Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Making (Mommy) Money

Here's a how-to post: how I make the Mommy dollars.  In a new Word document, I set the page to "Landscape" (you can do that from the File; Page Set-Up; Orientation) series of buttons.  I make the margins as small as possible (about .5" on each side).  I insert a table with 2 columns and 4 rows, and "auto fit to window" to make the cells as large as possible.

Across the top and bottom of each cell, I write the amount of the bill three times:
                        "5     Five Mommy Dollars     5"
in a large font (the numbers in 22 point font, and the words in 18 point -- but really, use whatever looks good).  In the middle of each bill, I stick pictures of family members.  For us, the one-dollar bill has our dog's face; the 5/10/20 bills feature the boy's sisters, and the 100-dollar bill has me and my husband.  To each side of the picture, I add in clip-art about things that person (or dog) loves:  soccer or knitting or bones.

One of the nice things about making your own money is that if you're not great with computers, you can do this by cutting and pasting -- literally.  You could make up a sheet of hand-drawn money, gluing on some pictures, and then just photocopy that sheet.

I design one sheet for each kind of money -- for example, one sheet has eight $10 bills.  Then I print out that master sheet onto brightly colored paper, and cut the bills apart.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mommy Dollars 101

I pay my boys in "Mommy Dollars".

This isn't a new idea; I've seen other websites talking about this since I started.  I owe my own personal inspiration for the system, in fact, to my sister, who uses a version of "teacher dollars" in her seventh-grade classroom in a small town in New York.

The basic idea is that I print my own currency (I'll describe how in a separate post); I make a list of things my boys can (or must) do to earn money, and I make a list of things they can spend money on.  This last is important -- economists will tell you that a currency gets used only if it seems to have more value to people than other currencies.

Now that I've started this, I've discovered a lot of reasons to love this system, and I'll describe many of those in later posts.  But here's a big miser-mom reason to love it: other people can't thwart or undermine it easily.

What do I mean by that?  With my older daughters, I could give them a careful, thrifty allowance and try to encourage them to budget.  But other relatives or friends would give them money that made saving or budgeting unnecessary.  Especially for children whose parents are in separate houses, this question of how much is a reasonable allowance is tough when one parent says, "$15 per month" and the other says "$20 per week".   And even if nobody is handing my children cash, playground bragging about allowances can leave kids who thought they were making a lot of money realizing that there are other households where they might have gotten a better deal.

Well, my kids can brag that they get $5 just to feed the dog, or $1 to take out the trash, and no other kid can top that.  And at the other extreme, no amount of U.S. money is going to buy my kids TV time or extra library privileges -- they have to save up their mommy dollars themselves.  So they're learning a lot about how to handle money this way, and that is a skill that a miser-mom loves.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Having a ball (at yard sales)

Today we left 20 minutes early for my college reunion, leaving a bit of time to stop at yard sales we might find along the way.  It was not an intense hunt.  The haul for today:  a white button-down school shirt for my son, two bread pans so I can make several more loaves at once, a cheese slicer to replace one that broke, and a much-coveted bag of super-balls.  Total time, about 15 minutes.  Total money, $2.

People who don't do yard sales tease those who do, saying they go around buying other people's junk.  To me, one of the most interesting educational experiences of yard-saling is seeing what exactly IS junk to us nowadays.  It's the things that do NOT get sold that are the junk.

Many of the things people sell at yard sales are "another man's treasure", goods that get snapped up quickly: nice clothes that children grow out of, an extra television set, large furniture.  If you show up to a  yard sale with only seedy-looking piles of stuff at 11 a.m. and the owners tell you "the good stuff went early", they're not delusional.

It's what's left over that is so telling -- to me, this is a lesson in what NEVER to buy new.  Christmas decorations (sometimes in the original packaging) are ubiquitous; other holiday decorations aren't far behind.  Cheap glass flower vases are everywhere.  Videos and DVDs get picked over and put back.  (You could claim that you actually enjoyed watching that movie, but paying $20 each for 10 movies that you're going to struggle to sell for a quarter each seems like an expensive way to rent.)

Gender differences abound.  When I was young, I often went into the boy's section of a department store to get cheaper shirts for myself.  But the used market is just the opposite:  boy's clothing goes quickly; girls and women's clothing lie in heaps on tables and ground cloths.  In fact, once I needed several turtlenecks for my sons, and yard sale season was long-gone, so I had no choice but to go to a thrift store.  I couldn't find ANY decent shirts for my son in the boy's section, but I had an inspiration and went to the women's section.  Voila!  Three great turtlenecks, just their sizes.

