Posts Tagged ‘Shopping’

A Real Mom’s Review of Alice.com: Drugstore Shopping Simplified

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Since becoming a mother, I have become much more strategic with my shopping time. Ideally, it is time spent after my husband gets home and I can shop by myself without two wildly crazy children distracting me from my list of tasks. Let’s face it though, the idea of spending all of my evenings in a store sounds mind-numbingly boring and I would much rather spend my time with a good book or with my family.

In past articles I have shared ideas for fantastic places to online shop including those dreaded trips to the grocery store and wholesale club. Today I want to share with you my new favorite place to shop for my drugstore deals. It is a little website called Alice.com that has simplified my shopping time and has still allowed me to get great deals.

You see, there was a time when I coupon clipped, organized rebate forms, saved those drugstore receipts with money back, and horded a large wall full of toothpaste for our family of four. You could say that I have gotten lazier in my old age or that I realized that I was spending too much money and time in our local drugstores, but I knew that something in my life had to change. I realized that I was buying items just because they were “free,” but the items really weren’t free when I thought of all of the impulse splurges and the space that they took up in my home.

Alice.com has provided me with online access to managing my household items and supplies online. You basically tell Alice what you typically buy and Alice (yes, your very own Alice just like the Brady Bunch) goes to work for you. The site organize all of your products, finds coupons and deals for you, reminds you when you might be running low, and helps you order just the items you need so you can avoid that trip to the corner drugstore or the big-box store.

Here are some ideas for how to shop on a budget with Alice.com:

  • Say goodbye to those paper inserts, scissors, and wasted time clipping coupons. One of the best things about Alice is that there is no coupon clipping involved. If there is a coupon available on the product, it will automatically be applied to your order… no clipping necessary. Alice also has relationships with the manufacturer’s and many times offers coupons that aren’t available in your newspaper’s coupon insert. It is important to note though, that they offer a specific amount of coupons on each product. For example, your favorite shampoo may have only fifteen coupons available. You will need to snag that coupon before the coupons are no longer offered to get the savings.
  • Shipping is free on your first order, regardless of the number of items that you buy. After that first order, there is no minimum amount of spending that you need to do to qualify for the free shipping,but you do have to have six items in your cart for the free shipping. This can easily be met with smaller items like toothbrushes, dental floss, or other “filler” items if you are unable to meet the six item requirement.
  • You always know if you are getting the best deal. Comparison shopping in fliers can be time-consuming, but Alice will actually tell you who has the best deal on the product you are looking at with comparisons between  drugstore.com, cvs.com, Peapod, Safeway, Walgreens, Amazon Fresh, and diapers.com. This can be found by scrolling below the item you are looking at and clicking on the, “Price Comparison,” link. You could also use this price comparison when doing your local shopping without ever leaving the comfort of your home.
  • Shopping for the best deals is easy to do if you familiarize yourself with the website. Under the, “Other Ways to Shop,” category, you will find a, “Shop the Best Deals,” link. That link will direct you to the top fifty deals that the site is currently running with the coupon prices included. Sticking to the top fifty deals will insure that you get the very best deal for your money. These deals also will be great to add as filler items or for donation items for the local homeless shelter and charitable giving.
  • Orders are fulfilled very quickly. The official amount of time that Alice will give you is between one to six business days. I have placed three orders with the company and they have all arrived the next day (if I placed the order before noon eastern time) or two days later if I happen to order in the afternoon. Lucky for me, I live in the Midwest and Alice is Midwest-based so orders are shipped very quickly here.
  • You will no longer have to worry about embarrassing drugstore shopping. I thought when I became a grown-up I would no longer care about what was in my drugstore cart. Thanks to living in a small town, there are few moments of privacy shopping anywhere. To top it off, I now have two inquisitive children asking loudly at the checkout counter what I am buying. I love that I can now buy those items with confidence, in the privacy of my own home, and not face the embarrassment about those unmentionable items.  The items all arrive in a beautifully packed blue Alice box with minimal packaging that reminds me a lot of the great packing strategies that Amazon.com uses.
  • The site offers great reminder features. Just like any smart business, the company wants to insure that you will be a repeat customer for them and they do it through a targeted email that reminds you when you are getting low on an item. When you order an item, you can tell Alice how often you buy that item and an automatic reminder will be sent out when you are getting low. That doesn’t mean that it will be automatically ordered for you, it just means that a reminder will be sent to have you come back and reorder. Thanks to this feature, there are no more late night runs to the drugstore for forgotten items… At least, they are fewer and farther between!

I am now a super fan of Alice and love having the time to spend with family and not having another item on my list of errands to do. I hope you can check it out and consider giving online drugstore shopping a try!

If you would like to give Alice a try, feel free to visit through our link.  In full discretion, this is an affiliate link, but we rarely ever refer you to anything ever unless we truly and actually embrace or use a product or service! We love our readers and aim to only offer the best information on saving money that we possibly can!

Have you ever tried Alice.com or any other online shopping service? We want to hear what your thoughts are and how you choose to shop to save your family time or money! Please share here!

Capturing Your Children Through Photography

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

One thing that people have been asking me to share about is how to get fantastic pictures of your little ones. It was a request that I felt weird about accepting. I am just a mom who loves to take pictures. I have no formal training, no accolades, no studio, no professionalism at all…  In all seriousness, it feels strange to speak with authority on the subject.

Here is what I want you to know though! In this day and age, anyone can be a great photographer. We have more equipment, more free tools, more books, and more resources than ever before.  Unfortunately, the key to becoming great at something is good old-fashioned practice, reading, hard work, and more practice. It is not necessarily spending more money and buying more equipment. It means, simply, getting familiar with what you already have at your disposal and being the best that you can be with what you have already in your hands.

That being said, my Mother’s Day gift last year was the Canon Rebel T1i, which has been a fantastic entry-level camera into the world of DSLR cameras. It was such an incredibly big deal to me to have something so glamorous and so fancy. It is something that I would never have bought myself because I can not bear to part with money. I am sure if you read me regularly, you are nodding your head at this statement.

