Holiday Mail for Heroes 2014

Holiday Mail for Heroes 2014 | An easy way to get your kids involved in supporting our troops | MoneywiseMoms

Every year, my family participates in a great program: Holiday Mail for Heroes. Organized by The American Red Cross, this program delivers holiday cards and greetings to veterans, military families and active-duty service members all over the world. It’s an easy way to get your kids involved in supporting our troops and a way to model for them that giving time, thought and prayers can be as valuable as donating money.

This year’s program has changed. Now, each local chapter of The Red Cross is collecting, sorting and distributing their holiday cards. There is no longer a national PO Box. This allows the local offices to focus on “neighbors helping neighbors” and be sure their local population receives greetings. Many chapters have set this Friday as the deadline to receive cards. Find your local Red Cross Office and plan to drop off your cards or ask how they would prefer to receive them. You can also volunteer to help sort and deliver cards.

Holiday Mail for Heroes 2013 | Helping kids give to others | MoneywiseMoms

As always, there are a few guidelines for the holiday cards you send:

  • Use generic salutations like “Dear Service Member, Veteran or Military Family Member”
  • Make sure all cards are signed, and do not use your home address or email address.
  • Do not include inserts like letters or photos, and avoid cards with glitter since it can come loose.
  • No need to use envelopes, as they will be removed before distribution.
I hope you’ll participate in this year’s Holiday Mail for Heroes! Follow along with @RedCross on Twitter with hashtag #holidaymail.

Original image from Weatherford Corp

ICE! at the Gaylord National

Disclosure: My family attended a media event for ICE! at the Gaylord National. No compensation was received, and my opinions are my own.

ICE! at the Gaylord National | MoneywiseMoms

The Christmas season is off to a great start here in the DC area. We visited ICE! at Gaylord National Resort for opening weekend. This annual holiday event runs through January 4, 2015.

We loved this year’s theme, Frosty the Snowman. The carvers did such an amazing job of capturing the children’s faces and familiar characters. As you walk through, you follow the story you know from the classic TV special. Each visitor is given a large blue parka, which helps you stay warm in the 9-degree weather. It’s cold in there! One new exhibit inside ICE! showed how master Chinese artisans carve the ice blocks, how the colors are created, and how the whole project goes from blueprints to reality.

The slide room was even better this year. The two-story slides were lit from beneath, and my kids rode them over and over!

Slide Room at ICE | ICE at Gaylord Nationall | MoneywiseMoms

While you’re at the Gaylord National, you can enjoy lots of Christmas on the Potomac family-friendly activities:

  • FREE scavenger hunt in the hotel’s lobby and atrium areas. Pick up a Great Reindeer Roundup in the lobby, enjoy with the kids, then return to the Dreamworks office for a prize.
  • FREE nightly holiday fountain shows with music, lights and indoor snowfall, in front of the hotel’s 60-foot-tall “candy” glass tree.
  • Ride the Potomac Express Miniature Train for $3 per ride (or $5 for three rides).
  • Decorate a gingerbread house or family with Gingy from Shrek in Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating. Kits start at $35.95.
  • Take photos with Santa Claus, starting at $22.
  • Have brunch with Santa at Old Hickory Steakhouse on Sundays in December at $75/adult and $40/child.

Get Tickets to ICE! and Christmas on the Potomac
Tickets can be booked online or by calling 301-965-4000. Prices start at $27/adults and $20/kids ages 3-11 for non-peak days (weekdays). Tickets are $34/adults and $28/kids for peak days. They offer a military discount. You can also get discounted tickets through LivingSocial.

Overnight guests get unlimited admission to the ICE! attraction throughout their stay when booking a package. The ICE! Is Nice Package starts at $229 for a family of four and includes one-night room accommodations. The Christmas on the Potomac Package starts at $255 for a family of four and includes one-night, a $100 resort credit to use toward restaurants or the spa, and a souvenir ICE! photo.

We’ve made seeing ICE! at the Gaylord National one of our winter traditions. I hope you will, too!

Great news! You can also experience ICE! with Frosty the Snowman at the Gaylord Hotels in Nashville, Kissimmee, and Dallas.

