Friday, February 14, 2014

A ruler growth chart for our growing family

Life is about to get more crazy wonderful - we are expecting a new addition to our family in April! Soon our family of three will be a family of four. What a miracle children are - to in an instant have a new little soul entrusted to your care. To both bring life into the world and forever have your life changed by it's blessing.

Our days of late have been filled with baby preparations and spending quality time with our toddler before his little life is forever changed. As you may have noticed by the lack of posts, in recent months my blog has had to take a backseat to, well, life. 

Another thing consuming my time is an uncontrollable urge to tear apart the house and get it in tip-top shape before the baby arrives. You know what I’m talking about: nesting. From re-organizing our son’s closet (which he will soon be sharing with his baby brother or sister) to finishing long-forgotten crafts and tackling big projects like replacing sliding doors, I am driven by what seems to be an internal hamster on speed.

One of the projects I recently crossed off the craft list is a ruler height chart for our soon-to-be growing family. I’m so happy with how it turned out and the best part is that the supplies were virtually free. Now comes the tough part – finding a way to mark it up and actually use it after all that hard work.

If you're looking for an attractive, low-cost way to record your children's growth milestones, this project may be for you. Read on for simple steps to make your own ruler height chart.



Giant Ruler Height Chart

  • Wood board: Ours is about 12'' x 1'' x 5', but you could also use an 8'' width board and/or get one closer to 6' long (if you plan to take height measurements well into the teenage years!). My husband found this one laying around at his winery so we got it for free. If you buy one it will cost about $10-$20, depending upon the type of wood. 
  • Sand paper
  • Stain
  • Ruler 
  • Steel Square
  • Ballpoint pen
  • Sharpies (thin and thick)

1. Sand your board to a point where it is smooth to the touch. Little hands will be coming into contact with this so you want to make sure there are no jagged edges or splinters. As you sand, go with the grain to prevent sanding marks. As our board was in awful shape (who knows how many years it sat outside in the elements), I had to break out the big guns and use a power sander.

2. Stain the board. I had a few old  cans of stain in the garage so I tested each on the back of the board to find the best look. I used walnut. Use an old rag to apply the stain, again going with the grain. I used only one coat as I didn't want the board to be too dark.

3. Using a ruler or yard stick, make small 1'' tic marks with a pencil on the side of your board that will have the ruler lines.

4. Decide where you want your chart to start - i.e. will it hang 6 inches or 1 foot off the ground? This will tell you how to place the numbers on the chart. Ours starts 6 inches off the ground.

5. Make the ruler lines. There are two heights of line that I used - the short ones are 1.5'' and the long ones are 3''. There is a repeating pattern of 1 long, 2 short, 1 long, 2 short, etc. all the way up the board. A tool like a steel square will help you keep your lines straight. (Thank goodness my husband has a well-stocked tool bench!) Using those 1'' tic marks in step three, I marked my lines first with pencil, and then went over them with the thick Sharpie - all the while repeating to myself, "You are using a permanent marker. You are using a permanent marker." I'm just the sort to accidentally wave my hand with a Sharpie in it and then curse myself when I ruin a project.

6. Add the numbers every 12'' (depending upon where you start your ruler). I originally bought stencils and then realized I didn't need them. Back to Home Depot they went. Instead I printed 3'' numbers in Times New Roman on regular printer paper. Then I placed the sheet of paper on the board and traced each number with a ballpoint pen (using a LOT of pressure). What was left was a light outline of the number on the board. I used my thin Sharpie marker to trace the outside of the number, and used the thick marker to fill it in.

7. Our board is HEAVY. It's also slightly bowed. To hang it securely to the wall, I enlisted my husband's expertise. He used two "keyhole" hangers placed about 6'' from the top, which sit on screws anchored into the wall.

8. Done! On my son's second birthday we marked his height - for now with masking tape.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Easy, frugal and festive: Salt Dough Christmas Ornaments

With our son nearly two years old, this year we can really have fun with Christmas. Over the last month we've been learning about baby Jesus, taking photos with Santa Claus, baking Christmas cookies, singing Christmas carols, and dancing like crazy to Mannheim Steamroller. Hey, don't judge. I blame my parents.

