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Money Planning Series: #6 Protecting Your Children’s Credit and Yours

Our county school district recently announced that multiple teachers and students had their data stolen and posted on the dark web. There have been few details shared and no indication of exactly who or what is now available for others to see or purchase online. No doubt, our kids’ identities are at a higher risk now of being stolen than ever before.

In the past I’ve sporadically checked my sons’ credit reports, just to make sure no one is using them. I’m now in the process of checking their reports again and then freezing their credit.

Credit Reports

Credit reports are documents that provide details about your credit, including your credit history, activity, and current status within your credit accounts. By reviewing your credit reports, you can see if others have opened credit accounts in your name or if any companies have mistakingly reported information about your accounts to the credit reporting agencies (e.g., like credit card bills or mortgage payments not getting paid on time).

You can check your credit reports (and those of your children) for free at annualcreditreport.com. According to U.S. law, you can get one free credit report from each credit reporting agency within a 12 month period. There are three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.

If you wanted to be able to regularly check on your credit throughout the year, here’s how you could do it yourself for free. Every four months, request a credit report for each member of the family from one of the credit reporting agencies. So, for instance, in January request reports from Experian, in May go to TransUnion, and in September go to Equifax. I’d have to put this to-do item in my Cozi calendar so I wouldn’t forget.

Requesting a credit report is easy at annualcreditreport.com. You fill out a form, request which credit reporting agency you want a credit report from, and then answer a few security questions. Then you can review the report online to make sure the information presented is accurate. There are further directions on the credit report explaining what to do if you find an inaccuracy. I just requested and reviewed my credit report, and it literally took all of five minutes.

Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for more information about credit reports and how to read them.

Credit Freeze

A credit freeze stops potential creditors (like loan officers) from accessing your credit file. By placing a freeze on your credit, you can stop a bad actor from using your identity to open credit in your name (e.g., like a car loan or a credit card). Now, a credit freeze stops ALL potential creditors from accessing your credit file, and it doesn’t distinguish between illegitimate and legitimate requests. This means that you will need to unfreeze your account to access your credit (like when you want to apply for a home mortgage loan or refinance your credit card debt).

The Federal Trade Commission gives guidance on how to place a credit freeze at all three credit reporting agencies. Basically, you must visit each credit reporting agency’s website to follow their process to request a freeze. I just did it for myself, and it took about 5 minutes per site (while being regularly interrupted by Mr. 5 year old during his virtual school time).

To place a freeze on the kids’ accounts, I need to mail a letter or form, like the Minor Freeze Request Form for Equifax, to each reporting agency along with proof of their identity and mine. The other two credit reporting agencies have similar requirements, so if you collect the needed information from one credit reporting agency, you should have what you need for the others. That’s a bit of a pain in the neck, but it is manageable.

I figure the boys aren’t going to be accessing their credit any time soon, so we better protect it for them. All in, I think this task of running credit reports and freezing credit for all four of us will take me an hour or two of my time. It’s a well worth it return on investment for me to protect the entire family and give me some peace of mind.

Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Reflections On How Time Is Perceived

I’m currently reading Laura Vandercam’s book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Of course, with that title, I couldn’t pass it up. Plus, I’ve been following Laura on her Best of Both Worlds podcast for some time. I like what she has to say.

My October book recommendations post will surely rate this book highly. But, even now, when I’m only halfway through it, it’s made me reevaluate about how I’m using my time. It’s a concept I circle back to regularly in my life, and I guess we all should revisit the idea from time to time. Am I spending time on pursuits that I value, bring joy, and make this one life we are living better for me and others?

I remember going through this reflective exercise after my older son was born. I have always been a list-maker who only feels accomplished as plans are executed. Babies and toddlers don’t follow plans. Ha! Nope, not at all. I had to shift my mindset. My goals were no longer to spend the weekends getting dishes done, laundry washed and folded, etc. as fast as possible so I could relax. My focus was on spending time with my little guy. Now the chores still needed to happen, so when my son was old enough, he helped. Sure, it made the whole endeavor take three times longer, but my perception of how I was supposed to be spending my time changed, so it didn’t matter.

I went through this exercise again right before I started this blog. It had been a daydream of mine for years to start a blog, but I never began. Oh sure, there were tons of reasons. I didn’t know how to start. No one cares what I have to say. I didn’t have the time. These were “reasons” and fears that I could overcome. After going through a time tracking exercise, I realized I did have the time to blog. I Googled a bit to figure out how to do it, picked a path, made a loose plan on what to write about, and started writing. I hope others read it, but I’ll write nonetheless.

