Black Friday, *sigh*

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Oh Black Friday.  How I ignored your existence for so many years.  Then we remodeled our house, and needed new appliances, so in 2011 the siren song of your deals sucked me in.  And since then, while I don’t elbow or trample anyone in person, I do participate in the online frenzy.

What I love about Black Friday:

  • Deals, ok?  I love the deals, especially on things I was already going to buy or waited to buy until Black Friday deals came up.  In preparation, I made a good effort to locate all these items secondhand, and was successful on some fronts (I bought my daughter a big load of clothes, and found winter boots for both kids) but not on others.  So:  I bought shoes for the kids, a bed frame and mattress for my daughter, a new vacuum (this year’s killer deal winner), new jackets for the kids that we love from Gap, a few clothes for me, a few stocking stuffers for the family.
  • The thrill of the hunt, looking for the best deal.  Notice that this will also appear below.
  • The gratification.  I delayed it, then I got the stuff.
  • Related to the thrill of the hunt, the stacking of bargains.  For some, I got the store’s discount, then additional $$ back through eBates, and my cashback through my credit card.  Cha-ching on stuff I would have been buying in the near term anyway.

What I hate about Black Friday:

  • The human price of instant delivery.  I haven’t even been able to bring myself to listen to this podcast episode about it because I know my feelings will be horrible.  At some point, I need to (see “misalignment” below).
  • That I was willing to buy things new just because they were on a deal, when if I’d waited longer I could have likely obtained them secondhand, conserving resources and money.  I don’t worry as much about the money as in the past, but the manufacturing load of new items troubles me.  Except, it seems, when the deals are so good.  So that leads me to . . .
  • Misalignment with my values.  Why am I willing to morph into some crazy-consumerist one weekend of the year and not at other times?
  • The thrill of the hunt.  Oh, there you are again.  I wasted a LOT of time that weekend looking for the best deals on beds – and ended up buying one off Amazon for the regular price.  I have been known to “buffer” with online shopping and see this is a negative activity for my overall well-being (“buffering” being a term from Brooke Castillo of The Life Coach School and meaning activities we undertake in order not to feel undesired feelings or urges).

How about you?

How I View Money – a Retrospective (Part 1)

money-2724241_1920I’m sure this will be fascinating to many of you, and make others want to lay their head down on the nearest pillow and fall directly to sleep.  Or maybe somewhere in the middle?  Not even sure why I’ve been thinking about this lately.  Probably because in reading all of Ilse’s wonderful posts, I’m reminded of how long it’s been since I “met” her and Stephanie online and where my own outlook on money, frugality, simplicity, intentionality, etc. has meandered since.

So grew up middle class in rural MN.  Mom and dad never talked about money, well, not the details, but we knew we had enough for everything we needed but not quite everything we wanted.  I always had the distinct impression that I should not request designer clothing, for example, which pretty much I didn’t care about – or perhaps I didn’t care because I knew I wasn’t going to have, anyway.  But we were able to do all kinds of school activities, and always had enough food and clothes and medicine and books and toys and everything.

When it was time to go to college, I was determined to do it without loans.  I went to community college concurrently with high school for free, then an additional year there to finish up an Associate’s degree, which I planned to transfer to a public university where I would finish my degree quickly and with no debt.  Until . . . I got overwhelmed by the prospect of that public university and I visited a beautiful private college with its immaculate grounds and super welcoming admissions staff and FREE POP AND WAIVED APPLICATION FEE.  So I applied, and got accepted.  I was so excited!  Then the financial aid letter arrived, with its skillions of dollars in loans as part of the package.  And though I’d stated my goal of no student loans for yeeeeeeeeears, my parents were like, “meh, debt’s part of life.”  And so I signed and waded into my first student loan.

What I also didn’t know is that I needed an additional year at that private college to cover requirements not accepted from the community college.  So.  There are a lot of things a family doesn’t really understand when no one’s completed college.  Now we know.  Transferring doesn’t always equal saving money.

Ultimately I borrowed around $20K in loans, a modest amount to some but an amount that weighed on me.  So after college and a stint working abroad, I got serious about actually taking some action to eliminate these loans.  I’d also wracked up some credit card debt during a year of underemployment, so I had that on my conscience too.  It was at that time that I discovered Your Money or Your Life, and the heavens parted and the angels sang and I drank the Kool Aid and counted all my socks and everything else I owned and was shocked into action.

