Saturday, November 29, 2008

Calculate Your Cost Per Unit

Tip #34 - Calculate Your Cost Per Unit. When figuring out what things cost, it's important to look at the cost per unit (per pound, per ounce, etc.). Suppose you go to the grocery store and you see two boxes of cereal - Box A costs $3 and Box B costs $2. At first glance it would seem to make sense to grab the Box B since it's cheaper. It just has to be the better deal. Doesn't it? Not necessarily. Suppose Box A is 24 ounces and Box B is 12 ounces. That means for Box A costs only $1.50 for 12 ounces versus $2 for 12 ounces in Box B. Box A is actually the better deal.

When tryng to cut down on spending, it is important to look at cost breakdowns. If you can't do the math in your head, then bring a calculator along. It's important to be able to figure out the price per unit. It's simple math. Take the cost of the item and divide it by the number of units. For this example, we are using ounces. So if Box A is $3 and there are 24 ounces then we take $3 and divide it by 24. 3/24 is 12.5 or 12 1/2 cents per ounce. For box B, the math is 2/12 which is 16.7 or 16 2/3 cents per ounce. Clearly Box A is the better deal.

This is why buying in bulk is often, but not always, the better deal. The larger the package, the cost per unit unit usually goes down. BUT NOT ALWAYS. This is why you should carry a calculator or do the math in your head. Sometimes the smaller box is a better deal. This is often true when you have a coupon. Because the coupon value is a greater percentage of a lower-priced item, it may bring the cost per unit down on a smaller box versus a bigger box. Do the math. Figure out the cost per unit and in the long run, you will save money.

In Real Life (IRL) - I always calculate the cost per unit when I'm in the grocery store. Some of the grocery stores do it for me, which is nice. But some don't. Because I'm a numbers person, I don't have a calculator, but it's really not too hard to do. I will almost always buy the better deal as long as I can use the product before it expires. If it's something I will only use once and don't anticipating ever using again, then I will buy the smaller item for the greater cost per unit price. After all, it doesn't make sense to buy more than I need. But for things I use all the time, I go for the lower unit price all of the time. It just makes sense and saves me money in the long-term.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Give Thanks For What You Have

Tip #33 - Give Thanks For What You Have. During this holiday season, it is easy to overlook what we have and instead concentrate on what we don't have. We don't have a big-screen t.v. We don't have stainless steel appliances. We don't have a new car. We don't have designer clothes. Don't succomb to society's pressure to have the latest and greatest things. Be thankful for what you do have. So what if your television is only 27 inches. It's bigger than the one you had growing up, I'm sure. And your appliances are standard white? Be thankful they're not harvest gold or avocado. And your car has 100,000 miles on it? Be thankful that it works. And your clothes are last year's style or they came from a garage sale? Be thankful that they keep you warm.

At this time of year, it's easy to become greedy when you see what other people are getting or doing for the holidays. The new car. The cruise to the Caribbean. Instead turn it around and be thankful for what you do have - a loving family, a home that has beds in it, a car that works, and some money in your pocket. By being thankful for what you do have, you will not only appreciate your things more, but you will spend less. And you will forget about the things you don't have. By giving thanks for the things you do have, you will stick to your budget. And you will be very thankful at the end of the year when you do your financial check-up and you haven't gone over-budget.

In Real Life (IRL) - I truly try to appreciate what I have. I have a great family. I have a nice house. We take a vacation every year. And we have two cars to drive. It would be very easy for me to be ungrateful. My house is very modest - a 1950's ranch home. Our cars are 6 and 7 years old. One has over 100,000 miles on it. Our vacation is usually done by car within the country not to some exotic island. But really, I don't care. Because I have financial freedom. If my tooth breaks tomorrow, I have money to fix it. If I need to visit a family member I can afford to fly there if I have to. When my children go to college, I will be able to pay for it. By not looking at what I don't have, I am happy. I know that my choices are the right ones for me. By sticking to my budget and not buying the latest and greatest things, I have money in my pocket if I need it. And for that I am thankful. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Are You Ready For Retirement?

Tip #32 - Are you Ready for Retirement? If not, then get ready! Regardless of your age, you should be preparing for retirement. It's never too early. In your 40s? You should be preparing. 35? Not too early. You just turned 21? Perfect time to get started! The idea behind saving early for retirement is that the longer your money is in savings, the more time it has to grow. Also, if you work for 40 years of your life and save a little bit from each year, then you will be able to live on that savings when you're older and not working. If you wait to start saving, then you won't have enough or you will have to put away a lot each year. Start early and you can just put away a little each year. It's like spreading out the cost of retiring over your 40-year or so career.

I just received a brochure from my credit union, Navy Federal about how much I need to save for retirement. It was a real eye opener. I will share highlights of it with you so you can figure out approximately how much you need to retire and how much you should be saving each year. We'll go through an example. There were essentially five steps:

Step 1: Figure out how much income you need in retirement. If you live on $50,000 now, you figure out if you need to live on 75%, 85%, or 95% of your income in retirement. This depended mostly on where you expect to get your healthcare funds from in retirement. Of course these are only estimates. Let's assume 85%. That means you will need $42,500 each year in retirement ($50,000 *.85).

Step 2: Figure out what income you expect to receive in retirement. First calculate how much Social Security you will to get, based on how much you make. A person making $50,000 can expect to get $14,500 per year in retirement from Social Security. Yay, finally you get back some of that money you've been putting into the program all of your working years! You also figure out if you are getting a pension from your employer each year. We'll assume no for this example and whether you will have a part-time job in retirement. We'll assume no again. You can always change your mind on that one. Now we subtract the $14,500 from the $42,500 that we estimate we'll need in retirement. The result is $28,000. This is the amount we will need each year in retirement to live similarly as we do now.

