Expats Move Home: How Our Knick Knacks Crossed the Atlantic

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Almost everyone has moved somewhere at some point in their life. Whether it be down the street, around the corner, across the country, or even halfway around the globe, it’s a common human experience.

But, that’s where the commonality usually ends. Why? Where? How often? How far? And, literally… how?

In an earlier Expats Move Home post, I recapped the madness of our adventures moving from Germany back to the US. I briefly mentioned what we did with all of the goods we accumulated in four years. Today, I want to shed some light on how we did that and if our method was effective or not.

The Container Conundrum

Most people moving overseas use a container to literally ship their home goods from one end of the ocean to the other. It’s the most practical (and often the only) way to allow you to sleep on the exact same bed in both South Carolina and Spain.

We didn’t use a container service moving to or from Germany. Why? Well, we simply didn’t have enough stuff to make the cost worthwhile.

Sea (or air) freight is very expensive, time-consuming, and full of paperwork. It’s really only worth the effort if you have an entire house to move.

When we first set out for Freiburg in 2010, we had no idea how long we would be there though we assumed it would only be one year. After considering the cost to store all of our belongings in the US, we decided to give away most of our American possessions and store only those items that would have been too expensive, sentimental, or difficult to replace.

We stuffed the remaining essentials into large suitcases which we checked as luggage on the airplane. For a trip down memory lane, you can read the turbulent story of when we – meaning me and only two boys – first touched down in Frankfurt five years ago here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

This is how “moving” looked the first time around – big piles of junk in our friends’ garage that eventually was organized into fifty-pound suitcases. Sorry for the awful photo – making things pretty wasn’t a priority; getting through it was!

Ship or Ship?

After four years in Germany, we cataloged our meager possessions and realized that by 2014 we had acquired more than we had arrived with in 2010. But despite numerous trips to Ikea and a mountain of fantastic hand-me-downs, we still did not own enough household items to ship a container. 

We researched different options for getting our goods from point A (Freiburg) to point B (Florida). All air and sea freight options ended up out of our price range and not suitable for our circumstances anyway.

Schlepping suitcases wouldn’t work this time either because we would be traveling for several weeks before reaching our final destination in Orlando (you can read the summary of everywhere we went here). There was no way we could – or wanted to – lug a quarter of a ton of luggage around!

Ten, fifty pound suitcases equals five hundred pounds, and five hundred times four is two thousand, right? Correct me if I’m wrong – math has never been my thing – but that is just insane.

After talking with former Freiburg friends, we decided that the option best suited to our situation would be to simply post boxes with DHL.

Going with DHL is by no means the easiest or cheapest method. It’s just what we had to do given the meager amount of household goods.

Whittling Down and Weeding Out

Now, before I went wild with the tape gun, it was necessary to weed out what we didn’t want or need and whittle down the remaining items until we reached the true essentials.

This is a hallmark of any moving experience, but it’s trickier in Germany. Trash is a sensitive subject; one cannot simply leave their unwanted junk on the curb and have it picked up for free. And garage sales?! Please – there’s no such thing.

Yes, there are Flohmärkte, but that assumes that you (1) know of one that (2) fits your schedule, (3) you have a way to schlep your things to the prescribed location, and (4) you are able to haggle auf Deutsch with your customers. For me, a Flohmarkt just wasn’t happening.

Barter or Bestow?

I made a spreadsheet of all the items that weren’t going to earn a free ticket to America, and I divided that list into two categories: giving and selling. While in Freiburg, we made many amazing friends, and I was happy to give as many things as possible to those who wanted/needed it. Plus, I wasn’t going to sell my €3 IKEA salad spinner – I just wanted it gone!

But, moving continents isn’t cheap, so I had to sell big ticket items with lots of wear and value left. I added links to pictures and descriptions of the for sale items, and then I emailed the list to everyone I knew. I explained that the first person to email me about a particular item had dibs.

Additionally, I encouraged my friends to forward the list on to their friends. Expat networks are a beautiful thing, and word often travels fast in these circles. I really wanted to avoid having to hawk my junk on sites like ebay and Craigslist, though I did eventually have to do that for a few bigger items that no one needed.

Sold!

In Germany, used goods sell for nearly the price of new items. It’s absolutely ridiculous. An expensive new pram, for example, retails for €800. A used one would go for €700 unless it’s in really bad shape, in which case it might be let go for €650. Yes, really.

In order to move things along as quickly as possible (pun intended), I priced everything at 50% off – or more – of the original price. However, I did not list any amounts on the spreadsheet I emailed out; instead, I simply gave the price to whomever asked about the item. I think this helped because (1) buyers were already interested and (2) the dirt cheap deal I offered made the bargain too good to refuse. Since prices were so low, I did not have to haggle at all. Score!

Using the small, yet tight-knit expat community ended up being an excellent strategy. Not only did I mostly escape having to bargain with strangers, but my friends and acquaintances were more willing to agree on a later date to transfer the goods rather than having to hand the items over right away.

I can’t stress to you how advantageous this was. It was incredibly beneficial to know that my washing machine was indeed sold, but I could use it up until a few days before we actually moved.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

As you know, the process of moving takes an enormous amount of time. Here’s a snippet of what happened when I left my two year-old unattended in the living room while I packed… At least he put every.last.stinking.piece of our game and puzzle collection on the table instead of the floor. That counts for something… right?

Post Haste

With my remaining goods good to go, I consulted my former expat friend again, the one who had sent his own possessions home with DHL. He gifted me a few helpful pieces of advice.

First, he explained that I needed to list everything (yes, every.single.thing) that was in the box. Then, weigh the box + contents carefully, being certain to not go overweight. Finally,  schedule the boxes to be picked up at home instead of dragging them to the nearest DHL office.

All simple tips, yet incredibly valuable.

How Do You Do?

So, let me ask you, when you move, how do you pack? Super organized and careful at first, placing like objects together and paying attention to whether or not you can lift each box? With color coded labels for each room and the contents written in your best handwriting?

