How A Sweet 16 Party Can Be As Painful As A Root Canal (Or Not)…

Sweet 16 Cupcake

It’s just over 2 months from our eldest daughter’s 16th birthday…just under 6 months from our Disney vacation – and along with living within our normally tight budget, I’ve had to come up with ways to cut costs from her big party, while trying not to make it seem like we are partying on a seriously limited budget. I thought I’d share a few of the tips I’ve learned so far while trying to plan a budget-friendly Sweet 16 party. 

First – location, location, location! If your house is not a viable option (ours is a good space for some of the parties we’ve had, but just isn’t workable for this one)…then you’ll have to rent. A place for your party is a must -breaking the bank to rent that place is not. We were very lucky, in that a friend of my mother’s manages a community building that you can rent out for just $50 for the entire day. It’s not in our town, but in a small town nearby…good enough for me! Really research this one, you may be able to find a hidden gem like we did – and don’t just check the usual suspects! There may be buildings for rent you’d never think about – for instance in our small town you can rent out the Senior Center for the day (we’ve done that quite a few times). Ask around, there may be something out there that you aren’t aware of that is available to rent, and a lot of times it’s just a matter of asking the right person who might know of a place. So put out the word that you are looking for a place! Another option for us would have been a local park, if her birthday were in a weather-friendly month. There is a local park overlooking a lake that has cabin-type buildings for rent for just $35 a day, including electricity (but no air, just large shuttered windows that open). Unfortunately August around here is a bit warm and muggy for an outdoor party with no air-conditioned refuge! 

As for music, I would say it’s almost a requirement for a Sweet 16. However, for those on a budget, a DJ is not a necessity – there are other options! Borrow or rent a Karaoke machine…or see if you know anyone that has a music sound bar which you can hook up an MP3 player to. That will give you a better sound for recorded music, and in fact I’ve read that some sound bars made for TVs can be utilized with MP3 players, so you may already have one with this capability. But if you must have a DJ (my daughter really wanted a DJ…luckily for us she has grandparents who felt that hiring a DJ would be a good birthday gift!), look around for someone just starting out in the business – or someone, like we found, who has a very simple set-up – who may very well charge less than a DJ who is already established in the area or one with all the bells & whistles. Do your homework – a Sweet 16 is not a wedding (that’s our mantra around this household!). For a wedding, you might want a DJ with all the bells & whistles…but if you are just looking for someone to play good music, keep the party moving and keep people entertained, you may be able to still have that and save a bit of money in this area. We (I should say, her grandparents!) were able to save over $100 by hiring someone with only start-up equipment. 

Another area where it can be so easy to blow your budget to pieces is food. If your party involves teenagers – and, well, if you’re throwing a Sweet 16 party without teens, that’s more than a little odd – you are going to have to feed them. I don’t care what time of day you plan the party…teens want food. If you are on a budget, although it might be more stressful, you are going to want to handle this area yourself. If you aren’t on a budget – first, I’m jealous – second, hire a caterer! However, if you’re like me, that’s not realistic at all, so creative menu planning is key. Have you ever heard the phrase “Keep it simple, stupid!”? That applies here. Most teens aren’t complicated eaters…so keep your quiches and prosciutto-wrapped-whatevers for your Bunko parties and book club nights! Our plan is to make a large quantity of my mom’s recipe for sloppy joes, and to set the food table up with hamburger buns, hot dogs & hot dog buns and tortilla chips – along with some toppings and a few sides like potato salad, etc. This way, party-goers have their choice of regular sloppy joes, “coney” style hot dogs, regular hot dogs or even sloppy joe ‘nachos’ with all the toppings. Of course we’ll also have cake and/or cupcakes – but since we are the Cupcake Couple, that will not break our bank either, as we’ll be doing the baking. If you aren’t a baker – maybe someone in your family is? In fact, family members might be able to help out with all the food by ‘donating’ a dish for the party. If you don’t know anyone who is a great baker – that is one area you will probably want to splurge a bit. The cake is an important part of any birthday, and that’s definitely true of a Sweet 16 as well! 

