Friday, September 9, 2016

How We Saved Over $400 on Vacation Meals

I'm super excited to share our meals and how we saved well over $400 during our vacation!

**Check with your hotel to learn what appliances are/are not allowed. These meals can all be made in the microwave if a skillet cannot be used.**

Originally, we had booked two standard rooms at Cabana Bay Beach Resort. When they offered us a great upgrade deal, we changed to a tower family suite with a kitchenette.  This ended up offering us a huge savings by allowing me to prepare 5 breakfasts, 4 dinners, and some snacks in our room.  The grands ate a few breakfasts and 3 dinners with us, so we were feeding 7-9 people at an average of $15.55 per meal!  (That's $1.73-$2.22 per person!) Big thanks to Trader Joe's for providing such high-quality, quick-prep foods!  (No, this isn't an ad or sponsored blog!)

First of all, if there is any debate about the size of these "mini" fridges at Cabana Bay Beach, see this photo and notice the gallon of milk in the background. These are certainly bigger than most hotel mini-fridges we've seen.  While this fridge has no freezer, we stacked all of our frozen items together in the very back and our last dinner was still partially frozen after 3 full days. This fridge would not keep something like ice cream or popsicles frozen.

I bought Dawn trial size for $1 at Dollar Tree and purchased some Trader Joe's kitchen cloths. These cloths ended up being a fantastic purchase. I think I'll start using them at home, too.

Wanting to cook dinners with more than a microwave, I searched Craigslist for electric skillets and found the perfect one (pictured below) for $3!  With this, I was able to stir-fry, cook pancakes and eggs, and toast bagels.  You could also make grilled cheese or all kinds of other meals with this small appliance. 

In addition to these meals, we had turkey, lunch bread, PB&J, Joe's O's, TJ's frozen mac and cheese, and a few other items for snacks, all included in the price breakdown I mentioned.

We had 2 fridges, but didn't need them both!
These items helped me keep everything clean.
The first morning, we had bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon. This smoked salmon was amazing!  We had milk and Midnight Moo so the boys could have chocolate milk every morning.  It also ended up being a good snack for the rest of the family. Dinner on the first night was Broccoli and Kale Slaw Salad and Beef and Broccoli stir-fry.
Bagels and lox
Beef and Broccoli with Broccoli and Kale Slaw
The next morning, we scrambled some eggs and ate more bagels. Most mornings, the boys ate Corn Flakes cereal with milk.  For dinner, we had this delicious Pulled Beef Brisket on thin bread, Dill Pickle Kettle Chips, and cheese for whomever wanted it.


Dill Pickle Kettle Chips were the perfect side for the Beef Brisket



Breakfast on day three was more of the same: cereal, bagels, and/or eggs. Everyone likes different things, so we all ate what we preferred.  For dinner, we made this Shiitake Mushroom Chicken stir-fry that ended up being a hit with everyone.



Friday morning, we made buttermilk pancakes. This mix from Trader Joe's requires one egg and one cup of water per batch, so it is super easy. (Trader Joe's sells ready-made frozen pancakes, too, if you can't cook your own.)

You can't beat Trader Joe's $1.19 eggs!

Grass-fed butter makes everything better. 
I forgot to buy syrup, but the diner downstairs had some for us!

My pancake helper.
What I brought from home:
can opener
cutting board
plastic mixing bowl
2 knives
metal spatula
rubber spatula
Trader Joe's reusable rags
dish soap
skillet
cafe press
paper plates and bowls (Did not need these! They provide!)

What Cabana Bay provided in their kitchenette:
hot and cold cups
bowls
plates
plastic utensils
coffee maker and all the condiments needed
mini-fridge
microwave
sink
I will write a full review of Cabana Bay Beach Resort, but let me say here that we thoroughly enjoyed our stay!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pencil Case Fish Extender

If you're unfamiliar with the Fish Extender (FE) phenomenon on Disney Cruises, a simple Google search will quickly get you up to speed, but Dis gives an excellent description and this is one of my favorite blog posts about it.

For the past 8 months, we've been a part of an active Facebook group consisting of about 350 of our cruise mates.  It's fun getting to know a bit about our fellow-travelers.  If you are going on a cruise, I highly recommend you join DisBoards or Cruise Critic so you can connect with others.  Our travel group has created tee shirts, booked mixology classes, teamed up for excursions, shared stateroom door decor designs, and of course, organized a fish extender exchange...and a Halloween candy exchange....and an ornament exchange. (Don't let all this fun overwhelm you. We chose to participate in the FE gift exchange only, so you aren't required to do it all! It's meant to be fun, not stressful.)  We are looking forward to meeting up, though, for a group photo in the atrium.  It's been a very cool way to meet people we never would have otherwise.

Another positive of the FE is that it forces me out of my self-focus.  It's easy with trip planning to become absorbed with OUR fun. OUR plan. OUR budget.  The FE gave me time to focus outward and create something fun for people I've never met.

Check out her stuff! She's amazing!
https://www.etsy.com/shop/Gradysmommy
If money wasn't a consideration or if I had mad sewing skills, I would have made or purchased an FE like this one. I love this design! In fact, back when we had booked a cruise in 2009, I bought Disney fabric to start creating something like that. The trip was cancelled and I've grown wiser and more realistic about my lack of skills, so no attempt was made to sew one stitch.

While I can't yet share what we put together for our FE gifts (it would ruin the surprise!), I can share with you how I made our extenders.

As usual, I scoured Google images and Pinterest for ideas. These pencil case FEs sparked my interest, but had no instructions. I decided it was worth a try anyway.

Pencil cases at H-E-B were $2 each. I'm sure they can be found for less, but I was ready to get started and these were heavy-duty with a clear front, which was needed.   Initially, I planned to use hot glue to secure the ribbon, but while at Hobby Lobby, I saw the grommets and figured they would look nicer. I had no experience applying grommets to fabric, but this was a let's-see-as-we-go project.

