Showing posts with label Dollar Stretching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dollar Stretching. Show all posts

Jul 20, 2015

How We Homeschool on a Shoestring Budget

Wishing you could start homeschooling but are aghast at the cost of curriculum? Or are you worried that you can't continue homeschooling because of the high cost associated with it? Well, let me introduce you to my world, where homeschooling costs are much, much less. I'm not saying you must homeschool this way - but if money is keeping you from homeschooling, or if reducing homeschooling costs would be a blessing for your family, read on.



The Robinson Curriculum

I knew almost from the beginning that I wanted to homeschool our children. But when I looked at the cost of curriculum, I had sticker shock. How on earth was I going to spend hundreds of dollars each year on curriculum? Happily, my sis-in-law, who was also grappling with that question, discovered The Robinson Curriculum. It's a real life saver for those who need to homeschool on a shoestring. (There are also other strong reasons to use this curriculum, which I'll mention momentarily.)
The Robinson Curriculum comes on CDs.

The Robinson Curriculum, which is good for kids from 1st grade through high school, is $195 (new). In addition to that, you you'll need to buy math books - and if you don't have a Kindle, you'll either want to purchase a one for the reading materials, or you'll want an efficient printer to print out the reading material included on discs in the curriculum. I've found that most of the reading material is available free in digital format from Amazon or Project Gutenberg, so my daughter uses an old black and white Kindle (that can't go onto the Internet and doesn't have all the fancy bells and whistles) for reading. I buy the math books at reduced cost (More on that in a moment.)

Once the curriculum CDs are purchased, we pay about $60 - $80 a year for curriculum. Yesssss!

If you are really pinching pennies, I recommend buying the Robinson Curriculum CDs used...but make sure the discs that comprise the curriculum are compatible with your computer. Some desperate families read the guidelines for the curriculum online, find the reading list elsewhere online, and don't buy the curriculum at all. What are they missing? A much more thorough explanation of the curriculum and how it works, plus digital access to an encyclopedia, dictionary, and grammar book; printable math fact flash cards; vocabulary cards; and exams for many of the reading materials.

While the inexpensive nature of the curriculum is awesome, so is the curriculum itself. It's an old timey philosophy, focusing on math, reading, and writing. All other subjects are taught through reading. And did I mention that (with the exception of very young students), the kids self-teach? The Robinson philosophy really works, and is incredibly freeing for parents, while teaching children valuable skills for life.

I will add that I do like to supplement the Robinson Curriculum with artsy projects, science "experiments," and other stuff that isn't necessary. I save this "extra curricular" stuff for the end of the day, as a reward for completing the main course of study. I get ideas (and sometimes free printables) for these things online, at many of the sources mentioned below.


A tiny sampling of some curriculum I've purchased used.
Used Curriculum

You can save an incredible amount of money by purchasing curriculum used. (In our case, we're only buying math books.) I typically buy used curriculum on eBay. To make this less time consuming, I save the search terms I'm using and have eBay send me emails whenever something matching those terms appears on their site. (To do this, do a normal search. On the results page, just above the results of the search, there are green letters saying "follow this search." Click on that phrase.)

There are also websites that focus on selling used curriculum; you might also try Amazon and Craigslist. In addition, I buy a lot of reading materials and extra curricular workbooks and such at thrift stores. St. Vincent DePaul's is our favorite because they organize their books like a bookstore does (by author and topic - they even have a special homeschool and curriculum section, and their "I Can Read!" books are separate, too); their prices are unbeatable.

Oh, and a bonus of using used curriculum? Older materials are usually of a higher academic standard!


Saving Curriculum

Instead of buying new curriculum for each child, we save curriculum, buying it only once, but using it repeatedly. That means that instead of writing in workbooks, I make photocopies of workbook pages for actual use. (My printer, a Brother HL-22800W, is very cost effective when you refill the cartridges yourself, and has a copy feature.) I have also sometimes covered workbook pages with a sheet protector and had my children use a dry erase markers to complete the worksheet - but my kids find this a bit cumbersome.

And if you do this with all your children, you'll be able to sell the curriculum when you're done with it. Score!


Teachers Pay Teachers

This is a fantastic website where teachers create materials, then sell them to other teachers (including homeschool parents). I've purchased some materials from this site, but mostly, I love the freebies. I signed up for the site's newsletter, which highlights a handful of freebies in each issue. You can also find freebies on the site in the following way:

In the left hand menu, select a grade level. Then select the price range ("Free" - also in the left hand menu). To further narrow things down, sort by "Rating." (You'll find this option just above the search results.) Hint: I recommend only using this method when you have plenty of free time. There are TONS of freebies on this site!


Homeschool Commons

If you love older books, and if you have a Kindle or other ebook reader, you'll love Homeschool Commons. This site contains links to Kindle and other free ebooks that are in the public domain and may be useful for homeschooling. I've found some really delightful books on this site.


The Crafty Classroom

Here you'll find all kinds of free printables and ideas to use in homeschool, including science projects, planners, reading helps, math helps, and yes, crafts.




123Homeschool4me

At this website, there are lots of free ideas and printables for gradeschool kids.


Pinterest

Truly, this is one of my favorite sources for homeschool ideas. Try searching by grade, then by subject, too, if you desire.


A Note About Preschool and Kindergarten 

Teaching preschool and kindergarten doesn't require curriculum. You may choose to use curriculum, but it's definitely not necessary - and depending upon your child, may actually cause more harm than good.

