Creative Christmas Challenge – MET!!!

Well, you blogosphere folks are pretty freakin’ awesome. I put $60 in the pot to see how far it could go, and next thing I know, Jillian wanted in on the action. And then Little Miss Moneybags jumped right in and matched my $60! Throw in some shopping guidance and on-the-ground (or, more accurately, in-the-stores) assistance by Dani and A. from Webhunting, and we put together a rockin’ Christmas for Maribel and her huge tribe. Amazon and eBay, couldn’t have done it without you either.

Here’s the loot (prices include tax and shipping) ….

$53 – 4 Reborn Berjusa/Berenguer vinyl baby dolls. Just the kit to make these dolls goes for $60, so bagging 4 gently-loved dolls for less than one kit is pretty freakin’ awesome. Bonus: it turns out one of them is exactly the doll that had been “kidnapped” by one of her kids’ friends. It’s really special to her because one of her daughters died and was revived as a newborn, and the hospital gave a pair of these dolls to her as a gift during the ensuing 2-month hospital ordeal – they were an anatomically correct boy and girl. The girl was stolen, and now she’s getting replaced. Also, I only ordered 3 dolls, but when I opened one of the boxes, there were two instead of one. Score! They’re going to Cheska, Gladys, Priscilla and Jacqueline.

$14.50 – 5 Bakugan balls for the price of 3, basically. Turns out the seller is in Hong Kong, which makes me think they were stolen straight off the factory assembly line, heh. They’re going to Ricky, who even my doorman remarked was exceptionally helpful towards his mother.

$28 – Insignia 7.0 MP digital camera for Maribel the Mom. Used, but in box and comes with the USB cord (most don’t). Photos have always meant a lot to the women in my family, to the point where my mom taught us that if the house was on fire and we could only save one thing, grab the photo albums because they can’t be replaced. Of course, that was the pre-digital era, but the sentiment lives on.

$0 (but really $25 – tab picked up by Jillian!) – Dora the Explorer Sleepy Dreams doll, a replacement for one that melted in a laundry accident. The doll was brand-new and cost $25. A friend on Long Island picked it up for me at her local Walmart – it wasn’t available online or within 30 miles of my mom in NJ or me in NYC. The doll is going to Kristi, who at the moment is glassy-eyed with fever (I saw her on Friday).

$0 – Disney blanket sleeper, size 3T Tigger design. So its true cost was $8 ($6 + tax + pro-rated shipping), but it came from my Amazon Swagbucks gift card balance. It’s for the baby, Alex. He’s also getting a Playskool whistle thing and Mr. Bubbles bubble bath that I picked up on clearance last year after Christmas.

$0 (but really $7.50 + postage) – Moon Sand Treasure Kingdom (direct from Jillian – shipping costs were probably hideous, blech, but still a great deal). This is going to all of them, since it’s this great crafty kit along the lines of Play-Doh but even better – it doesn’t dry out. I’m telling you, it makes me want to be a 5-year-old again, this stuff is cool! Anyway, there is one kid without an individual present on the list, so Francois’ name might be on the tag. He’s one of the two stepkids, not really sure if his mom (her sister) helps with Christmas at all.

$0 (but really $20 recycled) – 2 packs of 3 WWE Micro Aggression wrestler figures. They are 2″ caricatures of actual professional wrestlers and qualify as ugly-cute. I “paid” $15 of the price with 2 Disney sleepers that a friend put in on my order to take advantage of shipping cost limits – but it came from my Amazon Swagbucks gift card balance. The other $5 came from a Kellogg’s rebate I submitted using her address for cereal I paid a total of $5 for. Net cost to me is therefore $0. Fernando is on the receiving end of these.

$13 – clearanced clothing from Target. It was actually more than that, maybe double, but Dani very kindly did a money-making deal on Glade scented oil products with coupons I sent that earned back about $10 more than was spent in the form of gift cards. Most of the clothes were the right sizes for Stephanie, Priscilla and Fernando, with a few pieces for Kristi and Ricky. Cheska isn’t allowed to have new clothes because she is the Tazmanian Devil Child (that’s what her tantrums are like – bouncing off walls, damaging everything in her wake) and destroys her own clothes.

$0 – Glade plug-ins and refills from Jess VonWallenstein, one of my Twitter followers, who had a ton of these products that she’d gotten for free or better-than-free on drugstore deals and was ready to throw out. So glad she didn’t! When asked what she’d like for Christmas, Maribel mentioned the Glade Sense & Spray I’d given her in September – said she’d like to have a plug-in for every room in her house. So Jess, you granted that wish!

