Disney World on a Budget

The happiest place on earth!

The happiest place on earth!

One of the most fun trips we’ve had as a family was when we were moving back from Australia to Canada five years ago and we decided to do a two day lay over in Los Angeles, California. We decided to get a hotel next to Disneyland and go there for a day. Our son was only 2.5 years old but we had an amazing time.

The memories from that great day made us want to make a trip down to Disney World one day and we decided that it would be great to escape a week of the bitter Canadian February and drive down.

But when I started researching the trip it hit me that Disney World is EXPENSIVE and the costs can quickly get out of control. So I wanted to make sure that I did all I could to keep those costs in check (though, but I also learned some additional things that I could have done better along the way.

1. Consider driving. As a family of 4, flying is starting to get expensive. Flight from Toronto to Orland would have cost us over $2,200 plus taxis to and from the airport. Also, while the hotel we stayed at had a shuttle to the parks, it wasn’t very frequent and having a car gave us the freedom to go to the parks at our leisure.

Meanwhile, driving down cost us about $300 in gas (yay for the drop in oil prices!), about $20 in tolls and $68 in parking (parking at Disney World is $17 per day). We also had a “Peace of Mind” service done on our car ($75) and because we were driving down to the US, we bumped up our liability insurance coverage amount (though I actually ended up with a credit to my account because it turns out that having winter tires saved us 5% off our premium and that offset the additional liability costs).

The drive took us two days each way requiring two extra nights at a hotel, however we had a free night voucher to Marriott when we signed up for a Marriott Visa points card and we picked smaller cities where hotels were just cheaper (for example, on our way back we stayed at a Marriott in Louisville, Kentucky for only $89 with breakfast included) as our stopping points.

roatrip 4

Road trip nap

2. Consider staying outside of the park. Don’t get me wrong, staying at a Disney resort in the park must be awesome. But we learned the hard way on a trip to the east coast of Canada last year that we NEED two rooms in order to keep our sanity on these family trips (the kids would crash at 8PM and we would be stuck with nothing to do and nowhere to go) and a Family Suite at a Disney resort (which was a room with a separate bedroom) would have cost us over $3,800 for just 5 nights. Note this was the price I was quoted only a month before our intended travel time – perhaps it would have been cheaper if I’d planned it earlier.

However, Marriott (and other chains) has a line of hotels that have apartment style hotel rooms with a bedroom, living room and kitchenette for a fraction of the price (about $1,000 for 6 days) but because my husband travels a bit for work and he always stays at Marriott hotels and accumulates points, we had enough for 3 free nights by the time we left for our trip so that really helped us save money (we paid $600 in total for the 6 nights we stayed there). Plus breakfast was included, so that was another savings.

One thing that I DID learn though, is that if you stay on the resort you are entitled to a discount on the park tickets (up to 50% off!) but the $500 (yes, tickets for 4 days at the park for 2 adults and one child cost us $1,000 USD!) I would have saved didn’t make up for the higher cost of the room. This may be something to consider though, if you are going with just one child or are totally ok with sharing a room as a family.

Not bad for a "budget" option!

Our hotel – not bad for a “budget” option!

3. Buy your park tickets in advance – but be careful where you buy them! I was under the impression that I could get some awesome deals on the park tickets online somewhere. However, there are only a few legitimate sites (here is one I checked out) where you can buy tickets but I wasn’t able to get better deals than from the official Disney site at the time I was buying them. I also discovered the best deals on tickets are for those people who stay at one of the Disney resorts (though you don’t get the automatically – you need to arrange this yourself).

My mistake was that I started looking to buy them way too close to our trip date – I should have started looking several months in advance. Also, prices for tickets go up in February – so buy them before to ensure additional savings! But do be careful where you buy your tickets – there are a lot of scams out there.

