Jan 252015
It's been a month since Christmas.  Reflecting on our holiday memories.

It’s been a month since Christmas. Reflecting on our holiday memories.

Long time no post! Lots has been going on this month and we are nearly at the end of January! On this one month past Christmas, I wanted to take a moment to wrap up the holiday season.

Our holiday season was enormously busy as well. We had a wonderful time celebrating throughout the month but it was nice to be done with all of it. When I look at the big picture of holiday chores, it came down to eight major categories of tasks.

1. Putting Up Decorations

We put up more decorations this year than probably ever in years past. I shared with you my new front door decorations which I love. The other treat I did not share was the adorable mantel design my daughters created all on their own. I awoke from a pregnancy-induced nap to find my daughters had hung up all the stockings and created a fun toyscape. They even put up a tiny stocking for their sibling to be, which was incredibly sweet.

My daughters' impressive mantel design.

My daughters’ impressive mantel design.

We had a lot of fun with lights this year. During the dark days of December, having a variety of lights on throughout the house really cheered things up. Next to the mantel, we tried a DIY idea I had seen last year to wrap lights on upturned tomato cages to make modern “trees.” It took a little bit of work to wrap all the lights but they added a bright, modern touch to our mantel. My children came up with the idea to color some foam blocks we had with permanent markers to make “presents” for the trees.

Our tomato cage "trees" with foam block "presents."

Our tomato cage “trees” with foam block “presents.”

We added a few new handmade decorations to our tree as well.

The knitted "elf clothesline garland" by Rhonda Brewer that has been on my "to knit" list forever.

The knitted “elf clothesline garland” by Rhonda Brewer that has been on my “to knit” list forever.

Painted horse ornaments my girls made with their cousin at a Christmas-themed horse-riding event.

Painted horse ornaments my girls made with their cousin at a Christmas-themed horse-riding event.

2. Shopping/Making Gifts

This year, in addition to purchasing gifts for our children, we exchanged homemade gifts with family members. I was excited to try this for the first time but didn’t quite appreciate how much work it would end up being! My gifts included some homemade treats, knitted sheep and some portrait ornaments from my children.

A baking extravaganza!  Homemade macaroons, challah bread, cranberry orange and lemon blueberry bread.

A baking extravaganza! Homemade macaroons, challah bread, cranberry orange and lemon blueberry bread.

A flock of knitted sheep ornaments.

A flock of knitted sheep ornaments.

Portraits of family members done by my children.  They dressed up nicely in inexpensive $1 ornament frames.  I loved these!

Portraits of family members done by my children. They dressed up nicely in inexpensive $1 ornament frames. I loved these!

I had a lot to learn about sending baked goods through the mail. The first lesson was that you need to mail quickly after baking to prevent your hard work from becoming stale. We rushed to mail them one day after finishing the baking. We were in a huge rush to pack and label everything and it came out a bit rough. We tossed goodies quickly into sandwich bags and packed with shredded newspaper. If we ever did this again, I would have on hand one of each size of the U.S. postal service standard mailing boxes to estimate postage and packing requirements. (These can be picked up free at the post office.) Also, picking up a supply of colored tissue paper for nicer packing material and/or tins that exactly fit in the boxes would have been a nicer touch.

My daughter was so inspired by my knitting that she asked me to get her started on her own project. She picked it up immediately and began taking her knitting with her in the car when we had errands to run.

A new knitter!

A new knitter!

In other handmade activities, we signed my daughter up for sewing lessons at the incomparable G Street Fabrics during December. She ended up being the only child in the class and received private lessons, making an adorable drawstring bag and an assortment of pillows.

