Our favorite Christmas traditions

30 November 2016

Without a doubt, one of the best parts of having children is reliving the magic of your own childhood, but through a new lens. This time, we get to be the ones creating the magic, introducing our sweet babies to some of our favorite experiences that produced our most vivid memories!

Truthfully, it can actually be a bit overwhelming when you start thinking that it’s your responsibility to make everything “magic,” but I’m comforted when I remember that some of the experiences I loved best from growing up were far from perfect. The one thing they all had in common, however, was that they were rooted in time with my family–and that’s a kind of magic I’m confident I can create. Here are a few of my favorite memories from childhood, and things we love doing now…


Growing up, I danced in the Nutcracker every year, so I started listening to Christmas music in August! The opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s prologue still make my heart race a little with excitement.

My family cut down our tree at the most idyllic farm. (This one, for those in Connecticut/Rhode Island!) I remember eating buttery springerle cookies and warming my hands on a paper cup of hot chocolate while we traipsed through the yellow fields looking for the perfect Fraser fir.

Every night, even if it was just for a brief moment between dance class and basketball practice, all five of us would gather to pin a felt ornament on the tree of our Advent calendar, made by my Dad’s cousins before I was born. A few years ago, Kate made Kim and I exact replicas for our own homes, down to the felt colors and sequin placement.

On Christmas Eve, we’d eat ham, baked beans, and coleslaw, then attend the seven o’clock candlelight service at our church. Since it was usually freezing in Connecticut, we’d wear our fancy wool coats with the velvet bows.

On Christmas morning, my sisters and I would squeeze across the top of the stairs while my Dad turned on the Christmas music, “checked to make sure that Santa had come,” and then gave the okay for us to race toward the tree in our pajamas. Opening stockings for our family of five usually took about an hour and a half, after which we’d eat gooey, cinnamon-y monkey bread before moving on to presents.


I could go on… but let’s chat about 2016 :)

My absolute favorite North Carolina tradition is going to the Christmas concert at Duke Chapel (pictured here). Getting to sing along to my favorite carols in that beautiful space is nothing short of magic.

We love our town’s Christmas parade, which winds through our historic main street at twilight, with high school marching bands, dance schools, jump rope teams (!), and floats from local churches. We always bring our own peppermint hot chocolate in thermoses, and have a particular hilltop spot we’ve secured for the last few years!

We love gathering with a few friends and family members to carol at a local assisted living home. The babies are always extremely popular :) Everyone brings their holiday party leftovers for a cobbled-together feast afterward at the Ray’s.

Now that there are several nieces and nephews on each side, matching Christmas jams are a thing! There was a long text chain on the Thomas side to decide on the perfect pair, but we just snapped up this one.

In addition to attending our church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service (still the thing I look forward to most every year), our Christmas Eve giving has become an important part of our family’s story.


There’s so much more — the ornaments John and I exchange every year, our end of year celebration dinner, the treats we shower on the post man, teachers, and other friends who help us throughout the year, sending Christmas cards — but I’ll stop there, for now :)

With that, I’d love to hear: what are your most vivid memories from Christmas as a child? What are your favorite parts of the holiday season now? Please tell me below!!

Marvelous Money: Making a yearly budget

28 November 2016

Around this time every year, I start to feel a little anxious about the coming year — specifically the finances of the coming year. By November, we’ve usually started talking about things like vacations we’d like to take, purchases we want to make, and savings goals we’d like to hit. We’ve submitted our pledge to our church. We know what our childcare expenses are going to be. But I don’t yet have a map of how it’s all going to fit together, and so I start worrying: will we be able to pay for everything we want to do? Will we have the money to take these vacations we’re talking about? Will we need to trim our budget, or will we get to expand it?

I hate that anxious feeling. And I think that’s how I’d feel every month if I didn’t have a budget, because a budget is a plan. It reassures me that I’ve taken care of everything that I need to, and that if I stick to the budget, I am free to spend money without guilt, I don’t need to worry about paying bills, and I can rest assured that I’m making progress on all of my savings goals.

I LOVE feeling like that. So this weekend, John and I sat down and made a plan for 2017. We do this every year, and I’d encourage y’all to try it, too! Here’s what we did.

how to budget

We started by setting aside about two hours, after June was in bed so we wouldn’t be interrupted. We opened up a fresh Google doc and copied and pasted the structure of our budget (formulas, categories, etc. – you can read more about that here). Then we started adding in numbers:

First, we entered in any fixed amounts: numbers that we can’t change or don’t plan to change, on both the income and expense side. A few examples: our salaries, 401k contributions, taxes, and our mortgage.

