How to Organize Your Way to a Stress Free Holiday Party

I have been known in the past for being a raging lunatic about an hour before event time, trying to make everything perfect before the guests arrive.  Thank goodness I don’t get that worked up anymore.  Years of experience and learning from trial and error have taught me: If I plan enough beforehand, everything will come together with little stress.

Perfect party planning begins with a full list of everything that needs to get done before the event.  Absolutely everything should go on the list because it is important for time management. Things like cleaning spots on wine glasses, filing away the mail on the table, moving tables and putting out extra chairs, searching for tablecloths, napkins, dishes and serving ware, food shopping,  cleaning and lawn work should all be on there to make sure you have the time for everything that you need to get done.

After the list is complete, I usually plan about a week out and just make a schedule of what I can get done each day.  I do this on paper and put it on the fridge so it’s easily accessed and in plain sight to remind me.  I save only food that has to be prepared last minute for the day of the party, and also leave time for primping myself.  I have to be picture ready! 

When the schedule is all set, I pull out my menu that has been planned for weeks or even months and list all ingredients that are needed.  This is a great tool if you are cooking for a crowd, because you can combine quantities and see if you can save at a big box store and buy in bulk. I usually end up buying cheese and produce in bulk.  Double and triple check the ingredient items and set the paper list aside for the day assigned for shopping.  Paper here is also better because there are a crazy number of items to buy and marking them off in the store is very helpful.  Sort the list by store first.

For the day of the party I make a time schedule for the oven and last minute things that always come up.  Yes, timing things in the oven and toaster/convection oven is necessary because you want everything done before guests arrive, and some things cook at different temperatures.  Do the best you can, and worse case, some items can be covered with foil until they are needed.  Also make sure you leave time for table arrangement and time for longer tasks like peeling potatoes or decorating a cake.

During my gatherings, I don’t want guests to feel like they have to clean a dish or clean up.  I do that when everyone leaves and I clean at my own pace. A tip for large quantities of dishes is to buy a couple large plastic restaurant bins to pile in dirty dishes.  The filled bins can be placed in a laundry room or garage to keep them out of site until after everyone has gone.  Don’t be afraid of using good quality disposable plates to save time either.

I use these planning tips for gatherings of 4 to 50 people and it really does lead to stress free partying.  Planning allows the host to enjoy the party and the guests to enjoy a pleasant host. Happy Holidays!

Finding Time for Exercise

Finding time for exercise when you are a single parent is very challenging, but self care is very important.  There is always too much to do, child care is an issue, and the expense of fitness classes could also be a concern.  Don’t throw in the towel though!  Exercise helps the body and mind in so many ways, and there is definitely a way to fit it in your life.  Here are my tips to fitness success.

If money is not a concern, I definitely recommend a gym with child care.  These facilities are usually most expensive, but offer the easiest option.  Simply go to the gym during the hours when daycare is offered, and you have peace of mind to get in your workout.  LA Fitness near me offers a great daycare area where children can stretch their legs at the same time as their parents.

If your work schedule allows you to access a gym while children are in school, I recommend a low cost gym.  There is something about the atmosphere of a gym that pushes you to keep going.  I recommend Planet Fitness.  They are famous for their $10 per month dues and no judgment.  Keep in mind they do charge an annual fee, and sometimes there is a joining fee, if you can’t find a monthly special $0 down.

The YMCA is another place I have used for a gym.  I like the pool option for the kids.  It is much cheaper to pay the monthly YMCA fees, if only for the summer to use the pool, than joining a local pool club.  The YMCA gives slight discounts to single parents, and sometimes they offer scholarships.  Income does have to be very low for the monthly fee assistance.  The YMCA also offers daycare during certain times, and they have family fitness programs in the evening for parents to enjoy with their kids.  It’s a great way to socialize if you have no other outlet, and kids can make friends as well.

My last tip for exercise is to simply exercise at home.  Cable providers and smart televisions now have access to YouTube that offers a plethora of fitness classes right in your living room. There are fitness programs on demand with most cable packages, and libraries offer free rentals of exercise DVDs.  Simply put the kids up for their naps and squeeze in 30-60 minutes of a class. I have also used my laptop for YouTube and to play fitness DVDs while on vacation, so there is even a portable option. 

Exercise improves your mood and helps your body.  I think it helps self esteem as well.  The kids will be grateful for the time you spent on yourself exercising when it translates to more patience for them.  Don’t give up on exercise and try some of these ideas.  Let me know how you make out!

