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Friday, January 6, 2012

Christmas Lessons Learned: Lesson #3 - Party On!

The Holidays are full of some fun & fabulous parties. The ones we attend usually involve bringing an appetizer or dessert, bottle of wine, and usually gifts for gift exchanges as well. I found myself scrambling a bit for a few of these party preparations, so here are some things I am going to do for next year.

1) Stock up on Wine!

I like to bring a bottle of wine for the party hosts. My husband is more of the wine fan than I am, so I usually let him pick the varieties. He knows the good ones! I do not want to bring just an ok or cheap bottle of wine, but something nice. I do want to make sure that we are stocked up on wine for gifts well before the holiday rush begins. This means another item to look for deal on throughout the year! Our local Total Wine store often has coupons in the Sunday paper that will help offset the cost. Costco also will often have good deals, although this year I made the mistake of going there on the weekend before Christmas - Big Mistake! Also make sure to have enough wine bags/bows etc. to make the bottles festive.

2) Have Recipes & Appetizers Ready!

I have once again made the mistake this year of trying a new recipe the day of a potluck. This time it was a Mexican Rice Pudding (which I had never made) that I over cooked and ended up scorching a new stainless steel pot. It also stunk up the whole house! So, I really need to stick to my tried & true recipes. Have a few recipes on hand that are your favorites and fairly easy for you to throw together. if you want to try some new recipes be sure to test them out ahead of time. September is a great month to start testing recipes on your family. One of my favorite holiday appetizer recipes is Bacon Wrapped Ricotta Stuffed Dates. Always a hit! So I will stick to that one as an appetizer choice. I also like to stock up on frozen items to bring to potlucks, including thaw & serve desserts, quiche, and other appetizers. These are so handy & quick to prepare. This year I will be looking for some good sales to combine with my coupons throughout the year. Always check the expiration dates to make sure they will not go bad before the holidays. Sometimes you can find great frozen items on clearance but their expiration date is often just around the corner.

3) Have a Few Gifts Ready to Go!

We always end up going to a few parties with gift exchanges. The value range is typically around $20-$25. Go through the gifts you got this year. Did you receive a gift card you ate not sure what to spend it on? Or maybe you received a duplicate gift or a gift you are not too fond of, but it's general enough someone is bound to enjoy it? Wrap them up now for these parties! Simply put a tag on it indicating "Gift Exchange" and a post-it to remind you what's inside (and to remind you who gave it to you to avoid an awkward "Didn't you get that from me last year?!") & you're ready to go! Gift Cards are usually big hits. Costco offers gift cards usually at discounts. This year I bought $40 worth of Cold Stone Gift Cards for $28! So, if you want to go that route keep your eyes open around Fall for those deals. Keep an eye out for good deals throughout the year for these gifts and add a few line items to the Christmas Spreadsheet to account for them. It's a good idea to have a limit too, so you can control the clutter. If you typically go to 3-4 gatherings with gift exchanges, you may want to set a limit of 5 gifts to have on hand (10 if you bring one for you & your spouse). There are always "great deals" throughout the year and setting a limit will help curb the clutter, not to mention help keep your wallet full too!

So get ready to get your Holiday Party On in 2012!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Christmas Lessons Learned: Lesson #2 - Family Photos & Greeting Cards

One thing is for sure - getting Holiday cards out on time takes some preparation! Here are some of my lessons learned to ensure they get out on time (or early!), with ease and at a great value!

1) Schedule time on your Calendar Now!
I like to get our cards mailed out by the Monday after Thanksgiving. The past few years we have done professional portrait sessions. Either way, if you do photo cards and do not want to be in a scramble to get them sent out, you've got to either have your photos ready or plan your portrait session around late October to Mid-November. I put a note on my calendar around mid-October to schedule our portrait session.

2) Prepare your Supplies ahead of time.
Make sure you have adequate amounts of stamps, envelope stiks (to save from all the licking!), return address labels, stickers, and whatever other embellishments you like to use. I like ordering stamps from www.usps.com. Stamps will arrive in your mail box for only $1 shipping. A dollar well spent for the convenience factor! I also like ordering festive return address labels from www.Vistaprint.com. Great deals! Please note though - if you want to pay the minimal amount of shipping, allow a lot of time & choose the slowest shipping method.

3) Address Labels
I have a whole separate category for address labels. This is going to be a project for me to take care of in January so I don't end up just hand addressing the cards like I've done the past 2 years! Probably one of the easiest things to do is to create an address label template, update it with address changes, and additions and print out. Make sure you have enough labels when you check your supplies ahead of time. I am going to update my labels now, print them out for next year, and put them in my Christmas folder. If I have any additions by the time Christmas rolls around, it will most likely only be a few that I have to hand address.

