Category Archives: Finances

Articles concerning finances. This is the “budget” Epicurean after all.

Peppermint Almond Body Scrub

 

Do you feel the need for a nice spa treatment? Have you been feeling the summer heat? Dry, itchy skin? Do you not want to spend tons of money that would be better spent on beachware, a weekend getaway, or a few more mojitos before August? Me too!

The beauty is, you can easily make your own spa-worthy scrub at home, and have a spa day for pennies. You probably already have sugar in the cupboard, all you have to do is get some yummy smelling oils. There are many at-home spa treatments you can do on your own to save big time. Make it a girls night and invite friends over to do each other’s hair & makeup, mani/pedis, or just soak it in and enjoy a me-time evening.

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This was made as a gift at Christmas, but peppermint is a refreshing smell and feel that would be great anytime. You can also use any oil you like here, such as lemon, lavender, or citrus. I’ve even made coffee body scrub! Smells fabulous, and perks you right up.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup coconut oil
  • 2-4 drops oils (I used peppermint in the pink & almond in the white layers)
  • Food coloring, if desired
  • Glass jar, if it is a gift
  • I added a crushed peppermint stick layer, for decoration but it also smells nice & when crushed is also exfoliating

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Step 1: Separate your sugar into two bowls if you are layering colors. You can also just make it white with no coloring too.

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Step 2: Mix a few drops of food coloring into the sugar, until it reaches your desired intensity.

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Step 3: Mix in 2 drops of essential oils. Add a drop at a time until it is as strong as you want it to be.

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Step 4: If layering, add a thin layer of one color. Tamp down, then add another layer of the other color. Continue layering until you used up all your sugar.

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Crock Pot Apple Sauce

 

Sure, fall is still a long time away, but now is the time to start stocking up on ideas for the bounty of apples coming our way soon! Last fall, a friend of mine had an apple tree that just went crazy. She gave me a huge bag of apples for free. I ate several as snacks, made some into apple crisp, had some on pancakes, some in oatmeal, and made some into muffins.

Now I have a half bag left… what do I do?

Once you’ve gotten all baked-out, may I recommend trying your hand at making your own applesauce? The jarred stuff at the super market is ok, if that is the only way to get fruits into your kids (or partners) diet, then I’m for it. But imagine knowing exactly what is in that stuff, no GMOs, preservatives, thickeners, emulsifiers, etc.

This is where your handy-dandy slow cooker saves the day yet again! Those things are worth their weight in gold, I swear. If you don’t have one, get on it. Try Goodwill, yard sales, or grandma’s basement if you can’t get one new.

Applesauce is super easy to make, all it takes is a little time cutting up the apples, then you set it and forget it and come home to the lovely smell of apples and cinnamon, and a batch of ready-to-go applesauce.

Apples are naturally sweet, and slow cooking makes them even sweeter. But you can add honey, sugar, brown sugar, and/or maple syrup to taste to make it your own. You can also use cinnamon sticks rather than ground, just remove them before eating.

Ingredients:

  • ~4 cups chopped apples
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp nutmeg
  • Optional: 2-3 tbsp sugar, maple syrup, or honey

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Step 1: Chop your apples, removing the seeds, stem, and core. Peel them or don’t, your call.

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Step 2: Add apples to the crock pot with the spices, cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours. That’s it!

Mash the apples up a little once they are done cooking, or puree in a blender for super smooth sauce. You can put into jars and keep in the refrigerator, or process in a pressure canner for longer term storage.

If you really have a lot of apples, or just want a larger batch, use a larger crock pot and triple the recipe or more.

 

Final round of Walmart Grocery To Go

 

For my third and final test of Walmart Grocery To Go service, I decided I would go with ways to preserve meals and plan ahead. Because everyone is busy and convenience is king in today’s over-stimulated and demanding world, being able to plan ahead and cook meals in advance can save you on a hectic week night.

In preparation, I ordered several different sizes of Zip-Lock baggies, quarts, gallons, sandwich size, and snack bags.I got zip-and-steam bags, which you can put fresh veggies into, seal, then steam them in the microwave, and Crock Pot liners, for easier clean up. I ordered a few foil roaster pans with lids, for lasagna and casseroles to freeze.

I got many items which can be stored long-term and used in a variety of dishes, including black beans, pinto beans, Jasmine rice, chickpeas, split peas, black-eyed peas, barley, quinoa, and lentils. These will become soups, stews, curries, and chili. Dried fruits such as dates and apricots and raisins, and cashews and mixed nuts for trail mixes and granola bars.

I also ordered a few games, SkipBo and Phase 10, because it is always nice to have cards on handy when bored during a cold winter night or when friends come to call.

This order came around noon on Valentine’s Day, which I was spending alone. Because the S.O. had already moved to Connecticut to start a new job! Super exciting I know. More on that later.

The delivery guys were very sweet, and made sure to ask if I was okay with a substitution they had to make. If something you ordered is out of stock, they notify you by email, and then you have to verbally agree to it before you can accept the order. You have the option to send it all back and wait until what you wanted is in stock again, which is nice if you had your heart set on something.

So, one weekend or weeknight, when you have a few hours to cook, pick 2 or 3 recipes which store frozen well. Take stock of your refrigerator and cabinets for ideas. Almost all vegetables lend themselves well to soups and stews. Rice or potatoes are easily made into many dishes.

