Sunday, December 16, 2012

Organizing Your Home for 2013

By this time of the year, you are probably just sick and tired of all the clutter, the junk, the too much of everything.  But next year will be different, you say.  Sure it will.....if you start right now.  No, it's not crazy talk. Just make the effort, start right now and by year's end, you'll be all set.

 Here's the quick and easy steps to get you going in the right direction.

Gather your supplies.  You're going to be tossing, sorting, keeping and organizing so you'll need a few things. Grab a trash bag and a few boxes.

Pick your starting point. Decide where you're going to begin and do not deviate. This is not the time to be wandering aimlessly from room to room.

First, we toss.  One of the biggest time wasters is to organize the things you intend to get rid of. Don't bother. Grab the trash bag and very quickly throw out everything you are absolutely certain you have no need for. Be honest with yourself. If, for example, you plan to donate some old cookbooks, no one is going to want them if they are stained and rippled from liquid spills. Toss them out. The same goes for those puzzles where two pieces are missing. Out they go.

Next, we sort. Set your boxes up according to what you intend to do with your items. My boxes are almost always Another Room, Donate, In the Attic, Yard Sale. So let's assume your sorting will be similar. Again, you're going to be moving quickly. Remember, we aren't wasting our precious time organizing unnecessary things so the next order of business is to remove any items that don't belong in that particular room. There's no need to dash around taking them to their rightful home; just toss them in the Another Room box.  Now that the room has been emptied of the worst offenders, you can breeze through the next step. As you are straightening up the area, you'll come across items and decide if you want them to stay in the room or go elsewhere. That's where the last three boxes (Donate, Attic and Yard Sale) come in. Place items in the appropriate boxes and you're almost all done.

Bye Bye!  Take the Donate Box you've filled and put in the trunk of your car right this minute. No waiting because the more you do that, the more inclined you are to start taking that junk right out of the box again. When you're out running errands, simply drop the box off to your favorite donation center of choice and don't forget to get a receipt. You'll be glad you did at tax time,  Put the Attic box away (which may not be the attic but the garage, just store it.)  All that's left is the Another Room box. Have family members help you put things back in there rightful place.

You're all done. You're almost done!

This step is pretty easy and it helps you avoid getting into this mess again. Whenever you are working on a project, try to handle things as they come along. It's ridiculously simple, but no one ever does it. Ever. As you're putting away out of season clothes, go ahead and toss the stained ones and put the ones you want to donate or give to Cousin Sally in the trunk of the car. If you're putting away your Christmas decorations feel free to toss out broken ornaments, light strings that won't work. I know you're busy but waiting until next year is only going to aggravate you in about 12 months. Do this one step as often as you can and for most projects it only takes a minute or two.

My resolution every New Years Day is to get organized and I bet yours is too. Here's one easy, peasy way to do it.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Improve Your Finances in 2013......Start Now

It's the end of the year and you are not even close to finishing your Christmas shopping. Just looking at your unfinished To Do list is making you cringe. How in the world are you supposed to even start thinking about next year's finances?  Geez, lady, are you crazy?

No, not crazy, but I'm hoping that with a little nudge, you'll be able to get a jump start on improving your finances in the new year. Here's a list of simple things to get you started now, so you will already be in the habit when Baby New Year arrives.

Flex Accounts: Make sure you have depleted your flex account before it's too late. Also reevaluate your information and increase/decrease your amounts as needed.

End of Year Medical Receipts: Gather all medical receipts for your accountant because you may qualify for a tax break. Ask the pharmacy and your physicians for a print out if locating your receipts becomes too difficult. Think: braces, medications, canes, medical equipment, etc.

Drop off Donations Now: If you're planning to get rid of old clothes, household items, toys or lawn equipment this is a great time to do it and, happily, you will be given a receipt for your taxes.

