Why I POO daily, and why you should too: simple Minimalism

After the madness of the holiday season, the general mood surrounding so many of the people that I spoke with was that of being overwhelmed by stuff. So much stuff. Everywhere.

We had children who were acting like ungrateful little brats post-Christmas. When we looked around our homes we felt like we were drowning. Our days were occupied with moving, cleaning, picking-up, organizing, collecting, washing and moving again, loads and loads of… stuff. Just stuff.

Not necessarily stuff that we loved, or liked even. Not really stuff that helped, brought joy or provided function for our lives. It was all stuff that, if put away behind a closed closet door or toy box lid, we could easily forget was even there. (So rarely, though, does that stuff actually get put away.)

Pinterest shared a post on my feed one day that basically started a revolution in my life. I’ll call it divine intervention:

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I don’t think I will ever be the same.

One morning while doing dishes, I decided I needed something to listen to and clicked on this pin. The first video rocked my world. I don’t know if it opened a new door in my brain, or closed a bunch of open ones that were no longer needed, but something clicked and I thought ‘THIS! This is what we need.’

I was so excited that I emailed the link to Jon, who was out of town for a 24-hour business trip, and I told him to find some time to watch these videos because I wanted to discuss them and how they might fit into our life when he got home. Then I watched the remaining 4. I will say that the first one was the best, but all were worth watching.

When Jon came home, we found some time to talk about this concept of ‘minimalism’ that if you had asked me about up until that moment, I would have dismissed as being a hard ‘no’ for us. Before watching these talks, Minimalism seemed unrealistic, hardcore, and like more of an ‘investment’ (ironically) than I was willing to make. But the reality is, we have been heading towards this lifestyle for years, but I hadn’t yet seen the blinking neon light ahead that read… ‘GET RID OF YOUR CRAP!’

In 2012, our son was born and overnight I went from being a career-focused, working-woman to a mom. My priorities flipped, flopped so fast. I hung in there for about 18 months, but then Jon and I had a CTJ (Come-To-Jesus) talk about where we were, where we were going and where we wanted to be. At that time, our house was listed for sale, as we had decided that with the new addition to our family we had outgrown our home. (This was partially true, because as first time parents we had acquired a ridiculous amount of stuff for our new baby.) We had also just started working with a fabulous financial planner, who was requiring us to examine our financial picture & financial future in a very adult-like way, which we had never before had to do.

I remember this conversation so clearly; I said to Jon, “Why am I working? So we have more money to buy more crap so we need to buy a bigger house to fit all of our crap and all of the crap we are going to continue to buy, and so we can eat out in restaurants more, because we like to eat crap that makes us feel like crap and makes us fatter so we have to buy more fat clothes to fit our crappy-feeling fat bodies into?” The answer was yes. We took the house off the market that day.

I quit my job and have been a stay-at-home-mom since. We have also slowly been trying to reduce the amount of ‘crap’ in our home, simply out of necessity, but the full connection between why we would want to do that and what the full benefit for us would be hadn’t fully clicked in my mind. Being introduced to Minimalism as a movement, and realizing that a minimalistic lifestyle can look differently for different people, was the final piece to the puzzle we were already working on.

With all of this rolling around in my head, I realized that so many people in my life might be in the same boat so I posted a simple question on Facebook:

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16 Facebook friends joined my group and it has been so rewarding!

POO Accountability Group

We call it our POO Accountability Group- which stands for ‘Purge One Object’ daily. The concept is simple- find one object to purge (sell, donate, trash or give away) a day for 30 days to create a habit of being more critical of the objects you surround yourself with. By sharing photos or posts of that item(s) we have purged we hold each other accountable, support & motivate one another, and share ideas of objects or areas of your home that might be in need of a good purge. The definition of ‘purge’ says it all; who doesn’t love a cathartic release?!

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I have been enjoying this group immensely! I am surprised and excited by the changes I see happening in my friends. I knew that it would feel nice to get rid of clutter, but I had no idea just how much weight all of that junk can lay on a person. I have friends sharing stories of depression and anxiety… and feelings of hopefulness and release coming from their decluttering activities. It’s just amazing!

The POO Rules

There are no ‘rules’ to this group, but a few ‘guidelines’, if you will. You have to purge one object a day, every day. If you purge more than one object, you don’t get a pass tomorrow. It’s great if you have the time (and energy) to declutter an entire room, closet or cupboard, but you still have to find a new object to get rid of every other day for the full 30 days.

The reason for this is simple: we are trying to form new, better habits. The goal is to retrain your brain from ignoring or pretending that the clutter isn’t there to thinking critically about every object that you touch, move, see or step over everyday. As you flip through your closet getting dressed in the morning and think to yourself ‘No, that doesn’t fit right” or “Uh, I hate that sweater, I don’t why I bought it”… stop flipping past it! Pull it out and donate it! If the hem needs sewn, sew it or get rid of it! As you pick up toys after the kids go to bed, exhausted by the day, for the love of Bruce- stop picking up toys that are broken, missing pieces or tossed around and not properly played with. Toss it, donate it or sell it!

Psychologically, one object a day seems much more manageable, especially for busy women with young kids and/or full-time jobs. If we wait until we have a weekend to sort through our entire closet, clean out the basement or garage or completely rearrange our living rooms, it likely won’t happen. I promise though, once you start you will feel motivated to keep going! Full disclaimer: It’s addictive.

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If you are trying to stick to a tighter budget this year, working on paying off debt or, like us, trying to build up savings, this is a must-do activity to help you reach your goals. When you start being more selective over the objects you have in your home you also start to think more critically about what you are bringing into your home. Personally, I have stopped thinking ‘what else do we need’ and started thinking ‘what needs to be replaced.’ When something comes into the house, something must also go out. As the Swedish proverb states, ‘He who buys what he does not need steals from himself.’

As a SAHM, I feel a bit obligated to recoup any value left in objects we no longer need. I may not earn an income, but I can bring in additional funds for our family by selling what I can, by saving money on purchases and by avoiding purchases when able. Since starting the POO group about a month ago, I have made $200 by selling items, mostly children’s clothing and toys but also some household items. My personal rule is that once I identify an item to purge it needs to leave by home within 24 hours if donating or 7 days if selling. I keep a bag for donations hanging on the door by our garage entrance, so whenever I am running errands past a thrift store drop-off or collection bin, I can grab it on the way out and donate it right away. Here is a little tip: use a bag that isn’t see-thru and hang it up high enough so your kids can’t see that you are purging their stuff and throw a fit! If they don’t see you get rid of it, 90% of the time they won’t even notice that it’s gone!

The 24-Hour rule

Some items have a 24 hour life expectancy in our home. After 24 hours, these items must go

  • Happy Meal toys. I try to not even get Happy Meals anymore, but somehow they still occasionally make their way home. I promise, after a couple hours they have lost their appeal and your child will not miss it!
  • Balloons. Uggggh… balloons. The kids love them, but I have spent way too much of my time cutting balloon ribbons out of the ceiling fan motor before my husband finds out; it just isn’t worth it! I need to get better about this, but balloons are definitely on my 24-hour list now!
  • Art Crafts. I know… this is a tough one, but I have quite a few more years of keepsake collecting so I just can’t hold onto 99% of what my kids create. We do art crafts all the time and, let’s be honest, not every paper roll ‘bug catcher’ or paper bag monster puppet is a keeper.
  • Cards/invitation. Now, I do keep a couple cards from the most important people in my kids lives, but for the most part we just don’t hold onto birthday or holiday cards. I keep 1 extra birthday party invitation and family Christmas card in each of the kids’ keepsake boxes but I recycle the rest right away. If I don’t, a stack of them will be tossed around and pick-up (by yours truly) multiple times everyday.

Because we use a simple closed Facebook group, anyone can start a POO group at anytime! With Spring approaching, it’s a great activity for mommy groups, church groups or a group of friends. Our days don’t need to be filled with dealing with our stuff, they can be filled with dealing with people and living of lives!

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8 Free Photo Book Ideas

I love me a free photo book promo code! It seemed that as soon as I got pregnant with Bryan, free offers for photo books from Shutterfly & Snapfish started popping up in my inbox, on Catalina receipts, and in the mail. They still continue to roll in and if it’s free, it’s for me! I have probably let many expire over the years, but I try to use them up if I can. I’ve been pretty creative finding different ways to use them. Here are my 8 favorites:

If you would like a free photo book, here is my referral code which should be good for a free book: https://invite-shutterfly.com/x/cUQWIM

1. KEEPSAKE Books

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You can make a keepsake book for any special moment in your life. I have one to celebrate mine & my husband’s ‘courtship’, with photos taken before we were married. We also have one for each of our kids, to celebrate their first year of life. I used templates provided by the photo book company for these, so it was super easy to do and didn’t take much time at all. Bryan’s is pretty simple, but I found a couple quotes that I love to add to Annie’s.

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2. Illustrated Storybook

This is hands down my favorite way to use a free photo book promo code. Bryan & I sit down and I ask him to tell me a story. When I create the storybook, I leave the pages blank (no photos) except for a line of text at the bottom of each page. Most photo book companies provide templates for text only now. When the book comes in, Bryan sits down and illustrates the story. I try not to ‘edit’ the story, but type it as he says it. The way he talks and the words he chooses is a snapshot of who he is at this very moment of his childhood. One day, I won’t remember his stories as well as I wish I did, but I will have these books.

I love that this is a fun, creative activity we can do together, but also that we now have these adorable keepsakes from his childhood. I love planting seeds that allow my children to dream about what they could be & do with their life one day, such as becoming an author. This year, I am going to ask Bryan to write a children’s storybook for his little sister (the next time I get a free code).

Here are some pics from a few storybooks we have already made, including my personal favorite Rocket Crane Horsey:

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I wanted to use a free promo code for a special gift for my son to give his Pop (my dad) this Christmas. They are best friends! Rather than asking Bryan to write a story for one of the typical storybooks we made, I gave him some direction and we wrote ‘The Adventures of Bryan & Pop.’ It started like a typical adventure that the two of them would go on and became a rather magical adventure by the end. Their relationship is truly something special so I wanted to help Bryan make a gift just a special for his Pop.

3. My Mommy/Daddy/GRandparent is….

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We made my husband the most special book for Father’s Day last year; I honestly cannot think of a better gift a parent can receive! (Wink, wink, hint, hint… Mother’s Day will be here before you know it!!) I added some photos of my husband with the kids throughout the pages, but left quite a lot of blank space for fill-ins. Using text boxes , I added questions for Bryan to answer about his Daddy, such as what he does for work but also questions such as ‘I love my Daddy because…’. Bryan worked so hard on this book for his Daddy, coloring pictures and answering the narratives. Some of his responses were really funny, some were incredibly sweet and others made no sense at all- perfection for a 4 year old!

