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living on less

Why We’re Not Saving For College #MyFinancialElephant

by Tara Kuczykowski on December 9, 2014 · 1 comment

Growing up, it was always a given that I would go to college. However, I'm not sure that there was ever a lot of thought put into just how exactly we were going to pay for my education. I guess you could say it was the elephant in the room, always lurking but never mentioned...

My parents didn't actively save for college, and there was no such thing as a 529 college savings plan or Upromise at that time. Things were further complicated when my stepfather had a stroke the summer before my junior year of high school. Anything extra went toward paying medical bills and to offset his lost wages while recovering.

Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

When I learned about a special plan offered through a branch of The Ohio State University, I decided to take matters into my own hands. During my senior year of high school, I could apply to take college courses for both college and high school credit. The program was state funded, right down to my textbooks and any other necessary supplies, and I took full advantage of it.

I took all of the courses that I could at OSU, along with AP History and Newspaper in the afternoons at my high school. When I graduated from high school, I had already completed enough college coursework to enroll as a sophomore at the school of my choice -- all FREE of charge!

I decided to stay at my local OSU branch for another year to save money, and then my junior year I enrolled at Ashland University, a private Ohio university, to complete my education. I sought out any financial aid I could find, and I was rewarded with numerous academic and art scholarships. But it wasn't nearly enough, so I took a job working third shift to contribute more... and it still wasn't enough.

Hard Work Pays Off

In May of 1997, I was the first in my family to graduate from college -- with a whopping $20k in student loans! That's a heavy burden to carry at barely 21 years old. I took advantage of the deferment plan a few times, and my mom and dad worked out an arrangement to split the debt three ways.

While that arrangement didn't quite end up being executed to plan (I estimate that I paid around 2/3 of the total when all was said and done), over time the total balance due decreased, albeit slowly.

It took 13 years to pay off my student loans, but I can't even put into words the satisfaction I felt writing out that final payment in January 2010. It was such an amazing feeling!

Upromise recently launched its "Financial Elephant in the Room Campaign" aimed at encouraging an open and honest conversation among families to address common financial worries and face them head on. According to a recent survey by Sallie Mae, one of the most common financial "elephants" is that families struggle to save for college.

Is this a conversation that you've had as a family, yet?

Why We're Not Saving College

Given my experience and the fact that we have five children who will all be entering college within a 6-year period, you'd probably guess that my husband and I would have savings accounts set up for each of them and that we'd be diligently saving for their college educations. So does it surprise you to learn that we don't, and we have no plans to? Coincidentally, we do have a free to join Upromise account, but beyond that, we're not actively saving...

You see, I learned a lot from my experience. Unlike many of my peers who viewed college as one big party, I was personally invested in my education and saw it as a privilege. Many of my friends whose parents were footing the bill had an air of entitlement about them, and I can tell you that many of them weren't there to receive their diplomas with me on graduation day, having either dropped out or not completed the required number of credits.

And that's not to say that we don't have a savings account, because we do. It's just not specifically earmarked for education. Our expectation is that all five of our children will be actively involved in paying for their college educations -- or whatever it is they decide to pursue after high school. The educational landscape is changing daily, and with the sheer amount of free resources online now, who knows what higher education will look like six years down the road when my oldest graduates from high school?

Regardless, we want them to have that personal accountability and to feel like they're investing in themselves, and we talk about our expectations often around the dinner table. There is no elephant in the room in our household -- we've been open and honest from day one. That's not to say that we won't assist them at all, because we will, but want them to learn the value of hard work and to value themselves starting now.

Of course, the decision on whether or not to save for college is highly personal. It's a decision that affects the entire family, and it's important to consider how saving for college will impact your family down the road. As such, I'd encourage you to start having a thoughtful and open discourse on it with your children from an early age. Don't let it become your "elephant in the room!"

If you're not familiar with Upromise, I want to introduce you to this great way to save a little extra. Upromise by Sallie Mae is a cash back rewards program. When you shop through Upromise, you'll receive a small percentage back (up to 5% back on eligible purchases) as a deposit into your Upromise account. However, instead of just receiving actual cash back, members can allocate their cash back earnings in several ways to help plan, save and pay for college.

Upromise members can:

  • Transfer earnings to eligible 529 plans or high-yield savings accounts
  • Apply earnings to eligible student loan repayment
  • Request a check for cash for books and other expenses
  • Split up earnings across multiple beneficiaries

If you haven't already registered for a Upromise account, I highly recommend it! It's a simple and easy way to save for college without drastically changing your spending habits, and you can even set it up so that family and friends can make contributions.

