Monday, October 30, 2017

4 Halloween Goodies That Aren't Candy

I know, I know... part of the joy of trick-or-treating on Halloween is the candy. I am not disagreeing, here. I am not suggesting that everyone give up passing out candy--our neighborhoods would probably experience tiny riots if we did! But what I am suggesting is that while your neighbors hand out the Snickers and the Lemonheads and the Reeses and the Twizzlers, you might consider taking a non-candy route to include some of the kiddos who are out for the fun with their friends and family and who may have to hand over their full stash at the end of the evening for their own safety.

Whether we realize it or not, we probably all have friends--or children of friends--with dietary restrictions. And whether those are due to allergies, or sensitivities, or preferences, they're there. Here are five fun non-food items you can hand out to trick-or-treat-ers.

1. Glow Sticks
What kid doesn't like glow sticks (and necklaces and bracelets)? You can crack them for use right there on the spot and they can be enjoyed for the evening. They also add a layer of protection for kids walking the dusky and dark streets. You can find them at the Dollar Tree.

2. Stickers
Again, stickers are great! You can find a variety of styles and characters just about anywhere. Dollar Tree and Dollar General are my favorite places to look for them.

3. Temporary Tattoos
Check the party favor section of any general store for temporary tattoos. I know you can find a variety, from popular characters to symbols, and Pip thinks they're great.

4. Bubbles
Also available in the party favor section of general stores--including dollar stores--tiny bottles of bubbles are fun for kids of the trick or treating age.

Additional note: please do not mix your inedible goodies with your candy. Contact allergies may prevent children from even touching them if they've been in a bowl with, say, something that contains peanuts.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Favorite Sale: Gap

I visit Opry Mills Mall in Nashville, Tennessee, several times per year. I enjoy the hustle and bustle, especially around the holidays, but I also enjoy the sale and clearance prices I find in several of their stores year round. Gap Factory Outlet is one of those stores.

On my most recent trip, I found four fun leggings--a matching set for Pip and her cousin, and two additional pair of warm winter leggings for Pip--for a fraction of a fraction of their original cost. Not only were they marked WAY down, but the entire store was an additional 50% off that day (it hadn't been advertised, but I happened to come in on just the right day!). 

Even at outlet stores, I remain focused and go straight for the clearance section. (Unless you're looking for something really specific, this is the best way to make your money work for you!) These leggings were originally $16.99, $16.99, $26.99, and $26.99 for a total of $87.96. They're cute, but you have got to be kidding me.

With the markdowns on top of markdowns, and with the entire store marked down even more, I paid $6.40 plus tax for all four pair. Win! I know they'll serve us well because I've purchased Gap clothing, new and used, for the kiddo since she was born. They wash and wear nicely.

You'll see on the receipt that I paid with a Gap Credit account. I previously wrote a little about that store card (you can read about some of my Old Navy deals here), and how I used it to earn rewards and paid it off every month. Well, since making this purchase, we have paid off and closed this store account. I was resistant to doing it at first, because those rewards (however sparse) were fun, but it's been freeing. It's one less thing to keep up with and worry about!

Do you have a favorite factory or outlet store near you? What is one of the best buys you've gotten there?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Great Deals at Kroger

Although I've found myself shopping at locally owned grocery stores more and more recently--more on that later--I still stop by Kroger once or twice a week. Kroger is where I buy the majority of our gluten free luxury items like bread and waffles, and it's where I usually get the best price on lactose free milk and pre-made hummus.

My favorite part of shopping at Kroger, though, is the manager's specials. If you know where to look and what to look for, you can find some real bargains.

First, I explore the produce department.

Our store, and I assume many others, has a "reduced prices" rack. Any produce that's considered misshapen, undersize, oversize, or overripe is bagged up and placed here. These bags sell for $0.99 apiece. Sure, some of it may appear a bit questionable at times; don't buy that. But often, I find several days or a week's worth of fresh produce here for a fraction of the cost of the rest of the department.

After checking here, I walk the perimeter of the produce department, specifically checking the coolers, looking for "woohoo!" tags. These typically signify a 50% savings on pre-cut, pre-washed, and prepared produce items including fruit and veggie trays, fresh salsas, and salads.

Second, I cruise the meat department.

Meats that are marked to sell quickly are not localized, but rather spread throughout the coolers. I scan the section as I'm walking, again, looking for "woohoo!" stickers. In our store, this extends along the back wall from fresh seafood to packaged breakfast meats, with fresh and packaged beef, poultry, and pork in between. It's rare that I find nothing marked down and worth taking home to cook or freeze within the next day or two.

Third, I scope out the dairy department.

I don't find too many "woohoo!" items here that we actually eat, but I always check. Milk, yogurt, and eggs are occasionally priced to move.

Fourth, I head to the bakery and deli.

There's a special rack for marked-down baked goods--which I check for Chris--and then I check through the coolers. Hummus, salsa, specialty cheeses, and fancy lunch meats are stocked in this area, and we consume all of that. Especially when I find a deal on it.

Finally, I swing through the clearance table and aisle. 

Sometimes our store has a table set up near the self-checkout area, and other times the "Great Deal" dry goods are in the laundry detergent aisle. But either way, I stop by and see if there are any canned or boxed goods that we use, marked down.

I can be through the store in 20 minutes when I focus on these key areas, and purchase quality groceries for a fraction of their regular cost. When I get home with everything, I make my meal plan based on what fresh items I've got and what is already in the pantry.

Do you shop at more than one grocery store? I'd love to hear how you stretch your grocery budget!

