Money Savin’ Mama: Find ways to give that fit your budget

My column in today’s Forum talks about being frugally generous. What tips do you have to give and save?

When all year long you penny pinch, you run the risk of becoming a Grinch.

In the season of giving thanks and holiday giving, I have to remind myself to loosen the Scrooge-like grasp on my purse strings, before three ghosts visit me in the night.

But being generous and being frugal are not mutually exclusive. It’s all about being efficient with your money, and maximizing what you can give within the constraints of your budget.

Call it frugal generosity. It can apply to Christmas gifts and charitable giving.

One of my favorite ways to give frugally is on Giving Hearts Day. During the Feb. 14 event, hosted jointly by the Impact Foundation and Dakota Medical Foundation, online donations of $10 or more to select nonprofits are matched up to $4,000.

It’s an easy way to stretch your giving dollar, making a larger impact than you otherwise might afford. A similar event featuring Minnesota organizations, Give to the Max Day, was held Nov. 14.

For food drives, I often donate cans from my pantry, which I’ve stocked when on sale or by redeeming store deals.

For example, Cash Wise grocery stores offer a free, usually nonperishable item with a $30 purchase. If you scan the free item coupon before other coupons, you can still get the item if your out-of-pocket total is less than $30. Even if it’s an item you wouldn’t use, it can still be put to good use.

That goes for more than food. I’m an advocate of re-gifting, provided it’s done with class. That is, it’s never been used, it would be loved by the recipient, and you’re gifting well outside the social circle where you received.

When I helped pack Operation Christmas Child boxes this month, I collected uneaten Halloween candy and unopened Happy Meal toys from my house. I’ve also given away gift cards I earned for free through MyPoints.com.

When approached with fundraising catalogues, I try to do double-duty, supporting the cause by buying something I can give later as a gift. I do the same when attending home parties or vendor shows.

Gift-giving is part of our household budget. We automatically add $90 every two weeks to an online money market account designated for pet expenses, travel and gifts.

To make the most of those dollars, I try to leverage pre-Christmas sales. I combined a sale price and texted coupon code to get the doll my 5-year-old daughter wanted for half its regular price.

I also hit up post-holiday sales. One year for Christmas, I gave her a Cinderella costume I’d bought at a deep discount the week after Halloween.

The key is to not get hung up on the dollar amount. Just because you found the gift for less doesn’t mean you have to spend more. It’s about the gift – and the thought – not what you spent.

Finally, I like to think about my family’s “needs” when drafting wish lists. Clothes, art supplies and bigger bike helmets are great gifts and already part of the household budget. Both my kids’ stockings will be stuffed with kid shampoo, new toothbrushes and toothpaste.

That way their teeth, like the holidays, will be merry and bright.

May all your Christmases be in the black.

Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com

Shiny Happy Faces

Every day this week, the mailman has brought me greetings from afar, typically photo cards featuring the smiling faces of friends and family. But this year, I’ve started to wonder about these picture-perfect greetings.

I’ve sent picture Christmas cards since 2003, the first featuring Craig and my engagement photo. The next year was a photo from our wedding, bubbles surrounding us as we exited the church. We posed in front of the tree with our kitty and puppy in 2005. My pregnant belly filled the 2007 card. And in 2008, we were back in front of the tree, this time with Baby Eve.

Our photo cards continued to reflect our growing family. But this year, something seemed a little fake about the cards I sent, which featured this picture prominently:

Yes, Santa, we’ve been good all year.

We’d dressed up in color-coordinated outfits, braved the photo studio on a Saturday morning, and our patient photographer captured that stereotypical family photo during our 20-minute session. Yes, it’s us. But it’s not reality.

This is reality:

Seriously, are we done yet?

And this:

Here comes Santa Claus … and there goes Owen.

And if Christmas cards were about reflecting reality, I would have sent one of those pictures as my card. It would have been funny. I’m pretty sure my mother would have been appalled.

But looking at the stack of holiday greetings I’ve received from others, it seems standard practice to send out shiny-faced posed versions of ourselves.

