Free Shopping Days of Christmas

Don’t let the word “shopping” fool you! I’m not advocating going out and spending a lot of money this Christmas season. Quite the opposite. Because I’ve never quite understood why people will run up their credit cards to buy lots of things for many people who either don’t need what you’re buying for them, or would have loved a lesser priced gift from you. And for those with higher expectations, including family members, you have to ask yourself what do they value more — the monetary amount of a gift you can barely afford, or spending time together with an understanding that the holiday season isn’t a license to go further into debt, as so many Americans do!

I recently shared on the Catching Raindrops Facebook page that twice in the last three weeks Thorntons Gas has dropped a six cents off fuel rewards on my card. Both times it happened the day I needed to gas up! Just the other day, another one appeared. I may not need to gas up yet, but topping off my half tank before it expires tomorrow will still be beneficial! Last month I got a free cup of coffee from there as well. Then there was two weeks ago when I got a coupon from Kirkland’s for ten dollars! What great timing, because I need a new pair of gloves. I would never have thought to go there for clothing items, but just this morning, an email of sale items appeared? Not only were gloves listed on sale for FIVE DOLLARS, but so was a pair of women’s slippers, which I also need. So I’ll be getting two more things I need — for FREE! That’s MY kind of shopping.

Earlier this month I hit up Bath & Body Works and their $4.95 sale on aromatherapy products (these items are regularly $12.00-$15.00; and more), and was glad to be able to use my buy one get one free coupon which I’d been holding on to for the right moment. So YES, I got TWO aromatherapy products (i.e. Christmas gifts) that would have cost me over $25.00, instead for just $4.95!

And at Cost Plus World Market, after some “smart shopping” purchasing several bags of coffee for friends during their buy one get one free sale, I ended up earning another free BAG of coffee on my account for myself! But that wasn’t the end of my World Market venture. While there, I noticed an in-store treasure hunt, in search of the Golden Llama. I was too late for that day, but four days later, I decided to show up when the store opened. Yeah, there were about six other women with the same idea, but as the door opened, with the clue of the Llama being seen near something green, I decided to try my luck. While most of the ladies started near the front of the store, I headed straight to the back, looking at everything green. I found one! What started off as a silly game and marketing ploy, of course, won me TWENTY DOLLARS in shopping money! Okay, I admit I wish it had been one of the $50 or $100 rewards, but $20 was better than nothing! And apparently FREE money counts because later that day I had earned a TEN DOLLAR coupon to use later!


So why am I sharing all of this. Well, I’ve talked often about the benefits of joining Rewards programs before. Times like these are when I like sharing specific benefits to these programs. They’re free to join and you get rewarded for doing what you already do — shopping, getting gas, etc. I don’t join programs for places I don’t already visit. But getting rewarded — in other words, saving money — for engaging places I go to anyway makes perfect financial sense! It’s the very essence of catching raindrops in water buckets!

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My Days of Christmas

On the first weekend of Christmas, I decided to give to me. A getaway to a cabin in the mountains — with two friends…and lots of cows, horses, and country views that went on for miles!

We planned this “start of the Christmas holidays” getaway almost 10 months ago after hearing about this cool place, Stone Farmhouse in Cookeville, TN. Who knew how much I would really need this weekend, get out of town trip. And what timing, as the school year was winding down, and me gearing up for another marathon of grading, final exams, and preparing for multiple Christmas outings and soon-to-be travels!

The cabin is on a 250-acre working farm. Inspite of that, it was relatively quiet, and we probably entertained the farm hands, with our early morning tire swinging in our PJs and fascination with the tiny pony and donkey, as they did us, watching as they dumped hay and feed for the animals, who I think were also amused at these city girls gone country!

The cabin was stocked with the essentials and included a queen size bed downstairs and a second bedroom with a queen bed upstairs, along with a loft area for cots or air mattresses. There was a large TV with a dish, so we didn’t miss any of our Hallmark Christmas movies, and a fireplace in the family room, even though we didn’t use it. Outside, there was a porch on both the front and back side of the house, a fire pit, and plenty of room to roam.

Of course we were there to kick off the holiday season, so in addition to sharing meals, watching Christmas DVDs, and exchanging Christmas ornaments, we also woke up early (well, two of us did!) for the beautiful sunrises, and ventured outdoors at night to track the full moon. We couldn’t have picked a better weekend, given the Super Moon surprise!

