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Virtual Learning Update: Tips and Early Adjustments

We are two and a half weeks into this 100% virtual learning school year, and I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised how well it is going. The teachers have been utterly fantastic, and the boys have been resilient and unfazed through it all. I realize not everyone will have or is having the same positive experience, but for us, at least, it has been fine.

Actually, I think my social butterfly does better in this virtual environment because he’s not distracted during class. He’s actually getting his classwork finished quickly instead of it piling up on him.

A few weeks ago I shared how we were preparing the kids for virtual learning. Here are some of the adjustments and new practices we adopted since then.

Get Outside Frequently

We get outside every morning before class for at least 15 minutes. We take a walk or play tag or red light, green light. It’s not a long stretch of time, but while the weather is nice I want to get them moving a bit before sitting in front of a computer for most of the day.

The boys have an hour for lunch, so I send them outside for “recess” after they eat while I clean up. After school, I encourage more outside time so they can run around and stretch their legs. We have to take advantage of the nice weather while it lasts.

Set Reminders

I mentioned previously how my husband and I are working in shifts so we get some focused work time each day. That’s still working well, but I’ve started using the kids’ magnetic drawing board to note for them who is “on duty” at the time. So, before I head for my office at 10am, I erase “Mom” from the board and write “Dad.”

I also updated our Alexa. She is no longer providing five minute warnings that class is about to start. Instead, two minutes before class officially starts she announces that class is starting now. This gets my kids into panic mode and back to the computer in time (after a quick drink or potty break or any of the other myriad of things they should have been doing during break).

Use Video

Our school district isn’t requiring the use of video for a variety of reasons, but I require my kids to have them on. They don’t always like to when they are bored, but I want the teacher to have this visual feedback. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to teach to a bunch of blank and (oftentimes muted) screens.

Stay Outside the Room Where It Happens

Don’t try to be like Aaron Burr. #HamiltonJoke

Strive to stay out of the room where the kids are “in school.” If they don’t see me, they don’t tend to “need” my help so much. I stay within earshot, but that’s it. They know where all of their classes are online, there are books by their desks, and paper and art supplies galore are nearby. They don’t usually need me unless there is a technology question, which is only a couple of times within a two-hour window now.

Put Irregular Events on Work Calendars

Both boys have a variety of weekly classes with the librarian, guidance counselor, or special services that are outside of the typical school day schedule. I’ve put all of these on my work calendar (marked as private) and my husband’s calendar so we remember to check to see if the boys logged in like they are supposed to do.

That’s about it for now! We’re at this 100% virtual situation until at least November, so we’re going to make the best of it. Staying positive has helped the adults and kids maintain their sanity. Please let me know if you have any other tips! I’ll take all of the help we can get.

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Is Halloween Cancelled?

This has been the talk of the neighborhood for the last few weeks. Everyone is wondering if others are comfortable with the traditional Halloween or if something else being organized, and, of course, the answer is not so clear cut. There’s no Halloween host in charge of making the decision for everyone, and everyone’s risk tolerance is different.

My vote is that we have as traditional a Halloween as possible. In our area, there are so many neighbors out trick or treating with their kids that leave a bowl of candy on the front porch anyway, so there’s not a ton of door ringing as it is. If someone doesn’t want to answer the door and be close to others, they can choose not to participate or they can leave candy outside. Online I’ve seen some people crafting PVC piping that they can deposit candy in to have it slide down to children on their stoop so they can maintain social distancing.

If parents are concerned that kids are in contact with candy others have touched, have the kids carry tongs to pick the candy out of the bowl. I’ve heard some people are creating individual baggies of treats or are planning to leave candy on a blanket in the driveway so they can spread it out.

If Halloween is not your jam this year, there are alternatives to consider and enjoy with family and friends. Here are a few ideas.

