Monday, April 29, 2013

The Indestructible Coach Purse

My favorite part of garage saling is trying to fix something.  Once in a while I come home with something, though, that just can't be fixed.  I wondered if that was going to be the case earlier this week...

A few weeks ago, I bought a black coach purse at a garage sale for $3.  When I got it home, though, I realized that it smelled like cigarette smoke.  So, I threw it in the wash with some oxi-clean.  I know that sounds crazy.  I just didn't have anything to lose.  I washed it two more times, put baking soda inside it, and sprayed it with Ozium, a spray that usually takes away the smell of cigarette smoke.  It didn't work.  I was ready to give up.  Sometimes things just can't be fixed.

I had one last idea.  Several of my friends have told me about the smell that of sun-dried laundry.  I took the purse out and hung it on the jungle gym for a week.  Would it work?

It did!?!  It did!!  The washing had taken a little toll on the bag, so I pulled out a black sharpie marker to fill in along the edges.  You can't tell at all.  I am really surprised at how well the bag stood up to all that I put it through.  

Sometimes I think expensive purses, shoes, jewelry aren't worth it.  But, coach bags seem to really stand up.  I am thankful they've brought back their classic line of purses.  They don't all just have a flashy c on them anymore.  

Fixing something leaves me with a good feeling.  It means one less thing that's going to end up in a trash can somewhere.  Next time I'm going to try the sunshine before all of my other fixes!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Kindle Shopping and Kids

Kindles are funny things to me.  When you go shopping for a regular, basic Kindle, there are two options.  The first option is $69 which supposedly includes special coupons and deals.  The second option is $89 without these "special" deals.  At first, I thought, why pay the extra $20?

Well, now I know why.  Our kids have started using our Kindle to read a lot of classic books that you can purchase for free on Amazon like The Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods by Edith Nesbit.  The discounted Kindle's screen saver is always an advertisement for a different book.  These books are adult, not kid reading.  They have often have covers that I don't want my kids to see or to be staring at.  My children are easily scared and quite impressionable.  I know they see all sorts of magazine coverss at the grocery store each time we go (which I've talked about this with them).  But, we don't watch cable tv with them, adult themed television shows, or adult themed movies.  I pretty floored recently to see how many un"commercials" PBS even runs between shows now when we were in a car dealership waiting room.  My biggest concern, honestly, is realizing that I don't have control over what's going to come up on our Kindle's screensaver.  It's interesting that there are Parental Controls that will restrict a child's access to the Kindle Store--but nowhere is it mentioned about the non-kid oriented screensavers.  

So, we decided to purchase another Kindle--one without the "special deals" and pay a little more.  My husband and I really think it's worth it.  I'm glad we have a basic Kindle.  I like it, but I'm also looking forward to having ad-free one that I'm comfortable with my kids using!

Groceries I Don't Buy (Usually)

Last week, I went to the grocery store to buy groceries.  I picked up a few things for my son's birthday party.  I was surprised when the bill was about $10 more than it had been for the past few weeks.  I totaled up what I'd spent for his party and I had spent $4 on two bags of chips (on sale), $3 on pretzels (store brand), and $3 on candy (on clearance).  I was struck by how a few extra things can add on a lot.

A friend of mine asked me last night how much we spend on groceries each month.  I've always tried to be careful, but for all of my efforts to save money on groceries, I thought our grocery bill had been very high.  This morning I looked a bit closer at how our budget broke out.  Since January, we've only eaten out once a month as a family and once on a date.  We've cut out Starbucks almost completely.  It helps that we moved farther away from one and that there isn't anywhere nearby that we like to eat at.

Our bill wasn't that high actually when I just looked at groceries and toiletries.  I've been able to cut it some during the past two months, but it's interesting to realize how much.  I'm curious to compare this year with last year when we get to the end of it.  The hard part about comparing food budgets over the past few years is we're not really comparing apples to apples.  They're really apples and oranges.

I remember about 4 or 5 years ago when I noticed that some of the food items we'd purchased for several years jumped 50-100% in price.  The price increase was disguised, though, because most food manufacturers shrank the size of the products they were selling--by a little at a time.  Breyers ice cream is one of those products.  They shrank the amount of ice cream per package a few years ago and I believe they shrank it again over the past year. So, it was hard.  I was expecting to keep our food budget the same, but I was ultimately paying more for the same food we'd been eating because I had to buy more packages to get the same amount over all.

I found that I made a lot of cuts back then.  I cut back to my kids having juice at one meal a day, milk one meal a day, and water the rest of the day.  Milk has climbed back down in price quite a bit, so I'm not as careful with it as I used to be.

