Friday, July 27, 2012

How to Help Others During a Tough Economy

You took a look at your last paycheck and your heart sank. It is a cruel world out there and the forces of nature are against you. You've got the ever shrinking check being mauled by the brutal increases in prices on everything and, yet, you want to do the right thing and help others. Here are a few simple ways to help others using a limited budget.

Of course, well known charities would appreciate your donation of time or money, but let's think on a smaller scale that can still make a big impact.

Schools  If you have school aged children, consider donating simple items to the school. Supplies for the Art Department are welcome. During the Book Fair, purchase a few books for the library or your teacher's classroom. Some schools have herb gardens, food drives, weekend backpack programs (filled with nonperishables for underprivileged students) and the donations are very cheap to purchase. I've often donated extras from my own school supply stash and it is always appreciated.

Daycares  Your child's daycare might be able to use diapers or wipes your wee one has outgrown. Is there a coupon box in the lobby? Send some outfits your child has outgrown to other classrooms to be used for kids who have had accidents. Donate adult button-up shirts to be used as art smocks.

Animal Shelters Old bath and beach towels are welcome items at pet shelters.  When we adopted our darling puppy, we received a coupon for a free bag of dog food. It wasn't a brand we intended to use, so we took the bag and donated it back to the shelter. Many shelters operate on donations only. Consider giving them any food your pet doesn't like. Thanks to my aunt's picky feline, who changed its mind about the menu monthly, her local shelter had a healthy supply of a multitude of feline flavors.

Nursing Homes and Medical Facilities  After my mother and aunt passed away, I was left with enough brand new craft supplies to open a small store. The nursing home and a group home for mentally challenged patients received the bulk of the supplies and it was heartwarming to know it was all put to use by people who would truly appreciate it. My aunt was in a nursing home for a while before passing away. We had made every effort to make her room cozy and comfortable. After she passed away, we donated her clothes, room decorations, phone, wall clock, art work and other items to the facility. The local War Veteran's Home is a good option, too.

The Giving Jar In the kitchen, we have a huge glass jar labeled 'The Giving Jar.' Spare change that doesn't make it to the Vacation Jar ends up here. It's also a great visual for kids, too. We've used the money to buy a meal for neighbors who've had loved ones pass away. We've also used the funds to buy a gift card to a local restaurant. We put it with a take out menu and gave it to the new parents down the street. If no big events come up, we take the jar and put the proceeds in a Christmas bell ringer's bucket. Donating to our puppy's animal shelter is probably going to be this year's donation site.

You don't have to be rich to share. You just have to have a big heart and a little creativity.

How to Afford Great Home Furishings

Has this happened to you? While visiting someone, you take a glance around and realize their home looks great. Really great. The furniture is chic, the artwork is ever so perfect and everything just feels like style, class and money. And then you think to yourself, "Geez, I wish my home looked like that."

Guess what? It can. Here's how you can get the gorgeous look you want for very little money.

Keep in mind that just because something may be  used it will be new to you. I've said before I used to have an aversion to cast-offs, yard sales and second hand stores. It took a very patient husband who showed me through his own purchases what I was missing out on. Now that I've expanded my comfort zone, I have also expanded my opportunities to find great pieces for my home.  A great example of this is our recent living room furniture acquisiton. Family members purchased new items and offered their old furniture to us. I'll admit that it really wasn't my style. It was great furniture, mind you, it was just that I didn't love the style. But it was very doable so my husband and I compromised: he got the furniture he really wanted and I got to do what I wanted with it. Once I got the placement right, I removed a ton of the loose pillows, rearranged the rest and added a soft throw (in an unexpected color to pull out the more subtle shades of the design). 

A great way to redecorate is to repurpose items. How about a quilt for a tablecloth?  An old silver loving cup to hold your kitchen spoons? Awesome!  Go ahead and purchase that tacky painting with the fabulous frame.  Replace the print of Ichabod Crane with a mirror and now you've got a great statement piece that's so much better than the builder's grade guest bath mirror you already have.

When you're looking for home furnishings, try seeing things through new eyes. Let's say you see an outdated brass chandelier at a yard sale. Eww, I don't want that old thing in my house. But, I could see it repainted in brushed silver or oiled bronze with little shade covers. Or maybe it would look fabulous painted in some funky, trendy colors for a teenager's room.  I could purchase the fixture and everything needed for the upgrade for merely a fraction of the price of a new one.  It's so easy to give a new life to something old when you repurpose it. Open your eyes and see things with a new vision. You will save big bucks that way.

As you decorating your home, don't forget to embrace some of the things you may have inherited along the way. I found myself in the position of having my grandmother's hand carved jewelry chest. It isn't my taste. It's just a carved box with a wopsided lid---and I couldn't part with it. I struggled with what to do with it and after looking around I realized I had a few other boxes, some decorative and others more utilitarian. There you go! I've got a shelf with a box collection. Yes it sounds weird but it isn't and I get compliments on it all the time.