Start saving one type of money: Select one kind of money and vow to set it aside every time it crosses your path. Ones, fives, all change or just quarters, whatever you choose. Just make sure you get it out of your wallet and put it some place you won't be inclined to dip into. It's the most painless way you'll ever save and you can use it for debt repayment or perhaps for an irregular expense such as auto insurance. At my house, we have several of these in place. The Giving Jar and The Vacation Jar (which isn't intended to pay for the entire vacation but for and extra special outing or dinner while on vacation or possibly a fun day trip) are used by the whole family. We each have our own piggy banks/jelly jar and the individual gets to use those funds at their own discretion.

Bank the raise. Have your payroll department to deposit your raises into a separate savings account. You're already living without it and the money is available if you really, really neeed it.

Run your appliances wisely: This is another almost too easy kind of thing to do I tend to lower the thermostat considerably when the kids are at school and I can offset the temperature drop by strategically using my appliances. You would be surprised how much heat your dryer and oven generate. Let me be clear: I'm not sitting around waiting for subzero temps to dry a load of towels but  I'm mindful of keeping the indoor chores in line with the outdoor temps when I can and the savings have been very noticeable. Who knew making sugar cookies for Christmas would lower the power bill? Score!

Deposit reimbursements:  Many employers reimburse you for specific expenses such as mileage, meals, professional membership dues and bus passes. Consider adding these to your savings account if you don't need them in your checking account. I've got a friend who travelled for his job and was reimbursed for all the mileage he incurred. He used the reimbursements to make his car payments and used to joke it was the truck that ACME Electric paid for. He drove that truck until it literally fell off the wheels, so double score for him!

Use those Gift Cards wisely: Don't be disappointed your Christmas bounty included gift cards to big box stores. Find a website to swap them out or better yet, just go stock up on necessities. Everything may be so expensive nowadays, but you'll be surprised how much toilet paper you can get for that $100 gift card.

Improve your Lunches: Forget the puny brown paper bag and a piddly PB and J. And don't even think you're going to eat this way for five days a week. Go out and get yourself a nice lunch box (I like the kind that store in the freezer) and a simple thermos. Slice up last night's roast beef and put it on some nice rye or thick hoagie bread. Add your favorite spicy or flavored mustard and pickles. Throw in some leftover salad and add some Greek yogurt on the side. How about some leftover chili? Shredded cheese (the nice kind) and some croutons packaged on the side will make a great topping. You aren't trying to do this every day and you aren't buying tons of expensive  ingredients so by setting reasonable and tasty expectations you can save a great deal money. And time. Who wants to spend their lunch hour waiting in line for a greasy burger and cold, limp fries when you can have a great meal that is free!

Be smart and use your smart phone: Set your smart phone calendar to alert you 3-5 days before a bill is due. Late fees can run anywhere from $20-$100 (yes, you read that right and no, I'm not going to name names,) If you're going to pay out an extra $20 per month use it as an extra debt payment instead of a late fee.

Get a shredder: Financial security includes protecting what you have before some thug steals your identity. All you need is a shredder, cardboard box, one trash bag and very gross leftovers. Put your unneeded documents in a cardboard box. When it's full, sit down with a shredder (they're fairly inexpensive) and start shredding away while listening to some tunes or watching tv. Once that's done, fill the trash bag with your financial confetti and any gross trash you have: the cat's litterbox deposits and anything in the fridge ready to be tossed out works fine. Nobody, not even a thief, is going to want to try puzzle piecing your wet, stinky bank statements.

Look around you: You probably don't realize that some of your wealthy looking friends are just that --wealthy looking. They appear to be living the good life but are up to their eyeballs in debt. Now look around you again. You come in contact with a lot of people who look like they are living the good life even though they make exactly what you make. How is that possible? Because they are smart with their money and their purchases. Watch and learn. They're are tons of ways to get what you want without paying full price. I recently paid $25 for a $50 gift card at the laser tag center for my teenager by simply signing up at one of those local promotion websites. Ask around and pick some brains. Learn from those who are living the good life.

Do it the Old School Way:  Check out credit unions for Christmas Club accounts. See what stores have layaways (yes, they're back!). Turn in your cola cans at the recycling center for a few pennies. Get creative.

