anne arundel county estate maryland Recommendations will

Do You Need A Lawyer To Probate and Settle Estates in Anne Arundel County Maryland?

wills in Anne Arundel County Maryland

Note: This post isn’t meant to be take the place of legal advice–it just describes my experience.

My mom recently passed away in Anne Arundel County, Maryland and I was made the executor of the will. (She did not have a trust) She had used a lawyer in Annapolis to draw up the will and he kept it for her in his safe.  I went to see him after she died and after speaking to us, he offered to help us do the paperwork and settle the estate for the handsome sum of $5000 plus fees from various services and the courts.  Among the services he said we’d need, after making the process seem very complicated, were two appraisals–one for her house and one for all of her personal property.  This alone probably would have cost between $500-700.

Yes You Can Handle the Estate Without a Lawyer

After looking at the Registry of Wills website for Anne Arundel County, I thought it seemed pretty daunting.  There are so many ins and outs–so many questions to answer.  But as it turns out, if you go there in person, the clerks are unbelievably helpful.  So helpful that they pretty much fill out many of the forms for you and guide you in exactly what you are going to need to do.  So if the estate you are dealing with isn’t very complicated (they’re all a little bit complicated) you can DEFINITELY take care of doing this yourself and save thousands of dollars.

I spent about 45 minutes with the clerk at the Orphan’s Court in Annapolis on Church Circle.  Then a few more minutes with one of the auditors at the desk next door who gave me some guidance in some of the accounting we’d have to do.

The clerk I met with looked up the value of my mom’s home from the tax records (so I didn’t need a real estate appraiser to come out) and she got the Kelly Blue Book value of my mom’s car for me and printed that out as well.  I asked her about whether we needed to have all of my mom’s personal effects appraised by a professional appraiser, and she said that it wasn’t necessary as long as the furniture she had was not antique.  Basically we only need to account for valuables–the point of which being for two purposes, but most importantly so that the state can value the entire estate.

The reason for this accounting is that if it turns out the estate is worth more than $1,000,000 then some extreme taxes start to kick in.  So if it looks like the estate is worth that kind of money, you’ll need to dig deeper to work out what to do.

Things are also much simpler if the person had less than $50,000.  What you need to know is that there are two different ways to administer a regular estate.  Normally you would need to do everything under court supervision, in a six month long process.  But if the heirs all agree, and sign a paper stating such, there is a streamlined way to administer the estate that is much less complicated/time consuming.

The court mainly wants to make sure that everyone who is supposed to inherit money gets it, and that before that happens anyone who is owed money by the person who died gets what’s due.

The person who’s administering the will is going to need to get a surety bond–a form of insurance that basically protects the heirs against the executor walking off with all of the money. This is going to cost about $150. You’ll be glad to know that the Orphans Court will help you get signed up for that insurance.

The most difficult part of the process is the final form–this is where you, the executor, will account for the money that is being handled. They will need to account for all of the major assets and money the person who passed away had, then all of the money that was spent since they passed away including funeral expenses, electric, water, condo fee bills, etc, and other payments that may have been made along the way using the estate’s money and finally account for the distribution of the remaining assets to the heirs as described in the will.

The bottom line here, is that the final form won’t be accepted until the numbers all align. In other words, you have to be able to show how much money and assets there were from the moment the person passed away until the moment the remaining money is disbursed to the heirs. The money that remains can’t be given to the heirs until the final statement is accepted and a letter is received saying the money can be distributed.

In my case, I didn’t have the numbers quite right, and I had to redo it several times before it was finally accepted. The good thing was that the auditor at the court was helpful and patient while I got it right.

By the way, the same lawyer mentioned above said they would be happy to help me write a simple will starting at $900.  The will that was written for my mom was clearly just a copy and paste job with a few names changed and three lines leaving some specific items to specific people. It is clearly possible to do a will yourself (there is software and websites available to help you with this).  You just need to make sure it is properly witnessed.  You can then store it at the courthouse / Register of Wills for $5.

Here is a helpful website for getting your own documents in order:

Columbia Maryland Featured Recommendations Review Reviews

Review of Lifetime Fitness / Lifetime Athletics Gym in Columbia MD

Updated on December 1, 2016 By Eron Cohen.

This is my two part review of Lifetime Fitness/Lifetime Athletics ( click here to view part 2 ). Although this is a review of Lifetime Fitness (recently renamed to Lifetime Athletics) in Columbia Maryland, much of it applies to most of the Lifetime Athletics/Life Time Fitness Clubs in the USA and Canada.

I will try to give you my best assessment in a fair, honest way. I also mention some alternatives to Lifetime Fitness in the Columbia area at the end of this review.

tl;dr: If you don’t have time to read the entirety of this review, I have bolded the good things about the gym and some of the other reasons you may want to avoid it below along with this executive summary:

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Lifetime Fitness Review Executive Summary :

The Good:

  • High quality fitness equipment.
  • Wide variety of group classes including kickboxing, yoga, hip-hop, weight training, and tabata. Great instructors.
  • Pools, climbing wall, racquetball courts.
  • Nice locker rooms.
  • Towels, shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, shaving supplies, and soap supplied.
  • Upscale environment (this is somewhat dependent on club level-when you sign up for a membership, you’re also signing up for a membership level that admits you into clubs that are of that level or below–more on this later!
    The important thing to note is that some clubs are more luxurious than others. Some of their facilities even have doctors and physical therapists to coordinate with the personal trainers.)

