Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Managing Medical Bills - The Bullet Point Version

I was going to post a pretty lengthy exposé on how we handled our mounting stack of medical bills that accumulated those first months and years after the triplets were born, but my husband told me that the subject matter was pretty boring (you can write it well, but there's still only so much lipstick you can put on a pig...), so I won't. But because I still feel like I need to share a few things I learned from my experience dealing with numerous medical providers and dual (more like dueling) insurance companies, I'll give you the extremely condensed version and hope my dry, lackluster post helps at least one person wade through the stress and despair that comes with each of those crisp, white, Self Addressed (un)Stamped Envelopes...

1. Make Sure The Claims Have Been Submitted Properly
Does it show that your insurance company paid their portion? If you're dually covered, did both companies pay? If not, call your medical provider's billing department to make sure they have all of your correct insurance information.

2. If Your Insurance Hasn't Paid Yet - DON'T PAY ANYTHING
After getting everything sorted out with that nice person from your doctor's billing department, they will resubmit your claim to your insurance company/companies and wait for payment (from them). At this point, do not pay your bill. Wait for insurance to process the new claim and wait for a new bill.

3. Ask About Financial Assistance
Believe it or not, some medical providers will discount fees if you ask. Others offer financial assistance if you can prove financial hardship. Hospitals actually have social workers available to help you sort all of that out. Ask to speak with one.

4. Set Up a Payment Plan
When you finally know the exact amount you owe on your bill, either pay the bill in full or call the billing department (again) to set up a payment plan. Most doctor's offices and hospitals offer interest-free payment plans as long as you can commit to paying a specified amount each month. This makes it way easier to budget for your monthly medical expenses, and any future bills from them can simply be called in and added to your account (like a running tab).

See what can be learned from spending countless hours on the phone with doctors offices and insurance companies while also trying to deal with three newborns?!

Happy bill paying :)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Love Note for the Weekend

My children have discovered the Sound of Music and are smitten with it all: the music, the lovely Maria, and all those kids! We now have our very own little Von Trapps traipsing around our house singing "My Favorite Things" and  "Do Re Mi" with surprisingly accurate intonation and lyrics. We downloaded the soundtrack from iTunes and have listened to it in our car about a bajillion times over the past few weeks.  And while it's fun to belt out the more familiar songs, there's a beautiful little section of verse at the beginning of the "Sixteen Going On Seventeen" Reprise that has caused me to pause and take note this week. Rather than heralding love as this tangible occurrence or feeling (of which we tend to focus on our role as recipient), let us all try to love more actively this weekend - finding our joy and solace in the space vacated by all we've given away...

A bell is no bell till you ring it

A song is no song till you sing it

And love in your heart wasn't put there to stay

Love isn't love till you give it away

Enjoy the weekend, everyone 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sorry, Tom: This Mama's Saving Some Serious Dough!

I like Toms. They're cute, they're comfy, and of course it makes me feel good to know that a kid who desperately needs shoes will benefit from my purchase with Tom's One-for-One promise (you buy a pair, Toms sends a second pair to a child in need). But they come with a hefty price tag. My current favorite style, Brown Metallic Herringbone, is listed online for $54! 

Well, today I found myself at Rite Aid (and I never go to Rite Aid, unless I'm like sick and on vacation and it's the only store for 200 miles...me, I'm a Target girl through and through). But I was needing to pick up some final materials for a little crafting project I'm starting (and will hopefully be blogging about soon) and needed a few "granny-ish" items like nylons and flesh colored socks...so I figured Rite Aid was my place (and Target was on the other side of town...) Amazingly, they didn't have what I was looking for (seriously?! I was pretty sure that store would be crawling in granny trouser socks and undergarments!) but I found myself on their "shoe aisle" and behold...knockoff Toms. Now I usually would have just balked at their cheap attempt to mock such a noble shoe, but these things were actually nice, I mean really nice and almost identical to my Toms, from the plaid interior print to the faux fleece lining. They even had some of my all-time favorite patterns like purple corduroy, slate grey, sage green, and what do you know: brown metallic herringbone. I just saw the real ones at Whole Foods last week  (for $54) and literally shed a tear as my inner toddler attempted mutiny with silent threats of certain imminent (fashion) death without them. Rite Aid's version were priced at just $14.99...and marked down 75%...to $3.74. 


