Inexpensive Christmas Gifts with a Heart

During Christmas time, it seems I have a lot of people to buy gifts for, and I am stumped over what to buy.  Over the years, we’ve done some home-made gifts, as well as some less expensive gifts with a little heart.  This started out of necessity, because my husband was in construction, so each year he had a list of 30-40 people that he wanted to remember with just a small gift.  Buying gift baskets or turkeys or hams was out of the question, so the first week of December became a flurry of activity in making inexpensive but valued gifts to complete our list.

Cookies are always an obvious choice.  We found that Mexican Wedding Cookies (also known as Russian Tea Cakes) are not only easy to make, but one recipe (recipe courtesy All Recipes.com) made several dozen cookies.  With just 4 or 5 ingredients, these are super easy. They’re easy for kids to make and they stay fresh for a long time, so they are very easy to package and give out to friends.  We would make TENS of DOZENS of these and it would be a great family project.  Try wrapping a dozen cookies in colored plastic wrap or clear plastic then cover with a colored tissue paper  package tied with curling ribbon. For larger gifts, use small cardboard cartons lined with tissue, topped with a bow or curling ribbon.

Gifts in a Jar is a very economical way to give nice gifts. One is super chocolate hot cocoa mix recipe from Alton Brown.  However, rather than stirring in the chocolate chips, I use this to add some layers for an interesting jar….mini marshmallows, the cocoa mix, then some chocolate chips on top, with more mini marshmallows.  The instructions can mention that the jar should be mixed well before using. Use either quart or pint jars (depending on the size of gift you would like).  We use tissue paper or Christmas fabric to cover the lids and tie down with curling ribbon.  Another gift in a jar that is in constant demand from our friends is Minestrone Soup mix.  This makes a beautifully layered gift.  We have actually added a little to the recipe, and prefer hot Italian sausage.  If you decide to use this one, your friends will beg you for the recipe.

Candy Wreath makes a great gift for someone special!  These are more labor intensive, so I only suggest a couple of these as needed.  At your craft store, purchase a foam round (like the “lifesaver” thrown from boats) from the flower supply.  Get a box of straight pins and a bag of red/white peppermints plus red candies, each individually wrapped.  Tie a Wide Red Ribbon loop around the wreath and pin in place on the round, tie into a bow at the top.  Start pinning groups of candies (two or three to one pin) until the front and sides of the wreath is covered!

With so many step-families, children want to get a special gift for a parent, but aren’t sure what to buy, especially for Dad!  Run down and grab an inexpensive picture frame and some glitter glue, maybe some decorative stones or “jewels”.  Let the kids decorate the side of the frame.  Spend some time and take some nice candid photos, upload and print at your nearest pharmacy or photo store.  You now have an inexpensive, personal gift.  The kids will be proud of their gift and the parent will cherish the photo and frame.

Christmas Ornaments – If you’re into craft painting, you can get plastic clear ornaments at the hobby store.  These can be personalized with craft paint as individual gifts.  This works whether you can paint or not.  So many of the paints come in tubes that can be used as a “pen” to scribe the name and year, the ornaments can be painted with a Christmas scene, and much more!  Very inexpensive and easy to do!  The paints clean up with water, so this is something the older children can do as well!

As always, I would love to hear your ideas of what you do for inexpensive gifts on your list!

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Random Acts of Kindness 365 Challenge

Challenge Yourself!  

With the holidays approaching, we all seem to be very focused on thankfulness, family, charity, and helping others.   But what about the rest of the year? It seems that the good feelings of charity continue until mid-January, when everyday life interrupts.  Before you know it we’re back to being focused on our own problems, achievements and needs, being our self-centered selves.    Don’t take offense…. I am describing MYSELF. But if the shoe fits…. read on.

What if you took part in a challenge that I am doing for myself.  What if you challenged yourself to do just one single random act of kindness every day, starting today, for an entire year!  You could keep track for yourself, but you can’t share your track record.  Sort of defeats the purpose.  Commit to doing this for a year, and I guarantee at the end of the year, you WILL feel different about yourself and about your life.  In turn, all through the year you will be gratified by the looks of shock, surprise, and appreciation. So, give it a try, starting today, and continuing until NEXT THANKSGIVING.

By the way, I know we have Random Act of Kindness Days and Random Act of Kindness week, so I am not trying to take credit for something that I didn’t invent, but I wanted to try something a little bigger; something that would impact ME as well as others all year-long.

Here is a very quick list of ideas to get you started.

