Sunday, September 26, 2010

Like a Diamond

I have had to start thinking of this blog as sort of a diamond.

Not for its great value or rarity, but for its multi-faceted nature.  I've been struggling with the idea of it being purely a spiritual blog.  Or purely a cooking blog.  Or purely a blog about home and family.  For example,  I have such great respect for the Christian newsletters and messages that have emerged from great ministries; the writers somehow manage to see an opportunity for spiritual growth in every seemingly mundane experience.  I, however, simply write about how much centipedes scare me, and how much I like avocados.   But I love Jesus, too, and I try to live my life as a person who pleases my Lord.

Does that mean I can't write when I have been given bad customer service?  What about when I have made the foolish choice to give my husband the silent treatment because he did something that upset me?  Or when I have struggles at work and feel like I am failing?  What about when I feel like God is far away from me, and I am just a sinner stumbling in the dark?

I always wanted my words - this blog -  to be an encouragement to others.  If anything I have published has been an excuse for others to give up, get even or choose a negative attitude, then I have not done my job well.

I will continue to write about my studies of the mundane, because to find joy in it is akin to the man who sold his possessions to procure the pearl of great price.  To see diamonds of laughter and hope sparkling in the dust of our daily lives is a treasure indeed.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Five Underrated: Stores

I like to shop.  I really, really like to shop.  For myself, for others, for groceries.  I can't really prove it, but I think it's inherent in my nature.  My mom taught me to look for sales and my husband taught me how to clip coupons, so I'm pretty much a deal-finding machine in heels.  I'm sharing my secrets with you now!

1. Ross Dress for Less

No, I am not a fan simply because the name is the same as my husband's!  I "discovered" this place when I was taking a class for Dollar Bank all the way up in Fox Chapel.  It's across the street from the branch, and so one day I figured I'd stop in and try to find a new dress for Easter.  I got so excited inside that I almost threw up.  It's primarily a women's clothing store, and the selection and prices are unreal.  There are sheath dresses from Calvin Klein (I saw one for $19.99), retro-print sundresses by Nine West, Steve Madden shoes and XOXO sunglasses, plus a huge variety of lesser-known brands.  One of my favorites is London Times, which features a lot of throwback cuts and patterns, and there were dozens of their styles at Ross!  It was a dream come true.  Not to mention, the sales staff was pretty friendly.  I am only able to go there when I have class at Fox Chapel, so I haven't been there more than a half-dozen times.  Still, the sales associate who joked with me during my first trip there remembered me last week and eyed up at my purchase.  "Nothing for you today?  Just for him?" she remarked as I put the items on hold.  "His birthday is coming up," I explained.  "But I'll be back for myself again very soon!"

Good Stuff: Huge selection, friendly customer service, decent prices.
Downside: Very few locations.
Bonus: Senior citizens' discount!

2. Aldi

This place is hardly a trade secret.  It's pretty obvious: your choices of brands and products are severely limited, but that is exactly what allows you to save big on basic items.  Well, since I'm a girl who likes variety and choice, I resisted going to Aldi for a while.  Finally, during on of our bi-monthly jaunts to Robinson, Ross and I figured we'd stop in, sniff around, and see if we found anything that appealed to us.  We sure did!  After being used to spending an arm and a leg for produce at Giant Eagle, we were blown away to learn that we could get all our basics (peppers, spinach, bananas, mushrooms, an avocado and grapes) for about $16.00 a week.  Plus, the produce was in good shape.  The yellow peppers were big and shiny, and the mushrooms are every bit as plump and healthy-looking as the ones in bigger supermarkets.  We also found that the Fit & Active brand is a great choice for lunch snacks like cookies and granola bars.  They taste like the name brands, but they are a lot less expensive.  We've begun to regularly get our produce and snacks at Aldi.  Now, for meats and specialty items, including lower-fat and lower-sodium items, we do still go to Giant Eagle.  The selection is simply better.  And, well, I am picky. 

Good Stuff: Fantastic prices.
Downside: Limited selection, only accepts debit/cash.
Bonus: Bringing your own bags helps the environment!

