Monday, September 29, 2008

Smart charitable giving

How do you decide which charities to donate to? You don't want to donate your hard-earned money to a charity that spends 30% of it's revenue on fund-raising and 20% on executive salaries. You want to make sure your money is going to the cause you're trying to support.

I like the Charity Navigator website. They have analyzed over 5,000 charities and provided ratings based on things like % of money spent on fund-raising and administrative costs. They also let you search on charities based on categories, like animals or the environment, so you can find a charity that matches your interests.

Using Charity Navigator with your child is a good opportunity to teach about charitable giving and decision making. Let your child find and donate to a charity that matches his or her interests. Talk about your charitable giving philosophy and practices, and help your child develop a philosophy of his or her own.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Does your employer support the environment?

I'm very lucky to work at a company that cares about environmental sustainability. They demonstrate this with programs for commute alternatives, recycling, reducing paper waste, saving energy, etc. If your company doesn't have a sustainability program yet, maybe you can help start one. These types of programs can improve employee morale and contribute to a healthier bottom line.
You can start small. What happens to all the soda cans and plastic water bottles from your work? If they're going into the regular trash, talk to your facilities group about a recycling program.
I'd love to hear from others about ideas for a sustainable work place.

Stop the junk mail

With the holidays coming up, you can expect your mailbox to start filling up with catalogs. Some retailers will send you new versions of their catalog weekly starting around Halloween. It's not too late to get off some mailing lists for this year. If you want to help the environment, or you just want less clutter arriving at your home daily, go to and indicate the catalogs you no longer want to receive. It takes several weeks for the catalogs to stop coming, but once they do, you'll notice the difference. The nice thing about this system is that YOU choose what you want to stop receiving, so if there's a particular catalog you like, you can continue to receive that one.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Best family vacation grades 5-7

By far our best family vacation when our kids were in the 10-12 age group was Washington DC. Kids study the American Revolution and the basics of the government system during this time, so you get a nice tie-in with what they're learning in school.

The Smithsonian museums and the monuments are free, and public transportation in the DC area is very convenient, so this can also be a reasonably priced vacation considering all you can do.

The trick is to make sure your hotel is near one of the subway stops and to pack your lunch. While the museums are free, you can easily blow $50 on a mediocre lunch for 4 at the museum cafes.

We combined our Washington DC trip with a side-trip to Colonial Williamsburg, which was also great fun and a learning experience. We participated in a lantern-lit ghost story tour and a mock trial.

My son thanked me for bringing him to DC and said it was his favorite trip ever. A mom just can't ask for more than that.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Watch what you want - instantly

I have a new favorite product. My husband bought the Roku to use with Netflix so we can instantly download and watch movies and TV shows. Wow! This is great and worth the cost. The Roku costs about $100 and the instant downloads are free if you already have a Netflix subscription.  I'm betting this will be on a lot of gift lists this holiday season. I wonder if supply will keep up with demand or if this will be like Wii Fit, another of my favorites.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Prius vs. Civic Hybrid

My family owns a Prius and a Civic Hybrid. I'm often asked which car I prefer. Overall, I'd have to say the Prius. It's more comfortable and the hatchback gives a lot more options in terms of hauling things around.

That said, I can't stand the Prius' push button starter. We have the bare-bones model so we don't get the benefit of being able to leave the giant square key in the pocket. So, we have the hassle of remembering a non-intuitive start-up and parking sequence, with none of the benefit. I also hate the shifter. I feel like the design of the startup, shift, and park mechanisms were more about being cool and different and less about usability. I've had this car for almost 10 months, and I still have to think about how to start it each time I get in it.

Making "Green" part of your family life

Taking care of the environment is a factor in dozens of little choices every day. Do you make a special trip to the store when you want just one thing? Do you buy bottled water or buy a refillable water bottle? You can engage your children in these choices and help them learn to be green too.

Ask your kids questions to get them thinking about it. "Is it better to use a paper plate and throw it away or use a dish that you're going to have to wash?" "Is it better to use a paper towel or a sponge to clean up a mess?" What are the resources used in each option? If they don't know, can they find the answer on the Internet?

My kids are exceedingly aware of the price of gas. We have two Hybrids (a subject for another post). My kids are always pointing out the big SUVs and trucks on the road as gas guzzlers and talking about how much those families probably pay for each trip. They especially love to point out the 7-passenger cars with just one person in them.

Get your kids to think about the tradeoffs. If it costs us $40 less than that SUV driver to get to the City, we can buy pizza for dinner with the money we saved.

By bringing up green issues and making them a part of my kids everyday conversations, I'm hoping the message is sinking in and that they'll use this heightened awareness in their decisions even when I'm not around.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Great TV for Older Kids?

My kids and I often watch MythBusters together. It's got enough explosions and gross things to keep the kids interested while they learn about science. It's interesting enough for adults to watch, and I often learn things, too.

For action shows, my family enjoys "Eureka", "Chuck", "Reaper", and "Burn Notice".

For reality shows, we like "Deadliest Catch" and "Dirty Jobs".

What other shows are out there that you'd recommend for family viewing at Jr. High and High School ages?

Creating a Will or Living Trust

One way to protect your family and your assets is to create a Will and / or a Living Trust.

The links above offer advice, ideas, and simple tools that you can use to create your own Will or Living Trust - or you can always hire a lawyer.

If you already have a Will and you haven't reviewed it in a while, get it out and go through it again to see if you want to change it based on any new situations in your life. If you revise your Will, be sure to shred and throw away the old one.

Once you have your Will and/or your Living Trust in place, make sure your executor knows exactly where you keep the documents - preferably in a locked, fireproof safe to which the executor has a spare key.

Giving back to society is fun and easy

And, it can even make you smarter. How can this be, you might ask? Check out FreeRice a site where you play a vocabulary game and each time you get the answer right, FreeRice donates rice to the UN World Food Program. The more you play, the more food is donated and the better your vocabulary becomes. It's a win-win-win situation. This is a great opportunity to talk to your children about how to contribute to the greater good.

The game is set up to handle many different levels so even young children can play. As your kids get into this game, you can use it as a jumping off point to brainstorm with them about other ways they might be able to help the less fortunate. If you've never talked about starvation in 3rd world countries, this can help you start that conversation.

What are you doing to make your children more aware of charitable opportunities?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Getting your teens to talk

When you ask your child how his day was, do you get one word answers like "Fine"? Try asking open ended questions such as, "What was the best (or worst) thing that happened to you at school this week?" Instead of "Are you done with your homework?" ask a question like, "What interesting homework assignments or projects do you have coming up?" If you ask an open ended question, you're much more likely to get an answer that can start a conversation.

It also helps to make it a two-way street. Be sure to talk to your kids about what's going on at work or in your life - especially as they get older.

Does anyone else have any conversation starting tricks, especially for tweens and teens?

Monday, September 8, 2008

How safe are you, your family, and your stuff?

I started watching this great show "It Takes a Thief" on Discovery channel a few months ago. It made me realize that with a few quick and easy changes to our routine and our house, we could be a lot more secure. Plus, it's just fun to watch.

Parenting book recommendation

When my kids were 3 and 5, I got "1-2-3 Magic" based on a recommendation from a family counselor. It has been so helpful over the years. My kids are older now and very well behaved. I credit this book for giving me practical advice to help us have a harmonious family life.

If you're interested, you can check it out here:

1-2-3 Magic

Carpool Confusion

I have two children that each belong to multiple carpools and it was driving me crazy trying to keep track of the different schedules. I have been using Google Calendar for the last year or so to organize our carpool schedules and to share them with other parents we carpool with. This has been going pretty well, but it doesn't have very sophisticated notification. A new service I just found seems like it might fit the bill. Check out if you're looking for a free carpool organizer that notifies you when plans change.