Tag: budget

15 Simple Ways to Save A Little Money

15 Simple Ways to Save A Little Money

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning that, at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for supporting the brands that support this blog.

Like many families, we made the choice to live — at least currently— on a single income so my husband is able to stay home with our fifteen-month-old son. Our income, after taxes and health insurance, manages to covers our monthly tithes, bills, and routine expenses. Sometimes we even have a little left over for savings. (Praise the Lord, what a blessing!)

Unfortunately, the last few months of 2017 were a little harder on our budget than we had planned for. We had a few unexpected car maintenance issues in September and October that depleted our Vehicle Maintenance Fund and forced us to use part of our Emergency Fund. (I am certain many of you can relate to that!) There was also an eight-day family vacation in November and special events for family and friends (birthdays, baby showers, holidays, etc).

Needless to say, it is not always easy to stay in budget when emergencies happen. We completely understand and empathize with the need for individuals and families to find creative ways to save. So I have put together 15 simple ways to save a little money on the side. You might just be surprised how a few dollars here and there does add up!

1. Make and take your lunch

Whether you work outside the home or not, it is too easy to slip into a pattern of buying lunch. An average meal can cost between $5 and $14 depending on the quality of the restaurant you go to. You also have to be careful of extra expenses for utilizing “convenience” stores and/or vending machines. The cost of microwave-ready meals adds up, too. Making and taking your lunch can save you a lot of money each month.

The lunches you make do not have to be fancy. This is a great way to get rid of leftovers, eat more salads, and help with your health/fitness goals. Invest in a nice microwave dish or mini-crockpot warmer (like this one), a water bottle, and a lunch bag and you will be on your way to saving!

2. Avoid frequent dining out

In the same vein as the previous tip, avoid dining out as much as possible. Yes, dining out can be a lot of fun if you enjoy trying new foods, going to new places, or have a few favorites you enjoy visiting. However, dining out is an expensive hobby! A family of four can easily spend over $60 plus 15-20% in tip at just one meal. Even if you opt for cheaper fast food instead of a finer dining experience, you will find yourself wasting money on poor quality food that will leave you hungry just a little while later.

Save the dining out experience for special occasions, limit the number of times per month you allow yourself to go out to dining (for example: twice a month), or give yourself a very strict dining out budget per week (for example: $10 or $20 a week).

You will be amazed with how much you can save just from eating at home. In many cases — since restaurants and fast food relay so heavily on extra salt and fats to give food flavor — you will also end up make healthier meal choices at home and feeling better.

3. Find cheap or free events/activities for social gatherings with family and friends

Food is often how we interact with family and friends, but it does not have to be the go-to social activity. Check out your local newspaper for free or cheap community events and/or activities you can go to instead. Have a family fun day and picnic at a local city park, take a walk through a nature preserve, go for a hike at a nearby state park, ride bikes around the neighborhood. Look into free movie tickets or discount days at local museums. Take classes, borrow books, rent movies, and more at your public library.

There are so many fun options out there that have nothing to do with food but will make wonderful memories!

4. Drink more water!

Did you know that most American adults are chronically dehydrated? (Source) It may be surprising when you consider how much liquid we tend to consume on a daily basis between all the coffee, tea, soda, juices, etc. Think of all of the money you can save if you cut back on these other, more expensive beverages that are not properly hydrating you anyway and, instead, drink more water. Our bodies function best with good old H2O, which is often free from your tap!

I highly encourage you to have your tap water tested to ensure its quality. It may be worth the initial cost to invest in a water filter or filtration system, as you will be saving money in the long run by not having to buy bottled water.

Or, if you are like us, find a family member or friend who does have a great water filtration system already and see if you can use their water. We visit my parents once or twice a week anyway, so we take empty water jugs with us and fill them up with their delicious, filtered water to use for drinking and cooking. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

5. Shop at dollar stores and discount grocery stores

Have you checked out the dollar stores and discount grocers near you? What about farmers’ markets and ethnic shops? These stores can save you quite a bit each month on your regular staples: breads, cereals, rice, beans, and sometimes even fruits and vegetables. There are some items that you will have to get at the bigger stores no matter what, but look at the local flyers that come in the mail for sales and discounts to know when and where to shop.

