Digital Mentorship: Screen-Time Strategies for Children

Before we had our first child, we were super determined to delay screen time and technology use for as long as possible, forever even (okay realistically I was aiming for 4-5 years of age). I had seen first hand the negative effects of children having access to phones and tablets at a young age and I wanted nothing to do with it. And while we were mostly successful, we did come to have a change of heart…which is at the heart of this post. This post is not about the positive or negative effects of technology on children because there is plenty of literature already out there that you can read on this subject. Instead, this post wants to inspire dialogue about finding a balance, if there can be such a thing.

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Our son did not watch any TV for the first two years of his life (save the time he was on a nebulizer for an asthmatic cough and the only way he would sit down was with some baby songs chromecasted onto the television). I thought I would wait even longer until I came across the following article in The Atlantic entitled Parents: Reject Technology Shame. I’ve linked the full article for you to read yourself but the main gist is that there are three types of parents: 1) digital limiters, 2) digital enablers, and 3) digital mentors.  What stood out as most alarming in the article was this:

“In a survey that asked parents about where their kids get into trouble online, I found that among school-aged kids, children of limiters who are most likely to engage in problematic behavior: They’re twice as likely as the children of mentors to access porn, or to post rude or hostile comments online; they’re also three times as likely to go online and impersonate a classmate, peer, or adult.”

Reading it I thought, “well of course I want to be a mentor!” I mean, if technology is already a big part of our lives then doesn’t it make more sense to teach children how to use it responsibly rather than just saying no and letting them get into trouble on their own later on? For us it seemed like a no-brainer. Of course that didn’t mean we opened the floodgates on screen time and technology use. Also, while the article was inspiring in opening the conversation on digital mentorship, it didn’t offer much in the way of guidelines. A digital mentor was defined generally as those who  “take an active role in guiding their kids onto the Internet.” But internet is only one side of digital media use. And what does an “active guiding role” look like? I thought long and hard about this question and so I came up with 3 ways we can be a digital mentor to young children when it comes to screen-time.

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  1. Set parameters by being a good role model. Being a digital mentor doesn’t mean there aren’t ANY limits. Reflect on your own values and how technology fits in with them and you’ll likely arrive at the conclusion that technology has its time, place, and benefits. Now define what those are. Think that phones or tablets don’t belong on the dinner table? Make sure they’re not in sight when dinner time rolls around. Do you want screen-time/technology use to be an educational and wholesome experience? Choose programming that reflect those values. We find it helpful to think about how we use our technology in front our children and what they will learn from that.
  2. Be present and engaged. When I think of mentorship, I think of a guiding presence. Often times when parents allow screen time or technology use, it is as a reprieve so that the children can be preoccupied as adults get their stuff done. It doesn’t have to be that way. Try to plan screen time and technology use so that you are physically present and able to reinforce what they are learning and  get them to reflect on what they are experiencing. The research shows that it’s far more effective than just having your child sit and watch/play on their own.
  3. Opt for Ad-Free programming. If there’s anything that digital mentorship is all about, it’s about embracing technology to put yourself in the driver’s seat. If we are going to be totally honest then advertisements and commercials are major obstacles to that control. For that reason, try to stick to applications and programs that are free of advertisements as not only are many of them questionably appropriate but they instill an insatiable consumerist impulse at such a young age which is totally unnecessary.

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Living in a digital age presents many challenges and we are working to be better digital mentors each and every day. There’s no such thing as perfect and how we interact with technology will continue to evolve. These are just three simple ideas for how we approach technology use that we hope you’ll find helpful if you’re apprehensive about introducing technology and screen time to young children. How do you feel about technology and screen-time? If you have any ideas on how to be a good digital mentor, please share in the comments below. And as always, if you found this post helpful please follow us and share

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Family Finance: Why Amazon Prime?

Hello friends. It’s me again, here with your second dose of family finance for the new year. In the first post, I covered the very basics of budgeting and how to go about calculating a realistic budget based on your expenses. In the next few posts, I  will be discussing how we save money shopping by using subscription services like Amazon Prime and Costco’s Executive Membership. Today’s post will be specifically about Amazon Prime, a service that we have used for years and are well acquainted with. I am aware that there are pros and cons to each service that we recommend and I will try my best to address these today and in the upcoming posts.

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What is Amazon Prime in a nutshell?
Amazon Prime is an online shopping subscription service for $99/year that gives you access to 2-day delivery guarantee on Prime items. On top of the free 2-day delivery (nothing is free, I am sure the accountants have it all calculated in your prime pricing) it also gives you access to Amazon Photo, Amazon Video, Twitch and other Amazon owned subsidiary services. What Amazon does is that it spares you (both time and money) from having to hop in your car and drive to a number of different stores to purchase the goods that you need; everything from clothing to food to office supplies to home tools and appliances. You name it and it’s most likely on Amazon.

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Although we don’t have Amazon Fresh where we live in Michigan, I am hopeful that with their acquisition of Whole Foods it will soon become a reality. Amazon Fresh is a service that has a contractor buy groceries per your request and deliver it straight to your door in a matter of hours. Yes, we are moving towards the future we saw in WALL-E (if you haven’t seen WALL-E, do me a favor and watch it. It’s one of Pixar’s masterpieces). My wife is adamant that even with Amazon Fresh she will still prefer going to the local grocer or farmer’s market, I guess we will just have to see about that. Until we get Amazon Fresh, we are currently making the most of the Subscribe & Save feature of our membership.

Subscribe & Save
As homeowners and parents, we take advantage of Amazon’s Subscribe and Save feature to receive items that we use regularly at home on a monthly basis at a discounted rate. The way it works is that there are items on Amazon you can subscribe to (these could be anything from cleaning products to personal care products to snacks). If you subscribe to less than 5 items you get 5% off the price of those items at checkout and if you subscribe to 5 or more items, you get 15-20% off those items.

