One of the things I say all the time — and if you’ve attended Money School, you know this, because I talk about it during the Budgeting Bootcamp class — is that little things add up fast, and there’s no better example of this than kids’ birthday parties. They’re expensive to throw (not to mention attend). So when Heather Flett of RookieMoms.com approached me with a guest post about making your child’s next birthday bash a cheap and relaxing affair, I was all ears. My kids are (sadly) past the age when they want me to be involved in their birthday parties, but I know some of you will benefit from her advice.
Birthday parties are so much fun. To attend. But they can be exhausting, expensive and stressful to plan and host. Am I right? Oftentimes, the tricks that save effort – like hosting the party at an all-inclusive playspace – cost a ton, while those that save money have you up all night painting, baking, and covered in papier-mâché.
I want to help you save money by learning from my experience. By focusing on what your child really wants on his special day, you can be creative about the extra stuff that costs money.
1. Skip the party outright. Would your child be happier to celebrate with a special movie, pinball, or mini golf outing with one or two friends? If so, there’s no need to throw a party too. Stick a candle in an ice cream cone and let him make a wish afterward. For my oldest son’s 8th birthday, we brought his two best buds to a pinball arcade and then out for ice cream sundaes.
2. Limit the guest list. Invite one child per year of your kid’s age or just a few special friends. More guests means more food, more paper goods, and more of everything… especially if your child is at the age where mom and dad and little sister will be tagging along.
3. Use online invitations. Printed invites are special but unnecessary for a children’s birthday.
4. Choose a free venue. Some super fun parties can be held in a backyard or public park. Over the years, I have learned that it stresses me out more to have a bunch of people at my house than to lug a few supplies to the park and squat for a table. Decide if you prefer the convenience of one over the other.
5. Serve kid food. I realized when my oldest son turned three that his buddies were just as satisfied with PB+J. I offered a few kid-friendly choices I could live with and then tried not to stress that the parents might leave wanting more food. Chop up some fruit and let yourself relax. Repeat after me: If you’re hiring a caterer for a kid party, you’re going too far.
6. Schedule the party between meals. Even better than a low-key meal is a party held when no food is expected. 2pm to 4pm is perfect timing to serve healthy snacks before a birthday dessert.
7. Limit the decorations. Buy solid color paper goods on sale or at the dollar store. Simplify decorations to colorful bunches of helium-filled balloons. Always festive, the balloons can also be your party favor.
8. Be creative with the activity. There are a gajillion other posts on picking themes and activities. I will merely suggest that you apply common sense to your Pinterest browsing. An obstacle course can be created from what’s around your house. YOU can teach the kids the Thriller dance by learning on YouTube. Figure out how to make jet packs or super hero capes rather than hiring an entertainer.
9. Replace the birthday cake. What about a tower of donuts or a tray of homemade cupcakes instead of a big cake? Decorating cupcakes can also double as an activity!
10. Eliminate party favor bags. Pass out those balloons or a small book. Some guests might whine but their parents will be thanking you. Take a stand against purchasing more tiny plastic crap.
Focus on the parts of party-planning and hosting that you truly enjoy to turn a potentially stressful endeavor into a fun one. Saving money at a birthday party can actually be MORE fun for everyone.
About Heather: Heather Flett and her best friend co-founded RookieMoms.com, a website dedicated to helping women have more fun in their first years of motherhood. She is the coauthor of The Rookie Mom’s Handbook: 250 Activities to Do With (and Without!) Your Baby and Stuff Every Mom Should Know. Heather lives in Berkeley, CA with her three sons and husband, where she is always trying to do more for less money.
Feeling the itch to go on vacation, even though you decided long ago that it’s not in the budget this year? It happens. Sometimes, the backyard just doesn’t cut it. But a staycation might. This week’s guest poster, Sean Bryant from One Smart Dollar, is here to share ideas for cheap or free ways to relax this summer. I’m not going to say you won’t miss the beach, but you will get the same sense of rest and relaxation.
Since the great recession, the idea of going on vacation has almost become thing of the past for a lot of families. Unemployment is still at an uncomfortable level and most would prefer to have a healthy bank account rather than a week on a sandy white beach. If I didn’t need a little rest and relaxation every now and then, I would probably agree.
My wife and I have a passion for traveling and have made it a life goal of ours to try and see as much of the world as we can. Lucky for us, I have been learning a lot of new tricks that have allowed us to start traveling for free. To be able to do this, it requires signing up for travel reward credit cards. For some of you this might not be something you want or can do.
If traveling isn’t in the cards for your family, a great alternative is a staycation. A staycation is a way for you to relax and spend some time with family without even leaving your city or house if you don’t want to.
Before you do anything, turn off your phones, put a vacation reply on your email and put all possible distractions out of reach. Once that is done it’s time for the staycation to begin. Here are some ideas that will help you stay within your budget and also allow you to spend some quality time relaxing with your family.
Visit a Water Park. Grab your swimsuit and sunscreen and head on over to a water park near you. If you have kids, this is probably going to be one of the best ideas you will have all summer. Visiting a water park is a fun way for the entire family to enjoy a day out together. You might want to check your local grocery store because many of them run specials where you can save a little money on tickets.
If you don’t have a big water park where you live, then check out the community pools. My wife and I took our daughter to a pool just north of Denver a couple of weekends ago and I could have spent all day going down the water slides.
Catch up on Movies. I love watching movies, but now that I have a little one it’s hard to find a couple of continuous hours to watch a movie from start to finish. A staycation is the perfect time to get caught up on all the recent blockbusters that you have missed. To cut down on the cost of rentals, I love to get movies from Redbox. Usually, you’ll be able to find Redbox coupons available for free rentals. Each of these codes can be used once for each debit/credit card.
Take Advantage of Free Museum Days. Museums are a great way to spend time with family and learn something at the same time. On the first weekend of each month, Bank of America customers can get free admission to one of over 150 different museums across the United States.
Unfortunately, I don’t have Bank of America here in Colorado, but most of the museums offer a free day at least once a month. This is something that you can schedule your staycation around, because it’s a great family activity and completely free.
Create Your Own DIY Spa Day. Noting is more relaxing than going to a spa, however it can really set you back financially. Instead of going out, bring the spa to you. By doing a little online research, you will find handfuls of recipes that will allow you to replicate the composition for facials and other spa treatments.
Start a “Fun” DIY Project. When I say DIY I am not talking about finishing something that has been on your to-do list for years. I am talking about something that you enjoy. Beer lovers would love spending an afternoon brewing up their next homemade concoction. If you have a love for gardening and canning, you could spend the day canning up your freshly picked produce.
About Sean: Sean started his career as a banker and after being laid off in 2008 became a full-time blogger focusing on personal finance and the art of couponing. He takes great pride in being able to help families save money and live a more comfortable life. You can connect with him on Twitter or Google+.
This morning on Today, we took your questions — and you had some good ones! What’s the best way to teach kids about money? How does closing a credit card affect a credit score? To get the answers to these questions and more, check out the video clip below.
In March, five-year-old Danny Kitchen made headlines when he spent over £1,700 in ten minutes in the iTunes app store, a bill that translates to $2,600 in U.S dollars. Yet the most notable part about his shopping spree isn’t the final bill or even that it was made possible by quickly obtaining his parents’ iTunes password; it’s the ease at which this can happen to any parent who lets their kids play games on a tablet or smartphone.
Barbara Chamberlain, project director at New Mexico State University’s Learning Games Labs, attributes incidents like this to the fact that kids don’t understand that digital money is real money, too. “You don’t see cash changing hands, and you lose that opportunity as a parent to say, ‘this is what I’m buying and why I’m buying it.’ I think it’s important to teach kids to be involved in that process,” she said. “The same discussions we’re having in the grocery store we should be having in the digital world, too.”
Consider summer the perfect time to change that.
The irony of Kitchen’s shopping spree is that not all app purchases are bad — in fact, there are some that can prove to be great educators when it comes to math and financial literacy. The lazy months of July and August mark the perfect time to start teaching your kids about money and using some of these apps. Just remember: the key to the learning process is to not depend on the apps to do all of the heavy lifting.
“Parent involvement is so important,” said Shira Lee Katz, director of digital media at Common Sense Media. “If the kids spend 15 minutes on an app, [they should also] spend 15 minutes with a parent who is reinforcing it and asking questions.”
Here’s a list of good apps to get you started. Note: There are none here that involve in-app purchases. Our sources say they can get expensive – fast.
Savings Spree: This app was enthusiastically recommended by our experts, and is just $5.99 in the iTunes app store. Built for kids ages 7 and up, it presents financial concepts — saving, spending, donating and investing — in a game show format. “It’s more fun than saving in real life,” Katz joked.
Toca Store: For ages 4 and up, this app lets kids pretend to be a shopkeeper, so it encourages money management lessons from an entrepreneurial angle. Kids can choose what items to sell in their store, how much they want to sell them for, and can invite friends to “buy” their items. It’s play money, not real money, so the app will only cost you the initial $2.99 iTunes purchase.
Freefall Money: If you want to teach your kids about coin denominations and adding them together, this is a great app to use. Kids are asked to fill a piggybank with a certain amount of money, and they then drag the coins on the screen into the piggybank. Great for ages 4 and up; $1.99 in the iTunes app store.
Kiddy Bank: This one helps with income and expense tracking, so it’s great for older kids who might be earning an allowance. It’s $0.99 in the iTunes app store.
One final suggestion: Your financial education can begin in the app store. Before you’ve even purchased an educational app give your kids a $25 iTunes gift card, and tell them to find one math app, one reading app, and that the rest can be “fun” apps. But before they can spend the gift card, ask them to explain what they want and why they want it. “You’re modeling a thoughtful approach to research and spending,” Chamberlain said. That’s something they’ll be able to use their entire lives.
School’s out for summer! And chances are, your kids are already bored. So this week, we thought we’d bring you a list of free and very cheap ways to experience some summer fun. There’s something for everyone if you think outside the backyard — and you can make a day of most of these activities with a packed lunch, a picnic blanket and a stop in the park.
Bowling. Forget saving the best for last — I think this initiative should top the list. Through Kids Bowl Free, you can register your children — up to six per email address — at a local participating bowling alley, and they’ll receive two free games per day, all summer long. Age limits vary by bowling alley, but tend to be capped at 15, and shoes are not included. Want to bowl a game, too — or include kids who are over the age limit? You can purchase a family pass, which starts at $24.95, covers up to four adults, and includes two games per person per day. To find a participating bowling alley near you and register your children, click on your state on the map on the site’s homepage.
Sponsored admissions. Museums and other cultural centers frequently team up with corporate sponsors to offer free admission during certain days or specific times. Target, for example, is a sponsor of a laundry list of free or reduced-price events, including free admission to the Atlanta Children’s Museum on the second Tuesday of each month, free admission to the Children’s Museum of Houston on the first Sunday of the month, and free admission to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on the second Sunday of the month. To find Target-sponsored events in your area, search by city here. Nada? Try another program, sponsored by Bank of America called Museums on Us. This initiative offers cardholders free admission to participating museums, science centers, gardens and others on the first full weekend of every month. Here’s a full list of participating locations.
The library. Not only can the library itself be a great source of fun — most offer free story hours, puppet shows, and other kid-friendly events — but many branches allow you to check out free passes to area attractions. Check out the programs offered by the Boston Public Library, the Seattle Public Library, the Chicago Public Library and the Miami-Dade Public Library System. To find out what is offered by your local library, visit their website or Google the name of your city or county and “library museum passes.”
The movies. True, you want to limit indoor — and screen — time during the summer, but rainy days are inevitable and sometimes a movie is your best bet. Enter Regal Entertainment Group’s Summer Movie Express program: On Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10am, participating locations will show select movies for only $1 admission. The program lasts nine weeks at each theater, but the dates vary by location. Check out a full list here. Titles include The Three Stooges, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, Happy Feet Two and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.
A kids DIY workshop. It’s never too late to get them started — we could all use a little help around the house. So why not take your kids to Home Depot’s free kids workshops, offered the first Saturday of every month at all stores between 9am and noon. Your kids will make a craft and get a certificate of achievement. The program is recommended for kids ages 5 to 12.
Factory tours. Websites like Factory Tours USA and Watch it Made in the USA keep lists of factories that allow tours throughout the country, including information like price, location, hours and a quick description. The caveat? You should always call the company first, as information may not be 100% up to date. A few that would be on my list: Fender instruments, the Crayola Factory, and John Deere Pavilion.
This week we’ve brought on Rob Berger, the founder and managing editor of the Dough Roller, to write about teaching boomerang kids financial responsibility. He has experience in the matter — as do, I suspect, many of you, considering we’re smack in the middle of graduation season and the class of 2013 is graduating with debt averaging over $35,000, according to Fidelity Investments.
I use to think it only happened to other families. After all, I was never a boomerang kid. In fact, the idea of going back home was the furthest thing from my mind once I turned 18. Today, however, my wife and I have our oldest back home after college.
It was nice having him back home . . . for the first week. Then THE question started to set in—when will he get a place of his own? Don’t judge! If you have a boomerang kid, you know exactly how we feel.
In all seriousness, my wife and I view this time as an opportunity to help our son learn to be financially responsible. We’ve taken several steps that we believe will put him on the path to financial freedom. Here’s what we’ve done.
- Recognize who is in control. Has a son or daughter ever said to you, “I’m 18, I can do what I want”? We’ve heard variations of this sentiment. My response is immediate and unequivocal. Yes, you can do what you want in your own apartment, eating your own food, watching your own TV, and driving your own car. Welcome to adulthood. I marvel at parents who throw up their hands in despair because their twenty-something (or thirty-something!) son or daughter living at home doesn’t have their act together. The first step in raising a financially responsible young adult is to recognize that you are in control. You don’t have to let them live at home. And if you do let them come back home, it should be on your terms.
- Set expectations. Before our son moved back home, we set expectations. These expectations went beyond just financial issues. We set expectations concerning everything from getting a job to helping around the house. And yes, we even have a curfew. Nothing good happens with teenagers between the hours of 1 am and 6 am. When he complains about the curfew, I remind him that he is free to find a place of his own. Setting expectations is important for several reasons. First, your son or daughter should recognize that living at home as a young adult is a privilege, not a right. And like all privileges, it comes with certain responsibilities. Second, meeting expectations is an important step in the maturity process. Finally, it will make life at home a lot more tolerable.
This week we’re welcoming Philip Taylor of PT Money: Personal Finance. His site is in my regular rotation of reads, and I recently did a Google Hangout with him to talk Money School. I’ve invited him here today to talk about how to teach your kids the money essentials, a topic that I know is always top of mind to parents.
As parents, one of the smartest financial investments we can make is to educate our children on handling money with wisdom and responsibility.
When you commit to teach your kids the money essentials, you’re laying a strong foundation for their future financial stability.
How does money fit into the puzzle of life? Where does it come from? What is its true value? These questions give parents a great kick-start when they decide to address the topic of money with their kids.
It’s helpful to begin by teaching your kids how hard you work to earn a living. Take them to your job and let them see what your schedule looks like. Educate them about your responsibilities.
“[Kids] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” ― Jim Henson
Once they’ve got a handle on earning money, show them how you pay the bills, and let them see the money leave your wallet (or checkbook, or online bill pay). In doing so you’ll help them understand that everything around them that gives them a comfortable life costs money.
A fun way to help your kids understand the value of money is to label the value of things around the house with post-it notes. Let them add up the cost of everything in their room to help broaden their understanding.
Smarter to Save
Once your kids understand how you earn money for the family, it’s a good idea to allow them opportunities to earn their own money. It’s very important to allow them the chance to earn money instead of giving them a free handout.
Once your kids understand the value of money and what goes into earning it, it’s time to teach them about the basics of saving. A recent parenting survey by T. Rowe Price found that a “large majority of parents (73%) report they are having regular conversations with their kids about money, but the conversations revolve around short-term financial topics like back-to-school shopping (62%) rather than long-term planning such as family savings goals (39%).”
As a parent, you’ve got a great chance to show them how to set goals and save up for bigger stuff.
Piggy banks seem to be the staple for your kid’s shelf-savings-account, but using a clear container that lets them see the money grow week by week can have a bigger impact on their understanding.
Help your kids set realistic savings goals. Instead of buying them every toy they ask for, pick something that will take a few weeks to save for and let them buy it for themselves.
Not only will they learn about saving money, but they’ll get a refresher course in earning and value when they have to part with their pile of dough.
Realities of Debt and Credit Cards
Now it’s time to help your kids understand debt and the potential dangers of credit and borrowing. It’s good to start by making sure your kids know the difference between real money and borrowed money.
Whatever your tactics when tackling this subject, it’s essential to help your kids understand that borrowed money will have to be repaid and, although they will eventually have the ability to borrow money when they’re older, it’s not always the best choice.
In an ideal scenario, your kids will leave the safety of home being fully aware of the importance of money and with the wisdom and skills to make positive financial decisions.
On Friday, we told you about the expected cost of prom season this year — according to Visa, $1,139 per family, lest you’ve forgotten — as well as some timely deals that can help you save on some of the big-ticket items: the tux, the dress, the pre-dance meal. However, saying yes to the (prom) dress doesn’t mean the spending stops there. In fact, it’s often just the beginning.
While Visa didn’t ask families what they planned to spend on “incidentals” like makeup, hair styling, flowers and a fancy limo, these smaller items can quickly add up. Here are some savings strategies to keep the costs in check:
Flowers: Nic Faitos, owner of Starbright Floral Design in New York City, says that roses and orchids are the two most popular types of prom flowers (whether for a boutonniere for the guys or corsage for the girls). However, he noted that not all orchids are created equal: there are over 1,500 types of orchids grown commercially in the U.S, and of those 1,500, he considers the phalaenopsis orchid to be the most delicate and exquisite. As such, including it in a boutonniere or corsage will set you back more than if you were to go with a dendrobium orchid — which just as beautiful, but more commonly grown and therefore more cost effective. If you’re looking to keep flower costs to a minimum, know which type of orchid you’re getting. It could mean the difference between a $20 corsage and $40 corsage.
Faitos’ other word of caution? Keep it simple. “Adding bling adds to cost of corsage — not just cost of what you want to add, but also the intricacy of labor,” he said, citing add-ons like crystals, rhinestones and other items that bring extra sparkle to prom flowers. “A floral designer who makes corsages has the skill set of a jeweler; it’s detailed work that takes a long time. Because you’re adding an item to the live product, it adds to the cost.”
Hair and Makeup: The cost of getting your hair and makeup styled like your favorite celebrity will range depending on what you’re getting done and where you live, but according to PromGirl.com, can set you back by as much as $275. If the thought of leaving your tresses in the hands of your YouTube-guided sister makes you quiver but the thought of paying nearly $300 makes you queasy, consider a semi-pro: a beauty school student. The Aveda Institute has locations all over the country, and while prices do vary according to location, an updo at the Jean Madeline Aveda Institute in Philadelphia is just $25.
With enough planning, you can also get a professional makeup application done for free. Clinique, Smashbox and Bobbi Brown all offer a free makeup application at their cosmetics counters; call the one in your area to secure an appointment, free of charge. Note that tipping is not allowed and no purchase is required. (You may feel like you’re supposed to buy something but the companies say you do not have to!)
The Limo. Ann Hoey, CEO of Limos.com, says that the trend in prom transportation is favoring larger vehicles, like stretch SUVs and party buses. And while these do allow for “tricked out” features like flat-screen TVs and neon lights (not to mention hot tubs), these larger vehicles prove to be more cost effective than a traditional stretch limo or even car service sedan. “The stretch SUV, you’re paying anywhere from $125 to $200 per hour,” she said, noting that these vehicles can accommodate 10 to 14 people, compared to a capacity of 18 to 20 people in a bus. “A party bus will run you $150 to $250 per hour, but the price per person is a little bit less.”
While it can be difficult to wrangle 18 to 20 teenagers and get them to decide on one thing, Hoey says that like any big purchase, the key to booking a stretch SUV or party bus is to be decisive. “Be very clear and not wishy washy,” she said. “Do you want an iPod station, do you want a TV? Have a clear understanding of what you want ahead of time so that when it comes time to purchase you’re locking up the right thing.”
As graduating college seniors no doubt know, early May is the time for the checking off a long list of to-dos. Pick up cap and gown? Check. Submit senior thesis? Check. Take stock of student loans?
While a six-month grace period means that organizing a pile of loans doesn’t seem as pressing as say, turning in that final Classics paper before graduation, it’s something that should happen sooner rather than later. That’s the advice of Brendon McQueen, creator of a new student loan organizing site called Tuition.IO.
“I would have everyone out there immediately figure out who you owe and if you’re able to pay for it,” McQueen said.
He’s speaking from experience: after graduating from Columbia in 2009, he knew he had student loans — about $120,000 worth — but had know idea who he owed, if he had any power to negotiate the interest rates or the ability consolidate the individual loan amounts.
“We’re talking about incredibly fundamental questions,” he said. “I thought, ‘If I’m having this problem, there must be a ton of other people out there having a similar problem.’”
It was the effort to fix that problem that led to the creation of Tuition.IO. The site (which is a pun: “Tuition I Owe”) is free to use, and works like this: after signing up, you’re taken to an “organize your loans” page. To figure out how many federal loans you have, you’ll need to enter your social security number (the site uses VeriSign, the same type of encryption that banks use for online transactions), and your National Student Loan Data System PIN. (You or a parent received the pin when completing the FAFSA, so check your records or request a duplicate pin through the Federal Student Aid website.)
Once you add any private loan information, Tuition.IO takes you to an account overview, which, using a graph, shows you how much you owe, when the balance will be paid off, and, through a slider, how much faster you could pay off the balance if you added an extra $50, $100, or even $500 per month. There are also tabs where you can learn the pros and cons involved with consolidation, deferment, forbearance, and even loan forgiveness for public service.
McQueen says that it’s that last subject — loan forgiveness for public service — that has piqued the interest of many users. Many teachers and soldiers with student loans don’t seem to realize they can take advantage of some of these forgiveness programs, he says. “The crazy part is people aren’t even [getting] enough information to ask the important questions.”
If the numbers are any indication, people are, at the very least, learning that Tuition.IO can help manage their debt load. In September of last year, when Tuition.IO did a demo at the technology conference Finovate, they had roughly $60 million in aggregate user debt; now, they have $500 million in aggregate user debt. “We get a ton of emails from people just saying, ‘Thank you thank you thank you for creating this!’” he said. “And of course, that always feels pretty good.”
As for McQueen’s own hefty loan balance — is it down to zero?
“I have not paid off my loans, but I just consolidated, and I’m about to jump into income-based repayment. So I’m improving my situation,” he said. “Slowly.”
This week we stray from our typical format of welcoming bloggers to share a post from Shari Storm, an executive at Verity Credit Union and the author of “Motherhood is the New MBA: Using Your Parenting Skills to be a Better Boss.” We love this perspective and knew you would, too!
A few years ago, I was sitting in an executive team meeting and we were talking about how we could get our front line staff to consistently do a certain task.
Someone posed the question, “Well? Do we measure it? Because, like they say, what gets measured gets done.” I’d been in business for many years and had heard that phrase umpteen times. Suddenly, I thought to myself, is it true?
I mean, I step on the scale every single day. I measure my weight once, twice, sometimes even three times a day, and I’m not getting any skinnier.
At that point in the meeting, my mind wandered to my three daughters, who were 5, 3 and 1 at the time. My husband had been struggling to get them to bed every night. A few weeks before, I had seen one of those nanny reality TV shows – you know the ones, where the children are little monsters and 23 minutes and a British accent later they are little angels. The episode I had seen dealt with getting the children to bed.
The secret to the success of the bedtime ritual was this sticker chart. The nanny put up a sticker chart and the kids got a sticker for each part of the bedtime regime they performed in a timely manner. So I went out and got me a sticker chart. It’s the epitome of the theory “what gets measured gets done.” Because when you say that, you are really saying that what gets quantified and rewarded is what gets done.
I put up my sticker chart. One side of the graph had things like put on pajamas, brush teeth, brush hair. The other side had each girls’ name.That sticker chart bombed! It made bedtime even worse. The girls fought over the stickers. The little one put stickers where they shouldn’t be. It was a mess.
Then one night, when it was my husband’s turn to put the girls down, I overheard something at the end of the hall. “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo… my mother says to put on your pajamas.” Each girl had a foot in a circle and he was playing that old game that we used to play as kids. They were LOVING it! We played it every night for weeks, completely eliminating the bedtime drama.
When I observe my kids, I note this truism: What is fun gets done. Have we strayed so far from what we were as children that we spend the entirety of our day working on what our bosses are measuring and mandating?