Monthly Archives: February 2015

How it Works: Points Sites

6722544475_524a721154_bOn Tuesday, I discussed one of the ways I have discovered to earn a little bit of money
while being a stay-at-home mom.

Mechanical Turk may be growing in popularity, but I would argue the hands-down, most popular and efficient way to earn a bit of extra money is through points sites.

I’ve written about points sites elsewhere, but the general premise is this:  through taking surveys, opening emails, reading articles or even doing a simple online search, you earn points to be used toward gift cards, discounts, PayPal transfers or charitable donations.

As noted in the linked article, my favorites a couple of years ago included several sites, including the popular Swagbucks and Mypoints.  Since adding to our family has cut down on my time online, I focus my time primarily on those two, as well as Epoll and Recyclebank.

Instead of saving the points for use at Christmastime, I have begun using them to get Amazon gift codes for items I can’t get at a decent price in stores (such as the kids’ multivitamin) or toward a charitable contribution (my personal favorite is the planting a tree reward through Treecycler, courtesy of Swagbucks).  Recyclebank is great for magazine subscriptions, both print and digital, and for awesome coupons on eco-friendly products.

Whereas I used to devote several hours a week to my points sites, now I devote maybe an hour or two per week, in addition to the brief amount of time spent on Mechanical Turk.  I’ve found that focusing my time more on bill reduction frees up some income from the get-go, and we really don’t need more clutter in our lives, so the “need” to do the points sites has diminished somewhat.

That said, every little bit does help, and as I mentioned on Tuesday, if I’m going to spend time online anyway, I’d rather it be for some greater good.  Points sites offer a great way to bring in a little bit of extra cash throughout the year.

I’m always looking for new ways to bring in a bit of extra change to put toward savings and big purchases.  What are some ways you have earned an extra buck on the side?

Photo by 401kcalculator.org

Always a Hypocrite

hand striving toward the sky

Amanda and I were very intentional when we named this blog. We both strive to be good stewards of the resources in our care.

The more I read and study, the loftier my ideals have become. Most recently, I’ve focused on giving up food waste,  increasing the amount of my own food that I grow and investing in a bike so that I can increase the number of car-less trips I make.

I also want to figure out how I can eat less meat, give more money and reduce how much I own. I don’t want to forget that I still want to research how to use less plastic, buy less from companies that don’t share my values and eat less processed foods.

Easy, right?

These are all great things, but I often struggle with the thought that I’m not doing enough. I’m doing more than I did before, but by far not as much as  I want. Just as I desire in other areas of my life, I want to be perfect.

But I know that I’ll always be a hypocrite.

How could I not be? I set the standards I aspire to so high that no one can reach (least of all me).

I’m okay with that. Because each time I fail, it reminds me that I’m not the savior, but that I need a Savior. Even if I were able to live up to all my ideals (and any others that I may gain in the future), I still wouldn’t be able to save the world. I was never meant to play that role.

That said, I don’t want to go the other way, throwing my hands up in the air and saying, “Why bother?” Though I’m not designed to save the world, God has called me to be faithful to him. I am responsible for the knowledge and things he’s given me. To use these gifts however I wish would be to selfishly tell God and others that I’m  most important .

With his grace, I will continue to seek to be faithful with what I’m given with my eyes set on Christ, relying on Him for help.

Photo by paul quinn

How it Works: Mechanical Turk

As a stay-at-home mom on a rather tight budget, I am constantly on the look-out for ways to save money, but also ways to bring in a little extra change–be it for Christmas or birthday gifts, clothes, or even a “special treat” (my kids’ code for “something sweet”).

The caveat, of course, is that whatever the money-earning activity is has to be conducive to our current season of life–it is often impractical for me to go out and about trying to earn some money if the kids are in tow.  And, of course, the activity has to be legal!

Awhile back, through various sources, I found out about a program through Amazon.com called Mechanical Turk.  There are several other reviews of this program to be found online (I found this one especially helpful), so I decided to give it a whirl.

Let me first state this:  unless you have hours of time at your disposal, if you are looking to rake in big money, this is not the program for you.  Some have actually referred to MT as an “online sweat shop“, because, on average, the tasks pay mere cents upon completion and review.

That said, if you have a little bit of time here and there, taking a few minutes to complete a few tasks can earn you a bit of pocket money.

