Category Archives: money matters

Feel Good Shopping


Goodwill the SCORE!

Originally uploaded by ShotSnaps

The temperatures are finally dropping and my favorite season – Fall! – is on it’s way. This is the time of year I go through our closets accessing our needs for the season. Between consignment sales and hand-me-downs, I usually manage to purchase everything the boys need, including shoes, for under $100.

For myself, I’m always looking for ways to dress cute on the cheap. There are many methods – raid my sister’s closets, study the latest catalogs from Boden, J.Crew and LOFT and try to figure out how I can take what I already have and look fashion forward, know when I can get the best end-of-season deals at various stores, altering down beloved clothes from the postpartum period – but the method that provides the most personal satisfaction is going thrifting.

The key here is to give yourself about 2-3 hours at a thrift store closest to the nicest neighborhoods in your area. Two hours back in July yielded this haul from my local Goodwill; all practically new, name brand and cost a whopping $17. It’s also feel good shopping because you’re supporting a local charity and practicing sustainable clothing practices. But best of all, look how cute it all is!

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Responsible Giving

Our little world has been touched in the last month by serious illnesses suffered by people in our community. A mother in John’s preschool class. A woman from our church who has mentored me for the last year. And then the ordinary challenges of life that are joyful yet hard – like a pregnancy’s third trimester. As you may have noticed from my spending some blog currency on posting recipes, I love to cook. I grew up in a household of 10 and learned to cook by mass producing food. I almost can’t look at a recipe without doubling it. So it’s very natural to me to want to provide “food comforts” to friends who need it.

One of the magical things about WordPress is it tells you what posts people are looking at when they visit your blog. One of the top hits is a post I wrote back in January on “Grocery Shopping on $200 a Month.” Since we signed up for a CSA this summer, I’ve backed off from shopping once a month to shopping weekly again so I could be sure to use all of our CSA goodies. I also had an unusually high amount of freelance work this summer that have made our normally super-tight summertime finances less critical.

All of these things have somehow added up to my spending even more time in the kitchen and giving away more than usual (and repeatedly blowing our monthly grocery budget). Not that I didn’t do these things before now, but the frequency and arguably the need is greater at this moment. And something else too that probably reflects something about my personal character flaws: I’m finally not giving merely out of duty. When I was obsessed with budgeting and sticking strictly to our grocery allowance, it actually hurt a little to give even the least expensive meal away. I almost always only gave when prompted by social pressure or guilt or obligation. I was so caught up in my bottomline that I became a Scrooge. And I’m so ashamed to admit this when I think about how all the people who have been incredibly generous to us over the years.

Now I’m out here sitting on my mental stoop trying to figure out how I can be a good steward of our money while freely and unreservedly giving to others. Do you put a line in your budget for these things? Do you just practice giving until you have an attitude adjustment? I’m sending this question out into the Internets. Give me a sign.

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This is Why We’re Fat

Tonight I found myself leaving Kroger with $10 worth of ice cream. When we lived in Copenhagen, $10 would almost have been enough for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I was carrying out three half gallons of Blue Bell.

It is a lot hotter here than in Denmark.

(Stop judging me!)

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A Homemade Happy Birthday


Homemade happy birthday banner
Originally uploaded by ShotSnaps

Somehow I managed to make it 3.5 years before actually hosting a birthday party for one of my children. They are usually just family affairs with cake. When John turned 2, we were in Texas and my mother-in-law organized his party. It was at a splash park and all I had to do was make the cake.

I have a really great mother-in-law. :)

James will be 2-years-old tomorrow and this morning we had a party centered around James’ favorite book: Goodnight Moon. Six little friends came to celebrate, and this is what we did:

The party started at 10:00am – snack time in Toddler World – so we had cupcakes soon after everyone arrived. A friend of mine told me about Ice Cream Cone Cupcakes, which are wonderful because they are really easy for small hands to hold and eat. The kids got to decorate their cupcakes with sprinkles and mini-M&Ms. Some of them really loved decorating, and some really loved getting to put the decorations directly in their mouths!

After cupcakes, the kids colored on the long pieces of craft paper I had taped on the table. After that I blew bubbles over them for about five minutes, which was hands down the most loved activity.

Rather than people bring gifts just for James, we had a present exchange. The first birthday party John ever attended was for a little 2 year-old boy, and this is where I got the idea. Everyone brings a $3-6 unisex gift (in our case appropriate for ages 2-4), and then everyone gets to open and take home a present. It’s nice because the birthday boy was really happy with just one present. And so many of these preschool age kids really don’t understand why one kid gets all the presents anyway.