I have seen versions of this on Amazon, but with a free promo code it would be cheaper to make your own, even with shipping. Plus, you can customize it to fit your family/child. This would also be adorable as a grandparent gift.

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When I was a baby, my Daddy… protected me from scary monsters with too many arms.

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Mommy loves Daddy because… he goes to work in the rain.

4. Our Song/Story/Poem

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My mom wrote a special lullaby to sing to her grandbabies. For Christmas this year, I created a book for her with the words from her lullaby and photos of her with the kids. Annie loves to look at pictures of the people she knows, so I thought it would be a sweet book for them to sit and look at together. This could easily be done with lyrics to a favorite song or words from a special poem.

5. Recipe Book

I am blessed to have all of my mother-in-law’s recipe cards, in her own handwriting with special notes in the margins. For Christmas a few years ago, I scanned all of the recipes that she had marked as ‘most used’ and made them into a big recipe book for other members of the family. If you don’t have any special keepsake recipes from Mom or Grandma, an alternative would be to make a cookbook with all of your favorite collected recipes to gift for the holidays. Perhaps gift a cook of main dishes this year, side dishes next and desserts the following year. It can become a collection that everyone looks forward to adding to each Christmas.

6. ‘All About Me’ Book/Birthday Book

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This is a fabulous annual tradition that I can’t wait to start when Bryan turns 5 this February. As with most of my special photo books, create a book using mostly text boxes with narratives for your child to illustrate/answer. Start with basics such as a space for them to write their name & age, have pages for them to write/draw their favorite toy, food, book, activities, a page to draw a picture of themselves and/or your family, and end with their hopes for the future (‘When I grow up I want to be…’).

For Bryan’s first birthday, I made a duplicate First Year book for his birthday party and asked everyone at the party to write a special message for him. I hope he treasures this keepsake forever! Be sure to leave plenty of blank text boxes and select layouts with open space for those messages.

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7. Quotes & Inspirational

Create a collection of special quotes, motivational/inspirational text or verses for someone special. What a great gift for someone who is going through a difficult time or moving into a new phase of life. Collect funny quotes or bits of advice on parenting for a baby shower gift, or marriage advice from friends & family for a wedding shower gift. The possibilities are endless!

8. Kids Photography Book

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Bryan likes to take photos with our cell phones. I have been saving them in a special folder on my computer and plan to make him a book of his photography. I’ve started it, but need to finish it. Perhaps today at nap time!

Now, some of his photos are just pictures of the wall or his thumb, but some of them are really, really great. My father and I both have degrees in Photography, though neither of us attempted a career as an artist. Perhaps Bryan will be the famous photographer in the family and it could be really cool to have a collection of his earlier work. If nothing else, it’s an exploration of a career he could choose when he grows up.

Have you created any unique photo books? I’d love to hear your ideas!

New Year, New Facebook

Facebook… sigh. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more intense love-hate relationship than that I have with Facebook. Pregnancy comes in close. I wasn’t a very good pregnant person and it tried to kill me at least once. I don’t think Facebook has tried to kill me yet, but it’s definitely thinking about it.

I want to like Facebook. I don’t want it to cause me stress and annoy the piss out of me as often as it does. I believe, in theory, that Facebook can actually bring something positive to our lives. It can connect people, share stories, motivate, encourage, inspire, market and build community. But yet, so often, it does all of the opposite.

My husband works with computers and he always says that ‘computers only do what we tell them to do.’ (I disagree with him; my computer often doesn’t do what I want it to.) While I know it’s easy to do, I encourage you to stop thinking of Facebook as being the evil. The problem with Facebook is that we are doing it wrong.

I want to re-evaluate my Facebook life this year and see if I can figure out how to use it to actually add to my ‘real’ life, without accepting that there will be ways in which it will inherently also subtract. I am going to rethink what role is serves for me and see if I can make changes to allow it to fill more of my needs. Here is the plan:

Purge, Purge, Purge

I am a HUGE fan of purging. Quite frankly, I don’t think people purge enough. I bet if you think about it, a good 70-80% of your problems could be solved by purging, be it a thought, feeling, memory, thing or person. In the words of Johnny Mercer & The Pied Pipers, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”

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I mean, really… read those words. Who doesn’t love a cathartic release?! This step starts with purge in the noun form- ‘an abrupt or violent removal of a group of people from an organization or place’. You are going to have to make some serious cuts in 3 areas: ‘friends’, groups and pages. This is a time to be brutal.

I’m about to give you a gift. Listen carefully.

You do not have to be Facebook friends with everyone you have ever met.

Did I just blown your mind?? I’m going to go as far as to say that you don’t even have to be Facebook friends with everyone that you actually like. Unfriending someone on Facebook is not equivalent to breaking up with them. You can totally work harmoniously along side a person, or have a friendly conversation at weekly play dates with another person, without being their Facebook friend. You can also still be biologically related, enjoying holidays and birthdays together, without being Facebook friends.

  • Why do you use Facebook?
  • What purpose does it serve in your life?

Your answers to these questions may not be the same as everyone who is on your Facebook Friends list. If you don’t use it in the same way or for the same purpose, does it make sense to use it together? What I enjoy most about Facebook is seeing photos of family & friends and learning what is going on in their daily lives. I want Facebook to tell me the things that a friend or loved one would share if there were to write me a letter. You know, if people still wrote letters. On paper. With stamps.

There are people who I know in my real life that don’t use Facebook for this purpose. (They shall remain nameless to protect the not-so-innocent.) They may not enjoy sharing cute pictures of their kids or details about their lives on Facebook. Instead, Facebook may serve as an outlet for frequent political rantings discourse or solely as a forum for marketing their business(es).

Let me be clear… I’m not saying these people are using Facebook incorrectly. Facebook has been designed as a great forum for both discussion/debate and marketing. I’m not judging anyone’s social media life or decision to use it for these purposes. All I’m saying is that we don’t provide for each other what we each hope to get from social media. Their Facebook profile does not help facilitate the purpose for which I use Facebook; I am likely not going to help fulfill their needs with my posts either.

Don’t think about it as unfriending someone. You can still be their friend in real life. Instead, you are choosing to eliminate their Facebook profile from your Facebook feed because they do not share the type of posts that you would like to see.

Let me provide you with some motivation to make these difficult calls & to press that ‘Unfriend’ button.

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Now, there may be some people in your life who you feel you cannot unfriend but would rather not see their posts. I’ll tell you what to do with them shortly.

It’s time for a Come-To-Jesus talk with your Friends List

I advocate for a bi-annual review of your Friends List. About twice a year I have a ‘CTJ’ (Come to Jesus) talk with my Friends List. I have found that I am generally pretty happy with around 100 friends. That seems to be enough to include my family and close friends, but also people who I enjoy being connected with. I don’t hold myself to that number, but more than once I found that after purging people who didn’t meet my ‘criteria’, it left exactly 100 friends.

I am generally not a fan of UrbanDictionary.com, but this definition is on point.

I am generally not a fan of UrbanDictionary.com, but this definition is on point.

What is my ‘friend’s list’ criteria? I’m glad you asked. I like to be Facebook friends with:

  • Family (for the most part)
  • Friends who I see or talk to regularly
  • Friends who I miss and wish I could see/talk to more
  • People who regularly post things that interest me, make me smile or laugh or that motivate or inspire me
  • People who I became friends with when I had 400+ friends simply because we kinda-sorta know each other or they know someone who I know, but we really do have many things in common, like kids who are the same age, and therefore their posts are similar to mine or are relevant in my life
  • And (i’ll be honest here) people who don’t really bring posts to the table that interest me but who ‘like’ or comment regularly on my posts and therefore seem to be interested in me

That feels like a good list of guidelines for me. If you use Facebook for work/business, your criteria might be slightly different. If you consider that being a SAHM is my work, then you could say that I do include associates in the same industry who share relevant work-related posts, such as links to kids crafts and funny memes about coffee.

When doing a BIG purge, I do usually share a post beforehand that goes a little something like this:

I have decided to change how I use Facebook and will be pruning down my Friends List to include Family only. I hope that no one takes this personally; please do not be offended if I ‘unfriend’ you. I need a Facebook change!

Now, this isn’t exactly true… because I do have friends on my list, but I think that this helps to ease any offense that others may feel. I truly do not mean to offend anyone and I certainly don’t want to enter into any argument about what one should or shouldn’t post on Facebook, especially if it’s politically motivated. It honestly has little to do with everyone else. It’s totally a ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ thing.

LEAVE MOST OF YOUR GROUPS

Hey you… yes, I’m talking to you… you in 104 LLR groups… really?! You need to keep reading.

I am a member of 14 groups, 4 of which I created and manage for graphic design work I do, my Norwex business and one for local SAHMs. My rule of thumb for groups is if a group you are a member of actually met in person for a monthly meeting and you would not regularly attend, you need to leave the group. With that said, if I had a calendar that included 14 standing monthly meetings I would be writing a blog post about clearing ones’ calendar. I feel like 14 is a few too many, but I do regularly post in these groups and/or read their posts.

I asked my Facebook friends (all 100 of them) how many groups they were in The general response was ‘too many’. Everyone that shared an exact number had over 100. Facebook Groups are the place for small group communication and for people to share their common interests and express their opinion. Does this sound like your 147 groups?

These groups are clogging your feed, man. The goal is to recreate your Facebook so that you see what you want to see. I know that you can be part of a group but ‘unfollow’ it and turn off notifications, but unless you are going to visit the group at least a couple times a month, why stay in it at all?? In all likelihood you will probably be able to rejoin the group in the future if it suddenly becomes important to your daily life, but if it isn’t now, you don’t need it. Again, the word of the day is PURGE. If leaving all of those irrelevant groups doesn’t give you a cathartic release, then by all means, rejoin.

If a group you are a member of actually met in person for a monthly meeting and you would not regularly attend, you need to leave the group.

While you are cleaning up your Groups, go ahead and set some Favorite Groups. This will help ensure that you see posts from groups that are most important to you. Your favorite groups should be ones that you are an administrator for, post in regularly or read daily.

REVIEW LIKED PAGES

Facebook has made this step pretty easy for us.

Disclaimer: These instructions are accurate as of the day I am writing this post. Facebook will likely move & change everything tomorrow. Sorry.