Sewing class

Sewing class

3. Family Photo Session

Since we have very young children who seem to grow by the day, we always end up delaying taking our holiday card photo until right near the holidays. It is always a full day, exhausting production getting everyone’s hair and clothes ready and taking enough pictures to capture one worthy of using for the card and individual portraits of the children. This year, I had an extra challenge trying to look attractive in my advancing pregnant state. Fortunately, I found some great YouTube videos about using contour makeup that seemed to help. I also learned the hard way that our waving iron was malfunctioning as it got too hot and burned off a lock of my hair right near the front! I tossed it out and added “new waving iron” to my Christmas list.

My pregnant holiday card look.

My pregnant holiday card look.

We learned a few years ago that you can make your family portraits look 1000 times better just by taking them outside when the light is optimal. For us, this is always just after the sun sets but it is still light out. I learned this year that this is called the “golden hour” of photography and that professionals use this trick as well. There is even a calculator that will tell you approximately when the golden hour starts based on your geographic location.

4. Organizing Used Toy Giveaway

I posted about this in detail before so I won’t repeat it here. We learned that we can lessen the stress of this activity by working on it a little throughout the year. When purging toys, we can clean them up, wrap them up and group by age and gender.


5. Sending out Holiday Cards

I learned a great tip this year about designing our holiday photo card. Every year, we have the same problem where my tall husband throws off the aspect ratio of our photos. He is always the tallest person in the photo whether he is standing or sitting down. For some reason, when I try to scale the photos down to fit on the photo card, I have to choose between cutting off his head or cropping all of us at the knees. This year, I tried numerous card formats from different stores and just kept running into the same problem. There was no way to fit in our full photo.

I was about to give up when I learned that Wal-Mart offers the option to print a completely blank photo card. I was able to design and crop my own photos using photo editing software and upload them to be printed on a blank photo card. I could also add in my own text boxes after the upload so the text was crisp and clear. Another bonus, I didn’t have to remember what holiday card formats we had used in years past and worry that we were repeating one.

6. Celebrating Christmas

On Christmas Eve, my children were very enthusiastic about making cookies for Santa. We made chocolate chip molasses cookies, which were awesome. They put out cookies and a large handful of carrots “for the reindeer.”

Treats for Santa.

Treats for Santa.

Santa was very tired and not feeling quite up to par due to a recent cold virus. Santa fell asleep and woke up just in the nick of time the next morning! Santa had just barely finished putting out the presents and filling the stockings when a small voice appeared over my shoulder.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Oh, just playing with these presents that Santa brought!”

We had been so tired from activities 1-5 that we hadn’t had time to clean up the family room, which was quite a disaster. Realizing the immense leverage I had in this situation with eager children ready to open the stockings and presents, I insisted that everyone help clean up the house before we could open the presents. It really was quite a mess and it took a couple of hours to finish.

"Mean Mommy" made everyone clean before we could open presents.

“Mean Mommy” made everyone clean before we could open presents.

I was the least popular person in the house having everyone clean on Christmas morning but I couldn’t bear the thought of adding a ton of new toys to the existing mess. When it was finally time to open presents, the children were thrilled and had plenty of clean space to play with and enjoy them.

7. Planning/Cleaning up for New Year’s Party

This year we hosted a small New Year’s party for family and a few friends. It was a great incentive to get the house cleaned up from Christmas. Yes, even though we had just done a big cleaning effort on Christmas Day our house gets trashed extremely easily with all the activity going on. So, we cleaned up again and had a wonderful evening, even making it all the way to a midnight celebration!

My daughter stopping to hug my belly as I prep for our party buffet.

My daughter stopping to hug my belly as I prep for our party buffet.

Popping bubble wrap and spraying silly string at midnight.  A little girls' delight!

Popping bubble wrap and spraying silly string at midnight. A little girls’ delight!

8. Taking Down Decorations

After all the celebrations of the past few months, it was bittersweet taking down all the decorations. On the one hand, it was sad to say goodbye to the holiday season, but on the other hand, it was nice to be able to focus again on everyday life.

I told my children I would need their help to take down the tree.

“That’s too much work!” my 6 year old informed me.