Step 3: How much do we need to save now in order to get to this figure? The worksheet gave us different scenarios of when we expect to retire and how long we expect to live (as if we know!). The earlier you hope to retire and the longer you live means you will need to save more. The later you retire and the shorter you expect to live, the less you need. Let's err on the side of conservative. Better to have too much money than not enough. Let's assume we expect to retire at 65. If we are female and hope to live to the age of 92, we use a factor of 18.79 to calculate the savings we need. Take the $28,000 * 18.79 and we come up with $526,120. That is how much we need total for retirement.

Step 4: Figure out how much savings you have so far and how long you have until retirement. If you are 30 years old now, you have 35 years until retirement at 65. Using their chart you get a factor based on this number of years until retirement. In our example the factor is 2.4. Multipy 2.4 * the amount we have saved so far. Let's assume we haven't been too good about savings yet and we only have $20,000 saved for retirement so far. Multiply 2.4 * $20,000 and we get $48,000. We subtract this from our total needed for retirement in step 3. So we take $526,120 - $48,000 and come up with $478,120. This is our total savings goal. In other words, what we need for retirement.

Step 5: Figure out what our yearly savings should be from now on. We have 30 years until retirement. Using the factor they have in a chart, we multiply .020 * our total savings goal from the last step. So we take $478,120 * .020 and come up with $9,562.40. This is how much we should be saving each year for retirement.

I only gave bits and pieces of this retirement worksheet. But the source of it was the Choose To Save organization from the American Savings Education Council, a program of the Employee Benefit Research Institue Education and Research Fund. The full worksheet is at Choose To Save. Check it out and figure out how much you need to save for retirement.

So in this example we figured out that we need to save a bit over $9,500 per year for retirement. Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? It's essentially $800 per month. There are tax incentives to do this, though. You can save $5,000 per year in an IRA and you can put away the rest through a 401K at work if that's available to you. Regardless of how you save this money, you should keep this figure in mind when doing your budget. Retirement savings should always be a line item on your budget.

In Real Life (IRL) - I have been saving money for retirement since I turned 23. That was a year after I started my first real job out of college. My company offered a 401K plan and said the first 3% of my salary that I saved, they would match! So I saved 3% of my salary. At the time my salary was slightly less than $21,000. So I save about $600 and my company matched it. Altogether my first year of saving was about $1,200. A year or two after that, an older man at work advised me to put the maximum I could into my 401k. He said the money is taken out before you even see it so you don't miss it. So I took his advice and maxed out on my 401k which I believe was 13% of my salary. My company still matched dollar for dollar the first 3%. So essentially 16% of my salary was getting saved each year for retirement. I didn't see the money and I didn't miss it. Even though I was making under $30,000 in those first few years of my career, I was saving almost $3,000 for retirement annually. At some point in my 20's I started putting the maximum amount into an IRA, too.

When I met my husband, he too, had been putting money into his 401(k) at work. But he wasn't contributing to an IRA. I got him started on that and we've both been doing it faithfully since. I am now 41 years old so it is exactly 20 years since I started my first job. I haven't worked more than part-time in the last 7 years. Yet because I started early our retirement savings have accumulated about $300,000. We still expect to have 20 more years until retirement. Based on the worksheet, we still need to be putting away about $10,000 per year until retirement. That's okay. It's in our budget to do so. And retirement savings should be in your budget, too.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Saving Money During the Holidays

Tip #31- Saving Money During the Holidays. The holidays - Christmas, Hanukkah, Birthdays, Mother's Day, Anniversaries, etc. should not make you go broke. Let me repeat that. They should not make you go broke. First of all, there should be a line item in your budget for gifts. Figure out how much you would like to spend all year long on gifts including birthdays and Christmas and any extra special events that normally come up in the course of a year - new baby, wedding, anniversary celebration, graduations, etc. Then divide that number by 12 and that should be your monthly gift budget. If you only have $50 per month to spend on gifts then all gifts throughout the year should not total more than $600. Stick to it. I don't care if the neighbor down the street is getting a Coach Bag Mother's Day. If it will take half of your gifts' budget, then don't ask your husband for one.

To make it easier to see what you have, you can set up a "Gifts" enevelope in which you deposit your monthly gifts budget amount into. Then as a holiday approaches, you take the money you need out of the envelope. Make sure you leave enough in there for end-of-the-year holidays.

Speaking of end-of-the-year holidays, it is easy for gift-giving to get out of control that time of year. The advertisements are non-stop, the sales are great, and people are constantly asking what you want for Christmas. Try to cut down on the madness!

--Do a holiday exchange with family members by picking a name out of the hat so you are not buying a present for every person in your extended family.
--If you are a mom or a dad, cut down on the number of presents you buy. Buy one big one and a few little ones.
--Save things as you buy them throughout the year and give as gifts for the holidays or birthdays.
--Shop at yard sales and thrift stores. There are many unopened and unused things to be found at these places. Even some pre-owned toys are in good enough condition to give to your children. --Buy some practical things that you would have bought anyway. No child wants 5 pair of pajamas for Christmas. But a few toys along with necessary items such as cute pajamas or a hat work fine.
--Know how much you will spend in advance and stick to it. If you plan on spending $100 per child, then don't go beyond that limit.
--Keep a big box of things you've bought on clearance all year long. When holidays roll around, shop from that box.
--Make a gift - a box of homemade cookies are a treat for someone who doesn't have time to bake. Canned jams and jellies are unique and appreciated. If you can knit or crochet or paint, then use those skills to make gifts.

There is no reason that holidays should become a gift buying extravaganza. After all, the holidays are not about gifts. They are for celebrating the person, the religious event, or special lifecycle moments. Those are what make the holidays special.

