Category Archives: Every Post on this Awesome Blog

Burn that Burning Bush

I was recently looking up activities I could participate in through my local conservation programs and came across a link for invasive plants for my area. I clicked on this figuring I would test my knowledge and impress myself by knowing most of the plants on the list– you know purple loosestrife, garlic mustard, staff iris etc. But talk about unwarranted confidence!

Going down my county’s “worst of the worst” list for most invasive plants I saw that I, too, was an offender. Among the plants on the list was the burning bush– that fairly non-descript bush that for one or two weeks in the fall may turn a brilliant red. Crap! I have three burning bush in my yard–and mine don’t even stand out that much. At their glory they are really more of a tepid pink.

My burning bushes–or euonymus alata to be fancy–were a leftover from the previous owners, whose landscaping choices I have almost completely eradicated in the nine years we have been at the house. But while I have dug up or cut down almost every other bush that came with the property, these burning bush always survived the cull. I always thought they were so inoffensive and they provided screening. Plus for for a couple of weeks in the fall they were even kind of pretty. And have you ever dug up a bush? It’s a lot of work. One of my least favorite garden chores. So for years I didn’t see any reason to put forth the effort. The burning bush didn’t get voted off the island.

Though, honestly, while I can and do blame the former owners–Bob and Betty– and their poor choices, the truth is I may very well have planted some if I had been in the market for bushes. I just didn’t know any better and they are at least recognizable and familiar. This is where I feel we are all mislead. This plant is planted everywhere by landscapers and subdivision developers and is sold at every nursery I have ever been to. We have all been sleeping with the enemy!

I did more research and came across this article on a gardening site I really enjoy. This article comments that the burning bush “has escaped cultivation and is considered invasive in the Midwest and the South as well” as the northeast where it’s sale, transport, and propagation is banned in many states. Read more:

So began my anti-burning bush campaign. Well–it’s not much of a campaign. Mostly I am just going to dig mine up and write this article. And maybe if it comes up in conversation I will throw out a warning. I was at a great neighborhood nursery the other day and saw them being sold. I struggled with whether or not I was going to inform the managers or owners of this enemy in their midst. But do I really want to be that guy? On that day, I did not. I walked away.

Mostly I see this as a wake up call for my own ignorance. What other environmental plant crimes have I been guilty of?! Common landscaping plants that are invasive are not limited to burning bush. A local university extension site warns that we should also avoid “ “butterfly bush, Japanese barberry, Norway maple, common privet, tree of heaven, black jet bead ….All have shown invasive qualities and are escaping into our natural areas.”

I may be part of the problem. You see… I am all about getting free plants without really doing my due diligence about whether they are the right plants for my yard.



Supermarket Sweep

The “Financial Independence-or bust” trip my husband and I are on doesn’t always mesh with the other life-style goals on LifeImproved. In fact, often times the goals are down-right conflicting. For example, our household budget for groceries each week is $100. For us, this includes cat food and litter, alcohol, toiletries and cosmetics. It also includes any entertaining we want to do, such as inviting friends over for dinner. Let’s just say, we don’t end up handing out too many invitations–but when we do it’s an intriguing challenge and we really hope they like boxed wine.

On normal, non-entertaining, no-special-occasion weeks, in order to stick to the budget, or to come in under budget we cannot put too many organic, grass-fed, hormone-free products in our basket. Who am I kidding?! We can’t put any of these in the basket. Eco-friendly and organic quite often means wallet unfriendly.

I want to shop local. I want to shop organic. I really do. I am a huge believer in it. But the truth is that right now I am more of a believer in sticking to the budget. And I really only choose to shop local or organic if the choice is equally convenient and comparably priced– or not much more inconvenient or expensive than the alternative. This is something we are working on, though ,because we want to shop more Eco-consciously.

The good news is that we are making some real strides. The idea is that we eventually will have such control over our groceries that we can get higher quality meat, grains and produce, as well as the eco-friendly products.

Luckily, the goals of being eco-friendly, healthy and, well, cheap aren’t always divergent. The goal to produce less waste has helped shave a fair portion of the grocery budget in the form of not buying paper towels and napkins, not to mention Swiffer wet mop pads. Also, in my goal to create less waste and be more healthy I switched from store bought laundry detergent and cleaners to home made versions, and I also stopped buying boxed rice and pasta mixes. I have to admit, though, that my goal to reduce waste was only acceptable because it was an inexpensive alternative. I can make ten meals or side dishes with a 2 pound bag of brown rice for $1.50. So win-win-win. But if it had come down to a choice? I would have chosen to win on the budget issue first. I have been considering lately switching from cheap store-brand pancake mix to a home-made choice but the recipes call for too many other expensive ingredients that I would have to buy just for the mix and the cost is not justifying the healthier, less wasteful option… Not yet. Right now we are nailing the $100 a week budget. We spend about 30% of the budget on produce, 10% on meat, 10% on the cats and the rest on everything else. I cook using whole foods and we eat a diverse and healthy diet. The choices to substitute good, healthy choices with even better, healthier choices has to be deliberate and strategic.