She was such a brilliant helper putting up the decorations but the thought of trying to figure out how to pack them all back into where they came from was completely overwhelming to her. Quite honestly, it seemed overwhelming to me too! I found that taking it one step at a time helped and using the basic organizing technique of trying to focus on picking out categories of things. I labeled zippered storage bags which I packed with ornaments of the same type. I also separated my ornaments into two main bins. One bin held kid-friendly ornaments that could not be easily broken and the other the fragile ornaments.

It took nearly a full two days to pack up all the mantel and Christmas tree decorations. When we were done, this is what we were left with.

The Christmas tree ornaments and mantel decorations packed nicely into 3 bins.

The Christmas tree ornaments and mantel decorations packed nicely into 3 bins.

Then it was on to the front door. We purchased a new 3-foot storage box to hold everything. (Plastic boxes are a must for basement storage.)

Down came the front door decorations into this storage box.

Down came the front door decorations into this storage box.

It is a little strange to see all the amazement of Christmas packed up so small and compact. My children are already looking forward to the time 11 short months from now when we take it all out again. As for me, I hope to work up the energy by then.

Have any organizing lessons learned from this holiday season? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on January 25, 2015 General Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Jun 162013
Easy, handmade Father's Day tie cards.

Easy, handmade Father’s Day tie cards.

Today is the day to celebrate the male factor in the propagation of our species — fathers, dads, papas, grandfathers and uncles!

This year, we used this card template from Disney and I have to say that this craft is a keeper. It is so easy and it comes out perfectly, just like the picture. I would print, pin or bookmark this one.

The steps are so simple, just fold the paper in half, make two slits and two more folds and voila you are done! My children then cut out tie shapes of their own choosing and helped me glue it all down.

For fun, on the inside, we did a sort of Jib-Jab artwork where we took a headshot from a recent photo and let the children draw in the body.


We packed it all off with a DVD of my daughter’s preschool performance and some handmade artwork.

Father's Day presents with a personal touch.

Father’s Day presents with a personal touch.

This Father’s Day has been bittersweet for us as one of our dear neighbors, a tremendous father, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. His death has forced us all to take extra time today to remember and appreciate the men in our lives. Fathers make such a difference.

How are you celebrating Father’s Day?

 Posted by on June 16, 2013 General Tagged with: , ,
Jun 042013
Our teacher gifts this year.

Our teacher gifts this year.

If you have a child in school, it will soon be the end of the school year and time to think about end-of-year teacher gifts.

I have shared some of my teacher gifts in the past, including:

Recently, a poster to the D.C. Urban Moms mailing list gave some excellent suggestions to add to this list of ideas.

Personalized pencils. This is so clever I wish I thought of it. Pencils or pens are used all the time by teachers. Giving them a set with their name or a complimentary phrase like “Mrs. Jones Rocks!” would be an awesome and simple, clutter-free gift. Oriental Trading Company has many cute choices. Pencils Etc at amazon.com also has come great pencil options.

A Note to the Principal. If you have a great teacher, write a letter to the principal/school director praising the teacher that can be included in the teacher’s employment file. Who wouldn’t like looking good in front of the boss?

This year, I took a big risk and also bought clothes for my daughter’s teachers. Clothes are seriously risky. You never know if you are going to match someone’s style or color preferences, not to mention figuring out the right size to buy. But I felt pulled to take the risk after attending my daughter’s spring concert where the teachers were dressed in summery outfits and looked gorgeous and relaxed and refreshed. The vibe was terrific. When I was thinking about how to reward our hard-working teachers, I just kept thinking about that concert and thought that having a fun outfit to wear might be the best way to go. I found inexpensive but stylish outfits that seemed like classic choices to me. If the teachers don’t like them or they don’t fit, hopefully they can re-gift them to someone else.

The outfits we came up with to add something fun to our teacher gifts.

The gift outfits we came up with to add something fun to our teacher gifts.

