How “Meal Squeeze” Meal Planning Service Saves my Sanity

meal planning working momsMeal Planning used to be one of my most-dreaded tasks. I would spend literally hours every week trying to cobble together recipes from Pinterest, cookbooks and facebook, write grocery lists, and then forget to do prep steps or misjudge how long a recipe would take from start to finish. I would spend precious time at work worrying about what to make for dinner or wondering if I had the groceries in the house for a complete recipe. I don’t hate cooking and have a deep desire to feed my family a variety of healthy meals,  but I just didn’t know where to start.

meal squeeze circle

For the past year, I’ve been using a super-affordable, convenient meal-planning service  called “Meal Squeeze” to take all the guesswork out of planning healthier meals that my family will enjoy. It has literally been life-changing and is my #1 “working mom hack” that I recommend to everyone!

Here’s what you get for a $39/year Basic annual subscription:

  • Weekly Meal Plan for 7 Dinners and 1 dessert (choose 2,4,6,8 servings)
  • Includes meal AND sides, ready at the same time (one of my biggest weaknesses)
  • Most meals ready in 30 minutes or less if you do the weekend prep list (perfect for busy families)
  • Printable Grocery list that’s easy to customize
  • Nutrition facts for all meals
  • Conversation Starters to make dinner meaningful family time
  • Access to lunch, snack, slow cooker and smoothies ideas
  • Members-only facebook group with cooking/prepping tips from a registered dietitian who will answer your specific questions! (one of my favorite perks)
  • $2 off $10 fresh meat/produce coupon good at Orange City, Sioux Center, Sheldon, Lemars, IA Fareway Food Stores. (this helps my subscription pay for itself)
  • $5 off $20 at Sioux Center, Sheldon, Le Mars, Storm Lake, IA Hy-Vee grocery stores

My daughter LOVES to go grocery shopping with me!

grocery shopping

If you’d rather go digital, a Premium Plan is only $10 more per year. At $49/year, it’s the most affordable meal planning service I’ve seen.

Additional services in Premium Plan:

  • Meal Plans are sent to ModernMeal website and app
  • Mobile grocery list you can customize and check off while shopping
  • Access to ALL past recipes with a search function (great for finding your favorites)
  • Ability to customize serving size on any recipe or filter by allergens (great when hosting)
  • Calendar to customize and add additional meals – plan breakfast, lunch and dinner

Basic Annual Subscription: $39 Annual or $5 Monthly

Premium Annual Subscription: $49 Annual or $7 Monthly

Click here to subscribe or use the Join Button below. Let me know what you think!

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FAQ’s:
Does your family like the meals?

My husband is not a picky eater, but has REALLY enjoyed the variety and healthier options without ever feeling like he was on a “diet”. The kids (age 4-9) are apprehensive about unfamiliar foods sometimes, but have discovered MANY new foods they enjoy (my 6-year-old LOVES roasted brussel sprouts!!) and the recipes are family-friendly. My goal is to give them lots of healthy options and teach them to try new things but I do modify once in a while, leaving a sauce off some things or offering the ingredients deconstructed.

Does it use a lot of weird ingredients my store doesn’t carry or I’ve never heard of?

I have found this to be much more “midwest/small-town” friendly than other services. I shop at Fareway Food stores and can find most ingredients. Hy-Vee carries all of the ingredients and shopping at bigger chains like Walmart, etc. will guarantee you can find the produce, meat cuts, and spices that are staples. Modifications are also easy if you can’t find an ingredient or prefer a different vegetable.

Will I have to buy a lot of ingredients I’ll never use again?

The meal plan does a good job of using up ingredients from previous recipes/plans, so the more you use it, the more efficient you’ll be. I’ve bought more vinegars, cooking wines/sauces and spices than I did previously and definitely buy a wider variety of produce and meat cuts but have really enjoyed the variety.

Will I spend more at the grocery store on this meal plan?

That depends on your current habits! At first, I thought my grocery bills were a bit higher due to more fresh produce and higher quality meat than I’d previously purchased, but I noticed a BIG difference in how little we were throwing OUT because we had less leftovers that were forgotten, less ingredients spoiled before we used them (lack of planning) and although we don’t eat out frequently, having a meal half-prepped and already planned for the night GREATLY reduces the impulse to order take-out or make frequent “filler” trips to the grocery store. Overall, I’ve kept my grocery budget at $575/month for a family of 5 including ALL paper/cleaning goods as well. (LCOL area)

What are the recipes like?

A variety is offered every week, but there is usually one meatless option. Other things on the menu frequently: sheet-pan dinners including meat and veggies, whole wheat pasta dishes, stir-fries, soups, salads, Mexican and Asian-inspired meals, “meat and potatoes” meals, slow-cooker recipes (can be modified to Instant Pot). A LOT of the meals are stove-top skillet-type meals, so you’ll want a large high-walled skillet with a lid, but no other special equipment should be needed.

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How do I get started?

Click here to subscribe.

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File Storage Keepsake Boxes

file storage pinThis is my favorite baby gift or 1st birthday gift – a practical way for parents to save a few treasured keepsakes over the years without getting overwhelmed. The key, as with most organizing attempts, is to have a proper place for everything.

The main idea is to have a file folder ready for each stage in the child’s life and limiting the things kept to just what fits in the file, so you have one place to store important documents (like immunization records) but also fun stuff like drawing and writing samples, certificates, and annual school photos.

Here are step-by-step instructions on making a custom file storage keepsake box for your kids or as a gift.

Supplies:

Sterilite Large Nesting Showoff- Blue Eclipse

  1. Plastic File Box. I picked up a Sterilite Large Nesting Show-off at Walmart in the storage solutions section for about $6. (Much more expensive on Amazon.)  You can order at Walmart.com but only for store pickup).  I like the clamp-on lid and handle and it will work for several years. I have already replaced my 3rd grader’s with a Legal/Letter File Box, but no need to store that size until you need it.Smead Hanging File Folder, 1/5 Tab, Assorted Colors, Letter Size, 25/Box
  2. Hanging File Folders. For my project, a box of 25 is enough. You can get multi-colored file folders at Walmart or other office supply stores. I ordered the jewel-toned file folders from Amazon when I made them for my nieces.
  3. File Labels. You can certainly hand-write on the file labels that come with your folders, but I created mine on the computer, then printed them on cardstock, cut them out, and inserted them in the clear file tabs

I used a table in Microsoft Word with each row 0.6″ high and each column 2″ wide and typed in the file name. I also added a shape on the left side and put a symbol on it to correspond with each label. If you’d like to use these, just copy one of the label designs at the end of this post and paste it into a Word document, then print!

Here’s a list of the files and ideas for what to include in each one.

  • Baby Info: footprints and bassinet label from the hospital, birth announcements, etc.
  • Medical: immunization records, check-up records
  • Certificates: copies of birth certificate, awards they earn when they are older
  • Church: baptism certificate, projects they complete in church
  • Cards/Letters: a copy of our Christmas card/letter each year and any special cards/letters they receive that they want to keep
  • Pictures: professional photos/school pictures. Just a few from each year to use for graduation display, etc.
  • Sports: certificates, ribbons, articles as they get older
  • Interview: I want to do an “All About Me” interview on their birthday, so I printed 18 of this version so they are all ready to be filled out each year.
  • Age 0-3: artwork, projects from the early years, notes of funny things they said or did
  • Age 4-5: preschool report card, special art projects, CD of pictures
  • Kindergarten-Grade 12: report card, special projects or papers, etc. The goal is to limit it to only what FITS in the file.
  • Blank: I added one extra file just for anything else that might pop up as a category according to their interests, like Music, 4-H, etc.
Now, it’s just time to put all the files in the box, add all the folder labels, and fill them! I did my boxes from right to left, one space apart so I could see the symbols.
I did my niece’s left to right 2 spaces apart so you could read the whole label.

If you’re feeling really crafty, you can add a cute label to the front. I found it better to place them on the inside of the box and stick on with packing tape. Other ideas are to cut out vinyl if you have a Cricut or use paint-pen markers to just write on the front.

That’s it! For less than $20 and in just an hour or two, you can be ready to keep your kids organized for the next 18 years! This is also a much-appreciated baby gift!

It’s definitely worth putting together while your kids are young and you can modify it to fit your lifestyle. You can keep the files in a filing cabinet, add files as needed, purge things at the end of the year to keep only the most important things, etc. It’s just a system to get you started.