A Facebook page is a public profile specifically created for businesses, brands, celebrities, causes, and other organizations. They are sort of like commercials; they market to you. Unlike commercials, however, Facebook allows these brands to collect information about who sees their page posts such as your age, gender and city. If the ‘big brother’ thing bothers you, you should probably start unliking some pages… or better yet, deactivate your Facebook account. But even if that doesn’t bother you, I recommend taking a couple minutes to make sure that you actually like the products or brands that Facebook thinks you do.

When you open your Facebook account on a computer (not sure about phones), you can click on ‘Pages’ on the left side of the screen and then you will be given the option to ‘Review Liked Pages’.

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When I went through my review I noticed Pages ‘liked’ that were not only NOT relevant to my life (such as Michelin Tires… really?? Do I strike you as a tire buff?), but also companies/brands that I’m actually fundamentally in disagreement with, such as Johnson & Johnson and Bath & Body Works. We try our very hardest to never use products that contain phthalates on our bodies. Because of my concerns about ingredients that these two companies use in their products, we will not purchase them. I also believe that these ingredients/products should be banned in the US, but that’s a post for another day.

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In total, I removed 124 pages from my ‘Like’ list. This will help my Facebook clean-up in two ways: I should no longer see posts from Pages that I dislike, but I should also now have a better chance at seeing posts from Pages that I do actually like. I should probably do myself (and my health) a favor an Unlike Domino’s… but I do love those $5.99 pizza offers!

Prioritize Who You See First

Your next step is to set your news feed preferences with 4 easy steps. Click on the little drop down arrow on the top right of your homepage and select ‘News Feed Preferences’. This will walk you through prioritizing who you see first (friends & pages), unfollowing those who you do not wish to see on your feed (those friends/family who we talked about earlier that you feel you can’t unfriend), reconnecting with those who you have unfollowed in the past but now would like to see, and discovering pages that match your interests.

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I really appreciated the opportunity to select up to 30 friends & Pages to prioritize. You will have to decide who makes it to your Top 30 list and why. I selected most of my family members and a couple pages who I really, really like. My favorite pages on Facebook are:

  • Fun, Cheap or Free – Great tips on writing a solid budget and sticking to it! The author, Jordan Page, is my mom-crush. She has 5 kids (under 7 or 8, I believe) and she actually gets dressed and puts on make-up everyday. She truly inspires me to be a better SAHM.
  • Hip2Save– I find most of my shopping deals from Collin at Hip2Save.
  • 5-Minute Crafts– Awesome short videos of kids crafts, household tips and life hacks.
  • imomsohard– If you don’t want to be BFFs with Kristin & Jenn, then I don’t want to be friends with you. Their videos should be required viewing for all moms. You can credit all of my sanity to imomsohard.
  • Krokotak– Cute crafts for the kiddos.

ENJOY Your New Facebook life

Congratulations! Your new Facebook life is waiting for your enjoyment! Hopefully now you will see all the posts, photos and videos that are relevant to your life and important to you, and none of the other crap. Remember, “you’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”

I hope these steps help improve your social media life. I’m really crossing my fingers that it helps mine!

 

Word of the Year for 2017

Do you pick a ‘Word of the Year’? This is a New Years tradition where you select a word to focus on for the next 12 months. I’ve seen others do this in the past but haven’t given it a shot myself. I didn’t intend to do it this year either, but two words have been flashing in bright, neon lights in my head and laying heavily on my heart for the last month or so. I figure this must be a sign.

HeaLth & Gratitude

I decided on two words- one is really more for my husband & I to focus on (Health) and one is more for the kids (Gratitude). Of course, we will work on them together as I want the children to see gratitude demonstrated by the adults in their lives and I want to teach the children healthy behaviors. I have a feeling that Bryan & Annie will end up teaching us a thing or two along the way as well.

Why Health?

For starters, 2016 wasn’t an especially healthy year for us in general and it all reached a peak of concern right before the end of the year. I was diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism over the summer, which was corrected with surgery the week of Christmas. Jon had an old ACL injury flare up right before New Years, which required a New Years Eve visit to Urgent Care. After a pretty solid virus-free period, we all came down with colds in December and continue to pass them back & forth. I guess we are a little better at sharing than I give us credit for.

I have struggled with being overweight pretty much all of my life, excluding a period of two years in Graduate School where I focused on my health, learned to enjoy exercise, managed my blood sugar with a reasonable diet and lost a considerable amount of weight. Can I go back to Grad School?!? Jon is very active, walking an average of about 5 miles a day at work, but he could certainly benefit from some healthy lifestyle tweaks. My kids… and this is tough for me to say… are following in my footsteps.

Both Bryan & Annie were born prematurely; Bryan weighed 5 pounds 1 ounce when we brought him home from the hospital and Annie weighed 4 pounds 11 ounces at birth. For months we struggled to gain ounces. Literally, every ounce gained was a victory that we celebrated. Now, Bryan is in the 96% for weight and Annie is in the 75%. Granted, they are both also very tall for their age but of course, I worry. I want better for them. I have discussed this with their Pediatrician and she is not in any hurry to place them on a ‘diet’ but did recommend that we cut out empty calories. So that is what we plan to do.

This is what a healthy lifestyle looks like to us:

  • less processed food & empty calories
  • more physical activity
  • closer to a plant-based diet (though we will probably never give up meat & eggs)

But being healthy to me means much more than just physical health; it encompasses pretty much every aspect of our lives including:

Financial Health

This is a BIG one. I wouldn’t say that we are financially unhealthy right now, but there is certainly room for improvement. In our household, my husband works to provide a living for us and I work to provide a life for us. Jon wants as little to do with our finances as I will let him get away with, besides, of course, earning our income.

I prepare and manage our budget and, being that I am totally a Type-A personality, it involves pretty elaborate Excel spreadsheets.  My husband makes a good salary and there is always the hope that each year will bring about an increase in income, but I can’t say that I feel I have been managing our budget well. I would give myself a solid C and I’m not very comfortable with being ‘average’. It doesn’t matter to me that we are doing okay, better than many, and keeping afloat; I’d like to feel that we are doing better than that, thriving even. I am great at writing budgets, not so great at sticking to them. So this year, I am going to work on that. I don’t want to stress myself out at the end of each month with another ‘I blew the budget… again’ dilemma. And I am a firm believer that more income doesn’t solve a budget problem; one can mismanage any amount of money.

I feel extremely fortunate that my husband & I are on the same page when it comes to… well, most things… but speaking specifically here about finances. There are some basic principles related to money and how we use/spend/save it that he & I are in total agreement on. A couple years ago, before we even had the kids, I was discussing Christmas plans with a relative and she said to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting our kids anything big for Christmas. I know you guys don’t have much.’ This definitely caught me off guard. I was working at the time and thought that we made a pretty good combined income. While I probably should have been offended, I didn’t feel that way at all which also surprised me. When I shared this with Jon he responded in a typical ‘Jon’ way… “I’d rather have it and have other people think we don’t than not have it but have them think we do.” That about sums up our financial strategy; live well, but well within our means.

I will say that we have a number in our mind that we feel is a safe amount for us to have in savings in case we were to suffer a financial set-back… and we are not at that figure yet. So this is what financial health looks like to us

  • more savings
  • better budget management

 Mental & Emotional Health

I’m not sure how to separate these two; they feel so integrated to me.  Again, I wouldn’t say that we are unhealthy mentally & emotionally, though catch me on the wrong day and I might disagree. My husband’s job can be stressful and I acknowledge that being the sole bread-winner in the family adds a level of pressure on him, though I know that he is grateful to be able to provide for our family and we feel very fortunate that he is so reliable and capable. Being a stay-at-home-mom is a much harder job than I anticipated when I left my career three years ago. I live at work and there are days weeks when I feel like I have been on the clock 24/7 and haven’t had a minute to myself. Though I know it’s just words, the times when Jon says ‘I don’t know how you do it all’ are HUGE in terms of allowing me to feel appreciated and helping me muster the strength to get through the rough minutes, hours and days.

My husband and I both struggle with taking time for ourselves, independently and together. Jon works a lot so when he isn’t working he wants to give all his time to us. I spend all of my time with the children, so much so that I can forget that parenting is a privilege and not just work. When Jon comes home from work I feel badly leaving the house (on my own) because it can feel- to both of us- that I am clocking out and making Jon clock back into a ‘job’… even though he just got home from work… and kids aren’t suppose to be work, but let’s face it- they totally are! Is this making sense??

It’s clear to me what we need to work on this year for a healthier mentality and stronger emotional well-being:

  • Quality alone time
  • Quality together time

Parent-guilt (and let’s just start calling it that, because Dads do feel guilt too) needs to get kicked to the curb; it has no place in our home anymore. A couple times a year, Jon likes to go away for a weekend to fish. It’s his ‘me’ time and it’s HUGELY beneficial in terms of helping him unplug from a stressful life of being constantly connected to multiple computers and two cell phones… hell, even his watch is ‘smart’ and pings him all day long. It’s not a luxury for him anymore; it is getting moved this year to the essentials column and I am going to support him and help him make sure it happens, for his mental and emotional well-being.

Same goes for me. I need time away. I am going to leave the house without the kids more frequently and I will stop rushing home and apologizing when I get there for how long I was out. Someone please remind me of this every couple of months.

For goodness sake, we need to stop seeing our role as parents as being ‘work’. I know, even I rolled my eyes a little bit as I typed that. I know it’s work, but we need to start having more fun with our children on a regular basis. I don’t have a solid plan of attack for this yet, but I’m starting with a nightly game time with Bryan.

I am a morning person; come 7-8 pm you are not going to get the best of me. This is the time of day when I usually just want to be left alone. But, Annie goes to bed about 2 hours earlier than Bryan and I’ve noticed that he has been getting ‘bored’ every night, but neither Jon nor myself have been mustering up the energy to focus on him. It’s been too easy to put on a Disney movie or send him to bed with his tablet and play on our phones. Yuck. It makes me so sad to say that. So, we have started a new tradition. Bryan & I play a game every night after Annie goes to bed. Could be Go Fish, Candyland or Spot It. Last night we had a particularly thrilling game of Monopoly Jr. that lasted well over 30 minutes. But even if it’s just 10-15 minutes, it ends both of our days on a positive note and sends my son to bed feeling that Mommy enjoys playing with him.

HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS

Every year at Christmas time I ask Jon if there is anyone new that we want to add to our Christmas card list and his response is always the same, ‘I hope not.’ No one has ever accused my husband of being a social butterfly. My attitude about it is that I don’t get to spend enough time with the friends I already have; if I have time to give to building new relationships, I’d rather invest it in reconnecting with my ‘old’ friends. When we have available time, we are more likely to spend it with family than anyone else, but I am definitely missing our friends now.

