Why I Didn’t Create an Over-the-Top Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day yesterday was low key at my house. My husband cooked an amazing meal for me on Sunday. I gave him chocolate and each of my girls a little Valentine’s candy on the 14th.

Over-the-top Valentines Compared to the heart-themed-breakfast, love-notes-in-lunch-boxes fusses many of my fellow moms made, it doesn’t sound much like a bucket list celebration, does it?

There’s a reason for that.

Over-the-top celebrations aren’t sustainable for me. And I would argue they aren’t healthy or sustainable for most. They raise the bar and set expectations such that we’re often scrambling to find ways to make the next event memorable, to wow our kids or spouse or friends or social media followers with our creativity and pizzazz, to outdo ourselves. And in the process we cheapen everyday life and rob our kids of anticipation.

Going big has become such a way of life in our culture that I suspect we’re losing the ability to appreciate the ordinary. Our sense of perspective has been skewed by this desire for every milestone or occasion to be bright and amazing. When Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day and Easter share the same level of riotous hype in a household, how do kids learn which of those days is most significant?

When teenage girls become accustomed to up-do’s and manicures and professional makeup for homecoming dances, preceded by an elaborate “ask” by their date, then prom must include limousines and multi-hundred-dollar dresses and fancy “after parties.” But what’s left for the day they become engaged? And how can they help but expect the type of wedding that requires an exorbitant price tag when a mere high school dance merited so many frivolous expenses?

We have become so focused on giving our kids everything now, that we are leaving nothing for later. What will your children’s bucket lists look like when they reach their 20s and their 30s? When they are your age, what will they be hoping to do? How will they not be bored in retirement having done it all already?

More importantly, what do your kids bucket lists look like right now? In the wake of the hype and the busyness and the constant need to go big and achieve much, I’m hearing from kids how they just want a day to hang out at home and do nothing. They want a break from it all. Are you brave enough to give it to them? Or do you fear making them feel “left out” by not giving them every over-the-top experience you think their peers are getting?

Break the cycle. Dare to be the parent who invites their kids to enjoy the ordinary and leaves some bucket list experiences for the future. I know a lot of other moms who would appreciate it. And I’m pretty sure in the long run, your kids will too.


1603UdemyDisct Feeling exhausted from trying to match the over-the-top expectations prevalent among parents? Are you still eager to give your kids meaningful experiences that bring your family closer? I can teach you how. Check out my book Family Bucket Lists, or take my online course, Bonding Through Bucket Lists.

Universal Studios Family Bucket List Trip on a Budget

Your teen loves Harry Potter. A trip to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter would make her year. But you’re frugal. How do you reconcile the two? How do you create a bucket list experience of it, without breaking the bank?

The secret is knowing where to splurge and how to find deals. I’m going to share with you how earlier this month I managed to take four people on a five-night trip to Florida from Chicago that included airfare, hotel and 4-day Park-to-Park tickets for Universal Studios Orlando for just over $2,000, while still managing to wow everyone in the family.

Universal Trip InfographicThere are multiple methods for saving on each aspect of the trip. The details I’m sharing here offer just one example of how it can be done. What I want to key in on is how saving on some aspects of our trip gave us room in our budget to splurge on others (although “splurging” didn’t always involve money – but I’ll get to that later).

Here’s how it worked for us:

AIRFARE: 4 economy round-trip tickets from O’Hare International (ORD) to Orlando International (MCO) on American Airlines

COST: $36.39, plus 56,673 Citi Thank You Points

HOW I DID IT: Early in 2016 I applied for a Citi Thank You Premier card. The card came with a bonus offer of 50,000 points (now 30,000) after spending $3,000 on the card within 3 months. It earns 3 points per dollar on travel (airfare, gas, tolls, etc.) and 2x points on dining & entertainment. After earning the bonus I continued to use the card primarily for gas purchases. When it came time to book our flights, I looked for Economy MileageSAAver award seats on American Airlines using airline miles I have in my AAdvantage account. This would have cost me 25,000 miles plus $11.20 each, RT. But I couldn’t find anything available for four people during the weeks I wanted to go. Then I remembered my Thank You Points. I did a search for award tickets again, this time using the Citi Travel Center. That’s where I found the RT tix for 56,673 points and $36.39 (versus 100,000 miles and $44.80). SOLD!