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 6.57.17 AMAlthough you only get one subscription box a month, you have the option of changing the delivery date and the contents of your box to fit your needs. On top of the discounts received, you can get an additional 5% off in the form of Amazon points to use towards future purchases if you pay with an Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card. Below is an example of what our Subscribe & Save looks like. Notice how on the left there are 5 bars highlighted in orange. This means that since we have 5 or more items in our subscription box, we are eligible for the extra 15-20% off.

Screen Shot 2018-01-27 at 11.54.02 PMSample list:
Tom’s of Maine Toothpaste
Mrs. Meyers Hand Soap
ECOS Natural Dishwashing Liquid 
Peter Rabbit Organics Puree
Larabar Fruit and Nut Bar

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Amazon Prime Video
We don’t have cable because we don’t watch TV that often and we also HATE commercials with a passion. Amazon Video is a wonderful feature of our Amazon Prime membership (think like Netflix) with an extensive library that includes plenty of educational and family-friendly content for our Friday movie nights. If you decide on a Prime membership, Prime Video is automatically included but you can also sign up for Prime Video as a standalone service.

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The introduction of Prime Pantry allowed Amazon to expand its selection and offer thousands of items to Prime members that are cost prohibitive to ship for free individually. Since the items are smaller, individually shipping them isn’t an option, but if you fill a box worth of all your needs you can save substantially and also get Prime Pantry credit to use towards future Prime Pantry purchases. We don’t currently use this feature as we do most of our shopping at local grocery stores and Costco but it’s definitely something we are exploring because the pricing is competitive, it’s a real time saver once set up, and we can save an extra 5% by using our Amazon Prime Rewards credit card.

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Now you have an idea of what Amazon Prime is and how it works but the real question is: is it really worth it? What I have discussed up until this point, is just the surface of Amazon’s services. I haven’t even mentioned perks like your choice of a free kindle book every month or access to ad-free listening via Amazon Music or unlimited media storage through Amazon Photo. If I truly wanted to dissect each feature, this would turn into a VERY lengthy post so for the purposes of sticking to the topic, I will next address how a Prime membership can be an asset to managing your family’s finances and keeping to a budget.

Amazon Prime Memberships
In terms of types of Amazon Prime memberships, there are three different options: 1) Standard, 2) Family, and 3) Student. Below I’ve listed the three memberships along with links to their 30-day Free Trial if you’re interested in giving them a try. We currently have a standard membership but we suggest that if you’re a parent and you don’t cloth diaper that you sign up with Amazon Family as they offer discounts on many baby-related products including up to 20% off on  disposable diapers.

  1. Standard: Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial
  2. Family: Try Amazon Family 30-Day Free Trial 
  3. Student: Try Amazon Prime 50% Off For Students 

If you want to experience Amazon before diving into a membership or free trial and you’re either getting married or having a baby, I highly recommend you do your gift registry through Amazon. You get all the benefits of their customer service, everything delivered to your home,  and on top of it you get a coupon to purchase any remaining items off your list. If you have your baby registry with Amazon and you are a Prime member, however, you get additional perks including a $35 welcome box.

  1. Create a Amazon Wedding Registry
  2. Create a Amazon Baby Registry

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Why Amazon?
Okay, so Amazon Prime is awesome.  It saves you money by saving you time with its 2-day shipping, competitive pricing, and diverse selection of products. But you’re probably asking how does this translate in terms of numbers? To illustrate how the membership pays for itself, I’m going to share a few ways we save big using Amazon Prime.

Gifts.
Between holidays, birthdays, and just because, we do most of our gift shopping via Amazon Prime. I’m talking 50 gifts a year, at least (yeah, we are blessed with family and friends). If we were to pay 2-day shipping for even just 10 of those gifts, we would easily spend the $100 that our membership costs. Assuming shipping is around $10 (depending on box size and location this can vary from $7-$20+) on average (I just sent a small box to a city 30 minutes away and it was $8 for standard shipping), we save at least $400 a year not paying for shipping when we gift.

School books.
If you’re a student like us, you know that the cost of books can add up FAST. Not only are Amazon’s book prices consistently low compared to other retailers but on shipping alone, we definitely save big with a Prime membership. Since we first started using Amazon we’ve had over 100 book orders, and while it would take entirely too much time to calculate how much we saved going with Amazon as opposed to our university’s Barnes and Nobles, we definitely saved at least $500 on just shipping alone. On top of that we were able to sell our books back via Amazon Marketplace for much more than we would have received from our university bookstore. The bottom line is if you’re a student then you should seriously consider getting Amazon Prime (the membership is only $50/year for students).

Household.
From dishwasher detergent to a router, we have saved a great deal over the years going with Amazon for our household needs. We have purchased a rug for the nursery, a projector for our home theater system, and even our bikes from Amazon. For all of these items we were able to do extensive comparisons of pricing, customer reviews, and warranties to ensure that we were getting the most bang for our buck. Just to give you an idea, one of the rugs we ordered was $100 more at places like Walmart  and Home Depot and the projector we purchased was $200 more at Best Buy.

Baby.
Amazon has a diverse selection of products that we would not have had access to if we went to our local baby stores, especially with our choice to cloth diaper. We were able to get a variety of quality cloth diapers for a fraction of the cost ($26 for 6 as opposed to $15-20 each) as well as significant discounts on products such as strollers, baby proofing essentials and bilingual toys and books.

