Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Hi gang! I know I've been missing in action for the last week or so and just wanted to pop in and wish you all a Happy Halloween.

Don't worry, everything is fine, just a lot on the chaotic side around here. I've been spending a ridiculous amount of time putting the finishing touches on my book manuscript, which WILL be going to press sometime very, very, soon (and you'll definitely hear about it when it does!)

So have a very spooky day and I'll be back "for real" sometime later this week.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Clean, Green - and Cheap?!?

I've been using non-toxic cleaning products since long before it was the "in" thing to do, but for some reason it wasn't until much more recently that I became aware of all the nasty things that might be lurking in my personal care products. Over the last couple of years, I've gradually been phasing out products that are less than friendly and replacing them with safer choices. I've found this to be a somewhat daunting task for a variety of reasons.  Many of these safer products are astronomically expensive compared to "mainstream" products, making it a bit difficult to wiggle them into a modest budget. To make matters even more confusing, a lot of those more expensive products that are labeled "natural" and/or "organic" are not any safer than the mainstream stuff - they still have many of the same harmful chemicals in them! And finally, some of the natural products leave a lot to be desired in the performance department - and if they're not effective, I'm certainly not paying a premium price for them!

I eventually came up with a set of criteria for my "ideal" products:

 -rated between 0 and 2 on the Skin Deep Database. This is an excellent, free online resource which allows you to look up over 69,000 personal care products and get a rating from 0-10 of their safety (0-2 is their "low risk" rating).

-Canadian made

-not tested on animals

-manufacturer has signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics

-product performs well for its intended use

-it's affordable enough for my family to use on a regular basis

Ultimately, I would love the product to meet ALL of the criteria, but that hasn't always been possible so far! The Skin Deep rating, price and performance are my biggest priorities, and after that I try to find a product that will fulfill as many of the remaining criteria as possible.

Before I share the specifics of the products I'm currently using, I'll share my 3 main strategies for keeping costs down:

1. Eliminate as many products as possible from your regimen: Because my personal care routines are pretty simple, I use only a small number of products, which helps keep expenses (and bathroom clutter) to a minimum.

2. Look for homemade options first: I have been successful in making several of my own products, all of which are extremely inexpensive compared to commercial products. They all work great, and I can customized them to exactly meet my own needs and preferences.

3. Buy in bulk where possible. Once you've found a product you love, buying it in the largest size available will often yield substantial savings (sometimes reducing the cost by 50% or more).

I also have a little opportunity for my readers to save some money at You'll notice I've linked to them a few times further on in the post (those are NOT affiliate links). They are a great online Canadian company, and have a HUGE selection of natural products, as well as offering free shipping anywhere in Canada with no minimum purchase. I have a coupon code I can offer you for $10 off a $40 purchase if you're a new customer. It's not supposed to be posted on public sites, so if you'd like the code just email me at abundanceonadime AT gmail DOT com and I'll happily send it to you!

So, without further ado, here are my current favourite all-natural personal care products:

Liquid hand soap: Nature Clean Citrus Liquid Soap. I totally love this stuff! Not only does it have a great clean citrusy scent, it meets every single one of my criteria, making it about as perfect as a product can get. It's also supposed to be available in a 3 litre refill jug, which would help reduce the cost and packaging, but so far I've yet to track it down anywhere I shop.

Bar Soap: Guelph Soap Company Eucalyptus and Mint Bar Soap. This soap is made less than an hour away from me and it's a great bargain for a natural soap! I've seen many natural bar soaps priced from $5-7 a bar, which is just not realistic for my family's budget. I purchased this soap for $1.59 a bar (you have to buy a pack of six to get it at this price, but it's worth it!). My husband and I both use it for shaving. It has a rich, creamy lather and doesn't dry out my skin. It's also a nice solid bar which doesn't melt away to nothing like a lot of other soaps do.