Most skeptics I've taken yard-saling with me don't pay much attention to the junk.  They're amazed at the stylish clothes, the nice kitchen appliances. the cute knick-knacks that they see.  They become converts quickly, ready to buy cheaply the same things they would have bought for more at the mall.  But when you yard-sale regularly and get used to seeing what sellers can not get rid of, it changes the kinds of things you're willing to buy at all.  A bag of balls might just be enough to make you happy.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Yard Sale Listings

It's a Friday morning in May, and so every good miser-mom is checking the newspaper for the listing of yard sales.  Although some gung-ho sellers will start on Friday, the real action is Saturday morning.   But today I'll look over the listings to help me plan tomorrow's route.

Church basement yard sales tend to have a smaller selection of good things, although some will have a "fill a bag for $1" policies, and I've gotten shoes, fabric, an occasional dress, and kitchen equipment at these.  I've learned that there are streets that tend to have lots of kids (increasing the chance I'll find clothes and shoes to fit the boys), and other streets where people think they ought to be able to ask $5 for a dress (I avoid those high-priced places, of course).

My favorite yard sale listing by far is to find a "Neighborhood Yard Sale" in a development of vinyl-sided houses.  I see one of those, and it's party time -- I'll invite friends, pack up the car and head out for a morning of hunting.

One reason these particular sales are great  is that there's less driving (parking, getting out, looking, returning to the car, driving somewhere else . . . ).   Another is that, for almost every large neighborhood-based yard sale, there's a festival atmosphere: the sidewalks are full of other people like me, wandering around and looking; I get to see the neighbors themselves visiting with one another and comparing notes.   I bump into old friends; my kids see their friends; it's a great communal gathering.

But the thing that sets vinyl-sided developments apart from other neighborhoods is that many of the people in these places can't bear to own stuff that gets old.  I've bought name-brand, high quality shirts and pants for my kids for 25-to-50 cents an item.  I've gotten racing swimsuits (with the tag still on) for $2.  I can buy toys and presents and shoes and clothes, and still spend less than $20.

So today, I've got a newspaper on my lap, an area map nearby, and a yellow highlighter in my hand.  I'm looking forward to tomorrow!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My baking center

A well-organized baking center makes putting together a batch of waffles or pancakes very quick -- I can make a batter in two minutes, and my easily distractible fifth-grade sons can do it it five.  

Here are a few other things that help me speed up the batter process.

We use a one-bowl technique:  our mixing bowl (one that I got for a quarter at a yard sale a few years ago) has measuring markings on the side, plus a spout.  The other measuring cups (except for flour) hang on hooks where we can easily reach them.  We're fortunate to have a very deep drawer, and so all of my ingredients are in there, in one place (except the flour canister, which is so large it sits nearby on the counter).

I gave up on those wimpy little flour canisters.  At a yard sale, I found a large glass jar that can hold a 10-lb bag of flour.  I also got an extra one-cup measuring cup that I leave in that canister, that I use only for flour.

All my other containers are likewise large and easy to get into.  For example, powdered milk boxes aren't easy to lift and pour from, so I transfer the dry milk into a 2-quart rubbermaid jug, so I can either pour or scoop out how much I need.   I also transfer my vegetable oil into an bottle with one of those pop-up lids (like on syrup containers), so when I pour oil, all I have to do is point and squirt.

The recipes deliberately call for a lot of repetition -- my boys can use the 1/4-cup scoop four times in a row (dry milk, soy flour, oats, oats again), and then squirt the oil into that same scoop, rather than constantly switching between measuring cups.  The only other units they think about are the water (the levels are marked on the bowl itself), the cup of flour (the measuring cup is in the canister already), and the teaspoon of baking powder.  Because of this, I showed them how to do this recipe just once.  Since then, I've supervised intermittently, but they cook pretty much on their own.

A side note:  I've found that small picture albums make great recipe books for kids.  They're cheap (you can find them at lots and lots of yard sales, if you don't happen to already have several unused gift versions hanging around your home); the small pages are just about the right size to hold a recipe, and the plastic pages allow you to wipe off the inevitable spills.

I learned all of these things slowly, over the years.  But like many things about organization: once you put in the effort to learn and reorganize, you own that information forever.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Waffles and pancakes

My previous post gave some really simple, nutritious, but inexpensive breakfasts.  Here I'll give my recipe for pancakes and waffles -- still nutritious and inexpensive.  And with a bit of one-time reorganization of the kitchen, I think this recipe is almost as simple as oatmeal.

