Monday, 30 March 2015

Wealth, Worth and Geography

It's amazing how much of our lives are dictated by geography - homes, jobs, education, net worth, wealth. The opportunities available to us are incredibly dependent on where we live in the world.

Last week my family and I were away on our annual March Break vacation - a week at Walt Disney World - which meant a lengthy road trip through Ontario and the eastern U.S. It's a drive we've done many times over the years, but I was struck this time by the number of real estate billboards lining the highway and how low the prices on those billboards were.

I suppose I've never put much thought into the disparity in real estate values from town to town, region to region, province to province, country to country. I have always lived in and around the biggest city in the country, well known for having one of the most over inflated real estate markets in the world. To me, Toronto and GTA prices are the reality of what housing costs because I would never dream of living anywhere else.

My fifteen hundred square foot townhouse with its narrow backyard and postage stamp front garden is valued just shy of a half million dollars because of the neighbourhood it sits in. To me, that's normal. To most of the rest of the country, that probably seems insane.

We love our home and neighbourhood and would never consider moving further away from the city at the centre of our universe, but how different our lives would be if we did!

Moving to a more rural community a couple of hours in any direction would mean being able to buy a home twice this size for half the price. A mortgage-free, fully detached home on a great big chunk of land.

Moving elsewhere in Ontario, even near another city centre, would ensure we could still find work in our fields while living mortgage-free in an enormous family home.

Moving even further afield could mean even greater savings - those billboards showed homes a third the cost of ours. Making a move like that would mean we could pay off our mortgage on this house with enough left over to buy a couple of properties.

No mortgage would mean a significant lifestyle change: more money to put into savings, more disposable income to spend on vacations and outings, treats for the kids and everyday everything - much more financial security in the here-and-now, though we'd be sitting on a significantly smaller real estate nest egg for the future. Making the move from an expensive real estate market to an inexpensive one would mean an enormous change in our financial future.

We would never dream of moving away from this city that's always been the centre of our lives, but it's amazing how much geography can control a family's lifestyle simply because that's where they've always lived, that's where they've put down roots, that's where they see their future.

It's hard to believe how much simple geography can dictate the kind of job and income we can expect, the size and type of house we can afford, our net worth, disposable income and overall wealth.

Originally published as "Wealth, Worth and Geography" on my weekly column at

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Friday, 27 March 2015

Wool Easter Egg Craft

Wool Easter Egg Craft, Easter, crafts, kids crafts

I tried my hand at this wool craft a few years ago to use in my sons' "Underwater Pirate Paradise" bedroom without much success, but I thought I'd try it again this year as an Easter craft for the kids. We scaled back the size and had much more success with the project.

To make these colourful wool-wrapped Easter egg decorations, blow up a balloon to use as the mold. We barely inflated ours, keeping it quite small - I think size was our problem the first time around and the reason our craft didn't turn out how we hoped.

Dip lengths of colourful craft wool into white craft glue and wrap around the balloon. Do as many layers as you like, ensuring that each piece of wool overlaps some of the others a few times. Be sure to protect your work area - this is a very messy craft!

When the glue dries completely, carefully puncture the balloon with a pin and gently peel the layers of rubber away from the wool. The stiff wool will retain the shape of the balloon and voila - a colourful, crafty Easter egg!

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Monday, 23 March 2015

Easter Crafting

The winter snow has melted and spring is on its way, but it's still chilly outside and the world is a muddy grey-brown. Now is the perfect time to fill the children's afternoons with crafting fun and fill the house with springtime colour with some bright, cheerful Easter crafts!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Cherishing Family Moments

When this post goes live I will still be in Florida basking on the beach in the glorious southern sunshine enjoying the pure pleasure of pressure-free family time and the absolute indulgence of a Disney vacation. But what I will be cherishing the most is the quality time making memories with my favourite people in the world

Everyone has their priorities. For our family, the biggest priority is always family time - whether that family time is a movie night at home, an afternoon at the zoo, a picnic at the park, cheering on one or another of the kids field-side or a week beach-and-poolside at a Walt Disney World resort. No matter how much we focus on that family time, life can often get in the way - work, school, sports, volunteering; it's amazing how much quality time can be whittled away just returning a quick email or picking something up from the club or scrawling a few notes for an impending deadline. So our annual Disney vacation - when the only focus is family fun - is a welcome treat.

It's an indulgence. It's a splurge. It takes a lot of saving, it takes a lot of planning. And it's worth every moment of planning and saving.

These moments, these memories - they're priceless.

