Preschool has been tough for my zero-wasting heart. Besides countless papers and craft projects, my daughter has brought home bags of Valentine’s Day gifts, Halloween candy, plastic Easter eggs, and, of course, the birthday favors from her 17 classmates. This is all very sweet and well intended, but it produces a lot of waste.
Still, I can only do what I can do, so we have tried to reduce the waste that we send into the classroom as much as possible. I pack Evangeline’s snack [always fruit or vegetables] in a beeswax wrap, and I send her with a reusable silicone bag to collect the compostable items from her class [a task that she LOVES].
We made homemade cards and zero-waste Christmas gifts for her teachers and wrapped them in simple brown paper bags.
And we gave cuties as Valentine’s Day gifts, tied with compostable string and tag.
I was thinking that since my daughter’s birthday was in the summer I could just avoid the whole “birthday treat” tradition altogether. But I received a letter that they would be celebrating the summer birthdays after all. They encouraged a non-edible gift of some sort – which eliminated my idea of sending home baked cookies wrapped in paper. Instead, I decided to send sidewalk chalk.
I figured that these could be purchased in cardboard boxes and tied with string. And what child doesn’t love sidewalk chalk?
Well, imagine my horror when I opened the box of chalk to find the sticks wrapped in plastic!!
You win some, you lose some, I suppose. They made a cute gifts anyway.
Of course, now I’ve found tutorials showing how to make chalk from household items like cornstarch or EGG SHELLS! What?!?
My son, Theo, turned three a few days ago. In keeping with our new sustainability and zero waste principles, we made a big deal of our time together [at Chuck E Cheese for the afternoon] and downplayed the gift portion of the celebration. We actually never even mentioned a gift and he never asked for one.
But, of course, we did give him a gift – a set of used Paw Patrol characters and their vehicles [one of which I used to decorate his “Paw Patrol” birthday cake that all the kids helped decorate.]
A few weeks ago we began looking for someone selling a used set of these Paw Patrol trucks because we knew how much Theo would love them. Living in the Chicagoland area meant that they were easy to find. We ended up buying a set of six vehicles and eight characters for $15. At Target, these Paw Patrol vehicle/character sets sells for $15 each.
But the point here is that it’s actually not about the money at all. Yes, there was a savings, but it’s not like we couldn’t afford to buy it all brand-new.
Why buy used?
The motivation for buying used is to give a second [or third or fourth] life to something bound for the garbage bin. Rather feeding the machine that is constantly making new toys [especially plastic toys] we should be intentionally prolonging the life of the current toy population. I basically rescued these trucks from a landfill. I am essentially a super hero. And they are perfectly fine toys. In fact, my son ADORES them and couldn’t care less whether they were purchased new.
Why not buy used?
So it got me thinking about why I would still never show up at another kid’s birthday party with a gift purchased second-hand. It’s one thing to buy a used gift for my own kid, but a completely different story if I’m going to give a gift to someone else.
There is some unwritten social code that says it’s unacceptable to give gifts that are second-hand.
We even frown [although slightly less so] on “re-gifting” and most people would agree that the appropriate way to re-gift an item is if the recipient doesn’t know it’s re-gifted.
Isn’t that strange? Why should it matter?
Gift giving today is about the represented dollar value, not how much it will be appreciated.
I think that what has happened to our society is that gift giving has become more about the ritual [i.e. gifts are required at certain holidays and events] and the dollar value [i.e. gifts need to be within a certain price range] than it is about the recipient’s enjoyment of the gift.
At my first baby shower, a cousin of mine gave me a gift for the baby – purchased new, obviously. After I opened it, she handed me a pair of baby girl Sperrys that she had found used and thought were so cute she had to get them for my baby, but she gave them to me separately because she wanted to explain that they were second-hand.
I LOVE those pink cheetah-print baby Sperrys! It didn’t matter if they were new or not. Both of my baby girls have worn them – and I’m sure this third baby girl will as well.