For those keeping score at home, here’s how the expenses broke down:

  • Snapfish Postcard Invitations: $13.68
  • Postage: $2.52
  • Helium Balloons Party Favors (because you had to have the Red Balloon!): $10
  • Playdough Party Favors (that also served as balloon weights): $3
  • Two Presents for Gift Exchange: $6
  • Cake mix, ice cream cones, sprinkles, etc.: $8
    TOTAL: $40.20

I used paper plates and napkins from previous functions, and I’m not counting things like coffee or the ingredients to make scones. I also painted a banner using the kid’s craft supplies.

James had a wonderful time. I know both boys wish that every day was a birthday party day.

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Grocery Shopping on $200 a Month

A few months ago on Facebook I made the big mistake of bragging that I only spend $200 a month on groceries. Since then I’ve had a number of people ask me how I manage this. I’ve put off writing about this largely because it can be one of the most boring topics on earth.

There are 1,384 ways of being a frugal grocery shopper. What works is very much dependent on many unique family variables, and ultimately you have to work out for yourself what works in your situation. But the public must have what the public wants so here we go.

Shop Once a Month – I found an interested statistic on Get Rich Slowly that said 25 percent of grocery store purchases were impulse purchases. I started paying more attention to what I was putting in my cart when I made a quick trip to the store for one or two items and realized that was true for me as well.

Plan a Monthly Menu – When I was working fulltime and a new mother, I made a weekly dinner menu because it made my life 800 times easier to come home, look at a list, and start cooking. After I realized that each grocery trip I made ended up with my spending more, I expanded this concept from one week of meals to a month of meals.

Basically, the way this works is I make a list of about 22 dinners, a list of breakfast items, a list of lunch and snack items, and a list of “special event” items such as whatever we need for Cooking Club that month or the items John is required to bring for his snack day at preschool.

One of the nice things about this is it allows me to see easily what items share ingredients so I can get the best price for something like sour cream while not getting too much (and letting it spoil) or too little (and having to go back for more).

Finally, at the beginning of the week, I look at my monthly menu list and pick the meals I want to cook that coming week. It allows me to look at my calendar and determine how much time I had to cook on a particular day, and it gives me a degree of flexibility.

This was challenging the first month or two. In the beginning I didn’t realize how many boxes of crackers we go through in a month and I had trouble coming up with meal ideas until I started bookmarking random recipes I would come across during the month.

Shop Around – My monthly shopping day looks like this: I start at Aldi and buy things like dairy products, meat, canned goods and dried fruit. Aldi doesn’t always have the same items consistently, so it’s helpful to start here. From there I hit WalMart as they tend to have the best prices on staple items like flour and sugar. Finally, I go to Kroger on the first Wednesday of the month to buy the remaining items on my list where I use my Dad’s Kroger Plus card to get his 10 percent senior discount.

Cook From Scratch – When we lived in Denmark I was forced to start cooking from scratch because the Danes have very little prepared food and it is extremely expensive and not very good. I started doing things like making my own marinara sauce, which I quickly learned is really easy and tastes so much better. Doing this you also have the added advantage of eating more healthily (no added salt, sugar or corn syrup) and being more environmentally friendly (prepared food tends to have a lot of packaging).

Eat Less Meat – Again, another something we started doing in Denmark where a pound of ground beef costs $12. With few exceptions I tend to use meat merely to flavor meals now. Where I once used a pound of ground beef in my spaghetti sauce, I use 1/3 a pound. I also cook with a lot more beans and vegetables.

Cut Back on the “Fun Food” – We all have our vices and we should still indulge them a little or this kind of thing will never work. Each month I lay in a supply of six $1 bags of chips of various kinds from Aldi, I hunt until I find Coke and Diet Coke for around $3 for a 12-pack, and I buy 12 bottles of good beer. Two of those are my own personal vices.

WIC, Baby – This is really the secret to our only spending $200 a month. We buy everything at the beginning of the month, then go back each week use only our WIC checks. They provide us with our perishable items like milk and bread, and give us about $100 a month in groceries. God bless America.

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How to Shop A Children’s Consignment Sale

Last weekend was our local MOPS fall/winter children’s consignment sale. It’s hard to describe what this is to the uninitiated. I certainly had no concept of what was going on when I took my first bewildered steps into a seasonal consignment sale two years ago. Now I know that you have to approach children’s consignment sales with goal setting, strategy, training and grim game day execution. It’s like football for parents. Here’s what you need to know.

