Monday, March 31, 2014

4 Free Career Programs for Military Spouses

I had the awesome chance to attend MOAA's Spouse Symposium in Alexandria, VA Wednesday last week. Maybe you saw my live tweeting and Instagramming! It was pretty epic, I've got to say. My live tweeting, of course! Just kidding. The symposium was amazing. (And that's a picture of me on the train, amped up, goofy, and ready to get to the conference.) 

Military spouses are notoriously underemployed, and it's easy to get discouraged. Heck, after just a month of being a military spouse, I felt discouraged about my career. I can't imagine what it must feel like after multiple moves and deployments. Increasingly, more agencies and businesses are trying to make it easier for military spouses to become employed and stay employed. There are so many obstacles for maintaining a successful career, but it can be done. 

The whole time I was at the symposium, I was trying to soak up as much information as I could to bring back to you! There are some truly fantastic programs out there-- it's time for you to get connected to them! 

This certificate program is offered by Syracuse University and underwritten by JP Morgan Chase & Co. It is online and it is free for post-9/11 separated or retired vets, military service members transitioning to the civilian workforce in 18 months, and spouses whose military members are active duty or eligible vets.  There are three tracks to choose from: Professional Skills, Tech, and Independent Study.  I'm very impressed by the offerings. They range from CCNA to business analysis to Microsoft Office fundamentals. Check it out, further your education, and make yourself more marketable... for free! 

Simply put, My Career Spark is a resume builder for military spouses. It's created and maintained by Hiring Our Heroes, Toyota, and Blue Star Families. You can build your resume, set and track career goals, read up on interview prep, and refine your job search. 

SECO stands for Spouse Education and Career Opportunities and is run through Military OneSource. This is a fantastic go-to source. There are tons of  resources-- articles, programs, and other links. You can also access MySECO, a personal career portal. SECO offers comprehensive career counseling and can help guide you through tricky problems like certification and licensing issues. They can also help with career coaching, child care referrals, transportation options, job application and resume assistance, and education counseling.

MSEP links Fortune 500 Plus companies that are committed to hiring military spouses. These companies specifically work to make sure that spouses can take their careers with them as they PCS, and if there aren't opportunities where they move, the companies will refer them to other partners in MSEP. (And for those of you interested in working remotely, there's a whole section devoted to those jobs.)  

If you ever have the chance to attend a MOAA Spouse Symposium, go. It's not only an incredible networking event, it's exceptionally informative. There honestly was not a moment of the symposium that I felt was wasted or that I felt could have been done better. Just all around awesomeness. 
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Commissary 101: Saving More

There are a lot of misconceptions about Commissaries, especially when it comes to the variety of products and the price of them. It's true, shoppers at Commissaries are able to save money, but I think a lot of people think that the savings are unbelievable (remember this fall's Ketchup Gate?).

By law, Commissaries must sell their products at cost. Commissaries are also tax-free. But... there is a 5% fee that is assessed instead to help with the upkeep of Commissaries. There are also no generic brands available at Commissaries like there are at civilian grocery stores. And, if you're driving a great distance to your Commissary, your savings might be negligible when all is said and done. Still, on average, it is possible to save about 30% depending on what you buy, what's on sale, and what coupons you have. If you want to push your pennies at the Commissary a little further, here are some other ways to do that:

Look for Extra Savings
There are a lot of ways to save at the Commissary. One of my favorite ways (because it makes it feel like Christmas) is to look for coupons. They might be printed on bright paper and taped to individual items, or they might be in tear-off packs or dispensers. These coupons are special and specific to the Commissary. When you see them, make use of them! 

Plan Ahead
Check out the Commissary's Savings Aisle. Once you choose your Commissary, you can see what's on sale and how much of a discount you're getting from the retail price. If you log in, you can also see the price that is specific to your locale. Use this in conjunction with couponing and creating your grocery list to make sure you're getting the lowest price possible.

Ask for Gift Cards
Even though the Commissary is only available for military members and their dependents, anyone can buy gift cards online If you're stuck trying to figure out what you want for Christmas or your birthday, you could always go practical and just ask for Commissary gift cards.

Use Third Party Sites
There are a bunch of military-specific savings sites that will alert you to specials, coupons, and price reductions. I use Commissary Shopper, My Military Mommy, Military Wives Saving, and My Military Savings. I've liked their Facebook pages too and have caught a few great sales because of Facebook alerts.  

Most of these sites, like My Military Savings, will announce Commissary-specific coupons and sales that are happening at the commissary. My Military Mommy does the work for you and will give you the link to coupons along with how to use them (what order to stack them in, if you need to use a rewards card, etc.) and the ultimate price of the item. It takes a lot of the pain out of couponing. 

Download Ibotta
Do you Ibotta? If you don't, you should download it and get started. Ibotta is a phone app that alerts you to extra rebates that you can redeem from grocery store, movie theater, restaurant, and pet store purchases. That's on top of any savings or coupons at the store.  Seriously. It's like extra free money. You just scan your bought items and take a photo of your receipt in order to redeem the extra cash. You cash out with your PayPal account, so you don't have to worry about a credit or debit card. And Ibotta works at Commissaries. No lie. It's pretty great. (If you haven't signed up for Ibotta, please use my referral link! Sign up and redeem any offer within 10 days of sign-up, and we'll both get instant cash!)

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photo credit: D.H. Parks via photopin cc

Monday, March 17, 2014

3 Free Photo Editing Programs for Your Blog

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post all about free blogging resources that I had found in the wilds of the internet (4 Free Blogging Resources You Aren't Using (But Should Be!)). I'm sharing again-- this time it's all about photo editing. 

I'm the first one to tell you that the strength of my blog does not lie in my photography or my photo editing. There are other blogs that do it much, much better with much, much more beautiful photos than mine. I am by no means an expert. And if I'm honest, I'm not aiming to be. Photography-- while it's fun-- is not my passion. I would rather be writing and thinking up new, creative ideas! 

I know that quite a lot of bloggers use Photoshop, but an equal number of bloggers aren't there. They either don't want to buy the program (or don't know where to get a bootlegged copy).  So for those of you who aren't attached to your DSLR (or who don't know what that is), or for those of you looking for different options when it comes to photo editing, here are 3 programs that I can really get behind: 

PicMonkey is honestly my go-to photo editor. The vast majority of my graphics and photos are designed through this service. I love that I can design graphics quickly and get them on the blog within minutes. There is a premium version (which I don't subscribe to) so some of your stylistic choices are limited if you're using the free version. I don't think it's a big deal, nor has it really hindered me in my (limited) design experience. 

Fotor  has basically the same interface as PicMonkey and you're essentially able to do the same things with it. The biggest perk of Fotor is that it's entirely free. Unlike PicMonkey, there is (currently) no pay structure or deluxe version. You aren't locked out of any graphics or fonts. I use Fotor when I'm kind of tired PicMonkey's fonts, graphics, or styles. 

You're not going to use Canva as your exclusive photo editor since PicMonkey and Fotor do that much better. But... if you're looking at creating infographics or highly stylized graphics that are already touched-up, this is your mule. Canva offers a lot of templates, graphics, and fonts for your perusal and use, but they are offered on an a la carte basis. Free options are clearly labeled and there are a bunch of them.  

What are your go-to tricks of the trade when it comes to photo editors?

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Commissary 101: The Basics

I am a big, ol' wuss. I will admit it. I cry too much, I get nervous too often, and I always am afraid of looking stupid (and often I do, anyway). Venturing into the Commissary and Exchange was really intimidating to me when we first got married (let's remember that I get nervous just going onto base). So if you're new to this whole military thing and are just a little bit nervous about using the Commissary, here are the basics so that you can walk in confidently! 

Don't Park in Reserved Parking
Make sure that that parking spot that you snag right in front of the store isn't reserved for officers or other VIPs. It will be either spray-painted on the spot or labeled with a sign.  That's a mistake that-- thankfully-- I've never made, but I've heard of other spouses who have. Avoid that embarrassment and keep your eyes peeled.

Have Your Military ID
Access to the Commissary is considered part of the military benefits package. The goods you're buying are priced substantially lower than a civilian grocery store and your purchase is tax-free. When you check out, you will be asked for it to verify that you are privy to those benefits, so don't forget your ID. Don't leave it in the car. Take it with you.

Queue in the Check-Out Line
Unlike other grocery stores where it's every man for himself, Commissaries have one line for express check-outs and one line for all other check-outs. Park yourself in the line and wait your turn. There will most likely be an employee at the front of the line who will direct you to the next available cashier.

Avoid Pay Day
If at all possible, try to avoid grocery shopping at the Commissary on Pay Day. I don't think I need to elaborate. Just don't do it. It's not fun.

Tip the Baggers
The first few times, John and I didn't realize that we were supposed to tip the baggers. Neither of us had ever been to a grocery store where you did that! We totally missed the "Baggers Work Only for Tips" sign that I saw after a third or fourth visit. We were so embarrassed and felt so guilty! Here's the deal: Commissary baggers are not volunteers. They are not paid by the Commissary. Their only income is from the tips they receive when they bag your groceries and take them to your car. Make sure you tip them-- even if you take your groceries out to your car, even if you only tip $1. Otherwise, they've effectively bagged your groceries for free. That's not fair.
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photo credit: D.H. Parks via photopin cc