Monday, November 19, 2012

Anyone up for a Treat?

Sooo...hopefully none of you are getting tired of my review type posts here, since this one has a special goodie for you all. :D is a relatively new card-printing site that offers a huge variety of top-quality, designs for all occasions. Each can be personalized in a number of ways, creating a one-of-a-kind card sure to make your recipient smile. I've been really impressed with the quality of the designs (a rare compliment from me, as a picky designer myself!), and the printing is top-notch, too. Even the prices are very reasonable, especially when compared to retail prices on ordinary cards at Walmart or elsewhere.

Okay, enough preamble. ;) The best part is that Treat has given me permission to share a special code for a FREE card. Yay! There's no better way to actually get a feel for just how nice their cards are. This code is valid only on Monday and Tuesday (Nov. 19 and 20), so go check out their site right away and select a design from any of their many categories (choosing will be the hardest part!). Shipping is also free, unless you choose to have the card sent directly to your recipient - then you just pay the cost of a first-class stamp ($0.45). Can't beat that!

Here's the code to use to claim your free card: TREATBLOGR

Remember, this code is good only on Nov. 19 and 20, so hurry!

As the folks at Treat say, "Real friends send real cards." Who do you know who could use a cheery note in the mail today?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stupidity knows no boundaries

I've been stupid more times and in more ways in my life than I care to admit. There was the time over Christmas break in 5th grade when I ran around on the pigpen roof at my grandparents' farm when I tripped over my feet and fell about six feet and landed on the top of my head on the concrete. There was the time in the winter of 1997 when I stomped on the gas pulling out of the church parking lot after it had sleeted for a couple of hours, hopped the curb, and hit a fire hydrant at 20-25 mph (I even managed to move the hydrant about two feet and didn't rupture the pipe). There was the time in January of 2003 when I was late going to work in the morning and pulled into the snow-filled left lane to pass someone. Long story short, I ended up in the ditch on the other side of the highway, did about $2,000 worth of damage to the underside of my car, dropped out of college after only 6 days into the semester because I was sure I couldn't work enough to pay for the repairs, and then found out three weeks later that because of my insurance I only owed about $500 (and my dad gracefully paid half of it); at that point it was too late to re-enroll in school.

But by far, I think the stupidest thing I've done is to get myself into debt. Not just into debt, but really into debt. It wasn't a one-time occurrence: I spent years building up the mountain of money I owed. During my freshman year of college, 2000-2001, I got my first credit card through Capital One. I had a limit of $500, and it wasn't long at all before I had it maxed out. I was working enough hours that I could have had it all paid off within a month or two, but I foolishly paid little more than the minimum due and then charged the remaining balance. Even with such a low limit, I shudder to think of how much extra money I spent in interest.

I moved home after that first year of college and worked full-time at various jobs before deciding to return to school in September of 2003. In October of 2001, I traded in the 1991 Hyundai Excel I'd been driving and got a 1997 Saturn L-series. I think I picked it up for about $6,500 after trade. At that point, I was working full-time, making a dollar or two an hour over minimum wage, but I was also living at home and had no expenses. I could have easily paid the car off in a year. Instead, I spent three months out of that year going out of town every weekend, which usually resulted in at least $60 in spending between gas and eating out, and I picked up plenty of unnecessary junk throughout the entire year, much of it via my credit card, which by now had a limit of at least $5,000.

By the time I started college in September of 2003, my credit card had a limit of $8,500. For making a maximum annual salary of $25,000, this seems incredibly ridiculous. By the way, this is a factor in how our national economy got so messed up. The majority of this country seems to be living outside their means (or at least doing all they can to live outside their means). Even after the economic troubles we've faced as a nation, this habit is alive and well. Anyway, back to my story. Throughout my college years, I used my credit card a lot and for stupid purchases. Looking around my apartment now, I have almost nothing to show for my rampant credit card spending. At least twice I took out a private student loan to pay off my maxed out credit card, which had a limit of $11,500 by the time I graduated. Before my tuition deduction on my taxes, the last two years I was on-campus for college I was only making about $15,000 a year. It's my own fault for carrying a card with such a high limit (I really should have cancelled the card after I got it paid off the first time and saved myself the additional temptation), but again, there is a distinct issue with our financial institutions if a person with such a low income can so easily maintain a credit card with such a high limit.

The last year of my college experience was an unpaid internship. I took out a private student loan to cover living expenses during that year, so perhaps that loan is more excusable, though I wish I'd been working part-time to offset the loan and my expenses. I didn't have enough taken out, however, to cover unexpected expenses such as a $600 repair job on my car. My dad once again very graciously covered my expenses there, as did my mom and step-dad.

I was quite blessed to get a job at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, before I even graduated (I did my internship at Mayo). My starting salary there was somewhere around $45,000, so that first paycheck was quite a sight for me! I didn't start paying on my student loans right away because I wasn't required to do so until six months after graduating (and who does stuff before they're supposed to?), and I didn't do much extra for my credit card, but it was certainly nice to have an income again. Once my student loans came due, I did pay extra each month, but I wasn't very focused in my efforts. I'm not sure how much debt I had when I started making payments, but I know it was a lot.

Sometime in September or October of 2009, I started working with my friend Tabitha on making a quilt out of a bunch of T-shirts I had on hand. It was a fun learning experience for me, but one of the biggest things to come out of it was hearing more fully about Dave Ramsey's plan for getting out of debt (I had heard info about his program before from other friends, but I wasn't ready to hear the message, it seems). She recommended his book, The Total Money Makeover, and after I left her house one evening in November I stopped at Barnes & Noble and picked up a copy. I'd say it was the best book purchase I've ever made outside of John MacArthur's study Bible. Ramsey's plan is simple and full of common sense, two factors I needed to make a payoff plan successful.

I had further incentive to get out of debt because at the end of September in 2009 Abi and I started e-mailing. I knew if things were going to work out between us, being serious about getting out of debt was going to be a key factor.

On December 22nd, 2009, I totaled up my debts and laid them out in order to be paid off. Ramsey suggests that you line up all of your debts from smallest to largest amount and ignore the interest rates. In my case, my debts could be broken down into twelve individual loans. My objective was to pay the minimum payments on the eleven most expensive loans and put every penny I could spare on the smallest loan. Once that loan was paid off, everything I had been paying on it would go into the next loan and so on, creating what he calls a "debt snowball." He understands that you'll pay a little more in the long run if you're ignoring interest rates and paying off a loan with a smaller rate first, but he's going for psychological victories. My highest value loan of $20,000 or more was also the one with the highest interest rate, yet paying that one off first could have led to discouragement as it would have taken a very long time to pay it off and would have left me paying on all twelve loans for a lot longer. If you don't like this approach, I wouldn't fault you for doing something different...the key is putting everything you can into a single loan to get it paid off and out of the way.

Anyway, when I started on this program, I owed a total of $125,427.79 and my total monthly payments were in the neighborhood of $1,500. At the time of this writing, it has been 2 years, 10 months, and 20 days. The debt total is now $51,064.44 and the monthly payments are $577.42. Abi and I have changed our game plan a little bit. I still have the loan that was the highest value when I started the program, though it is now less than $13,500. It's monthly payment is $258.09, which is more than twice the monthly payment of any other individual loan, and while the interest rate isn't that much higher than any other loan, it's accruing enough interest over the other loans that it would be great to save that money and put it to use elsewhere. I was blessed to find out about and qualify for a program through work that will put some money towards my student loans in exchange for a three-year service agreement. I can apply for funds again the next two years at least. Not everyone has this opportunity, but if you are in a position to take such an offer, I would highly recommend doing so.

