Thursday, July 26, 2012

Finding Free and Inexpensive Outings

     Being a broke mom has forced me to search for different ways to entertain my kids.  It's very hard to keep hyper kids entertained.  They lose focus quickly and boredom leads to bad behavior, so it's important to keep a hat full of tricks to stave off the boredom. Of course there are obvious things like going to the park.  But even that becomes as mundane as the backyard swingset if you over do it.  (I really wanted some cute pics to go with all of the activities, but figured the info was just as valuable without them.  I'll find some pics/clipart and make it fancy later.)  
     Check the online calendar of events in your local newspaper.  You can often find things that are family friendly and free there.  Check with local entertainment venues to see if they offer any daily specials.  One movie theater in my town had free showings of kids movies one morning each week in the summer - they were usually ones that had been out for quite a while, but it was fun for the kids to see them on the big screen, plus if you have little ones that act up and you need to leave, you don't feel cheated out of the admission price.

     Our local symphony offers a two free concerts each summer.  Both are in a picnic friendly environment and we pack sandwiches or finger foods and head out with a blanket.  If you have young kids, try to sit near the edge or back, you may not have the best view, but you'll be so busy watching your kids, it won't matter anyway and you'll still be able to hear.  Kids will constantly want to get up to walk to the restroom or explore something else that catches their eye and you don't want to disturb the people around you.  The best thing about the second one last year was that if you brought a bag of non-perishable food to donate for a local food bank, you got a voucher for free concert tickets for a family of four at one of their indoor concert hall shows.  I had used coupons in conjunction with sale items and for under $5 we had a plastic grocery bag full of items to donate.  (We attended the Christmas concert, dressed in our Sunday best and got a free family photo taken in front of a BEAUTIFUL Christmas tree in the lobby.  We just had to go to their website to download it and print it off. Talk about getting a bonus!)

     Check with your local university.  If they have a music or theater department, they usually offer free events a few times a year.  Our local university also offers a free family swim night one night a week in one of the indoor campus pools.  Occasionally, they have free admission to their rock climbing wall, planetarium viewings, and other events.  

     We recently found out a local civic theater is often in need of ushers.  You don't get paid, but you get to enjoy the play or musical free of charge.  This is usually for children and adults 12 and over, but I'm considering making a date night out of it.  

     Research state parks in your area.  Our state offers a family membership for $35/year that allows admission into all state parks.  We found one near us that has a nice beach that's open seasonally, and surprisingly isn't crowded.  They usually have nice picnicking areas complete with hibachi's and playgrounds.  The walking trails are a nice way to get exercise and fishing or boat rentals provide additional entertainment.  Many state parks offer youth learning center and family friendly activities for no additional charge.  If you have a way to haul your bicycles, there are usually nice bike paths.  

    Investigate your local library.  Ours offers story time several times a week, free computer classes, a monthly Lego building contest, weekly video game hour, and the occasional special event.  My girls had a blast at a Fancy Nancy Soiree, dressing up and walking the red carpet with games, crafts, refreshments, door prizes and even treat bags as we left. The library used the event to promote a new Fancy Nancy book.

     In the summer, many churches offer a Vacation Bible School program.  I have a friend who tries to send her kids to one every week she can find one offered. The kids enjoy the Bible stories, games, and crafts and it gave her a couple of free hours each day to get things done.  These are often free or a small fee per family and you get a free CD of songs they learned.  My kids always go to the one at our church and I volunteer.      

     Give blood.  Yes, that's right, donate blood.  I read about an LA firefighter who was badly burned and injured in an explosion and by the time he was released from the hospital needed 84 units of blood.  You could help save a life and our local blood bank doesn't pay you, but they offer free movie passes, concert tickets, an all kinds of other fun stuff.  My husband went last month when they gave away free movie passes and I'm going today for the same deal.  They only give you two and we can use them for a date night or wait until we have six and take the whole family.  It's also a great lesson for your kids in giving and I've heard that giving blood regularly has some health benefits.  Make sure you hydrate well 2-3 days before going.  You even get a free snack afterward.  Last year we each got a free ticket to a concert by going on a day sponsored by an area radio station.  They also included a coupon for a free sandwich at a restaurant near the amphitheater.  We had a great date night.  