Right.

Okay, I usually start out like that – or intend to – but quickly devolve into “whatever” chaos – tossing in toothbrushes with toys and Tupperware. This madness is often performed alone in the wee hours of the night because my better half is often working on work or some other moving-related task.

But, friends, such packing behavior just isn’t going to cut it when you have to use a plane instead of pals to move your junk.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

I know I already used this photo above, but I want to tell you the secret behind it. When I checked the max. measurements on dhl.de, I thought I would be clever and order some of that size. Well, apparently centimeters are not my forte, because THESE were the boxes that arrived! Our entire family might be able to fit inside (well, if we were contortionists, that is), but each box could only WEIGH 30 kilos… uh, yeah – major MOVE FAIL.

It Takes Two

Packing boxes for a ride with DHL ended up being a two-person job (give or take one eager helper to wield the tape gun). One person packed the box while the other typed each and every little thing that went inside the box and added it to a detailed spreadsheet.

When the box was full, the two of us weighed it using a luggage scale and a gigantic Ikea bag (high-tech, I know). If the carton and contents were too light, we added more things (being careful to add them to the spreadsheet, too). And, vice versa, when the box was overweight, we shifted the innards (ensuring we deleted these items from the spreadsheet). Sounds like a pretty awesome way to spend your evenings, no?

Each box received a number from us that we also listed in our spreadsheet. That way, if any of the boxes lost its way, we would know which box had gone astray and what exactly was inside (toothbrushes, toys, and Tupperware, naturally).

Crap Flap

When we could finally see the floor in our apartment again – well, except the area underneath the tape-adorned boxes – I processed the shipping labels on dhl.de. To, From, Size, Weight… so far, so good.

When the required contents declaration appeared, I momentarily panicked when I realized that I could not just copy and paste my spreadsheet onto the DHL shipping manifest. Instead, I was given only six lines for each box… and, I was required to list a value and weight for each line item.

Oh, snap.

Germans love forms, rules, and those who conform. Delinquents who fill out forms incorrectly, ignore rules or decide to make their own, lose. Big Time. I knew that if I botched these forms, there was a good chance my bobbles and bits would never see the light of an American day.

I tried calling German DHL and asking. Though I somehow managed to find someone who spoke English, that phone call left me with more questions and even more paranoia than before.

Several deep breaths and a half a Ritter Sport later, it dawned on me. I could try and call US Customs in Florida, since that’s where my boxes would end up anyway.

I finally found someone to answer my questions, and she suggested I group similar items together and write descriptions like Used Children’s Toys instead of just Toys. She also urged me to indicate that the contents were personal household goods so as to not be hit with duty fees.

American customer service really is a beautiful thing. Even the grumpiest government worker in America can usually be coaxed into helping with a few kind words and a dash of appreciation. Maybe someday Germany will jump on the be-nice-to-your-customers-and-they-will-be-nice-to-you bandwagon…?

Feeling much better, I returned to the dreaded DHL website and followed her instructions. For the weight, I honestly just guessed on each category since I knew the total of the box. For the value, I kept the value for each box at or under €500 since this is the per box maximum amount of included insurance from DHL.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Expert tip: do NOT take your boxes to the nearest DHL location. Schedule a pickup instead!

Come and Get ‘Em

With the shipping labels completed (and the return of my blood pressure to a normal range), I then scheduled a pickup with DHL at my home address. Not only was this absolutely genius because I did not have to drag 30 kilo boxes to the post office, but generally the DHL drivers do not weigh the boxes.

Now, I don’t want to condone or encourage dishonesty, here. Doc Sci and I were very careful to make sure the boxes were as close to 30kg as possible. But, I did not want to argue with a postal clerk if the cartons were a few grams over or under the limit because my scale wasn’t calibrated exactly like hers.

Thankfully, the transfer to the DHL truck was smooth sailing, and I received tracking numbers and receipts for the boxes from the driver.

All right, you Nosy Nellies, I know you’re curious. How many boxes did we ship? Well, in the beginning, I had hoped to ship ten boxes – we ended up shipping fifteen. The packages took two to four weeks to arrive from Germany. I could track them on dhl.com but often the updates were nonexistent or happened all at once. When we finally set eyes on those brown beauties again, they were pretty bashed up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Our beat up boxes, post ocean voyage and customs vacation.

The Fifteen-Box Miracle

As you can see from the photos above, most boxes were agape with holes or puncture marks. Some even had entire seams exposed. They looked really, really bad. This totally stressed me out, until I realized something.

Miraculously, all fifteen boxes made it, and not a single thing was lost though the dents and gashes.

I believe the reason every little knick knack made it is partly because within each big box, I packed our things in smaller cartons (such as diaper boxes). This nesting idea wasn’t for shipping purposes, though. We needed to fit the contents of the fifteen big boxes into nooks and crannies of our small existing storage unit since we did not have a place to live when we arrived. While it was a ton of work in the moment to sort of pack everything twice, this small act paid off in a big way.

Repeat Performance?

So, would I use DHL to ship our household goods across the Atlantic again? The answer depends heavily upon the circumstances. In our case, no other option made sense.

All methods of moving overseas carry a certain amount of risk. Yes, insurance can be purchased, but claim funds and replacement goods are not the same as getting your beloved winter coat or your Grandma’s English tea cups back. I feel like we did the best we could in our situation, and thankfully, it all worked out this time.

If you’ve moved overseas, I’d love to hear your story! Or if you are thinking of moving abroad one day, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. Did you / would you go the container route? Check luggage? Ship boxes? Go minimalist and take nothing?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

 

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Upcycled Milk Carton (Scarf) Organizer

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  I actually don’t mind that most things in Europe are small – tiny cars, itty bitty apartments, skinny streets.  But one thing that drives me bonkers is the fact that milk is only sold by the liter.

I know this is totally a first world problem, and I realize that there are more important things to complain about.  But, week after week of getting “the look” from the grocery cashier just wears me down.  No, I am not nursing an army of baby cows back to health.  I’m just trying to keep up with my milk-chugging boys, thankyouverymuch. 