The program at work will go a long way to helping us get out of debt by the end of 2014 (which is 2 years, 1 month, and 22 days from now), and that's our current goal. I will, thankfully, be eligible for a raise the next two Octobers, which will also help us reach this goal. And I will hopefully have a few more books written and published to add to the income (I haven't even taken into consideration Abi's income since, with a baby due in less than a month, we're not sure how much she'll be able to contribute to the bottom line).

Anyway, as I've said in a recent post regarding a house purchase, getting out of debt is our top financial priority. We have a tremendous amount of breathing room now compared to two years ago, for which we are grateful, but there's a good bit yet to go (you can mail your contributions to the cause to...ha, just kidding!). If you are in debt yourself, I urge you to take whatever measures you can manage to free yourself from that burden.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Remembering priorities...

Abi and I were recently reminded of priorities we shouldn't be neglecting.

A little back story  We found out she was pregnant in March. Then, in May, as I was looking at house listings out of curiosity, I found a property that seemed like a phenomenal find. It was a four-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2100 square foot house on 1.79 acres just inside Des Moines city limits, a good 10 minutes closer to work for me and at least fifteen minutes closer to her family. The best part, it was listed at $121,500, a price I was sure we could handle.

After looking at the place a couple of times and going back and forth with the seller, we settled on $117,000. At this point I thought we'd better find out what our monthly cost was going to be. Turns out we were looking at about $950/month for the mortgage, which is $255/month more than our current rent. Utilities would also go up from our $50ish/month to between $200 and $250/month. So, in frustration, we had to back away from the table.

Our agent e-mailed us on July 4th to let us know that the house was going to short sale on July 5th. Out of curiosity, I looked, but the price had only dropped to $117,500. Not good enough for us. Then we kinda forgot about the house for a few weeks.

I don't fully know why, but I looked at the listing again on August 13th to find that the price had dropped on August 10th to $101,700. Hey now, we could be in business here! I talked it over with Abi, and we got in touch with our agent. We started the ball rolling, borrowing $5,000 from my dad to help with the down payment, getting an idea of how much we could borrow and at what rate, and making an initial offer. Then the waiting began, and finally on October 23rd we heard that the seller's bank had accepted our offer of $96,000. Yay!

We were originally looking at an FHA mortgage, so we were going to wait for the FHA appraisal before getting our own inspection. However, our mortgage banker said we had enough assets available to do a conventional mortgage, which meant the process could be sped up a bit. We signed paperwork on Friday, October 26th for the mortgage to get processed.

Then, the weirdest thing happened. I got an e-mail from our agent saying an agent from another agency had an interested client. Since we had not put down any earnest money, the listing was still active. I decided I should get a check to our agent to rectify the situation and got to her office 5 minutes before closing. The check wouldn't be cashed until Monday, October 29th, but all of our legal bases were covered.

Friday I also needed to get some inspections set up. Abi's uncle, who used to own a concrete business and does foundation inspections in his area, had said he'd be willing to look at houses for us, so we got him down to check out the foundation (he said that it was okay, even though cosmetically it didn't look the prettiest). We also got a friend of ours who does roofing to come out. His thoughts were that the roof would need redoing within 3 years, and at dinner after we'd looked at the house together he said flat out that he wouldn't buy it (coming from a man involved in construction who is doing work on his own house, this was a pretty good indicator as to the course of action we should take). So we e-mailed our agent Sunday night and said we just couldn't see taking the responsibility for such a house--we wouldn't have the time, money, or expertise to fix it ourselves, nor could we afford to pay someone else to do it for us. Since Abi especially wasn't overly thrilled with the layout and several features of the house, it wasn't too difficult to make the decision.

Then I got to thinking about some other things. Like how easily the prospect of owning a house had swayed me from my plan to be debt-free within the next 3 years with the justification that we would only be paying $200-$300/month more in housing costs than what we pay now. Our current debt load is between $50,000 and $52,000, and it's conceivable we'll have it paid off in 26 months (by the end of December 2014). Yet if we bought a house now, we would extend the time it would take to pay our current debts and basically triple overall what we owe. I understand the argument for building equity and how much of a buyer's market it is right now, but I'm not convinced it's the biblical approach to go into debt even for what sounds like such good reasons.

The Bible has a few things to say about debt, and the basic message is don't go into debt and do everything you can to get out if you are in debt. I don't know as this is said anywhere as an explicit command (I will have to look into that and get back to you all if I find anything...feel free to let me know if you know of anything regarding this), but it comes up several times in Proverbs, a book filled with much good advice. Debt is not a good thing (and why people think debt is a good thing for the nation but not for individuals is something I've never been able to figure out). So our plan for a future house purchase, should the Lord tarry so long in His return that such a purchase is even possible, looks quite a bit different from what we've just gone through. We'll be out of debt before we even look to buy a house. On top of that, if it really comes down to taking out a mortgage, we will have 20% saved for a down payment and we'll shoot for a 15-year mortgage instead of the traditional 30.

Ideally, though, I'd much rather save the entire amount for a house purchase and pay cash up front, just as much for the shock value of doing something that most people have never heard of doing as for not being in debt to anyone again. Let me crunch a few numbers for you. As I said, we had an accepted purchase price of $96,000, which meant we were going to be financing about $92,000. If we were to pay just the minimum payment every month, we would pay about $147,000 for the house at the end of 30 years. That's a difference of $55,000. We currently pay $695 in rent each month. If we stayed right where we are, it would take us just over 6 1/2 years to pay $55,000 in rent. My current net income is about $2800/month, and that will continue to go up with raises (assuming the VA system doesn't go broke under what I see as an inevitable economic meltdown). Not factoring in what I need to pay on my current debt load, I can safely set aside a minimum of $1500/month, which in 6 1/2 years is $118,500 before interest is added. Also, I'm taking into consideration that all houses require upkeep, and any money that goes towards repairs and improvements is money that can't go towards paying off a mortgage. In our current rental, we are not responsible for repairs or utilities other than electric, and should we move to another rental, having some or all of the repairs and utilities covered by the landlord will be our goal to help us save money.

Is that going to buy us a palace? No. But will it buy us a decent house? I'm quite confident it will as I don't see the housing market rebounding enough in the next 6-10 years to make house prices go up significantly. And since Abi and I would like a little bit of land, and taking into consideration that without other debt payments we could afford to live further from the city and thus deal with lower property taxes, we could end up with a very nice place with such an amount. And that amount doesn't factor in what Abi makes in a year, which currently goes almost entirely to help our debt payoff and could later be applied to saving for a house and would easily cover many unexpected situations.

Would such an approach require sacrifice? Absolutely, depending on what you consider a sacrifice. I haven't had TV service since before we got married, and we do just fine without it. We share a cell phone plan with three of Abi's siblings, so our cost there is lower than when it was just the two of us (and we're getting a bit higher of a package). Abi does a lot of couponing, and while she isn't going to make it on an episode of "Extreme Couponing," her work in this area allows us to generally spend less than $120/month on food, and we still get to treat ourselves more frequently than you would expect. But some luxuries will have to be done without. And of course, waiting to buy a house could very well mean that many houses we could afford and would even like will come and go, though if we're saving for a house and not actively looking, it's not like we'd be totally aware of this. We would, however, see friends and family buying houses and we'd feel the pull to have one of our own.

