Thursday, December 10, 2015

Some Things Never Get Old

Some Things Never Get Old - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
Click on picture to check out my newest JibJab video!
There are simply some things in life that I will always love, not matter what.  Take, for example, Jib Jabbing, or Elfing Yourself, as it use to be called back in the day.  You can read about my obsession with Jib Jabbing in Feed a Cold and Jib Jab a Griever, but suffice it to say that putting people's faces to prefabricated music video characters is something that makes me tick.  No matter how busy, tired, or jacked-up I feel, I always have time to put a smile on someone's face, literally, and send it out to make someone's day, as well as my own.

I have spent hour upon hour doing this for fun.  Last year, I neglected to send out card-stock holiday cards in lieu of Jib Jabbing my entire holiday list!  After creating the first few music-themed holiday videos, I realized I needed to scrub up my card list, as it was super time-intensive to make an individual greeting for each recipient, but after whittling the list down to a manageable 75 peeps, I got to work laughing and enjoying.

At the end of approximately 50 hours of jib-jabbing over a month-long holiday season, I came to the conclusion that one of the reasons I so love to Jib Jab is that is gives me the opportunity to really pay credence to the people I cast in the videos.  Most times they are friends, family members, and occasionally mere acquaintances, but always they hold some sort of importance in my life.  It's important to me to reflect on the connections I create and maintain and give them my undivided attention on a regular basis.  It's also necessary for me to laugh at myself and those I know, right alongside them.  Jib Jabbing allows me that freedom.

I heard from at least half of the people I sent Jib Jab cards to last year, either via phone, text, email, or personal visit.  Most LOVED the cards and in a few cases, some hated them to the point of asking me to use a more flattering picture of them next time.  But in all cases, they appreciated the time and energy I put into their individual holiday dance.  I so enjoyed the human connection! I have never received a personal response from a card stock holiday card in the past, other than an obligatory return card in the mail.

You should give Jib Jab a try this year; it's worth the $12/year membership fee (you can try a few for free before they ask you to subscribe).  And Jib Jab should be hiring me as their spokesperson!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Don't Grow Up

I keep thinking of the question presented to Meryl Streep in an interview asking her what advice she would give her younger self, now that she has so much life experience under her belt.  Her answer, as highlighted on a People Magazine ‘Quotes from the Stars’ page, didn’t particularly move me, something along the lines of she wouldn’t pay as much attention to how much she weighed, but the question keeps haunting me.

What would I tell my young self starting out, now having the adult perspective of how the world works and the various ways I’ve fit into it to date?  Hands down it would have to be to keep looking at the world through a young person’s perspective.  

The curiosity to learn about new ideas, people, places, and things.  The emotional immaturity that leads to the inability to hold back your thoughts.  The lack of judgement that lends to making mistakes.  The tender lack of life experience that allows you the freedom to say “I don’t know.” The sheer enthusiasm and devotion to pleasure.  The balls to think that you can change the world. 

Society tells us to grow up, pull it together, and settle down.  Think stability, commitment, procreation.  All incredibly important things.  But what about contribution, communication, and growth?  I think if we held on to more of our rose-colored young outlook on life we’d be better off as a society.  Learning doesn’t end at high school, college, or graduate school graduation….it’s  eternal if we’re lucky enough to keep an open mind.  When we stop looking for answers, we stop growing, period.  Yet there’s an interesting caveat attached to many when we stop learning.  The brain is shady, as it tricks us into believing we actually know everything since we’re no longer taking in new info.  We become self-proclaimed experts, and spend our lives digging our heels into the ground protecting what we think we know, instead of just opening our minds to hearing something new.

Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged - Don't Grow Up
Somehow we have bought into the idea that we have to fit into the traditional societal norms of ‘becoming an adult’ by achieving the same way our classmates do, loving the same way everyone else does, parenting the same way our neighbors do, judging in the precise fashion our family taught us to, and living our life in a way that is packaged squarely for show.  Who does that benefit?  Not me, not you.  It simply supports structure of societal norms that will keep on keeping on until it’s pushed to the limit and broken. 

So today, or this week, or maybe even this year, put on your pre-adult glasses, and look at your world and your life through a young person's perspective.  What do see?  What can you learn?  What do you have the courage to change in yourself and the world?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Quick Fix

Human instinct dictates that we find solutions to the problems and challenges that cross our path.  As we get busy in life, whether it be with work, pleasure, family, or otherwise, we tend to add speed to that problem-solving skillset, so that we can move on to the next issue. When the situations start to pile up, though, the quick fix, although convenient, is not always the right answer.  More often than not, the accumulation of snags is simply an indication to slow the hell down in order to identify the real issue at hand, instead of quick fixing the ancillary hurdles that arise because of it.

Most folks have a lifelong record of quick fixing their way out of boredom, unhappiness or unfulfillment by simply changing the scenery.  A trip to the mall for clothes or makeup “fixes” the dissatisfaction of body image.  A night out drinking alleviates the intensity of a broken heart.  A one-night-stand pumps up the fragile ego after losing a job.  Each knee-jerk reaction temporarily fills an empty space, but doesn’t really address the actual problem. 

Just this week I found myself considering buying a new car, adding a puppy or rescue dog to our brood, and planning a family vacation over Christmas.  Whoa, trying to cover up much?  I was quickly trying to address the feeling of discontent I had been feeling for the last few months, and most recently after having a knee surgery that didn’t yield the results I had hoped for, leaving me still somewhat maimed and in need of some self-care. Stuff the negative feelings down by adding more shit on top so there’s no room for it to breath.

That’s what we do.  New job, new relationship, new house, new cause, new kid, new friend, new hobby, new church, new life. None of it takes away what’s really eating away at the core, as the second that newness if over, the same old worry rears its ugly head, still alive and kickin.’

