Monday, September 29, 2008

MacGuyver Monday: Easy Meals

Sorry I bailed on you guys for a week or so. I started college classes this week, and it was a fast and painful transition. Academia is very different from my everyday life; very different from everything but academia. And since I hope to plough right through graduate school, this is going to be a huge part of my existence for the next decade or so.

Unlike my classmates, I don't go home to a dorm with a cafeteria. I go home to a house of crazy, momma-love-deprived kids who have lessons to be driven to. And immediately after those lessons, I am supposed to magically produce dinner, somewhere between making a chart of the electron transport system in the mitochondria and figuring out what the tabernac my math teacher was talking about. This last week was not exactly the well-oiled machine I like for my life to be, and issue number one is dinner.

This weekend I planned ahead. I boiled a big pot of beans that became two dinners worth of chili. While they were cooking, I took a family pack of hamburger bought on sale and made another four meals: Swedish meatballs, Italian meatballs, and two packages of taco meat. One of the taco meats we used for taco salad that night, but this leaves a freezer with healthy options for the rest of the week. I also made a batch of whole wheat dinner rolls and froze the dough.

We aren't big meat eaters around here--not because we wouldn't like to be, but because finances and the needs of our planet dictate otherwise. My dinner plan is to eat 3-4 meat meals per week, 2 bean based meals, and 1-2 egg or cheese based meals. Every weekend I plan to prepare those 3-4 meat meals with a family pack of whatever is all natural and on sale, plus cook the beans and spice them accordingly.

Are we going to eat hamburger all week? Of course not. We're going to eat one more of those hamburger meals and then I'll scramble for the rest the way I did last week. But it won't always be this way. I figure that if I make 3-4 chicken breast meals this weekend and do something with, say, pork the weekend after, by the end of the month I'll have a freezer filled with a variety healthy homemade options for dinner.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tough Places

Just a little complaining...

I belong to a Budget Homemaking group through Yahoo. I love this group. I think they have the best ideas, and usually ideas that cut expenses are ecologically sound. There are a lot of great women on the group. But then, there's the... others.

You know the type. Unresourceful. Provincial. When the going gets tough, they whine and put it on their high interest credit card. One person was asking for tips on living on the less than one thousand dollars a month that her husband makes. Someone suggested she, um, get a job. I mean, there's a point where you just need more money.

The $%&# seriously hit the fan. The person who said it was called judgmental and uncompassionate. I recently was called this when I suggested that someone move. They said that there are no jobs in Michigan and that the only job her husband could get was working part time at Wal-Mart.

I told her: been there done that. Not at Wal-Mart, but I've lived in some pretty dismal job markets. I educated myself so I was more hireable and eventually moved to another area that was both cheaper and had more jobs. I told her she should move to Yakima. There seem to be lots of jobs here. My husband can't keep good employees at $10 an hour.

So that's when I became the less than compassionate one in her eyes. Because she, of course, doesn't think she should get a job, or that her husband should get a second job. She doesn't want to leave Trailer Park, Michigan, and she's not interested in school either.

She blames the government. After all, a completely uneducated man working part time at an entry level job for decades on end should be able to support a large family in style, buy a nice home and have two car payments. If he can't, it's a government problem.

Fine, you're trapped okay? I pity you and I think the government should just cut you a fat check because you are too unresourceful and unwilling to adapt to survive in any economy, much less our current one. Is that what you want to hear? Vote Democrat. They have a whole political party set up for that philosophy.

I didn't say that. I gracefully bowed out of the discussion. The mods soon closed the topic anyway, but not without a dig at 'judgmental people'. That would be me, for suggesting that earning more money is the answer to not having enough money. (btw, I don't think the Republicans are much better, so please don't be offended)

We've all been in these tough places. You just figure it out. And, believe me, it's easy to figure out how to move to another state than how you're going to pay $750 in rent from a $600 monthly income. Once you're settled or just no longer in financial crisis mode, you should be thinking, how can I make sure this never happens again. For my family, this meant finding ways to beef up dh's resume, even if he is 100% happy with his current job. Learning Spanish, taking irrigation classes, becoming more hireable in the field he loves. And I'm taking college classes so if something happened to him or his job, we could pull a family switcheroo and I could be the breadwinner for a while.

