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I have mixed emotions as I write my first financial post in several years. On the one hand, I’m excited to share the good news of God’s miraculous financial provision for our family, and how he’s been setting us free from bondage to financial strongholds. On the other hand, my heart is heavy for those who are under a burden of guilt and shame due to debt. If that’s you, please know that God does not condemn you and neither do I (Romans 8). God has a plan for debt forgiveness, and his name is Jesus Christ! If you believe God only cares about your spiritual debt and not your physical debt, then please read on as I share with you some truths from scripture that have set me free, and the testimony of how I have put God’s Word to the test in my life.

Let me also say up front that this is not a “get your finances in order” pep talk, either. Some of you may be so far in debt that you could work hard with “gazelle intensity,” saving every penny, and never get ahead of it unless God miraculously intervenes. Well, what if I told you that God still does miraculous interventions! God’s grace is sufficient for you, as it was for us in the years after my husband finally got a job, when we were desperately trying to rebuild our finances after draining every penny of our savings while my husband was unemployed for 18 months. It seemed like every time we got a little saved up something would come up, like needing to replace the furnace or a car, and our savings would get used up. So I know how discouraging it is when you’re trying to make good financial choices and you just can’t catch a break. During that season, however, God was teaching me 2 things:

  1. Be thankful that God has provided us with the means to pay for the things we need, and don’t stress about spending savings on actual needs. The God who provided it yesterday, will provide today and tomorrow.
  2. How I view God when my finances are tight reveals my level of faith and whether or not I believe he is a good God.

I remember when our freezer, which came with our first house and was so old I’ve never heard of the brand, finally gave out right at a time when I’d been losing weight and desperately needed to replace my wardrobe. I fell to my knees in my closet, sobbing because once again, a house need was going to take priority over my needs. I said, “God, I guess you just don’t want me to have new clothes.” I’ll never forget his response: “Why would you think that?” It set off a cascade of conversations with my husband as we wrestled with whether or not we really believed that God desired good things for us. We’d grown up in the church hearing all about how we are to give sacrificially to those less fortunate, but honestly didn’t know how God felt about our wants and needs. (Dave Ramsey’s book, The Legacy Journey, was immensely helpful in sorting out what is biblical truth and what has been twisted in order to guilt Christians into giving. If you were taught to believe that money is evil and God doesn’t want Christians to have it, I highly recommend reading it.)

During those years of savings slipping through our fingers due to large repair bills, God had asked me to surrender a dream our family had to go to Disney World. I honestly felt like it was a rebuke for having such a worldly desire. I let it go, and we had many wonderful – but much less expensive – family vacations during those lean years. I finally reached the decision that I would believe that God is for me (Romans 8:31), and desires to bless me both spiritually and physically as I obey him (Luke 6:38), even when it felt like the world was against me financially. Shortly after this turning point in my relationship with God, my in-laws decided to take all of my husband’s family to – you guessed it – Disney World!

A hug from Tigger was a hug from Jesus that precious day which cost us nothing.

When God said no to my desire, it was not a rebuke for having a desire to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my kids; it was because he was going to bless me by providing it FOR me through someone else! Why is it so hard to believe that God is for us and wants to bless us? Why do we believe that God is like a parent who takes his child to a candy store, then chastises him for wanting a piece? In Matthew 7:11 Jesus said,

If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

God is a good Father. Perhaps your father made you feel like your needs weren’t important, or that you were foolish for wanting the things you wanted. God is a Father who blesses his children. That may be hard to believe because we see so much suffering in the world, but if you look at his relationship with those he called his own (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel and the Children of Israel) you will see a God who blesses and provides. Open God’s Word and you will find stories of manna and provision in the wilderness for 40 years, then whole cities delivered into the hands of his chosen people so that they didn’t even have to build houses when they came out of the desert! You will find a story of a widow whose husband was in debt, and the debt collectors were about to take her sons, so she cried out to the Prophet Elisha for help. God miraculously paid her debt and provided for her and her sons by multiplying oil in jars for her to sell (2 Kings 4). If God cared about delivering her from her debt, why don’t you think he cares about yours? 

The enemy has created so much confusion concerning money. In America, we have this idea that debt is just a part of life, so instead of turning to God and asking him to provide for our needs, which is exactly what he instructed his people to do, we turn to Visa.

This is what the LORD says: “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls. But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’ – Jeremiah 6:16

Easy credit seems like a friend in an emergency, but turns out to be an enemy that enslaves us (Proverbs 22:7). When we awaken in the trap, instead of approaching “God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16), we submit to guilt and shame and cover our debt with more debt. The enemy heaps so much guilt and shame on those who are burdened by debt, that we wrongly assume God is disgusted with us when we make a mistake. Like Adam and Eve we hide from God – the One who could set us free from this negative cycle of bondage.

But God does not want us to be staggering under the burden of debt. He intends for us to be generous givers as he gives generously to us. God’s intended cycle of financial blessing is outlined in 2 Cor. 9:

God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others…God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you. Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous (emphasis mine). And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will thank God. So two good things will result from this ministry of giving—the needs of the believers…will be met, and they will joyfully express their thanks to God.

It is God’s plan to “generously provide all you need,” so if you have a scarcity stronghold like I did, and believe that you must stock up on every good deal that comes your way because it might not come around again, memorize this verse and repeat it every time you go to the store. God does not give sparingly. He will not only meet your needs, but give you enough to share with others. I can’t tell you how many times God provided just what I needed for the exact amount of money I had, time and time again. When we were in the middle of our long season of unemployment, with no end in sight, I needed to replace some worn out clothes for my kids and only had $2. I was going to head to the thrift store, but something came up and I had to put it off until the next day. When I arrived at the store the next day I discovered that it was $2 day, when you could buy everything you could fit into a big trash bag for just $2. I not only found what I needed for my kids, I found some things for myself, as well. God interrupted my original plan because he wanted to generously provide for not just my kids’ needs, but mine! When my kids outgrow their clothes, we pass them along to others who can use them so that, according to the verses above, we can help meet the needs of others which will cause them to give praise back to God.

That’s the cycle God intended: He provides the “seed” and “bread,” gives us a generous amount and a generous spirit, then we thank him for it and share it with others so they will also return thanks to God. However, in modern America the cycle has broken down. First, we’ve forgotten that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father (James 1:17). We don’t trust our Heavenly Father to provide for us, even though Jesus promised that if we would seek him first in everything, he would take care of all our physical needs (Matthew 6:25-34). Unfortunately, when we try to take more than he gives, we end up borrowing to finance it. One of the many blessings God promised his people in his covenant is that if they would obey him, The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none” (Deut. 28:12). God’s blessing is for his people to be lenders, not borrowers, but we’ve got it backwards in this country. We think it’s a blessing to borrow because it enables us to have whatever we want right now. However, we can’t give generously when we are in debt, so the cycle breaks down. To get back into the cycle of faith, we need to first believe that God is good, and trust him to meet our needs. I know it’s hard when you are poor – believe me, friend, I’ve been there – but God has never failed to provide for my needs, and he will meet yours. Ask him!

The other place where God’s blessing cycle gets interrupted is when we start experiencing financial success and look around like King Nebuchadnezzar, exclaiming, “I, by my own mighty power, have built this beautiful city.” (Read the rest of Daniel 4 to see what God had to say about that and how he humbled this mighty king!) Folks, can we be real and just admit that we have a tendency to blame God for the suffering in our lives, while giving ourselves all the credit when things are going well? God will not share his glory with anyone else, which is why he commanded us to have no other gods before him. He’s not going to abundantly bless us if we give ourselves all the glory for it and hoard it (Luke 12:16-21).

