Frugal Family Fun: Reading at Bedtime (or Anytime)

I love reading. I’ve always known that I wanted to raise my children to be readers. It’s a great frugal form of entertainment, and the most critical skill for success in school.  In my career as a high school English teacher, I have helped convert hundreds of reluctant, phone-addicted high schoolers into teens who voluntarily read novels. I’ve convinced students that Will Shakespeare was a pretty cool dude. Yet, when it came to my own children, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to equip them to view reading in the way that Harper Lee once described in To Kill a Mockingbird:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

Luckily, I need not have feared.  Helping my kids become readers was easier and more enjoyable than I could have possibly imagined.  I come from an education background, so of course I advocate that families read to children early and often and model literacy.  Turns out, that actually works!

As a parent (who feels like she’s making it all up as she goes along…), I’ve also discovered that reading to your kids stops meltdowns in their tracks and provides instant family bonding.  Here are some specific ways to develop young children’s literacy:

  1. Make the time. Before I had kids, I was understanding about how hard it was as a parent to make time for reading. After all, I love reading, and I don’t always make the time to do it. Parents are even busier, right? Y’all–I timed it. Reading one of those little board books takes less than five (yes, FIVE) minutes. And often it’s the five minutes during which my child is most cooperative, loving, and attentive. No one screams. Everyone cuddles. Five minutes. It’s better than meditation–no lie. How do you not make time for that every, single day? If I hadn’t read to my kids, none of us would have made it past age two.  My worst nightmare is a bedtime without books. *shudder*
  2. Make books accessible.*  Studies show that being surrounded by books in childhood promotes literacy.  We own a lot of children’s books (way more than adult books, thanks to my decluttering efforts).  Most of them were gifts or hand-me-downs, but books are the main “toys” we have purchased for our children.  However, you don’t have to own books to surround your children with books.  Our local library lets patrons check out 75 items per library card.  Between the four of us, we could have 300 books at home for the kids if we wanted (we have yet to go over about 30 at once… but the point is we could).  Still, purchasing books for your kids are a worthwhile investment of funds.
  3. Make it a habit. Every time my kids beg for “one more poem” or to be allowed to choose one more picture book or read one more chapter in our novels, I feel like I’ve won the gold medal of parenting.  However, that joy comes from many, many times of being willing to read the same book over again, or pause and read whenever one of my children asks.  We treat nagging for books different than just about every other kind of nagging–we indulge it.
  4. Give kids choice and agency. Sometimes, I get lucky and my kids are interested in the books I enjoy reading, and we’ll have great fun with the works of Roald Dahl.  Other times, they want to read endless, technically-oriented volumes about trains (J) or the terribly-written picture book re-telling of Disney princess movies (H).  When the kids are interested in something (be it Kung-fu Panda, or space, or unicorns), we ask the librarians if there are any books about that topic (this has led to some interesting finds, like the children’s novel Stephen Hawking wrote with his daughter).
  5. Model reading books. I think many adults read more on screens (Kindle, smartphones, etc.) than they did just a few years ago.  However, children don’t know whether you are reading on your tablet or watching a video.  Be intentional about modeling your reading to your children.  Min had to get some Korean books so that the kids could see him reading on paper, not just on the screen.

Some other tips?  Teach letters and sounds, but not to the point that you are sacrificing story and fluency.  Readers read content, not phonics.  Don’t freak out if your kid who loves listening to you read doesn’t transition to reading independence right away.  It will happen eventually.

* Not every family can afford books.  I encourage using the library to fill in the gaps, but that’s not always enough.  While compiling this post, I did some research into charities that provide books to kids.  I elected to make a donation to Reach Out and Read, an highly rated organization that encourages literacy by integrating books into pediatric care.

Any other tips from parents out there? How do you foster a love of reading for your children at any age?

Zero Spend Days

November was shaping up to be a bit of a high-spend month for us with two planned trips out of town (one for my work, one for Thanksgiving) and houseguests from Korea.  In an effort to maintain our progress towards debt repayment, I’ve decided to challenge myself to have as many $0 spending days as possible this month–a minimum of one per week.

My goal with this challenge was to encourage more mindful spending practices.  At first, it was causing some bad habits, like on days a bill was paid that $0 spending wasn’t possible, I’d give myself permission to buy a soda or coffee.  Also, last week was an especially trying emotional week for me, and there were a couple days I succumbed to emotional spending that otherwise would have been successful $0 spend days, and that felt overwhelming.