These moments won't last forever. These special moments with our babies, these irreplaceable moments with our boys - these are the moments that memories are made of, that family is made of, the fragments of time and snippets of space that weave together to form the fabric of our lives.

Our little boys won't be little forever. These precious family moments will one day be a memory, so I'm doing my best to cherish them while I can. To watch my little boys learn and grow, to rediscover the world with them through their wondrous eyes, to play and be silly, to explore and create, to live in the moment, to teach them and learn from them and love them.

This is what's important in life - love and family and making memories, whether those memories are made on a beach building sandcastles in the sun or in your backyard building forts in the snow, watching fireworks over Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World or reading stories snuggled up in bed at home, walking through the neighbourhood talking over your day or playing board games at the kitchen table. Live a life you love, cherish every moment, and spend your time making memories that will last forever.

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Friday, 13 March 2015

Saving While Splurging

It's that time of year - March Break!

For our family, it means a week at Walt Disney World. A full week of family fun in the Florida sun, the culmination of a year's worth of saving and six months of planning and endless weeks of website surfing and poring over brochures and pulling out photos from previous years; a week at a Caribbean-themed resort in a pirate-themed room filled with sunshiney days on the beach, swinging in hammocks under the palms, laying on lounges trailing toes in the sand, watching the kids splashing in the water and supervising sandcastle construction, afternoons at the shipwreck splashpad and the Spanish fortress pool, evenings of big-screen movies by the water under the stars; nightly fireworks shows and marshmallow roasts; magical days at the Magic Kingdom and endless joy in the happiest place on earth.

It's the kind of luxury we once only dreamed of. It's the kind of luxury we know many will never experience. We feel so lucky and so proud that we can give our kids this vacation every March Break. It's the experience of a lifetime - and we experience it almost every year.

We save like crazy all year long for this luxury, this indulgence, this experience. And we save enough to make it absolutely amazing.

But there are still ways in which we save while splurging.

We drive from Toronto to Orlando instead of flying. It adds an extra two days to the trip and means an extended road trip with three kids, but with a family of five it also means saving thousands. We make an adventure of the road trip with state trivia and licence plate challenges in between movies, activity books, card games and surprises - and the excitement of the vacation keeps everyone buoyed up through the drive.

We opt out of the Disney meal plan now and buy our own restaurant meals. American-sized portions are absolutely ridiculous - ridiculous - they are not normal human-sized portions. It's easy enough when paying for a Disney vacation package to just book resort rooms, theme park tickets and meal plans all at once - but if you're paying for food you can't and won't eat it's just throwing your money away.

This year, we're bringing food for the car ride - dinner rolls and meat and cheese, dried fruit and nuts, veggie slices, granola bars, bottled water. Maybe we can save a few dollars on fast-food stops.

This year, we're stopping at the grocery store just across the street from the resort gates before we check in - a few bags of fresh fruit and vegetables and a few cartons of milk and juice (and a couple of bottles of wine for Mom and Dad) will save us a fortune in resort-priced restaurant snacks and drinks.

This year, we combined our Disney Dollars and loyalty points and movie rewards to put toward the one big themed character dining experience we do every year, cutting the cost by almost half. This year, we booked our boys' Pirate League experience far enough in advance that the rate was discounted by a third. This year we've planned ahead and we're going to be smart about how we spend.

By the time this article is live we will already be on our way, already indulging in our family's biggest splurge of the year.I can't wait to spend a whole well-earned week off making memories with my four favourite people on the planet in the happiest place on earth.

Happy March Break!

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Monday, 9 March 2015

The Volunteer Trap

Volunteering is a wonderful way to spend your time, if you have the time: a couple of hours handing out trays in a soup kitchen or manning a table at the church bake sale, driving around to collect items for a clothing drive or going door-to-door to sell tickets for a charity event. So much of our world is run on volunteers; but when you're a parent, volunteering often becomes less of an option and more a mandatory part of participating in a community.

There's school - classroom helpers, reading partners, field trip chaperones, fundraising committees, parent council. There's sports - volunteer coaches, referees, snack moms, team managers. There are community events and playgroups and organized neighbourhood activities. They all depend on volunteers to run - and those volunteers are the parents.

The more active and involved you and your kids are in the community, the more you'll find yourself volunteering. And as admirable (and necessary) as volunteering is, beware that volunteer trap!

It's so easy to get sucked in as a volunteer, to take on just one more task, to add just one more thing to the list - to the point where the time you're volunteering takes over the time you should be spending elsewhere, either on work you're actually getting paid for or on actual mental-health-required downtime.

