Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Political Dreaming

I don’t usually like talking about politics because there really is no point.  People feel the way that they feel and there is usually no way to change a person’s mind on this topic.  So conversations become stressful and sometimes turn into screaming matches, and who needs that?  The point of this blog post is not to change anyone’s mind.  It’s just a way to ask the people of this country to start thinking outside the box.  This post suggests a completely unrealistic and fantasized way of government.   But wish lists are fun and can possibly lead to new ideas (um…Walt Disney anyone?), and that, my friends, is the point.

I have become very skeptical of the government that our forefathers so brilliantly set up for us years and years ago.  I feel as though it has become so corrupt that there is just no way for it to work efficiently for anyone, no matter what side of the coin you’re on.  I think most people in the country aren’t completely happy with our government.  How I know this is that both individuals and organizations are constantly trying to change something. Whether it is who gets to get married or how people treat animals or who gets health insurance, everyone seems to be charged up about something or other.  Since there is so much want and need for change, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a lot of unhappy Americans out there.  I applaud this desire to change. For me, I think the biggest change needs to start with our government.  And I don’t mean just Democrat verses Republican.  I would love to see a bigger overhaul or a movement.  I don’t mean just voting out everyone who currently sits in Congress, only to replace them with less corrupt politicians, who will eventually be just as corrupt as our current Congress.  And I don’t mean a “tea party-esque” movement where like-minded individuals come together to promote what they already believe.   I mean…bigger.  Before I begin, I just want to throw this out there.  I am a dreamer.  I am not a politician or some brilliant mind that has a solution for our country.  I am not developing a posse to support a campaign to take to Washington. I don’t even really know all that much about our government and how it works.   I am just simply dreaming.

With regard to “sides”, I think that’s a huge part of our problem.  We have become a two sided country, not just with government, but with everything.  Think about it.  Division has become a tactic for one side to succeed over another.  For example, man vs. woman.  There are women’s shelters and women’s advocates, women’s groups and tons of organizations which start with the word “Women”.  Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely support women succeeding in life.  Empowering women can be a very positive thing.  But so can empowering a man making minimum wage trying to feed his family of four.  Not all men are born in business suits, ready to make his first million.  Not all men are powerful, being afforded opportunity just because he is a man.  What happens to a man who isn’t empowered?  Are there specific male only support groups for him?  With that said, I support Americans, regardless of your sex.  I want all Americans to succeed, no matter what the word “success” means to each individual.  Why the division?  Why can’t there be more groups and organizations just for helping people, regardless of your gender?  This is just one example, but there are many more such as gay vs. straight, rich vs. poor, stay at home mom vs. working mom, popular vs. unpopular, black vs. white, married vs. single, religion vs. atheism, old vs. young, and of course, Democrat vs. Republican.  I remember there being a time when I was able to have an opinion that didn’t necessarily define me.  I remember a time when having a passion was just that.  I remember being able to have a conversation about something I believed in without having to get defensive or having to quote various facts or statistics in order to be taken seriously.  Being on a side, at one time, was okay.  Being on a side, at one time, didn’t necessarily work against you.  Being on a side, at one time, didn’t divide us as a people.  In my opinion, division should be used to open minds, not close them.

The government in particular has gotten less and less able to compromise. It seems that we are in a time where neither side listens to any of the ideas that the other side comes up with, simply because they are not playing for the same team.  If a Republican agrees with or votes the same as a Democrat, he probably won’t win when it is re-election time.  The “party” turns against their own members who might actually be trying to do the right thing for the people of this country.  So, what happens to a country in this type of disarray?  We’ve yet to see, but I don’t feel comfortable about it.  It’s easy to say “get out and vote the people you don’t like out”, but is that really what we want?  Will that actually happen in a country that is so dedicated to the side they are already on?  Currently, we really only wind up choosing from candidates (from a local or primary position) that we didn’t nominate to be our party leaders in the first place.  We are stuck choosing someone who is mediocre or someone who is the best of the worst, and is that really how our country should be run?  Would companies be successful if they chose a mediocre CEO?  Would children be raised well if they have mediocre parents?  It’s pretty obvious that mediocrity doesn’t have a place in any aspect of success.  However, if we are all okay with that, then why not do mediocrity in a different way? 