After said boys have consumed the liters, we then have the litter to look after.  I obviously know by now to put it in the correct trash bin.  But, all those cartons really add up, and I find myself annoyed and inevitably putting off the dreaded trip to the dumpster.

What to do?  Well, in the spirit of Real Simple, find new uses for old things, of course!

I’ve collected a zillion and one scarves since moving to Germany, and the horde is getting a little to rambunctious for my OCD tastes.  As part of my biannual deep clean, I wanted to make the menagerie into a pretty, neat grid that would facilitate my appreciation and usage of all the options.

But, even if you’re not a neck wear nut, you could use this upcycled milk carton doodad to corral any number of other loose items like jewelry, makeup, hair accessories, toiletries, ties, office supplies, etc.

Since I can’t seem to make anything without giving it the topographical treatment, you know there will be maps involved in this project.  If you don’t have this same addiction, er I mean problem, you could use high quality wrapping paper or decorate simple brown paper.  A nice hand-stamped design would be totally fab.

My apologies in advance for the poor lighting and creepy fingers.  A hand model I am not, and my only time to get creative is well after the sun and sons have gone to bed.  How else can I swipe my kid’s Lightning McQueen ruler without him knowing and obviously objecting?

All right, let’s git ‘er done.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Supplies:

  • Clean, dry milk cartons*
  • Box cutter or razor blade
  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Clear packing tape
  • Serious craft glue like E6000 or Uhu Kontakt Kraftkleber (optional)
  • Clothespins (optional)
  • Electrical or washi tape
  • Old map, heavy duty wrapping paper, or decorated brown paper

*A note about the milk cartons… Rinse and dry them as soon as they’re empty.  However, you still might discover some brilliant fuzzy friends when you open them up.  No problem – just wash and dry again.

Also, the number of milk cartons is completely up to you.  I used 15 because I like odd numbers, but don’t be afraid to make the grid smaller (especially if you have access to half gallon cartons) or larger.  Something asymmetrical/abstract could be super cool, but only attempt this if you have less than 3 children and an excess of time and patience.

But, if you do try any funky shape variations, please do post a link to your project in the comments below.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Cut Your Cartons

Determine how deep you want your bins to be, and use your (pilfered-from-the-resident-six-year-old) ruler to mark each milk carton.  Lop the tops off with a box cutter.  Careful, now, those blades are wicked sharp!

Rinse and repeat.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Okay, no rinsing is required unless you discover the aforementioned fuzz inside the containers.  Just keep cutting until you have as many headless milk cartons as you please.

Add the Adhesive

Arrange the cartons in the formation that suits your fancy.  For me, this was 3×5.  Once they’re set up, you might notice that some of your razor cuts came out uneven (or was that just me?).  Use sharp scissors to trim the edges until it looks good (enough).

Cut off pieces of clear packing tape, roll them around your fingers, and wedge them between two cartons.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Optional: If you want the edges flush, you’ll need to use some strong craft glue (see Supplies, above, for recommendations) and clothespins to hold the seams in place.  Allow the glue to dry overnight.

In any case, go to town again with the packing tape, wrapping it around the whole organizer in a giant sticky hug.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Details, Details

If you’re only stashing your organizer in a drawer and filling it with rubber bands and thumbtacks, feel free to stop here.  But, if you want to make it pretty, it’s time to dive into the details.

Tear off tiny pieces of electrical tape (I used white) or washi tape (didn’t have any on hand) to conceal the carton corners. Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Cut strips out of your map big enough to cover the milk carton seams and extend as far down as you want.  I knew each scarf would take up nearly an entire bin, so my map pieces are only about an inch wide.

Once you’ve arranged the strips how you like them, glue or tape the papers to cover the carton seams.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

Wrap It Up

Treat your newly smoodged-together organizer as a Christmas present, and wrap that puppy up.  A few tips..

  • Trim the excess off your map so you’re not battling a paper dragon that keeps folding back on itself.  Leave a margin of several inches all around.
  • Attach the sides before you do the ends.  This is because the ends are easy and the sides are a pain in the you-know-what.
  • Speaking of the sides, start in the center of your milk carton formation, and work out from there.
  • Cut small slits from the edge of the map to the top of the carton to line up with the seams between cartons (see second photo below).  Fold down the flaps, and attach with tape or glue.
  • The first side is the hardest, and things get easier from there.
  • Once the sides are done, finish the ends as you would when wrapping a birthday present in a box (third photo).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!  Fill ‘er Up

Now it’s time to use your darling creation to organize!  Stuff with scarves, and display with pride.Thrifty Travel Mama | Upcycled Scarf Organizer - made from milk cartons and maps!

What would you fill your organizer with?  Can you think of any other upcycle ideas for my myriad milk cartons?Signature-Marigold

German Grocery Games: Coupons & Sales

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - GroceriesIn just a few weeks, I’ll be in the US for a visit.  Yay!  In preparing for the trip, I’ve started checking my old coupon and deal websites in hopes of saving a few bucks on food and other items while we are there.  It’s kind of ridiculous the thrill couponing gives me..

I’ve written before about the lack of sales and coupons in the grocery stores here in Germany.  Unfortunately, not much has changed except food prices have gone up.  A LOT.

Sugar and flour are DOUBLE what they cost when we moved here in the fall of 2010.  You can bet the Christmas cookies felt the pinch last winter.

In an effort to draw in customers, stores like Aldi are trying to show how they have reduced prices on some things.  And by reduced, I mean about ten cents off the original price.  Whoopdedoo.

Here are a few examples from their website: aldicheap1aldicheap2But, I have noticed that coupons are starting to catch on, albeit ever so slowly.  The grocery chain Rewe recently opened a new store nearby and offered customers 10 euros off the purchase of a 50 euro Rewe gift card.  That’s 20% off anything, anytime.  We only bought two because Rewe tends to be more expensive than other stores in the area.  Still, it was something.

