Thursday, May 7, 2009

Warm Weather = Affordable Fun!

Summer vacation is an exciting time, but quickly leads to “I’m Bored Syndrome” without a few fun things to do. My kids are only allowed to be indoors if it is raining (and even then, they usually want to play in the puddles if it isn’t storming!) Since we don’t have cable TV and I insist on monitoring any time spent on the internet, that leaves them with the responsibility of creating fun or what used to be known as “playing.” Below are some ideas for occupying time that don’t have to cost a lot of money.

1. Picnics-My kids love to pack a picnic lunch and eat it anywhere outdoors. We often take day trips and they always expect a picnic lunch to be included. I keep it simple and cheap by taking foods like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cheese and crackers, grapes, carrots, celery, cucumbers, pretzels, popcorn, Rice Krispies treats, chocolate chip cookies or brownies.

Rather than spend a fortune on individual juice pouches or soda, we bring along a recycled milk jug filled with water, lemonade, or iced tea and some cups.

Last year, I discovered hot dogs are another good portable food—to keep them warm, after boiling them, I poured them (and some of the water) into a thermos.

2. Walks-While we walk our dogs around our neighborhood, sometimes it is fun to walk to the library, the park or playground, or to a friend’s house instead of driving. A favorite walking trip is going to our local ice cream shop for a frozen treat. Fun and environmentally friendly at the same time!

3. Sidewalk Chalk-The possibilities are endless! Tic-tac-toe, hopscotch, four-square, and roads for Hot Wheels cars can all be drawn with sidewalk chalk. We have made maps of our town and family portraits that take up the entire driveway. Two years ago, our road was re-paved---the perfect canvas kept my boys and the neighbor kids busy for hours.

4. Bubbles-My kids have loved bubbles from the time they were babies. Now that they are big enough to use them without assistance, they have fun with contests. It’s always a challenge to see who can blow the biggest, smallest, double, triple, and longest lasting bubble. Bubble solution can be made with dish soap and glycerin also, but I have never tried this since I am able to purchase large jugs of bubbles at Wal-Mart of under $2.

5. Learning to do a “grown up” job-Summer is the perfect time to teach kids how to do something useful. Mowing the lawn, grilling a hot dog, watering the garden, washing the car, weeding flower beds, using a compass, reading a map, building a campfire, and setting up a tent are all jobs that kids are able to learn pretty easily.

6. Have a Yard Sale-A lot of work and planning goes into our annual neighborhood sale. Collecting items to sell, pricing them, setting up tables, and spending a day managing a yard sale is time-consuming, yet rewarding. Kids can set up a lemonade and cookie stand to keep them occupied during the sale (TIP-if your children aren’t old enough to collect money and interact with customers, make sure you get extra help from another adult or older neighborhood child since the yard sale will keep you busy by itself!).

7. Camp-I am not a huge fan of camping, so my husband and kids camp in the backyard at least once a year. If you’re fortunate to live in a neighborhood with lots of kids, as we are, invite them over to set up camp and it will be just like you’re at a campground. They set up their tents, build a campfire, and stay up late playing tag and hide-and-seek in the dark.

8. Library-Our local library has an annual Summer Reading Program that allows kids to earn prizes for reading. Entertainment, such as magicians, comedians, petting zoos, scientists, and musical performers are scheduled throughout the summer months for kids enrolled in the program. Prizes range from an “I Heart Books” pencil to tents and scooters.

9. Concerts in the Park-Our town sponsors Concerts in the Park, allowing residents to bring their lawn chairs to a local park to enjoy a free concert each Wednesday evening during the summer. The music varies from week to week, but draws quite a crowd.

10. Scavenger Hunts-My boys have always enjoyed a scavenger hunt or treasure hunt on a lazy summer day. When they were younger, I would purchase plastic dinosaurs or army people and hide them in the backyard, like an Easter egg hunt. They loved finding the toys and then playing with them afterward.

Now that they are older, the excitement of searching for small, plastic toys has lost its thrill. Instead, I create a scavenger hunt that will allow them to work together to find things on their list in order to receive a prize. Armed with a digital camera to capture “evidence,” they set out into our neighborhood looking for the house with a red garage door, a car with a B on the license plate, a flowerbed with yellow flowers, a wind chime, a driveway with a crack in it, a dog, two smiling neighbors, a lawn mower, etc. Once they have checked off everything on the list and taken a picture of it, they head home to collect their prize/reward, which can be anything: a batch of cupcakes, a campfire in the backyard, a trip to Plainwell Ice Cream or a video game rental.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Creative Entertainment

Winter can seem to last forever! Below are some ideas to keep you and your family entertained without blowing your budget.

Go to your local library. This is a great place to read the latest books, magazines and newspapers without spending a cent. You can also borrow CDs and DVDs, often new releases that would typically cost $4 at a movie rental store.

Go sledding. If there are no hills in your backyard, take a short drive to find some. Lots of local parks, schools, or other public areas have hills that you can use. Have contests to see who can sled the farthest distance, shortest distance, backwards, on their belly, or how many you can fit on one sled. End the day with a cup of hot cocoa and marshmallows at home.

Play with snow indoors. If it's too cold to go outside, bring some buckets full of snow inside and dump them in the bathtub. Let the kids play with action figures, cars, and plastic animals in the snow until it melts.

Play board games. Use the games you already have and make a night of it. Invite some friends or neighbors over, pop some popcorn, and make it a party! Pictionary, Uno, CatchPhrase, and Mad Gab work well for groups and most any age can play.

Read. There's nothing better than curling up in bed with your kids and reading a good book. If your kids can read, take turns reading a chapter book together. Reading a family devotional is also a great way to get everyone involved.

Make a craft. It doesn't have to be something fancy. Check out for great craft ideas, many of which are simple to make with kids.

Make Play Doh. Use your own recipe, or try my mom's famous recipe at:

Have a talent show. Wow each other with a magic trick, playing an instrument, singing a song, cool dance moves, a knack for speed-reading, or whatever your special talent may be. If talent is lacking in your household, have a bubble gum blowing contest or see who can hold their breath the longest.

Bake cookies. Cut out cookies are always a hit, but try out other recipes. Share them with friends, family, and neighbors.

Play Hide the Thimble. Take an ordinary metal thimble and show your kids what it looks like. Have them leave the room and hide it in plain sight (on the tops of lamps or on a curtain rod are great places---try to make it look like it belongs there). Call the kids back into the room and have them find it. Whomever finds it, gets to hide it next. Surprisingly, finding it is harder than you'd think!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Staying Warm---and Affording It!

Staying warm is costing more than ever this year! If you’re finding it difficult to part with hundreds of dollars each month, try some (or all!) of the tips below.

1. Turn down the thermostat. Obvious enough, right? We keep our thermostat set to 65 degrees during the day and 60 degrees at night. While we aren’t shivering around the house, we also aren’t wearing shorts and a t-shirt. This is the temperature that we’ve adapted to.

2. Seal leaking windows and doors. A couple tubes of caulk go a long way in getting rid of window drafts. There are weather-stripping kits that you can purchase for doors and larger gaps around windows. The cost of these kits is minimal, compared to the amount you’ll save on your heating bill.

3. Bundle up. If you’ve reduced the temperature in your home and feel that it’s uncomfortably cold, add an extra layer of clothing. By layering a long-sleeved t-shirt under your clothes or adding a sweater over your existing clothes, you’ll stay toasty. Add extra socks or slippers and you won’t even notice that your home is five degrees cooler than you’re used to.

4. Keep your heating vents clear. Large pieces of furniture can block the flow of heat coming into a room. My children are also known for putting gloves and hats in front of our vents and leaving them there, blocking the heat to their bedroom.