In a few days, I’ll share some of the ways I’m saving money on other aspects of the party like party décor, favors and activities. Stay tuned! 



The House of The Mouse

When we started planning our Disney trip, my husband and I both knew what we wanted it to be. We wanted to make it the trip of a lifetime for our kids – since it’s probably the last time we’ll all be able to go to Disney World together. We had only been 2 other times, once in 2002 when our oldest daughter was 5 and then again in 2010 when we were able to take our 3 youngest. In 2002 we stayed with family and drove from Lakeland, Florida to Orlando for 2 days out of our weeks’ vacation to take our daughter to Disney World. In 2010, we planned for the whole week at Disney, but stayed off-site to save money.                                                                                                                           

I think I’ve mentioned before that we use our tax refund to pay for our annual vacation. Typically we use only a portion of our refund (because of our family size we usually get a decent amount) and the rest goes to other things – but this year almost all of it was allotted to our trip, as even a basic Disney vacation is an expensive trip in itself. However – we still want to save wherever we possibly can, so that maybe we can afford some of the little things we wanted to do but that weren’t necessities like hotel, tickets, travel and food expenses. We told ourselves that if ALL we could do was afford to get there, go to the parks and eat every day – that was enough. But the more we save on those necessities, the more we have left for special things like flying instead of drive, attend Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, and purchase the Candlelight Processional dinner package (so that we’re guaranteed a seat). 

This time we definitely knew we wanted to stay in a Disney resort – that was a must, and of course more expensive than staying off-site so it was also the reason we had to allot most of our refund towards our vacation. 

Our dream was also to fly instead of drive – although we normally love road trips, our youngest 3 have never been on an airplane, so that would make the trip that much more special for them. But flying a family of 6 is usually a budget-buster, even if you can find super-discounted fares. Luckily, we heard about a deal through Southwest that if you got a Southwest Visa, you’d earn 50,000 Southwest Rewards points if you met their qualifications*. The qualifications weren’t hard for us to meet, and once we’d done some quick calculations we realized we’d be able to get at least 3 round-trip tickets to Orlando out of those 50,000 points which cut our out-of-pocket expense for airfare in half! When Southwest opened up their December schedule, I booked and actually ended up being able to book 3 full round trip tickets with our points, and another one-way ticket also. So out-of-pocket we only had to purchase 2 round trip and 1 one-way ticket – even better! What we ended up spending on airfare ended up being only a small amount more than we would have spent driving – and the savings of time spent traveling vs. on vacation more than makes up for the cost! I was so excited that everything ended up working out this way for our travel. Another bonus to flying in with Disney is that you get to take part in their “Magical Express” free of charge – they not only pick you up at the airport, but also pick up your bags and transport them to your hotel room without you having to lift a finger! Definite bonus, and while the kids could not care less about that particular aspect, it really ups the magic content of our vacation for the grown-ups! 

So, so far we’ve not really ‘saved’ any money in the aspect of real dollars spent – but for basically the same amount of money we are able to fly instead of drive, not only increasing our vacation time and lessening our weariness from driving 16+ hours but also making this a milestone for our 3 youngest children by taking their first plane ride. For this mama, that equals a savings that can’t be measured in dollars! 

I’ll keep you updated with our plans as they come about – Disney has just released the hours for December, and we’re almost at the 180-day mark so that we can make any dining reservations we are planning – and I’m crossing my fingers that Disney releases a free dining offer in July – so hopefully there will most definitely be more plans coming together in the near future! 



*The current qualifications for this offer are that you spend $2,000 within the first 3 months of activating your card. I want to stress that I would only recommend doing this if you can use that $2,000 to purchase/pay regular monthly expenses and then use your budgeted money for those expenses to pay the bill when it comes. If you can’t do that – then racking up $2,000 in debt to earn a couple of flights is NOT worth it!

