Category: Finances

Young or old or somewhere in-between, this section is dedicated to fostering learning throughout all stages of life. These articles focus on things that can make your daily life easier, more pleasant, or more fulfilling.

Budget Guide: What to do with your tax refund?

Budget Guide: What to do with your tax refund?

Here in the United States, tax season has wrapped up and, hopefully, you submitted your taxes by the April 18th deadline or filed for an extension. For many, the stress of tax season is often relieved when we are informed that we will be receiving a tax refund from the federal government, the state government, or both.

A tax refund is issued to a taxpayer when the amount of taxes owed for the year is less than the sum of the taxes withheld throughout the year from your paycheck plus any refundable tax credits that may be claimed.

So, if you are one of the millions of Americans who will be getting a refund check or two in the mail (or direct deposited into your bank account), what should you do with your tax refund? A lot of people view the refund as “free money” and then they spend it on expensive gifts, grown-up toys, or other things.

If you are on a budget and choosing to live within your means, here are some frugal ideas on how to make your tax refunds benefit you and your saving goals.

Pay towards loans and/or debt

First and foremost: if you are currently paying off loans or debt — credit card, student loans, car loans, mortgage — then it may benefit you in the long run to put all or part of your tax refund towards the principle of your smallest loan.

One strategy for getting out of debt, called the Debt Snowball, is to pay extra on your smallest loan. As much as you can reasonably afford on a regular, monthly basis. This allows you to pay this loan off faster. Then, when this smallest loan is completely paid off, you take the money that you have and use it as extra payments on the next largest loan. You are already used to not having that amount available for casual spending each month, so the best thing you can do is use that money to continue paying off any other loans or debt. You can visualize it as a snowball gaining momentum and size as it rolls down a hill.

Tip: Just be sure that you specify in your payments that the extra money is going to principle. Some banks and loan companies are sneaky or have hidden fees, so you want to make sure that your extra payments are actually going to pay off the loan itself and are not being used elsewhere.

Using all or part of your tax refund to pay towards the principle of your smallest loan/debt is a great way to get a large chunk of the debt paid off.

Create or add to your financial safety nets

Another way you can use your tax refund is to put a portion of it into your savings account. As we discussed earlier in the Budget Guide series, you want to establish a “fake zero” balance in your checking account. This is a certain dollar amount that acts as your $0. It is intended to be a cushion or safety net.

Tip: This “fake zero” balance can be $100 or $500 or $1000 dollars — whatever you can build up to and is realistic for your income, expenses, etc. — but the trick is that you always view it as untouchable. The only time you should dip into this cushion is for a real, genuine, and unexpected emergency… such as an ER visit with a high deductible or an unforeseen car repair.

With so many Americans unable to pay even $400 for an unexpected emergency (see this article in The Washington Post), it is very important for your financial stability to have a “fake zero”. I really encourage you to try to work this fake zero up to $500 or $1000.

Once you have a “fake zero” safety net in your checking, you need to start building a completely separate Emergency Fund in your savings account. Financial experts encourage that this Emergency Fund be equal to 3 months income. This gives you and your family an even larger safety net should the unthinkable happen and you are unable to bring in an income for a few months.

Granted, depending on your income, living situation, and cost of living, it may take a while to reach the 3 months income goal. This is where your tax refund comes in handy! That can be a pretty decent sized deposit into your Emergency Fund.

Use it for car maintenance and repair

If you own a car, especially a car older than five years, you know the importance of keep your vehicle in good working condition. You may want to take your vehicle to a trust-worthy mechanic to be evaluated so you can plan for future maintenance costs. If you already have a list of repairs or routine maintenance that needs to be performed on your vehicle, you can use all or part your tax refund to tackle some maintenance or a major repair issue.

Living within your budget helps you enjoy a contented life without stress that debit brings. Click To Tweet

Some basic maintenance issues that can be easily overlooked include  changing your oil regularly, having low air pressure in your tires, and worn out or old tires that need replacing. Be sure to read your vehicle’s owner manual so you know how frequently you should get the oil changed and what the pressure should be in your tires for optimal gas mileage.

