Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eight Grocery Store Mistakes That Cost You Money

For many of us, our grocery bill takes up a substantial portion of the budget. If your family is large, you could be spending what might equal a car payment just to feed and maintain your crew. It might be the last place you trim when you are reducing your budget but it's the easiest place to stay on track. Here are the biggest mistakes we make that blow the grocery budget.

**1** Not Setting a Budget.  If you are walking into a grocery store without a budget, you might as well just hand over your wallet.  Review your expenses and set a food budget. If you are looking to save some money, try trimming it down by a small amount such as ten percent or $20. Use an envelope for the cash or keep close tabs on the numbers as you are shopping.

**2** Misuse of Coupons.  These have the potential to cause two kinds of financial mistakes. First, we overspend. Let's say your budget is $75 and you have $10 in coupons. The goal is to walk away with $75 in groceries and only spend $65, rather than spending $75 for $85 worth of items. Make this mistake enough times and you've wasted what could equal a week's worth of your food budget. Another mistake is overshopping with coupons. You see a great coupon combined with a great price and you buy ten boxes of a detergent you have never used. And you discover Junior is allergic to it and you're stuck with a bad product you wished you had never purchased. The Golden Rule of Coupons should be to use them only on products you know and love OR to try a limited amount (one) of a product you've been wanting to try.  If you find something you want to try, combine it with a coupon. Don't buy a ton of something if you aren't  sure you will like it.

**3** Shopping Without a List.  This is as bad as shopping without a budget. You're in a rush, the kids are griping, or you're hungry and before you know it, you've forgotten what you actually needed.

**4** Not Knowing What is in Your Cupboard.  As you are making your list, review what you already have in stock. This is going to prevent you from buying duplicates and wasting a trip to the store. You really only need one bottle of hoisin sauce (unless you're trying to stock up). You don't want to waste your time and money running to the store when you already have the ingredient in your kitchen.

**5** Buying Too Much.  It won't help your budget to buy 50 cups of yogurt if you can only eat 5-10 before they expire. It is money down the drain.

**6** Not Using Your Leftovers. This mistake costs you  because you are wasting money cooking more than you can eat and your hard earned money has been transformed into wilted dollars at the bottom of the trash can. If you aren't eating leftovers, then cook less and save some money.

**7** Cooking and Shopping Without a Menu.  If you don't plan your meals, you're shopping with a random list. You'll be bringing home a mishmash of ingrendients that may or may not go together. It doesn't have to be a formal menu, but rather a good idea of what you want to be preparing for the week. Sometimes my menu looks like 'baked chicken, something green, etc.' Just make sure you have a menu that suits your level of detail.

**8** Ignoring the Deli.  Let's suppose you're taking a ham and cheese sandwich to work every day this week.  It may be worth it to just purchase five slices of your favorite cheese in the deli instead of 30 prewrapped slices in the dairy section. Do the math and see if this works for you.

Groceries takes a huge chunk of your budget. By avoiding these mistakes you will save yourself some time and enough money to lower your spending.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Inexpensive Summer Fun For Kids

My family lives in a part of the country where most schools are already over for the year and the temperatures are soaring. Summer has officially arrived. Some days are perfect for getting outdoors and playing to our hearts' content. Other days are too sweltering to be out there. We want to have fun, not risk a heat stroke. I tend to get all errands and outdoor play completeted early. Then, it's indoors for more playtime and perhaps a movie. I like to have things on hand for both indoor and outdoor fun. I use two separate containers for these purposes. You could use beach totes, reusable grocery bags or anything that will suit your space and needs. Obviously, if you have a huge supply, you need a larger container. I look for things all year long so that I'm not scrambling for  things to do at the last moment.


