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12 Steps to Staying on Budget and Living Your Best Life

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As we close out January, many have been looking at how to get a healthier grasp around their budgets.  How to budget and what should be included are really considered as the credit card bills from December’s Christmas spending come in.

Those with kids are trying to figure out a way to better teach kids what it means to have a budget and that can be quite a difficult conversation.  For basic starters, check out this blog on 6 Steps to Taking the Fear out of Finances.  For those who want to dive a bit more, we are going to look today at the 10 steps my family uses to make and stay on budget while living our best life.

My husband and I both grew up in families where money was tight.  We did not get the newest and greatest things as they came out.  We ate meals at home and brown-bagged it to school.  In college, having to pay for it entirely on my own, I was no stranger to Ramen noodles.  During this time, I learned the value of food closets because I often needed them to eat so I could pay my school bill.  I worked six jobs and went to school full time.  I graduated with my bachelor’s degree entirely debt-free and my graduate school loans were paid off two years early.  Other than our house, we are entirely debt-free.

Though we are not financial gurus, we do know a thing or two about how to budget and have fun.  Here are some of our takeaways:

1. Make a budget: This seems basic, but you would be surprised how many do not actually do this.  There are three easy steps to doing this:

  • Look at the past: The best way is to take the bank account statement for the last month (three months is best) and really look at each transaction.  How much do you pay in bills?  Do these fluctuate (like utilities) or are all flat rates?  How much do you spend on gas? Food? Phone? Subscriptions? Entertainment? Once this is done, you get a good idea of not only where you are spending your money, but where your values are.
  •  Look at your income: How much do you bring in a month? Is this more or less than what you spend? 
  • Start with bills: Whatever subscriptions and plans you pay for and don’t use – close the accounts.  Next, always start with bills.  Ensure the income pays those first.  Next, have a line item for food, entertainment, giving, savings, and emergencies.  Allot your money as needed.
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2. Make a Wish List:  In an instance “click here” to check out with the one-click world, it is easy to spend more money than you think faster than you think. Instead, make a wish list (especially for those big-ticket items).  Take the time to research the best options.  If not an emergency (which you have been saving in the budget), take a month or three and see if you really need it or it was just a momentary want.  If the latter, you just saved money.

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3. Eat out less: I love food.  I say that all the time.  But eating out is not only costly to my waistline it is costly to my bottom line.  Eating out with friends and family for special occasions is fine (budget for this).  But, in general, we try to eat out less than once a week.  We eat better, feel better, and our bottom line stays in the black. This is also great for keeping up those new year’s resolutions and ensuring they work for you.

4. Buy second hand: Growing up second had got a bad rap.  Clothes bought second-hand would label you as poor or ugly.  In reality, that Nike hoodie your friend’s parent spent $60.00 on, my parent got looking brand new for $500.  So many places now make it easy to buy gently loved secondhand clothes, tools, games, décor, and so much!  Brand names even now have a “gently loved” section you can usually get a great deal on when you need to.  Check out Craigslist, Poshmark, and Marketplace to get started.  We once got a $5,000.00 elliptical machine (used times by the owner) for $500.00. 

5. Use what you have: Instead of going to the store when you need an item for a recipe, plan your meals ahead.  Don’t have the time?  See what you have in your pantry/fridge that can be used as a substitute.  So often there are quick fixes already in our home that make great meals.  Eat leftovers.  Re-purpose old toys, clothes, and furniture.  We turn our thinned towels into towels used when we work on the car or clean the garage.  We reuse fabric.  There are so many options.

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6. Look for Deals: Coupons are great! I am not an extreme couponer, but I know some people who are.  I know a family who has not spent more than $5.00 on groceries for a family of four in three years.  Coupons are great a way to stay on budget.  Many museums, zoos, and aquariums provide discounts to certain groups and even free days to enjoy and see if you want to come back.  Some will even discount the price of admission depending on how many hours are left in their business day. We use these free and discount days often.  We have seen some great culture this way.