One of the best parts is that this cabin was reasonably priced; especially when split among friends. There is a push these days to give the gift of experiences over material presents; especially for adults. I would have to agree. That, and just time together is better than trying to figure out the perfect gift for someone. Candles will burn down; food will be eaten; wine will be drunk, and at some point you’ll probably stop wearing that new sweater, or playing with the latest video game. But experiences are unforgettable; especially when shared with friends (or even family)!

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There’s No Goodbye in Friendships

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I had a nice visit with a good friend the other day. She is moving away from my hometown, so this was our last time together for a while. Funny thing is that what I call my hometown, truly is the place where I feel the most at home (high school, college, friends, family, etc.), however, I haven’t lived there in over 20 years! But ever since I left, I have made it a practice to visit, typically two times a year; always making time to see my close friends each time I’m in town. And now, she won’t be there.

As we sit back relaxing on a cushioned daybed, I stare out into the backyard from her screen porch, and wonder, why haven’t we done this more often. Mango tea in one hand, and no bugs to swipe away with the other, I am enjoying watching the birds bounce around on the large crepe myrtle, which has lost most of its flowers, but whose greenery still provides a safe haven for the tiny birds to play. In the distance, I can hear what must be squirrels jumping tree to tree; or perhaps it’s the rabbits she says have made themselves at home in her yard. It’s a beautiful sunny day; but hot and humid, as I remembered a South Carolina June day is suppose to be. The ceiling fan in the porch makes it tolerable, but of course, I’m here for the conversation anyway.

Lisa is unusually calm today. I expected to find her running around trying to take care of last minute things; maybe even stressing out that everything wasn’t going to get done in time. But she was just the opposite. Since it was her husband’s new job that initiated the move, she’s had the benefit of having his company handle everything for the move. So as the two women inside continue to wrap and pack up boxes in the kitchen, and the five or six guys continue to carry furniture out onto the large moving van, she had the time to sit and simply chill out with me for an hour or so to talk.

It’s been about a year since she first got word that this day might be coming. I remember the first time she asked for general prayer, that they would know which path they should take with some opportunities coming their way. The final determination was made months later; right as school was getting underway. So that meant making other decisions based upon their son’s school as well. The delayed time for departure, I think, gave her some extra time to prepare as much emotionally for it, as she had to do physically and logistically.

I think that sometimes we forget about the emotional toil that major life changes can have on us. People often only consider the financial challenges or physical changes that might be ahead. And while we may all be impacted differently when our lifestyle is forced to go through a change, we are, nonetheless, all still impacted! Preparing for your new life mentally and emotionally is just as important as all of the logistics you might handle to prepare physically. It’s definitely not an area you should neglect as you make plans for your new normal.

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Before I left, I picked a bowl of blueberries from her backyard one last time (and threw them in a salad later that day). Jokingly, I told her I would be back next summer to meet the new owners, just so I could help myself to the blueberry bushes.

I’ve alway loved what they did with their backyard, filling the landscape with peach trees and blackberry bushes. Though the pending move made her skip planting a vegetable garden, it has in the past been just as spectacular as the vast array of carefully planted daylilies, and black-eyed Susans; mums and daisies; azaleas and multiple magnolia trees. It’s a Southern girl’s dream yard!

So of course I said yes when she offered me some of her hundreds of daylilies, and then gave me a large container herb garden filled with everything from chives to rosemary; mint and oregano. Graciously, I promised to take good care of it all.

Best news of all…she’s actually moving about 350 miles closer to where I live now!

The Cost of a Coffeehouse Office

You would think that someone who lived alone wouldn’t need to get away to get things done. But when it comes to creative writing, grading class assignments, or even prepping my courses, there’s nothing worst for me than being home alone.

Several years ago when I worked from home, it was a little easier. My house was one level, but I had a bonus room. I knew the day I decided to start my own company that I would have to put mechanisms in place to help me be disciplined enough to work from home (can I get an Amen for other entrepreneurs out there?). So for me, going upstairs into the bonus room was treated like going uptown to an office building. Each day, while taking the four steps up, I pretended to be getting into my car; the top opening of the room I imagined as the door into my company; and the entire upstairs was the various areas of my office.

