Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Homemade Household Cleaners: Homemade Laundry Detergent

In our quest to continue to find more ways to cut back, we have been experimenting with homemade household cleaners.  Since the spray cleaner was such a success, we decided to go ahead with laundry detergent next (plus, conveniently, that’s what we were scheduled to run out of next). 

I prefer liquid laundry detergent (it just seems like powders don’t rinse clean), so I looked around until I found a recipe I liked. 

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Fels-Naphtha – this is a bar of soap that can be found in the laundry section of your grocery store.  Apparently you can use Ivory soap as well, but we went with the Fels-Naphtha since everything I was reading recommended this.  At Fred Meyer, it cost about $1.50.
  • Arm & Hammer washing soda – Take note:  not baking soda, washing soda.  This was right next to the Fels-Naphtha at Fred Meyer.  The cost was about $3.50.
  • Borax – We already had a box on hand from the spray cleaner experiment.  How convenient!  But, also found in the laundry section.  This was about $3.00 when I bought it.

1.  Cut off 1/6 of the Fels-Naphtha bar.  Although most instructions tell you to grate it, it's actually really crumbly.  You can actually just chop it up with a knife the way you would baking chocolate.

The crumbled Fels-Naphtha

2.  Dump the chopped Fels-Naphtha into a large saucepan.  Add 3 cups of hot water.  Heat gently until the soap melts.  This took a little while for us.  Also, be careful how much you stir it, since it gets foamy.

1/4 cup washing soda

3.  Once the soap is melted, add ¼ cup washing soda and ¼ cup Borax.  Stir gently until completely dissolved.
1/4 cup Borax

4.  At this point we were ready to transfer the mixture to our big stainless steel mixing bowl.  First, we dumped 2 cups hot water into the mixing bowl, then gently poured in the soap mixture and stirred a bit to mix.

The melted soap combined with water, washing soda and Borax.

5.  We added another 11 cups of hot water.

At this point, the mixture needed to “set.”  We put it aside to cool.  Our whole kitchen smelled really soapy.
After letting it set for a few hours, we checked back on it.  It was congealing all right!  Using a funnel, we poured it into the detergent bottle we kept for the occasion.  Reduce, reuse, recycle!  This part was kind of tricky.  It definitely took both of us.  The consistency was rather uneven and gloppy, but apparently that’s pretty normal.  The important part, after all, isn’t what it looks like, but what it cleans like. 
Mmmmm, yummy!

This stuff is supposed to work out to ½ cup per load of laundry.  We decided to really put it to the test.  We had Elias bring a blanket from his bed that was in definite need of washing and ran it through with the new soap.

When it came out of the dryer, it smelled fresh and clean!  Victory!  Hopefully it doesn’t gel too much as it sits longer.  We’ll see how it goes and I’ll update you as needed.  The best part?  The cost of this stuff works out to about a penny per load.  Try to beat that at the grocery store.

Let’s see, what can I make next?  What else have you guys tried that’s been successful?

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Opposite of "Extreme Couponing"

I am both fascinated and repulsed by the concept of extreme couponing.  On the one hand, IT'S FREE STUFF.  On the other hand... it's free stuff I generally don't really need.  While the idea of getting $600 worth of groceries is appealing, how many bottles of barbecue sauce does one really need?

If you've ever watched the show Extreme Couponing on TLC, you know what I'm talking about.  These people proudly walk through their homes displaying their wares as if they were the crown jewels.  Toilet paper is stuffed under their kids' beds.  Closets are converted to storage areas for Chef Boyardee.  Basements hold practically an entire supermarket's worth of canned goods and toothpaste.

They brag about how many hours they spend clipping and organizing their coupons; it's essentially their full-time job.  The whole family, kids included, is gathered around the table setting up coupons for mom (or occasionally dad) to cut with industrial-sized paper cutters.  I remember one woman, who I thought was particularly sad.  She made a big deal out of how dressed up she got every time she went shopping, because she didn't want people to think she was poor or that she needed to use all those coupons.  She then did her hours-long shopping trip in knee-high stiletto boots and full makeup.  I don't know about anyone else, but I generally don't give a second thought to anyone I see in the grocery store (although I do occasionally wonder about those who shop in their pajamas...).

I have better things to do with my time then spend it cutting and organizing coupons, planning out shopping trips and searching for deals.  When I get deals at the grocery store, I want it to be on healthy foods my family can eat.  Have you ever noticed that coupons are always on processed stuff?  How often do you see a coupon for fresh fruit and vegetables?

I do like coupons for household products.  But since I'm now making my own cleaners (and I'm having a crack at making laundry detergent tomorrow -- I'll let you know how it goes!), that's one more area I really don't need coupons (unless I can score one on Borax).

I do still clip coupons.  But here's my couponing technique:

  • I only clip coupons for stuff I will actually use.  You shouldn't feel obligated to buy a product you wouldn't otherwise purchase.
  • I only clip coupons that come to me.  I don't spend a lot of time scouring the internet.  I get inserts every Wednesday in the mail and I go through those.  I clip coupons in magazines I have.  I use the store coupons in the weekly flyer and that print out at the checkout.
  • If a coupon expires, I throw it away.  I don't buy a product just to keep the coupon from expiring.
  • Even with a coupon, I still check to see if the store brand is cheaper.  With a really good coupon, sometimes the brand name will be cheaper, but that's not a guarantee.
  • I use coupons for the following products:  soap, shampoo, conditioner, toilet paper, paper towels, night pants, frozen vegetables, cheese, canned vegetables, pasta and cereal.  I check the weekly ads for items that match my coupons.  I have caught some good stock-up moments that way.  I was recently able to snag two bottles of name-brand body wash for 50 cents each.  That's about as extreme as I get.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Saving Money on Holiday Shopping, or Is It Really That Time of Year Again???

