Monday, 29 June 2015

Enhanced UCCB: How Will You Spend It?

Th Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), a taxable benefit paid to all Canadians with eligible children to assist with the cost of child care and child rearing, is set to increase in July.

Until now, the UCCB consisted of one hundred dollars per month for eligible children under six years old. Effective January of 2015, the UCCB was enhanced to include an additional sixty dollars per month for all eligible children under the age of seventeen. This enhanced benefit was not scheduled to begin payment, however, until July of 2015 - which means that next month, families across Canada will receive cheques or deposits reflecting these sixty-dollar-a-month payments retroactive to January.

Anyone with children knows that sixty dollars per month is laughable when it comes to making a dent in child care costs - here in the Greater Toronto Area, sixty dollars would cover roughly one day of daycare - but sixty dollars is sixty dollars. It's a lot more than zero dollars.

So how can families make their sixty dollars per month count?

For some, the money will just get folded into the normal monthly budget - when you're living close to the line as it is, every cent counts toward making those dollars stretch to the end of the month. For others, the money may be just what they need to meet a goal on their wish list for their kids - piano lessons or sports fees or swimming classes or extra math tutoring.

RESP's are a great way to ensure the money stretches as far for your kids as it possibly can - if you don't have one started, set one up; if you're not maximizing your contributions, top it up. Particularly if that sixty dollars isn't necessarily needed for your regular budget, dropping the money straight into an education savings plan ensures that your children get the greatest long-term benefit out of the payment.

The retroactive payment model provides parents with a unique opportunity to really make the most of the benefit. While sixty dollars may not seem like an awful lot extra when dropped into a monthly budget, four hundred and twenty dollars is. (The July payment total for one child, which includes retroactive payments for January through June as well as the first regular monthly payment). Four hundred and twenty dollars could make a real dent in your debt repayment, could make a difference in the house downpayment you've been trying to save up, could pay a full year's worth of your child's recreation activity fees, could set up that education savings plan you've been meaning to start for years.

Because we are debt-free other than our mortgage and already cover all monthly expenses for our family within our monthly budget - both wants and needs - our UCCB will be dropped directly into our kids' RESPs. Though their education funds are already quite healthy and we are on track to be able to pay for their post-secondary education, we feel we can't be too safe - and this extra sixty dollars per month will bring us just that level of comfort we'd prefer.

How will you spend your lump sum UCCB payment in July?

How will you spend your $60/month going forward?

(Originally published as "How Will You Spend Your UCCB?" on my weekly column at gailvazoxlade.com)

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Friday, 26 June 2015

End of School

This week was the end of school and the beginning of summer vacation. Two and a half months (seventy-five days - the kids counted) of long, lazy summer days at home with my babies. No more school, no more work, no more of that dreaded home daycare. Just me and my boys.

Bliss.

The usual end-of-school elation has been building up all week, starting with the school barbecue last weekend, class field trips to the movie theatre and splash pad this week, the end-of-year school playday and the boys' last day of school parties. But the real moment of unbridled joy was the second the door closed behind those daycare kids leaving our house for the last time - the house erupted in cheers and dancing and the general jubilation of absolute freedom.

We celebrated the boys' last day of school and my last day of daycare with drinks and nachos on our favourite neighbourhood patio before the boys' baseball and soccer practices.

We celebrated the first day of summer vacation with a lovely little sleep-in and make-your-own omelettes for breakfast. We went for a bike ride through the ravine, played at the splash pad and picnicked at the park for lunch. My oldest was invited to an end-of-school pool party in the afternoon so the younger boys and I loaded up the water guns and balloons and had a massive water fight in the backyard.

What a perfect start to our summer vacation!


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Monday, 22 June 2015

Barbecues, Bouncy Castles, Festivals & Fairs!

It's that time of year, when the sheer joy of summer and sunshine become cause for celebration and there's an outdoor festival or fair every single weekend.

On the May long weekend our town holds a community fair at one of the local parks - pirate and princess-themed games and activities, bouncy castles, vendors selling hot dogs and popcorn and an outdoor movie when the sun goes down.

The following weekend was a huge block party at the splash pad park hosted and sponsored by a group of local shops and our community association. Carnival games, more bouncy castles, balloons and face painting for the kids, cotton candy and tons of tasty treats donated by local restaurants.

The next two weekends were the soccer festivals for our two soccer clubs - soccer games and mini tourneys all weekend, sports challenges and obstacle courses, sponsor giveaways, more bouncy castles and an enormous inflatable slide.