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Is Amazon Prime guaranteed to save you money and lower your bills? Not necessarily  but it certainly can if you play your cards right. I like to think of Amazon as a tool or technology that can be used either for good or bad. Amazon Prime often gets a bad rap as an enabler of mismanagement because of its effortless accessibility and it’s not hard to see why. I do think, however, that if you have a busy lifestyle and if you spend regularly on some of the things I listed then you can definitely use Amazon Prime to your advantage when budgeting and saving money. If you took the steps I suggested in the first post to create a budget, the best way to know if Amazon is right for you is to do some research on your expenses and determine whether you can cut costs with a Prime membership. In the next post we will introduce the other players that compete with Amazon and why we use a combination of services instead of solely using Amazon Prime.

If you found this post helpful, we would appreciate it if you like and share it.  If you  are an Amazon Prime member and have something to add to the conversation or you’re considering Prime and have more specific questions about their services and pricing, feel free to comment/ask below. We always love hearing from our readers 🙂 And as always… signature3

 

 


5 Strategies and Resources for Keeping Toddlers Screen-Free

Happy New Year friends! We hope all of you had a blessed holiday with your loved ones and we wish everyone peace, success, and happiness in 2018. Things are crazy busy here as we are preparing for a family vacation to Florida this weekend. I’ll be honest, between the kids being sick early last month and the holidays, they have seen far more screen time in December alone than they have in a year (we used to be strict about this but that’s for another post). And boy are we ready to detox and resume our screen-free daily routines once we get back. If reducing your child/children’s screen-time is one of your new year resolutions then you’re in luck because I have 5 simple strategies and a handful of fun resources to help get you on track for just that.

“Play is the beginning of knowledge.” -George Dorsey.

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  1. Identify what they like and stick with it. I know this may seem like common sense but living in this age of information overload, it can be difficult to filter through everything to decide what’s applicable and what’s not. Not everything that works for other children may work for yours and that’s okay. The best way to get to know your child is to try a range of different activities with them and see what keeps their short attention span occupied. Chances are you already have an idea without needing to do much investigating. My son is currently really into play dough, Mega Bloks, and dragons at the moment and is very active so if I’m going to get frustrated that he’s not sitting down for a coloring activity for more than 5 minutes, I can’t blame anyone but myself. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try other activities but for the sake of my schedule, I only do things like cooking or reading for school when my children are engaged with an activity for the long haul.
  2. Make a weekly activity plan. With all things in life, if you have an outline or plan of action then you’re more likely to follow through with it. If you are really committed to screen-free quality time then try investing 15-30 minutes on the weekend to brainstorming and arranging for activities during the week. You don’t have to be doing crazy chemistry lab experiments to make it fun. As you’ll come to see in the links I’m sharing below, it doesn’t take much to make children happy. I also want to add the disclaimer that an activity plan should be treated more like a guide rather than a strict schedule. It should be a way for you to think through your day and have activities on hand when you need them most.
  3. Talk it up. Sometimes for kids it’s less about the activity and more about the presentation. Maybe that’s just my experience with my kids but I feel they definitely pick up on my enthusiasm. I don’t have numbers to back up this claim but I find that my son is more engaged when I’ve talked about the activity beforehand. For example, if I were to ask him “prepare me something delicious to eat” while giving him his play kitchen tools, he would spend more time playing than if I were to just dump them on the floor and tell him, “here, play with this.”
  4. Limit accessibility and rotate activities to keep things interesting. In other words if you got it, don’t flaunt it. You will be surprised at what a huge difference it makes if you hide some toys away…because let’s face it, every parent is familiar with what happens when everything is accessible: toys strewn everywhere and bored, restless children. Not the funnest combination. Try taking some toys out of circulation and bringing them out in rotation when you sense boredom. Our MegaBloks, puzzles, and an array of large toy vehicles are stored way high up on a shelf and when I  bring them down, my son definitely relishes every moment.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make a mess. Okay maybe this is not what you want to hear but trust me. I’m not talking trash the house messy but more along the lines of confined chaos. There are plenty of activities that I’ll list below that allow children to really explore and be messy without you having a disaster on your hands. I don’t know what it is about messes but kids love making them and if they’re happy and occupied then you will be too 🙂

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With that being said, I’m sharing a list of fun activities that we have tried and enjoyed as well as some amazing resources that I turn to when planning out activities for the kids. I’m also linking our Pinterest board as I do pin fun toddler activities as I come across them for inspiration. I feel like I should state again that the point of this post isn’t that you must have scheduled activities in a curriculum sense but rather a collection of activities suitable for play. Children should be free to explore and play and the activities you choose should exemplify that philosophy.

“Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” -Plato

Sensory and Fine Motor Activities

  1. Make homemade play dough and model/build/cut with cookie cutters
  2. Thread pipe cleaners through a colander or box with holes
  3. Freeze toys in water and do an ice excavation
  4. Make colorful squishy gel bags with glitter and beads
  5. Pom Pom Ball Color Sorting

“Messy” Activities

  1. Go dumpster diving for lost toys in a cardboard box
  2. Create a dry pasta/rice/lentil construction site
  3. Paint with shaving cream on a plastic bin lid
  4. Make a scoop and pour activity station with containers and random objects
  5. Pour flour and shredded coconut in a bin with small cars for a snowy ride

Physical Activities

  1. Set up a simple indoor obstacle course with everyday objects
  2. Have a color-themed scavenger hunt with this song
  3. Have an alphabet or number scavenger hunt
  4. Set up a bubble machine and chase after bubbles to pop them.
  5. Blow up balloons and play balloon tennis, volleyball, or soccer.