My Dad and I were having a discussion about politics, and he is a very independent/green party type guy.  He had an idea that I thought was pretty great.  He thinks that the President and Congress should be handled in the same way that jury selection is handled.  You get a notice in the mail and it’s your turn to serve.  That’s right folks, serve.  And as most of you know, jury duty pay is pretty awful.  Not that I think you should be paid jury duty wages for being the President of the United States, but I think taking away the grandiosity of being President is a great place to start.  Just giving our President a home that is over 55,000 square feet seems to send the message of superiority.  I think that is the wrong message to send.  I think the President (and Congress) should live modestly on a modest salary.  I think this would keep the person in office honest, and more in touch with the financial conditions of the country.  If the President of our country had to run the country on a salary of $50,000 per year and still had to budget for his family of four, laws that actually help people might actually be proposed.  I really like my Dad’s jury duty idea.  I think it would put real people of all walks of life into the government seats.  These people may know struggle or success or how to fix certain things in a new way.  They may be former soldiers and have better ideas when it comes to war.  They may be college students who are graduating with $75,000 worth of debt.  You get the picture.  To add onto my Dad’s idea, I would love to not have just one Election Day, but to have as many as needed in order to accommodate new legislation.  If there is a new bill that our Congress proposes, then it would go to the people to get passed.  The law would have to be written clearly and the amount of money that it would cost to implement would need to be clear as well.  I wouldn’t mind voting every single day if it meant that I had a say in what laws are passed in the country I live in.  The idea that the people (not Congress) decide on the laws of the land would also alleviate the headache that is known as lobbyists.  I don’t think this would be the absolute end to lobbyists, but it would certainly help get some of them out of the way so that real laws that actually help people, rather than help whatever company the lobbyist works for, get passed.

When it comes to helping out other countries, I know that we can’t just stop handing over money because that causes countries that already hate us to hate us more, which in turn, may cause war or more terrorism on our turf.  But the dreamer in me wants to hold all funds to all countries.  When a country needs our financial help with something, they should submit it to our Congress in writing, similar to a business plan.  For instance, when I need something at work that costs a significant amount of money, I submit a business case for it.  I include a list of the benefits and risks, as well as cost analysis.  Then, when budget time comes, my company decides whether or not my proposal gets funded.  If it doesn’t get funded, oh well.  Better luck next year.  If it does get funded, I am held accountable and need to show how every penny was spent.  I think handing money out to other countries in a similar fashion might benefit us, or at least show us how these countries are spending our money.  Also, I think that if there is any solid evidence that certain countries mean us harm, they should get nothing.  I know.  That’s not a popular idea because, like I said before, it could cause harm.  But that would be a chance I’d be willing to take. 

I’d also like there to be an online government checkbook.  I mean, not an official one that can be hacked into, but something simple that shows our daily spending as a country.  I want to be able to see who checks are being written to and for how much.  I think opening up a very elementary level online check register would give people a better sense of what we have in the bank and how we are spending their hard earned tax dollars.  I think this would make them more informed when it comes time to vote on the potential laws of the land.

I could probably go on all day, so I’ll stop here.  As for my big ideas, feel free to agree or disagree or laugh or comment with your own ideas.  I would love to hear from more dreamers.  Who knows?  Maybe some of these ideas are already in place but I just don’t know enough about government to realize it.  Maybe some of these ideas are insane and would make things catastrophically worse.  But then again, how much worse could it get?  J 

“I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing-that it was all started by a mouse.”
                                                                -Walt Disney

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How To Manage The Family Budget

If you are one of the many families living paycheck to paycheck, budgeting can be a challenge.  There are so many tools available to help people come up with a budget that works for them.  Unfortunately, I have never purchased any of these tools, so I cannot say what I like or dislike about them.  However, I can share with you a tool that I have been using for years that is simple and allows me to see where the money goes. 

It’s called Microsoft Excel and basic first grade math. 

It is common to receive a paycheck twice a month (rather than weekly), making it harder to budget appropriately when predicting your expenses. I know a lot of people who pay their mortgage/rent with one paycheck, leaving them with very little for anything else until that second paycheck rolls around in two weeks.  Trust me. I’ve been there.

I’ve come up with a way to have an even bi-weekly budget, so that I am paying approximately the same amount towards bills with each paycheck, and so that at the end of both payment cycles, I have the same amount of money for other necessities.