But will there be a reward? Absolutely! Home-ownership without the debt. A close-knit family from living in tighter quarters. The satisfaction of knowing we did something that most are unwilling to do. And, I firmly believe, the blessing of God for being wise with the money He has given to us in not putting ourselves into debt for something that isn't going to last forever anyway.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Post-election Thoughts

For those of you who don't follow Joe's other blog, he's over there sharing some thoughts about the election results. Check it out!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Giveaway winner!

Thanks to all who entered the Tiny Prints giveaway in my last post! I used a random number generator to select the winner, and it ended up being...


Sara (sara2@......)!

You should be receiving an email from Tiny Prints soon, Sara, with the $50 code to Tiny Prints. Hope you have a grand time deciding which cards to order! :D

Hosting this giveaway was a lot of fun, and I hope to be able to do more of them in the future. Probably would help if I posted more on the blog to start with though, eh? to find time for that...

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Christmas Photo Cards Giveaway: $50 credit to Tiny Prints!

Wow, can you believe we're already nearly to the end of October? This year has just been flying by for us, and here we are a mere 7 weeks from Baby Westbrook's due date. Eeeek! That's exciting and overwhelming all at once. :)

Today is an absolutely gorgeous autumn day here in Iowa, with crisp blue skies, a light breeze, and sunshine spilling everywhere. It's a shame Joe had to work this evening, as it would have been a perfect day for us to go out and take a few maternity pictures. I'm thinking ahead to our end-of-the-year newsletter and cards, and would like to have a nice pregnancy picture to include as well as (Lord willing!) pictures of our little family once Baby is born.

I'm definitely planning on having our cards printed through Tiny Prints again this year, and am super excited about the HUGE selection of designs they're offering. As a graphic designer, I tend to view designs with a fairly critical eye - and on most pre-designed card sites like this there is always something I wish I could tweak about the way a card is laid out or the fonts/color that were chosen. Not so with Tiny Prints! Seriously, they have some of the best card designs I've ever seen. Most come in several different color combinations, and there are usually a number of design options including text, font, photos, and more. I've been known to browse through their site just for creative inspiration...the designs are truly that good. :D

This is the design Joe and I used last year (with a different photo, of course!).

Intrigued yet? Check out this year's huge selection here: Christmas Photo Cards 

While you're over there, be sure to check out Tiny Prints' special offers and promotions page: it's a great place to catch a good deal!

Okay, and the best part? Tiny Prints offered to let me share a $50 giveaway with one of my blog readers. This is for a coupon code that gives you $50 off your total order (not including shipping). Tiny Prints' prices are very reasonable, especially considering the top-quality printing, and you'll be able to get a good-sized stack of cards for FREE if you win! Even for those of you who do not celebrate Christmas, there are plenty of designs that would work perfectly for an end-of-the-year greeting card, or just as a way to share photos with your loved ones.

Sound fun? All you have to do to enter is go to Tiny Prints' site (link above) and look through their designs. Then come back here and leave a comment, letting us know which card you would choose (good luck choosing only one, lol - that's the hardest part!). Be sure to include a valid email address so I can contact you if you win. To earn a second entry, please link to this post on your FB page or Twitter, then come back and comment saying that you've done so. All entries must be received by October 29! I'll randomly select one winner and will be in touch with your coupon code. Can't wait to see which of you will win! :D

For anyone who would like to check out Tiny Prints elsewhere in cyberspace, see these links:

Disclaimer: Tiny Prints is giving me site credit in trade for spreading the word about their holiday card designs. When I saw the chance to share $50 with one of you I immediately knew I wanted to participate, even though I've been so busy of late that this blog has been sadly neglected otherwise. :) But rest assured that this is an honest review: I do I whole-heartedly recommend Tiny Prints' services and think they're doing a great job!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

It's yearbook time again!

Anyone remember my post from last March about Shutterfly's new yearbooks? Well, now that school is back in session again, at least for most folks (hard to tell about all you homeschoolers, hehe), this is the perfect time of year to start thinking about putting together a yearbook for your children - or even for younger siblings or friends.

Too busy to do any "real" scrapbooking? These photo yearbooks would be an absolutely perfect way to commemorate a year of homeschooling - when you don't have the option of getting a yearbook through your school. It's so worth it to preserve all those special memories - your children will treasure them for the rest of their lives!

Prices start as low as $6 (yes, really!) and just peeking at the creative, colorful sample layouts here gets me all excited to put one together myself -- even though my own baby isn't even born yet, hehe. Someday I'll have a chance to join in. :D I haven't actually seen one of these yearbooks in print yet, but everything else I've ordered from Shutterfly over the years has been excellent quality and I'm sure these books are no exception.

If you'd like to keep track of Shutterfly's newest promotions and products, visit the links I've listed below. They frequently have great sales and coupon codes, and I've been able to catch some amazing deals! New customers also get 50 FREE prints with your first order, which is unbeatable. Check it out!

Full disclosure: Shutterfly offered to give me a free photo book in exchange for posting about their new yearbooks. But I assure you that my opinions are honest and I really am excited about trying it out. :D

Friday, September 21, 2012


Most of you have probably heard of Nick Vujicic, a young man born without arms and legs. By God's grace, he has been used in big ways in recent years, inspiring thousands upon thousands of people worldwide. Nick was married earlier this year and their first child is already on the way - so good to see God blessing him in these exciting ways!

I'm really looking forward to reading his newest book when it comes out early next month: it looks like a good one! You can check out the first chapter here, and watch this little video clip:

"I keep a pair of shoes in my closet because I believe in miracles."

Yes, that is real faith in action. May God help me to trust Him more!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Easy Vanilla Pudding

Now that I've finally made it through the first trimester of this pregnancy and all its associated nausea (morning sickness really should be called "all-day sickness" for accuracy!), I'm on a quest to make sure I "eat for two" and consume a good number of healthy calories and a balanced diet every day. It's been a bit of a challenge since I'm not one to like eating all that much, and have always found it very difficult to eat enough to gain weight (thank you, genetically high metabolism!). But my efforts seem to be paying off and I was encouraged when my midwife assured me at this week's appointment that I'm doing great in the weight department - I've actually gained 5 pounds in the past 2 months. Yay!

One way I've been supplementing my diet with extra nutrition is by enjoying lots of the yummy goat milk from my family's farm. Nothing beats a glass of cold milk on a hot day! I've also enjoyed lots of milkshakes/smoothies made by my wonderful husband many mornings.

More recently, I've made up a few batches of this simple vanilla pudding recipe. Using just a few basic ingredients and taking almost no time, this recipe is ridiculously easy. And my, it sure is tasty! I've especially enjoyed it chilled, with sliced strawberries on top (as shown above). And the best part? It has about 403 calories in every one-cup serving...relatively healthy calories, too, if you use raw, whole milk and free-range eggs and unbleached flour (all organic), as I did. ;)

Anyway, enough rambling - here's the recipe!

Vanilla Pudding
Makes about 3 1/2 cups of pudding, or enough for 7 smallish servings. 

1/2 c. sugar
Dash of salt
3 Tb. corn starch (I use unbleached, all-purpose flour)
3 egg yolks OR 2 whole eggs (I use the latter, just because it's easier)
3 c. whole milk (2% also works, but isn't as creamy - goat milk is best!)
2 Tb. butter
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a saucepan, whisk together sugar, corn starch (flour), and salt until well-combined and lump-free. Add milk and eggs and whisk together well until fully combined. Heat on medium temperature until mixture bubbles, stirring frequently to prevent sticking/lumps. Allow to boil for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Add butter and vanilla, stirring until butter melts. Serve hot if you choose, or chill in refrigerator for several hours before serving. Leftovers keep well in the fridge in a sealed container for several days - if it lasts that long. ;)

Variation: Add chocolate or carob chips with the butter and vanilla and mix until melted. Cocoa powder would likely also work well. I want to try it with a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg sometime, and am guessing that lemon extract in place of vanilla would probably be delicious as well.