Making my list and checking it twice.
Image by Sicha Pongjivanich

Holiday shopping.  I don’t know about you, but those words strike fear into my heart.  We can barely make the bills as it is, and now we have to fit even more into our overstretched budget?  While I would love to say “The heck with it!  Everyone is just getting homemade gifts this year!”  the reality is that that option would never fly.

I have an 11-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.  They aren’t going to be happy with handmade doodads or coupons for hugs.  The older one has already amassed his list for the year and, as usual, it’s pretty heavy on the electronics.  The younger one isn’t quite as picky, but she still knows her mind and knows what she likes.

Here’s the good news though.  There’s still ways to keep from taking such a heavy hit.  Here’s some of the strategies we’re going to be using this year to keep from getting evicted the day after Christmas:

  1. Starting early.  Since summer we’ve had our eyes open for gifts for the kids.  We started talking about it with the family a while ago too, so they know what to look for.  I’ve already picked up a game for the oldest that was part of a buy two get one free deal, and I have a Hello Kitty playset stashed in the closet for my daughter.
  2. Buy used.  The kids couldn’t care less.  Fortunately, most of my family who I am buying for doesn’t either (or if they do, they don’t say anything because they know we have a limited budget).  Places like Gamestop and Half-Price Books are great if video games and books are on your list.  Used clothing from a quality consignment shop can go a long way (my daughter will be getting clothes from here). 
  3. Shop online.  While this might initially seem more expensive since you have to pay shipping, it actually saves us quite a bit.  We can comparison shop and get good deals, and Amazon usually suggests used options for cheaper that can still be purchased through their site.  Plus, if you are doing most of your shopping at once, shipping is likely to be waived.  For me, the best part of shopping online is that I know exactly what I want to buy and I’m not swayed to buy more when I see the stuff on the shelves.
  4.  Pick little items up here and there.  For the next few shopping trips between now and Christmas, we’ll be picking up small items and stocking stuffers on our regular grocery runs.  Some great inexpensive stocking stuffers that kids love include coloring books, crayons, and candies.  My daughter loves to have her nails painted so I’m going to stick a couple of inexpensive nail polishes in her stocking.
  5. Know when to say when.  It’s easy to get caught up in the spirit of the season.  Everyone has all sorts of neat knick-knacks out and goofy little doodads, and I already catch myself seeing random items and saying “Oh, that would be perfect for so-and-so!”  But once the shopping is done, it’s DONE.  Don’t let yourself get caught up in the whole “Just one more” game.  Retailers are counting on this and you will quickly blow your budget.

Make a plan, make a budget, and stick to it.  We’ll get through this, I swear!

This Father's Path...a Work In Progress

Photo courtesy of Healingdream

I was brought up with the age-old mentality that the husband/father should provide for his family.  Not that the woman should stay at home, but that the husband’s job should be able to handle the load as life sent challenges at you.  My grandfather owned a dealership and always worked very hard, and he also taught me the importance of the integrity of your work, while at the same time making sure family came first.  My father also worked very hard and also instilled that work ethic in me, but the down side is that he was always gone.  I know he worked hard, but I also know his addictions took over.  More on that later… 

All of these challenges we have been facing place a lot of pressure on me, even though I may not be as vocal about it.  Some of it is the feeling that I should be able to make enough to provide for my family but, frankly, I don’t.   

When Amee had to leave her full-time position, I was incredibly stressed out.  Yes, she was going to be writing while she was at home, but I was worried about her stress level, and I felt horrible that being home with the kids full-time and being expected to work on her writing at the same time would completely overload her.  Once again, I felt like I was failing as a husband/father/provider because I couldn’t make enough in the current economy to provide for my family.  I am working on those feelings pretty much on a daily basis.    I am working as much as I can and helping as much as I can at home when I am not at work trying to take some of the load off of Amee. 

Part of the issue I have is that I am terrified I will end up making some of the mistakes my father made.  I am, after all, My Father’s Son.  I know the logic about being the man you want to be and such, but the worry is still there.  My father let his addiction with alcohol take over, and while he was recovering, he somehow thought the best solution to his problems was to bail.  He literally left one day while my mother and I were at work.  He hadn’t told us that at the time he had left, the house was three days from foreclosure, my mother’s retirement was gone, and the bills were incredibly overdue.  

Many years later, I thought maybe things were turning around with him as we tried to rebuild that relationship, but there was a selfishness still there that manifests even to this day in the fact that he doesn’t even call his grandkids on their birthdays anymore.  I am not sure if this is apathy or what but it really doesn’t matter.   How does this relate to me?  Well, I have noticed some shit I do is kind of similar, and that worries me. 

I get very “fixated” on stuff.  Be it a video game, a topic, or whatever.  It is almost obsessive.  For instance, I think about something like our TV failing and I will start researching TVs.  Now most people will do this and call it good, but I will always be looking at which ones are best, cheapest, or whatever.  The real issue with this is that I sometimes put off paying what I need to pay to fill the want.  Not that I am going to buy a new TV when rent is due, but I might see a DVD or whatever and tell myself, “Well, it is only 20 bucks.  We can swing that…”  That is where my issue is.  I struggle with it almost daily.  As a joke, a friend of mine would list this problem in terms of his music equipment…”G.A.S.”  or Gear Acquisition Syndrome.   

