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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!

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Friendship is forever.  Child with stuffed Teddy on a wooden bridge.
Friendship is forever. Child with stuffed Teddy on a wooden bridge.

Hello from the inside – of the house.  It seems to be the same mantra every day these days.  Don’t leave the house.  Don’t visit friends.  Don’t be routine. 

It is easy to fall into the habit of leggings and bonbons if you are not careful. But this would be devastating to both health and wellness. 

So how do we have a community when we cannot leave the house?

As a parent in the special needs community, I know firsthand how essential it is to have a community – and how hard it is to find.  People hear the word special needs, autism, ADHD, blindness, deafness, cancer (take your pick) and give that sappy smile and gracefully bow out of every invitation.

Now we cannot leave the house and we are still supposed to have community? This seems like an impossible task.

But there is hope!

Some simple steps to a strengthened sense of community that will lighten the atmosphere at your home and remind you that your community, neighborhood and good friends are still there…on the other side of the glass.

Zoom call with most the family - spanning three states across the country and 6 cities
Zoom call with most the family – spanning three states across the country and 6 cities

ZOOM Dates – the New Play Date

Over Easter, we usually have a lot of people over for a feast and egg hunt.  My son will create some form of costume for everyone.  This year he made jackrabbit hare ears for the older kids and snowshoe hare ears for the younger.  We had prepped and told him this year there would be no guests at our Easter table – but he did it anyway. 

When the time came for feasting, he said, “We can’t.  My friends are not sick.  They are coming.”  To which we had to explain again, thank you #COVID-19, that this year was a celebration with just the family.

But this was eye-opening. 

Our normally social only in scheduled events kid was really asking for a play date. So we did what any parent would – Zoom play date with his best friends.

This is an easy way to see faces, hear voices, and laugh with friends. Near and far. It can last as long or as little as you wish.

Battle black blur board game of chess
Battle black blur board game of chess

Make It A Game

During any phone call, it is easy to not want to chat after a few minutes.  It is important to make the play date just as fun as you would if it were in your own home.

Play some games. We used dry erase boards and played Pictionary. Some other great games would be Hedbandz, Speak Out, Bingo and good old fashioned Hangman.

Some other great apps are HouseParty and FacebookKidzMessanger.  The nice thing about FacebookKidzMessanger is the a parent is in control the whole time, and the kids can text between calls.

Spencer writes letters
Spencer write letters

Old Fashioned Letters

It is so nice to be able to see people’s faces and hear their voices with technology like Zoom, Google Video, and Facebook. 

But there is something to be said about getting a letter or card in the mail. 

You know when you get mail (that is not a bill or junk mail), your heart skips a beat and you think to yourself, “Someone thought of me! How nice.” 

Kids get that feeling times 100!  My son sees a piece of junk mail advertising a car and immediately states in excitement, “Guess what!? We are getting a car?!”  (Yes, he missed the fine print). But the excitement is real!

Our son writes to those in the hospital, in nursing homes, his aunts, old teachers and pen-pals. 

There is nothing like seeing him open his mail and immediately want to write back. 

So take a minuet and remember the thrill.  And encourage letter writing all around.

Brothers play with dog in the sunlight
Brothers play with dog in the sunlight

I know it seems like a neighbor and community are things of the past right now.  I know it feels like you are alone in a new world of parenting never seen before.  I know you feel lost, anxious and confused.  We all do.  But these little changes can really impact your health and wellness.  These changes will remind your child (and yourself) you are not alone.  You are never alone. 

Take a minute this week and try one of these things.  See how it changes your perspective.  Then let me know how it worked out for you.  I would love to hear your stories. 

TGIF FUN Friday and How It Changed Our Homeschool World

girl-playing-with-bubbles
girl-playing-with-bubbles

For those new to homeschooling, it can be very intimidating.  Do we know enough?  Can we have the patience?  How do I balance everything?

You have come to the right place.

The last elementary school our son went to in Maryland implemented a FUN Friday routine.  (Thank you, Tara, for all you do!) 

When we decided to home school and work from home, we chose to implement this same thing. Using this incentive routine has been so beneficial in helping our son take responsibility for his own learning – and chores – throughout the week.  For more on how to use incentives, check out this blog Let’s Make a Deal). Here is how it works:

happy-coffee
happy-coffee

1)      Monday Start: On Monday have a checklist created of the school tasks assigned for the week.  If you missed how to do this, check out last week’s blog Finding Balance: Telework and Homeschooling. Upfront, the student knows what is expected.  This helps them plan their own week (a key executive function).  It also reminds them their education is their own.  You cannot be there all the time.

2)      Four Day Week:  No one wants to work more than they need.  We spend two to three hours a day at school.  With great focus, this is all we need for the entire week.  The most we have ever needed was to spend four hours in one day. Whatever is not completed Thursday will roll over to Friday.

3)      On Friday:  Just because it is Friday does not mean our responsibilities cease.  In the “real world,” we would still have family obligations (sometimes work depending on the schedule), and regular household tasks.  The same is true for our son.  The following must be completed PRIOR to FUN Friday commencing:

a.       Chores complete: Who wants to play in a messy house?  No one.  All chores must be completed.

b.       Thirty minutes outside:  Sun is essential for healthy bodies.  Imaginative play is essential for healthy minds.  Time playing outside is a requirement.  Thirty minutes is our minimum.

c.       Read a book:  If you have younger kids, a single kid’s book is fine.  If you have older kids, depending on the book, at least one (sometimes two) chapters must be read. 

d.       Be Creative: Imaginative is play is important to development.  Art and play are vital to many engineering skills, communication skills, and sometimes give insight into emotional health for a parent. Our son must be creative.  Sometimes that is writing a comic book, building Lego, painting, or playing in clay. The options are limitless!

4k-wallpaper-adorable-blur-boy
4k-wallpaper-adorable-blur-boy

4)      FUN Friday is here: This part of the day consists of whatever the child wants (within reason).  Our son does not get a lot of screen time (see how we use it in this blog Is Screen Time Your Friend or Enemy).  He usually asks for a movie.  But sometimes, we use this time to go to a zoo, the aquarium, or another outing.  During #socialdistancing, we do games, movies with popcorn, build forts, and so much more.  The day is limited only by imagination. 

We discovered this small change to education, has increased focus during school, allowed us to start teaching a new language, build on social skills, and increased our family connection in a positive way. 

Now that homeschool is becoming a norm, I encourage you to try FUN Friday in your home.  See how it goes for a while.  Remember, you earn income, paid vacations, flex work hours for your hard work and focus at work.  Let’s extend that to our children who need incentives just as much.