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  • Happy 4th of July!

    One of our favorite books to read with Alex is the one pictured here: Lane Smith’s award-winner, John, Paul, George & Ben.The art is great, the story is great, and it’s somewhat educational. There is a short and irreverent vignette about each Founding Father – John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. John Hancock, for example, is shown writing his name in huge letters on a chalkboard in elementary school.

    So yesterday, Marc was explaining the significance of July 4th to Alex. He gave a rough description of King George and taxes, and explained how Jefferson (“Independent Tom”) wrote the Declaration of Independence. And then, as Marc explained that John was the first of many leading colonists to sign the Declaration, the courage of these men really struck me.

    I probably haven’t reflected on American history much since my U.S. History class in college. But it was truly remarkable what these men did, putting pen quills to paper and just daring the English to kill them and quash their independence. And after they won the revolution, they didn’t stop. They went on to craft the Constitution and our system of government, which, while not perfect, is better than any other system out there. I’m so proud and grateful to be an American.

    God bless America.

    P.S. My sentimentality might be attributed to the novel I’m currently reading for my book club, Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club.It’s a murder mystery set in the late 1800’s, with famous poets as the main characters and Dante’s Divine Comedy as a primary plot point. I’m about halfway through – the first 100 pages or so were exceedingly slow, but the last 100+ pages have gone quickly and I’m quite curious to find out what happens next.

    Image credit: – John, Paul, George & Ben(affiliate link).

    Start your holiday shopping now

    Frugal Dad cracked me up with his post yesterday noting that there are only 185 days until Christmas. It seems kind of silly to be thinking of Christmas (or Hanukkah) in June. But it’s an excellent idea.

    My favorite holiday shopping strategy is to shop year round, starting with the after-Christmas sales in January. I always pick up cards, wrapping paper, ribbons, and other things that I wanted but balked at paying full price for.

    I wish I could buy presents year round but we generally only exchange gifts with our immediate families and the tradition has generally been to buy what’s asked for. And our relatives would not be receptive to me saying in January, “What do you think you’ll want next holiday season, so that I can keep an eye out for stellar deals during the next twelve months?”

    I do buy toys and books throughout the year, keeping my gift box stocked for birthdays (it seems like we’re going to three or four birthday parties each month now). As I mentioned on Monday, there are some great deals on books in the Scholastic flyers that are sent home from school, so if your child’s school participates, pick up some of those inexpensive books and stash them away for gift giving. (Update: Gina has a couple of ideas for getting the Scholastic deals if you don’t have access to the flyers.)

    I like Frugal Dad’s idea of saving now (or throughout the year) in a “Christmas fund” so that you aren’t scrambling to find money to buy gifts in December. If you have a big family and lots of presents to buy, you may want to propose that everybody cut back on the gift giving. There are lots of variations on this idea: only the kids get gifts; or kids get gifts from everyone, but the adults (or couples) draw hats and give and get only one gift a piece; or each family (not family member) gets one gift; Grandma and Grandpa give gifts to everyone, but everyone else’s gift giving is cut back in some way. And so on and so forth. If you make the proposal now, well before the holiday season, everyone will have a chance to think about and get used to the new tradition.

    What are your best holiday savings ideas?

    Image credit: – Holiday Two-Stack by Elegant Cheese Cakes(affiliate link). It’s $350 with shipping, so I don’t recommend buying it, but isn’t it gorgeous?

    PSA: Recycle Your Christmas Tree

    This post is dedicated to a specific set of neighbors.

    I interrupt my mini-blogging vacation to bring you this special announcement.

    I hate seeing Christmas trees left out at the curb (it’s illegal here, too). And there’s absolutely no excuse for it when Los Angeles County makes it really easy to recycle your tree. To find a location, click here or call 1(888)CLEAN LA.

    Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

    How I will do my holiday shopping next year

    Christmas is tomorrow, and I’m pretty much done with all of the shopping. And Hanukkah was so early this year that it’s already a distant memory. So it’s really no surprise that I’ve turned my thoughts to December 2008, and how I will save even more money.

    My primary strategy remains the same: buy bargains throughout the year. But this strategy really works best for kids’ birthday gifts and for non-immediate family members (they give us a list each year, so I can’t really buy months in advance). I’ll use the following strategies year-round, refining my technique as I go, and no doubt by next November, I’ll be saving hundreds, if not thousands:

    1. Find lots of deals. Admittedly, this takes time. I subscribe to several boards at SlickDeals. The Bargainist posts about sales at many online stores. And sites like Baby Cheapskate and Bargain Hunting Moms post great deals on baby and child-related products. Subscribing to all of these sites results in several hundred posts a day in my Google Reader – but, using the “j” key, I can scroll through them in less than five minutes, pausing only when a deal catches my eye.

    2. Shop through portals. After years of hearing about them, I finally signed up for Ebates, a site that gives you cash back when you shop at a number of stores through their portal. I also joined, after reading about it on The Frugal Duchess and Mighty Bargain Hunter. With MyPoints, you earn (of course) points, either by making purchases or clicking through links in emails (I highly recommend MBH’s post for details). I’ve been a member for about four months now and have enough points to redeem for a gift card, all without making a single purchase. Additionally, AAA and my frequent flyer miles program have their own shopping portals. The difficult thing about portals is remembering to use them! I’m getting in the habit, though, and I’m sure it’ll come naturally by this time next year.

    3. Use PriceProtectr and PriceDrop to let me know when I can get some money back via a price adjustment. With PriceProtectr, you simply enter the url of the item you purchased. With PriceDrop, you’ll have the option of tracking the price of an item on Amazon (if it’s sold directly by Amazon). I’ve already mentioned how PriceDrop saved me $2.49 earlier this month. I’m now making it a habit to track everything I buy online.

    Happy Hanukkah!

    Last week, we discovered the best Hanukkah book ever: The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Storyby Lemony Snicket (author of the A Series of Unfortunate Eventsbooks). The illustrations are adorable and the story is hysterical.

    Unfortunately, Alex doesn’t seem to be ready for the book just yet. Instead, he prefers the board book we got a couple of years ago at my friend Jessica’s recommendation: The Story of Chanukahby Francis Barry Silberg and Pamela R. Levy. As Marc reminds me every year, Hanukkah would be a very popular holiday – especially with boys – if the Jews winning the war aspect were emphasized instead of the kad shemen (the one-day’s supply of oil that miraculously lasted for eight). This board book does a good job summarizing the war and explaining how it’s connected to the lighting of the menorah.

    Each year, I make these Sweet Potato Latkes (leaving out the scallions, since neither of us cares for them). When time is an issue, I grate the sweet potatoes ahead of time and store them in a covered colander set in a bowl. This has the added advantage of eliminating excess moisture. I highly recommend these, particularly if, like us, you’re not especially fond of regular latkes.