    Minor league sporting events are often inexpensive and most baseball stadiums have family nights and other specials that offer discounted admission certain days or a free concession item.  We found 2 stadiums in opposite directions from our home that have dollar night where all or selected concession items are $1 each.  

     Many museums have free admission days throughout the year.  Keep in mind these are often their busiest days of the year.  Pack a lunch to save money as most restaurants at zoos and museums are quite pricey.  

     City water parks are becoming more and more popular.  Surprisingly, they're starting to show up in smaller towns too.  One very small town of about 6,000 not far from us has a splash pad in their park.  A concrete pad with various sprinklers and fountains painted in primary bright colors, it's free and a fun way for the kids to cool off in the summer.  A couple of other towns within a reasonable drive have actual water parks with reasonable admission rates around $5/person.  

     Volunteer with your kids.  There are many places to volunteer as a family.  Many food banks need help stocking and while most people volunteer around the Christmas holidays, they need help year round.  Homeless shelters need volunteers to serve meals.  Even small children can wipe down tables and offer a smile to someone down on their luck.  Even better, bake and decorate cookies and take to pass out, just make sure you okay it with the shelter first.  Some have strict rules about any food served.  Visit a nursing home or senior center armed with some board games, card games and compassion.  Many of these people only see their families a few times a year.
     Visit an orchard or u-pick farm.  Plan in advance and have everything on hand so you can come home and can or freeze your pickings.  Blueberries, apples, strawberries are all popular u-pick goods and you can make jams, jellies and apple butter or pie filling as a family.  (My post for making your own jams coming soon.)  Store up for the winter or make enough to give as gifts.  Every year our extended family looks forward to getting a jar or two of homemade goodness for Christmas.  

     Team up with some other parents on your street and organize a neighborhood block party.  Have the kids decorate their bikes and parade down the streets.  Get with your city administration before blocking off a street completely though.  You may need a permit, but if they find out you only want to block off one block for a couple of hours, they may okay it without requiring any fees or permits.  Otherwise meet at a neighborhood park or a vacant lot and have some old-fashioned games like potato sack races and tug-of-war.  For a few dollars you can buy mini party bubbles - they're around $5 for a box of 24 and tie cute messages around them as favors.  Have someone come up with simple paper crafts and ask parents to donate inexpensive treats such as freeze pops, juice boxes, and other sun tolerant snacks.  

          Camp in your own backyard.  Pitch a tent (I just found out the local university's outdoor center rents them out) and sleep in your backyard.  Roast marshmallows, use a candle if there's a burn ban, and tell ghost stories if your kids are older.  Print an astrology chart off the internet and find constellations.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Family Movie Nights

My kids LOVE family movie night.  I'm not sure why it's such a big deal.  We watch movies a few times a week, but for some reason Family Movie Night is so much more special.  

In our house this event takes place after the dinner dishes are cleared away, usually on a Friday or Saturday night.  We put down a spill-proofing blanket on the floor in front of the TV and everyone is in their pajamas, ready for bed.  We've had a few incidents of kids falling asleep during the movie, so we instated the pajamas rule.  Sometimes we just let them sleep where they landed all night, depending on where they landed.  

We also pop popcorn. What's a movie without popcorn, right?  I purchased the striped plastic popcorn containers a few years ago from the dollar spot at Target - they have them several times a year.  My kids think these are awesome.  We pull them out for movie night and everyone has to sit on the blanket to have popcorn. I made one using rip-stop nylon (you could also use oil-cloth) and polar fleece - they nylon goes on the bottom and the top is soft and comfy, also great for picnics. This way I can just fold the edges and carry it outside to shake it out.  Once in a while I pick up a box of movie candy at the store - still trying to figure out how they can sell it for $1/box and the movie theaters must sell it for $3+/box.  They're all trying to make a profit, but that just crosses the line to greedy.  We also buy a 2 liter of soda to share, because we normally don't keep sodas on hand.  I have a stash of kids cups with lids saved from eating out at restaurants and I just use regular straws.  We use these cups all the time.  I don't buy plastic cups for my kids anymore.  Once we're set up with treats, we dim the lights and start the movie.

