photo by jarrodlombardo
cutting board

DEAR SARA: I teach at a middle school, and every year, we all give gifts to the other people on our team. When I first started there, the team consisted of seven teachers, including me. This year there are 14 of us -- a frugal gift-giver's nightmare! Anyway, I feel strongly about giving something, as we are really each other's support system throughout the year. This year, when my grocery store had triple coupons coinciding with a sale on cookie mixes, it solved my dilemma. I got tons of cookie mix almost for free. So I'll be giving "homemade" cookies. However, I don't know how to package them frugally yet attractively. Any thoughts? -- Amy B., New Jersey

DEAR AMY B.: I would stack them in a mason jar and decorate the lid with fabric. You could attach a small ornament or candy cane with raffia or ribbon, too. If you prefer wrapping, go to the dollar store and purchase small gift bags and tissue paper or small papier-mache boxes, add tissue paper as a liner and pop on a bow. If you'd like to give something more substantial, you could try wrapping stacks and bundling them in cellophane tied with curling ribbon .You could then place them into a basket lined with tissue paper or package with other goodies, such as teas and coffees. Wrap the basket with more cellophane or shrink-wrap, and adorn with a bow.

DEAR SARA: If you could give someone a frugal tip to keep with them throughout their life, what would it be? -- Sherry, Minnesota

DEAR SHERRY: My No. 1 frugal tip would be to track your spending and pay yourself first, but it's a close tie with paying cash for purchases instead of using credit cards.

DEAR SARA: I have a wooden cutting board that has been in my possession for years. I noticed this morning that it is starting to warp, and it has deep-cut grooves where I have used my electric knife to slice bread. I know I should have been treating it with some kind of oil all these years. But I never think about it until 3 a.m., and then who cares? How do I treat it with oil and what type? -- Dee, New York

I'd use mineral oil, because other oil, such as vegetable, can go rancid over time, and I would be afraid of your board being unsanitary. Just rub it in and let it soak. I apply a couple of coats. I suggest you buy a new cutting board. Once you get your new board, oil it, clean it with soap and water, and dry it -- but don't immerse it in water or put it in the dishwasher, because that is what creates warping. You can sanitize by spritzing it with vinegar from a spray bottle. If you'd like to keep your old board, consider using it for fruits and vegetables and use your new board for meats.

DEAR SARA: When money is low, what are you glad that you have in your food pantry? -- Shell, Canada

DEAR SHELL: I have a list of pantry staples that I like to keep on hand in my pantry. I have a reference list for a standard pantry inventory at

When money is low, I would be happy to already have the following items in my pantry: pasta and macaroni, jarred sauce, soup, canned fruit, rice, flour, sugar, oatmeal, canned vegetables, powdered milk, cheese and dried beans.