Quick Start Guide

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I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while; a very basic, down and dirty, step by step guide on how to get started on being debt free. This is what WE did, and more or less how I usually respond when people say “I want to take over my finances but how do I start?!”

  1. Get Mad. Write down all of your debts on a piece of paper. Everything. Every personal loan, every credit card medical bill, car loan, student loan (you can add the student loans together for each person in the household to save room on the page), the mortgage, everything. Make it look nice because its going to be on display.  Add all of those numbers together and write your total on the very bottom of the page. Woah huh? Now post that up someplace where you’ll have to look at it every day. One of those places in your house where the floor cleaner people call a “high traffic area.” Now leave it there for a few days and just marinate on that figure.

    This can also be the time when you dream about what you would do with your life if you didn’t have debt payments. For me it was to be a stay at home mom of a big family. If we didn’t have car payments, credit cards, student loan payments, we wouldn’t need as much income, I wouldn’t have to go to work and we wouldn’t have to count on baby sitters or after school programs or family members to take care of the kids.

  2. Educate Yourself. Now you know how deep of a mess you’re in, you’ve marinated on it until the point where you’re mad. But don’t be mad where you’re just flopping around like a fish out of water with no real direction. Educate yourself about debt reduction and financial fitness. If you knew how to manage your finances effectively, you wouldn’t be in this mess right? So ask an expert.

    fullsizerender-1-2Read Dave Ramsey’s book Total Money Makeover. Sign up and attend Financial Peace University. A lot of people like the book Barefoot Investor, but personally I haven’t read it yet. I also really was inspired by Ruth Soukup’s book Living Well, Spending Less. Find some expert plan that inspires you and create your game plan.

3. Make your Budget. You HAVE. To have. A Budget. Your budget is your new great uncle that died and left you all kinds of money. Never have we ever “found” more money than since we started a strict budget. Last month I wrote a post about how to make a budget that fits your income. You can read it here. I worked really hard on it and made sure to include tips on how to cut expenses and add income, so I hope that you find it helpful.

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4. Track your Progress. Motivation is key. Personally, I know I can only deprive myself
of pizza delivery and Dunkin’s coffee for so long without seeing some type of payoff. I like these debt free charts and I used them a lot for my student loans. But they just weren’t doing it for me now that we’re tackling Jeff’s loans because he has like 17 of them. So I switched over to this style with the boxes. Find some type of way to show what you’ve accomplished, and then post it up in the same high traffic area you have your debts listed.

5. Tweak and Adjust. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not debt free in the first month, or if you fall short of some of your goals. Reflect on what you’ve learned so far and adjust your plan for the next month. Change your goals to be more realistic, or change your methodology to accomplish your goals no matter what. Cut out expenses, sell something, add more income through a side job or overtime. Like anything else this is a journey, and its not without stumbling blocks or a learning curve. But no matter where you are on the journey, you’re always better off than before you started.

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How to Make a Budget

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The most important thing we did when deciding to get out of debt and take over our finances was to make a budget. Right after making a list of all of our debts and posting it up in a central location, looking at it every day and marinating on it for a while. Now that we’ve had an updated, working budget, I have no idea how we were functioning (or trying to) without one.

If you want to get out of debt and have savings goals, you. Need. A. Budget. No lie. No way around it.

But when we were first starting out, actually MAKING one was the hardest part. This isn’t a skill taught in school anymore, and judging by, not only my personal experience, but the recent report from the Federal Reserve that states that Americans now carry more credit card debt than ever, even before the Recession of 2009, people are not seeing responsible financial behavior modeled in their homes or other relationships. What do you actually do? Pen to paper, what do I need?