3. TJMaxx and Marshalls

They're part of the same, massive, money-saving fashion chain, so I mention them together.  Like Ross Dress For Less, Maxx 'n' Marshalls are full of insane deals and brand-name products.  Lots of Calvin Klein dresses, Michal Kors sweaters, and Tahari suits.  Of course, I'm not always swayed by brand-names (since I don't find a lot of their petite styles in discount stores), so I'm always ready to scour the clearance racks and redline shoe shelves to find something worth crowing about.  The men's section is great, too, and considerably larger than the one at Ross Dress For Less.  (My) Ross is almost always able to find a nice Geoffrey Beene or Perry Ellis oxford shirt in his size for between $12.99 and $24.99 - which is well over 60% less than the prices at Macy's and other such department stores!  Also of note: these stores have super housewares departments full of really great gift ideas.  Exotic coffees, spices and teas, novelty mugs, cookbooks, all kinds of gourmet snack foods like jelly beans, crackers and candy (men, do you hear?  Salty, crunchy deliciousness for you, and sweet, sweet chocolate for her). Go now!

Good stuff: Huge selection, decent prices.
Downside: $49.99 is still too much to pay for a Tommy Hilfiger dress.
Bonus: Gift cards available at Giant Eagle, so you can save on fuel, too!

4. Big Lots

My extremely thrifty grandfather used to bring gifts for my sister when he came to visit us.  Huge bags of toys from a place he kept talking about: Big Lots.  I remember being disappointed because I was still getting generic Barbie Dolls at age 16...but we never could deny the sheer volume of stuff that we got.   Games, dolls, toys, snacks and treats, name it, we got it.  Since a lot of the items seemed cheap or second-rate, I stayed away from Big Lots when they opened up down the road from me.  Finally, though, my curiosity overtook me and I ventured in.  I could not possibly have been more mistaken about Big Lots!  I don't know if the quality has improved in the past 15 years or I have simply learned to care less, but the truth is, the store is really, really great.  Like the stores already mentioned, Big Lots does carry plenty of brand-name items (Salon Selectives hair products, Lay's potato chips, Maybelline mascara, etc.) but they also carry a wealth of generic items, too.  I love going to Big Lots for snack food (Shearer's Pepperoni Pizza potato chips - nice!) and for gifts and prizes for children's church.  Big Lots doesn't specialize in clothing, but they have a nice furniture section with unique and beautiful pieces, like coffee-cup adorned bistro-style chairs.  They're also much more likely than the other stores to have large seasonal displays.  It's a great place to get all your holiday decorations, wrapping paper, greeting cards...and some gifts, too!

Good Stuff: amazing prices.
Downside: Items are often discontinued.
Bonus: In-store rewards program offers 20% off an entire order once $200 in purchases are made!

5. Wal*Mart

Yes, I know this industry giant has been under fire practically since its inception.  And I am not by any means condoning their business practices or even addressing ethical issues.  What I am saying is that it is not possible to buy a huge bag of salmon fillets anywhere in America for $4.99 - except at Wal*Mart.  For standard needs like health and beauty products and school supplies, it's hard to beat Wal*Mart's prices.  Big Lots is likely to have a lot of what you need, but since they supply overstock, there's never a guarantee that they will carry the brand of diapers or the hair color you're looking for.  Wal*Mart pretty much can guarantee all of that.  As for clothes, well, it's hit or miss, I think, for most people.  Personally, I have no shame in wearing Faded Glory flip-flops or Jordache jeans.  It's not always a matter of style, because their designers are still able to keep up with trends.  It's more an issue of fit and quality.  I am more likely to buy basics, like t-shirts, underwear and pantyhose, at Wal*Mart, while I find suits and jeans elsewhere.

Good Stuff: Incredibly low prices.
Downside: Poor customer service, negative media attention.
Bonus: Most locations are open 24 hours!

Honorable Mention

1. Fashion Bug (Women's Clothing and Accessories)
2. Dollar Tree (Discount Store)
3. Five Below (Discount Store)

Next up in the series: music!