Updated on 09.15.14

Eight Quick Takes on an Icy December Day

Trent Hamm

We woke up this morning to the peculiar tinny sound of freezing rain on the windows and sides of our house. The windows on the east side of our house are glazed with ice, so all of us climbed back into bed for a while before getting up to have a very lazy breakfast.

Days like this are often incredibly lazy, filled with idle thoughts and idle activities, and today is no different. My mind is filled with an assortment of thoughts that could possibly be fleshed out into posts, but instead I decided to just write a paragraph or two about each one.

Since this is my first Christmas in financial security, how do I avoid the desire to go overboard? I’m basically just limiting any extra spending to just my parents and my wife this year, and even then, it’s because I have some very specific gifts in mind for them that have some personal connections as well. For my son and daughter, I am giving them something special for Christmas, but they won’t see it for a long time – an extra contribution to their 529 accounts.

Frugal Ideas for a Winter Day

Make Hot Chocolate

Here’s that hot chocolate powder mix recipe that you’ve clamored for. I get a large bowl and put five cups of dry milk, a quarter cup of powdered sugar, and a third of a cup of powdered dairy creamer. I then get a pound of dark chocolate (a couple bars of Hershey’s Dark will suffice), then grate it into a powder using a box grater (you might want to use a blender or something). I pour in the chocolate powder, mix it all up until it’s consistent, and put it in a jar. It takes about fifteen minutes or so.

Pay Online Bills

Online bill pay is an amazing time saver. I can’t imagine having to write this many checks each month. It’s much easier to just type in the dollar amount owed, hit submit, and have my bank take care of it electronically. I use ING for this, and their interface for it is just stellar.

Melt the Ice Outside Your Home

I need to melt ice and I don’t have any special salt. So what? I’ll just get a couple gallons of water really hot, mix in a cup of table salt, and gently pour it down my driveway. The ice melts away quite well with this mixture (not as well as salt specifically for ice melting, but not bad), and it flows, which means I can basically start pouring it at the edge of my garage. If I need more, I go make more, but it’s best to give the mix some time to work between pouring (let the salt work on the ice).

Pay Off Debt…But Be Reasonable

I sometimes get so fired up about paying off debt that I almost make foolish choices. When I got down to just a little bit left on my last student loan, I really wanted to take a big chunk out of my emergency fund to get rid of it. Had I done that, though, Murphy’s Law dictates that something disastrous would happen. Of course, just to reinforce that idea, my truck had some serious problems shortly after that, delivering a $1,500 repair bill to me. Thankfully, I hadn’t touched the emergency fund, so it was no problem.

Master a Video Game You Already Own

I’m having more fun mastering video games than buying another new one. My pace at buying games for my Wii has been far, far slower than with previous game consoles. What I’ve found, though, is that I’m actually having more fun with fewer games. I’m spending a lot more time with each one, mastering it and digging into the nooks and crannies. In fact, I probably won’t buy a new Wii game for a year and I won’t get bored, as I have a handful of games yet to master. There’s no need to blow a lot of cash on a lot of games – just buy one that you will really enjoy and invest the time in to master.

Put Up Your Christmas Tree

We’re going to put up and decorate our Christmas tree today. Our favorite decoration is actually a long string with popcorn on it, and about every ten or fifteen kernels we put a dried cherry on it. The best part is that after Christmas we can just drop it all in the composter (save the string). Our only other decorations are lights and a few sentimental ornaments. Very simple, classy, and not very expensive.

Make a Home-Cooked Meal

We’re iced in, don’t have much to do, and we probably won’t turn on a television all day today. The only exception might be if we choose to play a video game – otherwise, I bet it doesn’t even turn on. Meanwhile, I’ll probably finish Cannery Row, we’re going to have a homemade chicken marinara dish for supper, I’m going to make some bread, and I’m also going to make a homemade Memory game for my son and teach him to play it. I’m really beginning to believe that life is better without television.

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  1. SJean says:

    I’m iced in as well (also in Iowa) and it ruins some of my more productive plans for the day, but I suppose I can work on other stuff.

    I’m not sure if you can call a popcorn string a “classy” decoration! It is simple and will look great though. :)

  2. Ed says:

    Love ING and Electric Orange! Currently getting 1% back by using my linked MC instead of the billpay, but will go back to billpay when the promotion is over. Woo Hoo

  3. Heidi says:

    I’m iced in today as well. I had plans to get out of the house and run some errands, but it looks like that will have to wait.

