Sunday, January 27, 2013

Holiday Giving on a Budget

Is it too late to still talk about Christmas?  Where did January go???

Despite my misgivings about holiday shopping, Mike and I still keep gift giving at the heart of our Christmas activities.  I may not love the thrill of bargain hunting or the crowds on Black Friday, but I do love the look on someone's face when they receive something truly meaningful.

Due to misplaced receipts on my part, I'm not sure exactly how much we spent on gifts this year.  I'd put it at under $200, which accounts for things we bought, supplies purchased for homemade items, and several mailed packages. 

This year, we implemented a few new rules to keep spending in check:
  • No gifts for people who don't give back.  This allowed us to cross off most of our siblings and several friends from our list.  It's not a punishment thing, like we're offended others haven't given to us.  It's just recognizing that there's no pressure to give to those who don't feel obligated to return the same favor, you know? 
  • Local gifts for everyone else.  We have three sets of parents, so we decided to find them each a local, handmade gift for around $15.  Something that came from an artist, a local business, or from within the state. 
  • Put our skills to good use.  Between my love of cooking and Mike's superb photography, we wanted to continue our tradition of making something as part of our gifts.  Mike was able to order prints online at really good discounts and we skipped finding frames so each recipient could decide how they wanted to display their photos.
In the past, I've turned our kitchen into a complete disaster zone to create edible presents.  In 2010, we turned cheap flour and sugar into batches of cookies, chocolate-covered cherries, and breads.  Last year, several varieties of biscotti were the featured gift.  This year, I only had time for two simple recipes.

It all started because my dad, like most guys, is really hard to buy for.  His birthday is right after Christmas so we always need to double up his gifts. Luckily, he requested bird feeder accessories this year.  Not being the kind of person satisfied with buying a bag of bird feed and calling it good, I got creative.

I had seen these bird seed eggs in a Food Network magazine issue and thought surely one could make these at home (and for a hellavu lot cheaper!).  So I found this recipe and tried it out.  It's so simple!  Plain gelatin, water, bird seeds, some stirring, and voila!  A very cute gift for any bird lover.

It's way too early in the stores to find plastic Easter eggs, so I used muffin tins instead (with a bit of cooking spray so they would pop out easily).  I tied twine into little loops so these "cakes" could be hung.  They chilled in the fridge for two hours and then I dried them out in the oven overnight (no heat, just stashed away from our curious cats). 

I had only two minor surprises with this recipe.  First of all, plain gelatin stinks!  It's like sour stomach acid and glue paste.  Sensitive noses beware, but if you were boiling down real suet (rendered animal fat), it would be far worse.

Secondly, this made a HUGE batch.  I had three dozen cakes, which turned out to be a boom because then we had extra for the other parents (luckily they all love feathered friends!).

I packaged these up in plastic pans with lids that I had sitting around.  By all accounts, the cakes are going, well, like hot cakes!  And because there isn't any fat in these, they should have a long shelf life.

I definitely recommend this project.  It's easy, would be great for young kids, and you can customize the shapes beyond eggs or muffins.  Do note that the gelatin starts to set up quickly.  It really does become like a glue when it's that concentrated, so have your molds and any string ready to go beforehand.  

I bought a small bag of bird seeds for $3.50, the gelatin was around $3 (note - 1/3 cup = 8 individual packages, cheaper if you buy in bulk, which I did not).  Water is virtually free and prep time is maybe 20 minutes tops.  So much for so little - WINNING! 

The other recipe was for an Orange Creamsicle Drink Mix, a recipe that I got out of a Better Homes & Garden Food Gifts magazine and I can't find online anywhere for the life of me.  It involves vanilla instant pudding, orange drink mix, and lemonade mix.  Combine all into a form of instant crack and avoid gifting to any diabetic friends.  I found one of those glass Christmas tree jars on sale at Walmart for 40 cents and presented the mix with a little flair.