Imaginative Play

  1. Make a play boat from a cardboard box and pretend you’re fishing or escaping sharks
  2. Give children kitchen tools and utensils to play chef
  3. Play veterinarian or doctor with sick action figures and stuffed animals
  4. Build a tent from blankets and go pretend camping
  5. Host a pretend picnic or tea party for their toys

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These are just some of the MANY activities out there and there are plenty more waiting to be discovered or created by you to fit your child’s needs (Disclaimer: All the activities I’ve listed are intended to be done with adult supervision even if they don’t necessarily require your active participation). I hope this post is a good starting point for helping you feel less overwhelmed and more capable of keeping your children engaged and occupied without resorting to screens. To help me get organized and plan better (and help you do the same), I’ve created a weekly activity plan to fill out to help guide me through my days at home. The image below is just an example of how you can fill it out but you’ll want to do so according to your own daily rhythms and routines, interests and likes. I also included a column for time but I do not adhere to it strictly and you can completely ignore it all together if you want. The time column is more to remember fixed moments of the day such as snack time, lunch, and nap time. I want to also add that I think it’s very important to be flexible and not hold yourself to unreasonable and unattainable scheduling expectations because this isn’t school.

Weekly toddler planWeekly Activity Plan Free Download

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Once you have downloaded this blank activity guide, you can visit the links below to get started planning your days with your little one(s). While I’m no child psychologist or educator, I think that it’s good to have a balance of diverse activities; literacy, sensory/fine motor, physical activity, and imaginative play. The best part about designing your day is you get to customize activities that blend motor skills, creativity, and learning (science, math, language, etc.) in ways that are fun and appealing to your child. The last thing children need is to be lectured classroom-style. If there are specific concepts that you would like them to be learning then write them down in the “focus” section. This will help you be mindful of your learning goals so you can incorporate them up during activities and moments throughout your day. Alright, let’s get planning!

Resources for Activity Planning

  1.  Hands on As We Grow
  2. Busy Toddler
  3. Fun at Home With Kids
  4. The stay-at-home-mom survival guide
  5. Meri Cherry
  6. Toddler Approved
  7. Playtivities

If you liked this post and found it helpful, we would love it if you would share. For more related content, you can find us on Instagram where we share more of our day-to-day and Pinterest where we share our ideas and inspiration. If you have any thoughts or suggestions about this topic, feel free to leave a comment down below. And as always…

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DIY Upcycled Brown Paper Bag Gift Wrap

It’s finally the holiday weekend and that means we are inching ever closer to the start of 2018. We recently hit our 2 year blogging anniversary earlier this month and we thought it would be nice to celebrate with a short reflection and a makeover of the first post that ever went up on this blog. Why? Because sometimes, in the nitty gritty of blogging we can find ourselves questioning it all and in our tunnel vision of self-pity and negativity, we forget how far we have come. Comparison isn’t so bad when you’re looking at yourself and everyone loves a good before and after so here is ours.

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As you can see clearly, our styling and photography has drastically improved in the last two years. Our first post was written in 2015 just a week before Christmas and right before I was about to dive into a week of hell taking my PhD qualifying examinations (a 7 day, 40+ page writing endeavor). Since that first post, we have connected with some wonderful bloggers, participated in two One Room Challenges, built a small but amazing community, and even wrote our first sponsored blog post.  There have been many times this year when we would feel frustrated with our engagement or turn-around time and even question what kind of blog we were aiming to be but looking back to our first post, I think the answer has always been there. DIYing is obviously something we are very passionate about as well as striving to live as simply and sustainably as possible and that’s exactly the commitment that our first post embodies. In this post, we will be sharing our revamped post with a little twist; using stencils to create beautiful gift wrap designs. For those of you who waited until last minute to wrap your gifts, you’ll want to hold off on that last minute Target run because this is such a simple way to add a personal touch to your gift wrapping and for next to no cost at all (depending on what your craft supply stash looks like). The wonderful thing about this gift-wrap is that it’s not just for Christmas; you can customize it to fit any holiday or occasion year round.

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Supplies
Brown paper bag
Scissors
Stencils
Metallic Paint Marker, paint pens, or sharpies
Twine
Embellishments such as eucalyptus, flowers, pine cones, etc..

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Directions

  1. Flatten your brown paper bag and cut down to the size you need.
  2. With a metallic paint pen, stencil in the blank side of the bag using the pattern of your choosing.
  3. Place your thoughtful gift inside and wrap nicely.
  4. Embellish with rustic twine, eucalyptus, pine cones, or holly.

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As you can see, I was going for a minimalist/bohemian look (surprise, surprise) with the copper and white pattern, twine, and eucalyptus accent. It’s almost too pretty to open!

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So what does 2018 hold for us? It’s been really hard to answer this question because life is pretty busy with two kids and graduate school on our plates. We do know that we love what we do and we love sharing it with you. We hope that we can continue growing; growing ourselves, our skills, and our blog and hopefully inspiring you all along the way. We can say for certain that we will definitely be sharing more DIY projects, simple family recipes, our simple living journey, and parenting adventures but whether we can keep up with our 50 blog posts/year productivity will remain to be seen. If there are topics you would like to see more of here on The Cozy Home Chronicles, please feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below. And for those of you new bloggers, those considering starting blogs, or even veteran bloggers wondering “what’s the point?”, keep on dreaming and working towards those dreams with your eyes on the journey and not solely on the destination.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”-Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist

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Family Finance: A Simple Budget Overview

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Hello friends! Today’s post is going be different than the usual and it might even seem a little off topic because it’s about numbers (my favorite subject). As a financial analyst, budgeting is a subject near and dear to my heart and something I have been wanting to write about for a while now. While it doesn’t fit the usual cozy home posts of DIY projects and healthy recipes, it is something that is essential to the kind of lifestyle we write about. Sound budgeting not only reduces stress but it is absolutely necessary for eating healthy, saving for the future, and investing in quality experiences (just to name a few).

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Although life is busy with two kids and endless responsibilities, I try to make sure that my wife and I are on the same page when it comes to our finances. While talking about money sometimes gets a bad rap in certain cultures (it can be taken for stinginess or greed) the reality is that money is an important aspect of life that, when managed properly, can be a real source of strength for your family.  With the New Year just around the corner, I wanted to write a series of posts that would be helpful for those looking to review and improve their financial stability by acquainting them with some basic concepts, tools, and resources to budget better, save more, and stress less. In this first post, I will discuss a simple approach to budgeting that will involve choosing a methodology for budgeting and tracking that is comfortable and realistic for you and your lifestyle. Let’s get started!