4. Make a budget for souvenirs – and stick to it! One thing that struck me about Disney World and Orlando is that its half stores and restaurants. And boy, do people spend their money – and its not just for the kids! I’d say more than half the people (adults included!) I saw were decked out in full Disney clothing, hats, drink containers and clutching some sort of Disney toy/accessory. The boutiques and restaurants were packed every day (note: if you want to eat in a restaurant at the park, make reservations in advance) and we were there during the off season! Its easy to spend a fortune, so I definitely recommend a budget. I told myself that I’d budget $100 for souvenirs and told my oldest son that he could pick two things that were $20 or under each. We also decided only to get lunch at the parks and that we would eat breakfast (free) at our hotel and go off the resort for dinner (much cheaper).

Mickey hats were a must :)

Mickey hats were a must 🙂

5. Bring your own camera. Disney has photographers everywhere (and set up at great picture locations) and can take your picture for you with their camera AND yours. All the photographers took pictures with our camera and when I compared them to the “official” ones, they were very comparable. Which is great because an “official” Disney picture costs $15 (to download or to have printed).

6. Take a day off. Even though we stayed in Florida for six nights, we only bought park tickets for four days. This saved us almost $300 (though the more days passes you buy, the cheaper the price per day) but my main reasoning was that it would get overwhelming to go to the parks every day and that it would be nice to have a day off to just relax at the hotel, hit the pool with the kids and see what else Orlando had to offer. This ended up being a great idea because one day that we were in Florida the forecast was for rain – so we spent the morning by the pool and then in the afternoon (when it rained) we caught a movie.

We had a great trip but there are definitely things that I would do differently in the future – namely, start planning WAAYYY earlier! It can be very overwhelming and leaving things to the last minute can make the trip more stressful and not allow you to get as much out of it as possible.

If you are planning of visiting Disney any time soon, check out this other great blog I found when I was researching.

Bon voyage!

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Pork & Apple Meatballs

Meatballs are a great for families because they are so versatile! You can eat them on their own with some veggies on the side, put them into a sandwich and of course, with spaghetti.

Here is a quick and easy meatball recipe that  can also be adapted to include more flavours but is great just as is. Bonus? All the ingredients are cheap and easy to find and freeze wonderfully for a fast dinner on busy nights. This recipes yields around 30 meatballs.

Ready to bake!

Ready to bake!

Ingredients:

1 lbs lean ground pork

1 apple – small diced

¼ C onion (yellow or white) small diced

1 egg

¼ C panko bread crumbs

Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

Directions:

Preheat oven to 410oC.

Combine ground pork, diced apple, diced onion, egg and panko bread crumbs in a bowl. Add a few turns of salt and pepper.

Form into 1.5″-2″ balls (slightly smaller than golf-balls) and place on a raised rack in a baking dish.

Bake for 30 minutes, turning the meatballs about halfway through. Change bake setting to broil and broil for 5 minutes.

Tip: Use a baking dish with a rack and pour a little bit of water inside. Placing the meatballs on a rack will help drain extra fat and the water will keep it from smoking while broiling.

Yum!

Yum!

 

Top 6 money wasters that parents are guilty of

burningmoney

We ALL waste money – we all buy things we don’t really need (just want), buy things for ourselves and our kids purely because they make us happy or make our lives easier.

And you know what? To me those things are often justified IF people can afford them, so this isn’t going to be a list of the typical money wasters you read about, like a daily Starbucks, designer kids clothing, eating out or gym memberships.

But there are some things that parents spend money on that are a waste of money even if they can afford them – why? Because they are being bought on false information and do not deliver on their promises or they are inherently just a waste of money. Here are the six top contenders for the biggest money wasters that parents are guilty of:

1. Organic food

People who buy organic foods are usually doing so because they think that this food is better or safer for their families and accept this comes at a premium. This was a big concern for me personally and I’ll admit, I totally bought into it. But then I looked into it more and discovered that the evidence shows that organic foods are not any more nutritious, organic farmers also use fertilizers and pesticides (which vary widely in terms of how eco-friendly and safe they are for humans), don’t taste better and also need to use more land because their yields aren’t as good as conventional farming yields (and given our growing world populations, I really think we need to be more efficient with the land we already farm).

