Monday, January 30, 2012

8 Smart Ways to Spend Your Tax Refund

Photo credit: LeoSynapse
Yep - it's that time of year. Some people are itching to do their taxes, wanting the refund they deserve. Others are more cautious, either not knowing the outcome of their tax form calculations, or knowing they will be sending a check to the beloved IRS.

Some people will argue the ins and outs of whether you should try to get a refund each year or try to balance it as to not loan the government money interest free.

I get it. But we're not going to have that argument here and now. Right now we're just going to discuss what to do with the money that some of us will be getting back (I will!).
  1. Start or Bolster an Emergency Fund:  If you don't have any type of emergency fund, this should be the first step you take with this money.  How much to put into your beginning emergency fund is up to you.  I am a follower of Dave Ramsey's teachings, so I'd say $1000 if you have debt (to cover  small emergencies) or 4-6 months of spending if you have no debt.  This would be a great place to use this windfall. 
  2. Pay Down Debt:  If you are covered on the beginning emergency fund, throw that bad boy at your debt. It's a great way to make a big stride in paying down debt. There's nothing like seeing a much smaller balance after that check is sent. Successes like this one can motivate you on for months more.
  3. Save for Retirement:  What a great way to go ahead and toss some money at your Roth IRA.  You might be able to cover all of your annual contribution allowance if your refund is enough. What a peace of mind this would give you to already have this covered!
  4. Children's Education: Look into socking this away into an education fund for your children.  There are a number of different way to do this and since I'm not a financial advisor, I will not tell you the best way to do it.  There are plenty of people out there that can help you though, and this is a conversation worth having. 
  5. Fund a Purchase: If you've been fighting the uphill battle of debt or if you've been looking for a way to live on cash alone, this money might be just what you need to afford something you've been hoping for. Whether it is a good used car that will allow you to get out from under a new car payment (and the accompanying new car insurance) or some furniture that your house actually needs, using cash will not only give you the freedom of paying without credit card interest, but you might likely be able to swing a better deal if you can pay cash upfront!
  6. Donate it:  If you are blessed enough to not have anywhere in particular that you need to put this, why not bless someone else with it?  Give it to your favorite local charity or sponsor someone on a mission trip.  Not only will you have the joy of helping someone else with this money, but you'll be able to count it as a deduction next year!
  7. Go on a Mission Trip Yourself: If you have the drive to help others but can't typically shell out the money needed for a trip, use your tax refund and sign up through your church for a trip to - well, wherever they are going. You will get some hands-on experience of serving others, but you might just change a life or two (including your own!). 
  8. Splurge: This is the last way you could spend your money, but ONLY if you are in a good place in all of the above items. I don't mean that you feel okay about spending when you have debt.  I mean you have no debt, you have a full emergency fund, you live within your means, you have nothing that needs to be purchased with cash and you feel good about your giving.  Then - and only then - should you buy that next larger TV, or that new laptop, or that family vacation.  Yep - make sure you are financially secure before splurging.  But once you are, SPEND AWAY!  It's your money! =) 
What will you be doing with your tax refund?  Are you having to pay in instead? 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Our Harry Potter Party - Treats from Honeydukes

This is the last post in our Harry Potter birthday party series.  I hope you've enjoyed it almost as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you.  Check out the previous post here

You know what I dislike about birthday parties?  Treat bags.  I know, they are a nice gesture, but too often they are just that - a gesture.  Filled with plastic crap that is themed with the party, most of it goes in the trash can as soon as we get home. I hate to be that honest, but it is true - at least at our house.

I was convinced that I did not want that for our kids' goody bags.  I try to buy things that will not be discarded immediately and continued that theme with this party as well.

I decided that only a few items would be in the goody bags to start out with, but the kids could "shop" at Honeydukes sweet shop at the end of the party and load their goody bags up with candy and treats to take home (you're welcome, parents). It was a fun way to wrap up the theme without buying licensed HP stuff that would be tossed soon.

Although my intentions were to make these goody bags (once again, thanks Pinterest), it didn't happen. I did think they were an awesome idea and not terribly hard to do, so I wanted to share them with you!

Instead, I just gave them the brown paper bags and let them shop.  The bags only had a couple of items already in them, but those items I do want to share with you.

I found inexpensive HP glasses here for far cheaper than anywhere else! They took a little while to ship, but well worth the cost of since most of the others I found were $5 a piece!

I also put in some other random (child-appropriate) pins that I got from skycouture (who also made the house pins the kids were wearing).  Unfortunately while writing this post I discovered that she is no longer a etsy shop owner. So if I were you, I would search on etsy because there are several others who make these types of pins and most etsians are great people and easy to work with.

I ordered some HP-ish soaps from an etsian who is no longer on etsy, but look around, as there are many great soap makers on there. I chose a mix of owls, brooms, wizard hats, and frogs. What fun - and they're practical too.

And for those who wanted them - dark mark tattoos.  I couldn't resist.

Other than these items, the bags were to be filled by the kids by visiting Honeydukes (sign available for your use here).  Their choices of treats were
  • Giant Lollipops (from Dollar Tree)
  • Chocolate Frogs (mold here)
  • Licorice Wands (dip the ends of Twizzlers in white chocolate to make a "handle")
  • Lemon Drops (Dumbledore's favorite Muggle candy)
  • Fudge Flies (mix rice krispies and melted chocolate. Spread on wax paper to dry in tiny/bite-sized pieces)
  • Drooble's Best Blowing Gum (gumballs)
  • Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans (I just used jelly beans, but you can order the real thing from JellyBelly here)
  • Acid Pops (roll sour blow pops in pop rocks - do it just before serving or the rocks will lose their "pop")
  • Peppermint Toads (same mold as chocolate frogs but use white chocolate or vanilla and peppermint extract)
  • Jelly Slugs (gummy worms)
  • Cockroach clusters (melt chocolate, chow mein noodles and peanuts and drop onto wax paper)
  • Broomstick Candy
  • Considered Pretzel Wands (same as licorice wands but with pretzel sticks) but didn't do it. 
I made tent cards (download here) with each candy's name on it to let people know what they were shopping for. Using a variety of glass jars (some borrowed and some purchased), Honeydukes was established.

They were then allowed to shop to their own desires. The kids thought the names were disgusting and that was a lot of fun for them (especially the boys!). 

And that was that.  End of party. All exhausted. So much fun.

I hope I can live up to this one next year!

If you want some more ideas, I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to Harry Potter party ideas. Some I used and some I didn't but you might find something PERFECT for yours!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Our Harry Potter Party - Games

We're almost done with our Harry Potter party series (see previous post here), but we do need to discuss the games that were played. It was a lot of fun.

I intended on having a game of Stomp the Dementors (scroll down to games - you'll probably see lots of other great ideas here), which would have been a way for the kids to run about and let off some of that sugared-up energy, but leading up to the party I ran out of time and didn't have time to create the dementors.

So we just let them run about like crazy little creatures and play with their wands for a little while.  This was a lot of fun for them and a great way to just let them be as creative as they want.

Beware a tiny one with a wand!

After that, we had a Horcrux Hunt.  This was my second most proud moment of creativity for this party (following the Potions class).  A basic scavenger hunt, I wanted to create a Horcrux hunt that would look for the items as the story unfolded.  We were looking for the diary, a ring, a locket, a cup, a diadem (or crown), a lightning bolt, and a snake.

Of course I found a few suggestions for wording for the scavenger hunt, but I'm terribly picky and wanted the hunt to not only make sense in our yard and where I could hide the items, but I wanted it to tell the story of the Horcruxes without giving away any/many spoilers.  So I set my pen to paper and wrote some poetic clues.  In the end, I was quite proud of them.

Here is the wording I came up with.

Voldemort first tempted a girl named Ginny
With his own diary, its mysteries were many.
To find out its secrets, its key to unlock,
You can look in a place where you would sit and rock.

The next one was found by old Dumbledore.
It poisoned his hand when this ring he wore.
But how to destroy it? One of the unknowns.
Now go find Gaunt’s Ring among the stones.

Another – a locket – guarded by a house elf,
Who was true to his master in spite of himself.
It got passed around by two or three.
Slytherin’s locket is hiding up in a tree.

Three friends found the next one inside a bank vault.
They made a huge mess, but it wasn’t their fault.
Getting help from a dragon, they fell on their tushes.
Helga Hufflepuff’s cup shines inside our front bushes.

The lost diadem is quite a lovely crown.
Trying to find and destroy it almost burned the school down.
In a giant pile of stuff it nearly was buried,
But you’ll find it in a place where our mail is carried.

