Part One – Track Your Expenses

This is Part One of my five-part, eight-week series on The Beginner’s Guide To Budgeting.

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If starting a budget seems overwhelming, let’s go old school for a moment, shall we.

1. Get out a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil.

2. Now write down EVERY amount you spend as soon as you can after you spend it, for an entire month and what you spent it on. Every. Single. Penny.

That’s it. The first step towards budgeting your money is to track every cent that leaves your bank account/wallet.

You will have entries for your mortgage/housing, insurance, auto payment, etc. I call those Fixed Monthly Bills (FMB) those that are due every month like clockwork. And then you will also have entries for things you need to purchase every month, you know, like food to eat and Kleenex to blow your nose with, that stuff. Those are referred to as Fixed Monthly Expenses (FME).  And then if you are like me, you will have the things that I like to call FLUFF, better know as: Fun Life purchases Under False Finances – those impulse items, things you don’t-really-need-and-I-really-can’t-afford-them-but-I-really-want-it-and-it’s-going-on-the-credit-card-so-I-don’t-have-to-pay-until-later-anyway so you go ahead and buy them. Anyway. Yeah, those things.

It can be hard to change your lifestyle and habits in one week so this whole process is going to take place over a couple of  months. This one step will take a whole month. This will allow you examine where your money is going and what it is doing for a full month. This is a process and the first step is awareness. And you probably think December is a really bad time to start something like this but I actually think its the perfect time because that is when most of us overspend blissfully and gleefully unaware of where our money is going.

I’ve even created a worksheet for you to use (because I ♥ spreadsheets) so if you would like to keep everything organized and in one place here you go (hint: it will make Part Two a little easier).

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If you run out of room go ahead and print another one, they’re free!

But of course, if it is easier to just save up receipts in a folder or envelope then have at it. I just want you to keep track of every cent you spend for an entire month: on groceries, on coffee, at the gas pump, with your credit card, on gifts for others, on a pack of gum, that parking meter with the change in your pocket, on gifts for yourself, every bill you pay….EVERY. THING.

Meet you back here in a month with that list, or in between worksheet entries, you can keep checking back here for more fun things NOT finance related, like maybe food or house projects!

The Beginner’s Guide To Budgeting – Series

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Ok, we are quickly approaching 2016 and it’s a good of time as any to start revisiting our financial resolutions from the beginning of this year. Or start working on those for next year. Never hurts to be ahead of the game.

Well, if you’ve fallen off the budgeting bandwagon this past year, let me see if I can help get you back on board or at least help you book another trip for this upcoming year.

Budgeting can be confusing and overwhelming and some might not even know where to begin when it comes to budgeting your money. This isn’t something that is taught in school (though I HIGHLY believe it should be!), nor is this something that comes naturally to many of us.

So, I am offering a five-part, eight-week series that starts tomorrow to help you take the steps to becoming more aware of your finances and more mindful of your money.

Disclaimers: Now, I am not a financial planner or money expert by any means…. I just know what works for us. It might not work for everyone but it will at least get you thinking and possibly taking a step in the right direction.

Part One (Week 1-4): Track Your Expenses

Part Two (Week 5): The Big Picture

Part Three (Week 6): Tell Your Money Where To Go

Part Four (Week 7): Adjustments

Part Five (Week 8): Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?

So come on back for some budgeting fun!

How To Stretch Your Grocery Budget

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In an effort to get back on track budget-wise my first instinct is to reign in our food bill. It seems that besides our mortgage and car payments, the next largest amount of money we spend in our household is on food. We spend it on going out to eat, groceries, snacks at a gas fill-up stop, treats when we are out and about, grocery store run because we are out of milk but end up throwing another $20 worth of impulse items in the cart at 9pm at night. So after living in two different apartments in as many months, with our stuff in storage, while we waited for our house to be built, we really let our budget slip. It’s gotten WAY out of control.

Time to get back on track. Here are some tried and true methods I am going to re-implement in our grocery shopping to help us stay on budget that could work for you as well. For our family of 5 we have a $150/week budget. So first order of business is to just get back to that number.  (If you’re wondering how I came to that number or even what your grocery budget may be, stay tuned. I have a series coming up at the end of October that will help you figure that out.)

According to the USDA’s Cost of Food at Home, for a “liberal” spending family of 5 (4 adults – considers that my 12 & 14 yo eat like an adult – and one 10 yo) spends $387.70/week on food, while a thrifty family spends $197.30. Yikes, I guess you could call us thrifty.

1. Plan Ahead

First and foremost, the basis of any good strategy is a good plan. Then you have to stick to it. Planning out your meals means that there will be no brain-numbing, last minute panic attacks of what to have for dinner. It will already be decided and you will have all the ingredients you need. No need for a quick trip through the drive through.

I have been using GatheredTable.com and am in love. Their plans are versatile, they have great recipes to choose from, I can add my own if I want  to mix it up and once decided it compiles a grocery list for me that I can customize further depending on what is already in my cupboards! Can’t say enough about how much I love this site. And just heard a *rumor* that there will be an app coming very soon! GAH!

