Friday, February 28, 2014

10 Things I Learned In February

I love these posts. They provide an opportunity to walk on the lighter side of life as I share the stuff I've learned this month. 

The What We Learned posts are hosted by Emily over at Chatting at the Sky as a "monthly community link-up to share the fascinating, ridiculous, sacred, or small." 

Mine is mostly just ridiculous. 

Want to know more of what I'm talking about? Go here.

In no particular order, here are ten things I've learned in February.


1. If I don't unpack a duffel back within 48 hours of returning from a trip, it may sit there for two months. 

We went to Florida before Christmas. My unpacked bag is still in my closet. I've also learned that slackerness tends to beget slackerness. The unpacked bag has managed to spread its slothful contagion to the rest of the closet and the entire area is now a full-fledged epidemic of clothing chaos. Every day I write "clean the closet" on my to-do list and every day it mocks me in its still-unchecked state. At this point I'm contemplating just leaving the duffel bag packed for our beach trip in June. 

2. I can cut my food budget almost in half without clipping coupons. {or making everything from scratch}

3. A dusting of snow down south will get you out of school for almost a week. And provide many days of jokes about "milk sandwiches."

4. Papa John's makes heart-shaped pizzas for Valentine's Day. We may have started a tradition with this one.

5. How to fake a monogram. {for moms like me who don't know how to sew} 

My daughter is a fan of the monogram. We took this ho-hum navy gym bag and turned it into something preppy and cute.

Just print a monogram online. Trace it onto an iron-on transfer sheet. Cut it out and iron. 

A word of warning: If you are ironing the monogram onto a nylon gym bag, please place a towel flat inside the gym bag to prevent melting the front and back of the bag together. If you realize that you have in fact done this in error, quickly and carefully attempt to peel the layers apart and try not to let the molten nylon burn off your fingerprints in the process. 

6. My favorite Easter treats are the Cadbury mini-eggs. Anyone else? The mini-bags are just 99 cents and buy one get one free this week at CVS. The mini-bags are great because you don't have to worry about eating so many. Unless you keep going back to CVS to purchase additional mini bags, all the while rationalizing that they are essentially just samples. Well-played mini-bag. Well-played. 

7. When my 6-year-old confesses anything or hatches various plans to his best friend while standing in the front yard shrubs and I am working at my desk right next to the front windows, I can hear every. single. word. 

Yesterday's bit of surveillance revealed that he got in trouble at school and had to move his clip. {Who has super-powers? This mom, that's who.} When I brought it up at dinner, he looked at me as though I were telepathic. Please don't tell him. I will only be able to blow his mind in this way for another year or two and I am taking full advantage.

8. I don't feel ready to have a teenager. But like it or not, my girl turns 13 on Sunday. 

The embarrassing and ironic part is that on any given day, I feel we are complete equals regarding our emotional maturity level. I fear that I may never outgrow being easily overwhelmed, ridiculously irrational, and paralyzed by everyday decisions. As you might imagine, having two of our kind in the same house is all sorts of fun and not at all overwhelming for anyone, especially not my long-suffering husband.

9. How to watercolor without being a real artist. You've probably heard of Waterlogue by now. If not, it's an iPhone app that allows you to turn any photo into a watercolored work of art. 

Here's a photo I snapped with my phone of Cinderella's castle.

Here it is in Waterlogue. 

I'm addicted. 

My friend, Richella, did a great tutorial on how to print Waterlogue photos and turn them into real art for your home.

10. What celebrities would look like as normal people. With the Oscars fast approaching, this link just seems timely and right. I'll give you a peek. 

Brad & Angelina.


You're welcome. If you tune in to the red carpet interviews this Sunday night and begin to feel just a tad frumpy and less-than in your sweatpants and drugstore mascara, close your eyes and visualize your favorite celebrity sans million-dollar stylist, personal trainer, Spanx, and couture gown. Picture this middle-class, middle-America Brad and Angelina, the ones who never got famous and splurged on a portrait session at the Walmart photo center. You'll feel a thousand times better. 

