Posts Tagged ‘Shopping’

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
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?

CVS & Walgreen’s Deals 03.08.09

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I have been taking a break from my CVS shopping because I was fully stocked on everything and because of our No Spend Challenge. I wanted to hop back in the game with the hot Huggie’s Diapers deal this week and because I was running low on a few essentials.

Here is what I stocked up on this week for our family!


Huggies Jumbo Pack Diapers- $10 per package
Buy $25 of participating products, receive $10 in Register Rewards
Printable Coupon (can print 2)- $5 off Gentle Care
Printable Coupon (can print 2, used 1)- $3 off Natural Fit
Total Cost (minus $10 Register Rewards & $13 Coupons)= $7.00 or $2.33 per package

Garnier Fructis Hair Care- $2.99 each
$2 Easy Saver Coupon
$1/1 Garnier Style Product, exp. 3-15-09 (in 2/8/09 paper)
$1/1 Garnier Shampoo, Conditioner or Treatment (in 2/8/09 paper)
Total Cost (minus coupons)- Overage of $.01

Garnier Fructis Hair Color- $5.99
$2 Easy Saver Coupon
$2/1 Garnier Hair Color Product (in 2/8/09 paper)
Total Cost (minus coupons)- $1.99

Colgate Total Whitening Toothpaste- $3.49
$2.50 Easy Saver Coupon
$1.50/1 Coupon (March All You Magazine)
$.75/1 coupon (from newspaper)
Total Cost (minus coupons)- Overage of $.27

Coffee-mate Creamers- $2.49 each
On Sale B1G1 Free, Making them $1.25 each

Total Savings- $37.71
Total Spent- $25.62, $10 in Register Rewards
Final Total- $15.62


Diet Dr. Pepper (2 liter) $.74
Coupon for Free 2 Liter- $.74 (found in February issue of Maxim)
Total Cost- FREE

Crest Pro-Health Toothpaste- $2.99
Coupon $1/1 Crest Pro Health, exp. 3-31-09 (P&G; 2/8/09)
$2 back in ECB
Total Cost- Overage of $.01

Secret Flawless Deodorant- $3.99
$1 back in ECB
$2/1 Secret Flawless or Flawless Touch, exp. 4-30-09 (V 2/22/09)
Total Cost- $.99

Vaseline Lotion (10 oz- look for packages that say 30% more)- $3.69
$2 back in ECB (limit of 5 total)
Vaseline Printable Coupon
$1.25/1 Vaseline Lotion Product, exp. 4-26-09 (V 3/1/09)
Total Cost- $1.13 for two or $56 each

Schick Quattro Razor- $8.99
$5 back in ECB
Total Cost- $3.99 (note: there is a coupon, but I did not have it)

Palmolive Dish Soap- $1.49
$1 back in ECB (limit of 2)
Total Cost- $.98 or $.49 each (note: there is a coupon, but I did not have it)

Coke 12-Packs 4 for $13
$3 back in ECB (limit 1 per household)
Total Cost- $10 or $2.50 per 12 pack

Total Savings- $25.95
Total Spent- $41.67, $17 back in ECB
Final Total- $24.67

Budget-Friendly Gifts for Teens & Tweens

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

I am having the best time putting together these little budget-friendly gift guides for families and I hope you are finding things that are useful in these lists. I have looked through a lot of magazine lists and website lists and none of them really struck a chord with me so I am hoping things on mine are providing ideas for you.

I have been getting some very nice thank-you’s from some of the Etsy sellers so that really warms my heart to know that these lists are serving a double purpose and are helping crafters out too!

In case you missed it, here are the lists that we have on here so far:

Budget-Friendly Gifts for Young Children
My Christmas Wish List
Great Budget-Friendly Gifts for Men

Teen gifts are a tough category for me to cover since I don’t have any children in this stage. I think I am a pretty hip and young mom though so hopefully some of my ideas will work and please feel free to chime in on this category.

As a teenager, my favorite gift was getting money to spend for the after-Christmas sales. My parents knew that our money would go a lot farther if we shopped after Christmas and, at this age, that was just as exciting as getting a bunch of stuff under the tree.

Here are a few notes about teens:

1. Give them the gift of an experience. Even if it doesn’t include you in the picture and one of their friends instead, they will love getting to do something fun. Take your teen daughter to the beauty school and get manicures with her. Hit the makeup counter with her at the mall and buy her a little something out of the case that is flattering. Go tubing with your son and take him somewhere fun for dinner. Give him a couple of tickets to see a movie and a little spending money for the concession stand. Go as a family to see his favorite baseball team play. These are just a few ideas for gift-giving experiences rather than just things under the tree.

2. Remember that at this stage, kids are a little more aware of the value of the dollar and you are now able to have discussions with them about your financial situation. Be honest with them if something is out of your price range, but also try to keep the wonderfully magical aspect of the holiday by doing activities together as a family.

3. Include them in the shopping, the wrapping, or the baking. Even if it is just your son sitting at the kitchen table devouring the holiday cookies and you chatting with him. Even if it is watching your daughter’s favorite television show while you wrap gifts. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, but I promise you that they will remember those special times and what a great parent you are…even if they don’t realize it until ten years down the road.