      The Bad:

    • Sometimes high-pressure sales tactics used on new members and guests of current members.
    • Dues are frequently increased (I have seen them raised more than once per year). Specific prices listed below.
    • No outside food or drinks allowed in the gym or at the pool, aside from water.
    • Monthly dues are very high compared to other clubs.
    • The gym gets crowded on weekday evenings–you may have to wait in line to use equipment. This is especially so just after new years.
    • Occasional long/slow lines to get into the gym and more frequently to drop kids off in the child center. I have spent as long as five minutes waiting in line to get into the gym and/or drop my kids off.
    • Class formats may change or can be randomly canceled and classes often fill to capacity week after week.
    • The climbing wall is not open at slower times of the day.
    • Unreliable notifications about pool closures or canceled classes.
    • You must pay extra for some group classes

Lifetime Fitness Club Overview

photo of lifetime fitness in columbia maryland

Lifetime Fitness provides an adequate experience for families with children as well as all of their members Although it is pricey (about $90/month for one single membership, about $200/month for a couples membership plus two kids–each child (13 and under) is about $15/month extra-there are also student rates available for college students–a discount of about $10/month), if it is in reach for you then you might consider joining–but please read below for more information about the club .

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There is a 14 day trial membership period, so you can try it out for a couple of weeks before you join–and they seem more than willing to let you come in as a guest for a day without much in the way of formal paperwork. There are definitely some good things and some bad things about this gym .

[See my list of great educational gift ideas for the kids in your life]

If you decide to join, tell them I referred you (Eron Cohen) , even if you’re not joining in Maryland . By the way, they regularly have new membership promotions, for instance they often give the people who are signing up for a new membership AND the person who referred the new member some extras–so it is often better to be referred by someone than not to be — see below.

First a bit about Lifetime Fitness:

  • Lifetime Fitness (NYSE: LTM ) is a chain of over 100 gyms across the USA and Canada.
  • They are based in Minnesota and were founded in 1992.
  • They have locations in from Phoenix to Dallas to Kansas City to Boca Raton. This map details all of their current destinations .
  • The experience from place to place seems to be generally consistent judging by the reviews left about other locations and the amenities available, but note that not all locations have all the same features (ie- some locations do not have a pool or a climbing wall).

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My Review of Lifetime Fitness
As a four year member of Lifetime Fitness , my observations and comments are relatively informed. I have a family membership that allows me, my wife, and two young children (age 8 and 10) to use the gym as often as we like.

General Comments
Being at Lifetime Fitness can be a nice experience–especially in the summer when the outdoor pool is open. A few thoughts:

  • The place is vibrant, fairly clean and makes you want to get in shape.
  • The facilities are modern and they are kept up with frequent refurbishments and remodeling–most recently there was a major renovation in September 2013.
  • Clean towels are provided for the pool and showers.
  • There are plenty of lockers available.
  • The staff that I have gotten to know are generally friendly and helpful.
  • The gym is open 24/7
  • There is plenty of parking on site (although many times the place is so crowded that you may have to park pretty far from the door, especially during the summer months–I consider this part of the exercise though.)

I have read other reviews that have said things to the effect that the place has “gone downhill”. I would say that either it started out better than it is now, or that they have since solved some of the problems that caused those complaints. Don’t get me wrong, this gym isn’t perfect, but it is better than that:

Price of Lifetime Fitness and Joining the Gym in Columbia, MD

We are members of an Onyx level club (second best) and we pay about $161/month for the family membership ( dues are raised frequently )–this price is no longer available since they’ve raised dues for new members–couples who join now would pay at least $180, plus junior memberships. I was told back on 6/19/2014 that single memberships are $110/month. There is a “start-up fee” which ranges for $20-200 depending on what kind of special offers or promotions you might be able to garner (again, if you come in as a referral they may reduce this fee–so tell them I referred you). Personal training at this gym costs about $70/hour as of 9/1/2016.

A Note About Lifetime Fitness Club Levels/Membership Levels

The club levels of Lifetime Fitness clubs indicate the types of amenities you can expect. In order of best to worst, the club levels are:

  • Diamond
  • Onyx (the one in Columbia, Maryland)
  • Platinum
  • Gold
  • Bronze

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More on Lifetime Fitness Membership Costs

If you happen to be in a market that has a diamond level club, expect to pay more…quite a bit more. I am told (thanks cGott42 who commented below) that you will pay $160 for a diamond level monthly membership and $340/month for a family of 4. Note that you will only be able to use your membership in a club that is at your membership level or below. I believe diamond clubs are only available in New York, California and Las Vegas.