  1. Gather your bills, receipts and pay stubs for 3-4 months. As with anything, you have to start with a good foundation. Income and bills can fluctuate, especially utilities and grocery spending, or income if you’re an hourly employee like myself. The rest of your budget is based on what you observe yourself bringing in and spending, so those numbers need to be accurate, and one month’s worth of info isn’t going to cut it. Grab 3-4 months worth to start.
  2. Figure out your monthly take-home pay. Whether you get paid monthly, weekly or bi-weekly, total up all of your paychecks for each of 3 months and get your total income for each month. Then add them all together and divide by 3 (or 4 if you’re using 4 months of data). This gives you your average monthly income. If you are self employed or have an otherwise irregular income, read Dave Ramsey’s guide here, on how to make a budget with irregular income. (This is the fun part where you say “Yay! Look at the money I make!”)
  3. Figure out your monthly expenses. This part takes some work, especially in regards to the time you put into it. To track your spending monthly, get all your bills together for one month. This is just going to help you create categories for your budget, and you’ll be surprised at how many there are when they’re all out there on the table. Don’t forget to track things like groceries and housewares. There is a worksheet here from consumer.gov for a visual aide.
    Then, get the bills from the other two or three months you’re using for your baseline data to make your budget, add the number for each category and divide by how many months. Example, for category Electric Bill, go back and find your electric bills from May, June and July (if those are the months you’re referencing), add them together and divide by 3 to give you your average expected electric bill.

    Tip: For utilities that fluctuate throughout the year, such as oil in the winter or electric in the summer when AC’s are running, use the months where these numbers are highest to create your budget to avoid running over your budget for an entire season. You might not spend all of the money allowed for your oil budget in August, but you’ll be thankful for the cushion come February. If you are running a tighter budget and aggressively paying off debts and not keeping a big cushion in your utilities account, redo your budget every few months using current or more relevant data and make your adjustments accordingly.

    The most important expense to include in your list here are your savings goals. These can include your starter emergency fund of $1,000 if you’re doing the Baby Steps, Christmas gifts, or medical bills that are upcoming. As Dave Ramsey says, “Pay yourself first.” After all, a budget is how you tell your money where to go to avoid wondering where it went (another Dave-ism), and every singe dollar of your income needs a purpose.

  4. Figure out the difference between the two. Very easy step but a very difficult one. Total up all of your monthly expenses (including your savings goals that we described earlier as a necessary expense). Then subtract that number from your total monthly income.
    Take a deep breath.
    Is that number positive? Then woo hoo!! Nice job, you make more money than you spend. You have met all your monthly expense requirements and savings goals and have money left over to service your debts.
    Is it negative? You then are in the majority of people who spend more money than they make. Proceed to step number 5.
  5. Make adjustments. If you spend more than you make, you will need to make adjustments to your budget. You can’t keep on running deeper and deeper into the red every month. You’re not Congress after all.
    Look back over each category of your monthly expenses. What surprised you? Were there a few things that cost a lot more than what you had been telling yourself there do in your mind? What we did when we were in this very same position a few years ago was to rank our expenses from most to least important, and then lop off a few at the bottom of the “important” list. This is called prioritization. It is absolutely essential. If you can’t meet your monthly expenses with your income, some things have to go.
    So what can you cut or reduce? This will be a mindset that will carry you through. Every month I’m thinking “what can I cut? What can I reduce?” Check out my post about What Do You NEED Really? for inspiration. For starters, the first things to go for us were:

    1. The cell phone bill. This saved us hundreds of dollars and was a huge motivator. This seems like a big shake up, and some people might stop right here and abandon this whole budget mindset because as a society were are addicted to our phones and cannot even remember how we survived just a few years ago without them. But sometimes a big shake up is exactly what you need. We have honestly not suffered at all without our phones. Jeff has a work phone that his company pays for, and I use my phone just like I used to except only when wifi is available. In the great scheme of priorities, the latest and greatest phone out there with the fastest internet were not even close to the top.
    2. Subscription box. I used to subscribe to Citrus Lane, a subscription box of kids stuff I used to get for $20 a month. I liked getting it, but it was an easy thing to cut. There are so many more subscription services on the market now than when we started; it seems like the industry has kind of exploded, whether its dog treats or kids stuff or new clothes and accessories or makeup or whatever. What seemed like a trifle to me then might be very relatable to people now. None of these are necessary for sustaining your existence.
    3. Weight Watchers app and Gym Memberships. The WW app was another $20 a month, and I don’t even remember what our gym memberships were. I like the WW app, but I had successfully done the program using pen and paper for free before. Cutting the account and going back to this low tech method was a pain in the butt, but I felt like it was worth it. There was a time we had gone to the gym regularly, but that was long ago. Both of us working and having kids at home, it was easier for us to work out at home, and the monthly gym payments had to go.
    4. Reduce grocery spending. When we first started out we were spending over $1,000/month on groceries and eating out. This is obviously outrageous and unsustainable. Since then, keeping food costs down has been my constant hobby. Read all of my thoughts on Surviving the Grocery Stores and Meal Planning, Even When You Hate It. And check out my Week of Budget Dinners.
    5. Reduce heating and electric. Even up until this week I’m still working this. A budget isn’t an iron clad soul surrender that guarantees everything is going to go perfectly. You continuously will have to recommit to your goal. Look at my post Little Things for ideas on how to cut utilities. Turn down the heat, turn up the AC’s or turn them off. Line dry clothes, shorten showers and go to cold water washing. Wring every penny out of your budget to work closer and closer to your goals.
    6. Increase income. Another thing that you can do to get things moving aside from cutting expenses is to add some income. I have a crochet goods side business. I have a friend that drives for Uber. Pick up a few shifts at a second job. One of my favorite things to do for more income is to sell stuff we don’t like/want/need/use anymore. Check out my post 7 Things You Can Do to Save Money This Week! for more information and ideas.