What are you giving for teacher gifts this year? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on June 4, 2013 General Tagged with: , , , ,
Dec 182012

In November, the call came out from the local Red Cross office that at least 40 people were needed to make sure their Letters to Santa program benefiting needy children was successful this year.

One lesson about charity I have had to learn over the years is that when charities (or individuals) are in dire circumstances and sincerely need help the appeal is often made very subtly and in an understated way. You have to be listening and ready to step in when this type of call comes. If you are used to corporate pitches, where they hound you and hound you with multiple phone calls, emails and letters, and speak with exaggerated language, you won’t see that in charitable situations. The pitch is often so subtle or made in such a small way that it is easy to miss.

So, we stepped in, offering to help one child. The Letters to Santa program is extraordinarily well organized and has numerous rules to help make it run more smoothly. Among the guidelines they give to prospective Santas:

  • Plan to spend between $100 – $175 but not more (if you can spend more, they wanted you to sponsor a second child rather than indulge one fully–probably to keep things fair amongst the children)
  • No used stuff (except for some things like computer games)
  • If you are buying a bike, you have to include a helmet.
  • Wrap all items (or include gift wrap and ribbon so the family can wrap them)
  • Try to honor the child’s requests.
  • “You are this child’s only sponsor. What you purchase may well be all that they receive for the holidays.”

We were assigned a young girl, age 8 who wanted the following:

  • a bike
  • hair accessories
  • clothes
  • art/crafts
  • games

The form also indicated that this girl was in need of a winter coat that we were expected to provide. I knew it was going to be an incredible challenge trying to find a bike, helmet and coat for $150, let alone all of the other stuff! But we did it, and I will show you how.

First, if I had this same list for one of my own daughters, the first way I would save money is to go used with the bicycle. And I can say this confidently because last year, I gave my then-3-year-old a bike for Christmas and we bought it used off of CraigsList for $25! We freshened it up with some new streamers and a zippered bike basket and it was good to go! Yes, the tires were a bit dinged and smudged, but she really didn’t notice and thought it was awesome. We saved about $40 this way. Good used kids bikes are all over CraigsList because they either sit in garages unused or the kids outgrow them too quickly.

My daughter's used (but new to her!) bike from last Christmas.

I often see the “no used stuff” restriction when it comes to charitable donations and it has always puzzled me. Why do these people object so much to used stuff? What if it is in really good condition? I have to chalk my puzzlement up to the fact that I have (fortunately) never been poor enough to know this circumstance.

I only began to understand when I read the book Below Stairs which is the terrific memoir of a 1920’s English kitchen maid that inspired the English dramas Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Consider the contrast between the descriptions of two of her employers below:

Employer 1
“Talk about Christmas! When we got to the Christmas tree we deferentially accepted the parcels that were handed to us by the children and muttered, ‘Thank you, Master Charles, thank you, Miss Susan.’ Oh I hated it all. . . . The presents were always something useful; print dress lengths, aprons, black stockings, not silk, of course, they never gave you anything frivolous; black woolen stockings. How I longed for some of the things they had, silk underwear, perfume, jewellery, why couldn’t they have given us something like that? . . . So I hated this parade of Christmas goodwill, and the pretence that we also had a good time at Christmas.”

Employer 2
“They were the most thoughtful and kind people I’d ever met . . . . [T]he servant’s hall was an absolute revelation to me. This one was comfortably furnished and it had a colour scheme to it. We had comfortable armchairs, a carpet on the floor, a standard lamp, and other small lamps around, pictures and ornaments. Things that you could tell were bought specially for us, not cast-offs from their rooms. . . . Everything was done to make you feel that they really cared about you.”

–Margaret Powell, Below Stairs

Trying to keep the budget of $150 was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I stayed up late Thanksgiving Eve and ended up doing my shopping as my children and houseguests slept. Our Santa child was the first person I shopped for.

