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July Spending: Red Months Happen

This was one of those months during which I bled money for causes both anticipated (taking the children to an amusement park with the free tickets they got for summer reading) and unanticipated (replacing my laptop). Well, sometimes that happens. I was in the red this month BUT did not have to draw down any emergency savings categories. I covered it all out of normal float and my “spendable savings.” Here’s how it looked:

Income

Library take-home pay: $1456.61

Support: $575

Total income: $2031.61

Expenses

Rent and included utilities: $1082.77

ATM fees: $6.00

Bike tubes and patch kit: $24.17

Laundry: $20

XCel: $18.34

Ting: $33.75

Internet: $9.95

Groceries: $266.94

Wine and a beer at the bar: $18.86

Gas: $30.42

Kids’ allowances: $27.54

School uniform pants: $129.36 (Ouch! Growing boys! But Costco will refund my money if they rip them.)

Restaurants: $57.23

Amazon music: $4.30

Coffee shops: $11.07

Movie snacks: $15.46

Using boys’ “free” tickets to amusement park: $96.98 (That’s my ticket, parking, Dippin’ Dots, and lunch.)

Gifts: $70

Buying things: $307.48 (Including a refurbished laptop for $150, a years’ supply of razor cartridges, some Target things, and $50 of exercise equipment for which I am owed a refund–I got the wrong thing.)

Travel: $39.59 (On family vacation. I spent more like $140 but this is net–I received an advance on future family travel expenses.)

Child care punch card at gym: $15

Vet checkup for Kitty Paragon: $55

Cat food: $15.06 (Minor achievement–I discovered that PetSmart has a subscription service; I don’t have to go to the store any more and they had a 30% off signup discount.)

Total Expenses: $2355.23

Analysis

Eh, it’s fine. One of the points that the book Your Money or Your Life makes is that there is no “typical” month. I could say, I would have spent so much less this month if I hadn’t had the amusement park, a replacement laptop, and back-to-school clothes. But this is not unusually high spending for me. Another month it might be car insurance or registration renewal or a major bike repair or any number of things.

I had enough money to cover it and I’m not going any deeper into the red month-to-month; my long-term savings are untouched and even growing. So, again, “I still need a full-time job” but there’s no cause for alarm. My monthly income should be higher during the school year anyway as I have more time to work.

February 2017 Spending: In the Black

In January, I found out that I qualified for the Earned Income Tax Credit and would be getting a sizable tax refund. Now, most of that money is intended for saving, and I’ll write a separate blog post about that. But I did think, well, I’m getting a good amount of money back, I can loosen the purse strings just a touch. And I bought a few things I’d been wanting for a long time.

The great thing is, I have been getting so many hours at the library, I am in the black even without touching that windfall. The other great news, money-wise, is that our CICP (Colorado Indigent Care Program) came through. I am getting refunds for a lot of the money I paid for Big Brother’s November ER visit and won’t have to make any more payments. Instead of owing about $2200, our bill became $70.

We were back at the ER in February getting Little Brother’s forehead stitched up, but no big deal–again, we will owe just $70, if I’m not mistaken.

With no further ado, here’s how February looks

Income

Returning things to Costco: $69.75

Library take-home pay: $2187.22

Subbing take-home pay: $44.06

Interest: 61 cents

Trivia writing: $95

Gift and travel money from Grandma FP: $125

Child and spousal support: $767

Medical reimbursement: $156.38 (more on this below)

Non-windfall income: $3443.01

Expenses

Rent and included utilities: $1084.08

Household oddments: $9.54

Laundry: $40

Stop-payment check fee: $35 (my rental office lost my check and will take this off of next month)

YNAB renewal: $45

Electric: $13.63

Ting: $25.52

Comcast: $9.95

Groceries: $456.40 (Holy smokes! What happened here?!)

Car wash: $10

Gas: $42.66

Parking: $21

Kid allowance: $18

Walkie-talkie batteries: $4

Boy clothes: $91.38

Children’s museum membership: $117.25

After-school babysitting: $88

Kid health: $160.86 (about $125 of this has since been reimbursed)

Adult health: $38.87 (meds and a dentist copay)

Coffee shops and snacks: $30.98

Restaurants: $28.63

Shoes and underwear: $293.81 (When I got my tax refund, I figured I could replace all 3 worn-out pairs of exercise shoes and stop wearing hand-me-down underwear.)