It is not wrong to have money and enjoy God’s blessings. God gives good gifts to his children for our enjoyment (Jeremiah 31:12)! But when God blesses us – no matter how small a thing – we need to develop the habit of giving him praise. When our finances were tight, I would praise God for a $1 off coupon. But you know what? I developed the mindset that God was providing for all my needs – and he was! I could be totally wrong, but sometimes I think God delights in blessing me with little things financially – a good bargain here, a freebee there – because he gets a kick out of knowing that I will praise him for ALL of it. And when we share with others in need, they praise God too. That’s how the church is supposed to be encouraged and built up. We sometimes blame God for the failings of the church, but his desires and plans are perfect.

We know this on a gut level, but it is hard to live God’s way in a materialistic culture that bombards us with constant messages that we need this or that to be happy, and we can easily finance it with debt. Advertisers prey on our fears (of missing out, not being accepted, not having enough because we passed up a sale, etc.), which is why we need God’s perfect love to cast out our fear (1 John 4:18) and replace it with the fruit of the Spirit in order to have self-control. The Apostle Paul said,

 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

We can’t do this on our own. We need God to set us free from financial strongholds, and we need the Holy Spirit to fill us with the strength to be content with whatever God has provided. This is, I believe, why the spiritual discipline of tithing is so important. By giving God 10% of our income, we stand up to the enemy’s lie that we can’t rely on God to take care of us, and we practice self-control as God gives us the strength to be content living beneath our means. It’s not about the church needing our money; it’s about God wanting us to trust him to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. God not only asks us to tithe, he invites us to test him and believe that he will bless us if we do!

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. (Malachi 3:10)

So we did. When my husband was unemployed, his $1200/month unemployment check didn’t even cover half of our living expenses. But we tithed $120 every month anyway. We never missed a meal or a bill payment. We always had clothes. We never carried a balance on a credit card. For 18 months we didn’t get sick and our cars didn’t break down. I don’t know how our savings stretched, but God made it stretch. Even though our budget was painfully tight, God met ALL our needs. Not only that, God miraculously doubled my husband’s income over the past summer, which replaced that lost savings we’d had to live on – glory to God! We used the extra money to pay down our second mortgage because we agree with God that debt is not his plan for us. Paying down debt directly challenged my stronghold of scarcity because I wanted to build up our savings for my security, but trusting in God instead of a savings account has given us victory over the enemy in this area, and that has led to victory in other areas, as well. We could not pay off debt on our own without God’s help, but as we have yielded our finances to God, he has stepped in to provide what we cannot. I believe that as we are faithful to both enjoy and steward what he gives us, he will bless us with more so we can be lenders instead of borrowers (Matt. 25:14-30). And I believe God wants to do this for you, too!

Friends, it’s time for financial freedom. I don’t just mean getting our finances in order and getting out of debt, but allowing the grace and forgiveness of God to wash over us and set us free from bondage to shame. There is no pit you’ve dug for yourself that is so big that God cannot make a way out! Yes, we must repent, but we also need God to deliver us from financial mental strongholds. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve studied the Financial Peace program or put a budget on paper if you have a spending addiction or scarcity stronghold that prevents you from following through. We need to know that our battle is not just with our flesh, but there can be spiritual – and even generational – strongholds surrounding how we spend money. (Families can pass down strongholds of spending addiction that leads to debt, or there can be a scarcity stronghold that leads to hoarding or a refusal to bless children.) The good news is that God has given us divine power to tear down strongholds in Jesus name, and take captive every thought – and spending habit – to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:4-5).

If you would like God to set you free from money-related strongholds and get back into the cycle of blessing, I invite you to allow God to deliver and restore you as he has been restoring me. God can renew our minds and change the way we think, setting us free from old habits (Romans 12:2). This is how God is teaching me to bring strongholds to him:

  • First, we must acknowledge before God that we need his help to bind whatever has bound us. In order for deliverance to take place, we need to ask God to reveal any areas where we are in bondage and when we first were taken captive by this stronghold. Who spoke a lie over us or taught us in this way?
  • Feel the feelings you felt at that time. Did you feel fear that you wouldn’t have enough? Did you feel jealousy that someone had more than you? Did you feel shame when you were taught that money is evil and God wants Christians to be poor, or that having wants is wrong? Allow the emotions connected to that experience to emerge, and ask God to cleanse and heal your emotional wounds.
  • Receive God’s forgiveness to you for your part in agreeing with the lie or fear and acting on it. Then forgive and ask Jesus’s forgiveness to flow through you to whoever else was involved in the beginning and perpetuation of this stronghold. Allow God’s forgiveness to flow through you to others until you feel at peace. If you need to forgive God because you feel like he let you or your family down, then do that. Don’t get hung up on theology – if you’re mad at God, forgive him. If you need to forgive yourself, do that. Until we forgive ALL our debtors – those who have wronged us – we leave the door open to torment by the enemy (Matt. 18:34-35). In order to close the door to shame, we MUST forgive as Christ forgave us.
  • Renounce the lie you have believed out loud, if there is one. (Say, “I no longer believe that I have to hoard things,” or “I no longer believe that I must buy things beyond my budget in order to be happy.”) Then ask God to replace the lie with scriptural truth, which is how God renews our minds. Say aloud, “I am not controlled by my sinful nature. I am controlled by the Spirit of God. I have no obligation to do what my sinful nature urges me to do because I am a child of God” (Romans 8:9-16). Rebuke the stronghold of scarcity by saying, “I believe that my God will meet all my needs” (Phil. 4:19). Stand firm against the strongholds of spending and hoarding addictions by proclaiming, “God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (1 Timothy 1:7). Meditate on these scriptures and whichever ones the Holy Spirit brings to your mind every time you go shopping, and see what God will do!

God’s grace abounds toward you and me. It is God’s plan to bless his children, and he will restore you as you daily walk with him and renew your mind with the Word of God. This is how he restored me. If you don’t know where to start, print out the verses I’ve linked in this post and pray over them, yielding to the Holy Spirit, and allowing God to change you from the inside out. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, God is able to keep you blameless, and he will do it!

Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is merciful and compassionate,
slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.
    He is eager to relent and not punish. (Joel 2:13)

Jesus paid our debts on the cross to set us free from paying the wages of sin and death. The gift of God is abundant life, and you can take that to the bank!

 

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Whether you’re planning a “staycation” this summer, or just looking for some fun day trip ideas to stave off summer boredom, Southwest Idaho’s Treasure Valley has some fantastic, family-friendly attractions like Roaring Springs Water Park and Wahooz. But for those of us who don’t have wads of cash lying around, there are plenty of less expensive destinations for family fun.  Last summer, I made a point of visiting several of these hidden gems and discovered that there’s really no place like home!  Here are some of our favorite summer activities that are either free or cost a fraction of what you’d pay at the usual summer hangouts.

