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Look on the Bottom Shelf

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It’s allergy time!!!

I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t always suffered from seasonal allergies. However, in recent years, I’ve found myself becoming more and more miserable during what are paradoxically the otherwise prettiest and nicest months of the year.

So as the itchy eyes set in and my sneezes grew in number (and force! Oof!), I decided to meander over to the nearby Walmart to find some meds to ease my pain.

I was not alone! Nope. There were about 4 of us red and itchy-eyed zombies standing in the allergy aisle reading labels on the backs of pill bottles and comparing prices. What a sight we must have been!

And you know what I discovered? Allergy medicine can be $$$$!

I’d finally found a box of generic medicine that looked good and had the same active ingredient, same mg strength, and same number of pills as a name brand medicine. I snagged it thinking it was worth the $10 (by comparison, the name brand was nearly $20!!).

But then one of my fellow allergy-sufferers stopped me.

The medicine I’d selected was positioned about eye-level on the shelf, sitting directly next to its name brand counterpart. But my allergy friend pointed out a box on the very bottom shelf that might interest me. I stooped down to do some investigation and discovered that this generic medicine also had the same active ingredient, same dosage, and same number of pills as the other two medicines I’d been looking at. The main difference is that this was a no-frills box of pills (not a bottle), and its position was literally on the very bottom shelf where you practically have to kneel down to see what’s down there.

But you know what a difference the position and packaging made in the price of this medicine? Instead of a $10 bottle of pills (or an $18 name brand bottle), this little box of pills cost only FOUR DOLLARS! Yes! You heard me correctly.

So let this be a reminder that often times the best deals are those that are hiding right under our noses….on the very bottom shelf.

Allergy friends, any tried and true solutions? What types of allergy meds to you use?


Free Family Fun

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When I first moved to Tucson I hated it. Like, really hated it.

It seemed so….boring!

I was originally from Austin, then lived in southern Florida (where all the cities really merge together), so I was used to the feel of a larger city. I was used to there being LOTS of community events, many that were city-sponsored (and therefore FREE), with tons of family-friendly options that were available.

There was none of that in Tucson. Or so I thought.

To be fair, there really aren’t a lot of city-sponsored free events. They do have some (paid admission) festivals, but they’re really not that frequent. A few per year is it.

So it felt like a whole new world when I moved out of the central/campus area and out to the ‘burbs. Now there are ALL KINDS of family-friendly and FREE events! Some of these events are sponsored by the town where I now live (I live outside Tucson city limits in a neighboring town), but some are sponsored by HOAs and are open (and free!) to the public. Why would an HOA host a free event that’s open to people outside of the HOA community? I have no idea (false:  its a newer neighborhood and they’re trying to sell houses). But I certainly took advantage of the free fun this weekend!

So I packed up the girls and headed to a big free Easter event this past Saturday. And we did it RIGHT this year! Last year we went right in time for the easter egg hunt (at 11:00am), then stayed around for the other activities, which inevitably put us in the area when lunchtime rolled around and we ended up buying overpriced food from a food truck for lunch (they always have food trucks at these events). This year, we got there early so we could enjoy all of the free fun BEFORE the easter egg hunt, then we left right after the hunt so we could be home in time for lunch. It was perfect timing because we didn’t have any lines for anything since we were early, and we saved money (and calories) by eating at home instead of at a greasy food truck.

Here are some pictures of what we did….

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Free ballon animals (the artist wouldn’t even accept tips, as he’d been compensated by the HOA).  Got a ladybug and a puppy dog!

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bounce house fun

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waiting to collect eggs (all children were given an egg carton to decorate for their eggs; they discouraged actual baskets because they wanted to make sure every child got some eggs – once the carton was full, the kids were done).

Other un-pictured events include meeting the Easter bunny, sitting inside a fire truck, and the several other bounce houses (girls ran from one to the next while there were still no lines). We had an absolute blast and received all kinds of goodies for 100% free (plus a killer nap that afternoon for the girls, which was an extra bonus) ; )

Right now (Spring) is PRIME TIME for all kinds of these free events. I encourage everyone to check out their community/city calendars to figure out what kind of free stuff they’ve got coming up. Maybe you’ll find something really cool to do, too!

