domestic tips and tricks for December

Hello! The Advent of our Lord is upon us! And currently, I'm in bed with some weird stomach bug/food poisoning grossness. I'm praying it's one of those blessed 12 or 24 hour miracle bugs that does it's awful business and then leaves my house in peace. Praying praying praying.

I'm not jumping into the "how early is too early to pull out the Christmas decorations?" fracas because my own reasons for holding off are completely non-liturgical: I just cannot stand the the stockings, Santas and snowmen getting a fine layer of DUST on them before the Christmas Eve. Dusting and cleaning are depressing enough without having to dust and clean the stuff you pull out of the closet each year to MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY!!!

So, family rule is that it all the tinsel comes out and the tree goes up on the 2nd or 3rd Sunday of Advent, and then comes down by Epiphany, all dusty and sad. But by then I don't care as much.

Here are 7 things I'm loving at home this month:

1. Budget friendly Christmas card photos

We only had to take 4,000 photos to get a good one! This was shot 3,403. We were still warming up.

I had grand plans to hire a photographer and have a big ol' family photo shoot with my family (three sisters, two sons-in-law, two grandparents and nine grandkids under the age of eight).

Yeah. That didn't come together. But instead we went to a nearby park with benches and this little gadget with a remote shutterfly, and it went pretty darn well:

I plan on just taking one of the photos of Sean and I with our kids, embellishing it with a little photoshop magic, then printing them for like .09 cents or something at Costco. Done and done cheaply.

2. Cheap frames for kid art

So many times I've tried to sneak one of my dear kid's masterpieces into the recycling bin (after the proper period of admiration and praise for their aesthetic sense, of course), only to have them see the smallest corner of it sticking out and scream HEY, I WANTED TO KEEP THAT!!

Since this is the season of 9,000 art projects, I picked up a 3-pack of these cute 8x10 pop-in front loader frames from Walmart for $5.97. I can only find the link to the 3-pack of 11x17 frames online, but still, at $11.56 for three, that's pretty good. 

3. Free foliage 

My rose bushes and nandinas start to quake when they see me head outside with the scissors.

As much as I love having fresh flowers in my home and on my table, I still have a hard time biting the $5 bullet to buy a cut arrangement at the store. It's a thrill to go see what I have outside in the yard, instead.

3. My Dollar Store Advent wreath.

This year I'm using little $1 candlestick holders, prickly evergreen branches, and candles my mom picked up for me because I forgot to buy my own!! (Thanks, Mom.)

4. Advent music that sounds like Christmas music

I've had this album, Hymns, on repeat for weeks now. It's free on Amazon Prime Music. Beth Neilsen Chapman's voice has a way of taking Catholic classics (many of them in Latin) and making them sound lush and festive with nary a whiff of misplaced-Chrsitmas cheer.

Bonus: I play it in the afternoons when the kids are going bonkers and supposed to be doing their homework, and it smokes the bees, as they say. Lifesaver. 

6. Toy purge

Something about knowing that in influx of NEW STUFF (which I myself am buying at a ridiculous speed) will be descending into our home in a few weeks at Christmas makes me want to clean out all the closets. I've been going room to room with paper grocery bags, trying to furtively trash all of the broken-past-fixing items that have accrued since we moved.  

Hint: Doing this purge while the 5 year old is present makes it 91% less effective.

7. Always always always shop Amazon Warehouse Deals

It's just second nature anymore, but for any item I'm searching for on Amazon (most especially toys or household goods), I look for it in the Warehouse Deals dept. first. A little tutorial for mobile users:

Buying something from the Warehouse Deals means sacrificing the pristine beauty of opening the original packing of an item yourself. But if that's no big deal, then there are deep savings to be had--usually about 30-50% off of Amazon's original prices.

Blessed Advent to us all!

that baby life

I've noticed something the last few weeks.

For the first time, we finally have "older kids" with our 5.5 and 7.5 year old boys. And between the two of them and Sean and I, we collectively reference the bottom two as "the babies."

Before, I felt like I just had a rather large herd of small and adorably needy little people to shepherd around. Now I have two big boys that help with the household chores, and that includes helping with THE BABIES. And now, my little ones are not just mine to dress, mine to feed, mine to play with.

"Joseph, please put on Gussie's shoes."

"Amby, please feed Stevie some yogurt."

"Joseph, please play pat-a-cake with Steve."

"Amby, please get Gussie a cracker... and then please catapult Gussie off an air matress."


The amazing thing to me is that as I've delegated more responsibility of the babies' care to the big boys, their love for the little ones has grown so much. Sure, I'm often breaking up squabbles or removing a baby from his or her assault on a big kid's Lego creation. But more often than not, the big boys are being genuinely and sweetly helpful.