The next horcrux made was the Dark Lord’s mistake.
Harry faced trading his life for its sake.
He meets up with Voldemort, the tension grows.
Go find a lightning bolt stored with our hose.

To end this great hunt a snake had to die.
A new hero rose, courage shone in his eye.
Could this be real? Would peace be restored?
Go find Nagini taped to the front door.

The hunt is now over. The seeking is done.
All horcruxes are found, I hope you had fun.
One more activity and the party is complete.
Go inside the house and “shop” for some sweets.

You can print this out for yourself here, but unless you have the same places to hide them that I did, I don't know if it will help you much.

As each Horcrux was found, I would read the next clue while everyone looked for it at the same time.  It wasn't a competition and anyone could find them.  It was just fun for them to look.

Found the diadem in the mailbox!
While the Horcrux Hunt was going on, I had my house elves spouse and friends inside setting up Honeydukes for a shopping extravaganza. Come back tomorrow to check that out!

If you want some more ideas, I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to Harry Potter party ideas. Some I used and some I didn't but you might find something PERFECT for yours!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Our Harry Potter Party - Food

This is a continuation of the Harry Potter birthday series.  See the previous post here

So after sorting, wands, owls, and potions, it was time to eat.

For the cake, I considered a number of things, which you can find on my Pinterest board.

In the end, we went with the cake that would duplicate the first one Hagrid gave Harry when he turned 11 and learned he was a wizard.  It was a chocolate cake with chocolate icing and "Happee Birthdae Patrick" written on it (to duplicate Hagrid's spelling). The great thing is, the cake was terribly ugly in the movie so your piping (or icing) skills don't have to be great! Score!

I'm rather sad that I didn't get a good picture of the cake, but here is an idea.

In addition to cake, we had some standard goodies - cake truffles (which I love), chips, fruit, and the like.

I did provide Butterbeer sorbet that was interesting and surprisingly tasty for those daring enough to try it (yes, it is kid friendly).

A bit hit with the kids was the drinks.  I provided water, Sprite, Capri Sun (which are mostly clear or light colored), and White Grape juice.  Using the fun I found on Pinterest (where else?), we had amazing color-changing drinks. Of course not an option if you have someone who can't have food coloring, but otherwise, it will blow the kids' minds!

Then it was time to run off some of that sugar! Outside we went!

If you want some more ideas, I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to Harry Potter party ideas. Some I used and some I didn't but you might find something PERFECT for yours!  Get the details about the games we played here!.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Our Harry Potter Party - Potions Class

As a continuation of our Harry Potter party series (see previous post here), I wanted to talk to you about my favorite part of the whole affair - The Potions Class.

Let me start by saying that I have the most awesome husband on earth. Seriously.

Not only does he like Harry Potter (almost as much as Patrick and I do), but he has a bit of a man-crush on Alan Rickman's character of Severus Snape (sorry sweetie - but you really can't deny it).

So for this party and the soon-to-follow Halloween, I purchased him a Snape costume on ebay. We also bought a witch wig at Walmart and trimmed it to be about the right length. The wig was cheap (and it looked like it), but it worked well for what we needed.

My Snape and my Harry.

So this was the most fun for most of the kids and adults.

The Potions class was set up in the garage. I gathered a number of glass bottles and containers and stored various liquids and greenery found in our neighborhood in them and labeled them with Potterish names including those to be used in the potions class and demonstrations. We also purchased some dry ice, which we found at Kroger for $5 for a 5 pound bag (this was approaching Halloween, I have no idea if they normally have it).

And this sign was my favorite of all of the ones I made (and here it is for you to have). 

I spent lots and lots and lots of time scouring the internet for potions class ideas and do-at-home science experiments that could be done with ease but would seriously impress the kids.   I was able to use potions from The Leaky Cauldron It's the LifeDirt and Sunshine, and Lemonade.  You can find even more (that I didn't use but really considered) at My Harry Potter PartyHarry Potter Birthday Party, and lots more at The Leaky Cauldron. Once I found them, I modified the ones that needed to be Potter-fied (you like that, don't you?) and created a Potions Handbook for the kids and a Potions Master Handbook for my Snape using fonts found on Mugglenet and the same parchment used for signs and invitations. They neatly folded into a booklet that the kids were allowed to take home.