And this weekend was our school barbecue - an absolute circus with a half-dozen bouncy castles, slides, an inflatable obstacle course and maze, motorized ride-ons, a gladiator ring, a wrecking ball ring, carnival games and face painting and a massive dance-off. There was a DJ pumping tunes all evening, contests and prizes and dozens of food truck vendors serving up every carnival treat imaginable - burgers and sausages and cotton candy and kettle corn and soft-serve ice cream coated in chocolate. My boys look forward to the end-of-year school barbecue all year long - and their favourite part is the watermelon eating contest, which my oldest son has won two years in a row!

bouncy castle, kids, festival, fair, summer

I feel so lucky to live in such an amazing neighbourhood with so many incredible community events. It's a wonderful way to welcome summer, a great way to feel a part of the community, and such a fun way to spend our weekends.


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Friday, 19 June 2015

Budget-Friendly Fun With Kids

Summer vacation is almost upon us. The last day of school is less than a week away - it's time to start planning out some fun activities to keep the kids entertained and engaged over the next few months at home.

It's easy to break the bank trying to fill the days with fun - water parks, amusement parks, arcades, museums, indoor playplaces, the zoo, eating out and buying treats and hitting every festival and fair and summer event you can find. But it's just as easy to have an active, fun-filled summer without blowing the budget.

Childhood summers are all about play. Playing in the yard, playing at the park. Digging in the sandbox, climbing on the playground, swinging on the swings, sliding down the slide. Blowing bubbles, jumping rope, running through the sprinkler, colouring with sidewalk chalk. Playing catch and going for bike rides and climbing trees and kicking the soccer ball around.

Take the kids for long walks and bike rides through the neighbourhood - turn it into a scavenger hunt to explore and discover the world around them. Hunt down new parks and playgrounds to play at - there are likely dozens within walking distance of your home you might never have been to before. Discover different walking trails and bike paths and follow them to see where they lead. Pack up a simple picnic and head out to the park.

Look up local community events - street festivals, school fun fairs, small-town special event celebrations - these are almost always free of charge to attend. It's easy to spend an entire sunny afternoon wandering around looking at outdoor booths and displays and vendors and enjoying street entertainers for no more than the cost of an ice cream cone as a treat.

Take the kids to the local splash pad - if you don't have one right in your neighbourhood there's likely one nearby. Look up the nearest botanical garden or outdoor arboretum and spend a few hours exploring. Check the websites for all the local nearby towns - movies in the park, cultural events, outdoor concerts and fireworks are happening in small towns and big cities across the country all summer long. All open to the public and free of charge.

Admittedly, the weather doesn't always cooperate with our plans for outdoor adventures. There are still a million things to do with the kids when you're stuck inside on a rainy day without having to shell out for a few hours at a crowded indoor playplace.

Read books together. Play board games. Bake cookies. Build a blanket fort in the living room. Colour. Do crafts. Construct a massive Lego city. Paint a mural. Play puzzles. Dig out the dress-up clothes and put on a performance. Pop some popcorn, pull out an extra mattress and have a PJ movie party.

Hit the local library - it's always free to visit, browse, and take out books and movies and there are often free programs running for children. Community centres offer a host of free or inexpensive drop-in activities - and keep your eyes open for special events. Many malls have free drop-in mini playplaces or playgrounds. Most recreational children's programs offer open houses once a month or so to entice new registrants - a great opportunity to try out something new and different without having to spend a cent: rock climbing, pottery, jujitsu, jazz.

There are so many ways to have fun with your kids without blowing the bank - or even spending a single cent. Though big-ticket treats like a day at an amusement park or passes to a waterpark or the zoo are an amazing treat and a wonderful way to spend the day together, you can have just as much fun enjoying the summer and making memories with your kids without even pulling out your wallet.

It seems a lot of the unnecessary spending comes from parents who simply don't know what to do with their kids. Working parent or at-home parent, no matter how much time you have to spend with your children, that time can and should be meaningful. Play with your kids. Engage. Spend time with them doing nothing. Use your imagination and make the simplest, everyday things in life an adventure. Spending time together with your kids does not have to mean spending money.

Monday, 15 June 2015

First Harvest

Though it's only the middle of June, our vegetable garden is growing in nicely.

vegetables, vegetable garden, gardening, cucumber, kale, romaineThis year we planted cucumbers, tomatoes, kale, romaine and Swiss chard in the big garden - we'll be eating the tastiest, freshest salads all summer long!

strawberries, vegetable garden, gardening, fruitWe moved the strawberry plants to an enormous pot on the landing of our second-storey deck this year in the hopes that it would deter the neighbourhood bunnies from using our garden as a twenty-four-hour all-you-can-eat buffet. 
We're so excited for our first spring harvest!


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Monday, 8 June 2015

Day Off Sports

The weather this past week or two has not been particularly cooperative for those of us with a tightly-packed outdoor sports schedule - endless rain, brief periods of non-committal sunshine threatened by ominous-looking clouds, the edges of the tumbled sky laced with brown, the sound of rolling thunder rumbling in the distance.

