Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review and Giveaway Info: The Heiress

About the book
They can buy anything they want—fame, power, beauty, even loyalty.

But they can’t buy love.

The beautiful and wealthy heiress daughters of August Price can buy everything their hearts desire. But what if their desire is to be loved, without an enormous price tag attached? When one sister betrays another for the sake of love, will she find happiness? And what happens when the other sets out across the still untamed frontier to find it—will she discover she’s left it behind in the glamorous world of the New York gilded society? What price will each woman pay for being an heiress?

Set in the opulent world of the Gilded Age, two women discover that being an heiress just might cost them everything they love.

My thoughts
I really enjoyed this book.  The reader starts by being immersed in the glitz and glamor of high society New York City in the early 1900's, though you also get a hint at some of the ugliness as well.  You are then transported to the frontier as a former high society "princess" builds a life in a man's world.  By the end of the book, the reader is again transported back to high society New York City, but this time you are immersed fully in the ugly underside of being controlled by wealth.  I enjoyed watching as each character grew, both as people and on the path to discover what is, and is not, a blessing from God.  I recommend this book to any one who enjoys stories that showcase strong women, stories set in the early 1900's, or romance stories.

About the author
Susan May Warren is an award-winning, best-selling author of over twenty-five novels, many of which have won the Inspirational Readers Choice Award, the ACFW Book of the Year award, the Rita Award, and have been Christy finalists. After serving as a missionary for eight years in Russia , Susan returned home to a small town on Minnesota ’s beautiful Lake Superior shore where she, her four children, and her husband are active in their local church.
Susan's larger than life characters and layered plots have won her acclaim with readers and reviewers alike. A seasoned women’s events and retreats speaker, she’s a popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation and the author of the beginning writer’s workbook: From the Inside-Out: discover, create and publish the novel in you!. She is also the founder, a story-crafting service that helps authors discover their voice.
Susan makes her home in northern Minnesota , where she is busy cheering on her two sons in football, and her daughter in local theater productions (and desperately missing her college-age son!)
A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found

About the giveaway
Win an opulent Gilded Age Prize Pack fit for an Heiress from Susan May Warren!
Susan May Warren is thrilled to announce the release of her latest historical book, Heiress!

Find out what the reviewers are saying here!

Heiress, a richly complex historical romance, is the first in Susan's three book Daughters of Fortune series. In honor of Heiress’ debut, Susan is hosting a FABULOUS Gilded Age Giveaway and giving away an opulent prize pack fit for an heiress!

One grand prize winner will receive:

  • A $100 gift certificate to
  • A sleek silver iPod™ Shuffle
  • A beautiful strand of Pearls
  • Titanic DVD
  • Speakeasy Compilation Music CD from Starbucks™
  • Heiress by Susan May Warren

Click one of the icons below to enter. But do so soon - this giveaway ends 10/5/11. The winner will be announced Thursday, October 6 on Susan’s blog.

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Thank you to Litfuse Publicity Group and the author for providing me with a copy of this book for review purposes.  My opinion is my own and was not influenced by anyone else.

10 tips for de-cluttering and organizing the playroom

With 4 kids, toys have become a way of life at our house.  Early on, it quickly became evident that we needed to come up with a way to keep those toys organized or else we would never have a clean house and the toys that had multiple parts would never have all their pieces. Here are some of the things I have learned over the past 10 years to keep the playroom clean(er) and more organized.

1) Limit the number of toys that come in- With my oldest kids, we bought them toys for every birthday and holiday.  They also received toys from their grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, and whoever else attended the parties.  We quickly realized that they had way more toys than they could ever play with.  We decided that we would no longer buy them toys, or at the very least, severely limit the number of toys we bought.  Instead, we sought out other gifts that they would greatly enjoy, such as personalized jewelry or wall decor, clothes, handmade blankets, a book they had been wanting, etc.  We also encouraged them to think beyond toys when they created wish lists.

2) Only keep the most enjoyable toys- We then decided to sort through the toys they already had and to donate the ones that they played with the least and throw away anything that was broken.  Honestly, how many of us have a Barbie with her head squashed back on so she looks like she has no neck or one who has hair that has been chopped off in such a way that it looks ridiculous?  Those were the first to go when we cleaned out.  I know of some parents who rotate toys in order to limit the number of toys their kids can play with at any one time.  This may work for some, but we are limited on space so this was not/is not an option for us.  Also, as new toys come in, old toys go out.  This keeps the number under control.

3) Everything has a home- The next step is to make sure everything has a home.  Group like items together, such as stuffed animals, trains, building blocks, dolls, etc.  Once each item has a home, label it in a way that your child can identify what goes where.  This can be done with simple word labels for kids that can read, but for younger kids, try using pictures, either drawings or generic pictures of the type of toys or take an actual picture of the toys when they are all put away and post them for the child to then match up what goes where.

