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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): July 2007

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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Location: United States

After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Prepping for that next Deployment

Being a military wife means dealing with the deployment of your military spouse. There is just no way around it. Prepare yourself ahead of time, and the transition to when he's gone will be much easier. I have talked to many women myself, who were unsure of themselves before their husbands left, and then found that later, they were empowered, more self-confident and ready to tackle the world! Follow this checklist below to make sure you've got all your ducks in a row.

Daily Life

  • Start thinking NOW what you want to do while he is gone. You need to stay busy and focused on something that you can really get involved in whether it is a job, hobby or volunteering, anything that will keep your mind and body active and won't give you time to sit around all day and be depressed; research has shown that if you are committed to helping others, you don't have a lot of time to worry about yourself
  • If you have kids, make sure you stick with a routine! Kids thrive on a routine! Don't go changing their life around by staying up late, eating out all the time and dragging them around everywhere; give them some structure, get them involved in activities and encourage them to play with their friends (or playdates with other kids and their moms)
  • Regularly get together with other military wives; we used to do a once-a-week potluck together, and it gave us a chance to unwind and to talk to other wives going through the same thing
  • Evenings are always the worst for me, as you have time to think and feel sorry for yourself; it's okay to sleep on his side of the bed or to wear his shirt or anything else that would make you feel comfortable; I would try to read a nice book or watch a funny movie to keep my mind occupied until I felt too tired to go on (but with that being said, don't stay up too late!)

  • Decide now who will be in charge of the finances; it really needs to be one person, and it's better it's the person who stays behind; I've always run the finances in our family, and my husband prefers it that way; just make sure your spouse is familiar with your system of where everything is and use our Billpaying checklist so anyone will know how and when to pay your bills
  • Use an online billpaying service and make the bills that have set amounts every month pay automatically; when I get bills in the mail, I go online that day and set up that particular bill to be paid and then file the bill away; you only end up handling it once and don't have papers laying around everywhere
Military Stuff

  • Make sure you know how to download your husband's LES (paycheck) from the website; you can then quickly check what's going on if you have to and make sure he is getting what he is supposed to be getting
  • Attend the pre-deployment briefing your unit will offer before deployment; I can't tell you the number of times husbands forget to tell their wives or wives just don't show up; it is SO IMPORTANT you get the information that they will give out to help you! Demand that your husband tell you when it is
  • Carry the phone numbers and contact information for the Rear Detachment to your husband's unit; this is a group of soldiers, one high ranking, who stay behind specifically to be there for you; I've seen rear detachment folks change out wives' flat tires, make arrangements for a broken washer and also steer wives in the right direction when they have questions or issues; they are there for you, use them!

  • Know when all your vehicle registrations, renewals and the like are due; make sure all your vehicles have base/post stickers
  • Know where all your important documents are located and make sure you both have wills, powers of attorney and advanced directives (you can get all this done for free at your post's legal office); make an appointment now
  • Make sure your spouse's DD 93 is up-to-date; it's a record of emergency data and let's the military know who to contact should something happen as well as some other important information
  • Make sure your husband's life insurance, SGLI is up-to-date; this is his life insurance through the military; I have actually witnessed TWICE where a soldier did not update this and their ex-wife got all the proceeds when something happened to the soldier


  • Give an extra set of car and house keys to someone you trust
  • Especially if you have younger children, get in the habit of making contact with a friend or family member on the phone, just so everyone knows you are okay; Before I did this, I always had a fear that if something happened to me, who would know about it and would my kids be okay? This works great if both of you are military spouses; you can then check on each other
  • Always have the phone number for the Red Cross onhand; make sure your spouse's parents and your parents have it too; if you or his family have an emergency, the American Red Cross can then quickly notify your spouse's unit, who will get the message through to him; also have the Rear Detachment's numbers with you too; make sure your neighbor has these as well
  • Every post or base has some kind of family support center; find out now where it is and what types of programs or services they may have for you as a spouse; I know our local support center once set up a satellite link where we could come in on a pre-arranged date/time to see and talk with our husbands; it was great!
  • Get involved with your unit's family readiness group; EVERY unit has one and must maintain one; they frequently have fun get togethers for the spouses and children, offer support and guidance and usually hold monthly meetings for spouses; this is the single best way to find out what is going on in your husband's unit and gives you an opportunity to meet and befriend other wives in the unit; I have made some of my best friends here!; you will also find fun volunteer opportunities to keep you busy
  • I also like to make up a list of emergency numbers and post it on my refrigerator; I teach my children how to use the list and the phone; I even have the number to Poison Control handy at 1-800-222-1222 and have actually used it twice myself (I found out eating a whole tube of toothpaste is not the emergency I thought it was!)
If you follow these basic steps, your transition will be so much easier! It also lets your spouse know, that you've got things under control on the homefront. Do you have anything to add? Let's hear it!

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Preserving and Taming Your Childrens' Artwork

It's impossible for me to imagine getting rid of any piece of my child's artwork! It just seems so unmotherly (is that a word?) to throw something away my child worked so hard on! I have gleefully come up with a solution though..

Throughout the school year, I will dutifully hang up a piece or two on the refrigerator, then photograph it and store it away in a see-through plastic bin under our bed. Each child has his own bin.

At the end of the year, I sit down with each of the boys and go through the artwork. We like to pick two or three pieces and set them aside. These will be the ones that find permanent residence in the bin. Put a paper on top of that stack and designate the timeframe. I like to put the grade and year down. Then close the bin until you repeat this exercise the next year.

Now, we are not done yet. Remember those photos you took? You are going to get them printed out as photos. You are going to purchase one of those small three ring binder photo albums. Then insert a photo into each slot, in the order they were taken and grouped by year. For each new year, annotate that on the front of the slot with one of those metallic craft markers (you can find these at any craft store; they usually come in gold or silver and work great for signing Christmas cards too BTW). Use the silver marker, as it shows up better on the plastic sleeve. Do you know my kids still get out these albums and enjoy thumbing through the pages?

If you happen to have any really stellar artwork examples, there is one other option. This makes a great Christmas gift for the grandparents. Our elementary school actually set this up for us through a site called Art To Remember. They take your child's artwork and put it on a magnet, cup, calendar, and a variety of other things...your choice. You don't have to wait for the school to set this up for you though (but you might want to pass on this resource). Get it done yourself through many of the online shops doing this kind of work, such as Cafe Press which allows you to upload whatever photos you want. You then put those photos on t-shirts, cups, cards and a slew of other household objects.

At Christmas time, I also like to showcase our children's artwork. I typically group all Christmas-related artwork into one of my holiday decoration bins. 3M makes this wonderful double-sided stick tape that can be used to temporarily hang lightweight objects on your wall. I like to frame one of our kitchen windows with a collage of our childrens' holiday artwork through the years. They enjoy it almost as much as I do, and we like to sit at the breakfast table and comment on the pieces. Children have an amazing memory and can give you the scoop on almost every art project up there!

Please take the time to share some of your ideas! What do you do in your family to preserve and remember your children's artwork?

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

No More Picky Eaters!

Back in the old days, I used to be one of the ones who catered to my kids’ eating habits…whatever the little ones wanted, they got. You know, cooking two meals at dinner, stocking the freezer full of chicken nuggets…that kind of thing. I finally realized this was teaching them nothing about life, plus it set them up for a lifetime of the “gimmes” and continuing issues with food.

I finally solved it, or at least put a huge dent in it by following the tips below.