  • Help someone put groceries in their car
  • Let someone in line ahead of you – do this regularly
  • Buy the coffee of the person behind you
  • Pick up the tab for a senior’s meal
  • Pay for someone who is short of cash
  • Make care package for homeless
  • Take someone who’s lonely to coffee
  • Read to a child
  • Hold the door for someone else
  • Let another car get in line ahead of you when traffic is heavy
  • Mow the lawn of a neighbor
  • Leave a cold drink for the mailman
  • Offer to babysit while a single mom runs errands
  • Buy gasoline for someone who ran out
  • Write a note to someone you’ve lost touch with
  • Run an errand for a harried family member
  • Send an email or note commending superior service
  • Help someone reach something from a high shelf
  • Leave a huge tip unexpectedly
  • Let the sales clerk keep the change (not just a few cents)
  • Offer a coat, blanket, gloves for someone in need
  • Leave a small anonymous gift on someone’s doorstep
  • Carry garbage cans off the curb for someone you don’t know
  • Pay for someone’s bus or train fare or cab fare
  • Buy a pack of movie tickets and give them away randomly
  • Give away lotto tickets to strangers
  • Spend time with a senior who has no family nearby
  • Take some flowers the next time you go to the bank or post office
  • Commend a clerk or waiter/waitress to their manager
  • Carry packages for someone
  • Take a meal to someone in need
  • Help a stranger change a tire
  • Help push a stalled car off the road
  • Drop off bottled water to construction crews
  • Leave an anonymous kind note on someones windshield
  • Take quarters and pay for others at a laundry mat on a busy day
  • Share your garden bounty with someone
  • Greet your trashmen with home-made cookies
  • Scrape snow from someone’s windshield
  • Leave an anonymous note complimenting a co-worker

If you’re up for the challenge and willing to give it a shot…comment with your name below.

Will Negative Nelly Please Stand Up

Why am I labeled a “doormat” yet another is labeled a “leader or visionary” or “eccentric or outspoken”.  One is a degrading term, while the others are quite positive (sorta). Why is it okay for them to label me with such a degrading term, yet name themselves with uplifting, ever-important titles?

I don’t think I am a doormat.  True, I have obviously made some conscious choices in my daily life not to rant and rave over every itsy bitsy teenie weenie (about to break into song here) thing that doesn’t go my way…perhaps choosing instead to let something slide because it won’t matter a few days (or possibly hours from now).  Actually, I do rant, but typically not to others….know what I mean?  Obviously, this post is the exception.  But a doormat?  Seriously!  I’m insulted!  I have found that letting others have their say does not always warrant an argument.  I have found that getting involved in a heated argument doesn’t make anyone feel better.  After the dust has settled, I am often left feeling embarrassed, wishing I could take back my words, wishing words had never been spoken to me!  But, maybe that makes me a doormat.

I think the “leader or visionary” should be called a bulldozer, because they are not leading, they are in fact just taking their ideas, opinions or decisions and rolling rampant over everyone or everything in their lives, somehow managing to convince themselves that they know what’s best for everyone else.  I have a hard time figuring out how one person can be so enlightened that they know exactly what others should do in particular situations, especially when they don’t know the details or sometimes even the person involved.  But, maybe that makes them a leader.

I think the person who is “eccentric or out spoken” should be labeled for the narcissistic egomaniac (is that a duplication of terms?) that they truly are.  Since when does having absolutely NO FILTER whatsoever on what someone says or writes make someone eccentric? Since when does this behavior make them anything but rude and egotistical and self-serving?  Is this some sort of behavior that is given a neutral label so as to make it easier to play in today’s society?  I think it makes them rude…but maybe they’re just eccentric.

Now that I’ve ranted I do feel better, and I’ll step down, sit down and shut up.

Unusual Winter Sports

Last night at dinner, we were reminiscing  about some of our family ski vacations.  That got me to wondering about other winter sports that have evolved over time, so I did a little research this morning.  This is what I found.

Shovel Racing

Shovel racing began when ski lift operators rode their shovels down the mountain after their shift.  Over time, boasting about who was fastest resulted in a race at Angel Fire, NM.  That was over 30 years ago.  The boasting resulted in fierce competitions that became well known and very competitive.

Snow Tubing

Snow tubing has provided for great winter sports for family fun.  While snow tubing can be done where there is a suitable snowy slope and intertube, some areas have developed groomed runs with lifts, offering not only group tubing, but racing as well.

Snow Kayaking

A kayak, a paddle, wax, and a snowy slope….no surprise this created a winter sport amped up a level from sledding.  The paddle offers more maneuverability than traditional sledding, but of course this has created another extreme winter sport!