Tips for memorable movie nights:
  • Establish rules for talking, pausing for restroom breaks, etc.  If you have young kids consider an intermission halfway through the movie.  
  • Plan for snacks ahead of time, snacks that are small pieces they can eat with their hands are best since they'll be eating in the dark, some suggestions to be like a movie theater:  
    • Popcorn 
    • fun size M&M's, Skittles and Reese's Pieces
    • boxes of movie candy
    • gummy fruit snacks
    • muddy buddies
    • juice boxes
    • mini cans of soda with straws
    • sports bottles
    • This would also be a good time to try some of the popcorn recipes you've pinned.  
  • Before you start the movie, make sure everyone is comfy and ready to go with pillows or blankies.  
  • Dim the lights.  It's not like a movie theater with the lights on.  
Our favorite family movies:
  • Nim's Island  - adventure, comedy and just enough thrill to keep them interested, without being scary
  • We Bought a Zoo  - it did take a little while for my younger kids (ages 3 &5) to get interested, because the zoo part isn't right at the beginning and they kept waiting to see the animals, now they love it.
  • Kit Kittredge: An American Girl  - my husband groaned when he saw the title, but when we finished watching it the first time, they started it over immediately.  Great period piece with an ensemble cast and still has a modern feel.  Also has some good moral lessons. 
  • Dolphin Tale  - what's not to love about this feel good story?
  • Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium 
  • Nanny McPhee
  • Mr. Popper's Penquins - I am not normally a fan of Jim Carrey, although I do like his more recent movies better, but this is a fantastic family film about what's really important in life and it's really funny.  
  • Akeelah and the Bee - Proof that you background doesn't have to define you.  
  • The Sand Lot
  • Any of the  Toy Story  movies, they seem to get better with each sequel, and any other Disney-Pixar film for that matter, and yes, like many other adults I know, I cried during the third one.  
  • Where the Red Fern Grows - bring the tissues.  
  • Annie - fun songs.  
  • Anne of Green Gables and all the sequels
There are many more great family films out there, but it takes some looking to find them.  

Since I've dedicated my blog to sharing my savings ideas with you, here's how we pay for movies:  

We rent from Redbox because the $1.20/night is a really cheap way to go and since there are 3 of them within 10 blocks, it's not a big deal to return it.  We've headed out at 11:45pm before, just to avoid the extra days charge.  Plus if one doesn't have the movie we want, another usually does and we don't have far to go.  

We also love the live-stream feature from Netflix.  We stream through our Wii, but many of the new TV's are capable of streaming directly from the internet.  Another great feature for Netflix, is that you can live stream through 2 devices at once, be it your laptop, tablet or smart phone.  We try to only use it when we have WiFi, but it's been a great entertainer when we couldn't get a sitter and needed the kids kept busy.  There are a lot of good family movies and kids' shows, although not a lot of new releases this way.  We used to have their DVD program as well, but at the time we had to go to the post office to get our mail and I constantly forgot to take it with me so we paid a lot of extra money to have one or 2 movies a month.  We now have a mailbox at our house, so I may add it back on since it's more convenient to return them.  

We no longer have cable or satellite in an effort to save money, but there are so many TV programs (reruns) that my kids can always find something to watch.  Plus we don't have to watch commercials so the kids aren't bombarded with advertising.   

Bow Pillow Project

I saw a link for this on Pinterest (Click here to see the original) - I wasn't lying when I said I was addicted - and decided it would be a great  beginning sewing project for my 5yo.  It's going to go on the bench on my back porch.  I think/hope.  I had everything on hand except the pillow form.  There were no directions for the original, but I have a background in sewing and decided to knock it off.  It was a fun project to do with my daughter on a rainy afternoon.

