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.

Ben’s 1st Birthday; and How to Save on Kids’ Parties

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My baby turned one last month and I can’t believe it. It feels like last week we were bringing him home from the hospital in the middle of a blizzard. Now he’s walking, he has a few words and word sounds, and is sleeping through the night in his own crib! That last part is pretty much a miracle compared to when Sam and Abby were his same age.

His party was an adorable lumberjack theme that I stole from Pinterest. We kept it simple; home made treats and cake at our house with only our family on the guest list, though that still totals about 30-40 people. I made all of the decorations or used what we already had.

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Treats included chocolate dipped pretzel rods made to look like birch logs, marshmallows on sticks dipped in chocolate and rolled in crushed graham crackers like s’mores and chocolate birthday cake. I also had pancake shooters (mini pancakes in shot glasses with syrup and butter curls), but they really didn’t go how I planned and were kind of a flop. We actually ended up having even more food than planned because family members brought a couple of dips and baked treats and things. IMG_1283

As far as decorations, I made a ONE banner out of some scraps of fabric and twine. Jeff made a log cake stand out of a firewood log from the basement and a flat slice of natural edge wood I bought at Michael’s, AND the marshmallow stick stand by drilling holes in another firewood log. The tablecloth, lanterns and copper cups we already had, and we clipped some green branches off of last year’s Christmas tree in the yard.

He already had his shirt, boots and jeans, but I did sew buttons on to add suspenders.

All in all, his party was pretty consistent with all the kids parties I’ve thrown in my six years of birthdays.

I never understood the desire to throw these huge ridiculous parties for kids. We’ve been invited to parties for children of friend’s and family that were big elaborate affairs. Rented halls, hired performers, centerpieces and commercial decorations, catered food, dozens and dozens on the guest list.

IMG_1295And why? Kids have fun at parties whether there’s a magician or just cousins to play with.
Don’t feel obligated to spend your week’s paycheck (or worse, put it on a credit card) on a 2 year olds birthday because you think they’ll see other parties and feel bad. They won’t. They aren’t going to remember it in a month either so stop parent shamming yourself into debt. Realize that setting a budget and sticking by it is a small sacrifice that is going to pay off in the long run.

Setting realistic expectations to live by, and explaining to children how to use money responsibly makes you just as good of a parent as those that break the bank making sure there are enough mini horses for pony rides at a first birthday, but can’t pay the electric bill. 

That being said, here are my tips in how to have a great birthday party without going completely overboard:

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Set a budget and stick with it. Make sure it is realistic and do this with cash if you have to.  For Ben’s party it was about $150. I planned ahead and budgeted a month in advance for what I thought we would need so I wasn’t pulling from other resources when the day came.

Its very tempting to over spend and then justify to yourself that its “for the child” and “mothers make sacrifices for their children’s happiness” and blah blah blah. Thats a cop out to make yourself feel better. Real talk, stop making excuses for bad financial habits.

IMG_0131Tone it down. Themes and guest lists and decorations and entertainers make a birthday spiral out of control. My second tip is chill out your expectations.

If you have to rent a hall, its too much. If you can’t fit all the guests in your house, pare down the guest list or change venue. Lately we’ve reduced the number of people we invite to things because our house is just too small. And guess what? Every one has survived. Instead of inviting the whole class, have the honoree pick one or two best friends to invite. If your house or apartment is too tight, move the whole thing outside or to a local park. However, I did have a birthday for my brother’s 21st for about 20 people in our old 650 sqft apartment. So, it can be done.

You can execute an adorable theme without buying a cart full of commercial decorations at a big box party store. Let’s be honest, guests go home and immediately throw out the goody bags and party hats you spent your hard earned money on.

Also on the chopping block, entertainers like musicians, face painters and magicians. Instead: set up a kid’s area with puzzles and games and toys your child already has. I find that when you clean up and organize something, and lay it all out on a table top, an old toy or activity becomes brand new. What about a Coloring Station with free birthday coloring pages printed offline?

Skip the party aisle. Instead of hitting up the party aisle or store for paper goods, go to the  paper products lane. A pack of color coordinated paper cups at the party store is $8.99 (!!!!!!!!). I know because I was just there looking and almost had a cardiac event.

Solo cups from the paper towel aisle serve the exact same purpose for less than half the price, AND they have different colors and designs. The same thing applies for plates, cutlery and napkins. Do adults need a My Little Pony plate, cup and napkin? No. If you’re having a lot of kids, pick one paper item and get a small package just for the kids.

IMG_1270Bake your own cake. You can do it I promise. I’ve baked many a cake over the past 6 years of birthday throwing; some were hits and some not so much. I can say now, I’m pretty good at it. Do they look like store bought? Probably not. But the kids really enjoy picking out what style they want, helping to bake it and decorate. It’s a fun memory and activity for them.

Grocery stores are chock full of every type of cake mix, frosting, flavor, color and decorating item you could ever want. Even some stuff I’ve only seen on Cake Boss like fondant and gum paste and sugar sheets, and every type of decorating tool you could imagine.

Get creative. If you don’t have a Pinterest account, make one immediately. It’s full of tips and tricks and ideas and its FREE. YouTube can teach you anything you need to know.

Seriously a kitchen novice? Find a cake decorating class on the basics. They have them at IMG_0126most craft stores. They’re affordably priced, and I feel like they’re justifiable to pay to take because you’ll be learning a new skill that you can use over and over for yourself, or to help someone else out. You can even make yourself a small side business out of your new hobby.

If you’re not a group class type of person, go to craftsy.com. They have video tutorials on everything under the sun, and some mini classes are free.

 

 

 

So that’s how I keep my budget under control when I throw a birthday party. Even the new pared down guest list in our family is around 30 people, so it still takes some determination. I think my best tip though, is to know that your child loves you and you love your child. You’re amazing and doing a wonderful job. No house full of over priced decorations or catered food or rented venue is going to change that. ❤

Books I’m Reading

I do this great thing where I see a book I can’t wait to read and then I buy it and never get around to reading it.

No more!

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These are the books I plan to read. Notice, I’ve already bought them and they’ve been sitting on my shelf for a while. Also add to this list the Gospel of Mark, that I ordered today and plan on starting March 2nd.

I’ve already talked about Seamless, this is the only one in progress currently. I’ll keep writing about it as I go along.

Uninvited: I had started this one about the time I had started Seamless and couldn’t get into it. I think you have to be in a certain place for this one and I just wasn’t there at that time. I was’t feeling “less than, left out or lonely,” but I’ve been there in the past. I think I’ll restart it at some point, because I’ve read that other people have gotten something amazing out of this book.

You and Me Forever: I bought this book a LONG time ago. I’m always up for a marriage builder, and I thought “its a skinny one, I’ll get through this super fast!” Nope. I still want to get into it though because, like Uninvited, I’ve heard really good things.

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Where would I be without my main man Dave?

Total Money Makeover: I’m reading this one for continued inspiration to stay on the straight and narrow path of family finance. I got it Black Friday for a ridiculous price and free shipping! The second I got it I ripped it open and read the first chapter and got all mad about credit card companies again. I definitely recommend this one to anyone trying to dig out of debt.