Why We Need Strong, Nurturing Communities at Frugal-Mama.com

Like many Americans, I have tended to place a lot of importance on self-sufficiency and freedom. But this drive to do everything on my own has prevented me from realizing how good it is to be closely connected to people, to rely on others and be relied upon.

I remember when I was a 20-something and thought temping was the best work because I felt free from ties to a company, a boss, or even a geographical location. Yet when I finally took a permanent position, I was surprised to find that I actually loved settling down. Even though it was just a job, it felt good to be part of a company, to have a boss to take care of, and to know co-workers that knew me too.

Marriage is a form of community too. Getting married is probably the best thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t think it’s just me. Mountains of research show that married people are happier than the unattached. Humans are wired to bond, and committing to someone for life is the ultimate tie.

Our first four years of marriage were spent in Italy, and some of my fondest memories are connected with the groups I belonged to. From expat associations and mom-and-tot playgroups, to a writing circle and even the maternity ward in the Italian hospital where new moms walked down the hall to eat meals together — communities fed my soul and made me a stronger, more confident person.

Once in the U.S., we moved from city to city where we had no family and few, if any, friends. What’s more we chose to live on a very limited budget so that Enrico could retrain and I could take care of the kids full-time.

It was this money constraint that helped me break out of my shell. I’ve always been a little shy, and my generation (X) is not known for being civically engaged. But the babysitting exchanges and cooperative playgroups that people in our neighborhood had been enjoying since the 1970s piqued my interest, and eventually I joined.

Getting involved in these organized groups helped bring me out of an isolated mom-at-home life, and into communities of people where I found the comfort of regular social interaction and a sense of pride in my neighborhood.

By joining communities, I was braided into networks of families who ended up sharing carpools, baby gear, and dinners together. We traded tips and maternity clothes, we pooled money and party supplies, we made walking school buses and neighborhood newsletters.

But if we had been comfortable financially, I wonder if I would have asked favors, for fear I would have to return them, never realizing that I would be happy to do so.

Joining Groups Helps People Prosper

Joining Groups Helps People Prosper at www.Frugal-Mama.com

At the heart of a book I’ve been reading, Robert Putnam’s acclaimed Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is that joining organized groups and being involved on a regular basis has been scientifically proven to be good for our health, psychological well-being, and even our success in life.

Putnam also talks about how our networks of relationships have real value. The term ‘social capital‘ is a way of conceptualizing the intangible resources of trust, shared values, reciprocity, information, and cooperation that flow within communities.

Networks can be vast and loose as well as tight and small, and both are important. That’s because the people we are closest to would be there for us if anything bad happened, but if we are looking for a job or a place to stay overnight, it’s often the far-off connections that can help, since they link us to distant acquaintances who move in different circles.

The Up- and Down-Sides of Relationships

Why We Need Strong, Nurturing Communities at www.Frugal-Mama.com

Of course, getting involved with groups of people is bound to involve some personality differences, misunderstandings, and mini-dramas.  These conflicts are sometimes enough to make you run for a hermitage in the hills.

But, as they say, nothing worth having comes easy. It can take work to navigate different temperaments, outlooks, and motivations and to find common ground. But interpersonal skills are arguably the most vital, so it seems worth the challenge to continually work toward bettering them.

Privacy, alone time, and freedom are good too, but as with most things in life, a balance is usually the best prescription. Too much togetherness can feel stifling, whereas too much aloneness can be depressing, so something in-between is just right.

Social support helps us deal with the stresses of daily life, and it shows in our health. “The more integrated we are with our community, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts,” says Putnam in Bowling Alone.

Studies have long documented the connection between society and emotional well-being: “People who have close friends and confidants, friendly neighbors, and supportive co-workers are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping,” says Putnam.

The scientific link between connectedness and well-being must explain that paradox I’ve always wondered about: how the positive energy we give to people seems to fill us up with more energy.

“Alone We Can Do So Little; Together We Can Do So Much” –Hellen Keller

Why We Need Strong, Nurturing Communities at Frugal-Mama.com

The social positive feedback loop was also playing out in a miniature version inside our house. After having our third child, I needed help with the housework. We couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so I asked my daughters — then six and four  years old — to help me.

Sofia, Virginia, and I took turns dusting, vacuuming, and cleaning bathrooms on the weekends (using a chore wheel), and during the week, they alternated setting the table, playing with the baby while I cooked, and sweeping the kitchen after dinner.

Of course it took time and effort to train my little helpers (and to keep up the routine despite the grouching), but the payoffs were profound and multi-faceted. For one, I was happier because I felt supported, and with the extra time we did more fun things as a family.

Even better was how the act of helping changed the children. They were more settled and grounded. I think giving them responsibilities that were essential to our household made them feel useful and necessary. We all feel a sense of accomplishment when we learn a new skill.  And seeing that their work makes a difference must give them a sense of purpose.

Over the years we have kept up the family chore system.  The tasks are always shifting based on what the family needs, but daily and weekly chores are built into our routine. Sofia and Virginia are now taking turns getting their brothers ready for bed, and dressing their baby sister in the morning.  Mark and Luke unload the groceries, set the table, watch Diana, pick up sticks in the yard, vacuum the kitchen, and sort socks.

“Everyone is needed, capable, and appreciated,” I heard a mother say about her children and work. I like this mantra, because it reminds me that even young children can and want to help, and that in today’s busy times, their contribution really is valued.

Save Money, Build Community, Make Life Better

Why We Need Strong, Nurturing Communities at www.Frugal-Mama.com

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been fascinated by the kind of magic that happens when people work together. How the positive effects ripple way beyond just saving money.

I am thankful for how the lean years helped draw me into cooperative communities and motivated me to ask for help. Creating those communities and systems can take time and energy, but in the end, we are happier and more efficient.

“Our national myths often exaggerate the role of the individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort,” says Robert Putnam. Yet chances are the most successful people are rich in social capital — friendly connections, helpful neighbors, friends and associates, colleagues and contacts.

Children prosper if the context where they grow up — their family, school, peer group, and larger community — have relationships of trust and cooperation. Neighborhoods with high levels of social capital are safer, cleaner, and friendlier. And the democracy that our country was built upon depends on our participation, trust, and solidarity.

Be The Change You Want to See

Why We Need Strong, Nurturing Communities at Frugal-Mama.com

We all need community, but our needs can change according to the seasons and situations of our life.  Strengthening the sense of community in your circles can begin with very small actions and can grow into bigger ones if you want.

Here are some ideas to try:

5 Small Ways to Nurture Community

  1. Find out the names of people you see every day and say hello
  2. Go to a high school or college reunion, or organize an annual mini-reunion with college friends
  3. Instead of selling something on Craigslist, give it away to someone you know
  4. Join a group: a book club, an improvement committee, a sports team, a PTA, a church
  5. Ask a neighbor, instead of Google, for advice on your garden, your house, your job

5 Medium Ways to Build Community

  1. Bring dinner to a family who had just had a baby, a death in the family, or a sickness
  2. Host a coffee to introduce a new neighbor
  3. Plant a conversation-starting garden in your front yard
  4. Buy season’s tickets to a theater or stadium with a friend so you’ll have a standing date
  5. Start a babysitting swap on a regular schedule with other parents

5 Bigger Ways to Jumpstart Community

  1. Organize an outdoor movie, an egg hunt, or ice cream social in your neighborhood
  2. Take on a leadership role in a community organization, school group, or city council
  3. Organize a clothing swap party, a toy exchange, or Halloween costume swap at your school or church
  4. Create a map of everyone who lives in your neighborhood (include emails, phone numbers, children)
  5. Take turns with neighbors hosting monthly “Porch Sits” where people come to chat and catch up

Joining and creating communities is one of my favorite ways to save money and make life better. I love that reaching out to others not only helps me, but it helps other people too.  And I love that you don’t have to do anything major like head a committee or organize an event.

Simply interacting and being kind is good, says Mark K. Smith, author of The Art of Helping Others, because it helps people slowly build communities, commit to each other, and to knit the social fabric.


Strawberries growing in a front yard plot, from How to Know What to Grow in Your Garden @ Frugal-Mama.com

Everyone loves to eat. Maybe that’s why growing food is such a fun way to get outside, teach children about nature, and eat healthy.

My kids and I have been experimenting with growing fruit and vegetables in our front yard for the past three years. We’ve had a few disappointments yet enough successes to keep us in the game.

When spring arrives, I can count on my daughter Virginia to ask, “When can we go to the gardening store?”  I too am getting excited to see bright green shoots and pink buds to draw us outdoors together.

If you don’t have a lot of space, time, or money for your garden, choosing what to grow is an important step, a central theme at a free urban agriculture forum I recently attended called Rooting DC. Experts there agreed that your starting point should be: what do you love to eat? No use nurturing along something that ends up dying on the vine.

But alas love alone does not make corn tall and strawberries sweet.  So here are some guidelines to help you further focus on choices that will maximize your gardening budget.

