A Christmas (Shopping) Story

Oh the joys of the season. Crowded stores playing crappy, overdone Christmas music. Shopping elbow to elbow with strangers while you sweat like a beast in your winter jacket. Getting to the aisle that houses the item you wanted and finding that they’re all sold out. You peruse the picked over shelves until your eyes glaze over and you go into a coma. Can you tell I hate Christmas shopping?

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My worst nightmare!

Retail therapy doesn’t usually feel therapeutic when I attempt it during the holidays. But today. Ah, my friends. Today I got the all time shopper’s high.

I want to get my kids some sort of tablet this Christmas and have been reading all the website reviews of the different tablets that are good for kids and yada, yada, yada. I had it narrowed down to either the Leapfrog Leap Pad 2, or a Kindle Fire. Since I’ve got a budget for Christmas shopping, either of these gifts would put me at the top of the budget. And just as I was about to buy them each a Kindle, I see that Walmart (I know, I know, they’re horrible and I shouldn’t give them business) is having a Pre-Black Friday sale and that the Leap Pad 2 is 50% off the normal price. So, this Christmas shopping hater, this avoid-crowded-places-at-all-costs introvert, deigned to attend a holiday sale event. The sale started at 8 a.m. Friday morning. I dropped Caylie off at school and walked into Walmart at 8:07 a.m. And they were sold out of the Lap Pad 2s. A staff member tells me that they’re offering the same price online. I drive home, take my wallet into the office and log onto the website. Just as I’m clicking the “check-out” button, I get a message telling me that the item I want is currently out of stock. It wasn’t even 9 a.m.

Now I guess I’m still a Christmas-shopping-for-kids newbie because this is the first time I have wanted to get them a gift that was, apparently, the hottest gift of the season. I’ve been having flashbacks to the 80s when all I wanted for Christmas was a Cabbage Patch doll. People were being trampled in the stores trying to buy them and much to my self-centered 9 year-old’s dismay, I didn’t get a Cabbage Patch that year. My parents just couldn’t get one.

I suppose at this point I could just go buy the Kindles that I was originally intending to get. But the Kindles and the 2 sets of headphones I purchased so I don’t have to listen to video game music would be the only things I could get them for Christmas. The 50% off sale would let me get 2 for the price of one and give me almost $100 left over to get more presents. My female shopper’s logic leaves only one conclusion: I spend the next few days going to the 2 local stores in my area to see if any more Lead Pads have come in. I check the website every few hours to see if they are back in stock. I’m out of luck.

And then, cue the music, I force my husband to take me to Walmart this morning and lo and behold… there is one lone pink Leap Pad 2 on the shelf and I snatched it up just as another mother turned the corner with her shopping cart! Ha! Take that bitch! I got the last one! I feel like dancing. My husband witnesses first hand the shopper’s high he’s heard so much about. I’ve been in a good mood all day! I picked up a green one for Chase on Amazon.com where they were selling for $20 more than the Walmart sale price. So I still saved some money. And if I went over the budget just a teensy bit, Mike will just have to bite the bullet.

I may hate Christmas shopping, but I love watching my kids when they open those presents on Christmas morning.

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Full Nest Syndrome

My husband and I were chatting it up last night about all the things we want to do when the kids move out. Since my kids are 5 and 3, I think we have a pretty long wait in store for us. And I secretly hope that my son never moves out. But don’t tell Mike that. I’m sure I’ll change my mind once the teenage years hit. Here’s what we came up with:

Go to the movies. This may sound dumb since there are inventions like the DVR out there, digital cable with a bizillion channels, satellite TV, streaming video and all that jazz. We’re not big TV watchers. We don’t have cable. We don’t own a DVR or have satellite TV. We have Netflix and even then, we only watch one 40 minute show maybe 3 or 4 times a week. There is just something about sitting in the movie theater, watching it on the big screen. I still try to convince Mike to make out with me in the back of the theater, but he gets embarrassed and tells me he’s too old for that. Whatevs, I’m 2 years older than him and I hope I never feel too old to make out! The new Star Trek movie came out this week and we live less than 5 minutes away from the second oldest (still operating) drive-in in the country. Hence, the desire to go to the movies. And while some may stuff their kids into the backseat and take them along, we don’t roll like that. My kids can’t handle a PG-13 movie. And the whole point is to go do something without them. Unfortunately, we don’t know any teenagers to call at the last minute to babysit. And we don’t have the extra money for it either. Do you know what babysitters charge these days?!