I’m starting to get that itch again that I want to experience more in life. There are things I want to do with the kids before they are too big. There are places I want to explore around where we live that we never go to because we live here and “we can go any time.” Well, “any time” needs to happen. And as much as I want someone else to plan all of these adventures for me so I just have to show up, that’s not going to occur. I need to make the plans for any activity our family deems safe at the moment and just do it.

To begin, of course, I made a list. Then, we talked about it as a family. (What?! You don’t spend family meals planning out a bucket list of experiences!? Ha!)

I aim for the stars. “Let’s go to the Grand Canyon!”

The kids don’t know what they don’t know and ask for the familiar. It’s evidence that we’ve made some fun memories in the past that they want to repeat. “Let’s go back to the trampoline park!”

My husband likes to relive favorites with the boys. “Let’s watch the Marvel movies together.”

I think the best way to start making these happen is to consider adding them to our seasonal bucket lists posted on our command center. Every time I make the next season’s list, I’ll try to add at least one or two items from our family bucket list so they actually get the attention they deserve and start to happen.

This is my kind of thought exercise! I’m not trying to get more productive so I’m getting 6 hours of work completed in 4 hours instead. I’m thinking about how I want to spend time with my family and get more joy out of life. This is my true priority.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Halloween and Fall Decorations

Our kids are very excited about Halloween this year, even if it may look a bit different from previous years. I don’t anticipate we’ll be ringing any doorbells to say, “Trick or treat!” Though I’m hearing others in our neighborhood are interested in setting out stations or bowls of candy for kids to grab from instead. My boys have picked out ninja costumes already and wear them on the regular. Bonus, ninja costumes don’t look weird with masks!

We haven’t gone all out this year decorating our home for Halloween or Fall, mainly because the space I tend to dress up the most is currently the virtual school spot for the boys. There are, however, a few festive spiders and bats that the kids enjoyed placing around the house.

Outside our decor is limited to these super cute ghosts I found at the grocery store (oddly enough) years ago and a front door decorated to look like a monster. Mr. 7 year old was particularly into transforming our door into a goofy-looking monster and took over the project. It tends to fade quickly in the sun and gets wet in the rain, but it’s fun to do nonetheless.

Our minimalist Halloween decorations

But what we have really enjoyed this year even more than prior years is spending time during our morning walks, before school starts, admiring the neighbors’ decorations. There are a few homes that have really gone all out with scary beasts, spooky zombies, and blowups that we always spot something new each time we venture out. It’s a nice pick-me-up to start the day and a good reminder that even though our routines are different this year, there are unanticipated bonuses. I love our new routine and the surprises it reveals.

Happy Friday!

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #5 Tips for Making Long-Term Savings Stick

Like so many faraway goals, it is easy to say that you’ll take care of it later. I’ll lose weight after this junk food is out of the house. I’ll see my doctor after I lose 10 pounds. I’ll write a novel when I get more free time. I can fall into this trap myself, and I have many times. When it comes to our financial health, I’ve adopted a few tricks along the way to help make our long-term savings plans stick.

Right now we’re saving for some significant long-term goals including our retirement and the boys’ higher education. Now, I need to preface this post by pointing out that I was not totally on top of starting these savings funds right away. We didn’t get serious about our retirement savings and significantly up our monthly contributions until we bought our first house (and had higher incomes), and we didn’t start 529s for the kids’ college funds until Mr. 5 year old came along. My point is, it is never too late to start. Anything you do today will help tomorrow.

Tip 1: Pay Yourself First

This has been a family motto since I started collecting an allowance. The best way I’ve found to pay ourselves first has been to never even see the money. For instance, our 401K contributors through our employers come right out of our gross paychecks. We never see the money, and we don’t count it in our budget. Our budget template only accounts for take home pay.

Another way to implement this tip is to make sure your savings are fully funded for the month before spending money on any extra expenses, like restaurants, entertainment, and clothing.

Tip 2: Increase Your Savings In Time with Pay Bumps

This tip assumes some stability in your income and would be harder to do when cash flow is unpredictable. My husband and I know what month our annual performance reviews occur each year, so we schedule our retirement savings rate to automatically go up that same month each year. This way, our savings increases before we’ve had the chance to spend any of the extra money. It helps us to avoid lifestyle creep, the effect of increasing your expenses as your income rises. Items that were once luxuries can start to be viewed as needs.

Tip 3: Set Up Auto Transfers

Our children’s college funds are paid into each month on a schedule that automatically occurs without any inputs from me. My husband and I set the amount, and then it is just paid, like a bill, every month. We, of course, have the option to throw in additional money when we want as well, but it’s nice to not have to think about it. This means money is added more consistently and is able to grow more over time.

