Sunday, October 20, 2013

To Mexico We Go!

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to encourage parents to take their kids on family vacations. It seems that whenever I tell people about a trip we are planning on taking, the popular response is "are you taking the kids?" Of course we are! And everyone seems so surprised. 

Of course it is going to be a different type of traveling When you bring the kids. And if the last time you travelled outside the country was the summer after high school when you took that backpacking trip through Europe, then you're going to have a little less freedom to do only what you want. Or if your last tropical vacation was "Spring Break in Cancun" then a vacation to Mexico with your kids will be a somewhat sobering experience for you. But if you have kids, I imagine you're like me and enjoy playing and spending time with them. 

When I backpacked through Europe by myself, many years ago, I had no plans, no money, no real precautions. And when my husband and I started traveling together, all our trips were booked extremely last minute. This is usually the thing to do in order to get the best prices. But when you're traveling with three young children you need to plan ahead, make reservations, and definitely take precautions. 

Be prepared for anything. Pack every single medicine you may need. I don't think I have ever been on a vacation where I haven't administered either ibuprofen, Benadryl or a band-aid to at least one out of three of my kids. It's always better to be safe then pay $6.00 for band-aids. 

Having pre-set reservations for your accommodations and transportation will save a lot of time and money. We spent a good month researching resorts in Mexico, reading reviews on Trip Advisor and researching prices on different travel sites such as Expedia and Kayak. We found it was cheaper booking directly through the resort, rather then going through a third party. Makes sense. Then we booked our flights separately as well, also spending many hours online, to determine the lowest airfare prices. I spoke with other resort guests and they booked flights and resort in a package seal and paid hundreds more then us. Booking flights in the middle of the week always gives you cheaper fares then on the weekends. We pre-booked airport parking and saved nearly 50 percent! We booked transportation to our resort separately and saved again. The more we save, the more vacations we can go on is how I look at it. 

A trip to an All-inclusive in Mexico is probably one of the easiest trips to do with your kids. While it may not satisfy the single globetrotters appetite for travel,  it offers connivence, family time, and fun for kids. And if the kids aren't having fun then you're not either! We picked our resort based on its kid-friendly reviews. And a resort that offers a type of daycare/entertainment for kids, allows a little more relaxation time for mom and dad. 

 One of the most important mind sets to have when traveling with kids is flexibility. You should make plans, but know that they can, and probably will, change. You and your spouse need to be on the same page when it comes to going with the flow. I would love to tell you that we got to our resort and spent 10 perfect beach, pool and excursion filled days in paradise. But the truth is, by day four my baby, Grayson, developed a fever. So I took Jaidyn and Addy to dinner and a kids show and my husband stayed with G and had room service. We did the same thing the next day, except this time Addy joined the party in the room with a fever as well. I took Jaidyn to dinner and a show and he had room service again. I was more then willing to stay behind this time but he wanted to watch the Red Sox game anyway! With two out of three kids sick during the day, we took turns staying in the room. I went snorkeling and did water aerobics at the beach then he had pool bar time. Of course we would rather be doing it all together, but when vacation plans change for the worst, you really are better off making the best of it. Being angry, bitter and feeling sorry for your somewhat ruined vacation will get you no where. There's always next time!

Our trip facts & costs:
Where we stayed: Grand Bahia Principe Coba, in Riviera Maya.
 We loved: the kids water park and easy access to everything from our room. The kids club was so good that our girls didn't want to spend any time with us! The beach was farther then I liked, but was was beautiful and a section was cleared of rocks for ouch-less swimming.
Resort Cost: 10 days in Paradise for all five cost us approximately $1425

Airfare: $1400 for four tickets (babies fly free, so take 'em while they're young!)

Bag fees: $100, but you can try to book a flight with a carrier who doesn't charge a fee.  We usually fly Spirit or Southwest or Jet Blue but they didn't have any flights left with decent times. 

Transportation: $170 for our own personal driver and SUV. So worth it. This last leg of the trip can be the worst part. Having to stop at other resorts to drop off other travelers is a pain, when you just want to get to your own resort. Spend the little bit of extra money here. 

So where are we at? $3095. That's a grand less then D-World would have cost us for the same things. I don't think it's too bad. Put $300 a month into a vacation savings account and you'll have it in a year, and plenty of spending money too. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Budgeting Basics: The Envelope System

I'm guessing in almost every couple there is a saver and a spender. But my husband and I like to do things together - so when we're saving together it's great - but when we're spending together, watch out budget! Somehow having the other person there with you makes it seem like it's ok to cross that budget line. And it's always big stuff - like vacations! Of course now we have a vacation "envelope." Back in the olden days of our lives we would just go on vacation and figure out how to pay for it when we got home. We were very spontaneous with our weekend getaways, making memories and leaving a trail of debt along the way. Eventually we received a wake-up call. It doesn't take more then your credit card being declined at the grocery store to put things in perspective. We had to start living within our budget. 

