Major financial change #1

Last week I wrote a post about how 2018 will become my year of financial stability. Today I received my first paycheck of 2018 and a major decision I made n 2017 is paying off – I changed my health benefit plan.

For me, this was a big decision. With having an insurance agent for a sister, I spent years living in the world of “what if”? What if I need major surgery? What if I develop some crazy disease? What if…? But the reality is that I rarely go to the doctor. I rarely get sick, and I definitely do not have some crazy disease. In fact, I realized I had spent thousands of dollars on “what ifs” over the course of several years when that money could have been going towards paying off major debts – like student loans.

Now, if you have a disease such as diabetes or a blood clotting disorder, it may make more financial sense to have better coverage. For me it did not. So I did my research on what options were available to me through my employer (several) and went with a lower premium/higher out of pocket cost plan. I figured for the maybe once a year I go to urgent care or the ER, what I would save in biweekly premium costs would be more than enough to cover the bill.

Shortly after making this decision, I learned I would be receiving a 2% cost of living adjustment come the new year. Now I have been with my organization for 5 years and this is, by far,  the highest cost of living increase I have ever received (my organization keeps a tight grip on the purse strings).

Well…. it paid off. I had $300 more in this paycheck than I had in my last one. That equates to an extra $7200 a year! That’s a lot of coin to put towards other/better things. I haven’t yet decided how I will spend my extra $600 month, but I’m that’s a struggle I am more than happy to have!

Crock Pot Shepherd’s Pie

My (step)daughter LOVES Shepherd’s Pie! And although a little too bland for my taste, I must admit that there is something about meat and potatoes that I can’t deny. I found this recipe over the weekend on Recipes That cROCK! and modified it to meet our needs. WARNING: it tastes better the next day when the juices have been absorbed, but still yummy the evening of. 

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs ground beef
  •  1/4 onion chopped
  •  4 Russet potatoes boiled and mashed with a splash of milk and approx. 2 tbsp. butter
  • 2 .87oz brown gravy packet mixes
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 12 oz frozen carrots (I could only find raw and they took until the next day to soften, so highly recommend the frozen!)
  • 12 oz frozen peas (my (step)daughter requested less peas next time…)
  • 10.5 oz cream of mushroom soup

Directions

1.     Boil potatoes, add milk and butter then mash until desired texture. Set aside

2.     Spray crock pot with cooking spray

3.     Brown beef and onion in skillet over med-high. Drain and put in crock pot

4.     Add brown gravy packets, onion powder, garlic powder, carrots, peas, and cream of mushroom soup in the crockpot with the beef. Mix well

5.     Spoon mashed potatoes on top and spread evenly

6.     Cook on low 8 hours or high 4 hours

Like I said, we all thought it tasted better after sitting in its juices overnight, but it was heart & filling and perfect for a winter night!

2018: My Year of Financial Stability

To put it bluntly, 2017 was a year of financial ruin for me. I lost my first home to a short sale as the result of a messy divorce and spent several thousand dollars moving cross-country for a new opportunity. The blow of both of those life changes left a bruise that still lingers….. but 2018 WILL BE my year of financial stability. 

I made 3 major commitments during my first full weekend of 2018, and I cannot do them alone. 2 of the 3 will also take the same commitment and support of my fiancé and (step)daughter.

1.     We are now only eating out once a month. This is HUGE for us as we used to eat out once a week at $100+ a pop (from boozing during dinner). That’s over $400/mo on what?! Nothing that is leaving a long-lasting impression on me other than wider hips. My fiancé and agreed to only eat out once a week and limit our alcohol consumption during those meals (one drink v. two)

2.     The second one ties in to the first one but requires slightly more elaboration. I have spent the last few years sharpening my leftover remake skills, because honestly, who wants to eat the same thing 4 nights in a row? I have vowed to not only make more meals at home, but develop more variety in my meal options, freeze half of large meals I make for future meals when I am too tied to cook, and buying less pre-made ingredients and ready-made meals and make more from scratch. 

