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Valentine’s Exchange

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At our previous childcare facility they didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, so this was our first year doing a school Valentine’s exchange.

Only, this Valentine’s exchange turned into party x 4 because I’ve got two kids and they celebrated on two different days (so all the kids could celebrate, given that many only attend on MWF or TTh).

There are 25 kids in the class x 4 (again, 2 kids & 2 days of parties), so we needed 100 Valentine’s all together.

Initially I let the girls pick their own box of Valentine’s from Walmart. They’re relatively inexpensive (about $2.50-$3.50 per box), but I realized after-the-fact that I’d only bought enough for one day (not two). Plus, some of the boxes only have 16 Valentines, so I was having to buy 2 in order to cover the 25 kids. When I went back to the store a second time (for day#2 of parties) I decided to do something a little different.

I bought a box of pink Valentine’s themed tootsy roll pops and set about making my own Valentine’s!

I stole the butterfly idea from the back of the tootsy roll box

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I cut the papers myself (which certainly weren’t great. I was rushing to do them on short notice), and I let the girls put stickers on the butterfly wings. Ideally I would’ve let them color and really decorate the butterflies, but time was limited.

After the stickers and suckers were in place, I wrote a To/From message.

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Really not great, but not bad in a hurry. And it was easy and cheap!! Plus, recipients got a full sized sucker! Score from a kid’s perspective, right? ?

After the party, I also took a picture of another kid’s homemade Valentine  this would be super easy, still cheap, and is a creative way of doing something other than the usual boxed Valentine stuff.

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Our girls are at a Christian preschool, so it works well for the environment. They just glued this card on the back of a box of sweet hearts. On the front, they filled in the To/From labels. That’s it! Super easy!

 

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So so there you have it. If you’re looking for a cheap, homemade last minute Valentine, here are a couple ideas.

What do you usually do for kids’ Valentine’s exchanges?


First Children’s Activity!

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It’s been awhile since I’ve brought up the issue of paying for organized kid’s activities.

Our twins are now a little over 3.5 years old. They’ll turn 4 this June. And, to date, we have never enrolled them in a single organized children’s activity. We started our debt-reduction mission nearly 2 years ago (when they were only 18 months old) and, at the time, I didn’t feel like they were missing out on anything. I have several friends who’ve enrolled their kids in all kinds of activities even from infancy (e.g., MyGym, tot & me dance/gymnastics, swim, etc.). But at that young age, I preferred to save the money and really didn’t think we were missing out on anything.

Last April I mentioned that I was seriously considering enrolling the girls in swim lessons. At the time, however, they were attending the JCC for childcare. Over the summer the JCC did free swim lessons as part of their daily curriculum, so that satisfied me. However, looking back, the summer swim lessons weren’t the best. It was taught by certified lifeguards, but it included entire class groups of about 18 kids at a time, so a good deal of the time kids were just sitting on the steps waiting for their turn. There wasn’t a lot of actual instruction on a per-student basis. That was totally fine at the time (plus it was free!), but it means our kids still don’t know even the basics of water safety (e.g., how to grab the edge if they fall in, how to float, etc.).

Given our upcoming Cruise and all the time we’ll be spending around water, swim lessons were high on my radar at the beginning of the year of something I wanted to look into. At the end of January I did a lot of research and found a swim school nearby that’s reasonably priced and has great reviews.  I officially enrolled the girls 2 weeks ago and their first lesson was this past Saturday.

The girls LOVED it!

They’re in classes that are capped at 4 people (though their first class only had 3 kids) so there’s tons of individual attention. The instructor was very friendly and made the lesson so fun.

We have 12 lessons between now and our cruise sail date and, although I’m not expecting full swimmers by any means, I’m hopeful that will be enough time for them to learn basic life-saving measures so that I’ll feel a little more comfortable around so much water on our cruise.

The total cost for one lesson per week is $65/month (per child). This seemed to be a pretty competitive rate in our area. By comparison, I saw some rates that were literally double this amount.