What happens if we take the time to really address the reality of the situation and own it, feel it, try it on for size, before trying to cover it up or stifle it?  It’s not very pretty.  In fact, allowing oneself to be vulnerable and acknowledging imperfection is a pretty freakin’ unnatural state of being, if you ask me.  It’s uncomfortable just being and not doing, not having the fixes lined up in your court.

But feeling powerless has its advantages too.  It opens you up to creativity, change, and sometimes just acceptance, as every problem doesn’t have an automatic solution.  It also helps fosters real human interaction, as typically when we’re in a state of true susceptibility, we don’t have the capacity to participate in mindless chatter or repeat the same bullshit stories we tell people about ourselves and vice versa.  It’s actually a pretty empowering place to exist if we can just let ourselves.

I have absolutely no idea what, if anything, is the anctedote to my current discontent.  Maybe it is actually a new job or a new way of living.  Or maybe I’m right where I need to be and that’s just got to be enough for right now.  But what I do know is that history has repeated itself enough in my lifetime to show me that the quick fix is not usually the most efficient route.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Put the Phones Away!

ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder - Put the Phones Away
As I rode through the lake-front trail this afternoon, I was enamored by the cool breeze, expansive blue body of water lapping up against the rocks, and the thick lane of dragonflys buzzing to my right the entire ride.  And then I saw the family of 4 in the grass, sitting intimately in a circle of lawn chairs they'd hauled from home, facing one another....that is if their four heads weren't each buried in their own electronic devices!

Say what?  I thought maybe they were just a freak family, until I looked across the trail and saw another group, three little kids with two adults, thoughtfully seated cross-legged atop a checkered picnic blanket with only a bowl of fruit connecting them in the middle of the blanket, as each person had their own phone, tablet, or computer, going to town individually.

What has happened in our world to make this a normal scene?  What's the point of packing up the car or the bike or the backpacks to head to the lake with a group, only to interact only individually with a device?  Why not just stay at home?

We took our kids to our favorite breakfast joint a few weeks ago.  As the waiter walked away from our tiny table after taking our grub order, a table of 4 guys next to us asked the waiter to take away all the condiments on the table as it was too tight.  Two seconds later, each of the 4 men had their cell phones whipped out in front of them, each individually active on their own device.  Startled by the sight, I decided to survey the restaurant to see if this was normal behavior, and sure enough, whole tables of kids, adults, babies, and seniors were all busy jacking with their phones, without a word being spoken or a glance being given to their table mates.

Who in the Sam Hill decided that this is acceptable?  We wonder why our kids can't interact well with others or pay attention to anything we say.  It's because we're teaching them by example that zoning out on their own while in the intimate company of others is acceptable social etiquette.

Folks, put your phones away.  Nothing's that freakin' important or entertaining that can't wait a few minutes while you converse with your spouse or chat with your buddies or interact with your family or co-workers.  Is this how you want to be remembered by the person sitting across from you?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Get Your Money Back

Get Your Money Back - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Living Large equates to living well within your means while thoroughly enjoying those thing in life that you love.  Making spending choices requires thought and consideration.  Once you've made a purchase, don't be afraid to change your mind.  When your money is on the line, you should be absolutely certain it's well spent. Whether its simply the wrong choice or an inferior product or service, don't be shy about asking for a refund.

Yes a return usually requires the extra step of contacting, visiting, or shipping items back to the company of origin, which keeps many from requesting a refund, but protecting your hard-earned resources is worth the effort in my book.  Sometimes you don't realize your purchase wasn't sound until well after the specified return timeline. Don't consider your money gone. It can often still be recouped. Case in point is my recent Quicken experience.

Spending within the boundaries of your income requires you to self-monitor, which starts with budgeting.  My long standing software choice for organizing my personal finances on a PC has been Quicken for Windows, made by Intuit.
As a PC owner, I've relied on Quicken for over a decade to accurately help me track, budget, and simplify my finances. Options such as manual entry or automatic downloads from financial institutions, quick pictures or detailed reports of current or projected financial status, and payment reminders or automatic entry make it super customizable. While I still recommend Quicken wholeheartedly for PC users, my purchase of Quicken for Mac proved so substandard to its PC counterpart, that I don't even think there should be a charge for it.

I argued this point with Intuit recently and received a full refund of my purchase price, well outside of the 60 day refund period. It took me 20 minutes to draft the letter, 5 minutes to research the address of the corporate office and a forever stamp and walk to the mailbox to process.  Completely worth the time and energy, not only for the actual money restored to me for an incompetent product, but in this case, to have my complaints and feedback ingested by the source.

If you dropped three Andrew Jacksons out of your pocket while walking, you'd take the time to zig zag back on your route to look for them in the name of being a decent steward of your money.  Do the same with your purchases.  If the product or service is not what you want, get your money back. Otherwise you're throwing money away.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When to Skimp and When to Spend

 L'Artiste Spring Step Shoes
When you practice living within your means while wholeheartedly enjoying those things in life that are important to you, it forces you to identify your own priorities.  Living Large means making judgement calls on your personal expenses, based on those considerations. 

Financial priorities change throughout our lives.  For example, taking care of myself, on the inside and out, has always been important to me.  Skin and hair has always been a forerunner in personal care.  At certain points in my life the best I could afford was a daily double dosing of soap and water and a little store-bought moisturizer on the face and a free or discounted cut or color, sometimes as a hair model, but always at a top-notch salon, similar those offered at SalonApprentice.  Today I spend top dollar for Arbonne facial products and haircuts from Gia at Charles Ifergan, as the game has changed slightly.  Yes, I make more money than I did twenty years ago, but more importantly, I’ve learned how to skimp on other things that don’t hold as much weight for me, like name brand clothes, speciality groceries, and designer furniture in order to pay face value for other things that do. 