Do it the New Way: Look online to see where you can sell your old electronics or which stores will take your old cell phone as a trade in toward your new one. It may be a good idea to check out the online yard sales to see what's out there. You may find something you need or get an idea of what is the current hot seller.

Set reasonable goals: If the thought of obtaining debt freedom or having a year's emergency fund is so daunting you can't even get started, then reset your goals to something more reasonable. Perhaps having a goal of paying off that $150 credit card balance or puttting aside one weeks' income is more manageable. Once you achieve that, you're going to feel empowered and ready to climb a little higher up your financial ladder.

Money matters aren't easy. If they were, we'd all be sitting on a huge pile of savings with not a financial care in the world. Take very small steps, especially if you're afraid of failure or have the all or nothing frame of mind many of us do. With each step, you get a better understanding of what you are capable of and how far you've come.

A word of caution. Never try everything all at once. Pick a few things and master those skills one at a time before moving forward. This isn't a race. You are building a strong foundation for your financial future to rest on.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thanksgiving Savings Benefit You Later

'I just love being ill-prepared and paying top dollar for everything,' said no one. Ever. And yet, it happens time and again, doesn't it? Admit it. Suddenly you need something right this instant and remember there was a great deal on it.....two weeks ago. So what do you do? Probably grumble and you just hand over your wallet to the cashier and sadly say, 'Here. Just take every last dime.'

It's probably one of the biggest indicators to why our budgets are always a miserable failure. We don't think ahead and we don't prepare like we ought to. If only we could do a better job, we would feel more in control of our money and much more prepared and organized.

That's all about to change and it starts with the Thanksgiving sales. It isn't hard; it's actually a very easy thing to do. Let's walk through the steps.

Buy it now, use it later. Much of the food items that goes on sale now is not limited to Thanksgiving use only. I stock up on some things this time of year because they are a much better price than usual and also because they will come in handy regardless of whether it's Turkey Day or not. Some of what I stock up on includes chicken broth, dressing/stuffing mix (makes excellent bread crumbs and a fantastic dish called Peach Glazed Stuffed Pork Chops. Oh joy!), canned green beans, baking goods like flour, sugar, cookie/brownie/cake mixes, ginger ale, fancy crackers, cream cheese, you get the idea. Buy a few more than you normally do and you've got the start of a well stocked pantry. If you're a turkey lover and you have the space, get an extra one for later this winter. To change things up a bit, just don't serve it with the same trimmings. Try Turkey Tetrazinni, grilled turkey breast with roasted vegetables, sub sandwiches, soups, stews or maybe an artisan salad. The list is endless and you get the idea. If space is limited, try a smaller turkey. Cornish hens, sausage and chicken are also great for stocking up.

There's more to it than food. Not all sales right now are about the food. Manufacturers know that once the feast is over, you've got to store your leftovers or send them home with your guests. Look for great deals on storage containers, zip bags, aluminum foil/plastic wrap, disposable plates and cups. There's also great deals on paper towels and dishwasher soap.

Don't forget to look beyond the season. The days following Thanksgiving will see a dramatic price drop in what is considered 'seasonal' merchandise but you need to think beyond that. Cream, gold and red items can be used any time. I purchase candles and household fragrance items in vanilla, berry and apple to use year round. Wrap a thin ribbon of burlap and a sprig of fir around that vanilla candle and voila! Merry Christmas to you! I just learned the value of having a lighter in the house. Our power went out and because I never replaced the old one, there was no way to light a candle. For about four hours, I growled inside at myself, but I did make up for it by using a coupon and finding a great sale on them (next to the cinnamon candles!) to purchase two.

Take advantage of the Thanksgiving sales (and clearance) to help take care of your future self. Using the same principles, do the same thing after Christmas and New Years Day.