The first step in creating any budget is figuring out your expenditures.  Be honest with yourself!  If you spend $200 a month on Starbucks, put it on the list!

Here are some other examples of what you may need to include on your expense list. 

Car Insurance=$75/month
Phone (landline) =$100/month
Phone (cell) =$100/month
Home security=$30/month
Waste management=$12/month
Pest control services=$33/month
529 savings for children=$100/month

The second step is a little tricky. Once you have the costs, you’ll need to divide them as evenly as possible between your two pay periods (sample sheet below). So, if your total monthly expense is $2600, you will want to try to split up your bills so that you pay $1300 with one paycheck and $1300 with the other.  Please also pay attention to when your bills are due.

The sample sheet I’ve come up with is based on a salary of $3000/month net (no, this is not my income; I am just using this figure to make things easier).  In the below spreadsheet, I decided to pay the 529 account, the landline phone, internet and cable, car insurance and waste management bills with the first paycheck of the month. I decided to pay the 529 account, the cell phone, the electric, the home security, the pest control and the water bills with the second paycheck of the month.

*You’ll notice that even though I do not pay my mortgage twice per month, I listed a mortgage payment for both pay cycles.  Rather than paying the large mortgage payment with one paycheck, I divided the mortgage amount and added it to both pay periods.  It’s sort of like writing a check to yourself and cashing it when your mortgage is due. I did this to distribute the expenses more evenly. Please feel free to divide your expenses as you see fit.  This is just what works for us.

As you can see, I also have a “predicted” column and an “actual” column.  The “actual” column isn’t necessary, but I like to see where my money goes.  For instance, if I decide to buy something for myself or go out to eat, I note it as an extra in the “actual” column.  This way, every month, I know exactly where every penny went.  It’s also interesting to see monthly spending trends.

I’ve found that deducting money from each paycheck every month in smaller amounts doesn’t hit the pocket as hard when it’s time to pay the bills.  Is this the very definition of paycheck to paycheck living?  Possibly, but it doesn’t ever stress me out in the way that “paycheck to paycheck living” is normally described.  When it comes down to it, you should have the same amount of money to play with regardless of how you decide to budget.  I hope you find the way that works best for your family. 

Happy budgeting!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How to Remove Deodorant Stains

I’m positive that most women reading this can relate to this scenario.  You are getting dressed up to go out.  You have on your favorite jewelry.  Your hair and makeup are perfect.  You take one final look in the mirror, and DANG IT, you have white deodorant marks on your clothes!  

What do you do?  

Most of you probably curse yourself out for not being more careful about putting your shirt or dress over your head.  Or you remind yourself that next time, you should put your deodorant on AFTER you get dressed.  You are faced with a dilemma.  You either get a wet cloth and try to wipe the deodorant off, or you go to your closet and frantically try to find something else that is just as fabulous to wear.  

If you chose option A and go with the wet cloth, you’ll find that although the stains appear to be gone, after your clothing dries (and you are already out),   those precious deodorant stains come right back.  If you chose option B, you head out in a new outfit, but you’re in a bad mood because you don’t look nearly as cute as you would have looked in the shirt that now has deodorant on it.  Darn deodorant stain!

Well, here is a tip that can hopefully relieve you of some of your stress in this situation.  Once you notice the dreaded white deodorant marks, take the shirt or dress off.  Then, rub a non-stained section of the shirt onto the stained section.  The dye from the fabric will rub against the stain, and within seconds, the marks will be gone.  I usually try to take a part of the fabric from the inside of the garment to rub the outside with.  This way, if the deodorant comes off on the clean part of the fabric, at least it’s on the inside and cannot be seen. 

I find this solution works best with black clothing, but it has been successful for me no matter what color I am wearing.  

I hope you'll give it a try! Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Puerto Rico with Children

So, I just got back from Puerto Rico with my family, which includes my daughters (Fallon, 8 & Kyla, 5) and my fiancĂ©, John.  We began our travels on a Monday and came back on Saturday.  Now, I have to start by saying that I am very lucky to have a wonderful Abuelita who just so happens to live in one of the most fabulous locations in Puerto Rico called Luquillo.  Her home overlooks the ocean on one side and the El Yunque rain forest on the other side.  The views from her backyard are to die for.  This is where we stayed for the entire trip, so I, unfortunately, will not be able to review any hotels in this blog post.