We have quite a few friends that do not live near us and it’s hard to connect with them, but we do have a handful of great local friends who we need to work harder at enjoying time with. This year, we need to stop using the kids as an excuse and rebuild those friendships that are important to us. I miss date nights out with friends so I hope that we can start doing more of those again. We need to invite friends over more… even if the house isn’t clean, even if it’s just for spaghetti or pizza… let the kids come too. It needs to happen.

And let’s not forget one of the most important relationships in my life: my marriage. I have no complaints when it comes to our marriage, but we would certainly love to spend more time alone together. Intentional time alone together. We are very lucky that my parents live nearby and are willing to keep BOTH kids overnight so frequently, but we usually just use that time to get stuff around the house done or veg out. A blogger I read, Jordan Page at FunCheaporFree.com, is a huge advocate for ‘dating’ your spouse and I’d love to do more of that in 2017.

Relationship goals:

  • Socialize with friends more
  • Date my spouse

A Healthy Household

We spend a lot of time at home. It’s not just a house to us. In order for our days to run smoothly, our home needs to be in tip-top working order. That means organized, functional, clutter-free and possibly even clean. If organization were a love language, it would be mine. I live in a constant state of evaluating, organizing, purging, rinse & repeat. There is almost always one ‘trouble zone’, be it a room, closet or cabinet, that just doesn’t function or serve the purpose I need it to.

There was a period of probably two weeks last year where I looked around our home and thought… ‘I don’t have any trouble zones right now!’ Every square inch of the house (garage and basement excluded) was working pretty well for us. And then we decided to rearrange furniture in our living room. These periods of rest are few and far between, but that’s okay. If it works for us for awhile, great. When it stops working, then it needs tweaked.

There are a few projects on the list for 2017 for our home. The exterior of the house is in desperate need of a power-wash. It usually happens annually but hasn’t for the last two summers, so that will get done this year. My husband has a partial bathroom in the basement for his ‘man cave.’ I call it the ‘urinal closet’, since it just has a urinal and a sink. (What else does a man cave need?) Except it isn’t a closet… it’s open to the laundry area. I have a urinal in my laundry room. He is going to close it up and make it a proper bathroom this year.

My tub needs recaulked and if money permits we are going to rip out my husbands awful, leaky shower in his bathroom and replace it with a nice tiled shower stall. These are just annoying to-do list kinda things,  but because our home is so important to us and because how well it is functioning makes such a difference in our daily lives, we are very intentional about planning out our annual projects. Usually our tax refund goes almost exclusively into our home. Sure there are definitely more exciting things that we could be doing with that cash, but we take pride in our home. We love it (almost all the time) and it truly is an investment. You have to invest in anything in your life that is important to you, be it your health, relationships, career or home.

Gratitude

Bryan will be 5 years old this February. I am in awe daily at how big, smart, creative and interesting he is. I’m also petrified. It’s becoming clear to me that this parenting business is starting to get ‘real’. I thought having newborns was hard; now the real work of shaping a good and responsible human being begins.

Bryan no longer exists within our bubble. Whether he is kind, respectful, caring… or not is starting to impact more and more people, besides just his father and myself. He has teachers, friends and coaches now. It’s one thing to overlook an attitude towards me at home, brushing it off as him being little and assume he will grow out of it. It’s a completely other thing to hear that he told his teacher that ‘he is going to do what he wants to do’ or watching him get called out for not listening to his coach on the soccer field.

My worse fear, besides a really traumatic event, is that my children will be unkind to others. If they become nothing else in life, I want to know that they are nice. I have absolutely no idea how to make sure that happens, but it’s on the forefront of my mind daily.

Christmas was an eye-opener this year. I won’t say that Bryan was ungrateful, necessarily, but he certainly didn’t demonstrate the level of gratitude that I would like to see from him. I try to be careful to not expect adult-like thoughts, behaviors or emotions from a child, but I don’t feel that I can put this off anymore. Bryan is a blessed child. He needs to know this and feel appreciation for the gifts he has received in life, physically and otherwise.

Again, I’m feeling a bit clueless and unprepared for this stage of parenting, but I’ve come up with a plan that feels pretty solid right now: A Year of Family Service. This isn’t new; I’m pretty sure I saw it at some point on a blog or Pinterest. Once a month, for the 12 months of 2017, I would like our family to work together on a project that serves others. I don’t have them all planned out, but I’ve got a few leads and ideas. Anything that takes into account how others feel or helps another human being (or living creature) with a need qualifies. We will be giving, be it of money, supplies or our time. Less focus on us, more focus on others.

It’s important to me that we do this together as a family. Sure, I could take the kids to Walmart once a month to buy food for a food bank or toys for Toys For Tots, but I’m not sure that is enough immersion for this to truly resonate with a young child. I don’t want to scare Bryan by introducing him to concepts that might burst his happy little bubble, like terminal illness, homelessness or poverty, but I would like him to know that there is always someone out there who could use our help or kindness and to learn that there are so many difference ways to give service to others.

I picked one project for April. It is a kids fun run at a local amusement park. Proceeds will benefit a local organization that provides assistance to families with children with terminal illnesses. Bryan is going to have a blast spending the day at the event and participating in the run, but leading up to it we will be going around to family and friends to ask for donation pledges. I’m not sure yet how he will do with this, as he is just now starting to understand the concept of money. He recently started receiving $2 allowance a week and after saving up $14 he said he was going to buy a truck like daddy. Hopefully, at the end of the year, I will be able to write a blog post about what a huge success this project was and all the life lessons we have learned. We will gladly accept all prayers for patience, open hearts and open minds!

For more information or to register for the Magical Miles for Magical Smiles Fun Run, visit http://www.magicalmemoriesforkids.com/page6 .

Prayer Request before Surgery

I have a specific prayer request & should probably fill a few family members and friends in on what has been going on, so rather than a ridiculously long Facebook post I’m putting my blog to good use. I was informed last week that an unidentified mass was found in my neck and they will need to surgically remove it.  I believe the technical term is ‘nonspecific subcentimeter structure’, but who the heck knows that that means? Let me start at the beginning…

For the last 5 years I have been in the ‘baby making’ phase of my life, seen pretty much only by OBGYNs & midwives. This past summer,  I decided that it was time to start seeing a primary care physician for an annual physical. So, I made an appointment and routine blood work was done. (To all of my momma friends out there, I recommend that you do the same! Prenatal treatment is not a substitute for an annual physical, as it turns out.)

The blood work came back showing elevated calcium levels. I was sent for additional blood work, which showed the same. I was referred to Endocrinology at Geisinger. That appointment revealed 5 years of consistently elevated calcium and I was diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism. If it has been elevated for 5 years, why wasn’t it caught earlier? I believe the technical explanation was that weird things happen when you are pregnant and all my blood work prior to this had been taken during pregnancy, so one slightly elevated level wouldn’t have necessarily been a red flag. My calcium levels are not very high, but slightly elevated for such a prolonged period of time was sufficient for the doctor to feel confident in her diagnosis.

“Hyperparathyroidism is an excess of parathyroid hormone in the bloodstream due to overactivity of one or more of the body’s four parathyroid glands… The parathyroid glands produce parathyroid hormone, which helps maintain an appropriate balance of calcium in the bloodstream and in tissues that depend on calcium for proper functioning.” – Mayo Clinic

Did you know that we have 4 parathyroids, and that they are not the same as your thyroid? Neither did I. I haven’t met a single person since this diagnosis that has. In fact, I bet someone that reads this entire post will later ask me about my thyroid. Again, not the same.

Illustration showing parathyroid glands

The initial consult with Endo went a little something like this…

Doctor: “Do you feel fatigued?”

Me: “I have two small children.”

Doctor: …..

Me: “So, that would be a yes.”

Doctor: “Any confusion or memory problems?”

Me: “Are there moms who don’t??”

Doctor: ….

Me: “Yes.”

Doctor: “Appetite loss?”

Me: “I wish!”

Doctor: ….

I don’t think she has any children.

I was told that this condition is extremely rare for pre-menopausal women and for that reason my Endocrinologist wants to be aggressive. If you think about it, women struggle with bone density even without hyperparathyroidism. This condition does not allow my bones to get the calcium that they need. A common symptom is ‘fragile bones that easily fracture (osteoporosis)’. If we don’t fix this now, I can most certainly expect fractures and breaks in my future. This is the kind of thing that can result in you walking down the street, and your leg breaks. I’m pretty clumsy, so I’m not liking my odds.

I was sent for some tests & scans, including:

  • more bloodwork
  • a 24-hour urine collection (which as a result of having preeclampsia with my second pregnancy, I am a champ at peeing in a jug, in case you were wondering.)
  • neck ultrasound
  • CT scan (which makes you feel absolutely certain that you peed your pants, even though you didn’t)
  • Sestamibi (which is long, very uncomfortable, has to be done twice and is highly inaccurate)

The goal for these scans was to identify which of the 4 parathyroids need to be removed. My surgeon was looking for an adenoma (noncancerous growth) or an enlargement of one or more of the glands. Normally, one hopes to not find such things, but in this case we needed to know what was causing the problem. Unfortunately, nothing showed on the scans.

Again, ‘aggressive’ was the word my ‘team’ used and so we scheduled an exploratory surgery for Monday, December 19th. The plan was to open me up, identify the 4 parathyroid glands, and see if they can tell which one is wonky. If they can, they will remove it. If they can’t, they basically play Russian roulette and remove one, then test my PTH to see if I am within normal levels. If not, they remove another… and so on until my levels are normal or all 4 are gone.

In my pre-op appointment last week, my surgeon asked if I would be willing to do another neck ultrasound as a last ditch effort, hoping that something would show. For obvious reasons, it will be better for him to know what the plan is before going in, so to Radiology I went. I don’t think anyone wants to have surgery, but especially not exploratory surgery. So, when we got the results back from this ultrasound and it showed a mass, I felt relief.

Hopefully, now that the surgeon has an educated guess as to where to start, he can go in, identify the mass (which should logically be on one of my parathyroids), remove it, confirm that my calcium levels are in the normal range, and close me up. This should mean a smaller incision, shorter surgery, and less likelihood of complications. I do plan to go as Anne Boleyn for Halloween next year, but I’d rather not have a scar that scares the children. There is the chance that the surgeon will not be able to isolate or remove the mass (or any of my parathyroids). The course of treatment if I have to live with this disorder is a daily meal of Tums. Literally, eating a crazy amount of Tums everyday. All the Mommas who struggled with heartburn will feel my fear of this!