Unfortunately, I didn't think to take step-by-step photos, but it was as basic as this:
  1. use the grommet and a pen to trace the hole size
  2. cut the hole with scissors (I'm sure a fabric hole punch would be better, but I don't have one)
  3. fit the grommet and use the tool to secure it (here's how)
  4. thread the ribbon through each grommet, starting at the bottom
  5. tie a knot under each grommet as you go so the pouch can hold some weight without slipping
The most fun was creating the designs for each pocket. We used Keynote (think Powerpoint...you could also use Photoshop or something like it) to bring in elements of each of our favorite things and characters, then had them printed on card stock at Office Depot.

I used the paper cutter at Office Depot to cut the signs to size, then slid them into the pocket so it would show through the window.

red ribbon - $1.50 on sale at Hobby Lobby
grommets - $3.00 at Hobby Lobby
grommet tool - $3.50 on sale at Hobby Lobby
burlap ribbon - $1 at Dollar Tree
pencil cases - $12 for 6 at H-E-B
color prints on card stock - $3
__________________________
$26, including tax, for two FEs!

Grommets and grommet tool
Dollar Tree and half-price Hobby Lobby ribbon


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Planning A Cruise Excursion

This blog post is the "before" the cruise excursion.  It will be interesting to see how the "after" turns out!

Thanks to an excellent review from Joel Barish's travels Around The World, we knew we couldn't miss The Baths National Park at Virgin Gorda!  (His review of The Baths begins at 04:00) We've never planned a cruise excursion on our own; it's a bit scary!  There are pros and cons to going it alone, the biggest two pros for me being control and money.

Money
If all goes as planned, it's much cheaper to plan your own excursion than it is to book with your cruise line.  The greatest risk, and probably the main reason most people book with their cruise line, is the possibility of being left behind.  If a shuttle breaks down, if traffic comes to a standstill, if some act of God causes you to be late for "all aboard," the ship will not wait for you.  On the contrary, if you've booked through the cruise line, the ship will wait.  So when you consider the cost of literally missing the boat and traveling to the next port on your own dime, you could spend hundreds more by flying solo.  While the odds are low that you'll be late arriving to your ship, it's a gamble. You position yourself with the best odds if you plan ahead.

To give you an idea of the savings for the excursion we are taking to The Baths, we anticipate spending $235 by taking the ferry, then a taxi there and back.  It would cost $845 if we booked with Disney or $525 through private tours.

Control
Photo credit: wikitravel.org
I do not enjoy the feeling of being at the mercy of an excursion.  I would rather decide how much time we want to spend at the beach, what time we'd like to head back to the ship, and if we want to stop at a restaurant or not.  You'd think I would hate cruising, since no one is letting me steer the ship, but I don't need that much control.

I do believe I'll be somewhat anxious flying solo since this is our first experience, but the planning and review-reading helps!

How Planning Makes the Difference

Compare Prices
Remember those spreadsheets I mentioned earlier?  Well, create a table to compare options: booking a cruise line excursion, booking a private excursion, or planning it all on your own. You can decide where your value lies within the price differences.

Research Research Research
The Internet has been my best friend while preparing for this trip; even more so when planning our own excursions.  Here are some of my favorites:
Cruise Critic - A great place to read others' trip reports, ask questions, and get references.
CruiseTimeTables - See what ships are docked at your port on the day you're there. This helped us feel comfortable knowing we would be the only ship in port at Tortola on the day we are venturing out on our own. We likely would have planned differently if we were one of 3 or 4 ships in port.
General Google Search - Check for holidays and special events that might be occurring on the day you are in that port.  Events such as parades or marathons will greatly affect your travel time, so be sure you're prepared.  We were also able to find the ferry time schedules, taxi rates, and check drive times via Google Maps to help build our itinerary.
Pinterest Board - Pinterest is a nice place to bookmark all of your findings and search for other articles and tips.

Make Plan A, B and C
Vacations are most fun when they are flexible! Be prepared for the unexpected. Our excursion from Tortola to The Baths includes a 40-minute ferry, then a 15-minute taxi ride each way, which creates a lot of room for the unexpected.  I created another trusty Numbers table, plugging in the ferry times and drive times, creating several scenarios depending on when we decide to leave the ship and when we decide to return.  No matter what, we do not plan to take the last ferry back to the island.  We want to give ourselves some wiggle room and we want to be back on the ship to have relaxed time before dinner.  I've also heard the last ferry back to the island can get very crowded, especially when there are many ships in port.
Our plan A: visit the Baths (various possible travel times).  Plan B: forego The Baths and instead sightsee around Tortola. Plan C: stay on the ship and relax.

I can't wait to see The Baths, as long as Plan A is successful, and will report back with my "after" tips!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

First-Class Flying on the Ground

I've only flown first class once in my lifetime.  It was a glorious 13-hour international flight with comfortable seating, personal service, and all the food and drinks we could handle.

When considering taking a bus ride, I had never envisioned a first-class setting...until I met Vonlane.

Earlier this month, I was headed to Houston for a professional conference.  My hotel room was reserved and I had even planned out my stops for a road trip.  A day or two before the conference, I learned that parking would be $16-$20 per day!  That added up to $80-100 just to have my SUV sit in a dark garage for 5 days.  With my low MPG, I was also looking at a $60 gas bill.

Knowing Greyhound busses would not be my cup of tea, I decided to check out Megabus.  Reading this blog review scared me, though, and I decided not to spend $20 one-way on an iffy experience.  When the author said to "lower your expectations" and "we've never taken a Megabus that doesn't leave at least 30 minutes late," it doesn't leave me with good feelings, even if the trip is cheap.

That's when Ken suggested Vonlane.  Vonlane claims to be a "private jet on wheels."  While I've never flown in a private jet, I can say I agree to the sentiment.

I argued with Ken over the justification for the $79 one-way trip.  He explained that if we are going to have to spend $100, he would rather spend it on something enjoyable rather than a parking spot. He's also the most thoughtful husband who insisted that I needed the break and the special treatment.  (awww)

I took to the internet again to read reviews and found nothing but praise for this bus line.  That sealed the deal.

We booked the one-way trip online and saw there were only 6 of the maximum 16 seats filled.  The next afternoon, Ken dropped me off at the Hyatt Regency downtown where the slick-looking bus was waiting for me.

Services included
I was greeted by the attendant, Melanie.  She showed me to my seat and asked if this was my first trip.  She shared the run-down of our trip, the services offered, and that she used to be a flight attendant who enjoyed the more personal touch of Vonlane.