1.  If you’re new to gardening, plant foods that are easy-to-grow:

Spinach harvesting in a dumptruck, from How to Know What to Grow in Your Garden @ Frugal-Mamac.com

Luke harvesting spinach in his dumptruck

Vegetables that aren’t finicky are great choices if you are a beginner, so you can see success without any experience.  MJ Crom, Food Growing Capacity Coordinator at the Capital Area Food Bank, suggests these:

Easy-to-Grow Vegetables

Start from seed outside (except for tomatoes, peppers, and basil, which are best started with a small plant)

  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Lettuce and spinach
  • Cucumbers
  • Kale
  • Summer squash
  • Radishes
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Basil

Our first year gardening at our D.C. house, we planted kale and tomatoes, basil and edible borage flowers, arugula, and pumpkins, and it was exciting to see all of those plants come up and most of them flourish.  (We replaced our dense clay earth with topsoil, watered when it didn’t rain, and chose a sunny front yard location, instead of the shady back yard.)

How to Know What to Grow in Your Garden @ Frugal-Mama.com

Our tomatoes almost did too well that first year

We also planted eight blueberry bushes, a sour cherry tree, a peach, and two apple trees. All of these fruit producers are considered “high-maintenance” because they require lots of pruning and watering, are tempting to birds and squirrels, and are more susceptible to diseases such as fire blight.

But there are plenty of fruit trees that do well in the mid-Atlantic region with little to no care, according to Josh Singer, Community Garden Specialist at the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.  Try these:

Low-Maintenance Fruit Trees

  • Pawpaws: their fruit is like a cross between a banana and a mango
  • Persimmons: get a non-astringent variety like the Fuyu cultivar
  • Figs: to keep the tree small and the fruit reachable, you can cut it down to the ground every year
  • Juneberries:  also called Serviceberry; look and taste like less-sweet blueberries
  • Red mulberries:  few pests and diseases, can grow in partial sunlight
  • Beach plums: bite-sized, large-seed fruit
  • Asian pears: cross between an apple and a pear

2. To save money, grow fruits and vegetables that cost more at the store:

Plant veggies that are expensive at the store,  from How to Know What to Grow in Your Garden @ Frugal-Mama.com

Virginia picking Tuscan kale and tomatoes

When making your garden choices, you might pass over vegetables that are inexpensive, like cabbage and carrots, in favor of more pricey ones, such as tomatoes, peppers, and gourmet salad greens.

Our city front yard is so small that, more than noticing a lower food bill, I feel the luxury of using exotic ingredients in my cooking that would have been prohibitively expensive, like fresh herbs and edible flowers.

Another cost-saving tactic is to grow foods on the pesticide-heavy Dirty Dozen list, so you can eat organic without paying the price:

  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Snap peas
  • Spinach, kale & collard greens
  • Strawberries

We grew sugar snap peas last year for the first time, supported by a tomato cage, and they were delicious. Because they are best raw, it was a great way for the kids and me to experience the instant gratification of an edible front yard.

3. If you don’t have much space, grow foods that are hard to buy:

Edible Nasturtium flowers, from How to Know What to Grow in Your Garden @ Frugal-Mama.com

The only way you can get edible flowers like Nasturtium is to grow them

Some edible delicacies, like squash flowers or kiwi berries, are so fragile that they are not sold, even at farmer’s markets. Growing foods that you can’t easily buy is a great way to use your limited garden space, says friend and D.C. Master Gardener Lisa Burke.

The “rare foods” principle was how we made our choices this year. Rainbow chard and Tuscan kale now come home by the armloads from our farm share, so I realized that it didn’t make sense to grow them in our small garden anymore.

These are the hard-to-find or pricey vegetables that we chose to grow this year:

  • Purple sweet potatoes
  • Cosmic purple carrots
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Kohlrabi
  • Fennel (or anise)
  • Borage (blue edible flowers)
  • Pumpkin flowers
  • Nasturtium (red, yellow, orange, and pink edible flowers)
  • Chamomile (daisy-type flowers for making calming tea)
  • Ice cream melon (so-named because they make the perfect bowl for a scoop of ice cream; also known as “Green Machine” for the large number of melons it makes!)

Purple potatoes have gotten a lot of press recently for their unusual health benefits, and when my friend Lisa said that her kids love to eat purple mashed potatoes, I couldn’t resist. We made our other choices by browsing the organic and heirloom seeds in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog.

Also new this for us this year is a fruiting vine, Hardy Kiwi, that I ordered from Edible Landscaping and planted last fall. Hardy Kiwi produces green berries, a bit larger than grapes that taste like kiwi without the brown, fuzzy skin. Hardy Kiwi is known to be able to survive harsh winters, and we have a child of the plant that has been growing for 100 years at Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks garden. Fingers crossed that ours takes off too.

Sunlight and Climate

A peach ripening in a front yard orchard in Washington, D.C., from How to Know What to Grow in Your Garden @ Frugal-Mama.com

A peach ripening in our front yard mini-orchard

Visiting public gardens and talking to other gardeners is a great way to find out if the food that you want to grow will do well in your area. Especially before investing in trees and shrubs, make sure they will survive by learning your plant hardiness climate zone.

Ultimately, sunlight will dictate your decisions about what to grow and where, says Megan Rynne of Love & Carrots. We can change the composition of our soil and keep it watered, but we can’t always control the amount of sun that reaches our plot of land. Especially in urban settings, buildings and trees can make it tough to get the six to eight hours of direct sunlight that most fruits and vegetables need to thrive.

Take a day to quantify your light by checking every few hours if the sun is directly shining on your spot or if it’s shaded by trees and structures. You may be able to capture more sunlight on a patio or deck, in which case you could garden in pots. Otherwise favor vegetables that do well in partial sun, such as kale, beets, potatoes, and carrots.

My friend Lisa is planting a guinea pig garden with her sons this year. They have two new guinea pigs and are figuring out their favorite foods. So far on the garden list are: lettuce, parsley, arugula, and red peppers. Those are some lucky pets!

What are you thinking of growing this year?


Using Architectural Salvage to Beautify Your Home and Save Money

Our house has been alive for 99 years. We love its wood windows, alligatored paint, and creaking floorboards. However, a house doesn’t always age gracefully. Things are always breaking down, and updates made over the years can detract from its original character.

Our 1916 farmhouse in Washington, D.C. that we are repairing and restoring with salvaged house partsWhen I first saw our house, I loved its aura. A farmhouse built in 1916, it still had the romantic overgrown look of a place in the country even though a city had grown up around it. Inside were a lot of quirky updates, which reflected the eccentric personalities of its former owners.

As I looked over the house with the inspector, I was already thinking that it would be fun to make repairs using parts salvaged from old houses. Older buildings were usually made with high-quality materials, such as old-growth wood and heavy metals like bronze and copper. Plus the textures and finishes have soul that only comes with age.

I like modern architecture too, and I have a mixture of contemporary and traditional furnishings in our house. But you have to spend a lot more on new materials to get the same caliber you find in old pieces. So to save money without sacrificing quality, I spent time looking for cast-off architectural pieces that fit our house’s period and style.

There are lots of sources for salvaged building materials. Architectural antique shops can be quite pricey, catering to historic preservationists with deep pockets, so look out for individual brokers or building re-use centers (which are kind-of like thrift stores for the house).

Second Chance, an architectural salvage non-profit in Baltimore, MD

If you find a non-profit building donation center in your area, you’ll probably have to paw through stacks of heavy, dusty wood in a cold, dim warehouse. But the effort is worth the treasures that you can find at bargain basement prices.

Here are some of the salvaged materials that we used to repair, restore, and renovate our house, and you can too:


Salvaged old doors used in a new renovation

Perhaps the most-readily available and satisfying piece to re-use in your house are old doors. Their heavy, solid wood feels so substantial, and the nicks and aging paint add warmth and historical character.

The wood found in old houses is so strong because it was milled from trees that were probably 200 to 300 years old. Old-growth wood has very tight growth rings, which “lends the wood strength and hardness — even in so-called softwoods such as pine and fir,” said an expert in a recent article in the Washington Post on how old lumber is gaining popularity in the D.C. remodeling boom.

Our house has five-panel doors throughout the interior, and I was able to find them in almost every size I needed at salvage yards and second-hand building materials warehouses for $20 to $40 each.


We used three reclaimed doors on the second floor, where doors had either been removed or didn’t exist, and four old doors in our basement renovation.

My contractor would have preferred to use new pre-hung doors already in the jamb, but they are more expensive than antique doors and didn’t feel as sturdy.


Beaded oval doorknobs found in architectural salvage shops

One of the most important pieces of hardware in your home is the doorknob. If you think about it, turning a doorknob is one of the few chances you get to actually touch your house. So you should choose something that you find beautiful, but it should also feel good in the hand.

When we were finishing our basement, I wanted it to feel like the rest of the house. So mixed in with the new drywall and carpeting, we installed reclaimed five-panel doors like we have in the rest of the house. I found knobs similar to our beaded oval knobs at Vintage House Parts & Radiators in North Brentwood, Maryland for $25 per set.

I love the feel of the weathered metal of these knobs. We have very nice reproduction beaded oval knobs from Rejuvenation in our foyer, but they are stiff to turn and lack the warm touch of the antique ones.