Whichever club you join, you will have a month-to-month contract that you can cancel at any time, but when you cancel you have to pay for the next month –in other words, you have to give them a month’s notice and pay for an additional month from there. Some important things to know about this are:

  • This applies to any paid kid’s classes or swim lessons you sign up for. So if you’re kids are taking karate class there, and you cancel, you’re going to pay for the following month of classes. If you decide to start taking the classes again, your price is going to jump to the current monthly fee.
  • You also have the option of “pausing” your membership for a small monthly fee–I believe it is $19/month–the caveat, I am told, is that if you DO pause a membership, when you unpause it, you will resume your membership at current rates for membership & classes . So if you were getting your membership or classes at a lower, grandfathered rate, they will shoot to their current levels when you unpause–and given the frequent increases, this could be a big difference.
  • In the first year that were members dues were raised three times (!). The first time was for the primary couples membership which we didn’t have to pay because they told us our dues were frozen until 2014 when we signed up as a referral. But the second increase we DID have the pay–they raised the cost of junior memberships. I complained and they said that junior dues are separate and were not frozen. This was sneaky of them and definitely an indication of below board policies on their part–it definitely did not reflect what their salesman told me when I signed up for membership .

They also have this promotional gimmick called “lifetime bucks”. When you join you’ll be granted some number of lifetime bucks which you can spend on all sorts of gear, yoga workshops, personal training or even classes like swimming or karate (sorry, you can’t use them toward your membership dues).

If you refer people who join Lifetime you’ll be given additional bucks. And BTW it seems that the people who are referred are also given additional perks–so if you do decide to join and don’t know any other members, tell them I sent you. In our case, since we were referred, we got additional lifetime bucks and our “dues are frozen” (see above for why this was a misleading promotion ) for 2 years.

I’ve been using my lifetime bucks to pay for swimming lessons for my kids. So if you do get a promotional rate or use a referral, be sure to get the offer in writing and carefully monitor your bill to be sure you get what you’ve been promised.

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When I signed up, they made the process easy with not much pressure (the pressure comes later-see below). This was welcomed because I have had experiences in the past where you feel like you’re working with a used car salesman when you just want to sign up for a gym. The salesmen I worked with did contact me a few times while I was thinking of joining, but otherwise, I didn’t feel he was being pushy.

Having said that, when you join they will probably ask to set you up to speak with a personal trainer about the various upgrade offerings of Lifetime Fitness. They do this under the guise that they want to get your baseline measurements and weight, etc. But, basically it’s their chance to sell you some (overpriced) add-ons which you may or may not want (personal training, vitamins, protein supplements, heart monitors, etc). If you are interested in personal training, I’d definitely say take them up on that meeting, but otherwise, don’t bother — they use high-pressure sales tactics for these sessions and you’ll be able to get what you need when you decide you need it.

If you read the employee reviews of what it is like to work at Lifetime Fitness – a few of the cite pressure and sales tactics as a reason they do NOT like working there. At this meeting, I definitely DID feel like I was with a used car salesman – and again, plenty of other reviews mention high pressure at the initial meeting with the Lifetime Athletics salesperson.

One thing I can say about paying for a pricey gym membership is that it gives me one more reason to keep using it. If it was alot cheaper it would be easier to let it go. Having said that be sure and consider the Columbia Association if you live in the Columbia, MD area (see below). If you’ve read my review and still want to join, even the sales pressure won’t matter much because you probably already decided to join anyway.

Want to know more about Lifetime Athletics’ offerings? Be sure and read part two of my review !

Continue to Part 2 of My Lifetime Fitness Review >

You may also enjoy my review of Costco Wholesale and my list of birthday gift ideas for gifted kids.

Phone Bills Recommendations Save Money

Easy Ways to Save Money Part 4 – Change Your Cell Phone/Mobile Phone Provider

For a good time call with Republic Wireless

If you have AT&T or Verizon contracts for your smartphone, you’re paying too much money.  Not only are you paying too much, but you probably don’t have an unlimited data plan and it is likely that you have some stupid text messaging cost arrangement too.  If you have T-Mobile or Sprint, then you’re probably getting a better deal, but there are still savings to be had–and sometimes those savings are so great that it might be worth to break your contract and pay the penalty to switch to a different carrier.

If you have an AT&T or T-Mobile phone that want to keep using, you’re in the best situation because those phones have a certain amount of flexibility that Verizon and Sprint phones do not have.

The Republic Wireless Option

Let’s talk about Republic Wireless.  They offer no-contract service on the Sprint network which is unlimited talk, texting and data for either $19/month or $29/month.  The catch is that you have only one choice of phone (a relatively decent Motorola Android phone) and you have to buy it from them.  The cost for the phone depends whether you’d like to pay $19/month or $29/month.  If you’re willing to pay $29/month then you can get your phone for $99.

If you want to pay $19/month then you must pay the full cost of the phone up front, which is $250.  There is no discount for multiple lines however, which means there isn’t anything like a family plan, so depending on your situation the savings from a typical AT&T contract could be relatively small–that is assuming you don’t really need unlimited data.  If you only need one or two lines, then you should definitely consider it.  You can read my review of republic wireless and Google Project Fi.