Resourceful people almost always make it, regardless of the economy. Unresourceful people almost never make it, regardless of the economy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Picture Here

Yesterday's Wordless Wednesday was supposed to feature pictures taken by my six year old daughter on her digital camera.

Her auntie bought her this camera about a year ago, and I hope dear Auntie doesn't read this, because it was taken out of the package for the first time just a few days ago. It was buried under some construction paper and found when I re-organized our school supplies.

She took pictures and filled up the 25-snapshot memory card. I went to load them on my computer and... couldn't. Not on any of our computers. I looked online for support and found out it is a WalMart camera and that it doesn't work for anyone.

Very disappointing.

I also saw the original cost, and was (a.) surprised that Auntie spent that much on one of my kids--there so many of us that I don't expect extended family gifts, especially not pricey ones--and (b.) mad that WalMart has gotten away, once again, with selling crap that doesn't work for an inflated price and people still think they are the 'low cost leader'.

I have been thinking of getting the kids digital cameras for Christmas because they seem like a useful tool that will outlive the toys and candy. But they won't be from WalMart.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tis the Season...

... to collect and save seeds.

If you grew your veggies with organic or heirloom seeds, you have a better chance of this working. Even with conventional vegetables, it can't hurt to give it a try.

First, collect the seeds, rinse them, and let them dry. Take a few out of each group of seeds and put them in a damp paper towel. Keep in a warm, moist environment. If a few of them sprout, you know you have useable seeds. Put them away in a safe place for spring.

Next spring, germinate them like you would any seed. Wasn't that easy?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Hallelujah, Hear the Angels Sing

Last week I actually got a doctor's appointment for two of my children. And it doesn't conflict with anything else! Two down, two still needing check ups. Better than nothing.

MacGuyver Monday: Baby Wipes

I recently found myself without baby wipes and in desperate need of them. It wasn't the drama it sounds like because I had a back up plan. Here are a few things you can use in place of them.

  1. A warm wet washcloth.
  2. A warm wet rag.
  3. DIY disposable wet wipes: Using the strongest paper towels you can get, cut one roll in half and remove the cardboard roll. Make a solution of 1 cup boiling water, 1 T baby lotion, 1 T baby soap, and 1 T baby oil. Place ½ roll of paper towels in a reusable container (an empty baby wipes box is ideal.) Pour solution over towels and allow to cool before using.
  4. Another idea (and one that may replace commercial wipes in my house) is to cut up old rags and used clothes, put them in a wet wipe container, and cover with the solution from above. Because you paid nothing for them, you can toss them if they get really grody, or wash and reuse if not.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Ecology Without the Effort

I just wrote the funniest article--Green Living for Lazy People. I was a ghost writer, so I have no idea where it will end up published, but it's an interesting idea.

Can you be 'green' without putting in a lot of time and effort? When you think of low carbon living, the first activities that come to mind are time consuming. Time consuming as in: hanging out laundry, rinsing and washing cloth diapers, sorting recycling, walking to the store. Green living can be expensive too, especially if you believe the commerical machine pushing ecology as something you can buy via a Prius, solar panels, and shade grown coffee.

I'm not picking on shade grown coffee; I drink it every morning (..., noon, and night...). But we are doing our beautiful Mother Earth a terrible disservice if we allow green living to become another unreachable goal. Most of the time, it's a simple as using less. Does it take more time to not buy those smooth, silky high thread count sheets at Macy's? Of course not. It's cheaper to not buy them as well. And while they may be organic cotton or bamboo from a fair trade alliance, the sheets you have in your closet are still greener and fairer.

Most of green living lies not in the things we do or the things we buy, but in the things we don't do or buy. In this spirit, here are a few things I am not doing or buying this week:

1. Individually wrapped snacks.
2. A new blanket for the baby (saw one I loved :-( ).
3. A new eyeliner I've been coveting.
4. New flannel sheets to replace my slightly thin and decidedly un-fluffy ones.
5. Birthday invitations for my 12 year old's party. We already have paper, thank you.

Here's a green challenge that won't cost you a minute or a dime: every week when you make your shopping list (mental or written down), cross off three to five things you can physically live without.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Wordless Wednesday: We've all had these days

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Cheap Organic Food Wherever You Happen to Be

I admit that, while I try to eat local, there a few necessities that are not grown in my area. Namely, cereals. I love some of the organic cereals out there, especially the ones made by Kashi and Bear Naked, but I can't seem to find them reasonably priced in my area.

