We had quite a variety of topics this month for our read-alouds. I checked out books about presidents, Valentine's Day, and Groundhog Day. Per usual, I didn't get to everything we checked out, but here were a few.
Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln by Patricia Polacco
Martha Washington by Candice Ransom
Abraham Lincoln by Amy L. Cohn
George Washington's Teeth by Deborah Chandra and Madeleine Comora
George Washington's Cows by David Small
President's Day by Anne Rockwell
(Add Valentine's and Groundhog Day books from library record, and Martha Washington book)
February has been quite a month for homeschooling. For one thing, every week I've had two to three doctor's appointments, some of which require a decent drive. I've been working on finding a rhythm and it has been challenging. On the other hand, I've stepped back from a lot of commitments. DC definitely needs more days at home with free play and rough housing.
We've continued getting outside as much as possible. The picture above is the Henry Hill House at Manassas National Battlefield Park. We did a preview hike before hosting a hike there for our preschool outdoor playgroup. AW loved pretending she was in the jungle or on a bear hunt. The weather here has been wild: the day of the preview hike, we were freezing. The following week, for our group hike, we had a lovely picnic with no coats required. We've tried to take advantage of every nice day by playing outside.
This month's theme in AYOPS was Hearts and Valentine's Day, with Love as the character trait focus. We made Valentines (which I haven't mailed yet, oops!) and painted canvases in preparation for some later artwork.
We also had a "flower shop" afternoon, based on an activity in AYOPS. I bought flowers at the dollar store and stuck them in a foam floral block that had come in one of our Ivy Boxes. Then I pulled out our Melissa and Dough play money and a toy cash register. AW assigned a value to each type of flower, from a penny up to a dollar, and I wrote the price and the name of the flower on an index card. Then they took turns "paying" for a flower each. AW had to find the card and tell me the price, using the initial sounds of the flower names to identify the correct card. Then I stepped back and let them use it for free play. Mostly they just liked the cash register toy, because it makes noise (I'd been drawn in by a cheap register at Wal-Mart and regret not getting the plain wooden one from IKEA).
We used conversation hearts to make patterns, practice attribute sorting, and make graphs. AW and I used the hearts cards from two decks of cards to play Hearts Memory (practicing numeral recognition). She really liked that game and played it a little by herself as well.
For sensory play, I made rose-scented pink playdough and we made heart "cookies," decorating them with white bean "sprinkles." Both kids love playdough, and it keeps them occupied for hours. She enjoyed counting out the beans as well.
We attempted making marbled paper with shaving cream and food coloring, and it took forever to dry but I think it's going to turn out alright.
That sums up all the AYOPS activities we've completed so far, but that's not all we did. We read fictional books about Groundhogs and Groundhog Day, and the kids watched Punxsatawney Phil on YouTube. The Ivy Box book this month was The Secret Birthday Message by Eric Carle, which involved a secret code of shapes. We studied geometric solids (cubes, prisms, spheres, etc), made shape collages, and learned to use geoboards (stretching rubber bands over pegs on a board to make shapes). The geoboards have been another popular item this month.
Finally, the kids are completely obsessed with puzzles, and I've been giving them unlimited puzzle building time. DC loves the 12 piece wooden Melissa and Doug jigsaw puzzles, while AW has been working on puzzles with up to 60 pieces. She's also done at least one continent puzzle with roughly country-shaped pieces. DC loves puzzles so much that he slept with his alphabet puzzle at nap time today.
Sometimes, I lose sight of my homeschool vision and worry that we aren't doing enough formal school. Then I remember that they are four and two, and they do something that blows me away, and I relax. DC's counting skills are incredible and he's starting to recognize letters. He's picking all that up from sister and from daily life, because we don't do any of that formally. He does have a series of Star Wars board books that cover counting, colors, and the alphabet, and I think that's having an impact. I know several homeschoolers whose core curriculum is "reading lots of good books," and I think there's good reason for that. We learn a lot from reading books as a family, and from discussions about science and social studies in the car, at the breakfast table, and throughout the day.
