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Holiday Travel Planning Guide – Hint: Buy Early

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One of my favorite things to do when I have my adult children home is to go to church. We always went as a family when they were growing up and having them join in when they are home brings back great memories. The last time they came home, I stood in our row with Jonathan and Joshua sitting next to me and fought back tears of gratitude. At the end of the service, the music swelled loudly, our cue to leave the sanctuary and make room for the next service in our large church.

Bob and I got separated from the boys in the exiting crowd and when I looked back to see where they were, I was stunned to see the two boys wrestling in the aisles. Jonathan had Joshua in a headlock and Joshua was trying to punch him in the kidneys to break the lock.

Oy vey. Some things never change. “We were just having some fun!” they declared as I grabbed them by the ears and they straightened up.

Family times are the best times.

They Kay family loves to get together for the holidays, but travel can be expensive. Knowing when to buy those airline tickets can mean the difference between paying cash for your holiday travel or going into further credit card debt.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are still weeks away, but October is the month you should look to book flights for both holidays.

In fact, travel app Hopper recently released its Holiday Travel Index which includes data on when to fly and buy for both holidays. Here’s a few findings I found from the study:

  • Although Thanksgiving travel is expensive (even more so this year than last — domestic flight prices are currently averaging about $325 round-trip compared to $288 last year), prices won’t vary much during the month of October. You can put it off for a bit, but make sure you book your Thanksgiving flights before Halloween.
  • If you wait to book your flight until after Halloween, it will cost you about $1 per day, every day that you wait. Prices will then begin spiking closer to $10 per day during the final two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving.
  • Unlike Thanksgiving prices, holiday flight prices tend to rise more steadily as Christmas approaches, and then spike heavily in the last two weeks.
  • The best time to book Christmas flights this year is the first weeks of October. If you have to wait to buy, make sure you watch prices closely, as they will fluctuate and then start spiking moderately 15-25 days prior to departure. They will spike dramatically (about $7 per day) in the final two weeksleading up to Christmas.
  • If your plans are flexible, you can save the most money by leaving on Tuesday, December 19 and returning Thursday, January 4

Keep in mind that it’s important to budget for holiday travel in conjunction with all the other expenses accrued during the holidays.

In our family, we value experiences over things. This means we will spend money to get kids home and spend less on their gifts once they get here. After all, it would be boring if we didn’t have Jonathan and Joshua fighting in the church aisles during the holidays.

Teaching Children Generosity During the Holidays

Parents want their kids to learn how to give back to others, but sometimes it’s a challenge to know how to do that effectively.

When my kids were growing up, from the time they were toddlers, they worked alongside us to gather groceries for the local food pantry, they were with us as a family when we collected used coats from the neighborhood for the homeless shelter and they helped us buy toys for the Marine Corps “Toys for Tots” program, handing them off to a handsome Marine in the store. The result is that they grew up thinking of others during the holidays and today, they give back in proactive ways to communities both home and abroad.

 

The first Tuesday of December is “Giving Tuesday” when there is an effort across the nation to give back to our communities. This year, my family and I participated in Walmart’s Holiday Sing to Salute Military Families campaign by singing classic holiday songs! Who would have thought that teaching your kids to give through song could be so much fun? This is a nationwide campaign that encourages the public to sing a portion of a classic holiday song while capturing it on video, and then post the video on social media channels to show support for members of the military and their families. Through these actions, Walmart will donate up to $1 million to Fisher House Foundation, which for the past 25 years has provided a home-away-from-home for military and veterans’ families whose loved ones are in a nearby military or veterans hospital. In my visits to Fisher House and my work with them, I’ve seen how important this is to military families.

The goal of the donation is to help Fisher House Foundation fund a full year of lodging for military families staying at Fisher Houses on U.S. military bases. Additionally, Walmart launched the campaign with a $500,000 donation to Fisher House Foundation.

From now until Dec. 22, the public can participate by taking the following steps:

  1. Create a holiday greeting or video of one or more individuals singing a portion of a classic holiday song.
  2. Post the greeting or video on a public Instagram, Twitter or YouTube account with the hashtag #Sing2Salute. If you’re posting on YouTube, make sure the hashtag is in your video’s title and post description.
  1. In the post, tag a friend and call on them to participate.

As always, your posted content should comply with the guidelines of the social media platform you choose. For each public post on Instagram, Twitter or YouTube using the hashtag #Sing2Salute during the campaign, Walmart will donate $100, up to $1 million, to Fisher House Foundation. To learn more about Walmart’s Holiday Sing to Salute Military Families campaign, review rules for participation and see featured videos, visit www.walmart.com/sing2salute. To see my family’s salute, take a look here or follow me @elliekay .