Looking at my history, I was always very giving to almost a fault.  Each relationship I was in, I would be left in deeper debt when it ended.  Now, as a father, I want to provide the best stuff for my kids and I loved the look on Amee’s face when I could give her something sparkly.  I obviously am not in the position to do that anymore, but I focus on trying to make sure we have the essentials and that the kids have good holidays. 

That is why I am taking a page from my grandfather’s book.  I am trying to not worry so much about the money one way or another and I am trying to be a better father.  I want to show my family just how much I care.  Be it playing Halo with Elias and getting fragged over and over, or snuggling with Maddie and watching a movie, I want to give the kids memories.  Yeah, stuff is cool and I DO love technology, but I am trying to stay focused on my family and providing the best I can.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

We hope that all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving and enjoy the time with your family.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is It Time for DIY Vehicle Maintenance?

Photo courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net

Everyone knows that going to get your car serviced can be a scary proposition.  For me, even oil changes are a stressful stop on the “honey do” list.  I have a degree in Network Administration and work in IT for a living -- I can set up and deploy servers that give hundreds of people access to resources, but you get me under the hood of a car and I am clueless!

We recently went to get our oil changed at the local Jiffy Lube that we have visited many times.   We pulled right in and they took our info.  About five minutes later, the mechanic called me over to the PC to run me through what they were going to do.  Now, not knowing cars, I trusted this guy because we have always seemed to get honest service from them.  

He talks to me about high mileage oil (we have about 150,000 miles on the car), and then he tells me my rear brake light is out.  They wanted $12.99 to replace it, but I figured I should be able to swap out a light bulb, so I declined.  I did, however, take the more expensive oil.  We are in and out in like 10 minutes.  

Part of the service package had to do with checking fluid levels.  Well, they didn’t come up with anything, but they topped off the fluids.    So I figured we were good to go.  We planned on dropping by an auto parts store to get a brake light, so I could swap it at home.  On a whim, I checked the back of the car and had Amee hit the brakes and turn signals… Everything looked good.  Were they lying about the light?  I figured I would just drop it and call it good. 

Then we had a headlight fail. No big deal, I have done these before.  So we purchased a headlight and I set up to change it.  As a side note, Amee had been telling me for about a week that the heater in the car had been really slow to kick in.  I figured it was the cold weather and the engine taking longer to warm up.  

Well, I found the cause of the heater issue by accident.  I was under the hood, working on replacing the headlight, when I found a hose and cap that weren’t attached and were just hanging off the radiator.  I wasn’t sure what it was but there was a reservoir wide open so I connected the cap and tube to it.  Now, as a disclaimer… I would NOT recommend just connecting stuff on a car if you aren’t familiar with it, but this was a pretty obvious one.  After letting the car run for a couple of minutes, the heater kicked in as it used to. 

So I am looking at two things….
  1.  I am losing trust in a place I thought would be honest. Whether this was due to a couple of bad employees or the all-mighty dollar, I know that if I had blindly allowed them to do the brake light replacement, I would be out money we need for other things.  And that I was lucky the open reservoir didn’t do bigger damage to our car.
  2. I need to get to work learning about my vehicle so I can do some of the basic maintenance on it. 

Well, I have found that they make a manual for our car.  The cool thing is, I am fortunate enough to have friends and relatives who are vehicle savvy so they can also help me as I learn this stuff.  I am hoping by the middle of next year to get some of the basics down like:
  • Oil changes
  • Tune-ups
  • Fluid level checks

I know there is a lot more to do as well, but I will start with those.  I know that I can get the supplies cheaper at the auto parts store than buying them through a mechanic.  What are your thoughts? 

Is a Good Deal Worth the Added Stress?

To what lengths would you go to score a great deal?
Photo by digitalart

With Thanksgiving nearly here, you know what’s coming next:  Black Friday. It’s practically a holiday in its own right.  When I was working at the hospital, the day after Thanksgiving was a paid holiday.  But what a strange juxtaposition, when you stop and think about it.  A holiday of giving thanks for all that we have, immediately followed by a holiday in which we desperately try to get more. 

While the original intent of the first shopping day following Thanksgiving was to help people get a head start on shopping for gifts for friends and family, it has devolved into a mad scramble to get the very best deals on stuff for ourselves.  Seriously, you really think anyone is going to give away that Blu-Ray player or TV they just scored a mad deal on?  

While I would normally be all over a good deal, I make a point of staying home on Black Friday.  Part of it is to make my own statement, and part of it is to avoid becoming part of the problem.  Good deals are great, but not when they come with the stress and craziness that is often attached to Black Friday sales.  Everyone knows the horror stories.  People being trampled in the mad crush to get that incredible deal and getting killed for their desire to save a few bucks.  Why do we do this?

Last night Gavin was telling me about a co-worker of his who was heading down to Best Buy right after his shift (on Tuesday, mind you) because he wanted to get the deal on the $200 42-inch TV.   Okay, granted, that’s an awesome deal.  But really?  He’s going to camp out for two days and miss Thanksgiving for it.  He’ll probably save about $400, but at what true cost?  He’ll need to eat for those two days, so I assume he’s going to be spending money on fast food.  He’s going to be cold and wet, it’s a typical Seattle Thanksgiving, after all.  And isn’t his time itself worth money? 