Then, we moved to the “slightly flexible” categories: ones where we could make changes, but there’s not a ton of wiggle room and it would require a lot of effort. A few examples: childcare, cable and internet, charitable giving, and groceries.

Finally, we enter in what we’d like to spend in the flexible categories. A few examples: vacation, dining out, gifts, and clothing.

Depending on whether or not you’ve kept a budget in the past, it will be more or less challenging to pull these numbers. Since we have a lot of data to look back on, we were able to simply plug in a lot of numbers from 2016. Still, we do talk through each category to see if any adjustments are needed for the upcoming year: Are we due for new tires? Will we be flying more than usual? Will we be buying lots of wedding gifts? If you haven’t kept a budget in the past, look back on a month or two of receipts or credit card statements to help you estimate.

Now it’s time to look at the bottom line: With all of your projected income and expenses taken into account, is your budget for the year in the black or in the red?

If it’s in the black: great! When we have a less than $1,000 surplus, we leave our budget as-is, because that’s a small enough amount to us. However, if the surplus were more than $1,000, I’d want to assign that money somewhere (savings, giving, or an expense category), because the goal is for every dollar to have a job.

This year, when we first did the math, our projection was in the red. But no need to panic! This is why we forecast a budget, so we’re not realizing this next October, or whenever our bank accounts run dry.

If you’re in the red, too, it’s time to go back over all of those flexible and semi-flexible categories with a fine-tooth comb, and talk through any options for cutting your expenses. For us, we talked about reducing our vacation, home, clothing, personal care, and childcare expenses. We also decided to forgo one month of extra payment on our mortgage in order to make room for the additional money we want to give to our church’s building campaign next year. These are tough decisions, but I firmly believe it’s better to make them now, when you’re in control, rather than when you’re scrambling and your options are limited. Cut, cut, cut until your budget is balanced.

Once your numbers come out even, congratulations! You have a financial road map for 2017, and it’s going to be an awesome year!!

Your next step is to set up a system to track your budget every day, week, or month, like through a Google doc, an online system like Mint or YNAB, or the envelope system.

You’ll also want to make plans to check in periodically to see how you’re pacing – we do that every two months. After all, a budget is a plan, but plans can change. We adjust our budget throughout the year if our circumstances change or if we decide we want to prioritize one category over another. That’s totally fine to do, as long as the income and expenses balance out in the end!

I’d love to hear, friends: do you do any budget planning before a new year begins? How do you track your budget? Does talking about a budget give you the heebie-jeebies? Are there any money topics I can help you with in upcoming posts? I have a few brainstormed, but I would LOVE to hear what might be most helpful to you!!

P.S. More marvelous money posts: paying off debt, preparing financially for a baby, and paying for a car in cash.

Gifts for husbands, dads, and brothers

25 November 2016

I hope you all had a marvelous Thanksgiving! We had dinner with dear friends and their parents, and the food was phenomenal – juicy turkey, stuffing, creamed corn, brussel sprouts, a sweet potato and caramelized onion tart, peas, cranberry sauce, pumpkin and chocolate pecan pie… YUM! We also got to go for a walk in beautiful 70 degree weather and watch the Macy’s parade, so it was an all-around stellar day.

And now it’s Black Friday! Which often gets a bad rap, but as a frugal person, I really appreciate the chance for such steep discounts. I’ve been planning purchases for weeks, and am looking forward to checking many Christmas gifts off our list as well as snapping up some items for myself, like new jeans (40% off!!!) and note cards.

I know many of you are the same way, so I hope this last gift guide is helpful! I’m sharing a few of my best picks for husbands, dads, and brothers. These gents can be notoriously hard to shop for, so I’d love for you to share any slam-dunk ideas in the comments!