That being said, I still buy certain organic food brands (because they are tasty though, not because they are organic) and I will usually opt to buy organic eggs if I can’t find any conventional ones that are free-run or free range because that is important to me.

2. Anything homoeopathic

Not to be confused with naturopathy (which has some legitimate alternative remedies proven to work), homoeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796 who theorized that, according to him, “a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people” (ok, this is similar to vaccines, so on the right track). But here is the kicker – the main premise of homoeopathy is that the more dilute the active ingredient, the more potent it is and more effective it is at curing people because the water has “memory” of the ingredient. Um ok.

Too bad that it goes against all the rules of biochemistry, physics and pharmacology (its like saying vodka will get you more drunk the more more water you add to it). Not surprisingly, it has not been proven to effectively treat any condition and no homoeopathic remedy has even been proven more effective than a placebo (which isn’t shocking, given that the main ingredients are sugar, water or alcohol – the same things placebos are made of). Yet in the US people spent $3 Billion in 2007 alone on these homoeopathic remedies sugar pills (because lets call them what they really are) and that number is growing steadily every year.

Also, because these “medicines” are not regulated by entities like the FDA, or are only loosely regulated in Canada, we really don’t know what we are getting and if its even safe. Recently a scientist tested a homoeopathic pet calming medicine that turned out to be 13% alcohol – it wasn’t “calming” the pets – it was getting them drunk!

3.Supplements

While there are some supplements that are truly beneficial, many dieticians and nutritionists insist that most of the supplements people are taking are not necessary. And given that they are also expensive to add to your daily routine, why waste the money if you don’t need to?

But one thing that many people fail to keep in mind that just because they come from natural sources like plants, that it doesn’t mean they are safe by default. A great example is St. John’s wort – a plant based supplement that is often used as a “natural” treatment for depression. Not only does it come with a list of serious potential side effects when used on its own,  it can pose additional risks when mixed with certain pharmaceuticals (like reducing the effectiveness of the birth control pill).

But the main reason its a money waster? Because of recent studies that have shown that up to 80% of all supplements sold don’t contain any DNA of the plant that the bottle states the pills inside are supposedly made of and are instead full of fillers. Yikes!

4. Kids’ vitamins

I’m sure many parents struggle with making sure that their kids eat a balanced, nutritious diet. And I’m sure many of them thought that “oh well, at least they take a multivitamin” when their 3 year old only agrees eat plain white pasta with butter for the 4th day in a row (or was that just me?).

But according to registered dietician, Sarah Remmer, unless your kids is “an extremely picky eater, failing to thrive or has several food restrictions” they really don’t need them. There are some exceptions like Vitamin D and Omega-3 supplements, however even the need for these should be discussed with your child’s doctor and not just thrown into the grocery cart and given to your kid “just in case.” Not only that, but vitamins just aren’t absorbed as well by the body when they come in pill form as compared to when they come from food and there is even the risk over overdosing on vitamins when taken in pill/gummy form, which can be very dangerous.

So take that $10-$15 a month that you are spending on vitamins and instead, invest it in an RESP.

5. Products that claim to reverse damage

Motherhood can do a number on you – stretch marks, weight gain, cellulite,  damaged skin, damaged hair…to just not having the time (or energy) to properly care for yourself, many of us moms just feel very frumpy a lot of the time. So when products promise to take those things away or reserve the damage caused by pregnancy, sleepless nights and not having enough time to visit the hair dresser/gym/spa, many of us jump on it.

But in reality, there is no evidence that any of them work. Stretch marks? Well, thank your mom for those. Evidence shows that whether or not a woman will get stretch marks depends on genetics and how much weight she gains during pregnancy. Any cream that promised to help prevent or diminish the appearance of them is 100% lying to you. The most those creams do is provide some relief from itching.

Similarly with creams, lotions, serums or whatever that promise to get rid of cellulite, “reverse” signs of aging or fix split ends. You cannot undo that damage any more than you can unscramble an egg, according to this industry insider. What you CAN do is exercise more, eat healthier food, wear sunscreen to prevent skin damage and, for the split ends, get regular haircuts etc (sigh – admit it, you knew this already).