3.     Get control of my finances!! My fiancé struggling from a low credit score due to a lack of credit v. bad credit. One of the things he did was to create a Credit Karma account and monitor his score weekly. He would get emails every time his score went up or down. His score jumped nearly 100 points in less than a year based on suggestions CK made. So here I am like SIGN ME UP! I created my account and spent about an hour perusing all the features an account offers. One of my favorite features is an outline of all your accounts reported to your credit score in order of highest to lowest and organized by category (credit cards, car loans, students loans, etc). I’m going to attempt my own version of Dave Ramsey’s Snowball Method – starting with the smallest and working our way up. 

So my January money goal is this – pay off a credit card bill from Christmas for $487. 

 

My goal is sharing my personal financial goals is to 1. motivate myself (I put it in writing for all the world to see, now I must act on it!), and 2. to serve as inspiration to others. Financial security is no easy feat – it takes times, dedication, and encouragement from others to reach your goals. So happy goal chasing!

Gifts for Children with Autism

We all know those kids that are easy to buy for – the ones with obvious hobbies or interests. One trip to Toys R Us or the bookstore and you are golden! But what about children who are difficult to shop for? Especially those that may have developmental or educational delays. As an aunt to a newly turned 9 year old niece with autism, I’m here to provide you with a list of gifts that are well-suited for children on the autism spectrum.

It’s important to remember that the autism spectrum is broad, and that each individual with autism is different. Some are non-verbal, some have accompanying intellectual disabilities,and some are high-functioning. Autism Speaks is a great resource for autism families and those who wish to support loved ones with autism. 

So when buying gifts for the autistic child in your life, think about what best suits their personality. For those who enjoy sensory gifts, check out these great options:

1.     Fidget Sets  There are a variety of options to choose from, but all of them will keep those who need to touch things occupied 

2. Kinetic Sand   Many color options and brands available. Note: this is also easy to make at home – check out this homemade recipe (courtesy of Baby First Blog)

3. Water Beads   These are similar to Orbeez (but cheaper) 

 

Here are some ideas for those children who are visually stimulated:

4. Music Lightshow DJ

 5. Starry Night Nightlight 

 

 6.  Zoetrope  There are several different models available, from classic to modern

 

 

Many people (not just children) with autism struggle with social skills. Here are some games that will assist them in developing their skills while having fun at the same time

7. Social Skills Board Games – Set of 6

 

8. Conversation Starter Game

 

9. Hidden Rules Board Games – Set of 4    Can also be purchased separately 

 

 

I hope this guide helps you find the perfect gift for the autistic child in your life!

 

 

When Your Friend Becomes a Pessimist

I have an old colleagues, a friend you would say,  I’ll call Sal for the purpose of this post. Sal and I met while working together at our previous organization. How we met continues to bring a smile to my face (no matter how negative he has become). Before we met in person, we were introduced by our boss via email who asked both of us to complete the same task. A sort of “who completes it first receives the recognition”, but in a friendly fire kind of way.

One of us (I can’t remember who at this point) emailed the other and said “whoever gets it first owes the other a coffee”. Long story short – I met him in person while delivering a Hazelnut coffee. We were insta-friends. We talked about work, home life, childhood memories, and funny memes. Eventually our friendship escalated to dinner dates with each other spouses and they too hit it off in the friendship department. It was like coworker friendship heaven.

Fast forward 6 9 months.

Sal decided the organization we worked for was no longer bearable. He had managed to get on radar of Executive Leadership for unfavorable reasons – reasons that would take a long time to be professionally forgiven. Sal decided that the best course of action would be to move his 7 month pregnant wife 7 states away….

This was the beginning of the downfall.

I spent 9 months watching my friend make bad decision after bad decision – all while trying to be the supportive friend I know he and his wife needed me to be. Even my fiancé tried to be supportive to people he barely knew, but was familiar with their circumstances. I tried to offer support without offering advice. I tried to be understanding without being dismissive. I tried to do everything I could think of that a friend should do when their friend is going through a tough time. But in reality, I was dealing with a personality type I had never dealt with before – a narcissist.

The realization of my “friendship” with Sal hit me like a ton of bricks. To be clear, I am not wallowing in self-pity or speaking out of jealousy. In fact it is quite the opposite. There I was – a working (step)mother trying to manage a very demanding and stressful job, raise a pre-teen daughter, and maintain my own romantic relationship with my partner while staying in touch with my own friends and family. I didn’t exactly have a lot of extra minutes in a day, especially to cater to the delusions of a narcissist.

After trying repeatedly to have a normal conversation with Sal, just like old times, (and during a particular stressful, patience less day) I had finally reached my breaking point – I cut ties with Sal.

I wished him the best of luck to his young family and told him I hope life settles down and he finds happiness. I also told him why I was walking away – that he was no longer the person I knew before. He was no longer a friend to me.

Sal didn’t say anything in response, and to be honest, I’m glad he didn’t. His lack of response told me he knew what he was doing and wasn’t remorseful about it. What I have learned in my lifetime is that people who are in denial tend to be defensive about things. Those who have accepted actions/decisions/etc tend to remain silent. Say no more my former friend, your silence speaks volumes.

 

2 Coworker Gift Ideas well under $10 each

The organization I work for has very strict rules on gift-giving: it’s generally discouraged but if you choose to exchange, the value of the gift has a $10 limit (and no booze). $10 these days won’t get you very far, so here are 2 coworker gift ideas that are not cheesy and come in well below the budget.

  1. Stovetop Potpurri

I found this idea on Pinterest and made it my own! I put the following ingredients in a bag and printed out an instruction tag on how to make.

  • 2 oranges (whole)
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 cup cranberries
  • 3 teaspoons cloves
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 2 sprigs rosemary

My mother used to do this at Christmas and the smell always brings back fond memories of my childhood!

 

Hot Cocoa & Chocolate Goodie Bag

I saw this idea on At Home With The Barkers and thought “genius!” (Although I must admit that I forgot to take a pic of the goodie bags before lugging all 32 of them into work, so photo cred goes to AHWTB)

What you’ll need:

  • Goodie bags (I bought mine from the Dollar Tree – best store ever!)
  • Candy canes
  • Bags of small marshmallows (put a handful of marshmallows in sandwich baggies)
  • Boxes of Starbucks Hot Cocoa packets (8 per box)
  • Several bags of Godiva, Lindt and Ghirardelli chocolates (I used peppermint bark, coconut, mint chocolate chip, and sea salt caramel)

I bought enough of each ingredients to make 32 goodie bags and placed one of each of the above (including one of each kind of chocolate)and tied it off with curly ribbon to make a bow – viola!

Oreo Cheesecake Cupcakes

The holiday season brings with it presents, potlucks, and parties! My go-to dessert to bring is Oreo Cheesecake Cupcakes. They are delicious and always a hit! Here is the recipe I use:

Ingredients:

  • 21 Oreo cookies. 15 left whole and 6 chopped into small pieces
  • 16 oz cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 c sour cream
  • 1/8 tsp salt

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Line muffin tin with paper liners
  3. Place 1 whole Oreo in the bottom of each cup
  4. Place cream cheese in a large bowl and beat with electric mixer until smooth
  5. Mix in sugar, eggs, sour cream, and salt
  6. Add in chopped Oreos
  7. Fill lined cups almost to the top (will not rise)
  8. Cook for 22 minutes
  9. Place entire muffin tin on wire rack o cool. DO NOT REMOVE CUPS FROM TIN UNTIL COMPLETEY COOL! Removing beforehand will alter the shape of the cupcakes.
  10. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight
  11. Enjoy!