4. Gift cards are great. Although these aren’t always the budget-friendly option, teens love getting cards to use towards what they want. The key with gift cards that makes them still budget-friendly is that the money can be applied towards the things they really want. Let’s face it, you and your son might not have the same style or taste in music, so if you buy them a gift and they hate it…well, that is money down the drain. If you give them a gift card and they put towards something they really love though…well, that is money that is well spent!

5. Subscriptions always score. You can’t go wrong with a magazine subscription and it is a gift that keeps on giving. Visit eBay to find your teens favorite magazines and buy them a year or two at a discounted price. Other subscriptions that rock? Netflix or Blockbuster subscriptions so they can watch their favorite movies or rent their favorite games at home. For gamers, a subscription to Gametap would be a fun gift to give. Don’t forget that subscriptions to stream music can also be a wonderful gift. I have recently become acquainted with the joys of Napster and Just make sure that the subscription is compatible with their mp3 player or that they have a computer that they can access for their music. Timing free trials with the gift-giving season will help extend the life of the subscription just a little bit longer.

6. Give them gifts based on their hobbies. For the artistic son, get him sketch pads, canvas, or drawing tools. For the daughter who loves to cook, sign her up for a cake decorating class or a cooking course at a continuing education center. For the child that is into sports, try and find some equipment or offer to pay for a program at the local park’s department. Anything that shows that you care and are interested in what they are doing is going to be a gift that they will appreciate.

Here are a few of my budget-friendly ideas:

Wristlets are great for a teen girl on the go because they can carry around their cell phone, iPod, and what they need for a fun night out with their friends. I love these little wristlets in fun patterns from Janine King Designs and they are currently on sale for $19.99. This one is the Ginseng Butterfly pattern, but you could find one that fits well with your teen’s style. You could also attempt making one and I love this little wristlet tutorial for my sewing-readers!

You would have to be hiding under a rock to not know about the Twilight series from Stephenie Meyers. If your teen is a super-fan of the Twilight books, she would love this four piece set of Twilight tile necklaces. This four piece set from Candy Tiles is only $20. You would need to purchase a chain or she could hang these on a silver chain that she already has. The ambitious parent could make her own tile pendant necklaces and custom design them for her daughter! Another thrifty idea to make this cute would be to have different colors of ribbon that she could string these on that you could include in your gift. How cute would that be?

I adore these little pink gum drop bobbies from Button Boutique- aren’t they adorable? This set of seven is only $9.90! Again, my crafty mommas could whip some of these up by following this tutorial!

Another goodie for a tween/teen girl would be this cool Jonas Brothers bag that would resonate with any super fan. It reminds me of my obsession with New Kids on the Block and the super cool fan gear that I was always sporting. I understand about obsessions with boy bands, I truly do. This says you do to and is available from rocknrecycle for $26.95.
Gaming chairs are great for girls or for boys who are really into playing video games. If you watch for next year, they do discount these around the time that the kids are heading back to college. Our beanbag chairs are certainly not as nice as this one, but they only cost us $20 each. After doing some browsing online, this one came up as one of the lower priced ones at $49.99 called the Boompod. This chair can link up to all the gadgets- iPods, mp3 players, game systems, etc.. It would be a fun additon to your son’s room and is great when he has friends over to play.

Electric razors are a great gift to give and come in some very budget-friendly options. If you don’t want to order one online, I often see some really great prices at the outlet malls on shavers. This razor from Panasonic can be used wet or dry and is priced at $29.99. If your family does a lot of traveling, a pocket electric razor might be a great option too. This one from Braun is only $19.99 and rivals the larger and more expensive models in performance.

It doesn’t matter what kind of clunker your kid has, every guy has a desire to make upgrades to their car. Upgrading their headlights is just one inexpensive idea that you could do. Other ideas would be tokens to get their ride washed, getting them supplies to shine up the car themselves, getting a holder for their cell phone, even upgrading their speakers or audio equipment on a small scale would be great. These GE bulbs are priced at $30.99, but Amazon is running a buy one get one free deal on these. You could give one to your son and one to your husband or some other great guy in your life!

Is your son really into gaming? jamjamtees sells this funny “geek” shirt that any gamer would love. If you browse this seller’s shop you will find everything from t-shirts for gamers, cyclists, and even lacrosse. This t-shirt is only $12.99.

Look for ideas in the next coming weeks for hostess gifts and stocking stuffers!

What are your favorite gifts to give kids in the teen/tween category? What gifts have really scored with your teenager?

Budget-Friendly Gifts for Younger Kids

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

One of the things that people wanted to see on our site were some ideas for giving gifts on a budget for children. I can cover the younger kid category quite easy, but will have to put some thought in for the teen and tween categories.

I know I am not the only parent who sat in amazement when my child became fixated on a box rather than the gift itself. Yes, young children are easier to please than what we might think so remember that when choosing gifts for kids. Don’t add unnecessary stress to your life because chances are that our children will just be entertained and happy with the opening of the gifts and a fabulous spread of holiday food.

