Saturday, October 1, 2016

Big Savings on our Electricity Bills

I'm in a Facebook group for my neighborhood and earlier this year someone asked for recommendations on which electric company to use. I glanced at the responses because I knew our contract was coming up for renewal with TXU. One neighbor mentioned having success with Energy Ogre. I had never heard of that company before, but the respondent said they had saved significantly after switching. Normally I don't place a lot of stock in things I read online, but this was a neighbor I actually knew in real life, and a couple other neighbors piled on and mentioned similar savings. I was definitely intrigued. From what I gathered, you sign up and pay a subscription fee and Energy Ogre analyzes your electricity usage from the past year. They take that info and review all the plans available to you and figure out which one will be the most affordable, based on your historical usage. So, your electricity service will come from someone else, but Energy Ogre is responsible for making sure you're on the best plan possible. I was skeptical at first, because I thought I had done a good job of reviewing plans through sites like on my own in the past. Did I really need to pay someone $10/month to do that for me?

Our electricity bills go sky high in the summer. We have a 4,200 square foot house, an inefficient setup for our two zones, a less than stellar-ly insulated addition, a husband who is perpetually hot, two adults who work from home, and we have a pool. There is A LOT of usage going on in our house. I figured it was worth a shot to see what this company could do for us. When our contract with TXU ran out, I signed up with Energy Ogre. Based on our prior usage, they found a plan with Reliant that they believed would save us money. We made the switch and held our breaths.

I wanted to let a few months go by before seeing if it was worth it and before sharing the scoop with my friends. I don't like making recommendations unless I can personally attest to them first. Well, this is my official endorsement. The results have far exceeded our expectations. Here are our bills from last year versus this year for the summer months:

June 2015 - $343.99                            June 2016 - $179.18
July 2015 - $450.86                             July 2016 - $217.34
August 2015 - $484.92                        August 2016 - $216.30
September 2015 - $405.14                 September 2016 - $218.43
Total: $1,684.91                                  Total: $831.25

I'm in shock. I can't believe that our bills have been cut in half. It was absolutely worth the money to use this service. It's not going to work in an area where one electric company has a monopoly, or if you haven't lived in your current residence long enough. But, if you live in a deregulated city and have been in your place for at least a year, I totally recommend giving this website a shot if you think your bills are too high.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dude, Suite!

Sometimes there are perks to being a Broker. I closed a large deal a couple months ago and the loan officer my client used offered me tickets in her suite at a Mavs game. I couldn't go to the one she proposed, so she offered to find me another game to attend. Well, the regular season quickly ended, and it was time for the playoffs. She was nice enough to offer me two tickets to one of those games, but of course it was when Meezy was out of town. Doh! I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity though, so I invited my sister along. It was as sweet as we expected it to be! Awesome spread of food and drinks, plenty of space to sit and relax, and great views.

For the past year or so, Meezy has been telling me that he wanted to rent a suite sometime at a Rangers, Stars, or Mavs game and invite our friends to join us. We never got around to it, but my visit to that suite at the Mavs playoff game brought it back to the forefront. It just so happened that my birthday is approaching, and the Stars are in the playoffs too. I got an email from the Stars that said they had suite rentals available during the playoffs. This seemed like the perfect time to pull the trigger! We figured it would be a cool way to celebrate my birthday, spend time with our friends, and cheer on the hometown team. I snagged a suite for last Friday's game and invited 10 friends. My sister and her son already had tickets to the game, so we just escorted them up to spend it in the suite with us instead of in their regular seats.

Pre-game lights show

Streamers to celebrate the win!

Some of the lovely ladies who were grateful for a kid-free get-together!

Some of my favorites, who happen to be huge fans!

It wasn't cheap by any means, and the food and beverage package added up quickly, but it was totally worth it. My sister-in-law had never been to a hockey game before, so that made it even cooler. You don't get a chance to do that very often and it became even more memorable than we expected it to be! After the game was over and the arena was clearing out, we decided to hang around the suite a little longer to let the traffic die down. After a while, my sister noticed that Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki was in the suite a few doors down. We all got star struck and thought it would be crazy to actually meet him. After pondering it for a while, we decided to just go in the hallway and walk down and see what happened. Well, he was in the hallway right at that time, so I asked him for a pic!  He was gracious enough to oblige and it literally left my friend Stari and I giddy with delight.