15 Minute “Doctored-Up” Dirty Rice with Chicken

Dirty rice is one of my favorite meals to make – I love the flavor mix of spice and veggies, rice, and chicken. It reminds me of my time spent living in the South, which is where my love for all things Creole blossomed. I don’t always have time to boil rice and add all the spices and ingredients from scratch, so I came up with a conglomeration of store-bought ingredients  that when cooked together, create a similar taste.

Here is what I used, along with some pre-seasoned chicken my fiancé picked up at the store one day (tasted like it had a BBQ dry rub on it. flavor wasn’t super strong but just enough to compliment the other flavors).

My chicken was already thawed, but if yours isn’t, add an extra 15 minutes to your prep time for approximately 1 lb of chicken to defrost in the microwave. I then sliced my chicken into small, bite size pieces and placed them in a pre-heated skillet with about 1/4 cup cooking oil in it. I covered the skillet and occasionally stirred the meat to ensure it was cooked al the way through.

I added 2 cups water and 1 tbsp. cooking oil to a microwavable dish and microwaved it for 8 minutes (box says 12 but we live at a high altitude so things cook faster) and microwaved the veggies for 4 minutes (again, quicker cooking time).

I strained the chicken and placed it on a paper towel lined plate to soak up some of the oil, and then mixed all the ingredients together in a larger bowl and served it to a very hungry family.

Bon appetite!

Sunday Brunch French Toast

One of my go-to Sunday breakfast/brunch meals is French Toast. And not to toot my own horn, but I make a pretty darn good French Toast (toot toot)! Here is my simple and delicious recipe that I’m sure your family will love the same as mine does!

Start with your normal ingredients: Bread (we use white, but Texas Toast would also be a tasty option), eggs (1 per slice), and milk. Mix eggs and milk together in a bowl. Then comes the magic… add a splash of vanilla extract (I don’t measure but it’s literally just a little splash since it is strong) and a few shakes of cinnamon.

Saturate each slice by flipping it several times. Place bread on a butter-greased frying pan or skillet. Add a pinch a sugar on each side before you flip, letting each side cook to a golden brown.

Place on plate and serve with topping of choice!

While it may not seem like much, the vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar made a huge difference to your taste buds!

 

What am I most grateful for right now?

One of my family’s annual Thanksgiving traditions is to state what we are thankful for that year. Historically, my (step)daughter has said her family or times she was able to make memories with certain people near and dear to her heart. My fiancé usually chimes in with some funny tidbit such as football or the rare times his daughter is quiet. I usually say I am thankful for the opportunities we have had as a family the last year.

This year was different. Cliché, I know, but so very true on a deeply personal level. This past year I watched a friend I have known since middle school get diagnosed with a brain tumor, undergo surgery to have it removed (thankfully, it was benign), and tough out physical and occupational therapy to once again function as an adult. This year, I watched my aunt barely sleep as she waited for pathology results to return on the tumor my cousin had removed from her neck (also benign). This year, I watched an old co-worker watch as her husband battled cancer, just to find out she had the same diagnosis a few months later.

This year I said goodbye to my uncle who passed suddenly after a catastrophic cancer diagnosis just a week earlier. This year I watched someone I went to high school with disappear, just to be found deceased a few weeks later. This year I watched yet another person I went to middle school with pass away unexpectedly, leaving behind a 3-year-old son.

This year I watched family members tear each other apart after a long-buried feud resurfaced. This year I watched my own relationship with my future mother-in-law deteriorate due to actions blinded by selfish ways. This year I watched my best friend’s sanity be shredded by a battle with post-partum depression.

This year was different. This year, for the first time in many, I was so very grateful for my own physical and mental health. This year, I was grateful that I wake up daily with only minor aches and pains, no broken bones, and no surgeries needed. This year, I was grateful that my fiancé and my (step)daughter are healthy, do not require daily medications, and are generally happy. This year, I was grateful for a roof over my head, grateful that I don’t wonder where my next meal will come from, and grateful to be surrounded by those I love and who love me.

This year, I am so very grateful.