Here’s how it works:  upon signing up and completing the tax info (do this as soon as possible, or else you will eventually be unable to participate in MT), you then qualify to complete certain online tasks (called HITS), ranging from transcription to surveys, and everything in between.  Time commitment for tasks ranges from one minute to several days, and the compensation is equally varied.

In general, surveys and more detailed tasks pay more; the ones I’ve chosen have paid out an average of about 25 cents for five minutes of my time.  But there are many HITS that pay one cent–or even nothing!–that also serve the beneficial purpose of upping your approval score, which in turn results in more specialized HITS that you may qualify to complete.

Since actively participating in Mechanical Turk on January 30, I have completed 27 tasks, netting me a whopping $2.63; I wager I have spent maybe an hour in total on the site, “working”.

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While this may not seem like a great deal of money, I’m okay with that; come Christmas time, I may have enough in store to buy a family member a nice gift, or a “special treat” for the kiddos.  If I’m going to spend time online anyway, I may as well use the time to my advantage!

Come back on Thursday to learn of another great way to earn a few extra bucks!

Quitting Food Waste

I read a lot, and a lot of that lately has been about how to save money and save the environment. One thing I don’t remember being expressly talked about (but always there, somewhere) is the idea of not wasting food.

So I did a little research and found out:

– 1/3 of all food produced each year in the world is not consumed, but wasted

– Here in the United States, food waste is the 2nd largest category of landfill waste

– The food waste in the US works out to average 20 pounds per person, per month*

food waste ad on dump truckI’ve never calculated it, but I would guess that I’m around average in the amount of food I waste (if not worse). That disgusts me. I’m wasting my money, and I’m wasting food that others’ could eat.

Then, I throw it in dumpster where it will rot in a landfill that will scar the landscape and be sealed off, so those nutrients will not be able to nourish anyone else for a very long time.

I’m done with that.

I’m going to follow Sharon Astyk’s lead (author of Depletion and Abundance) and try better the American average by 90%. So starting now, I’m going to work towards wasting less than 2 pounds of food a month. I’d love to get to that point by the end of 2015.

What are my strategies for wasting less? (this is the section where my mom will shake her head, because I have always been an eat-very-little-of-my-plate-when-eating-out, leftover-hating girl)

1. Buy only what I know I’ll eat/use. My Buy Little Month helped me to be more intentional in what I buy. I want to continue that intentionality.

2. Use what is close to spoiling first. This will mean going outside o my comfort zone a little, because I have always been a strict follower of sell-by dates. I obviously don’t want to make myself (or anyone else) sick, but a little investigation will help me figure out what I can safely use. Recently, I researched eggs and now know how to read the carton as well as how to determine if an egg has gone bad (without having to crack it).

3. Don’t make more than I’ll eat. Living alone, I’ve gotten pretty good with this, but there’s always room for improvement.

4. When eating out, don’t order more than I’ll eat. Did I mention that I don’t like leftovers? I’ve grown to figure out how to eat my own leftovers, but I still don’t like restaurant leftovers.  I need to find smaller meals or items à la carte to order. Thankfully, I don’t eat out much.

Hopefully at some point, I’ll start composting, too, but I’m not ready to attract that kind of bug life to my apartment or balcony.

Will you join me in quitting food waste?

Photo by North Devon Council

*The stats found above can be found here

A Timely Exercise

6358946399_e18fb90c25_zI recently read a staggering statistic:  we Americans spend an unbelievable amount of time on our smartphones, to the tune of 30+ hours a month for many.

This may not be news to you, but it was about to really hit home for me.  While listening to NPR recently, I learned of the Bored and Brilliant challenge that would begin in February.  The premise:  we spend an unbelievable amount of time on our phones, to the detriment of permitting ourselves to just be.  Being bored allows for creativity to blossom, but our smartphones can (and do) get in the way of that endeavor.  So…why not make an extra effort to get off the phone?  The WNYC Bored and Brilliant challenge aimed to help with that.

Intrigued, I signed up.  I downloaded the recommended app (BreakFree for Android, Moment for iOS, RescueTime for Windows phone users), and continued to use my phone as I normally did.  I figured it would be an easy exercise; I wasn’t one of those folks whose eyes never looks up from their smartphone.  I actually interacted with my kids and family at the dinner table.  I had hobbies that didn’t revolve around technology. I didn’t text and drive either!

