Go-To Recipes for End of Summer Get-Togethers

Summer may be winding down (can you believe we’re closing in on August already? Dang!), but chances are you still have a family reunion, picnic, backyard barbecue, or town celebration coming up, and then of course there’s Labor Day weekend. Whatever it is, you’ll probably be providing some kind of side or dessert to round out the meal and share with the group. You could go with the usual macaroni salad or bars from a box, but why not shake things up and impress your relatives or friends with something totally unexpected?

If you’re looking for something different and delicious to bring to the table, I’ve got some recipes you should definitely try!

calico beans

Calico Beans beats basic baked beans any day! Photo courtesy of crockpotladies.com

Calico Beans 
Ingredients:
1/2 lb. bacon, in pieces
2 lbs. ground beef
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
1 (16 oz.) can baked beans in tomato sauce
1 (15-1/2 oz.) can kidney beans
1 (16 oz.) can butter beans
1 cup ketchup
3 tbsp. vinegar
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
Directions: Fry bacon pieces; remove from grease. Brown ground beef. Add onions and celery at end of browning. In baking dish, combine remaining ingredients; add bacon and ground beef mixture. Bake covered at 350° F for 45 minutes or for 6-8 hours on low in a slow cooker.

coleslaw

More zesty and colorful than classic coleslaw! 

Sweet-and-Sour Coleslaw 
Ingredients:
4 cups chopped or shredded cabbage (I buy the kind in a bag)
1/2 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 medium green bell pepper, chopped
1 tbsp. jalapeño pepper, chopped
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1 small can cooked corn kernels, cooled
Dressing:
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
Salt to taste
Directions: Place cabbage, peppers, onions, cilantro, and corn in a large bowl. Mix vinegar, sweetener, and salt in a small bowl, add to cabbage mixture and toss well. Chill before serving.   Recipe and photo from allrecipes.com

cowboy caviar 3

Why settle for regular salsa when you can dip your chips in Cowboy Caviar? Photo courtesy of culinaryhill.com

Cowboy Caviar  
Ingredients:
1 can garbanzo beans – drained and rinsed
1 can pinto beans – drained and rinsed
1 can black beans – drained and rinsed
1 can white corn – drained
4 stalks celery
1 green, 1 yellow & 1 red pepper – chopped
1 small red onion – chopped
Dressing
1 cup canola oil
½ cup vinegar
½ cup sugar
Directions: Boil dressing ingredients together. Mix dressing with bean/veggie ingredients and refrigerate overnight.

caprese salad

A light, refreshing Italian salad that’s easy to make and simply delish! 

Caprese Salad 
Ingredients:
2 lbs. assorted fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 lb. cubed mozzarella
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped fresh basil
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar (I use balsamic vinegar)
Salt & pepper to taste
Directions: Toss ingredients together and chill before serving.
Photo and recipe from Foodnetwork.com

snow cone cupcakes

These snow cone treats are actually cupcakes, which means they won’t melt! Photo courtesy of lovefromtheoven.com

Snow Cone Cupcakes
You’ll find all kinds of recipes for these and other clever summer-theme cupcakes on Pinterest!

Deviled Eggs are always a hit at summer parties, but instead of going with the same old mayo and mustard recipe, try one of these Unique Deviled Egg Toppings!

Looking for handy ways to store, serve and carry your food & beverages?  Check these out:

snap and stack 2Snapware® Snap ‘N Stack Food Storage Eggtainer
Ideal for picnics and potlucks, this multi-use tote has two removable egg holders for deviled eggs and stackable containers for bars or cookies. Buy it now at boscovs.com

 

crock potCrock-Pot Oval 7 Quart Red Slow Cooker with Travel Bag
Perfect for hot appetizers, entrees, and side dishes (like Calico Beans!). Comes with a travel bag for easy toting to summer parties. Buy it now at shopko.com

cooler
Rubbermaid 60-Quart Wheeled Cooler

Keep beverages cold on the go with this roomy, easy-to-maneuver cooler. It holds up to 62 cans with ice, plus has built-in cup holders. Buy it now at homedepot.com

Enjoy!

Smark Perks Blogger Catherine B. loves summer. She just wishes it lasted longer (if only she could say the same for winter!).

Planning a Theme Party Doesn’t Have to Be a Circus

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The season of outdoor parties is upon us! Graduation parties, weddings, birthdays, showers…everyone loves a summer party.

And one glance at Pinterest or Instagram and you’ll immediately realize that theme parties are a huge trend.  If you’re a Pinterest fan, you have to admit it…you’ve spent many an hour perusing board after board of fabulous cakes, floral arrangements, magical barn weddings, and over the top, themed birthday bashes. From elaborate color-coordinated candy tables to amazing baby gender reveal cakes, social media can give you a serious case of party FOMO (fear of missing out).