As for the worn out or old tires: it may seem like you are saving money by buying used or discounted tires only when you absolutely need to replace a tire, but this practice is not good for your vehicle and could also pose a safety hazard for you. It can result in uneven wearing of tires and increase the possibility of a blow out.

Tip: It is best to get all four of your tires replaced at the same time or as close together as you can afford. Also, you should have your tires rotated periodically so they wear more evenly.

Buy one or two big ticket items on your list

Perhaps you have been staying within your budget and diligently putting away a set amount of money each month towards the purchase of a big ticket item or two, such as furniture or appliances, that you need. Perhaps it is a new refrigerator or washing machine, or perhaps it is a new rug or dresser. Whatever big ticket item that you have been saving for, your refund can help.

My husband and I have a list of big ticket items that we arrange according to priority and necessity. For example, we desperately needed a proper dresser in our son’s room to hold his clothes and other items like blankets. For his first seven months, we made do with a single drawer in a small hand-me-down desk/dresser and some cubbies in a bookshelf. However, as his clothes got bigger, they were quickly outgrowing the small drawer. We also knew we needed something tall enough to double as a changing table.

So dresser was on the top of our list since it was a valid necessity and needed within a certain time period. We were able to bargain hunt online until we found the right dresser for us, within our budget, and with free shipping. Then we used a portion of our tax refund to buy the dresser. It arrived a short time later, and just this last weekend, my husband and father put the dresser together for us. It fit the room perfectly, works as an amazing changing table, and can hold all his clothes, blankets, and other items.

Tip: If you do not already, I highly recommend that you keep a list of items that you need or want, prioritized by necessity and urgency.

You can use part of your refund to help you purchase the most crucial item, and you can also put away a certain amount of money each month towards this list. You may have to “make do” without an item for a few months, but it is worth the peace-of-mind knowing that you are staying within your budget, live within your means, and avoiding credit card debit.

In conclusion

Obviously, these are only a handful of suggestions on how you can make your tax refund work for you. There are other things you can do, such as go on a much-needed vacation or use the money towards a trip to visit family. Whatever works for you.

Just remember: living within your budget helps you enjoy a contented life free of the stress and worry that debit brings.

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

— 1 Timothy 6:6-8, English Standard Version

So what are you doing with your tax refund this year?

Budget Guide: 3 tips for big ticket items

Budget Guide: 3 tips for big ticket items

In this follow up to my Budget Guide series, I will be sharing with you how we were able to furnish our home and prepare for the arrival of our first child while staying within our budget.

Both my husband and I work full time and what limited free time we have after work is filled up with family events, church activities, and helping to launch a family business with my parents. After our little Peanut was born, we had to do some creative juggling to maintain our old schedule and care for a newborn. Our house was lacking some much needed furniture, but we did not have the time nor the energy to go store hopping to find the best deals.

So here are three tips for big ticket items based on how we stayed within our budget.

Shopping Online

If you have a busy life and do not have the time to travel from store to store comparing items and prices, I recommend shopping online from reputable online retailers.

Last year we purchased four dining room chairs, a small cabinet for the kitchen, two bedside tables for the master bedroom, two large area rugs, a rocking chair, and a crib mattress all online. In most cases, we did careful research to find the items that we wanted that were within our budget. Then we waited until the online retailers were running sales, had discounts, or offered free shipping.

Free shipping is crucial, especially with large/heavy items, or you will find yourself spending $20+ on shipping and handling fees!

Buy secondhand

If you do have the time to visit the secondhand stores in your area and are patient enough to wait until you find the right items, buying secondhand may be the right direction to go in.

Depending on the time of year, you may find good deals on larger furniture items. Almost year round, you can find curtains, throw pillows, artwork, and other pieces to accent your home. There are two keys to successful secondhand shopping: 1.) visiting thrift stores located in the higher income neighborhoods, and 2.) having the time and patience to shop around.

Be very specific about what items to you buy. Even with secondhand stores, you need to carefully consider your purchases. You might find an excellent deal on a couch but is the item in decent condition, would fit your home and style, necessary at this time? Basically, even at the discounted price, ask yourself if buying the item is worth it.

It is very easy to slip into a shopaholic mindset and buy anything that catches your eye, only to regret it later when you look at your dwindling checking account.