4) Be creative when finding homes- Just about everything can be a home for toys, such as old wipe containers are great for storing extra Barbie clothes or shoes, a clothes hamper can hold stuffed animals, baskets and buckets can hold cars, blocks or other medium-sized toys.

5) Keep pieces together- I am not a fan of resealable plastic bags, usually, but they are invaluable when it comes to keeping little pieces together, especially with board games.  I use all sizes of the bags, depending on what is being held in it.  I use a separate bag for each type of item in a game as well, so money is in one bag, playing pieces and dice in another, etc.  Then I store all the smaller bags in a bigger bag and tuck it into the game box.  This has proven invaluable when a child tries to pull a game out of the stack of games and the boxes above it tumble to the floor.  The bags may spill out, but their contents do not.

6) Label the parts- In addition to storing the game pieces in bags, I use a permanent marker to label each bag with what should be in there, even if all the pieces are not in there at the time.  I also keep a running list of missing game/toy pieces so that if we find one laying around somewhere in the house, we know exactly what it belongs to and can put it away.

7) Involve the children- Many parents involve the children in picking up their toys, but not as many involve them in the organization process.  Let them help decide which toys to get rid of, where to put things and how to organize.  They enjoy it and it helps them to better understand why it is being done.

8) Keep it kid friendly- Going along with encouraging the kids to help, make sure that they CAN help when it comes to clean up.  When putting things up on shelves, limit the items on the high shelves to those things that you do not want the kids to get into, but do not put anything up there that they may be tempted to climb up to get.  Use bright colored containers and make sure they are either easy to replace or fairly indestructible, as often they will become toys themselves.

9) Remember that play time is important, but other things matter to- I know many of my readers understand this, but it needs to be said.  A playroom should not be an all-day babysitter.  Individual play time is important for growing, but kids should also be reading, playing outside, playing with you, helping with family chores, and doing other kid activities. Just spending less time in the playroom, will help keep it organized and clean.  Just make sure they do get to spend some time there on a daily basis :)

10) Encourage passions- When a child develops a great desire to build with blocks, encourage that.  When they are asking for gifts, they can then ask for more blocks or accessories that go with the ones they have.  These can all be stored together and keeps your child from running after every new toy that comes along, therefore decreasing the number of types of toys you need to organize.

What tips do you have for organizing and de-cluttering toys at your house?  I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions.


I wrote this blog post while participating in the SocialMoms and Hot Wheels® blogging program, for a gift card worth $40. For more information on how you can participate, click here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review, Giveaway, and Giveaway Info: Gabby, God's Little Angel

About the book:
This first book in a delightful new series offers a comforting message for young readers-God loves you very much and is always watching over you!
What little girl wouldn't love her very own guardian angel? Parents and children alike will be won over by this humorous tale of Gabby, a guardian angel in training who has much to learn about taking care of God's little ones. Her new assignment is to protect a young girl named Sophie, but Gabby soon realizes that watching after Sophie is a bigger challenge than she had expected! After a close call while riding her pony, Sophie learns what the Bible says about guardian angels: "He will put his angels in charge of you. They will watch over you wherever you go" (Psalm 91:11 ICB).

My thoughts: 

This is a sweet, short story for a young child.  Being that the angel and the child she watches over are both female, I think little girls will especially enjoy it.  I especially like how well matched Gabby is with Sophie.  They both seem to be risk takers that are learning how to handle their little bodies, resulting in a bit of clumsiness for each of them.  The theology is light, yet powerful for a child.  The scriptures are only quoted once in the book, and it is taken from the The International Children's Bible.  While this is not the version we personally use, it is worded in a way that children will understand it.  The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and full of color.  I recommend this for any Christian child, particularly girls, aged 4-9 years old.

About the author:
Sheila Walsh is the creator of the award-winningGabby, God's Little Angel

Author of the best-selling memoir Honestly and the Gold Medallion nominee for The Heartache No One Sees, Sheila's most recent release The Shelter of God's Promises has also been turned into a DVD curriculum and in-depth Bible study. Sheila's first series for girls, The Gigi, God's Little Princess book and video series, won the National Retailer's Choice Award twice and is the most popular Christian brand for young girls in the United States .
Sheila co-hosted The 700 Club and her own show Heart to Heart with Sheila Walsh. She is currently completing her Master's in Theology.

My Giveaway:  

I have an additional copy of Gabby, God's Little Angel

Mandatory entry:  Tell me about a time when you felt Heavenly Father's love just for you (as opposed to His love for all of His children) and tell me what child you will bless with this book if you were to win.