2. Shop the ads

This is a no brainer. When whole chickens are on sale for $0.99/lb, that is what we are having for dinner tonight, tomorrow night and maybe the next night too! And I’m hoarding then away in my freezer for a rainy day. You can plan your meals around what is on sale at the store or even swap out ingredients for what is on sale. Your favorite chicken enchiladas on the menu for tonight but ground beef is on sale, use ground beef instead. A recipe you were planning calls for salmon but talapia is on sale, swap it out, I guarantee you won’t notice the difference in taste but your wallet will in savings!

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3. Have a well stocked pantry

Stocking up on items when they are on sale allows you to purchase them for a lot less than buying one can of tomatoes as needed and you can build a nice supply at rock bottom prices and can save on the next weeks or even months grocery bill by already having them on hand. Hence the empty shelf in the photo above, I’m set for a good while on olive oil now. I bought them all!!

Stocking up on items when they are on sale will also allow you to substitute in a pinch. Don’t have taco seasoning – make your own. Don’t have a protein – use beans, lentils or quinoa. Don’t have the salsa you want – make your own. Extra company and need more pasta sauce – good thing you have jars of stewed and crushed tomatoes on hand!

4. “Shop” that Well Stocked pantry

Instead of instinctively running to the store when you think you have nothing to make a meal out of, look again. Use those pantry items and any produce or meat that needs to be used up to throw a meal together. You’ll be surprised what you can make.

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Making things from scratch is a great alternative to boxed mixes or frozen foods, remember how grandma used to do it? Biscuits that were hot out of the oven, piles of pancakes in the morning; it is cheaper and easier than you think to make these from scratch. Most of us have some sort of flour, baking powder, eggs and milk in our pantry or fridge. I like to make batches of pancakes or waffles and freeze them so the kids can pull out what they need (this also falls under #7 DIY-IT).

5. Beans – the other white meat

Substituting beans for meat in your dishes help stretch your dollar also. You could consider having a meatless meal once a week that allows you to further your meals while still saving money. This is something you’ll definitely have to talk to your significant other about because most everyone I know was raised with the thinking that you had to have some sort of meat as your main dish for dinner. Every dinner. My husband was no exception and still struggles with this but is slowly coming around.

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6. waste not

Now after all that work of planning, shopping and cooking why would you want to throw the efforts of your labor (not to mention money) away!

Here’s some ideas to put into use so nothing goes in the trash:

Veggies getting a little limp? Saute those greens up and freeze them (ice cube trays work wonderfully) and then you can just toss them into soups or stews as needed.

I also keep an airtight container in the fridge and when I have any leftover veggies like corn or  green beans from a meal that just is not enough to save I throw them in the container and after about 3 weeks you’ll have a nice mix. This makes for a wonderful Everything But The Kitchen Sink Soup I make. It’s basically a free meal!!

Another way to also stretch your food dollars even further, like into the next day farther, is leftovers. What you don’t finish for dinner package up in individual portions so that you or anyone for that matter can grab them quickly in the morning and you have lunch for the day. Bringing leftovers for lunch is in again people, I swear!

We also have a Clean Out The Fridge meal at our house. We pull out any and all leftovers and either reinvent them into a new meal or reheat and it makes for an easy way to make room for the next shopping trip all-the-while letting nothing go to waste.

7. DIY-it

For the love of all that is just and good for pity’s sake! Make your own salad dressings. It is so easy and tastes so much better than the bottled stuff. Granted those little bottles are tempting with all their sugar and preservatives and it may take your taste buds a few salads to get over that longing but once you do the freshness is incomparable. And the possibilities are endless. We can get pretty creative with what we have on hand – see #3 Have A Well Stocked Pantry.

While we are on the subject of making it yourself this also falls into that category. Those packaged seasoning mixes that contain all sorts of weird “ingredients”.

Not only does making your own dressings and seasonings save you money but I am not sure why you would want to season your chicken with Monocalcium Phosphate or Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate? We all have garlic powder, onion powder, paprika and cumin in our cupboards, don’t we?

8. Think outside the grocery store organics box

Ok, I know we all want to eat better but most of us can’t afford an all-organic diet. There are some guidelines and common sense that come into play – at least where my veggies and fruit are concerned.

The Environmental Working Group has studied pesticide residuals in veggies and fruits and compiled a list of the Clean 15, those that are ok to purchase the conventionally grown way. The Dirty Dozen however are ones you do want to spend your grocery dollars on to purchase organic if you are able.

While the Clean 15 list still contains foods that are still produced with some pesticides, my rule of thumb is that if you are worried about chemicals and consume the skin of the fruit or veggie (and can budget for it) buy organic.

Get your produce from the source! Buy from local farmers markets where you can ask the farmer what pesticides and chemicals might have been used. We all want to eat more fruits and veggies and who knows them better than the grower. You’re also supporting local farmers.

You can also stretch your organic dollars by signing up for a local CSA or Bountiful Baskets. I can’t wait to try out either one out here. With a year round growing season, fresh organic veggies should not be far away. For $20 – $30/week they both offer an affordable way to get organic fresh fruits & veggies to your table.

