Nov 252012

A Secret Santa gift circle is a great way to stay in-budget for the holidays.

For anyone who’s not familiar, a gift circle (often called a Secret Santa) is where everyone involved writes their names on slips of paper, and then each person draws a name randomly and buys a present only for that person.  So, each person in the circle gets one present.  Because you’re only spending money on one present, you can afford to spend a little more than usual on it.  It’s helpful to set a maximum or target spending amount so that people gives gifts that are roughly equal in value- depending on the culture and spending power of the group, a max limit of anywhere from $5 to $100 could be appropriate.

My husband’s family used to do the traditional gift-giving scenario for Christmas: everyone bought gifts for everyone.  It was fun to give and get lots of presents, but it was also expensive! One year someone broached the idea of doing a Secret Santa gift circle instead, where we would each write our name on a piece of paper, put the names into a hat, and then draw names to determine who would buy for who.  We set the limit per gift at $40.  Originally we drew names at Thanksgiving, though for shopping convenience we’ve now moved the name-picking date closer to Labor Day.    Holiday shopping is so much less stressful now- we have fewer people to shop for, and a set spending limit for the gift circle (it’s now $50 per gift).  It’s super fun to show up at our family gathering with our secret gifts, waiting to surprise our gift recipient.

You can suggest a gift circle in lieu of gift exchanges at your work place, for each side of your family, and for groups of friends.

Are you a part of any gift circles for the holidays?  If not, do you plan to start one this year?

Sep 212012

I’m always looking for inspiration as I walk that fine line between balancing our budget and keeping our lives fun and interesting.  The internet is a treasure trove of frugal living tips, and I’ve rounded up five good frugal living articles that I came across this week.  Remember, living frugally isn’t about saving money for the sake of saving money, it’s about saving money so that you can spend it on what really matters to you.

This round-up of “good reads” is a weekly feature of other people’s ideas, but don’t forget you can also check out all of my articles on managing your money, setting goals, menu planning, organizing, and lots of other stuff! :)

Sep 142012

Much has changed in my life in recent years, as I’ve morphed from law-firm-lawyer to work-at-home-mom to stay-at-home-mom to aspiring writer, but some things have stayed the same, and one thing in particular has been a source of comfort to me as I navigated each of those very different situations: in the early afternoon I have a cup of tea.  It’s a small treat, just a small break in my day.  Most of the time the only “break” is the actual brewing of the tea- once it’s made, I often return immediately to whatever I was working on, mug of tea in hand.  “Whatever I was working on” varied widely in different times of my life- it could have been writing a law memorandum in an air-conditioned suite, or sitting in my home office (a.k.a. corner of my living room) shuffling through piles of work papers interspersed with baby magazines and a note from day care that my daughter might have been exposed to strep throat, or more recently, sitting with my daughter on the couch and wondering why I had bought her a sewing kit that came with hopelessly confusing instructions.

My tea time ritual is a little oasis during my day- I stop whatever work/family thing I’m doing, listen to the kettle pop and gurgle as the water heats, and ponder which tea to drink.  I’m no tea aficionado- I just get regular bagged tea, in herbal and decaf black varieties, but nonetheless it’s a treat to pick the flavor and anticipate the comforting warmth of the mug in my handsSpeaking of warmth, I used to reserve my afternoon tea for colder days, but then I read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a fictional series in which the irreppressable Botswanian protagonist boldly extols the virtues of drinking hot tea on hot African days, and tea-drinking became an all-weather phenomenon for me.

So this little daily tea ritual that I have, small and unassuming as it is, is one of my favorite parts of the day.  In this month’s Good Housekeeping magazine, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, celebrated the virtues of “small treats,” pointing out their ability to refresh and energize us, and boost our overall happiness.  I couldn’t agree with her more, assuming you’re picking treats that are not too expensive for your budget (this is a money-saving blog, after all).  So I encourage you to make time for a small ritual treat for yourself each day- we all deserve a little pause in the day, a moment to reflect and let go of stress and busyness, even if only for a couple minutes.

May 072012

By Anne, from ModernMrsDarcy:

A few months ago I got sick, and I stopped working out… When I stopped working out, I stopped paying attention to what I ate. And I started staying up late, eating junk and not checking my tickler file.  When I lost my self-discipline in one area of my life, it flooded into other areas.

The accomplished woman knows how to establish good habits, and to re-establish them when needed. It’s okay to take a break, but you need to know how to bounce back to avoid an ugly downward spiral.

Do you need to bounce back?  Click here to read her 5 tips

Anne is devoted to educating and inspiring women to live life on their own terms. She is seeking to create a meaningful life and blogging about the journey at ModernMrsDarcy.