Consider Soup

It took me many years to appreciate soup. I guess I was ruined by canned soup in my youth and I could never get excited by it.  I even led a sibling protest to actually call my parent’s bluff, when served canned tomato soup one night.  We sat at the table until bed time instead of eating the soup, BUT we were never given canned tomato soup again.  And yes, some have called me a soup snob because as I grew older and learned to cook, I made all the soups I ate from scratch.  There is no match for bone broth soups and heirloom recipes sourced from trusted friends.  Recently though, I have new admiration for quick homemade soups .  I call them budget busters!

I hate to waste food, and rather than eat something again and again the way it was first made, I would rather transform the food into something interesting and new.  Soups are a great way to do this.  They can be made from anything…left over meats, vegetables, and even bread.

My best resource for researching a soup idea, is Pinterest.  Just simply search the ingredient and the word soup, and it usually brings up a quick recipe.  I call these quick recipes because they are not made from fresh broth that was just simmered for hours, but rather (preferably) frozen, leftover broth or even a decent low sodium broth from a carton or can. 

This week I tried Italian Orzo Sausage Soup.  My targeted ingredient was breakfast sausage links leftover from breakfast one morning.  I took off the casings and heated them up with a little fennel and voila, Italian sausage for the recipe.  (You can find the recipe in my “Recipes to Try” through my Pinterest link, soon to be moved to “My Favorite Recipes”) I added pasta, broth, canned tomatoes and spices, and transformed the breakfast sausage into a very healthy , economical lunch for the rest of the week. It even tasted good too!

The next time you stuck with leftovers, try repurposing them into a new meal, and consider soup.

Affording Vacations and Holiday Budgeting Tips for Single Parents

Someone once referred to me as a budgeting genius.  I find that hilarious.  There is no genius involved in planning a budget, just discipline, common sense, and consistency.   I have kept a budget and my finances the same way for over 25 years! If anyone is new to divorce, or has never been in charge of the family budget themselves and are new to budgeting, they will especially find this article helpful.

I prefer to use a spreadsheet program to keep my budget neat and clear.  I currently use Excel.  I simply list my expenses in rows , and total it, list my income in rows and total it, and subtract expenses from income and hopefully it’s a positive result. 

One common mistake I think that is made, is not accurately including food/gas/tolls.  These expenses can vary more than bills that are sent in the mail or via email, and when they are out of site, they are out of mind.  It’s better to estimate high and have money left over, then to estimate too low and fall short.  Also, be careful to accurately account for eating out and entertainment expenses, and only do them when the budget allows.

One thing that I think has been very helpful, is that when I am paid every two weeks, I use the two extra paychecks a year for a vacation and Christmas. As I have mentioned in other blogs, I have struggled financially.  It’s very tough to stretch a single parent budget to cover everything and extras.  It’s especially hard when there is no other adult to share in housing expenses.  I digress…

By keeping on track with the two extra paychecks a year, over the last 10 years, I have been able to take my children to Disney World 3-4 times, Tennessee twice and several general Florida visits.  Also, I can’t remember a Christmas when I wasn’t able to get the kids what they wanted. I’m also able to fund a Christmas Brunch for my large extended family every year on that same Christmas budget!

Another thing I always did was to save my income tax refund for summer camps.  Every once in a while, there was enough to buy a very needed appliance for the house too.  It’s hard to not spend the refund on a big family or personal  treat, but staying on the logical, sensible course will benefit everyone in the long run.

I hope your budget has more wiggle room than mine, but not to fear if you are tight.  It’s still possible to provide extras for the kids on any budget size and not to go crazily in debt.

Tips for Raising Your FICO Score after Bankruptcy

I have always struggled financially, for one reason or another, but was always able to skirt bankruptcy.  This past year however, all the cards fell and I was left with no other choice.  I claimed a Chapter 7 and was given a “fresh” start.  It’s not actually a “fresh” start though, because your FICO takes a dive and you have to build it up again through new reputations with new creditors.  So how do you build new credit history,  when most credit card companies will not even take a look at you?

First, you will receive a ton of offerings in the mail for secured cards, or cards with low credit lines and high annual fees.   The first card I chose, about a month after discharge, had a $300 limit and a $65 annual fee.  It seems like horrible terms, but there are not many options after bankruptcy with a lower FICO, and it was better than a fully secured card.  A fully secured card is where, let’s say, you give the bank $300 and they give you a $300 line of credit. 

Second,I looked into online retailers, and two gave me a similar line of credit, but no annual fee.  I’m not sure if it was a fluke or if online retailers are slightly more lenient, but I wasn’t turned down by either of the two to which I applied. 