My sister Lydia is the one who found this recipe originally, and I don't know her source. Definitely a keeper, though! :)

EDIT: Lydia says she got the recipe from Tammy's Recipes - I should have known that such a yummy, easy recipe had to come from Tammy! ;) Check out her version and review here.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Long Live Summer" - photo contest opportunity

Any photographers out there interested in a fun summer contest? I just found out today that Shutterfly is hosting a summer-themed photo contest, running July 9 through August 12. Each week has a theme for the photos, and you can enter once each week. Here are the themes:

•       Week 1(7/9): Americana
•       Week 2 (7/16): Great Outdoors
•       Week 3 (7/23): Water Fun
•       Week 4 (7/30): Sports & Activities
•       Week 5 (8/6): Parties & Celebrations

The prizes look pretty good, too! Everyone who enters gets an instant prize (not sure what it'll be - maybe a coupon for ordering photos?), there are weekly prizes and featured photos, and the grand prize is a trip for 4 to the Bahamas along with a professional photo shoot. :)

Sound like something you're interested in participating in? Check it out here! And here are the official contest rules.

Disclaimer: Shutterfly is giving me a free product in trade for spreading the word about their contest. It does genuinely sound like a fun opportunity for any of you photographers out there, though, and I whole-heartedly recommend Shutterfly's services and site - they do a great job!

My apologies for neglecting this blog, only to come back with a commercial-type post! Hoping to get together a real post soon. :)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


A part of marriage is learning to deal with each others' problems and being an encouragement along the way, sparking new growth. Abi has been there for me in this respect in tremendous ways. Her patience is amazing, and I love her all the more for it.

This past weekend is a prime example. For reasons I don't even know, I was in a terrible funk Saturday and Sunday. Saturday didn't start out that way, but by the time we got to Target to do our grocery shopping, it was settling in. We were going to the movies with friends of ours afterward, and I wasn't sure I wanted to when we left the store. We met them at the theater anyway, and ended up having to wait an hour because the show we were going to see was sold out. During that time, the four of us had some fun conversation, and my mood was much improved.

Sunday, though, I woke up in a foul mood and I couldn't seem to shake it. We skipped church because I knew it would have been hypocritical for me to sing praises to God while in such an awful state of mind, even though I realized that going there might have helped lift the mood. I probably won't know if I made the right call or not on that point. I ended up taking a long nap and woke up feeling somewhat better, but it didn't last long. Abi very patiently came to me after I sat for a while by myself, trying to figure out what was wrong, which was frustrating for me, and must have been for her, because I couldn't even explain what was the matter. As she sat by me, she must have been praying her heart out because eventually the mood broke. We prayed together, then, and I've been feeling good ever since.

I'm sure at least some of my problem was spiritual in nature, an effort to keep me from doing what God has brought me to Des Moines to do. Spending time in Scripture and prayer are the two weapons I am trying to rely on to keep my mind focused where it should be in order to serve Him and love my wife the way I should.

God is so good!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Book review: The Money Saving Mom's Budget

When I was given an opportunity to review a free copy of Crystal Paine's new book, The Money Saving Mom's Budget, I quickly accepted. I've known Crystal as a personal friend since we both were teenagers, and can vouch for the fact that she truly does practice what she preaches about frugal, simple living. I've been following her blog for years, and was eager to see what her book is like.

I definitely wasn't disappointed! The solid financial and lifestyle principles set forth in Crystal's blog posts are carried over into the book, but it is much more than a lazy re-hashing of blog posts! She managed to find a lot of great new ideas to include, and everything is laid out in a organized, logical way. Appendixes and worksheets are included - and to my delight the audio version doesn't have to miss out on these (a PDF of the files is included).

One point that really stood out to me is Crystal's assertion that a cluttered, disorganized life will also struggle financially. I have found this to be so true in my own life, and in observing others! Taking even a little time to remain at least moderately organized, and fighting against the clutter takeover, can go a LONG way in saving money. If I can find items I already own (and they aren't ruined from being thrown around in a pile of junk), I don't have to go out and buy duplicates. If I keep track of when bills are due and when library books or rental movies need to be returned, I won't have to pay out extra in late fees. If I know what food I have in my pantry and fridge and use it (including leftovers) before it spoils, my grocery budget can be much lower. And the list goes on!

The Money Saving Mom's Budget is full of simple, practical wisdom just like this. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone, including young people who aren't living on their own yet. These principles of financial and lifestyle responsibility are something we all need to learn and implement into our lives!

More info about the book:

Crystal Paine, who has helped busy women everywhere take control of their finances, presents her most effective strategies designed for families of all sizes and income levels

With hundreds of inspiring “why didn’t I think of that?” TIPS, plus WORKSHEETS, Paine breaks down your goals into easy, manageable steps so you can:

• Achieve a complete financial makeover
• Set up a realistic budget
• Never pay retail
• Slash your grocery bill
• Organize your time & your home
• Use coupons wisely
• Pay with cash only
• Live simply
• Become debt free
• Choose contentment
• Make every dollar count

About Crystal Paine:

Crystal Paine is a wife and homeschooling mom to three young children who has been writing on topics related to frugality for the last five years—and living a frugal, simple, and debt-free life since she was born. Her blog,, is one of the top personal finance blogs on the web averaging over four million pageviews per month. Crystal has contributed to articles in Woman's Day magazine and All You magazine, as well as being mentioned on National Public Radio and, in USA Weekend, and Real Simple magazine and numerous other local newspapers and radio and television stations.

Info about an online event Crystal is doing tomorrow:

Celebrate with Crystal by entering her iPad2 Giveaway (a GREAT tool to keep track of your budget!) and RSVPing to the Live Webcast Event on 4/5!

One savvy winner will receive:
  • A Brand new iPad2
  • The Money Saving Mom's Budget by Crystal Paine, audio edition

Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends 4/4/12. Winner will be announced at The Money Saving Mom's Live Webcast Event on 4/5. Crystal will be hosting an evening of chat, laughter and encouragement - bring your friends! She'll share tips and advice and her husband will be joining her to share how the
Blog Post:principles Crystal outlines in her book have dramatically impacted their family life. She'll also be giving away some GREAT prizes: gift certificates, books, and much more!

So grab your copy of The Money Saving Mom®'s Budget and join Crystal and friends on the evening of April 5th for an evening of fun of learning, sharing and encouragement.

Don't miss a moment of the fun. RSVP TODAY and tell your friends via FACEBOOK or TWITTER and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 5th!

Want more info about the MSM?

Click here!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Every Woman's Battle


"Discovering God's Plan for Sexual and Emotional Fulfillment"

By Shannon Ethridge

I picked up this book thinking it would have little application in my life. This area is not one in which I have struggled all that much - not that I am stronger than others, but I've been blessed with an extra-sheltered upbringing. However, I was surprised at how much really hit home for me, and I found many helpful reminders and warnings within the pages. The author states clearly that "naivete is not a virtue" - yet she deals with the subject in a way that is both discrete and straightforward, always practical and hitting home.