Be sure to PIN THIS blog post if this is something you want to come back to later!

Follow Working Mom Hacks on facebook for more tips!

BONUS: Save any of these label sets as an image, insert into a Word document and print! If you need to check sizes, each cell should be 2″ wide and 0.6″ tall.

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File Labels-bluefile labels-grayfile labels-red

Here is another blogger’s post with cute free printables: https://howdoesshe.com/free-printable-keepsake-box-labels/

Happy Organizing!

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Black Hills Family Vacation: Itinerary

black hills vacation guideWe just returned from a 7-day, 6-night family vacation to the Black Hills of South Dakota and had such a fun trip! Since I found family vacation itineraries helpful in planning for our Black Hills Trip, I wanted to share mine and include some tips for maximizing your trip and how to keep it more affordable.

First a few details. We are a family of 5 with kids ranging from age 3-8 so everything on our trip was geared toward those ages. We are glad we waited until our youngest was old enough to walk/hike herself, but went before our oldest outgrew some of the popular kid-friendly Black Hills attractions. We drove in from the East so Days 1 and 7 will only make sense if you’re coming from that direction. We took a mini-van with lots of snacks, soft-side coolers, and comfortable clothes. Sunscreen and bug spray are a must.

Lodging: Comfort Inn & Suites near Mount Rushmore (Hill City, SD)

We opted for a 3-queen bed hotel room over a cabin and it worked great for us. It’s hard to find hotel rooms to fit a family of five comfortably, but having a large room with 2 queen bed plus another room with a queen bed/chair/dresser/TV for mom and dad fit the bill perfectly. We had a free hot breakfast every morning with many options including Belgian waffles, eggs and sausages, all the staple continental options, fruit. etc. It was handy  having an indoor pool and hot tub because we mostly swam when it was raining. The kitchenette included a microwave, coffee maker and mini fridge with freezer! This was key to allowing us to pack a picnic and cold drinks everyday while actually freezing our ice packs.  There are many lodging options but I am not the camping type and I would highly recommend this hotel in particular. Located in Hill City, it’s very centrally located to all Black Hills activities, clean and updated and had a well-run breakfast.

How to save: I booked at least 6 months in advance since prices change as you near the summer. I became a Choice Privileges member (sign up here to get 500 bonus points after your first stay) and opened a Choice Privileges credit card and met the minimum spend of $1000 in 90 days to get 30,000 bonus points. The points ended up being worth about $230 worth of free lodging and I bought some points to get an even 2 nights paid with points. The points we earn paying for the other 4 nights (12,000+)  will net us a free night for a regular room at a later time.

Day 1: Travel via I-90 from the East into Hill City

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Chamberlain Rest Stop

Chamberlain, SD

Take a rest stop between exits 263 and 265 on I-90 near Chamberlain, SD. View the statue “Dignity” honoring the Dakota and Lakota tribes, view the Lewis & Clark exhibits indoors, and take the short trail to an overlook of the Missouri River.

Ways to Save: FREE plus includes lots of visitor guides you can take for your trip.

Verdict: Great rest stop and a beautiful statue. Take the short hike if you have time.

minutemenMinutemen Missile National Historic Site

near Philip, SD

Stop at the Minutemen Missile National Historic Site Visitors Center just off I-90 on Exit 131 and view exhibits and a video about the Cold War-era missile program. We also drove 15 miles west and used exit 115 to get to the Delta 09 missile silo. This is on a gravel road and parking is limited. An audio tour is available via cell phone.

Ways to Save: FREE unless you want a ranger-guided tour of Delta 01 silo

Verdict: It was interesting and had nice bathrooms, but not a must-stop if you’re not a history buff.

wall drug

Wall Drug

Wall, SD

After seeing 87.5 signs along our route (we had fun keeping track), you can’t NOT stop at Wall Drug. After parking, we headed straight through the shops to the “Backyard” for free ice water and lots of photo ops on a giant jack-a-lope, rail car, covered wagon and bucking bronco.

Ways to Save: FREE unless you want to buy a souvenir, food, or coin-operated fortune teller. We didn’t buy anything and enjoyed the free ice water.

Verdict: You have to stop once in a lifetime and the pictures were fun.

reptile

Reptile Gardens

Rapid City, SD

Since the weather was great, we decided to visit Reptile Gardens on our way through Rapid City. We arrived around 4:00pm and were able to catch the Bird Show, Snake show and Gator Show, then toured the indoor exhibits and left around 6pm. The gator show, especially, was entertaining and the colorful flowers makes this fun for everyone to see. Petting a 112-year-old giant tortoise and a python are things they haven’t done before!

Ways to Save: Our family’s entrance fee was $60 and if you ask for a “vacation pass” it will get you in for your entire stay. We didn’t end up coming back, but some might want to. You could get nickel-and-dimed to death here with tons of coin-operated add-ons but we didn’t not do any of those and didn’t buy any food. Prep your kids if you don’t plan to spend any money inside the park. 

Verdict: The kids really enjoyed this as their first paid “attraction” and 2 hours was enough time to see everything. You could skip the snake show, but don’t miss the gator show. Trey was a great guide. This would be good for all ages and is not that large so it’s easy to walk around without needing a stroller, plus 4 and under is FREE. 

desperados

Desperado’s

Hill City, SD

After checking into our hotel, we went downtown in Hill City to find dinner and had a 15-minute wait at Desperado’s. It’s an old log-hewn building and good comfort food. I had a terrific chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans.

Ways to Save: Consider having your kids share meals (2 kids meals for 3 of them) or eating off your plate if they don’t generally eat a lot.

Verdict: Nice meal, great waitress (Cheyenne) and good food. We recommend!

 

Day 2: Wind Cave, The Mammoth Site, Needles Highway, Silver Dollar Saloon

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Wind Cave National Park

11 miles north of Hot Springs, SD

We drove south to Wind Cave National Park to the visitor’s center and signed up for the Natural Entrance Cave Tour. These tours are first-come, first-served, so we were glad we got on the next tour starting in 30 minutes which is enough time to see a few exhibits. We had a great guide, Ranger Joe, and heard about the discovery and history of the Wind Cave and then walked the  1 hour, 15 minute tour. Our 3-year-old was a trooper, but I could see some younger kids getting scared as it’s tight, steep and dark in places. Not the traditional stalactites and stalagmites since it’s so far below the surface, but neat to see if you’ve never been in a cave.

Ways to Save: The fees for this tour were $12 for adults, $6 for kids 6-16 and 5 and under were free. There is a cheaper/shorter tour if you have younger kids. I’d go first thing in the morning.

Verdict: Fascinating to hear about the history and then see the cave formations. Nice to go to a National Park cave and not a commercialized one. The kids thought it was cool but not their favorite part. Educational, though. Do not go if you are claustrophobic.

mammoth

The Mammoth Site

Hot Springs, SD

Hot Springs seemed like a cool little town but we didn’t explore much, just drove through on our way to The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD. The dig site itself contains 60+ mammoth who were trapped in a pond created by a sink-hole and it’s an active site where you can even talk to the archaeologists in the lab as they work. We did the video, then a tour with headphones that hurt the kids ears with a slightly unenthusiastic guide. No one was “working the dig” at the time.  There were a few other exhibits to see and a sand box with a few “fossils” to brush off, but not as much interactive stuff for kids as I had hoped. I believe you’d have to sign up for one of the “educational classes” for your kids to actually do stuff, but you had to be 4 to sign up, so we didn’t stay for that.

Ways to Save: We paid $10.15 per adult, $7.37 for kids 4-12 and 3 and under was free for the guided tour. We didn’t do the Jr. Paleontologist program which would have been another $11.06 per child and didn’t buy any souvenirs. We actually ate our lunch during the drive from Wind Cave to Hot Springs.

Verdict: For some reason, our kids just weren’t into it. I’m sure some love it, but ours were just not “digging it”. If we ever headed this way again, we’d probably check out Trout Haven Ranch (catch and keep your own trout from stock ponds) in Buffalo Gap north of Hot Springs. 

needles

Needles Highway

Custer, SD

We were planning to head to Sylvan Lake and since all the kids were sleeping, my husband convinced me to take the Needles Highway. Here is a good recap from some other travelers. I get extremely carsick and did 100% of the driving in South Dakota. I would have been puking as a passenger for sure. The kids woke up by the first overlook we stopped at and thought the tunnels and mountain goats were cool. We ended at Sylvan Lake Day Access parking lot and had just climbed to the top of a big rock when it started to rain. It was a fast jog back to the van to beat the downpour (and hail) so we decided to come back to the lake a different day and swim

at the hotel instead.

Ways to Save: It costs $20 for a week pass into Custer State Park, but worth it if you want to drive the highway and spend time at Sylvan Lake or hiking other areas of the park.

Verdict: Not for the motion-sick members of your family or large vehicles, but neat for everyone else. It does take 45-60 minutes so plan on it and be careful. Next time, I’d pick up a Junior Ranger handbook at the ranger station as we entered near Custer and would explore more of Custer State Park.

silver dollar

Silver Dollar Saloon

Hill City, SD

We were looking for pizza for supper and stopped south of Hill City at a saloon with good reviews. It was a very laid-back find-your-own-table cash-only takes-a-while sort of place but we ordered a 14″ pepperoni/cheese and a 10″ chicken fajita pizza and polished it all off. Watched the Home Run Derby and unwound from the day

Ways to Save: We saved a lot by ordering pizza to share ($32 with tip) and had our customary water to drink. Watching other families order apps, entrees and multiple beers made us realize it’s not so much the prices at the restaurants, it’s what you choose to order. The cheese curds did look amazing though.

Verdict: Excellent pizza, friendly staff, just be prepared for very laid back “leave the cash on the counter” atmosphere. Would go again.

Day 3: Mount Rushmore, Alpine Slide, Cosmos Mystery Area, Old-Time Photos,  Powder House Lodge

rushmoreMount Rushmore National Memorial

Keystone, SD

We arrived at  Mount Rushmore by 8:45am before it got busy. Avenue of flags was nice. Go down into the balcony seats of the amphitheater for less crowded pictures. Take the Presidential Train around to the left and read about the presidents (part of the trail is closed). There was an activity area for kids near the teepee. We watched the movie inside and explored the exhibits-the favorite being selecting a spot on the memorial and then watching it explode as you pushed down the dynamite pump. This was one of the only gift shops we browsed and picked out Christmas ornaments to commemorate the trip.

Ways to Save: Pay $10 for parking and you can get in all week (we came back another night). Bring your own water and snacks if you don’t want to be allured by the ice cream. We did not pay for the audio tour and thought the free movie gave enough info.

Verdict: You simply have to stop here when in the Black Hills. Parking wasn’t as ominous as I thought and there are new speed-parking terminals coming this fall! Don’t skip the trails.

slideAlpine Slide at Rushmore Tramway Adventures

Keystone, SD

The Alpine Slide is just off the highway in Keystone and there are several other things to do like a zipline, ropes course, etc. but we were keyed in on the Alpine Slide. A ski lift takes you to the top of the (very tall) hill with a distant Mount Rushmore view on the way. You go down the track on a cart controlled by stick-break. Kids 6 and under have to go with an adult, but all of us really had fun and if it weren’t so expensive, would have done it again. We went in 2 groups so the others could take pictures/video. There is more to explore in Keystone, but since we were trying to spend money on experiences instead of candy or souvenirs, we moved on.

Ways to Save: One ride is $12 for age 7-adult and $6 for ages 2-6, so we paid $48 for one trip up the lift and one ride down the hill. You can buy 10 rides for $85 so do that right away if you want 2 rides, especially if your whole party is over age 6. 

Verdict: Very fun, even if it feels short. If you have older/braver kids, they might like the other things this park offers and could do a more complete package. Operators were happy and helpful.

cosmos

Cosmos Mystery House

Keystone, SD

The Cosmos Mystery Area is is an unusual attraction offering guided tours through an area that seems to have a different gravitational pull than normal. They go through a series of experiments where water flows uphill, balls roll the wrong way on a slanted board, and people appear shorter, then taller than each other. Here’s a video that helps explain it better. I skipped the tour due to motion sickness and everyone seemed to come out of it a little woozy, so beware. We also let the kids hunt for geodes in the sand pile and then crack them open since one of our kids is really interested in geodes. We ate our picnic lunch on their umbrella-covered tables as it was a gorgeous day again.

Ways to save: Tickets are $11 for adults, $6 for ages 5-11 and free under 5. Geodes are $8, but only $6 if you add them to your tour tickets. So, we spent $41. The geodes aren’t a must-do if your kids aren’t into that.

Verdict: Those who went on the tour didn’t feel great afterwards but they were kind of amazed or at least intrigued by what they saw. Not sure it’s a must-do and wouldn’t recommend for anyone with motion sickness.

old-time.jpgProfessor Samuel’s Portrait Emporium

Keystone, SD

We checked out several “old-time photo” places in the Black Hills and it’s hard to find pricing unless you call or walk in and depends on the size of your group and what you buy to print/add on as a CD. We actually meant to go to a different one in Keystone but walked into Professor Samuel’s by mistake and their prices were lower and we liked the backdrops better. They only bummer is the other place in Keystone would do different poses like just kids, just mom & dad, etc. and this one didn’t.  The costumes fit over your clothes and they are quick to pick things out for you. I wish I’d had a mirror to fix my hair and adjust my hat, but they whisk you through pretty quickly. We changes props and who was smiling but couldn’t change poses/people. The boys loved picking out their own guns and their soldier outfits. You could view your photos right afterwards and choose one to print along with options on frames, then come back to pick them up in 45 minutes.

Ways to Save: We wanted the CD, not just the printed picture, and this was the most affordable one we saw. We bought an 8×10 with frame for $77 and added the CD for $35 (at other places, the CD was $50). 

Verdict: Quite a bit to spend but it was fun and we both had done this as kids and remember seeing those photos for years afterwards, so hopefully it will be a lasting momentum of our trip. I suggest asking for pricing and looking at the samples before committing to a certain place.

Powder House Lodge

Keystone, SD

Just outside of downtown, this was a restaurant attached to Powder House lodge. After a short wait, we were seated and had excellent service from the staff and host and a great meal. I had the Louisiana Cajun Pasta which was amazing, my husband had the Powder House Chicken, all served with bread and salad. The kids chicken strips were huge! There is also lots of game-style meals to choose.

Ways to Save: We spent around $50 on this meal with tip (waters all around of course) but it was a great family meal. We took leftovers of my meal and the kids’ to supplement supper at the hotel next night.

Verdict: Very enjoyable experience and would recommend. There is a nice patio, but it was storming that night (driving rain on the way home).

Day 4: Bear Country USA, Storybook Island, Pizza Ranch, Dinosaur Park, Mount Rushmore Lighting Ceremony

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Bear Country USA

Rapid City, SD

A trip to Bear Country USA was one of the most-recommended activities and it did not disappoint. This drive-through wildlife park had reindeer, big horn sheep and of course, bears, right up close to our vehicles. Plenty of photo opportunities. We also visited the smaller animal exhibits at the end and enjoyed watching the bear cubs play. We went first thing in the morning and have heard the animals are more out and active when it is cooler.

Ways to Save: You pay per person and it’s not a cheap attractions. $17 per adult, $11 for kids 5-12, so $56 for our family. We didn’t buy any concessions as we had water bottles and snacks along.

Verdict: Kids loved seeing the animals up close and the bear cubs were a lot of fun too. Definitely recommend for all ages.

IMG_1698Storybook Island

Rapid City, SD

Storybook Island is a free park/playground geared towards kids ages 2-9. There are lots of swings, slides, and jungle gyms to climb but they are all incorporated into famous storybook settings and characters. Our kids loved acting out the 3 Little Pigs running from house to house and especially liked the slides coming out of houses. There is even a designated area for kids 5 and under. Tons of cute photo opportunities

Ways to Save: FREE admission! They route you through the gift shop, so be prepared on the way out. You can picnic outside the park but they encourage you to use their concessions and not bring your own food inside the park.

Verdict: Our kids ages 3-8 had a lot of fun here and burned off energy. They didn’t know all the characters (Raggedy who?) but liked to see and try everything. Bring water bottles and sunscreen. Above age 9 might just be too old for this type of playground.

pizza ranch

Pizza Ranch

Rapid City, SD

We are quite familiar with Pizza Ranch, a chain of buffet restaurants across the Midwest, and knew it would be a great vacation destination since you don’t have to wait, everyone can choose exactly what they want (and we knew they liked the food) and my sons were most pumped that they didn’t have to order water (drinks are included)! Ha! They filled up on pizza, fried chicken, salad, fruit, veggies, pudding, chicken fingers, ice cream and cactus bread dessert pizza. We requested a pepperoni & jalapeno stuffed-crust pizza and they brought it right to our table to make sure we got as much as we wanted before putting it on the buffet. Hot and delicious! There are 2 locations in Rapid City, SD and a few more in the area (Spearfish, Sturgis, and if you are traveling I-90 back east, Mitchell, Hartford, Sioux Falls, and Luverne, MN).

Ways to Save: This was our MOST affordable family meal of the trip and we definitely got the most variety of food. Kids Buffets at this location are free for 3 and under and we went on Kids’ Day (Wednesday in Rapid City-it’s Tuesday most other places) so each of our other 2 kids were free with the purchase of our 2 Adult buffets. We also went at lunch instead of dinner when the prices are lower. We paid $21 for the whole family to eat as much as we wanted, including drinks! 

Verdict: Pizza Ranch is always a winner with our family and we like visiting them on our trips. Full disclosure: I work for Pizza Ranch…but I recommend it because it is family-friendly, fast, affordable, and makes everyone happy!

dinosaur park

Dinosaur Park

Rapid City, SD

This is basically a winding road that leads to a bunch of stairs that lead up to a hilltop with 7 big dinosaur statues. A storm was coming in as we stopped here, so we couldn’t stay long. It does provide incredible “100-mile views”

Ways to Save: The attraction is free, but there is a concession stand. The brochures we saw at the rest stop visitor centers and in our hotel lobby had a coupon for a free bag of popcorn at the concessions, but we didn’t take advantage since we had just eaten.

Verdict: The statues themselves are not a must-see, but the views are pretty great. One funny thing is we quickly stopped at a pull-off on the way out and as my husband was taking pictures of the panoramic view of a lightening storm, he looked down and saw a small memorial dedicated to someone who was struck by lightning in that spot while watching the wildfires. Yikes! 

IMG_1893Mount Rushmore Lighting Ceremony

Keystone, SD

We arrived at Mount Rushmore around 7:45pm and had enough time to take the trail to the right (towards the Sculptor’s Studio which is closed) and then took the “Nature Trail” back to the entrance. It was a gorgeous night and we were about the only ones on the trail. We took a seat in the amphitheater around 8:15pm. Patriotic music plays for a while, a Ranger talks at 9:00pm, then plays a video about Freedom. They then light the monument and invite all veterans and active duty military to the stage for a flag-lowering ceremony. It was moving and a nice way to spend an evening.

Ways to Save: Since we had already paid for parking, this entire event was free. We packed snacks and drinks so we didn’t buy any concessions.

Verdict: We thought it was worth it. Older kids and adults probably appreciate more. Definitely go if someone in your party is a veteran. Bring jackets and possibly wear pants or bring a blanket. I also recommend bug spray. If you only have time to visit the monument once, I think you could arrive by 6:30 and see everything, then stay for the lighting ceremony. 

Day 5: Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, Wade’s Gold Mill, Hubcap Diner, 1880 Train

IMG_1909Sylvan Lake

Custer State Park

We headed back to Sylvan Lake to try some hiking trails. Our kids are a little young for the 7-mile round-trip Harney Peak trail, so we parked in the Sylvan Lake Day Access and walked to the back of the lake to the Sunday Gulch Trailhead. We went counter-clockwise and were tipped off that the heavy rains had turned the end of the trail coming out of the gulch into shin-deep rushing water over the rocks, essentially climbing up a waterfall which didn’t seem great for our 3-year-old. So we ended up hiking in about 1.5 miles of the 4-mile trail and then back out. Very fun hike with lots of rocks to climb and things to see. We changed into swimsuits (there is a bathroom with running water. Yay!) and then played on the beach and in the water and climbed the big rock. Water is cold and it would be more fun with sand toys or floating tubes, etc. Gorgeous, iconic scenery. You can rent paddleboards and kayaks, but we were content just cooling off by the sandy beach.

Ways to Save: We had already paid the $20 entrance fee to Custer State Park and packed a picnic for lunch.

Verdict: Kids handled hiking better than I expected and we’d like to do the other trails. Bring sunscreen, bug spray, snacks and plenty of water especially if you do the round-trip. Fun place to swim.

IMG_1932

Wade’s Gold Mill

Hill City, SD

The kids were keen on panning for gold and Wade’s Gold Mill had great reviews, however the heavy rains flooded their creek and washed out their bridge/seating area in the stream, so we had a different experience than most, panning out of troughs. Kids got a vial of sand and were taught the panning process. We skipped the video. Each child got several flecks of gold to keep and lots of garnets. The place looks like it hasn’t changed in decades and many people appreciate the “authentic” non-commercialized site.

Ways to Save: We weren’t there in time for the tour, so we just paid $12/kid for the gold panning lessons which came with a vial guaranteed to have some gold, plus the chance to dig for another pan. They all got garnets from their dig but no more gold.

Verdict: If you’re not into the history of gold mill equipment, I’d skip the tour. The kids seemed satisfied with the panning but were ready to leave after one pan. I was a little disappointed, but I feel we would have had a different experience if the creek had not been flooded.

IMG_1937Hubcap Diner

Hill City, SD

We were looking for good burgers and this place had great ones along with hot fresh fries. It’s 50’s diner decor and the specialize in milkshakes but at $5/piece (no kids sizes, no meal deals with a burger) we didn’t spring for them.

Ways to Save: We originally intended to get burgers and shakes, but with shakes being $5/each with no kids sizes and no “meal deals,” we ended up just getting food and stopping down the street at DQ for mini blizzards afterwards (which were $4.19, so joke’s probably on us.)

Verdict: Good burgers, corndogs for kids, fun coloring sheets, more expensive than we hoped.

IMG_19441880 Train

Hill City, SD

A restored steam engine pulls passenger cars at 10 mph from Hill City to Keystone and back on the 1880 Train. I bought tickets online about 10 days in advance for the 6:45pm Thursday train out of Hill City which is the only time they do the Old West Shootout. I highly recommend buying tickets ahead of time and choosing your seats especially if you want to see the shootout. Reserve seats on the right/passenger side of the train from Hill City to Keystone in the middle of the train for the best view of the shootout. Then choose seats on the opposite side of the train for the ride back so you can see different scenery (the seat backs flip around for the ride back–so you want to move across the aisle to the other side.) I highly recommend the “enclosed” cars over the “open-air” cars because they have padded seats and the windows are much lower, allowing small children to see out. The open-air windows were so high I had to have my 3-year-old on my lap to see anything and my 5-year-old could barely see sitting on his knees (you cannot stand). The shootout is pretty “volunteer”-quality but it gives the kids a distraction. It was relaxing at night and our 2 youngest fell asleep on the ride back. The ride is narrated, but it’s hard to hear if you are near the engine. I recommend the Oreville car if possible. If you don’t want to see the shootout, I’d recommend taking it to Hill City, looking around Keystone for a few hours, then taking it back later.

Ways to Save: This was our most expensive attraction at $109 ($29 for adult, $14 for kids 3-12). We brought our own snacks (the ones for sale on board aren’t terribly expensive) and didn’t purchase the beer and wine available on the train.

Verdict: It was fun to do and we saw a lot of deer and scenery. The shootout isn’t a must-do but was fun for our kids to get the blanks casings from the shooters. Just decide if the $ is worth it for your family and definitely reserve online ahead of time-just pick up your tickets 30 minutes before departure.

Day 6: D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, Harry’s Spaghetti Western

IMG_1984D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery

Spearfish, SD

We took an 80 minute drive north to Spearfish and started at the D.C. Booth History Fish Hatchery. There is lots to see and do here as we fed the fish and ducks, viewed fish underwater, did a scavenger hunt in the museum, toured a replica fish rail car, and took the path to some lookouts. There is also a house and garden that were closed for a wedding along with a gift shop and boat.

Ways to Save: This is a FREE family attraction. The only money we spent was on three $1 bags of fish food. Plus if you complete the scavenger hunt in the museum, you can turn in your sheet for a free cup of fish food.

Verdict: This was much more fun and interesting than I anticipated. Nice facility that is well maintained with friendly volunteers. Kids loved feeding the ducks and fish. There is a nice park next to it and we also stopped downtown at the Visitor’s Center for trail maps and great advice on where to stop with kids to hike.

IMG_1991.JPGSpearfish Canyon

Spearfish, SD

We took the advice of the Visitor’s Center guide and drove through Spearfish Canyon, stopping at Bridal Veil Falls, then enjoyed the picnic area at Roughlock Falls (there are many hidden picnic tables in the shade but we ate right by the stream). We walked around the boardwalks here, then drove to the Latchstring Restaurant parking lot to take the trail to Spearfish Falls (easy 0.5 mile hike).

Ways to Save: FREE, plus we brought a picnic!

Verdict: Beautiful and worth the drive! You could find more trails if you have older kids, but this was perfect for our family.

IMG_2032

Historic Main Street

Deadwood, SD

We arrived around 3:45pm and found a metered parking lot, then walked downtown for the 4:00pm staged gunfight! The kids were sworn in as deputies and then Deadwood Alive performed the short show. We stumbled upon a Model Train exhibit in the basement of a gift shop (across from Mineral Palace Hotel) which the kids really liked and there are “I Spy” cards of things to find. We arrived at Saloon #10 at 4:45pm to get a seat for the 5pm show of Wild Bill getting shot. The actor told his “life story” and then acted out the shooting with some audience participation, then took pictures. We just missed some activities for kids such as playing Go Fish and having Nerf shootouts dressed as cowboys, so check out Saloon #10 in the afternoon for family-friendly activities. We didn’t take any tours and kids weren’t into the history, but it was fun to watch the Deadwood Alive shows.

Ways to Save: All the shows were free and we didn’t do any shopping. We did use an app to pay $2.75 for parking (didn’t have quarters on us). We put $1 in the machine to make the model trains run for 10 minutes–well worth it. We also tipped the Wild Bill show since we had a child take a picture with him.

Verdict: Fun stop and there was more we could have done, but we were hungry and also wanted to get back to our hotel on time to pack.

spaghetti

Harry’s Spaghetti Western Restaurant

Deadwood, SD

After a week of American-style food and the kids eating too many chicken strips and fries, we decided to try Harry’s Spaghetti Western Restaurant based off excellent reviews and the fact it was family-friendly and away from the gaming/alcohol of the saloons. You choose your pasta, sauce and meat and can get a full plate for $14.95 or a half for $9.95. We got a whole spaghetti/meat sauce/meatballs, a whole fettuccine/alfredo/chicken, and a half spaghetti/red sauce/(hot!) sausage. It came with salad, bread and then spumoni for dess

ert. Everything was excellent!

Ways to Save: We shared 2.5 bowls of pasta and paid $48 with tip, but it was a great meal and we appreciated that they allowed us to split it family-style. Ordering water and skipping extra dessert 

made this affordable for our family.

Verdict: Excellent family restaurant with seriously good food.

Day 7: Badlands National Park, Mitchell Corn Palace

badlands

Badlands National Park

Hwy 240 at Wall, SD

On our way home, we decided to venture South at Wall to travel the Badlands Loop through Badlands National Park. We stopped at the first major lookout and again at Fossil Trail where we climbed many rocks.  There are several other stops you could make such as the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the “Door” but it took about 2 hours to do the loop already, so we continued on our journey home.

Ways to Save: We paid $20 for an entrance fee which is good for 7 days in case you want to return. If you have a 4th grader, you can apply for a free National Parks Pass ahead of time.

Verdict: I’m glad we took this detour to see the varied landscape and the kids really liked climbing the rocks at the Fossil Trail stop.

corn palaceMitchell Corn Palance

Mitchell, SD

If you get all the way to the eastern part of the state, you might as well stop at the World’s Only Corn Palace. There are murals made of corn, of course, on the outside and a few exhibits and gift shops inside–right on the basketball flour. Mitchell has a few other tourist stops and is a popular overnight stop for folks who need 2 days to get to the Black Hills.

Ways to Save: Free Attraction. We picked up a present for a birthday party and a souvenir for each child: a stuffed animal, a slingshot, and a play rifle/pistol/handcuff set. They were reasonably priced compared to the gift shops in the Black Hills and it gave them something to look forward to playing with when they got home.

Verdict: Stop, take a picture, look around. You probably don’t need to go several times in your life, but I appreciate the effort and it’s something you don’t see everyday!

***
Overall, we had a terrific fun-filled family vacation to the Black Hills. We saw and experienced a lot of things and made memories together as a family of five. I highly recommend the Black Hills as a family vacation destination and the activities listed for younger kids. We may consider going back when our kids are older and can do more hiking, trail riding, etc.

There is even more to do than I listed here and if you have a Black Hills Vacation Itinerary you’d like to share,  I’d love to link to it as an additional resource for families planning a trip to the Black Hills.

Ultimate Family Guide to the Black Hills: The Speech Mom

The Ultimate Black Hills Itinerary for Families: Tips for Family Trips

 

Kohl’s November 10, 2018 Veterans Day Sale

one dayBest deals of the year at Kohl’s if you have a Kohl’s credit card and know these hacks to doing it right! It’s ONLY GOOD TONIGHT, November 10, 2017!

  • $10 off a $25 order
  • PLUS 30% off
  • PLUS Free Shipping

1) Make sure you’re signed up for ebates. Use this link to get an extra $10! Then sign in to ebates, search for Kohl’s and click “Shop now” next to the 3.0% cash back.
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ps://www.ebates.com/r/CUSTOM731


2) Use the window that ebates opened, then Log in to your Kohl’s account and save everything you want to possibly buy to your WISH LIST! Remember, some brands like UA, Nike, adidas and Columbia are excluded from coupons (it will tell you in gray text if an item is excluded).

Wish List Tip: If you saved things last night, go to “My Lists” in the footer and you may need to sign-in again on the List window to get to your list.
3) Start adding things to your cart from your Wish List in groups of at least $25, but as close to $25 as possible.

4) Apply the following coupons:
VETSDAY to get $10 off a $25 order
SPLURGE30 to get 30% off
SHIP4FREE to get free shipping
Pay with your Kohl’s Charge Card


5) Once you place an order, go back to your wish list and add another group of at least $25. Repeat until done! Things do not disappear off your list once purchased, so keep track of what you already ordered.

I did at least a dozen orders after midnight last night and paid less than $12 including tax for each order of approx $25-$26 worth of merchandise. It ends at Midnight tonight!

We all know Kohl’s has 30% codes every so often and Free Shipping fairly frequently, but the $10 off $25 only comes around on Veteran’s Day, so don’t miss this deal!

I shared this on my facebook page, so go to the post and TAG your friends who love a good deal!
SHARE this deal with anyone you know who has things to buy at Kohl’s.
COMMENT with some of the deals you’re finding. 

Thinking of Starting Rodan + Fields? You Need a Budget!

I’ve been a budget-junky ever since my parents made me divide my coins into 3 cups (Give, Save, Spend) when I was a toddler… through my elementary years of writing checks and recording them in a paper ledger (I got a checking account in third grade)… into working years of using Microsoft Money and now YNAB to manage my personal budget.

So, it’s probably no surprise that when I decided to jump into starting my own direct-sales business through Rodan + Fields that I would be sure to be on the budget wagon from Day 1.

I had already been using YNAB for my personal budget for a year and found the principles applied well to my new small business. Here is how I used the 4 Rules to make sure I’m seeing financial success in my Rodan + Fields business (besides all the personal satisfaction that comes from helping people discover great skincare that works for them.)