Extra ways to enter (leave a comment for each one you do):
- subscribe to The Happy Wife
- follow The Happy Wife on Google Friend Connect
- share this giveaway via your blog or other social networking site.
- Follow me on Twitter
The giveaway will end on Wednesday, October 5th, sometime after 9PM.  You can enter until I choose the winner.  The winner will have 48 hours to get back to me or a new winner will be chosen.

In addition to my giveaway Susan Walsh is also hosting a giveaway. 

Giveaway Info:

Sheila Walsh is excited to announce her new series for little girls and she is celebrating Gabby’s arrival with a fun KINDLE Giveaway and an Angel FB party on October 4th!

Meet Gabby for yourself here. Help Sheila introduce Gabby - be sure to check out her video trailer promotion here!

In Gabby, God’s Little Angel, Gigi fans will fall in love with Gabby and learn about God’s love and provision and a little about His invisible creation, the angels.

Read what people are saying here.

Enter today - Sheila and her publisher, Thomas Nelson, have put together an “Angel” prize package worth over $150.00!

One lucky winner will receive:
  • A brand new KINDLE with Wi-Fi
  • Gabby, God’s Little Angel 

But wait! There’s more …

On October 4th join Sheila at her Author Page on FB for the Gabby, God’s Little Angel Party! She will announce the winner of the KINDLE, host a chat and give away a ton of fun products from the Gigi and Gabby line! RSVP today and then be sure to stop by on October 4th at 5:00 PM PST (6 PM MST, 7 PM CST, & 8 PM EST).

Enter via E-mail Enter via FacebookEnter via Twitter
I received 2 copies of this book, one to review and 1 to give away, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you to Litfuse Publicity and Sheila Walsh for these books.  As always, my opinion is my own.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fall theme lunch

 Last week I shared my Under the Sea themed lunch I served to the kids for lunch.  I have made it a goal to serve a fun-themed lunch every Monday, so this week, I chose a Fall theme.  I started with Ants on a Log for the tree trunk.  I had to slice a thin bit off the back side of the celery to make it lay flat on the plate.  Then I laid out 3 honey wheat pretzel sticks for the tree branches.  Regular pretzel sticks would also work.  Somewhere I own a small, leaf shaped cutter and I had envisioned using it to cut the leaves, but unfortunately, I could not locate it so I attempted to cut the deli meat and cheese free hand.  I had the deli cut me 1/2" slices of roast beef, turkey, and ham.  I would have had them cut the cheese the same way, but I already had some sliced cheese at home.  In the future, I would probably have the slices cut 1/4"  and just stack them together like I did the cheese.  I made four plates of these and still have well over 1/2 of each meat slice left.  For sun, I put a drop of ranch dressing on a slice of yellow squash and placed it on the plate.  You do not need the ranch, but it made for a nice surprise for the kids.  I then placed Clementine segments around it for the rays.  You could probably use mandarin oranges as well, but I prefer fresh fruit.  I then gave them a few jelly pumpkins for dessert.  I served apple cider for the beverage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book Review and Giveaway Info: A Lancaster County Christmas

Lancaster County Christmas, A

About the book:
Jaime and C. J. Fitzpatrick began their married life as most couples do--in love and looking forward to a bright future together. But four years later they've drifted apart and are almost ready to call it quits.

Mattie Riehl was hoping to give her husband Sol the Christmas gift they have both longed for--news that a baby was on the way. But as usual, she is disappointed. The holidays bring an acute awareness to Mattie that her dream of a big family isn't likely to become a reality.

Then a winter storm raging outside blows the Fitzpatricks into the Riehl home--and into a much slower pace of life. Can these two couples from different worlds help each other understand the true meaning of love this Christmas?

My thoughts:
I have been a reader for much of my life, but it has only been in the past few years that I began reading Amish novels.  I have discovered there are 2 types of Amish authors, ones who love the Amish and want to transport the reader to an Amish community and ones who feel the Amish are a religious cult, whose members need to be "saved".  I much prefer the first type of author and have discovered a favorite in Suzanne Woods Fisher.  (You can also read my review of another one of her novels, The Waiting and her collection of Amish Proverbs.)  In a Lancaster County Christmas, Suzanne does it again.  I was able to feel as though I was right in Mattie Riehl's kitchen standing alongside her and Jaime as they discovered just how alike their lives are, even though they live in very different worlds.  The book was a quick read and perfect to read during the often hectic Christmas season.  The story has several characters that are discovering both who they are and the depths of their most important relationships.  I enjoyed reading this book immensely and recommend it to all who enjoy a heartwarming story. 

About the author: 
Suzanne's interest in the Amish began with her grandfather, W.D. Benedict, who was raised Plain. She has many, many Plain relatives living in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and travels back to Pennsylvania , as well as to Ohio , a couple of times each year for research.

