Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Gift Giving on a Budget (aka Why I Love Dollarama)

I love giving gifts to people.  It is so great to see someone's reaction when they open a gift and know that they are going to enjoy it or have a practical use for it.  I also love putting gifts together.  I don't really know why - I just do.  I love gifting.  This can be a dangerous thing because sometimes we can buy gifts that are junk (maybe not to us) which people will never use.  When I am shopping for a gift I try to ask myself what the person could use, what they might need, and what might they enjoy?  Sometimes the gift is a thing, other times it is an experience.  I also love edible gifts.  These questions are always followed by, what can I afford to give?  The budget always dictates the gift.  Buying gifts for someone that you cannot afford is unwise.  I have seen people do this (especially for their own children), and trust me, it never ends well.  Sometimes people may think they want to give their kids a "special" birthday or holiday, but then they confuse special with expensive.  Special and expensive are so not synonymous.  When I think back to some of my favourite gifts that I received as a child, none of them were expensive.  None.  There is nothing wrong with an expensive gift - if you can afford it.  Debt free gift giving is really paramount to financial stability.  Anyway, I am getting sidetracked... 
One of my favourite places to shop for gifts is a Canadian dollar store called Dollarama.  True, dollar stores are easy places to collect junk - but they are also places where a careful shopper can curate a beautiful gift.  I am going to share below some of purchases from a recent trip to Dollarama and how they can be used to make beautiful gifts.  Did I mention I love Dollarama?  I totally do and they definitely have not paid me to say this.
One Egg Is A Fortune Cookbook and Coffee Table Book - $4.00
I picked up this stunning cookbook and coffee table book, One Egg Is A Fortune, for $4.00.  It was still wrapped in the publisher's plastic.  It is a fantastic book (I found it at online retail outlets for between $30.00 and $45.00).  This was actually a purchase for myself, and I bought one for a friend.  However, it would be an amazing gift on its own or paired with some cookware.
Williams & Sonoma Kids Parties book, $3.00
This Williams & Sonoma Kids Parties book was $3.00.  For the person who loves to host parties, this would be fantastic when paired with some party supplies (perhaps craft supplies to go with an activity in the book, mason jars, a cake pan, cookie sheets, etc.).  There are some really cute and affordable ideas in this book for various themed kids parties.
Star Wars Hot Wheels, $3.00 each.
I picked up these Star Wars Hot Wheels to go with one of my nephews' birthday presents.  They were matched with a pair of Star Wars Crocs (bought on clearance through Crocs using Ebates) and a Star Wars t-shirt ordered from The Bay (also using Ebates).

Children's books, assorted prices from $1.25-$3.00
Dollarama often has a great selection of kids books.  On this trip I picked up some hardcover books, including some Backyardigans storybooks, a bilingual (French and English) Paw Patrol book, and a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse storybook.  These books will all be used to go with gifts for my own children as well as nieces and nephews.

These are just a few examples of things that can be purchased at Dollarama and used in gifts for people of all ages,  Needless to say, trips to the dollar store help me to stay on budget and give great affordable gifts to the people I care about.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Wedding Spending - Your Dream Wedding for Less

It is another -23 degree morning here and the snow is blowing around, but that is not stopping me from thinking about the upcoming wedding season.  I have read a few posts on different blogs about weddings on the near horizon - and so I decided to share a few tips from my own wedding experience as a bride, and many experiences as a bridesmaid.  It is so easy for weddings to become ridiculously expensive (and ridiculous of course is all relative), but there are things you can do to save money.

Where to spend and where to save?
This is a question only you and your partner can answer.  The most important thing when planning a wedding (aside from the obvious making sure you have chosen the right partner and that you are in a solid relationship) is establishing priorities.  What do you think of when you think of your dream wedding?  What is most important to you?  Do you dream of a live band playing jazz standard into the night, an outdoor wedding at a heritage location, or perhaps you have always wanted a country themed wedding?  Only you and your partner can answer these questions.  Once you have made a list of what is important to the two of you, it should be much easier to decide where to spend and where you can save some money.