Monticello & Michie Tavern {Charlottesville, VA}

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Michie Tavern #familytravel | MoneywiseMoms

We took a pretty drive through the autumn leaves to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the Michie Tavern. It’s a little over two hours from DC to Charlottesville, and you can make the trip longer (but much more interesting) by traveling on Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Monticello itself is located on a small mountain, so after you purchase tour tickets at the Visitors Center, you can take a quick shuttle ride to the top.

Admission is $8/child for ages 5-11, year-round. Kids under 5 are free. Adults pay $18 between November and February, then $25 between March and October. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation participates in the Blue Star Museums program, which means that admission is FREE between Memorial Day and Labor Day for all military personnel and their families.

Depending on the date of your visit, you may be able to take a Family Friendly Tour, meant for kids ages 5-11. This is included in the regular price of admission. We went after the end date of October 31st, and my big kids (ages 8, 8 and 11) did just fine with the regular tour.

Griffin Discovery Room at Monticello #familytravel | MoneywiseMoms

Before heading up for the tour, be sure and visit the Griffin Discovery Room, across from the Visitors Center. This lets the kids see many of Jefferson’s inventions before seeing them in the real house. In the Discovery Room, they can touch and try everything, and learn how they work. We learned about the Great Clock, turned the Revolving Bookstand, and tried the Polygraph letter-copying device. Once you’re in the home tour, you cannot touch anything (or take any photos, which is why I couldn’t show you the inside). My kids enjoyed getting a preview and learning a bit about Jefferson before we took the tour.

My kids were excited to visit Monticello because they knew a bit about Thomas Jefferson from our visit to Independence Hall. They also made a lot of comparisons to what they had seen at Mount Vernon. It’s generally recommended that the Monticello tour is for older kids; I think that elementary-age is the youngest that can follow along and enjoy themselves.

Monticello Mountain #familytravel | MoneywiseMoms

Coming back down the mountain, you can either take the shuttle or walk the trail. We stopped halfway down to see Jefferson’s gravesite, then made our way back down to the Visitors Center to check out the gift shop. My kids are big on souvenirs but have to spend their own money, so they ended up with pens and pencils with our favorite Jefferson quote: “I cannot live without books.”

From there, we drove about half a mile down the mountain to Michie Tavern, a restored historical site that served travelers more than 200 years ago. Inside, you’ll enjoy a buffet feast and hospitality from servers in period attire. My kids loved the southern cooking–fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, biscuits and greens. It was all-you-can-eat, with adults at $17.50, youth (12-15) at $10.95, and kids (6-11) $6.95. Kids under 6 eat free with a paying adult. The restaurant is only open for lunch (11:30-3:00), but the grounds and tour are open all day.

Michie Tavern Food #familytravel | MoneywiseMoms

We did the self-guided tour, using the Kids’ Treasure Hunt we picked up in the gift shop. That took us to the Metal Smith Shop, The Game & Toy Merchant, and The General Store, where the kids followed clues and learned a bit of history. They were rewarded with gold (chocolate) coins at the end. They really enjoyed seeing the silver and pewter works, vintage and antique toys, and all the goodies in the general store.

Michie Tavern Treasure Hunt #familytravel | MoneywiseMoms

In the same area is Ash Lawn-Highland, the home of James Monroe, fifth President of the United States. We didn’t make it there, so it’s something to look forward to on our next visit to Charlottesville. While we thoroughly enjoyed the fall colors, it would be great to head back to Monticello when the gardens are in full bloom for a different view. There are also numerous holiday events happening at both Monticello and Michie Tavern.


Disclosure: I received tickets for the kids and I to tour Monticello. We paid for my husband and our meals at Michie Tavern. My opinions are my own.

Taking Kids to the Theater (and DC Giveaway!)

Taking Kids to the Theater | MoneywiseMoms

Seeing a theater show, where real people tell a story live on stage (and may even sing and dance!) can be a thrilling experience for the whole family. But taking kids to the theater can be an expensive outing, so it’s worth taking the time to make it the best you can. These 5 tips can help: 

Choose the right show

Consider show length, content and your child’s disposition before spending a lot on theater tickets. For many years, my girls couldn’t sit through a 90-minute movie (they couldn’t stand the loud volume or being in the dark), so seeing a live theater show went on the backburner for a long while. In many major cities, theater companies specifically stage shows for children as young as 3, so look online for recommendations for local theaters and productions. You may also find shows that run less than an hour, which is a great way to get younger kids started on live theater.

Prep for the story

Depending on the age of your kids, you may want them to know the story ahead of time so that they can follow along with the fast-pace on stage. Read the book or watch the movie and talk about the characters, plot and resolution. You could also listen to a cast recording of the music from an upcoming show to get the kids excited about what they’ll be seeing.

Talk about theater etiquette

With any theater visit, talk about what will happen before, during and after the show. When do we need to sit still, and when can we walk around? What should we do during the quiet parts of the show? When do we clap? My kids have a hard time sitting through the previews before a movie, so having to arrive early at a theater, find parking, find our seats and wait for the show is tough. Many theaters will let you get up and walk down to the orchestra pit before the show, to peek in and even talk to the performers. 

Make the kids comfortable

To get through the wait time before the show, consider bringing some quiet activities to keep busy (but be careful about bringing iPads and other electronics, since many theaters won’t allow cameras inside). Some theaters offer booster seats, so ask when you arrive. For your sake, make sure your kids are well-rested and well-fed (I made this mistake once with my son and it won’t happen again!).

Follow up

After the show, talk about what they enjoyed about the performance, costumes, sets and other details. Discuss how the story was interpreted compared to whatever source you shared beforehand. My son is always fascinated with the lighting, props coming from the ceiling, and any aerial effects, so we always have a lot to talk about.


Disney’s Beauty and the Beast on Tour 

The fabulous show Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is returning to Washington DC this January 6-11th at the Warner Theatre. Tickets are on sale now! The show is currently on the West Coast and is traveling across the country over the next few months. Find tickets for your city

Beauty and the Beast | Taking Kids to the Theather | MoneywiseMoms

Giveaway Time!

Whether you’re a DC-area local or would like to travel in for the show, one lucky MoneywiseMoms reader will win 4 tickets to see Beauty and the Beast at the Warner Theatre for the opening night performance on Tuesday, January 6th. If you’re reading this in an email or RSS feed, you’ll need to click over to the blog to enter on the Rafflecopter widget.

a Rafflecopter giveaway
This giveaway is open to the US and ends at 12:00 midnight ET on November 14, 2014. I’ll email the winner, who will have 48 hours to repond and accept their prize. The winner will pick up the show tickets at the Will Call window.


Disclosure: Warner Theatre is providing the tickets for this giveaway, and my family is receiving tickets to see the show.
Original photo by Mickey Thurman on Flickr.

Love Letter {Favorite Family Game}

Love Letter Card Game | Favorite Family Game | MoneywiseMoms
Love Letter is a fabulous card game that friends shared with us over the summer. It has quickly become a family favorite game–how can I tell? Because it’s played over and over again, it’s taught to all friends and family who visit, and then it’s loved by those friends and family (just like the DC Deck Building Game!). This game is very easy to learn and play. The game play is compact (you only have one card in your hand since there are only 16 in the whole deck), but it’s so clever. It plays differently every time, and it plays quickly. That’s always a positive thing when you’re playing a strategy game with kids. If it doesn’t go their way, you can just play it again.

The “story” is that that there’s a princess who is being wooed. She has locked herself in the palace, and you must rely on others to take your “love letter” to her. Each hand, the goal is to be the last one standing (and earn a cube/point). Each turn, you draw one card and choose one of your two to play down in front of you. Knowing how many cards there are of each type is part of the strategy, particularly for the “guessing” cards. Each hand is played until only one player is left; that player gets a point cube. Hands continue until someone wins the right number of cubes to end the game (the number depends on how many players there are).

Game Setup for Love Letter Card Game | Favorite Family Game | MoneywiseMoms

The deck has 8 different types of cards, each with a different rule of play. Part of the strategy is figuring out how best to play a high- or low-point card. With deduction and a combination of luck and strategy, it makes for an even playing field for both kids and adults.

