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9 Feb 2011   ·   84
Money Saving Mom

Impromptu Freezer Cooking Day: Preparing the Kitchen

We’ve been busy as beavers this morning! I’m finally sitting down for a coffeebreak while the children watch Jelly Telly.

Breakfast was Oatmeal with Turbinado and Mini Chocolate Chips. I think I won some big brownie points with the children for letting them have chocolate for breakfast.

I found some Enjoy Life Chocolate Chips marked down to $0.99 per bag at the health food store on Saturday night, so I’ve been a bit more lenient with dolling out chocolate chips around here. Just don’t ask me how many handfuls I’ve consumed in the last few days, okay? 😉

Then it was time to clean the kitchen. I have no idea how it manages to collect the messes it does in such a short period of time. It was completely clean yesterday afternoon! The only good thing is that I’ve found if I try to have it all cleaned up at least once a day, it never becomes overwhelmingly unmanageable.

Much better! The children all settled in to do some crafts at the kitchen table while I started in on my Freezer Cooking List.

Next up: Chocolate Chip Pancakes, Bread Dough and Chicken

9 Feb 2011   ·   114
Money Saving Mom

Impromptu Freezer Cooking Day: The Plan

We got eight inches of snow yesterday afternoon and evening, so we’re staying put today. And just for fun (and because I’m hoping to warm up the house a little more by using the stove and oven!), we’re having an Impromptu Freezer Cooking Day!

I’ll be live-blogging my progress a few times today so you can peek in on the goings-on in our bustling household.

Here’s my plan:

List of Things I Hope to Make

::Chocolate Chip Pancakes

::Cinnamon Swirl Bread

::Bag of chicken breasts baked and chopped

::Brown Bag Burritos

::Green Rice Casserole

::Freeze oranges (for smoothies)

::Granola

::Ultimate Double Chocolate Chip Brownies

I’ll post an update in a few hours to let you know how things are going.

Are you cooking/baking anything today?

8 Feb 2011   ·   41
Money Saving Mom

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.

8 Feb 2011   ·   106
Money Saving Mom

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 MoneySavingMom.com 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.

7 Feb 2011   ·   87
Money Saving Mom

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.

7 Feb 2011   ·   136
Money Saving Mom

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! 🙂

5 Feb 2011   ·   27
Money Saving Mom

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!

Would you like to know what the best deals and coupon match-ups are for your local stores? Be sure to check out the Store Deals section of our site where we post the best deals and coupon match-ups each week for over 100 different stores across the country. You can sign up to receive the top deals in your email inbox each week as soon as they are posted!

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Did you snag any great deals or bargains this week or save money in other ways? If so, be sure to post about them on your blog and leave your link below. Please remember that this weekly round-up is to share deals you personally got and/or money you were able to save this week. In order to keep this weekly round-up focused on helping and inspiring others in their efforts to save money, links which have little-to-no content other than promoting affiliate links, etc. will be deleted. Also, to make it easy for everyone to navigate quickly through the links, your link must link directly to your Super Savings Saturday post.

4 Feb 2011   ·   225
Money Saving Mom

Monthly financial check-up

How did you do in January? We finally sat down together with our financial advisor and got some things straightened out/set up for our businesses and retirement savings. It feels good to have that all in place and to now be saving 10% of our income towards retirement. Lord-willing, this will allow us to not be a burden to our children financially when we are old and feeble someday!

We’re now working hard at funding our children’s educational savings accounts. We decided to do something rather out-of-the-ordinary and actually fund them in the amount we’ve both agreed upon in one lump sum, rather than just put in a yearly amount. Since our children are still young, we realized that compound interest is going to play out favorably for them over the next 12 to 17 years, so it would be less expensive for us to go ahead and just put in one lump sum for each of them now. This also will allow us to have one less thing to have a budget category for once we are finished saving the amount we’ve determined we feel we want to put towards their education.

We are not putting this money in typical educational savings accounts, even though it’s a little less tax efficient because we don’t want it to only be ear-marked for college. We definitely expect that at least some of our children will attend college, but some may be more entrepreneurial and may want to start a business in high school or pursue learning outside of college (such as a hands-on internship).

While I definitely think that college is a wise choice in many circumstances, since I didn’t go to college, I tend to be rather counter-cultural in believing that traditional college is not necessarily a necessity for every single young person. We hope to encourage our children to seek God and determine what their own bents, interests and passions are and then we want to help them out financially as they pursue those — whether that be college or some other route.

At any rate, here’s our financial goals update for January:

1. Give generously to the needs in our community and around the world. (This is an ongoing goal that we’re seeking to make a priority each month so we’re not checking it off.)

2. Pay cash for a replacement washer and dryer for our very used set. (DONE)

3. Pay cash for a replacement for Jesse’s van. (DONE)

4. Pay cash for a couch for our basement family room. (DONE)

5. Pay cash for bunk beds for the girls. (DONE)

6. Fully fund our IRAs. (DONE)

7. Bump up our retirement savings to 10% of our income. (DONE)

8. Fund our children’s educational savings.

9. Double our Emergency Fund Savings (Instead of having around six month’s worth of expenses set aside, we’re planning to set aside a year’s worth of expenses.)

10. Save 40% towards our goal of paying cash for commercial real estate.

We’d love to hear about your recent financial goals and successes! You can post about it on your blog and leave your link in the comments. Or, just share about your progress/goals in the comments. Let’s all keep each other accountable to be better stewards of our resources!

4 Feb 2011   ·   10
Money Saving Mom

We Paid Cash! :: Seven Months to Invest in Our Business

We paid cash!

A testimony from Susan from Frugalouis

On a date night shortly before my husband’s computer programming contract ended, we got to musing. What if he just took time off after this contract instead of trying to jump right into something else? What if we were purposeful and set aside a period of time to invest in our own business? Could we do it?

My husband Ed wrote and sold software long before we married. This business brought in a very part-time income for us, but not nearly enough to support our growing family. If we ever were to get to the point of being fully self-employed, we both knew his software needed to be available on the web.

And so “Project GROW” was born: Get it Running On the Web.

Seven months for a family of four to choose to live on little-to-no income, with the goal of being self-employed and flexible down the road.

Here’s how it worked for us:

  • That night at the restaurant we hammered out a detailed schedule for our family. Included in each week was about forty-five hours of time set aside for Ed to work on Project GROW. We knew that this way if (when!) things ate into his time, he was still likely to get in at least forty hours a week.
  • We made sure to schedule in time for date nights and our family. With other things being tight during this time, we wanted to maximize time with Ed/Daddy.
  • We set goals and a time-line. This included how long we were planning to devote and some markers to guide us toward completion.
  • Our budget became our friend. Since we were blessed to go into Project GROW with a fully-funded emergency fund, we knew we had the resources at our disposal to live without income for several months. However, we were not guaranteed that Ed would find work immediately after Project GROW was complete. With this in mind, we set a budget that was significantly less than our spending prior to Project GROW. This budget amount became our “income” for each month.
  • Money-saving became serious business around our house. While I had been couponing and following MoneySavingMom.com for about a year prior to this, now we really needed to stretch the bucks. Our commitment to using cash increased as Project GROW progressed. While we had gone into the project paying off our one credit card in full each month, by the end of our seven months we chose to be completely credit card-less.
  • We knew we were in this as a team. I think this was a crucial piece of the equation. Together we came up with the name “Project GROW”, which ended up being a great “handle” for all the times we referred to this huge adventure our family was on. We started out dreaming about Project GROW together, and we planned our schedule together. And most importantly, together we prayed about this undertaking.
  • My husband knew the skills he was learning and refining would make him more marketable regardless of how our new product sold. In many ways this was our “safety net” for investing so much time and money.

What happened is that we only made about three months’ worth of transfers out of the savings account. God provided in amazing ways, including a small inheritance and simply making our money stretch.

The year before Project GROW, we had the largest income we’d ever had as a couple. Living frugally during that time of plenty helped us prepare for this chosen time of drought.