  • Reverse Trick-or-Treating – Instead of having costumed creatures traveling door to door, have the parents drive around the neighborhood tossing candy to the dressed up children standing in their front yards. I kind of like the idea of throwing candy at kids….. This would require coordination and buy in throughout the neighborhood though.
  • Candy hunt – Hide candy in your yard for the kids to find one evening, kind of like an Easter egg hunt. I’ve heard variations of this where you put glow-in-the-dark stickers on the candy wrappers to make them easier to find or arm the munchkins with flashlights on the hunt.
  • Decorate a haunted house – Costco is offering chocolate houses to decorate like Christmas gingerbread houses. They even have Halloween cookies you can decorate with water and food coloring. (We tried those. It was a fun activity, but the cookies were subpar.)
  • Scary movie night – Even if you don’t want to jump to super scary movies, Netflix (and I’m sure others) offer spooky tales that can be age appropriate for even the littlest of kiddos. Mine like the Dreamwork’s Spooky Stories with Shrek. Once mine are a little older, we’ll move to Casper and Hocus Pocus, some of my favorites from when I was little.
  • Boo” your neighbors – This has been an annual tradition in our neighborhood for years anyway, and it’s fun. You put together a small gift bag of candy, crafts, or other treats and secretly deliver them to a neighbor. The bag also includes directions on how to carry the tradition forward and boo another neighbor. You leave the gift bag on the doorstep, ring the bell, and run away. Our boys LOVE booing friends every year.

I hope you are able to find a way to celebrate Halloween that works for you and your family. This 2020 year is all about being resilient, which has often required us to be creative and modify traditions. As much as we adults can sometimes be disappointed by these changes, I bet the kids remember this year as special for the very reason that it is different.

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Friday Fav: Birthday Traditions

Mr. 4 year old becomes Mr. 5 year old this week! I can’t believe my “baby” is already five. On one hand, he feels like he’s lived with us forever. On the other, he is my baby, and he’s already so big! Stop growing, kid!

We have traditional annual rituals during birthdays in this house, like cake and presents. The birthday boy or girl gets to pick dinner and the type of cake. Presents are typically ripped open over breakfast. In normal years, we celebrate the children’s birthdays by inviting extended family over for a fun afternoon of food and play time with cousins.

However, regardless of the year, I always print 40-70 pictures of the child and put them on display. Our kitchen table has a glass top (an idea I got from a friend of mine – genius! – so easy to clean), so I slip the printed images between the tabletop and the glass. Now, at every meal, we can see a year in the life of the birthday kiddo and remember the fun times we’ve had together.

It takes me about 30 minutes to go through my phone and send them to Costco’s photo center for printing. I just pick up the prints on my next Costco run, and the whole thing costs me about $7. Win, win, win!

I love this tradition, so it is definitely my Friday Fav this week.

Happy Friday!

Photo by Becky Fantham on Unsplash

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Money Planning Series: #4 Let’s Get Real on When Financial Planning Happens

Although I talk in earlier money planning series posts (1, 2, and 3) about our monthly budget and how we think about our expenses and income as monthly, I don’t personally look at our budget that often anymore. I used to do it religiously every month, particularly when my husband and I were engaged and living together. I would collect all of our receipts, sort each purchase into a category, figure out who paid for what, and then determine how much money one of us owed the other so everything shared was split 50/50. I’m pretty confident my husband thought it was a bit overboard, but we didn’t yet have merged finances and I didn’t want him to feel I was taking advantage of him. Plus, I was establishing baseline data of our spending and saving.

Now though, after over ten years of tracking our money, I look at our budget in detail every quarter. I may look more frequently if we want to make a big purchase and we need to determine if we have the finances available. Otherwise, once a quarter does it. Our spending is pretty predictable, so looking at our budget every month wasn’t changing our spending for the future. It just didn’t become worth my time to budget monthly.

You may be thinking, “But, Stephanie, don’t you have monthly bills? When do you pay those?”

I automate as much as I can: utility bills, credit card bills, cell phone, school lunch expenses, the kids’ 529 plan contributions, HOA dues, etc. Our paychecks are directly deposited in our bank accounts. Our 401K contributions are automatically withdrawn from our gross pay so we act like it doesn’t exist in our budget. In our minds, there’s no option to ever spend that money before retirement.

