Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Should You Budget Fun Money?

Budgets are really tight for so many people right now. Prices are increasing but we aren't seeing the same thing with our checks.  Each payday we are forced to squeeze those dimes and dollars just a little more to see how much further we can stretch them.  No matter how you slice it, phrase it or pretty it up, the fact is money is just plain tight. It is okay to budget for fun money?

Yes. I  would even go so far as to say it is just as important as every other category in your budget.

 Here's a little back story:  When I was in college, I lived alone and  worked as many hours as possible at the local mall while my parents graciously paid my tuition . At the time, financial aid was only available for full time students and because I was self supporting (except for the college tuition from my parents) I usually could only manage about 75 percent of a full time load. I made good grades and although I was only a part time employee, I was willing to work just about any shift anybody else didn't want. I received an hourly wage and a small commission, so those weekends and Friday nights no one else wanted offered me the opportunity to increase my income.  Still, money was scarce and making ends meet was harder than anything I could imagine.

If I got a lunch hour, I'd eat something,  maybe study a little  and then I'd walk through the mall window shopping. At the far end of the mall was a high end department store. The floors gleamed, everything was immaculate and the cool air just invited you in. To me, it was style, class and money all rolled into one.To a college student with a tight budget, it was a place to see how 'the other half' lived. And right smack in the middle of the store was my favorite place: a small confectionary department that had the most delightful goodies one could imagine. I never knew candy could be so expensive. Every week I would walk down to the little store within the big store and purchase two (just two) small  raspberry chocolate truffles in the shape of seashells. That one purchase was about $5 and that was more than two decades ago (ouch). Placed in a tiny white box, I felt like I had just purchased something regal and decadent. I did not need the sweets. I could have lived without them. But, oh, they put a smile on my face and I relished every bite.

That is when I learned a very important lesson. Even when you are 'living lean' and your budget is stretched until it is screaming for mercy, you need to find a way to enjoy something in order just to make the sacrifice worthwhile. If you don't, one of two things will happen. One, you become cranky and miserly. Two, you wreck your budget because the deprivation is overwhelmingly difficult and impossible to maintain.

A word of caution: Fun money is not a lot of money. It isn't a new sofa, a new suit or steak and lobster. It's just a little bit of money that has no other purpose but to spend just on you.

I used to get very creative with my fun money. Sometimes it was the truffles and sometimes it was a $2 bottle of nail polish from a no-name brand (I usually liked those a lot). I love to read, so it might have been a magazine. It didn't really matter just as long as I looked forward to it and it was all mine.

When you make your budget--and yes, you should always have a spending plan-- set aside an amount for each person. Label it anyway you choose: allowance, fun money, mad money, blow money, etc. Just make sure it isn't tied in with another category such as lunch or gas funds. Here is the real key. That money is all yours. You don't have to explain how you spent it, as long as it's legal. For some reason, just knowing that $5 (or ten) is there if I want to use it makes me relax a little and feel like I'm making headway with the finances. Sometimes, just knowing I have it in my wallet it good enough and it doesn't get spent but at least I know I can if I want to.

You may meet some resistance with anyone who shares your budget. 'How can we afford to do this when there's not really enough to go around in the first place?' is a good question. My answer is simple. We aren't talking about a ton of money. No one is getting a Benjamin to throw out the window. We may be talking $10 a week or $10 a month; just a tiny bit that is all yours. You are the boss of it. Think of it as a release valve on a pressure cooker. We all have to blow a little steam. For some reason, my husband likes those gigantic cans of Arizona Tea. Every now and then, he will tell me he's going out to run an errand and in an hour he will return with that can of his and he seems a little more relaxed. I like to think it's because he got to get something for himself without feeling guilty or someone asking if it's in the budget. I've been known to get a teeny tiny bouquet, chocolate covered peanuts, a candle, clearance flip flops, yarn, and nail polish.  It's all good.

Adding fun money to your spending plan will not derail you from getting out of debt. It probably won't even slow down your progress. In my own experience, it has actually kept my family on task and improved the odds of staying on track.