Even if you do not have an DSLR camera, there are so many things you can do to make your photos just as spectacular with just a few tricks up your sleeve.

Shift Your Focus- So many times it is easy to plop everything dead into the center of a picture. It feels natural to do it that way, doesn’t it?  This has been a really bad habit of mine that I have been working really hard to break. Shift your camera a little to the right, shift it a little to the left and see if you can tell a better story without having everything dead on in the center. Technically speaking, I learned the rule of thirds in a fantastic tutorial hosted by Sony and from the very famous photographer Me Ra Koh. The beauty of this simple trick is that anyone can do it with any type of equipment that you might have. Try thinking of your photos differently and shifting your perspective to tell the story!

It’s All in the Details of the Story- Look through your camera with an artist’s eye and start capturing those small and hidden details of a story. My friends refer to this (sometimes annoying) habit of mine  as my “artsy shots,” where I am taking shots of those often missed and hidden details that I want to remember about my children or about a particular place, event, or tradition that we have created together.

For example, baking a cake with your child and taking pictures of you making it together are wonderful and great. Imagine though if you took a picture of her hands stirring the batter for you, the feet that are pulled up on the stool, the snack that is shared while baking. Suddenly, you are telling a story of a family moment that will conjure up not only the special cake that you made together, but how small her hands were, that tradition of the chair pulled to the counter, the beauty of the batter that was poured, the picture of the anticipation as she peeked in the window of the oven for the cake to get done, the first slice, the crumbs left on an empty plate… Try becoming a storyteller and capturing the details that you *think* you will remember and that are sadly forgotten. These pictures are always my favorite and are my most-treasured photos in our family collection.

Sometimes It is About the Big Picture- Now that you are taking beautiful detailed shots of your children, it is also great to think about the BIG picture too.  Big shots can tell a great big story too and I love to zoom in on one picture and then zoom out (even on the same shot) and see if the bigger picture can tell a great story.

Vacation photos are a really great time to practice this. Often where you are at for a vacation is a beautiful place with much to see and much to photograph. Focus your camera on your child, but zoom it out to show how little they are as they are walking around a large museum instead of just a shot of your child in front of one small display. It helps to showcase the wonderment and the beauty of being small.

My favorite wide shot remains the one of my daughter pictured in her dance class. If I had zoomed in on her, you would have missed the irony of her movement. She was in her element, a free spirit and wildly dramatic. With the shot nice and wide, you can see that my daughter was doing her very own little routine while the other kids were following the instructor. That is what I love about my daughter and it is now perfectly captured for our family.

Turn Off the Flash- This may require a bit of reading in your camera manual, but your pictures will be a thousand times better if you can turn the flash on your camera off.  The only times that I do turn my flash on is when it is absolutely necessary (which is not often, if you can believe it) because in most situations going without the flash will create a much better picture.

Practice taking pictures in different areas of your home to find the one spot in your house where the lighting is the best and try to plant the kids there for portrait shots. Take your children outdoors (shaded spots work the best) and take photos outside instead of indoors, when visiting places (even if it is just a local restaurant) and snap pictures there. In most scenarios, you will find that taking a picture without the flash will make your pictures much more beautiful!

If I know that I am going to be in a low-light situation or I am looking for ways to get that perfect shot (capturing Christmas lights, fireworks, a child blowing out a candle, etc..) I will Google search for tips and practice with my camera before I go somewhere. Because I am Type-A like that.

Edit. But Edit Wisely.- Once I have taken my photos for the day, I put them in Picnik and spend time editing them. I did pay for a premium membership, but it has been worth every penny ($24.95 per year) for editing my photos. I don’t use anything more fancy than this although someday I hope to learn Photoshop or Lightroom. For now, it is just what I need to help give my pictures a little pop. Try saturating the color in your pictures, switching them to black-and-white, or adding a little bit of softening to them.

Truly though, it is fun to edit, but the real beauty is the picture that is taken before the editing. Concentrate your efforts on taking a great photo and use a program to help add a little razzle dazzle to the great picture that you already have. Just remember that sometimes one can get carried away with the editing and you have pictures with all sorts of crazy fluorescent people at a party or unnatural weirdness to your photos. I hope that wasn’t too technical for you all.

Here are the most FAQ questions that people have asked me about taking pictures…

Q: How do you get everything to blur in the background of your photos?

A: One of the most exciting things to me about getting a new camera was the capability that I had to get sharp focus with a blurred background in my pictures. The way to do this is to change the aperture (or f-stop) on your camera. Aperture is the size of the opening of the lens when a picture is taken. One thing that is often very confusing is  that large apertures (where lots of light gets through) are given f/stop smaller numbers and smaller apertures (where less light gets through) have larger f-stop numbers. So f/2.8 is in fact a much larger aperture than f/22.

To change your aperture, consult your camera manual to see what setting you will need to set your camera to. For my Canon camera, it means switching the dial to Av and then using the dial to turn it to the number that I wanted. I usually try to shoot in f/2.8 for most of my pictures, f/5.6 for much of my portrait photography, and f/22 for beautiful landscape shots with everything in sharp focus. For this shot of the flowers, I used f/2.8 to get just the front flowers in focus.

Q: How do you get the blurred edge on your photos?

A: The blurred edge is just something I add in Picnik. I just go under the Create tab and I select Vignette. Then I slide the slider down to almost nothing on the size of it. This adds just a tiny edge to the photo that is nice for online viewing, but not noticeable when printing them out or loading them on a digital frame. What can I say, it is my little signature move!  You can do that with a free membership to Picnik, you definitely do not have to pay anything for that one!

Q: What equipment do you recommend and what do you have?

A:  Again, I am not an expert on buying camera equipment, but I can tell you what I do know about it. I have always heard that it is much wiser to spend your money on your lens than the body of your camera. That is not to say to totally skimp on the body, but the body of cameras is constantly changing and being improved upon. I just got my camera this past summer and they have already come out with the Canon Rebel 2Ti, if you can believe it, and it costs quite a bit more than my already antique and outdated camera! The truth is, I will never stay current with the body of my camera because within a few months, a new one will already be replacing my ancient equipment.