Suzanne has a great admiration for the Plain people and believes they provide wonderful examples to the world.  In both her fiction and non-fiction books, she has an underlying theme: You don't have to "go Amish" to incorporate many of their principles--simplicity, living with less, appreciating nature, forgiving others more readily-- into your life.

When Suzanne isn't writing or bragging to her friends about her first new grandbaby (!), she is raising puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind. To Suzanne's way of thinking, you just can't take life too seriously when a puppy is tearing through your house with someone's underwear in its mouth.
Suzanne can be found on-line at:

About the Giveaway:
It’s Christmas in September!

To celebrate the release of her first Christmas book, Suzanne Woods Fisher has teamed up with her publisher, Revell, to bring you the "Christmas in September" iPad Giveaway! The winner will be announced on 9/27 at the A Lancaster County Christmas Facebook Party! Details below. Tell your friends and join in the fun (9/7-9/27).

Oh and be sure to follow the blog tour here - many of the bloggers have copies of the book to giveaway! 

Suzanne and Revell will be presenting one merry winner with a Christmas Prize Pack (valued at over $600):

  • A Brand New iPad 2 with Wi-Fi
  • $25 gift certificate to iTunes
  • A copy of A Lancaster County Christmas

To enter, click one of the icons below. But, hurry the giveaway ends on 9/26.

But, wait! There's more! The winner will be announced at the A Lancaster County Christmas Facebook Party on 9/27 at Suzanne's author page. During the party she'll be revealing something *BIG* - you won't want to miss it. She'll also be hosting a book chat, trivia contest and giving away a few early Christmas presents! Hope to see you there.

Enter via E-mail Enter via FacebookEnter via Twitter

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Under the Sea Lunch

I have decided I want to be a more fun mom. One of the things I want to do is start having "themed" lunches once a week for the kids. On Saturday, we were fortunate to be able to attend a screening of "A Dolphin's Tale" (review to follow, but I will tell you now it is a MUST SEE). I had already decided that my first themed lunch was going to be Under the Sea, and when the kids asked to learn more about dolphins after seeing the movie, I knew it was the perfect week to start. So to go with our dolphin unit this week, I give you the Under the Sea lunch. It is not the healthiest lunch I have ever given the kids, but it was not the worst either.

The octopus hot dog and the pasta are ideas I have seen on other blogs numerous times (I apologize that I never bookmarked any of them, so I cannot give any one person credit). For the Octopus Hot Dog, I cut the bottom 2/3 of a hot dog in half lengthwise and then turned it a quarter turn and cut in half lengthwise again. Then I took my knife and cut each of the four "legs" in half lengthwise, giving me a total of 8 legs. I did mess up on one though and ended up with a 7-legged octopus and an extra tentacle floating around. Then my 3 year old son, saw the cut hot dogs on the cutting board when I left the kitchen for a moment and bit off about 3.5 tentacles. I still cooked it up and made it, but his octopus did not stand straight up on the plate. Anyway, I then placed the hot dogs into a pot of boiling water and cooked until heated. This causes the tentacles to curl out and look really cute. The octopus hot dogs I had seen online did not have faces, but I wanted one so I took 3 slices off a large black olive to make faces for 4 hot dogs. I cut 2 slices in half for the smiles and then cut the 3rd one into "eyes". I stuck the facial features on by gently dipping them in ketchup with a toothpick and sticking them to the hot dog.

I was not sure if I should add the dye for the pasta to the water or afterward, so I tried adding it to the water. This would likely work if the pasta were freshly made, but it does not work with dried pasta. My pasta came out looking slightly off in color, but no where near the shade I was hoping for. I added the food coloring with the butter and then stirred in the green peas and carrot stars. I had steamed the vegetables above the pasta as it boiled. I used frozen peas. The carrot stars were made by thinly slicing a peeled carrot and using a star fondant cutter to cut out the center (save the "scraps" for soup or some other use).

I also served cheddar cheese whale crackers and S'more flavored goldfish. The kids decided on water to drink and put "icebergs" in their cups.

Here are a few more pictures of the lunch. The blue plate shows how my son's looked laying on his plate and the pink plate is the front view of the octopus.

What ideas do you have for future theme lunches?  If I use them, I will credit you in the post.

Friday, September 9, 2011


Tonight for dinner, I made Ratatouille for the first time. I was excited to use my zucchini from my garden (it is the first thing I ever harvested that I grew completely from seed) and the eggplant, onions and tomatoes I had picked up at the farmer's market. I was inspired by a recipe I saw posted by Carly over at Createlive. I served it with plain brown rice that I cooked with butter and chicken broth.  The texture and consistency were great, but the flavor was rather bland. I had substituted red onions for the regular ones, and used fresh herbs instead of dry.  After tripling the fresh herbs to account for the loss of flavor concentration, I added a bit more, but felt it was still lacking in flavor.  In the future, we will double the amount of herbs, increase the garlic and add salt.  It is definitely edible, but no one was excited about it.  They ate what was in front of them , but asked me to figure out another way to serve the leftovers.  I strained the leftover veggies and will add them to sauce to serve over pasta on Sunday.  This was definitely not a bad recipe, but it is one that I will need to tinker with to get it to my family's liking.  If any of you have a tried and true ratatouille recipe, I would love to see it.  I will post the recipe I come up with, but it may not be until next summer when my zucchini start growing again.