Note: You may notice a shortage of pictures this month, and it will likely continue over the next several months. Himself is using the camera for a time-lapse photography project: the construction of a new house next door. My phone, funnily enough, is a little less convenient for uploading photos to the blog. I do post on Instagram, although some of those photos are duplicates of those here.
Budgets have never been a strength of mine. I make nice detailed spreadsheets, and then struggle to stick with them. I tried the cash envelope method, but couldn't make it work with the amount of online shopping I do (even for groceries). Or, I'd think I was doing really well sticking to our grocery budget because the big once a week trip was under budget, but then realize that we were picking up little things throughout the week that ended up putting us way over budget.
But in August, I implemented a new system, and now that I've stuck to it for six months, I wanted to share. In the beginning, I slipped a couple of times, but I still had things more under control than previously. And now that I'm used to it, it's worked extremely well and I have been so much more thoughtful in my spending.
Himself and I have a joint account, but I also have my own bank account from when I was teaching. I've been using that as a household account now, so I can more easily keep track. Each month, Himself transfers me a certain sum of money to use to cover our expenses in areas where we tended to overspend. Here are the categories:
2. My personal spending
3. Kids wants and needs
4. Family fun money
My own paycheck goes into the account as well. Up to a certain amount is paid towards my business credit card debt in order to pay it off in a certain amount of time. Over that amount is a surplus that I can use for unexpected expenses. For example, this month I bought a reading curriculum that came up for a good price in a used curriculum group, and I wanted to jump on it without taking the time to save in the homeschool budget area. So, I used my surplus for it.
Ok, so categories are great. And paying for everything with a debit card forces me to pay closer attention. But what's really made a difference is my tracking method. I carry one of those spiral-bound 3 x 5 inch memo books in my wallet. Each month, I label a page for each category, as well as a page for my overall bank balance and my surplus amount. If there is a carryover amount from the previous month, I write that at the top of the page as well. That motivates me to try to save money from the previous month so I can see that I'm saving up for something like a big consignment sale for kids' clothes.
The other part that was tricky was being out and about and not wanting to take the time at the cash register to be writing everything down. So, I get a receipt for everything and tuck it in next to my notebook until I get home. In the evening, I sit down and take out my receipts and balance my little notebook. After I enter the information from a receipt, I mark it with a check mark and stick it on our receipt spike in the kitchen in case we need it for returns. I have a monthly habit tracker, and I put "financial check-in" as one of my daily habits to check off, and that's really helped me too. I usually check my bank account, just to make sure I didn't miss anything.
You'll notice that a lot of budgeting categories are missing, like gas, car maintenance, and housing costs. Himself still handles those out of the main account because those weren't our danger categories. Our biggest danger category was eating out. We felt like we weren't eating out often, but then it all added up and we had sticker shock when we analyzed our finances. We'd swear off eating out entirely, but then we'd be out and forget to bring food, or I'd end up not feeling well, and we didn't stick to it. Now, eating out comes out of the family fun money. I think it's important that we budget for it sometimes, because absolutes just don't work out well for our family. It really makes us weigh whether or not we actually want to eat out.
A little more about our categories: we used to just say that we had X amount of money left after all the bills, and that was our "extra." But because we weren't specifying what it was for, we'd end up feeling that necessities like kids' pajamas shouldn't come out of our "fun" money, and we'd end up going outside of our budget. Not good. While we were usually able to pay our credit card bill in full, we weren't saving as much money as we wished.
It's definitely changed the way I look at money and spending. We've also been talking about minimalism and sustainability, which ties in well with budget discussions. I've made two big purchases recently: a pair of Dansko shoes in January and a wool sweater in February. It meant having to say no to going out with friends in those months. But these were not idle impulse purchases. I'd been deliberating on the shoes since October. Many of my old pairs of shoes were wearing out at the same time. In the past, I would have run out to Payless and tried to pick up a couple of different pairs of shoes in a BOGO deal. But, I decided if I were going to spend my money, I wanted a pair of shoes that would last, be supportive, and replace multiple pairs of shoes at the same time. While I'm not a fashionista by any means, I do own a lot of shoes (more than I realized when I actually started piling them up). When I got home with my brand new expensive shoes, I threw away all the cheap shoes that were wearing out (no one would want to buy them secondhand). And I challenged myself to wear only the Danskos for going out and about. Funny thing: I forgot about the challenge. It just happened naturally. Since I bought my new shoes, I've only worn the Danskos, my hiking boots, my rain boots, and my farm sloggers.
What about the sweater? Well, I was running into a problem. Although this is my third baby, I've never been this pregnant in the winter before. I had a couple long sleeve shirts already, and then I bought a huge bag of winter maternity clothing for $50 back when I first found out I was pregnant. I liked the things in the bag, but the other woman obviously carried her babies differently. I need looooong shirts by the end of my pregnancy, rather than wide or roomy shirts. A lot of maternity shirts aren't even long enough, even if they are technically my size. Now, it's February and I'm due late April/early May. I didn't want to buy a ton of long sleeve maternity shirts in the right length. I didn't even want to buy a bunch of long non-maternity shirts from a fast fashion retailer. I'd seen this gorgeous wool cardigan at Duluth Trading Company when we went to exchange a shirt for Himself, and I'd been considering investing in more wool clothing next fall. It was a long cardigan and would fit over my pregnant belly, but still look good in future years. When I still thought about the sweater after several weeks, I decided to go for it. I could layer it with tshirts or even tank tops (it's not itchy wool), and it wouldn't get stinky like a cotton cardigan because it's wool, which has awesome anti-odor properties. When it went on sale, I decided it was worth the money. It's well made and has a lifetime guarantee, and is a classic design.
Why am I talking about two expensive purchases in a post about budgeting? Because of the following quotation from Terry Pratchett's Men at Arms:
“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”
In other words, the Danskos and the sweater are my fifty dollar boots. I also read this article this morning that really resonated with me:
"High-quality experiences or purchases that give lasting pleasure can stave off burnout and “frugal fatigue” that might otherwise cause people to abandon their money goals." While experiences create more pleasure than material things in most cases, certain purchases can give pleasure. In this case, I've been wearing the sweater and shoes daily. I've learned that the sweater is so warm that I can wear fewer layers in the winter (yay for less bulk!) and that the shoes are so comfortable that I have less pain. The satisfaction from these purchases is much higher than a fast fashion impulse buy of a cute top or dress that I don't really need. "Frugal fatigue" is a real struggle for me, and this budgeting system has worked well to stave that off.
One final note: people use to write checks and balance checkbooks all the time, or pay with cash and know how much they had in their wallets. I think a lot of this used to be common sense, even though there have always been people who struggled with money. But I think in modern society, money changes hands so quickly and intangibly that it's difficult to keep track of spending. This 2011 piece in the Chicago Tribune explains:
"When it comes to credit cards, it's well established in the field of behavioral economics that people who use plastic are unconsciously willing to spend more than those who pay with cash, a phenomenon known as the "credit card premium." That's because there's an emotional pain associated with handing over hard currency that curbs spending, as opposed to mindless purchasing when forking over plastic." And I'm sure that online spending is even more slippery, because you don't even have to physically hand something to a cashier. But I can tell you, doing daily subtraction problems from my bank account (as opposed to just checking to see how much money is in there) does make me aware of whether or not a purchase was a good idea. Now that I've gotten used to that feeling, it's easier when I'm out and about or even shopping online. My Amazon cart has been under constant revision for the past week while I try to prioritize several things that I "need." That's a lot better than the one-click buying that has become so easy in our modern shopping era.
Himself proposed to me just over nine years ago, and our ninth wedding anniversary is this September. I'm not going to say we have all the secrets of a great marriage figured out, but we are in a pretty good place, and I wanted to share something we've found helpful for our particular season of life.
Pretty much all the marriage advice out there includes something about date nights with your partner, especially if you have kids. And in fact, I know some folks who are able to have weekly or monthly nights out.
It's hard to believe we are already into February, especially since I keep putting 2016 as the year on my billing hours for work. Oops! Maybe this month I'll finally remember what year it is.