$3 – Candy and cute containers to put it in. I got all of it for nearly free, so that $2 is mostly the tax. Grr, tax. 3 bags of different Hershey’s Kisses, a bag of Butterfinger Bells, and then a ton of CVS candy that came individually wrapped within the bag – bubble gum, laffy taffy, caramels. Oh, and some clearanced Russell Stover chocolate marshmallow Santas at Walgreens last week.

$0 (but actual cost of $23) – A 12-pair pack of ankle sports socks for little girls, paid for with my Amazon Swagbucks gift card balance ($5). I babysat Ricky, Alex and Kristi last weekend and the baby’s socks were fine, Ricky had no socks (and it was hideously cold out), and Kristi was wearing 1 black and 1 white crumbly boy’s sweat socks with no elasticity left. I ordered these after my mom called to let me know she’d picked up 10 pairs of socks ($18) for the boys and the older girls at Kohl’s and Target.

Total cost of Christmas:  $195
Total paid with free money: $33
Total cash cost to me:  $52
Cash cost to blog readers + my mom:  $110
(+ about $18 in shipping)

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On a Christmas sidenote with regards to this family… because of the extreme bitter winds and temps last weekend, I agreed to watch 3 of her 4 youngest (NOT the Tazmanian Devil) because they were ill-equipped for the cold and she had to go out to some unfamiliar neighborhood in Queens to pick up donated clothes for the baby. Thanks to weekend subway maintenance and rerouting, a trip that should have taken no more than 2 hours took over 5 hours. I was miserable – the kids are normal, active kids, but my apartment is a studio and not at all childsafe. But my vinyl Thai mat became their tumble area, I threw a sheet over the massage table to make a fort, and damned if they didn’t wolf down my bananas as soon as my back was turned (I didn’t mind, I just thought it was funny). Anyway, after nearly 5 hours of dealing with bad public transit and walking to someone’s home that was a mile from the subway stop, Maribel decided to take a taxi for the first time in her welfare life – and didn’t know what she was dealing with. Now, don’t click away – this story has a happy ending!

She hired a gypsy cab, thinking it was a non-yellow taxi car service (which can be cheaper). For those who don’t know, a gypsy cab is just a guy with a car who trolls the neighborhoods outside of Manhattan where you can’t get a regular cab looking for someone willing to pay for a ride. I went to college in the Bronx, I only took one once, with a friend who used them all the time, but then never again. You are basically getting in the car with a strange man. In the Bronx. Anyway, as soon as she had the kids out of the car and paid him, he tore out of there – taking with him the clothes she’d busted her skinny butt getting on a bitter day, all the chicken and eggs and other food I’d given her, and worst of all, the baby’s stroller. It was a really good stroller that I think she had recently bought second-hand on craigslist. It goes for about $200 new and $50-80 used. She was heartbroken. She and her son, Ricky, chased the minivan down the street and even a few of her neighbors joined in after she took a header (yeah, running with a 25-lb baby on her hip was not smart) – but the foul excuse for a human being ran the light and got away. She reported him to the police, but didn’t have a license plate number, and none was visible on my building’s security tapes.

Now for the happy ending… Two days later, I found the same make of stroller (an Inglesina Zippy) that she’d had stolen on craigslist, being given away by a woman on the upper eastside for free. Free! And the owner threw in one of Maribel’s Christmas requests that I hadn’t fulfilled: a snuggly, fur-lined sleeping bag-like thing to keep the toddler warm in the stroller (blankets always move around and get caught in the wheels). I picked it up because I knew it would go to whoever could get there first and I was a 20-min subway ride away, so for the cost of two subway trips and some Krazy Glue (my fault – I broke off the lap bar trying to clean it, lost my balance), Maribel ended up with better than she had lost. Except maybe for that broken lap bar. What can I say, I’m not used to being this chubby, so I weebled right over while simultaneously scrubbing and squatting. Yeah, really should do something about this weeble thing. But I’ll save resolutions for another post.

Christmas Plans

My mom and I leave at the crack of dawn on the $9 Megabus to Baltimore, where we’ll be spending the long Christmas weekend at the family homestead. Okay, so it’s not a homestead by the usual definition, but my brother was the first to become a homeowner (my parents never did). Newlywedzilla has become a homeowner by marrying one, and she might become the new homestead once she starts reproducing…but for now, it’s a new-build row house in Baltimore.

