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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

How to get great photos for free- or almost

That Guy has every Monday off work.  Typically he works the other six days a week, but the bakery is closed Mondays. He uses Mondays to get lots done- banking, grocery shopping ect- the things I couldn't get done during the day due to running the day care.
One of the extra things I added to his list to get done yesterday was take Audrey in for portraits.
Since our kids both do pageants and my family lives on the other side of the country, up to date portraits of the kids is something we make sure to find time for.

Time- not money.

I have tried to take photos of the kids myself.  Every once in a while I do happen upon a real gem. Most times though, its a battle of wits between myself and the kids.
"Walter- look here at mommy.  Sit up tall. Fingers out of your nose. Audrey, don't climb off the couch, just sit still.  Put your skirt down. Look here. Look here!!!! Gah! Walter, fingers OUT of nose, please bud. Smile. Not like that Walter, a nice smile.  Like you're happy.  Look, mommy will dance for you.  See? Silly dancing makes you laugh.  Well, don't throw your head back to laugh.  Audrey, stop crying, the dancing wasn't that bad.  Walter- put your arm around your sister.  She did not pee on you.....oh, she did. Sorry pal. Lets call it quits here"   You get the idea.

It is totally worth it for me to pay someone else to do this for me. And much more worth it when I don't even have to pay!

A few years ago That Guy and I were in Wal-Mart and I noticed the portrait studio was having a promotion for a package of 36 photos, single pose, for $7.99.  Sounded like value to me. While That Guy went and got what he needed from Wal-Mart I took Walter over to the portrait studio and they got us in right then and there.  The poses and backgrounds were pretty standard. Nice, but average.  The service was great though and the gentleman taking the photos really tried to create something we would want.  At the end of the session, as I went to the front to pay the $7.99 fee I noticed a large prize wheel. I asked if I could spin it- yeah, I'm one of those people who asks stuff like that.  The photo studio employee said of course, it was part of their current promotion. So I spun the wheel and won a Wal-Mart Portrait Smiles Club card. This card entitles me to one free portrait sheet every month of the year, for a year without the need to purchase anything to get the free photo sheet.  WIN!!!
Now, Wal-Mart photos are not super expensive.  But free is free.  The regular price for a sheet is roughly $10. So as long as we remember to take advantage of this every month its a $120 value.  Since I would have got photos of the kids done a few times in a year anyway (with or without the card), its a very real savings of at least $50-60/year.
The regular price for the card is approx $38. Ideally you win one like I did, getting it for free.  But even if you have to spend the $38, it might still be a worthwhile value for you.
And here's another perk.  Once you have the card, renewing it each year is only $5.  You couldn't even get one portrait sheet for that price, so its an immediate value.

I did admit earlier that the first time the shots were very average. Local artisan photographers usually have some very beautiful ideas and can capture breathtaking photos. But the simple truth is that I cannot afford their fees.  I have learned over the past two years how to get the best results from an average studio.

- know what you want.
      Talk to other people about their favorite photos, look over ones that were taken of you as a kid, snoop social media pages until you see a few that really speak to you.

- feel free to bring your own props.
        If your child has a favorite teddy bear your think would be cut in the picture with him, bring it along. If you saw a photo of a child sitiing surrounded by apples, bring lots of apples with you.

- dress them in layers
      The kids wearing layers or having hats/hair accessories to swap out is going to get you the best value for your session because you can change up their whole look by removing their sweater or adding a bow.

- speak up
     tell the photo studio worker what you are looking for (head and shoulders shot/profile/candid/posed) or describe the shot you saw and liked.

- happy, clean, well-rested kids are beautiful!
      Wal-Mart charges a bunch of money for fancy photo edits. You will not see buying into that. Kids are beautiful little people, full of personality and joy.  So plan your appointment time when it makes sense for you and your kids (maybe the middle of snack time or nap is not ideal) and have fun with them about it. Then you wont need any photo edits because your kids will simply shine!

