We’re definitely going to need before and after care for our children this school year (2018-2019).
We’ve started looking into what the standard options are, and we’re a little worried.
As a former teacher, I have seen what before and after care can be (a waste of children’s time, with some fun mixed in) and hope to find something better.
Idea Lab After School Program
Idea Lab is located in Ellicott City/Columbia on Route 108 near Red Branch Road. It specializes in STEM programs for kids, and it is one of the few places that will pick kids up from school and transport them. They pick up a schools that are within 5 miles (elementary and middle schools).
I’d note that you may not find it easy to navigate their website to determine the pickup options, but just give them a call — they definitely do offer this service.
They have some great options for STEM classes and activities after school. They offer classes in coding, 3D printing, cooking/baking, and more.
Another possibility is a martial arts program at one of a few locations around Howard County. The deal is that for about $450 dollars/month, a member of the martial art’s schools staff picks up your child up after school (walking or typically with a van) your child may get a snack, and then they take martial arts classes and have some free time to do homework.
The local Howard County martial arts schools with after-school programs that I know of are:
The public schools in Howard County all have on-site before and after care. Some of the programs are run by Howard County Parks and Recreation, and some are primarily run by the Columbia Association. This means you won’t have a choice–it’s either one or the other.
At our local elementary for example, before and after care is run by Columbia Association. It turns out, however, that there are “special programs” that are added on by the Howard County Parks and Rec. For example, they have a 12-session before school chess club running this fall from Silver Knights Chess.
Checking out the Recreation and Parks after care page, it definitely looks as if they have some good programs, but recently, we heard some parents complaining about this program one day while my girls were taking a ballet lesson–exactly what I am afraid of, basically frequent disorganization, and more of a babysitting service than anything else. I hope that’s not what I will find.
The following elementary schools have before and after care provided by Recreation and Parks:
Bellows Spring Elem
Bollman Bridge Elem
Bushy Park Elem
Dayton Oaks Elem
Deep Run Elem
Ducketts Lane Elem
Forest Ridge Elem
Gorman Crossing Elem
Hollifield Station Elem
Laurel Woods Elem
Manor Woods Elem
Pointers Run Elem
St. John’s Lane Elem
Triadelphia Ridge Elem
West Friendship Elem
As mentioned many of the local schools have programs offered by Columbia Association. There is an application on the website. You may find that your school has a waiting list for the before and after care. You can call them on 410-715-3000 to check on the waiting list. The following elementary schools have Columbia Association before and after care:
The Columbia Association programs are convenient, but certainly aren’t what I’d call cheap-basically you’re going to pay $183/month for before care starting at 7am, and $260 for aftercare until 6pm or both for $493/month (These are 2018 prices, subject to change! Financial aid is available) for before and aftercare. (They also offer a full-day program for days when school is closed for $55/day. See my list of other options for schools out camps)
So for that kind of money, and for spending so much of your child’s time, you can only hope for well-run, worthwhile offerings. The website states that the ratio of students to staff in this program are no more than 15 to 1. Also, worth mentioning is that they provide snacks (I hope they’re healthy snacks!)
So that’s one option, easy if you don’t get waitlisted, but what are the other options?
As mentioned earlier, some of the elementary schools also have special add-on aftercare programs that are available through Howard County Parks and Recreation or Columbia Association from local businesses. (ie-Chess, music lessons, yoga, sports, Girls on the Run, scouting–see my post about after school activities in Howard County!) You have to check with your school or browse through the online catalog to see what’s available and the additional costs.
If your student is a middle schooler, there are also programs at some schools run by Howard County Parks and Recreation called Can-Teen ($299/month). Details about the program and the registration forms are here. It is available at the following schools:
Read about my experience purchasing Ikea kitchen cabinets and getting them installed.
Executive Summary: Ikea kitchen cabinets are modern, attractive and stylish…and cheaper than many of the other options. Read about the ups and downs of my experience from start to finish to help you decide if Ikea is the right option for your next kitchen.
Recently we decided it was time to update our kitchen cabinets. We were on a budget, but wanted something that would look modern and nice. We considered cabinet refacing but decided that ours weren’t in good condition at all and just needed to be replaced. So, we measured our kitchen and the cabinets, took photographs of each one for reference and then went shopping.
Our first stop was Home Depot. We selected the cabinet style we wanted from the samples and then we were ready to setup our kitchen with one of Home Depot’s kitchen consultants. The friendly rep sat down with us and entered the measurements of our cabinets and seemed to have an impressive knowledge of kitchen. She did a great job of figuring out where there would be differences between our current cabinets and the new ones and made changes and suggestions to get everything to work to it’s optimum level. The cabinets we selected weren’t top of the line, but we thought it was a nice layout and would have purchased them. The total cost without installation was about $2,800.
Next we began looking into IKEA cabinets. Ikea has great looking kitchens that are modern and have lots of clever innovations. We weren’t put off by the fact that you must assemble the cabinets, although the idea of messing one up did cause me some angst. The good news is that they generally try to stock cabinets at the local Ikeas, so if something did go wrong, you could just go and buy a new one…it probably wouldn’t be a long wait for an order to come in.
There are many kitchen models in the Ikea store to give you an idea of what is possible. Since the cabinets are modular, there are many configurations. There are just tons of options, including for handles and hardware. Be prepared to spend some time shopping!