Does your community host a lot of free events? If you’ve got a family, what types of (free/cheap) things do you do for fun?


Hair Solution

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I was debating what to do about my hair for my upcoming not-an-interview.

As you might recall, I went a full 9+ months without a single professional hair cut/color (I cut and colored my own hair at home during that time). The only reason I opted to finally go back to a professional hair salon was in preparation of my last interview. That was almost exactly 2 months ago and I’ve been really torn on what to do for my upcoming trip. I know I want to have a nice, polished look, but I don’t want to spend a lot of money and I feel like I just barely had my hair done!

Well, I think I came up with a good compromise/solution to the hair conundrum I found myself in (first world problems, right?) I went to an Aveda Institute salon (the “Institute” salons are the schools so they’re cheaper) and I paid for a cut and eyebrow wax, deciding to forego the color. I think my “old” highlights (said in quotes because they’re only 2 months old!) still look great. I don’t have a noticeable line of new growth and I think they’re holding up well. But my last salon visit I did more of a trim so, to have the polished freshly-cut look, I had the hair stylist cut a couple inches off the bottom and add in some new subtle layers.

The total cost for cut + eyebrow wax was a whopping $25. Add in the cost of tip ($7) and parking ($3) and the grand total was $35. Much, much cheaper than if I’d added in any color. Plus, I think the new ‘do provides a nice, polished look to it. Could just be a psychological thing, too, but hey – it’s important to feel confident at an interview, so I think it’s worth the price tag (plus I’d budgeted for this back in February, too).

Speaking of….

Surprise! I’m here now! (note:  I’ve purposely not mentioned where, specifically, I am….but I’m at the interview location, heh).

I flew in on Wednesday afternoon, picked up my shiny new rental car (brand new! so many fun/cool features!), and checked into my super fancy-pants hotel (with a full kitchen! full fridge! free hot breakfast! free evening social hour!!!) I’ll miss my kiddos but – man – can I stay an extra day? LoL! I feel like I’m in the lap of luxury right now!!

Meanwhile, I wrote this post on Wednesday night as TODAY is my interview not-an-interview! Wish me luck! They’ve got my itinerary pretty jam-packed in the morning (guest lecture from 9:30-10:45; then research presentation from 11:00-12:00), but then the rest of the day is more casual (lunch with faculty, individual faculty meetings, etc.). I wish it wasn’t back-to-back with my two presentations first thing in the morning, but at least that way I’ve got them out of the way and can just basically coast the rest of the day.

So – for a second time – please wish me luck! I know that there’s not officially a position open right now, but I’ve got to think that if this visit goes well that I’ll have made the short list for the next position that comes available (whenever that may be).

Also, thanks to those of you who have sent lists/links of interview questions for academic positions. I’ve definitely used them to brush up a bit before my campus visit.

Hope you all have a great Thursday! I’ll see you next week when I’m back in Tucson!


Never Going Back: Homemade Yogurt

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One thing that is consumed A LOT in our house is yogurt.

We can have yogurt just about any time of day….

For breakfast I’ll often serve it with fresh fruit and wheat toast for the girls/raw oats for me (don’t knock it ’till you try it. It actually tastes really good, and way healthier than super sugar-fied granola!)

I’ll sometimes serve it as an accompaniment to lunch. Particularly on days that the girls are in preschool I like to send yogurt since its a good source of protein. The girls’ preschool is meat-free, so I sometimes struggle with protein-based options (peanut butter gets OLD after awhile). Yogurt as a side is always a good option.

And yogurt is just about everyone’s favorite snack.

MMMmmmmmmm yogurt!

Until this point I generally spent a good $5-6 on yogurt per week. Maybe more (okay, probably more).

But no more, my friends!

I have discovered how incredibly EASY and DELICIOUS homemade yogurt can be! Who knew?!?

I used this recipe and followed it to a T, so I won’t rehash all the recipe deets, but I wanted to give some commentary on my experience making my own homemade yogurt for the first time.

The Basics

Okay, so read the recipe, but to give you the gist, you’re going to pour a gallon of milk into a crockpot, heat it up in your crockpot for nearly four hours, then cool down to a specific temperature (which can take another hour), add a yogurt “starter” (you need the live yogurt cultures…this could be store-bought or leftovers from your last homemade batch), then let it sit for up to 12 hours.