5. Close off rooms you aren’t using. If you have a spare bedroom or office that you’re not using, by closing the door to that room, you’re keeping the heated air in the areas of the house that you are using, which causes your furnace to run less often.

6. Turn down the temperature on your water heater. We have lowered ours to 115 degrees without noticing a difference. Plus, this lower temperature will prevent small children from getting scalded.

7. Put plastic sheeting over windows. For years we lived in an older home with drafty windows. We purchased rolls of plastic and covered our windows, shrinking it with a hair dryer until it fit tightly against the panes.

8. Wash your clothes in cold water. I’ve been doing this for years with two little boys and my clothes get just as clean as they do in hot water. Also, air dry your laundry. I have a clothesline that I use constantly in the summer. In the winter, I hang clothes in my laundry room and use a foldable clothes drying rack (purchased at a yard sale for $2).

9. Keep your furnace filter clean. Dirty filters reduce the efficiency of your heating system. During winter months, change your filter every month.

10. Take shorter showers. As tempting as it is, standing under that hot water is adding charges onto your gas bill. Get in and get out and curl up with some hot cocoa instead.

11. Drink warm beverages such as coffee, tea, or hot cocoa. They warm you up as you enjoy them and also keep your hands warm!

12. Bake more than one dish at a time. While your casserole is baking, mix up some cookie dough to bake. By only heating your oven once, you’re saving money.

13. Also, after you’re done baking, leave the oven door open to take advantage of the extra heat.

14. Block drafty doors by placing a rolled up towel in front of them.

15. Insulate hot water pipes with foam insulation wraps. Wrapping your water heater with an insulated blanket will also help avoid heat loss.

16. Keep storm windows and doors, as well as an attached garage door, closed as much as possible to prevent heat from escaping.

17. Add insulation to your attic and also basement walls to keep heat inside your home.

18. Avoid going in and out of your house repeatedly. Allowing dogs and children to make frequent trips in and out lets cold air in and warm air out.

19. Make sure your thermostat is a programmable model. This allows you to pre-set the temperature in your home for different times of the day (warmer during the day, cooler at night and very cool while you’re away for a long period of time).

20. Take cover! While watching TV or reading a book, cover up with a blanket and stay toasty warm.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Ten Tips for Saving Money at the Grocery Store

1. Make a list of things you need--and stick to it! Only write down things that you need to purchase, preferably those items which are on sale and that you have a coupon for. On your list, make a star next to the items you have coupons for so that you don't forget to use them. Which leads us to... 2. Use coupons. Once you're over your initial fear of handing someone a coupon (Will this person think I'm cheap, Will this person think I'm poor---what the heck! This person will think you're a smart shopper. And you should not care what anyone thinks.) you'll be searching for coupons everywhere. Save even more by shopping at stores that double your coupons, or combine a store coupon with a manufacturer's coupon. See my previous post for more tips on the art of couponing. 3. Keep your shopping simple. Plan inexpensive meals, such as spaghetti, tuna noodle casserole, stir-fry, chili, soups, homemade pizza, tacos, etc. These meals don't require you to purchase fancy ingredients that typically cost more. 4. Set a time limit for shopping. It has been proven that the longer you're in a store, the more you spend. While I've never done an official study, personal experience tells me that I continue putting junk in the cart for as long as I am in a store. Get in, get what you need, and get out fast!
5. Try store brands. Not all store brands are the same as their name-brand competition, however, so this will take some experimentation. Many stores have a satisfaction guarantee on their store label products and will refund your money if you aren't happy with your purchase.

My family will happily eat Great Value canned vegetables, Frosted Fruit Spins and Spaghetti Hoops, but I insist on buying name brands of certain items. Laundry detergent and cleaning supplies in my house are always name-brand. I can usually get these items inexpensively using coupons and purchasing them on sale for slightly more than the store brands.

6. Eat before you shop. You'll be less tempted to make impulse buys when your tummy isn't growling and nothing sounds appetizing. You will also be better able to stick to your list!

