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During these difficult economic times, families seem to flock to fast food restaurants because they somehow think they are saving money. Fast food is ‘cheap’ right? Well, my gut tells me it isn’t. It may just appear cheap because in the end, most people don’t take the time to calculate the average cost of a home-cooked meal.

Well, my husband and I have been curious lately about how much our home-cooked meals actually cost. I love to cook and I have a lot of fun experimenting with all sorts of recipes. But when compared with fast food, does cooking at home really save money?

fast-food

McDonald’s vs. Hamburger Casserole

I don’t have too many guilty pleasures, but McDonald’s is definitely one of them. I especially love their french fries and apparently I have eagerly sought them out since I was a baby according to my parents. To be sure, my husband and I do not frequently dine at McDonald’s, or any fast food restaurants for that matter, because we understand that the food is just plain not good for us.

Health standards aside here, I would like to calculate the cost of an average meal from McDonald’s versus an average meal I cook for us at home. I want to find out what costs more and hopefully prove a point with some plain math.

  • Below you will see the cost breakdown for an average meal that my husband and I order at McDonald’s:

2 crispy chicken ranch snack wraps @ $1.59 each
1 large french fries @ $2.00
1 medium soft drink @ $1.90
1 Chicken Ranch BLT Extra Value Meal @ $6.00
Tax @ $0.72

Total cost= $13.80
Leftover potential = NONE

  • Now here’s the cost breakdown of a common hamburger casserole I make at home:

1 lb ground hamburger @ $3.70
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes @ $0.63
2.5 cups macaroni noodles @ $0.50
1 green bell pepper @ $0.50
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese @ $1.00
1 10.5 oz can cream of mushroom soup @ $0.70
1 6.5 oz can french fried onions @ $2.50

2 glasses of milk @ $0.40

Total cost = $9.93
Leftover potential = 3 more dinners worth

The Verdict

Obviously my experiment here is in no way scientific or even 100% accurate because I had to estimate a few prices I could not find. But the results speak for themselves. The dinner at McDonald’s cost us $13.80 and we had no leftovers. The casserole cost us $9.93 to make and it lasts for 3 more dinners beyond that first meal. So that, in effect, makes each night’s meal cost about $2.50!

One might argue that it takes time to cook meals at home and fast food is easy. Well, what about your driving time, or the price of gas? All in all, fast food is not an economically sound way to spend your money during hard times, or even good times. A treat every once and a while is fine (hey, I’m not ready to give up my fries), but making a habit out of it is not a wise way to spend your money.

Reader Reflection

Do you eat at fast food restaurants to ‘save’ money?

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Last Friday I posed a question to Lifestyles of the Organized readers: Do gift cards help us or hurt us? After a bit of thinking this week, along with some great responses from Autumnesf (from Autumn Asks Why), Christina (from Nifty Thrifty Homemaker), Kimm Boes (from Reinvented), and Michelle, I put together a list of things to consider when you receive your next gift card in the mail.

best-buy-gift-card

1. Try to spend the exact amount the gift card is worth

If you receive a gift card in the mail for $10, try to buy something that costs $10, or as close as you can get. The problem is, sometimes the stores make it tricky. Christina pointed out:

I received an e-mail from JC Penny in December for $15 off $15 or more. But almost everything I liked was priced at $14.99, meaning I needed to spend at least some money.

So if you can’t spend the exact amount, what can you do? See the next point.

2. Buy something for your children

It goes without saying that kids’ merchandise is considerably cheaper than that for adults. If you can’t find something for yourself within the price range of the gift card, then try to buy something for your children. Christina (from above) bought snow pants for her daughter. Autumnesf tried this tactic as well:

Luckily right now I have a 4 year old. This means when the JCP $10 comes I get her something and have yet to spend over $2 out of pocket. And she looks smashing in the dress or shoes I find. So, for me it is currently a plus. But when she gets older I have no idea what I would use those $10 for!