Good thing I only had a $5 bill in my pocket (we're trying really hard not to use our debit cards anymore - for impulse purchases such as this) or I would have gone absolutely nuts and bought a pair in every single color...and probably a few pairs for friends too! But I didn't. I just walked up to that register all cool and collected -with one of my three year olds pulling toys off shelves and a baby trying to nurse through my shirt- and I bought my one pair of Brown Tweed Bahama Bays for exactly $3.74. 

Okay, so they aren't Toms, and unfortunately a child won't get a free pair of shoes from my purchase but it seemed like a really great -and cheap!- way to get one more stylish pair of super cute and comfy shoes into my line-up and something that actually fit into our new cash-based budget that felt like a totally luxurious splurge for just a fraction of the cost! And honestly, a big part of why we've restricted our budget so much is so we can start giving a much bigger portion of our money back to God through things like our church, Compassion International, and by supporting some dear friends of ours doing long-term missionary work through New Tribes Mission, (we were super convicted and motivated by Randy Alcorn's book The Treasure Principle  - a great, quick read) so I'm hopeful that the $50.26 I saved by not buying real Toms will actually go further than an extra pair of shoes and touch not only feet, but tummies, minds, and hearts as well! Did you know that just $38 provides a child with food, water, medical assistance, educational resources, and exposure to the truth and love of Jesus Christ for an entire MONTH through Compassion International-? 

And seriously, don't my $3 Rite Aid shoes look good?! They're über comfy, too! Not sure how long the sale lasts, so get over to that hip (replacement) store known as Rite Aid and get your very own knockoffs today! 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Breastfeeding Diaries

Good morning! Today I'm guest blogging over at my adorable friend Julie's blog The Girl In The Red Shoes and writing about my experience with pumping and breastfeeding my four wee ones for her super entertaining and insightful series: The Breastfeeding Diaries.  Grab your coffee and milk (careful which milk you grab out of the fridge for that - wink wink!), click on the photo below, and come on over to read my post! Probably more than you ever wanted to know about pumps and boobs...but it'll be fun:)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Because It Don't Get Much Crunchier Than Soap Nuts!

(I do hope you read the above grammatically incorrect title aloud with your best mountain woman twang...)

Have you heard of Soap Nuts?!

I'd heard the term before, but I guess I was just never quite curious enough to see what all the fuss was about. In fact, I didn't even really know what "soap nuts" was referring to. A cute, eco-friendly detergent name, maybe? Soap scraps used to make your own homemade detergent? I don't know! Or that is, I didn't know until I stumbled across this lovely post over at Stacy Makes Cents.  Soap Nuts are actually nuts - well, more like dried berry shells - that release saponin in hot water which suds up to clean your clothes...completely naturally! And you can reuse them! And they're super cheap! And you just toss them in your (warm or hot water) wash in a little muslin bag! And as if making your own laundry detergent wasn't easy enough (and some of you may still find that to be the more preferred "happy medium" between traditional detergent and oh, let's say, washing your clothes with berry sap), it takes away that one extra little chore of grating a bar of soap into your homemade detergent...and you can order them online! I'm seriously so excited to try these - right after I get through my huge batch of homemade detergent I made last weekend. But don't worry, I have four small children, a husband, and a mountain of cloth diapers to help me out with that. So head right on over to Stacy Makes Cents and read all about Soap Nuts - where to get 'em, and how to use 'em - today!