**1**  Bubbles, giant bubble wands, inexpensive bubble machines

**2**  Sidewalk chalk. Little ones just like drawing, big ones can get quite artistic

**3**  Water sprinkler

**4**  Frisbee, ball, outdoor gaming toys

**5**  Sunscreen

**6**  Pinwheels

**7**  Bug inspection kits

**8**  Buckets, shovels

**9** Sunglasses

**10** Water bottles

**11** Empty dishwashing detergent bottles and spray bottles for water fights


**1** Markers, crayons

**2** Coloring books, puzzle books, sketch pads

**3** Jigsaw puzzles

**4** Tiny games from kiddie meals

**5** Play Doh

**6** Tub toys (yes, for the middle of the day. Why not?)

**7** Books

**8** Board games

**9** Glue, construction paper, popsicle sticks,etc

**10** Stickers for the little ones

**11** Movie (think clearance, yard sale)

You probably have quite a bit of these things already on hand. So did I. The key is to make it feel summertime special. I looked through my secret stash for the kiddie meal toys. I rotated out some of the little toys and games from storage. I picked up the rest for a very small amount of money at those Dollar Bins at the front of many stores. Some things were just 'leftovers.' For some reason there is just something funny about putting together a Christmas jigsaw puzzle when it's 95 degrees outside. It was a leftover from a kids  holiday gift basket I made last year.

It doesn't have to be expensive. It just has to have variety and presented in a fashion that lets your wee ones feel like it is special. Perhaps it's something you use every day or maybe it's something you pull out on days when the kids are bored.  Your kids will think you are awesome.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Last Day of School

The school district I live in begins the year in early August, which means the last day of school was yesterday. More than anything, I just want to sling the backpacks into the hall closet, toss the lunch boxes into the kitchen and take a hammer to my alarm clock. I don't even want to hear the word 'school' for a long time. If I do all those things, I am setting myself up for a lot of headache later. If I get a grip on a few little projects now, not only will summer run smoother, I will save myself some time later and eliminate a lot of clutter and chaos along the way.

On the last day of school, I took a nice cup of coffee and sorted through my school binder and accordian file folder. Each is divided in half: the front for one child,  the back for the other. The binder contains schedules, a map of the school, policies, sick forms, contact information and the like.  The accordian file folder holds school work that has been sent home. I printed a new school calendar from the Board of Education's website and placed it in the binder as a way of prepping it for the next school year. I sorted through each child's section of the accordian folder quickly, looking for samples to keep for them. I never keep it all but I try to keep something from each subject and try to showcase how they have grown over the year. The rest gets tossed. These remaining items are placed in a container and divided by school year. Over time, we often go back and whittle it down some more until we only have a few pieces for each grade level.

Next, I tackle backpacks and lunchboxes. The backpacks get emptied  and the trash is tossed out. I give the backpack a quick look to see if it is a keeper. If it is in good shape, it goes into storage until next year. If it's damaged, we get rid of it. Some companies have warranties on their merchandise and will replace damaged items for only the cost of shipping so be sure to check before you throw it away. The lunch box is scrubbed clean and will probably be used as a spare unless the manufacturer can replace it for me. It looks like one backpack is a keeper, one will be outgrown and moved to a yardsale and we will be getting a lunchbox.

Once the backpacks are empty we sort through supplies. Cloth book covers are washed and saved for future use. Most of our school supplies are kept in clear shoe boxes. I'll take a quick inventory to see what's needed and make a list. It will include things that are non specific and could be used in any class room, such as tape, pencils, pens, highlighters, glue, glue sticks, erasers, rulers and index cards. Included with the report cards that are mailed out will be the grade-specific supply list. Over the summer, I will begin purchasing these things. The best sales will be in the few weeks prior to the first day of school. It will also be when the stores are packed with harried parents and cranky kids. I prefer to buy a little here and there over the summer, then pick up extras during those sales. Occasionally, there will be a tax free holiday and I take advantage of that opportunity as well.

Lastly, our schools will often send out Activity Lists for the summer. It includes free events, library programs, schedules for movies, freebies at restaurants and various other family entertainment plans.  I keep in a folder and when we need a change of scenery or the day is rainy, it is my 'go to' place. Sometimes, a trip to the library, a free ice cream and a movie under the stars is all you need to make a day feel special.

All of this takes so little time and will be invaluable to you as you provide a great summer for your kids...and yourself.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Increasing the Odds of Selling Your Home

 If you are considering selling your current home, there are three areas to concentrate in an effort to increase your chances of selling quickly and making a fair profit. Most of what you do will require more elbow grease than money. You will be tired but you can rest later after taking  that huge check to the bank.  One of the most important steps is to begin viewing your home as a piece of property. You want to move and it has become just another house; not your home, not where you raised your kids, just a house. You have to mentally separate yourself from the property in order to be completely objective.

CURB APPEAL.....My husband and I love driving through neighborhoods and seeing what's for sale. While he can see all the potential, I can never get past the weeds, junk, and falling down gutters. People like me are the main reason you need to ramp up your curb appeal. Some potential buyers cannot see beyond the clutter. View your house from the street level and be honest with what you see. Everything needs to be impeccable. Every. Last. Thing. All surfaces needs to be scrubbed and spotless. Your list will include not only the home's exterior but also the mailbox, oil stains on the driveway, windows, doors and frames.  Update those things that are well beyond their prime: window screens, broken light fixtures and damaged shingles would be on this list. Some inexpensive updates are new door mats, fresh paint on the front door and seasonal flowers in bright pots. Next, turn your attention to your landscape. Keep the grass cut and raked. Do all the necessary trimwork and add new mulch. Water the lawn and keep it lush. If your neighbor's yard is a wreck, consider offering to cut their grass or move their trashcan on pickup day, just until your house sells. Another quick tip is keep your car washed. Why? People have a strange way of perceiving things. If I come to your Open House and I see a  spotless home, beautiful fresh flowers growing in the window boxes and a gleaming car in the driveway, the house is perceived as well cared for. It will appear inviting and I'm going to know the inside is just as pristine and in very good shape also. Additionally, I want to see myself in a beautiful environment and you have just set the stage for that. Now I'm curious and will want to go inside. If it's ugly on the outside, there isn't a person alive who will want to see the ugly on the inside.

INSIDE...The inside of your home must be spotless. As in cotton swab spotless. There cannot be a speck of dirt anywhere. This includes each and every corner of each and every room. It's tedious work but it will equal dollars in your wallet. Go room by room and scrub within an inch of your life. Getting rid of clutter will be a priority. You intend to move so go ahead and get rid of the excess. Once you've removed all items to be donated or sold, look around and start depersonalizing. Buyers need to picture themselves in this home. They can't do that if they keep seeing your bowling trophies and specialized artwork. Try thinking of your home in terms of a high end hotel. It should be very inviting but without the personalization of your home. If you're still unsure of how your home should look, visit a few model homes. They are always beautifully arranged and you will probably walk away thinking, 'I can see myself cooking in that kitchen.' You want that same thing to happen to a potential buyer: you want them to envision living in your house. It's also an exercise in realizing just how much buyers notice the content and not just the home. Buyers need to remember how spacious your house is. They can't do that if all they can remember is your tricked out basement with the NASCAR tanning bed.  It's also in your best interest to eliminate all the smells. Obviously, you don't want buyers to notice the aroma of the litter box, but you need to go further. Last night's Pork Chops au Garlique will not get you a signed contract. Neither will your son's dirty sock collection or your over-perfumed guest suite. Getting rid of dust and cleaning all surfaces (go beyond eye level) will help tremendously. Use baking soda, sprays, plug ins, fabric freshener or whatever will make the difference. When you are staging your home for a potential buyer, think in terms of neutral color. This doesn't have to be bland, but Mango Mauve and Kiwi Lemon paint will not be a favorite for the majority of potential buyers. Always keep in mind, these changes aren't about your own style. You simply are trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

