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Simple Cooked Play Dough Recipe (Valentine’s Gift Idea)

Recipe from Lacey

If you are like me, the thought of children receiving large amounts of sweets this upcoming Valentine’s Day is a little overwhelming. The children in my home have sensitivities to sugar; in other words, I find them bouncing off each other and furniture when they eat too much sugar.

So, as not to add to the sugar hysteria this weekend, I made individual play dough gifts for my daughter to share at a Church Valentine’s Day party.

Be sure to add a tag explaining that your gift is play dough as you wouldn’t want children to think it was candy! Homemade play dough is safe to eat, but doesn’t taste very yummy! It’s also fun to include a cookie cutter with the play dough gift bag.

Lacey is a military wife and homeschooling mother to two darling little girls. She loves creating, learning, and growing in her faith.

Ask Jesse: Should I set up a Flexible Spending Account?

I wanted more info on opening a flexible spending account for medical expenses. I dont know much about them except that I should have one. How does it work? I would love to get one up and running for 2011! How much do you budget per person? -Mary

I have received numerous emails regarding setting up a IRS-approved savings account for medical expenses after my post a couple of weeks ago on HSAs. Right now, my understanding is there are several options: the Flexible Savings Account (FSA), the Medical Savings Account (MSA) and the Health Savings Account (HSA) (See IRS Pub 969)

I do not know much about the FSA, as I have personally never had one. My understanding is that you set aside a certain amount each month for qualified health expenses and that, if you do not use all the money you have set aside by the end of the year, you lose whatever you have left because it does not roll over and accumulate into the next calendar year.

Because I didn’t want the hassle of trying to guess what expenses we would have over a year’s period of time and I didn’t like the idea of losing money we do not use, I didn’t even look into the possibility of opening an FSA. Instead, we elected to open up an HSA, which would allow us to keep the money we put in over the course of a year (up to $6150, married filing jointly for 2010) that would then be tax deductible on our 2010 return.

The MSA is similar to the HSA, but created for the self-employed or employees of small businesses. To open the HSA, I called a local broker who sold a variety of health insurance products from a number of different companies so I could get a good match for us that qualified under the IRS’s guidelines for a High Deductible Health Plan.

Once we got the health insurance side squared away, I contacted a local bank that had a Health Savings Account product, into which I put our annual contributions. The money in this account, if unused for medical expenses, rolls over annually and continues to build and grow interest.

I take what we would probably pay for regular PPO coverage, subtract what we currently pay for our HDHP coverage and put the rough balance in our HSA. At this stage, the annual contribution allowance covers the high deductible we have on our health plan, so we would technically not be out of pocket anything if we had a major medical condition that wiped out our deductible because our plan covers 100% above our family deductible. (Some HSAs are 80/20 instead of 100, but I wanted to stay away from something that would leave us exposed to liability in the event we maxed the deductible.)

As of now, I have been very pleased with it and it is amazing how much more aware we have become with our medical needs when we are on the hook for most expenses.

Jesse Paine is a licensed attorney who owns his own law firm. He’s married to Crystal and is the numbers nerd of the team! If you have a question you’d like him to answer in a future column, you can submit it here.

The content of this column intended for informational use only and is not to be construed as providing legal, investing, accounting, or other professional advice. Your situation is factually specific and you should accordingly seek qualified professional counsel concerning your specific legal, investing or accounting needs.

Time Management Tips for the Work-Outside-The-Home Mom

Guest post by Sarah.

Some days are more hectic than others: baseball practice, the gym that is seriously calling my name, my 5-year-old who wants to build the (what seems like) millionth set of Legos I’ve bought him, dinner has yet to be started and my word, how can there be so much laundry for just three people?

My husband and I both work full-time outside of the home so maintaining a sense of organization can be quite challenging at times. It’s an everyday occurrence, this organization thing, and I’ve learned several tips and tricks along the way to help me stay (somewhat) sane.

I’ve been a full-time working mom since my son was 18 months old and have compiled a list of my favorite ways to make the most of my time as a full-time working mother in the hopes of being the best wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend and employee I can be.