For our local purchases, we successfully found a bottle of wine, a flask of olive oil, a jar of honey, and a piece of pottery to satisfy our requirements.  It felt super awesome to hit our budget, find items that people would love, and contribute to the local economy.  To be fair, we found some gifts in Galena, IL, but they were all made there, so that's still pretty close.  

We were thrilled to receive more than a few homemade gifts ourselves.  Two of our moms are avid canners and we are armed with a beautiful array of relishes, preserves, chutneys, sauces, and pickled goodies that should last us a good while.        

 We weren't perfect this year.  Because I hosted a jewelry party earlier this summer, I scored some baubles for my mom and sister at some very enticing prices.  I participated in a work gift exchange that was $15.  We also bought books for our nieces and nephew, but I have no qualms with spending money on kids, especially when they ask for books!

Mike and I skipped gift giving this year, though I suppose Jamaica should count (details forthcoming, I promise!).  But I won't, because that blasts away any semblance of budget, lol.

Did you make or receive any DYI gifts this year?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Best Books I Read in 2012

Despite one of the busiest years in recent memories, I'm surprised by how many books I conquered in the last twelve months.  My reading schedule was sporadic at best, but I managed to cover a wide variety of genres and authors.  I utterly botched my goal of doing a blog review for each one, but here's an overview of my book shelf from 2012.

Top Picks

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (crime thriller)

Have been egged on for years that I should read this and finally did.  What was I waiting for?!?!  Decimated a whole weekend with this companion.  I can't find a single thing wrong with it - if you love crime fiction, you need to read this immediately.  Don't let people say the first 100 pages are boring - they don't know what patience is.   

Have prudently put off buying the other two books in the trilogy, for the temptation to consume them in one sitting would be far too great.  Am eying upcoming weekends for clearance though, lol.   

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø (crime thriller) 

Apparently the new crime writers are all from Scandinavian countries.  Wow, I honestly have all praise for this Norwegian mystery.  This is the 7th installment of a 9-book series, but detective Harry Hole is immediately accessible and fascinating.

If you like books about gruff detectives and clever serial killers, and descriptive violence doesn't put you off, you'll enjoy curling up on your couch with this one.  But maybe with the lights on.  Can't wait to explore the rest of the series. 
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins (YA dystopian fiction) 

I went directly from the movie theater to pick up the first book in the afternoon and finished it later at 2am.  I really wish these books had been around when I was a kid - I would have been all over them.  Easy reads geared at middle-schoolers, but nonetheless entertaining and raise some interesting issues about our future.  Eagerly waiting for the second movie to come out this spring!  

Different Seasons by Stephen King (short stories)

Several years ago, I read "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" because I always loved the movie, but for some reason, I never explored the other three tales until now.

"The Body" you're probably familiar with because of the movie Standby Me - it was comfy enough coming-of-age tale. "The Breathing Method" has the same groove as telling good ghost stories around a campfire.

But I was absolutely gripped by "The Apt Pupil."  A young kid discovers a hidden Nazi in his small town - the story descends from there.  At every turn, your mind keeps asking, "is he really going there???"  King knows how to spin a yarn that immediately sinks its hooks into you without letting go.  Twisted plots, characters of dubious intention, a touch of the paranormal: you. just. can't. put. the. damn. book. down.  

Full Dark, No Stars  by Stephen King (short stories)

As much as I enjoyed Different Seasons, you can tell King has come a long way since 1982.  His latest collection of short stories covers his usual gamut of the terrible, supernatural, and the downright disturbing. But if you like gothic fiction, that's exactly what you crave from King.  

I was completely captivated by each story and while I read this while traveling, it's no airplane read.  I wish more (mainstream) authors would explore short stories and novellas, or maybe they just know that King would blow all of them out of the water. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (true story)
Amazing story right here - found it while looking for popular books to feature in a literature class this summer.  Chronicles how one woman's cancer cells, taken unknowingly, have led to as many medical breakthroughs as they raise ethical issues about patient consent.  Not usually partial to nonfiction, but this reads like an episode of CSI or Criminal Minds.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (cultural/sociology)

Another book introduced to me at work.  This is a fantastic read and really generates a lot of discussion - highly recommend to anyone.  Definitely need to check out his other books. 