6. Credit card interest

Credit card interest is the definition of wasting money. I don’t care how rich you are – any time you don’t pay your full credit card balance off or don’t pay it in time, you are charged interest as high as 30%. Even if you CAN afford it, wouldn’t that money be better spent on saving for retirement, a charitable donation or heck, even lighting it on fire (watching it burn would at least provide you with entertainment)?

Credit cards can be a useful tool however, but its important to treat them with respect – something which I discuss in more detail in a past post.

Think I missed something? Leave me a comment!

 Resources used:

Scientific American – Fact or Fiction? Vitamin Supplements Improve Your Health

Sarah Remmer – Registered Dietitian

A System review of systemic reviews of homoeopathy in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 

Are the clinical effects of homoepathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy in The Lancet

30 Day Shred – Level 3 – Final Before & After

I did it! I am officially DONE with the 30 Day Shred!

DONE and feeling AWESOME!

DONE and feeling AWESOME!

First off, I have to say that I’m pretty proud of myself for doing it and doing it in the time that I had set for myself. I must admit that being honest and transparent about how it was going via this blog really kept me accountable – and there WERE days where I really didn’t feel like it but made myself. And I’m so glad I did!

Level 3 Overview

This level kicked it up another notch – especially with the cardio! In Levels 1 & Level 2, the cardio portions were mostly your basic cardio (jumping jacks, butt kicks etc) but in Level 3 a strength component was added to pretty much every circuit (i.e. jump squats, mountain climbers while in plank position, adding weights to butt kicks etc) and it made a huge difference. A lot of the exercises were in the plank position which I think is the reason my abs and arms are looking so much more toned after these last 10 days.

The advanced moves are much harder than the modified moves in this level but I was able to do all the exercises in the advanced level after the first two days (the last circuit of walking pushups was the hardest!). It was HARD but I just kept telling myself over and over that its only for a few more days and I was able to push through it.

Overall though, this was probably my favourite level and is probably the one I’ll be going back to in the future when I need to get a quick workout in.

So…here are my results from Level 3:

30 Day Shred - Day 20 to 30

And for a start to finish before and after comparison:

BEFORE & AFTER FINAL

This is where you really see the change!

Thoughts on the 30 Day Shred

Pros

  • Its only 20 minutes per day. Getting into shape was important to me and 20 minutes is nothing – and honestly once I got started it was over in no time.
  • I was never bored because of the variety of exercises
  • It works – I have obvious tone and definition in my arms, shoulders and abs especially.
  • I learned that what the scale says isn’t the whole story. I lost about 4lbs total but I know that I’ve gained a lot of muscle and my clothes just fit way better.
  • Its cheap! This DVD is  only around $8 and all you need are some hand-weights (I’d recommend 3lbs or 5lbs) which you can buy for under $10 and a yoga mat if you plan on working out on a hard surface.

Cons

  • I would NOT recommend this DVD to anyone who has knee problems. When reading the reviews on Amazon, this was the main reason people would give it a low rating.
  • Jillian is a bit annoying. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it is about her that irked me but I was able to tune her out. There is also an option on the DVD to turn off the audio but I never remembered to do it until after I’d started and couldn’t be bothered restarting it.
  • There is a lot of jumping in these workouts, so if you live in an apartment with an irate neighbour below, you may get some complaints.
  • Like with any workout program, if you are looking to lose weight, you really need to make a change in your eating habits as well. I did (and am still doing) a low(is)-carb diet and I think that helped but you need to do what you think you can sustain in the long run.

What’s next?

I’m not stopping here. Doing this challenge taught me that a small time investment can have a big pay off in the way I look and feel. I have a couple other DVDs to try and am committing myself to at least 5 days a week at 20 to 30 minutes of exercise to maintain what I’ve worked for and continue to tone.

AFTER!

Hello abs! While not the six-pack that Jillian promises, I’d say its a solid four-pack at least!