Another Option: Get the Same Network Much Cheaper

There are several companies that purchase bulk access on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks and then resell it for cheaper with no contracts.  Some of these are especially good options if you already have a phone you want to keep using but that is no longer on a contract with another provider.

If you have an AT&T or T-Mobile Phone You’d Like To Use

This applies to one of my phones…I originally purchased a Samsung Infuse Android phone from AT&T.  Now I use the phone with a month-to-month deal from Straight Talk Wireless.  I pay $45/month with taxes for unlimited data, texting and phone service.

The great thing is that I am using my old Android smartphone on T-Mobile’s network, but paying much less than I would if I had a contract with T-Mobile   It works very well and the setup involved putting a different SIM card in my phone to get it going and changing a few settings.  Relatively painless.   They also offer some phones that you can purchase from them outright, but you’re even better off if you already had a phone that you can use on their network.

Another reliable example that is similar to Straight Talk Wireless is Simple Mobile.  They are definitely worth comparing to the Straight Talk if you’re thinking of going that direction.  They use the same networks as Straight talk. You might also look into Net10.

If you have a Verizon Phone You’d Like To Use

I only know of one company that offers service on Verizon’s network and they do not have an unlimited plan, but it should still be cheaper than Verizon themselves: Page Plus Cellular.  I am not sure if you can bring your own phone though.

If you have a Sprint Phone You’d Like To Use

I need to look to this.

Recommendations Save Money

Easy Ways To Save Money Part 2: Get Rid of Your Home Phone Service

Easy Ways to Save Money Part 2

Voice over IP Phone System

This is part two of my series on ways I have been saving money that have been easy to adjust to.  This one focuses on home phone service.   I have written others about easily saving money on electricity and changing your mobile phone provider.

If you still have regular “land line” phone service at your home, you are probably wasting some money–it is time to “cut the cord!”  Specifically if you have stand-alone phone service from Verizon or some other dial-tone provider you need to think about making changes.

These days people usually fit into four categories of home phone service:

1) People who have totally gotten rid of their home phones and rely strictly on cell phone service.
2) People who have home phone service from a stand-alone “Voice-Over-IP” (VOIP) provider (such as Vonage or Obihai with Google Voice )
3) People who have bundled phone service that comes from their cable TV provider (Comcast, Verizon FIOS…)
4) People who still have old-fashion copper wire service to their homes

Lets have a look at each category to see how they can save more money:

People with no home phone service

The folks in the first category are content with their cell phone service and don’t see the need for a special phone to their home.  These folks might still be able to save money by switching to a cell phone provider such as Republic Wireless that has a lower monthly rate than AT&T and Verizon (Republic Wireless is $19.99/month for unlimited data, voice and texting–you can read my Republic Wireless review here).  At any rate, more power to these people because they have recognized that for them it is more convenient simply to have no home phone number at all.  This is definitely a growing group of people who most likely ported their old home phone number to their cell phones.

People Who Use Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) For Their Home Phone

I fall into this category.  I have been using Vonage for my phone service for over 10 years now.  The idea is that you use your existing home internet connection to make your phone calls.  As long as you have a halfway decent internet connection, this works very well and you can definitely save lots of money with  full featured phone service.  The gist is that they send you a box and you connect it to the internet in your home.  Your phones are connected to the box.  I can tell you that Vonage is very low cost and has great plans.  If you make lots of international calls you will certainly save good money.

A second, even cheaper VOIP option is to purchase an Obi200 (or better) adaptor and to hook it up to your home phones. You pay for the adaptor once and from there, you home service comes through Google Voice, which is free for calls in the USA. This is slightly less reliable than Vonage. See my full review of the Obi experience in my blog post “almost free home phone service“…

People Who Use Bundled Phone Service

This category of people will have the most difficult time saving money.  It is very common for the cable TV providers to sell their services as bundled “triple plays”–you get phone, internet and television together for some set price and you’re tied to a 2  year contract.
I definitely have some experience with this, because until recently, I actually had a triple play, even though I never once used the phone service it provided (since I was happy with my Vonage service).  It turns out that they rope you into the triple plays because if you unbundle the services and just go for say TV and internet, you will pay more than you would if you got all three services.   If you are in a contract, there isn’t much you can do–but if your contract has expired, then I do have a suggestion or two.
First of all, don’t get into a contract again.  Be very careful when you call to negotiate that you do not get a new contract.   I cannot emphasize this enough.  Your current provider desperately wants to keep you, so you have that as a negotiating tool, especially if you have more than one provider in your area.  Keep your eye out for deals, and search websites like to see if you can find any special offers.  Most of the time these offers renew your contract, but if it is an attractive deal, then probably take it.
In my case, I decided I didn’t want cable television anymore.  I was sick of having hundreds of channels of stuff I never wanted to or had time to watch.  I was paying about $120/month for a Verizon FIOS triple play, but I also had netflix and was able to watch movies and tv shows over the internet with a special device called a Roku Box (if you have a WII or an X-Box you’d be able to do the same thing). I found that I was watching shows and movies on Netflix much more often than I was watching anything on cable TV.
So I decided to get rid of the TV and phone service.  With FIOS that brought me down to about $74/month.  But I also had offers from Comcast for $20/month for a year of similar service.  So now I save $100/month and am not really missing the TV.

