Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A year of Costco

Matt and I have shared a Costco membership longer than we've been married, and every year -- after rolling my eyes during what feel like excruciatingly long visits to a store than reeks of mass consumerism and a parking lot full of people who cannot drive -- I wonder, "Is it worth it?"

So, during 2010 I saved all receipts from our Costco trips, which tallied up to an underwhelming 15 visits where we spent $1,699.64. Three of these trips were for special occasions (Foxfield, Matt's 30th birthday party, New Year's Eve entertaining) and a couple trips involved some out-of-pocket teacher expenses, but the majority of the Costco spending this year was for our daily at-home consumption.

Now, back to the question, "Is it worth it?", especially after factoring in the $50 annual membership fee.

The short answer: Yes. We buy enough items that collectively save us way more than $50 per year and therefore justify the membership fee.

The longer answer, one detailed Excel spreadsheet later:

The savings afforded on the purchase of the Izze 12 bottle variety pack during its brief stint at our local Costco is enough to validate our membership. At 99 cents per bottle, it's the cheapest deal around.

Speaking of good deals, the 3M Filtrete Ultra Allergen filters we buy at Costco average a little over $13 per filter, also making them cheaper than any deal I can find online.

Our most often purchased item? Coming in at 18 bottles, I give you wine. Apparently this should not be a surprising statistic, as Costco is the largest wine distributor in the world. I can't say we got any incredible wine deals, seeing as we almost always buy $10 bottles (or cheaper) no matter where we buy them, but it feels more legitimate buying wine in bulk at Costco.

More than anything, the Costco experiment has been a small window into how we lived our life this past year. Most notably:
  • Matt eats a lot of dried fruit (15 bags). I eat a lot of kettle corn (4 enormous bags, but Costco only started carrying it mid-year).
  • We also eat a lot of apples, but we only buy them at Costco when they carry organic gala apples. 2010 was the year of organic apples.
  • Matt has always been a big cereal consumer, but this year I vowed to eat healthy cereal with milk every day at home before work (as opposed to digging into a Ziploc bag of dried cereal on the way to work). This move resulted in Kashi cereal being our third-most-often-purchased item behind wine and dried fruit.
  • Once Costco started carrying organic chicken breast halfway through the year, our intake of chicken skyrocketed. Additionally, once we got wise to the fact that uncooked frozen shrimp at Costco is significantly cheaper than uncooked frozen shrimp at Wegmans, we bought many bulk bags of Costco shrimp. Overall, 2010 was the year of more meat in our diet, mostly because I thought Matt's semi-vegetarian ways of 2009 were not sufficient for my protein intake.
  • This year we've done a better job stocking up on compact fluorescent light bulbs and making our own vinegar-based cleaning products.
  • We buy toilet paper three times as often as we buy paper towels. As much as I'd like to in theory, I don't know that I can ever completely break my paper towel habit.
  • We should have bought toothpaste yesterday during our final Costco trip of the year, but one Costco-sized pack of toothpaste can last a family of two almost exactly one year.
  • We did not make a single major purchase at Costco this year. No electronics, no furniture, no vacuum cleaners or small appliances. This was the year of the European vacation and few additional purchases.
As much as I hate the mild headache that I get every time Matt suggests it's time for a Costco run, I recognize that smarter daily spending habits on even the seemingly smallest items has been one reason we've been able to triple our monthly savings over the last two years.

So, if you're debating whether a Costco (or Sam's or BJ's) membership is worth it in 2011, you could break out a spreadsheet and get to work, or you could take my word for it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Taking the plunge: Custom framing

Although the subject of today's post is by no means a last-minute gift idea, it is about a splurge I finally made for Matt and me that's been a great gift for us the last couple weeks.

Over the summer in Florence I stumbled upon the world's most adorable stationery store steps away from the Duomo. In addition to vintage-Italian-inspired greeting cards and gift wrap, the store also carries replica old-fashioned Italian prints. I fell in love with an awesome map of Italy, knowing it would be a great reminder of our trip. It's one of the few souvenirs I brought back from Italy -- the map, along with my red leather gloves from Venice, have been nice to break out this winter.

Of course, as luck would have it, the map is totally odd dimensions -- at 15" wide and 12" high, it doesn't exactly fit any pre-made frames.

So, after letting the map sit in our office closet for five months, I finally bit the bullet and took it to Michael's in late November when the store was in the midst of its 60 percent off custom framing sale. I know they have custom framing orders on sale year-round, but this was legitimately the best sale of the year (and the only remaining sale for anyone who wanted their orders back in time for Christmas).

Even with the fantastic discounts and my tendency to still select the "cheapest" variety of everything -- mat, glass, wooden frame -- I still managed to spend $72 for the finished product, but the reminder of our most amazing trip of our lifetimes hanging on our bedroom wall is a priceless way to warm up the dead of winter.

Walking into Michael's, I didn't have a serious vision of what I wanted the finished product to look like. I only knew I wanted a brown wooden frame to match all the other frames in our bedroom. So, I let the sales rep guide me through the process, and together we got to this. I'm satisfied with the quality of work and the speed at which it was completed, though it was done about four days past its due date. I cut Micahel's some slack, though, knowing this is the busiest retail time of year. I would go back for future custom framing needs, though I might splurge for the glare-free glass in the future (as you can see, it was very difficult for me to photograph this piece of art!).

And, when we have children, I will totally be that mom who gives her children standard 11" x 14" paper for them to draw their masterpieces so as to reduce the need for any future custom framing orders. Because, any way you slice it, this stuff is expensive.

Now off to do some serious bathroom cleaning. Today was dog washing day, and dog washing day = messy bathroom day.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to organize gift bags

Tis the season of bags. Lots of them. Everywhere.