Instead of an Expensive Water Park, Try…

Eagle Island State Park
Eagle Island State Park – Located on a curve of the Boise River in Eagle, this “island” has a playground and long length of beach that’s perfect for building sand castles and cooling off in the water.  The swimming area has boundary ropes to keep kids from going too deep, and there are several shady trees where parents can watch kids play, since there are no lifeguards on duty.  (However, I’d suggest bringing a beach umbrella or free-standing shade if you can, since the park can get busy on the weekends.)  If you want your kids to enjoy the thrill of a water slide without gouging your wallet, the park has an old school water slide on the weekends that costs $1/slide, $8/10 slides, or $12/day.  When we go, I spend $8 on the 10-slide band which comes with tear-off tickets my kids can share, since after 5 slides they’re usually ready to go back to the beach.  We bring our own float tubes, which you can air up at the park for $.50.  I found 38-in. tubes with handles for $6 at Target, and these last for years.  If you spent $10 on the State Parks Passport when you registered your vehicle (since this pass is tied to vehicle registration), you can get into the park for free.  If not, it’s only $5/vehicle.

Lucky Peak

Sandy Point Beach at Lucky Peak Reservoir – Another beach lies just outside of Boise, and is also free with the State Parks Passport (or $5/vehicle).  The swimming area is much larger, but remains shallow all the way out to the water fountain in the middle.  There are lots of great shade trees that are closer to the beach, so this is a good park for families with toddlers who need to stay a little closer to parents.  The downside of this beach is that there can be a lot of geese in the area, but it didn’t bother us when we visited.  They’ve recently installed a Frisbee golf course, which we look forward to checking out.

Floating the Boise River – For some kid-friendly thrills, try taking older kids floating down the Boise River (and by “older,” I mean kids you will enjoy being stuck with in the middle of a river for 1 1/2 – 2 hrs.).  It’s best to do this mid-summer when the river has warmed up and the water level is a little lower and slower.  (A 90 degree day is perfect for rafting, although you may prefer a warmer temperature if you’re tubing.)  If you’re like me and have inherited a raft from parents who are willing to drop you off at Barber Park (where you can air up your raft for free), then wait for you at the exit point in Ann Morrison Park, then this activity is free.  If not, you can take 2 vehicles and drop one off in Ann Morrison before continuing on to Barber Park or take advantage of the $3/person shuttle available at Barber Park.  They also have raft and tube rentals there.  We enjoy a raft and tube combo by tying one of our tubes to the raft so kids can take turns floating in the tube, but then hop back in the raft when we get to the “rapids” (which are just a few very mild waterfalls, but add to the excitement for kids).  A word to the wise, though: Stay away from the edges, and when you get to a fork in the river, take the path everyone else is taking, unless you want to get out and carry your raft back to the river.  And don’t forget the sunscreen!

Parks with Splash Pads – If your kids are too young to float the river, Kleiner Memorial Park (near The Village) and Settlers Park in Meridian are two fabulous parks for little ones with splash pads for water play when kids get too hot on the jungle gym.  They also both have concession stands.  Kleiner, with its unique playground equipment, is a nice size for toddlers because it’s smaller and easier for parents to keep an eye on kids.  Settlers Park has a huge playground and splash pad that can keep my kids entertained for hours.  There’s not a whole lot of shade, though, so you may need to bring your own if you have a large group.  Settlers also has a music play area, climbing area, tennis courts and more, so bring flip flops or water shoes that will allow your kids to go back and forth between activities and water play.

Instead of Expensive Fun Parks for Mini-Golf, Arcade Games, and Bowling, Try…

Ridgecrest Wee 9

9-hole Golf at Ridgecrest – Ridgecrest Golf Course in Nampa has a great deal for families on their Wee 9 course every Saturday and Sunday after 4 p.m.  As long as you have at least one child golfing with you, the cost is only $5/person for 9 holes – cheaper than mini-golfing at Wahooz!  (They have some clubs available to use, if you don’t have children’s clubs.)  This is an annual activity for us because it’s a nice course with a beautiful view of the mountains, there are special kids tees (in yellow) so the kids can start closer to the hole, and it’s great exercise.

Frisbee Golf – No golf clubs?  No problem!  There are lots of Frisbee golf courses in the area, including a nice one in Boise’s Ann Morrison Park.  Settlers Park and Eagle Island State Park have courses set up in the winter.  Our favorite course is at West Park in Nampa, which ends at a playground.  Any old Frisbee will do, but it is easier if you use the smaller discs (found in any sporting goods store) designed for Frisbee golf.  You can find a decent putter for $10, and that’s all most of us need.  To play, simply find the tee marked #1 and aim for the metal basket.  When you reach the “hole,” you should be able to see the next tee.  (You can often find course maps online, which takes away some of the guesswork.)  We don’t keep score in our family, but we do have the kids practice proper etiquette by waiting for the person farthest from the hole to throw first before they throw their disc (which also prevents kids from getting whacked in the head by a Frisbee thrown behind them).  This is also great exercise, and even little kids can have fun throwing a Frisbee as they walk along the course.

Celebration Park Atlatl Range

Celebration Park – Instead of playing the same old arcade games in a dark, noisy room, take a short drive to Idaho’s only archaeological park, situated on the scenic Snake River.  You can throw an atlatl/prehistoric spear in the atlatl range and walk among petroglyphs that are 100 to 10,000 years old.  The visitor’s center is open from 10 – 2 p.m., and there’s a $2 entrance fee.  (This is a county park, not a state park, so the state passport doesn’t apply here.)  Bring a picnic to enjoy down by the river, and be sure to take the kids across the historic Guffey Railroad Bridge.

Dollar Days Bowling – When you’re tired of getting baked in the sun, bowling can be an inexpensive way to beat the heat.  Through the Kids Bowl Free program, kids can bowl 2 free games every day all summer long (although you still pay for shoe rental).  This is a national program and all you have to do is register online.  If you go to Nampa Bowl on Dollar Days (Tuesdays, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. or Fridays, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.), shoe rental and games – as well as hot dogs, fries, and drinks – are only $1 for all ages.  So a family of 4 can bowl for the price of 1 person at one of the arcadepalooza bowling alleys.  It is a smoke-free facility, and they have bumpers to make bowling more enjoyable for kids (and…um…moms).

Looking For Free Educational Activities to Stop The Summer Brain Drain?  Try…

MK Nature Center & Municipal Park – Tucked away in a corner of downtown Boise is a lovely stream-walk nature path where kids can view and learn about native fish, as well as enjoy some beautiful scenery.  The visitor’s center has some hands-on learning activities for kids, and it’s all free!  Bring a picnic and enjoy the afternoon at nearby Municipal Park which is on the Greenbelt path that winds along the banks of the Boise River, and part of the Idaho Birding Trail for bird viewing.  Don’t forget your binoculars and bird identification book!

Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology & Quarry View Park – Not far away from Municipal Park is Quarry View park, to the left of the entrance to the Old Penitentiary.  While the playground will mostly appeal to younger kids, there’s a large block of sandstone nearby with plaques that outline the area’s fascinating geological history.  (I’m not a geology nut, but I found it to be very interesting, and my kids enjoyed climbing on the rock.)  We stumbled upon this park on a visit to the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, which sits next to the Old Penitentiary.  While the Old Penitentiary and nearby Idaho Botanical Garden cost money, this museum is free and quite interesting.  (It does not have air-conditioning, however, so go in the morning!)  The Botanical Garden is definitely worth a visit, and has a lovely picnic area.  But if you want to picnic for free, check out Quarry View Park after you visit the museum.

The "Haunted Wastewater Tour" was...um...haunting.

The “Haunted Wastewater Tour” was…um…haunting.

