Visit Amusement Parks for FREE!

There are numerous scam "mystery shopping" websites, but I wanted to highlight one that is completely legit: Amusement Advantage. Should you choose to apply, be sure and have 25-30 minutes available to register.

I live in Atlanta, and they currently have 5 open assignments (opportunities for prospective mystery shoppers) for Six Flags over Georgia, two for weekdays and three for weekends, as well as 3 weekend assignments for Zoo Atlanta.

The requirements of an assignment as well as the payment varies, but don't expect to quit your day job to become a mystery shopper.

Out of Pocket Cost
For the Six Flags assignment, the shopper is required to: purchase at least one ticket at the ticket booth, buy a prepared food item at a food location, pay to play an employee serviced game, and make a purchase at a gift shop. Here is my "back of the envelope" calculation of the minimum cost for a family of four (two adults & two children--a 4-year old and the other child under 2): $10 parking + a children's ticket is $29.99 + $3 tax (no fee for children < 2) + $30 for food + $5 for the game + $5 for a gift shop purchase ~ $83.

Shopping Requirements
The assignment requires the shopper to have a digital camera and spend 5-6 hours at the park. In addition to the above tasks, the shopper also needs to take 10-15 pictures of employees without name tags as well as any conditions that warrant a picture (such as overflowing trash cans, etc.). After the visit, the shopper will need to upload the photos and complete a 10-12 page evaluation that will take 2-3 hours to complete. Receipts for the ticket booth, food service, and retail purchase will also need to be submitted.

In return for completing the assignment, the shopper will receive 2 tickets to Six Flags before the "shop" and 2 tickets after. Amusement Advantage indicates that these 4 tickets are worth $175.96, but you can buy tickets online for $39.99 each + $3 charge for "Print-n-go" = $162.96.

I look at mystery shopping as a way to offset some of the cost of visiting an entertainment venue that I already plan on visiting. Should you choose to become a mystery shopper, don't forget to look at other states for assignments before leaving on an out-of-state vacation!


Camping trial run

Camping in the back yard before venturing away from home was a brilliant idea, and we decided that Saturday was as good a night as any. The tent was raised with ease, and I'm even more happy with the purchase than when I clicked "buy".

My toddler and preschool-age daughters had a late nap in anticipation of a late evening. We gathered up sticks and started a fire in an outdoor metal fire-pit. Once the fire was red hot, the butter-laden and foil-wrapped corn on the cobb was left in the fire for 15 minutes to cook. Hot dogs grilled over the fire rounded out the nutritious backyard dinner.

By the time we finished the first two courses, the sun had set and the mosquitoes were finishing their own feeding (of us). We put my youngest in her pack-and-play, and closed off her "room" of the tent. She didn't like the distractions we provided and let us know with her crying, so she got half the tent.

To round out the camping culinary experience, the rest of us cooked marshmallows & made smores.

Next up was the true test of whether we'd be able to go camping anytime soon... bedtime for our 3 1/2 year old. She was going to sleep in an all-in-one Dora sleeping bag/inflatable mattress while my wife and I were on a queen size inflatable mattress with a cotton blanket to help wick away the sweat; even laying on top of the sleeping bag was too hot. How could I forget to mention the temperature was 86 degrees with absolutely no breeze?

Other environmental factors not boding well for a good night camping included a bright spotlight on a neighbor's house behind us as well as what sounded like an outdoor party at another house in the neighborhood behind us.

Once settled into the tent, I told a couple of camp stories, and my wife and I read several books before officially declaring it bedtime. We stared out the open top (we didn't have the canopy over the tent since there was 0% chance of rain) and saw the moon, a few stars, but mostly we just saw airplanes. This peace was interrupted with, "I need to go potty."

Since I was closest to the tent exit, I climbed out, put my shoes on, and carried her into the house to do her business. This scenario was repeated several more times within a 45 minute period. Once back in the tent, she was too excited to go to sleep. She wanted to lay on the tent floor rather than her sleeping bag/mattress. Then she wanted to sleep on Mommy and Daddy's mattress. Then she wanted to talk about the stars. Everyone was hot, and it was pretty obvious that only my youngest was going to get any meaningful sleep unless something happened. And at 11:21pm Saturday night, it did. Without a complaint, we all decided to head to our cozy beds and air conditioned house.