So here's a what my living room holds: Furniture from family members, an inherited chest repurposed into a coffee table, an inherited floor lamp and a yard sale print. I've also got a sculpture my husband made in college sitting next to a faded old Coca Cola crate with bottles. There's a simple wall shelf that was a birthday gift as well as an inherited milk glass loving cup.  The only things purchased new were the audio/video equipment, a lamp, an entertainment center and the dog bed. There's a few other new purchases but I don't think candles and coasters count.

You're getting the idea. It only takes a little imagination, a little money and some gracious 'thank yous' when you accept second hand things from friends and loved ones.

I promise the next time you visit your friend with the great living room, you'll be telling yourself. "My home looks as good as there's...only better."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to Save Fifty Dollars

In a previous post, we covered some ways to spend an extra fifty dollars that might just happen to fall in your lap. Now, let's look at ways of saving the same amount.

**1** Buy the latte, skip the muffin.

**2** Save all one dollar bills. Or fives.

**3**  Do your children need unlimited texting and data plans during the summer? Ask your service provider to downgrade their plans for those few months.

**4** Skip the magazine rack and get a subscription or, better yet, read them at your local library. The library is also a great choice for checking out movies.

**5** Revisit your employer's benefit plan. Take advantage of parking passes, free tickets to local events, discounts at the gym, free evaluations with dieticians, etc.

**6** Ask local businesses if there are military, educators and organization/club discounts.

**7** Take gently used items to high-end consignment shops. You can usually opt for a cash option which will net you for a little less than if you consign the items for sale.

**8** Go an extra two weeks between salon visits.

**9** If you have books in good condition you're willing to part with, try selling them at websites such as Sites will require the ISBN number that is found on the copyright page or the back of the book.  You can also take paperbacks to the second-hand bookstore.

**10** Lower your grocery budget by ten percent and deposit that amount into your savings. You will eat very well with the remaining 90 percent and hardly notice the difference.

**11** Eliminate premium channels from your cable plan. Rent an entire season of your favorite program and enjoy.

**12** Borrow instead of purchasing. Use your neighbor's pressure washer instead of paying an expensive professional. As a way to say thank you, consider offering to pressure wash his home as well.

**13** Verify all debit and credit charges. Mistakes can happen so try catching them quickly.

**14** Split fees with a friend or neighbor. If your yard is tiny, share the cost of fertilizer or a flat of young plants.

**15** Compare your auto insurance rates. Make sure you're getting the most affordable plan for your needs.

Just a few simple and painless changes can put an extra $50 in your hand.  Financial adjustments don't always have to be huge. Often, the smaller steps are more manageable and that makes us more inclined to make the attempt.

Clutter Into Cash: Easy Yard Sale Part Two

In this series, we are taking a look at how to have a great yard sale. Items have cleaned, priced and stored. You have also made sure to advertise as much as possible. Now it is time for the next step.

The day before the sale, make sure you have enough change. For my own sales, I keep about 25 -$1 dollar bills, 4 -$5bills, maybe a $10 bill and about three to four dollars in quarters.  Keep track of your petty cash in order to determine your profit after the sale.  Go ahead and put up your signs to take advantage of the evening rush hour traffic.  If possible, put all items necessary in a centralized location. Sometime the day before (or possibly earlier in the week) I remove all boxes from the attic and put them in my dining room. Make sure the tables you will be using are in good working order, clean and ready to use. If you are using any table covers, place those with the tables. The key is to prepare everything now so tomorrow morning, the set up will go quickly. If this is your first sale, you will be shocked at how early people show up. A final step is to clear out the trunk of your vehicle. I'll explain that later.

The day of the sale is finally here. Set your clock to wake up early. Really early. My own sales start at 7 and I've been seen dragging boxes outside at 5! Give a quick drive by to make sure your signs are still up and make sure they remain secure. How you display your items is second in importance only to the pricing. The way you show off your items will affect how buyers view what you are selling. Much the way a seller stages their home for potential buyers, you will also be staging your items because there are those who cannot see past the heaps and piles to appreciate the hidden potential. I am like that. Show me a piece of furniture that is damaged and avocado green and all I see is a really old 1970s has-been dresser far past it's prime. Let my husband see the same piece, and he can envision a classic refinished dresser perfect for a guestroom. Like me, most people will only it's present form. Take the two minutes and dust it off. This is also why you need to treat your items with respect. For example, throw all the clothes on a sheet on the ground and people will walk by, maybe a few will touch a piece or two. Fold those same clothes and place them on a table in same-size piles and they will be gone in minutes. It is all perception. I think buyers get the impression 'I want nice things and look how these are folded and so neat. Somebody must have taken good care of them.' You don't need to look like a boutique, just place things together in a way that is pleasing to the eye.  I like to place eye catchers right next to the street to lure the buyers. Bicycles, strollers, lawn mowers, larger toys or nice chairs will do the trick. Also make sure to put some of the known sellers toward the back of your sale. This forces the crowd to move through the space pretty much the way you walk through a grocery store to the back to acquire the loss leaders. You are hoping something else will catch the buyers' eye.