Of course, since it’s December and I have small children, we have been passing around a cold virus for the last couple of weeks. I tried my hardest, but I fell victim this past weekend. I feel like I’m kicking it, but the final call will be made by the anesthesiologist on Monday. Health comes first, but we have already waited a couple months for this surgery to take place so I would have my mom & Jon home over Christmas break for back-up with the kids. I won’t be able to lift Annie for a week or so and I won’t be able to drive Bryan to/from preschool, so it’s essential I have some help at home post-surgery. Rescheduling would complicate things logistically. Additionally, my symptoms have compounded over the last few months. I struggle with fatigue but cannot sleep more than a couple hours a night. My hand, wrist and hip bones ache constantly. I feel like I have aged 40 years in the last two months. There is also the pesky matter of our insurance deductible, which has been met for the year. Pushing surgery back until the new year will mean paying for another deductible.

My prayer request is for this cold virus to vanish, for surgery to take place as uneventfully as possible on Monday, December 19th, for a quick recovery & a badass (but not scary) scar. If you have a few extra moments, it would be awesome to have my symptoms disappear following surgery and for there to not be any long lasting bone density effects. I appreciate it very, very much!

 

 

Tracy’s Favorite Things List 2017

I scrolled through Oprah’s Favorite Things on Amazon today… alllll the way through. Oprah has a lot of favorite things, but surprisingly I only wanted a couple of them for myself. I am not sure why her audience was always so excited when she gave her list away. I cannot imagine anyone spending $16 on a key chain or $100 on foot lotion, but I am clearly not Oprah. So, what would be on Tracy’s Favorite Things list? Let’s see…

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The Cousins’ War series & Tudor Court novels by Philippa Gregory

I am on book #7 of 14 in this series and I am so very hooked. I first fell in love with The White Queen, a British television drama series in ten parts, based on 3 of the books in this series by Philippa Gregory (The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter). If you enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), staring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, you will love the full collection. It begins with Henry VIII’s Great-Grandmother and follows through Elizabeth I, written as part historical nonfiction and part fictional drama. It tells the stories of the women behind the men, who were often not recorded and written about in historical documents.

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Biokleen Auto Dish Powder (Free and Clear) and Biokleen Laundry Liquid (Citrus Essence)

Our family has been actively trying to eliminate all bad chemical from our home over the last year and a half. I was thrilled to find the Biokleen family of products, specifically the Auto Dish Powder and Laundry Liquid, because now I know that I do not have to sacrifice performance for the health & safety of my family and our environment. Now, if you are an extreme couponer, you will not be able to get Biokleen for as cheaply as you can Tide or Cascade, but I think you would be surprised to see how cost efficient green products can be. Biokleen Dish Powder costs me about $3 a month, which I think it very affordable.

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Glass Nail Files

I have tried a lot of nail files in my life and not one filed as well as these nor held up as long as these. They won’t last forever; the first file will be better than the 20th, but I’d rather use a product that doesn’t need tossed after the first use or two. Good little stocking stuffer.

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Amazon Fire Tablet Kids Edition

I know that it is possible to survive parenthood without giving your child electronic devices such as a tablet, I just don’t understand why you would want to try. This device has saved our sanity a million times over.

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McDonalds Coffee

No link here- you’ll have to go through your local McD’s drive-thru for this favorite thing. Call me crazy, but I love McDonalds coffee. A $1.06 small black coffee is such a treat for me! I hear they are now selling bags of ground McDonalds coffee. I’ll have to drop a hint to Santa to fill my stocking with some!

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Crayola Christmas Countdown Advent Calendar

I bought this for my son this year because he loves doing art crafts & I trust Crayola to bring it. Bring it they did! We are on Day #2 and I already love this Advent calendar. Each day your child (or you, I won’t judge) pulls out a numbered activity card from the back of the calendar and then opens the corresponding door on the front, which contains a new tool- such as a scented marker, Model Magic packet or paint. Day #1 was a letter to Santa and Day #2 was a sign for Bryan to paint & hang on his bedroom door. (‘This room belongs to…’) I will definitely be on the look out for a discounted one after Christmas to save for next year.

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Deluxe Utility Tote by Thirty-One Gifts

I was a Director with Thirty-One Gifts for a couple years and it was a blast! I miss it, but my home is definitely well organized now. Storage and home organizational solutions is my jam. One of my most favorite Thirty-One products is the Deluxe Utility Tote. I have like three… maybe four… okay fine, six of them. I use them for everything, from packing stuff up to haul across town to my parents or across the country for vacation. *The link above will take you to my former Senior Director’s page. Her name is Tina, she will take great care of you!

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BeautyCounter Daily Shampoo & Conditioner

Shampoo was one of the last ‘bad chemical’ personal care products I was still using, until my friend Kristen introduced me to BeautyCounter. I had been dreading the process of finding a new, ‘safe’ shampoo. I assumed it would be expensive and time consuming, going through bottle after bottle that didn’t work well on my hair. I am totally happy with the results of BC Daily Shampoo and am even okay with the price. In terms of eliminating chemicals that could be harmful to my health, this shampoo is hands down an improvement over what I had been using before. If you are unsure of how safe or unsafe your personal care products are, check out their rating at EWG.org/skindeep*The BeautyCounter link above will take you to my friend Kristen’s online store; tell her I sent ya  😉

Move and Groove Game by Think Fun

This is a game the whole family will enjoy. It’s perfect for burning off energy during those long, cold winter months. If you invite us to your child’s birthday party, there is a 98% chance this is what we will gift him/her, especially if there is a younger sibling. The soft dice is perfect for toddlers to toss while big kids run around like crazy people play. Early readers can work on their skills by reading the motion cards.

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Usborne Lift-the-flap Books

We just love these: a variety of topics, lots of learn, and perfect for kids who have a little trouble sitting still to read. The flaps keeps kids engaged. I always learn something new myself!

Annie (1982) 

This is my favorite movie of all time. No, I didn’t name my daughter after this Annie. My grandparents have called me Annie my whole life, so she is named after me with a nod to my grandparents. And it’s a stinkin’ cute name. For at least 10 years prior to having children I dreamed of having a Bryan & an Annie one day, and now I do. Dream come true! All of Annie’s doll babies are named after the orphans in Annie. Thus far we have Pepper, Molly and Tessie. We need a Duffy, Kate and July. Did you know there was an orphan named July? I will not entertain any other version of this movie. Just no.

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Brothers, The Black Keys

I love this album. If the kids are not in the car, I am likely listening to the Keys. It is somehow my happy and bad mood music, all at the same time. Back when I worked at the museum, my coworkers knew that if they heard me listening to this album, they should probably steer clear of my office for the day.

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OnGuard by DoTerra

We use a variety of essential oils in a number of ways and I am very grateful for them, but my favorite hands down is OnGuard by DoTerra, for it’s immunity boosting properties. We diffuse it, use it diluted with coconut oil in a rollerball on our feet morning & night, use their foaming hand wash and I use their toothpaste as well. I have noticed a significant decrease in illness among our family since being introduced to OnGuard. This time of the year, it’s essential. Ha, get it? Essential.

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Norwex

I can’t have a Favorites List without including Norwex. Clearly, I believe in their products, so much so that I became an Independent Consultant. I have been working on this list for a week and had been racking my brain trying to think of a single product to include but the reality is, I love them all for different reasons. It’s like picking a favorite child; can’t be done. But here are a couple worth singling out:

  • EnviroCloth- because it literally cleans everything. Single best investment you can make when it comes to keeping a clean, safe home. This cloth will save you oodles of money & time. Scouts honor!
  • Body Pack- these washcloths give you clean skin without the cost/use of soap products (such as shower gels or shave creams) that clog your pores, introduce bad chemicals into your body and upset your PH balance. It took almost 2 years for my husband to try our Body Pack washcloths and now he said he won’t go back to soap because ‘it’s more efficient.’ So to the efficiency lovers of the world, give ’em a try!
  • Fluff & Tumble Wool Dryer Balls- if there is one ‘bad chemical’ product in your home that you should eliminate first, it’s fabric softener/dryer sheets. Google it- bad stuff! I love these; gentle on clothing, 1 time investment (two year warranty but will likely last much longer), cuts down on energy use AND static. No brainer.
  • Superior Mop System- because this household is hard on mops, and this mop takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. It just works, really well. I have two children who eat everything like Cookie Monster. If they ever make me into an action figure doll, I will come with a tiny cell phone and this mop as my accessories.

What would be on your Favorite Things List?

 

How to spend less on (reasonably) well dressed kids

My son was pretty easy to shop for, though we didn’t receive much clothing for him from our baby showers and first holidays/birthday. If we are all being honest here, boys just aren’t as much fun to shop for as little girls. We didn’t have any friends or family nearby with older boys to offer hand-me-downs, but as I have come to learn it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because clothing just doesn’t survive little boys. (Note to self… genius million dollar business idea: boys’ Teflon clothing!)

Our biggest issue with Bryan is that he grows like kudzu. I have, on more than one occasion, exchanged clothing for him because he outgrew it before I even had a chance to remove the tags. And I’m not talking, ‘I bought too much for him anyway and that is why there were still things with tags on them’. I’m talking, ‘By the time I actually got around to ordering new clothing for him and by the time it was actually delivered he had grown yet another size.’

When we found out that we were expecting a little girl, I had a mini anxiety attack. I could see myself drowning in a closet of shoes, pink, glitter and hair bows. This was a world I wasn’t accustomed to: girlie things. I never had to worry about what Bryan wore, as long as he had on pants, shirt, shoes & underwear (not in that order), we were good to go. Well, it didn’t take me long to get on the girlie bandwagon. Annie is 18 months now and I just bought her first hairbows, primarily because her bangs were getting in her eyes, but I do love an adorably dressed baby girl.

However, also love not being in debt. I suppose you could say my priorities are #1) clothed children (or, in other words, clothing has been provided for them… whether or not they choose to wear it depends on the day), #2) sticking to the budget, #3) looking like cute little children models in picture frame photos. Here are MY tips for how to keep your kids clothed, within budget, and maybe even matching.

Disclaimer: If you cannot stomach to dress you children in secondhand clothing, you should probably stop reading. We can still be friends, but we maybe shouldn’t discuss this topic. And I’m happy to take all your hand-me-downs, um’kay thanks!

Tip #1: Ask for hand-me-downs

I am against doing anything illegal or immoral but when it comes to taking care of my kids needs that is about the only line I will draw. Since sharing with friends is neither illegal or immoral it’s my favorite way to clothe children. Chances are, someone you know has a… ahem, shopping problem, or grandparents who spoil their kiddos and could use some free space in their closet, attic or basement. Really, you are doing THEM a favor by taking a couple garbage bags of clothing off their hands. We have a couple close friends with little girls who have kept Annie well dressed since birth.