If you are on a budget and are looking for a great point-and-shoot camera that has the same functionality as the DSLR, but you don’t have to buy lenses and make a huge investment, I loved my Canon PowerShot (the link takes you to the current model). I am a Canon girl and was really happy with this point-and-shoot camera. It is the camera that I recommend to my friends and I have always heard how happy my girlfriends are with their Canon PowerShots. Agonizing amounts of research were done before I selected that camera and I was very happy with it!

If you are still on a budget, but want to make a long-term investment and are just looking to shoot pictures of your family…then I will tell you what I have. As an aside, we found our lens on eBay from a photographer who was upgrading his equipment, but I am linking through Amazon for convenience sake. I have the Canon Rebel T1i and we bought the Canon EF-S 17-55 mm lens.  They have kit lenses that are around $100 or more each and I have seen people take great pictures with these, but we made the investment in one really good lens that would do just about everything for me for the rest of my life and until I die amen. This lens is all I really need in most situations.

I don’t use my flash often, but for  our recipe section and for some our evening events, I wanted to have an external flash. That was my anniversary/Mother’s Day/You Work Hard Sometimes gift and I got the Canon Speedlite 270EX Flash. If you don’t need something this fancy, I did really well with my Gary Fong Puffer Pop-Up Flash Diffuser (around $20) which really seemed to help my evening shots and didn’t take up a lot of room in my camera bag.

The most important thing to buy though is a lens filter to protect your lens. If for some reason you scratch your lens or something happens to the outside of it, this $10-$20 filter will protect the lens and be what breaks instead of your $100-$1,000 investment. Trust me, you will thank me later if you have this!

Q: Do you have any good books or websites to visit that can help me learn more about photography?

I am a HUGE fan of Scott Kelby and his Digital Photography Books 1, 2, & 3. See if your library has these and check them out for smartly written, witty, and down-to-earth tutorials on how to use your camera. I love that he says, “If you want a good portrait, turn you dial to this,” instead of high-brow photography terms that, as a mom,  I just don’t understand.  I just want someone to tell me what to do, not make me feel stupid!

For reading, I definitely recommend Digital Photography School for tutorials and Shutter Sisters for photography inspiration!  I also love to see what Secret Agent Mama, Mooshy in Indy, I Should be Folding Laundry, I Heart Faces, and Me Ra Koh are doing with their cameras. The best part about them…humbleness and willingness to share.

Really though, the best thing you can do for yourself is to read your manual. Discover. Play with your settings. Practice. Read the manual again. Try new things. Be unafraid to fail. Become a human sponge and learn. Display those pictures creatively. Be the treasure keeper. Live your life fully, which will in turn,  will create natural and picture-worthy moments. Love.

Questions and comments are welcomed and appreciated!

Disclosure: All of the links above are affiliate links and are provided so you can locate your camera equipment and tools easily. Feel free to order through our site, but we always encourage shopping around for the best bang for your buck! Happy picture-taking!

Gift Giving: Putting Your Own Spin on Photo Journals

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

I could not wait to show you guys what I made for my moms for Mother’s Day this year.  Unfortunately, to keep it a secret, I had to wait until the holiday was over to show them to you. That being said, these photo books would be perfect for just about any occasion, including the fast approaching Father’s Day holiday!

I know that many people are fans of the photo albums that you can create online, but I had never done one before. I adore taking pictures of my family, but I am not very good about printing them out and sharing them the way I should. I thought it might be neat to share with our moms this year a brag book that that they could enjoy for years to come. I admit that I prefer to make handmade gifts for these occasions (I doubt either mom will ever forget our infamous ping pong wreaths last year), but I knew that there could be a way that I could put a unique spin on these photo albums and add my own homemade touch.

I first weeded through all of the pictures and tried to get a good representation of both of the children as well as pictures of them with the other family members. After selecting my pictures and template (through the photo site I used), I then went to Quote Garden and tried to find a quote for each page of the photo album that would fit the pictures that I had selected. All in all, the process took four hours because of my own admitted perfectionism. I chose a soft-back cover (to save money) and I also visited Coupon Cabin to find a coupon code that I could use towards my purchase. These each cost roughly $16…and it was worth every penny.

These were a few of my favorite photos and quotes that were chosen:

“Everything is beautiful at the ballet” A Chorus Line

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” Katherine Hepburn

“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of  a child. There are seven million.” Walt Streightiff

“I have the same goal I’ve had since I was a girl. I want to rule the world.” Madonna

“Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.” Vietnamese Proverb

“There’s no place like home.” Wizard of Oz

“The Force is strong with this one.” Darth Vadar

“A boy’s story is the best that is ever told.” Charles Dickens

“Grandmas hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our hearts forever.” Author Unknown

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” Confucius

“And thank you for a house full of people I love. Amen.” Terri Guillemets

I can honestly say that my copy of this book has already become lovingly worn as I have placed it on my coffee table and glance through it almost daily. Each time, I walk a way a little misty-eyed, a little more thankful, and really proud of my amazing kids.

As the gifts were given, there were a few tears and a whole lot of pride radiating from our proud grandma and nana. It is the perfect gift for purse-toting and brag sessions. From what I hear, they have already made the rounds in their workplaces and churches. To me, that is when you know that a gift is a total success..when it just must be shared!

Just a few quick tips:

- Don’t forget to check for coupon codes through whatever photo book publishing site you use. There are usually multiple coupons available. Be sure to compare which coupon will offer you the most bang for your buck. My 20% off coupon, for example, was less than the shipping cost so make sure you crunch those numbers before ordering. Just Google, “Photo company’s coupon code”  and you should get plenty of codes to use towards your purchase.