And then I went to Costco on Monday.  I seriously paused when the checker told me the total was close to $100.  Really?  I bought cheese, honey, chocolate chips, dog food, milk, generic zyrtec, and a bag of coffee.  Nothing beyond basics.  

I walked away considering my purchases.  There wasn't anything extra in my basket.  

I think it's interesting to read the articles about families of 4 or 6 living on $400 a month.  But, there's something else to think about.  What do they eat?  How do they eat?  White bread?  My mom told me last week when we were talking about food that my family eats well.  I think that is my goal--even more than being as frugal as I can about my groceries.  

I want to be balanced and feed my family a healthy, varied diet full of fruits and vegetables and different meats--and different dishes.  And I want to be as wise financially as I can about it.  I don't want to be obsessive and make it a lesser idol as we can potentially do with any good thing in our life.  I pray for the Lord's provision for my family and trust Him to help me make wise decisions in my grocery purchases.  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Homestyle Cooking

 I have a bookshelf filled with cookbooks, but there are two that sit right about my Kitchenaid.  Simply in Season, published by Herald Press, is one of them.  I recently discovered that Herald Press had also published a cookbook titled Mennonite girls can Cook and a second Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations.  

I was blessed with a chance to look through these two cookbooks and try out some new recipes.  I started with Mennonite girls can Cook.  In the forward, I discovered that all author royalties from the cookbook
will be donated to charity to feed hungry children.  The cookbook was compiled by a group of mennonite women who came together with their favorite family recipes.  These are everyday type of cooking recipes.  The table of contents shows that it will tackle breakfast, soups and salads, suppers, breads, and desserts.  This is a very "homestyle" type of cookbook.  The recipes are filled with comfort foods that you'll recognize.  From the breakfast section, I made the Blueberry Crumb Muffins.  My girls do not like nor eat blueberries.  But, eat these muffins they did!  In fact, Sami requested them the next day again when we had run out.  She was so disappointed that I set about making another batch.  They tasted like bakery or restaurant blueberry muffins made at home.  Next, I made the broccoli salad recipe.  I have to admit that I altered this recipe a lot.  I found the recipe far too sweet for my tastes so I cut the sugar in half and added some small cubes of cheese (1/3 cup).  It wasn't specified whether the onion should be red or white so I stuck with white, but decreased the amount called for by about half just to be safe.  The salad was very good and a friend and my mom both gave it high praise when they were called upon to taste test it.  The rest of the cookbook contains a lot of recipes that you'd find in restaurants in Pennsylvania Dutch country.  There's a mixture of older comfort foods and new ones.  

I was impressed that there were so many gluten free recipes included.  I appreciated the one page discussion of celiacs and gluten free foods at the back of the book.  I hadn't understood why some oats are gluten free and why others are not.  The explanation here is that some oats are grown in fields where wheat has recently been grown, hence a chance of contamination.  Hmm...  interesting.  

If you like Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, you'll really like this cookbook.  There are great pictures and a good variety of recipes.  I know the blueberry muffin recipe will be a permanent part of my repertoire from now on.  Scattered throughout the cookbook are also short devotionals.  I read a few and enjoyed the thoughts these women had to share.  The thoughts in Simply in Season are shorter and quicker to read, but I still enjoyed the thoughts of these women--which are essentially part of their testimonies of what God is or has taught them.

The second cookbook in this series is coming out in May.  It is titled Mennonite Girls Can Cook
Celebrations.  The women came together this time with their favorite "special" recipes.  There are recipes for holidays, outdoors, birthdays, weddings...  My mom and I both enjoyed looking through this cookbook.  I started out with the Chicken Cordon Bake and my mom fixed the tomato rice soup.  I added steamed cauliflower to the Chicken Cordon Bake and was very pleased with the result  I wanted to get a little more vegetables into my family!  My mom made the tomato rice soup and was satisfied with the result, although she felt the soup was quite tomatoey.  My husband, on the other hand, just opened it up for lunch today when he discovered it and had a hard time putting it away after one bowl.  I also fixed the Ham and Cheese Pinwheels.  These were a complete hit with my kids.  There are not many recipes that I get an unequivocal thumbs up on from all three kids.  But, I did with these!  They are little ham and cheese rolls that are baked and look like pinwheels.  Normally, you'd have to buy crescent rolls to make rolls like these, but the dough was quite easy to make and the rolls turned out well (albeit not as pretty as the pictures since I'm not very exact in my cooking).  My husband thought these rolls would be awesome for kids' birthday parties.  

Like the first cookbook, there are many gluten free recipes (which are better labeled in this cookbook!).  I'm excited to try the baked rice pudding the next time our gluten-free friends are over!  There are also many pictures for all of the recipes.  Pictures make cooking so much more appealing!

