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How to be a Brand Ambassador: A Step-by-Step Guide-UPDATED!

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When I was a young mom with five children ten years old and younger, I launched a side hustle as a Brand Ambassador that eventually helped put all those kids through college debt free, and pay for their weddings. It also helped me gain financial independence, start a non-profit, Heroes at Home, to teach financial education to military families, and start a podcast called The Money Millhouse.

Who would have thought a side hustle could grow to become something so meaningful that could do all that?

That is the beauty of following your passion, developing your profession and living your purpose. You never know where a side hustle can lead.

My work in this space led me to be an advocate for new Brand Ambassadors in yet another new side hustle as a Boutique Brand Ambassador Agency.

We began to work with talent who have the skill set to earn a minimum of $5K per deal. We can afford to be choosy and will only work with Brand Ambassadors who are hard working (they can be trusted to get the deliverables completed on time), have high integrity (they won’t promote products that are bad for consumers or sell their mama for a buck), and they are dream talent for PR agencies and corporations (they exceed expectations).

There is a lot to know about this space, and you may be itching to get into it, which is why I created this comprehensive guide on how to be a Brand Ambassador. It is everything you need to know when breaking into this space.

How I got my start as a Brand Ambassador

When my five youngest kids were ten-years-old and under, they made their television debut in a New York local news segment entitled, “The Back to School Garage Sale Fashion Show.”

They strutted their stuff on camera, with sweet little smiles and childish eagerness as I described each item they wore. Then I shared the cost of these items at a Garage Sale versus retail. The overall savings was over $300.

When it came time for the youngest, three-year-old Joshua, to show us his shoes, he lifted his foot and showed the camera to bottom of his shoe. He was a natural.

We went to Dunkin Donuts to celebrate and life got even more exciting for them as one of the patrons recognized the kids from the segment they just watched on the news. “Hey, weren’t you kids just on television on the news?”

They handled their fame with quiet dignity and grace with Joshua shouting,

“I showed them my shoe” as he held up his foot to demonstrate.

They were celebs—for 15 minutes!

That weekly TV segment was a spot I secured several months earlier went I went on the local news to talk about a coupon seminar I was giving that would benefit a local food pantry. I had $200 worth of groceries on the set for which I paid $7.

After the segment ended, I pitched the idea of a weekly savings spot and the producer agreed.

The time came for my first segment, and I totally bombed. I didn’t realize that I needed to talk in short, sound bites for the 4-minute segment. My story went too long and I didn’t even get to my first tip.

It was horrible.

I dusted off my pride, practiced at home, and came back to nail it the next week.

And I nailed it every week for a year.

Those 50+ segments laid the groundwork for eventually becoming a spokesperson as I developed and grew my brand as “America’s Family Financial Expert” ® and “America’s Military Family Expert.” ™

I started as a young, homeschooling mother of many who began a side hustle of writing books and speaking while moving our herd every 1-2 years. As a military spouse, it was hard work while trying to balance a family and life as a mom with a spouse who was often gone.

But this side hustle surprised us all and grew into a six-figure income (working with 100+ brands).

It helped put all the kids through college (debt free), paid for weddings, and provided money in the bank for our financial independence. But it all started somewhere—it started small.

What is a Brand Ambassador?

Before we talk details, let’s look at the difference between a Spokesperson and a Brand Ambassador or Influencer. These terms are often used interchangeably, but amongst the people who work with brands, there is a difference.

Spokesperson

This was the original term for the person who spoke on behalf of an organization or a brand. It’s been a term that has been around over 30 years. A Spokesperson is the face that represents a corporation promoting a brand or product. Sometimes they are CEOs for a company or for a Foundation.

They are sometimes famous people. But the most common kind of Spokespersons are those who are experts in their field, unlike a celebrity spokesperson, who is usually not an expert. With celebrity spokespersons, the rates are quite high, whereas a non-famous expert is more affordable.

Spokespersons usually possess a wide variety of skill sets with a high level of expertise. They are authors or speakers, and are often adept at television and radio interviews. They are able to handle Satellite Media Tours (see SMTs below). They are well-spoken, polished schmoozers at trade shows, or are just good at “in person,” off-the-cuff desk-side interviews in New York City.

Brand Ambassador

With the emergence of social media, the Brand Ambassador, or Influencer, began to evolve.