Get items from family and friends

This third tip is similar to buying secondhand and is very useful when you are first setting up a home but may not have the funds yet for furnishing it. That is: get items from family and friends for free.

Coffee tables, couches, end tables, dressers… sometimes our family and friends have a treasure trove of items they are replacing or just no longer want or need.

In our house, our couch and recliner in the living and the long dresser in our master bedroom were free from my older sister and brother-in-law. A dresser with a hidden desk, a china cabinet, and two bar stools were from my husband’s grandparents. Our current coffee table and a corner accent table we use in the hallway were from friends.

Do all of these pieces match? No, but they are all great pieces individually, fulfilled a genuine need in our home, and, most important for us, were free!

This means that they fill our home with desperately needed storage and comfort while giving us time to discover our unique “style” and save up for big purchases. Couches, for example, can be very expensive when you buy new. Why rush into a purchase you may not really love or may not fit you in a few months?

We have a decent-looking and comfortable couch that has work for us for two years now and, because it was free, I do not freak out when the baby spits up all over it. We know that eventually we will be replacing the couch with a better one, but it does its job for now.

In conclusion

So to sum up: to save some money if you are furnishing a new place or haven’t discovered your style yet, see what big items you can get for free from family and friends. Then, if you have the time, visit secondhand stores, especially those in the higher income areas of your town, to find items at bargain prices. To finish up, shop online to find quality items on sale and with free shipping.

These three tips can help you stay within your budget when shopping for big ticket items.

9 inexpensive ways to personalize a rental property

9 inexpensive ways to personalize a rental property

Do you find yourself daydreaming about owning your own home some day, browsing home decor blogs, or creating Pinterest boards to pin your favorite looks? Are you tired of empty white walls and a lack of personality in your home? If you are one of the millions who rent and thought that you cannot customize your temporary “home”, think again!

There are a number of things that you can do to personalize a property you are renting without spending a great deal of money or breaking your lease contract. Here are nine inexpensive ways we have and are currently transforming our current rental house into a cozy home that fits us.

1. Hang Curtains

Yes, I know it sounds simple, but you would be surprised how a properly hung curtain can radically transform a room. We went two years with a makeshift curtain in our master bedroom even though we already had a rod, curtain, and sheers simply because 1.) we were not certain we would be staying in this rental long, and 2.) we were lazy and did not want to remove the hideous and broken vertical blinds.

When we finally decided to make the switch, it took us maybe twenty minutes to remove the old vertical blinds and the plastic mounts, mount our nice double curtain rod, and hang the sheers and curtains. We went two years with a cheap curtain draped over a plastic mount and closed with clothes pins when we could have been enjoying a gorgeous and relaxing master bedroom with a mere twenty minutes of work!

A properly hung curtain can take a room from shabby to chic in as little as twenty minutes!

Curtains do not have to be an expensive purchase. Browse your favorite home decor stores to find the style and color that fits you. If you are on a tight budget, visit online retailers to find better deals on similar items or wait until the store has the desired item on sale.You can also try visiting secondhand stores, consignment shops, or even asking friends and family if they have old curtains they no longer use.

Just be sure that you get two matching panels (one for each “side” of the window) of the correct length. Measure your window!

To take it up a notch also hang sheers. Sheers allow light to enter a room while protecting your privacy, and sheers can take a window from looking average to elegant.

2. Change Out Toilet Seats

Though toilet seats may not be even on your mind when you move into a rental home or if you have been renting for awhile, they can transform a bathroom. Toilet seats wear out and some even break over time due to daily use. Some seats are heavy and tend to SLAM! if accidentally dropped. Some are just plain uncomfortable, ugly, or so old that the cleanliness is questionable.

Take a trip to your local hardware store and browse the toilet aisle. There are many options to choose from and at $30-$40 dollars, it is fairly inexpensive to change out a seat. Just be sure you choose the correct shape (circle or oblong) and color (white or beige) for your toilet!

We recently replaced the oblong toilet seat in our master bathroom with a wood, no-slam toilet seat for around $35. It has made a huge difference, especially during those middle of the night or early morning bathroom visits when, before, we would accidentally drop the toilet seat lid and it would make the loudest sound ever! We will be replacing the circle toilet seat in the guest bathroom this weekend.