In Real Life (IRL) - We have a budget of $100 per month for gifts. Which sounds like a lot. But it really isn't. We have 5 people in our family with 5 birthdays. We celebrate our anniversary, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Father's Day, as well as Hanukkah and Passover. We also have aunts and uncles, cousins, and grandparents. The big gifts are for birthdays and Hanukkah. We spend about $100 per child for Hanukkah. For birthdays we spend about $25 for each of the children. For cousins, we give $25 each for birthdays and Hanukkah. That's $250 for both birthdays and Hanukkah. As a family we have agreed that adults don't exchange presents for birthdays and Hanukkah. So my sister and I don't exchange gifts, but we buy gifts for her children valued at $25 each. For holidays such as Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, or Father's day, we spend very little. I might find a book at a yard sale that my husband likes. So the cost may only be $1. I'm not a big fan of cut flowers so I tell my husband to forgo the flowers. He usually will buy me some chocolate instead. And since I like Hershey's over Godiva, his presents to me don't usually cost more than $5. For our anniversary, we don't usually exchange presents. We usually do a special dinner or evening out. That's part of our eating out or entertainment budget. So all told, we spend about $700 per year on regular holidays.

There are inevitably special holidays or events that crop up throughout the year such as new babies or special anniversaries. This past year we had my husband's mother's 80th birthday, my niece's graduation, and a friend's son Bar Mitzvah. The remaining $300 is for these types of events. My mother-in-law got a sterling silver bracelet with her grandchildren's birthstones on it for her birthday at a cost of about $50 plus a special dinner at a restaurant. My niece got money put into her account to the tune of $100 plus a special picture for college that I found at a thrift store. And the Bar Mitzvah boy got a gift of $118 plus a small present that we found inexpensively. So we were pretty close to the $300 that we budgeted. Of course happy events are sometimes hard to know in advance. And our budget is just a guide. We actually spent $80 for my daughter's birthday present this year, which was a keyboard for her to use for piano lessons. It was something we'd been wanting to buy anyway, so it was in our budget. For Hanukkah she wants an American Girl doll. I convinced her that she needed to get rid of some older toys that she doesn't play with anymore if she were to get it. We were lucky two-fold: the toy I sold for her got over $100 on ebay and I bought a Kit doll on Craigslist for $60. (They are $90 new). So overall, we have stuck pretty close to our gift budget this year.

It's amazing how quickly gifts throughout the year can add up, so it's very important to budget for these. And even more important to stick to the budget. Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Frugal Isn't Always Frugal

Tip #30 - Sometimes Being Frugal Isn't Frugal. We all know the saying "Better an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure." Well, that is true in the frugal world, too. Sometimes you have to pay money today to save money down the road. To relate to the original quote would be flu shots. They cost about $25 or so. Someone might think it's frugal to skip the shot and save $25. But if the shot saves you from having the flu down the road, you are saving the cost of a doctor's visit, the cost of medicine, the cost of being sick, out of work, etc. by putting out $25 at first. Now, I know not everyone believes in flu shots, this is just an example. It's not frugal if you will have further costs down the road.

Suppose you try to save money by not changing the oil in your car. You save $14.95 by not changing the oil. But then your car's engine breaks because it has been using old oil and you have to buy a new engine. Well there goes a couple of hundred dollars. Being frugal and saving $14.95 wasn't really frugal. So, the main point here is to think about what you are doing to be frugal and whether is will really be worth it in the long run. Sometimes it isn't.

In Real Life (IRL) - I bought some thank you cards for my daughter's birthday party at a thrift store. They were only 50 cents! I was excited because they matched the theme of the party and they cost very little. After the party, my daughter started writing them out. We try to do a few per day. She did three the first day and I mailed them out. The next day we got them back in the mail with a request for more postage. Apparently square envelopes cost more - 20 cents more! - to mail than regular envelopes. Since there are 10 girls we need to send notes to, that will cost us an extra $2.00! Not so frugal after all. Luckily since my daughter didn't finish writing them out, we are going to save them for notes that we don't have to mail and use different cards that we have. Here I was trying to be frugal. I think I know why they were at the thrift store!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Replicate Your Favorite Foods

Tip #29 - Replicate Your Favorite Foods. We've talked about how cooking from scratch is much cheaper than buying prepared food or eating out. It's also healthier. Something that will save a lot of money is to make foods that you love from scratch such as meals you buy from a restaurant or a snack food or treat that they sell at the mall. You can often closely replicate these foods at home for a fraction of the cost. So if you are suddenly trying to cut back on spending but you crave a certain appetizer from your favorite chain restaurant, try to recreate it. There are several websites that have "copycat" recipes that you can use. And the general recipe sites have them such as RecipeZaar among others. If you or a family member have a favorite food, google the name of it and see if you can find a recipe or try to create one yourself. Once it is perfected, you will save a bundle on eating out.

