One of the most rewarding types of travel and writing I do is traveling with my nieces as part of the Niece Project. It’s not simply about building important relationships with my nieces or being a travel mentor to them; it’s about inspiring other Aunts and Uncles to do the same – experiences over stuff. Every year that I write another segment of the niece project I hear from more and more Aunts and Uncles who are planning so start their own Niece/Nephew Project. I jump for joy every time I hear news like this!
I want to continue to inspire others to travel with kids who aren’t their own and be travel mentors, so I decided to start taking guest posts about other Niece/Nephew Projects! You’ll hear their stories, tips, ups and downs. This story is all about how one Aunt is saving well in advance to fund her Niece Project. I started years ago to save for my Niece Projects, but I wasn’t quite as organized as Kristi!
Planning and Saving For My Niece Project
By Aunt Kristi Wiley
In June 2014, I attended my younger niece, Eliana’s fourth birthday party and gazed upon the piles of gifts. At the same time I was also trying to shield them away from her jealous older sister, Isabella (six – going on 16) from trying to open them all. Eliana loved my gift, but she immediately forgot about it when she opened the next gift.
My immediate thoughts were, “Damn, that’s a lot of gifts. I don’t even think she’s opened some of the ones from Christmas.” I then kept thinking about the Niece Project from Ottsworld.com. I’d just finished reading Sherry’s post about how the third niece chose Peru.
It got me thinking about how I don’t have kids of my own (not sure I really plan to or not) and that doing something like that for my own nieces might be a good idea instead of just making the pile of open-then-forget presents bigger each year. The lightbulb clicked on. That week, I sent my sister-in-law, Lori, an email to pitch the idea with the following:
• A link to the Niece Project posts on Sherry’s blog
• Things I loved about this project
• Permission to do this with the nieces
• Timeline of when to do this
oUse the money for a car or add it to their savings vs. travel with me
o Nowhere Americans have difficulty visiting like North Korea or (at the time) Cuba
Niece Project My Way
Since they’re summer babies, I decided that I’d take them the summer before their Senior year (when they’re 16), because they might be going off to Senior class trips the summer after high school like I did (Cancun…don’t remember much).
Lori was all for it. I told her to talk to my brother, James, and get back to me. He was all for it, too. Of course, it does help that we’re a travel family; my brother even works for United and we’ve had passports (that we’ve used) since we were kids. I’ve even lived outside of the country for a period of time. So, basically we travel everywhere.
I was initially worried that having a family like ours would maybe dull the big travel and cultural enlightenment that I wanted the girls to receive, but then I realized that this would be different. They would be choosing the destination for starters, instead of being dragged wherever the family decided to go. They would get to have an experience without the pressures of their parents and grandparents. Also, they’d be going with me (and my husband) to have a special experience with just us before they head off to college to become adults. Does that make me selfish? I don’t care!
I plan to sit them down when they are 13, maybe 14, to start really discussing places they want to visit, locking it down. I will bring over books, maps, saved websites, whatever I can to aid them in picking out their destination of choice. Knowing me (and the hubby is probably shaking his head yes), I will make a spreadsheet with some pros and cons. Hey, it helped with our honeymoon selection.
Best Ways to Save the Money
First things first, I needed to set up some sort of account to put money in until they were old enough. So, I started to research maybe setting up an IRA or savings account, something that would gain interest and grown over time.
I’m obsessed with Our Freaking Budget and looked up some of their older posts on what they did for their newborns, which, unfortunately, didn’t apply to me because they were specifically for college.
I called Principal Funds (I have an account with them), telling them that I wanted to be able to take out money multiple times (two nieces at two different time periods) without getting penalized. We settled on a trust in my name (still don’t really know what they were saying). I have to mention that the lady was so impressed with the plan. I told her all about how I got the idea from this blog. The problem was that I needed at least $1,000 to set up the account and I wasn’t there yet, nor did I just have that kind of money lying around.
So, I settled on a savings account at my regular bank (Bank of America) with the intention of moving it over to Principal when I got to $1,000 (I haven’t yet even though I’m way over that amount). I put in $100 to set up the account initially and for Isabella’s birthday coming up that following weekend.
Finally, it was Isabella’s sixth birthday party, the first time that I would show up without a present. I bought a card written with, “Happy Birthday to my beautiful niece. I put $100 into your travel savings account. I love you, Auntie Kristi.” I handed it to her when I walked in the door and I got a certain look of disapproval. Needless to say, it didn’t go over so well for this six year old. I got questioned about why I didn’t bring a box wrapped for her and then she loudly asked for grandma (my mother), because she would be sure to have a present. And right then and there, I knew I had made the right decision.
Every birthday and Christmas, I put a $100 into the account for each child, even though that’s more than I might spend for a gift. I settled on $100, because my gifts are usually between $50 and $100. This amount gives me a cushion to play with in case one suggests a trip to Everest.
In January of 2016, I set up an automatic withdrawal of $20 per month from my checking account into their savings account, with each child getting $10. I created a spreadsheet (sample below) to keep track of how much and why for each child, the total money saved, and how much I will save over time with the basic amount put into the account until they are 16. Yes, I’m a nerd. I made my peace with it.
Random Ways to Save for the Niece Project
Throughout the years and until they are 16, I have found random ways to add more money to their account:
- Anytime I need to get them a gift for something other than their birthday or for Christmas, they will get money instead. For instance, Ellie graduated from pre-school to regular school (What? Why? This is a thing? Where was my graduation present?); therefore, I put in $20. Maybe for other graduations, I will add more money.
- Even though I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, I still observe Lent. For the last 10 years, I typically did something to help others (it’s not always about taking things away to better yourself…gosh, selfish much?). For instance, I donated a piece of clothing per day for 40 days one year. This year, I put $1 into the account for both girls every day for 40 days. Next year, I will double that amount.
- I added a percentage of my company bonus (and will continue to do so until I do not receive a bonus anymore…sad face ☹); the amount depends on how much I get for that year.
- I was selected to go to jury duty in September 2016. Normally when I attend jury duty, I just tell them to donate my earnings to the Veterans fund or whatever they have listed. However, this year, they didn’t have that option. You could either keep the money or allow the Houston budget to get the whopping $6. I chose to keep it, but I put that money right into my niece’s account, because I wouldn’t normally keep that for myself. So, each niece got $3.
It’s Not Just About the Money
Now that I’m married, my English (and polite) husband has some kind of say in what happens with our nieces. Not only does he give them another cultural perspective than the greatness that is being a Texan, but he also ensures that we do NOT show up empty handed anymore (hey, there was a card involved) when we see the girls for their birthdays or Christmas. We now get them some type of candy or Frozen themed spinning lollipop thing to go with the card so they get something.
This past summer, I couldn’t attend their birthday parties (they turned eight and six) for some reason (and still can’t remember why, which is a side effect from getting old). So, to make up for it, I suggested for our whole family to see The Secret Life of Pets at the end of July. I gave them their cards (with money statements) and a special gift each. They are a bit older and don’t always need candy (okay, I don’t even know how or why that came out of my mouth).
I had picked out coloring books that had to do with travel to start getting them excited about cities and countries. The books had stickers and lines for text and the best part, it had monuments from around the world. Bella’s book was a little more substantial, but Ellie had some intricate designs that she would appreciate since she is autistic.
After reading the posts about how difficult it was to get Sherry’s nieces to narrow their destination choices down at first, I thought it would be a good idea to start that process early. I want them to think of traveling now so that they will be more prepared when it’s time to make the big decision. Granted, I know things will change as they get older, but it’s good to start anything early (except for me where procrastination is key). Some of the ideas for future gifts to give instead of just money and candy, include the following listed below.
- When I was a kid, I had a huge world map hanging over my bed. I placed red push pins in the cities I’ve visited. This idea came from a really great movie called Mask with Eric Stoltz and Cher (you should totally see it). The main character put push pins in places he wanted to visit for their big trip to Europe. I thought an oversized map would be a good idea for the girls to hang in their playroom where they could pin the places they would like to see.
- I plan to buy them their own kid’s travel journals no later than 10 years old so they can write their thoughts about travel. I’ve seen a few on Amazon and I might check out some shops locally to see what they have. These journals keep a memory of their thoughts when they go on vacation. Since it’s designed for kids, they can put stickers in it, write things, etc. in a kid-friendly way. I thought I would get them this so that when they hear of a place they want to visit, they can write it down and write down WHY this place excites them.
- I’m going to send them postcards from my travels (mostly international); one postcard addressed to each girl. Not only will they will be excited to get their very own mail, but they can also see places on a pretty card that might make them interested in visiting. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before since I usually travel outside of the country once a year. I’ve also asked my friends to contribute, one friend in Iceland right now, one in Germany, and two going to England soon. The nieces can store their post cards in a box or their travel journal.
- Isabella is a bit more adventurous with food – as adventurous as any eight year old kid can be. When she gets older, I plan to take her to different ethnic restaurants around the city. Houston has become a mecca of food; we have pretty much every style of food possible, even Himalayan. It will be great to broaden her horizons that way. She might even pick Ethiopia, because she loved the food at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Keren Cafe and Sports Bar. Ellie is just too picky with food to do this any time soon, but maybe later.
- Houston also has great national themed festivals throughout the year, such as Japanese, Polish, Greek, Italian, Korean, etc. They also have the Houston International Festival, which showcases a country as the overall theme, but includes booths with food, dance, music, etc. from countries all over the world. So, that has been added to the list of things to take them to see.
Family is Key
I couldn’t have done all of this without Lori. She tells me, “Being a parent is the MOST difficult job one person can ever do; you never have all the answers. Most of the time you have no idea what you’re doing and you just hope it’s enough to help them become a caring, kind, respectful, and thoughtful person who makes a positive impact on the world. Having family is so important in this process. Whoever came up with the phrase ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ was absolutely correct.” So, she understands that not only are they planning for a fantastic trip, but also building an understanding and acceptance of other cultures. She knows that this will be an incredible journey for Isabella and Eliana over the years, talking to them about different places to visit and things to see. She might suggest a country to gauge their interest. Lori and I then will discuss it later when we are around each other and I might ask the girls something about that country they like.
Isabella is my show stopper, my incredible, dramatic, energetic niece that wants to put her stamp on the world. She is a wild child, just like her aunt, or at least that’s what my mother says.
Being older, she’s the niece that really gets this whole plan. Within the first year she started to mention Egypt. She said that she wanted to see the pyramids, but she has since changed her mind, because it gets too hot (WHAT?! We live in Houston!) and there are mummies (we are a family that watches horror movies… clearly my mother did something wrong).
She then said that she wanted to go to Hollywood, but I encouraged her to dream bigger with her destination choice. Her shouted response shocked the whole restaurant, “DISNEYWORLD!” I’m pretty sure her parents are taking her to Disneyworld and on a Disney cruise in the future, so I ignored that suggestion, not because I don’t want to go (and I will be going with them), but because I would rather take them somewhere new. The latest I’ve heard was Paris, which is funny, because I always thought she would pick Paris or Rome.
Eliana is much different than her sister. Where Isabella is loud, Eliana keeps it low key. She is a high functioning Autistic child, which has its own difficulties. She needs more time to learn skills to assist her with all the stimuli that she will encounter in life. I’m hoping her new school will give her that skillset.
Right now, we as a family, mostly Lori and James, make some accommodations for her, like having a quiet place to hang out, away from, loud noises and crowds. As a family, we understand that she may freak out from time to time. Some days she loves me and gives me the best hugs an auntie could ask for and I throw her up in the air (she loves that) and other days, she doesn’t want to even look in my direction.
Traveling with her may be a challenge, mainly because she might decide she doesn’t want to go at all, but I’m up for it. I want to be a part of that process of taking her out of her comfort zone, make her feel a part of the world, something bigger than she can imagine. Maybe it’s just one of those things to help close the gap between living a normal life and having to deal with autism.
She hasn’t really said anything or mentioned a place, which is to be expected – she’s still young, as well. I just don’t think she really understands the concept, but I will be ready for her when she does talk to me about it. I have a feeling she will pick somewhere with not that many people and just a tad more unique like, Greenland, Mongolia or Antarctic (I will need to save WAY more money).
Wherever the nieces choose for their big Niece Project trip, I will be a proud aunt to take them anywhere. Part of me is glad I have some more time to save money, but the other part of me is ready to take them now. Oh wait, that means they will be grown up and I will be even older than I am now. Never mind nieces, take your time.