On the drive to Houston, I enjoyed binge-watching Grey's Anatomy, working on my Macbook, having a few snacks, and simply taking in the view.  Melanie checked on me frequently, but would not interrupt my work or sleep.  It truly was a relaxing 2 1/2 hours.  Melanie also served the bus driver, offering him drinks and snacks as well as updating him on road conditions and travel time.  It gave me peace of mind to know he could simply focus on driving while she took care of other details.

They offer noise-cancelling headphones that are legit!  When I put them on, my ears popped due to pressure.  I didn't use them to watch the bus TVs, but plugged them in to my iPhone to enjoy Grey's. The wi-fi was fairly reliable throughout the trip.  There were some parts of the drive when certain apps such as Netflix or Snapchat didn't respond, but work-related sites such as my assignment scheduling platform and Blogger always responded.

On the subject of work, they offer a conference room in the back, complete with a large table, door for privacy, seating for 6, and noise-cancelling headphones with a built-in mic so you can work and even conference while on the road. What an awesome way to do work travel!  The conference room typically must be reserved, but if you're with few passengers as I was, they simply offer the use of the room to whomever might need it.

The bathrooms.  They were not only clean, but were a lovely design.  Much better than the "vomit-worthy" possibility I read about on Megabus.  The seats recline to a very comfortable position and some busses have leg/foot rests, which help shorties like me sit for a long period of time without our legs falling asleep!

I highly recommend you take Vonlane if you're traveling among the tricities they serve. (Dallas, Austin, and Houston.)  It could be a fun friend's trip or a way to get work done while you travel.
The bus back home did have leg rests

The first bus didn't have leg rests
Roomy! Nice flooring.
This is the bus BATHROOM, ya'll!


TV if you choose to watch.
View from the bus, arriving in Houston










Friday, July 29, 2016

Using Google Maps to Plan a Road Trip

KevinAndAmanda.com already have an excellent tutorial, so I'm not going to re-create instructions.  Visit their site for all of the how-tos and I will share how I've used Google Maps to create a plan for our road trip. 
Using Google Maps, I was able to find an alligator overlook
at one of the rest stops in Florida!
The Internet is a fabulous invention! Sure, it, like anything, can be used for evil, but when it's used for good, it's SO good!

I first created the route from Austin to Orlando.  Next, I began looking along our route for rest stops and visitors' centers with restrooms and a play area.  I had the best luck finding them by searching on Google Maps, "safety rest" or "rest stop" as well as "visitors center".  Street view shows you what it looks like and often has user-submitted photos.  Stopping at safety rest stops offers us (in our experience) clean restrooms, a place to run and play, and usually a good photo opportunity with a state sign.  Stopping at rest stops also helps us avoid making pricey gas station and fast food purchases.  I labeled regular rest stops with a diamond icon and added a "sightseeing" icon to any stops that I know have a good photo op or something interesting to see.

Since we do have a food budget while on the road, and we have limited storage spaces, I located some grocery stores that are just off the interstate for when we need to make stop and restock snacks and lunches. Trader Joe's has a great selection of trail mixes, dried fruits, and other healthy prepared food we can pack for the drive and stash in our hotel fridge.  We located Costco for a cheap lunch in the cafe and clean restrooms.  Our favorite grocery store that also has low-priced gas is HEB, so I labeled a few of those along our route in case we need to make a stop.

Note: The tutorial explains how to add images to your notes, but you're also able to make your own map icon, as I did for Trader Joe's.

RoadsideAmerica.com is a must-surf before any roadtrip, no matter how short.  We have found so many cool and weird things to see along our drive.  Dancing frogs off a frontage road?  Texas' own "Nessie" hiding in a field off the interstate?  A giant catfish in the back of a truck, just 1/4 mile off the highway?  Yes, please!  Getting out to snap a picture breaks up the monotony and gets our circulation going.  The photo also serves as a great road trip memory.  I never would have found these places without Roadside America.
One of several sculptures in an unassuming park in a tiny Texas town.
Giant dairy cows!
Take advantage of Google Maps Street View!  Street view allows me to "look around" the hotel we've chosen, locate a safe walking path, and truly see what's there before going. (Keep in mind that time has passed since the street view was recorded, so things might have changed.) I used this feature to help me locate ideal rest stops and travel areas, took a virtual walk around and inside our hotel in Mobile, Alabama, and even was able virtually tour the USS Alabama, which helped me decide buying tickets would be worth it if we have time!

Orlando Informer created an awesome and useful Google Map of the walking distances between resorts and the parks.  It's a fantastic example of a custom map.  If you make one that would be beneficial to others, make it public! Share away!

Go ahead and try out Google Maps for your next road trip!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Planning, Planning, and More Planning

By nature, I'm a procrastinator.  I've been one who says "I work best under pressure" and it's most often true.  It's not often than my "type A" side shows up, but when it does, it comes on strong! Numbers spreadsheets? Yes! Planning out activities months in advance? Please and thank you! Painstakingly researching and comparing prices? But of course!

Planning a trip awakens my inner geek!

After Ken and I crunched broad numbers and decided we could book a Disney Cruise, I began searching for ways to get to the port (drive for fly?), where to stay overnight (hotel or Airbnb?), and even the best rest stops along the way. That blog is coming up next.

First I created a spreadsheet in Numbers where I could plug in...numbers...and calculate things such as gas prices and compare hotel costs.  Typically, I'd go straight to Airbnb, but since we were looking for one quick overnight stay in Mobile and a possible night near Port Canaveral, hotels are our best bet.  (Airbnb stays typically require a longer visit.)

Numbers for Mac
Our family stays in Hilton family hotels 95% of the time.  Staying in Hilton hotels builds loyalty, which converts to major savings and free nights.  We enjoy Hampton Inn, Double Tree, and Embassy Suites, all in the Hilton family of hotels.  Since we've stayed in these hotels all over the country, we know what to expect in terms of cleanliness and quality.  Breakfast is always a nice perk as well!

As I started calculating numbers, I saw we could spend a few extra days in Florida. After a bit of discussion, we decided to vacation full-force and spend 4 days in Universal Orlando. We considered visiting Disney World, but because of our family's current interests, Universal was a better fit this time.  (Harry Potter, Superheroes, Dr. Seuss, and Jurassic Park!)