You have an excellent opportunity to stock up on some basic supplies without breaking the bank, but you need to proceed with caution. Never buy more than you can reasonably use or share  and never buy more than you can reasonably store. Use some practical sense because  you will never need 145 cans of green beans and nobody would want them stored under the tv anyway. Remember to store things in a logical fashion, too. I guarantee if you hide your croutons in the back of your closet on some dark shelf, you will never find them when you need them.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How to Organize and Save Money with Coupons the Normal Way

Let me give you a little background information: I save money using coupons. And not in a crazy way either.  I don't hoard toothpaste, it doesn't take me hours to shop, I don't steal coupons from recycling bins, I don't leave the shelves empty and, this is important, I never get $300 worth of stuff for thirteen cents. Ever.

But I do save money as in put in in the bank and leave it alone. I do have a nice supply of necessities on hand and I'm able to give plenty to the school food bank fundraiser. Here's my tips for organizing coupons and saving in a nice, normal way.

Keeping up with the Coupons.  In order for couponing to be effective and easy to maintain, you have to store them in a way that is easy for you to understand and in a way that makes you actually want to stick with it. Only you can determine what method works best for you. For me, it was this large, heavy duty file card box made from thick and translucent plastic. It worked like a charm for more than two decades (that's college, single life, married and two babies. Whew! I guess it had a long life!) When it finally died, I switched to an old fashioned, but small, photo album. Like my wonderful box, it's divided into categories that make sense to me: dairy, dinner, pets, baby, snacks, cleaner, medicine, you get the idea.

Be Reasonable.  Know your reasonable expectations of what you will use in a timely fashion and only keep those coupons. I have been known to go online and print coupons for products that don't get purchased frequently. I still don't know what possessed me to acquire seven coupons which expired in a month for bug bite ointment. I wasted time, newspapers, and  printer ink and paper for coupons I couldn't possibly use for a product I probably wouldn't need that much of.I don't need a year's supply of mustard so I don't need to scrounge up ten extra sets of coupons. Maybe one or three will do just fine. The more you overdue it, the less likely you can maintain it.

Maintenance Schedule.  Just because coupon clipping and organizing is an ongoing thing doesn't mean it's painful or time consuming. Get into a rhythm of setting aside a few minutes to remove expired coupons and clipping/filing new ones. I tend to sort/toss mine while we're sitting at the kitchen table doing homework: I'm doing what I need but it isn't difficult, so I can easily put it down and help someone conjugate a verb.  I sometimes do the clipping when I'm catching up on the weather report. If it's taking too long, you need to simplify your plan. You literally only need a few minutes.

Get your Game(plan) On.   Look at the list of things you need to shop for and compare it to your store's circular. Next, match up your coupons. There's no need for trickery or trying to double stack your coupons. Simply buy what you have to, using sales and coupons to lower the price. If your coupon container is small, go ahead and take it to the store with you. Maybe you'll find a great bargain. Just be courteous of the shoppers around you and don't block the aisle looking for an obsure cream of tartar coupon.

Put that Back!  If you love So Yummy! Haggus Soup then, by all means, buy some. But if not, don't waste money getting a cart full. If you won't eat it, you haven't saved money. The only exception is if you want to try something and the coupon makes the product ridiculously cheap. I do that all the time for new products when the coupon and introductory price make something financially attractive. But a whole cart full? I guarantee this will be the one time you hate it and then you're stuck.

 People turn against coupons because they see the near-psychotic appearance/attitude of the coupon hoarders. It doen't have to be like that. A little goes a long way. Slow and steady savings is the way to achieve coupon success.

Happy Clipping!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How To Pay For Christmas......Start Now.

As you carve your jack o'lantern and decide what costume to wear to the annual Rock Star Halloween Ball, now is a good time to start preparing for Christmas. Oh yes, I did. I said it out loud.  "But, I'm too busy with all the fun things you can do in Autumn," you say. "I don't have time to worry about Christmas."  So, let me ask you something. Do you have time to be stressed and broke? Becaue that's exactly what's going to happen if you don't prepare.