    This morning I did some blog research and after lunch I plan on putting up holiday decorations and baking.

    I pay all of bills electronically as well. And electronic banking and billpay is much more secure than paper check writing. I hope that you’ve signed up for e-statements and e-billing for all accounts that provide it…minimizing your paper trail reduces your chances of becoming a victim of identity theft.

  4. Jen says:

    I’m impressed that you’re patient enough to string popcorn. I work for a company involved with popcorn, and I wanted to do a popcorn garland for our office tree…until I found out how much of it we would need! Last year I just put a few individual kernels on threads and hung them like snowflakes, but this year I took the easy route and hung ten whole popcorn balls with blue and silver ribbon. And if I do say so myself, it looks rather classy. :-)

  5. Beth says:

    60 degrees and sunny here, stupid Bay Area. I’d love to be snug in my home!

    Here’s food for thought, that goes with your first Christmas in financial security comment:
    I’m going to be getting a small-ish gift check for Christmas (I estimate $150) and now that I don’t have credit card debt (yay me!), I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with it. Buy clothes (for the first time in a year, not counting one pair jeans and one work party shirt)? Buy an expensive/fancy dinner out that I wouldn’t ordinarily splurge for (I live mere miles from Chez Panisse and I’ve yet to go)? Donate it to a food bank? Buy opera tickets? Bank it against travel expenses??

  6. Sunshine says:

    Just to throw it in – 80 degrees and sunny here! I have a love-hate relationship with this S. FL weather. I would like to be all toasty inside and have that true holiday feeling (nothing says Xmas like a palm tree with lights on it…), but I am super happy I am not freezing my butt off outside. Went for a run this AM in shorts and a T. Was nice!

  7. Mid fifties here in Atlanta. Nice and cool but not as warm as S. Florida. BTW, how long is ING offering the 1% bonus.

  8. Linsey Knerl says:

    Iced in here in NE Nebraska. Super day for getting things done. We’re baking bread, and looks like we’ll also be trying out our own hot cocoa mix! (Thanks!)

  9. !wanda says:

    @Beth: $150 is an amount that I’d bank. However, if no one else is getting you anything for the holidays and you’re going to feel bad about being deprived, spend maybe half of it and bank the rest.

    By the way, dinner at Chez Panisse for 1 is not $150; it’s maybe half of that. If you want to eat in the restaurant proper (as opposed to the cafe), you need to wait a while anyway to get a reservation. Also, SF standing-room opera tickets are really cheap. Add in BART fare and it’s still really cheap.

  10. BigRed says:

    Yep, life really is better without TV! We don’t have cable and get lousy reception so we rely on DVD’s to catch up on interesting series (we love The Office), which we can watch uninterrupted by a weekly break. Our local DVD rental place has a deal where, for $14/month, you can rent unlimited numbers of “older” films (amazin how much easier it is to find suitable family fare from older, great movies–12 and 13 year olds are really fascinated, we found, by film noir, classics, musicals and the Marx Brothers), series, documentaries (Ken Burns’ Civil War, Band of Brothers, Baseball, etc are favories at our house), etc. If we find something new that looks worth watching, we just wait a few weeks, and it is eligible for the unlimited offer.

    Also, this time of year, it’s so much fun to stay in with the kids, make cookies (for ourselves and others–our church does a cookie exchange with a small fee that goes towards the local emergency food bank; these are fun to just do with friends, too) and mulled cider, etc.

    Great post!

  11. Sandy says:

    We have a no t.v. rule for all of Saturday and Sunday. It makes for more pleasurable and productive week-ends.

    When you said popcorn and dried cherry, did you mean cranberry? That’s what we use. We’re in a warmer climate, so string it over a branch on a tree for the birds after the Holidays. When the ice melts, you can do a nature hunt w/pinecones, etc. then give it all a quick spray of silver or gold paint – makes a nice centerpiece.

    Online banking (I use USAA) is so quick that I actually look forward to getting a bill in the mail just so I can use it! If the bill is early, before I click on Submit payment, I click on the date I want it to be paid, usually 3 days ahead of the due date. Did you sign up for overdraft protection for your checking account, to use your savings account as a back-up? I did that – don’t think I’ll ever need it, but worth it, to avoid a late charge, just in case, at some future point down the road.