These are my goals: get free range, hormone free meat; buy hormone free milk; buy fresh eggs laid by hormone free chickens; maintain or increase the level of produce we consume but get more organic varieties; replace the items that come in plastic bags with alternatives; and support local farms. But considering that to get the above in just a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, a loaf of bread, two pounds of chicken breast, two pounds of apples and and two pounds of bananas would probably be more than 30% of the budget (where as currently it is around 10%) some big changes are in order.

With those goals of getting more of the above, we have to continuously think of ways to reduce our grocery spending while still maintaining or increasing the quality of our products. We’ve been strategically planning all winter for this. Since we spend so much of our budget on produce, we just doubled our plot from last year and extending the planting season by starting a cool season in April. We should be harvesting radishes, lettuce and arugula by the end of May!

I am also researching the planting of edible perennials and annuals in my own garden. I already have a healthy herb garden and use and dry my own organic oregano, rosemary, chives, lavender, catnip, basil, parsley and sage. I plan to add more herbs and also replace some old burning bushes with edible currants or gooseberries. I just bought a black raspberry plant and a half-dozen strawberry plants.

You know what else helps save money at the grocery store? Free stuff. I am not talking about sending off for free samples, but I mean the stuff you can find in the great outdoors. I have big plans to kick up the level of my foraging this year. I highly recommend the book Foraged Flavor by Tama Matsuoka Wong. There are lots of books out there for edible plants but this one is wonderful! It has really clear photos, descriptions of the where to find the plants, how aggressive you should be with its harvesting, descriptions of how it tastes, and recipes!

Tiny Terrarium

I cannot claim that this is an original idea. In fact, I saw a post on the hgtv garden blog about this project and just felt inspired. I loved the idea of turning regular old used jars with dumpy lids into very clever terrariums. I immediately had all kinds of ideas about how to adapt the lids to what I had on hand, since i didnt have little animal figurines, but then it occurred to me that I probably had many glass containers with lids from spent candles. Nice lids that I didn’t even have to get out the glue and spray paint for. I just needed some elbow grease to clean the soot and wax from the inside.

I chose this classy little jar with a pretty little lid and cleaned it up.


Then the terrarium practically made itself. I layered some small-ish pebbles and then a layer of organic garden mix.



Then I went outside grabbed a couple of moss specimens from my backyard.


20140413-134908.jpg I placed the moss onto the dirt layer. 20140413-141451.jpg
I knew I wanted something else in there and debated digging up a small bulb like a grape hyacinth. But I settled on a couple of sedum tips. I had this nice purple sedum that will bloom with pink flowers–if it ever blooms.


I used a plastic knife to work the sedum into the soil. And then placed some small quartz pebbles and beach glass that I had picked up on some beach somewhere around he sedum.

I lightly watered–not even enough water to drain to the bottom–the sedum and moss and placed the lid on tightly. There should be enough moisture in the terrarium to keep the moss moist and sedum is pretty much the hardiest plant on the planet. I found this wonderful resource for moss management and feel confident that the plants I chose will be low care. 20140413-142036.jpg

I adore the way it turned out and it was an easy project that I didn’t have to buy a single thing for. Don’t you just love upcycling items with nature’s help!? I do!

Mini Mouse


Above is the beady little face only a cat can love–especially when stuffed with catnip! These little guys are a bit labor intensive for the small package, but just wait until your cat goes bonkers over them. You’ll be so proud of yourself.

What you’ll need: fabric, twine or yarn for the tail, stuffing, and catnip. I hand stitched these but there is no reason you can’t use the machine for the first few steps, especially if you plan on making many of them.

This project is perfect for an old t-shirt. If you’ve been into making t-shirt yarn lately and have a bunch of sleeves and chests left over without any idea of what to do with them, here is a great use because these mice use up small snippets of fabric. And the t-shirt is nice because it is stretchy and you can make fat little mice.

Start off by cutting two half circles for the body and two small circles for the ears.

Place the two pieces together. If your fabric has a good side and a bad side, put both bad sides together. Decide which end will be the “head” and cut a slit until about half way down. I only showed one side in the photo above, but you really should cut them together so they are even.


I’m sorry, I skipped like three steps in the next photo. It’s just that you get really involved in the “production” of them and forget to take pictures. But the next photo reflects what the mouse looks like after attaching the ears and sewing on the tail.

I will try and explain as well as possible, though. Take one of your little ears (circle) and roll it like a waffle cone so it’s a little wider on top. Take the rolled ear and stick the end through the slit and fold back the half circle so that you are holding the ear inside the fabric. At this point you should see only a small end of your rolled eat and have a seam to sew up along that slit you previously cut into the half circle. Now you have to do the same thing on the other side so that they mirror each other. When you are done with both ears, you will have two semi-circles again, but this time with ears in the middle-ish. Stick them together so the ears are inside.