Honorable Mentions

Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King (detective fiction)

The twelfth edition in her Mary Russell series, this book was on target - I was neither delighted nor disappointed.  This is hands down my favorite book series (continuation of Sherlock Holmes but from his new partner Mary's point of view), but the last few editions haven't captivated my attention.  

I can see perfectly what the author is doing - playing around with the narrative and format to bring new options to readers.  They just don't have me on the edge of my seat like some earlier ones.  But that's ok - I'll gladly spend an afternoon with Ms. Russell and I impatiently wait to read her next adventure.  

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (fiction)

This book is much richer than the movie (no surprise).  It was a pretty decent read, though it's not one that I would return to again and again.  When you hear the book described - a fictional story about black maids in the 60s as told by a modern white woman - it's easy to misjudge it completely.  Read it first and then form an opinion.  

50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James (erotica, barely)

Yeah yeah, I hopped on the bandwagon.  Remember that my husband was away for most of this year ... eh hem.  Did I read the whole thing?  Yes.  Did it maybe aid with some stress relief?  <cough>  Was I motivated to read the other books?  No.  There's better stuff out there, just saying.  


Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (dystopian sci-fi)

One of those mandatory English major novels that I'm embarrassed I've never read (to be fair, it was never assigned).  Overall ok, not my favorite, but certainly glad I read it because the story is much deeper than the snippets of cultural references you get.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg / The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal (sociological, self-help) 

Both books offer intriguing insights about what motivates us and how we get stuck in a groove.  Both are worth a read (though I liked McGonigal's book better) - really helps you start looking at your own unique habits to see which ones are helping you and which ones need to be redirected.  There's no secret to making or undoing habits - it's trial and error - but you have to be aware of what your habits are in the first place to make any changes.  

Recommended by a friend, this is one of the weirdest books I've ever read.  Jenny Lawson is now a famous blogger, but her childhood and early marriage are one long potty joke.  Seriously, this book will crack you up as it explores the unusual twists and turns of Lawson's mind.  Only recommend if you can handle heavy doses of gross, swearing, disturbing, and hilarious.  


 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (YA sci-fi)

I read it because my work book club picked fantasy and I wanted to revisit this because I never really understood it as a kid.  I still didn't like it.

A Discovery of Witches / Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness (magical fiction)

Whereas I absolutely adored the first book, the second book was almost a complete miss for me.  Was it the 16th century setting that put me off because it's not an era I'm fond of or familiar with?  Might the explosion of characters and historical references been hard to keep track of?  Could my expectations have been misled, as the first book had more DaVinci Code-esque pacing whereas the second was pretty static? 

I wait patiently for the third installment.  I do want to know where the story goes and how it might possibly wrap up, but if I have to slog through another 600-pages of blah, I will be sad indeed.  

What were your top reads last year?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

31 Days of Things I Don't Need

Let's clear the air - Christmas is one of my least favorite times of the year.  Says the gal who writes this post well into the comfort of January.  

It's not the pretty lights, family obligations, holiday parties, or even the music that bothers me.  It's how gift giving has been hijacked.  It's become obligatory, demanded, and expected on a large scale.

It baffles me that people will complain about their mortgages and debts as they spend hundreds of dollars each Christmas on stuff that doesn't have any real meaning in their lives.  Even those who shout out guilt trips about "the real meaning of the season" still have lengthy shopping lists and rush around the malls with credit cards in hand like everyone else.

So to protest the consumerism that is so obnoxious during December, I decided to challenge myself to post a daily Facebook status about something that I didn't need.  I took a note from the folks who do this in Thanksgiving with things that they're thankful for.   

Here's what I came up with (with a slight cheat because we were on vacation for a week):    

Dec 1 - I don't need a house. Our condo is comfy and fits our lifestyle and budget. In fact, it's due for some deep cleaning and trips to Goodwill! One day, it would be nice to own a small home, but right now, I'm happy that we have a nice place to live that we can afford each month.

I often question whether home ownership should be pushed as much as it is. I am quite comfortable renting and we have currently have all the space we truly need. And while dreams of a cute cottage or Craftsmen bungalow with a German Shepherd puppy dance in our heads, it won't be in the financial cards for another 5-10 years.

My dream home - small and cozy.  Certainly not a McMansion.
Dec 2 - I don't need a brand new car. I'd only buy one for longevity and fuel efficiency, not because it's the latest design model. My car is from 2005 and our 1998 truck will eventually be replaced with something gently used. And I'd much rather go to a car show and oogle the classics.

Dec 3 - I don't need designer or trendy clothing. While I'm currently in the works of refining my professional wardrobe, I don't give a hoot about labels. If it fits, has a classic look that won't go out of style quickly, and I can feel that the fabric is durable, then it's a good potential for my closet.

Dec 4 - I don't need television/cable. Dumped it four years ago and haven't regretted it. It's certainly not a need and I don't want a stream of tempting yet unfulfilling entertainment. Admittedly, we use Netflix and Hulu to access Mad Men, The Cosby Show, and Scrubs, but it's very selective and not even on a weekly basis.

Beside, books are a better way to spend an evening.
Dec 5 - I don't need paper towels or napkins. We have cloth napkins and a bin of old rags for cat messes and the occasional kitchen snafu. I don't know how we as a society got convinced that disposable paper products are better than ones you simply rewash and use again. 

Dec 6 - I don't need a data plan on my phone. As an editor and teacher, I'm already tethered to a computer. Having 24/7 online access will not make me a better worker (though I know for some careers it certainly is a leg up, just not for me). I don't want to shell out the extra money for data either. 

Dec 7 - I don't need expensive jewelry. I like sparklies and they are useful for sprucing up your professional look, but I don't need precious metals or stones to do so - stuff that costs hundreds of dollars and may be extracted from the earth in inappropriate ways.

Between her and Elizabeth Taylor ...
Dec 8 - I don't need a tablet. I would only get one if it replaced our desktop or I thought it was a tool that made me at better at work. I know they're wonderful and you can do so much on them, but I just don't need one at this point.
Dec 9 - I don't need an e-reader. Think they're great, believe they're actually beneficial to people reading, and like the access they can provide. But I don't need one. I need the library.

Dec 10 - I don't need a motorcycle.  Sure as heck *want* one though.  But presently, I have a way to get back and forth from work and run errands.  No need to add another set of wheels to insure.

Dec 11 - I don't need vacation toys like an RV or a boat. They are totally fun and I love boating on the Mississippi with friends who own a modest vessel, but I don't need these in my life. Though I do like the idea of being a retired hippie and cruising around the country in an RV packed with corgis ...

Dec 12: this is a personal one, but I don't need a PhD. I once thought I did, but have since come to terms with how priorities change. I chose a steady paycheck and health insurance over the gamble of a doctoral program. I love that I can now have the best of both worlds working at the magazine and adjuncting when I choose (even though it can be a little busy at times)

Dec 13 - I don't need plastic surgery and frankly, unless you have something truly disfiguring, I don't think you need it either. Modifying your body is a want, most definitely not a need (unless you're fixing a cleft palate and stuff like that, of course).

Dec 14 - I don't need makeup. Never really understood the point and I worry about the gals who think they can't go without it. The only time you'll catch me in makeup is at a wedding. Other than that, people just need to deal with the natural state of my face. Besides, the words and ideas coming out of my head are more important than the length of my eyelashes. 

Dec 15 - I don't need Facebook. In fact, I just asked our IT to block it on my work computer. Another editor handles our social media so there's no reason for me to touch it. This site isn't going to help me get a promotion, meet a deadline, or be a better editor. 

Dec 16 - I don't need an expensive computer. Our home computer is several years old and works just fine for email, movie streaming, and social media. When it goes kaput, we'll replace it with another basic model (and e-cycle the old one). Was never a person who wanted the latest gadget or dohickus every year. 

Dec 17 - I don't need a big TV (or multiple sets, for that matter).  Our TV set is several years old, only 30 inches, and was snagged at a garage sale by a thrifty friend.  I've never spent my tax return on a TV nor owned a flat screen.  Because we love movies so much, I'd like to get a projector and turn a wall into a home theater.  But those are pricy and the only way I could justify it is if we never bought a TV again.  For now, our gently used set makes our living room quite cozy. 

Not that I would turn down anyone who invited me over to theirs ...
Dec 18 - I don't need a huge salary.  I can't imagine what it would be like to make 35 or 40 grand, much less anything higher.  I need just enough money to drive down my student loans, properly fund my 401k, and have enough leftover to take an adequate vacation every year.  Hopefully I'll be able to achieve that in the next few years.   

Dec 19 - I don't need fast food.  I grew up in an economically sensitive family and McDonalds, KFC, and Wendy's were legitimate treats used as rewards.  It's taken some time for me to reroute my thinking but in recent years, the appeal has waned to almost nothing.  Casey's pizza is another thing though, lol.  But I do feel for the people who live in urban food deserts or who struggle to the point that a Happy Meal is all they can afford to feed their kids.  

Dec 20 - I don't need Christmas presents.  Seriously, I wish that people would donate their money to charity instead of getting me a gift during the holidays.   We don't have a lot of spare change to donate, so helping us out on the "goodwill toward humankind" front is actually incredibly thoughtful for us. 

Dec 21-31 - I don't need new furniture, a smartphone, MP3 player,  camera, video games, fancy kitchen gadgets, manicures/pedicures, premium alcohol, purses, perfume, or shoes.

There is only one Scrooge ...
Lest you think I'm an utter Scrooge during the holidays, rest assure that I still think gift giving has its place.  Unfortunately, you have to make a real effort to cut out the noise and focus on giving with meaning.

Want to know how we kept our budget in check for Christmas this year?  Tune back after the weekend - we're headed up to see our families now and I can't spoil any surprises! 

What are things that you don't need?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Reflections on 2012

Happy 2013!

If my Facebook feed is any indication, it seems like 2012 was a polarizing time.  Some folks had a great year while others are sighing in relief that the last twelve months are over.  It seems like no matter what, everyone experienced a lot of change.

For me, 2012 was a trying year, one that threw many challenges my way.  I'd like to say that I handled them all with grace and came out relatively unscathed, but that's not true.  2012 was the year of never-ending frustrations and it wore me down. 

Right before last Christmas, I found out I had a Vitamin D deficiency and learned my body could no longer tolerate birth control pills.  I then rang in the New Year with a trip to the ER.  Early in spring, Mike deployed overseas and both of us went through one of the hardest deployments in our relationship.  The last few months have brought a complete diet switch for me, a terse and negative election season, a friendship that painfully deteriorated out of the blue, and a very full schedule between work and teaching. 

Over our Christmas vacation to Jamaica (details forthcoming!), I had time to ponder this past year and what lies ahead.  It's been a thought at the back of my head for some time, but I've realized that I'm not satisfied with some key aspects of my life, mainly in the area of work-life balance.  With my tolerance for stress and frustration waning, 2013 needs to be different.

I'm still working out the details.  I have some self-reflection ahead to make vague feelings into coherent thoughts and then turn those into actionable plans.

I don't have concrete New Year's resolutions but vague goals.  I want to:

Be physically healthier
Have more satisfaction at work
Continue with financial watchfulness
Make rest-and-relaxation a habit

What are you hoping for in 2013?