At what seemed like the last minute - about a week before Christmas - I decided I wanted to make Christmas ornaments with William. He's at the age where he can appreciate crafts, if with a very, very short attention span. Given that I was already in the midst of umpteen Christmas projects - per the usual, biting off too much for the season - I wanted to find something that was easy. No rushing to the craft store for supplies, no cutting 100 pieces of felt, no glitter to clean up - you get the idea.

Enter salt dough Christmas ornaments. You know - those crumbling things on your parents' Christmas tree that you made when you were two. I had just about all of the ingredients/supplies I needed in the house and the instructions were super simple. We could make one for us and at the same time do one for the grandparents, aunts, uncles - perfect! What's better, with a few extra steps I could (hopefully) strengthen the ornaments so that, twenty years from now, they're not crumbling as well.

Whether you're looking for a last minute kid-friendly Christmas ornament project or just something fun to do over the holiday break, you can't go wrong with these simple crafts. Below are instructions on how to get started.

Merry Christmas!


Salt Dough Christmas Ornaments 
Recipe will make 6-8 ornaments

1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt (I used kosher because it's all I had on hand - wouldn't recommend, but it still worked)
1/2 cup water
Cookie Cutters
Paint (acrylic or water-based, though acrylic should hold up better over time)
Paintbrushes (or fingers for water-based paint)
Optional (to strengthen/seal the ornaments): Gesso and Gel Medium 

1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
2. Mix the flour, salt and water together and work into a dough. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it becomes smooth. It should not be sticking to your hands - if so, add more flour.
3. To make your ornaments, you can either roll it out as a cookie dough and use cookie cutters, or roll little freehand circles or other shapes. You could even do a handprint or footprint. You want the end result to be about 1/4 inch think. Have fun here and get your child involved!

4. Use a straw to make a hole at the top of each ornament.
5. Put onto an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for two hours.
6. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
7. If using the gesso (which is basically a primer that will turn your ornaments white), apply this now. I timed the project so I could put the gesso on the ornaments while William was napping. It dries very quickly.

8. Get out paint and paintbrushes for your child and let them go crazy!
9. When the paint is dry, if you would like to seal your ornaments and make them shiny, apply a few thin coats of a glossy gel medium.
10. Thread ribbon through the hole.
11. Hang on the tree with your little one! 

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Napa Valley Frugal Daytrip: Bale Grist Mill

Though we've lived in the Napa Valley for over five years, it wasn't until last weekend that we finally visited the Bale Grist Mill.

What a hidden gem! Located between St. Helena and Calistoga, the Bale Grist Mill was originally built in 1846 by Dr. Edward T. Bale. When, only four years later, he passed away at the early age of 38, his wife took over mill operations and made improvements that brought it to its current state. She oversaw the addition of a 36-foot wheel (an upgrade from the previous 20-footer) and a new conveyor system that enhanced the Mill's productivity. The mechanics of the Mill, still in operation today, are a sight to behold.

Our visit to the Mill started with a comprehensive tour and demonstration of grinding corn into cornmeal. It was simply incredible to see the system of gears, pulleys, sifters, grindstones, etc. developed in the 1850s to produce what we now take for granted - flour.

The Mill is open on weekends from 10am to 4pm (call Bothe State Park at (707) 942-4575 to confirm, as due to California budget cuts it is currently run by volunteers). Entrance to the Mill and the surrounding grounds, which includes a tour and demonstration, is $5 for each adult, $2 for children age six to eighteen, and free for children under five. We made a day of it by packing a lunch and enjoying shaded picnic tables.

In the fall, the Bale Grist Mill hosts "Old Mill Days," a family-friendly pioneer celebration with music and history re-enactments. Kids can make their own corn husk dolls, learn to write in calligraphy, press apple juice, and - my favorite - wash clothes by hand. We will definitely be back next October to join in the fun!