In Real Life (IRL) - I love soft pretzels. I have to; I am from Philadelphia. I also like Amish-style pretzels like they make at Auntie Anne's in the mall. You have to know that pretzels are cheap to make. They are basically made from flour, yeast, sugar, and water. All of those items are inexpensive. So one day I got the idea to make pretzels from scratch. I had always wanted to. I found a couple different recipes online and ended up combining a few to get my own. There is no boiling, no bread machine, no egg. Just flour, sugar, yeast, salt, water and oil. They are absolutely delicious. My daughters beg me to make them all of the time. One batch makes 10 large pretzels or 15 smaller ones. The cost per batch? $1.50 or 15 cents per large pretzel. The cost for one pretzel at the mall? $2.29! These are great to freeze and use as snacks in school lunchboxes. I will add the recipe shortly. Gotta go check the pretzels in the oven! We just made a double batch of these delicious pretzels!
4 1/2 teaspoons of active yeast (2 packets)
1 tsp. sugar
1 1/4 cups warm water
4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 TBS vegetable oil
1 TBS baking soda
2 cups hot water
1/4 cup kosher salt
2-4 TBS butter
Cinnamon Sugar
--In small bowl, dissolve yeast, 1 t sugar and water. Let stand for 10 minutes until creamy.
--In large bowl, mix flour, 1/2 cup sugar, and salt.
--Make well in center of large bowl and add yeast mixture.
--Knead dough until smooth about 7-8 minutes.
--Lightly oil large bowl and place dough in it. Turn to coat with oil.
--Cover with towel and let rise in warm place until double in size - about 1 hour.
--Preheat overn to 400 degrees.
--In a bowl dissolve baking soda in hot water.
--When risen, turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 10-15 pieces.
--Roll each piece into a rope and form pretzel shape
--Dip each pretzel into baking soda bath and place on greased baking sheet
--Sprinkle with kosher salt (omit this step if you are making cinnamon sugar pretzels)
--Bake for 8 minutes at 400 degrees
--Let cool for 1 minute and remove with spatula
--You can leave pretzels as they are or dip in butter or dip in butter and coat with cinnamon sugar

Monday, November 17, 2008

Frugal Fast Food

Tip #28 - Frugal Fast Food. Fast Food is generally not healthy and it's more expensive than eating at home. But there are sometimes when nothing else will do. You can't be the perfect planner all of the time. Sometimes you have few other choices, and fast food is the best option. Or perhaps as in our family, fast food is a treat - planned to be eaten occasionally when on long car trips.

Even fast food can be expensive if you order the "wrong" way. With three kids, you can order 3 happy meals and a meal for yourself and your husband and easily spend $20. Or you can order frugally and spend half that. Almost all of the fast food places have a value menu or dollar menu in place. These are pretty good deals. It's generally a hamburger, cheeseburger, and chicken option for $1 or a little more. A side of fries and a small drink are usually the same. A few places such as McDonald's and Wendy's often have double cheeseburgers on the value menu or on special for $1. If you find yourself in need of eating fast food, then order from the dollar menus. If someone wants a cheeseburger, get the double cheeseburger for the same price. For the sides, buy the largest size fries for everyone to split. Get water to drink or get the largest drink for everyone to split. Both McDonald's and Wendy's have small "courtesy" cups that the children can use to have a drink poured into. For a family of five, the entrees off the dollar menu should cost $5 (or $6 if your husband likes to eat 2 of them like mine does). The largest fries and largest drink would cost about $2 each. So for $10 the whole family can eat a fast food meal. Of course it's not the healthiest or the cheapest meal, but if you find yourself needing to eat at a fast food place, you do the best you can.

Stay away from happy meals. The fun from those toys lasts less than a day. And by buying individual drinks and fries for your kids you end up spending more than necessary. If you are frugal to begin with and health conscious in any way, eating fast food should be the treat, not the toy at the restaurant.

Restaurants generally prohibit bringing in outside food. But I find that they are lenient with children. Most people bring food for a baby such as baby food, milk or formula, and cheerios. I have brought small sides into fast food places with no one ever having a problem with it. We generally have string cheese or yogurt or grapes with us in our small cooler in our car. This makes meals more complete, health-wise and filling wise as well as cheaper.

So next time you find yourself in need of fast food, don't blow your budget just because you're eating out anyway. Order wisely. Figure out the best value for your money. And eating fast food can be frugal.

In Real Life (IRL). Fast food is a treat for my family. We do not eat it on a regular basis. It is not our everyday dinner or lunch ever. We save eating fast food for when we are on car trips. They are the perfect place to stop - there are relatively clean bathrooms, sometimes a play area for the kdis, and fairly cheap and fast food to eat.

We visit our parents a few times a year and do a car trip to Florida about every other year to visit family. And we go to the beach every summer for a week. This is when we eat fast food. It makes it a treat for our children and gives them somthing to look forward to on a long car ride. The only other time we eat it is if we visit my old place of employment which is about 30 minutes away from my home. About once or twice a year I visit my former co-workers and bring some of the kids. We often make an afternoon of it and go to a Burger King with a big play area near by. On average, I'd guess we eat fast food once per month at most based on how often we travel.

It is not usually a spur-of-the moment decision. And since we are usually eating it on long car rides, we often have other snacks including drinks in our car. Because of this, we don't usually order drinks in the restaurant. We stick to a main meal and fries.

This past weekend, we had to go to New Jersey for an event. We left on a Friday afternoon and knew that we'd be on the road for dinner. We stopped at a Wendy's to eat. Stressed out mommy forgot to pack drinks for the car (except for baby's bottle). I did have a yogurt for the baby to eat. We studied the menu. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and chicken nuggets were $1.29 each. A double cheeseburger was a special for 99 cents. My husband ordered two double cheeseburgers - one and 1/2 for him and 1/2 of one of our younger daughter. My older daughter got chicken nuggets. And I ordered a baked potato for $1.49. We bought the largest packet of fries for $1.99. (A small was $1.29) and we got the largest Frosty for $1.99. I asked for two courtesy cups. When we were almost finished, my girls wanted some more nuggets and my husband wanted another double cheeseburger since he gave some to the 15-month old. Baby and younger daughter also split the yogurt I brought. Overall, we spent about $11 for our dinner. Truthfully, that's not much more than we spend on some of our dinners at home. Plus, it's in our budget to eat out once a week. For the children it was fun even without a play area there. We got to all use the rest room and stretch our legs. After driving on I-95 on a dark, rainy heavily trafficed Friday evening, the meal was worth every penny!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Be Creative

Tip #27 - Be Creative When Trying To Save Money. There are the ways "everyone else" does things and there are the ways frugal people do things. It's easy to do things the way everyone else does - buy a new house, buy food at the store, send your kids to camp, have them take classes. And there are creative ways to do things in order to save money - buy a house that needs fixing up, make things yourself, create your own camp, or trade skills with friends for classes.