Year subscription to Washington Post online: $99 (I’ve been stealing their articles for like 10 years. Journalism costs money.)

Something from Target: $14.04

A non-leaking, non-disgusting travel mug: $2 (plus reward points)

Southwest credit card fee for a bunch of bonus miles: $99

Total spending: $2907.70

Analysis

I can’t count on always getting so many hours–I still need a full-time job. And over the summer, I will probably either have child care costs or way less income, so I need to be prepared for a few lean months.

But I feel great about February. I earned enough money. I spent some money on things that are important to me. I came out ahead, and I used a windfall to bolster my savings.

Mending Roundup: Yeses and Nos

This post contains affiliate links for your researching convenience. As always, my opinions are my own.

I’ve made a couple of repairs to our wardrobes lately… and “noped” out of some others. For all, I have made do with supplies on hand. Here’s how it looks.

1 school uniform shirt (not pictured)

Don’t get me started on the uniforms. Shirts are $10 apiece(!) for a school that is ninety-percent-plus free and reduced lunch (yes, my kids, too)  stain easily, and often wear out in a single school year. And this year the sizes changed and Little Brother will wear only last year’s grubby shirts because the new ones are too big.

Anyway, within the first two weeks of school, the seam under Big Brother’s armpit gave way in one of the new shirts. Stitched it up with needle and thread, by hand.

1 Goodwill sweater

I like this sweater, which is Loft brand and was $5 in excellent condition (thanks, Grandma FP). The underarm seam started to give way. I didn’t have any yarn-type thread, so I just used a double strand of regular thread. I didn’t have yellow so I just used white and tried to keep all the stitches on the inside. So far, the results are satisfactory, although the repair is visible from the outside if you look really closely. (Fortunately, people rarely shove their heads under my arms.) When I buy sweaters new, I generally do a pretty good job of keeping track of the repair thread, but this was from Goodwill, so no such luck.

1 Brassiere

I do not own a lot of bras so I was dismayed when I went to put this one on and felt a pop in the back. The little slider that adjusts the straps had broken.

20170119_142242

Broken slider.

Fortunately, I already had a set of lingerie repair doodads (Dritz Lingerie Strap Slides & Rings, if you want to get fancy–I probably bought them at Joann or Walmart) from a dress I had repaired and even had the right color.

Unfortunately, I got confused and snipped off the strap that was NOT broken. So  I had to re-sew both sides. I sewed by hand while watching TV using a thimble that came in one of those hotel sewing kits–you have to push hard to get through multiple strap layers.

Nope, not worth it: Old Navy pants

Both boys had these Old Navy cargo pants for school. They were on sale and I thought they were cute. Unfortunately, the fabric is thin and wears through quickly. Also, the narrow legs and knee gussets make repair challenging. While I have a package of iron-on patches, they tend to peel and I like to machine-sew them in place. Machine sewing also helps the patch adhere to the ripped area.

I tried to keep these going, I really did. But patch after patch after patch… No. It looks dreadful and is a ton of work. You can see below how the patches are a mess inside, layered on top of each other, and visible from the outside, and then new holes are showing. I was going to the half-price day of a semiannual consignment sale event and just got LB some replacement pants for a couple bucks each.

I am hoping that Costco will get in a new shipment of their French Toast uniform pants in the fall. These are nice thick fabric. I had bought maybe 7 pairs altogether for Big Brother at $10 each. Only one pair has ripped, and Costco gave my money back. LB was too small for them this year as the smallest size they had was 5, but by fall, he should be able to wear them. At least in a “to grow into” kind of way.

What are you mending lately?

The Very Sensible Vehicle

In 2004, I needed a car. For $10,500, I bought a Certified Pre-Owned Honda Accord, then five years old. Now, this was a big purchase for me at the time. In fact, I financed half the purchase price. (As I recall, I paid $193 per month for three years.) But, I announced, I would drive the car ten years, so it would be worthwhile.

In fact, I drove it twelve years. Together, the Auto Paragon and I:

  • lived in five states, some of them twice, and the District of Columbia;
  • turned 25, 30, and 35;
  • figured out how to install a rear-facing car seat… and then a second rear-facing car seat;
  • earned 2 master’s degrees;
  • and outlasted 4 vehicles owned by the ever-fickle XFP.