If I can, I put the bills on my credit card for the cash back rewards. If I can’t do that, then I have the money taken directly out of a checking account. Sure, I look at bills when they are sent to us to make sure I don’t see anything funny (purchases we didn’t make, unusually high or unusually low transactions, purchases in unexpected locations, etc.), but I’m no longer pouring through charges and receipts like I did in the early days of our marriage. Someone will contact me if my auto payment doesn’t go through, I’m sure.

Now, when I do review our budget, we tend to make financial moves afterward. We may determine to scale back house projects, make a charitable contribution, invest more, or set limits for ourselves on Christmas spending.

I think the trick here is to find a system that works for you. Create space in your life to look at the money coming in and going out at an interval that works for your family. Perhaps you want to look at your finances after every paycheck, before the first of the month, or every quarter. You do you. This quarterly financial review works for us, and that’s what counts.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Easy Family Fire Drill Topics to Cover with Kids

Several weeks ago I used the power of song to teach my boys important information like my phone number, how to spell their last name, and our home address. Last weekend we tested this information during a family fire drill, something I do with them about twice a year.

They were in the middle of playing when I started to make a loud alarm beeping noise. Mr. 7 year old immediately knew what was going on and rallied his brother to get out of the house and run to our designated meeting area (a neighbor’s tree that they can get to without crossing the street). “Forget your shoes, little brother! Just run!!”

We follow the American Red Cross guidance and review:

  • Our designated meeting place
  • How to exit the house from their bedroom while staying low and blindfolded
  • What the smoke alarm sounds like
  • How to call 911 from our house phone and cell phones
  • What you would say to the 911 dispatcher (e.g., what’s the emergency, parents’ full names, how to spell our last name, our address, etc.)
  • How to feel the door to see if it’s hot and what to do if it is
  • Do NOT hide!
  • What firefighters may look like with all their gear on and a mask

Now, I’m not painting a picture of doom and gloom with the kids so they expect a fire. There have been no nightmares or irrational fears following these drills. They are a conversation and make believe. They know it’s a serious topic, but I don’t aim to make it scary.

I forgot the whole stop, drop, and roll bit, so I’ll have to review that with them. We also have an escape ladder (thanks, Mom and Dad!), but we haven’t reviewed that with the kids either. Next time!

All in all, the whole exercise took about 10 minutes to do and made me feel better that we are prepared for a possible fire emergency.

Photo by Tobias Rehbein on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Christmas PJs!

Even though it feels like March 285th, Christmas PJs are already out and available for purchase! When the kids were young we started the family tradition of receiving new Christmas PJs every Christmas Eve. In the beginning, I didn’t know where to find what I wanted or I’d forget and wait so late that I couldn’t get the sizes I needed.

Not this year!

Arriving today are these plaid hooded moose onesies. I don’t know what it is about the onesie PJs, but the boys love them.

I’ve found The Children’s Place to have nice quality PJs that are cute and comfy, which earns them the title of my Friday Fav this week. I’m extra excited to have one Christmas present purchase crossed off the list.

Happy Friday!

Posted in Blog

A Slice of Life View of Working from Home with Two Elementary Kids

I didn’t get a chance to write yesterday, so I’m going to skip the money series post this week and pick it up next Wednesday instead. Today I wanted to share a glimpse of what it’s like to work from home with two young elementary kids in virtual school all day. Here’s a day in the life of this working mom:

  • 1:30am – Woke up to my alarm to take Mr. 4 year old to the potty
  • 6:15am – Woke up to Mr. 4 year old wanting snuggles
  • 6:30am – Up with my alarm to start working after Mr. 4 year old fell back to sleep
  • 7:30am – Get kids and myself fed and ready for the day
  • 8:15am – Take the kids outside to walk and ride scooters
  • 8:45am – Get the kids logged into school and clean up the kitchen
  • 9:30am – Take a work call while sometimes answering kid questions and baking banana bread
  • 10:15am – Eat said banana bread snack with kids during their school break
  • 10:30am – Back to work
  • 12pm – Make, eat, and clean up lunch
  • 1pm – Bathe Mr. 4 year old who got covered in mud while playing outside in the rain and mud puddles
  • 1:15pm – Kids log back into school, while I write a blog post and respond to personal emails
  • 2pm – Back to work
  • 4:15pm – Read with Mr. 4 year old
  • 4:45pm – Make dinner and talk with husband
  • 5:45pm – Eat then clean up
  • 6:30pm – Scroll online
  • 7:15pm – Kids and I read together
  • 8pm – Kids to bed