Body wash: I've been using Nature Clean Body Wash which I received as a gift. It's a pretty good product as far as meeting my criteria, but I've been underwhelmed by the scent. I'm planning to switch to Dr. Bronner's Organic Citrus Liquid Soap when I run out of my current body wash. As an added bonus, it's an extremely versatile product; I've been using their peppermint liquid soap in my homemade cleaning products as well as for handwashing and pretreating laundry.

Facial cleanser: I make my own "cleansing grains" (pictured in the glass dish above) using my adaptation of Crunchy Betty's winter face scrub. I make it with just the rice flour, oats and coconut with whatever essential oils I feel like adding (my current favourite is grapefruit) and I'll add calendula and/or chamomile if I happen to have some around. I've been using this for about a year now, and my skin has been wonderfully soft ever since (I gave it to my sisters-in-law for Christmas last year, and they all raved about it!)

Moisturizer: I use coconut oil on my face and body. People with less mature skin than I might find it a bit heavy, in which case grapeseed oil might be a better option. I've been looking in vain for a good affordable heavy-duty hand moisturizer for the winter months and I'm planning to try my hand at making some hard lotion any time now (I'll report back on how it goes!)

Deodorant: My husband and I have been using this homemade deodorant for about a year and a half now and we both love it. I like to add some essential oils to give it a pleasing scent - equal parts lavender and grapefruit for me, tea tree and peppermint for hubby. Our two boys have started using it too, now that they're old enough to need it!

My two remaining holdouts are toothpaste and shampoo/conditioner. I have really sensitive teeth and haven't found anything that works as good as the toothpaste I've been using since I was a kid. And I have a hard time finding hair care products that work well for my thick, curly, frizz-prone hair (I've tried the no 'poo thing with little success). I have my eye on the Yes to Carrots line as a possibility when I've used up my current shampoo stash.

Do you have some favourite personal care products or recipes to recommend? Please share in the comments!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Our Annual Apple Picking Expedition

On Monday, we made our annual jaunt to Myers Apple Farm. We've been going there for what must be getting close to a decade now, and the fall season would just not be complete for our family without an apple picking adventure! We love this farm because they have a great selection of apples, as well as a small petting zoo, a corral full of horses and other goodies such as pumpkins and cut flowers. And I love it even more because they have not gone hyper-commercial like a lot of the other farms around here, which charge an admission fee and have a more carnival-like atmosphere. We're fortunate that although we live right smack in the middle of a dense urban area (a city of half a million) the apple farm is just a short 15-20 minute drive away.

Unfortunately, I had "camnesia" for our latest excursion (and apparently I was similarly afflicted last year, as I don't have any photos of that occasion, either). So I'll share a few photos from 2-3 years back (I cannot believe how much younger my kids looked back then!)

My younger son Nathan enjoying a freshly picked apple, Fall 2009

My hubby Joe and older son Noah, picking apples in fall 2009

Family photo amongst the pumpkins, October 2008

One of our classic family photos: Noah the Horse-Headed Boy 
(this was *not* taken intentionally - the horse moved just as I snapped the shot, which makes it even funnier!)

And I just love this sign, posted at the entrance to the farm:

Empires are our favourite apple variety. I think they're the perfect mix of slightly tart with just the right sweetness, and they're nice and crisp. Last year, much to our disappointment, the farm had a severe shortage of Empires, as they were hit with a May frost just when the buds were forming. We got the last half bushel of apples they had last year and weren't actually able to pick any apples because there weren't any left on the trees. This year, happily, there was a bumper crop of Empires and we were able to pick a full bushel, despite the fact that we went up a couple weeks later than we usually do.

Newly fortified with our bushel of fresh-off-the-tree Empires, we'll have a good supply to make all my favourite apple dishes! I've shared a couple previously here on the blog:

Upside Down Apple Oven Pancake
Pork & Apple Stew
Baked Oatmeal

And there are a bunch more in my upcoming book, Cheap Appetit (which really will be coming out sometime soon - there have been quite a few delays, but it will definitely be available well before Christmas!)

