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Childrens' Birthday Parties kids activities Kids Birthday Parties

Birthday Party Theme Ideas For Kids in Howard County Maryland

Looking for birthday party ideas for your child in Howard County, Maryland? Here are some themes and ideas to help you decide what type of party to have. [Looking for a special place to have your child’s party? Don’t miss my post with 50+ birthday party places in Howard County and birthday parties in Montgomery County.]

Since I have two children, I find myself at many different types of birthday parties lately–some of them original and loads of fun for the kids, and some of them…not so much. I have created this page to help parents out with some ideas, recommendations and resources.

Party Themes and Ideas

    1. Science Birthday Party: There are so many ways to have a science party. This is a wonderful idea for any kid, but will be especially popular with nerdier children. There are plenty of kits you can order for the party or bring in a science performer like Eric Energy. Party favors might include things like this Zanny Marble Kit from Amazon.com

Damu from Mad Science - science birthday party

        1. Who to hire:
          1. Mad Science: I recently saw a great show put on by Damu from Mad Science. He’s a DC Public School teacher with lots of talent and the kids love him. Be sure if request him if he’s available.
          2. Eric Energy: Eric is a popular birthday party performer in the area. He does a great job of getting the kids involved and talking up science!
          3. Harry Potter Theme Birthday party – There is so much you can do with this. Here are a few suggestions:
            1. Hire a magician, if you look you may find someone who is versed in Harry Potter spells. A great example is “Illusions By Vick” (443-540-9631) – He comes in character as Professor Snape and teaches kids about various spells.
            2. Get yourself some Harry Potter posters, or you may find some to download and print. Consider putting a “platform 9 3/4” on your front door.
            3. Serve butter beer
            4. Create “sorting hat” gift bags from paper bags…
            5. Create wands from chopsticks and hot glue.
    1. Talent Show Birthday Party: Kids are always willing to show off their talents, no matter what level they’re at. Why not capitalize on this by throwing a talent show party.
    2. Add to the fun: Create VIP Guest passes for the invitations or just send tickets along with each one. Make star shaped cupcakes. Get photos ahead of time from the parents so you can put up head shots of each kid who’s coming to the party.
    3. Who to hire to help: Catriona’s Castle Karen brings theater to your home or party location. A memorable and extremely fun party for your child!
    4. Painting Party: A step beyond your normal craft party. Purchase canvases and hang them on your backyard fence with nails, consider getting aprons and plastic palettes that guests can take as party favors along with their canvas. The main event of the party will be to have the kids paint a picture of their favorite animal.
birthday party idea - painting party
            1. Dinosaur Party: Kids will love this prehistoric party. The main event for the party will be a fossil hunt, which can be put together by the host or bring in a fossil expert. May be combined with a reptile party.
              1. Who to hire to help: Paleo Jim Fossil Hunting Adventures
      1. Reptile Party: This party works best if you have lots of live reptiles on hand. Don’t have lots of reptiles at home? See below for some ideas on who to hire. Make sure you get a cake that’s shaped like a lizard or snake!
        1. Who to hire: Reptile Wonder’s Nature Center on the Go
      2. Video Games Party: We know that kids love video games. So why not have a video game birthday party. You can hire Game Truck to come to your location. They bring a fancy truck with 4 gaming stations and an experienced game coach to make it all go.
        1. Who to hire: Game Truck
      3. Pony Ride Party: This has always been a favorite for kids. A pony themed party with actual ponies will be remembered for years to come.
        1. Who to hire: The Peppermint Pony
      4. Ice Age Party: Ice Age is a great movie to do a party theme from. Add some creative edges like freezing animal figures in blocks of ice and letting the kids find them and you’ve got some real fun.
Kona Ice snow cone truck for birthdays
        1. Who to hire: Kona snow-cone truck.
  1. Lego Party: Legos are great fun for kids. It’s easy to get lego-themed plates and napkins and perhaps even a lego cake! Start the party by having kids create balloon powered cars and maybe invite a guest who can bring in lego robotics kits for the kids to play with and learn!
    1. Who to hire: The Great Adventure Lab

Party Tips

Whether you’re having a birthday party at your house, or in a party, venue, you’ll need a party theme. Here are some theme ideas.

  1. For Any Birthday Party: Hire someone to do light catering. For example, kids of all ages would love a waffle or omelette bar. Give the Omelet Guys a call. It’s relatively inexpensive, so you’ll get lots of bang for your buck. Another great option would be to bring in someone to serve snow balls.
  2. For any birthday party: get a photo booth. These can be great fun and provide lasting memories. Choose your provider carefully. I’ve had good luck with Shelly’s Sweet Photo Booth (410) 961-2983.

Did I Miss Something?

There are so many great birthday party ideas! I’ve tried to list as many creative and helpful tips as I could here. Have any suggestions or ideas that I may have missed? Please leave a comment! Be sure and see my posts on gifts for brainy kidsparty favors and some great birthday present ideas for six and seven year olds and places to have birthday parties in Anne Arundel County, Howard County, and Baltimore County.

Disclaimer: Please check the references of anyone you may hire that is suggested here. Although these aren’t paid promotions, I do not know any of them well so can’t endorse them completely. If you do use anyone’s services, you do so at your own risk.

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Lifetime Fitness Review Part 2

Lifetime Fitness Onyx Club Columbia Md

This is part 2 of my review of Lifetime Fitness. If you’ve arrived to this page from a search engine, please be sure and see part 1 of my Lifetime Fitness review for more details!

Guest Passes At Lifetime Fitness

Membership also includes 6 “free” guest passes per year.  After that, you can buy additional passes,  for about $20-$30/each.  Each pass will admit an entire family (which is considered to be people who live at the same address).  If you bring in a guest, expect them to be “questioned” by a manager as to whether or not they’re interested in becoming members. It can be kind of uncomfortable for your friends, but it is the policy of Lifetime Fitness to do things this way.  The way this is done has resulted in a bad experience for my guests on two out of four occasions.

A new summer rule has recently been implemented that states you cannot bring in guests during the day on Saturday and Sunday–you can only bring them in after 5pm.  This is an effort to keep the outdoor pool from becoming overcrowded.  The rule is a little bit over the top though, especially for Sunday considering family swim is over at 6pm–are you going to bring a guest to the pool for an hour?


These guest policies are very unfortunate because I believe it winds up turning potential new members off and it makes the club less enjoyable for people want to bring in guests. Here are some highlights:

  • There is a policy that the same guest cannot be brought in more than once in 60 days on the free included passes.  You can pay separately for a pass for these guests (see below for pricing).  Although I can understand why they don’t want an open guest policy, but it seems they aren’t very interested in people bringing guests into the club at all.  This is in stark contrast to clubs such as Gold’s Gym that often make it extremely easy to bring in guests.
  • Guests who come in also need to fill out a waiver form–to me this is the only part of the process that makes sense.
  • If you’re bringing in someone who’s a minor without their parents, you may need to get the form filled out by their parents ahead of time.

Lifetime Guest Pricing as of 5/15/2014:

Guest With MemberGuest Without Member
Age 12+Under Age 12Age 12+Under Age 12
Bronze/Gold Club$20$10$40$10
Platinum Club$25$20$50$20
Athletic Club$30$30$60$30

[Looking for birthday gift ideas? See my list of presents for the smart kids in your life.]

The Front Desk

I’ve had a variety of good and bad experiences at the front desk.  Most of the front desk staff are friendly and competent.   You have to hand a front desk worker your membership card to get into the club.  Most of the time this is done efficiently.  Occasionally there are issues.   For instance yesterday the line to get into the club was about 10 people deep because the only person on duty at the desk was busy trying to get a manager to come and help someone who wanted to bring a guest into the club.  I stood in line for no less than 4 minutes during this folly (sounds like a short time, but it is annoying when you only have a set amount of time to workout). I was unhappy, but people behind me were kind of angry and made it seem like it was a frequent nuisance   I only had this happen one other time though.  A second incident involved the fact that the person the front desk was on the phone and she couldn’t be bothered to simultaneously take people’s cards and let them into the gym.

Parking

Generally speaking, Lifetime Athletics has plenty of parking–in fact the parking lot is huge.  Having said that, I know that many people mention the parking situation in their reviews.  This is because in the evenings and on some weekends, the lot can get full…really full.  (Think the mall during Christmas).  There have only been a few occasions when I have had to park around the back of the gym or on the street.  I don’t think this is that big of a deal, in general–after all, you can just consider the walk part of your workout if you don’t get a good space.  Having said that, this once again points to the fact that the gym can get really crowded.

MyLT.com
There is a lifetime fitness internet portal for members to use to track their visits, check class schedules and more.  It is a very good resource and they’ve done a pretty good job making it easy to use.  There is also an Android and iOS app available.  The app is an easy way to quickly access group class schedules and other important information about your club.

The Lifetime Fitness Cafe

No Outside Food Or Drink Sign

There is a cafe inside of lifetime fitness that offers relatively wholesome foods and beverages. The LifeCafe has pledged not to serve foods with bleached flour, preservatives, artificial coloring, sweeteners or flavors. Prices are very reasonable and my experience with the food and staff has been better than expected.  They are happy to make special changes for you and never give me any problems about splitting smoothies into two cups (one for each of my kids).
They have plenty of vegetarian options on the menu and even stock Kombucha. During the summer there is an outdoor extension of the cafe by the pool.  Very convenient but limited offerings.  You can view the Columbia Lifetime Fitness Cafe’s menu here.  Note that if you want to eat or drink anything at LifeTime Fitness aside from water,  you must purchase it from the LifeTime Fitness Cafe. Food or drink from outside are NOT allowed.

There is also an outdoor Lifetime Cafe that operates during the summer months. They serve a variety of items, but the menu is definitely smaller than the one at the indoor cafe. In 2017 they began offering online ordering through their app, which is a great way to skip the line–they just page you when your order is ready. My kids mainly order icc pops there, and they love to walk up and order it themselves.  They also offer a bottomless iced tea plastic cup for $15, I believe it will last you the entire season-definitely a worthwhile deal. BTW, if you are wondering, you can pay cash, credit, or put the order on your club tab.

The Lifetime Fitness Spa

The LifeSpa offers haircuts, massages, facials and pedicures.  Although only my wife has used it, it seems to be a convenient and competitively priced outlet for spa services.  Men’s haircuts are about $25.

The Pools
Some Lifetime Fitness gyms have leisure pools and others do not.  They really went all out for the pools in Columbia, MD.  The indoor and outdoor pools are beautiful and there is a separate indoor lap pool.  The pool manager does a very good job of keeping things running smooth and is very professional.

Lifetime Athletic Indoor Swimming Pool

Indoor Pool – The heated indoor pools are good.  They provide some swim lanes, water slides and a shallow area with fountains for kids to play in.  Recently they’ve been keeping the indoor leisure pool at about 88 degrees (they have a board that gives the temperatures of the pools and hot tubs)   Family swim hours vary in the fall, winter and spring because of swimming lessons that go on–especially on Monday, Wednesdays and Saturday mornings.  Hours are clearly posted at the pool and on the member website.  I think the only improvement I would make to the indoor pools would be additional poolside seating.  I know it can’t be like the outdoor pool, but sometimes poolside seats are in high demand.  Having said that, I don’t think they have very many places to put them.  In the winter time, if a child has an accident in the pool, they will close the pool for two hours and you’re out of luck. In the summer, there are two pools (indoor and outdoor) so you can at least use the indoor pool if they have to close the outdoor one. The only good news is that you can get an email from them when this happens–but they don’t always send it promptly.  I guess it is great that they send them at all, just too bad that they have the need to send them.

5 lane lap pool at Lifetime Fitness

As mentioned before there is a separate indoor lap pool that has 5 lanes and they have 5 more lanes in the outdoor pool.  The indoor lap pool is typically kept a few degrees cooler than the leisure pool but most of the the time you can opt to swim laps in the leisure pools if you prefer warmer temperatures.  Some people will find it a plus that children under the age of 12 aren’t allowed in the lap lanes–although I see their point, this rule isn’t that great if you have a young, serious swimmer who would like to swim laps–even if they’re on the Life Time Fitness year-round swim team..

During the winter, swimming hours for children have some limits.  This is mainly because on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturday mornings there are swimming lessons taking place in the pool, so it is closed to general swimming.  (see sample pool hours below) During the summer the indoor and outdoor pool are open, so lessons don’t affect availability because you can swim outside.  Adults who just want to swim laps aren’t affected as much because they can swim in the separate lap pool (which is open 24 hours/day).  Another thing to note is that the water slides aren’t open the entire time family swims take place.  Typically the slides are open about half the time.  For safety reasons they are staffed with a lifeguard at the top of the slide and one at the bottom.