Pulls, Locks, and Other Door Hardware

Minor hardware like locks, hinges, strike plates, and slotted screws might seem insignificant, but even these tiny details are easy and inexpensive ways of adding charm and history to your house.

Minor hardware like locks, hinges, strike plates, and slotted screws might seem insignificant, but even these tiny details are easy and inexpensive ways of adding charm and history to your house.

Pocket Door Hardware

Antique copper pocket door pulls add old-world character to a new renovation

For our remodeled bedroom area, we put salvaged five-panel doors on a sliding door track, and retrofitted them with pocket-door pulls and mortise locks.

Pocket door hardware is harder to come by than regular doorknobs since most houses only had one pocket door. (That would probably explain why it was so difficult to find a reclaimed front door to replace our 60s era one — most houses just had one front door, so there are fewer available.)

I eventually found two matching copper pocket door pulls on eBay. One had a key hole in it, and I was able to find a skeleton key that worked the lock at The Brass Knob, an architectural antique specialty shop in Washington, D.C.

Cast Iron Radiators

Decorative cast iron radiators can be found at salvage shops and installed to match an old home's existing heating system

Another salvaged house part that makes a big bang are cast iron radiators. We love the even, mellow heat produced by our hot-water heating, so we extended the system when we finished the basement.

At Vintage House Parts & Radiators in Maryland, owner Saul Navidad collects old radiators from houses that are being demolished or renovated and re-sells them, mainly to European dealers. I was happy to snag a rare decorative one for Diana’s bedroom that matched our existing radiators, but chose less expensive vintage models for the basement.

Cast iron radiators in all styles and sizes can be found at salvage yards

Probably produced in the 1940s, these sleeker radiators saved space and added character yet cost way less than new.

Interior Window Shutters

Interior wooden shutters can be found at salvage yards for a fraction of the cost of the same items on eBay

The beautiful, full-size windows in our bathroom are thanks to the fact that it used to be a bedroom. The challenge was making the room private while still letting in light and views.

Plantation shutters were the answer: the amount of control over light, privacy, and airflow is hard to find in any other window treatment. However, wood is more expensive than fabric, so shutters would be more costly than curtains unless I could find them second-hand.

For one window, we were able to re-use shutters removed from our own first floor, but we didn’t have a fit for the second window. On eBay, vintage louvered shutters were selling for $50 and up, so it was a small victory to find them for $2.50 per panel (plus 40% off that day!) at Community Forklift, my go-to salvage yard right outside northeast D.C.

The problem was finding the right size: eventually I made a few return trips and had to alter the shutters to fit. Still the reclaimed shutters cost a lot less than custom shutters, and I prevented a few nice things from going to the dump.

Stained Glass Windows

Antique stained glass windows are sold in architectural antique shops

A stairwell window in our house had been replaced with textured glass, perhaps due to the proximity to our neighbors (a cozy 10 feet away). I thought it would be fun to retrofit a salvaged stained glass window. The trick would be to find the right size.

Second Chance, a deconstruction and resale warehouse in Baltimore, was reputed to have tons of antique stained glass. But inventory had changed hands, and my parents and I (who were visiting from Ohio) had to do some driving around to find a better supply at Weber’s Antiques in downtown Baltimore.

I loved the rose design window (pictured above), but the green ribbon stained glass had the right dimensions, so we took it home.

Antique stained glass windows can be installed to look like it came with the house

We were able to install the stained glass window in the existing window frame, and I love the dash of old-fashioned color that it gave the space.

Stone Countertops

Slabs of stone, like this quartzite, can be found at bargain basement prices  in salvage yards

I hadn’t planned on re-doing the kids sinktop in stone, but when an attempt to use a more modest material fell through, I knew it was my chance to get my hands on one of those slabs that I had seen in what my daughters called the “junk yard.”

Dozens of marble and granite remnants salvaged from bathroom and kitchen demolitions were stacked outside Community Forklift, covered with dust and nearly impossible to move. After circling around several times and taking measurements, I finally settled on a piece of white marble for $100.

The salvage yard recommended an affordable stone-cutter, but when the new countertop was finished, it was not white marble at all, but a beautiful metamorphic rock called quartzite. Thankfully, I loved it, and the greenish color even coordinated with the floor tiles. Phew!

Moulding and Trim

Reclaimed crown molding and other door and window trim is sturdy and has an old-world patina

We were able to salvage and re-use our own house’s moulding for a few projects, but if you are looking for antique trim to match your house’s existing trim, building re-use centers carry that too.

In some cases, our carpenter was able to closely replicate the style of our house’s moulding, and it looks very clean and fresh, but I do love the nicked and dented, chipped and painted-over look of 100-year-old trim.


Fancy scrolled ironwork abounds in salvage yards where you can buy it by the foot

Here is another project where we shopped at home for salvaged materials that can also be found in housing thrift stores.

On some first floor windows of our house the previous owners had installed wrought iron window bars, which we later removed. We re-used one window guard as a frame for a mirror in our (tiny but very appreciated) first-floor bathroom.

If you’re looking for ironwork for a railing, gate, or other home project, you can find tons of it at salvage centers. Most welders should be able to alter it to your specifications. Ask for recommendations of ironworkers at the salvage yard.



We inherited a beautiful brick circle in our front yard that was apparently modeled after a garden in France. I came to realize that a big part of its charm came from the antique bricks that were used to construct it. They’re mottled and chipped, variegated and rosy. They’re also bigger than today’s bricks, so in a glance you can tell that they’re different.

When we created a vegetable garden (pictured below) in our front side yard, we tried to find old bricks to make little walking paths. Even though they cost more than new, at $1 per brick we didn’t break the bank.


Windows and Wavy Glass


We love our old wooden windows. When we moved in, most of them were caulked and painted shut, but we later made strategic ones operable.

The bottom panel of a double-hung window in our bedroom (pictured above) was so badly rotted that we had to replace it. I drove out that day to Community Forklift, praying the whole way that they’d have a wooden window with the same dimensions. The universe — or should I say, the community — responded with a perfectly-sized window. I was also able to pick up the mechanisms — counter weights and pulleys — and we were back in business.

If you need to replace panes in any of your old windows, it is possible to find antique glass complete with waves and bubbles. These old-world effects are apparently impossible to reproduce today, because the glass manufacturing process has changed.

Antique wavy glass can be bought to replace glass in old wooden windows

We wanted to remove plexiglass in our foyer windows, so I called an old-window handyman, who I found by searching the neighborhood listservs. He harvests antique glass from cast-off windows and was able to cut and install a few pieces in our windows.

(If your utility bills are high but you would like to keep your old wood windows, consider interior storm windows. To preserve the charm of drafty windows in our attic, we are getting inserts from Indow Windows, a company recommended by a neighbor who works at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)



Every house needs hooks. It’s amazing how much heavier antique hooks feel, and what a nice patina the metal has acquired.

To achieve an even more authentic look, use old slotted screws too.

Shelf Brackets

Antique iron shelf brackets add old-world charm to a new craft room

To support a vintage shelving unit that we repainted for our new craft/sewing room, I found some beautiful cast iron shelf brackets at an architectural antiques shop.

They added an unexpected touch to a room full of shiny newish things.

Scrap Lumber for Woodworking Projects

Slabs of wood found in an old barn were used to make shelves in a laundry room

This laundry shelf was made by my dad from old wood found in a barn. He has also made us two tables from old weathered wood that has all sorts of interesting defects like worm holes.

Reclaimed wood is really hot right now, but it also fits our casual, kid-friendly lifestyle. I don’t have to worry about the tables getting scratched or dinged, since wear-and-tear just adds to their patina.

Fireplace Mantels

A salvaged fireplace mantel that was rehabbed and used in a living room remodel

This mantel is now in our living room. Typically a house from the early 1900s would have had a fireplace, but ours did not. We wanted a focal point for our living room (that wasn’t a flat-screen TV), and a fireplace seemed like the answer.

Mantels are apparently not hard for a carpenter to make from scratch, but a salvaged one is the way to go if you want the fireplace to look like it’s been there forever.

There are very elaborate mantels out there, but they’re usually much more expensive. I also had to face the fact that they wouldn’t really go with the simple style of our house.

A reclaimed mantel was installed in a new living room renovation to make it look like it came with the old house

The mantel that we chose (shown here painted and installed in our living room) was the right size, design, and price ($120), and nobody would imagine that it was installed last year.

Wooden Floorboards

Reclaimed pine flooring was used to match and replace flooring that was destroyed in a renovation

When we needed to change the layout of our second floor to create three bedrooms out of two, we had to take up the old pine flooring. The idea was to simply lay the floorboards back down after the work was done, but they were not taken up properly and had to be scrapped.

It was sad to have wasted perfectly good 100-year-old flooring (next time I’ll have an expert remove it), but after asking around, I found a reclaimed wood dealer. I was able to buy similar flooring removed from another house of the same era for $6 per square foot, and was happy to give it a new home.

The most sought-after antique flooring is called heart pine, or old longleaf pine. I don’t know if that’s what we have, but according to deconstructing expert Max Pollock in the Washington Post, “It has a rich color, nice smell, and the grain is much, much tighter than other softwood species.” If you’re thinking of redoing your old pine floors, you might be able to sell it to a salvage shop. “That’s the holy grail,” Pollocks says. “It’s what we’re always looking for.”