Apple Crisp
Morning Glory Muffins
Sausage and Apple Saute
Apple & Bacon Baked Beans
Carrot & Apple Salad
Apple Raspberry Squares

Do you go apple picking? What's your favourite apple variety? Do you have a favourite apple recipe to share?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Weekly Menu Retrospective #48

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now!

Breakfasts: apple pancakes, baked oatmeal, aloha muffins, bacon/eggs/hash browns

Lunches: turkey sandwiches, grilled cheese, pizza, leftovers


Monday: "Turkey overs" (Thanksgiving dinner leftovers)

Tuesday: Macaroni & Cheese with Ham and Peas

Wednesday: Cabbage & Beef soup, cornbread

Thursday: Chicken & Vegetable Coconut Curry

Friday: leftover soup and cornbread

Saturday: Bacon, egg, and potato hash

Sunday: Smothered pork (this recipe using pork chops instead of meatballs), peas and carrots, rice, apple crisp

For more great meal ideas, check out Menu Plan Monday at

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Five Ways Having Money Can Save You Money

When your budget is particularly tight, it can be hard to build up savings. I know, I've been there! But I'd have to say that, right after paying off debts, building savings is the second most important thing you can do to gain more control of your finances. Having extra money in the bank will not only let you sleep better at night, it can actually help you to save even more money, thus allowing you to contribute even more to your savings account. Even if you have to start by saving a very small amount each week, it's worth it to make it a habit, and it will always pay off in the long term.

Here are five ways having extra money will help you save even more:

1. Paying in full for large purchases upfront can result in substantial discounts:
As I've alluded to previously, my husband has been in the process of getting a dental bridge made at a nearby university's dental school. Getting the work done at the dental school rather than at a dentist's has already saved us a HUGE amount of money (in the thousands) but we had an opportunity to save even more when we paid for the lab fees in full immediately, rather than putting them on a payment plan. We were offered a 20% discount, which on the $1600 bill amounted to a savings of $320. In the past, other businesses have offered us discounts for paying in cash. It can't hurt to ask, and you may save yourself a large chunk of change!

2. You can take advantage of great deals and buy things BEFORE you need them
The worst time to shop for something is when you needed it yesterday! By having extra cash on hand, you can more easily plan for your needs in advance, and purchase items when you find a terrific sale. You can also afford to buy items in bulk, which often results in a large savings. Having the ability to buy in large quantities when staple items like food, personal care and cleaning products are at their rock-bottom price means you can avoid having to pay full price for household necessities.

3. You can take care of little problems before they become big problems
Getting repairs done as soon as you notice they're needed will usually stop them from becoming much bigger, more expensive problems. Ignoring that funny noise your car's making because you don't have the money to pay the mechanic will usually end up costing you much more in the long run.

4. You can more easily cope with unexpected expenses
Life happens, and even those of us who try our best to plan ahead will likely be hit with some type of unexpected expense at one time or another. Appliances sometimes die without much warning, and a sudden death or illness in the family might require a flight across the country. Having a cash reserve to draw from when these type of expenses crop up means that you can avoid putting them on credit cards and accruing huge interest fees.

5. You can buy larger-ticket items secondhand
If you want to buy things secondhand from private sellers, you usually need to have cash on hand to do it (unless you're buying online on a site like eBay). Shopping locally for larger ticket items like appliances and cars will require the ability to pay in cash. When our washing machine died this summer, we were able to replace it within a couple of days by making a cash purchase of a 2 yr old machine in pristine condition, from a private seller we'd located on Kijiji. If we didn't have the cash on hand, we'd have had to buy retail *and* slap it on a credit card, both of which would have meant we'd have paid a lot more to replace our washing machine.

Can you think of any more ways having money helps you save even more?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

RECIPE: Black Bean Chili

We recently enjoyed a week of summer-like weather here in Southern Ontario (our Thanksgiving weekend was apparently the nicest weather we've had for that holiday in 50 years!) Today the weather's snapped back to more typical fall temperatures, and there's a lot of rain in the forecast for the next several days. In other words, it's perfect soup and stew weather!