These grades should be about learning very basic things. Preschoolers can learn to use scissors, to count, and to recognize shapes, colors, and at least some letters and numbers. None of this requires curriculum. (Though you should read as many good picture books to your child as he or she will let you!)

In Kindergarten, your child can more thoroughly learn the letters and basic phonics. He can also learn to count to higher numbers, begin memorizing addition math facts, and learn how to write letters and numbers - and, if your child is ready, perhaps start reading a bit. (Not convinced kindergarten should be this simple? Read this post by Creekside Learning.) Again, none of this requires curriculum.

But...if you child likes worksheets, a simple addition to your homeschool is an inexpensive workbook from a store like Target or Walmart. For more on how and when to use such workbooks, please click here.

If your child is ready to start reading, I suggest phonic-based books for beginning readers. (My children have used Hooked on Phonics books and Bob books; I'm not a huge fan of the Bob books, though, because they look hand printed, and my kids sometimes found that confusing compared to the machine printed books we're used to.) Libraries often have phonic readers, so you might not need to buy any. If not, buy them used!

From there, I recommend the leveled "I Can Read!" books, which I also buy used.

Your child will be ready to start using the Robinson Curriculum once he or she knows her addition and subtraction facts and can easily read level 3 "I Can Read!" books.

Jun 29, 2015

Keeping the House Cool in Summer (With and Without AC)

Keeping Cool Without Air Conditioning

1. Keep blinds and drapes closed when the sun is near or on windows.

2. Open doors and windows when the air outside is cool; for example, in the early morning or evening.*

3. Cook outdoors, or use methods of cooking that keep the kitchen cool, such as crock pot cooking.
  
4. If you have a dryer in the house, try line drying clothes, instead. (Don't have a place for an outdoor clothes line? Check out "Air Drying Laundry Indoors.") If air drying clothes just isn't possible, use the dryer only in the early morning or late evening, when temperatures are cooler outdoors and in.

5.  At night, or when working in a single location, use a fan. On it's low setting, with just a light breeze being made by it, it can make you feel considerably cooler.

6. At night, place fans near open windows to help draw cool air in.*

7. Make your own swamp cooler. Place a metal bowl filled with salted ice in front of a fan that's blowing over the ice.


8. Turn on your stove fan and open your chimney flue. This draws hot air out of the house. (Some stove fans are heat-generating; obviously, if this is the case in your house, try to leave the fan off.)

9. Keep lights, computers, televisions, and other heat-generating appliances off.


10. Use satin or silk bedsheets. They feel cooler on the skin.


11. Close off the hottest parts of your house. For example, if you have bonus rooms upstairs, they likely get very hot. Close them off and don't use them during the hottest months of the year.

12. Install inexpensive heat-reflecting film on windows.

13. Use light-colored roofing materials. Approximately 30% of the heat that enters your house comes from the roof, and having a dark colored roof only intensifies this.


14. Get mini-blinds; they will make your house feel about 50% cooler. 

15. Install overhead fans, which can make rooms feel up to 7 degrees cooler.

16. Add awnings to the outside of your windows. According to the U.S. Department of energy, this can reduce heat felt in your house by 77%.

17. Plant shade trees near the house (but not so near their roots will destroy your home's foundation).

18. Don't use rock, asphalt, or cement on the west or south sides of the house. Unless it's shaded, it will only increase the heat - indoors and out.
  
19. Weatherize and insulate your house. 

20. Consider making your own $15 - 20 "air conditioner." Here's one example; YouTube is full of instructional videos for variations on this technique.


And if You DO Turn on the Air Conditioner:

1. Do all of the above, anyway. You'll appreciate it when you get your electric bill.

2. Make sure it's the right size. An AC unit that's too small for the room won't be very effective. Learn more about AC units and room size here.

3. Clean the AC air filter at least once a month.

4. Shade the outside of your AC unit; this can make the air coming into your house 10% cooler. (Just don't block the air flow of the AC unit.)

5. Make sure appliances and lights that generate heat aren't near your AC's thermometer.

6. Make sure plants and trees are at least 3 - 4 feet away from your AC unit, to encourage good air flow.

7. Consider installing AC only in rooms where it is really needed. It's unlikely you need air conditioning in every room of the house. However, if you just can't sleep when it's hot, it makes sense to install air conditioning in your bedroom.
  


* Consider safety, too. Open windows can be an invitation to criminals. Use your best judgement.

Jun 10, 2015

How to Get FREE Backup Cloud Service

I've blogged before about how much I dislike backup services. My history with them has been just plain awful. That said, I realize not everyone has the technical know-how to set up their own automatic backup system, and others may fear they will forget to manually back up things on a second hard drive or other device. So, many of you are paying a company to backup your precious family photos and important documents. But did you know you're paying too much?

Yes, that's right. You are paying too much for backup or cloud services.

How can I know that? Because if you're paying anything at all, it's too much! The average person simply doesn't need to pay for backup services...because they can get such a service for free. Yes, FREE.

Many reputable backup service companies offer their services without charge. Why would they do this? Because they hope that once you switch to their service, you'll decide you need more space to save photos and documents and will therefore opt for a plan that requires a monthly fee. But being frugal, once you see what's available without payment, I think you'll agree free is where it's at.

Where to Get Free Backup/Cloud Services

Just Cloud: Unlimited storage, completely automated.

OpenDrive: 5 GB free, with auto syncing.

Syncplicity: 10 GB free; auto syncing.

Dropbox: 2 GB free storage space. Manual backups necessary.