Which is why this sale at Amazon is so exciting...

Amazon is giving $15 off every Kashi purchase of $39 or more when you use the promo code KASHIDIS at checkout. They have the same deal for Bear Naked Products with the code BEARNKED. Don't forget that free shipping.

When you buy food from Amazon, it seems like a lot of money because you are buying by the case. It is a shocking amount of food, but still a usable amount. For instance, I am buying--right now, in another window--a case of Kashi granola bars from Amazon. It's $49 for 12 boxes with six granola bars in each box. That's already a lot cheaper than the full store price. When you take off my $15, it will be $34, or less than $3 a box. That's an awesome deal for a snack I can feel good about. Because the kids aren't in school, we only eat about a box a week, so that's 3 months worth. It will definitely keep on my pantry shelf for that long.

They do sell Kashi and Bear Naked at my local Costco for a similar per-unit price, but they sell only multi-packs, and my family hates raisins.

Amazon has deals like this all the time, and they deliver almost anywhere.

MacGuyver Monday: Quick Breads

"Wait--it's not Monday," you say.

"Umm, yeah, somewhere in the world it probably is," I reply. "And I don't want to hear any international date line garbage. Just read about my biscuits."

It's the perfect time of year for kitchen sink soup, with cool evenings and garden full of lovely veggies begging to be used up. But man cannot live on soup alone. What can you serve with your MacGuyvered soup when you don't have time to bake? MacGuyvered bread.

The following three recipes are staples in my house. They are easy to make and I almost always have the ingredients for at least one of them.

Basic Biscuits

2 cups sifted flour
2 tsp. baking powder
4 tablespoons butter or oil
1/2 tsp. salt
about 3/4 cup milk

Mix dry ingredients. Cut in butter or oil. Add milk gradually and stir until a dough is formed. Turn out on slightly floured board and lightly "knead" for 30 seconds, enough to shape. Roll about half an inch thick. I cut them into squares instead of circles because it's so much easier, but you can cut them into any shape you want. Then, bake on ungreased sheet in a 400 degree oven for 12-15 minutes. This makes about a dozen.

I spice mine up with whatever we have in the pantry. Garlic cheddar biscuits are a hit at my house, as are rosemary parmesan. They sound and taste gourmet, but it's just a matter of throwing in a few pinches of extras.

Basic Cornbread

2 cups corn meal
1 cup white flour
4 teaspoons of baking powder
2 teaspoons of salt
1 cup sugar
4 tablespoons melted butter
2 eggs
1 cup milk
Honey to glaze the top if desired

Mix corn meal, flour, baking powder, and salt.
Add sugar and melted butter.
Beat eggs and add to mixture along with milk.
Mix well by hand.
Pour into a greased 9 X 13 pan and bake at 350 degrees for
20-25 minutes until top of bread is light brown in color.
Spread a thin glaze of honey on the top of the cornbread and
return to oven for about 10 more minutes.
Cool slightly before serving.
This is a family sized recipe that makes a medium pan of cornbread. Again, the magic is in the add-ins. I like cheddar and green chili.

Crisp Flatbread

1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup whole wheat flour (or 1/4 cup more all-purpose flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh herbs, chopped (optional)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil, for brushing (optional)
More chopped fresh herbs (optional)
More fresh ground salt
Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Place a heavy baking sheet into the oven. Preheat to 450F.
In a bowl, stir together the flours, baking powder, salt and herbs. Make a well in the center and stir in the oil and water with a wooden spoon until a dough forms. Lightly flour a work surface and knead gently four or five times.

Break the dough into three parts, then divide each into four pieces to make twelve. On a sheet of parchment paper the size of the baking sheet, roll the dough as thin as possible, working from the center out to fill the sheet. Brush the top with olive oil, sprinkle with fresh herbs and salt, any other toppings. Slip the parchment onto the hot baking sheet and bake for 8 - 10 minutes until the edges are brown and crispy and the top is golden and browned in places. For the most crispness, err on the side of brownness. Remove the parchment from the oven and let cool. Cover tightly to store. Repeat with remaining pieces.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Lying With Dogs...

You'll be sure to get a few fleas.