Tips for hand-me-downs:

  • Asks friends who give you clothing to label the items they want back w/ their last name or initial. They can use those cute little stickers daycare make you put on everything, or just sharpie the tag. This will make it easier to be the friend they KEEP sharing their kids’ clothes with. Don’t be the friend who doesn’t return the things you borrowed. That means no more free clothes for you!
  • Find out what they want you to do with the items when you are finished. Most will be happy for you to pay it forward and pass it along to another friend or to donate to your local charity-run thrift store.
  • If you plan to sell gently used clothing when you are finished, just clarify with your friend BEFORE they catch you selling the things they gave you on your Mommy Group. By the time clothing is outgrown, it’s going to be difficult to remember exactly what you bought yourself and what you were given. I am a fan of trying to selling off bundles of clothing when we have outgrown them, but I’d feel awful if a friend recognized some of their hand-offs listed for sale and took offense. One of my friends is very clear- keep it, give it, donate it, sell it, toss it… just as long as it don’t come back into her home!

Tip #2: Thrift

I am a big fan of thrifting. We have an awesome thrift store called Community Aid that I have had a lot of luck with for both kids. I have found name brand and even ‘new with tag’ items there, and bonus- Wednesday is 50% off Family Day! I mean, really… $1.99 for a new Gymboree sleep & play… on half price day… that’s something to feel good about! I didn’t even care that it was ‘technically’ a Christmas sleeper, we wore it in July. Christmas in July!

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One thing to point out, thrift stores are not the same as consignment stores. A thrift store is typically run by a non-profit and often gives back in some way to your local community. They run on donations, so thrifting does require a lot of digging through racks; not everything is a gem. Try to NOT take the kids if you can. Treat it like a mommy-vacation. Not quite as luxurious as strolling Target w/ a Starbucks, but it’s better for your budget.

I like to sell items to consignment stores, but am not as much of a fan of shopping at them. When it comes to secondhand, I am more of a $1.99 Jumping Bean shirt than a $4.99 Children’s Place shirt kinda mom. In my opinion, my local consignment stores are more concerned with name brand than quality; they would rather have more heavily warn Baby Gap than like-new Jumping Bean. I don’t feel that flow, but that’s just me. Our best local children’s consignment will give sellers 30% more in store credit than cash and that can help stretch your dollars. If your store doesn’t advertise that, it’s worth asking when you sell items!

Tip #3: Skip Outlet Stores

Say what?! I know, right- isn’t ‘shop at outlet stores’ suppose to be #1 on any money-saving tips post?? I am here to say, no! Now, I don’t live close enough to an outlet store to shop them frequently or hit up their best annual sales, but in my experience the regular sale prices at outlet stores are not great. You can totally find great deals there, but please don’t walk into an Outlet Store thinking that everything you find will be at rock-bottom prices because of the word ‘outlet’ in the name. That is not the case. I have found that Carter’s, for example, is better priced a Kohl’s when you pair a good sale with a 30% off promotion.

Speaking of Kohl’s, here is a tip in regards to Kohl’s Cash-

Kohl’s changed their policies a couple years back and now, if you return an item purchased on the order that earned your Kohl’s cash, you could either lose your Kohl’s Cash or, if you already redeemed it, your refund will be decreased by the amount of the Kohl’s Cash you redeemed. (Did that make sense??)

This really changed the way in which I think about Kohl’s Cash. Often deal sites will show the final ‘price’ of a deal minus the Cash that you earned. For example: Toy Sale $50 (reg. price $100) – $10 Kohl’s Cash earned = $40. I discourage you from thinking about it this way, because you will still pay $50 out-of-pocket. I have too often been in a situation like this where I bought the $50 item, used the $10 Kohl’s Cash… not necessarily on something I needed or wanted, but mainly just because I had it… and then ended up returning the $50 item, for which I only received a $40 refund because I already redeemed the Kohl’s Cash. Think about the Kohl’s Cash as a bonus… and not a discount on the original order. Buy the $50 item if $50 is a good price you are willing to pay for it, and think of the $10 as a bonus. And then make certain you are going to keep the original item(s) ordered before redeeming your Kohl’s Cash. This is especially important for clothing. Okay, I’ll step down from my soapbox now.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming…

Tip #4: Be (cautiously) brand loyal

Typically when it comes to money-saving deals, you need to be flexible when it comes to brands. If Colgate toothpaste is free at CVS this week, are you going to pass it up for Crest?? (If you are my husband, yes.) BUT here is now being brand loyal can save you:

From about 2-4 years old, my son was sort of difficult to fit for pants. I discovered that Old Navy jeans fit him pretty well in both waist & length…. but $17-$23 for a pair of jeans for a toddler, come on!! So, I checked Community Aid first. Looking for just 1 brand actually saved me time because I could flip a little more quickly through the rack. I also checked-on Thred-Up and got a cheap pair with their free $10 sign-up credit. (FYI- that link is my referral link.. Thank you!) Then, I kept a close eye on online prices. I signed-up for emails to hear about deals & discounts and when prices hit $10 or less I stocked-up on the next size. Sure, I could have bought other brands for probably less out-of-pocket, but I probably would have wasted money on at least a couple pairs that ended up not being worn much because they didn’t hit well. Instead, I only bought about 6 pairs of jeans and 2-3 pairs of sweats in each size and did laundry weekly.

The Old Navy jeans did also sell for a little more after he had outgrown them. I will usually spend a bit more for jeans because they tend to hold up better than khakis or sweatpants. Now, if you have a couple kids the same gender who were born in relatively the same season, it might benefit you to invest in a better quality brand of clothing that will hopefully hold up as you pass them down the line.

Tip #5: Think cross-seasonally

Did I just make-up another word?? This is my most favorite tip for saving on kids clothing!

Let’s say (and I know this is being optimistic) that the average toddler grows 1 size each year. If this is true, you will need Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer in each size. For tops, that means short sleeve AND long sleeve shirts… unless you can buy ONE shirt that is both short & long sleeve!

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Enter the Mock-Layered Long Sleeve Graphic Tee! Buy these up in the Fall/Winter, wear… enjoy… try not to destroy. In the Spring, cut off the mock-sleeve and now you have a short sleeve tee, perfect for another 3-6 months of wear.

I like to use all the sleeve ends I cut off in my laundry room. They are perfect for wiping down all of the lint/dust that accumulates on the outside of my washer/dryer and then giving the bane of my existence my front-load washing machine a good wipe down along that seal that gets really, really nasty & smelly. You know what I’m talking about!

Tip #6: Keep a sick clothes bin

The sick clothes bin is a bin/drawer/bag of older, stained or ill-fitting clothing that you wouldn’t normally let your children leave the house in… but are perfect for those times in childhood when you know something bad is going to happen. Like during an illness, or finger-painting, or spaghetti night. I didn’t think of this when Bryan was a baby/toddler, but because I didn’t I had a nice supply of badly stained onesies and other clothing to use for Annie’s sick bin. If you don’t have older siblings, you can use hand-me-downs or the cheapest clothes you can find at thrift stores or yardsales. The convenient thing about a sick bin is these are items you can toss without worry or care… at 3am… when you know the mess just isn’t worth it!

Tip #7: Refresh old clothing with fabric dye

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A white onesie is a blank slate. So are white or lightly colored shirts… pants… dresses… socks. You get the drift. When I was pregnant with Annie, I was able to turn some of Bryan’s white baby clothes into bright, colorful new pieces for Annie’s wardrobe. I had hoped that the dye would cover up more of the staining, but that wasn’t always the case. Obviously, darker dye will be more forgiving. You can get a variety of colors of Rit Dye for less than $3 a bottle at Walmart and experiment. I wouldn’t suggest dying anything expensive or important to you without experience, but if you have some older items that you don’t mind if they end up in the sick bin, then play around. Even clothing with graphics could turn out really cool! Tie-dye anyone??

Tip #8: Don’t buy your children white clothing!

This contradicts Tip #7, but now that I have two children worth of experience under my belt I can say with confidence that there are only 2 things you should buy for kids in white: onesies & socks. But maybe not even socks. White onesies are nice to have, great for layering and cheap. If you are expecting (and especially if you aren’t finding out the baby’s sex), add a pack or two of white onesies in each size NB-24 months to your registry.

Nothing you buy in white will stay white, not even socks. I will still buy Annie clothes with white designs on them, but when it comes to my son the rule is absolutely no white. It’s pointless. I might as well lay it in a mud puddle, run over it with my Mommy Bus (minivan) and throw it right into the sick bin.

Do you have any more tips for me? I would love some tips for older children, as I have a suspicion that mine will continue to age. 

Adventures in Pinning #1

As a stay-at-home-mom, I spend a fair amount of time on Pinterest. It’s for the kids & family, really. I swear. 90% of my pins are crafts & activities for the littles, 7% are recipes I’d like to try, 2.75% are healthy recipes, which leaves about .25% of pinning for stuff I like.

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Here are some of our most recent attempts at Pinteresting:

Popsicle Stick Tractor, Glued to My Crafts

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If paint is involved, you can never really call it an ‘easy’ craft for a 4-year-old, can you? But this was relatively easy and allowed Bryan to work on his glue skills. Can I get a, ‘just a dot, not a lot’?!

If you have a boat load of popsicle sticks to use up, Glued To My Crafts is your girl! She has a lot of great Fall/Halloween crafts up right now. This tractor was designed to go along with the book Pete the Cat: Old MacDonald Had a Farm. I love book + craft combos!

Unicorn Poop, Mom Dot

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Listen, I honestly don’t care how these turn out. As long as you don’t burn them, they are going to be delicious! I mean, it’s just cake, frosting and ice cream cones- yumm-o! These were fun to make and funny to share. I highly recommend. I also highly recommend that you NOT buy your ice cream cones at the Dented Can Store (aka grocery outlet). Smashed up cones make this recipe a little challenging.

Moon Sand, Love and Laundry

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I originally pinned this on my ‘Indoor Fun’ board but let’s be perfect clear- this is an outdoor fun activity! At least it was for my 4 & 1 year olds. The kids had a blast with this and it was the longest they have sat and enjoyed one thing together… ever. Annie did take a little taste, which I wouldn’t recommend, but overall she did well with it. Tip: I doubled the recipe, since I have two kiddos playing, but mostly because the bag of flour & bottle of baby oil from Dollar Tree made the perfect double batch. So $2 for a good hour of fun, winner winner chicken dinner.

What have you been pinning lately?