Using stories from her own life as well as testimonies from other women, Ethridge does a masterful job accurately outlining the areas where women tend to struggle with their sexuality and purity. Clearly stating it's "not just a man's battle," she goes on to debunk "seven myths that intensify our struggle" and then calls us to "design a new defense" in the areas of our thoughts, emotions, words, and boundaries. Solid, Biblical truths are coupled with practical applications, and I found myself challenged to be aware of my own areas of vulnerability, taking God-honoring steps to remain pure and not allow the enemy any foothold in my life.

Also included in the edition I read is a lengthy "workbook" in the back, making this book a perfect companion for personal reflection as well as group studies. I would highly recommend it to any woman, married or single, and it would also be appropriate for teenagers to read along with a parent or mentor.

Blogging For Books

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group in exchange this honest review.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Capturing memories in a digital age

One of the drawbacks of homeschooling is that I don't have any highschool "yearbook" to commemorate those years. Yes, we do have some pictures, and I have my journals...but I wasn't into scrapbooking then and I know many memories and events from that time have been lost. My mom did a good job keeping her photo prints in sequential albums, but she didn't do any scrapbooking or journalling.

This is one reason I'm really excited about the yearbook photo books that Shutterfly is offering now. They look like a perfect alternative to scrapbooking, especially for busy families with lots of children, plenty of pictures, and no time to actually put photo pages together the old-fashioned way. These yearbooks would also be perfect for commemorating any other close-knit group - like a homeschool club, a church class, or an extended family reunion. Apparently they offer books for as little as $5 each, though I'm not sure how many you have to order to get this pricing.

From simple to elaborate, colorful to simple, there's a huge variety of design templates to choose from. With so much already done for you, no one is able to use the excuse that "I'm just not creative". ;) Just look at all these options: . Another advantage is that your book design is stored permanently on Shutterfly's site - so if your printed copy ever gets damaged it'll be easy to order a replacement.

Prices are reasonable, too, especially when you consider the time and expense that would be involved in a regular scrapbook or even in just an ordinary, plain photo album. Even though I thoroughly enjoy scrapbooking, I'm planning on out trying a photo book this year. I don't have time for scrapbooking these days, yet I want to get the memories recorded before they are all lost.

Check out the options here, and also follow Shutterfly on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. They have some really great deals from time to time, and new customers also get 50 FREE prints with your first order. Quality is great IMO - better than most cheap/free prints I've received elsewhere. We actually got most of our wedding pictures printed through Shutterfly and have been very happy with the quality.

Full disclosure: Shutterfly offered to give me a free photo book in exchange for posting about their new yearbooks. But I assure you that my opinions are honest and I really am excited about trying it out. :D

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Adventures of Joe and Abi: How Joe became a vegetarian

One of the things Joe and I enjoyed doing together during our long-distance courtship was playing Scrabble on Facebook - it's so much fun that we still play frequently that way, more often than playing a "real" game of Scrabble.

We both enjoy reading, writing, and word it was a natural progression for us to combine all these things in our Scrabble games. We decided to write a story along with the Scrabble game: every word we played had to be worked into the story somehow, as we went along. The resulting stories have often been both goofy and downright hilarious. :D An obvious side benefit is that we have to look up the meaning of each word and use it properly - so we're learning lots of fun new words also (another thing we both enjoy).

I've saved the text from these stories, calling them "The Adventures of Joe and Abi." Would you like a peek at a chapter? :) The words in CAPS are the words played in the game.

The Adventures of Joe and Abi: How Joe Became a Vegetarian

One day Joe was feeling oddly hungry and decided to grill himself a nice piece of BEEF.

Unfortunately there was no beef to be found in his fridge, so he went out and bought some BICORN instead.

"No bicorns were HARMED in the making of this steak," Joe read from the label. He raised his eyebrows suspiciously.

He decided he'd better HURL the steak as far from himself as possible for the packaging's shameful lies.

Joe stepped out his door and, with a loud BELLOW, let the bicorn steak fly with a fast overhand throw to the east.

"I wonder if I can join that CLIQUE of meat connoisseurs that Abi belongs to?" he thought to himself.

"Or, maybe if I can't join, I can snag her LOGINS to the CLIQUE'S website and see what they say about bicorn steaks."

"Until then, perhaps I can be content with some GUAVA."

Grabbing his bottle of guava and a bag of GRATED cheese to munch on, Joe sat down at the computer to see if he could catch Abi on chat and convince her to tell him the passwords to the meat clique website.

While he waited for Abi to sign on, he decided to look for a sale on TOWELS.

Quickly becoming bored, Joe's eyes became heavy and he spent the next hour in a DOZE at his desk.

While sleeping, he dreamed of several CANTOS that he might use to win Abi's affection (as well as access to her logins).

Unfortunately his dreams then turned to scenes of being trapped in a ZEK, and he jolted awake with a groan.

He went to find some coffee, which always PACIFIED his waking fears.

"Why can't I ever find a clean mug when I need one?" Joe GRIPEd.

Suddenly it clicked in his mind. "I must be paying for all those times I skipped out on PE."

"Oy, GUV," he said to the butler. "Would you mind pouring me a cup o' coffee?"

"ER..." the butler hesitated. "I thought you were an EX-coffee drinker? Something about it having too much XI baryon and all that...?"

"Of course, that's IT," Joe agreed. He looked out the window. "Hey, look, that chicken is OVIPOSITing!"

Realizing he was getting distracted, Joe went back to the computer, turned it ON, and signed IN to see if NAN (his new nickname for Abi) was on yet. "Just so I don't end up chatting with her PA again..." Joe murmured.

Nan popped onto the video instant messaging program and was, for some strange reason, wearing a JIJAB.

"Oh, JO," she said sweetly, her voice muffled under the fabric of her headdress. "See this lovely URN I just painted?"

"It looks like an ordinary JAR with bruises," Joe thought to himself. This was not what he wanted to talk to Nan about.

"Do you know how to DARN socks?" he asked, hoping to ease into getting her logins.

"Oh, yes," she answered impatiently. "EM taught me how years ago. But I want you to look at the beautiful MATT finish on my urn. It was very difficult to get it just right."

"Wow, that's BEEFY!" Joe exclaimed, using the current slang of the youth.

Glad that she finally had Joe's ATT., Abi continued to talk about her urn and her hijab, and all her latest projects. Joe eventually gave up on the idea of trying to get her logins, and decided to become a vegetarian. And they both lived happily ever after.

The End.

Want to read more of Joe and Abi's adventures? Leave a comment and tell us if you think painted urns look like jars with bruises. And if you've ever dreamed of being trapped in a zek, we want to hear about it!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Decidedly Indecisive

One of the things Joe and I have had to learn about each other, especially since getting married, is that we both have very different approaches to decision-making. Joe can usually make up his mind pretty quickly, unless it's a situation where he doesn't really care one way or another (quite frequent). I, on the other hand, prefer to check out the options at least a bit, to be sure I am making a choice I will be completely happy with - and in the end I do usually have a pretty distinct preference. Thankfully this hasn't been a real source of conflict, but we've both definitely had a chance to learn patience with each other. :)

The funny thing is, before I got married I thought I was decisive and able to make up my mind quickly. Ha! I'm realizing now that I was comparing myself to my family and...well, let's just say that they tend to take a while to decide on pretty much anything. ;) Guess that's what happens when two second-borns get married, hehe. Growing up in that environment definitely taught a lot of patience to this naturally go-to, decisive firstborn - God knew I needed it to become more balanced. :)

This familial indecisiveness has resulted in some hilarious experiences over the years, as I recorded in a journal entry from 2004 (a few of you may remember seeing this on LJ back then). Names have been changed to protect the innocent. ;)

Scene: A vanful of 10 people, three generations. Characters are tired from a 4-day trade show; most have head colds in various stages. Time is 7:00 p.m. on a dark winter evening.