Now, my Saturday morning or early afternoon office for what’s now become my “side” job (having taken my career in another different direction) is at the same table in the corner at the Panera just two miles from my house. If it’s in the evenings, I usually opt for the Starbucks two blocks further. Panera is brighter during the day, with lots of windows where the sunshine streams in. Starbucks is a little darker, which is perfect for late evenings. Don’t get me wrong, those places certainly come with their own distractions. Panera is usually teeming with families with young children in the morning and youth sports teams in the afternoon. And Starbucks tends to play host to groups of college students, wanna-be authors, and awkwardly paired couples, perhaps meeting up for the first time. But those distractions seem different in one of these places than what surrounds me at home these days.

After choosing to move closer to my full-time job in a suburban town just outside the city I used to live in, I thought distractions would be the least of my worries. But with a rental house that’s just the second one off the busy main street through the neighborhood; coupled with homes that are way too close together for my comfort (something I won’t be looking for when the time comes to buy again), and dealing with what often sounds like the loud echoing sounds of everything from garage door openings to lawn mowers going, and dogs barking at anything that moves; even the sound of birds chirping outside my window can become an irritant at certain times; especially when I’m trying to concentrate.

And then there’s the television. When it’s off, it taunts me to turn it on “just for a little while.” It lies to me, and tells me I have the power to turn it back off just as easily as I turned it on. But when it’s on, it drains my energy and sucks any semblance of time from the air, with each passing 30-minute show, especially the weekend marathon of home & garden shows, and 24-hour news channels.

So that brings me back to getting out of the house and hanging out at Panera.

With all of those embedded cameras in the ceiling, that most visitors to a place like this would probably never take note of, it becomes impossible; and quite honestly, probably rude, to take up real estate for hours at a time, without contributing financially to the business…if for no other reason than the fact that I frequently take advantage of the convenience of using their wifi to update all my phone apps!

So how do I maintain a reasonable budget during my frequent visits? Well, first of all, I became a member of their Rewards program many years ago — the same day I realized I had taken several meetings at the same Panera one month when I first launched my company. I knew that was just the beginning. There’s always a reward at the end of a certain number of visits. Saving even just two dollars for a free cup of coffee or bagel is worth it! Second, fortunately my sisters are wise to me, and often give me Panera (or Starbucks) gift cards for my birthday and Christmas. One of the biggest challenges of hanging out at Panera is the fact that they are NOT the cheapest food option in town. I have to be mindful of what I order and have learned how to make the most of it.

Here are a few of the things I do.

If you’re a coffee drinker, then Panera is a better option than Starbucks because you get free refills; and can even switch to decaf when you’ve energized enough for one day. Starbucks charges, even if it’s at a discounted price. The same goes with their tea and soft drinks. There’s nothing wrong with drinking water and forgo the additional cost of adding a drink to your order. If you love their bagels, don’t ask for the cream cheese. The butter is free, and the cost of that small cream cheese container is almost as much as buying an entire tub of it at your local grocery store. With the side items, I always ask for the bag of chips. They’re perfect to throw into your purse or leave in the car for times when you’re running around doing errands, and your stomach starts growling. Keeps you from taking that trip through a drive-thru and spending more money.

When I do order a meal, I ask for the free additions; things that help to fill you up. Most people aren’t aware that you can ask for extra lettuce on your sandwich at no additional cost. The same goes for your salad. I never order a whole salad. Instead, I choose the much cheaper half salad, and then I ask for extra lettuce. They don’t mind giving you (most) extra veggies, but the protein (meat, cheese, egg) will cost you a little more. When I started using the kiosk, I discovered there are several other items you can add — kale, apple chips, cabbage, corn — that don’t cost you any more. The end result is a fuller salad that is more in line with the high price you pay. And equally important, you won’t be hungry an hour later while you’re still working on your latest novel!

Spring Break at the Beach

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Isn’t it beautiful?! There’s nothing quite like spending some vacation time at the beach, sitting on the warm sands, watching the sunrise in the morning. And then returning that evening, after  full day of doing nothing, to watch it set. One of the things I’ve missed about leaving South Carolina for Tennessee is that the once two-and-a-half hour drive to the Atlantic ocean now takes over ten!

I invited myself to the beach with them once I learned their spring break was the same week as mine! It’s the first time it’s happened since I started teaching, and my schedule became dictated by semesters instead of calendar years. I knew they wouldn’t mind, and after the last six months, I needed a real break; not the kind you take over the holidays, where most of your time is spent decorating the house, visiting people, attending events, and hosting family and friends. I wanted, no needed a REAL break! I needed to see the ocean again, feel the warm sunshine on my face while digging in to the sand between my toes. I wanted to not set an alarm clock, wake up to the sounds of the waves, and listen to the high pitched screech of the water birds, drowned out only by the laughter of young children running from the water’s edge. I didn’t want to wait until summer. I needed it now!