How to budget rodan and fields

Rule One: Give Every Dollar a Job

When you get that first paycheck, it’s tempting to spend it all on something fun since it’s “extra” income, but you really need to have a plan of where those dollars should be spent. Here’s my breakdown with the example of a $200 check (your approximate check if you reach 600 PSQV through PC sales and reach Executive Consultant level)

Paycheck*: $200

  • Giving 10%: $20
  • Taxes 20%: $40
  • Fixed expenses (Pulse subscription) = $25
  • Variable Business Expenses 10%: $20
  • Personal Product: $95
  • Profit Income: $0

Let’s try it with a higher income check (usually attained through both personal sales and commission from your down line)

Paycheck*: $1000

  • Giving 10%: $100
  • Taxes 20%: $200
  • Fixed Expenses: $25
  • Variable Business Expenses 10%: $100
  • Personal Product: $150
  • Profit Income: $425

Here’s a little more explanation about each category in case you’re new or just curious:

  • Giving: Obviously a personal choice, but I choose to tithe 10% of my income. I encourage you to find a percentage you’re comfortable with and give it somewhere that is meaningful to you, whether it be to your church, to sponsor a child, to your local food pantry, the R+F Prescription for Change foundation, or even let your customers decide what charities they want their sponsor to support.
  • Taxes: When you get a paycheck from a regular employer, whatever taxes have already been set aside and paid to the government for you, based on your W2 withholding.  This is NOT the same for the commission check you receive from RF Pay Day.  It’s up to YOU to save money to pay your taxes at the end of the year. Keeping track of business expenses can significantly reduce how much you owe, but my best advice is to discuss with your tax adviser and make a plan. I’m being conservative and setting it aside as I go, hoping to not owe near this much in April and give it back to MYSELF to spend at the end of the year.
  • Fixed Expenses: The optional, but encouraged Pulse website costs $24.95/month and you want to be a month ahead–set aside $25 of this month’s income to pay for next month’s expense. If you’re choosing to pay for your cell phone or internet out of your business income, this is a good place for that too.
  • Variable Expenses: Think about all the costs that pop up each month to help grow your sales: samples, postage, packaging materials, invitations/food/rental for a BBL or consultant event, rebates or sales for your customers, etc. It might take some money to start making money, but you don’t want to overspend on sales and samples, leaving you with no money at the end of the month.
  • Personal Product: To reach 100 SV each month and qualify for commissions, you’ll get 20 QV from Pulse and will need to achieve 80QV in product. This can generally cost over $100 when you add tax and shipping. If you find yourself short in this budget or not in need of personal product, consider doing a bulk sales or ordering for family off your CRP.  For instance, sell 2 eye creams or 3 mineral peptides + brush, or 4 Essentials and a lip balm. Try to keep it as close to 80 QV as possible but you need at least 80 QV to reach your “100 bucket”.
  • Profit Income: This is what I personally would feel comfortable “spending” on things outside my R+F business. Use THIS to meet your personal financial goals such as paying down debt, saving for college or retirement, or funding a family vacation.

Budgeting is not about limiting your spending, it’s about getting your money to do what you want it to do.

Rule 2: Embrace Your True Expenses

This is mostly covered in Step 1 since your monthly expenses are part of your budget, but consider this if you want to buy more personal product than what your budget allows (such as a regimen bundle which saves you $ in the long run, but costs much more than $80). You may need to save up for 2 months to pay for that and find other ways to fill your 100 QV, such as retail sales or selling  bulk-order products.

I also make myself think about each individual order needing to be a money-maker. You may decide it’s worth it for long-term gain but if you’re just starting out, don’t get caught giving away too much.  So, don’t offer a $50 product free on ANY PC order because if someone only spends $80, you’ll be losing money.  Don’t offer to reimburse a Preferred Customer’s $19.95 enrollment fee if they buy one time and return it. Don’t offer $100 back on a $695 kit that you only make $90 commission on.

Another tip is if you are offering a big incentive, limit it to what you can afford. Don’t offer to give out 5 Eye Creams if you don’t have the cash this month to buy them–you don’t want to get in the habit of borrowing from next month’s potential check. Use only the money you’ve already earned.

Math is hard, but being broke is harder. Do the math.

Rule 3: Roll with the Punches

This is meant to encourage you to adjust your budget throughout the month if needed. This could happen if you make a retail sale and decide to adjust your personal product sales since you now don’t need as much to reach 100 QV.  Or you might decide that a $20 entry fee into a flash sale is a good investment (it was for me) or you want to take some personal profit to buy more samples or pay for postage. Just don’t let your accounts go negative–the borrowed money has to come from somewhere and if it’s not in your R+F budget, it will have to come from your family budget. Under no circumstances do I encourage buying on credit card if you don’t have the funds to pay for it today.

Don’t Borrow from your future, make the sacrifice today.

Rule 4: Age your Money (previously known as Live on Last Month’s income)

Don’t spend money that you THINK you’ll earn this month/receive on PayDay next month. Only spend money you have already earned. For me, this applies to kits too. I used personal savings to pay for my kit (I didn’t float it on a credit card thinking I’d make it back the next month). I did sell several regimens out of my kit right away just to get some cash flow going and invested into next month’s expenses. But if I were trying to pay back a credit card for my kit expenses, I wouldn’t have had much to invest in my business in the beginning.

This rule applies to regular paydays too. If I had a great May, I get that paycheck on June 12 and use it to pay for JULY expenses. It obviously takes a little bit to get in this cycle, but at the very least, try to have your June 12 paycheck pay for expenses that occur after June 12 (move your CRP, don’t offer rebates or buy samples until you get paid).

Only spend money you’ve already earned and received.

Those are YNAB’s 4 Rules that apply to not only personal budgets, but your Rodan + Fields business as well. It works for many other direct sales or small businesses too. Some direct sales companies require you to buy inventory before selling it so your budget will look a little different but the same principles apply. I personally love not having to front money for inventory so I can truly apply last month’s commission to next month’s expenses instead of having to pay off last month’s wholesale purchases.

Interested in learning more about You Need a Budget? They have awesome video training, offer a free 34-day trial AND if you sign up using my link, you’ll get one month FREE when you subscribe.

(An annual subscription after the free trial is $84/year but it will push your renewal date out one month. Full disclosure: I also get 1 month free if you use my link, but it’s the only way YOU get 1 month free, so win-win)

Interested in learning more about starting our own Rodan + Fields business?

*The Rodan + Fields Income used in my illustration was just an example and does not indicate or guarantee your income as an Independent Consultant. Read the full Rodan + Fields Income Disclosure Statement for more details.

Please ask questions in the comments or message me through my facebook group! Part of the reason I joined Rodan + Fields was to help others achieve financial independence and financial literacy is one of my passions. I’d love to help you out or hook you up with other budgeting resources!

 

Put your Money on Auto-Matic

money on automaticOne of my top money tips that involves saving time (and potentially money) is to automate your bill-pay process as much as possible.

Most credit card accounts have auto-bill pay options and even many of my bills can ACH directly out of my checking account.

Why I love these features:

  1. If you are living in 1997 and still mail or drop off your bills, this saves you both time and money in postage and gas.
  2. It eliminates late fees from bills that get forgotten, lost or confusion over who in the household was supposed to pay it.
  3. It frees up mental bandwidth that was previously spent on remembering where the bills are, what is due when, what has gotten paid or not, etc.
  4. I include some of my own savings as auto-payments each month, such as funding ROTH IRA and college investments accounts. This way they don’t get de-prioritized as other bills come in. You can also set up automatic drafts to a savings account if you’re saving money there for something special.

More tips:

  1. Make sure your bank balance has adequate funds to cover the full statement balance on the due date. I use ynab.com to budget, so all my spending comes of categories that are funded at the time I purchase and I also follow their suggestions of building up a 1-month buffer in all categories. (Use my link to get 1 month FREE!)
  2. Check your accounts for all the bills that come in during a month and then set up the auto-pay all at once, otherwise you’ll wonder which ones are on auto-pay and which ones you have to manually pay. Not all of them note on your statement whether auto-pay is on. Put your passwords somewhere safe.
  3. When you set them up, they most likely will only be automatically paid on your NEXT statement, not your current statement. So, pay in full now and then next month it will pay for you. (I got caught with this on Kohl’s–it was more of a 2 month wait.)
  4. If you have irregular bills that come up, set them up for automatic renewal if you know you want to continue use, or use your bank‘s bill-pay system to avoid using a stamp and envelope.
  5. If you’re into credit card rewards, some bills will let you charge your card instead of drafting directly from  your checking. For example, I pay my cable/internet bill on my credit card every month, then my credit card automatically pays on it’s due date. Just know that organizations are charged a fee to use credit cards, so I choose not to put my church/non-profit giving on a credit card because I don’t want them to have a to pay a transaction fee.