The Ring
A lot of couples are starting to forgo the diamond engagement ring and opting for less expensive items such as other gemstones are synthetic diamonds.  My husband got my engagement ring via a diamond wholesaler we had a personal connection to, which saved a significant amount of money.  I love my ring, but going back in time yes, I probably would now opt for an even less expensive option and put any money saved towards a down payment for a house.  My rule of thumb is to never take on debt for an engagement or a wedding.  So many problems in a marriage arise due to financial issues, you do not want to start off by taking on unnecessary debt.  Work with whatever budget you have.

The Invitations
My artistic ability is minimal, and I really wanted embossed (raised print) wedding invitations so I used a professional printer.  It cost roughly $500.00 for approximately 200 invitations.  They were beautiful and classic and I loved them - but if you are handy (of you know someone who is) you can easily make your own invitations for a fraction of that price.  One of my friends spent about $75.00 making their wedding invitations and there was nothing cheap looking about them.  Let's be honest - 95% of your invitations will end up in the recycle bin after the fact anyway.
Other Stationary - I bought all of my "Thank You" cards for the wedding and preceding bridal showers at Dollorama (Canadian dollar store) and Target.  I made my own wedding programs using regular white paper that I folded into a booklet.  I covered the booklet with a folded and cut piece of cardstock (to make a full booklet), stamped the front of the booklet and used ivory ribbon to tie everything together.

The Date
Our wedding was on a Friday evening.  We hadn't planned on this - but the venue we wanted was booked the Saturday of our wedding weekend so we opted for a Friday wedding.  We knew that we wanted an evening wedding anyway (our ceremony was at 7 and our reception started at 9pm), so we didn't have to worry about the majority of guests having to take a day off work to attend.  Sidebar: I loved an evening wedding.  It made the day so relaxed and not rushed.  It was fantastic and our guests didn't have to mill about for hours between the ceremony and reception.
Another great way to get reduced rates is to have your wedding at a non-seasonal time (ie. not in the summer or early fall).

This is where a lot of people can blow the budget.  I wanted a dress that was different and that I loved, and I just never found one that I fell in love with.  So I had a custom dress made.  This was a major expense - however major is again relative.  I know people who have paid $5000.00 for their wedding dress - I did not pay near this much.  My dress was not a traditional bridal gown.  I saw a dark brown evening gown made by Michel Desjardins that I loved and in the end I had a custom version of it made in cream.  I loved it.  It was a little pricey, but I never really regretted spending a bit more money on this.  I think if I had wanted to spend less money I would have opted for a complete different style of gown.  I have seen some beautiful cocktail length dresses worn by brides recently and that is another great way to save money.

But how can you save on a wedding dress?  Here are two great options:
Opportunity Bridal is a Canadian company - it is essentially a traveling bridal boutique that sells demos and ends of high end wedding gowns at steeply discounted prices.  This is a phenomenal way to save hundreds (thousands even) of dollars on a bridal gown.  I know many people who have bought their gowns through this company and it has been a huge money saver for them.  If you live close to the border, with the low Canadian dollar it is probably worth the trip to check out one of their shows.  Due to the nature of the business, their dress selection is always changing.

Another great option is House of Brides online bridal boutique.  The big disadvantage here is that you do not get to try on your dress - which is why for the bridal gown I prefer other options.  However, I did use House of Brides to order all my bridesmaid dresses and it worked wonderfully.

As far as the men are concerned - lots of money can be saved by having them all wear a black suit and just purchasing coordinating shirts and ties instead of renting tuxes.  This is assuming they all own a suit.