Getting the Most out of your Zoo Membership

My 4 year old LOVES animals, so we have been talking this summer about different jobs that one can do working with animals. We are blessed to live about 10 miles from a reptile zoo, Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland. In an exciting turn of events, we are now museum members! At the cost of just two visits, an annual family membership made so much more sense for us financially so we splurged this spring. Annie is under 2 so her pass was free. Yay free!

Let me tell you, we have been getting our monies worth this summer! We have been averaging 3 visits a month. It’s a quick drive and, with the attention span of a preschooler, we can see everything in the zoo in about 45 minutes-1 hour. They offer great educational classes and we have made our own worksheets, games & activities to help engage a little more during our time there. I’ve definitely learned a few tips & tricks for how to get the most out of a zoo membership and I want to share those with you.

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Tip #1: Do your research & math

Anytime we are preparing to visit a new attraction, such as a zoo, I always compare membership fees to regular ticket rates beforehand. Depending on how far away it is, what days of week it is open, if it open year round or seasonally, etc., we may only be able to visit a couple times a year. However, depending on rates, annual passes may still offer considerable savings for our family. Usually not, but it’s worth a little math to find out.

Check out the zoo website to learn about membership rates, perks, hours & discounts. Common discounts are senior citizen, military, AAA, and educator/student, but your employer and/or insurance company might also offer discounts on local attractions.  Totally worth a phone call or email to find out!

Did you know that zoo membership may be tax deductible? Many zoos & museums are non-profit organizations, and your membership may be considered a charitable donation. (Always check with your tax professional, but the zoo maybe able to offer some insight as well.)

Factor in parking expenses, if not free or included with your membership. Depending on parking lot fees, this could really add up.

Is your little one about to turn 2, or 3, or 4? Some attractions offer free admission for children under a certain age. Depending on the timing, it could make sense to purchase your membership before a little ones birthday, even if it is off-season. Annie was free this year & we will be able to renew our annual membership before she turns two so we should be able to get another year of fun for her for free!

Do you have a birthday party in the near future that you need to plan? We actually decided to get our membership after having Bryan’s 4th birthday party at Reptiland. If we had purchased the membership before the party, we could have saved 10% off a birthday package. However, given how many people we had coming and our other plans for the celebration, the zoo staff helped us determine that it was actually a better deal for us to purchase tickets as a group, rather than go with the party package. However, purchasing a membership BEFORE your party could work out to big savings!

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We had the opportunity to attend one of the zoo programs during our birthday party.

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They definitely treated our party kids to some special perks… if you like holding snakes.

Tip #2: Ask around & ask the zoo

Ask around to see what others’ experiences have been with that zoo/membership. Friends, family, Facebook ‘friends’, coworkers, mommy group, work message board- ask who else has had a membership at the zoo in the past and see what their thoughts/experiences have been. A current member might be able to gift a discount to a friend who purchases a new membership, or perhaps they will receive a referral bonus. You might also be able to ‘add on’ to a current membership. We were able to add my parents onto our family membership for just $20 each. With a regular visit admission of $16, this was totally worth it for my parents. My father is retired so he has already joined us a couple times during weekday visits.

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My dad with the kids in Parakeet Landing, a really cool new exhibit this summer at Reptiland.

Whenever we are at a local attraction, I always check out the wall o’ brochures/flyers for other local businesses. These will sometimes contain a coupon. Even if it’s just $1 off regular admission, it’s worth asking the zoo if they will apply that towards your membership rate.

Call the zoo & ask if they ever offer discounts on memberships purchased at certain times of the year, perhaps before the holiday season. There might be an off-season discount, or partial year membership option. They also might partner with another local attraction to offer a membership bundle.

Tip #3: Cultivate lifelong learners & supports

My advanced degree is in Arts Administration, which is basically Non-Profit Arts Management. I worked in various Art Museums for 7 years before the kids, so I am a huge believer that museum donors & patrons are cultivated as children. (Did you know that zoos are museums? Yep, totally are.) I also believe that our children are important members of this family, and while they do not get a vote, exactly, in how we spend our money, I like to share with them how & why we make family decisions. I shared with Bryan that this membership was a special treat for us, but that we feel it is important to support local businesses and we appreciate the work that the zoo does to care for and protect their animals. Granted, he is 4 and probably wasn’t listening very well but I tried.

We talk about the zoo as a learning environment, not an ‘attraction’. Reptiland has some fun hands-on activities and a large dinosaur exhibit during the summer, so it can be easy for a kid to think that this is a ‘run around & look’ type place, rather than a ‘stop, look, listen, think & learn’ place. Yes, some days I use the zoo as an opportunity for the kids to run around and burn off some energy… but I really do hope that they both learn something new during each visit. I think this starts with how I talk about the zoo. On the drive-up I always ask Bryan “What animal do you want to learn something new about today?” and “What did you learn last time we went to Reptiland?” On the drive home I ask “What new things did you learn today about reptiles?” and “What reptile do you want to learn more about at home this week?” He is usually all fired-up after a visit and we will spend the rest of that day/week watching Youtube videos, looking up specific reptiles in his reference books and doing reptile art crafts.

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We made this picture of a scorpion after a visit to Reptiland. Bryan wanted to draw where a scorpion lives, what it eats (a fly) and what eats it (a snake).

While doing your membership research, consider other patronage opportunities, especially if you can afford to invest a little more. Your zoo may offer a variety of ‘Friends’ packages at various donation levels, which may include membership for your family, as well as other perks. If it had been within budget, we certainly would have enjoyed our zoo’s adopt-an-animal program.

Tip #4: Enjoy ALL of the perks of membership

We had our zoo membership for 3 months before I realized that they offer a discount in their store. Thankfully, we had not yet purchased very much in their store, so we probably only missed out on about $3 in discounts.. but still, that’s two cups of McDonalds coffee! (Yes, I love McDonalds coffee. More so than Dunkin. Please don’t unsubscribe me!) We look around the shop almost every time we visit and I take mental stock of the toys & books that Bryan whines asks for me to buy. Sometimes I even take photos (so my mommy brain doesn’t forget) and look the items up on Amazon, adding it to our Amazon wish list. I will keep these in mind for Christmas, birthday etc., but most of the time we leave empty handed. Usually, the zoo price (after discount) is comparable enough to the online price that I will purchase it from them to support locally. That’s my jam- supporting small businesses.

On visit #1 I found the most reasonably priced, “cheap” items in the store so I have a good option for those days when Bryan has been very well behaved, or I just don’t have the willpower to fight him on it. Our zoo has a whole rack of small booklets of activities, stickers and temporary tattoos for $1.50 a pop. Who doesn’t love a temporary tattoo?! Another great option would be small animal figures. If you know you will be visiting frequently, your child could pick out 1 animal each visit to slowly build a zoo collection of their own.

Chances are, your zoo offers some type of educational programming. Learn their class schedule. Our zoo has a Program Center where they offer daily live shows. Yes- up close & personal with live reptiles… even a real life dinosaur! (I won’t spoil the fun by explaining- it’s worth the giggles to be surprised!) Remind me to tell you later about the time the power went out during the Snakes Alive show. Did I mention that I am REALLY afraid of snakes?!

Our zoo also offers smaller ‘chats’ throughout the exhibits, such as a Croc Talk with Rocky & Adrienne, their resident American Alligators, and Dragon Talk, with their Komodo dragons. These are more intimate opportunities to learn about specific animals, and last about 10 minutes. Since morning is when it is most convenient for us to visit, we have been to the same programs quite a few times this summer but Bryan always asks to go back. The program is about 30 minutes long, so I imagine that my 4 year old picks up about 20% of what is shared in every class. Chances are he is still learning something new each time. I, however, am crossing my fingers for a new class line-up this Fall!

Here is a little tip, learn who the zookeepers are that offer the classes & programs. I am awful with names, but I try extra hard to learn the program instructors names. I always try to thank them after the class & share with the front desk staff what a great job they did. I figure that everyone loves it when their boss hears positive feedback about them at work. And this could totally be in my head, but I feel like the zookeepers are remembering us and giving us a little extra attention, such as giving us a few moments to take photos w/ the reptiles and answering our questions after the talks.

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These three zookeepers are seriously the bomb.com!

Tip #5: Pump up the learning

On visit #1, I tried to slow down the cyclone that is my oldest child by reading the didactic materials on the walls. (That’s a fancy word for signs.) On visit #2, we tried to follow the zoo’s scavenger hunt, but it seemed more appropriate for slightly older kiddos. On visit #3, I tried to impart some more knowledge on my child by bringing along some questions I could ask him about the different animals. That was mildly successful. I figure out then that Bryan would need something hands-on to help him learn more about the reptiles and to help ensure that I didn’t have to sprint at any time during our visit. I’m a very poor runner.

We’ve tried a couple different activities, but here are the ones that worked the best for us.

Where in the World are the Snakes? 

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Get the reference to ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego’?? Am I dating myself??

This activity was super simple to do. I printed out this map of the world, attached it to a clipboard and grabbed a marker. Can’t get any easier than that! Bryan had been really into the snakes on our visit the previous week, so we had been watching YouTube videos & doing art crafts about snakes. As we visited each utterly terrifying snake window, we looked at the map on the wall panel to see where in the world that snake lives and Bryan colored that area on the map with his marker. I then wrote the snake name beside the location in case we wanted to know later what lived where. I liked this activity because it was easy, but also because it was an introduction to world geography. (And because our little neck of the woods didn’t appear on many of the snake maps.)

Scavenger Hunt

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These little Dover Activity Books are what I mentioned earlier & I picked them up in the zoo gift shop. We played a little scavenger hunt with these and they were perfect! Reptiles, stickers, scavenger hunt & learning- what more can a 4 year old ask for. Bryan would pick a sticker and then we would search around the zoo looking for that snake or reptile. Then, when we found it, he would place it on the correct page and I would read to him what it said. Easy, peasy.

Zookeeper Report

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I stepped up my game for this one, big time. Hand Computer-made by yours truly! Bryan & I learned a little bit about zookeepers and what they do to care for all the animals, including daily observations and recording information about the animals’ habits. I made this simple little chart so Bryan could pretend to be a Zookeeper for a day. (I made this report for the animals that we have at our local zoo, so you won’t find any elephants, lions or bears on it- just reptiles. You could very easily make something like this for the animals in your local zoo; I used Powerpoint.)

For each reptile he recorded if it was awake or sleeping, appeared to be happy or sad (because one of the primary goals of a zookeeper is to make sure the animals are happy, healthy & well cared for), if they were eating or ‘exercising’ (moving around), if they are a carnivore or herbivore (a little vocab lesson thrown in there), and if they live on land and/or in water. He really had a blast with this and it was a great exercise in using visual clues, as well as what he has learned over the summer.