Happy memory capturing, gentle readers.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Some things you can stop buying right now

 I'm not a banking whiz, I'm not Susie Homemaker but since starting on my frugal lifestyle journey a few years ago my eyes have certainly been opened to both the things we actually need, and the things we just plain do not.
I would like to take a moment, gentle readers, to talk about some things you can stop buying.  In almost all of these cases no longer buying these products will not impact your life at all, and its money in the bank for you.

Greeting cards
In truth I can not think of a time when a (store bought) greeting card is required.
 If you are giving a gift a gift tag does the job just as well as a greeting card would do. None of this running out to buy gift tags now! A scrap of wrapping paper - which, for the record, you can also hand make- works just fine.  If that doesn't suit your fancy then get more creative. Write the names of the gift recipant on the wrapping paper with coloured markers, stamps or cut the letters from magazines and newspapers.  
If you're not sending a gift, and a card is in it's stead, or its a big occasion like a wedding, a simple handwritten note would be so much nicer.  Don't know what to say? Google it! (That does seem to be my answer for everything, doesn't it?) "Simple wedding card verses" or "funny birthday card ideas for dad" should get you tons of examples you can pull ideas from.
 If you don't want your handwritten note on lined paper because the occasion is too formal- I can understand that. My first suggestion is to head over to Staples and get a pack of card stock paper. You can go with classic white or any of a multitude of colours.  Cut one sheet of card stock in half, fold, volia!  blank card. This route will cost you pennies a card and you can make it suit any occasion in the world. My other option is to go to Michael s Craft Store and pick up a package of eight blank cards for $1.50. This will run you three to four times as much as the card stock option but for about 15 cents a card is still a huge savings over the $7 racket they are trying to pull in the card shops.

Dryer Sheets/fabric softener
So many reasons not  to buy these.  The biggest I can think of is: there is no need for them!  When your laundry is clean then its clean. No need for it to be smelling like "purple tango" or some other such silly business.
It's one more chemical ingredient  added to your day and against your family's' skin.  And once more, for no reason!
Fabric softeners and dryer sheets apply a thin waxy coating to all fabrics. This means several things for you.  One: Wax = water repellent.  No longer makes much sense to be using these for your towels, does it?
Two: That waxy coating can interfere with the fire retardant properties of some fabrics (like children s pajamas). Big problem for me.
Three: The waxy coating does not judge. It gives its waxy love everywhere, not just on the clothes. One of the most preventable causes of peoples dryers breaking down is because this waxy stuff has built up in the lint trap. That can cause your machine to overheat.  Best case scenario:  broken dryer. Worst case scenario:  dryer fire. (Regardless of your use of dryer sheets, please make sure your dryer is off before you leave your house. Dryer fires can happen to anyone.)
Here's an easy way to tell if your lint trap has been compromised by dryer sheet buildup: take out your lint trap and run the screen under water. If the water runs through as it should you're good.  If the water pools you have wax buildup. Just take an old toothbrush and some dish soap and give 'er a good scrubbing until the screen allows water to pass as normal.

Bottled Water
Personal Pet Peeve: People drinking fancy schamncy water while complaining about the price of gasoline. Gas SHOULD cost more than water. Lets get our perspectives in line. *End rant*
Bottled water is expensive, wasteful and unneeded.
The regulations in place to be sure our tap water is safe for our families to drink are not at all (at all!) the same for bottled water.  People have this notion that if the cap is sealed on the water bottle it must be safer than tap water.  Here in Canada, that simply doesn't mean its true. In theory, I could put water from my toilet  in a bottle, slap a label on it and sell it to you for $5. Bottled stuff doesn't sound like such a great idea now, does it?
Admittedly some municipalities have a nicer water supply than others. If you find your tap water unimpressive for drinking I think the investment of a water filter system is a great thing. And remember, most water tastes great when its nice and cold. So fill a jug from the tap and keep it in your fridge for a cool, refreshing, safer thirst quencher.