Drive: 15 GB free storage, with manual backups.

OneDrive: 15 GB free storage; manual backups.


iDrive: 5GB free storage.

Amazon: Technically not free, but there is an unlimited photo-only storage if you have a Prime membership for other reasons.


Tips for the Paranoid

* Use more than one backup service, for extra protection against loosing important files.

* Remember that online storage is never 100% secure. Backup accordingly.

* Print out and keep hard copies of especially important documents.

* Have your favorite family photos printed and put them in a photo album or box.

* To protect photos and documents against house fires, store them in a fireproof safe or bank safety deposit box.


Apr 28, 2015

Saving Money on Garbage Fees

Although many news sources keep insisting the economy is improving, most of the people I know are struggling financially. The cost of everything is going up, and most people aren't getting wage increases - some are even taking hour or pay cuts. When times are like this, it's important for the Proverbs 31 Woman to look closely at her family's finances and cut expenses wherever possible.

One way my family did that recently was by getting rid of our garbage service.

First, we priced the cost of taking garbage to our local dump. (Actually, in our case, it's a transfer station.) We learned that we could take four average-sized garbage cans there for just $10.

Then we considered how much it would cost in time and money to drive the cans to the station. Our transfer station is about 5 minutes away, so it doesn't cost much to get there.

Then we told our garbage company to take a hike.

The garbage company was charging us $37.15 a month ($445.80 a year) to take away our garbage. After an investment of about $80 for our own curbside garbage cans, we now only pay $10 every month-and-a-half to dump our garbage. That means it costs us approximately $70 a year...which is a savings of about $375 a year!

Also note that because, Lord willing, we'll be moving soon, I'm not currently composting. (There's not much of a garden to put compost in, and the composters would be too heavy to move while full.) If I were still composting, we might only dump our garbage every two months, making the savings even greater.

Another bonus: We can take recyclables to the dump and get reduced rates for dumping our garbage.

And by owning our own cans, we avoid the problems many people who make dump runs have. We don't have our garbage sitting around in bags that cats, dogs, and other critters get into, spilling the contents. And our stored garbage doesn't smell because the plastic garbage cans we use are well sealed. Plus, the cans look neat and tidy tucked into an out of the way spot.

It's a win-win for our family. Check out your local dump or transfer station rates. You might be able to save hundreds, too.

Apr 17, 2015

The Easy Way We Save Thousands Each Year


I admit it. I'm shocked and amazed to hear what most people spend on television. We're often talking hundreds of dollar per month - thousands per year. For television, people.

How much do we spend on TV at my house? $7.99 a month.



That's because we long ago ditched cable or satellite and bought a Roku device. The Roku is a small box (about 3.5 in. square) that connects your television to internet TV. The Roku itself costs about $60 - $100 (depending upon which version you get; we have Roku 3, which Amazon sells for about $85)...and almost all of the channels we have are free. Yes, free! Some of our favorite free channels include The History Channel, A&E, The Smithsonian Channel, and PBS Kids.

In addition, there are many Roku channels available for purchase. A great many are under $5. We only have one paid channel: Netflix. It costs $7.99 a month. But there are hundreds more channels to choose from, many of which are only available through a streaming service. There are channels just for those who love to cook, or love to hunt, or want to learn to garden. There are Christian channels, classic tv channels, classic movie channels, and radio channels. A friend of mine has a child who wants to learn French. She found a Roku channel that teaches French for only 99 cents a year. You can bet she was more than happy to pay it!

True, streaming is bit different from regular television. For one, there are often no commercials! For another, there isn't quite the selection you get through cable or satellite. (Although more channels are added regularly.) Many of the free channels are the same as the websites cable channels have. For example, The History Channel website is essentially the same as The History Channel on Roku. So some episodes are free to watch right away, while others you might have to wait weeks (sometimes months) to watch. No matter; we can always manage to find something decent to watch through our Roku.

Pros to Streaming with a Roku:

* Commercials are rare. (We only have them on free channels, and even then, usually only during peak hours. Also, there's typically only one commercial during a commercial break. There are no commercials on Netflix.)

* You can watch whenever you like; you don't have to wait a certain hour for a show to air.

* You can binge watch. Love a show? You can watch as many episodes as are available, all at once. Ha!

* There's lots of content. Through the Roku, you can get Netflix, Hulu Plus, NBA, NHL Game Center, EPIX, Amazon Instant Video,Vudu, CNBC, The Blaze, FOX News, NBC News, and so, so much more.

* It's so inexpensive!

* Did I mention how cheap it is??


Cons to Streaming with Roku:

* Streaming is not a good choice if you have a very slow internet connection.

* If your internet service has limits on bandwidth, watch out! Streaming takes a lot of bandwidth.

* If your internet connection goes out, so does your tv.

* You may not be able to watch all the shows you want; you may have to wait for the latest episodes of TV shows.


But, for us, the cost difference is so HUGE it utterly and completely outweighs any cons. What about you?


 

Mar 4, 2015

Storing Food Without Plastic

I've not been quick to jump on the anti-BPA bandwagon, but it does seem more and more damning evidence is linked not just to BPA, but to other chemicals in plastic (including those touted as safe alternatives to BPA). One of the more interesting observations is that males seem more susceptible to hormone disruption caused by plastic than females; since boys are far more likely to develop autism than girls, researchers wonder if plastic could be a reason for autism. And did I mention that plastics - which are found not just in plastic bags, bottles, and boxes, but also in the lining for commercially canned foods - are also linked to hyperactivity in children?

