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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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10 Practical Steps to Changing a Selfish Attitude to a Serving Attitude

It is that time of year again. The snow is blowing. The lights are glowing. The turkey is on the table. And the toy catalogs have found their way into everyone’s mailbox (like it or not).

It is the time of year when our “perfect angles” remind us just how perfect they have been. When they do extra chores or are extra nice to siblings so they can remind us just why they “deserve” that special toy or one more present over than last year, or (you fill in the blank).

As the years pass, it seems the “need” for stuff grows like ivy – clinging to the hearts and minds of our dear little ones (and if we are honest, sometimes ourselves). So how do we stop this selfish weed from growing in our homes and slowly, silently, destroying everything our dear ones worked toward all year round?

The answer is simple: giving. Here are four easy ways to get back Christmas with a focus on giving. Give of our time. Give of our attention. Give of our resources. Turn the focus of the home from inward to outward.

But, how do we do that in this media-influenced, one-click purchase, instant gratification world? But maybe, giving is not the problem. Maybe it is a matter of the heart. Here are 12 ways we try to shift our focus year-round (but especially around the holidays).

1. Give Attention: There are so many people in our lives that need an extra touch of love. Take time to notice them. Greet them and see how their day is. For those in middle and high school, take an extra two minutes to hang out with that “strange” kid or the kid at the lunch table all by himself. Chances are those are the kids whose stockings will be empty and/or there will be an extra seat missing at the Christmas dinner.

2. Check in on friends and family: We love writing to our extended family using snail mail. There is something nice about receiving a card, letter, or extra something in the mail from a loved one. My son has taken it next level and will include mini-comic books he created or add in recipes he thinks the other person will enjoy. This takes less than 30 minutes and brings delight and joy to all involved.

3. Practice Gratitude: If you have been following me long, you know I really believe in practicing gratitude. This past year I chose to take things even further to make this a daily practice. I have shifted my weekly calendar to reflect not the appointments I have or the deadlines I need to make, but what I am grateful. This shift has been so helpful during deployment and moving to keep me grounded and less stressed out. Here is resource I created to help my son do the same thing (though now he uses his school planner as well). It has been so rewarding to see the year in review (a great idea for New Year’s too).

Credit: Dressember Foundation (https://www.dressember.org/howitworks)

4. Donate to organizations around you: Organizations that help others are often strapped for cash (especially during the holidays when more needs arise). Donating to an organization is a fantastic way to not just spread the wealth, but to open the door to talking with your children about why there are needs, how your kids can avoid being in situations that need the extra help, and why you chose that organization.

This year, I have joined the Dressember Thrive with Dressember Team to help support human trafficking prevention, intervention, and survivor empowerment programs around the world. Having lived in the highest human trafficking areas in America (Los Angeles/Huntington Beach, CA; Greater Washington DC area, pan-handle Florida), and spending all of college and graduate school campaigning for awareness and change in this topic, it has served as a great way for me to help teach my son about stranger-danger, what to look for, and how to report it

5. Practice Forgiveness:  The holidays bring about family. Family brings about questions into your life, you might not normally talk about. Family also tends to say and do things to and around you that you dislike. Although the holidays are a fantastic time for bonding, they can also break relationships. Instead of building walls or hanging on to the continued pain, use this time to forgive and let go. After all, the pain is only hurting you – not the one you are mad at.

6. Shine a positive spotlight on others: No one likes to be at a family gathering where it is the “All About So-and-so Show.”  Nor do they want to be in the spotlight of negative attention. For those parents with special needs, this can be a challenging time of year with routine changes and high sensory impact. Instead of using this time to remark on how displeased, you are with how people act around you or children, or to complain about how they did not think about how to incorporate your needs more, take time to spotlight those around you.

  • Complement the chef if you are not the one cooking. Even if you do not like the food. Afterall, they spent all day cooking.
  • Give a shout out to the host or the in-law watching all the kids so the siblings can catch up.
  • Point out what a great idea someone had for a game or activity (and then let yourself enjoy it).

7. Compromise: I am the middle of seven children. You can imagine how difficult holidays can be when you are coordinating all seven children, their spouses, and the next generation. It may be time to compromise. Instead of doing gifts for everyone, just a family. Or instead of opening presents first thing in the morning on Christmas Day, you wait until December 26 or December 27 (we even opened on New Year’s Eve one year). Being willing can make the holidays sweeter in ways you never thought possible.

8. Watch the road rage: I have lived in the worst traffic places in America (405 and 101 intersection in CA, Baltimore/Annapolis, and the Indi-85 in Florida). It is so easy to get angry quickly in your car when no one will let you in to merge, or they are slow to start moving when a light turns green or, Heaven forbid, they are driving the speed limit. When you find yourself in this situation, remind yourself the extra two seconds will not change if you hit the next light or not and the other driver may be heading to the hospital in a hurry or coming from a funeral. You do not know what is happening in that car.