Why? Is it a self-conscious desire to always put our best foot forward? Does it have to do with the nature of Christmas itself? We adorn trees and houses and gifts with pretty dressings, of course we would do the same to ourselves.

I read a quote not long ago (attributed to Pastor Steve Furtick): “The reason we struggle with insecurity is we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” What would happen if we all started to send cards (and letters, for that matter) that reflected our behind-the-scenes life?

Maybe next year I’ll be brave enough to send a card documenting one of the funny/exasperating/embarrassing/warts-and-all moments sure to happen in 2013.

For now, Merry Christmas from my smiling (and crying, whining, laughing, fighting, loving, messy) family to yours.

Lucky husband, lucky wife

My husband and I exchanged Christmas presents tonight. It felt a little naughty to be opening gifts two full weeks early, in front of our kids, no less. But we were both pretty excited to give — and get.

I’d written about buying Craig’s present at a dollar store. Like a good husband, he’d read my column and inquired about it Friday evening at the mall. “So you spent $4 on my gift?” he asked. “Yep,” I said with a smile. I told him it was something he’d mentioned wanting, but wouldn’t give him any hints beyond that.

On Saturday, Little Owen found a little package under the tree, and started ripping the ribbon off. I grabbed it from him before he tore the paper. Since I hadn’t put that present under there, I figured Craig must have. As I looked at it, I noticed it didn’t have my name on it, but a sticker on the bottom did have a telling name: Riddle’s Jewelry.

Our mutual curiosity got the better of us and we agreed to open our gifts early (Note this was a couple weeks after we both agreed that our trip to Vegas would be our gift to each other this year). I gave him his present first.

Inside the gold paper-wrapped box were four 20-ounce wine glasses, purchased for $1 each at Dollar Tree. Craig and I enjoy an occasional glass of wine, and awhile back he said how he’d love to have some really big wine glasses, which are better suited for red wine. (Not to mention drinking more wine at one time, but, yeah, let’s go with oxidizing the wine).

One of our new big honkin’ wine glasses, at right. I photographed it with one of our current glasses at left to show the difference in size.

Then it was my turn. I tried to show restraint as I unwrapped the package. Inside a white lidded box was a shiny red-hued jewelry box. And inside that was a gorgeous white gold sapphire and diamond pendant.

Bling!

I was speechless. And frankly … confused. I thanked Craig sincerely, but really didn’t understand why he would buy me this extravagant gift. Who was this man and what had he done with my tightwad husband?

Craig asked me how much I thought he’d spent on the necklace. I said I didn’t know, and that it didn’t matter, but he could tell me if he wanted. Maybe he got it for 60 percent off …

Nothing, he said. He’d won it at as a door prize at a business networking event last week, and picked it up while we were at the mall Friday night.

Ahh, now this gift made sense!

Those who know my accountant husband will laugh. This guy is uncommonly lucky at winning things. A couple summers ago he won a Big Green Egg grill, a freezer and bundle of meat through a radio contest. Last year, he won an iPod Touch at a CPA event. A few years ago, at a Forum party, we won a patio fire pit, $100 spa gift certificate and a $25 restaurant gift card (I think it was all him, but we’d comingled our tickets so it’s tough to say).

I already knew he’d won a $25 restaurant gift card at the networking event. He told me he’d registered for a few more prizes, but (here’s the kicker) he was almost out of business cards when he went so wasn’t able to sign up for very many.

He knew he couldn’t wait until Christmas to tell me about the free $500 necklace. Just like I couldn’t wait for him to open his $4 set of wine glasses.

So I washed a couple ginormous glasses, popped open a bottle of Penny Sale wine, and we toasted our gifts and our frugal family.

I’m one lucky wife to have such a lucky husband.

Meeting Mrs. Claus

Obviously I write a lot about my kids on this blog and in my Parenting Perspectives column (which you should look for tomorrow, btw). But the larger part of my job is writing articles for the SheSays section of The Forum.  While these are sometimes about moms or kids or parenting issues, they have little to do with my own family.

So it was a rarity when these two worlds collided earlier this month. I had the privilege of interviewing Fargo’s own Mrs. Claus, who is a constant figure at Santa’s Village at Rheault Farm. You can read the feature in today’s paper.