So I've been thinking a lot about just how much plastic our food is exposed to. A mother could drive herself crazy trying to rid her family's exposure to plastic, pesticides, and other chemicals. (As a wise friend of mine says, there is no perfect food in a fallen world.) But here are some easy ways to avoid plastic - and save some money, too.

In the Refrigerator:

* Use canning jars. These work really well for stock, soup, stew, salads, etc. Short, fat jars work for storing partially used fruits and veggies. (I keep a few used canning jar lids around to use for purposes such as this, but you could buy new ones if you don't can. It's also fine to reuse glass jars from store bought food.) (UPDATE 02/05/2015: My husband read this post and said, "But there's plastic in canning jar lids." I replied that while this is true, I'm assuming the food won't touch the plastic on the lid. He pointed out that offgassing of plastics is a concern. He's right. See, a Mom could go crazy!)

A plate set over a plate or bowl protects food in the fridge.
* Put leftovers in non-plastic bowls (or the platters or dishes that they were served on) and cover them with a plate, instead of plastic wrap. This works best if the bowl or other container has raised sides. You can also put one plate on top of another plate. And yes, the food keeps just as long in the fridge as it would in a container with an air tight lid.

* Invest in some casserole dishes with glass lids. Use these instead of Tupperware. Bonus: You can cook with them, too.
Casserole dishes with glass lids are excellent for storing leftovers.
* Keep foods in non-plastic bowls, and use homemade fabric covers. Here's a nice example of using cotton covered in beeswax. You could also add elastic to the edges, to make round, shower cap style coverings, like this. If you're not the crafty type, similar items are available on Etsy.

* Notice I didn't mention glass refrigerator containers? They have plastic lids. Plus, they tend to be pricey. And as you can see, they aren't necessary.


In the Freezer:

Liquids store exceptionally well in glass jars.
 * Use canning jars for storing liquids or partial liquid foods. However, ONLY use canning lids without shoulders; they should be straight from the opening all the way to the bottom. Be sure to leave room for the contents to expand during freezing, also. (If you leave about 1 inch of space from the opening of the jar to the food, you should be fine.)

* Use cleaned milk or juice cartons for freezing liquids. You'll need freezer tape to seal the containers. (Yes, there is some plastic in these containers, but they are lined so the plastic doesn't come into contact with contents of the carton.)

* Wrap foods in heavy duty foil. A double layer works best. Or first wrap in foil, then in butcher paper.

* Use butcher paper. In the old days, butcher paper wrapped items weren't first wrapped in plastic or foil. This method works best, however, if the food is already frozen, so consider placing whatever you're freezing on a rimmed baking sheet in the freezer; when it's hard, wrap it in the paper.
When freezing food in glass jars, be sure to choose jars without a shoulder.

Jan 12, 2015

11 Ways to Stretch Your Meat Budget

A few days ago, while I was grocery shopping with my family, I asked my husband to fetch some ground
beef. A few minutes later he returned...without the meat. "I didn't know what to choose," he said. Truthfully, I was a little annoyed, but when I headed over to the meat department and looked at the offerings, I, too, ended up walking away without the ground beef. It was just too darn expensive - about $6 a pound...and I was at a discount grocery store!

And it's not just beef. The frozen chicken breasts that for years have been a staple of my cooking and canning have become painful to purchase. Even pork, which has been among the less expensive meats the past several years, has increased in price.

According to American Live Wire, beef is at it's highest price in three decades - supposedly because we are exporting tons of beef to China and Japan. Crazy, right? Slate adds that cattle herds are at 1951 levels, and, of course, our population is considerably bigger now. Drought made feed more scarce - and expensive. Costly feed also explains the increase in the cost of buying chicken and pork. Oh, and did I mention there was an epidemic that killed tons of piglets? And when you consider that food costs in general are on the rise - well, it's enough to make you think you may soon need to feed your family Top Ramen for every meal.

But thinking specifically of meat prices, what's a Proverbs 31 Woman to do? Assuming you don't want to become vegetarians, that you want to avoid more meatless meals, and you can't raise your own meat?


1. Buy a local steer and freeze it.
Yes, this does take some planning, because it will cost several hundred dollars. But it should be much cheaper. (Ours was $2.50 a pound, which is an incredible bargain right now!) It will also be healthier, assuming it's antibiotic- and hormone-free, and possibly grass fed.

2. Look for clearance meat. Not all grocery stores have a clearance section for meat, but check those that do. Frequently. Sometimes this takes a willingness to sort through less than appetizing, gray and old-looking meat, but I can often find something worth buying - and at a greatly reduced price. Just be sure to either eat the meat that same day, or freeze it as soon as you get home.

3. Watch for sales. Look at local store's sales fliers and watch for good deals. When you find an exceptional deal, buy extra and freeze it. Don't fall into the old trap of only buying enough meat for that week; you need to stock up to keep things affordable.

4. When buying larger cuts, like a roast beef, ham, or whole bird, cook it all, but slice off servings and put them on each family member's plate. Don't put the larger cut on the table; in fact, tuck it away in the back of the fridge as soon as possible.

5. Never, ever let a larger cut only suffice for one meal (unless you have a very large family). Make that roast last for several meals. (This doesn't mean you must have the same meal each night. For example, the first night, you could have sliced roast beef. The next night, a stir fry. The following night, a soup. And so on. For ideas on getting many meals out of a ham, click here. For chicken or other foul, click here.)