Even more surprising, Doc Sci brought home a coupon book from the discounter Penny.  I was totally excited that he showed up with coupons and rather impressed with what I found inside.  Here’s a look:DSC_0261 copyDSC_0266 copyDSC_0267-001 copyDSC_0269 copyDSC_0271 copyDSC_0270 copyDSC_0272 copyWhile I don’t see BOGO going mainstream in Germany, I hope that the grocery stores will decide to offer more incentives to customers in an effort to help combat the inflated price of commodities.

What great grocery deals and coupons have you found lately?Signature-Marigold

Change Up Your Clean Routine

I love a clean house, but I hate giving away the ridiculous amount of time it takes to get there.  I like things to be neat and organized, and I don’t want to have crusty food on the table or crumbs all over the floor.  With three kids, it can seem like nothing is ever clean, and I often want to throw in the towel and give up trying.

However, with a few simple strategies, it is possible to have a clean home in less time.

Are you one of those people that cleans on a certain day or time of the week?  When I was single and also when I was first married, I would spend several hours on Saturday morning cleaning.  Everything got done then: the bathroom, the kitchen, the floors, dusting, etc.

After T-Rex was born, I struggled to keep up with the routine and standards I had maintained for years.  Three or four hours on a Saturday morning was not something I had to give anymore.

Teach your children to clean up their own toys (age appropriately) and, in turn, to be a good steward of the things they have.

Teach your children to clean up their own toys (age appropriately) and, in turn, to be a good steward of the things they have.

Shortly before Screech was born, I discovered Stephanie O’Dea’s Daily 7.  You may know Stephanie from Crockpot 365, a challenge to use her slow cooker every day for an entire year.  Awesome – but I’ll have to save my Crockpot love for another day.

Stephanie’s Daily 7 (based on the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey) rocked my world.  I loved the idea of having little tasks to do every day so that the house stayed pretty clean the whole week through.  Why not clean the bathroom while you are already there supervising little boys in the shower?  Why not take the extra five seconds to put your dish straight in the dishwasher instead of leaving it on the counter or in the sink?

We don't have a dishwasher - at least not the kind you plug in!  We have to keep things clean because that 19" of counter space you see is all we've got.

We don’t have a dishwasher – at least not the kind you plug in! We have to keep things clean because that 19″ of counter space you see is all we’ve got.

The concept seems so simple – and, it is – but putting it into practice made a huge impact on my household productivity, not to mention my stress level.

The boys love to help by pushing the buttons on the washing machine.

The boys love to help by pushing the buttons on the washing machine.

In trying to make this Daily 7 idea work for me, I realized that not all of her 7 fit my situation, my home, or my personality, so I came up with my own version.  I encourage you to make your own list as well based on the particular needs of your family and living space. Here are mine:

  1. Clean up after yourself and help children do the same.  Duh, but a great reminder.  Be an example – your kids are watching!  Help them to accomplish what you eventually want them to do on their own.
  2. Make beds right away.  If you don’t already do this, make it a habit.  And, along the lines of #1, this is a chore that even very young children can learn to do.  It makes a huge difference in the appearance of your home.
  3. Wipe down bathrooms.  When you’re in the shower, scrub it.  When you’re waiting for the kids to finish their bath or shower, give the rest of the bathroom a quick clean.
  4. Do a quick clean up before naps and bedtime.  Less toys scattered about the house means more focus for me during downtime and at night.
  5. Keep the kitchen sink empty.  Put your dishes straight in the dishwasher.  It’s an extra 5 seconds, but the aesthetic payoff is huge.  If you don’t have a dishwasher (I don’t in Germany), try to wash the dishes right away and stack them in the drying rack instead of leaving them on the counter.
  6. Vacuum the entryway and around the dining table.  These are the areas most prone to debris, and you can eliminate that dirty house vibe with a quick swipe of the Hoover.
  7. Wipe down dining table and kitchen counter.  Simple, but highly effective.

By now, you may be thinking, this sounds GREAT!  But, what about the rest of the house?  I can’t just vacuum the entry way and under the table.  Eventually the rest of the floors are going to get pretty grody.

Before we bought a dryer, I had to wash one load of laundry per day in order to give it time to dry on the rack.

Before we bought a dryer, I had to wash one load of laundry per day in order to give it time to dry on the rack.

What works for me is to do one or two “big” chores every day.  Here’s what that looks like in my house:

  • Monday – Grocery shop, put away food, quickly organize fridge and pantry.
  • Tuesday – Wash sheets and towels.  Dry and either fold or put back in their places.  We only have one set of bath towels, so I just hang them back up after they’re dry.
  • Wednesday – Vacuum and mop.  Beat or wash rugs.
  • Thursday – Sort and pre-treat laundry.  Dust house.
  • Friday – Wash and dry laundry.  Meal plan for the upcoming week.
  • Saturday – Fold and put away laundry (can also be done on Friday night while watching a movie).

I don’t have to clean the bathroom or wipe down the kitchen because that’s done daily.  The kids pick up their own toys, and the bedrooms look neat because the comforters and pillows are in place.  This leaves more time for hanging out together, taking care of other priorities, and – of course – traveling on the weekends.

We do the German thing and use a brush to clean up under the table, but if you have a Dust Buster, I'd recommend using that instead!

We do the German thing and use a brush to clean up under the table, but if you have a Dust Buster, I’d recommend using that instead!

You may have noticed I don’t do a Martha Stewart job on my house.  You’ll never see me cleaning my light fixtures with a Q-tip.  My home is meant to be lived in, not shown off.  But, I’ll concede – every now and again the house needs a bit more than the above routine.  So, twice a year we do a “deep clean” in our home.

This little helper is cleaning his own kitchen!

This little helper is cleaning his own kitchen!

Most people do spring cleaning.  I prefer to do a late winter cleaning because it takes me several Saturdays to accomplish such a formidable task.  I’d rather be stuck inside scrubbing on a dreary, cold day than a beautiful, warm, sunny one.  We also do a fall cleaning once the chilly rains begin in late October, again because there’s no advantage to traveling then.

We use our Saturdays for deep cleaning because, truthfully, there just isn’t time during the week.  And, now that the boys are a little older, we can give them easy tasks to keep them occupied and help us out.

I compiled a list of items to be completed as part of the deep clean, and I filed it in my Household Notebook.  I am not publishing it here because it’s specific to my apartment, and you probably wouldn’t get much use out of it.  But here are several links to exhaustive deep clean lists that are extremely helpful when making your own deep clean checklist:

We’re midway through this year’s late winter cleaning, and we should be finished by the time the sun decides to show its face.  Then, we’ll have plenty of time for exploring all that Germany and the surrounding countries have to offer, and a clean home where we can return and relax after our adventures.

Have you implemented any of these cleaning strategies?  Any tips that I may have left out?

Signature-Marigold

Marvel: The German Tax Frenzy

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life - TaxesI had a nice little post for you today on how to making your own travel journals.  But then last night happened.  And what, pray tell, could be so thrilling as to distract me from posting pretty pictures of paper?

Getting our German taxes done, that’s what.  And, unfortunately, I have no pretty pictures of paperwork.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, sheesh, who cares about taxes?  That’s stupid and boring.  I’ll just get back to my Lean Cuisine microwave meal now, thankyouverymuch.

Well, hang on to your hats for just a minute more while I recap flying through three years of tax returns done in 90 minutes.  Schnell!  Schnell!

We’ve been told over and over that we should do our German taxes because we’d get a decent amount back.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I loathe doing taxes and even more so as an expat.  Doc Sci gets plenty of money taken out of his paycheck, and I was not interested in the amount of effort required to get a “decent” refund.

But one of Doc Sci’s colleagues kept bugging him about it, and she even offered the name of her tax guy who spoke English and came to your house to do the whole shebang.  Finally, we broke down and called this guy – let’s name him Larry since that’s a very nice accountant-ish name – back in January and asked for an appointment.  He informed us he was much too busy for poor peons like us, but we should gather all the paperwork he had listed on his website and call him back in February.

Shucks, I am always up for digging through my files and mining the depths of my archives for financial and legal documents with long names like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Lohnsteuerbescheinigung.  Okay, no, no I’m not.  So, I just made a very impressive looking pile several inches deep and then threw the binder of bank statements on top to look very, very organized.  Go me.

When February came, I picked a time when Doc Sci would be home in the afternoon, and I slipped him Larry’s phone number, a smile, and a few bats of the eyelashes.  Please, oh please, won’t you call Larry again and set up an appointment?  Here’s my planner so you’ll know when we’re available.  Aren’t I a nice wife to help you out like that?

But, Larry didn’t want to schedule an appointment for next week or the week after.  No, no, tonight suited him just fine.  How about four hours from now?  This should’ve been a clue to me that we would’ve been better off calling him Fast & Furious.

Fast & Furious Larry showed up around 8:30pm rolling a briefcase behind him which is a corporate America move, not a German one.  Doc Sci thought Larry looked like an accountant.  Well, what the heck does an accountant look like?  I thought he looked like a nerdy study partner, hair in the eyes, glasses, and a polo shirt.  Maybe that is what an accountant looks like, but what do I know?

This guy made himself right at home, busting out the biggest laptop we had ever (EVER!) seen.  It was equipped with two anti-theft devices.  One was a dongle (I was informed by Doc Sci that this is the proper term, and it is neither inappropriate nor misspelled) that must be inserted in order to use the computer.  The other was its sheer mass, half the size of a Brinks security truck with some computer whirlygigs and a keyboard inside.

Even better, he had a gazillion gadgets duct taped to the cover.  An orange highlighter, one of those bank pens on a spiral cord, a wireless phone (internet maybe?), peanuts, pretzels, a beer, but sadly, not an apple.

We (stupidly) had not asked in advance how much Larry’s services were going to cost, so we decided a few minutes before he arrived that we’d start with that as a means of introduction.  Hello, nice to meet you, are you too expensive for our poor little just-a-cut-above-a-grad-student means?  But, Larry was not interested in small talk.  He whisked away our questions and told us to bring on the paperwork.

Wait, what?  You’re going to do three years of our taxes RIGHT NOW?!  Yes, ma’am and the faster I get it done, the cheaper it is for you.

Ai, ai, Captain Larry, well then let’s not delay!

For the next 90 minutes, Mr. Fast & Furious fired questions and orders in broken English.  “You have bank statement from Flugtickets when you move to Germany?”  “How many kilometers your home in America from the airport?”  “Kindergarten receipts!”  “You have American tax papers?  They not printed out?  Print out!”

Remind me if I ever do this again to wear Nikes and wicking workout gear.  We were dripping sweat sprinting back and forth between the printer churning out credit card statements, receipts, and summaries as far back as 1897.  Every foot/cent/mile/dollar/euro/kilometer counts, as long as you’ve got the backup to prove it.

In the end, he scrawled several numbers on a paper.  “That how much you get back.  That how much you pay me.”

I about fell over when I saw the figures.  We’re getting several thousand (yep, THOUSAND) euros back for the last three years, and homeboy here just made 436 Euros in about an hour and a half.  We are to pay Mr. Fast & Furious this random amount after we receive our refund.  And, of course we must do this by bank transfer.  Checks are so.. American.

Needless to say, we never envisioned our evening to begin with an awkward introduction followed by a frenzy of dollars, sense, and madness to finally land our butts on a pile of gold at the end of the German rainbow.  I’m quite certain that our 2012 April date with Uncle Sam will be neither as thrilling nor as profitable.  But, that’s okay.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get to do this all over again next year.Signature-Marigold

Thrifty Travel Mama – 2012 – A Year in Review

Whew!  2012 has been a wild ride, full of experiences and surprises.  “Year in Review” posts are all the rage in the blogosphere, so despite my inclinations to do the opposite, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

In January, I went fully frugal.  I shared my source for Free DIY Passport Photos.  I pointed you to the European Backpacker Index, a tool for researching expenses in European cities.  Oh, and I saved you from having to run to the store at the last minute by showing you how to make your own brown sugar.

February brought me a birthday, and Doc Sci took me to Milan (sans kids) to celebrate.  We ogled da Vinci’s Last Supper and the views from the roof of the Duomo.  We got caught in Carnival madness, and stuffed our faces with risotto, bread, pizza, and (of course) gelato.

I went crazy in March trying to make our awful concrete student housing apartment more homey on a very small budget.  I spiced up the kitchen, bathroom, and front entry.  I constructed a ginormous cork board wall in the living room and plastered it with photos.  I somehow also found the time to completely finish Rosetta Stone German and post a final review.

In April, our little family went home to the US for 3 weeks, stopping in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida.  We soaked up the sun, and made kid-friendly activities a priority.  Among the boys’ favorite was our trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Back in Germany, May was part work and part play.  Doc Sci and I both took week-long intensive German courses.  We also managed a date night to the movies, complete with popcorn and assigned seats.

Doc Sci let us tag along with him to Berlin in June.  He attended a brainiac conference while the boys and I played at Legoland.   And speaking of brains, I got mine to work long enough to pass my German driver’s license exam.

In July, I switched to extreme nesting mode.  I stocked the freezer with a gazillion meals, and organized our life into one happy turquoise notebook.

I took a six-week break starting in August to bring our third and final little traveler into the world.  His birth story is the kind nightmares are made of.

We ventured out to Frankfurt in September to get the little guy his passport when he was only two weeks old.  And good thing, too.  Later that month, Big Foot found himself coasting through five countries on four planes, five trains, and two buses, in the span of three days.  No sweat for a seven week-old.

In October, I posted reviews of flying Delta Airlines and easyJet with a baby.  I should’ve shown you these fashionable Oktoberfest pull-ups, but I was too busy scoring freebies for babies and mamas in Germany.

November was an exciting month for us.  We bought a car!  Doc Sci wrote a fabulous guest post detailing the adventure.

We took our car on a little road trip to France in December.  It was all the travel we could muster in between the zillions of Pinterest projects that filled my days and nights before Christmas.

Every year has its highs and lows, surprises both good and bad, and 2012 was no different.  It’s just how life goes, and I’m thankful to live it with my awesome-amazing-how-could-I-describe-you-in-just-one-word husband and three blessed boys who make me laugh every day.  Here’s to 2013!

Free Baby Stuff for Mamas in Germany

Two of the things I miss the most about living in the US are free samples and coupons.  It’s not that they’re nonexistent in Germany; it’s just that they’re so rare they might as well be.

So you can imagine that I was quite excited to stumble across this post which contains links to all sorts of freebies for pregnant ladies and new mamas.  I wasn’t able to sign up for all of them, but I have been really pleased with what I have received.

All the baby coupons I have received thus far!

Here’s a rundown…

Hands down, the best goodies have come from dm’s babybonus program.  If you don’t know dm, it’s the German version of CVS or Walgreens.  This store offers your normal drugstore fare plus a great selection of baby items including clothing.  Each location has a changing table in it with complimentary wipes and diapers.  I haven’t seen parent-oriented service like that anywhere else in Germany save IKEA.

I love that dm has two different welcome packets – one for when you’re pregnant and the other for after the baby has arrived.

Items received from the dm pregnancy welcome packet (Willkommens-Paket zur Schwangerschaft):

  • 10% off your purchase, no minimum
  • A full size tube (150ml) of massage cream for prego bellies
  • A coupon book with savings on diapers, wipes, and other baby products as well as toiletries and pregnancy items (valid for more than 6 months)

dm babybonus welcome packet.

Items received from the dm babybonus welcome packet:

  • Soft rattle toy
  • Orthodontic pacifier
  • Samples of moisturizer and body lotion for mama
  • Sample of dm’s diaper rash cream for baby
  • Another (thicker) coupon book with similar savings to the pregnancy one (also valid for more than 6 months)

The next best box came from real,-.  You can read about how I love real,- here.  I first received a letter confirming my enrollment in their familymanager program that included only two coupons, one for baby gear and one for baby clothing.  I was a bit disappointed until I found a surprise from real,- in my mailbox right after Big Foot was born.

Box from real,-.

Items received from the familymanager Hallo Baby welcome packet:

  • Samples of Pampers wipes and one diaper
  • Purple Pampers baby socks
  • An iron-on logo to decorate a baby onesie and provide free advertising for real,- (ha!)
  • A lotion sample for mama
  • A coupon book with in-store savings on baby and household items (valid for more than 3 months)

Though I tend to frequent dm more, Müller is another great drugstore that also sells office supplies, department store perfume, toys, and entertainment media (CDs, DVDs, electronic games, etc).  I can attest that their Mein Baby program is well worth the five minutes it takes to sign up.  Though I wasn’t given any free samples, one could argue the contents were quite a bit more valuable.

Super thick coupon book from Müller.

Items received from Müller’s Mein Baby mailing:

  • Coupon for €5 off €20 (not limited to baby items and no expiration date)
  • The biggest coupon book I’ve ever seen in Germany with savings on pregnancy, baby, household, and family items as well as toys (valid for more than 6 months)

Honorable mention: Pampers Village The website states that if you sign up, you will receive coupons, newsletters, and a free box with items in it from the maternity ward where you give birth.  I never did receive the box, but perhaps the fact that I didn’t actually end up on the maternity ward after Big Foot was born had a little something to do with that.  However, I did receive coupons, and I successfully stacked a manufacturer’s coupon and a dm coupon when purchasing Pampers diapers.  Score!