Snow Kiting

Snow kiting is a spin off from kite boarding (water). The kiters use the wind for propulsion and is enjoyed by flatlanders as well as daredevils.

Ice Sailing

Sailing or racing iceboats is hugely popular in Austria, Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, and of course, the US and Canada.  Sailing is with specially designed ice boats and is enjoyed as racing and just recreational winter sport.

Ski Bobbing

Ski Bobbing is not new.  Originally designed as skis on a bicycle frame to allow those who lacking knee strength to experience skiing in the alps.  This has of course continued to be developed over the years and has become another extreme winter sport.

Ice Karting

Imagine, go karts and Ice or Snow.  A perfect combination for a leisurely winter drive (brrr) or another way to create and enjoy racing in in the winter!

White Turf Racing

I was only able to find a couple examples of this.  There are many horse races in the snow, however, this is a horse race of additional proportions….the horse propelling the skier!  I can see some definite dangers here!

Ice Climbing

I found ice climbing to be what I considered to be the most dangerous of all the unusual winter sports. Ice climbing is usually (USUALLY) a roped and protected climb of ice falls and frozen waterfalls.   This is definitely not for amateurs!

Who Built It?

Last night, I was watching the History Channel.  First, let me admit that I don’t usually watch it… I am usually reading while the military channel blasts in the background, or the history channel drones about something which interests me not at all.  However, last night we were watching a broadcast about some of the great capitalists in our country!  Truly amazing stories.

I know that right now capitalism is frowned on by many, but it is one of the things that built this country. Now, I know that those capitalists had employees who were performing the daily back-breaking work, often thankless, and there is a lot of contention about that as well.  But I have to say, one would not exist without the other, but honestly, without these men (yes, mainly men) of vision and determination, I wonder where we would be without them?

I am talking of the likes of JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and others.  These men did not start out wealthy.  Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant who created his wealth as a steel magnate until he sold his company to JP Morgan. Carnegie then retired and became a well-known philanthropist, giving away nearly $350 Million of is fortune!  Rockefeller also came from humble roots to amass his fortune in the oil industry.  JP Morgan created many industries and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country at that time.

Each of these men had tremendous ambition, power, and money.  They created empires that enabled them unsurpassed influence in the nation, even to the extent of “owning” politicians until Teddy Roosevelt became President and started going after each and every one of the monopolies.  (this is very disjointed, missing a lot of details, I know).

My whole point here is that these men possessed ambition and desire that is rarely seen today (at least in my opinion).  It was JP Morgan, Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse who all vied to be the driving force behind making electricity serve our country.  Westinghouse actually was the first to bring electricity to a large area (the Worlds Fair), but it was Morgan who ended up owning the contract that operated the Niagara Falls power plant!

Since then, I began to toy with a thought.  What would have happened if we didn’t have JP Morgan, JD Rockefeller, Andre Carnegie and the likes of these industrialists to create the very industries that the government later sought to break into smaller pieces? Would someone else have done the same thing? Would it have taken an additional year, or ten years, or would it have taken 50 or 100 years longer? Where would we have been?

It reminds me of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stuart.  We watch this movie every year during the holidays at our home.  In the movie, Jimmy Stuart has the opportunity of a lifetime…the ability to see what would have changed in the WORLD if he had not been born!  If you haven’t seen it, take some time to watch it during the holidays.

I think I have morphed from one topic to another, but my whole point in this post is to share how amazed I was in learning the impact that just three men and their vision had upon or entire NATION, as well as wondering where we would have been without them.

It’s easy to poo-poo capitalists, but you have to wonder, where would we be without them?

What I Love About this Country

After the recent election, half the country is ticked off, the other half is elated.  Half is expecting us to go over a financial cliff, the other sees prosperity on the rise.  The polarization is at the highest it has ever been.  With all the division, I wanted to write about some of the things I love about this Country.