Another thing that worried me was that unless you pay for a consultant from Ikea (I think this service was about $200), you basically have to utilize their online CAD software to setup your own kitchen design. That was worrisome and challenging for me, but luckily my wife took on the task and did a great job of setting up the cabinets in the online system. If you’re wondering if you’re up for the challenge, go ahead and give it a try…the people at the store will be glad to go through the basics with you, and there are some helpful videos around as well. Again, if you can’t or if you don’t want to do this, you can just use their service (click the image to the right to see what you get with each level of service). Remember, there is some risk here–if you mismeasure your kitchen or forget some key aspect in your design, you could at least waste lots of time, and at worst have problems like a temporarily unusable kitchen while you resolve the problem and get additional parts.
Once the cabinets were in the software, I took the next step–a visit to the kitchen department in the Ikea store. I’d like to say it was a wonderful experience, and parts of it were, but really it wasn’t that great. When I arrived at the store on a Monday night, there were several people “in line” ahead of me. It was an hour and a half before the consultant saw me. She was very knowledgeable and went over the design my wife created and added some changes to make things work better for installation. We were still working on the finalizing the design when the store closed at 9pm, and that made us rush, which led to our first big issue-we ordered the wrong color counter tops. Let me explain more:
The Ikea design software will pick certain defaults which are easy to forget about. Near the end of finalizing the order, I mentioned the counter-top color to the consultant. I then went over to the samples and showed her the black colored counters that we wanted. She said that was what we selected and quickly moved on since the store was closing. It turns out that wasn’t true, the counters we were about to purchase were brown, not black. I am not sure what caused the confusion, but it really turned into a huge amount of wasted time. More on that later.
Once I had agreed that all of the cabinets and counters were correct, the consultant continued the process. She basically transferred what we created into another system that calculated all the necessary parts and the pricing. I was happy that the cost was $700 cheaper than Home Depot–all told, uninstalled about $2,150… I placed the order by paying with a credit card. Unfortunately, many of the parts weren’t available from the local Ikea in College Park, Maryland, so they had to be shipped down from New Jersey. This detail further complicated the counter-top issue. I selected a day a couple weeks in the future for the truck to deliver my cabinets and left the store by 9:30pm.
I should explain that like other Ikea furniture, it is meant to be kept in stock in their warehouse. The thing you need to know is that they don’t let you just go pick it up like other furniture. You have to always deal with their consultants for kitchen-related materials. They put in the order for you, then it is picked for you and you have to wait to get it, or you can have it delivered. The point is you can’t just go into the warehouse and get it yourself. This is a layer of complication, especially given the fact that to talk to the consultants you have to walk across the store and then wait in line.
The first problem
When I got home and went over the order with my wife, we realized the counter tops were the wrong color. I went back a few days later hoping it would be a simple matter to have them ship a different color counter-top. No, no it was not a simple matter. First of all, once again, I had to go wait in line to talk to one of the in-store consultants, this time it was about 30 minutes. They could not change the color and their remedy was to have me order a second set of counter tops and simply refuse the first set when they arrived–we would be given a refund automatically. That was well and good but unfortunately, there was a mix-up and we didn’t refuse the extra set of counter tops on the delivery date. So now I had to find a way to return 3 boxes of heavy 10 foot counter tops to the Ikea store.. Luckily my neighbor helped me take care of it–unfortunately, the line for the returns was quite long that day and it took over an hour of waiting in line to get it done. Even more unfortunately, this wasn’t my only trip returning counter-tops…
Selecting an Installer
If you won’t be installing the cabinets yourself, the easiest option is to use Traemand, Ikea’s house installer. Traemand seems to be a network of subcontractors around the country, but I am not 100% sure this is so. The people who sent me my estimate used the Traemand name but also a different name. When you place your order for the cabinets, they can send the plans to the installers who will email you an installation estimate with options. This is convenient and possibly even a wise way to go, since all they do is install Ikea cabinets all the time. This is so because Ikea cabinets are a bit different that other brands, and not just because you have to put them together. In hindsight, I think it is very important that the installer has Ikea cabinet experience.
At any rate, the most important difference is that Ikea cabinets are hung on a rail that’s attached your wall. This is so that they can easily be removed–in Europe when people move, they take their kitchen cabinets with them. There are other nuances too, like the fact that the handles need to be installed, holes aren’t pre-drilled though. We elected to use someone who was experienced installing kitchens but had no experience installing Ikea kitchens, and that led to a few problems. Make sure you find someone who can substantiate that they’ve recently installed Ikea kitchens. BTW, Ikea’s installers would be happy to put the cabinets together for you, but that will cost you…in our case it was something like $55/each.
Traemand sent two estimates. The first didn’t include tilework, plumbing or electric. The second one, that came in at about $4000 and included putting the cabinets together did. In the end we went with a contractor that did the installation for about $2000, but did not include plumbing and we didn’t really need any electrical work done.
The boxes arrived
When the cabinets arrived, there were quite a few boxes. We had ordered 9 cabinets, and the accompanying cabinet doors, fillers, handles, drawers, kickboards and rails. Putting the cabinets together wasn’t actually very difficult. Once the first one was done, the rest were just routine. As always, Ikea furniture is alot more fragile when it’s in pieces than when it’s put together. The cabinets were no exception. I think the hardest part was assembling the drawers, and it wasn’t really very difficult either. The main thing is having space to work and then a place to keep the cabinets until they’re installed.
One complaint I had is that the feet for the base cabinets are very poorly made and don’t stay attached to the cabinets when you’re moving them around. Ours kept falling off as we were moving them into place…it’s very frustrating to put them back on only to have them fall off again. Once the cabinets are secured in place, they do seem to stay put and can support weight.
