Thursday, February 25, 2010

Friday Freebies

Here is my weekly edition of fun freebies for you and your family! From education to gardening, I hope you'll find something fun here!

Free cooking classes from Williams Sonoma!
"Each month, our stores offer instruction in basic cooking techniques and specific cook's tools."

Free Video lessons are provided by the Khan Academy, a Tech Award winner in Education. This nonprofit website provides lessons in the following, from middle school levels and up:  Chemistry, Biology, Linear Algebra, SAT preparation, GMAT preparation, Algebra, Banking, Interest, Finance, Arithmetic, Trigonometry, Geometry, Precalculus, Probability, Physics, Pre-algebra, Calculus, Differential Equations, California Standards Tests in Algebra, Algebra II and Geometry, There are also lessons in Venture Capital, Investing, and other business topics.

TrueLemon sample
100% natural with no sugar, carbs, or artificial sweeteners, use to flavor your water or other drinks. You will need to register in order to get the freebie.

Free Vector Graphics Editor
Inkscape is a computer drawing tool similar to Illustrator or Corel Draw. It uses the scalable vector graphics format (svg).

Free Landscape Design Courses has three different landscape design courses that are sent by email.

Have a great week everyone!

Free 8x10 print at Walgreen's today!

Just a reminder - get your free 8x10 print at Walgreen's February 25th ONLY. Not valid on collage prints or magazine covers, and only one per customer! Go here to get your coupon!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

DIY: Make Your Own Soil Blocks

This week I'm participating in the blog carnival "Works for me Wednesday", hosted by We Are that Family. If you're looking for lots of great links on saving money, this is a great place to start!

Well, it's time for another test. We planted our first set of seeds in cardboard egg cartons, using our own soil mix. We needed to start some more seeds indoors (tomatoes, peppers, celery, parsley, and basil). In the past, we've used a soil block maker -- but we haven't used it for a while. I figured, why not give it a try again so we can compare how each sets of seeds turns out?

Why would we want to use a soil block maker, anyway? The egg carton seems to work ok. First of all, you don't need a container, just a tray to put your soil blocks in. This should be a waterproof tray of some kind. As you're not using a container for each seedling, you avoid your seedlings getting pot-bound before they are transplanted into your garden. Then, when you're ready to plant, you just pick up the block and plant it into your garden. No pushing or pulling, possibly causing damage to your plants. Sure, you could use peat pots, or some other container that goes into your garden, but your plant has to work to grow it's roots through that layer, which affects your plant's growth. Soil blocks seem to be the best choice for the healthiest and most vigorous plants.

For this test, we're using the same soil mix as we used for the egg carton seedlings. This mix includes perlite and compost, for drainage and nutrients. Our soil includes amendments like soft rock phosphate, kelp meal, greensand, blood meal, and bone meal. Our seedlings should get all the nutrients and minerals that they need!

We have a soil block maker that we bought about 16 years ago -- if you go shopping for one today, they look *exactly* the same! Ours makes four soil blocks at a time, including making the indentation used to plant the seeds. My husband worked on making the soil blocks. He made them in a tray lined with some fabric. His idea is that the blocks will be watered from below, by capillary action. This will help with the blocks crumbling early on before the seedlings are developed, and there are no roots to hold the soil together, especially during watering.

Overall, making the blocks is a little tricky, but the blocks look good. Just like making sand castles, you can practice to see how much soil and pressure you need to use, before you're ready to do the "final" ones to plant your seeds in. Once you get the hang of it, make all the blocks that you need.

At this point, our seeds have been planted, and we're watering them using the fabric. I'll keep you posted on how they are doing as they grow!

$10 Rescued!

One way I combat paper clutter is to go through the mail immediately, sorting any junk mail right into the paper recycling. (Reducing this would be another post -- we don't get a lot but we do get some junk!)

Anyway, I'm going through the mail yesterday and I paused as I almost placed one unopened envelope into the recycle bin. I'm not sure what it was that made me stop, but I decided to open it. From the exterior of the envelope, it appeared to be some unwanted solicitation. No company identification, a preprinted bulk mail postage. All the evidence pointed to it being junk.

