespoon baking powder
1/2-teaspoon salt
3/4-teaspoon cinnamon
1/4-teaspoon ground cloves
1/4-teaspoon ground ginger
2 Tablespoons chopped walnuts
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup pumpkin
3 tablespoons milk
1 large egg

For the glaze:
1 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons milk
1/4-teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4-teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or Silpat.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and spices in a large bowl.  Use a fork to cut the butter into the dry ingredients until there are no obvious lumps. Gently stir in walnuts and set bowl aside.

In a separate bowl whisk together the pumpkin, milk and egg.  Fold wet ingredients into dry ingredients and form the dough into a ball. Pat dough out onto a floured work surface and form into a 1″ thick circle.  Use a large knife to slice through it in an X pattern until you end up with 8 pieces.

Bake for 14-16 minutes, or until light brown.  Place on a wire rack to cool.

To make the glaze, whisk together powdered sugar, milk, vanilla and cinnamon.  Let it sit about 5 minutes, then drizzle over top of cooled scones.

Menu planning

As many of you know, we make it a rule in our house to not eat out. Eating at home is a habit we have developed over the years in order to save our family money, time and hassle. Being that we eat at home or food brought from home for every meal, menu planning is extremely important. I work hard to make sure that my family has good nutritious food to eat that doesn’t break the bank. We like to eat new things and not eat the same meal again and again so when planning, it is important to me to not schedule the same dinner twice in one month (most of the time it is only on the schedule once). In order to tackle all of that, I make a menu plan for the month before the month begins. Right now, I am working on the November menu plan using a separate calender on iCal that is just for the menu. I have digestive issues that make it important for me to eat leaner cuts of meat so I have adapted our menu to use ground turkey and chicken breasts for most meals. Here is the menu plan for the week of October 25, 2010.

Monday: Chicken & Dumplings
Tuesday: Oven Baked Cube Steak w/Mushroom Gravy, Greenbeans and Mashed Potatoes
Wednesday: Chicken Stirfry and Rice
Thursday: Chicken Quesadillas
Friday: Chicken Manicotti and Steamed Broccoli
Saturday: (Crockpot) No Peek Beef Tips and Mashed Potatoes
Sunday: Pizza (Halloween)

I will switch up the menu plan depending on what is one sale at the grocery store but having a base to start from is so much easier than wondering every night what is for dinner. It also makes grocery shopping easier and more productive since I am buying exactly what I will be using that week. Side dishes are left fairly open to what we are in the mood for that night. I keep certain fresh, frozen and canned vegetables on hand to ensure that we have a good rotation to choose from (corn, spinach, broccoli, carrots, green beans, black-eyed peas, etc.). Menu planning saves me so much time and money, I would be lost without it.

*Edited to add:

Due to requests for my recipe for No Peek Beef Tips, here you go girls:

Crockpot No Peek Beef Tips

2 lbs cubed stew beef
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can mushrooms (you can use fresh too)
1 pkg dry onion soup mix
1 pkg dry brown gravy mix
1 c. ginger ale or 7 up
Egg noodles or rice

Dump it all in the crockpot (except the noodles or rice) and let it cook approx 6hrs on low. Serve over rice or pasta.

Schedules

We have been feeling overwhelmed in our house lately. One of the ways I work to combat the feeling of having more to do than time to do it is to have a regular schedule. Without my schedule, I would be wandering in a forest somewhere trying to find my way out. I set schedules for cleaning, volunteering, exercise, meals and more. At the beginning of the week, I try for Sunday afternoons, I get out my very sophisticated scheduling program and begin to plug in everything for the week. Okay, maybe it isn’t that sophisticated. It is a half sheet of paper that I write each day of the week on. Then I write each thing that I do on a my regular schedule under the day that I normally do it. For example, I always do the following:

Monday – Laundry (Wash/Dry/Fold)
Tuesday – Iron
Wednesday – Bathrooms
Thursday – Grocery shopping
Friday – Bed linens and catch-up

I then fill in the blanks with everything else that needs to be done in our household – mopping, vacuuming, dusting, blogging, etc. Inside each day, I have certain times that I do my regularly scheduled activities. So, if you call my  house at 8:15 am you will not get me on the phone. Why? Because I am running on the treadmill at 8:15, just like clockwork. If you follow me home from the bus stop in the morning, you will catch me doing my bible study from 7am-7:20am. Every morning. That is the key in this process, that it happens every day over and over again. In the long term, it is the accumulation of these activities that helps our days go smoother. Nothing bad happens if there is a day when my kids are sick and I miss my run. Or if I have to drive them to school and my bible study happens later in the day. But by scheduling it, I am assured that most days, it happens.  I believe that my time is worth something and I am not going to waste it by not having a plan on how to spend it. So, go and work on your schedule. Make a map of how your week will go. Or even how your day will go. Take time to map it out so that you aren’t wandering around trying to figure out what to do next and then being overwhelmed when it doesn’t get done.

Discipline or the lack there of

I believe the secret to any success is discipline. By my definition, discipline is what you employ when you do not want to do something but you know that you need to so you do it anyway. I have a mantra that I repeat to myself during the day “if you want to succeed, you have to sacrifice”.  You have to give up something to get what you want. There are two methods that I use in developing discipline. The first is the “carrot and stick” trick. If I dangle a carrot on a stick in front of me, it will propel me forward. The other method I use if I want to develop a particular discipline, is to draw an imaginary line in the sand and tell myself that I cannot cross that line. For some reason, once I have drawn that line, I will not let myself cross it.

Excercise: I use the “carrot and stick trick” to tackle the discipline of exercise. I tell myself that I cannot each breakfast until I run on the treadmill. I will run with my stomach growling and tell myself that if you want to eat, you have to run. This has kept me on the exercise schedule that I need to be on in order to maintain my weight. I even imagine running toward my breakfast to keep me going. I also have a version of this wherein I put a two piece swimsuit in front of my treadmill and run toward it. I tell myself that if I ever hope to be seen in that in public, I have to run to get it.

Spiritual: Another example of discipline in my life is my bible reading. I have been wanting to read my bible on a regular schedule for a while now but could never seem to find the time to fit it in. While at small group someone mentioned to me that I should tackle my bible reading just as I do my exercise. So, that set forth a plan in my head to tie it into something I do on a regular basis that means something to me. My daily routine now includes bible reading that takes place before I am allowed to check my email in the morning. If I want to check my email, I have to check in with God’s word.  I cannot begin to tell you the concepts that God has pointed me toward in my reading that I never would have seen if I had not begun to develop the discipline of being in His word.

Schedules: Lastly, I use discipline in my daily life when scheduling my day. My schedule is the line that I have drawn in my head that I will not let myself cross. If it is on the schedule, then I know that it must get done. I would not be able to maintain my  household and get everything done that I need to do if I did not work off of a schedule. I make a schedule each week that map out what I need to do each day. As I do each task, I cross off what was on the list. I am very predictable in my daily routine. Here is how my early morning is laid out:

6:00 – Wake up and shower
6:30 – Finish packing lunchboxes/book bags (I pack lunches at night but wait until morning to add cold packs)
6:50 – Take kids to the bus stop
7:00 – Read my bible
7:20 – Clean dishes
7:30 – Check email
7:40 – Blog
8:00 – Run on treadmill

Discipline helps to me to get all that I need to get done in the early morning and as go throughout the rest of my day. I feel less rushed and overwhelmed when I have my map showing me where I will be going next. I also plan the other activities in my day around my regular set schedule. For example, I volunteer at my kids’ school. I make sure that my time for volunteering falls between my early morning and afternoon schedules.  When you take your schedule seriously and realize that your time needs structure, you will find yourself wasting less of one of your most precious commodities, time.

Discipline yourself to get the things done you need to do, especially if you don’t want to do them, and you will find you are a more peaceful person and get more accomplished in your life.

Ways to save

Being in jail give you a lot of time to think. Today I have been thinking about ways we try to save money in our family. Some of these are everyday things you here of lots of people doing and some of them are crazy things only our family would do. Here are some of what I have come up with.

1) No cable tv. We cut cable last summer and it was one of the easiest things we have lived without. John built an antennae from plans off the internet and we have not looked back.

2) Cheap entertainment. Since we don’t have cable, we have to find entertainment in other places. We play card games, board games, read, go biking, go on walks and rent movies.

3) Renting movies, the cheap way. Redbox is your friend. We love Redbox and Blockbuster Express at our house. $1/night movie rental is pretty darn cheap but I don’t stop there. I scour the internet until I find free movie rental codes. I can’t tell you the last time we paid to see a movie.  Even my kids know to ask me if I have a rental code before they ask if we can rent a movie, they know that if we don’t have a code, we don’t rent.

4) The library. The public library is one of the most underused resources available in our community. Why pay for a book that you can get for free? How many times are you going to read that book you just bought? Most of the time, you won’t read it more than once so why hang onto a copy of it? Our library lends out books, magazines, music, movies and much more. There is a wealth of information at the library.

5) No eating out. We make it a habit to eat at home or food brought from home for every meal. If our schedule dictates that we be away from home during a meal time, we either change the schedule or pack a meal to go. Our kids have grown used to our “picnics” and they don’t even ask to stop to eat anywhere. If we are traveling, as we will be for the upcoming holidays, we pack food for the road. There are beautiful parks and rest areas along many interstates and we simply stop and eat whatever we have packed – fruit, chips, sandwiches, cookies. It gives the kids and parents both time to rest during the journey and recharge for the rest of the trip without having to wait for a table and pay greatly inflated prices for often mediocre food.

6) No brand loyalty. I buy whatever brand is cheapest, no matter what the product. Because I coupon, I can often get the name brand cheaper than I can get the store brand but I will purchase whatever brand I can get the best deal on. If you stack coupons (use a manufacturer coupon and a store coupon together) on items that are on sale, you can get groceries pretty cheap and not have to suffer for being frugal.

7) Cut back on paper products. The only paper product that I buy consistently is toilet paper. We have a “rag drawer” in our kitchen that takes the place of paper towels. Until recent years, my husband went through paper towels like crazy. He would dry everything using a paper towel even when I had a kitchen towel available. Now, he doesn’t even think about getting a rag out of the drawer to clean up spills or dry things off. If he can be converted to cloth, anyone can.

8)Find new ways to do what you need to do or think outside the box! I love gardening and wanted to add some plants and mulch to my backyard. I found for the plants at a local greenhouse for $1-$3 per plant. This seemed a reasonable cost to me and even though it was cheaper to grow from seed, I decided that I liked the instant gratification enough to shell out the extra money. I planted my new plants and decided that they needed some kind of mulch to help keep them watered and to look better. My solution was found in my backyard. We have a pine tree in our yard that gives us enough free pine straw to take care of the small beds that I have scattered about. Why pay for something that I already have? I simply gather up the pine straw that falls to the ground or even better on the trampoline and deposit it into my flower beds. No cost and very little labor.

9) Pay cash. It is proven that you spend less when you pay cash. There is a psychological effect that happens when you spend cash that does not happen when you use credit. Even though we were paying off our credit cards every month, we felt as though our spending decisions would be better influenced if we went to all cash. So, we implemented the envelope system for most of our daily expenses. We have envelopes for gas, grocery, gift, clothes, kids, babysitting, and auto maintenance. We have seasonal envelopes for holidays likes Christmas. We take out our budgeted amount in cash and put it in the envelope. All expenses for that item must come from the envelope and when the envelope is empty, we are done spending. The secret is discipline. As I recently heard one lady say, there is no “hanky panky” among the envelopes. So, if we are out of grocery money and we run out of eggs 2 days before payday, then we make sure we eat things that don’t require eggs.

10) Organization. This is my biggest money saving tip. I save so much money by knowing where everything is in my house. I never have to wonder “do I have a blankedy blank and where did I put it?”. I don’t run out at the last minute because I thought I had something and can’t find it. I am also able to stock up on grocery and toiletry items and because I have them organized I don’t over buy or forget to use them and let them expire. Being organized and having a schedule and a system will save you untold amounts of money and time.

These are just a few of the things we do to save money and I could easily list many more. I realize that the way we do things is different than most families and is not for everyone. Look around your house and see if there is just one change you can make today. I promise you will be better off for it.

Spending the next three months in jail…

I am in a self imposed spending jail for the next three months. We are growing closer to the end of 2010 and to our savings goal of $20,010. We are scheduled to be a little short as of right now. How little? I don’t have the figures in front of me but somewhere south of $500. So in an effort to make up the difference, I have put myself in spending jail. Or on a financial diet. Or whatever you want to call it. What does this mean exactly? It means that I stay home – A LOT. To me, the key to not spending ANY money is to not go anywhere. In the past three days, I have only left my house (excluding the yard and the mailbox) twice. Once was to drive my daughter to soccer and the second time was this morning to get peanut butter since my kids would cease living if we ran out of peanut butter.

When I first became a stay-at-home mom, I spent a lot of my day at Target. We lived in a remote area and Target was the closest civilization to us. I was desperate for some adult interaction. I tried joining a “mom’s club” but that didn’t work for me. I tried the library, the park and the neighborhood but where we lived, there weren’t a lot of non-working parents. So, I spent my day at Target. I would cruise up and down the aisles looking for something to buy and more importantly, someone to talk to. Lame, I know. As the years passed and I got used to being on this island, and even found people who were on their own islands, I stopped shopping for recreation. I figured out that shopping is not an effective way to beat boredom and loneliness. The problem with recreational shopping is the fact that once the high of buying something wears off, you are back home and just bored and lonely again. Except this time you have stuff that you don’t need to keep you company.

So, I will get more things done over the next three months that are probably overdue to be done. I hope to get more weeds pulled and clean out the nooks and crannies that never get cleaned. And hopefully to find a way to make up the $500 difference. If you see me wandering around Target with an empty buggy, be sure to stop and say hello. I am really just looking for someone to talk to.

Off to the pumpkin patch…

Burt's Pumpkin Patch 2010

Where is the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? He is at Burt’s Pumpkin Patch in the North Georgia Mountains and has been there for a long time. We started going to Burt’s when Brittany was 2 years old and have made the pilgrimage ever year since.  This year we went with BFF and her kidlets, whom I refer to as the other half of R & R. It was such a great time! We had a picnic by the creek, picked out pumpkin and even took a fun hayride. It doesn’t seem like fall until we have been to Burts!

Here are some pics from past years pumpkin picking at Burts!

2004

2004
2005

2005

While my kiddos were out playing with neighbors last night, I murdered 2 pumpkins. I like murdering pumpkins. There is something primal about taking a large knife, cutting something in two and then pulling out all it’s guts. I don’t know, maybe I am taking out the aggressive side of my personality on unsuspecting produce. I figure there are worse things.  After gutting the 2 pumpkins I put them in the oven to roast. Roasting brings out the pumpkins flavor and makes the flesh soft enough use in recipes. For step-by-step instructions on how to roast a pumpkin, try this website:

http://www.elanaspantry.com/how-to-roast-a-pumpkin-in-10-steps

I did all of this without my 8 year old knowing what I was doing. Last year she refused to let me cook her pumpkin. She had gotten a small pumpkin and named it and everything. It sat at our house for 2 months and I couldn’t do anything with it! She loved it like it was a pet. So, one day while she was at school, I cooked him and made pumpkin bread. She ate it when she got home and told me again and again how much she liked the bread. I couldn’t take the guilt and I finally  broke down had to tell her that she was eating her pumpkin. She took it fairly well but still, I didn’t want her to freak out when she saw mommy butchering the pumpkins. Little did I know that she would be disappointed that she missed gutting the pumpkins this year! She came inside and was so upset that I had cut them open and pulled out all the seeds without her help! So, I promised that the next time I decide to kill a pumpkin, she could be my accomplice. It is up to us to train them in the way they should go, right?

That was the trick, now for the treat! This morning I baked 3 loaves of pumpkin bread using the pumpkin I roasted last night. The house smells like fall – cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger and is warm with fresh baked bread. So I am off to eat the fruit of my labor…..

Happy Fall, ya’ll!