Whew! That’s a lot of time!

My Thoughts.

First, you’re going to have to plan ahead to make your own yogurt. I tried for 3 consecutive days to do it, but time got away from me and I ended up having to put it off until the next day (because making it in a crockpot takes HOURS to do). Sure, there are faster ways (like stove-top), but I liked the leave-it-and-forget-it method of the crockpot and I didn’t have a timeline for when I needed the yogurt, so I just pushed it back a couple days until the timing worked out. But just a heads up that it DOES take some pre-planning.

Second, Stephanie mentioned how the “tang” in homemade yogurt might surprise you. I’ve had plain yogurt before, so I wasn’t at all surprised. If anything, I thought my yogurt was less tangy than what I’d expected. As she mentioned, the longer it sits the tangier it gets. I’d left mine for about 10.5 hours, so it would have been tangier if I’d left it longer.

The Taste.

In my opinion (and the reason I’m Never Going Back <<the title of this post), the taste of homemade yogurt is WAY superior to store-bought! OMG, it tasted so decadent and delicious! I could close my eyes and almost have an out-of-body experience, pretending to be in some super swanky brunch spot enjoying a freshly prepared yogurt parfait. Dramatic? Yes. True? Yes!

Plus homemade yogurt costs PENNIES per portion, compared to store-bought yogurt that often costs up to $1+ per portion!

Storage.

You should note that homemade yogurt doesn’t last as long as store-bought yogurt. This makes sense since there are no preservatives (or other icky stuff for that matter). According to google, it can last for up to 2 weeks in your fridge, and 3 months in your freezer. Not too shabby if you consume as much yogurt as we do. Bonus – the frozen homemade yogurt can be thawed OR eaten frozen (duh! Like frozen yogurt!)

I store my yogurt in glass mason jars that I keep in the fridge. If you’re going to freeze it, however, you may want to put it in a plastic container (sure, glass freezes, but I’ve had more than my fair share of “oopsies” after accidentally breaking a frozen glass container)

Fruit Options.

There are a ton of ways to eat yogurt. I’ve used plain yogurt before as a substitute for sour cream in various baking recipes (healthier and cheaper). I also enjoy plain yogurt, but most people probably prefer to add in a little fruit.

I made a strawberry-banana yogurt that was TO DIE FOR (ahem, if I do say so myself *brushes shoulders off*)

All I did was take a very ripe banana and some strawberries and put in a large container. I used a potato smasher to “muddle” the berries and basically worked everything into a pulp. Then I stirred in the yogurt and mixed everything well. It’s important to note that once fruit is muddled like this, it immediately starts to break down (meaning:  decompose). So you cannot do this if you plan on putting it in your fridge for 2 weeks. But, its perfectly fine for a few hours. In fact, allowing the flavors to meld for a few hours is what makes it really taste like HEAVEN! I did this in the morning and then served it as an afternoon snack and it was the perfect amount of time.

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Fruit in the bowl before muddling

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All together now!

You could do this with any of your favorite fruit combinations, or you can always just serve the plain yogurt with whole or sliced fruit, too.

I honestly can’t decide what’s best:  the money I’ll be saving making homemade yogurt from now on, or how good I feel about healthify-ing one of our favorite foods!

Most people already think of yogurt as a pretty healthy food (it can be, though lots of the stuff sold in stores is loaded with sugars and additives), but it really doesn’t get any healthier than making it yourself! I used rBST-free 2% milk when I made mine (you can use any type you like), which I thought was perfect! I’d imagine that whole milk would provide an even richer taste, while skim milk will obviously save you some calories. Since my kiddos are some of the biggest consumers of yogurt, I like to buy 1% or 2% so they can get some of the healthy fats from the milk (and/or yogurt), but you can use whatever you prefer.

Let me know if you try your hand at making homemade yogurt and what you think!