I started working diligently to pay off all my debt in March of 2006.  I documented my journey on a now-defunct website dedicated to tracking goals.  By this time I had about $34K in student loan debt (I’d also started a masters program), credit card debt and auto debt (because, since debt bothered me so much . . . I had bought and financed a brand new car.  Riddle me that.).  I did all these odd jobs, I had a graph (I just recycled that sucker about a month ago, I couldn’t let it go for years because I was sooooo proud of what it represented).  Finally, in 2011, all of it was paid off, and in the interim I’d finished the remainder of the masters program on a cash basis and taken several trips including India and Hawaii, and gotten married!  Admittedly a dual income definitely helped knock out the last $15K or so.

I’ll bring you my married life journey in a future installment, which I’ll link here when it’s up!

 

Cooking for a Crowd, Everyday


I’ve mentioned before that ever since I’ve been back to work, freezer cooking has been my lifesaver. It’s not the first time I’ve used this method in my parenting career, and I’ve been tweaking my techniques for a few years now, and figured I’d share them.
-For a while, I did once a month cooking, but that ended up being too much to hack when the meals I was making were twice the size of the average family’s. I’ve never had a huge kitchen, and there are only so many dishes I could manage after an entire day of cooking. It would end up being a 2-3 day long event, after which I was really tired. I switched to cooking for two weeks at a time and found it to be much more manageable.
-I enlist the help of my older kids. James can make rice in the rice cooker, Bella can brown the ground beef, and Cheyenne can use her special cleaning magic powers to help me clean up. (I don’t know how I merited having a teenage daughter who likes to clean. I annoy her with my slovenly ways.) Even Travis, Charlotte and Veronica can open cans, or run veggie scraps out to the compost.
-Sometimes I compromise and buy things pre-chopped, like onions. I can get a bag of frozen chopped onions for about $1. Yes, it’s more expensive, but it’s not a bank-breaker, and the take-out I’d end up eating if I didn’t have food pre-made would be. Bonus points, no one whines at me about the onions hurting their eyes.
-I stopped using disposable pans. I do not love disposable stuff, and I freezer cook often enough to justify a little investment in the project. Walmart has 9×13 pans for under $4, so I just started buying a couple each time I went, and pretty soon had a respectable stash of them.
-If I’m making something like chicken legs, and I know it will be one of the meals I toss in the crockpot on the day we eat it, I’ll freeze the legs separately before adding them to the bag. Otherwise, they freeze in a clump, and it’s a craps shoot whether or not they will fit nicely in the crockpot on cooking day.
-Certain things, like chili, or beef stew, I never make in anything smaller than an electric roaster oven. We’ll eat it often enough that, if I’m going to go to the trouble of making it at all, I might as well make two or three. I usually make at least one roaster oven of some kind of stew or soup on freezer cooking day, which also doubles as that day’s dinner. We can all take a bowl and there is still enough leftover for two meals. This cuts down on what used to happen, spending all day cooking only to order a pizza for dinner.
Overall, this seems to be the method I’m having the most success with at the moment. Weeknight dinners are easy to make, and easier to clean up, leaving more time for spending with my kids. It’s kept my eating out budget in check, and given me more rest at the end of a busy day.

My Formula for Meal Planning

Meal planning doesn’t scare me as much as it seems to scare other people. In August, before school started, I sat down and planned out four months of menus. I wouldn’t normally be that on top of things, but because I was nervous about my first semester as a full time working mom, I figured I should probably have some kind of plan in place. I’m a big fan of variety. As easy as it would be to have every Tuesday be tacos, every Friday be pizza, and every Monday be spaghetti, I wouldn’t stick to a meal plan like that because I would get restless and bored. I decided that what I could do was to create a similar framework, but with categories assigned to each day of the week, instead of a single meal. The categories can change from month to month, or they can stay the same.

So, for example, in August Monday is pasta night, in September it’s Mexican food, in October it’s chicken, and in November it’s pork. Wednesday night is soup and sandwich, or soup and salad, all three months, because we really like soup, and there is a wide variety of soup recipes we can make.

The benefit of this framework is that when you sit down to pick out recipes, you don’t ask yourself overwhelming questions like. “What 31 things in all of creation do I feel like making for dinner this month?” You ask yourself manageable questions like, “What four hot dishes (casseroles) sound good in December.”

I’ve compiled a list of categories that I’ve used before, in case anyone finds it helpful to use.