An OCD Planner’s Dream…And Also Nightmare

Over the next year, our family has several ‘big’ things happening. Things that need to be well thought-out and planned in advance. This August, our daughter turns 16 and we’re planning a “Sweet 16” party for her. In November we have 2 non-milestone birthdays that we’ll need to plan parties for. December is our big all-out holiday trip to Disney World. And then next June we are planning a destination vow renewal in North Carolina’s Outer Banks.                          

For a somewhat OCD, planning-obsessed person like me, the next year is both exhilarating and terrifying. This may well be the most stressful, expensive year my husband and I have ever experienced. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Well, birthdays come around every year, and there was no getting around the 16th birthday this year whether we are ready for it or not. The Disney trip…well if we want to have one final Disney trip that includes our whole family, there isn’t really much putting it off since we only have a few years left before kids start sprouting wings and planning their own adventures. We took a vote last year, and everyone unanimously decided they wanted to go back to Disney again one more time before that happens.

Our vow renewal is the one thing that really puts everything in the ‘too much’ category. We planned to renew our vows on our 10th anniversary, but then we moved that year and changed jobs and it was a whole thing, so we pushed it to 15 years (which would have been last year). So we planned a trip to Hawaii…but then only my parents were able to go (we wanted it to be all of our parents). We thought about going ahead with it – after all we were going to be in Hawaii! What better place for us, it was our dream destination. But the more we thought about it…well…we really wanted our kids involved too – and we just couldn’t see spending what it would have cost to take them to Hawaii with us. The plane tickets alone would have cost us almost as much as we spent on our entire trip for the 2 of us. So we decided to push it back, but with my dad’s cancer diagnosis we didn’t want to push it back to our 20th anniversary. We want him there and with the kind of ‘life expectancy’ MCL has…we just knew it had to be sooner. So we decided – why not make it our 17th anniversary? 17 has always been ‘our’ number. Among many other smaller things – the 17th is the date I found out I was pregnant with our daughter, it was her due-date and ultimately her birth date also, it was the day we were married and it was the day our 3 youngest moved in with us. It’s our number…so what more perfect anniversary to renew our vows anyway? And now our renewal which originally included just 8 people (our parents, step-parents and ourselves) has grown to about 23 people to include our children, siblings and their children and a few of our absolute closest friends. 

I will probably be making lots of posts regarding party planning, vacation planning and vow renewal planning in the coming months. I hope to share some tips I learn along the way, some DIY projects and maybe – hopefully – some very budget friendly ideas since I will be trying to cut costs as much as I possibly can so I can fit everything we really want to do into all of our plans.

As of right now, my brain is consumed with different ideas about our 3 “big events” just bouncing back and forth, smacking into each other. I’m quite afraid at this point that I might end up inviting Disney Princesses to my daughters Sweet 16, reserving a beach house for our Disney trip and wearing a hot pink & zebra striped wedding dress to my vow renewal…

Stay tuned!


November 29, 2011

Like a Phoenix, Redux

Well, well. Here I am, again. Once again feeling like I owe someone an apology for being so neglectful of this space. Myself, more than anything. Because this is my space, a space I carved out for me, to come and unload whatever is on my mind – and there has been A LOT on my mind. It would help for me to come here, purge my thoughts…but I just don’t make the time for myself to do it. That is a shame, and something I deeply need to rectify. I tend to internalize my feelings way too much…which would come as a surprise to some, since I talk so much. I just tend to not let people peek into the dark and twisty of it all, most of the time. Not that I want to only be dark and twisty here (can you tell I love Grey’s Anatomy? I’m so unoriginal!), and not that all my hidden feelings ARE that way. I just have a lot to say, and usually I have deep ongoing conversations with myself in my head…I just wish I could motivate myself to log in and type those thoughts out here. It might be mostly boring, but sometimes it can get pretty interesting in there.