I made another spreadsheet to compare staying on-site and off-site.  Figuring in convenience, meals, transportation, parking, hour-early entry into parks, and "stay more, save more" specials, we opted to stay on-site at the economy on-site hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort.  The prices are great, in part because they don't include an express pass (EP) like the more pricey on-site hotels.  Since we are going in off-peak season, we don't think the EP will be worth the money. Additionally, EPs can be purchased the day-of for the same price, so it's always an option.  The real clincher for us was the hour-early admission into the parks. That is the prime time to visit Gringott's and Forbidden Journey without an hour-long wait!

Since we booked way in advance, the rate for Cabana Bay was less than neighboring hotels!  As a family of 7, we have to get two rooms, so any small savings we can find adds up a lot!  We considered booking the family suite, which includes a kitchenette.  The cost was $40 more per night.  That equals $80 per night and the only reason we'd book it is to safe money on breakfast and snacks.  We can buy food items from Trader Joe's that don't require refrigeration or microwave and use the $400 savings elsewhere!

Next, I calculated Universal ticket prices. Many travel websites claim to have discount ticket prices, but I never found that to be the case. I made a spreadsheet (see a trend?) of ticket prices, plugging in any new websites I came across listing discount ticket prices.  After looking for a few weeks, the lowest price was always, 100% of the time, Universal.  My original table compared 3-day, 4-day, single park, and park-hopper.  The 4th day in the park only cost $10 more per person at the time we purchased, so purchasing that extra day was a no-brainer.

We could have saved a couple hundred dollars purchasing the tickets in January before Universal raised prices, but we hadn't planned for it that early, so opted to wait.  Always scour the internet to learn if and when prices will be raised, but it seems if prices will go up, it will happen early in the calendar year.

Spreading out expenses
Notice multiple tabs for various aspects of planning.
After all the major decisions were made, another Numbers spreadsheet was created to keep track of our shopping list and upcoming expenses.  With columns of months and rows of weeks, I plugged in expenses such as "update passports," "cruise payment," "water shoes," "new suitcase," and even "suncreen."  Since we're a family of seven traveling to the Caribbean, we'll go through about one container of sunscreen per day.  That's $70, which isn't such a hard hit when I buy one bottle every few weeks.  Same goes with all of the other items on our shopping list!

What's cool about Numbers (and same probably goes for Excel) is that I can take any cell from any table and plug it into another table. So as I calculated tickets, gas, hotels, and groceries in various tables, I plugged the totals each into a master budget table, so when any changes were made in one table, it would automatically update the total budget.

To keep everything in one place, I created pages for our itinerary and packing lists.  The next blog will show how we've used Google Maps to plan out the details of our road trip!


Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Vacation Travel Must-Haves

SafetyTat.com
Other than the obvious: travel documents, sunscreen, tickets and reservation numbers, there are some things we've learned we can't live without while traveling.

Safety Tats
This year, we are using these Safety Tats on our trip.  Mostly when we are inside the parks or at various ports of call, we want the boys to have an easy way to share our phone number in the event they are separated from us. When our older kids were young, my sister made ID cards with our contact information for the kids to wear on a clip, like a name tag.  These tattoos are a brilliant, less intrustive alternative! We don't have to worry that other adults won't understand the boys.  If they are upset or crying, all they have to do is hold out their arm. These are customizable, so we can add, "I sign!" or "I use ASL" in addition to a phone number. We hope these won't ever be needed, but why not be prepared when these are so easy use?  I'll give you all a thorough review after the boys have worn them for two weeks!

Hanging with pipe cleaners instead of hooks
Bath Items Organizer
We purchased this item years and years ago and it's been invaluable on our trips.  Whether you're staying in a hotel, RV, or ship stateroom, a hanging organizer allows you to keep at hand all of your health and beauty items in a small space.  I prefer the half-door size because it fits tight places and is easier to carry around.  I've also found that shoe organizers cost less than a "toiletry organizer" even though they are basically the same thing.  Clear pockets are ideal so you can see all of your items easily.  

Over-the-door organizer
Be sure to take some pipe cleaners along with you so you can hang the organizer on a towel rack or hook. Many hotels (and definately Disney Cruise Lines) do not allow the hooks to hang over the door due to damage it causes.  This link shares photos of a ton of great portable organizing tools for your trips or day-to-day use. 
Multi-USB Outlet
5/7 of our family have iPhones. TJ also has a GoPro and Hannah has her DSLR camera. The boys have iPads for long car rides.  Ship staterooms (and some hotel rooms) have very few outlets, so be prepared with a multi-USB outlet like this one.  Disney Cruise Lines have prohibited extension cord outlets since our last cruise, but these USB outlets are allowed.  It will be a life-saver and peace-keeper for our evening charging needs!  Don't forget your charging cables!

As the trip draws closer, I'll post our actual packing list. After the trip, I'll share things I wish we had taken with us! The next blogpost will address one more must-have: Google Maps!

Monday, July 11, 2016

How We Chose Our Disney Cruise

There is a huge debate out there in the Interwebs that starts with the question, "Is a Disney Cruise worth it?"  Seriously, just Google that and you'll see for yourselves.   Like I mentioned before, the answer to that question is completely subjective, depending on what's important to you.  For us, the only other cruise Ken and I have taken was on Disney Cruise Line.  The Disney "magic" cannot be denied!  It also happened to be the name of the ship we sailed back in 2008.

When we began considering a cruise, we did look at other cruise lines.  They cost significantly less. (Click here to read about ways we found to save for a vacation.) My parents cruise extensively, enjoying a few cruise lines, and had taken our older kids on a Royal Caribbean cruise, each on their 13th birthdays, so we knew Disney wasn't the only option. Mackenzie said the Royal Caribbean trip was her favorite cruise, but she wants to see how cruising Disney as a teen will compare.  Ken and the kids were adamant that they wanted Disney.  I read the "is it worth it" articles, looked back at our own photos from our 2008 cruise, thought about our little boys especially, deciding that special Disney magic was worth the extra expense.

To an extent!  Here are some ways we saved money while booking a Disney cruise.