To give you the idea of what family swim hours are at Lifetime Fitness during the cold months, here are the current hours (obviously this is going to vary from club to club and is subject to changes, so if you are a current member, don’t rely on this information):

Example family pool hours at Lifetime Athletic
Sample family swim and water slide hours at Lifetime Fitness Columbia
(for illustration purposes only, please don’t rely on this information)
lifetime fitness outdoor swimming pool
Lifetime Fitness Pool in Columbia MD on a
weekday afternoon

Outdoor Pool – The outdoor pool is great.  The deck is kept clean and nice and like the indoor pool, it has a water mushroom and some fountains for the kids. It has swim lanes, an area for children to play in the water and two water slides of medium size.  The pool is kept at 82 degrees which isn’t exactly freezing, but I do wish it was warmer because my kids were getting kind of cold some days.  They play music and fun is definitely in the air.  There have only been a couple of very busy days (ie- Memorial Day) when there weren’t enough lounge chairs, but this is to be expected as there is only so much room for chairs–and this problem is definitely an exception to the rule.  Again this pool is well run.  I haven’t really got any complaints about the pool itself or the way it is managed (aside from the guest policies and the fact that there is a shortage of family locker rooms — read about that elsewhere in this review).

Hot Tubs – There are hot tubs near the indoor and outdoor pools.  They seem to be well kept and have plenty of jets and each one has a “water fall” that can add a little bit extra massage to the experience.  The indoor hot tubs are kept at around 101 degrees.

Additional Amenities

  • Steam Rooms – Located inside the men’s and women’s locker rooms.  Eucalyptus flavored steam seems to be the norm.
  • Sauna – There is a sauna inside near the indoor pools.  I haven’t tried it yet, but it does look hot in there.  I think it was a clever idea to put the sauna near the indoor pool because it provides some extra warmth.  The room above the sauna is used for hot yoga.  Good thinking Lifetime!
  • Machines – There is a wide array of treadmills, cross-trainers, stair steppers and exercise bikes available.  TVs are strategically mounted and played out to FM radio frequencies/have subtitles turned on.  In May 2013 state of the art replacements for most of their bicycles, treadmills, stair steppers and cross trainers were installed.  Very cool machines–many of which have built-in personal televisions.
  • Free weights and weight machines-There is a very large selection of free weights and weight lifting machines. They seem to be well maintained.
  • Yoga – Yoga classes are offered daily…they even have yoga classes for kids.  The teachers are very good and several different types of yoga are taught.  They have a special room for the “hot” yoga classes, and it definitely does get hot.  Only downside is that the classes fill up and especially on weekends, you need to be there 1/2 an hour early to reserve a spot.  Hopefully they’ll take the hint and try to add some additional classes.  I should mention that they also occasionally offer special “theme” yoga events that cost extra money.  For instance, they once had a belly dancing yoga class for 20 or 30 dollars extra.
  • Group Fitness Classes – There are great. One of the main things that has kept us coming to lifetime–as mentioned, most classes are included with your membership:
    • So far I have tried Zumba, Kick Boxing/Strike!, Yoga, Aqua, Circuit and Cardio Resistance Training.  They have several other group classes that I haven’t tried yet–bar bell training, cycling and Pilates classes to name a few.
    • The teachers have been very good overall.  And although I can’t keep up with them, they definitely know what they’re doing and they do a good job of keeping it fun and interesting.
    • The classes are held in several rooms at the gym and often overlap time-wise.  I believe they start at around 5:30am with classes taking place at different times of the day up until 8pm.  The schedules vary on the weekends, but there are a variety of classes every day.
    • The  classes fill up and it is not uncommon for members who don’t arrive early to be turned away.
lifetime fitness climbing wall
Part of the climbing wall at Lifetime Fitness
  • Climbing Wall – There is an extensive climbing wall.
    •  Adults and kids can climb the wall during “open climbs” when staff is on duty there.  That’s a sticking point because most of the time the climbing wall is closed.   The open hours are generally on evenings and weekends. Because of the limited hours the wall can get busy enough that you can’t get a belay.  If climbing at other times is a priority you may need to consider another gym instead (Earth Treks is nearby and is a mainstay for hardcore indoor climbers).
    • They have 5 auto-belays, which are really great fun.  They automatically let you down easy when you’re through climbing–so you don’t need a second person to belay you–its probably safer than having an actual person do it too. (Again, unfortunately you may find yourself waiting for an autobelay because there are only five and the wall isn’t open all the time.)
    • My kids really love  the climbing wall.  Most of the time, there is plenty of room to climb and its usually not very crowded.  As mentioned above, sometimes all 5 auto-belays are taken, but you can still practice on the lower wall while you wait for something to open.
    • They provide harasses, shoes, chalk and ropes.
    • Note that you must be at least 5 years old to climb and children younger than 5 aren’t permitted in the climbing wall area at all.  The staff has been very helpful in giving pointers and making sure everyone is safe while climbing.
  • Basketball Courts- There are two full-sized basketball courts and they frequently have pickup games going on in the evenings.
  • Racquetball / Squash Courts – Several good quality, glass enclosed courts are available.  You can check out rackets and balls at the activity desk for free.  There are also private and semiprivate racquetball  lessons available from professionals.  Court reservations for racquetball and squash can be made through the mylt.com website.
  • Weight Loss Program – I am not sure if this fits in as amenity, but they have lots of special programs going at Lifetime Fitness and a weight loss program is one of them.  You can learn more about it here.
  • Other programs- There are many other  programs and events that take place at Lifetime (usually there is an extra fee associated with them).  I have many examples including indoor triathlon training, a father-daughter dance, Ultimate Hoops basketball league, summer Luau, outdoor runs, “try it Tuesdays”, parents night outs (drop your kids off and go out for a few hours on Saturday nights for $20-30) and even summer camps (see a list of my favorite Maryland Summer Camp Offerings) and other school’s out day camps during the school year.
  • Locker Rooms and Bathrooms – The men’s and women’s locker rooms are generally very nice and constantly maintained.  I would give them a B+ for cleanliness– In all public areas the lockers are very nice and the floors are generally shiny.
Shampoo body wash and conditioner amenity
Shampoo, Conditioner & Body Wash are
free in the locker rooms

There is free shampoo, conditioner and body wash by J.R. Watkins in the showers.  They also offer Barbasol shaving cream, cheap plastic razors, mouth wash and spray deodorant in the men’s and women’s locker rooms.  In the women’s locker room there are a few”private changing rooms in the locker area. These are not available in the men’s locker room.  They also provide automatic bathing suit drying machines (centrifuges) and free plastic bags to take home wet clothes and toys.

Family Amenities
Separate Changing Rooms: There is a special locker room area for parents with kids.  There are eight rooms with benches and showers.  They even provide hair dryers and bathing suit drying machines.  Unfortunately these get taken up pretty quickly after swimming lessons or busy pool hours.  At least if you have children of the same sex with you, you can choose to use the Men’s or Women’s locker rooms instead.  If you have a child of the opposite sex, you’re out of luck.  You will frequently see parents changing their children out in the open in the family locker common area.  I don’t really blame them as you can easily wait five minutes or more for a free room since many families take advantage of the showers–and then there is the “confusion” as to which family has been waiting the longest for a changing room.  This can be very frustrating and time consuming.

The family changing rooms  tend to be a little less clean…in fact sometimes they’re just plain dirty. While it isn’t the gym’s fault that families seem to want to leave various messes behind in the bathrooms and showers, they could definitely do more to keep them clean. One major issue in the family changing room at our gym in Columbia is that they showers don’t drain fast enough.  The result is that water and bilge backup into the area that you would want to be dry…you can’t keep your shoes, etc. on the floor because they’re bound to get wet while you’re taking a shower.   Honestly, this is kind of a big flaw and they’d do well to fix it.  The other issue that I’ve seen alot of in the family locker rooms is the shower heads being in disrepair.

Babysitting: Babysitting is available for 2 hours per day per parent.  The child care center is relatively nice.  There is a computer area, a climbing gym, fenced in outdoor playground and a basketball court (which is usually not open for play).  In all of my experience so far, dropping of and picking up kids on busier days is kind of a drag–I have stood in line for as long as 5 minutes to pick up or drop off my kids.  This is a rather frequent problem at the Columbia MD gym.  You hope to be able to quickly drop off your kids and get to your workout or a class, but instead you stand there while parents check their children in or out or do paperwork to sign kids up for activities.

The employees do what they can, but things seem to get pretty hectic for them.  Having said that, at slower times, its usually a breeze to get in and out.   BTW, if the staff needs you for something (like to change a diaper or because of a problem with your child) they will page you to come back. They seem to do a nice job of keeping toys cleaned and washed for the younger kids who may put them in their mouths, etc… You’ll notice that they have a.m. and p.m. bins of toys. The toys that aren’t in use theoretically get cleaned.  One unfortunate thing is that it is the policy of Lifetime Fitness to make the older kids clean up after the younger kids (this occurs frequently throughout the day in so-called “safety checks”)–if your child is older than 5 they will be asked to put toys used by the toddlers away in their bins. I disagree with this because I pay for my kids to be there to have fun, not clean the gym–plus it is a good way to spread germs.

I would add that the child care center can be kind of a boring place for kids older than 5.  The climbing gym area gets to be boring and the main alternative is going to be pre-selected computer games.  So if your child doesn’t play video games (or has played them all to the point of boredom) they aren’t going to have a good time in there.

If your child is signed up for a class at lifetime, you can leave them in the child care center and they will be transferred to their class when the time comes.  When you drop your son or daughter off, you can ask them to take the child for you to the class.  When the class is over, they will be brought back to the child center.  I have used this on a few occasions and it has been convenient.  Unfortunately, this offer does not apply to swimming lessons.

Lifetime Member Advantage Program and Advertising in the Club
This program provides coupons to various popular stores. I have never used it and frankly could do without it altogether. It must be a good money maker for the gym though as I am sure advertisers would love to hit the demographic of people who are members. I frequently get emails from Lifetime including new special offers for gym members.  The discounts include anything from Avis cars to Orkin pest control.

While I am on the topic I will also mention that there is some advertising at the gym.  Their most recent advertiser has me a bit annoyed–they are advertising Chocolate Milk all over the place like it is the healthiest thing ever–they even renamed some of their spinning classes with Chocolate Milk in the title.  First of all it chocolate milk isn’t that healthy, this has been disproven, but the dairy companies don’t want the myth to die. And second of all it shows that Life Time Fitness is willing to put profit above their healthy living mission statement.

Advertising screen at Lifetime Athletics

At any rate, this kind of advertising definitely detracts from the upscale atmosphere of the club is the aforementioned advertising and other marketing efforts.  You will find banners advertising various things from car brands and mechanics to chocolate milk and eggs at various places throughout the gym.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is intrusive, but it is a bit tacky-especially the posters that have coupons you can take.  Also, there tends to be an employee outside the Lifetime Fitness cafe giving away samples of the house brand of whey protein.  This is obviously another big money maker for the company but I think they should leave this sort of thing to Costco.
Paid Group Lessons
In addition to offering a few free classes for kids (such as kids yoga and zumba-beware, these classes can be canceled temporarily or discontinued without any notice) There are many classes available as paid add-ons: Ballet, Karate,  Racquetball and more.  Class quality varies.  Some of the teachers don’t really seem to have their heart in it.

Here is a recent list of lesson dates and times.  You can see it’s pretty good.   Sorry about the markings on it. The prices have gone up since this was published last year-At this writing, the swimming lessons are about $50 per month.  Ballet is $40/month.  I am not sure about the others, prices tend to go up relatively frequently, so you’ll want to check for actual costs.  One of the great things is that you can work out while they’re taking lessons.  I’ve never tried this, but apparently, you can even drop your kids off in baby-sitting and they will deliver your child to the class for you–so you can have even more time to work out.

Kids classes at lifetime fitness in Columbia Maryland

Birthday Parties

Lifetime Fitness does a great job of making birthday parties fun for kids.  For about $275 you get a great party–they offer several different kinds-pool parties, rock climbing and other sports.  Definitely worth knowing about.  Read my list of ideas about where to have childrens‘ birthday parties for more about Lifetime Athletics parties and for some other ideas for parties for your kids.