And suddenly I feel like climbing a tree and pecking at a bird feeder...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sunshine and Strawberries

You know when you get in your car after it has been sitting in the sun and it's about 20 degrees warmer inside than outside? And it feels soooo good? Well, that's what Bend has felt like this past week. Warm and gooood. I know it's February, and winter, and that these warm, sunny days will mean nothing short of snow on the 4th of July, but for right now, man it feels good. We've been trying to sit outside at least an hour or so each day. The kids riding their tricycles up and down the sidewalk. Baby exploring the still brown and half-dead grass (it's okay, she's not disappointed - she doesn't even know green grass exists yet:)).  Mama soaking up the warmth, iphone out, ready to capture all the memories. 

We went to Costco and bought strawberries on Friday. Two big boxes of sweet, red strawberries. Our kids eat a LOT of fruit. I have to set limits or they'd eat berries until they burst. And tonight I wanted to transform those ruby beauties into something even better than fruit...fruit drowned in smooth, creamy chocolate (can't you just hear the low, slow voice from the 80's Twix commercial in your head: "Oh yeah...OH YEAH"?!) I didn't have any dipping chocolate, and I sure wasn't going to take four kids to the store for just that (See  this post) so I did what all good lazy frugal mamas do...I decided to Google it, look at a few recipes, and make my own. A few chocolate chips, some Crisco I found in the (way way) back of my cupboard from about 5 years ago (it's okay, you know a can of that stuff will outlast us all), a little hot water and BAM! 20 minutes later we've got chocolate dipped strawberries and three chocolate dipped kids. Super easy to make. Totally decadent. (...trust me. I've been "testing" them out all night.)

DIY Chocolate Dipping Sauce 
1.5 cups chocolate chips
2 tablespoons Crisco

Find two medium sized bowls (one slightly smaller than the other). Rinse strawberries and pat dry with paper towel. Put your chocolate chips and Crisco in the smaller bowl. Fill the slightly larger bowl about halfway with the hottest water you can get from your sink. Carefully set the smaller bowl inside the bowl filled with hot water (don't let it tip! You don't want any water getting inside your chocolate sauce!) Let small bowl of chocolate "float" for about a minute in hot water bath. Remove small bowl and start to mix the chocolate chips and Crisco (I tried "mixing" with my small bowl still in the water bowl and accidentally got water in it. Just take the bowl out to mix). Put bowl back into hot water bowl, let sit another minute, take out, mix chocolate again. Dump hot water out and fill with fresh hot water. Continue to do this until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. It can take about 10-15 minutes. Once smooth and melted, grab your strawberry, pull all the greenery away from the berry, hold the greenery like a handle and dip! Set on baking sheet lined with wax paper and repeat. This batch of chocolate will dip about 20 strawberries. If your chocolate starts to harden, just set in hot water bowl again for another minute and re-stir. Let dipped strawberries cool and store in air-tight container (do not refrigerate). 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

This Weekend's Homesteading Projects and Why I'll Never Run Three Errands with Four Small Children in One Afternoon Again

