31 December 2011

Are you the millionaire next door?

I first wrote this as a Cashed Up Habit (No. 15 in the cycle) and it was an email from a Cheapskates Club member, Melinda, that prompted me to use it as my New Years blog post.

Melinda wrote "Love this article Cath, One that needs to be published on the front page of all newspapers maybe as New Years Resolution for all families!  How happy we are on a simple shoestring budget and able to give where we feel the need is greatest."

Living the Cheapskates way is not about having a huge stash of cash while living in misery.  It's about choosing to give up the stuff that isn't important to you so you have the cash to enjoy the things that are, without the stress of debt.

I hope you enjoy Cashed Up Habit No. 15
One of the most popular books on wealth in recent times has been The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas J. Stanley.

In this book Stanley reveals that for the most part millionaires are a non-descript bunch, living simple lives in simple homes in your average middle class neighbourhood. In fact their neighbours don't even realise they are millionaires.

Stanley's research revealed that these people have reached millionaire status for the most part through hard work and a Cheapskates lifestyle. They eat meals cooked from scratch, made from ingredients that have been bought on sale or from markets or in bulk. They reuse, recycle and reduce on a daily basis.

They have developed the habit of paying for what they buy. They don't incur any new debt and have in the past paid debt off quickly. The millionaires next door have built an emergency fund and a sizeable savings account. They have invested for their retirement and will be able to self-fund a comfortable life.

Your neighbourhood millionaire lives a comfortable yet simple life and yet are generally more generous and more frugal than their neighbours. They don't try to keep up with the Joneses  or any of their other neighbours.

Could you develop the habits that will make you the millionaire next door?

If you would like to develop some Cashed Up habits, you can sign up here.

May you all have a very happy, safe and prosperous New Year and may 2012 be your best year yet.

30 December 2011

Top 10 tips for op shopping

Every dedicated Cheapskater knows the value of their local op shop, and they make sure they get their fair share of that value.  With that in mind, and knowing that after Christmas Spending Plans are usually very tight, here are my top 10 tips for getting the best from your favourite op shop.

1. Shopping is shopping - make a list and stick to it

2. Keep your eyes open for those unexpected finds - you know the 50c school shorts or the $2 brand name jeans, new with tags.

3. Only choose to purchase quality items. Look for brand names you recognise as quality and make sure the items you purchase are of a good and usable quality.

4. Always try things on. It may well be a brand name but if it doesn't fit then it doesn't fit and will be a waste of money if you buy it.

5. Leave the kids at home. Again, shopping is shopping and the same rules apply to op shopping as to grocery shopping. Try to do your shopping alone so you're not distracted or tempted to buy things that are not on your list.

6. Know your op shop's sale days. Ask when they have their 50% off days, which day is $2 a bag day etc and plan your shopping around them.

7. Keep an open mind. You may have candlesticks on your list but not see any in the store. Is there a small wine glass or a pretty plate you can re-purpose as a candle holder? Look around you and find ways to re-purpose things to fit your requirements. Master this one technique and you'll never have to pay retail for anything ever again.

8. Visit your op shop regularly. New stock comes in every day and goes out just as fast. If you are looking for something in particular let the staff know and ask them to give you a call if it comes in.

9. Shop with cash. If you only take cash you can't go over your allocated shopping amount and you won't be tempted to just spend that extra $2 because you simply don't have it.

10. Lastly, as your op shop supports you, you can support it. As you declutter sort the items into piles to toss, recycle or donate. Take the donations to your op shop immediately, if you let them sit around you'll change your mind.

29 December 2011

Some rules can be safely broken

Just because a cupboard is in the bathroom doesn't mean you must only store bathroom items in it. One of our bathroom shelves houses extra kitchen items and cloth napkins. Another of our bathroom cupboards is designated for extra paper products - plates, napkins, plastic ware, etc. The wardrobe in our bedroom is home to much more than clothes and shoes. If you look up on the top shelves you'll see the Christmas trees, boxes of ornaments and our less-used camping gear.  It also has all my scrapbooking paraphernalia (minus all my papers which I store flat in a chest of drawers), craft and sewing supplies, suitcases, special heirlooms, and more. Go through your home and determine where your extra space is and then designate items needing space to have their place there - no matter where it is.  Obviously, you can't just designate a spot, you also have to train yourself to put the item back in the spot after you use it, but designating a spot usually goes a long way towards actually putting it back!