Good shoes matter to me, from the quality, to the fit, to the comfort and durability.  I have no problem whatsoever dropping a Franklin and a half on a pair of good shoes.  In fact, I do it with enthusiasm, as my investment saves me money in the long run in replacement value, as most of the shoes I buy last 5-10 years.  Dr. Martens, Steve Madden, FitFlop and Asics are on my short list when it comes to comfort and durability.

A new brand I’ve come to adore is Sping Step Shoes.  Not only do they have the word comfort in their tagline, but their style options are unique.  Looking through Spring/Summer shoe catalog after being referred to the company by a family member who works for them, I honestly wasn’t sure I would like the shoes, as many of the styles are super bright in color and intricately floral in design, which isn’t my usual go-to in footwear.  However, once I checked out the company website and saw the shoes paired with various garments and styles, I could see the appeal.  

I chose L'Artiste by Spring Step Soatico to sample and review, as the hand-painted leather sandal’s heel measured just over 2”, which is now my daytime threshold after a recent knee surgery has left my normal 3-4” everyday platforms collecting dust in the closet due to the pain they cause.  These sandals have a graduated platform that covers the entire bottom of the shoe, which is a necessity for me since it allows me to stably and comfortably walk distances of up to a few miles at a time without switching to sneakers.  The padded footbed, cushioned insole, and cork construction aid both in support and shock absorbency, while the nubbed rubber outsole, which is slightly smaller than the footprint of the entire shoe, allows for more traction and less clomp when it hits the pavement than most platform shoes.  Finally, and some may think most importantly, the flirty strappy style and phenomenal color combination, deep fuschia-purple and various shades of camel, turns heads and elicits compliments every time I wear them.

When to Skimp and When to Spend - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
I truly feel like I’ve hit the jackpot by being offered the courtesy of a test-drive on these sandals in exchange for an honest written review!  I have worn these warm weather shoes to death, tromping through all sorts of weather, terrain, and temperatures (I live in Chicago you know!), yet the leather straps have held their tension and the sturdy soles still look brand new.  I’m pumped to have a new shoe company to rely on for quality and comfort. 

You can hit the motherlode too, as Spring Step is giving away a free pair of L'Artiste sandals to one lucky ParentUnplugged winner.  Ride out the summer in style and comfort; enter below to win.

Required disclosure:  Spring Step will provide one randomly selected winner a pair of sandals, valued at $89.99  All opinions are my own.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Living Large in the Summer

Living Large in the Summer - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
Montrose Beach Volleyball Court
For someone like me, summer is the best time of the year.  Not only is the weather conducive to hanging outside 24/7 and the days are longer so you can fit more activities in, but it’s the easiest season to save money while still having fun.

Winter is tough, because if you’re watching your wallet by foregoing dining out, pricey movies, and paid events, inclimate weather may keep you stuck inside and potentially isolated.  Spring and fall fare better on the penny pinching scale, as you can at least more easily incorporate outdoor transportation such as walking, biking, or even waiting comfortably for the bus or train, when it comes to getting to and from fun events or activities.  Summer, on the other hand, offers a plethora of opportunity for fun in the sun on the cheap.  Check out these no-brainers for enjoying those things in life that are important to you while living comfortably within your means.
  • Put your gym membership on hold and get your fit on outdoors.  Exercise on your own or get a group together for community sweat.  You could save $20-$100 month on club dues alone.
  • Forego the cabs, UberX, cars, and public transportation and walk, run, skate, scoot, or bike to and from social outings.  Commute with your own legs for work also, and you could be saving $5-$50 per day.
  • Attend free organized events that interest you and keep a cool head when it comes to spending once you get there.  Many festivals and parties will suggest a donation of X dollars for entrance, but it’s just that, a suggestion.  There is not requirement to pay a dime.  Plan ahead by packing your own snacks/drinks if you want to go the extra mile and spend nothing at all, which is my preference.  
    Living Large in the Summer - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
    Andersonville Midsommarfest with own food and drink
  • Engage in your city’s free daily offerings.  In Chicago, I like to visit the free Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory with my kids, people watch by the hour at Navy Pier or Mag Mile, swim and play at the free park district beaches and pools, and attend free concerts and dance lessons at Millennium Park.  Investigate what your city’s offerings and get going!
  • When dining out, choose BYOB establishments.  Depending on your alcoholic intake preference, liquor can account for up to half of your tab.  A beer averages $6 at a restaurant, while you can usually buy the same quantity and take a few with you for less than $1.50 per beverage.
    Living Large in the Summer - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
    Lincoln Park Conservatory Garden Picnic
  • Lose the expensive organized sports, activities, and shows, and instead engage with your family one-on-one.  Take an extended family walk or bike ride to a new area or neighborhood, grill outdoors for meals, hit the outdoor courts for a game of tennis, basketball, or volleyball, work together in the garden or on an outdoor project, or build a campfire outdoors and tell ghost stories.
  • Get together with friends and plan events at free outdoor locations instead of restaurants, bars, or other venues.  Sit on the stoop with neighbors, meet friends at parks and public gathering places, and invite others over for dinner or drinks on the patio or yard.
There is no reason to overspend in the summer.  Use common sense when it comes to spending, plan ahead by researching free offerings in your area, and organize your outings.  How much can you set aside this summer while still having a ball?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Free Cone Day at Haagen-Dazs

I simply cannot pass up the 'FREE' in Free Cone Day at Haagen-Dazs without passing it on.  Today from 4-8pm, stop by any US Haagen-Dazs store for a free kiddie-sized cone per person, no purchase required.