Another warning is to be very careful not to ding your cabinets. We had several dings by the time they were installed and were disappointed to find out that there is no touch up paint available. Realize that these cabinets are made of particle board, not solid wood. Although this is a concern, you will find that the other cabinets that are available in this price range are also made from this material and in fact, Ikea will tell you that theirs are thicker than their competitors such as
On installation day, the crew arrived and it was quickly apparent that they hadn’t installed Ikea cabinets before. They did a pretty good job after all was said and done but things would have gone more smoothly if they had done them before. One thing that put a wrench in the day was the realization that since Ikea’s counters had no back-splash built into them, we would be better off getting some custom made which had them instead. Ikea’s counter tops are flat, and our previous counters did have three inches of back-splash.
The reason this was an issue is that we were not planning to redo our tile on the wall behind the counter…without the back-splash, the areas which had no tile would be exposed and there was nothing to cover them. Since our house was built in 1985 there was little hope of finding matching tiles to fix the problem, so it was just easier to get different counter tops…the laminate counter tops I had made were about $500 more expensive than Ikea’s and I also now had to return another set of counter tops to Ikea. The custom counter tops took about a week to get, so that meant a longer period of time without a usable kitchen. Quite a pain.
Ikea is pretty good about returns overall. As long as you return stuff within 90 days, they’ll take it back. I made several return runs, and had varying levels of satisfaction with it. The main issue was wait times. One time I waited well over an hour to return counter-tops because there was only one person taking returns on a Saturday night. On the other hand one of the return visits there was no line at all.
Summary: This is a review of the Blendtec blender sold in Costco (TB621 USCOST) currently being sold for $319. Although we loved this machine when it was working, we managed to break ours 3 times in two months through just normal use. On the third time, it broke we just returned it.
Read on for information about alternatives to this blender and why we were so sad to see it go!
If you’re considering a Blendtec Blender, you may want to avoid this blender and instead go for a different Total Blender model instead (Available on Amazon new or refurbished – Refurbished units tend to be almost as good as new, and obviously cheaper!) or the 475 (refurbished).
As you’ll read below, there is alot to like about Blendtec:
It is a popular brand of professional and prosumer blender
It’s somewhat cheaper than its nearest competitor, Vitamix
The blade configuration is great — makes scraping the bottom of the container very easy
Customer service is very good
Long warranties on its containers and base
We Went With Blendtec
In spite of the problems I’ll describe below, we really loved having the blender. Most of the time it did its job–and did it stunningly well. You’ll want to check Amazon for deals on refurbished BlendTec blenders (subject to availability). (In case you opt for a Vitamix, there are also factory reconditioned Vitamixes to be had on Amazon as well). Although I wouldn’t recommend the model we got, I am mostly convinced that Blendtec is a venerable blender company. They seem to have some quality issues with these Blenders. I suspect if you go with a different model, you will have better luck.
There is alot to like about Blendtec, and they definitely are the blender of choice in professional settings, so I would say that instead, you may want to consider the similar Blendtec Total Blender instead.
Below is the whole of my family’s experience using the Blendtec including the times it failed.
Comparing Vitamix and Other Blenders to the Blendtec
Before the purchase we looked at the other options both from Blendtec and other blender makers. We also considered:
Having said that though, there were three factors that made us go for the Blendtec:
Price–in general the Vitamixes were between somewhat more expensive to way more expensive depending on the one you’re talking about–we were specifically comparing the Vitamix 5200 (Refurbished). This was an issue for us because we never had a high-end blender before and wanted to make sure we were really going to use it (spoiler alert–we use it constantly) before going for the best one made.
Size –the height of the VitaMix vs. the BlendTec blenders. You might not notice it as much in the store but the older VitaMix blenders are H-U-G-E. (There is a newer model which is shorter and wider…and highly recommended–here is a link to the refurbished 5300)Yes, you can purchase a smaller jar separately and that makes it more likely it will fit under your counter and in your sink/dishwasher, but once again, we were kind of interested in getting into the market on the cheaper side, so we weren’t really big on immediately spending money on a new jar after having made the investment in an expensive blender we weren’t sure we’d use that often. (Another spoiler alert–we liked the Blendtec so much and used it so often (2-3 times/day) that we did buy a second kind of blender container to do nut butters–the “twister jar”)
Technology–as far as creating awesome blenders that blend things as advertised, both companies do that well. On the other hand, if you want fancier settings, you’ll probably go with the Blendtec line. Vitamix is known for old fashioned knobs and dials. The Blendtec blenders have modern buttons and digital displays.
Power–the Blendtec has a three horsepower motor, while the Vitamix blenders have two horsepower motors. We thought this could make a difference, but really, now that I’ve had both, I would say it really doesn’t matter.
If you read reviews and discussions about Blentec vs. Vitamix you’ll find many similarities. One important similarity is that both have long warranties of seven or eight years. As I’ll explain later, I already tried out the warranty on the Blendtec and had pretty good results. The warranties cover the motor as well as the blending jars. Really you should expect your blender to last for many many years. Both have the ability to blend a variety of things and do so at very high speeds. Both have accessories available, especially in the form of different kinds of jars. One difference is that the Vitamix has sharp blades, while the Blendtec blades are dull and resemble the wings of a jet. Both work very well.
Another difference is that the Vitamix lid has a tamping rod–in fact I’d say that the tamping rod is one of the hallmarks of the Vitamix blenders The Blendtec doesn’t have this–the Blendtec salespeople would say that just don’t need it because their jars are shaped better to make it not necessary…I can tell you that sometimes it would have been nice to have one, but most of the time you don’t need it.