Toilet seats are very easy to replace. Just follow the instructions on the box to remove the old seat and add the new one.

3. Switch out basic fixtures

Since we are already talking about changing out toilet seats, how about switching out other small and basic fixtures, especially in the bathroom? Sometimes towel rods and toilet paper holders in rental properties are old, mismatchy, or, let’s be honest, some landlords go too cheap and simply slap a dowel rod up on the wall where a missing towel rod should have been.

A new towel rod or toilet paper holder, especially one that matches the finish of the bathroom faucet, can bring a sense of cohesion to a small space.

Also in the bathroom, switching to a brand new shower head — especially one with multiple settings — makes a world of difference. No matter if the shower is old, a nice and new showerhead can turn your daily routine into a spa-like oasis! Depending on the type you want, you can get a multiple settings showerhead for as little as $12.

One more tip: improving the atmosphere of a room can be a simple as changing out the type of light bulbs used.

4. Remove accordion doors

One of the worst inventions in home decor, at least in my opinion, are those heavy and hard to use metal bifold doors. They tend to be found in older homes and used for closets. More often than not, they no longer slide smoothly on their tracks, may not even close all of the way, and can pinch fingers and hands.

We had one on the coat/pantry closet in the house we are currently renting and after months of fighting with it, my husband simply removed the door.

If you desire, you can leave the closet open, for example in an office or child’s room. There are really cool things you can do with a door-less closet, such as turn it into a little office nook by adding a desk. If you would still like the privacy, you can hang a curtain that compliments your decor on an inexpensive tension rod and place it inside the closet opening.

5. Brighten up cabinets and drawers with lining

If your kitchen and bathroom cabinets are older or stained on the inside, you can easily pick up inexpensive rolls of lining and lining paper. The second night after we moved into our current rental, I cleaned and put lining in all of our kitchen cabinets and drawers before unpacking our dishes, pots, pans, and utensils. It gave me peace of mind and also made cheap and very old white cabinets look presentable-ish.

Recently, I picked up some cheap paper lining with a subtle white and gray chevon pattern to place underneath our kitchen sink. When I say “cheap”, I mean it was literally $1 from a local dollar store. Dollar stores and the “dollar” or “clearance” aisles at other stores are the perfect place to shop for things like cabinet/drawer lining, because you can experiment with the look (and texture) without spending a lot of money.

The nice thing about utilizing lining around your house is that it freshens up a space, can be customized to fit your individual style, and if it is damaged, it is easily replaced.

6. Display themed artwork beautifully

Nothing screams “rental” more than empty walls or, even worse, poorly hung artwork with no theme or cohesiveness.

First, you need to talk with your landlord about their policies when it comes to wall hangings. Some landlords do not want you putting nails/screws in the walls at all so you will have to look into using an alternative method (such as command strips) that will not “damage” the wall. This may limit the size and weight of the artwork you choose to display. Other landlords have no problem with you drilling into the walls but may require you to spackle over the holes before you turn in the keys on move-out day.

Before you rush out to buy new artwork (if you do not already have some), take time to consider your personal tastes in art, colors, subject matter, and where you would like to feature pieces. The last thing you want to do is throw random pieces all over your walls.

Also, like I mentioned with curtains, you do not have to spend a great deal of money on artwork. Depending on your location, a visit or two to some second hand shops may result in a few treasures at severely discounted prices. If possible, try visiting a second hand shop in the higher income area of town. Some places have beautifully framed paintings and prints that originally cost over a hundred dollars for anywhere between $5 to $20.

Keep an eye on sales at your favorite home decor stores as well.

However, be careful not to rush into purchases that do not quite fit your theme and color scheme simply out of a desire to fill your space. It is worth living with an empty room for awhile to save your money for the perfect fit.

When it comes to hanging artwork, browse Pinterest and home decor blogs for visual inspiration. You can hang a large picture by itself or you can cluster a variety of small pieces for a gallery look. Before drilling into the wall (or applying your command strips), cut brown paper into the size/shape of your artwork and tape those on the wall to get a feel for placement.

Image of potted plants, one of nine inexpensive ways to personalize a rental property

7. Add a few potted plants

Potted plants not only bring a bit of life and color to a space, but the oxygen that they provide has a cleansing affect on the air within your home.

But not just any plants will do. You need hardy specimens that will thrive in the low-natural light of your apartment/home or won’t die if you forget to water them for a few days or can adjust to the temperature variations (if you do not use air conditioning in the summer).

Some of my personal favorites include philodendron, snake plant, aloe vera, and spider plant. We have little potted plants, mostly philodendron, on a buffet table beneath the dining room window.

The nice thing about philodendron, specifically, is that it is a trailing plant, which means its stems grow very long. You can let them trail, wrap them up, or snip them off. Place the trimmings in a jar of clean water, and they will grow roots so you can replant them. More plants for free!

A sweet bonus about keeping an aloe vera plant or two around is that you can cut a piece off and spread the gel it secretes on your skin to treat sunburns.

If having live plants is a no go for you — perhaps you travel too often or every plant you ever had died on you — try adding a few nice fake plants. Just be sure you clean the fabric leaves as they easily collect dust and dirt.

8. Paint

If your landlord has granted you permission to paint, a fresh coat of paint in a neutral color with an accent wall is a relatively inexpensive way of customizing your rental home. Take your time to consider your color options. I recommend getting the paint samples from your local store and placing them in the room(s) so you can see how the color looks throughout the day and night in various types of lighting. When painting, take special care to protect the floor and ceiling from ‘accidents’.

Some landlords do not allow tenants to paint — and for good reason! Many people have no clue how to paint so the floors and ceilings end up a disaster or the tenants choose horrible colors that the landlord will have to paint over later. Before moving in to a new rental, consider asking your potential landlord if he or she is willing to give the home a new paint job in a neutral color of your choice or even just white, off-white, light sandy beige, or a light gray. These neutral colors will usually compliment any decor scheme.

If your landlord originally did not allow painting but you have been a good tenant for a handful of years, you may want to bring the subject of painting up again. Having “proved” yourself by taking care of the residence for two or so years, the landlord may allow you more freedom to re-paint or may offer to re-paint for you.

9. Change out light fixtures

This can be a little more expensive, depending on if the landlord covers the cost and, if not, where you purchase your light fixtures. Landlords are obligated to replace damaged or broken fixtures (if it is not your fault), and some landlords may be willing to replace a fixture that is inconvenient, old, or simply hideous if asked.

If your landlord decides not to replace a light fixture for you, you may want to consider replacing the fixture yourself. Talk to your landlord first to see if he or she is willing to deduct the cost of the new fixture from your next month’s rent. (Our landlord deducted the cost when we replaced our kitchen faucet.) If not, it might be in your best interest to just eat the cost.

For example, we had a functioning light in our kitchen but it was hideous and hung too low over a high-traffic walk area. We have some friends who are taller-than-average, and one in particular kept banging his head on the light. The final straw for us was when he hit his head so hard I heard the impact of it in the living room over the hum of conversation.

So we found a nice four-bulb track light on sale at our local hardware store for around $60, and my dad helped my husband remove the old light and install the new one.

For a little out-of-pocket expense, we not only removed a hideous light that some of our guests hit their heads on, but we also were able to direct the bulbs to the areas of the kitchen that needed it most: the fridge, the stove, the sink, and the island. Now the kitchen is brighter and is a more pleasant space!

We are thinking about replacing the three outside lights with lights that are either on a timer or light-sensitive to help us save money on our electric bill, especially in the summer when the sun rises early and sets late.

 

Whether you are renting an apartment, a condo, a single-family home, or a mobile home, we hope that you have been inspired by these nine ways to personalize a rental property.

Disclaimer: First and foremost, remember to talk with your landlord so you know what is allowed and not allowed with your lease and renting policy/rules.

Maintaining an older car

Maintaining an older car

Back to school time also means back to work for my husband, who currently works for a local school district. Over the summer, he spoiled me by driving me to and from work everyday. It was great to be dropped off right at the front of my building instead of parking a mile away and either walking (not wise to do while pregnant during Arizona’s extreme summer months) or hopping a free bus.

It was also nice that we could spend a little more time together. We usually spent our ten-fifteen minute car rides in the morning making plans for that evening or the rest of the week, and after work, we would run errands before heading home.

Unfortunately for me, our nice little trips are coming to an end as a new school year begins, and I will once again drive myself into work. At least for the month of August, because I will be going on maternity leave at the beginning of September.

That said, my car — a reliable 1998 Ford — was in desperate need of a tune up and the air conditioning has not worked for three years. So Bradley and I took the car into the autoshop yesterday morning and chatted with the mechanic.

I have been preparing myself for the air conditioning to be quite expensive and we did not know if there was anything else wrong that would also require immediate attention. This is one reason why we chose to wait to take the car in. Another reason was that Bradley’s vehicle, which we use more often and for longer distances, needed a few major repairs earlier this year. So we waited to work on my car until we had saved up enough money in our Vehicle Maintenance Fund to cover whatever repairs might required.

To our surprise, the mechanic quoted a significantly lower price than I anticipated, though we knew it could go up once they got under the hood and poked around. Still, when Bradley dropped me off at the office, I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing.

About lunch time, Bradley received a call saying that the air conditioning damage was more extensive than they had seen in a long time. Yes, my poor car experienced an incident three years ago that caused a bit of damage, and yet it has continued running faithfully. Sometimes old cars are better than new ones! Especially old cars that are completely paid off and just need a little extra care to get it back in proper working order.

After work, we swung by the autoshop to pick up the car. I was actually surprised they were able to fix the air conditioning in one day. In addition to the AC, they did the usual check up and an oil change. The mechanic did let us know that a few other items will need to be replaced down the line. For example, the radiator reservoir has a big dent in it. No cracks or leaks yet, but it probably should be replaced in awhile. The final price, including labor, was actually a tad lower than the price we were quoted in the morning. Praise the Lord!

Driving home was amazing! The car drove nice and smooth and the cool air was heavenly!

You have to understand, I have been without air conditioning in this car for three years, and I live in Arizona where temperatures in the summer often stay above 110° and it is even hotter inside a car driving on asphalt in rush hour traffic. Mornings were always fine, but driving home in the afternoons, I would be soaked in sweat and have to shower!

Now the vents are blowing lovely and wonderfully cool air! It is also powerful. I actually had to turn it down to low before I arrived home. Driving into work for August will be a breeze now, and once our little son is born, I will be able to take him on errands during the day instead of having to wait for Bradley to get home.

Maintain an older car or get a new one?

So how do you know if an old car is worth maintaining or if it would be more cost effective in the long run to trade up?

Here are a few things to consider before ditching your current vehicle and rushing out to buy a new or new-to-you used one:

Current monthly payments

Is your current vehicle completely paid off? If it is, than the only monthly expenses you have is your insurance and gas. Every once in a while, you may have to take the car in for a tune up or repair, but you are free from the burden of large monthly car payments.

I love that my car — old as it is — is completely paid off! I only have to pay for the insurance on a monthly basis, routine maintenance once or twice a year (which I admit I had neglected over the last two years), and repairs rarely.

Tip: If you are not already, you should start tracking your monthly expenses so you can get an accurate idea of how much you are spending each month and where that money is going. Learn more about tracking your expenses with our Budget Guide: Tips for Saving series!

Total maintenance costs

How much have you spent in the last year or two maintaining your current vehicle? Sure, a few hundred dollars here and a thousand there can feel huge when you are on a budget or, like us, want to pay cash and not use credit cards or loans. However, even if you spent $3,000-$5,000 on your vehicle in the last two years, that is significantly less than you will pay on a new car. Even if you get a new-to-you used vehicle, you do not always know upfront what the cost of maintaining that vehicle down the road will be.

Tip: You can have your local, trusted mechanic give you a list of items that may need to be addressed in the near future but do not have to be repaired immediately. This can help you decide whether or not it is worth keeping your current vehicle and also help you properly save up for those repairs. Learn more about creating a Vehicle Maintenance Fund in your savings account!

Reliability of the vehicle

If properly maintained, how reliable is your vehicle? Does your car have a history of unexpected breakdowns? Is there a major repair looming in your near future that you will not be able to afford even with the savings from your Vehicle Maintenance Fund? Depending upon the past reliability of your car, you may lean towards keeping it or trading it in.

Satisfying needs

Does your current vehicle still meet the needs of you and your family? Sometimes, an individual or family simply outgrow a vehicle. Perhaps your current vehicle can no longer accommodate your growing family or changes in your profession, hobbies, or budget. However, if the car is still satisfying your needs, you may want to keep it longer and save the money that would otherwise go to a new car, monthly payments, and higher insurance.

After taking all of these things into consideration, you will have a better idea on which course of action is right for you. There may be unavoidable and practical reasons that necessitate a new car. Or perhaps you realize just how reliable and cost effective your current vehicle actually is — despite its age, quirks, and odd looks.

I understand. My Ford is, unfortunately, not the most attractive anymore. Hard water when I lived in California years ago damaged the paint pretty badly, but despite its looks, the extremely low maintenance costs, no monthly payments, and reliability of the vehicle make it a keeper! I think we can get a few more years out of it.

Budget Guide: Your Children’s Future

Budget Guide: Your Children’s Future

Budget Guide series - tips for saving
In the previous three posts, we discussed general finance and budgeting tips that, with some minor modifications, could be applied to almost any individual and/or family. Today we are going to look specifically at saving money for your child or children’s future. My husband and I are expecting our first child this September so this is particularly important to us.

In addition to the day-to-day expenses of raising a child, my husband and I recently discussed creating a savings account for our little one after he is born and depositing a set amount into it each month.

Even if it is just $50 a month, that money will grow to $10,800 by the time he is eighteen-years-old (plus a little extra from the dividends and other sources). This is a good savings for a young adult to have when he or she leaves the nest and enters into the world.

I was blessed that my parents set up a savings account for me when I was young, and my maternal grandmother gave to me a gift from investments or bonds (I don’t remember the details) she had set up when I was very little. So when I entered college, I had a nice amount of savings to tap into. I used half of it to finance two study abroad trips that I thoroughly enjoyed, I used some of it to send a child to school in India for many years through a trusted non-profit, and the rest was the basis of my savings once I started working.

Now I want to point out: I did not take the gift of my grandmother and parents for granted. I knew it was a precious gift that not everyone is given. I used the money wisely, frugally, saved money from a part-time tutoring job, and worked very hard to maintain a 4.0 GPA all the way through three Associate Degrees and a Bachelors. I was very aware that I was blessed to have been given a “leg up”, sort to speak, and I worked very hard to be worthy of such generosity.

I believe giving a child the gift of some savings when he or she is starting out as an independent adult is a blessing that he or she will cherish.

Think about it:

  • $25 a month for 18 years will become $5,400.
  • $50 a month for 18 years will end up $10,800!

If you have multiple children, it may be difficult to put aside a larger amount for every child. Perhaps $25 per child is good enough and maybe grandparents might be willing to supplement with $10 or $15 a month for each child. If your kids have two sets of grandparents, that might add up to $45 or $55 per month and that is $9,720 to $11,880 by the time the child is 18.

And how many times do we waste $25 or $50 dollars on unnecessary things? While this is for our children’s futures. No matter how big or small your monthly deposits are, the money will add up over eighteen years and be a very nice gift for your child or children.

He or she can decide to use the gift money for whatever journey his or her life takes: to travel, buy a car, learn a trade, go to college, invest, buy real estate, start a business, whatever! These figures do not even take into consideration any money he or she has saved up from part-time jobs as teenagers or from their first “real” jobs as young adults!

If you don’t have children, you can still use this idea to set aside a certain amount each month towards a long term goal: perhaps it is a dream vacation or a down payment for a house or a business venture or extra funds for retirement.

Budget Guide: Organize Your Savings!

Budget Guide: Organize Your Savings!

Previously we have looked at tracking monthly income as well as lowering monthly bills and expenses. Today let us jump right on in to the best part: saving money!

Budget Guide series - tips for saving We are going to be looking at a few methods that will help you keep a buffer in your checking account and divide your savings account into “funds”. When your savings is organized, it is much easier to know how much you have saved, what the savings are earmarked for, and how much you still need to reach any saving goals you may have.

Choose a fake zero

Some of my favorite advice that my mom shared with me when I began working was to create a “fake zero balance” in my checking account. Basically, she said to pick a specific dollar amount that would act as my zero. Depending on your income, it can be $250, $500, $750, or $1000. Even if your income is very tight, it is worth saving for a month or two to get a larger padding.

This money is not to be touched unless for emergencies! You need to re-train yourself so when you see your “fake zero”, even if it is $500, you do not “see” the $500 as available funds. It looks like a $0 to you. After a few months of reminding yourself, you will discover the temptation to dip into that money for non-emergencies lessens and eventually goes away.

Keeping a fake zero in your checking account means that you do not have to worry about bounced checks nor standing in a grocery line with a cart full of food and no money in your account to pay for it. It is a safety net and can give you piece of mind that, should an emergency happen, you will be fine.

Savings

Now for the savings! Many financial experts recommend saving 20-30% of your income if possible. This may seem like a huge amount so begin with smaller steps and see how you can work it up. Based off your monthly income, determine the bare minimum you can transfer to a savings account each month. No matter what, every month you can either manually or have that amount automatically transferred into your savings.

With the savings from the other areas, you may discover that you can save more than you expected. Each month is different as well. You may only be able to save your minimum one month and the next twice that much.

Divide Savings into Funds

Though your savings are all grouped together in your account, I highly recommend creating a simple spreadsheet in the program of your choice. You will want to track the money coming in and out of your account as well as divide the balance into “funds”.

In my spreadsheet, I have one section that tracks the basic deposits, dividends, and withdraws. Above that, I have a few lines in which I have created different “funds” that I separate the total savings into.

You need to decide what you are saving for and create funds that match your needs.

Emergency Fund

The first thing you should do is to create an Emergency Fund. Yes, you have some emergency padding in your checking if you use the “fake zero balance” advice above, but this is a much larger emergency fund. Many financial experts agree that you should work your Emergency Fund up to the equivalent of three months’ income. I know it can be difficult, especially with other expenses, but each month add a little into the Emergency Fund and force yourself to never move money from it unless it is truly an emergency. This is another safety net! Should you lose your job, you will have three months income available while you apply for new jobs.

Vehicle Maintenance Fund

Another fund that we use regularly is the Vehicle Maintenance Fund. My husband and I have two vehicles.

Mine is a Ford, completely paid off, and runs well for minimal in-town errands. It is in desperate need of a paint job and the air conditioning now works does not work (which makes driving around Phoenix in the summer a miserable experience), but overall it does not cost us much to maintain.

My husband’s vehicle is a Nisson and he is still paying it off. It unfortunately just hit the ten-year-mark which means it has been requiring some expensive fixes. However, it is a great vehicle, my husband drives it daily, and we use it for all of our trips. So we decided the Nisson is our primary vehicle and worth keeping in tip-top-shape. The Ford is our extremely reliable backup.

We have decided not to use credit cards for vehicle maintenance. My husband did that with his previous car and long after he trade it in, he was still paying off the credit card. Not a fun experience seeing hard-earned money disappear for a car you no longer even have! So after we married we created a Vehicle Maintenance Fund in our savings. We had both vehicles evaluated by a mechanic so we have a general idea ahead of time what needs done, an estimate on the price, and the timeframe we have to save up for it. Every month, we add money to the Vehicle Maintenance Fund until we have enough to take one of the vehicles in.

Other Funds

The other funds you create will be specific to you and your family. Ours includes a down payment fund for a future home and a baby fund for expenses. (Our first little one will be born in September!) You might choose to create a Vacation Fund to save up for a dream vacation, a new vehicle fund to buy a new car, or whatever your goal(s) may be.

Conclusion

Tracking your monthly income and expenses, giving yourself a budget for expenses, and organizing your savings will greatly improve your financial situation. I highly recommend working towards a “fake zero” in your checking account and a three month Emergency Fund in your savings. These are safety nets that are important to have, especially during times of economic difficulty or uncertainty.

Our last post in this Budget Guide series will be about putting aside money for any children you may have.