Boise WaterShed Environmental Education Center – From 10 a.m. to noon each Wednesday during the summer, all ages can participate in interactive exhibits, do arts and crafts, and enjoy scientific demonstrations as well as hands-on presentations relating to environmental issues and conservation.  At 11 a.m., you can go on a tour of the wastewater treatment plant – a perfect educational activity for the tween boys in your life.  (Closed-toe shoes are required because ew.)  We went on the “Haunted Wastewater Tour” that’s offered in October.  It was literally the crappiest family outing ever, but lots of fun.  Please enjoy the above picture of my husband and son during this tour, as there will be no pictures of me in a hard hat on this blog.  Ever.

Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park & Observatory – Who needs snow when you can sled down the largest single-structure sand dune in North America!  About an hour east of Boise is Bruneau Dunes State Park, where you can climb the sand dunes and sled down, then cool off in the lake – although it’s not the greatest swimming spot, in my opinion.  (Be sure to bring bug spray and sun screen, and don’t forget your sled!)  The sand gets hot in the summer, so I’d recommend visiting in the morning if you’re planning on climbing the dunes.  However, if you prefer the evening, there is an observatory where you can gaze at the night sky on Friday and Saturday nights.  (Please visit the website for times and check the weather report before you go, to make sure your view won’t be obstructed by clouds.)  Although the observatory tour and orientation program are free, it costs $3/person to look through the telescopes (5 and under are free).  Entrance to the park is free with your State Parks Passport or $5/vehicle.

Instead of Blowing Your Budget on Babysitters and Summer Blockbusters at the Megaplex, Try…

Drive-In Movie – If you’ve never gone to a drive-in movie, you’re missing out!  It’s so much fun to hang out under the stars with other families and their pajama-clad kiddos.  This is an annual activity for our family, usually in May or September when the showtimes are earlier and the weather is cool.  The Terrace Drive-In is on the edge of Nampa in Caldwell, and you can’t beat the price for a double feature: $8/adult, kids under 12 are free.  You can bring your own food there, so I usually pop some popcorn at home and bring cookies and water bottles.  If it’s going to be cold, I’ll put hot chocolate in a thermos.  We throw tons of pillows and a couple sleeping bags in the back of the van with the back seats folded down so we can open the hatch and let the kids get cozy for the movie(s).  Typically, the first movie is a family-friendly feature.  Then little ones can crash while Mom and Dad (and older kids) watch their flick.  (My youngest usually poops out before the second movie, so we give her earplugs and let her go to sleep up front with the sound in the rear speakers for us.)  My husband and I bring camping chairs and sit outside under the stars – a great date when you can’t find (or afford) a babysitter!

$.50 Kids Movie Matinees – Another cheap summer treat is the “Family Days in the Summer” program at the Reel Theater.  Every Monday and Wednesday, the 10 a.m. showing of the kids movies that are rated G or PG costs only $.50/person or $2.50 for 3D movies (including adults).  With so many fun movies coming out this summer, if you have the patience to wait for a month or so, you’ll save a bundle on movie tickets.  (If you haven’t been there in a while, they have new leather reclining seats and all digital screens – not bad for $.50!)

Free Movies in the Park – Several communities show free family movies on an inflatable screen at dusk (around 9 p.m.), like Settlers Park in Meridian.  This year, Nampa is joining in the fun and showing family movies (like Frozen and The Lego Movie) on select dates at Nampa’s Optimist park.  Bring your blankets and lawn chairs for some free fun with your community.

So what are you waiting for!

You can write some of these activities on your calendar before the summer fills up, or jot down items from the list to place in a “Summer Fun Bucket” that you draw from when the kids start saying, “I’m booooooored.”  If you want to be able to spontaneously hop in the car and just go, I recommend keeping a backpack stocked and ready to grab on your way out the door.  Here’s what I keep in mine:

  • Camera (because my phone only makes phone calls)
  • Hats and sunglasses
  • Waterproof Sunscreen – I like the spray on kind for quick application
  • Bug spray
  • Antibacterial wipes – for cleaning dirty hands or other messes
  • Paper towels to eat off of and for clean-up – roll up several of the half-size towels, secure with a rubber band and store it in a ziplock bag (since sometimes you need an emergency ziplock bag to contain a mess, make an ice pack, etc.)
  • Magnifying glass, binoculars and bird identification book
  • Local parks/trails maps
  • Granola bars, fruit leather, etc.
  • Plastic grocery store sack for storing “treasures” the kids find (which you can throw away when you get home)

We always fill up water bottles on our way out the door, and usually fill our small cooler with easy picnic items like turkey breast cubes, cheese sticks, crackers or multigrain chips, carrots, and grapes or dried fruit.  I also like to keep the following items in our trunk:

  • Picnic blanket
  • Camping chairs (usually just 2 for my husband and me to sit on while the kids explore)
  • Magazine (for the aforementioned sitting)
  • Frisbees, playground ball and bases (for kickball)

Have a fabulous, inexpensive, fun-filled summer!  (Just don’t forget to “schedule” some lazy days, too.)

What are your favorite summer family activities?

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I mentioned in my first post of this series that as part of my fast, I’m limiting my purchases at the grocery store for 7 weeks to just seven items/categories.  In addition to those items, I’ll be able to use whatever I have stockpiled in my pantry(s) – yes, I turned the closet under the stairs into a second pantry.  We also have a freezer in the garage that is probably older than I am, and has so many gaps in the seal that I keep the ice scraper from the car nearby to whack the icicles off every time I open the door.  But like a good little squirrel, the shelves of my pantries/food compound and freezers are stuffed.  I am always ready for the emergency that has never come in 17 years of marriage.  Whew!

I decided that I should probably inventory the garage freezer this week, so I will know what I have to work with and how to plan meals.  Otherwise, I will go into rationing mode and refuse to let the family eat anything because we might need it someday (3 years after its expiration date).  I probably qualify as a hoarder of groceries and other bizarre items (like my stationery collection, which I never use because who writes letters anymore?), but I have never watched the show, Hoarders.  To me, a hoarder watching that show is like a backslider attending a revival service.  Don’t go there if you don’t want to feel convicted.

Anyway, I got out my clipboard and dangled it in front of my daughter, who lives for organizational-type stuff.  She frequently gets out her purple clipboard and inventories her stuffed animal menagerie, or checks off the progress of her doll “students,” so I figured this mother/daughter bonding activity would be the highlight of her summer.  (By the way, I take full responsibility for her bossypants genes, so I ought to be able to exploit them from time to time.)  I wrote down the types of meat and other items I guessed were in there (because I put things in more than I take things out, so who really knows what’s buried in the frost), and told her to write down the number of each item as we counted them.  Sounds easy, right?

Me: (Using ice scraper to dig bags of chicken out of the mound of frost on the top shelf) “Can you please put the bags of chicken in the cooler and count them?”
Daughter: “Hey look, snow!”
Me: “I know, I’m scraping it out of the freezer so we can count this stuff.  It’s 90 degrees out, so we need to work fast, and I need you to count the bags of meat.”
Daughter: (Riding scooter)
Me: (Standing in a puddle of melted “snow”) “Okay, I counted the bags.  Can you write down 7 bags of chicken?”
Daughter: “I need a drink.  It’s hot outside.”  (Disappears into the house while mystery meat begins to thaw in the cooler.)