But all things have their time, and while the Auto Paragon certainly still ran, it was perhaps no longer a sufficiently reliable vehicle for a single parent.

Thanks to the Frugal Patriarch, I had a replacement budget of $10,000. What to buy? Not another Accord. While I loved mine, I was not in the mood this time around to pay extra for fanciness and excess size. All-wheel drive? Well, I considered it. It was tempting to buy an Outback like everyone else in Colorado and never worry about getting stuck in a snow pile again.

But… you pay more for all-wheel drive. You pay more up front. You pay more in maintenance. You pay more in gas. Since my current income doesn’t meet all my fairly modest “wants” and savings goals, I asked, was AWD even a strong want? Ultimately, I decided it would be more economical to carry a telescoping snow shovel for emergencies and get a small front-wheel drive car.

According to both Consumer Reports and Mr. Money Mustache’s car guide, pretty much the ideal used vehicle for carrying around one or two adults and a couple of small children is a Honda Fit. They are cheap to buy, cheap to own, kind of adorable, and fun to drive, and with the back seat folded down, capable of transporting an entire dining room table. And chairs.

So I bought a Honda Fit. I zeroed in on the 2o11 model year because it was in my price range and was the first year in which electronic stability control was standard. Consumer Reports says that ESC is Very Important for Safety. (Yes, I paged through the actual paper Used Car Buying Guide. I work in a library.)

My research suggested that the best deal was a particular silver Fit Sport offered about half an hour south of here for one of those low-haggle prices (slightly below Blue Book in this case) with a limited warranty. But it was silver. What’s wrong with silver? Well, the XFP drove a silver Fit for the last year of our marriage. (He no longer owns it). Was I really going to drive a car that looked just like his car?

Yes, I was. First of all, being a newer generation, it is a slightly different shade of silver and has a different front look. And I am far too sensible to pass up the best deal on a car just because of color.

20161116_081946.jpg

Sleeker, more modern front.

In short, the whole thing was such an excess of sensibility that I have dubbed it the Very Sensible Vehicle. It is fun to have a shiny new thing. While making a habit of craving shiny new things is a good way to land in the poorhouse, I savor the experience when it happens to roll around. My car has a USB port! I can unlock the doors by pushing a button on my key! Wow!

20161116_082008.jpg

Also, the XFP’s fit did not have the fancy alloy wheels. Not that it matters.

What of the Auto Paragon? I considered selling it myself but I was able to negotiate a good deal with the dealership. I traded the AP for $500 and a new set of snow tires (plus TPMS sensors). Also, I sold the AP’s snow tires on Craigslist and got a hundred dollars for them. I think I got my ten grand’s worth out of the car.

You may check back in 2028 to see if the Very Sensible Vehicle has proved as satisfactory as the Auto Paragon.

What do you drive? How do you decide what care to buy?

I Was a Little Impulsive in September: Spending Report

When I was a teenager, my older sister would sometimes ask me to do something with her–go to the mall, say–when no more-interesting company was available. “I have to do homework,” I would say. Somehow, twenty minutes later, I was always in the car going to the mall.

This story is by way of explaining why I had over $500 in travel expenses this month. I impulsively flew home to spend the weekend with my sister and middle nephew, surprise my mom (successfully!), and attend Sis’s 40th birthday party. It was a tad irresponsible, but, to quote Arlo Guthrie, “You can’t always do what you’re s’posed to do.”

Income

Child support: $350

Spousal support: $383

Take-Home Wages: $1383.63

Dependent Care FSA reimbursement: $138

Selling stuff: $40

Kid reimbursements from the XFP: $116

Total Income: $2272.63

Internet: $82.01

Electric: $59.28

Water: $32.47

Ting: $29.46

My half of mortgage: $837.67

Total housing and utilities: $1040.89

 

ATM fees (reimbursable) and divorce-related miscellany: $15.20

Bike maintenance: $82.31 (ouch!)