Tips for Finding and Using Architectural Salvage

Building re-use centers, like this one in Baltimore, carry new and historic house parts and materials at bargain prices

Building re-use center Second Chance in Baltimore, MD

  • Study the era and style of your house. Resist the temptation to go more old or fancy than your house really is. Mixing styles and time periods will lead to a hodge-podge look that you probably won’t be happy with.
  • To begin finding sources in your area, try Old House Journal’s Directory of Architectural Salvage Stores. There are sure to be many more, so when you make contact with a broker or organization, ask if they know someone who deals in the materials you are looking for.
  • Dress warmly and bring old gloves. Even in the summer, salvage warehouses can be really cold because of the dark, cavernous spaces. Everything is dirty, so either wear gloves or bring a pack of wet wipes.
  • Measure, measure, measure. Keep a measuring tape and notebook of your room’s dimensions with you. If you happen upon the perfect find, you’ll know whether it’s worth taking home.
Architectural salvage at Old Luckett's Store in Leesburg, Virginia

My daughter Sofia at our recent trip to Luckett’s in Virginia

We are still finding reasons to hit the “junk yards.” Hunting for treasures for your house can be so fun that you might miss it when your project is done.


More Peaceful Schooldays: 3 Changes to Try

As any parent of schoolchildren knows, we often burst out of the gate in September, shined up and ready to put the pedal to the metal. But by the time winter comes, we’re feeling a little road-weary, and systems have either worn down or need to be engineered.

As for us, it was clear that our four-year-old needed more focus in the morning rush. But we didn’t recognize the extent of other problems — until we found the solutions.

Here are three adjustments that we made over the winter break that are making our weekday life easier.

1.  Make a Clear Get-Ready-for-School Chart

More Peaceful Schooldays: 3 Changes to Try

Print black-and-white images and let kids color in themselves.

Up to now our pre-kindergartener, Luke, didn’t so much as have a getting-ready routine as a crazy race.  We had always used some kind of list or chart for our other kids, but I thought Luke needed something more hands-on.

I found an interactive chart, with tabs that kids flip up when they’re done, and decided to make it over the winter break.  (See the tutorial on the Snickerdoodle blog.) It required more time and materials than our simple printable ones, but it’s definitely more fun.

Luke colored in the images.  Here are similar chore chart graphics.

More Peaceful Schoolday Mornings: Create a Getting-Ready for School Checklist

Mark (6 years) wanted to make a chart too.

Since we’ve been using the magnetic checklists, both boys have been racing around to complete each task, so they could flip up the tab that says, “DONE.”

Such enthusiasm won’t likely last, but we’ll be able to keep pace with our usual teaching timer and marble jar. The most important part, I’ve found, is letting kids know what is expected of them and giving them a way to keep track by themselves.

2.  Keep an Edited Sampling of Schoolwork and Artwork

Keep only a select sampling of kids' art and schoolwork

Second up was dedicating some time to our system for saving momentos from the kids’ childhoods.

What we do is collect the best artwork, important memories, and a sampling of schoolwork in tiered baskets in a kitchen cabinet.  The rest gets sent to grandparents with a monthly letter, or recycled.

Then at the end of the school year or calendar year, we put the papers in chronological order, do a final edit, and then hole-punch and insert everything into three-ring binders.

The key here is doing the binding once a year.  I’ve seen how these piles can begin to landslide if you ignore them for more than a year. Sofia and Virginia have been helping me with their memories since they were in third and fourth grade, which is a huge help.

Keep only a select sampling of kids' art and schoolwork

But I never seemed to find the time to tackle Mark’s pile, which got more daunting the longer I waited, until this winter break.

In a couple of sessions we got through two-thirds of his pile.  He loved to look over these artifacts of his life, marveling at how he used to draw giraffes or how he used to spell autumn (“odum”). Class photos and 8×10 school portraits are in there too, and those are always fun to look back on.

The older girls treasure having these binders (now about three to four per child) as a record of their lives, so the effort pays off.

3.  Find Quieter Nooks and Times for Doing Homework

I love the happy hubbub of all the kids together after school:  Virginia playing Skater’s Waltz on the piano, Sofia doing homework at the dining table, Mark racing around with Lego tow trucks, Luke singing in weird voices in the bathroom, and Diana pulling all of the jars out of the cabinet.

But with the girls in middle school now, homework requires more concentration, which is challenging in our loud household. I too found it almost impossible to help Mark with his 10 minutes of daily reading in the 4pm to 6pm hours, when I also need to cook dinner and keep Diana entertained.

So we decided that Mark would be allowed to stay up later than his little brother and sister, to read with a parent when the house is quiet. What a dramatic improvement!  Instead of dreading his reading practice, he now looks forward to it.  And he was even excited to tell me when he got back to school in January that he’s now graduated to the next reading level.

3 Tune-ups for More Peaceful Schooldays

As for our middle school girls, they had been asking for desks ever since we finished the attic and moved their bedrooms up there.  This fall we talked about it again, and decided it was time. For Christmas, they got homemade gift certificates for desks, and in early January we shopped around and eventually found (at Ikea) just the right desks and chairs.

Child's desk and chair for doing homework (IKEA Micke desk and Junior Jules swivel chair)

Both Sofia and Virginia are using their desks a lot — from writing thank-you cards to drawing to doing homework — and they say that it’s all easier without being distracted by their little brothers yelling ‘Guten-hog!’ or Diana drawing on the furniture.

Sure, I miss seeing them, but because this arrangement allows them to get their homework done faster, they have more time to pursue activities that give them pleasure and to hang out with us when they’re relaxed.  And that’s makes it all worth it.


3 Features of the Best Organizing Containers

I used to spend next to nothing on organizing solutions. Old cardboard boxes, plastic packaging, and even tin cans were free and easy. But once we settled into a house, I realized that some of these solutions didn’t work long-term. Our stuff may have been divided into categories, but the system was messy and difficult.

When our storage moving boxes began to look more like beanbags,  I was ready to try something new, as long as it wasn’t too expensive. I remembered a guest post here on three qualities of good organizing solutions:

  1. Stackable
  2. See-through
  3. Square

You can spend a lot of money on organizing structures, said Nihara of Doing Too Much in that post, but simple, inexpensive containers sometimes work better. As we settle into this house and gradually straighten up our systems, I had a chance to test this theory.

We started with the garage.

1.  Stackable

3 Features of the Best Organizing Containers

“If it doesn’t stack, take it back.” –Nihara, from Doing Too Much

We had always stored hand-me-downs and out-of-season supplies in cardboard boxes. But when I piled the old boxes on top of each other in our new garage, they began to tilt and tumble.

Stackable plastic bins used to seem like a splurge, but then I realized that it was OK to invest in a long-term solution that would be safer and help us use what we have. I did some research on large stackable plastic bins and found that IKEA’s were the best deal (34-gallon clear Samla box with lid, ikea.com).

I love our new containers. Having durable boxes with lids has made it so much easier to keep kids’ clothes organized by size and season and ready to use. We are so lucky to have friends that drop off clothes to us, and with our new system, I can file them away easily.

Applying the see-through principle seemed smart, especially in a low-profile place like the garage. In fact, it’s been a joy to be able to instantly find the Halloween pumpkins, the beach toys, or the baby clothes to give away.

And if I stay on top of regular purging, I always have a few empty bins to contain special projects such as candle-making or curtain-sewing.

2.  See-Through

3 Rules to Follow when Choosing Organizing Bins

“If you can’t see inside it, you don’t know what’s in it.” — Nihara

I wasn’t so sure about the see-through principle, because I like clutter-free, visually calming spaces.  But then I realized that hiding clutter makes sense in spaces you want to be beautiful, such as the living room or bedroom, but almost everywhere else, it’s more zen to see what you need.

Black square baskets used to corral our office supplies when we kept them in our bedroom near the desk. But when we moved the supplies to an old pie chest in our new kitchen, the baskets became a pain. Dark, piled on top of each other, and hard to label, they made us root around just to find a pen or a flash drive.

This fall I was motivated to change the system to prevent re-buying school supplies that we already had.  After measuring the chest, I looked around for see-through solutions.  Clear stacking drawers were too expensive, so I settled on shoe boxes (above, $1.89 each at the Container Store).

The stackable nature of these boxes means that I can maximize the space we have to work with. And because they are see-through, the whole family knows what’s inside each box and how much is left.

3.  Square

3 Rules of Thumb when Choosing Organizing Containers

“If it’s square leave it there. If it’s round, don’t let it be found.” –The Nester

By far the most satisfying and fun re-organization project we have done so far was with our beads.  That simple organizing act has inspired a cottage industry in our basement, where busy elves have been working hard making Christmas presents.

We used to store art materials in bins under beds. Our hodge-podge collection of beads and baubles were in plastic bags or in boxes with lids that had broken off.

A mini-dream was realized this year when we finished a corner of our basement into a craft and sewing room. I thought I was going to want all of our supplies out of sight, in drawers and behind cabinet doors, so it wouldn’t feel cluttered and overwhelming.

But after using the craft room a bit, I realized that we were more inspired to create when our materials were out in the open. The key was to make it pretty.

So I removed the doors on a cabinet to create open shelves.  Then my daughter Sofia and I went shopping for containers. We had to talk ourselves down from the most beautiful, nesting, lucite boxes and settled on simple square Amac boxes (above and in lead photos). At under $3 each, they felt both economical and luxurious.

Their flat lids and square corners help us use every inch of precious real estate on the shelves.  I did use thrift store vases and glasses to contain pencils and crayons, but I noticed how square or rectangular storage containers could be super space-savers anywhere — in closets, fridges, pantries, and bathrooms.

So even though I initially dragged my feet on buying organizing bins, when it was free and less wasteful to re-use boxes, I found a win-win.  My old containers were put to use in other ways, such as dividing drawers or holding clothes to give away. And I was able to spend relatively little to create a more calming and efficient household.  When things are orderly and attractive, we’re less likely to go shopping and more likely to use what we have.

So the next time you have the chance to choose storage containers, remember the three-S motto — stackable, see-through, square — and think about whether the change might save you time and space too.


Lasting, Low-Tech Gifts for Kids of All Ages at Frugal Mama

Since I’ve already told you about my favorite anti-Stuff gifts such as month-clubs, experiences, and coupon books, I thought it would be fun to share some regular, wrap-it-up-in-a-box presents.

To compile this gift guide, I asked former Frugal Mama contributing writers for their best ideas, and I added our family’s most durable, versatile, and loved gifts. Here goes!

For Babies

For babies, a personalized ornament (maybe paired with a donation to their 529 college savings plan)

“There are lots of babies in our extended family,” says contributor Rayna St. Pierre, “and for them I like to contribute to their college savings accounts (529s) and add on a personalized ornament or stocking.”  (Pictured is Baby’s 1st Personalized Ornament by the Timber Green Woods Etsy shop)

A Baby for a Baby


Baby Doll for Babies and Toddlers, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

We gave Diana this cloth rattle doll in a moses basket last year (Lilliputiens Baby Eline by Haba, $30) as an antidote to all the toy cars and trucks around here.  She was only six months old, but she instantly knew what to do with it: give it a hug!

Personalized Baby Blocks

Personalized Baby Block from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

Contributor Samantha Sand loves giving custom wooden blocks that memorialize a new baby’s birth.  These maple blocks from Craft-E-Family ($20) are made by a family-run business in Indiana.

Homemade Board Book


Custom Baby Board Book, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

This book that I made for Diana last year is already all dog-eared.  (She can now flip through it by herself, as you can see in the photo above.)

I made the book at Pint Sized Productions ($25) by uploading baby pictures of our children and my husband and me.  Then I wrote some text about how her sisters and brothers and parents were babies once too.

You could also use pictures of animals or even kids’ drawings to illustrate your story.

For Toddlers and Preschoolers

Besides our mainstays of imaginative play, such as  dress-up clothes, cars and trucks, and stuffed animals, here are some toys that have stuck around longer than the rest.

Magnetic Blocks

Magformers, gift recommendation from the Frugal Mama blog

MagformersOilDripPanIt doesn’t seem to matter which iteration of this idea you get — Magna-Tiles, Magformers, or Tegu — kids love building and rebuilding with these ingenious blocks.  Contributor Samantha Sand of Digital Zen is also a fan:

Magformers are not inexpensive, but if you consider how much time our kids have spent playing with them, they rank as most valuable toy set in our house,” says Samantha.

“Inside each piece are rotating magnets, which means there is no wrong way to put any two pieces together. The hold is strong, the colors bright, and they’re centrally located in our kitchen attached to a magnetic oil drip pan (about $10 from Jiffy Lube or other auto supply store).”

“My advice would be to spend a little more to get a kit with more than 30 pieces, like the 46-piece Carnival set. That way your kids can build lots of different things with it and fuel their imagination.”

It’s worth noting that magnetic blocks can be found second-hand at a steep discount.  eBay has new-in-box older models, and my sister found a used set at a thrift store for $10.  She felt like she hit the jackpot, and it’s hard to say who likes playing with them more — her son or her husband!

Pet Hospital

Pet Hospital Toy, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

I can’t believe that I’m including a plastic vet hospital in this round-up, but it’s one of the most long-lived toys in our household.  Some of the doors have broken off, and the thermometer doesn’t work anymore, but this animal hospital we got from Target eight years ago is now entertaining its fifth child.

It’s pretty cute how tiny stuffed animals get tucked into color-coded compartments, which can be opened and closed with the matching colored key. Kids can play doctor with small stuffed animals, or use the medical equipment for other games.

Mini Scooter

Scooter for Preschoolers, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gifts for Kids of All Ages

I love these Mini Micro scooters.  We have two of them, and while they’re not cheap at $75, they are the best for young kids (3-5 years suggested, but we gave Mark one when he was 2 years old, and he was totally capable of riding it). Mini Micros get the best ratings and lots of awards, for good reason.

The three-wheel design makes it easy for kids to lean into curves, using their body weight to turn left or right.  The wheels are made of soft rubber so kids can even take a quiet ride around the house.  One of our scooters is five years old and still going strong.  Parts are replaceable, so these scooters could have a very long life indeed.

Simple Board Games

Playing board games is a great way to bond with kids, away from the distractions of screens and chores.  Board games also help kids learn about taking turns and losing gracefully, says former first-grade teacher Janae of I Can Teach My Child, and they reinforce concepts like counting, color recognition, and matching.

Roll and Play Board Game for Toddlers, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

For a first board game for children as young as 18 months, Janae recommends multiple award-winner Roll & Play by Thinkfun (pictured above, $20).  To play, kids toss the big plush cube and identify which colored side faces up. They choose a matching color card and then perform the simple activity shown, such as “Make a happy face” or “Moo like a cow.”

Samantha Sand of Digital Zen also recommends You’re Bugging Me:

You're Bugging Me Game, gift recommendation from the Frugal Mama blog

“Both my kids enjoyed playing at age three (even though the box says four years and up),” says Samantha.  “No reading skills are required and the giant die is perfect for chubby hands.”

“Up to four players start out with six bugs that you wear on a felt sleeve on your arm. The object is to be the first player to get rid of all her bugs. From centipedes to butterflies, preschoolers love these bugs, and everyone loves trying to stick Mommy with the cockroach.  Ewww!”

To these recommendations, I would add some favorites from our household: colorful snake-making game Hisss, no-reading-required strategy game Sequence for Kids, and fast-paced bingo game, Zingo.

For Elementary School Kids

First Bicycle with Training Wheels

First Bike: Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

It’s a classic, and it’s still a win-win gift for kids and parents.

After the 47th time my son Mark asked for a bike last year, I figured it was going to be something that he would actually use.  Thankfully that hunch was true.  We got both Mark (6 years) and Luke (3 years) a training-wheel bicycle last year, and they continue to entice the boys to run outside and play.

I found Mark’s Schwinn and Luke’s Classic Flyer by consulting ratings and review aggregator, ConsumerSearch, and we’ve been very happy with the quality.  I would also recommend consulting a local bike store, if you have one.  They can recommend the best fit for your child and will likely be there for repairs.

Play Kitchen

IKEA Play Kitchen from Great Gifts for Kids of All Ages

Contributor Jennifer Roberts of JenSpends gave us her best recommendation for toys that last:

A play kitchen is an excellent gift idea for a boy or girl. My oldest son received his as a Christmas gift when he was 18 months, and now at age five, it is still one of his favorite toys — he runs an imaginary restaurant out of his playroom.

A pretend kitchen encourages imaginary play and can even inspire healthy eating habits. With the wide variety of play food sets and kitchen accessories available, you’ll have gift ideas for years to come.

Looms and Legos

Potholder Loom from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

Contributor Rayna St. Pierre‘s favorite gifts for middle-years children are LEGOs and loom kits.

We have several looms at our house, and I think the most accessible, lasting one is the classic potholder loom.  Believe it or not, my mom and I are still using the potholders that my daughters made.  You can make teddy bears with the woven squares, or stitch them together to make quilt-like blankets.

Another idea is the new Loop de Loom.  I’ve never tried it, but it apparently makes weaving faster with its spinning pegs.  Kids can make purses, camera cases, and scarves.

Lego Creativity for Younger Kids, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gifts for Kids of All Ages

LEGOs are another classic toy that encourages hours of imaginative play.  Once the perfect models are created, I love the destructive and creative re-building that ensues.  For younger kids, try LEGO Juniors.

Walkie Talkies

Walkie Talkies, gift recommendation from the Frugal Mama blog

“Huge hit,” says Samantha Sand, “especially with younger school-age boys. It’s hilarious listening to my son and his cousin pretend to be emergency response workers and say things like, ‘Code Red! We need you! Over and out!’ and ‘Copy that! I’m on my way!'”

For kid-oriented Walkie Talkies, try Comms Expert Long-Range Field Walkie Talkies or Super Spy Long Range Walkie Talkies (both $50 at YoungExplorers.com).