We travel during off-peak seasons.  That is often the only way we can afford to travel with a family of 7.  We plugged in our musts: Dream-class ship, at least one stop at Castaway Cay, 7 nights, sailing from either Galveston or Port Canaveral. Then we literally selected the sailing with the lowest price. Once we are onboard the ship, if we book another cruise we can get significant savings (10% discount and the luxury of paying only 10% down rather than 20%) .  We would have time to cancel if we had to, but it's a good way to get future savings.

As for school absences, our older kids' school loves the idea of the kids traveling and has no problem with them missing 9 school days in order to do so.  Our younger boys' school is also open-minded, but it is a government school, so counted absences are a big deal.  They are allowed 14 absences. They will miss 9 days for this trip.  If they aren't "excused," then we will just hope the boys won't need to miss school for the rest of the year.  Some families actually un-enroll, then re-enroll their kids in order to remove them from school for an extended trip.  We didn't need to do that, but it's an option.

Another way to save is to check the internet for discount cruises coming up in the near future. That didn't work for us since we needed to plan way in advance, but if you're flexible on dates, you can save significantly this way.  Check out DisneyCruiseLineBlog for up-to-date specials.

Check to see if a port is near you, so you can drive and save on airfare. If you're in Texas, Galveston is a good option, especially if it's your first cruise. (We are driving to Port Canaveral, but more on that later!)
Our stateroom verandah on the Magic 2008
We did choose a cabin with a verandah. Again, this extra cost all boils down to preference. I know some cruisers who would never pay for more than an interior room because they only sleep in their cabins anyway.  Disney ships have a cool LED interactive "porthole" that cruisers love so much, the inside rooms get booked fast!  For us, we are a big family with boys that will likely sleep before we are ready to call it a night. The verandah allows us to maximize our time on the ship, enjoying the view, water and air even while the boys sleep.  With 7 of us getting ready, the verandah is a nice place for the early birds to hang out while the stragglers finish getting dressed.

We don't book excursions and we choose the earliest port arrival time.  There is so much to do on the ship! That's what we paid the big bucks for!  On our first cruise, when arriving in port, we stepped off the ship for a short look-around, then promptly got back on, enjoying nearly empty pools, decks, and fun events.  No need to budget for extra meals and entertainment when I've already paid for that!  This trip, we have planned some excursions on our own.  More on that later.  As for the early port arrival time, it boils down to value.  We don't have to get on the ship until 3pm, but why not board early and have 4 extra hours to enjoy what we've already paid for.

Mouse Savers, one of my very very favorite sites for Disney (and Universal) trip planning, keeps a running list of deals.  While you're over there, get lost in the plethora of information.  Seriously everything you'll ever need to know can be found there.

I agree with Mouse Savers: book with a travel agent.  While the Disney website is super easy to use and it's where we planned and priced our cruises, agents have "inside info" that we aren't always privy to without a ton of digging.  Travel agents cost us nothing, but can add so much value.  Find an agent who has actually cruised and knows the ins and outs.  We booked with Lange Travel, an agency with a stellar reputation in our Deaf community and beyond.  (Supporting Deaf-owned businesses is important to us, so that was an added bonus!)

My Incredible guys 2008.
Now my guys are doubled!
When you book, either directly through Disney or through a travel agent, you can get hundreds of dollars in onboard credit.  It's enough that it usually covers our cost for tips.

If you are a Type A personality who can use credit cards and pay them off every single month, avoiding interest fees, then consider using a Disney Visa to earn $50-100 onboard credit and other perks. We don't do this for reasons I've explained.

Now, before you think we are just Disney fanatics who will always choose Disney for everything, know that we are visiting Universal Studios, not Disney World, for 4 days before we set sail. (I can't wait to share my budgeting and planning spreadsheets for all of this stuff!)

We will consider another cruise line for a future vacation, but for this one, we decided DCL was worth the extra money.




Thursday, July 7, 2016

Saving for a Trip

I went in to this a bit before, but here are some small ways we save money daily. These can add up to big savings over a full year:

No cable. We've been without cable for over 10 years. It's become easier and easier with free online content. We do pay for a Netflix subscription, but otherwise watch free Hulu, YouTube, and sometimes take advantage of free 30-day trials of YouTube Red, Hulu Plus, and Amazon.  We have bunny ears we drag out if there is something we really want to watch with the rest of the world, such as Nyle DiMarco on DWTS or the Super Bowl.  Savings: $120/month or $1440/year

Ken has even started getting in
on the haircut action.
Haircuts.  While living in Vegas, a friend taught me some haircutting basics, then I used YouTube to help me do a halfway decent job.  I don't trust myself on the girls' haircuts, but I can use a razor.  I DO color my girls' hair.  That has saved us hundreds of dollars I won't even factor in here.  If they wanted it done professionally, they'd have to pay for it themselves.  For all the cutting we do, we bought a small haircutting cape so the boys don't get itchy.  We're using the same razor I purchased over 10 years ago.  Savings: $270/year

We borrow books from the library.  Now, mind you, I end up paying some hefty fines for overdue books, but it still can't compete with what we would pay to buy them.  For example, I to plan for our trip, I borrowed PassPorter's Disney Cruise Line guide.  I would have bought it, but they are getting ready to publish the 2016 edition, so I didn't want to buy an outdated guidebook.  Austin has an excellent library system, so they had the 2015 edition!  Any new book I hear about, I check our library first.  Savings: who knows?!