Lastly, I found a card offering a higher limit then the first, but with a similar annual fee.  This card also contacted me via mail and I accepted the invitation.  I was careful only to choose bonified offers that would approve me and not put an inquiry on my report without giving credit.  Too many inquiries will lower the score, not raise it.

Remember also that FICO scores are higher when more of a percentage of total credit is available for use. Keep those balances low! …and also make very sure to make all payments on time.  In about a year, I brought my score up about 80 points doing everything list in this article.

Tips to Increase Your FICO Score After Divorce

This was the path I took to increase my FICO score after I was divorced.   It took a little bit of time, but not nearly as long as one would think. 

Before I was divorced, my score was in the 800s, which is good.  I used to receive tons of offers for zero percent credit card consolidations, had cards with high limits, and would never be declined on a new line of credit. Even my insurance rates were excellent (yes, insurance rates are also related to your credit score)! After the divorce though, things were different.  My ex, due to his own financial difficulties, stopped paying on the joint cards that still reported to my report and he also stopped paying my mortgage. 

Learning from the example of a previous sister-in-law, I negotiated in my PSA (property settlement agreement) for my ex-husband to pay the mortgage for 2 years in lieu of alimony and child support.  I didn’t take into account what would happen to my credit if he stopped paying it. I had also stopped paying all bills and began saving money in case I had to try to save the house myself.  Besides almost losing the property, by FICO tanked when he went 2 months behind before a court order got him back on track.  My fico dropped to the 300s.  It was a very difficult time in many ways.

First thing I did was negotiate with the credit cards to make payments to get back on track.  A couple cards allowed me to make small, steady payments for about 3 months, then they marked me as current again.  That helped, but one card didn’t, and they ended up putting a lien on my house.  Still the FICO was up a little, into the high 400s.  About a year later, I knew I would need a new car soon.  Car repairs were starting to get more and more and the mileage was high.  Oh, the air conditioning also went! 

I looked at cars at a local high volume used dealership and started negotiating interest rate.  I will never forget the high rate the finance manager offered me at the end of the night on a car I was interested in buying.  I said no, thank you.  I have a car and don’t need one at that rate.  In the morning the sales person called me back and offered a lower rate that I thought was fair for my FICO and I signed.  About six months later, I refinanced that loan to an even lower rate.

Making the payments on the car really helped.  I only had that car for about 2 years, making perfect payments, and then went to look for a new car.  My FICO was close to 700 and I qualified, after negotiation, for an interest free loan!  At that point also, I also had the highest limits ever on my credit cards.  High, but not crazy high, unused credit lines increase your score.

Increasing your FICO after divorce is very obtainable.  You just need to take small, deliberate steps, and pay on time.  Before you know it, that score will soar!

Choosing Medical Plans

Recently there has been a push from many employers to enroll more employees in the medical plans with high deductibles and HSAs (Health Savings Account), rather than the typical HMOs.  While I think these can be a good option for single adults and families with more than one adult and no dependents, I have recently discovered these plans are a no win for single parents: like me. 

Take my plan for example.  I have major medical with 3000 deductible.  (That’s a 3,000 aggregate deductible for the family made of one adult, and two children.) My employer puts $500 on a debit card, to use for health related expenses – the HSA ($500 for one covered person, $750 for employee with infinity number of kids, or $1000 for married/domestic partner couples, so we get $750 total –  this amount is skewed negatively for single parents).

First of all, children go to many doctor visits.  Assume this, especially if your children are young, in sports/physical activities, or have health issues where periodic check-ups are required. Also, if your child is sick, you’re going to be worried, and want to get the best care possible.  This will not include…”sorry can’t take you to the doctor because I can’t afford the high deductible”…answer. I’ve paid up to $200 out of pocket for a quick pediatrician visit. Once a year check-ups and preventive care only are covered without a deductible on these plans. If you actually need the medical insurance to treat an illness, or for follow-up on results, you pay out of pocket for your visit. 

Secondly, you also need to ponder the unexpected.  I was recently hit with $2000 out of pocket for an ER visit for my son which only resulted in the distribution of steroids for a bad earache…no tests. It ends up, it would have been cheaper for me to choose the higher HMO plan last year.  It only took that one instance to cost me more overall for my insurance choice. Your employer guided health plan choice tool is not always the best choice for guidance, I discovered.

Be careful and take some time to do cost comparison research before making your employer related health plan choice, so you can save money in the end.