How to get the most money back on your family’s income tax return

Its that time of the year again! And I have to say, I’m always excited about it. Why? Because income tax time is also income tax REFUND time (did you know that the average refund in 2012 was $1,641?)! Even though we do get my hubby (the higher earner) to claim our kids as dependants on his T1213 to ensure we pay less taxes throughout the year, because of new tax rules, charitable donations, etc we usually end up with a refund.

As a professional accountant, people often ask me for tax advice  – so here are some of my top tips for getting the most money back.

1. File your taxes YOURSELF!

Unless you have some very complicated tax situation, there is no reason to not do your tax returns yourself. Programs like TurboTax, Ufile etc make it pretty fool-proof and are much cheaper than paying a professional accountant or even going to H&R Block (who, FYI, don’t even use professional accountants for the most part and just give their employees some basic training before hand).

The hardest part of any tax return is gathering all the documents and you need to do that yourself anyway – why pay upwards of $100 for someone to just plug the numbers into the form? Even if you have a moderately difficult tax return (such as having to declare rental or investment income), I really think anyone with half a brain can do this themselves.

2. File your tax returns together 

If you are married or in a common-law relationship, file your tax returns together. Doing so allows you to transfer certain non-refundable tax credits (like charitable donations or a spouses medical expenses) and let you allocate them based on who would get the best refund (most tax programs will figure this out for you).

This year it especially makes sense to do so with the new income splitting rule that came into effect. While this tax break is somewhat controversial, the fact is that many Canadian families with children under 18 will benefit from this new Family Tax Cut. Basically, the higher earning spouse can transfer up to $50,000 of their income to the stay-at-home parent or lower earning spouse. This will trigger a tax refund for the higher earning spouse but will also trigger a tax liability for the lower/non-earning spouse – however the net effect will be a refund, which is capped at $2,000.

3. Be organized

Like I mentioned earlier, gathering documents is probably the most arduous part of doing your tax return. So to make this as simple as possible, its a good idea to have everything ready to go. How will this save you money? Well for one thing, it will help ensure you don’t miss or forget about some important receipts (i.e. deductions) and will enable you to finish faster and get your refund faster. Time is money!

I use a very basic and easy tax filing system that consists of just two things – a folder in my email and a manilla envelope in my filing cabinet. Each is labelled “Tax 2014” and in both I file anything tax related. So for example, when I make a donation to a friend’s Movember campaign or pay for my son’s swimming lessons and have the tax receipt emailed to me, I immediately file it under my Tax 2014 folder. At the end of each month I’ll pop in my husband’s transit passes into the envelope. When our T4s or RRSP contribution statements come in, I add those. When I have everything, I just take everything out of the envelopes, print off all my emailed receipts and just plug away. Then when I’m done and have filed my return, I print out a copy and put it and all the receipts, T4s, statements etc that I used to prepare my return into that same envelope. That way, if I am audited, I can immediately retrieve the relevant documents. Just remember that you need to keep these documents for 7 years after filing.

4. Keep your medical and dental expense receipts

Did you know that you can claim medical and dental expenses if their total is great than 3% of your net income or $2,171? And you can even choose any 12 month period, as long as it ends in the 2014 tax year (so you can claim items from April 2013 to April 2014, for example, if it helps you reach that 3% or $2,171 amount).

This is great for anyone who has had significant medical and dental expenses that weren’t covered by their work health insurance plan (or if you don’t have one or are self-employed). And bonus for couples that file together – you can merge your and your partners and your kids expenses to meet the above mentioned threshold.

So if you had laser eye surgery or your kid got braces, these things can be deducted. But even a bunch of small expenses throughout the year may end up reaching the threshold, so make sure to keep all those receipts! I found out that if you have celiac disease and need to buy gluten-free food, even that can be claimed! For a full list of what can be claimed, go here.

5. Contribute to your RRSP

When you make a contribution to your or your spouse’s RRSP, that amount is used to lower your income – hence triggering a refund. So not only are you saving for the future, you actually get some of that money back! The amount that you can contribute depends on how much you made that year and how much contribution room you have left over from prior years (this will be on your previous year’s Notice of Assessment).