Happy Oscars weekend, friends!


So, what have you learned this month?

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Monday, February 24, 2014

Living Free Through Our Unfixable Days

For all the tasking and folding and washing and making and cleaning up that goes on around here, I find myself scratching my head at all that remains undone. 

That drawer of 200 socks that someone dumped out 10 days ago.

Those two mountains of laundry I sorted last Friday and haven't washed.

The mountain of my own clothes in the closet that has grown scary big and covered up every square inch of the floor. 

The conversations that need to happen but where is the time in the midst of dishwasher-loading and oatmeal-making and homework-helping and kid-chauffering?

My wheels are spinning and my hands are laboring and my brain is whirring but you'd never know it by a quick glance at all the undone and unfixed around here. 

It's easy to zero in on all that still remains instead of resting in all that has been completed. 

It's my default to forge ahead and fixate on all that remains unanswered instead of bowing grateful for all that has been understood.

It's tempting to worry and fear that certain messes may never be fully cleaned up in this life.

That certain consequences may never be escaped. 

That certain wounds may never fully heal.

That certain dysfunctions and dispositions and diseases may never flee once and for all.

What's an unfixed girl living an unfixed life to do with all of her unfinished business on a tired and uninspired Monday?

She gives thanks for the unfixable life because it points her to a fixed life still to come and the perfect Savior that she'll never be. 

An unfixable life frees her from worshipping this life. 

If all was fine and beautiful and swoony each and every day, there'd be no need for hope. Nothing better to wait for. No impulse to run hard after Truth until she's breathless. No reason to put her faith in anything but her own fixed self and her own fine life. 

She sets her default on an awareness of all that's been done already. She bathes in gratitude. She rests in the Father's faithfulness. 

She accepts that certain messes and scars and dysfunctions may remain but she brings it all into the light of Jesus. She's speaks honestly in the light. She lies bare and exposed, wounded and messy, but warm and secure in the light and never-ending love of Christ.  

She realizes there's nothing to be gained by clinching and fretting and worrying over that which she cannot change. Nothing to be gained by hiding or pretending she's fine either. 

And so she chooses trust. 

Reckless, wild, nonsensical trust.

And though nothing is really fixed, she is free

Free to hope. 

Free to worship. 

Free to try and fail and get back up. 

Free to carry her unanswered questions. 

Free to disappoint and be disappointed.

Free to love the unlovely. 

Free to give sacrificially. 

Free to not be enough.

Free to mourn.

Free to receive the beautiful gifts that are such obvious grace. 

And free receive the hard things...that are also grace.

Free to live her messy, unfixable days.

Because all is grace. Because she is loved. Because the Father holds all things. Because one day He will wipe away every tear. 

She's free to hope and trust and worship and give thanks through each unfixable day as she waits patiently for the perfect redemption yet to come. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

7 Simple Ways I Cut Our Food Budget in Half: A Non-Guru's "Guide" to Groceries & Meals

The Backstory {Because I'm a writer and even a post about groceries has a backstory.}

I'm no guru about anything. Unless there's a guru status on laundry-avoidance because I've got that one nailed.

I'm not a decorating expert or a financial expert or a parenting expert. I've got a knack for certain things but not to the extent that I can professionalize any of it.

I'm a real wife and a real mom and a real homemaker, somewhat of a hacker and a slacker. I'm long on dreaming but short on patience and follow-through. And though I love finding better ways to do everyday tasks, I become easily overwhelmed by complicated systems and binders and planning sheets. Don't get me wrong, I actually love organizing and plannerly products and to-do lists. I can browse the aisles of Staples for hours. But I've learned that for me, I have to keep systems, procedures, and tasks as simple and personalized as possible.

I use a spiral notebook, pencil, and calculator to budget and pay bills. I keep a one-week dry-erase calendar on our fridge for our family schedule and meals.

The way I plan meals and buy groceries is equally simple.