Friday, June 10, 2011

When Thrifty Collides with Convenience

Let's suppose you're in a rush to get to work so you grab one of those single serving cereal bowls from the grocery store and plan to eat it at your desk using a quart of milk you have in the company refrigerator. Not including tax, you've probably spent about $2.50. That's not too bad, you say. Now if you had chosen to eat the same breakfast at home, it would have cost about $1.50. If you did that every day at work, you've spent $250 annually more than usual.

Let's also suppose you've had a long day and as your family sets down to dinner, you set the table with paper plates and cups. You just don't feel like washing dishes or rinsing them off for the dishwasher. You'd rather put your feet up and catch the news.

Does either scenario make you feel like a money wasting, environmental failure? Should you feel guilty?

The answer is no.

Every day we are constantly making decisions and trying to balance out our lives with the world swirling around us. There will be times when we remember to cut off the lights upstairs to conserve energy then turn around and drink from a water bottle. We're going to have days when picking up some chicken from the Colonel is way easier (and much less economical) than preparing it ourselves. I don't condone doing it every day. That would only lead you to the poor house. I am saying that sometimes the bigger picture is what counts; that's how you keep your sanity.

I confess, I used disposable diapers, food came out of tiny little jars and one of my children used formula. Also, I will admit one of my children wore a lot of gently used clothes from the older sibling and was breastfed. And, gasp! fewer toys were purchased for the younger one because we realized with the first one that kids really do like the boxes better than the toys.

It isn't a contradiction in character. It is the essence of the definition for being frugal: Mindful spending and in many cases, mindful living. You cut corners (financial or otherwise) to invest where it's more important on that particular day. It's okay for me to use a commercial air freshener today because I'm not getting out in the freezing cold or scorching heat to buy essential oils just for this one project. If you want to eat yogurt that comes in environmentally evil plastic cups, go ahead. I give thee permission.

This post has evolved because I have noticed lately the superior air surrounding some people when they make their own compost or ride their bikes to work. It is my opinion that it is rather difficult to live 'one way or the other.' The tree huggers may be vegan and use no chemicals while the gluttons use up a ton of gasoline and never cut off the lights. But I guarantee you, there is a bigger crossover than you may realize.

My advice is to live mindfully every day. Do the best you can with the tools you've got. And if you're tired, go ahead and order that greasy pizza in the cardboard box that you're going to forget to recycle. Just get back on track after you've rested.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Quick Meals Made from Leftovers

 I like a great meal that is fast, tastes great and is good for you. The key word is 'fast.'  It's also important that I stretch my grocery budget as far as possible, so leftovers need to be used. Even though I like eating leftovers, sometimes I just don't want the exact same meal. Here are a few of my favorites that seem to appear often during our summer meals.

Chicken is a staple in our house and it makes a great Grilled Chicken Pizza. Take any leftover chicken such as grilled, rotisserie or barbecued and shred or cut into small pieces. Toss in a pan with some carmelized red onion and add your favorite barbecue sauce. Heat through to let the flavors blend. Adding some green bell peppers while carmelizing the onions will add a lovely color. Next, throw it on top of a premade pizza crust and add some mozzarella. Heat according to package directions and add some fresh fruit or a crunchy salad.

We tend to eat rice on a frequent basis so there's always a bowl of it sitting in the refrigerator. Toss in a pan with a tiny bit of olive oil. Add some leftover vegetables or any vegetable that will cook quickly (yellow squash, zucchini). Add some scallions, a little soy sauce and you have the base of a simple vegetable fried rice. For an extra boost you can toss in an egg that gets scrambled in the rice as well as some thinly sliced left over pork chops, chicken or even shrimp. Clean up will be a snap and it will taste amazing. It's a one-bowl wonder.

Sometimes, Upside Down Day just works best and we eat breakfast for supper. Take those leftover vegetables and make an omelette. It will be tasty, colorful and good for you.

Another easy use for vegetables is to make a nice broth to freeze for future use. Simply collect up every leftover vegetable you have. The bigger variety, the better the broth. You can also use peelings also. It can't be any easier. Just throw it all into a huge pot and cover with water. Add all your favorite spices and cook. It will reduce and the liquid will get a rich, intense color. When it tastes just right, you're done. Drain and cool. Freeze in two-cup portions and don't forget to label. This is perfect for soups, stews, potatoes, rice or any place you would typically use water in a recipe.