The Food
Because I had a very clear vision of what I wanted for our wedding, the food was easy to sort out.  We had an evening reception (it started at 9pm) and there was total free movement (there were tables for people to sit at - but no assigned seating and so it was more of a large cocktail party vibe).  I knew that I did not want a long sit down multiple course meal, nor would time permit that.  Instead we had a massive assortment of finger food and appetizers.  Just to clear up any misconceptions: we had an abundance of food and we got a lot of very positive feedback about it.  We had stations - so there was a large cheese and crudité bar, there was a prime rib carving station where people could have custom baguette sandwiches made, there was lots of seafood, there were servers constantly offering up food to our guests  - things like goat cheese tartlettes, chicken skewers, shrimp, etc. etc.  Food was everywhere and it was good.  Neither of us really wanted a cake, so we had a large dessert bar which included a chocolate fountain.  This was a big hit.  Our dinner was not "cheap" in price, but it was a fraction of what a four or five course sit down meal would cost.  Most people I talk to say that a sit down dinner at a typical wedding venue in our area will run you around $100/head.  Ten years after our wedding, people still mention to us how much they enjoyed the food.
Other ways to save money include shopping around many different types of venues (our reception was at a private members club, but there are lots of community halls and churches that put on great feasts for weddings at very reasonable prices).  I have been to weddings where the bride and groom literally cooked all the food themselves.  This was so much work, but the result was excellent.  One wedding I attended had a make your own beef on a bun bar, an assortment of salads, and then for the midnight buffet they ordered about 50 pizzas from a local pizzeria.  Their cake was made by a friend, large slabs of cake we sliced right before the reception.  Essentially, they also did all the food themselves.  All this food came at a very low cost - and you know what?  It was amazing.  I had so much fun at this reception.  There are so many different things you can do to save money on food while still treating your guests to a beautiful party - because you do want your guests to enjoy a beautiful night out.

The Entertainment

I wanted a live band at my wedding.  I just did.  This was a major expense for us (it was about $2800.00).  We hired a well-known artist and a 4 piece jazz ensemble.  They were great.  People oooed and awes when I announced that they would be providing music for our guests after the toasts were complete.  Yes, it was a big expense.  This was something that was important to me.  Given the technology available today, I have attended weddings where people made their own playlist in advance and hooked up iPods to speakers and sound systems they had access to.  Do what works for you.

The Favours
Favours are an area where you can save a lot of money.  DIY is the way to go.  I highly recommend something edible or plantable, or burnable (a candle) because I think everything else will eventually end up in the garbage (sorry).  Unless maybe you make your own pottery......
What did we do?  There is a great supply company called ULine.https://www.uline.com/
ULine sells retail and food packaging products in bulk.  Through ULine, we ordered food safe (FDA compliant) candy boxes and liners, as well as drawstring bags to put them in.  Ordering them through Uline was again, a fraction of the cost of ordering through a major wedding supplier.  I strongly recommend checking out the different products they offer for favour ideas.
After we had all our boxes, I gathered some friends and family and we did some serious baking.  Our favourite treats.  We then filled 185 boxes with delicious desserts for our guests to take home.

The Flowers
As soon as you say "wedding flowers" dollar signs start dancing around.  We ordered our flowers from a local grocery store (Zehrs) that had a florist on staff.  The trick is to make sure you have a good florist.  Our photographer, who obviously has been to thousands of weddings, commented on how beautiful the bouquets were.  When I told him where they came from and the cost he couldn't believe it.  You can also get great flowers at very reasonable prices from Costco.

Ten years after the big day, all you will have left are your memories and pictures.  This is not an area I would skimp on.  Make sure you have someone who knows what they are doing.

Out of Town Guests
Let's be honest.  People spend a lot of money on your wedding.  People travel.  People take time off work.  They buy something to wear.  They hire a babysitter.  They buy you a lovely gift.  They sacrifice for you.  And they don't have to.  So it is important to show your appreciation to your guests.  We had a number of guests traveling from out of town for our wedding.  Initially I wanted to send a gift basket to each of their hotel rooms (they were mainly all staying at the same hotel where we had a group discount for our guests).  When I looked into the cost of this, I realized it would cost about $100 per basket.  Way out of my budget.  So I decided to make my own.  This was super easy, and was very appreciated.  I bought a number of large gift bags and baskets at the dollar store, then I went to Costco and picked up items such as: San Pellegrino sparkling water, still water, soft drinks, snack bars, individually bagged chips, gum, mints, colouring books and crayons for guests with children, etc.  I made up a selection for every out of town guest and left them at the front desk of the hotel to be given to them when they checked in.  This might have cost me about $15-20 per room.  I can't remember exactly....it was ten years ago.  These little gestures go a long way to making your guests know that their presence is important to you.