Experience L!fe Magazine

As a new Lifetime Fitness member, you’ll be entitled to a whopping 3 free paper issues of this magazine–after that they will automatically bill your membership for the privilege of receiving the magazine.  Can you tell I am a little annoyed by this?  Well, I just think it is kind of sneaky because so many people forget to cancel and that artificially jacks up their subscriber rate and makes people pay for something they don’t necessarily want or realize that they are paying for.

The actual magazine isn’t bad. It isn’t the first thing I’d think of when I want to purchase a health and fitness magazine though.  BTW, I believe you can get the digital edition of the magazine for free.  Find a link for that here.

Other Locations

As mentioned before, Lifetime Athletics has clubs all over the USA and Canada. The services/facilities vary from club to club. For instance in Maryland there are two clubs. The one described above, and another one in the Rockville, MD area.  The one in Rockville doesn’t have a pool or climbing wall, which I think would be huge detractors for some people, especially at the above-mentioned dues rates.  As mentioned above you have to be a member of a club that is the same level or below to gain free access to another Lifetime Fitness club.

Alternatives to Lifetime Fitness in Maryland

As far as being a “one stop shop”, there really aren’t any gyms around that come close to the offerings at Lifetime Fitness.  Having said that, the obvious choice in Columbia is the Columbia Association.

In my opinion with the Columbia Association, you actually get more for your money, but you have to go to different places to get everything you want.  They have  weight rooms, indoor pools, outdoor pools, horseback riding, running tracks, roller skating, ice skating and fitness classes. If you are a Columbia resident, you pay as little as $54/month for a family membership–less than half the cost of Lifetime Fitness.  You can also join if at reduced prices if you work in certain places in Columbia.  Otherwise, you have to pay the non-resident price–but the point is that anyone who wants to can join. There are several levels of membership, so a family of four would pay the resident rate of $121/month for one of the highest membership levels (without golf), and a non-resident would pay $164.

I recently called to check prices for non-residents. When I called, they had a special: A family can join on a 3-year contract for $126/month. The one-year contract price was $151. This price gives you access to all of the gyms, skating rinks, pools and classes the Columbia Association offers. You may be able to get lower pricing if you pay for access to just one of the 3 main gyms.

Here is a link to their membership page.

If you’re mainly into climbing, Earth Treks is a very good choice.  There is an EarthTreks location in the same part of Columbia as Life Time Fitness.

Lifetime Fitness Located at 7220 Lee Deforest Drive, Columbia, MD . https://www.lifetimefitness.com/en/clubs/columbia-md/your-lt.html Reviewed by Eron Cohen. Rated: 3.5/ 5 (Good)
Executive Summary: Lifetime Fitness in Columbia Maryland is a nice place, that is fairly well maintained and has extensive facilities.  The membership fees are costly, but the environment is good overall.  The management would do well to relax some of the pressure tactics they use and to examine their guest policies.  They could also do better with regards to activities and treatment of children.


Categories
Blenders Nutrition Reviews

Vitamix 5200 Review

vitamix 5200 blender

Read My Review of the Vitamix 5200 Blender

Vitamix blenders are famous for being long-lasting smoothie-blending work-horses. They are the high-end benchmark that other blenders must compete with to win market-share. This is a review of my experience with the Vitamix 5200.

I purchased my Vitamix about 6 months ago. I got it as a refurbished unit on Amazon.com. I went for a refurbished blender because the  savings were huge and the warranty coverage was still very strong. I am glad I did because I was able to afford more blender than I would have if I purchased it new from Amazon or Costco–the two places that seemed to have the best prices.

You can get refurbished units in black, white or red on Amazon. I paid about  $300 for the refurbished black version of the blender. You will find that red and white are somewhat more expensive than the black ones. I am not sure why. If you search on Amazon, you will be able to see and compare new units as well as other models. BTW, here you can view the current price of a new Vitamix 5200 on Amazon.

Vitamix 5300

Vitamix 5300I urge you to also consider the Vitamix 5300 refurb (black)–it has a wider, shorter jar and uses somewhat better technology than the 5200. In fact, if I was in the market for a Vitamix right now, I would most certainly pay the extra money for this model over the 5200. More on other Vitamix models later.

The 5200 blender came in a less-fancy box than I would have gotten from purchasing it full-retail price, however I think this is where the discernible differences stopped. The box came with the blender base, a BPA-free blending jar, tamping rod, lid and a very nice color, spiral bound recipe book. The warranty is 5 years as opposed to 7 years on a new unit. I was willing to take the risk with the shorter warranty, especially because I have two friends who’ve had their blenders for years and have never had a problem.

Why I Chose a Vitamix

I have been through several blenders in the last fifteen years or so. For many years I had the difficult-to-clean, standard, wedding gift blender from Cuisinart.  This blender struggled with frozen fruits and simply couldn’t handle other kinds of concoctions such as nut butters–but the worst thing about it was having to take it apart to clean it. This made it a bit of a pain to use and so it only saw action on special occasions.  That unit was replaced by what I like to call “blender on a stick”–this type of blender was handheld, easy to clean but also rather limited. The one we have, the Cuisinart Smart Stick, cost about $40 so it wasn’t a huge investment, and all-in-all was a good until for what it could do.

I have only recently started to explore professional level blenders. My wife and I started to realize that we wanted to do much more with our blender and decided it was worth it to purchase a high-end blending machine. Alas, we did not initially select the Vitamix. We purchased a BlendTec Classic blender first. There was alot to be said for that blender, but it kept breaking on us, so eventually we returned it and went with the Vitamix. (Read more about that experience here.) I also have some experience with the Omni V line of professional blenders.

Using the Vitamix 5200

There is alot to love about the Vitamix blender. It is very capable and since it allows you to dial the appropriate speed for the job at hand, it gives you flexibility and control. The machine is very easy to clean. Simply add water and a drop or two of dishsoap and blend it clean. No need to take it apart and it only needs “extra” cleaning sometimes, for example if you used (or made!) peanut butter, it tends to stick to the sides.

My biggest complaint about the blender is that it can be difficult to get the mixture from the very bottom of the blender beneath the blades. The Omnimix (about $300) and Blendtec blenders both come standard with a wider jar which makes it easier–the above mentioned Vitamix 5300 also has a wider jar and is superior to the other brands, in my opinion. In the case of the Blendtec, there are only two blades, as opposed to four or six, which makes it even easier to scrape out the contents of the bottom of the blender jar as needed.

Note that there are other jars available for the Vitamix that appear to be easier to scrape clean, however as far as the default jar, this is an issue. Although the above-mentioned Vitamix 5300 does indeed have a wider jar, you cannot purchase that jar separately and use it on your Vitamix 6200 or other lower models. This is because the 5300 has a more powerful motor and is better able to spin the larger blade on the 5300.

 

What Can You Make With A Vitamix Blender?

We use our blender two or three times per day. We really couldn’t do without it. We use it to make smoothies, banana-based ice cream, sauces, hot soups, nut butters and more. At slow speeds it can double as a food processor. It is amazing how smooth it can make a mixture. Frozen fruits are no problem and neither are nuts, vegetables or whole fruits. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to make a hot, delicious tortilla soup with this machine. You can even use it to grind up chicken bones and meat to make a nice additive for food for your dog (look for recipes online to be sure you’re giving your pet the best, safest foods).
 
I would definitely recommend the Vitamix blenders to anyone–singles or families. Having a blender like this lead to some definite shifts in lifestyle in my family–we are eating (and drinking) incrementally better than we were before we had it. It makes you want to blend, and the results are very enjoyable.
Categories
Review Reviews

Review of Ikea Kitchen Cabinets

 

Read about my experience purchasing Ikea kitchen cabinets and getting them installed.

 

Executive Summary:  Ikea kitchen cabinets are modern, attractive and stylish…and cheaper than many of the other options. Read about the ups and downs of my experience from start to finish to help you decide if Ikea is the right option for your next kitchen.

Recently we decided it was time to update our kitchen cabinets. We were on a budget, but wanted something that would look modern and nice. We considered cabinet refacing but decided that ours weren’t in good condition at all and just needed to be replaced.  So, we measured our kitchen and the cabinets, took photographs of each one for reference and then went shopping.

Our first stop was Home Depot. We selected the cabinet style we wanted from the samples and then we were ready to setup our kitchen with one of Home Depot’s kitchen consultants. The friendly rep sat down with us and entered the measurements of our cabinets and seemed to have an impressive knowledge of kitchen. She did a great job of figuring out where there would be differences between our current cabinets and the new ones and made changes and suggestions to get everything to work to it’s optimum level. The cabinets we selected weren’t top of the line, but we thought it was a nice layout and would have purchased them. The total cost without installation was about $2,800.

Ikea Kitchen Planning and Kitchen
Measurement Service

Next we began looking into IKEA cabinets. Ikea has great looking kitchens that are modern and have lots of clever innovations. We weren’t put off by the fact that you must assemble the cabinets, although the idea of messing one up did cause me some angst. The good news is that they generally try to stock cabinets at the local Ikeas, so if something did go wrong, you could just go and buy a new one…it probably wouldn’t be a long wait for an order to come in.

There are many kitchen models in the Ikea store to give you an idea of what is possible. Since the cabinets are modular, there are many configurations. There are just tons of options, including for handles and hardware. Be prepared to spend some time shopping!

Another thing that worried me was that unless you pay for a consultant from Ikea (I think this service was about $200), you basically have to utilize their online CAD software to setup your own kitchen design. That was worrisome and challenging for me, but luckily my wife took on the task and did a great job of setting up the cabinets in the online system. If you’re wondering if you’re up for the challenge, go ahead and give it a try…the people at the store will be glad to go through the basics with you, and there are some helpful videos around as well. Again, if you can’t or if you don’t want to do this, you can just use their service (click the image to the right to see what you get with each level of service). Remember, there is some risk here–if you mismeasure your kitchen or forget some key aspect in your design, you could at least waste lots of time, and at worst have problems like a temporarily unusable kitchen while you resolve the problem and get additional parts.



Once the cabinets were in the software, I took the next step–a visit to the kitchen department in the Ikea store. I’d like to say it was a wonderful experience, and parts of it were, but really it wasn’t that great. When I arrived at the store on a Monday night, there were several people “in line” ahead of me. It was an hour and a half before the consultant saw me. She was very knowledgeable and went over the design my wife created and added some changes to make things work better for installation. We were still working on the finalizing the design when the store closed at 9pm, and that made us rush, which led to our first big issue-we ordered the wrong color counter tops. Let me explain more:

Ikea kitchen cabinet store demo unitsThe Ikea design software will pick certain defaults which are easy to forget about. Near the end of finalizing the order, I mentioned the counter-top color to the consultant. I then went over to the samples and showed her the black colored counters that we wanted. She said that was what we selected and quickly moved on since the store was closing. It turns out that wasn’t true, the counters we were about to purchase were brown, not black. I am not sure what caused the confusion, but it really turned into a huge amount of wasted time. More on that later.

Once I had agreed that all of the cabinets and counters were correct, the consultant continued the process. She basically transferred what we created into another system that calculated all the necessary parts and the pricing. I was happy that the cost was $700 cheaper than Home Depot–all told, uninstalled about $2,150… I placed the order by paying with a credit card. Unfortunately, many of the parts weren’t available from the local Ikea in College Park, Maryland, so they had to be shipped down from New Jersey. This detail further complicated the counter-top issue. I selected a day a couple weeks in the future for the truck to deliver my cabinets and left the store by 9:30pm.

I should explain that like other Ikea furniture, it is meant to be kept in stock in their warehouse. The thing you need to know is that they don’t let you just go pick it up like other furniture. You have to always deal with their consultants for kitchen-related materials. They put in the order for you, then it is picked for you and you have to wait to get it, or you can have it delivered. The point is you can’t just go into the warehouse and get it yourself. This is a layer of complication, especially given the fact that to talk to the consultants you have to walk across the store and then wait in line.

The first problem

When I got home and went over the order with my wife, we realized the counter tops were the wrong color.   I went back a few days later hoping it would be a simple matter to have them ship a different color counter-top. No, no it was not a simple matter. First of all, once again, I had to go wait in line to talk to one of the in-store consultants, this time it was about 30 minutes. They could not change the color and their remedy was to have me order a second set of counter tops and simply refuse the first set when they arrived–we would be given a refund automatically. That was well and good but unfortunately, there was a mix-up and we didn’t refuse the extra set of counter tops on the delivery date. So now I had to find a way to return 3 boxes of heavy 10 foot counter tops to the Ikea store.. Luckily my neighbor helped me take care of it–unfortunately, the line for the returns was quite long that day and it took over an hour of waiting in line to get it done. Even more unfortunately, this wasn’t my only trip returning counter-tops…

Selecting an Installer

If you won’t be installing the cabinets yourself, the easiest option is to use Traemand, Ikea’s house installer. Traemand seems to be a network of subcontractors around the country, but I am not 100% sure this is so. The people who sent me my estimate used the Traemand name but also a different name.  When you place your order for the cabinets, they can send the plans to the installers who will email you an installation estimate with options. This is convenient and possibly even a wise way to go, since all they do is install Ikea cabinets all the time. This is so because Ikea cabinets are a bit different that other brands, and not just because you have to put them together. In hindsight, I think it is very important that the installer has Ikea cabinet experience.