Every now and then we will have a meatloaf and nobody in our house will eat a meatloaf sandwich. We crumble it and add to spaghetti sauce. We also crumble it up, add some salsa and Mexican spices and now it's taco and burrito filling.

Leftovers do not have to be boring and tedious. They can be your salvation after a long day and you just don't feel like cooking from scratch. Bon Apetit!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Back To School Savings Start Now

In many parts of the country, schools have let out for summer. It's the golden days of sleeping late, barbecues with friends and enjoying our vacations. My own family is having a blast and enjoying every lazy minute possible. We're also getting ready for back to school. I know. We just put away the backpacks and are slathered on sunscreen. Why on earth would we even want to remotely think about school?

Because it saves us time and money. And it's really, really easy.

If you purchase what you need just a little at a time, then you aren't going to feel the crunch later.  Luckily, there are a lot of bargains now so you don't have to wait until the last two weeks of summer for a sale. Here is a look at our family's back to school game plan. It is easy to follow and even easier to modify to suit your own needs.

I want to get as much back to school stuff out of the way and do it as painlessly as possible. I don't want to spend all my time hunting things down and I don't want to spend a fortune, either. The local schools send out a supply list with the reports cards (it's also on the Board of Education website). I keep a copy of those lists in my purse. If I come across a great value then I'll buy it, cross it off the list and put it in the Supply Box in the closet. I'm also going to slowly pick up the standard things all students need: glue sticks, pencils, rulers, some posterboard, etc. I'm not going to get this all at once. I'll buy a little something this week, maybe something next week. I'm just doing this in my own time, and making no special trips to the store. This also gives me plenty of time to go back and double check to make sure I've got everything.

One of my children takes lunch to school and both love their afternoon snacks. During the summer months, there are big sales on snack foods, juice pouches and peanut butter. Look for items with a long shelf life. Use your coupons to get these things for the summer and get an extra package to put away for the school year. Since we are in high gear with picnic season, also look for plastic forks and spoons to tuck in their lunchboxes. With a small amount of diligence you can literally stockpile enough snacks and drinks to get you through to Christmas break. Just be sure to place them in a place the kids can't get to. Also look for sandwich and snack -sized sip bags, reusable juice boxes, cold packs, lunch boxes and a thermos. Don't forget to use your sales and coupons. Remember to pick up an extra lunch box because they have a tendency to be forgotten at school.

Shopping for back to school clothes is supposed to be fun, not a headache. After all, it symbolizes a new chapter in your child's life. Buy the shoes early. It may not be the most frugal thing you do, but it will preserve your sanity. One year I waited until about three days before the school bell rang and I suffered because of it. My son always has a hard time finding a proper, comfortable fit and I should have known better. We were hot, frustrated, tired, and just plain mad after shopping several hours everyday looking for a good shoe. Never again. I get those knocked out about a month before school starts.  In our area, the weather will be hot until mid October. When the traditional back to school clothes (i.e. long sleeves) hit the racks, the summer clothes will end up on the sales racks. If you have a Next Size Up box, shop there first. Next, grab a few shorts and tops here and there. Don't forget to check out some high-end resale shops. I have a  'Save $5 off a $25 purchase of kids' clothing' gift card that I'm going to combine with a clearance sale. I should be able to walk away with several outfits. I'm also going to use some register-printed coupons to stock up on socks and underwear. There is no need to buy an entire wardrobe. Most of the clothes your child is wearing will still fit at the beginning of the new school year. Combined with a few  new things and you should be set for a while. Taking your climate into consideration, you may also need a few pairs of pants and a lightweight jacket in the event you get an early cold snap.

My kids and I enjoy every second of summer. I don't want to spend the last days running around in an unhappy crowd of frustrated and cranky people, searching for everything under the sun. I would rather take those last days and use them for vacation, movies, or just hugging my kids and playing games all day.