Those with medium to large social media followings (usually 20K or more) were approached to mention brands, write blogs, and share on their social platforms. They didn’t necessarily to have all the skill sets of the traditional spokesperson.

If they could host a twitter chat with their 20K followers, then it didn’t matter that they couldn’t put two words together in front of a live audience of 500 people.

They could concentrate on their preferred skills within their comfort zone.

Are most brand ambassadors leaving money on the table by not developing ALL the skills found in the traditional Spokesperson?

Yes, they probably are.

But they can still make a good living as they get compensated for blogs, Facebook mentions, tweets, Instastories and Pinterest pins. They don’t have to be adept at television, radio or podcast interviews.

Brand Ambassadors don’t develop the corporate product or service, they simply promote it.

Brand Ambassador tip:

It can be easy for PR firms and their clients to take advantage of brands because most of the social media stand-outs were not familiar with contracts and rates. Most were not represented by agents. To avoid this, find an Agent to represent your contracts, find hidden fees, and get you the best price for the scope of work.

The Skill Set of A Six Figure Influencer

Here are the 5 components that will lead to a successful career as a Brand Ambassador. These have worked for me and my clients thought the years and have lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Brand Ambassador space. They may be different for you and your brand, but they serve as a good starting point.

Speaking

Learning to become a quality speaker was a component in some of the gigs I got.

For example, I did an event for U-Promise that required me to give a speech in New York City in front of 1,000 students and their families for the Jumpstart Coalition partnership where they unveiled the world’s largest piggy bank.

I have another client who gives sponsored speeches at Essence Fest in front of thousands of women and she rocks it every time.

Even today, after more than 2,000 paid speaking events, I still work on becoming a better speaker by receiving post-event debriefs from my Money Millhouse Podcast co-host, Bethany Bayless.

I don’t get my primary feedback from someone not familiar with the space. At this point in my career, I listen to experienced speakers who have my best interests in mind.

Eventually, I worked hard enough to earn the Toastmasters elite Accredited Speaker designation.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Develop your skill set, never stop working on it and remain teachable.

Books/Blogs

I published 15 royalty-based books with major publishers such as Random House, Simon Schuster and Harper Collins subsidiaries. My educational background was business and HR, and I didn’t have certifications such as a CFP, AFC or CPA.

I became an expert by investing 1,000 hours in research and writing each of my 50,000 word books (if you’re doing the math, that’s 15000 hours of research). I keep up-to-date with this blog, and most of the brand ambassador clients I work with have a blog as well.

Blogs can be sponsored by clients who pay them for a product mention. When a blogger makes the jump to books, it becomes a timely media hook that garners the interest of a brand for a potential partnership. A new book creates open doors in television, radio, podcasts, and for other projects.

A quick word about self-publishing and e-books versus royalty based publishers (those who pay YOU to write a book).

A royalty based book has greater weight and is more highly respected in the literary world than a self-published book. Anyone can self-publish if you have the money, but 99% of all book proposals are refused by royalty based publishers.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Make writing part of your platform and don’t exclusively rely on social media or speaking audiences.

Media

As I mentioned above, my time in New York on local media helped me develop a television skill set.

I also began radio interviews when my first book came out, and I learned the value of a hook to make my expertise media worthy and timely. Print media interviews as an SME (Subject Matter Expert) followed, as well as the launch of a very fun (slightly irreverent) financial podcast called The Money Millhouse.

All these components have been used a various deliverables in many of my 100+ contracts.

A great place to develop your media chops is at a conference, FinCon. Money Nerds unite every year at a conference where money and media meet. I have gained vital connections and relationships, as well knowledge and practical tools, at every FinCon I have attended.

The Money Millhouse Podcast with PT, the founder, is a greater introduction to this huge event being held in Washington D.C. this year. Be sure you use this link  if you register and a donation will be made to the non-profit, Heroes at Home.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Develop an informational one-sheet or media kit, listing your areas of expertise. Pitch them to various media outlets and use a service like HARO (Help A Reporter Out) to find potential media outlets.

Repeat Brand Ambassador Work

At least 50% of new contract are referrals or renewals of old contracts.

You will get more spokesperson work if you have already shown viability in the space. If a PR agency or a company likes what you delivered in an existing campaign, they’ll hire you again and again and again.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Become proficient in the various aspects of the Spokesperson skill set to leverage previous work and aim to exceed client expectations. Add “brand ambassador” or “spokesperson” to all your social platform bios as well as your website.