We are a very active and involved family in our community, and I'm one of those joiner moms who likes to have a hand in everything. It's a deadly combination when it comes to volunteering.

As soon as we moved to this neighbourhood I joined the parent council at the boys' new school, which quickly resulted in volunteering for a series of fundraisers in rapid succession and subsequently running the fundraising committee. When my older boys played t-ball and baseball I volunteered as a coach. When my youngest was a newborn and too little to be without Mommy for an hour my husband stepped in to volunteer for their house league soccer teams - and ever since they started playing rep soccer I've been volunteering as manager for both of their teams.

How much time can it possibly take to manage a children's soccer team? I thought the same thing. Turns out it's a lot. Like, fifteen to twenty hours a week, between the two teams.

Fifteen to twenty hours a week. Every week. All year long.

And that's not including the time spent at practices or games - that's administrative tasks taken care of on my own time. On top of my day job (home daycare), my night job (writing), school council volunteering, all of the kids' activities, and - you know - full-time parenting.

I'm happy to do it. I'd prefer to do it, to be honest. I've done it for years now, and I'm a bit of a control freak, so I tend to feel like as much as I might not really want do it anymore, at least I know if I do it - it will get done right.

But there have been times when that volunteering has gotten in the way of a deadline, or the impossibility of being in two places at once becomes a problem, or the combination of volunteer and paid tasks pile up so high on top of one another that I'm left working all night long for days and days on end, losing out on sleep. Because of all this volunteering, "downtime" has become a thing of the past - there's always something on the to-do list.

I am the type of person who operates better under pressure, who prefers to be way too busy, who likes to have a lot on her plate. So for me, this works fine. But I still find myself feeling tired every now and again, looking longingly back on those days when the boys were too young to be this active and involved, dreaming wistfully of the day when some of these volunteer commitments will be passed on to someone else and "downtime" won't always have deadlines attached.

By all means, volunteer wherever and whenever you can - our society depends on it. But beware that volunteer trap! Budget your time between paid work and work that you're doing for free, between scheduled time and free time.

And one of these days, maybe I'll try to take my own advice. If I ever pull myself out of this volunteer trap.

Originally published as "The Volunteer Trap" on my weekly column at

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Friday, 6 March 2015

Mixed Media Art

Colouring and cut-and-paste crafts are always fun, but using your imagination to combine different art mediums can result in some amazing creations!

My artistic little eight-year-old loves to explore his creativity with all kinds of arts and crafts projects and has been hard at work creating some amazing mixed media projects after learning about oil pastels at school.

mixed media art, kids art, kids crafts

This springtime rainy-day picture is one of my favourites!

He used white oil pastels for the raindrops and coloured crayons for the rainbow, then painted in the sky and ground with watercolour paints.

mixed media pastel art, kids art, kids crafts

For this "Northern Lights" picture he started with dark lines in oil pastels, then blended between the lines with chalk pastel. He then cut out pieces of black construction paper for the inukshuk and glued them on.

Traditional painting and drawing are always fun - but use your imagination to combine different kinds of arts and crafts to see what amazing artistic creations you can come up with!

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Monday, 2 March 2015

Classic Bread Pudding

Last weekend my husband stayed up extra-late one night, working away in the kitchen after the rest of the family went to bed to surprise us with a loaf of fresh-baked homemade cinnamon-raisin bread for breakfast. It smelled heavenly and looked gorgeously delectable cooling on the rack with the brown sugar glaze he added, but it was an utter failure as far as texture goes - crumbly and unsliceable and hard as a rock. We have no idea what went wrong, but what a waste of what should have been such a delicious treat!

There are so many tasty treats to make with day-old bread crumbs - I knew we could come up with something. A few minutes' digging through recipe books and some creative trial-and-error tweaking and we had a new family favourite: cinnamon raisin bread pudding.

cinnamon raising bread pudding, baking, dessert, breakfast, recipeCinnamon Raisin Bread Pudding

1 loaf day-old cinnamon-raisin bread
1/2 cup raisins
4 tablespoons melted butter
6 eggs
4 cups milk
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup oats

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Break bread into small pieces in a 9" x 13" pan. Sprinkle raisins throughout pan and drizzle melted butter evenly over bread and raisins.
3. In a mixing bowl, combine eggs, milk, white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Pour wet mixture over bread, pressing bread into the liquid until bread is covered and soaking up egg mixture.
4. Mix oats with reserved 1/4 cup brown sugar and sprinkle evenly on top of bread and egg mixture.
5. Bake in preheated oven 45 minutes.

Delicious as a breakfast treat or as a dessert - my family couldn't get enough of this classic bread pudding! 

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