28 December 2011

Get a grip on ironing

Ironing is not my favourite household chore. Even though it doesn’t take much electricity to iron, it does take some and it takes up time. If you’d like to save some time, and save some electricity, here’s a tip that works for some articles of clothing.

If you have some pants that should be ironed, but you don’t want to try this. Peg the pants by the waist from a coathanger, using clothes pegs and hang from the shower curtain rod or some other place where it can hang overnight without being bothered.

Take a handful of clothespegs and put pegs on the bottoms of each pants leg. About five or so are good. Do the pockets need ironing? Put five or so pegs on each pocket so that it hangs straight. After about twenty-four hours, your pants are wrinkle free and look like they’ve been ironed.

Then to keep them wrinkle-free, use a skirt hanger to hang them in your wardrobe.  Fold the trousers so the inside seams are together and match the outside seams. Fold in the waist band (zip open). Hang by the hem from the skirt hanger. The weight pulls the wrinkles out, keeping them in ready-to-wear condition.

27 December 2011

Mustard Potato Salad

After all the rich food and over-indulging of Christmas and Boxing Day, a fresh salad goes down well.  This potato salad is served warm or at room temperature and goes really well with leftover cold meats or a good steak right off the barbecue.
1.5kg red potatoes
1 cup French dressing
2 tbsp wholegrain mustard
2 spring onions, sliced including tops
1 celery stalk, sliced
2 radishes, diced
salt and pepper to taste

Scrub potatoes and dice into bite size pieces.  Put potatoes in large pot of cold water and bring to a boil over medium high heat, then reduce  heat and simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are just tender, but not too soft. Drain immediately, making sure they're dry, and put in large bowl.  Whisk together in a separate bowl the vinaigrette and mustard until smooth, then pour half the mixture over the still-warm potatoes and toss gently. Set potatoes aside for 30 minutes - do not refrigerate. Meanwhile, chop the onions, celery, and radishes.  When ready to serve, add the vegetables, then the remaining vinaigrette dressing and toss together, adding salt and pepper to taste. Pack in containers for a picnic or serve immediately.

26 December 2011

How to Use Candy Canes after Christmas

I love candy canes - they are cheap and readily available from about October through to December. And in our climate, they are great for holiday decorating because they don't melt! They are also cheap, and nice to crunch on. But after Christmas, when the tree comes down, what do you do with the two or three dozen candy canes in a pile on the coffee table?

You can eat them of course, as is. Or you can let your creative chef streak loose and turn them into tasty treats.  It could be something as simple as crushed candy canes over ice cream. Or you can melt some chocolate, stir in crushed candy canes and drop teaspoonsful onto baking paper to set. Crush candy canes and add them to choc chip muffins or biscuits.

But for a real treat, try this Boxing Day Mousse from the Recipe File.

Boxing Day Mousse

1 pkt chocolate instant pudding
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 cups whipped cream
5 crushed peppermint candy canes

In a medium bowl, whisk pudding with milk and peppermint extract. Stir constantly with a wire whisk for 2 minutes. Refrigerate for 5 minutes. Add whipped cream and mix well. Spoon into serving dishes and top with a sprinkle of crushed candy cane.

22 December 2011

Stamp your style

With only three sleeps until Christmas the rustle of wrapping paper can be heard all over the country.  If you want to put your own individual touch on your gift wrap this year try stamping plain paper in your own designs.

Everyone has tried potato stamping as a child, and it's a great way to keep kids entertained in the lead up to Christmas. But it's also a really neat way to have unique wrapping papers.

You'll need:
Plain paper
Acrylic paints
Large potatoes, well washed and dried
Cookie cutters in Christmas designs

To make your potato stamps:

Step 1.
Cut the potatoes in half

Step 2.
Choose a cookie cutter and carefully and evenly press down about 2cm into the cut side of the potato.  Carefully remove the cookie cutter. Repeat for your different designs if you are doing more than one.

Step 3.
Using a sharp knife trim the potato until the design is revealed. You'll need to trim down about 2cm, the depth of the design. Be careful not to cut into the design left by the cookie cutter.

Step 4.
Put a little paint onto a saucer and dilute with water so the paint is the consistency of cream.  Acrylic poster or folk art paints are ideal for this and can be bought at $2 shops. They come in a huge range of colours so you can go wild with your colours.