Social Following

I came into the spokesperson arena before social media and was able to get a lot of work even before social platforms became the norm for Brand Ambassadors or Influencers.

However, in the current landscape, building a (legitimate) audience is crucial to your success as a Brand Ambassador.

Increase your following by reading blogs on how to develop your social platforms. Google is your best friend when it comes to finding good, actionable advice out there.

Aim for at least 10K likes or followers on each of your platforms. It’s likely that one platform may exceed involvement than others. Your community may use Facebook more than Twitter or Instagram. You may have a YouTube channel that is very active or Instagram may be your forte.

While you’re building your social following, don’t neglect your email list. If you can build a significant list (aim for 8K for starters), then you’ll be more marketable in this space.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Engage in the kinds of conversations that generate involvement with your community and they will share with others. Don’t over sell on your social platforms or in emails as this will generate community fatigue and even alienation.

The Brand Ambassador Experience from Start to Finish

Step One: Initial PR Ping

The first outreach for a potential Influencer gig is usually a PR firm, who googles experts in the area they are researching (finance, beauty, mommy bloggers, chefs, etc). They then will send an email, fill out a contact message on your website or reach out through social media platforms.

This began to happen to me after my first book, Shop, Save and Share, came out in print. There was a query from Quaker Oats.

Then one from Dial soap.

AND another from Blue Diamond Almonds.

The first time, I wrote back a message that quickly made it clear to the PR representative that I was absolutely clueless and didn’t even know what the outreach was about.

I didn’t get the gig.

I didn’t even know I didn’t get the gig because I didn’t even know there was a gig to get.

The second query was turned over to a speaking agency that repped me at the time and they messed it up because they didn’t know how to handle spokeswork.

The third time, I turned it over to my publisher’s marketing rep and discovered it is against policy for them to represent this kind of work—it’s a conflict of interest. In some cases, it’s even illegal.

Oops!

Thankfully, there was the fourth time a brand reached out. I reached out to a group of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association to see if anyone knew a spokesperson representative. I was connected with a reputable agent and she helped me get my first contract with MasterCard.

She also garnered 25% of my earnings—but 75% of something was better for me than 100% of nothing.

20% commission is common for gigs that the agent brings the talent, and 15% is common for gigs that the talent brings the agent.

Eventually, I was catching items on contracts that my agent wasn’t catching. My business background allowed me to become a master at reading, negotiating and executing my own contracts. And I eventually began representing others on their contracts, as well.

But that took years of experience to achieve. At first, I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I paid dearly for it before I got an agent.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Make it easy for PR people to find you, add the term “Brand Ambassador” and “Spokesperson” to your social platforms, website and in any groups where you are a member. Set up a contact form on your website set up a dedicated website if you don’t already have one for your brand–a social platform isn’t enough.

Step 2: The Initial Conference Call

9 out of 10 initial “Pings” or inquiries from an employee at a PR firm or corporation do not progress past the initial inquiry.

If the Influencer or their agent who answers the inquiry knows how to manage the initial inquiry, then it can progress to an interview or conference call with the potential client.

It’s during this fact-finding conference call that you (or your agent) let them know who you are, how well you do verbally, and what your skill sets look like. They also want to hear what ideas you might have for the project.

Creativity is a must during this phase.

It’s also during this phase you decide if you can get behind the brand or product. I made it a point of never endorsing a product I didn’t wholeheartedly believe in, and that philosophy helped me keep my integrity intact. In addition, as a spokesperson agent, I won’t work with potential clients of mine who would take a deal just for the money. Integrity matters.

This step is where your agent or other team member does the selling. They do the bragging on you and your abilities while you just talk about your projects and passions. You might also be required to sign an NDA (non disclosure agreement), which is not unusual.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Never endorse a product you don’t believe in. Put service first and keep a high level of integrity. Make a point of eliminating “uhs” and “ums” and filler words like “so” and “yeah.” The overuse of these words make you come across to the client as unsure or lacking in confidence. An organization like Toastmasters is a great place to go in order to learn to master the kind of extemporaneous talk that will occur during crucial conference calls.

Step 3: The Money Talk

If the PR firm and/or the client they are representing is interested in you and is seriously considering hiring you as their Brand Ambassador, they will ask what you charge.

If you have an agent, they handle the money talk while you remain the “happy talent.”  At this point, a smart Brand Ambassador or a smart agent asks for a SOW (scope of work) in writing. Otherwise, there can be a he said/she said in terms of what the work the Brand Ambassador will be doing during step 4 or step 5.

There’s an art of negotiating a deal.

I absolutely love this part of the process—whether I’m negotiating my own deal or one on behalf of my clients.

You give a price based on the fair market rates for someone with your following and skill set. I usually start a bit high at this point.

It’s a delicate balance.

You want to price yourself at the value you’re worth without pricing yourself out of the market. I figure if they are interested, then they will be willing to come back during step four and negotiate for a deal within their budget.

At this point, instead of a one in ten chance (as in step one) you have about a 50% chance that the deal could go to a contract.

Brand Ambassador tip:

The money talk is a very important part of the process. Establish a rate card ahead of time and know what the charges are for different deliverables. Make sure your agent (if you have one) or your other team member has also eliminated the filler speech we previously outlined in Step 2’s tip.

Step 4: The Negotiation

After the PR folks have taken your name to pitch to the client, the client may ask for a meeting with you (this only happens about 20% of the time) so that they can decide for themselves. Or, they’ve trusted the PR person, reviewed your media kit and believe you are a good fit.

This step is the reason I decided to become a spokesperson agent.

It is this is the step where brands most often take advantage of the Brand Ambassador.

PR firms are in the business of getting the best value for their client–you can’t blame them for that. But it also means they try to get the brand ambassador to do more work than they proposed in Step 3.  Don’t be afraid of a negotiation, but do be prepared so that you can make the most of the deal that is being discussed.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Read up on how to become a better negotiator, so you can handle this step if you are representing your own contracts. 

Step 5:  The Contract

Once you’ve navigated the negotiation, it’s time to go to contract.

Hopefully, you’ll be chosen as the Brand Ambassador to represent the product, company or goods and services. Be sure you have a professional review the contract. Also understand that someone who may manage a Brand Ambassador may not be familiar with the pitfalls of a Brand Ambassador contract.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

But making sure there are no additional deliverables or restrictions that weren’t disclosed in the negotiation is a basic part of handling the contract.

Recently, I was sent a contract for one of my existing clients from a company we had already signed a half dozen contracts with in the past. To my surprise, there were actually $180,000 in additional deliverables or exclusivity stipulations that they tried to sneak by us in the contract!

All Brand Ambassador work should be paid. This is also why it is important to have your rates laid out ahead of time so you can refer back to them.

Brand Ambassador tip:

Hire a professional to read your contract or partner with a spokesperson agency that can guide you through the sticky wickets of the contract.

Characteristics of a Top Brand Ambassador

Good Brand Ambassadors do the work. If you want to keep getting hired over and over, make sure you are someone companies want to work with.  You will not go very far if you aren’t.

  • Great work ethic–Deliver on time or early. Period. No excuses. I had a prospective client who couldn’t keep her phone appointment with me three times. I know, why did I give her so many chances? My daughter says I’m too nice sometimes, but I like to believe the best in people. However, if she can’t keep a phone appointment with me, how could I trust her to manage the deliverables on a contract?
  • Great questions– A great Brand Ambassador knows the right questions to ask when working with a client. While I (the agent) ask all the deliverable and money questions (the talent doesn’t need to talk money when they have a representative), the client usually asks things like, “What are your expectations?” and, “How do you measure success?” She wants to know the client’s target so she can hit it every time.
  • Great Performance– Repeat work is a big part of income for a Brand Ambassador and getting a client to want you again and again is a gift. If you want to keep getting work, make it your goal to exceed a client’s expectations. This doesn’t mean doing extra work for free (I don’t let her). B it does mean being open to revising work, being flexible and a giving the client better results than they ever dreamed of getting.

The Upward Spiral for a Spokesperson

If you saw the recent A Star is Born with Bradley Cooper andLady Gaga, you know it is a painfully sad story of someone on top who works their way up and then enters a downward spiral to destitution and despair.

That same story can happen to Brand Ambassadors when they believe their own press, think they are better than others, or they let success go to their head.
But just as there is a downward spiral, I believe that there’s also an upward spiral that incorporates the adage, “success begets success.”

Here’s how that happens:

  • Start – The brand ambassadors start somewhere. Some of the best begin as bloggers, writers, podcasters, YouTubers, Instagram Influencers, media personalities, or speakers.
  • Skills – We already discussed the different skills, but the best of the best Brand Ambassador will move outside their comfort zone and develop additional skills. Some bloggers are afraid of public speaking—but a top 5% brand will go to Toastmasters and get over that fear. A skilled podcaster will learn to become a better writer. An old-school book author will learn about social media. They seek to become the EGOT of their space in the marketplace—achieving excellence in all areas.
  • Success – As they develop their skills, they get gigs and execute all the deliverables in their contracts with excellence—exceeding client expectations.
  • More Success – As they are successful in contracts, this leads to their ability to develop even more skills and confidence, which leads to more success. They remain teachable and realize there’s always room for improvement.
  • A Star is Born – Some of the most remarkable and successful spokespersons are people that will never achieve celebrity like Kendal Jenner, who gets a cool mil for an Instagram post. Nonetheless, these top 5% non-celeb spokespersons are stars, like my client Tiffany Aliche, because they are working it and getting better every day.

Deliverables

In the SOW (Scope of Work) and in your spokesperson contract, there will be an Appendix or a specific outline of what you are to deliver as well as the timeline (due dates) for those deliverables. When working for my brand ambassador clients, if these areas of the SOW or the contract we get from the corporation are not clearly defined, I’ll push back and ask for clarification.

Here are examples of the various kinds of deliverables that are part of a working brand ambassadors rate sheet:

  • Per day or part of general appearance day (national TV, local market media TV, print, radio interviews, trade show appearances, podcasts, press conferences, etc.); per pre-tour development day.
  • Per travel day, if required, prior to or following work days
  • SMT (Satellite TV Media Tour) day – These are one of the most lucrative aspects of a contract because they are VERY difficult and require the highest skill set for a spokesperson. You have to be 100% in your messaging (you deliver at least the primary client message in each and every interview.) You usually arrive in a studio at 4:30 a.m. (EST) for makeup and rehearsal, then you have your first media hit around 6:00 a.m. with a morning news show via Satellite. You continue this for 3-4 hours and anywhere from 10 to 35 TV shows. They key is to be upbeat, perky and consistently deliver messaging the entire time. These SMTs earn 3K for a neophyte up to 30K for a non-celebrity pro.
  • Keynote message (speaking)
  • Workshop/Seminar or Breakout Session
  • Panel (as a panelist or moderator)
  • Media training day – This is usually the day before you kick off a campaign or the day before an SMT or RMT. This rate is usually 2x a social post.
  • RMT (Radio Media Tour) day– This is where you are on 10 to 30 radio shows, back-to-back, delivering key messaging for your client. This are usually done from a landline from your home or office and you can even do these in your pajamas. They make about 10x what one social mention makes for you.
  • Facebook Live – A client will pay you to go live on either their platform or your own platform. To go live on the Influencer’s platform is a premium deliverable and is usually about 6x the cost of one social mention on Facebook. Make sure the contract doesn’t include a “Facebook Live” bundled into all the other social deliverables, because this item should rate more.
  • Email or Newsletter – Believe it or not, some clients still like newsletters or a blast of a promotion to your list. This is never free for the client and the price you get for doing this depends on how big your list is and your open rate (how many people open your email when you send it out).
  • Fully-sponsored podcast appearances – You can go on to a podcast like The Money Millhouse and if a sponsor is covering it, then you get paid to go on the show and mention the product, campaign or idea. Make sure to give disclosure about the partnership, but more about that in the FTC/Compliance section below.
  • Initial use of name and likeness and continued use – You should get paid for the use of your name and likeness. If the client wants to continue to use it on a social platform or a website, then they rent it monthly.
  • Webinar – These are very popular and can be sponsored as long as they don’t seem like a commercial. They need to be organic or your Brand Ambassador presence can quickly turn into that of a commercial huckster. Keeping it informational, educational and non-commercial is the key to see both the brand ambassador and the client succeed in this kind of partnership.
  • Pitching tips (up to 3 tips) – Separate from Interviews. You get paid to create pitches for media and then if the client pitches them and you get a hit, then you also get paid to go on the show (or the media.)
  • Branded Educational Content – helping companies develop education material as a public service is really hot these days. You step in to help develop this and you put a friendly face on a corporation so that this content is more human.
  • 5 Day Course – Pricing varies depending on deliverables, but you are creating the course for the brand and will get compensated accordingly.
  • Branded 1-sheet PDF with client links – this is a product that you create with the input from the client.
  • Video Series – you get paid per video and the length of the video needs to be defined. There’s a world of pricing difference between a 1 hour video and a 3-minute video.

Important Note on the Federal Trade Commission

I’m not an attorney, but I know how to read a brand ambassador contract. I’ve been known to catch more nonsense than our attorneys who are not working in this space full time. I read, push back and sign every contract that has my name on it for myself or my Brand Ambassador clients.

A big part of every contract is FTC disclosures.

In short, you have to disclose any material connection between you and the corporate client you are working alongside. You have to let your public know you are being compensated in some way, whether financially or materially. If you are in doubt about what this kind of disclosure looks like, then look at a recent letter written to influencers from a key official at the FTC and make sure you are in compliance.

The corporate contract will outline, specifically, how you are to disclose in the different forms of media. Follow that part of the contract as if your life depends on it—because your life as an Influencer does depend on following those rules.

Remember Your Why

As you navigate new territories in this space, remember why you are doing what you are doing.

If it’s all about the money with and that’s all you care about, then please don’t call me. I’m not interested in working with you. I want to work with people care about something more than money.

I entered into these waters as a side hustle from home, to supplement our family income and my own income as an author/speaker. I started as a mompreneur who saw that she was leaving money on the table.

I didn’t like that.

My goals were pretty simple: to send my kids through college (debt free) and to pay for their weddings. Along the way, I not only met those goals, but I was also able to reach financial independence and start a non-profit Heroes at Home, which provides free financial education to service members, veterans and their families.

Why do you want to do this?

Brand Ambassador tip:

Comparison is the thief of joy. You’re going to find amazing people doing amazing things in this space but remember that YOU are amazing, too! So have fun and run your own race.

Join the Movement

We are currently interviewing and selecting a core group of 20 current or potential influencers for the initial launch of a online and interactive course, “How to Earn A Six Figure Income As a Spokesperson / Brand Ambassador.”

This course will include one-on-one time with me as I help you evaluate where you are and where you want to go in this space. If you are interested in being considered for this core group at 50% off the retail price of the course, then please reach out on our contact form  or sent your resume directly to assistant@elliekay.com.

We will be in touch with an interview should you be a good fit for our core group.

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.

Back to College – The Kay Way – part one

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Back To College

When Bethany was four years old, she came running in the house sobbing uncontrollably. I smoothed her blond curls and held her, “What’s wrong, Bunny?”
“I don’t want to leave you and go to college!” Her chubby arms held my neck tight.
“Um, well, Bunny, you don’t have to go to college any time soon!” I soothed, while rubbing her back.
She sat up straight, “I don’t?”
Wiping away her tears, she sniffed, “Good! Can I go back to Julie’s house and play again?”
I figured out later that all the drama was because Julie’s older brother was leaving for college and her friend’s family was sad to say goodbye. She thought she was going to have to leave us and it made her sad.
Fast forward the better part of two decades and she’s now a rising senior at Moody in Chicago, majoring in media communications. She’s not crying when she goes back to school, although we miss her. The good news is that she, along with all our other kids, are graduating debt-free! We don’t have any student loans and we didn’t have to refinance our house. Here are a few quick tips to pay for college. For more info, email assistant@elliekay.com and ask for the “College Crunch File.”

1. Make the Right Choice – Choose a school not because it’s the best, but because it’s the best value. Change the conversation from “I’ll go to the best college that I can get into” to “I will go to the school where I can get the best education possible for the least amount of student loan debt.” Our son, Daniel, chose the University of Texas (Arlington) over the scholarship he got to Syracuse and TCU because he would still have 60K in student loan debt after the scholarships ran out. He graduated with honors and a degree in journalism. He’s a working writer in Texas and doesn’t regret his college choice. In fact, when his department downsized and he needed to find another job, many in his section were overwhelmed because of their student loan debt. But his lack of college debt allowed him the freedom to find a job he really enjoys and he didn’t have to take the first job that came along.

2. Save Big on Books by Renting – The average student pays more than $600 for course materials – the largest expense after tuition and room and board.  You may want to look at renting textbooks through Follett’s Rent-A-Text program, students can cut costs by 50 percent or more. Or go to amazon to find used textbooks, making sure that you have an amazon prime account and can filter the options with the prime filter to get free shipping.

3. Make Scholarships a Part-Time Job – Millions of dollars of scholarship money go unclaimed every year. This is free money that parents or prospective students who are willing to do some detective work may find more quickly than they think. Have your student go to College Board or Fast Web  to find scholarships that might be a fit for your student.

4. Create a Budget, and Stick to It – As a parent of a college student, your love for your student is unconditional, but your money is conditional. That’s what we’ve always told our kids. To ensure students are making the most of their money, set a budget for spending and manage it by downloading Mint to help track spending. And determine which on-campus retailers accept financial aid to be certain you’re making the most of your college dollars.

Join us next week for part two of our Back To College series and let me hear your tips and idea to make college more affordable!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert

1000 Kisses — Investing in Our Children

I’m currently missing 4000 kisses every year.

Yep, they just upped and moved away, 1000 at a time.

I try to gain back some of those by kissing my friend Natalya’s four little girls. Her baby is only six months old and likes to suck on pickles. Don’t you know you have to grab up a sweetheart like that and give her 10 kisses on her chubby cheeks, just for being so cute?

As a mom who had her youngest five children in seven years, and homeschooled said children for seven years, I figured I got and gave at least 50 kisses a day. Those of you who have had infants and toddlers know that there are times when you just get overwhelmed with their cuteness and have to get some loving on the spot—a dozen kisses at a time!

Even when my children became teens, they knew they had to kiss me when they woke up, give me kiss when they left and came back home, and then again before they went to bed. Let’s say that averaged out to 3 kisses a day (accounting for the fact that I didn’t see them every day if I was out of town). At 365 days per year, that’s still 1000 kisses a year.

Yes, I’m a numbers person and that is both a blessing and a curse, but bear with me a second because I’m trying to get you to feel just a little bit sorry for me for a moment. Every time one of my children “launches” and goes off to college, I lose 1000 annual kisses. When you multiply that by 4 Kay kids who have launched in the last 6 years, I’m down 4000, and those marks of affection are worth far more than dollars—they are priceless.

There are a number of ways to invest in our kids. One of the most important areas is their education.  My husband, Bob and I sacrificed certain things to invest in their education by sending the youngest three to the best school in our part of the world, Desert Christian Schools.  We are not independently wealthy and it cost us something to have as many as 3 kids in private school at a time. But it was worth it to us. We could have driven newer cars, lived in a bigger house or taken fancier vacations, but we knew that one day, when we’re old, we wouldn’t regret cars, houses or vacations. We are going to be thankful we invested in our kids.

For us, this kind of education allowed for smaller classroom sizes, more safety, excellent academic programs and fantastic athletic teams. There are also teachers and administrators have a heart of compassion for our students and  work with us when one of the Kay kids makes a boneheaded choice that requires correction.  Granted, we couldn’t always afford private school, which is why I homeschooled for a while. We also had two kids graduate from public school and do really well in life. Whether you homeschool, choose a private school or send them to public education, being invested in the educational process is essential. For us, that translated into over a million dollars in college scholarships for our progeny.

Another way to invest in our children is in areas where they are having trouble, for example, investing in a tutor. Our son, Jonathan, had trouble in Geometry and we got him a tutor. He got over the learning curve hump, gained mastery and confidence in the material and even became a gainfully employed tutor with Mathemagicians in our community. Math helped our oldest son, Philip, get offers from Cornell and Stanford because he got a 760 out of 800 on his MSATs in Math (he only got a 560 in verbal, but I guess Math geeks don’t have to know how to spell).

Some parents invest in music lessons that can help children gain math skills (something about reading music that makes you more proficient in math), gain confidence, and even earn a partial scholarship in that area. Or you may be a mom that invested in your child by taking them to endless soccer, baseball, basketball, football, or Tae Kwon Do teams. All those hours as chauffer were not in vain because your little one learned self-discipline, the value of exercise, and how to be a part of a team.  Other parents spend time with their kids by taking them out to fun events or out to eat. We like to subscribe to Local Living to find out when there’s a new restaurant or cool event we can take them to for as little as half of the regular price.

I could write 10 more pages on legitimate ways we “invest” in our children, but I’ll end with the one that I started with in this blog.  Invest your affection in your child. Hug them. Spend time with them. Tell them you believe in them. Speak about the bright future they have ahead of them. One day, sooner than you think, that child will launch and you’ll also be down 1000 kisses.  So be sure to kiss ‘em while you can!

Let me know, how do YOU invest in your kids?

 Ellie Kay

America’s Family Financial Expert ®