For Older Kids

As kids get older and more sophisticated, it’s tempting to up the ante and get into electronics as gifts.  But it is possible to hold off on hand-held computers yet still make the holidays special.

Experiences, such as classes, activities, concerts, and special events, are great choices for this age group, says contributor Karen Falter.  But if you’re looking for something they can “play with” right away, here are some ideas.

Beanbag Chair or a New Bedding Set


Beanbag Chair for Teens, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gifts for Kids of All Ages

Kids love the cocooning comfort of beanbag chairs, and they’re great for both hanging out and even doing homework on their laps.  If you already have a beanbag, update it with a new cover.

There are lots of fun and unusual covers available at Etsy, like the one pictured above ($142 at the ChoosyShop).  If you’d like your child to choose her own beanbag, you can wrap up a hand-made gift certificate and then go shopping together.

The gift certificate idea could also be applied to new bedding, such as sheets, shams, duvet covers, or a bedspreads.  Setting a fixed amount that can be spent on the new items helps children learn about managing money, shopping around, and making compromises.

Board Games


Sara Tetreault, creator of Go Gingham – Stylishly Frugal Living, and her family are big game players.  Her children are now teenagers, so Sara recently pared down her game cabinet.

Here are the games that made the cut and why, plus her tips, tricks, and personal favorites:

  • Skip-Bo:  Good for young and old.  A fun game about luck, not so much strategy.
  • Sorry:  Another good game for young and old – and again, all about luck. Tip: For a quick game, use only two pieces instead of three.
  • Monopoly:  A timeless classic.  Tip:  Make a shorter game of it by dealing out properties at the start of the game.
  • Sequence:  Good for teams – adult with young child works well.  No “table talk” is a rule but everyone’s non-verbal eye signals seem to get honed here.
  • Rummikub:  Similar to gin rummy but a board game with tiles. This game is all about sets and runs – good for math skills, and good for all ages.
  • Bananagrams:  With tiles contained in a banana-shaped bag, this fast-moving game is all about spelling. Think Scrabble but easier, free-flowing, and no waiting for your turn.
  • The Settlers of Catan:  This is a family favorite now that we have teenagers. It’s a kind of medieval Monopoly where people trade properties with resources.  (Seafarers of Catan is pictured above.)
  • Taboo:  Fun for older kids or a family game night with friends.  Adults and kids like to buzz each other when you say the wrong or “taboo” word.  Tip: Teams with a mix of ages make this fun for a game night with another family.
  • Blokus:  My personal favorite, this is the board game of Tetris.  Get the pieces to fit and block out your opponent’s pieces. It’s all about board domination and using spaces. Good for four players.
  • Yahtzee: Everybody loves Yahtzee!  Math and yelling are required for this fun game.  Tip:  If playing with young children who can’t yet write, pair up with adults or older kids.

As a bonus gift, Sara suggests the book Hoyle’s Rules of Games.  “It has rules for every card game or parlor game imaginable,” Sara says.  “We travel with this book and try to learn a new game wherever we go.”

Gymnastics Mat, Trampoline, or Tree Swing

Any of these active play ideas are great for getting more sedentary kids out in the open air and working their bodies.Gymnastics Mats, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

Our gymnastics mat, a gift from my parents to my older girls when we lived in a place with long winters, is now the centerpiece of our newly organized garage. Sofia and Virginia do cartwheels and practice their jazz dance routines on it.

They were also given rhythmic gymnastic ribbon wands.  They’re so fun to whirl (and watch) and would be a great accessory for this gift, or just alone.

Outdoor Tree Swing for Teens, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All AgesTrampolines with tall surrounding nets are considered safe (and still fun for teens).  When my kids are playing outside at someone else’s house, chances are a trampoline was the draw to the outdoors.

And if you have a good backyard tree, I think a tree swing like this one from HearthSong would be awesome.

Fashion Sketchbook

Fashion Sketchbook, from Lasting, Low-Tech Gift Ideas for Kids of All Ages

Virginia (10 years) received this Fashion Sketchpad from her Aunt Jenny last year. Here we are a year later, and she is still designing outfits, like this “biker meets feminist meets ballerina meets preppy,” and the “Couture 1900s prom ballgown.”

It has been a great creative outlet for both Virginia and her sister Sofia (12 years), who later received the pocket version.  I like the simplicity and professionalism of the pad.  Hundreds of pages of figure templates eliminate the need for light boxes or tracing paper, and kids can get an even more professional look by photocopying or scanning the drawings, when the faint templates disappear.  The Sketchpad also includes an illustrated glossary of all sorts of garments like caftans, sheaths, and maxis.

The key to a successful gift, says contributor Karen Falter, is not finding something unusual or spending a lot of money.  The key is figuring out a person’s interests and finding a gift that the person would really love.

If you’re looking for some meaningful, clutter-free gifts, you might want to be inspired by these other ideas:

3 Fantastic Gifts that You Can Easily Make at the Last Minute

Holiday Giving: 7 Ways to Spend Less on Gifts and Still Be Generous

Got Enough Plastic Toys?  Try These Notes Instead of Stocking Gifts

How to Make a Coupon Favor Book to Give to the Kids

Simplify Giving to Teachers and Friends: a Loving Low-Cost Solution

Clutter-Free and Almost-Free Gift Ideas


Finally, if you’re looking for a way to prevent gifting from getting out of control, think about the formula Want-Need-Wear-Read.

Giving a child something she wants, something she needs, something to wear, and something to read is a guideline adopted by Kara Fleck, editor of SimpleKids.  It doesn’t have to be followed to a T, but I like how it helps keep Christmas simple and sweet.


5 Years of Frugal Mama: The Story of This Blog

Five years ago I started this blog.  It was October 2009, a year after the Wall Street meltdown, and we were living in Manhattan at the time.

Our youngest child, Mark, was only one, but I knew that I needed to find another way to contribute to the world besides raising children. I wanted it to be something that could take me beyond the baby years into a possible career (something I had never found in my 20s).

I decided to combine my love of writing with my experience in raising a family on a tight budget.  My friend, Jamie, helped me come up with the name, my mom designed the logo, my sister helped me get the website up, and my dad did the proofreading.

These four posts were on the site when I launched it via an email to all of my friends:

It turns out that both a blog and a baby were set in motion — our fourth child would be born nine months after I launched Frugal Mama.  While we waited for him, I had fun building the new site I had just created.  I treated the blog as a job, staying up late researching, studying books on blog marketing, and networking on Twitter.

Exciting things seemed to happen quickly.  Within one month of launching the blog, I was asked to be the savings expert for a corporate blog, and within six months I was contacted by a publishing agent. I was noticed by bigger sites which sent traffic my way. I got invited to luncheons, parties, and speaking events.

Blogger Amy Suardi with Melissa d'Arabian of the Food Network

With Melissa D’Arabian of the Food Network

But I began to see the tricky exchange that was involved in these invitations. On the one hand, it seemed smart to make connections, to get your name out, and network with other bloggers.  On the other hand, you had to write about these events and, if you weren’t careful, your entire content could be hijacked by company agendas.

Mom bloggers were a relatively new figure on the scene, situated somewhere between the media and the consumer.  And with the publishing industry crumbling, no one really knew who was leading whom and how anyone was going to make any money.

I remember going to a glitzy party for Teri Hatcher’s new site (now defunct) called GetHatched. It was a joint venture with Disney, and Hatcher was being photo-showered along with a bunch of executives and advertisers and starlets. I was wearing a plain, button-down oxford over a huge belly and feeling totally out of synch with the fast-talking, brazen slickness of the scene.

My old-fashioned version of the good life was not what was being presented by those with the power and the money, and that mismatch would reappear as a conundrum as the blog grew.

5 Years of Frugal Mama:  The Story of this Blog

Sofia, Mark, Virginia, and I in Central Park

Anyway it was time to leave New York, because the odessey for Enrico’s career, which had started in Italy and had taken us to Cincinnati, northern Virginia, and New York, was now leading us to Syracuse.

We also welcomed Luke into the world. I took a three-month baby-moon, entrusting the blog to guest writers. When I re-emerged, I was ready to take aim again at my goal of becoming a professional writer. Focus is a very powerful thing, I discovered, as the heat of that focus smoldered until it sparked a fire.

It started with a local parenting magazine that began running my articles on childcare, traveling, and birth centers, and then the area NBC news picked me to do live segments as their “money-saving mom.”  Soon after, TLC.com, a division of the Discovery Network, called to ask me to be part of their new website’s stable of writers, and then Babble wanted me to join their team of home bloggers.

Hard work really did pay off, I was excited to see, but the timing was nutty.  It was time to pick up and move again — Enrico was done with his post-grad training and we were going to settle down.  We found a fixer-upper in Washington, D.C., and thanks to a low point in the market, we were able to buy our first house.

Our 1916 farmhouse in Washington, D.C. that we are repairing and restoring

Our city farmhouse when we bought it in 2011

We had only made a few emergency repairs when TLC wanted to start filming Frugal Mama Makeovers, a video series where I was to help contestants with money-saving challenges.  I had become a working mother, but as with many small businesses, I had yet to make any profit and at times the workload was grueling.

