31 October 2011

Add pizzazz with piping

Cushions and pillows add warmth and charm, as well as comfort to a home. You can give your cushions a quick facelift by making new slip covers.  Give them a professional look by adding contrasting or matching piping.  You can buy piping cord but if you want the fabrics to match you will need to make your own, it's surprisingly easy to do.  Piping cord can be bought in the curtain department of your local fabric store.

To make the piping:

Step 1.  Cut strips of fabric 2.5cm wide on the bias (on the diagonal, across the grain of the fabric).

Step 2.  Measure around the edge of the pillow and add 2.5cm. Sew the strips together to make the necessary length.

Step 3.  Pin the strips around piping cord. Stitch as close to the cord as possible.

There you have it, custom made piping. Use it to trim your new slip covers and add a little pizzazz to your decor.

28 October 2011

Bugs be gone!

Spring weather brings out the bugs and creepy crawlies. That's all well and good when they are outdoors, but not so good when they invade our homes.  An easy and cost effective way to rid your home of these unwanted pests is with common borax. 

To get rid of cockroaches, silverfish, moths and spiders  place small amounts of borax in shallow containers (jam jar lids are ideal) and distribute them around your home anywhere the cockroaches roam. Slip one under the fridge, another under the stove if you have an upright model, under the lounge, behind wall units, in fact anywhere that makes a good dark hidey hole.

Then put some borax in an empty dishwashing detergent bottle and puff it into inaccessible areas such as the piping under your sinks and in any other gaps you may have, especially in the kitchen, bathroom and laundry.

Be sure to place it out of the way of pets, crawling babies and curious toddlers as while it is a very effective  "natural" treatment, it is toxic and not meant to be eaten by anything other than the creepy crawlies.

27 October 2011

Lemon Power

I love lemons and firmly believe there should be a lemon tree in every backyard because they are such a useful fruit. As well as making lovely cordial and teas, they can be used in salad dressings, sauces, baking, marmalades, they can be preserved and used as an ingredient in cooking and thousands of other  recipes. 

Lemons can be frozen very effectively so that you always have this very handy fruit on hand.  The zest of un-waxed lemons can be grated and frozen in small containers, and the juice can be frozen separately in ice cube trays.  Un-waxed lemons can be sliced and frozen for use in cold drinks.  I slice the lemons medium thick, then cut the slices in half and flash freeze on a baking sheet lined with baking paper.  Once they are frozen you can place in a freezer bag or container and store them in the freezer.  Pop them frozen in a glass and you have instant “ice and a slice” garnish for your lemonade or ice tea!

Lemons really are incredibly versatile in the kitchen, but they are  not just for cooking and eating.  A leftover half lemon placed in the cutlery tray of your dishwasher during the load freshens and makes your dishes sparkle.   If you have been chopping something smelly like garlic, rub some lemon over your hands before washing them in warm, soapy water for hands without any lingering traces of odour.  They are also good for softening and whitening elbows. It's very old fashioned but effective - just sit each elbow in a leftover lemon half, then wash and pat dry.  Your elbows will be soft, smooth and white.  Of course, don’t do this if you have any hangnails or broken skin – ouch!  Lemon can also be used to freshen chopping boards before washing in warm, soapy water too.  And if you are washing dishes by hand, a few slices of lemon in the washing water really helps cut grease and make the dishes sparkle.  Sprinkle salt over rust stains and saturate with lemon juice then leave in the sun to dry, the rust stain will disappear (test the item for colourfastness before you do this or you may remove the rust stain and the colour from the fabric).

These are just  a few ideas for using lemons, I'm sure you'll find many more uses for this wonderfully versatile fruit.

26 October 2011

Banking the leftovers

Put the leftovers from your weekly petrol budget into your interest earning Emergency Fund savings account at the end of each week. With fluctuating petrol prices the difference between your budgeted amount and the actual cost can be anywhere between $5 - $20 a week, especially if you use a discount docket. You could add up to $130 and $520 plus interest to your Emergency Fund in just six months and it's completely painless!

25 October 2011

The 69 Cent MOO Drumstick

Over the weekend I thought I'd give everyone a treat and buy us all and ice cream.  My ice cream of choice was a Drumstick, after all it's an Aussie icon, and this was a treat. Until I saw the price! $3.40 each - so $17.00 for the five of us to enjoy an ice cream. That put paid to that treat, $17 on ice creams is just too much for our entertainment budget. I was explaining this to Hannah as we drove home via Hungry Jacks for a 50c ice cream - a much more budget friendly treat.

Last night Hannah announced that she was making dessert for us all. Now we very rarely have dessert and when we do it's usually fruit based - an apple sponge or strudel or fruit salad or a pie of some kind so everyone was very excited, waiting to see what she would make.

She made us drumsticks! And much bigger and nicer drumsticks than the Streets ones I didn't buy (sorry Streets, you just don't make the grade anymore).  They were delicious, better than a bought ice cream and a fraction of the price. If you like an ice cream treat every now and then, try these MOO drumsticks, they really are good.

MOO Drumsticks
4 waffle cones
4 large scoops vanilla ice cream
1/2 cup milk chocolate buttons
1/4 cup crushed nuts

Melt the chocolate. Take a teaspoon of the melted chocolate and pour into the tip of each waffle cone. Swirl around to coat the inside of the cone.  Put a scoop (or two) of ice cream into each cone. Drizzle the ice cream with melted chocolate, sprinkle with chopped nuts. Put them into the freezer for  a few minutes to set.  Makes 4 ice creams. Enjoy!

The costings are:
1 packet waffle cones - $4.06 [packet of 12, $0.34 each
2 litres vanilla ice cream - $2.19, $0.20 per ice cream
Chocolate buttons - $2.88 a 375g packet, $0.10 per ice cream
Crushed nuts - $1.22 a 200g packet - $0.05 per ice cream

The waffle cones, choc buttons and nuts came from Coles, the ice cream is from Aldi.

