A Brilliantly Frugal wrap up to the Year! Thursday, Dec 27 2012 

Happy (almost) New Year! I hope this Column finds you surrounded by family, friends, and fabulous food. Considering we have a solid few days left before 2012 departs for good, I wanted to throw some ideas your way on how we can make the next seven days pack a fabulously productive punch, Frugalista style!

First, let’s talk weather. Who ordered the insane cold, what’s with the wind and rain? If hair frizzing was an Olympic sport, I’d bring home the gold. But hey, it’s winter, best to deal with it, so we’re talking crummy forecasts for the foreseeable future. Have you got a couple of coats in the closet? Long ones, short ones, poofy ones, sleek ones? Ones that you absolutely adore and love and could never part with? Yeah, me too. Push those to the side, and grab at least two (three is better) that have been hanging in the back of your closet in hypersleep for a few years. You haven’t used them, you aren’t going to use them. Well guess what – there’s somebody out there that could definitely use them, and right now, they’re just using up space in your closet. Throw them in a pile, then take fifteen minutes going thru your sweater drawer the same way. Jeans too, if you have the time. Extra points for shoes and boots. Mega extra points if you can get spouse and kids to do the same. Collect everything together (take a moment to marvel at how little time it took) and take the clothes to your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or homeless shelter. As fabulous as it feels to help those in need, it doesn’t hurt to discover you’ve just taken the long-unused stuff in your closets and transformed it into a monster tax writeoff. It’s all good.

Then, take a look at your kitchen cupboards. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got cupboards full of food, and yet still go out every week to get more. Sure, some of the stuff we go thru like clockwork each week, like produce, milk, eggs. Then – not so useful – there’s the five cans of creamed corn I bought by accident (thought it was regular), just sitting there, next to the canned salmon that I bought on a lark before I realized it had bones in it (ewwwwww). Sound anything like your cupboards? Grab a box and start throwing things in. Literally, I give you permission to throw. Try it, it’ll feel good – and it will keep other family members away for fear you’ll lob something in their direction. In my box, we had the creamed corn, salmon, 4 boxes of cake mix, canned spinach, 3 boxes of jello, bag of beans, two bags of rice and about 6 cans of evaporated milk. I always evaporated milk at the holidays, convinced it’ll make me look like a fabulous Food Network Chef, certain I’ll get a wild urge to make homemade fudge, only to receive some each year from a marvelous friend who is far better at making that glorious goodness than I ever could be. How fabulous is THAT?! Out the door it goes to the Chester County Food Bank!

There you go, folks. Two of the big necessities in life, food and clothing. Given the latest headlines, I’m feeling over-the-top blessed simply to have two healthy kids running around adoring the holiday. If you’re feeling like your cup is running over at the moment as well, don’t be afraid to show it. Somewhere out there, a person down on their luck who loves outdated poofy coats and creamed corn awaits. Merry Christmas & Happy New Year, everybody!

A Frugal Guide to Holiday Gift Giving! Thursday, Dec 20 2012 

Hey everybody – Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays! When it comes to gift-giving this year, I’ve decided my lofty goal for gifts to family, friends, clients & co-workers this year is three-fold: the gifts I’m giving have to (1) be adored, (2) used almost immediately, and (3) be inexpensive. Impossible? Not at all! Think FOOD!

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating – in Victorian Times, it was commonplace for a household to spend at least 25% of their income on food – can you imagine? Given how expensive the most basic of food items was back then, a gift recipient was thrilled to receive a high-quality food item for the holidays! I’m here to bring that holiday tradition back into brilliantly frugal vogue with some fantastic food gifts that everyone on your list will love, all inexpensively found in local discount groceries and beautifully put together in any of the (if you’re like me) 8217 baskets you have around the house!

Gift Basket Idea #1: Fruit, glorious fruit! Traditionally, fruit gift baskets have been marketed to adults (especially grandparents) but I have to tell you, if my 8-year old and 5-year old saw a basket filled with gorgeous fruit they’d probably lunge at it as well. Keep it simple with lovely produce straight from Produce Junction – the prices are fantastic and the quality is superb. If you’re making it for a family, keep it to a maximum of two or three pieces of fruit per family member. If you’re making it for a person living alone, keep it around 6-8 pieces of fruit total. If you really want a showstopper, make sure a beautiful tropical pineapple is showcased front and center.