Just remember, the deadline to contribute to your RRSP is March 1st, NOT the filing deadline of April 30th, for it to count towards the prior year (i.e. the year you are filing for). This is important because sometimes people may have a balance owing and this can be offset or lowered just by making an RRSP contribution (and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather pay myself than pay the government).

6. Remember to claim your deductions!

Monthly transit passes, child care costs this includes a summer or March break day camp!), child fitness costs (like membership or registration fees for a physical activity), children’s arts amounts, charitable donations, tuition credit and the aforementioned medical/dental expenses are expenses that most families should expect to claim.

Other deductions you may want to consider are:

  • A portion of your cell phone bill if your employer uses it to call you to obtain work from you (just make sure it can trace back to your airtime on your statements)
  • Student loan interest – the one good thing about those loans!
  • Home office expenses if you work from home more than 50% of the time – so a portion of your internet, stationary expenses or office equipment etc can be claimed.
  • Moving expenses – you can claim eligible moving expenses if you move for work or run a business at a new location, or if you move to take courses as a student in full-time attendance enrolled in a post-secondary program. Note you have to have moved at least 40km closer to the work or school (via the shortest route possible).

7. Do them ASAP

The deadline to file your tax return is April 30th in Canada (for all but self-employed workers and their spouses or common-law partners). But most people have the information and documents they need much earlier than that. So you really should start preparing as soon as you can because it gives you time to:

a) gather all your documents to make sure you have everything you need and if you are missing something, time to get another copy,

b) top-up your RRSP to offset a balance owing or increase your refund,

c) lets you avoid any late fees and penalties in the event you have an amount owing but didn’t realize it until you prepared your return and lastly (and most importantly)

d) get your refund faster – you should get your refund within a few business days if you file online using NETFILE and the closer you file to the deadline, the longer it will take as the number of people filing increases.

The only time I’d recommend filing right before the deadline (and I mean filing, not preparing!) is if you are self-employed and/or if you know you are going to have an amount owing.

8. Don’t lie

I know this may seem obvious, but please don’t cheat or lie on your income tax return. I know someone who claimed 12 months of transit passes – even though she only had 2 – and got audited.

This also applies if you just lost a receipt – if you don’t have proof that you had an expense, you can’t claim it. You may be able to get away with a credit card or bank statement (for example, if you purchased your subway pass on the first of the month and the amount matches the amount a pass costs), but this should be an exception and not a rule for substantiating a deduction.

Getting caught can lead to fines and penalties and will make you the target of audits more frequently in the future. And while audits usually just mean that you need to submit receipts or statements, an audit may involve a CRA auditor coming to your home and looking at all your financial information, including your bank statements or whatever they believe is required to complete their audit. Also, remember that they can ask for your tax return supporting evidence as far back as 7 years, so make sure you keep it (and know where it is!).

What to look forward to in 2015

Universal Child Care Benefit Increases

In 2015, the Universal Child Care Benefit is going to increase from $100 to $160 for kids under 6 and kids 6 to 17 will receive $60 (before, they got nothing). This benefit won’t be paid out until July, however it will be back-paid till the start of the year – so expect an additional lump sum of $420 per kid to be deposited in your account (for kids 6 and under the amount for July will be $420+$100 and for kids 6 and older will be $420). Afterwards the amounts will be paid monthly at $160 and $60 respectively. Good news is that if you are already enrolled in this program (reminder, its available to ALL children, regardless of income), you don’t need to do anything.

Child Fitness Tax Credit will be doubled

This credit is being doubled from $500 to $1,000 per child 16 years of age or younger in 2015.

Child Care Expense Deduction

The government proposed to increase the dollar limits of the CCED by $1,000—i.e., to $8,000 from $7,000 per child under age 7, to $5,000 from $4,000 for each child aged 7 through 16 (and for infirm dependent children over age 16), and to $11,000 from $10,000 for children who are eligible for the Disability Tax Credit in 2015.

Resources:

http://www.budget.gc.ca/efp-peb/2014/overview-apercu-eng.html

Canada Revenue Agency website