Here in Chicago, looks like you're confined to the 'burbs today in either Naperville, Rosemont, or Lincolnwood.  If you're out that direction or live there, make sure to stop by for your cool sweet treat this afternoon.  Anywhere else in the US, click here for a list of store locations.

Here's the deal, go in, get your free ice cream, and hit it out the door.  Don't upgrade to a larger size or buy another treat or get a pint to take home.  Just grab and go for it to be truly FREE.  Spending money at a free offering defeats the entire purpose.  Living Large is engrained in my makeup.  Simply practice living well within your means while wholeheartedly enjoying those things in life that you love, and you too can be Living Large and enjoying Easy Street too!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Traveling on the Cheap

ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder - Travel on the Cheap
Rental Bike in Paris, Courtesy of The Alternative Consumer
Love to travel but hate how much money you blow every time you go out of town?  You don’t have to spend tons of money to enjoy jet-setting.

When it comes to flights, buying your tickets 30 days early seems fair, but CheapAir has concluded that if you buy exactly 47 days in advance, you’ll likely be getting the best rate for your trip.  Scouring at the last minute for trips to anywhere can be cost-savings as well.  Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are usually the most cost-effective days to fly, so start there.  Subscribe to your favorite airline or travel site alerts so you can be advised when flights are on sale for specific destinations or last minute discounts are offered.  

Luggage fees can add up.  If you can choose an airline that allows free checked bags, do it.  If not, check the size requirements and bag fees before booking, as $20 versus $50 per checked or carry-on bag can make a huge difference in your transportation expense.  Become a master packer and work with just a carry-on to avoid fees altogether, as most airlines still allow 1 carry-on for free.

Save money on lodging by rate shopping and check out all the hidden fees.  $250/night vs. $150/night can seem like a savings unless you forgot to add in the hotel tax, entertainment fee or local sales tax, which is some locations can skyrocket upwards of 20% per day.  Use the regular sites like Orbitz, and for comparison purposes, but don’t forget to call the hotel directly, not just the 800#, as in many cases the best rates come directly from the business.  If you’ve got time, or if the hunt is part of the fun, wait till you arrive and go door-to-door, where I’ve experienced savings as much as 35% less than published rates.  Don’t want to arrive without lodging, but can wait for the best rate, download the Hotel Tonight app which allows you to books last-minute rooms for same day and next day, with an average savings of $25/night.  Use promo code HT30 after registering, and receive $30 off of your first booking if spending over $100.

Avoid tourist traps by avoiding hotels altogether and rent a house, condo, or apartment on Vacation Rentals By Owner or Airbnb,  Most places have a partial or full kitchen, which lends to buying groceries and cooking or preparing at least some food ‘at home’ instead of dining out every meal.  Take it one step further and ask to stay with a friend, relative, or acquaintance in the area where you want to visit.  You could take that lodging money and either save it, or re-appropriate it to other vacation expenses such as entertainment, and still have plenty left to buy a nice thank you gift or meal for your host!

Once you arrive at your destination consider alternative options to mainstream traveling habits to save money.  Walk, take the bus or train, rent a by-the-hour bicycle, or use an Uber to get to and from locations, including the airport, in your destination city instead of taking expensive cabs or renting a car that requires additional overhead expenses like fuel and parking fees.  

While there’s hundreds of ‘tricks’ to saving money and stretching your dollars when on vacation, traveling on the cheap is best achieved by using good common sense.  Research, plan, and budget your trip in advance if possible, then stick to your guns!  Save the money in advance that you plan on spending during your trip.  Take cash or travelers checks to spend instead of a debit card, as you will naturally stay within your budget, as once the cash is gone, you’re done spending.  Make smart decisions on the fly regarding expenses.  And whatever you do, don’t  use evil credit cards to finance a vacation you can’t afford. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Time Alone Makes Time Together Better

Time Alone - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
I am a poster child for taking time for myself.  As a child chit chatter and showoff entertainer, I needed downtime away from the same people I craved in order to recharge.  As a teenager, I wore the title social butterfly, but spent equal time alone listening to music, reading books, and just existing independently.  Living alone as a young adult I was Julie the cruise director when it came to mingling with others, but I treasured every single minute I got to spend alone in my apartment.  Today as a parent and spouse, I find taking time to myself is a difficult task, yet more important than ever, as I’ve realized that I most appreciate my family, friends, co-workers and neighbors when I take regular breaks from them.  

Maybe it’s the ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ thing or maybe it’s truly a case of everything in moderation, but taking time away from the Mardi Gras of life as I know it is vital to keep my relationships in check.  A planner by nature, traditionally I schedule time out each week for myself to do the things that I love…play volleyball, watch crappy Lifetime movies, spend time with friends, read a good book, or explore a street festival.  Occasionally, though, the trials of life keep me from my alone time, and like clockwork, I turn into a downtrodden mess of a Negative Nelly, sometimes unable to even process the daily tasks I perform, or the conversations I partake in, as I’m functioning on auto-pilot.  With the all-important me-time out of whack, my relationships with my kids, wife, close friends, and sometimes even casual acquaintances, suffer.

Time Alone - ParentUnplugged - Stacy SnyderIn order to replenish my soul in these cases, I have to physically remove myself from my life, even if just for a few hours.  This week I’m in Miami.  I’m flying solo in a condo overlooking the beach.  I’ve been so strung-out with the pace of life recently that I envisioned just chilling on the balcony reading books all week, while occasionally looking out over the ocean.  Instead, I’ve filled my days with self-inflicted challenges, like bombarding as many swanky hotel pools as possible without being thrown out, and living as frugally as I can by taking public transportation, shopping for the best Happy Hour specials, and carrying a backpack full of food down the beach so I don’t have to dine out.  Other dares include testing how far I can walk on my blistered feet in flip flops before I have to amputate my feet, and entering as many cheesy surf shops as possible in search of gifts for my kids, knowing full well that I will never buy a single South Beach item.