The trailer is finally packed with booth remnants and characters load into the van. Amid noisy protests from Tired People, Hungry People cautiously bring up the idea of getting something to eat before heading home. Head Of The Family is favorable to the idea, especially when a sub sandwich coupon is found. Hungry People's hopes rise.

Driver finds Subway in the maze of the unknown city and parks vehicle. An observant Tired Person points out that the coupon in hand is not actually for Subway. Head Of The Family suddenly remembers that "gobs and gobs" of crackers and granola bars are already somewhere in the van, and suggests that Hungry People eat them.

Hungry People want something besides crackers and granola bars, but resign themselves to such if that is what the Head Of The Family wants. They don't have to have more food. They will survive.

Head Of The Family reconsiders, saying that maybe Subway will accept the coupon anyway and asks who will go in and find out. Finally two Hungry People and one impatient Tired Person go in to Subway with the Head Of The Family. After ten minutes of reading the shockingly high priced menu, they come back out and announce that Subway does not accept the coupon. Hungry people sigh and resign themselves to starvation.

Confused Driver starts van and heads for the highway. Head Of The Family sees a grocery store and tells Confused Driver to stop. Do the Hungry People want to see if the deli has something reasonably priced? Do the Hungry People want to buy bread to make sandwiches? No, even crackers and granola bars sound better than deli food. Tired People's hopes rise.

Confused Driver again turns van towards the highway. Head Of The Family sees a pizza shop and realizes he has a coupon for it. Do the Hungry People want pizza? One Very Hungry Person replies with a definite affirmative. Head Of The Family tells Confused Driver to stop, but it is too late. They must go all the way to the end of the busy block and turn the awkward rig around in a small parking lot.

Finally back at the pizza shop, Head Of The Family goes in and orders a pizza. The next ten minutes are spent deciding if the Hungry People, the Tired People, or the Head Of The Family should pay for the pizza. The Tired People end up paying for it, even though they have no plans to eat any themselves. Hungry People feel bad for bringing up the idea of food in the first place.

Head Of The Family goes in and fetches the solitary pizza. It smells good, but the crust is literally cracker-thin, the cheese is sparse and runny, and the hamburger is represented by distantly-spaced lumps. Even the Hungry People vehemently agree that it wasn't worth $10.

Confused Driver quickly consumes a flimsy piece of pizza and then finally turns the van homeward, much to the relief of Tired People and Hungry People alike.

...and now you all know why we usually end up taking all our own food with us on trips. ;)
So, tell me: are you decisive? Do you think it has anything to do with birth order or upbringing, or just the way God made our personalities all a bit different?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Herbed Onion Focaccia Bread

This is a recipe I often make for company, as it's very fast, pretty much fool-proof, and everyone seems to like it. Goes great with any kind of soup, and is hearty and filling - nice when serving a crowd! I usually make it ahead of time, then slice and butter it, warming it up in the oven and placing it in a basket under a cloth just before serving.

A recent guest requested the recipe - so here you go, Jessica! Enjoy. :)

Herbed Onion Focaccia Bread

2 c. warm water (I just turn the faucet on hot and let it warm up a bit)
4 tsp. active dry yeast
2 Tb. sugar
1/4 c. finely chopped onion (or a couple tsp. dried, minced onion if you're in a hurry)
3 tsp. salt
2 Tb. grated parmesan cheese
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dill weed
1 tsp. rosemary (optional)
5 c. flour (I use 2 c. whole wheat and the rest unbleached white flour)

Dissolve yeast in water with sugar for 5-10 minutes. Add rest of ingredients and mix thoroughly until dough forms a ball and is no longer sticky (add a little more flour if needed).

Knead lightly. Divide dough in half and form into two ovals on a greased baking sheet.

1+ Tb. olive oil
1 tsp. dried parsley flakes
1 tsp. grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp. salt

With a pastry brush, spread olive oil on top of loaves, then sprinkle with rest of topping. Let rise till doubled - about 45 minutes. Bake at 400 degrees for 18-20 minutes, until loaves are golden brown.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Our Wedding: Memories and Miracles (part 2)

This is part 2 in a series of posts sharing stories from my wedding, the preparations for it, and all the amazing little ways God blessed us in that time...see Part 1 here.

Remember that you can click on any of the pictures in this post (or any of our posts here) and see them in a larger size, as a slideshow. :)

Finding the perfect dress for me was one thing; getting outfits for the rest of the wedding party was another. I wasn't one to spend a lot of time planning my wedding before I even had a ring on my finger: tempting as it was, I knew it'd only make me more impatient as a single. Yet for several years before Joe came along I'd had a pretty good idea what I would want my bridesmaids (a.k.a., my sisters) to wear for my wedding whenever it took place.

I guess I should thank my friend Pamela for this, as it all started with her. She graciously asked me to be a bridesmaid for her September 2007 wedding, and this involved sewing the outfit that I would be wearing. I wanted to test the pattern before cutting the navy satin she had selected, so I bought a few yards of cotton in a gorgeous cranberry color - it had a slight shading/heathering pattern that almost made it look like velvet from a distance. The test shirt ended up fitting perfectly, so I finished it off with tiny pearl buttons down the back and wide piece of ivory tatted lace around the neckline. I really liked how it turned out, and wore it to my brother's wedding as well as several other events. And though I didn't think about all that much, I knew that this top, paired with a simple A-line black skirt, would make a perfect bridesmaid outfit.

So when the time came to begin planning my own wedding (such a surreal thing!), I knew the fabric and pattern I wanted for my bridesmaids. The pattern I already had was the right size for my sisters, so all that needed to be done was to find more of the fabric. One of my sisters was disappointed that I wasn't choosing a more traditional, all-satin outfit, poor girl. ;) I was quite certain in my decision, though: besides not being a huge fan of satin I also wanted to choose practical outfits that would be wearable to other events. The black skirts would go with just about any other nice blouse, and the tops would be very appropriate for more formal occasions. So the decision was made, and I just had to wait for a chance to go shopping in Des Moines.

Meanwhile, I spent a Saturday at the thrift store my sisters and I volunteered at. During the afternoon many items were donated, and I began sorting through the boxes. Imagine my surprise when one box revealed 14 table runners in the exact fabric I planned to use for the bridesmaid tops! They were in perfect condition, sized for 8-foot tables, and finished off with lovely gold tassels on each end. They couldn't have been more perfect than if I'd special-ordered them myself, and I knew it was a direct miracle from God (seriously, what are the chances of such a coincidence?!). I paid $10 for the set and couldn't wait to tell Joe about it when he called that night: just one more example of God's incredible goodness and attention to even the smallest details.

Soon the big Des Moines shopping day arrived. Since it had been almost 3 years since I had initially purchased the fabric, I knew it might be difficult to find more. Unfortunately, this turned out to be correct. My patient family and I spent a whole day going to 5 different fabric stores (along with a bunch of thrift stores, where we looked for wedding decor), and didn't find even a remnant of The Fabric. I was getting pretty discouraged by that point, along with being completely exhausted. As usual I'd stayed up half the night chatting with Joe (his quiet night-shift job made the late-night hours the best time for us to talk), and it had been a very long day of decision-making.

By the time we reached the final Wal-mart stop, I asked my mom and sisters if they would mind running in for me since the only thing we needed to look for was that fabric. They kindly agreed, and I breathed a quick prayer that God would help us find the fabric, or else an alternative I could be equally or more happy with (though I was doubtful such existed, especially within our price range - and I wanted it to match the table runners!). Then I dropped off to sleep in the front seat of the van.