AGENTS AND PRICING...Many people will try to sell a home on their own. I would, however, advocate considering an agent. In the last four years I've been the executor of two estates and had to sell  homes under difficult circumstances. Ask your friends to recommend someone or look around your own neighorhood to see which agents are selling homes the fastest. I chose an agent that made the transactions go smoothly, quickly and with little headache to me...well worth the price she charged. Maintaining property for months on end was not what I wanted to do. I didn't want to pay taxes, utilities, and security for houses just sitting there waiting to be sold. A great agent can provide you with the comparable prices of homes selling in your area. You will want to make a profit but if similar homes in your area are selling for $245,000, you just aren't going to get  $345,000. You need to have a baseline for what the  housing values are in your area. The only way to sell your home is to provide the best quality for the best price possible. An agressive agent will provide the advertising, supervise the Open House and set up all appointments for you. These services will be especially important during a tough market. One of the houses I sold was called 'a great house in a not so great neighborhood.' It sold within three weeks. Another house had not been updated since the end of World War II. I had the first offer in less than one day and I sold it on the sixth day. Both were located in less than deisrable neighborhoods during what I considered awful housing markets. The agent went after every possible buyer and worked like she was trying to sell a one of a kind mansion.  If your time is a premium consider hiring an agent.

Homes are for sell in every neighborhood and it will be in your best interest to make yours stand out above all the rest. If you can do that and be reasonable in the expectations you set on your price, you should be at an advantage over the other sellers in your neighborhood. Good luck.

Selling a home  is going to take a lot of physical work and patience on your part. You can't take anything you hear personally and you can't be offended when someone else doesn't love your knotty pine paneling. It's all about getting the property sold. And that is the other thing: start viewing it as 'property' rather than your home. Detach yourself, make the right home improvement decisions, and find an outstanding agent.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Saving Time and Money in the Kitchen

Rush and hurry, hurry and rush. That's all we seem to do and there are never enough hours in the day. We're too busy in the mornings to start off with a really satisfying and healthy meal.  Often, lunch is some greasy thing with ingredients we can't even pronounce. And dinner? Well, we're just too tired to put much effort into it. It's the real world eating our time and gobbling up our money.

Here's some things that will save you time and money in your kitchen.

**1** To help with dinner prep, dice your vegetables for several meals all at once. Store in the refrigerator or freezer in smaller containers.

**2** Double up. It is just as easy to roast four chicken breasts as it is to roast two. Flavor two of them for this evening's meal. Use different spices on the remainder for later in the week.  Double up on soups, stews, and casseroles.

**3** Tonight, determine what you're having tomorrow night and begin thawing it in the refrigerator if necessary.

**4** Prepare the coffee maker before you go to bed. Very little is more satisfying than a fresh cup of coffee waiting for you when you wake up. Take what is to work in a thermos.

**5** Instead of buying individual spices, try buying mixed spices in regional flavors. You can get Mexican, Italian, and many others. It's less expensive and you don't have to blend and measure.

**6** When you run out of something, write it down immediately on your grocery list. Don't trust yourself to remember it later.

**7** Limit weekday breakfast ideas to just two or three  items. The fewer choices you have, the quicker you make up your mind. This is especially true if you have children.

**8** Take turns making lunch with a co-worker. This worked like a charm for me. One day, I prepared lunch for my supervisor; the next day was his turn. Although we had similar tastes, the variety was a welcome change.

**9** If you're buying snacks in bulk, go ahead and prepackage some into single serving sizes.

**10** Substitute if possible. If your recipe calls for an expensive or unusual pasta, try substituting what you already have instead of making a grocery run.

**11** Stop buying bottled water. Reusable bottles are often very inexpensive. Fill at night and they're ready to go.

**12** Don't retrace your steps. Gather your ingredients before you start cooking.

**13** Keep a few 'grab and go' things available for the days you oversleep. Granola, a single serving of almonds or an energy bar will stave off the hunger.

**14** No impulse buying. If you forgot to thaw out a steak for supper then throw a can of crescent rolls in the oven, scamble some eggs with a few vegetables and call it an omelette. You will survive and you will be completely nourished. Add a side of some fruit to round it out.

**15** When you wake up, throw a bag of  baby carrots in a crock pot. Take your frozen roast and place on top. In a measuring cup, add beef bouillon, onion bits, some spices and top off with water, then, microwave. Pour over the roast. Cook on low all day. It will be one of the most tender pieces of beef you ever ate. Take some leftovers to work or 'repurpose' into pulled beef sandwiches later in the week.