gift guide for guys

AAA baseball tickets | We are so lucky to have the Durham Bulls as our home town baseball team, but choose a team that’s near you! Going to games in the spring and summer is one of our favorite outings, so tickets are always welcome.
Rock Me Archimedes | We gave this fun little game to two brothers-in-law last Christmas, and it was a big hit with both families! A great two-person game. (Thank you to Jo’s gift guide last year for this suggestion!)
The Road to Character | I’ve recommended this book to so many people since reading it last year — it’s perfect for a wide audience, making it a great gift!
A cooking lesson | A few years ago John’s sister gave him a gift certificate for a cooking class at Southern Season. We had SO much fun and are eagerly looking forward to the next time someone gets us this gift! :)
A National Parks tee | Hat tip to Philip for wearing one of these cool shirts! They have tons of designs, and I think John wants 75% of them.
A pocket monkey | A nifty little multitool (screwdriver, wrench, bottle opener, letter opener, orange peeler, etc.!) that slips in a wallet.
Three Jerks Jerky | It seems like beef jerky is universally beloved by the gentlemen in my life, and this stuff is the filet mignon (literally – it’s made from filet mignon :))
Herschel wallet | We are big Herschel fans in this household, and there wallets are no exception (John carries one every day!). Stylish and affordable!
Cats desk plate | This desk plate literally makes me LOL every time I see it, and I desperately want to buy it for my brother-in-law (I think it would make him laugh, too!), but John has flat-out refused to get behind this gift idea. Maybe one of you has a cat-lover in your life?
Hudson Bay axe | This beauty is a splurge, but it seems like the kind of heirloom that would be swung for generations.
Striped socks | John’s absolute favorite gift to get– no joke–is socks. I think he’d appreciate this pair :)
Print their Instagram photos | We’ve done this as a gift for several people, and it’s a reliable hit! Our favorite service is the 4x4s from Social Print Studio.
Corknet ping pong set | A beautifully designed game that can be played anywhere.

Happy shopping, friends!!

P.S. More gifts for guys and this year’s gifts for kids and gals

Gifts for sisters, moms, and best friends

23 November 2016

The most successful gifts, I think, are little luxuries the recipient wouldn’t buy for herself – maybe upgraded versions of things she uses every day. They also have a personal touch. Here are a few ideas for sisters, moms, and best friends, several of which I own myself, have already given, or am planning to give soon!

gift guide for gals

A beautiful linen guest book | Time spent with family and friends is at the top of my “treasure” list, and I love that my guest book (that I started in our first apartment!) lets me look back on years of happy memories. I’m switching ours out for the teal one this year.
Tortoise link necklace | Modern in feel, classic in style. Goes great with stripes :) I own and love this piece!
Floret wall calendar | Erin’s photos of her farm’s flowers are stunning (she’s one of my favorite Instagrammers to follow!). Whether or not your loved one is a gardener, she’ll love flipping the pages of this calendar each month.
Shorts pajama set | These jams are blissfully soft and beautifully soft. A perfect splurge.
How to Celebrate Everything | Every piece of advice I’ve ever read from Jenny is genius, so I’m sure her book is the same. I can’t wait to get my hands on this one!
Buffalo check stocking | I’m going to assume that all of your loved ones already have stockings, so this would be more for decor! Stuff it with something else small to round things out.
Notecard set | Stock someone’s stationery stash for the coming year. Beautiful cards can be a bit painfully expensive, but are universally beloved.
Letter board | Almost everyone I know either has one of these, or wants one. (Count me in the latter camp.) Even if they’re becoming ubiquitous, I think they’d add so much fun and whimsy to a household!
Puff vest | I bought this navy number this year and love it! Perfect for gifting, since the fit is easier than, say, a top or pants.
For the Love | Jen’s universal-feeling essays will make you laugh until you cry, and just straight-up cry — or at least, they did for me. I’ve already gifted this to my mom!
Beach sheet | No more scrunching up to fit on your towel at the beach! Would be perfect for picnics, too.
Lindsay Letters’ coloring book | I know there are a million and one coloring books available now, but I’m eagerly anticipating Lindsay’s! Her lettering is undeniably unique, and I think it would be so fun to work with. Plus, I love the scripture focus!
Playing cards | Again, it’s all about elevating staples. These colorful cards also make a perfect hostess gift.
Cookbook | Gift a favorite volume to a friend who loves to cook, and put sticky notes on your favorite recipes.
Pretty socks | Because everyone’s sock drawer could probably use a refresh, and these ones are adorable :)

I’m sure it goes without saying, but if you’re thinking of purchasing from any of these shops, hold tight until Black Friday! Most will likely be running sales. Also, make sure you’re signed up for Ebates if you’re planning to do any online shopping!

I’m planning to pop back in on Friday with a gift guide for the gentlemen – sometimes the hardest people to shop for. Until then, have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

P.S. 14 great gifts for kiddos

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