It's important to be be very polite without being overbearing.  There is no need to be a sales person but if your buyer wants to know if the drill works or not, have an extention cord ready for them.

Don't be insulted by the haggling. Think of it this way. It's a two dollar shirt and the lady is buying every Lego that isn't nailed down. It's okay to let her have the shirt for a dollar (or even free). But be warned there are those buyers who will wait until the last minute and say 'You don't want to drag that tiller back to the shed, do you? The tag says $20, I'll give you $5.' Obviously, it's your call and you can politely say no if you choose. Just always remember your goal. I am usually motivated by needing the space, so I would probably counter with trying to make it a $10 tiller.

Sometime after lunch, the crowd will have a natural tendency to thin out or cease completely. Now it's time for the next step. Box up all the leftover bits and pieces and put them in the newly emptied trunk. As soon as possible--right now would be great--drop them off at your favorite donation site. It is very tempting to take the leftovers back inside, but don't you dare. You've enjoyed these things all you can and now it's time to let someone else have them. You get to keep your cash, enjoy your cleared out space and have the satisfaction of knowing all your treasures are now treasured by others.

I used to get overwhelmed when I thought of having a yard sale. I had so much stuff that, despite being boxed and labeled, I felt crowded and cluttered. Even the thought of dragging it all outside and talking to strangers just wigged me out.  I got over all that as soon as I saw how quickly the dollars were adding up. With each yard sale I put under my belt, I got a little more savvy and earned a little more money. I actually look forward to them.

Good luck!

Organizing and Creating Space Cheaply

I never have enough time or money. Who does? And I definitely do not want to spend my time frantically looking for something that is probably right in front of my face. Here's some of my favorite quick tips for making your home more organized (which also saves time) and doing it very inexpensively.

**1** Keep a mason jar with teaspoons next to your stove. You've got instant tasting spoons without having to continually dig in the cutlery tray. The long handles make it easy to dip into a pot for a quick taste. You can use mason jars for a million things: dry pantry goods, buttons, paper clips, it is an endless list.

**3** Use a cedar chest or foot locker as a coffee table. They can be rustic or chic, plus they have great storage possibilities. Or you could keep it empty and just stash your clutter inside when company is unexpectedly dropping by.

**4** Use sturdy leftover boxes wrapped in colorful duct tape or gift wrap as storage on shelves. Classic designs can be used for adult spaces; colorful ones for the kiddos. Diaper, baby wipe and certain shoeboxes are incredibly durable.

**5**Empty  96 pound cheese doodle containers from the warehouse store are perfect for the kids tiny blocks and cars. The wide mouth makes it easy for little hands to reach in and the square shape allows it to fit better on a shelf.

**6**If you are getting rid of old furniture, take the drawers out of a dresser and use them to slide under your bed. Perfect for holding shoes and small weights. Casters on the bottom are optional.

**7** The classic clear shoebag over the closet door is still worth mentioning. You will be amazed at how much space is created when used in bathrooms, clothes closets and pantries.

**8** Repurpose furniture into other uses. A long dresser can become a changing table or tv stand. An old wooded ladder can lean against the wall and hold magazines over the rungs. Everything stays neat and tidy and your home looks deliberately stylish.

**9** If you are a true member of the Digital Age, you may no longer need your half-filled photo albums. Try to repurpose them into coupon holders. The same principle applies to three-ring binders. Just fill with sheet protectors and use for recipes, important documents, kids' art work, old momentos, etc.

**10** Look around the kitchen for 'leftovers.' Do you still have the crock from your broken crockpot? Well, now you have a new flower pot. Just make sure you provide proper drainage. Did you find the faux silver tray you purchased for the office party? Go ahead and put it on your bathroom counter for an elegant place to display your pretty soaps and a candle. A little candy dish with the missing lid?  Now it can hold cotton balls or jewelry.

Over the years, I have repurposed all kinds of things and always out of necessity because I'm not inclined to go shopping for one little bitty thing when I can just as easily use what's available. Plus, like a lot of you, I will look at something and wonder 'What can I do with this?'

By getting your home better organized, not only will you eliminate time that gets wasted hunting for lost things, you're also going to uncover some long lost treasures you forgot you even had. That is what I call Win-Win.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Back to School: The Classroom Version

As a parent you've been working steadily to get your little students ready for school. Clothes have been purchased, laundered and put away. School supplies are gathered and is ready for that all important first day. You may have even stocked your kitchen for lunch, snacks and quick meals.

You can now turn your attention to gathering your contributions to the classroom. There is always that one time when you get notified that your little angel has volunteered to bring something to the classroom the very next morning. Do a little preplanning and you will eliminate the headache before it begins.