Agenda

  • Choose a methodology for budgeting that is realistic
  • Find and maximize your budgeting strategy to free up time for other activities
  • Help you commit to a new financial awareness

1. Cash vs. Credit: Choose a spending system
There are many blogs and websites out there that tout the merits of using cash-only while vilifying credit cards as enablers of mismanagement. While there is some truth to this, there are many benefits to using credit cards especially when used alongside online budgeting platforms. I am a firm believer of using a hybrid system and as of right now we have an 80/20 split between credit and cash respectively. Choosing a system is important because it will dictate how you track your numbers.  For example, if you decide to use mostly credit like we do, along with an online budgeting platform, much of the work in terms of tracking numbers will be done for you automatically. Another benefit of using credit is being able to take advantage of cash-back or point bonus systems that many well-known credit card companies offer. While your budget will dictate to some extent what your spending system will look like, it’s important to envision how you’re comfortable spending so you can get into a rhythm that works for your lifestyle and fits into tracking and accountability.

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2. Written vs. Digital: Tracking your numbers
Aside from choosing a spending system, it’s also important to pick your preference when it comes to keeping track of your income and expenses. There are many budgeting apps and free online software’s such as Mint, YNABGoogle Sheets, and Microsoft Excel to name a few. I use Excel because I always have but if I didn’t have access to it then Google Sheets would be a more than capable replacement. If you can’t see yourself committing to updating a sheet every day or two on the computer then stick to good old pen and paper (you can find PDF expense trackers here). If you’re not into tracking at all then you might want to really consider an online system like MINT or YNAB. All you need to sign up is a valid e-mail address and the rest is simply adding your financial account information.  Mint is a free platform while YNAB is free for some people such as college students (more on their pricing structure here). The most important thing is that you choose a medium that is comfortable for you so that you can be consistent and disciplined.

Now that you have an idea of what kind of spending system you’d like and how you want to keep track of your numbers, let’s do a very basic run through of how to calculate a budget.

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3. Fixed vs. Variable Expenses: Determining your Budget

Fixed expenses: A fixed expense is one that you can’t change and tends to stay around the same dollar amount every month. Mortgage payments, apartment rent, and car lease payments are all examples of fixed expenses.

Variable expenses: A variable expense is something that changes from month to month based on different factors. Groceries, clothing, entertainment, and gifts would be examples of variable expenses because you decide how much to spend to some degree.

To determine your monthly budget, you will need to calculate your expenses (fixed + variable) and subtract them from your monthly income. I have provided a sample Excel  sheet template below for downloading to show you how this is done. As you can see, there are three sections: income, fixed expenses, and variable expenses. If you want to follow along using the custom budget template that I created, go ahead and start by inputting your  income first followed by your expenses. In this example, the income is $3500/month, total expenses are $2402, and there is a positive balance of $1098.

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You can adjust the expense categories to more accurately reflect your family’s lifestyle but I tried to include a diverse list of expenses to give you an idea of what to account for. If you’re totally clueless on what you’re spending on or even how much you spend on basic things like groceries, I suggest you try a 30-day trial period where you diligently track each and every expense. This will help acquaint you with your spending habits and allow you to identify practices that are not budget-friendly. For example, if your grocery expense is much higher than you’re comfortable with and you’d really like to be saving for say a post-graduation trip then you might want to adopt practices like meal planning and meal prepping to work alongside your budgeting approach. While you do want to be as accurate as possible when accounting for your spending, you don’t want to be too extreme to the point that you’re tracking every penny unless you are in a very tight situation. Once you’ve figured out you’re spending habits, created a budget, and have begun tracking your monthly expenses you are now able to do the fun part of analyzing your data and working towards saving and investing.

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Now with the basics down, it will be much easier for me to share some of my tips and tricks for saving monthly, planning trips, and investing in the future. I have a few posts planned out for this series already; one to cover college savings funds and another to cover the advantages of memberships like Amazon Prime and Costco. As I said early on in this post, finance is a subject that I am very passionate about so if there’s something you’d like to see covered in this series then please don’t hesitate to contact us either through email or by leaving a message in the comments below. We hope this post was the spark you needed to rethink your budget and saving strategies for 2018. As always, if you liked this post please follow us and share!

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Keeping it Cozy: Simple ways to add warmth to your home

With Halloween behind us and Thanksgiving ahead, we are inevitably inching closer to the end of the year and to even colder weather (brrrr… just the thought makes us cold). The good news, however, is that there are a few simple ways to kick the coziness factor of your home up a few notches and I’ll be sharing them with you in this post. It really doesn’t take much to make a space inviting and cozy. No matter what your style is, if you can envision yourself curling up with a good book or good company and forget all your troubles then you’re doing something right. The fall and winter seasons makes this more of necessity because there’s less going out and more staying in. The last thing you want is to be sitting in is an uninspiring space all winter. Plus with the many holidays around the corner, you’ll definitely want a welcoming space where your family can gather. Here are just a few ideas that you can implement today:

Bring out the throws. Nothing says warmth like a soft, fluffy throw. A throw hanging out on your sofa is a nice invitation to relax and feel right at home after a long busy day.

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Light it up.  Candles and string lights add a warm, cozy glow to any space especially when it’s cold outside. Furthermore, the scent of your home can really make or break the mood. Try burning or diffusing fragrances that are meaningful to you. Some of our favorites include cotton, balsam fir, orange, and vanilla.
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Warm drinks at the ready. Whether you’re a coffee or tea or hot cocoa drinker, having a tray or cart set up for an evening sip-a-thon will transform your space from cozy to COZY. I mean, who doesn’t dream of relaxing in their home with a warm mug of their favorite beverage in hand?
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As you can see, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how we can make our home a little cozier for the winter. During my browsing adventures, I came across many home decor items that I found both beautiful and cozy so I put them all in a mood board for you  with sources included. For now, my plan is to add winter greenery with some fairy lighting but our living room always feels cooler in the winter even with the heat on so I thought it would be nice to have a TV stand with fireplace. One can dream, am I right? Anyways, I hope you find inspiration in our little collection and in our simple tips for making your space cozy for this winter season.

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Sources: 1. Wayfair | 2. H&M Home | 3. IKEA | 4. Amazon | 5. H&M Home | 6. IKEA | 7. Target | 8. H&M Home

What are some ways you like to make your space cozy for the changing seasons? Tell us in the comments below and as always, if you liked this post please follow us and share!

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Mindful Homekeeping: Ditching Plastic Bottled Water

A few months ago we started a series called Mindful Homekeeping in order to share simple homekeeping practices, DIYs, and products that we feel are mindful of the environment, body, and soul as we journey toward a more sustainable lifestyle. Because we live in a time where convenience and cost drive consumption, we really wanted a space to think critically about our practices and what we can do to make healthy, meaningful but also economical choices. Many of the topics we will cover are changes that we successfully implemented and wanted to share in the hopes of motivating you to consider making them too. In this post we will be addressing a practice that is commonplace in American households: buying and drinking bottled water. Now before you go off thinking that this is such an insignificant part of your life it isn’t worth examining…you are mistaken. Your actions can absolutely make a difference.

IMG_4071*This post contains affiliate links for your convenience.*

Bottled water has always secretly angered me. In an environmental anthropology class I took back in undergrad, we read and talked a lot about the environmental impact of Nestle and other companies that turned a free natural resource into a multi-billion dollar industry. It especially hit home for me because we live in the Great Lakes region and I was beyond bothered that a corporation could just own something that should belong to all people. And then the whole Flint water crisis and Dakota pipeline happened and it really brought the issue of clean, accessible water to the forefront. We pledged then that we would no longer purchase bottled water except on rare occasions {read as “never if we can help it”}. While we have always kept glass bottles filled in the fridge for ourselves, we were still keeping bottled water on hand for visitors. After our pledge, we invested in a larger collection of glass bottles to accommodate guests as well. Most of our collection is from IKEA and the carafes range anywhere from $1.99-$4.99.

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Why are we telling you this? Because with the cost being so cheap there’s really no reason not to completely make the switch. All you need to do is make a small investment in reusable bottles/carafes/pitchers {the cost will depend on the size of your family, we spent around $10} and then make a habit of filling them regularly. When one empties, you clean and refill it while you enjoy the next bottle. Expecting company? Fill a pitcher ahead of time and put it in the fridge. Going for a run? Fill up your canteen with cold water from the refrigerated carafes and refill the carafes for later. These simple practices can easily become habits that eliminate the need for drinking plastic bottled water. Heck you don’t even need to necessarily buy anything. I can think of plenty of glass you can upcyle {think milk jugs, cold-brew coffee, juice bottles} to use for the purposes outlined here. The best part about filling your own glass bottles ahead of time is that you can switch things up by making colorful and refreshing fruit waters. There’s no limit to what you can create once you start mixing up fruit, herbs, and citrus. I recently made a cherry, lime, mint water and it was DELICIOUS. Definitely beats boring plastic bottled water any day!

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If you are still not convinced, here are just some of the many reasons you should give up bottled water. You can read the sources for these facts in-depth here and here.

  1. The recommended eight glasses of water a day, at U.S. tap rates equals about $.49 per year; that same amount of bottled water is about $1,400.
  2. Eighty percent of the water bottles we buy end up in landfills, the absolute worst place for them to be.
  3. Plastic leaches into the water it holds, which has been linked to health issues like reproductive problems and different types of cancer.

Of course we don’t want to be too rigid. Plastic bottled water can have its time and place. We just don’t think it should be every time you reach for a drink of water. To conclude we will leave you with a goal and two action items that you can work toward:

Goal: Reduce plastic bottled-water consumption
Action item 1: Remove plastic bottled water from your grocery lists
Action item 2: Build collection of sustainable water bottles that you can refill over and over again

If you’re still thinking “it’s too hard to make the transition,” try starting with one glass bottle in your fridge and reach for that instead of your plastic bottle. Then as your plastic bottle supply depletes you can slowly build your collection of sustainable water bottles. We know that making these changes are not easy but they definitely make a difference and that is something you can feel good about.

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Potty Training Before Age 2

Happy Monday friends! Our little hobbit just turned two years old last week (sobs) and we are getting ready to take potty training to the next level. I’ve struggled to write about this topic for a while now because 1) The first time I told someone I was potty training it felt like everything went south, and 2) It hasn’t been completely successful. I am, however, trying to look at the positives as we take the next step, so I wanted to share what has worked and what hasn’t.

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We started potty training our son the week before he turned one. I was super determined (clearly) and our doctor had told us that some cultures were successful in training children by 15 months of age. I wanted to be that parent. And things, surprisingly, went very well from the beginning. We had used sign language with our son from a very early age and he had picked the signs up fairly quickly. The potty sign was no exception. It’s easy to start the association early on because babies don’t hide the fact that they’re going. So every time he would start turning red like a tomato or make pushing sounds, I would acknowledge the sounds he was making while signing for potty. After a few weeks, he was signaling to us whenever he needed to go. It was seriously the coolest thing ever until he started manipulating us and using the sign (and sound effects!) to try to get out of his highchair or nap time or anything really. Actually it was pretty hilarious but that’s beside the point. Anyways, the only problem was that his signing to go only covered pooping, which is where we are still at today. I think it’s just that peeing is so effortless, he doesn’t give it much thought or know how to make the distinction yet.

