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

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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

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Considerations When Preparing Elementary Students for Virtual Learning

Virtual school is about to start for us after Labor Day, so I’ve been spending a fair amount of time thinking about how we’re going to make our 100% virtual school work for a kindergartener and second grader and two parents attempting to simultaneously work from home. Here’s my plan. (Let’s revisit this post in six weeks and laugh at how naive I may be here.)

Give Each Student Their Own Space to Limit Distractions

We are lucky to have a formal dining room available (that we’re obviously not using right now) that we can spare for the kids learning space. I’ve rearranged the furniture in there multiple times since COVID started to adjust to our needs, and we recently did so again to prepare for full-time virtual school. Since both kids will be on video conferences most of the school day (!!!), they needed to have separated spaces.

I arranged it so each kid essentially has their own “cubicle” with an old school student desk (thank you in-laws for the great gift provided pre-2020). They have been able to customize them how they like by picking where exactly to place their desks, setting up their laptops, picking out supplies, etc.

To help them (and my husband and I) stay focused, we’ve posted their schedules and other info they need to have handy next to their desks. I also wrote a note of encouragement for each boy that is posted as well.

Allow for Adjustments Based on Activity

Our kids are going to be taking all types of classes in this space, including reading, writing, physical education, and music. I attempted to consider this when creating the space by:

  • Providing a table nearby for the kids to rest the laptop on if they have to write or use other materials at their desks. Their desk space isn’t particularly big, so this is our workaround.
  • Leaving at least some empty space around the desk to allow for jumping around. I’m expecting there to be some movement breaks throughout the day, so they need space to move around.
  • Placing age appropriate books within arm’s reach of the desk. I’m sure the kids are going to be directed to digital libraries, which mine will likely favor, but I want them to have the option to pick up a paper book if they want it.
  • Having an art space in the room for them to do messy projects. I’m really hoping the school doesn’t go in this direction, but we’re prepared with an ever-covered table in the room just in case.

Foster Independence

My husband and I are going to try and get as much work done as possible during actual business hours this Fall, so we need the kids to be independent. We are not going to sit next to them throughout the day. I would go insane, and I don’t think the kids will need it. We’ll be on call if they need us though. My husband and I am fostering their independence in a few ways.

First, just like in the regular classroom, the boys each have their own pencil box that they stocked with pencils, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, and other commonly used items. They keep these in the storage space under their desks. I want them empowered to find and use the supplies they need to get their work done.

Second, we have them practice using their technology, particularly Mr. 4 year old because it’s all new to him. He has been practicing logging into his computer, using the mouse, and finding his virtual classroom. I should have him practice using headphones too.

Third, we will have established routines. Only certain scheduled breaks will be designated as snack time. I will give the kids ideas of things to do during longer unscheduled breaks by setting out puzzles, Play Doh, or LEGOs. Alexa is set up to provide reminders five minutes before each scheduled break ends. I’m going to be flexible here and adapt our routines as needed as the year unfolds.

Lastly, I incorporated common words seen in directions into our “mommy school” activities over the summer (e.g., words like write, circle, add, subtract, answer, complete, etc.). We did this because I wanted Mr. 7 year old to be independent enough to read the directions for his assignments without always asking his teacher or us what he needs to do.

Set Expectations

We’ve started talking with the boys now about what this school year is going to look like and how different is going to be. We’ve begun conversations about the need to listen to the teacher, have fun, and get your work done while you’re in school. There have been conversations about how mommy and daddy will be working while they’re at school and what that means for them.

The boys are still sharing a space, and we’ve made it clear that school happens in the dining room. I think we’re going to be stricter this Fall about school happening in that space to help compartmentalize when to work and when to play. This may be one of those things that I laugh about in six weeks because I’m not sure if it will work or end up being helpful.

Plan to Adapt

I know I’ll go into the school year with a much better mindset if I anticipate that the plan will change. We will all learn a lot as a family regarding what works for our professional, family, and school lives, and we’ll make tweaks and be better for it. This growth mindset will be the key to our survival.