Mystery Shopping 101: How to find shops and tools of the trade

Last week, I posted about how to get started as a mystery shopper.  This week, I will share some of the ways you will go about getting shops assigned to you and some of the tools of the trade.

How to get shops
Once you have signed up with a several companies, chances are at least one of them has work available in your area.  If there are not any available at the time you sign up, check again in about a week.  Every company is different, but often, shops become available (or are "released") at the beginning and the middle of the month, but sometimes they are released at the end of the month for the following month.  The end of the month is also a great time to look for shops with bonuses attached to them, as many companies are trying to get the last few shops done for that month.  As you continue to work with a company, you will learn how they do their schedules and when you should check for jobs.

So now you know when shops are available, but how do you get them?  Most companies have something called a Job Board on their website.  You can usually search the job board by mileage from a zip code or by state.  When you see a job you are interested in, you can click on the button that allows you to request the shop, or a few will let you self assign the shop automatically.  If you have to request the shop, DO NOT PERFORM the shop until you get a confirmation that it has been assigned to you.  You will not always be assigned the jobs you apply for.  Do not take it personal if you are not assigned it.  Often, companies will assign shoppers based on rotation (how recently you shopped for that client or location); sometimes it is first-come, first-served, and sometimes it is based on your past performance.  I work with several companies that required me to apply for every shop in the beginning, but as I turned in quality work, they eventually allowed to me self-assign shops that I wanted. 

Another way you may get shops is from the schedulers for the company calling you.  This is typically done when there are not a lot of shoppers in your area for that company or if they are trying to get a shop filled last minute (usually near the end of the month).  The last minute shops can be a bit difficult to squeeze into your schedule, but often have large bonuses attached and schedulers remember who helps them out.  This can be helpful when you apply for shops with the same scheduler in the future.

Networking can also help you find available jobs.  There are forums, like those on Volition, where schedulers will post jobs.  Incidentally, these forums can also help you learn from other shoppers companies to avoid, or which companies work with certain clients.  Some companies also have facebook and/or Twitter accounts where they also post available jobs.  Other companies use job clearinghouses, such as Jobslinger, to get their jobs filled.  In all honesty, I have not found jobs using any of these methods, but if the time came that I really needed to look for work, I would probably utilize all of them.

If you are going to be traveling, you can often use the above methods to find work along your route if you choose.  If you cannot search for jobs outside of your area on a company's website, you can try to e-mail a scheduler that you may have worked with or the company in general to let them know you are traveling and to see if there is any work available.

Tools of the Trade

Generally, mystery shopping does not have specialized tools and most of what you will need, you likely already have, but I will give you a heads up of what to expect.  

Each job you take will have different guidelines for you to follow.  It is absolutely ESSENTIAL that you read the guidelines the company gives you before EVERY shop, even if you have shopped the same client several times for them in the past.  The guidelines change all the time and what you needed to do one month, may be totally different the following month.  So this tool of the trade is given to you by the company assigning you the shop.  Be sure to ask any questions you may have about the shop ahead of time.  Typically, you will ask the scheduler, but always check the assignment and the FAQs on the company's site to see who you should contact with any questions. 

Aside from a computer and internet access, you will also want a scanner or a digital camera so that you can upload your receipts, paperwork, business cards, or whatever might be required for the shop.  Some companies will allow you to use snail mail to mail them in and some still accept them as faxes, but most only accept digital uploads and they all prefer them that way.  You will be able to attach the file directly to the shop (If you do not know how to do that, don't worry, they walk you through it.  If you need additional help with it, feel free to send me an e-mail.) or you may need to e-mail it to the company (only 1 company I work with requires me to e-mail them).  You will also want a printer, in order to print the guidelines, blank shop forms, and anything else you might need.  There are also some shops that require photos to be submitted, so a camera would be a great help there.

You will also want a good watch with a second hand.  Many shops require you to get timings (how long you waited to be greeted, how long it took to ring up your order, etc) during the shop.  Sometimes you only need the minutes, but often they want these times down to the second.  Also, just about every shop wants to know what time you entered the shop and what time you left it.