My husband read Dave Ramsey's book Total Money Makeover. The first thing he tells you to do is write down your monthly income then list all your expenses. "Give every dollar a name," he says. When you first do it you may find out you're living beyond your means. For most people it's a fancy car with a payment that crushes their budget. For others it's a love of shopping. For us it was a little of everything, but mostly it was lack of any sort of budget. As soon as we started tracking our dollars, we wanted to be able to control our dollars. We used the "envelope" system. You literally put cash in an envelope that is labeled with that Dollar's name. For instance, "Food."  Clothing, entertainment, gifts, kid's activities - anything you spend money on over the month gets an envelope. The vacation envelope is important to us. It's not essessial to most, but to us it means time together, time with the kids, time away from all our work worries. If we have to cut back on spending in another envelope in order to go on vacation we will. We consider it a priority. When I pull up to my daughter's school in my 2002 mini van that looks like the ugly duckling next to some of the other parents' cars picking up their kids, I remind myself that driving it means I get to go on vacation,  and that makes me smile. 

But recently I had to go back to basics with my clothing budget. I had been using the YNAB app (You Need A Budget) which is great, don't get me wrong, especially for more complex budgets, but I was putting clothes on credit cards instead of taking the cash out of the envelope, which allowed me to overspend one month, taking me into the negative for the next month. I went over the last two months. Perhaps it was my Back to School shopping Saga at Justice or my shopping spree at Goodwill when everything was 50% off. I always say that the occupational hazard of working at Old Navy is the temptation to buy! Either way, I went over. So now I have to put the clothing cash in the envelope. And you know, now that it's cash, I don't want to spend it! There's something about it being cash that makes me almost afraid to spend it. I know when it's gone it's gone. That's why Dave Ramsey is so anti credit card. He knows that people will spend more if they have a credit card then if they're paying cash.  So if I want something at the end of the month or if Old Navy has a big sale, I know I want to have that money to spend. I think this is part of the beauty of the system. Half the battle of budgeting is mental. Getting yourself to curb your spending and ask yourself: "do I really need this?" I've listened to Dave's podcasts and heard him argue with someone about them using a credit card to earn points ( or miles, or whatever). His main point is that when you don't have to pay for it right away, you are tempted to just buy it, and figure out how to pay for it later, leaving a trail of debt along the way. And I don't want to go back to that trail ever again!

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Have you ever been excited about luggage? For one thing, it means you're going somewhere! And some luggage I just can't wait to pack and take on a trip.  I recently bought a new 28" Eagle Creek suitcase from their Gateway collection and I am super excited about it. I was excited reading about it online but it is even better in person. The way that this bag turns a 360 as I take it on a test drive around my living room is simply genius. It is the lightest suitcase I have ever owned, at 8lbs 14 oz, which says a lot because my other 3 suitcases are all Eagle Creek. And no, they are not paying me to say this! I love that it has four wheels that all turn 360. My 3 year old can push it through a carpeted hotel lobby while it's full of everything a family of five packs for an overnight. No more dragging a heavy bag on just two wheels and then fighting with it to make a turn. This bag moves! 

In the past, For all of our big trips, I pack the three kids and my stuff all in a big 31" suitcase and my husband gets a 22" size for his stuff. But the kids are getting bigger, therefore clothing is bigger, and let's face it, a family of five isn't going anywhere with only carry-ons, So I decided to get another large suitcase for our upcoming trip to Mexico. This way we can fit it all into two bags and just (hopefully) have one carry-on filled with boardom busters. Of course, we also travel with a double stroller and pack and play.

For packing I have my own system but I plan on spending a little time reading the many travel pins I have pinned, just in case someone else has a better system then me. I'll be sure to share. 

What is your tried and true packing method? And do you bring a pack and play or do you trust the one the hotel provides? 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Harkness Memorial State Park: A place for my heart

One of my favorite parks in CT is Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford. The first time I went there, my then boyfriend got down on one knee and proposed. We were married there nearly ten years ago. Now it is a special place we bring our kids once a year. With beautiful buildings and gardens, a beach that is suited for digging up shells and sea glass, and a huge lawn for flying kites and picnicking, Harkness is the perfect backdrop to a day out with the family. 

You can host your big family get together at Harkness. Just get there early to claim a set of picnic tables and a cooker. We always walk past a smoking grill and probably drool a little! We definitely have to host a reunion there someday, so that our food can be the envy of other park-goers!

If you choose Harkness as your wedding destination, you can rent the outdoor stage area or the impressive mansion. Either way your guests will be wowed and your photos, beautiful. 

We have lost a kite in one of the tall trees skirting the edges of the sprawling lawn. 
On our most recent trip, last Sunday, we brought the girls' bikes and they road the big loop that passes by the stables, gift shop and gardens. The kids trotted through the Mansion gardens before the wedding that just happened to be scheduled started. They pretended to be fairies and yes , I'll admit, I was so inspired by the iron gates overgrown with ivy, the tranquil fountains and tiny pathways, I pretended to be a fairy too! Go for the entire day or just a couple of hours and know you'll have a good time regardless. 

Tips and cost:
We happened to go on the last Sunday that they were charging, but it was still only $6.00. If you were to go now, it would be free. 

Pack a lunch, kite, bikes, frisbee or throwing ball of your choice. 
Pets allowed but must be leashed and please clean up after it. 
Plan on doing a lot of walking and taking a lot of pictures! 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Familyof5 Visits Santa's Village

If your kids are anything like my kids, they love birthdays! And they will talk about their birthday all year long. The invitation to a friend's birthday will start a whole new passion for their own upcoming birthday - that is really 6 months away! Jaidyn will talk about what theme her birthday will be, who she will invite, and where she will have it. And it changes with the weather!