Next we attach the tail by having one end of the tail stick out the back end. If there is a good end and a bad end to your tail, have the bad end stick out the back. It will be inside when you flip the mouse inside out.


It may help to roll up the tail so you can keep it all inside if you have a particularly long tail. Starting with your tail end, start stitching along the outer half circle to close up the two sides. Stop at ears. Then sew along the straight bottom edge to close up the seam.

You are now ready to flip it inside out and should have all of your seams closed up except for “face” area.


At this point, you have to decide whether you want to put whiskers and eyes on the little mouse. Trust me, the cat will play with it regardless, so you really can skip it… But they are so much cuter with the little details.

Now is the time to add eyes and whiskers if you want them. I used regular thread, but if you have something a little thicker, sewing some eyes on the thing will be sooo much easier. The eyes are self-explanatory. Stitch a circle with the thread.

The whiskers, those required more creativity… And explanation. We are essentially going to make one stitch– on the inside. Thread your string but don’t tie it off. Starting on outside of mouse, you want to pull thread through create a small stitch inside and pull back out. Leave the thread long for the moment. About one half inch from one end, tie a knot (enough to not pull through). Now pull through from other end until the knot stops the thread (yay, one whisker has emerged!). As for the other whisker, you now need to tie a knot on the other side of the stitch to keep whisker from pulling through. See the second photo below to understand how the stitch is on the inside and the first photo to see how the knot on the outside keeps it from pulling through.



Now all of our hard work is done and we can stuff the little rodents. I used poly-fiber stuffing as well as catnip to make them nice and fat. Just shove it in there.


When the mouse is as full as you want it, stitch up the face. Just pay attention to where the eyes and whiskers are so they line up.


Final step: find a cat.


Pop Star

I am reclaiming popcorn as a healthy and natural snack– not some over-salted, mushy-with-butter, expensive mess in a bucket or bag. Let’s look at the facts on this. That little trifold of leading name brand microwave popcorn in the “movie theater” flavor has 42.5 calories per cup and over sixty percent of those calories are from fat (27.5). “Oh, that’s not too, bad,” you say? Well, nobody eats one cup. In fact, the serving size is 4 cups and they estimate that a bag has about 2.5 servings. But, if you eat the whole bag–and who hasn’t–you are consuming 425 calories, with 275 from fat, 30 total grams of fat, and 750 mg of sodium.

On the other hand, good old kernels yield about 20 calories, a quarter of one gram of fat, and zero sodium per cup. Eating the equivelent of a bag full of popcorn would result in the not-so-shameful results of 200 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. Can you believe that? Ten cups of popcorn for 200 calories!

So, if popcorn kernels naturally have no sodium and very little fat, where does it all come from? Probably things like partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and artificial colorings and flavors… and maybe some real butter. Let’s leave the analysis at this example and not terrify each other with the facts surrounding actual movie theater popcorn, but if you’re curious, go to this article.

Okay, so now we are all on the bandwagon. But in case I haven’t sold this idea enough, making popcorn the right way is not only healthy, but cheap! Just don’t buy it in your snack section of the grocery store. That’s where they put all the junk food and over-priced jar of Orville Whathisname kernels. That is not where you buy popcorn kernels. My grocery stores carry popcorn kernels in the Mexican/Latino food aisle, where a pound of kernels runs about $1.00. The jar of kernels in the snack aisle is about $5-$6 a pound. In other grocery stores, I might find it with the whole rice and beans. I also find that farmers markets in Illinois carry popcorn kernels cheaply–and usually some neat varieties.

Armed with knowledge and your bag of popcorn kernels, there are three easy methods to get them to fun and fluffy and full of health, not fat.

1) Pull out your good, ol’ air popper. If you don’t have one, your mom probably has one that has been stuck in a cabinet for twenty years. This is not really new technology here. It is just heat added to a spinning metal tray. This method of popping corn adds no oils or butters and is pretty much fool proof. At least, it shouldn’t add butter or oils. My little cheap-o one will burn if you try to add butter or oils, but I’ve seen the ones that have a little tray on top for melted butter. Don’t use it. Not only will it defeat the health benefits, but you will probably make your popcorn soggy and your machine greasy. Then you’ll never want to pop the kernels.

2) You can also make popcorn kernels in the microwave. And I am not talking about the little trifold pouches you can buy at the grocery store. I am talking about taking your thrifty bag of loose kernels, sticking some kernels in a paper bag lunch bag and hitting a button. All microwaves are different so I am not going to give you a fail-safe amount of time to pop your kernels. Start with a couple of minutes BUT keep an ear out for the slowing down of the popping. Now, until you get pretty good at this, err on the side of caution and stop the time when there is consistently about one second between pops. But take heart. Even if you stop the clock too early and end up with a handful of kernels on the bottom, you can stick the bag back in the microwave and pop them again.

