Monday, March 19, 2012

We're Moving!

It's official. We're moving! Although not where we thought we would be moving to. Like everyone else, we love to plan out our lives and where we'll go or what we'll do. We figured we would move to Texas around August due to a relocation from Richard's work. Well, he did get relocated, but not to Texas. We're moving to Virginia! And a lot sooner than planned! We'll probably be there before the month of April is over. It's such short notice that we're scrambling to get our house on the market and find a new home.

This week we'll be flying out to go house hunting. Please pray for a smooth process and just the right home/community. And please pray for Gabriel and Touchstone family, who will be watching him the whole time... in Texas... 1,656 miles away. I'm not worried. I just hope Gabriel doesn't get scared or lonely without seeing his mommy and daddy for 5 days. I hope Danielle can handle two babies at once, with mine that just learned to walk. I hope Gabriel is comfortable in a new home even though he's not familiar with it. What if he needs me?! OK I am worried... Sigh... Lord help me!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

How We Save Money Part 3 - Free Stuff

This is the funnest part of the series. I love free stuff! I even drove around getting as much free stuff as I could on my birthday last year. So without further ado, here are my favorite three ways to get free stuff.

Swagbucks - You can get many things from here, but I always get Amazon gift cards. So far, I've received $50 in Amazon gift cards from this site. Before I explain how it works, I encourage you to please sing up through this link. It's the same for you no matter how you sign up, but if you follow my link, I'll get more swagbucks :) So here's how it works. Swagbucks.com will reward you with "swagbucks" (a pretend money) for different tasks you do. Some of these tasks take some good time, and others take seconds. I only do certain tasks that I consider worth my time. Doing these things every day, I can get a $5 Amazon gift card about every other week.
- Daily internet search - Swagbucks home page has a web search engine. Instead of using Google, I often use this site. Each day, after only 2 or 3 searches, they reward you with 7-12 swagbucks.
- Daily Poll - These are fun polls that ask questions submitted by members. After taking 2 seconds to answer, you get a swagbuck.
- NOSO - I don't know what this stands for, but you click past the ads and get 2 more bucks. Takes about 20 seconds.
- Swagbucks TV - Whenever I am at my computer, I have this playing in the background. I don't even watch it. After a certain amount of time, I am rewarded with 3 swagbucks. I can just keep it going as long as I'm at my computer. A normal day will give me over 20 swagbucks.

Huggies Rewards - Believe it or not you can actually do this even if you don't buy Huggies diapers, but buying the diapers gives you more options in rewards. I submit my points (received from buying diapers or I get them free from online sources), for entrees into sweepstakes. The key to winning is to NOT enter for the expensive items, but enter for the items they are giving away the most of. So far I've won Crocks shoes for Gabriel, free magazines and an Amazon gift card. The Pampers website has a similar program.

• Couponing - See post 2 of this series.

OK so those are my favorites and I participate every single day. After that, there are other things I do sporadically.

Freebies4Mom.com - Here you can view any free stuff that is available, great deals, Huggies/Pampers codes (for the above mentioned), etc. A great resource! Just go and look around.

• Sweepstakes - I only enter small ones with a bigger chance of winning. I mostly find them in the blogs I enjoy reading.

• Surveys - I used to take surveys during the day when Gabriel was sleeping. I got a total of $15 back form them, but then stopped because I didn't think it was worth my time. I like to spend as little time as possible on stuff like this. If you're interested, though, the site I liked the best was OpinionOutpost.com

And that's it. This is the end of the series "How We Save Money". Hope you learned something, and enjoyed reading!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How We Save Money Part 2 - Couponing

My sister-in-law, Diane, introduced me to couponing. Apparently she and Sarah (my other sister-in-law) will call each other to chat about a great shopping day and how much money they saved. Couponing is actually very strategic, and it takes a while to get the hang of it. You have to know what a good price is, how often you might see that price, where/how to get the coupons, etc. Here's some basic information that I learned about how to coupon.

Cycles
Everything in the grocery store has a cycle. It might go on sale, but not the best sale, then it'll go back to normal price, then it'll go on a better sale. The cycle continues on, and at least once every 6 weeks (give or take depending on the item) it will hit the lowest price. Here's a picture of what I'm talking about.
So you see that sometimes, there will be an advertized sale, but it may not be very good. If you know what the lowest price is, then you know you can wait. I sometimes get things for free, which is great! And once in a while I even get money back! That's right, the store will PAY ME to "buy" an item from them. How often does this happen? Not every week, but a few times a month. I will never again pay for toothpaste or toothbrushes, because I know I can get them for free. And I once was paid $10 to "buy" heart burn medicine, which I then gave away because I don't use/need it.