Michelle also spent her gift card money on her kids:

I have always had good luck with them [gift cards] because I have 2 young kids, so most of the time I get a cute outfit or pjs and only spend a couple of dollars.

So it definitely seems like the way to go is to use those tempting gift cards for inexpensive children’s items!

3. Use the gift card to get higher quality items

Have you ever bought a cheap pair of shoes because you were trying to be frugal, only to have those shoes fall apart a few months later? It’s in cases like these where gift cards could come in handy. You’re given extra money that can push you up to the level of being able to afford the more expensive shoes that last much longer. Autumnesf had a similar experience:

Once I was in need of bed pillows when I got the card. They had a sale of buy one get one for a penny. So with the card I ended up getting a higher quality set of pillows for the same price I would have paid anyways…so that one worked in my favor as I was already going to spend the money anyways.

4. Hold on to the gift card until you can spend it on something you actually need

My husband and I still have a Best Buy gift card (pictured above) that is now going on 2 years old. We just haven’t had anything we really need come along that we can’t get somewhere else for cheaper. So we’re waiting. Something is bound to come along at some point. Kimm Boes shared:

Lately, I’ve been saving gift cards until I NEED something (although that can be dangerous in today’s economy). This is part of my new focus on “look how little I spent”, instead of “look how much I saved.”

Just watch out for expiration dates! Sometimes gift cards last as little as one week.

5. Beware of compromising your price standards

It’s tempting to use your gift card on just about anything because it’s free money, right? But it wouldn’t really be wise to buy something that costs well above what you would ever agree to pay just because you can. Don’t compromise your frugal standards—you should still try to get great deals! And think of how much greater that deal will be using a gift card on top of it.

Reader Reflection

Kimm Boes said it best when she stated:

Gift cards are tricky little buggers. I’ve been guilty on many occasions of receiving a gift card and then immediately going to said store, determined to find something, ANYTHING to buy to use the card. Usually this results in a purchase that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. And that item almost always costs more than the value of the gift card, while I rationalize, “look how much I saved.”

I think we’re all guilty of this! So get out there and try to beat the stores at their own game…spend your free gift cards wisely and truly save.

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It’s likely that at some point during this past holiday season you either gave or received a gift card. Gift cards are increasingly popular gift options because of their convenience, flexibility, versatility, and small size. This year I received one gift card (for Kohl’s Department Store) as a Christmas gift. I also got a $10 gift card in the mail from J.C. Penney in early December. I haven’t spent the Kohl’s gift card yet, but I did spend the J.C. Penney card. Let me tell you a story about how that went.

gift-cards

How three annual shopping trips add up

I my home town we have a very small-sized J.C. Penney. I almost never go there. It’s crowded, there’s not a huge selection, and frankly I don’t think the prices are all that great. But every year I’ve lived here I’ve received a $10 gift card in the mail from J.C. Penney in December. How can I pass up free money, right? So each December I make my annual trip to this store I really don’t like in order to spend this ‘free’ money with only a vague plan as to how I’m going to spend it.

Each year I’ve purchased one clothes item. The first year it was a lace skirt, the second year a pair of high dress boots, and this year a pair of black dress pants. The prices of each item before the gift card were $25 for the skirt, $40 for the boots, and $20 for the pants. How do I remember all this so well? I have a good memory. But that’s not my point. My point is in the math: $25 + $40 + $20 = $85, while $10 + $10 + $10 = $30. Now subtract $30 from $85 and you get $55. Wait a minute, I thought J.C. Penney was giving me FREE money? How did I end up spending $55?

Reader Reflection

Today I’d like pose a question to Lifestyles of the Organized readers. Do gift cards help us or hurt us in the long run? When we are trying to be frugal spenders, getting free money in the mail can be a great thing. But what happens when we spend over that free money amount? Would we have bought that item anyways with or without the gift card? In my case, I think the answer is no—I bought all three of those clothes items because of the gift card, not because I needed them or had a previous plan to buy them. But in hindsight I’ve gotten a lot of use out of those clothes…so was it a poor spending choice or not?

What do you think?