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But somewhere along the way, what I wanted; what I needed; and what actually happened didn’t line up!

Okay, yes, I agree. It was the grown-up thing to do to call and UNinvite myself from a week in (almost) paradise. But that was the point. I didn’t want to act like a grown up. I wanted some ME time. Sure there were papers to be graded, which I knew would be a challenge to do sitting pool side, most likely distracted by the splash of the swimmers, and the lure of the lazy river that meandered beside the swimming pool. And while taking long walks down the beach would have been just the kind of medicine I needed to help destress and refocus my mind, and de-tense my body, I probably would have been thinking about all of the other stuff that needed doing at my house — like sorting through stacks of papers, preparing my taxes, cleaning my den and home office, and picking up all those twigs and small branches that keep falling over into my backyard from my neighbor’s overgrown and unkept trees that line our border!

But none of those things are the real reason why I’m sitting back here in Nashville instead of chilling out there, in North Myrtle Beach this week! The real reason for my grown up decision came down to the most basic of things — money! I was forced to count the cost of engaging in this “free” vacation, in light of something more significant that I’m saving for  happening later in the year.

Under normal circumstances, I would not have thought twice about spending the money in gas (for the 1400-mile round trip journey), snacks, meals on the road, and sharing in the costs of food and entertainment once I got there. But that’s just it. Most people don’t think about all of the extra money it takes to take advantage of something that’s FREE. If you’re on a budget, or just watching your spending, you can’t just count the things you want. Money spent is money spent. What goes out today isn’t going to be there tomorrow.

When I talk about budgets in class, I start by having my students write down the amount for everything they currently spend in a month. I think it’s important to have a visual of your habits so that reality sets in before you make out a budget. I remind my students that they have to include everything — every cup of coffee, pack of gum, bottle of water, smartphone upgrade, oil change, new shoes, hair cut, mani-pedi, and pair of sunglasses they just couldn’t resist. For me, that would have meant adding about $200 in gas and probably another $100 for food; not including money for going out.

So while I would rather be curled up in a chair on the balcony of the condo right now, reading a good book and taking in all of the fresh salty smells of the coast, I know that putting off instant gratification today means being able to do something bigger and better later; like maybe this summer, when I’ll have  an entire month to chill!

What about you? When’s the last time you’ve taken a visual of your spending habits? Why not do it now, instead of waiting until you’re ready to take off for somewhere.

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How to Save Money and Watch Free Movies!

I just finished watching the movie Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Yesterday I enjoyed the Denzel Washington movie Magnificent Seven; and before that, it was Meryl Strep in Florence Foster Jenkins; and then the day before that it was Storks. The best part about catching up on all these movies is that they were FREE!

I have a sister who went without cable television for over a decade! It’s hard to imagine, but even before Netflix became a household name, my sister chose to watch most her movies in the comfort of her home — either buying or renting DVDs. The only thing she enjoyed doing more than watching movies was reading books. And it was at her favorite book place — the public library — that she discovered a way to watch even more movies, without spending any money on them!

I remember 20+ years ago when I first moved to Nashville, I couldn’t afford much more than the gas in my car, and trying to make rent each month. Whenever I was feeling stressed; sometimes depressed, or even bored, I would find my way to the local library, plop down in the magazine section, and mindlessly flipped through the home and garden, fashion, and Southern lifestyle type of magazines, without having to purchase a subscription. I also occasionally looked through the stack of VHS tapes, hoping to come across an old movie I hadn’t seen, or one I wanted to watch again.

But that was the 1990s; just as DVDs were growing in popularity, and long before there was anything related to streaming movies, or binge watching entire seasons of your favorite television shows.

As I moved up the corporate ladder, and leisure time became limited, but money became less of a problem, I didn’t visit the library as often. This was also during the growth of the digital age, smartphones, laptop computers, and later, streaming services. I subscribed to magazines I barely had the time to flip through; ordered up extended cable services I mostly didn’t have time to enjoy the selections on. And jumped on some of the social media platforms as they unfolded.

But while visiting my hometown over the past couple of years, spending time at my sister’s house, I was reminded of the value of the local public library.

Before I arrived for Christmas, my sister put a number of movies on her list so that we’d have plenty of them to watch while I was home for the holidays. What’s really cool about doing that, beyond the free part, is that it guarantees at least two hours of family time to watch a movie together, sitting next to each other, without a group of strangers surrounding us in a dark, sticky floor, and uncomfortable general-public used chairs.