This opens up the question:  How far are you willing to go for a good deal?  I’ve detailed my efforts to make my own cleaners and broth, and I’m going to be incorporating more of these “DIY” efforts as we go.  I clip coupons (I’ll be talking about that later), but not to the point where it takes over my life.  I watch for sales, but I’m not going to drive to four different stores to get my shopping done.  And you’re never going to catch me camping out for two days to pay money for an item that, let’s face it, I don’t actually need.

Would I like a new TV?  You bet I would.  The color is going out on the old one and games designed for HD look distorted on it.  But for the time being, it’s perfectly serviceable.  The kids are happily watching Go, Diego, Go even now and I haven’t heard any complaints from them.  Well, except that the older one would rather watch Astro Boy, but that’s a whole other issue.

So what about you?  Are you hitting any Black Friday or Cyber Monday deals?  Are they for you or for gifts?  Are they for items you need or items you want?

When Thankfulness Doesn’t Come Easily

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone.
Image by David Castillo Dominici

Sometimes it’s hard to find something to be thankful for.  The basics are easy – I’m thankful for my family and my friends.  But then I start getting nit-picky.  I’m thankful for my family, but it would be nice if my son didn’t have so many challenges.  I’m thankful for my friends, but I’m frustrated that I don’t get to see them as often as I would like.  I’m thankful that I have a roof over my head, but I don’t like where we live…  I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

It seems like for every good thing in my life, there’s something that could be done to make it “better.”  As you might imagine, thinking like this sets us up for failure and depression. While I don’t completely subscribe to the “Law of Attraction” theory, I do think that focusing on the negative constantly sets me up to only find the negative in everything.

I’ve been participating in the “thankful” game on Facebook this month, naming something I am thankful for every day in November.  The first week was easy:  family, friends and so forth.  But then I ran out of the big ones and had to really start thinking about it.  With so much going wrong in my life, could I really find 30 things to be thankful for?  It seemed like a tall order. 

I noticed that some of my friends popped up with their posts first thing in the morning, every morning.  “Luckies,” I sulked.  “Sure they have lots to be thankful for.”  I had to work at this.  But we’re almost to Thanksgiving now, and I’ve managed to come up with something every day.  Sure, sometimes it gets posted right before I go to bed, but it’s there.  I’ve also had to resist the temptation to show gratitude tempered by snark, for example “I’m grateful to have a car, but I wish the stupid heater would work.”  Instead, despite my crabbiness, I simply say “I’m thankful for a car that runs and gets us from point a to point b.” 

I think one of the keys to getting us through this tricky time is going to be remembering what’s important and how much we already have – regardless of whether we think it could be in better condition or not.

What are you especially thankful for this year?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Taking a Look at the Financial Peace Planner

The Financial Peace Planner: A Step-by-Step Guide to Restoring Your Family's Financial Health

Reader Rachel left a kind comment on our very first post detailing our slide to the bottom.  In it, she recommended Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.  “Aha!”  I thought to myself.  “I think I actually have a Dave Ramsey book floating around here somewhere.”

You should know this about me:  I’m an avid reader of both fiction and nonfiction.  I’ve read my way through many of the authorities on the subject of personal finance and budgeting.  Suze Orman, Mary Hunt, Joe Dominguez… I’ve read ‘em.  And I’ve tried working their programs as well.  Unfortunately, I always lose focus before I can really get anywhere.  It seems like the first step is always to build up a buffer in a savings account.   We’ll get to about $150 and something goes hideously wrong and “poof!” there goes the savings. 

No matter the system, I can find a reason why it won’t work for me.  Same thing goes with diets.  Hmmm.  Might have to think about this correlation a bit! 

Anyway, I did a little poking around and found my copy of The Financial Peace Planner.  Okay, it technically isn’t my copy, it’s actually my mom’s, but she loaned it to me quite some time ago.  I borrowed it with good intentions, but then set the book down and left it to gather dust.  I wasn’t ready.

I dug out the book, brushed off the dust and read the first chapter.  We’re going to give it a go, and we’ll post our progress here.  The Christian perspective of the book is somewhat distracting, but I can probably work it into our own worldview.  I’ve found that a few of the money management books I’ve read have a decided Christian slant on this.  I imagine it has something to do with the way we feel so out-of-control when our money situation is so crazy.  I’m thinking there might be a blog post in that.

One my “homework assignments” this week was to create a list of my fears about money. Here's my list:

  • We will lose the apartment.
  • I won’t be able to pay for my son’s treatment.
  • Gavin will lose his job and we will be destitute.
  • No one will want to pay money for my writing and we will sink further into the hole.
  • I won't be able to feed my kids.

One of the other assignments was to find a “financial buddy.”  Anyone want to sign up for that position?

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Great Chicken Broth Experiment

Make your own chicken broth!  Now!
Photo by winnond

Making my own chicken broth is another one of those “la-di-da if only I had the time” prospects (kind of like making my own cleaners).  I always thought of it as something that took all day, was messy, and kind of pointless.  After all, I would tell myself, I can get 4 cups of store brand chicken broth for about 2 bucks.  What’s the difference, right? 

After we made our roast chicken the other day, we hung on to the carcass.  Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that stuff.  At our trip to the store, we picked up carrots and celery, spending about a buck. 

When we got home we got out the big blue stockpot (I suppose there’s an irony in calling it that, since this was the first time it would ever actually be used for that purpose).   Into the pot went the chicken carcass, followed by a palmful of peppercorns, a quartered onion, 3 roughly chopped carrots and 3 celery stalks broken into quarters.  We ran cold water into the pot until the whole thing was covered and then threw in a little bit of kosher salt. 