Pride goes before the fall.  By the end of Day One, I had unlocked my phone a staggering 68 times, and spent over four hours dinking around on the internet and messaging.

Just the day before, I had been remarking to a friend about how busy I was.  It would appear that’s where all my “busyness” was stemming from…because, you know, Facebook waits for no one.

I felt a lot of emotions after reading my usage breakdown:  guilt, anger, and shock being the top three.  I could justify all I wanted to, but when the kids go down for naps, that should not result in an internet binge session!  I could have been doing so much more with my time, activities that would have held some value for myself and my family.  I was angry that just a few months ago I didn’t even have a smartphone, and now that I did, I had spent untold hours doing mindless surfing–hours I’d never get back.  I was utterly shocked that I could spend that much time on my phone doing things I couldn’t even recall.

You might think that this revelation would have resulted in a change of habit.

You would be wrong.

Although I was more conscious of my phone usage, the first few days of the challenge I continued to unlock my phone dozens of times and spent hours on it.  Except for two phone calls, absolutely none of it was necessary.

Thankfully, my phone time has improved since the start of the challenge, though it is certainly a work in progress.  For some, the time-suck may be the TV (although no cable could potentially help with that!); for others, it may be time spent on an actual computer or gaming.  It may not even be technologically-related at all.  Most of us have a vice that competes with our time though.

H. Jackson Brown, Jr. once said, “Don’t say you don’t have enough time.  You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Theresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”  I am not the next great genius humanity has to offer, but I will readily admit that I have plenty of time to do all that needs to be done and then some; I just need to work on managing my gift of time a bit better.

Photo by Johan Larsson

Joint Book Review: Radical by David Platt

radicalFebruary’s joint book review is a book that both of us have read several times: Radical by David Platt. Though it’s first a book about radical devotion to Christ (as opposed to the American Dream), it’s been influential in our journey towards being better stewards.

Particularly relevant to this blog is the chapter, “How Much is Enough? American Wealth in a World of Poverty.”

Ronnica’s Take

As a member of a Southern Baptist church, I’m very thankful for people like David Platt. I hate that American Christianity as a whole (and evangelicals and Southern Baptists in particular) have been slow to recognize our responsibility to the greater world to change our consumption habits. I think this is an absolute shame. I don’t want to find my allies in green causes outside the church, but that is largely where I have found them to this point.

There are two points that Platt makes that especially spoke to me upon this rereading. The first is that American Christians have gone way off course in following our culture into obsessive materialism. Our lifestyles should indicate that there is something greater than things, but that’s a hard point to make when we live in the same 4,000-square-foot homes bulging with stuff and drive the same high-debt, over-polluting vehicles.

The second point that stood out to me this time is that following Christ demands great sacrifice. God doesn’t just want a couple of hours a week and 10% of our paycheck. He wants it all. How can I deny Him who has given me “life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25)?

It goes without saying that I recommend Radical. I’ll end my section with a great quote:

“There is never going to come a day when I stand before God and he looks at me and says, ‘I wish you would have kept more for yourself.’ ” – p.123

Amanda’s Take

Full disclosure:  when I first delved into this book, I almost stopped reading before I hit the second chapter.  The first thought that came to mind was, “This is why Ronnica and I can’t discuss religion.”  I come from a more liberal branch of Christianity, and much of the theology Platt teaches runs contrary to my own belief system.  I especially struggle with his beliefs regarding salvation and eternal life.

So why then do I reread this book at least once a year and recommend it so highly?

For the underlying message of turning away from the American Dream toward a more fulfilling way of living out my faith.  

As Ronnica notes, the American Dream has become increasingly “increased.”  No more does the traditional view of the American Dream (working hard, succeeding on your own terms) hold sway.  These days, American Christians (and non-Christians) seem to live in a way entirely antithetical to the Gospel–huge homes, huge amounts of debt, focusing on the “me” rather than the “we” in issues like the environment.  It’s something I struggle with daily as well–it’s part of being a sinner and saint.

Platt provides a refreshing perspective in this regard, emphasizing that being a follower of Christ does, indeed, require great sacrifice.  That’s something I can get behind, regardless of the theology I ascribe to.