Time Alone - ParentUnplugged - Stacy SnyderRejuvenation takes many different forms for different people.  For me, hanging at a bus stop chatting with self-proclaimed “Mr. South Beach” who’s trying to convince me that Mango’s is the only place to be if you’re anybody, works.  Getting caught in a rainstorm while riding my rented Citibike down the beach, and not caring in the least bit, is restorative.  Dining alone on Ocean Drive and watching the parade of people strutting their stuff invigorates me.  While attending a screening of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, I realize that I absolutely despise the female short films I’m watching; walking out of the theatre without watching them all makes me feel alive again. 

But best of all, seeing a picture of my kiddo with a newly missing tooth, hearing about my other kid’s ‘most excellent’ day, and listening to my wife tell me she misses me, brings me around full circle.  Just what the doctor ordered….a dose of anti-reality to bolster the appreciation for reality.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ALDI is the Answer

ParentUnplugged - ALDI is the Answer - Stacy Snyder
I can literally think of over 100 ways to save money right this very minutes:  cutting back on discretionary expenses like dining, entertainment and vacations, bargain shopping for big-ticket items likes cars and couches, turning your thermostat down/up at night when sleeping, utilizing store coupons and reward programs for discounted prices, and reviewing your budget monthly in order to better plan your future purchases.  But the easiest day-to-day, fool-proof, no-brainer advice I can give to cut costs is to grocery shop at Aldi.

ParentUnplugged - ALDI is the Answer - Stacy SnyderI don’t mean stop by after work to grab their bacon-wrapped filet mignon 2-packs for $3.99 for a cheap steak dinner date or to run in on your way to little league to pick up pre-packaged individual granola bars for $1.79 a box.  I mean to literally shop at Aldi on a regular basis as your main grocery store.  You’ll save 30-50% compared to your regular grocery store right out of of the gate, with no coupons ever required.

I know, you’ve got a ‘but’ opposition to my suggestion.  Everyone does.
But don’t you have to pay to rent a cart there?
But I can’t buy everything there.
Bagging your own groceries is ghetto.
But they don’t have good produce.
But they don’t have the name brands I buy.

I’ve found that the dissenters, for the most part, are simply looking for an excuse to kill time while trying to really figure out why they aren’t shopping at Aldi already.  Look, if you don’t need to save money on your grocery bill or if you have limitations that keep you from going, or if you just don’t want to, it’s all good.  But if you really want or need to save money and aren’t because you’re scared of change, you’re slowing your own roll. 

Yes, you put a quarter in the cart when you walk in the door, and take the quarter back when you leave the cart.  Big whoop.  

You can’t buy everything anywhere, same as with Aldi.  They carry about 1400 of the quickest-moving grocery items, plenty to choose from if you have the slightest bit of flexibility. 

Bagging your own groceries and bringing your own bags is the same as stowing your own luggage on the airplane and pumping your own gas at the station.  It’s the way of the world.  Self-checkout is available and encouraged at most every major grocery store in the country.  

Aldi’s produce is top notch and has stricter standards than most major grocery stores, so you’re getting the freshest, ripest food around, at literally half the price of other stores.  To me, the produce is one of my favorite reasons for shopping at Aldi.  It’s fresh, it’s abundant, there’s tons of options, including organic, and I save about $25/week on produce alone in comparison to Jewel, Mariano’s, Kroger, Albertsons or Winn-Dixie!  

Aldi occasionally features some name-brand foods, but the majority of Aldi’s food is private label, which is made of the same or higher quality foods as national brands.  All you have to do is try it…the proof is in the taste.

It’s that easy.  Food is food.  Buy your food at Aldi, where it costs less.  Today I got cucumbers for $.29 each and 2 bags of baby carrots for $.49 each, a bottle of private label Prosecco for $4.99, and a 12 oz loaf of fresh gluten free bread for $3.99.  It can’t get easier than that.

ParentUnplugged - ALDI is the Answer - Stacy SnyderTake it from me, who spends under $100 for my weekly food bill for a family of 4 at Aldi.  As a family, we pack lunches every day, eat at home for dinner, and take our own snacks when we’re out and about.  The same foods used to cost me $165 at Jewel-Osco.  Or take it from my Aldi tester friend, (insert any name here, as most of my cohorts now shop at Aldi) who shops for a family of 6 on a weekly basis, traditionally spending about $250-$300/week at a large chain grocery.  When she shops at Aldi for the same food and quantity, she usually spends between $150-$200.  She has officially made the switch!

Check out her competing receipts for a review.  While not all items listed are “apples to apples” price comparisons, the few that I’ve highlighted are MAJOR price differences for the exact same sizes and ingredients.  If you save on nearly every item you buy at Aldi in comparison to your national chain grocery, how on earth could you not consider shopping there?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Taking Care of Yourself Makes You a Better Parent

Taking Care of Yourself - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
You may have the best parenting intentions in the world, to create the most caring, loving, well-rounded, independent kids in the world, but that plan will fail if you don’t take care of yourself first.  Attending to your own needs, whether they be physical, mental, social, or spiritual, is healthy.  A healthy parent will lend to healthy children, as you’ll not only be better equipped to raise your kids, but you will also be giving them an example to live by.