3) Finally, if you don’t have an air popper or microwave, you can resort to a classic low-tech method: a pot. Making stove top popcorn is not as difficult as it seems. And despite using a little bit of oil to start off with, it’s not unhealthy and the oil provides a nice smoky quality to the popcorn. Most recipes on-line that I saw recommended at least a tablespoon of oil, but I think this is way more than you need. I like to use just enough to give the single layer of kernels on the bottom of the pan a sheen. Cook over medium heat, and allow a little space for condensation to escape so that the popped kernels do not get mushy and remove the lid as soon as the popping has stopped.

Okay, so now you have a great, low calorie snack–though, unfortunately, many people haven’t learned to appreciate the taste of naked popped corn. I have a solution for this, too and it is not a batch of unnaturally yellow powdered cheese to sprinkle over the popped corn. My solution involves dried herbs and/or spices and a dash of either salt or sugar. I say this a lot, but I truly believe it– the variations and recipes are only limited by your imagination. But just in case your imagination needs a little jump start, below are a few ideas. The only trick is that you need to grind the mixtures really, really finely– preferably in a mortar and pestle. The measurement of each ingredient is about a pinch. We’re not creating a huge amount of mixture here. It will be just enough to put inside a small paper lunch bag and lightly cover the kernels.



Mustard Powder-Garlic-Salt

smoky paprika-salt-chili powder (a teeny amount of chili powder until you get accustomed to this.)

lemon zest-fennel-salt

Just start thinking of things that sound delicious together and try your hand at making a coating. Remember, the trick is that all ingredients have to be dried and ground very finely. Place in a brown paper bag and shake, shake, shake.

I like popcorn just the way it is… though now that I am re-reading this last part… I kind of can’t wait to go home and try a bag with brown sugar and a teeny pinch of salt. Go out there and experiment! But please share your results with me.

As always, I love to hear your ideas! Let me know what you think or tell all your friends how wonderful you think is.

Sew Cute!

I know… I went with the too oft double entendre use of the word “sew” for this title, but please don’t let that steer you away from this impressive-looking, but really easy project. You see, my quest to make hand-made, but still really cute, personal baby gifts continues! I had some great pieces of ribbon that were too short for wrapping a package, so I thought for sure they destined for flower pins. But then, I saw a really cute baby onesie, and knew I found a new fate for the ribbons. So what else do you need for this super easy project? Just a plain onesie and some thread. I guess you can adorn anything with cute satin ruffles, but there is something about a ruffly baby bottom that is beyond cute!


It’s pretty self explanatory. You start sewing at one end and then every so often at random intervals, you do a little pleat to create a ruffled effect. I started doing a running stitch and then switched to hemming stitch. I think. Like I have mentioned before, I am not much of a sewer. I am a doer. My goal was to attach those ribbons to that cloth and that is what I did. I’d like to flatter myself that I invented a new stitch, but I didn’t. I just don’t know what it’s called.

Here is another one I did that same night.


I hand-stitched these. I made both of them in about three hours, and about an hour of that was just figuring things out. I made the second one in half the time of the first. You can probably knock these out in mere minutes on the sewing machine. But, I made mine during an “open craft” night and didn’t think I should bring my sewing machine.

The only tricky thing about these are the edges. Ribbons fray pretty easily. I have two suggestions: First, simply fold over the ribbon before you attach it and sew seam. Or, second, take a lighter to the edge of the ribbon and, very carefully, let the edges just barely melt. Also, of the ribbon has wire, remove it! This is really easy. Just poke it out of one end and pull it through.

There is very little you can make for a baby girl that is not huber adorable, but these are cute– and sew simple! Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Do you have go-to hand made baby gift items? I would love to hear your ideas! And if you try this please send pics.

Like always, feel free to share his post.

Keep Improving

For whatever reason, I not only didn’t make any new year’s resolutions but I purposefully avoided even thinking about them. It seemed that to make resolutions was almost to admit that there was dissatisfaction in my life. I felt like I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) really complain. I had my health, a job I was (still) enjoying, financial security and the promise of true financial independence on the horizon. Heck– as I am sitting here writing this inside my cozy home after a nice meal, with my husband lighting a fire in the fireplace and my fat cat peacefully snoring on the couch, it occurs to me that life is good. Making new year’s resolutions seems almost greedy.

But what hubris! As if resolutions can only be about making more money, buying stuff, or losing weight. And the truth is that I did actually have goals for the year. There are certain ideas percolating in my head that have been recurring themes. It is time to put them all in one place, though, and broadcast. For how else can I judge the level of gain if I never admit to having a goal in the first place. Blogs are, after all, great big accountability machines.

Life Improvement Goals for 2014.

1) I want to learn more about recycling. How it works, where my stuff goes, where my stuff and garbage might be better utilized. A few months back I was agonizing over paper waste. It soon became very obvious, though, that I did not actually have any knowledge of what happened to my paper if I put it in the recycling bin. And it turned out that recycling it may have been the best solution for it. My goals this year are to tour my local recycling facility and really research what can and can’t be recycled. I will also continue to reduce my household’s consumption of things that will be discarded as waste. Plastic is my new nemesis.

