Thursday, November 20, 2014

Do-it-yourself family photo shoot

To put it mildly, I love taking pictures. Oodles and oodles of them. I would even venture to say it's an addiction. One that's gotten much worse since having kids.

With the holiday season nipping at our heels, a few weeks ago I realized we didn't have a family photo with our newest addition, baby Ben. As you might imagine, I am one of those folks who has joined the Christmas card family photo craze. It's such an easy way to share a family update with friends and loved ones, though truth be told I miss the beauty and simplicity of classic Christmas card illustrations like the ones I grew up with.

It was time to drag - oops, I mean corral - the family outside and snap away!

Since becoming a mom and the Official Family Photographer, I've learned a lot about how to take a family photo. From investing in the right tools to brainstorming ideas to being the family cheerleader, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes to take a good picture. But despite the time and effort, the final result is always worth it.

If you're frugal like me and prefer to take family pictures yourself - vs. hiring a professional photographer - I hope these tips will help you make your next family photo a great one.

1. Invest in a good camera: Yes, even a frugal person like me recommends investing a good camera, preferably a digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR. These cameras combine digital technology with the optics of old-school cameras and lenses. How much should you spend? These days you can get a DSLR for less than $500, including lenses. For example, you can find a used Canon Rebel on eBay for $250. Last year I upgraded to a Nikon D7000, which is a low-level professional grade camera, for around $500 (minus lenses). I got a great deal on a refurbished model because a newer model - the D7100 - had just been released. Check out websites like for the best deals. (Don't have a DSLR in your budget? Any point-and-shoot camera will do the job. If you find you like photography, you can always upgrade later.)

2. White Balance: I've found no other camera feature impacts the quality of photos as much as white balance - except, perhaps, focus. White balance influences the color tone in your pictures, making things like skin tone look natural or sallow. Find the white balance setting on your camera and play around with it to figure out what settings you like the best. There is much you can learn from your camera's manual on how to get started. The time of day and the place you are taking photos - for instance inside vs. outside - will impact the white balance settings, so take your time learning this feature. When using white balance settings for your family pictures, always take a few practice shots to make sure the colors look good.

If you're really up for perfecting the white balance in your photos, find out if your camera has a custom white balance feature. This enables you to set the white balance manually. Recently I invested in an Expodisc to help me do so with ease. The colors look great. Every. Single. Time.

3. Get a tripod: If you want to take your own family photos, this is a must. I've also gone the whole stacking-books-on-a-chair-until-they-are high-enough-to-hold-the-camera route, but it's incredibly frustrating and you never know when you're camera is going to topple off. For around $30 you can get a great tri-pod that you'll use for years.

4. Visit Pinterest for inspiration: What did I ever do before Pinterest? Last year was the first that I visited the site for Christmas photo inspiration and I wasn't disappointed.  Within five minutes I had five easy ideas for Christmas card pictures, including the theme you see below. What did we end up doing for this year's Christmas card? Well, you'll just have to wait and see!

5. Get your props ready:  Props for the photo to the right? A "Merry Christmas" sign from Target and a red Adirondack chair from our backyard. Other props for a Christmas card might be Christmas ornaments, Christmas lights, garland, etc. Gather these together so you're ready to go when the time is right. You might even have a few different ones to try so you have plenty of photo options to choose from.

6. Convince reluctant spouses/kids: Does anyone's husband love to take family photos? Mine needs a little friendly reminder that at least we're not hiring a professional photographer for $400. Also, I've found that promising to keep your "photo shoot" to a reasonable time limit (like 20 minutes) helps. And taking pictures right after a yummy meal. 

7. Dress the part: You don't need to be matchy matchy, but it helps to think about what everyone will be wearing before you snap away. This year I found a great blog post on family portrait wardrobes, which was just the inspiration I needed for the vineyard photo above. Decide if you want everyone to be casual (jeans) or dressy (slacks). Make sure to choose colors that everyone looks good in, which in the winter tend to be colors that brighten skin tone (not, say, light gray). My favorite tip? Start the process by mom choosing her outfit so that she feels and looks good. Then match the rest of the family to what she's wearing.