Step 5.
Dip your potato stamp into the pain and then stamp away on your plain paper. You can buy rolls of plain paper or you can recycle old wrapping paper by stamping on the plain side. Your butcher may even sell you some butcher paper sheets if you ask nicely.

Let each sheet of paper dry before wrapping your presents.

21 December 2011

Cake of the Month Club

If you need a gift quickly, that won't cost a bundle but has "WOW" factor, give a voucher to your very own Cake of the Month club along with the first month's cake.

I'm sure everyone has seen or heard of  wine of the month or fruit of the month or even cheese of the month clubs, where for a set amount each month you (or your gift recipient) receives a parcel containing the item of month. Well these clubs are expensive - very expensive - but they have a lot of that "WOW" about them.

Instead of signing your son, daughter, neighbour, brother etc. up to one of these clubs, why not give them a book of vouchers for their favourite cake each month?

It doesn't have to be a cake either. It could be biscuits, slices, pies, quiche, muffins, cup cakes - it's up to you. It could be jam or pickle of the month. It could even be a different treat each month.

It's a nice way to give a little homebaked goodness to loved ones without going to a lot of trouble or expense.

We have delicious cake and biscuit recipes in the Recipe File, as well as pies and slices too.

20 December 2011

The Perfect Roast Potato

We are huge roast potato fans. I come from a long line of roast potato fans and cooking experts. When I first moved away from home I craved my mother's roast potatoes, they were the food I asked for each time I went home. Finally Mum, out of desperation (or sheer meal-time boredom) taught me toprepare and cook the potatoes her way and I've done them this way ever since.

And as this coming Sunday is Christmas Day, and we have a fairly traditional Christmas dinner, I thought I'd share with you how to prepare and cook the perfect roast potato.

You will need:

6 large, washed potatoes (or one potato per person)

Olive oil
Sea salt

Step 1: Prepare the potatoes

I use washed potatoes for roasting and I don’t peel them.  Leaving the skin on is not only nutritionally better but it cooks to crisp perfections.  If you are using brushed potatoes, or you really prefer them peeled then by all means do so.  Cut each potato into quarters.

Step 2: Preheat Oven

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. I am often told that it's not necessary to pre-heat modern ovens. For this recipe please pre-heat your oven if you want them to be crisp and golden. Putting them into a cold oven they will be soggy and quite oily and definitely not perfect roast potatoes.

Step 3: Par-boil the Potatoes

Par-boiling simply means boiling the potatoes for a few minutes (in this case, 5 minutes) and then removing them from the heat. The key is to soften the potatoes slightly and to let the rest of the cooking to take place in the oven.

Place the potatoes in a large pot with a lid, filling the pot with water, just to cover the potatoes.

Place lid on the pot. Place on stove at high temperature, bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and drain. 

Step 5: Score and season the potatoes

Using a fork, carefully score all over each potato. This helps them to crisp up on the outside. You can season the potatoes however you like. Personally I like to keep it simple and use just olive oil, salt and pepper. Olive oil gives the potatoes a lovely flavour, if you haven’t used it for roasting vegetables before do try it.

 For our recipe, drizzle with olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste.  Just drizzle a little oil over the quartered potatoes and gently toss to coat each piece.

Step 5: Bake the potatoes
Place potatoes in a baking dish and bake for about 45 minutes, turning every 15 minutes. The potatoes should be golden on the outside and fork tender.

That’s it, perfect roast potatoes.

19 December 2011

Last minute eco friendly Christmas gift ideas

When choosing a gift becomes almost impossible because "they have everything" choosing a no waste gift that will really be appreciated can be hard.

Who says that a Christmas gift has to fit into a package?  Instead of bringing the gift to them, bring them to the gift.  This Christmas, give gifts that won’t leave any waste behind.

Instead of buying a CD for a friend who likes music, treat them to a concert.  Wrap up two tickets to an upcoming concert or a night of jazz on the town.  Live music sounds better than recorded anyway.  This is an excuse to dress up in our best evening wear. 

Tickets for other shows are appropriately eco friendly as well.  Take the kids to the zoo, the aquarium, or a science show as a part of their Christmas present.  Younger kids seem to really appreciate this type of activity.  For older kids tickets to the latest release movie always prove to be popular.