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It certainly has been nice not needing to change poopy toddler diapers (with the exception of a few accidents) but now that we’ve been going to the potty for almost a year, I really want to get him fully trained in the next few weeks. I try not to be too hard on myself but I do put the blame on me for not having fully trained him. I think what he really needed (and still needs) is a few days in just underwear so that he can make the mistake of peeing and learn not to. I was unable to give him that opportunity when the fatigue started kicking in during my second pregnancy and it’s hard now that I’m juggling life with another baby. I’d have to be constantly on top of him so he doesn’t pee on any rugs and with a 8-month old in my arms, that’s difficult to do. All this is not to say that we didn’t have any success at all. Many people don’t start until 2 or 3 so I’m happy with where we are at now. There are some things, besides the signing, that I know have made this journey much easier so if you’re thinking about starting to potty train you might want to consider these things.

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  1. Create a happy space. This is something we try to do everyday in our home but we very consciously made an effort to create a comfortable space he could feel was his. Even though it was just a small corner of the bathroom, it was his potty haven complete with his own colorful hand towel and bathroom mat
  2. Make it fun. This goes hand in hand with the making of the space. At first we would keep and rotate a few special toys in the bathroom. That way, he was always excited to go to the potty so he could play with those specific ones. We would also play DJ and let him listen to a song of choice, which basically turned into “Ants Go Marching” on repeat all day, everyday. When he turned 18-months, my mom got him an Elmo and Superhero Potty Book which we have kept in there as well. Now he enjoys going to the potty because he loves being read a story. We also had a special soap dispenser just for him and he enjoyed using it to wash his hands after a successful go. These small and simple touches have made for a smooth potty training experience for all of us.
  3. Give encouragement and rewards. Stickers can be your best friend. We definitely didn’t want to bribe our son with sweets or toys but we did want to give him recognition that he was doing an awesome job. The potty book he received came with a sticker chart and stickers that we hung up behind the bathroom door. Each time he would successfully tell us and go in his potty, he would get to put up a sticker on his chart. This somehow grew into sticker collecting and whenever we go out to Michaels or Target, we let him pick out his own stickers to put up. High-fives, hugs, clapping, and calling dada to share in excitement over another bowel movement are also wonderful gestures that have allowed us to express how proud of him we are.

We did make the switch from cloth diapers (little sis is using them now) to pull-ups several months ago so we are hoping there is an end in sight. He does and can pee in his potty but he just hasn’t gotten to the point where he tells us each and every time he needs to pee. As he gets older and his vocabulary expands, we are sure it will be a matter of time before it clicks. We made plans for this weekend to finally remove all the rugs in the living area and have him in underwear for an extended period of time. Our fingers are crossed and we could certainly use all the luck we can get 😉

Have you tried potty training before the age of 2? What tips and tricks worked for you? Let us know in the comments below. And as always..

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Mindful Homekeeping Series: Seventh Generation

If you’ve been following along on our blog, you know that we do try to reduce our negative environmental impact any way we can through things like cloth diapering and upcycling, to name a few. This journey has been challenging especially because we live in a country where food, clothing, hygiene products, cleaning supplies, etc. are readily available to us for super cheap. The circumstances we live in are such that we almost have no reason to give our consumption and excess a second thought. But we should and we must. Fortunately there are people and companies out there who are engaging in this conversation and raising the important questions we need to be asking ourselves both as consumers and as citizens of this beautiful planet. This post is the first in a series we are calling Mindful Homekeeping which will cover simple homekeeping practices, DIY ideas, and products that are mindful of the environment, body, mind, and soul.

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Image Sources: Cleaning01 available under CC BY-SA 3.0 NY and Pexels

One company inspiring civic action is Seventh Generation with their Generation Good initiative. Generation Good is essentially an online community for parents and non-parents alike, who care about their environmental impact, to share ideas and support one another, test out products, and participate in green forum discussions ranging from baby nutrition to gardening. Once you register, you are taken to a dashboard populated with various surveys and activities. Completing the surveys and participating in activities and forum discussions earns you points which in turn earns you more activities and sometimes free stuff (wohoo).

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As a participating member, I received a free Baby Care Kit (diaper, lotion, wipes) , 2 trial packs of Free & Clear wipes, and three coupons for a total of $4 savings on Seventh Generation products. With the coupons, I purchased Seventh Generation Hand Soap from Target. All-in-all we enjoyed using the products and found them to be “greener” than many of the products out there in terms of the plant-based ingredients they use and their packaging. Our favorite product was definitely the coconut lotion which smells AMAZING! While we loved the texture and feel of the diapers and wipes, they were unfortunately non-biodegradable, making them not a sustainable alternative to cloth diapering.

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Despite these issues, Seventh Generation and their Generation Good initiative deserve major credit for not only encouraging the conversation on social responsibility but for providing a platform where it can happen and where they can listen to their consumers. Sure they’re not perfect (who is?) but what they offer is a great start. For your convenience, we have compiled a list of five Seventh Generation products (along with links to their pricing at Target) that we would consider buying because of their high rating by the Environmental Working Group. If you are ever unsure about the health or environmental impact of a particular company or product, the EWG is an excellent and invaluable resource for deciphering labels and learning to make safer, healthier consumer choices. These following Seventh Generation products were given an A rating by the EWG:

  1. Natural Dishwasher Detergent
  2. Laundry Detergent
  3. Multi-surface Disinfectant
  4. Toilet Bowl Cleaner
  5. Tub & Tile Cleaner

The important thing is that companies like Seventh Generation are offering alternatives to the unhealthy status-quo household and baby products. For that reason, we highly recommend you check out their products and consider participating in Generation Good.