Being creative doesn't mean you need to be artistic or crafty. It really just means that you need to think of different ways to do things in order to save money. I gave a few examples but there are many more you or I could come up with.

1. Let's start with the first example of buying a new house. In the past few years everyone was buying a new house - usually the biggest house they could afford. Don't do it. Buy a house that needs some fixing up. Even if you are not handy - some houses just need cosmetic changes that any layperson can do - ripping down wallpaper or tearing up carpeting. If you've ever watched any of those home channels, you can get ideas for what people can do with little money to make a house look nice. You can often save a lot of money by buying a fixer-upper even just one that is outdated.

2. Buying food at the store. Easy enough and most people have to do it at least to some degree. But think about the things that can be made or grown. Food that can be made pretty simply at home include breads, waffles, pancakes, pizza, desserts, etc. These are all fairly simple. The more you make them, the more you will get better at it. Then you can expand into making other dishes. Food that can be grown pretty easily are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, peas, and herbs. By just growing a few items in a vegetable garden, you can save money each year on your grocery bill. As you get better at it, you can try to grow even more vegetables and even fruits.

3. Sending your kids to camp. Most parents are looking for fun things for their kids to do in the summer. Camps are often on top of the list for many parents. There are general camps and specialty camps such as dance camps, sports camps, swim camps, and computer camps. Some of them are very pricy, while others are more reasonable. But all of them cost money. Did you ever think of doing a camp yourself? Pool together with a few other parents and take turns holding camp at your house? Or perhaps setting up a camp for a week or two to make some money? I'll explain how we did something similar in real life to avoid the cost of camp.

4. Teaching your children new things. We all want our kids to learn things that will teach them skills, allow them to have fun, and make them productive adults. Many of our children play soccer or softball, and take piano or dance, among many other activities. Of course each of these activities cost money. How about swapping skills with a friend? If you know how to sew or cook, maybe you can give sewing or cooking lessons to a friend's daughter while your friend's mom teaches you piano lessons. Or perhaps you can learn a skill such as piano or French and then teach it to your child. It's amazing what is available online for free. There is piano lessons at Piano Nanny. There are many books at the library teaching knitting or foreign languages. It won't work for soccer teams or softball but there are many skills you can learn for free.

In Real Life (IRL) - I don't consider myself creative as in crafty or good at art. I'm probably average. But I do like to use my imagination to do things cheaply. When I'm planning a party, I look for things we can use around the house rather than buy - plastic bowls instead of paper; paper we can turn into invitations instead of buying new, etc. If there is anything I am going to spend money on, I first think if there is an alternate and cheaper way to do it. I've talked about our house in other posts. Most of the houses in my neighborhood are from the 1950's and frankly a lot of people don't look here for that reason. They want a newer house. We loved the neighborhood so it didn't matter to us to have the latest gadgets in a home. And those things can always be changed anyway. When we got our 1953 house it had awful red walls in one room that surely turned off a lot of buyers. Hmmm...about $50 of primer and paint will cover that, we thought. The house only had 3 bedrooms but had the land to add on to, if necessary. It had an old, outdated 1950's kitchen. We bought the house for a good deal since no one else was interested. We painted the "red room" (after 7 years!). We turned a porch into a fourth bedroom when we needed the space for only $12,000. Moving to a house with 4 bedrooms would have cost us at least $50,000 more. And we made our kitchen a fun 1950's kitchen for $1,000. We bought black and white sticky tile for the floor, got a fun diner border for the walls, bought cute diner signs for the walls, vintage looking curtains for the windows, and displayed some of my grandmother's depression era bowls. A new kitchen remodel would have cost $25,000 or more.

2. Cooking creatively. I am an average cook and I like to bake. My daughter had her birthday last week. We had a party at home, cupcakes for school, and needed something for her actual birthdate for our family. I could have easily bought a cake at the market for the party, but I made cupcakes instead. I made cupcakes for her class and then when it came time for our birthday dinner at home, I thought she might be sick of cake. She agreed that she'd rather have brownies. Simple enough. By making sweets for all three events instead of buying at the grocery store, I saved at least $25. My favorite food to make to save money is croutons. We always have bread left over at the bottom of the package that doesn't get eaten. I save them in the freezer and make croutons out of them. Very simple - just melt butter and add parmesian cheese and garlic to the bread. Bake in the oven and voila - freshly made croutons. They're healthier than the boxed kind (have you ever seen the ingredients in croutons?) and they're quick and easy to make. Best of all, you use up bread that would have gotten tossed to the birds.

3. I created a summer camp with friends. When my daughter was 4 or 5, I was looking for fun things for her to do in the summer. Camps were expensive but I remember how much fun they were when I was a child. I decided to do an "at home" camp with friends. There were 8 of us the first year. We were all in a Mom's Club together and had known each other since our daughters were babies. For one day each week for 8 weeks, our girls went to camp. Each week one mom was in charge of the camp and one mom assisted. The person in charge came up with a theme and held camp at her home for three hours on a Monday. So each mom was in charge of one camp and assisted in one camp. The other weeks she was "off." It was great because each mom had different strengths and interests. One mom held a nature camp and had the girls look for birds in their backyard, learn about birds and did a bird craft. One mom held a cooking camp. We held a fun carnival camp. My daughter still talks about that fun camp and asks every summer if we can do it again. The following two years we did it on a smaller scale with just 5 moms. Last year we did it over just a week's time with each mom holding camp on a different day for one week since everyone was so busy. I know I spent less than $20 in materials and snacks for each camp I've held.