People Who Still Have Old-Fashion Copper Wire Landline Service

People in this category should consider any of the three choices above.  You stand to gain more features and a much more flexible phone service.  If you have concerns about whether these other solutions would work for you, you an always try them out while keeping your traditional phone service.  Once you’re comfortable then pull the plug on your copper wire land line phones.  People who have alarm systems that are wired to your phone service may have an extra consideration–you will probably want to contact your alarm provider to see what they suggest.

ambit best energy choice provider kwh Recommendations Save Money save money on electricity

Easy Ways to Save Money – Part 1: Changing Your Electricity Provider

Electrical power lines
Changing electricity providers can result in significant

I wanted to write a post that outlines a few ways that I have saved more than a few dollars lately.  Even if you’re not really on a budget, these ideas should make sense, after all a penny saved is a penny earned, but for most families with kids, every penny helps.

If this post helps you out, see my other posts in this series:   Ditching Your Home PhoneChanging Your Mobile Phone Provider, Why We Shop at Costco and Getting rid of cable TV and instead getting your television shows over the internet.

Change your electricity provider

Many people aren’t aware that you can change your electricity provider, and it takes very little effort.  Really, you aren’t really changing providers so much as joining a large group of people who purchase electricity together and therefore get it cheaper.  In most cases you will still receive your bill from your current electric company, its just that the rates you are charged will be cheaper.

You should be aware that electricity is bought by the kilowatt hour (KwH).  If you check your electric bill there will be a figure that tells you what you currently pay per KwH.  That figure is the one you need to try and beat. There is an example of what to look for in the image below.

Change your electricity provider in MarylandIn my case, I beat it by 2 cents per KwH, and that really adds up considering I use around a thousand KwH per month.  Not only that, but I am very happy to have the option to go with 100% wind power “offsets” so that I actually am getting green energy for cheaper than what I was paying for coal–8.99 cents per KwH.  There are many companies selling electricity and rates and deals do vary.

The site I used to find a new electricity provider is called Point.Click.Switch. You just need to choose your state and your electricity supplier. They will then show you a list of possible energy providers along with their rate, cancellation fee (most of them do not have a cancelation fee), the amount of time the specified rate will last and the amount you would save over your existing rate (you need to enter that rate from your electricity bill at the top of the page).

Definitely pay attention to the term, just as much as the rate. After the term is over, they may change your rate to higher amount. So whichever term you select, mark your calendar so you’ll know that it’s time to find a new provider/or evaluate the existing one.

I typically use about 1500 KwH per month.  If you want to compare, at my old rate, I was paying 11.99 cents per KwH, so the savings looks like this every month:

Old Rate: 11.99 cents x 1500 = $179.85
New Rate: 8.99 cents x 1500 = $135.85  (Savings of $45 per month)

If I would have opted for the non-green electricity at 7.99 cents per KwH, I would have saved an additional $15/month.

It took me about 10 minutes to sign up and then they emailed me to verify that I really wanted to do this. You will need your electric bill when you fill out the form. It might seem a little scary, but don’t worry, it isn’t like you run the risk of having your electricity cut off if you make a mistake–your main electric company is still regulated and so is your new one.  They have to go through a process for changing your provider and the reality is that is all “on paper”…in other words, you still actually get the same electricity as you got before through the same wires that you already have.  Again, it is really “all win” for most people.

Food Nutrition Recommendations Save Money

What’s For Breakfast? Healthy ideas for breakfast for kids of busy families

Say no to donuts for breakfast
Say NO to donuts and pastries for breakfast.
Such a bad idea–especially for kids.

Recently I have noticed that one of the parents in my daughter’s school is giving her child donuts and/or pre-made and packaged waffles/pancakes for breakfast every day.

It can be difficult for families to eat right and to give their kids healthy choices for breakfast.  It is very hard, especially when time is short in the mornings, but this child is going to be at risk for diabetes and isn’t getting the best “brain food” for the morning.  She is already starting to look chubby and that’s very sad to see.  I can only imagine what the rest of her meals could be like.

I don’t really know the parent of the above child, and I don’t know what I’d say to them if I had the chance.  I would like to suggest some alternatives that would be healthier and still be attractive for the child to eat.

Certainly after months of being fed sugar snacks for breakfast, it is going to be difficult to get the girl to eat something else. but perhaps with some coaxing and some information about nutrition, she might be willing to make some changes.  At this point I have a feeling it is going to take some creativity.

I think almost anything would be better than the above-mentioned plain old chocolate donuts (they look like they’re from Dunkin’ Donuts).  Probably even processed cereal like Apple Jacks or Cap’n Crunch would be an improvement from a donut.  But, there are much better choices. I think this parent probably holds the same belief as many others–if it is on the store shelf, you can buy it and eat it and all will be fine–everyone does it so it must be okay.  The same goes double if a restaurant sells it.