A phone is another tool you probably already have, but will use often.  There are mystery shops available that are phone only shops.  They are typically pretty quick and easy, but do not pay a whole lot.  However, there are also many regular mystery shops that require that a phone call be made to the location either before or after your visit.  I probably make phone calls for 1/3 of the shops I do.

If you really want to get into mystery shopping, you can also get spy-type video cameras and digital voice recorders.  These could help you later as you enter your shop, but there are currently only a few shops that require this type of equipment.  I do not recommend investing in this until you have some experience in more basic mystery shopping and you KNOW there is a need for it in your area. 

I also recommend a way to store your receipts and paperwork, either the hard copies or clear, digital copies.  This is in case the company does not receive it or needs it for some reason.  Most companies require you to hang on to them for about 6 months.  I use files for this purpose and purge them at the beginning of the month the following year (so I just purged the receipts from September 2010).  

A calendar or day planner is also super important so that you do not forget to do a shop.  Some companies will send you an e-mail reminder when you have a shop coming due, but some will not contact you until after it is past due, if at all.  A planner also helps you to see when you might already be doing a shop in a certain area.  If you can schedule all shops in 1 part of town for the same day, or at a time when you will be over there for another appointment, you will save both time and money.

I hope this helps you as you continue to explore mystery shopping.  Next week, I will write about how to make the most of your mystery shops.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Craft Tutorial: Candy Pencils

I saw these candy pencils on the Thrifty and Thriving blog and decided to try something similar for my Janelle's 3 new pre-K teachers.  Yes, I am still homeschooling my other children, and after this year, she will also return to being homeschooled, but we felt it was in her best interest to attend this pre-K program so we enrolled her.  Now, back to the tutorial.

These pencils make cute teacher gifts, but I also think they are just as cute for students.  In the original design, the other blogger used card stock and rolls of Rolos candy.  Unfortunately, the procrastinator that I am, I did not give myself enough time to go shopping for supplies and use what I had on hand or could buy at Wegman's.  This means I used construction paper and rolls of Mentos.  The other option I had was to buy a bag of individually wrapped Rolos and stack them together, but honestly, I did not feel like doing that, so I used the Mentos.  Plus, the fruit Mentos have a shiny pink wrapper that I used in place of the pink cardstock, to serve as the eraser.  So here is how I did it: 

1 roll of Mentos fruit candy
1 Hershey kiss (I used caramel filled because I wanted the tips to look like wood, but I think almond would have looked better)
1 sheet of yellow construction paper
a small strip of foil
1 glue dot
clear tape
black marker

1) I peeled off a small amount of the out wrapper of the Mentos in order to have more of the pink wrapper showing.  However, when I looked at the finished pencils, the eraser I like the best is the one with just a little pink showing anyway (the one for Miss Frenchesca).  So this step is optional.
2) Use a glue dot to stick the Hershey kiss on the opposite end of the roll of candy.

3) Measure your piece of construction paper to wrap around your pencil, ensuring that it wrap around the part where the Hershey kiss meets the Mentos, as this is the widest part of the pencil.  Also, you want to be sure to measue the paper long enough to cover where the Hershey kiss meets the Mentos, but not too long.  My lest favorite pencil tip is the one where I covered most of the Hershey kiss (the one for Miss Frenchesca)  Use regular scissors to cut the long side and pinking shears, or other zig-zag style scissors to cut the short side.  If you do not have zig-zag style scissors, regular ones are fine.
4) Write the recipient's name or your message in the middle of the paper with the marker.
5) Carefully and evenly, wrap the paper around your pencil and secure with tape running the length of the paper.  I started at the pencil tip and ran most of the way up to the top.  I left a small amount untaped at the top though because when you tape the foil on in a minute, that tape will cover the missed parts.
This is where you can really see the difference in using Rolos versus Mentos.  Rolos are slightly wider and therefore a better size match for the Hershey Kiss.  In order to have tapering pencils, I had to make them the same girth from tip to end, thus making my "eraser" look small.
6) Take a small piece of aluminum foil and fold the ends under or use scissors to trim off the serrated edge.  Wrap around the eraser end of the pencil, covering where the paper and the eraser meet. 

You are now finished and can present your gifts.  These did not come out quite as nice as I had hoped, but maybe I will continue to work on them for future gifts for the kids.  If I can figure out how to make them look better, I will be sure to update this post.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Zhu Zhu Babies

Zhu Zhu Pets Baby Activity Playset - Triplet Bedroom

By now, I am sure most of you have at least heard of Zhu Zhu Pets.  Did you know that they also have Zhu Zhu Babies?  These are not the same as the Zhu Zhu hamster babies they have had for a while, but are a series of different baby animals, such as a fox, a pony, and a rabbit.  Each one comes with a stroller (or wagon, as my 3-year old called it), a blanket to swaddle the baby in and 2 small toys.  You can also buy Zhu Zhu Babies Clothes to dress the little ones in.  They also have play sets that can be used with the Zhu Zhu Babies as well as full-size Zhu Zhu Pets.  In fact, the full-size Zhu Zhu Pets make it so the play set will move.