This year, about a month before her 7th birthday, Jaidyn made a very surprising choice. She did not want to have a big birthday party with a Star Wars theme (which was the theme she had recently landed on). Instead she wanted to go on a family vacation! (A girl after my own heart ;-)

We discussed different ideas and finally decided on Santa's Village, in Jefferson New Hampshire. We had been 2 years before and had enjoyed it then, and it was just about a 5 hour drive from where we live, which is about all I can take in a car with three kids.

After doing a little research on the Santa's Village website, which is great, by the way, we discovered that if you tell them in advance that a child is celebrating a birthday, they go the extra mile to make sure it is special. When you get there, let the person in the ticket sale window know about the birthday guest. They will give them a sticker to wear, that has their name pre-printed on it.

Employees who saw Jaidyn's birthday sticker wished her a happy birthday. When we went into the Polar Theatre, the employee had the entire audience sing "Happy Birthday" to her. At the end of our day we stopped in to see Santa and he had a special gift just for Jaidyn. All of this was at no extra cost. The only downside was that poor little Addy didn't quite understand why her big sister was getting so much extra attention, and when Santa asked her what she wanted for Christmas this year, she replied "a birthday." Of course, in the fashion of every little child, she has been talking about her birthday all summer, and how she wants to go to Santa's Village. I shiver just thinking about it because her birthday is in January!

Overall, we love this theme park for a family trip with small children. It is clean, which is huge on my list. It is easy to get around and the grounds are beautifully maintained with gorgeous flowers. All the rides are appropriate for young children, so if you have an older child who enjoys thrill rides, they may not be so thrilled. Unless of course they like watersides. A fairly new attraction to to the park is the water play area. There are two big slides as well as two little slides and even a baby area! Its perfect for cooling down on a hot day. For unprepared parents, the gift shop sells towels, suits and swim diapers. But we were prepared - this time - two years before Jaidyn left in wet clothes!

My favorite part of the park is meeting Santa's Reindeer. I really had never seen actual reindeer and they are so cute! For a little extra you can buy them food and feed them by hand.

Human food at the park is reasonably priced with many healthy options, but there are also many areas to sit and open up your cooler packed with snacks and sandwiches.

If you get there when they open, or shortly after, one day is really all you need. Lines are not bad, at least they weren't the weekend when we went, and if you have a couple days in New Hampshire, you might want to bring the family on a short hike or drive up Mt. Washington.

We stayed at The Royalty Inn, just as we had our previous visit. We liked it because it has an indoor, heated pool, which many of the area motels do not, and all rooms had a fridge and microwave, at no extra cost. Also, coffee in the lobby every morning was a plus for tired mommy! We did not, however, like the restaurant next door. The food was greasy and the dining area was in the same open room as the very rowdy bar, which I would not expose my children to. I ordered food to go and we ate at one of the tables next to the outdoor pool.

In two years I plan on bringing everyone up to New Hampshire again, maybe enjoy some of the other area attractions, maybe do a little camping and hiking. Use the Santa's Village website to plan your trip. It lists all types of places to stay or camp.

Trip Tips:

1. Pack entertainment bags for each kid for the long car ride.
2. Try to plan the car ride to include at least one nap time.
3. A movie in the car, your phone, or a portable DVD player goes a long way, so make sure all batteries are fully charged.
4. Plan on taking a stretch break every two hours.
5. Plan games to play in the car with your kids, when naps are had and movies are over. We like to play eye spy. Singing is fun too. For a minute.

If you have ideas for long car rides I would love for you to add them in the comment box. I am not so good with the long car rides, I tend to go coo coo before the kids do!

6. For Santa's Village pack waters for everyone, swim stuff and maybe a picnic lunch.

Have fun!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Fair Day

Besides back to school shopping, perhaps one of the true signs that summer has reached its end is that presence of local fairs. We have always gone to fairs. Before we had kids my husband and I liked to go to the Big E. For those of you that are not from this area, the Big E is a huge fair in Springfield, Mass, and all the New England states participate. We like to look at the venders in the Lifestyle building. There is always some new gadget to get. The first year we went to the Big E together, I spent $250 on a "Bamix." I thought it was the best kitchen tool ever. They must not have had a good patent on it, because less then a year later the "Magic Bullet" came out and was sold on T.V. for $19.99! It was essentially the same thing.

Another year we went and bought these two swinging patio chairs. They were over $200 a piece but were super comfortable. We hung them from our pergola on our deck, and enjoyed them for a summer, but by the following season they were ruined. Not meant to get wet, apparently. My point is that the Big E is not a very budget friendly place. Go there planning to spend money, not save it. Even if you somehow manage to not buy anything (which you will not), they charge you to park, it is expensive to get in, and of course you will be buying food. Not to mention the gas it takes to get there if you live two hours away like we do.

So our family has come to enjoy going to one small local fair a year. The kids love to see the animals, we get a little taste of the fatty fair foods, and enjoy a few kiddie rides. Most years we go to the Haddam Neck fair. They have a dog agility show, pony rides, face painting, a small circus performance, the racing pig show, a few rides, and all your favorite fair foods. Last year we went with the girls and I was 8 months pregnant with Grayson. It was nice not to have to do too much walking. Its out in a grassy field, so there's plenty of places to lay a blanket out and rest with the kiddos.