You can buy tickets online and often you can print them immediately. If you can't, make up a voucher advising what the tickets are for (put all the details on: who, what, where, when) and a note telling the recipient to keep an eye on the letterbox for their tickets.

16 December 2011

Make a Loan

This year it is estimated that Australians will spend $24 billion just on Christmas.  That's a lot of money spent on food, drink, gifts and decorations. If you are looking for a way to lose the consumerism that Christmas has become famous for, and get back to a season of simple giving and simple pleasures, make a loan.

If you have never heard of Kiva.org, you need to check it out. The concept is extraordinary; you loan a small amount of money to a family in a third world country to help them become self-sufficient. The desired micro-loans are varied, from a family in Mali who need money to buy seeds and fertilizer to a widow in Peru who needs to buy more products to sell for a profit at the local market. It can be a meaningful gift to know that a loan of as little as $25 can be life-changing for someone else. And, the best part? When they pay the money back, you can loan it again.

15 December 2011

Why Staying Close To Home for Summer Holidays May Not Be as Budget Friendly as You’d Think

We are only a few days away from the official start of the Australian holiday season, when millions of Aussie families hit the road (or the airport) for four weeks of summer family fund and relaxation. This year, instead of heading off overseas or interstate, many families are choosing to stay close to home and enjoy a staycation.

When the economy started to slide down that slippery slope the advice from budget experts around the globe was to stay close to home when holidaying. Thus the term “staycation” was coined. In theory the advice makes great sense.

When you stay close to home for your vacation you may save money on travel expenses. To be sure, it is costly to buy airline tickets for a family of five. However, there are many surprising expenses that pop up when you plan a staycation.

The High Cost of Fuel

The first unexpected expense is often the cost of the fuel that it will take for you to get to your destination. If you’re traveling a few hundred miles from home by car every day of your staycation, at $1.35 or more per litre, that can add up quickly.

Pricey Hotels

Hotel costs are essentially the same wherever you go. And if you’re traveling to a touristy location in your state during peak travel times, the nightly rate may actually be more expensive than traveling to a far away destination.


Often, one of the reasons for staycationing is to become familiar with all of the wonderful sights and locations your state and community has to offer. However, you may spend more money on those sights and destinations than you would on a vacation in a distant location.


Finally, when people believe they’re saving money by staying close to home for their vacation, they may not be as detailed about tracking their expenses. It’s easy for a staycation to break the budget when you’re not paying close attention to what you’re spending. On the other hand, if you travel to an exotic destination you may be more likely to create a budget and to stick to it.

Affordable Options

There are actually many other options that may be much more affordable than a staycation. Here are just a few to compare and consider:

Holiday Packages

Discount travel sites offer exceptional deals. Find the right deal and you can take your family to Movie World, Uluru or even Disney Land for less than it can cost you to travel 500 kilometres from your home. Check out the travel sites and sign up for their announcements. If you’re a little open minded about where and when you holiday, you can save a bundle.

Holiday Rental Homes

You can find affordable vacation rentals in just about every travel destination. Their nightly rate is often much less expensive than staying at a hotel. And you save money by cooking your meals instead of going out.

Home Swap

Finally, if you live in a desirable location you can swap your home with someone who lives in a place you’d like to travel to. There are websites where you can find the best home swap match to meet your needs.

Holidaying doesn’t have to break the bank and it doesn’t have to be out of a Cheapskate’s reach. There are many ways to save money and make memories. While a staycation may be the best solution, it’s not a given that you’ll save money. Compare your options, create a budget, and have a great time!

14 December 2011

Automate, automate, automate!

Get as much of your finances as you possibly can automated.   Set up a savings account and a direct debit from your everyday account into it each payday (just because you're a parent doesn't mean you shouldn't pay yourself first).  Then set up direct debits or Bpay for the phone, gas, electricity, water, council rates, insurances, kinder fees, gym fees - as many of your bills as you possibly can - from your bill account.  Having your bill paying on the "set and forget" system takes away the worry when they come in - you can check, smile and file instead of cringe, whinge and worry.

13 December 2011

Almond Rocca

Almond Rocca is one of my very favourite sweets but the cost makes it a rare treat.  When I came across this recipe I was thrilled, now I can have almond rocca whenever get the craving (and I have the ingredients in the pantry).