  • DEMOCRACY –  We don’t always like the results of decisions made by the preponderance of the population, but a democracy is what makes our country so tremendous and what enables us to retain our freedoms by limiting the government control.  It allows us the opportunities that others just dream about.
  • FOUNDATIONS – our country was built on high morals, a belief in God and the fervent determination that everyone should have the same opportunities for success.
  • FREEDOM OF SPEECH –  there are few places where we are truly free to express our opinions.  That doesn’t mean that voicing one’s opinions alleviates any sort of repercussions, but that is also the freedom of those who HEAR one’s opinions.
  • CAPITALISM – despite what so many people seem to think, capitalism is one of the tenets that has allowed the United States to enjoy such prosperity.  Anyone is allowed the opportunity to start a business and their business will either thrive or prosper based on the decisions of the business owner.  Where else can someone who has been brought up in poverty dream of owning their own business and create prosperity for themselves and their family.
  • RELIGION – We are truly free to practice our religion without fearing imprisonment from our government.  Our country is rich with a variety of religions practiced by its citizenry.
  • DIVERSITY – Throughout the nation, we find diversity in so many areas…from the landscape to the weather from one coast to another, diversity in members of the community, diversity in religion practiced, diversity in jobs and education.  Regardless of our differences, we are all Americans, and that creates a common thread that binds us together.
  • CULTURE – as you cross from one great state or city to another, you find rich variances in the dialects, architecture, food, and customs.
  • FREEDOM – in no other part of the world are we free to speak, free to practice our religion, free to move from one city or state to another, free to change jobs, free to select our educations, our careers, free to teach our children, free to take part in our government.  If we consider our activities on a daily basis, our freedoms are often taken for granted.
  • LOYALTY – Overall (and I realize there are exceptions) Americans are fiercely devoted to their country and their flag.  Americans have respect and admiration for all of those who fought to give us the freedoms that we so quickly overlook and even frown upon. Americans are quick to defend against any and all who disparage this great country and what it offers.
  • COMPASSION – Americans are often criticized as being arrogant and self-serving, with everyone looking out for themselves. Yet, despite this reputation, Americans are the quickest to respond and reach out and help strangers in time of need, asking nothing in return.  When the country is attacked or threatened, Americans will immediately band together, putting aside differences to accomplish a goal for the greater good of all of those involved.  While there are those who think Americans are selfish, I believe Americans exhibit the greatest spirit of selflessness of all other countries.  This is one of the things I love most about our Country.

As our country tries to knit itself back together as a result of the past year of divisive politics, I pray that we will remember all those things we have which make our country great instead of focusing on the differences that threaten to tear us apart.

 

How to save money dining out

Finances are tough for everyone, and grocery/food bills are a big concern.  But regardless of the economy, we still like to go out to dinner!  At our house we have always cooked a lot at home….it was more cost-effective and got us to sit down at least once a day with the kids.   We also found that going out to eat cost a small fortune with 6 of us for dinner!  But you need to treat yourself to a dinner out when you can.  Here are a few tips for dining out on a budget

Drinks

Alcohol can cause sticker shock with the final bill.  Have cocktails before you go out, or if you must have alcohol, limit yourself to a “house” wine and avoid call drinks.  If the meal does not come with  a drink, stick to water instead of paying $2 for a drink.  If you have kids with you, lay down the ground rules ahead of time.

Appetizers

Appetizers can be a smart purchase if you are wanting some lighter fare.  Often adding a dinner salad or bowl of soup with an appetizer is plenty of food to appease your appetite without breaking your budget.   Be careful when ordering appetizers, because the appetizers may actually cost more than actual entrees.

Sharing

This may not work as well if you’re single, but most other times works quite well.  If you are going to a restaurant that you know serves large portions, split it.  We went to dinner the other night and ordered a dinner salad each, then split an entrée.  We were satisfied with the meal and did not over eat!  Not only can this save you money, but can help keep your weight in check as well.

Happy Hour

Many restaurants offer cheaper dinner prices if you’re willing to dine ahead of the dinner rush.  Plan to eat between 3-4 PM for extra savings if your favorite restaurants offer this savings.  Another factor is that by dining earlier, you are typically not as hungry, so will likely order a smaller meal.

Kids Meals

When you take your kids, have them purchase from the kid’s menu for savings if they will eat it all.  For small children, order your meal and give the child one of your side dishes.  We made the mistake of allowing our kids to eat of the “big” menu when they suckered us into thinking they were too big for the kids menu.  Bottom line is they never ate all they were served and it cost a lot more, so stand your ground.

Special Deals

Keep track of when your favorite haunts are offering special deals and plan to take advantage of them.  Join some of the local frequent diner plans, purchase Groupons, take advantage of free birthday dinners!

Skip Dessert

If you can plan ahead, sometimes cookies or a pie prepared and waiting at home is a great incentive to skip dessert at the restaurant.  Even if you don’t have dessert at home, skip the calories and the cost and pass on dessert.

Avoid Over-Eating

We are so used to being served large portions and we tend to eat everything on our plate.  If you order a smaller portion (some restaurants will allow you to do a “half-size” potion) that will save money. Another option is to take leftovers home and plan your entree selection for choices that are easily reheated for lunch the following day.