But I do have a question for readers. Now that we’re opening this door (the door of children’s activities)….how do you account for it in your budget? I was going to include it as an “Entertainment” line item, but it almost seems like it warrants its own category. Thoughts?

Also….this just opened the door to a whole world of children’s activities. Soccer, Dance, Swim, Karate, Gymnastics, Oh my!  I can just envision them in little tutus or soccer cleats and my heart wants to burst!

I am determined, at this point, to keep our activities to a maximum of one at a time. I do NOT want to be running them to a different activity every night of the week! Plus our budget (and my time/sanity) wouldn’t allow it! But it’s already making me look forward to whatever activity comes next. They’re still young so there’s plenty of time, but it’s so much fun seeing the excitement in a child’s face as they’re exposed to something new. I could definitely see myself (if I weren’t on the debt-reduction mission) going ahead and enrolling them in multiple activities at a time.

Parents – any experience with swim classes? How does this rate compare to what you’ve paid in the past? What activities do you enroll your child(ren) in? How do you account for children’s activities in your budget?


Drivers License : It Could Change Our Lives

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One adult, Four children, Three Two dogs, One cat – three working, two days a week of homeschool co op, four in activities, all social.  The amount of time I have spent in the car every week…well, it makes me dizzy just thinking back on it.  But now, I’m getting some relief!  Please join me in congratulating History Buff on receiving his drivers license this week!

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For now, he’s only driving himself places until I and he are comfortable with the idea of him truly driving (ok, mostly me.)  But that has already taken a load off since he works almost every day.  Woot, woot!

Financially this is actually helping me…he is paying his own car insurance at $72 per month (he already pays part of his phone bill) and I am going to fill up his car one time per month approx $20 for times he helps me by running errands or taking others to an activity.  He will otherwise be responsible for all gas and car maintenance for his car.

So even during the challenges we are facing, some exciting things are happening over here!


Ashley’s Year In Review (2015)

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I know we’re now a full week into the new year, but I always like to look back and reflect on the previous year around this time. So indulge me in a week-late review of some of the big highlights of 2015.

Personal and Financial Goals

The year began (or really was preceded by) setting some big goals. We had one list of financial goals, and a second list of goals related to “growing up” (in my mind this meant doing things like getting wills, life insurance, etc.). By the end of the year we hadn’t quite met all of our financial goals, but we’d made incredible progress. In all, we paid off over $26,000 in debt!!! We did even better on our “year of becoming an adult” goals. We fully accomplished 3 of our 4 goals and are well underway on the 4th goal (see update here). We’ve set some pretty lofty financial goals for 2016, too!

Budgeting

In early January, we made some pretty big changes to the way we did our budget. This eventually lead us to using YNAB for budgeting (we’d previously used an Excel file). I still can’t say enough great things about YNAB. I really think it’s made a huge impact on how well we’ve been able to stick to our budget and, therefore, how well we’ve done with paying off debt (see my full review here).

One of the categories in our budget that we really struggled with this year was our grocery budget. I talked several times about our efforts to make cheap meals, saving money by making homemade yogurt (super easy and so tasty!), DIY-ing pumpkin spice coffee (a personal fave), and trying my hardest to meal plan (which was much easier when I worked from home compared to an office-setting, and I’m still learning to balance competing needs).

I also saved a lot of money on self-maintenance this year. With the exception of 2 professional cut/colors (which I did prior to big job interviews), I’ve saved money in our budget by cutting and coloring my own hair for the past 21 months (but who’s counting? hehe). I’ve even received compliments on my self-maintained hair and really like my new darker color. To be transparent, I did just barely receive a professional cut/color from my Mom as a birthday gift, so this totals 3 professional jobs (only 2 that I personally paid for) in nearly 2 years.

Employment

I interviewed for 3 separate jobs in 2015:  one in January (recap), one in March, and one in June. I was offered the third job (third times a charm!) and accepted the position soon thereafter. I started the position in July and have been very happy in the job ever since (though I have plans to try to negotiate for a title change and more money).