7. Wait:  Seeing a movie in theatres is great fun! But it can also be greatly expensive.  Add in the price of admission, a drink, snacks, and popcorn and you for a family of four you are looking at close to a car payment!  For these types of activities, wait till they come to streaming or DVD.  Then you can view them at home in your comfort and have spent a fraction on the snacks while still enjoying family time.

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8. Plan for Emergencies: Life happens.  Cars break.  Kids see doctors.  Cavities happen.  Without saving, these costs can be costly and harmful to the bottom line.  Instead of dealing with the emergency plan for one. One line item of the budget should be about 10% of your budget solely to be set aside for emergencies.  Then when they hit, you are prepared and way less stressed with the results.

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9. Fill your time with other activities: For those who use shopping and eating out as a way to socialize, I understand how hard this can be.  But it is not impossible.  Instead of shopping or eating when stressed or hanging out, fill the time with another activity.  Work on your new year’s resolution.  Read a book.  Do some art.  Get outside and walk around.  See God’s beautiful handiwork in nature.  Play a board game.  Make up a new game. Talk with your friends and family.  There are so many options that do not involve money and best of all, they grow your friendships more.

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10. DIY: As a military spouse who has been through deployments/TDYs, it is Neuton’s Law that when a spouse leaves, everything breaks. The last deployment I kept a list of everything that broke and had to be replaced from our washer to the shower rack. We have learned to fix things ourselves. There are so many classes and tutorials out there, it is so easy to not only do the fixing for less (sometimes with items you already have). Repairs to the car and house can often be done at a fraction of the cost when you do it yourself. ***NOTE: Do not attempt anything a license professional will need to do unless you are a licensed professional.

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11. Give: When you give, you get.  We take 10% of our budget and use it to give. Great places to give where your money is multiplied are non-profits and churches.  There is so much need in the world, giving just 10% won’t make a huge impact. But if all of us did that, oh what a difference that would make! 

12. Save: We talked about emergencies, but savings should go beyond that.  Want to go to college? Scale Mount Everest?  Travel the world?  10% of your savings should be set aside for these wonderful dreams!  Then when the time comes you have the funds without stress.  You are not taking from your bottom line and, if you have put this in a savings account, you made money on it from interest.  The longer it sits the more money you make.

Staying on a budget doesn’t have to be scary or hard.   When we get back to the basics, things fall into place.  These simple changes will help you stay on budget, strengthen your relationships, and de-stress your life.  Now go out and enjoy your best life!

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15 Easy New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep

We are halfway through January and (with all the spikes in COVID cases) and the holiday hullabaloo behind us, perhaps you have forgotten about New Year’s Resolutions.  It can be easy to get lost in the fast-paced world of life and then feel like you are already behind. 

Not to worry.  I have compiled some of my top 15 favorite resolutions I have done (and some I continue to do) to help inspire you and your family to live a more animated life.  Many of these are simple, measurable goals that won’t leave you feeling guilty at the end of the month (or next year).

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1. Read a new book each month: This is a great one to do alone or with your spouse or friend.  It is also a measurable goal and easy to do. Find new books that interest you and read them.  I like to read with my hubby before bed.  This is a great way to be intimate with each out and have a date night for free.  Or, I have also enjoyed book clubs.  Clubs are a great way to meet new friends and get out of the house.

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2. Do something creative each month: This is a fun one.  I have found using a subscription service to be helpful.  Monthly getting a box of something new and creative to do brings a little more joy to the mailbox and the house.  I then use what was created to decorate my house.  Cratejoy has a ton of subscriptions for all ages. 

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3. Discover one new place each month: We all get into the habit of eating at the same places, going to the same places, and doing the same things.  This is great for those of us who like routine.  But, life is not routine (as much as I wish kit were sometimes).  It is good for us to shake things up.  So go out and explore your neighborhood or the world for that matter.  Try something new and make some new memories.