Thats it really. Finances are just numbers, and not even hard math, just addition and subtraction. Ok and division when you figure out the average in the very beginning.

Frequently revisit your budget to make sure that it continues to work for you. Adjust your expected monthly expenses and savings goals. A budget isn’t useful if its not accurate.

And a budget will change your life. You will feel more in control. You will see the change not only in your finances, but over time, in your outlook on spending, saving and what your goals are.

Just try it for six months and see where it takes you.

Behind the Scenes

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Recently I finished paying off one of my remaining two (at the time) student loans. I wanted to celebrate in a big way, so I brought my debt payoff chart out to the backyard and burnt it in the fire pit. The video brought me the most comments on Instagram and the most daily views of this blog of anything else I’ve posted so far.

The day you finally get to burn those loan documents or that mortgage is a HUGE day and I’m so grateful for everyone’s words of encouragement and congratulations. But I do want to remind people who may be struggling, or just starting out on their debt free journey, that the one big day is the result of. So. Many. Small days. So many small choices. There were so many little things going on behind the scenes of that video that were the reasons I was able to pay off $3,200 in 30 days.

So this post is all about “behind the scenes,” so show that it’s not all sunshine and bonfires and precipitously dropping loan balances over here. When I was new at this whole debt paying thing, it was nice to think about getting that “Paid in Full” letter, but like.. what do you actually DO to get there? This is what we DO.

We don’t have huge incomes, we didn’t hit PowerBall, no one died and left us an inheritance. And none of those things have to happen for you either. What we do have to have is determination, a goal, and patience.

Get on the Same Page, Make Goals, and Make a Budget. Everyone in the house that has the power to spend money has to be on the same page with saving it. Jeff knows my game plan: pay off my loans from smallest to biggest, then tackle his smallest to largest. He supports me, me encourages me. Every month when he finishes paying the bills, he lets me know “Babe, we have $xyz left over in the joint account, how much do you want me to send you for your loans?” Or “I got my tuition reimbursement” or travel expenses approved or whatever it may be. We review our budget frequently and make adjustments as we go along (read how we made our budget here). It just wouldn’t work if one of us was pinching pennies and the other one was buying a new iPhone or trinkets and trifles off of Amazon.

Just… No.  The most effective tool we use to reach our goals is just saying no. No I don’t want to go out to eat, no we can’t buy that new toy, no we don’t need a new car. We won’t go on vacation this year, or to Great Wolf Lodge or Davis Farmland or Six Flags. We absolutely will not be at Disney World or on a tropical get away. My kids don’t have a trove of brand new clothes and a hundred pairs of shoes every season and nor do we. We won’t be doing swim lessons and soccer and tee ball and dance class and karate.

Find Free Fun. All these No’s seem like a life sentence of boo-riiinnggggg, but we have plenty of fun. During the summer we use Jeff’s veteran status to go to Blue Star Museums free of charge. The Highland Street Foundation in our state sponsors Free Fun Fridays, where local zoos and parks have one day that is free of admission. We also play outside, set up the kiddie pool and have a “pool day,” go to local playgrounds, have movie nights, set up play dates, visit the lake in town if its not too busy, or do art projects. I might plan a cupcake decorating day or a make your own sundae night and include the supplies into the grocery budget. Kids have fun wherever they are. You don’t need to whip out the plastic to enchant their youth.