After the video series wrapped up, we tiptoed into renovating, transforming our library into a foyer with coat closets and cubbies for backpacks, and re-landscaping to create fun stuff for the kids like a front yard vegetable garden and mini-orchard.

Then it was the ultimate compliment when The Washington Post wanted to do a feature on our simpler, slower lifestyle. Yet the irony of this climax was that the article put so much pressure on us that I wondered if being under the spotlight changes us to the point where we are no longer the very thing that is being spotlighted.


I found the answer to that question and more when I took an unplugged vacation with my family.  I realized that the things that were really important to me — my family, my writing, my home and neighborhood — were becoming smaller as the gargantuan task of becoming Someone grew bigger. As I explained in this well-known post, the success of my blog was leading me away from the very values that were at the heart of it, and me.

So in a decision that I am still deeply grateful for, I took myself out of the game and scaled the blog back to the basics. I took down my ads, quit my job at TLC, took myself off media lists, and didn’t worry about all the “opportunities” I was missing. The peace was exhilarating.

For a while I had six contributing writers helping me, but taking on an editorial role was also more than I wanted to manage. Eventually I slowed down to publishing one post per month, or what I call slow blogging, and that rhythm feels just right.

There have been plenty of times when I wanted to take a hiatus, like when I got hacked and ended up losing all of the images from my site. (I’m still putting back the pieces from that calamity, but I’m happy about the new site design that transpired from it.) Or when all four floors of our house were under construction, and I was trying to manage the crew and keep it all under budget.

And then there was the time, two years ago, when I found out we were expecting another baby.  Diana has been the best surprise of all. She has brought us all closer together, not only because she makes us laugh and fills us with love, but because she requires more of us, making every member essential to the family economy.

5 Years of Frugal Mama: The Story of This Blog

Diana at 14 months

Sofia, 12, and Virginia, 10, now take turns getting their younger brothers, Mark, 6, and Luke, 4, ready for bed and reading the story.  Everyone has a turn setting the table and sweeping the kitchen, and the boys have other jobs like unloading the groceries and entertaining Diana while I’m cooking.

They say if you want children to have their feet on the ground, then put some responsibility on their shoulders.  We learned lessons like this during the lean years, and those experiences of being resourceful and paring down have molded us and made us who we are today.

A blog is hard to keep up for long years because it is based on a person’s life.  People change.  But even though our income has grown (thank God), I’m still a big fan of living simpler and slower.  Not only does it save us money we can use for the future, but it makes me feel more connected to the people I love, the earth I live on, and the passions inside me.


I also have you to thank for helping me keep this blog alive. It’s not nuclear physics, but you have given me the sense that I am doing something worthwhile. I do love writing, but hearing from you is even better because it makes me feel useful. And that’s a great feeling.

Bless you,

Note:  Anniversary images were hand-drawn by my daughters, Sofia and Virginia, based on designs by Josh White and Natalie Burge Design, respectively


How to Create a Household Budget in 3 Steps

I had fun this month talking to Mint.com about my favorite tips and how I got started.  You can see the interview here.  And since it’s almost 5 years since I started this blog, it seemed like a good time to write a comprehensive post about what I think it means to budget.

A budget is a plan that helps move us toward the life we really want by aligning our day-to-day actions with our long-term hopes.

Budgeting is deciding how we want to spend our money.  It’s not depriving ourselves of everything expensive or pleasureful. It’s planning for the future, then living in the present.

There are three basic steps to creating a plan for your money.  And it starts with simple data collection.

Step 1:  Track Your Spending

I actually think it’s fun to fill in the boxes of our expense chart. I guess writing in those tiny numbers satisfies a craving for organization. Or the need to make life understandable.

If you can find the fun in recording your spending too, you’re already ahead, because counting cash is the best place to start if you want to change your financial picture.

There are lots of ways to record your expenses, but the most effective method is physically writing down your spending with pencil and paper.

Simple but Powerful

Free Printable Budget Chart for Tracking Daily Spending, by Frugal Mama

The paper method may seem old-fashioned when these days you can find a multitude of apps and software programs that will do it for you.  However, studies have shown that writing things down (rather than typing) triggers something in your brain that tells it to pay attention.

Physically recording what you spend will help you be more mindful of your money, and that, is the heart of budgeting.

If you’d like to try it, you can print my free daily spending chart or create your own to print out.  Some people collect receipts and then write everything down in a spiral notebook every weekend.

Easy but Not as Effective

I know that the tidiness and automation of personal finance computer programs are enticing, and there are some advantages to organizing your finances digitally.   These days we seem to do everything online, from paying bills to buying birthday presents, so in some ways it makes sense to track our spending on the computer too.

But personal finance software like Quicken Essentials, web-based programs like PearBudget or Mint.com, or apps like Pennies or SmartBudget are tools you should use later.  I agree with personal finance experts like Judy Lawrence, author of The Budget Kit, that the act of writing is part of the learning process.

Step 2:  Defining Your Dreams

How to Create a Family Household Budget in 3 Steps

The second essential step to creating a household budget is . . . dreaming!

Take the time to figure out your goals, your dreams, your needs and wants.  Think of budgeting less as limit-setting and more as goal-making.

It’s very important to have a vision for our money.  First of all, it’s hard to get what we want if we don’t know what we want.  Secondly, if we don’t have a vision for our money, someone else will, and the next thing we know it’s gone in home goods, gadgets, and dinners out.

I know that figuring out what we want is sometimes the biggest hurdle.  Here are some ways to get started:

Make a Date

Organize a date night or special family dinner to get everyone on the same page. If you’re on your own, treat yourself to a coffee shop pastry and a new notebook.

Start listing all the things you want to happen in your life. Is there a dream career you want to try? Do you want to renovate your house? Do you want to send your kids to a special camp or college?

Most people want a comfortable old age or a savings cushion to weather life’s storms with ease. These foundational, safety goals should also figure into your planning.

Shine a Light

Once you have figured out some short-term goals (such as paying off debt or taking a vacation) and long-term goals (such as building a nest egg for your golden years), write them down and hang them up in a prominent place.

When I was doing money makeovers for TLC, I worked with a designer to create a chart for this purpose — the Life Goals worksheet is free on my Printables page.

Post your goals and dreams on your computer, your fridge, your car, your desk — or better yet — all of the above.

Printable Chart for Writing Down Life Goals by Frugal Mama

You’ll be amazed at how these visions will energize you and how the steps to reach them will start making themselves clear.

When you focus on a concrete goal, you are creating a landmark like a lighthouse. Instead of just letting the sea toss you around, you will now be sailing toward a destination. You’ll always know which direction to go, how far away it is, and when you have arrived.

Step 3: Live with Purpose

How to Create a Household Budget in 3 Steps

Budgeting is making a plan to bring our actions and our desires into harmony. Because — call us human — sometimes what we want and what we do don’t always line up.

Changing our spending habits, and sometimes our entire lifestyle, can be extremely tough. There is so much at stake, and sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are hard to escape.

In the end, however, each of us is the conductor of our own money and our life. And it’s amazing to realize that peace of mind comes when we are able to align our actions with our values.

What Will a Budget Do for Me?

By imposing structure on chaos, a budget will make life smoother and more satisfying.  It’s the sheet music that tells each instrument (your income, your expenses, your family members, your goals) how to work together.

Once we become more conscious of our spending, bring finances out into the open, and start making changes, we begin to hear the beautiful music that is created when we live with intention.

There are all sorts of ways to create that structure. Here are some budgeting methods for you to consider:

Reverse Budgeting

Reverse budgeting means that you put as much as you can into savings at the beginning of the month, and then you let things work themselves as the month goes on. Reverse budgeting is great for people who don’t want to fiddle with allocating certain amounts to spending categories. Just sock away as much as you can, then let the chips fall as they may, which is the way Rachel Jonat, The Minimalist Mom, paid off $82,000 of debt.

Perhaps the easiest way to budget this way is to set up an automatic monthly transfer to a targeted savings account, as recommended by J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly.

To help people reach their goals in a concrete, visual way, I also created two savings progress worksheets.  You’re welcome to download and print them for free from my Printables page:

Free Charts to Track Money Saving Progress, by Frugal Mama

Zero-Balance Budgeting

Another way to budget is to plan out how you will spend your money before it arrives. This structure might seem too constricting, but personal finance expert Dave Ramsey says it actually gives people an increased sense of freedom.

In zero-balance budgeting, you figure out your monthly cash flow, then you “spend” it all on paper before it comes in. For example, you “pay” the essential expenses first (emergency savings, rent, transport, utilities, food) by subtracting them from your income. Then you start allocating your money to less-important expenses such as entertainment, non-essential clothing, and beauty.

So that you don’t feel like you’re wearing a straight jacket, Ramsey suggests allowing some fun money every month, so that a couple of dollars here and there can be spent on a magazine, a pair of sunglasses, or a toy, without feeling guilty. Fun money is the equivalent of the dieter’s weekly allowed ice cream sundae.

