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Experience Based Gifts Kids Would Love for $20 or Less


Today, we are snuggled in our warm trailer at a campground in Big Sur. My husband is outside making a campfire and the boys are trying to stack wood like little Boy Scouts. Elvis is singing about his Blue Christmas on the radio. The lights are twinkling, casting tiny shadows across the new coloring book my daughter is working on. I’m holding a mug of spice tea that smells like heaven. I wish I could express how much it feels like a special Christmas.

The kids are done opening gifts. It took them all of 4 minutes. It’s not because they opened everything in a frenzy (though they did that), it’s because we didn’t buy much. In fact, we spent an all-time low this year. A few crafts and coloring books for the little ones to work on together and a small lego set and a nerf gun for the older boys. It’s not that we didn’t budget appropriately. We sat down to plan our Christmas spending and decided nothing was going to fit into the trailer for our camping trip. We have to be cognizant of size and weight when traveling long stretches. We thought about celebrating with more gifts when we got home and then remembered…

Christmas shouldn’t be about buying stuff.

We decided to try something interesting this year. Cash. The three older children received $20 (the two-year-old isn’t great at managing his money yet). They had to spend it on an experience, not a toy because there wasn’t room to bring anything home. We outlined the stops in each city we would be passing and the attractions in each. They are in charge of their budget. I have enjoyed watching the exercise.

The things there were most excited about were the things that forced us to spend time together…and I LOVED it. Here are the things they are debating:

Movies: $10/ticket
Breakfast: $4 (Did you know Denny’s has $4 all you can eat pancakes? Our family of 6 can eat for $30, tip included!)
Minigolf: $10/game
Arcade Games: $0.75 – $1/each
Bowling: $10/player
Museum/Aquarium: $12/each
Live Sports: $5 – $15/each (Yeah, I’m not talking pro football – the Chargers are dead to me. I’m talking about a random lacrosse team or minor league baseball.)

As we scribbled all over maps and looked up activities on the internet, I realized that all of those things are available in my backyard. How many times have I bought yet another Barbie doll when I could have taken my kids out for quality time instead?

This Christmas, sneak a couple of those presents back from under the tree and return them.

Spend time with the kids instead.

Setting Small Milestones While Paying Off Debt


Over the weekend I was feeling the fatigue of paying off our massive student loans. I just wanted to eat out and buy extra presents with reckless abandon. It’s hard to stay motivated while paying off debt that doesn’t change quickly. I just wanted to feel a win by paying off and eliminating a debt.

I was also frustrated that our shovel of money to put towards debt hasn’t grown this month like we hoped. My side hustles are plugging along, but my husband’s side job (which makes a heck of a lot more than mine) will only get him one shift this month. It’s disappointing.

Thankfully, more than one of you BAD commenters encouraged us to look for small victories and to create milestones as we chip away at our total debt. It’s a marathon not a race. So after a pity party, I did two things this weekend:

Charting Our Progress

I looked over what we’ve paid off in the last year, and decided to put them into charts. I made a bar chart for the past 15 months that is both non-impressive and encouraging. Yes, that crazy-gradual drop is not eye-popping. In fact, it shows that we were stuck paying off interest only for at least 7 MONTHS from September 2018 to March 2019 (insert facepalm).

Chart of Student Loan Principal Payoff

But then in April we put our tax refund towards our debt. This triggered a wake up call this summer that we could be doing a lot more to pay off our student loans. By September we had refinanced with Earnest, which initially (cringe!) bumped our principal up a bit. But then we kept making more progress with our lower interest rate and higher monthly payment.

I then calculated our percent of change. In 2019 (January to November), we’ve paid off $40,953 of our principal, a -12.23% percent change! Considering we had a 0% change for too long, it’s great to see we ARE making progress.

I also decided we needed a visual of our payoff to feel like we were accomplishing something. An adult sticker chart, if you will. I printed off a free chart from Debt Free Charts. I capped it at $300,000 so we’ve only been able to color in a teensy section so far, but somehow there’s a lot of satisfaction that comes from coloring in a line.
Filling in Our Student Loan Payoff From Debt Free Charts

Setting Small Milestone Goals

I then started to brainstorm small wins for our debt payoff in 2020. There’s no debt snowball to motivate us with small victories, so we have to create our own milestones. We most likely won’t put all of our tax refund towards our debt this year (we just purchased some equipment for the business and we need to beef up the business savings account). That means we’re going to have to really hustle to keep up our momentum.

Here are my ideas for milestone goals and rewards:

  • Order pizza and party when our student loan principal reaches $290,000, $280,000, etc.
  • Go to the movies when our principal gets lower than our mortgage (which is currently at $279,000)
  • Stay a night at the beach if we have a 20% change in principal (or get down to around $230,000) in 2020


Long payoffs are really draining. But as we track our progress and celebrate small milestones, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to keep ourselves going.

What small milestones or rewards motivate you to pay off debt?