Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cheapo Birthday Party

We are lucky that we live at the beach. A giant expanse of sand and water makes for a fun day no matter how old you are. For my son (who turned 12 today), digging holes in the sand, throwing sand bombs at his friends, and boogie boarding all day long are the keys to a great time. Therefore, planning the venue and activities for a great day are easy: take the above ingredients, add a bunch of boys and snacks, then mix well.

Now... how to make it thrifty? First of all, everyone brings his own sack lunch. That way every kid gets what he likes. I decided to provide snacks and beverages for the tribe. Big Lots had cases of 24 water bottles for around $4/each, so I bought two. Stater Brothers had powdered drink mix on sale, so I bought two. Hubby bought one Kool-Aid, which was slightly more expensive, but it did taste better. I made "tropical punch", grape and lemonade flavored water, then froze them. Now there are frosty beverages available to the boys all day. I did keep about half a case of water plain, for the purists. I'll just keep them in the cooler all day and let them melt naturally. We can mark the caps with a Sharpie for boys who want to sip/suck on their icy bottle and save it for later.

Snacks... boys will eat just about anything (at least the ones I know will), so Big Lots came through for us again. We bought individually wrapped Cheetohs, Moon Pies and Froot-by-the-Foot, all at discount prices. Those will be available for eating all day.

Every good birthday party has a main activity and/or goodie bag. These boys are all getting a little old for traditional goodie bags (at a recent toddler party we attended the mother gave my boys "older boy" goodie bags with good intentions; they donated all the items to charity). Instead, we hit Lowe's and Wal-Mart for heavy-duty outdoor shovels which the boys can use to dig a good-sized trench (or two) at the beach, then use them later in their back yards to do some heavy duty earth-turning. We love our industrial shovels and they're not that expensive. A long-handled metal shovel at Wal-Mart was less than $5, making it very affordable for a give-away.

Every boy will bring his own towel and boogie board, so we're covered there, as well. We're looking forward to a great day at the beach celebrating Steve's birthday!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pioneering Through the Summer

Living in Southern California just a few miles from the beach, it's rarely hot enough for us to need air conditioning. I know a few folks who live near us who couldn't live without their A/C, which is a surprise to me. For us, keeping the front windows and back slider open is a great way to catch a breeze. Our townhome is ideally situated to catch the breezes and shelter us from too much weather. A good oscillating fan spreads the joy.

We have gas for cooking, heating water, and using our dryer. We do run four computers most of the day, which is an energy-eater, but try to keep lights off when we need to. We run the dishwasher once a day or less.

So I was surprised when I received a notice from our local electric company with ideas to save money. "Things You Can Do To Lower Your Bill" the brochure states on the front, encouraging me to forage inside. I'm thinking, "Wow, we're on the low end already; they must have some radical ideas for me!" Here are some of their ideas:

Recycle your second refrigerator. We could probably do without the fridge in the garage, but where would we store our bulk-buy milk and beverages? Also, watermelon and ice cream live in this unit, which are on our family's meal plan. We could possibly give up the fridge, but not the separate outdoor freezer, which is where I store all my bulk-buy meat and freeze-ahead items to pull out for meals at a later date. The amount of homemade chicken broth in there alone would feed the neighborhood for at least a... lunch. Anyway, the fridge is only a couple of years old, so it's equipped with most of the energy-saving features we'd want to utilize.

Install programmable thermostat and only cool the house when we're home. Well, we don't even have A/C, so that's a moot point. Seems like they could give us some credits toward that garage fridge.

Switch our five most used lights to CFL's. We're in the process of doing that. As a light bulb burns out, we replace with the energy savers. Why throw out a good light bulb? I will say the energy savers have come a long way since 10 years ago when I tried them out. The gap between flipping the switch and obtaining illumination was palpable and unacceptable with a baby in my arms.

Turn your dishwasher off after the final rinse and let dishes air dry. Already do it. In fact, I don't even turn the heater option on. This freaked out a friend of mine who nearly leaped from her chair to towel dry my dishes before I put them away. Come on, they weren't THAT wet. And they'll dry in the cupboard.

Switch off computers and monitors when not in use. This one is making me twitch. Hubby's is off all day when he's at work (unless he logged on in the morning and forgot to turn it off), but the rest of us are on and off all day. The power-saver mode is an option, but it doesn't really work well on my computer, leaving me slamming my fist into the keyboard to get it to "wake up". The frustration level I experience heats me up, requiring me to cool down the house... too much energy expended.

Thus... we have room to improve. I do feel as if we've achieved some balance by over-doing other areas :) We'll see how the bill looks later this month.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New Bookshelf!

My finished bookshelf.

I've been trying to figure out why I'm so proud of it; it's just bricks and boards, after all. The key here is that I didn't go out and buy something to fulfill a need, I used what I had. The bedrails were just taking up space in the garage, and it's a way to utilize them until I'm ready to sell the bunkbed set.

One thing that was a little different is that at the ends of the rails are thicker parts where they slide into the head and foot boards. I had to turn those parts up so that the rails would rest against the bricks and not create sway (and warp). Therefore I lost about three inches on each end of the rails. I also had to add the bricks in the middle, as the wood isn't strong enough to hold books for any length of time without warping. I did lose room for storage, but overall it's better than the clutter we had downstairs.

I like to use magazine racks and bins to hold collections of books. We have quite a few of the slender Usborne and Scholastic books, plus groups of books for certain unit studies (we've used quite a few Beautiful Feet studies which call for 8-10 books each). Keeping them together makes it easy to find them for the next kid!

Pictured above is just our history books. I later moved up language arts, science and art. Now I have an open shelf on our downstairs bookshelves (right next to my desk) where I can store all my notebooks, which is the way I organize info for myself. I have a notebook for each thing I do: my pet food job, my hair clip business, our homeschool PSP, and my "big book of everything" which has tabs to include separate activities that don't need a whole book (rosters for my prayer group, sports, etc.).

By September everything will be in great shape, LOL! Then I'll be ready to start all over again.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Making" Furniture

Okay, part-time pioneers. I just know that you, like me, have things you're storing in your garage or attic that you might need "some day". That day is here!

Here's my need: long bookshelves for my upstairs landing to handle the overflow from the four bookcases in the living room (and two upstairs). Yes, we have a lot of books, but we homeschool and use almost all of them.

Finding a bookshelf that fits the size requirement would be easy if I were willing to pay big bucks for one. I'm not. Thrift stores have had various types of bookcases and small entertainment centers, but nothing that will fit our needs. I want something loooooong. And cheap. Hubby suggested planks from a lumber yard and suggested getting them cut to size. He was close, but I knew we could do better.

Then I had my "aha" moment. My boys used bunk beds from a company called This End Up. The furniture is designed to look like old packing crates and is very, very durable. While the boys outgrew the beds, I couldn't bear to get rid of them, even to sell them. For one thing, we're still using the dressers and I'd hate to break up the set. Anyway, all the parts are stored under the current bed, and out in the garage.

The parts I want are the side rails that slide into the headboard and footboard. The rails are low, made of wood and they're flat. There are four total and they'll be great propped up with the all-purpose cinder blocks. I don't have any blocks, but Lowe's has them CHEAP, so I'll be heading there tomorrow.

Of course, two of the rails were stored under all the Christmas decorations. I had to haul all the bins down tonight, which is no lightweight task. I have something like 20 bins of decor, most of it being Dept. 56 collectible houses. I can't just throw the bins around! Pulling out the rails took about 45 minutes (I found four heavy bins of photos, too, which I brought down to see if I'll ever get in the mood to scrapbook). Then came the quest for the other two rails. I finally found them behind the outdoor freezer (yes, I use every inch of space in this place), but was too pooped to grab them tonight. Steve's got some friends coming over to play tomorrow, so they can play "movers" first and haul that stocked freezer out from the wall so I can grab the dusty rails. Hope there are no mice back there.

I'm happy to be using these bed rails, as they are obviously not doing me any good out in the garage. Some day I'll sell off the furniture (or loan it to my sister for her little boy), but in the meantime I'll put the parts to good use. Now that's pioneer ingenuity!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mexican Lasagna for Dinner!

While gathering the ingredients for enchiladas tonight, I realized that A. "Someone" had forgotten to close the tortillas up tight against the invasion of air, and B. There weren't enough tortillas for a meal, anyway.

What to do with too few kind of crispy tortillas? "Mexican Lasagna"! It may go by other names (including "layered enchiladas"), but basically you make your enchiladas in a big flat lasagna pan and layer the ingredients using tortillas instead of noodles. It works great, although the portions are pretty sloppy looking.

Using what I had, I mixed a large can of kidney beans (drained and well-rinsed), half a chopped onion, and quart-sized bag of frozen chopped turkey pieces together. I layered the tortillas in the pan, spread on the meat/bean mixture, poured half a can of enchilada sauce over it, then sprinkled with cheese. The next layer became tortillas again with the sauce and cheese (I used a big pan, so I didn't layer up the way "real" lasagna would look).

It's in the oven now, baking for about an hour at 350. I've got three boys outside right now who've been swimming, running around and playing this afternoon, and a hearty dinner like this is well worth the heat the oven will produce on this warm summer day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Drive Time

It's time to choose a driving school for our older son, Jack. Hubby and I have talked to different people about programs they've chosen for their children and weighed pros and cons. We've decided on AAA's program. For one thing, we trust it. We trust them with our son. And we trust them behind the wheel with our son in the car (even when he's driving it, eeeeek!). It's pricey -- $579 for driver's ed + 10 hours of drive time. That's four more hours than most programs offer, but it offers night driving and freeway time, which isn't offered by the competition.

On-line driver's ed is not desirable to us because we want our son to be able to ask questions and hear other people's questions. We believe in the Socratic method of learning, and practice it in our house. An on-line program may be able to ask the questions, but not facilitate discussion.

The abbreviated version of AAA (6 hours of drive time) is $388, $10 less than the competition. We considered that, too, but ultimately have chosen to bite the bullet and spend the money on the expanded version. AB Teen, another program we looked at, has driver's ed classes from 9-4, four days a week for one week. Triple A has classes two nights a week for four or five weeks. It stretches it out, which gives the student more time to think about the material and study on his/her own.

A friend's son enthusiastically endorsed AB Teen's approach, saying "You don't have to spend much time in class at all -- lunch and breaks take up a lot of time." Whoops! Wrong answer! I want my child to be STEEPED in driver's education. He's going to be maneuvering our car around town, possibly with his little brother (or me) as a passenger. He'd better know what he's doing. The less breaks, the better!

To me driver's education is a privilege and something to look forward. It shouldn't be onerous and unpleasant, like traffic school. Jack's looking forward to the opportunity to learn something new and gain new skills, and we're willing to pay for him to do it. I could teach him myself, but I really like the idea of a "pro" teaching him. I still remember my driver's training teacher and how endlessly patient he was with us kids. I hope Jack gets someone just like him.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Click to Help

There are lots of charity sites on the internet that give you the option to help out those in need from the comfort of your own computer desk. My favorite, the site I've been giving to for over twelve years, is www.thehungersite.com.

Years ago, my husband's direct mail firm was given the opportunity to let people know about The Hunger Site through a snail mail campaign. We were intrigued at the notion that one could just click a button every day and provide food for under privileged people. We visited the site a few times, and a habit was born.

Advertisers pay a certain amount for every person who clicks through the site. While the advertisers are obvious, they are not obtrusive, which I appreciate. The shopping is pretty good, too, it goes toward helping others.

Over the years the site has grown to include easy click-to-help links to breast cancer, literacy, saving the rainforest, animal rescue, and child health. All are worthy causes and are easy to click on.

I have the link to The Hunger Site noted in my toolbar, where I can't miss it. I try to click on it every day. My click today equaled 1.1 cups of food. I encourage you to visit, click, and start feeding people, too. And while you're at it, click on the other tabs. It's very, very easy.