- I found it easiest to sort my pictures by date first so I could group pictures together on pages easier. Sorting by date also helps to allow the flow into the different seasons of the year and pictures to flow a little more naturally.

- Choose a template with a neutral palette, that will compliment and not detract away from the beauty of your photos.

- Edit your photos before putting them into your book. I use Picnik for my photo editing needs and I absolutely love it. You don’t need to get carried away with the editing (unless you just love to), but it can be a great tool for saturating the color, adjusting color temperature, switching to black-and-white, or adjusting the exposure or contrast in a photo.

Looking for some added Father’s Day inspiration? These crafty bottles brimming over with treats were a hit with my hubby last year.  Our dads also really loved our movie gifts and handmade photo compact disc jackets filled with great music in years past.

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Ironically, I had some great timing on this post because today is the last day to enter for a $50 Snapfish gift card for Father’s Day. Please head over there and get your entry in today! And yes, I actually had to pay for all of those photo books so I am extremely jealous you can get one for free!! Entries are due by 8PM eastern time tonight! Good luck, friends

What did you do for Mother’s Day gifts this year? What is up your sleeve for Father’s Day? Please share!

All I Want for Christmas…The ’09 Edition

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Isn’t it fun to peek into someone else’s holiday wish list? I wanted to share with you my Christmas wish list for this year and hear what is on your list!

40″ circular knitting needle set- I have been hearing a lot about magic loop knitting and I have some circular scarves that I would like to attempt knitting… not to mention my 2-at-a-time sock knitting that I want to try! This set of needles would put off my procrastination on learning this new technique and would be a perfectly cozy activity to do over the winter ($19.99)

lavender & vanilla pillow mist- If I have trouble sleeping, I spray a little lavender pillow mist on my pillow to help me conk out. I have had the same bottle for years, but I am down to my last sprays. I know my husband will never buy this for me as he finds the process of me spraying my pillows annoying. To which I simply say…whatever. There is nothing more soothing and I am hoping someone out there will replenish my supply ($10.00)
6-slice waffle iron- This is a very expensive gift therefore making it very unlikely I will receive it, but I am dying to get a waffle iron that produces more than a single waffle at a time. I make waffles every single Saturday for the entire week and this six slice waffle iron would give me the opportunity to sit and eat with my family instead of eating a waffle alone… Wait, no more eating alone? Maybe it is better that we keep our current arrangement! ($79.95)


Norah Jones & Imogen Heap music- I am a huge, huge, huge music lover and there were so many good albums that came out this year that I would love to have wrapped under my tree. Norah Jones & Imogen Heap are my top two requests this year and would definitely help round out my music collection ($11.99)

new calendar- I am writing activities in the margins of my current planner and can’t wait to get a fresh new one to fill with our activities. This is my favorite calendar of all and I have bought it the last two years and it is one of my most used items in my house. It is the perfect size to tuck in my purse and has pockets for business cards and random receipts. It is also durable and has survived all sorts of spill horrors and messes because of the waterproof cover. ($14.95)

perfume- Every girl should have a signature scent. I want my signature scent to be this Falling in Love perfume. I just need to convince my husband that a signature scent is important to me. Even the teeniest little spray bottle would make me happy and it sure would make those poor saleswomen at Sephora happy too. I don’t have to keep requesting little samples to stick in my purse and could finally get a bottle for myself. It is an extravagant luxury though so we shall see what Santa will bring ($15-60)

cookbooks- My cookbook collection could use a little updating and this year I have asked for the America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book<
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Cake Doctor cookbooks. These are two that I would like to stop paying fines on at the library because I check them out so often. The new Pioneer Woman Cookbook would also be a fantastic addition underneath the Christmas tree. ($10.37-$19.57)

What made your Christmas list this year?

3 Budget-Friendly Boy Gifts That Rock

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009


My son celebrated his seventh birthday in July and has been playing with his favorite birthday gifts ever since. I wanted to wait on sharing his favorite gifts until we discovered which ones continued to be played with long after the party was over. After all, the sign of a truly loved toy is one that lasts way past that party!

Ultra Stomp Rocket- My son’s favorite gift of the summer was definitely the stomp rockets that he received. The kids would play for hours with these and would work as a team to gather the rockets and then take turns stomping. The stomp rockets come with a launch pad and four foam rockets. Your child jumps on a little air pad and the air travels through the hose of the air pad all the way through the launch pad, which sends your rockets shooting up. The rockets can travel up to 200 feet in the air depending on how hard you jump.

These rockets get five stars for great entertainment, in fact, adults can’t resist taking a turn jumping with the kids. For durability, I would give the rockets three stars because most of our rockets are already beaten up and torn from abuse from younger children.

The good news is that once you buy the launch pad though, you can buy replacement rockets for another summer of fun! Overall, this is one of our favorite toys of the year and provided hours of entertainment for my kids and their friends! (Pricing- $12.30)

Scribbles: A Really Giant Drawing & Coloring Book- One of our absolute favorite gifts that we got our son was the Scribbles Coloring Book. I had asked around on Twitter for recommendations and this came highly recommended from another parent.

If you want to encourage imagination in your child, this is the best coloring book ever. Instead of having you simply color, each page tells you something that it would like you to draw. One page will tell him that the alligator is angry and have him fill in his face. Other pictures are exactly alike, but may request colors and patterns to make each of the pictures different. My favorite series is a simple line that is drawn and then it asks you to draw different animals all sitting on the pole. It is truly the best drawing book I have ever come across for allowing children to use their own creativity and imagination to fill in and create pictures.

The book is very durable and it is truly giant. My son still has many more pages to do and with the durability factor, I plan to tuck this away with his age on it as a keepsake of his creative talent at this age. Because the child is doing all of the drawing, you could buy the same book again another year and see what different things they come up with. (Suggested Price- $13.59)

Razor A Scooter- When I was little it took me awhile to master riding a bike, but I loved riding on my scooter. It seems my son is a lot like me and this little scooter has been a fantastic investment for our son. It has a little switch to fold the scooter flat and even the handles on it fold down for easy storage. We keep this in the trunk of our car and take it with us when we go to the park for another fun activity to do.

