DSCF1401It seems like time goes faster every year, especially when you have kids. It’s already September, which is prime time to start getting ready for the holiday season! I know, I know, it may seem early. But trust me when I say the more preparation you have, the less stress you’ll end up experiencing later.

Actually in an ideal situation, planning for the Holidays should start in January – this is what I do and planning a year in advance can save you a lot of money and stress later. I’ve seen so many people get  themselves into a tizzy about affording all the food and gifts and a couple of friends have mine have even gotten into serious debt, which is completely unnecessary.

We all know when Thanksgiving is right? Christmas is the same time every year, correct? These things don’t come as a surprise to us and yet some people act like they had no idea it was coming! Getting some extra cash for Christmas can be tricky when it’s just a few months away but if you plan a year in advance, you have 12 months to put some money aside. This is what I do – I set a budget every year for the holiday season (setting a budget also helps stop you going overboard on gifts!) and then divide the total by 12 so I know what I need to save each month. By the time we get to Thanksgiving, I already have a nice chunk of cash ready and I don’t worry about spending it!

Shopping in January is also an excellent way to save yourself a lot of money. You can buy gifts, decorations and seasonal food at bargain basement prices after New Year and so it’s a great time to stock up for the following year. Of course fresh food won’t last a year! But anything that will go in the deep freeze can be bought in January and used later in the year (I’ve gotten some great deals on joints of meat in January!)

of course the best way to save is to avoid over spending in the first place! It’s easy to go over the top, especially if you live in a neighborhood where everyone seems to compete with each other to have the best dressed house, but there are lots of ways you can decorate on a budget.

I’ve found getting the kids involved with making decorations is not only a great way to save money but also is a lot of fun for them and me too. We like doing things like dyeing popcorn and stringing it into garlands and making paper chains. I also get them to help out with some more complex projects like the ones on the Martha Stewart website.

If you plan in advance, saving for the holidays doesn’t have to be stressful, in fact it can be quite fun! If you love Christmas as much as me, it’s almost like a little reminder of the holiday season every month!

IMG_0942I think it’s really important for children to spend a lot of time outside playing, especially once they start school and they’re inside for most of the day. While I certainly don’t judge parents who let their kids have unlimited screen time, we try to limit tv and iPad time to no more than an hour a day and I encourage both kids to get out and play in the yard as much as possible.

Not only is it good for them to run around and burn off some energy (which makes for easier bedtimes!) but I also think it’s important for children to develop a real connection with nature. We’re so cut off from the natural world these days and I think we have a lot to learn from it.

One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways of tempting the kids outside is by involving them in a small gardening project. I find gardening to be a really relaxing hobby and getting the kids to help me out gives them a real sense of accomplishment, as well as giving us some great one-on-one bonding time.

Even the smallest kids can help dig holes, plant seedlings and of course water plants. Every child I’ve come across has loved using a watering can and my two have their own child-size one each. You can also buy smaller versions of a trowel, fork and spade for your kids to use and these are also great fun in the sandbox.

The BBC have a great website on gardening with children and I get a lot of good ideas from there. One thing to keep in mind with young children is that they can quickly lose interest and become frustrated when waiting for plants to grow, so if you’re planting bulbs or something that takes a long time to show results, it’s best to follow it up with an activity that offers an immediate reward like digging for worms.

Working in the garden is great exercise for them and me and I try to make sure we get the most out of it by coming up with activities that include lots of movement. In the summer, getting the water hose out provides lots of fun and waters the garden at the same time. I sure get a great workout from trying to avoid getting wet!

Of course not every day is a good day to be outside and when it’s raining or cold, we sometimes do something fun like sprouting beans or growing grass in an egg shell and then giving it a ‘haircut’. We grew an avocado tree seedling recently by supporting an avocado stone in a glass of water with toothpicks and the kids were quite amazed with the way the roots and shoot “hatched” from the stone. We’ve now put it in a pot and when it’s big enough we’ll plant it out in the yard. I love that they’ll be able to come back and visit when they’re grown and see the tree they planted from seed as children!

file7231299306700Before we had kids we used to travel a lot as a couple and we’ve always been a little on the adventurous side. We’d always be planning our next trip and managed to see quite a bit of the world before we got married. We had our honeymoon in the Maldives and it’s still the most beautiful and exotic place I’ve ever been to and I hope we get to go back there one day.

Of course things changed a bit once the children came along – having adventures in a  foreign country when you’re a couple in your 20s is one thing but with a child in tow, it turns into something else entirely. I’ll never forget the first trip away from home we did when my eldest was 6 months old – it was an exhausting operation just packing for our trip and we ended up just staying in the hotel for most of our time away as it was too much hassle to go very far.

We’ve now got much better at traveling with kids and now they’re a bit bigger things are much easier too. The trick is to have low expectations (don’t try to do too much) and choose locations that are family friendly.

Here are some of our favorite places to visit as a family:

1. Disneyland

Of course I chose this for my number one! Disneyland is the ultimate family vacation destination and it’s hard to find anything to fault with it. Of course the kids love it but it also has great facilities and it’s pretty fun for the grownups too. We try to take a trip to Disneyland once a year if our budget allows and I really don’t see us ever getting bored of it!

2. San Diego

I still remember our family vacations to San Diego when I was a little girl and I love taking my own kids there now. You can’t really go wrong with a beach trip when you have young kids – they get to make sandcastles and play in the ocean and mom and dad can chill out and work on their tans. There are also some great attractions there like the San Diego zoo, Legoland and SeaWorld. We’ve been here several times since having kids and it remains a firm favorite with the whole family.

3. The Bahamas

Overseas travel is obviously a little more work to arrange and significantly more expensive than staying within the US but I don’t think you have to give up all your luxuries once you become a parent. The Bahamas are a great destination for family vacations because you don’t have to deal with the long flights that are part of a trip to Europe or other far away destinations and there are some great family-friendly resorts and lots of things for kids to do. We’ve visited a few different islands and always had a great time. Already counting down the days until I can let the kids swim in the tropical ocean while I kick back by the pool with a cocktail or two!