Join the #MyFinancialElephant Discussion

Upromise would love to hear your perspective on saving for college, as would I -- even if you vehemently disagree with our decisions. Share your financial "elephant in the room" with us on Facebook at bit.ly/UpromiseElephant, or on Twitter @Upromise, using the #MyFinancialElephant hashtag!

So let's hear it -- are you saving to foot the bill for college, or do you expect your children to actively contribute financially (some or all) to their higher education? And is this a topic that you discuss with your kids regularly?

This post is brought to you by Upromise. All opinions are 100% mine.

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I'm so excited to be sharing my perspective on some of the amazing toys that made Wamart's Top 20 Toy List over the next few weeks! The coolest thing about Walmart's Top 20 Toys, is that they were actually chosen by kids...

For the second year, Walmart gathered hundreds of children ages 18 months to 12 years and turned them loose. They played with the hottest new toys from Hasbro, Mattel, Spin Master and Zing to get their thoughts and stamps of approval.

The result? Wamart's Top 20 Toy List -- and these are toys that are sure to knock your kids' socks off Christmas morning!

Disney Palace Pets Magic Dance Pumpkin Review

This week's focus is for movie/TV fans, and I was sent the Disney Palace Pets Magic Dance Pumpkin, which ranked among the most popular licensed toys on the Chosen by Kids Top 20 Toys List.

Priced at $49.97, the Disney Palace Pets Magic Dance Pumpkin is an adorable and interactive toy that children can play with and control it using light-up "magic wand" remote controller. Features include:

  • Remote-control puppy toy
  • Adorable and interactive
  • Speaks over a dozen phrases and sounds
  • Follows movement commands
  • Performs 2 pre-programmed dance sequences
  • Light-up magic wand controller
  • Soft fabric ears

The Magic Dance Pumpkin is appropriate for ages 4 and up, and I would say that age 7 is probably about the high end of the age range that would be appropriate for this toy. It's very cute and fluffy, and will definitely appeal to little girls that are in love with all things Disney Princess. Controlling her is fairly easy, although the forward and reverse buttons don't seem very logical to me personally -- you push up to go backward and down to go forward.

Kids Verdict? Both of my girls agreed that the Disney Palace Pets Magic Dance Pumpkin is totally adorable. My 10-year-old wasn't really interested in it -- not surprising since she's not too terribly interested in toys anymore. However, I was surprised that my 8-year-old wasn't too interested, either. She's very much a Disney Princess fan, but she played with it a few times and then it sat. I definitely think that this is a toy that will appeal more to the younger age range, as I mentioned above.

Mom's Verdict? This is a cute toy, and it seems like it would be fairly easy for a child to control -- although the forward and reverse buttons don't seem very logical to me personally. You push up to go backward and down to go forward. I definitely appreciate the fact that this toy has batteries included, since it requires four AA and two AAA batteries to operate.

Quick purchase links:

More Top Toys for Movie and TV Fans

If you're looking for more toys for movie and TV fans at every price point, Walmart's got something for every wish list and budget. Here are just a few other tops toys in this category:

Get the Top Toys at the Best Price

Walmart is committed to bringing you all of the hottest toys at the lowest prices. Get the most for your money with these savings tools:

  • Savings Catcher: If Savings Catcher finds an advertised price that’s lower than what you paid for the same exact item, you'll get a Walmart eGift Card for the difference!
  • Layaway: Customers taking advantage of Walmart’s holiday layaway with no opening fee can stretch dollars further by paying at their own pace through Dec. 15.
  • Ad Match: Walmart’s great prices are backed by its Ad Match Guarantee. Stores will match the price of any local competitor’s printed ad for an identical product.

Is the Magic Dance Pumpkin on your child's Christmas wish list?

Walmart Moms Disclosure

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Walmart Top 20 Toy: The Sew Cool Sewing Machine Is SO Cool!

by Tara Kuczykowski on December 1, 2014 · 0 comments

I'm so excited to be sharing my perspective on some of the amazing toys that made Wamart's Top 20 Toy List over the next few weeks! The coolest thing about Walmart's Top 20 Toys, is that they were actually chosen by kids...

For the second year, Walmart gathered hundreds of children ages 18 months to 12 years and turned them loose. They played with the hottest new toys from Hasbro, Mattel, Spin Master and Zing to get their thoughts and stamps of approval.

The result? Wamart's Top 20 Toy List -- and these are toys that are sure to knock your kids' socks off Christmas morning!

Sew Cool Machine Review

This week I'll be focusing on creative toys, specifically the Spin Master Sew Cool Sewing Machine. I've got some crafty little girls, so they were super excited to give this highly-rated toy a test drive.

Priced at $29.97, the Sew Cool Machine comes with an impressive selection of projects to get your little seamstress started. Included with the "sewing machine: are:

  • 8 sheets of Sew Cool fabric
  • 3 Sew Cool pre-cut featured projects
  • 1 Sew Cool strap
  • 14 pre-cute decorative pieces
  • 8 plastic buttons
  • 1 bag of loose stuffing
  • 6 extra project patterns
  • 1 instruction guide for machine

The Sew Cool Machine is appropriate for ages 6 and up, because there are no worries about little fingers and needles! It works by "felting" the fabric together, so there's no need for thread, and the felting needles are enclosed in a plastic guard for safety.

If your girls fly through the fabric and pre-cut projects (and I assure you they will!), you can pick up Sew Cool fabric kits and refills. Or you can actually "sew" any kind of felt or fleece. In fact, my girls made blankets for their American Girl dolls with leftover fleece scraps from a no-sew blanket that I made recently.

Kids Verdict? It's safe to say that my girls LOVED the Sew Cool Machine! So much that my 8-year-old, Addie, asked me if she could make a video demonstrating how to make the cute cupcake project for you all. It's a little long, even though I tried to speed it up during the sewing parts, but I know it would make her day if you'd take 3 minutes to watch it!

Mom's Verdict? This is a toy that I'd highly recommend. It kept my girls engaged for hours, and not only with the pre-cut project and patterns. It really sparked their imaginations, and they created their own projects using scrap fabric. One special note -- this item does require (4) AA batteries, so make sure to stock up on those before giving this as a gift!

Quick purchase links:

More Top Toys for the Creative Child

If you're looking for more creative toys at every price point, Walmart's got something for every wish list and budget. Here are just a few other toys that my kids have been eyeing:

  • Moose Toys Beados Quick Dry Design Station, $17.76 -- make a bright, colorful world of beads with this fun kit that features pod storage, a design tray, scoop pen and 500 Beados!
  • Make Your Case Case Maker, $22.20 -- the first-ever kit for making your own cell phone sleeves and customizing them to your style and taste, allowing you to personalize, customize and accessorize your own designer cell phone case!
  • Crayola Virtual Design Pro Fashion Collection, $29.97 -- bring your fashion designs to life with a full range of high-quality, colorful design tools and special iOS and Android software that brings your fashions to life on a virtual runway!

Get the Top Toys at the Best Price

Walmart is committed to bringing you all of the hottest toys at the lowest prices. Get the most for your money with these savings tools:

  • Savings Catcher: If Savings Catcher finds an advertised price that’s lower than what you paid for the same exact item, you'll get a Walmart eGift Card for the difference!
  • Layaway: Customers taking advantage of Walmart’s holiday layaway with no opening fee can stretch dollars further by paying at their own pace through Dec. 15.
  • Ad Match: Walmart’s great prices are backed by its Ad Match Guarantee. Stores will match the price of any local competitor’s printed ad for an identical product.

Is the Sew Cool Sewing Machine on your child's Christmas wish list?

Walmart Moms Disclosure

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Our Quintessential Thanksgiving Dinner With A Twist

by Tara Kuczykowski on November 26, 2014 · 1 comment


Thanksgiving is a big deal in our family -- we have much to be thankful for, so we relish celebrating this day with friends and family and, of course, lots of amazing food.

We typically celebrate with a classic Thanksgiving meal: turkey, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry salad, and of course, pumpkin pie to finish it all off. However, my favorite recipes are anything but typical… Each has a bit of a twist that makes it unique to my family and/or simplifies our meal in some way, and I’d love to share them with you!

Deep Fried Turkey – I have to admit that I’m not really a fan of turkey, so there have been many years when we opted for a ham instead. Until we tried this deep fried turkey recipe… Now my turkey turns out tender, juicy and flavorful every time, and the cooking time is trimmed to under an hour!

Crescent Rolls with Fresh Herbs -- fresh chopped herbs turn the mundane crescent roll into an upscale side worthy of special occasion status. These crescent rolls with fresh herbs are an elegant roll for dinner parties and holiday gatherings!

Green Bean Casserole – I know that green bean casserole is one of those dishes that everyone seems to either love or hate. I happen to fall firmly in the LOVE category, and this is seriously the easiest green bean casserole recipe ever. It’s made with just three simple ingredients!

Mashed Potatoes – Our dinner plates just wouldn’t be complete without a heaping helping of mashed potatoes, especially my very favorite creamy make ahead mashed potatoes. Filled with sour cream and cream cheese, they don’t even need gravy, and you can make up them a day or two in advance, so all you have to do it bake them before the big meal!

Stuffing – Of course, stuffing is a requirement at Thanksgiving, but when you deep-fry your turkey, you can’t bake your stuffing in it. These cute little stuffing muffins are the perfect solution, and the perfectly sized portions make them easy to serve!

Cranberry Salad – This is definitely not your average cranberry salad recipe, but it’s an absolute must on our Thanksgiving table. Truthfully it’s more like a dessert, but we serve it right alongside our main meal!

Pumpkin Pie – And last, but certainly not least, our table would not be complete without a couple of homemade pumpkin pies. I make my pumpkin pies from scratch using the classic Crisco pie crust recipe, filling them with the homemade pumpkin pie filling recipe that was passed down from my mom. Don't forget the homemade whipped cream!

Traditional or not, I’m looking forward to sharing this special day and delicious meal with my family. Happy Thanksgiving from my family to yours!

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Getting the Best Black Friday Prices with #LessStress

by Tara Kuczykowski on November 21, 2014 · 1 comment

We've seen a number of store release their Black Friday ads this week... Have you started planning your Black Friday shopping trip, yet?

I actually have a very short list of items that we're considering braving the crowds for this year, but I'll be honest, it's been many years since we've done the whole shop-till-you-drop Black Friday thing. I've witnessed some crazy behavior, including a couple of grown women fighting over some Fisher-Price toys that, in my opinion, weren't even that spectacular of a deal...

To be fair, I've also seen incredible kindness from perfect strangers. But the thing is, the retail landscape has changed dramatically over the last few years, and I'm not convinced that hitting the stores on Black Friday is necessarily going to net you the biggest discount in all cases.

So what's changed that can help us all save money while avoiding some of the craziness???

Stores are offering Black Friday prices earlier.

Many stores are choosing to start offering Black Friday-esque pricing well before the day after Thanksgiving -- and many are continuing the deals on through Cyber Monday. For instance, Staples is offering two full weeks of Black Friday deals this year, starting on November 16th. You'll also find many stores are opening the evening of Thanksgiving Day to give shoppers an early start on their shopping.

Create your own pre-Black Friday deals with these just-released Staples coupons:

  • 20% off everything you can fit in the bag, in-store only. Exclusions apply. Valid Nov. 23- Nov. 25.
  • 25% one full priced item, in-store only. Valid only on Nov. 26.

Stores are offering Black Friday pricing online.

If you can’t find the time to get out, you can always shop online! If you're using this strategy, be sure to search for free shipping codes and discount promo codes on Google! And if you're a member of any cashback sites, check them as well to see if you can earn an extra discount. Another little known tip -- some stores allow you to purchase online and pick the item up in stores, allowing you to skip those long checkout lines!

Shop these hot Staples deals both in-stores and online:

  • Kaspersky Internet Security (1 user) $0.01 after Easy Rebate (reg. $59.99, customer pays $45.01, Easy Rebate for $45)
  • $79 APPLE TV (reg. $99.99)
  • $39.99 Android 7-inch tablet from JLab, 8GB (save $30)
  • $99.99 Samsung Galaxy Tablet Lite (save $40)
  • $25 Visa Prepaid Card by mail with purchase of wearable tech (including Fitbit and Jawbone)

Stores are extending Black Friday pricing through the weekend.

I know many of you prefer to be able to actually see and feel products in person, so shopping online might not be for you. Or maybe you just really want to be able to talk with a knowledgeable associate to assist you in making an informed decision. Many stores will be extending Black Friday pricing or introducing new sales all weekend long, and you might have better luck in being able to get some personal assistance if you skip the big day and head into stores then!

I'm not sharing any of this to discourage you from shopping on Black Friday -- there are definitely some big savings on the agenda. But if you're looking for a less stressful approach to Black Friday shopping, consider some of these alternative strategies that will help you stretch your holiday budget while saving your sanity!

I'm so pleased to be partnering with Staples again this holiday season as part of the Staples Holiday Council! Their ultimate goal this holiday season is to "make less stress, more savings happen." Staples will be offering great deals (including exclusive offers!) throughout the holiday season, helping you get more for less!

This post is brought to you by Staples. All opinions are 100% mine.

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