Do you make any “fun” foods homemade? I’ve toyed around with the idea of doing homemade cheese but I’ve been scared of dealing with the rennet. I’ve also thought of doing homemade pasta one day, but it also seems so prep-intensive that I’ve been scared off for now. Maybe one day. : )

 


Ashley’s February Budget Update

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After admittedly falling off the frugal train in the month of January, I think I did a much better job in February. You’ll see that not every single purchase was one of absolute necessity, but I also think I maintained a good balance of saving money, paying down debt, and getting a few things that were needed during the month. Here you go….
February Budget Update

Budget Category Amount Spent
Rent 1055
Electricity 158
Water 60
Natural gas 22
Sprint (2 lines) 114
Cable/Internet 99
Car Insurance 165
Health Insurance 394
Trash 35
Preschool 1040
Gift-Giving 50
Personal Maintenance 40*
Restaurants 87
Entertainment 35
Groceries 310
Gasoline 57
Household Goods 115
Clothing 22
Toddler purchases 20
Rainy Day Savings 625
Savings Goals 500
Debt Payments 2102
Total $7105

Let’s discuss….

  • Electricity. It’s weird that my electric bill this month was exactly the same as last month. At first I thought this was a mistake and double-checked, but this is the correct figure. Just a weird coincidence (note, I’ve been working to try to conserve electricity and the bill has gone down this month – wahoo!!)
  • Car Insurance. This got messed up this month because somehow husband’s truck ended up back on our personal insurance (instead of a separate policy in his company’s name). I’ve called to correct this so the bill should go back down again for next month.
  • Gift-Giving. We had several gift-giving occasions in February. This $50 figure includes a $30 photo book for my Mom’s birthday, my $5 classroom gift basket, and supplies for the Valentines we sent out to friends and family members (including pictures I had printed, postage, and a couple of cheap V-Day gifts I picked up from Dollar Tree for the girls).
  • Personal Maintenance. I put an asterisk next to this item because I didn’t actually spend any money during February on personal maintenance, but I plan to spend the money this month and wanted it set aside. I’m trying to decide what to do (may write a post about it), but am thinking I may get my hair done again before my big “not an interview” trip. It feels so soon, since I’d gone a full 9+ months without getting it done a single time, and then I went at the end of January before my ‘real interview’….but it’ll be a solid 9 weeks by the time I go on my next trip. Should I get a trim? Have my highlights touched up? Etc? I know I want to look sharp, so basically I set the money aside with the intention to use it this month. Not sure how (i.e., what I’ll be doing) or in what fashion (e.g., Groupon? Hair school?) yet. I’ll keep you posted.
  • Restaurants. We did better on eating out this month than we have in recent months (generally I set this at a $100 budget). However, we spent more in the next category than we usually do…
  • Entertainment. Some of this was little stuff ($3 for itunes songs; $6 to feed the giraffes at the zoo). The biggest splurge is that hubs and I actually went on a date this month! This was our first date since our anniversary in November, and we won’t be going on any dates for probably another couple of months so I’m okay with this expense. Just to be transparent, I paid for the actual “date” (movie tickets and snacks), and hubs paid for a babysitter separately, so this figure is lower than it would be if a babysitter were included here.
  • Groceries. Knocked it out of the park with groceries this month (we usually budget $400!!) I guess this makes up a bit for my overage in January, though it means I’m starting out March with a pretty bare pantry and fridge/freezer, and with it being such a tight month financially it means I’ll have to be creative with our dinner plans.
  • Household Goods. This category was also much higher than normal (usually we spend less than $30/month on household items). Some of it was just refilling some cleaning supplies (new kitchen scrub brush, laundry detergent), but I spent $40 on Round Up since our weeds have been out of control (side note – Costco is the cheapest place around for Round Up! I spent $40, but I got THREE of the big jugs-worth of weed killer, whereas Walmart sells the same stuff for $40 for only ONE of the big jugs of weed killer. Costco is the bomb.com)! The other large expense here was the YNAB software. I spent $54 for the YNAB software, but I think its money well spent (edited to add = I thought this was an annual expense, but a reader pointed out this is a one-time fee! Wahoo, I didn’t even realize that, makes it seem like an even better deal now!!!)
  • Toddler Purchases. $20 on gummy vitamins. I get two kinds: a multivitamin and an omega-3 vitamin. Also from Costco and much cheaper than I’ve seen anywhere else (even beats the sales prices at my local grocery store).
  • Rainy Day Savings. In YNAB I’ve made categories for all my savings needs. This month’s rainy day savings include: $200 (car repair fund), $125 (dental/vision), $100 (semi-annual fees), and $200 (a one-time pet expense saving). Remember when I was going to just put $500 toward my pet savings for the year? Yeah, too much money. But I made a good dent in it with the $200 savings (and then I promptly withdrew $51 to buy pet food). But still, that money will last for probably half the year, and I’m not planning to add any additional money to the pet savings right now since things are a bit tight.
  • Savings Goals. These are longer-term savings goals, not just for routine expenses. I saved $100 toward a Roth IRA, and $400 toward cruise 2016.