If you have a favorite grocery store, see if they have a rewards program that can save you a couple of dollars each trip, send you coupons on items you actually buy regularly, and maybe even give you a discount at the gas pump. I love that our main grocery store, Fry’s (aka Krogers), does all three!

As an individual who has food allergies and sensitivities, I highly recommend reading ingredients carefully and making wise food purchases. In my experience, it is often better to go without something then to risk a handful of sick and miserable days.

6. Make shopping lists and stick to them

This is something we struggle with so I definitely need to take my own advice here! When we make a shopping list — whether for groceries or regular shopping — we do a much better job of buying items we actually need and avoiding the impulse purchases that tend to cause the bill to jump up.

A bonus tip: try not to go grocery shopping when hungry! Your hunger may influence you into splurging on pre-packaged snacks and more items than you really need.

7. Buy used or secondhand

Buying used or secondhand is a great way to save a little money. We like to buy temporary clothes secondhand; for example, almost all of my maternity clothes were gently used from a secondhand store since I only need these clothes for a short amount of time. Likewise, we get most of our son’s clothes secondhand because he is growing so fast!

We also keep an eye out for toys that do not have small parts, are not broken, and can be easily sanitized. Why spend $30-$60 on a set of megablocks when you can get the same number of blocks (or more) in a bag at a thrift store for $2-$5?

8. Cancel unused memberships and subscriptions

Do you belong to a gym but never (or hardly ever) go? Are you paying for magazines that you never read and just end up cluttering your house? Do you have an annual membership to any online sites that you no longer regularly visit? Take a moment to really consider if these and other memberships/subscriptions you might have are truly worth the money you are paying for them.

If you find you do not use the gym, read the magazines, or visit the websites often, then it is time to cancel! While some subscriptions may only be $10 or so a year, others could be as much as $10-20 a month. That is a lot of savings when you do the math. Every little bit saved adds up.

9. Fix things yourself when possible

The toilet is running, a faucet is leaking, the car’s fluids need checked and refilled, the tires are a bit low on air, your favorite shirt lost a button, your socks have a hole in the toe… There are plenty of ways you can save a few dollars when you decide to try your hand at doing small projects yourself.

If you really put your mind to it, many things you can do without having to be a super handy or crafty person. When something breaks, I highly recommend doing a little research online with your favorite search engine or YouTube first to see if it is something you can fix yourself. (Like we did with our $3 Faucet fix!) If you can, great! If you cannot, then at least you tried.

10. Cut your own hair

Ok, so this may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is worth a try. According to the Professional Beauty Assocation, the average cost nationally for a man’s hair cut is about $28 and $43 for a woman’s hair cut; however, the price may be lower or significantly higher depending upon where you live and the salon you visit. If you are not fussy about your hair nor have a complex style to maintain, you could save a little money by cutting your own hair.

For men, it might be as simple as investing in a razor/clipper set like this Adjustable Fast Feed Clipper from Oster. For ladies, a pair of hair cutting scissors and a virtual trip to YouTube can provide you with guidance on trimming bangs or fast and easy ways to do your own layers!

I have been trimming my own bangs and cutting my own hair for about two years now. As long as I am not in a rush, it turns out fine. (Thanks, YouTube!) We did try trimming my husband’s hair at home. Unfortunately, his hair is soooooo thick that even professionals have a hard time getting it right. After two different attempts, we decided it was better for him to get it cut professionally by the one stylist who knows how to do it well.

11. Turn off lights and electronics when not in use

Anyone else feeling a little nostalgic for those childhood days when your mom would constantly remind you: “Turn off the light in the bathroom/closet/bedroom/hall if you’re not in there!” Well, your mom had an excellent point. Turning off lights and also electronics when not in use will save you a little on your electric bill. You can unplug kitchen appliances like toasters and coffee makers to prevent phantom power usage, and also cellphone and tablet chargers in the living room or bedroom.