The times we did need something to push food into the blades were mainly related to frozen fruits–particularly strawberries that would get stuck and there was nothing you could do but open the blender and try to move the offending item away from the blade so that it could once again spin through the mix–something that isn’t easy to do when you have a blender full of smoothie.
BlendTec’s Blade. It’s one piece and it isn’t sharp. Very impressive.
As it turns out, the shape of the jars and blades is really important for several reasons. It clearly makes a different to the performance of the blender. This is why both Blendtec and Vitamix sell more than one type of blending container. But there is something else that you should know–now that I have used both blenders I can tell you that the WildSide jar from Blendtec is WAYYYYY easier to get stuff from the bottom of than the Vitamix.
The WildSide jar is wide, plus there are only two blades to get around. It can be very difficult to get thick mixtures from beneath the blades of the Vitamix–and this leads to waste. The problem is that the Vitamix blenders have four relatively sharp blades instead of two (see the illustration, it is really just a dull, but effective, one piece blade) and the Vitamix default jar is more narrow at the bottom. This allows for things to get “stuck” beneath the mixing blades. When this happens, I sometimes wish for a BlendTec again, but I have a very long rubber spatula that helps.
A couple of more things to compare: The manual that came with the Blendtec is not even close to what came with the Vitamix. Vitamix wins hands-down on this front. They give you a full color, spiral bound, thick recipe book that really makes you want to use that machine. Blendtec does give you a few recipes and you won’t wonder how to work the machine itself (it’s mostly self-explanatory anyway), but the Blendtec folks are skimping on the recipe-book compared to Vitamix.
Having said that, you can get great recipes from their website, and there are certainly plenty of recipes all over the internet meant specifically for Blendtec blenders. I still subscribe to the Blendtec email list–I find tempting recipes in my inbox every week.
One more point worth mentioning is the noise level. Let me put it this way: whether you purchase a Blendtec or a Vitamix, you will NOT be able to keep your blending a secret. Both blenders are loud, in fact, really l o u d in my opinion. Blending isn’t a delicate operation. There is going to be noise. The results are worth it.
Using the Blendtec Blender
When we got our blender home we immediately started making all sorts of great foods, especially healthy smoothies. We used it 50 times in a few days (there is a counter that tells you how much you use it). We were truly amazed out how smooth the smoothies were and how it could turn any fruit, grain, nut, meat or vegetable, frozen or fresh into something smooth. Our kids loved all the great smoothies we were turning out. We stocked up on plenty of organic frozen fruits and berries at Costco including: frozen cherries, frozen blueberries, antioxidant mix with various berries, pineapple (not organic), and strawberries (also not organic). We also got a container of baby spinach and other nutritious non-frozen vegetables and fruits.
Smoothies weren’t the only thing we made. We also tried other things such as hummus and soups. The soup setting on the blender relies on friction to heat the soup. This is a great way to make a delicious soup and will compete with our beloved Instant pot pressure cooker. We also made pancakes, dips, guacamole, and breads.
Uh, Oh, Something’s Not Right
We’re not sure what went wrong, but after a few weeks of use our blender started vibrating severely. We called Blendtec’s support line and they helped us determine that something had gone wrong with the jar’s bearings. They gave us some advice on how to care for the jar so this wouldn’t happen and then mailed us a brand new jar for free. We honestly aren’t sure if there was something we did wrong to break the first jar or if it was defective, but the kind woman who was helping me get the replacement gave me a few tips:
1) Don’t press down hard on the top of the jar while the blender is working–this will stress the seal and could lead to a breakdown like the one we had. This is harder than it sounds because for some reason, the natural thing to do is to put pressure on the top of the jar while it’s blending. (On the Vitamix this doesn’t seem to be an issue as just the act of using the tamping rod is going to push down on your blender).
2) Load liquids at the bottom of the jar (first), then put in veggies and finally put frozen things at the top. This reduces the possibility of the blades getting stuck on fruit that might have frozen together while you were loading the rest of things into the jar.
The replacement jar arrived and we were back in business. We happily blended away for the next few days when suddenly we realized that the small screen that counts blend time in seconds and tells you how many times the blender has been used, stopped working. So, I was back on the phone with BlendTec and they apologized and sent me a new base. It arrived in about a week and I just used the free shipping label to send back the original base. I was hopeful that I would not have any more problems. Unfortunately I was wrong.
I hate to keep you in suspense, so I’ll tell you now what went wrong, even though it’s a bit out of order: We were using the soup cycle one day and started smelling a strong burning smell. Something went wrong with the base again. I decided I wasn’t going to call Blendtec again, so instead I just returned the whole thing for a refund at Costco. They gave me no trouble about it and issued me a store credit. I will use that for groceries and plan to buy a refurbished Vitamix on Amazon instead.
Since I still want you to know about the rest of my experience with this blender, I urge you to read on anyway in case. Again, I think there was alot to like about the Blendtec blender, so perhaps if you’re considering one you’ll take your chances with the 570 or you may have better luck with another Blendtec model.
Some More Things We Loved About Our Blendtec
Cleaning the blender is a breeze–way easier than one of those lower priced models that you have to take apart to wash. With the BlendTec blenders, all you have to do is to wash out the jar. The quickest way to do that is to add water and a squirt of dish soap and do a quick blend. Then rinse that out and blend again with just some water.