This year we thought we would try something different and go to the Chester fair. Its small as well, even smaller then the Haddam neck fair. Parking was free and it was only $8 each for the adults to get in, kids were free. Love places that let kids in for free! Someone out there knows that when you have kids you will be spending a lot more money inside the fair gates then people going in without kids. They should charge those people extra!

The nice thing about fairs is the "free" entertainment. There was a clown sort of character, putting on a show for the kids. The racing pigs were there. They had the dog agility show. And of course the calves, goats, sheep, rabbits, ducks, chickens and roosters. Once the kids had there fill of animals, we lathered up with Purel and headed to the food venders. Trying to pick out a somewhat healthy option at a fair can be challenging. I gave up and allowed the girls to have fried dough, which was $6. They were going to share. Jimmy had the Taste of Thai, which was probably the healthiest food there (and yummiest) and I had perogies (I thought they would be something special, but they were basically the kind you can buy in the freezer section of the grocery store). His was $7 and mine was $4.00. So we spent $17 on our lunch. Thank goodness I had brought waters for everyone, or it would be another $3 per person.

On to the kiddie rides. It was $25 for a sheet of 20 tickets. and rides were 3 tickets each. I ended up one ticket short and had to spend an extra $2.00 for an additional ticket. Each girl went on 3 rides and I went on one with them. I definitely did not feel like it was money well spent. I can't even imagine how much it is going to cost in two more years, when Grayson will be going on rides as well (and eating regular food). We never do the games, even though the kids always bug us to. We don't need any more stuffed animals in this house and if the kids lose, they cry. After about 30 minutes we were out of tickets, so we figured it was time to get everyone a little treat. If they didn't get us on the food, they got us on the ice cream, because of course everyone wants their own. And poof! Another $20.00 added to our tally. I think I used half a box of wipes to clean the ice cream sundae mess off the girls. But that is all a part of the fun.

It seems a familyof5 can do a small country fair for around $80.00, plus gas, if you bring your own water, don't go crazy with the rides, and one of the kids isn't riding or eating (Grayson is still eating baby foods, but did have a little of Jimmy's Thai chicken).

As I ponder how we fared at the fair, I feel a little let down. It was still a nice day, but was it worth eighty dollars? Would we have enjoyed ourselves more if we had gone to the Big E, with its big circus tent, its horse show, its Lifestyle building of gadgets and gismos? Maybe next year. But one fair a year is all I want to budget for. And I will not put this down as a budget friendly staycation idea. But it is definitely something the family can enjoy together.

Tips for going to the fair:
Try to choose a cooler day. Hot days at fairs are not fun.
Pack water (freeze a bottle, so it is cold longer and keeps the other bottle cold)
Bring snacks, and maybe food for the picky eater in the family. I bring GoGo squeezes for everyone. They are all natural, just applesauce. Even 10 month old Grayson can handle it on his own.
Pack hats, sunscreen, wipes & Purel.
Bring a blanket to sit on (We have one we bought at Costco long ago, and we bring it everywhere we go. It has a nylon bottom, so it doesn't get gross, and still works if the ground is damp. If you ever see one of these, I highly recommend it).
If your kids are older and really love rides, look into buying them each a wrist band, so they can go as many times as they want.
If you are going to one of the bigger fairs, such as the Big E, speak with your spouse ahead of time about what you might be spending there. Those spontaneous purchases can kill a family on a budget and start an argument. And since you're at a fair, they're usually not returnable.

Soon I plan on doing a blog about how budgeting keeps us on track. I would love to share how budgeting and going debt free has changed our lives forever.

"You never know who you'll see at the fair!" "A goat watching me." "Baby calf" and "Kiddie rides."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Summer Wishes

"Schools out for the summer - and I have one week off. I have 7 days to play with my kids, connect with my husband, and maybe, just maybe, squeeze in a little me time."

Those were the very first words I typed in my blog. I saved that one sentence as a draft and never finished it. I "wished it" back in June, at the beginning of my first vacation week of the summer. I realize that the reason I never actually finished and posted it was because I didn't do a lot of what I had hoped. Or so I believed. There's something to be said for summer expectations. Several parents I have spoken with have complained that summer seems to go by so fast. You try to squeeze in too much and feel let down if you can't do everything. Or an unwelcome weather  change (such as the extreme heat wave that we experienced in Connecticut the week of my July vacation), can ruin all plans of summer staycation fun.

I must admit, I too, got caught up in the lamenting of summer wishes gone un-accomplished. I looked at that first blog sentence of only a few words, yet heavy with expectation. I felt as though I had let myself and my family down: I should have done more. When the heat wave rolled across our Shore, I hid from it inside. Who wants to go to the beach with three small children when its ninety degrees outside? When I went back to work I felt like I should have done more. More. More. More. There will always be that word, "more."

Today summer is officially over. I sent my two oldest off to school. Jaidyn, entering second grade, was too excited to sleep last night and was up bright and early, eager to see old friends and meet new ones. My little Addy, who is starting pre-school, was just the opposite. She was a little nervous when I dropped her off this morning, but had a small smile on her face as she shyly looked around at the other kids in her class.  Both girls have expectations of things to come in the school year. Just as I put pressure on my self to make my family and I have the "perfect summer."