9. Donate your time: For some, money is tight. That means giving to local organizations seems like a burden. So, for those where money is tight, take time to help a local organization. This is a wonderful way to show kids firsthand what your time can do. Help Habitat for Humanity build a house. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Carole at the hospital or senior citizens center. Small tasks can make an enormous impact. Not sure you want to get completly engulfed in a project? Find an organization you really care about and ask how you can

  • Donate your time.
  • Donate your stuff (and make room for all the new stuff on Christmas).
  • Donate your expertise. It is amazing how many non-profits need editors, writers, tech savvy help.

10. Start small: The best of the holidays, for me, are the small traditions. If you are having trouble getting into the spirt, start small. See the city Christmas Tree lighting. Enjoy the local dance school recital. Have a cup of hot chocolate (and spring for marshmallows) with the kids. It is in the small things that memories are made.

I would love to hear how you enjoy your holiday season with the kiddos. Let me know your favoirte way to make the season all the brighter.

For more on how to enjoy the holidays, check out my Facebook page.

From “Give me” to “Give them”: 4 Simple Ways to Get Back to Christmas

It is the most wonderful time of the year. Hot cocoa. Chestnuts on the fire. Family and friends and loved ones.

Kids around the world have begun shouting at commercials, “I want that!” Toy catalogs are being circled with hopes and dreams of young and old.

But, for many, this year has brought heartache, fear, and darkness. Families and friends seem farther away than ever before. Fear clutches the hearts of even the most stoic.

But, it does not have to be that way. We can embrace the real and true meaning of Christmas – the greatest gift of all time. To celebrate this gift, my family has incorporated one of my favorite holiday traditions.  I thought I might share with you how we have changed our house from a “Give me!” to a “Give them” household.

  1. Elfing: It is better to give than receive – especially when you go out elfing.  This is similar to “Booing” (a Halloween tradition).  Many do this for friends and family, but my family likes to find those in need.  We like to find the families struggling to get by, but would never ask for help.  We like to find the families that feel so overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, that the simple act of love changes their life.  Some years we choose a single-family and “elf” them weekly for the month of December.  Some years we “elf” a different family in need every week.  But, it is a weekly part of our Christmas tradition. All you need is a goody bag – or – stocking. Fill them with Christmas fun! Things like coloring sheets, crayons, candy, card games, elf hats, and ornaments are great. Cookies are a favorite of ours. **Tip: The Dollar Tree is a big money saver for small trinkets and fun children’s toys.  Have the kids help choose the filling.  Then wait till dark, load up the kids, and leave the gift on the porch.  Ring the bell and RUN! RUN! RUN!  The best part of “elfing” is no one “knows” it was you.

2. Christmas Caroling: Music is powerful!  I spent years studying how music is used to create culture.  But, of all music, there is something unique about Christmas music.  The way it brings peace, hope, and love to even the darkest places is incredible.  This year, with so many shut-ins, senior citizens, and families in quarantine, it is easy to think this tradition is out date.  But, it doesn’t have to be.  We have traditionally caroled with our Rotary Club and church groups, but this year, we are doing things, well, differently.  We are caroling via the internet.  Simply record yourself singing and send it to the same places you would normally go in person. If possible, make this a family event – my family loves singing together.

3. Give: This time of year is always a bombardment of “give me” from charities the world over.  Having spent more nearly 15 years in the non-profit sector, this is often the time of year where most of the budget comes in.  It can seem like everyone wants something.  We have learned to use that as teachable moments.  We present the different ways to give to our son, then we let him pick which ones should be a part of our giving.  He also saves all year a tithe (see my article on finances for more) and this time of year is when he chooses where to put it.  I highly recommend you look at the charities and non-profits in detail to know how they will spend that money – we ensure a majority of giving goes to the need (not the CEOs).  Charity Navigator is a great place to start.

4. Out with the Old: As a military family, we move a LOT. In 15 years alone I have moved 13 times.  We have discovered in moving, there is a lot we don’t use or need.  So, about five years ago we started a new practice (partly out of wanting to make moving easier and not having to purge a lot).  We decided that for every Christmas and birthday, for every 1 thing in, we donate 1 thing out.   This helps keep our house manageable but also allows our little to understand that the needs of others are year-long – not just once a year. 

So, whatever way you celebrate this beautiful time of year, I hope you find these simple ways to give away to remember what Christmas is all about.  May it help take off some of the “keeping up with the Kardashian” mentality at bay and bring us back to the heart of Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

6 Steps to Taking the Fear out of Finances

October starts this week.  A time of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins.  Kids are discussing who to go as for Halloween – if trick-or-treating is even going to be something they can do.  Fear is abundant as we look at the last quarter of the year, fiscal health for the holidays, and the fear of sickness.  All things scary. 