4. Taking classes. My girls like being in activities - dance, piano, Brownies, etc. To keep costs down, we have taken classes at the community center in our town. For dance there is a dance studio that is $55 per month for one class! Instead I found a woman who teaches dance out of her home for $25 per month. What a difference. Piano lessons are $35 per half hour at a local music school. I found a woman who teaches for $15 per half-hour. Of course none of these are too creative. But I do know people who have switched skills. My daughter's dance teacher gave lessons for free to someone's daughter who painted her dance studio. I know two women from my Mom's club who swapped talents. One mom taught the other mom's daughter piano while the second mom taught the first mom's daughter French. If you have skills in an area, you could easily teach them. You could even do something as simple as teaching baking. Many moms don't bake from scratch or have the time to teach their children. By being creative you can save or make money in this area.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Year-End Financial Check-Up

Tip #26 - At year end, figure out where you stand with your finances and set your goals and budget for next year. Over at Money Saving Mom they are doing a year-end financial check up to see if they met their goals for 2008. This is a great idea. At least once a year and even better twice, you should check on your finances. See how you are doing. See what the balance is in each of your accounts - both savings and checking. Move things around if you must to get you back on track where you want to be. And at the end of the year, set financial goals for next year. Figure out how much you want to save or how much debt you will pay off. And set your budget so you can do these things. You can't save money if you don't know where you stand. Since it's November, it's a great time to get started for next year. Write out your expenses, prepare a budget, and set your goals for 2009. Time to get started!

In Real Life (IRL) - We have a budget set for each year and I know how much I want to save for the upcoming year. Each year for the past few years, our financial goals have been the same - save $2000 in each of our children's college funds and the maximum amount in our Roth IRAs (this year it is $5000 each). We also save 10% of my husband's income in a 401K. Beyond that nothing gets saved because the rest of my husband's income goes toward our budget - our mortgage, food, utilities, etc. I make a small income at home selling things on ebay. That money generally covers the cost of preschool and dance and piano classes. As my children get older I will probably get a part-time job that will cover higher expenses that we can expect as children get older such as braces and summer camps. We'll see how it goes. We'll sit down and do a formal budget later in the year.

Friday, November 7, 2008

How to Have a Birthday Party for Under $100

Tip #25 - How to Have a Birthday Party for Under $100. It's easy to have a birthday party without spending a lot of money. First thing is to have it at home. This way you are not spending any money to rent a room or paying an outrageous per person entertainment fee. Next thing is to come up with food. You can have lunch if you wish. It doesn't have to be expensive. It can be pizza, sandwiches, chicken nuggets, etc. To make it even cheaper, have it after lunch and just serve dessert and cake. Next you want to come up with activities for the kids. Girls love crafts and they are fairly cheap to do. Depending on the age, you can do beading, painting t-shirts or tote bags, making princess crowns, etc. Boys can do crafts if they are young. They can make dinosaur dioramas or policeman hats. If they are a bit older, you might want to skip crafts unless you know your son and friends are into making things. Next you want to do a game of some sort. There are the typical musical chairs, hot potato, etc. Or you can make a treasure hunt, carnival games, bingo or whatever matches the theme of the party. Two or three games are usually fun to play at a party. Next is cake and ice cream. Final is open presents if you wish and then down time - can read a story until kids are picked up. Hand out goody bags. All of that should be well under $100.

In Real Life (IRL) - My daughter's 7th birthday party is tomorrow. She is having a "mock" sleepover. Which means 10 girls are coming over at 5 PM and are going home at 9 PM. I will go through the costs and point out where it could have been even cheaper. We sent out invitations to 11 girls. Cost was $1.00 for the invitations and $4.50 for the stamps. Even cheaper would have been to call the girls or hand out the invitations personally. At 5:oo all of the girls are showing up. My husband will pick up pizza at 5:15 and be back by 5:30. Cost of pizza is $45. We could have done this cheaper. I could have made pizza - much more work and I have a baby at home. I could have gotten frozen pizza - not as good. We love this NY pizza place where we're getting the pizza so it's worth it to us. Paper goods were $4 for plates and cups. We had the silverware and tablecloth. We bought plain colors to keep cost down. After the pizza, we are doing the craft. A neighborhood girl is coming over to help. We are going to pay her $10 to help us. The craft is making lip gloss. We spent $3 for containers. $2 for petroleum jelly, $1 for
Jell-O. After the craft we are polishing nails. We bought nail polish and glitter set for $3.50 at a yard sale. Next is games. We are playing hot pillow - prize cost $1. And we are playing bingo. Prize is $1. Then is Make Your Own Sundaes - Cost of ingredients is $15. Cupcakes were made from a mix for a cost of about $2. Open presents is free. Goody bags cost $1 each and will be filled with lip gloss, nail polish, note pads, pen, and nail file. Everything was bought throughout the year on clearance. Thank you notes were 50 cents and another $4.10 to mail. Total cost of party is about $107.50. So I went over the $100. This is IRL after all. But it easily could be cut down by cutting out hiring the neighbor, doing the food from scratch or having fewer sundae ingredients. Also, we will probably have leftover items that we can use.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dream Big - Work Small

Tip #24 - Dream Big. It is fine to have big dreams. Dreams that one day you will own your home. Dreams that one day you will have a boat. Dreams that one day you will retire without worrying about money. It is good to have dreams. Dreams are goals. Goals that you set for yourself in your mind. Don't dream that one day you will win the lottery. That is a fantasy - not a dream.