Obviously, this was not the bonding experience I envisioned.  I did manage to finish my inventory, and even discovered 6 bags of frozen peaches hidden beneath a layer of frost in a box.  Score!  My results:

  • 66 bags/portions of meat that feed a family of 4
  • 2 beef pot roasts
  • 3 lbs. London broil
  • 2 lbs. pork roast
  • 4 whole chickens

<insert husband yelling, “What?!!” upon hearing this list, which immediately conjures up images of Ricky Ricardo yelling, “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do!”>

I also have a whole turkey I’m storing in my parents’ freezer, plus a stockpile of cooked meat in the freezer portion of our fridge.  This total does not include the 4 packages of chicken or the 3 lb. chub of hamburger I bought at the beginning of the week ($1.69/lb. – you can’t pass that up!).  And that’s just the meat.  Obviously, we will not starve.  And obviously, I have a hard time telling when enough is enough.  Hence, the spending fast.

So what’s the big deal?  I’ve mentioned in other posts that my strategy of stockpiling stuff that’s on sale is how we eat well on a gluten free diet with a small grocery budget.  It was absolutely essential during our years of unemployment (3 years total, divided into 2 bookends around my husband’s previous job).  Yet something (or some One) has been bothering me on my last several attempts to add to my stockpile.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew I needed to fast from this activity for some reason.  I didn’t really know why until I went out to pick raspberries this week.

Raspberry Patch

We planted a tiny raspberry bush 7 years ago, and raspberries have now taken over our backyard – even creeping under the fence into the neighbor’s yard.  (You’re welcome.)  My kids love the idea of free berries, but picking them?  Not so much.  So I went out to harvest our bulging bushes for the second time this week to add to the 2 containers in the fridge that I’d picked earlier.  As I began mining my organic gold, God began to speak to me (not audibly, but to my spirit).  Essentially, he said:

When will you rest from your gathering and decide that you have enough?  Do you not trust me to continue to provide for you?  I sent manna to the children of Israel in the desert, and provided an extra portion for the Sabbath so they could rest.  Any other time they tried to collect more, it rotted.  They tried to gather extra because they didn’t trust me to continually provide.  When you hoard what I have freely given you, it shows me that you don’t trust me.  You didn’t survive those years of unemployment because you stockpiled; it was because I provided for you and kept you from disaster.

Look at the raspberries you’re picking.  The canes you planted finished producing years ago and are gone.  Everything you now pick is a gift from me as you harvest where you did not plant.  What are you going to do with this gift?

Immediately, I determined to say, “Thank you,” for each raspberry I picked.  One by one, I thanked God for each little blessing I’d taken for granted as I piled them on pancakes and stuffed them in the nooks and crannies of my freezer.  After about the eighth berry, I decided that I didn’t need any more raspberries.  In fact, I still have some in the freezer from last year’s bounty.  So I decided to take them to the Care House our church operates that provides food for needy families in our community.  Church members are encouraged to share the overflow of their gardens to give the patrons fresh fruit and vegetables.

Suddenly, my outlook changed.  The amount that was left on our bush didn’t seem nearly enough to take to the Care House.  When I went inside, I pulled out the berries I’d picked earlier and combed through them for berries that weren’t too ripe or mushy, continuing to say, “Thank you,” for each one.  But this time I was saying thank you for providing me with something to give.  My daughter and I hopped in the car and dropped off our little bags of berries.  Only 5 families will be blessed because I held onto my manna too long, and many of the berries were too squishy to give.

Lesson learned.  (Just in time for blackberry season…)

Hidden Treasures

One other lesson I learned from the raspberry bush is that when you’re looking for these little red treasures, you need to kneel down and look up to find them because they’re often underneath the leaves.  I needed to kneel down and assume a position of humility, with gratitude for my blessings, and look up to see the One who provides – not just for me, but through me.  Yes, God will meet my needs, but not so that I can sit back and inventory my blessings on a clipboard.  It’s time to stop storing up my treasures on earth and turn my attention toward storing up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust (and mold) do not destroy.  Gratitude is the first step on the road to recovery from self-absorption, followed by humility, which paves the way for generosity.

Thank you for my berries, Lord.  I know they’re not mine, but Yours.  Make me a blessing, as I commit myself to a life of gratitude, humility before You, and generosity that spills over from Your generosity toward me.

To follow my journey over the next several weeks, check out the posts under the category “My Fast” on the right.  

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Almost immediately after I posted my plan for a fast from buying stuff we don’t need, I realized my error in leaving a critical item off my list of 7 acceptable purchases: coffee.  I don’t know what in the name of Juan Valdez I was thinking!  I immediately rushed to the pantry and counted 5 bags of coffee I’d recently bought on sale (with coupons, too!), and assured my husband when he walked through the door after work that we should have enough coffee to make it through the summer.  His response:

“I don’t care what you can’t buy at the grocery store.  I’ll pick it up on my way home from work, if I have to.”

Loophole?  Maybe, but I’m okay with that.  I decided I would try to stick with the purpose of this fast, though, by limiting myself to just my morning cup of coffee, to see if I can make it for 7 weeks without buying more.  So of course, I ended up only getting 6 hours of sleep last night, and am already craving a caffeine IV.  (Tea is NOT going to cut it today, people.)  I decided that if I’m desperate enough for a second cup of coffee, I’ll just have to use the dollar store stuff I bought in a moment of extreme frugality/insanity, as punishment for my stupidity.  This stuff is so gross it makes church coffee seem like Starbucks.  I won’t even put it in my good stainless steel mug.

But you know what? Sometimes a little dollar store coffee is just what I need to put me in my place.  I need to be reminded that contrary to the marketing message I’ve been spoon fed as “part of a nutritious breakfast,” I do NOT deserve to have the best.  I am fortunate to live in a country where good, affordable food happens to be available 24/7.  Even being on a gluten free diet, choices abound.  Perhaps a little bitter coffee can help me remember that there are a whole lot of people in this world who drink bitter water and face bitter circumstances every day.  As promised, I paused before breakfast to pray for Miriam, the little girl from Uganda we’re sponsoring  through Compassion International.  I prayed that God would fill her heart and her belly.  Perhaps that’s an appropriate prayer for myself, too.

Lord, fill me with you.  You are the Bread of Life and Living Water that sustains me.  Empty me of bitterness, and pour out your Spirit so that I may be filled to overflowing and nourish those around me with your love.

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Last summer I made about $100/week selling mostly toys on Craigslist, with the average price being around $5.  I discovered that there’s a huge market for used toys in our area, so I’m planning on selling some holiday-themed items this month that we no longer need (like the Veggie Tales nativity scene that makes me want to stab my ears with a fork every time I accidentally push the stupid star that makes Laura Carrot sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”).  A friend of mine mentioned that she became interested in the idea of selling on Craigslist after reading my post about my 8-week home-decluttering project, and asked for some pointers.  So here are my tips, along with some questions to consider before you start.

Why Are You Selling?
This question is a biggie.  We decided to sell stuff on Craigslist because our house was bloated with excess stuff we no longer needed, and we wanted to find a good home for our gently-used items.  Making money was a bonus.  This attitude enabled me to delight in giving someone else a good deal, rather than stress about getting as much money as possible.  This time of year, it’s especially good to train kids to make room for new items by getting rid of things they no longer use.  If the goal is to simplify your life and bless others in your community, then Craigslist can be a lot of fun.  If your goal is to get as much money as possible from your stuff, get ready for some stress and disappointment.