My nephew also snagged a pic with him:

You're pretty awesome, Dirk!  Thanks for making our night. Fellow Mavs player Chandler Parsons was also with him, but I was too slow to realize it and missed my chance to get a pic with him. Darn it! What a night, though. Maybe we'll get the chance to do something like that again in the years to come.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Washington DC Trip 2016

For my mom's most recent birthday, she told her daughters that she wanted us to take a trip together. After brainstorming locations and dates, we decided on Washington DC in early April. We've all been there before, but never all together and for some of us it had been many, many years. We booked our flights and an airbnb and eagerly anticipated our trip!

We arrived late on a Wednesday night and took a car service to our airbnb near Swann St and 15th, not far from Dupont Circle. The house was super cute and had plenty of room for the four of us and worked out to be a much better deal than a hotel.  Having two full bedrooms and bathrooms is a must for this many women! It was also helpful to have a full kitchen and living area so we could spread out. The only downside was the quantity of stairs in the house! It was one of those row houses with different occupants on different levels, so as soon as you walked in the front door, you went up one staircase, followed by a landing, followed by another staircase. That got you to the main level where the dining, kitchen, and living rooms were. From there, there was another staircase that took you up to the bedrooms and bathrooms. We got a workout, that's for sure!

View from main level looking down towards front door

There wasn't much touristy stuff we could do that first night because of the late hour, but we didn't want to waste any time in DC, so we headed out for a late snack. We visited Amsterdam Falafelshop because we'll never pass up something that gives a shout out to our Dutch heritage! Food was delicious and I just read that they're bringing a location to Dallas. Yay! After getting our fill we headed back to our house to play some Dutch Blitz

On Thursday, we started our adventure by visiting the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. It pays homage to law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty. With my sister being a former LEO, and her husband still working in that field, it had special meaning to her.

"The wicked flee when no man pursueth but the righteous are bold as a lion"

"It is not how these officers died that made them heroes; it is how they lived"

From there, we went to the National Archives. We spent a while going through the exhibits and attempted to see the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but the lines to see those were excessively long!  Lots of school groups were there that day, so we had to skip that part. After the museum portion, we went to the actual research area so we could find the microfilm that housed my grandparents' immigration record. We had to register as researchers and go through a small orientation, then we located the cabinet with the correct microfilm reel. After a few minutes of searching, I located the manifest. I've seen it before through, but it was cool to find it in the actual National Archives ourselves.

At this point, it was time for lunch, so we stopped by &pizza. After getting recharged, we headed to the Washington Monument, the WWII Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. It was beginning to get rainy, but we were able to capture some amazing photos.

We tried to stop by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but it became a downpour, so we hailed a cab and went back to our house. We changed clothes and relaxed for a few minutes before heading off to visit the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial. I've been there before and it was a really moving experience, so I looked forward to showing it to my sisters and mom. When you enter the memorial area, you see 184 benches, each atop a lighted pool of water and etched with a victim's name. They are arranged by year of birth and are situated facing either the Pentagon or away from the Pentagon, depending on if they were in the building or on the flight. The youngest victim was born in 1998, so she was only 3 years old at the time of her death.

We thought we could visit Arlington National Cemetery after the Pentagon Memorial and made the mistake of thinking we could walk between the two. In hindsight, it's possible, but not recommended! It ended up taking so long that we arrived after the Cemetery was closed. Doh! We hailed a cab from there and went to Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. Since it's a big shopping and retail area, we figured we could find dinner there. We did just that, but also had an ulterior motive. It was located right near a secret location we didn't tell my mom we were going to!

We have a friend named Erika, who my mom likes to say is her fourth daughter. She lives in Boston, so we don't get to see her very often. My sister, Jo, secretly arranged for her to fly into DC on Thursday night and surprise my mom. We told my mom that some of Jo's colleagues were in town for a convention and wanted us to stop by and say hi. Imagine my mom's surprise when we walked into a hotel and turned the corner and Erika was standing there. My sister snapped the pic above as my mom said, "Are you freakin' kidding me?" It was awesome and hilarious! We spent about an hour catching up with Erika and one of her sweet daughters, whom my mom had never met before. We called it a night so they could rest from their travel and we headed back to our house. We made plans to meet back up and spend Friday together. My mom was so excited! (Side note - Apple Watch calculated I took 18,384 steps and walked 8.77 miles that day)

Since we had seen a lot of tourist attractions on Thursday, we decided to take it easy on Friday and just spend time with Erika. She brought her daughter over to our house and we laughed and shared stories for a while. We walked to a nearby retail center to do a little shopping and when we got hungry, we headed to Ted's Bulletin. Their entrees (and desserts!) were delicious and the portion sizes were generous. After lunch, Erika's daughter needed a nap, so my sisters and I hit up Nordstrom Rack to see if it differed by region. We got lucky and scored a few deals and then went back to the house. After visiting with Erika a little more, it was time for her to head back to her hotel to prepare for her trip home. We were so glad she was able to make it to DC and my mom was very grateful for the wonderful surprise.