These aren't the sort of posts I normally do. But because meal-planning and grocery-shopping are tasks that all of us have to do, I thought I'd share my easy, non-guru methods with the rest of you. Take it or leave it. There are lots of actual experts with entire blogs and books devoted to this subject. But if you want a Cliff's Notes / non-extreme / no coupons way to approach the often-dreaded task of feeding your family easily and economically, perhaps you'll find some encouragement here.

This year my husband and I set some rather audacious financial goals. We decided we were ready to get super serious about some endeavors that we've put off because we've had more important issues to tackle. Timing is everything. We're at a good place and on the same page. We've squinted at the numbers and squeezed every dime out of each possible category.

The trickle-down effect is this: we pretty much cut our food budget in half. Because we're just getting started on this "adventure," I can't tell you how well it's going to work long-term. I can only tell you how it's working so far through February.

Can I be honest? I hate even writing about money and "systems" and goals. Doing so makes me accountable. But deep down I know that accountability is a needful thing. It would thrill me to be able to update you 6 months from now and say, "The non-guru guide is still working! We're saving money! We're still not starving!"

But the only way to reach our goals is if we're realistic and honest about ourselves, our spouses, and our individual situations. After many fits and starts over the years, months of couponing and stockpiling and knowing the amount of time it takes and mental energy it requires and physical exhaustion I feel afterward, I decided to take a mostly non-couponing, super realistic approach to planning and shopping.

I've devoted the last two-ish years to rest. And during those two years my husband and I resolved that I would not take on added stress and time-consuming endeavors, like coupons and being hyper-vigilant about the grocery budget. My goal was to keep food in the house, lunches in the lunchboxes, and dinner on the table. Sure, I was mindful of food prices and I saved when I could but I didn't stress or obsess. This was all fine and good and necessary for those two years. In the process, however, I also got a little bit lazy.

I'm in a different place now, ready and able to be more proactive about my responsibilities. But proactive in a reasonable and therefore {hopefully} sustainable way. This is not a sprint; it's a marathon. I need a system that can work long-term.

So here's my non-fancy / realistic / no-coupon way of slashing our food budget. In half. {Yes, it's possible.}


The Plan {Because even if you hate plans, you've got to have one. A plan is 90% of the battle.}

1. A monthly plan. I plan out all the meals I'll make in a month and approximately how many leftover meals we'll also have. I don't assign meals to a day. That's too hard-core and inflexible for me. I write out our meals one week at a time but I have a plan for the meals I'll make over the month. A month's worth of meals + lunch stuff + breakfast stuff gives me my grocery list for the month.

If this sounds like too much work and planning, I'll let you in on a secret. It took me ten minutes. No lie.

Behold my very sophisticated system. {And terrible photo.}

I make a list of our meals and how many times I'll make it or how many leftover meals it will provide. When my tally reaches 30 meals or so, I'm done. Then it's on to the grocery list.

2. Make a grocery list based on my monthly menu. I've been surprised at how little time this takes. Maybe 20 minutes? Then I divide up what I'm going to purchase where.

3. Shop with purpose & with a plan. I'm now doing my shopping at two main stores, Aldi and Costco. I make one big trip to both stores in a month and those two trips get most of what we need. I purchase more milk, bread, and produce in between but I'm trying to get most of this stuff at Aldi too. A new one just opened up not too far away so that's making it easier.

4. Paying cash. We get paid once a month and that means we budget, pay bills, and plan groceries and meals within a monthly scope. Years ago I did the cash system for groceries and it really does make a difference so I'm doing it again. 

When you hand over those hard-earned bills to the cashier, you think twice about how much you really need something. When you know that cash has to last to the end of the month, you're careful with it. I've read that paying cash for your groceries lowers your bill by 30% on average.

5. No eating out. Not that we did much of that anyway. It was more of the little things that added up. A drink from the drive-thru. A Starbucks treat. Lunch at the coffee shop. This means more planning ahead and being disciplined {such a painful word} and delayed gratification. I'll be honest...this is embarrassingly hard for me. My love language is food treats. And also lip gloss.

