Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Making Family Travel Happen on any Budget

I often get asked how our family is able to travel when we're on such a tight budget.  I don't go around posting my bank account balances online or anything, but spending so much time as a single mom and now being married to a retired military vet people know we aren't exactly rolling in the dough!

Here are a few budget-friendly travel tips I always use...

1- Be Realistic:  As much as I dream of cross-country road trips and elaborate beach vacations they just aren't in my budget at this point.  When I'm deciding on a travel destination I examine our financial situation at that time.  I research prospective spots to get a general idea of hotel, gas and entertainment costs to figure out if something is doable or not... from there I choose a vacation spot that is financially realistic for our family.

2- Plan ahead:  I typically start planning my vacations a year in advance,  Planning early is crucial for traveling on a tight budget.  It gives me a good solid savings goal to shoot for all year and it allows me to keep my eyes out for good deals.  I repeatedly check groupon for the area we'll be traveling to so that I can find deals on hotels, food and things to do.  We went to Las Vegas over Christmas and were able to attend a show for $30 a ticket.  The regular price was $75 each ticket, which was not in my budget, but at $30 it was a splurge I was willing to take since it was a special occasion.  I once stayed in a bed and breakfast for only $50 a night using a deal I found on a deal site and I've taken my family to a nice hotel with a full kitchen for spring break for only $30 a night as well.  The deals are there if you watch for them early!  Be sure to read the fine print for blackout dates to make sure you'll be able to use your deal on your travel dates.

3-  Break down your financial goal:  I use a divided coupon-size accordion file for my vacation savings.  I have it labeled: gas, hotel, food, car trip, tickets and extras.  I figure out how much money I'll need for each of these areas of our vacation.  I do so much better shooting for smaller goals and it gives me great satisfaction to know that I now have enough for gas, then hotel, etc.  Saving $1,000 is overwhelming, but saving a couple hundred at a time is doable for me.  It's a total mind trick, but it works for me!  Don't forget that if you're taking unpaid time off of work then you need to save the money to make up that difference as well.  You don't want to come back from vacation and instantly have to stress about not having enough money to pay your bills.

4- Find ways to bring in extra cash and figure out what you're willing to sacrifice:  If you're like me then the extra money doesn't magically appear just because you want to take a vacation.  I look for ways to bring in extra cash like selling vintage or household items on facebook, babysitting or crafting to sell.  When I took my kids to Disneyland a couple of years ago I put half of the money I made from each vintage market I sold at into my vacation fund.  Eating out less and cutting down on "extras" at the grocery store can give you some extra money to stash as well.  I used to have a yard sale every summer and all the money I earned went into my vacation fund.  If I get a tax refund I always put part of it towards my vacation goal.  Every year I ask my kids if they'd rather have gifts for Christmas or take a vacation.  Year after year they choose vacation.  They still get small items in their stockings, but all the other money I would be spending on Christmas goes towards our trip. 

People have told me taking trips for Christmas instead of gifts doesn't work for smaller kids, but I took my kids to Disneyland for Christmas back in 2006 when they were all young.  Santa still filled our stockings in the hotel with small things (like dollar store Disney stuff!) and the kids didn't even miss the huge mess of gifts they were used to getting.  At any age I'd much rather give me kids a memory than more junk they don't need.

5- Research:  I always spend a lot of time researching free and cheap things to do in the area we'll be vacationing.  I check out the menus of all the restaurants I'm thinking about so I know how much a meal would cost there.  It's good to know hours of operation, costs and everything else about the places you'll be visiting.  I don't like surprises while traveling because surprises always cost extra money!

6-  Choose the right hotel:  When we travel as a family I only choose hotels with free parking, free wifi, free breakfast and a fridge and microwave in the room.  A pool is a big plus, but it's not a deal breaker if the hotel doesn't have one.  Sometimes a hotel with all my non-negotiables is a little more money than another hotel without, but it always saves me money in the long run.  I can usually find a hotel with everything I want for $40-65 a night.

7- Cook in you room: Finding a hotel with free breakfast means we only have to come up with two meals a day while on vacation which saves a lot of money.  We typically only eat in a restaurant once during the whole time we're on vacation so I make sure it's a nice-ish restaurant (within my budget).  I always have it planned ahead of time.  The rest of our meals are eaten in our hotel room.  I rarely cook in the microwave at home, but I'm pretty dang good at it when we travel.  I plan my menu ahead of time and be sure to pack a couple of microwave safe bowls, a square glass baking pan, a wooden spoon, can opener, etc.  I typically pack what I can out of our fridge and food pantry at home and then hit a grocery store once we've arrived at our destination... and yes, I do find out where a grocery store is ahead of time.  I love .99 Only stores when I'm traveling.  We don't have them back home, but I've had good luck finding groceries there both in Nevada and California.  They're cheap and the packages are small which is great for a motel room so we don't waste food.