These homemade drumsticks are more than twice the size of the official version for less than a quarter of the price. 
I think they're nicer too, the cones were delightfully crispy, not soft and soggy.  Why wouldn't you MOO them?

24 October 2011

7 Simple ideas to plan children’s birthday parties on a budget

We are moving into birthday season in our family. 

And, shock horror, I'm about to become the mother of a 21 year old!  He can't possibly be turning 21 already. It doesn't feel as though he's been my baby for 21 years but that's what the calendar says.  Goodness I'm getting teary just thinking about it, he was such a tiny baby, relying totally on me for everything, not that long ago. Now he towers over me and is completely and utterly independent. Yikes!

Before the end of the year we have nine family birthdays, including AJ's 21st!  Thankfully most of them are adults, so the parties and celebrations are a little easier. But there are four children in that birthday bunch and they all love their birthday parties.

To a child there’s nothing better than a birthday party. They have high expectations for the day and to be fair many parents do too. However, those high expectations can cost a bundle. With a little planning and a smart strategy you can throw memorable birthday parties on a budget.

When AJ, Tom and Hannah were younger we had a set birthday party routine. It kept costs down, but it also kept my stress levels down.  It involved what we still call "the birthday box".  In this box I kept all our party supplies: dishes, banners, balloons, loot bags, invitations, party hats, streamers, blowers, candles - if it was used for one of our birthday parties it was kept in the box.  This made getting organized really easy.

We also had and still have, a set menu:
  • Dip with carrot sticks
  • Sausage rolls
  • Party pies
  • Mini quiches
  • Mini pizzas
  • Meatballs
  • Fairy bread
  • Fruit plate - watermelon, rock melon, apple, orange, strawberries, kiwi fruit
  • Chocolate crackles
  • Birthday cake - acts as dessert
  • Party punch
It's pretty basic and all homemade and it's easy to adapt for special diet needs i.e. Gluten free, vegetarian etc.  It's also very cheap, doesn't require any special ingredients or extra things on the shopping list either.

Here are my top 7 tips for a beautiful budget birthday party:

1. Establish your budget first. Decide how much you have to spend before you even mention the word “Birthday Party” to your child. If you’re unsure how much you have to spend look at how much you’ve spent in the past. What were the financial results? Also take a look at your expenses and income for the upcoming month or two. You don’t want a birthday party to set you back.  It is really easy to spend hundreds of dollars on a birthday part. It is just as easy to spend under $100 and have a party that will be remembered (for good things) for years to come.

2. Start planning early. The more time you have to plan the easier it will be to stick to your budget. It’ll provide you plenty of time for a little strategy and bargain hunting. How early should you start planning? It's not as though you don't know the birthday is coming up, it happens at the same time every year. Two to three months is a nice amount of time. Plenty of time to research, save money, and pull everything together.

If you are stuck for ideas login to the Member's Centre and go to Birthday Parties.  There are loads of great party themes, tips and recipes in the Journals for you to use too.  Over the years we've had our run of fairy and princess parties, pirate and treasure hunt parties, pool parties, sleepovers,  13th birthdays, 18th birthdays and in a few weeks we'll be having our very first of the 21st birthday celebrations and I've used and will continue to use the ideas in these articles. They work, they save me money, time and energy - my type of birthday party.

3. Timing matters. The shorter your party, the less entertainment and food you’ll have to provide.
If you are on a very tight budget consider setting the party time for between meals. Then all you have to provide is a beverage and cake.

Of course you don’t want your party to be too short. Also consider keeping the party under three hours.  For young children, up to about 12 years of age, two hours is plenty of time for a party.  Over 12 two and a half to three hours is ample as long as you have plenty of activities for them or a good movie or game to keep them busy and entertained.  Two hours may be the perfect amount of time for both party goers and hosts.

Once your children reach 16 or so parties become more casual (don't think this means less work or expense, it doesn't) and they tend to also be a little louder and longer.  It's all part of growing up , I remember the excitement of parties that went to midnight.  These days of course my ideal party finishes around 9pm!

On that note:  always, always issue real invitations.  I understand the kids love to put the details out on Facebook or use the bush telegraph to send their invitations but you have no control over who is invited.  Take the time to make invitations, keep a list of who they've been given to and get an RSVP. It may be old fashioned, but it's good manners and good sense to know just who will be coming through your front door.

My kids have all been told the first hint on any social network of their parties and the consequences will be swift and severe.....

4. Utilize general themes. Skip the brand name parties and choose a more general theme. For example, Pirates are a cheaper theme to work with than Disney Cars and a princess theme is easier to work with than a Cinderella themed party.

5. DIY. Obviously time is money. However, if you can make a cake and create your own invitations you’re going to save a bundle. Consider buying some party decorations at a bulk or discount party store and making the rest. Get creative with the decorations too.

6. Make the craft the prize. Children expect to receive goody bags when they attend a party. Combine the craft (which keeps the children busy) with the goodie bag. For example, children could make pirate hats, tiaras or microphones to take home with them.  If you are very brave let them decorate the party food. Make some large cookies and then provide the icings, sprinkles, jelly beans, smarties etc and let each child make his or her own snack.

7. Plan simple games and activities. Games are inexpensive and they keep children occupied and laughing. For example, a great game of kick the can or swimming in a pool keeps everyone happy and is inexpensive too.  Pass the parcel, musical chairs, egg and spoon races, three legged races and balloon races are all good fun, cheap to run and keep everyone very busy.

I have found that it is important to plan your party out in detail and carefully itemize the cost of each item. Make sure you also leave a bit of room in the budget and timeline for surprises – they always happen. Make what you can at home and keep the party short and simple. It’s the best way for everyone to have fun and to stay on budget.       

Now I've just shared my tips, I'm about to sit down and start working on the shopping list and final invitation list for that 21st. It's only a month away - time to get a wriggle on.