    You mentioned trying to avoid going overboard at Christmas this year, and I agree. What we have to remember and keep in mind is that our friends and family and co-workers/neighbors, even kids would not want us to go into debt for them. We should preplan our gift budget and stick to it. It’s our cheerful, upbeat and positive attitudes around them that’ll make them happy anyway – easy for us since come Jan.1st. we won’t feel the sting of having overspent!

    and use it 3-4 times a year to go visit them.

  12. Sandy says:

    oops had a one liner typo in there – forgot to delete.

  13. Rob in Madrid says:

    Trents commented many times about how much he enjoys cooking. So the other day being market day and all I decided to skip my planned lunch at Mcdonalds and give cooking a try. Well I have to say there is really something about going and fresh veggies and making your own food. I really enjoyed it, it wasn’t the hassle I thought it would be. Mcdonalds I think you’ve lost a customer!

  14. Jef says:

    Trent, you have us HALF of the hot chocolate recipe. How much of that powder to how much water? :-)

  15. Since you’re a gamer at heart, have you tried playing pc emulator games? You can use emulators to play on Nintendo, Gameboy, and even Neo Geo games.

  16. Lin says:

    Hey a word of caution about your deicing method. If you have a concrete driveway, don’t use regular salt too often. It will chew up your concrete. Ask me how I know :(

  17. Mark says:

    I want to get my hands on a Wii, anyone know where you can buy one, they are selling online for over $500 – I am not willing to pay more than retail – $250. This thing has been out over a year, why is there still a shortage. I should have bought one two months ago, they were everywhere.

  18. Jillian says:

    Ah, Christmas… it’s almost time to break out the barbecue and sunscreen and head for the beach! If only it weren’t so humid…

    Good on you Rob. The irony is that McDonalds (well our local one, anyway) are now trying to make their food all healthy and it tastes terrible! I used to go there for an occasional fix of fatty, salty, cheesy goodness but now you can’t even do that because they’ve taken out the fat and salt and replaced it with even more cardboard and plastic pseudo food.

  19. Sandy says:


    I checked Wal-mart online for you and they are selling Wii for $249.24! (Call and see if they have any in-stock too).

    Also, Target on-line sells pages and pages of games, pretty good prices. Have fun!

  20. vh says:

    In the 50s here in AZ, & raining for the first time since the memory of person runneth not to the contrary. Beautiful, beautiful RAIN! The pool is up three inches–free water! Plants are vibrating with joy. And for the first time this winter, it’s actually cool outdoors.

    Merry Financially Secure Christmas, Trent! Hope you & your family enjoy a spectacular and happy white Christmas season.

  21. Aimeé says:

    We were iced in here in Omaha too…but alas my husband still had to work. :( Not everything closes down… However, having the house to myself all day makes me quite productive: just finished freezing a big batch of homemade roasted butternut squash soup, making homemade chocolate sauce for ice cream (to be eaten in front of the fire!), and am now working on some hand-sewn Christmas gifts! No tv for me today, either!
    Welcome to December, folks!

  22. HB says:

    THANKS for the cocoa recipe! I have a question tho…. how much of the powder do you mix with how much water to make it when you actually drink it? :) thanks!

  23. Anthony says:

    Football. It’s the only reason the TV has been on lately.

    You had a lazy day and spent nothing. I had a day that was suppose to be just going to Home Depot to pick up a towel rack and turned into a 4 hour and 7 store shopping trip. It’s OK though because we finally went and got everything that has been on our shopping list for months.

  24. guinness416 says:

    This is the second chocolate powder recipe I’ve read on a money blog today. Do you think someone’s trying to tell me something?

  25. debtdieter says:

    Wow, it’s hot here, I’ve got two fans on! Granted I’m in Australia and it’s Summer…

  26. Marcy says:

    Turning off the TV is a great idea. For a while I thought there was something wrong with TV. I don’t feel right and can’t think straight if I watch even an hour or so. They have been doing some research on tv and the effects of it on the developing brain. There is some strong evidence that it is adding to the growing problem of ADHD A lot of children “experts” are recomending NO screen time for children under 3, something that many parents chose to disregard. The link below has some really good food for thought, for what it’s worth.