Tip 4: Don’t Let the Pursuit of Perfection Be the Enemy of the Good

In part, I delayed in setting up college savings accounts for our sons because I was afraid I’d pick the wrong type of account that would somehow screw up our chances to save enough money for them to get a benefit from the fund. Well, you know what, we weren’t doing them any favors leaving money in a low-interest savings account. Once I figured that I should stop with my analysis paralysis, I made a choice and jumped in. It seemed like a daunting task to research, select, and start funds, but it wasn’t really a chore once I began.

My point to this post is that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a large income to start (although that certainly helps). Any systems and tips you can implement now to start, even a little bit, will make a big difference in the long term. Experiment and find what will help you reach your goals for the future.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Apple Recipes!

Sure, I love me a PSL on occasion. (It’s actually one of the few Starbucks drinks I enjoy.) But, I much prefer apple treats in Fall, rather than pumpkin spice. This works out well because we recently took a trip to a local orchard to go apple picking, which left me with 1/2 a bushel of fruit. I’ve been spending the past week cooking up a storm to get through them all.

In today’s Friday Fav post, I want to share my favorite apple recipes. I leaned into recipes that required loads of fruit so I could tackle my huge bag.

  1. Instant Pot Applesauce – Both of the boys liked this applesauce, especially with added cinnamon. I liked that the apples cooked so quickly in the instant pot and that I was able to use up a bunch of apples at once. Bonus, no added sugar!
  2. Dutch Apple Pie – I cheated and bought store-made crusts, which meant that my pie crust was not as deep as it should have been. I ended up with two pies instead of one, but was missing depth in the pie. No complaints from the family though as they gobbled it up! I now have one pie in the freezer for Thanksgiving.
  3. Homemade Apple Cider – I never would have thought of making this until a friend recommended it. We love apple cider in this house and always pick up some in the Fall. This year I got to make it at home. It was SUPER easy. My favorite part was, for once, I didn’t have to peel and core the apples. Just cut them into quarters and throw them into the stock pot to cook for several hours. The aroma throughout the house while it cooked for three hours was almost as good as the drink itself.
  4. Air Fryer Apple Chips – This was another recommendation from a friend. I tried using the air fryer, and it works. I think mine is too small though because even with just one apple’s worth of fruit, the slices would overlap each other. It made it difficult for them to get crispy. I’ll have to try baking them in the oven instead.
  5. Chucky Apple Pumpkin Bread – I always like a bit of banana bread in the morning with my coffee. This time I subbed in an apple bread instead. It turned out well! Next time I may try it as muffins instead of bread so they bake faster.

And I still have 20 or so apples left. Of course, we’ve been snacking on them at lunch. I may need to make more applesauce or cider too, since those were so good. I was given some tips for using the apples for games and crafts with the kids too, so I may tackle some of those ideas as well.

Happy Friday!

Posted in Blog

Fall Bucket List Printable

It’s officially Fall! That means it’s time to pull out my Fall bucket list and add it to our family command center.

Our Fall Bucket List

I had to make a few tweaks to it this year, with COVID limiting some of our activities. I don’t see us going to any of the local Fall festivals this year (if they’re even open). But even without some of our Fall traditions, there’s still plenty to do. We did sneak in apple picking last weekend, so we’ve already started “falling into fun.”

If you’d like to make your own Fall bucket list, feel free to download and use my fill-in-the-blank template below.

Why do I bother making these lists? It’s simple really.

We typically only get 52 weekends a year. Divide that by four, and that means about 13 weekends of each season per year. Our boys are still young, 5 and 7 years old, but they are growing up quickly. I want to take advantage of our time together and fill our weekends with as much fun as possible. Having a list means that when I’m looking for something for us to do as a family, I have a pre-planned idea of the things we enjoy doing annually. They become our family traditions and the memories the kids will take with them after they leave home. It’s the type of intentional planning that fully embodies my reflect, plan, live attitude.

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: CozyPhones

Like most students these days engaged in virtual learning this Fall, my kids are getting sick of wearing headphones for hours a day. Thankfully, I remembered these CozyPhones stored away for long car rides! They are comfy headbands with headphones built into the band. They help keep the volume level down for the kids’ ears and allow them to keep wearing headphones. Plus, the band is machine washable!

At this point, my boys rotate between the CozyPhones and more regular headphones throughout the day. No earbuds though. Their little ears can’t keep them in place for very long.

Of course, the price of CozyPhones has gone up with the move to virtual school for many, but I’d still say they are worth the $10-$15 per pair price tag. They earn the Friday Fav title because they help to keep my boys engaged in class and less disruptive, which means momma has more time to get things done on her own. Win, win!

Posted in Blog

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.

Posted in Blog

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.

Posted in Blog

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