I had the opportunity to host a Zhu Zhu Baby party in which we received some Zhu Zhu Babies for my children and our guests, some Zhu Zhu Babies Outfits, a full-size Zhu Zhu Pet, and the Triplet Bedroom Playset.
The boys playing together

The kids all had a great time playing with the toys and playing other Zhu-Zhu related games, such as Diaper Dash and ZhuMama May I.  I also made up Adoption Certificates for each of the kids and their new Zhu Zhu Baby.  They loved renaming their Babies and filling out their certificates.  The older kids also spent some time exploring the Zhuniverse, the online universe for all things Zhu Zhu Pets.
Some of the girls enjoying their new toys

Our adoption certificates

These toys are cute and have relatively few parts.  The kids enjoyed playing with them and interacting with each other as they played.  The kids at the party ranged in age from 3-10 years old and they each had fun playing with them.  Both the boys and the girls were playing with them, though the girls played with them for a longer period of time.  As a warning, the small toys that come with the babies are very small and are likely to be a choking hazard for young children.  Also, please note, the above picture of the adoption certificate shows everything that comes with a Zhu Zhu Baby, plus it also shows an "adult" Zhu Zhu Pet, which is sold separately.

I received the products listed above to facilitate my review.  No financial compensation was received and my opinion is my own.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mystery Shopping 101: Getting Started

I have been performing mystery shops for well over 10 years.  I am often asked by others how I became a mystery shopper and is it legitimate.  I have decided to write a series of posts to tell you more about mystery shopping, how to get started and how to do it effectively.  For the first post, it will be some basic information about what it is, what you can expect and how to start applying with companies.

What is mystery shopping

Basically, a mystery shopper is someone who poses as a regular customer at a business and then reports what happened to the company that hired them (typically this is not the same company that they performed the shop at, but more on that later).  Each company has a different reason for using mystery shoppers.  Some companies are looking to see what the customer is experiencing and want to hear your opinion, but most companies want a straight-forward factual report of the events, mostly to "see" what their employees are doing, and not doing.  Other companies shop their competitors to see what it is that they are doing and not doing.  For most mystery shops, discretion is essential and blending in is of utmost importance, but there are some shops that require you to reveal yourself as a mystery shopper.  These shops are often quite fun because you are usually handing the employee some prize for meeting whatever expectations the company expected them to meet.

What to expect
Regardless of what you may read in help wanted ads, you are not likely to get rich or tons of free merchandise as a mystery shopper.  You may come across an occasional shop that has a bonus attached that will allow you to make an amazing hourly rate, but they are few and very far between.  In 10 years, I have 1 that stands out for me.  Having said that, the hourly rate for a mystery shopper can be quite high.  The problem is 1 job will usually take less than 1 hour and the amount of available work can be inconsistent.  So even if you are making $20 an hour, if the shop only takes you 30 minutes, and that is the only shop you can get that week, you are still only making $10.  For some people, this completely acceptable and they use mystery shopping as a way to pad other income.  In fact, I do not know of anyone that survives solely on the income they get from mystery shopping.  As for the free stuff, you do often find shops that require a purchase, that you may be reimbursed for.  However, the reimbursement amount is usually fairly low.  For retail shops this might mean you get anywhere from $1-$15 (at least these are my typical reimbursement rates).  Other retail shops will have you purchase and then return a product, resulting in no product "earned: .  For restaurants, you will typically get reimbursed for the cost of the required purchase (usually a beverage and entree, sometimes an appetizer and/or dessert) and maybe enough for the tip.  If you are dining alone, or are willing to share a meal, this will not cost you anything extra, but if you want to take your family with you (and the shop allows it), it is likely you will not be reimbursed for their purchases (though some shops reimburse for 2 meals).  Also, restaurant shops and hotel shops do not always pay a fee to the shopper, they are often reimbursement only.  Again, for some people this is perfectly acceptable and can be a great way to spread the budget a bit, especially if there is a planned trip coming up.  
The beauty of mystery shopping is that you are in control of what shops you choose to do.  If you do not like the idea of not being paid to eat at a restaurant, you can just not choose those shops.  If you do not feel the pay for a shop is worth the gas/time/etc, you can pass on it.  Incidentally, you may come across some shops where the scheduler will ask what it will take for you to do a shop.  At that time, you may request an additional amount of money to cover gas/tolls/time.  You also get to set your schedule, to a point.  If you have a busy week coming up, you can choose not to do any shops that week.  Likewise, if you have a week coming up where you will have a lot of time on your hands, you can fill it up with shops, provided they are available.  If you are going on vacation, you can choose shops along your route and at your destination, or you can forgot about shops for a while.  There are two catches to this.  First, you will still need to adhere to the times and dates that an assigned shop needs to be done.  So if there are times you prefer not to work, say Sunday afternoons, be sure that you do not pick up any shops that need to be done on a Sunday afternoon.  Second, even if you WANT to perform a whole bunch of shops during a certain time or in a certain location, like when on vacation, there is no guarantee you will be able to find and be assigned to the shops you are looking for.