You can also cook meals ahead of time and haul them in a cooler on vacation... then all you have to do is reheat them.  This saves even more money and time, but it takes more planning and work at home.

8- Involve your family in your planning:  If everyone is excited about the vacation and aware of the budget and the plans there aren't any false hopes and expectations.  My kids know how many meals we'll be eating out, if we'll be stopping for food on the road or packing a lunch, etc.  They also know what kind of splurges we'll be making.  When we went to Disneyland I budgeted in one Disney meal a day as a special treat.  They were super excited about that because we don't usually eat in theme parks.  On our last Vegas trip the show tickets were a splurge.  Sometimes there aren't any splurges because money is super tight and they know that too. 

I've always had my kids save their own money for souvenirs.  If they're spending their own money on vacation then they're a lot pickier about what they buy.  I have a goal to take my teens on a cruise in a little over a year.  I told them that I want them to save the money to cover their own passports and I told my daughter who will be graduating cosmetology school this year that she's going to probably have to cover her cruise as well since she will be working full time and not living at home anymore.  The older the kids, the more they can contribute financially to their vacation.  It's a great responsibility teacher.

9-  Drive: My kids have never been on a plane.  Even "cheap" airfare adds up when you have multiple people in your family.  When gas was at its highest it was still cheaper for us to drive... believe me I always checked!  Driving also allows us to pack food for the drive and the motel which saves even more money.

The last two tips aren't really tips, but vacation alternatives.  Some years I just haven't been able to swing a "real" vacation, either because of finances or just because hauling young kids across a couple states was a pain I didn't want to deal with.  (When my kids were young all three of them got car sick if they were in a car more than 20 minutes!)

10-  Camping:  I know not everyone loves camping, but we love spending a few days in the mountains, at a hot spring or by a lake.  We take at least one camping trip every summer and sometimes we take several during the course of a summer.  It's inexpensive and fun!  If you're looking for a cheap getaway for your family don't rule out camping.  If you don't have a tent or camper then you can find a campground with cheap cabins.  They usually run about the same price as a hotel room, but you save a lot of money because you're cooking instead of eating out and not spending money on entertainment.

11-  Staycation: When my kids were really young we took a staycation every summer.  We'd head to Salt Lake City which was about 30 minutes from us, stay in a hotel with a pool, eat in restaurants and visit local museums, zoos and other attractions.  A couple of the years we didn't even stay in a hotel.  We just got up each morning and played tourist all day long for 3-4 days in a row.  We spent very little money, got to sleep in our own beds at night and the kids still felt like we were on vacation because we did all kinds of fun things we didn't usually do.  The kids loved it and I loved not traveling with little kids!  This works with older kids too!  There are a lot of things they want to do around town that are out of my price range, but taking a staycation allows us to do them since we save on gas and hotel!

I hope I've given you a few ideas and the courage to travel!  It makes me sad when I have friends that want to take their kids on vacation but don't feel like they can afford it.  For me it's a priority, so I make it happen!  When my kids grow up and move out they're going to remember the vacations we took together as a family and not if I had a new kitchen floor or a nice furniture.  I'm all about the memories!  Happy memories is one of the best things I can send my kids out into the world with!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Small Freezer Lasagna

Freezer meals are fabulous!  One of my favorite freezer meals is lasagna!  You can make your favorite lasagna recipe in disposal pans from the dollar store, freeze them and then throw them in the oven anytime you like!  I always use oven-ready noodles for my freezer lasagnas so I don't even have to cook the noodles.  When you use the oven-ready noodles, you use one noodle for each noodle layer and they fit perfectly!

The containers come in three packs for $1, so there is very little cost for packaging.  Each container holds about 2lbs, so it's not a tiny lasagna, but it's not family sized either.  A double batch of lasagna will make about six small freezer lasagnas.  

After you've layered your lasagna ingredients into the pans, cover them with a double layer of tin foil and label with cooking directions:  Bake at 350 covered for an hour, then uncover and bake until done.  After they're labeled, you're ready to pop them into the freezer!