Our days have been filled with watching the sky, checking the soccer club website and the Town hotline for field status updates, texting back and forth with other soccer parents to coordinate contingency plans for carpools and cancellations and field changes. Our soccer teams play rain or shine - the only thing that stops them is lightning - but some of our fields and diamonds are low-lying and impossibly impassable when wet so a lot of last-minute location shuffling is required when it's been raining heavily.

This evening, for the first time in I can't remember how long, we had the night off of sports. No baseball, no soccer. No practices or games or technical training or conditioning. Nothing. The drizzle all day and the distant rumble of thunder combined with the severe storm warning and tornado watch was enough to frighten the forces that be into closing all fields entirely - right before the sun burst through the clouds and the sky cleared right up.

We spend our sunny soccer-free evening playing in the backyard. We barbecued dinner out on the deck. We went for a long, leisurely after-dinner walk through the trails of the arboretum that wraps around our neighbourhood. We had a bedtime snack of ice cream and berries on the back deck and watched the sunset.

We love our summer sports and summer evenings spent field-side. But what a nice treat to have a whole night off to just hang out together and enjoy a relaxing summer evening at home.


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Friday, 5 June 2015

Rep Sports vs. House League

My oldest son is playing baseball again this summer for the first time in a couple of years. We've been so focussed on soccer for so long that I'd forgotten what it's like to involved in another sport, to be involved in a team we don't have to be so - involved in.

It's nice.

What a difference not to be a volunteer, constantly having to bring my binder and briefcase to fields, collecting this payment and organizing that fundraiser and coordinating with sponsors and filling out paperwork and registering for games and tournaments and booking fields and updating schedules and chasing coaches for quals and rosters and creating game sheets and keeping track of ref fees and fielding five thousand emails per day from parents of players.

What a difference not to have to stress out about politics and drama and favouritism and the incestuous infighting that comes when a group of people are thrown together too closely for too long.

What a difference for my boy, when every step he makes doesn't have to mean anything - what line he gets put on next game, what team he gets placed on next year, what club he plays with going forward.

What a difference for him, to just show up and - play.

What a difference for me, to just show up and - watch.

No pressure. No drama. No work.

Just fun.

What a difference.

My boys love playing rep soccer and we love being a rep soccer family. None of us would leave that world for the world. But what a refreshing change it is for all of us to play on a house league team - and just play.


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Monday, 1 June 2015

Summer Tournament Season

Last weekend marked the first big tournament of the boys' soccer season. Though there are only a few throughout the summer, these tournaments are what the boys look forward to all year round.

Though they have league games all over the city and neighbouring regions every week during the spring, summer and early fall and exhibition games and in-house competitions over the winter, it's the tournaments that the boys are really training for and building up to for all those long winter months of practice and futsal and fitness and technical training. It's the tournaments that make the boys really feel like elite athletes. It's the tournaments that bring the players and parents and families together as a real team.

Tournament weekends are a gong show: families lugging coolers and camping chairs and sun shelters to and fro across acres of manicured grass, jockeying for optimal position at mid-field after fighting for non-existent parking spots after almost getting lost trying to find an unmarked out-of-the-way field somewhere way out of town, team benches and tents and banners to set up and break down and move from field to field all day long, sweaty children and tired siblings and endless bathroom lineups, the smell of barbecued burgers and the tinkling sounds of ice cream truck music filling the air and competing with cheers and calls and referee whistles from a dozen fields at once.

This year, since I'm managing both my boys' teams, I booked them both in the same tournaments. Two teams, two fields; two sets of registration paperwork, travel permits, rosters, player books; two tents, two banners, two benches to lung across acres of grass and set up and secure. Four games per team, eight sets of ref fees, sixteen game sheets.

I thought it might be easier to have both teams scheduled in the same place on the same weekend. It was insanity.

Though the tournament itself didn't start until nine o'clock, I had to be a the registrar's tent by seven to take care of paperwork. Then I had to lug both sets of equipment - tents, banners, benches and balls - to two separate fields, unpack and wrestle each of the twelve-foot tents into place and hang the heavy vinyl sponsorship banners off the tents in the sudden hurricane-force winds that popped up in the middle of a stifling hot summer morning.

My older son's coach didn't show up for one game, so as the only Ontario Soccer sanctioned body anywhere near the field, guess who had to step in and coach?

One of the tents blew right out of its tethers halfway through our game, turning itself into a sail that damn near carried me and one of the players onto another field where we would have taken out a good half-dozen nine year old girls in the middle of their game.

The two teams played at the exact same time on fields on opposite sides of the park, necessitating a lot of running back and forth with game sheets and paperwork.

And that was just day one.

But, despite everything, the boys had fun and played hard, and it was such a treat, as always, to come together as a team of players and families for our first tournament of the season.


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