It shouldn't be surprising to me, since I've been reading the Catholic mommy blogs for years. Heck, Kate wrote an awesome series of posts titled "Before I had a 7 year old," marking that magic transition a family makes when kids start pulling some blessed weight around the house.

But even if I knew it worked in theory, I'm still tickled pink to see it actually happen in my own home.

For that, along with so much more this Advent, I am truly grateful.


sex, salaries and salads: just do the hard work

Week nine of our first Financial Peace University class just concluded, so Sean and I hosted a little party to celebrate with about 30 of our delightful class members. I didn't expect to feel so emotional about it, but I did. In just two months, our class members saved up $26,000 in cash, paid down $25,000 in debt, and had some serious plastic surgery--cutting up more than 33 credit cards.

Hard work, all of that.

The longer that Dave Ramsey's lessons about money bounce around in my head, the more I am convinced that whether the topic is money, or healthy eating, or sex and family planning, success lies in realizing just one simple lesson:

There is no substitute for hard work.

Smart man.

Last week I ran across the instagram account of plus-size model Tess Holliday. She had posted a photo of the side of her face, post-shower, without make up. Her skin had some blemishes. The caption:

“Here to tell you that even ‘Supermodels’ have breakouts. Hormones are a killer. Also can I just say that ever since my IUD my skin has been whack. Can we please have better birth control options.”

Oh girl. I've got a great form of birth control for you, and it's never once made my skin break out. I did a little research about this post of Holliday's, and found this commentary from Refinery 29 (and pardon the French):
She's not alone, either. Whether in the form of oral birth control pills or an intrauterine device (a.k.a. IUD), so many of us struggle with seriously f---ed up skin due to synthetic hormones. We want to practice safe sex and protect ourselves, but sometimes it feels like acne is the price we have to pay. 
To Holliday's IUD-specific claim, Dr. Debra Wickman, MD told Refinery29 that it happens. She says that around 15% of women who use an IUD as their form of birth control will experience skin issues due to the levonorgestrel hormones released into the body, stimulating skin's oil glands to start pumping oil on overdrive. Thus, triggering acne. 
Luckily, there are solutions. "You can make some impact by cleaning the skin with benzoyl peroxide," Dr.Wickman says, adding that sometimes the body just needs some time to just get used to the foreign object sitting in their uterus. She recommends giving it six months before getting rid of your IUD due to acne. "The body does an amazing job of adjusting and compensating," she explains.
Are you kidding me??

Decades and decades of the lobby for sexual revolution, fighting for "reproductive freedom" or whatever, and the best they can do is: "acne is the price we have to pay" and "sometimes the body just needs some time just to get used to the foreign object sitting in their uterus."


No. There is no pill nor device that takes sex, separates it from procreation, and makes that transaction without a fee. Natural family planning is no picnic, I know. It's lessons and charting and sacrifice and abstaining, maybe a little, maybe a lot.

But there is no substitute for hard work.

Dr. Joel Furhman's book, Eat to Live, darkened our doorstep recently, and ever since reading it, our family's diet has undergone a pretty radical transformation. We are... well, there's no easy way to say it.

We've become reluctant vegans.

Very shoddy and resentfully crunchy vegans, really.

I cannot do justice to the onslaught of evidence Furhman delivers in his case against eating meat and animal products. But he connects the rapid rise in cancer rates, obesity, diabetes and the other medical ills of Western society with the rapid increase in animal product consumption. He explains how nutrient-deficient our society is, forever plying ourselves with diet products, barraging our systems with low-nutrient foods, flooding our meals with protein, rarely eating unrefined plants, and then swallowing a multivitamin to feel better about it all.

I had to laugh at my post about meal planning. Just weeks after writing it, I had to utterly revamp every shelf in my pantry.

I tossed the salad dressing and bought pure tahini.

I stopped buying my beloved gluten free Ritz-lookalike crackers and started making smoothies for breakfast.

I threw out the frozen pizzas and put 10 lbs of walnuts in my freezer.

I serve 3-5 vegetables a night for dinner, along with some beans. My counter is awash in the cuttings and clippings from making a full-scale salad bar, daily.

I cook with something called, no joke: DINOSAUR KALE.

I digress. Tears come about every 7th meal or so--and that's from me, not the children.

It's an ongoing struggle to find my way back to normalcy and ease in the kitchen, getting comfortable cooking without salt or oil. But Sean is feeling better than he has in years. All of my issues with digestion have greatly lessened or stopped altogether (which is great, because, as I told my GI doc when he recommended an endoscopy for my tummy troubles: "I literally have no idea when I'd ever have time to do that").