I typically make veggie lasagna since Nina is a vegetarian, then any time I make a meaty lasagna for dinner I can throw one of these in for her.  There is always enough left for her to take leftovers for lunch for a couple of days too.  Small freezer lasagnas are fabulous gifts for new moms as well! Who doesn't love having a lasagna in the freezer?!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

10 Inexpensive Date Night Ideas to Enjoy with your Spouse

Weekly date nights sometimes seem like an impossibility when you're old and married... or even when you're young and married.  Time and money are two things we never seem to have enough of, but I'm a firm believer in having date night with your spouse every week!

I thought I'd share 10 Cheap & Easy Date Night Ideas to show that date nights don't have to be expensive or a big hassle! 

1- Dinner and a Movie: Don't laugh.  I know some people say that dinner and a movie is a boring date.  I think it's a classic for a reason!  We rarely eat out or go see movies in a theater, so dinner and a movie is a special treat.  I'm a big fan of deal sites like Groupon or Living Social teamed up with YELP to find places to eat.  I'm not a big lover of chain restaurants and deal sites often have incredible discounts on local eateries.  I use YELP to check the reviews before I purchase a deal.  If the restaurant isn't good then it doesn't matter how cheap it is, I'd be wasting my money.  Today I picked up a $20 gift card to a new sports grill in town I've been wanting to try for only $8.  That makes for a cheap dinner date!  We've tried lots of fun restaurants using "deals".  

We like to do our dinner and a movie dates on Tuesday nights.  Tuesdays are typically super slow at restaurants so we don't have to deal with crowds and our local theaters have $5 movie tickets every Tuesday!  This week we had dinner at a BBQ place using a buy-one-get-one-free coupon and then saw a movie.  The total cost for our date night was $23!  I always check my coupon mailers for coupons I can use for date nights! 

2- Dessert: Sometimes even a $25 dinner and a movie date may be out of my price range for a date.  I love trying out different bakeries, dessert places and soda shops and date night is the perfect opportunity!  We have a place just a few blocks away that's open in the evenings.  It's fun to grab a Dirty Dr. Pepper or Italian cream soda and a couple of sugar cookies and just sit and chat.  Dessert date nights typically run under $10 and can be much less if you have a coupon!

3- Picnic at the Park: I LOVE picnics!  Picnics make a great date in the spring through the fall and I have to admit I've even done winter picnics before with hot cocoa and chili!  You can be as simple or as creative as you want with picnics!  I love relaxing at a park under a tree and lazily eating a picnic dinner.  Putting together a picnic dinner is usually under $10, so it makes a great budget-friendly date!

4- Go to a Play or Concert: We really enjoy plays and concerts, but they can be quite expensive!  I'm always on the lookout for discount tickets and coupons for plays and live music.  In our area we have a fun center pass that also includes things like car races and outdoor plays.  I make sure to always read through the email newsletters they send out to get information on the "extras" our passes get us.  Using a pass we already purchased for free date nights is fabulous!  I also keep an eye on the city newsletter we get with our utility bill for free concerts in the park.  There are always opportunities for free entertainment if you look for them! 

5- Take a Drive: With gas prices lower than they've been in years, taking a drive has become an affordable date night again!  Looking for leaves in the autumn, Christmas lights in the winter or just cruising on a country road are all great.  I love going for drives and having random conversations for date night.  If you feel like a date night needs food, grab an ice cream cone or a doughnut on the road and your date night is still less than $5!

6- Takeout and Netflix or Redbox: I shouldn't admit this, but when I call Cafe Rio they ask me if I want my "regular order".  Sometimes my week is really crazy and actually going out for date night is the last thing I want to do.  I want to relax at home.  I love grabbing takeout and cuddling up with my hunny-bunny and a movie.  If the kids are home I'll grab them a cheap pizza, get us takeout and we'll eat it in our room with a movie and pretend we're alone.  I fully believe that date nights should not include children!  Takeout and a movie at home date night is always $20 or less and sometimes it's just what my stressed out self needs!

7- Hot Springs or Hot Tub: This is one of my favorite dates and I wish we could do it more often!  We have a nice hot springs spot an hour and a half from us.  When we go we like to camp overnight.  We can spend the night, dutch oven cook and soak in the hot springs for under $50.  For an overnighter I figure that's pretty good!  A hot tub date is a pretty good substitute for the hot springs.  We have a rec center pass which gets us into the hot tub there for free.  A free date is a good date!