Vegetable trays
You were not just thinking about spending $15 on $4 of vegetables, were you?! Nothing fancy or complicated has been done to these veggies.  Just cutting. You can do that. What's that? You don't have time? You get off work at 5 and you are due at your friends place at 5:30 with a veggie tray- what are you to do? Pick up the veggies from the store like you planned, but the $4 uncut ones, and head over to your friends house. I will bet, dollars to doughnuts, she has a knife and cutting board there you could use. And I truly cannot imagine a friend of anyone looking down their noses at someone chopping vegetables in their kitchen.  The point is that you are there. On time. With the promised veggies.

Fruit baskets
Same deal as above, but easier! No cutting required! A basket from the dollar store, some old newspaper for basket stuffing and you're set. This comes at a cost so significantly reduced that I am baffled by people who buy these baskets to leave on a co-workers desk for her birthday. The fruit basket is the gift. It makes no difference to the taste of the fruit if you spent $12 or $60 on the same arrangement.

Mass produced wall art
I adore local artisans and am more than happy to support them in their trades when I can. Their works of art are not what I am referencing. I am talking about the canvas they want to charge you $350 for at the big box home decorating store.
My bathroom artwork cost me $1, and that was for the frame from the dollar store. Since we had painted our bathroom green I went to the hardware store and picked up a bunch of green paint sample cards. I laid them in tidy rows, slipped on my frame and done.
The artwork in Walters bedroom was a fun activity That Guy and I did one day.  Each of us had a canvas (from the dollar store) and the same three colours. In different rooms we painted our own canvas and then compared our work. It was neat to see how differently we both used the same materials. They are a great, colourful reflection of ourselves.
Of course, you can always think outside the box.  Paint an over sized clock on the wall- you can get super sized clock mechanisms so its functional. Hang tree branches, or group vintage silver severing platters. Possibilities are endless.

So there it is. Just a few things I could think of that you can stop buying today, never buy again and have it truly not impact your life.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

DIY Laundry soap

Easy and Inexpensive DIY laundry soap

I have been making my own laundry soap for four years now.  I love that its super easy to do, I can make large quantities to last a while, and I know what goes in it- and what doesn't.  Of course, coming in at just under five cents a load helps too. (Even when you see the "off brand" laundry soap on sale for $3, it typically does 36 loads coming out at almost double the cost of my homemade stuff)

Have you ever noticed that almost all of the less costly liquid laundry soap is blue?  Have you ever noticed that blue is directly opposite yellow on the colour wheel? These laundry soaps do not really "whiten" your clothes so much as dye them blue, off setting the look of any yellowish stains. The, hands down, best (and fortunately cheapest) whitener I have found to date has been direct sunshine.  Drying your clothes in the sun will bleach out berry, sauce and even cloth diaper stains while naturally whitening all your whites.
Now lets go to the other end of the spectrum and examine the very expensive laundry soaps.  You know the ones that come packed in their own pods and you put the whole thing in the washer without the need to measure. Only about 2% of the soap contained within each pod is liquid, the rest is tightly packed powder. That suggests to me that powder works at least at well, if not better, than their watered down liquid counterparts. And yet, liquid soap costs more to buy.  Why? Simple- the public is willing to pay more. Let's all choose to opt out of that cycle right now.

In the past year there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people making their own laundry soaps. This, obviously, does not sit well with laundry soap manufactures and the pressure from this is - I believe strongly- the reason you can no longer buy all required ingredients for laundry soap in any one single commercial store.

What you will need:

Washing Soda (I use the So Clean brand and buy it from No Frills)
Borax (I use the 20 Mule brand and buy it from Wal-Mart)
Laundry Bars (I use the Sunlight brand and buy it from Wal-Mart and I use about six bars per batch)
Baking Soda (I use the Great Value brand and buy it from Wal-Mart)
Wooden spoon
Large bowl
Large- preferable resealable- storage container (Mine is a 16 L pail left over from the bakery where That Guy works. Please check out bakeries, grocery stores or wineries/ brew-your-own wine or beer locations for similar pails they will be throwing out)
One Cup measuring cup

In a perfect world you will have bought your laundry bars in advance, unwrapped them and left them to dry for at least a few days.  The recipe will work exactly the same without drying the bars, but you will notice a higher yield of grated soap from dry bars.