6. Our meals are simple-ish. I enjoy really good food. I even enjoy making the occasional gourmet dish or dessert. But day in and day out, my time and energy and passions don't jive with fussy meals. I've found what works for us and there's a fair amount of repetition. But we enjoy a hot meal most nights around our kitchen table and that's my definition of win.

7. Know yourself. There are many ways to save big on your food budget but I've learned that none of them will work unless it's realistic and doable for you.

My time, sanity, and health are valuable and finite. If meal-planning and grocery-shopping and money-saving uses up a lot of that time, sanity or health, then I may have saved bunches of money but I've paid a hefty price.


Full disclosure. I didn't think we could stay within this budget without coupons, store-hopping, making everything from scratch, and deprivation. I thought it would take more time than it does. I thought I'd be stressed. I thought I'd be grumpy over what I couldn't buy. I've never been so happy to be wrong.

A few more things. We eat healthy-ish but it's far from ideal. I try to purchase mostly real, whole food. I attempt to avoid too many processed foods but I don't obsess. While I would love to buy mostly organic and local, it's not within our current budget. I will be able to do a bit more of this during farmer's market season. We don't have food allergies nor are we gluten-free or dairy-free. In short, we do the best we can with the resources we have and I don't fret about imperfections. Each family's needs and priorities are different and one's budget will obviously reflect those differences.

Have more questions? {Why Aldi? Why Costco? What do you cook? What is your monthly food budget?} Ask away in the comments and I'll do my best to answer you there.


This post linked to {and featured on} the Grace at Home Party hosted by the lovely Richella at Imparting Grace

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Southern Snow Day: Bring on the Roasting Pan Sleds and Milk Sandwiches

We make our home in the South. We're not famous for our wintry mixes and abundance of snow plows down here. A mere dusting shuts the place down.

Panicked shoppers have pillaged the bread and milk aisles like ravenous stormtroopers. Even my Michigan-born husband made one last trip to the store in the pre-dawn hours to get more water and emergency lighting. 

{FYI, Emergency Lighting "provides light when things go dark." I'm glad we're all clear on the purpose of lighting.}

He also grabbed another thermometer, Pop-Tarts, and ketchup, of all things. {He cannot be trusted.} Plus some bread and milk. Again. Because that's just what we do down here. 

{The Walmart bread aisle at 6 am this morning.}

My brother lives in Atlanta and we were texting this morning. He told me he saw a meme with a picture of a snowy roadway and the yeti from Rudolph. The quote said, "Keep calm and eat your milk sandwich." I'm still dying over that one. 

So we're having a Star Wars marathon on this midweek winter morning and I'd forgotten the fabulousness of Princess Leah's hair. It really is the best hair in movie history. I'd also forgotten that Harrison Ford looks 12. But perhaps the best part of the entire movie is the awesome line in The Empire Strikes Back when Leah says to Han, "I love you" and he replies with "I know."

I predict a year's worth of screen time for all of us over the next few days. Unless we lose power and then we'll be playing board games via the Emergency Lighting and stress-eating the large batch of chocolate-chip cookies I made yesterday. If things get really bad, I may have to concoct a way to make the magic popcorn on our grill or in the gas fireplace. Desperate times call for desperate measures and desperate times always call for the magic popcorn. 

Our kids will be sledding on cardboard boxes and roasting pans. 

Because unlike our reserves of bread and milk, we are not well stocked in snow toys. They will also come in every 20 minutes to dry out and warm back up. Our cotton gloves and athletic pants and sneakers are not exactly L.L. Bean-worthy. 

So those are our plans for the next few days. I am filled with equal parts excitement and nervousness. Also, I should probably take a shower in case we lose our utilities and are forced to lounge in filth and squalor the rest of the week.

Okay, time to sign off. Luke just found out who is father is and we all need a moment. 

If you're in the neighborhood feel free to stop by. I make a mean milk sandwich.


How about you? Is is snowing in your neck of the woods? Any tips for surviving southern snow days?

Update: My sister-in-law found the milk-sandwich yeti. : )

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Friday, February 7, 2014

Carry On, Mama.