  1. Soup and sandwich
  2. Soup, salad and breadsticks (like Olive Garden)
  3. Hot dish (for those outside of our area, a hot dish is a casserole)
  4. Sliders (these are easy and there are a lot of variants)
  5. Burgers
  6. Meatballs
  7. Pasta
  8. Mexican
  9. Roasts
  10. Chicken
  11. Pork
  12. Beef
  13. Meatless
  14. Brinner
  15. Stew
  16. Pot pie
  17. Eggs
  18. Salads
  19. German
  20. Cold/Hot sandwiches

I do usually repeat the same thing every Friday for a month, but rotate what that is between waffles and make-your-own pizza. I have one of my big boys, James for waffles, and Travis for pizza, that is in charge of being the meal helper on Fridays, so they alternate months. They enjoy it a lot. We also have a standing date with my dad one Friday a month for fish fry at a local supper club, in the longstanding Wisconsin tradition. Most Saturdays we either have a hot dog cookout by the bonfire, with s’mores, or, if the weather is bad, sliders and some kind of chips or crackers and dip for a game night indoors. It’s not a perfect system, but it works pretty well for us.

The Importance of Being Stephanie- Organization

IMG_9622IMG_9622My bookshelves used to be littered with books trying to somehow get my life in order. Books about parenting, cleaning, organizing and decorating. Magazine articles about the perfect way to rorganize a chest freezer. I’ve tried Flylady, konmari and I’ve read books about minimalism, but I’ve never really been able to follow through with any of it, though I’ve continued to search for that perfect system that will somehow bring order to my chaos and peace to my life.
The older I’m getting the less I think there is such a system, because no system is going to be able to accurately address all of the myriad of personality traits and circumstances that add up to make up my, or anyone else’s, particular life. I still enjoy them, and glean from the ideas the things I think that might work for me. I just don’t hang my hat on any one way of doing things.
I’m still in a very transitional phase. Even though we have owned our home for a year now, because of serious delays in construction, we are still living with most of our stuff packed up, and no ability to really stretch our legs into the space and settle in. It’s been tiring, but it’s also been a good opportunity to see what we really need, what we don’t, and what it is that we long for when we don’t have it. I think, when we finally do unpack, it will be a simpler vision than I originally had that will take shape inside these walls.
It’s given me a chance to think about who I am, and who my family is, and how we do things, which is completely different than it was a year ago, when we were a homeschooling family with a stay-at-home mom. Here are some things I have learned about the new us.
1. Elaborate cooking is now a thing we only do on the weekends, and even then, only occasionally. I love to cook, but when I get home from work, I now want to rest. I’ve taken up freezer cooking every other weekend, and most nights, when we get home, some sort of freezer meal gets put in the oven. I originally pictured having an old fashioned country-style pantry in the basement for home canned goods. That might be something I want to do in the future, but at the moment, it’s not my big priority. Setting things up to make my freezer cooking days easier is a bigger deal to me right now.
2. I was originally thinking that I would turn one of the spare rooms into a sewing room. I do enjoy sewing, and so does Bella, but I’m not sure, at this point, that we do it enough to devote a room to it. What I have taken to doing a lot of is writing. I am going to be keeping a desk in one of the spare bedrooms now and using it as an office space for myself. I like to be close to the action, so I am available for my children, but also have a little more quiet than the public spaces of the house generally afford me. This is good for all of us, too, because I am a much calmer person when I am not overstimulated.
3. We don’t need a lot of toys. One nice thing about having a large family is that my kids have other people to play with all of the time. They have solid imaginations, and good relationships with each other, so about 80% of their playtime is spent pretending. They also enjoy reading, LEGOs and artistic pursuits. They’d rather bake a real cake than play with a play kitchen, so real life activities are a big part of their life, too.
4. We do our best studying on the bed. Zach and I have a king sized bed, and the kids like to come into our room one or two at a time in the evenings to work on their homework. I have a couple of clipboards they can use, and a little magazine file for books. It’s a nice atmosphere. Whoever is studying gets some quiet alone time with me, and anyone who doesn’t have homework gets a chance to come in and read to me.
5. We get dressed for school best if outfits are hung up on hooks, or placed in drawers, as an entire outfit. The bus comes at 7:00am and decision making is not something our brains are ready for that early. Being able to grab an entire outfit and throw it on without having to think about it makes for fewer arguments and meltdowns. I’m also learning that most of my kids prefer hanging their clothes to folding them.
None of this is stuff I could have gotten from a one-size-fits-all approach, because every one of those things would be different in a different family. It’s what works for us because we are, well, us.