I would call that an intermediate/advanced miles & points booking. Although award seat availability can be hard to find on American itself, you may have success doing a straightforward booking with miles there or with a different airline (especially Southwest, where you can book any available seat using miles). If you can use airline miles or credit card points (like Citi Thank You or Chase Ultimate Rewards*), your travel costs will drop dramatically. You don’t have to be a frequent flyer to accumulate those miles either, as I just demonstrated above.

HOTEL #1: 3 nights for 2 doubles at the Holiday Inn Express Nearest Universal Studios (not to be confused with the Holiday Inn Express Across the Street From Universal Studios – which was actually closer to the park gates).

COST: $338.91

HOW I DID IT: I’m an IHG (Intercontinental Hotels Group) Rewards Club member. I have points I could have used, but not quite enough for all 3 nights. Or I could have used my annual free night (from having a Chase IHG Visa). But at $95.09/night, the IHG Rewards Club rate was low enough that I chose to book with cash and save my points and free nights for another occasion.

HOTEL #2: 1 night for 2 queen beds at the Holiday Inn Express in Spring Hill, FL.

COST: 10,000 IHG points plus $59.50

HOW I DID IT: As with Holiday Inn Express in Orlando, I booked through the IHG Rewards Club. This time I used a combination of cash and points (which is handy when you want to stretch your points stash). The regular points rate was 15,000 points, so effectively $59.50 bought me the additional 5,000 points I needed. Again, this was a good enough deal for me and allowed me to hang on to my free night for future use.

Note: I earn IHG points by using the IHG Visa. You can earn bonus points when you first apply for the card and spend $1,000 in three months (as of Jan. 2017 the bonus is 60,000 points, which would get you up to four free nights at one of many of IHG’s hotels). IHG hotels happen to fit our needs well, so this is a card I’m happy to pay for, especially with a free night certificate at your card anniversary. The $49 fee (waived the first year) is worth it!

HOTEL #3: 1 night for 2 queen beds at Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater Beach, FL

COST: 10,00 Starwood Preferred points

HOW I DID IT:  First of all, you have to know that this felt like a splurge! We had a room on the 8th floor (Club Lounge was on the 9th), with a partial view of the Gulf and beach. In other words, this was what Sheraton calls a “Deluxe” room. I had booked a “Classic” room, but I also let the hotel know that this was a special visit for us as it was our girls’ first time on the Gulf and I wanted to make it memorable for them. If there was a room available, would the hotel consider giving us a nice view. My request paid off and it had the exact effect I was hoping for. We were all wowed – not just by the room and the view, but by the hotel and its location in general. The pool area was beautiful and tropical feeling, the beach pristine and inviting. If only it hadn’t been a high of 50 degrees the day we were there! Our girls still enjoyed finding seashells on the beach and we all spent some time relaxing in the hot tub.

The other reason this felt like a splurge is that SPG points are harder to earn. I applied for the SPG Amex card in 2015 and received 30,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 in 3 months. So this one night cost a third of that bonus. In my book though, those points were totally worth that free night! The cash value if we had paid for that room would have been $483. The enjoyment we got from it? Priceless!

PARK TICKETS, FOOD & INCIDENTALS: $1,648

HOW I DID IT: Park tickets is one area where I don’t have many tricks to share with you, other than comparing prices between Universal and Undercover Tourist. Even so, the cost of park tickets doesn’t vary much (although if you know you’re going to visit Universal Studios, don’t wait to buy tickets as they occasionally implement price increases. It ended up costing us about $80 more through Undercover Tourist when I finally bought them than when I first priced them out – not a big deal, but every penny counts). That’s why it’s a good idea to maximize your savings on travel & accommodations.

If you’re not using points for the hotel and you belong to a warehouse club, then it’s definitely worth looking at their packages. We could have saved $150 on the cost of hotel and park tickets combined if we had thought to look at Costco’s offers before booking the non-refundable rate we got at the hotel.