And so there you have it.  There are many things you can do to make your wedding more affordable.  Establish a budget.  Set your priorities.  Enjoy your beautiful day.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Recipe Share: Biscuits

We woke up to 5 inches of snow and -22 temperatures with the windchill.  Surprise!  Well I needed something warm and cozy.  What could do the trick better than homemade biscuits with homemade peach jam?  Sooooo delicious.  Sooooo quick and easy to whip up.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Is a Vitamix worth it?

Yes.  And no.

The answer is no if:
a) You cannot afford it.
b) You do not cook.

The answer is YES if:
a) You can scrape together the money to purchase it.
b) You cook often.

A few months ago we purchased a Vitamix.  I had been eyeing them for years but was not wanting to part with my money (they start at $500.00 in Canada).  A few months ago our blender (which we use all the time) died.  I had received some Costco cash cards as a Christmas gift, and since we needed to replace our blender anyway I decided to take the plunge and purchase a Vitamix at Costco.  The 7 year warranty that the blender comes with is what helped me make my final decision.

Now that we have owned the Vitamix for a period and have been using it almost daily, sometimes more than once a day, I can say without a doubt that for our family this purchase was definitely worth it.  But why?  Well these are the reasons the Vitamix was the right purchase for our family:

a) The Vitamix makes smoothies with ease.  We love smoothies.  Our old blender did an OK job, but the Vitamix does an amazing job at blending all kinds of ingredients together quickly to produce a smooth and delicious treat.  This is particularly important to me because my toddler does not enjoy eating vegetables, but he has been thoroughly enjoying green smoothies made with spinach and other greens using the Vitamix.  I hope to soon expand the smoothie repertoire to include other vegetables like carrots and beets.

b)  The Vitamix makes pizza dough.  We used to spend about $30 - $40 a month getting take-out pizza.  My husband and son have started a weekly tradition making pizza together (from scratch) using the Vitamix.  They make the dough, use a Tomato Basil Simmer sauce that I can during the summer as their pizza sauce, and top it using large blocks of Mozzarella (purchased at Costco - it is about $11.00 for a 2.2kg block of Saputo mozzarella), and other toppings of their choice.  I calculate that the pizzas they are making cost between $3.75 - $4.50 each depending on the toppings they use.  The main expense is of course the cheese.  This is saving us between $5.00 - 10.00 a week on take-out pizza.  Not only is it saving us money - but my son is getting the great experience of cooking with my husband.  The pizza takes about 40 minutes to make from start to finish - which is not longer than it would take for us to order a pizza from somewhere and pick it up.

c)  The Vitamix will do a dry chop.  I have a very small 3 cup food processor.  It is amazing and super convenient for whipping up dips and spreads and chopping a small amount of dry ingredients, however it is a huge pain when I am making larger recipes like carrot cake or coleslaw.  I have been wanting to get a larger food processor for years but we do not have the food space for it.  Enter: Vitamix.  Since purchasing our Vitamix I have used it to conveniently dry chop carrots for carrot cake and it can also dry chop cabbage for things such as coleslaw.  Essentially I now have 2 appliances in one.  Hurray!!!!

d)  It is self-cleaning.  Parents, you can cheer here.  It is so amazing to use the Vitamix, then pour in some warm water with a drop of dish soap, turn it on, and come back in 60 seconds to find it clean and ready to use again.  I love this.  I really, really love it.

There are many other great things about the Vitamix (you can make nut butters, soups that will heat from the blade friction, ice cream, milkshakes, hummous, etc. etc) but these are the four main reasons why I really feel it was the right purchase for our family.  I am sure I will discover more great things about it as I continue to experiment with new recipes.  I may even update this post later.

Just to clarify - I have zero affiliation with Vitamix and I am receiving absolutely zero compensation for this post.  I just know that I hummed and hawed and researched and debated for a long time before taking the plunge and buying one - so if this information can help someone else make an informed decision then.......happy blending!!!