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Gift-Giving

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Before I started our debt reduction mission we really spent a ton of money on gift-giving. Since starting to blog here, I’ve drastically reduced the amount spent on gifts. I now try to spend an average of about $15-20 per gift (though hubs and I set a $50 limit on gifts to each other). I talked about a cheap classroom gift here and waxed poetic about the impact of a hand-written thank you note (as opposed to an expensive flower delivery). I also talked about a cheap going away gift basket, a cheap Mother-in-Law (or grandparent) gift, an inexpensive alternative wedding gift, and relatively inexpensive ($50 limit) anniversary gifts.

Kids Crafts

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The kids did lots of fun and cheap crafts this year. A sampling of crafts include: a  Valentine’s craft, a Mother’s Day craft, and an Easter craft. All of these doubled as cheap cards/gifts for family, too!

Entertainment

Our entertainment budget was really bare bones this year as we tried to funnel all our extra money toward debt. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have fun! I talked about a free family activity here and a free painting class (courtesy of Yelp Elite) here. I also shared how we got cheap Halloween costumes for the kids and had fun with a cheap-ish birthday day date for hubs’ 33rd birthday.

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Successes

In April we celebrated kicking hubs’ license fee debt to the curb! That left us with only the car loan, some medical debt, and the monstrous student loans to contend with. That same month I did a balance transfer of a higher-interest student loan (8.5%) to a 0% APR credit card to pay off one of my Navient student loans at a lower rate (just paid a 2% initiation fee). I also celebrated when we paid off another of my Navient student loans back in October. It’s no secret that I freaking hate Navient, so I can’t wait to rid them from my life!

Personal

In June I let you know something I’d been keeping a bit of a secret. I have a very close family member experiencing a debilitating illness for which there is no cure. I later told you all that the “close family member” is my father and divulged that his diagnosis is frontotemporal degeneration (a type of dementia). I had a rough time in regard to processing this information. I was painfully honest about the scary feelings and emotions experienced knowing that his health is quickly declining and my siblings and I will be tasked with becoming his caretaker and all of the other financial implications of the situation. I also discussed prioritizing the costs of therapy so I could take care of myself. I never updated, but I did in fact search for therapists but there was only one person who really stood out to me as a good fit. Of course, that person was not accepting new clients at the time and, feeling overwhelmed by life, the new job, etc., I never pursued any other options. To be honest, I do think I’ll try again to find someone to talk to in the New Year. I feel like I am in a much better place mentally than I was when I first wrote this post (or this one, too), but I know my Dad’s health issues will continue to be a HUGE deal in my life and I would like to see someone at least occasionally to help me process everything as his disease progresses.

Summary

2015 was a wild year! Lots of great successes – Can I get a high five for that $26,000+ of debt that was paid off!?! and some tough times, too. In 2016 we plan to split our priorities a bit between saving for a house and continuing to pay off debt, but I know that we’ll continue to make great progress along the way. I’ve admitted before that I may loosen up the purse strings slightly. I think it’s important to have more regular date nights and such. But I also can’t wait to make some big dents to our debt this year. This will be the first full year of me having a full-time job and income (in addition to my part-time job & hubs’ job). With the additional money we really hope to do some crazy things in 2016. A house, a car (not a new one, but our current one being paid off), punching Navient in the nose, and so on. Great things ahead, friends! Thank you for joining me on life’s wild ride!


Year Of Becoming An Adult: Final Status

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Back in October 2014 I wrote about wanting to use 2015 to really “become adults.” To me, this meant taking care of some much needed issues that were in addition to my 2015 financial goals. I wrote a few posts throughout the year with updates (January update, March update, September update, October update), so this will be my final update of the series.