RENTAL CAR: If you’re only visiting the theme parks, then you probably don’t need a rental car. Just be warned that the shuttles that run from hotels outside Universal Studios Resort have a limited schedule and limited seats. Don’t count on being able to hop on at any time. That said, we were comfortable walking from the Holiday Inn Express to the park. It was only about 25 minutes and for us it was good to be outside in the nice Florida weather (having left wintry Chicago the day before).

We did rent a car for our trip because we wanted to spend some time over on the Gulf Coast. I ended up finding the best deal through Costco. Which is to say, take a look at all the options you have for booking a rental car. AAA, warehouse clubs and even some auto insurance networks offer discounts on car rentals.

FOOD: There are ways to save on food without buying groceries and packing sack lunches (which Universal Studios discourages). We did bring a handful of snacks along on our trip, a few of which we brought to the parks each day. That helped when we wanted a quick bite and didn’t want to blow a ton of cash on theme park snacks. I also made sure we stayed at a hotel with free breakfast. Yes, I know free hotel breakfasts often aren’t that great. But yogurt and fruit is about the same anywhere, if you’re okay with that. Cereal too. In our case the vacation was about the parks, not the food.

We also kept in mind portion sizes when ordering in restaurants. Even on site at Universal, the portions were large. For the most part, we would split meals, which always seemed to be enough to fill us. On occasion the girls or I would get soup or salad, which was lighter and less expensive. Lunch we ate at the parks because it was more convenient. And then usually we ate dinner at an outside restaurant. Having Chick-Fil-A Cow Calendar cards came in handy for Mike & I to save money on one meal (although the girls forgot theirs). I think also if I had planned ahead, I would have picked up a few chain restaurant gift cards from our Discover Cash Back rewards account. That would have cut the cost of dining when we weren’t in the parks.

We did occasionally splurge on dining though (remember, I’m all about splurging strategically). Trying Butterbeer in Diagon Alley and eating at The Leaky Cauldron were amazing experiences that we didn’t mind spending more on. And a seafood dinner in Tampa was another worthwhile splurge.

INCIDENTALS: I want to point out one splurge in this area. In a previous post I go into more detail about this, but I felt I would be remiss not to include a mention here as well: we bought our daughters each an interactive wand at Universal Studios Wizarding World. At $50 each, they were beyond our usual budget. So instead we made them part of our girls’ Christmas gifts (their dad presented them with bow-topped dowel rods on Christmas morning, with the promise of the real thing on our trip). This splurge, more than any other, made the trip for our girls. Again, read my previous post to learn more about that.

Phew! I know that’s a lot of information, but I thought it valuable to share with you details about how it’s possible to keep your budget under control while making an epic trip like Universal Studios that’s memorable for everyone.

Feel free to share your own tips for saving on a theme park trip in the comments below. It’s ideas like these that make it possible for families to take their own family bucket list trip sooner.

*While I don’t participate in affiliate programs, this is a personal referral link. This means I earn points when you sign up. I only include this because I highly value the Chase Sapphire Program and heartily recommend it to anyone who asks about traveling using miles and points.

How Do You Spell Success as a Parent?

spell-successI nearly blew it again. My youngest daughter turned thirteen this past weekend and I almost didn’t have a card for her. As a rule, I don’t buy cards. I’m a crafter and I know I can make a card that I like much better than anything I’d find in the store. And I enjoy making them. But I have a hard time getting down to the business of making cards – it requires pulling out my stamping supplies and finding the creative bandwidth to generate a design.

On my daughter’s birthday, cards arrived in the mail from her grandmother and great aunt, as they do every year. Me? I missed sending my nephew’s birthday card last month. And I hadn’t started yet on my daughter’s card.

I beat myself up about it. I want to be like my mother and my husband’s aunt. I want to be the person who always sends a birthday card. And I’ve always felt like a failure because I’m not.

Then it occurred to me this week: whose priorities am I trying to live by? What do I really want success for me to look like?

I once met a dad who boasted about never missing one of his son’s basketball games from youth league on through high school, despite holding a job that required him to travel. It was impressive. He had committed himself to being there. It fit his definition of success and he fulfilled it. But me? I’ve missed gymnastics meets and soccer games. I haven’t bent over backward to be present for every one of my girls’ sporting events because that isn’t what I feel called to do (not to mention that it’s physically impossible when you have kids in events at the same time in different places). I’ve never considered myself a failure for missing my girls’ meets because perfect attendance was never part of my definition of success.