If you’re actually signing up for all these freebies, I’d recommend skipping the registration for HiPP’s Mein Baby Club I only received a sticker to hang in the window of a car I don’t own and a coupon for 20 euros toward an account for the baby.  I thought that was rather generous… until I read the fine print.  In order to claim the money, I had to appear in person at the bank to verify all my information as well as the baby’s.  I understand that the company would like to know to whom they are giving their money (and that nothing is ever really free), but what new mama has time for an extra trip to the bank of all places??

Anyhow, it’s been great fun to sorta kinda coupon again.  I’ll take all the savings I can get!  If you’d like additional links to baby freebies in Germany, check out this blogger’s list.   Meanwhile, I’ll keep checking my mailbox for more money-saving goodies!

It’s Time

It’s time.. for a lot of things.. for a little of this and a little of that..

It’s time.. for summer holidays.  T-Rex’s kindergarten closed for the summer just last week.  That’s right, in August.  The new kindergarten year begins the first week of September.

It’s time.. to wrap up little projects around the house.  To clean up and clean out.

It’s time.. to have a baby.  Really.  He can’t stay in there forever.

And, finally, it’s time.. to take a break.  A blogging break, that is.  The perfectionist people pleaser in me wants to write up until I’m on the way to the hospital.  But, truth be told, what I’d be writing wouldn’t be any good.  But checking off a box that says I blogged this week isn’t the point.

So, I’m here to say adieu.. for a few weeks, anyway.  I’ll be back to introduce the newest traveler, to write about my hospital experience, and to chronicle what I anticipate will be a hairy ordeal getting this little boy established in our expat world.

Enjoy your summer.  Relax with a sweet tea.  Dust off your passport, and see the world.  Or even just explore the next town over.  The season will be over before you (we) know it.

And when it’s back to school, I hope to be back to blogging.

Household Notebook

I finished my Household Notebook – yay!

Well, “finished” as in as complete as any project done by a perfectionist could possibly be.  I’m doing my best to let it be what it was intended – a tool that our family USES – and not merely a piece of art that adorns my desk.

So, what exactly is a Household or Family Notebook? 

Our family’s Household Notebook – turquoise!

I suppose it’s not the same for everyone; but, for us it’s a collection of documents to manage our family “business” better.  It will help me be even more organized, and it should provide valuable information for Doc Sci or anyone else who might need to take over daily affairs for some reason.  It should also provide quick access to vital information during an emergency situation.

I started out researching what other people had in their notebooks (using Pinterest and Google, of course).  I made a huge list of ideas, and then I narrowed that list down to 15 categories.  In those 15 categories, I wrote down items that were appropriate to the category and would be referenced or used frequently.  I then searched for existing templates that I could use as a springboard to design my own documents.

When poking around online, I noticed some people had four binders instead of one.  Other people used their binders exclusively to pay bills and didn’t include anything else like meal planning or personal health records.  I didn’t want my notebook to be a replacement for a file cabinet – but, I also didn’t I want my desk to be overwhelmed with a library of resources.

Ultimately, a Household Notebook needs to be something useful for that particular household.

So, what’s in my notebook?

Categories.

My 15 categories and a few examples of the documents in each are as follows…

  • Contact Info
    • Emergency phone numbers
    • German & American contact numbers
    • “In case of emergency” document
  • Planning
    • 2012 and 2013 at a glance
    • Important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc)
    • Yearly calendaring list (everything from dentist appointments to dryer cleanings)
    • German and American holidays including daylight savings schedules (they’re different for the two countries)
    • Doc Sci’s work schedule and my weekly schedule
    • Party planning checklists
  • Home Management
    • Deep cleaning checklist
    • Storage unit contents – Germany and USA
    • Stain removal guide
    • Garment care symbols
  • Meals
    • Grocery lists for regular grocery stores
    • List of items only available at specialty shops
    • Meal planning sheets
    • A list of staple meals
    • A list of meals to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Restaurants to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Seasonal produce guide for menu planning
    • Stockpile inventory
  • Family
    • Children’s current sizes and measurements
    • Chart with American and European sizes, including shoes
    • Children’s daily schedule and routine
    • Babysitter notes for nights out
    • Birthday party ideas
    • Chore chart ideas
  • Health
    • Medical history for each family member
    • Physician phone numbers
    • CPR instructions
  • School
    • School contact info and phone list
    • Home school weekly planning sheet
    • Home school year overview
  • Money & Finance
    • Family budget
    • Wallet contents including card numbers & contact numbers
    • Password log
    • Yearly schedule of the best time to buy household items
    • Auto insurance coverage details
  • Travel
    • Ideas for local family outings (not overnight)
    • Vacation destination idea list (overnight)
    • Packing lists
    • Before-we-leave checklist
    • Frequent flier mile information for all family members
  • Expat Living
    • Copies of passports
    • Resources for renewing visas
  • Projects
    • Generic to do list
    • Generic project work sheet
    • Generic week at a glance schedule for completing a project
  • Holidays
    • Thanksgiving guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Thanksgiving week planner
    • Christmas card labels
    • Gift gift lists
    • Christmas cookie swap party planner
    • Christmas guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Blank copy of December 2012
  • Blog
    • Ideas page for future posts
    • Yearly calendar for planning
  • Activities
    • Local public pool schedules
    • Local sport club classes for kids
    • Ideas for activities during summer and holidays
  • Lists
    • Items I frequently (and currently need to) request from the US
    • List of topics to research
    • Household items to fix
    • Generic sheet for thoughts on a particular topic

Using the documents I found online, I created my own set of documents in Illustrator that fit our family’s situation (living abroad, don’t own a home, etc.).  I also had to make sure all the pages matched and looked pretty!

My funky European two-ring binder.

After designing all the documents, I organized them into folders on my computer hard drive that matched the categories above.  That way, when I need to print out new menu planning sheets, I can just open the “Meals” folder on my computer the same as I could flip to the “Meals” tab in the notebook.

The only tabs I could find that would reach beyond the page protects had to be cut by hand. Not great for someone who can’t snip a straight line to save her life!