Friday, October 6, 2017

10-Minute Project: Clean Out the Glovebox

Pip and I recently cleaned out the car. While she was going through the many books that had accumulated in the back seat, I organized the glove box. I knew it was a horrible jumble of useful and unimportant items before I started, because the last time I had opened it looking for a straw, I ended up spilling half the contents onto the floor and then scrambling to cram it all back in at our next stop.

To avoid such an event in the future, I put back only what I thought was necessary this time. Here's what went back in:

There were so many other things in there, though, that I had added at one point or another, thinking that they may come in handy. They didn't make it back into the glove box, but they did find a new home in a plastic baby wipe container in the trunk with our jumper cables and other emergency supplies. Although I can't reach them from the driver's seat, they're with us if we need them.

Am I missing anything? What else do you keep in your vehicle in case of an emergency?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

My Favorite Planner

Every October, I purchase my planner for the coming calendar year. This week, for the fifth or sixth year in a row, I ordered the Orange Circle Studio 17-Month Do It All Planner. I found it on Amazon years ago, and it fits all my parameters for a book that truly keeps me organized. There are additional features that I don't use, like stickers and pages to list birthdays and important dates, but here's what I appreciate about it.

- It contains monthly overviews.

I use these for quick glances at how the month falls and to lay out long-term goals that require multiple steps. Bonus: this is a 17 month planner, so it includes August 2017 through December 2018, and you can use it following the school year or the calendar year or use all 17 months, whichever suits you best.

- Weekly views are the bulk of the book. 

There are 6 separate rows you can use to organize the schedules of different people or different areas of your life. I reevaluate what those rows will represent every four to six months, as priorities and responsibilities change. These could be assigned to individuals in your household, budgeting, meal planning, chores, work, hobbies, travel details, goals; you name it! Right now, I use the big one for my general obligations, appointments, and household responsibilities including dinner plans; one for Pip's activities; one for Chris's schedule; one for volunteer responsibilities; one for our comics business; and one for the blog.

I much prefer breaking down the days by person or area to breaking them down by time. Planners that have every 30 minutes documented may be great for some, but they stress me out.

Because you may be wondering, I'll note right here that I keep our homeschool records in a completely different place. It has evolved somewhat for second grade, but you can see my method for first grade here.

- It's small enough to tuck into any bag I'm carrying.

And it's a good thing, too, because without it, I feel rather lost.

- It's affordable. 

I ordered my 2018 planner from Amazon for less than $11. There are different fun covers and the prices vary slightly, but I don't recall ever seeing any version of this planner listed for more than $18.

Do you use a paper planner, or do you keep up with appointments and obligations digitally? What is your favorite way to stay organized?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Make the Memories

Last year, Danu, a traditional Irish ensemble, played a concert at our local performing arts center. I entered a contest to win two tickets, and when I did, I asked my mom to come with me.

Mom loves learning about her ancestors: where they were from, what they were like, why they moved from place to place, and so on. We have Irish heritage, and I had many times heard Celtic music playing in our home. I was sure she would thoroughly enjoy the performance.

She did go with me, and the concert was incredible. I don't think I ever stopped smiling. I don't think either of us did.

When it was over, and we were talking about how wonderful the entire experience had been--how we had felt the music in our bones--Mom said something unexpected. She said, "This was a dream come true."

"Really?" I was taken aback. I knew she had had a good time. But a dream come true?

Mom answered that yes, it was. Although she appreciates the beauty of the world, she has little desire to travel far from her home. She had never expected to hear an authentic Irish band in person. And yet, here she had been, toe-tapping along with an incredible one, not 15 feet away, for nearly two hours.

In that moment, I was grateful that I had won the tickets, and that we had gone to the show. But I was also struck--hard--by the fact that I hadn't made plans to take my mom to the concert sooner. I hadn't planned to go otherwise. Which means I wouldn't have taken Mom to that show. And we wouldn't have heard that Irish folk music together without leaving our little city. And we would have missed this opportunity to fulfill one of her dreams, perhaps without even realizing it. All because I casually decided not to buy tickets which, in hindsight, weren't even very expensive.

I say all this to encourage you to take every opportunity you've got to make memories with the people you love.

You can learn more about the band that we both adored so much by visiting their website.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Baked September

Although today is the first day of autumn, and yesterday it was 100 degrees in our little patch of western Kentucky, our family has embraced the rhythm of fall for several weeks now. Spontaneous travel is done for at least a while, and Pip and I have found our way back to many school year activities. Chris is back in the studio full time, and we're starting to talk about Halloween and birthdays and the holidays beyond.

This dinner happened by accident. It was a concoction of reduced-price veggies and a manager's special kielbasa (read: items that better be used today). It turned out to be a balanced marriage of fresh summer flavors and comforting cool-weather foods. It was so easy. And inexpensive. And pretty. And all it left was a single dish plus a cutting board and knife to clean.

I layered the following ingredients in a 9x13 glass baking dish, covered with foil, and baked at 400 degrees for 50 minutes. 

2 large potatoes, cubed
3 small zucchinis, sliced
3 medium carrots, sliced
1 1/2 cups mushroom caps and stems
1 kielbasa, sliced
1/2 a purple onion, sliced in rings
drizzle of olive oil
generous sprinkle of Italian seasoning
light sprinkle of kosher salt

I called it "Baked September" because it felt like a bridge between summer and fall, much like our September seems to be. I offered a salad and some sliced tomatoes on the side, but no one took me up on it. We all just got second helpings of this instead.