Love Letter is for 2-4 players, and while the box says “Ages 8 and up,” of course we’ve played with younger kids. They do just fine. Reading is key, so keep that in mind. We’ve now played it many many times, and I can tell you that it’s a lot more fun with 3-4 players than just two. It’s an Americanized version of a Japanese game.

Cards from Love Letter Card Game | Favorite Family Game | MoneywiseMoms 
Love Letter is less than $8 at Amazon, which makes it a truly great inexpensive gift for an upcoming birthday or the holidays. Want free shipping? Sign up for a FREE 30-day Trial of Amazon Mom, which gives you Prime 2-day shipping and other Amazon Mom benefits for the next 30 days.


Looking for more family games or gift ideas? We also love Fandooble and King of Tokyo.

5 Ways to Save on Halloween Costumes

Are you ready for Halloween? There’s still plenty of time to dress up and have a fun time! Halloween is not a “big” holiday at our house, but my kids do like putting costumes together and trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. Over the years, we’ve done all these ways to save on Halloween costumes. Add your tips below!

Ways to Save on Halloween Costumes | MoneywiseMoms
Host a Costume Swap
Within your moms’ club, church group or neighborhood, send out an invite asking for costumes to swap. Just label your costumes so you know who to return them to, and borrow away. My MOMS Club did this for years, and it was a great way to get a new-to-you costume for zero dollars.

Buy Used Costumes
You may not have a group to swap with, so keep an eye out for gently used costumes in thrift stores, at yard sales, and on neighborhood Facebook selling groups, Ebay and Craigslist.

DIY or Make your own | Ways to save on Halloween costumes | MoneywiseMoms
DIY/Make Your Own
If you enjoy doing DIY, whether it’s sewing or just using a glue gun (like my DIY Owl), you can make a costume to fit your child. We’ve even made a costume with tape and a paper plate! You can even make the hottest costume of the season–Olaf the Snowman! Download this free pattern from Craftsy and sew this beginner’s costume.

Use what you have | Ways to Save on Halloween Costumes | MoneywiseMoms
Use What You Have
This is what my kids usually do, since we’ve had a lot of dress-up clothes over the years. Just putting together a cape, scarf, boots, etc. can be the basis for a lot of different costumes.  One of the ways we make an old costume “new” is by adding face paint. My husband decided a few years ago that he wanted to tackle this, and he did a great job on our Tiger’s face. He looks forward to doing this every year now, and we always use the Snazaroo Face Painting Kit. It has a great instruction booklet to help you learn.

Buy Costumes | Ways to Save on Halloween Costumes | MoneywiseMoms
Buy a Costume Online
Why online? The selection in most stores like Target & Walmart is small, while the prices at party stores are outrageous (plus there’s so much gross stuff there I don’t want my kids to see). Plus, when you shop online, you can use coupon codes for a discount and get cash back. I’ve invested in costumes over the years because I knew they’d be used 3-5 years in our dress-up bin (then, I either sell them to recoup some cost or hand-them-down). If you go that route, pick costumes that will be used again and again–like animals, a Harry Potter robe, or (in our case) a dragon. That costume was worn daily for months!

What are your ways to save on halloween costumes?

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means I earn a tiny percentage when you purchase from one of the links (at no additional cost to you). Thanks for supporting MoneywiseMoms!

Linked up to Weekend Bloggy Reading at Serenity Now.

The Strong National Museum of Play {Rochester, NY}

Strong Museum of Play #familytravel
This past August, we took a week-long trip to upstate New York, mostly to see Niagara Falls, but also to visit The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester. I’d read about it in Family Fun magazine years ago, and ever since then, I’d wanted to visit. It was an amazing place! I’m dubbing it the “Happiest Place on Earth” for geek families like ours. It had everything we love, all in one place: toys, books, computers, games, tons of hands-on fun, and great food. It was a huge highlight of our vacation.

Strong National Museum of Play | American Comic Book Heroes #familytravel
The exhibit American Comic Book Heroes is set up for kids to “train” to be a superhero, with all kind of fun activities as well as some historic comic book storytelling. My kids got to test their strength and balance, climb a skyscraper and ride the Super Flight aerial course. Super fun!