8. Location, location, location:  In my option, unless you have professional lighting outdoor family photos almost always look better than those taken inside. Scout out a few locations by looking for places that don't have a lot of "noise" in the background. For example, the Christmas photo above was taken in our backyard against a backdrop of trees - not facing the (messy) back of our house. The same concept goes for the vineyard photo above. Straight vineyard rows make for a simple setting that does not detract from the subjects. Don't have a good spot in your backyard? Check out your neighborhood park.

9. Face the light source: For faces to be illuminated and not in shadow, everyone should be facing the biggest light source. Inside? Face a window. Outside? Face the sun. Which brings me to...

10. Choose your timing wisely: Especially if you're taking pictures outdoors, this matters a bundle. I've learned over time that I get the best outdoor photos in the morning or late afternoon/sunset, or when it's cloudy outside. What you want to avoid is the sun beating down overhead and causing people to squint - or casting a lot of shadows.

11. Set up your gear before the family joins you: The time to keep the family focused on taking photos is limited. As much as possible, make sure everything is ready to go before rousing the troops.

12. Take test shots and focus your camera: Before going full throttle, take a few test shots and make sure the photo is framed as you would like it, that everyone can be seen in the photo, and that your camera is focused on the subjects. I can't tell you how many times I've gone through pictures to find the camera is focused on the trees rather than the people. Don't let this happen to you.

13. Put your camera on self-timer or buy a remote: Every point-and-shoot camera out there, and all DSLRs, have a self-timer function. If your camera has the capability, set it to take 5+ consecutive photos each time the timer goes off. You can also invest in a wireless remote if your camera is compatible.

14. Don't be too serious: OK, now is the time to have fun! Get in front of the camera, have everyone smile and start shooting. Take some photos where everyone is smiling and looking at the camera, and a few where everyone is looking at each other or, say, a baby. Laugh, squeeze each other, lean in, etc. My husband has even been known to lovingly pinch my bum to make me smile.

15. Different scenes: Take some photos where everyone can be seen head to toe, some from the waist up, and some sitting (or in another pose). Mix it up a bit because you'll find at the end that certain scenes really click and others don't.

16. Snap away: After five minutes you may think you've taken enough pictures. What I've found is that - especially when multiple people (and kids!) are involved - you get one good shot for about every 50 you take. Our family photo shoots typically result in a few hundred photos, of which ten might be decent (everyone looking at the camera, no funny faces, double chins, eyes closed, etc.). Of those ten, one or two is a winner. While even a hundred photos might sound like a lot, if they're taken at rapid-fire your photo shoot shouldn't take more than 15-30 minutes.

Best of luck with your next DIY family photo session! Have your own tip for taking great pictures? Please share in the comments.



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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Kid, earth & budget-friendly cleaning solutions

I have one sweet word for my bottles of Windex and 409: goodbye!

I  used to think I would never be able to survive without those trusty solutions at the ready. It didn't even occur to me that there were alternatives to traditional cleaners until I started reading books and magazines about frugal, simple living. My interest was piqued.

I started small: a vinegar and water spray to clean my kitchen counters, windows and mirrors. It worked like a charm (albeit with a bit more elbow grease than usual). I also didn't have to worry about my kids eating off of the surfaces after they were cleaned. And, to boot, it was way cheaper than buying a bottle of cleaner at the store. (Not to mention that it didn't require a trip to the store in the first place.) I was sold.

A few years later I am still making a vinegar and water solution for windows and mirrors, but have graduated to a "heavier duty" antibacterial cleaner for surfaces like kitchen counters and the dinner table. No bleach or harsh chemicals here - instead the workhorses are vinegar, tea tree oil (the anti-bacterial agent), washing soda and lavender.

The best part? My kitchen smells heavenly.

Truth be told, there is still a bottle of hallmark blue liquid lurking in my hall cabinet for emergencies. But I'm finding that there are fewer and fewer times I need to pull out the "big guns." The reality is that my homemade cleaners get the job done 95% of the time.

Cheers to a clean and happy home!


Vinegar & Water Solution

It doesn't get simpler than this. Fill an empty spray bottle with 50% water and 50% white vinegar. Spray on surfaces and wipe down with a clean cloth. A microfiber cloth works wonders on windows and mirrors.

All-Purpose Kitchen Cleaner

2 cups hot water
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon washing soda
15 drops tea tree oil
15 drops lavender oil

Mix ingredients together in a spray bottle. When you add the washing soda to the liquid it will fizz, so make sure you leave space in the bottle for a reaction.

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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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