What are your favorite “green” homekeeping products? Let us know in the comments below or share on instagram using #mindfulhomekeeping

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Note: This is not a sponsored post. This is purely our opinion regarding our experiences using the Generation Good Platform and some Seventh Generation products.


Adventures in Hocking Hills

If you live in the Midwest and you’re looking for a picturesque place to vacation, hike, or unwind then we have the perfect place for you. There is a hidden gem located in Ohio, called Hocking Hills State Park, and it is only a 4-5 hour drive from many bordering states. We know what you’re thinking. Ohio?! What can possibly be in Ohio besides cornfields and farmhouses?! Well, this.

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Yes, this exists in Ohio. And with a little bit of planning ahead you can refresh your soul and enjoy a relaxing getaway with a gorgeous view. There are plenty of activities for children and adults alike including hiking, fishing, canoeing, swimming, horseback riding and just all around enjoying nature. We have been visiting Hocking Hills since 2012 and have experienced its beauty both in the summer and winter. After our latest trip this past August, we decided to share a little bit about one of our favorite vacation spots for no other reason than we find it awesome and think you should visit. Our first adventure post…here goes!

Lodging
Where you lodge makes all the difference when you stay in Hocking Hills country. While there are hotels and motels you can stay in, we feel that the experience simply isn’t the same if you don’t stay in a log cabin. Rustic and cozy, these secluded cabins truly feel like a home away from home. There are so many different ones to choose from based on family size and amenities (like if you want a jacuzzi on your porch) but our personal favorite that we always come back to is Cabins by the Caves. Some cabins that you may come across online look dingy, tacky, and outdated but these ones are from it. The interiors have always been clean and inviting and the woods surrounding them are just serene. They are also very reasonably priced considering you’re getting a whole home to yourself. And if you go with a group and choose to share a cabin with friends or family, you’ll save even more. Just know that these cabins get booked far in advance (especially weekends and holidays) so if you’re thinking about a trip in the summer then consider booking soon.

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Food
If you do choose to rent a cabin then there’s likely a full kitchen inside and this is where that extra bit of planning comes into play. It’s amazing how a simple meal plan, grocery shopping, and a cooler can really enhance your experience. Who wants to stress about what to eat when you’re on vacation? Most of these kitchens come equipped with everything you’ll need to cook (some even have outdoor grills like ours) so just do a bit of prep work before you leave and make life easier for yourself. I made a meal plan a few days before we left and did the shopping and chopping the day before. My advice is to pick easy meals that are healthy and not too involved. You don’t want to be cooking a five-course dinner on vacation either. If your cabin comes with a grill then plan your meals around that. Burgers, steaks, portobello mushrooms, peppers, etc… You name it, you can throw it on the grill.

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To give you an idea, I made pizza dough the day before we left so that when it came time for dinner one of the nights, all I had to do was roll out the dough and top the pizzas before popping them in the oven. I also packed a gallon-sized ziplock bag with diced carrots, celery, and onions and added tuna, mustard, and mayo for a quick lunch of tuna salad sandwiches after one of our hikes. In the evenings when we had a sweet tooth, I would spoon homemade cookie dough that I made before we left and we’d have fresh, homemade chocolate chip cookies with cold milk. Having the meals decided and mostly prepped ahead of time really made the trip much less stressful.

Activities
We aren’t going to list every single activity there is to do because you can find all of them here but we will share some of the things we did and enjoyed along with some tips and tricks we learned for next time. One of the highlights of our trip was renting a pontoon from the Lake Logan Marina to ride around the lake for a few hours. While we thoroughly enjoyed the warm summer breeze and the scenery, it was a bit unnerving having babies on board. Our suggestion is that if you have young children to pack some toys to preoccupy them as they get restless pretty quickly. Also we hadn’t planned on boating until we drove by the small marina and so by the time we were out on the lake we realized it was lunchtime and we were starving. Next time we would plan for a picnic on the water because it would make for a memorable and fun experience. And why not?

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Our little hobbit soaking in some sun and mist.

Out of all the activities we definitely hiked the most (you can’t really zip-line or ride horses with babies). We don’t know how we would have done it without a baby carrier for our 14-month old because only one of the caves had a semi-paved trail for handicap access. Also some of the hiking trails (The Rock House & Cantwell Cliffs) are more treacherous than others so we did not include them in our plans for safety reasons. We recommend you skip them too if you have babies with you. You can also plan on your daily schedule looking a bit different (surprise surprise) if you’re traveling with little ones. When we used to go before we had children, we would just hike carefree for hours. This trip we had to divide the trails over a couple of days to accommodate nap time and baby attention spans. Because of that our days ended up looking something like this:

Afternoon Day 1: Ash Cave
Morning Day 2: Old Man’s Cave
Afternoon Day 2: Swimming at Lake Logan
Morning Day 3: Cedar Falls
Afternoon Day 3: Boat ride on Lake Logan
Morning Day 4: Conkle’s Hollow

It wasn’t such a bad thing though. By breaking it down, we got to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of each trail and waterfall and we also drastically reduced the occurrence of fussiness and meltdowns. In between activities we would return to our cabin to rest up and eat so that we would have the energy to go back out again. Our cabin was fairly close to all of the hiking trails/parks and the scenic drive through hilly farm country was something we didn’t mind especially because our son was super excited to see all the horses and cattle.

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Stopping by the side of the road to say hello to this beautiful horse.

Well that pretty much covers all of the finer details of our trip. You surely must be wondering what is so special about this place that we keep coming back year after year. For that explanation we will just let our pictures do all the talking…

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Old Man’s Cave
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Taking time for a splash at Old Man’s Cave Lower Falls.

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Do you have any family favorite vacation spots? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments below 🙂

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