   1 cup water
   1/4 cup dry milk
   1/4 cup soy flour
   1/4 cup oats
   1 cup flour
   1 tsp baking powder
   1/4 cup oil

For pancakes, reduce the amount of oil to 1 tablespoon.

Notice that there's nothing in this recipe that needs refrigeration -- I can buy ingredients in large quantities, and I never have to run out to the store because somebody has finished off the milk or eggs unexpectedly. And once I set up one corner of my kitchen with all the right ingredients, this became really quick:  I can mix up a batch of batter in under 2 minutes (faster than it takes the waffle iron or pancake griddle to heat up!).

A word about ingredients:  I add oats for a bit more substance and protein.  The soy flour is essentially an egg-substitute -- you could use it in a bunch of different recipes.

Finally, love your waffle iron.  Wait until it's hot before you add the batter, and never clean it too thoroughly.  (If your waffles stick, wait until the iron is cool and rub it down with oil.  Squirt oil onto the bottom of the waffle iron before adding new waffles, and squirt oil on the top of the batter before closing the iron . . . a few repetitions of this, and your waffles will start sliding right out again!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Making Breakfast

Breakfast is one of my favorite meals of the day.  Like many people, I used to eat cereal on weekdays and more substantial meals on weekends.  But over time I've found ways to make a cheap, healthy breakfast with very little effort.

What's wrong with cereal?  Breakfast cereal can easily cost more, by weight, than meat.  Most cereals are also highly processed and come with a lot of packaging, so they're not particularly good for us or for our landfills.

Here are three simple alternatives.  Oatmeal (not those little packets, but oatmeal purchased in bulk) is good for use in baking as well as for a breakfast meal, so I always have a lot around.  Toast made from whole grained bread can have a lot of interesting toppings, including a bit of peanut butter to complement the proteins.  And leftover rice makes a fantastic cereal:  I deliberately make more rice that we'll need for dinner, then leave the leftover rice covered on the counter overnight so it stays at room temperature.  I heat up some milk in the microwave, add a bit of sweetener (my boys like a spoonful of brown sugar), and serve.  It's a great hit.

Those are quick-and-easy breakfasts. It's true that our favorite breakfasts require a bit more up-front reorganization. Both of my sons (now in 5th grade) and I make pancakes, waffles, and muffins regularly.  To do this efficiently is possible, but it takes a bit of reorganization first.  So I'll write about those another day.

Here are my cooking instructions for oatmeal and rice.  Both require boiling the mixture and then turning the stove off -- not a lot of hands-on time for the cook.

      Combine 1/2 cup oatmeal and 3/4 cups water per person into a small pot.  (So for a family of four, this means 2 cups of oatmeal and 3 cups of water).  Cover the pot with a lid, of course(!), and bring to a boil, stirring only occasionally.
    Once the mixture boils, stir once more, turn off the stove, and then cover the lidded pot with a towel for 2-3 minutes.  If you have an electric stove, you might either move the pot away from the stove or skip the towel.

This comes out a bit thicker than the recipe you'll see on the box.

      In a heavy pot, bring 4 cups of water to boil.  When the water is boiling, add 2 cups of rice and a teaspoon of salt.  Stir once quickly, and cover with a lid.   
    Once the mixture boils again, stir once more, turn off the stove, and then cover the lidded pot with a towel for 20 minutes.  If you have an electric stove, you might either move the pot away from the stove or skip the towel.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why be a miser mom?

I'm not actually a miser, but it's true that I almost never spend more than $1 on any of the clothes I buy, whether for me or my children.  I cook from scratch.  I do my own plumbing repairs.

We live in a world that thinks the proper thing to do is spend money on ourselves -- as that advertisement goes, "Sure it costs more, but I'm worth it."   Intentionally scrimping on ourselves is counter-cultural.  But I believe that we're happier if we spend our money on things that are bigger than us, things that are outside of us.  I want to be able to help a friend in need, or to donate to a cause I believe in, and to tithe to my church.

It's one thing to agree in principal that we should deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow grander visions.  It's another thing to figure out how to do that when we're wandering with our kids through the mall or pushing that cart down the aisles of the grocery store:  do we not buy food?  Do we have to dress our kids like thrift-shop hobos?  And isn't our own time valuable enough to merit those conveniences -- who really has time to mend a pair of pants?

I know it's not easy at first to live a life of thrift and discipline, but most great things aren't easy.  Like making music or excelling at sports or learning to cure illness, living a life of frugality takes practice.  It's something I teach my kids every day, and they're just about as good at discipline and thrift as they are at playing the drums (that is, they're still wild and loud, but they're getting there).

But it's a joy to be able to deny ourselves well, and this blog is about that joy.