The next thing I knew, my mom and sisters were returning with big smiles and a bag in their hands. Turned out that not only did that store have a full bolt of the cloth, but it was on sale! They bought the whole bolt at only $2 a yard, and we ended up having plenty to make all the bridesmaid outfits, ties for Joe and the groomsmen, vests for the ring bearers, a lining for the baby buggy that my baby flower girl rode in, a cover for the guestbook, and probably a few other things as well. It was absolutely perfect, and just what I had wanted. :D

As I thought about it on the way home that day, I found myself thanking God for planning things so we didn't find the fabric until that last store. It was just one more evidence that He was in control of the whole situation, that all the blessings were coming directly from His hand. What a clear reminder to trust Him with all the other wedding items that needed to be decided on and purchased! Wish I could say this meant I never got worried or flustered about anything else during the wedding preparations, but it wouldn't be true. I still have a lot yet to learn about trusting God. But these experiences did go a long way in strengthening my faith and helping me find peace in the very busy and often stressful season of wedding planning.

Just a few more notes regarding outfits for the rest of the wedding party:

We had originally asked Joe's sister to be the 4th bridesmaid and had begun making her outfit, but when she decided to step out about a month before the wedding my sister-in-law Ami graciously agreed to fill the position. Her mom was a wonderful blessing, making Ami's outfit at the last minute and modifying the pattern as needed. She's a talented seamstress and Ami was beautiful - I am honored to count her amongst my sisters! Ami's mom also made an adorable flower girl dress for my niece Ruby: it turned out perfectly and was exactly what I had envisioned.

Aunt Laura was also a huge help with the sewing: she handled the creation of cousin Grace's flower girl dress as well as vests for both the ring bearer boys. They all turned out fabulous, as did the ties for Joe and the groomsmen (Lydia and my mom did these). Aren't I blessed to have this much talent in the family? :)

I had the flower girls wear wreaths in their hair - the same ones that Susanna and I wore as flower girls at Aunt Julie and Uncle Steve's wedding in 1985. They were still in great condition and with just a bit of freshening up they fit in beautifully with everything else. I'm sentimental, so it was special to be able to reuse something from my own flower-girl days, recalling all the good memories that I have from that time.

We found a couple of the bridesmaids' skirts at a thrift store (I knew what kind of fabric and style I was wanting - to match one I already had - so we checked dozens of stores). Didn't end up finding the last one needed, so we bought a couple yards of matching black fabric (sort of an imitation suede) and Ami's mom made it up for Ami to wear. I made the tatted lace collars during long phone conversations with Joe (hehe), and we found the shoes on sale for about $10 each - very comfy black flats with a bit of decoration on the toes. I was pretty jealous that I didn't get to wear a pair myself. ;) The total cost for the bridesmaids' outfits (tops, skirts, and shoes) came to $20-25 each. Not too shabby. :)

We took a while to decide what to do for the guy's outfits. In the end, we just asked that each of the groomsmen select a simple black suit and white shirt and black dress shoes, leaving it up to them if they wanted to rent or buy the outfits. Joe bought one a little nicer for himself, and all the guys looked mighty snazzy. I'd be pretty surprised if any of the guests even noticed that none of the suites were exactly alike. ;) This alone saved a ton of money, besides being much more practical than having them all rent matching tuxes.

For the ring bearers, we looked into cheap suit and shirt sets on ebay, but ended up just going with black dress pants and a white shirt, with the matching red vests that Aunt Laura made. Pretty cute! The ushers were asked to wear black pants, white shirts, and a dark red tie - this ended up working out great and again I'm sure no one noticed that they weren't completely matching.

Sure, it would have been fun to splurge at get mini tuxes for the ring bearers, and it would have been easier to order all the ties and bridesmaid outfits ready-made. But all in all, I was completely happy with the way it worked out and felt that we were able to have everyone looking nice without spending a fortune on outfits that couldn't be worn again. Everything fit together well with the traditional, classy, yet slightly old-fashioned look I was going for overall. Just perfect. :)

Note: I've added this post to the Frugal Tuesday Tip linkup. Check out the other posts here.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Truth Chronicles...moving "write" along

Just a brief update on the progress of The Truth Chronicles. Book 4 is nearly finished, and we're expecting it to be available around March. Books 5 and 6 are coming along. The possibility exists that both of those will be available before August.

If you still need to read Books 1-3, you can purchase them through regular book outlets such as and, or you can get them directly from me (I'll even sign them!). I charge $20 for all three books and $2.50 to ship them; if you buy multiple sets at once, I'll only charge you $2.50 for shipping.

If you've already read Books 1-3, please take a moment to write a review for each book on Amazon, and help get the word out about this series!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Our Wedding: Memories and Miracles (part 1)

This month I finally got around to putting all my wedding pictures into albums. Yes, yes, it took me almost 15 months. I still feel guilty that they aren't properly scrapbooked, but I had to come to the realization that I'm simply not going to have time for a big project like that any time soon. Managing to get the prints made was a big step in itself, and it's far better for them to be in a real photo album than stuffed into envelopes somewhere!

So last week we were invited for supper at our pastor's family's home, and I took along the wedding album, knowing their girls would have fun looking through it. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing all the memories and special stories with them, and it gave me an extra nudge to (finally) get around to posting more of those thoughts here on the blog. I'd like to have them out in writing anyway, and this will also answer the requests I've been getting from friends who haven't seen many of the wedding pictures yet.

Sound agreeable? Good. :) Let's pretend we're sitting on a couch together with the photo album between us, and I'll start sharing my stories.

Of course, one of the first things any newly-engaged girl thinks about is The Dress. I knew that finding it would be a challenge for me because of several factors: (1) it had to be modest, (2) it had to be affordable, as in super cheap, (3) it had to fit, and I'm a good bit taller than average, and (4) I had to like it, and I really didn't want it to scream "homemade!" I only had 3.5 months from the time of engagement to find a dress, and knew that it was going to require some sort of miracle.

I began to pray about it, asking God if He would please show me the dress that was perfect for me, and that it would cost me less than $200. I couldn't see justifying much more than that for a dress I'd only wear for a day, yet from my browsing around online I knew that finding one for even $400-500 would be quite a bargain. But God could handle it, right? I knew He could.

My mom is a very talented seamstress, so we talked over the idea of having her make the dress for me. After several trips to fabric stores, I ended up buying a pattern (practically the only one in the book that was even halfway workable in style) as well as ordering some barely off-white satin that was on sale. I've never been a huge fan of satin's shininess, but it was the only kind that was affordable and my mom suggested using the fabric inside-out for a more silk-like look. It seemed to be my best option at that point, and I figured I could live with it. The cost was just under $100 and I figured we'd be able to get buttons and lace and layering fabrics with the remaining $100 I'd mentally budgeted for my dress.

A week or so later - this was mid-July already - a friend of mine came up from MO for a couple days. We girls all went out thrift store shopping together, finding a number of things to use in the wedding decor. I looked at the wedding dresses, of course, and was shocked to see the price tag on one was only $2.38. The style was '70ish, not at all what I wanted, and it was too small - but it came with a slip that looked quite usable and I figured it was worth the price.