7. Shop alone or be willing to speak up to your spouse or kids about sticking to the list. Even a toddler can understand this concept. When they were smaller, I always let my kids "borrow" a toy from the toy department while I shopped and then we put it back before we checked out. This kept them entertained and they didn't learn the bad habit of asking for things throughout the store.

8. Make your own "convenience foods." I'm not suggesting that you learn how to make cheese or churn your own butter. Buy orange juice concentrate and mix it with your very own tap water for half the price of prepared juice. Make your own cookie dough, roll it into balls and freeze it until you're ready to bake it. Buy cheese in bricks and slice or shred it yourself. Learn how to make pizza dough or bread in a bread maker. Make soup in a crock pot or on the stove top. These things are relatively easy and can save quite a bit.

9. Avoid the deli counter. I love deli salads and all of the overpriced meats that can be had at the deli counter, don't get me wrong. But, it's a rip-off. Make your own pasta salad (cooked spiral pasta, a bottle of Italian salad dressing, and your favorite veggies). Buy meat when it's on special---at my local grocery store (Meijer) all of the cut deli meat and cheeses are half-price after 8pm. Stock up and freeze it for future use.

10. Re-evaluate before checking out. Poke around your cart to see if there is at least one item you can live without. Maybe it is something you were undecided about or maybe it is that bag of chips you tossed in. Whatever you choose, by taking something out, you're saving money. Hand that item or items to the cashier and he or she will gladly put it back for you.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Marvelous World of Coupons

I love coupons. I am thrilled when I open my mail and discover a coupon for a free container of Coffeemate or $2 off a jug of Tide. Sunday mornings after church, it's so gratifying to sit down with a pile of coupons and the sale flier for Meijer and unveil all of the great deals I will get that week. I wasn't always a coupon expert, but after eleven years of dedicated coupon usage, I have mastered the art of saving money by using coupons.
I get most of my coupons from the Sunday paper that my father-in-law saves for me. The inserts contain coupons for just about everything from Spaghetti-Os to laundry detergent. Coupons can also be found inside dog food bags, on the backs of cereal boxes, and on the front of products in the store (they usually say "Save $.55 NOW"). When the cashier hands you your receipt, there are often coupons with it called Catalina coupons. Catalina coupons often are for "$2 off your next purchase," which are wonderful because you can use them to buy anything in the store.
I have recently begun collecting coupons from online sources. By signing up for free stuff and coupons, I have had tons of coupons mailed to me. I Google "free stuff," and am overwhelmed with offers. I also visit a web site called Meijer Mealbox that contains store coupons ( Store coupons are great because you can combine them with manufacturer's coupons for extra savings. Walgreen's sale ads and in-store coupon books are another place to find store coupons. I have gotten free bottles of shampoo, deodorant, and Glade air fresheners this way.
After clipping the coupons for things that I typically buy, I file them in an index card file. This file contained tabbed dividers, which I labeled with categories such as: Breakfast Food, Pantry Items, Frozen Foods, Beverages, Snacks, Laundry, Cleaning, Paper Products, Shampoo/Soap, Deodorant/Razors, Make-Up/Medicine, Pet Products, Meat/Dairy, and THIS WEEK.
I then take the store flyers for stores that I frequent and make a list of things that are on sale that I plan to buy. I like Meijer because they double manufacturer's coupons up to $.55 (making $.50 coupons really $1 off). Then, I match up the coupons to the items on my list, marking each with a star and how many I will buy. If a coupon reads "Save $1 on Two," then I want to be sure that I remember to buy two of that product. (I am careful when using coupons that read "Save $.55 on Three" because the savings are then only around $0.18) I then take the coupons that I plan to use and file them in my coupon box under the THIS WEEK tab.
Not only do I use coupons at the grocery store. I use them where ever I shop: auto repairs, hair cuts, restaurants, clothing stores, etc. I save my family thousands of dollars each year by combining coupons with sale prices and store coupons with manufacturer's coupons whenever possible.