Here are some ideas that would be better and in the case of the above child, would probably be easily accepted into the breakfast rotation:

Hand Mixer

– Smoothies – The homemade kind.  You can pack alot of nutrition into a smoothie and kids will think it is on par with dessert.  The key is to use true, wholesome ingredients.  A typical smoothie  make for my kids would include: frozen blueberries or pineapple (from Costco), organic oatmeal, spinach (yes, that’s right!), a banana and/or strawberries for sweetness, flax meal or maybe oat bran.

I used to use a Smart Stick to mix these together and cleanup is therefore was very quick and easy. I now own a BlendTec 570 Blender which makes much smoother smoothies and is equally easy to clean.  While drinking your breakfast can be really effective, many will find that they need to chew something to feel like they are full.  I suggest a piece of toast, bagel or muffin to go with it.

PRO TIP: Orange juice you buy in the grocery store is most likely NOT what you think it is.  (Unless you saw someone squeeze it out of an orange)  Store-bought orange juice isn’t so wholesome and although it tastes good, the tastes are almost always added in artificially even though the package labeling leads you to believe otherwise.

For a full explanation of what you’re really buying when you purchase orange juice, see this article.  I would also add that orange juice comes with quite a bit of it’s own sugar, so keep that in mind if OJ is part of your morning.

– Muffins – The homemade kind. Muffins made with the right ingredients can be nutritious and delicious. Zucchini Oatmeal muffins are a favorite around our home.  There are so many others that don’t have lots of sugar, but have lots of nutrition. Muffins can be made on the weekend and hopefully the child will participate so they’ll know what they are eating and learn to enjoy it.  Kids will think they’re getting a pastry but really it will be a healthy part of a morning start.

PRO TIP: Most muffins freeze well for future use.

– Make your own cereal – My wife has taken it upon herself to mix up a batch of cereal once or twice a week.  She’s basically making muesli but the process involves roasting a combination of oatmeal, nuts, etc.  There are lots of great recipes out there, and since you can control what’s going into it, you’ll know what you’re eating and save a ton of money on premade cereals.  The added bonus is that if you get the kids involved in making the cereal, they are more likely to enjoy eating it.

– Refrigerator Oatmeal – There are lots of great recipes for “overnight oatmeal”  See this link for oatmeal ideas.

– Breakfast Popsicle – Every kid likes Popsicle. Suppose they were the healthy kind? See here for a great breakfast Popsicle recipe!

Other healthy ideas from a vegan friend of mine.  To quote her directly “Fresh fruit and veggies are good.  Wasa crackers (or other whole grain crackers) with avocado slices, hummus, or another fave dip are also good.  Yogurt, of course!  Add granola or other ingredients for a heartier dish.  Pita pocket with hummus and veggies.  Air-popped popcorn.  Dried fruit + nuts.  Whole grain crackers with vegan cream cheese.  “Ants on a log”–celery with nut butter or cream cheese and raisins.  Fig bars.”


a clear dot
Recommendations Review

Off Topic Post: Potty Seat for Elongated Toilet (Oval shaped instead of round)

Dual flush toilet.I recently had to replace the toilet in the girls’ bathroom.  I wanted to save water, so I went with an eco-friendly dual-flush toilet from Costco.  The great thing about it is that it has two flushers–one that releases a small amount of water, and one that releases the full tank…so depending, uh, what you’re flushing, you choose the flush accordingly.

The problem it presented was that our round potty seats from Target don’t fit right–they are more for round toilets, and this toilet is more of an oval shape and sticks out more…so the old seats slide around.

I looked around the internet for a low-cost, fun potty seat and I found this one. I got it today and it works great.  This seat is made mainly of hard plastic (no cushion) and rubber.  I think these are both pluses since the rubber keeps the seat from moving and the hard plastic doesn’t have any crevices that are difficult to clean. (Update 6 months later:  This seat still is in pretty good condition.  The eyes have peeled off, but otherwise, it is in very good shape. I still recommend this seat)

So if anyone else is having this problem, this is the seat for you:
PRI Ducka Toilet Set Reducer (White)


Book Recommendations

Here are some book recommendations for interesting books I’ve recently read. Most of these are available on Amazon or via ebook/audiobook.  These books were all fascinating and informative about living in our times:

Freakonomics by Dubner & Levitt
Freakonomics II by Dubner & Levitt
Outliers Malcolm Gladwell
Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely
Moon Walking With Einstein by Joshua Fore
Manufacturing Depression

Recommendations Review Reviews Secondary Features

Review of North Beach Maryland – Great Summer Beach Day Trip

North Beach Maryland Review
Review of North Beach, Maryland

If you are like many parents these days, a getaway to Ocean City or some of the other Maryland, Virginia and Delaware beaches is just a bit too much of a commitment in time and money.  So then there are the Chesapeake Bay beaches to consider, and although none of them are quite the same as, say Ocean City, there are two or three that come to my mind that might be decent day-trip substitutes.  They are all in Calvert County and they are: North Beach, Chesapeake Beach and Flag Ponds Beach.  These are way better than Sandy Point State Park near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and aren’t that much further.  (I couldn’t help but laugh and agree with a recent review of Sandy Point on Google — it said something like: “If you’re looking for a dirty beach and jellyfish, this place is for you.”)

