Posted in Blog

“Varsity-Level” Self-Care

You know that feeling you get when you’re back from a vacation and seem to have the right perspective on what’s truly important? After a weekend of cabin camping in the woods this weekend with my family – our only true “vacation” in 2020 – I’m hoping to hold on to this feeling for as long as possible.

I had a to-do list a mile long when I returned to work this morning, but today it didn’t bother me. I took it one step at a time, recognizing that it will all be sitting there waiting for me tomorrow…and the next day…and the next day. I want to prioritize being with my family and taking time for activities I enjoy.

Always the early bird, this weekend I was up before the others and able to sit outside in a rocking chair watching the sun come up between the trees with glimpses of the lake down below. It was chilly with my breath dancing in the air between sips of coffee. I enjoyed the silence as the clouds completed their metamorphosis from blue to pink to white.

As I was sitting there, I was thinking about a Reply All podcast I’d listened to recently called Happiness Calculator vs. Alex Goldman. The episode talks about a scientific attempt to measure the world’s happiness and sadness, but it ends with a discussion of self-care. The podcast hosts discuss their newly found ways to provide self-care, ranging from scented candles to baths, but they ask for “varsity-level” self-care tips.

Here’s my take. Scented candles, baths, lattes, and mani/pedis are all great, but they are not where it is at. Not for me anyway.

True “varsity-level” self-care is simple in theory but difficult in practice. It comes down to eating well, exercising, getting good sleep, and finding some daily time to unplug. It’s hard to go to bed at a decent hour when you just want some alone time. It’s hard to spend time making a healthy meal when it’s easier to call for takeout. It’s hard to work in time to exercise when you feel like you’re either working or watching children from sunup to sundown.

However, I feel better when I’ve slept at least seven and a half hours, eaten a plate full of veggies, or taken a walk with my pup.

I sometimes need to convince Present Me that Future Me would really appreciate this type of self-care. It is too easy to fall into the trap that Future Me will be strong and go to bed early, mediate, skip dessert, and take a walk. I’m not always able to convince myself to invest in Future Me, and I just skip it all to binge Netflix while snacking all night.

I have made strides though, in large part because I’ve made minor adjustments to my bad habits.

Have a hankering for an evening treat? Try drinking sparkling water first to see if that satisfies. If not, try some nuts or fruit.

Don’t feel like exercising? Walk on the treadmill while watching a favorite show or make laps through the neighborhood while walking the dog.

Want to eat better? Make one meal a week meatless. Once this becomes a habit, then add one more fruit or vegetable than you normally would for the day.

This approach takes time and discipline, but it’s certainly easier when I don’t have to think about it. When I always put some type of fruit on my morning cereal, it doesn’t become a choice or something to think about each morning. It’s just what I do, and I’m better off for it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting close to bedtime. I’m going to read (and hopefully FINALLY finish up Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton) before I pass out.

Take care of yourself out there.

Posted in Blog

Work/Life Balance Will Come Another Week

Woah, this week has been crazy.

My husband has been in training. It’s virtual, so he’s still home, but he’s been totally out of commission to support the kids during virtual learning all day. I’ve gotten used to working in our prearranged two-hour shifts so I could do some level of focused work throughout the day while my husband is in charge of the kids, and that’s understandably not happening while he’s in training.

This has in turn made my days so much longer. I continue to get up before the sun to focus before people begin to stir. This remains my best chance to get any deep work done for the day.

From 8am to 5pm I’m running around like crazy feeding people and animals, guzzling more coffee, picking up, answering email, doing laundry, getting myself ready for the day, attempting to get through my work to-do list, washing dishes, helping with virtual school, and jumping on conference calls. It’s a lot, and I get frazzled easily these days.

Yeah, yeah. I hear you.

“Forget about cleaning up, leave the dishes, and let the laundry pile up. It will always be there tomorrow.”

That’s true. However, chores are about the only thing I can do well while being repeatedly interrupted by children in virtual school. Plus, you know, they have to get done at some point.

I’ve also heard the advice to “just pick one to three work tasks to complete a day, get them done, and call yourself accomplished for meeting your goal. Don’t overdo it right now and coast.”