2) I will continue to reduce my sugar intake. I’ve done a pretty good job almost completely eliminating refined white sugar–and sweetener. But… This year, I would like to focus on reducing sugar intake in food I buy such as buns, pasta sauce, and yogurt. Did you know that we are only supposed to consume 6 teaspoons of sugar a day, but, on average, we consume around 22 teaspoons? It’s something I’ve known about for some time, but was struck by again after reading this blog article. Unfortunately, in this fat/calorie obsessed food market, it’s sometime difficult to figure out how much sugar is actually in something. The first step of this process is awareness. Only then can I systematically eliminate and reduce.

3) I want to take more advantage of the nature around me. This includes exploring new areas, helping in conservation efforts, taking tours with experienced guides and learning a lot more about plants. I complain a lot about not living in a place with mountains or beaches, but there is plenty of beauty in Midwestern plains, woods, streams and lakes. There are so many conservation areas, parks, trails, etc that I haven’t explored. I have resolved that I am not allowed to complain until I actually experience it. Plus, now that I know you can legally forage in Illinois State Parks, I am keeping my eyes open!

4) I need to do better at work. I don’t mean in my job performance, but in not behaving in the office the same as I behave at home with paper and other waste because it is not convenient or easy. Even if I cannot change the habits of my co-workers, I need to take responsibility for myself.

My list sounds pretty ordinary, but these are truly the ways I would like to improve this year. By writing them down–and now posting them for the world to see–I am making myself accountable. These are no longer secret half-formed intentions that are easily discarded, but solid goals. I hope that by this time next year, or even during the year, I can report true and meaningful improvement. If I am really being honest, this list is more for me than for you. I have been wanting to your my local recycling facility for a long time. Maybe now that I have a goal, I will make the effort to actually set it up!

I would love to hear about your goals for improving yourself, your household, or your environment. More than likely, if you find yourself saying it out loud, you will find that you conscientiously make more of an effort to meet that goal!

Upcycled Sweater Project

Right about now, in the depths of a cold winter, you are probably wishing for something to keep your head and ears warm but that looks stylish and fun. Boy are you lucky you are reading this post because I have an easy project that will meet all these objectives. What you need: the sleeve of a sweater, needle and thread. What you will end up with:20140122-211225.jpg

1) Cut off the sleeve making sure that it will go around your head comfortably. Do not stretch it (much) to fit. When you sew the ends together you will lose some length but you want it to be snug on your head so it stays on. Fold the sleeve into a circle and tuck the cut end into the finished hem end.


2) Sew it closed.


3) Now for the flare! The sweater I used was a cashmere that I accidentally shrunk and then decided to heck with it and tries to felt it by boiling and boiling it. It didn’t quite work. But the end product was a material that didn’t fray that much. So I decided to make a large, simple, layered flower to cover the seam. I cut several rounds of sweater and then cut some wavy edges. 20140122-212320.jpg
Then I simply attached the flower to the head band. If my sweater had frayed a lot, I would probably have made a complementing flower out of different materials. Or I would have sewed a long “ribbon” by folding the sweater pieces in half and sewing along one edge to make a large rosette. So many options. So few sweaters that I am willing to chop up.


Coffers and Coffee

Once you start the journey to financial independence, you realize that every dollar counts. And that every dollar saved means you are one step closer to financial independence. It’s not even a one-to-one ratio (i.e., a dollar saved is a dollar earned). When you factor in compounded interest, every dollar saved is more than a dollar earned. At least… this is what responsible people would say. Me… I still like nice things. And if I didn’t have a latte every once in a while, I would have brittle bones since I don’t otherwise drink milk. But, before you criticize my latte habit, please know I consider lattes a luxury–not an everyday indulgence (though arguably it’s a slippery slope, going from “I deserve this latte” to “I deserve a week at a luxury spa” (though I really do!)) Without a little luxury every once in a while, waiting for financial independence becomes mundane and intolerable. You can’t just cut out everything you enjoy. Besides, I eat plenty of rice and beans to “make up” for it. However, the virtues of life’s little luxuries and how they fit into the goal of becoming finacially independant is not actually what this post is about. Not completely. This post is about using those little luxuries as motivating factors in how you decide if your efforts at some form of saving are “worth it.”

I am going to buy a latte every once in a while. Probably once a week. It’s just something that is going to happen. But it doesn’t mean I have to be mindless about it. For some time now, I have used lattes as my gauge for the value of savings I can seek. What I mean is that I tend to think of every dollar, or portion thereof, saved as worth saving because the value to me is tangible. A lot of people don’t bother, for example, questioning a grocery receipt for the $1.34 they were over charged on veggie burgers, or returning a screw from the hardware store that is worth fifteen cents. They think it’s not worth their time and energy. But I disagree. See, these things add up. I can put forth a small effort and, very quickly, get the equivalent of a latte–something that I consider a luxury, remember? This is not to say that every time I can eek out a savings of a two to three dollars I immediately go buy a latte. Rather, it means that at that moment when I’m about to walk out of a store and ask myself, “should I bother to go back inside and get the price difference,” the answer is always yes.