Step 1. Over your large bowl, using your micro plane grate your bars of soap
            The soap will grate into tiny, curly strings. These strings will dissolve best in water if they are broken                        up into a more powdery form.  To do this simply play with the soap curls in your hands and the curls will break into tiny bits like a powder.
soap curls
breaking up the soap curls
soap powder
Step 2. After all your soap is grated, into your large pail place 2 cups grated soap (un packed), 1 cup washing soda and 1 cup borax.  Add a sprinkle of baking soda.  Stir with the wooden spoon until well combined.  Repeat this step until complete.

Step 3. Use only 2 tbsp of soap per load and enjoy fresh, clean laundry for a fraction of what you were spending before.

Its a very reasonable practice to use a measuring spoon when adding your 2 tbsp of soap to the wash, but since measuring spoons are sold in a set and you only require the tbsp this might be frustrating.  Instead consider getting your hands on a plastic scoop found in powder baby formula. The scoop is included in each can so will be thrown out by parents frequently. The scoop is equal to 1 tbsp.

A common misconception is that the more suds one sees the better the cleaning power. This is simply not true as the cleansing ingredients have very little to do with producing suds.  This laundry soap is a low suds formula so please do not despair should you open your washing machine and not notice an abundance of suds.

There are many recipes out there for DIY laundry soap. I have tried a lot of them and this is my personal favorite and one I have tweaked over the years.  I have tried making the "liquid" version and found that it was more complicated and did not suit my family as well.

You can even invite your best little man to help you grate the bars of soap.  :)
Happy money saving, gentle readers!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

14 Gift ideas for men on Feb 14th

Shopping for men is hard! Shopping for men on Valentines Day is harder! Doing it on a budget...its almost not fair.

Fret not, gentle readers, I have some ideas of things you can give or do for that special man in your life for free- or almost.

1. 100 reasons why I love you
     I did this for my husband the first Valentines Day after we were married.  It cost me one dollar for a little wooden box from the dollar store.  Out of construction paper I cut 100 hearts and wrote reasons why I love him.  The trick here is to really think about it.  Skip the "You"re my best friend" business - it's very likely true but it doesn't tell him anything.  Stick to thinks you love about him in particular- like how he makes your orange juice if you're sick, or sticks his tongue out when assembling furniture.That Guy still has the wooden box with the hearts inside in his bedside table.

2. Massage
    Guys love this. 99% of the time he wants a massage from you making this a very fun and totally free gift.

3. Massage oils
    This is a nice companion to the massage gift.  Homemade or store bought versions work well, but obviously I highly recommend the home made option.  There are a ton of free recipes online and most of them call for things you very likely already have in your home- making this another free gift.

4. Pair of pretty panties for you to model for him.
    This requires no explanation.

5. Make him a heart shaped pizza (or some other of his favorite food)
    Heart shaped pizza is no more difficult to make than a regular pizza, the dough is simply worked into a festive shape before toppings are added.

6. Offer to watch his favorite movie with him..... even if it is Star Wars...ick.

7. Give him a blanket for when hes watching movies or playing video games or reading.
    Of course I suggest making your own blanket.  There is a no- sew fleece option that is very very easy to make and you could easily complete before this evening..

8. Pieces for his hobby in festive colours.
    Does he like to paint? Maybe red/pink/purple or white paints.  Is he into LEGO?  Why not the same colour options in LEGO pieces.  Maybe he likes golf and you can spell out a sweet message for him with golf tees and balls (they already come in a  festive white colour)

9. Scarf/hat/gloves/warm socks
    Its still winter out there, folks. These gifts are not just for Christmas time.  It might not be a sexy approach, but it does say "I care about you" and isn't that really what the holiday is about?