I realized this week that as much as my bucket list gives me goals to shoot for, I have to pay attention also to those I am not shooting for. I have ask myself, “How do I spell success as a mom? When my girls graduate from high school, what do I want to be able to say I did without (or nearly without) fail? What do I want to be able to check off my parenting bucket list? And what am I not going after?”

My priorities include serving a family meal every night of the week (success!), seeing them off to school every morning (success!), and making them a card for their birthdays (working on it). But my priorities don’t necessarily include being that person that doesn’t miss sending a card to everyone else. That might be a priority for me in another season of life.

I’m ready to stop trying to measure myself against other people’s priorities. I hope to recognize when I’m tempted to feel bad about measuring up against a standard that I haven’t subscribed to. And I’m only including on my parenting bucket list those things that truly matter to memy priorities.

Would you do the same? Think about how you spell success as a parent. Let go of trying to be the mom who throws Pinterest-worthy birthday parties if that’s not you. Don’t push yourself to execute the perfect bedtime tuck-in every night if it’s not working. Find the goals that do suit you and pursue those. Put them on your bucket list so you, like the perfect attendance basketball dad, can celebrate your accomplishment when the time comes.



Bucket List Life Dare: Start a Ripple of Change

August 2016 Bucket List Life DareWhat bothers you most in life? What action would you be willing to take this month to be a pebble causing a ripple of change?

It feels like there’s an ocean of uncertainty, fear, and just plain bad stuff in our world lately. Terrorist attacks, brutality toward and by police, political divisions and coups and corruption. The world’s problems loom so large. And we’re so small. Insignificant. Overwhelmed.

And yet…

Even a single drop of rain on the ocean sends out a ripple. And that ripple broadens as it goes out, in wider and wider circles.

That’s what this month’s bucket list life dare is all about. You being one small droplet causing a ripple of change for the better in our world. Dare to do that one thing, take that one step against the grain. Instead of complaining about something, do the opposite. Be the person who puts away their cell phone at the checkout and talks to the cashier. Be the one who complements the mom whose kids seem like a handful. Bring a cold drink out to the postal worker who is running late delivering your mail.

Take that step of kindness you always meant to, but never had the time for before. Start that ripple of change.


CoursePromoImageStart a ripple of change that brings your family closer by creating family bucket lists. I can teach you how. Check out my book in e-book or paperback or take my online course, now only $15!

July 2016 Bucket List Life Dare: A Day of Freedom

July 2016 Bucket List Life DareWhat would you do with a whole day free: nothing on the calendar and no obligations to fulfill? It’s worth thinking about because the concept of freedom alone can yield interesting bucket list goals. A whole 24 hours to yourself with the freedom from other’s expectations. A wide open day of freedom in the location of your choosing to explore or relax. A day free from screens, phones, social media, interruptions, distractions.

Freedom, expressed in the way that we most need or prefer, can take on a variety of forms. But how often do we seize on it and embrace it in any form? More often than not conversations with people I know will gravitate toward how busy they are and how many obligations they have to fulfill. Freedom, and the release it provides, rarely factors into daily life – at least not here in the U.S. Which if anything, is ironic.

That’s why I chose this Bucket List Life Dare for July. I want us to take advantage of the freedom we should be able to experience in this great country of ours in ways that improve our lives. Too often I see freedom only being exercised to trumpet beliefs (freedom of expression). But freedom is about so much more than that.

So here’s your bucket list life dare for this coming month: put a big “X” through one day on your calendar this month and keep it free from planned activities. Enjoy that day of freedom however you and your family wish.

Our family has already booked a few days of camping in Michigan for later in July. It’s an annual trip for us that does a pretty good job of taking us away from obligations and giving us freedom. But to be more intentional about it, I’m going to encourage my family to make one of our days about everyone getting to choose one expression of freedom – go to the beach or not go to the beach. Get up early or sleep late. Eat healthy food or not. Or whatever it is they come up with.

How about you? What would a day of freedom look like for you? Can you claim a day of freedom on your calendar this month?




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