Things that I have discovered with choosing gifts for younger children are:

1. Thrifted gifts will be just as loved. Younger children are not at a stage where they are going to be disappointed that a gift did not come in a shiny new box. No, they will just be excited to see whatever it is you have wrapped for them so don’t feel like you are disappointing them if you don’t have a brand new gift for them.

2. Art supplies always make an excellent gift. In my house, you can never have too many crayons, drawing paper, or fun things to keep the kids entertained for hours. When out-of-town relatives send money for the kids, I always apply the money to a big bin of art supplies or goodies for our ornament-making station. I also usually give this gift a little early so that they can be entertained during those hectic days right before Christmas.

3. Giving gifts of traditions are always the best kind of gifts. We try to focus more on traditions rather than what is wrapped under the tree. Try incorporating a Christmas Jar or an Advent Calendar of goodies. Do a countdown to Christmas with items found at thrift stores or wrap each year a set of Christmas books that the children can look forward to every year.

4. Don’t feel guilty about what isn’t under the tree. In this tough economy and with so many job losses and higher prices plaguing families, please do not feel bad if you can’t get your children everything that is their heart’s desire. Remember that young children are impressionable and you can offer gentle guidance towards budget-friendly gifts at this stage in the game. When my son asked for Spike the T-Rex ($130), I showed him some other great dinosaurs that I thought he would really like that were less than $20. With a little guidance and an explanation that Spike was a little out of Santa’s budget, we were able to steer him towards some more budget-friendly options.

Here are some examples of some of my favorite gifts for young children:
One of our favorite gifts that we have received is the Leapfrog Magnet sets. My daughter loves this farm animal set ($14.99) and also loves the alphabet set. The farm animal set is great for young children because they can just put two magnets together to make the animal and then it sings a little song about what the animal says and does. The alphabet set will grow with children more and will be used longer, but does comes at a little higher price ($16.99). When your child is a beginning reader, like mine, the set can be used to begin spelling words, which is really fun.

Both sets have been loved for years and years in our house and it keeps my kids entertained in the kitchen while I prepare supper. I will say that I hated this farm animal set when I was pregnant and would bump it with my belly and it would say things about cows. Um, thanks, LeapFrog!
My children love blocks and last Christmas we got them each a box of these for the holidays. My daughter is two and my son is six and they both love these blocks and play with them for hours. We gave them this gift early (one of our activities in our Christmas Jar) and they had the best time with these. I have a wicker basket that is the centerpiece on our coffee table in the playroom so that the kids can build and create with these anytime they want. This set is $18.99 for 100 blocks. If you get one for each kid, they can build a fortress out of them!

One of the most beloved gifts for both the kids was a sock monkey that I bought my daughter. She carried it around a lot and I have found him hiding underneath the covers in my son’s bed too. My Mommy’s Place has these for only $14. If you are ambitious, you could make a sock monkey yourself and make it entirely unique for your children. I think these guys look so cute popping out of the stockings.

My son is really into the superhero thing right now so I am planning to get him one of these superhero capes to fight off the bad guys in our house. This cape is reversible so he could decide which hero he wanted to be and is available from kidzescapes for $24.

Not to be outdone by the boys, every good princess needs a cape too and kidzescapes has that covered too. You can get this reversible cape for $25. The ambitious momma could tackle this project herself and come up with a wonderfully unique cape for their child.

I swear I don’t work for Leapfrog, even though it might seem like it! I have to say that the best DVD’s we have EVER bought our children are from Leapfrog. We actually bought the entire set of these and they are one of the best teaching tools that I have ever seen. It taught my two year old all of her letter sounds and gave my son an advantage in kindergarten. He was one of the only ones in his pre-K class that could recite every single letter sound. These movies build on beginning letter sounds, word sounds, and even work on math skills. If you are going to add to your movie collection, I highly recommend these. The Letter Factory is priced at only $8.99.
My son is six and his favorite book is definitely the Dangerous Book for Boys (priced at $16.17) We also have a sparkly Dangerous Book for Girls book (priced at $17.79) for my daughter when she gets a little older. These Things to Do editions are only $10.17 (here is a link to the girl’s edition). In it are great activities to keep your kids entertained for hours and hours. Include some supplies to complete one of the dangerous activities and you will be the coolest parent on the block.

If your child is in the beginning stages of reading, they will love Mia’s Reading Adventure. This computer software has been an incredible addition to our collection. Your child learns reading through games and story activities to help them learn word recognition. The characters are 3D and the storyline is really good so it has kept our son really entertained and engaged in it. We have tried other software from the company, but so far Mia has been the biggest hit. This is priced at $24.99.

If your children like to move and groove to the music, I can guarantee that both you and they will absolutely love the new They Might Be Giants, “Here Come the 123s” The CD comes with a DVD that has all of the songs on the CD with a music video to accompany it. The lyrics are hilarious, the movies will make you laugh out loud, and the kids will learn something. The DVD is just as good as the CD so you can get something for your car and to keep the kids educationally entertained in front of the television. This is priced at just $14.99.