At any rate, the most important difference is that Ikea cabinets are hung on a rail that’s attached your wall.  This is so that they can easily be removed–in Europe when people move, they take their kitchen cabinets with them. There are other nuances too, like the fact that the handles need to be installed, holes aren’t pre-drilled though. We elected to use someone who was experienced installing kitchens but had no experience installing Ikea kitchens, and that led to a few problems. Make sure you find someone who can substantiate that they’ve recently installed Ikea kitchens. BTW, Ikea’s installers would be happy to put the cabinets together for you, but that will cost you…in our case it was something like $55/each.

Traemand sent two estimates. The first didn’t include tilework, plumbing or electric.  The second one, that came in at about $4000 and included putting the cabinets together did.  In the end we went with a contractor that did the installation for about $2000, but did not include plumbing and we didn’t really need any electrical work done.

The boxes arrived

When the cabinets arrived, there were quite a few boxes. We had ordered 9 cabinets, and the accompanying cabinet doors, fillers, handles, drawers, kickboards and rails. Putting the cabinets together wasn’t actually very difficult. Once the first one was done, the rest were just routine. As always, Ikea furniture is alot more fragile when it’s in pieces than when it’s put together. The cabinets were no exception. I think the hardest part was assembling the drawers, and it wasn’t really very difficult either. The main thing is having space to work and then a place to keep the cabinets until they’re installed.

One complaint I had is that the feet for the base cabinets are very poorly made and don’t stay attached to the cabinets when you’re moving them around. Ours kept falling off as we were moving them into place…it’s very frustrating to put them back on only to have them fall off again. Once the cabinets are secured in place, they do seem to stay put and can support weight.

Another warning is to be very careful not to ding your cabinets. We had several dings by the time they were installed and were disappointed to find out that there is no touch up paint available. Realize that these cabinets are made of particle board, not solid wood. Although this is a concern, you will find that the other cabinets that are available in this price range are also made from this material and in fact, Ikea will tell you that theirs are thicker than their competitors such as

The Installation

On installation day, the crew arrived and it was quickly apparent that they hadn’t installed Ikea cabinets before. They did a pretty good job after all was said and done but things would have gone more smoothly if they had done them before.  One thing that put a wrench in the day was the realization that since Ikea’s counters had no back-splash built into them, we would be better off getting some custom made which had them instead. Ikea’s counter tops are flat, and our previous counters did have three inches of back-splash.

The reason this was an issue is that we were not planning to redo our tile on the wall behind the counter…without the back-splash, the areas which had no tile would be exposed and there was nothing to cover them. Since our house was built in 1985 there was little hope of finding matching tiles to fix the problem, so it was just easier to get different counter tops…the laminate counter tops I had made were about $500 more expensive than Ikea’s and I also now had to return another set of counter tops to Ikea. The custom counter tops took about a week to get, so that meant a longer period of time without a usable kitchen. Quite a pain.

The Returns

Ikea is pretty good about returns overall. As long as you return stuff within 90 days, they’ll take it back. I made several return runs, and had varying levels of satisfaction with it. The main issue was wait times. One time I waited well over an hour to return counter-tops because there was only one person taking returns on a Saturday night. On the other hand one of the return visits there was no line at all.

 

Categories
Food Reviews

Review of Instant Pot Pressure Cooker 7-in-1 model IP-DUO60

We do alot of cooking with pressure cookers in my family.  We’ve been through several. Prior to purchasing the Instant Pot (aka Instapot), we had both more traditional stove-top pressure cookers and most recently a Cuisinart digital pressure cooker.

In fact, we were fairly happy with the Cuisinart cooker.  It did a great job and it has lasted for several years.  We still have it and use it when we need to cook two things at the same time.  Having said that, we are absolutely thrilled with our 8-in-1 pressure cooker from Instant Pot.

We use it constantly.  Especially on the weekends you may find us using it for one thing after the next.  We love the fact that it can be used for so many different purposes.  We use it to make cheese and yogurt.  We cook rice and lentils, soups and sauces.  The fact that it can double as a slow cooker has been amazing–we use that for any number of the usual slow cooker meals.

If you’ve never had a pressure cooker before, you may not even realize how great they are. I’d say this appliance is a must for a family that cooks fresh foods at home. They can cook foods that would typically take a long time with traditional cooking in fractions of the time.  For example, they make cooking rice a much shorter task–it only takes a few minutes to cook basmati or whole grain rice.

We are a big fan of Indian foods, so we use it to cook staples such as dahl or lentils.  Recently I made a meal by putting in frozen vegetables, raw pasta and frozen chicken along with some pasta sauce.  The whole thing was cooked and ready to go in 30 minutes.

The Instant Pot 7 in 1 does much more than 7 things.
Slow Cooker– Really useful…if you’ve owned a slow cooker before, there isn’t much difference between this and other good quality slow cookers–it is just very convenient to have this option built in.  This one will slow cook for up to 20 hours.

Pressure Cooker– You can cook with either high or low pressure.  High pressure cooking cooks foods up to 70% faster than regular cooking.  Low pressure also speeds up cooking but is used for more delicate foods that might not do well under high pressure.

Yogurt Maker– We use our Instant Pot weekly to make home made yogurt.  Typically we purchase organic milk at Costco and then add whatever’s left of this week’s yogurt to the milk to make next week’s.  The microprocessor takes care of keeping everything at the right temperature for excellent yogurt. We also use this cycle to make farmer’s cheese.

Rice cooker – The rice cooker is great. Much faster and very effective at making perfect rice each and every time.  If you eat lots of rice, than you’ll be spending lots of time using this mode.

Browner/Sauteer-This is useful when you need to brown or saute before you pressure cook.  For example some people like to brown their rice before cooking it, or for example for Italian cooking you may want to saute some garlic in oil before you add other ingredients for pressur cooking.

Warmer – This is more useful than it sounds, but mainly we use it to keep our creations warm until we’re ready to eat them.

It has a few pre-programmed cycles including:
– Soup
– Meat/Stew
– Chili
– Poultry
– Rice
– Multigrain
– Porridge
– Steam

If you are concerned that pressure cookers are dangerous, not to worry.  Modern digital pressure cookers are very safe and easy to use.  This model has several levels of safeguards against the kinds of explosions or burns that you may have heard about from pressure cookers of days gone by.  It is also Underwriters Labs listed and fairly energy efficient even though it is a 1,000 watt device.

One safety aspect that isn’t often considered is the composition of the cooking pot.  The Instant Pot uses stainless steel rather than teflon, which I think is a huge plus.  Our Cuisinart pressure cooker has a teflon pot and that concerns me–especially at high temperatures reached by such a cooker you have to be somewhat concerned about off gassing (this is particularly of concern if you have pet birds in your house as teflon gas is deadly to parrots, etc)

Your Instant Pot might come with a rice paddle, measuring cup and soup spoon.  All three of these are pretty much perfect for the recycling bin.  I am not sure why they bother to include them.  There is also a steamer rack.  This one could also be improved, but at least it does prove to be useful at times.

By the way, if you have it in the budget, Instant Pot’s latest “Instant Pot Smart” models include WiFi technology.  The upshot is that it allows you to use your iPhone or iPad to setup cooking and to monitor it.  I definitely like the idea of this but I didn’t think it was worth an extra $100.

Looking for other great kitchen appliances? Check out my Juicepresso review and my review of the Vitamix blender.

Categories
Blenders Featured Food Nutrition Review Reviews

Blendtec Blender Review-The Blendtec 570 from Costco

BlendTec 570 TB621 Blender from Costco

Summary: This is a review of the Blendtec blender sold in Costco (TB621 USCOST) currently being sold for $319.  Although we loved this machine when it was working, we managed to break ours 3 times in two months through just normal use. On the third time, it broke we just returned it.

Read on for information about alternatives to this blender and why we were so sad to see it go!

If you’re considering a Blendtec Blender, you may want to avoid this blender and instead go for a different Total Blender model instead (Available on Amazon new or refurbished  – Refurbished units tend to be almost as good as new, and obviously cheaper!) or the 475 (refurbished).

As you’ll read below, there is alot to like about Blendtec:

  • It is a popular brand of professional and prosumer blender
  • It’s somewhat cheaper than its nearest competitor, Vitamix
  • The blade configuration is great — makes scraping the bottom of the container very easy
  • Customer service is very good
  • Long warranties on its containers and base


We Went With Blendtec

In spite of the problems I’ll describe below, we really loved having the blender. Most of the time it did its job–and did it stunningly well. You’ll want to check Amazon for deals on refurbished BlendTec blenders (subject to availability). (In case you opt for a Vitamix, there are also factory reconditioned Vitamixes to be had on Amazon as well). Although I wouldn’t recommend the model we got, I am mostly convinced that Blendtec is a venerable blender company. They seem to have some quality issues with these Blenders. I suspect if you go with a different model, you will have better luck.

There is alot to like about Blendtec, and they definitely are the blender of choice in professional settings, so I would say that instead, you may want to consider the similar Blendtec Total Blender instead.

Below is the whole of my family’s experience using the Blendtec including the times it failed.

Comparing Vitamix and Other Blenders to the Blendtec

Before the purchase we looked at the other options both from Blendtec and other blender makers. We also considered:

Having said that though, there were three factors that made us go for the Blendtec:

  • Price–in general the Vitamixes were between somewhat more expensive to way more expensive depending on the one you’re talking about–we were specifically comparing the Vitamix 5200 (Refurbished).  This was an issue for us because we never had a high-end blender before and wanted to make sure we were really going to use it (spoiler alert–we use it constantly) before going for the best one made.
  • Size –the  height of the VitaMix vs. the BlendTec blenders.  You might not notice it as much in the store but the older VitaMix blenders are H-U-G-E. (There is a newer model which is shorter and wider…and highly recommended–here is a link to the refurbished 5300)Yes, you can purchase a smaller jar separately and that makes it more likely it will fit under your counter and in your sink/dishwasher, but once again, we were kind of interested in getting into the market on the cheaper side, so we weren’t really big on immediately spending money on a new jar after having made the investment in an expensive blender we weren’t sure we’d use that often. (Another spoiler alert–we liked the Blendtec so much and used it so often (2-3 times/day) that we did buy a second kind of blender container to do nut butters–the “twister jar”)
  • Technology–as far as creating awesome blenders that blend things as advertised, both companies do that well. On the other hand, if you want fancier settings, you’ll probably go with the Blendtec line. Vitamix is known for old fashioned knobs and dials. The Blendtec blenders have modern buttons and digital displays.
  • Power–the Blendtec has a three horsepower motor, while the Vitamix blenders have two horsepower motors. We thought this could make a difference, but really, now that I’ve had both, I would say it really doesn’t matter.

If you read reviews and discussions about Blentec vs. Vitamix you’ll find many similarities.  One important similarity is that both have long warranties of seven or eight years.  As I’ll explain later, I already tried out the warranty on the Blendtec and had pretty good results. The warranties cover the motor as well as the blending jars.  Really you should expect your blender to last for many many years.  Both have the ability to blend a variety of things and do so at very high speeds.  Both have accessories available, especially in the form of different kinds of jars.  One difference is that the Vitamix has sharp blades, while the Blendtec blades are dull and resemble the wings of a jet.  Both work very well.

Another difference is that  the Vitamix lid has a tamping rod–in fact I’d say that the tamping rod is one of the hallmarks of the Vitamix blenders  The Blendtec doesn’t have this–the Blendtec salespeople would say that just don’t need it because their jars are shaped better to make it not necessary…I can tell you that sometimes it would have been nice to have one, but most of the time you don’t need it.

The times we did need something to push food into the blades were mainly related to frozen fruits–particularly strawberries that would get stuck and there was nothing you could do but open the blender and try to move the offending item away from the blade so that it could once again spin through the mix–something that isn’t easy to do when you have a blender full of smoothie.