October sounds like a great month to try this again!


Camping with kids

For Father's Day this year, my wife and girls surprised me with a family tent along with a plan to go camping next Saturday night. After much thought and discussion, we decided to do more research on tents and give consideration to a "trial run" of camping in the backyard before venturing out for a "real" night out under the stars.

Doing the research, I learned a lot. For one thing, only figure that 2/3 of the manufacturer's listed occupant capacity can comfortably sleep in the tent. So for a 6-person tent, 4 would fit comfortably. Another thing I learned is to seal all of the stitching, regardless of the manufacturer's claims of a tent's ability to stay waterproof. And camping technology has changed a lot since I last went camping as a Boy Scout. There are now tents that are wired for electricity, including the Eureka N!ERGY 1310, which has 3 12-volt outlets inside. And there are now two popular types of tent structures, the traditional dome and the newer cabin-style, which gives you more head-room.

We decided we wanted a tent that could comfortably sleep 5 and had a relatively high ceiling. After hours of time spent online reading reviews and checking out innumerable sites, we finally decided upon the Wenger Lugano 16- by 10-Foot Two-Room Eight-Person Family Tent with Canopy. It has a 4.5* rating after 23 customer reviews, and Amazon was running a special of $20 off, making this tent $100 with free shipping.

Others in the running were the Columbia Cougar Flats Six to Eight-Person Two-Room Cabin Tent for $249.97 which was rated at 4.5* with 75 customer reviews, and the Eureka Titan Luxury Family 13.5- by 9.5-Foot Eight-Person Two-Room Tent for $449.90 which was rated 4* with 4 customer reviews. Should we decide that camping really is for us and the tent we're buying doesn't meet our needs, we'll upgrade later.

Any advice on "gotta have" gadgets or camping with younger children?


Save big by shopping online

Like many, I loathe shopping in retail stores and most of my purchases are made via the Internet. Prior to making a purchase, I follow several steps to ensure I'm getting the best deal and doing so has saved me thousands:

1) Conduct a Google search to find out if there's a coupon code or promotion available for the item I want to purchase or the merchant from which I'm planning on purchasing the item
2) Check eBay to see if someone has the item available in new or nearly-new condition
3) Search the SlickDeals and FatWallet forums to learn if anyone has found a better deal or an obscure rebate on the item I want
4) Look up the prospective merchant via one of several commission rebate sites and select the site giving the best cash back on the merchant who will get my business

For the fourth step, my sites of choice are Upromise, Ebates, and FatWallet. I checked my commissions from these sites in preparation for writing this entry and was surprised that my commission rebate checks totaled $636.82 over the last 4 years. I've received $392.82 from Upromise, $209.49 from Ebates, and $34.51 from FatWallet.

The premise behind Upromise is terrific--it was started to give families an easy way to save for college. You can even link a 529 plan from Vanguard or one from 8 states so that funds are automatically transferred to your child's 529 account. Some of the companies offering cash-back through Upromise include Exxon, eBay, McDonald's, CVS, Wal-Mart.com, and many others.

Should you choose to sign up for Ebates, do so by clicking here so you'll get a $5 bonus for signing up; I get a $5 referral bonus as well. As long as your cash-back amount is greater than $5, you'll receive a check each quarter. Just a few of Ebates' participating retailers include iTunes, Sears, REI, OfficeDepot, NetFlix, and Gap.

FatWallet has both forums as well as offering commission rebates, and I've recently found that they often give 1 to 2 percentage points more than Upromise or Ebates. Many of the participating retailers overlap those that participate in the Upromise and Ebates programs, but several of those offering a higher commission rebate include Target, Newegg, Apple, Kmart, Snapfish, and uBid.com.

A new entrant and competitor to the previously mentioned sites is Jellyfish which gives commission rebates but also has a live show 24/7 that is basically an online version of the Home Shopping Network with fluctuating prices. Again, it has many of the same retailers participating, but I noticed that Jellyfish is offering a 7.5% rebate from Target vs. only 4.4% from FatWallet and 4% from Ebates & Upromise. It's certainly worth a look.


My home, my castle: Living room renovation - update #8

With the living room construction done, the decorating has begun. FLOR carpet tiles are going to be used in lieu of an area rug and have been ordered. The lounge chairs and black-out window shades are also on order and will be arriving soon.