The way to make your dreams real is to work at it. If you dream to own your home one day, then start saving for it today - even if that savings is one dollar. If you dream for a boat then start saving for it. If you dream about retiring someday then start planning for it. It takes a first step and small steps along the way to make that dream a reality.

In Real Life (IRL) - I dream about retiring early - hopefully when my kids are finished with college. I have started to work on attaining that dream. I've saved money from each paycheck. I've put away money for my kids' college account. And I've worked it that we will be done paying our mortgage before the kids go off to college. By the time they are done school, we should be okay to retire. I didn't do this by winning the lottery. I didn't do this by making a big sale on ebay. And I didn't do this by being handed a trust fund. I started saving when I was young. I bought a house in a good neighborhood and I scrimped on frivolous things like eating out and designer clothes. By working these small steps, I am able to dream big.

Another person had a dream. He dreamed that "...that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Martin Luther King's dream came true yesterday. And it was a big dream. It didn't come easily. There were baby steps along the way. But when Barack Obama, an African-American was elected as the President of the United States, Martin Luther King's dream of social justice came true. If his lofty dream can come true, yours can, too. It just takes work.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Resist Temptation

Tip #23 - Resist Temptation. It's very hard to not spend money when everyone around you is. When your friends are eating out, you want to join them. When your family buys the latest things at the mall, you wish to go, too. When you hear about neighbors' vacations to Carribbean islands, it's hard to not want to fly away also. But try to resist temptation. He who laughs last, laughs loudest. The more you hold on to your money, the more security you will feel and the more you will have later to do what you want to do.

If you know that friends of yours are eating dinner out at a fancy restaurant and you wish to go along, try to resist by making a special meal at home. Or find a coupon 2-for-1 that makes the cost of eating out pretty cheap. You hear about your family's trips to the shopping mall buying the latest gadgets. Resist by telling yourself, most of them will be sold at a garage sale for 1/4 of the price within a year or two. If you have an urge to shop, go to the cheapest thrift store you know about. A lot of retail therapy can be had for $2 or $3. Or if it's yard sale season, spend the morning going to yard sales. And smile each time you pay $1 for an item that was $10 or $20 last Christmas season. When you see your neighbors come back with tans after Christmas vacation, tell yourself that you will be the tan one in retirement. Or if you really, really want to do a dream vacation, then forgo a vacation for a year or two to save up for a big, expensive one. Or find a cheaper alternative than an island at Christmas time. The Florida beaches in the first two weeks of December or during the month of January is much cheaper than the week of Christmas or in February. And if you can drive there, the vacation can be surprisingly affordable.

Try to resist the spending temptation. Stay home more. Find cheap or free activities. But if you can't resist, give in cheaply. You'll be thankful later on.

In Real Life (IRL). Shopping at the mall does not entice me. Not one bit. I am a mall hater. I hate the crowds, the indoor air, and the prices. Ugh. Give me a thrift store any day over a mall. I never know what treasures and bargains I will find. And the cost is a fraction of the mall. But I know that some people love the mall and the fact is, the more you shop, the more you spend. So if you love the mall or shopping in general, then you just have to stay out of the stores if you want to save money. Or learn to love thrift stores and yard sales. While it is sometimes tempting to buy things you don't need at a thrift store or yard sale because the prices are so good, you usually don't waste a lot of money doing it. And if you do, you can always use earlier advice I gave you and sell what you don't want.

Eating out is a temptation of mine. It's nice to not have to cook and even nice to not have to clean up. And frankly, the restaurant food usually tastes better than my cooking. But when I realize the mark-up on restarant food, I try hard to resist. We generally try to eat out (or take in) just once a week. It gives me a much-needed break and allows us to get the eating out need fulfilled. We always do something that is a good deal. Like we get coupons for Baja Fresh in the mail every few months. They have $5 off $15 deals. We usually get off by spending just about $12 for a meal for the 5 of us. It gives us a break and a change of food for not a lot of extra money. We usually eat Chinese about once a month or when our parents visit. We like it and I cannot recreate their food at home very well. With lot of people, the cost per person isn't too bad (usually about $5 per person) with leftovers for another meal or part of one. We do other deals when we see them - coupons for Indian food or pizza, etc. When a meal is $15 or less for our family, we usually do that for our one night per week of eating out. This one night of eating out is in our budget so it's fine for us to do it. The one thing I often resist is girls' night out events that some of my mom friends partake in. If I go, I know I end up spending much more than I'm eating and because I don't drink, I often pay for others' drinks. I end up not having a good time because I know the evening will be an expensive one, so I often just bow out.

Vacations are a big temptation for me. I hate the cold, and the thought of a warm island in winter sounds very good to me. But Florida is even better - financially, that is. We always go in January when our kids have a 2-day school holiday. For some reason, "high" season in Florida is February. We usually drive to Florida from our Virginia home in about 15 hours. We usually spend one night on the road at a decent hotel for in the $60 range. We've also stopped in Orlando for a day or two and gotten hotels for $75 per night. We just spend one day at the park and then go on our way to visit family in South Florida. Hotels there cost about $100 per night including breakfast. For activities we go to the beach which is free. Swimming at the hotel is free, too! We go to some nature preserves - also free. Flea markets - free or can be money-making if you find some goodies to sell on ebay. We even just enjoy going to playgrounds in the sunshine. That is a big treat in January! For a week's vacation to Florida in January, we spend about $300 in gas (if it's $3 a gallon). We spend about $125 for hotels on the ride down and back. And $500 for hotels while we are there. Breakfast is included in the hotel cost. Lunch is often sandwiches that we buy at the local supermarket and dinners are eaten out. I will admit that our family usually treats for dinner, but even if we pay, restaurants are very cheap in South Florida. There are diners and delis and all-you-can-eat places that are $6 per meal with kids even cheaper or free. Our whole vacation costs about $1000 to $1200 for a family of 5 for a week. Not bad when you consider it's a getaway to sunshine in the dead of winter. Plus we get to keep our heating bill down back home (we lower the thermostat but don't turn it off). This vacation is in our yearly budget not just because it's a getaway for us but because both sets of our parents are there so we like to visit them once per winter.