Later that night we walked to Matchbox. Another good meal was had! We finished up the night with some more Dutch Blitz and then hit the hay because of our very early flight the next morning. Apple Watch calculated I took 19,242 steps and walked 9.63 miles that day. Funny, since we had expected it to be a less strenuous day than the one before!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

NYC Trip 2016 - Day Three

Meezy and I spent the last day in NYC on our own because the rest of our group had already departed. We signed up for a guided tour that began at St. Paul's Chapel. The guide had owned an office down the street from the WTC plaza and gave us his first-hand account of what it was like in the city on September 11th. We learned about the roles that area buildings played during the aftermath, serving as staging grounds or command posts or sleeping quarters. We stopped by St. Peter's Church before making our way to the World Trade Center plaza.

Inside the footprint of where WTC1 and WTC2 used to be now stands two memorial pools. They are breathtaking. Pictures have a hard time capturing the magnitude of their size or their meaning.

At ground level, there are cascading waterfalls around the entire square structure. The water makes a second drop even further below ground level and then recirculates back around for another trip down the waterfall. The panels around the entire perimeter of both pools include the names of the victims from the 1993 WTC bombing and the September 11th attacks.

I only took one picture inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum because the experience was so solemn and I just wanted to show due reverence. I remember vividly what I was doing and what thoughts I had when I started watching the news coverage on that fateful day. I've heard the details over and over again and certainly seen my fair share of documentaries and news stories about it, but being in the museum made me really see everything, for what felt like the first time. I was an 18-year old college student when 9/11 happened and my worldview was different from what it is today. Now, as a wife and mother of 2, the hurt stings in different ways. I don't really want to explain what all the exhibits were like or all the feelings I had as I walked through them. I think you just need to see it for yourself. Please, make the trip.

The observatory at the top of WTC1 has amazing views of the city, so Meezy and I headed up there to grab lunch and take it all in.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by a Century 21 department store. I read they had good deals and a huge selection, so I figured it was worth a shot. Oh my gosh, the place was packed! Granted, it was a Saturday, but I still felt overwhelmed. We had a little bit of time before our dinner reservations, so we relaxed back at our hotel. We relied on cabs more this day than we had the previous two days, but that's because the weather was colder and our bodies were tired! For dinner, we ate at Lincoln Square Steak. It had good reviews online, so we figured it was worth a shot. As part of your meal, they provide a small complimentary appetizer and dessert, so that was nice. Our main courses were fine, but I think if we had had a better waiter, we would have left with a better impression of the place. He couldn't give any details to Meezy on what the special was and never asked him if he wanted a second beer. It also took forever for him to bring us our check. With as many restaurants as there are in NYC, I think it's safe to say we would try someplace else the next time we visit.

The grand total for Saturday, according to my Apple watch, was 11,602 steps covering 5.25 miles. Not bad! That concluded our NYC vacation. We caught an early flight the next morning and came back home to hug our sweet boys. I'm very lucky that my mom is able to babysit for us so we can take such meaningful, memorable trips.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

NYC Trip 2016 - Day Two

Our second day in NYC was one I had been looking forward to for quite a long time. First on the agenda was a visit to the Statue of Liberty, followed by the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Our group of 6 took the subway to Battery Park, where we boarded a ferry to Liberty Island. The weather was perfect and the views were breathtaking and I was lucky enough to be able to capture it in a few photos.

When we got to Liberty Island, we picked up an audio tour to learn a little more about the statue's history. We had tickets for pedestal access, which means we got to climb up to the area right below where the statue actually starts.

After we finished our tour of Lady Liberty, it was time to hop back on the ferry and make our way to Ellis Island.

This is the moment I had been waiting for! My grandparents immigrated to America in 1955 with their 3 sons (one of them being my dad). They packed everything they could manage in a few suitcases and took an 11-day journey on a ship from Rotterdam, Holland to the Port of New York. They left their friends and family members and home behind and started their American dream. While they didn't actually pass through Ellis Island because it closed in 1954, this was the closest I could get to learning what their journey was like, what processes they encountered when they got here, and what they saw when they disembarked their ship. It was surreal.

I had already previously obtained the ship manifest from my family's journey, so I brought it with me to compare to what was on display at Ellis Island. It was similar to what was shown there and made me feel that much closer to my grandparents and uncles. Of the 5 family members shown on the manifest (lines 7 through 11), only my father is still living.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you're probably tired of hearing about my Dutch heritage. I get it. But, try to imagine what it was like for these 5 people to be willing to leave their lives behind and start over in a foreign country. They knew so few people here, and were used to a different culture and language, but they took the leap. I've never gotten the chance to meet any of the relatives on my dad's side who still live in Holland. That family name is nearly nonexistent in America now, and the lineage (by name) will only continue here through my dad's nephews. You can see why it's so important to me to retain the memories and identity of my ancestors, because the name will soon be forgotten.