I've never met a teacher who didn't love cleaning supplies. Many teachers often let you volunteer to send in the same thing in on a regular basis which makes it even easier to stock up. Just notate on your calendar to send the items in on a regular basis. The most popular things  in our schools are large bottles of hand sanitizer, paper towels, baby wipes, cleaning wipes, tissues, and plastic grocery bags (for the wet clothes when the littlest ones have accidents.)

Snacks are also a welcome addition for the classroom, especially during standardized testing, field day and regular events like Movie Friday. Before the school year begins grab some juice boxes, brownie mixes, snack packs and fruit cups. If you prefer homemade, think in terms of  basic baking goods.

Another area to consider is classroom supplies. Budgets are smaller and teachers often have to fill in the gaps themselves. Glue sticks, printer paper, dry erase markers, poster board, pencils, construction paper or tape would be very much appreciated.

By far, my most favorite donations are to the Treasure Box. Every class has one and every kid loves it. Occasionally, I'll send in stickers. glittery pencils, mini bubble wands, tiny cars, bead necklaces, fancy erasers, tiny boxes of crayons/markers, colorful plastic rulers, pencil sharpeners, snack size (non melting) treats such as granola bars or fish crackers, If it's possible I send a few things that are season or holiday appropriate.

If you're unsure of what to send, ask the teacher what she prefers. Remember, you aren't the only one trying to stock the classroom. Other parents are doing the same thing, so you'll only have to send a little every now and again but you will be making a huge impact.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How to Have Luxuries While Being Frugal

Wanting to have luxuries and wanting to be frugal aren't mutually exclusive. You can actually have them both at the same time and all it takes is a little thought combined with some common sense.

One of the most important factors to achieving some balance between the two concepts is the art of prioritizing. Back in the day when I was single living and working a bazillion hours every week, I still managed to pay for cable. It was one of the most expensive things in my budget but I hung on to it for dear life.  I didn't have the financial ability to spend every weekend and Ladies Night at the local night spots and I wasn't spending any money at restaurants. I worked tons of hours so a day off watching a great movie seemed like a little slice of heaven. I pretty much traded some little luxuries I wasn't interested in for the one luxury I did want. The same thing happened with my work clothes. I was required to dress very nicely and I had to look polished. I always had a full closet that made me feel like a million dollars and I barely paid anything.  During my lunch hour, I would look through the nearby stores searching the clearance racks and search  for sales. That patience paid off time and time again.

It also makes sense to make sure the luxuries are simple. If you cannot give up your muffin-latte habit, you don't have to. Just try buying the muffin one day (make your own java) and the latte the next.  I love to crochet and it's important to me because it's very relaxing. Nothing makes me happier than a crisp fall day, a great cup of coffee, and an apple scented candle. Throw in the yarn and I'm so very content. So while it's summer, I'm slowly accumulating some high quality yarn (with half off coupons!) and when the time is right, I'll have what I need for a perfect afternoon.

Sometimes your luxury may require a little delayed gratification. Let's say you want a very chic but insanely expensive piece of electronic equipment. You could go out and buy it right this minute and end up being in a financial pinch for quite some time. Or, you could surf the net looking for sales and competitive prices.  Another option would be to wait a few months until the newest revision is available. Now the one you want is going to be marked down while customers clamor to get the upgrade. If your luxury is travel, consider waiting until off-peak season. You would be surprised how much prices fall if you're willing to wait a month or two. That also gives you a little longer to save up.

It doesn't matter if your luxuries are big or small. A weekend trip is just as important as that delightful French pastry from the corner bakery you want every Saturday afternoon. There is so many ways to get those luxuries while being frugal. It's all about cutting out the spending on things you don't care about in order to spend on what you do care about.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Back to School : The Kids Version

I am refusing to spend the last week of school running around, stressing out or doing anything other than playing, relaxing and having some fun. How is that going to happen? Well, I'm so glad you asked. I'm organizing the kids. Yes, the kids.

I've done quite a lot of back to school preplanning and prep work. The last few things are primarily for the kids' sake which, in turn, directly affects my sanity and stress level.

As their school clothes are purchased, they are washed and put in the closet--no waiting until the last Sunday of the summer. For Little Brother, I'll hang shirt and shorts together, to have a full week's wardrobe at the ready and it will make picking out his clothes so much easier for the both of us.

New shoes are purchased early and they get worn around the house a few times in order to break them in. All it took was for Big Brother to come home the first day of school with blisters and I learned that lesson.

The backpacks are already packed, zipped and ready to go. For Little Brother, this was very simple.  Pencils are sharpened and placed in the pencil box with crayons, scissors and glue sticks. Folders are filled with paper and everything is labelled with his name. The middle schooler requires more supplies but still a very simple process. All binders are prepared with tab folders and plenty of paper. Taking a cue from a wonderful teacher, everything is color coordinated. The red binder gets the red folder, etc. It's so simple, but it really helps in eliminating chaos. Another tip we're trying this year is putting a pencil pouch in every binder. I grew weary of hearing how he had to borrow a pen every other day. Now there is three binders with three pouches filled with pens and sharpened pencils. No matter which class he is in, at least he won't be fumbling and searching for something to write with.