So, at least I can console myself that this time it has not been over a year since my last post. Is that sad or what, to congratulate myself on it only being 8 months?? Or, closer to 9 really but who’s counting? But again, as last time, many things have happened over the last year.

First and foremost, our adoption is STILL not yet final. More snags, this time all to do with the state not having filed for my son’s SSI back years ago when they should have. He is autistic, and was supposed to already have been approved for SSI, which automatically qualifies him for federal adoption assistance. Unfortunately, that never happened even though it was marked in his file that it did – and if you know anything about the government and disability, you know it takes forever (plus one day for good measure) to get anything approved as far as that is concerned. So we waited…and waited. Fortunately or unfortunately (you can look at it both ways), our 3 youngest have been in the foster system for 5 years as of November 9th, and once kids are in the system for a consecutive 5 year period, they automatically qualify for federal assistance. So on November 9th, we went ahead with the adoption without waiting for the SSI approval. We were worried that our promise of adoption in 2011 would once again prove to be untrue…but alas…with a wonderful caseworker and adoption attorney on our side – everything was pushed through VERY quickly, and we have our adoption hearing on December 9th!! It will be a VERY Merry Christmas this year! FINALLY! Our kids will legally be ours. No more monthly visits, no more different last names causing odd looks…FINALLY! My Facebook friends better watch out on December 9th, because that afternoon 2 years of memories I haven’t been able to share with them, oh how they will be shared now (insert scary laugh here)!

Another thing I want to talk about is my dad’s cancer. It’s been a long road this year for my dad, but finally he is feeling better. Thank God above, he can enjoy -truly enjoy – the holidays this year. He is not feeling sick, in fact is feeling better than he has in a long time. This isn’t due to some miracle cure, sadly, but at least a temporary miracle nonetheless. You see, he had a bone marrow transplant this summer. It was a hard process for him – I can’t go into details because for one, it was so much a blur of scary but also…it’s still hard to think about all he went through. But at any rate, it was done, weeks in the hospital and months afterward of feeling bad…but I am glad to say he is now in a sort of ‘remission’. We don’t know how long, and quite frankly, I don’t want to know. I just want to enjoy it. I won’t forget about the cancer or the prognosis, it will still be there lurking in the back of my mind…but I think seeing my dad looking healthy and feeling good again – and happy because he’s feeling good – will help me to not think predominantly about the “C” word, and just be able to enjoy the time we spend with him.

Amidst all that was going on with my dad this summer, and actually WHILE he was in the hospital recovering from the bone marrow transplant, we also lost a very special part of our family. My husband’s grandmother, or Nonnie, as we called her. Words can’t express what she meant to me and she deserves more than just a paragraph in this update, so I will save that conversation for later…but losing her has left a strikingly large hole in our lives.

Obviously there has been a lot more go on in the last year than those few things, but those are the “big” things that have weighed on my mind over the last year.

On a happier note, although I don’t want to rush what is left of this year since we are now in the midst of my very favorite time of the year, I am looking forward to what I just know will be a FABULOUS year for my family. We already have many things in motion that will happen in 2012, and being that it is the first year we will start out as a full, complete family (legally anyway), I think that sets the tone for a year with good things on the horizon. I don’t want to jinx myself, but it does look like (praise God!) financially things are going to be looking way, way up for us next year. There is also a vacation to Hawaii in the works…and I am hoping to be able to get back to discuss that more in depth later. It’s something we’re so excited about…the trip of a lifetime for us that has been a ‘dream in the works’ for over 14 years now.

So at that, I would love to say “stay tuned”…but I don’t want to leave you hanging on promises that may not come to be. But hopefully, you will see a lot more from me in the coming year.