We Paid Cash Build BusinessOur seven months of investing full-time in our family business are now passed. Project GROW is mostly complete, and the web-based version of our product will be debuting soon. We realize that it will likely take years for us to get to the point of self-sufficiency. But imagine what it will be like when we do!

As a couple and a family, we’re glad that we stepped out and took a calculated risk toward financial independence. Instead of wondering and wishing, we did it, and now we’re excited to see what’s around the next bend.

Susan lives in St. Louis, is married to Ed and stay-at-home mom to their two little ones, ages one and three. She blogs at Frugalouis, “a frugal St. Louis Mom’s guide to the city”.

Have you saved up and paid cash for something — large or small? Submit your story for possible publication here.

3 Feb 2011   ·   79
Money Saving Mom

Frugal Failure: So much for my beautiful Cinnamon Sugar Bread!

You know how I promised you the Cinnamon Raisin Bread and Cinnamon Sugar Bread recipe this week?

Well, um, I thought I had tweaked the recipe and worked out the perfect combination of ingredients. However, when I went to make a final batch to make sure it worked correctly, I made a serious mistake: I forgot to put the paddles in the bread machine!

So I ran the whole dough cycle without any paddles. Which, ahem, is a rather pointless exercise.

When I finally discovered my mistake, it was too late in the day to run another dough cycle and bake the bread, so I just let the ingredients sit until the morning.

In the morning, I tried to run the dough cycle again, this time with the paddles in. Only (you’re not going to believe this!), one of the paddles wasn’t in all the way, so only half the dough got mixed up.

Determined not to waste the ingredients, I ran the dough through yet another short cycle. It rose and rolled out normally and baked into a beautiful loaf.

But the looks of this beautiful loaf were very deceiving, because when I cut into it, I found a practically hollow loaf.

Oops.

The girls and I ate the bread, regardless of the mishaps, and it was still quite good. But I thought the filling needed a little more tweaking and, obviously, I need to get my brain cells connected better so I can make dough correctly.

I promise I’ll experiment some more over the next few days and hopefully be able to present a delicious and near-perfect Cinnamon Raisin and Cinnamon Sugar Bread recipe next week. Hopefully!

Note: Apparently, I’m not the only one with bread issues this week, since Tammy also had a similar mishap. I guess I’m in good company. 🙂

3 Feb 2011   ·   83
Money Saving Mom

Today’s Dillon’s Shopping Trip

The roads finally cleared of snow enough for me to venture to the store today, so I headed to Dillon’s with Kaitlynn. Here’s what we got:

7 cans of tomatoes — on sale for $0.49 each when you buy 10 participating items, used 2 $0.80/3 coupons,$0.26 each after coupon

10-lb. sack of potatoes — marked down to $1.79

Quart of Silk soymilk — marked down to $1.49

1 tube Colgate toothpaste — on sale for $0.98, used $1/1 coupon, free after coupon

1 8-oz. block of Cheddar cheese — $1.77

1 Dannon 4-pack smoothies — marked down to $0.99, used $1/1 coupon, free after coupon

1 Yoplait yogurt — used free coupon

1 organic Mango — $1.79

1 4-pack of Activia yogurt— on sale for $1.88, used $1/1 coupon, $0.88 after coupon

Gallon of milk — $3.18 (Ouch! Anyone else noticing high milk prices recently?!)

Balance Bars — on sale for $0.50 each when you buy 10 participating items, used $1/3 Balance Bars coupon, $0.17 each after coupon

My total, after coupons and the Mega Event discount, was just shy of $15.

2 Feb 2011   ·   79
Money Saving Mom

Ask the Readers: Basic book on doing your own taxes?

Today’s question is from Charlotte:

I’m wondering if your readers can recommend a good, basic book about doing your own taxes or just taxes in general?

My husband has always filed our taxes because whenever I try to get involved, I quickly get overwhelmed. I feel like I know so little about tax laws, tax brackets and tax breaks, so I’m looking for a place to build a little knowledge base. I just don’t want to be afraid of taxes anymore.

What I’m looking for is a very basic book. Perhaps a tax book written for High School students, or at the very most freshmen in college. -Charlotte

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Money Saving Mom® readers? Read the submission guidelines and submit it here.