One of our favorite things that has been loved literally until the color wore off and we had only two magnets left because we had lost them all is this School Zone Preschool Magnetic Set. We have taken this set with us whenever we travel or are at a restaurant waiting endlessly for food. The set comes with different heavy-duty backgrounds and comes with an entire farm of animals & magnetic letters that can be stuck to the different backgrounds. The different storyboards have different activities on them or if you have younger children who aren’t reading, they can make up their own stories. These are magnets though so make sure you are supervising younger children or give this gift at an age where you can trust them.

The case is metal so if you have a rambunctious toddler like me, it can get warped from standing on it, but the kids have loved this so much that I plan to get them each a new one. They have a kindergarten and preschool version. Best of all, they only cost $9.99.

These are just a handful of my ideas for gift-giving and I hope it helps a little with your holiday shopping.

What are some of your favorite gifts to give for younger kids? Do you have any special presents that your children are requesting this year? Please feel free to share!

A Perfectly Cozy Gift

Monday, December 1st, 2008

I have finished my snowy day scarf and it turned out beautifully! I loved how this scarf turned out so much that I decided to make it for a few more gifts for holiday-giving this year. I was planning to finish it with some tassels, but after tying some tassels to the edges, I decided to take them out because I liked it without them more.

Ethan liked this scarf so much that he now wants me to make one of these for his teacher. We headed over to Michael’s and he picked out a soft icy blue for the scarf to be knitted out of. It was so fun to see him think so hard about what color he wanted to give to her. He truly loves his teacher. In fact, on his report card it said, “Ethan tells me he loves me every single day.” I hope he is always this tender and sweet.

I am saving those tubes that my Crystal Light drink mix comes in to use for my holiday drink mixes this year. I wrapped this one in some holiday gift wrap and wrapped it around the tube, sealing with a little Elmer’s glue to hold it in place. I used my handy little circle punch to make a gift tag to label the drink mix and tied it off with a little raffia. I thought it turned out so cute and, best of all, it was something that would have gone into my recycling.

The scarf is wrapped in ribbon I bought at the end of season last year on clearance. I think it looks so pretty and festive with this bow on it.

Total cost with ingredients, yarn, and wrapping- approximately $5!

Back to the knitting needles to replicate this a couple of more times- once for my postal worker who has worked so hard helping deliver boxes to my house all year long and another for our special teacher. If I can squeeze another one in, it will be for one of his bus drivers and the other (a gentleman) will get a special goody box delivery.

What teacher gifts do you have planned this year? What do you do for those special helpers in your life (the mail carrier, the bus driver, the hair dresser, etc..)?

5 Tips for Great Photography Straight From A Pro

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

I was excited to have found an old friend of mine from high school through Facebook. As I paged through my friend Daniel’s info and pictures, I couldn’t believe how incredible his photography was and had to find out what he was up to. It was no surprise, after seeing his amazing photography, that he was running his own business and doing quite well with it.

I asked if I could interview him for our website so I could share tips for great photography with our moms and was so thrilled when he accepted. He was happy to share with our readers just a little glimpse into the world of great photography and I hope that this information will help you as you venture into taking pictures of your children.

Best of all, he shares his secrets for getting that perfect family photo and just in time for those fun holiday pictures for those photo cards!

Can you offer some insight on choosing the best photography equipment for a young family? What is one good investment that is totally worth the splurge?

Sure! I can talk cameras and gear all day and night, but I’ll try to keep it brief. The main thing to keep in mind is that expensive gear doesn’t make great photographs. Expensive tools are nice, but more important is the knowledge of how and when to use the tools you’ve got. With that in mind, remember that digital photography equipment is very rapidly evolving. For example, the big camera manufacturers have a history of announcing new SLR camera bodies every 18 months or less! So the one solid investment to make in digital photography is in glass (lenses). Spend your money on the best glass you can afford, keep it forever, and then look for a camera body within your remaining budget.

If the SLR world of bodies and interchangable lenses is entirely out of your budget from the start, then don’t forget that truly great photographs are made every single day with cameras in the Point & Shoot (P&S;) category. In general, P&S; cameras will range from being completely automatic to having the ability to shoot fully manual. An automatic camera can be convenient and may serve your purposes well. However, in my experience, most people taking photographs of their kids will eventually want at least some amount of manual control over their camera’s settings. The danger in letting an auto-camera do all the thinking for you is that there will be situations involving lighting, motion, white balance and selective focus that will require at least some amount of manual control to capture. I don’t want to get too much into recommending specific brands or models, but the P&S; camera I take with me when I scuba dive is a Canon G9, which can be as “auto” or as “manual” as I need it to be. I use 2 SLR bodies and a variety of lenses when shooting above the water!

If readers would like more specific recommendations with regard to brand/model, they are more than welcome to contact me directly. I’m happy to help! So, quick re-cap: spend your money on good lenses first if going the SLR route or spend your money on getting some manual control if going with a P&S; camera.

When trying to capture pictures of children, what are a few quick tips for good photography?