Apr 102012

As we work towards our goals, we are bound to make mistakes that set us back. Learning how to move past those mistakes and continue working towards are goals is what really matters, which is why I’ve compiled this list of 5 Steps to Overcoming Your Mistakes.  It’s easier said than done, though- I often find that my mistakes aggravate me and temporarily derail my motivation.   Financial mistakes are especially like that for me-  I just can’t stand the idea that my mistake caused me to throw money away.  Last week a mistake cost me $25- tiny, in the big scheme of things, but *frustrating* nonetheless.  It went down like this- we recently subscribed to a CSA (“Community Supported Agriculture”) weekly box of fresh vegetables.  It’s a little bit of a splurge for us, as I could get the vegetables cheaper at the grocery store, but it seemed like the right thing to do, both for our health (the vegetables are organic) and to support local farmers.  The weekly box has to be picked up from the delivery site during a specified time- and you guessed it, I was a no-show last week.  I had it on my calendar, to no avail- I didn’t look at my calendar that afternoon, and I just completely forgot about the pick-up until it was too late.  Here are 5 steps I used to get myself back on track:

5 Steps to Overcoming Mistakes

  1. Forgive Yourself.  Remind yourself that mistakes happen- in fact, you should EXPECT mistakes to happen.  A mistake is not a reflection of your worth as a person- it is only a reflection that you are not perfect (nobody is) and that there are things you could improve about your habits, routines, and ways of interacting with people.

  2. Find the Most Recent Cause Attributable to YOU.  This is important- there are likely a variety of factors that lead to the mistake happening, but you need to find the one that was closest to the event, and that was your fault.  It might seem strange for me to tell you to blame yourself, after I just said that you should forgive yourself, but this is not really about blame, and it’s definitely not about berating yourself- it’s about taking responsibility in a matter-of-a-fact, non-judgmental way.  To do that, work backwards from the time of the mistake, look at the chain of events that caused the mistake and stop at the first one that was solely your responsibility.  For the farm box, the most recent cause of me not picking up the box was not having the pick-up on my to-do list.  You see, I double-check my list every evening before bed, so if I had it on there, I would have seen it and still had enough time to pick up the box.  Now, I could look to blame someone else- I could blame my husband (because after all, he knew the pick-up was on Thursdays and should have noticed the absence of a giant bag of vegetables in our kitchen), but then I would be turning myself into the victim (“I’m so mad that he didn’t remind me”) instead the person who as the power to make changes in their life. I could also blame an earlier event- (“I should never have signed up for that farm box in the first place”)- but that’s not usually productive because then I’d be making a big change than I really want to.
  3. Make a Plan. Once you’ve looked over the chain of events and found the most recent cause, figure out what change you could make to ensure that things turn out differently next time.  If the mistake was the result of forgetting something, could you write the event on your calendar next time?  Put it on your to-do list? Set an alarm to remind you? Tell other people about your event so that they can help remind you (not always reliable, but can be a last-resort)?
  4. Make the Change. Put your plan into action right away.  In my case the change was to add the box pick-up to my to-do list.
  5. Apologize as Appropriate.  If you made a mistake, chances are you’ve inconvenienced or hurt someone.  In this case, I wasted an (albeit small) amount of money that my husband worked hard to earn- so I gave him a (small) apology for that.

How do YOU overcome your mistakes?

Feb 282012

There are days when we stumble, and fall short of our expectations.  And then there are days when we fall flat on our face, and don’t seem to achieve anything at all.  I had one of those yesterday.  For those of you that can relate to this, I have 5 strategies you can use to keep yourself working towards your goals even when you have a bad day.  But first, I’d like to tell you about my day–it started with a snag: the beautiful design I wanted to apply to my new website was incompatible with the standards set by the company that I’d paid to host the website.  This was incredibly frustrating for me, because I desperately wanted to launch my new website ( and replace my old website ( before I participated in various promotions of my site that start on March 1st.

And of course, it took about 7 hours of my time to discover that the new design was incompatible, and that time was not spent sipping martinis while relaxing next to the fireplace- it was spent on the phone with hosting company representatives giving my fruitless suggestions on how to (not) fix the issue, and on the computer Googling various code fixes I was supposed to try despite my not knowing how to write one iota of code (come to think of it, a martini could have been very helpful here, as with my alcohol tolerance level I would have ended up face down at my desk, happily oblivious to this boggy mess).