For some, self-care comes in the form of taking chunks of time for oneself, grabbing a massage after work, or scheduling time with the local psychotherapist for regular visits or check-ups.  For others it may look like grabbing dinner or drinks with friends sans kiddos, attending church or prayer groups, working out, or honoring a sweet tooth.  Still others nourish themselves by volunteering, guarding intimacy with a spouse or beau, or stimulating the intellect through reading, solving, or creating.  

Your sustenance is your own.  Make it a point to respect it every day for a better you, which ultimately leads to a better parent. 

In the name of self-care, I’m partnering Dallas Caramel Company for a free candy giveaway!  In caring for myself a few years ago, my wife and I high-tailed it out of Texas back to Chicago, after residing there for a dazed five years, but Rain McDermott, a native Texan and owner of the company, helped make our time there palatable with both her friendship and her sweet treats!  

With 12 unique flavors to choose from, many inspired by Rain’s love affair with Dallas and its inhabitants, each creamy, chewy caramel bite offers a sweet retreat.  While I’ve been feeding my candy whims for years with Rain’s original caramels, my favorites from the sample gift batch she just sent us are Sea Salt, Drunken Nut (Texas Whiskey & Texas Pecans), and Bacon.  Most of the caramels are gluten free and all are available online, most running $12-$15 per 1/2 pound bag.

Simply click below to enter to win a free 1-lb caramel variety bag, compliments of Dallas Caramel Company.
Required disclosure:  Dallas Caramel Company will provide one randomly selected winner the caramels, valued at $24.  All opinions are my own. 

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Credit Cards are Evil

Credit Cards are Evil - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
Dr. Marten boots rock when you pay cash!
Don’t use credit cards unless you have the financial means to pay the card off in full every month.  There’s no points program in the world that’s worth carrying a balance on a credit card, as the interest, which is the fee paid for the privilege of borrowing money, no matter how low, accumulates at an alarming rate.  The minimum payment calculation equation was not created with the consumer in mind, but instead leans toward bringing in the maximum amount of interest to the creditor. 
When you leave a credit card balance unpaid in its entirety by the monthly bill date, you get charged interest on the outstanding balance.  If you continue the next month without paying off the entire balance, you end up being charged additional interest on the same balance AGAIN, as well as on the interest that was added the month before!  Effectively you’re growing your balance every day you don’t pay off the full balance.  In many cases, if a balance is strung along over many years’ time, one can end up paying more interest payments than the amount of the original credit card debt.
It’s sounds simple not to use credit cards for purchases, but it’s actually quite complex when you consider that the norms in our society include borrowing liberally to leverage our purchase power, especially when it comes to education, transportation, housing, and small business.  Basically it’s financial peer pressure.
I was given the basics as a child.  I learned to make money early-on by watching my mom take odd jobs to come up with enough money to make ends meet in our household.  Not just any job, but jobs that she could complete while still attending to my sister and I, as well as all our activities, i.e. Living Large.  She worked as a part-time secretary in the mornings, and conducted market research studies on Playboy magazine readers who “just liked the articles” on weekends so she could cart me around to play practices and auditions after school.  She walked door-to-door during the daytime verifying contact information for local phone directories so that she could attend my sister’s tennis matches in the afternoons, and she secret shopped and sampled products at stores during high-traffic hours so that she could pick us up from school and take us to the counter at Kresge’s dime store for a burger at lunch occasionally.  I may have had an allowance as a child, but with my first part-time job in my early teen years, I quickly got the idea of making my own money.  I also quickly learned that I could only spend so much on clothes and candy and outings before my wallet or bank account was empty.  Those years were fun and simple when it came to money….work more or spend less if you wanted to save for something big.
Credit Cards are Evil - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
Then college came around and despite taking years of trigonometry and calculus in high school and establishing financial independence with the money I’d earned from my part-time jobs, I had never been exposed to the concept of credit and interest.  I just knew you couldn’t spend what you didn’t have…that is until I strolled through the line of credit card vendors in the commons that first week of college.  “Buy it today and pay it off later,” they flaunted as they handed me my free dorm-room-shower-caddy for opening up a revolving credit account at 21% interest.  “Establish your own credit history,” they boasted, and I was fished-in on the independence reel.  I started using the cards for little things just to use it….a movie at the 400, a pack of smokes, or a few books for school, but soon it turned into bus tickets to visit friends for the weekend, a pricey pair of Dr. Marten’s, and a tattoo to match the image.  The purchases added up and the interest began compounding; the bills started showing up at an astonishing pace.  
I’d pay this one with the little money I had at the time and hope nothing else showed up until I got my next work-study paycheck or made a few bucks typing papers for fellow classmates.  Never once did I sit down and write out a budget of what little money I was actually bringing in on my full-time student and part-time employee status or what large amounts of money I was spending in the little time I had between work and class and homework and partying.  Had I done that I might have been able to balance out the scales early in the game. I had no concept of interest. While I could easily calculate the interest rate into dollars on the balance, I didn’t get the idea that the unpaid balance left each month after the minimum payment was made would just keep getting re-penalized monthly, compounding to the balance, ultimately increasing your balance each day.  I just kept running, trying to make more money to pay more debt.  Creditors’ reminder calls started coming in as I got behind on payments and soon escalated to threats of home-visits and repossession of purchases.  While dreaming up new ways to dodge the calls and throw off the creditors provided hours of free entertainment to my roommates and me, it was actually super stressful, extremely overwhelming, and sometimes downright scary.
Ultimately I turned my personal finance situation around, but I continued to feel the social pressure of leveraging my purchase power with extended credit well into my 30’s.  I was challenged to “stretch” on the mortgage of our properties by lenders and “trade up” on the car for just an extra hundred a month, and even to finance my cell phone for mere pennies extra each month.  I look back now and can’t believe the thousands of dollars I wasted on unnecessary interest payments because of the need for status and instant gratification. 
Had I not calculated my interest expenses in a budget, though, I might not have come to my senses enough to stop using credit cards unless I can pay the balances off in full.  It all comes back to budgeting, which is part planning and part monitoring.  If you can see what you’re spending, you can see where you can cut expenses, and high interest payments, which provide you with zero return, are a glaring example of what to add to the chopping block.
When it comes to purchasing, cash trumps credit cards.  Buy what's important to you, spend what you can afford, live within your means, and ix na the credit cards.   They can lead to financial disaster if not completely understood.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Money Smart Week in Chicago