You can download a PDF of this activity here: zookeeperactivity

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Tip#6: Sign-up for the zoo newsletter & social media

There may be perks of membership that aren’t specifically outlined in the member benefits, such as free admission to special events throughout the year. Just this week I received the zoo email newsletter which listed a totally cool Fall event that we do not want to miss- Flashlight Safari, their Halloween event for kids. In the fine print- you know, the tiny * at the bottom of the page- it said that zoo members can register in advance for FREE tickets. Sign us up!

I am seriously crossing my fingers that we will be able to attend (and able to afford) this years Croctoberfest event, which I actually learned about on Facebook.  Beer and crocodillians, perfect combo, right?! Be sure to ‘like’ your zoo on Facebook for special events, learning opportunities and notices (such as closure due to weather or power outages).

Tip #7: Pack a Picnic

I am a fan of picnic lunches just about anytime, anywhere. Not only is it a big money saver, but my kids prefer picnics over eating in restaurants. Bryan actually begs to not eat in restaurants. Definitely check on your zoo’s outside food policy, but whenever you can pack snacks, drinks and/or lunches yourself. Our zoo has a special picnic area, which we love, but if that isn’t available to you do a little research online, ask the zoo staff or take a little drive around to find a nearby park or rest stop to use as your picnic spot.  Really, any chunk of grass w/ a nice shade tree will do.

You will always have a better time if no one is hangry during your visit. Having drinks to keep cool (in the summer) and food to keep your bellies happy will allow you to spend a little more time at your zoo. Let’s face it, if you’ve loaded up the kids in car seats and made the drive,  you want to get the most out of it!

Tip #8: Visit at different times of the day & days of the week

One activity we really enjoy doing at home is looking at zoo webcams. (A post on our favorites is coming soon!) What I have learned from literally hours of cumulative zoo-cam-viewing is that different animals are active at different times of the day. To avoid only ever seeing sleeping or hiding animals, try visiting during different times of the day. Another perk for this is that you might get to catch the zookeepers feeding the animals or cleaning out the habits, depending on their schedule. We always aimed to be at Reptiland when they opened at 10am, leaving around 11 to make it home for lunch. One day we got there a little later than usual and got a chance to see some of the turtles and chameleons being fed their lunch. Another day we hit the jackpot and not only got to see the owner of the zoo, Clyde Peeling himself, giving a tour (and yes I followed around behind him in a completely ‘inconspicuous’ way), but we also got to watch a keeper clean out the Anaconda exhibit. That was truly interesting!

Tip #9: Enjoy your zoo rain or shine… or snow. 

Weather has been pretty cooperative thus far this summer, but I have plans to take full advantage of our membership year round. We are fortunate because most of our zoo is indoors, though you do need to walk outdoors between buildings, so a little rain/snow isn’t a deal-breaker. We had quite a bit of fun the one time it did rain during our visit; sometimes you just need to run & laugh in the rain! When weather isn’t ideal, you will likely find that you get the zoo mostly to yourself. Enjoy it! Take advantage of the lack of crowds, get front row seats to programs and let your kids ask whatever zanny questions pop up in their heads. Use the current weather as an opportunity to talk & learn more about the climates of the animals’ natural habitats, camouflage, hibernation and migration.

Tip #10: Try not to let your kid lick the exhibits

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Sorry Reptiland. I owe you a window cleaning.

I hope you found a few of these tips helpful! If you have any more tips to share, please do so in the comments below!

Grocery Budget Shakedown- Week #1

I have got to get our grocery budget in check. It’s like a mouthy threenager- it never does what I want it to & I’m usually too tired to stand my ground, so it always wins. I am smart, creative and frugal-minded (if not always actually frugal); I should totally be able to figure out how to feed my family for a heck of a lot less.

I read on a blog recently that the national average grocery budget is $100 per person per week. I tend to be inclined to reach for above average, but not in this case. Thus began the shame spiral. I am seriously worried that the days of a reasonable grocery budget are long gone for us.

Our current budget is $500/month, but I rarely come in on budget. Some months it’s closer to $600-$700, which is just crazy to me if I really think about it. We don’t purchase quality meat, in fact, my M.O. is to go to the store without a plan, see what meat has a peelie coupon on it (meaning it needs cooked or frozen in the next few days) and plan our dinners around my findings. We eat a lot of cheap, processed ‘food’.  We do go through quite a bit of fresh produce, but we aren’t usually brand specific when it comes to everything else and often buy store brand. I also shop monthly at our local ‘grocery outlet’, or as we like to call it, the dented can store.

So, all of these issues are clogging my brain- we are eating badly, we are spending too much money on that bad food we are eating and I want better for my family. However, while writing this post, I discovered that the $100 per person/per week figure it not actually accurate. According to the US Department of Agriculture the average family of 4 will spend $719.30 per monthly on groceries. AND THAT IS THE LOW-COST PLAN! The moderate food plan comes in at $890.80 and the liberal plan is $1102.50 per month. (These are stats from 2015.) I just don’t even know where to begin. Apparently, I can stop feeling bad about what we are spending, but perhaps I should feel worse about what we are eating?

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So, what is our problem? Unfortunately, I think the answer is me. I do the budget. I do the grocery shopping. I do quite a bit of the cooking, regretfully. As disappointed as I am to learn that the problem lies with me, at least I am something I can control.

I started following the blogger at Fun, Cheap or Free a couple months ago and at first I thought her budgeting system was waaay more complicated than it needed to be. She breaks her budget down weekly and money doesn’t transfer over from week to week. I believe my initial response went something like, ‘Well, if you have self control you can just have 1 pot of money for the month and make it work.’ Excuse me while I eat my words.

At the beginning of the month, I feel like I have 500 whole dollars and that is a LOT- I can totally do this! But after spending $150-$200 a week for the first few weeks, it runs out. Perhaps, just perhaps, I should give this weekly budget a try?

Let’s look back at the last few months of my grocery spending. This is easy to do because we have one credit card that we just use for groceries.

  • August- $622.06
  • July- $498.32
  • June- $506
  • May- $688.44
  • April- $489
  • March- $811.13 (Ekk! I have no clue why it skyrocketed this month!)
  • February- $534.69
  • January- $726.55  😦

Let me go on record by saying that this kind of personal information is not easy to share in a public forum, even if the only person reading is my mom. Hi Mom.

See, there is definite room for improvement here.

I realized that we pretty much keep a stocked fridge/freezer, pantry & upright freezer at all times. That is great, especially in times of zombie apocalypse, but I’m totally doing it wrong. Rather than buying an item to stock up when it’s at a ‘stock-up price’, I buy it when we run out. Was there a depression in the 80’s that I forgot about?? Because I’m clearly hoarding food for some reason.

I decided that first things first, I need a detox. For September & October I wanted to try to spend as little on groceries as possible. I’m shooting for $50 a week.  And I did good on week 1: $39.08! Whoop Whoop!

(Side Note: My monthly budget runs from the 15th-14th. When I was working full-time I got paid once a month & got pretty used to that system, so it sticks with us today.)

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I started by making a list of what meals I could prepare with what we already have in stock. Without going into the garage to check the upright freezer, where the vast majority of our meat is kept, I came up with a pretty solid list of 8 dishes! Apparently, I had accidentally begun meal planning.

Meal planning had never worked for us in the past. I would plan a solid week of meals… and then life would happen. We would have a bad day, or get invited to my parents for dinner, or I would realize I was missing a key ingredient, or I just wouldn’t feel like whatever I was planning on cooking, or we had too many leftovers that needed eaten, or …. excuses, excuses. Then meat would go bad & get tossed. I am not okay with wasted food! But since I was already half way there, I decided to give it a go. My meal plan for the week looked like this:

  • Monday- Leftover Pulled Pork & Cornbread; kids- hot dog/cornbread pancakes
  • Tuesday- Kielbasa, Potatoes & Onion
  • Wednesday- Bagel Sandwiches
  • Thursday- Soccer Night, Quick & Easy
  • Friday- Flex Night

Of course, on day #1 I was already off schedule. We had planned on having leftover pulled pork, but my parents took Bryan to a local event so I decided to swap with Tuesday & have kielbasa, potatoes & onions instead. Annie loves kielbasa, Bryan won’t eat it, so it just made sense. Not that I’m not already accused to preparing multiple meals every evening.

So day #2 was leftover pulled pork, except I didn’t realize that the hubs had taken the pulled pork to a buddies house Sunday night and the leftovers were no more. We settled on hodge-podge, which is basically when you take everything out of the fridge, heat it all up & graze.

Again, day #3 didn’t go as scheduled. When I was at the grocery store on Monday, I noticed that pork loins were $1.69/pound, which isn’t a bad price at all. I had Jon stop on his way home from work & pick up a 10 pound loin for $16.88. He cut it into chops & a roast, and grilled the chops for us Wednesday for dinner. We had 1 last zucchini hiding in the garden, so that was grilled up as well. Easy, delicious dinner!

I’m telling ya…. cheap meat may not be the best for you, but my husband can make ANY cut of meat taste delicious. Here in lies the dilemma.

Thursday was suppose to be soccer practice night, so I call it quick & easy night. My go-to’s on quick & easy night are hot dogs or, if I’m feeling spunky, I’ll run to Walmart after taking Bryan to preschool in the morning & look for ready-made meals with peelie coupons. I’ve found foot long subs and pre-packed salads for $1.99 each- can’t beat that! BUT, this month is special… because I am the proud recipient of a FREE bagel a day from Panera for the entire month of September!! We are on day 17 and I’ve gotten 13 free bagels thus far. I can’t pass this up! I collected my daily bagels for the week and we had bagel sandwiches.

And since I had done so spectacularly (sarcasm, folks) all week, I decided to just not make dinner for anyone at all on Friday. Bryan had a sleepover with his Pops and wanted to have a pizza party, so I picked up a large ready-made cheese pizza at our grocery store for $5.30 and stole a slice for myself and a slice for Annie. Wife of the Year over here has no clue what, or if, my husband ate last night. I didn’t hear his stomach growling in the middle of the night so I assume he found the leftover pork chops around midnight.

All-in-all… a valiant effort! Total spent on groceries for the week: $61.26 (including the pizza). Over budget, BUT we still have a pork roast left that will be smoked this weekend.

I am going to keep working on 1) using up food that we currently have, especially that really should be eaten soon. Time to cycle out the old, before bringing in the new. 2) keeping my weekly budget down as low as I can. 3) figuring out how a weekly meal might night actually work for me (IF it will work for me).

Cross your fingers for me for next week!