4) Card Options
There are so many options for cards! If you do traditional non-photo cards, or the cards you can slip photos in, shop the after Christmas sales for the best deals.

Another exciting option is Send Out Cards. You open an account, set up an address book, and can send cards out right from your computer! No trip to the post office required - all of the cards are printed from their facility & mailed out for you. So easy! You can make custom photo cards as well - create one Holiday card, and with just a few clicks that card will be sent to everyone in your address book! I use Send Out Cards throughout the year to send cards for all occasions and to save me trips to the post office - you can also set up reminders for Birthdays and other special occasions. For more info., please visit my friends website: www.sendoutcards.com/4theboys

Some other online photo card websites I like: Shutterfly, Erin Condren, and Tiny Prints. They offer some really unique and beautiful designs. Be sure to check out www.RetailMeNot.com to check for any current deals & offer codes they have.

If you are looking to save a lot, Costco has probably the best deal out there. Look in their November coupon book for a $5 off coupon on Photo Greeting Cards. Trick is, you have to have your photos ready and complete your photo order before the coupon expires around the end of November. Hence, the planning early with the photo sessions! With this deal, you get 50 Photo Cards plus 4 Photo Card Calendars for $9.99! (Regularly $14.99) They come with silver lined envelopes and you can order additional cards in groups of 25 or 50.

5) Displaying Holiday Cards
There are many options for displaying cards; on the fridge, hung up, in a basket. I have kept mine in a Christmas themed metal basket hung on a hook in my entry way. However, my kids will be a little older next year, and I am hoping to display them on a ribbon on my doorway. Some great examples of card displays can be found Here. If you have a Pinterest account, pick your favorite displays, pin them, print them out & put in your Christmas folder for next year.

I hope this has helped inspire you to simplify your Holiday Card process! Happy New Years & Happy planning! :)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Christmas Lessons Learned: Lesson #1 - Gifts

Happy 2012 Everyone!

I know it's time to celebrate the New Year, but before I move on to New Year's stuff, Christmas is still on my mind as we are taking down decorations. There are a few lessons learned form both this Christmas and Christmas' past I would like to share. Each year I try to be a little more prepared for the next Christmas. It really helps to minimize the busyness and to be able to really enjoy the season with my family rather than having lots of things on my to do list. This week I will be sharing these lessons and things I am going to be doing to prepare for Christmas 2012.

Lesson #1: Gifts

We are a gift giving family. I love giving gifts. I also want to find the best deals possible. In order to do this, I must be on the lookout for deals throughout the year. I have a Christmas spreadsheet with every family member & friends name that we make things and/or buy for. When Christmas ends, I save another version of the spreadsheet for the following year and make any necessary changes or additions. Here's a snapshot of the spreadsheet:

I track how much I spend for budgeting purposes. I also fill the wrapped box with a color to indicate when wrapping has been done. Next year I am going to try and wrap throughout the year. Luckily I have decluttered a lot and have some empty bins in the garage to store gifts. I buy wrapping supplies after Christmas at great discounts. This year I needed some sticky bows and labels, both which I found at 50% off. I am a gift bag lover - they store so well. For the past few years we have been lucky enough to receive enough gift bags in great reusable condition to recycle for the next year. The Notes column of the spreadsheet is handy for things like needing to buy additional accessories like batteries, or if I need extra supplies for items I am making.

I also love making gifts. This year I found myself scrambling to make them at the last minute. I was still making my gifts in the jar Christmas Eve! For 2012, I am choosing what gifts I am going to make now. This saves me the decision making process and allows me to even make the gifts throughout the year, (as long as they are not perishable!) I also would like to choose a cookie recipe to make. I will be choosing that ahead of time as well. If you give cookies or other baked treats for the Holidays, get to the clearance aisles now to stock up on tins & other great holiday containers! I have heard of some people even making a Christmas binder to organize these Christmas things. For now, I am just going to make a Christmas tab within our family binder. Under this tab will be a paper version of my spreadsheet, my notes & supplies needed for my homemade gifts, and the recipe for my Christmas cookies. I am also going to have an envelope for any gift cards or cash I get throughout the year to spend specifically on gifts.

Throughout this week I will be sharing more Christmas Lessons. I hope they inspire you to have an amazing Holiday Season 2012!

Cheers to a New Year and New Organized You! :)