Be flexible; if you don’t have ground beef but have leftover chicken breast, you can still make a mean white bean chicken chili. And don’t be afraid to experiment!

Ideas include:

Now that you’ve chosen your recipes, gather all your ingredients. Spend some time chopping and peeling, feeling the texture of the vegetables, the lovely colors, the smells and tastes. Cooking is the best way to get back in touch with what we eat, and thus are putting into our bodies.

Once you have two or three pots happily simmering, you can entertain yourself elsewhere. Taste as you go, remembering that you will need to re-season when you reheat the dishes, as flavors may dull over time.

Now you can portion out your home-cooked goodies into individual or family-sized portions. Soups and stews can be spooned into freezer bags and laid flat to freeze. Lasagnas and casseroles can be assembled and baked in the roaster pans and then frozen to be thawed and re-heated in the oven later.

Now that is convenience food I can get behind!

Track Your Finances: Mint.com

 

Everyone wants to have healthy finances. We all want to feel the freedom to spend our money however we please, to not have to worry about bills or making ends meet. And we probably all know a budget is the best way to make that happen.

The simplest way is to just sit down yourself and draw up a budget. You can use plain paper and pen, or fancy Excel spreadsheets. The most important thing is to be realistic and thorough. You need to know exactly how much money you bring in each month, from your job or business and investments, and how much money you spend each month.

Then, you need to make The Gap as large as possible. This means when you subtract your spending from your income, you have a positive number. The more positive the number, the more you can save for big goals like retirement, college, a vacation, or starting a business. You should also budget in some “discretionary spending” each month, so you do not feel deprived and unable to buy yourself small treats. Just make sure you keep it small.

Make sure you have an idea of how much you actually spend in various categories.

Consider the following categories of spending:

  • Housing (mortgage, HOA, insurance, taxes, rent)
  • Utilities (water, trash, sewer, gas, electricity, phone, internet)
  • Food (groceries, dining out, fast food, convenience foods, lunches at work, kids school lunches)
  • Health care (premiuims, copays, medicines)
  • Travel (gas, car maintenance and repairs, insurance, auto loans, bus passes, air fare, cabs or uber rides)
  • Gifts (birthday, Christmas, graduations)
  • Clothing (work clothing, uniforms, replacement or updates to you wardrobe)
  • Pets (vet bills, food, toys, leashes/collar, tags, shots, spay/neuter)
  • and even more categories if you’re a parent (diapers, formula, school expenses, doctors, child care, babysitter, activities, etc.)

The best way to get an idea of what you spend is to keep all your receipts for a month, or better yet a year. But who has the time and patience to collect all the receipts, keep them safe in one place, then add them all up by category?

Mint.com, that’s who!

Mint.com is my personal favorite finance tracking website and app. They have a super secure site, and amazing features. It enables you to link all you financial accounts: loans, direct deposits, credit cards, checking, savings, 401k, IRAs, and more.

Now Mint has three separate products:

  • Mint
  • Mint Bills
  • Mint Credit Score

mint product

I use the classic Mint, because I signed up with the site many years ago. The Bills feature allows you to link all your bills in one place, and set a date each month to pay them off. This automates all your payments, so you are never late on a bill again, avoiding costly late fees and dings to your credit.

The Credit Score feature helps you get your free credit score, and see ways you can make it better. There are many factors which go into calculating your credit score, including total available credit, total credit use, length of credit history, and more.

The most widely used credit scores are FICO® Scores, the credit scores created by Fair Isaac Corporation. 90% of top lenders use FICO® Scores to help them make billions of credit-related decisions every year. FICO® Scores are calculated based solely on information in consumer credit reports maintained at the credit reporting agencies.

You have the right to access your credit score for free, once per year, from three separate companies:

It is recommended that you check one site each 4 months, thus enabling you to keep tabs on your credit throughout the year. Set alarms on your phone calendar or write it in your planner to help you remember when it’s time to check.

Back to Mint. There are several features which I love. First of all, they categorize all your spending. You can set up categories if there is something you spend money on regularly, such as “online video games”, “basketball season tickets”, or “Parks pass”.

You are also able to go in and manually change expenditures and put them into categories. If the program does not know what an expense is, it goes into “uncategorized”, like checks.

mint trends

As you can see above, all expenses for the past year are laid out in a pie chart. You can click on any piece of the chart to open that category and view each purchase. For example if you click “home” you would see each month a check or charge for the amount you spend on rent or mortgage.

This is a fantastic feature because if you’ve ever looked at a credit card bill and thought “WHAT the heck am I spending all that money on??” This chart can help. You can click through the “uncategorized” and “bills” and “shopping” and see each and every charge add up. It even adds you spending over time and tells you the categories in order of spending. So if you spent 12000 on housing, and 3000 on utilities, and 1200 on food, it will list those in order.

You can also break it down over time. So you can see how much you spent this month, the past 3 or 6 months, the past year, or over all time you have been part of mint. This helps track longer term spending, if you are trying to get a better hold of your budget, you can see your progress or backsliding.

Another feature, in the regular Mint, not even the Mint Bills, is their bill tracking feature. The software learns which bills come through at the same time each month, and can track the anticipated days you will be charged. Then you can see on a calendar all your upcoming bills for the week or the month.