Gift Basket Idea #2: Caffeine – the gift that just keeps on giving. You already know me to be a caffeine addict of the highest order. For me, it’s not just a food group, it’s a blood type. That kind of habit makes paying $8-$12 for a bag of java borderline ridiculous in my book. Time to hit your local discount grocery yet again where you’ll find those same bags of gorgeous, gourmet coffees for $2-$5 instead. Put three together with the flavored creamer of your choice, et voila! A gift your most devoted caffeine aficionado will adore.

Gift Basket Idea #3: Specialty food basket – we all know someone who is steering clear of a certain food group nowadays. Maybe they’re steering towards organics, or steering away from carbs, fats, gluten or dairy. You name it, we all know somebody who’s avoiding it. Often, those healthy dietary choices are hitting people big time in the pocketbooks – what could be better than to receive a gift basket filled with everything they love (and can enjoy with no guilt!). Fill a basket with organic snacks, or perhaps gluten-free goodies, and watch the recipients’ eyes light up every time.

This holiday season, remember that gift giving is about telling the important people in your life how much you care, not how much you spend. Final bit of food for thought: In Andy Williams’ “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year” not once did any of the lyrics mention spending thousands of bucks (that they didn’t have) on over-priced presents, using credit cards charging 22.5% interest. Just sayin’. Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays, everybody!

Celebrate Hanukkah – For Less! Saturday, Dec 1 2012 

Hanukkah starts December 8th, and already I’m receiving emails from people looking to keep their spending lower than in years past. Hanukkah may last for eight fabulous nights, but it doesn’t mean you have to emerge broke on the other side of it. With some simple strategies, your holiday will be a wonderful affair for a fraction of the cash!

The Food –I have friends who have always been master cooks – during Hanukkah, they take it to an art form. Latkes, doughnuts, anything and everything fried in oil taste like they belong on a dessert cart at the Four Seasons. I’ve asked their secrets on occasion, and I’m told they always cook with only the best ingredients, usually purchased in rather pricey custom groceries. Now, if you’re cooking Kosher, you do indeed have to hit some specialized stores, but even famous online kosher groceries have sales pretty regularly (example: check out http://www.kosher.com). As for your local kosher groceries, keep up to date on their sales and be sure to schedule your shopping trips around those sale items you’ll use the most. If you have some latitude working in your favor (you’re cooking for Hanukkah but not cooking Kosher), resources are everywhere to bring down your food bill considerably! Best bet: hit your local discount gourmet grocery’s kosher aisle. Every single discount grocery I visit has Hanukkah and kosher items. Take a look at the ones nearest you, you might be amazed.

The Gifts –We all want to be generous at the holidays. That being said, I’ve heard from too many people whose lovely generosity was always surpassed by a crushing post-holiday spending hangover. By all means, be generous with gifts – simply find them for less! Wherever you live, chances are excellent that untapped resources are everywhere to find all of your favorite designer names for greatly reduced prices. My best tip is always to head towards your local thrift stores and consignment shops, where fashion meets frugal fabulousness. Examples? Try the Jimmy Choo boots I found for my sister, which I’m guessing retail for a bit more than the $2 I purchased them for. How about Louis Vuitton & Coach bags, Ralph Lauren scarves, cashmere sweaters, golf shirts from the Masters, bestselling books, outstanding DVD’s and more, easily for 95% off the retail price. Get yourself to your nearest shops, and see which ones best fit your needs.

The Kids –Everyone wants to make the holidays a spectacular time for kids, but there’s no need to equate “Wow, this is GREAT!” with “Let’s overspend!”. Trust me, down the road, they’ll be glad you sunk your extra income into a college account year after year rather than the latest holiday gadget that gets outdated within a half hour. Stick to the same consignment and thrift stores where you find friend’s and family’s gifts for 95% off, and you’ll no doubt run across kid’s clothes, gadgets, jewelry and electronics that will dazzle. I’ve also heard charming comments from people my age who are reverting back to the Hanukkah gelt gifts consisting entirely out of chocolate coins, rather than actual money. Now, if you’re a parent or grandparent with a lot of wiggle room in your budget, by all means go for a couple of real coins. But note, I’m in my forties, and I’d shriek with delight if someone gave me a bag filled with chocolate.

Above all else, remember that the holiday is about friends, family (and perhaps a touch of fabulous food). Happy Hanukkah!