Even though it is compact, it still has a built-in brake and is extremely sturdy and stable. The fold down feature is great for traveling and this can be a fun way to get your children from point A to point B. (Suggested Price- $28.99)

Search & Win

The best part about these three gifts is that I ended up buying all of my son’s birthday gifts for free this year! I have been using Swagbucks ever since April when I did a podcast with Heather, from Freebies 4 Mom, on what a great program Swagbucks is.

I average between 50-100 points each week just by using Swagbucks as my search engine and sharing it with others. To begin earning rewards, all you need to do is use Swagbucks.com as your search engine tool instead of your usual route with Google. It pulls the same results, but when you are surfing, you can earn points just by making it your search engine tool. These points are then deposited into your account and can be redeemed for your rewards.

I put my points towards Amazon gift cards which has been a fantastic way to enjoy a little shopping without dipping into my bank account. Not only has it covered my son’s birthday gifts, but I also have ordered countless books for my Kindle and purchased new exercise DVD’s to keep me motivated and moving.

I rarely use affiliate programs, but can’t recommend Swagbucks enough. If you start now, it is quite possible that you could have a free Christmas in your future! Every little bit helps in this tough economy and the best part is that it is free tool to assist with your shopping needs.

What are your favorite budget-friendly boy gifts? Do you use Swagbucks? What is the best thing you have scored with this free search engine program?

Chari-Tea Bunco Cause Party

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Recently multi-platinum, Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter, Ashanti teamed up with Johnson’s Body Care to launch a new charitable program that enables real women across the country to support local charities through simply hosting get-togethers with friends.

I was given the opportunity to host one of these “cause parties” where I could kick back with my girlfriends, pamper ourselves with Johnson’s new line of lotions and body washes and help raise money for a local charity.

Lucky for me, it happened to be my turn to host our monthly Bunco so I decided to partner these opportunities together and host a Chari-Tea Bunco night at my house.

My guests were asked to bring monetary and/or food donations to support the St Joseph County Food Bank. Everyone also agreed that the winnings would be given to the food bank instead of divided among ourselves for the event and Johnson’s gave us $100 to start the charitable pot for our charity.

By hosting this event with Johnson’s they gave us the money to put towards the food and drinks for our event so I truly got to pamper my girlfriends in style because no one had to bring a single dish to share.
I still kept to a thrifty budget, but tried to add some special touches for our group. Our centerpiece was a bouquet of flowers displayed in a teapot with a variety of special teas in my china teacups for our table. These beautiful bouquets of flowers were purchased at Sam’s Club for less than $5.

Here are some pictures of the great food that we got to eat. I wanted to stick with the tea party food and dishes that would be easy to handle while playing our game.

I got a huge croissant sandwich tray that served 18 for $32 at Sam’s Club. I cut these sandwiches in half and then added colored toothpicks to hold them together so people could sample different varieties of sandwiches and to make them a little more bite-sized.

For side dishes, I purchased two huge vegetable trays for $9.87 each that were prepared by Sam’s Club. I made a delicous pesto pasta salad from my new favorite cookbook, “The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen,” which you must check out! I then bought a variety of fruit and made fruit kabobs by skewering them for our guests out of pineapple, grapes, and strawberries. These fruit kabobs were thrown into a pretty wine bucket for everyone to grab.

For dessert, I purchased two boxes of mini creme puffs that I served on cake platters with a decaf coffee to finish out the meal.

The star of the party though was the Bunco punch that I made that was a delicious summery drink to go with our food. We also had a box of the Black Box Cabernet which was another surprising hit with many of my friends who had not had the pleasure of trying boxed wines before. Sam’s Club had the best price on this with a box that was equivalent to four bottles for only $18.32. I have to say, these boxed wines are an affordable way to entertain on a budget.

On my lower level, we had a little welcome desk where my guests could sign in and my coffee table got taken over by all of the great food donations.

Each guest got to take home a really cute reusable bag filled with Johnson’s products to sample and share with their friends as a thank you for their charitable efforts. Each bag contained their 24 Hour Moisturizer, 24 Hour Moisturizing Body Wash, & their Be Radiant Cocoa & Shea Butter Lotions. These products were just for us, not for our kiddos, and they smell and feel great. My favorite is definitely the Be Radiant Cocoa & Shea Butter Lotion- it smells divine!


<br "" border="0" />We had the biggest turn out for Bunco ever with seventeen great women in attendance and we were so excited about all we could do for our community. With the donation made by Johnson’s plus our own donations, we were able to donate $205 to the St Joseph County Food Bank and an entire car full of food donations for the cause.

With the job loss in our area, our food banks and shelters are in critical need right now and if you are able to give anything at all, I encourage you to take the time to do it.

Here are some of the items the Food Bank of Northern Indiana critically needs:

Cereal — hot and cold
Meat, chicken or tuna
Mac/cheese, dry pasta
Vegetables
Potato flakes
Spaghetti O’s, stews
Rice
Pork & Beans
Applesauce
Chicken Helper
Family-sized soups
Dry soup mixes
Fruit
Crackers
Spaghetti
Sauce
Juice boxes
Beans — baked, refried
Pancake, waffle mix
Plastic containers

Individuals, clubs, churches, civic groups and local businesses can all conduct food drives. Donated food is a much needed commodity in their fight against hunger. They accept donated food between the hours of 8:00 am and 4:00 pm, Monday through Friday, at their location on 702 S. Chapin Street, South Bend, IN. If this location is not convenient to you, there are many other drop off points including all of the Martin’s Supermarket grocery stores. For more information please visit The Food Bank of Northern Indiana to find out how you can help.

Throwing a cause party was such a fun girl’s night out and I encourage you to do the same with your girlfriends! It is a fun and easy way to give back to charities in your community and I am so thankful that Johnson’s helped us support such a great cause in our own community!

Here are the star recipes from our fabulous Chari-Tea Bunco night that you could replicate for a charity night at your house!