Imagine my surprise when I opened it and found our $10 Amazon certificate, a part of Coinstar's annual December promotion. I had *almost* put that in the trash! I guess someone was watching out for me, just at that moment. Now we have that $10 waiting for our next Amazon deal :)

I guess the moral of the story is OPEN everything you think is junk mail. You never know what good surprises may be inside!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Monday Meal Planning

The next two weeks will be extremely busy for me, as I'll be helping with my younger son's school play. In addition, we have our Cub Scout Pack's Blue and Gold celebration for the the 100th birthday of Scouting, AND our Webelos' Graduation. Phew, that's a LOT! My plan for this week is to put together dinners early in the day. So, I'm focusing on casseroles and crockpot meals. Here's my plan for the week:

Monday: Sausage, mushroom and Wild Rice Casserole - I've got some nice Italian sausage I got on sale plus used a coupon, so this is an under-$5 meal!

Tuesday: Mexican Casserole

Wednesday: Split Pea Soup - this may end up being vegetarian, unless I get lucky at the store today!

Thursday: Baked Chicken and Broccoli Pasta Parmesan (I'm actually cooking up my own chicken from chicken quarters in homemade broth -- I should have enough to double this recipe or to save for another meal)

Friday: Homemade pizza night - Pepperoni and Ham and Pineapple -- we're still working through that fabulous and inexpensive Christmas Eve Ham!

Saturday: (Potluck at Blue and Gold) Probably cornbread casserole, though this may change based on what others are bringing. I made a double batch of this last year and it got eaten up!

Sunday:  leftovers -- we'll see when we get closer!

What's your plan for the week? If you're looking for more ideas, check out's Menu Plan Monday!

Walgreen's Photo Deals Every Day this Week!

Walgreen's Photo department is having a special deal each day this week. Check out their special offer page for details on today's deal, a magazine cover featuring your picture for only $1.99, using code COVERIT.

Other deals this week: (Note FREEBIE on Thursday!)

Monday, February 22: 40% off digital prints (4x6, 5x7, and 8x10)
Tuesday, February 23rd: 50% off posters (11x14)
Wednesday, February 24th: 99 cent film developing (35mm, APS or single use camera)
Thursday, February 25th: FREE 8x10! 1 per customer
Friday, February 26th: 50% off ink refill 1 per customer
Saturday, February 27th: 10 cent prints - 4x6 - no minimum


I'm so excited! I took the second exam for my CompTIA A+ certification and passed! So most of you are thinking.. what IS that? Well, it's the basic certification most employers look for in IT Support. It covers a very wide range of information, from operating systems to security. It's an area I enjoy learning about and something I enjoy -- those seem to be the perfect fit for possible business opportunities for me!

Most of the information covered on this exam I already knew -- especially with respect to practical application. Working at my sons' school helping with computer support in various classrooms for the past 9 years has exposed me to a lot of the information covered in this exam. It's nice to have a piece of paper that validates that I really know what I'm talking about!

I'm thinking this could be a small business for me, but there is still a lot I don't know. I am going to continue taking classes next month. Still, I think I'll be on the lookout for some free business cards! You never know when opportunity might knock.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Freebies

Great music and some yummy treats in this week's freebies. Enjoy!

Free sample of new Tropical Chewy Lemonhead and Friends

Free song download every day at Volume Vote

Courtesy of Rachel Ray Magazine, free sample of coffee from Berres Brothers.

Mark your calendar for possible more free pretzels on April 26th from Pretzelmaker and Pretzel time. Watch their web site for more details of this year's festivities!

Check out Mariah Carey's new music video on iTunes. Thanks couponpro!

More free music -- my favorite, Classical! Amazon has this Classical Favorites Sampler by 101 Strings Orchestra for free!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Get ready, Get Set... Garden!

I'm super excited about my garden this year! We are building new garden beds in the location where our shed and trailer used to be. This is the middle of our yard, between our house and the garage. With both of those two big things now moved or removed, my husband has been working hard on building and filling the beds.

Here is a shot of the first three he has built. These are three feet wide and about 18 inches tall. We are using FREE/recycled materials (mostly old fencing). My husband is building these in four foot sections, based on the fence boards we have. There is a cap around the edges so there's a place to put tools, etc. while you're working. All the beds were filled with soil, compost, and perlite to help hold in moisture. The soil came from what was dug out of our old garden, compost was free from a family member, and perlite was left over from our strawberry tubs. We added the compost and other fertilizers based on this general fertilizer program from a local organic gardening store, including kelp meal, blood meal, soft rock phosphate, bone meal, and greensand. Most of these we had from past gardens, so very little investment was involved.

You can see in the picture that I've got some FREE plants from another Freecycler sitting on the edge, waiting to be planted. In this bed, the sugar pod peas, spinach, turnips, beets, cauliflower, and broccoli have already come up. No sign of the carrots or scallions yet. I haven't had much luck with carrots in the past, so my fingers are crossed! You can also see that the orange tree is dropping oranges -- we need to drink more orange juice! The bricks we just purchased from someone off Craigslist -- these will become a walkway from our back door to the garage at one end of the beds, and a small patio at the other end. I don't know if we have enough yet!