Apartment application fee: $50

Groceries: $273

Wine:  $10.78

At-Home Food: $283.78

Gas: $38.59

Parking and transit: $29.50 (lots of extra bus tickets)

Total transportation: $68.09

Used bike for Little Brother: $50

Kid clothes and shoes: $74.51 (uniform pants, winter PJs and Halloween costumes)

Before- and after-school care: $73

The XFP’s share of things: $134 (some I have already gotten, some I will get on 10/20)

Doctor visit for LB: $98.36

Total kid spending: $429.87

Adult health (asthma meds): $165.88

Restaurants: $18.22

Coffee shops and snacks: $33.79

Snacks at otherwise free Corn Maze: $12

Total entertainment: $64.01 (having the house on the market is still keeping this category high)

Haircut for me: $53

Clothes for me: $35.74

Misc. shopping: $8.99 (car charger for cell phone)

Total “me” spending: $96.78

Travel: $526.41

Grand total spending: $2823.22

Analysis

So, first I need to confess that I am confused about how much my shortfall is. YNAB calculates things a little differently because of the way money actually changes hands. See, I didn’t receive a check or spousal support or write one for the mortgage–the XFP and I just added up everything we owe each other and I wrote him a check for a couple hundred dollars, then I tried to reverse-engineer everything on here. YNAB shows a shortfall of more like two hundred dollars, as opposed to the over five hundred shown here. Hopefully this is something that will become more clear to me as I get the hang of how my monthly finances work.

Obviously, I can’t overspend myself every month. I had to shift around money that was earmarked for other things (eg, paying my lawyer), so refilling those stashes will be a priority next month. My before- and after-care charges reflect an increase in my hours that hasn’t shown up in my income yet, so that’s a factor as well–things should look better next month.

Considering the medical expenses and the amount of fun I had on the trip, I’m pretty satisfied with the month.

How was your September?

 

 

 

 

Poverty as a Life Phase

The XFP (as I have renamed him) and I, with our children, made up a basically middle-class household of four. We certainly had to watch where our money was going, but we could generally cover our own expenses. On the sliding scale that Denver Public Schools uses for preschool and kindergarten tuition, we were the third step down from the top (monthly income $5,964 to $6,758 for a full-day preschool tuition charge of $390).

Well, things have changed for me. As the head of a three-person household, I am objectively fairly poor (strictly as a measure of income). Remember that sliding scale? Well, we have slid right off the bottom of it. No tuition, no registration fee, no bills of any kind. Poor enough to get reduced-price lunch at school, not poor enough for food stamps. I will probably rent a one-bedroom apartment, because that’s what I can comfortably afford; the boys can have the bedroom and I will be sleeping in the living room.

I grew up in a comfortably middle-class suburban family, but I can remember my father waxing nostalgic about the efficiency apartment he and my mother used to cram into when they were teenagers, how they used to have lawn chairs for furniture. Looking back, this is one of the best things I learned from my parents: that being broke is a life stage to be passed through.

Now, maybe I already went through my broke-young-person phase once, but I’m not afraid to go back. Being willing to accept this phase in my life makes it much easier to cope. Easier to accept help. Easier to stop buying things when I run out of money. If I didn’t accept that this was just a temporary phase that I need to live in right now, I might want to pretend that nothing had changed, that I didn’t really need to adjust my budget or let people help me, and the short- and long-term result would be financial misery.

The interesting thing is how non-terrible this phase is so far. I have enough money for a nice and safe, if small, apartment; healthy food; and occasional treats. I will be honest: When my marriage was failing, I was frightened of this outcome–having to sell my house, sleep in the living room and sign up my kids for reduced lunch. Now that it’s here, eh, it’s not so bad. 

I’ve lived a life of pretty exceptional privilege so far and am fortunate enough that I have had the chance to develop the skills and resources I’ll need to work my way up financially. Soon enough I’ll get more work hours, maybe a better job. I’ll get my feet under myself. And some day when my boys are much bigger, we’ll talk about that apartment we used to live in, where we used to curl up on Mommy’s bed in the living room to watch a movie.

Were there times in your life when you were “poor”? How do you look back on them?

My New Frugal Weight Training Hobby: How and Why

This post contains affiliate links. I bought my own book and my opinions are my own.

In my mid-thirties, the list of things I never thought I would do, that I have now done, just gets longer and longer. Here’s a new addition: I have taken up training with free weights. Heavy ones. More or less on a whim.

See, I used to do group classes at a YMCA, but we moved across town. The only reasonably priced, childcare-equipped option in biking distance was a public rec center. On Cyber Monday, I was able to purchase a one-year membership to Denver Parks and Recreation rec centers half-price, or for $183 dollars. Childcare is $15 for a 30-visit pass–that’s fifty cents for one kid or a dollar for two, each visit.