Coming up next week

After collecting some insight from readers this week, next Friday I will present some of my thoughts and yours and attempt to come up with sound solutions about how we can use our ‘free’ gift cards in a truly frugal way.

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Well now that the holiday season is official over, Lifestyles of the Organized will return to regular posting once again. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!

What have I been up to? Well, my husband and I traveled 1,000 miles by car to celebrate 5 different Christmases with family and friends this year! It was hectic, but worth it. I’ve also been writing articles for eHow, I started selling homemade photo art greeting cards, my dormant Sophrolaeliocattleya orchid finally bloomed after 2 years, and I got a new cell phone. Did you get all that? Here’s one more: last night I bought 63 candy canes to satisfy my candy cane addiction. And that is what I would like to talk about today.

candy-canes

Cashing in on post-holiday deal bonanzas

My husband and I hit up Walgreens last night with the very purpose in mind to score awesome post-holiday deals on Christmas merchandise. Everything was marked at least 75% off and I expect that number to go up even more in the coming days. In fact, a lucky shopper posted to a Slickdeals forum thread yesterday that they landed 97% off wrapping paper (5 cents a roll!) at their local Walgreens.

Here’s what we bought:

  • 4 packages of candy canes (63 total candy canes) – $.25 for each package ($1.00 total)
  • 2 sets of 100-count white Christmas lights – $.99 each ($1.98 total)
  • 1 tree topper lighted star – $1.49

We didn’t end up buying a HUGE amount of stuff (clutter control!), but we definitely cashed in on some excellent deals. The best deal was the tree topper—we’ve been keeping our eyes open for a good topper for 3 Christmases now and we finally have one, at a super price. And although we didn’t need a fake Christmas tree, we were impressed that 6-foot fully lighted trees were selling for $5.00!

So get out there and shop the Christmas merchandise aisles before stores get rid of it all and move on to the next holiday, Valentine’s Day. Keep an eye out for wrapping paper, tags, ribbons, bows, candy, candles, tree skirts, stockings, fake Christmas trees, wreaths, stationary, greeting cards, ornaments, and much more! You’ll have to wait 11 months to use what you buy, but you can’t beat the prices!!

Reader Reflection

Have you scored any amazing post-Christmas deals you’d like to share?

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Even though Christmas is a short week and a half away, I must confess that I am not completely finished with my shopping yet. This happens every year and I always get so frustrated with myself for leaving a couple of gifts until the last minute! Why I can’t kick the habit I do not know (you’d think writing a blog about organizing would motivate me!).

In any case, as I anxiously try to figure out these last couple of gifts to buy, I have come up with a list of common mistakes made when attempting last-minute shopping. I’ve made some of these mistakes and perhaps you have too. What are they? Read on.

christmas-cactus

Mistake #1: Attempting last-minute shopping

Okay, so I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but this is truly something to avoid at all costs. Some people claim they find amazing eleventh hour deals and perhaps they do, but I’m sure these deals come at a price: extreme stress.

My brother had all his Christmas presents purchased and wrapped before Thanksgiving and now he’s resting easy while many others are frantically searching for that perfect gift in crowded malls where products are picked over, people are cranky, and so are you. I’m not to the point yet where I am frantic, but it would be nice to not have to worry right now when I also have to bake, wrap, pack, and plan.

Mistake #2: Buying a gift just for the sake of buying a gift

This is a tough one. Have you ever bought a gift for someone just because you had to? Of course, we’ve all done this at some point. I have really grown to dislike this concept. I’ve met people recently who have a novel approach to gift buying: they only buy a gift for a person if they actually have something in mind. Furthermore, they may do it anytime of the year, not necessarily at Christmas.

I know, I know, what do you do if you will feel terrible not giving that person anything for Christmas? Well, consider this: perhaps if you have so much trouble year after year buying gifts for a particular person, you should consider just talking with them and mutually agreeing to stop exchanging presents. Gifts should be meaningful, not forced. And who wants to receive a gift they don’t even want anyway?