After 7 hours of getting nowhere with my hoped-for web design I took a deep breath, calmed myself, and decided that my new website could be launched without the fancy design, and that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I simply used the default design that comes with the WordPress blogging platform.

Feeling smug for not letting my drive for perfection ruin the launch of my new website, I confidently called my hosting company, GoDaddy, to request that they launch the website.  And you should have seen how my self-important smile froze on my face as the representative cheerfully replied, “That will be no problem.  Your request will be processed by the end of the week.”

“Thank you,” I replied weakly.  I hung up the phone, closed my eyes, and hung my head, realizing that “by the end of the weekmeant that the launch would not be occurring before the first (and biggest) promotion of my site.  Instead of readers visiting (and hopefully bookmarking) my new website,, they would be visiting my old Blogspot website that would soon be defunct.

I reminded myself that it’s not the end of the world- that repeat readers visiting the old website in the future would be able to figure out that the website had moved- but nonetheless I felt discouraged and frustrated.  And discouragement and frustration are all that is needed for me to start feeling defeated.

At this point it was time to make dinner, so I did my best to ignore the voices in my head telling me that I would be a failure as a writer and instead focus on my latest foul-up of the day, which was that I had forgotten to defrost the ingredients for our evening meal.  I silently thanked the dinner gods that there was one more frozen pizza left in the freezer, so I threw that in the oven while my husband and five-year-old daughter engaged in a lively Judo wrestling match on the living room floor.

Feeling relieved that I pulled together a replacement dinner, I pulled the pizza out of the oven with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm.  The doomed pie flipped off my spatula and fell upside-down onto the bottom of the oven.  That’s right, not only was the pizza upside down, but it was getting fried with alarming speed on the oven’s heating elements.  Smoke pouring out of the oven, I awkwardly hunched over and scraped and scooped the pile of cheese, sauce, and sausage off the oven’s floor before it became permanently cemented to the oven.  I felt tempted to burst into tears, or explode into a frenzy of frustration, but somehow I convinced myself not to traumatize my family with an adult-sized temper tantrum and instead turn to my list.  Here’s my advice to myself, which always seems to calm me down and keep me on track, and maybe it will do the same for you when you have a bad day:

  1. Take a deep breath, and exhale slowly.  If nothing else, you will at least be oxygenated when you start yelling.  But you might be surprised at how a measured inhale and exhale will calm you down.  (Incidentally, I had to walk away from the oven before inhaling, or I would have asphyxiated myself with smoke.)
  2. Accept a less than perfect result.  Often, we become frustrated that we are not living up to an ideal that we’ve created for ourselves.  Remind yourself that it is ok to be mediocre once in awhile, especially if it saves your sanity.
  3. Find gratitude.  Take a moment to observe the smallness of your problems in comparison to what they could be- my website snafu was but a speck of dust compared to the challenges that others are facing right now- home foreclosures, medical diagnoses, violence.  If you’re finding it too hard to be grateful for things in your own life, try to appreciate the wonderful things in the bigger world- the freshness of winter air, the clarity of a bird’s song, the gift of being alive. It’s hard to be angry and grateful at the same time, and I guess I’d rather be grateful.
  4. Work around negative thoughts in your head.  It’s normal (and healthy!) to self-criticize, but if we’re not careful our inner voices can discourage us by relentlessly pointing out our failures and exaggerating the negative of our situations.  When I couldn’t solve my website design issue, I found myself thinking, “You’re no good at this.  Not only are you clueless about web design, you are probably a horrible writer, too. You should just give up, because your work will amount to nothing.”  To work around those thoughts, I had to remind myself that just because I’m bad at something now doesn’t mean I can’t get better at it.  Some of the negative thoughts lingered nonetheless, at which point I had to simply say to myself, “You’re right. I am an idiot who doesn’t know what she’s doing in and will ultimately fail at this endeavor.  Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to go ahead and make a fool of myself by proceeding with this project.”
  5. Just keep going.  A bad day is discouraging, and can make us feel like giving up on our project or goal.  But if you just keep working on your project despite these feelings, you will find that eventually the negativity will wear off, and not only will you feel re-energized, you will be proud that you actually made progress on your project despite being discouraged.

So, sweating in front of the hot oven, upside-down pizza before me, family waiting at the table, I mentally consulted this list.  And I bet you know what I did next, right? That’s right- I piled everything back onto the pizza crust and served it to my family without batting an eye.
And as to the website- well, hopefully you’ll come visit me at its new location- [UPDATE: It appears that the new website is now up and working!  Hopefully you are reading this post on the new website right now. Thanks for listening to my rant. :) ]

How do you pick yourself up after a bad day?

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