Priority 1: Food. I plan the meals and the grocery list for two weeks and buy our groceries from the discount grocery store Aldi (read my other posts about grocery stores here). Actually, edit that: I TRY to. Food (also include here personal care items and household supplies) is the thing that changes the fastest and is the easiest to either reign in or to go completely out of control.
In summary of my other posts, my perfect plan is to 1.) plan out all three meals and snacks and school lunches and all supplies for two weeks, 2.) make the shopping list from that plan, 3.) search for online deals or coupons to get this cost down as much as possible, 4.) try to get as much as I can from Aldi or generic and clearance items at Walmart, 5.) stick with the plan over the two weeks using my meal plan and keeping that actual piece of paper handy to remember what the plan is.
If everything goes perfectly, we don’t get any take out or fast food items.

Utilities and stuff. The idea is pretty easy, the less you have to pay in bills, the less of your income goes to utility companies, the more you have left over to service your debt. We keep the heat at 62 in the winter. We have window unit AC’s that are only on during heat waves and are only on as cool as 70. Some days I feel like all I do is follow people in and out of rooms and turn off light switches. And sinks. Some of this stuff I’ve written before in Little Things.
The best thing we’ve ever done for our monthly bottom line is cancel our cell plans. Yup. We don’t have cell phones. Weird, right? Except it saves hundreds of dollars a month. When I tell people this they get this terrified look in their eyes. “What do you mean you don’t have a cellphone??” Recently I asked the receptionist at my optometrist’s office if I could use the phone. “Um… for what purpose?” she asked.
I still have my iPhone and I use it on wifi. Exactly zero of our dollars go to Verizon or AT&T or Sprint or whatever. At one point I loved my phone. I had totally fallen into the consumerist trap. They told me I NEEDED it and I believed them. It was hard giving it up but I’m so happy I did. And now I fell like I could live the rest of my life without the latest gadget.
Not long ago I was at a party and heard someone totally freaking out about the new phone they had just gotten. Like completely 100% FREAKING out about how amazing it is. It was clear this person wanted everyone to jump right on board and tell her how they have no idea she survived without it for so long. I couldn’t help but feel sad for her. The phone is over $800, or about the same as a month of rent.

Do it (all) Yourself. We don’t have a staff over here. Theres no housekeeper “helping me out” one day per week. There’s no baby sitter so we can go out on a date night. There aren’t any personal training sessions. There’s no hair stylist, no waxer no manicurist. If the kids were old enough for sports, there wouldn’t be any private coaches or trainers multiple times per week. If something in the house needs fixing, we fix it and if we don’t know how, we learn. If a button falls off or a new shirt (or even an old shirt) gets a tear, I fix it. Am I a pioneer woman? Not even close.
A while ago I read an article written by someone recounting how their grandparents lived on basically nothing. Part of it spoke about repairing things as soon as they were broke, not tossing them in a junk drawer to be forgotten, and keeping things in clean working order. These efforts reduce your want for things and keep you on budget. I tried to find it but I can’t remember the name. The tone of it was really simple and inspirational.
A huge part of us staying on track with debt repayment has been learning how to do basic things ourselves. Jeff learned how to do all of our basic home repairs, and some big remodeling projects. He also changes our oil right in the driveway which has saved us consistently. I’ve developed a basic understanding of hand and machine sewing. I can reattach a button, repair a small hole, add a hem. I even made Sam a pair of sweatpants out of green fleece when I refused to pay rush shipping for a Halloween costume. Instead of throwing that buttonless shirt in the donate bin and buying a new one, or doubling the price of the pants by rushing them to the house, we keep everything “in-house.” You can do it too, I promise. Check out YouTube for how to and beginner videos. Be resourceful. And have a little faith.

There are so many things I could write about here. Family finance in a culture of consumerism is a complex animal. Spending without regard to our income is part of our norm now. Friends and relatives will look at you like you’re crazy for being on this journey, and spending for the fun of it is part of our fabric. When we first started it took a lot for me to be able to examine each area of our spending and deem it necessary or extravagant. It’s ok. Good things take time. As does scrapping everything you know about managing money and starting fresh. These points are a good start, and I’ll keep writing. From behind the scenes.