We are always going to have those days when nutrition gets sacfriced in some way. Often that happens at the expense of our wallet because our fallback plan is fast food. You can minimize those days and eat well while keeping your hard earned money in your own piggy bank.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What to Do with Fifty Dollars

Let's suppose you just happened to come across an extra $50. Maybe it was a rebate, a gift, or a bonus. And, let's also suppose this money doesn't have to be used for some other purpose. It is just all yours to do with as you wish. If you choose to throw caution to the wind, you could blow it and then wonder where it went.  Or you could give it a little thought and turn your found money into worthwhile money.

**1** Change the oil in your vehicle.

**2** Buy as much gasoline as you can.

**3** Go to a bookstore and puchase a lovely book by your favorite author. If you prefer, buy the ereader version instead.

**4** Stock up on supplies for your favorite hobby. Need  a fishing license and tackle? How about some knitting patterns?

**5** Get started on a new hobby.

**6** Get physically fit. Use the money for part of your gym membership, buy some small weights, tennis balls, new workout clothes, etc.

**7** Treat yourself to a high quality kitchen tool such as a mandolin or a ceramic knife.

**8** Spruce up a room with a spring bouquet, some paint, throw pillows, place mats, a throw rug or some art work.

**9** Make over your main entrance. A few blooming plants, a new doormat, and a vintage door knocker will all do the trick.

**10** Update a bathroom or kitchen by changing out the  door knobs.

**11** Purchase a one day admission pass to a local spring event, zoo or state park.

**12** Purchase a new piece for your favorite collection.

**13** Take a friend to lunch.

**14** Splurge on a special, edible treat. Giant scallops, a fantastic bottle of wine, that delicate peach and raspberry cake from the organic bakery, truffles, fresh asparagus, or anything that puts a smile on your face at the first taste.

**15** Restore an old childhood photo.

**16** Visit your garden store and get seed, gloves, a new tool, some hanging baskets, or new flower pots.

**17** Update your barbeque tools.

**18** Invest in yourself  and purchase an online tutorial.

**19** Invite some friends over for a movie/game night. Guests can bring a beverage or appetizer. You provide wine, olives, cheese, crackers, and dips.

**20** Get a massage.

**21** Invest in one hour with a nutritionist or trainer.

**22** Get a new sports bag or laptop cover.

**23** Purchase a cell phone charger for your car.

**24** Go to an estate sale with the intent of walking away with something unusual, beautiful, rare or useful.

**25** Purchase some sunscreen, light snacks and beverages then spend the day at a park or lake.

**26** Renew your magazine subscriptions. Broaden your mind and add a new, interesting one to the mix.

**27** Go bowling, ice skating or something fun you haven't done in a really long time.

**28** Use the money to step outside your comfort zone. Take some photos, frame a few using beautiful and inexpensive frames and sell them at an Art Gallery or local restaurant.

**29** Purchase a coffee grinder along with some wonderful beans. Your home will smell better than the coffee shop.

**30** Adopt a pet.

The list is endless. You may have even have enough left over to splurge more than once. The point is do something just for yourself. Don't blow the money and wonder where it went. It's suppposed to be fun money so don't overthink it. Just make sure you walk away with a true experience and a large grin..

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How to Afford Groceries

I got my feelings hurt yesterday when I saw the total of my grocery bill. I didn't fall down crying but I wanted to. Looking around the store, I saw that almost every customer had that same sad look. Some of us are living on budgets that are squeezed beyond anything we ever imagined. Some of us are living paycheck to paycheck, while others are trying to make an unemployment check stretch out just a few days more. There are hiring freezes, pay freezes, downsizing and prices rising. I couldn't believe the prices I saw. I knew they were creeping up but things that cost .79 are now 1.29. And if it lived, breathed and roamed the plains it's so expensive, who could afford it. Let's just call it like it is and say we're living in tough times. I strongly urge people to stock up as often as possible, but this post is about taking care of the moment when the money is really, really tight.l

We can do without a vacation, the cell phone, the fancy kitchen counter upgrade but we cannot do without eating. You can't exactly eliminate breakfast and lunch everyday. You are stretching pennies until they scream and you're wondering "How am I going to afford to eat without living on ramen noodles and Kool-Aid?"

You can do it and it isn't as hard as you think. But you have to THINK before you shop. Don't get in a panic. I know a person who fed 4 people for a week for less than $30 and the very meager remains in the cupboard. If he can do it, we all can. You will not be eating lobster, but you will be full as well as nourished.

Get a general idea of what you will be needing from your shopping trip. Skip the junk food and the bakery. Think minimal but hearty. On the front of an envelope jot down some meal ideas. Utilize what you already have and try to make one meal last for two. On the back of the envelope, jot down the supplies you will need to pick up. Try to shop in one spot, rather than driving all over town wasting gas that cost more than the car did. If you've got a coupon, put that inside the envelope and an asterick by the item so you know to give the cashier that coupon. Think minimal without being stingy. My kids love apples. And I love that they are very multipurpose: sliced plain or dipped in peanut butter, chopped into a fruit salad, on a peanut butter bagel, etc. One apple will last my little one all day. I use what I need, refrigerate the rest then slice the thin brown part away that's caused by the air and eat the frest part. I don't need to buy 5 pounds of apples today. If my budget is small, I can just by 3 singles.

As for those coupons, this is Survival Week, so we aren't stocking up as usual. We're only getting what we need. Use your coupons carefully. This is a good time to use them on paper goods and laundry.  Skip the Mega Lasagne Italiano on sale for 9.99 with a coupon. That's going to hurt your wallet, not help it. Make spaghetti then use the leftovers three days later for Baked Spaghetti. Way better for the tight budget.

Think of multipupose foods. Chicken breasts, bagels (they hold up great in a lunch), ground beef, foods like that. Just ask yourself  "what else can I do with that?"  Take your ground beef and brown all of it. Use half in your spaghetti sauce because you need to cut back on the meat any way.  Later in the week, break out those ramen noodles (don't deny it, you have some) Throw in the ramaining ground beef, thinkly sliced onion, the whites of two hard boiled eggs, some leftover broccoli or peas from spaghetti night and you have a meal that will fill you up. This summer my brother will be sharing his plums and blackberries and I will gladly take all I can. My kids don't like them, so that will be my fruits of choice, saving the apples, grapes and oranges for them.

Also skip the processed junk food. A box of Cheerios cost the same as a large bag of Doritos. But you cannot pour chips in a bowl for breakfast, You can, however, snack on Cheerios. Sometimes I like them better than the microwave popcorn. You will actually eat healthier because you are being so selective. A head of lettuce is cheaper than the bagged stuff and if it isn't in a salad or on a sandwich, you can shred it for Taco Night (there's another use for half the ground beef). I realize the ramen isn't high on the nutrition scale, but one meal like that is fine. Remember, you are looking at the overall weekly meal plan.

None of us want to live like this all the time. You can do it until payday. We've done this and we ate better, without any hiccups.  Nobody died from lack of snack cakes. Nobody complained. If someone asked if there were any chips, I merely said we were out and look for something else. People were snacking on yogurt (which was also a breakfast meal with some grapes and a glass of milk).

Things will get better.  Just remember: you are smart, efficient and very capable of tweaking the grocery store numbers to work in your favor. Let me know how you're stretching your food dollars.

The Closet Battle

My children share a room and it usually runs smoothly......usually. They are great about sharing their space as well as thinks like the tv, desk and certain in-common items. The problem almost always happens with the closet.

They each get one-half of the closet and it is divided vertically for their use. It is a basic, tiny closet with no fancy organizers. One shelf and one clothes bar along with a clear pocket shoe back hanging inside the door is all the design style it has. I have no idea why it all goes awry. All I know is it is the one thing these two kids never fight over and one day, I open the door to hang up clean clothes and am met with a fairly large mess. It isn't outrageous----just enough to give the parental organizer a case of hives. Here is how I tamed the tiny beast in less than 45 minutes (probably closer to 30).

Most of what is on the top shelf--left side for the little one, right side for the older--was in pretty good working order. It mostly holds one baby box each.  I cannot scrapbook to save my life but I kept every important baby item in these mid-sized clear boxes. Fitting perfectly within the space allotted, they are water resistant and easily brought out now and then for the kids to look through. There are a few awkardly sized toys up there and their 'special' blankets (the ones used for road trips and Christmas). All I needed to do was quickly refold the blankets and tighten up the boxes.