Today I am going to talk about North Beach.  Its about 30 minutes from Annapolis and not far from Howard, Prince George’s and pretty much anywhere in Anne Arundel County.

When you arrive, you find that there is a free parking lot right near the public beach, but you do have to pay admission and wear an armband to show you’ve paid.

Current beach admission fees (as of May 2017) for out of county visitors are:

Adults 12-54:  $17.00
Children 3-11:  $9.00
Children 2 and under:  Free
Seniors 55 and up:  $9.00
Active Military: $9.00

Season passes are $120 for adults and $100 for children.

It’s cheaper for in-county visitors:

Adults 12-54:  $7.00
Children 3-11:  $4.00
Children 2 and under:  Free
Seniors 55 and up:  $4.00
Active Military: $4.00

It  was $10 to rent an umbrella and $5 to rent a chair.
Fishing Fees Two poles maximum per person
North Beach/Calvert County Residents: Free. (Must show proof of Calvert County residency.)
Out of County Visitors: 1st Pole & 2nd Pole  Inquire at Welcome Center
Paddle or Pedal Fees Single Kayak:  Hourly $15.00/Daily $45.00
Double Kayak: Hourly $20.00/Daily $60.00
Stand Up Paddleboard:  Hourly $20.00/Daily $60.00
Bicycles: Hourly $10.00/Daily $30.00

[Looking for birthday party ideas in Anne Arundel County?]

There are many regulations to be aware of.  No large coolers (actually only pretty small coolers are allowed – 9 quart limit), no tents, no pets, no loud music, no alcohol, no fires, no g-strings, don’t feed the animals, no thongs, no fireworks.  Although I thought they might be kind of restrictive, I also thought that it did make the beach nicer for everyone. You have to pass a guard on the way down to the beach and they definitely stop you if they see you have a cooler or tent.  See the image with most of the other rules and regulations below.

Beach Rules and Regulations at North Beach Maryland

The area of the beach we were on was surrounded by breakers and was never more than 2 or 3 feet deep even if you walked out pretty far.  There were very small, gentle waves.  This meant that it was a perfect place for kids to play and not have to be worried about getting bowled over by a huge wave or going in too deep.

The sand was clean.  There wasn’t alot of trash around.  Some people might be turned off by the feel of the bottom when they’re in the water.  You could either consider it slimy or silky or somewhere in between.  It surely feels different than at an Atlantic beach.  Its kind of a muddy clay. It didn’t bother me, but it is kind of surprising the first time you experience that.  Otherwise, other than some seaweed in the water,  it was a very clean, nice experience.

There were some restaurants and shops around, as well as a fishing pier.  Again, there are some fees involved if you want to fish (see North Beach admission rates above).

If you are looking for a place to spend a summer beach day (or night) then I would recommend visiting North Beach, MD.  You may also want to read my blog posting on Summer Camp Ideas for Kids In Maryland. You may also want to read my post about educational birthday gift ideas or my review of the FamZoo debit card for kids.

Columbia Maryland Recommendations Review Reviews Secondary Features

Review of Kids First Swim School

Kids First Swim School Columbia Md
Review of Kid’s First Swim School

My girls have been taking swimming lessons at Kids First Swim School since they were a few months old.

Summary: I have good and bad things to say about our experiences with them over the years.  I would tell people to look for other alternatives if they have one available (see below for some ideas in Columbia MD).  If you’re wondering about the cost of lessons, as of February 27, 2013, 6 weeks worth of half hour lessons are $100.  Considering that you don’t have to pay for a monthly membership like in other venues, this is somewhat competitive.

The Facilities
First thing I would say is that the idea is great.  The Kids First Swim Schools that I have been to are in strip malls.  Its kind of unexpected to find a swimming pool next to a grocery store and a Good Will Thrift store, but it works…mostly.  The pool at the Columbia location is medium sized.  It goes up to 5 feet deep and is usually kept pretty warm.  They are quick to point out that they use salt to generate their chlorine, which I guess is great.  They say this makes it more “natural”.  The pool area is usually kept pretty clean although they do leave some things to be desired.

The dressing rooms are horrible.  Problem one: they tend to be occupied.  There are only three of them.  Can you imagine what its like when several classes end at once (which is the norm)?  You have a bunch of cold wet kids and unhappy parents waiting for the next one to become available.  Of course, if your kids are still young, you can take them into the bathroom and change them, but in practice you will find at least a few parents changing their kids while hiding them behind towels.  People have other things to do besides waiting to change their kids–and changing even one child is never a two-minute thing.  I think they could easily build a few more dressing rooms if they wanted to.  They really should–this is one of the biggest complaints about the place.  I feel that they could easily fix this by putting additional changing rooms in their open space areas or near their front door.  They don’t have to be very big, they just need to be available.