  • There will be ONE meal cooked for dinner; do allow the kids to pick some of their favorites they want you to cook throughout the week, but by no means have them run the show
  • If there is something they don’t like or don’t want to try, they MUST try one bite (that goes for all the adults too); if not, they will sit there til bedtime (reheat it if you have to in the microwave) and if they are still sitting there, they get a privilege taken away

  • Do not force the “clean your plate” routine, as it can set a kid up on the path of eating disorders; give them a reasonable amount of food for their age (seconds are okay) and expect them to eat most of it

  • If they didn’t eat their meal to your satisfaction, there will be no dessert and more importantly, no bowl of cereal or snack before bed; my kids only had to do this twice with an aching belly to get over this bad habit

My kids DO have their favorites, and there ARE times where they whine about what we are having or pick at their food, BUT they do try everything (and have been pleasantly surprised many times). They DO make an effort to eat most of their food. I also try to have at least a bowl of carrots at the table and have them drink milk with their meal. That way, if the meal is totally not to their taste, they can still get something nutritious that isn’t junk….like chicken nuggets.

Do you have idea that works for you?

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No More "What's for Dinner" Stress!

Do you run to the grocery store EVERYDAY and grab whatever looks good off the shelves? Or maybe, you’re the kind of person who fills your shopping cart to overflowing once a week and then during the week, when it really counts, you stare into your refrigerator and find NOTHING to make for dinner? Do you agonize throughout the day, trying to figure out what to make for dinner….then get home, with still no idea and try to throw something together that hopefully is somewhat edible? If any of this is you….read on!

STOP…this is the last week you are going to do that! Next week, you are actually going to be organized and have a system to the “what’s for dinner” madness. First off, I know you have a ton of cookbooks at home. When was the last time you looked at them? Are are you the type who gets the cookbook with the pretty pictures from the library…just to look? Let’s commit to going down a different road TODAY.

The first thing you are going to do, is to choose four or five recipes for this next week. Yes, we are going to start right now. For now, I just want you to pick main dishes….later, when you get the hang of this, you can also pick your accompaniments. Always have rice, pasta and potatoes on hand as well as frozen vegetables (which you should steam to try to retain some of the nutritional value and flavor) to go along with your chosen main dishes. I also like to have fresh carrots and lettuce on hand too for nibbling and salads.

Over the weekend, I like to look through my cookbooks and a couple I always have on hand from our local library. Plan about four or five meals for the week. I scan through a recipe, and then on an index card or in my planner, write (as an example):

Betty Crocker Cookbook

1. Chicken Florentine 34 (chicken breast, heavy cream, sundried tomatoes, mushrooms)

2. Campbell’s Meatloaf 22 (ground beef, ketchup, cream mushroom soup, onions)

Now let me break it down. The heading is always the name of the cookbook. I number each main dish just to make it look orderly. Write out the recipe name and page number. In parentheses, write out the ingredients. Use abbreviations (as long as you understand them!). I don’t write down staples such as salt, flour, chicken bouillon, cornmeal, spices (unless it’s one I don’t regularly have). You are just going to write down what you need to buy to complete that meal. If you need to buy something of a certain size, write that down too.

After a while, you are going to figure out which recipes work best for you and your family. I like to keep a master list, in my day planner, where I transfer the above information of the recipes I plan to use again sometime. In the future, if you ever get stuck in the “what’s for dinner” rut and do have to run to the grocery store, you know exactly what to get for your meals.

Once you get the main meal down, start branching out into looking for side dishes, vegetables, salads and yes, even dessert recipes. You’re going to find that you’ll end up with a dozen favorite recipes that are low-stress and low-fuss to make, but you will still have room to try newrecipes here and there.

What ideas do you have to make your cooking and meal planning stress-free? Please share them here.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Housework doesn't always equal drudgery!

We all have to do it....HOUSEWORK. Housework and cleaning used to be two of my most dreaded things to do around here. I used to try to do everything in one day, and then announce to anyone who might be listening, that the housework was done. Well, after that drudgery for a few years, I finally got smart and realized that housework was not a job that gets done and that's's an ongoing MAINTENANCE activity and once I approached it as such, I realized it would be so much easier and stress free, and I wouldn't waste a whole day cleaning and running around the house like some deranged maniac!

So, I came up with a schedule...we manage our jobs as a schedule...why not housework? I sat down and wrote down each individual task, such as cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, dusting and the like. I wanted to get an idea of exactly what needed to get done every week.

Once you identify those individual tasks, write up a weekly schedule. Mine ended up looking like this:

  • Monday: Clean bathrooms/Check pool filters and chemicals
  • Tuesday: Update finances on computer/Sort through paperwork and files
  • Wednesday: Vacuum/Dust/Put out trash
  • Thursday: Mop/Clean kitchen counters
  • Friday: Tidy up garage/Sweep entryway
  • Saturday: Mow lawn and weed (can interchange with Friday if you have things planned today)
  • Sunday: No work (or if you didn't get something done during the week, do it this day)
I also then write up a monthly schedule, bi-monthly, every other month, seasonal and yearly to cover everything else such as changing furnace filters, tidying up the basement, dusting ceiling fans, cleaning out the refrigerator and other activities that don't need to be done every week. Thank God, right?

As far as laundry, the best way to handle that is to do laundry every few days. That way you are not wasting hours of your time doing 20 loads of laundry on the weekends! For a family of four, I do laundry every three days. When the kids and our laundry hampers are half-full, I have the kids bring it down and sort the laundry into light and dark (we have another two bins right by the washer). This is my signal to start washing.

I also don't like to have a specific day for grocery shopping. I do buy a lot of my staples in bulk, such as pasta and rice, as well as all of our paper and cleaning products. That really cuts down on the weekly purchases and stuff you put in your cart, plus it saves you money.

As you can see, you can really cut down on the stress level when it comes to housework. It is as much a MENTAL exercise as it is a physical one...get it in your mind that housework is just a day to day thing that takes only a few minutes a day.....okay, it does depend on what you are doing (mowing the lawn takes me two hours!)...but the point I am trying to make is that if you follow this system, you will suddenly see your everyday household stress melt away! Let me know how it works out, and if you have any other ideas to share, let's hear em!

This article and others like it can be found at the "Carnival of Family Life" Edition posted on "An Island Life" Blog.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Kennedy Space Center and the NEW Shuttle Launch Experience

My first thought sitting in the launch simulator was, "gee, if I had a set of dentures, they would have bounced out of my mouth by now and skedaddled on across the floor"...the vibrations were that intense! This past Saturday, the kids and I decided to take advantage of the Boy Scout Overnight Experience at the Kennedy Space Center. Our trip was to include some "after hours" fun and games, as well as "the sleepover of all sleepovers" by sleeping under the Saturn 5 rocket that peacefully rests in its own hangar. Now, you know with two boys, we just couldn't pass that up!

Our Cub Scout Pack started planning months ahead by calling the Kennedy Space Center and reserving 40 spots for our pack. We had to go ahead and put down a $100 deposit and fill out some security forms for all the adults...and then wait....very patiently.

We arrived on Saturday, after a nice leisurely drive. We then met up with our guide. He was a likeable sort of fellow, who had an answer for everything (in a good way) and ended up doing a pretty good job of giving us our own personal tour over the next two days. We loaded all of our gear into a bus....bring only what you can carry.....and got a nice tour of some of the exhibits to include the Rocket Garden, the Astronaut Memorial and the mock up of the Space Shuttle Explorer. We then proceeded to the "Astronaut Encounter" theatre and met up with Astronaut Charlie Walker. He did an excellent job of explaining what the training entails, and did a Q&A session after his talk. Of course, he had a ready-made detailed explanation as one of the boys had to ask about going to the bathroom in space. I bet that must be the most frequently asked question!

We were then hustled to the Orbit Restaurant, cafeteria-style dining, and settled down with a personal pan pizza, soda and an apple. Our total group, which consisted of three different Cub Scout packs topped at almost 200, so be prepared for being part of a crowd if you choose to do this overnighter. By now, we were the only ones running around the Kennedy Space Center, as civilians that is, and even with such a large group, you could hear our footfalls echoing on the pavement. I think the excitement was actually causing the kids to be dumbfounded in awe!