Well, do you even know me?!

My largest hang up with this advice is that as a consultant I’m billing my time to clients. I’m not sending an invoice requesting payment for an hour of my time if in that time period I’ve had to stop seven times for multiple minutes each time. So it ends up taking me all day to get a justifiable number of measurable and meaningful work hours in each day. And I’m already working a reduced schedule of 30 hours a week!

I’m spent and tired. I’m finally getting a few minutes to write a blog post now because it’s Wednesday and it’s “my night off.” I’ve banished myself to the basement to watch a shirtless Kevin Pearson on the big screen since I missed last night’s episode of This Is Us.

Lesson learned for the week: Duel parenting during a pandemic and virtual school > single parenting during a pandemic and virtual school

But, I already knew that before this week started, so I feel like I should have been allowed to skip this lesson.

Photo by Mel Poole on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Visiting Shenandoah National Park

One of the items on our family’s Fall bucket list was to view Fall foliage. The best place I know of in our area is to travel to Shenandoah National Park and travel down Skyline Drive along the Appalachian mountains. Alone the 35 mph road, there are multiple scenic overlooks and stopping points to look at the views, take a hike, or go camping. It is a busy place, especially during Fall weekends.

Before we went, of course, I had to scope things out. For my future reference and others who may consider a similar trip, here’s what worked for us.

  1. If you have the luxury of being flexible with the date you go, check the weather in advance. We wanted to work in a hike, so I didn’t want to be doing that in the pouring rain.
  2. Go early to avoid lines. Since we were going on a weekend, we got up EARLY and ended up at the park before 9am. We entered right away without waiting. As a bonus, we approached the mountains as the sun was ascending, which cast a beautiful glow among the yellow and golden leaves. We even caught sight of a vibrant rainbow in the early morning light as the fog was burning off.
  3. Buy a park pass in advance. You can shorten your time in line even further by buying a park pass in advance. Don’t forget that 4th graders get free admission to all National Parks! And, because of the pandemic, 5th graders can also get the pass that lasts until Aug 2021.
  4. Have snacks available. There are four entrances to Skyline Drive, and we came in from the North most entrance at Front Royal, VA. A few miles from the entrance is The Apple House, a restaurant famous for its apple butter donuts. These donuts are now a new family favorite (and we obtained another check on our Fall bucket list by trying a new food). These were a well-earned snack after our trail hike.
  5. Plan your must-see stops along the way. There are a number of great overlooks or places to stop and hike. The National Park Service website has a great list of hiking trails sorted by location that provides an easy-to-read key on important information about each hike. You’ll notice when you’re on Skyline Drive that there are mileposts along the road that note the location, so it will be easy to spot when your planned location is coming up. Front Royal, where we entered, is mile marker 0 and it continues South to mile marker 105. We hiked to the Fort Windham Rocks because we wanted an easy, short hike that didn’t have a high elevation. We had a great time, and now we can say we’ve hiked part of the Application Trail!
  6. Decide what you want to do for lunch or dinner. We knew we wanted to stop for food, but because of the pandemic, we didn’t want a sit-down restaurant. I scouted a few options that we ended up skipping this time around because the kids fell asleep, but I would certainly try Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen or Burgers N Things (currently closed Sundays).

One of these years, I’ll book a weekend away for us in the mountains to enjoy the sites for more than a couple of hours. But, this year, it was just what we needed. We had a great time out together and everyone seemed to enjoy the long-ish car ride, since it’s such a novelty these days to be out on the roads.

Posted in Blog

Halloween Scavenger Hunt Printable

I got really peeved sometime in early September when I received an email from Pinterest saying it was time to inspire the spirit of Halloween. My first thought? I’m am barely surviving virtual back to school with two young children and, you know, try to keep my job, feed everyone ALL THE TIME, and maintain some minimal level of sanity. I don’t have time to put even MORE on my plate, especially with Halloween feeling like it was months away.

But, with a bit of time, my perspective shifted…a bit. I adopted the stance we parents so often take. Yes, I’m tired. However, I’m excited to bring my children joy and a bit of normalcy to their lives right now. I will look back at this time with fondness for the memories we’ve created together, and these memories so often don’t happen if momma doesn’t plan something. So, we got into the spirit of Halloween.