Materials list:
  • 3/4 yard of burlap
  • 1/2 yard of fabric for lining (I used unbleached muslin)
  • thread to match burlap
  • 14"x14" pillow form
  • 12" zipper (optional) or hand sewing needle
  • basic sewing supplies
    • scissors or rotary cutter, mat and ruler
    • pins
    • sewing machine
Getting started:
Cut out your fabric using the guidlines below:

Sewing instructions:
  1. Start with the 16"x8" pieces of burlap and turn each of the 16" long edges under 1/4" and using a wide zigzag stitch sew in place catching the raw edge in the stitching.
  2. Next take the 8"x4" pieces and turn the 8" edge under 1/4" and using a wide zigzag stitch sew in place catching the raw edge in the stitching.
  3. Fold each of the 8"x4" pieces in half across the narrow side (you should have a square) and line up the 4" raw edges. 
  4. Sew sew together to create a loop stitching 1/2" from the edge.
  5. Use a wide zigzag stitch to finish raw edges. 
  6. Turn loops right side out and set aside.  
  7. Pin one piece of muslin to the back of each of the 15"x15" pieces of burlap.  
  8. Using a very wide zigzag stitch, sew around one of the burlap/muslin pieces to finish the edges and prevent unraveling.  Set piece aside - this will be the pillow back.
  9. With the remaining piece of burlap/muslin (pinned together) center the 8" side of one of the 16"x8" pieces along one edge and pin in place.
  10. Take the other 16"x8" piece and lay across the first one, centering it along the adjacent side.                                                                                                  
  11. Zigzag along raw edges of pinned sides only.  
  12. Slide one "loop" over each of the 16"x8" pieces.  Note: the bottom one will not show, but if the edges peek out and you don't like it, fold one end of the loop inside about an inch.    
  13. Pin each of the 16"x8" pieces to the 15"x15" on the opposite side. 
  14. Zigzag along the raw two remaining raw edges.  This is the pillow front.
  15. Place the pillow back and pillow front right sides together (burlap touching) and pin around all sides.  
  16. On one side pin 2-1/2" from each edge and leave the center unpinned. 
  17. Stitch (as shown above with blue line) around the pillow 1/2" from the edge, stitching to the edge of the fabric at the beginning and the end. 
  18. Turn pillow right side out.
  19. Insert pillow form.
  20. Sew opening closed by hand.   
Note: If you are an experienced sewer and would like to put in a zipper, before pinning front and backs together, insert zipper into bottom seam, then sew remaining side seams.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Start a Crafting Station

I love crafts.  
I love to take a pile of objects that each, on its own, is fairly boring and create something amazing out of them. Plus it can be therapeutic or a fun family activity and you have a tangible result at the end.    

The best thing about crafting is that you can create a beautiful custom item for a fraction of the cost you would find it in a boutique.  I've come up with quite a few ideas on my own, but lately I've discovered Pinterest.  I must say I am addicted.  The most appealing crafts I've found have turned out to be some of the least expensive and simplest ones I've ever done.  So many are using re-purposed items, others using dollar store finds.  It's a whole new era of DIY.  Armed with various glues and my trusty sewing machines, I'm ready to go!  The most expensive thing about crafting is actually the glues, inks, stamps and other tools needed to do the crafts.  The medium is usually the least expensive item by far so if you aren't a crafter but want to get started, stick to a specific area if you don't have loads of money to create your basic craft station.  I've always sewn, but never really did tons of crafts, so there were still a lot of things I lacked to get started.  
Here's a starter list that will get you going on several different projects without totally breaking the bank.  If you go online and sign up for the email/mailing lists of the craft/hobby shops in your area you should be able to find coupons or sales for the various items.  I have access to Joann's and Hobby Lobby where I live, and I hit Michael's whenever I'm near one, they all have mailers or opportunities for coupon usually for 40% off a single item.  If you are patient and can wait for a sale, Hobby Lobby rotates through their entire store every month and each week you can download a 40% off coupon.  You have to be diligent and check weekly though. Joann's varies, some items are on sale every other flyer and other items only go on sale a few times a year.  
You need on hand (at all times):