What Should You Sell?
This is a great time of year to get rid of excess holiday items you no longer want or need, but be sure to put “Christmas” or “Holiday” in your title so people can find your item in the search engine.  Based on my experience, you’ll have the most luck selling toys and gift items because there is a great demand but not as big a supply of those items.  Lots of people are selling housewares, for instance, so I didn’t have much luck getting rid of those types of things.  However, I was surprised by how many people bought birthday presents for their kids from Craigslist, so I expect there will be a demand for toys as Christmas presents.  This is also a good time of year to sell any unused gifts you may have received that are still in their original packaging, since people can give those as gifts.  (I don’t bother selling clothes because it’s easier to donate them to the thrift store or sell them to the children’s consignment store.)

When Should You Post?
Most people do their shopping on the weekend, so I recommend that you post items on a Thursday or Friday, if possible, so they’re at the top of the list in the category (since Craigslist puts the most recent posts at the top).  However, if you’re going to be gone all day Saturday, it will just frustrate people who are trying to contact you.  So only post if you’re going to be home part of the day or if you have email on your phone and can at least reply to people while you’re out running errands.  In my experience, people who shop Craigslist want their items right away, and if you wait a day or two to return their email, you’ll never hear from them again.

How Much Should You Charge?
Since you’re asking someone to come to your house to pick something up, I tried to make it worth their while by grouping items to equal about $5.  We got rid of tons of junk that wouldn’t have sold for more than a quarter at a garage sale by grouping together lots of items with a similar theme.  For instance, we divided up my son’s HUGE Hot Wheels cars collection and put about 10 cars with each car-related object we sold, like race car play mats, car garages, stunt loops, tracks, etc.  Likewise, I found a Strawberry Shortcake purse, puzzle, book, and doll to group together as a set.  I did the same thing with Disney princess items, Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Train, etc.  I tried to have at least one highly desirable item in each set, and based my price on that item, with the others as freebies.  (My thought was, if you want my nice item, you’re going to have to take some junk with it.)  Stores do this all the time by throwing in free junk with your purchase.  It works!

The other thing to keep in mind when pricing is to charge what you’d pay for it at a garage sale, NOT what you think it’s worth.  It doesn’t matter how much it cost or how much you think it’s worth; what matters is what someone is willing to pay for it.  You’ll need to charge less than eBay, but you can ask a little more than a garage sale, provided your items are in good condition.  If you have no idea where to start, you can search Craigslist for similar items, then price yours a dollar or two less.  Keep in mind that if the post has been there a long time, they’re probably asking too much.  If you are in a dispute with your spouse over how much to price something, you can always ask for the higher amount, then lower it a week later if you haven’t had any bites.  Sometimes it takes awhile for the right person to come across your ad, though, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t have an offer right away.   It usually took about 3 weeks to get rid of all the toys posted in a particular week, but we eventually sold every toy we posted, and did drop the price on some.  We even threw in some stuff that wasn’t selling if a person showed up to buy several items.

What Should You Include In Your Ad?
Once you’ve chosen the appropriate category for your item (“Toys and Games by Owner” gets more traffic than the generic “Baby and Kid Stuff” category), you’re ready to type your ad.  Be as specific and detailed as possible in the name of your items (i.e. “Disney Princess Dress Up Clothes & Accessories” instead of just “Play Clothes”).  If something is new or unused, put that in the title.  You’ll need to post your asking price (because it’s really annoying when people don’t clearly post the price) and city.  For the text, my ads followed a formula:

  1. Detailed description of the item.  Tell as much about it as you can, but if you’re giving lots of details or listing several small items use bullet points, which will make it easier for the customer to look through your list.  Be sure to list the item’s dimensions and highlights, like if batteries are included or if it’s never been used.  Likewise, be sure to mention any defects.  (I sold an inflatable Batmobile bed with a hole in it for $2.  I was upfront about the defect, and simply stated in the ad that it would work if someone patched the hole.  Your junk can be someone’s treasure, but be honest if it’s junk.)
  2. Policy for cash and holding items.  I created a template in Word so I could just copy and paste the following statement into every ad.  “Cash only, please.  We will not hold an item, but we will remove this post once it is sold.”  This lets people know up front that you won’t be taking a check (and dealing with the hassle of checks that bounce), and that you are selling on a first come, first served basis.  If I had two requests for the same item, I gave the first person who replied an opportunity to pick it up first, and notified the other potential customer that if the first person didn’t show up that day, they could come and get it the following day.  Folks, there are a LOT of flaky people out there, and people will beg you to hold an item until later in the week, but then never show up.  Do yourself a favor and sell to whoever shows up first with cash.  Likewise, be fair and take down the ad when the item has sold, so people will know it’s gone.
  3. Link to other items you’re selling.  At the end of every ad, we posted a second line from the template: “We have LOTS of other items for sale from our smoke-free home, so please search ‘joyfulchoices’ to see them all.”  This little line makes all the difference if you have a lot of stuff to sell, and some people care about the smoke issue.  If you use an email handle or some other unique key word to link all your posts, then a potential buyer can view everything you’re selling.  Even though most of our items/sets were only around $5, we often sold 2 or 3 sets per customer because people will reason that they might as well get as much as they can if they’re going to be making the trip.  I also mentioned any related items to specific buyers in my email reply, by saying something like, “We’re also selling other (Disney, Cars, etc.)  items, and you can search all our listings on Craigslist by typing ‘________’ in the search engine.  Let me know if there’s anything else I can set out for you.”  More often than not, this resulted in multiple sales to the same customer.
  4. Picture.  Most people won’t buy unless they can see the item.  I have a horrible camera and terrible lighting in my house, but I did my best to show each item in a couple different views, if possible.  If you’re selling something in a box, take close up pictures of any pictures on the box of what the item looks like assembled.  Whichever picture you load into your ad first is the one that will appear next to your title on the list, so pick the one that shows everything.  You can include pictures of details and close ups for customers to view within the ad.

There’s no need to post your phone number, unless you prefer to be contacted by phone. I dealt with inquiries by email primarily, and only gave out my address to people who wanted to come and pick up an item. Craigslist is set up so that interested buyers can email you through the site, so you don’t need to give out any contact information in your ad.  Setting up an account is very easy, and the posting process is also fairly easy.

Finally, don’t get discouraged when – yes, I said “when,” not “if” – someone fails to show up to pick up an item.  People get busy or forget and don’t think to give you a courtesy email to let you know their plans have changed.  So don’t plan your life around being available to Craigslist customers.  If you’ve waited a half-hour for a no-show, send them a polite email explaining that you’d be happy to set up another time that will be more convenient, then go about your life.  If it’s an honest mistake, they’ll likely be apologetic and grateful for a second chance.  If they’re flaky and don’t really care, then you haven’t sacrificed your plans.  About half-way through my selling process, I started asking people to give me a half-hour window of when they would like to stop by, which let them know I wasn’t going to be sitting around all day waiting for them to show up.

Craigslist can be fun, especially when someone is gushing to you about how excited their son or daughter will be to receive your unneeded items.  If you remember that it is more blessed to give than to receive, you will likely have a positive experience.  Good luck!

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It’s that time of year when our mailbox and newspaper are filled with toy catalogs and ads for Christmas gifts.  I used to enjoy looking through these to get gift ideas for my kids until we went through our massive toy purge last summer when we sold 8-10 large storage bins full of toys on Craigslist – and have not missed them a bit.  My kids are older now – ages 8 and 11 – and have settled into their favorite playthings, so we no longer need a huge variety.  Now, when I look through the toy catalogs, I see expensive items that my kids would enjoy playing with for all of 2 days, and then I’d be stuck trying to find a place for them until our next Craigslist sale.  Sound familiar?