Cheap dates.  Ken and I went out to a super-nice restaurant for our anniversary.  It was special because it's not something we usually do.  We used to have Barnes and Noble dates where we would go to the store, pick out a few books and magazines each, then find a comfy chair to sit, read, and chat.  This reminds me, we are overdue for a date!  Savings: $2000/year

We drive paid-for cars and purchase used cars with cash.  Savings: $7000/year

Conservative clothing budget.  I'll admit, I would love to just go clothes shopping with no budget factored in.  I think I have great fashion in my mind, but when I get to the store, I can't stand to pay more than about $20 or pants or $10 for a shirt.  Seriously.  For my little kids' clothes, even less, because they grow out of them so quickly.  We buy good shoes, but still look for major sales.  I can count on one hand the number of times I've paid full retail price for clothes.  We shop Old Navy, Goodwill, Once Upon a Child, Kid2Kid, Ross, and Target clearance rack, but only once it hits 50% or more.  I also lived on hand-me-downs when all 5 kids were preschool aged.  We liked sharing the love and passing down the girls' clothes.  My boys have all worn their clothes down to a thread by the time they are done with them.  Ken has transitioned into the "Steve Jobs" fashion standard. He bought 4-5 pair of blue jeans, 6-7 grey tee shirts, a few khaki shorts and a few athletic shorts.  He wears the same thing every day.  I may do that soon since all I wear is black anyway.  Savings: $3500/year

Major Craigslist win!
Furniture.  We shop Craigslist and Goodwill for any major furniture purchases.  Our beautiful dining table from last year, our first Austin couch, our office desk and chair, Kenzie's lovely bed.  We recently bought our new reclining couch from Costco for $1300.  A few weeks later, Ken saw it on sale for half price!  He went to customer service to ask if they would honor the sale and they did! They gave us $650 back in cash! Major score!  Lesson: After making a major purchase, keep your eyes on sales and ask if it can be honored after the purchase. (Usually within 30 days, but it depends on the store's policies.) The worst they'll say is no.  We also know when to buy new. We buy new mattresses (Costco or Ikea) when needed, and we even used a friend's talents to build the boys' custom 3-level bunk bed. Savings: I can't even guess.

Travis and his bird friend at San Antonio Zoo, wearing
a super-awesome shirt we found at Once Upon A Child
Entertainment.  We take advantage of season passes when it makes sense for us.  Six Flags this year has been wonderful.  Season passes become Christmas gifts and keep giving all year.  The advantage is that it's paid for in advance (no credit cards, ya'll!) and on our third visit, it's like we're going for free.  I think we've gone to Six Flags about 10 times since late November.  Around the holidays, you can purchase a Season Pass that is good for the following year.  Our 2016 passes were good November 2015 to January 4, 2017!  It's really pretty around the holidays, the weather is mild, and the crowds are thinner.  We can go spend a few hours and not feel obligated to stay all day.  This year, we splurged and, over the period of a couple of months, bought the dining plan when it was on sale.  The big kids and adults have a dining plan, which means we get lunch, snack and dinner each time we visit the park.  It's been a nice entertainment investment for us this year, but isn't something we do every single year.  We also purchased a San Antonio Zoo year membership because it was actually less than buying individual tickets!  Now, if we are really bored and don't want to spend money, we just need gas to get us to San Antonio and back and we're golden!  We use Groupon and Living Social to find deals on things like glass-bottom boat tours, Jump Street, and Jellystone Park.  We keep close eyes on Free Fun In Austin and jump on events that look interesting.  Since we are in Austin, there is a lot of free or cheap fun to be had outdoors! Savings: $1200

Food.  This is a struggle for us, because we go through seasons of buying pre-made food, but on a weekly basis, we use emeals to plan dinners for the week.  HEB, Trader Joe's and Costco are my favorite grocery stores because the prices are good and they have a great selection of whole foods.  We also buy quality coffee and brew it in a French press at home.  Ken still buys coffee out, but mostly drip coffee for a couple of bucks.  We splurge on Summer Moon special drinks now and then.  Drinks ($1 from McDonald's) are certainly a place our family could work on saving more money.  The older kids like to get drinks while we are out.  I figure if we bought drinks twice a week for just 5 of us, that ends up costing $11 per week.  That's $572/year, which equals one kid on a week-long Disney cruise!

These are just a few things we do to save money.  We do choose to pay for top-high-speed internet, send the kids to a private school, and pay for a housekeeper twice a month. Again, it's all about your family's  priorities within your budget.  You can find savings almost everywhere, so keep your eyes open!  Pay off debt first, then start saving for something fun!

When you find savings, put what you would have spent back in a vacation fund (or car fund, or nail fund...whatever you're looking to do) and watch it grow!  If your family starts heading to Amy's for some ice cream, maybe decide to stop at the grocery store to make your own sundaes.  Figure your cost savings and throw it in your vacation fund.  Getting ready to spend $35 on your nails?  Invite a friend over and have them bring their favorite polish.  Do each others' nails and put back the $35 in your fund.

Dave Ramsey uses the phrase, "Live like no one else so you can live like no one else."  Delayed gratification.  For a short time, give up some stuff.  You don't have to drive a new car just because that's what everyone else is doing.  Don't live like everyone else so that later, you can live like no one else!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Debt, Adoption, and Dave Ramsey

My last blog sparked a discussion with a Vegas friend and I realized that before I start talking about our trip planning and budgeting, I should share our philosophy in a nutshell.

Dave Ramsey. That pretty much sums up or philosophy.

A few months ago, I had typed out our entire debt-to-debt-free story, then lost it.  I'm still not up for rewriting it, but will condense the story here.

Ken and I both had debt when we started dating. We were engaged quickly and decided, thanks to wise parental advice, that it wouldn't be good to marry with all that debt, the majority of which was consumer debt.  Ken sold some of his tech gear; I paid down a bit of my credit card, but we liked to buy stuff.

We made some unwise financial decisions early on and even decided to purchase our first home just 9 months into our marriage.  Realizing we needed guidance, we took a class called "Debt-Free and Prosperous Living," which taught what Dave calls the "debt snowball."  We followed that concept and paid off our consumer debt fairly quickly.  We were debt-free when we moved to Las Vegas, then we purchased a home and started using credit cards again.

We liked buying stuff.  We also had this idea of our "dream home," and when the value of our home in Vegas more than doubled, we took the equity and purchased that dream home in Highland Village, Texas.

Within a couple of years, after getting ourselves back in $12,000 of debt, we signed up for Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University that was being offered at our church.  It had been years since we utilized the debt-snowball, but this was a major part of FPU's 7 Baby Steps to get some financial security and balance.  We started, against our instinct, by saving an emergency fund.  During this time, we realized we had to physically get rid of our credit cards.  We simply were not disciplined enough to hide them away or even freeze them in a block of ice.  We had to close our accounts, cut up the cards, and have no option to use credit.  One-by-one, we paid off each card and account.  Within a year or so, we were free of consumer debt and only had our house remaining to pay off.