I have been to Puerto Rico a few times, mostly in my youth, and once with my oldest daughter when she was about 2 years old.  I have to say that coming to Puerto Rico with children ages 5 & 8 is so much more fun!  I think it’s the perfect age for kids to enjoy everything Puerto Rico has to offer.  So, let me share with you my itinerary and reviews for this trip.

Day 1-Our flight landed in San Juan in the afternoon, so after getting our bags and our rental car, we drove off to the first place on my list-La Playita in Isla Verde.  This is a restaurant in Hotel La Playa.  And most importantly, it had a typical American menu for children to choose from, which is extremely rare in Puerto Rico.  I know there are a lot of moms who don’t let their children get suckered into the dreaded kids menu.  And I absolutely commend those moms.  However, I am not one of them.  I have one daughter who eats anything at all, and one daughter who eats pizza, bread or pasta.  So, before the trip, I visited many a website to find restaurants in the San Juan area that offered something my oldest daughter would tolerate.  And I found that while most of the restaurants in the San Juan area do offer a kids menu, most of the food selections on those menus are Spanish style meals.

From the pictures on the website, the hotel looked lovely.  What the web site doesn’t tell you is that it is nearly impossible to find, so get your GPS ready.  And expect to be a little disappointed, as the hotel looks a bit like a shack from the outside, and there are only about six parking spots directly across the street.  There is a building next to it which may or may not be a part of the hotel that looks as though it was damaged in a hurricane.  However, the hotel redeemed itself when we walked into the dining area.  They have wooden tables and chairs under a covered porch, and they also have plastic chairs on the pier directly over the ocean.  While the seating doesn’t scream fine dining, the view really was gorgeous.

As for the food, it was good, and ordering was easy due to the English speaking staff (they even had John Mayer and Dave Matthews playing on the radio).  The girls each ordered the fettuccine alfredo.  I tasted it and the sauce was thick and seemed to be homemade.  I had calamari, which could have used some more flavor, but otherwise, was fine.  John ordered a hamburger and was pleased with that.  Again folks, this was not fine dining, but the view was spectacular and it was a nice place to relax after the flight.  Also, just a note, there was a woman who was drinking a tropical adult beverage out of a coconut.  This drink was huge, but looked very refreshing.  It might have been a pina colada right out of the coconut.  If I didn’t have to drive back to my Abuelita’s house, I would have ordered one. If any of you happen to dine here in the future, order a coconut drink for me and tell me how it tastes!

Day 2-We decided to start our vacation off with El Yunque National Forest.  In my opinion, this is a must when traveling to Puerto Rico.  I had a map of the forest before the trip and outlined the stops I wanted to make.  However, when we got there, the girls needed to use the bathroom, so we made a stop at the Visitor’s Center.  It cost a few dollars (I think $2 per person, if I remember correctly) and was well worth the price, as there weren’t any restrooms on the trail we hiked (Big Tree Trail).  The ticket you receive is good all day, so you can stop back later to use the restrooms before leaving the park.  Just to note, there is parking in front of all of the stops we made.

We started first at La Coca Falls.  Although there is a barricade in front of the falls, it is commonplace to do some rock climbing here.  Both of my daughters climbed to the top rock (which is about halfway up the waterfall).  And they were extremely proud of themselves.  Note to parents- it is slippery here.  So, just make sure your children understand to grab firmly onto something in front of them before climbing.  We all wore running sneakers and I packed water shoes in my backpack.  Just a side note, in my backpack, I also packed bottled water, trail mix and some other snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, a small first aid kit and 2 small bath towels.

La Coca Falls

Our next stop was the Yokahu Tower.  Note-There have been reviews that say there are bathrooms here, but I did not see them.  This is a spiral stone staircase and is definitely worth the climb!  My youngest daughter thought it was a mini castle, so she was pretty excited to climb it.  Once at the top, the views are just breathtaking.  There really isn’t much more I can say, as words just can’t do it justice.