I wanted to print out the documents at a lab so they’d look nicer.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of any existing print labs in my city, so I had to settle for our HP Deskjet. Surprisingly, Illustrator did a great job with color, and what I saw on the screen was how it looked on paper.  Sweet!

Some reference documents went in page protectors, and some were just hole-punched and placed in the corresponding category tab.

Page protectors are very cheap here – both in terms of quality and money.

I bought a plastic envelope to put in the back of the notebook to hold takeout menus and other small scraps of paper that didn’t fit anywhere else.  Unfortunately, it was too big, so I’ll have to check a few other stores for smaller pouches.

My too-big plastic envelope.

I have a few finishing touches to put on the notebook (for starters, filling in the budget and phone numbers by hand).  After that, I’m looking forward to how this notebook will help streamline my “mama” job and make life easier for Doc Sci when I’m out of it for a few weeks.  I think my Household Notebook will be a great tool for our family in the years to come.

p.s. – I’ve made a Pinterest board with links to all the documents I used for ideas.  You can view the board and links here.

How about you?  Do you have a household notebook? Why or why not?

Searching for Deals in Deutschland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - Finding DealsI’ve lived in Germany for almost two years now, and I still miss coupons.  And Slickdeals.  Oh my, do I miss Slickdeals.

And, while Germans in my corner of the country are obsessed with saving the planet, it seems like they aren’t really interested in saving money.  And, that’s a shame, because the truth remains: stuff in Germany is expensive.

So, what’s a thrifty mama to do?

Shop around, and shop online.

Here are the best ways I’ve found to save money on items we need for every day life.

Food.  Every weekend, I check the Aldi Süd and Lidl websites.  Special offers and sales are listed for the upcoming week.  Food discounts on regularly-stocked items are actually quite rare.  If a sale exists on food, it’s almost always for a name brand (and often the store brand is still cheaper) or it’s a measly 10 to 50 cents off the normal price.

Aldi Süd ad. This one just happens to be for “American” week.

When I do spot a sale on something we eat regularly, I buy as much as my fridge/freezer/pantry can hold.  Unfortunately, sales on food items are not on a rotating schedule like in the US, so I have no idea when (or even, if) that same item will be on sale again.

Lidl. de website – ads for the two sales every week are listed across the top.

More often, food sales offered by Aldi and Lidl are for “ethnic” food (and I use that term very loosely).  For instance, during Asian week, I buy sesame oil, chow mein noodles, stir fry kits, etc.  These special items are usually offered 2-3 times per year.  I’m sure there’s a yearly schedule online somewhere for when certain items will be available, but I have yet to find it.

Household Goods.  Aldi and Lidl also regularly offer an array of household goods at very good (for Germany) prices.  The quality varies, but it is usually much better than 1 euro stores and cheap import stores.  I’ve found great prices in both stores on toys, cheap house shoes, kids costumes, office supplies, kitchen gadgets, linens, etc.  Again, all of these items make an appearance 1-3 times per year, and once the inventory is gone, it’s gone.

The other great place to find deals on household goods is Amazon.de.  I often will compare the prices I find on Aldi and Lidl with Amazon.  That way, I know if 9,99 is a good price or not for a king-sized fitted sheet.  Amazon sometimes has sales, but I have not found any to fit my needs yet.

Amazon.de carries a wide variety of items from Big Bang Theory t-shirts to English books to cooking utensils to vacuums and (almost) anything else you can think up.

As in the US, Amazon.de offers a prime option.  It’s cheaper (29 euros per year, I believe), but not particularly necessary.  Germany is a much smaller country, so shipping time is not as long here as it is in America.  Almost everything I order from Amazon.de (with or without prime – I’ve had two prime trials) arrives at my home within 1-3 days.  Plus, orders over 20 euros come with free shipping anyway.

Clothing and Shoes.  Semi-annual sales (January and July) seem to be the best times to buy new clothing for cheap.  Department stores (even the expensive ones) have decent markdowns as do the discounters like H&M, C&A, etc.

I buy almost all my kids clothing, toys, and gear at flohmarkts.  Most people sell items that are in good condition (sometimes like new or brand new), and bargaining is acceptable.  I also find it easier to let boys be boys in second-hand clothing.  If their jeans rip because they had an epic time learning to ride a bike or playing soccer, I don’t care because I only paid 2 euros for the pair instead of 20.

And, speaking of bikes, every bike the boys have had has come from a flohmarkt.  I’ve also purchased a bike seat and other bike accessories at flohmarkts.  Unfortunately, these markets are like garage sales.  I never know if I am going to find what I am looking for – I just have to go and have a look around.

Zalando is the German version of Zappos.  I have not personally ordered any shoes from here, but friends have told me it works the same way as it does in the US – shipping is free both ways.  Order as many shoes as you like, and return what you don’t want.

Zalando – thousands and thousands of shoes.

Electronics and Appliances.  For both of these categories, I have found Amazon.de to have the best deals.  Sometimes local electronics stores will have sales, but the prices are still often not as good as Amazon.  And, even if they are the same, Amazon delivers for free whereas the stores do not.  So far, we have purchased a washer, dryer, and a TV from Amazon.  All were delivered gratis.

The only other place I’ve found online (and, actually, I didn’t find it – a friend sent me the link) that seems to be a good place for electronics and the like is dealdoktor.de.  This website regularly has deals for iPads, cell phones, TV’s, and the like – all of which are terribly expensive in Germany.  Occasionally, I’ve seen deals for shoes, clothing, toiletries, etc.  And, just a tip, I find Deal Doktor easier to read in Google Reader than on it’s actual website.

Deal Doktor website – a bit confusing and overwhelming visually. Subscribe via Google Reader for easier viewing (and to stay on top of trending deals).

The only other trick I have up my sleeve is to stock up on food, clothing, etc. while in America.  Even with the cost to check an extra bag on my flight, the cost of items in America still usually comes up cheaper than in Europe.

So, what about you? What deal websites or tips/tricks have you found to help save money while living in Europe?