For some reason, computers haven’t made it to Kid’s First yet. It is quaint. As a customer, you wouldn’t care, except setting up your next swimming session can be a real pain for them and for you.  They have books of paper with the kids’ records on them.  So when you go to setup a session, they have to dig through the books to find your kid (which sometimes doesn’t go well) and then look at their paper schedules to figure out what times meet your needs and fit your kid’s level.  It can be time consuming and often a little bit silly.  Add to that the fact that you don’t always know whether your kid is going to be promoted to the next level when you go to sign up.  This is because they give “Report cards” on the last day of class.

Keep in mind that the next session will start the following week, so your choices are sign up earlier and hope you got your kid’s level right or wait and risk not having the time slot you want available.  I have two kids on two different levels so this can be even more comical.  Having said this, we’ve had pretty good luck and the staff tries to be accommodating, even starting new time slots just for one of my kids so they could go at the same time as the other.

The “Time Zone”
I used to complain about this foible, but I have to say, it has saved me from being late several times: They keep the clocks at Kid’s First Swim School set five minutes or so behind.  So if your class is at 6:30pm, its really at 6:35pm.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen new parents go busting into to pool area rushing their kid along because they thought they were late, but instead were early.  Its almost funny.

The Teaching
As far as the teachers, there are a few great ones.  The problem is that the turn over is very high.  Its not unusual for my daughters to have two or three different teachers over the course of 6 weeks…that is a problem because the teachers don’t get to know what the kids can do.  And in the case of one of my daughters, it can be a bit upsetting because she only feels comfortable with certain teachers.

At one recent lesson, my five year old had to tell the teacher that she was teaching them on the wrong level (too easy) because the new teacher forgot what level they were on. There are definitely obvious levels of experience too.  We’ve found that even if you pay for private lessons, you may get two or more different teachers over six weeks.  That is likely to make you angry.

Class sizes can vary quite a bit.  We have had many classes with just one or two kids in them…and others with at least five kids. Keep in mind that with one teacher alot of the time only one kid can swim.  So you can guess that the size of the class dramatically affects the amount of attention each child gets….And with bigger classes your kid is sure to spend at least half the time in the water waiting for her/his turn.  You can purchase semi-private and private lessons to control this, but obviously the cost of this is much higher.

In spite of the above, all in all, I can definitely say that my kids have improved in swimming as a result of the lessons.

Family Swim Nights
Family Swim Nights take place on Saturdays and Sunday evenings from 6-8pm.  It’s a great chance to practice with your kids and talk to other parents about their experiences.  Recently they have restricted the use of boards and noodles so you will want to bring your own.

I would definitely say that a side effect of going to the family swim nights is extra improvements due to watching other kids and playing with them.  Kids definitely learn well from other kids.

Birthday Parties
This is a pretty good place to have a birthday party.  There is plenty of room and since 25 kids are allowed in the pool, you can really have a nice party for about $225 (check with them for current pricing).  The party areas aren’t anything fancy, but are roomy.

Depending on what time of day, your group will either swim before or after the party.  They have two party areas at the   Columbia location, so its very possible that another party can be going on at the same time as yours.  The other group isn’t allowed in the pool at the same time as yours though…still, it’s not an ideal situation.

Don’t forget to tell parents that they likely need to come prepared to get in the pool with their young kids on your invitation.

By the way, check out these posts if you’re looking for birthday party places or gift ideas.

The Cost
Of the activities we do with our kids, swimming lessons are probably one of the most expensive.  I can’t even imagine what the insurance for a pool for kids must cost, so I guess they need to charge alot to make up for that.

Right now (2013), we pay about $90/six week session.  So that works out to be about $15 for a half-hour lesson.  You can purchase many sessions at a time for discounts.  They also offer private lessons and semi-private lessons.  These are more expensive, but I am not sure what they cost right now.

On Saturday and Sunday evenings, you can take advantage of some practice time, that costs $5/per person.  Birthday parties for 25 kids with one hour in the pool and one hour having a party costs about $200.

Alternatives To Kids First Swim School
There are of course many alternatives to Kids First Swim School.  If you’re in Columbia, Maryland two obvious competitors are the community indoor pools (in Columbia, that’s the Columbia Association) and Lifetime Fitness.  Both offer competitively priced lessons and honestly, the facilities tend to be nicer in general, especially at Lifetime Fitness.

I recently became a member of Lifetime.  Swimming lessons at Lifetime fitness are $50/month and its a much nicer experience.  There are more changing rooms  just for families and they even have  showers–and class size is capped at 4 kids (You have to be a member to get lessons there–memberships are about $150/month for a family–so again, this is why I am saying that Kid’s First is competitively priced if you’re just looking for swimming lessons.).  Here is my full review of Lifetime Fitness.

Another very good alternative in Columbia is the Columbia Association.  I have heard only good things about the lessons and I know the facilities are very nice too.  I am not sure what the lessons cost there, but the membership for a family that already lives in Columbia is about $75/month. The YMCA in Ellicott City also has a good reputation.

Kid’s First Swim School Located at 7351 Assateague Drive, Columbia, MD . Reviewed by Eron Cohen. Rated: 3/ 5 (Okay)
Looking for other activities to do with your kids?