Another way my kids and I are giving back is through the Greenlight A Vet campaign to help create visible support for veterans nationwide. We can show support for veterans this season by changing one light bulb in our home to green, raising awareness on social media, volunteering and serving with veteran groups in their community, or starting a mentor/mentee relationship with a veteran.

Additionally, parents and their kids can celebrate the Red Kettle Campaign’s 125th anniversary this year. Participating stores, like Walmart stores and Sam’s Club locations nationwide, will host red kettles and bell ringers throughout December. Have your kids put in their coins and explain to them that this act of giving will provide food, clothing, shelter, financial assistance and other services to those in need.

Ellie Kay

Thanksgiving Traditions

Thankful Traditions

The Kay family photo for Woman’s Day magazine.

Not every “savings” can be measured in dollars and cents. One of the things we emphasized in our family is the saving of memories. Our Thankful Tree was featured in a Woman’s Day magazine one year. It took two photographers 8 rolls of film and four hours to get one 3 x 5 photo in the magazine. Joshua was missing for one roll of film and we didn’t notice until we saw him making faces from behindthe photographers and we asked, “What are you doing back there?”

The tip we gave is how we’ve stayed in touch with family and friends during this holiday. On November 1st, we made a Thankful Tree on poster board and put it on our wall or front door. The tree was bare because the leaves that we made out of construction paper have not yet been gathered. The leaves have the person’s name on them and say, “Uncle Steve is thankful for _________.” But we left the tree bare at the beginning of the season to teach the children how barren our lives are without the giving of thanks.

We made and sent the leaves to friends and family around the world along with a self-addressed envelope. When these envelopes came back, the children got excited as they took turns opening them. At dinner that night, we read the leaf and give thanks along with those who are thankful and put the leaf on our tree. By Thanksgiving Day, we had a tree full of thanks. We carefully saved the leaves in an envelope marked by the year and kept all in our Thanksgiving decoration box. Each year, we read the leaves from past years.

We never know when this year’s leaf might be someone’s last, or which family might have a new leaf on next year’s tree. So we give thanks.  These days, we gather “thankful comments” from facebook, email and twitter, but the point is we are connecting with friends and family in a meaningful way.

This holiday, what are YOU thankful for?  Besides our health and our family, we are thankful for a new baby in the family, a newly commissioned LT, a son on the USMA Color guard, a Marine who safely came back from Iraq and for a daughter who just got engaged.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ellie Kay

 

Black Friday: Fact or Fiction?

The Kay Family, Christmas on the Move, 1995

The Kay family has been waking at the crack of dawn the Friday after Thanksgiving for almost two decades in order to save as much as 50% on our Christmas purchases. But does all that hot chocolate and bleary-eyed effort really pay off? There is a lot of misinformation about this retailers’ dream day, so I’d like to set the record straight on what is fact and what is fiction regarding this special day.

  • Black Friday sales begin on Black Friday.

FICTION:  It seems that the holiday sales begin earlier and earlier each year. We are used to almost bypassing Thanksgiving as a holiday and decorations go out in stores even before Halloween is over. While some stores like, JC Penneys have issued press releases that they will “honor Thanksgiving as a family day” and not open until 6:00 AM on Friday, other stores aren’t sharing the sentiment. For example, some big sales will start on Thanksgiving day, including stores like Sears, Wal-Mart and K-Mart; you’ll find them at Bradsdeals or BlackFriday So if you need an excuse to get away from your annoying sister-in-law and walk off some of that turkey, you may want to do some shopping on Thanksgiving.

  • Getting a store credit card to get a discount will hurt your FICO score & you should never use any credit  card for purchases.

FACT: Every time you open a line of credit, or there’s an inquiry about your credit you run the risk of getting a hit on your Fair Isaac Credit Score, or FICO. So trying to receive that extra 20% off all your purchases and then closing down the account in a couple of months is usually a very bad idea. It’s especially bad if you’re going to buy a new car or a home in the next several months. Plus, if you are someone who is prone to run up your credit cards and not pay off the balance each month, then you’re in for a double whammy. Your best friend may tell you she does this all the time to get the discounts, and all she’s telling you is that she also gets hit on credit score. Give her the facts, and help a sister out!

When it comes to using a credit card, you are are often better off using credit if you know you can pay the balance at the next billing cycle. It will help you in a dispute with an online vendor and can help you earn rewards points to buy other gifts. Check out LowCards for the rewards and cash back conus you might get. Some credit cards have their own extended warranties if you buy that item (think electronics) with the card. They’ll take a one year warranty and double it. Go to Credit.com to find out the details on what your card is offering.