Since we were so happy with our blender and used it so much we decided to purchase an additional jar that works better with dry ingredients. We already had the Wildside+ jar–the one that came with the blender, but it does have some limitations–the one in question here has to do with turning out nut butters such as homemade peanut butter, almond butter or cashew butter. The Wildside+ jar that comes with the blender definitely will have some trouble making nut butters. You may not have had any idea how taxing it is for a blender to make this kind of thing, but I can tell you it really is. You will find that the WildSide+ jar will stall trying to deal with the thick goo.
On the other hand, the Twister jar (and mini Twister jar) makes churning out peanut butter much easier. This jar is shaped a bit different and its lid basically has two scrapers attached to it that run the whole length of the jar. While you’re making nut butters you twist the lid by hand to keep everything moving in the jar. It works well. It is also great for making frozen yogurt and improves the process of making hummus, but that works pretty well in the WildSide+ jar anyway.
There are two versions of the Twister Jar–the regular size and the mini. We opted for the Mini because it was cheaper and we felt that it would be easier to store. Plus we didn’t think we’d ever want to make large quantities of nut butters that would be enabled by the full size jar.
As it turns out, we probably could find some use for the larger jar, but we were mostly happy with the small one. The only issue I noticed is that when you’re making frozen yogurt with it, you need to be careful not to overload it, because it can potentially make a mess if it overflows–has happened to us a couple of times now.
By the way, there are a couple of other jars that I am aware of–there is the Fourside jar, which is also a general purpose jar but smaller than the WildSide+ jar and then there are couple of jars that are compatible with the VitaMix line. Because of the reasons I stated above, I could imagine actually purchasing a BlendTec container for my Vitamix–remember the blades are part of the container with these blenders. It is worth noting that the blending jars that are sold separately come with a 3 year warranty.
This is Just Cool
For some fun, have a look at the BlendTec YouTube channel–particularly at the “Will It Blend” video series. The mini-show features a man and a blender that is used to blend anything from a garden rake or office supplies to an iPhone 6. You’ll be amazed.
Costco sells two 36 ounce bottles of Organic Blue Agave for $9.89
Easy Ways to Save Money: Shop at Costco
This is part 1 of my review of Costco. [Don’t miss Part 2 here]
I know this may seem a little off-topic for this blog, but I think there are still many families who haven’t discovered the joys of shopping at bulk food warehouse stores.
Many people are turned off by the membership fees or think they just don’t need a huge box of this or that. I submit that if you have a family of 3 or more, you should definitely look more closely–even couples can offset the membership fees with a few purchases.
The cost savings on many items is drastic and although the selection can be limited, there are other factors that offset this such as higher quality of available items and even environmental benefits of buying bulk.
In a typical grocery store, you cannot buy this quantity of batteries at all. Instead you’d buy maybe 12 batteries per package at most and they might cost you $11. It is a huge difference.
Many folks might say, “yeah, but what am I going to do with all those batteries?” but in this case, Duracell guarantees their batteries to be usable for 10 years…so as long as you have a safe place to store them, this is a fantastic deal.
I really like Costco. Generally speaking the shopping experience is good, although I admit that sometimes it is so crowded that you feel like you could be mowed down at any moment by a wave of oversize shopping carts.
I have the executive membership that is currently priced at $110. One of the benefits of the executive membership is that you get 2% cash back on your purchases. So that means that if you buy $5500 worth of products there, you will make your money back on the membership purchase.
That might seem like alot ,but over a year’s time it could easily add up–especially if you purchase any of the many non-food items such as electronics, appliances, home and garden, furniture and much more (especially if you count what you can buy on costco.com). There is also a regular membership that costs about half as much.
With your membership you get two membership cards, meant for two people who live together from the same family. You need to present the card whenever you pay and when you enter the store. (You might be able to get away with going in on a membership with a friend who doesn’t live with you, but it is against their policy and only one of you will get their monthly coupon mailings.)
Below is my full, 2-part review of Costco. I will try to include as many of the aspects of the store as I can, starting with their Visa Credit Card.
The Costco Visa Credit Card
As of June 2016, Costco no longer takes American Express, they have switched over to Visa which means you can use any Visa credit card at their stores. You can also use a Visa or Mastercard debit card to make purchases there. However, if you’re a long-term Costco member, you should definitely consider getting yourself a Costco Visa from Citi. It is a fantastic deal, especially if you are careful to pay it off each month before interest kicks in.
The card gives you additional cash back on Costco purchases (see below) plus has other great features and benefits.
The cash back comes in the form of a check that can only be redeemed at Costco (for products or cash), but if you’re an avid Costco shopper, then it’s all the better. At this writing the interest rate is about 15.5%. You can apply online.
The features you get with the card beyond the cash back make it even more worthwhile. Here are a few of the reasons I think this is such a great card:
As mentioned above, you get 4% cash back on gasoline purchases from any gas station (There is a limit of I think $7,000 worth of gas, and then it goes down to 1% cash back).
You get 3% cash back on qualified travel and restaurant purchases.
You get 2% cash back on all purchases from Costco
You get 1% cash back on everything else
Cash back comes in the form of a voucher that is emailed to you or mailed on paper that can be used to make purchases at Costco or redeemed for cash. This really works fine for my family and I since we shop there so often. But there are also other benefits, all of which have various caveats, that make me think they may or may not work for real-life situations, but anyway, they exist, so here are some of them:
Travel insurance / Trip cancellation insurance
Rental car insurance
Extended warranties that include thefts and other losses
I am pretty sure this is one of the best credit card deals you can get at the moment. I highly recommend checking into it.