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So when my friend’s french bulldog Louis was about to turn one, I said “Me! Me! Me! I want to host the party at my house.”  Yes, we threw his dog a birthday party. And it was spectacular. I thought I’d share some tips on planning a summer birthday, so you can dream big and ensure nobody and nothing will rain on your parade, so to speak. I’ll also share some of my favorite party planning resources.

Pick a theme you love. Something that excites your imagination. Something that expresses your personality. If you’re in love with your theme, you’ll have no trouble imagining creative ideas to implement it. Enthusiasm breeds inspiration.

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Create a Vision Board. Google is your friend. Seriously, what did we do before search engines? Type in your theme (in this case, circus party) and the word images and you’ll get tons of great ideas. Copy the images into one Word document, or print out pages to create a collage or stick in a party plan folder. Whatever works for you.  Whether you want to DIY or enlist the help of professionals, starting with a vision in mind of your perfect event will save you from feeling let down with your final result.

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Have a couple WOWS in mind. Or maybe just one. For instance, the Big Top Circus Cake was my WOW. I went to the bakery about 3 weeks in advance (I know my limitations, I am not a baker) and I went in with a sheet of paper showing 7-8 circus cakes I’d found on the Internet that I was madly in love with. The baker immediately brought me back to reality. “Do you want to pay for a wedding cake?” I was asked. Some of my ideas were “Cake Boss” HUGE and way out of my budget. But we started talking about what I could afford. Layer cakes were out. However, I had my heart set on a circus tent. We ended up with a big top cake that would serve 8, covered in fondant (which is more expensive) and a dozen cupcakes with plain frosting and sprinkles, which were considerably less expensive. I got the cake I dreamed of. After all, cake is the best part of the party, right?

What about the dogs you ask? Well, my friend found some inexpensive and awesome dog bone molds and simple dog-friendly cake recipes, and he made those himself. So two-leggers and four-leggers alike got to enjoy birthday cake!

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Have fun planning. It’s a party! We made this party fun for both the dogs and their humans. Treat bags included cookies for the dogs and colorful gum balls for the people. Plus, wacky props like foam rubber noses and other goofy favors that made for plenty of great photo-ops. And we didn’t forget the two-legged kids. They got cute little circus tattoos and animals!

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Create a big first impression. Whether guests or passers-by, you want to let people know where the party’s at!

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Encourage your guests to take part in the theme. They’ll want to come prepared to play along and have a good time, too!

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Location. Location. Location. With summertime outdoor events, you have to be prepared for anything weather-wise, and you must have a sense of humor about it. Outdoor parties are not for the faint of heart. Before our party our biggest concern was rain. We considered public parks with a covered picnic shelter, but no loose dogs were allowed. We drew the line at tent rentals for the dog party, and it was a prime graduation party weekend, so we had to compete with that from nearby rental stores. So, our fallback plans included the garage and the house as a last resort. In the end, it wasn’t the rain we needed to worry about. It was oppressive 90+ temps with a heat index around 100 degrees.  We made sure we had extra water and plenty of cold drinks and ice to keep humans and dogs hydrated. We borrowed box fans from everyone we knew and had them on the deck and in the garage. We also had two swimming pools out for the dogs to cool off. We ended up moving lunch and cake indoors because no one wants to eat in that kind of heat.

Make Memories. Once the guests arrive, accept that you’re on the roller coaster, you’re buckled in, and there’s nothing you can do now but hang on and enjoy the ride. Mishaps make memories. It’s hard to see it in the moment, but looking back you’ll be talking about the things that went wrong and laughing about them. It’s a party. ENJOY! If you’re having fun, I guarantee your guests will too!

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The birthday boy@ouiouilouis loved his Bark Box.

Favorite Party Supply Stores:

Big Dot of Happiness

Oh Happy Day

Oriental Trading

Shindigz

Party City

Smart Perks blogger, Melanie Bisson is a natural born clown.

 

 

 

 

 

How-To: DIY Home Renovation Project

 

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“Your home should tell the story of who you are and be a collection of what you love.”
Nate Berkus

When my husband and I moved into our big two-story farm house in 1993, we knew it would take a lot of time, effort and money to update it. Besides having the wiring and plumbing redone to bring it up to code, the interior of the house needed a serious makeover. It was obvious the previous owners didn’t have any decorating sense whatsoever.

terrible interior

Though it wasn’t quite this bad, it was still pretty bad.

The walls in the dining room and living room were painted light green (the color of pond scum), the windows were hidden under heavy full-length drapes (the kind you’d find in a funeral home or the Munster’s house) and the floors were covered with filthy shag carpeting (I’m sure it harbored all kinds of nasty microscopic critters). The downstairs bathroom looked like it was straight out of a 1970’s flop house – big gold sunflowers against an olive green background, a grungy mustard-colored linoleum floor and a bathtub they probably hauled out of a junk yard. The bathroom upstairs had a long closet decorated with goofy duck stickers instead of a bathtub or shower. I kid you not. It was ridiculous!