This moment when you question the value of your time happens far more often than in the grocery store. It occurs in late fees, service fees, price quotes, being unsatisfied with a product…etc. In my estimation, no fee is too small to not bother making a phone call to request a reversal. No overcharge is not worth your time to question. A discount is always worth seeking. Because, small amounts add up to big amounts.

Admittedly, it is hard to see the big picture. In fact, the big picture may not even help. For example, if all the small efforts you made made a difference of $86 for a year and you took this money and invested it at 5% interest with compound interest, in like 10 years, it’s still only worth about $140. You may just find that it is not really worth it to hang onto that $86 dollars for ten years. But if you think of the fact that this $86 dollars for which you spent some effort to search out savings or refunds gets you about 30 lattes… that become a tangible value that you see as worthwhile. At least I do.

What is your vice and how do you go out of your way to make it work in your savings goals? As always, your input is encouraged.

Twelve Posts of Christmas–In Review

In 2012 I probably should have died. I was in a major car accident and honestly feel that if I had been an inch taller, my spine would have snapped. Instead, I merely broke my neck and had to have emergency surgery. Sure, the aftermath and recuperation was difficult for me, but I know that it was a lot more difficult on my family, who immediately rushed to be by my side from all over the country. They after all, had to look at the mess of me, with all the bruises and cuts–oh, and the holes they drilled in my head to place the halo. I didn’t have an opportunity to even look at myself until about five or six days after the accident. And maybe because of how close I came to dying, no one really talked about it last Christmas (2012), though we all made a huge effort to be together. Since the accident, I’ve been and thought so many cliches that I probably don’t need to spell them all out here, except to say that I am glad to be alive and ready for a fresh new year. So as 2013 comes to an end, I look back on a year of healing and growth and look forward to making the most of and improving upon this life I have been given. Thank you for allowing me to make that journey with you. May everyone out there have a wonderful new year.

Twelve Posts of Christmas–The gift of Experience

Ahhhh. Another gift post. In my defense…it’s kind of an important part of the season.

When it comes to gift giving, my priorites have definitely shifted over the last few years. Even as recently as three or four years ago, all the family members would be pressured to make a list about three to four months before christmas and then we would all race to find things on the list. Of course, the things that went on the list were often thoughlessly placed on there under threat and panic. And the gifts purchased were usually not exactly what someone had in mind. Inevitably, you exchanged the gift for store credit and just bought yourself the shoes or sweater or phone case you really wanted in the first place, but couldn’t buy for yourself because you put it on your list three months before Christmas. I really appreciate the way that my family has changed the gift giving dynamic because it allows us to be more considerate in our gift giving. Instead of rushed emails that are copies and forwarded to everyone, we now have more personal conversations about what we’re involved in, what we would enjoy, where we like to go, what we would like to do. More and more I find myself wanting to give the gift of experiences. Imagine my gratification when I came across this article in MSN Money.

Indeed, the article talks about how in order to “choose such a gift, you need to know the recipient’s taste in music, theater, magazines or museums, ” and that “the right experience gift rates high on the happiness scale.” Getting someone something they will never use it a waste of money, so it really is imporant to really have meaningful conversations with the giftee so that you can both enjoy the experience.

The article gives ten suggestions for experience gifts, and for the most part they are great ideas. I would like to add to that list movie theater passes (I highly recommend the iPic), gift cards to favorite restaurants, tickets to interesting private industry tours (i.e., breweries and distillaries) and specialty store gift cards, including fancy tea and coffee shops. I think that some people think of gift cards or tickets or whatever you want to call these gifts are “cop out” gifts and indicate thoughtlessness. But only thoughtless gifts are thoughtless. For example, a Barnes and Noble gift card for someone that has a Kindle or a Magazine subscription for someone that hates getting mail is not only inconsiderate… it is a waste of your time and energy, even if minimal, and your money! However, a Barnes and Noble gift card to a Nook reader is potentially hours and hours of entertainment. The article mentioned above points out that experience gifts may “put a burden on the recipient, so it’s important to make sure you’ve made a good choice. A spa day may sound like a wonderful gift for a new mother, for example, but it isn’t a great gift if she has to pay for a babysitter or pay for extra services and a tip once she arrives.” The bottom line is that you need to know your recipient and do your research.

These types of gifts are great for those wanting to explore their communities and enjoy new experiences. They are also a great way to allow someone to spoil themselves a little bit by buying something they would normally no indulge in. They often take just as much thought and research as gifts you can wrap in big, pretty boxes.

If you have a great idea for an experience gift, please share. Or, if you’re received an awesome experience gift, or a miserable fail, I’d love to hear about it.