6. Choose less expensive cuts of meat. Gone are the days when that was ground beef! Instead, look for tough cuts of meat, then cook them "low and slow" - on lower heat for a longer period of time.

7. Make the meat part of the meal smaller, and be sure to include other filling items in the meal, like high fiber veggies or bread.

8. With ground beef, use fillers to make it go farther. Cooked rice, uncooked oatmeal, and cooked lentils are classic choices that blend in easily. (Start with small amounts of filler, for less objection from your family. As time goes on, you can try adding more.) Other good filler choices include barley (cooked); beans (cooked and pureed); bread crumbs (Store bought bread crumbs are full of unhealthy soy; save your health and your wallet by saving stale bread or crumbs in the freezer.); grated veggies (especially zucchini, carrots, and potatoes); pureed veggies (most work fine, but carrots, onions, and  celery are classic; mushrooms are also an excellent choice). For meatloaf, burgers, meatballs, and the like, add an egg or two, along with another filler, like oatmeal.

9. If ground turkey or chicken is less expensive, use a mix of ground beef and ground poultry.

10. Choose dishes where a little meat can go a long way, like stir frys, stews, and soups.

11. Consider bartering with a neighbor who hunts. (Or learn to hunt yourself.)


But in your quest to make meat more affordable, avoid a few things, too:

1. Avoid processed meats. Some discount grocery stores, for example, sell meat that's already marinated or injected. This is a way of charging more for inferior meat - and it's not healthy, either. Usually, those marinades and injections are full of salt, corn syrup, and other unhealthy ingredients. In addition, things like SPAM, or even canned tuna, are usually not a good deal per serving.

2. Avoid Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) as a filler, even though many websites recommend using it as a filler. TVP is made from soy, and soy affects estrogen levels in the body, which is linked to cancer. In addition, unless it's labeled "certified organic," it's a GMO product.


What do you think? Is your family struggling to keep meat on the menu? How do you make your meat budget stretch?

Dec 31, 2014

Most Popular Posts - for 2014, and for all time!

The most popular post!
It's always fun for me to see which posts are most popular on this blog. (They are never - never! - the posts I imagine will most interest readers!) Oddly, what shows up as popular depends upon what source I look at; but studying stats from Blogger, Pinterest, and other top sources, it's easy to see which posts are all time favorites and favorites for the year. And since recent months have brought a great many more readers to Proverbs 31 Woman, I thought it would be fun to share these lists with you - especially since many of the posts are from years' past. It's a pretty eclectic list; enjoy!

(P.S. Want to see more popular posts from Proverbs 31 Woman? Check out the Pinterest page "Most Popular Posts at Proverbs 31 Woman.")

Top 5 Posts for 2014:

1. 52 Simple Sewing Projects for Kids

2. 10 Things I Learned During Our Tiny House Test Run

3. The Letter of the Week Series, especially Letter R

4. Free Art History Curriculum: Claude Monet

5. Walmart Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?


Top 10 Most Popular Posts of All Time:

 1. How to Train Chickens  (it completely cracks me up that this is the most popular post among readers!)

2. 6 Ways to Teach Kids the Books of the Bible

3. Best Free Apron Patterns on the Net

4. How to Clean a REALLY Dirty Stove

5. Best Ideas for Upcycling Jeans

6. Canning Pickled Green Beans (Dilly Beans)

7. Harvesting and Making Your Own Chamomile Tea

8. How Much Money Can You Save Gardening & Homesteading

9. 52 Simple Sewing Projects for Kids

10. Easiest Fruits & Vegetables to Grow

Nov 24, 2014

What Groceries to Buy When You're Broke

"Too Tired to Cook" is frugal, especially if you omit the ground beef.
Sometimes, no matter how close you stick to your budget, you end up with too little money at the end of the month. If you keep a well stocked pantry, this usually isn't the end of the world - but, if money has been tight for a while, you might find your pantry lacking, too. This can make it difficult to find cash to feed your family. But if you shop carefully, you'll find some items are definitely more affordable - and stretch further - than others. Here's what I buy when money is tight:

* Brown rice. Unlike white rice, brown rice gives you a good dose of nutrients. It's also fairly cheap and can really stretch a meal. Saute up some veggies, season them, and serve them on a bed of rice. Or serve plain rice as a filling side dish. Or add it (cooked) to a soup. If you're really struggling, go ahead and serve it all by itself. (Been there, done that!) But don't go in for minute-style rice; it's more expensive and most of the nutrients have been removed.

* Dry beans. Not only are dry beans cheap, but they are packed with nutrients, are a decent protein, and are quite filling. Some beans - like lentils - are great "fillers" for other foods, too. For example, you can use lentils with just a little ground beef (or entirely in place of ground beef) in things like enchiladas and casseroles. Other bean ideas include adding them to soups and stews, my "dump it" meal, lentil soup, and my  too tired to cook bean dish. Incidentally, don't be put off beans because they cause - ahem - flatulence. This is easy to combat with dry beans; just change the water frequently when you are rehydrating them. Also, make life a little easier for yourself by soaking at least one package of beans at a time, then freezing the leftovers. For more on using dried beans, click here.

* Flour. If you know how to cook from scratch, you can make all kinds of things with flour - including pancakes, waffles (learn how to freeze them here), bread, biscuits, tortillas, pizza crust, and pasta. I recommend whole wheat flour because, while it's more expensive than white flour, it's also more nutrient dense - and more filling. However, unless you're used to 100% whole wheat products, you'll want to use some white flour mixed into your recipes. I recommend using half - or a wee bit less - of whole wheat flour.