We got the pot boiling and then brought it back to a simmer.  Soon after, the whole apartment filled with a fantastic smell.  Remember the herbs that Gav rubbed on the chicken when we roasted it?  There were still some sticking to the carcass and they floated into the broth, adding to the aroma.   We checked on it periodically, skimming off the foam.

We let it cook for about four hours, then poured it through a strainer.  Wow.  The broth was golden and rich.  We each took a taste and let me tell you this – I am never buying chicken broth from the store again.  This broth was so flavorful, you could taste the hint of the herbs and seasoning.  It was savory and delicious. 

We packaged up the broth into two cup containers and stored it in the fridge to finish cooling before it went into the freezer.  All in all, for the one dollar’s worth of vegetables, we got 10 cups of the best broth I’ve ever tasted.  I’m looking forward to cooking with it! 

Our Recipe for Roasted Chicken

Need an idea for a fresh whole chicken?
Photo by Freedigitalphotos.net

We are still working through all the chickens from Gav’s mom, and we’ve been trying out different cooking methods to see what we like best.  Maddie in particular is an absolute chicken fiend.  She scarfs down her serving and then starts demanding more.  Whole chickens are a wonderfully economic dinner choice.  You can often find them for only 79 cents per pound, and I don’t think you need me to tell you that that’s a good deal.  Plus, they often have enough meat for leftovers and you can use the carcass to make homemade chicken broth (more on that soon).

The other day we were set to try out a chicken in the crockpot recipe, but the chicken didn’t get pulled in time to thaw, so the crockpot was out.  We decided to go ahead and roast it in the oven.  Gavin mixed up a seasoning blend and prepped the chicken.  What we had later was some of the best roast chicken we’ve ever made, and we wanted to share the recipe with you:

Roast Chicken

Gav didn’t take exact measurement of the ingredients when he was measuring them, so adjust according to your own personal taste preferences.

Mix the following in a small bowl:

  • Garlic powder
  • Thyme
  • Paprika
  • Rosemary (crushed a bit to release the flavor)
  • Black pepper
  • Kosher salt

Rub the chicken all over with a bit of vegetable oil, just enough to make the skin glisten, not so much that it’s dripping.  Rub your spice rub into the skin.  Chop up an apple and place it and any remaining spice rub into the chicken’s cavity.

Place the chicken on a roasting sheet and cook at 350 degrees for about  1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the juices run clear.  You may wish to use a cooking thermometer.

The chicken was well-seasoned, juicy, just right.  Gav pulled it off the bone and we served it with a side of seasoned rice and a green salad.  It was delicious, even if we do say so ourselves!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving on a Budget – Can it be done?

Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone.
Image by digitalart

We’re heading into a pretty scary time of year for families who are struggling financially and trying to live on a tight budget and save money.  The first of the major spending holidays is coming up on Thursday … Thanksgiving.

I know sometimes it’s hard to find something to be thankful for this time of year.  I struggle with that, too.  And when we are expected to provide a feast for our family that is intended to outdo every other meal we will prepare this year, that’s a lot of added pressure. 

We got lucky this year.  We originally thought we were going to be hosting, but my brother jumped at the opportunity.  He loves to cook, so this will be his year to shine.  The pressure is off and our only Thanksgiving Day costs will be the gas to get down to Tacoma and two pies.  Not too shabby.  In that light, I thought I’d put together a list of some ideas to whittle away at your holiday food budget.  While it might be too late to implement some of these this year, you can store them away for next year or keep them in mind for another holiday.

5 Ideas for Thanksgiving on a Budget

  1.  Take advantage of those free turkey deals.  Many stores offer free turkeys in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, providing you purchase a certain dollar amount (usually about $100 to $150).  I know I’ve been working hard to keep our weekly grocery bill less than $100, but that can be pretty difficult the week of Thanksgiving.  Even if you aren’t hosting and your bill comes to over the amount that week, get that turkey anyway (if you have a place to keep it).  Roast it up in March or so, and you’ll have cooked turkey for casseroles, soups, sandwiches, or whatever for quite some time, not to mention a lovely carcass for making broth.
  2. Can you go somewhere else for Thanksgiving?  Surely some family or friends would love to have you over.  Offer to bring a dish and you can have Thanksgiving for the price of a 10 lb. bag of potatoes or a can of pumpkin.
  3. See if anywhere in your area is doing a bundled deal (like the one we found here). 
  4.  Plan ahead.  If you can start planning your meal at least a month ahead of time, you can start nabbing items you need as they go on sale.  Adding a little bit here or there to your regular grocery trip will break up the hit so you don’t feel overwhelmed.  For example, one week add a can of pumpkin.  The next, add some green beans and stuffing mix. 
  5. Have a Thanksgiving potluck.  If you are hosting, make sure everyone else brings a dish.  You can be responsible for the turkey, but assign a dish to everyone else.  Let your sister bring the ingredients to make mashed potatoes, have your mom assemble the green bean casserole, tell your brother to pick up dinner rolls, and so on and so forth.  This will make dinner easier for everyone. 

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone.  And even though things might be tough right now, don’t forget to say a huge “thank you” for everything that is wonderful in your life.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Our Trip to the Trading Post

I'm always on the lookout for a great grocery deal.
Image by digitalart

Grocery prices keep rising, so finding the best deals on food has been a real challenge.  We usually shop at Fred Meyer, watching the ads and planning our meals around any good deals we can find.  Some weeks, we can score a great deal, while other weeks we fall flat.  I hate paying more than 1.99 a pound for any kind of meat, and I can’t figure out when ground beef, originally the staple of most cheapo diets suddenly became just as expensive as most cuts of steak.