1 cup almonds, finely chopped
3/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup choc chips

Butter a 20cm square cake tin. Spread chopped nuts in pan. In a small saucepan bring sugar and butter to the boil, stirring constantly. Boil over medium heat, stirring constantly for 7 minutes. Watch closely and keep stirring so it doesn't stick or burn. Immediately spread mixture evenly over nuts in the cake tin. Sprinkle chocolate pieces over the hot mixture; place a baking sheet
over pan so contained heat will melt chocolate. Spread the melted chocolate over the toffee. While hot, cut into 3cm squares. Chill until firm.

Almond Rocca makes a really nice gift too. With Christmas just over a week away, quick, easy and inexpensive gifts with WOW are called for.  This almond rocca makes a lovely gift, whether for a hostess, as a thank you or for Christmas. Wrap the pieces in coloured foil, twist the ends and present in a jar or lidded box.  You can get coloured foil squares at homewares stores or anywhere you can buy chocolate making supplies.

12 December 2011

Mini Rocky Road Chocolates

Not only is this rocky road delicious, it's another quick, easy and inexpensive gift idea.

375g dark chocolate
1 cup mixed fruit
1 pkt marshmallows (200g)
1 pkt raspberries (lollies)
½ cup mixed nuts (almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts,

Roughly chop marshmallows, nuts and raspberries. Add mixed fruit and stir thoroughly. Melt chocolate over low heat. Add to other ingredients and stir to mix through. Drop teaspoonfuls onto a tray lined with baking paper. Refrigerate until set. Wrap in cellophane bags and tie with Christmas ribbon. Add a gift tag.

I use whatever chocolate is on sale, this week Coles has 350g blocks of Cadbury chocolate for $4.00 so I'm using good old dairy milk. Any chocolate will do, but dark chocolate does make it extra special and is perfect if you are giving it to adults as a gift.

09 December 2011

Bananas are cheap so let's make banana bread

I've baked banana bread this afternoon, for the first time this year!

I popped into my local fruit shop this morning to pick up the things on my grocery list  and joy of joys  there was a crate of bananas marked down to 99c a kilo!  I did a double take - I haven't seen bananas that cheap in over a year.

I know many of you have been able to get them for $1.69, even $1.49, and have been enjoying a treat. Who would have thought back in January that we'd think of the humble banana as a rare and expensive treat?

At that price I bought up big. They were so cheap because the skins are starting to brown, making them almost ready to use in cooking.  I bought three big bags for a total of $9.33 - just over 9 kilos for under $10, what a bargain.

When I was unpacking them they felt quite firm, not at all soft or bruised so I just had to try one. Double bargain - the fruit is just right for eating.  Some found their way into the fruit bowl and the others, all bar six, have been put on oven trays and placed into the freezer.  I'll use those to make banana bread, banana cake, banana muffins and banana custard over the holidays.

If you've never frozen bananas before, it's so easy and a great way to keep them.  Just pop them in the freezer, no need to peel or mash. The skins go black, don't worry, the fruit inside is fine. When you defrost them the skin will go quite mushy but as it's only used in the garden who cares? The banana itself will be just right for using in your baking.

Oh, if you have frozen bananas, they make great ice blocks. Peel and eat - it's just like eating banana ice cream. Yum! When the kids were babies I used to mash frozen banana with a fork and feed it to them on hot days. They loved it although I'm sure if I suggested such a thing to them these days they'd shake their heads at me. For some reason anyone over the age of two thinks mashed banana is just gross. Doesn't matter that they almost inhaled it when they were babies. We humans are odd sometimes aren't we?

The six bananas I left out have been turned into two loaves of very yummy banana bread.  This is the recipe I use, complete with step-by-step instructions and pictures.

Banana Bread
6 bananas
3/4 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3 cups plain flour
2 tsp bicarb soda


Step 1:
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees F).

Step 2:
Grease two loaf tins with butter, oil or cooking spray – whatever your preference.  Personally I prefer to butter the tins as I use silicone bakeware these days. Cooking spray seems to stain silicone pans. If you don’t mind the staining cooking spray is fine.  If you are using silicone bakeware place the loaf pans on a baking sheet before you fill them with the batter. They'll be much easier to move into the oven this way and you won't end up with a lopsided cake because the batter was tipped to one side when it went into the oven.

Step 3:
In a large mixing bowl, mash the bananas with a fork until very pulpy.