This makes me think about those summer wishes. I don't think I did too badly after all. We managed to go on at least eight day trips on my days off, most of which I blogged about or plan to blog about. The blogging is my "me-time." And I did connect with my kids. They are happy with the simple things, like playing school and Polly Pockets and games inside when it was too hot to go out. And I think my husband and I managed to go on one date night.  So I have no regrets for summer, despite that ever-existing word "more."

 Besides, Fall on the shoreline is arguably one of the most pleasant seasons, filled with fun staycation ideas for families, including one of my favorites, pumpkin picking! But I'll try not to set my expectations too high ;-)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Family of 5 Visits the Zoo

One of my favorite places to go on a family day trip that is close by and moderately priced is the Roger Williams Park Zoo. We bought a zoo membership last fall when we went to the annual Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular (a great time to see the animals and see some creatively cut pumpkins). It has been so hot this summer (at least on my days off) that we had only used our membership twice. So when the weathermen forecast  last Thursday to be one of the best days of the year, I packed the hubby, three kids and our day bag into my van and off we went.

Of, course, its never quite that easy - we didn't leave until noon and I hadn't packed a lunch as I usually do, so by the time we stopped at the Subway located just down the street from the zoo, ate lunch next to the Shakespearean style amphitheater in the park, it was almost two o'clock by the time we made it through the zoo gates. I have said it before (to my family) and I will say it again - this Park has so much to offer a Family of 5 (or any number) that I could spend the whole day there. We just never leave in time. So pack up a picnic and leave early, reserving you plenty of time to enjoy the Swan Boats, Carousel, Duck Tours (seasonal), playground, all the park grounds, which are beautiful , as well as the zoo and animals themselves.

If you have not been to the Roger Williams Zoo in over a year, you will be pleasantly surprised by their new non-animal addition, nostalgically named, Our Big Backyard. Complete with a huge tree house where kids can go on a self-guided scavenger hunt, Our Big Backyard is a day of play in itself. In fact, we spent the majority of our time here, only visiting a few of the animals. There is a Creativity Corner, where kids can make musical melodies on rustic percussion instruments, while others can dress up and put on a show. There's a spot where the builders  can build there own fort, climbers can climb, and swingers can swing. But the best part of all was the water play area. Even babies can enjoy splashing in a small river, while older siblings drop fish in from the top and watch them float "downstream." Match the hoses to the co-ordinating colored faucets to make water sprinkle from different outlets. This is the perfect activity for a hot day, especially after the walk around the zoo. So remember those swim trunks!

Of course you will leave early and have the whole day, so enjoy all the animals and then head to the play area. The main reason I love this zoo, better then any other bigger zoo, is its small size. I can walk the loop and not miss any animals, not feel as though I have walked miles, and not feel as though the animals are cramped in tiny cages. The animals have very nice quarters, if I do say so myself, as a wild human looking in on them, that is. You are pretty close up to the animals, especially if you get there early and can watch any of the animal feedings or the elephant baths. We've seen the elephant baths once, and it was pretty interesting. I promise, the next time we go I will get rolling at the break of dawn (ha ha) and have a lot more to tell you about. We've done the carousel, its cheap and fun for kids of all ages. There's a big playground there, and many pretty areas to picnic. The duck tours are new, I think, and only run until the end of September, so we're hoping to go again and do that, as a late summer stay cation trip. Hey, who's to say summer ends when school begins? If the weather is nice, I say there will be beach days, lake days and zoo days! Stay tuned.

Quick tips for Roger Williams Park Zoo:
Leave Early (or you'll wish you had)
Pack a picnic
Pack swimsuits for the kids (nice changing rooms there)
Parking is free!

Grayson liked this wart hog
A place to build a fort
Water play and a tree house
More water play and painting with water. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Saga of Back to School Shopping