One of our favourite meals in the cooler months is Black Bean Chili. In fact, I make this so often I can't quite believe I haven't shared the recipe here yet, but somehow I've never gotten around to it!

This recipe is easy to customize to your own family's preferences. It can be made vegetarian by omitting the ground beef, and the level of spiciness can be controlled by adjusting the amount of chili powder. If you prefer more tomato texture, you can use a 28 can of diced tomatoes plus 2-3 tbsp tomato paste in place of the crushed tomatoes (you will probably need to add less water as well).


1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium red pepper, diced
1-2 tbsp olive oil
3/4 -1 lb ground beef
3 cups cooked black beans
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 cup water
12 oz can of corn, drained
1 tsp cumin
2-3 tsp chili powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper

grated cheddar cheese, sour cream and chopped avocado for topping (optional)

 In a large, heavy bottomed-saucepan or deep skillet, saute onion, garlic and red pepper in olive oil until they start to soften. Add ground beef and cook until no trace of pink remains.

Add black beans, tomatoes, water, corn, cumin, chili powder, salt and pepper. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, adding more tomatoes and/or water as needed to get desired consistency.

Ladle into bowls and top with cheese, sour cream and/or avocado as desired.

Serves 6-8.

I shared this recipe at Full Plate Thursday

Friday, October 7, 2011

Keeping Your Frugal Flow Even When Life Gets Frantic

It's been quite a crazy week chez McLaughlin: 

1. On the weekend my younger son's bed decided to collapse (one of the steel supports for the wooden slats under the mattress collapsed, thankfully NOT while he was on it!)

2. On Tuesday, my husband went out for "a quick bike ride" before dinner - and was still not home an hour after he should have been! He had gotten a flat he wasn't able to fix about 15 km from home and I ended up needing to go rescue him, driving through a fairly high-traffic area during rush hour (which, since I rarely drive, was extremely stressful for me!)

3. On Wednesday, I came home from the library in the middle of the afternoon to find my 86-year-old grandmother in my living room (the kids had let her in the house). Since she doesn't drive and has never come to visit me all on her own before, this was a bit of a shock (she took a bus and a taxi to get here from my hometown about half an hour away from the city). After she'd gone to all that trouble to get here, I couldn't very well send her home on the next bus out of town! So I invited her for dinner and arranged for my hubby to drive her home later that evening. We had a very nice visit, but it sure threw my plans for the day right out the window.

4. On Thursday, my husband had to drive to London (Ontario, not England!) to spend a full day at the dental college there where they are working on making him a bridge. This is going to save us a lot of money, but the appointments tend to be made on fairly short notice (last time he had less than 12 hours notice; this time it was a few days). This disrupted the day's plans as, since we only have one vehicle, I now had to bike my kids the 5-6 km to the karate studio where our homeschooling group meets every Thursday for drama and crafts. Thankfully, the weather was lovely, but I did have to reschedule an appointment so I could have enough time to get home after dropping them off.

Needless to say, it's felt like somewhat of a chaotic week! And despite our normal schedule being disrupted at just about every turn, our frugal habits remained well in place:

-we didn't run out and buy my son a new (or even secondhand) bed when it broke. He slept on an air mattress for a few days until my husband had time to properly fix the one we had - it's now sturdier than ever!

-even though it was close to 7 p.m. by the time I got my husband and his disabled bike back home on Tuesday night (and we were both pretty worn out at that point) we didn't resort to fast food for dinner - instead I quickly whipped up my Cheesy Mac & Beef Skillet, which takes very little time and even less effort (and uses staple ingredients we always have on hand)

-I was able to invite my grandmother to stay for dinner on the spur of the moment, and adjust our meal plans to accommodate her tastes while still making good use of the foods that most urgently needed eating up

-because my kids are used to walking and biking places rather than being driven everywhere, they were easily able to ride 5-6 km with me to get to their Thursday activities. Yes, we could have taken the bus, but the service to that part of town isn't very good, and it would have taken several times longer for me to drop them off there and get myself back (plus we saved several dollars in bus fare and got some exercise to boot).