  • Price Matching Doesn’t Apply on Black Friday

FICTION:  Wal-Mart has offered to match competitor’s ads for years, and this year is no exception. Last year, Best Buy, Amazon, and Home Depot got in on the price comping, and this year you can expect even more including
Target.  So bring in the ads to these various stores to get the good deals (some stores will even match online offers), and save those receipts as well. Because if you have an elite credit card, including  or some offered by Citi and Visa, they will offer a price-protection feature where they will refund you the difference if you find a lower price for the item you’ve bought. For example,the  Chase Freedom card refunds up to $500 per eligible purchase and up to $3500 per calendar year and is valid 90 days after purchase.

Black Friday is not the busiest shopping day of the year.

FACT:   According to the International Council of Shopping Centers the busiest shopping day of the year is actually the Saturday before Dec. 25. In fact, only 35% of respondents plan on shopping on BF—which is more good news for you. It won’t be as crowded as you thought!

  • They give away products for free on Black Friday

FICTION: Yeah, right. You may have been dipping into the cider a bit early if you really believe there are free door busters on Black Friday. The most you will get is some cheesy little ornament worth $2.99 given to the first 100 customers. This also means that sleeping outside the store to get something you think is free.

  • The Best prices of the year are found on Black Friday

FACT: Sorta. There is no doubt that some items will never be cheaper than on Black Friday, but other items may be part of a large retailer’s push to get those Saturday-before-Christmas shoppers and may cut their Black Friday prices. You can use a cool tool at Decide.com to help you figure out whether you should buy that item now or later. It uses data to help you decide the best time to buy a certain product.

  • Black Friday deals are worth sleeping on the curb to get

FICTION:  If you really love the great outdoors and want to sleep under the starts to get one of the 3 HDTV deals that Best Buy is offering in your city, then knock yourself out. But really, this year there are more BF deals available online and in the store as well. For example, this year Kohl’s is offering its online shoppers all early bird deals on Nov 21 and all day on Thanksgiving!  So unless you just have a whole lot of free time on your hands, I’d pass on the sleepover.

  • Be careful before you buy because you may not be able to get a full refund on some of your Black Friday purchases

FACT: Retailers sometimes tighten their return policies during the holidays.  I remember one year I got 35% less than what I paid for a camera because of restocking fees that Best Buy charged me. Not fun. Other stores may only give you an in-store refund, so you are locked into spending your refund at that store. So be sure you know the store’s refund policy before you slap down the dough.

  • There are special, “secret” deals online that are not in the circulars.

FACT:   In recent years, on Thanksgiving Day, retailers like Best Buy, Target, and Wal-Mart have advertised extra Black Friday deals that were not listed in their circulars. These “secret” deals are only found online or with the store’s app, so the trick is to find them early so you’ll know about them when you arrive at the store on Friday. Get the Dealnews app to find new listings.

Myth: Cyber Monday offers the same caliber deals online as Black Friday in-store sales. For those of you who’d rather fully digest your Thanksgiving meal and not stand in line starting at 3 a.m. on Black Friday, we understand. Shopping for the best deals can be exhausting, but if you wait until Cyber Monday you may be missing out on some of the highest markdowns of the holiday season.

Happy Savings!

Ellie Kay

 

Half-Priced Holiday: Christmas on a Budget

With so many people unemployed or underemployed this year, it’s easy to ask the question: Is it possible for consumers to emerge debt free this season, and how can they do that? This is a great question to ask, and I believe that the key is to simplify your holidays by developing a strategy for your purchases and executing that plan throughout the entire season rather than waiting until the last minute. We have seven children and have seen our finances run the full gamut of possibilities. When we were first married, we were essentially paupers and didn’t even have enough money for groceries for a few weeks. Now, we’re debt free in every area, but we still want to be purposeful with our money. So my plan works whether you’re flush in cash or your cash has been flushed!

Joshua gave Jonathan cars he painted with whiteout. The only problem: they were Jonathan’s cars to begin with.

Once you’ve decided to develop a Christmas spending strategy, you may be wondering where to begin. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you shop to save:

 

SpecificSet aside a specific “cash” budget—don’t use credit cards unless you know you can pay them at the month’s end.

Simplify – Gifts don’t need to be elaborate, especially during a recession. Think “practical” for friends and family who have been hit by the recession and consider giving gift cards that they can use to purchase essentials like food and clothing. These can still be customized to be more personal but the practical aspect of this gift can be more far reaching than any other gift and it’s better than cash.

Strategize Decide which gifts you’ll purchase and match them with seasonal sale ads.  Check off the items on your list and make note of any special limitations (i.e. ‘price only effective for three hours, limit two Ipods per person, etc.). Prioritize the stores you’ll shop according to limitations and values.

Split It – Follow the old “divide and conquer” rule when shopping holiday sales by going with a friend or your spouse. If there are multiple purchase discounts, you can split it and take advantage. You might also have a “two for one” special and share the savings.

Stick to Your Guns – Be aware that you may be tempted to keep buying even when you’ve already conquered your list. Marketers are good at placing irresistible bargains in eye catching places. Remember the main rule of the shopping season:  You can go broke saving money.

Steal It – Be sure to save some money in your budget for the after-Holiday sales. You can often get non-perishable gifts for next year’s list at anywhere from 50 to 75 percent off retail.

Since financial stressors are the number one source of arguments in most homes, getting a grip on holiday spending and trying to keep it on a budget makes sense.  You may be wondering how to get other family members on board because sometimes you aren’t the one overspending—it’s your kids or spouse.

Having a plan and sticking to it not only simplifies your holidays, it can simplify your life. The recession is a good excuse to restructure the way you do the holidays, and it’s a good idea to have a family meeting. Set up a fun night with hot chocolate & marshmallows and everyone’s favorite holiday dessert. Then explain that with so many people hurting financially around the world, you are thinking that it’s a good ime to focus on the gifts of love that we can give and receive during this time of year. After you outline your holiday spending plan, ask everyone to contribute their ideas as to how they can stay on budget but still show their appreciation and value for the people in your world. We’ve done this with our children, and you’d be amazed at the creative ideas they initiate that also save us money!

The Gift of Communication – Christmas Gifts that Keep Giving

In my series on “Gifts that Keep on Giving” I’m reminded of my college daughter, Bunny, and the fun we had staying at the Drake hotel in Chicago on a business trip. I really miss seeing her and today’s gift is perfect for her and her friends, it’s the “gift of communication.” When she was little, she talked non stop and now that she’s grown, she still love to chat whenever possible!

In my work with families who are on a budget, I have found that many have had to rethink their cell phone plan. In an effort to pay the bills, they may have had to cancel a cell phone plan or in some cases, they don’t have the credit to establish that service. In my quest to find a great communication alternative, I came across a cool new partnership in prepaid plans. This year, if you want to give the gift of communication to a family who is on a budget or a struggling college student, you can do so through a prepaid phone from Boost and Virgin Mobile as well as prepaid mobile broadband with Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go plans.

This is a partnership that is easy for me to talk about because it really benefits people who are on a budget. Let’s face it, those who need to limit their expenses, still need the ability to have a cell phone or connect to the internet. Whether you are happily employed or unemployed, it’s important to be able to pursue work situations through the use of a cell phone and through broadband connectivity.

Prepaid cell phones:



I think that prepaid cell phones are perfect for those who might not otherwise be able to afford or have the credit to qualify for a contract plan. I’ve also found they are a good option for families who have members who routinely go over their traditional cell phone limits, sometimes costing their parents lots of dollars in extra charges each month. (Ahem, not that this has ever happened to the Kay family! All I will say is: the leaves were raked and the laundry was folded by penitent teens for the several weeks.)



Prepaid plans from companies like Boost and Virgin Mobile were created for consumers such as college students who want to be able to afford freedom and independence on a budget. However, economics aside, cell phone plans such as the Virgin Mobile $25 Beyond Talk plan or the Boost Mobile $50 Unlimited plan keep both students and their parents happy. Parents appreciate being able to keep in contact with their kids, especially if there’s an emergency. On the other hand, students, many of whom spend little time in their dorm rooms or apartments, like the flexibility and convenience of not having check if they’ve gone over their monthly allotted minutes.

Prepaid Mobile Broadband:

Another great gift of communication involves giving the gift of connectivity! Whether you are searching for a job, or the best price on a new pair of jeans, you need to be connected. Virgin Mobile’s Broadband2Go plans offer unlimited 3G, nationwide internet access for $40 a month with no contract. The Virgin Mobile MiFi device allows up 5 wireless enabled devices to connect at one time, so college roommates can share their gift all year long & divide the costs among themselves.

When you are selecting your gifts this year, be purposeful and try to give a gift that will keep on giving the whole year through. And Bunny, keep on calling, I love to hear how those finals are coming along!



Merry Christmas!


Ellie Kay

America’s Family Financial Expert ®


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