8- Hiking: I almost hate to include this one because I hate hiking, but my husband loves it so occasionally I give in and agree to go.  I do think it's fun to see the pretty scenery and it's nice to play the damsel-in-distress and let Jake rescue me from scary snakes and creepy bugs when they cross my path.  Plus then I get to entice him into giving me a massage afterwards when I'm whining like a two year old because my out of shape muscles are sore.  Hiking is another free date idea, so you'd think I'd be more on board, but I.just.don't.like.hiking. 

9- Candlelit Dinner: I love to pull out my vintage china and crystal goblets and create a romantic dinner for two!  Cheap steaks can be marinated and cooked to be tender, baked sweet potatoes are always a classic and a green salad, rolls and dessert round out the meal!  Sparkling cider or even just 7up go great with a nice dinner.  Lasagna rollups are another great date night meal!  If we were to go to a steakhouse or a nice Italian restaurant we'd spend about $50.  I can create a similar meal with a more romantic atmosphere for around $15... plus we can even eat it in bed if we want to!

10- Build a Fire: Whether it's in our fireplace, in the fire pit in our yard or out in the wilderness somewhere there's just something about building a fire.  When I asked Jake what his favorite date night is, building a fire is what he said.  Roasting marshmallows is fun and you can even make them homemade if you want to add a special touch!  Cooking hot dogs or making a dutch oven dinner are fun fire ideas as well!  The total cost for a fire date is free to $10 depending on if you want to cook on your fire or not.  No food is needed.  A fire and blanket are sometimes all you need for a romantic date.

I hope these date night ideas get your wheels turning!  There are so many cheap things you can do on a date... the most important thing is that you're spending time together.  Date nights don't need to be elaborate, expensive or take a lot of time to plan, but they do need to happen!  Don't forget to take pictures too!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Old fashioned Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Jake was going to be gone for a couple of days so I told him I'd make him some cookies to take with him.  He requested oatmeal raisin.  I don't make oatmeal raisin cookies often because none of my kids like them.  If fact when they saw the cookies on the counter they ran into me and said, "Can we have some of those cookies???"  I responded, "They have raisins in them."  Nina pouted, "Mom!  This is why I have trust issues!"  Haha!  If you want to have cookies all to yourself in my house you add raisins!

I decided to use an oatmeal raisin cookie recipe from one of my vintage cookbooks because oatmeal raisin cookies are totally grandma cookies.  They came out soft and delicious!  As they were cooking Jake sat there like a little kid staring into the oven window waiting for the timer to go off.  The second that timer dinged he was pouring himself a glass of milk and waiting not-so-patiently for me to pull them from the oven!  He's a cookie monster for sure!

You all can have your cookies!  I'm all about the dough!  Raisins, chocolate chips, I don't care!  Cookie dough is yummy!

Old Fashioned Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

3/4 c. shortening
1 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
1/4 c. water
1 tsp vanilla
1 c. flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cloves
1 c. raisins
1 c. chopped nuts
3 c. oats

  Heat oven to 350.  Beat shortening, sugars, egg, water and vanilla.  Add remaining ingredients.  Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet or baking stone.  Bake 12-15 minutes.

Immediately remove from cookie sheet. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

New Year, New Start 2015

Every new year I like to take some time to reflect on the goals I set for the previous year and decide where I need my focus to be for the year to come.  Yesterday I sat down with a dirty Dr. Pepper, a sugar cookie and my very patient husband and made a list of projects that need to get done around the house and thought about what goals I wanted to set for myself for 2015.

2014 started out rocky... halfway through the year I had one of those life-changing experiences I seem to be so fond of.  I had to pick myself up (with a lot of help) and the rest of the year did not turn out how I had planned... That being said, the second half of 2014 has been one of the best times of my life so far and in December I was able to be married to my best friend. 

There are some people placed in your life for a reason and Jake is one of those.  We've always had a deep connection and after being best friends for five years we decided it was time for us to be married.  We had a very quiet, very spiritual ceremony with only us, our bishop and two witnesses.  It was beautiful and perfect.

My kids decided once again that they wanted a vacation instead of big Christmas gifts and we spent Christmas in Las Vegas!  It was a really weird, but super fun way to celebrate the holiday!

We saw Into the Woods on Christmas Eve and went to MJ Live (a Michael Jackson tribute show) on Christmas Day.  We had such a good time... and it was much warmer than home!

The botanical gardens at the Bellagio were absolutely beautiful for Christmas.  Taking a vacation as a family has become one of my favorite Christmas traditions.  We don't need more "stuff", but you can never have enough memories!