View from Yokahu Tower

Finally, we started on the Big Tree Trail hike with our destination being La Mina Falls.  Let me say that I saw a woman wearing very high wedge sandals on this trail.  Yes, this is the easiest of the trails, and the trail that is best for small children (there were even parents with infants in baby carriers enjoying the hike).  However, I would not recommend hiking this in heels or wedges or even flip flops.  It is a very narrow path with nothing to grab onto most of the way.  It takes about 35-45 minutes each way with small children in tow.  Wear sneakers!!  There are 2 rest areas, and by rest area, I mean a small covered concrete slab with a bench that fits 4 people.  We stopped at one to have some water and snacks, and then we set off to La Mina Falls!  Both of my girls loved the hike.  The greenery is indescribable, and hiking that close to it almost makes you feel like you are a part of it.  It started to rain pretty hard and we didn’t feel a drop, as we were covered by all of the bamboo leaves.  It was truly amazing.  We wore bathing suits under our clothes, so once we arrived at La Mina Falls, all we needed to do was take off our covers, put our water shoes on and navigate over the rocks to the falls.  The water is pretty cold, roughly 65 degrees.  But for whatever reason, it is popular to get right in.  The water isn’t deep, but the rocks are extremely slippery.  I highly recommend water shoes for some traction.  The falls were a remarkable sight and an unforgettable experience for the entire family.

There are a few spots in El Yunque that we didn’t get to, so I can’t review them.  But I thought they were worthy of mentioning because they seemed like good spots for children.  The first is Angelito Trail, which leads to Damas Pool in the Mamayes River.  Apparently, this is a swimming hole with plenty of rope swings.  The second is Juan Diego Falls, which is a smaller waterfall area that is less crowded than La Mina.

After El Yunque, we showered off and went to a restaurant in Fajardo called Metropol.  There were the four of us plus Abuelita.  Out of 5 people total, only 2 of us enjoyed our dinner.  I ordered and loved the camarones al aljillo con tostones.  There was this fabulous sauce that came with the tostones and I wish I would have asked for the recipe!  It also came with rice & black beans!  Every bit of it was delicious.  My daughter Kyla ordered and loved the chicken wings with rice & red beans.  My daughter Fallon ordered pizza, but as this is a Spanish restaurant, I can see why the pizza wasn’t all that good.  John ordered chicken, which was baked even though it was displayed on the menu as fried.  And Abuelita ordered fish filet that she said tasted like sardines.  She hated it so much she asked them to bring her something else (which they did free of charge).  So, overall, just a so-so experience at Metropol.

Day 3-We were planning on heading to the beach, but it was cloudy.  So, we decided on Old San Juan.  I suppose I should have warned you earlier in the blog about the drivers in Puerto Rico.  The word that comes to mind is insane, and this is coming from a Jersey girl.  Here in America, there are some pretty bad drivers as well.  However, in Puerto Rico, things like stop signs and red stop lights are mere suggestions.  Many drivers do not abide by any kind of laws or rules of the road.  So, my advice is to drive only when necessary, or if money is no object for you, hire a limo to take you around Puerto Rico.  Also, just a quick tip, normally I would say save your money and don’t get the extra rental car insurance that every rental car company tries to force on you.  When renting a car in Puerto Rico, I would say any extra protection you can get is well worth it.  And another side note that we learned while staying in Puerto Rico is that most of the Puerto Rican population does not have car insurance at all.
So, parking on the narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan isn’t a good idea.  And the large parking garage is quite a distance away, especially with children.  So, we opted to park in the gated area reserved for the fort (El Morro).  Now, I have never been to the fort and since we had to go into the building to pay for parking, I figured we might as well stay and see the fort as well (kid admission is free).  Now, as a side story, for Mother’s Day, my gift from my children was to help them build a “Mother’s Day” fort out of sheets.  So, the prospect of going into a real live fort was very exciting for both of my girls.  And I was so glad we decided to stop here.  It was hard to comprehend the structure in itself, much less the history behind it all.  Standing in a place that was designed to protect soldiers or standing in the soldiers’ quarters, seeing where they ate, all just makes you stop and breathe and appreciate everything we have now.  Well, at least that’s what standing on a vast piece of history does to me.

El Morro

After the fort, we left our car in the gated parking lot and headed for Old San Juan.  It started to rain, so we quickly crossed onto Calle San Francisco and darted into a beautifully decorated Italian restaurant called Sofia.  Lucky for my daughter Fallon, pizza was on the lunch menu!  But, we also tried the ravioli fritti, which was heavenly!  The menu described them as fried ravioli stuffed with pork and cheese and topped with balsamic vinegar.  You get 3 raviolis on the appetizer plate for $9, so while a tad pricey, they are absolutely worth it!  I might even attempt to make these at home!  The pizza was very fresh and tasty as well.  This was a very pleasant dining experience (and the waiter spoke perfect English).  After we ate, we headed for the first souvenir shop to purchase umbrellas.  Sixteen dollars later, we were walking on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.