Although each chapter has a good “take-away message”, I agree that the chapter on American wealth in a world of poverty is the one that spoke to me the most, and is certainly most relevant to this blog.  It is difficult to follow a man who emphasized the non-earthly when the focus all around us is on the earthly.

This book is a great read for anyone needing a good, faith-based reality check on the American way.  And, on a personal note, it also started a great dialogue on faith between my sister-in-law and me.

Community Resources for Young Families

10477069_10102174195861029_5966045097752372786_nAs has been alluded to in past posts, our son, “Peanut”, has a few issues that require special attention.  He is not alone in this:  his sister, “Bean”, also needed a little extra help catching up with her peers.  And, if statistics are anywhere near correct, one in six kids have at least one developmental disability.

Although Bean is now progressing at an above-average rate (early interventions really do work!), Peanut has a little bit of a longer road ahead.  Fortunately, we have a small army of helpers behind us.

Enter early childhood interventions.

I don’t think nearly enough people are aware of the incredible amount of resources that are available to anyone who needs or wants them.  In true Amanda-list fashion, I wanted to highlight some of the programs we have encountered in our brief parenting journey thus far.  More than that, I also wanted to call attention to the fact that there is an abundance of programs out there for families with young children, regardless of your child’s ability–you just have to know where to look.

The first place I recommend going to is your local school district.  In our particular district, and in many others across the country, the early childhood program in place is known as Parents as Teachers.  With this program, a “Parent Educator” comes into your home each month, and helps explain your child’s development, provides screenings (like free hearing tests), and offers resources, among other things.

I have enjoyed the fun, developmentally-appropriate activities they discuss at each visit, and it was through PAT that I learned about the next key resource listed here.  Many PAT affiliates also have playgroups or play centers, which allow you to hang out with other parents of young kids–a real boon to a stay-at-home parent!

It does not matter what ability your child may or may not have, or even if you do not intend to send your child to school in that district, when the time comes.  It is just a great program that helps to inform parents and families of the amazing things your child is doing!

Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the state of Kansas provides a federally mandated program that gives early intervention to babies and toddlers who are showing signs of developmental delays or physical disabilities.  In our area, a specific organization has qualified therapists that work with children who need a little extra help in certain areas.

What this looks like for us is an occupational therapist and physical therapist come to our home each week to work with Peanut; specialists would come and work with Bean when she was younger, too.  While they do bill your insurance if they are able, no one is ever turned away because of an inability to pay.  Because I know there are some readers in Ronnica’s new home state of Colorado, a good place to start is here.  Kansas readers can start here.  Other states can do a simple search engine check by typing in your state and “early intervention.”

Don’t discount the abundance of national programs at your disposal, either.  Such programs as the InfantSEE program involves a network of optometrists nationwide that provide free vision screenings for infants age 6 to 12 months.  Although not common, vision problems need to be addressed at an early age to prevent more complicated issues down the line.

If all else fails, head to your child’s pediatrician.  They will typically know of resources that may not be openly publicized in your community, and have the medical expertise needed to point you in the right direction.

Children are a gift, and one that requires care and cultivation just as any other gift does.  There are tools out there that help make the job of parenting a little easier, because, really, we could all use a little help!

The Many Purposes of a Mason Jar

I know there’s a lot of artsy projects using mason jars on Pinterest, but I’ve never tried any of them. To me, mason jars are a practical tool not a craft supply.

mason jar dry storageI stumbled on the usefulness of mason jars unintentionally. When I moved into my first apartment on my own three years ago, I was looking for storage for my dry goods. While I would have loved a cute canister set, I couldn’t afford it at the time with everything else I needed.

Still, I didn’t like the mess of storing flour and sugar in Ziploc bags as I had been doing, so I looked to the container aisle at Walmart for something that would work. I realized I could use mason jars for the same amount of storage, but less than a third of the cost of the cheapest canister set that I could find. Turns out, they could be cute in their own right, too.

Since then, I have gone back to buy new sets of mason jars. I now own about 30 quart-sized mason jars and another 30 freezable pint-sized jars. The smaller jars are mostly used for freezing my garden produce for year-round use, while the quart-sized ones are all-purpose.

Why do I use mason jars?