Weight Loss on a Budget

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My weight is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. Over the past 3 years, I’ve gained and lost over 100lbs (not at the same time).  I wrote another post at the beginning of this particular effort here and here.

I can’t even really blame my pregnancies if I’m being honest. With Sam, I had daily and continuous vomiting and when I got home from the hospital after having him, I was 30lbs lighter than my pre pregnancy weight.

Sam wasn’t nursed, but Abigail and Ben both were. Everyone says breastfeeding helps you lose the baby weight because you use so many calories. But the exact opposite happened for me. It made me hungry. I was ravenously hungry. All. The. Time. And at the time, with other kids running around and a house in remodel-mode, it was just easier and faster for me to open a cabinet and jam four cookies in my mouth than to plan and sit down for a real meal.

And the weight just piled on.

After Abby I gained and lost 60lbs. After Ben I gained about 50. But I had lost it all after Abby and I’m determined to do it again. We know we want more children, and I can’t be packing on 50lbs after every one and not losing it.

On 11/28 of last year, I recommitted to reaching a healthy weight and so far I’ve lost almost 40lbs.

In my pre-budget life I’ve had gym memberships, bought DVD’s, special health pills and shakes and branded foods and bars. I even had a Weight Watchers membership that I paid $20 for monthly and didn’t cancel even after I had lost the weight I wanted. Ugh if I could get a check back for all that laziness.

So here’s how I lose weight now.

IMG_3065Old Trusty, Weight Watchers. A long time ago (we’re talking maybe 10 years) I worked nights at a gas station in town. Actually, I worked pretty much continuously and even when I logged 60 hours a week I’d bring home like $250 and think I was rich. Anyways, my manager (and friend) told me about Weight Watchers and gave me her old paper slider, quick start book and food guide that she had gotten at a meeting years before that.  And its really been such a blessing because even though they’re missing some pages, I still use them to this day. You can still find them on eBay if you search “Weight Watchers Turn Around slider,” or “Weight Watchers Quick Start Guide,” usually for under $20.

Eating regular old food. I never buy into those diet gimmicks anymore. You know the ones. The shakes, drinks, teas, bars, pills, supplements, frozen meal boxes. I’ve tried all that stuff in the past, and you know what? Those things might help you lose weight, and do it fast, but what are you going to do after to maintain? You have to learn how to eat actual food to maintain a healthy weight. Plus they’re so expensive it gives me palpitations.

IMG_3046Hit up some yard sales. The fitness industry in America is a multibillion dollar one. They don’t even have to take our money. If someone with muscles tells us they use something, we’ll open our pockets and dump all our money out for them. Don’t believe me? Watch a few infomercials, they’re on at 3am (usually when you’re up with a sick kid). That in mind, we’re also one of the most obese nations (#8 in the world). So obviously people aren’t using this stuff. And where do they get rid of it for the lowest prices? Yard sales. At every yard sale I’ve been to (Hint: its a lot), theres always a ton of fitness stuff. I suggest getting a couple different weights, maybe some resistance bands and some work out DVDs. I have 3 and 5lb weights and a couple of DVD workouts that I rotate so I don’t get bored.

Use what you’ve got. Right now what I’ve got are two (heavy) kids home during the day, a 2 ton double stroller, and a nice quiet neighborhood with a slight incline. Abby is four, so she doesn’t need to be in a stroller, but I stick her and Ben in it as many times per week as the sun is out now and use it like a resistance cardio. Theres a mile route that I usually walk, and yesterday we went even a little further (though my step counter didn’t log it because I had it in the cup holder of the stroller instead of my pocket. Ugh). I also have a yard that needs a ton of work, a 13 step staircase (free Stair Master in the privacy of your own home) and sometimes a few feet of snow outside that needs shoveling.

My Splurge: I know I know, a splurge?? Yup, after we paid off the van, we splurged on a Beach Body subscription to get more workouts and more difficult ones. Jeff tells me its $41 every 3 months. It’s not an expense that I really like, but I do think its worth it. There are so many different types of workouts I can do something different every night, and they keep me motivated and out of the gym.