21 October 2011

Are Extended Warranties Worth the Extra Cost?

While an extended warranty on your gadgets may sound like a good idea, remember stores wouldn't be pushing them so hard if they weren't making them money. And how do they make them money? Because very rarely does anyone actually collect on the warranty. The truth is, if a manufacturer doesn't stand behind their product and believe in their product without charging you for a warranty, you may want to look into buying a different product. Australian consumers are protected by extensive consumer laws, including guarantees and warranties apart from those offered by manufacturers.

Bear in mind the initial price and the life expectancy of your appliance. Often the cost of an extended warranty is more than the appliance will be worth while many appliances are out of date before the warranty ends, especially with technology. Read the fine print and make sure what you are paying for is what you want in the warranty and that you'll get your moneys worth if you need to use it.

Plus, don't underestimate your abilities. If something goes wrong, do the research and you'll be amazed what you can fix yourself or get repaired cheaply using the Repairs and Maintenance category in your Spending Plan. You should also have the replacement cost of the appliance built in to your Peace of Mind account so that when the time comes you'll be able to buy a new appliance for cash and have a great negotiating tool.

20 October 2011

DIY Cleaning Wipes

It seems we've moved on from baby wipes and now need disinfectant wipes to keep our homes clean. Sounds good in theory, but those wipes are very expensive  - around $3.41 for twenty, or 17 cents each.
If you really feel the need to use wipes to do your cleaning, make your own.  For around  $1.60 you'll have 100 disinfectant wipes ready to go.

DIY Cleaning Wipes
You will need:
1/2 cup disinfectant (your choice - Pine O Clean or other similar)
1 1/2 cups of water
Thick roll of paper towels  (in this instance it pays to buy the better quality paper towel)

Use a canister that holds a half of a paper-towel roll. Cut the roll of towels in half, put it in the container and remove the cardboard insert. Mix the cleaner and water and pour it over the towels. Let it sit overnight till all the towels are saturated. Use as you would name-brand disinfectant wipes.

19 October 2011

Cupcake Crazy

The world seems to have gone cupcake crazy in the last five years. The humble cup cake with icing and hundreds and thousands is no longer.  Instead it has become a work of art. Some really are too beautiful to contemplate eating they are so decorated.

While the decorating has become more intricate the actual cup cake itself remains the same.  A simple mixture of flour, eggs, milk, sugar and a flavouring. With a basic plain frosted cupcake costing upwards of $2 each (yes, $2 EACH) cup cakes are being priced out of the everyday lunchbox and birthday party.

The recipe below makes twelve regular sized cupcakes for $1.92 - less than the price of one bought from a bakery! Not only that but you can have twelve freshly baked cup cakes made in under 30 minutes -  faster than you can get in the car, drive to the bakery, find a parking spot, wait in the queue and drive home! And you save the petrol money too!

The Worlds Easiest Cupcakes

1 cup cream
1 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups SR flour
2 eggs

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Prepare patty pans by either greasing and dusting with flour or lining with cup cake papers.  Combine cream and sugar. Add flour and beaten eggs to the mixture. Spoon into patty pans and bake for 15 - 20 minutes until tops are golden and spring back when touched.


Add 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder for chocolate cakes.

Cake decorating isn't my forte, but I can follow  recipes and instructions. In fact if I didn't have the Women's Weekly Birthday Cake book my children would have been stuck with an iced sponge for birthday cakes instead of the Mum-made wonders they had over the years.

Nowadays when it comes to decorating your cup cakes the sky is the limit!  A simple glace icing will do. Or you can make a butter cream frosting and pipe it onto the top of your cakes for an extra special occasion (these cupcakes do not travel well in lunchboxes).

If you really aren't creative there are some really cute cake decorations available in your local supermarket.  You'll also find some gorgeous cake papers and toppers at Matchbox, House and other similar kitchenware stores.  Of course you'll pay a pretty penny for them but browsing is good for inspiration if the budget won't allow such extravagances.

I found some very cute silicone cup cake moulds at our local Borders when they were having their closing down sale - they really are little cups and saucers!  Just perfect for a little girls (or big girls) tea party.

And then there are the giant cup cakes. Hannah is the cup cake queen in our house, she whips them up and then spends hours decorating them so when she found the giant cup cake tin on the clearance rack at Big W we had to have it, especially as it was marked down from $20 to $5.  It's had quite a workout, being the birthday cake shape of choice for us all this year.  She's even made a couple as birthday cakes for school friends. They are decorated just  like a cupcake - coloured icing and sprinkles or jelly beans, depending on whether the cake is for a boy or a girl.

All this talk of cup cakes has me thinking Hannah will have a job to do when she gets home from school - we could be enjoying cup cakes for dessert tonight!

18 October 2011

Delicious Choc Chip Cookies

If you are looking for something extra special to have as a treat with a cuppa, these choc chip cookies are it.  They are rich and moist and full of choc chips.

500g room temp butter
11/4 cups firm packed brown sugar
1 can condensed milk
2 cups SR flour
3 cups plain flour
500g choc chips

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.  Prepare cookie sheets with baking paper. With an electric mixer cream butter, sugar and condensed milk until light and fluffy. Sift flours and add to creamed mixture. Mix well. Stir in choc chips.  Roll 2 tablespoons or one cookie scoop of mixture into balls. Flatten to make 5cm cookies. Bake 15 minutes, checking after 12 to make sure the bottoms don't burn.  Remove from oven and onto cookie sheets to cool completely.

You can easily reduce the cost of these cookies by using MOO condensed milk and brown sugar. Generic choc chips are fine too, I use Homebrand (Woolworths) when I make these to keep the cost down AND because they taste good.

17 October 2011

Neat Icy Pole Holder

Warmer weather means ice blocks, and every mother knows that ice blocks mean drips, sticky fingers and stains on t-shirts as well as frozen little fingers.  Don't stop the ice blocks, make up some insulated holders instead, just as Cheapskater Rose has. 