Mistake #3: Relying on the gift card

This approach is often a preferred solution to mistake #2. What is easier than buying a gift card? Then the recipient can take it to their favorite store and buy whatever they want. Now, I admit I’ve bought and received gift cards with success. But there are times when gift cards go too far.

For several years my cousins and I would have a name-picking gift exchange, brought on by our parents. At first it was a lot of fun—we were young and good friends and we had ideas of what to get each other. But then we started growing up, drifting apart, and the ideas stopped. Enter gift cards, the easy solution to having no idea what to get a person. But the problem was, several of my cousins went this route, to the point where we were just exchanging gift cards. Now that’s just silly if you ask me. We no longer exchange presents anymore, by the way.

Mistake #4: Spending more because you’re desperate

I made this mistake just a few days ago, which gave me the idea in the first place for this post. I was trying to find one last gift for a particular person and when I found it, I was met with a dilemma. It was a CD, but it was priced at $18. I NEVER pay $18 for a CD! But for some reason I felt justified doing so this time around because, gosh, it’s Christmas and I needed a gift!

The problem is, if you do this for everything, you will undermine all the frugal shopping choices you made throughout the year. The last thing you want to do is try to shop responsibly all year long, but then somehow forget your spending policies around Christmas time. If you normally only spend $10 on a new blouse, then don’t buy a $50 blouse for your Aunt Martha just because you need something to buy her, you didn’t plan ahead, or you are just giving up.

Reader Reflection

I don’t want this post to sound negative or pessimistic. On the contrary, I’d like it be though-provoking and cause you to consider how you shop in these last days before Christmas. Even if you can’t make significant changes this year, you can decide for next year and hopefully end up in a better situation. Have any of you encountered the four different shopping mistakes I mentioned above? Do you have any advice to give or stories to share?

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In my final installment of Houseplant Hacks today, I’d like to once again offer some useful money-saving tips. But this time, instead of buying plants, we’re buying plant supplies. All houseplants live in a pot and require good soil. All plants need to be watered. Many plants like to be fed fertilizer. Occasionally a plant is stricken with a pest and needs to be sprayed with a fungicide or insecticide. All of these actions cost money! We don’t want our houseplants to burn a hole in our wallets, so how can we save? Fortunately, there are several creative ways to cut cost when it comes to houseplant supplies.

1. Buy inexpensive pots

I adore looking at all the beautiful ceramic pots at flower shops and even department stores, but I try to resist buying them due to their high cost. houseplant-potWhile it isn’t bad to buy a designer pot every once and while, don’t break the bank and try to pot every single one of your houseplants in the most expensive pots out there. You can still get a nice-looking pot for cheaper.

2. Reuse plastic pots

Continue to reuse your old plastic pots and try sticking with the plastic pot the plant came with. You’ll save big and you might find that your plants actually prefer their cheap plastic pots. If you want to spice up a boring pot a little, consider decorating it yourself. Try wrapping it with ribbon, or even painting it!

3. Evaluate the potting mix you use

Potting mixes come in many different shapes and sizes. Be sure you aren’t spending more than you need to. For example, check your regular potting mix and see if it contains added fertilizer (= added cost). Do the plants you use this potting mix for need that fertilizer in the first place?

4. Make your own potting mix

An interesting (albeit a little more challenging) alternative to the pre-packaged potting soil is to make your own potting mixes. Several stores sell individual potting medium ‘ingredients’ like perlite, vermiculite, or sphagnum peat moss. Figure out what your plant prefers and make the mix yourself. You will save money ultimately because the fancy mixes often come with a higher price tag.

5. Consider cutting back on fertilizer

Related to point number 3 above, ask yourself if you really need to fertilize certain houseplants. For example, I only fertilize my orchids and my African violets even though all my guide books suggest I fertilize most everything else too. But these other plants are doing just fine without fertilizer! So experiment a little and see if you can save yourself some money (and time!) by cutting back on fertilizer.