There could be a fair amount of sitting around and doing nothing, so I’m sort of planning to bring all my coupon stuff and hit up the drug stores during down time. However, even though he’s got CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Dollar Tree within a 20-minute walking radius, Baltimore is apparently too dangerous even during daylight hours to walk through alone. I started to argue with him, a la “Hey, I took the subway with 50 lbs of groceries to a neighborhood in the Bronx where all the little stores have bullet-proof glass from counter to ceiling. I can handle myself”…until he mentioned that a woman who lived between his home and Walgreens was raped and got her throat cut by a guy who used shoveling snow as an excuse to approach her last weekend. Um…yeah, I don’t need free toothpaste that badly. So I’m less scared of the Bronx than I am of Baltimore. Interesting. I guess I’ll just spend time familiarizing myself with the Wii he’s getting from my mom – she’s planning to give it to him on Christmas Eve so it’ll be all hooked up for endless Christmas playtime. Gotta wonder who she really bought it for!

Creative Christmas Challenge for the Mom-of-9

Last Christmas Eve, some random wealthy person (at least in relative terms) drove through Mom-of-9’s neighborhood in the Bronx asking on the street if anyone knew of a single mom with lots of kids who could use a good Christmas. Everyone sent them to her home, where they anonymously left a huge stack of presents. Oh yes, people, there is indeed a Santa Claus! This year, Maribel (Mom-of-9) went to her local community center to put her kids on the Toys-for-Tots list, and was told they probably wouldn’t be able to give all of them a gift because donations were way down. I’m actually surprised at that, because it seems like everyone who is doing okay – even if it’s just barely okay – is way more aware of this than ever. I guess there are just that many more people in need of a $7 Christmas surprise for their kids.

I am not presenting you with the complete picture as I know it because it sounds like a sob story, and a real downer. That’s not what I want! This is about a financial challenge for ME, not her!

Maribel’s situation, in brief, no sob story
Maribel just turned 35 yesterday. She had 7 kids by the same man, who ditched them all about a year ago and provides nothing. She has somehow acquired 2 stepkids – I don’t know how.  All are between the ages of 2 and 12. She has siblings who want nothing to do with her, and both her parents died when she was a teenager. She has a significant speech impediment (I’m guessing a palate issue from the way she speaks) that makes phone contact useless, so she has a pay-as-you-go T-mobile Sidekick for text/email. Someone gave them a computer a few months ago, but didn’t set it up and she doesn’t know how, so it sits unused. Obviously employment is not an option with her huge family and disability, but she has proven quite resourceful, traipsing around town collecting free stuff from individuals like me, or checking out “curb alert” goodies. So when you see things like “they have a video game console”, bear in mind that she either got it from someone off craigslist or it’s a throwback from better days. She’s only been a welfare case for about a year.

The $60 Santa Claus Challenge
I normally put up a big, real tree – like 7 feet tall (my ceilings are 8 feet). Yes, it takes up half my apartment, and I don’t care! We Manhattanites are trapped by our lack of cars into buying a tree within lugging distance of our homes. The corner delis and Canadian street vendors know this and nail you for about $80 for a 6′ tree. Bastards. Well, because I’m getting my apartment painted at the end of next week, and then heading to Baltimore a few days after that, there really is no point putting one up. So…

The $60 (the only thing I ever bargain for is my tree – I’ve never paid $80) I had mentally spent on a tree is now earmarked for Maribel and her little ones. The challenge is to see how much I can get for that! The only thing I am *not* including in that $60 is, ironically, a tree — her 2-footer isn’t cutting it for 10 people, and a few of them are allergic to real ones. I’ve built an unmanageable amount of Register Rewards (free store-based money) at Walgreens, and will be picking up something fake at least 5 feet tall at their 50% off sale this weekend. You could say that the tree is compliments of Novartis, given my rather large collection of those particular RRs.

What to Buy
She gave me both a general and specific list of good ideas and bad ideas.

Bad: paint, markers, nail polish, play-doh — anything that can be smeared on a wall or carpet will be.
Good:  Moon Sand (doesn’t dry up) and any non-messy crafts. 
Bad: Board games — they cause fights and the kids wreck them.
Good:  Card games.
Bad: Big toys — they have very little space, and the kids aren’t crazy about them.
Good: Little dolls and action (WWE micro) figures no more than 2″ — kids love ’em.
Bad: Video games — they have some unit or other, but the kids don’t like video games. Wow.
Good:  Bakugan balls — got a few, but not the oh-so-sought-after 7-in-1 Maxus Dragonoid (NOT gonna happen).
Bad:  She requested the Hot Toy of 2009, Mindflex. Her kids will trash it – no way.
Replace:  Sleepy Dreams Dora — Maribel put it in the dryer and melted it.
Maribel:  Her pay-as-you-go T-mobile sidekick screen is broken. With her speech impediment, this text/email machine is really important – it’s how she arranges to get all the free stuff. To replace the screen is $55, to get a second hand one is $80-100. If you happen to have one lying around…
Pets:  They have 3 cats – she loves animals. One is a huge Maine coon cat that kills big Bronx rats. Awesome. She’s been feeding them (the cats!) bits of people food because she can’t afford cat food.