Everything I have written above are part of what comes with being an independent contractor.  As an independent contractor, you are NOT an employee of any specific company.  You are hired, usually on a shop-by-shop basis, to perform work for them.  This means you are not guaranteed a certain number of shops or a certain number of hours.  You do not qualify for unemployment when there is not work available.  You will not receive benefits like sick time, vacation pay, or health benefits.  You are responsible for filing your own taxes.  If you are paid more than $600 for any one company in a single year, you will receive the appropriate forms to file for taxes.  Otherwise, you are responsible for keeping track of your income and expenses for tax purposes.

There is one other important thing to know about being a mystery shopper.  You are typically not hired by the company that you are performing the shop for.  Most businesses that use mystery shoppers, hire a mystery shopping company to provide shoppers for them.  This means that you will be working for both the mystery shopping company and the business, but reporting directly to the mystery shopping company.  There are a LOT of mystery shopping companies out there.  Some specialize in certain types of shops, such as just apartment shops, or just restaurants; and some only work with 2 or 3 companies; and some only work in certain geographic areas.  However, many companies will work with several clients across a broad spectrum of business types and will have work nationwide.

Applying for work as a mystery shopper

Due to the large number of mystery shopping companies, applying for work can be quite an endeavor, at least in the beginning.  The first thing I will say is: DO NOT PAY ANYONE TO GIVE YOU A LIST OF SHOPS (on a semi-related note, if you are asked to deposit a large check or money order into your bank account and are promised a large payment in return, do not do that either).  There are several people out there that will give you a list of companies that are reliable and trustworthy to work with.  Two of my favorites are and the Mystery Shopper's Provider Association (or MSPA).  I will try to get a list of the companies that I work with and trust up soon, but it does not mean they will have work in your area.  When signing up with these companies, be prepared to give your personal information, such as your name, address, phone number, and possibly your social security number.  This is similar to a job application and in many cases are actually contracts you entering into.  All of the companies I work with have secure and encrypted sites so your information is protected.  You may also be asked to provide a writing sample on the application.  Some do not care what you write about, but many will ask for your best, or worst, shopping or restaurant experience in the past few months.  If you plan to apply with several companies, I recommend writing these out in a Word (or similar) document and copying and pasting it into the appropriate spot on the application.  This can shorten the time it takes you to apply significantly.  Also, feel free to only apply to 1 or 2 companies at a time or to apply to 50 in one day.  The more companies you apply with, the more likely you are to find work that you will enjoy and in your area.  

A note about money

As I stated above, you should never pay someone to give you a list of available shops.  In all my time as a mystery shopper, I have only come across one legitimate company that asked its applicants to pay to sign up.  I did not sign up with them and do not feel I am at any great loss for shops.  Having said that, there are a few times that you may need to put money out ahead of time.  First, the MSPA offers 2 levels of certification for mystery shoppers, that is recognized by virtually every legitimate mystery company.  You can take the silver certification course online, but the gold course is only available in a live class.  At this point in time, CERTIFICATION IS NOT REQUIRED (at least in most states, however, I believe that in NV you need to register as a private investigator, so check the laws of your state).  However, an inexperienced shopper with certification will likely receive more shops than one without certification.  Pleases note, I am not certified, but have considered it and may choose to do so in the future.  The other time you may need to put out money is if you are performing shops that require a purchase.  Again, you will know ahead of time whether a purchase is required and what your reimbursement amount will be.  If money is tight for you, and you do not think you can wait for a reimbursement, there are often plenty of shops available that do not require any purchase.  Also, please note that while there are scams out there involving banks, there are also a lot of legitimate bank shops available, some involving your money (you cashing a check, making a deposit, or opening an account) and some that simply require you to sit with a teller to gather information.  
I hope I have given you some more insight as to what mystery shopping is about.  I know this may have come off sounding like a lot, but it really is not as scary as it seems.  Move at your own pace and pick up only 1 shop at a time.  If you like it, continue on, if you don't you have lost nothing.  In the upcoming weeks, I will share how to get shops once you are signed up with a company, the tools of the trade, how to perform a shop, a list of companies I work with, and some tips to make the most of mystery shopping.  If you have any questions, please feel free to ask, either by e-mail (click on the "view my complete profile" and then contact and e-mail) or by leaving an comment.