Doing Something is Better than Nothing

 

IMG_9530.JPGWe like to pick on the Millenials a lot in our culture. By most standards I, at 40 years old, dwell in the generational borderlands between Gen X and the Millenials, but the generational trait I have found to be the most hindering in my life, has probably been my Gen X cynicism. It was not cool to care about things when I was young. The goal was to remain aloof and never let on that you really liked anything, or were attached to any particular outcome, lest you be let down when it didn’t come to fruition. “What’s the point?” was the prevailing attitude. I don’t know if this is just my reaction to that, or a wider cultural phenomenon, but somehow the idea that doing something little, or doing something badly, was not worth the effort. In spite of the fact that traditional wisdom, and plenty of research, tell us that the cumulative effect of small acts, and the practice of even things we do badly, eventually yield pretty powerful results, I still struggle with it. My natural impulse is to not try, or give up quickly. That’s a good way to live a stunted life.
I’ve decided to adopt a resolution that doing something is better than doing nothing. Today is my daughter’s feast day. In the Catholic tradition, the feast day of the saint who’s name you share is a minor holiday of sorts. I used to be really good at celebrating feast days, but ever since I had Colin, I’ve been off my game. I love celebrating. That is a gift I received from my mother, who was a gifted celebrator. Every holiday was a wonderland of decorations, carefully thought out and perfectly wrapped gifts, and elaborate foodstuffs. I remember my childhood celebrations with so much warmth and affection, and even now that she is gone, the thought of them makes me feel closer to her. My grandmother was similarly talented. You can usually tell which gift is from me because it’s the one that looks like it was wrapped by a visually impaired third grader.
My temptation today, when I am busy and tired, is to skip the feast day celebration, because if all I can muster up is some cake mix cupcakes, or boxed brownie mix, why bother? But I know that even these little things, the memory of her little cupcake on the special plate, will someday warm my daughter’s heart exactly the same way the thought of my mother’s extravaganzas warms mine. I know that when the elderly people I work with reminisce, they remember the simple, daily things of life with as much fondness as the travels around the world. It doesn’t have to be big to have an impact.

Thanksgiving Simplified: Lessons from my Mother 


This year, since the loss of my mother, who was the queen of holidays, I  working on changing up our holiday celebrations. I have so many wonderful, glowing memories of her over-the-top celebrations. I truly enjoyed every one of them, but I am not my mother. She greatly enjoyed every bit of time and energy she put into our holiday celebrations, so the work was not a burden to her, but a joy. When I became a mom, for many years I tried to keep my childhood holiday traditions, the things my mother enjoyed doing, and add to them the parts that I enjoyed doing. I ended up pretty overwhelmed. This year, I’m working on simplifying Thanksgiving by paring it back to the things that are enjoyable to the people actually celebrating this year. 

Farming it out

My mom did not love to cook. She loved to decorate, do crafts, and shop for holiday supplies. She loved to set a tablescape fit for royalty, and have every little detail in place. She was willing to make the basics, but she did a lot of what she called “assembling” when it came to food. She knew the places to buy the best baked goods, appetizers, cheeses and desserts. She didn’t feel any pressure to make everything from scratch herself. I do love to cook, but I’m in a phase of life where trying to make everything myself is anything but a recipe for a happy holiday. This year, I am planning on buying some of the pies from a church fundraiser. I’m buying Pillsbury crescent rolls instead of making my own. 

Sharing the Load 

In part because my mom didn’t love cooking the way I do, she had no problem asking other people to do their part. My dad  did as much of the cooking as my mom did, and I was contributing to the feast by the time I was 10. I loved it. This year I assigned each kid a dish. Cheyenne made the green bean casserole the Saturday before, and Bella made the mashed potatoes. James made the sweet potato casserole, and I made the stuffing. Bella volunteered to do a baking activity, and help the little girls make pumpkin and sweet cream pies. Zach is in charge of the turkey, Travis will make the crescent rolls and my dad will bring the cranberries. The kids are excited to show off their contributions, and I am less stressed. Bella loves to decorate, so she wants to take care of the table. 

Expectation Management

If it doesn’t look like a magazine shoot, that’s fine with me. The point is for our family to get together and enjoy each other’s company. Anything that takes away from that is not something we need in our celebration. Having teenagers now, I’m always surprised when they talk about things they did when they were little that seemed like no big deal to me, but made a big impact on them. It’s amazing how little we really need to be happy.