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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!

14 Steps to Thriving at an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Meeting

It is October.  That time of year where days get shorter, nights get longer, and we are all a bit more aware of what goes bump in the night.

October was also the time of year my family would go through the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process.  It was always a stressful, and sometimes scary part of our month.  As we focus on things that are scary this month in the lives of of our kiddos, we are going to tackle how to be successful at this.

IEPs can either be a Godsend or the worse hour(s) of your life that year.   We have been through both.  High Roads School in Maryland is excellent!  California and Florida, we had some significant struggles.  We have had successes and failures. 

Background: IEP’s are designed to make the learning experience beneficial to all students.  After all, we are different children with different needs.  A team of administrators, teachers, specialists, and parents work collaboratively to help the child succeed academically. When it works, it is a phenomenal process.

Problem:  IEP meetings seldom work collaboratively and, for a parent unaware of the bureaucracy of the district can be very overwhelming and frustrating.

How do we survive these necessary yearly meetings, while ensuring our children thrive? Here is what I have learned having done IEPs in three different states across America.

Track Progress in all aspects of life

1.       Track Progress:  If you have been following me, you know I believe in data collection and how it can be beneficial to us in all areas of our lives.  In regards to behavior, this has been essential to us understanding our son’s behavior and what effects it.  We track his progress socially, behaviorally, and academically.  Journaling, goal setting, progress reports, report cards, all help a parent understand the multiple levels of a child a better.  This is essential to know how to help your child in the school system.

2.       Review progress reports:  It is really easy to lose track of progress reports in the chaos of what comes home (or emailed from school).  But progress reports are a great way to see what your child likes, doesn’t like, struggles with, or excels at.  We need to know where we have been to know where we are going. This is a vital tool for preparing for you IEP. This is also a great way to stay in touch with teachers throughout the year.

3.       Research IEP Goals: Typically, a month to three weeks prior to a scheduled IEP, I research IEP goals.  This is easily done using a Google search of “sample IEP reading goals” or “sample IEP math goals.”  Do this for each subject.  I cut/paste the ones I think my kid will enjoy and have success with.

4.        Be realistic: Select realistic goals.  You cannot set realistic goals without the above steps completed.  More importantly, you need to choose goals that can be accomplished in the timeframe provided, while leaving room to grow.  Have faith in the child to meet expectations and goals.  Children are resilient and can do way more than we think they are capable of.

5.       Prep teachers/communicate early: Teachers are a strong voice in the meeting because they spend a lot of time with the child.  Don’t wait for an IEP to communicate your concerns, joys, and goals.  They will be more likely to advocate for the child if they believe the parents are working on the same team and not against them.  The education team will likely meet a week or two prior to your scheduled meeting.  Give the teacher your views and goals.  This will help incorporate your ideas prior to the meeting scheduled (and save you time in the long run).  I usually explain this in person and then do a follow-up email to the teacher.

6.       Include social goals: This is really easy to forget when you are surrounded by teachers and administrators who want to focus on academics only.  But school is more than just academics.  Social goals are essential to classroom management, lunch, recess, PE, games, turn-taking, and so much more. Include social goals in the IEP and see how much your child grows both academically and as an individual.

7.       Get rough draft: Most districts will send a rough draft of their meeting home in order to streamline the meeting with the parents.  Go through this with a fine-tooth comb.  I used a highlighter system to show what I agreed with and what I did not.  I also tabbed the pages I wanted a further discussion on.  Most IEPs are lengthy, so this made it quick to refer to things for discussion and help ensure the meeting focused on the more important issues.  I also make changes.

8.       Return revised draft with your changes/edits: Return the changes you made in writing to both the teacher and school prior to the scheduled meeting.  This will ensure the school has time to make the needed changes, or prepare for why they disagree.   

9.       Bring any medical information that supports your views: If you have a doctor’s evaluation, therapy notes, and recommendations, etc. bring them with you.  Make sure those evaluations address academic recommendations.  Some districts do not look at medical information when determining goals because they are not academic.  However, almost all those specialists, are qualified to address academic goals and likely know how to help your child the most.