Ideas of Accounts to Set Up:

  1. Church Giving
  2. Other Mission support (example: We sponsor a child through Compassion International and set up automatic payment including birthday and Christmas presents to make sure we don’t miss it.)
  3. Credit Cards (choice to pay last statement balance, current balance or minimum). If you’re on credit card float/not always able to pay it off every month, at least set it up to draft the minimum automatically and then just send any extra you can. But don’t get late fees to add to the mess!)
  4. Store Credit Cards (Kohl’s, Amazon,  gas card, etc.)
  5. Mortgage (including if you want extra principle paid each month)
  6. Daycare
  7. Cable/Internet
  8. Electric/Water/Garbage
  9. Cell Phone
  10. Investment accounts (retirement, college fund)
  11. Subscriptions like Netflix, Amazon Prime, ID Theft protection, Computer virus protection, software, etc.

Beyond Auto-Pay:

If you do have any accounts that don’t allow auto-pay-in-full, at least figure out their online payment system so you can save stamps and trips. For example, if you doctor at a Sanford medical facility, use My Sanford Chart to pay your bills using your HSA debit card. Or at the very least, your bank may have an online bill-pay feature that will send a check for you to any business you set up.
I also recommend Paypal as an easy way to send money to friends or family for all those little things like splitting the cost of a gift or a restaurant ticket. Much easier than sending checks that someone has to cash! Just make sure you send it through “Friends and Family” and don’t send them a “request to pay” or a fee will be charged.
What other tips or ideas can you share on automating your bill-paying process?

Top Tater Tot Hot Dish Tips

There is no comfort food greater ingrained for me than Tater Tot Hot Dish.

tator-tot-hot-dish-top-tips

Here are my Top Tips to make an easy casserole even easier and better.

  • Make 2 at once. If you’re making the mess, just make 2 and freeze one. This is a huge time-saver and sanity-saver when you have meals made and ready to put on your weekly meal plan.
  • Since you’re making 2 at once, brown 2 lbs of meat. I mix 1 lb of ground beef with 1 lb of ground turkey. Ground turkey is generally much less expensive and if you mix them together in a casserole, you can barely tell the difference.
  • If you’re chopping onion to brown with the meat, chop a whole onion and freeze whatever you aren’t using immediately. Cry once, use twice. I freeze in small containers or freezer bags.
  • Mix it up. I made one with cream of mushroom soup and green beans and the other with tomato soup and corn. You can also add shredded cheddar to either variety if it suites your fancy, but I sometimes skip it.
  • I like to use casserole dishes that come with lids so they are easy to freeze and easy to put away into the fridge as leftovers. Remember to write the instructions on a label on top!
  • I have 2 go-to Pampered Chef tools for this recipe. The Mix ‘N Chop for browning meat and the Small Mix ‘N Scraper for getting the soup out of the cans and stirring up the ingredients. (I am not a consultant, just love the products. Buy from someone you know!)
  • Buy tater tots (or Crispy Crowns or Golden Rounds or whatevs) when they are at rock-bottom price (below $2 where I live) and stash in your deep freezer until you need them.
  • I bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes but then BROIL them for a few minutes to crisp up the tots at the end. Same thing for re-heating. I’ll put a portion in an oven-safe dish, microwave it for a minute but then broil it for a minute or two to get the tots crispy. Yum!

 

Tater Tot Hot Dish from Working Mom Hacks

2 lb browned ground beef (or beef/turkey mixture), browned with onion, salt, pepper, then drained and rinsed

In a 8×11 or 2qt casserole, mix 1 lb meat with : 1 can Cream of Mushroom Soup and 1 can Green Beans, drained AND/OR Mix 1 lb meat with: 1 can Tomato Soup and 1 can Corn, drained

Top each with 1/2 bag Tator Tots

Bake for 30 min at 350, then broil 3-5 minutes

Freeze other casserole. Thaw 24 hours in fridge before baking. For best results, you should keep the tots off the casserole and keep them frozen in their own bag until baking, but it does work fine if you thaw the casserole with tots. Don’t over think this, it’s tater tot hot dish for goodness’ sake.

 

Top 3 Ways to get PAID for Shopping Online

top-3-ways

You shop online anyway, so why not get paid for it!

Learn my pro tips for which sites to use and how to maximize your cash back!

I feel like I save a lot of money by shopping online because I don’t add (as many) impulse items to my cart like I do in store (Target = a 2 hour budget-buster, am I right?)

But, DON’T leave free money on the table by not shopping SMART online. #moneyhacks

Here are my top 3 ways to get money back for shopping you were going to do anyway.

ebates-logo
1. Ebates 

Why I Love It: When you install the ebates button, it’s easy to remember and simple to earn cash.
Stores: Hundreds of retailers. My favorites are: Kohl’s, Target, Nike, Amazon, Walmart, Old Navy, Groupon, JC Penney, Snapfish, Hotels.com

How-To: Before going to a retailer website, go to ebates.com, search for the store, then click on the link to earn CASH BACK on your purchases. You MUST use the window that pops up with the store’s site in it to get credit!  The % cash back varies by store and by time. There are also usually some stores on Double Cash Back and they have great Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals.

Pro Tip: Add the ebates button to your Chrome browser and it will remind you anytime you’re on a site that has cash back to activate Ebates! It will also show up in your search results.

What you earn: Straight % rebate based on what the listed rebate was at the time of purchase. So, if you click the link to get 6% back at Kohl’s and spend $100, you’ll get $6. 

Payment: Big Fat Check* (that’s what they call it) sent by mail every quarter, no minimum for payout.

Sign-up Bonus: Use my link to get $10 free if you’re a new member!

Referral Program: Changes every quarter and there is usually bonus for your friend, bonus for you! Click on “Refer + Earn” for details.

top-cash-back

2. TopCashBack

Why I Love It: It sometimes has higher rebates than ebates and I can earn even more when I cash out for Amazon.com gift cards.

Stores: Over 3500 online retailers. My favorites are Snapfish, Old Navy, Target, Kohl’s Walmart, Under Armour, Nike, Macy’s, Cabela’s, The Children’s Place, Lindt

How-To: Before going to a retailer website, go to topcashback.com, search for the store, then click on the link to earn CASH BACK on your purchases. You MUST use the window that pops up with the store’s site in it to get credit!  The % cash back varies by store and changes often. You can only go “through” ONE site to get to the retailer site, so you can never stack ebates AND topcashback.

Pro Tip: Before shopping check both ebates and topcashback and then go to the store site through the one with the higher rebate % listed.

What you earn: Straight % rebate based on what the listed rebate was at the time of purchase. So, if you click the link to get 10% back at Under Armour and spend $100, you’ll get $10. 

Payment: ACH to your bank account, PayPal or get a bonus when cashing out for an American Express Rewards card, or Amazon.com gift card. Cash out* anytime with no minimum.

Referral program: Refer your friends to get $10. Click on “Tell-a-Friend” and then share your link.

trunited-logo

3. Trunited

Why I love it: You can earn money back for buying gift cards (ebates and topcashback exclude gift card purchases) plus you can grow your earnings by a referral network.

Stores: Many online retailers to shop through in the same fashion as ebates and topcashback. Some of my favorites are Walmart, Sam’s Club, Priceline.com, Best Buy, PetSmart, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Gap, Lowes, Home Depot

Gift Cards: Get rewarded for buying gift cards for Target, Walmart, Shell gas and many restaurants like Starbucks, Panera, Chipotle, Chik-fil-a, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds

How-To:  Sign up for a free account at Trunited using this link. Click on “National Brands” to do online shopping through stores (similar to ebates or topcashback) or go to “Gift Card Shop” to buy gift cards. Each will tell you the % of Profit Points you’ll earn for the purchase.  You can also put items or gift cards in your “TruBox” for auto-shipment every month with free shipping on $100+ and get 10% more profit points.

Pro Tip: Pay attention to the points earned at different price points. You may earn more points buying 4 gift cards at $25 than one at $100. Just know how many gift cards you can use on a single transaction at that store (you can use 4 at target.com!)

What you earn: A % of your purchase is earned as “profit points”. At the end of the month, the profits of all sales are distributed back to all members. Profits are the sales minus the cost of goods/gift cards (the site negotiates for a discounted rate). Your cut is determined by the number of profit points you earned that month. The more sales overall, the bigger the pool. The more profit points you have,  the bigger your cut. 

Payment: Once per month, you are paid into your truWallet which you can then use to buy goods or gift cards next month, or you can cash out*.

