Friday, August 8, 2014

A Camping Convert

I didn't grow up camping. The story of why includes my mom, rain, and sleeping in a Pinto. My husband also didn't grow up camping but, like most men (yes, I'm stereotyping), loves it. He also likes survival shows and seems to salivate at the thought of being dropped in the middle of the wilderness with nothing but a pocket knife. 

Needless to say our differing views on the topic have not led to many successful camping trips. Not that they were awful, they just weren't vacation material. When asked whether I'd like to go camping or to Hawaii I would answer...wait, is that even a question?

So why am I writing a post on the topic? A few reasons. First, camping is just about the most frugal vacation you can take. As a frugal fanatic I need to give camping a second (and third, and fourth) chance. Heck, I probably need to become camping's poster child.

Second, on our most recent camping trip I did all of the packing and discovered one of the keys to a successful trip: organization. Having everything we needed and knowing where it was made such a difference. No more digging through the dark recesses of duffel bags praying that we'd remembered matches. Or soap. Or sunscreen. Everything was on a packing list and organized into large, clear-sided Rubbermaid tubs. 

Am I Type A? You betcha. Oh, and I should mention that we're most certainly talking about car camping here. No toting all this stuff on a backpacking trip. Not that I know (or most likely will ever know) anything about backpacking. So help me God.

With our car packed so full that our two-year-old thought he was in a pillow fort, we headed off to Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Although only an hour and a half drive due west from Napa, we felt a million miles away as we parked in front of our cabin at the Madrone campground (our two-person tent no longer accommodates our family of four). As far as our eyes could see, tall redwoods reached out and touched the sky. I could feel my whole body relaxing as we unpacked the car, opened a bottle of wine and started on dinner. 

The next few days were pure bliss. Well, as much pure bliss as is possible with two kids under the age of three. We hiked (there is a paved trail in the park, perfect for little ones), went to a kid-friendly beach on Tamales Bay (Heart's Desire Beach), ate lots of smores, and enjoyed a Cowgirl Creamery lunch in Point Reyes Station. Most importantly, we had the satisfaction of watching our two-year-old fall in love with the great outdoors.

I'll be honest. It took me a week to get packed for our trip, but it was so worth it. At the end of the process I not only had everything we needed for our trip to the redwoods, but three pre-packed tubs (cooking, camping gear, and hygiene) that will always be at the ready in our garage. The next time we venture out into the wilderness the packing process will be easy-peasy. So easy-peasy I might even be looking forward to our next trip.

Planning your next camping trip? Download my mother-of-all camping packing list. Most of the items came from our linen closet and kitchen, thrift stores, and a last-minute Walmart run. See something missing, have your own camping tips, or a suggestion on where we should go next? Please share in the comments.



Saturday, June 28, 2014

Making the most of a promotion

Last week my husband called from work to go over some mundane items on the proverbial to-do-list, and then hit me with the news.

"Oh, and I got promoted to winemaker this morning."

I nearly fell off my chair. We'd been talking about him becoming a full-blown winemaker ever since our dreams of the wine industry took root. And now, in the blink of an eye, here it was. The real deal. Winemaker.

Holy cow (that's the PG version). I'm so proud of you babe.

After the initial giddy shock wore off, we did what any other couple faced with a promotion does:  daydream about how this was going to change our lives. You know where this is the land of, "Now we can buy a new house/car/fill in big-ticket item here." Before you knew it, we were trolling Trulia and ogling diesel pickup trucks.

As a writer of a frugal blog I'm kinda ashamed to admit that it took a late night visit via public television from Suze Orman to snap me out of it. It's just so easy to get caught up in the frenzy of the thought of what new money can buy. It feels like a drug. You want that big ticket item you've been waiting for and you want it NOW.

After returning to earth (from Google Earth, where a million dollar house with vineyard views looks quite nice...and way out of our price range), we realized we needed to back-up. Way up. Why were we even thinking about buying these things in the first place? It was time to go back to the financial planning process and revisit our goals.

Whenever an unexpected financial windfall comes your way there are lot of questions you should ask yourself. Here are a few we're pondering right now.

  • What are my goals? This is a pretty basic question, but so important. It should be the first thing you ask yourself when it comes to how you spend your money. In our case, some of our goals include funding our children's education, buying a larger home for our growing family, replacing our 10+ year-old cars, and funding our retirement at 15% of our gross income/year. 
  • Should I change my standard of living? It may be tempting to spend/shop more now that you're making more, but do you really need to? For example, we've proven to ourselves we can live on $75 a week for groceries. Do we really need to relax our budget - or can we stick to it and instead put the money saved towards our goals?
  • Do I need to increase my emergency fund? You should have a minimum of eight months of expenses saved in a savings or money market account in the case of an emergency. This money is not to be touched unless there is a real emergency - like you loose your job. When extra income comes into the picture, this is the perfect time to increase your emergency fund if need be. One thing we are exploring this time around is using a Roth IRA for a portion of our emergency fund.
  • Thinking about a big purchase - like buying a house? Practice the new payments. For example, we'd love to get a larger home but are concerned about affordability. How much of our monthly income can we spend on housing and not feel financially stretched/stressed? As we ponder our next move, we're going to pretend we have a higher monthly payment and save those extra dollars into our down-payment fund. That way we're increasing our down-payment and proving to ourselves - before we sign on the dotted line - that we can afford a higher mortgage.
  • Increasing/buying life insurance. If you've been thinking about buying life insurance or increasing the amount you have, this is an excellent time to do it. 

What are some of the financial questions you ask yourself when you get a raise or a new job? Please share in the comments!



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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Introducing Ben

I'd like to introduce the newest addition to our family - baby Ben.

Benjamin joined us in April to much fanfare, which included a cord prolapse (when the umbilical cord is delivered before the baby - never good) and an emergency C-section. Oh, and he was four weeks early. I will spare you the details, but suffice it to say that he's our miracle baby.

I quickly learned that caring for a new baby and chasing around a two-year-old doesn't leave much time for anything else. When you hardly have time to shower, you definitely don't have time to clip coupons and cook meals from scratch. My frugality (and my blog) has had to take a backseat to reality, a reminder that this is why we save - to give us the freedom to enjoy times like this with our family.

As the dust starts to settle, I look forward to getting back to meal planning, budgeting, squeezing the most out of each dollar and sharing the journey through my blog. But tonight, I think I'm going to go enjoy some cuddle time with baby Ben. As I've learned, that commodity is in very short supply.



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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