It was then off to the IMAX theatre to see "Magnificent Desolation" which is a fantastic piece, narrated by Tom Hanks and other actors. It details our missions to the moon and does a stunning job of showing the astronauts doing what they do best. After being wowed with the show, we were bused to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, stowed our gear again, and moved into the Firing Room Presentation. You stand and watch the actual launch consoles, light up and do their thing, as they launch the historic Apollo 8 mission. The kids loved the sights and sounds, flashing lights and voices, as the countdown commenced and the rocket was launched. I could not find the Apollo 8 firing room online, but to get an idea of what I am talking about, check out the shuttle launch firing room.

At this point, some of the kids were getting was after 9pm, and we still had some engineering activities and a snack to do before lights out. I have to tell you, when they opened the doors and we walked out into the hall that contained all 363 feet of the Saturn V rocket, everyone immediately came out of their stupor! The sight was just amazing! The size of the rocket humbled even the adults! We walked along its length...actually we walked underneath this gargantuan, and were able to see inside each stage of the rocket, as they had them separated just enough to give a peek.

After we settled a bit and saw a few of the exhibits in the hall, the kids were broken up into teams and were given an engineering challenge. Some of the kids were to build a moon rover with a styrofoam tray, plastic wheels, tape, straws and a ballon. Others were to build a tower that could withstand a small lunar quake using pipe cleaners, paper, tape and a tray. The rover that went the farthest was the winner, and the tower that was the tallest (and didn't fall over during the simulated quake) won. After a small snack of cookies and water, we grabbed our gear, and prepped for our sleepover.

They had us park our mats (I recommend bringing an air mattress; plenty of outlets in the floor to use or bring a battery operated pump), and we settled down for the night. We were now locked in for the night. We did have a few smokers in our group, and they had to summon up a little willpower, as we could not go outside til much later in the morning, when the building was officially opened. No "late evening" or "before breakfast" smoke was available. Keep this in mind if you choose to do an overnighter.

I actually slept like a baby....well, when my older son wasn't waking me up to go the bathroom (the kids had to wake chaperones if they had to go). Sleeping was pretty comfortable and not too many folks did any snoring, at least that I could tell. Most of us were pretty exhausted and probably wouldn't have heard a thing anyway. After a nice continental breakfast of cereal, danishes and fruit, we headed to the Lunar Theater where prizes were handed out. Not only were the winners of the engineering experiment awarded but also the leader of each group was recognized with goodies and autographed photos. Even random door prizes were handed out, and many came away happy. Also in the theater, a nice multi-media experience with video, lunar model, life-size astronaut, and the moon's surface, gave us a close-up view of the landings and goings on of the lunar missions. It can best be described as a collection of bloopers and mishaps and lighter moments, as the astronauts went about their moon landings.

We were then given a shortenend bus tour of the complex and dropped back off at the visitor center. We were lucky to actually see Space Shuttle Endeavour on the launchpad, as it waited for its August 7th lift-off. We were taken back to our parking area, dropped off our gear, and were released back into the Kennedy Space Center. We were now on our own to explore.

Of course, our first stop was the brand-new Shuttle Launch Experience to experience the sights, sounds and feel of an actual shuttle launch. Before you actually get into the simulator, you are given a multi-media presentation, done by Astronaut Charles Bolden with the help of some cartoon depictions, showing what happens during a launch. The presentation is also accompanied by lights, rumbling and smoke (which is actually a large fog machine). As I looked around, some of the folks thought they were already in the simulator by the looks on their faces! After Bolden finished his talk, we proceeded through some bay doors and reported to the actual simulator. Once inside and the doors were closed, we were strapped in and ready to launch. For those who chicken out before getting into the simulator (you are given a chance of that), there is a room off to the side that contains video feeds of the inside of the simulator, as well as what it looks like as the simulator bumps and turns from an outside view. So, you can still see what you are missing!

Let me tell you right now, that this simulator is nothing like some of the "flying" simulators that you've experienced. The only queasy feeling you may get is when the shuttle simulates weightlessness, after the last rocket fires off. The bigger concern is all the shaking and going vertical and getting pressed against your seatback that you experience. The simulator does a pretty good job of simulating the G-forces by tilting back and like I said earlier, the shaking is enough to really rattle your brain and make your neck and head ache. You can cut down on some of the shaking by slightly raising your head forward, off the headrest. Other than that, hang on and enjoy the ride! My boys went on the ride multiple times and enjoyed every second!

We rounded out the day with visiting the following attractions:

We ran out of time, but I also recommend you stop by the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This is also included in your ticket price and has lots of exhibits and interactive displays that the kids should get a kick out of. As always, if you want to save some money, you can bring your own lunch, drinks and snacks, but they must be in a soft-sided cooler. Security is very strict and you go through metal detectors and have your bag searched upon entry. Also, if you want to save money in the gift shops, bring obligatory space-themed toys purchased before-hand. The gift shops are expensive. Click on the Space Shop to see what's available and try to beat the prices before you go! I've actually found some of this stuff on good ole eBay. To fully enjoy the Kennedy Space Center, I also recommend that you do a two day visit, which is included in your ticket price. One day is just not enough to see and experience everything!

Please share your ideas here! I'd love to hear them!

See this article and others like it at Travelminx.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Key West can be a kid-friendy destination!

Chicken here, chicken there, chicken everywhere...that was my second impression in Key West after we drove into Key West Proper. But, I digress. Let me back up to the beginning. My family was looking for a low-cost but high value vacation, and my husband said "why don't we save $$ by staying in the Navy Lodge down there". So, after a little research, I found that we could stay in the Navy Lodge on Sigsbee Park for $65 a night (off season)! That was right up our alley when I saw that it also had a kitchenette.

We drove down from Tampa, which was about a 6-1/2 hour ride...not too bad a drive. The kids stayed entertained with books, snacks and a few movies. Mom and dad stayed entertained with XM radio, which did make the ride more enjoyable. Fast food gets boring we made sure to bring a cooler of sandwiches and goodies to keep us fueled.

We arrived in the late afternoon, which gave us enough time to do some commissary shopping to stock our little kitchen, as well as to stop by the PX to see what they had. They happened to have Crocs (I recommend bringing at least two pairs of shoes for everyone), so we got a few pairs. They also had some souveniers reasonably priced.

When you check in at the lodge, check with the front desk on the opening times of the tour office, right there on post. You can buy tickets at a greatly reduced rate for almost all of the tours, both land and shore, in the Key West area. I recommend the tours and places below:

  • Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum (just because the kids get a big kick out of all the exhibits)
  • Mel Fisher Maritime Museum (who doesn't like sunken treasure? Plus you get to lift up and handle a real gold bar)
  • Pirate Soul Museum (the exhibits are "Disney-like" and even though the museum is small, there are lots of interactive displays for the kids)
  • Key West Cemetery (if your kids are a bit older, they might enjoy this; come prepared with a few ghost stories; pick up a self-guided walking tour at the cemetery office and visit a few of the more interesting graves during cooler hours)
  • Mallory Square (hang out here right before sunset; beautiful harbor views and lots of free sidewalk entertainment)
  • Walking along Duval Street (not so much to buy anything, 'cause you will find cheaper places off Duval, but get a drink from a sidewalk vendor and enjoy the sights; our kids even enjoyed the transvestites that come out at dusk, but walking this street well after dark is not recommended with small children)
We didn't really have time to visit some of the other recommended attractions, but the few other attractions that someone was always telling us about included:

  • The Original Ghost Tours (this is at night and probably not a good idea for the wee ones, but the guides really get into character with fake accents and capes and such)
  • The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (it's just a darn pretty place we heard and to be surrounded by butterflies, is just something that doesn't happen every day)
  • Eco-Discovery Center (this is actually free; lots of fun nature exhibits)
  • Shipwreck Historeum (we heard that little ones can get bored, but this does have a nice tower overlook that gives a great view of the town)
  • Conch Tour Train (what kid doesn't like to ride around in a pseudo-train with a bell? This also reduces the walking that you have to do and gives a nice roundabout tour of the city)
Now, you know I'm not going to talk about Key West without talking about some things that can be done for free. Being in the military, gives you a unique advantage to not only save money, but to see some nice, uncrowded areas. Our first "beach day" was at the Navy's Truman Annex. This beach is right next to the Ft Taylor State Park Beach. Now, the beach itself was very rocky, so BRING WATERSHOES to wear! We were the only ones on the beach all morning! We looked over to the public side at Ft Taylor, and there were droves up people there that day, while our side remained quiet and peaceful. Now, the Navy does not do a very good job of keeping the Navy side looking as nice, but hey, we had it all to ourselves and once we were in the water, we actually had a nice time snorkeling and did see a few different kinds of fish. There is also a fairly new recreation center here with fussball tables, snacks, movies with nice comfy armchairs, internet (free for active duty, nominal fee for dependents) and best of all, ice cold air conditioning and clean restrooms! Other beaches that we enjoyed were Higgs Beach and Smathers Beach. Both had sand, which I think gets "trucked" in from the Bahamas every four years or so. Both have restrooms, showers and other amenities. The sand was so stirred up though when we went, so no real snorkeling. Smathers Beach is the more active one with jet-ski rentals, parasailing and other water sports.

We also spent a day out in the water in a boat we rented, up near mile marker 45 (about a 25 minute drive North). I could probably write a book on our experience that day, both good and bad, but let me just briefly say a few things:

  • Bring plenty of sunscreen, hats and shirts (get a boat with a covering)
  • Bring a cooler with plenty of food and drink, especially water
  • Make sure at least the kids wear life preservers as you move along
  • highly recommend having a portable GPS unit and a cell phone with you
We got a boat through The experience was satisfactory. They gave us a map with all the fishing and snorkeling sites annoted and loaded us up with plenty of ice, a cooler, and fishing gear to include the bait. We did have to make a short run to get our fishing licenses at a gas station up the road before we got into the boat, but they were inexpensive. If you want to prepare ahead, get your license earlier. We wasted two hours running back and forth and the owner accidently gave our boat away, so we had to wait a few hours for him to get one out of dry storage. He ended up giving us a larger boat (22') and had us pay just the half day rate and gave us free gas. As an added bonus, he told us to be back at least when the sun sets. So, we didn't complain. Just to give you an idea, a 21' center console boat will run you about $175 and the fuel another $100 or so, so keep that in mind. Of course, we did run aground on the way back, in the middle of a rain shower with thunder and lightening. And if that wasn't bad enough, we all had to get out of the boat and push, to include the two little ones. Let that be a lesson to make sure to stay well within the channel markers, although we were told later, EVERYONE runs aground...and often! Most of the water around Key West is anywhere from 1 to 4 feet deep and there is mostly no warning when the depth goes from let's say 5' to 1'!

If you really want to save money and convenience, you can rent a boat at the Navy Marina on Sigsbee Park, but you have to plan ahead. You will need your military ID and also a Sigsbee Marina Boat License. Call 305-293-4434 for more information. Their 21', 6 person boat costs $135 for a 1/2 day. You can also rent kayaks, snorkel sets, BBQ grills and fishing rods and reels from them.

As a sidenote, if you have older kids and plan to do some snorkeling, where you actually get to see a large variety and quantity of fish at a low cost, I recommend you do one of those all day or half trips for about $35 per person. Most of these old timers know where the pretty fish are and some also know where the dolphin pods hang out. This way, you don't waste time running around in a boat, not knowing where to go. I didn't get any tour company recommendations myself, but I would look online for tour operators that are constantly being mentioned. Stick with smaller companies that don't overload their boats and also companies that have been in operation for awhile. I have heard horror stories of being stuck on a boat, jampacked with people, with no chance for escape!

Now let me get back to the chickens. As you walk through Key West, you will see chickens and roosters everywhere! They run all over yards and sidewalks, through courtyards and yes even into the open air restaurants that you will find everywhere. The "Key West Chickens - Love 'em or Hate 'em" site does a good job of explaining things. I didn't have a problem with them myself, as I really didn't see chicken poop everywhere, and the restaurants do keep them off the tables!

Of course, I can't talk about Key West without talking about food. You will find typical fast food restaurants all around. There was even a Wendy's on Duvall Street. We tended to make our own lunches (and cooked a few dinners in our kitchenette) and just parked our car either at Truman Annex or the Navy's Trumbo Point and walked towards Duvall and the area around Mallory Square (this is where all the action is). This is the most economical way to do transportation and meals. We also used the parking meters a few times (bring lots and lots of change). You really have to be careful about the street parking, as there is lots of reserved and "resident only" parking, and you don't want to risk getting towed away! Down some of the sidestreets, you will see open street parking here and there...just read all the signs and markings on the roadway before you park!

We did eat at some more expensive places, just for the experience, but I must say, our favorite restaurant was the Blue Heaven. It was a few streets off Duval, and the kids loved the inner courtyard with the ping pong tables, rooster graveyard with the little headstones and just general happy atmosphere. I don't even know if they had any indoor seating, but we sat out in the courtyard by the old bar and listened to an old man in a ponytail strumming on his guitar. I had a wonderful sesame seed encrusted grouper with coconut sauce. I thought I would post a picture of the Key Lime Pie we ate, because you just wouldn't believe how light and fluffy it looked...and tasted. I think it was about 10" high at least! And yes, there were plenty of chickens around to keep us company! At the other end of the scale, we really liked the Sunset Grill which is down by the marina on Sigsbee Point. The grill is right there on the water, with an inexpensive menu of fried and grilled fish, shrimp and the like. Just be sure not to go on Sundays as the grill is closed then.

Last point, souveniers. Don't buy anything on Duval Street if you can help it. Check some of the sidestreets for souveniers and t-shirts. We found a t-shirt shop that does most of the printing for the local restaurants and businesses. These shirts have minor flaws, but most times, I had a hard time figuring out what the flaw was. We got a $20 famous restaurant shirt for only $3 at this place. They have a small selection, but it is worth a look. I forgot the name of the place, but the shop is in that first little strip mall on Kennedy Dr, right after you cross US 1, opposite from Sigsbee Rd. Since you now know ahead of time that there is a Ripley's and pirate related museums, you can buy trinkets NOW online and just take them with you...little kids don't know the difference. Plus, it pays to check eBay for t-shirts and souveniers from Sloppy Joe's Bar, Capt Tony's, Hogsbreath Saloon, Hemingway House, etc. I refuse to pay $20 for just a t-shirt!

All in all, Key West is a great family destination with lots to do! Plan ahead and get an idea of what you want to do beforehand to make the time even more enjoyable and relaxing. If you have any Key West ideas, please share them here!

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Going to be away from my computer 7/13-7/19

I am actually going on a family vacation and won't be able to access the computer from 13 to 19 July! We will be in Key West at the Navy Lodge down there. I'll be sure to give a full report on the lodgings, Key West itself and how things went with the boys. They've already gotten their snorkel gear and are ready to go. Have a great week and see you in the next one!


A One for One Closet Exchange

Today we are going to clean out your clothes closet. Ah, ah, ah...don't even think about leaving. Read through this and then see if it's something you want to do....or should do. I guarantee that this is easy, AND you'll only have to do this ONE TIME! If you're like I used to be, I had so many clothes jammed in my closet, I couldn't even rightly see what was in there. After years of digging and pulling to get at something to wear, I finally decided to do something about it.

First things first, go get three large trashbags. Make one of them a different color than the other two. For example, get one white and two black.

In one black bag, you are going to put all the clothes that can be considered trash. All the clothes that are ripped, torn, stained, irrepairable and just plain butt ugly will go in here.

The next black trashbag will have all the clothing you want to donate. Weed out the things that you might've thought were nice at one time but not now. Let's talk about sizes really quickly too. It's okay to keep one size above and one size below you, but anything else that is still useable, put it in this bag! Chances are, you won't get back to your high school fighting weight, and if by some chance you did, you'll want new clothes to show off your new figure anyway. If you just can't let it go, keep ONE outfit only.

The third, white trashbag is a kind of "holding pattern" bag, the "maybe bag". You are going to fill this bag with clothes you haven't worn in the last honest! Do not include formal items and your little dirndl and things such as that. This bag is going to live in your garage for 6 months to a choose. Anything that doesn't get used in that timeframe out of this bag, gets a free ticket to Goodwill or another charity of your choice.

Now that your closet is set, we will practice the "one for one exchange" from here on out. That means, in the future, when you go on your little shopping spree, or you come home with a new outfit from the store, in order to hang it in your closet, you have to get rid of one item. You are going to be doing an even exchange. If you bought a shirt, an old shirt has to go. If it's a pair of shoes....yes, you didn't think I'd leave out shoes did you? They are sometimes the worst offenders! They get weeded out just like the clothes!

Now that you have some space to move around and can actually see the back wall of your closet, you're going to group like items and colors together. Start at one end of your closet. Hang up all your casual pants. I like the hangers with the clips rather than folding the pants and leaving creases, but whichever you are used to...go for it. Group the colors together. Then do all the casual long sleeve shirts, short sleeve shirts. Group your business wear together and have your formal wear in the very get the idea. I even go so far as to leave the empty hanger right there, so I know to put the thing back after it's washed.

So there you have it....simple and neat and a cleaning job you'll never have to do again! Do you have any ideas of how to keep your closet straight? Let's hear it!

Read more decluttering articles at Declutter It's "Organize Your Life" Carnival #12!


Join our "Life Lessons for Military Wives" Carnival

I hope you didn't think I was going to talk about a gathering place for clowns such as this one! Actually, I've learned something this past the blog world, a "carnival" is a grouping of articles all on the same subject all accessible at the same place online. One blogger starts the carnival. Other bloggers then submit articles from their blog to meet the deadline. You can publish these carnivals as often as you like. Many are published weekly. I actually submitted an article for the "Carnival of Personal Finance" earlier in the week.

That gets me down to the nitty gritty. What I'd like to see is a military wives carnival. I'd like to see bloggers (that's you and your friends and so on and so on) submit articles. I'm going to call it the "Life Lessons for Military Wives" Carnival. I don't care what service you are affiliated with (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines or Coast Guard) or even if you're not from this country (or your spouse is with another nation's military...doesn't matter)....I think we all can contribute something useful! I'd like you to share your thoughts!

With that being said, please go expeditiously to the Blog Carnival and find the "Life Lessons of Military Wives" Carnival and submit your article. Let's start out with a carnival every month and see how that goes. If there seems to be an interest, then we can always publish more frequently as we go along.

If we're going to have a carnival, I guess that means we're going to have a few rules too:

  • Please only submit articles that you think would be of interest to a military wife, and the article should be of your own writing and on your blog
  • Only nice, clean family-type articles
  • Only one submission per blog per month
  • Do not submit a previously published article that has already appeared in a carnival
  • The article should be newly published on your blog
  • As soon as you are notified that the carnival has been published, please take the time to put a small link at the bottom of your carnival entry, such as "See this article and others like it at the 'Life Lessons for Military Wives Carnival' "

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Cycle of an On-line Deal - Pay the lowest price!

Last night I was shopping online for a new digital camera...the old one finally went belly up on me. As I was happily clicking through websites, I realized that I always look for a deal the same way. Follow these tips and you'll get the best deal EVERY time!

Since I haven't bought a digital camera in many years, which might as well be decades in the fast-paced digital camera world, I had to start reading reviews of the different cameras and man, there were just too many choices. Review sites are a dime a dozen. Two sites that really stand out though are PC Magazine and CNet . Once you have narrowed it down to a few cameras, make sure you google the model number and put "review" in the search box to find a few more reviews. It's nice to also get consumer reviews too and not just from the experts. Typically, I do keep note of what the prices are on these sites as I go along. Amazon has some good consumer reviews and Epinions is another one (although it is frequently outdated).

With that information, then I really go to work. Follow the steps below to get the best possible deal!

  • After researching what you want and narrowing it down to a product, go to Froogle first. This is google's version of a search of all things for sale online to put it simply. I then rank order everything from cheapest to most expensive. Weed out the accessories and other camera-related items, and you've got a good starting point. I also check the vendor out through Froogle and Resellerratings. A cheap price means nothing if the vendor can't or won't deliver or worse it ends up being some kind of a scam!
  • I then go to They do a pretty good job of crawling the internet, looking for the best deals...and these are people doing the crawling, not bots for the most part. They even have a great forum where you can search for a product (or store or whatever) and among other things, a deal finder forum where people love to help you look for that next best thing. You should see how this place gets hopping in the month before Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving).
  • So now, you are armed with the lowest price you could find. I also take a look at amazon and EBay to see what folks are paying there. If you decide to eventually go the EBay route, make sure you buy from someone who has a very high level of feedback, and at least a 98-99% positive rating with lots of happy customer comments. You can find many legitimate businesses on Ebay. Also be sure to read the listing, as the item may be "as is", defective, missing parts or used (which you may or may not find acceptable).
  • Now you've got the name of the store. The last step is to find a discount for that store. I NEVER buy ANYTHING on the internet without looking for a coupon code for that vendor. Go to Google and in the search field, write "name of store" and "coupon code". It may take a few minutes to wade through the listings, but be patient and look through the first few pages of search results. I have found coupon codes buried on the third and fourth pages of the search results. If you've still got your Ebay window open, type in the "name of store" and "coupon" and you'll see some pop up there...for sale. I wouldn't bother with some of the lower discounts, but sometimes employees and others get their hands on bigger discounts, and again, if you find someone with great feedback and your purchase is very large, it may be worth it to buy a coupon (just be careful, lots of potential for fraud and expired coupons here).
  • Now that you've got the coupon code, it's just a matter of going through the store's checkout and cutting and pasting the code into the appropriate field (just keep an eye out for it as you check out).
That about covers it. I ended up buying my Sony point-and-click camera through Dell's website. Not only was it the cheapest price online (they were running a special for only that day apparently), but I was able to find a coupon code elsewhere, which brought the price down 40% from their normal list price! So, what's the lesson here?...don't settle for mediocrity and getting hosed when you don't need to be...take a little time to do a little research and feel better about that purchase!

Have another idea or technique you use? Pray tell....

Photo courtesy of

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Staying Connected During Dad's Deployment

Yesterday, I spoke with a good friend whose husband was going off on his FOURTH Iraq deployment. After doing all the comforting and the positive reinforcement that I could, I gave her some ideas of what has helped us in the past. My husband has been to Iraq and elsewhere countless times himself. We also have two young children who might not totally understand what is going on, and I was looking for a way they could remember and interact with their dad.

Here are some of the things we did (and things we'll try the next time around):

Before dad left

  • I took their favorite stuffed animal and put in a little recordable device that my husband had recorded a personal message on; when the kids hugged the animal, it would playback the message (you can find these devices online here or if you have a "Build-a-Bear Workshop" near you, you may be able to purchase these devices there)
  • dad recorded a few video tapes of him reading bedtime stories, just telling stories and joking around; even birthday and holiday messages for the kids can be recorded
  • dad made arrangements to have flowers sent to mom on Mother's Day and her birthday (you can arrange this ahead of time at a florist, or have a trusted friend or relative do this for you)
  • you can also have a photo of dad put on a pillow (check those sidewalk vendors at the mall)
  • name a star after your child at one of the star registries and let him/her hang up and display all the literature and photos that they send with the kit
After dad left
  • I regularly took the kids shopping to buy items for a care package; we bought mostly candy, snacks (not chocolate or anything that could melt), wet wipes, Kleenex, playing cards, DVDs, CDs and packed the box with those items, plus newspaper clippings of interest, magazines (the "Armchair General" is a popular one) and artwork and cards from the kids; we even sent that nasty dipping tobacco (because we figured if our husband didn't use it, someone else would!)
  • if your husband will have internet access, have him go online at a pre-determined time and instant message back and forth with your child as they explore websites together, such as the Discovery Channel, NASA and PBS. Even a stop to Cartoon Network would be fun.
  • If your husband has a video camera, have him walk through where he sleeps, eats and show the kids a few things they might find interesting or cool
  • my husband liked to send home candy wrappers, foreign money, potato chip bags, postcards and little trinkets, and the kids collected these in a box; we would try to figure out what the writing said and make up our own interpretations of things
  • use one of the shared photo sites to upload photos on a regular basis and make sure your husband can access it
  • on the next deployment, since the kids will be older, we thought it would be nice for the 10 year old to set up his own private online blog and write down his thoughts, upload photos, etc and then have his dad access it when he could; if you want to include other family members or relatives, that is another idea; with blogger, you can choose who can access the blog, and you do not need to make it public
The most important thing to remember while your husband is gone, is to make sure to stick to some kind of routine with the kids. Try to make things routine with an occasional fun and surprising outing such as the movies, the arcade, an amusement park or a sightseeing trip. I also like to take the kids regularly to the park, the library and the YMCA. Check your local newspaper for events and outing ideas (our newspaper has a nice "weekend" section in Friday's paper). Also take the time to get together with other families, in particular, other military families. We used to have a group of 10 wives or so who would get together at least every other week at someone's house. Yes, it was organized mayhem most times, but I look back now and smile when I think of those great times! To make things easier on the mom hosting, have everyone bring a dish to round out the meal. It's less pressure that way. Also have some games and videos for the kids to keep them occupied, while you ladies get to catch up on things!

If you have any other ideas, please post them here!

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Never Hunt for a Photo Again on Your Computer

Over the weekend, I was on a friend's computer. She wanted to show me a...what she says...a hilarious photo of her little doggie, Maxie, when she was a puppy. Well, after sitting there in front of her computer and her repeatedly saying, "nope, that's not it", I told her, why don't we call it a day and go drink a Dr. Pepper.

After having a chance to think about it and mulling it over as I usually do when presented with a problem, I thought...why don't I just show her how I save my jpg and picture works for me...why not for the next person too? Why not just write about it?

So, after our refreshments and a renewed sense of giving it a go, we sat down and organized her photos. It helps that photos have a datestamp, and if you are already familiar with how folders work in Windows, you are that much ahead!

First, you need to see how many YEARS worth of photos you have on your computer. My friend had about three years' worth stored mish mash in a few different folders. Follow the steps below to streamline those photos once and for all:

  • Make a habit of ONLY putting files in your "My Documents" Folder on your computer. So, you're not only going to have your photos in here, but every file generated by every computer program on your computer (we'll go over the other types of files at a later date)
  • If you have a "My Pictures" folder, create a folder for each year (such as "Photos 2001", "Photos 2002" and so on) within that folder; if you don't have a "My Pictures" folder, create one in "My Documents" right now before you go any further
  • Within each year, make a a folder for EACH month, whether you think you have photos or not for that timeframe; "Jan 2005", "Feb 2005", "Mar 2005" and so on
  • Now you are ready to start putting your photos into each month's folder IN the appropriate year
  • As a sidenote, sometimes you might have an event or trip such as "Disneyworld Jun 2005"; just put that into your "Jun 2005" folder and be done with it
Follow these simple tips, and you will NEVER hunt for a photo or set of photos again. Your computer is so nice and helpful, that it will even put the photos into the order you uploaded them onto your computer to begin with!

Photo by walmink on


Remembering Your Past Duty Assignments

Sometimes, after all the dust settles from yet another move, I actually have a kind of yearning for what has passed. Yes, I do have photo albums, where I like to remember where we've been as a family...but I wanted to have a way to just glance at something, to remember where our travels have taken us....something we could display our home somewhere.

I'll be darned if the next week I wasn't invited to a ladies coffee at my husband's commander's house. His wife had all these cute little houses with the names of all of her husband's duty assignments, neatly written on each house. After I got up the courage to ask her where she found those adorable little houses, she ended up ordering me a set too. Since I am not crafty, I ended up experimenting around and painting and re-painting the little rooftops and finally came up with a white craft marker to write a duty assignment on each roof. That seemed to work just fine and ended up being a nice contrast with the black. The houses ended up becoming a prominent little display right by our front door.

Without delay....every new duty assignment, the houses were pulled out of their boxes, and a new house was you know, I ended up buying three sets, because you just don't know really, how many times exactly am I gonna move? I wanted to be safe rather than sorry. The houses make a nice conversation piece, and if you're really crafty, you can add little details to the houses with craft paint...something that might remind you of that duty assignment.

Another nice idea to remember your duty assignments, is to come up with a wall hanging. You can actually make this yourself (see below), and make it as simple or elegant as you want!

Again, get out the craft paints and markers. If you've ever used a wood burning tool to write letters (what do you call that thing?), that would be another option! For me, I'd probably burn the house down with something like that, but for you, that might be something you'd like to consider.

In fact, your husband can probably cut out the shapes of each duty station for you in wood. Make holes to attach craft wire at the top and between each piece, and you can just keep adding names of duty stations as you go along until you decide to quit your nomadic lifestyle.

If you are looking for a nice idea to make money at many of the craft bazaars and fairs, I bet you would get a lot of interest from military wives with either of these ideas. I did look around on the internet for someone who might be selling some of these things online. So far, I wasn't able to find anyone! Perhaps this is something that you could capitalize on? How about it?

If anyone has any other interesting ideas, please do share! I would love to hear them!

This article has been featured on Blog Carnival #22 "Make it from Scratch". Be sure to stop by there for some more great articles!

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Friday, July 6, 2007

Banking and our Mobile Life

After about 10 duty assignments, and countless mistakes and screw-ups, you tend to pull yourself up by your underwear and get cracking on a system that works to keep on top of your finances…no matter where you are! Let’s face it, you will be moving MANY times throughout your spouse’s military career. Before you sign up for what HE signed up for…follow these basic rules below.

Have ONE main bank account.

It is best to have one main bank account where your husband’s paycheck (LES) is deposited (and try not to change that, regardless of where you are). This will also be the account through which you will pay your mortgage/rent, car payments and other major re-occuring drains on your money. Let me recommend that you pick a bank that is familiar with dealing with servicemembers (ie soldiers). The banks most soldiers use include:

Sign up for online bill-paying.

It is a HUGE plus also if they have online bill-paying, and if they offer it free! So even when you are later "on the go" and moving, anywhere you can access a computer, you’ll be able to pay your bills....on time.

Track your bills with the checklist.

Track your bills with the checklist I mentioned in an earlier blog entry.

Set up ONE local bank account to use ATMs and other local services.

We do this and typically set up a savings account locally (like the bank on-post), so that it does earn some kind of interest. We also make sure the bank has online access (so we can transfer funds from our main account to our local account). This will also cut down on ATM fees, because we then use our local account if we need cash. You just have to remember to keep up on the account balance so you don’t get overdrawn. You can also use your local account for notary services (FREE) and other things they would only offer their own customers. Try that with your out-of-state bank. And who wants to change banks and bills and deposits EVERY time you move? I didn’t think so. Read on.

Get overdraft protection on your checking account.

To avoid the risk of getting overdrawn on your main checking account, be sure to sign up for overdraft protection. It doesn’t cost anything to sign up for it. This will protect you in case you get overdrawn on your account (for example, if you write a check and you don’t have the funds in your account because a deposit was late). Even silly me got overdrawn once a few years ago when a deposit came later rather than earlier. Instead of getting charged with a bounced check fee, I only had to pay $2 worth of interest on the money I automatically “borrowed” from the overdraft protection.

That about sums it up. If you have any other recommendations on banks that you think are military friendly, or want to share your experience, please let us know below!

Photo by (c) photo

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Understanding that Mumbo Jumbo on the LES (the paycheck)!

First things first...let's see where the money is coming from. You've probably already seen the Leaves and Earnings (LES) statement that your spouse brings home. probably haven't seen it, because most soldiers access the LES through the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) MyPay website. When your soldier first entered the military, he signed up to get his paycheck deposited electronically into the bank account of his choice. Click here to see a screenshot of the actual form. Let's go over some of the more important things you are looking at.

  • GRADE – your spouse’s rank, which will determine what his pay will be
  • PAYDATE – this is the date your spouse entered active duty (this date is important as it shows cumulative years your spouse has been in; more years=more pay; this figure is used in conjunction with his rank to determine exact pay
  • YRS SVS – the years your husband has been in the service (for officers you’ll see a bunch of 8s as there is no expiration of term of service
  • ETS – Expiration Term of Service; when your spouse’s active duty obligation is up
  • ENTITLEMENTS – your spouse’s base pay is listed here, which is determined by his grade/rank and pay date; you will also find additional bonus money that your spouse may be receiving that alone could total to a few thousand dollars, such as:
    • Basic Allowance for Subsistence BAS (offset for cost of meals; not that much really)Basic Allowance for Housing
    • BAH (to offset housing costs at your duty station)FLPP (language pay if your spouse has tested in a language and gotten a rating)
    • Parachute Pay (yep, for keeping up on a regular jump schedule)
    • SAVE PAY (hardship duty pay when they are stationed out in the sticks somewhere)
    • FSA (Family Separation Allowance if you are separated from your family more than 30 days)
    • You can find more Entitlements HERE

  • DEDUCTIONS – Includes any money that was taken out of the paycheck, this will include items such as:
    • Federal and State taxes
    • Social Security
    • SGLI (life insurance for him)
    • Family SGLI (life insurance for you)
    • Mid Month Pay (since the military pays you twice a month, the amount paid out at mid-month is listed here)
  • ALLOTMENTS – this is where money is taken out for your family member dental plan, any allotments that you have going to your retirement or savings accounts, as well as any donations to the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), where your husband is asked to donate to worthy causes during annual fund drives. These amounts are all then totaled at the bottom of each column and repeated again in summary on the top right of the LES. His EOM (End of Month) is the pay received at the end of the month. Add that to the mid-month pay to get the gross (total amount before taxes) pay amount for the month. If you see a DIEMS and a RETPLAN under the EOM Pay on the top right, that is showing you the date the military is using to calculate your spouse’s retirement date and also under which retirement plan he falls under. Here you can calculate what he will be getting in retirement.
There is now a lot of gibberish at the bottom of the LES. Mostly things that your spouse needs to concern himself with. Let's skip over those items, so I can go get the laundry done. Before I go though, I will highlight two other areas that I always check. One is LEAVE, the first block of small squares. If you want to know how much leave time or vacation days your husband has saved up, check the Cr Bal block. This means that he can request to go on leave from his commanding officer, and once it is approved, he can go on vacation...hopefully, with you and the family in tow!

The other important area is the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The easiest way to explain this, is that it is the Department of Defense’s answer to the civilian 401(k) tax deferred civilian retirement plan. This means the money is invested in designated mutual funds and grows tax-free until your retirement. If you decide to do no other saving and take nothing else away from this blog, please consider signing up for this, as the money is taken out of your paycheck before you even see it. Even if you only contribute a modest sum, it will grow exponentially, and you'll have a little pot of gold at the end of your rainbow. Your husband can even access MyPay right now and sign up for it online. I’ll momentarily wait here while you go call him and get him to check it out and hopefully sign up...better yet, you go get his user name and password (promise him "happy time" later), and check it out yourself.

That about wraps up the LES. Stay tuned next as I talk about how to get your financial house in order or at least get it moving where it needs to be!

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Life Insurance Woes

I know, I know...nobody wants to talk about dying, and frankly, we all hope we die later rather than sooner! But, let me talk to you about something called "peace of mind". "Peace of mind" is knowing that even if something terrible happens, you are covered as good as it's gonna get on the face of this earth anyway. So, let's talk life insurance.

If you are in the military, you already know about Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance (SGLI). So for about $400,000 worth of life insurance, the military will automatically deduct about $29 from your husband's paycheck. This is of course the maximum amount of insurance you are allowed to take out through SGLI. You might think that this is enough and it sure sounds like a huge amount! are some things you need to think about.

Not only will you be paying for a funeral and all the associated expenses, but consider some of the following costs and debts you might still have should the inevitable happen, such as: a mortgage, car payments, four years' college for the little ones, credit card debt, medical bills and not to mention the heartache and grief that comes after the loss of a loved won't want to get right back to work, struggle to make ends meet and make possible bad financial decisions. To get an idea of what your needs might be, try this handy financial calculator. You'll quickly see that there are a lot of things that you might not have thought about. The ideal situation would be to live off your earnings from your life insurance policies after you invest them responsibly (rather than going through all that money, month by month until there is nothing left).

So, here I was with these ideas mulling around in my head...I hated thinking about these things, but I also wanted to make sure I didn't have to make any rash decisions should I find myself in such a situation, plus I wanted to make sure our little boys were cared for. I quickly grabbed the phone and called the company I have our car insurance through, USAA. I thought for sure that they would be able to help me. Most of their financial products are "military friendly", and I was already patting myself on the back for a job well done. Well, I was shocked to hear that because of my husband's high risk Army specialty, a modest life insurance policy for him would cost....over $200 a month! I think I dropped the phone at that point.

I tell you...I was in a funk and wondered what in the world I was going to do next. I got on the internet the next day and started googling life insurance. I had a few more companies contact me, but many had clauses where they wouldn't pay out under wartime circumstances or anything that wasn't "normal"...well, that ruled all us military folks out. After a few days, I finally stumbled upon The Army and Air Force Mutual Aid Association (AAFMA) I emailed them, and they got back to me right away.

After answering a few simple health questions about my husband, they gave me a quote. For example, for $600,000 worth of life insurance, the cost would only be $27 a month! I couldn't believe my ears at this point! Of course we wanted to sign up right away, and after my husband filled out a health survey, we were insured. It was as simple as that. That was three years ago. AAFMA is my recommendation today. Give them a call and don't delay.

Along those lines, be sure that the non-working or non-military spouse also has some life insurance. You can do these cheaply and quickly through SGLI as well. Many a soldier has been rudely awakened, finding out how much work their wife does at home and with the children, and you want your hubby to have some money to use in such a case too. Also, even though our military healthcare system is fairly good in most cases (and woefully inadequate too I might add at times), it may be wise to research disability insurance, especially for some of the lower enlisted ranks and those who have not been in the military long enough to qualify for a good "enough to live on" pension. A good topic for a later date!