It was a little further in to July when I was again at Goodwill with my mom and sisters, checking out the wedding dresses. I didn't expect to find anything I liked or that fit, but a seamstress friend had advised us to try to find a thrift store dress with lace that I liked, then transfer the lace to the dress my mom was planning to make. This store had a dress made of beautiful ivory silk, and I immediately fell in love with the lacework around the bodice. It was delicate and feminine but not overpowering, and it had a few pearls scattered here and there for sparkle - yet not the awful "encrusted" look so many of the 90s style dresses seemed to have. Exactly what I wanted! The price was $30.99, but it also had a red tag - and that day all red tag items were supposed to be only $1.29. We asked a clerk if formal wear was included in the tag sale, and her first answer was no...but she was friendly and we chatted a bit about my wedding budget and the plans to use the lace off the dress, and so on. After a bit she said she'd go ask the manager about the dress price, and shortly she returned saying we could have it for only $1.29. Yes! :D

Once we got home that evening I decided to try the dress on just for fun - what girl doesn't like to try on a wedding dress? :) The instant it slipped over my shoulders, I knew this was The One. It was about 4"too short, the back neckline scooped down far too low for comfort, and I knew it needed to have sleeves added in, too. But this was It. :) The ivory silk was absolute perfection, the lace and beading was exactly what I wanted, and the bodice fit perfectly. My dear mother, brave soul, was hesitant but willing to give it a shot. Could we make the dress work?

Over the next few weeks, brainstorming went on in earnest. My mom's seamstress friend generously gave us her expert opinions along with a small bag of lace pieces she had leftover from another project. We pulled a dress out of my family's costume closet (a ball gown given to us when a friend cleaned out her closet) and realized that the sheer overskirt fabric exactly matched the color of The Dress' ivory. Maybe it would be what we needed for the sleeves and back neckline? My mom spent many hours carefully tweaking the sleeve pattern so it would hang just right, and then painstakingly creating an inset piece for the back, complete with hidden darts so I could breathe and a row of hidden hooks and eyes. I lost count of how many times I tried the dress on and stood for fittings, sweltering in the August humidity of our un-airconditioned home. Talking to Joe on the phone during fittings did help the time go faster, though he insisted I not tell him anything about the dress - he wanted to be surprised. ;)

Finally the sleeves and back were mostly finished, and it was indeed beautiful - but the hemline was still too short. Sometimes it'd sure be handy to be normal height instead of almost 5'11". ;) We really weren't sure how to lengthen the dress as dropping the original hemline wasn't enough to make much difference, and I desperately didn't want it to be obvious that the lengthening had been necessary. Quite a few different ideas were talked over, until someone (I don't remember who) suggested we look again at the overskirt from the ball gown. It was very full, and as we held the hemlines together, we realized that it was almost a perfect fit. But how could we disguise the seam between the original skirt and the additional border? More brainstorming - and we thought about the lace from the first wedding dress I'd purchased (the too-small '70s dress for $2.38). It had yards and yards of lace several inches wide and a nice off-white color. One section was dingy, but it came out nice when washed. It ended up being exactly what was needed to layer over the seam, and even I was satisfied that it didn't look like an add-on. PTL!

For the finishing touches, we bought several bags of tiny pearl beads from Hobby Lobby (at 50% off, of course!) and Lydia spent many tedious hours sewing them on the hemline lace in a regular pattern. This helped it tie in more closely with the lace and beadwork around the bodice, and I was thrilled. Beautiful! One of the silk rosettes from the back was missing when we purchased the dress, so I redid them to make three out of the two. My mom moved the row of fake buttons from below the rosettes to the added-in back area, and I carefully sewed the bits of lace from the seamstress on to the front neckline and the edges of the sheer sleeves. Everything tied together perfectly! I ended up wearing the slip from the $2.38 dress afterall, and it provided just the right amount of fullness.

All told, the dress itself and the supplies used in the alteration, ended up costing less than $10. It was as if God was saying, "You thought you were asking for a miracle when you trusted me for a $200 dress. How'd you like a $10 dress, more beautiful than anything you dreamed possible? That's just a little peek at how much I love you, my daughter." :)

Since the dress had ended up costing so little, I felt free to "splurge" a bit for the rest of my outfit. I bought ivory ballet-style slippers which I dressed up with the last bits of beaded lace (about $10), which ended up being comfortable and practical. I found a gold and pearl tiara on ebay for $22 (exactly what I wanted - not too gaudy, not too big or too small, in a princess-style shape but also flowery and delicate)...and ebay was also where I found the perfect veil for $20 - a fingertip length lightweight ivory with a scalloped edge (matching my bridesmaids' tops) and just the right amount of delicate pearl beading. Perfect!

I was - and still am - absolutely thrilled, and simply in awe of God's provision. All through my wedding day I had so many people come up and say I looked like a princess, and it warmed my heart. Not only does Joe call me his princess (so sweet), but I am the daughter of a King, a true Princess. It was such a special reminder of God's love for me that He cared enough to provide the exact dress He knew I'd like best (admittedly a "frivolous" thing, yet close to my heart) - and at such an unbelievably low cost. How can I doubt His love or His ability to provide all my needs when I have seen Him so super-abundantly provide something so perfect and miraculous as this dress? I can't help smiling whenever I think of it. :)

God is good, my friends! Amen?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book review: Everything Romance

"A Celebration of Love for Couples"

Compiled by Todd Hafer and Rebecca Currington

"Ready to create romantic memories? If you're looking for new and unique ways to celebrate love, captivate the heart of your true love, or simply enjoy each other's company, Everything Romance offers all of this and much more."

This quote from the back cover is a bit of an exaggeration, in my opinion, but I have to admit that this book had more variety in it than I was expecting. There is a great selection of quotes and Scriptures about love, fun facts and trivia, short stories, poetry, a few "date night" ideas, some recipes (not really romantic as such, but they have creative titles), and so on. It made for a fun read, just picking it up here and there when I had a minute.

My favorite part of the book is a full two-page alphabetical listing of nicknames/terms of endearment to use for your spouse. Joe and I read through it together, and had a good chuckle over some of the names that were included. For some reason we can't quite imagine calling each other Bubbls," "Cool Breeze,", "Fluffy," "Wookums," or "Tadwinks." ;)

I noticed nothing offensive or shocking in the book, and it would be fine to leave on a shelf where anyone of any age could read it. I was also glad to see a very comprehensive, well-organized index in the back of the book, making it easy to find each of the selections included.

I'm doubtful this is a book I'll be keeping on my shelf, but it could be a fun addition to a honeymoon basket, or as reading material on an anniversary trip. As an additional plus, It's well-designed and pleasant to look through.

Blogging For Books

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group in exchange this honest review.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cottage Cheese Egg Casserole

A friend was recently asking for breakfast casserole recipes, and I was reminded of one of my favorites. It's super easy, and turns out oh-so-yummy. The crispy, buttery edges are the best part. :D I usually end up making it for supper instead of breakfast, serving it with a green salad, and sometimes bread. Very fast and filling!

1/2 c. (or more) cooked sausage or hamburger, or chopped ham, hot dog, or summer sausage
1/8 c. chopped onion
10 eggs, beaten
16 or 24 oz. cottage cheese (more is better!)
1 c. shredded cheese (any kind works, but cheddar is especially good)
1 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. parsley flakes
1 tsp. oregano
1/3 c. butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in saucepan and lightly saute' onions. Remove onions, and pour butter in a 9x13" pan. (Or, if you're lazy, like me, throw the butter in the casserole dish and let it melt while the oven is preheating. Use a teaspoon or more of minced, dried onions instead of fresh ones, mixing them in with the rest of the ingredients.)

Beat eggs well and then combine all ingredients except butter. Pour mixture on top of melted butter in casserole dish.

Bake 40-50 minutes, until edges are crispy. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Makes 6-8 servings.