  • Good scissors (invest in a couple good pairs in different sizes - just get good ones, you won't be sorry) 
  • Tacky Glue - Ailene's is a good one 
  • Clear Gel Tacky Glue - some projects won't work with the regular stuff and this stuff isn't really universal either 
  • White school glue - this is thinner than tacky glue, and a little better for gluing paper 
  • Ink pads - the kind for rubber stamps - try Staz On, it's waterproof making it great for all kinds of things, it was $7.99 at H.L. and $9.99 at my Joann's so make sure you shop around and use a coupon.  Plus it was recommended for my first stamping craft. 
  • Rubber stamps - try something that you would get a lot of use out of such as daisy, cross, leaf, scroll just to get started.  Buy occasion specific  ones once you know you'll really use them.  Also, I recently discovered the clear ones and others that are on a foam block instead of a wooden block and they are MUCH cheaper.  You can mount them to a blank acrylic block, but you don't have to.  ($3-$15 each)  
  • Card stock or prefolded notecards with matching envelopes - they often are on sale 50% off and you can make your own cards for every occasion if you have these on hand ( around $10/50ct reg. price)
  • various ribbons and trims - pick up colors you love when they're on sale - Hobby Lobby is the biggest bang for the buck on these, often selling them for 50% off - stock up time - and they have a really cute selection (sale around $1-$2/spool)  
  • scrapbook papers - these are so inexpensive even if you purchase them by the sheet as needed you should have enough change in your purse to get what you need, or stock up when there's a sale - just make sure you have a way to store them flat.  A square pizza box works.  I bought an unused one from Papa John's for 50 cents.  You can buy the fancy organizers later if find it's really your thing and you need to organize mass quantities of them.  
  • Jute twine or string 
  • Yarn - scraps from a grandma who knits are all you need for a lot of crafts
  • buttons - you can buy variety bags that have several colors,shapes and sizes that are great and inexpensive for crafting.  
  • Good art paper - plain paper to use as a foundation for projects (11x14 lighter weight bristol is a great universal paper to have on hand, you can draw on it, glue it, paint it, etc.) 
  • Markers, colored pencils, crayons - stock up during back to school sales   
  • Stuff to organize your stuff with.  I love the baskets and totes they have at Dollar Tree and they're only a buck each.  Baskets or the shoe box sized plastic totes are perfect for storing supplies and keeping them together by category, making it easier to find what you need and transport it to your work area. 
For around $80-$100 you can have a decent craft station ready to create lots of fun stuff and not have to spend too much more once you start a specific project.  If you have young kids you might want to keep some plain magnets on hand - there's always an easy magnet craft for kids.  Some of it you may have on hand and you can always hold off on buying buttons, ribbon, yarns, and craft papers until you actually need them.  

If you're looking for some easy crafts to get started, I found this blog through pinterest: click here for three starter crafts   
I loved her stamped coasters, post-it clipboards (I modified mine a bit) and photo magnets (I used paper scraps from the clipboards instead of photos to create gift sets for Christmas and teacher gifts) which turned out adorable!   Her crafts are simple, well instructed, very cute and usable.  I'm not one to have lots of knick-knacks around unless they all have a purpose.  Those three crafts can also be done with children of about any age and yet are still fun to do as an adult.  Plus, they are cheap!  

If you have most of the above list the additional supply costs were: 
coasters - $11 which made 9 coasters and had enough minwax and felt pads leftover to do at least that many more; magnets - $8 for around 36 with some blank magnets left over from a 50ct package; clipboards - $2-$5 depending on the kind of clips you use, plus I added leftover magnets.  I found a 20pk of white cubicle clips for $9.99 at Staples (click here for cubicle clips) and I put leftover magnets on the backs.  I have 12 sets of post-it clipboards with 3 coordinating magnets each to give as teacher gifts, hostess gifts, etc.  

These jazzed up clothes pins are cute too. click here for cute clothespin craft  Use as fridge magnets or hang an indoor clothesline to display kids artwork.  Theirs are decked out for Christmas, but you could do them in any color theme.

I will post the pics of the ones I did soon.  Happy crafting!