Pesto Pasta Salad (courtesy of “The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen“) and you can visit The Farm Chicks Blog too!

3 cups bowtie pasta (about 8 oz)
1/4 cup pesto (Sam’s Club has pesto for really cheap, if your garden isn’t ready for pesto-making yet)
1/4 cup sour cream
1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes (about two medium)
1/2 cup halved pitted black olives
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)

Cook pasta as directed. Drain and rinse under cold running water and let cool. Place in a salad bowl. In another bowl, mix the pesto and sour cream together and add to the pasta, tossing to coat. Add the tomatoes, olives, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts and toss to mix. Serve.

Bunco Punch

ICE RING:
Orange slices
Lemon slices
Lime slices
Maraschino cherries
Cherry juice or red food coloring
Water
Metal ring mold

SIMPLE SYRUP (Prepare ahead) :
3 c. water
3 c. sugar
Combine, boil and cool.

PUNCH:
Simple syrup, chilled
4 c. chilled cranberry juice
3 c. chilled bottled lemon juice
2 c. chilled orange juice
2 c. chilled unsweetened pineapple juice
2 qt. chilled ginger ale
16 oz. rum or vodka or wine or champagne

Create your ice ring by throwing in the citrus fruit slices and then pouring in the jar of cherries (juice and all) Top the bundt pan off with water and then freeze overnight.

To serve: Unmold ice ring into punch bowl; add juices and liquor; add ginger ale.

This makes approximately 30 (6 ounce) servings.


What are some fun charitable activities you do with your friends and/or family? I would love for you to share how you make charity a priority in your house?

Related Links:

Good Cheap Fun: Bunco

Retro Housewife Bunco

Kentucky Derby Bunco

’70′s Bunco Style

Day Old Bread Gets A Makeover…Or Four

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

One of our favorite sandwich shops in town is Jimmy John’s. If you haven’t sampled one of their yummy gourmet subs, you must run out and get one. My husband loves these so much that this is where he wanted to meet us for his birthday lunch. The two of us spent many a late night over their subs at Purdue University. Now as parents, our children love them just as much as we do!

When chatting with my friend Jessica, whose husband happens to own and operate our local Jimmy John’s, she shared with me that they offer their “day old” bread for a deeply discounted price. Day old simply means that the bread is more than five hours old and so they can no longer use it to make the sandwiches. I never realized that they offered this and was anxious to find out the price and if they would have any the next time I went.

After church on Sunday, we headed over to the restaurant to grab some lunch and I asked if they had any day old bread to spare. Stacked high on the counter were many loaves of bread offered at a discounted rate. For $.48 a loaf, I grabbed four loaves to see what I could invent in the kitchen with this inexpensive bread. That is right, only $.48 a loaf, far cheaper than even the discounted bakery cart at Walmart!


That evening, I worked on a beautiful roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and baby peas for a delicious Sunday dinner. The chicken had a yummy lemon sauce and we used the bread to mop up the sauce. We quickly polished off the first loaf that night. No need to change anything when the bread is fresh and a perfect side to any dinner hour.

I called my mother-in-law to see if she would like to come over for dinner the following night. For $.48 a loaf, I can afford to entertain! The second loaf of bread is reinvented into my favorite overnight breakfast casserole. We served this with orange juice, coffee, and a fresh loaf of my banana oat bread. Everyone left the table will full bellies and smiles on their face.

That evening, I cut the last two loaves into squares, drizzled them with olive oil, sprinkled them with garlic salt and threw them in the oven to make homemade croutons. The bread was still soft, but a little stale so this was a great way to use up what was left.

The next morning we had a playgroup to attend and we had to pack our lunches. My yummy lunch was a grilled chicken salad topped with those homemade croutons and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

When I got home that night, I still had to make our dinner. Lucky for me, I have plenty of croutons so I gave them a spin in my food processor.

Poured them into my favorite thrifted tin platter.

I gave my chicken a little dip in some egg and then the breadcrumbs.

They were baked into my new new favorite Chicken Parmesan recipe, served with pasta, and a little wine. As everyone happily munched away, I brought up the bread that we had bought several days before. “This is the best you have ever made!” my husband proclaimed. I batted my eyes and said, “It must be that day old bread from Jimmy John’s that makes it so good.” His look of surprise was priceless.

I still have enough leftover to make a batch of meatballs and bread our pork chops this week.

As a frugal homemaker, I don’t think I reinvent the wheel of frugality… but I sure know how to beat a dead horse!

What are some of your proudest money-saving moments? Do you have a “beat the dead horse” approach towards using what you have?

At-Home Hair Coloring Savings

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009


I have been coloring my hair at home for years now, but only in the last year has it started to become more necessary. I will peek at my hair in the mirror or my hair will catch the light in the sun and I see those wiry gray hairs coming through. Ah, the signs of old age are upon me.

Hair color in the box has come a long way though and I have experimented with different brands and products that have come out when I have a coupon to go with them.

I have found though that I rarely have to pay for the regular price on my hair color though and let me share why:

1. Hair color is always on sale. If you look in CVS or the Walgreens flier, you will find that on almost any given week, they are running a special on hair color. Walgreens & CVS often will either give you a rebate on these products or some type of register reward. Wait for the sales on your favorite brands and try to stock up in conjunction with these.

2. Hair color coupons abound. Make sure to check your Sunday coupon inserts for coupons and cut these out to apply towards your purchase. If you can combine those coupons with a rebate/Extra Care Buck reward, you can often get your hair color for less than $5 a box.

3. Sign up for mailing lists. Sign up for the mailing lists for coupons and tips on coloring your hair. Clairol, for example, offers the Color Source Club where they send an email newsletter out with coupon savings towards your purchases and updates on their new products. By visiting the Garnier website, you will find they offer a newsletter with updates on free samples and special offers. Likewise, Revlon offers a website where you can sign up for a similar type of program and be notified of savings and samples.