Two things I've been wanting to make myself, but just haven't had the supplies (or courage) for, are homemade laundry detergent and yogurt. I've seen post after post about how to make your own laundry detergent on Pinterest, and last year a dear friend of mine even gave me some in a cute little jar with a scoop attached for Christmas (such a great and practical gift!) but whenever the excitement to make my own struck, I always seemed to already have a full bottle of store-bought detergent on hand...so I never got around to it. About a week or so ago, my mom, who works at Ace Hardware down in Orange County, sent me a "recipe" for homemade laundry detergent from her store and it rekindled the unfurling DIYer inside of me. Then, after yesterday's post on How To Cut Your Food Budget In Half many of my Facebook friends gave me even more great ideas on ways to save money and other practical things to make at home for way less than store-bought! One of these great suggestions was homemade yogurt. I knew my good buddy (and beer-making, cheese-making, Kombucha-making friend) Mary made her own yogurt, but the idea of it seemed a little complicated and scary (I know nothing about canning or preserving and find myself flooded with fears that I'll instead make something poisonous and give my children botulism or something). But Mary posted these Instructions for Making Yogurt at home and after reading through them a few times...it actually looks quite simple! And I don't think there's much chance of me accidentally killing my children...yay! She also passed along this recipe for a delicious Overnight, No-Cook Refrigerator Oatmeal as one way to make a quick, yummy breakfast...with the homemade yogurt! So, all of that got me really excited and this morning I made the decision: I'm going to do it. I'm going to go right now to find all the supplies. The one little hang-up? That meant dressing, shoeing, feeding, corralling, and loading four tiny children into the van before we could head out on our - er, my - mission. And let me tell you, I was nearly defeated. Just between the laundry room and garage (said rooms being attached) we had meltdowns, a near potty accident, a crying hungry baby who refused to go in her carseat, and a kid get tangled up IN the straps of her carseat. It was so incredibly stressful I actually made everyone go back in the house for lunch, a debriefing, and a do-over. One fed baby and nearly an hour later, we tried again. First stop, Ace Hardware. There we found 2 out of 3 of our laundry detergent ingredients and some free root beer in the back for the kids (why I thought letting them have that was a good idea, I'll never know). Grace also managed to find the paint-mixing machine the employees use and started pushing buttons before I could get to her. Anyone need a quart of eggshell "green meadows"? We left there and headed to the thrift store hoping to find some cheap mason jars. Success! I found a whole slew of them in both quart and 8oz sizes! And the guy who worked there was so kind (it couldn't have been he just wanted to get my small herd of children out of his store as quickly as possible) that he sold them all to me for half-price! 50 cents each! So back in the car we all went to head across town to the other Ace Hardware to find the third item on our detergent list and some new lids for our mason jars. All said and done, I spent about $8 on 8 yogurt jars and new lids and $13 on detergent supplies - but it looks like I'll be able to make about twice as much detergent as I normally get for that price! And Mary said that once you buy the supplies, the yogurt comes out to be around $1 a QUART (really just the cost of the milk used to make it) which is going to save us a lot of money because we go through at least two quarts a week at our house - and we buy those for $3-$4 dollars each! So. It looks like me, my apron, and my live active cultures will be getting to know each other quite well this weekend. I also learned that taking four children on three errands equates to bucking a child in and out of a carseat 32 times and about a half-dozen temper tantrums. No thank you. Next time the outing limit is either two stops...or two kids :)

Homemade Powdered Laundry Detergent (adapted from AceHardware)
1 bar of soap 
(I'm using Fels Naptha, but you could also use Dr. Bonner's, Zote, Kirk's Castile, etc.)
1 cup borax
1 cup washing soda
A few drops of essential oils

Use a grater to shave the bar of soap into small flakes. Mix well with borax and washing soda until you achieve an even, fine mixture. Add your essential oils and mix well to break up clumps*. Store in labeled, air-tight container. Makes approximately 32oz of detergent. Use 1-2 T per load (depending on load size).

*Here are a few ideas of various oil combinations to make your new laundry detergent smell wonderful! Using Essential Oils in Your Detergent

I'll let you know how it all turns out! What are YOU making/growing/building this weekend?!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How to Cut Your Food Budget in Half...Or More!!!

As a very busy mama, I had developed some bad habits when it came to meal planning and grocery shopping. I guess what I really mean is I had practically stopped meal planning and was spending way too much at the grocery store (I won't even give you a figure...it's way too embarrassing).  Robert and I both grew up as only children who ate out...a LOT, so even though we have four little kids, eating out - and often - still felt really right (and good) to us. But you know what didn't feel good? Sitting down and looking at our spending each month and seeing that we were spending more money on food than on our mortgage! About 3 months ago we decided to make some BIG changes and by doing so, we've reduced our monthly spending on food by about 60%. I'm not saying it's been FUN, but it really hasn't been too difficult. Here are the basic things we've changed...maybe just by incorporating one or two of these principles you could save some big bucks too!