This is about the same time God led us to consider adoption. We knew the cost would be in the tens of thousands and that it would likely mean acquiring debt again.  We spoke with some other adoptive families who also lived debt-free.  They said they did not consider the adoption of a human child to be anything even remotely similar to a "consumer debt."  Ken and I couldn't have agreed more.

The #1 question we are asked is, "How much does adoption cost?"  I'll answer it.  A lot. International adoption will cost upwards of $25K if you're adopting one child. I know God planned our double-adoption, because if we had known the full dollar-amount going in, we likely would have said it was impossible.  It really was impossible.

With a bit of seed money left for us from my departed grandparents, plus our deposit from the cruise we cancelled and a lot of faith that God would provide the remaining costs associated with bringing our son home, we began our homestudy.

Over the next 12 months, God provided means for us to adopt not only Tian, but Travis!  They were our sons and the Brownies' brothers, and He knew it!  Financially, it still doesn't make sense on paper. We applied, to no avail, for loans.  We applied for several grants and were not chosen. Then, upon the advice of a friend I had met online, we applied and received a generous grant from the JSC Foundation.  We also were given mind-blowing gifts from friends and acquaintances, sold our dream home, downsized to an apartment almost half the size, and borrowed the final amount needed from a close family member, knowing we could pay that amount back when we received our tax return. 

Within one year of bringing home the boys, we were debt-free once again, and have been since.  We do carry some medical bills we are slowly working through, but haven't touched a credit card in years.

I can't promise that everyone who adopts will become debt-free or even financially secure.  Contrary to some of the prosperity-gospel messages out there, obeying God does not always end in financial reward.  However, God does show up and provide for us to do what He's called us to do.  We can also choose to be wise with our money, which is how Financial Peace helped us.

I blogged one of my favorite provision stories earlier this month.  You can also read back over God's provision on my Prayer Requests tab.

We are not perfect with money.  It's still an area we knowingly make wrong choices, disagree, and find ourselves needing a kick in the pants to be accountable to a system we know will work.  But the basic concepts of financial planning have certainly allowed us to stay above water and even plan a vacation, during our leanest years.

Now on with the fun!

Friday, July 1, 2016

How We Plan for an Expensive Trip

As mentioned previously, the Brownies have a major 2-week vacation planned for September. It's the first true vacation we've taken since our RV trek to NAD 4 years ago this very month.

I remember when we had our cruise planned back in 2010, a friend asked, "Why would you spend so much money on a Disney Cruise?! Why not buy a car or something? That money is gone in a week!"

Evidently, our friends aren't the only ones who feel that way.  I've recently seen several bloggers discuss and defend their spending on vacations. Here's a snarky one that is Disney-specific, and another post from a general travel blogger.  By the way, I enjoy a little well-placed snark now and then.

We've waited 6 years for this and it's truly a dream vacation for us. After the kids willingly gave up their trip in 2010, we promised we would go in the future. Since that time, we've taken several major hits on our income.  That's a long story, possibly for another blog, but we've literally had our salary cut in half for long seasons since selling our Highland Village house.

Even with serious cuts to our budget, God has provided.  We've not been able to do all of the things we used to, but we've always had a home and food on our table. (Cutting it close sometimes!) Over the past year, I've increased my work hours, which I love, and Ken has had some opportunities to do contract work.  (For those wondering about owning a business, 2 1/2 years in, neither Ken nor his partner have taken a salary.  I think some people have the misconception that a thriving business equals tons of cash.  Later down the road, that's the goal, of course, but it's not fast money.)

Read here how we had fun in and around Austin, either free or super cheap!

In our budget last year, Ken and I noticed a window of opportunity if we saved well, purposed our dollars, and found cost-savings wherever possible, we could finally take the cruise we'd been waiting for.

When it comes to saving for anything you want, it all comes down to priorities. I don't get my nails done.  Ken doesn't golf.  I cut my boys' hair and the rest of us go to a local hair place that costs $15-$40 for a haircut, depending.  We buy our clothes at Ross, Target, Once Upon A Child and even Goodwill, sometimes splurging for nice shoes or shopping sales at the mall.

We would love to buy a house here in Austin, but honestly have enjoyed renting a house for the past 4 years.  It's nice to not have some of the headaches of home ownership.  While we really want to find a home with a pool, we've decided we can find a rental with a pool when it's time for us to move.  We've owned 3 homes and have our entire lives to buy the next one.

For us, driving the newest, most fancy car isn't a big priority.  So when I needed a new vehicle last summer, I found a $3000 Expedition that ran, had AC (and only ac...no heat), a lot of quirks, but functioned well and could get our family safely from A to B.  Our other vehicle, the black, massive Excursion, has been our family member now for over 10 years.  We paid it off 8 years ago and intend to drive it until only a heap of metal remains.  For someone else, they'd much rather put more cash into a nice car that will last a number of years than take a 2-week vacation.

There is no right or wrong answer; it's just a matter of what is important to you and your family.

And this family DOES like to travel!  7 out of 7 Brownies agree, so the decision to save for a special trip as opposed to something else is an easy one.

Patience is required.  We aren't sitting on a ton of cash reserves at this point in our lives, so we need time to save in increments.  We booked this trip one entire year in advance.  While waiting is hard, it gives me time to plan and anticipate, which I actually love doing!  By the time we pack into our beloved, old Excursion and set off for Florida, the trip will be paid for, so we can truly enjoy our time without worrying about how we'll pay off the bills once we get home.

I'll be sharing a few blogs about how exactly I've been planning, budgeting, and organizing for this trip.  I hope you enjoy!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Temporal Concepts and Language Delay

In my last blog post, I shared the 6-year wait and recent "reveal" of our Universal Orlando/Disney Cruise trip.  Planning for this trip consumes much of my free time these days, so I figured I'd just go head and blog about it.

Ken and I booked this trip late 2015.  After narrowing down trip details, we had to decide when to tell the kids.  We revealed the trip to our older kids on Christmas, but chose to not tell the boys until closer to our travel time.  In the end, Tian, who can hear very well, picked up on our chats and figured out our secret well before the official reveal we did for them earlier this month.  Travis, though, had no idea beyond knowing that we would "one day" go on a Disney Cruise (Mickey boat, as he calls it).  If he would ask about a cruise, we would say, "We'll go when you're 9 or 10."