So far, we've only planted one of the three beds built. The second is waiting for some of my indoor seed starts to be ready. This year, I've decided to try using some of the egg cartons we have saved. It seems to be working fairly well so far. There is broccoli (somewhat ahead of those planted in the bed on the same day), cauliflower, and two kinds of lettuce. As soon as these are ready, they will all go into the second bed.

There's something exciting about watching plants emerge from the soil. It's magical and also very satisfying, helping the plants grow. At least, I think I'm helping!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monday Meal Planning

This edition of "Monday Meal Planning" (now Tuesday -- yes, I know!) is focused on the easiest meals I can come up with. I have had a very bad cold and sinus headache, and cooking is the last thing on my mind. Here are some meals I came up with, mostly with items we have on hand, that even my husband can cook (with a little guidance!).

Tuesday - White chicken tortilla soup (all ingredients on hand)

Wednesday  -Spaghetti casserole (in freezer)

Thursday - Mexican pulled pork with veggies and tortillas

Friday - homemade pizza (my husband is an expert at this!)

Saturday - Chili with cornbread

Sunday - leftovers, we'll see when we get there!

Hopefully, by next Monday, I'll be back on track again!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rest in Peace

On this day of "love", our family said goodbye to my younger son's very dear pet, Frosty. We'd had Frosty almost three years. She lived a very long, happy life in our home. She loved everyone, even our dog! And she was loved in return. She adored sitting on your shoulder, just watching the world, or hiding in your hair if it was long enough. She was gentle and curious. She loved to turn her "house" upside down and loved ringing the bell hanging in her cage.

Frosty was, of course, a rat. Some people look askance when they hear us talk about her, being what she was. But, she was special. For my younger son, who makes special connections to animals, she was a friend. For all of us, she was a quiet little joy to have around our home. I have to say, we were quite lucky to have this little girl. We've had other rats and hamsters who seemed the opposite in personality. But Frosty was very special, and she will be missed. We've given her a special place under one of our new garden beds. The boys are planning to make a special marker for her.

I'm hoping that we've learned from Frosty, and someday, when my younger son is ready, he will pick a new pet. He certainly has enough love to share.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Special Friday Freebie: Free Collage Print at Walgreen's TODAY ONLY

Want a great gift on a budget? Today, February 12th ONLY you can get a free 8" by 10" collage print from Walgreen's! The coupon code is VDAY. You can order online and pick instore pickup. Of course, if you would rather NOT have a collage, just add one picture.

Friday Freebies

Happy Friday! Here are my freebies for this week!

Sample of Burt's Bees new natural toothpaste

Sample of Avery Label Pads - colored labels that are removable!

Instrumental Children's Music from Gotham Wind Symphony - many of the songs on the album are free, including Wheels on the Bus, Frere Jacques, Twinkle, Twinkle, and more.

Valentine's Card/Bowling game Coupons Brunswick Bowling Centers has Valentines cards with a free bowling game! Just print them out. Note: one per household, and does not include shoes. Don't know if there is a Brunswick bowling location near you? Check here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Frugal Cook's Essentials - Digital Thermometer

Welcome to another post in my series on cooking essentials. Just as when you build a house, having the correct tools for your cooking "job" make it easier, more fun, less hassle, and you'll be more happy with the results!

Today I'd like to talk about digital thermometers. I have to admit, I have only owned one for about a year. Before that, I got by with one of those analog meat thermometers, which are very difficult to read. I've also owned one of those "instant read" thermometers from the grocery store. Another analog dial, but much smaller. I could tell when something was within 10 degrees -- not exactly a precise instrument! Lastly, I have my good old candy thermometer, the kind you clip to the side of the pan. It's actually an heirloom, inherited from my husband's great aunt. It's a beautiful instrument, but fragile and has limited use.

The idea for trying a digital thermometer came from watching Alton Brown's episode on fried chicken. My 10 year old son LOVES fried chicken, and also loves watching Alton Brown. After watching that show, he was determined that we should make his favorite dish. The only item we lacked was a good thermometer. None of the thermometers we had would work for the pan frying technique demonstrated on the show. So we started looking.

After searching online, looking in a couple stores, and reading reviews, we ended up with this. I love the flexibility of this instrument! I don't just use it for pan frying. I use it to check my bread doneness, meat doneness, and oil temperature when frying.  It's second kitchen timer, with or without the temperature gauge. You can set the alarm to go off when the probe meets a certain temperature. And I love that the base is magnetic, so I can attach it to my oven or range hood, wherever I need. It has a nice long cord to reach where you need it in your oven.