BlendTec blade
BlendTec’s Blade. It’s one piece and
it isn’t sharp. Very impressive.

As it turns out, the shape of the jars and blades is really important for several reasons. It clearly makes a different to the performance of the blender. This is why both Blendtec and Vitamix sell more than one type of blending container. But there is something else that you should know–now that I have used both blenders I can tell you that the WildSide jar from Blendtec is WAYYYYY easier to get stuff from the bottom of than the Vitamix.

The WildSide jar is wide, plus there are only two blades to get around.  It can be very difficult to get thick mixtures from beneath the blades of the Vitamix–and this leads to waste. The problem is that the Vitamix blenders have four relatively sharp blades instead of two (see the illustration, it is really just a dull, but effective, one piece blade) and the Vitamix default jar is more narrow at the bottom. This allows for things to get “stuck” beneath the mixing blades. When this happens, I sometimes wish for a BlendTec again, but I have a very long rubber spatula that helps.

A couple of more things to compare: The manual that came with the Blendtec is not even close to what came with the Vitamix. Vitamix wins hands-down on this front. They give you a full color, spiral bound, thick recipe book that really makes you want to use that machine. Blendtec does give you a few recipes and you won’t wonder how to work the machine itself (it’s mostly self-explanatory anyway), but the Blendtec folks are skimping on the recipe-book compared to Vitamix.

Having said that, you can get great recipes from their website, and there are certainly plenty of recipes all over the internet meant specifically for Blendtec blenders. I still subscribe to the Blendtec email list–I find tempting recipes in my inbox every week.

One more point worth mentioning is the noise level. Let me put it this way: whether you purchase a Blendtec or a Vitamix, you will NOT be able to keep your blending a secret. Both blenders are loud, in fact, really l o u d in my opinion. Blending isn’t a delicate operation. There is going to be noise. The results are worth it.

Make delicious smoothies with your blendtec blender

Using the Blendtec  Blender

When we got our blender home we immediately started making all sorts of great foods, especially healthy smoothies.  We used it 50 times in a few days (there is a counter that tells you how much you use it). We were truly amazed out how smooth the smoothies were and how it could turn any fruit, grain, nut, meat or vegetable, frozen or fresh into something smooth. Our kids loved all the great smoothies we were turning out. We stocked up on plenty of organic frozen fruits and berries at Costco including: frozen cherries, frozen blueberries, antioxidant mix with various berries, pineapple (not organic), and strawberries (also not organic).  We also got a container of baby spinach and other nutritious non-frozen vegetables and fruits.

Smoothies weren’t the only thing we made.  We also tried other things such as hummus and soups.  The soup setting on the blender relies on friction to heat the soup.  This is a great way to make a delicious soup and will compete with our beloved Instant pot pressure cooker.  We also made pancakes, dips, guacamole, and breads.

Uh, Oh, Something’s Not Right

We’re not sure what went wrong, but after a few weeks of use our blender started vibrating severely.  We called Blendtec’s support line and they helped us determine that something had gone wrong with the jar’s bearings.  They gave us some advice on how to care for the jar so this wouldn’t happen and then mailed us a brand new jar for free.  We honestly aren’t sure if there was something we did wrong to break the first jar or if it was defective, but the kind woman who was helping me get the replacement gave me a few tips:

1) Don’t press down hard on the top of the jar while the blender is working–this will stress the seal and could lead to a breakdown like the one we had.  This is harder than it sounds because for some reason, the natural thing to do is to put pressure on the top of the jar while it’s blending. (On the Vitamix this doesn’t seem to be an issue as just the act of using the tamping rod is going to push down on your blender).

2) Load liquids at the bottom of the jar (first), then put in veggies and finally put frozen things at the top.  This reduces the possibility of the blades getting stuck on fruit that might have frozen together while you were loading the rest of things into the jar.

The replacement jar arrived and we were back in business.  We happily blended away for the next few days when suddenly we realized that the small screen that counts blend time in seconds and tells you how many times the blender has been used, stopped working.  So, I was back on the phone with BlendTec and they apologized and sent me a new base.  It arrived in about a week and I just used the free shipping label to send back the original base.  I was hopeful that I would not have any more problems. Unfortunately I was wrong.

I hate to keep you in suspense, so I’ll tell you now what went wrong, even though it’s a bit out of order:  We were using the soup cycle one day and started smelling a strong burning smell.  Something went wrong with the base again.  I decided I wasn’t going to call Blendtec again, so instead I just returned the whole thing for a refund at Costco.  They gave me no trouble about it and issued me a store credit.  I will use that for groceries and plan to buy a refurbished Vitamix  on Amazon instead.

Since I still want you to know about the rest of my experience with this blender, I urge you to read on anyway in case.  Again, I think there was alot to like about the Blendtec blender, so perhaps if you’re considering one you’ll take your chances with the 570 or you may have better luck with another Blendtec model.

Some More Things We Loved About Our Blendtec

Cleaning the blender is a breeze–way easier than one of those lower priced models that you have to take apart to wash.  With the  BlendTec blenders, all you have to do is to wash out the jar.  The quickest way to do that is to add water and a squirt of dish soap and do a quick blend.  Then rinse that out and blend again with just some water.

Since we were so happy with our blender and used it so much we decided to purchase an additional jar that works better with dry ingredients.  We already had the Wildside+ jar–the one that came with the blender, but it does have some limitations–the one in question here has to do with turning out nut butters such as homemade peanut butter, almond butter or cashew butter. The Wildside+ jar that comes with the blender definitely will have some trouble making nut butters.  You may not have had any idea how taxing it is for a blender to make this kind of thing, but I can tell you it really is.  You will find that the WildSide+ jar will stall trying to deal with the thick goo.

On the other hand, the Twister jar (and mini Twister jar) makes churning out peanut butter much easier.  This jar is shaped a bit different and its lid basically has two scrapers attached to it that run the whole length of the jar. While you’re making nut butters you twist the lid by hand to keep everything moving in the jar.  It works well.  It is also great for making frozen yogurt and improves the process of making hummus, but that works pretty well in the WildSide+ jar anyway.

There are two versions of the Twister Jar–the regular size and the mini.  We opted for the Mini because it was cheaper and we felt that it would be easier to store. Plus we didn’t think we’d ever want to make large quantities of nut butters that would be enabled by the full size jar.

As it turns out, we probably could find some use for the larger jar, but we were mostly happy with the small one.  The only issue I noticed is that when you’re making frozen yogurt with it, you need to be careful not to overload it, because it can potentially make a mess if it overflows–has happened to us a couple of times now.

By the way, there are a couple of other jars that I am aware of–there is the Fourside jar, which is also a general purpose jar but smaller than the WildSide+ jar and then there are couple of jars that are compatible with the VitaMix line.  Because of the reasons I stated above, I could imagine actually purchasing a BlendTec container for my Vitamix–remember the blades are part of the container with these blenders.  It is worth noting that the blending jars that are sold separately come with a 3 year warranty.

This is Just Cool

For some fun, have a look at the BlendTec YouTube channel–particularly at the “Will It Blend” video series.  The mini-show features a man and a blender that is used to blend anything from a garden rake or office supplies to an iPhone 6.  You’ll be amazed.

Which blender do you own?  Leave comments below.

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Childrens' Birthday Parties gifted and talented kids activities Kids Birthday Parties

Experiences Instead of Birthday Gifts Ideas for 6, 7 and 8 year-olds

Six and Seven Year Old Kids birthday gift ideas

Figuring out what to get a six, seven or 8 year old for their birthday (or for the Christmas/Hanukkah holidays) can be tricky.  So much depends on your budget and the child’s interests, but coming up with the perfect present isn’t easy.

Educational gifts like these(!) are a good idea, especially the ones that require participation with a parent or friend… but I always try to recommend that people look for experiences to combine with the gift, whatever it is.  I say this because even though children are used to expecting a tangible present, there is no better gift than their parents’ time.  Furthermore, if there is a birthday party with friends and family involved, they are bound to get their share of typical presents anyway.

A great example would be to take them to a children’s theater and see a play.  Then think of a gift that would coincide with the play’s theme or topic and get them something to go with that.  So for instance,  Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland often presents plays  that are based on children’s books –you could take your child to see the play and then present him or her with a copy of the book (or for a larger budget, perhaps a copy of the book on their new Kindle Fire Tablet).

It’s really the experience that they’ll always remember, and that’s why it is important to think about birthday presents this way.

Other experience ideas could be:

Ticket for birthday fun

– Tickets to a baseball, hockey or football game.

– A special sports lesson, maybe one that even includes mom or dad.  This could maybe be in the form of a mother and son tennis lesson perhaps with a new tennis racket to go with it. Or how about a father-daughter horseback riding lesson?

– Heading out to the coast and going on a whale watching boat ride for the day.

– Adopt a species or specific animal at the zoo.  Many local zoos have programs like this, but for example here is the program offered by the National Zoo in Washington DC.  When you adopt they send you a plush animal, certificate and photo.

– A year long membership to the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  This is a gift that will keep giving experiences for long after the birthday is over.

– Spa day.  Again, this depends on the budget, but could be a really nice way for a parent and their kid to spend quality time together.

– Go on an outdoor/nature day trip.  This could be whitewater rafting, geocaching or a visit to an aerial adventure place.  For example in Maryland, you could go to Terrapin Adventures in Savage Mill – a crazy, high-flying, zip-lining good time your kid won’t forget anytime soon.

– Find a great class that you can take together.  There are so many examples, and some of them are more far-flung than others…for instance there is a trapeze school in Washington DC, how about a photography class together or you could learn to knit with your child: There are many ways to learn.  Have a look at Wool and the Gang–they offer kits to knit particular items.  You could also take lessons together at a craft store, for instance Michael’s occasionally offers knitting lessons.

pottery stop - paint pottery for a birthday experience

– Do another kind of craft together–either at home or elsewhere.  For example, The Pottery Stop in Ellicott City is a place where you and your child can select a plate, mug or other ceramic item and paint it while having snacks. There’s also a great place on Main Street in Annapolis called Clay Bakers.

– Instead of a gift per se, pick a charity to support with your child.  One wonderful family that I know of selected the Linus Project–a group that makes blankets for  homeless and hospitalized children.  Instead of people bringing gifts for the child they brought blanket making materials to the birthday party.  What a great way to teach a child compassion and a sense of pride in helping others–actually this extends to all the party guests and their parents.  What an especially a great idea if your family has enough “stuff”.  Why not give back?

Other ideas for presents

There are so many kinds of gifts to choose from…and again, it really depends on the kinds of things your child likes to do.  Here are a few more ideas for items that have done well in my household–I also have written a whole post on gift ideas for brainy kids (opens in a new window)–and really every kid is a brainy kid if the present is aligned with their interests–so definitely check out that post for a huge list of learning-enabled toys and gadgets.

My only guidelines would be to try to stay away from gifts that track or pigeonhole your kid.  This is especially true for girls.  Stay out of the “pink aisle” at Toys-R-Us if possible.  I would even suggest that if you wouldn’t get the gift for a boy, don’t get it for a girl either.  There are exceptions to this of course, again, this is especially true if your girl really loves to do hair or something like that, but I am just saying don’t quietly force them in that direction by thinking pink.  Instead spend money on things that really help prepare the kids for the future and don’t just waste time.

– Microscope: A good microscope such as the AmScope SE306R can be great fun for any child and can really open doors for them in science.   Microscopes help kids of all ages understand the world around them better and get them to ask questions and think like scientist.

If you decide to go this route and you can afford it, look for something better than the ones that are offered in the $20-30 dollar range if possible.  Although these are a good start, they will very quickly become a disappointment for kids who are really interested in them.  They tend to have poor quality lenses and poor quality lights making for a dismal experience beyond the basics.

The better ones tend to be more than $100 (and if you get really fancy, alot more than that).  The AmScope SE306R is still rather pricey, but for the features and functionality, that’s a pretty good price.  Most kids are curious–if it “really” works, they’ll think of many occasions to use it.

microscope magnified penny

Another great microscope that is especially good for younger kids (4-8+) is the Celestron InfiniView.  We have this microscope and it is so much fun.  It is more for looking “at” things up close rather than looking “through” them.  It has a stage that you can put objects on and then magnify them onto the LCD screen or your computer.  You can then take shots of what you see-for example to the left is a photo of a penny I had handy as I was writing this.  My girls LOVE this microscope.

– A Kindle: My kids read alot and they really love their ebook reader and checking out free ebooks from the library.  These are great presents and can be convenient for travel and medium-long drives.  Many of the public libraries now offer free downloadable eBooks for kids.