Twelve Posts of Christmas Reinvented

The inspiration for these posts, quite obviously, is the traditional holiday song “Twelve days of Christmas”. It is a little tune that most readers are probably familiar with and that just may be getting stuck in your head right now. Sorry about that. The song is kind of annoying. But I guess it is interesting and mysterious enough to be a constant source of speculation around this time of year. Indeed, I am not original in repurposing this classic song.

For example, every year PNC posts the Christmas Index. This is an index using the items discussed in the song, adjusted for inflation. In other words, the Christmas Index comes out every year telling you how much you would have to spend today to get your true love each item on the “Twelve days of Christmas.” For a great read on the Christmas index, read this article. The index includes the birds and stuff as well as hiring the dancers and milking maids, etc. Not surprisingly, it is the cost of labor that makes the Twelve Days of Christmas so expensive for your true love.

Many out there have probably heard of the Christmas Index before, and it’s an interesting thing to run across every now and then. However, I recently discovered another take on the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Author and researcher Olga Kazan has just come out with an article titled “Health Consequences of Actually Living the Twelve Days of Christmas.” This is a fascinating read that starts off with a scintillating history of the song and then launches into the effects of eating the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are surprisingly healthy if you remember to milk, dance, leap, pipe and drum as well.

This article also references another Twelve Days hanger-on… Heal Farm, out of England makes a stuffed bird (inside a stuffed bird inside another stuffed bird and so on…) using birds referenced in the song. Click on the link above to read more about the “12 Bird True Love Roast.” It’s a bit pricy, but it “[w]ill feed around 125 people, takes 10 hours to cook and yields around 4 litres of flavoursome stock.” Even at it’s steep cost, it is still cheaper than the Christmas price index. If you ever get one, please don’t forget to invite me!

Twelve Posts of Christmas–Ethical Gifting

I was recently listening to WBEZ, Chicago land’s Public Radio and heard someone throwing around the term “ethical gifting.” And it wasn’t in a story about ethical gifting, it was just casual conversation thrown about during an end of year donor drive. The speaker tossed this phrase around as if everyone should know what it was. Sheepishly, I admit it was the first time I had come across it. I thought, however, that I immediately understood the term.

When I went to research the term later, I realized that there really is no cohesive application or understanding of the term. Many seem to apply it to green-giving. Then there are those that apply it to practical or useful gifts, and those that use it for creative gifts, anything bought from small shops, particularly if those shops contain goods made by people in under-developed nations. I also saw it applied to gifting with a charitable aim, which sometimes meant buying something that gives some or all of proceeds to charity and sometimes it just meant giving to charity in someone’s name. However, the other thing that popped up quite frequently was ethical gifting in a business environment. At first, I brushed this off as the wrong kind of ethical gifting, but then I realized that this no-strings-attached type of gift giving corporations advocated should be a part of ethical giving, at least, my ethical giving.

So what is ethical gifting? I have concluded that it is different for everyone and that it essentially giving that reflects your values, which we often forget at this time of year in our panic to just buy things for people.  For me, ethical gifting is giving gifts that are immediately useful with a focus on recycling that will produce little to no waste. Yes, sometimes that means I make things, and sometimes they are actually really nice and sometimes my family is just really nice.  I like to support small shops, too–though that can be in direct conflict with getting the best deal on something.  But that is okay.  It is less important to me to be frugal in gift giving than it is to buy a gift that will be useful–and used.  This is a lot easier to justify when you are not buying a gift for every single relative.

For kids, my husband and I look for gifts that are educational,which to me takes precedent over Eco-friendly–though more and more, the two are compatible.  Still, we try not to add mindlessly with piles of toys pulled off box-store shelves. This is sometimes tricky because you want to buy them the fun, hot toy of the year.  The immediate satisfaction they will experience will probably be much greater than opening something useful and will catapult you to the top of the “best aunt and uncle in the world” list.   But then I remember the ethics of corporate gift giving.  My gifts are not to buy someone’s affections or to influence someone’s actions.  They are given being thoughful of both the gift-giver and gift-receiver.

Twelve Posts of Christmas–Music to Your Ears

I didn’t intend to write about this topic, but as I sit here filtering through Christmas music it occurred to me that the way we get our Christmas music fix has changed quite a bit in the last few years. Not too many years past, you either had FM radio or CDs–multi-disc changers if you were fancy. I used to have a 300 disc carousel and player (I spent a lot of money in college). Now, it was not just filled with Christmas music–those accounted for only about 9 CDs– and it also housed my husband’s CDs (he brought the Britney Spears to the marriage.) Regardless, the CD player got used less and less often even though my husband and I really enjoy music. I finally sold the darn thing a couple of years back when I finally admitted it to myself that it just wasn’t the way I was listening to music anymore. There are very few CDs you can listen to anymore from start to finish. And taking out the CDs to listen to in the car was annoying and inconvenient. As I started using iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora I wasn’t even listening to CDs anymore. Oh. You’re not too familiar with all of these? Well let me tell you not only how they can improve the quality of the music you hear, but also, often, save you money–with a focus on Christmas, of course.