With every great summer staycation there always comes the inevitable: Back To School Shopping! I think I feel it a little bit more then most, since I'm right in the middle of it at Old Navy. Before school is out for the year, I am planning for it, with hiring and marketing. As soon as the last school bell rings, we are getting in backpacks and uniforms. Before I can get to the beach for the first dip of the season we are hot and heavy with the kids denim sale. And so this is how I get carried away with the whole BTS shopping extravaganza. I see people shopping and buying mass amounts of clothing for their children and I think to myself: "my kids must need clothes too!" Of course they do not. Every time something cute goes on sale I buy it, since its "practically free" with my discount. So you see, my kids do not need clothes. And if they ever do, they get them from Old Navy. I shop on my break and come home with bags of "surprises" for them to dig through. I would never buy clothes from anywhere else. Or so I had always sworn. Last week a family was checking out at my register, with a huge purchase of kids clothes, just like everybody else. I noticed  the little girl's outfit that she was wearing was not from Old Navy but was very cute indeed, so I asked where it was from. "Justice" the mother replied. "Oh, I never shop there. Too expensive," I replied. "Not today," she encouraged, "they're having a great sale. It's practically free." Hmmmm. Practically Free, I thought. Just like with my discount. Could there be some other place to shop and get great deals, other then Old Navy? I'd better check it out on my break. And so I did. At first glance it was a great sale. Everything was 50% off. But a second look at each price tag told a different story. These clothes were higher priced then anything I would ever even buy for myself! I wanted to turn and run out of that over-priced glitter ladden tween store. I should've. But then I saw the clearance racks. I LOVE CLEARANCE! And so I picked out a few cute tops for Jaidyn. She would love all the sparkles, glitter and layers. They were  marked down to slightly more then I would pay at Old Navy. I can just return them. I'm sure I'll return them. Well since I'm returning them, I may as well look at the jeans. She won't wear ON jeans, the waist is too uncomfortable. I found a stretchy, glittery pair with a soft banded elastic waist. They looked like they would fit. All three shirts would go with them as well. Of course that didn't matter, since I was planning on returning them after I bought them.  The jeans were $46.00! So at half price I was still paying $23. Way more then I ever pay for jeans for myself. I felt nauseous as I paid $53.00 to the cashier and walked away from the store with my tiny little bag containing three shirts, the over-priced, over-glitterized jeans and a couple of coupons the cashier had given me, to entice me to come back again and shop their "sale." 
I had almost convinced myself to not show Jaidyn the clothes. Just leave them in my locker and return them the next day. But something about having a cute "first day of school outfit" and knowing she would love the bedazzled clothes urged me to bring the Justice bag into the house, against my own better judgement. Deal done. Everything fit and looked cute as a button on her. She did little runway poses, pairing each different top with the trendy skinny jeans. I put the clothes away and told her we may return them still, but either way, she could not wear them until school started. "But mommy," she complained, "I always tell my friends you buy my clothes at Old Navy. These are my first non-Old Navy clothes! I can't wait to tell my friends that they're from Justice!" Those are the words I have been dreading to hear for years. It's the beginning of "girly problems" and worrying about what other people think of you. It's the start of shopping sprees and matierialism. I just want my daughter to wear budget-friendly, pay-with-cash, still very trendy (and sometimes glittery) clothes. I started something that I don't want to finish. Where's the Justice in that?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Beach Day

You really don't need me to tell you that the beach in Old Saybrook is one of the town's main draws. My husband and I always say, why go on vacation to some little beach town, when we live in one. Making Harvey's or Town Beach a must-do staycation activity.

Sheltered by Long Island, the stretch of beach along the Sound is perfect for kids. With its gentle waves, many sand bars, and various sea creatures dwelling between the tides, there is much to keep the kiddos curious and content for hours.

I personally like to go during the week, in the morning, getting there by 10am. Two or three hours is plenty of time for my young ones, and its easier for me to feed them lunch at home then it is to lug a cooler across the sand, along with all their toys, boogie boards, towels, chairs - you get the picture. If the morning doesn't work out, I will wait until the summer crowds have disbursed, grab a pizza from T.J's, and head to Town Beach to watch the sunset. Its still warm enough for swimming, and I don't have to worry about applying sticky sunscreen to three squirming bods.

I think all parents of young children have come to terms with the fact that the days of sun bathing face-down on a towel, reading a magazine until you choose to stop, and just slipping into the water effortlessly for a refreshing dip are long gone. Now, with children, going to the beach is slightly less relaxing. So me, I learn to find the humor in the situation. Take for instance the last time I headed out with the girls, arriving sometime in the late morning.

You know how there are beach people and non-beach people? Well Jaidyn, my 7 year old, is a Beach Bum. I think she's part fish, part sand crab. She will dig and swim, and bury and rinse - all day long. But Addy, my 3 year old has some different feelings about how everything at the beach - well, feels.
     At Harvey's beach you need to walk across some gushy mucky stuff during low tide, to walk to the waters edge and distant sand bars. You will most likely step on a few crunchy snails along the way. Addy squeals and climbs up my leg, adding to my already burdensome load.  When the wind blows her hair into her face she voices her frustration, ordering me to "pull it back." When she gets sand on her hands, she is upset that she can't wipe it off. So I show her how to rinse her hands in the water. But if a wave is slightly bigger then normal and splashes her in the eyes, she wails. And as soon as she makes it back to her towel with clean hands, she picks up a sand toy and her hands are "dirty" again. I ended up shaking out her towel, helping her rinse off, then carrying her to the center of her towel where I instructed her to sit "criss-cross applesauce" until it was time to go. She was happy as a clam, eating her snack, staying clean and dry, with just the occasional wind blowing a stray hair. I really had no choice but to laugh - either that or pack up and leave, but that wouldn't be any fun.  I'm hoping that with more visits to the beach Addy will become less sensitive to it.
Oh darn, I guess I'll have to go to the beach again soon, for little Addy's sake!

My 2 girls. Jaidyn literally digging right in. Addy refusing to have any part of it, and she definitely will not smile!

A picture of Addy at Town Beach at sunset. Taken a few days after her day of beach-sensory-overload. She almost lolls after she's come to terms with her "feelings" about it. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Family of 5 Paints "en plein air" at The Florence Griswold Museum,OldLyme, CT

Today was the last day of my vacation and the first bearable day of the week, weather-wise. Boy, has it been hot and humid! So we thought it would be the perfect day for the zoo - we have a pass after all. But in true Family of 5 fashion we did not leave the house until 1:45 - with over an hours drive in traffic ahead of us and the zoo closing at 4:00, we quickly changed gears.

Getting off the HWY in Old Lyme we headed to the Florence Griswold Museum (where we also have an annual pass, although it's not expensive, in fact kids are free). Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that on Sundays you can paint "en plein air" which means in the open air. My girls love painting so this  type of activity fits us just fine. 