Pick A Good Consignment Sale. Ask around and find out which sales are the most careful about picking through the clothes they accept (no stains, etc.) while not being incredibly overpriced.

Sign Up for a Volunteer Shift. If you volunteer, you get a preview ticket. With a preview ticket you get to shop early and get the best selection.

Consign Clothes You Don’t Need. I did this for the first time this year. Based on my experience, you need at least 35-40 items of clothes to make this worth your while. Try to find a consignment sale that has an electronic tagging system. The tagging process is so much faster when you can type your information into this system, and it spits out printable tags with bar codes. My goal was to earn as much at the consignment sale as I spent on clothes for the season. Just take into account how much gets taken off for consignment fees and percentages ($8 and 30% in my case).

Make A List. I shop for almost everything my boys need for the season at this single event, so I go in with a list detailing how many shirts, pants, pajamas, shoes, etc. that they need and in what sizes.

Arrive Early. This will vary by sale size, but I arrived an hour early for my consignment sale and was about the 15th person in line. Bring a book. Call and catch up with a friend. It may seem a little nuts but I was the first person going through clothes in my area, where last year I ended up having to crawl under clothing racks to get to the clothes I needed to go through.

Prioritize. I have two boys. I’ve found that as the selection of boys clothes go up in size, the selection is much slimmer. So I always start with my older son in the largest size I’m buying for him. I go to consignment sales largely for the clothes, but other people may priorize toys and other large ticket items over these things. There is usually a mad dash for the area of the room with the Pack-n-Plays, glider rockers, strollers, bikes, tricycles, etc.

Bring a Laundry Basket. I brought a large cloth bag with me this year and it was completely inadequate. Plus it got really heavy. You can kick a laundry basket around on the floor as you go through clothes.

Bring Cash or Checks. While this isn’t true of all sales, many consignment sales only accept cash or checks so be prepared.

Utilize the Half Price Sale. Most consignment sales have a half off sale. If you are able to fit it into your schedule to go back for the ½ sale, this should change your strategy a bit. At the preview sale, buy only what you really love and wouldn’t want to risk not being there for the ½ sale the next day; the adorable sweaters, the practically new shirts and pants. Then come back for the ½ off sale and buy the play clothes. I ended up finding two pairs of barely worn pants made out of sweatshirt material for 50 cents each. Perfect to send John to school in because, at 50 cents, it really doesn’t matter how much paint gets splashed on them.

When the dust cleared last Saturday afternoon, I had bought almost everything I needed for my boys for the fall and winter and spent only $7. I earned $73 on items I sold and bought $80 worth of clothes and toys including four sets of pajamas, a sweater, nine pairs of pants, seven shirts, two pairs of barely-worn shoes (Keds and Stride-Rite), a 48-piece Melissa & Doug puzzle, a Little People Noah’s Ark for my Mom’s Day Out class and the $5 Clifford costume that is now John’s greatest joy in life.

Happy hunting.

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The Dark Mother

I’m sort of lukewarm environmentally. The kind of person that irritates both committed environmentalists and global warming deniers. I use cloth diapers because it saves money. I recycle items (like washing machines!) if it’s convenient. I buy less processed food because it’s cheaper. I walk because I need the exercise. I’m sort of green.

Also in the crunchy camp is sustainable, fair trade food practices. I like to support our local farmers by buying their goods because the produce tastes better, but because also in my heart-of-hearts they remind me of my farmer grandpa. I also was feeling pretty good about myself for buying Starbucks coffee because they claim to fairly pay the coffee growers from whom they buy their beans.

Then this past spring I interviewed an anthropologist for a freelance story on her research on coffee farmers, and discovered I’d been “green washed.” Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee were really just patrolling their own Nike sweatshops. This knowledge obligated me to change coffee providers, and led me on a long, painful search for Fair Trade Certified coffee that doesn’t taste like old shoe. I finally found a Trader Joe’s brand fair trade coffee that was pretty ok. And I’ve drunk it for about four months now.

Yesterday I ran out of my righteous fair trade coffee and I’m not planning a trip to our closest Trader Joe’s, which is 90+ miles away, any time soon. And the Dark Mother started calling me. I may have driven to Starbucks and bought half a pound of fresh bold roasted Pike Place. It could be sitting in my cabinet this very moment. And I may be feeling profoundly guilty right now. But it was exquisite.

Someone please recommend a brand of good, dark fresh roasted, fair trade coffee that I can buy via the Internet?

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