I find it perplexing and rather sad that we don’t feel free to give gifts just for the sake of their enjoyment value.
Similarly, when I started dating my husband, he and his siblings had a Christmas tradition of trading names for a gift exchange. They had set a value of $75 and then provided a detailed list of things they wanted. I went shopping with Brett that year and watched him cross items off the list and tally up the total dollar amount for his sister-in-law.
I couldn’t even believe it. Is this what gift-giving has become? I felt, even back then, that this was the total antithesis of what giving a gift should be.
Have you been out shopping for a gift and had some sort of mental idea of how much you needed to spend? Somewhere between being “too cheap” and being “too flashy”? And have you been invited to a party or shower or event and known without any overt statement that a gift is a requirement – or at least you would be viewed as a party crasher if you showed-up empty-handed? Have you tried to make sure that each of your kids gets the same general value of gifts or the same number of packages on Christmas morning?
Can we go back?
Can we go back to giving a gift purely because we want to, rather than because it’s required? Can we go back to giving a gift just because we know someone will love it and not care about how much it cost or where it came from?
I’m hoping that by continuing to exchange used gifts [whenever possible] in my immediate family that I will teach my children that gifts are for the purpose of making people feel loved and appreciated by giving something that they will love – not out of obligation or to follow social customs or to show that we have the means to buy new, expensive things.
Buying used isn’t being cheap, it’s being responsible.
Theo was so excited about those Paw Patrol toys that he didn’t even want to eat cake. Everyone else ate cake while Theo played with the trucks. All the other kids came to the table for cake eventually, but Theo only wanted to play.
These toys were the perfect gift – because they were used and because no one cared that they were used. They represented our commitment to sustainability and our belief that the value of a gift doesn’t come from how much is spent or where it is purchased, but from whether it is given out of love.
Theo’s Birthday Video
As is my new tradition for the kids, here is a short video highlighting Theo’s third year.
Since I first moved out on my own, I have been trying to figure out this whole grocery shopping thing – how to eat well without overspending money or time.
I have tried everything – from couponing to rebate apps to stockpiling boxes of granola bars[not healthy, by the way]. I shopped exclusively at Aldi for a time. I followed popular shopping bloggers and ran to the store every time they said there was a good deal.
None of these things worked for me. They were all time-consuming and exhausting and didn’t actually seem to save me much money and on top of all that, we weren’t eating healthy foods.
So I’ve been trying to figure out how to spend less on groceries without sacrificing quality or healthfulness.
After ten years, I have FINALLY reached a place where grocery shopping is no longer expensive, time-consuming, or unhealthy. I spend less time meal planning, less time at the grocery store, and less time stressing over the grocery budget than I ever have.
To give you an idea of how much you can save, here are USDA’s recommended grocery budgets.
They vary based on the number and ages of you family members and based on whether you are living lean [“Thrifty plan”] or high on the hog [“Liberal plan”].
So according to this chart, for my family of five, a thrifty plan would be $561.50 per month, if I don’t count my youngest who is only 18 months old, or $655.60 if I do count her.
Doesn’t really matter because our budget is $400/month. This doesn’t include our eating out budget which is $60/month and allows us to eat out about twice per month. Also, every other month we cut our budget in half [a lengthy explanation of which I may write and post someday]. So, technically, we feed our family for $300/month, if we average it out.
That may sound like a lot or a little to you depending on your situation, but for us, it is less than half of what Brett and I were spending back when it was just the two of us – and we weren’t eating nearly as healthy as we do now.
[I’m harping on the healthy thing because anyone can eat ramen noodles every day and save tons of money, but I have found that I can eat super healthy – I’m talking fresh produce and high quality foods – and still save money. So if you are one of the many people today who believe that eating healthy is more expensive, please read on.]
So how do we feed our family healthy foods with so little money? Well, for starters we buy very few processed foods [for our health] and we do our best to avoid packaged foods [for the health of our planet]. Those two things contribute a little bit to our savings – but I know that they are not the reality for the average American [though I wish they were].