Because of the weather, I decided to only go to the street where we could get the most out of the trip for the kids, and that was Calle Cristo.  At the very end of the street, there is a park called Parque de las Palomas (pigeon park).  There are literally hundreds of pigeons nestled in this park.  And if you have popcorn seeds, they all flock to you.  Even without food, if you hold your hands straight outward, pigeons will land on you.  The girls have never seen anything like this and they were very excited.  I would recommend carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer for afterwards, but this is definitely a must see for children of all ages.
After the pigeons, we headed to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store for dessert (also on Calle Cristo, but on the opposite end).   We all ordered chocolate fudge brownie shakes, and while we waited, the girls sat at a child-sized chalkboard table and were more excited about the chalk than they were about the shake.  After the chocolate shakes, we walked back down Calle Cristo and made a quick stop at the San Juan Cathedral.  This wasn’t a big hit with the kids, but we took a very quick lap around the inside.  It is a very pretty cathedral, but I have been forever spoiled.  Last year, John and I went to Paris on vacation and stood in Notre Dame and Saint Chappelle.  So, while the San Juan Cathedral was nice, I cannot rave about it, as the churches of Paris have been tattooed on my brain and no others can compare (that is until we visit the Sistine Chapel in a few years).

Our last stop was a place on Calle Fortaleza called the Haitian Gallery.  It is a shop full of hand carvings from all over the world, including Indonesia and Africa.  If you like buying souvenirs, but want to stay away from things like keychains, bottle openers or hats with Puerto Rico emblazoned on them, this is your place.  They also have very cute souvenirs for kids, including handmade dolls, handmade crafts, wood toys and, Kyla’s favorite, dream catchers.  Here is another side story.  Every time we go on vacation, we purchase a memento to put on our plant shelf at home.  It is a reminder of the places we have been together as a family.  The trick is that we have to pick one thing that we all love.  And I would prefer that it not be a souvenir that is blatantly obvious (such as a statue of the Empire State Building from New York).  So, on this trip, we chose a wooden box carved with sunflowers. The plant shelf at home may take a long time to fill up, but I love that the items on the shelf will have a special memory and a great story for all of us for years to come.

Day 4-We decided to take a 2 hour trip to the Arecibo area to visit the Rio Camuy Caves.  As previously noted, driving in Puerto Rico can be stressful.  However, the caves were well worth it.  Just to note, some of the research I did on the caves prior to the trip indicated that you have to get there extremely early/as soon as they open (8:30am).  We got there at noon and waited about 20-30 minutes (some of that wait is spent watching a safety movie and some of the wait was for getting your audio tour headsets).  So, I would have to disagree with the “must get their early” crowd.  Just to note, there are English and Spanish headsets, as well as special audio tours for children as well.  The tour is about 1.5 hours.  Because I’m a mom, this means no bathroom breaks for that timeframe.  So, go while you can!  I saw a lot of people with backpacks, and I couldn’t figure out why.  It’s very dark and there aren’t any opportunities to eat a snack or have a drink.  So, I would say to leave the backpacks in the car and just take your camera.  Also, another tip-WEAR SNEAKERS (not heels, flip flops or sandals)!!  It’s slippery and some of the paths are narrow.  The tram ride down to the caves is scenic and exciting for the kids.  The caves are simply wondrous.  Again, I am at a loss for words to describe how beautiful the caves were.

On the ride back to Luquillo, we were tempted to go to the Arecibo Observatory to see the giant telescope, but because the driving was getting us too frazzled, we decided to just get back to Luquillo.  However, if I have the opportunity to go back to Puerto Rico, I would put that on my to-do list.