Now that I’m a bit further into the month, I feel that the challenge is starting to accomplish what I hoped it would.  I am more aware of what my family (and especially what–eek–I am) is spending day to day.  I have made significant efforts to create habits that will allow us to go longer between spending money (using up groceries, planning gas trips, choosing free entertainment, planning snacks and meals more completely, etc.).  These habits are starting to become part of my routine, which is counteracting the “permission” to spend that buying gas or groceries had been.  My family is getting into the Zero Spend Days challenge by proposing free activities, such as a walk in our neighborhood (see above picture of H making a silly face).

On November 8, 15, 18, and 19, our family spent $0 (also on October 31, so the once per week in November minimum has been met).  I find the spending report with $0s to be very motivating.  I feel the desire to keep a “streak” going whenever I can.  While November may still end up with higher than average spending, it’s not out of control, and I will definitely continue this challenge into December with a goal of at least two days each week with no spending and a no spend weekend.

Have you tried a Zero Spend Day challenge?  How did it go?

Ways We Save Money: The Public Library

We are very lucky to have a wonderful place for our children to get lost in books (see above).

Other than the YMCA, our local library is the main source of our frugal family entertainment.  Earlier this year, Forbes published a (now removed) op-ed suggesting that libraries were no longer a meaningful use of public funds and should be replaced by privatized competitors.  The outrage in response to this article was swift and fierce, but I will add my own little voice of support for libraries here.  This blog post is a love letter to the public library–the institution and ours in specific.

Libraries have changed a lot from the shushing librarians and musty stacks still portrayed in movies.  Modern libraries serve as community resource centers, childhood literacy pioneers, and access points for all kinds of media technology.  Personally, I regularly check out audiobooks on a library app, which allows me to “read” on walks or while driving.  I use the library’s reservation system liberally, enabling me to quickly collect books–even ones at nonlocal branches–once a week to read without browsing the stacks (although I still love browsing stacks of books…).  I have attended library writer talks and book programs–all for free.

Our kids have grown up in library storytimes, playgroups, and STEM workshops.  One visit to our library will keep our kids entertained for hours.  The children’s area has toys, games, books, tablets, and workstations for learning.  The last few years, we’ve participated in the summer reading program as a family; the program not only encourages reading, but also exploring your local community and engaging with other resources in the world.  We’ve discovered some of our favorite parks, kid-friendly musicians, and activities through the encouragement of library programming.

And we don’t even use all of the library’s resources–like checking out music and movies, exercise classes (not kidding!) or technology/science programming.

The library is one of the few public, welcoming spaces for families that doesn’t ask for an entrance fee or purchase.  I don’t know if I would be as voracious a reader without the existence of libraries (either as a child or now); I’m sure my kids are better readers because of the library.

I used to avoid libraries because I worried about having to pay fines, but I’ve realized that the $10.00 or so in fines I’ve racked up in five years of heavy library use (most of which was due to a lost book on a camping trip last summer), has saved me a ton of money and dramatically improved my quality of life.  And even if the fine was too much, they have a weekend every year where they’ll waive your fines if you come in and ask them to do so!

Check out your library.  You won’t be disappointed.

Korean Summer 1: Asan Trip

Living as an international, bi-cultural family is rich and rewarding.  However, one major challenge is that our family is spread about 7,000 miles apart across two continents and an ocean or so.  Video calling is great, but there is really no substitute for spending time with people you love and building those relationships organically.  Furthermore, J and H are bilingual, but their Korean language exposure is basically limited to their father–who is great at teaching them, but it’s not the same as immersion.  We try to travel to Korea as often as we can for those reasons, but it is quite expensive and time consuming.

This summer, Min took J and H to Korea in late June.  I joined them a few weeks later.  With our commitment to repairing our finances, this will probably be our last trip to Korea for at least a couple years.  While we are focusing on frugal travel practice, we are taking advantage of our time here to bond with friends, explore a different culture, and enjoy different experiences.  I will blog about some of those experiences here.

J and H with their new friends.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we rented a van with another family (Min’s close friend, wife, and two daughters) to travel to Asan, a small coastal city famous for hot springs and for being a place where Admiral Yi Sun-sin lived for a time.