My solution this year is to avoid the unused toy glut and pressure to overspend by:

  1. Limiting the number of gifts from us on Christmas day to one.  Since they receive gifts from extended family members, there’s no need for me to overwhelm them with more gifts from us.  Just like the enjoyment of eating a rich dessert diminishes with each bite, the enjoyment of opening each gift lessens over time.  Why not let them fully enjoy the gifts lovingly picked out by others instead of cramming more down their throats?
  2. Keeping the budget small.  An expensive gift doesn’t guarantee more enjoyment.  Besides, I’m still responsible for making Santa look good, so in addition to their stocking, one thoughtful gift from us for each kid will suffice.
  3. Choosing only gifts that will get continual use (like Legos), are educational (which includes activities), or consumable (like craft supplies that continually need to be replenished).  If something doesn’t fall into one of these categories, chances are it will end up in a closet, which is a waste of money and space.

Before you start thinking I’m the Grinch Mama who stole Christmas, you need to hear the second part – the real genius – of my plan.  If your kids are like mine, they probably enjoy playing with their new toys for about 2 days after Christmas, then drive you crazy until New Years.  In the past, we’ve celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas by giving our kids various school supplies to add a little fun to Christmas break (i.e. 4 glue sticks, 3 erasers, 2 pencils, 1 pencil sharpener, etc.).  This year, we’ll celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas by spreading out their gifts from us from Christmas Sunday (when we’ll exchange gifts with my extended family) through New Years.

How to Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas
On each of the days following Christmas, the kids will get to open one more gift.  Sometimes the gift will be for both kids to share, like a game or new puzzle I found at the thrift store.  Sometimes the gift will be craft related, like new watercolor paint sets from the dollar store or the craft kit we’ve never gotten around to opening that’s been in my closet for over a year.  Some gifts will be educational, like the interactive human body books I found at the thrift store.  And some may be activities, like going to a children’s museum or play center to get us out of the house.  The beauty of this way of celebrating is that it gives the kids something new to look forward to on cold winter days that are typically unstructured and would otherwise end up in whines of “I’m boooooooored.”  Plus, kids are more likely to get excited about an educational gift if it’s the only thing they’re getting that day.

Remind Kids Who We’re Celebrating
For a spiritual tie-in, we’ll share the real meaning behind the 12 Days of Christmas and what each day represents.  (This video shows pictures of the Christian meaning of each symbol while the song is sung, so kids can try to guess what each day represents from the pictures and check their answers when the meanings are revealed at the end.)  The last time we celebrated the 12 Days of Christmas, we had the kids recite the symbolism of the previous days before moving on to that day’s gift.  We also hid the gift(s) each day because our kids love treasure hunts – and why should Easter get all the fun!  I especially like the idea of holding off on some of our celebrations to increase the anticipation aspect of advent.  After all, the advent season is all about creating within us a sense of longing for Christ to come.  There’s not a whole lot of longing if we start partying on Dec. 1.

Keep Costs Low at…The Dollar Store
You’ve probably picked up on the fact that this doesn’t have to be expensive at all.  Dollar stores are great places to find craft supplies and kits.  If you start now, you can use the 40-50% off coupons for Michael’s craft store that come in the Sunday newspaper (in ours, at least) to pick up things like Build-A-Bear kits or woodworking projects, which are perfect for the lazy days following Christmas when you might actually have time to do crafts with your kids.  (I’m notorious for buying craft kits and sending them with my kids to Grandma’s house because I don’t have the time or desire to do it with them.  Just keepin’ it real.)

The Thrift Store
I also mentioned the thrift store because we have a great one in town that carries fun children’s books, games, sometimes unopened puzzles, and even educational CD-roms.  When I cleaned out our closets last summer, I divided our clothes into kitchen-sized garbage bags, and I throw one in the trunk every time I stop by the thrift store because I can get an additional 20% off for donating.  Kids don’t care if something is used – at least I’ve trained my kids not to care.  I occasionally take them with me to the thrift store and let them pick out a book or game, so they view it like any other store (except that they are actually allowed to get something at this store).  If you’re not sure how your kids will respond, sit down with them and watch the informative, yet entertaining, online video, “The Story of Stuff.”  Afterward, they may thank you for reusing items instead of buying more junk to go in a landfill.

Check Online for Activity Discounts
For good deals on children’s activities, check your local kids resources magazines for free activities in your area.  Visit the websites of favorite play places to find out if there’s a discount day of the week.  Check out Groupon for deals in your area.  We bought a Groupon deal for an indoor miniature golf course last summer and saved it to use on my son’s birthday in November.  Start looking now for deals you can save until Christmas week – but be sure to check expiration dates!

The Best Family Activities Are Often Free
Of course, activities don’t have to cost money.  Maybe some of those favorite holiday activities that you’re hard pressed to find time for before Christmas could be saved for the week after, like driving around to look at Christmas lights or having a holiday movie marathon that ends with everyone sleeping in the living room by the Christmas Tree.  (We traditionally watch a favorite trilogy during this week and spend the day in jammies, munching on snacks and leftover goodies.)  Activity gifts can be printed as certificates or presented with a token.  We usually get together with friends for New Years Eve, so I may give the kids a bunch of glow sticks from the dollar store to share with their friends for playing tag in the dark!

Chances are, you’re already looking at your December calendar and wondering how you’re going to find time for everything.  Why not join me in taking a break from the pressure to party all month long and save the giving and family fun for after Christmas?  If you’re a procrastinator, you could even take advantage of after-Christmas sales this way!  The possibilities are endless.  If you have ideas you’d like to share for more cheap 12 Days of Christmas gifts/activities, please share them with everyone in the comments section below.

I wish you a blessed, joyful holiday season!

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‘Tis the season for tunnel vision, when I tell the kids to look straight ahead as we try to plow through the grocery store aisles that are set up like a toy mine field, designed to derail shopping trips with whiny children demanding the latest gadgets.  But you don’t have to go to the store to be bombarded with the pressure to spend.  When I pick up this morning’s paper, I’ll no doubt find a stack of store ads with this week’s “Lowest Price of the Season!” deals.  I may also find an article on the economy and consumer spending, meant to perpetuate the idea that blowing a wad on presents and decorations is downright patriotic and “good for the economy.”  We watch holiday movies that showcase gift-giving as the pinnacle of the Christmas season.  Add to that our deep desires to please others and live up to their expectations, and what you get is a cocktail of greed, pressure, unrealistic expectations and guilt.  I could be wrong, but that doesn’t exactly sound like a “happy” holiday to me.  And I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Based on the number of unemployed or underemployed families in this country who are struggling to make ends meet, I think it’s time to consider what the holidays should be, not just what the store chains would like them to be.   If your kids are already driving you crazy with the gimmees, it doesn’t have to be that way.  If you’re struggling financially and feel a knot in your stomach when you look at those store ads, I want you to know that you’re not alone.  This isn’t just another article on “How to save money this Christmas” from someone who likes a good bargain – we’re right there with you.  To combat the commercialization of Christmas, there are several strategies I’ve found to be helpful.

Ditch the store ads
Even though I loved looking through store catalogs as a kid (back when all we had were J.C. Penney’s and Sears catalogs), I throw away the store ads and limit the amount of time my son is allowed to spend looking at his Lego catalog.  To be fair, I do the same for myself.  Constantly looking at ads breeds dissatisfaction and a desire for stuff.  It’s so easy to focus on all the stuff you can’t buy and feel bad about that, instead of rejoicing in whatever you do have.  It’s also easy to fall into the “but it’s such a good deal” trap, designed to get you to buy more than you need because of the perceived limited time offer.  The truth is, deals come and go all year around.  Wal-Mart almost lured me in on Black Friday for $6 men’s slippers, but I went there the following Tuesday and found $6 slippers – without the crazy crowds and long lines.