Travel (aka Take a Vacation). Traveling with young children sucks. It does. If you have traveled with your kids and you think it was easy and do it all the time, well, good for you. You’re either a liar, medicated beyond the point of caring or you have the best behaved kids in the whole world. No matter the reason, I hate you. My kids do not travel particularly well. They can’t stand to be still for very long. The longest trip we have taken since having our second child is a 7 hour car drive to visit my parents in PA. We make the trip once a year. Then we spend the next 11 months recovering. My husband is from San Diego and we haven’t been out there in 5 years. One, because its too expensive to buy 4 plane tickets, rent a car, get a hotel for a week, etc. and two, because the idea of being on a plane/in the airport for 8 to 10 hours with my wound-up kids gives me hives.

Browse. This one is mine. Last month, my friend Heather drove up from MA to hang out for a few days. I asked friends to babysit while Mike was at work and for the first time, I went out without my husband on a non-anniversary non-holiday to do something non-doctor appointment related – just for me. It felt weird. Heather and I spent the first whole day shopping. And browsing. I had forgotten what that was like since nowadays I only go to a store if I have a list of the things I need. And then proceed to purchase said things as quickly as possible before the whining and/or the “I’m bored” phrase rears its ugly head. I don’t just walk around a store and look at things anymore. It was so nice. I’m tempted to add some more o’es to the word so, but I’ll add some extra exclamation points instead!!!

Eat at nice restaurants. Cause let’s face it, you don’t take your kids to fancy places to eat out. You want to enjoy your meal. You want to enjoy the atmosphere. You want to have a nice conversation without being interrupted or having to pick a fork off the floor 100 times or dodging greasy little ketchupy hands that are sure to land directly on the front of your nice new blouse that you only wore because you’re eating somewhere that uses fabric napkins.

These things seem so simple as I re-read them. And I’m sure as my kids get older, we’ll be able to do these things as a family without me having to take a Xanax. But until then, I’m just going to look forward to it. And try to find some cheap babysitters.

My Hundred-Dollar Challenge

Do you think you could grocery shop for a family of four for $100 or less each week? I didn’t think I could, but I accepted the challenge from my husband for the month of January. Let’s face it, gas prices are up, health insurance premiums are up again from last year and food seems to get more and more pricey. So I have become the queen of eating cheap and still staying gluten free. Mike wanted to see just how cheap I could be!

Week 1: I lucked out and scored meat that had been marked down. So I grabbed 5 pounds of ground beef and 5 pounds of chicken at a significant discount. I can make 10 pounds of meat last about 2 and a half weeks if I’m smart about it. My total grocery bill for the week was $97.

Week 2: Since I didn’t have to buy meat, I was able to stock up on a lot of fresh produce. We had a lot of meatless meals that week! My grocery bill came out to $86.

Week 3: Well, there were no deals on marked down meat and Mike had filled his personal grocery list (He makes his own lunches. Yes, how awesome is that?!) with fresh produce and a couple pounds of meat. Add to that a bag of walnuts and a pound of almonds and I was struggling to stay below $100. I also wanted to try making a recipe for Cranberry Pecan Chicken Salad that I found on Pinterest and decided to pick up some gluten free crackers to spread the chicken salad on. And cheese went up .20 cents a block. After stressing a little bit, I remembered that I had been under the week before and could go over a tad. The bill that week was $110.

Week 4: I underestimated a few prices for different things when I was making my list this week. (And I absolutely needed some potato chips or I was going to freak.) So I went over again this week. I squeaked out at $104.

After 4 weeks, I was averaging $98.75 a week for the month’s grocery shopping. But alas, I wasn’t off the hook yet since January was a 5-week month. Those 5-week months always get us when we are trying to stay within the budget. It’s been tough. And it’s really made me pay close attention to the prices of food.

Week 5: I totally blew it this week! We have been scarfing down all the nuts and I was really feeling like I needed some variety with the kids’ lunches and snacks. So, after spending $14 on nuts, and buying some snack food, yogurt, dried fruits, frozen fruits, and too much fresh produce, I checked out at a whopping $135 for the week.

For the month, I averaged out at $106 per week. Technically, I failed my challenge, but it sure doesn’t feel that way! According to my budget-welding husband, I saved us just over $150 on groceries for the month.