Make the Most of Your Time

We all love our downtime. I know I do! Reading a book, cooking, spending time with my family, those are some things that I find such joy in doing. But I know that if I have three piles of laundry on the couch waiting to be folded and put away, I am not truly enjoying my downtime.

One trick that I’ve learned is to set the timer on my oven for 15 minutes right when I get home from work. I don’t sit down until that 15 minutes is over and I’ve accomplished a task that needed accomplishing! You can easily fold and put away a load of laundry in 15 minutes!

Another thing that I do to get more out of my day is to utilize my lunch hour at work. Instead of going to lunch with co-workers, I use it to run errands, study (I’m in school part-time) or pay bills. It’s a win-win because I save money by not eating out and I get things done.

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead is crucial. While we all know that life has a way of deterring us from our plans, if we have a plan in place, it makes those times of distress appear much more calm.

Here are some of the things that have really helped me in the whole planning arena:

:: Calendar :: I use my BlackBerry calendar feature for things like doctor appointments, class times and reminders of little things that need to be done throughout the day. For the things that require more space, I use my momAgenda Home Office Edition to stay organized. It is a major lifesaver! I can write down birthdays, jot down to-do lists, keep random things in the front and back pockets (such as our tickets to events) and elaborate on calendar items that need more than just a “doctor appointment at 11 a.m.” notation. Plus, I purchased it in the fun zebra print so it’s functional and stylish.

:: Chores :: I created a color coded chore chart in Microsoft Excel (I heart spreadsheets!) and hung it up on the refrigerator so that we could have a visual of what needed to be done each day. For example, on Monday evenings, I do one load of laundry. On Tuesday evenings, I clean the kitchen and do one load of laundry. Obviously, my load is heavier on the weekends but even just doing something small each night really goes a long way.

:: Clothes :: My 5-year-old is at the age where he likes picking out his clothes for school and getting himself dressed on his own. My mom helped me come up with a system that works for us: each Sunday, we choose five outfits for the week and fold them up (pants, shirt, underwear, socks) in the very bottom drawer of his dresser. This way, he can pull open the drawer himself and easily have access to his clothes. We keep his backpack and jacket in the car so that we don’t have to worry about forgetting it in the morning. As for myself and my husband, well, we (I) could do better in this department. I’m still working on a system for myself… if you’re a work-outside-the-home mom, I’d love to know your secrets.

:: Meals :: I first read about menu planning on Organizing Junkie and thought it was genius! Plan your meals on Sunday, go grocery shopping and you don’t have to worry about the, “What’s for dinner?” conversation that we’ve all had time and time again. You’ll already have a plan in place and if you do deviate from the plan, no big deal.

Sometimes I just don’t feel like cooking and grabbing take-out is more simple and that’s perfectly fine. Freeze the ingredients that need to be saved from the recipe that you were going to make or just make it the next night. I often work in one night of leftovers a week for that very reason.

A word of advice: when I first started menu planning (several years ago) I tended to choose meals that were difficult and time-consuming. I was proud of myself for planning and doing the grocery shopping but when it came time to actually make the recipe (at 6 p.m. after a long day at work), I was exhausted. I quickly learned that crock pot meals and casseroles are fabulous meal options for my family. In no time, you’ll be able to figure out what works and doesn’t work for your family.

It’s Okay to Take Shortcuts

This one might sound a bit odd but here’s an example: I’m all for buying the celery that is not pre-washed and pre-sliced. It’s less expensive because you have to do the work of cleaning it and cutting it up as opposed to buying the one that comes all neat and tidy and ready to be eaten. I have found though, that sometimes it’s better for me to just by the things that are already pre-cut, pre-sliced or pre-cooked.

Why? Well, a few months ago, I bought a block of cheese with the intent of cutting it into cubes for my lunches during the week. Somehow, I totally forgot about doing it and the mundane task of chopping up cheese before work each morning seemed like too much trouble. To make a long story short, the cheese molded and I had to throw it out —  $4 and some change that I may have well just thrown down the garbage disposal.