As my bestie always reminds me after I call her fretting about something school related, we do hard things. We got this. And you know what, so do our kids because we will lead the way.

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #2 How Mint Helps Us Budget

Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored or compensated in any way by Mint.com. These opinions are all my own.

Mint.com is one of the popular tools out there to help people manage their budgets and plan their finances. We’ve been using it for 10+ years and have incorporated into our Excel-based budgeting system. And, the best part is, it is free!

Essentially, Mint is a way to connect all of your financial accounts in one location so you can get a comprehensive look at your financial status at a glance. Mint has a variety of features built into the site that help with tracking bills, setting financial goals, managing investments, analyzing savings and spending trends, and checking your credit score.

We have used many of these features, but I’ll focus today on how we use Mint to manage our budget. The first thing to do is to log in and link views of each of your financials accounts to Mint. By linking views of each of your accounts (e.g., savings, checking, investments, debts, etc.) and listing your assets (like real estate or vehicles), you can see your net worth.

NOTE: You are not able to manage any accounts through Mint, only view them. So you can’t transfer money from your savings account to your checking account, but you can see transactions in and out of each account.

To align Mint with our Excel-based budgeting system, I then created a “budget” for each virtual envelope we use and set a monthly amount to be spent within each. Then, as each transaction posts to one of our financial accounts, it shows up in the global list of transactions. I can sort through the transitions and assign each of them to one of the “budgets.” The best part is, I can establish rules that automize a lot of this by auto-assigning purchases from certain vendors to particular categories (e.g., Wegmans purchases are always classified as groceries). It’s to the point now that I can quickly scroll through the list of monthly transactions and just double check that it’s right in a matter of minutes.

As an aside, I used to sort through receipts from big-box stores and split transactions among multiple categories (e.g., part of a Costco transaction would fall under groceries and the remaining portion household goods). I’ve moved away from this because it was too time consuming and our spending wasn’t variable enough that we were changing our spending. I now put all of the Amazon, Target, Costco, etc. purchases into one generic shopping category.

Now, you may be asking, isn’t the act of having what Mint calls “budgets” with set spending and savings amounts that you track over time essentially a budget? Well, yes. You could exclusively use Mint for your budgeting purposes and be completely set. My Excel-based budgeting system came first though, so I’ve incorporated Mint into my system. I like my system better for tracking savings though.

I use Mint as a shortcut and grab totals. For instance, I take the total monthly amount spent listed in Mint for each virtual envelope (what Mint calls “budget”) and put that number into my Excel-based budget file. Back in the day, I would enter each receipt total manually in Excel, which would take a significant amount of time. Using Mint has saved me at least an hour a month.

I think I’ll leave it there for now. I highly recommend checking out Mint to see if it will benefit you and meet your money management needs. If you have specific questions, let me know!

Photo by Abby Boggier on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Weighted Blankets

I am a huge fan of weighted blankets. So much so, that the 15 lb. one I use comes with me on road trips so I don’t have to sleep without it. They are often noted as a tool to help people relieve their anxiety, which I could see being helpful. I didn’t purchase one specifically for that reason. I had just heard they are relaxing and wanted to see for myself.

Given my addiction to it now, I’d say it works as described! It’s not like you put it over you and immediately feel calm. It is more that it feels like a hug….or perhaps like the weighted cover that the dentist puts over you before an x-ray. The first time I used it, I declared it did nothing for me and then feel asleep on the couch 15 minutes later.

Now I have my own 15 lb. weighted blanket, and I purchased two other 5 lb. weighted blankets for the kids. It works really well for one of them, but less so for the other kiddo. However, if either one of them starts to stir a lot when they have snuck into bed with my husband and me, throwing a weighted blanket on them keeps them still. That alone makes it worth the purchase to me!

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #1 Our Budget Tracking System

I’ve given some thought and space here to time tracking, but money is another limited resource that gets a significant amount of my intentional planning efforts. I want to give this topic the attention it deserves, so every Wednesday for the next several weeks, I’ll cover a different aspect of financial planning and budgeting.

Now, I’m not a certified financial planner. This isn’t a place for me to discuss or offer advance on what you should do with your money. That’s not the point of the series and certainly not my expertise.

In this space, I will share the systems and planning we use to manage our financial resources, in case it is helpful to others. It is a bit of a look under the hood. (And I know I would naturally just be curious how another family makes it happen!)

To start the series, let me share how we set up our budget. Our budget is organized in an Excel file that is managed essentially like a set of virtual envelopes. All of our envelopes (a.k.a., budget categories) are listed along Column A. There are about 40 envelopes capturing all of the regular expenses we’re paying (from homeowners association dues to utility bills) and things we’re saving for (including Christmas presents and retirement). Anything we can think of that costs a “significant” amount of money that we can anticipate and reoccurs gets its own envelope. There’s an emergency savings envelope for those expenses you can’t just plan on.

Then, each month gets its own column (Column B through infinity). For each month, we denote how much money is in each envelope. Every new month starts out with amount the previous month ended with, and we subtract any expenses and add any additional money we put in the envelope. For example, we know our mortgage payment is X. We make sure to end each month with X in the envelope.

Some budget categories are more variable, like automobile gas. We start out with what is in the envelope from the previous month, subtract out receipts for gas purchased, and add a set amount each month. Basically, since I’ve tracked our expenses for years, I know our average amount spent per month on gas, so I always put at least that much in the envelope every month. Some months we have extra in the envelope, which just carries forward to the next month in case we need it (like months with long road trips or heavy commuting).

Many of our budget categories are for various items we’re saving for. Now, we could always have one pot of money called savings and then spend it on whatever we wanted if and when we have enough money saved. That’s a fine strategy, but I like saving for something specific. It allows us to better set savings goals and see how long it will take us to save for it.

For our savings budget categories, there’s typically not much money coming out of the envelope. We just keep adding a designated amount month after month. This is how we pay for our vehicles. We act like we have a car payment and pay ourselves every month. We don’t buy a new car until we have enough saved to buy it with cash.

The key to the entire budget is all of the money in the envelopes has to equal the total money we have available. To check this, I compare the sum of all of the money in our virtual envelopes to all of the money available in our financial accounts. Luckily, in Excel, I set up simple formulas to do this comparison for me.

So that’s the basics. I’ll cover additional topics later in the series, like how we leverage Mint and how we use this budgeting system when an emergency occurs.

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

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Staying Prepared with a Medical Information Printable

As a planner, I like to be prepared for possible emergencies. I’m that person who packs medicines for kids when we take trips and has an emergency kit stashed in the house in case we need it.

One of the ways I prepare is by having a one-page print out of my medical information in my wallet in case I need it. I can’t tell you how handy it’s been to have at doctor visits to either help fill out paperwork or to give to the doctor for reference. My husband knows it is there as well, so he has all of my information available if I’m incapacitated.

I made some updates to the file this weekend. Now I’m inspired to make one up for both of the kids too!

In an effort to help others avoid reinventing the wheel, feel free to download an editable Word template of the medical information printable below.

Template of my medical information printable
Template of my medical information printable

The printable includes the following sections:

  • Personal Information: List what you want medical professionals to see right away and they most frequently ask for: blood type, allergies, contact information, etc.
  • Medication and Purpose: List the medication taken regularly, what it’s used for, and how often/what dosage you take.
  • Personal Medical History: Here I include dates and my age when I had various medical procedures, but I could see others listing different relevant information here about illnesses or diseases.
  • Vaccinations and Tests: Here are the dates and results of various tests run and vaccinations received. In the printable template provided, I left in the vaccinations and tests in my file, but there is space to add others.

Of course, the glory of having a Word document printable is that you can edit the form as you see fit. This is a starting point to think about what information you think is important to caption for you, your loved ones, and your doctors. If you adopt this tool, I encourage you to customize it to fit your needs.

Posted in Blog

The Power of Song in Teaching Children to Memorize Emergency Information

My kids have amazing memories when it comes to remembering song lyrics. Mr. 7 year old picked up many of the Hamilton song lyrics before we even saw the musical on Disney+ by listening to a friend sing, and both boys have impressively learned the elements of the periodic table this way.