10. Homemade truffles or molded chocolates.
      Feel free to reference by previous blog post "Cookie exchange win for the baking impaired" for tips on how to use a chocolate mold.  If you can buy your chocolate melting wafers from a bulk store you can do a beautiful job of this for under $5

11. A bouquet of bacon roses
     They exist. Google it if you don's believe me- I will wait. When That Guy saw these he thought it was the greatest idea ever. And although I have not made them myself they actually look quite doable. The only cost is really bacon and an extra dollar for floral wire stems (found most cost effectively at the dollar store but can also be purchased at your local craft store).

12. Offer (or provide a coupon) to spend time with him participating in his hobby
      This might mean you have to spend your time fishing, so I advise to first ask yourself how much you really love this man, ha ha ha.

13. Do his household chores for a week
     Does your guy take out the garbage? Shovel the driveway? Give the kids their baths?  By offering to take on his tasks for a week this free gift is two fold.  It gives him some time to himself and also shows him that you notice and appreciate what he does to help make your home run smoothly.

14. Beer of the month "club"
      You can sign up for something like this online but it is expensive! When I looked into it for That Guy for his birthday one year I was astonished that they were going to charge me $300 to send him three bottles of beer each month. So what did I do? Made him out a certificate of my commitment to buy him a six pack of a different type of beer each month for a year. The cost me a little less than half of the online cost, he got twice as much and my cost was able to be spread out over the whole year.  Its a gift he still talks about. The beer here could be substituted for anything else he might like.  Hot Sauce of the month club? Ice cream of the month club?You get the idea.

Hope this gives you some ideas to help celebrate this fun holiday.  Enjoy Valentines Day!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Free time should be free!

Remember "free time"?  I don't just mean time before kids, I mean as kids.  My mother was never a particular fan of this idea of non structured, often unsupervised play time, so when we did get it as kids what a treat!!
I have started to notice how much emphasis there is right now on organized sports and groups.  As a mom who will start homeschooling next month these kinds of organized events are wonderful for my son to maintain his current friendships and socialization. But I must admit I feel a sense of loss at diminished free time.

As a kid I would use this rare time to do things others might see as a waste (read my favorite book for the seventh time, set up a "store" in my bedroom and insist my sisters "shop" it or goof around and play dress up even after I became too old for it.)   Yet, upon reflection, maybe it wasn't such a waste of time.  Maybe learning to take comfort in books as I would friends has helped me through some of my lonelier years.  Maybe setting up my "store" inspired my entrepreneurial streak Maybe dress up was a great way for me to interact with my sisters- since organized sports and groups are often divided by age we almost never interacted through said sports/groups.
And here's another undeniable plus to free time- it should be free! If you're paying for free time activities (for yourself or the kids) then its entertainment, not free time.  Free time can consist of things like colouring, backyard play, reading, puzzles/games, sibling or peer imagination play, exploration of music and musical instruments, drawing, building. All no cost options.

Free time is not TV time.  Free time is about teaching your children to learn about what they like, (heck, teaching yourself about what you like!) It allows children to grow into people that do not always depend on others to entertain, amuse, or comfort them.  Its about building independence and leadership.

Organized sports/ groups/ clubs are great, and I encourage you to explore them for yourself or the kids to find if there are any that fit your family goals, schedule and interests.  They foster teamwork, sportsmanship and rule following.

But don;t forget, gentle readers,  that everyone needs a little time to figure out how they want to play without being told how they should play.  

Thursday, 7 February 2013

To answer the person who wanted to know why I don't post photos of myself

To answer the person who wanted to know why I don't post photos of myself:

Whenever I look at mt kids, or at photos of them I am always amazed by how gorgeous they are (I am admittedly biased here). Very little is more flattering to me than saying my daughter looks like me- my son is a spitting image of That Guy. I would love to post for you a photo of myself with my daughter to show you that Audrey and I do have some very similar features. But I cannot. There are almost no photos of me after my wedding day over six years ago, and next to none of me with my daughter. There has not been a willing photograph taken of me in over a year.