The clothing rod was next. The clothing is divided by style: coats, pants/shorts, and tops. The coats got put in the Next Size Box just in case they fit next year. I quickly skimmed over the pants and eliminated the ones that were too small. In my older son's case, any classic pieces in excellent condition are saved for his younger brother in the Next Size Box. While I'm doing all this, I removed clothes still on the hanger because it is easier to transport and move around as I work. I progressed in this manner until all the clothes were sorted and ended up with much more space and an idea of what each will be needing for the summer.

I sat down with the unneeded clothes. After checking for damage, they were folded neatly and priced with yard sale stickers. I packed them in a box and put them with the rest of the yard sale stuff. The empty hangers when on the second bars on the little one's side. It's the kind you hang from long rods with coat hanger ends from the original bar. Easy installation, easy removal.

Next came the floor. This is where the true chaos really existed. These toys were all mangled in some kind of spaghetti noodle disaster and it was really rubbing me the wrong way. One the little one's side, there are two clear boxes for toys too big or awkward for the shelves in the room as well as one he uses to frequently rotate toys. There is also a few other things tucked neatly on his side. It is very user friendly for younger kids. My oldest, however, just tosses things willy nilly. Those odd but tall things (light sabers, etc) were corralled in a tall trash can type container.

Finally, I attacked the shoe back. I tossed out expired sunscreen and corralled up 'like with like'. Obviously the taller one gets the top half, and the shorter one the bottom half.

It took less than 45 minutes and best of all, I did not have to take everything out of the closet to do it. The clutter is gone, the closet is in order and because they can find everthing they are less likely to ask me to come do it for them.

It is incredibly easy for the clutter to become chaotic. The real key is finding a way that works for you. Your method will never top clutter from happening, but it will enable you to get back on track with minimal effort and time. This is a task I do often with all closets in my home. Even on the worst occasions, it never takes but a few minutes to put everything in order. Think of it as an investment in time saved for better use in the near future.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One Goal, One Savings

Gabi and I have been friends since the dawn of time. You will never find any two people more opposite than we are. This one distinction is probably the reason we have been friends so long. Gabi uses a savings technique that is impressive in its simplicity. I call it the One Goal, One Savings Method.

Gabi is very proficient at saving for her retirement through her employer. She also tucks away a little of each paycheck and if a windfall comes her way, she uses it for debt reduction, savings and a tiny reward for her hard work. Aside from retirement, her savings is in one huge lump: no subaccounts, no travel fund or emergency fund. It is one lump sum sitting in the bank and it would practically take an Act of Congress for her to make a withdrawal.

So when small, non-emergency things crop up, Gabi had to find ways to fund them. "I want to pay for something quick, so I have to think and act fast," she told me recently. "This isn't long term goals or emergencies so I'm not tapping my savings. I needed to come up with another way."

So how does she do it? Let's look at her gym membership. Gabi felt like her membership fee was too high for the limited use she required. After shopping around, she found a gym close to home that suited her needs and was having a limited time offer of  reduced membership costs. She was especially pleased that paying for the entire year netted even bigger savings. Her problem? She wasn't touching her savings for the money. Her solution? A quick yard sale. Gabi made enough to pay for a year's membership in full (no recurring fees) with some left over. She has used this approach for getting plants for her yard (helping her elderly neighbor with a project), selling a small piece of furniture to pay for a bridesmaid dress and tutoring a student for his finals to earn enough for an art class.

Many of us are trying to reduce debts, fund everything from retirement to braces and keep up with the high costs of living. I like Gabi's way of achieving those 'extra' goals. By telling yourself you need x amount for a single project and focusing solely on that amount, you have a goal that inspires you to act quickly. At the same time, you are still contributing to your savings without having to stop and pay for your special project or dipping into those hard-earned dollars.