Money Smart Week - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Many of you have asked me for resources on how to succeed in the financial rat race.  On your mark, get set, GO: Money Smart Week in Chicago is your answer!  FREE live and online classes will be offered in the city of Chicago the week of April 18-25, 2015, on a slew of financial topics ranging from Retirement Savings to Women and Money to Cost-Saving Tips for Homeowners.  

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s public awareness campaign, is designed to help consumers of all demographics better manage their personal finances. Money Smart Week programming takes place all over the US through the collaboration and joint effort of hundreds of organizations across the country.

Become a Budget Superstar, Understanding Medicare, How to Stretch a Buck, Energy Savings, Implications of Same Sex Marriage, Wills and Trust, Credit Repair, How to Start a Business with Very Little money, Love and Money, Property Tax Appeals, are but just a few of the incredible classes offered.  For a list of classes in Chicago and Illinois, click here.  For a complete list of classes across the country, click here

While you may have a general idea of how your child’s college will be payed for, if you’re not 100%, check out Smart Money Week’s Learn How to Pay for College, where you can get online tutorials on Starting the Process, Understanding Student Loans and Grants, and Borrowing Responsibly.

Bottom line:  do not miss the opportunity to get the information you need about your finances.  You will be Living Large in no time!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Do You Spell Relief?

How Do You Spell Relief - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Hooray!  The freakin' PARCC, a controversial new standardized testing system, is over as of yesterday in our school.  Did the sky fall?  Nope.  Did the opposers make a dent?  I don’t know.  Do the proponents feel vindicated? I don’t know.  Do I care?  Nope.  Am I curious about the results of the tests for my child?  Not really. 

I more just wanted it to be over so people would “stifle it” as Archie Bunker would say, as I heard some of the craziest comments come out of people’s mouths and experienced more than a few awkward “ice breakers” trying to lure me into conversation about an issue I care absolutely nothing about.  Here’s some fun examples:

Parent (and School):  “I let my kids decide if they wanted to take the test or not.”

Initially it sounded insane to me to ask your kid if they want to take a test or not, DUH….NO.  I’m envisioning the fast-forward button pushed where grown children who were given and took the chance to opt-out of PARCC testing, were up for an interview at a company where personality/admin/financial/whatever testing needs to be administered as part of the screening process and candidates says, “I’m going to choose not to take the test.”  That’s a surefire way to take yourself out of the running for said job.  To be fair, I’ve turned down testing myself (only drug) on occasion in my young adulthood, as the timing wasn’t right, but it wasn’t because my parents taught me I could choose if I wanted to be tested or not….I just knew I would fail, which is another whole issue in itself.  As a follow-up, most of the parents’ kids who had been given the option without any parental nudging (at least of people that I know), actually chose to take the test. Might our kids have a better appreciation of the testing’s importance than we do? Could be.

Parent:  “I’m not having my child take the test because it’s conducted with paper and pencil, and that’s nothing like the real weighted test next year, so it’s not considered good practice.”

“A sphincter says what?” as Wayne Campbell would say.  Do we not still use paper and pencil in this world?  Might the opportunity ever arise when our children might need to use a writing utensil in a pinch to get their point across?  Might they benefit from the lesson of flexibility when it comes to testing, and everything else for that matter, as many times in life you don’t get what you expect, and isn’t that when character comes out….how you handle change?  Additionally, the subject matter of the test is the same, regardless of the vehicle to assess the topics.

Parent:  “They’re hiring test scorers on Craigslist!  Grading won’t be done properly by people making $11/hour.”

Wow.  Do you need the president to grade your kids’ test?  Seriously, did you ever make $11/hour and if so, what did you do?  Was it important or not?  I’ve never had an unimportant job and I can assure you I’ve completed some tough tasks for $11/hour and moved on to $12/hour, then $15/hour and so on.  Do you know that many of the people in Chicago, cripe, people living in this neighborhood even, make about that hourly rate?  Would you not feel a parent from this neighborhood capable of grading your childrens’ tests, if trained to do so?  On another note, Craigslist is still a great place to find employees and jobs, and that’s ll the grading is….a job.  End of story.

Parent:  “Are you having your kids take the PARCC?” 
Another Parent:  “No.  I don’t have any issue with it.”
Parent:  “I didn’t either until everyone started sending emails, posting social media warnings about it, and lobbying at school and in the media for other parents to join forces against it.  Now I don’t know what to do.”
Another Parent:  “Well what do you think now about the test?”
Parent:  “It doesn’t bother me, but I’ll probably opt out because everyone else is.”

I have no sidebar on this other than JONES is probably not your last name, so quit trying to act like one.

Look, I’m not trying to stir the cauldron here on an issue that is finally lying peacefully, at least for this week, at the bottom of everyone’s laundry list.  I just want to point out that regardless of all the pros and cons and lobbying and digging in heels over the testing issue, it’s over and it didn’t kill anyone, at least no one that I know of.  From my vantage point, the kids were happy for some candy in the classroom (another issue to throw people off the deep end) and a break from the unending homework (go ahead, you know you want to jump back on the homework is evil train).