Debt-Free Christmas Pledge

Now that the shopping madness is over, the gifts have all been torn into and the dust is settling on all the Christmas Frenzy and we look ahead with dread at putting ALL THIS CHRISTMAS STUFF AWAY, let’s make a pledge here and now to not go into debt next Christmas!

Part of those New Year’s Resolutions that I am re-affirming is to revisit my budgeting/spending/debt pay-down and a major one for me is Christmas. It is so easy to lose control of your finances during Christmastime and justify just about anything. “Oh, I’ll pay it off later.”

But I have a little secret for you… I already made that pledge, a year ago, and IT WORKED!

One year ago I saved all my receipts from my shopping endeavors and when it was all said and done I tallied it up (and after recovering from a small stroke) I vowed to never go into a Christmas season again without planning my budget out ahead of time.

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I wanted a way to be able to buy my family thoughtful gifts without using credit cards or breaking the bank and then spending the following 3-6 months guilt-ridden as I paid my monthly credit card bills.

So, here’s my steps to a debt-free Christmas if you are willing to take the pledge with me:

1GatherYourReceipts

If you kept your reciepts gather them up or try to write them down from memory. You can also get each line item off of your bank statement/credit card statement that you spent on Christmas this year. Include family, neighbor and coworker gifts as well as wrapping paper and postage. I found a few items I had missed from last year so it is a great time to re-adjust my plan.

2AddUpTheTotal

Be brave, it take’s alot to face that number and realize how much you actually did spend but it’s good for us to do this. Instead of seeing $20 go here, $15 go there, we can see how much this really does add up to be in total. This is where my spreadsheet comes in handy. It helps me set an amount and as I purchase items I add them to the sheet and you can SEE wether or not you are on target.

3DivideBy26
Divide that total by 26 – the number of paychecks in a year.

4PutAwayEachPaycheck

That is how much you should put away each paycheck in an envelope or seperate savings account and you will have this IN CASH by next Christmas. Oh, the freedom!

Say you spent $910 on everything this year:   $910/26 = $35  That’s it!!

$35 a paycheck squirreled away and you will have $910 to spend on your loved ones next Christmas and the best thing is it is guilt free! You still have to reign yourself in and not go bonkers just because you have the cash-cushion. You still need to figure out a budget that you will spend on each family member or group and stick to it. This year now I know I have to readjust what I am putting away because there was some items that I didn’t have accounted for last year so I went a little over, but it is okay. As with all goals it is not necessary to focus on what didn’t work, but what DID work and learn from what didn’t.

And have some fun with it! If you use the envelope system get creative with your envelope and watch it grow every month. Then in a year you will have one less stress for the Holiday season and can spend more time living the true meaning of Christmas.

Here are some fun ideas for those that want to add the money to a Christmas Cash envelope:

Fun printable Christmas Cash envelope

For you sewers a fabric envelope

So get started today and here’s to a Happy Debt-Free Holidays and Happy Savings for years to come!!

A New Year A New You | Resolutions To Live By

HappyNewYear It’s that time of the year again when we make those new year’s resolutions; commit to living a better life and ultimately set ourselves up for failure. And, of course I am no different. I have big dreams of having a completely organized home where there is a place for everything and everything in it’s place, I dream of having all our debt paid off and never again having to use a credit card, I fantasize about being a size 10 8 again and effortlessly throwing on whatever cute ensemble that happens to be in my closet.

I also realize that those are really huge hurdles and kind of unrealistic goals for where I am at right now. This is life afterall.

So, I want to try and make more overall intentions that will happen slowly over time with small achievable goals. I also have some habits to improve on from last year and some to reaffirm (again) this year.

1. Live Healthier | The most important part of that to me is eating healthier. I don’t want to state that I will lose 50 pounds this new year (I’d really like to lose 65), I want to make a true lifestyle change and commit to eating healthy and ridding my house of those awful temptation foods. Once and for all.

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2. Get Back on Budget | Another intention I have for this new year is to reaffirm my budgeting goals. I think we did good last year but could have done better in some areas and I have learned a few things also along the way.

3. Be More Creative | I want to get back to creating things, just for the sake of being creative. I miss that and want to make time for it again.

4. Work On Home Projects | Not just the house renovations we’ve had going on but the scrapbooking and organizing projects on my to-do list.

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As with all lifestyle changes it is an ebb and flow process. And it is not a one-size-fits-all either. Some paychecks are easier than others to stay on track, some mealtimes have to be grab and go, some (okay, all) of those photos on my camera need to be edited before I can print them off but who has the time. Intentions are not only about setting goals for yourself but also about giving yourself a hall pass so you don’t just throw in the towel altogether and quit because you feel so defeated.

So, I am going to make this year about making better choices overall in every aspect of my life. So what if we have to grab McDonald’s because we are in-between practices and that is all we have time for, they do have healthier choices. So what if the van needs new brakes, I will have a plan in place (car maintenance envelope) to cover it.

Good goals are also about having your own back, so make those intentions but as well make a backup plan (or two or three) for those times when you do veer off track and you’ll be more likely to swing back into the right lane again.