I plan on posting more here about getting and staying healthy, but that’s where I’m at right now. I actually have my 1 year postpartum follow up appointment (three months late) early next week, so I’ll really be pulling out all the stops to try and get as close to ideal weight as possible.

What I do with Coupons

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Once upon a time there was a girl obsessed with coupons. She had a binder she brought to the stores with her and everything.

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One of my couponing hauls c. 2011.

You see, she had just had a baby and felt like she was floundering at being a parent, and buying trunkfuls of diapers at bargain prices made her feel like a success at something. And she really needed that.

Plus the TV show about extreme couponing made it look so easy to fill a million carts with noodles and soda and only pay 34 cents for the whole thing.

Later, she realized how much time she spent researching, cutting and organizing coupons. This was probably around the same time maternity leave ended.

Surprise! The girl in the story is me! So yeah I went through this big couponing phase when Sam was a brand new baby. I watched the Extreme Couponing show, I studied flyers, I had a binder and a calculator that I brought to the store.

And the honest truth now? I’m not even sure I really saved all that much money. I remember one check out I had paid over $70 in coupons, but I was still paying more per month than I do now. And that’s even considering that I had two less kids at the time.

So what do I do with coupons now? We’re a family on a budget, I must be all over them still right?

Not really.

The big secrets to keeping within our $650/ month food and household supplies budget (including personal care items, diapers, wipes, everything I buy at the grocery store), are 1. Shopping at Aldi and 2. Meal planning. 

Even though I try every week to get the wide majority of the things we need at Aldi, there are a few things I go to another store to get.

Aldi does not accept coupons. Not that you even need them. Most of the brands they carry are house brands, so there aren’t any coupons in existence for them (except some fake ones that circulate around the internet intermittently). There are some national brands there, but leave your coupons home because they won’t be accepted.

Every week in the mail we get sent a P&G flyer. This is the. Best. Mail. Day. I go through it looking for the (very few) brand name items I get still. Then I peruse coupons.com and see if they have anything going on. I will jump brands and styles or whatever if I find a coupon that makes it worth while.

I usually clip 3-4 a week for a couple dollars in savings. I also pick up any dog related ones and mail them to my friend. Last week we found one that was BUY ONE GET ONE FREE 15LB BAG OF DOG FOOD. Win! I was so excited, and I don’t even have a dog.

Coupon Did You Know?: You can help military families stationed over seas by donating your expired coupons? Coupons up to six months old can be mailed to military bases all over the world. Find out how to help by clicking here!

My Coupon Do’s and Don’t’s

DO look at quantities and product size. Take the ones that say “When You Buy 4!” and throw them immediately in the recycle bin UNLESS you honest to goodness, completely and absolutely are going to use all of those items. Also, some coupons specify what size of product they’re applicable for. Pay close attention to this when you’re shopping or you won’t get your discount.

DON’T forget to compare the after-coupon price to the price of the equivalent store brand item. Don’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re saving at the register when you still pay more after coupons on the exact same item.

DO know the store’s coupon policy. Some have limits on how many of the same coupon you can use, or if you can stack manufacturer coupons on top of store deals. Don’t wreck your whole budget plan because of some ridiculous rules you didn’t know about. Other stores will double your coupon if they meet certain criteria. Get to know which day is Double Coupon Day and what amount is doubled and save even bigger!

DON’T forget to check expiration dates and get a total bum out at the register.

DO realize that your time is valuable. I got a little obsessed and went down the rabbit hole of coupon-dom the first time. To me, coupons are a tool to nip away at your grocery bill, not a life style. I know that there are people who are coupon scientists, and can leave a store with car loads of free products. And even some who make almost a salary selling their stockpiles, or even donate their haul to women’s shelters and other organizations. These people are amazing and get all the kudos. But other people who don’t have that talent (like me), need to realize its ok to skim the newspaper and save a couple bucks a week, and not really shoot for the carts of free product.

DON’T forget to keep your eyes peeled for peel off and sticker coupons, and discounted produce and meat. When I shopped at another major grocery store chain, I would always  get organic salad boxes for next to nothing because some of the packages were close to date and were up to $2 off per box.

