Friday, August 29, 2008

Sketch and Kvetch

Craftnight has been a long-standing tradition in my family. In recent years, we have included friends in what was once a family-only event. Every Friday night about six or eight of us get together. We plan some sort of self-serve dinner, either pizza, a baked potato bar, nachos, or pasta with different sauces, a salad, and dessert. All of us pitch in bringing bread, dessert, fruit, etc.. The men watch the kids. We have a couple glasses of wine, relax, and catch up on each other's lives while we craft.

Sometimes we have a group project suggested and planned by one of us. These often have a seasonal theme (eg. ornaments in December or carving artificial pumpkins in October). Other weeks we work on scrapbooks or other personal projects. Frequently our projects will be planned around the use of recycled materials. For instance, I am currently working on a bulletin board made from a wooden frame purchased at a yard sale, and corks one of our group members got from her job at a winery. Past projects have included clocks made from discarded data CD's, decoupaged and fitted with craft store clock movements, paper made from junk mail and advertising flyers, and tote bags made from old t-shirts.

Craft night is a great way to get together and enjoy an inexpensive meal and an activity with friends. At the same time, we are creating something beautiful for our homes or to give as gifts. As a bonus, we are often able to make use of materials which would otherwise be discarded.

You should think about starting up a craft night with some of your friends. The library has many great books available on all types of crafts. You'd be surprised how many people enjoy crafting once they give it a try, even if they don't consider themselves to be creative. Working on projects with other people is great for exposing you to new ideas and ways of doing things you would never have thought of, as well as receiving inspirational and supportive feedback. We have even had people come and demonstrate a certain skill to the group, or teach a short class. Another thing we intend to do one day but have not done yet is to take a field trip and have craft night at a ceramic studio, art exhibit, etc.

I hope some of you will add a craft night to your calendar. If once a week is too often, you can always do it once a month. I would love for some of you to post comments and let me know about your experiences with your own craft night.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Trip Thrifty and Carry a Nice Gift

Undaunted by the high price of gas, we hopped in our 4-cylinder Camry this weekend for a road trip. The next best thing to a staycation is the sofabed vacation. All you need are friends who live no more than a few hours' drive from you, preferably in a historic or touristy town, some conversational skills, and a host/hostess gift.

Pack some lunch, because highway food can be both a pricey and dicey proposition. Brush up on current events or the latest celebrity gossip, because you will most likely be expected to earn your keep by being a witty conversationalist at a cocktail party or other impromptu gathering at some time during your stay.

Back to that hostess gift. A decent bottle of wine or some cheery flowers are always well received, but you may wish to stray from the well-trodden path and select a funny coffee table book or some witty wine charms or coasters. For those of you rural types, some of your home grown veggies or fresh eggs are usually welcomed by your urban chums.

Here are a few ground rules for the sofabed vacation. Don't get embarassingly drunk during your stay. Leave the house at least as neat as you found it. Be sure to reciprocate the next time your friends want to get away from it all. You get extra brownie points for preparing breakfast or dinner at least once during your stay. Oh, and don't forget that thank-you note when you get back home (or at least an e-card, free at,,

The benefits of the sofabed vacation are many. You will save at least $100 a night on hotel fees, probably eat one or more meals at home, saving even more money, and your relationships will thrive on the new memories created during your stay. Enjoy your vacation!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Grocery Gambits

Checking out at the grocery store last night, I learned that that store's new policy was to only double coupons up to $1.00. Double coupons used to be one of my best weapons in the battle against high grocery prices. Many times if I had a $1.00 coupon for an item, and the store doubled it, the item would be free, or nearly free. Once in a while, some stores would even advertise a day when they would triple coupons up to $1.00. This new policy will make such freebies pretty much a thing of the past.