I had been paying seventy dollars a month for my old Y. I missed the free coffee and longer childcare limit, but the savings were immediate and huge. The problem was that while my new rec center does have classes, they are inconveniently timed. (Except for Zumba and cycling, both of which I really hate.)

Well, I thought, maybe I can figure out something I can on my own. I liked that Body Pump class, I thought, I should

This contraption now answers to me.

This contraption now answers to me.

do weight training. So I did what I always do–check out a library book. The New Rules of Lifting for Women, which I had seen recommended, had a hold list, so I checked out The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged in the meantime. It seemed pretty convincing about the benefits of using as much weight as you can handle (no, ladies, this will not give you excessive muscles) and focusing on big movements (think squats, rows, and lat pull-downs, not little things like triceps kickbacks), so next thing I knew, I was teaching myself how to operate the cable pulley machine thingy.

It was hard to walk into a part of the gym where those few women who were present appeared to be a lot fitter and, well, hotter than me. It was hard to make myself fumble with unfamiliar equipment than everyone else seemed to already know how to use. (They’re not that hard once you get up close.) So I started a little slowly, learning one or two new things at a time. My first routines, though they were shredding me at the time, didn’t use barbells at all.

This is a squat rack. I made myself walk right up to it even though I didn't know how to adjust it until I got there.

This is a squat rack. I made myself walk right up to it even though I didn’t know how to adjust it until I got there.

Friends, I have become an addict. The thing it, it is satisfying to use more and more weight every week. To learn how to handle an Olympic barbell, which is seven feet long and weighs forty-five pounds before you even put weight on it. To raise a pair of twenty-five pound dumbbells overhead. (That’s like having a toddler in each hand!) As a person who finds numbers extremely motivating, I love seeing my numbers climb a little higher and a little higher every time I go.

When I started, I could not do 10 pushups or 15 lunges with bodyweight. A few months later, I have to put my hands on medicine balls to make my pushups harder, and I can do 12 lunges with a 65-pound bar balanced on my shoulders.

I’ve gotten stronger, I’ve lost a couple of inches. Those were goals I knew I was going for. What has surprised me is good it is for my confidence. I am the kind of person who can lift a 90 pound dumbbell! I have excellent squat form! I am the kind of person who needs to put hands on medicine balls because other pushups are just too easy! When I go home, I feel exhilarated and less daunted by my little daily challenges.

With what I pay for childcare, my cost is coming in around $20 a month. I have also bought Chuck Taylors ($50) and my own copy of NROL Supercharged ($10 used). (I did eventually get my turn with NROL for Women, but Supercharged is better; it has better illustrations and more up-to-date exercises.) I wear the same clothes I already owned. I have also taken to drinking post-workout protein shakes even though I’m usually a whole-foods kinda girl; I just found that otherwise, I was simply too hangry to prepare my next meal. That’s a cost of about a dollar per shake. All in all, it’s a cheap hobby.

I was reasonably confident about my form because I had been doing Body Pump, and not only have I not been injured, my old injuries have been bothering me less. If you’ve been fairly sedentary and are really worried about injury, well, a few sessions with a personal trainer would be cheaper than winding up at the orthopedist, and you could go it alone once you had the hang of it. Seriously, weight training is fun, and you should try it.

What’s your exercise routine? How do you keep costs down?

Let’s Talk About Feminine Hygiene

No, really, this post is about feminine hygiene. If that’s something you would rather not be a part of, this is your chance to click the little X and move along.

Amazon.com links are affiliate links. I paid for my own products and my opinions are my own.

Here’s the executive summary: If you are a woman of menstruating age, you should probably get a menstrual cup even if you have never liked tampons. Here’s why:

  1. Save money over monthly purchases.
  2. Environmental benefit of not having all these disposable things manufactured and thrown away.
  3. They feel better than tampons.
  4. They also feel better than reusable pads.

If you’re not convinced yet, read on. If you just want to know how to buy one, skip to the end. (Full disclosure: reusable sea sponge tampons are another option which I have not tried.)

When I start thinking about writing this article, I realized with something of a shock that it’s been going on twenty-five years since I first peeled the backing of an adhesive maxi pad. And I can expect to be dealing with menstrual periods for another 13-20 years, according to US averages.