1. Eat at Home.
We used to eat out a lot. No plan for dinner? Let's go out! Bored on Saturday morning? Let's go out! All we have in the cupboard is a can of tuna...and oops, no bread? Let's go out! We were going out to eat way. too. much. Yes, it was fun and the kids loved it just as much as we did. But it was a money waster and had to stop. We've started eating every meal at home (meals out are now a treat rather than the norm) and you know what? We've actually been having a lot of fun and the ritual of gathering around our dinner table together each night at home has become really comforting and something we all look forward to each night! Robert takes some of the leftovers to work for lunch the next day and the kids and I eat the rest of the leftovers or something else simple at home.

2. Take Cash Out.
We ran in to huge problems using our debit cards. Each month we were shocked to see just how many extra purchases we'd made. "What?! We really stopped at Starbucks TWENTY times?" "When did you go to Baskin Robbins?" etc. Not to mention how much we'd spend at the grocery stores because we weren't keeping track, we'd just "use the card". Now, before we do our weekly shopping, we physically stop at the bank, take out the allotted weekly amount and use that. If we get to the checkstand and don't have enough cash...we put something back. It ain't rocket science!

3. Grocery Shop Once a Week.
We used to go to the store way too often. Like 3-4 times a week at least. I'd end up trolling the cupboards and realize I didn't have this or that to pull a meal together so I'd call Robert and ask him to pick up a few things on his way home...and $30 later he'd come home with my two items and some ice cream... Now, we do a family shopping trip ONCE a week. Usually Friday nights or Saturday mornings. We make it a really fun time. First we go to Costco to buy the staples (our meats, milk, eggs, fruit, etc.) and then we finish up at Trader Joe's where we buy all the "smaller" items. The kids absolutely LOVE going to both places; we treat them to a Polish sausage to share at Costco (a whopping $1.50 out of our food money for the week) and then they get to race around like crazy people with their own little shopping carts at Trader Joe's! Remember: Don't buy anything if it isn't on your list for meals, and don't spend more than the cash you've brought with you! The biggest thing that has made shopping once a week actually work: planning simple meals.

4. Plan 7 Simple Meals.
Okay, for me this has truly been the most difficult part of the whole experience. Our drastically reduced food spending hinges on whether or not I can successfully plan out 7 inexpensive dinner meals before we go shopping for the week - with a goal of still keeping them healthy and GOOD. So, the way I come up with 7 each week is I draw from various sources. I've got a recipe box with a few "favorites" that I repeat often, I've asked friends of mine to share their recipes with me when they come across something special, and I spend a little time on Pinterest each week trying to find one or two fun new things to try (and trust me, the options are endless on there!) Between these three sources, coming up with 7 is usually a piece of cake. And sometimes we don't use all 7 from the week before (leftovers one night, dinner over at the parents, etc.) so I have one or two to "rollover" to the next week. The other thing I try to do is "combine". For example, I'll buy a roasted chicken from Costco for $5 and try to use the meat in at least two or three recipes (plus I use the carcass to make my own chicken stock!) and I never buy more than two types of meat for the week. Good meat costs a lot of money so we try to limit it to just chicken and hamburger - we buy the big bag of frozen chicken breasts at Costco and thaw about 4-6 at a time in the fridge and we use less hamburger in each meal to make it go further. I've found that soups and chilis with a side of rice make inexpensive, easy meals, and that it's really okay to have just BBQ chicken, rice, and a vegetable or hamburger patties in teriyaki sauce and Crash Hot Potatoes one night. Simple can be delicious. Leftovers for lunch, fruit and yogurt for snacks, and simple breakfasts like toast and Adele's Chicken Apple Sausage.

5. If You Can Make It, Don't Buy It.
This one has kind of just been evolving as we go. Now that I'm really paying attention and counting pennies when we do our weekly shopping, not only do I try to buy cheaply (I love that everything at Trader Joe's is their own brand = less options and cheaper than "name brand". Buy their wine for $2.49 instead of a bottle for $9.99 and voila, you've already saved $7.50!), but I try to use what I have even if it's not exact. Like if a recipe calls for a green bell pepper but I'm already buying a red one for another recipe, Ill skip the green one and use half the red one in each. Or if a recipe calls for shredded mozzarella and I'm already buying a bag of shredded cheddar or Mexican blend, I'll just use that. Usually it doesn't change the taste too much (cheese is just GOOD) and why spend $5 on another bag of cheese that is only going in one recipe-? Like is said in #4, I also try to make my own stuff when I can. I don't want to waste $7 on chicken broth for the week when I can make my own for free! I use this easy method here with the leftover chicken carcass from Costco, freeze in several containers and then try to have one ready (thawed out) in the fridge at all times. I've also started saving a few dollars here and there by making my own delicious organic yogurt (which is way easier than you think!) and my own cream of chicken soup to use in recipes. Not to mention the added benefit of consuming less canned food (and toxins such as BPA). If I'm feeling super ambitious and the kids are cooperating I'll make homemade bread to go with our soups and to use for breakfast toast. And instead of buying expensive ice cream / snacks, I'll make these easy granola bars or a simple batch of chocolate chip cookies. Keep a lot of baking supplies on hand - they're pretty cheap and go a long ways!

So, that's pretty much it. And without embarrassing myself too much and letting you know just how excessive our spending was before, let me suffice it to say that we are saving over $700 a month by shopping and eating this way. Yes, SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS A MONTH, SAVED.
A lot of that honestly comes from simply not eating out and ceasing to use our debit cards on impulse purchases, the rest is saved by eating simpler and making a few things myself. Just think of what you could do with all that extra money! Like feed a hungry child for just $38 a month and still have $662 EXTRA. We sponsor a beautiful little girl from Ghana, Africa, and praying over her photo at the dinner table each night has become a special part of our mealtime. The kids think she's their sister...and I guess really, she kind of is.

Here are a few of the "favorites" I've been making lately to get you started. Don't feel like you have to do everything I've said or dramatically change the way you shop and eat all at once. Start with one or two changes and save a little. Next week, or month, save a little more. It can actually become kind of addicting to challenge yourself and see just how far you can make things stretch. Like your very own personal shopping game:)

White Chicken Chili - I leave out the jalapeño and cayenne to make it kid-friendly

Crock Pot Lemon Pepper Chicken

Southwestern Black Bean Casserole

Chicken Stew with Butternut Squash

Lasagna Soup - instead of buying Ricotta cheese - I just use cottage cheese - totally works!

Broccoli Cheese Soup

Oh, and one more "tip". You know those 20 trips to Starbucks I was making each month (at about $5 a visit or $100/month)? I now buy 1/2 lb of freshly ground coffee from Starbucks each week (about $6) and a bottle of vanilla creamer from Trader Joe's (about $3 and it lasts at least two weeks!) and am saving about $70 a month just by doing that! And I still get Starbucks coffee - yeehaw!

New Name, New Game

Hi y'all. It's late. I should be sleeping and gearing up for another crazy day of mamahood with four littles under four, instead I'm burning the midnight oil and updating my blog. Literally, in the dark with one candle burning...so baby can sleep, of course.

For matters of privacy, I've decided to give my blog a "new name, new game". When we began our blog several years ago - and pre-Facebook -  it was a good, central, place to share photos and updates with our friends and family. But now that I do that (about a jazillion times each day) on Facebook, I think my blog is going to take a different route; and hopefully a more public one (hence the reason I've ditched including our last name and city in the title!) Rather than simply being a place to re-post Facebook stuff for non-Facebookers, I hope this blog can be a simple, friendly place where I can write and expand on my Mamahood: What I'm doing as a mama, what I'm learning as a mama, what I believe in as a mama, and most importantly, about the sweet little ones who call me "Mama". I hope to do this with as much grace, honesty, and humor as possible.  

Please note (and share!) my new blog address: