Friday, August 31, 2012

Saving Money on Kids' Birthday Parties

When planning my daughter's recent birthday party, I really wanted to make it special for her. What mom doesn't? But there was one catch: Lack of major funds. I decided I really had to stretch a buck to make her party special to her, yet not a drain on my wallet.

I'm sure many moms are in the same predicament, so I decided to try and put all my ideas into an article on saving money for kids' parties for my content on Yahoo Voices! network. You can read my tips here.

I had originally wanted to have my daughter's party outside of the home, but it would have cost nearly $300 to do so. This party was much more affordable, casual, and my daughter had a good time anyway.

Since the theme of her party was so unique -- Percy Jackson/mythology -- I had to create many ideas myself. I tried searching online for ideas, but they were few and far between. Read about how to have a mythology party in another Yahoo Voices! article I wrote at this link. 

I'm already thinking ahead to the twins' December birthday. I'm thinking about themes and ideas. Luckily we don't have the traditional two parties -- family and friend -- just yet. Just family. But I still want it to be special, and I'm already "pinning" away on Pinterest! You can find my boards on this link! Feel free to follow along. :)

Thanks for clicking on my Yahoo Voices! articles and reading them. I am truly trying to write content that helps out families and is useful. I appreciate each and every "click!" I hope my experiences help you all out in some small way.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Special House

Earlier this spring, I bought a framed print. I rarely by any "art." When your husband takes beautiful pictures, you don't have to fill your walls within someone else's creations.

I have rotating set of framed prints and photographs that I use in our home at different times of the year. There's only so much wall space to fill, so I don't have a need to fill any spot right now.

But this picture "spoke" to me. Does that make sense? It reminded me so very much of Vermont, where we vacation. Particularly for this:

See that slanted window? It looks like it's installed improperly, right? Well, in Vermont, on all those back country roads, there are so many houses like this, with a little window installed diagonally in a room upstairs. And the houses are farmhouses, just like this one. And they have apple trees in the yards, with bird houses and bird feeders, and flowers too.

I didn't know who the artist was until my mother returned from Vermont last week and mentioned that she saw it in another gift shop. The print is called "Spring Flowers," and the artist is a man named Fred Swan. And he is a Vermont artist, so when this shot reminded me of Vermont, I was totally right. He lives there and paints many scenes from that area.

The print was more than I wished to pay, but I happened to have a $20 coupon to the gift shop. And birthday money. So it was my little treat to myself earlier this summer. And now it sits above my couch in my living room. And makes me happy.

Isn't that what really matters?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Visit to the PEZ Factory

Here in Connecticut we don't lay claim to much... But we are the home of PEZ! The little candy dispensers are manufactured in Orange, Conn., and the factory opened a Visitor's Center earlier this year. It's a great place to stop if you are ever in the area.

Big Girl is a big fan of PEZ, and has collected dispensers since she was just a tot. We have been dying to visit the PEZ factory ever since we found out that it was open to the public and it was on our Summer Bucket List. We finally had the chance to go last Friday and it was so much fun.

Friends had said it wasn't worth it unless you were in the area, but it was a perfect stop for us. It's small -- it's really one giant room with a loft lounge -- but there is a lot to see and do in that room! It was just right for the twins, with colorful displays and many hands-on/interactive things they could touch. And just the right size to enjoy before the little ones reached their limit.

There is an admission price, but it was worth it. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for kids ages 3 to 12 years, and each admission receives a $2 credit to merchandise purchased in the shop during your visit. A PEZ dispenser costs $1.99, so you basically get a dispenser with your visit, and you can get free mini PEZ packets when you check out. Also, each admission ticket is on a PEZ lanyard to wear around your neck, which you get to keep. And if you take the PEZ trivia quiz, a certificate prints out with your name on it, which is another nice little souvenir. So I'd say you get your money's worth, right?

The center is like a museum to PEZ, with just about every dispenser and collectible imaginable. The history of PEZ is detailed in the displays around the room.

They have the Orange County Choppers PEZ motorcycle hanging in the entry:

I loved these vintage Santa PEZ -- so cute:

The twins had a lot to see during our visit:

You can see into the factory and watch the workers. On this day they were packaging Christmas PEZ -- I wonder how many stockings will be filled with these?

The little ones were fascinated by the numerous PEZ displays in the floor -- they were definitely intriguing:

There is an area when you can get a little tin pail and fill it with loose PEZ candy in every flavor imaginable for $4.99 -- Big Girl had a field day with this and picked several hard-to-find flavors, like sour raspberry and chocolate! The kids picked out dispensers and Big Girl wanted the PEZ collectible book to check out all the hard-to-find dispensers. (As you can tell, we didn't get away without spending extra!)

Upstairs is a lounge area, with many tables where you could enjoy a snack from vending machines, or bring a packed lunch. They have a sink available too. The lounge area also has a giant TV with a PEZ Jeopardy! program playing on it. You can see down into the visitor's center, which the kids enjoyed, especially since there is a great view of the giant PEZ man:

I'm glad we made a point to get here before school started. I found it fascinating, and it was a cheery place to spend a morning.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TWINS TUESDAYS: Finding Support

I've decided to do something new here on the blog: Since one of the reasons I started this whole thing was to blog about the challenges and joys of having multiples, I've decided that Tuesdays will be Twins Days here. Every Tuesday, the post will be about twins -- either advice, tips, experiences, ideas, and/or a call for answers to my problems! I'm hoping that the focus on multiples one day per week will help me and others in my unique parenting role. And since today is the kick-off, I'm going to address the issue of finding support, something I hope you can find right here!

My experience as a parent of twins for two-plus years is that it definitely ebbs and flows. There are times when I think "I've got this!" and there are times when I think "How will I get through this?"

Right now, I'm experiencing the latter!

My little ones are so 32 months old right now and so very, very active. They have been since they turned 2 years old, so it has been a long 8 months in this house, especially since they have really avoided napping now. They are like two little tornados, wound up, feeding off each other's insane energy. If I leave them alone to put away laundry or even just take a phone call in the bathroom (my only quiet place!), I never know what I will discover when I get back. I find it very difficult to discipline them, as they don't seem to care if they are forced to sit in a time out.

Since we returned from vacation last week, my little boy has discovered he can climb in and out of his crib. I know I should be pleased we made this far -- we have been postponing the big bed transition until absolutely necessary. But now he easily scales the side of the crib, and is causing major destruction in the twins' room daily. I am at my wit's end with this. We don't have a spare bedroom to separate the little ones. We live in a small house, so even storing their stuff in another location and clearing out their room is difficult. He has been a little devil, emptying the changing table of diapers and pull-ups, emptying bookshelves, spewing sheets around the room, etc. And he strips off his clothes and diaper in the process. You might wonder how he gets so much accomplished without me knowing? He's absolutely QUIET. And so is his twin. I thought they were sleeping. (Of course, now I'm on to them. And they have to be watched...)

So, I as watch my hair turn gray and fall out, I am in a new phase of twindom that is very stressful. And I feel very alone in it all, because despite well-meaning intentions of friends and family, it's very hard to understand twins unless you have gone through it. I mentioned in yesterday's post that I'm hoping to finally join a Moms of Multiples group for some form of support and encouragement. We have a local group that meets once a month, and when the babies were born, it was on the night of my monthly PTO meeting for Big Girl's school. I wanted to continue to help out at her school to support her, so I didn't go to the MoMs meeting. Now PTO is a different night, so I think I can make these meetings, which coincidentally will now even be held in my town. It's a sign!

Where else can one find support for raising twins? Searching online is a good place. I often just good things like "twins getting out of bed" or "twins throwing food" and you'll find message boards with parents telling stories similar to your own, or other blogs with stories, or websites with advice. You often realize quickly that you are not alone, even if the parents are not living down the street.

As a avid researcher of any topic, I often turn to books for advice or encouragement. And while they are many, many books devoted to twin pregnancy and infancy, it became abundantly clear as my babies grew that there are very few books devoted to twin toddlerdom and beyond. It's like twins never grow up in the book world! (Makes me think I should write a book about that :) I'm thinking of getting this book next.

So where do you find support for the crazy life with twins? Let me know! In a future post I will try to compile a list of the best places for information. In the meantime, stay sane!

Monday, August 27, 2012

At the Seashore

Last week we spent several days in Cape Cod. My husband's family has a condo there, making it an affordable vacation spot to us -- we are lucky that we can visit Vermont and Cape Cod annually without having to rent a cottage or stay at a hotel. We were at the Cape for five days, and tried to cram as much as possible into our short vacation.

Right now, vacations are a challenge with the twins. Just preparing for vacation and packing is difficult. And then there is the whole "not in your own home" challenge: Staying in a place that is not babyproofed, where there are strange and exciting stairs and intriguing items all around. Having the tots sleep in their pack-n-plays, which they are outgrowing. Going to wide open spaces where little ones are both thrilled and scared by ocean and beach. By the fifth day I was more than willing to go home and back to our routine!

Bunny Twin LOVED the beach and the water. Buddy Twin HATED the water. Repeatedly told us he was scared of the water. I think the waves freaked him out. He screamed at his twin sister to get out of the water with panic in his voice and told her "Come back to Mommy! Come back to Mommy!" I don't know what he thought was going to happen to her...

Finally, on Buddy Twin's third trip to the beach, he finally relented and went in the water. We were at a bay beach which did not have waves, but very mellow water and lots of sandbars, so he finally relaxed about the water.

Big Girl had fun too, although she had a minor panic the night before we went to Nauset Beach, the sight of a few Great White Shark sightings recently. (Stupid "Shark Week!!!") She had major anxiety, but I just told her to not to worry, and if she was really worried, just don't go out deeper than your waist and stay away from seals. When we got there, she was just fine, and the waves were too big for her to get too far out anyway!

Of our five days, we made it to the beach on three of them. Another day we just hung out, shopped at Christmas Tree Shops and went to the beach at sunset.

We went mini golfing one afternoon, which was an adventure! My husband thought I was nuts when I suggested taking two 2-year olds golfing, but I wanted Big Girl to have some fun...

And on our last day we stopped in Woods Hole to visit the free science aquarium. It was small, but very cute, and nice to have an completely affordable activity that did not leave us covered in sand and salt :)

And did I mention that it was free??? And it had many tanks, exhibits and seals in residence. If you are in the area, it's a nice activity that takes about an hour.

This vacation was actually a hard one for me. The twins were a complete handful and there were moments when I was very tired and cranky about it. I definitely had a revelation about going forward to survive with two very active little ones in the coming months. To start, I think I need to join a mothers of multiples group. I need some form of social support for getting through this stage and I'm hoping such a group might bring me that encouragement.

On this vacation, I also came to the conclusion that it's all about "baby steps" right now. Little victories. When we left the beach that last day, I told my family that I was proud of us and that we managed. My husband looked at me like I had three heads, but I told him that even though it seemed chaotic, crazy and despite the kids whining at the end, I never thought we could actually go to the beach and manage but we did. When we took them mini golfing, which was an utter disaster and a workout as we chased after the twins with sweat running down our faces, I told my family, again, that I was proud we did it and didn't just avoid it. Right now, it is truly the little things, however, crazy it all seems when we are in the thick of it.

I could not, in all my efforts, get a photo of all three of my children together on this vacation. The little ones would not cooperate. But I did get this shot:

I guess it will do, and it shows them all doing something TOGETHER. And that is all that matters right now. We are all together, in the thick of twindom, but we are surviving. We made it to the beach, we made it through our second summer vacation adventure. I am proud of us, and me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A New Sandwich

Big Girl has discovered a new sandwich that she loves. And this is a big deal.

Why? Because Big Girl is picky. And Big Girl's favorite food group is cheese. Cheese and crackers, macaroni and cheese, cheese sticks. All cheese.

It is a struggle to get her to eat anything other than cheese. She does not really like meat at all, unless it's chicken nuggets. Packing lunches for school is difficult.

She saw this sandwich in her American Girl magazine and wanted to make it. And she has eaten it almost every day this summer.

It's two slices of bread: One is spread with peanut butter; the other with Nutella. Add banana slices in the middle and you have a healthy, non-cheese sandwich for my picky eater.

Hopefully she will still eat this when school begins. And that she will remember to wipe the Nutella off her face after eating it!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Two-Ingredient Muffins

I recently saw this muffin recipe on Pinterest and had to try it. It has two ingredients -- JUST TWO! Cake mix and a can of pumpkin.

I happened to have these ingredients on hand and mixed it up and baked away. (Here is the link to the oh-so-easy instructions.) It was actually not bad, not bad at all. I should have baked them slightly longer and put more batter in each one, but it turned out to be a decent muffin. And, I suspect, not high in fat and calories, because there is no eggs or oil.

They have a different texture, sort of like a smooth cake with a hint of pumpkin flavor. I'm sure I will make these in the fall because they were such an easy treat to whip up.

Here is a link for a chocolate version that apparently doesn't take like pumpkin, but just like a rich chocolate.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Aldi Update

I have been faithfully shopping at Aldi and finding more and more products that my family likes. I am trying to make my trips productive, buying more than one gallon of (hormone-free!) milk when I shop so I can make it to my next trip into the city without having to pay high milk prices at my local grocery store. It has been worth it, and from what I have read in the news recently, will continue to be, as grocery prices are expected to rise substantially in the coming months.

The number one bargain at Aldi, at least for me, is produce. Like I've said before, the number of products is small, but it is enough to allow us more fresh fruits and veggies in our diet. And it's all decent stuff -- brands I'm sure with which we are all familiar, like Chiquita and Driscoll's. And the prices just rock! The bananas above were 44 cents per pound -- I don't know about your family, but we go through bananas like crazy. Often three per day, one for each kid. I should buy stock in bananas.

I also love that Artisan Lettuce, especially at just $2 per pack. It is four little baby heads of fancy lettuce and it makes the best fancy salads. So yummy! And so cheap that I am eating more salad. Especially when topped with feta cheese that I found in Aldi's specialty food aisle. But that's not a bad thing, because I am eating more salad. Even with feta cheese, it prohibits me from eating nasty starches that I don't need all day long.

In other Aldi news, I tried going to the other Aldi near my home recently. It's newer than the one where I usually shop. The problem? It didn't have the same shopping carts. I need the shopping carts that seat two kids when I have the twins with me at Aldi. So I went right back in my car and went to the other Aldi.

I did make it back to this other Aldi with just Big Girl, but I have to say that despite being a "newer" store, it had less selection. I think I will stick to the older Aldi near my local Target from now on, even if there is construction on the road to get there, and it's not an easy trip.

However, our local news reported that 11 new Aldi stores are opening in Connecticut. I wonder where the next ones will be?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Stepping Into the Past

We've been busy trying to make the most of the waning days of summer. One of Big Girl's wishes was to visit our local historical society museum. It's only open two hours a week, so it's definitely been hard to find time in that window most weeks.

Last week, we were able to find an hour to leave the twins with my parents and head over to the tiny, second floor museum and the one-room schoolhouse at the other end of the parking lot. It was well worth the trip! (And did I mention that is has free admission? Yay!)

The museum displays change because the historical society has far more items than fit in their current museum. Eventually, they hope to have a bigger home.

I hadn't been to the museum recently, and it is completely different since my last visit. It was so fascinating to learn about products made here, or see antique items donated to the museum and inspect old photographs of notable places around town, like old schools, churches and businesses.

The best part, however, was this:

Going inside the one-room schoolhouse! Isn't it so-very-Laura-Ingalls? I just loved it. I could only imagine what school was like in this building.

We had a lovely little time exploring our town's past and chatting with the historical society president. I'm very motivated to become a member, as history is a subject near and dear to my heart.

I hope you all find time to visit your local historical societies. Many are staffed by volunteers who spend hours trying to preserve the past. I think it is so important for children to learn about where they live; it gives them pride in their hometowns as they grow up and they feel connected and develop "a sense of place."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt

I have a thing for Southern novels. I've kind of mentioned it previously, but it bears repeating. I have a wish list for new Nookbooks which seems a mile long, and because it's hard to find time to sit down and read often, I don't purchase books until I need a new one.

One of the books on my list was "Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt" by Beth Hoffman. After I read "The Help" -- which I just adored! -- I wanted something similar and this book kept popping up in the "if you like this, you'll like this" lists. And my sister-in-law read it and recommended it. So I put it on my wish list and it has remained there in a sea of books.

Earlier this summer, I ran to our local KMart for a few things and there, in a discount book bin (which I had never noticed previously -- I'll be looking for that bin again!) was the book. It was $5 -- so much cheaper than the Nook version! (In fact, less than half price of the Nook version!)

Now, I've been trying to be a good girl and not purchase hard copies of novels for me as much, because they were contributing to my home's clutter. (Don't say visit the library because sometimes I do, but it can sometimes take me weeks to get through a book with means remembering to renew, renew, renew...) Unless I thought I would read a book more than once -- like a Laura Ingalls Wilder book! -- or they are given to me, or cost pennies second-hand, I really avoid buying hard copies. They are just so expensive! But $5 was such a steal that I couldn't pass it up. And I'm so glad I did, because I will definitely read it more than once.

I just LOVED this book. It's about a little girl, Cee Cee Honeycutt, who has a mom with severe mental illness and a father who has basically checked out of her life. Many things occur, which I will let you find out, but eventually she goes to live with her aunt in Savannah, Ga. There, she meets a quirky cast of female characters and tries to come to terms with her previously awful childhood.

It is a very sweet and lovely book, and the characters just melted my heart. I will definitely be reading it again! And I'm saving it for Big Girl. I think it is a book she will love, but because of some adult issues in it she'll have to wait a while to enjoy it.

This was author Beth Hoffman's first book. I can't wait for her second. She is working on it right now and it should be out early next year.

I'm working on getting through another Fannie Flagg book right now. I'm almost done, and I'll share a quick review when I'm finished.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Off to the Zoo!

One of the things on our Summer Bucket List was a trip to our local zoo. It's small, but it's just enough for the twins to handle -- sometimes I think when you attempt bigger trips/plans they fail because it's just too much for little ones. But my state's only zoo is less than 45 minutes away, and, even better, I got in for free!

Pawprints! Or "Blue's Clues?"
Our local public library offers passes to certain area attractions where you get a discount on admission, or in this case, get in for free. The zoo pass is such a great deal -- and a popular pass -- because it lets in two adults and up to four children in without paying admission. You have to reserve the pass, which I did, and pick it up and return it on the day you use it. I figured out that the library pass saved me $32 in admission; if the babies were over 3 years old, it would have saved me $52!!

So off we went -- with me OVERJOYED that admission was free! I packed a lunch so we didn't have to worry about trying to get food at lunchtime in the zoo's cafe and/or pay for it as well. My mom came along for our adventure as well.