  1. Wills. Wills were actually drawn up at the beginning of 2015, but it took us awhile to actually get them notarized. This task was completed by mid-year. Final status = Complete
  2. Life Insurance For Hubs. We had intended to start working on this mid-year, but didn’t actually get around to applying until October. In November hubs completed all the bloodwork and in early December he was asked to supply some additional information (all stemming back to his mysterious illness at the end of 2013 where our medical bills are from). He finished everything on his end but we’re still waiting to hear back from the company. When I first applied for health insurance it took about 3 months to all be processed so I’m thinking this is normal (and not something directly related to his mystery illness). If he doesn’t hear back sometime in the next couple weeks we’ll check back with them but I’ve got my fingers crossed everything is in order and our next interaction will be mailing off a check to actually finish the process. Final status = Well underway, but waiting to hear back from insurance company
  3. Open Retirement Accounts. We opened up a Roth IRA in April 2015 and a 401(a) through my work in July 2015. I fund 10% of my pay to the 401, and we’ve saved a little extra here and there for the Roth (but a truly minimal amount…something I’d like to increase in 2016). Final status = Complete
  4. Open College Savings For The Kids. We opened up one 529 for each child in October 2015 and we’ve been funding them with $25/month each ($50/month total). Not a lot, but every little bit helps! Final status = Complete

Overall, not too shabby. I wish we’d started the life insurance stuff a bit earlier in the year so it was all wrapped up and done by now, but at least it’s well underway and if it doesn’t work out it will be because we were denied (not due to our own lack of trying). But hubs’ health has been great and, especially with his weight loss, I’m really hoping everything goes through smoothly and he’s able to be insured. It will certainly give me great peace of mind.

How have you done on your financial (or other) goals in 2015? Do you have any new goals or resolutions set for 2016? I’d love to hear them!

 


Merry Christmas Eve!

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And Happy Holidays and all that good stuff! ; )

This year is special for us. It’s the first time (EVER IN OUR LIVES) that we’re staying at our own home for Christmas. Hubs (then boyfriend) and I first moved away from Austin back in 2007 (when we moved to Florida). Since that time, we have always made our way back to Austin for the Christmas holiday. Last year hubs really made a case for staying home for the holiday but I just wasn’t ready yet. This year we made a great compromise (and one that I think we’ll continue into the future). We’re staying in our own home in Tucson for Christmas, then heading back to Austin for New Years. Ultimately, we still get to spend a week with family but now we get to start creating our own family traditions at home.

And everything seems so much more magical this year simply because the girls’ age (3.5 years old) is such that they’re finally really getting everything. They know all about Santa and the reindeer, but they also know about Jesus’s birth in the stable, etc.

They performed in a sweet Christmas performance at their preschool (adorable!), helped me make sugar cookies to leave out for Santa (and we’ve got carrots for the reindeer), and we just took them to their first ever movie in a theater! For any locals, we went to the Fox Tucson Theater and saw the Polar Express. It was my first time ever going to Fox and I was really impressed! For non-locals, the Fox is a historic venue that shows movies, has concerts, plays, etc. They did The Polar Express as a special event. It was PJ night and they gave free bells, peppermint sticks, and hot chocolate out. Plus, kid’s tickets (for age 12 and under) are FREE! Can’t beat that!

We sat up in the balcony with the kids which still had a great view of the screen and was so much fun, as balcony seats are double the size (room for two people per seat), so we were able to snuggle up together. As I said, this was the girls’ first movie in a theater and they LOVED it! Afterward they kept saying “the theater is FUN!”

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I promise she really did have a lot of fun! Those are tired eyes after the movie was over, as the movie ended at what is typically their bed time. See her showing off/shaking her bell!?

I’ve mentioned before that we’d initially hoped to take the girls to The Polar Express experience up in Flagstaff this year. That turned out to be too far outside our budget, but this was a really fun alternative for a fraction of the cost and we are already planning to build room in our budget for the Flagstaff Polar Express next year. I think it will be even more fun at age 4.5 (plus we’ll be consumer debt-freeeeeeeee), so I think it will all work out for the best.

