Christmas in May

11 05 2009

IMG_1694It’s May. And in North Carolina, that means it’s strawberry season. And in my house, for the last decade, that means it’s time to make jar upon jar of strawberry jam.

Granted, it’s a lot of work — the picking, washing, cutting, crushing, cooking, sterilizing and cleaning up. But when those Ball jars are filled and I hear that satisfying “ping” as the jars seal shut, I can’t help but feel just a tad smug.

All of that labor in the month of May translates to more leisure in the month December when I attach homemade gift tags to these crimson-filled jars and give them as Christmas gifts. And who doesn’t need a break in December?

IMG_1734So this past week, with temperatures in the 80s and my AC cranking to combat the heat emanating from the stove top, I was humming Christmas carols as I stirred juicy crushed berries picked from a farm less than five miles from my house.

Not only do I have my neighbor and teacher gifts taken care of seven months early, but I’m giving them something I made.  I’m giving them something affordable and I’m giving them something that is consumable in a container that is reusable.

In my quest to save some green, be green and lead a simpler life, I’ve got all my bases covered. I’m no Martha Stewart, but I would have to say my jam is a very good thing. 

The recipients of my jam are typically friends, family members, neighbors, my daughter’s teachers. I have a feeling that if I broke with tradition and delivered something different to my neighbors, there might be rioting on my tidy suburban street. OK, that’s a bit of an overstatement. But they would be sorely disappointed.

Throughout the year, my neighbors will make not-so-subtle references to my strawberry jam in casual conversation. Often, I will find empty jars left at my front door. A silent plea for more.

For a frugal girl, such as myself, making jam for gifts is an affordable way to let folks know how much I care about them. Here’s a breakdown on costs:

*at the strawberry farm nearest my home, pick-your-own berries are $1.50 per pound. It takes three pounds to make eight jars of jam. 

*at Harris Teeter, my grocery of choice, sugar is $2.27 for a five-pound bag; Sure Jell fruit pectin is $3.15 a box;  and a 12-pack of Ball jars is $7.99. Twelve replacement seals are $1.79. That’s roughly $14 to make eight jars of jam.

Of course, I’m always on the hunt to save even more money. This year, thanks to some nicely timed bargain shopping throughout the year, my jam is costing me only about $4 to make eight jars. That’s just 50 cents per gift. OMG. That’s the first time I’ve ever done the math. I can’t think of a nicer gift at such an affordable price.

If you’re interested in giving jam-making a try, here are a few tips:

*shop year-round for bargains on sugar, pectin and jars and seals. I have had great luck finding these on clearance. Last fall, for instance, I found boxes of pectin on clearance at Walmart for 75 cents a box. That was a great price, but I ended up paying just 25 cents a box after using the 50-cent coupon inside each box. Since the boxes were all dated 2010 and 2011, I bought enough boxes to last the next three years. This year’s sugar supply was free, thanks to a great coupon that tripled at Harris Teeter. The seals were also purchased on clearance for less than half the regular price.

*check yard sales for canning jars. Two or three years ago, I hit the jackpot, buying six boxes of canning jars that were still sealed in the boxes for $2 each. Someone’s jam-making plans that went bust turned into my bargain.

*encourage your jam recipients to return the jars and rims, which can be used over and over again. Only the seals must be replaced.

*ask your farmer if he has bruised fruit for sale at a lower price. In the height of the season, farmers at the farmer’s market are often willing to sell their culls at a lower price.

*finally, don’t be intimidated. Jam is not that difficult to make. I simply use the recipe chart included in every box of fruit pectin.

Later in the summer, I will make blueberry, peach and fig jam, depending on the availability of local fruit and the price. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to be given fresh figs from a friend’s tree, which I turned into jam. 

There’s something almost magical about giving homemade jam as a gift, particularly at Christmastime. It’s reminiscent of simpler times. And reminiscent of spring.

As I often write on my homemade tags: “Bringing you warm thoughts of springtime on a cold winter morning.”


DIY Birthdays: A wrapup of 11 budget-friendly ideas

15 04 2009

img_16921The cake has been eaten, the presents unwrapped, the thank you notes sent. All that’s left of my daughter’s 11th birthday are the fabulous memories. I invested a lot of time on the party, but not much cash. What a great feeling. Much like that after-Christmas feeling when you’ve stuck to a budget and are not dreading that January credit card statement.

I didn’t keep an exact count of how much I spent on the party because I used so many items I already had on hand. But if I had to put a figure on it, I would say the entire party cost less than $10.

Many of you may be skeptical. How much fun can a kids’ party be on so small of a budget? Let me give you a run-down of what we did at Caroline’s “dog lover’s” party.