We spent most of the first day at a lovely water park, Paradise Dogo Spa. The kids loved the variety of pools, slides, and activities. Given how crazy hot it has been in Daegu (the city where we are staying), it was very refreshing to spend most of a day swimming.  Going on a random weekday when most Korean students were still in school meant that the park was not crowded.  I learned that J is a crazy daredevil about water slides and wave pools, like the younger daughter of the family we were with.  H passed out on the floor of the bathroom from exhaustion as we were preparing to leave.  It was amazing!

Model of a turtle ship with the dragon head (hiding a fire cannon) in the museum.

The second day, we decided to go to Hyunchungsa, a temple dedicated to Admiral Yi (the picture above is of the old temple).  Admiral Yi is one of the most beloved figures of Korean history.  In the late 1500s, Japan attacked Korea (as it was wont to do periodically), and Admiral Yi gained fame by improving the design of a kind of war ship called a Turtle Ship because it could tuck all the extra bits behind its heavily armored hull and smash other boats like a battering ram while suffering very little damage.

Battle configurations for Yi’s ships.

I knew that part already, but I was very impressed with the other reason for his hero worship status as a military genius–his impressive tactical strategies.  The display included extensive details from his personal diary where he designed formations that lured the enemy into a small area where the Yi’s Turtle Ships could circle around and destroy the enemy force with shocking efficiency.

It was scorching hot, so we only explored a small part of the beautiful temple grounds, but luckily the air-conditioned museum had lots of fascinating pieces from Admiral Yi’s diary and other artifacts.  There was also an animated 4D movie demonstrating how the ships and attack strategies worked in real life battles.  H loved it, declaring “Let’s watch that again!”  J was very impressed with the strategy involved and the engineering of the boats (and, of course, the famous swords).

Along the trip, we also indulged in some of my favorite Korean tasty treats–rest stop fried potatoes, spicy tofu soup (sundubu jjigae), roasted fish (seonsangui), and sushi buffet (chobap)! Yum!

Korean road trips are great fun.  When I lived in Korea (2007-2010), I frequently enjoyed this kind of trip, but with kids you see all of it in a new way.  The enjoyment of this experience is an awesome reminder of why I am so interested in pursuing my financial goals.  Our family is happiest when it engages with this kind of experience–building great friendships, learning about history, enjoying physical activity.  This is worth giving up some less fulfilling spending and getting out of debt.

Challenge Day Sixteen: Frederick Swing Dance

Performing a dance at our wedding in Daegu, Korea.

I started swing dance (lindy hop) in 2007, shortly before I met Min.  On the day of our first date (hiking), I had plans to go to a big swing dance party in downtown Daegu after the date.  Our daytime date went so well, Min wanted to continue the date, so I told him about my plans and asked if he wanted to come.  He did not know what to expect, but he ended up liking it as much as I did and took lessons with my swing dance club.  We’ve been enjoying dancing together since then.  Our 2010 wedding even took place in our local swing club!

When we moved to the U.S. later that year, we hoped to continue our shared hobby, but we always lived 40+ minutes away from the closest swing dance clubs/lessons.  After we had kids, it was very hard to justify that distance for regular dates, so we didn’t have as much chance to dance together regularly.  We went a couple times to some DC events with Gottaswing, but not often enough for it to be a regular event for us.

Finally, in 2016, Mark and Danae Tavenner began teaching lessons in Frederick through Gottaswing, and have continued to build the Frederick Swing community with monthly dances on the first Saturday of each month.  It’s local, affordable ($5), and fun!  Min and I go to the social dances just about every month (although this month, he can’t join me), and have taken a round or two of the intermediate lessons (less frugal, but worth it for the enjoyment, exercise, and benefit to our relationship).

I will go tonight.  I love getting to see my friends and develop a skill while getting some exercise.  I recommend social dance to anyone looking for a hobby that is active and naturally builds friends (one of the reasons I started when I was single and living in a new city).  It makes a fantastic date night for us, too, and we took our kids last time–they seem hooked as well.

If you are local to Frederick, I highly recommend giving swing dance a chance.  You won’t regret it!

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Prepare the House for Vacation

Challenge Day Eleven: Fireman’s Carnival

One of the best parts of being a mom and aunt to young children is getting to do all the delightful things you’ve grown up too much to appreciate.  I love local festivals as part of family entertainment, but few give the same kind of gleeful, childish delight as a small amusement carnival—the kind with traveling rides that set up for a week or so and then move on to the next town.