I think what's fun about this cookbook is that it made me want to make "pretty" food.  Most of the time I am just concerned with making good food fast--as fast as I can.  I whiz around my kitchen.  But, sometimes I want to enjoy cooking.  I want to slow down and make something that tastes good and looks good, too.  I was happy with the pinwheels (even when they didn't turn out as pretty as the picture) because they were fun and I did slow down while making them.  I am very excited to try the swan cream puffs.  My mom has made cream puffs for years and I thought that the swan idea was just one more little step that looks doable.  

I'm glad I had the chance to try these cookbooks.  I know they won't be ones I will pick up all the time like Simply in Season, but I know that they will definitely be used.  I think the pinwheels will be a good addition to my son's birthday party in two weeks and the swans will definitely be added to my daughter's birthday party in the fall!

Please note that I received complimentary copies of these two cookbooks for review from Herald Press.

Friday, April 19, 2013

One of the R's: Reusing

I love reusing something I already have for a new purpose.  It feels really good to use something I have to solve a problem I have instead of buying and consuming something new.  

Last week, I bought a closet sweater hanger at a garage sale for a dollar.  I bought it not knowing quite what it was going to be used for.  Come Monday morning my goal was to get all of our bikes in the shed.  In order to do this, I had to find homes for some of the things in the shed.  First, I moved the tools we don't use regularly to the basement.  Then, I needed to find a home for the kids' bike helmets.  The closet organizer!  Yay!  They fit perfectly and each one has a spot--inside the house.  I really wanted to figure out how to make this work.  My goal was avoiding spending $300 on another shed for the backyard to house stuff in the shed.  I was so excited to come up with a solution that worked and now we don't need to buy another small storage shed.  

Today I needed to wash our dog's bed.  I washed the cover before, but noticed that it shrunk.  The foam pad didn't fit right inside of it anymore.  I was ready to throw it away.  Tonight I realized that I could trim the edge off the foam and it would zip again!  I tried it.  It worked!  Molly, our dog, is so happy to have her bed back!  And I'm glad not to have to throw it away.  I discovered that our HE front loader is gentle enough to wash the foam and not tear it up, too.  

My other project today was to fix the border on our flower beds that I put in last year.  I like basic bricks because they're cheap.  Honestly, that's why.  I put them in last year and it looked okay, but I was never happy with it.  That's kind of how I am.  I start a project and then keep changing what's there until it looks good.  Sometimes my projects start out looking very bad!

This is what it looks like now.

Eli thinks it's his new balance beam and likes the change a lot.  I like it too.  It looks better without me spending any money, which is great!  

Each spring my goal is to know in February what I want to tackle in our yard.  Unfortunately, it never seems to work out that way so far, but maybe some day it will.  I've noticed that Home Depot and Lowe's often run great garden specials in March and April, but not in May and June when folks are willing to pay full price.  

I think the hard part about reusing is knowing when to get rid of something and when to hold on to it in case you might want to use it for another purpose later!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Making Hash Browns

Making hash browns intimidated me for a lot of years.  I tried various ways to make them.  A lot of folks like cubed potatoes.  But, it takes a lot of butter and I actually don't like them.  Then, a few years ago, I read America's Test Kitchen's way of making them.  It seemed odd, but I gave it a try...  And it worked!  So, here's how I make them now:

Hash Browns

A few small potatoes or 1 or 2 large potatoes.  
Canola Oil
A nonstick frying pan

Peel all potatoes.  Grate 2 small or 1 large.  Don't grate them all at once.  Put the grated peelings inside a cloth napkin and walk over to your sink.  Close the napkin around the potato peelings and squeeze the water out of the potatoes.

Then, heat 2 Tbsp. of canola oil in the pan over medium heat.  Place a small handful of potato shreds in the pan.  I have a 10" skillet and I can make two at a time.  With your spatula, spread the shreds out so that they aren't very thick.  Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the hash browns.  You want them to be close enough to each other so that they'll stay together, but you want them in a pretty thin layer so that they'll cook through.  Start with a small hashbrown to begin with so that you can get the hang of it.  After I've made one round, I add some more shreds and make a second.  Over medium heat, it takes several minutes to cook.  You can cook your eggs over easy, pour your coffee (with cream and sugar), set the table...  Keep an eye on them and check back.  You'll be able to see the edges start to brown.  When you want to flip them (after 2-4 minutes), you can try.  Hashbrowns are a bit of trial and error.  Let them cook on the second side and turn them back over to crisp some more.  It's surprising how long they take to cook.

But, it's better to cook them over medium for longer than over a higher heat for a short time.  The insides need to cook.  Also, they are prone to burning over higher heat unless you're watching them like a hawk (which I'm not good at).  