The “Green” of Costco – Organic and Environmentally Friendly Offerings
As I mentioned earlier there are a few reasons why shopping at Costco is good for the environment. First of all, buying bulk items typically means reduced amounts of packaging. Although this hasn’t held true for some items, usually you are buying much bigger amounts of an item so less packing material is needed.
Secondly, Costco offers quite a large variety of natural, fair trade and organic items. A good example is their house brand of chocolate chips which they sell for the price of $6.99 for 3.5 pounds. These chocolate chips contain fair trade cocoa and do not have any preservatives. They are delicious and much better quality than the comparable Nestle chips. (Although Costco also sells Nestle as well)
Cost of Organic Rice Milk At Costco
Here is another example of the savings you can garner by shopping at Costco: If you purchase Organic Rice Milk at a regular grocery store, you might pay about 8-15 cents per ounce. As you can see below, you will pay less than 4 cents per ounce ($1.14/quart – – on quart = 32 ounces) at Costco. Yes, you do have to buy 12 quarts at a time, but with something like rice milk, you can definitely store it very easily and it lasts a long time. I should mention that Kirkland is the house brand of Costco. Most of the time Kirkland products are of very good quality and typically much cheaper than their name brand counterparts.
As I stated, there are many organic foods at Costco. I am excited to see Costco adding more and more of these kinds of items because when they do, their buying power has strong effects in the consumer ecosystem. They purchase huge amounts of these things from suppliers and that helps stabilize the market and reduce the prices for everyone.
There are plenty of examples of the organic items you’ll find in a Costco store. (BTW, if you live in central Maryland, see my blog post about other ways of getting lower cost organic fruits and vegetables at wholesale prices) I have put prices down for some of them to give you something to compare to other stores–be aware that sometimes these things come and go, plus prices do change and vary around the country, so YMMV. Here is my current list of organic foods available at Costco–unfortunately this list isn’t complete:
– Eggs (they recently stopped packaging their organic eggs in styrofoam (doh!), excellent) – Whole and 2% Milk – Several cuts of chicken/whole frozen chickens – Ground beef – Coffee – Butter (2 lbs for $7.69) – Olive Oil – Croutons (2lbs/ 32 oz for $6.49) – Rice Milk – Soy Milk – Frozen Blueberries – Quinoa – Spinach – Kale – Mixed Greens (Kale & Spinach) – Bananas – Frozen Corn – Frozen Mixed Vegetables – (The flash frozen vegetables are great to have around for soups and quick sides. The quality has been very good.) – Stoneyfield Yogurt – Sugar – Blue Agave ($9.89 for two 36 ounce bottles) – Frozen Mango – Bread (two pack) – Tortilla Chips – Brown rice – Edamame – Mary’s Gone Crackers Gluten free crackers – 18 Rabbits Granola – Rickland Organic Trail Mix – Next Organics Drak Chocolate Covered Banana Coconut – Late July MultiGrain Snack Chips – Tasy Brand Organic Wild Berry Fruit Snacks – Hanover Organic Ancient Grain Pretzels – Tazo Organic Iced Green Tea – Horizon Organic Vanilla Milk – Apple & Eve Organics Orange Carrot Juice – Mayorga Organic Cafe Cubano Coffee – Carrington Farms Organic Coconut Oil – Minsley Cooked Organic Brown Rice Bowls – Della Organic Belends Quinoa and Rice Blend – Gluten free Organic Black Bean Spaghetti – Organic Pasta – Classico Organic Pasta Sauce – Kirkland Signature Organic Tomato Paste (12 – 6 oz cans- $5.99) – Kirkland Signature Organic canned Diced Tomatoes – Kirkland Signature Organic Tomato Sauce – Pasta Prima Organic Spinach and Cheese Ravioli – Sambazon Organic Acai Juice – Better than Bullion Reduced Sodium Beef Base – Black Chia seeds (2 pounds for $9.89) – Several Breakfast cereals – Carrots – Peanut Butter – Nutiva Gluten Free Coconut Flour
Sometimes Things at Costco Come and Go
Just to say a bit more about a couple of things that have come and gone: One of my favorites that they took away without warning was the organic oatmeal…they have plenty of genetically modified Quaker oats though.
So if I was going to make any complaints about Costco, one of the top ones is that you cannot count on a product to be there for “good”. Certainly there are some reliable offerings in general, but I would say that you can mainly only count on staple foods, as I have seen all sorts of random things get removed from the lineup or replaced by a different brand over the years.
They also tend to have “road shows.” These are also temporary items brought in by Costco or 3rd party vendors that are only there for a few days, and then they are gone. It’s anyone’s guess whether they will ever be back again.
Things like suits, high-end purses, coats, bedding, jewelry, folding ladders, and a variety of food items are only there temporarily. They do have some “regular” road shows too, such as their seafood roadshow, which seems to turn up at our local store approximately once a month with items they don’t regularly sell. Also in this category to some extent are things like blenders (Vitamix and Blendtec brands) that tend to be consistently sold in the stores, but seem to run out regularly and then are restocked after a company demonstrator comes in for a few days.
They also sell “earth friendly” products of other sorts. For example, they offer products from the Honest Company including vegan shampoo and diapers/wipes. They also offer environmentally friendly Costco-brand environmentally friendly dish soap and laundry detergent.