First, remember that photography is about light and without good light on your children, their smiles, laughs and actions will likely go uncaptured! So, position yourself in relation to your children so that their faces are well lit and worry about lighting in other areas of the frame as secondary importance. With that in mind, harsh sunlight isn’t very flattering in most situations and finding some shade under an overhang or next to a building will generally improve the quality of your light. Think about light in at least two different ways; there is a quantity of light and also a quality of light, which are very different from one another. Try to avoid shooting under tree leaves as you’ll end up with “broken light” on your children from the sun shooting between the leaves of the tree. You’ll end up with bright spots and shadow areas right next to one another on their faces, creating a “giraffe skin effect” on your kiddos!

Of course, with kids, the harder you try to pose them, the worse the situation becomes, and very quickly! Most parents with younger children would have no trouble agreeing with that! So, let children be children. Don’t impose too much, hang around close enough to capture your photographs, gently inserting mild directives when possible, but try not to intrude. If you do need to pose children in a more formal manner, do it quickly, with lots of praise and by showing them examples of what you want, etc. Get the shot immediately and then set them free to go play! In general, I try not to keep the little ones ‘posing’ for me any longer than 30 seconds to a minute before giving them a play break. Of course, during their play break, I’m still shooting from a distance!

Young children are constantly in motion, what settings work best for energetic toddlers?

Great question! I tend to think of child photography as being similar to sports photography in many ways. Two things have to happen; 1. your shutter speed has to be fast enough to ‘freeze’ the child’s motion and 2. your focus must be constantly adjusting as the child moves and the distance changes between the child and your camera. A slower shutter speed will let in more light of course, but motion will also be blurred (which can be a cool effect). However, I find that a sharp, crisp, and in-focus photo of a moving toddler will typically require a shutter speed of 1/80s or faster depending on how fast they are moving and depending on the lens you are using. A longer (telephoto) lens requires faster shutter speeds to avoid camera shake. Many cameras have several focusing modes. If your camera has a mode that allows you to track movement, sometimes called AI Servo or AI Focus among other names, this usually works better than pre-focusing and trying to anticipate a child’s movement. So, quick shutter and tracking focus for kids on the go!

What editing software would you recommend for a mom who is just starting out with photo editing?

Well, there are just so many good options for editing photos anymore, many of them free and I’d be happy to recommend a few of my favorites. However, I want to emphasize how important it is that good photographs be made in-camera, not ‘fixed’ in post processing. With tools like Photoshop we can do some really amazing things to a digital image, but it’s always obvious when a photograph has been ‘saved’ in photoshop. There’s a saying to this effect amongst many photographers, “garbage in, garbage out.” My point being that you should spend more of your time working on getting great photos with your camera than working on trying to edit them into great photos .

However, in my opinion all digital photos do require at least a little post-processing in the way of white balance, saturation, curves and sharpness and one of my favorite tools for, say a mom jus
t starting out, is
Google’s Picasa. It’s free, has a very easy interface, offers many web and sharing options and likely isn’t going away any time soon! Honestly, my 6 year old uses Picasa with her digital photos. It’s very user-friendly. For those who may be ready to get into a little more serious editing, but want to maintain the ‘free’ aspect, I’d recommend the application, Gimp.

There are also many free web-based applications for those times when you might not be at your own computer, but need to quickly upload and edit a handful of images: Picnik, Pixenate, Fotoflexer, LunaPic, flauntr, picture2life, phixr, and easyphotoresize. Personally, I do the majority of my editing for the weddings and portraits I that I shoot in Adobe Lightroom and a little bit still in Photoshop.

When getting family portraits done, I am always stumped how to dress the family. Do you have any suggestions for getting that perfect family picture?

Sure! In general, I like families to feel comfortable above all else. Good photographs are about capturing a family’s personality and it’s always very obvious when subjects are uncomfortable in their own clothing. Additionally, I tend to like solid colors on top and either jeans or khaki pants. In the Fall, I prefer solid black or white tops. In the Spring and Summer, I really like bright bold solid colors on top. Bright, bold colors in the snow for winter portraits can really be fun too! It’s usually best to avoid busy patterns, horizontal stripes, and clothes that have never been worn before. So, be comfy, be yourselves and do your best to NOT stress out about getting your family portraits done. One thing I can say for sure, is that stress always shows in photographs and stiff, posed portraits are just not my style at all. So, when considering getting your own family portraits done keep comfort and personality in mind. In general, you want your family to look like your family in your portraits, not a stiff, posed and stressed version of your family!

I have to ask, what is your favorite photograph that you have ever taken and why is it special to you?

Definitely the hardest question to answer, Amy! It’s so tough to say. On one hand, there are so many photographs that I am really pleased with and on the other hand, one is always very critical of his own work.

One thing I do every year in December is put together a collection of what I feel are some of my best photographs for that calendar year and publish them as a free video podcast, which can be found in iTunes by doing a search for “dgmphotography” or “Daniel G. McNulty” in the iTunes store. Subscribing to this video podcast portfolio is free of course. I also regularly put many of my personal favorites on my blog in more of an informal format. That said, I think I’d have to choose a favorite in multiple categories (weddings, children, families, landscape, etc), but if I were forced to choose one photograph to keep for the rest of my life and never look at another, it would probably be this one, mostly because they are my daughters and loving the beach and loving each other as I do!

