Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Inexpensive Gift Giving

It's about this time of year that I start thinking about Christmas gift giving. I spent my summer of unemployment going through The Family Photos. If I couldn't be out earning money, at least I could be accomplishing something. I came to the conclusion that it has gotten far too cheap and easy to take and develop photographs. I have maybe a handful of photos of my parents and grandparents when they were young but at least a thousand of each of my kids, grandchild, nieces and nephews. My nephew Chris and his wife have a son named Michael that I call The Most Photographed Child in the World (much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Prince William of England .)

When my mother died, I inherited all of her photo albums. In addition to the 32 I had ... groan ... I now had 28 more! My lifestyle does not lend itself to hauling around tons of photo albums SO right before a big cross country move I took a deep breath and plunged in … I tore all the pics out of all the albums and put them in one big box that I schlepped to Boston with me.

Late one night I got an idea of what to do with them. It was precipitated by a drunken phone call from my brother imploring me to send him any pictures I might have of him with our deceased father and grandfather. I warily eyed the giant box of photos, not knowing where to start. I reached in and grabbed a random photo which turned out to be of my niece with my grandfather who had passed away 30+ years ago. Why did I have this photo? Shouldn't my niece have it? Does she even know it exists?

Right then and there it became my goal in life to rid myself of most all of these photos and get them back out to the younger family members they should be with. So during the summer of 2006, I started sorting. Everyone in the family had their own pile and the treasured group photos went to either the youngest person in the picture or the “star” of the photo – the one person front and center smiling into the camera. For Christmas that year, I put together photo albums for everyone. They weren’t even fancy or scrapbooked, just colored paper hole punched, bound with ribbon with a sheet of plastic on the cover. Christmas Eve everyone started tearing into their gifts and suddenly the room became silent. People had found their photo albums! There was tears and laughter (and we’re NOT an emotional family.) The photo albums, which cost me practically nothing, were the hit of the holidays!

This summer I started going through the photos that were left. I still have tons of them – what to do, what to do, what to do. I realized as I looked through them that most of these would have been duplicates. Most were photos of my mother’s kids and grand kids, which had been sent to her for every occasion. I needed a way to return LOTS of pictures back to the original givers without insulting them. I decided to make Photo Collage Place mats for the Christmas of 2008, one for each family member.

I had a great time dividing the photos into sets or themes and learned that it takes approximately 35-50 photos to make a place mat-sized collage. I cut and stuck the photos by glue stick onto cheap plastic place mats that I found at a street fair. Once finished, I covered my creation front & back with clear plastic contact paper. Still with me? It was fast and easy and could be done while watching TV. The photos I had of my ex-husband and his family were given to my daughter so that she can make photo place mats for them.

Guess what, even after all of this, I STILL have plenty of photos left for my private collection! A lot of the photos are of our ancestors and parents, all of who are deceased. My parents were big party animals and I have a photos of them and their friends taken at random parties over the years. How do I evenly divide those among family members? I’m thinking about making scrapbook pages of our ancestors, or of Christmases past and then copying them on a colored copier and making sure that everyone gets a set.

Another puzzlement is what to do with pics of my exes? Not just my ex husband, but do I really need a million pictures from another relationship that lasted for 4 years and ended badly? The problem was how to let go and what to do with these pics. I decided to keep any photos of my ex(s) in which I or my family, friends or pets also appear, the rest got tossed. It was extremely cathartic. I highly recommend it!

Food Cost and Quality

The harder times get, the more fun it seems to be. Don't get me wrong, poverty is always a grind but when everyone else is feeling the pinch people start getting creative and enjoy wallowing in it together. I'm still spending a lot of time shopping for food deals and thinking about cooking.

A couple of years ago my friend Diane & I were hooked on the Food Network Channel. We co hosted a food blog and started experimenting with various recipes from Food Network shows and cookbooks, much to our families dismay. No matter what we made, nothing tasted very good! Our families started to revolt and we went back to the basics – meat and potatoes. But as I was eating my old meatloaf standby, I wrote to Diane and complained that food just doesn’t taste the same anymore. Was it me and my aging tastebuds or is this true?

Don’t even get me started on restaurants! A couple of years ago I went with a group of people to a restaurant for their $45 New Years Eve dinner special. My lamb chops were gross – too fatty to be eaten. I didn’t say anything, didn’t want to spoil every one else’s expensive meal. It made me wonder how many substandard meals they got away with serving that night, due to thinking like mine. I never went back to that restaurant of course, and the list of local restaurants I no longer patronize (for the same reason) has grown rapidly over the years.

Surprisingly I tend to get the most consistently good meals at chain restaurants – Applebees, Cocos, etc. Perhaps it’s their quality control. It’s just so disappointing to try to make an event out of going out to eat and end up paying for a meal that is substandard to what you could make at home more cheaply.

Another disappointing phenomenon is the price staying the same for items that are shrinking in size. You no longer get 64 ounces of ice cream, you get 48. You can tell easily by looking at candy bars. I remember the size of the bars I used to get as a child for a nickel. Not even close to what you pay a dollar for these days. Cadbury even has a disclaimer on their site that the eggs aren’t getting smaller, we just got bigger … so, not true. Then I read that candy companies are also using cheaper ingredients to make up the price difference, like the oil Hersheys is using in the chocolate. No wonder things don’t taste the same!

Then there’s the problem of meat at the grocery store. If I see the words “Aged Beef” I drop the package and run for the hills! There is nothing grosser tasting than aged beef but grocery stores and restaurants are only too happy to charge you big bucks to come to the same conclusion. Recently I made filet mignons that had been marked down as a “Manager Special” at my local Ralphs. It was completely disgusting. I’m so glad I didn’t pay full price. I had bought several packages (at $1.29 each) and my daughter implored me to just throw them away. I told her that I plan to use the meat in a crockpot stew dish but was there enough gravy and spices to disguise the taste? Finally I made chili out of them and was it good! It gave the chili a really rich, earthy taste.

The one good thing about items shrinking in size is that we Americans can use some portion control. I heard that the size of the burger that kids get in Kids Meals are the size that adults used to receive when fast food places first opened. My daughter and I have decided to order kids meals whenever we eat fast food. We have also learned to share entrees – one person orders a dinner salad, the other gets the entrée. I don’t mind ordering my own entrée occasionally through because I can take the leftovers home and make another meal out of it (and sometimes a third meal!) I don’t want to turn into one of those old ladies who hoard little bits of leftover food, but I think I am well on my way to joining their ranks.