By taking a cheaper way of doing things you enjoy, you can resist more expensive temptation. You will fulfill a need but not spend a lot of money. Make sure that even these "cheaper" items are in your budget, too.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Find Extra Ways to Make Money

Tip #22 - Find Another Source of Income - If you have a full-time job or if you are a stay-at-home-mom, there are extra ways you can make money. Perhaps you have some debt and your budget won't allow for you to put away much savings. Then earn some extra money instead. There are many easy ways to earn money. You can babysit children, walk neighbors' pets, clean houses, sell on ebay, mow lawns, rake leaves, work at a local supermarket, etc. If you have a need for some extra income, ask around for a part-time job or create one yourself. Be creative and look inward to what your talents and interests are.

If you have a full-time job, try not to do this as a way to keep up with your expensive buying habits. You will find yourself worn out from working all day and keeping an extra job at night. Do this to help your finanacial situation. You want to get out of debt or pay off that car loan so you can start building your savings. Then take on some work for a few months. Once the debt is paid off, then you can keep to your budget and just live on your regular income. This is not an ideal situation but many of you are not in ideal situations financially. If you are a stay-at-home mom, then maybe this is the right balance of staying at home and a small amount of work for you or a way to add to your spouse's income.

Start small and slowly. Find what you like and take it from there. You may even find that you have a new career in the making. Good luck!

In Real Life (IRL) - I am a SAHM. I have stayed at home since my daughter was born 7 years ago. And while we mostly live on my husband's income, I have done part-time work for almost all of those 7 years. When my oldest was 1, I offered my services to my old job on a part-time basis. Since they had a lot of work, they were happy to pass some off to me. I never worked more than 10 hours per week, which was great for a mom with a baby. I continued that until I had my second child. And then when she was about 1 year old, I did the same thing. Now that I have 3 children, I really don't have much time to devote to that job so I haven't offered my services to them.

I did decide however to sell more on ebay. I have sold a few things here and there on ebay for about 7 years but not steadily or in any great quantities. When my last child turned 1, I decided that selling on ebay might be easier for me to add to our family's income than working part-time at my old job. I started slowly. Umm...I am still going slowly. I set a goal of selling 5 things per week, hoping to make $50 per week. It's not much, but it's something and I enjoy it. I sell things that I already own, toys that I want to get rid of, and things that I find at yard sales and thrift stores. I already shop at them anyway so it's easy enough for me to look for things to sell on ebay, as well. I sell what I know, so I limit buying things that I don't know about. I've been doing pretty well with it. Find what you like to do, and maybe you can earn some extra income, too.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Use What You Have

Tip #21 - Use What You Have. There are many times that we are tempted to buy something new because it looks better, works better, or simply because we want it. But if you are trying to save money, you should avoid any unnecessary purchases. Look around your house and use what you have on hand. The floor needs to be cleaned but you don't have a mop? Use a rag and get down on all fours. You have a party to go to and want new shoes? Wear old ones. You would like a four-course dinner at a restaurant? Look in your fridge and freezer and make a fancy dinner yourself! Most of us have so much stuff lying around that we are sick of looking at, bored of using, and ready to change at any given time. But don't! This stuff was new to us once and we paid for it or were given it, so we might as well use it. And it doesn't cost a dime! If you can get away with using something you have, then you won't be laying out money. And that is money that can go into savings.

In Real Life (IRL) - We have a lot of stuff in our house. Some of it we use and some is sitting there collecting dust. But I find if I have a need for something, I try to figure out if there is something we own that can do the job or fit the bill. I'll give some examples.
Halloween was last night. I really did not feel like purchasing costumes for three children. At about $20 per costume in most stores, that's $60 I didn't want to spend. And I really didn't have to. I just looked around our house. Someone had given me a pumpkin costume a few months ago in a size 2T for my son who is 15 months old. I thought it might be a bit big, but you know what? I rolled up the pant legs and the sleeves and it looked just fine for the few minutes he went trick-or-treating. My middle child loves princesses and since we have lots of dress-up clothes in the playroom, I told her she could be a princess for Halloween. She was happy about that. I thought I'd have a harder time with my oldest child. Then I remembered a pair of American Girl pajamas I found at a consignment sale last year. I asked her if she would like to dress like her American Girl doll (found at a thrift store) for Halloween. She loved the idea. I braided her hair and we had a pair of Dollar Store glasses and voila - instant costume that was cute and original. All costumes were put together from items we had at home and we didn't spend a dime extra.

My other example isn't as much fun. I backed out of my driveway the other day and put a dent in my rear bumper - oops! My husband said it wasn't a big deal because the bumper was hollow in that spot. He said he'd take it to a place near work and have them bang it out. Umm, now much will that cost? I asked. The answer was $100. Eek. Then he said, well I can try to bang it out. He first used compound that we had lying around in the garage to wipe off the scrapes. Then he used a hair dryer I've owned since college to soften the bumper, and he banged out the dent. It's not perfect but it's 90% better. And frankly, we have 115,000 miles on this car and we hope to keep it another 2-3 years. I'm sure when we sell it, people will expect a few bumps and scrapes.

Anyway, those are just two examples of how we used what we have. You can do it too and cut back on your buying.