Saturday, December 20, 2008

A gift for me

We’re up against the wall. Time’s up. Christmas is in 5 days. You’re probably beating your head against the wall, hiding at your desk, reading and trying to forget all you need to do. What if you didn’t do it at all? Do you really need MORE cookies, more decorations?

The neighbors likely think I’m an agnostic. There are no decorations visible outside. Right now, things look a little bleak inside, too. But I choose sanity. The box of decorations will only be opened long enough for me to pull out a garland. I’m going to drape it around one of the large houseplants so there’s a place to put presents on Thurs. Otherwise, I’m not going to spend hours decorating or shopping just to be an emotional wreck by the end of the week. I sat down in a quiet corner with a cup of tea and asked myself what I really, really wanted. The answer came from the piles, stacks and boxes. I want SPACE. I want rid of this clutter! It’s been proven that clutter in our homes causes clutter in our spirits. I took a box, faced my bookshelf and picked out a bunch of books I haven’t read in ages and set them in the garage. Then I opened the cupboard in the laundry room and picked out some baking pans I haven’t used in years and some serving platters that take up a bunch of room. I boxed them up. I’m on a roll! I’ll put some of the items on FreeCycle and some will go straight to ARC. Along the way, I’ve identified some stuff that’s just plain junk that I have no need or use for. Next I’m hitting my bedroom closet.

The space on the shelves will quickly be backfilled by stuff that’s been sitting out, cluttering my life but that’s OK. I got what I wanted. Space. The piles of books on the floor will have a home. I’ll have bare carpet again. I can already feel the wide open spaces, the breathing room.

Consider doing yourself, and maybe someone, else a favor. Find some stuff you can live without and give it away. Make yourself some breathing room. There are enough cookies. By January 2nd, I won’t have to take down and put away all the stuff I worked to put up. I’ll have some peace; peace and joy.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More inexpensive Christmas ideas

As Christmas gets closer, wish lists start popping up. My office isn’t doing an actual party but a brilliant gal upstairs came up with a cookie exchange. I’m thinking this could work for a lot of different groups. If you’ve got a group of friends who may also be concerned about having to get “a little something” for a whole bunch people, this could be the ticket. There are two kinds of these events. The first is a minor event that allows each participant to go home with a plate or two of cookies from each other. One of our group has Celiac disease so he can’t have any wheat products. For him, I’ll be bringing Rice Krispie bars. I haven’t settled on a second or third kind but I’ll come away with a couple plates of treats for my household to enjoy.

The second kind of event is a little more like a mutual-assistance project. Once I have all the ingredients out, it’s no big deal to make an enormous batch. I’ll invite half a dozen girl friends over who want to save some time. Each will bring several plates of the single kind they’ve baked. We’ll swap. Carol makes awesome Russian tea cakes. Becky’s chocolate chip are the BEST. Jerri has fantastic shortbread cookies. We’ll get together next Saturday, just for an hour or so, to eat a couple cookies but we’ll come away with dozens of traded cookies we can make up into re-gifting platters for work, neighbors, etc.

So while I’m baking, after the “people” cookies are finished, I’m going to make some doggie biscuits. I have one friend who doesn’t really need anything but she’s a huge dog person. I’m going to make up a few boxes of doggie treats that she can dole out to her four legged friends. I’ll include the recipe so she can see that there are no additives, no preservatives and no weird chemicals. It’ll save us both money and she won’t end up with some dumb gift that doesn’t match her colors. I found some great looking recipes at: I already got some cool tins to put them in. We have some great thrift stores around here. I got square tins for fifty cents each. Yahoo!

Finally, one friend has specifically requests no “things”. She has asked that anyone who is willing give her a gift certificate for yard labor. She has a new house and her yard is a wreck. She wants to put together a couple work parties next spring to get it back in shape. She also knows I have a few plants she’d like cuttings from. I’m making up pretty gift certificates on the computer and as additional ideas come to me, will be using them for more than Sara’s yard work request.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Resources for Getting By

The internet is packed with resources but sometimes searching for them can sometimes take up a lot of time. A great one for a household that’s really in a tight spot financially might be The Hillbilly Housewife Although there’s a bit of advertising, they offer a couple of things we can all use. First, there are recipes. They’re really simple, down home things that might just rattle your brain into thinking of something you already know how to make or might lead you to learn some new things. Second, there are meal plans. A sample week might include some things you don’t want but you can certainly swap for things your family likes. Finally, if you’re getting downright scared about the state of the budget, there’s one menu that shows how you might feed a family of 4-6 on $70 for a week and even an emergency menu that shows how to do it for $45. It’s a great site that has worthwhile stuff even if things aren’t quite that tight.