Always use surge protectors for those electronics that need to stay plugged in, especially your more expensive ones like televisions, computers, etc. There are now such things as smartstrips, like this one from Amtake, that will help you save even more by designing a specific device (like your television) that is a “master”. When it is turned off, all of the other devices associated with it are also powered down (blu-ray player, stereo, etc.).

12. Hang clothes to dry

If you have both a washing machine and a dryer in your home, you may have already wondered how energy efficient these machines are. Depending upon how often you need to do laundry each week, these conveniences may be causing your monthly electric bill to be higher than necessary.

If you want to save a few dollars on your electric bill, hang your clothes to dry instead of using the dryer. Our machines are in a small “laundry closet” in our main hallway. The closet does not have doors so we hung curtains so we can hide the closet when we have visitors. The curtain rod provides a perfect place to hang shirts to dry. We also have a collapsible drying rack we got from a second-hand store that we can easily pop up in any room to dry pants, socks, unmentionables, etc. Ours is much, much older, but here is a similar one. If you can, use a clothes line outdoors to let your clothes to also get that amazing fresh air smell.

13. Run AC/Heater only when necessary

If you live in an older house like we do, then your AC/heater may not be energy efficient either. We never use the heater in the winter, but instead have two space heaters that we use to heat the front and back parts of our house. The space heaters allow us to set temperatures, time limits, and really control where the heat is going to limit the drain on our electricity.

For safety, never let a space heater run unattended. I also recommend buying a new heater, not used, and preferably one with an automatic shut-off if it is tipped or falls over. Use a surge protector. Never place a heater near anything flammable, such as curtains or bedsheets. Watch children and pets around the heater, both to prevent burns and tipping.

In the summer, we wait as long as possible before turning on the AC (and we live in the desert of Arizona where summer temperatures often top 115 degrees). Open doors and windows to air out the house. Fresh air is so important! While my husband and I could probably go longer without the AC, we do have an elderly dog and a young child to taken into consideration.

14. Have a change jar for corralling lose coins

Loose coins. We may not give a lot of thought to these little circular pieces of currency, but quarters, dimes, nickels and, yes, even pennies, do add up over time. Instead of dropping those coins on the kitchen counter or bedside table or letting them accumulate under couch cushions, grab a large jar and deposit the coins in there.

Personally, I like clear jars so I can watch it fill up over time. When it is full, take it to your local bank to have your money deposited in your savings. The last time we took a huge jar to the bank, we ended up with almost $60 worth of coins! What a savings!

15. Pop your own popcorn

This last tip is more for fun, but it could also save you a few dollars. Next time you want to enjoy some fresh popcorn, make it yourself instead of using the more expensive microwaveable kind. A bag of kernels, oil, and salt is a lot cheaper and will last a good deal longer. You can use an air popper, pot with a lid on the stove, or even a brown paper bag in the microwave!

Last year on a camping trip with the youth club my husband and I volunteer with, I experimented with popcorn over a campfire and it was not only delicious, but a hilarious experience. The first batch popped everywhere and the kids were very amused. The second batch stayed (mostly) in the pan. Since then, I have cooked popcorn on the stove at home twice. It is a lot of fun and we still have not used the entire bag of kernels yet!

So here are 15 simple ways to save a little money on the side. There are so many more ways that I did not even touch on. I would love to hear from you! What are some little ways you save money?

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!

Rug pads make a difference

Rug pads make a difference

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning that, at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission when you click through and make a purchase. Thanks for supporting the brands that support this blog.

I have moved eleven times so far in my entire life (not counting the two summers I studied abroad), and most of the houses I have lived in had fully carpeted rooms with hard surfaces in designated areas like kitchens and bathrooms. Perhaps that is why I have not given much thought to rug/carpet pads… until recently.