For the last three years, I’ve taken my children and niece to the one hosted by our local (still volunteer) fire and rescue company.  They have awesome deals for the ride-all-night tickets bought in advance (this year’s were $15 each), free admission, and pretty cheap food.  I also find it to be a perfect size for younger kids; the county fair is great, but a bit overwhelming (and expensive) for the preschool crowd.  Additionally, this carnival has good live bands every night (tonight was The Reagan Years) and attracts many people I know in the local community, strengthening those connections through shared experiences.  Although my kids are traveling in Korea right now, I treated my niece, AJ, to the Fireman’s Carnival as a birthday present for her (she just turned five).

All too soon, J, H, and AJ will outgrow the giddy pleasure of The Giant Slide, and will be unimpressed by the small Expo Wheel and limited selection of thrilling rides.  Right now, however, I will savor all the joy and giggles and shrieks and coaxing to overcome anxiety and the triumph of “AGAIN!”  We rode the gravity drop and danced to the music in 99 degree weather and terrible humidity.  I’m exhausted and full of love.

It felt like summer.  There’s a mommy blogger meme circulating right now about how you only get 18 summers with your kids that’s very poignant.  Today, I made the most of being an aunt.

Tomorrow’s Challenge: Clarifying My Values

Challenge Day Nine: Solo Hike

Hiking is one of my all-time favorite frugal activities.  My first date with Min was a hike in Korea.  I love being on the mountain.  Today, I treated myself to a 4-mile hike with rock scrambles, all by myself.  Hiking alone was difficult, scary, exhilarating, boring, and meditative.  I had a lot of time to think and reflect with myself and my seventeen buckets of sweat.

I am very proud of my accomplishment and had a lot of reflections on the mountain, but I am pressed for time right now–at a cafe with my mom and will be headed home soon.  For now, if you want to enjoy a full album of my photos from crazy rock scrambles and beautiful summits, click here.

I am going to challenge myself with an internet-free day tomorrow.  I will not be posting until Monday (although I have scheduled my monthly Debt Reduction update for tomorrow, in case you are dying for a post).  I have a lot of thoughts about what this challenge will be like for me, but I really want to notice my impulses, since I find myself wanting to check the internet compulsively.

Challenge Day Eight: Unexpected Niece Fun Day

Sometimes, plans change.  Today, nothing went according to plan.  BUT it was a great day, and I stuck to my resolutions to be frugal even through uncertainty and frustration.

My sister, Sarah, had a last minute need for a babysitter, so I canceled my other plans and spent the day with my wonderful niece, AJ!  We played games, read books, made crafts (see picture for dinosaur costume), went to the (newly re-opened) neighborhood pool, did a few small chores, cooked food, and then watched a little bit of a DVD at the end of the day.  My mother even generously watched AJ for an hour so I could still go to a gym class.  Except for that class, I was with AJ nonstop from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

I love spending time with AJ and supporting my family when they are in need.  These things both strongly align with my values.  I’m so glad I could spend all day bonding with AJ one-on-one and helping Sarah out on what turned into a really long, difficult day for her.

However, this was not an easy task.  Since watching AJ was unplanned, I hadn’t really prepared anything for us to do, so it was tempting to order out food or take a trip to a store to buy something fun to do.  I had canceled my internet from when Min went to Korea so we could save money on the six weeks we didn’t need it, so I didn’t have much back up entertainment for AJ.  It was hot in the house, so it was tempting to turn on the air conditioning.  Initially, Sarah thought she could get someone else to watch AJ in the afternoon, but those plans also fell through, and I kept AJ with me.  At one point, AJ and I got into the car to meet Sarah where she was, but then an accident back-up in traffic made us have to turn around and change plans again.  These moments were exhausting and trying.

I remained calm and engaged.  I stuck with my values.  Reading Gretchin Rubin‘s The Happiness Project is having an impact on how I view my 21 Day Challenge, which is really a kind of mini-fulfillment project (she’d call it a happiness project) by clarifying and living my values. What made the day enjoyable was the positive way I thought about every moment.  I focused on my choice to engage with my niece, the opportunity to be more creative without internet or grocery shopping, the challenge to find other ways to stay cool without air conditioning.  I remembered that what was a slight inconvenience of a day for me was alleviating a very challenging day for my sister.

Even AJ got into the spirit by reminding me when we were stuck in terrible traffic and had to turn around:

“Everyone else is stuck in traffic, too, Auntie.”