Sheet Cakes and Desserts
As someone who thinks most supermarket cakes taste disgusting, I do think that Costco’s sheet cakes are definitely better tasting than most and at $18 for a half sheet cake that feeds 48 people, it is a good deal.
We have purchased several cakes for birthday parties at Costco and that have always been tasty (Having said that, they still use quite a bit of sugar and have some chemicals that everyone should do without). They always have “stock” sheet cakes available that are quite nice or you can order a custom decorated cake by filling out a form.
There are two basic kinds of cake – chocolate and white. The white cakes are filled with 2 pounds of vanilla mousse and iced with white butter cream. The chocolate cakes are filled with 2 pounds of chocolate mousse and iced with chocolate buttercream. They request that you give them 1 day’s notice for customized cakes.
There are also several other types of pre-made party desserts you can purchase at Costco. For example, there are many types of non-sheet cakes you can get–they have some really delicious choices including a red velvet cake, coffee cakes, an amazing chocolate cake, cupcakes, and apple strudel. Availability tends to shift, but you can bet there are plenty of outrageously delicious options. You can also find some amazing frozen party desserts, such as filled pastries, mochi and ice cream bars.
Like most parents, I wanted my two girls to get ahead. One of the areas my wife and I felt were the most important was literacy. We felt it would be good to try to get our kids to read as early as possible. Since we didn’t have very much experience teaching very young children to read, we weren’t really sure what was possible.
When our first daughter was 3, we started her on the Hooked on Phonics program. Mind you it was alot of work on our part (okay, mostly on my wife’s part), but the results were stunning–she really did learn to read, and quite well. By the time she was four and a half, she was able to read on the third grade level and now she’s five and reads fifth grade materials with no problem.
This literacy most certainly is helping her succeed already. Okay, she’s not even in kindergarten yet (late birthday), but her reading, no her love of reading, has advanced her in many subject areas including science and social studies. My other daughter who is now three and a half is ahead of the first one by about six-eight months. She is definitely able to read on the first grade level.
Here is a video of her reading one of the books from the program. Keep in mind this was from a few weeks back, even before she was 3 and a half. Since then, her reading has become much more fluid and quicker.
Yes, I am definitely proud of my daughters, but I am not bragging. I believe that most parents who are dedicated to using the Hooked on Phonics program will find similar success. You just have to have the time and the desire to work with your child on a daily basis. I would also recommend some supplemental things like certain TV Shows and devices.
I also want to note that being able to read, doesn’t equate to being able to understand what you read. This is a separate issue to some extent and at least to start comes down to finding reading materials that are appropriate and advancing the vocabulary of your little student.
Hooked on Phonics has been around for many years and is based on research. The kits come in a variety of types and sizes. They are offered by grade level. We purchased the Pre-K kit and eventually all the way up second grade. The kits we got were about sixty dollars before coupon.
We searched the internet and always found good 20-30% discount coupons, so the price you’ll pay for a kit is about $59. Amazon also offers these kits–and you can buy them used/slightly damaged but new (usually just fine) or even rent them for a considerable discount and then just send it back to Amazon when you’re done–this is a great way to go.
Here is an example of a kit we purchased. It comes with a workbook, storybooks, flash cards, progress chart, stickers, two DVDs with music videos and parent instructions. The workbook is where you’ll spend most of your time (see the video above for what that’s like). The story books supplement the workbook as you progress through the programs. We found that one of the best things about the kit was the progress charts/stickers.
Our girls really were thrilled to be able to put a new sticker on their progress chart as they moved through the programs. We hardly ever used the DVDs at all or the flash cards. You can also try the Hooked On Phonics App
The DVDs are nice, but the reality is that if you know what to do with the kit, a parent or teacher can accomplish what’s on the DVD much faster if they just work with the child, so as far us usefulness of the DVDs, time was really the issue.
Again, I will take this opportunity to tell you that this is real work for the parents…and you can’t just do it sometimes. Maybe using the DVDs might free up a parent to do something else if you need to. And aside from the thrill of watching your child learn to read, it can be very repetitive, even boring sometimes to teach phonics “by hand”, so I can image that many parents would turn to the DVDs for a break.
Update 9/12/2015; It is a few years later since I wrote this review, and I can definitely say that I still recommend this reading program. My daughters have benefited so much from having learned to read early using this program that it is difficult to measure what would have happened if we wouldn’t have done this.
Again, it was a huge commitment with practice night after night, but that has equated to a huge gift to my kids. They both love to read and are in the most advanced classes in school. My oldest, who is now eight years old just tested at the 10th grade reading level on a standardized test. My younger daughter who is almost seven is also reading several years above her grade level. I would definitely recommend this program — don’t forget to search for a coupon before you purchase.
5 Hooked on Phonics Really Works!
Both of my daughters learned to read very young. This is mostly due to the Hook on Phonics program!
In this article I explain how I replaced my home phone service provider with a $50 adapter (or cheaper with a good sale/coupon) that uses the free Google Voice service to make and receive phone calls. For the past 10 years I have been a customer of Vonage for my home phone service. And although I think alot more of Vonage than I think of most other home phone service providers, especially the POTS landline providers, I finally dumped it. I had Vonage’s $26/month international plan, but with all the taxes it was $36/month…and that money could be better spent or saved…so goodbye Vonage, but what to do instead?
Many people would suggest just getting rid of the home land line completely in favor of using your mobile phone, but I felt that having a handset to reach for that is always charged, and has less radiation was worthwhile, especially when it is almost free.