I didn’t get any good pictures of the One History Place area, but it’s a full-scale home showing what life was like a century ago. My daughters dressed up and role-played in the kitchen and other rooms. Reading Adventureland had sections for all ages of readers, but my kids most loved the Wizard’s Workshop (of course!), with a wink to their favorite series.

Arcade at Strong National Museum of Play #familytravel
My husband’s favorite section–by far–was eGameRevolution, which is not only the first permanent video game exhibit in the U.S., but also had a full-size 1980’s arcade. He showed the kids all the games he played as a teen, and really enjoyed playing four-player games together. We spent a good long time in this area, where the kids got to try everything from historic Pong to current PC games. We spent a little money on tokens to use the arcade, but there was plenty to do for free.

Sesame Street at the Strong National Museum of Play #familytravel
A whole section of the museum is devoted to the history of Sesame Street. I got such a kick out of sitting on the famous stoop, and while most of the activities were too young for my big kids, there were lots of hands-on learning experiences.

The Wegmans Super Kids Market was the best iteration of this children’s museum staple that I have ever seen. Not only was it HUGE and had all the extra sections–deli, butcher, seafood, bakery, etc.–but the registers actually let you scan your items (every single item has a UPC code) and rings up a real paper receipt. My girls spent quite a bit of time in here role-playing, shopping and playing cashier. Another typical children’s museum section was Kid to Kid, with a focus on communication. The kids climbed on a whaling ship to learn semaphore and played post office.

Mid-day, we needed a break and were totally prepared for the typical yucky (and expensive) museum food, so we were pleasantly surprised to find a full-service Bill Gray’s in the Skyliner Diner in the front lobby. We had a great meal (and then came back for half-price milkshakes later in the afternoon) and sat and ate while watching the vintage Carousel. There’s also a food court if that’s more your speed.

Giant Toys at Strong National Museum of Play #familytravel
TimeLab showcased toys and trends for each decade. My husband and I laughed seeing the toys we’d had as kids, and it was fun showing the many lunchboxes and other trends to our kids. The National Toy Hall of Fame area focused on classic toys like Slinky, Etch a Sketch, and Mr. Potato Head, with giant versions to play with. We also loved the Game Time! exhibit, which had huge versions of classic games (like Battleship, above), and a great display on the history of board games.

Admission is $13.50 for ages 2 and older; under 2 is free. The Strong is part of the ACM reciprocal program, so you may be able to get a 50% discount on your tickets if you’re a member of a Children’s Museum in your local area.

Garden at Strong National Museum of Play #familytravel
As if this wasn’t enough, there’s also a 1700-gallon Rainbow Reef Aquarium in the museum, plus a Butterfly Garden (for an extra fee). Right outside, we strolled through the Discovery Garden, where we found these adorable fairy houses and art installed. Plus, across the street was a city park with huge tube slides. We spent some time there and walking around the fountains after the museum kicked us out closed.

The Strong was truly the BEST museum we have ever visited–and we’ve been to a lot of them! Subscription (Lego Rental Service) Giveaway Giveaway at MoneywiseMoms

It’s been three months now, and we’re still thoroughly enjoying our experience with If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a Lego rental service, sort of like Netflix + Lego. Sets come to your house, you build them (as many times as you like), then send it back and get the next one on your queue.


The last few sets haven’t even made it to the kids, I have to admit. One was the Technic Racer, a 24-inch long race car that my husband took days to build. He let them help a little, but it was his project. Our current set is the Palace Cinema, which we’re only 2/3 of the way through building. It’s been so much fun as a family to work a little, go on with our day, then come back to it. Everyone is getting a kick out of all the little details, like the old-fashioned film camera, the theater seats and the popcorn machine.

Lego Theater | Giveaway at MoneywiseMoms 

I really want you to try Pley! It’s such a great way to try out Lego sets without buying them. You can try out several sets a month for less than the price of one.