Their work space has been put into order. I've cleaned out all the gum wrappers and stray video games. I've polished their desk and restocked all supplies including sticky notes, staples, paper, markers, and tape. A little organizing will go a long way.

I've come to realize the few days prior to school and the first days of their new schedules cause my kids a certain amount of anxiety. If I can make the transition go a little smoother, they aren't as nerve-wracked. When the last week of summer rolls around, we can take a trip, go out for pizza and movies, or do absolutely nothing at all. We won't be scrambling around at the last minute trying to get everything done. Where is the fun in that?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saving Money at Thrift Stores

Shopping at thrift stores did not come naturally to me. When my husband and I were dating, he loved looking for what I like to call fashion treasures at consignment and thrift stores. He would be so pleased when he found high quality items in great shape for next to nothing. Eww, was all that came to my mind.

My opinion changed after we held our first yard sale. While I was trying to make a few dollars, I observed the shoppers. Who goes out and buys all this used stuff? As I had more yard sales and did more people watching, I learned a few things. These shoppers were young parents trying to give their little ones nice things while staying within their budgets. There were students getting ready for college and elderly people looking for arts and craft supplies. I also saw collectors and independent shop owners. They seemed more like me than I expected, although I don't know what I really expected. The most striking customesr imaginable were the couple that showed up in a very lovely convertible and purchased a few art pieces and an old candy dish. The lady wore the most exquisite emerald ring I'd ever seen based on all the years I sold fine jewelry.

That is when it hit me: Wealthy people have money because they don't spend it all. They make smart financial decisions. Once I figured that out, I was hooked. I, too, could spend less in some areas so I could spend/save/invest  more in others.  I think being so picky from the beginning helped me make better choices when I shopped second hand.
First, I take my time. Thrift store shopping takes longer because there are no returns. You are stuck with what you buy. I look over housewares carefully searching for any damage or missing pieces. I inspect clothing for stains, working zippers, missing buttons, and name brands. I'm not a brand snob, but I recognize certain brands as being more durable or made with higher quality materials. Before I purchase anything, I mentally make a note of what I can wear the item with. Even, if it's a $4 designer blouse, it is no bargain if it won't go with anything already in my closet. Being a label reader also helps you spot the difference between a pretty teacup and a pretty, Royal Dalton teacup.

Second, I buy with a purpose in mind. I never get something with the idea it's such a great deal I can figure out what to do with it later. That wastes time and money and I can't spare either. Recently, I stopped by the thrift store with the idea of getting a vase. They always have zillions of flower shop-style vases and not all of them are the generic clear ones. I found a cranberry frosted one with very simple, clean lines. Overflowing with grocery store flowers and a free, on-trend ribbon I already had at home tied around the middle made a lovely get well gift. My friend actually asked which florist I used. Score! A gift that looked like it cost $24.99 that really only cost $7. You have to love that!  You should always keep your eyes open for opportune purchases but that should never be your priority.

I also shop with the intent of repurposing an item. I recently found a thin, vertical shelf. I'm not exactly sure what its original use was, However, with some new paint and hanging in my closet, it is my new, space friendly nail polish rack.  That pretty teacup, Royal Dalton or otherwise, could be turned into a scented candle for a hostess gift.  If my intention is to find a soap dish for the bathroom,  you can bet I'll be giving a glancing at all the housewares: shallow candy dishes, single cup saucers, you get the idea. Imagination goes a long way in these kinds of stores.

It's important to know I don't do all my shopping at the thrift store. I still purchase things at other places and I love doing a little online purchasing, too. However, second hand shopping helps me fill in my creative gaps and keep my budget under control. That always comes in handy when I have a ton of neighbors that I want to give a little something to at Christmas. A bargain holiday cookie plate with some homemade snickerdoodles  wrapped in pretty celophane and a darling bow will put a smile on a neighbor's face. I like to think of those purchases as 'embellishments.' The treats are the gift, the container is the embellishment. The recipient ends up getting two gifts and that's never a bad thing.

I am so glad my husband taught me how to treasure hunt. I rarely buy anything but when I do, it's a great deal on a great item. Following these tips keeps me within my budget and without a load of junk I've carted home just because it was cheap. It also feels pretty good to look around and realize I've made some positive additions to my home and wardrobe (and to a friend) for very little impact on my wallet.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How to Have a Vacation on a Budget

We all need a vacation but none of us want the bill that comes with it. Is it possible to have an enjoyable vacation without putting it on a credit card or paying an arm and a leg? It's definitely possible as long as you are creative and think outside the box. Like all great vacations, a little preplanning goes a long way.