Coupons are also available for non grocery things. Every year we go to the same restaurant for our anniversary and I always bring a 2 for 1 coupon I cut out of the local penny saver. I still love coupons, its just that now, coupons are a small part of my bigger money saving plan, not the whole thing.

 

Meal Planning, Even When You Hate It

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I hate meal planning.

For years I railed against it. “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to want to eat on Friday when I’m shopping on Sunday?!” I would proclaim (I’ve written about it before in my Surviving the Grocery Stores post).

But I knew in the back of my mind that meal planning was critical in keeping within my grocery budget. One of my personal New Year’s Resolutions this year was to meal plan more often and I’ve been pretty much sticking to it. January I was $20 under our budget of $650/month, $196 under budget if you consider that I used some gift cards we had gotten for Christmas. In February I was $7 over, but this also included everything I spent for Ben’s birthday.

I think I’m more successful this time around because I’ve kind of put my own spin on the idea of meal planning. I’ve changed my perspective on it from being this super rigid Type A kind of activity, to a more flexible and workable guide for the week.

More of a tool to use to bring home the supplies I need than an iron clad law. Meal planning got so much easier for me when I realized:

  1. There’s nothing wrong with putting chicken nuggets on a meal plan. It’s a plan, and its yours. Put things on it that you actually will eat, that your kids will actually eat. I used to look to Pinterest for my meal planning ideas and I think thats partly where I started to get overwhelmed. In my world of 3 kids under 6, grilled Ahi tuna and asparagus spears do not exist.
  2. Since its your plan, you can change it. Your meal plan can be a loose idea of what you’re going to eat. Show me the law that says if you write Crock Pot Burritos on Monday, you’ll be hauled off to jail for having soup and sandwich instead. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

After those two things clicked in my brain, this whole thing got so much easier.

What I do now:

I shop for groceries every other weekend because of my limited work schedule. So when I plan I do it for 2 weeks.

IMG_2434I’m a very visual person and I need to have everything laid out in front of me, so I got this nice little planner off of Amazon.

Then I get out my favorite cookbook, Skinny Taste Fast and Slow, and my iPad and pick out about 5 or 6 what recipes I want to make. I also add in quick and simple things, like frozen pizzas, soup and sandwich night or pasta with butter (an old favorite from my childhood). I plan for all three meals, but breakfast and lunch are always super simple; cereal, Pop Tarts, frozen waffles, sandwiches, mac and cheese (from a box, not homemade bacon asiago). And yes, chicken nuggets.

I make sure I have enough ideas for each day on the plan, accounting for leftovers and any kind of function we’ll be attending like birthday parties or holidays that will substitute as a meal.

Then I write all of the ingredients and items I’ll need to buy in the margin of the planner as I add them to the weekly plan. If I’m going to use something I think I might have, I just write a little question mark next to it so I don’t rebuy something I already have. Like the time I got maple syrup three trips in a row.

We still have some.

Last year when we were redoing the kitchen (wow I can’t believe it was already a yearIMG_2432 ago) I bought this little chalkboard standing sign. It’s still on the counter and went unused for months, but now I use it to plan suppers.

Usually I write out four nights at a time because that’s as far into the future I can plan my life (and that’s as much as I can fit on the sign). And its chalk… very easy to erase and change 😉

To keep track, I leave the meal planner accessible and cross out the meals I’ve used, so I can easily see what’s left.

This system has really been working out so far. I like the flexibility and I love that it’s been keeping me on budget. Seeing what we’ve had and what we’re going to have has really helped me provide better meals. No more “have we already had pasta like three times this week or is it just me?” More like “if we have pasta tonight we should have baked chicken and some veggies tomorrow.”

The best part though… We. Have not. Ordered. Take out. In months. We used to spend upwards of $50 on take out in a whack between meals, sides, drink and a tip. And we also would order out a few times a month (despite the monthly takeout magnet on the fridge that is supposed to keep us on track). So this is huge.

The thing is, we weren’t ordering out because we were craving it. It was more because I was too stressed or busy to plan anything, and by the time dinner snuck up on me, it was way too late to defrost any meat or do any type of meal prep other than opening a menu.

So there you have it. My brand new mindset for meal planning thats working for us right now.