While at a dinner this week held by Wraparound (a service that helps us coordinate care for our son), we were told about a special deal going on at a local store called the Tukwila Trading Post.  I vaguely knew where they were, but I had never checked them out.  The deal was pretty good:  For twenty bucks, you got a 4 lb. boneless ham, a 3 lb. boneless turkey breast, gravy, a can of corn, a pack of biscuits, 5 lb. of potatoes, and 1 lb. of carrots.  That’s enough ham and turkey for several soup and casserole recipes. 

Something I noticed when I worked it out though – it was a good deal, but not a “OMG THAT’S INSANE” deal. The way the show it in the ad, it’s buy the ham for $20 and the rest is free.  Okay, but it’s a 4 lb. ham.  That $5 a lb. and I wouldn’t spend that much on meat.  Once you subtract the regular prices from the $20, you get about $14 for the meat, which works out to about $2 a lb.  About what I normally aim for. 

They did have some pretty decent sales.  I scored a ton of pork loin, also at 1.99 a lb. and I’m going to get a bunch of meals out of that.  But the rest of their prices were, for the most part, higher than Fred Meyer.  The ad had a number of one-day deals, for example, if I had gone on Thursday I could have scored boneless, skinless chicken breasts for 1.49 per lb. as long as I got more than 10 lbs.  We would definitely go through 10 lbs. of chicken breasts, and that’s about the lowest price I’ve ever seen them at, so I wish I could have caught that deal. 

I think the trick with this place is going to be to keep an eye on the ad and just make a special trip for the super good deals.  The meat all looked like it was in pretty good shape, but some of the produce was kind of funky.  The apples that were on sale were a bit mushy (except for the Fujis, those were in pretty good shape), and some of the kiwis had mold.  Considering that it’s the weekend before Thanksgiving, I was actually surprised by how empty the store was.  Maybe everyone else got their cheap stuff and left already.

EDIT:  Please see this post to see why I will never be shopping here again.....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Republic Wireless: Testing a New Type of Cell plan!

Let’s face reality, your cell phone is here to stay.  Everyone has them... well, almost everyone.  We actually had ours get cut off, because we couldn’t afford it.  We didn’t have iPhones, or even “Smartphones,” with the expensive data plans.  In fact, I think I am the only person in my IT department that doesn't have a smartphone of some sort.  The plans are very pricey and even the “cheap” ones would run us up to $100 a month plus taxes between both A’mee and me.  So we are actually cell-less for the time being (and that has taken some real getting used to). 

A couple weeks ago I was on Engadget and saw something that really turned my head… a beta program for Republic Wireless.  They were offering a new type of prepaid service that highlighted an “unlimited everything” plan for just $19.95!  OK, they had my attention!  Like any other prepaid program, you have to buy the phone.  I signed up on the website to get news about the launch, which was scheduled to happen about a week later.  I then got an email offering a discount code for their phone (the LG Optimus) for just $99.00, saving $100 off the top.  So we made plans for the launch day to sign in and get two phones and test this service, since this was right around when we were expecting to get our money in.  Being a beta test, I knew it would have some bumps, but wow.

The site went up and down all day.  Apparently, the site received well over one million hits the first day.  I don’t care who you are, that will crash just about any server around.   We were finally able to sign in, and we got our confirmation emails shortly afterwards.  Hers was from Republic Wireless, but I was confused when mine came from Phonebooth.com.  After checking the forum, I found out there was a transaction issue that caused a number of orders to be routed to a sister company by accident.  I sent a message over, but their communication is a bit spotty right now.  I honestly believe they got absolutely hammered.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are pissed off that they didn’t get instant shipments.  The forums are full of trolls right now.  Luckily, you can easily see the patient ones who are saying, “I am surprised they are still trying to work through it all.” 

Yesterday, we got our promised updates.  A’mee got an email stating that she was in the beta and to stay tuned for her ship date (since they have to prep the phones manually); my e-mail stated there was an “issue” with the transaction, and I have a slot in the beta, but not in the first batch like A’mee.  I am frustrated by it, but I am trying to be patient with them. 

So that drama aside, here is how the plan works….

You get a phone loaded with their software.  They have partnered up with Sprint to offer the cell coverage side of the plan.  The main focus of the plan is based around Wi-Fi.  They are asking users to primarily connect via Wi-Fi, since there are hotspots just about everywhere most people go, be that work, home, Starbucks, or even McDonalds.  You are monitored on your usage, and they have what is called the “Customer Use Index” or CUI:   an app on the phone that will help track your usage between cell and Wi-Fi connections to help keep you on track. There is a catch, and for some it may be a deal breaker:  If you go over the cell allotment too often (stated in forum posts as being for several months in a row, etc.) they can actually cancel your service with Republic.   Personally, I don’t see that to be an issue.  We have Wi-Fi at home, I have it at work, and most of our usage will be with texts, but even then, it won’t be hard to stay within the cell tower usage.  So we wait for our phones.  The hardest part for me is that I am pretty sure A’mee will get hers well before I get mine.  The beta is slated to run for at least the next 60 days, so we will see how it goes.  I will be updating as soon as there is anything worth reporting.    I just know that even with any cancelation fees we pay to get out of our contract, we come out ahead with the drastic reduction in the monthly plan.  

Check out their site or find them on Facebook or Twitter for any other information.  I am really excited about this, being as how this is not only cheap, but they are also going to be our first smartphones.  