4. Look inside & outside the box for savings. Often on the directions page, there is a coupon to take off money on your next purchase. Make sure to scan all over the outside and inside of the box for coupons and use these on your next color purchase.

5. Don’t forget savings in unlikely places. One week my hair color was not on sale and I was not stocked on any extra boxes. Our local Bed Bath & Beyond though recently added a beauty section that is fully stocked on all of my drugstore needs. I walked in with a manufacturer coupon and combined that with the 20% off a purchase coupon and was still able to score my favorite hair color for about $5.00. I don’t know if all of the stores offer this, but this is another option for coupon savings.

6. Check eBay for coupons. Coupons abound for the products that you use and it is a great resource for savings on the things you use most. When my children were babies, I often used eBay to get coupons for savings off our baby food. Now that they are getting older, I am now looking for hair color coupons. My, how the circle of life continues!

I recently happened upon a product though that has had me shouting it’s praises from the mountain tops and I doubt I will use anything else since I have become so spoiled. It is the Clairol Perfect 10 Hair Color.

I had a coupon for this product and since I have used it, I can never picture using anything else ever again. There are two reasons why I love it.

1. The applicator makes it a lot less messy. I am one of those people that is a constant disaster and I can’t tell you how many things I have ruined while trying to get hair color on my head. It almost became a joke because every time I would color my hair, we would have to buy a new shower curtain because I had slopped color on it.

2. It is done in ten minutes. That is it. By the time I get it on, it is time to rinse it off. It colors my hair that quickly.

It is not the most frugal choice always, but regularly priced at $12.99, it is still a huge cost-savings over the $50-100 charge that is being charged at most salons. If you can apply the cost-savings above, you can still get this hair color for the $5-8 price.

Too scared to color your hair at home? Don’t be! It is really hard to fail at at-home hair coloring unless you are trying to color your hair drastically. If the look is drastic, go to the salon and have them do it, but for just covering a few grays, it can be easy to do at home.

What if you fail or you get a bad color job at the salon? I have found the best product for you for that too!
I once had a botched color job at the salon and I was desperate to tone down my bright hair. I found this great product that you can buy at Walgreens called Color Oops. Within five to ten minutes of putting this on your hair, it will tone down your color. If you leave it on too long though, it will strip your hair down to your baby hair. I would be very careful using a product like this, but desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures and this will work in a pinch.

Your best bet if you get a botched job at the salon? Going back to the salon and asking them to put a little toner on it. They should do this for free for you and guarantee their color services so make sure you ask this before getting your hair done somewhere how long their color-guarantee is.

Don’t forget that no matter where you choose to color you hair, that the most important thing to do to maintain it is to use color-safe shampoos afterward. The same tips for savings on hair color apply to those hair color shampoos too. It has been a long time since I have paid full price for any hair care items by taking advantage of coupons and savings at the drugstore. If you are looking for an affordable brand option, Suave corners the market on inexpensive hair products. They have an arsenal of hair products that won’t put a dent in your wallet. For example, Nexxus shampoo would cost roughly $8.79 for 14.5 ounces. Suave makes a knock off of this same shampoo for $1.92-2.49 for 14.5 ounces. Combine that with a coupon, and you have practically free shampoo that will keep your hair looking great!

I hope these at-home hair color tips will help keep your lovely locks looking great for a lot less!

(Photo Source: Compact Collection)

Related Links:

Overcoming My Fears: Cutting Hair

Open Your Own Beauty Shop

Do you color your hair at home? What products do you love? How do you maximize your color savings?

Boxed Wines: An Eco & Wallet Friendly Choice

Monday, March 23rd, 2009


I feel hesitant posting my personal thoughts on wine. After all, I am the girl who thought that Arbor Mist was the best you could buy for your money for years. Through the years though, my husband and I have become adventurous with trying new wines, I have been to countless wine tastings, and I love nothing better than a good glass of wine at the end of a long day with the kids.

While we both love wine, we don’t necessarily desire the same kind of wine. I am a girl that gravitates more towards a good Chardonnay while my husband is a Merlot fan. Considering we are the only two wine drinkers in the house, the wine would sometimes go to waste because it was not used in the time span it should have. To me, there is nothing worse than throwing money down the drain so I have been looking into other options.

A few months ago though, I was watching the Today Show and they had a wine expert on to discuss the comeback of the boxed wine. “Boxed wine? Blech!” I thought. The expert continued on though to point out that these wines have come a long way and are a great affordable option for families.

We decided to put this theory to the test and began buying and sampling boxed wines instead. I even had the good fortune to receive a few boxes for my review from a couple of great wine companies, which helped add perspective on the different varieties that are available for families.

Why are boxed wines a better value and better for the environment?

Your Wine Lasts Longer- Remember the scenario that I shared about where I was dumping wine down the drain? Well, that doesn’t usually happen when you buy boxed wine. The wine is stored in a Mylar bag with a spout attached. When you pour from the spout the bag acts as a vacuum, which means the wine doesn’t oxidize. An opened box can last for four weeks rather than spoiling in just a day or two.

Boxed Wine is Better for the Environment- Top wine producers are trying to reduce their carbon footprint — that is, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the transportation of wine —and selling the beverage in alternative, lighter packaging instead of heavier glass is one way that they can make that change.These boxes of wine are ideal with some boxes reducing waste by nearly 90 percent of the equivalent bottle.

It Saves Space & Is a Hit at Parties- I took a box of wine to my Bunco night and it was the first thing to go on the table of wines. While some might consider it tacky, that pour spout is quite handy and makes filling your wine glass a breeze. These boxes can hold four bottles or more, but take up a lot less room. If you are short on space or you need something to bring to your next party, I highly recommend the boxed wine alternative.

Wine for Cooking Is Right at Your Fingertips- Many of the dishes I make call for wine in them and these boxes of wine are a cook’s best friend. I no longer have to open a bottle for a dish and let it go to waste, I can now just pour it right out of the box and it costs a lot less than the wine I was buying to cook with.