Teach kids to recognize advertising manipulation
Remember that stores pay big bucks to advertisers to manipulate us into buying their products.  If you have school-age children, sit down and have a talk with them about the marketing strategies aimed at children.  Point out the false claims in commercials (“Do you think that toy can really fly?”), and teach them to recognize when they’re being manipulated (“Did seeing that commercial make you want pizza?  Me too!”).  Instead of seeing you as the enemy who is cruelly depriving them of their wishes, or turning to a higher power (“Don’t worry Mom, I’ll just ask Santa for it.”), they’ll be apt to recognize that slick advertising is more to blame for their dissatisfaction and greed.

Consciously avoid the “from stocking to trash can” cycle
One of the best things we’ve done to educate our kids on consumerism is to have them watch the 20 minute, animated video called The Story of Stuff.  In it, Annie Leonard attempts to pull back the curtain on our consumer spending/trashing cycle, and explains how we got into this cycle and what it’s doing to our planet.  It forces you to think about the real cost of those cheap gadgets we want to place under the tree.  I found that it kept my kids’ attention really well (even when my daughter was 5-years-old and saw it for the first time), and has been really helpful as a springboard for discussion.  It also helped my kids see the reason why we “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and shifted their focus away from junky, cheap toys toward things that last (like Legos) or come from a thrift store (like the bag of 13  Lego Bionicles I found for $10).  You might be surprised to find that your kids will be just as happy with a gently used toy as they would be with something brand new that costs 5 times as much.  And as a bonus, there’s no annoying packaging with twisty things to wrestle with on Christmas morning!

Choose contentment
If you have to cut out some activities or traditions because of tight finances this year, don’t let that rob you of your joy this season.  Last year, we didn’t put up our outdoor decorations for the first time in 14 years because we wanted to save money on our electrical bill.  This year, I didn’t even give it a thought because I realized that we didn’t miss them at all (and we live on a street where hardly anyone sees our house anyway).  Sometimes we spend money on things simply because it’s what we’ve always done.  So I’d encourage you to decide what you can afford to do and give this year, and let go of the guilt for not being able to do more.  I’ve purposely chosen not to include ideas for inexpensive gifts to make or buy in this post.  I simply want to encourage you that whatever you choose to give – even if it’s a simple plate of cookies or offer of babysitting – it’s enough.  The decorations you already have are enough.  Last year’s Christmas dress is enough.  Choose contentment with what you have and you’re on your way to a more joyful Christmas.  A great way to help kids visualize this concept is to show them the Veggie Tales video, Madame Blueberry, which shows in a comical way the downside of seeking happiness through the accumulation of stuff vs. the joy of being thankful for what you have (available through Netflix or your local library).  I’ll admit, it’s so fun and clever that my husband and I enjoy watching it too.

Say yes to free family activities
When you have to say no to a lot at Christmas, it’s much easier if you have other things to which you can say yes.  Chances are, there are lots of free holiday activities in your community.  Between the newspaper and our free local magazine, I can always find free family fun.  Last week, we attended the tree lighting ceremony in front of the state capitol building, which included free hot cider, music, candy canes from Santa, and a brand new Scholastic book for every child in the beautifully decorated capitol building.  This week, we’re heading to a nearby city for free ornament making, wooden toy building, card making, cookie decorating, pictures with Santa, plus games and cocoa.  Next week, we’ll take the kids to a multi-cultural holiday celebration at BSU designed to let kids experience the holiday traditions of other cultures.  And it’s all free!

Of course, in addition to community activities, there are always free holiday traditions to do as a family each year, like driving around to see Christmas lights, playing games or putting together puzzles, and watching favorite movies.  (I go online and request holiday movies, music, and books from the library right after Thanksgiving.)  As I said in my Holiday Planning Guide, just serving hot chocolate during the hot chocolate scene in The Polar Express is enough to make a holiday tradition feel special.

Give to others
It may seem counter-intuitive to give money when you feel like you have so little, but it’s the best remedy for self-pity.  When I start to feel sorry for myself, I only have to take a moment to reflect on all I have compared to some in our community who don’t know where they’ll get their next meal.  Our church has an outreach ministry to the poorest schools in our city, providing a shoebox filled with gifts for each child.  My kids enjoy picking out gifts for a child of their same age and gender.  There are so many opportunities to give this time of year.  If you have children at home, allow them to pick out a child’s wish from a giving tree for needy kids in your community – preferably for someone their age/gender – and take them shopping with you.  Give them some change to put in the Salvation Army bucket or let them pick out the cans you’ll donate to a food drive.  Giving reminds us that we are blessed, and spreads joy to others as we participate in someone else’s blessing.

Giving doesn’t have to cost money, however.  We also encourage our kids to give of themselves through acts of kindness, which takes the focus off of material gifts.  We try to “catch them in the act” of showing kindness, like opening a door for someone or sharing their candy.  Each time we see them do something kind, they get to put a handful of hay in the manger (which is actually a wooden doll cradle).  The more acts of kindness they do, the softer the bed will be for baby Jesus (a doll we swaddle in a blanket) on Christmas morning.  This helps them visualize the concept that what Jesus wants from us for Christmas is love for Him and others.  Sometimes the best gifts we can give cost only our time, like calling to say how much we appreciate someone or helping a harried mom carry packages out to her car.

The kids were so disappointed, that first year, that it was a doll in their bed of hay. They expected the actual baby Jesus on Christmas morning!

The kids were so disappointed, that first year, that it was a doll in their bed of hay. They expected the actual baby Jesus on Christmas morning!

Focus on the meaning of Christmas through advent activities
When I start to get hung up on what the stores would like me to see as the reason for the season (their healthy bottom line), all I have to do is open the Bible to be reminded of what’s really important.  That little baby in the manger isn’t just a cute figurine on a shelf, but a real, living Savior who loved us so much that he gave up the glory of heaven to experience all the pain of humanity.  He had no wealth or property, but gave all he had – his very life – for you and me, so that we may not only have eternal life, but know peace and joy in all circumstances.  To have a joyful Christmas is to know Christ.  And so my family lights an advent candle and reads scripture each morning after breakfast, to remind us what Christmas is all about: The world was in darkness, so God sent us Light.

If you haven’t celebrated the season of advent with your kids before, it’s never too early or too late to start.  When my kids were toddlers and preschoolers, we had an age-appropriate book that we would read together.  We also tied in some fun activities and crafts with the readings.  There are lots of great resources available, but if you’re new to advent, Focus on the Family offers a simple explanation, schedule of scriptures, and ideas for family activities.  (New for 2016 is the free downloadable advent activity guide, All the Colors of Christmas, with easy activities that will make the advent scriptures come alive for your kids.)  

It’s my hope and deepest desire that my children have wonderful memories of Christmas, not because of all the presents under the tree, but because they experienced joy in both giving to others and receiving the best gift of all – Jesus Christ.  May you have a joyful, blessed holiday season with no batteries required!

2013 Update: Feeling like an epic failure at giving your family the hap-happiest Christmas of all?  Read my recent post: Dear Stressed Out Mom Who Feels Like A Christmas Failure.  I promise, all they really want for Christmas is you!

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