From 8pm to my bedtime (which is anywhere from 9pm to 11pm) I don’t do anything I don’t want to do. I sometimes write, like tonight, but typically I watch a show or read a book. I’m spent and need to recharge.

Overall, this schedule is doable. We’re making it work with employers who are being flexible and two adults at home, and for that I’m extremely grateful.

In the past, I wrote about my experiment with time tracking. I don’t continue to track my time each week. However, in the future I’d like to take another week to track my time, then compare it to a pre-COVID week. I have a feeling that, although my days are more fragmented than ever before, the percentage of time I spent in each category (e.g., family, self-care, work, etc.) is likely the same. We shall see!

Photo: Today’s visitor while I was answering personal emails this afternoon.

Posted in Blog

Aug 2020 Book Recs

I read nine books last month, and I want to share with you a couple of my favorites! I had a few really good ones that I just have to share.

Verity by Collen Hoover was excellent. I stayed up way too late one night to finish it. It’s a thriller about a woman writer who agrees to finish writing a book series for another author. The original author is injured, so her husband seeks out a new author to finish the series for his wife. Admittedly, I haven’t read much in this genre. I had a few years in high school where I read everything from Stephen King, but that’s about it. And Stephen King’s work is now just too graphic and too far in the horror realm for me. I definitely picked up some more thrillers after enjoying Verity so much!

Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes is a debut novel by Kathleen West that just published this year. It’s about two mothers in a high school who are dealing with drama and rumors in a highly privileged school. One mother is a teacher with a “liberal agenda” and the others is a “micro-managing, theater mom” of two high school students. It was a quick read in short chapters from various characters’ perspectives that felt all too real.

And my favorite new series goes to the Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams. The first book in the series goes by that same title. It is utter fantasy, hilarious, and totally fantastic. It’s like a Hallmark Christmas movie with less cheese (though some!) and lots more laughs. It delivered exactly what I wanted and did it well. It’s about a bunch of celebrity men in the Nashville area who formed a book club to read romance novels and learn how to communicate and form better relationships with women. (Remember, I said it was fantasy!) I read some sections to my husband who politely didn’t mock my book. Just his facial expressions alone, paired with the far-fetched story line, had me belly laughing harder than I have in years.

Let me know if you’ve read anything particularly good lately. I’m always looking for more recommendations.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Free Magazines

Years ago I stumbled upon the knowledge that you could get access to many popular magazines for free. They arrive at my door every month as a nice surprise and a reminder to unwind and perhaps end the day curled up on the couch with a cool beverage and some freshly printed reading material.

Sites like Mercury Magazine and ValueMags offer free subscriptions to many popular magazines. You either pick a free magazine currently available on their site or sign up with your email address to receive email alerts when free subscriptions become available. Over the years, I’ve gotten subscriptions to Popular Mechanics, Men’s Health, Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, Family Circle, Redbook, Southern Living, Martha Stewart Living, and HGTV magazine. It’s been great!

What’s the catch? Well, you obviously have to give the company some of your personal information to get the subscription, and they try to upsell you on other magazine subscriptions. (“Get X now for only $2!”) It just takes a few clicks of saying no before you can order the free subscription. For me, it’s a price I’m willing to pay to have free reading material delivered to my door.

I highly recommend checking it out if this sounds like something that might interest you.

Happy Friday!

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #3 Rundown of Our Provided Budget Template Excel File

Happy Wednesday! This is the third post in my money planning series. The first post covered our budget tracking system. The second post discussed how we integrate Mint into this system. Today’s post combines the two to some degree. I’ll start by sharing the budget template I created that models our budget tracking system.