No doubt as you finish (or start, as the case may be) your holiday shopping, you'll next be grabbing all the wrapping items you can find. If you're like me and most people I know, you already have a ton of gift bags lying around your home, waiting to be re-gifted. So, time to get organized.

Although I love perfectly wrapped presents more than just about anything else in the world, I recognize there is a time and a place for re-using old gift bags, and this is of course way more environmentally friendly to boot.

We have approximately 70 gift bags in our home, so I rounded them up and organized them by type.

Our groups divided up nicely into these eight categories:
  • super small bags
  • medium-sized bags I like
  • medium-sized bags that are more plain/boring
  • medium birthday/balloon/celebratory bags
  • large bags
  • wine bottle bags
  • Christmas bags
  • non-Christmas other-holiday bags
I used to have a bunch of wedding bags, but over four years into our marriage and about 35 friends' weddings later, our supply has been depleted.

A few rubber bands transformed the neatly organized piles into neatly organized packs.

A clear plastic under-the-bed container I've held on to from my childhood became the free carrying case for our newly organized gift bags. I keep my pile of medium bags I like at the front of the container so it's easily accessible. Holiday bags can stay in the back.

For now, this solution works for us. Of course, at some point I will need to do more than just simply re-gift gift bags. I'll need a more creative solution to what could become gift-bag overload. Here's a list of 10 ways to re-use gift bags, some of which may work for you.

Have a happy and calm Saturday, especially if you're planning to do any shopping!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Simple holiday card display

OK, after hanging up the ornaments on the fan this weekend, I got a little more festive with some additional decorating around the house. Specifically, I figured out a way to display our growing collection of this year's holiday cards in the easiest way I could conjure up.

In the past I've displayed our holiday cards on the shallow shelves in our dining room. But after replacing those shallow shelves this spring, the new shelves are no longer as conducive to showing off our friends' smiling faces. I kept envisioning a clothesline-type display, but I didn't want to put any new holes in our walls and I didn't want to buy anything new, like those easy-to-remove Scotch hooks. Then, while looking at our banister, a moment of inspiration struck me, and I whipped out some spare ribbon and clothespins we never use.


I think I just started a new holiday tradition in our house.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A fan of the holidays

When it comes to the holiday season, things are pretty low-key around our house. Because neither Matt nor I grew up celebrating Christmas, we feel odd fabricating a huge to-do about decorations and gift-giving this time of year. This doesn't mean, though, that we don't do a little something to jazz up our lives every December. Besides celebrating with friends and family at various holiday parties, and sending and receiving holiday cards, we put up a few winter decorations as well.

We don't have a tree, special servingware or a bunch of knickknacks, but we do have some simple, sparkly ornaments that I've gotten into the tradition of hanging from our dining room fan with the help of some clear craft floss.

Do you have any out-of-the-ordinary holiday decorating traditions?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

White elephants

This weekend I'll attend two parties with White Elephant games. At one party I'm expected to bring the worst item imaginable, and at another party I'm expected to bring a gift for under $10. Matt and I always discuss is how "White Elephant" has various interpretations depending on the crowd. The dilemma we face is always unless we've been clearly told in advance to bring the world's worst gift, we don't want to give something nice and end up with a dud. Three years ago, when the party pickings were clearly slim, we wound up choosing our own gifts and feigned surprise when we opened them. We are highly practical gift givers and seekers.

In an effort to reduce your chances of getting a half-burned candle at your upcoming gift exchange, here's a list of some tried-and-true small gender-neutral gifts that have broad appeal:

A $10 bottle of wine. Even if someone doesn't drink, it's always nice to keep a bottle handy for guests. And $10 can get you a good bottle.

Movie tickets. You could buy them in bulk at Costco.

A Starbucks gift card. Boring? Perhaps. Utilitarian? Absolutely.
An iTunes gift card. It's so much fun to see a credit in our iTunes store account.

Non-perishable treats, like gourmet hot chocolate or pre-packaged chocolate-covered pretzels. (I believe chocolate-covered pretzels was one of the two gifts we brought three years ago and took back home with us.)

A Restaurant.com gift certificate or another pre-paid special through a site such as Groupon. Yes, the winner will have to inevitably spend money to get the deal, such as $50 worth of food for $25, but I'd be pretty excited if I opened that gift.

A magazine subscription. Find a cheap online deal, and have the winner give you her address. Here's one example of Everyday Food for one year for $8.99.

Now, what did I leave out? What are the best (or worst) gifts you've seen at a gift exchange party?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ditch your Google Reader web app

You all know that as I much as I enjoy writing blogs, I equally enjoy reading blogs, and Google Reader is the perfect way to keep up-to-date with blog reading. But the Google Reader web app is not the greatest, so I was thrilled when Matt introduced me to my new favorite Droid app, NewsRob, and today you can now download the official Google Reader app as well.

I haven't had time to experiment with the new official Google Reader app, but I've been using NewsRob for a couple months, and I've grown partial to this program.

Why is the free NewsRob app worth downloading?

With the Google Reader web app, you have to click on every single post. You can't simply scroll through your posts, as you can through the regular Google Reader site. Thankfully, though, the NewsRob app allows you to easily move from one post to the next simply by hitting right and left arrow buttons that show up on either side of the screen. This means way less clicking overall and less back and forth.

Additionally, I always found myself getting frustrated with the small size of the buttons on the Google Reader mobile site. I'd be trying to click on one blog, but I'd inevitably hit the one above it or below it, often several times in a row. The layout of NewsRob is much more user friendly and makes me more likely to hit the right button the first time.

If you decide to use the official Google Reader app, leave me a comment to share how it's working out for you.

And, on a totally different note: in case you forgot, today is December 1, which means it's time to change your air filter! Not on a schedule yet? Change yours today, and I'll alert you on March 1 when it's time to change again.