For most of my post-pubescent life, I dealt with this in the standard American way; I bought Kotex or Always (or the store brand if I was feeling frugal, but they were never as satisfactory) at the grocery store.

When I developed an interest in avoiding toxins in personal care products, the issue got more complicated. You can buy maxi pads that were made without chlorine bleach. There are three problems: they’re expensive, they’re hard to find in stores, and they never seem to have very good adhesive.

LunaPads (clickable Amazon image)


So one day when I sat down to order some from drugstore.com, and found my cart starting to add up ridiculously, I wondered if there was another way, and more or less on an impulse, ordered an intro kit of reusable cloth LunaPads instead. At the time, I had two children in cloth diapers, so the ick factor was simply not present and I was getting much more interested in avoiding waste as well as toxins. I liked these enough that I ordered some GladRags a few months later so that I would have enough to last a full cycle. (I had been supplementing with disposables.)

They work. They are comfortable (when clean and dry). As a few years went by, however, I began to notice problems with them:

  1. They slide around, causing minor leaks, unless safety-pinned to your underwear.
  2. The metal snaps are painful for bike riding.
  3. They are gross. Once I moved on mentally from cloth diapering, I think I noticed more having to rinse these out and soak them.
  4. On heavier use, they feel slimy.

I kept hearing about menstrual cups. Not for me, I thought. I don’t even like using tampons. (In fact, a four-pack lasted me ten years.) Finally, after hearing so many people go on about how great they were (in this MMM forum thread), I resolved to try one.

I certainly noticed some downsides:

  1. It can be uncomfortable if not positioned properly, and it’s hard to tell, when putting it in, what that means.
  2. Also if it’s not positioned properly, you can get SPECTACULAR leaks.

Those are the only disadvantages, and I expect they will resolve themselves as I get more proficient. More importantly, I noticed the advantages:

  1. I can take a bath when I have my period! I know, also true for tampon users, but I’m new to this party.
  2. I can easily bike.
  3. I do not feel gross.

The last one is huge for me. Even wearing tampons, I always felt gross. With the cup, I sometimes forget about it for hours at a time. Emptying it out can be messy, but to me, messy is somehow not the same thing as gross. Highly subjective, obviously.

I anticipate needing to replace my cup every three to five years, so just a few times in my remaining “childbearing” years. No monthly purchases!

I have a Lena small, which I like. Diva Cup seems to be the best-known and most widely available, but not necessarily the best. I made my selection after extensive perusal of this excellent Mr. Money Mustache forum thread I mentioned earlier.

It has links to various size charts and reviews. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll see me waffling over the purchase and the ladies encouraging me to try one. Lots of ladies recommend their own favorite brands and if none of them sound right for you, you can post what you are looking for and see if someone has a suggestion!

I also read the review on menstrualcups.wordpress.com. Note that there is a discount code for Amazon, which was still working when I ordered mine.

I still have my reusable pads, which I wear as cup backup and as  pantyliners. If I were starting from scratch, I would strongly consider Thinx instead. They cost more, but they look a lot more comfortable.

Have you made the leap to reusable?

What a Preschool Birthday Party Doesn’t Need

When Christmas ends, there’s no rest for the weary in the FP household. Big Brother had the unfortunate luck to come into the world on January 21st, when many of us find ourselves sunk in celebration fatigue. And with his turning five this year, he is starting to have expectations of what a birthday should be. Last year, I just baked a cake, hung up a banner and told him it was a party; this year, he wanted guests.

Still, I don’t believe, as a general rule, in exceeding kids’ expectations. We invited guests, sure, but we kept it low, and I mean low, key, reducing both the expenditure and the stress level. It’s a good thing, too, because when I went to pick up Little Brother at preschool at 11 am on the day of the party (which was an after-school affair), I was told that Big Brother was in the office and needed to be taken home. Sick, I thought? Nope. He had gashed his head and needed to be taken to Urgent Care for stitches.* The party, I was assured, could proceed as planned, but my time to prepare was suddenly cut in half.

Here are some aspects of throwing a birthday that we consider optional and decided to forego:

 

  • Inviting the entire class. Some people do this, and I can only assume that these people are masochists. Or trying to make up for some kind of party-deprived childhood. More sensible parents limit their child to one guest per year of age. I didn’t even go that far–I allowed him to invite the neighbor girl (age 7) and three kids from his class, two of whom RSVP’ed yes but only one of whom attended.