From the comfort of home you can get many great books from websites like Overdrive.com or Axis360. Check with your library to see if they offer free access.  Both Axis360 and Overdrive allow you to download 6 books at a time and you don’t have to worry about overdue fees because after the allotted checkout time, they just go back automatically.

You might also look into the Kindle Unlimited Program-unlimited book downloads for $9.99/month–sort of like Netflix for books. One thing to note is that you may elect to get a Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook that also acts as a tablet computer.  This can be a great idea or a bad one depending on your point of view.  Many times the book reading aspect of the tablet is forgotten in favor of video games…which isn’t that great.  On the other hand, tablets can be a boon to research and can be used for educational games and such.  (Some kids might even want to try to write their own apps for it using the MIT App Inventor program.)

butterfly kits for birthday present

– Insect pets: If the birthday is in spring or summer, a bug catcher kit can be loads of fun and educational.  You could also consider getting a Ladybug or butterfly kit.  These can be purchased from Amazon and typically come with coupons that let you order the insects online or by mail.  In other words, they’ll send your child caterpillars or the creatures that will eventually become ladybugs so they can watch them change and grow.  When they become adults they can be safely set free in the wild.

For more gift ideas, see my post about gift ideas for advanced kids.  Also, here are some related posts if you need ideas for where to have a birthday party or need party favor ideas.

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Recommendations

Why We Shop At Costco – Costco Review Part 2

 

This is Part 2 of My Review of Costco Food Warehouse
Don’t Miss Part 1 of my review.

As I was saying in part 1 of my review, there are plenty of things to like about shopping at Costco.  Here are some more great things:

Electronics at Costco

Savings on Electronics at Costco

As far as electronics–Costco has all sorts of great stuff.  Cameras, TVs, computers, tablets, phones and accessories like flash drives and portable harddrives.  They occasionally have other electronics, like for a while around Christmas, they sold the  Parrot AR Drone helicopter.

If you’re just shopping by price, you might not realize that you’re looking at a bargain.  Generally Costco gives you much more for your money than you would get from Amazon or some other retailer for about the same price.  For instance if you bought an SLR camera from Costco such as the nice Canon Rebel DSLR or Nikon D5300 that they sell, the price might be about the same as elsewhere.  The difference is that your purchase might, for example, come bundled with a case, an extra lens and a memory card that you’d have to buy separately at some other venue.  Again you  never know when the electronic device you saw at Costco will disappear, so if you see it, get it while you can (you can always return it).

Print Your Photographs at Costco

Costco Photo Low-Cost Print Prices
Cost of prints at Costco 1 hour photo

Speaking of cameras, photo printing at Costco is very cheap.  One hour photos of all sizes are available.  You’d be shocked to know you can buy a nice quality 20×30 poster for $8.99.  Regular sized photo prints (4×6) are 13 cents.  8x10s are $1.49 cents. You can upload your photos on the Costco website or even just use a machine right at the photo area in Costco. When you order online you can choose to print them at your local Costco or they will mail them for a fairly reasonable shipping rate.

PRO TIP:   If you are a professional or prosumer photographer who uses Photoshop or Fireworks or gimp to resize your photos and edit them, the chart to the right below will come in handy for knowing the right dimensions for your pictures so you don’t have to be concerned about cropping.

Costco also offers photobooks and other alternatives to paper prints.  You’ll have to order them and wait for them to be sent though–no one hour photobooks.  Costco’s photo center also offers ink jet print cartridge refills.  This is a good deal at less than $10 per refill when you compare it to the cost of purchasing a new ink jet cartridge.

Costco photo image dimensions for photographers resizing their photos

The Food Court at Costco

If you’re looking for healthy food, you won’t find much of that at the Costco food court.  You will definitely find unusually low-cost food, and in the genres of food offered, you’ll find it to be of good quality.   I hope Costco will improve on this by offering high quality, healthier options.

Probably the most popular offering is the $1.50 beef hot dog and drink combination…or maybe the huge $1.99 slice of pizza is most popular   (I believe whole pizzas-also huge-are $9.99)  As pizza goes, they use a generous amount of cheese and toppings and give you an extra large slice.   I don’t know what ingredients they use, but probably better quality than standard pizza places.  Nevertheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re using genetically modified ingredients.  Probably the healthiest thing they offer is the chicken Cesar salad…but even that has the caveat of being a relatively high calorie item when you factor in the portion size and salad dressing.

For dessert you will find churros and frozen yogurt.  Again, these are priced very fairly

PRO TIP: If you want to save some time and you know what you were going to order, you can just tell the cashier when you checkout with your food and regular items. You’ll then just show your receipt to the cashier at the food court.

PRO TIP: If you plan to take your pizza to go, you are going to likely find out that the only way to get a box is to order an entire pizza.  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with a paper plate and a tin foil covering…not a great situation.  On the other hand, since whole pizzas a so cheap if you’re getting more than 2 slices, it might just be worth it to get an entire pizza instead.

Clothes at Costco

Kirkland Men's Jeans from Costco

Costco sells a variety of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing.  Their offerings include dress shirts, jeans, athletic shoes, underwear, t-shirts, camisoles and dresses.  They also offer seasonal clothing and accessories such as Halloween costumes and sun hats in the summer. As with everything at Costco, brands and specific offerings come and go, but I have recently seen Docker pants and shorts and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, for example.  They also tend to offer the Kirkland brands.  For instance in the photo they are selling men’s Kirkland jeans for $13.99 in a variety of sizes.  They also have Kirkland men’s athletic shoes for $16.99.

Costco Pet Foods and Pet Supplies

Costco Kirkland Brand Premium Cat Food

Costco offers dog and cat food as well as some occasional pet supplies such as dog beds, heart worm medicine and chew toys.  Brands will vary but for instance they have Fancy Feast cat food and the Kirkland brand dog food/cat foods.  Buying pet foods in bulk is clearly cost effective.  Pictured is 25 pounds of Kirkland premium cat food for $18.69 cents.  So for about 75 cents/pound you get some pretty decent cat food.  Obviously, you’ll need to have a place to store such a big bag of food but many people keep in in their garage or some other out-of-the-way place and then just scoop it into a smaller container that they keep handy.  BTW, I have also seem some pretty cool crafts made out of the huge/sturdy bags these foods come in.  They also sell a 42 pound bag of Scoop Away brand kitty litter, cat toys, and dog toys. I don’t have dogs, but I have been told that the dog food product seems to be better than average and is well liked by my friend’s dog.

They also offer bulk bird seed.

Tires at Costco

There are some fantastic deals on tires from Costco. They’re installed and included nitrogen fill, rotation, and road hazard insurance. The price offsets the inconvenience of the tire service there. I love the tires, I love the price, but the last 3 out 4 times I’ve been there recently, I’ve waited in line over half an hour (one time close to a full hour) to drop off or pick up my car.

It’s absurd sometimes–for instance the last time I was there I spent 36 minutes behind 1 person who just couldn’t decide whether to get 4 tires or 2, going over every possible scenario of tire rotations, etc. Meanwhile the one sales rep on duty (I’ve only ever seen one person working at the counter there at once) indulges the customer without any care at all for the line forming behind us. When it was my turn it took him less than 30 seconds to hand me my keys so I could be on my way. This is pathetic service Costco. Absolutely pathetic consider this is not a 1-time affair. On the other hand, the price for the tires was very good, and the actual workmanship seems fine. You should note that it may take upwards of 2 to 4 hours to get the tires put on depending on the line behind you, so you’ll want to have someone to pickup and dropoff. You may or may not be able to set a specific appointment time at your local Costco (but even if you have an appointment, you’re still going to be standing in that line!)

PRO TIP: Double check the tire center hours. At our Costco in Columbia, Md, the tire center opens at 7am–way before the actual warehouse opens, 7 days a week. Most people think the hours are the same as the warehouse, so if you get there early in the morning you may be able to avoid some wait time both for purchasing the tires and for having them put on.

Costco Pharmacy

Costco pharmacy with view of toothpase brands availableBy all accounts, Costco’s pharmacy is the way to go for any and all medications. Their generic brands are exceedingly cheap, and the service is quite good–they even offer the ability to refill your prescriptions by mail–you can order them online. Most locations have a pharmacy, and in fact, in many states (as required by law) you don’t even need to be a Costco member to use the Pharmacy. You can view the base-price for some prescriptions using their online drug information and pricing tool (you would have to know your insurance company’s policies to know how much you would actually pay if you are using insurance–they don’t give pricing for all prescriptions). They also have a special program Costco members can join to get even lower prices on medications. BTW, they also offer flu shots.

Gift Cards At Costco

Gift card aisle at Costco in Columbia Maryland

Aside from gift cards for Costco itself (which can be used to purchase products or memberships). Costco offers a wide variety of discounted gift cards.  Available cards vary from month to month and tend to come with decent cost savings-typically about 20% off the face value of the card.  These include restaurants, entertainment and sporting venues.  Examples would be $60 for $100 worth of gift cards to Portalli’s – a local restaurant.  I have also seen gift cards to Starbucks, ski resorts, amusement parks, movie theaters, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, McCormick and Schmick (two $50 gift cards for $79.99), Bertucci’s and Cirque de Soleil ($200 for $159.99).

Costco Travel and Service Discounts

Costco offers discounts on travel and other kinds of services.  This includes things like gutter installation, air conditioners, high end water filters, counter tops, flooring and credit card processing for businesses. I have used the Costco travel, and I can say that they do offer great service and competitive pricing. For example, we got a great deal on a hotel and tickets to Universal Studios Orlando. You can book your travel yourself, but Costco has travel agents that are very helpful.

More on Why We Shop at Costco

As I’ve been saying, there is plenty to like about the available products and savings from shopping at a Costco store, but don’t forget about Costco.com...there are plenty of interesting things to buy there…everything from glassware to coffins for a funeral (apparently they can deliver them quickly to a funeral home and the funeral home is required to let you use it–who knew–just note that it is likely the funeral home will charge you a handling fee and often these are exorbitant because of course they want you to buy a more expensive one from them.).

I have seen many times that Costco makes virtually no money on the products it sells.  They do have some markup–probably about 10% over what Costco pays, but by the time they pay their expenses, that money is gone.  Where they do make money is from membership fees.

When I compare Costco to Sams, I would say that there is quite a bit in common.  The man who came up with Costo was originally the founder of Price Club–so he sort of started the wholesale warehouse business.  In general I would say that Costco tends to have healthier foods available. Prices seem to be very comparable though.  I haven’t got any experience at all with BJs, but I do have family members who love that place.

Yet another great reason to love Costco is that its employees make much more than minimum wage and they get some benefits.  The average employee at Costco makes over $20/hour.  This isn’t common in the big stores, so it is great that they treat their employees well.  They also tend to hire within–meaning that many of their managers started off working at cash registers and stocking the shelves.

Need to know how to become a member of Costco?  That’s easy–just walk in through the door marked “EXIT” and go up to the customer service desk.  Aside from the above mentioned $110 executive membership, there is also the regular membership that costs $55.  They will give you information, a current costco coupon book and of course two Costco Store membership cards.  (They require that each card recipient be there to have their picture taken–if both parties can’t be there, you can always give them the name of the second person who can come by Costco at their leisure to get their card.) Don’t forget about the Citi Visa Credit Card when you join–makes good deals even better.

Costco Coupon Book Sample

BTW, you’ll look forward to receiving Costco coupon books in the mail.  Most of the discounts are taken in store and don’t actually require you to clip a coupon.  The coupons are also available on the Costco Website.  Note that there are also certain products that you can get in the stores that come with instant rebates that may not be mentioned in these coupon books.  Also, there are certain things that are seemingly always on sale such as vitamins, mobile phones and tires.

Shopping at Costco has been a great way to get quality foods and other merchandise while saving money.  For other easy money saving ideas, see my other posts in this series: Changing your electricity ProviderDitching Your Home PhoneChanging Your Mobile Phone Provider and Getting rid of cable TV and instead getting your television shows over the internet.

Don’t Miss Part 1 of my Costco review.


Categories
Featured Food Nutrition Recommendations Review Reviews Save Money

Why We Shop At Costco – Costco Review Part 1

Organic Blue Agave from Costco
Costco sells two 36 ounce bottles of Organic Blue Agave
for $9.89

Easy Ways to Save Money: Shop at Costco

This is part 1 of my review of Costco. [Don’t miss Part 2 here]

I know this may seem a little off-topic for this blog, but I think there are still many families who haven’t discovered the joys of shopping at bulk food warehouse stores.