If you yourself have any comments or experiences to add to this topic, please take the time to share.

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Never Again Pay a Bill Late (Foolproof Billpaying System)!

Let this month be the LAST month that you pay a late bill. Follow this easy method to stay up-to-date on your bills at a glance. Use the sample word document at the end of this article to print out and fill in your own bills as we go along. The first step is to have a corkboard bulletin board near your computer. I also recommend that you sign up for an online billpaying service. Most banks offer this free now. It is not necessary to have an online bill paying account in order to follow what I am about to tell you, but it is useful.

Gather all your bills and statements for your accounts. You don't want to leave anything out! The top of the sheet is labeled "Billpaying Checklist 2007". You are going to list each of your bills down the left-hand side, in the order you receive them in the mail. In the next column you will type in the day of the month the bill is normally due. You will list all the monthly bills first, then every other month bills, twice a year bills, yearly and so on. If you have any irregular bills, list them last.

Then you will have a column for each month of the year. I have some bills that aren't due every month, so to help in my tracking, I put three *** in that space, so I know at a glance, nothing is due that month.

After you complete that last step, print out your checklist and post it on your corkboard bulletin board. As a bill comes in, I will handwrite a letter designating how I paid it (examples are B=billpay online, C=check, A=American Express and so on). Then I will write the date underneath it that I sent the payment in or the date I have designated to pay it with my billpaying online account. At a glance, I can see what bills have not been paid and what I should be watching out for in the mail. Let's face it, mail does get lost or misplaced and guess who is responsible when a bill does not get paid, regardless if the bill was lost or not? You guessed it...YOU!

If you want to be even more thorough, in the middle of my billpaying checklist, I type in what bills I automatically pay through my online billpaying account. Most online billpaying accounts allow these automatic payments, and it's a great way to take care of some of those recurring checks you write.

At the bottom of the checklist, I type in which bills are automatically paid through either our credit card accounts or our checking account. You also type in the day that bill is paid (or debited from your account). For example, I pay our mortgage and home security monitoring bills automatically, because they are the same amount every month, and it saves me from having to track when to pay something. I still list these on my checklist because if I am looking at the balance of my checking account, I want to make sure that I have enough in my account to cover that.

That about sums that up! Let me know how that works out for you. I do have many more tips to share, and in the coming days, I will be posting more, at least once a day.

In case you missed the download in the article, here it is again...

Download Billpaying Checklist

See this article and others like it on the 108th Carnival of Personal Finance, a collection of finance articles for this week!


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

First Trip on the Amtrak Train with the Kids

This past week, I had the opportunity to ride Amtrak for the first time. I've ridden trains in Europe and before we left on our Amtrak trip, everyone I told about my upcoming trip said "it's not anything like the trains in Europe". I didn't know whether that was a positive or a negative comment...and I was afraid to ask anyway, so I let it go.

We decided to drive a bit and go out of Orlando, because it was cheaper. Our final destination was Washington DC's Union Station. For myself and two kids, the cost was just $165 (the military rate) also makes a difference, which day you travel, so if you are flexible, try different dates. I purchased the tickets online at

So, there we were driving towards the station...the area was starting to get more and more rundown..and we pull up to this 100 year old structure...the train station....I couldn't believe that this was the first impression Orlando wanted visitors to have of Orlando! It was rundown and dirty...but, we went ahead and gathered our things and went on inside. Too late to turn back now!

The Amtrak folks were pleasant enough and after an hour or so, the bums and drunks were replaced by nicely dressed folks who looked like they were going to ride the train. Right before the train approached the station, announcements were made and the Amtrak personnel grouped people together according to destination. This train ran the Miami-NYC route with a lot of stops in between.

Boarding was easy and plenty of room for luggage. The traincars were configured like airplane seats and a similar overhead baggage area but everything was much roomier than on a plane. The seats even reclined way back, they had leg and feet rests and plenty of leg and maneuver room. There were two seats on each side.

Before the next stop, a conductor came around and punched our tickets and a steward took our reservation time for dinner.

We proceeded on...on-time at this point, and stopped in a few more towns before heading into Georgia. About that point, the kids and I decided to visit the dining car for dinner, as our designated time was coming up. We were told it was near the front, so off we went. Be sure to take your valuables with you. We went through a few more cars like ours...then got to a car with a bunch of tables...after realizing this was not the dining car, we went into another car where train personnel were hanging out and then finally into a car that looked like a 1950s diner with stools and tables in the back. A crisply dressed waiter took us to our seats at a table.

We quickly ordered...they had a bit of fact, Amtrak does have sample menus on their website. I had roast chicken and the kids had pizza and hamburgers. The food looks like it was reheated, but it did have good flavor. The meals also came with salads and warm rolls. I can honestly say it was nice sitting there eating and looking at all the sleepy little towns we passed by. I swear at some point, we thought we had gone back in time as we passed little shack houses and old trailers with not a paved road in sight...just the dusty red clay backroads of Georgia.

As we went back to our seats, the sun was setting and we thought we'd settle down and read and do some Gameboy before trying to catch some shut-eye. We continued to stop at mostly small towns throughout the night and then ran into our first bit of trouble. The train slowly came to a announcements were made and we were in the middle of roads, no stations in sight...just darkness. Most folks were asleep...but some of us started peering out the window wondering what was going on. After about 30 minutes, I snagged a steward and asked why we were stopped so long. She said they were having engine trouble and that it won't be much longer....finally, after an hour, we were on our way again...I wondered what the back-up plan is when they CAN'T fix the engine...

Off we were again...but late...the kids had no trouble sleeping. They were rolled up in their blankets and were blissfully unaware of our delay. I, on the other hand, had trouble sleeping. The seats are more comfortable than airline seats but if you are tall, it is hard getting it just right.

The next morning, we realized we were going to be at least three hours late. Apparently, passenger trains have to give right of way to freight trains, and because our schedule was now officially screwed up, we had a lot of stopping and waiting that had to be done to let those trains pass. At this point too, the bathrooms were starting to run out of water and the stewards were closing them up one by one. If you had to go, you wasted a lot of time going from car to car looking for an open bathroom. Since we were only going to DC, I wondered if they'd run out of bathrooms before NYC...I didn't want to know that either.

We finally arrived...yep, three hours our already long 17 hour journey had turned into a 20 hour trip! Would I do it again? Probably, on another route, just to see the scenery....AND if I had a lot of time to burn. I found life was slower on the train and the people suprisingly friendly and talkative, unlike being on a plane...maybe this is what draws folks to train travel? The kids enjoyed the trip and said they'd do it again too.

I'll leave you with some tips, especially if you are traveling with children:

  • Bring a small soft-sided cooler full of water, Capri-Suns and sandwiches (we also had fruit snacks, nuts, goldfish, Pringles and some other compact snacks in another bag)
  • Bring a lightweight but warm blanket (Amtrak does not provide these free although they do provide a free pillow)
  • Bring a pair of sweatpants and socks (the traincars are freezing and you need to be comfortable for the night)
  • Bring plenty to read; games to play; also electronic games - anything that will keep you busy; I saw many portable DVD players on the train
  • Don't check your luggage (you can bring two pieces with each of you as carry-on and they must be no larger than 28x22x14); we had one roll-on bag each, plus a backpack each and our cooler
  • We didn't smoke but we noticed that train personnel made announcements as to which stops you can get off the train to smoke (and yes, people do get left behind if they get off when they shouldn't)
  • Do not let your kids move around the train when you are in a station (I was too afraid someone would whisk them off); don't let them go into another car without you either
If you've been on a train recently, I would love to hear your comments! If you have any specific questions or are considering a trip, please drop me a line!