Ever since Eve was born in 2008, my family has made a yearly visit to the farm, to watch the toy train go round and round its tracks, to write a letter to Santa, to see the reindeer, to sit on Santa’s lap, and to make cookies with Mrs. Claus in the farmhouse’s kitchen.

I was glad to get a chance to know more about this woman who Eve has visited year after year, as have so many other local kids and families. It was an extra treat, a few days after I sat down with her, to bring Eve and newborn Owen into her kitchen. We had lots of fun as the kids poured sprinkles on their frosted sugar cookies.

Here’s a look at my own family’s interactions with Fargo’s Own Mrs. Claus through the years:

Here's Eve making cookies with Mrs. Santa in 2009. She was about 21 months old

And again in 2010 (age 2 1/2)

And again in 2011, now with little brother

‘Cheetos and Barbies’

All Eve wants for Christmas is Cheetos and Barbies. At least that’s been her most consistent answer whenever anybody asks her what presents she would like this year.

When she says Cheetos, she actually is referring to Gerber Lil’ Crunchies (in mild cheddar flavor), a toddler snack her friend Joren shared with her this summer. Barbies, of course, are the quintessential little girl gift, though technically aren’t for children under age 3.

I honestly think my 2-year-old would be thrilled if only a canister of cheese puffs and a single doll were under the tree this year. This makes me wonder why I’ve been agonizing over the stash of gifts in the guest bedroom closet, wondering if it’s enough.

I drug it all out last night: the Abby Cadabby slippers (a Black Friday find), the Cinderella outfit and costume jewelry (Halloween clearance), a Tinkerbell bouncy ball (like the ones she plays with at our gym’s daycare), an Elmo book/puzzle (snagged from a B&N clearance shelf this June), bubble bath, Sesame Street undies and colorful barrettes (for her stocking), and a canister of Lil’ Crunchies. (We’ll let someone else get her the Barbies.)

I think my hang-up is that I haven’t gotten her one ”big gift.” For her first Christmas, we got her a play shopping cart set. For her second, she got a Little People schoolhouse from us. I wonder if I shouldn’t get her this fancy Jessie doll from Toy Story 3 or maybe the bike I’d picked up at a Black Friday sale and planned to give her for her March birthday. There are so many options for gifts in the store ads, my head kind of spins at all the things I think she’d like.

But when you’re 2, price tags don’t matter. Just Barbies and Cheetos.

You’d better not pout …

Last year, I wrote about Eve’s pleasant visit with the Jolly Old Elf. Friends warned me she wouldn’t be so agreeable the next year. Oh, were they right.

Things were certainly less than jolly when we stopped by Santa Village at Rheault Farms last Wednesday evening.

As we approached Santa, Eve clutched to her daddy’s jacket for dear life. Thankfully, it was a slow night, so Santa got up from his chair and approached her gently. He peered over his glasses at her. She peered back over her glasses at him. By the end of their visit, she seemed to think he was an OK guy, though she never did let go of Craig’s coat. 

For the next few days, Eve would randomly say “Santa.” When she did, I tried to get her excited about him, talking enthusiastically and showing her videos of Elmo visiting Santa. She’d had so much fun seeing the reindeer and model train at Santa Village, we decided to go back for a second visit that Saturday, thinking maybe this time she’d sit on his lap.

There was a long line late Saturday afternoon. As we snaked through the house, we pointed out stuffed Santa dolls. “Santa!” she’d exclaim.

Then she saw the live version. Immediately, she started crying. I held her on my lap and sat next to Santa. She kept crying. I told my husband to snap the photo anyway:

(Here’s a closer look at those tears)

A teenaged elf gave her a sucker. The tears stopped as quickly as they’d started. She decorated a cookie with Mrs. Claus.

Then, she asked for Santa.

Too late, we said. We weren’t going to wait in line for another 15 minutes, especially since she’d probably end up crying again.

I’m sure in a few years, she’ll run up to Santa, excited to see him and tell him what she wants for Christmas. For now, a little stranger anxiety isn’t a bad thing.

You’d better not pout, you’d better not cry, you’d better not shout, I’m telling you why …