10.   Bring and be an advocate: You know your child the best.  You are their best advocate.  Don’t be afraid to be their advocate.  The school is not always right.  Just because they are professionals, does not make them a professional regarding your child. If you disagree with a plan or part of the plan, you have the legal right as the parent to address that.  If the school does not agree with your plan (which happens a lot), it is ok to take it up to the district level.  If you do not feel you can be an advocate, invite an advocate with you who is willing to step out and address your concerns.  

11.   Take notes: During the meeting, it is essential to take your own notes.  Multiple times things discussed to be included in the IEP were conveniently left out and official meeting minutes did not reflect the discussion.  Keep your own written record of minutes.  This will be essential as the school year goes on.  

12.   Know your rights: Contrary to what most parents think, the school is not the final authority on an IEP.  Parents have significant rights. You can request a meeting whenever you wish.  You can join a meeting via phone/zoom.  You can invite anyone you wish to the meeting.  You have the right to agree or decline the school evaluating your child for services. In some areas, you have the right to a private education paid for by the district. You have the right to request an evaluation for services (due this prior to requesting the service and save yourself a headache). You have the right to ensure the goals and assessments are measurable. You have these rights and more.  Know them and be empowered.

13.   Do everything in writing: All requests for IEP’s and evaluations need to be done in writing.  Any time you have questions, do it in writing.  Any time you disagree with how things are being done, do so in writing.  Email is excellent for date and time stamps.  We also time-stamped and date all mailed and a student brought home correspondence.  This has saved us in multiple instances.   Legally and inter-personally this will help in preventing issues, miscommunication, and problems as the school year continue.

14.   Keep copies of everything: This is essential.  We once had a school who was supposed to do speech therapy with our son pull the page out of his folder in order to state they did not have to provide services.  We luckily had a copy of the signed IEP on hand and were able to inform them of both their breach in contract and the following needed changes in order to avoid further issues.  Every email and mail correspondence needs to be maintained. 

IEP’s do not have to be scary.  They do take time, but ultimately, they can lead to some amazing growth in your child and in your community.

For more ideas on how to help with IEPs, take a look at my Facebook page.

10 Goal Setting Steps to Success

“If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.”

Lawrence J. Peter
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There is something about the cooler weather and beauty of the leaves turning colors that bring a refreshing change in perspective. Nature is discarding the old to make way for the new.  There is a fresh beginning in the atmosphere as school starts across the country and fresh excitement builds.

Starting a school year is a great time to re-evaluate your goals.  Remember those New Year Resolutions?  If you haven’t checked in on them yet, now is a great time.  Never made a resolution?  Now is a great time to set some realistic goals.  This is a great time for students and parents alike to set up goals for the year.   This is a great time to set up a vision.

Where do you start?  How do you set goals that will make a lasting impact? Should they be long term or short term? 

Let’s demystify the practice of great goal setting.  Here are 9 simple steps to goal setting and achievement.

Why the secret to success is setting the right goals | John Doerr

1.      Evaluate/Discover Your Why: Goals, by nature, are to help you become a better person, better at something.  They are a progression toward success.  Before setting a goal, it is essential you discover your strengths and weakness.  What are you good at?  What are you not good at?  What skills do you have?  What skills do you need?  What are your fears?  Weaknesses? Passions? Values? Knowing where you are starting from is essential to know how to get where you are going.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail Big, To Dream Big – Denzel Washington | Goalcast

2.      Dream Big: Life is short.  What is the point of goals if we are not dreaming big!  Some questions to ask might be if today was your last day, what three things would you like to do? What legacy do you want to leave behind?  Why is that important? What does success look like in 3 months? 12 months? 5 years? Make a mission statement.  Have a word to ground you this year. Put that mission statement and word in a place you see it daily.  I use my planner and have the mission statement and word as my wallpaper on devices.

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3.      Triplets: Setting goals takes utilizing little action steps.  I use the triplet technique.  What three things will I do every morning and every evening?  What three ways will I connect with my family and friends?  What three things will I avoid? What three ways will I reward myself for success?