It was easy. We checked in at the front desk then walked to the building known as The Barn. Inside we were each given a canvas on a clipboard, a bucket of water and brushes to share, and a pallet of paint - just the primary colors plus white, which is even better, as the kids have more fun mixing their own. 

Now all we needed to do was pick a spot to sit down. Do we choose a spot near the deliciously vibrant gardens buzzing with bumblebees and butterflies, or do we settle in the meadow, under the tall oak tree? We quickly spotted four adirondack chairs in the shade by the river. The girls skipped excitedly towards them and I followed with my paint pallet and bucket of brushes sloshing at my side. My husband followed with Grayson in the stroller. The boys were happy to sit this activity out and just enjoy the outdoors as we girls let our creative juices flow (or in Addy's case, let all the colors flow together!)

It didn't take long for the pallet of paint to become a rainbow of greens, oranges, browns - everything but the primaries!  Next time I will get a pallet for each of us.

The three of us finished up our paintings and my oldest moved on to building a fairy house (which she has been into since last fall, when we visited the Museum during their fairy house exhibit).

 We checked out the menu for Cafe Flo, but it was a little pricey and not the kind of food my kids tolerate. Thank goodness I packed enough snacks to hold us over until dinner. With the fairy house completed, we headed, first returning the brushes and very muddy pallet to the barn. I can only speak for myself when I say I left there much more relaxed and satisfied then I would have if we had driven through traffic only to rush around the zoo and then drive home in more traffic, but I imagine the rest of the family felt the same. Best of all, it was quality, creative time together, and it was something we had not done before. I encourage you to step out of the ordinary day trip experience, and see what fun an afternoon "en plain air" can be.

Seat with a view - Jaidyn age 7 and Addy age 3

A serene scene
Paintings of the river: Artists from left to right: Addy, age 3, mine, and Jaidyn, age 7

Three years later, we paint again. 
This time Grayson joins in.
Addy's colors aren't all mixed together this time. 
My oldest helps out carrying the "sloshing buckets of water."
What says relaxation like a swan swimming by. 
Smocks provided, but not worn. 
3 year old Grayson's colors flowed freely. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mystic Aquarium, Mystic, CT

It's been awhile since I have visited the aquarium. It is pricey initially, but we broke down and bought the annual family membership last week. I think 3 visits and it pays for itself. It really is educational for kids and adults alike. Even the baby was mesmerized by all the colorful fish swimming in the huge tanks. It had been renovated since our last visit, and there is now a "jelly room." All different shapes and sizes of jellies floating mindlessly in the tanks. You remember I told you it was educational for adults too? Well I learned that jellies are not fish, so not to call them "jelly fish." Also that they are indeed mindless because they have no brain. Point made.

Okay, off of jellies and onto... Beluga whales! what can I say? They are simply stunning. I always want to do the Beluga encounter every time I go. I think it would be a nice birthday present to myself. As you walk to the next exhibit you can sing the song "Baby Beluga" with your kids - if you remember it from your baby music classes so long ago, that is.

From whales we walked down the path to the outside sea lions and one harbor seal. You will not leave the aquarium without knowing the difference between the two.
On a hot day (like the day we happened to go on) all the fat frogs (or toads, those I did not learn how to tell apart) are out sunning themselves on lily pads. It was fun for the 3 and 7 year old to try to spot as many as they could.

Onto arguably the most charming habitat - the penguins. They are too cute! Both of my daughters learned to do the "penguin waddle" from coming to Mystic at a young age. I always think that this would be a good "animal encounter" gift to give them - you guessed it - for their birthday.

They have several "touch tanks" that are really quite awesome. The outside sting ray touch pool is great for the slightly older kids, perhaps 5 and up. They need to be able to reach in and not be tempted to splash, which scares the poor creatures away. Part of the new renovations I noticed inside was the new shark and ray touch tank. My 7 year old waited patiently for 30 minutes near the end of the day in order to get  another touch, and another. Again, her arm was almost too short to get the most out of the exhibit.

The sea lion show is cute (although I prefer the show at the Sydney Zoo in Australia - very entertaining - but if you're having a "Staycation" in Connecticut, Sydney really doesn't count, no matter how you define it!) So do watch the sea lion show. And then venture into the Titanic room, where kids can push buttons and stand at the model hull of the Titanic and do the "Jack I'm flying" pose from the movie. Save two bucks and skip the 4D Sponge Bob movie. Younger kids don't keep the 3D glasses on and it squirts water at you, causing babies to cry.

A few tips for when you go:
1. Save some moolah and pack a lunch. There are outside tables and benches throughout the outdoor exhibits, so you can dine while watching Belugas. You can buy lunch there, but adding food to the the cost of admission would make this a not-so-budget-friendly day.
2. Check your local library to see if you can check out an aquarium pass, even with a slight discount, to help buffer the cost.
3. Last but not least, I would really try to go during the week. Mystic and surrounding area is popular in the summer with tourists, but I've been there in early spring and practically felt like I owned the place.

As much as it costs, I would definitely add this to your summer day trip destinations. The money helps the aquarium with its high overhead costs and with their many sea lion rescuing efforts. Enjoy!!!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Summer Day at Uncas Lake, Old Lyme, CT

I have debated telling you about my favorite summer watering hole. A hidden gem, little known to most locals, and too much trouble for most visitors to be bothered.