First, Caroline and her five guests made homemade dog treats, following a recipe I found on the Internet. Click here to check it out. They mixed up the dough, rolled it out img_1653and cut out shapes with dog-themed cookie cutters I had on hand and borrowed from friends. (I bought two jars of peanut butter at $1 each and a five-pound bag of flour at $1.79 for the recipe. The rest of the ingredients I had on hand.)

While the treats were baking, the girls watched the first part of  Bolt, a movie about a super hero dog with his own TV show. (We rented the movie from Redbox on Monday, using the code for a FREE rental!) Click here to read my post on Redbox.

When the treats were finished baking, my homemade pizza went in the oven for the girls’ lunch. (I used three of the many Pillsbury pizza crusts I bought at Kroger a couple weeks ago for a few cents each. They also munched on chips I bought FREE with those great coupons from a Pepsi rebate a few weeks ago.)

The birthday party plates and napkins, along with a matching mylar balloon, were leftovers from her family party on Friday evening. All were purchased at a dollar store.

Next, Caroline opened her presents. She had asked that her friends bring a donation of dog food or treats for the animal shelter rather than a gift for her. Each of the girls went around in a circle, showing what she brought for the animals.

img_1683After that, we loaded up the girls and took them to the SPCA of Wake County in Garner to drop off their donations and take a FREE tour, which I had previously arranged. Led by the shelter’s education coordinator, the tour was fabulous. The girls learned all about taking care of pets and how the shelter protects animals and finds homes for them. The girls also got the chance to pet a rabbit, play with the cats and play with two border collie mix puppies.

At 11, these girls were the perfect age to learn all about responsible pet ownership. They oohed and aahed their way through the shelter and especially loved giving treats to the puppies. If you’re a local reader of my blog, click here to check out the SPCA’s tour opportunities.

Once we got home, the girls ate their ice cream and dog bowl cake. The cake was such a huge hit, the girls all asked for a second piece. (The cake, which I estimated to cost about $3.25 for the ingredients, was the most expensive part of the party.)

After that, they finished watching the movie. When their moms came to pick them up, the girls went home with a huge goodie bag filled with the dog treats they had made themselves.

With so many of today’s parties at bowling alleys, roller skating rinks and gymnasiums, I think an at-home party is almost a novelty. And don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a couple of parties at these expensive venues so I’m not criticizing those who choose that route. I’m simply saying that you don’t have to spend a bunch of money for kids to have fun.

With three kids, I have hosted just about every type of birthday party imaginable. Themes have run the gamut — from pirates and baseball to Barbie and roller skating. But my most favorite children’s parties were those I have spent time on rather than money. This year’s party definitely ranks right up there in the top 10 — and that’s saying a lot considering I have hosted more than 40 children’s parties over the years for my three kids. (Thank goodness the children’s party circuit is over for my two boys!)

Here are some of my money-savings tips for at-home parties:

1) Use the Internet to do your planning. Once you and your child have decided on a theme, simply Google key phrases, such as “pirate birthday cake” or “princess party favors,” to see what other parents have come up with. Unless you are super creative, which I am not!, you’re better off taking advantage of the tips and ideas of others. If you are totally at a loss for ideas, check out, the online version of the magazine. Click here  to check out its A-to-Z list of party themes and ideas. 

2) Make your own invitations, using craft supplies you have on hand or using your computer to make an invitation with your child’s photo on it. Better yet, have your child make his or her own invitations. Keep in mind, these invitations are usually tossed out after the event so they don’t have to be perfect.

3) Keep decorations simple and make them do double duty, if possible. Party favors, for example, can be used as table decorations. Use paper punches to make confetti for the party table.

4) Instead of spending a bunch of money on goodie bags filled with trinkets and candy that frequently get tossed out, think about having the kids make something to bring home as their party favors. Once again, you get two for the price of one. I have heard of kids tie-dying t-shirts, for instance, as a party activity turned party favor. The most creative thing we did along these lines was during my daughter’s sleep-over party last year. Capitalizing on that sleepover theme, the girls sewed their own pillowcases. For some girls, this was the very first time they had ever been exposed to sewing. They went home the next morning so proud to show off their “party favor.”

4) Utilize your talents and those of your friends. If you are a scrapbooker or your husband likes to garden, for example, consider planning a party theme around these talents. If an older sibling is a cheerleader or basketball player, have them teach a clinic for the party. When we sewed pillowcases last year, a friend of mine who is a talented seamstress helped out, giving the girls mini sewing lessons while guiding them through the pillowcase construction.

5) Make your child’s cake. Every year, for my daughter’s family birthday party, I make a doll cake — the very same cake that my mother made for me since my first birthday. It’s the same doll, the same recipe and the same mold. This has become such a tradition — and it’s so easy — that we wouldn’t think of doing anything different. Also, be sure to check the Internet for cake ideas. That’s where we discovered the idea for this year’s dog bowl cake. Click here to read all about it.