The bulk of the money and time is saved by following these five simple rules:
1. Buy what is on sale.
Rather than creating a meal plan and then buying the ingredients regardless of the price, I let the weekly ads determine what we eat each week. In my area, each Wednesday, grocery stores roll out new ads with new deals. I compare the ads from four different local grocers and then choose the one [or maybe two] with the best sales and that’s where I’ll be shopping that week.
Besides simplifying meal planning, another benefit of this rule is that it saves a lot of time at the grocery store. I know exactly what I’m going in to get. I don’t need to price compare a bunch of different options, or stroll down aisles looking at different food choices, or fall prey to the clever marketing tricks like flashy signs and end-caps. I go in, get what’s on sale, get out.
Bottom line, if it’s not on sale, I don’t buy it.
[As with all rules, there are exceptions. In the case of rule #1, I don’t buy my bulk dry goods on sale because most stores don’t offer regular sales on bulk goods. In this case, I am prioritizing my obligation to the health of the planet over money – ALWAYS a good choice, by the way. But I still save plenty of money.]
2. Set price limits.
Over the past two years I’ve learned what a good sale price is for most items and I have set rules for how cheap they need to be. Simply being “on sale” is not necessarily good enough. Not all sale prices are created equal. For example, it is extremely rare that I will buy produce at Aldi because their sale prices are never as good as my other local grocers. If you [as most people do] assume that Aldi is cheaper for everything simply because it’s Aldi, then you are overpaying.
In order to figure out what a good sale price is, you have to pay attention to sales in your area over a period of months. My price limits are still changing as time goes on. For example, I used to only buy boneless chicken if it was under $2/lb, but after a while I learned that I could find it at least once a month for $1.49/lb. So that became my new price limit.
Here are some examples of my price limits [understand that prices will vary greatly depending on your location]:
I won’t buy produce for more than $1/lb. Sometimes I do buy blackberries at $.88/6oz package and I will buy avocados if they are $.79/each or less, but I don’t make a habit of buying these items because they are so expensive compared to normal produce.
I won’t buy cheese for more than $1.50/8oz package. If cheese is not on sale for this price or less, we just do without cheese. It’s not even really a hardship. In fact, I think it has improved my children’s appreciation for the taste of real foods not covered in cheese.
I won’t buy eggs for more than $1/dozen. Though, I admit, I am going to buy eggs from our farm CSA this summer at $5/carton, but in this case, I am prioritizing supporting local agriculture and health over saving money. I will also be limiting our eggs to one carton per week.
Your rules will depend on what eat, but everything should have a price limit required for purchase. There will always be off cases when you simply must have something – like butter to make buttercream for your son’s birthday cake – and it’s not on sale. Okay. Sometimes we have to bend the rules.
3. Eat less meat…and live longer and healthier lives.
I’m a fitness professional, not a registered dietician or nutritionist, so you don’t have to agree with me on the healthful side of this rule. Eat meat if you want, but know this, meat is WAY MORE expensive than plant-based foods. We used to make two or three chicken breasts for our family of five for dinner. Now, we all share one chicken breast [oftentimes less] and fill the majority of our plates with vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes.
This is the USDA’s newest recommendation for healthy eating which has replaced the typical food pyramid we all learned in grade school.
Notice that three quarters of the plate are filled with plant-based foods. Now think about how your dinner plate typically looks. Most Americans eat a meat heavy diet, with the protein being the main course and the vegetables and fruits being “sides.”
If you need further evidence, watch the documentary, In Defense of Food, or read the book with the same title by Michael Pollan.
Time to rethink the way we eat…and hopefully soon because the health epidemic in our country is quite literally frightening. But the good news is, eating more plant-based foods is CHEAPER!
Also, according to the chart below by health.gov, over 85% of the population is not eating the recommended amount of vegetables…
C’mon, people. Let’s eat some more veggies!