After finishing our visit to Ellis Island, we ate dinner at a pizzeria near Times Square called Bella Vita. It's a small restaurant with limited seating, especially for a large group, but they fit us in and we had a great meal. The pizzas were huge and fresh and hit the spot. Although we were quite tired from our busy day, we stopped by Grand Central Terminal because a few in our group hadn't seen it before. We checked out the shops and perused Grand Central Market. The food at the market looked so delicious and I knew I would be a regular there if I lived in that part of NYC.  On the way back to our hotel, I got the urge to visit Shake Shack. It had been recommended by a friend and I didn't think there would be another opportunity to partake in it before we left NYC. The line was pretty long, but luckily they had a "cold only" line that had no one in it. We got a couple concretes and were quickly on our way. After spending a couple hours in our hotel relaxing, playing games, and catching up on March Madness, we decided to make a late night visit to The Counter. We got our snacks to-go and were surprised that the place was still very busy at 11pm. New York really has no curfew!

Normally I'd feel bad about all the food I consumed in that day, but my watch informed me that I had indeed earned it after walking 18,332 steps and covering 8.69 miles. Whew!

Monday, March 21, 2016

NYC Trip 2016 - Day One

Meezy and I were lucky enough to be able to take a trip to NYC recently while my mom took care of our kiddos. The main purpose of the trip was to see Aladdin on Broadway, and we tried to make it a trip where all of his siblings and their spouses could come. Unfortunately, Meezy's oldest sister wasn't able to join us. There were three couples total, and we staggered our arrivals to and exits from NYC based on our individual availability. We made sure to all be there on the night of the Aladdin show, though.

Meezy and I arrived on Thursday afternoon and checked into the City Club Hotel near Times Square. The location was very convenient for a lot of the activities we had planned. Because this was a nice kids-free getaway for us, we opted for an upgraded room. That was definitely a good decision, as the room was awesome! When you walked in on the main floor, there was a living room, a half bathroom, an additional seating area near the windows and then a walk-out balcony. A spiral staircase led you up to the bedroom and huge full bathroom.

 View from master bedroom into huge bathroom 

View from downstairs toward upstairs and the gorgeous ceiling

View from balcony

Huge flag hanging near our balcony

The unfortunate reminder we got every time we walked onto our balcony!

We decided to eat dinner before our show and selected Glass House Tavern. It was conveniently located nearby and had space to accommodate us. Meezy's dad covered our dinner, which was a wonderful treat! 

After our meal, we were all pretty excited about heading to the show. I honestly didn't expect to like Aladdin as much as I did. I've certainly seen the movie numerous times and figured the Broadway production would be a little cheesy. Much to my surprise, it was quite entertaining. The costumes were fantastic, the visual effects were done well, and I laughed fairly often. I wish we were allowed to take pictures during the show because there were so many amazing things to look at. I had to settle for sneaking a picture of the curtain before the show started.

After the show was over, they made an announcement about their partnership with the charitable organization Broadway Cares. They were asking for donations and would give memorabilia in exchange for them, like aprons, cups, posters, etc. I thought, sure, I can spare some money to do some good and get the added benefit of going home with a tangible memory of the show. The last item they offered in exchange for a donation was the opportunity to take a backstage tour and meet the actor who played the Genie. Whhhhaaaaattt? Of course I wanted to do that! Seriously, how often would you get an opportunity like that? I signed up our group immediately and we waited around while the theater cleared. There were about 10 other guests who jumped at the chance too, so we were all treated to a guided, behind-the-scenes tour of what backstage is like at a Broadway musical. We learned some intriguing information, but of course the coolest part was seeing all the props they use in the show. The backstage area is so small that they really have to utilize every single inch of space they have available. That means lots of things have to be hoisted up and stored above your head. 

Here's a quick video giving you a more complete view:

After the tour was over, we got to walk out onto the stage and see what it felt like from that vantage point. It was quite humbling! We also got to see all the trap doors on the stage and how small they really are. Pretty amazing that the actors can fit through them.

Last but not least, we were introduced to James Monroe Iglehart who plays Genie. 

What an amazing first day we had in NYC! My Apple watch calculated my steps at 10,096, covering a distance of 5 miles. Not bad considering we were only there for half a day. We had so many more incredible things in store for the trip, that I knew this was only the beginning.