Everything About Vision Boards – How to Create and Use a Vision Board

4.      Vision Board: I love a good vision board!  I also, love one that is easily changeable.  A good vision board should show the END GOAL.  This will serve as motivation on those days you have no energy or desire to put in the work.  Those days will come. I use magazines, art, leaders, and celebrities I would want to immolate, and quotes on mine.  I have a financial advisor that had a voided check written out to him in the amount of $1,000,000.00 on his board with a glamourous house.  I have a friend who wanted to go to Harvard.  Her board had a picture of the school and the campus colors.  Once you have a board, put it where you will see it all the time.  My son has his in his room.  I keep mine in my planner (so I can see it no mater where I am).

SMART Goals – Quick Overview

5.      Set some realistic goals: Often I am asked if a student for school should focus only on academic goals.  I say no.  A student is a person; a person should focus on all aspects of their life when goal setting.  When setting goals, consider setting personal goals, family/friend goals, and academic/professional goals.  Each goal needs to be clear.  Have a purpose behind the goal.  The reason for doing something is essential to motivation to succeed.  Set the action steps up right then.  Set target dates to achieve.   I like to start with three goals in each category for the year.

Target dates are flexible, but help give a deadline to work toward.  These should be specific.  The key to goal setting success is specificity and motivation.  The more specific the goal, action steps, and target date are, the more likely you are to succeed.

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6.      Monthly focus/Action Steps:  Each month, I choose a new word to focus on that supports my yearly word.  I start the month looking at what I need to do more of and what I need to less of.  This helps me set my monthly smaller goals in each category (personal, family/friends, and professional/academic.   I also use this time to break each goal down into tangible smaller action steps I can reach in a month. 

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7.      Track Progress: It is easy to get discouraged when you do not see progress.  Good progress is slow progress.  Those who follow me, know I love tracking progress in all aspects of life. I bring this same practice into my goal setting.  Each month, I use the Habit Tracker for each goal I have.  This lets me know which days of the month, how often I am succeeding, and how often I am not succeeding at my goals.  This is a quick look at where I have succeeded and failed. I use this simple document (free download below). Each goal gets its own monthly tracking grid.

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8.      Reflect and Review: Achieving goals is a process.  We learn through reflection and review.  Without evaluating where we have been and where we are, there is no way to achieve accomplishing what we set out to do.  Weekly, my family reflects on what we are grateful for.  Life is hard and failure is a part of the process.  But focusing on this can be debilitating in a number of areas.  Finding one to five things a week you are grateful for, helps change that process.  Each month, we look at the top 5 things we accomplished.  Then we look at where we failed to make progress (or flat-out failed).  The Habit Tracker helps us evaluate.  But, we also discuss how we are feeling about our progress and WHY we failed or succeeded. I know I am pushing knowing the why, but reasons we do things helps us understand our success and failures. 

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9.       Revise: Reviewing and reflecting on goals is not helpful if you do not take action on what you learned.  Use this time to re-evaluate and revise your goals.  Life moves at a fast pace.  What may have seemed doable a month ago, may not be impossible in that time frame.  You may need to move your action dates.  Or maybe, you realize a goal is not for you.  This is the time to see what needs to change in your goals, your life, and action to make success a reality.

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10.       Reward: I love rewards!  I am a firm believer in rewarding yourself for achieving the difficult.  Knowing there is a reward at the end of the line, is great motivation to keep moving when things get hard.  Sometimes it is a simple matter of making a deal with yourself. When a goal is achieved, or a significant milestone, reward yourself.  Lost weight? Get new clothes.  Learned a new instrument?  Set up a concert or video share? Mastered the sewing machine?  Share the product with your family and friends.  Rewards can be big or small. 

Goal setting is so important to self-growth, growth in business, growth in our relationships and so much more.  Teaching our children how to set and achieve goals is a life lesson that will benefit them in more than just academics.  Doing this together as a family will strengthen your bond.  Goal setting as a family also gives an added benefit of built-in accountability partners.