If anyone ever points out that I am absent from all "family" photos, or when my mother requests a photo with me in it, I always laugh it off. "Haha, I'm a mom," I say, "I'm always the one making sure the photo gets taken by being behind the camera".   And although there is a nugget of truth to that, its not really the whole truth.  Its really not an over sight that only a photo of the kids is included in our Christmas cards, or that even in my Google Plus profile photo you cannot see anything but my face.

I have an embarrassing confession, gentle readers.  I'm fat. oh, medically I am still in the range of "healthy body weight",(barely)  but its still true. My clothes don't fit nicely and I am awkward and uncomfortable in my skin.  I can pretend that its for budget reasons that I dont buy clothes, but its because a fitting room can bring tears to my eyes and Id rather avoid the whole experience.

Both being fat and hating it are things that need to stop. I read stories of women who learn to embrace themselves for all their perceived flaws and how empowering it is. I know full well how damaging my self issues can become to both my children and the children I care for professionally. I am inspired equally by stories of physical body transformations as by stories of personal transformation through self love.

My children are too bright, too sweet for me to allow them to become side tracked or overwhelmed by body issues.   I need to teach them to appreciate their bodies and care for them with respect.
  I get all revved up, don my running shoes and hit the pavement. It all goes great until I see a woman one third my size zoom past me. I am not her, I cannot be her. Compared to her I must look downright comical thundering down the sidewalk. The embarrassment creeps up, my cheeks flush and I slink home doing my best to be invisible along the way. I have avoided getting together with friends I haven't seen in a while. I know they will talk after about how much weight I have gained. But I'm also worried that my gaining weight might cloud them against seeing what else I have gained....a family, precious friends, my businesses, a bit of wisdom.

So, in conclusion, there are no photos of me because my double chin is hidden behind the keyboard and people hear me better when their minds are not shouting "wow! she really let herself go!"  One day I am going to have the courage and strength of character to let that woman run past me and not have it affect me. But until I can get there, I am still here without a photo.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Being nice

"It's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice."

I love it when people are nice, I don't just mean remembering my birthday nice (although I love that too), I mean all sorts of nice. It touches my heart deeply when my friends do nice things.  Since I have some pretty amazing friends my heart is continually warmed by thoughtful gestures.  Things like friends who are willing to pick up our mail and shovel our driveway while we were away last week, or sweet text messages from a friend saying they have thought of us. I love getting surprise cards in the mail from a member of my church or a phone call from someone who knew I was under the weather calling to see if I was feeling better.
Gestures from strangers lift my heart also. Holding the door when someone sees me following behind them, picking up and returning the boot my daughter kicked off without my noticing, or just smiling at me because they want to spread a little cheer.

Today you will very likely encounter some people who have yet to have their morning coffee, did not sleep well, are feeling ill pr cranky for some other reason all together. They will likely be short -tempered, quick to judge or jump to conclusions, some may be down right rude. This is me asking you, gentle readers, to show them how uplifting it is to be treated with kindness- even when they are unkind to you.  This is NOT me suggesting you lay down to be walked all over. But must you flip someone the bird when they steal your parking space? Yes, you were there first and had your signal on; you were right, they were wrong. But does a rude gesture make that any more valid?

Being nice is a reward unto yourself as well. When you are thoughtful, generous, understanding, patient and gentle you will suddenly notice how many other people are too. When you are kind to the frantic waiter you will likely get more attentive service, when you are understanding to the over worked teacher you will likely get easier and more open communication. Even if all the frazzled cashier can do is give you an appreciative smile in return for your kind words, isn't that enough?

When you do get good service take the time to let someone know. I do this as often as possible, telling managers on the spot if my waiter was pleasant and knowledgeable or e-mailing the company if the service rep on the phone corrected my concern happily and well.  I am often rewarded for these small gestures of good will. Frequently by establishments with coupons and discounts so I might come back to enjoy their service again and bring a friend, sometimes too I am simply rewarded with Karma.

Kindness typically costs nothing, but the value is unbelievably high, an inexpensive way to brighten your world.
Something as small as a genuine smile can change someone's day for the better- it might even be yours!