Many people are turned off by the membership fees or think they just don’t need a huge box of this or that.  I submit that if you have a family of 3 or more, you should definitely look more closely–even couples can offset the membership fees with a few purchases.

The cost savings on many items is drastic and although the selection can be limited, there are other factors that offset this such as higher quality of available items and even environmental benefits of buying bulk.

Example of cost savings.  Today I purchased 40 Duracell AA batteries for about $13.   On Amazon.com, they offer a 48 pack of Duracell batteries  for much more.

In a typical grocery store, you cannot buy this quantity of batteries at all.  Instead you’d buy maybe 12 batteries per package at most and they might cost you $11.  It is a huge difference.

Many folks might say, “yeah, but what am I going to do with all those batteries?” but in this case, Duracell guarantees their batteries to be usable for 10 years…so as long as you have a safe place to store them, this is a fantastic deal.

Membership at the Costco Warehouse

I really like Costco.  Generally speaking the shopping experience is good, although I admit that sometimes it is so crowded that you feel like you could be mowed down at any moment by a wave of oversize shopping carts.

I have the executive membership that is currently priced at $110.  One of the benefits of the executive membership is that you get 2% cash back on your purchases.  So that means that if you buy $5500 worth of products there, you will make your money back on the membership purchase.

That might seem like alot ,but over a year’s time it could easily add up–especially if you purchase any of the many non-food items such as electronics, appliances, home and garden, furniture and much more (especially if you count what you can buy on costco.com).  There is also a regular membership that costs about half as much.

With your membership you get two membership cards, meant for two people who live together from the same family.  You need to present the card whenever you pay and when you enter the store. (You might be able to get away with going in on a membership with a friend who doesn’t live with you, but it is against their policy and only one of you will get their monthly coupon mailings.)

Below is my full, 2-part review of Costco. I will try to include as many of the aspects of the store as I can, starting with their Visa Credit Card.

The Costco Visa Credit Card

As of June 2016, Costco no longer takes American Express, they have switched over to Visa which means you can use any Visa credit card at their stores. You can also use a Visa or Mastercard debit card to make purchases there. However, if you’re a long-term Costco member, you should definitely consider getting yourself a Costco Visa from Citi. It is a fantastic deal, especially if you are careful to pay it off each month before interest kicks in.

The card gives you additional cash back on Costco purchases (see below) plus has other great features and benefits.

The cash back comes in the form of a check that can only be redeemed at Costco (for products or cash), but if you’re an avid Costco shopper, then it’s all the better. At this writing the interest rate is about 15.5%. You can apply online.

The features you get with the card beyond the cash back make it even more worthwhile. Here are a few of the reasons I think this is such a great card:

  • As mentioned above, you get 4% cash back on gasoline purchases from any gas station (There is a limit of I think $7,000 worth of gas, and then it goes down to 1% cash back).
  • You get 3% cash back on qualified travel and restaurant purchases.
  • You get 2% cash back on all purchases from Costco
  • You get 1% cash back on everything else

Cash back comes in the form of a voucher that is emailed to you or mailed on paper that can be used to make purchases at Costco or redeemed for cash. This really works fine for my family and I since we shop there so often. But there are also other benefits, all of which have various caveats, that make me think they may or may not work for real-life situations, but anyway, they exist, so here are some of them:

  • Travel insurance / Trip cancellation insurance
  • Rental car insurance
  • Extended warranties that include thefts and other losses

I am pretty sure this is one of the best credit card deals you can get at the moment. I highly recommend checking into it.

The “Green” of Costco – Organic and Environmentally Friendly Offerings

As I mentioned earlier there are a few reasons why shopping at Costco is good for the environment.  First of all, buying bulk items typically means reduced amounts of packaging.  Although this hasn’t held true for some items, usually you are buying much bigger amounts of an item so less packing material is needed.

Secondly, Costco offers quite a large variety of natural, fair trade and organic items.  A good example is their house brand of chocolate chips which they sell for the price of $6.99 for 3.5 pounds.  These chocolate chips contain fair trade cocoa and do not have any  preservatives.   They are delicious and much better quality than the comparable Nestle chips. (Although Costco also sells Nestle as well)

Rice Milk From Costco - Kirkland Signature Ricemilk
Cost of Organic Rice Milk At Costco

Here is another example of the savings you can garner by shopping at Costco:  If you purchase Organic Rice Milk at a regular grocery store, you might pay about 8-15 cents per ounce.     As you can see below, you will pay less than 4 cents per ounce ($1.14/quart – – on quart = 32 ounces) at Costco.  Yes, you do have to buy 12 quarts at a time, but with something like rice milk, you can definitely store it very easily and it lasts a long time.    I should mention that Kirkland is the house brand of Costco.  Most of the time Kirkland products are of very good quality and typically much cheaper than their name brand counterparts.

Kashi Cereal at Costco

As I stated, there are many organic foods at Costco.  I am excited to see Costco adding more and more of these kinds of items because when they do, their buying power has strong effects in the consumer ecosystem.  They purchase huge amounts of these things from suppliers and that helps stabilize the market and reduce the prices for everyone.

There are plenty of examples of the organic items you’ll find in a Costco store. (BTW, if you live in central Maryland, see my blog post about other ways of getting lower cost organic fruits and vegetables at wholesale prices) I have put prices down for some of them to give you something to compare to other stores–be aware that sometimes these things come and go, plus prices do change and vary around the country, so YMMV.  Here is my current list of organic foods available at Costco–unfortunately this list isn’t complete:

– Eggs (they recently stopped packaging their organic eggs in styrofoam (doh!), excellent)
– Whole and 2% Milk
– Several cuts of chicken/whole frozen chickens
– Ground beef
– Coffee
– Butter (2 lbs for $7.69)
– Olive Oil
– Croutons (2lbs/ 32 oz for $6.49)
– Rice Milk
– Soy Milk
– Frozen Blueberries
– Quinoa
– Spinach
– Kale
– Mixed Greens (Kale & Spinach)
– Bananas
– Frozen Corn
– Frozen Mixed Vegetables – (The flash frozen vegetables are great to have around for soups and quick sides.  The quality has been very good.)
– Stoneyfield Yogurt
– Sugar
– Blue Agave ($9.89 for two 36 ounce bottles)
– Frozen Mango
– Bread (two pack)
– Tortilla Chips
– Brown rice
– Edamame
– Mary’s Gone Crackers Gluten free crackers
– 18 Rabbits Granola
– Rickland Organic Trail Mix
– Next Organics Drak Chocolate Covered Banana Coconut
– Late July MultiGrain Snack Chips
– Tasy Brand Organic Wild Berry Fruit Snacks
– Hanover Organic Ancient Grain Pretzels
– Tazo Organic Iced Green Tea
– Horizon Organic Vanilla Milk
– Apple & Eve Organics Orange Carrot Juice
– Mayorga Organic Cafe Cubano Coffee
– Carrington Farms Organic Coconut Oil
– Minsley Cooked Organic Brown Rice Bowls
– Della Organic Belends Quinoa and Rice Blend
– Gluten free Organic Black Bean Spaghetti
– Organic Pasta
– Classico Organic Pasta Sauce
– Kirkland Signature Organic Tomato Paste (12 – 6 oz cans- $5.99)
– Kirkland Signature Organic canned Diced Tomatoes
– Kirkland Signature Organic Tomato Sauce
– Pasta Prima Organic Spinach and Cheese Ravioli
– Sambazon Organic Acai Juice
– Better than Bullion Reduced Sodium Beef Base
– Black Chia seeds (2 pounds for $9.89)
– Several Breakfast cereals
– Carrots
– Peanut Butter
– Nutiva Gluten Free Coconut Flour

Sometimes Things at Costco Come and Go

Just to say a bit more about a couple of things that have come and gone:  One of my favorites that they took away without warning was the organic oatmeal…they have plenty of genetically modified Quaker oats though.

So if I was going to make any complaints about Costco, one of the top ones is that you cannot count on a product to be there for “good”.  Certainly there are some reliable offerings in general, but I would say that you can mainly only count on staple foods, as I have seen all sorts of random things get removed from the lineup or replaced by a different brand over the years.

They also tend to have “road shows.” These are also temporary items brought in by Costco or 3rd party vendors that are only there for a few days, and then they are gone. It’s anyone’s guess whether they will ever be back again.

Things like suits, high-end purses, coats, bedding, jewelry, folding ladders, and a variety of food items are only there temporarily. They do have some “regular” road shows too, such as their seafood roadshow, which seems to turn up at our local store approximately once a month with items they don’t regularly sell. Also in this category to some extent are things like blenders (Vitamix and Blendtec brands) that tend to be consistently sold in the stores, but seem to run out regularly and then are restocked after a company demonstrator comes in for a few days.

They also sell “earth friendly” products of other sorts.  For example, they offer products from the Honest Company including vegan shampoo and diapers/wipes.  They also offer environmentally friendly Costco-brand environmentally friendly dish soap and laundry detergent.

Sheet Cakes and Desserts

costco sheet cake selection

As someone who thinks most supermarket cakes taste disgusting, I do think that Costco’s sheet cakes are definitely better tasting than most and at $18 for a half sheet cake that feeds 48 people, it is a good deal.

We have purchased several cakes for birthday parties at Costco and that have always been tasty (Having said that, they still use quite a bit of sugar and have some chemicals that everyone should do without).   They always have “stock” sheet cakes available that are quite nice or you can order a custom decorated cake by filling out a form.

There are two basic kinds of cake – chocolate and white.  The white cakes are filled with 2 pounds of vanilla mousse and iced with white butter cream.  The chocolate cakes are filled with 2 pounds of chocolate mousse and iced with chocolate buttercream.   They request that you give them 1 day’s notice for customized cakes.

Costco Cake Order Form

I have created a fillable form to make ordering cakes at Coscto easier.  Click here to download the form. (If it opens up in Google’s web viewer, you need to click the download icon to get to the fill-outable/printable form. Once you fill in the details simply print the page.) This definitely helps to eliminate errors because of handwriting issues!

There are also several other types of pre-made party desserts you can purchase at Costco.  For example, there are many types of non-sheet cakes you can get–they have some really delicious choices including a red velvet cake, coffee cakes, an amazing chocolate cake, cupcakes, and apple strudel.  Availability tends to shift, but you can bet there are plenty of outrageously delicious options.  You can also find some amazing frozen party desserts, such as filled pastries, mochi and ice cream bars.

There is more to read–Don’t miss part 2 of my Costco review here.



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Republic Wireless Customer Review 2016 – Part 2

A Customer’s Perspective Of Republic Wireless – Part 2
(Back To Part 1: Republic Wireless Executive Summary)

I have been a customer of Republic Wireless for over three years.  This is my review of Republic Wireless and their Motorola Moto X 2nd Gen, Moto E, and Moto G 2nd Gen Android smart phone offering.  I couldn’t be more excited to tell you about this company and their unbeatable, reliable, no-nonsense, no contract monthly plans. (Seriously they have the least expensive unlimited voice/text and data plan options you can find–if you know of something cheaper, please leave a comment for me below!)

Republic Wireless Review
Get the Motorola Moto X from Republic Wireless
$299 and as little as $5/month-NO Contract.

Republic Wireless is clearly different from all of the other mobile phone companies that I am aware of.  They are very upfront about the way they operate and you know exactly what you will be paying for your mobile phone service month after month (and it is a bargain).

First you should be aware that you must pay for your phone outright in order to get service.  They currently have two phones:

  1. Motorola Moto G 3rd Gen – $199
  2. Motorola Moto E 2nd Gen – $129
More details about each phone are below. By the way, buying your phone outright might seem risky, but believe me, if you currently go for two year contracts with AT&T, Verizon or Sprint, you will ultimately pay much more for that same exact phone.  Furthermore, most places that are selling these phones off-contract sell it for at least $100 more–so this is a good deal for the Moto phones. They give you a one month trial period, but after that month, the phone will be yours to keep, even if you don’t continue with the service.

Levels of Service and What’s Included

Republic Wireless offers 3 levels of service with the Moto X, Moto E, and Moto G (Note again that you must purchase the Moto phone from them!)–you will have the flexibility to switch plans up to twice per month and you can switch plans right from an app that is on your phone!:

Flexible phone plans that pay you back for unused data
Here are details of some of the plans:

1) $10/Month Level – You get unlimited talk and texting, but you only get data when you are on wiFi.  I love this level.  This is great for people who aren’t likely to use data, especially when they’re out in the field.  This might be really good for someone in college who lives on a campus that has blanket wi-fi.  So long as their on campus they  have full use of the voice, texting and data…but once they leave, they can only use the phone.  You’ll definitely be amazed at just how much you can get done on your phone using just wiFi, but if you go away from your wiFi service, you’ll be disconnected–you won’t be able to make any phone calls or do anything with data, including the use of many data-hungry apps.  So if you travel outside your home, office or campus with the phone it won’t be of much use.