The best souvenir from the Mill? Freshly ground grain available for $5 a bag (each approximately 1 pound). Visitors can choose from whole wheat flour, spelt, buckwheat, rye, cornmeal, or polenta.

Though each bag is clearly marked "not for human consumption," we threw caution to the wind when my husband baked the potentially lethal - yet quite delicious - loaf of bread below. We obviously survived to tell the story. (The warning is due to a misguided California regulation that classifies the Mill as a restaurant, which it clearly is not. There is a bill pending before the State Assembly to rectify the issue.)

We enjoyed the Mill's bounty with a butternut squash soup sourced from our garden, making the meal perhaps the most farm-to-table dinner that has graced our table.



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Monday, October 7, 2013

Bye-bye student loans: How we paid off $50K in one year

A few weeks ago, we made our final student loan payment. In just over a year, we had paid off more than $50,000 in student debt. As in, a home downpayment. A luxury car. A start to a new business. Or, ahem, a UC system education. (Well worth the investment, but pricey nonetheless.)

Was it easy? Heck no. We don't make six-figure salaries and live in Napa, CA where the cost-of-living - the median price of a home is currently $450,000 - is one of the highest in the country. As new parents we have new financial responsibilities, including childcare to the tune of a monthly mortgage payment. Moreover, I recently started working part-time vs. a previously full-time schedule. In a nutshell, some might think us crazy to tackle $50K of debt in a year. They may just be right.

But tackle it we did - with plenty of blood, sweat and, well, not all that many tears. It was us vs. Sallie Mae/Citibank/Federal Direct Loans and, by golly, we squashed them. It was as if we won the Super Bowl and the trophy was being debt free. I'll take that over a ring any day.

Though there were lots of beans for dinner, no cable TV, no flashy cars, no expensive nights out on the town, and no style updates to the wardrobe (ouch - that last one hurt), quite frankly it was empowering to know we could do it. It was one of the best life lessons I've had and, while I certainly don't recommend going into debt to learn the value of money, I think I'm a better person - and will be a better parent - for it.

Here are some tips on how you can squash your debts too:

  • Be a team: If you're in a relationship, you and your partner need to be in this together. Eating beans once a week wouldn't have flown if my husband wasn't equally invested in obliterating our loans. There will be times you need to cheer each other on and agree that, yep, you can go without pricey Christmas gifts this year. As with any challenge in life, paying off a large debt as a united front will strengthen your relationship.
  • Make a budget and stick to it: If you don't have a budget, tackling debt is pretty much impossible. The first thing you need to know is how much you're currently spending. is an excellent tool for this. Once you have an accounting for a month or two, look at where your money is going and decide how you should be spending (e.g. you discover your wardrobe is costing you more than your groceries).  At that point, say you you want to find an extra $500 to put toward your loans. Look at each bucket of your expenses (food, clothing, savings, etc.) and trim where you are able. Then, each month, check-in on your expenses weekly to make sure that you're not going over budget. If you are, stop spending. "Shop" from your pantry. Turn away from the tempting cute shoes. Block from your computer. Walk to the store rather than drive. Do whatever it takes to live without dipping into your bank account. (What are reasonable budgets? As two examples, we manage to live on $300 a month for groceries and $50 a month for restaurants. Not easy, but doable.)
  • Make it your number one financial priority besides retirement: Experts recommend contributing a minimum of 10% of gross income toward retirement. While we continued to do so while paying off our loans, we cut way back on our other savings goals, like buying a new house. (I should mention that before we embarked on this quest, we worked hard to build up an emergency fund. Knowing we had that cushion gave us the freedom to put our savings on hold without feeling like we were unprepared if one if us lost our job, etc.)
  • Take stock of your assets: The first thing we did when faced with $50K remaining in student loans was take a look at our financial assets and decide if we were using them wisely. For example, we had some money in stocks, a gift from our wedding, that was not allocated toward any immediate goal. We decided to sell a portion and use that to take a chunk off the top of that $50K. It was a nice mental boost that made us feel we were making immediate progress toward our goal. While that may not be the right decision, or even an option, for everyone, think about what you do have that could get you closer to your goal. It might be a car that you're making payments on (buy a used car that fits your budget instead and reallocate the monthly payments to your loan). Or an entertainment center you don't really need. Or jewelry that you never wear. Whatever it is, you can do without it (really, you can!) until you reach your goal. Sell it and put the money toward your debt. (Don't have anything that comes to mind? That's OK too - if we hadn't done this, it would have taken us closer to two years vs. one to pay off our loans.)
  • Pay attention to interest rates: Start paying off your debt with the loans that have the highest interest rates. For example, put an extra $500 a month towards the loan with the 8% vs. the 5% rate. Once you pay off the 8% loan, move on the 5% loan (with both that extra $500 and what you were spending on monthly premiums for the 8%  loan), and so on until you're done. 
  • Cut your fixed expenses: Look at all of your fixed expenses - groceries, phone bills, power bills, mortgage payments, etc. - and think about how you can cut back. For example, I called AT&T and got a $10 credit toward each bill for the year. Or, on a larger scale, I called our county property assessor and had our home reassessed. We were able to knock more than $1,000 off our property taxes. Other examples? We refinanced our house, reduced our power bill by being smart about energy use, and cut our monthly DSL expenses from $35 to $20 by changing our provider.
  • Save for fixed expenses: Don't get caught off-guard with a car insurance payment or any other large expense that you know is coming. Divide your annual payments by twelve and save that amount each month.
  • Extra money? Put it towards the loan: Get an annual bonus? Take $100 off the top to get yourself something special and put the rest toward the loan. Yes, all of it.
  • The little stuff counts: That bag of clothes with the tags still on that you'll never wear? Return it. The fishing equipment you got for your birthday that - let's be real - you'll never use? Sell it on eBay. All those little things add up for big savings.
  • Count your pennies: One easy way to do this? Check your receipts. I can't tell you how many overcharges I've caught on grocery bills - at least one mistake a month.
  • Extra paychecks: If you get paid bi-weekly, two months out of the year you will get three paychecks. As you're already used to living off of two monthly paychecks, find out when you'll see the extra ones and note on your calendar to put them toward the loan. 
  • Dual income family? Try living on one income:  If both you and your partner work, try living off of the larger income and put all of the second toward your loan.
  • Give of your time vs. your money: This is a time in you're life when you're not going to have the financial resources to give large gifts to family members or significant donations to charities. That's OK. What you do have is the gift of your time. Volunteer for the causes that are important to you. Make Christmas gifts for your family vs. buying them. Oftentimes, those are the gifts that mean the most.
  • Make due: Much of what got us through the last year was a mindset that unless we really needed something, we were not going to buy it. Besides saving money, this is a great way to recalibrate your complete way of life. By making due with what you have, you will forever shift your priorities, better manage your resources, and be able to focus on what brings you true fulfillment. (I highly recommend the book Your Money or Your Life for those who want to dive deeper into these principles). 

While we present an extreme case for paying off debt (see above-noted craziness for tackling $50K in a year), I hope that our story inspires others to think creatively about how to become debt-free. It may take a year, or five, or ten, or more - but for those committed to whittling down expenses and putting every extra dollar toward their loans, it will happen. In the long term, the money saved in interest payments and the financial freedom gained will be well worth the effort.

The last year wasn't the easiest year of my life, but I can easily say it was one of the best years. It challenged me to focus on what is important - family, friends, and a healthy, positive outlook - and leave behind concerns about status and "Keeping up with the Joneses." I learned that true happiness doesn't come from how much money you have (or spend), but from the relationships you build, the goals you set for yourself, and a glass-half-full approach to life. I learned to be thankful for what we have and not to focus on what we don't.

And, I have to say the payoff was great. Pun definitely intended.

What have you learned by tackling debt or living a frugal lifestyle?