Let’s start out with iTunes, which surely everyone has heard of. iTunes is not free. At least not always. However, did you know that almost every week you can download a free song. Just go to “music” and scroll around. And guess what you get in December? Ding, ding, ding. Christmas music. Today (December 12, 2013) you can download Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree” for free! But the beautiful thing about iTunes is that you can choose exactly what you want, design your perfect playlist, with your favorite artists. Love “O Holy Night” but want to decide exactly which version buy dozens and dozens of artists is best? On iTunes, you can do that before you buy it! The answer is Mahalia Jackson’s version, by the way. So instead of buying a CD where you really like only half of the songs, you get to search through hundreds of thousand (not an actual statistic) of songs until you get your perfect playlist. And let’s face it. For those of us that love Christmas music, we may add something every once in a while, but we rarely take it away, so once you have your list, you don’t need to spend much more money to add to it. Plus, for those CDs that you do own, there are many ways to download those songs onto your computer to get them on your phone. Then you can pluck your most favorite songs and put them on your Perfect Christmas Playlist.

A coworker told me about Spotify a few years ago. It’s a great site that allows you to listen to entire CDs in addition to playlists. Spotify used to only be available through your computer, and I spent many, many hours listening to Jack Johnson’s entire catalogue of music at my office. Until recently, if you wanted Spotify through your phone or iPad, you had to pay for premium service. It is now free everywhere. What!? This is very exciting. I haven’t used Spotify in a little while because I changed jobs recently and never got around to putting it on my computer. So I didn’t know. I just downloaded it now on my iPad. Literally, just now. It’s awesome. If you know there is an entire CD out there you like, type in its name and chances are it’ll pop up. You can listen to the whole thing. No purchase necessary. And, to make your perfect Christmas playlist, all you need to do is create playlist category and then when the song you love is playing, hit the “+” sign and it is added to the playlist. It’s so easy. My perfect Christmas playlist is being created on Spotify as we speak.

Lastly, there is Pandora. On Pandora, you create stations for the music that you like. As you listen to those stations, you can thumbs up or thumbs down songs. These actions help your station get personalized to you. You can choose broad categories like “Rat Pack Christmas” or “Hipster Christmas” and Pandora will begin playing songs in that genre. And because you interact with it, your “Hipster Christmas” will sound much different than my “Hipster Christmas.” You can also choose multiple artists if you have eclectic musical tastes. My favorite “station” is my Jack Johson/Otis Redding/ Pam Tillis/ Mana/ Norah Jones station. It’s pretty awesome.

Pandora and Spotify do play occasional advertisements on the free service. But they are very brief and infrequent. Both are available in apps for your smart devices to make taking your perfect Christmas playlist EVERWHERE.

My perfect Christmas Playlist (incomplete):

The Man with the Bag– Kay Starr
O Holy Night– Mahalia Jackson
The Merriest– June Christy
Santa Baby– Eartha Kitt
Baby it’s Cold Outside– any version with Ella Fitzgerald
Old Toy Trains– Nick Lowe
All I want for Christmas– Mariah Carey
The Christmas Song– Nat King Cole
Father Christmas– The Kinks
Christmas (baby please come home) –Darlene Love
Blue Christmas– The Perishers
Please Come Home For Christmas– Bon Jovi
Merry Christmas Darling– The Carpenters

Twelve Posts of Christmas–Lightening Santa’s Load

I recently came across this article titled: How 6 families went gift-free for Christmas in MSN Money. As the title suggests, the article highlights how, and why, these families decided to depart from what most of us understand to be Christmas. It struck a chord with me.

When I was a kid growing up with a single mom, Christmas was a much leaner time. Then my mother got remarried and things slowly got better. Better included a more bountiful Christmas. Soon, the family got bigger with the addition of a little brother. We kids (four of us) got older and our buying power improved, presents became more plentiful and substantial. And we added boyfriends and later husbands. And the little brother was eventually old enough to like girls and so there would be a new girlfriend every other year…and the occasional relative or foreign exchange student. And marriage, of course, normally brings in-laws of the parental and sibling variety, and the occasional niece or nephew. Somewhere along the way, Christmas became excessive. We lost focus on the importance of doing things together and became obsessed with getting everyone the right gift and spending the right amount of money.

It’s not surprising that people reach a breaking point. Whether because of the expense, or the emptiness of randomly grabbed gifts, or the stress of needing to buy so many things for so many people, my family realized that the excitement of getting together as a family for Christmas was overshadowed by the expectations of Christmas. Even when we managed to get together we would often be divided with last minute shopping and wrapping. As a family, we turned Christmas into a stressful retail face-off.

A couple of years back, my family almost unanimously agreed that we needed to change the way we did Christmas. We weren’t ready to go gift free, but we needed a change. We reached a fair and festive compromise that would revive the holiday spirit and limit the holiday frustration. Like the families and the commenters in the article mentioned above, there was some push-back and we are still tweaking to make Christmas work for the reality of my family today.