Boxed Wine is Much More Affordable- You can get a box of wine for a far lower cost than you could get in a bottle. Check the side of the box to see how many bottles are contained within it and then divide that to get your cost per bottle. Some of the best boxed wines I sampled cost roughly $5-6 a bottle, making it much more affordable than even the sale prices on bottled wines.

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that it is a better deal, here are my top picks for best boxed wines on the market. I am happy to report that Epicurious also agrees with a couple of my choices!

Of all of the wines that I sampled, the Black Box wines were consistently the best of the best. The Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot are the best that they offer and they are elegantly packaged. The Cabernet Sauvignon has received a Double Gold award and the Merlot was listed in the Top Ten Best Buys by Wine Enthusiast. Best of all, this one was available at our local Walmart and I have also heard that Sam’s Club members can get it for an even lower price. If I was just venturing into the world of boxed wines, the Black Box wines would be a great place to start.

Banrock Station Chardonnay is one of the best bangs for the buck and they now offer their wine in a 3L (the equivalent of four bottles) box. This Chardonnay is an excellent deal for the money and is recommended as a great budget-friendly wine by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Of all of the wines that Banrock Station offers, their Chardonnay is by far the best and is a great wine to bring to parties and a night in with friends. Even someone who is not a wine expert will recognize the hint of green apple and the crisp taste that comes through in the Chardonnay. This wine is particularly great for Pinot fans because this wine seems to mimic many of the flavors you would find in a good Pinot.

When they would run a sale on this wine, we would buy it in the six bottle quantity to get a discount at our local grocery store. I never knew that they offered this wine in a box and I will now be looking for this eco-friendly alternative to my bottles. It really is that good!

Hardys Stamp offers a variety of great tasting budget-friendly boxed wines. While we were not a fan at all of their boxed Riesling, I can say that I truly loved the Merlot. Hardys Stamp Shiraz is also well-known for offering a rich and full flavor. Epicurious shares that the Shiraz, “evokes warm blueberry pie, with hints of vanilla ice cream and toasty American oak, and just enough tannin to balance the ripe berries.” Overall, I would definitely recommend sampling the red wines that are offered by Hardys Stamp because the flavor was such a great surprise and will now be added to my top list of the best of the best in the boxed wine market.

One wine that I really wanted to pass the test was the Target Wine Cubes. We tried several different wines from Target and I just was left feeling disappointed. I loved the chic packaging and I certainly spend enough time in Target to want to pick it up there, but these wines were definitely not my favorite. If you are going to pick up a box of wine at Target, go for the Pinot Grigio because it is the best that they offer. In 2007, the Wine Cube Pinot Grigio won a double gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Again, I love the packaging on the product, but the wines just weren’t my favorite.

If you are a wine drinker, I would definitely recommend giving boxed wines a try! Once I started sampling boxed wines, we have never gone back to the wines in the bottle. I can’t wait to continue our adventures in tasting and I look forward to more boxed wine products from future companies. I believe that more boxed wines are going to be offered as wineries begin to recognize that even the best wine drinkers love a good wine bargain!

(Photo credit: Paul Olson)

Have you ever given boxed wines a try? Please feel free to offer your recommendations for a great box of wine!

The Cost of a Homemade Happy Meal

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

I admitted to you that we had a problem eating out too much and one of the places that I have felt we spent far too many dollars over the years is McDonald’s. It is just down the road, it is inexpensive, and it is quick. I will say that it is also not good for me, not always warm, and I never feel that great after eating it.

I wanted to show you the cost difference on a store-bought Happy Meal versus the cost on a homemade Happy Meal. I do use the term “homemade” quite loosely because I am purchasing the chicken nuggets so if you wanted to save even more, you could definitely make a batch instead.

McDonald’s Happy Meal

4-Piece Chicken Nuggets
Apples
Reduced Fat Milk
Small Toy

Total Cost of Store-Bought Happy Meal- $3.19 plus tax (this is in Indiana, costs may vary depending on location)

Here is my homemade version for my children that I made for them. I have included exactly what would be included in the meal, but made at home.

Tyson 100% All Natural Chicken Nuggets- 45 per package, cost $6.55 (at our local supermarket, price may vary- I had a great coupon that I will not include in the total!)
4 Piece Nugget Equivalent- .15 each x 4= $.60

1 Gallon of Milk- 16 cups in 1 gallon, cost $1.99 (current price at our local Aldi)
1 Cup of Milk Equivalent- $.12

Apple Slices- 3 pounds for $2.99 (current price at our local Aldi)
Apple Slices- $.25 (generous amount considering how few are in the package)

Total Cost of Homemade Happy Meal- $.97

While $2.22 difference might not seem like much, if you times that by the amount of children that you have in your family plus the amount that you spend on your own meals, there is a huge cost savings to making even your own fast food at home. We try to stick to the $1 Double Cheeseburgers, but Trent, at The Simple Dollar, breaks down the cost of making those double cheeseburgers at home and found that even that price could be beat.

For me, it is hard to get out of the mindset that I shouldn’t have prepackaged foods in my house. We keep our grocery budget low by making things at home. If I am out of commission or we have had a hectic night, I am often wishing that we had a few more convenience foods in our house.

A couple of bags of chicken nuggets in the freezer for these nights would still be more cost-effective than running out to McDonald’s.

And to my poor math teacher that had to tutor me every single day after math class, I would like to thank you for believing in me and working with me over those difficult years in high school. Who would have ever dreamed that I would be putting together a story problem daily that makes my husband shake his head and roll his eyes at me? I have become obsessed with the subject I hated the most so thank you, Mr. Rossi, for never giving up on me! Thanks to your thoughtful tutoring, I have become a human calculator and can crunch numbers on diapers, price per ounces on cans, and dare I say it…even Happy Meals that would make you so proud.

Related Posts:

Boo to McDonald’s
Cracking the McDonald’s Coffee Code

Is anyone else plagued with the human calculator syndrome? What has surprised that is more cost-effective to your household budget?