Dressing on a Budget, Part Two: Grownups

Well, I'm not this slender, but you get the idea!
Photo by Photostock

Okay, as promised, part two of our clothing on a budget series!  Better late then never, right?  (Try telling that to the bill collectors, though...)

Clothing Gavin

Gavin is rather challenging to clothe.  He wears unusual sizes and he’s practically as rough on clothing as Elias!  Thanks to his job, he gets tears in unusual places that can’t be easily repaired.  I have almost zero sewing skills – I can sew on a button and repair a seam, but that’s about it.  He wears through shoes quickly and is incredibly picky about which ones he likes.  I’ve groused at him before for buying a pair of shoes and then never wearing them again.  He complains that a lot of shoes rub him on the heel and cut into his Achilles tendon.  We can avoid this by sticking with New Balance, but those are usually pretty expensive. 

For Gavin’s clothing, we can get some stuff at Walmart, but (Walmart aversion aside) they tend to be poorly made and just not very attractive.  Gavin’s job requires him to dress a certain way – not suit and tie, but khaki pants or slacks and a polo or dress shirt.  The place we’ve had the most luck for Gavin is K&G.  You have to dig through a whole lot of weird stuff, but you can find some gems and their sales are fantastic.  We recently hit a great sale where dress shirts were buy one, get one free, and the shirts themselves were only 19.99 (and they were REALLY nice shirts) so we were thrilled. 

K&G is also a great place for pants.  Like I mentioned, Gavin wears an unusual size that can be hard to find.  For a small fee, K&G will tailor your pants on site, which is incredibly handy.  Gavin only has to worry about finding pants that fit him in the waist – we can then tailor the leg to length as needed. 

Clothing Amee

My biggest hassle is being plus size.  Plus size women’s clothing is an absolute racket.  As Kirsten mentioned on a previous post, somewhere someone made the decision that plus size women either want to wear clothing covered with nauseating kittens or deep cut cleavage, leopard print and weird baubles.   As I’m a fan of neither of those, I get pretty frustrated.  Since I’m working from home I don’t have to worry about any sort of dress code, but I still have my own sense of “what looks nice” and I’d like to be able to stick with that.  But my choices are limited.

My best luck is usually at the Avenue.  They have great sales and since I’m signed up for their mailing list, I get notifications of those, plus additional coupons.  I’ve walked out some pretty good deals.  My last good shopping trip there a few weeks ago landed me two bras (have you ever priced plus-size bras?  It’s horrifying, truly), a beautiful loose-knit sweater, a lavender button-down blouse, and eight pairs of socks.  My total was about $80.  Those of you who shop for plus size know – that ain’t half bad.  Usually the two bras alone would cost that much.

The other place I’ve recently had good luck at was the Goodwill.  I have to be willing to dig through a lot of junk and I’ve discovered that I can’t go to just any Goodwill.  The Goodwill in Bellevue has the best selection, based on my size and style.  For those who don’t live in the Seattle area, Bellevue is a suburb directly to the east, known for being a bit swanky.  If you have expensive designer tastes, you can also score famous designer products there.  When I was last there, they had shoes by Prada and Jimmy Choo in a display case.  My friend scored a Hermes handbag for $30.  I don’t know enough about high fashion to tell you if the darn thing was real or not, but if it was, that sucker retails for $2,000.  I’m not kidding.

I was able to hook myself up with a beautiful long, dark green corduroy skirt by Lane Bryant that goes nicely with either a T-shirt or a blouse, a pair of new khaki pants from Old Navy that still had the original tags attached and a cashmere sweater with a ruffled scoop neck that looks lovely with camisole or tank under it, also by Lane Bryant.  My total for this little shopping spree?  Less than twenty bucks.  Seriously.  All three pieces were in excellent condition.  If they had ever been worn before, I couldn’t tell. 

Where’s your favorite place to shop cheaply?  And what's your recommendation for cheap shoes for Gavin???

My Conversion to Homemade Household Cleaners

Homemade spray cleaners are super cheap and much 
easier to make than you might think.
Photo by Ambro.

This is something I’ve pondered for a while, but never had the guts to actually try.  Could I really save money doing this?  Was it worth the extra effort?  What is the benefit… really?

Looking for more ways to cut our grocery budget down finally inspired me to give it a whirl.  I had noticed that Gav had added “spray cleaner” to a recent grocery list.  We were running low on our usual cleaner, a Seventh Generation product I liked.  It smelled nice (thyme and lemongrass!), didn’t have freaky ingredients and cleaned well. It’s pretty pricey though (we had purchased it with a coupon on a half-off sale) so it wouldn’t be practical to keep purchasing it.  Store-brand cleaners usually aren’t that awesome, so I figured now would be the time to give this experiment a go.

I researched cleaners on the internet, found one that looked easy and cheap to make and I had all the ingredients except one.  So I put Borax on the list and went for it.  At the store, I was astonished at how cheap the Borax was!  Only $3 for this huge box – and I only needed 2 teaspoons for the cleaner I was making!  So for less than the price of my normal cleaner, I would get… well, I’m not going to do the math, but suffice to say, it’s a LOT.

So the Borax sat up on the shelf in the laundry area for a week or so until we actually ran out of cleaner.  Today was the big day.  We’ve got company coming over and I needed to clean the bathroom.  I rinsed out the old bottle (hey look, reusing plastic bottles too!  Shouldn’t that be worth bonus points or something?) and mixed up a batch:

Homemade All-Purpose Cleaning Spray

In a 26-oz spray bottle combine

4 Tbsp. vinegar
2 tsp. Borax
Hot water until almost full.  Gently swish to combine and dissolve the Borax.

Add a few drops of mild dishwashing detergent, and about 10 drops of your favorite essential oil.  You could leave out the essential oil if you don’t care about whether it smells nice or you don’t have any on hand.  I had lavender on hand so in it went.


