wonderfully made: September 2014

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

2014 Girls Scarf Exchange

I left you guys hanging a few weeks ago with my teaser on our 2nd annual scarf exchange! I’m so sorry and I hate to be a bad blogger so I’m following up today! If you’re new here, go here to read my recap on the 1st annual scarf exchange last year.

I’ve seen this all over the Internet and my sister-in-law and her friends do their own version of a scarf exchange. Basically, it’s a gift exchange that follows the format of a Chinese Christmas or Chinese gift exchange. Everyone brings a wrapped scarf and draws a number. Number 1 goes first and chooses a gift and opens it. Number 2 and so on have the option to either steal a scarf that has already been unwrapped or choose from the remaining wrapped gifts. Each scarf can only be stolen twice, rendering it ‘frozen’ on the third steal. Once you reach the end, Number 1 is then given the option to steal or keep the first scarf they got.

My group of friends LOVE a good scarf so we have paired a fun girls night with this exchange. As I mentioned, this was the second year! We ended up reserving a table at the same place as last year (Urban Crust – I can’t say enough good things about this place. If you’re local, go NOW!) and enjoyed a couple hours of lots of laughs and pretty scarves. See for yourself!

*the lights were pretty low in there so the pictures got a little blurry without the flash. Bear with me! :)

It was such a fun night!

Tomorrow is the beginning of my favorite month - October! Come back because I'll be attempting to blog every day in October for #blogtober14. Happy Fall y'all!!!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Whirlwind Weekend

Monday is here WAY faster than usual. This weekend was jam packed with activities, so I pretty much had no weekend. It was a great weekend though, and I wouldn't trade it for anything!
Saturday morning I met Brittany and family/friends bright and early at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine. From there, we hightailed it to Cowboys Stadium for some tailgating and the Texas A&M vs. Arkansas football game. I wore black so as to remain neutral, but I found myself cheering gently for the Hogs throughout the game. It was fun not having any real feelings attached and the Aggies ended up winning in overtime. From there, we went back to the Gaylord for dinner and caught a glimpse of a few Cowboys players including Dez Bryant. I headed home around 11 and went straight to bed!
Sunday morning Mark and I got up and met some friends at Texas Roadhouse for lunch before heading to Six Flags over Texas. It has been 7 years since I've been there and even more for Mark. It was interesting having a new view on the park! We wandered around and rode LOTS of rides (I'm still as wimpy as I was before) and walked about 5 miles. Back to the house at 7pm meant I had time to write this post and try to unwind before heading to bed to start the week.
PHEW. It was a crazy fun whirlwind weekend. Is it Friday yet?
If you follow me on Instagram, you saw a few snippets of my weekend. Here are those and the rest of the pics from the weekend:
I'm linking up here for my weekend recap. Happy Monday!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

6 simple tips on how to travel and love life {on a budget}


I like to travel. Mark likes to travel. We both like to travel. Here's the problem: we're kind of frugal with our money. We don't like wasting it and we don't like spending a paycheck just to stay at a hotel for a couple days. We've done a bit of traveling since we've been together and plan to do more in the future and here's the thing : we always plan it to where we are comfortable with what we're spending and are happy with what the activities we are or aren't doing. We don't like feeling stretched for money or for time. We have it down pretty good, so I wanted to share our tips and travel philosophy here. I know it's super long and there are lots of pictures, but I wanted to be transparent and share as much advice as I could. I hope you find something useful!

(Psst. I decided to write this novel of a blog post because I recently blogged about our latest trip to California, and we did quite a bit of budget for this one. Read my recaps linked below!)

I've compiled the major factors we consider when traveling into six helpful tips. Get out a pen and paper, here they are:

Hawaii 2012

 {Plan ahead}

-plan your time
-plan your finances

    We typically plan our stateside vacations about 3 months in advance. If you're going overseas, you'll need to plan much sooner than this! While we decide on our destination 3 months out, we are always thinking and saving for our next trip way before that. The best part about our trip to California is that we had been saving for about 2 years before taking the trip. When we got married, Mark carried a credit card that he paid off monthly. It was great to build his credit, but turns out he wasn't getting any reward or bonus back from the card. These days, almost every credit card has a reward attached to it. So, back in December 2012, we had the discussion to get the Chase Freedom credit card through our bank. The Freedom card allows 5% cash back on qualifying purchases on a quarterly basis along with 1% cash back on every purchase, every day. We decided at that time to put the majority of our purchases on the credit card and pay it off monthly to avoid any interest fees. When we got the card, they had the bonus of $100 in 'points', so that was a major boost to our points savings. After those started to accrue, we decided to just keep them where they were and save them for a rainy day or vacation. Chase offers the 5% cash back for 6 months on gas purchases and at Amazon for the months leading up for Christmas. A little smart shopping and we started racking up the points! Less than two years later, we had almost $800 to use for vacation. We used that "free" money for our vacation!