We picked up a new activity this year that’s pandemic friendly and may become a new annual tradition. At the suggestion of a friend, I created a Halloween scavenger hunt and sent the neighborhood kids out in small teams to find all of the items around the neighborhood.

We actually turned it into a game and timed the teams to see who could find the most items in the least amount of time. The winners earned a price. They were even sent out with a phone to take pictures to prove they found everything, which was such a novelty for my boys. I think just being allowed to carry around a phone was half the fun!

So, if you’re looking for a fun and easy way to celebrate Halloween this year, I recommend a scavenger hunt. You can download the hunt I created or you can Google for bunch of other options.

Happy hunting!

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Benefits to Staying Home During the Pandemic

It’s been an off week for me. I’m not feeling this routine anymore.

I have to admit that I’m tired.

I’m tired of being home so frequently. I’m tired of everyone else being home with me so frequently. I’m tired of only working two-hour shifts at a time so my husband and I can trade off watching the kids. I’m tired of virtual school. I’m tired of making everyone three meals a day. I’m tired of it all.

I have been trying not to complain because I fully recognize how lucky we are here. My husband and I are each able to work from home and maintain our incomes. We have access to food so I can make us three meals a day. The weather is nice, so we can get outside and do things around town and in the neighborhood. We are all healthy, and the kids actually seem to be mostly thriving in this new normal. We have it good.

The days aren’t hard, really, just the same day on repeat – a perpetual Groundhog’s Day.

My husband has kindly suggested taking some time off of work, and I see where he is coming from. Honestly, I don’t want time off of work. I want to be able to focus on my work tasks for more than 2 hours at a time. I would like to 100% focus on something for a significant chunk of time (and not have to be up at 6am to do it). I miss silence. I would like a little more separation between work and life, but that’s not in the cards for now.

So, instead, I’m going to reground myself and focus on the benefits and my favorite parts of being home so much now:

  • Our afternoons, evenings, and weekends are a lot less hectic without a ton of after-school activities.
  • I can give my kids hugs when they want them, even in the middle of a school day.
  • My husband can make dinners more frequently since he’s not commuting.
  • I always get to go shopping alone while my husband stays home with the kids.
  • I’ve far surpassed my reading goals for the year.
  • The weather has been nice since the pandemic started.
  • At least the neighborhood pool was open this summer so we had somewhere to cool off outside in the heat.
  • The kids reading levels have improved with more one-on-one attention.
  • I’ve gotten the chance to deeply explore how my children learn best, where their strengths are, and their areas for development.
  • We have been able to have more family time playing outside, watching the Great British Baking Show, and reading Harry Potter. (We’re up to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which may take us a few months to finish.)
  • Mr. 7-Year-Old learned to ride his bike. Mr.-Then-4-Year-Old finally got the courage to regularly ride his big-boy bike rather than a tricycle.
  • We tackled home projects we’d been putting off because we finally had the time to focus on them together.
  • I have been on SO MANY walks.
  • Our house has been cold and illness free since March.
  • The boys are having playdates outside exploring creeks, playing on swings, and generally running around together rather than inside playing video games.
  • My house is now REEEALLY organized.
  • I haven’t felt the need to buy the boys new clothes. Jean got a hole in the knees? Oh well, we’re not going anywhere.
  • Our senior pup and my husband are closer than ever. She’s basically become his shadow.
  • But…we spend so much time at home now that the dog doesn’t sleep at the foot of our bed anymore. She stays downstairs, I presume, to get away from us for at least part of the day. I have room to stretch my feet out now, until about 5am when she strolls upstairs to join us.
  • We’ve all become a bit more resilient in times of uncertainty and change.

Just the act of writing out the upsides makes me feel a bit better. I still miss silence and being able to write without being interrupted fifteen times. But, the only thing constant is change. I will get silence again someday, and then I’m sure I’ll lament about the absence of regular commotion. It’s best to enjoy what you have and while you have it.

Photo by Chris Ross Harris on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

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!