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And finally, the budget tracking feature. Super amazing. You can set up as many or few categories as you want, and set your expected spending amounts per category. The program then tracks each expense for you, and shows you how much you have left to spend. This is a nice visual so you can see on the 20th of the month, you have $120 left budgeted for food, so you can keep your spending within budget.

The software can also add up all your expenses and debts, as well as any income and investments, and tell you your net worth. You can track this over time, as it is the greatest indicator of your overall financial health. A steadily increasing net worth is the greatest feeling there is. Link up your car loan, mortgage, student loans, etc. and track your progress paying them down. It is great motivation, and they regularly offer advice and ways to save even more money.

Of course, this only works if you actually check it regularly and stick to it. Luckily, Mint also has an app available for Android and iPhone, so you can track and check yourself on the go.

There are many other tracking softwares and options out there. This is just one, use a few and see what works best for your budgeting style and your life. Ultimately your budget is personal and unique to you, and its up to you how you want to maintain it.

 

Disclaimer: I am in no way receiving compensation from Mint.com or any other financial entities. This piece is author’s opinion.

 

Can you can beans?

 

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I enjoy everything about canning. It is an easy way to save extra seasonal produce before it spoils. It keeps for a very long time with proper storage, so you can be sure you always have food available. It looks pretty on your pantry shelves. It teaches self-sufficiency. And assuming you keep it up all your life and re-use the jars, it can be extremely frugal!

Combine a very frugal hobby/life skill with one of the most frugal foods on the planet, beans, and you have a very happy budget epicurean! Canned beans at my store typically run 50-90 cents for store brand to over $2 per can for fancy organics. When you buy dried beans in bulk, and re-use cans over the years, you can easily get the price per can down to mere pennies.

I love having canned beans in my pantry so I can whip up a quick chili, tortilla soup, or refried beans for tacos or tostadas without having to pre-soak for hours. Though some sources say that not only is pre-soaking not required, but it actually hurts the taste and quality of the final product.

Most vegetables or fruits are safe to can and store. Typically you need to add sugar (for fruit) or acids like vinegar (for vegetables) in order to ensure their shelf-safety. But are beans safe to can at home? And there is also debate over the worthiness of canning beans, since dried take up much less space. But you can’t beat ready-to-go cans for last minute recipes.

Most resources say a pressure canner is an absolute must to kill everything. No one wants botulism. The pressure canner causes high heat and pressure much higher than could normally be achieved inside the canner. This is the only sure way to kill spores, which are able to resist the heat of normal boiling water.

However, what can one do if you don’t have a pressure cooker? Can you still can beans the usual way, with a large pot of water?

Sorta.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, health professional of any kind, or nutritionist. I am not encouraging anyone to try this. I am simply relating my own experience.

I had bought a 5 pound bag of pinto beans, but am bad at pre-planning my meals when I get busy. So I would want to make tacos for dinner or something, and be out of canned pintos. I had not soaked the beans, and wanted to eat within the next hour or two, so cooking up the dried ones was not really an option.

I decided to try canning some beans. I do not have a pressure cooker. The reasons I took the chance included: 1) I stored the processed cans in the refrigerator until I used them 2) I used all the cans within a month, presumably too short a time for anything too dangerous.

This site says there are several factors that contribute to growth, including salinity, acidity, moisture level, and temperature. Some strains of botulism cannot grow at low temperatures, while others are able to, if slowly. So, for science.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound dried beans
  • Lots of water
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 4 tbsp vinegar

Step 1: In a large pot, you can soak your beans overnight if you want. I just went ahead and cooked them. Cover the beans in water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 2-6 hours, depending on how soft you want your finished product and how much time you have. Add the salt and vinegar.

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Step 2: Either boil your jars and lids, or run through the dishwasher to sterilize. You will need about four pint jars for one pound of cooked beans.

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Step 3: Fill each jar up to the top, leaving 1-2 inches of space. Cover with the cooking liquid. You should have a faint scent of vinegar, and the liquid becomes cloudy after cooking the beans. Wipe the rim, seal, and place the entire jars in a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Process the jars for 45-60 minutes.

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Step 4: Remove the jars from the hot water with tongs, and place on a towel on a solid surface. Let them cool without moving them for at least 6-8 hours. You should hear the “pop” of the lids sealing. If any do not seal, put in the fridge and use within a week.

Now you have your own crazy-cheap supply of canned beans to turn into chilis, spreads, soups, or any number of recipes.

 

Homemade energy drink mix

 

Want to start 2015 with plenty of energy?!

As someone dating a programmer, I know that Mountain Dew can be considered a food group. It seems we have an insomnia problem in America, with a new energy drink on the market every day. Red Bull, Monster, Rock Star, Full Throttle, Amp, Boost. Sure they give you a huge jolt of energy to get through the next final exam study session, afternoon slump, or laundry marathon. The problem is the added acids, chemicals, preservatives, and excessive amounts of sugar.

If you are trying to slowly rid your life of these things, but still love the energy rush, you can try making your own energy mix. I decided to take matters into my own hands and mix up something that would taste great and also serve the purpose of an energy drink without all the added extras.

You will need to invest in some bulk ingredients to make your own mix, but once you have them you can make your own energy drink mix for pennies per serving. That beats $1 or more per can by a long shot!