6. Take advantage of local resources or surroundings that may be free or extremely low-cost, such as the free SPCA tour. Other ideas: hosting a pool or luau party at your neighborhood pool, a camping party in your backyard or a game room party at your local community center. A fishing party could be held at a nearby lake, and most communities offer free or low-cost permits for children.  

7. If your child is begging for a party at a pricey venue see if you can duplicate that party at home. Instead of taking a group of girls to have their nails done, have a “spa party” at home. I helped a friend of mine pull off this party one year with terrific results. We painted the girls’ finger nails and pampered them with lotions, cucumbers on their eyes, a facial scrub and, of course, plenty of magazines to read.

If your child wants to go to the movies for his party, rent a brand-new DVD and set up a “theater” in your home. Dim the lights, serve popcorn in those cute red and white boxes or bags and let each kid pick a theater-sized box of candy, which are readily available at most dollar stores.

8. If you’re absolutely set on having a bowling or skating party, consider skipping the party option these places offer and simply take the kids there for an outing, then bringing them home for cake and ice cream. Paying a $6 fee per child will end up being far more affordable and your cake and ice cream will be far tastier than any a rink could offer. And you might even be able to use coupons!

9. Buy your paper goods at your local dollar store. Our Dollar Tree has a great selection of party goods and mylar balloons. Better yet, consider using your every-day dishes to save money and reduce trash.

10. Borrow items you aren’t likely to use again rather than purchasing. For this year’s party, I already had a few dog-related cookie cutters but not enough for the party. I didn’t want any more so I borrowed. In the past, I’ve borrowed an ice cream maker, jump ropes and hula hoops. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve loaned out our bingo set. 

11. Offer your child the option of skipping the party in favor of inviting just one or two friends for an outing to a zoo, a museum, a day trip to the beach, or other special location.

Got any budget-friendly birthday ideas? I would absolutely love to hear them because I’ve still got a few more parties to go before sweet Caroline ages out of the kids’ party circuit. Leave a message in the comments section below. Thanks!

DIY: Kids’ birthday cakes

14 04 2009

img_1647My daughter turned 11 last week but is celebrating with friends today. That means I was in the kitchen yesterday whipping up a birthday cake to go with her party theme.

Why pay a fortune for a cake when you can do it yourself for much less — and bake up some fond childhood memories?

A big animal lover and the proud owner of a miniature dachshund named Maggie, Caroline chose to have a dog theme. At 11, she is computer savvy so I sent her to the Internet to look for instructions for a dog-themed cake.

All of the cakes she found were cute, but several were way above my abilities. After 21 years of  kids’ birthday cakes, I know my limits.  We settled on a super-simple cake with a high cuteness quotient.

As you can see from the photo, Caroline was all smiles with the dog bowl cake she helped me make. We used a chocolate cake mix to bake two 9-inch layers. Then, following the instructions here, we carved and frosted the layers into a dog bowl. In case you haven’t already guessed, the dog food is Cocoa Puffs.

The total cost of the cake was about $3.25. The box of Cocoa Puffs was the most expensive  item at $2 after coupon. The cans of frosting were 50 cents each after triple coupons and the cake mix was no more than 25 cents.

To compare, quarter sheet cakes at the grocery store start at $18. Add any type of personalization, and you’re looking at $25 or more. Add a licensed plastic toy or two, and the price skyrockets.

I have, on a few spendthrift occasions, purchased cakes. But for most of my kids’ birthdays, I have created my own — with the help of a magazine article or, more recently, online instructions. Some of my favorites:

*an orange striped Tigger cake, which required massive amounts of cutting and piecing together to form the head, body and tail of the famous friend of  Winnie the Pooh.

*a giant Lego cake made by placing cupcakes upside down on a 13 by 9 cake and employing massive amounts of frosting.img_0705

*a sleepover cake made with a 13 by 9 cake,  Twinkies, vanilla wafers and, you guessed it, massive amounts of frosting.

*and my most favorite of all, a doll cake I make every year for my daughter’s family birthday party — theimg_0700 very same cake that my mother made for me since my first birthday. It’s the same doll, the same recipe and the same mold. This has become such a tradition — and it’s so easy — that we wouldn’t think of doing anything different.

None of these cakes looks professional, but they all have a certain homemade charm to them. And I always tell myself, these cakes are not works of art but rather the work of a mom looking to make her child’s big day special without breaking the bank.

If the cake is a real dud, I remind myself that the evidence will be eaten.img_1645

DIY: birthday invitations

13 04 2009

img_1637My daughter’s birthday party is coming up so instead of buying invitations we decided to make them.

Do-It-Yourself projects are not always the cheapest route to take because materials can be pricey. But in this case, everything we used we already had on hand in my scrapbooking stash or we borrowed.

Money spent: $0.