Traditional Budgeting for the 21st Century

Budgeting is commonly thought of as deciding how much can be spent in a certain category — like groceries, eating out, fuel — and then trying to stay within those limits. Online budgeting tools like Mint.com can estimate budget categories based on your spending history (which it knows because it tracks spending by secure linking to bank accounts). Then you decide to either increase or decrease these categories based on your long-term goals.

The colorful graphs and charts at Mint and other personal accounting software programs can really help you see the big picture, as well as visualize how much has been spent and saved. If you choose, you can even ask Mint to send alerts when you’re about to reach your spending limits. (Mint is a free website so one of the trade-offs are the savings tips, which are really advertisements by financial institutions.)

Budgets are Plans to be Shaped and Re-Drawn

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about budgets is they can be adjusted.  Just like too-strict diets that don’t work, overly-rigid budgets don’t either.

Also the psychological factor of saving money should not be underestimated. I find that, just like a child, I get frustrated when I am unable, over and over, to achieve the results I want. So I try to outsmart myself by setting up systems and figuring out what I’m most motivated (or derailed) by.

Most of all, I try to find the fun in saving money. If I can find ways to spend less while at the same time making friends, learning new skills, and bringing my family closer, I find a sense of fulfillment which makes a budget less like a diet and more like a lifestyle that I love.


Cut School Supply Costs -- and Clutter Too

Ah, it’s that time again. When the sun goes down earlier and class lists arrive in the mail. Time to relax my grip on the ambling days of summer and begin looking forward to a raring new start.

Diana at 1 year

Diana at 1 year

To me, back-to-school means more activity. Social events and school newsletters pack the calendar and inbox, and while my kids have their noses in books, I try to get down to some more serious work myself.

This year Luke, who just turned four years old, will enter pre-K at our elementary school. It’s a bittersweet moment — I’ll get more time for quiet productivity, but the cost is that my toddler is not so tumbly and chubby anymore. (Thank God, I still have little Diana to keep me from getting too serious.)

One late summer ritual that will be a first for Luke is back-to-school shopping.  It’s a fun outing, but it can get expensive (even though we have avoided any big-ticket “supplies” like electronics, so far).

Here are some ways I’m going to reduce this year’s bill, while making me feel like my house and I are getting fresh start too.

1. Make an In-House Store

School starting is the perfect incentive to tackle our bulging office supplies cabinet, and purge, consolidate, and re-organize. I know that we have armies of pencils and a small forest of pocket folders, so while I’m re-organizing, I’m going to set aside anything I have that is on my kids’ supply lists.

I’ll lay them out on the table by category, and each child can take turns “shopping” from the home store.  Anything that we can’t fulfill at home can be purchased.  Buying new stuff is sometimes easier (and, let’s face it, more fun) but decluttering is really satisfying too, and the effect lasts longer.

2. Upcycle Used Materials

How to Cut School Supply Spending -- and Clutter Too

Teachers often ask kids to personalize their writing or science notebook with drawings, photos, or stickers.  For us, it’s a great opportunity to re-use those free binders from business conferences, and get them out of the house.

Logos can be covered up by printing out favorite photos, like Sofia did last year, and “laminating” them onto the notebooks with clear packing tape.

3. Trade in Old Electronics for Cash

We have a few outdated cell phones in our garage, and I’m not ready to hand them over to my kids. Yet if I let the technology gather dust, they probably won’t be worth much in a year or two.

Clearing out personal info and disabling plans on old electronics can take some time, so I’ll have to set aside an hour or more. If you’re interested too, see this post at Digital Trends for recommended steps as well as suggestions for where to sell your stuff.

It says you can make more money by selling stuff on the open market (like Craigslist or eBay) but a simpler way is to send it for free to a place like NextWorth or Gazelle.

4. Choose Backpacks to Last

By spending a little more upfront for durable school bags, we have been able to keep using them year after year.  I love the gender-neutral ones from Beatrix, or this new line from Land of Nod.

By avoiding characters and girly or boyish colors, our backpacks have been passed down from sister to brother.

5. Shop Close to Home

Cut School Supply Spending -- and Clutter Too

We used to drive out to a big office supply store to get all of our school supplies. But I’ve noticed that making special trips to huge warehouse stores to get good deals can actually encourage me to spend more. Consumer psychology says that if we feel the trip is a hassle, we will buy a lot to avoid having to make a repeat trip and to make the effort “worth it.”

Last year, we tried something different:  we just walked down to our corner CVS and found everything on our three school kids’ lists, including flash drives, a middle-schooler lunch box, and the tissues and wet wipes that teachers are asking for these days.

Shopping close to home meant a low-pressure trip, where we only got what we needed (also because we had to carry it all home). Another bonus? We racked up cash-back points that we knew we could use soon.

6. Get Unusual Items Online

Then if there are any odd items on the list remaining, I find them online, where I know I can get the best price and I won’t have to traipse through more stores (where more temptations lie).  I find that I am less likely to make drive-by grabs if I’m not in direct contact with the sparkly colors of real-life stuff.

Amazon now has a new program called AmazonSmile where 5% of proceeds get donated to the school (or other cause) of your choice.  Now is also a good time to renew school assignments at other fundraising programs like eScrip.

That’s my plan for next week, the final seven days before the bell officially rings.  I’m wishing you a flying start to this school year and smooth sailing ahead.

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8 Budget Makeup Favorites

A couple of years ago, I published a list of what I keep in my makeup kit. Products (and people) change, so I thought it would be fun to give that post a make-over.

I’m one of those people who feels a little undressed without makeup, so just like my morning shower and coffee, eyeliner is an essential part of my routine. And, thanks to a couple of insider tips, I no longer feel like I’m missing out when I pass those luxury makeup counters at Bloomingdales.  (More on that later.)

Here is what I’m using now:

1.  Tinted Moisturizer

More of a tint than a moisturizer, this very light foundation needs to be applied along with lotion so that it spreads on easily. I’ve tried others and I like Neutrogena’s Healthy Skin Glow Sheers because it’s lightweight in both consistency and color.

2.  Concealer

To hide those dark under-eye circles I’ve always had, I sweep on L’oreal’s True Match Super-Blendable Crayon Concealer, which I discovered is a good alternative to the famous $70 Clé de Peau concealer.

I have also tried and like Neutrogena 3-in-1 Concealer for Eyes, which is not cakey or too bright.

3.  Eye Shadow De-Creaser

A common problem is when eyeshadow or liner transfers to the upper lids, usually due to oily lids or heavy upper lids.  The best defense against this makeup mishap is to use an eyeshadow primer in addition to a waterproof eyeliner (more on that soon).

A lot of makeup companies make eyeshadow bases, but I found L’Oreal De-Crease from the drugstore, and it works great.

4.  Blush

When I wanted to create a natural, no-makeup look that I saw in Real Simple magazine, I used a birthday gift card to buy the hilarious yet irresistibly named multi-purpose blush stick from Nars called The Multiple in its most popular color, Orgasm.

When that ran out and I didn’t feel like paying $39 for blush, I found an Orgasm equivalent: Milani Baked Blush in Luminoso for $8.

Tip:  To find a low-cost alternative to pricey cosmetics, do a web search for the product name followed by the word “dupe.” 

5.  Eyeliner

Revlon’s ColorStay liquid liner was recommended theater makeup at the Syracuse Children’s Theater

When my daughter Virginia was cast in Aristocats a few years ago and the theater director required kid performers to buy Revlon ColorStay Liquid Liner, I knew it must be an unusual product. In fact, it really does stay.

So when the show was over, I slipped it in my own makeup bag and have used it for years.  I’m currently using the créme gel version of the Revlon ColorStay line, which doesn’t require as steady of a hand as the liquid liner, and has a little softer (and less permanent) look.

6.  Eyeshadow

When I was living in New York, I met a guy who worked at the corporate headquarters of L’Oreal. He told me that,

Secret:  L’Oreal drugstore cosmetics are made with the same exact ingredients as their luxury department store brand, Lancôme.

So why pay four times as much and get upsold by a beautiful saleswoman, when you can toss basically the same product into your basket at CVS and be out of there for $4?

I like L’Oreal eyeshadow (Studio Secrets Professional Eye Shadow Singles) and I’ve been using the smooth latte color forever.

7.  Mascara

Mascara is a perfect place to save on makeup since magazines are always saying how their favorites are run-of-the-mill products like Maybelline Great Lash.  (Maybelline’s parent company is also L’Oreal, by the way.)  Right now I’m using Maybelline’s Full ‘N Soft waterproof mascara in Very Black.

Why waterproof?  I used to get waterproof mascara in high school because (a) I dreamed of being part of the kind of torrid love affair that you see in the movies where they fight in the rain, and (b) I used to laugh so hard I would cry, quite frequently. I still sometimes do that (b not a) but mainly I just want to avoid looking like a raccoon.

8.  Tinted Lip Gloss

Frequency of kissing is the reason I made the switch from lipstick to chapstick. It’s not what you think. When I had my first baby, I was overcome with the urge to kiss her five million times a day. And why would I want to cover that porcelain skin with Revlon’s “wine with everything”?

This glorified chapstick — Nivea Kiss of Care & Color — is smooth and soft and gives me just a hint of color.

Do you have a valuable beauty product that doesn’t cost a lot?