So, when I wanted to teach Mr. 4 year old and Mr. 7 year old my cell phone number, I needed a song. I turned to 867-5309/Jenny. It has largely worked! Mr. 7 year old picked it up in a day, and he apparently has already shared my phone number with friends so I can schedule him for future playdates! Ha! Mr. 4 year old is really close to getting it right consistently too.

And then it recently came to my attention that my children don’t yet know how to spell their last name. Whoops! I mean, it is a bit long, but it’s manageable. I went in search of another song and found that the Mickey Mouse song works perfectly. This Preschool Express site has a bunch of song options, depending on what name you’re looking to spell.

As an instructional designer and someone who creates educational products, I’ve long known that learning tricks like this are effective, but it never gets old to see it work in practice.

Photo by Eric Ayon on Unsplash

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Contemplations and the Complexities of Getting Older

This weekend we celebrated my birthday, and since it fell on a weekend day, I claimed Friday evening through Sunday as mine. We kept it low key, because ::gestures wildly:: but we were able to snag some scheduled time at our community pool and hang out with a few friends. All in all, a great weekend.

Getting older always seems to result in complex feelings for me. On one hand, I’ve never been bothered by the fact I’m getting older. I’ve always felt like a 45-year-old woman, so my age is just starting to catch up with my brain.

I’ve always been that person who wants to get a job they love (done!) and have a husband and kids they adore (done!) with a sweet dog at her feet (done!). As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got it all and hopefully many years to enjoy it. So, I don’t look at my birthday as a reminder of all the things I wanted to do with my life and haven’t yet achieved.

What I always find myself thinking around my birthday is how strange it will be to age passed my brother who died when he was 42. I don’t think he got all the things he wanted to accomplish in life. It’s been almost ten years since he died by suicide. Although time teaches one to deal with the loss, the pain never goes away. Most of the time, I’m able to deal with the ache of his missing presence. Since we were adults who lived far away from each other, we weren’t a daily part of each other’s lives. Birthdays are rough though. My brother never got to meet my boys or visit me in our current home. He has missed so much. He is missed so much.

I remember one birthday he promised to buy me the best present if I picked chocolate cake with chocolate icing for my birthday. That wasn’t a hard sell since it is my favorite. I really wanted a bike that year. My parents gave me enough money to buy one, but my brother bought me a helmet. I was young and thought to myself, “Huh? A helmet is the best present?” But it really was! There’s no way that my parents were going to let me ride a bike without one, and I definitely didn’t have money in my budget to get it. I’d forgotten all about the need for a helmet. And, anyone in my family will attest to the safety equipment being the epitome of the type of gift my family gives. We are a protective bunch.

Well, this post took a turn, but it captures how I’ve been feeling about my birthday this year. Here’s to remembering those we love, making more happy memories today, and looking ahead to better times. (Is 2020 over yet?!)

Photo by Becky Fantham on Unsplash

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Friday Fav: Banana Bread

It has become a running joke online that everyone is home during the pandemic learning how to bake banana bread. Well, I’ve been baking banana bread for years, but we have been making it significantly more frequently since COVID started. It is a family favorite, so I figured this Friday I would share our favorite recipes.

  1. Our most popular recipe of the moment is a chocolate banana bread. It claims to be “secretly heathy.” I mean….I wouldn’t go that far. It’s not as unhealthy for you as it could be. We’ve tried it a few different ways, substituting applesauce for fruit and veggie squeeze pouches stolen from the kids’ snack drawer and swapping out maple syrup for agave. All versions have been enjoyed by all.
  2. These maple sweetened banana muffins were also yummy, though next time I’ll use coconut oil instead of olive oil. The olive oil was just a touch too overbearing in the flavor.
  3. The banana nut crunch muffins are more traditional and were probably the first ones we tried making this Spring. I’m a sucker for any muffin with a topping.

Happy baking! Now I need to go walk for an hour to work off my most recent slice of banana bread.

Photo by Whitney Wright on Unsplash