The first step is to assess what you really want to achieve with your vacation. Most of us would conclude that getting a break and making memories are a priority. A cruise or a trip to a gigantic theme park would be fantastic, to be sure. If that doesn't fit your budget, that's okay. There are lots of options out there.

Let's see, you need a break but it needs to be close to home so that you save on travel expenses like gas and eating out. Have you considered state parks, theme parks closer to home or a simple overnight trip to a nearby destination? One of the most fun times we ever had was a vacation to a local lake.  I'm
not sure a three day trip to stay in a cabin at a lake is classified as a vacation by some people, but we had a blast and it was inexpensive. The trip was less than thirty miles away from home but it felt like a whole lot more. Our only expenses were the cabin rental and the food we took, most of which was just taken from our own kitchen.  Hiking--or Exploring--as the Little Brother called it, playing on the beach, paddle boat rides, gathering wood for a fire (make that an accidental bonfire), making S'mores and eating outside were a blast. All of it was just ordinary fun, but it seemed exciting and extraordinary. Eating late, searching for constellations among the zillion or so stars not usually seen due to light pollution added to the memories. Sometimes even a day trip will work. My youngest relates to things in a great way. The last thing that happens is the thing that gets the most attention. I think a lot of us are that way. If we take a day trip to the beach,  play all day, picnic and then stop for ice cream on the way home, I guarantee he will tell his teacher that his vacation was awesome.  If you're going to a local theme park be sure to  eat and hydrate before you go to lessen your cravings for the more expensive fare. Be sure to budget for some sweet treats or a souvenier because you're there to have fun, not stick your nose to the windowpane and wish.

What if you want to go out of town? Consider off season travel. Our best times are never summer vacations. We had a blast going to a coastal town in fall while it was still warm and to an Aquarium during Christmas Break.  It may be easier to get your vacation time scheduled during the off season since most employees prefer the traditional summer break. Destination places will be busy but less crowded, prices may be a little lower because it's off season and you are less likely to feel rushed. Win-win. If you have kids, consider travelling during fall break, teacher work days, long weekends and part of your holiday vacations. You can pack a lot of fun in three or four days.

Look for as many Vacation Values as you can. We always stay in a business class hotel for this very reason. They are super clean, have breakfast bars (saving time and money), amenities like pools, posh lobbies  and fitness areas. Also be sure to stop by the hotel desk. This spring we went to a theme park about two hours from home and stayed overnight. The hotel was offering open-ended tickes to the same place for a very good price. Although, we already had ours we purchased more for a return visit. Our kids think we are rock stars. Hotels often have coupons for restaurants or City Passes that can be purchased once and used at multiple venues. Here's a surprise Vacation Value: Our local grocery store is offering a $50 gas gift card for $40. Sure it is only $10 but I'd rather have it in our pocket than someone elses. If you're travelling by car, stock up on water bottles and non messy snacks. No one wants melted chocolate in the back seat. Our kids appreciate the little things so we will make at least one stop at a convenience store for gum, chips,etc. Just once won't break the bank.

Figure out your spending plan and determine what you can afford. Great memories will be made no matter what you do or where you go. The extra bonus will be knowing you had a lot of fun and the bills won't be facing you when you open the mailbox. Instead of Keeping Up with the Jones, try Keeping Up with the Budget. I guarantee no one will ever look back and say, "Well the campfire would have been more fun if we'd paid more for it."

How I Really Save at the Grocery Store

It's true that I use coupons, watch for sales and stock up. I do this to help me save as much as I can, but there are other tricks of the trade I use that really are the key to keeping my grocery store shopping as low as possible.

**1** Nothing Goes to Waste. This is one of the most important things to our budget. We literally don't throw away any food. That bit of mustard gets added to a few ingredients so that we have salad dressing. When there's not enough corn flakes to make breakfast, we crush them as fine as bread crumbs and save until later use. Conditioner that we don't like gets used for shaving gel and we squeezee the last dot of toothpaste out of the tube. Liquid soap and hand sanitizer gets smacked out of the bottle. You aren't being a Scrooge; you're stretching your budget as far as it can go and you're environmentally friendly, too. Here's a tip: If you can change the look/feel of the leftovers you and your family will be more likely to eat them. Roast can be turned into open faced sandwiches  two days later with sauteed onion, a little cheese and  homemade (and easy) sweet potato chips. Leftover pasta sauce and meatballs make wonderful subs and all you need to add is some fruit or homemade baked fries or chips.

**2** Do Not Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Who thought up that one? I think it's a plot to get us all to use more of a product, which means we have to buy more. Very good for the manufacturer, not very good for my budget. There are many times when you will need the exact amount of a product (certain ingredients in recipes) but there are other times when you can use a little trial and error to see what's really needed. Case in point: I found out that if I reduced the sugar added to those powedered drink mixes, it tasted exactly the same and I ended up buying a whole lot less sugar. Same thing with shampoo and certain cleaning products. And never lather, rinse, repeat.