6. Use home remedies for pest control

A houseplant owner’s worst nightmare is to discover a pest infestation on their plants. There are tons of commercial insecticides, fungicides, and other pesticides that you can buy to help control your problem. But sometimes your problem can be alleviated by just concocting a home remedy using ingredients under your kitchen sink. The Internet is a great resource for recipes for homemade mixtures people have used with success.

7. Buy in bulk

Last, but not least, just like many products, buying houseplant supplies in bulk will end up saving you money in the long run. If you can purchase a 25 lb bag of potting soil (and have a place to store it), then why not buy more now if you know you will ultimately use it all. In the same way, buying a larger bottle of fertilizer or pest control might be more economical. Just keep in mind the product’s expected shelf life so you don’t end up with waste.

Spotlight on the Phalaenopsis (Moth) Orchid

Have you ever gone to a greenhouse or flower shop and just marveled at the beautiful orchids? baldans-moth-orchidI used to stare at these intricate and fascinating flowers wishing I had the necessary expertise to raise them. You see, I thought that all orchids were highly complicated to grow, not to mention difficult to work with in my Zone 3 climate. But I was mistaken! Like many others, I have discovered that not all orchids are extremely hard to grow. The Phalaenopsis, or Moth Orchid, is increasing in popularity as a houseplant, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s inexpensive, easy to care for, and the gorgeous blooms can last for months.

  • Light: On average, bright indirect light is best. Although in my Zone 3 climate (short winter days), I keep my moth orchids in direct light in southeast facing windows and they do great. Light-green colored or even yellowing leaves may indicate too much sun, while dark leaves, a noticeable lack of blooming, or root/crown rot may indicate not enough sun.
  • Temperature: Normal home temperatures are fine.
  • Water: An effective way to water a moth orchid is to hold the plant over a sink, thoroughly watering it so water flows through the pot and out the bottom. Then wait for plant to nearly dry out before watering it again. Be extremely careful not to overwater and you should never let a moth orchid stand in water. When watering, be careful not to pour too much onto the crown and try to avoid using softened water. Water early in the day. moth-orchidsFinally, moth orchids enjoy humidity, so consider a light misting every once and while or add an outer humidity tray (filled with water) underneath your regular dry tray.
  • Fertilizer: Recommended. Use a balanced fertilizer or a high-nitrogen fertilizer if you are growing the orchid in fir-bark. Weak fertilizer more often is better than strong fertilizer less often. Non-urea nitrogen could be better depending on the medium. I use 30-10-10 (N-P-K) every other watering from January to August (1/2 tsp per gallon) and 10-30-20 Blossom booster from September to December or until buds are visible (1/2 tsp per gallon).
  • Soil: Moth orchids need to be potted in a bark mixture. There are special orchid potting mixes that you can buy, or else you could purchase plain fir bark medium and amend it with perlite and sphagnum moss.
  • Repotting: Re-pot your moth orchid once every 1 to 2 yrs in the spring or after the flowering period ends. When doing so, remove all the old medium, trim soft and rotted roots, and treat rotting root ends with cinnamon. Moisten the new bark a little and spread at the base of the pot. Add the plant, then work in more moistened bark to fill the pot. Keep the plant slightly drier for 2-3 weeks to promote new root growth.
  • Propagation: Propagating moth orchids is not particularly easy, nor is it particularly common. On rare occasions, moth orchids will grow young plantlets (called Keiki) on their flowering spikes. These can be carefully removed and repotted.
  • Toxicity: Considered non-toxic.
  • Pests: Fungus gnats can collect around the surface of the potting bark if medium is too wet for too long. Allow the bark to dry out well before watering again. Spider mites, mealy bugs, and scale are also possible, but not too common. They can be treated with insecticides or home remedy mixtures. If you put your orchids outside for the summer, be sure to carefully inspect them before introducing them back into your house.

aerial-orchid-roots

  • Miscellaneous: Moth orchids desire high humidity and enjoy slight air movement. Allow roots that come to the surface to stay there – they are beneficial aerial roots (see above photo). To encourage a second blooming on an existing flowering spike, cut off only the flowering segment of the spike when all the blossoms have expired. 80% of the time the plant will flower again within 90 days. After the completion of the second flowering, cut the entire spike off and repot the plant. If you want to encourage possibly fuller blooms next year, do not try for a second bloom on an existing spike. Just cut it off after the first bloom and allow the plant to regain maximum strength for the next season.