One lucky MoneywiseMoms reader will win a 6-month Super Fan Membership, one will win a 3-month Super Fan Membership, and everyone who enters will get a promo code for one FREE Month so you can try it for yourself. I’m using a Rafflecopter widget for this giveaway, so be sure and check out all four ways you can enter the giveaway:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This giveaway ends at midnight ET on Friday, September 26th. If you’re reading this in an email, you’ll need to click over to the blog to see the Rafflecopter entry form.


Disclosure: Pley is providing the prizes for this giveaway.

Kids Chore Chart with Finish Dishwasher Detergent

CBias Disclosure Sept 2014Kids Chore Chart with Finish Dishwasher Detergent #SparklySavings #shop

No one enjoys cleaning their house, but as my kids have gotten older, at least it’s gotten easier–because I have their help. I really don’t miss the days of having three kids under age three! We’ve kept our kids’ chores pretty simple, to make it easier for them (and mom and dad) to remember who does what. We have three kids so we brainstormed three types of chores: kitchen, laundry and bathrooms. Those are the tasks that need to be done every day, and my kids (ages 8, 8 and 11) are in charge of them. We have a simple chore chart to keep track, and at the beginning of each new week, we rotate the jobs. Each child keeps that chore for the week.

Chore Chart How-To | #SparklySavings #shop
It’s easy to make a chore chart to keep your kids on track:

1) Pick up a small wooden chalkboard and chalk pen ( found mine at Walmart for just $2.97 each).
2) Label your chalkboard with chores.
3) Decorate your chart (if desired). I used washi tape, but you could also have the kids paint or draw on the wood.
4) Use a stapler to attach a piece of ribbon to the back of your chart for hanging.

Kids Chore Chart with Finish Dishwasher Detergent #SparklySavings
With three kids, we came up with three jobs. If you have fewer or more kids, think about ways to “even out” the chores to make it fair. The other household chores (vacuuming, sweeping, etc.) are either done by Mom or Dad, or we tackle them as a family over the weekend. But these are the “big three” that get done daily:

#SparklySavings with Finish Tabs dishwasher detergent | MoneywiseMoms

  • sorts laundry into hot-medium-cold loads
  • carries baskets up and down the stairs
  • helps fold laundry
  • puts laundry away

One of my biggest pet peeves is how it seems everyone’s shirts, pants and socks are always inside out. With a laundry helper, it’s their job to right-side-out everything before we fold it and put it away.

#SparklySavings with Finish Tabs dishwasher detergent | MoneywiseMoms

  • change the hand towels daily
  • make sure there’s an extra roll of TP in every bathroom*
  • vacuum the floors of each bathroom twice per week
  • use wipes to clean the sinktop in each bathroom
  • restock tissue boxes around the house

*I’m so so glad I added this to the chore list. Seemed like it was always me who would get surprised by an empty roll! It hasn’t happened since.

#SparklySavings with Finish Tabs dishwasher detergent | MoneywiseMoms

  • empty the dishwasher each morning
  • help set and clear the table for dinner
  • help load the dishwasher in the evening and add dishwasher detergent
  • take out the kitchen trash on trash days

Our kitchen is a busy place! I truly appreciate all the help the kids give cleaning and doing chores for our family. Be sure and supervise kids when they’re handling dishwasher detergent; I like that Finish has single-use tabs so they get the amount just right.

#SparklySavings with Finish Tabs dishwasher detergent | MoneywiseMoms

We have tons of dishes each day, with a family of five and all the cooking I do. Ever since we got a new dishwasher a few years ago, I’ve been a loyal customer of Finish Dishwasher Detergent. It does the job at a price I like, and now I’m excited to try their newest product: Finish Quantum, which is great for family dishes because it uses hydrogen peroxide instead of harsh chemicals.

Finish Tabs at Walmart #SparklySavings #CollectiveBias

When you head to your local Walmart, you’ll easily find Finish products–like Quantum, All-in-One Powerball Tabs, All-in-One Gelpacs, Gel and Powder–in the Paper & Cleaning aisle. You’ll also find Rollback prices until October for clean dishes at a great discount. Remember that you can combine Rollback prices with a coupon, too!

Thanks to #CollectiveBias for this fun #SparklySavings campaign!