Galapagos tortoise
The first animal we encountered was a Galapagos tortoise. They were on loan for the summer from a Texas zoo and they were fascinating! They were massively huge -- so incredibly large! And apparently incredibly old. The two in the exhibit are 70 and 90 years young. The 90-year-old one was "playing" with a ball and making these loud, loud noises. I never knew a "turtle" could be so loud! And yes, they were not only tortoises but turtles -- not all turtles are tortoises, I learned. Tortoises are turtles that have adapted to living on land. Instead of webbed feet, they have toenails to dig. It was all so fascinating. I could have watched them for a while -- they were very active and so close to the fence.

Beautiful flowers!
We have been to this zoo twice since Big Girl was born. Since our last visit, when Big Girl was around 5 years old, there have been many positive changes. I was pleased to see that the park seemed very clean, with beautiful plantings. (Y'know, every since I've been to Disney World, I have high standards for any "attraction" we visit... I was pleasantly surprised with the zoo this year.)

They have added several nice new viewing area-style buildings, including one in the wolf exhibit.

Wolf Observation Center... Timber wolves are on one side; red wolves on the other.
They also have a random assortment of animals from both near and far, including white-tailed deer, llamas, bison, prairie dogs and others. However, the one we were looking forward to seeing was the beautiful Siberian tiger.

Tiger, tiger...
There are a few tigers here, and they are attempting to breed some babies. They are just so beautiful, with their bright, graphic fur coats. They are just impressively big. Below, Big Girl tries to measure up, but I think the lion's size is more her speed. Too bad we didn't see the King of the Jungle today.

Tall girl, but not tall as a tiger!
After seeing the tigers, we headed into "Alligator Alley." From what I can remember, this whole exhibit seems redone, and it's much better. Clear windows make it easier to see everything instead of cage enclosures. The alligators were fun to watch..

Twins watch the gators.
There is really only one indoor display building, a Rainforest exhibit with a few monkeys, birds, caiman, ocelot and vampire bats, among other small creatures. There are no strollers allowed in this building, which means the twins had some freedom!

Toucan! So colorful!
The twins behaved quite well, except for one tantrum moment when they didn't want to turn around to head back out the door. But they didn't mind getting in that stroller again, which was a relief. It's so much easier to have them "ride" -- we can move faster, they can have a snack in their tray, and they don't run in two different directions!

Sweet little girl.
The zoo also has an indoor carousel. We all went for a spin, but it wasn't very successful! The twins had never been on a merry-go-round. Bunny Twin got upset, as I expected she might, but her brother -- who likes fun things -- suddenly got upset because she was upset. My mom and I sat on a seat for the ride instead of putting them on the animals. Big Girl rode a zebra, however. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a picture because it was hard to handle the babies and the camera! The bonus was it wasn't too expensive: Carousel rides were half-price on the day we visited and adults ride free with a young child, so the ride only cost $3 for all five of us, and my Mom generously footed the bill.

Veggie garden outside the zoo's cafe.
I love the bamboo teepees for the tomatoes.
So happy to see when restaurants grow veggies outside their doors.
We ate our picnic lunch at one of the many, many outdoor tables in the picnic grove. I was glad to pack a lunch, not only because it's cheaper but because it's faster -- the line for food at the cafe was very long and I overheard people complaining about it taking so long. The zoo was busy! There was a small outdoor stand with ice cream treats, so Grammy treated the kids to a cool snack after lunch.

The zoo has a lot of wandering peacocks, including several near the picnic grove. This one was very friendly:

Our lunch companion.
Have you ever seen a white peacock? I haven't.

Big cow!!
Before heading home, we stopped in the gift shop to check out the souvenirs. Big Girl had her heart set on finding Buddy Twin a stuffed tiger. But I ended up getting them each a small stuffed animal -- a downside to my "free day" budget, but since the day was free it was the only out-of-pocket cost I had except for the gas to drive to the zoo. Also, the library pass was a "zoo member" pass, which allows you a 10 percent discount at the gift shop!

It was a fun day, and I was glad to get all three kids out for a simple day trip before school starts in a few weeks.