"My partner works in event management and is constantly bringing home promotional stuff - pens, notepads etc.  We have quite a few stubby holders lying around the house too and as we don't drink beer they were just collecting dust and taking up space in the laundry cupboard. During the last few weeks when it has been so hot our pre-schoolers have been devouring icy poles almost non-stop (I make them from water and fruit juice) but their little fingers were melting them faster than they could eat them and they were making an awful mess. I remembered an icy pole holder I had seen at a kitchenware shop - it was made out of the same foam as the stubby holders! It was easy to take a couple from the pile in the laundry and with a pair of scissors and a glue gun (you could use needle and thread) I made two icy pole holders in no time at all.

Here's how to do it:
Cut the bottom circle out of the holder.
Push the holder together so you have a fold and the seam.
Cut the holder in half along the seam and again along the fold so you have two pieces.
Run a line of hot glue down the inside of one long edge, fold the other edge over to make a circle.
Repeat with the other piece.

You now have two icy pole holders. As they are insulated the icy poles don't melt as quickly and little fingers don't get too cold. They are also good for catching drips and can be re-used over and over and even washed when they get sticky."

14 October 2011

Buy it Cheaper

When you are shopping (for anything at all) always look for the cheapest possible price. These days it is so easy to comparison shop, even for groceries, that there is no excuse for not getting the best possible price. Look online, go through the junk mail, read the ads in your local paper and ask around.

If you are shopping for a big ticket item, such as a washing machine or a new lounge suite, be prepared to haggle for a better deal. You will be stunned by just how much money you can save just by asking a simple little question "is this your best price?". Remember it is just a question, the worst thing that can happen is that the answer is yes and that particular retailer won't discount. All you have to do then is say thanks for your time and walk away.

A good way to know the best prices on your everyday items is of course to keep a price book. Price books just aren't for groceries. I keep track of shoes, school supplies, medicines, basic clothing, plants and seedlings as well as groceries.

When we are looking to buy a bigger item such as the new washing machine we bought last year, or the accessories we have ordered for our car, I make up a mini price book. I get online and look at the best prices at the major retailers, making a note of them. I collect the junk mail and gather the prices from it to add to the book. I also make a note of any bonus offers and how much they are worth. Once I've gathered the prices I can do a comparison and decide who to visit first. And I will always go to three or four stores to get prices that I can then use to haggle at other stores for a better deal.

A little tip: when you are haggling and shopping between stores always get the price written on the back of a business card. It helps if you can pull out a written price when you are haggling for a better deal at another store and you'll know exactly which salesperson to go back to when you buy.

You owe it to yourself and your family to be a savvy shopper, after all you work hard for your money and you need to get the best possible value for every dollar you spend.

Something to remember:  Just as it is in your best interest to haggle for a better price, it is the seller's right to say no.  If that is the case you have two choices:  either accept their price and do business with them or thank them for their time and efforts and politely walk away. 

Whatever you decide to do, always be polite and courteous and thank the seller for his or her time.  After all selling is their livelihood and they are in business to make money, just as you are trying to not spend some money.   You shouldn't expect anyone to take a loss just because you don't want to pay the price they give you.  If that's the case you need to keep looking.

13 October 2011

Soap socks save a bundle!

This tip can save you $217.88 per year and is so simple. Buy a Soap Sock for $5 at your local supermarket or discount department shop (that’s code for Kmart, Target, Big W etc). Shower gel has become very popular because we all hate the feeling of soggy soap but the average bottle of shower gel costs $4.99 and most families would use one a week, adding a huge $260 per year to your grocery bill. In contrast, a cake of good soap will only cost 60-80 cents and added to your soap sock gives you a terrific shower. You save money, help save the environment from the additional chemicals, save $217.88 and you get a free skin exfoliate with each shower.

11 October 2011

Birds Nests, a yummy way to use leftovers

Leftovers can be just last nights dinner re-heated and dished up again or they can be a whole new dinner.  Birds nests (that's what my Mum calls them) are a fun and tasty way to serve last night's leftovers for tea tonight.

3 cups cold mashed potato
1 egg
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp margarine, melted
2 cups cooked savoury mince
1/2 cup grated cheese

Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees Celsius.  Combine the egg, parsley and mashed potato and mix well.  Shape half a cup of the mixture into a ball. Place on a well greased or baking paper lined baking sheet and flatten slightly.  Using your thumb make a shallow hollow in the centre of the ball to make a nest shape. Brush with melted butter.  Bake for ten minutes, until the potato is golden.  Heat the savoury mince and fill the centre of each nest. Sprinkle with grated cheese and return to oven for a further 5 - 7 minutes until the cheese melts and is golden.

When I opened the fridge this morning it was chokka block, full of containers of sauce, slice meats, fruit, cut onion and tomato, grated cheese, a little of this and a little of that.  Leftovers.  And all of them needing to be used up or they'll end up in the compost, and that's just money thrown away. I'll take the blame for the mess in the fridge. I've been so busy getting the book finished and sent off that keeping a track of the food we've been using hasn't been a priority - it hasn't even been on my list.

I've done a quick tally and I estimate that if all those little bits of food get composted, I'll be putting around $23 into the garden. Which isn't to say I don't like composting, I do. I'd just rather compost things that can't be used to feed my family.

Using leftovers is an important  step in keeping the grocery budget under control.  The trick is using them so they aren't leftovers, but a delicious new meal.

My favourite way to use leftovers is to turn them either into a jaffle or a pie.  Almost any type of leftover can be turned into a pie and pies are always popular, either on their own or with vegetables or salad for a complete meal.  Pies are really easy to make and if you have a pie maker (the wonders of modern life) they are downright simple.  Even without a pie maker they really are simple.