I said I was going to stop doing a full “anticipated budget” post for the current month, but just to give you a quick idea of how things are changing this month during our time of lower income….

In March I’ve done away with rainy day savings. I’ve changed all my Capital One 360 automatic savings plans so that nothing will be saved toward any of my rainy day funds in the month of March. I’ve also reduced my savings goals. I still have the $100 going toward a Roth IRA, but only $200 is going toward Cruise 2016 (instead of the $400 I’d initially planned). That’s a whopping total of $300 in overall savings in March…. compared to the $1125 I saved in the month of February.

This is yet another example of how having a lean month can be helpful. When I was really studying the budget and seeing where we could cut back, it’s hard not to notice that OVER A THOUSAND DOLLARS A MONTH IS GOING TO SAVINGS!!!!

How is this??? HOW!?!?!

We still had a decent debt payment (over $2,000; nearly 30% of our total income), but it was a bit of a shock to realize just how much is simply being set aside and saved on a monthly basis. When things get tight, the savings is the first thing to go! Just as a heads up, my debt payments will be much smaller this month, too. I’m just focusing on trying to pay all of our minimum obligations (okay, a little over the minimum, but not by much), and get through the month without any overspending. It’s been a long time since our income has been this low, and with the girls’ preschool accounting for nearly 25% of our take-home pay, regular bills (rent, utilities, insurances, etc.) accounting for another 50% of our take-home pay this month….there’s not a lot leftover for big-sized debt payments and non-discretionary spending (like groceries, gasoline, etc.).

But still, progress is progress. Any month that we’re moving forward is a good month, no matter by how little.

So there you have it.

How’d you do with your budget last month? Any big changes for this month?


Budgeting Decisions

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Well, folks, the jury was out for awhile but the verdict is finally in. The month of February was a bit rough for our income. Like….ouch.

Hubs and I have a variable income, but in the (almost) year I’ve been blogging our income has ranged from about $5,500/month on the low end, up to over $10,000 on the high end. In general it has averaged around $6,500-$7,00ish/month.

So February officially marks the worst income month we’ve had to date since we began blogging (not in life, in general, but since we’ve started this debt reduction mission). Combined, we didn’t even crack the $5,000-threshold. In fact we were closer to only $4,500.

Yuuuuup.

This also marks the first month in a long time that I’ve actually brought home more than hubs (which makes no difference with our budget since funds are combined, but makes me sad given I only work part-time and he puts in long, physically grueling hours daily. Just feels unfair somehow that he didn’t make more).

Why?

If you’re a long-time reader then it’s for several of the same reasons I’ve discussed before when we’ve had lower-than-average income months. The main thing this time around is that his payroll was super high (he hired a new crew – yay!!!), so he’s been paying out a lot of funds for work that’s been completed, but he hasn’t been able to actually close out the jobs yet (and get PAID on his & his crew’s work) for a few high-dollar jobs due to various reasons (it’s boring, really, but if you’re curious this happens occassionally in flooring….things like they’re missing some transitions that have to be ordered, or there wasn’t enough material and it’s coming from across the country – oh wait – the order can’t come in due to inclement weather in the NorthEast, etc. etc. etc.).