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4. Sleep better: This is one I try to do all the time.  Sleep helps us function better during the day, have better relationships, think better, and so much more.  Sleep is also what a lot of kids and teenagers struggle with.  For some great steps on how to help with this, check out this blog on 10 Steps to a Better Night’s Sleep.

5. Exercise more:  I know, this sounds like every other resolution you have heard.  And you would be right.  But, let’s face it, we all work in front of screens, socialize in front of screens, get entertained in front of screens.  Our bodies were not designed to just sit.  Our bodies thrive on movement.  We get endorphins, are happier, and look nicer in that swimsuit (summer is just around the corner) or jeans.  But this doesn’t have to be a do-or-die goal.  Make it simple.  Just plan to incorporate a walk after work with dogs, or a run in the morning with your son, or just get on YouTube and enjoy a quick 25–60-minute workout. Make it a social thing and do it with a friend. 

6. Eat better: I love food.  I also like a healthy family.  Gut health affects brain health.  Gut health effects are particularly strong for those with neuro and sensory needs.  We have learned how to incorporate healthy (on a budget) and enjoy really good food. The more colorful our plate the yummier our food tastes.  Many of our daily recipes we use for entertaining as well and hear only “oo’s” and “awes.” Need help getting started?  Check out these simple recipes

7. Do something new each month: Sometimes I feel like I get in a rut.  The best way to get me out of a rut is to try something new.  Sometimes this is a new experience altogether (new food, new museum, etc.), but it can be as low-key or extreme as you wish.  I know someone who used this resolution to give him the guts to go sky diving and another who used it to travel the world.  Just recently, I did this by helping replace our stove range. It can be simple and little or something you need to get done on a budget or something big and grand. Enjoy.

8. Monthly family night: Life gets busy fast. With sports teams, music lessons, study sessions, games, and friends, it can seem like your child is a roommate (who doesn’t help with the bills) the older they get. Take the family back.  We like a daily mealtime together. But once a day over dinner (sometimes breakfast) is not enough.  We like a monthly family night when we play games, watch movies with popcorn, or roast marshmallows by the fire.  This is especially great when hubby is on swing shifts or 14-hour day shifts.  We can plan a time together and not feel like it is crammed into the schedule.

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9. Self-care:  This is a hard one for me.  My older sister has been encouraging me to do this for years.  As a mom, it is easy to forget to take care of yourself.  Truth be told, I haven’t even had a haircut since 2019!  It is just easier to ensure my family has what they need and want first.  But self-care doesn’t have to be hard or cumbersome.  Have a glass of wine with friends on a Friday night.  I like working out with friends (making friends and getting healthier).  I love going to farmer’s markets and enjoying the sites and smells.  Sometimes there is nothing better than snuggling under a blanket and reading.  The important thing is that you take the time to plan for it.  Because if you do not plan for it, you never will get it.

10. Serve someone else: The season of giving is winding down.  But it doesn’t have to end.  No matter the season, serving someone else is so good for all involved.  Sometimes we just need to get out of our heads and focusing on the negative.  The best way to do this is to serve someone else.  This might mean teaching Sunday School at your church or volunteering with the babies.  Or, it might mean sitting with your elderly neighbor an hour a week and reading to them or learning about their incredible life!  Fear has taken hold the last two years, our elders have survived wars, sickness, and so much more.  Learn and grow from their strength.  Or volunteer at the local elementary school teaching how to read or simply cutting out and printing worksheets for the overworked teacher.    

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11. 365 days of gratitude: This one is so important to me.  It was a resolution I had years ago and practice I continue.  Gratitude is so important because it changes our perspective and often calms us down (preventing us from doing something stupid).  Being thankful in all circumstances is a great way to not only change your world but the whole world.  If we all just found one thing daily to be grateful for, imagine the difference in attitudes we would have. 