I've begun to implement the One Goal,One Savings method myself. I have picked my project. I've calculated how much I will need and made a list of what I can do to get that money fast. I'm close to the amount I need and it feels wonderful that my savings is still safe.

How do you pay for projects without tapping your savings?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Simple Frugal Advice

There was a time when the word frugal made many people cringe with embarrassment and run the other way. Yet, during economic hardship, we turn to the same word and wear it as a badge of honor--some sort of avant garde, trendy thing we should do to look good in the eyes of others. It is a lot like when kids must wear a certain this or that in order to fit in with the other kids in class.

Frugal is a simple word. It basically means mindful spending. It doesn't matter what your station in life is, if you are keeping an eye on your money and utilizing it in a planned way, you are frugal. The word doesn't mean cheap or stingy. It refers to well thought-out use of your finances. Warren Buffet is frugal. So is Joe Public.  We should have been taking care of our money all along but many of us somehow thought that the financial jet just pilots itself.  Suddenly the news turns grim, pundits begin preaching doom and gloom, then suddenly we reazlize we need to get to work---and fast!  I've got a stack of books and articles that I've turned to time and again for financial guidance. They offer such useful advice I would encourage you to read anything any of them ever wrote.  I have picked my favorite tips to give you a jumping off point.

Warren Buffett is well respected as the Oracle from Omaha and probably the greatest financial mind of the modern era. His opinion matters because he can back it up with a solid track record. The most important advice I have ever heard attributed to Mr.Buffet was quite simply, 'Stick with what you know and understand.' The old story goes that the guy next door has more money than anyone could ever guess. Why? He had no clue what a tech stock was, so when everyone was buying and selling, he left it alone. Instead, he invested in the stock of a motorcycle company. He had been a customer for almost 30 years because the product the company produced was well made, solidly built and was of the highest quality. He held onto his stock (another of Mr. Buffett's tips) and made a fortune steadily over a fair amount of time. This fellow stuck with what he understood and, despite the inherent risks of the stock market, did well because he understood the product and the company he was investing in.

During the '90s I came across a book written by Mary Hunt. I loved her style of writing because she felt like the gal next door and that made it easy to relate to her.  She made me think long and hard about how I viewed my own finances. My favorite tip from Ms. Hunt was to prepare for irregular expenses. You know you have to pay auto insurance so don't let it sneak up on you because when the time comes you won't have the money to pay the bill in full. You know you won't. Go ahead and figure out those type expenses and set aside that money in an account that, like your emergency fund, is untouchable. When the bill comes due, you will be prepared. Ad valorem taxes, Christmas, vacation, etc. all fall into this category. As Ms. Hunt stated, you may think you can't afford to do this, but you can't afford not to.

Like Hunt, Dave Ramsey offers real world advice that is easy to understand. I've read his books until they were tattered and needed to be replaced. The ultimate tip is so effective, deceptively simple, and incredibly hard: you must intently focus on your financial goal and never let up. I agree with Ramsey that all debt is bad. You have worked hard to earn that money--why would you want to give it away to somebody else? Ramsey suggests you use 'gazelle intensity' to get the debt paid off and do not get sidetracked. Brilliant, but, for lots of us, difficult.

Finally, another favorite of mine is Amy Dacyzyn of the Tightwad Gazette-era. I have her books and they are well worn and dog-earred. Although there are pearls of wisdom on every page, it was the overall sense I got that affected me the most: Any one can do this.  Practicality and common sense are key. All you have to do is pay attention and make the effort. Why spend more money if you don't have to?

 I continually lean on the experts to boost my own financial journey. Sometimes I get it just right and other times I really fall off the money bandwagon. But I keep persevering and try to never let my 'hiccups' keep me weighed down. We're only human and real life happens. Just get up and keep going.

There are countless other financial advisers out there. Websites provide more information than anyone could ever read in a lifetime.  Bookstores are filled with shelf after shelf of  'How To" books. You only have to find the ones that 'click' with you. Obtaining financial stability requires you to have the right mindset. You have to wake up and realize you are smart enough to fix the problem and you can create the resources needed to achieve your goal. Good luck! You can do it! Let me know how it's going because I would love to add your tips to my own 'how to' list.