Are your friends and acquaintances keeping you from making necessary changes to your life? Just something to think about. It's an issue that has arisen a lot in my life lately, with one of my stepsons to be exact. Now, I have yet to be fond of one of my stepsons' girlfriends, with one exception. (Hi Diana!) But Petar has reached an all time low with this one. And it ain't doing him any good.

Girlfriend seems, um, spoiled. Rotten. And not as a term of speech. I mean, she has no grounding in reality. She honestly thinks people should give her whatever she wants, and right now, thank you. For instance, she drives a very nice new SUV that her parents bought her. She told me they were going to buy her a different very nice SUV and she threw tantrums until they got her the exact one she wanted.

:-\ It's wearing off on Petar. Heaven help us.

She lives at home, does as she pleases, and doesn't seem to have a plan. Her parents are okay with that. More and more, that describes Petar as well--except for the parents part, and, no, we're quite ticked off about the whole thing. He has become very difficult to live with and is spending more money on clothing and room decor, less money on saving. More time on hanging out and fiddling with hair, less time doing his only assigned chore and working toward a future that does not include living in your parents' house. College? Doesn't fit neatly between hanging out at wine bars and whatever else they do.

So they both work at Macy's and that's where they'll both be for the foreseeable future. But enough about my kids.

I've noticed I also have a certain tendency to copy my friends. Some of the similarities are because like attracts like, but, for instance, I stopped wearing surf-brand t-shirts every day a few years ago because I had a friend who thought tees were juvenile. Suddenly I felt too old for them. And I know I am most tempted to fall off the simplicity path when I am surrounded by people with a lot of nice things. If someone tells me they don't believe in global warming, I just smile and nod. I am easily swayed, and I don't think I'm the only one.

What has worked for me so far is to remember why I do what I do. It's not to prevent global warming or because I like feeling deprived. It's because I don't think it is morally acceptable to take more than my share. When I picture different places on our planet in my head, I see a lot of need. We probably have enough food for everyone except--oops--we throw so much of it away. And it's the same with everything. There just isn't an infinite supply of stuff, so I try to take only what I need, and be thankful for it.

There are other reasons for being green. I don't like the thought of our earth being one big landfill and, as a lifelong asthmatic, I do appreciate breathing more than most people. But the taking-only-my-share is my personal mission. And it's what I hold onto in a sea of wasteful people who may or may not think less of me if I don't fall into step with them.

It's good to examine your heart and know exactly what your principles are. You see, I can feel comfortable rolling my eyes and walking away when people try to engage me about global warming. Global warming is so beside the point to me. I'm about being equitable, and no one can argue with that. That's my stand. And it has saved me from a lot of backtracking and slippery slope-ing.

And here's another good thing to remember: if people only accept you when you consume or waste at the same level as they do, who cares about their shallow, close-minded opinion anyway? If Petar had a backbone and a mantra (I'm saving for culinary school, so no Dolce and Gabbana tees for me), he would be able to stand up to Miss Thang. She would fade away, which she'll do eventually anyway, and he could move on to someone with substance. And get an education, too.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Just a Lazy Saturday

So, it's just a lazy Saturday around my house. A day to relax and...

  1. Clean out the entire house. And I mean: The. Entire. House. It's a freakin' pigsty. All of it. Each one of the 3400 square feet. A mess.
  2. Finish a writing job. I just have to revise a sales letter, mainly add a few fake reviews. Ah, the marketing world. Since being in it I believe absolutely nothing. It is all a lie, even Santa Claus.
  3. Make this week's to-do lists.
  4. Fix up the homeschool organization's website.
  5. Figure out what classes I need to take this semester, and how I will pay for them and childcare.
  6. Line up some more writing jobs. See #5.
  7. Plan this week's lessons.
  8. Work on an afghan I am making for my stepdaughter. Several hours into it, my dh walks by and says, "Is that for Alison? She hates that color." Maybe it'll be for someone else.
  9. Play with my website. Do something so it makes money. I have a lot of traffic, but no revenue. I need revenue, see #5.
  10. Buy evening primrose oil and flaxseeds. You see, my hair has been falling out lately (AGAIN) and Dr. Andrew Weil says a lack of certain fatty acids can cause this. I'm willing to try anything. Protein, vitamins, getting off certain hormonal treatments--none of it has worked. He says it may take as long as 6-8 weeks to see an effect. Let's just hope it works faster, because if my hair keeps falling out like this for another month I'll be bald. I wish I could talk to my own doctor about this, but he's busy and I have no insurance anyway.