**3** There is no Mindless/Spontaneous Shopping. I'm not referring to finding a great deal on applesauce cups that can be used in lunch boxes. I'm referring to running into the store for a gallon of milk, then asking myself, "I wonder what else I can find." Notice I said 'find,' not 'need.' That one distinction can be a budget buster. I'm also referring to when you are on your way to the dry cleaners and stop in next door at the organic store to window shop. You're going to end up leaving that place with a five pound bag of Honduran Almonds that only set you back $24.99 and in my universe, that same amount would make lunches for all four of us for a week.  I have no idea if there is such a thing as Honduran Almonds but I do know mindless shopping is a big money drain. And it's a time suck as well. Let me add, if I do find a good value on something, I will get it. That's not the same as aimlessly wandering around looking for unnecessary stuff.

**4** Backtracking is a Bad Thing. If I forget to pick up an ingredient, I won't be going back to get it. I'll find a substitute or postpone that meal until I can get whatever is missing. Retracing your steps costs, time, gas and more money if I add more items to the cart than the original forgotten item.

**5** There is a Reason Junk Food is Called 'Junk.'  I confess that it's not just the kids who like junk food. I like a good candy bar or chips and dip myself.  I also know it isn't good for us and we don't make a habit of eating tons of it. It's as bad for my budget as it is for my health. If you have kids you may find that they balk at the absence of all that salty, fatty, expensive goodness. Guess what? Not only do they adapt, but if they are truly hungry, they will eat what's available. Did you know a bag of apples is less expensive than a large bag of name brand chips? I can do more with apples, too. If that isn't your favorite fruit, then look around, scan the grocery ad and see what else can be substituted for those Munchable, pseudo lunch-style snacks the kids love gobbling up.It doesn't have to be fruit, but find a way to back off the budget busting junk food.

My family consists of a newly minted teenager, a little one in elementary school, a husband who is a hearty eater, me and two pets.  They are all bottomless pit, eating machines. I have to feed them and I can't go broke doing it.  I use these time and again and if I ever get off track (and I do sometimes) all it takes it one look at the total on the bottom of the receipt to remind me these tips really work.

What is your most effective savings tools at the grocery store?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Back to School: Organizing Your Space

My organizational philosophy is very simple: In order to keep ahead of everything, don't let things pile up. It's fairly easy to apply to my family's day-to-day living. When I leave a room, I make sure to grab something and take it back to it's rightful place. I clean as I go,  I try not to leave things until 'later.'  It's the the one thing I do that helps keep us on track. Now, having said that, I have to admit real life gets in the way and sometimes when I look up to take a breath, I see disaster zones lurking in every corner. There is no need to flip out or worry. I tackle it a little at a time. Your situation may be different but the same steps will help you get your spaces back-to-school ready.

The three offending areas that will directly affect by kids (and me!) when school begins are their room, the car and kitchen.  So, these are the spaces I need to work on and I want to do it without the fuss of an all out production. Here's how I do that.

My boys share a room and because there is more than a five year age difference, it is challenging to make it work for them both. Luckily, they get along beautifully so it isn't that difficult but I still have to put a lot of thought into it. First, I took a trash bag and threw out everything useless: dried out markers, old toys from fast food places, ancient papers, broken toys, etc. Anything that could be donated was set aside in a box. This included clothes, shoes, books, toys no one played with and old movies or electronic games. The exception was anything that I felt we could repurpose (within reason) or could sell at a yard sale. Their bookcase is a 7 feet tall, five feet wide behemoth; Big Brother gets the top half and Little Brother gets the bottom half. After removing everything from it, I polished it and replaced only what would be needed currently. Even the Art Box got a once over and the old Sesame Street coloring books have gone on to their just reward. More space! Love it!  I quickly cleaned under the beds (it helps to keep very little under there but I did find two mismatched socks and a sweater.)  Next, I took care of the desk, which had somehow become the holding facility for some gum wrappers and a ton of broken crayons. Um, no.  The only thing really left was the basics I would be doing anyway like dusting and vacuuming. It didn't take all that long especially because I am a firm believer in moving quickly and not getting distracted.

Like all parents, my car is the rolling office, medical facility and kid zone all rolled into one. I have a morbid fear of car trouble, so the oil has been changed. Just before school begins, I'll get a full tank of gas. The car gets cleaned out--which doesn't mean I did the total car wash and wax--and it will get stocked with travel tissues and a few prepackaged wet wipes in the glove box. I'll put a few dollars in there also for those days when someone for gets to pay for Popcorn Friday and a spare set of drumsticks get placed under a seat. I'll make sure my phone charger is in the car and it will be all set.