This morning I spoke to my son's 4th-grade class for a couple of minutes about an upcoming service project that I am somehow overseeing. I'm still not sure how this came to be but it meant that I had to be reasonably presentable when I walked out the door by 7:20 am, sans shower. Three kids, three lunches, three breakfasts, one dog, the obligatory coffee and medicine and don't forget to brush your teeth. An everyday morning can feel like mayhem, like you've run a marathon and the day has just begun. Being "presentable" in the midst of all this is no small feat.

On my way back out of the school, I passed a mom and her kid walking in. The mom had a confident smile on her face and was sporting a knee-length fleece bathrobe and sneakers. I fought the urge to run back in and hug her and give her a high-five and tell her she's my hero. I am so serious. Why? Because maybe she didn't have it together on a Friday morning but she got her kid to school anyway, bathrobe and all. 

I texted my husband and here's what he wrote me back. "That's awesome. #nofearofman." It is awesome, isn't it?

Listen, I'm not about bringing bathrobes and pajamas into mainstream fashion. In fact, pajama-clad people in Walmart make me feel a tad uncomfortable, like our lines between public and private have become creepishly blurry.

That's not what I'm talking about. And just to be clear, this post is not commentary on appropriate public attire. It's a post about having a string of crazy days and choosing to carry on anyway, even if it means running late and wearing wrap-around fleece. It's a post about sucking it up when you have to run a middle-schooler's lunch into the front office because she left it when she got out of the van and on this particular day you happened to be wearing pajama pants and a gross sweatshirt from 1991 and fuzzy slipper boots because you didn't think you'd be getting out of your vehicle. Hypothetically speaking of course.

Sometimes we just have a week that's felt like a month and by the time Friday rolls around, we are done. We are all I'm rockin' the bathrobe today or pajama pants today and I dare you to judge me. 


Because middle school homework is from the devil.

Because my husband and I got into a fight yesterday, ironically as I was on my way out the door for Bible study. Guess what the argument was about? Dog food.

Because one kid who can ace tests without studying somehow struggles to get dressed every. single. morning.

Because another kid cries about going to school due to dental hygiene day. The dentist was coming and I guess he was afraid there would be terrifying mass teeth cleanings up and down the kindergarten hallway. 

Because one of my dearest friends suddenly lost her mom a week ago and we cried on the phone for a long time together Wednesday. I can't stop thinking about her deep sadness and loss.

Because the nights have been extra late and the mornings have been extra early and the stress has been extra intense.

Because I am a writer who hasn't had a single morning to write in many days and this makes me question my existence.

Because I sat down to write on Wednesday morning and in the midst of silent prayer on my sofa, I fell asleep. Until 11:30. 

Because my kitchen looks like a bomb went off and it will take an act of God plus another strong cup of coffee for me to find the motivation to clean it up. Just in time to cook another meal.

Because of life.

And this is the real everyday for most of us. This is the stuff that any given Monday or Thursday is made of. This is why we need grace in the form of a bathrobe or a pat on the back or a Venti vanilla latte by the time certain Fridays roll around. This is why we shouldn't judge PB&Js for dinner or kitchens that are a wreck first thing in the morning or moms with kids who leave the same folder at home four days in a row. And the library book. 

Did you get your kids to school this week or do some semblance of school with them at home?

Did you feed them? Rock them? Do your best to get them to sleep?

Do they know they're loved?

Awesome. You're getting the job done. It may not be pretty or perfect but you are loved and so are they. 

Rock your french-fries and your fizzy drink from the drive-thru. Rock your #nofearofman hashtag and your minivan that's littered in popcorn and cracker crumbs. Rock your weary faces lined with age and laughter and your puffy eyes inflated by sleep-deprivation and tears. 

It's Friday. You've made it. The chaos and exhaustion are all signs of life, proof that you and yours live fully and richly and honestly. 

What bountiful gifts we have in the midst of our beautiful messes.

Be grateful. Be gracious. Be kind to the other weary mamas in your life. Be content without your concealer and lip gloss. And by all means, be okay in your bathrobe or fuzzy slipper boots for one day in your life.

Carry on dear mamas. 

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