 

  • Restaurant pizza. There’s a Little Caesar’s not too far away, so this would not have been a major expense. But English muffin pizzas were even cheaper and more fun for the kids, who enjoyed putting on the sauce and cheese and pepperoni. And healthier.
  • Ice cream. I know, it’s tradition. But there is plenty of sugar in the cake. No one complained about the lack of ice cream.
  • Fancy cake. I tried to bake a cake from scratch, but it collapsed in the oven. Duncan Hines to the rescue, and I had to buy jarred frosting as well after the head vs. gate incident. Know how I decorated it? I stuck candles in it. A “5” that I had bought back in December for a friend’s 35th and four plain ones. Complaints? Zero.
  • Treat bags. I hate these. Hate, hate, hate when my kids get them. They’re full of candy they don’t need and trashy toys–so much waste. I was going to send each kid home with a helium balloon, but then I didn’t have time to buy them. (I sent Mr. FP, who brought home uninflated balloons instead.) No one complained.
  • A venue. I suppose if your house is very small, and it is winter, you might need a venue. Our living room was fine.
  • Formal entertainment. I asked Big Brother if he wanted to play games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, but he said he would rather just do Play-Doh. Everyone seemed to enjoy it. The other key entertainment was batting around balloons (laboriously inflated by Mr. FP and myself), which was a massive hit.

Lest you think this party was some sort of barely glorified playdate, we did have juice pouches and disposable Ninja Turtle cake plates, both of which are, by my standards, wildly extravagant. I trust my own children with our usual chipped Pfaltzgraff plates and open cups, but I wasn’t sure about the guests.

Here’s one thing that I think all preschool birthday parties should include: wine. I had previously attended only one children’s birthday party, and wine was served. The hosts were pot-smoking hippie types, so I have no idea if wine is a typical offering at these affairs, but I liked the idea and I ran with it. I kind of thing it might not be standard, judging by the way my guest’s face sort of lit up with surprised delight when I offered her a glass.

For the adults, I also offered Trader Joe’s spinach dip and veggies with store bought hummus. I did not keep exact figures, but I believe the total cost for the party came in around $20-$25.

And it was fun. Big Brother had fun. His guests had fun. I had fun drinking wine with the other mother (neighbor parents couldn’t stay, which is fine as their seven-year-old is easy to supervise). And by having it on a school afternoon, I did not have to block out a whole precious weekend day.

How do you celebrate your kids’ birthdays?

*He’s fine now, although if he goes bald, a scar on his forehead will probably be visible. The PA who put in the stitches told me to remove them myself–from his head. This is apparently nonstandard medical advice, but since it saved me a fifty-dollar copay, I gave it a shot using thread snips and the tweezers from the Swiss Army knife while Grandma FP, who was visiting, distracted the patient. It was surprisingly easy and highly satisfying.

What Would Ma Ingalls Buy? My Fall Shopping Critique

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Earlier this year, I decided that Big Brother was ready to try chapter books for read-aloud. On an impulse, I decided to start with one of my childhood favorites, Little House in the Big Woods.

He LOVED it. When we finished, I asked if he wanted something different, maybe with a boy in it. Nope. “More Laura and Mary.” So it was on to Little House on the Prairie, and then On the Banks of Plum Creek, in which we have recently been traumatized by an actual, historical plague of locusts.

If you aren’t familiar with the Little House books, they are semi-autobiographical novels about the author’s experiences as a pioneer girl in the second half of the nineteenth century. (Caroline Ingalls, or “Ma,” was a real person, but for my purposes, I am talking about the fictionalized character.) Wilder goes into great detail about topics ranging from cheese making to log cabin building to travelling by covered wagon. When they move to a new place, which is often, they leave behind all their furniture (homemade) and load up the covered wagon. When they arrive, they build a new house, build some furniture, and there they are. Their sole decorative possession is Ma’s china shepherdess; you know they’re settled in a new place when the shepherdess is installed on a shelf.

Reading these books has made me feel lazy, wasteful, and generally useless. I can’t make cheese! I don’t make all my clothes! I own more than two dresses and several pairs of shoes! I complained that there weren’t enough Starbucks in Kansas!