I'd be lost without this tool! It has taken the guesswork out of my cooking. I highly recommend a tool like this!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Monday February 7th Meal Planning

This weekend, I spent some time shopping the local grocery sales as well as going to Costco. As we walked around Costco, checking out the samples, I'm amazed remembering all the money we used to spend on ready-made food. Now, instead of being tempted to spend a lot of money on that kind of food, if it's something the family likes, I figure out how I can make it - usually better and healthier, since I can choose fresh ingredients.

Here's my plan for this week.

Monday: Meatball sandwiches with the 93% ground beef I got for 50% off.

Tuesday: Broccoli quiche

Wednesday: Lentil and sausage stew.

Thursday: Leftovers

Friday: Homemade pizza. I need to make some more pizza sauce! Generally I make enough for a month at a time and put it in the freezer. Pizza sauce is super easy to make, and much cheaper than premade! Check out this recipe (don't be intimidated by all the ingredients!), or this one, with just a few ingredients.

Saturday: Pulled pork, homemade bread, and salad.

Sunday: Turkey chili (ground turkey, two kinds of beans), and corn bread.

Make your plan for the week! If you need more inspiration, check out's Menu Plan Monday!

Super Snacks

Our boys were very excited about watching the Super Bowl this afternoon. My younger son, age 10, is very interested in cooking. He proposed (and made) some spinach dip and also wanted guacamole. Premade guacamole tends to be pretty pricey, but Safeway had Haas avocados 2 for $1 this week. So, we splurged just a little and have some homemade guacamole waiting for the big game to start!

Here's how we made it. Mix the following together:

  • 2 ripe avocados, mashed with a fork
  • juice from 1/2 of a lemon (ours came from one of the lemon trees in the yard)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp to 1/4 cup salsa (we had some in the frig). Use more and spicier depending on your preference
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Chill for at least an hour, then enjoy! We'll be enjoying this with some chips from Costco ($3.95 for 5 lbs -- these last us a while!). Now, bring on the commercials, that's my favorite part of the game :)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Birthday Gift

Extravagant birthday gifts are not in out budget, but for my recent birthday, my husband wanted to get something for me. Now, I'm not much into jewelry or fancy stuff, so naturally he was leaning towards practical items. Maybe something for the computer, or the kitchen. We've been wanting one of those large, oval porcelain coated cast iron dutch ovens (mine is almost overflowing sometimes!) but the price tag was just too high for our current budget.

Instead, I ended up with some clothing. Oh, not normal, everyday clothing. I got a chef's jacket! As you might have guessed, I cook a lot. Even with an apron, I am always getting grease, food, whatever I'm cooking on my clothes. To save me from destroying my regular clothes, this was the perfect answer. It wasn't a lot of money, but the price is well worth it for me. This morning, I'm cooking chicken for tonight's soup, plus sausage and whole grain waffles for breakfast, and I'm not worrying about my clothing. It's a perfect gift! Don't expect to see me on the next episode of Iron Chef, though!

Thanks and love to my family, who I love cooking for!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Freebies

Here are some fun, tasty, and crafty links for your Friday Freebies. Enjoy!

Mark your calendar for Feb 20th. Auntie Anne's will be giving out free original or cinnamon sugar pretzels from 10am to 3pm (one per person).

Free Country Music Sampler from People Magazine. You'll need iTunes for this.
Download Code and instructions will be displayed on the link. Expires 04/09/2010.

Kashi Fruit and Grain Bar, Toasted Berry Crumble Cereal, or Honey Almond Flax Cereal Sample

Looking for a use for all those fabric scraps you're squirreling away? How about a colorful tote bag? Check out So You Wannabee a Domestik Goddess for more information!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Leftover Spaghetti, Reinvented

Leftover day couldn't wait until the weekend -- I had some leftover spaghetti and sauce that I needed to use up. So, change of plans for tonight's dinner.

Of course, I couldn't just make plain old spaghetti again. Well, I could, but I just didn't feel like it. I remembered many moons ago making a spaghetti casserole, so I thought I'd see what was in the frig languishing that I could incorporate into my creation. I came up with a partial can of evaporated milk, some cream cheese, the leftover spaghetti sauce with a little bit of spaghetti, some mozzarella cheese, and a couple Italian sausages.