Now, just how did I do it? I plan out my weekly meal menu every week. I pay attention to what I already have in my pantry and freezer. I also try to piggyback meals. So week one, I was making a meal for a friend who had just had a baby. I made them a Chicken Enchilada Casserole. Since I knew I would be buying ingredients for a Mexican meal, I planned one of my own. This way, I was able to buy things in larger amounts, which is always cheaper per ounce. I also had a ham bone in my freezer that I had saved from our Christmas ham. Pick up a .78 cents bag of dried peas and vegetable broth at .96 a can, add the ham bone, carrots and onion already in the fridge and I have the ingredients for a big batch of split pea soup that only cost me $1.74. The soup fed all of us for 2 separate meals.

When I have my meals planned out for the week, I sit down and write out all the items I need to buy. Then I write down what I think the price is for that item and add it all up when I’m done. If I’m over, I re-work the menu to incorporate fewer ingredients. The first week, this was tough because I wasn’t familiar with all of the prices of the things I needed. So I went shopping in the evening, alone, with my list, a calculator and a pen. I wrote the actual price next to the item so that I would know it for next time. And I could add up my items as I went. I did this for 4 weeks to get a good sense of prices.

Here is my 7-meal dinner plan for Week 4: 1. Black Bean & Spinach Enchiladas  2. Cauliflower Casserole  3. Shepard’s Pie, vegetable side dish  4. Stuffed Cabbage  5. Chicken Tator Tot Casserole, vegetable side dish  6. Avocado Cream and Chicken Enchiladas, vegetable side dish  7. Coconut Chicken with Hawaiian rice, side of peaches

Here is my grocery shopping list for Week 4:

Hummus: $1.98

2 avocados: $2.36

fresh spinach: $2.18

bananas @ .57/lb: $2.00

5lbs chicken breast: $9.65

8 oz bacon: $2.48

7 oz can green chiles: .88

can enchilada sauce: $1.38

can chicken broth: .96

5 blocks cheddar: $10.88

1/2 gal. whole milk: $2.56

dried cranberries: $1.48

chips: $2.68

Cauliflower: $2.98

Bag green onions: $1.22

Bag of carrots: $1.64

Corn tortillas: $1.98

Bag of tator tots: $2.00

2.5oz bag of bacon pieces: $1.66

can black beans: $.68

bag of coconut: $1.72

8oz cream chz: $1.98

2 18-count eggs: 5.76

canned chicken: $1.88

Cabbage: .58 cents/lb.

Cilantro: .93 cents

3lb bag of apples: $3.37

5lbs ground beef: $14.88

3 bags frozen vegetables: $2.96

pineapple salsa: $2.28

can diced tomatoes: $.64

2 blocks MJ chz: $4.36

coffee creamer: $3.28

whipping cream: $1.78

gf crackers: $2.78

All in all, I feel like I was very successful with keeping the grocery bill low. Once I find some more meals to add to my dinner menu rotation, I think I’ll be able to predict what each meal will cost and plan accordingly every week. If you are interested in getting some of these recipes, 4 of the meals listed above are located on my Pinterest board: Gluten Free Recipes. Follow me at: http://pinterest.com/tamaranoyer/

The Season of Giving

I love this time of year. Christmas is one of my favorite holidays because it combines my love of shopping with my love of gift giving, sweets eating, Christmas carol singing and peppermint mocha coffee drinking.

But it is also this time of year that I feel the confines of our family budget the most. I wish that I could do something nice for everyone this time of year. It just can’t happen. I knew this when my husband and I sat down and made up a budget that would allow us to live on a single income. And now this strict-budget living is second nature and I rarely even notice my financial limitations. But there have been a lot of moments these last few months where I’ve felt confined by and resentful of the tight fistedness that has kept our heads above water. I wanted to be able to buy my husband something nice for his birthday and still be able to go out together for a nice dinner. I wanted to send flowers to my daughter’s teacher when we heard she was in the hospital. I wanted to get my daughter that $200 Barbie Jeep at Target and the Buzz Lightyear race car for my son for Christmas. I wish I could rent out some fancy, fun place for my kids’ birthday party next week and hand out fun favors to all the kids. But none of these things were financially feasible for us.

Instead, I gave my husband something thoughtful for his birthday and made a special dinner for him. We sent a card to my daughter’s teacher with a heartfelt note. And although I spent less for Christmas on my kids (and niece), combined, than the cost of one Barbie Jeep, they will have plenty of gifts to open on Christmas morning. The kids’ party will be at home, but filled with friends and family and, I hope, a lot of fun. This is the season of giving. But it is also the season of joy and goodwill, hope and light and love. And I always remind myself that even though I may not be giving people the things I wish I could afford, I am still giving them something, even if it is just my love and friendship. These are great gifts to get; I know, because the love and friendship I receive from others are the gifts I treasure the most.

Merry Christmas!