Money saved: $3 to $6. This may not seem like much, but why spend any money when you can make them for nothing. Plus, these invitations are personalized and of much higher quality than you could find in any store.  If I were to pay someone to produce personalized invitations, the cost would be much higher. I’m guessing at least $25.

Time spent: a lot. But, since my little girl is tracked out of year-round school right now, I considered it a nice mother-daugther project.

These invitations are just the first phase in her low-cost, high-fun birthday party, which I’ll blog about later.

Making your own fast food

30 03 2009

img_1633My husband and I are big fans of KFC’s mashed potato bowls. For the uninitiated, the bowls are filled with mashed potatoes, then topped with bite-size pieces of crunchy chicken, corn, gravy and shredded cheese.

As much as we enjoy them, they are an infrequent treat in our household. At $4.99 each, they are bad for the wallet — not to mention bad for the waistline.

So I was quite proud of myself yesterday when it dawned on me I could make my own mashed potato bowls for a fraction of the cost.

I started with a rotisserie chicken I purchased at Harris Teeter. Since it was Sunday, rotisserie chickens are $4.99 instead of the usual $6.99. Lucky for me, I also had a $3 wine tag coupon, making my final price just $2. As I was picking the meat off the bone, I microwaved a bag of Steamfresh corn and started a bag of instant mashed potatoes on the stove. I got both items free, by the way, during triple coupon promotions.

I layered the items in deep soup bowls, sprinkling a little bit of shredded cheese on top and voila, we had our very own mashed potato bowls. (I omitted the gravy only because I didn’t have any on hand.)

They were delicious, if I do say so myself. And healthier. And very affordable. Besides the $2 chicken, I paid a few pennies for the sprinkling of cheese I used. That’s it. And I still have chicken left over for another dish.

Have you made any fast food facsimiles? I’d love to hear about it.

Reporting back on my adventures in banana bread baking

27 03 2009

img_1620I had intended to post yesterday on my latest adventures in banana bread baking with super-cheap reduced bananas after finding an awesome banana bread website . Click here and here to read my original posts and here to view the banana bread site.

But I never got around to baking — or anything else for that matter — after receiving the dreaded “call from the school.” Seems my little girl went down with a thud during a game of dodge ball in PE class, breaking her wrist in two places. Ouch.

What a difference a day makes. With a Tar Heel blue cast on her arm, she’s all smiles today, especially taste-testing my chocolate banana bread muffins. Click here to see the recipe.

It was really hard deciding on a recipe — with so many to choose from. In the end, I went for simplicity and availability of ingredients. 

They are delicious and were ready in no time. But if……….or rather, when I make them again, I will add a few more chocolate chips. Thanks bananabreadnut!img_1621

Banana bread on the cheap

17 03 2009

img_1607img_1593Mmm. Banana bread. I love a good banana bread, but if you’re anything like me, you rarely make it because you always wait until you have several bananas sitting all speckled and forgotten on the counter. And at our house, that almost never happens because we eat them so quickly.

So yesterday, while I was in the produce section of the grocery, I snatched up a 50-img_1599cent bag of over-ripe bananas. For fun, I weighed them on the produce scale — 2 1/4 pounds. Not bad. That’s just 22 cents a pound as compared to the usual 67 cents that groceries in our area typically charge.

Why wait for my full-price bananas to go mushy when I can buy them that way at one-third the price? I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure this one out!

After five or six days of rainy and cold weather in a row, it was the perfect day to bake. My daughter and I whipped up a loaf together in no time. She did most of the work, including the mashing, the egg cracking and the mixing. As she donned oven mitts and slipped the loaf pan in the oven, it struck me how grown-up she has become on the eve of her 11th birthday.

We used a recipe I found on the site of one of my favorite bloggers, Crystal, over at I tinkered with it just slightly to make it a little more healthy. See my notes below.

Quick and Easy Banana Bread

2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup oil (I used applesauce)
1 cup sugar (I used 1/4 Splenda and 3/4 cup sugar)
2 eggs, beaten
4 ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 Tbsp. milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir flour, soda, baking powder and salt together. Set aside. Combine oil and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in eggs, banana, vanilla, and milk. Add flour mixture and blend until just combined. Pour into greased loaf pan and bake until toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry – about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes and transfer to wire rack.

Next time, I think I’ll make muffins instead of the loaf. That way, I can pop them in the freezer to have on hand for breakfasts on the go or a quick addition to my husband’s and daughter’s lunches.

I substituted the applesauce for the oil to make them a little more healthy. Same goes for the Splenda substitution. I honestly couldn’t tell any difference in the taste. Next time, I may also sneak in a little flax seed to boost the nutrition content even further. And if I have any EggBeaters on hand, I will substitute those for the eggs.

What about you? Do you have any favorite recipes using ripe bananas? Or do you have any tips on how to get cheap bananas? Let me know.img_1601