The kitchen is the hub of all activity in my home. If it ever gets out of whack, we are all in big trouble. It's got to help me zoom through the morning routine and it's got to be smooth sailing through what I like to call 'The Witching Hour" --that awful time between coming home from school and putting the evening meal on the table. That's the time when kids are grabbing snacks, lunch boxes are emptied, the meal gets started and homework begins. I don't want it to feel like a pressure cooker. They're tired, we're tired and I don't want to make it worse. I do a ton of simple things like stocking up on snacks, sort through storage containers making sure everything has a lid, and if needed rearranging things so everything is user friendly. If the kids can reach their own snacks, then I don't have to do it. Win-Win. If there's time, I'll put together a few meals in the freezer for those days I'm stretched beyond all reason. I try hard to make sure that I clean the kitchen after the meal because I don't want to face it tomorrow morning. No, I don't like doing this part, but it's better than waking up to a mess you've got to clean up.

Figure out your hot spots and work methodically to get them organized right now. It's going to bring a sense of cohesion to your home and helps you give your family a sense of calm.

How do you get your family back into the swing of things?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Survive Back to School Madness

In the area of the country where we live, school will be starting in three weeks. As in a split second. Time has flown and I want no part of schedules, bedtimes, homework, projects and the like. I want to grab my boys and run like crazy to the Land of Fun but, alas, it is coming so I might as well just get ready.  Here's what I've done so far and also what's remaining on the To Do list.

**I Started at Home** I looked through all my supplies before making the first purchase. There's no point buying what I don't need. I did the same thing with the clothes, sorting as I went. Stained items became rags and the ones that didn't fit were boxed up for the next trip to Goodwill. The exception was anything Big Brother could pass down to Little Brother. I only save classic items I truly feel will be used in the future. Trendy things go to Goodwill so they can be used while they're still in style.

**I Started Early** The school district sent supply lists with report cards as well as posted them on their websites. Little by little, I purchased the majority of what was required. Let me add that I didn't make any special trips to the store; just an item here and there everytime I happened to be out. I also didn't wait for any sales. Sure, I could wait until the week before school starts to get everything for mere pennies, and money is important, but I just don't want to spend the last week of summer rushing around in the heat and crowds, stressing over a free-with-purchase box of crayons. Now, having said that, if (and it's a big if) the sales are good enough I might go out and buy extras, but at least it will be an option not a requirement.

**I Bought Extras** I also picked up things that weren't on the list but I know will come in handy. These included poster board, sticky notes, printer paper, ink cartridges and basic items for elementary school projects (craft sticks, construction paper, pompons, googly eyes, etc.)

**Few Clothes Are Purchased** I know a lot of parents who are dropping a few Benjamins on each child's wardrobe. It just isn't practical or financially wise to buy an entire wardrobe when it isn't needed. I have been purchasing warm weather gear for pennies on the dollar thanks to clearance sales, online coupon codes, free shipping, etc. I will get a couple of items for cooler weather 'just in case' simply because I like to be prepared.

**The Meals Get Prepped Early Too** I've got about two or three grocery visits before school starts and that means I can get a few extras during each trip. Everything from juice boxes, sandwich bags, snacks (anything nonperishable) will get set aside in the closet hidden away from little eyes. I'll also be on the lookout for items that will make a few quick meals for those first hectic days. This might include new/old favorite recipes for crock pot meals, frozen meals I've prepared (it's as easy to make spaghetti sauce for two meals as it is for one).

**I Start Getting Back Up Plans In Order** Somebody always forgets something and then it's Mama who has to hear about it and go home to retrieve the missing item. My coping mechanism is simple and based on the age of the poor victim. The younger they are, the more lenient I am but having said that, I still have limits. I'll go back and get the lunch box a few times but after that they will just have to eat the school lunch (there's always at least one thing on the menu they can tolerate). I just make sure there is always lunch money on their school accounts. Extra pens and pencils are in the car's console and I even have a pair of drumsticks under the car seat for the middle schooler who forgets them on a regular basis. Anything I can do to plan ahead and keep myself sane also keeps my family sane.

**'The Schedules Start Falling Into Place** The days will gradually become more routine as we get closer to the schools' start date. I'll transition them toward earlier bedtimes with movies instead of video games. The baths will happen a little earlier and I'll wake them up a few minutes earlier than the day before. Once I waited until the last day of summer to get them to bed on time. Epic fail. Won't make that mistake again.

**Know Your Child's Weak Spot** Big Brother hates shoe shopping. He would rather chew off his arm than buy shoes. That is why his get purchased now. If we look and can't find his size, he won't get frustrated because I can calmly say "We still have time, don't worry." It takes the edge off  his anxiety and mine as well. Little Brother has to participate in the changes in order to accept them. We make an effort to let him feel like he's part of the decision making. Simple options like choosing bathtime before or after the movie, the red backpack or the blue one and what to wear tomorrow gives him the feeling of control and he's more willing to accept the change.

I rely on these steps to keep these last days peaceful for all our sakes. Summer is such a great time for a family; there's no reason it can't end as pleasantly as it began.

These easy steps help me get ahead (and stay ahead) and make these last few days of summer vacation so much for fun and enjoyable.