Rio Camuy

Day 5-Our last day in Luquillo was spent at the beach!  We decided to go to the part of the beach where there are no waves in the ocean.  My girls prefer pools to oceans, so I thought this spot would be perfect for them.  It is like a big pool with the rain forest as the backdrop.   There are also vendors selling ice cream and piragua (shaved ice with flavored syrup poured over it; like a snow cone, only better) in carts right on the beach.  We spent the entire day (from 10am-5pm) making sand castles and playing in the pool-like ocean.  Also, chair rentals were $5 a chair and umbrella rentals were $10 an umbrella.  If you get there early enough, lots of people bring hammocks and tie them between 2 palm trees (there are plenty of palm trees to go around at this beach).  And not too far away are the Luquillo kiosks.  Don’t let these dilapidated shacks scare you.  This is where the best Spanish food can be found.  There must be about 75 different food kiosks to choose from, most of them selling the same thing.  But after the many times I’ve been to Puerto Rico, my favorite is Kiosk #60, also called La Roca Taina.  They have the BEST alcapurria ever (similar to empanadas, but made with yucca or plantain)!  I also tried the sorullos (fried corn meal sticks) and they were delicious!  The only thing we tried at these kiosks that no one liked was “coco frio”.  I think some places make these differently.  The one we got was not the drink I dreamed about on day 1 where the woman was drinking a lush cocktail out of a coconut.  The coco frio we got was a water filled coconut with some coconut oil.  Absolutely disgusting.  But, at least the girls can say they tried drinking out of a coconut!

Luquillo Beach (El Yunque in the background)

Our last adventure before leaving Puerto Rico was at 8pm in Fajardo’s Laguna Grande.  We went on a bioluminescence tour with Captain Suarez from Baby Bay Cruising Tours.  This is a motorboat tour and the cost was $45 per adult and $35 per child.  There is only one other company that does the motorboat tour (Bio Island Tours).  All other tours are kayak tours.  We passed by many kayakers who looked tired and irritated.  I would not recommend the kayak tour if it is your first time on a kayak.  The passageways are narrow and there are a bunch of obstacles to get through before you actually get to the Bio Bay.  It took about 20 minutes to reach the open bay by motorboat, so I can only assume the ride is a stretch longer by kayak.  Just a quick tip-put on bug spray before you go.   The motorboat ride there was a little spooky, with low hanging branches and narrow water passageways, and it was very dark, with only the light of the moon as a guide.  But the tour guide, Michael (who speaks English), was fantastic and really knew how to put my children at ease.  He asked them questions and educated all of us on our way to the lagoon.  He had everyone laughing and enjoying the trip within the first few minutes of the boat ride.  Once the lagoon opened up, it was like unwrapping a precious gift. The sky seemed larger than life.  Michael handed each of us a stick and we all put our sticks in the water and watched as the water lit up in neon blue.  The organism called Pyrodinium Bahamense is a microscopic plankton which produces light when you touch it.  Michael was kind enough to grab a bucket of the water filled with this plankton.  He then set the bucket down in our boat and held an umbrella over it.  He asked the girls to come in really tight under the umbrella.  He then asked them to grab some plankton.  With each scoop, little sparkles that looked like diamonds danced in their hands.  They were ecstatic!  Michael let us know that there are very few places in the world where this species of plankton can be found, which made me feel a little bit luckier that we got to experience this.  This was an excellent end to a great vacation!

And that’s a wrap folks!  That was my take on traveling to Puerto Rico with children.  Adios!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Grocery Lists, Meal Planning and Fun Recipe Books

I used to be one of those extreme coupon people, only not nearly as extreme as the ones on TV.  One day I realized that I was getting great bargains and that made me happy.  However, I was getting great bargains on things I didn’t really need or want.  I was coming home with lots of granola bars and paper towels, but not much that I could make a good dinner with.  Also, a lot of the bargains were for unhealthy foods like cookies and fruit gummies.  I’m not against unhealthy foods.  I generally cook with love, rather than low fat or non-fat ingredients.  But in my couponing days, in the name of a good deal, most of the things that came home with me were sugary snacks that most people would not feed their families for dinner.  So, I decided to stop the coupon craze, and I started meal planning instead.  It sounds simple, and now that I’ve been doing it for years, it is simple.  But it was harder in the beginning than I thought it would be.  Keep reading to see how my “system” came to be.

I started by pre-planning meals by the month.  So, for instance, below is an example of next month’s calendar with the meals I am planning on cooking for dinner.  Also pictured below is the food list I print out for grocery shopping (I included July’s food list because I haven’t completed August yet). I split the food shopping list in half based on when I receive my paychecks.  So, I grocery shop for the top half of the sheet with my end of the month check, and I grocery shop for the bottom half with my middle of the month check.