If double coupons are no longer available to us as a money-saving tool, what techniques can we use to rein in grocery inflation? Coupons up to $1.00 can still be doubled at some stores, so for products we would buy anyway, this is still a good deal. I also look for products marked down because they are close to the sell-by date. They will be marked with a sticker that says something like "Manager's Special". These products can still be close to free with coupons. As long as you use or freeze them by the expiration date, they are still just as good. Don't forget to check the bargain bin at the back of the store, either. By calling toll-free numbers on packaging, or by emailing the manufacturers of products we use regularly, I have often obtained multiple coupons, or even coupons for a free item. Check your Sunday paper for coupons, join a "coupon train"(google it), or print them out from various online sources.

Another valuable tool in our arsenal is the rebate. Walgreens, Riteaid, and Long's all have good rebate programs where you have to purchase the items, and then submit a rebate form once a month. Then they send you a check for what you spent, so the items are free! CVS has a program too, but I find theirs more complicated to use. You can save a ton of money with these programs. I haven't paid for shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, razors or lightbulbs, since I found out about rebate programs in 1998! There are also many rebates on food products, such as cereal. Check the packages of the food you buy, and look in your Sunday paper's coupon section for rebate forms. Follow the directions exactly, and keep a copy for your records.

Expensive foods, such as cereal, dried fruit and spices, can all be bought from bulk bins much more cheaply. Check stores such as Henry's, Whole Foods or Sprouts. This is also a much more environmentally friendly option, since we can reuse our old containers, rather than wasting more packaging. Spices, which may cost $3-4 for a couple of ounces in the grocery store tins, can cost much less than $1 per ounce in bulk. Costco and Sam's Club can also be good sources of bulk foods, but compare prices. Not everything is a good deal there. Remember, nothing is a good deal if it spoils before you can use it.

Consider making some high-priced foods yourself to save money. I have made my own yogurt and pizza dough with recipes from the Tightwad Gazette (a book I highly recommend), with good results. In the winter I use a bread machine to bake my own bread. My sister also makes her own jam with fruit donated by neighbors, and pesto sauce for pasta with basil I grow.

Which brings me to my final suggestion for saving money on groceries - grow some of your own food! Not everyone has space for fruit trees, but most everyone has at least a small patio where they can grow a few tomatoes or carrots in a pot. I have seen grapes, tomatoes, squash, peas, beans, pumpkins, carrots, peppers and eggplants all grown in pots with good results. Give it a try. Seeds are relatively cheap, and it's a lot of fun. There is even a new (somewhat overpriced) gadget called an Aerogarden for growing vegetables and herbs indoors. It controls the water, nutrients and light, for better results. Most herbs can be grown in a pot on the window sill. Growing your own produce saves money, reduces environmental impact (since food is not shipped great distances using fossil fuels), and if we grow it ourselves we know it is not full of pesticides or salmonella.

I'd love to hear your ideas, suggestions or strategies and how any of mine have worked for you. Please post your comments below.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Foot-loose and Fruit For Free

Last night, in multi-tasking mode, I thought I would get some exercise and stock my refrigerator at the same time. I set off at dusk, enjoying the first cool breezes of the day. Wearing my workout clothes and comfortable walking shoes, I set off with my gleaning gear. Whenever I walk, I make sure to carry my lightweight backpack, which weighs almost nothing when empty, a few plastic bags, and some seeds for guerilla planting. The trails where I walk border on many backyards. Most of these have fruit trees which overhang the trail. As I stride along, I watch for any ripe fruit which has fallen, or may be hanging within reach on the public side of the fence. If I find a spot where someone's sprinklers overshoot the fence, I go ahead and plant a fruit seed. You never know which of these may sprout and in a few years' time, be fair game for gleaning.

Last night's wasn't a very good haul, only one grapefruit, but I got a nice long walk in, and I spotted some avocado trees which will be ripe for the picking soon. Past strolls have netted bags of apricots, oranges and tangerines, some slightly wizened apples and peaches from trees on an abandoned homesite, mulberries from another abandoned lot, bunches of wild grapes, figs and so many avocados I had to make guacamole and freeze it.

Tonight I'm going to check on some peaches that were almost ripe yesterday. You should keep your eyes open in your neighborhood and see what free fruit awaits you!