I found quickly that no one was beating Wal-Mart’s prices on bikes. Wal-Mart had a Black Friday in-store only deal on a 20” bike (the size I needed) for $39. You could add a helmet for just $8. I knew I had to have this deal to make the budget work. I was trying to figure out who we could nominate to brave Black Friday at Wal-Mart when all of a sudden the deal was available to purchase online! It was really one of those Christmas miracles. For $49.35 with tax, we had the bike and helmet but we also said goodbye to 1/3 of our budget!

Our $39 Black Friday bike deal!

The next major item to get was the coat. Wal-Mart came through on this too and we snagged an all-pink puffy coat for $19.84 with tax. For fun, we also added in a set of Lalaloopsy branded earmuffs and gloves to go with it for $10.39.

The pink puffy coat and the Lalaloopsy earmuffs my daughters covet.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I had the two most important items in hand. I now had roughly $70 to get everything else.

After watching Frontline’s Poor Kids documentary, I knew that basics like clothes were important. I picked up two outfits that I hoped the little girl would feel comfortable wearing to school. I knew my own girls would have no objections wearing them. The first outfit was a pair of jeans with a pink long-sleeve polo shirt; and the second a velour pants and sweatshirt set that came with a cute matching scarf. The clothes ate up about $25 of my budget. I added in a large package of socks for $9.34 since we are always hunting for socks around our house. I had about $36 left to spend.

The outfits and socks we found.

I went back to the little girl’s wishlist. She wanted hair accessories, arts/crafts and games.

After looking at several options, I decided to combine two of the desires and get her an arts and crafts kit to make your own hair accessories for $10.50.

Make your own barrette kit.

I also found a small travel-sized game that contained just marbles and holes but said it came with directions to play hundreds of different types of games in both 2D and 3D spatial orientations. The educator in me thought this would be a terrific challenge for her and would be easy to carry with her as well. $8.89 later it was ours.

The Lonpos Colorful Cabin 066 Brain Intelligence Game at amazon.com.

It was important to me as a homeschooling mom to get her an educational workbook as part of her gift. My kids do a lot of these. I’m pretty sure when she opens it she will groan and think “Geez, what kind of Santa is this?!” but I hope it will impress on her that education for her is absolutely critical. The Poor Kids documentary pointed out that children in dire economic circumstances are often shuttled from one school to the next as they move homes and sometimes are out of school for periods of time. I also hoped that the workbook might help give her something to keep her skills up. I found a thick workbook with reading and math concepts for the third grade for $10.61.

The Santa gift my recipient will likely be least enthused about.

That left me about $6.

I picked up some note cards and some Twistables crayons (for drawing or writing down flashcards for school).

The Red Cross instructions mentioned that we should include some “stocking stuffers.” Since we didn’t have a stocking, I extended our budget by making a stocking out of some spare fabric I had. My 7-year-old helped choose the fabrics and design, informing me that all good stockings have a pocket on the front (like hers does). I embroidered the girl’s name on the pocket with my sewing machine. There was something about adding in a homemade gift that made the whole gift feel a lot more personal and meaningful.

Our homemade stocking, complete with pocket.

To fill the stocking, we stopped by the dollar store to pick up silly string, pencils, a candy cane filled with M&M-like candies and some ring pops, along with a pink cat to peek out of the stocking pocket.

Stocking stuffers from the dollar store.

We also picked up some cute Santa-themed wrapping paper and ribbon to wrap up all the gifts.

Wrapped and ready!

In the end, our grand total was about $159. So, we went a smidge over budget but not too bad considering this was our first time participating in this exercise!

We bagged up our gift per the detailed instructions. Our donations were due by December 8th. We dropped it off to an energetic Red Cross volunteer dressed in reindeer antlers. At least 10 other bikes and gifts were arriving at the same time.

We didn’t get any feedback about how we did and we don’t get to see our recipient open her gifts but I hope we did OK and that we will make someone’s Christmas a little brighter. We will certainly be thinking of her.