    Besides the peace and quiet of turning off the most annoying invention of all time is that you will save a significant amount of money on your light bill. People gruble about how it’s not that much but, even though I leave a lot of lights on in my flat, have the radio and computer going all the time my power bill is about $50 compared to the tenants in the other 2 units that each pay about $80 or $90, both TV junkies.

  27. Rob in Madrid says:

    We’ve had a couple of long weekends recently (4 day and 3 day) and we spent the whole weekend nesting, stayed at home and did nothing but watched TV. We both really enjoyed it. My wife has really needed it as the hours stress and travel have really ramped up recently so it’s been nice to be home for a whole weekend with no plans and visiting or running around. I usually surf the web on my laptop while the other half watches TV. We’ll probably ramp up the visiting over Christmas (we have no family over here to visit so its only friends) We also splurged and picked up a DVR that was onsale as a Christmas present for us.

    Alimeé I’ve stopped cooking large freezer portions as it’s only the wife and I and it usually doesn’t get eaten up. I make enough for a meal and for lunch for the wife the next day. I have to say again how enjoyable it is cooking, it’s not the chore I thought it would be. I don’t think I’d want to cook a large meal every day but couple times a week is fun.

  28. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The proportion of water to hot chocolate mix varies from person to person. I like mine really thick, my wife likes it thin, and in both cases you use a very different amount. Try starting off with a cup and a half of almost boiling water to a half cup of mix and see how you like it. Reduce water if you want it thicker, increase water if you want it thinner.

  29. guinness416 says:

    There’s nothing wrong with TV, I’m not a big television buff outside of baseball but it can absolutely be as relaxing or educational or entertaining as any other medium. I always find it funny to read anti-TV commentary by people who clearly spend hours a day online or wax lyrical about their games system of choice. We all entertain ourselves our own ways.

  30. Margaret says:

    -29C here (that’s -20F on your weird system). Stupid ineffectual global warming.

  31. Nadine says:

    Super-warm here in S GA. Kids are barefoot and we grilled out. We have two seasons: really hot and somewhat nippy. We had a little somewhat-nippy a week or two ago, and now it’s back to being pretty warm.

    Like anything, TV can be good or bad depending on the user. It is a big distraction I agree, but not entirely useless.

  32. Mark says:

    As a sports fan, the TV is part of my passion, I could not do without it or cable (NEED ESPN!). However, when a good sporting event is not on, the TV is usually OFF.

  33. Sylvia says:

    It’s been pouring down rain here in Western ,Ky today. The temp is about 60 degrees. It sounds like you’ve had a peaceful day. I’m glad for you.

  34. Ryan says:

    Careful with using a blender to powder chocolate bars. I tried that once and the blade generated enough heat to melt the chocolate and turn it into goop. Just a forwarding if anyone decides to try it ;)

  35. DrBdan says:

    I know I’m a day late in adding my comment but I wanted to reply about finding a Wii. A good way to find a Wii is to talk to your local store and ask when they are getting their next shipment in. Most places will happily let you know, unless you happen to find a grumpy employee. Then just go to that store the day that they get their delivery and you should be able to get one. Keep in mind that the larger stores (e.g. Walmart, Target) tend to get more Wii’s than smaller stores (e.g. EB Games). Happy Hunting!

  36. Susan says:

    We use popcorn every year on our tree but wouldn’t think of throwing it away. It takes way tooooo long to string. After Christmas we very carefully put the stringed popcorn in a plastic bag, tie it up tightly, and store in a tin. It lasts for years and looks great. We’ve never had trouble with it molding. Just keep it away from the mice.

  37. Mark says:

    I found a site called wiialerts.com that e-mails and sends a text message when Wii’s become available. Looks good, we will see how it works. I will let you know.

  38. Amy K. says:

    Thanks for the hot chocolate mix recipe! I have a question about the dairy creamer: I’m not in dairy country, would it be better to sub non-dairy creamer, or to skip it entirely?

    I’m thinking the cocoa butter will just float to the surface without it, but non-dairy creamer might taste funny.

  39. Tanya says:

    Yeah, I hear you on the throwing too much into debt repayment. My company just cut their 401k match from 6% to 3% and I’m trying to decide whether I should increase my contribution another 3%, cutting my student loan repayment, or ignore it until I’m out of debt. So frustrating.

  40. Golfing Girl says:

    Ditto on the debt repayment. I want the 2nd mortgage gone so badly by the end of 2007 I tried to convince hubby to use the emergency fund. Not smart at Christmas time! Thank goodness he’s not as impulsive as me!