Florida 2011

Colorado 2011

Hawaii 2012

{Be flexible}

-have a large selection of travel dates
-try to travel during 'off-peak' months and days of the week

    My parents do a lot of traveling and they have figured out that September is a good time to travel. Mark and I got married in November and went to Hawaii for our honeymoon (recap coming some time on that!) where we asked the hotel staff about their busy and quiet months. They agreed that September and November are both pretty slow.
   It makes sense - most people travel in the summer when the kids are off school, work is slower, and the weather is warm. School starts back up at the end of August or early September and everyone is back to work, heads down. Most people don't go on vacation immediately after having all that time off, so September sees a lag in travel before it picks up again for the holiday season. Less people traveling means discounts on hotel, cars, and flights because they are more desperate to get your business! We tried this when we went to Florida back in 2011 and snagged a flight and 3 nights in a 2 room suite at the Hyatt for $400 a person. We asked for an upgrade at the hotel desk and they said yes!
   That being said, when you're searching for hotel and flight deals, be flexible. Look up the rates for multiple different days and combinations. It's typically best to fly on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Tuesday avoids the Monday business rush, and on Saturdays people are usually at their destination for the weekend.

Hawaii 2012

California 2014

Hawaii 2012

{Do your research}

-be open to a variety of locations
-search, search, and search again
-check reviews and compare prices
-sign up for travel deals and discounts

    Saving money isn't an easy job. If it were easy, everyone would do it! When you're looking for somewhere to go, do your research! Be open minded. Mark and I had no idea where we wanted to go and we thought about Europe, New York, Canada, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, and Colorado. I found good deals in many of those places, but we were able to narrow it down due to some specific factors, like the fact that we were generously gifted with stand-by tickets by our friend that works for an airline, so we could only fly during non-peak hours. Once we got it narrowed down to California, I had really wanted to stay in Santa Barbara and almost booked a hotel there. When I called to make the reservation, they had just sold out for one of the weekend nights. Fate!
   Use websites like priceline.com (my favorite) or hotels.com to find the best deals. Broaden your search! Once I couldn't find a deal in Santa Barbara, I opened up the map and started searching for places up and down the coast that would provide the California experience without the high cost. I stumbled upon a great deal in Oxnard and the hotel looked awesome! I originally found it on Priceline and then went to tripadvisor.com to look at reviews and visitor pictures. Reviews tell you a LOT. Make sure you read them! I knew from experience that Priceline has some rules I'd rather avoid (like no cancellation - sometimes) so I went directly to the Embassy Suites website and the price was the same there, plus we could cancel up to a week in advance of our stay, if needed. That meant we weren't locked in if something happened and we couldn't go. Plus, we were able to use Mark's AAA discount for a cheaper rate and request an upgrade to the ocean view without any hassles. 
Also - sign up for the hotel rewards! It's free and if the emails bug you, opt out of them. You'll still be signed up! Even if you don't have tons of points, hotels will see that on your profile and if you ask to upgrade (ALWAYS ASK TO UPGRADE!) they might do it because they see you are a loyal customer.

California 2014

Hawaii 2012

{Know your budget}

-be aware of what you want to spend
-plan your days based on what your budget can afford

   Mark and I got really lucky with this trip because of our savings and because of our free flights. We had an idea of what we wanted to spend outside of that savings, and we stuck to it! Here is the breakdown:

Flights - free (thanks to our friend!!!)
Hotel - $161 per night with upgraded ocean view, king bed suite, AAA discount
Rental Car - $175
Food - $180
Entertainment - $118, ferry ride to Santa Cruz island
Transportation - $75, rental car gas and parking at the Dallas airport (use the Parking Spot!!! They have coupons and a AAA discount!)
Total out of pocket: $371

We were able to easily keep track of all of this through mint.com, which I wrote about extensively here. We moved our points to our checking account about a week before our trip and I assigned them to our "Cali trip" budget in advance so we started out at -$700. As the hotel charge and car charge came in, they pushed our spending to around $0, so we know what our overage was on food, etc.

New York 2013

New Orleans 2013

Florida 2011

 {Be creative}

-search for activities outside of the norm
-just explore the area - it's free!
-take advantage of coupons, deals, and freebies

    Under $400 for a 4 day trip for two people at the beach is pretty good, in my opinion. We didn't approach this as a super frugal trip, otherwise I think we could have cut that in half, at least. We got creative with our plans and saved money in these ways:

-We only planned one 'activity' that was paid, which was the ferry ride to Santa Cruz Island. It came with the added bonus of time on the water and dolphin, sea lion, and whale watching. Everything that we did ON the island was free. We brought our lunch and only bought water and sandwiches at the store before going; I brought along granola bars and other snacks from home.