All you need is pastry, a filling and a container to bake your pie in.  Use Easy Pastry (it is such a good pastry for pies) or bought sheets (generic are fine) for a pastry case. If you don't have pastry use cooked  rice or mashed potato, they both make lovely pie crusts.  Oh, and pie crusts are a good way to use up stale bread too. After all, there are only so many ways to use breadcrumbs, which seems to be the most popular way of using stale bread.

I especially like pies because the kids can make their own for lunch, which leaves me free to do other things. They're all very proficient at cutting circles of pastry or bread and adding fillings and they all have their favourites.  Hannah loves spaghetti pies and I'll often deliberately make an extra serve of sauce and freeze it for weekend pies.  AJ's specialty is chicken - leftover chicken meat, grated carrot, a little grated onion and cheese. Tom makes his with leftover taco filling, adds a little extra diced tomato and grated cheese.  He uses Mountain Bread or a tortilla as the pastry case.

So this afternoon I'll be making pies. Thank goodness they freeze because there will be lots of them. And weekend lunches will be covered for a few weeks for the grand total of absolutely nothing, my favourite price.

07 October 2011

How to stock your pantry

Your pantry, when properly stocked, can be a real lifesaver. It can become the place you turn to when you don’t have any meal options at the ready. It can also be ideal for quick baking projects. And a well stocked pantry means healthy meals are quick, easy and inexpensive.

I come from  a long line of pantry stockers. There was no chance we'd ever starve growing up. My mother's pantry was always full and she could whip up a meal with just two minutes notice and not even blink. She still has a fully stocked pantry and unexpected visitors aren't a problem.

So when we were married it was just normal for me to fill the pantry. Of course back then it looked a little different to what it does nowadays. You would have found boxes of cake and pudding mixes. Jars of pasta sauces and Kantong sauces. Packets of noodles and sauce and rice-a-riso. Boxes of biscuits and tins of soup. It was full of very expensive food with limited uses.

These days you'll find canisters of flours and sugars, jars of dried fruits and nuts, bottles of homemade sauces and jams, herbs and spices, baking powder and bicarb soda, vinegars and bags of potatoes and onions with pumpkins resting against the wall (the other veggies are in the fridge). It's still full, actually overflowing, but of inexpensive staples that can be used to make just about recipe I can find. It's a much better value pantry.

It makes me happy to hear that the old fashioned type of pantry is making a comeback, especially as food prices rise and the grocery bill puts a bigger dent in a family's Spending Plan.  It's not a hard thing to do, and it doesn't have to be done in one huge shop, you can stock your pantry slowly over a few months. As you use up the single purpose ingredients replace them with those that will do double, triple, or even quadruple duty.

It won't be long and you'll have a pantry full of staples and you'll be able to make just about any recipe you come across too.

There are essentially three steps to stock your food pantry. They include:

Step One – Defining Your Pantry Space

How much space do you have? Some homes come with a readymade pantry. In other homes you have to create your own pantry. In our home there is a walk-in pantry in the kitchen, well the door opens into it and I have to take a step to reach the shelves. I also have a 5 shelf unit and a double door cupboard in the laundry to supplement the limited space in the kitchen.

If you have to create your own pantry, consider using simple solutions. For example, you might buy a dresser at a garage sale or pick one up on Free Cycle.  You can also create a pantry with a few standing wire baskets. You might convert a shelf in the linen cupboard into a pantry.

Your pantry doesn't necessarily have to be in, or even close to, the kitchen. If you have space in a spare bedroom why not use it? Or perhaps you have space for a cupboard of shelving in the garage?

Anywhere that is cool, dry and pest proof will do.

Step Two – Defining Your Needs

What do you commonly need when it comes to pantry staples? For example, do you like to bake? If so then you’ll need baking basics like flour and sugar. Do you like to eat ethnic cuisine? If so then plan to have rice, noodles and spices in your pantry. Make a list of the foods you commonly eat and enjoy. Also take note of those times when you say, “I wish I had….”

The most common pantry items include, but are not limited to, the following:

· Flour - self-raising, plain, wholemeal, gluten, rice
· Sugar - white, brown, raw, castor
· Beans - kidney, borlotti,
· Grains - couscous,
· Rice
· Pasta - spaghetti, twirls, shells
· Canned items: tomatoes, beans, soups, fruit
· Oils - EVOO, sunflower, peanut
· Vinegars - white, brown, balsamic
· Spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mixed spice, paprika, cardamon, corriander, tumeric etc
· Baking supplies: baking powder, bicarb soda, vanilla extract, chocolate, chocolate chips, coconut
· Dried fruit - mixed fruit, apricots, raisins, sultanas, craisins
· Nuts - almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts
· Onions
· Potatoes
· Garlic
· Condiments: mustard, sauces, mayonnaise
· Jams and honey
Step Three - Creating Your Systems

Once you have a list of items to buy for your pantry and you have a defined space it’s time to create a system for organizing it all. Now there are several approaches you can take to create your organization system. They include:

Readymade storage accessories: You can find tons of handy storage and organization accessories at specialty stores. Lazy Susan’s, can racks, spice organizers and bins and boxes all help you keep your pantry organized and your food fresh. These items, however, can be very expensive.

Personally I am happy to use Tupperware or Decor containers I've picked up at the op shop or from garage sales to hold packets etc. I also have a shallow container on the condiment shelf and all the sauce bottles etc sit in it. It just helps to keep the shelf clean and is to pull out and wipe over when the bottles drip (as they do when you have kids in the house). 

Make sure, if you choose this route, to establish a budget and create a plan for the items before you purchase them.

DIY storage: You can also create your own storage solutions. For example, jars and food containers can be recycled to store your pantry items. A simple example would be to use old peanut butter jars to store dried nuts and/or fruit. You can use paper towel rolls, cardboard boxes and other household items to create a system for organizing your pantry.