So that's my lazy, no-stress Saturday. I hope your weekends are similarly relaxing!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Blog Tags

I'm really trying to put labels on my posts, but I keep forgetting. I remember with the doctor stuff. I don't know why I label those, except perhaps to make it easy to remove them when they discover my covert whining and sue me for libel. Except it isn't libel if it's true.

Warning: my opinions about everything on this blog, including my doctor's office, are just that: opinions. They are true, at least from my perspective, but ya know how perspective can be when you have a sick baby and a rude scheduling lady.

That aside, I want to remember to label my blogs because that would be a very organized thing to do.

The difference between libel and slander? Libel is in writing, and even private correspondence counts.

Doctor Drama, Anyone?

My life as the star of a medical drama continues. I guess everyone has to have a purpose in life, outside of working, raising children, and coming up with ways to save the planet between episodes of Clean House. Here, in the order that they disturb me, are the latest vignettes in this episode of my life:

1. I called Doctor D.'s office back on Wednesday as instructed by the Tuesday girl. The Wednesday girl told me that he had nothing open and reminded me that I should call at the beginning of the week. I did, I told her. Monday was a holiday, and I called at precisely 8 AM Tuesday morning. Actually, I had called the previous Monday and there were no openings then either. I shared this with Wednesday and asked, If I call back Monday, will there really be an appointment available? She said (and I quote exactly here): You can call whenever you want, but that doesn't mean you'll get an appointment.

I can feel my hair falling out from stress, (sigh).

2. When my mother was calling repeatedly on Tuesday morning, it was actually my stepfather using her phone. She was admitted to the hospital and it ended up she needed (guess, c'mon, you can do it...) a ruptured appendix removed. She had heart issues due to anesthesia also. Go, Mom! She just needed to outdo Tyler.

3. Female issues. I'll spare you icky details about my girl parts. You can send the thank you cards to my email address.

4. Rachael's eczema is back. She is late for a well child visit, too. It's that one I keep trying to schedule. If I can't get one this Monday, I'll go the back door route and call Docta' D's medical assistant. I always feel like I'm cheating when I do that. But we need our check up.

What shall I call my masterpiece? Emily's Anatomy? Mommy MD?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

A Morning in the Life of a Very Frustrated Mother

Right now I am on the phone with my doctor's office to make an appointment. So far I have heard an folksy remake of Sting's Fields of Barley, a possible Steely Dan song about Daddy don't live in New York City no more (sic), and now, some sort of elevator music.

If I am going to be left on hold for hours at a time, here are a few things I would like to hear:

Dane Cook's comedy bit on Kool Aid (Oh yeah? Oh no!)
Yael Naim
The new song by Ne-Yo, the one from the commercial
Fiona Apple

Seriously, who likes elevator music? Is it supposed to be calming? Several times the phone has sounded like someone was picking up--music pauses, office-y typing sounds in the background. But then, more elevator music. I've missed two calls from my mother while waiting this morning. Tyler is wondering what to do for school (just READ, okay, read a book, this is a literature based curriculum so there's no way you can go wrong by READING).

The elevator music has faded away, and now there is jazzy piano. (vomit in mouth) I am not kidding about the Dane Cook. It would put me in a good mood for when the rude scheduling people arbitrarily withhold health care from my child because it's the only power they wield in their minimum wage existence.

Okay, that was mean. I'm sorry.

Can it be? A person! Oops, I was sent to wrong place, I guess. She's transferring me to where I should be. Back to jazzy piano. Okay, another person already, that was fast. And when I try to make an appointment, this is what I get.

"He'll be in tomorrow, but he's full. Beyond that, I just don't know... Can you make an appointment with another doctor?"

When I explain, umm, NO, and ask if I can call back for an appointment with my own doctor, she says...

"You can try. I mean, I don't know when he'll be in or when he'll get his schedule. "

I can try? How kind of you. When can I try? I mean, last Monday you told me to try today. And since when do people try to make doctor's appointments? It is really simple, right? Like trying to jump, trying to blog. You just do it. I pick up the phone and call you, you check his schedule and put me in a slot, not so hard. Why don't you have his schedule anyway, you're his scheduling lady?