Stacking Coupons
Once you've waited for the right sale, it's not over! Oh no. You then stack coupons on top of that sale. There are different types of coupons. There are manufacturer coupons (the manufacturer pays the difference in value) and there are store coupons (the store pays the difference in value). You can "stack" one of each type of coupon. So let's say the shampoo you buy has a regular price of $6 per bottle, and you find them on sale for 50% off. You also have a $1 off store coupon AND a 50¢ off manufacturer coupon. Put them all together and you get your shampoo for only $1.50. That's a 75% savings! Now some stores will double your coupon. That would turn your 50¢ coupon into $1, and you would only pay a final price of $1!

Now not everything has coupons, like produce and meat. For those items, I just watch for sales, and make our family meals around what's on sale. I have a chart that I keep updated with what I am willing to pay for items I buy on a regular basis.

Stockpiling
Once you find deals like this, you stock up as much as you can. That's why most couponers have a stockpile. The stockpile will last you long enough to at least wait until the next big sale.

Where to get Coupons
There are plenty of online sources for coupons, but the best way is to subscribe to the Sunday paper. I can hear some of you saying "But I don't want to PAY for the paper just to try to save money!" Well, I guarantee, if you coupon, you will save much more than $1 a week, which is the cost of my Sunday papers. I even get two papers each Sunday, for extra coupons. Think of it as cash. Wouldn't you pay someone $1 for $20 or more in return?

Use the Internet
These days there are a ton of websites out there that will match up the weekly grocery circulars with the Sunday coupons and tell you what good deals there are. If you just google "coupon matchup" and your city, you're likely to find something. Here is a site that works in most places. Just sign up and enter your location. www.couponmom.com. I started with that site, and now I have a few sites that are specific to my area that I like a little better.
Usually the site will tell you what coupon to use, what newspaper date it was from and what the final price will be. They even have links to the electronic coupons. So you really don't even have to clip any coupons! Just log into the website and clip only the ones they tell you to use. It's that simple!

So how much can you save by couponing? Well it all depends on how much effort you put into it, and what choices you make when shopping. I probably cut my monthly grocery spend by about 1/3. Some couponers will say they cut their monthly spend in half or even more.

Here are some websites to help get you started.
Southern Savers
Couponing 101
Hot Coupon World


Beyond Groceries
I use the same strategies for clothes and other items as I do for groceries. Here are some examples.
1. I often get a $10 off Kohl's card in the mail. They just send them to the local public and everyone gets them, but you have to use them in a certain time window. I go to Kohl's during that time, and find an outfit for Gabriel that's as close to $10 as possible. I don't buy ANYTHING else. I leave with a new outfit for the baby and usually only spend 10¢ or less. I've done this multiple times.

2. Richard is having to buy an entirely new wardrobe for work, since he'll soon need to wear a tie to work every day. He is the perfect Banana Republic fit. I happen to know that if you go into the store, Banana Republic will usually hand you and set of coupons for the following month. There are four coupons, each for 40% off any one full-priced item. Each coupon is only good for one day out of the month. I go take Gabriel for a walk around the mall on those days, and grab Richard one item at a time. So far, we haven't paid full price for a single item, and we've gotten almost all of it for 40% off!

3. Find a coupon online by googling the store name and "coupon". I can't tell you how much we've saved here, but it's a lot. When we bought our expensive Christmas tree a couple years ago, we waited for an after-Christmas sale, and we found a coupon for 15% off (on top of the already reduced price) plus free shipping!

4. Set up a separate email account. I often hear that people would rather pay more for something than give out their email address. I understand completely. That is why I set up and email address that I use only for couponing.

5. Piggy-backing on the email thing, many places will send you a coupon just for signing up with your email account. Last week at Kohl's I wrote two different email addresses down (I have 3 total), and got a $5 gift card sent to each one. Gabriel's about to get another new outfit!

So there are my couponing tips in a nutshell. If you decide to get started, it does take practice and time to figure it all out. Feel free to call me and I'll talk your ear off about how it all works.

Monday, March 12, 2012

How We Save Money Part 1 - Lifestyle Changes

I sometimes get asked how we save money, now that we've slimmed down to one income. I get so excited about sharing that I normally go on and on about things I've changed, ways I shop, coupons, etc. That's about the time their eyes glaze over and they wish they hadn't asked me at all. It's hard to find folks who share my passion for saving money, but it's a good thing my hubby is one of those people! I think he gets almost as excited as I do when I share about a new deal I got.

That being said, I have decided to do a series on the various ways we save money. I still consider myself new at this game, so feel free to shoot me an email or make comments on the posts. I would love to hear your ideas!

Before I go into the details, I want to share about why I have made such a big effort recently. It's no secret that I am now a stay at home mom. While we've made good decisions in the past, which means we have no debt other than our mortgage (yeah!), we still have to make some cuts in order to stay in the green now that we're on one income. I've made changes in our lifestyle and also in the way I shop. I find myself trying to find a balance, though. On the one hand there's convenience and things we enjoy because they're nice/new, and on the other hand there's money to be saved for important things like our children's education. I think I'm still working on finding the right balance.

This post is all about lifestyle changes. Below are the things we do in an effort to save money.

1. Change from disposable to reusable.
There are many ways we've done this. On top of being less expensive, many of these alternatives are also environmentally friendly. Here's a list of what I've changed.

• The biggest change we've made is cloth diapers. We invested in cloth diapers, because they will save us thousands of dollars. The more kids we have, the more money we save by continuing to use the cloth diapers. There are a ton of options out there these days. You can still get the old fashioned diapers that use a safety pin, but I chose something a little pricier to begin with. I have my reasons, which I won't go into right now. After investing in the cloth diapers, we saved enough money to break even at the end of 2011. So now we are saving money each time we change his diaper with cloth!

• Cloth baby wipes. This goes along with #1. They just get washed along with the diapers. We also use cloth wipes at meal time. We realized we were going through a ton of paper towels, because we used them to wipe off Gabriel's face and hands after eating.

Cloth dish rag. We used to buy the disposable sponges for the kitchen, but those actually hold a lot of bacteria! So cloth is usually more sanitary since you can wash it more often.

Reusable bags. This is a small one, but did you know that Target will give you 5¢ for each reusable bag you bring?


2. Don't always buy new.
There are often some lightly used alternatives to many of our regular purchases.

Gift Bags and Tissue Paper. My friend laughed at me when I saved the bags and tissue paper from my baby shower. But hey, if you buy a new bag and paper for every single gift, that adds up! Once they're too torn/wrinkled to use anymore, I will get rid of them. But until then, you just might be receiving a recycled bag. I bet you won't even realize it.

Baby Clothes. We are fortunate to have the seventh grandchild and fifth grandson on Richard's side of the family. All those boys have given Gabriel a lot of baby clothes. For the first year of his life, we only bought a few things for him. This isn't really a "change", because I would have always accepted hand-me-down clothes. The part that takes effort is not buying all those cute clothes I see, just because I like them. When I need to buy some baby clothes I wait for a great sale or go to the used clothing store. Typically I can get free outfits for Gabriel at Kohl's. More on that in another part of this series.

Books. This is a big one if you're a big reader! Unfortunately, our local library never seems to have the books I want, but there is a used book shop on the corner of our block. I take my old books there and get store credit. I also will buy a used book on Amazon (as long as it's in good condition). The best is when I can borrow a book from a friend.

3. Don't buy as much, or do it yourself.
I can go on and on about ways to save, but in the end, the biggest way to save money is to not spend it! Make your budget go from a guideline to a hard rule.

Cleaning. We've never paid for a cleaning lady, although sometimes I've thought about it. When I look at their prices, I change my attitude about cleaning and just get it done. It's like working out, you hate starting, but it feels good when it's done.

Restaurants. You can save hundreds of dollars each month by eating out less often. We still eat out once in a while, but it's more of a treat and less of a regular thing.

Clothing. I am still working on this one. I used to be able to buy whatever clothes I wanted, and not worry about a budget. I recently returned some work out clothes (even though I got a great deal with a coupon!), after realizing I spent too much. I will just make sure to wash what I have more often for now. I have to remember, no matter how good the deal is, it's always cheaper to not buy ANYTHING.

Home Improvements. Richard has showed me that saying "I don't know how" is not a reason to pay someone to do it for you. He has done a number of things around the house by himself, just by doing a little research online. He's re-caulked the shower, replaced old fixtures, installed a new garbage disposal and installed our new oven. He makes me proud :)

Coffee. This is one I am still guilty of. I have gotten into the habit of getting my Starbucks coffee while I'm out and about. I'm working on it, but they're just so tasty!

Entertainment. Movies are expensive! They don't need to be a regular thing. If you get creative, there are a lot of other fun ways to spend an evening. Game night, go for a walk, or even a movie at home. We will sometimes go to a bookstore and just browse while talking. We still go to movies, but rarely.

Travel. Bottom line here is stick to your budget. Different families travel different amounts. Some families live near all their relatives and friends, but we do not. In the end just make sure your budget is reasonable and stick to it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Making A Wedding Cake

When I started making my brother and sister-in-law's wedding cake, I was very nervous. I have done plenty of cakes, but I still consider myself an amateur. On top of that, I've never done a WEDDING cake before. There was no room for flaws. This cake had to be perfect. Fortunately, the design was very simple, and the bride and groom had faith in me, which made me feel a little better.

I am never alone when I make a cake. I always have my baking buddies with me. They are Danielle and Marlene. This time, they were with me via iPhone chats :) I flooded them with pictures and they encouraged me along the way. Thanks guys!

Here's a summary of how it went.
They wanted the cake to be a traditional white cake with white frosting. So I made them a sour cream cake (so it was very moist) with cream cheese frosting. It was a square cake with three tiers; 12", 9", 6". Each tier had three layers of cake with the frosting filling between each layer.
To bake the cakes, I always use these liners around the outside edge of the pan. You soak them with water right before attaching to the pan. This helps the whole cake to bake evenly, so you don't get a dry edge and an uncooked middle. It is a must for larger cakes.

After baking, they went straight into the freezer. This preserved the freshness, since I started so far in advance. They stayed in the freezer until closer to the wedding day when I could ice them.

Next, I stacked three layers of cake with the filling in between, and applied the "dirty icing". Dirty icing is the first coat of frosting around the cake. It usually gets crumbs from the cake in it, making it look dirty (get it?). After the dirty icing, you apply another layer of fresh icing that won't have any crumbs in it.

I always have to wear my cupcake apron that Marlene gave me whenever I make cakes. Boy toy I look tired in this picture. Maybe it has something to do with running after a 1 year old all day while trying to make a cake at the same time.

Now time for the fondant. In order to allow the fondant to drape off the sides and trip it up to look smooth, I place each cake (which is already on a cake board) on top of something that is smaller in diameter. Here I used a coffee can. I then roll out the fondant, and smooth it onto the cake.

At this point, the rehearsal dinner was about to start at the same location I was making the cake at, and I didn't want the bride an groom to see it yet. So I placed each tier in my parents bathroom on a card table. Don't worry, it was clean and no one used the bathroom until after the cakes were removed. I promise!

After the dinner, I had to decide which size ribbon to apply. The options were 1 1/2 "...

...or 7/8 "

Definitely glad I used 1 1/2". Next I applied sugar pearls. They are edible little pearls made of sugar. They were applied in a diamond pattern on the side of each tier.

Oh no! A mistake!! Well, I've never made a cake that didn't have some sort of "oops" moment. This little crater happened as I was applying the pearls.

The method I used to apply the pearls was this: I made a template on paper. I then held the paper up to the side of the cake and poked tiny holes with a toothpick to mark each spot. The toothpick is what made the little crater.

To fix this, I took a bit of extra fondant, and smoothed it into place, then placed the pearl on top. You can see the fixed version here, the spot was where the very left end pearl is. I did this with a few more dimples too.

 The morning of the wedding, we drove the cake to the reception sight. My wonderful driver was none other than Richard himself. He's transported a few cakes for me, and he's pretty good at knowing how to drive with a cake in the car. Trust me, it's hard.

The cakes looked so lonely in the back by themselves, so I decided to keep them company on the drive. Ok, maybe I was just scared something would happen, but hey, who wouldn't be?

We got to the hotel safe and sound. Thank the Lord! Now time to stack the cake. This is the exciting part when it all comes together! To support the tier above, I used very thick straws.


Middle tier, check!

Top tier, check!

Cake topper, check!


A happy bride and groom to make the first cut, Check!

Aaaahhhh my reward :) OK the real reward was actually seeing my brother and sister-in-law on their wedding day so happy. But the cake slice was nice too.

My Big Brother's Wedding

Last week was filled with lots of smiles, laughs and tears. My big brother got married! We are happy to welcome his bride, Allison, into our family.

Unfortunately I didn't bring my "good" camera on the trip, because I was toting a baby (and baby gear) along with cake supplies for the wedding cake. So all these pictures are taken from my iPhone.

While we were waiting for the wedding to start, Gabriel has fun with great Grandma...

... And playing in front of the fan.
video

 My brother watching his bride walk down the isle.


My parents with the bride and groom.

The wedding party.

At the reception, there was a cute "sweets" table that matched their black and silver colors.


My brother and mom dancing.

Gabriel got hot so we unbuttoned his shirt a little. The little 14 month old girl couldn't keep her eyes off him. I don't blame her ;)


Cutting the cake I made.

And now the bride and groom are off on a cruise. Congratulations to you both!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mandi's Baby Shower and Ruffle Cake

My friend Mandi is having a little girl, and I was so happy to throw her a baby shower. I didn't do it alone of course. I had a lot of help of Marlene and Danielle, and Erin was a big help the day of the shower. Thanks guys!

The theme of the party was "Sugar and Spice". I had so much fun thinking of games to play and decorations. The food table was organized into a "Sugar" section and a "Spice" section.

I made a ruffle cake that looks almost like a little girl's skirt.

We played a game with eight spices in containers with no name. You had to guess the name of the spice based on sight and smell. The winner got 5 of 8 correct.

 Mandi's niece, whom I know as "Clo Clo" was dressed up in the ribbon from the gift wrap.

Of course, there was a lot of cute girly stuff.


Marlene, me, Mandi, Erin and little Charlotte Elise (in the tummy).
 
Congratulations on your little baby girl Mandi! I can't wait to meet her!