Love and peace,

And then…nothing. Not for over a year. I stopped writing altogether. 2012 was a busy year, very busy. House renovations, an anniversary trip to Hawaii with my parents (their 40th, our 15th), paying ourselves out of debt, surgeries (albeit minor) for my daughter and husband which put us back in the debt we had paid ourselves out of, a major health crisis for my mother-in-law (which she is now on the other side of, and doing well)…but even with all of that, it was a good year overall. It was our first year as an “official” family, it was a year of health for my dad. He had been in so-called remission (not ‘real’ remission because his cancer will never fully go away), and feeling great. And finally, things had gotten back to normal enough for me to start feeling like I could take time to write again, so I, once again, started over. Started fresh. And here we are. Now you are caught up as to some of the nuances that have brought me to where I am today. Of course I didn’t share all of my past writings, that would take way too much time and space, but I shared the ones that have the most bearing on things I might write about here today. There are things I have never written about that I probably should. I have never written about how Jeff and I met…our oldest daughter’s scary-but-happy-ending arrival…our adoption story. Those are things I’m going to try to get down in writing someday soon. But for now, you know the basics of me.



May 5, 2009

A New Normal

We finally, after weeks of waiting, got the results from my dad’s biopsy. The tumor was graded a 2, low-grade, benign tumor. While that is wonderful, WONDERFUL news – it doesn’t erase the fact that there is a tumor the size of a golf ball in his brain…which will have to be dealt with. It’s also a recurring type of tumor, so that will mean life-long monitoring to make sure they catch any new ones. But, it is NOT cancer. So…we’re mostly back to normal. It’s just a new kind of normal, where my dad has a recurring type of brain tumor. It’s still weird to say, hard to imagine, and makes me sad to think of. But, it is NOT cancer.

On the foster care front, things are going. Not smoothly, mind you, but they are going nonetheless. We had our first training class on Saturday. We can only do the 3-in-a-row Saturday classes which are 7 1/2 hours long…so it’s tiring and makes the weekend go really fast – but it is interesting and informative and so far we’ve met some great people.

On the way home from our first class, however, our van decided to suddenly stop shifting. It still drives, but only in one gear…so we were able to get it home and tonight will be able to drive it to the dealership – the manual says that this is a safety feature which automatically kicks in when something is wrong with the tranny so that it will still be drivable to get it to a service station. So, that’s good I guess…maybe that little safety feature will help us not have to buy a totally new transmission. But, on the downside, no matter how much it costs to fix it has to come out of the money we were going to be putting in our foster fund…$200 that my mom and dad just gave us for our foster fund for an anniversary/birthday present, and another couple hundred from the extra paychecks at the end of May. I have a feeling most of that money is now going to have to pay for the van to be fixed. But, we have to have a vehicle – it’s a non-decision. We will just have to really get with it and start listing on eBay (so far I haven’t listed much of what I have), and hope that some of that stuff sells. We also have a yard sale coming up in June, which is town-wide, so that should boost the foster fund at least a little. If we could just sell those darned concert tickets, we would be able to build the bedroom…which is the biggest hurdle right now. That part we need to be done to be licensed. After that it is just finding beds & bedding, etc, which we can do with our extra paychecks in July (thank goodness for 5-pay months!).

Thanks for stopping by – and thank you for the prayers for my dad – they definitely worked!


Disney Dreaming

Color me thrilled! This month, I scored a few Disney-themed items on Christmas clearance (mostly at Wal-mart and Walgreens), which I stashed away for our trip in December. Look what I found:

I got the cookies, stickers and stockings all for about 50¢ each, the beanie Mickeys and Minnies for $1.50 each, and the little green and red balls are tree-shaped packages of gum I picked up for 25¢ each (not Disney themed, but they’ll love them!).