* Pasta. Pasta is relatively cheap and filling. You can make it yourself, but if you're new to from-scratch cooking, you'll probably want to buy it. I recommend whole grain pasta  because it's more filling and nutrient dense - although, granted, more expensive.

* In season vegetables. They are cheaper than veggies that aren't in season. You can learn when veggies are in season from my ebook A Vegetable for Every Season ($2.99), or here. Also consider frozen vegetables.

* Popcorn. The cheapest snack food around is probably popcorn - but only if you don't buy it in microwave bags. Either pop it in a pan on the stove, or use a paper lunch bag to pop it in the microwave.

What groceries do you buy when money is tight?

Nov 10, 2014

The Tiny House Movement Comes to...Our Motorhome

I have big, scary (to me) news: We're moving into a "tiny house."

You may have heard about tiny houses before; they've been the topic of many magazine articles, books, and documentaries - all of which seem to feature absolutely gorgeous houses of about 400 sq. ft. or less, with cute little lofts and really clever pull out tables and hidden drawers. Yeah, they are cool. But our tiny house won't be like that. Our tiny house is...a motorhome. This one, in fact.


When my husband first proposed the idea of living full time in a motorhome, I admit it - I cried and said, "I don't want to talk to you about this right now. I need to go talk to Jesus!" For years, I've thought the tiny house movement was interesting. But I also always thought, "Maybe when the kids grow up. I can't imagine living in a tiny house with two young children."

But my husband's thoughts were persuasive. If we could move into a motor home - at least for a little while - our living expenses would drop dramatically. And that would let us save more money for our dreamed-for homestead. Which we could then possibly pay for in cash.

Even so, it's tough for me to think of moving into about180 sq. ft. when my current home's kitchen is already frustratingly small. Still, millions of humans live in places at least as small as a motorhome. But after years of living in a house that's been in disrepair, I want to live someplace reasonably pretty. Motor homes are many things, but most are definitely not pretty.

Nonetheless, I told my hubby to go ahead and look at some motorhomes on Craigslist, and I'd pray and think on it some more. Almost instantly, he found a deal that seemed to come from God. It was a high end motorhome - albeit from the 1980s - at a ridiculously low price. (Much lower than any tiny house I've seen. Did you know tiny houses generally cost $200 - $400 per sq. ft., or $23,000 on average?) Why was this motorhome priced so low? Turned out, the engine wasn't working right. We actually think the seller believed the motorhome required a new engine, though he never came out and said that. But my husband is an extremely talented mechanic, and he knew the fix was an easy one - no new engine required. We bought the motorhome, even though I hadn't seen the inside.

The day my husband showed me the inside of the motor home, I cried again. I hated it. Really hated it. It was so ugly. And there was no place for the children! There was only one bed - and not even a kitchenette for eating or doing schoolwork. And did I mention that the one thing I'd told my husband the motor home had to have was permanent bedding for the kids? Sigh.

But I continued praying, and kept hearing, "Be anxious for nothing." So I tried to breathe. And I remembered that if I wanted to, I could tell my husband, "No way. We aren't doing this and that's that," and he would  acquiesce.

But instead, I started looking for ideas on how to cram our family of four into a 180 sq. ft. motorhome. Accidentally, I ran into RV makeovers on Pinterest. Amazing RV makeovers. This made me feel better. Although I didn't want to throw a bunch of money into our motorhome, I was beginning to see that, with a lot of work, I could make the thing more homey, bright, and cheery. Others live with so much less. Surely this is do-able.

So now the motorhome is working well, and I'm scheming about how to put beds and an eating area into it. I've figured out a way I think I can live with the strange lavender/powder blue tile, tub, and bathroom sink. And last weekend, I started cleaning the filthy cabinetry in preparation for painting them. (I spent 3 1/2 hours cleaning the cabinetry on just one side of the bedroom.)

Yes, I'm concerned about privacy. Not just about the type you're thinking about, but also the type that introverts require (there are three of them in our family). I'm concerned about the fact that anyone who stirs early in the morning is going to wake us all up...and I'm already so sleep deprived. BUT God is working on me. Stretching me. This is do-able. Sometimes I can even laugh about this; I'm starting to call it my mid-life crisis.

It's not what I dreamed of. But it will certainly be an adventure.

And as we prepare the motorhome for full time living, and as we learn to live there, you can be sure I'll keep you updated. This tiny house thing. It's more than a trend.

Nov 3, 2014

Toys That Have Endured

Are you thinking about Christmas gifts yet? I am...and as I look around our house, I realize that even though most of the things my children have received as gifts haven't endured, some gifts certainly have. My children play with them over and over again.And I'm betting yours will, too.

Geotrax

I don't think I've ever met a kid who doesn't like train sets. But by far the best train set for children is, in my opinion, Geotrax. Why? It's easy to put together, the tracks don't fall apart easily (yet they are still not hard to take the tracks apart), it's durable, the remote controls are simple to use - and it's just plain fun! We started out with a basic set purchased at a toy store, then added additional tracks that I found used on Ebay. All the Geotrax stuff is interchangeable, which is another excellent feature.

Pattern Blocks Puzzle

At my house, puzzles generally get put together once or twice, and then my kids aren't interested in them any more. But this puzzle set is something both my children continue to use. When young, my kids use the picture boards that come with the set. Later, they use the blocks to create their own designs. I've even used this set for homeschooling - to teach geometric shapes and for symmetry lessons.