Don't worry, I didn't say that.

"Tomorrow, maybe later in the day? Maybe. I'm not guaranteeing it. I'm sorry."

At least she's sorry. The last scheduling lady was never sorry. She acted like I had done something wrong. I told you to call when we opened, and now it's 8:27. Of course I can't give you an appointment now.

Well, now you have witnessed in real time (kinda) a morning in my life. My doctor has told me that when this happens, I should ask to talk to his medical assistant and that she can usually fit me in. But his medical assistant is apparently not aware of this recommendation. She is always a little confused about why I am talking to her and not his scheduling girl. I save the MA trick for emergencies, for times when we honestly will be in the emergency room if the sitch isn't dealt with and soon. So I'll be calling back tomorrow. This only took 27 minutes of my morning.

Monday, September 01, 2008

MacGuyver Monday: Back to School Wardrobes

What does a homeschooling family know about Back to School shopping? More than you would think! We didn't always homeschool, so there was a time when I had to get six people fully outfitted every August. I still try to celebrate these little cultural rituals, although the pressure is definitely lower. So how am I keeping this big family in stylish clothing? The same way I ran charity events and the same way I manage a writing career: by being organized and making lists.

The list making comes first. Your first list should be a "need" list for each child. Never mind what they have, just list the bare essentials of a passable back to school wardrobe for your area and social class. For a homeschooling family in Central Washington, this might look like: 5 everyday/play outfits, 3 nice outfits, 2 church outfits, tennis shoes, boots, coat, snowpants, 3 pair pajamas. For a family in school, you would probably need 'nice clothes' every day, so adjust as needed.

Now, inventory all of the potential school clothes you have on hand from last year, hand-me-downs, and the deals you find here and there. I am always on the look-out for free and cheap clothes, so I usually have a substantial pile for each child. Have your children try on their clothes. Things that are too big go back to your clothing storage (whatever that may be), and things that are too small get passed down. Compare your "have" lists to your "need" lists and note any shortfalls. This is your shopping list.

If I was determined to spend no money, I would now begin looking for ways to repurpose. My love of pillow case dresses is legendary, but pillowcases also make nice skirts and jumpers. Pants with torn or worn knees can be cut off and hemmed to make shorts, or sewn into a cute skirt like this one. Sewing clothing is usually more expensive than buying, but if you have fabric on hand, even in the form of unwanted sheets and curtains, free patterns are all over internet. You can also request clothing on Freecycle, or ask friends what they are doing with their children's cast-offs.

Next, I would hit thrift stores with a very specific list of what I need. I actually did this today and my list read something like:

White turtleneck--Grace
Hot pink top--Rachael
Off-white top--Rachael
Black snowboarding pants--Tyler

And so on. It was a long list.

A tip: do not buy anything not on your list at this point. List items are receiving priority because they are immediately needed.

Another tip: many thrift stores regularly publish coupons or have special days when certain items are cheaper. Don't be afraid to ask!

If you have tapped the thrift stores and still have items on your list, move on to cheaper stores like Target, T.J. Maxx, and Old Navy. If you have an outlet mall nearby, hit that as well. I find amazing deals at Nordstrom Rack, so check there if one is near you. I know there are environmental and social implications to buying mainstream retail garments, but if you have managed until this point to get everything used, a few fill-in items will have minimal impact. As for WalMart, I avoid it like the plague because I need my stuff to last.

Done? Hopefully you have found everything you need at this point. I did this routine today, and my Back to School shopping came to $56 for four kids and their clothes horse mommy. Not too shabby! There are a few items I'm still keeping an eye out for, but we'll all be on-trend when we sit down to the kitchen table for Latin tomorrow morning.

A tip on buying ahead: I buy things before I need them, but without a framework, I would end up with lots of disconnected items that don't translate into outfits. My policy is to limit buying ahead to basics (like jeans, khakis, polos, cardigans, etc) and matched outfits. If I see something adorable at a great price, I'll pick it up, but only if it is worth having to buy a matching piece at full retail price. Of course, if it's free, just take it and say thank you. Another good way to weave scattered clearance deals into a cohesive look is to plan a wardrobe theme. Not everything has to match the theme, but, for example, my 6 year old daughter loves animal prints so I bought her leopard print ballet flats, skirts, and tops as I found them.