2) $17.50/Month Level – For $17.50/month you’ll get unlimited talk, text and a half a gig of data, The data will be available  at 4G/lte speeds.  If you aren’t familiar with 4G, it is fast enough for most people, but definitely not WiFi fast.  This is likely to be one of the most popular choices though, this is the one I would advise most people to go for.  You can always upgrade to a higher plan (or downgrade) at will, with no penalties. Half a gig would be easy to use, but again, especially if you are someone who is always near WiFi hot-spots, you may not even need that much.

4) $40/Month Level – You get unlimited talk, texting and 2 gigs of mobile data, and the data will be at 4G speeds where available.  This is a very good deal.

Note about taxes and fees added to your bill each month: Republic Wireless does add the required fees to your monthly bill.  So for example in my case, I pay about $3.49 extra over the $25/month plan for fees — so my monthly bill is more like $28.49.  The fees are definitely annoying but not avoidable (and much worse if you go with AT&T or Verizon).  Example fees and taxes are: Universal Service Fee $0.09, E911 County/State $0.50, FCC Regulatory Fee 0.01 cent, etc.   I am not sure which of these fees would still apply if you went with the WiFi only level.

Republic Wireless The Catch Is There Is No Catch

All four of the above-mentioned levels provide a very important feature that’s central to the use of your Republic Wireless phone–you can use your phone over a wiFi connection.  This includes voice, texting and of course data.  Most of the time, this is going to give you the best connection experience and in many cases, where a signal isn’t available you’ll be the only one with a connection.

For example if you work in a basement or area with no cell service, but do have a wiFi connection available, you’ll have strong/clear service.  In our case, our home is on the outskirts of service for all the major providers so we are thrilled that have the option to get service over WiFi–and we can make calls and even send SMS/MMS messages over WiFi (that’s huge!).  Another great example is if you go overseas, you can take your phone and make/receive calls when you’re connected to WiFi…with no roaming or extra charges.

Want to know how much you will save or how things will go if you have early termination fees in order to switch to Republic Wireless?  Check out this graphic to see how long it will take you to break even and then save money.  Realize that if you are on the $25/month plan, you’ll pay about $300/year for unlimited data/voice/text, plus you have to purchase the phone from Republic Wireless for $299–so you’re in for $599 for a whole year of service. (If you get the Motorola G, make that $449!)  Odds are that you’ll be paying up to double that amount on one of the big carriers:

How much will you save by switching to republic wireless?

Republic Wireless generally uses the Sprint network for its voice and data services.  Unlike other MVNO (independent) wireless providers, Republic Wireless allows you to roam (for free) when no Sprint service is available.  This is transparent to the end user, but it is also an important feature.  You should be aware that you will not be able to roam internationally with your phone — generally CDMA phones (the kind that Republic Wireless uses) do not work outside of the USA and Canada–on the other hand, you can use your phone for calls and texting from a wiFi connection anywhere in the world–potentially saving yourself huge amounts of money when compared to international roaming through AT&T and Verizon.

All levels of service include visual voice mail.  Republic’s voice mail is about what you’d expect it to be.

WiFi Calling & Texting

I really love the fact that the Moto X can make calls and send text messages through Wifi.  This solves a huge problem for many folks–If you don’t have a strong signal for making calls, etc, near your house or office, hybrid wifi calling is the solution.  Republic Wireless has developed a wonderful system whereby if you are near your WiFi, it will make calls and utilize it for data and texting.  If you are away, it will use the Sprint network to do the same.  Better yet, you can start a call on WiFi or the cellular network and it will automatically switch over to the other when needed.  So if you were at home when you placed a call to your friend and then left for an appointment, the call would continue and it would magically be handed over to the Sprint network as you get further away.  You can even use WiFi to send MMS messages (text messages with photo attachments for example)–in my case this is a quick and effective alternative to using distant cell towers to do the same.

The Republic Wireless App

Once you have your Republic Wireless Android phone, you’ll notice an app from Republic Wireless.  This app is one of the things that makes this service unique.  From the app you can take care of an array of account management functions and you can also determine the current status of your account, your current plan and find out if you’re connected to a wiFi hotspot.  Should you decide to change your plan level, you just open the app and within a few clicks (and a login) you’re done–changes are immediate. (By the way, you can change your plan level up to 2 times per month)

You can also change your phone number right from the app.  It isn’t something you could really do by accident because you do have to provide your username and password, but it is still very easy to do.  As far as phone number changes, you are allowed to change your number twice for free.  After that, you’ll be billed $10 for each time you change your number.  Also, you can only select the area code and first three digits, Republic Wireless selects the last 4 digits for you.

Customer Satisfaction & Technical Support

Republic Wireless consistently gets high ratings from many sources.  Most recently, PC Magazine Reader’s Choice Awards 2014 rated it the second best carrier in the USA.  With the transparency and lack of hidden fees that plague the other carries, this is a no brainer.
Mobile carrier comparison

Republic Wireless tech support is generally pretty good.  Your best bet for fast service is just to post to the community forums.  They also offer support by email and twitter (and snail mail, if you can imagine that–I am trying to think of a tech support problem I could snail mail about–would love to gauge that response time).  What they don’t have is a call center–that is you can’t call to discuss your tech support issues.  This is one way that the company saves money.  Although this is inconvenient, most questions have already been answered in the searchable support forums…and like I said they’re pretty responsive via electronic means.  You should not take the lack of a call center to mean that they don’t have dedicated people working on support, apparently they do–and they have people answering questions 7 days/week from 8am-11pm EST–you just can’t call them.  According to their data, their customer satisfaction is over 90%.

Billing

Whichever wireless plan you choose, you’ll need to provide a debit or credit card for billing.  Republic Wireless charges you monthly.  Again, I am very comfortable with this as there are no possibilities for surprise charges.  You are billed for the plan you choose plus any applicable taxes and fees.  Once you’ve seen your first month’s bill, you have pretty much seen them all until you change your level of service.

About the Motorola Moto X generation 2 – $299 price point

Republic Wireless Moto Phones

This is a wonderful phone.  It is one of the most popular Android phones and uses the Kit Kat 4.4 version of the operating system.   It comes with 16 gigs of memory and is not expandable. It has a crisp, beautiful 5.2 inch display-that’s a bit larger than most phones. Battery life is said to be about 24 hours of  “mixed use”, but this depends on how you use the phone–still it is definitely going last longer than your average 2015 mobile phone.  My experience has been that the phone definitely lasts me all day with battery to spare, and that includes emailing texting, calling and some photos.

There is a very fast 13 megapixel rear camera and a 2 megapixel forward facing camera for video conferencing (ie-Skype or Google Hangouts–something you’ll be able to do on the go, since you won’t have to worry about using too much data!).  The phone is filled with convenient features, such as the ability to easily use the Google Now features–it is always listening for you to issue commands to google.  For example you could say “Google, do I need my umbrella today?” and it will respond with a useful, accurate answer verbally “No, there is no rain in the forecast for New York City today” (or wherever you are).

The camera is easy to operate and is quick on the draw.  To use the camera on the phone, you can go through the android menus or you can just wiggle the phone back and forth and the camera opens up.  To take a picture you can just push anywhere on the screen–and if you hold down your finger it will continuously snap photo after photo.  Video mode is also quick and easy–it even lets you take photos while you’re taking a video–a feature that is handier than you’d think.  By the way, if you take lots of photos like I do, you’ll want to add the Google+ app to the phone–it will automatically backup all of your pictures to your google+ account and can even search them using computer vision (ie-you can ask it to find pictures of beaches, or sunglasses or even someone wearing sunglasses on the beach!).

This phone is very quick and responsive and it works very well with popular apps.  The Moto X generation 2 is one of the go-to phones that developers would use to benchmark their Android apps.  Also, in case you were wondering, the GPS syncs up quickly–so it is there when you need it for navigation with the standard Android built-in Navigator or with my favorite social navigator “Waze“.

About the Motorola Moto G – $99 price point

The Moto G isn’t quite as powerful as the Moto X, but it is still a good, respectable phone.  I do not own this phone myself, so my experience with it is limited, but most people who do have it seem to be pretty happy.   The biggest points of comparison between the two phones are the processor, memory (the Moto G generally has less) and the camera quality.  The processor is not as good in the Moto G, but the difference doesn’t seem to be that noticeable.  As far as the camera, well, it isn’t as good.  The Moto X has a 10 megapixel rear-facing camera while the Moto G’s is only 5 megapixel.  This is still a relatively good camera compared to other phone models out there, but still this is a consideration.  You should also note that the screen size is very slightly smaller in the Moto G and it isn’t AMOLEd.  Still even with these differences, the cost of the Moto G is just $99, and that’s really unbeatable.

About the Motorola Moto E generation 2 – $129 price point

Just like the Moto X, there is now a second generation version of the Moto E. The phone costs $129 and comes with 8 gigs of memory. Unlike the Moto G, it is expandable up to 32 gigs with a micro SD card–a big advantage. It has front and rear facing cameras with the tap to focus feature. The rear facing camera is 5 megapixel. The phone has the 5.1 version of Android Lollipop. The screen size is a venerable 4.5 inch qHD screen. Battery life is rated at 24 hours, but I wouldn’t expect to get that much out of the phone if you put it to more than mild use. This phone is a not bad for the price and seems to be generally well liked in the marketplace reviews.

Accessories for the Motorola Moto X and Moto G

The Moto X, Moto E and Moto G are slick looking mobile phones.  If you’re worried about protecting yours there are some very nice cases, screen protectors, car dash mounts and other useful things to enhance your experience with your phone. Since these phones are so standard, you can get accessories for them from a variety of places including from Amazon.com or directly from the Wireless Republic store.

Here are some other accessories that are great to have:

– One of the most popular cases you can get for your Moto phone is the Otter Box brand.  These are premium cases that come at a relatively higher price (about  $40) but most say they are very reliable and well made to protect your phone. OtterBox Defender Series for Moto X or for OtterBox Defender Series Case for Moto G – Glacier.

For a less expensive option, I have the Griffin Reveal for Motorola Moto X.  The Griffin Reveal Case fits well and puts a good shell around the back of the phone. (Here is the same case for the Motorola Moto G)  It is just enough to protect from a drop but doesn’t interfere with the glass screen.  I have, uh, field tested it, and I can say it has done its job.

Note: Be sure and get the right case for your phone–the Moto G and Moto X are slightly different, so for cases you need to double check that you’re getting the right one!

– A car dashboard mount.  Here is one that is sold on Amazon.com that works for both the Motorola X and G: High Grade Car Dash Holder / Windshield 360 Degree Cradle Mount for Motorola Moto X, Moto G (Accommodates Skins, Bumpers or Rugged Cases)

Motorola Skip– Basically these are little circles that you tap your phone on to unlock it.  These are fairly convenient but many will question how much easier it is than just unlocking the phone in the usual way.  I’d say there are definitely some uses for these.

– The sound quality from these phones is pretty good–especially if you have a good pair of earphones. I’d recommend getting one with a microphone built in, in case you need to take a call while listening to music. Here is a good example of a compatible ear phone set: Super Bass 3.5mm Stereo Handsfree Headset Earbuds Earphones Headphones w/ Microphone for Motorola Moto G ( Black ) and w/ Volume Control + Carry Bag + Stars Strips Wristband

– If you use Google Chrome, be sure to get the Motorola Connect Chrome extension for some added convenience.  It basically allows you to see the phone’s status, know when someone is calling and send text messages with your desktop computer.  I have been using it for a while and I will say it definitely saves time when I am at my desk and want to send a message.

Also, please have a look at my other money saving ideas. (for instance switching your electricity provider, which is a no-brainer way to save more than a few bucks per month–takes about 1/2 hour to do and is virtually no downside.).

Final Thoughts

Moving your phone service to Republican Wireless is an easy move to make.  It is commitment free, comes with a 30 day guarantee and is a popular choice in general.  Although Republic isn’t perfect, you’ll be hard pressed to come up with similar service at a similar price.  If you are not sure if you should jump in, I say give them a try.  If you don’t like the phone or the service, you can easily send back the phone and you will have lost very little in the process.

Back To Part 1 Of My Review of Republic Wireless