Awesome News
Her family opens gifts on Three Kings Day, aka the Epiphany, on January 6th. In other words, I can take full advantage of the after-Christmas sales!!!

Want to Help? – No, this is not a Sally Struthers plea!
I don’t have kids and really don’t know how to bargain shop for these things beyond checking Amazon and eBay. If you see a phenomenal price on any of the toys listed (especially the Moon Sand and Sleepy Dreams Dora), let me know. If you’re getting rid of any of these things and don’t mind mailing it, let me know. Of course, you’re welcome to send something along (thanks, Jillian!), but I’m really quite happy just getting some help seeing how far $60 can go!

And just so you all know, I’m going to visit her home for the first time on Thursday. She’s stuck waiting all day for the state housing inspector to approve of how she’s maintaining the place, and I have to make myself scarce 9am-3pm while my apartment is being painted. I figured I’ll bring the tree and lights, and set it up for the kids to decorate when they get home from school. Her one request for herself: please bring coffee, any coffee, except that cheap, nasty Bustelo. She brings up coffee a lot. And guess who has several cans of (free) Maxwell House and a bottle of 24-cent French Vanilla CoffeeMate looking for a home…

Black Friday Fizzle

That’s right, no Doorbusters or Midnight Madness for me and mine this year. Okay, so we’ve never done that sort of thing, but we all say we would for the right deal on something we really really wanted. We started our shopping around lunchtime, and by then the parking lots were normal and so were the crowds. Either everyone was pooped from their 4am start, or Black Friday was a fizzler in the suburbs of New Jersey. I’m leaning towards the latter, because I know what it has been like historically.

My brother and I both needed some minor home furnishings – he wanted maroon sheers for his dining room windows plus matching placemats and a runner, I wanted copper curtains and rug for my revamped studio (ditching the blue and purple color scheme for blue and copper, and maybe green). We both found what we wanted at decent prices, though I pulled a nice one by ordering my rug from Home Depot’s website rather than buying it in the store – free delivery trumps lugging it on the train, the rug was discounted 20% online, there was a $5 online coupon code for Black Friday, and I get 7% back through eBates. So $159 got pared down to $112.50.  And I was delighted with the curtains because the big built-in rings will be much easier to glide along the rod than my current set.

Oh, I also scored a sale on Christmas stockings at the Dollar Tree. Remember how I agreed to put together 15 stockings for HIV/AIDS-affected women? Well, it looks like the Dollar Tree put last year’s cheap stockings on half-price discount, so I got 15 for $7.50. Very happy with that.

I spent Saturday at my aunt’s for whatever you might call a meal that starts at 3pm, and solved a little problem I didn’t realize I had brewing. The chemicals that they spray my apartment with as part of the bedbug treatment, though environmentally friendly and surprisingly natural (e.g. rosemary essential oil), hit me kind of hard. I’m getting my third and final bedbug cryo-blast and pesticide spray on Friday. About an hour or two after the treatment, I’m supposed to open the windows and leave the apartment for at least 30 minutes while the place airs out. It’s not going to air out enough to avoid the nauseous headaches by bedtime, so…I offered my cousin in Brooklyn Heights (the one who gave me the $50 Starbucks gift card for giving his wife a massage last summer) my babysitting services so they could go have a Date Night. My fee would be permission to spend the night on their couch, and they could stay out and pretend like they weren’t parents all night if they want. A win-win situation!

On my way back into the city, I decided to hop into the K-mart by Penn Station to pick up paint since I had the curtains with me…uh, the curtains…uh-oh. Crap. I left them on the overhead luggage rack on the train. The train that, uncharacteristically (meaning I’ve been using NJ Transit for over 20 years and had no idea they ran trains to Connecticut??), was continuing on to New Haven and not sitting idle for 20 minutes while it reloaded. I spat, I cursed, I growled, I texted, then I hopped the subway home and submitted a Lost & Found claim form on the NJ Transit website in case there was some good karma going around.

Fingers crossed.

The Value of Christmas Drives “For the Troops”?

On Wednesday, my mother emailed me a notice from the International Club at the high school where she works, about a “Home for the Holidays” stocking stuffer drive for our troops overseas. Like my best friend who put me in touch with an organization that puts together stockings for their impoverished clientele, my mother is very aware of the kinds of things I can get for free. She also knows that I enjoy a little challenge.