A really great site I’ve found for bulk powders, vitamins, and supplements is Bridge City Bulk. They have all types of vitamins, supplements, caffeine, match powder, and tons of organic teas I’m dying to try! Wherever you get yours from, make sure to carefully measure it and try to use a responsibly sourced dealer.

***A Very Important Disclaimer***
Caffeine is very dangerous in powdered form. You would need to drink hundreds of espressos to overdose naturally, but in powdered form it is far too easy to ingest way more than is safe. Generally it is recommended that you don’t consume more than 400 mg per day. If you continue with this recipe, be very careful with measurements so that you are sure to not overdose, and do not drink more than 2 per day, or a total of 400 mg.

Ingredients:

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Step 1: Measure your ingredients. I measured out 3 grams of caffeine, and calculated the percent daily value of B vitamins in the final serving to determine how many vitamins to crush up and use. This will change depending on what type of vitamins and which source of caffeine you use. Be very careful when calculating measurements.

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This recipe was designed to make 15 servings, so I then added enough drink mix to the vitamins & caffeine to equal 15 tablespoons. Thus the three grams of caffeine becomes 200 mg per serving. Add 1 tbsp of the mix to 16 oz of water and mix well.

You can customize this drink mix to whatever flavor you like, but because caffeine is extremely bitter alone, I wouldn’t recommend making this without some sort of flavored mix. Again, be sure to calculate and measure your ingredients and figure out your final serving sizes before trying this at home.

 

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Frugal Last-Minute Gift Ideas

 

So the clock is ticking down, and you realize you only have a few days (or hours) until it’s present time. What are you to do?! Shipping won’t get here in time, and going to the store to fight crowds sounds like your idea of torture.

Not to worry! I have put together a list of clever last-minute ideas you can make yourself, using things you likely already have around the house. Don’t panic, you don’t even need to be that crafty.

First up are “Craft” ideas, with directions and occasional pictures. All these things are things I’ve made before, or would make now. After that are the “Cooking” ideas, which are edibles of course.

Frugal Craft Ideas:

  • Seed Bombs
  • Letter wine cork board
  • Door snake – if you have a sewing machine
  • Personalized mug
  • Body scrub
  • Picture Frame Pin Cushion
  • Scrabble letter ornaments
  • Bonus: Survival Altoids Tin (opens in new window)

 

Seed Bombs – for the green thumb

This is an idea I saw somewhere one year when I myself was looking for ideas. They are perfect for any time of year, Christmas works because you have plenty of time until spring to plan where you will plant these adorable little gems!

You will need:

Step 1: Shred one sheet of paper in whatever color you like. Cover with water for 2-3 minutes. Put the paper and water in a blender and pulse until it becomes pulp.

IMG_6412Step 2: Pour the paper and pulp through a piece of cheesecloth to drain. Put a few seeds of your choice in the center. You can make each one a different color flower seed, or use vegetables, whatever you have and whatever your recipient would enjoy.

IMG_6416Step 3: Put some more pulp over the seeds, and squeeze out the excess water.

IMG_6418Step 4: Let the seed bombs dry, and now you have an adorable gift for someone special! You can make as many different colors as you like, the size of the paper sheet will determine how big a bomb you can make.

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Letter Wine Cork Boards – for anyone really

The gift recipient doesn’t need to be a drinker for this project, just you do! Kidding. But you will need to obtain 10-50 wine bottle corks. How many will depend on the letter you want to make, and how big you want the letter to be.

You will need:

  • Wine corks
  • Craft wire
  • Super glue
  • Optional – paint, pretty ribbon, tacks, photos or mementos of you and the gift recipient

Step 1: Arrange the corks into the shape of the letter you want to make. This will help you decide how big you want to make it. Then, using the craft wire, wrap around the corks, weaving in and out. Use super glue every few corks to hold them together. And that’s it! Let your masterpiece dry.

Bonus points if you used corks with varying colors of red on them, and grade the color across the letter. Or you can paint over the end to make the letter all one color. Add a pretty ribbon to the top to hang it, and tack on some fun photos. If you are unsure of your artistic abilities, you can buy a wooden letter at a craft store to use as a guide, and glue the corks to that instead.

Another option: place the corks flat onto a picture frame or serving tray in a fun pattern. Paint over the whole thing with glue. Now you have a flat, fun patterned cork board!

 

Draft Stopper or Door Snake – for anyone who has a door in their home

These little guys are awesome to put under your doors to stop cold drafts from coming in. You can help a friend be more comfortable this winter and even lower their energy costs! *This craft does require a sewing machine*

You will need:
  • 1 sewing machine (or needle, thread, time, and patience)
  • Material approximately 1 yard by 1 foot (use thicker cloth to stand up to more wear)
  • Approximately 6-10 cups filler (rice, beans, sand, salt, kitty litter, etc)

Step 1: Lay your fabric pattern side up, then flip it over onto itself so the “inside” faces out and pin along the open side. Measure your doorway, and using a basic stitch sew along the pins to that length plus about 4 inches, trimming the excess. This creates a tube.

Step 2: Sew up one end of the tube, making sure that it is fully closed. You don’t want any kitty litter leaking out onto your clean floors later. Now flip the tube inside-out so that the pattern is on the outside.

Step 3: Fill the tube with your filler, rice or kitty litter is best. You can hold it up to your doorway to make sure it is long enough but not too long, and trim as needed. Leave 2 inches on the un-sewn end.

Step 4: Fold the cut ends into the tube, so you now have four layers. This looks cleaner. Then sew up the other end of the tube, going over it a few times to make sure it is sealed well. There you have it. A cute, cheap way to save some money on heating bills for years to come. If you are super crafty, you can even sew some washable covers for the stopper itself so that it can be used for decades to come.

 

Personalized mug – for the coffee or tea drinker

These mugs are infinitely customizable and completely adorable. No one has even been mad about a cute coffee mug as a gift. And when tailored to the recipient they are even more special.

You will need:

  • A white ceramic mug
  • A Sharpie pen
  • An oven
  • Optional: creativity, coffee, tea, hot cocoa mix, etc.

Step 1: Take a white (or other light color) ceramic mug and a Sharpie marker. Using a stencil, or your own talents, draw on your desired picture, phrase, word, etc. Some ideas include: “Good morning”, “For him  & For her”, a quote from a favorite person or book, initials, the person’s home state.

Step 2: Place the mug in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes to set the ink. Now your mug can be used, washed, run through the dishwasher, and not smudge! To fancy up the gift even more, fill the mug with the receiver’s favorite tea or coffee, a peppermint swizzle stick, a bag of cocoa mix and marshmallows, or whatever else fits.

 

Picture Frame Pin Cushion – for the crafty sewer

This idea from Love Grows Wild. You don’t need to be able to sew to make this gift either! Do be cautious when working with hot glue.

You will need:

Step 1: Take the glass and anything else out of the frame. Trace around the glass onto a piece of cardboard to make the back of your pin cushion. Use the glass to trace the shape onto your fabric, centering the design if there is one. Cut it out, leaving plenty of extra, and make sure it still fits into the frame with the added fabric. Trim anything necessary to make it fit.

How to Make a Picture Frame Pin Cushion - a simple project to help keep your pins in check while you sew! via www.LoveGrowsWild.com #diy #tutorial

Step 2: Flip the fabric over and place a handful of batting in the center. Place the cardboard on top, and begin hot gluing the fabric along the edges. It will bunch up, that is ok. Leave a 1 inch space open on one side. Keep checking to make sure it fits in the frame, adding or taking out batting as needed.

How to Make a Picture Frame Pin Cushion - a simple project to help keep your pins in check while you sew! via www.LoveGrowsWild.com #diy #tutorial

Step 3: Finish hot gluing the edges, and put inside the frame. Close it or hot glue the cardboard all around the edges. Now your frame can sit or stand up, and will look totally adorable on your crafty friend’s table or sewing machine!

To take it up yet another notch, use these steps but on a small pint-size mason jar. Hot glue the fabric to the lid, then fill the jar with small sewing accessories. You can get a mini kit at most dollar stores, and add in anything else you think your crafty friend would need. Then you have a hand-crafted mini sewing kit!

 

Body Scrub – for anyone who likes soft, nice smelling skin

This is a great idea not only for the holidays but year round. There are so many scent combinations you could try, like peppermint, grapefruit, lemon, green tea, chocolate, coffee, and brown sugar vanilla. You can also use epsom salt in place of the sugar if you like. I will keep this recipe in my back pocket for anytime I need a quick, cute gift for a girlfriend or relative!

You can also get a little creative here. The basic recipe below is just an outline, experiment with types of oils and amounts until you find what works for you. And the packaging is also key. A clear glass jar will show off layers of different colors, or pieces of crushed candy cane. Make sure to use a wide-mouth lid however, so your recipient can reach in and get a handful of skin-softening goodness out.

You will need:

  • 1 cup sugar (white or brown)
  • 1/4 cup oil (coconut, olive, vegetable)
  • Scent of your choice
  • Optional: food coloring, crushed candies, zested citrus

Step 1: In a large bowl, mix the sugar and scent of your choosing. If you have something liquid like lemon juice, factor that in when deciding how much oil to add. Then mix in oil, a little at a time, until you have the consistency of packing snow. Depending on how many gifts you are making, you can do a large batch or a single jar.

For the jar, if you don’t want to or can’t spend the money on new jars, simply save glass jars from foods throughout the year. Things such as empty Frappuccino cans, salsa jars, or spaghetti sauce can be washed, labels removed, and new pretty labels printed and added. These make an extremely inexpensive, yet uniquely thoughtful gift for mother’s day, teacher appreciation day, birthdays, or holidays!

 

Scrabble Ornaments – for anyone with a tree

This super-simple, super-cute idea comes from I Heart Naptime. You can pick up a game of Scrabble very cheaply from any thrift store or scout garage sales. Or if you are really crafty you can purchase thin strips of wood, cut into squares, and burn or paint your own tiles.

You will need:

Step 1: Decide what you want your ornament to say. Ideas include: peace, love, joy, Christmas, believe, noel, or the name of the gift recipient. Hot glue the letters together one at a time, letting dry fully. Then hot glue a piece of ribbon to the back and let dry.

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These make an absolutely adorable tree accent. You can make as many or few as you like. For other times of the year, you could switch this up by taking mini magnets from a craft store and hot gluing to the back instead of ribbon for a cutely customizable magnet gift.

 

And now for those who are less crafty and more cook-y, gifts from my favorite place: the kitchen! Most of these take very little time and effort, and you likely have the ingredients in your cupboards already. All look adorable when packaged up into clear containers or holiday tins with a bow on top.

Your recipient is bound to love eating your homemade treats, knowing you put the time and effort in to making them happy.

Frugal Cooking Ideas:

 

Peppermint Meringues – for those who like crunchy sweet treats

Meringues seem hard but they are honestly super simple. The only requirements are the time put in to make the egg whites fluffy, and making sure there is no fat in the bowl at any time.

It is amazing how much four egg whites can fluff up into. You can use fewer, or double or triple the batch to make simple gifts for teachers, relatives, coworkers, friends, or neighbors.

You will need:

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp peppermint oil
  • Sprinkle of sea salt
  • Optional: few drops food coloring

Step 1: Separate the eggs into whites and yolks. If you want to be super cautious, break each egg into one bowl, then combine them all in a separate bowl. This ensures absolutely no yolk gets in. The fats in the yolk will ruin the meringue and cause it to not rise.

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Step 2: Beat the crap out of the egg whites. Seriously, let it go for about 20 minutes. The eggs should bubble, then begin to “fluff” up. Continue until soft peaks form. That means if you dip a spoon in, it can pull up a peak, but it flops over when you remove the spoon.

IMG_6261Step 3: Add in the sugar and the peppermint flavoring. You could also try anise, vanilla, lemon, almond… let your imagination run wild. Sprinkle in about 1/4 tsp of salt, and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. If you stick in a spoon, you can pull up peaks that then hold their shape.

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Step 4:You can either put it into ziplock bags with a hole snipped in the corner and pipe it onto cookie sheets, or just use a tablespoon to plop dollops on.

Bake in the oven at 250 for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until fully hardened. You can also prop the door open and leave them overnight. I use a foil sheet so they are easier to remove. Also, you can add in a drop of food coloring at step 3 for fun holiday swirls!

 

Peppermint or Almond Bark – for anyone with a sweet tooth

Barks are a family tradition at my house. They are incredibly simple to make, mostly just requiring time and that you not eat it all! You can customize them however you like with combinations of different types of chocolate, candies, nuts, or caramel. These are great gifts year-round!

You will need:

  • 1-2 cups baking chocolate
  • 1/4 cup crushed candies, chopped dried fruit, or nuts
  • Optional: flavoring such as peppermint extract

Step 1: Melt the chocolate(s). Pour onto a sprayed baking pan and let cool. If using two colors, pour second layer on and let cool. Just before completely cooled, sprinkle on your crushed candy or almonds.

Step 2: Once cool, cut into squares or break into rough pieces. Wrap up and give as gifts, or scarf down the whole tray, I won’t tell.

It really is that simple. You can get creative with this and layer white and dark chocolate together, add almonds to one layer with something different on top, whatever you like.

This can be tailored to whatever event is happening such as birthdays, Halloween, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, anything.

 

Cookie in a Jar – for those who also bake

This is an inexpensive gift that can be tailored to your recipient. Basically it entails layering the dry ingredients of a recipe in a clear jar, and usually includes the recipe which tells them what other ingredients to add and how to complete the recipe.

As an example, I’ll use the Dark Chocolate Andes Mint idea from The Frugal Girls.

You’ll need:

  • 1 box Dark Chocolate Cake Mix
  • 1 bag Andes mints or baking chips
  • 1 quart sized glass jar with lid
  • Optional: Ribbon, pretty scrapbook paper

Step 1: Pour the cake mix into the jar and pat down. Pour the baking chips on top. Put the lid on, and wrap a pretty ribbon around it. Attach labels to the front and the lid, or write on the front in Sharpie.

Andes Mint Dark Chocolate Cake Mix Cookies

Add a recipe card that says:

Beat 2 eggs and 1/2 cup vegetable oil in a bowl. Pour in entire contents of jar, and stir well. Drop by tablespoon onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-9 minutes or until done.

You can use this basic idea to make any kind of cookie or cake mix you want to give. If you are a true baker yourself, or have a favorite family recipe, you can also layer individual ingredients like sugar, flour, baking soda, etc. Just be sure to add in the recipe so the recipient knows what else is needed.

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This can also be transferred as an idea to soup recipes. Simply layer in beans, rice, spices, dehydrated veggies, etc. and attach a recipe stating how much water to add and any other ingredients to complete your favorite soup. Tie up with a pretty bow or ribbon and your recipient has a thoughtful, easy future meal.

 

Peanut butter fudge – for when you seriously have 3 minutes

This is my mom’s super secret, ridiculously easy fudge recipe. With only two ingredients (YEAH, TWO) anyone can make this, even if the doorbell literally just rang with unexpected guests.

Obviously you can find much more involved recipes all over the internet, and no one has ever been angry about fudge as a gift. But for times when you really need a sweet treat pronto, this is a good go-to.

You will need:

Step 1: Mix both room-temperature ingredients well. Microwave 2 minutes, in 30-second bursts, and mix again. Refrigerate until solid and cut into squares.

You can get fancy and top with chocolate chips, or melt chocolate and layer the chocolate and peanut butter. Or just stick with simple and classic. Wrap in cellophane or put into cute tins and watch their faces light up when they bite into a piece.

 

Canned Jam/Jelly/Salsa/Fruits – for friends who appreciate handmade foods

Really the only things you need for wonderful handmade food items is the jars, some time, and the particular recipe’s ingredients. Canning is not at all intimidating once you try it a few times. The initial investment is $10-20, but you can make plenty of foods without a pressure canner at first, including jam, salsa, green tomato salsa, and canned fruit such as peaches.

You will need:

Step 1: For salsa: Chop up 2 cups tomatoes, 4 tbsp onion, and if you want to add 1 clove garlic, black pepper, hot sauce, jalapeno, and/or cilantro. For jam: Put 2 cups berry of choice in a sauce pan, and add 1/4 cup sugar and 2-4 tbsp water and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes, until berries are completely liquid. Most berries will gel on their own, but you could also add 1 tsp of pectin.

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Step 2: Bring the large pot of water to boil, and add your jars to sterilize for 10 minutes. You can also run them through the dishwasher. Use the funnel to fill your jars, and a wet towel to wipe off the rims. Screw on the cap & lids, and submerge in boiling water for 45-60 minutes.

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Step 3: Remove the jars from boiling water with tongs and set on a counter top. Make sure they are not disturbed as they cool. You should hear the “pop” of the jars sealing. Let cool overnight, then check in the morning that all have sealed. If not, re-process or put in the refrigerator and use within a month.

 

 

Candy Cane Popcorn – for anyone who likes sweet holiday snacks

As a total popcorn addict, I am super stoked about this recipe from I Heart Naptime! Like a combination of rice krispies and kettle corn, this gift from the heart is sure to please. As they mention, some recipes use white chocolate so you could try that instead of the marshmallow, or something uniquely you.

You will need:

Step 1: Pop a big batch of popcorn, microwave or stove top. Melt the butter and marshmallows together, and crush the candy canes.

Candy Cane Popcorn

Step 2: Add peppermint extract to the butter, then slowly stir in the popcorn, being sure to remove all kernels. Sprinkle in the crushed candy canes while stirring. Transfer to your desired gift bag or tin. This can be eaten warm or cooled, and likely all in one sitting!

 

Compound butter – for the savory foodie

A compound butter is just a fancy name for butter with something else added to it. This extra something can be garlic, herbs, berries, or honey. It adds a little extra something special when spread over crackers or fresh bread. Heather from WhipperBerry has three delightful recipe ideas to share.

You will need:

  • 4 sticks of unsalted butter
  • Approx. 1 cup of add-ins
  • 4-ounce glass jars with lids
  • Optional: Adorable labels and gift tags; fresh bread or crackers

Step 1: In a large mixing bowl, combine one pound unsalted, room temperature butter and your desired add-ins (such as 1 cup honey, 1 cup fruit preserves, or 1 cup roasted garlic). Whip well. Spoon into sterilized 4 ounce jars, and store in the refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.

Sweet and Savory Compound Butter with Free Printable

That’s all there is to it friends! And you thought baking up a gorgeous, unique, and tasty treat would take you a lot of time and effort. Now get out there and gift some memories this Christmas.

 

Of course these are only a few ideas of many. Think about your gift recipient, and your particular talent.

Can you craft your own jewelry? Maybe a cute, unique pair of earrings would be just the ticket. Does your person love to read? Create a one-of-a-kind book marker for them. Photos are always well-received, and there are infinite ways to customize them. A dozen homemade cookies of any kind are always a sure crowd pleaser.

Whatever you do, the gift recipient will know you were thinking of them this holiday season!

 

Do you have any frugal last-minute gift ideas to share??

Meals Under $5

 

We all experience some times where we are on a tight budget. Maybe that time is only during college, and you are lucky enough to get a good-paying job with degree in hand. Maybe that time is during the holidays, when food budgets are stretched with all the family get-togethers and parties. Maybe that time is your whole life. Maybe you have plenty of cash to spare, but want to use it for things other than extravagant meals.

Whatever the case, making a frugal meal definitely does not have to be tasteless and boring!

With my “Less Than 5” category, I am aiming to create and share recipes which take less than $5, less than 5 minutes to make, and/or less than 5 ingredients. Bonus points for me if all three apply!

I will update this post periodically as I continue to add more “Less Than 5” recipes. This one will be specific to meals which will cost less than $5 per serving. So if you only have a few dollars in your pocket, you are better off reading these recipes and heading to the grocery store than blowing it all at once on a dollar menu. These recipes will (mostly) be filling and somewhat healthy for pennies a plate.

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First let’s get the classic budget recipes in a list:

  • Peanut butter & jelly sandwich
  • Macaroni & cheese (though with the price of cheese soaring, I don’t know about homemade mac n cheese anymore)
  • Ramen noodles
  • Beans & Rice
  • Tuna salad sandwich

Now these are a little bit more creative:

Do you have any recipe ideas that are less than $5? Please share in the comments!

How to: Make a simple wreath for under $10

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This is a fun holiday craft I took on last year with really impressive results. You will be amazed by how gorgeous a piece you can make in just a little time with things you can find in your neighborhood. Could be a good kids craft or bonding time for couples. Just be careful if using real pine, the needles of some can really be sharp.
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Since you can use real pine branches, this wreath is super cheap. Just make sure you are collecting from a tree you own or are allowed to use… Then embellish with other things from nature, or some cute colorful things you can pick up at a craft store or Goodwill.
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You will need:
  • Several pine branches (real or fake)
  • Super glue/hot glue
  • Craft wire
  • Pine cones or other forest accessories
  • Embellishments, preferably in pretty colors like red, silver, green, or gold. You could go with any color theme you like.
  • Optional: Glitter, ribbons, etc.
Step 1: Begin forming the branches into a circular shape. Just move the branches around and piece it together into what looks best. Use the wire to hold pieces together once you like the look
Step 2: Once the branches are held together well, you can also hot glue them. Then start strategically placing your accessories. Intersperse colors with neutrals, like I did with the red fake berries and the pine cones.
Step 3: Spread glue around, and sprinkle with glitter for a little extra shine. If you don’t have a nail or hanger on your door, you can also now hot glue a thick ribbon onto the wreath to hang it.
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And now you can enjoy your unique, homemade holiday decoration. This would also be a great frugal Christmas gift.

Home-canned peaches

 

When I was a kid growing up, I remember all-day-long canning sessions at my grandmother’s house. We would get the whole family together for steamy, tomato-scented days of carrying bushels of fresh tomatoes down from the giant overgrown garden, slicing and dicing, pushing them through the enormous, older-than-my-mom tabletop canning device, squeezing out seeds, stems, juice, skins, pulp.

Pouring thick red liquid into piping-hot Bell canning jars, just out of the rolling, boiling water, screwing on the lids and popping them back into that steamy water bath. Placing them in rows upon rows along the kitchen table, and listening for the “pop” “pop” “pop” of lids being sealed.

Lining those jars, still warm from the boiling water, along the shelves of the basement pantry. Knowing that meant months later, in the dead of winter, we could have huge platters of pasta with sauce that taste like summertime, and know that I helped make that happen.

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That may sound quaint and overly-dramatic, but canning has always stuck with me and is something I desperately hope to continue into my adult life. I think our American lives of over-abundance and convenience takes a lot of the charm, knowledge, and wisdom out of feeding ourselves. We know nothing of how “food” is created, we just go to the grocery, pick out the boxes and cans, put them in the microwave and sit down in front of the TV to “eat” it.

I love the feeling of looking at something I personally created, start-to-finish, especially if it involves food I myself grew, picked, or somehow preserved. There is nothing like it. Sometime when your store has a sale on produce you like, give it a try and see for yourself.

Not only is home preserving fun and good for the soul, it is also good for the waist and pocketbook! Canning or freezing your own food lets you control what is put into it and avoid massive amounts of sodium, preservatives, colorants, etc. in commercially preserved foods. And though canning supplies may be a healthy chunk of change to begin with, you can re-use jars and rings nearly forever, with only new lids to buy each season.

Now, there are some dangers to home canning. Always read up on proper methods on how to can or otherwise preserve food so you and yours don’t end up sick. Take a look at the CDC article on avoiding botulism,  the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning article with tips and tricks, or Foodsafety.gov Home Canning advice.

This is my most recent adventure, when Colorado Palisade Peaches were at their prime. They are legendary for good reason, with such perfectly firm yet soft flesh and oodles of juice to drip down your chin. I of course ended up over-buying, and rather than commit the mortal sin of wasting produce, decided to can the excess.

You can use the outline of this recipe for just about any fruit, homemade salsa, or pre-cooked vegetables (like carrots, green beans, or beets). For more recipes specific to fruit types, head over to PickYourOwn.com, a wealth of home preservation tips. For tips on individual types of veggies, SimplyCanning.com has a whole library.

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Ingredients:

  • About 2 pounds peaches
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 3-5 canning jars, lids, and rings
  • Large pot
  • Optional: Tongs, Funnel, Pressure canner

Step 1: Cut the peaches into slices. It is up to you if you want to peel them or can with peels on. To peel them, boil for 5 minutes, then submerge in ice water. The peels should slide off. I left the peels on cause I’m lazy and I like the extra nutrition.

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Step 2: Mix the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Stir in the peach slices, and simmer 5-10 minutes.

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Step 3: While peaches are cooking, bring a huge pot of water to a boil with your jars, lids and rings inside. This sterilizes the jars. You can also run them through the dishwasher.

Step 4: After boiling the jars, use the tongs to pour the water out of them. Fill the jars with the peaches, using a spatula to press them down and squish in the edges. Leave 1/4-1/2 inch space, and put the lids on.

Step 5: Put the jars back into the boiling water, and process for 15-20 minutes. Make sure the jars are fully submerged. This will help kill any microbes, and seal the jars.

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Step 6: Use the tongs to remove the jars, and place on a towel or hard surface to cool. Don’t disturb the jars for 6-12 hours, or until you hear the “pop” sound of the lid sealing. If after overnight cooling any jars have not sealed (the lid won’t be sucked in, and sort of springy when you push on it) put those jars in the refrigerator and use within one month.

It is normal for some canned fruit to change color slightly over time. But if you notice extreme discoloration, a bright red, or green color, get rid of that food immediately!

Jars processed this way should be stored in cool, dark, dry areas and are good for quite a long time. If properly processed, they are theoretically good forever. But I doubt they will last that long! 😉

Happy canning!