Yes.  Everyone has the same daily challenges—sometimes more, sometimes less.  I appreciated today because it reminded me to be understanding and compassionate. Even to forgive myself if I feel imperfect while doing this challenge.  Persist, go with the flow, and choose alignment with your core values.

Challenge for Tomorrow: Solo Hike (Trying again—fingers crossed).

Challenge Day Six: “Reading” to the Kids

When I was a child and my father traveled for work, he would record himself reading my favorite books, just like an audiobook.  He had a kazoo he would blow to make the sound to tell me to turn the page.  I kept those tapes until I was an adult.  I wish I still had them.

Every time I talk to H on the video phone, she cries and says “I want to go home!”  It’s heartbreaking.  I know she’s fine and just seeing me reminds her that she misses me and home and all, but the only way she calms down is when I read to her.  Remembering how powerful the tapes were that my father made, I started making videos of me reading her favorite books.  I hope that she (and J) can watch them whenever they want (not just when Mommy is available) and it will help them feel better.  I recorded a few today.  I will keep doing so.

Challenge for tomorrow: Finish cleaning/decluttering common areas (I got to this later in the challenge; instead, I didn’t quit!)

Family Fun Tip: Festivals!

Twin baby girl goats–for sale at a nearby Farm Festival.

Spring has finally sprung here in Maryland.  In our delightful small city, family-friendly festivals are held year-round.  However the pleasant-weather months of Spring, Summer, and Fall are the heaviest seasons for festivals, since they are usually outdoors.

Every year, our family attends between five and twenty-five festivals or similar events within close driving distance.  We’ve been to farm festivals, history festivals, nature festivals, children’s festivals, Asian/Korean/other culture festivals, holiday-themed festivals (think Fourth of July or Halloween), wine/cheese/maple syrup festivals, and more.  We spend time researching different events in our area and challenge ourselves to find new ones, even as we reprise visiting our favorites.

Such events can be quite expensive, with many opportunities to spend money on food, clothing/gift items, and activities, so it pays to do some work to keep costs down and maximize the fun without a lot of spending.  Here are my tips for maximizing your frugal enjoyment of these festivals:

  1. Look for festivals with no or very low entry fees, and watch for hidden fees.  And watch out for “free” entry, but then everything associated with the event costs money (parking fees, tickets to purchase for activities, extra money for tastings, etc.).  Most of the festivals we frequent are free with free parking, but we’ll pay a bit if it offers a lot of entertainment value for our whole family.  I find that festivals sponsored by nonprofit entities (health agencies, parks and rec, churches, libraries, etc.) tend to be better about this than private organizations, but not always.  One of my favorite festivals for our young children is the spring/fall festival at a local commercial dairy farm (where the goat picture came from).  They are very generous with their samples, full of fun activities and performers, and free hayrides up a mountain.
  2. Pack most of your food, but splurge on the “special treat.”  Most festivals have food vendors selling very overpriced, mediocre meals.  It’s easy to spend $20 (or more) for a family of four on crappy sandwiches and/or room temperature pizza.  We usually pack a decent picnic lunch, water bottles, and snacks, but plan to spend a little on something unique to the festival–like purchasing some maple candies at the maple syrup festival or ice cream from the aforementioned dairy farm.  That said, we still limit our portions and share (two single servings are usually more than enough for the four of us).
  3. Beware impulse purchases.  You are having a great time.  The weather’s lovely!  Your children are happy and cooperative!  These nice artists are here talking about the local sources for their supplies–and suddenly $50 for a pair of earrings for Mom’s Christmas gift doesn’t sound unreasonable at all…  STOP!  Most vendors will have contact information and an online store.  You can still support them if you enjoyed their art and their story, but there is no need to make that decision RIGHT THERE.
  4. Look for discounts. One of our favorite carnivals is the local firehouse carnival.  There are two or three nights they offer “Ride All Night” for one price specials.  But even better–if you buy these tickets a month or so in advance, they cost less than half what they do if you buy them at the door.  Some of the sponsors of festivals have deals through their websites or even through services like Groupon.  It doesn’t hurt to look around.
  5. Beware crowds. Try to find less popular festivals.  Or go when the weather is less optimal (cold, windy days and light drizzle are still fine if you have proper outerwear and an enterprising attitude).  Or arrive really early.  Crowds usually mean long lines and whiny kids–NOT FUN.

Get out and learn about your community without much cost!  What was your favorite family festival experience?

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