Little Things

I’ve been working on this post for a few months trying to collect all of the ideas I incorporate into our daily life that have minimal effort but can save you some money.

It’s not all about big huge sacrifices that can effect you financially. There’s a million little things you can do everyday that don’t seem like much but can add up over the course of a month or a year. Not to mention that starting off with the mindset of reducing your bills and saving money can have way further reaching effects in your finances than the immediately apparent numbers as listed below.

Line Drying Clothes

The Saving Energy website estimates that the average dryer uses 3.3 kWh, and that one kWh costs about 11 cents. So counting that out, line drying a load of laundry saves 36 cents. Seems like nothing, so let’s march it out.

I do four loads of laundry a week. Line drying in the northeast is really only feasible from mid-April to September. So we’ll say 24 weeks.

24 weeks x (36 cents per load x 4 loads per week)= $34.56

Cool right? That’s like a free tank of gas a year. In warm sunny places where it’s hot and sunny year rounds, it’s more like $75.

Turn Down (or Up) the Heat

According to the I Will Teach You to be Rich blog, turning the thermostat down one degree takes 3% off your heating bill. So if you drop even 3-4 degrees, thats approximately $10-20 per month depending on where you live.

Also under this heading is air conditioning, which according to How Stuff Works, consumes 2,000 kWh per year on average, or about $220 using the same 11 cents per kWh.

We have a super old (about 200 years old) house that’s drafty and has high ceilings. We keep our thermostat at 65 in the winter. When we were renting a utilities included apartment… it was more like 72-75. It was an adjustment to cool it off at first, but this is way easier for me than losing the AC. I hate being hot. I’d rather put on a sweater then sweat even a little bit.

Turn Off the Lights

I feel like I spend half my day walking around my house shutting lights off. Its a habit left over from my childhood when my parents (especially my dad) would freak out if a light was left on when you aren’t in the room or if there were too many on in the house at once.

I also hate the yellow glow of incandescent bulbs. I just don’t get why lights have to be on in the daytime when we have perfectly good sunlight for free.

Using the number we’ve been using at 11 cents per kWh, running a 60 watt bulb for five hours a day can cost over $12 per year. Typing that out I just got up and turned out four lights burning in the house. In rooms I’m not even sitting in. FOUR. Two were in the same room. And its 9:30 am on a perfectly bright although overcast day.

So working the math backwards from how much something costs to how much I can save with my efforts (because I’m all about that), if my daily light killing walk throughs can prevent all four of those lights from being on for not as much as 5 hours a day, because that seems like a lot, but lets say one hour per day, I’d save about $10 in one year. For really nothing. Would you use a $10 coupon off your grocery bill? Of course you would. You can play with energy usage math here, at energyusecalculator.com.

$10 is $10 all day.

Get the Last Drop of Detergent

This is another one I remember from growing up. Having poor parents can really pay off later in life lol. My mom used to get so mad at how much detergent was left in the jug that wouldn’t pour out on its own and refused to throw it away. And when you really think about it, look down into the bottle next time you do laundry. There’s no way to get ALL the liquid you paid for, and according to ConsumerReport.org, 7-16% of what you bought can be trapped in the bottle to be thrown out!

So the brand used to calculate this difference was Tide, lets do some math. I get tide at Walmart (one of the few things I still buy there), and a 64 load jug costs $11.97. 7% of that is 83 cents, 16% is $1.92! I typically go through a bottle a month, sometimes more. But lets say that at 1 bottle per month, with the max of 16% lost in the bottle at the tail end, I’d be losing $22.98 a year. That’s two whole jugs of detergent!

Would you grab up a deal for 2 FREE bottles of Tide? Of course you would. How do you get it? Just rinse out your jug when you think its gone. Thats it. Fill it with hot water and you’re good for another 1-2 loads.

Let’s add up all of our (minimal efforts) for an entire year: So if we line dry our clothes for 24 weeks in Massachusetts ($34.56), turn our thermostat down 3 degrees ($10), our off our lights for an hour per day in rooms we’re not even in ($10), and make sure to use up all the detergent trapped int he bottle ($22.98), we’ve saved $77.54.

$77 bucks for doing basically nothing, right back in your pocket. Whats better than that?