  41. SueO says:

    To jump in a little late to the “television usefulness” commentary: I have read Gene Kranz’s book about the Space Program (obviously including the Apollo 13 Crisis) and have seen Kranz interviewed for PBS about Apollo 13. I was overwhelmed with the sight of this very “manly” engineer being brought to tears once again at the memory after 20+ years. Reading about it made me understand the efforts involved, but seeing a grown man cry made me appreciate how emotionally wrapped they all were with the events and their team members. TV can portray things better than books sometimes.
    And yes, I do find myself wasting time in front of the TV. Sometimes, the mind drug is all that works after a tough day at the office. Sorry. I’m human.

  42. Travis says:

    With regards to your plan to pour hot salt water down the driveway… That’s a good plan, and you should be ok, but for what it’s worth, Table Salt (NaCl) has a slightly endothermic (absorbs heat) reaction when it reacts with water, and Rock Salt (CaCl) has quite an exothermic reaction when it reacts with water. So that’s the reason that you put table salt in your water when you’re boiling it (so it raises the boiling point by absorbing some of the energy), and you put rock salt on your driveway when it ices (because it releases heat when it gets wet, thus melting your ice). It’s mostly the hot water doing all of the melting when you do that to your driveway… I thoroughly enjoy your blog, just wanted to throw my $0.02 in!

  43. Rob says:

    The hot chocolate recipe produced an outstanding drink. I used 1/2 cup of mix to 6 ounces of water, with a little whipped cream and some chocolate shavings on top. The family and I absolutely love it. Amy, I used non-dairy creamer with no problem. And yes, I first tried to “powderize” the chocolate with a blender too. I melted the chocolate. So, I ended up using the box-type shredder instead using “second finest” side.

  44. Nick says:

    I made the hot chocolate recipe as well. I used stop and shop brand dry milk and had problems with it desolving. Anyone else with that problem?

  45. Sm4k says:

    One of the things I’ve tried recently to help stave off game buying is a subscription to GameTap. The service has really matured from the arcade-only persona they were advertising with early on. Now it includes many games that I didn’t get to play over the years (Baldur’s Gate, Planscape Torment, etc) and even some obscure titles from consoles (Chu Chu Rocket, Typing of the Dead). They have a deal going now where it’s $60 a year for unlimited access to their entire catalog. They also have a free client, that as of this writing gives you free access to Psychonauts, among other great games. for the cost of a single game (these days) a year, you get access to an entire legal library.

  46. Rob says:

    Nick, I used Carnation brand dry milk and it dissolved flawlessly. No experience with the S&S brand. Hope this helps.

  47. Macinac says:

    I have not had TV for over 30 years. My adolescent kids (younger wife) never had it so they don’t miss it. We have dinner together every night. They do homework, read books, draw pictures, play games, talk on the phone (land line only!), play the piano and sing. On weekends we watch movies which we get on DVD free from the public library. We set up the laptop in the living room on the coffee table, and all sit together on the sofa. One result of this and other parsimonious behavior is that in November my checking account had $4017 put into it but only $2832 was taken out.

  48. Sara says:


    Table salt’s endothermic properties affect the boiling point of water so little that you would have to add nearly a pound of NaCl to a gallon of water to have any noticeable effect in how quickly the water boils (aka the lowered – not raised – boiling point). I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my spaghetti that salty. The salt added to a pot of water simply adds flavor.

    Trent, I can’t wait to try the hot chocolate mix! It’s going to have to wait until finals are over, but I’m looking forward to it!

  49. Jess says:

    Nick – I used Shaw’s brand dry milk and Hershey’s special dark baking chocolate and ended up having to run the whole batch through my mom’s ancient (at least 40 years old) hand-crank sifter twice and then through a very fine pasta strainer and still had lumps from the dry milk. Sifting helped a bit definitely, but in the future I might not use baking chocolate, I don’t really know how exactly it’s different from regular special dark. I’m wondering how fine a grater you use, Trent, because I used my mom’s Oskar thinger to grate it, put some through a hand-crank cheese grater (apparently we’re all about elbow grease in my house!), and still had to re-Oskar it to refine the grind. If only Mom already had the box grater she’s getting for Christmas…!

    Hopefully the bf’s family will still enjoy it!

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