-We didn't try and go to the most expensive or 'best' restaurants, but instead looked for places with good reviews. Even then, we didn't hold back! Mark's meal at the Brazilian place was well over $20.

-We think we scored on our hotel choice. Not only was the hotel beautiful and right on the beach, it offered a free FULL breakfast (I'm talking omelets cooked to order, eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, pancakes, oatmeal, bagels, pastry, cereal, EVERYTHING!) and a free manager's happy hour every night with drinks and snacks. Mark and I estimated we could have ended up spending about $45 per day if we had gotten the same amount of food elsewhere.

-We got creative with our activities. A free day-long hike on the island, a stroll around Santa Barbara and a tour of the amazing courthouse, two separate driving tours around UC Santa Barbara as well as UCLA, all free! (We are weirdos and get a kick out of seeing college campuses for no reason at all) There were museums and paid tours and kayaking that we could have paid to do, but we weighed our options in each situation and decided what we REALLY wanted to do, which was to explore California like a local and have the luxury of free time and doing what we pleased without worrying about what we might be missing out on. We didn't regret it, either!

Hawaii 2012

New Orleans 2013

Florida 2011

{Enjoy yourself!}

   If the money and time is right, do yourself a favor and enjoy yourself! After all, you ARE on vacation! I encouraged Mark to try something at the Brazilian restaurant that was one of the pricey items on the menu, but it was only $4-6 more than what he was considering. In those cases, go for it, for the experience! You won't feel those few dollars. We saved on not taking guided tours or going to museums in Santa Barbara, but we splurged and shared a $6 ice cream cone at the wharf. Have fun, relax, and really find what is going to make you happy and make you remember your trip.

New Orleans 2013

Colorado 2011

Happy travels!!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

travel diaries : California day four

edit: be sure to come back tomorrow for my 6 budget travel tips! Bring a snack or something to drink because it's PACKED with lots of insider info! :)

Catch the recaps of our other days in California here:

Our last day in California was pretty much a travel day. We got up and finished packing and headed downstairs for breakfast. We were trying to catch a 2pm flight and had to make the long drive to Los Angeles plus turn in the car and catch the shuttle back to the terminal. Mark hadn't seen much of inland California, so we decided to take some long detours and drive around killing time on our way back to the airport. It was too chilly to really enjoy the beach or the pool, anyway.

We left the hotel around 9am and drove towards Malibu. Right before we hit the town, I had Mark take a sharp left and go up a mountain, which eventually led to Thousand Oaks. It was CURVY and steep and we couldn't imagine doing it in a bigger car, and ours was just a mid-size! We had to take it at about 15 mph so it took us a good 30 minutes to get up the mountain and over. It was such a cool drive, though, with awesome views! At one point we passed a Porsche and BMW clearly taking test drives down this curvy road. Mark got all flustered, I think his man card was pitter-pattering. 

Anyway, we came over the hill and drove through Thousand Oaks and Agoura Hills. Mark kept commenting on how he recognized the names, all from TV and movies. We kept going and ended up driving down 405 (I think?) and exited at Sunset Blvd. Immediately we were in Bel Air, so of course I sang the entire intro to Fresh Prince, which was on point. From there, we took a right into UCLA and spent a good 20 minutes driving around. The campus was pretty and I'd say it totally passes up Texas State as far as hilly campuses go. Phew!

So we came out of UCLA and continued into Beverly Hills. That's when I started taking pictures out the car window (excuse the quality). Here's what we saw:

No housewives were spotted, unfortunately.

From Beverly Hills, we headed up to Hollywood to see the sights there. We turned down Hollywood Blvd (?) just in time to see the Chinese and Kodak theaters. It was crazy busy!

We saw Hollywood and Highland, etc etc, and then we spotted the Hollywood sign. We had taken quite a bit of time at this point so we ended up heading toward the airport, but I got a better view of the sign when we were on the freeway. Everything in Hollywood was cool to see, but we are glad that we didn't make a trip out of just that part! We are way more low key than that...

We barely made our plane and came back to the great state of Texas. It was so good to be back!

I did want to talk more about our hotel, the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach in Oxnard. We REALLY enjoyed it and I will recommend it to anyone wanting a beach vacation or a getaway to California. It was 30 minutes from Santa Barbara and Malibu and tucked away in the quiet town of Oxnard. It was literally ON the beach, and it was a way better price than any other hotel I found with premium views and beach access. It was a great deal and included breakfast and happy hour every day. Every room is a suite, you guys!

I'm breaking down the finances in my next post about budget travel, but check out the images below. I highly recommend the Embassy Suites Mandalay Beach!