Sometimes it DOES take a little more effort to make frugal choices when life takes its unexpected twists and turns. But the more firmly ingrained your frugal habits are, the easier it is to stick with them even when the going gets a little bit rough. It's nice to know that even though life threw us a few curve balls this week, we still came up swinging for Team Frugalista full force!

Hopefully life will settle down a bit now, as I have a lot of prep work to do for this weekend's Thanksgiving dinner.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Weekly Menu Retrospective #47

Welcome to my weekly roundup of the past week's eats. I prefer to report what we ate in the last week, rather than what we're planning to eat in the coming week. Why? The reason is pretty simple: although I usually have a general idea of what we're going to eat in the next week or so, life often unfolds a little differently than planned, and I adjust my menu plan on a near-daily basis to accommodate leftovers and other not-possible-to-plan-ahead circumstances. I find this is the easiest way to ensure that I minimize our family's food waste. I'm also willing to admit that I'm a rather spontaneous cook, given to preparing foods that strike me as the most appealing thing to eat right here and now!

Breakfasts: Upside-Down Apple Oven Pancake, rhubarb streusel muffins, peanut butter bagels, blueberry pancakes, chocolate zucchini muffins

Lunches: leftovers, pizza, tomato soup and toasted bagels


Monday: Black Bean Chili

Tuesday: Fish au Gratin, rice, broccoli and carrots

Wednesday: Swiss chard, bacon and mozzarella quiche

Thursday: Lasagna, peas, brownies (birthday dinner as requested by my younger son!)

Friday: Pork fried rice

Saturday: Lentil soup, cornbread

Sunday: Pork roast, carrots in orange sauce, twice baked potatoes, apple crisp

For more great meal ideas, check out Menu Plan Monday at

Saturday, October 1, 2011

October "No Spend" Challenge

Despite my hubby's vigilance saving us $100 at the auto service department, it seems like we've been going through money hand over fist these last few months. We busted our typical clothing budget, and got ourselves a new front hall banister and a patio in the backyard. We bought a new washing machine (secondhand on Kijiji) when our (really, really) old one died and took a couple of camping trips this summer. My younger son needed to replace almost all of his hockey equipment because it was outgrown or worn out (which cost us over 200 bucks even though we bought most of it used!) We've even gone over our usual grocery and gas budgets these last couple months, for crying out loud!

Now, all things considered, this is not entirely a bad thing. We did some long-awaited renovations to our home, had some great family vacation time, and replaced household items and sports equipment that needed replacing. We had more than enough money in the bank to do all of these things, and still have enough left to pay cash to replace our 40-year-old furnace next month (another long-awaited item on our "to-do" list).

Still, being the frugal type of person that I am, I feel a need to take a little break from spending for a while. So, I'm declaring October a "no spend" month and am going to make an effort to buy nothing but the bare necessities this month. Right now, aside from the aforementioned furnace, the only things (other than food) that I know we will need to buy are a winter coat for my older son, winter gloves for both boys, some Halloween treats, and a birthday gift (also for my older son, who will turn 14 on November 4th). I also need to stock up on coconut oil to try my hand at making some hard lotion (I was planning to go buy this today, before the challenge started, but didn't have a chance to get to it).

I'm also hoping to spend less than $325 on groceries this month. Our average grocery bill over the course of the year is around $350 per month, but it's typically much higher in the summer months as we are buying lots of seasonal produce to can and freeze. So, since we have a pretty well-stocked pantry and freezer, I'm planning to eat strategically this month and minimize our grocery purchases.

I'm really looking forward to a month that involves a lot less running around and buying stuff than we've been doing of late. 

Anyone else care to join me in the October "no spend" challenge?
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