Calendar with meals

Food shopping list

Because I already know what I am cooking, grocery shopping becomes very simple.  I only buy what I need to make the meals that I’ve planned, as well as any necessities such as milk, toothpaste or juice.  And yes, sticking to the list in the beginning was difficult.  But my food bill literally shrunk in half (and I didn’t use coupons), so it was worth the effort that meal planning requires.

Here are some tips on meal planning:
  1. It is okay to repeat meals more than once a month.  I repeat vegetables a lot because my children will only eat a few different types of veggies.  However, I challenge myself to try not to repeat too much in one month’s time because I like variety and I think it’s good for my children to eat different things.
  2. If you have kids, plan the meals based on your schedules.  If your kids are into sports or clubs, time is probably crucial during the week, so I would suggest planning the quickest meals for your busiest days.
  3.  Meal planning doesn’t always work out.  Some days, we have way too much food leftover, so we have spontaneous “leftover” days.  Or sometimes, we decide to go out to eat.  So, plans change and it’s okay.  When this happens, I just shuffle the meals around to the next day, week or even to the next month. 
  4. Don’t stop experimenting.  Once I had enough food to fill a month without any repeats, I stopped looking for new recipes.  Big mistake!  Keep looking for foods that interest you and your family!
  5. Create a recipe book with your kids (see the picture of ours below).  When I first had the meal planning idea, I was basically cooking the same things week after week.  So, I decided to go to the library and take home some cookbooks (with pictures).  My kids and I flipped through the cookbooks and tagged all of the meals that we thought looked good.  Then, we started making them, one night at a time.  We created our own recipe book with a ratings system (3 stars means we love it; 2 stars means it was decent and that we’d try it again; 1 star means we hated it).  Not only did this add new meals to our rotation, it included the kids and got them excited about dinner.  We also have a dessert recipe book.  The kids seem to like that one a little bit more than the dinner book.  J

So, that’s my meal planning system in a nutshell!  Happy planning!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Christmas Shopping Year-round

So, we recently got through the Christmas in July sales, and I believe I even saw some summer “Black Friday” marketing attempts by a retailer that rhymes with Farget.  Is this crazy?  Yes…and no.  Although I am not alone in being someone who shops for Christmas gifts all year long, I know that folks who join me in this madness are few and far between.  Most of the time, I get comments like “You’re crazy” when I tell people about my early Christmas shopping habit.  However, if you’ve read my blog about grocery shopping and dinner lists, you can probably understand a little bit more that budgeting is something I do on a regular basis.  And no, I am not a cheapskate.  I budget so that I can overindulge on things that really matter to me.  

Christmas shopping throughout the year is just another form of managing my budget.  I know most people start buying gifts in November and December.  This is considered normal.  But what I find abnormal is spending a large chunk of money in a very short period of time(unless you have a specific savings account stored away for the holidays) during a time of year when everything is bound to be more expensive, even with the “sale” pricing available during the Christmas season.  Last year, I added a specific toy to my Amazon Wish List at the beginning of the year and made a note of the price when I added it.  The toy was least expensive in the month of June (not really sure why).  As the months progressed, the price increased.  By the time the real Black Friday rolled around, that particular toy was $5 more than it was when I originally added it earlier in the year.  I know this doesn’t work with everything, but sometimes it helps to pay attention to the month to month pricing of something that grabs your eye.  

Buying a few gifts every month, starting in January or February, doesn’t leave a big dent in your wallet come Christmas time, and it also offers you a less stressful shopping experience when the official holiday shopping time arrives.  While everyone else is punching each other in the face and crawling over each other in the aisles on Black Friday, you can just sit back and relax.  

Another benefit to early Christmas shopping is keeping the people you love in mind all year, rather than just during the holiday season.  I live in Florida and most of my family members live up North, so shopping for them throughout the year keeps me connected to them without using social media. While shopping, I think about them and what they may be interested in or what they may find useful.  Sometimes, I’ll shop without any intention of buying anything, and then I’ll see something that is just the perfect gift for someone I love!  Shopping earlier in the year with thoughts of them in my mind is peaceful.  I know that if I left my shopping until the end of the year, it would be a much more nerve -wracking experience, and my family would probably wind up with gifts that aren’t nearly as heartfelt. 

I know early shopping isn’t for everyone, but I urge you to try it at least once.  I promise you that it will be worth it, both financially and mentally!