Making hash browns is a really fun, super cheap treat!  I did tell my husband that I can only make them for 2-4 people at a time.  It takes a lot of hand strength to squeeze the water out of the potato shreds.  

Today was my most successful attempt at making them.  I wasn't in a rush to turn them.  I realized that was the key.  They really do take a long time to cook until they're crispy on both sides!  One thing that was different about them today was that I used oil and no butter.  I think that oil works much better.  I also used a nonstick pan.  Cast iron and stainless steel are much harder to cook hash browns in.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

College Loans

My kids are nowhere near college, but I think about college once in a while.  Mostly I think about it when I listen to friends talk about their children's applications to college and attending college.  I also think about it when I listen to college grads talk about their loans.

There was an article in the Baltimore Sun about financial aid packages this year.  Many schools have added a disclaimer to the financial aid packages they've been sending out this year.  The disclaimer is something about funds subject to change.  The increase in disclaimers is because of the federal budget's situation and sequestration.  There has been an added uncertainty to colleges' ability to guarantee loans this year.  

As my husband and I have juxtaposed the amount of loans colleges are offering to students for one year's attendance beside the reality of the job market today, we have become more and more aware of the challenges young people face.

An interesting thing came up the other day in a discussion with a friend about how to pay off college loans.  I did not have college loans, but my husband did.  When I went through grad school, I lived on a shoe string budget and attended a program I could afford.  I used a small savings account I had to pay for one year of my tuition.  And I worked.  I substituted, worked a second job for the church I attended, and housesat whenever I had the opportunity.  I had this strong conviction that I needed to make it through grad school without debt.

In our culture, it has become an accepted way of thinking to live with debt.  Debt beyond a mortgage and car payment.  

What does having debt do?  It locks up your budget.  It obligates you to paying certain amounts each month--usually for a long span of time.

Someone told me that a lot of folks are now giving the advice to grads with loans to just pay the minimum on their student loans.  Hmmm...  I wondered the reasons why when I heard it, so I googled "college loan repayment advice minimum payment".  I read several articles and gathered that financial advisers are giving the advice to pay the minimum and instead:  save a buffer first, then put some aside for retirement, start an IRA, pay off credit card debt, invest--and then pay off your loans.  Really?  I read a few more articles and found the advice is pretty mixed.  Some folks say pay them off fast, some don't.

What I noticed is that the articles who advocated putting off paying student loans didn't mention a few things.
#1  They didn't mention how monthly payments lock up your budget and can make it much less flexible to cope with emergencies and life changes.
#2  They didn't mention the stress of living with debt.
#3  They didn't mention that it's hard to get an investment that will pay more than you owe in interest nowadays.
#4  They didn't mention that if you marry after graduation and you both have debt, your burden grows.  It doesn't shrink.

In my mind, I have always thought it a good idea to pay off student loans faster.  Loans are a burden that can lock up your budget.  I couldn't think of an exception.  But, I learned about one today.

In the case of some service sectors like medicine where loans are astronomical, students take out their loans with the understanding that if they pay the minimum for 25 years, then the rest of the loan will be cancelled out.  The minimum payment is a percentage of their income.  In the case of some, these loans can never feasibly be repaid unless the former student comes into an enormous windfall of funds.  

I asked the friend who explained this to me what they thought of other student loans.  The person explained that their friends are all paying off their loans ahead of schedule.  If it wasn't for the cancellation after 25 years, he/she likely would do the same thing.  But, it simply isn't realistic to do so.  

I think I'm on the same page as Dave Ramsey.  I was just on his website and his step #1 is to build a $1,000 emergency fund.  #2 is to pay off all debt, excluding your house.  His tip is to pay off the smallest loan first--and I would say the same thing.  Pay off the smallest college loan first.  Then, move on to the next.  There's a sense of satisfaction and a feeling you can do it once you get one loan paid off.  

My husband and I found ourselves in this situation a few years ago.  Because of vehicle purchases and emergency house repairs, we tightened our belts and worked hard at paying off that debt.  God was so gracious and provided the means to do that.  But, that experience has made me not want to end up with several loans again if I can help it.  

I worry about college students who are taking out huge amounts of loans today and what it will mean for their lives in the future.  I know I shouldn't worry, but I do.  Debt may be invisible, but it's still carries a lot of weight around with it.

Crock Pot Ham

My ham went well on Easter.  But, I did discover that 10 hours on high in a large crockpot would be better than 8 hour.  Ours was in the crock pot for 8 hours this Easter.  It was very good.  But, not as good as my first ham a while back that was cooked for 10 hours.

So:  Cooking time for Crock Pot Ham:  10 hours.

I wrote a recipe for how I fix it a while back here:

If you tried it, I hope it turned out well!