What’s next?

The Houseplant Hacks series is officially finished! Hopefully by now you’ve got some great tips to organize your space, time, and money when it comes to your prized houseplant collection.  I’ve enjoyed this series and I hope you have too!

Reader Reflection

How do you save money when buying houseplant supplies? Do you have any special soil mixes you use or any interesting pest control concoctions? Does anyone raise Phalaenopsis orchids and want to offer any tricks of the trade or show off any beautiful blooms?

phalaenopsis

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With only 34 days until December 25, it’s probably good to start thinking about what you might want for Christmas. Yes, that’s right, I said YOU. I’m not trying to sound selfish or anything, because in my opinion Christmas should be more about giving than receiving. christmas-presents However, we’ve all been asked some time or another, “What do YOU want for Christmas?” and we’re no help if we don’t have a good answer.

With weddings or baby showers, there are convenient gift registries we can use to help our friends and families find a gift for us that we desire. After my husband and I used Amazon’s gift registry for our wedding, I wasn’t quite ready to leave it behind. I loved the concept! The first Christmas after we got married, his parents wanted to know what I wanted for Christmas. Then my parents wanted to know. Then my brother needed ideas. You can see where this is going. But Amazon’s registry, although great for our wedding, wasn’t exactly the perfect fit for my Christmas wish list.

Registries through specific companies or stores are inherently restrictive because you can only register for their products and your friends and family are forced to buy that product only through that store. Enter Kaboodle, a catch-all sort of gift wish list in which you can “collect information from anywhere on the web [and] put it into a Kaboodle list that you can share with others.” No restrictions, anything goes. That’s why I’ve used Kaboodle for my Christmas wish list for the last 2 years. And I’d like to share with you today why I love it.

klogo

Here’s the deal

Like any gift registry, you simply create an account and start a new list. But the unique thing about Kaboodle is that you can add products from anywhere on the web! kaboodle-siteWhen you sign up for an account, you have the option to get some handy Kaboodle buttons to add to your browser so that whenever you encounter something you are interested in, you can easily add it to your list by pressing that button. Once the product is added, you can describe it or leave any comments or notes for your friends or family to read. Your list has a unique URL that you can share with others. When someone visits your list, they may decide to ‘reserve’ one of your items. You can choose a setting that prevents you from seeing whether a product has been reserved or not, leaving some element of surprise. After someone reserves an item, they have the freedom to buy the item from anywhere they want, online or offline, including the store you originally found it in. The only thing Kaboodle does after this point is remove that item from the list so that others will not buy it as well. Easy as pie!

Pros

  • Interface is easy to use
  • Service is free
  • Community feature: people you know can create lists too and add you as a ‘friend’
  • You can add products from anywhere on the web (highly flexible)
  • People can buy your desired gifts from anywhere they want (better chance to find the best price)
  • Option to keep reservation status a secret
  • In addition to adding actual products from real stores, you can add ‘generic’ items like, “I want a chain saw”
  • You can use Kaboodle for more than just wish lists, like collecting favorite restaurants or showing off your collection of designer purses

Cons

  • Every so often (pretty infrequently) adding a product doesn’t always work right the first time (title or picture is wrong, or it’s altogether the wrong item)

Help your loved ones save time and money when they buy you gifts this holiday season

The reason I love Kaboodle from an organizational perspective is because of how easy it is to make a comprehensive, flexible list that offers people the chance to shop for the best price they can find. Plus, you can keep your Kaboodle list all year long and add stuff whenever you see it! No more last-minute ideas for you to come up with and no more last-minute frustrated shopping for your loved ones. I give Kaboodle a thumbs up!!

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