So I looked for an alternative. Sargento makes cheese bites that you can buy pre-cut in fun little shapes so that all you have to do is toss them in a Rubbermaid container or Ziploc baggie and call it a day. It may not seem like much but I promise, it made my life just a tiny bit easier. While more expensive, yes, you can bet that I didn’t throw the $3 and some change that it cost me for that pack of cheese bites down the drain. I ate them all week long and nothing went to waste.

Other things that I like to buy already prepared for me (from time to time) are: apple slices, grapes that are washed, watermelon cubes, sliced carrots and frozen brown rice. Again, I’m very picky about what I purchase like this because I do know that it’s cheaper to do it yourself. But when you work full-time, go to school part-time and have what seems like a hundred things going on at once, the few extra dollars are totally worth it.

Accept the Fact That You Can’t Do It All

I don’t like the word can’t. In fact, I’ve tried to eliminate it entirely from my vocabulary but in this instance — the notion that you can’t do it all — I’m totally, 100% okay with using it.

It took me several years after my husband and I got married to admit to myself and my family that I can’t be the person who does all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, bath-giving, boo-boo kissing, grocery shopping… the list goes on and on.

As much as I’d like to be the one who does all of these things, I simply can’t. I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help; in fact, my 5-year-old loves cleaning with me. I give him a task (i.e, spraying the doors with a vinegar/water mixture and going to town wiping them down) and he loves the challenge that comes with doing something that a grown-up would normally do.

I had to re-program my inner control-freak to not have a meltdown when my husband folded a piece of clothing differently than I did. Once you accept the fact that you can’t do it all, you’ll actually find that you will accomplish so much more.

And while this all looks good on paper there are some nights that I come home, collapse on the couch and watch a movie with my 5-year-old. Dinner doesn’t get made, clothes are left to wrinkle in the dryer and all I care about is curling under a blanket with a good book.

Sarah is a wife and mom who loves to read, write, be outdoors, watch television and most importantly, spend time with her family and friends.

Why markers are once again banned at our house

I had to make a quick five-minute phone call this morning to get some tax paperwork straightened out. While I was on the phone, I made the mistake of not keeping Silas (my 22-month-old) within my line of sight.

Somehow, he found two markers — which I had thought were well-hidden — and whipped up a rather large wall mural for us:

The good news? He was thoughtful enough to do his artwork with washable markers instead of permanent markers, so a Mr. Clean Eraser and lots of elbow grease later, all traces of the drawing were removed.

We really should buy stock in Mr. Clean Erasers for how often I’ve been using them recently. I’ve yet to find anything which holds a candle to them when it comes to removing kid-stains off the walls.

Here’s to hoping your day is off to a smoother start than mine! 🙂

Super Savings Saturday

I had big plans to hit four stores this week seeing as I sort of took last week “off” from shopping. But by the time I planned to go out and go shopping on Tuesday, the snowed at moved in and the roads were getting quite treacherous. So I stayed home, re-vamped the menu with what I had and we made-do.

We didn’t eat the most balanced diet ever because we kind of had an odd assortment of ingredients on hand, but our bellies were filled and we were thankful to be in a warm house with electricity — something I know many others didn’t have this past week.

Once the roads cleared some, I took Kaitlynn out for a quick shopping trip on Thursday to Dillon’s to purchase the above groceries. You can see the full details on Thursday’s shopping trip as well as a price break-down here.

Other than that, we stayed home most of this week and enjoyed lots of extra reading and snuggling time. My husband even stayed home from work half of one day and we had an at-home afternoon movie date — something we’ve not done for a very long time! It was wonderful to enjoy such a relaxing pace for a few days.

The snow is finally melting so I’m planning to go out to Target, Aldi, Dillon’s and maybe even Walmart and the health food store later this afternoon. In case it snows again this coming week, I figured I had better take advantage of a Saturday afternoon when Jesse’s home to go out and get a bunch of grocery shopping done!

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