This month I am hoping to tackle some of the scary things I get asked about when it comes to parenting a special. The number one questions I am asked about is what happened when we found out about the life-changing diagnosis; I recommend checking out The Moment for more on that.

Today, I am going to attempt to tackle one of the scariest things people deal with in life – finances.  This is a constant fear for most, especially as the unemployment rate rises in America. I was blessed to have parents who taught me the value of work and a dollar.  Because of these lessons, I graduated with my undergraduate degree debt-free and paid off my student loans for graduate degree 2.5 years early.

Understanding finances starts young and should be taught in all households.  A good understanding of finances will lead to less stress, less debt, and a healthier economy.

How do you teach finances to children?  It can be hard, especially if you do not feel comfortable with finances in the first place.  So here are six steps we use with our kid to help him understand finances as he gets older.

1.       Talk about it: One of the most common things I hear from young adults is they do not know anything about finances.  And really, why should they? We stopped teaching it in schools and 62% of America is in credit card debt with 62% of credit card debtors as college graduates! I often encounter people who explain their collection accounts, late payments, and bankruptcy due to being “young and immature.”  This is really a claim of ignorance.  If we want our children to be out of debt, we have to teach them from the get-go.  We have to let them know that food they eat costs money, that light they are using costs money, and those clothes they like cost money.  That money only comes from hard work.  There is a balance.  Talk about it.

2.       Teach work ethic: Chores are an excellent way to teach work ethic.  Having chores for as long as I can remember, taught me to balance, allowed me to work multiple jobs in college while going to school time and a half (and having a social life), and how to creatively think through problems. Work ethic will benefit children, families, and communities.  Good work ethic is reflected in showing up on time and completing the task on time the right way with a good attitude.  This should be reflecting in their chores and school work.  Teaching these young will help ensure our children have this ingrained in them when they enter the workforce.  A good work ethic will lead to better opportunities through more recommendations, higher bonuses, and promotions. 

3.       Teach giving: This is essential and often left out of finance conversations. If you don’t want to give money, try volunteering. This is a great way to change perspective and priorities. Financial giving is financially sound. This helps encourage budgeting by helping you shift priorities.  We practice a 10% rule with my son.  It is an easy number mathematically for him to understand.  Whenever he gets money (for work done or as a gift), we immediately take 10% and save it for whatever he wants to give to.  Sometimes it is the church, sometimes it is the zoo, sometimes it is buying a meal for a homeless person.  He gets to pick.

4.       Teach saving: This one is hard for most people in our instantaneous world.  We are gratified instantly in almost all we do in the first world.  We watch as three bubbles pop up on a screen showing a response to our message. We can stream almost any movie and binge-watch entire seasons of shows.  Waiting is not something Americans, and most first-world people, are comfortable with.  Saving is something that can actually financially save you.  To help our little one, we also immediately take 10% of his money and put it into savings. This is what is used for unexpected expenses as adults (the car tire blew out or pipes blew).  This account can also be used to save for vacations, new toys, and special experiences.  Our son is saving toward a trip to Sea World to meet marine biologists and a loftier goal of adding a red panda exhibit to our local zoo. 

5.       Teach taxes: As a political scientist, I find teaching this concept is really difficult.  Taxes are often taken right out of the check upfront, so when you calculate a budget, this number is very important. Taxes are designed to pay for things like that pothole-free street you drive on daily.  Taxes pay for that public library and park you enjoy taking the kids to.  Taxes pay for those firefighters who fight fires so you don’t have to.  Taxes are helpful to each community.  Taxes are paid either upfront or on tax day, but they are paid.  We teach our son this but taking 10% of his income immediately and setting it aside in a Taxes account.  This way, when he breaks something in the house (which is inevitable), the money to fix it is there.  He paid his taxes, so that glass/towel rack/doorknob, etc. he broke can be replaced.  The household tax teaches him about the income tax and where that money should go. A great resource for kids on taxes and finances is Finances 101 for Kids: Money Lessons Children Cannot Afford to Miss.

6.       Teach budgeting: Budgeting is hard.  It takes self-control and patience.  When practiced regularly, it is actually quite easy and helps prevent that dreaded debt we all hate so much.  Teaching our children this valuable tool is life-changing. Budgeting ensures you always have enough money for what you need and those things that are important for you.  It also helps you shoot for a goal.  If your hourly $10.00 job is insufficient, it gives you a goal target for where you want to be.  Below is an excel spreadsheet that we use for our kiddo that helps.  It is filled in with an example. Sometimes seeing the budget in black and white helps change a concept to concrete practice.

For more ideas on how to help kids become the best they can be, take a look at my Facebook page.