Wooden Blocks

If my kids could only have one toy, I'd make it a set of blocks. Toddlers love them. Gradeschoolers love them. Even tweens love them!

Legos

This classic building toy is a must have for any child who likes to build and create. At this point, we've stuck mainly to the larger style Duplo blocks (the ones just one size down from "regular" Legos); this seems a bit more manageable when pick-up time comes along.

Magna Doodle

My kids love Magna Doodles, even though they have plenty of access to paper, pencils, crayons, and pens. The cool thing is, Magna Doodles require none of these, and are perfect for taking in the car, to doctor's offices, or on road trips. My kids have literally worn theirs out after years and years of use!

Felt Calendar

Both my kids learned their days of the week, months of the year, seasons, years, and more about numbers by using a felt "calendar." There's something about the set up of this thing that kids love! (TIP: I used simple songs to teach the days of the week and the months of the year alongside our felt calendar. My preference is "There are Seven Days a Week" sung to the tune of  "Clementine" and "These are Twelve Months of the Year" sung to the tune of "Ten Little Indians.")

Puppets

Of all the toys my kids use for pretend play, puppets are the most enduring. We have finger puppets, hand puppets, and even a simple marionette we found in a thrift store. They get used nearly every day, by both children.





Be sure to also check out our family's favorite board and card games.
 

Sep 10, 2014

Walmart's Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?

Perhaps a month ago, my local Walmart began touting what they call "Savings Catcher:" a website or app customers can use to automatically check for lower prices at mother grocery stores. If the Savings Catcher finds a lower price, Walmart gives the customer the difference. So, if for example, you purchased a certain brand and size of cheese at Walmart, but store #2 has the exact item on sale for a buck less, Walmart will give you that dollar. Sounds great, right?
Well, the first time I tried Savings Catcher, I had zero savings. The second time, after a large shopping trip that would feed us for at least two weeks, I received a whopping $1.62 in savings. Hmmm...

How Walmart's Savings Catcher Works

After you shop at Walmart, you can either scan a smart phone QR on the bottom of the Walmart receipt (after downloading the Savings Catcher app), or you can use your computer or other online device to go to Savings Catcher online. (I don't have a smart phone, so I can only give details about what it's like to use Saving's Catcher on my computer.)

Once at the Savings Catcher website, you'll need to set up a password, then enter a 21 digit number off your receipt, plus the date of purchase. That's it; the website does the rest. You'll receive an email that your info was received by the site and then, within a handful of days, you'll get another email explaining whether Savings Catcher found any better deals at other grocery stores. If it did, the email tells you how much money is going back into your pocket.

According to the Savings Catcher FAQ, each customer may enter up to seven receipts per week, and there is no minimum number of items that must be on the receipt. However, receipts can be no more than seven days old.

The Good

* Savings Catcher online is very easy to use, taking no longer than two minutes, tops, to enter your password and receipt information. Presumably, using a smart phone scan is even easier.

* Any money that comes back to you can be saved up - or turned into a gift card right away.

* According to a news release, Savings Catcher will soon include produce and general merchandise.


UPDATE 10/7/14: Click here to learn how to double your Savings Catcher funds.

The Not So Good

* Not too surprisingly, there are a number of items Savings Catcher does not consider. It doesn't compare prices on advertised sales that offer a percentage off, that require a separate purchase to get the advertised price, BOGO deals where no price is listed, online purchases, store brand items, deli, bakery, weighed items (like meat), consumables (like toilet paper), health and beauty items, and "select general merchandise items...including, but not limited to, electronics, media and gaming, toys, sporting goods, housewares, small appliances, home d├ęcor, bedding, books and magazines, apparel and shoes, jewelry, furniture and seasonal products...tobacco, firearms, gasoline, tires, prescription drugs, optical and photo products and services, or products that require a service agreement such as wireless, automotive or financial products."

* If Savings Catcher finds an item at a lower price, you can only get the savings in the form of a Walmart gift card.

* Each customer can earn a maximum of $599.99 Reward Dollars per year.

The Bad

* The Savings Catcher website says they "compare advertised prices from the top retailers located nearby the Walmart store where you shopped." The list of stores they compared prices with is available once your receipt has been processed and you've received information on what (if anything) you saved. In my case, none of the stores were what I'd consider comparable to Walmart; they were stores that very, very rarely have prices lower than Walmart. Worse, we have at least two grocery stores - closer than some of the stores Walmart used as comparables - that are what might be called "discount" grocery stores, with prices more in line with Walmart, that the Savings Catcher did not include. I hate to say it, but this seems pretty disingenuous; if Walmart really wants to make comparison shopping unnecessary - if they really want to "offer customers yet another reason to trust us when it comes to helping them save" -  then they need to compare prices with ALL the grocery stores in a given area - even those that may have lower prices than Walmart.

* Savings Catcher appears to work best if you buy a lot of processed food. The only items I saved money on were two processed food items my husband likes to eat once in a while. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise since the Savings Catcher FAQ says they don't compare prices on anything weighed - which is a good portion of what we buy when we cook from scratch. (That said, Walmart is promising to soon include produce in the Savings Catcher; that could make Savings Catcher more worthwhile.)

Conclusion

While I'm not very excited about how Savings Catcher currently works, I do think it has potential. If Walmart will compare prices with all grocery stores in a given area, and if they will include produce and meat, Walmart will really have a competitive edge. In the meantime, I will probably continue adding my receipt information into Savings Catcher - at least for a time - in the hopes that it will improve.