Step 4:
Melt the unsalted butter or margarine in a small saucepan (you can do this in the microwave if you prefer - using a microwave safe bowl instead of the saucepan of course).

Step 5:
Add butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla to the bowl with the mashed bananas.

Mix until well combined.

Step 6:
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients including flour, bicarb soda and salt. I use a whisk to "sift" the dry ingredients. It's faster and less messy than getting the sifter out.

Step 7:
Add the dry ingredients to the wet. Stir with a wooden spoon until well combined.

Step 8:
Divide batter into the loaf pans and place in oven for about 50 minutes to 1 hour. Check if the loaf is done after 50 minutes by inserting a toothpick in the center. If it comes out clean, it’s done. If not continue baking a further 10 minutes until the toothpick comes out clean.

Let rest in pans 5 minutes before turning onto a cake rack to cool. Allow to cool completely, slice and serve. If you don’t need 2 loaves, you can freeze one. Just wrap it tightly in clingwrap, place into an air-tight container and save it for when you need it.

Now you can eat it as is or you can spread it with butter or cream cheese. Or you can make a scrumptious cream cheese frosting and spread it over your banana bread. Personally I enjoy it with a thin scrape of cream cheese and a cuppa.

Shop less and eliminate stress

Shopping weekly may seem easier but it's not. It's not cheaper either!  Switch to fortnightly shopping and 25% or more on your grocery bill.  Make up a fortnightly shopping list – most of us buy the same groceries week in, week out.  Take the list with you, stick to it (if it’s not on the list you don’t buy it) and once you’ve shopped that’s it until the next fortnight. You'll save a fortune; no more wandering the aisles being tempted by those “sale” tags, and you’ll save a heap of time - it doesn't take any longer to shop for a fortnight than it does for a week and you're avoiding that stressful checkout queue. It has to be worth switching to get that 15 minutes back alone!

07 December 2011

Getting the best from online auction sites

This Christmas online shopping is booming, being more popular than ever. And auction sites such as eBay, quicksales.com.au, Grays Online  are more popular than ever.  They offer some great prices on fantastic products but there are a few basics you need to follow to make sure your online shopping experience is a positive one.

1.  Do your homework.  It may be online but it's still shopping. Check the reputation of the seller, read the fine print and understand all the terms and conditions of sale (they may vary considerably from seller to seller).

2.  Know your prices.  Comparison shop before you start bidding. Know what the RRP is on the items you are buying, check for sale prices and discount coupons for online and regular shopping.

3.  Set your maximum price. You knowhow much money you have in your gift budget, stick to it. It's easy to get carried away in the heat of last minute bidding and go over budget. Decide your maximum price and stop bidding at that price.

4.  Know your seller. Just as you know a store's reputation, you can check the reputation of the seller you are dealing with online. It's up to you of course but I'd only deal with sellers that have 99% or higher positive feedback over a decent number of sales.

5.  Understand the final price. The price you've won the item at may not necessarily be the total cost. You need to factor in the postage and handling fees and any insurances, express or registered post costs. You'll find these on the item listing and it pays to understand them before you start bidding.

Lastly, enjoy your auction site shopping and remember to actually put the money you save into your savings account - otherwise it's not saved, it's just not spent.

06 December 2011

Two Minute Chocolate Fudge

500g icing sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup butter
1 cup nuts, chopped*

In a 2 litre casserole dish stir sugar, cocoa, milk and vanilla together until partially blended (it will be too stiff to blend thoroughly). Dot butter over top in centre of dish. Microwave on high for 2 minutes, or until smooth. If all the butter has not melted in cooking, it will as the mixture is stirred. Stir in the nuts. Pour into a lightly buttered lamington tray. Chill 1 hour in refrigerator or 20 to 30 minutes in freezer. Cut into squares. Makes about 36 squares.

*Note:  I use a mixture of nuts - whatever is in the pantry. Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts and peanuts all find their way into this fudge at some time. Use your favourite nuts or mix it up, either way it's just delicious.

05 December 2011

An old fashioned popcorn garland

Rather than cover your Christmas tree and home in tinsel this year, why not make an old fashioned popcorn garland? Popcorn garlands add a quaint charm to Christmas decorating and best of all they are completely used - after Christmas sprinkle the popcorn over the lawn and let the birds feast.

To make a popcorn garland you'll need three or four mixing bowls of popcorn. It's best to make it the day before you string it so it's soft and the needle will glide through easily.

Thread your needle with any type of cotton or polyester thread and knot both ends together.  To make a 2 metre garland you'll need four metres of thread.

Take a piece of popcorn and thread it onto the thread. Push it right to the end, next to the knot. Tie a knot in the yarn by bringing the end of the thread up and over the popcorn kernel, knotting the thread just above the popcorn.

Now start stringing your popcorn. It's easiest to do this by threading the needle through the thickest part of the popcorn.

Continue until you have about 5cm of thread remaining. Tie off by knotting over the last kernel in the same way you tied off the first.

Take care and carefully lay your garland on the boughs on your Christmas tree. Continue making garlands until you have as many as you want for your Christmas tree.

02 December 2011

How to Decorate the Christmas Tree

We want our homes to look the best they can over the holidays. Before the end of November we are pulling out the yuletide decorations. While we spruce up the inside and outside of our homes with bells and whistles, don’t forget about the Christmas tree.

I believe that decorating a Christmas tree is a family affair (and if it's not, it should be). Now, the husband and the kids may not want to go around the house hanging Christmas banners and Christmas cards with you. You may not enjoy climbing on the roof of the house to hang lights either. But every family member gets in the Christmas spirit with the Christmas tree decoration. Your tree says a lot about you as a family - your choice of ornaments, tree topping, and tree skirt - yes, tree skirt, and I'll talk more about these useful items later on.

First choose your tree. Many go for artificial trees because there are no dried pine needles to pierce the bottoms of tender feet or vacuum up, I do too. We've had our big Christmas tree for 20 years and it's still going strong. I consider it an investment in our marriage, but that's a story for another day.

What? You can't wait for "another day"? OK, here goes.

The first year Wayne and I were married, we spent Christmas here in Melbourne with my family, and didn't have a Christmas tree, although we did hang a wreath on the front door and display the cards.

The second year we were married was AJ's first Christmas and even though he was only 4 weeks old, we again came home to Melbourne for a family Christmas. I was so exhausted (it's a good thing no one tells you just how exhausting new babies are) that I didn't bother with a tree again.

But the third year we were married AJ was one year old and come hell or high water I was having a Christmas tree, and it was going to be a real tree. We were dirt poor, having just moved into our house and it was a very tight Christmas. I had been to town and viewed the Christmas trees on offer and decided ours would come from Legacy. It would be beautifully decorated and look exactly like the Christmas trees in the picture books (we all have to have dreams).

December rolled on and every night Wayne would come home treeless. I'd ask about the tree and he'd tell me he didn't have time to stop or came from the other direction - he always had an excuse for not bringing me home that Christmas tree.

Finally Christmas Eve arrived and I consoled myself with the thought that at least AJ was too young to understand the meaning of the Christmas tree, or really of Christmas for that matter.

Around 5pm Wayne pulled into the driveway and straight away I could see some greenery (if only I'd it THE ONLY GREEN on the tree) poking from the back of the van. He'd bought our very first Christmas tree!

Oh how very wrong I was.

Picture the scene if you will.

There's me at the front door, babe on hip, almost jumping with excitement.

My darling husband is slowly, slowly pulling on a tree trunk, dragging it out of the back of his work van.

As he pulls, I get more and more excited.

Then the excitement turns to confusion, then amazement and then complete and utter disappointment.

My very loving, very hard working, very frugal husband had waited at the Legacy tree stand until they were closing. He bought the last three - yes - three trees they had left, for the grand price of $5.  They should have paid him the $5 to take them off their hands!

He'd bought three rather large sticks. With a couple of twigs hanging off each one. They were the most miserable looking examples of Christmas trees I had, no have, ever seen. To this day I haven't seen anything quite like them.

I was so upset I started to cry. He was so thrilled with his bargain it took him  a few minutes to realize I wasn't crying with joy.

Those three sticks were stuck in a bucket of sand and my handmade tree skirt hung over it. Unfortunately there weren't enough twigs, let alone branches, for too many decorations, but they were a Christmas tree and I still remember the absolute wonder on one baby boy's face as he looked at all the sparkly baubles and the glittery tinsel.

I can tell you, if we hadn't had that baby to coo over that tree…..

We still talk, and nowadays laugh together, over the three for $5 Christmas tree.

And the next year I saved up, a little every week from the grocery money, and bought a lovely artificial tree in November!

And that's how we came to have an artificial tree.

But now, back to the main topic of conversation, decorating the Christmas tree.

Some artificial trees come pre-lit so that eliminates the need to buy strands and strands of lights. Artificial trees are available in many different colors, white, blue, black, pink, as well as green and are of varying heights and types. Coloured Christmas trees just don't seem like Christmas too me, I'm much more a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas, but whatever floats your boat, or rather decorates your tree.

For a real tree, some families get theirs a couple of weeks before Christmas. Tree farms and tree lots usually have a nice selection of Christmas trees with hearty branches. Be sure that you can’t see through the tree. If you can, then it will be too thin to hold heavy ornaments.  Also make sure to water real trees frequently once you’ve brought them home and placed them in their stand. This will prevent drying out of needles and possible fire hazards or a brown tree on Christmas morning. 

And this is why you need a tree skirt.  A tree skirt is just a circle of fabric that slips around the base of your tree. It's there to cover the stand but more importantly it's there to catch the pine needles that drop, and drop they will. No matter how much you water your tree it will drop needles. If they drop into the tree skirt then all you do is gather it up and take it outside to shake every couple of days. No more messy pine needles on the floor, getting into everything and clogging up the vacuum.

Here are some decorating suggestions no matter which type of tree you choose for your family this year.

1. Start with the lights. It’s going to be hard to put strings of lights on the tree after you’ve put all of the other goodies on the tree. For kids, it’s fun to put a strand or two of running lights so that they blink instead of staying on all the time. Depending on the size of your tree you may only need a couple strands of lights.
2. Add a touch of garland. There are many different kinds. Most people shy away from traditional icicles because they are a fire hazard especially on a live tree. The garland that has icicle like strands are just the same. Some opt for homemade popcorn garlands (fun for kids!), colored beaded garland, or snowflake garland made of plastic. Wrap the garland loosely so that it doesn’t strangle the tree. Let some of the length hang between the branches so it can be seen.
3. Now for the fun – the ornaments. Some families use a colour scheme of two or three colours for their ornaments. Others may purchase pre-packaged ornament sets with a certain theme. Kids can hang ornaments they created in school. You could end up with quite an eclectic looking creation. Space ornaments so they surround the tree and leave no bald spots.
4. The tree topper goes on last. There are angels, stars, and even bows. Some have a plug that fits into your string of lights. Just remove one light on the strand and plug in the tree topper. Others have their own plug that can be connected directly into the top strand of lights or the wall outlet. Some still don’t have a light at all. Our tree topper is an angel that Hannah made at after school kids' club when she was 5. It is a little worn and battered but it looks lovely on our tree.
So that's basically how you decorate a Christmas tree, family style. Everyone pitches in and hangs decorations, checks the lights to find the blown bulb and untangles the tinsel.

Stories are told of Christmases past, present and to come, of who gave which decorations to whoever and why, and memories are made.

01 December 2011

Seven Canny Christmas Decorating Tricks

When it comes to Christmas decorating, "budget" is a word that seems to fly out the window.  Decorating your home and tree for Christmas doesn't have to cost a fortune or involve lots of shopping trips. Instead be creative and utilise the decorations you already have and other household items that can be re-purposed as a unique Christmas decoration.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

1.  Use broken garlands to drape over doorways or windows and create a grand Christmas entrance. Stick a huge fabric bow on either side of the drape and then position pots of poinsettia underneath the bows.

2.  Use broken or worn out garlands to make wreaths or stars. Make the shape you want from a wire hanger, then twist garland around it. Decorate or leave as is.

3.  Paper chains and cardboard stars can be dressed up with glitter and fancy (leftover) paints and keep the kids busy in the days leading up to Christmas. Use magazine pages, cut into strips, to make the paper chains for a colourful and frugal decorating idea. After Christmas just put the chains in the recycle bin.

4.  Put a newspaper under any project that uses glitter, and when you're through, use the crease as a funnel to return the unused glitter to it's container. Glitter is expensive, and this way you don't waste any. It also helps stop it from being spread around the house.

5.  Watch newspaper and advertisements for pictures you can cut out and use. Santa, reindeer and Christmas trees from the newspaper can decorate your refrigerator, windows and walls.

6.  Borrow a book of origami from the library and make simple doves and such to hang in your windows.

7.  Use salt instead of glitter for snow scenes. It's much cheaper!