I had a couple of New Year's Resolutions. They are little things that are intended to improve my life, rather than "self-improvement." Here they are:
1. Go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 6am (which is revised to 7am depending on how well I sleep that night). I'm not a night owl. I don't feel good the next day. And going to bed early enough to wake up at 6am gives me a little bit of lead time on the kiddos in the morning, which is key to peaceful and positive parenting for me.
2. Read for pleasure 15 minutes per day. I'm happier when I read books, and self-care is important. I'm up and down on this one so far, but keeping it on my daily to-do list has definitely made it more of a priority in my day.
3. Read aloud to the kids every day. Sometimes it doesn't happen, and that's ok, but it's also always on the list.
4. Make my bed and empty the dishwasher. It's funny, for years I fell in the "why make the bed" camp. After all, I'm barely in my room during the day, and at the end of the day, I just fall in. But now, AW and I cuddle on the bed for bedtime stories, and it's much nicer to come into a tidy bed for that activity. Plus, it is easier to get into a made bed than a messy one. And it does help me feel like I accomplished ONE thing for the day. It's hard to do it when I'm the first one out of bed because I don't always come back to our room, but I try to get to it before bedtime. Granted, I don't make it very tidy--I just straighten everything up. And emptying the dishwasher isn't just for me: Himself's love language is Acts of Service, and when I asked him what one thing I could do for him every day, he asked me to unload the dishwasher so he wouldn't have to do it when he does dishes in the evening. It's an easy enough thing to do--in fact, many times this month he beat me to it. Either way, the dishwasher is unloaded before we eat dinner.
There are a few other habits I'm working on, using a habit tracking sheet, but those are the biggies.
Now, onto school:
I mentioned in a previous post that our theme this month was winter and hibernation. We made Hibearnation Cupcakes. AW made a yellow cake batter and then layered teddy grahams inside the cupcakes like they were hiding inside the cave. She made green and white icing for the top, so some would be grassy and some would be snowy. DC helped by taste testing. We also made graham cracker bear dens, and used vegetable shortening to explore how fat keeps animals warm in cold environments. We read a lot of books about hibernation, including how some animals store nuts for the winter, and turned nut sorting into a math activity. At the science center this month, the kids made "snow" out of polymers.
We also did some art projects, visited the science center, and played with friends. We've joined up with a preschool outdoor group called the Traveling Acorns, which gets us outside every other Monday. (I think I've mentioned them before). It's a great chance for DC to hang out with a crowd of little boys his age. You can also see AW and DC working on little books: we started out making hibernation books, but then they got into the idea of making books and just drew pictures in their own little books. They did a little bit of letter work this month, at AW's request. She is begging to start kindergarten, so we throw in a little bit of workbook activity here and there. In math this month, we rolled dice and counted Legos to build structures. Counting has become a favorite activity for both kids, and you can tell they love to practice because they are getting really good at it!
I've started to think about what I want the next school year to look like, and talking to AW about what she wants too. We have to file paperwork with the district for the first time this summer, and we are deferring kindergarten status for a year. This gives us flexibility if we ever decide to put her into public school. But we will likely call next year "kindergarten" for her, because she's itching to start and technically old enough. She really wants to learn to read, so I'm weighing the pros and cons of starting a more formal reading program with her. Even though I was a teacher, basic phonics instruction is not my strength, so I don't feel up to doing it from scratch. Plus, there's going to be a new baby in the mix. She has a lot of the building blocks already, so I'm leaning towards moving forwards with a formal program in the fall. I'm looking at a couple that are engaging and fun, as well as solid educationally.
I'm envisioning more time at home, actually, especially in the mornings. DC needs more break times at home so he doesn't get too over stimulated with other kids, and we need time to sit down and be a family as well as do school. I think a lot of that will happen naturally as we incorporate a new infant into our lives, with a brand new (and often changing!) sleep schedule.
We've also talked about when to end "formal" instruction for this school year. It looks like I'll go as close as I can to having this baby (late April, early May) and then we will take it easy. Himself will take the kids to the science center while he's on paternity leave, but I think mostly we will just adapt to being a family of five instead of a family of four.