Jul 28, 2014

Why Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables are Important

Not long ago, I was on a gardening forum where someone asked if it was okay to eat produce with holes in
it. "My family says no, because bugs have been eating it," the man typed. This received a variety of replies, but only one respondent typed what I was thinking: "Well, if you don't want to eat veggies with holes nibbled in them, you can go and buy some poison, sprinkle it on your food, kill all those nasty bugs, and you'll have 'perfect' little veggies to eat."


* * *

Last year, my mom- and sister-in-law attended a class on orchard keeping. At the beginning of the class, the teacher asked everyone to come forward and choose an apple from a box on his desk. When every student had done so, all the perfect-looking apples were gone, and all the imperfect apples - those that were misshaped or had worm holes - were left in the box. "Until this changes - until people start choosing and buying produce that's less than perfect, organic food will not become the norm," the teacher said.

* * *

Did you know that in the U.S., 40 - 50% of all food that's ready for commercial harvest never gets eaten? Some of this is due to modern methods of harvesting - machines that don't take corners well, for example. (Which, incidentally has lead to a rise in the biblical practice of gleaning - not a bad thing!) But a good portion of that is food that's misshapen or otherwise considered imperfect - for example, carrots with two or more roots - and are just thrown away.

* * *

Last week, I saw an encouraging news story. In France, one supermarket chain is putting an end to this kind of food waste - and helping consumers reduce their food bills, too. They are taking all that imperfect produce ("inglorious fruits and vegetables," they call them) and putting them on their shelves at reduced prices. And the French are eating them up! So much so, the chain is having trouble keeping enough "inglorious" produce in stock.

And while the news story doesn't mention it, the acceptance of less than perfect produce opens the door wide to more - and more affordable - organic produce. Why? Because organic practices lead to more bug nibbles - and because an item like a perfect-looking organic apple takes many more man hours to produce, and therefore costs much more than conventionally grown apples.


What do you think? Are you willing to eat imperfect food in order to end food waste and make organic more affordable?

Jul 21, 2014

Make Your Produce Last Longer

"My produce always goes bad before we can eat it all," I overheard a woman complain to her friend. "I spend all this money on healthy food, and most of it gets wasted!" She's not alone. Experts estimate Americans throw away 14 - 25% of their food, costing the average family $1,365 - $2,275. This is tragic, considering an estimated 842 million people worldwide don't have enough to eat.

What can you do to end food waste in your household? Check out the tips below. (And be sure to see the other articles I've written about food waste, too.)

"And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples,
'Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.'” 

* Buy only what you can reasonably expect to eat before it goes bad. Even if it means extra trips to the farmer's market or grocery store.

* Keep one drawer in the fridge for fruits, and another for veggies. Never store them together because many fruits release ethylene gas - —a ripening agent that makes veggies rot faster.

* Don't refrigerate bananas, garlic, apples, winter squash, potatoes, or onions. Tomatoes tend to turn mealy in the fridge, too. (Be careful to keep onions and potatoes apart, since onions hasten the demise of taters.)

* Freeze certain veggies. On shopping day - or perhaps the day after shopping - chop up produce you'll use for cooking, like onion, green onions, herbs, and sweet peppers. Pop them in a freezer bag, and you won't have to worry about them going bad.

* Use up the most perishable items first. For example, snack on bananas before you start in on the apples. You'll also want to plan your meals so the most perishable foods get used up first.

* Learn to use up just-about-to-spoil produce. You can make smoothies with them. Or freeze them. Or dehydrate them.

* Don't store countertop produce in a hot or sunny location. Keep them in a cool, dark location and they will remain fresh longer.

* Immediately remove produce that's overripe or spoiling. For example, if you keep an apple that has a spoiled spot in with the other apples, it will hasten the spoiling of them all.
I wouldn't want to have to do without my Progressive Keepers.

* Use Progressive International Keeper containers. They really work! There is a water reservoir at the bottom of the containers, plus adjustable venting - and all the information you need for correctly storing produce is right on the container itself. (Some people also swear by Tupperware Fridgesmart containers.)

* Don't wash fruits until you're ready to eat them; experts say water decreases fruit's life by 40%. Some people swear by rinsing them in vinegar and water; I've never tried this becauee I find fruits and berries last a long time in my Progressive containers.

* Remove ties and rubber bands before storing.

* Don't stuff fridge drawers. If you let produce have a little room to breathe, the food will last longer.

* Place plastic wrap over the stem end of bananas. Some people claim separating them makes them last longer, too, but I haven't found this to be the case. And while you're at it, buy green bananas and let them ripen on the counter. They'll last many more days this way.

* Consider whether it needs ripening. Avocados, tomatoes, stone fruits, mangoes, melons, pears, bananas, and apples, will continue to ripen if you leave them on the counter. Citrus, berries, grapes, and bell peppers will not ripen on the counter and will spoil quickly there.

* Buy from local farmers. The food is fresher than what you buy at te grocery store; therefore, it stores longer at home.

* Don't toss it just because it looks bad. With heads of lettuce or cabbage, remove the outer leaves and you'll find fresher leaves inside. Cut away bad spots in fruit, eat the rest.

* Compost! If all else fails, compost spoiled produce to feed the soil in your yard! Also, if you have critters (like chickens and rabbits) that can eat produce, it's fine to give them wilty, dry, or otherwise unpalatable produce - but never give them anything that's rotten.