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12. Monthly Date Night: I love date night!  I covet date night!  Having a date night is hard with a special needs kid.  It is hard for military families who always move.  It is hard for families with multiple kids who just have so much going on.  Date night does not have to be a big deal.  It is there to build and strengthen a relationship with someone you already love.  Here are 12 great date night ideas we use and still keep in budget. 

13. Service Project/Awareness monthly: There is so much pain in the world and so few people know about it, much less do anything about it.  Take 12 months and learn about different issues (local and global).  At the end of the year, pick one that you became passionate about and get involved.  Serve.  Do a campaign of awareness.  Donate.  Just do something about it.  Be the change in the world.

14. Take a Class:  I know, most adults hate school.  That is because we were forced to go to school growing up learning about things we don’t like.  Our kids currently hate it for the same reason.  But learning doesn’t have to be torture.  Take a class with your kids (or just yourself) and learn something new.  Always want to learn a new language? Do it.  Duolingo is a free way to start and see if you like it.  Want to learn a new hobby?  Take a class at Hobby Lobby or Lowes.  Want to be able to make your car repairs?  Take a class at the local community college.  Be open to learning more things. Learning new things is fun and healthy – and can help prevent diseases like dementia.  

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15. Start letter writing: Screen fatigue is a real thing.  It is happening more and more often in this post COVID world.  Everything is on a screen.  Zoom and Google Chat have taken over our lives.  We like to take a step back, put out real paper and pen and compose a nice greeting or letter to a family member or friend.  This is a great way to keep in touch over a distance and have a keepsake for the kids when they are older.   Try just writing to one person.  Or write to someone different monthly.  It is so wonderful to see what comes back in the mail.  Enjoy.

Whatever you pick for your resolution, I hope it helps bring joy and unity to your household.  May you be covered in Peace, Love, and Joy this year.  May the road rise to meet you and the wind be ever at your back.

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12 Days of Crafting: Enjoying Christmas Break With Your Family

The holidays are here. Christmas is finally here! Oh, what fun! The food, the presents, the time with family and friends. What a great season of joy.

But, after tonight, and once the holiday hype has called down, parents everywhere will be thinking, “What do I do with my kids for the remainder of school break?”

I completely understand. Without school filling most of the day, how do you keep a kid busy for a week or more?

Here are five great ways to survive the school break. Today I want to focus on giving a project. Here are 12 days of projects that can help you celebrate the season and enjoy great a product.

Buffalo Plaid Christmas Wreath; Credit: Carrie at Lovely Etc.
  • Buffalo Plaid Christmas Wreath: This project brightens any door in a classy way. This is fun way to liven up the holiday décor for this year and next.
Let IT Snow Wall Decor; Credit: Blooming Homestead
  • Let It Snow Wall Décor: I love the simplicity of this design. This can hang wonderfully in any room or on any wall and bring immense joy.
Jingle All the Way; Credit: Hallmark Channel
O, Come Let Us Adore Him; Credit: View Along the Way
Joy Wine Bottle Table Toppers: Credit: Sytletic
  • Joy Wine Bottle Table Topper: Reuse those empty wine bottles from Christmas by adding a touch of beauty to your holiday décor. Reduce, reuse, and recycle with this fun craft.
Mosaic Tree Table Topper; Credit: Handyman
Grinch Table Scape; Credit: House of Elynryn
  • Grinch Table Scape: What is the Christmas season without the Grinch? Bring in this fun Who-Ville inspired décor to the celebration.
Snowflake String Art; Credit: DIYonthecheap
  • Snowflake Sting Art: No matter what part of the world I have lived in, there is something about snow that makes the holidays – even when I live in the heat at Christmas. Add a touch of winter wonderland to your home with this fun craft.
Snow Frosted Candle Holder; Credit: Crafty Morning
  • Snow Frosted Candle Holders: Lights and lanterns are a tradition the world over for the holidays. Enjoy these beautiful candle holders as you prepare the way.
Joy Farmhouse Christmas Serving Tray; Credit: Create and Babble
Giant Christmas Ornaments; Credit: HGTV
  • Giant Christmas Ornaments: Decorating our yard is such a fun tradition. Add these simple ornaments and be the talk of the neighborhood.
Santa Wine Glass; Credit: My Paper Craze
  • Holiday Wine Glasses: New Year’s is just around the corner. Adding these fun glasses to your entertaining will bring smiles and laughter galore.

I hope these fun crafts help you find time to slow down and be intentional with your family. Families that create together, make memories together, stay together.

Let me know what fun crafts you like to do.

12 Date Night Ideas on a Budget

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Remember those days when you first met your partner and everything in the world was seen through rose-colored glasses?  That person could do no wrong.  All you wanted was to spend every last minute with them.

Then you got married.

Then you had kids.

Then you realized being an adult requires more work, patience, and determination that you ever thought possible.

Where did all the romance go?  With the doctors’ visits, the football practices, the late-night homework sessions…oh, yeah, and the cooking, and cleaning, and the working two full-time jobs that sometimes take even more time.

This is particularly difficult for those who have children with special needs.  It takes longer to trust other people watching your kids.  If you are lucky to find someone qualified, they usually charge an arm and a leg for their services.  As one of our daycare providers in Maryland once said, “We charge more because we know we are the only ones in the area who does this.”

In the special needs’ world, it is extortion at its best sometimes.  According to MarketWatch, in America, 29% of people aged 18 to 34 are more than $500.00 in debt from overspending on dates spending an average of $1,596.00 a year on dates! Just dates.  For those math folks, that is $133.00 a month and $33.25 a week. 

Watching my parents, who married at age 16, had their first kid at 18, lost a child, had 7 more, and have gone to college (earning JD and PhDs) while raising us, I learned a successful marriage requires date night. My parents did it at least once a week – leave the kids and spend time with your spouse. So, when I married my husband, we agreed this is a requirement for our marriage too. Thank God, he agreed!

How do you find time for romance in the chaos without breaking the budget?  First – make a budget.  When you have a good budget, you can really enjoy things more.

Also, for those who qualify, look into your local Respite Care providers.  Respite care is short-term relief for primary caregivers. It can be arranged for just an afternoon or for several days or weeks. Care can be provided at home, in a healthcare facility, or at an adult day center.  We use this to help with grocery shopping, errands, prepping for holidays and so much more.

Before You Get Started

Before you get started, make sure you are scheduling this and putting it on the calendar. This is a priority. Then take turns planning them – surprise each other. Use this time to talk to each other (not about work, kids, or household). No excuses – date night is a priority. Never make excuses outside date night. I promise you date nights in your marriage will help you in parenting, relationships, and life in general.

Here are 12 creative no cost dates that helped our marriage cultivate instead of breaking our budget:

Without a sitter

1.       Movie and Wine: When we first married, this was a great one!  We would move the couch out of the way, lay down some pillows and blankets, and start a fire.  The lights low, the cozy setting was perfectly matched with our favorite wine and a good movie. It is important the movie is something you both can enjoy.  Some of our favorites are The Princess Bride, The Greatest Showman, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future series, and Indiana Jones series. ***This is great because you get to talk to each other during the movie without bothering anyone else. Talking is essential.

2.       Craft night: This is one of my favorites! My husband got me a subscription craft kit for Christmas.  Instead of doing the craft alone, he does them with me.  We like Adults and Crafts.  For $33.00 a month, we get everything we need for a great date night.  Once the kids are in bed, we enjoy time creating together.  The nice thing about this date night is it can happen over multiple days sometimes.  Certain crafts require setting/drying time, so date night becomes date weekend.