How do you think we did? Would you have spent the $150 differently? Could you stick to a $150 budget for your own holiday shopping? Please share in the comments.

*Other than being a donor, I am not affiliated with the Red Cross Letters to Santa program. Other than being a very small shareholder, I am also not affiliated with Wal-Mart.

 Posted by on December 18, 2012 General Tagged with: , , , ,
Dec 012012

Walmart.com is doing such a ridiculous amount of business right now that it was impossible to check out! I encountered this error for over 12 hours until I finally got through. After seeing this warning so often, however, I have decided that it should appear automatically on my personal voicemails and emails at the moment. Don't we all need a "high volume" warning this time of year?

One of the main reasons I haven’t been blogging lately is because I have been shopping.  Family budgets are a bit better this year so the holiday present exchange rules have been expanded.  While this is certainly great news, it means that we have to spend more time picking out gifts.  On top of that, there are 6 Briggs birthdays to celebrate between Thanksgiving and New Years.  As a further challenge, we “adopted” a little girl for Christmas through the Red Cross and are purchasing all of her Christmas gifts as well.  So there is a LOT of shopping to be done.

If you are going to do this much shopping and not have it result in a miserable, financial mess, you have to be organized about it.  It has taken me many Christmases of experience to figure out the system that works for us.  Below are some of my tips.

1.  Work the spreadsheet.  The only way I feel comfortable with all this spending is to diligently track it.  In addition to the standard financial accounting we do in Quicken, I create a spreadsheet for each year’s holiday spending where I track EVERYTHING related to Christmas.  My spreadsheet is ridiculously detailed.  I break out spending by person so we can keep things “fair.”  I also put down any travel or holiday entertainment expenses, charitable donations, holiday card expenses, postage, etc.

2.  All shopping is holiday shopping.  We also count any “bargain” purchases as Christmas gifts.  For our tracking purposes, there is no “regular” shopping for anything but routine groceries during the holidays.  So if we stock up on socks because they are on sale, they get wrapped up for Christmas and tracked just like any other present.  If we pick up after-Christmas bargains, they get added in too or carried over to the next year’s spreadsheet.  If we are spending money because of the holidays, it’s in there.  We have one bottom line number that we keep our eye on for our total spending.

3.  Realize that you are really going to flex your savings willpower.  Getting through the holidays without going into debt takes a LOT of effort.  There is no simple way to say that you will only spend $x and not go over.  It just doesn’t happen.  But what you can do is work hard to keep those expenses as low as possible while still enjoying yourself.

4.  Bargains are everywhere.  For children’s toys, buying used is a huge savings and, yes, I have given my own children used stuff for Christmas (see last year), and they didn’t mind one bit.  I don’t have the energy to watch every Black Friday sale but I do watch for free shipping or __% off your entire purchase specials.  This year I did better than usual picking up bargains.

5.  The best “savings” are usually the things you don’t buy in the first place.  The best “bargains” I have made occurred when, rather than immediately clicking “Buy” on my shopping cart, I slept on it and realized that I could do without certain things to stay in budget.  I put back over $100  this way.

6.  Be careful about buying things for yourself while shopping for others.  The danger of being the primary shopper for a family is that you find so many great things to buy for yourself.  I am officially done shopping for me at this point.  I hope my willpower holds ‘til Christmas.

7.  Know your priority deadlines and focus on those.  If you are shopping for charity, the deadlines are usually in the first week of December.  If you want a very specific toy or item, buy it now while it is still in stock.  If you need to ship anything, get it sent by December 15 or so to avoid expedited shipping costs.  December 20 is the last day for first class mailing of letters and cards for Christmas arrival.  Photos or photo gifts need to be ordered as early as possible as well.  The only gifts that can wait are those that don’t have to be shipped and where the recipient is not picky and a generally appreciative person (don’t we all wish there were more of those people)!

How is your shopping coming along?  What are your shopping secrets?  Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on December 1, 2012 General Tagged with: , , , , ,