Labels: A label maker is a wonderful thing but not absolutely necessary when it comes to organizing your pantry. You can make labels quite easily on the computer, using sheets of sticky labels or by printing onto plain paper, cutting them out and taping them to the canisters. Labels are essential for identifying the contents of your pantry but they come in handy to keep it organized too. You can simply define certain areas of your pantry for certain items. For example, you might have a “baking” area, a “grains, rice and pasta” area and so on. You can then use boxes or dividers to help keep things organized. Of course once you've labeled the zones in your pantry you just have to teach everyone in the house to actually put things back in the right spot!

Identify your space, make a list and then create a plan. Once you have everything in order, it’s time to head to the supermarket or bulk food store to stock your pantry. Have fun and enjoy the freedom a well stocked pantry can provide.

06 October 2011

If You Don't Ask, You Don't Get

Have you ever envied someone when they tell you they were able to negotiate a great deal? It may have been for a large item, such as a car or a house, or something smaller such as a holiday or a washing machine.

Then there are those "lucky" people who are always able to get something knocked off the price of whatever it is they’re buying - whether it's at a trash'n'treasure market or a department store. In theory, everything is negotiable. The price on the sticker is just the asking price, the price the seller is hoping to get. You've done your research and you know the price you are prepared to pay.....

It is almost always appropriate to haggle and nothing to be ashamed of. You are just asking a simple question. You wouldn't dream of paying the asking price for a house or a car. You'd put in an offer and take it from there - you'd haggle the price.  So it's no different to your other big ticket shopping. You can haggle at markets, in department stores, jewellers, your mechanic, just about anywhere you shop.

Wayne and I haggled a couple of weeks ago when we were ordering some work to be done on our new toy.  

I guess I should explain about the "toy".  Earlier this year, after his heart attack, we had a long, long look at our lifestyle and made the decision to just slow down. Not stop working, not stop living, but just slow down. It was never our intention to go flat chat all day everyday, we had just fallen into the rut and couldn't see out of it to realise how much our lives had changed.

So we have slowed right down. I think I mentioned earlier this year that we would be making some changes and we  have.  One of them was not working 7 days a week, something we were both guilty of, and it wasn't out of necessity, it was out of habit.  We both like to be busy and active and working seemed a good way to be both.  Unfortunately even though we both really love what we do, it is stressful, especially when you throw in teenage kids, aging parents and all the other things life throws at you.

I can tell you it wasn't easy. Trying to think of things to do, that we would both enjoy (because I just do not like model trains and he just does not get my interest in tapestry) had me scratching my head. Then, in one of those "DOH" moments, it hit me: four wheel driving!

It was something we had done and really enjoyed up until just before AJ was born, when we sold our beloved Hilux and bought a sedate family car. Honestly if the authorities had allowed capsules in the back of the ute and I'd been able to climb into it and reach the pedals with my huge pregnant belly that car would still be in our garage! Anyway it went and we gave up camping and off-roading to raise our children. And we don't regret it.

But now we have a lovely "new" toy to play with, a 1991 GQ Patrol and we love it. But it is, or rather was, stock standard when we bought it so of course we've had to do some modifications. Which brings me back to the beginning of this epic tale, which should be about haggling and not our new hobby.

So we were in the store, getting quotes for the new bull bar and the winch, and a snorkel and then the 2 inch lift we want and a few other little odds and sods. I had already added it up in my head, I knew it was going to cost a small fortune and I had worded Wayne up that I was going to haggle my heart out, just so he wouldn't be caught out when I started.

When we saw the quote I did almost swallow my tongue - it was huge! Then I gathered my wits and the fun began. We both bantered back and forward, back and forward with the fellow serving us and his fellow co-workers, swapped horror stories of being bogged, caught in huge ruts, finding the steepest tracks and they thought they were winning. Then I brought out the big guns: I told them the story of our honeymoon and I could see them caving after just a couple of sentences. By the end of the story they were ready to deal. And deal we did.

We saved $946 on a $6,230 sale just for asking a few questions and having a chat, a very enjoyable chat it was too.

This is my strategy for haggling. I've used it over and over and it really works. If you've never haggled, don't be afraid, you are just asking a question and the very worst thing that can happen is that the answer is no.

Firstly, be prepared to haggle. Start a conversation; build a rapport with the seller. Show you are serious about getting a deal. Let the seller know that you are not just wasting time, but really interested in buying. If you are a regular customer, let them know. Stores want and need repeat business and to keep their customers happy, giving you more bargaining power. Most importantly don't be a time waster, be prepared to buy if the seller meets your price.

Make sure it’s worth everyone’s effort. The bigger the ticket price, the more likely it is negotiable and worth everyone’s time and effort. Find out who has the power to do deals - often it's not the sales clerk you see on the floor. Spending 15 minutes to save $1 on a $10 item isn’t really worth it, for you or for the store. On the other hand, 15 minutes to save $300 on a $1,200 bracelet is.

Use your bargaining power. Start with the question "What's your best price?" and then stop talking. Put the onus back on the salesperson to do what he must to make the sale.

 Flash cash. If you are paying cash ask how much for cash and wait for the response. Then ask for seniors discount if it applies, or if they would throw in delivery, installation, etc.

Value Add. Ask how much if you buy another item e.g. a lounge suite and an LCD TV; a washing machine and a dryer; a dress and a pair of earrings etc

Collect prices. Always get the price written on the back of a business card. It helps if you can pull out a written price from another store when you are haggling for a better deal and you'll know exactly which salesperson to go back to when you buy.

Be prepared to walk away. The worst thing that can happen is that particular retailer won't discount. All you have to do then is say “thanks for your time” and walk away.

Haggling, negotiating, bargaining - call it what you like - is something anyone can do and with a little practice you can become an expert haggler.