Speaking of Christmas-related spending, is everyone done with holiday shopping? Since we aren’t back in Texas yet I haven’t been quite as on top of things, but I’m hoping to pick some things up today (most shoppers are done so there are already tons of sales and stores aren’t as crowded as you might think). One cheap idea I’ll throw out (since these family members don’t read) is the whole adult coloring book concept that’s sweeping the world right now.  My brother is in the middle of a nasty divorce (that completely blind sighted him just about a month ago…right before the holidays. sad face.) He has several children so I got jumbo coloring books for the kids, and an adult stress-relieving pattern coloring book for him + crayons and colored pencils. A whole family gift that they can do together for about $15, total. I got my Dad an adult coloring book, too, so it’s kind of a theme this year. Just in case anyone is in a bind and still looking for something on the cheap.

Anyway….I’m going to go spend the day with my kiddos. We have a park playdate this morning, a tiny bit of shopping to do, and all our fun Christmas eve activities (traditions include attending a Christmas Eve service, reading The Night Before Christmas, and opening one present before bed). Please everyone send good-sleeping vibes/prayers our way. The kids have been REALLY bad about getting up in the middle of the night and wandering around lately, so I’m a little nervous about them “catching Santa” (or seeing Santa’s gifts) in the middle of the night. As always, our grandparents have really spoiled the kids with TONS of presents already under the tree. Hubs and I went pretty minimalist on their presents. They got some practical things (e.g., really needed new shoes), and cheap things they’ll love (e.g., bath fizzy/colored tablets and $3 purses). Their “big” gift is that they’re both getting a scooter. Again, I initially wanted to do something much more expensive (I had my eye on this Elsa/Frozen car for $250), but when it was clear the budget wouldn’t accommodate that, we ended up with these scooters for $25 each. Hubs’ and I put a $50 limit on gifts for each other. I was able to get him a rolling tool chest. It’s this model, but I purchased it from an open box store here in Tucson so I got it at a steep discount.  Hope he likes it!

Merry, merry, happy day to you, readers! Thank you for your endless support and kind words in good times and bad. 2015 has been a roller-coaster of a year. It’s been nice to feel like we’re on this ride together. Hope you all have a fabulous (and frugal, if you’re still in debt-reduction mode) holiday season!


A List of Status Updates – Hope

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Well, sorry I’ve been AWOL, but I’m not sure I have stopped to breathe the last couple of weeks and no end in site for this week either.  But I didn’t want to miss another week so pardon the list but this is what has happened over the last couple of weeks:

  1. My parents were here for their annual visit and it was GREAT!  No tension and they were super supportive of our current situation doing a bit of extra Christmas for the kids since I wouldn’t be able too.  They also gave me a little money to put to bills after seeing my itemized list of where I was at financially.  I had asked them not to come, not sure if I could handle the stress, but in the end, I’m glad they did.
  2. Little Gymnast competed in his local meet and did FANTASTIC, bringing home 2nd on floor and 8th all around.  There were 150 kids competing in his session, so pretty big deal.
  3. Princess is in the midst of basketball season now that volleyball has ended, and her choir sang in 7 performances at our church this weekend for over 8000 guests.  Super busy.
  4. Twins are both working almost full time over this break (we finished the semester the first week of December and will go back the middle of January.)  They are also continuing studies for English, Geometry and AP Psych, not to mention getting ready for robotics competition at the end of January.  So while it’s a little less hectic…not much!
  5. No more word on the job front for me as far as full time goes.  But I am looking forward to starting my new part time job the first week of January, it’s all scheduled for me to travel for training.
  6. Amazingly, I have been picking up piecemeal work left and right, keeping me on my toes doing an assortment of computer support, training and website work.

Life is good.  As of tonight, I have enough to cover all my bills for December – woot, woot!

And I have to tell you my faith has made a HUGE difference this past month.  I have really focused on staying focused on being grateful, living by faith and trusting that God has a plan for us.  I have never been through rougher financial times but to be honest, I’ve never felt so secure that we are being looked out for, and that is truly a blessing.

My stories of how and whom has provided for us would blow your mind.  I won’t be buying any Christmas presents this year.  I am very grateful for what my parents have provided and some of our community members are also contributing to make this special for the kids.

I will write more soon, but just wanted to get a note out to you and let you know how we are doing.  Here’s wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas season.  We are truly celebrating the many, many blessings that we have every day.