I’m not saying Ma Ingalls had it better than me–she would probably change places with me without hesitation. But there is something appealing about the simplicity, and I have found myself asking, when I buy something, “What would Ma think?”

I seem to have been on a bit of a shopping spree this fall, with an unusual number of brand-new purchases, so let’s let Ma Ingalls critique my acquisitions.

Raingear for me

Why buy: I take my children to school by bicycle. Got soaked the first time it rained–three times. All my pants are cotton and I owned no waterproof jacket, so I had to change after drop off, after mid-morning pickup (Little Brother), and again after afternoon pickup.

Why new: I am hard to fit and need special sizes. My rain pants (which I will also wear for playing in the snow, over sweats) are youth size 18 (I got these LL Bean ones and the jacket, also from LL Bean, is petite. I needed to be able to try it on and return it if it didn’t fit. Plus, now I get a lifetime guarantee!

What would Ma think? Well, she pretty much never buys anything for herself and would be puzzled as to why I now own seven coats. (In my defense, three of them date back to the 90s). On the other hand, I’m sure she would approve of protecting my other clothes with the appropriate outerwear. Staying dry is just better.

Kids’ uniforms and school supplies

Why buy: Well, the school said I had to. They gave me quite a list, and they won’t even let three-year-olds in the door without uniforms (school-purchased short-sleeve shirts with undershirts and pants in prescribed colors).

Why new: Obviously, I can’t buy used construction paper. I was able to get a couple pairs of pants for Little Brother second-hand, but after two thrift stores and one consignment sale, I still couldn’t find long-sleeved undershirts or the remaining 6 pairs of pants. Had to buy new. I asked on NextDoor for used uniform shirts but struck out, so I had to buy them, too. (You can image how I felt paying ten dollars for one polo when I usually get them at Goodwill for $1.99.)

Then I splurged and bought them school sweatshirts, too, mostly because all the other kids had them.

Big Brother is especially delighted with his sweatshirt and the front pocket.

Big Brother is especially delighted with his sweatshirt and the front pocket.

What would Ma think? A former schoolteacher, she made sacrifices to send her children to school and I’m sure she would approve of the school expense. She would probably be puzzled as to why my kids start school at age three instead of age seven and why they need four sets of uniforms–her girls had one school dress each. That was in the back of my mind when I purchased just four uniforms, which commits me to every-other-day washing (one uniform on the child, one at school in case of accident, and two in the washing machine). Many children have six!

A Crock-Pot

Why buy: My existing slow cooker, which came out of Grandma’s FP’s laundry closet circa 2010, had two main drawbacks: It was not programmable (had just 4 cook time settings) and even at its longest settings, could not produce really soft beans. I wanted to be able to make recipes that call for shorter cooking times and I liked my beans fully cooked, thank you.

Old and new lined up on the counter. I can't actually bring myself to get rid of the old one, which is now in the basement.

Old and new lined up on the counter. I can’t actually bring myself to get rid of the old one, which is now in the basement.

Why new: Well, I use a slow cooker several times a week. I wanted something to meet my exacting specifications. Also, they were on sale at Costco and I do like to enjoy a lifetime guarantee.

What would Ma think? First of all, I’m sure she would think that a slow cooker is a brilliant invention. It lets me work as a librarian (and she valued education, remember) while still looking after my family. She would, however, have kept using the old crock until Pa bought her a new one, like when he bought her a new cookstove for their new house in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

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More room on the bottom for chicken breasts! I should also be able to comfortably cook a full two pounds of beans, not the measly one and a half I’ve been limited to.

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I can set it for any amount of time I want, and it even counts down!

I’ve never been as self-effacing as Ma and my husband knows that–he tends to assume that if I haven’t bought it for myself, then I don’t really want it. I really wanted it, so I bought it.

There are other things I’ve been considering purchasing this fall, like yoga pants. Then I think of Ma Ingalls. Would I get as much joy out of yoga pants as Ma got when Pa bought her some pretty calico to make a new apron? No. So I decided not to buy them. By the same token, I mended my pajama pants rather than replaced them and decided to keep wearing my old fleece. I want a black or gray fitted one; what I own dates back to perhaps 2005 and is rather large and a cream color that always looks dirty. But… it’s still warm. And if I don’t want to wear it, I can wear one of my six other coats.

What are you buying or not buying this fall? And who else loves Laura?