Shall we just relish together in the fact that this is over for now and our kids were left unscathed and we’re left without anything to talk about?  That’s how I spell relief!  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Community is About Participation

Community is About Participation - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Scene from Hoosiers
Most of us are part of various communities, whether we want to be or not, based on our affiliations, associations, and sometimes just the physical location where we live.  Some of us simply exist in the communities, many participate, and still others take leadership roles within the groups.  We all usually reap the same benefits and suffer the same hardships bestowed on the group at large.  It’s an honor system of sorts, you do right by your clan and they do right by you.  Yet some are weary of taking lest they have to give.  But community is not about tit for tat, as in a monetary system.  Community is about taking ownership of the success of the whole group, which includes helping those individuals in need within the social unit, and accepting a leg up yourself when you’re not able to go another mile on your own.  Sometimes you give, sometimes you take, sometimes you go stretches without doing either one, but you do it all without ever expecting a payout or an IOU hanging over your head.  

Being part of a community has always been important to me as an individual.  From a young age, I actively gravitated toward specific groups that shared similar interests, likes student athletes, performers, and practical jokers.  I didn’t want a label, I just enjoyed talking and sharing stories and ideas with other like-minded individuals.  I felt part of something larger than myself, and while I felt no obligation to contribute to the individual communities, I WANTED to, so I did.  In turn I just naturally experienced lots of good will from the groups and their members.  

As I got older, the investment in the communities I submerged myself in became greater, yet the yield was more than I could even measure.  The time, energy, and loyalty I gave to the radio broadcast community, the gay community, and later my work community in real estate was substantial, yet I attribute almost every win during those time periods to a collaboration between me and my clan.  Without the support and camaraderie of my tribes, my success is uncertain, as I am only one man, with limitations and faults.  Yet as a participant in a group, even a small one at that, my accomplishments echo for days and my failures are absorbed and put into perspective without complaint.   

While I never thought much about my natural attraction to communities, now as a parent, even a two-parent, above-average wage-earning household in an affluent neighborhood filled with what can only be described as “white people problems," I thank my lucky stars every day for the various communities that support, nurture, and provide direct friendship and care to me and my family.  While I am completely capable of surviving on my own, I would never want to because my life would be sub-par.  Who would pick up my kids when I’m running late, drop me at the train station on the way our of town, or leave chicken soup at my door when I was sick?  Who would shovel my walkway in an unexpected snowstorm or pay the babysitter when I’m out of cash or let the roofer in when I’m at work?  Who would invite me over when I need a break from my spouse or family or keep my kids overnight when I have to attend to an emergency?

I simply don’t think I’d be able to do it on my own, at least without questioning if there is a God or a point to this life.  

I know it takes courage to give of yourself, lest your trust be shattered.  It also takes faith to take of what is given to you, as it’s really not about your worry over a tally sheet, but acknowledgement that you are not perfect, are not able to be in 3 places at one time, and are not SuperMan/Woman, because that shit ain’t real.  It’s about surrendering to the idea that we are not in complete control of our lives and that we all need to “get by with a little help from our friends.” 

Take a leap of faith today.  Ask someone for a hand.  Offer a kind word or assistance to someone “just because.”  Build a bridge of trust.  Your community is what you make of it. Think you don’t have a natural community?  I bet you do.  What about your fellow pre-/grade-/middle-/high school parents,  your daily carpool counterparts, and the neighbors that live around you, they are all examples of community by association.  Co-workers in your department, people you wave to on your morning walk or Starbucks run, or the members of your support group.  We all have a basic connection with our unique groups and people in them based on repeated exposure, whether it be through work or kids or shared interest.  We have a choice, though, whether we will participate in that community around us.  

Community is About Participation - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Maybe you don’t crave social outlets or collaboration or belonging…you like to be on your own and do your own thing.  Okay, that’s cool.  Then seek out other people like yourself that pride themselves on being in control, even though we all know you’re not, and join forces with them.  The specific group you surround yourself is not nearly as important as the act of participating within a group at all, even if just by association.  Fake it to make it if you have to.  The odds of you accidentally giving of yourself to your posse or accepting aid by default that you incidentally need will increase exponentially just by bridging the gap with people and accepting the tie that binds you.

What do you have to lose?  Maybe a little time or energy.  What do you have to gain?  A potential lifeline that keeps you afloat.  It’s worth the tradeoff in my book.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hands Free Mama Giveaway!

ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder - Hands Free Mama Giveaway

Many of you already follow Rachel Macy Stafford’s blog and are in tune with her Hands Free Journey of letting go of distractions and perfection in order to live a fuller life based on what really matters.  I was fished in, hook line and sinker, after reading just one paragraph a few years ago in one of her posts, which highlighted the impression your kids and the people around you get when you’re busy working, playing, or talking on your mobile device in their presence.  It went something like this:
  • Whatever you’re doing on your phone is more important than me
  • You are my model and you are showing me how I should use my own cell phone
If you haven’t checked out her HandsFreeMama site, I would highly recommend you doing so immediately.  It completely changed my outlook on life, and my behavior soon followed suit. Stafford’s first book was recently published and it instantly hit the New York Time’s Best Seller List.  

Hands Free Mama details the pitfalls of multi-tasking all the time, adding to the already warped pace of our world.  It provides an easy guide to just setting down the technology and going “hands free,” even if just for small bits at a time until you are able to fully confront your addition.  The result is re-establishing honest-to-goodness live interactions with people and rediscovering those things that are near and dear to your heart by being fully present.

One lucky reader will receive a FREE copy of Hands Free Mama, compliments of Zondervan. 

Required disclosure:  Zondervan provided the book, valued at $15.95.  All opinions are my own.  I will provide the randomly selected winner the paperback Hands Free Mama book.

Simply click below to enter.

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