Our realtor referred to this 1917 fixer-upper as the “Bates Motel”, but beneath all the unsightly trappings we could see that this place had a lot of character and loads of potential.

Bates_Motel

Not exactly welcoming…

For starters, beautifully carved woodwork, plate rails and beveled mirrors in the spacious dining room, bay windows in the dining room, living room and master bedroom, and underneath that hideous shag carpeting we discovered a magnificent oak floor with mahogany inlay. We were also impressed with the size of the kitchen – 17 ft. x 17 ft. with high 10 ft. ceilings – and the charming built-in cabinet, not to mention the transoms above the bedroom doors (something you’d usually find in grand hotels, not private homes.) Suffice it to say this house was a diamond in the rough.

Cathy's house.jpg

This is the detailing I’m talking about. Beautiful, huh?

After buying the house for a song, we decided we could save a lot of money if we tackled minor renovations ourselves. It’s taken quite a few years (and muscle) to do some of the improvements and, as with most old houses, there’s still plenty to do. But, anyone who has seen the before and after pictures will agree this place looks ten times better than it did when we first moved in.

If you’re thinking of remodeling your home, I have some ideas for easy and affordable upgrades you can do yourself.

guy painting

Look at that technique!

Red Walls

An example of a burgundy dining room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give walls a fresh coat of paint. Probably the easiest and least expensive way to change the look of any room is to repaint it. Think beyond the usual shades of beige and go with colors that reflect the mood or purpose of the room or your personal decorating style. For example, try bright yellow or tangerine in the kitchen, rich burgundy or hunter green in the dining room, and fresh lilac or jade green in the bathroom.

  • Need help selecting the right colors? Check out the interior paint guide at bhg.com
  • Learn how to paint like a pro with help from diynetwork.com

Restore or replace your flooring. If you’re lucky enough to have hardwood floors underneath your worn carpet (like we did) and they’re in relatively good condition, you may just need to spruce them up with a floor sander/polisher from a rental place or buy this handy Floor Scrubber/Polisher. You can always get an area rug if you want to add some color and warmth.

hand painting oil color on wood floor  use for home decorated ,house renovation and housing construction theme

It looks harder than it is, we promise!

On the other hand, if your floors are in bad shape, you’ll want to hide them under new carpeting or flooring. Look for special deals from Empire Today, one of the featured offers in Smart Perks.

Refinish cabinets, shelves and furniture. Instead of investing in new kitchen cabinets, consider refinishing your existing ones with paint or stain. Why not dress them up with different knobs or handles too?

Go to hgtv.com for a simple tutorial on refinishing kitchen cabinets.

Cabinet redo

Photo Courtesy of Pinterest User One Good Thing…

Replace faucets and sinks. Make an outdated bathroom look like new instantly by replacing your faucets and sink with more modern designs. You don’t even need a plumber to do it!

 

Re-tile the floor or backsplash. Tiling is relatively easy. All you need is a little know-how and the right supplies, like tiles (standard subway-style tiles are the most common and the easiest to install), a v-notched trowel, tile mastic (adhesive), a tile cutter, and grout. You can find most of these things at home improvement stores. Go to diynetwork.com for step-by-step instructions on tiling floors, backsplashes, showers and more.

Update window treatments. Get rid of those heavy drapes or dated curtains and put up some sleek new blinds, Roman shades or sheers. Or, you could create your own custom curtains, drapes, shades & more out of materials you already have on hand. Check out the amazing (and easy) DIY Window Treatment ideas from hgtv.com!

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Just one of many options from one of our partners, 3 Day Blinds. Check out Smart Perks for a coupon!

You’ll also find some cool ideas in Melanie’s March 2nd blog post!

For supplies and products, look no further than Smart Perks! You’ll find some great offers from Build.com, Lowe’s, 3 Day Blinds, and more in our Home & Garden section.

Final Note: Before you invest in an older home, have it inspected by a professional to make sure it’s structurally sound. It’s easy to correct cosmetic flaws, but if the foundation is fragile you’ll have a nightmare on your hands. If you don’t believe me, rent the Tom Hanks’ movie The Money Pit!

Good luck and remember, it’s worth all of the effort once you see the fruits of your labor! Have any of you renovated your home yourself and have pics to send? Include them in the comment section!

Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, may not be handy with a hammer, but she does know how to create an awesome honey-do list.

New Year, New You

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Who, me? Blogger Katie agrees with Calvin! © Bill Waterson

Come mid-December, we start wrapping up the previous year and looking forward to the upcoming one. During this holiday season, as we sit around with friends and family, recounting the trials and tribulations of 2015 – we end up eating cheese plates and cheesecake, drinking beer and wine and soda, maybe capping the long nights with a cigar and heading to bed way past our bedtimes. But while this type of over-indulgence is what the holidays are about, the New Year is always about the New You!

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Cupcakes and champagne – I’m about that life!

That is, until it’s February and you realized you didn’t even keep your New Year’s resolutions for a month. And you wouldn’t be alone. According to Franklin Covey, a time management firm, 30% of New Year’s resolutions are broken by the end of January. The thing is though that when you start to backslide, you think, “Well, I already got off on the wrong foot, might as well try again…later!” and get discouraged, and give up.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can successfully set and keep – and even exceed! – your New Year’s resolutions if you keep three things in mind.

  • Set Realistic Goals
  • Think Short-Term, Dream Long-Term
  • Plan It Out

All too often we think of our resolutions as make or break it. Trying to commit to huge changes like, “I’m going to write a book in 2016!” when you haven’t so much as written a paragraph in 2015, sets yourself up for failure. Instead, we outline the three most common New Year’s resolutions and small ways you can make big changes, leading to a happier, healthier you!

Fat to Fit Before After Diet Weight Loss Success

1. Lose Weight

Ah, the most common resolution we make. Who doesn’t want to lose a few? Actually, according to some estimates, between 30% and 40% of us vow to shed some lbs annually. If your plan is to incorporate more veggies in your diet or hit the gym more, this might just work. But science says setting a goal to lose 30 pounds is most likely not going to work. Why? For the same reason that agreeing with your aunt you’ll meet her coworker’s friends’ daughter’s boyfriend for coffee in three months: you’re making vague, faraway promises you can’t (or won’t) keep.

The best way to lose weight is to make small lifestyle changes that can lead to you losing those 30 pounds. For example, set the goal of determining your ideal daily caloric intake and then logging your calories each day with a site like http://www.caloriecount.com/. At the same time, start a workout routine that’s appropriate for your lifestyle and level of current fitness; again, it’s all about moderation! Throwing yourself into a new rigorous workout is a good way to throw out your back.

Are you a person that’s worried they’ll judge you at the gym, and you’re just not cut out for running miles and miles outside in the snowy January weather? All the more power to you if you can, but if that’s just not you, check out SmartPerks’ solution: The Total Gym machine. It offers complex workouts, utilizing all of your muscles that need to firm up, but without putting too much strain on your body. I know a huge factor that keeps me from working out as often as I should is the struggle to drag myself to the gym, so getting a full-body exercise in my own home is a huge plus. If it’s good enough for Christie Brinkley, it’s definitely good enough for me.

Losing weight is a commendably healthy goal to set for 2016, so we don’t want you to let yourself down. Just go slow!

2. Eat This, Not That

Similar to the losing weight resolution, but not fully, because you can be at a totally fine weight, but still eat too much chips and guac or French fries. Most of us could stand to eat better, even if we think we’re really on top of our diet. And while the SmartPerks office is a great place to work, there is one downside: the abundance of snacks. Between the homemade toffee, apple pie bars, caramel popcorn, and bowls of Hershey’s kisses, it’s a sweet tooth-owner’s dream. Tasty though these treats might be, they’re certainly not good for my thighs.

Popcorn

How could anyone say no to a handful of these?

So, one of my personal 2016 resolutions is to cut back on the daytime snacks. When my blood sugar levels are dipping around 10:30 am and 3 pm, I need to turn to something wholesome like a piece of fruit or dried soybeans, not those delicious, mouthwatering, scrumptious apple bars… dang it, Mary!

Of course, it might be obvious to cut down on the sodas and sweets, but often our biggest issue is our main meals themselves. Oversized, low on fiber, or high in sugar, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking our veggie burrito is healthy, but we’re not fooling the scale. Even something like salad dressing can be a shockingly caloric addition to an otherwise healthy salad. For example, Newman’s Own Family Recipe Italian, a vinaigrette-style dressing, is loaded with unhealthy ingredients – two tablespoons is 130 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 320 milligrams of sodium. Certainly not a good option with which to top your greens. Something I do to cut down on calories but not on flavor is I make my own dressing.

Katie’s Apple Cider Vinegar Dressing:

Salad dressingThis dressing is excellent on kale salads, roasted vegetables, or any kitchen sink salad. This makes ¾ cup, and after using you can keep in a Mason jar or Tupperware in the fridge.

 

  • 1 small shallot, diced small
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar – I often use closer to ½ cup to thin out the dressing
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons honey (or maple syrup)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (or any citrus – grapefruit works great!)
  • Pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine ingredients in mini Mason jar, and shake until your preferred consistently! Store in tightly closed jar for up to two weeks. Upon use, shake jar to re-emulsify ingredients.

Two tablespoons of this dressing equated to 14 calories, .5 grams of fat, and 214 milligrams of sodium, without losing out on any flavor.

Another way of managing your eating habits? Subscribing to a food delivery service like Blue Apron or Home Chef (Pro Tip: Use the SmartPerks promo code “SP30FREE” to receive $30 off your first order.) The best thing about weekly meal kits is they’re chef-curated so they’re probably more inventive than anything you whip up. You can also pick and choose which weeks you want based on the meal plans listed online. Also, since they’re specifically portioned, you know exactly what nutritional value (including calorie content!) your meals have.

On top of that, they are usually very balanced, representative of the good parts of the food pyramid, so you know you’re getting your veggies, too. For example, one of the available meals for Home Chef is “Winter Quinoa and Arugula Salad with Blue Cheese, Candied Walnuts, and Apricots.” Now, doesn’t that sound healthy and yummy?

Quinoa Salad

Home Chef’s winter salad

If your New Year’s Resolution is to eat healthier in 2016, know that you can do it, it just takes some planning, self-control and motivation. And for your coworkers to not bring in treats.

3. Break the Habit

Always Late

Whether it’s smoking cigarettes, biting your nails, being perennially late, or procrastinating on the job or elsewhere, make 2016 the year to break the bad habit.

nail biting

 

 

We’ve all got something we do that we shouldn’t, right? If your resolution is to finally learn some healthier habits, we encourage you to get to it! Though some are worse for you than others, anything that negatively impacts your life should be stopped. For example, I’m a nail-biter, guilty as charged. Whenever I’m nervous, bored or tired, I gnaw on my nails like there’s no tomorrow. So far, nothing has helped…though I hold out for next year! I’ve heard no-bite nail polishes can really help, but I’m not so optimistic about me actually taking the time to paint my nails.

Another issue I face – like an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans – is sleeping problems. Sometimes, even after getting 7 hours of seemingly restful sleep, I’ll wake up groggy and exhausted. There are plenty of tips out there for getting a better night’s rest, including avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine (go figure), consistent sleep scheduling (“catching up on sleep” on the weekends is a big no-no), and regular exercising (perhaps a New Year’s resolution double-whammy!).

In addition, setting up your bedroom as a sleep sanctuary can help get you in a relaxed mindset. Just recently, I bought some black-out curtains for my bedroom windows to keep out light and a new cozy throw blanket to stay warm during winter. I also light lavender candles in my room about an hour before bed for aromatherapy. I have found that buying a new set of really soft sheets, a fun duvet, or a great pillow help to make your bed the most inviting place for you to unwind from a long day and catch some z’s.

Cozy bed

How cozy does this look? From MessageNote’s Pinterest

To help you in The Pursuit of Sleep, check out SmartPerks’ deal for My Pillow, a machine-washable, always-cool foam pillow that cradles your neck and head, helping to guarantee a sound night of sleep. Use promo code “smart2” for 50% off your first order! Saving money and sleeping better? Say no more!

Whatever your New Year’s resolution is, whether it’s specific or vague, big or small, a lifestyle change or a daily tweak, SmartPerks wishes you the best of luck in accomplishing your goals for the new year. And as we head into 2016, don’t forget to enjoy the remaining days of 2015!

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, bit her nails the whole time she was writing this blog post. 

The Mani/Pedi: What to Know Before You Go

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Summer’s here and it’s the time of year to expose your tootsies and toe-cleavage to the sun and sand! From sandals to peep-toes, summer shoes are more fun. And we feel more care-free and bold in our nail polish choices as well. I love it! No matter your age, a good nail color is an expression of your personality, and a mani/pedi can make your spirit soar.

Whenever I tell my mother I had my nails done, she gasps and recoils with such disgust at my shockingly foolish extravagance. You would think I just bought a diamond-encrusted sports car!

“Why would you ever throw money away like that? I’ve never had a manicure. That’s just such a waste,” she exclaims with righteous indignation. But the days of the mani/pedi being an exclusive indulgence for the wealthy, or something a girl does once or twice in a lifetime, for prom or her wedding day, are long gone.

The emergence of the mall nail salon, rather than having your nails done in a high-end hair salon, has made clean, pretty hands and feet accessible to everyone at a reasonable price! The strip mall next to my office has a nail salon that I’ve gone to now for five years.  For $14, I can get a regular manicure and polish, and I’m in and out in under 45 minutes. I always tip over 20% because the hand-massage alone is worth $14 during a break in my stressful workday. A gel mani typically costs double, but it will last 2-3 weeks, as opposed to the one week that a regular polish typically lasts without chipping.

A “luxury” pedicure which involves a calf and foot exfoliation with a tingly mint scrub and to-die-for massage, followed by having your feet slathered in a thick oil and wrapped in steaming towels, runs between $40 -$50 in my area before the tip, and takes about an hour. It is heaven on earth, and believe me, you deserve a luxury pedicure, at least once a year.

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I love that I don’t need an appointment because I’m a “fly-by-the-seat of my pants” kind of girl, and with the exception of the holiday season, I can just walk in, pick a color and I’m good to go.

If you really want to see a certain person and if you gravitate towards acrylic nails, which take longer, you can make an appointment. For instance, at my salon, there’s one nail technician who does amazing acrylics, and the last time I was in, he was doing the nails of one of the leading female business leaders in the country. I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to her, but it’s really a testament to the quality of work and talent you can find in a mall salon.

So about those gel manicures… I have had varying results with these. They’ve been around now for several years, and the color selection has improved 10-fold. Now you can generally find any color in a gel that you can find as regular polish.The thickness and hardness of the layer of gel applied seems to affect the length of time the polish lasts. I just had a french gel manicure and it only lasted a week before the first gel peeled off (note: I tried a different salon while on vacation.) And once one nail goes, I immediately start picking the others off. This is VERY bad. It removes the top layer of your nail, which leads to weaker, brittle nails. The alternative is soaking your fingers in an acetone polish remover, typically at the salon.

Another consideration with gel nails is that the UV light exposure needed to get the nails to set. Some may be suspicious of the UV light used in the nail dryers at salons. According to a study from the December 2012 Journal of Investigative Dermatology, nail lamps would be safe to use for over 250 years of weekly manicures and even then there would be a low risk of skin cancer. Click here for more on UV light exposure at the nail salon.

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Make sure your salon uses instruments that are properly sterilized and wrapped in a sealed paper package, so you can see they are using a fresh, sterile set of tools for every client. With pedicures, you should watch or ask to make sure that the foot bath is thoroughly cleaned with a disinfectant between each customer.

If you can’t get in for a pedicure, then treat yourself at home. Keep a pumice stone in the shower and gently slough heels and calloused areas. Especially during the summer months, when you’re running around barefoot or in sandals. Also, for dry, cracked heels, try slathering them in Vaseline, Udderbalm (yes, that’s what it’s called…check the foot care aisle at Target or WalMart) each night before bed and cover with socks. This really does work!

Just for fun, I asked some of my girlfriends on Facebook to share some of their recent mani/pedis with me. I like seeing how each of their personalities are reflected in the colors and styles they choose. What about you? What are you doing with your nails this summer? I’d love to hear. Nail art? Jamberry Wraps? Please share!

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Need some at-home help to keep your feet looking lovely between salon visits, here’s a great deal from The Great deal company. Only $4.99. Look for a mani kit, too. http://bit.ly/1HxHJgA

Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, has been known to go through 3 whole cycles in her nail salon massage chair, during her pedicures. Big shout out to Twin Cities Nails in Minnetonka! You are the best.

“The Best & the Brightest in the Surprise Box World: From Beauty Products to Bowties for your Boxer

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Ipsy Glam Bag – May 2015

My heart flutters as I approach the magical portal at the end of the driveway. Opening that small hinged door has the power to transport me to pure, unadulterated, retail nirvana. Hooray! A package for me! You see, I am a surprise box junkie. My mail carrier and I are on a first name basis. He knows my dogs’ names. Yes, it’s that bad.

If the post office ever does go out of business, as they keep threatening (for Pete’s sake give them whatever they want…I need Saturday delivery) I will be completely inconsolable.

For the past year and a half I have been on a retail odyssey that has seen me sign up for virtually any and all curated, surprise boxes available in the marketplace.

If there is a club out there that sticks surprise stuff into a box, chosen just for you and delivers it to your door, I’ve tried it. I will never be able to afford a personal shopper, but curated box programs are the next best thing.

Here’s how they work: In most cases, you fill out a profile, telling the company a few things about yourself, your pet, your child, whomever the box is intended for. If it’s makeup, they may ask you for your skin type, your hair color, your style (i.e. preppy, romantic, classic, edgy, etc.) Some programs will even scour your Pinterest board or Instagram account to get a better idea of who you are. Then a stylist or curator selects products that she thinks would best fit your personal style.

Here’s a quick summary of just a few of the boxes I’ve tried:

Birchbox

Category: Makeup & beauty

Frequency: Monthly or special Limited Edition one-time boxes

Bottom Line: At $10 a month, it’s an awesome value. However, I decided I needed to choose between Birchbox and Ipsy,  and this program felt heavy on skincare and hair products. Those are both consumables that I don’t change up every month. Birchbox does feature high quality brands (Benefit!) and occasionally some mass-market products are thrown in. I still shop from the Birchbox online store. I would recommend it.

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Ipsy Glam Bag

Category: Makeup & beauty + a cute bag

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: I’ve been an Ipsy subscriber for over a year at $10 a month, which is a bargain. I would give Ipsy as a gift to every teenage girl I know, but there is a wait list and last time I checked they had disabled the gifting option. Each month you receive a cute little makeup bag, customized for Ipsy, and the designs are darling. Ipsy does do some skincare, but is more makeup focused than Birchbox. They send some great products from brands like Urban Decay, Dr. Brandt and Pacifica, as well as some unusual brands that I never would have tried, like Kat Von D. Tremendous value and the bag really pushes them over the top.

JewelMint Box

Category: Jewelry

Frequency: Monthly or one-time

Bottom Line: Jewelry preference is really subjective. The pieces they send are very trendy and are not going to hold up to years of wear. However, you do receive some really cute items and the presentation and packaging are fabulous. It’s a fun little pick-me-up for yourself or as a gift. The JewelMint online store is fabulous, too. You’ll find low prices on the same on-trend jewelry included in their mystery boxes. Sign up for emails and receive notice about special sales!

NatureBox

Category: Healthy snacks

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: Do you love Trader Joe’s? Then you will love NatureBox. They give you some choice in what you will receive, but you can also let them choose for you too. You receive 5 snacks a month, but you can order separately, if you find something you love. I’m more of a “cupcakes and donuts snacker,” but my healthier friends really like Nature Box. Cost is $19.95 a month.

Stitch Fix

Category: On-trend clothing & accessories

Frequency: As frequently as you wish

Bottom Line: You pay $25 to have a Personal Stylist choose 5 different clothing or accessory items based on your profile. Whatever you buy, the $25 is deducted. You’re under no obligation to buy. Return shipping is free and packaging provided.  I always found at least two or three items I wanted, but usually could afford one or two. It’s REALLY fun to try. They encourage you to snap a selfie wearing their clothes and post, even if you plan to return. The clothes are cute, boutiquey, on trend, and give you a chance to play Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Another great retail therapy experience.

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FabFitFub Club

Category: Fitness, beauty, fashion & more

Frequency: Quarterly

Bottom Line: This is Entertainment TV personality Giuliana Rancic’s program. Being as it’s quarterly, it’s more expensive than others. $49.99 per box. However, you can typically get $10 off your first box through a pop-up when you go to the site, which makes it a great deal. I loved the items in this box, which felt very boutiquey, indulgent, L.A. princessy (I live in Minnesota.) Items are full-size and range from: a fitness DVD, a Sonia Dakar skincare product, an exercise ball, a fabulously funky headband, a cool retro apron, delicious Kai roll-on perfume, and then there were always a couple mass-market freebies thrown in that made no sense, like pantiliners. But the quality of the overall box made up for it. I stuck with it for three boxes.

Candy Club

Category: Retro candy in cute packaging

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: Darling, colorful, unique and out of the ordinary candies. If you want to simply photograph your box for Instagram to show your friends, and your money is burning a hole in your pocket…this is for you. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you can run to the grocery store and for $10 buy yourself some M&Ms, a Kit Kat, some Jolly Ranchers, and a Hershey Bar, and call it good. The monthly box is $27.99.

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Luxury Beauty Box from O’s Circle of Friends

Oprah’s Circle of Friends

Category: It’s from Oprah. I don’t care what it is. Just give it to me!

Frequency: Annual fee and surprise Items throughout the year, including subscriptions for yourself and two friends

Bottom Line: There are three levels. Don’t tell my husband, I bought the Premier Level for $199. I had to do it. I thought Oprah might send me to Australia, or give me a car. Or at the very least, invite me to her house in Hawaii to spend some time with her and Gayle. So far I got a luxury beauty box. One of the items, a thermal face mask containing 24kt gold is valued at $298. I’ll get back to you on this one. But I’m holding out hope for my surprise gift from The O List! C’mon trip to Australia!

BarkBox

Category: Dog toys & treats

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: If you’re not a dog lover, I generally don’t talk to you much. So basically all of my friends subscribe to BarkBox and think nothing of spending the $19 a month or more to indulge their furry family members. Treats and toys are made in the U.S. and all the pups I know give BarkBox four paws up. Money well spent.

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Wagdrobe Curated Dog Couture

Wagdrobe

Category: Canine couture & accessories

Frequency: As frequently as you wish

Bottom Line: This is like Stitch Fix for dogs. Wagdrobe is a newer company, and so I hope their customer service continues to be as AWESOME as my recent experience was! Super fast shipping, darling customized packaging and FUN, FUN, FUN for pet parents and pooches alike. Well, that is if your pup likes to get lots of treats for dressing up and posing for ADORABLE pics. I bought boxes for all three of my dogs. Beanie got the Hipster Box, Eloise got the Spoiled Princess and Bacon got the Trendsetter Box. The value compared to finding these darling outfits and accessories in stores is awesome!

Okay, I could go on…but here are a few tips if you want to try some boxes on your own.

  1. Don’t do too many at one time. You can only wear so much moisturizer.
  2. Set a reminder for yourself to cancel before your next ship date if you want to try a recurring program.
  3. Keep track of how many of the items you actually use/wear/eat to determine value. Don’t get caught up in the fun.
  4. Share with others. Take pics and share on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Check out the items others receive in their boxes before you order, too. You can get a feel for whether or not it’s product you’ll like.
  5. Most importantly FILL OUT YOUR PROFILES and GIVE FEEDBACK. That’s the best way to ensure you’re going to love what’s inside the box, as much as you did receiving the bright, shiny package in the mail.
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Beanie sporting one of his Wagdrobe ensembles from the Hipster Hound collection.

– Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys dogs, cupcakes and shopping, and considers herself an expert on all three.

Displaying Collections at Home: Telling the Story of Who You Are

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To paraphrase the lyrics of one of my favorite songs from Brandi Carlile, The Story, “All these collections that I have, tell you the story of who I am, so many stories of where I’ve been, and how I got to where I am.”

I am collector of many things.

An unapologetic sentimentalist.

Most of the things I collect are tied to people that are no longer with me, the things they were passionate about. Their enthusiasm was passed on to me during my childhood.

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For instance, my lifelong love affair with Scottish Terriers can be traced back to my Grandma’s mother, Agnes McPherson, an immigrant from Scotland in the early 1900s. Grandma had three Scotties, when I was growing up; Maggie Mae, Molly, and Katy, as well as many treasured Scottie collectibles. Now that I’m an adult, and my Grandmother has passed, I not only have Scottish Terriers of my own, but I also participate in Scottie rescue events, and collect Scottie cookie jars and other vintage Scottie pieces. 10999751_1099436016749235_8500138522877573280_oMy Scotties not only provide me unconditional love, but remind me of  my beloved Grandmother and my heritage. I am comforted, consciously or subconsciously when I am surrounded by my dogs, or walk into my craft room and see a line of Scottie cookie jars smiling down at me.

I love to see what people collect, because it says so much about who they are, what they value, what their dreams are, what they consider beautiful.

I feel that someone really becomes a true friend when she invites me  into her home, and I can see the objects she chooses to display, from books to children’s artwork, stacks of fabric,  salt and pepper shakers, vintage furniture, a bowl of wine corks inscribed with dates, or treasures brought home from her travel adventures. The more eclectic the collection, the better!

Unfortunately I think that collecting has become synonymous for many people with hoarding. And that is SO wrong. Hoarding is a disorder. A compulsion that you can’t control. It’s cluttered. It’s too much. Certainly, it would be easy to impulsively snatch up anything that even remotely resembles a Scottie for me. But my home is not that big! 10842196_1099435850082585_3079311481449000304_o Besides, if objects are packed too densely together, it’s hard to really appreciate each piece individually.

So stop and think before you buy…

  • Is this piece truly unique? Do I already have something like it?
  • Does it speak to me, in its singularity, in its beauty, in a feeling it evokes?
  • Is it simply a like item in the group of objects I collect? Don’t buy it if you’re not crazy in love with it.
  • Will it complement other pieces I already have?
  • Where will I put it?
  • Do I have a specific room, dresser, shelf, table in mind where I can display this piece and it can be enjoyed, and seen regularly, by both myself and my guests.
  • Does it complement my home decor? If my color palette is muted grays and blue, I don’t want a piece that’s neon green.
  • Does the scale of the object fit the space I have to work with?

Color and size are really important in creating a harmonious, or visually pleasing display. Group like or complementary colors and textures together.10403226_935878583104980_6204714097999486948_n

I have a friend who groups all the books in her built-in bookshelves by the color of the cover. At first I thought that was a little nuts. I like mine by genre. But my books (I’m a Lit major, can’t part with them) are on display in my living room and all those colors and jackets jumbled together were a kind of visual assault on my peripheral vision. Grouping the books together by color really helped make the room look more organized, improved the visual flow, if you will, so that the eye moves over the books like a wave.

Make your collections a conversation starter. Although matchbooks are becoming an anachronism…like the rotary-dial telephone, if you collect restaurant matchbooks, a colorful collection of matchbooks in a clear glass bowl on your cocktail or end table, might spark a conversation of a restaurant you and your guest both love, or a favorite vacation destination.

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Check out controllingmychaos.com for a how-to on recreating this display

Another discovery that I made on Pinterest revolutionized my life. Okay, a little bit of hyperbole…BUT – I am an avid crafter. And I love to collect craft supplies. There are literally entire boards on Pinterest devoted to taking your craft supplies out of the cupboards and drawers, and making them part of your craft room decor. Best of all, no more frantically searching for your favorite spool of ribbon, because there it is, hanging on a peg board, right in front of you when you need it.  Most of us have heard the story about how multimillionaire television producer Aaron Spelling’s wife had an entire room in her mansion devoted to gift wrapping, and scoffed at the luxury.  But deep down I was thinking, “Ohhhhhh, that would be so convenient.”

If you’re interested in seeing more, I’ve created a Pinterest board with a bunch of really cool ideas for displaying collections of every sort imaginable.

I hope you check it out, and become inspired to take your collections out of those boxes you’ve squirreled away, and put them on display to be enjoyed every day.

And just for fun, I thought I’d include my neighbor Marty’s collection of Allis Chalmers tractors. We all have our passions.

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-MB

When she’s not blogging for Smart Perks, Melanie is staring glassy-eyed at Pinterest, her Pin It finger splinted from overuse. Besides crafting, gardening, shopping and cupcakes, the loves of her life are her three naughty terrier pups, the smartest and best-looking dogs in the world, and her husband.