We considered not telling him at all until the day we were set to leave.  In the past, when an exciting day is upcoming, he gets very frustrated that it isn't happening now!  He has thrown fits, been mad at us, and shut down over it, so revealing the trip too soon wasn't something we wanted to do.

Over the past year, he's gotten a better grasp of far-in-the-future events.  That, coupled with a few other facts...

- he needs the opportunity to actively countdown while coping appropriately with the wait
- extra calendar exposure never hurts
- the boys need to learn to snorkel before the trip
- the boys need to increase their hiking distance before the trip
- Travis needs to practice controlling his noise levels in appropriate settings
- both boys need to work on dinner manners

...led us to go ahead and tell them around Travis' birthday.  I'm so glad we did! He hasn't been upset once and refers to the calendar often.  This entire week passed with us forgetting to mark the days! That just makes the days pass even faster.

The very non-Pinteresty countdown calendar we put together.
(Made from a ChickFilA Cowlendar, thus the bovine feet)
The advice I have to other parents who have kids struggling to grasp waiting over a long period of time is...just keep exposing your kids to a calendar. Use photos on your phone to go back in time and talk about how many days, how many weeks and months ago something happened. For Travis, relating time to the past seemed easier to grasp than the future. I feel like the understanding of the past was a foundation for the future time concepts to "click" for him.
At Costco, he noticed this advertisement and found
a picture of the Mickey Boat.


The boys will be in camp for the next two weeks.  After that, we plan on spending the summer working on our snorkeling, hiking, and dinner manners!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Our Disney Fantasy


This is a screen shot from the email I sent Ken after seeing Tian's profile on Rainbow Kids the day before his first birthday. (Note the date.)

We had booked a Disney cruise for the following spring and had been counting down the weeks and days since Christmas.  The cruise had been the major gift for the kids. (Not easy to give young kids a vapor gift with a promise of reality over a year away. But when you live debt-free, that's what you have to do for big trips!)

I had opened an email with Tian's file and the girls were looking at it over my shoulder.  They instantly said, "That's our China Bro!!"  I'll never forget telling the Brownies, ages 9, 7, and 6 at the time, that we could not both cruise and adopt.  We'd have to choose one for now and put off the other until later.  Ken and I didn't want to start the adoption process by taking something away from our bio kids against their will, so we asked their opinions, truly caring for their feelings.  I don't think they waited a half second to answer, "Skip the cruise. We can go later with our new brother."

My young kids were not perfect by any means, but they were damn good kids. I don't think I could have been prouder of them. This was the first of many sacrifices they willingly and even enthusiastically made to adopt the boys.

Next month will mark 5 years since our "Gotcha" days and the time has finally come for us to take that Disney Cruise the kids gave up 6 years ago.  They said the wait was totally worth it and now, we go as a family of 7 and we get to enjoy the cruise not just for ourselves, but through the boys' eyes.

We just paid off the cruise, celebrated Travis' 8th birthday, and hit our 100 days remaining in the countdown to the trip, so decided to tell the boys. (We had told the older kids at Christmas, so they've been counting down for 5 months already!!)  We will use the next three months to really nail down calendar concepts with the little boys!

Enjoy the clips of the reveal!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

One Of Many Miracles

For the past 3 days, I've been composing a blog about how Ken and I got in, out, back in, then back out of debt again during our marriage.  Due to some issues with the new formatting I tried on this blog, I managed to lose one entire entry!  One of these days, I'll work on it again, but for now, I'll share with you a miracle story (one of the many) from our adoption.  It's a story we didn't share at the time because it wasn't the appropriate time and we wanted (and still want) to protect identities.

Just weeks before we got travel approval, Ken came to me in the evening and said, "We can't take our bio kids with us to China. We just don't have the money."  My heart sank into my stomach.  We had been counting down for one year, planning and talking with our kids about traveling to China to meet their brothers.  They had given up an amazing cruise vacation for us to adopt.  My middle child didn't even like being away from us for one night, so spending one month on the other side of the globe just seemed impossible.

Before we went to bed that night, I told Ken, "I don't know how, but our kids will go with us.  God will do something, so I'm not going to worry."  Easy to say, difficult to do.  I think I cried myself to sleep and I vividly remember feeling sick to my stomach, but still had a deep, unreasonable feeling that God would work it out.

The next day, a friend messaged Ken out of the blue and asked him to meet for coffee.  When they sat down, the friend said, "God keeps telling my wife and me to do something to help you guys. What else do you need?"

I must add that this couple had already done much in regards to our adoption of the boys, so for him to be asking what he could do seemed like too much.  Ken mentioned our airfare concerns we had discussed the night before.  Turns out, this friend was in a unique position to help us with airfare so that we only had to pay a tiny fraction of the cost for flights.

A toast to our 13-hour date
But that's not all.  Not only did God provide a way for all 5 of us to get there and 7 of us to get back, but He provided an extra "just because" blessing.  We flew first-class all the way to China!  Ken and the older Brownies also flew first-class on the way back home.  Crazy! I had never even sat in first class domestically, so to be on an international flight, first-class for 13 hours was a luxury beyond anything we deserved or worked for ourselves.  It wasn't a necessity, but an extravagant blessing.

Being able to sleep on the way there, having an endless supply of food, being pampered in ways we were not accustomed, were all so much fun and a great way to celebrate our transition from a family of 5 to a family of 7!

On the way home, a couple of the older kids were sick, so their being able to lie down and sleep was a great comfort.  (All seven of us getting back to the US together was a miracle story on its own, so read it if you haven't yet. It's a 3-part story, so click "newer" after reading the first and second entries. We had three flight attendants separately tell us that they had no idea how we managed to do what we did. According to their rosters it just didn't make sense. I love those unexplainables.)

It all came from God's hand and people listening to what God was asking them.  We are forever grateful to God and to our precious friends (a number of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers) who cared about us and listened to that calling, even when it was difficult for them. This story continues to be a constant reminder that I need to listen and then do what God is asking of me.

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine, according to the power at work within us, to HIM be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.
Kenzie, visiting Hannah's sea

Huge "pods" where we could stretch out,
eat, watch TV, and sleep.