1. They’re inexpensive.
2. They’re durable. I’ve dropped a jar a couple of times, but have not yet had one break. Some jars are even marked for use in the freezer (though remember to leave the contents a little space to expand!).
3. I’m using less plastic. I would love to switch all my plastic storage containers to glass one day. This is a good first step.
4. They’re reusable. Once I empty one (and I do empty them at a rate of 2-3/week), it goes in the wash before going on my spare jar shelf. Since they don’t nest, you do have to have a little extra space to store jars, but it’s worth it to me.
5. They’re easily filled. If you’re going to use mason jars as regularly as I am, I recommend investing in a jar-specific funnel like this one:mason jar funnel

6. I can write on them. On pasta, I make note of the time needed to cook it. On dry goods, I mark them so I remember which is which. On canning items, I mark the date. I write on the jars and the lids with sharpie: it’ll slowly wear off with washes.

So what good is a mason jar? Here are a few things I’ve stored in mason jars:

IMG_13931. dry goods (flour, sugar, cornmeal, oats)
2. nuts and seeds (almonds, pecans, chia, flax)
3. pasta (the wide-mouth jars are particularly good for this purpose)
4. leftovers
5. homemade pickles
6. jewelry (during my move)

Mason jars are of course not the only possible storage solution, but it has worked for me. What system has you found to simply keep yourself organized in the kitchen?

Happy Valentine’s Day From the Frugals

Yesterday, Ronnica discussed what she’s looking for in a man, financially-speaking.

I’m in a different season of life in that I’ve already found my valentine, financially and otherwise, in her brother, Riley.

*cue sappy music*

So what are a couple of frugal folks doing to celebrate this holiday of love?

At this point, nothing.  We already went on an extended weekend, sans kids, to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary last month.  We opted to stay a little closer to home and visit the place where it all began:  KU.

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We took in a symphony concert, a basketball game, and ate a ton of nutritionally-questionable food, all in the name of romance and reconnecting, to say nothing of saving money–values we can both definitely get behind.  Going into debt to show each other our love and affection for each other just doesn’t make much sense.

This particular weekend really solidified for me the importance of experiences over things.  If you happen to be a parent, you can probably relate to the challenge that comes with nurturing your relationship with your partner as well as with your kids.  I can’t recommend a weekend away enough.  Such times also provide a great opportunity for little ones to get quality time in with their grandparents or other trusted adult!

All this to say, we don’t plan to do anything unique for Valentine’s Day.  Sometimes a smooch and an “I love you”, or a kind gesture (like emptying the dishwasher…HINT HINT!) is the best gift there is.

Have a wonderful Valentine’s Day everyone!

Wanted: a Financially-Savvy Valentine

rose_gardenI never thought I’d still be single at the age of 32, but here I am.

Because I naively thought that I’d have a husband to care for me so I didn’t need to worry about finances, I wasn’t mindful of the future when I made financial decisions (some decided by inaction) for most of my 20s.

I don’t know that I’ll marry, but if I do, I’ll be asking some hard questions about any prospective suitor’s finances. Here’s what I’m looking for in a man as far as stewardship:

1. Generosity. Though I haven’t talked about it a lot here yet, giving is an important part of my budget and the use of my personal time and possessions, and I hope it would be for my future husband as well.

2. Debt-free (or on his way to be). I’m not debt-free yet myself, but Lord-willing I will be this year. I really wouldn’t want to turn around and marry into a lot of debt, unless he was making strides to get himself out of it.

3. Not a frivolous spender. I’m not looking for a guy who has an expensive hobby, the fastest car or biggest TV…or has the life ambition to get them.

4. Mindful of the greater world. Part of this would be a part of “generosity,” but in addition, I want to marry someone who is aware that his actions impact others, now and in the future. Of course, the ramifications of this is something that will take a lifetime to consider.

5. A saver, not a spender. Naturally, I’m a spender. But I’ve been learning to be a saver. I would want to marry a man who is a saver (or who is learning to be one).

6. Has a financial plan. There’s lots of reasonable possibilities, but it’s important to me that the man I’d consider marrying has a plan for providing for himself and the potential of a future family. I’m definitely not looking for someone who is a millionaire.

If you are single, what are you looking for in a future partner? If you are in a relationship, what did you wish you had discussed before committing?

Photo by Jan Fidler