IT WORKED.  Like a charm.  It cleaned the toilet nicely, along with the counters, the light switch plate and the cupboard doors.  And it smelled really nice.  My son has toilet issues, so our bathroom can sometimes get icky, but this stuff cleaned it all.  Plus, the vinegar is a natural disinfectant, so I don’t have to worry about germs.  

When we run out of laundry soap, I’m planning to try making my own batch.  Since I already have the Borax, all I’ll need is some washing soda and Fels Naphtha.  It only takes a couple minutes to mix up and it’s a huge savings.   I can't wait to see what else I can make! I confess -- I’m converted!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dressing on a Budget, Part One: Kids

Your kids can still look nice, even when you're shopping on a budget.
Photo by Stuart Miles

One of the biggest challenges for our family is keeping everyone dressed relatively well, without breaking the bank.  Fortunately, none of us are slaves to trends and we prefer clothing that looks decent without being super fancy.  At the same time, I don’t think any of us are going to be wearing handmade dresses and pants made from homespun wool. 

Elias has enough challenges that dressing “poor” would only be more fuel on the fire.  Maddie is a three-year-old girl with a quickly developing fashion sense.  While Gav and I are not exactly fashionistas, we have the challenge of being, well, plus size, which brings a whole new set of clothing challenges.  Here’s how we keep everyone clothed, including two growing kids, without going into the poor house.


Maddie is probably the easiest one of the bunch to clothe, believe it or not.  She’s cute, and little girl clothing is fun to buy, so she gets clothing as gifts on a regular basis.  She also gets adorable hand-me-downs from several friends.  End of season clearance sales at stores like Fred Meyer can fill in the blanks.  One of my favorite shopping opportunities for Maddie is at a local consignment store, Quadoo’s.  Not only are consignment stores a great way to stretch your dollar, they will also take clothing your kids have grown out of off your hands, providing credit.  Each season, I’m able to turn in Maddie’s outfits from the year before and score some new goodies.


Elias is really challenging to clothe.  He’s eleven, and that age just isn’t quite as much fun to buy for.  Plus, like most boys his age, he’s just really hard on clothes. He wears through the knees of jeans quickly and his shoes fall apart like they are made of tissue paper.  Plus, he’s already 5 feet tall.  He grows out of his clothes fast and he is terribly picky about what he wears, since he has sensory issues.  He’s in that awkward in-between period and consignment stores don’t carry his size.  I can get away with getting items for him at the Goodwill, and by combining store coupons with clearance sales, I can get some good deals at Fred Meyer. Last week we found ourselves having to replace his winter coat (the other one was destroyed).  We were able to catch a 50 percent off sale and scored a nice coat for $30.  Not quite as great a deal as the London Fog coat we found for Maddie for a measly $12.99, but I can’t argue.  It’s hard to find coats in good condition at thrift stores.  My sister likes to take Elias school shopping every year.  She has more fashion sense than we do, so Elias always manages to start off the school year looking sharp!

Tomorrow I’ll tell you how Gavin and I shop.  The truth is, we are far more likely to buy new clothes for the kids then for ourselves.  Show me a parent who isn’t, right?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Braving a Cold on a Budget

You don't have to break the bank to fight a cold.
Photo by David Castillo

I have a nasty cold this week.  It is kicking my butt left, right and sideways.  I raided the medicine cabinet and tracked down some pseudoephedrine that hadn't expired yet and I'm dosing myself up with that so I can keep going and get some work done today.  It looks like Gav might have caught it, as well.

I thought I'd look into some cheap and even free ways to treat a cold.

Obviously, medicine you already have on hand is a good bet.  Check the expiration date, though.  People tend to stash remedies, even if they don't need them for a long period of time.  That Nyquil with an expiration date from three years ago might only make you sicker.  Don't take a chance.

Don't buy name brand medications.  Seriously.  It's a waste of money.  I worked in pharmacy for nearly 10 years.  I can promise you that the generic has the exact same amount of medication in the exact same delivery system.  It's required by law.  If you think the brand name "works better" it's entirely in your head.  There's even a name for this -- it's called the placebo effect.  If you need to hit the store for cold remedies, go ahead and buy the store brand.  It's usually less than half the cost of the name brand.

Need to treat your cold without spending any money at all?  Try some of these ideas:

  • Breathe in steam.  Heat up some water and add some chopped ginger or eucalyptus oil.  Drape a towel over your head and breathe in the steam.  This will help loosen congestion and unclog your airways.
  • Take a hot shower.  The warm, steamy air will work just like the steam treatment above.  Plus, the warm water will help ease your body aches.  If you have a fever and have been sweating, it will feel great to rinse away that grimy feeling.
  • Drink lots of fluids.  At least eight cups of water daily.  Try drinking hot tea for the steam effect.  Plus, many types of herbal teas work as cold remedies as well, like ginger, thyme and fenugreek.
  • Saline irrigation.  An irrigation or neti-pot can help get clogged mucus out of your sinuses and prevent a cold from turning into a nasty sinus infection.
  • Get some rest.  Don't try to function on all cylinders.  Your body needs some time to recuperate.  Get to bed early.  Take a sick day and chill out on the couch.  
Hopefully you'll be back up to snuff soon.  If you'll excuse me, I'm going to go hit the showers.