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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dad's $75 weekly meal plan

Last weekend my husband gifted me a Mom's afternoon out and took over meal planning and grocery shopping for the week. I got a mani/pedi (his treat!) while he combed my dinner diary for recipes and took our toddler shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. 

Pinch me? I could get used to this.

Besides being pampered for a few hours, reading three back issues of Sunset Magazine, and returning home to find two happy boys, perhaps the best part of my day was seeing the delicious meal plan my husband put together while I was out. Not only that, but his shopping trip totaled only $48 which, when added to the $15 spent at the farmer's market/grocery the previous day, kept us below our $75 a week grocery budget. (Note: Our total $75 grocery budget does include breakfasts, lunches, snacks and kid-friendly staples. As far as planning goes, we focus on dinner as that is the main meal we prepare each day, and our lunches are nearly always leftovers.)

As with each of our weekly meal plans, he took into account what we already had in the fridge, garden and freezer, substituted (or omitted) ingredients in recipes, stayed away from processed foods, and stuck to his list when he went to the store. While your family may not be able to match our exact spending given what you already have on hand, the meal plan below is budget-friendly, reuses ingredients, and takes advantage of fruits/veggies that are in season (and thus less expensive). To help you see how we cut corners and saved money, I inserted notes on how we prepared each meal.

Have your own meal plan tips? Please share them in the comments!



Matt's Awesome Meal Plan

Saturday: Burgers with Kale Chips 
  • The grass-fed ground beef for the burgers came from my husband's winery. Don't have your own free beef from work? (Really, who does?) Buy it on sale and stock your freezer. We get the kale from our garden, but you can find a bunch of it at the grocery store for $1.50 or less. If you have kids, I bet you can get them to try these delicious and crunchy kale chips. Our toddler loves them.
Sunday: Salmon Tacos with Carrot & Cabbage Slaw
  • This recipe is for white fish tacos, but we like to spice it up with salmon. We buy 1/2 lb of fish for our family of three and make it work by having plenty of veggie toppings. Other ways we keep this recipe cheap: skip the jicima and red cabbage (just do green), and if you don't have all of the spices for the fish rub, no biggie. We often just do chili powder.
Monday: Grilled Whole Chicken w/Tomato Cucumber Salad
  • We stock up on chickens when they are on sale (like this week) and put them in the freezer. Tomatoes and cucumbers are in season so if you don't have them in your garden like we do, you can find good deals at your grocer or farmer's market.
Tuesday: Chicken and Black Bean Tostadas
  • Use leftover dark meat from the grilled chicken for these yummy toastadas. Also plan to reuse a lot of ingredients from the salmon tacos: tortillas, chilies in Adobo sauce, sour cream, limes, and cabbage. We also save by not including the radishes, and keeping our pantry stocked with black beans we bought on sale.
Wednesday: Chicken BLTs and Side Salad
  • Use the leftover white meat for these yummy BLTs and whatever bread you have on hand. Save any remaining bacon for a leisurely weekend breakfast. For the side salad, be creative with whatever you have on hand. For us this week? Let me guess...tomatoes and cucumbers...
Thursday: Zucchini Baba Ganoush with Fresh Vegetables
  • This has become our go-to recipe this summer - it's delicious, easy and healthy. You will need to invest in Tahini paste the first time you make this, but it keeps well and can be used to make other great frugal dishes like homemade hummus. I've also found that I can use half the amount of Tahini called for in this recipe and the result is even - if not more - delicious. Zucchini is in season and if you ask around, you may find a friend who would beg you to take some off their hands. We serve our Baba Ganoush with Mediterranean flatbread from Trader Joe's (or leftover tortillas), sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Notice a veggie theme this week?
Friday: Margarita Pizza with (shocker) Tomato Cucumber Salad
  • I love pizza nights because I can almost do the cooking with my eyes closed. We buy pizza dough and a huge hunk of mozzerella (you always save when you buy ungrated cheese) from Trader Joe's, and use tomato sauce that we canned last year. If we have leftover veggies or meat from the week, onto the pizza they go.
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