Do you know about FreeCycle? It’s a site where you can give away, or get, stuff that’s no longer wanted but is too good to go to the landfill. Once you sign up, you either view the list of recent postings or have them sent directly into your email. People who are trying to pare down and clean house often post stuff there that you can speak for and then go pick up. There are definitely rules and etiquette to follow but the big rule is that things posted have to be FOR FREE. It’s a Yahoo group so you’ll need a Yahoo log-on. It’s free and very quick to get. Then go to From there you’ll choose your nearest city and after that, it’s a breeze.

How about making some money? Some people are super talented crafters. If that’s you, take a look at You might be able sell some of your creations and pick up a little extra money. Even if you’re not one of those talented folks, ETSY has some very nice things for sale. You might find a very cool gift for the holidays at a great price. Just remember, sellers set their own prices so items range from “excellent deal” to “whoa!”

If you’ve got a favorite site or two that can light the way to cheap stuff, please share!

Monday, December 1, 2008

The glass is half full

Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, tells about her family’s year of eating local. A huge part of their plan was to eat stuff from their own garden. They canned, froze, dehydrated and otherwise preserved everything they possibly could. At the end of their “experiment” they were asked if they’d felt deprived not having certain things. Although they missed fresh veggies during the winter, they said something that really got me thinking. She said they didn’t think about what was missing, they focused on what they had on hand.

That seems like a small thing but I tried a little change-of-perspective experiment last night. I’d been thinking about the dinner options for this week and wondering how little I could get by with buying. I got out a pen and pad and did an inventory of what I have on hand. Holy Cow! I’ve got a food pantry in my kitchen! Granted, some of the stuff is a little odd but suddenly there were some new options available I didn’t know I had.

A large jar of off-brand peanut butter nobody likes – Wahoo! Cookies!
Condensed milk and evaporated milk – Fudge!
Pineapple – sweet & sour chicken? Cake? Don’t know yet.
Diced green chilies – Italian chicken soup!
Flake coconut – when did I buy THAT???
Tuaca liqueur – as soon as I figure out what to do with it I hope I’ll be pleased I didn’t dump it down the drain.
Orzo (odd, tiny pasta) – hmmmm, soup? Hey, maybe with the chilies!
And lots of other odd ball items.

I’m not planning to make all that at once but now I know what’s on hand. It opens a whole bunch of possibilities I didn’t know I had. It also refreshed my memory so I won’t waste money buying another can of milk if I do decide to make fudge.

The point is, doing an inventory gave me some new options. I refuse to sit around whining about what I don’t have. I’m going to focus on what I do have and see if I can be creative with it. See? The cupboard isn’t half empty, it’s half full!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Getting started

Welcome! You and I are here because times are tough. Many of us are barely getting by. We’re juggling bills in ways that feel like trying to paint the Mona Lisa while walking a high wire. And here comes Christmas! The peace, wonder and joy of the season is in danger of being swept away in a tidal wave of uncertainty, bills and suffocation.

Let’s try something new. Actually, let’s try something really old. Do you know the story of the soup stone? Many cultures have a similar story but the simplest one tells of a beggar who comes into a village hoping for something to eat but quickly sees that these people are nearly as poor as he is. As he approaches he can see he’s being watched warily by people who likely have nothing to give him. He comes into the village square, takes his soup pot from his pack and starts a small cooking fire. He fills the pot from the village well and settles back to start his soup. As villagers begin to gather he tells them of his magical soup stone; that it can create the most wonderful soup anyone has ever tasted. As the pot begins to simmer he tells how he’s carried it for years and how it’s never failed. The crowd grows and expectation builds. Finally, he draws it from his pack and many in the group scoff. It’s just a stone! A plain old rock like so many lying around the fields! But the beggar reverently drops it into the pot. He adds a tiny pinch of salt and slowly stirs what looks like plain, simmering water. He dips his spoon into the pot and like a connoisseur testing a fine vintage, he thoughtfully sips his brew. Slowly, he smiles. He sighs. His face plainly shows that this batch may be one of his best yet. But then, the tiniest bit of doubt creeps across his brow. The villagers are mesmerized. What could be wrong? Has the magic gone? But no, he hastens to tell them. No! The soup is wonderful. It’s heavenly. It’s ALMOST the best he’s ever made, but still… If only he had a carrot. A carrot would make it absolute ambrosia! One of the women at the edge of the crowd broke and ran to her house. She’d been hoping, like all the rest, to beg for a taste of the wonderful, magical soup and this might be her ticket! She returned with two small, shriveled carrots and timidly held them toward the beggar. He beams up at he and receives the carrots as a great offering. He produces a small knife and quickly chops them into the pot.

He takes another taste but his face clearly shows that the addition of the carrots didn’t make quite the difference he’d hoped for. A man close to him asks what could be done. He shakes his head slowly and says softly that he doesn’t know; that the mixture is so close to perfect but just wasn’t all it could be. “A potato”, one woman asked? “A turnip,” queried another? He just didn’t know. A woman slips through the crowd with a small onion. He quickly chops it up and adds it to the pot. A potato appears, then a turnip. Someone offered a handful of barley. A small handful of herbs appeared. A boy returning from a morning’s hunting trip offers one of the small birds he’d taken. Eventually, there are so many suggestions and offerings, someone brings a huge pot into which they transfer the magical brew. The smell of the heavenly concoction fills the village square. Ever citizen leans forward to watch the beggar’s every pronouncement. He watches as the last citizen creeps timidly forward. All she has to contribute was a little salt. After he’d stirred in it, he jumped to his feet and shouted, “Yes! THAT was it! Everyone! Get your bowls. Everyone has to try this!”

As everyone shared the huge pot of soup, they marveled at the amazing flavor. A few brought out some bread to share and it was practically a party. Old grudges were forgotten, old jokes were shared and every villager ate their fill. All were amazed at the power of the magical soup stone. At the height of the fun, the beggar quietly fished his stone out of the bottom of the pot, packed up his things and left with a full stomach.

Maybe it was just his showmanship, but everyone benefited. I think we can do it again. I have a soup stone. I even have a few carrots and a little salt. Let’s get together and see if we can toss some tidbits into the pot and each come away with a few things that will sustain us through this season that’s looking bleak and scary.

I’d like to use this space to share ideas for low cost, or no cost, gifts. Or ideas for ways to re-use or recycle items that can contribute to cool gifts. Or ways to just stretch the budget to get by day to day. Many of us could use ideas on how to make low cost meals at home. Any ideas on cutting corners, reviving Grandma’s tricks for stretching a dollar and input on how to get by, are welcome.

Here are a few I’ve been contemplating to get us started:

I have a dynamite recipe for homemade Kahlua. There’s barely enough time to make a batch in time for Christmas. There’s definitely a cost. It requires vanilla beans which are NOT cheap and does require buying a big bottle of cheap vodka. I’m going to ask all my friends to save pretty bottles for me. I’ll wash them out, remove the labels and bottle up the Kahlua as a special gift for a few special friends. Since Kahlua is very expensive and I can print super pretty labels, this might be impressive. Let me know if you want the recipe, it’s really simple but the trick is in the aging for a couple weeks.

Music – I’m going to record some of the music from my collection and put it on memory chips or sticks. My brother is out of state so I need something I can mail cheaply. I’m sure I have a lot of old music he doesn’t have and right now those memory chips or sticks are on sale. You can fit over a hundred songs will fit on a 512mb memory device.

Plants – I have some houseplants, especially spider plants, that are ready to root babies. If I start them now, I can pot them in time for Christmas. Spider plants are particularly good for cleaning indoor air.

Dried herbs – There are some herbs still in my garden that I could dry. There’s rosemary, sage and maybe some lemon verbena out there. I could dry them, cut out circles of some scrap fabric and tie them up with a pretty ribbon. The cooks in my family will love homegrown herbs.

Home canning - I canned some jams and pickles this fall. I’m willing to share a few with close friends and family this holiday.

Salsa – I have a friend who has an incredible salsa recipe; it’s won competitions. She uses plain old canned tomatoes, fresh cilantro, garlic salt and fresh jalapeƱos which are readily available at the grocery store and whips it up in seconds in a blender. I’ll be making up pints of it to take to get-togethers. If I give it as a gift, I’ll have to warn the recipient that it needs to be refrigerated and eaten within the week but it’s so good it won’t take much to persuade them.

Old pictures – I have a couple of old pictures of old, old relatives. I have a friend with a scanner. I’m going to get copies for my sister. Dollar Store frames will dress them up.

So there are my “stones” for today. Any other ideas? I no longer have small kids at home so maybe you can help fill in ideas for them. Hopefully, over the next few weeks we can all share enough ideas that we’ll all have a little easier time getting by.