We’re working on some of his business financials to try to change things up so stuff like this won’t happen in the future. In the past, the way hubs’ has run his business is that he’s kept a couple-thousand dollar buffer in his business account, but then anything over his costs for the week, he gives to me as income. But as his business is growing, we’re seeing that a couple thousand dollars is not really enough of a buffer. I’d like to see his buffer grow a little higher (so he can easily cover the expense of materials and labor when needed, even when waiting on his paychecks), and get to a point where hubs is drawing a regular income every month. Any money his business earns above his income would either sit in his business account (adding to the buffer), or he can pay himself a quarterly bonus or something similar. The point is, I’d like to move toward a more regular, steady income that doesn’t fluctuate based on miscellaneous business finances.

The good news is that hopefully March will be a really good income month, what with all his regularly-scheduled jobs PLUS the jobs from February that he’ll finally be getting paid on. Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, you might recall that we live on last month’s income. This means that although February was the low-income month….we really weren’t affected until this month (March). Remember me talking here about how I was scrimping and saving every last dollar to try to make one final $100 (extra) payment toward my student loans at the end of last month? Well, I did manage to save the money! I ended up with about $125 leftover. On Saturday (February 28th), I logged into my student loan account. I was going to make the extra payment but just kept going back and forth between my student loan account and the month’s budget. Seeing how, realistically, I’m going to be unable to make some of my goals that I’d hoped for this month (like finally paying off the license fees), I decided to just let the money sit in my account. I’m going to add it to the income we have in March because, otherwise, there’s just not enough to go around.

I’ve had to make some tough budgeting decisions this month. I’ve had to cut nearly all of our savings and reduce our planned debt payments. Things are going to be tight; particularly since I’ll be traveling toward the end of the month (going for my “not an interview” campus visit), which will cause hubs to have to stay home from work for a couple days (to watch the girls), and I’m sure there will be some eating-out involved.

I was debating whether to withdraw some money from our 3-6 month savings account to use for the month (at least to boost our debt payments), but have decided against it for the time being. This isn’t an emergency and I think that having a little bit lower income this month can serve as a bit of a character-building experience. We’ve taken our income for granted for awhile now. We’ve been lucky to have plenty to go around for all of our basic living expenses + good-sized debt payments. Having a month where we really need to scrimp and save and cut-back on excess will remind us of how far we’ve come and WHY we’re so committed to getting out of debt.

So, just a heads up that this month isn’t going to have as high of debt-payments as I would like (and I’m unlikely to be able to pay off those pesky license fees in full). But hopefully we’ll be able to cut back in all of my budget categories to try to minimize the blow to our debt payments, and with any luck we’ll learn a thing or two about getting back to the basics this month.


Saving Money High (or Low)

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Raising kids is costly!

One of our largest expenses, which actually costs more than our rent, is our children’s preschool (and they only go part-time! Yikes! See full budget here). Beyond that there is the expense of feeding, diapering (ours are THIS.CLOSE to being potty trained, but still wear diapers overnight), and clothing them!

Thus far, we’ve been very lucky with the clothing part and have spent only a tiny amount of money on clothes for them. Early on we were gifted tons of clothes (at baby showers and such); we also received a lot of hand-me-downs from friends (particularly from other twin moms, as there seems to be a bond between us); lastly, our families have been very generous to gift us clothing for various occasions (particularly for their birthday and Christmas). All in all, we’ve been very fortunate.

But one area where their clothing has been decidedly lacking lately has been in pajamas. And therefore I’ve come up with a solution to stretch their old clothes longer….cut out the feet!!!

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My husband thinks I’m crazy. I call it thrifty! ; )

Seriously, though. Our girls are very small (in terms of weight) for their age. But they’re still a normal height. That means that the pajamas still fit perfectly fine (not too snug), but were becoming too small length-wise.

In the past I’ve tried to resale or donate our old clothing (particularly since we were generously given so many hand-me-downs I like to find twin moms who I can give our used clothes to as a pay-it-forward type thing). But since we’re running low on jammies I figured I’d rather just keep these going as long as possible, even if it means cutting out the feet and making it impossible to ever resale or donate. It stretches their use that much longer (these are size 18 months, and our girls are 2.5 years), and keeps us from having to spend money on PJs for that much longer, too.

So I think its a saving money high point. I’d call it a win (even if my hubs thinks I’ve lost my mind). ; )

What do you think?

What do you do to try to stretch your kids’ wardrobe and/or your clothing budget?