Our current rental house has tile flooring throughout, which is nice in the hot, desert summers but not so nice in the cold winters. I like that the tile floor is easier to clean but it is a bit hard when standing for a long period of time (like when washing dishes at the kitchen sink). When I moved in on New Years 2014, a large area rug to warm up the living room was at the top of my must have list (along with a new TV console that had a built-in electric heater).

My husband, who was my fiancé at the time, helped me rug shop and, after trips to numerous stores, I finally settled for something that had colors and patterns I could live with. Though it helped warm the room, it was not a very lush carpet and provided little to no extra padding underfoot. We bought it, rolled it out right away, and have been content with our choice.

For the next few years, I did not give the living room rug much thought.

Then we had our first child, and the first time he fell and hit his head hard on the living room floor, I was horrified. Our area rug provided no extra padding, and it was as if he had bumped his head on the tile itself! We bought a cute head protector (similar to this one) for when he was learning to crawl. That definitely helped save his precious noggin during more than a few tumbles but did not solve the real problem.

Around the same time, we bought a gorgeous area rug for our master bedroom that was thicker and softer, and I realized just how unpadded the living room rug really was.

Our little Peanut is 13-months-old now and he is now learning to walk. Three weeks ago, he took his first steps on his own, and he is now walking quite a bit. He likes to kneel, take one knee, or even sort of belly-flop onto the floor. He also loves to sit down, lean back until his head bumps the floor, kick his feet in the air while laughing, and then roll around.

And in another four months (give or take), we will have another little one who will also pass through the crawling, tumbling, walking phases!

If you have been following this blog for even a little bit of time, you know that we live on a budget and when making larger purchases, we try to find good deals. We will often save up for our purchases and then wait weeks or months more for a good sale or deal. This time, we had to take into consideration the urgency of this need for our son’s safety.

So with some extra money from one of my freelance projects and taking advantage of free shipping, we bit the bullet and purchased a pad to go under our living room rug. (We eventually decided on this one from Amazon.) It should be arriving any day now, and we cannot wait to lift the rug, roll out the pad, and see how well it works at cushioning our feet and softening our son’s… tumbling.

Update: 2 October 2017

The rug pad arrived promptly last Friday, the exact day it was scheduled to. At first, we thought they sent the wrong size as the roll was only about 4 foot wide, but we quickly realized they had folded the pad over before rolling it to make it easier to ship. Sunday my parents came over to help us do a few improvements around the house, and one of the projects was to roll back the living room carpet and put the pad down.

It was actually more challenging that it sounds. Our living room is a bit tight and we have a 8’x10′ rug to maximize floor coverage. One side is tucked under our couch and the opposite site is beneath our heavy TV console (with a built-in electric heater, shelving, and a large flatscreen television). We knew we could not get the pad under the TV console; it was just too heavy to try to lift up.

As it was, it took three of us to lift the couch, pull back the carpet, lay down the pad, straighten the pad, put the carpet back, and smooth out the lumps. Then my dad took a straight edge and trimmed the carpet pad where it was showing.

We are so happy with the result. The 3/8″ thickness provides just the right amount of cushion on our feet (and our son’s head) without raising the carpet edges too high, thus preventing a tripping hazard.

One takeaway from this whole experience, it is easier to cushion area rugs and carpets when you are first moving into a residence (before the large furniture is brought in). Ideally, we should have bought a pad when we purchased our area rug. It is possible to add a rug pad later, but it is more of a challenge and may require additional helpers for lifting and re-arranging furniture. If you live in a house with hard floors, this is something to consider.

How much of your current home is carpet or hard floor? Do you use rug pads under your area rugs?

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?

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 your space while renting

9 inexpensive ways to personalize your space while renting

Disclaimer: Before making any significant changes to a property you are renting, remember to talk with your landlord and/or refer to your lease agreement so you know what is allowed and not allowed.

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 Dollar Tree. 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.

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

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!

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 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.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.