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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!