[Someday I’ll go into greater detail about how to eat healthy on a budget. It is not hard, folks. I promise you!]
4. Buy less food.
This might sound obvious, but apparently it needs to be stated anyway because we have a bit of an overeating problem in America.
According to the CDC, 39.8% of adults in the US are obese [read about it here.] And, shockingly, according to this article by NPR, 75% of Americans believe themselves to be eating healthy…so why are obesity rates so high?
There are lots of factors that contribute to the obesity issue, but no matter where you look, portion size and overeating are partially to blame.
Nutrition scholarMarion Nestleat New York University says portion size — just eating too much — is an issue. “I’d vote for that as a major cause of obesity,” Nestle told us by email.
“Some of the problem is that individuals pay more attention to getting good things in their diet than they do to limiting overall intake,” addsDavid Just, a behavioral economist who studies food psychology at Cornell University.– npr.org
The accessibility of food in our society has made overeating too easy. Yes, restaurants serve us too much food, but we also serve ourselves too much food at home. We also stock too much food in our kitchen, making it too easy to eat whatever we want whenever we feel like it.
Let’s all do ourselves a favor and buy less food. There is no reason to stockpile canned goods as if we are fearing an imminent apocalypse…unless you are fearing an imminent apocalypse…in which case, there is no need to save your money because it will be useless when the zombies take over.
Some basic ways to buy less food is:
Go grocery shopping once a week and only buy what you need for that week.
Buy fresh produce so you CAN’T stockpile it. Fresh food is healthier, more likely to be local, and tastes WAY BETTER!
Don’t buy [or buy very little] unhealthy snacks and treats. Don’t spend your hard-earned money on food that is going to make you sick and unhappy in the long run.
Avoid processed and packaged foods – for the sake of your wallet, your health, and the planet.
5. Eat all the food you buy.
Again, this seems obvious…but apparently it’s not because 40% of food in America is thrown away.
In 2012, NRDC published a groundbreaking report that revealed that up to 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten. That is on average 400 pounds of food per person every year. Not only is that irresponsible—it’s expensive [emphasis mine]. Growing, processing, transporting, and disposing that uneaten food has an annual estimated cost of $218 billion, costing a household of four an average of $1,800 annually. – NRDC report by Dana Gunders, source
And before you go blaming it all on grocery stores, this infographic created by the NRDC says that households and restaurants are the biggest generators of food waste [at least in Denver, Nashville and New York].
Of course, on the other hand, we have lots of families in our country who struggle to put food on the table.
So besides the cost of wasted food, I feel just plain terrible knowing that I am throwing food awaywhen some people are not eating today. And I feel like a terrible hypocrite if I talk about our grocery budget being “tight” while I’m throwing food in the trash – or even in the compost bin.
In my home, we do everything we possibly can to avoid wasting food. Some of the ways to reduce our food waste are:
Eat all the leftovers. I set designated days at least once but often twice per week to eat whatever we have that is close to expiring.
Only buy what you need for a week. You may not know what you need for a week, but if you find yourself throwing food out, then you know for next time that you need less. Obviously some things with longer shelf lives, like dairy products and dry goods, don’t need to be purchased weekly. That leads me to the next tip:
Don’t buy more if you still have food to eat. I don’t know why we do this but it seems that it’s totally normal to go buy a full cart of groceries when we still have enough food in our home to feed our family for the next six months. I’m not joking. When we got ready to sell our last home, I started using up all the food that we had in our cabinets and pantry and – oh my gosh – our second freezer. Lo and behold, we had enough food to feed us for months. I decided then and there that stocking so much food in our house was wasteful and expensive and I stopped doing it.
A word on frozen and non-perishable foods: Some people prefer to buy non-perishables because they feel like they throw out more food when they buy fresh – which they really might. The problem is not the fresh food – it’s that there is a disparity between the amount they are buying and the amount they are eating. As I said previously, fresh food is healthier, more likely to be local, and tastes WAY BETTER! Buy fresh food – just not so much – and then EAT IT!
So, this has been a book. If you’ve stuck with me, I hope you’ve found some useful information and, hopefully, some motivation to improve your spending and eating habits.
These are all things I wish someone had told me a lot earlier, but everything I found about saving money on groceries revolved around making a list, not shopping hungry, and clipping coupons. I wanted something that saved me time AND money AND made me a healthier consumer.
For me, this is it.
If you’ve found a method that works for you, share it in the comments! We all have room for improvement!
I am a lover of art, of the arts, of all things artistic – even the random scribbles of my one-year old daughter. And I am so glad that all three of my kids will happily sit at the kitchen table and color away for hours on end. But seriously, I’m being overrun by artwork.
These are all beautiful gifts that I was given IN ONE DAY. Each one is heartfelt and beautiful, but can I really justify keeping them all? WHERE would I even keep them all?
And it’s not that I don’t keep some.
Two years ago, at the age of two, my oldest daughter Evangeline painted a series of beautiful pieces that have proudly hung on our dining room wall ever since.
My husband makes fun of me regularly for displaying these – which is probably why he hasn’t gotten around to building the frame I requested for these masterpieces. [He just doesn’t appreciate toddler art the way I do, I suppose.]
Currently, I save all the school artwork [at least two pieces a day] in a filing drawer which I intend to sort through and keep favorites at the end of the school year. As for the daily collections, I typically keep them for a few days until my kids have forgotten about them and then hide them strategically in the burn bin or recycling pile. [God forbid one of the kids stumble upon their artwork in the trash!]
Going forward, I intend to give each child a display where I will rotate their artwork. But still, most of it has to go.
Is that terrible? 🤷♀️
I have a feeling I’m going to miss this constant supply of creative gifts when my kids are older and don’t even want to give me the time of day. At the moment it feels limitless, but I know it’s not.
Currently accepting suggestions on better ways to treasure these pieces of art.
This entire year, I have been on a journey to become a more mindful consumer, a more generous giver, and a less wasteful person in general. [Besides that, I have also worked very hard to eliminate all of our extra “stuff.”]
So, when Christmas time came around this year, I knew that some things had to change about the way we do gifts for our kids and loved ones.
But – how?
How do we still show everyone how much we love them without giving them a bunch of “stuff”? And how do we make more conscientious purchasing decisions while still giving people things that they will appreciate? And how do I provide my kids with the fun of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning without a lot of toys that will just end up cluttering our space?
I still don’t have perfect answers, and we didn’t do a perfect job [I should have asked these questions before Christmas to get some help from the blogging world], but we made an effort, which is the most important thing.
Here’s what we did:
Experience gifts for extended family. We gave all of our siblings and their families experience memberships [like to the local zoo for those with little kids] or gift cards to spend on an experience [like jump zone for those with older kids] or amazon/restaurant gift cards for family members without kids.
The nice thing about this type of gift is that it doesn’t even require anything to be physically exchanged [I actually texted the amazon gift cards to my siblings – thank you, 21st century!]. Can’t get much more zero waste than that. And [for the most part], the gift can be enjoyed many times throughout the year.
BUT, the downside is that there is no physical gift to open.
Used toys for our kids. If we are going to have toys to open on Christmas, I felt like we should get them used [as much as we are able]. My kids are young enough to not care at all if a gift is new or not. [Hopefully, they will never care, but that is probably wishful thinking.] We bought an AMAZING wooden train set complete with a table and rails and trains and cars [probably 100+ pieces] for $35 from a family that no longer used it. And we got an art easel from friends who were getting rid of theirs and graciously gave it to us for free. These are types of things that last for years and can be loved by many children – and are plastic-free!
That being said, we did purchase new consumables for the art easel like markers and paint and notepads and things like that. Some things cannot be purchased used. I probably didn’t put enough thought into getting these things from responsible sources [or making my own]. I know I can improve in that area in the future.
Consumable gifts from the family. Anyone who asked what to get our kids, I suggested consumables like art and craft supplies, coloring books, temporary tattoos, bandaids, or gift cards for ice cream. This really helped cut down on the toys they received and this way everything will be used. We received ornaments from two families which the kids loved. Some were homemade which were adorable and meaningful and some were supporting international orphans – also very meaningful to us.
Homemade, meaningful, or consumable gifts for others. We made chocolate pretzels for our neighbors. We gave chocolates and amazon gift cards to Evangeline’s preschool teachers. We made ornaments for our aunts/cousins.
Our Auntie Paula, who does so much for our family, got a special homemade ornament: three hearts [one for each of my kids] hanging from a moon that said “Love you to the moon” – the special saying she shares with my kids. It might have been small and not cost us anything, but sometimes something special and made with love is the best gift.
Any other ideas/suggestions? I know there are other ways to give mindfully and meaningfully. If anyone has ideas to share, let me know so I can continue to improve in this area.
We love giving to our friends and family – but now I feel the pressure to purchase from responsible sources and not burden the recipients with stuff they don’t need. It is a strange balancing act that I am new [and not very good] at.
Overall, we stayed within budget and [hopefully] made everyone feel loved and appreciated this holiday season.
We don’t actually know Daisy’s birthday, but we picked her up two years ago on December 12th so I selected that as her unofficial birthday. Each year, we throw her a birthday party as part of our 25 Days of Christmas.
The kids helped me make her cake this year.
She always gets a homemade cake – which she devours in a matter of seconds.
We get cake too, of course.
Daisy is a good dog and we love her. She puts up with a lot, so she deserves some special treatment every once in a while.
Dec 13: Homemade Hot Cocoa
One of my favorite things about the cold weather is hot cocoa! And it’s so easy to make that I always make it myself [plus, I wouldn’t think of buying the boxes of individual hot chocolate packets].
We don’t typically make hot cocoa with all the extras – but this time we had marshmallows, chocolate chips, homemade whipped cream, and peppermint sticks.
Delicious! Especially being pregnant with no wine and limited coffee – I’m drinking plenty of hot chocolate this holiday season.
Dec 14: Sugar Cookie Cutouts
Yesterday, the kids and I made Christmas sugar cookies.
Dec 15: Santa and Carriage Ride
Today we went to Geneva and visited Santa.
Then we took a carriage ride through downtown.
The beautiful, sunny 45° weather was perfect!
I’m not certain what we’re doing tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to another warm day!
The Christmas festivities have continued, but I was getting sick of posting every day [as I’m sure you all were as well].
Dec 8: Baking Christmas Cookies
On the 8th day of Christmas, the kids and I spent most of the day baking Christmas cookies for [spoiler alert] Brett’s work party that we were hosting the following day.
The Grinch Crinkle Cookies:
Red Velvet Cheesecake Cookies:
Oreo Christmas Trees:
I had planned to do the standard cut out sugar cookies as well, but my feet hurt and I was tired after four hours, so we called it quits. [Hard to believe that two months ago I ran for four hours straight and now I can’t even stand in my kitchen for four hours…ahh, pregnant life.]
Dec 9: Christmas Party
On the 9th day of Christmas, we hosted Brett’s management team for a Christmas party. We spent most of the day cleaning [since I haven’t been doing much housework these days 😬] and prepping for dinner, but the kids were allowed to stay up extra late to meet the guests and join in part of the party.
Dec 10: Arthur Christmas Movie Night
On the 10th day of Christmas, the kids and I watched Arthur Christmas for our “Monday movie night.” We had popcorn and movie candy – which are rare treats in our home.
Dec 11: Anniversary / Christmas Crafts with Auntie Paula
On the 11th day of Christmas, Brett and I celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary by going to dinner and a movie. Our wonderful Auntie Paula came over to watch the kids and she brought Christmas crafts for them to do.
It’s been fun!
We are already prepping for tonight’s annual celebration! [More on that at a later date.]