General Info About Daniel G. McNulty Photography:
iTunes Link

A big round of applause to Daniel for helping us with this piece. What is your biggest dilemma with capturing pictures and what would you like us to feature more of in this category?

Please be sure to leave a comment and thank Daniel for his time in helping us supply these amazing tips!

My Christmas Wish List This Year

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Reader Q: What is on your Christmas list this year?

I love making Christmas lists for my children, but I dread making them for myself. I feel like I have so much that I don’t really need anything. I know how fun it is to see other people’s holiday lists though because it can help you in creating your own lists. Without further adieu, here is my wish list for this year!

The first thing on my list is that people make a donation to our Big Give this year. I have been working so hard on this and want to really give our local homeless shelter a really great Christmas this year. Our family does charitable giving in lieu of gift exchanges so I look forward to putting money in for good causes this year. I encourage you all to do the same or request that charitable gifts be made instead of getting something on your Christmas list.

One of the gifts that I received as an early Christmas gift was a Kindle. I get to do some traveling with my work and I am an avid reader. On my last trip, I was toting four library books to keep me entertained. While I was out of town, Oprah had the Kindle on her show and my husband ordered one for me at the special discount price. It was the best gift he could have ever got me, although a little extravagant for our usual “only buy for the kids” Christmas. I absolutely love it and am asking for Amazon gift cards so I can download books on it for reading. I am a gadget girl and the convenience of having all of my books on this little reader is such a special treat. You can download newspapers, books, and blogs into it and keep your reading in one little spot.

As a Christmas gift to my husband, this Mighty Bright clip-on light would be great so he could sleep at night while I am reading. I drive him crazy reading in bed so this would be a great gift for both of us. This gift would be only $13, but would add a lot of sleep value for my husband.
A makeup brush set is top priority on my list this year. This set from Ulta is only $19.99. Why might I ask for this? Well, my daughter managed to find a lemonade packet from our kitchen and decided to mix up a batch of lemonade in the toilet. With no spoons within toddler-level, mommy’s make-up bag came in handy and she used my brushes as her official stirrers. Nothing like swiping a damp brush across your face to make you wonder how it got so wet? Evidence of pink residue and other fine handiwork led me to the conclusion that I should get a fresh set of brushes.

Another item on my list was the Apples to Apples game. Our family loves board games and this is one that I would really like to add to our family collection. I absolutely love this game and it is a great game to play when we have friends over.

I have a wine opener on our list because ours has kicked the can. I prefer the Rabbit style of wine opener. I am not into the wine opening sets because they require more space in my limited kitchen cupboard space. This Houdini Lever Style Wine Opener is a steal in the black color for a little over $20!

I would like to get a dry erase calendar with a set of colored markers to get our family organized for the new year. This jumbo calendar is what I have in mind for our kitchen so we can get everyone’s schedule in one spot. This calendar is only $14.99 through the Container Store.
One thing that I have not bought for myself in years and years is perfume. A little known fact about my husband is that he has no sense of smell. I seem to not make the extra effort with things like this because I know it is wasted, but I love a good perfume so I would love to have some even if it is for only my own benefit. One of my favorites is Clinique Happy perfume. Just a teeny bottle would be great for those special occasions.

I would love one of these mother’s necklaces with my kid’s names on it. I can already see this necklace around my neck. This one is sold by Moppets Closets and is $27. I love that it says blessed on it with the names surrounding it because that is exactly how I feel as a mom.

I love bamboo placemats and we have had these on our table for years. They are easy to clean and can be rolled up and stored when we want to throw a tablecloth on our table. After eight years though,they are showing their age and are falling apart. I love these bamboo placemats in black because they wouldn’t show any food stains. These are $14.90 for four.

I really would love an oilcloth tablecloth for my table and I think this color would be perfect in my kitchen:

Chalkydoodles makes custom ones with a gingham border that would be a wonderful and useful splurge in my kitchen. If I get holiday money this year, I am putting it towards this. For my table size it is a splurge at $44, but would be used for a long time. Oilcloth appeals to me with two messy kids so I would love to have one of these in my kitchen.

My French Press broke so I would love to get another one to replace it. I found my first one at a thrift store, but is rare you find one with all the working parts on it. This Bonjour Hugo accommodates three cups of coffee (or one Amy cup) and is unbreakable. You have to be careful with the glass ones and this one could stand my abuse a little more. Best of all, it is priced at $12.90.

I got the first Digital Photography book by Scott Kelby last year for Christmas and absolutely fell in love with this book. I would love to get this Digital Photography 2 book as a holiday gift. I would recommend these books to anyone who is trying to understand photography without a lot of mumbo jumbo language. These books are absolutely great for beginners.

Other things that will always make the list are-

  • Michael’s or Hobby Lobby gift cards to help feed my crafting addictions. I was also thinking I would like to take the next level to cake decorating so those could also go towards my supplies.
  • Candles, but they have to be food-related scents and I love holiday-ish scented stuff.
  • Starbuck’s gift cards to splurge on my favorite coffee drinks.
  • Babysitting- We love anyone who offers to help us with the kids so we can have a date night. Even the gift of time during the day so I can whip the house back into shape is always a hit!
  • A maid- If I can’t get the babysitter, I could really use a maid to help me with my house.