The first thing my husband and I did when we set up this document was determine how much we wanted to have in each virtual envelope (Column B). These were definitely goal amounts in the beginning (like making sure we have a fully-funding emergency fund). It gave us goals though and helped frame our conversations about money and our priorities.

I also needed these goal amounts because I wanted to know when we should stop filling some of these envelopes. If we put a set amount of our income into our health: medical/dental virtual envelope each month, I wanted to know when it’s full and can stop putting money in there.

Next, we had to set up a plan to get to these goals without surpassing our income. We accomplished this by documenting how much we wanted to spend or save each month within each virtual envelope (Column F). This was best guess, wish list level planning at this point. (For instance, if we want to go on vacation next year to Disney World, it’s going to cost about X. There are eight months left so X/8 is how much we need to save per month.)

Next, we wanted to compare our spending and savings plan with our monthly income. Luckily for us, my husband and I are both salaried, so we have set and regular paychecks, which is our only income. However, since we are paid every two weeks, most months we receive two paychecks each and some months we earn three. I wanted to look at our budget with and without those “extra” monthly paychecks. Once we entered our take home pay per paycheck into the budget (Column H), our planned monthly payments were subtracted from our monthly incomes and we saw how much was left over or overspent.

Armed with this information, we revisited our monthly payments (Column F) and made adjustments. We decided which expenses to eliminate or reduce or discussed how we could raise our income. When we’re saving for something in particular, like a new home project we’re planning, then we may decide to cut back or temporarily stop funding some virtual envelopes (like vacations or our fun money).

Personally, I like to plan to live off 24 paychecks from each of us per year so the two extra are surprise money we can drop into any virtual envelope we want, often more dinners out, paying down debt, or gifts/charity. So, at this point in the budgeting process, I’m making sure every dollar of our monthly income is allocated to one of our virtual envelopes (Cell H17).

The first time we used the Excel budget tracking document, we had to determine how much money to put in each virtual envelope to start. We could only put money in these virtual envelopes if we had actual cash or money in the bank for them. To figure this out, we documented how money we had (Cells B42-B51) and how much money we owed (Cells C42-C50). Whatever was leftover was free to put into any virtual envelope we pleased (summed in Cell C51). Some envelopes were easy to determine. We knew our cell phone bill would be X, so we better have X in that envelope for the month. Others were more variable, like groceries or restaurant spending. (Over time we’ve used Mint’s trends feature to see how much we spend in these categories to set better targets.)

Once our virtual envelopes were filled, we double checked to ensure everything balanced out. Every month, the money we have (Cells B42-B51) has to equal the money we owe others (Cells C42-C50) plus what we owe ourselves/what’s in our virtual envelopes (Cell C51). Mint tracks how much money is in each account, so I can easily grab numbers for the spreadsheet here. If the money we have doesn’t equal what we owe others and ourselves, then the amount in each virtual envelope has to be adjusted.

So, at this point, we have goals (Column B), a plan for monthly payments (Column F), and a way to track that the amount we have doesn’t exceed the amount we other others and ourselves (Row 53). Now we’re in execution and maintenance mode. Each month we track what’s coming in and out of each virtual envelope and how we’re tracking against our goals.

Some months will have no expenses but have a monthly payment plan. In those cases, you can decide what to do with this “found” money. For instance, some months our pet expenses are $0. We are well stocked on her food and meds and there are no vet appointments. However, every month we plan to spend $67 on her care. In this case, we keep that $67 in her virtual envelope until we get to the envelope cap. This covers us when her $350 vet bills come around. Once we meet the envelope cap, the extra money goes wherever we want (typically other virtual envelopes that overran or savings categories).

And, the best part is, when I know there’s money in the budget for it, I won’t hesitate to spend it according to our plan. I can enjoy an extra night of takeout when I don’t want to cook or splurging on a gift for someone. And I feel mighty proud of us when we meet a savings goal or pay off a major debt, even if no one else ever hears about it. As Hannibal often said on The A-Team TV show and is captured in my budget template, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash