Post Series: Budget Guide

This series of posts is all about finances, specifically how to set a budget and build up a savings for the future. If you do not already have a budget or method for tracking your expenses, feel free to use this as a guide.

Budget Guide: Monthly Income and Bill Schedule

Budget Guide: Monthly Income and Bill Schedule

I believe I had been modestly frugal for most, if not all, of my life. I am the type of person that really dislikes seeing hard earned money leave my bank account, unless it is for something that I have planned for. I might, on rare occasion, do a spontaneous purchase, but then I usually tighten my belt for weeks afterward to not just make up for it but to save double the amount.

I just dislike spending money unless it is absolutely necessary. I have been keeping track of my income, expenses, and savings – in one form or another – since I moved out on my own and became solely responsible for my own rent, bills, and day-to-day expenses. I have been intentionally putting money away into my savings all of my adult life, and though by no means am I an expert or even exceptional, I feel that I have learned quite a bit from my experiences.

The next few posts will be about finances, specifically how to set a budget and build up a savings for the future. If you do not already have a budget or method for tracking your expenses, feel free to use this as a guide.

Average Monthly Income

The place to start this journey is to understand your total monthly income, whether you are paid weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Do you have one source of income or multiple sources? Do you have a steady income that is about the same every paycheck or does your pay fluctuate from paycheck to paycheck? All of this information is very important to understand, because it is difficult to set a budget without knowing how much money you bring in on a monthly basis.

I recommend tracking your income for a few months using a basic spreadsheet. If you are in a hurry to set your budget and your income is somewhat steady, you can fill in the spreadsheet retrospectively. However, I find it easier to track moving forward. Three months is a good sample size.

Also about what time of the month do you receive your paycheck(s)? For example, I am paid biweekly so I usually have two paychecks a month — one near the beginning and one around the middle of the month. Every once in a while I receive three paychecks in a month. It sounds great at first because you think: “Oh! A whole extra paycheck to play with!” Unfortunately, this extra paycheck tends to throw my bill paying schedule for the following month out of whack.

How you deposit your paycheck(s) is up to you. Some businesses still only hand out paper checks which require you to physically go to your local bank to deposit it. Others allow a direct deposit option where the money is sent directly to your bank account. I have chosen direct deposit as my bank does not have any branch offices within a thirty minute drive so it is near impossible to get to an office before it closes without taking time off of work.

Bill Schedule

Once you have a clear idea of your monthly income, take a look at all of the bills you pay on a monthly basis and mark down when they are due and when you usually pay the bills.

Since I have a biweekly paycheck, I divide my bills into two groups: those that are paid using the first paycheck of the month and those that are paid from the second paycheck.

The first group of bills paid are rent, since it is due on the first of every month, and insurance, as it is usually due in the first week of the month.

The second group of bills include utilities, electricity, internet and mobile phone as all of these are due towards the second half of the month (usually all after the 15th of a month).

Dividing up my bill paying like this works very well as the rent is usually a huge chunk of money that is taken out at one time. I use a Google calendar to keep track of when bills are due and which ones have been paid and on what day.

How you pay your bills is your choice. Quite a few years ago, I decided to go the paperless route. This allows me to pay my bills the day my paycheck becomes available in my account and mark them as paid in my calendar without having to wait for mail and sort through papers.


To start on your budget journey, I recommend setting up a calendar for scheduling your monthly bills and a spreadsheet for tracking your monthly income. These can be a physical calendar and spreadsheet or digital. Some people really like the feel of paper and writing by hand.

For convenience sake, I have chosen to utilize Google Drive with its calendar and spreadsheets. I already have a Google account so it made sense to use its built-in features. This allows me access to my information from anywhere I have Internet access.

In the calendar, I create an “event” for each bill and have chosen a color to represent bills so I can see when all are due at a quick glance. I usually label the bills: BILL – utilities ($xx.xx) so I can easily see which bill it is and how much without having to open the “event”. After a bill has been paid, I modify the label to reflect that: PAID 6/17 – Utilities ($xx.xx).

For the spreadsheet, I created a very simple table with a column for deposits and one for each month of the year. In the rows beneath, I mark what type of deposit it is (paycheck, dividend, other) and how much is received. Using the basic formula =sum() to total the cells in a column, I gather the total for each month and then for the whole year.

Below is a sample of the spreadsheet. Scroll to the right to see all of the months.


Today we talked about the importance of knowing your average monthly income and having a bill schedule. Both are important when it comes to setting a budget and making plans to save more. In our next post, we’ll take a closer look at ways to lower your monthly living expenses.

Budget Guide: Evaluating Housing, Bills and Expenses

Budget Guide: Evaluating Housing, Bills and Expenses

In the first post of our Budget Guide series, we shared the importance of knowing your monthly income and having a bill schedule. It is hard to set a budget without a clear understanding of how much you bring in every month and when bills are due.

Today we are taking it one step further. We are going to be evaluating our housing costs, monthly bills, and additional expenses. By doing this, we can see where we might be spending too much and what we might be able to cut back.

Affordable Housing

One of the most importance decisions you can make is where to live and how much you can afford. You need to take into consideration your work commute, safety of the location, and any needs that you cannot live without.

Many financial experts recommend that your monthly housing cost should not exceed 20-25% of your monthly income. If you can find a place that costs less, then that is more money you can save!

Unfortunately, many of us are limited in our housing options, and local housing costs can very widely across the country. Sometimes we may have to make sacrifices to be able to live within our means if we are stuck in an area with a very high cost of living or we may have to make the hard choice of moving somewhere more affordable, though this is not always feasible.

For example, my family currently spends 35% of our monthly income on housing and, though it is not ideal, that is lowest we could get in regards to our current circumstances. It does mean we have to work harder in other areas to budget and save money.

My suggestion for anyone looking for affording housing is to be patient, constantly re-evaluate what is on your priorities and housing “must haves” list, and shop around.

Re-evaluate Your Monthly Bills

Another way you can save money is to re-evaluate your monthly bills.

First, determine what you need and what you can live without. I decided a long time ago that I did not need cable or satellite television. I am able to get local channels for free (digital), I have a Netflix account with a single screen ($9/month), and I can get any news I may want online. As a web developer, however, I cannot live without Internet and so I opted for high-speed Internet instead. Still, choosing just internet over an internet/tv bundled package has saved me on average $40+ dollars a month for over three years. That is a minimum savings of $1440!

Do not be afraid to shop around or switch providers when you need to. Last summer, after my Internet provider began consistently raising rates so it was no longer cost effective, I switched to a different provider with a set rate. That change has saved us $20 a month!

For those bills that everyone must have, such as utilities, figure out ways to keep your costs low. When I was renting an apartment, I did not use the heat in the winter because all four of the apartments that shared walls with mine ran their heaters. As a result, my small one-bedroom maintained a nice temperature as long as I wore slippers and a light sweater on the coldest days.

To lower your electricity bill, consider keeping the air conditioning off in the spring/summer/autumn for as long as you possibly can stand it and turn off lights and unplug appliances when not in use. To save on your water bill, fix any leaky facets or running toilets, take shorter showers, turn off the water between rinses, and don’t leave the water running while brushing your teeth.

Nowadays mobile phones are the primary mode of communication, and most homes no longer have landlines. However, is it absolutely necessary to have the latest iPhone on an expensive and hard to break two-year contract with all these bells and whistles that you may never even use? Carefully determine what you actually need from a mobile device and service provider. Then find a phone, carrier, plan, and price tag that is affordable.

Lower Your Monthly Expenses

Once you have determined what housing you can afford and re-evaluated your monthly bills, it is time to look at your additional expenses. This includes purchases such as groceries/food, gas, clothing/household necessities, discretionary spending money, etc. I recommend tracking your expenses for a few months to get an average of what you are spending. You can use the spreadsheet from the first post as a guide and add a new table beneath the income for expenses.

Once you have an idea of how much you are spending each month, give yourself a reasonable budget and force yourself to adhere to it for the next month to test how realistic it is for you.

I have certain food allergies and sensitivities that mean that many of my food “staples” (like bread, pasta, butter, milk) are extremely expensive compared to the average person’s staples. For a while, I knew I was spending far too much on far too little so my husband and I began shopping around to find better deals. We now get the bulk of our groceries from the 99 Store, Fry’s (with their card, we save on average $10-$15 dollars each time we shop), and occasionally Wal-Mart instead of paying more for the same items at a fancy store.

By limiting our grocery shopping to every two weeks, being more picky on choosing my high-price specialty food items, and finding the best prices for the items we purchase regularly, we have been able to save $200 a month on groceries without having to do any time-consuming couponing or price comparisons that neither one of us have time for. If you do have the time and patience to take it one step further and master the art of couponing, I say go for it!

Another way we have saved money is that, before I became pregnant with our first child, I biked to work. Yes, it was five miles one way, but it saved us a considerable amount of money on gas and parking fees. If walking or biking is not possible, look into public transportation and see if it is cost effective for your area. (It is not always.) Once I was pregnant, I saved money by parking a mile away from my office at the church we are members of because I can park there for free. I then either walk the mile in or hopped a free campus shuttle. Sure, there are annoyances and inconveniences with using public transit, but it saved us a lot of money each month. Or maybe carpooling is an option for you.

After looking at all of the options available to you, you may end up determining that driving and paying the parking fees is the most affordable and/or realistic. That is okay. At least you did your due diligence and looked into it!

Tip: Curb the Spontaneous Shopping

Give yourself a very modest “discretionary” budget for those little impulse buys to help curb any spontaneous shopping. A water or soda from a soda machine one day, a bag of chips another, too many lunches/dinners out instead of preparing meals ahead of time, and you can quickly blow your budget without even realizing it. These little purchases are often more expensive then you realize at the time, especially vending machines and corner stores that market themselves as convenient but sell items at a higher than normal price.

I am also trying to implement in my own life the phrase: “One thing in, one thing out.” If I see something that I really want, I force myself to take time to think it over: Do I need it? Can I use it? Am I replacing something with it?

Tithes and Donations

Each month, I set aside a tenth of my income for tithes and offerings. Not everyone tithes, so for those who do not, this also refers to donations to charitable organizations or non-profits. Donating to trustworthy organizations is a good way to help your community and others in need, and if you track your donations you may be eligible for discounts or refunds on your state and federal taxes.


If you take the time now to evaluate your housing costs, bills, and additional expenses, you may discover areas that are draining your money. Saving a little here or there on your monthly expenses will add up over a full year or two.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at savings.

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!

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.


Now for the savings! Many financial experts recommend saving 20-30% of your monthly 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 automatically transfer that amount 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. If you have an unexpected emergency expense (car repairs, home repairs, speeding ticket, etc.), you have the ability to pay it without having to rely on credit cards or a loan.

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, the air conditioning now works does not work (which made driving around Phoenix in the summer a miserable experience), and it could use a few other repairs 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.


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.

Budget Guide: Your Children’s Future

Budget Guide: Your Children’s Future

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: 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.

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 debt 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 debt 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?

10 Tips for Staying in Budget This Holiday Season

10 Tips for Staying in Budget This Holiday Season

Here in the United States, we are now in the midst of the holiday season. Thanksgiving has just passed, and with December only a few days away, many of us have turned our minds to purchasing presents. With Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and some stores offering deals all week long, a lot of people are eagerly on the hunt for the best sales.

There are plenty of holiday parties with family, friends, or even at the office to attend soon, and many may include secret santa or white elephant style gift exchanges. Charities and various non-profits are also upping their advertising in hopes of getting more donations. There are also adopt-a-child and adopt-a-family style programs to help the less fortunate in our local communities.

With the social expectation of lavish gift giving during this time of year, how does the budget conscience person stay within budget?

I recently read an article on CNBC that shared approximately half of Americans surveyed went into debt to finance their 2016 holiday shopping — and many are still paying it off!

Don't go into debt this holiday season! Here are 10 tips to stay within budget. Click To Tweet

While we have always tried to keep to a reasonable budget during the holidays, this year we are having to tighten our financial belts even more. We have transitioned to a single income household and due to a few unforeseeable emergency expenses over the last few months, it is has been a bit of a struggle to maintain our “normal”. We had to dip into our savings more than I would have liked and have not been able to replenish it (yet).

So this year, we are on a very tight Christmas budget. Here are 10 tips we will be following on staying within budget this holiday season.

1. Set your budget in stone.

Decide on how much you can afford this holiday season. Be sure to think about all aspects of the holidays: gifts, dinners out, parties, decorations, food ingredients, charitable giving, etc. Be realistic but firm in your budget decision. Make a commitment to yourself that you will stay within your budget no matter what amazing “deals” you might see advertised or who asks for donations.

2. Make a list and check it twice.

All joking aside, seriously sit down and make a list of everyone that you would like to give a gift to and/or situation that may require a gift. Set a price limit for each gift and evaluate the total estimated cost. Then prune your list down as far as you can possibly go — both the recipients and the cost per gift.

3. Give a thoughtful card rather than a gift.

In some situations, a nice seasonal card with a personalized note could replace a more expensive gift. If you are like me, then you probably have blank holiday cards left over from previous years so you may not have to buy any new ones! It just costs you a little bit of time to write the note and maybe the cost of postage (if mailing).

4. Make a list and shop carefully.

This is the time of year that retailers and shops use many (often successful) tactics to convince you to overspend. Do not fall for their marketing gimmicks or get sucked into buying more than you need because of “good deals”.

Know what you are going to buy before you walk in the store and stick to that list.

5. Shop dollar stores.

You might just be surprised by all of the things now available at dollar stores. This should be the go-to-stop for the frugal shopper. For example, why spend all of that money on expensive gift baskets when you can put together your own, customized gift basket using items from dollar stores?

You might like: Holiday Gift Guide: $5 Go-To Gift Ideas

6. Shop secondhand.

Not everything has to be bought brand new, in the original packaging and with price tags still attached. There are many thrift and secondhand stores that sell interesting or unique items of good quality at affordable prices.

7. Re-gift.

There are times for birthdays and holidays when we might receive a nice gift that we already have or cannot use for some reason. The thought behind the present is extremely meaningful so why not pass these unused items on to bless others? Just be sure you do not accidentally re-gift an item back to the original gift-giver — that might lead to an awkward conversation!

8. Shop in your home.

While similar to the last tip, this one is even more personal. Who among us is not trying to simplify our lives and declutter our homes? I know we are!

During the purging process, we sometimes find items that we really love or have used previously but no longer need or have a place for. Instead of donating these items to strangers, why not give them as a gift to someone you know (or hope) will appreciate it? To make the gift extra special, write a nice note about what the item means to you and why you are giving it to that person.

9. Re-use gift bags and wrappings.

I started collecting birthday, special occasion, and holiday themed bags and gift wrappings a few years ago when my husband and I married. We even save tissue paper if it is in good condition. (I fold tissue paper neatly for storage.) This has been a lifesaver when it comes to saving a little money on the “wrappings”.

If you don’t have any bags to re-use, go for a fun vintage feel by wrapping your gifts with old newspaper or brown paper from grocery bags.

10. Be honest with family and friends.

If you are going to be changing your giving habits noticeably, be sure to let your family and friends know ahead of time that this year you do not have much to spend and will be cutting back to stay on budget. You do not need to go into detail, but be honest and genuine. Most people will be more than understanding.

Bonus Tip: Homemade gifts

Inspired by the comment below from our friend, Trisha, if you are crafty in any way maybe you had make a few gifts yourself! Handmade gifts are treasures to keep for years to come! Depending upon how crafty you are, you may already have plenty of things lying around your house that you can use to make a homemade gift.

The perfect gift can be anything from a card to an ornament to a home decor piece or framed drawing/painting or going to a local print shop and printing photos, canvas, mousepads, etc. You could put the ingredients for the perfect hot cocoa or cookie recipe in a mason jar and write cooking directions on a little label. If you are not sure what to do, browsing Pinterest is a good place to get ideas!


It is our intention that, by following these ten tips ourselves, we will be able to stay within our meager holiday budget without having to sacrifice the joy that comes with gift-giving. It will take careful planning and a commitment to our budget, but if we can do it, so can you!