Unlike the VHS tapes I used to pick up, the current DVD service at the library is usually on par with services like the RedBox. So what if you might have to wait a few days longer, or get on a list that might take a couple of weeks. Being able to check out new to DVD movies within a couple of days or weeks of their release for FREE is totally worth it!

So if one of your new year’s resolutions — spoken, thought, or written down — is to watch your spending habits, and create and stay on a budget, just know that you don’t have to give up enjoying life. You can still watch a great movie, without paying over a hundred dollars for cable or satellite service. You can check out books, DVDs, and even CDs from the library, or take an hour to relax and flip through current magazines. I have some friends who have never had cable in their house. They rent movies or stream them online. With a trip to your local library, you can take that a step further and pick some up for free!

Up next? Bad Moms and Ben-Hur! Yeah…I know. An interesting mix of drama.

From Zero to Hope: Part Two

I can’t say that I’ve always wanted to be married. But I can say that I’ve never wanted to be divorced. I have actually been neither.

But I’ve been to more weddings than I can count; a bridesmaid in my first one at only 15 years old. That was my oldest sister. She divorced seven years later. My two brothers also married and divorced. My parents, on the other hand, had been married for almost 50 years before my mother passed away. Oh, theirs was not a perfect union; far from it.  Something made them stick it out — for better or worst. I’d like to think it was always love that kept them together when things got rough and they felt like giving up; especially once we were all out of the house and old enough to survive on our own.  But it also wasn’t lost on me (and likely, not my parents either) how difficult it would have been for either one of them to survive single life in the late 20th and early 21st century, had they divorced during some of those trying times. Or even earlier, if my mom tried to raise six kids on her own. It’s been done before, but not always with success. And I’m certainly glad it was never anything we had to grow up in or deal with.

Other kids aren’t as lucky. Other couples aren’t as fortunate. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things happen. I have a number of acquaintances, associates, co-workers, and even friends who have gone through a divorce. Not a one of them have ever said they saw it coming; or at least not when they walked down that aisle, said their “I Dos,” promised to love in good times and bad times; until death do us part

No, most of them admit to struggles and challenges, like most marriages, but ending up divorced was not a part of their life’s plan. When it happened; they had a couple of choices. They could either allow their divorce lead them to anger, depression, bitterness, guilt, shame, and so many other negative, unhealthy feelings — which I’ve seen. Or they could choose to hang on; cling to hope, and to not accept or allow what happened to their marriage to define what was going to happen to them and their future.

Most of them ended up going in and out of  both places. The reality of a changed life that they didn’t ask for. And the truth that they didn’t have to let that determine their future success — in love, in parenting, in work — in life. And those who landed in a place called HOPE have been able to move on; to adjust to their new normal.

That’s what Kathy did. Her story post-divorce began “messy,” as she described it. But she didn’t leave it there. She found a way to keep going.

From Zero to Hope: Part Two

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What this little graphic does not show you are many nights I cried for one reason or another.

Yet, I can say despite the struggles, I am blessed to look back and see the village that supported me and those who still do to this day. Transparency and vulnerability are necessary if you are going to benefit from the “village.” It is not just about the transparency and vulnerability of the ones in need, but it extends to those playing the supportive role. Once again, this is not easy, especially if your tragic circumstances include a form of loss of meaningful relationships. This too is messy…”who do I trust and what do I trust them with?” I have to ask myself this question constantly and consistently, which is exhausting.

So where is the hope in all this? Well, I can tell you that once I accepted the fact that my new normal was going to be “messy” for a while and that I needed to prayerfully invite members into “my village” for support, this is where the strength to take the first step begun. What the graphic does not show you are various victories won:

  • healing from the emotional struggles
  • freedom from doubt
  • regaining sight of my worth and value
  • new friends and strengthened family ties
  • two wonderful boys who remind me daily how much they love me
  • the experience of walking with the Savior who is fashioning something new out of my life
  • gaining beauty from my ashes

kathy-phillipsFor me the journey is still underway and I must keep moving forward. Yet, I do know with each step that I will need the love of God to sustain me, the love of friends to encourage me, the courage to inspire others, and the ability to accept that this is going to be “messy.” Win or lose, the battles will come. I can only take it one day at a time, pressing toward my final destination-hope. Mercy and grace continue to cover me and allow me to discover that hope exists and is available along the way!