Marked by a small brown state park sign, you could easily miss it. If you're driving up 156, away from Old Lyme Town Center, you will eventually pass a small brown sign for Nehantic State Forest. There is a boat symbol and picnic table symbol on the sign. Oops, you blinked and passed right by it! If you get to the cows, you've gone too far. Turn around at the cows. Go back. Turn down the dirt and gravel road. Yes, your car can make it. But I hope you didn't just wash it because its about to get very dusty. Bumpity bump bump. My kids like to let out a long "ahhhh" that comes out "ah-ah-ah." You get the picture. I think its about two miles. Don't turn down the first road that has a picture of a boat ramp - unless you brought your boat - in that case take this way. No motor boats allowed though. We took our kayak a couple of times and saw all parts of the lake we don't normally, as well as turtles and frogs on lily pads. Super fun for kids of all ages.

 So now you've come to the picnic table sign. Turn down here and park your dirty car. Walk towards lake. Set down your stuff. Enter lake. Ahhhhh! Now that's refreshing. The lake is shaded by trees in the late afternoon and most of the "crowds" have already gone. During the week the lake is your private hide-away. Maybe a few others are there, enjoying this best kept secret as well. If I had any blog followers, these other secret keepers would be mad at me for spoiling it.

There is no sand and if you have sensitive toes you might want to consider wearing water shoes. Stand for a long time in one place and little fish come up and nibble on your toes. That is, if you aren't surrounded by your 3 splashing children.

I've seen a woman swim across it. Someday I would like to do this too. Perhaps she was training for a tri-athelon. More likely then not she was just swimming for pleasure.

There are charcoal grills and picnic tables, as well as rustic out houses, so you can come for the day if you wish, although we usually just go for an hour or two in the late afternoon. You can bring goggles for the kids, air mattresses or other water floatie things. You can even bring your dog.

When you are finally ready to leave, and make it back down that bumpy road again, its fun to turn back towards those cows, and let the kids read the names on their ear tags. I don't know about yours, but my kids love all animals, and its not everyday they get to see a cow. My oldest daughter still remembers the names of them from the first time we read them off to her. Of course there are new cows now, but I tell her that Bella and Princess are in the other field.

To finally end your pleasure, its a special treat to go to Old Lyme ice cream shop, on your way home. Or any ice cream shop. Or you can save twenty bucks and just have ice cream at home, which is what we usually do. I should have mentioned that this Lake is free. No state park pass required.

So I hope you do this once this summer, on your staycation. I know this special place will be a part of my kids' summer memories. Just don't tell anyone else about it ;-)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Not The First Place You Think To Bring Your Kids

Ok, so technically a staycation means you stay home and not in a hotel. I get that. But I'm including "close to home" and "family friendly" as well as "budget" into the definition of that term. Especially since it is coming up as mis-spelled, validating that "staycation" is a made up word and I can define as I wish.

Our most recent staycation was spent at Mohegan Sun Casino. Its close to home. We were given three free nights, making it "budget friendly" for us. You may not get three free nights and an upgrade to a suite. But it doesn't hurt to ask for it. If you live in the area of Uncasville, CT. and you visit the casino from time to time, get a players card, get a host and see what they can do for you. You may end up with a free vacation. You may not get anything. But like all hotels, they want to fill up their rooms, so  going there during the week, when there is not a big event going on, you can sometimes get rooms for a very good price. Disclaimer: I do not recommend this staycation to you if you have a problem gambling, there are other places where your family will have more fun with you. We did not gamble at all, enjoying the other amenities instead.

 Everyone keeps asking us, "did you take the kids?" Yes, we took the kids. And we did not use the babysitting service (although we checked it out and it seemed quite secure). We had a relaxing and fun stay where we spent quality time with all three of our kids. It is not the first place you would think to go if you have a family trip planned, but "family friendly" is what it can be. I packed a bag of food: a loaf of bread, PB & Nutella (part of the food pyramid in our household), a dozen banana muffins, apple sauces, soda, beer & wine - you know, the typical stuff. We saved a ton by asking for a (free) fridge in our room and eating breakfast in there. The kids ate PB & Nutella for lunch and my husband and I ordered wraps and we all ate by the pool. The potted palms gave it a sub-tropical feel, and it wasn't over-crowed with screaming kids or rowdy teens. But there were some kids, just enough to make me feel like I wasn't the only parent bringing her kids to a casino and giving my kids someone else to play with. We went to ben & Jerry's for ice-cream and brought pizza to our room. There was a youth dance competition going on and we watched that. Free entertainment and the girls loved it. The last day we were there we gave the girls each $10 to use in the arcade. One of them hit the jackpot of 1000 tickets and they each left with a toy (Not a $10, toy, mind you, but it was still fun).

Staycationing with your kids is so rewarding. You will never staycation the same way you did before you had kids, but you enjoy things from their point of view. You don't have the added drama of a long car ride/plane ride, or the hustle-busstle "must-see-everything" feeling that you get from a trip away at a theme park or other coveted family hot spot. You get more time to bond with them and get to know them. And really, kids like to just keep things simple. A day playing with their mommy or daddy is something they do not normally get. And my kids can't get enough of it.

Enjoy your next staycation. Think outside the rectangular box that we call a suitcase. Then tell me about it so I might try it too!