What is on your holiday wish list this year?

Inspiring Moms: Alli from Mrs. Fussypants Guide to Life

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

Thank you all for entering our contest! I had to do the random number generator to choose our winner this time because all of the entries were so worthy. I would like to congratulate our winner, Andrea from Mommy Snacks, and we hope that this little gift will make her family’s holiday a little brighter. Andrea said this:

“I would give this to my mom. My father passed 3 years ago and there is a beautiful pic of the two of them that she keeps around – you can immediately sense his personality when you see that picture. Mom hasn’t taken off her wedding ring, not sure she will, not sure that’s easy to do. But, with this necklace, this pic will be close to her heart everyday and she’ll know – ring or not – he is with her :-)”

Thank you again to everyone who entered and check back each week for new giveaways!

I am such a fan of you, Alli, why did you decide to start blogging over at Mrs. Fussypants Guide to Life?

Thank you, Amy. And I, of you. I discovered blogs about a year and a half ago when I researching homeschool resources. I fell in love with blogs instantly. I wanted a site that would reflect me and be a collection of little bits of my personality. What I didn’t know is how blogging would change my life through all the amazing women I have met and grown to love through their words.

I try to keep in mind that my site is my time capsule. My sons, my grandchildren, and 25 generations to come will know of me through what I write. Hopefully someone will say, “Ol’ Great Granny Alli, she sure was a funny lady back then.” I love that thought.

I am the editor for your Family Bliss Channel for Blissfully Domestic so you know I am already a super fan. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what Blissfully Domestic is and what you hope to provide with your site?

Blissfully Domestic is an wonderful group of talented women who have joined together as the ‘Domestic Divas’. There are 14 channels and over 250 women who contribute.

My vision for Blissfully Domestic was to provide a platform for women to show off their wisdom. As a mother of little kids, I used to get lost in that role. It wasn’t until I discovered blogging and began sharing my thoughts with the world, that I realized I had more and more wisdom to share. I believe every woman has knowledge to share with the world!

Blissfully Domestic is different than most online magazines because we are 100% real women. I founded the site with $27 and a few friends sharing their wisdom in weekly articles. The success has been humbling and I am very honored to be at the helm of a magazine that is packed with meaningful, useful articles. I hope we are a blessing to all who write for the site and who read.

You threw your first blogger bash, Blissdom ’08 recently and are planning another event in February. What are you hoping to offer with this event and what makes it unique?

BlissDom was a celebration of the power and wonderful voice of female bloggers. We shared our secrets, our tips and our motivation. It was an amazing experience.

In February, I hope to bring more aspects of Blissfully Domestic in to BlissDom. My vision is a retreat weekend for women. I hope to incorporate Blissful Style, Blissful Home, Inspired Bliss, Family Bliss and more.

You know, I hear Family Bliss is a huge hit. {winks}

As a mother of a zillion children (just kidding), how do you balance motherhood with running your site?

I do have a whole bunch of boys! I have 5 sons, the youngest is 5 months and the oldest is 10. Balancing motherhood and my sites is a constant challenge. This year, after homeschooling my sons for years, I enrolled them in a small church school. I knew it was time to focus on my sites as a business and make sure the boys were getting what they needed. Now I work with a two year old playing cars around me and nursing the baby. Thank goodness for my wireless laptop.

Can you share one tip for a blogger who is just getting started?

Join Twitter and meet new friends. Keep your writing pithy, your pictures pretty and never use auto music.

Blogging, just like life is not a zero-sum game. Supporting the successes of others is very important. It is important to treat others in a respectful way and never be underhanded or cruel online. Online reputations are of utmost importance. Our circles are small and every single thing we do is public.

When building a blog, a brand or a large network- you will get back what you give. When you work with a passion and make it your goal to support others as well as yourself, others will be drawn for the right reasons.

In her free time, Alli works very hard at Fussypants Designs creating beautiful photo heirloom jewelry. Browse around her site and look at all of the beautiful choices and find out how to order them here for the holidays. Remember, it is always good to support our fabulous work-at-home mommas!

Alli has generously offered our readers the chance to win one of her amazing pieces of work. We will be giving one winner one of these beautiful necklaces. To enter, please leave a comment here by Wednesday (11/26) at 8PM (EST) and tell me who you would give this necklace to and why. The best answer to this question will win so please be creative with your responses. Be sure to sign in to your Blogger account so your name is clickable or leave your email address in the comments if you are signing in anonymously. I will need to be able to contact you if you win! Good luck, everyone!

Great Budget-Friendly Gifts for Men

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008
(Image Credit: Craig)

I don’t know what it is about men, but it seems that people are always looking for gift ideas for them. I have never really had a problem with buying for guys, in particular, but struggle more for those people in my life who seem to have everything. Buying gifts for the guys in your life doesn’t have to be difficult and I want to arm you with some of my favorite gifts for guys that are always a hit.

Give the Gift of Music- I am a big music-lover and the men in my life are music lovers too. Music is always a great gift to give because it is something that can be enjoyed for a very long time. I love to make a “mixed tape” of great music and then follow these instructions for making a very personalized CD cover with pictures that I know the recipient would like. Print the covers on heavy card stock and add a personal message to the recipient.