05 October 2011

Getting a Grip on Utilities

Your utility bills are one of those grin and bear it types of monthly payments. They’re expected, sometimes anticipated and rarely appreciated. Just this week the Australian Bureau of Statistics released data saying the price of electricity, gas and water has increased 96% in the last decade. Well, rather than suffer in silence, there are real steps you can take to cut back on those utility bills. And you can do it without living in the dark and suffering uncomfortable home temperatures.

With three kids in the house, a husband who is technology crazy and me working from home our power bills have the potential to induce heart failure. Sadly I can't do anything about the price we are charged but I can control just how much power, gas and water we use and make sure we use it as efficiently as possible.

These are the things we do in our house to keep those bills as low as possible:

Turn down the temperature. 

No, not the temperature in your home, the temperature on your hot water heater. The less your hot water heater has to work, the more money and energy you save. We have our hot water turned down to 50 degrees Celsius. It's plenty hot enough for all our needs, but not so hot that I can hear the burner working all day to heat the tank.

Wash your clothing on the cold (or warm if you have too) setting on your washing machine. Using hot water to wash your clothes won't make them any cleaner it will just up your power bill. Use the economy cycle option on your dishwasher and only run it when it’s full. Take shorter showers and stop leaving the tap running while you brush your teeth and face. I know someone who even leaves the tap running while she brushes her hair - then has the cheek to gripe about the water bill! The more your water heater has to heat the water, the more money you’re spending.

Let the sunshine in. 

This is of course only a policy in the cooler months. The heat from the sun’s rays can warm your home five, ten, sometimes even fifteen degrees, depending on the time of day. This can save your heater a lot of extra effort and energy. It’ll also save you good money each month. On sunny winter afternoons, even if it's freezing outside, I can turn the heater off and the house is toasty warm. Those big picture windows in modern homes are a blessing in winter. As an aside, plonk a clotheshorse in front of your sunniest windows and get the washing dry in double quick time too. I love using free energy.

Now summer is on the way, I've already noticed a difference in the sun, keep the sun’s rays out to keep your home cooler. Just like they are a blessing in winter, those big windows are a money drain in summer. Keep the windows and blinds shut. If you have awnings get them down early in the morning, before the sun hits the windows.

On really hot days I shut the house up around 6am and turn the ceiling fans on. I find that even if it's nudging 40 degrees outside, getting a head start on cooling the house early in the morning means that often we don't even need the air conditioner on, and if we do then it's not until later and then just for a short time.

Another thing I do, in summer and winter, is shut the doors to rooms we aren't using. It makes a huge difference to keeping the house cool (or warm, as the case may be). It's just a little thing but it really does make a huge difference.

Give them a tune up. 

Any appliances that use electricity or gas should be maintained. That includes your refrigerator, hot water service, central heating, air conditioner, stove and even your barbecue if it runs off of your gas line. Make sure you’re not losing energy or efficiency. This means regular cleaning and routine tune ups. Keeping your appliances in good operating shape is not just to save money. Your health and safety (and your family's and visitor's) could be at risk if the appliances aren't operating properly.

Run your heat generating appliances during the evening. 

During the warm summer months, try not to run the dishwasher, stove or washing machine during the day. They kick out heat when they’re running and that makes your air conditioner have to work extra hard. Once daylight saving starts (it was last weekend, yahoo....) we cook outside as much as possible. Wayne barbecues each night and we use the rotisserie on the barbecue for our Sunday roast. I move the crockpot and electric frypan down to the barbecue and use them outdoors too. For six months our kitchen hardly gets used, for cooking anyway, and I love it.

During the winter months, however, you can capitalize on household chores to help heat the home.

Eliminate phantom load. 

When your appliances and electronics are turned off, they still use energy. In fact, they use a lot of energy. It’s said that if everyone unplugged their computers and laptops at night they’d save enough energy to power 100,000 homes. Experts say if you eliminate your phantom load, you can cut your energy bill by 10%. That’s a pretty significant savings, particularly when you look at the savings over time.

Debate rages over this but it does make a difference. I'm inclined to think the naysayers just can't be bothered reaching down to flick the switch and pull the cord. Me, I think that ten percent is better in my bank account than the power companies.

I haven't written anything new. These ideas really are just commonsense. But sometimes we all need a reminder, if for no other reason than we forget that it's lots of little savings that let us live life debt free, cashed up and laughing.

04 October 2011

It's time to make the fruit mince

One of my very favourite things about Christmas is mince pies. I try to restrain myself until the first of December before I start devouring them but it's getting harder and harder the older I get! I'd have thought a little more self-restraint would be a benefit of ageing, but apparently not when it comes to mince pies. At least in my case. Oh well, maybe I'll last until the 30th November before I start!

When I was a child bride, not so very long ago in the grand scheme of things, I would start buying Robertson's Fruit Mince as soon as it hit the supermarket shelves. Then I'd pick up a packet or two of short crust pastry and go home and make mince pies "from scratch". I was so proud of my efforts.....

When Disaster Struck, buying jars of fruit mince and packets of pastry was beyond my tiny grocery budget. I plucked up the courage to ring my Mum and ask her how to make fruit mince (pastry was still beyond my basic cooking skills). I thought she'd laugh at me, she knows me so well, and I was hoping she'd send me a jar or two when she stopped laughing.

Instead an envelope appeared in the letterbox with her fruit mince recipe and instructions for making it, with the comment "nice try" at the bottom. She really does know me well.

Turns out fruit mince is easy to make. Really easy. And MOO fruit mince is so much nicer than even my favourite Robertson's in a jar.

The secret to a good fruit mince is time. It needs time for the flavours to meld and blend. Oh, and suet. Real suet is hard to get but if you have a real butcher you should be able to order it.