My plan, in trying to make this last Disney World trip extra memorable and special, is to have one small little item for each kid every day. Nothing big, nothing expensive – just a little treat to make them smile. I am not sure how I’m going to accomplish it, but I’d love to be able to have them waiting for them when they come home from the parks each day. Maybe I’ll just have to be the last one out the door every morning and try to secretly toss them on the counter…I really haven’t figured that part out yet! I thought about packaging them in little gift bags ahead of time and leaving them in our room with a note for “Mousekeeping” (I love that word!) to set them out? I am not sure if that would work. Anyway, I’ll figure it out!

Speaking of Mousekeeping…I am also thinking of leaving something special for them each day (in addition to tipping, not instead of!). Not something Disney themed necessarily because, well, they work there and that might be overkill. But maybe something along these lines (click pictures to go to the original site):

Cute little bags of M&Ms from Cricut Chick!

Hot Cocoa sets found on Kirtsy (made by Megan from Not Martha)

Apple Caramel gift set from Jo and Sue

Toasted Marshmallow Jelly Belly Tin from Sassy & Sweet Notes

Christmas Soaps with Printable Tags from Plum Adorable

My husband thinks I’m nuts but…it’s close to Christmas after all, and most of those things can be done up pretty inexpensively – and I just think if it was me working there and cleaning up after someone, I’d be completely excited about something like that – what do you think?


Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

3д illustration: Travel rest from work.Do you take family vacations? I know it’s not an option for every family. It wasn’t for my family growing up. My first real ‘vacation’ (i.e. not traveling to visit family) was at age 18, to Slovakia. It was a trip to visit an exchange student I had become close friends with during my freshman year – a graduation gift from my parents – and I was hooked from that moment on. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells of a place so different than I was used to…it’s a feeling I can’t even describe. My husband got to go on a few family vacations as a teen with extended family, and loved it also. So vacations are important to us – something we decided early on was a priority for our family. I know not everyone feels the same…but to each their own, right? To us, our vacations are a time we feel we can spend an entire week of quality time with our children and each other, while also giving them an experience and memories that will last a lifetime.    

How do we pay for our vacations? We certainly aren’t rolling in the dough, that’s for sure! We use our tax refund. As a family of 6 – with home improvements, car repairs, and kids who have hollow pits for stomachs, and are always wearing out shoes or the knees in their jeans – saving for a vacation out of our normal budget is not just difficult, it would be almost impossible. So earmarking our tax refund is a fairly painless way for us to fund our yearly trip.  Of course, every family is different with different priorities, and I know it is not feasible for everyone – and I certainly don’t want to discuss my finances too in-depth here, or debate the political side of taxes – but each year we get a tax refund, padded a bit due to tax credits for our 4 children. 


With this year’s refund, we are taking our kids to Disney World for the first week of December (Christmas at Disney – but without the high prices or crowds of later December)! We have taken them to Disney before, in 2010 during the same time of year with my husband’s sister, her husband and their 4 children. They were on the brink of separation, however, so while it was still a fun vacation and they certainly put on a happy face for their kids – the tension was palpable. We also stayed off-property for that trip, which allowed us as a group of 12 to stay together and save money. Oh, and the weather? Record lows, of course! They even had a freeze warning in effect while we were there. Thanks, Mother Nature! Whatever the circumstances though, Disney magic still worked its wonders. Our kids loved it – as did my husband and I – and decided then and there that we wanted to go back again (just our family this time).

We know realistically this is the last chance for us to go back to Disney World as a family (when we go the kids will be 10, 12, 13 and 16), so we are making it happen and want to make it the best trip yet. Mixed with that, however, is also having to still be budget-minded…because even if we are going at a discounted time of year – Disney is expensive. We want to stay on-property this year, which is even more expensive. Oh, and I think I mentioned before that we also have some major birthday celebrations to plan this year – so, my plan is to utilize every tool I can to save money while planning this vacation (and those birthdays)! Stick with me – I’ll be sharing the ups and downs of our planning here!

If you have any tips or tricks you’ve used to save while at Disney, or to save money to help pay for your vacation – let me know! I’d love to hear your advice!