This past week as New Year's Day has been approaching I've been thinking a lot about what I want to happen in 2015.  2015 is a year of fresh starts and new experiences!  Today is my last day babysitting my nephews and niece.  I've had my 10 1/2 month old baby niece in my home since she was a newborn along with her 4 and 11 year old brothers.  Scarlett thinks of me as a second mom and it will be a big adjustment to have an empty house during the day.  Jake and I decided that it was best for our relationship and our family to not have extra kids here full time.  We want to have time by ourselves when my kids are at their dad's house, we want to get all the daunting projects around the house done that have been neglected plus I want to work on my vintage business on a more regular basis.  It has been next to impossible to keep up with it with a baby.  There are so many changes happening it's a little overwhelming, but they are all positive changes!

For the first time in a long time I am really, truly, deeply happy.  I wasn't quite sure I'd ever reach that point again.  I always try to remain positive and seek for the best, but it's a nice change to have true joy in my heart without having to force it or look for it!  I believe that 2015 is going to be an amazing year!

My word for 2014 was ORDER.  I've decided there isn't a better one and I'm going to keep it around for another year.  As we work on projects around the house, the business, our finances, my children, schedules and everything else I still like the word, ORDER.  It describes what I'm striving for.  When I have order I feel at peace.  The year of 2015 WILL bring ORDER to all aspects of my life!

The three goals I've decided on for 2015 are:

1- Spend 4 hours every week on this blog.
2- Visit a state I've never been to before.
3- Book a cruise for my family.

Have I mentioned how much I love this guy?  Even when I want to strangle him my heart is so happy that we are together.  

I'm so thankful for the blessings I've received this year and for the knowledge I have of my Heavenly Father and the fact that His plan and His timing rarely match up with our plan and our timing, but He DOES have a plan for us and if we are patient and have faith we can have everything we ever wanted and more.

Happy 2015!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Holy Socks to Fingerless Gloves

Sometimes you have a pair of socks you really love and you don't want to throw them away even if they get holes in them.  That was me with this pair of striped knee socks.  I've had them for years and even after there were holes in both socks I couldn't part with them!

I decided to get out a pair of scissors and make them fingerless gloves!  Just a couple cuts and they're ready to go!  They are adorable and now I still get to wear my favorite "socks" as often as I want!   I see cute knee high socks on clearance all the time.  You don't even need to wait for your socks to wear out in order to do this craft... just find a cute pair of socks you want to wear on your arms, cut the feet off, cut a small circle for your thumb near the part that was the top of the sock and that's it!  Fingerless gloves!  They're perfect for wearing out under a coat or even around the house.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Molasses Cookies

I love Molasses Cookies/Gingersnaps... like a lot!  I love them year-round, not just at Christmastime, but Christmas is usually when I make them.  These cookies are so soft and delicious.  They have a strong flavor, which is fabulous!  For a milder flavor you can switch out the molasses for corn syrup.  It's a trick I learned when molasses just wasn't in my grocery budget.

Molasses Cookies

1 c. real butter, melted & cooled slightly
1 c. brown sugar
2/3 c. molasses
2 eggs
1 T + 1 tsp baking soda
1 T ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/8 tsp cardamon
1/2 tsp salt
4 c. flour
1 c. white chocolate chips

small bowl of white sugar

Whip butter, brown sugar, molasses and eggs together until well blended.  Add spices and mix.  Add flour and mix well.  Stir in white chocolate chips.  Dough will be soft.  If dough is too-too soft you can add another 1/4 cup of flour.

Use a 1 teaspoon cookie scoop to make balls of dough.  Roll each ball in white sugar and place on a greased cookie sheet or baking stone.  Do not flatten balls.  Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes.  Check at 8 minutes and pull out of the oven before completely set.  Carefully remove from cookie sheet as soon as they come out of the oven.  Allow to set, then place in a tightly covered container or plastic baggie to keep soft.

Thing have been getting Christmasy around our house!  I fell in love with this cute reindeer sweater!  Who cares that I've never been to a Christmas sweater party... I'll wear it throughout the holiday season!
I just love Christmas and the wonderful spirit it brings with it!  Today I'm going to a holiday potluck, This weekend is our church breakfast... I got asked to participate in the skit, YIKES!  

Next week I'm inviting some ladies over for homemade hot cocoa and cinnamon bread and next Saturday I'm hosting my family Christmas party.  I love it all!

We've been having fun so far this month attending a live nativity and looking at the lights on Temple Square.  We're going on a trip for Christmas again this year, which we're all excited for!  I'd rather make memories with my kids rather that buy them more "stuff" they don't really need.  Happy December!