Well, I opened the file and here’s the list:

  • Hot chocolate packets
  • Oatmeal packets
  • Cup noodles, e.g. ramen
  • Breakfast bars
  • Protein bars
  • Pringles in cans
  • Soup cups w/ flip lids
  • Twinkies
  • Twizzlers
  • M&Ms
  • Candy canes
  • GUM!!
  • Flavor packets to add to water

Okay, so it’s easy enough to figure out that the focus is on edible stuffers, and some of them are definitely treats. But ramen cups and granola bars? Really? Is this what the men and women in the cold mountains and deserts of the Middle East are craving? I assume they’re working from a list somewhere of things they actually want that can easily be shipped. I mean, I know that M&Ms are the only chocolate that can be safely sent because the candy shell prevents it from melting into a puddle.

I haven’t really gotten into the assorted “care packages for the troops” efforts because I don’t really understand them. Okay, so I sort of understood the campaign to send female underwear, simply because I’ve been in that position – I’m convinced no one makes underwear the way we do (or, more accurately, the way we tell the sweatshops in Guatemala to). But really, don’t these women have families to send them undies? And the same goes for all the other stuff I see in these lists. So I got the feeling that these support-our-troops campaigns were mostly just a way to assuage our guilt for being ensconced safely on our couches in our snuggies cuddling a collection of remotes.

Anyway, I’m having my mother check out how much wiggle room there is in this list because it’s so specific. Like, I can get an enormous bag of Skittles treat packs or Charms blow pops for 50% off now that Halloween is over – but it’s not Twizzlers and it’s not M&Ms. Is it still okay? It should be, right? Because, well, guess who has way too many dumb little $1 and $2 Register Rewards from Walgreens and is a little worried about losing track of them, both physically as well as in terms of expiration date? This seems like a nice use for them. And I won’t have to shell out $10 on postage, which is usually involved in most other for-the-troops activities. I really must try to find a way to coupon away postage…

Thanks, Swag-mates!

A few of you signed up for Swagbucks through the button/link in my sidebar and have been doing a great job of racking up the bucks for us both. So….

A BIG THANKS

… to Alison P and Jillian D, who as of today, have earned enough for a $5 Amazon.com card.
… to Marci A, who started more recently and has been scoring bucks diligently.
… to Jennifer J, who earned a few, stopped, and it looks like may have restarted her Swagbucks searches. Go Jennifer!

A few others have signed up but haven’t gotten into the swing of the Swag, but I’m hopeful they’ll be inspired by the prospect of earning enough Swagbucks for an Amazon.com card or two to offset their holiday shopping. Also, if the selection of cute Halloween swag for under 100 Swagbucks is anything to go by, it should be easy to fulfill the Christmas fantasies of all the people in your life who love reindeer antler headbands and jinglebell vests. In my world, that would be my mom. She wears flashy musical pins on snowman sweaters just to embarrass us, and then scores free blinking red Rudolph noses at the mall for our stockings.

Already working on my Christmas giving

Last year, after seeing the horrifying prices at Toys R Us, I put together craft kits from dollar store deals to donate to Toys for Tots. This year, I’d like to do something nicer, and I’ve begun the hunt for quality gifts for dirt cheap.

On one of the coupon blogs I follow, they pointed out that a $5 online coupon for Pictureka applied to an item that goes for $6.50-$7, and Target accepts internet printed coupons. I printed two, will have my mom print two, and will hit up Target in a couple of weeks. That’s a quality gift for super-cheap.

I love the Clearance Table at Staples – you never know what you’re going to find for a dollar. In April, while snagging my free Earth Week reusable shopping bag with any purchase, I snagged cute bubbly neon green calculators and packets of stickers for 50 cents each.

All the promotions this past spring on those cute-as-hell, full-of-attitude hair products by Got2b mean that I have quite a collection of goodies for teenagers, both boys and girls. I think I “paid” a total of $4 for 10-12 bottles.

I’m also working the clearance cosmetics at CVS and Rite Aid. They often whip through their stock and mark certain lines down 75%. L’Oreal is especially good at putting out $2 coupons, and 75% off a lipstick/eye shadow/mascara that normally goes for $9-10 brings the cost down to bottom-of-your-handbag change. It’s not hard to figure out that teenage girls are delighted with gifts like this (as are the drag-princess boys at the shelter I donate to, but I find that creepy). Feel free to let me know if make-up “expires” – I don’t wear the stuff myself, and my memory of “old make-up” is that it’s related to when you open it.