3.       Themed movie marathons: This is a fun one that can also extend beyond the single night.  We like to do movie marathons.  Movies with sequels are great, but you are not limited to just this.  We did a marathon of watching all Disney Animated movies in order.  Our next one will be to watch all their live-action movies in order.  This is also a great time to binge your favorite shows! This is great because it lets link back to our childhood, and often springs great conversation. ***This is great because you get to talk to each other during the movie without bothering anyone else. Talking is essential.

4.       Play video games: So many times, I hear wives complain their husband spends his time playing video games instead of investing in them.  Use this.  Before I met my husband, I did not know video games had stories…like movies!  Apparently, they do – and some are really interesting.  Husbands, play the stories.  Wives, watch the story (and your beau) conqueror all cheering him on.  Not interested in the story, I paint or do a craft while listening sometimes.  I am with my spouse, participating with him, and learning more about him. 

5.       Game night: This sounds like a cliché, but there is truth in this.  Games have the power of sparking great conversation, building trust, and bringing the gift of laughter.  We particularly like this night when we find new or unusual games (but the classic Sorry, Boggle, Scrabble, and Chess is just as good).  Some of our favorite games are Shut the Box, Liars Dice, Vertell’s, and Qiddler

6.       Read books: I am an avid reader as it is, but it is so much more fun reading with my hubby.  I like things like novels where he likes ghost stories.  We have both really enjoyed historical pieces as well. This often has given us ideas for travel, routines, and date nights.   We often switch between the two.  Or, my favorite is when we start with his ghost stories and finish with my devotional or scripture reading. 

7. Karaoke: There is something special about getting crazy in front of a mic with your special someone. No matter your skill level, this is a great date. Not ready to show off in public, show off in the safety of your living room with those you trust the most. Laughter is guaranteed no matter what on this date.

With a sitter

Movies and dinner are great.  But search out happy hours, Taco Tuesdays, and specials first.  The occasional, movie, fancy restaurant and trampoline park are great.  But do not make these the go-to.

8.       Coffee/Brew dates: These are so much fun and cost as little as $5.00 a person. We like to find a local brew company or coffee shop and enjoy the local fare.  This is great for nights that have trivia or open mic. If nothing else, it is cheap entertainment supporting the local small businesses in the community to reminisce about for years to come.  

9.       Painting with a Twist: This is a great night out as a couple.  Creating art (with someone to help if needed) and some wine/beer of your choice.  You both get to be a little goofy and come home with a souvenir at the end.  This is usually a splurge night for us as a couples event can range from $15.00 per person to $50.00.  It is best to look in advance to ensure you like what is being taught to make in advance. We especially like to do this on fundraising nights as we know the proceeds help a local non-profit.

10.       Dinner at a bar: This can also be a splurge night.  But we like to go during happy hours and specials.  With the right happy hour and special, we can spend less than $50.00 in total.  This is a great way to sample new places.  It is also fun to re-enact the first date or enjoy the simple pleasure of trying something new on the menu together.

11.   Fishing/hiking: We love the adventure of the outdoors.  A great hike (even in the winter with some hot chocolate) or sitting on the side of the bank with a book while he fishes are perfection. This FREE activity lends itself to experiencing nature, getting much-needed vitamin D, and feeling like you accomplished something together. Fish at the end of the day is also a great FREE meal.

12.   Beach day: There is something about the sound of the waves crashing onto the sand that brings a peace in the sole.  The sun, surf, and sand are a great way to get out and be silly.  We like to pitch a tent and then enjoy playing in the water, watching dolphins, and building sandcastles. 

13.   Bonus Sex: I debated putting this here, but I think it is vital to all marriages.  All marriages.  Going too long without sex is detrimental to the foundation of the marriage.  Many marriage counselors, pastors, and your parents (who are still together after decades of marriage) will all say sex is essential to the relationship.  Sex reinforces the foundation, reconnects intimacy, rebuilds, and strengthens relationships and so much more! For more on this, check out this great article on healthy sex in marriage, and this article on why married sex is the best sex.