One of Dr. Furhman's tenants is that our society expects to be able to eat whatever we want, damn the consequences, and then just take a pill (sound familiar?) to fix the inevitable problems:

"The modern food and drug industry has converted a significant portion of the world's people to a new religion--a massive cult of pleasure seekers who consume coffee, cigarettes, soft drinks, candy, chocolate, alcohol, processed foods, fast foods, and concentrated dairy fat (cheese) in a self-indulgent orgy of destructive behavior.
 When the inevitable results of such bad habits appear--pain, suffering, sickness, and disease--the addicted cult members drag themselves to physicians and demand drugs to alleviate their pain, mask their symptoms, and cure their diseases. 
These revelers become so drunk on their addictive behavior and the accompanying addictive thinking that they can no longer tell the difference between health and health care."
Chewing kale makes me feel like a hangry brachiosaurus. However:

There is no substitute for hard work.

How can it be that it is the same with food as it is with money; the same with family planning and sex as it is with monthly budgets; the same with saying no to cheeseburgers (if I want to keep my waistline trim) as it is with periodically saying no to sex (if I want to keep my waistline, ahem, trim)?

I don't know how it all coalesces, but it does. Here's hoping for the grace, endurance and fortitude to continue choosing the hard work over the substitutes.


7 things I always look for (and find) in thrift stores, plus 3 to skip

HO HO HO! MEEERRRRRY... Thanksgiving. Yes, I'm thinking about Christmas, but no, I am not "celebrating" Christmas in any way yet--just preparing for it, in ways various and sundry.

Because that's the job of the momager, right? Make lists, check them twice, change the beds, and stock up on Pyrex dishes? We all know what's coming down the pike in six weeks, and as the beloved Mr. Ramsey is fond of saying, Christmas is not an emergency. Sean and I have set our Christmas budget, and I'm starting to stock up on some housewares I like to have on hand before things get too nuts. 

I think I've beat the dead and upcycled horse here about how much I love thrift stores and bargain shopping. Today I'm sharing the specific items I look for when I pop into Goodwill and its ilk on the weekends.

1. Books 
Biggest secret of MY LIFE right here: I have been known to give my kids used books as presents. GASP. Through the year I scan for titles I know they'll love receiving: the Narnia trilogy, anything with Star Wars, or Eric Carle picture books, and Sandra Boynton board books. These are usually .25 up to $1.99, and I stash them through the year for Christmas presents and other holidays.

2. Vases
One of my favorite, tiny little thrills in life is to be able to take someone flowers, either from my yard or the store, in a glass vase--and tell them to keep the vase. It's like getting to play the FTD florist delivery guy for a day. Give someone flowers they can just plop right down on their desk, no cutting or vase-finding required, and you get a big smile in return. I usually scan the vases at thrift stores for cute little ones that cost about a buck.

3.White bowls & serving pieces
We somehow go through all six of our cereal bows daily, and I'm often faced with the conundrum of having to wash the dishwasher only half full, because I need those dang bowls again in the morning. A set of four matching bowls can be hard to find, but two or three? Done. Same thing for a new-to-you platters and Pyrex dishes for Thanksgiving. Best to look for them now, before the hosting season draws nigh.

4. Juice glasses
I've got small children.
I've got tile kitchen floors.
Stuff shatters. Frequently. I know juice glasses are already fairly cheap at discount stores like Ross and Marshalls, but I can often get small juice glasses, perfect for little pre-school hands, for .25 cents at a thrift store.

5. Sports equipment
Baseball gloves, badmitton rackets, soccer balls, shin guards... both at thrift stores and Once Upon a Child, these items are usually easy to find.

6. Playing cards
I once nabbed a still-in-the-plastic set of Star Wars playing cards at a Goodwill for .69 cents. They are still a hit around here, although I think we're missing Yoda (he's the ace of spades).

7. Wreaths
Take a stroll down the "holiday decor" aisle of the moment at the local thrift store and I guarantee there will be a pretty darn nice wreath to be had for the front door. These cost so much less than buying them at inflated prices at Target or Michael's.

So vases, wreaths, books, serving bowls, playing cards, sports equipment and juice glasses--those are my wins!

Now, 3 things I always skip:
1. Boys' pants
Boys are just way too rough on the knees of their pants to buy these second hand. I've gotten burned more than once with buying a used pair, only to have my little guy come home from school that afternoon with a hole in the knee already. I almost always buy boy pants on super sales at Old Navy, or regular WalMart prices.

2.  Mens' pants
Same deal! Costco frequently has mens' jeans for $15 or less--and he can take them back if he doesn't like how they fit. And then he can pick out his own damn jeans. ;)

3. Toys & stuffed animals
Yeah, no. I just try to wait for major Black Friday sales to buy the kids their Christmas toys.

I'd love to hear what are your go-tos in thrift stores! Linking up (super late) with Kelly for 7 quick takes.