Referral program: Earn more points by referring friends and reaching milestone levels such as “PaceSetter” which is inviting 3 friends who invite 2 who invite 1 and all make a purchase that month. You will earn on purchases of friends-of-friends instead of just the people you directly refer. Click My Account, then My truDashboard, then Refer Friends and customize and share your link.  Disclaimer: There may be a fee to participate in the affiliate part of this program (earning on friends of friends) but you can join free as a member and earn from the profit pool based on just your purchases. The affiliate portion is subject to change, but you do not need to pay a fee until you know what payment you would be eligible for as an affiliate.

*You should consult with your tax adviser on how to report income earned in the form of gift cards or cash back.

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Those are my TOP 3 ways to earn money while shopping online. There are many other ways to find COUPONS (Retailmenot.com is my favorite) but all of those coupon codes can be STACKED with any of these sites. You can even buy a gift card off Trunited, then go through ebates OR topcashback, then use a coupon code (and a Target Redcard discount…) and double-, triple-, even quadruple-dip!

But for now, let’s keep it simple. Remember to:

  1. Sign up for Trunited and buy digital gift cards online.

  2. Shop through Trunited, ebates or topcashback to get to a retailer site. Pay with your digital gift card.

  3. EARN MONEY for shopping online!

#MoneyHacks: Getting Started

I was recently asked by an old friend for advice on budgeting. She had seen my post on another friend’s page suggesting the budgeting tools I liked and asked what advice I would give for someone who wanted to start spending their money more intentionally. So, I’d like you to look at this as me answering that question, as if we were sitting down together over coffee. I’ll give some un-expert, but tried and true advice, and even sprinkle in some of our story.

Goals and Dreams

What is your end-goal? It’s important to personalize this because it’s going to affect the choices you make and how you prioritize different than someone else. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • I want to stop living pay-check to pay-check or juggling bills to stay ahead.
  • I want to feel secure that I can retire at age [pick a number–maybe it’s early, maybe it’s traditional]
  • I want to stop fighting with my spouse about money.
  • I want my kids to go to college and not have as much debt as I did.
  • I want the choice to [travel more, give more away, work at a job I love for less pay, become a SAH parent.]

Get a real picture of your debt.

Write down EVERYTHING you owe with total balances, monthly minimums, due dates, and interest rates.  This includes mortgage, student loans, vehicle loans, toy loans, credit cards, personal loans, family loans…you get the picture. Log into all those loan sites (and save the passwords somewhere). You will never be able to decide where your money gets to go until  you know where it HAS to go.  If you want to use paper, that’s fine. If you like technology, I’ve heard good things about undebt.it or readyforzero.com.

OUR STORY: When we first took Financial Peace University, I thought we were in GREAT financial shape. We budgeted, saved for retirement, paid our credit card off every month, and were saving for grad school. It was a reality check to write down that we still had a 30-year mortgage, a vehicle loan and various student loans several years after graduation.

Next, commit to no new debt and getting out of debt.

No car loan. No second mortgage for a remodel. No student loans. No more credit cards if you have any with balances. It’s important to write this down and commit to it as a couple so that the “I NEED a new [car/whatever it is]–we can always finance it.” discussion is off the table.

OUR STORY: We decided there was no reason we should be paying interest on a vehicle loan when we had enough in savings to pay off the truck. We also committed to driving our current vehicles until we could save up cash for the next (used) purchase. We committed to doing everything we could to pay off our student loans within 2 years and that we would have grad school paid off by the time my husband completed his Master’s degree in the next 2 years.

Figure out your income.

Seems easy for people like us who get paid once or twice/month, but really look at every source of income: salaries, bonuses, overtime, side jobs, interest earned, etc. If you have variable pay, write down your income for the past year to get a good idea of where your peaks and valleys are.

OUR STORY: We had steady salaried jobs but wanted to make sure any extra income or bonuses wasn’t frittered away. We pre-committed any extra money to be used for whatever goal/baby step we were on at the time. Made bonuses a lot less exciting, but made our goals possible.

Figure out your expenses.

List your yearly bills (monthly x 12 plus any annual payments like car/life insurance, subscriptions, etc.) and expenses. If you don’t know where to get started, your checking account register online is a good start. It’s recommended to comb through 3-6 months of expenses and start categorizing them. You’ll need a good picture of where you money is actually going before you can make a realistic budget.

Get an emergency fund or buffer.

Dave Ramsey suggests a $1000 emergency fund, YNAB suggests “buffering” one month of expenses (use September’s paycheck to pay October’s bills). The idea is that you don’t want to create new debt/an emergency if an unexpected expense shows up. So, set aside some money from the beginning that is only for emergencies. You might already have that in savings, you might need to pick up extra hours or a side job or sell some things. But you want to do it fast, even if it’s not fun in the short run.

Make a plan: Get that first Budget done.

This is the part where people get scared and think that a budget will be so restricting and they’ll never get to do anything fun. I like the description that “a budget is just a plan”. It’s like a To-Do list for your money. Everything needs to get done, so write it all down, starting with your “needs” and then filling in wants. Be realistic about your expenses at first, based on your past 6 months of spending.  Later, if you get to the end of your list and have run out of income to fund each expense category, go back and evaluate what is necessary, what aligns with your goals, and what your current and future priorities are. You might [you will] have to cut something out or down. Here are a few resources to help:

OUR STORY: After YEARS of budgeting, here is a list of my categories. You have to merge/separate what makes sense for you, but sometimes it helps to see someone else’s list to help trigger ideas of things you may forget about.

  • Giving
    • Tithe (local church)
    • Other Giving (mission trips, local fundraisers, other charities/families in need, Compassion Sponsorship)
  • Savings
    • Retirement Savings
    • Kids College Funds
    • Vehicle Replacement (you should be paying yourself for your next vehicle, not paying someone else for your current vehicle_
    • Emergency Fund (if you’re still building it up)
  • Monthly Bills (I included here if it’s a recurring bill even if the amount varies slightly)
    • Debt Payments, if you have them (Student loans, vehicle, credit card, medical, etc.)
    • Mortgage, Insurance, Property Taxes
    • Utilities (gas, electric, water, garbage)
    • Cable/Internet/Phone
    • Cell Phone (includes monthly bill + saving for phones every 2 years)
    • School Lunch
    • Daycare (we have a FLEX account, but this is the extra needed beyond)
    • Term Life Insurance (save every month so it’s fully funded when your premium is due)
    • Auto Insurance (save some every month so you can pay 6 or 12 months at a time if there is a discount available)
    • Yearly Subscriptions (Amazon Prime, YNAB, Zander ID Theft, McAfee). You may have more like NetFlix, Hulu,
  • Variable Spending (I tend to take yearly spending/12, but you may want to flex these up and down by month as needed, especially if you’re working on short-term important goals like getting out of debt)
    • Groceries/Household supplies
    • Clothing/Cosmetics/Hair care
    • Home Maintenance (light bulbs, repairs, lawn care, etc.)
    • Home Improvement (furniture, decor, photos, appliance replacement)
    • Transportation (fuel, maintenance, repairs, registration, tolls/parking)
    • Pet (food, vet, boarding for vacations)
    • Teaching Expenses (classroom supplies, continuing ed, professional dues)
    • Entertainment (dining out, coffee, movies, day trips, tickets)
    • Vacation (we include kids rec activities and pool pass, remember to include for things like hotels for weddings and holidays)
    • Gifts Given (calculate how much you plan/can spend for birthdays (including party supplies), Christmas (including cards/stamps), Anniversary, Valentine’s Day, weddings, showers, funerals, etc.)
  • Others you may need:
    • Medical (our premiums and HSA contributions come out pre-tax, but yours may not)
    • HOA fees or cleaning/lawn service
    • ??? Look at your bank account transactions to see what else you are spending money on so you can PLAN realistically

Your plan needs to include getting rid of that debt ASAP

Whether you use a debt snowball, a debt avalanche, fancy software or just a pen-and-marker thermometer, you need to make a plan on how/when you are going to get all of your debt (except your house) paid off. Quickly. Like 24 months or less. What can you cut out of your budget? Where can you make or commit and extra income? What can you “pause” until it’s paid off (retirement, college savings, new vehicle saving, down payment). Getting out of debt is one of the first keys to freedom.

 

Well, I think that’s plenty long for a “getting started” post…I told you brevity was not my strong suit. I may elaborate more on the budgeting and debt repayment sections in the future, but there are so many routes you can take and I truly believe you have to do what motivates YOU most, not exactly what I did.

If you have any comments or questions, I’d love to follow up with you!