The Potions Student Handbook had all of the experiments potions that the kids would participate in.  I also included an ingredients list so the kids could take them home and do them with their parents help if they wanted to (yes, a little science lesson to go home with you).  It included the following potions
  • Exploding Filibusters - A huge hit, as everyone likes an "explosion."
  • Dancing Unicorn Milk - Another regular chemistry project that was "Potter-fied" by changing the ingredients' names.
  • Exploding Elixir - Lots of bubbly fun.
  • Fleeing Spiders - I was quite proud of the explanation I came up with what this experiment is about. It's really all about surface tension, but adding the element of spiders and basilisk venom makes it very Chamber of Secrets-ish.
  • Mandrake Restorative Draught - An actual potion from the books. This one is impressive because of the color change that the kids don't see coming. Requires a tiny bit of prep work, but well worth it for the looks on their faces!
The Potions Master Handbook had those items that the kids would only watch.  One was a density column and some dealt with dry ice (little hands OFF). It included the following Potions:
  • Magic Mud - this is fantastic stuff to play with!
  • Wormwood Comes to Life - I actually researched HP potions ingredients to come up with a way to work in dry ice
  • Screaming Spoons - I extended the explanation I gave for the dry ice potion ingredient to this potion as well.
  • Liquid Enemies - This is just a chemistry lesson on density. However, it looks really cool, so I wanted to make it into a Potions lesson. So I renamed the ingredients, came up with a Latin spell to speak over it, and voila! Such fun!
 And yes...I'm sharing both the Potions Student Handbook and the Potions Master Handbook with you now. Hooray!

Here are some pictures of the kids and the fun from the Potions class.

If you want some more ideas, I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to Harry Potter party ideas. Some I used and some I didn't but you might find something PERFECT for yours! Tomorrow we'll cover the food and drinks!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Our Harry Potter Party - Sorting, Wands, and the Owlry

As a continuation in our Harry Potter party series (see part 1 here), today we will look at the sorting "ceremony," the wands and the owlry.

So I couldn't have a Harry Potter party without sorting the kids into houses. This would really have no bearing on them during the party.  We didn't play any games where we separated them into houses or anything, but just did it for fun.

When each guest walked in the door (parents too if they wanted), they were met with our sorting table.  This was a tiny cauldron that I found at a thrift store (luckily this was around Halloween, so these items are easy to find).  Inside the cauldron were pins with each of the house crests on them.  I found them on etsy.  There were a few etsians who offered similar pins, but the one I chose no longer is on etsy. =(  So just search around etsy. There are many of other great creators on there still!

So anyway...they reached into the cauldron and pulled out a pin and attached it to their shirts. 

In addition to a pin, they also picked up a sorting card that told them something about their houses.  These were created by me and I LOVED the result (if you let me brag on them for a moment).  They include the house crest, name, the sorting hat rhyme about the house from Harry's first year, basic info about each house, and a list of famous wizards/witches from that house. I thought these would be cool to tell the kids (or parents) about the house they were chosen for. And I am gladly sharing those cards with you now.  There is no reason that someone else would have to do the work to create these again, so here they are for download and use!

After the guests were sorted, they proceeded to Ollivanders to receive their wand. Against Ollivander's words though, we let the witches and wizards choose their own wands. They were created using this awesome tutorial that I found via (guess where) Pinterest.  They are made from paper and glue. That's it! Everyone loved them!

If you need a sign for your Ollivanders, you can print this one out.  I created this and printed it on the same parchment that I used for the invitations.

We ordered these awesome unglazed ceramic owls and had them out for the kids to decorate.  I provided markers because I didn't want to get into the mess of paint since these were younger kids. Paint would look nicer and be more permanent though. It was a hit and they each loved decorating their own owl to take home. Some even named them!

You can of course, name your owl station Eyelops Owl Emporium (like the books), but we kept it simply with Owlry.  There are two sign options you can have if you'd like. Here and here.

I also want to note that a few of our guests showed up in costume.

Of course our little Harry

Actually quite unintentional, but we thought Patrick and his buddy made a great Harry and Ron.

Our party's Luna
If you want some more ideas, I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to Harry Potter party ideas. Some I used and some I didn't but you might find something PERFECT for yours!  Tomorrow we'll cover the incredible potions class!