Ultimately I'd like to replace the glass-top coffee table as it's not the safest to have with kids in the house, but that's not in the budget now.

Over the weekend I picked up enough 18" travertine tile for the fireplace surround, but the color was too light. Fortunately Atlanta has some great sources for tile. I'll probably end up getting it from Floor-Stone (yes, their website sucks) where I purchased the bamboo several years ago. I've found that their listed prices aren't always firm, and they're much more open to haggling than other retail flooring stores.


Scales of justice

I got to be up close and personal with the law this week as I was not only picked for jury duty but was actually chosen to serve on a jury.

Georgia used to have pretty liberal laws as it relates to jury duty, and it was easy for white collar professionals to avoid serving. That has changed. In fact I was sitting next to a doctor in the jury waiting room.

As luck would have it, I was among 30 prospective jurors chosen to be queried by the prosecution and defense attorneys. During jury selection, I was picked as juror #12 and thus the last juror to decide the case.

Having two preschool girls, I wasn't eager to hear a case of sexual assault and child molestation, but that was my lot. After sitting through the trial, it surprises me--no, it scares me that the defendant was charged. The Assistant District Attorney did a poor job of prosecuting the case, and the police investigation was beyond incompetent (failing to interview potential witnesses, never visiting the location of the alleged attack, not knowing key details of the child's home life as it related to other adult males, and never answering two critical questions the child refused to answer). There was absolutely no evidence other than he said/she said, and an innocent man's life has been hell for two years as a result.

Jury deliberation was very interesting, and I'm growing to dislike evangelical Christians more and more. Something bad happened to a little girl, but just because a defendant is black and male does not mean that individual should be the one to pay for the crime. Fortunately logic and reason prevailed, but only after hours of challenging the juror's stubborn belief that was not supported by evidence.

In the end justice was served and an innocent man is free, though it wasn't a pretty process.


My home, my castle: Living room renovation - Weekend update #7

One thing I've learned after doing the living room remodel: I suck at measuring, cutting, and installing crown molding. Fortunately my wife is great at using wood filler and caulk to hide my mistakes.

The room was habitable by Monday morning, and by the end of the evening, most of the finishing touches were done to the room.

I still have some things to do along the hallway between the living room and kitchen as well as tile around the fireplace, but the project is 90% complete and looks fantastic. I can't believe this is the same room that was dark and felt cramped; the room feels huge, and getting rid of unnecessary doorways along the hallway and leading from the foyer has made the living room so much brighter.


My home, my castle: Living room renovation - Weekend update #6

The flooring will be down by the day's end, which means the living room renovation should be finished by Sunday night!!


My home, my castle: Living room renovation - update #5

Whereas many homes have a single layer of plywood, OSB, or planks, my builder saved a couple of bucks and used 1/2" particle board over 1/2" OSB. Because I'm going to be nailing down bamboo flooring and because the particle board is warped (it absorbs moisture & then expands), doesn't hold nails, and generally sucks, it was removed.

The original flooring was nailed down, so I walked the floor to locate squeaks and then used about 4 pounds of 1-5/8" decking screws to secure the OSB to the joists. VoilĂ , no more squeaks!

An uninsulated two-car garage is under this room, so I decided to put a layer of 15# roofing felt over the OSB (I glued and hammer-stapled the felt down). For the top layer of subfloor I could have installed 1/2" OSB on top of the bottom layer, but I prefer plywood. I "glued and screwed" 15/32" Plytanium plywood as the top layer using 2-1/2" deck screws.

To be sure my screws were finding their way into joists, I located the first one by measuring approximately 16" from the outer wall (my joists are 16" on center) and then drilled using a 1/8" bit. When my first attempt didn't "feel" like I was hitting solid wood all of the way through, I moved 1/2" closer to the outer wall and drilled again... that one hit the joist. I then marked off every 16" from that point across the floor and drilled to confirm I was hitting a joist. I repeated this process on the opposite wall and then struck a chalk line (seen in red in the photo) to mark where the joists were across the floor, which made the process of screwing down the floors much faster.

Next up is to hammer-staple 30# roofing felt over the top of this plywood and begin installing the bamboo flooring!