I ordered mine a couple of weeks ago and was told that I'd have to buy a kilo block as that's how it comes now. That's OK, suet freezes really well and if I have it on hand I'll have no excuses to not make Yorkshire puds and suet puddings. It won't go to waste anyway. If you can't get real suet you can use the packaged stuff available at the supermarket. It should be appearing on the shelves about now. Just be aware that the packaged suet is mixed with flour so your fruit mince will thicken just a little and not be quite as bright and shiny as if you use fresh suet. As far as I'm concerned once it's in the pies I can't see it so shiny doesn't matter, as long as it tastes as good I'm happy. I've used packaged suet and yes, it still tastes great.

Mum's recipe combined the fruit and brandy and had to steep in a dark cupboard for 6 weeks before using. I've adapted it over the years so that it's cooked in the slow cooker and can be used almost straight away. I've also swapped the sultanas and raisins in her recipe for the same amount mixed fruit.

Slow cooker Fruit Mince
500g apples, cored and cut into small dice (no need to peel)
250g shredded suet
1kg mixed fruit
250g glace peel, finely chopped
350g dark brown sugar
grated zest and juice of 2 oranges
grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
50g slivered almonds
4 tsp mixed ground spice
½ tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
150ml brandy

Combine everything except the brandy in a 6 litre slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 - 10 hours until fruit is very soft. Don't worry if the mixture seems to be very runny and swimming in fat - it should look like that. It's the suet. Sit the crock of mincemeat on the sink with a tea towel over it to cool completely. As the fruit mince cools the suet will coat the fruit and it will thicken. Pour in the brandy and stir. Spoon the mincemeat into hot sterilised jars and seal. As the mincemeat cools it will form a layer of fat on top - this is fine, it is supposed to do this. The fat will help to preserve the mincemeat. Mincemeat prepared this way will keep in a cool, dark cupboard indefinitely but I guarantee you won't need to worry about keeping it that long.

This is the fruit mince I use in mince pies and tarts and it can be used straight away, but it does get better with age. If you can wait about six weeks before you use it, you'll be thrilled with the results. The fruit mince will be rich and flavourful and oh so much nicer than anything you can buy.

I use Easy Pastry to make the cases with one addition: I add one teaspoon of sugar to the mixture to sweeten it just a tiny bit.

Talking of pastry cases Thomas made us dessert on Sunday night and it was just lovely. He used a roll of biscuit dough from the freezer to make individual cups and then filled them with ice cream and topping. So cute, so easy and really yummy.

All he did was roll the biscuit dough out, then he used an egg ring to cut circles from it. He tipped a muffin tip upside down and sprayed it with cooking spray. Then he pressed the biscuit dough over the top of each muffin pan to make little baskets and baked them in a 180 degree oven for 10 minutes. He tells me the trick to a crisp biscuit basket is to lift them off as soon as they come out of the oven, then put them back over the muffin pans to cool completely. Lifting them off while they are warm will stop them from sticking when they cool.

I think you could use any type of biscuit dough, Thomas used a roll of plain dough so the baskets were like a shortbread. But think how good choc chip would be, or ginger or even M & M!

03 October 2011

How To Make A Paper Bag Scrapbook

Paper bag scrapbooks are really cute, easy to make and better still easy to show off. Their small size makes them great for gift giving (they are a great "teacher" gift - use photos of the class through the year), for display on a coffee table, or even just as a “brag book”. They are made by using paper bags (you know, the brown lunch kind) and are smaller than the larger scrapbook albums, usually 13 x 13 centimetres which means they are easy to carry in your bag.

Hannah has made these for birthday presents for her friends this year, using photos from parties, school, excursions, camps etc to personalise each one and they have been a huge hit. They cost very little to make if you use materials you already have and because they are so small they are good for using up scraps of paper and ribbon. I hate to waste those little leftover papers so this is a good way to use them all up.

Now since the paper bags are not acid free, it is important to only use copies of your photos. You can get duplicates made of your photos from your photo processing centre (look for special offers below 15c a print) or scan and copy your photos on your home printer if you are using old 35mm photos. If you are using digital photos you can print them straight onto photo paper. $2 Shops sell very good photo paper for yes, you guessed it, $2 a pack, just perfect for these little albums.

To get started you will need 3 paper lunch bags. You can use either the brown lunch bag kind or the white bags. I like the simple, naive look of the brown paper bags, the choice is up to you. For the cardstock backgrounds, you will need 3 sheets of 30cm x 30cm in a solid colour and 3 sheets of 30cm x 30cm in coordinating colours. For securing the book together, you will need about 60cm of ribbon. I use several different coordinating ribbons to add flair to the books. Finally, you will need whatever embellishments you choose such as stickers, brads, ribbons, tags, lettering etc. to decorate the individual pages.

To begin, lay the 3 paper bags flat. Fold each bag in half so that it looks like a little “book”. Put the 3 folded books together so that you now have a 6-page book. Hole punch 5 holes in the left side of the “book” (near the fold) . I like to use a ruler to measure the hole placement so they are evenly spaced. Then, to secure the book together use the ribbons and tie a small bow through each hole.

Once the book has been put together, you are ready for the next step. Cut the background cardstock pieces into 12.5cm x 12.5cm shapes and stick them to each page of the album. Leave the ends of the paper bag open, as you can use that area as additional storage space for photos, tags, and other special items. Embellish each page as you choose with special stickers, photos, journal entries, brads, tags, etc.

Enjoy your completed paper bag scrapbook!

01 October 2011

A Victorian Farm Christmas

Today is the first day of the annual Cheapskates Club Christmas Countdown. This is your opportunity to own your Christmas this year and enjoy the holidays knowing you won't be getting any bills in a few weeks.

I often hear from members and non-members alike just how much work Christmas is, how exhausting the cleaning, cooking, shopping and decorating are for just one day of celebration so when I found this You Tube clip I just had to share it.

If you think Christmas 2011 is going to be hard work, be grateful and thankful you weren't preparing for a Victorian Christmas - you'd really know what hard work is then!

I watched it in stages as it is very long - about 3 hours all up, but well worth the time. I hope you enjoy the clips as much as I did, it's just fascinating.