So what is the solution I am using? Google Voice with an adapter from Obihai Technology, specifically I got the Obi110 for $48.99 from Amazon.com–this is a one-time purchase. It is easy to install-to summarize, you hook the adapter up to the internet via an Ethernet connection and then to a telephone or telephones in your home. Once that’s done, you log into the Obi Technology website and set up an account (for free)–this is where you configure your device to use Google Voice, which currently allows free phone calls in the USA and Canada.
If you’re not familiar with Google Voice, you should be–even if you don’t plan to use it for your home phone service. Google Voice is Google’s free telephone solution. Just visit voice.google.com while you’re signed into your free Gmail account and you can get started choosing a phone number, hopefully in your area code.
You can always change the phone number at any time and I will explain how to transfer a phone number from another service below. Google Voice is great because it has lots of features and it is really flexible–for instance you can set it up so that when someone calls you the call is forwarded to one or more of your other phone numbers–simultaneously. Most importantly though, it works with the OBI adapter so that you can get home phone service for free.
The quality of the calls is very good. As long as you have a decent internet connection, you will have crystal clear calls without lag or noise.
Cutting The Cord From Cable Television
I want to add this is an important part of the puzzle for people who are cutting the cord and getting rid of Cable TV in their homes. The ballooning prices make it worth it to ditch the hugely over-bloated and wasteful television experience, but many people are in a circumstance where they get their television bundled together with internet and phone service. So getting rid of the TV and phone service is complicated by the fact that the cable company provides your dial tone. I’ve written more about this in another post about saving money, but basically if you get in on a good deal from your cable company for internet only, you can easily save $100/month just right there.
More About Google Voice
Here is a screenshot of the interface of caller treatments in Google Voice.
Google Voice is awesome. It gives you lots of flexibility in routing your calls and handling your voicemail.
One of my favorite features is the fact that it allows you to decide how to handle calls from contacts you know, people you don’t know and anonymous calls separately. So you might decide to send anonymous calls straight to voice mail, or when your mother calls–all of your various phone numbers will ring in unison.
Keeping Your Existing Phone Number
The good news is that Google Voice lets you transfer in a phone number for $20. So theoretically you can keep your existing home phone number…but there’s an issue: Google Voice only lets you transfer in mobile phone numbers, not landline or VOIP numbers. So if you had a Vonage, AT&T, Verizon or other landline, you’re going to have to go through some contortions to keep your old number.
I think the easiest path to take is to do what I did: get a T-Mobile mobile phone SIM card (it was on sale for $1 shipped when I got mine–normally they are $10), and then transfer your old landline phone number to T-Mobile as a waypoint between your old provider and Google Voice. One the number is transferred to T-Mobile than just transfer it again to Google Voice.
Google Voice needs to be able to call your phone number in order for you to initiate the transfer eg- in order to successfully transfer the number to Google Voice, you’re going to have to activate your T-Mobile phone. And in order to do that, you’re going to need some money on your T-Mobile account. I can tell you that the smallest amount you can get away with is $10.
If you select a pay-by-the-day plan or pay by the minute, that will work fine. Unfortunately, once you transfer your number out, you loose any credit on the account…so, in my case, I lost $10 (plus the dollar I paid for the SIM card). The process took three days altogether…but I am happy to still have my old number.
Hooking Up The Adapter
If you already have been using Vonage or another VOIP phone provider, hooking up the OBI adapter is a very simple matter – you just swap the Vonage adapter for the OBI one by hooking up an Ethernet cable and phone line. If you haven’t used Vonage before, you might need to make some adjustments to your home phone wiring if you intend to use your wall jacks. It is a much simpler matter if you just want to hook up a cordless phone (or better yet, a multi-handset cordless phone like the ones you might get from Costco with one or two bases, but four handsets).
It turns out that if you run a phone wire from the telephone out of the OBI box and plug it into your wall jacks (you can use a Y-jack if you want an extension where you plug this in). But it is very important that if you are going to go this route, you need to first disconnect your old phone company’s wires from your phone system (through the network interface box that is probably outside of your house). IF YOU DON’T, there could still be current on the line and it will fry your OBI box. Again, this is only important if you plan to light up the phone jacks in your house with a dial tone…if you just plan to plug in a set of cordless phones, you don’t have to worry about that at all.
911 and Emergency Phone Service Concerns
Although using Google Voice for your home phone works very well, there is an important, valid concern–what happens in an emergency? There are two facets to this–one is that with regular phone service (the old kind) your electricity could go off in your home but your phone would still work. That may still be true with Cable/FIOS service if they give you equipment with a battery backup…however it is not so with the OBI device–at least not unless you put your internet equipment, phones and your Obi200 device on a separate backup.
The second concern is that if you dial 911, what will happen? Well, in short, that may not go so well with a Google Voice line. Luckily, there is an option. For $12/year you can get E-911 service from a company called Anveo that will route your call to the correct nearest 911 center and will send your address (that you provide–you have to change it if you move) so you don’t have to tell the operator where to send help. (If you sign up for Anveo’s e911 service, please use the following referral code: 2722344.) After you create your online account for your OBI adapter, you’ll find a link to setup Anveo’s service.
Here is a video that explains more about the OBI and Google Voice–some of it is slightly outdated especially the information about no 911 service (See above):
Summing It Up
Using Google Voice for your home phone numbers is a fantastic/flexible way to save you a monthly phone bill. Altogether, this was about an $92 investment (the adapter plus the costs of transferring in my old number and E-911 service) that will very quickly pay for itself if you consider I was paying $36/month prior to this switch.
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
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.
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).