The casserole went together like this: First layer, cooked whole wheat spaghetti mixed with cream cheese, evaporated milk, and a little rice wine vinegar. Second layer - sliced Italian sausage, sauteed. Third layer - mostly sauce, a small amount of spaghetti. Top layer - shredded mozzarella.

Into the oven for a little under an hour at 350 degrees. Added a salad and voila, dinner!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

One Year

Last week, we passed the one year anniversary of my husband's unemployment. No, we didn't celebrate!

We are surviving. One year ago, I didn't truly believe that we could be without a salary for this long, without serious consequences. What helped us make it this far on the resources we have is three-fold. Our whole family is involved in making this happen, not just my husband and myself.

1. Make life decisions based on our resources. Some would call this "voluntary simplicity". Maybe you'd call is "downsizing". Living a simpler life has made us more aware of all the "things" we don't need. I'm sure you've heard "less is more". Well, I can attest to the fact that it is, in fact, true! While these decisions guide spending, they also guide where we spend our time and effort, so that we can attain our goals. The next goal deals specifically with spending money:

2. Make deliberate choices on where (and where not) to spend money. The boys don't argue when we say something isn't in the budget. Having priorities certainly helps. Sure, we're not perfect, but overall being more aware of costs of bought versus things we can make for ourselves facilitates these choices. And speaking of doing things for ourselves....

3. Learn. By this I mean that if something needs to be done, we can probably do it ourselves. Whether it's cooking or home repairs, we've found that we can save significant money simply by learning to do things for ourselves. Now, we did a lot for ourselves before, but I can't say that we were able to quantify and see the benefits in the past. We are much more conscious of how making an effort to be more self sufficient has benefited us as a family.

Our lives are better, if somewhat different compared to a year ago. I'm not sure what the future holds. It's a little scary. But at the same time, I feel we have a better foundation to make tough choices, if it comes to that.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Frugal Cook's Essentials - Wooden Spoons

This is the next post in my series about frugal kitchen essentials. Forget the plastic and silicone. Give me a nice assortment of Wooden Spoons.  In our kitchen, I use both slotted and solid styles. These are:
  • comfortable in my hand, 
  • can be used on nonstick or regular cooking surfaces, 
  • don't get too hot to hold, 
  • are strong enough to stand up to some serious mixing, 
  • don't cost an arm and a leg, like some "specialty mixing tools", and
  • won't melt if you accidentally leave it in the pot for a minute!

Definitely a must for my kitchen!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday Meal Planning

This week, I'm definitely focusing on low cost meals. It's just over a year since my husband became unemployed, and our reserves are getting slim. I'm thinking of anything I can do to cut our costs. I'm focusing on vegetables and whole grains, with meats playing a secondary role. Here's what I've planned for this week:

Monday: Tonight we had Chicken Lo Mein. I used some chicken breast I bought on sale that was in the freezer. For veggies, carrots and broccoli from the farmer's market, and one red pepper from the grocery store. For noodles I used the whole wheat spaghetti from Costco (a dollar a pound). I estimated that this cost about $5 for the whole meal, and there were leftovers for my husband and I for lunches tomorrow.

Tuesday: Vegetable pot pies. Mushrooms and potatoes from Costco, turnips and carrots from the farmer's market. The mushrooms make this taste very "meaty". The dough is like a light pie crust made from a mix of all purpose and whole wheat dough. The kids love these!

Wednesday: Split pea soup with ham hocks. Ham hocks are in the freezer, celery and carrots also on hand. I'm not sure if I'll add potatoes or not -- depends on my mood when I put this together Wednesday morning. This will cook in the slow cooker all day since I'm out of the house most of that day.

Thursday: White chicken tortilla soup. Chicken and white beans, plus some sauteed red peppers (adds some great sweetness!). Serve with tortilla chips to be added at the table. Cost: about $6.

Friday: Homemade pizza night. We have pepperoni from our bulk buy at Smart and Final, mozzarella cheese from Costco, homemade pizza sauce in the freezer for the first pizza. The second will be ham (portioned in the freezer) and pineapple with barbecue sauce. I estimate both these pizzas cost about $7 all together.

Saturday: This is our slush day -- if there are leftovers, we'll have that. If not, we'll have spaghetti with mushroom marinara, turkey meatballs, and homemade french bread.

Sunday: Bean burritos with beans cooked in the crockpot with roasted anaheim peppers (in the freezer), red rice, plus lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and salsa.

All of these meals are under $10 each for our family of four. Some will have leftovers for our lunches as well, so extra stretching already built in! What are you cooking this week to save money? If you're looking for more ideas, check out Menu Plan Monday for many, many more!
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