If the man in your life is more into the digital music, why not give him an iTunes gift card that can be redeemed for picking his own favorite music? These gift cards start at just $15, which would make a great gift for any music lover.

Give the Gift of Movies- One of the best gifts I have ever given has to be the gift of movies. Netflix offers a wide range of plans that you can choose from and you can purchase a month or two for your recipient for very little money. Their plans start at $4.99 and you can present the subscription in a fun way or even tuck the gift in with a popcorn tub and and some movie theater snacks.

Give the Gift of Reading- Guys love magazine subscriptions and I have found that magazine subscriptions can be bought very inexpensively off of eBay. Make your own card and tell your guy that the gift is redeemable for any magazine of his choice (except those filthy magazines which will never be purchased for your guy thankyouverymuch) and that you will get him a gift subscription. I have found subscriptions to magazines for $3 or $4 for an entire year versus the newsstand prices. If it is in your budget, you could subscribe to two or three without breaking the bank and let him think you spent a mint on him.

Give the Gift of Food & Drink- They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach and I have found this is absolutely true. Whip up a special batch of his favorite snack and pair it with some of his favorite coffee. You could make him a batch of these sugar and spice nuts and pair it with a little bucket of his favorite beer. By pairing your homemade specialty with a store-bought favorite drink, you have a great combination for a perfectly budget-friendly gift.

If you want to extend the gift further, wrap up his favorite snack and give him coupons to redeem the snacks for later. This is especially effective with college-aged guys and we have made more than a few college students happy with our boxes of goodies. You can download and print our free college coupon template and mount these to card stock for holiday gift-giving.

Give the Gift of Accessories- Just like women love a good handbag, a pretty scarf, or a hot pair of shoes, men have a desire for accessories too… just not the same kind as us. If your man is into gadgets and already has them, why not supply him with some accessories for the items he already has? For example, if he has a Nintendo Wii, you could give him some Wii points to put towards one of his favorite old Mario Brothers games. Likewise, if he uses any other game system, you could buy an extra controller or a different style of controller so he could play with more of his friends. If he has a Kindle you could give him a gift certificate to Amazon to buy some book downloads. Is he into computers? Why not try and find some computer software that he could put to good use by taking advantage of those rebate offers from the office supplies stores. We often forget to reload the tech gadgets we already have so this is a cost-effective way of building upon investments that have already been made.

There are the other accessories in life too so take a peek at his belt, his wallet, his hat, his scarf, his planner. While not maybe as much fun as some of the other gifts on the list, upgrading your man’s accessories can be very thoughtful and will be used for years to come. I love to go to stores like TJ Maxx and Marshall’s to find these accessories because they are so deeply discounted and you can get some really great brand-names for an affordable price.

Give the Gift of Believing In Your Man- I know how much I appreciate it when someone believes in me and what I do so why not try and make that into a gift for someone you love? Are they self-employed or trying to start their own side business? Why not place an order for business cards for them? VistaPrint offers very affordable prices on business cards and think how much that would mean to someone who is trying to start their own business. You could pair that with a business card case that has been engraved with his initials which would make the gift even more personal.

Does the man in your life have a hobby that he is passionate about? Why not get him a book, a tool, or some items off of his wish list to support that hobby. Make these gifts more personal with a note that tells them that you are proud of them and give him a free pass to watch the children so he can go and pursue his hobby for the day… with no flack from you. Men value their alone time just as much as women so give him permission to go hit a few of those golf balls that are wrapped under the tree and enjoy some of your own quality time alone with the kids.

Give the Gift of Memories- Do you know something about the man in your life that you could use as a creative gift? Think of their favorite book as a child or think of a gift that he said he always wanted, but never got when he was young. Try and find those items on eBay and write a personal message to them about how you always remembered that this was special to them. You don’t have to pay to get a first-edition of the item, remember that the thought is there and he will
appreciate that you remembered that about him.

Another way to capture those memories is by finding an old picture that would have significant memories for him and have it printed up through a photo place and frame it for his desk at work. Maybe it is a picture of you with your father? Maybe it is a picture of you and your spouse on your honeymoon? Maybe it is a picture of your grandfather with his grandkids? Frame it and give it to them as a way of remembering all of those wonderful memories.

Whatever you do, just remember to make the gift as personal as you can. Wrap your gift creatively and tuck in a letter of what that person means to you. Everyone wants to feel loved and appreciated and nothing says appreciation like a little time invested into a personal gift. Don’t just give him the supplies to wash the car, give him a coupon that says it is good for one car wash done by you. Don’t just give him a magazine subscription. Buy one magazine to wrap that says that it is good for the subscription and then tag the magazine with sticky notes with funny notes from yourself. Don’t give him a generic coffee mug, have the children create one with you and fill it with his favorite snack. Make it as personal as possible and your gift will say a lot more than any expensive gift that is wrapped under the tree.

I hope these ideas have helped since this was a topic our readers really wanted to see!

Please share-what do you like to give to the men in your life? Have you done any of these ideas from this list?