Not to worry. It isn't painful and the earlier you start the easier it is. Whether you are fully prepared or just slightly so, either way you're going to be so glad you started early. Here's some of the ways I ease into the holiday season:

Let's Eat!   Stores are already stocking the shelves for all that holiday cooking, so don't wait until you need it: start buying now.  Here's some some basics that you can get now: flour, sugar, vanilla, cake mixes, frosting, frozen vegetables, cookie dough, sprinkles, wine, brownie mixes, exotic dried spices, broth, canned goods.  One or two items per week won't break the bank and when the time comes, you're ready. I am stocking everything you can think of because Hubby always likes to tell me about the holiday work brunch he needs a casserole for and he needs it tomorrow morning. Or the kids bring home a note wanting cookie/brownie donations. Tomorrow. Are they conspiring with their dad? Just wondering.

Keep the Change.  Yes, it's old fashioned, but set aside your change and any stray dollar bills until the holidays. You'll be surprised at how much you accumulate in the next few weeks. Use it for some stocking stuffers or perhaps give it to a bell ringer.

That's a Wrap.  You should definitely make gifts look special but that doesn't mean you have to spend most of the weekend trying to win the award for Most Glitter on a Gift. We tend to choose a single color for our wrapping paper (red, green, gold, brown craft paper, whatever) and all the gifts for one side of the family has red decorations/bows, while the gifts for the other side of the family might have green. It's easy to gather them all up when we go visit.  The bows and ribbons are often replaced with a special bow and ornament for the recipient. Lovely, quick, easy. As a bonus, the unified look under the tree is classic.

Dimes Make Dollars.  Now is the perfect time to start cashing in those points on credit cards and websites. I let my points accumulate all year and they are perfect for shopping online. I'm also accumulating some dollars-off coupons to help pay for some little gifts like stocking stuffers. There are a great many things you can purchase early in the season. Search for online codes and any deals stores may have.

Making a List, Checking it Twice.  Whether it's on your smart phone or in a little notebook, make a list of all your gift ideas. I have a small list of everyone and ideas by each name. That could include sizes, hobbies, budget. Just anything that helps make it easy for me. If I buy something, it is on the same list so I won't be rushing around trying to buy the perfect thing when I already have one. Don't laugh, it happens.

Repeat Performance.  If your mom loved the exotic alpaca yarn you gave her last year, she might secretly hope to get some more this year. It's perfectly acceptable to have repeat gifts as long as the recipient doesn't mind. Another option is giving the same gift to everyone. We live in a great neighborhood with the most delightful neighbors and one of our traditions is to exchange gifts. They are usually simple things like a poinsettia or homemade jam. We give everyone the same gift because it's less complicated as well as less time consuming. Last year we took wire baskets lined with holiday tissue and filled them with organic pears, figs and a wedge of aged cheese. Wrapped in cellophane with a gigantic bow, they looked decadent. And we had great fun putting them in a wagon and delivering them door to door. Here's the thing: The baskets were purchased around October on clearance and the fruit came from a boutique grocer using some points I cashed in for a gift card that I used to pay for the purchase. The cellophane and the ribbon were clearance items too. The price for five gifts? Next to nothing. The warm fuzzy feeling? Immeasurable.

Think Ahead.  Don't you just love that green bean casserole? Me neither. But I do love green beans and they will be on sale soon. Skip the casserole and stock up. Every time you're at the store just pick up one or two items for Christmas: tape, a bag of chocolate chips, some stocking stuffers. a few holiday candles. And think ahead. A lot of what you need for the holidays can be used after.

The most important thing is to start early, buy a little, buy often and keep track of it.

If you want to get even further ahead of the holiday rush, try doing what my friend Deneen does. As she crosses an item off her list, she wraps and labels it, putting it aside in a safe place (her secret place is the attic.)  She even fills the stockings the same way. Little by little and whether you get it all done or not, any step you make is progress and will reduce your stress.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Stretching Your Grocey Budget With Multipurpose Food

When was the last time you left the grocery store and said to yourself, 'Wow! I purchased everything I needed and  had tons of money left over?' I'm guessing never.  At least not in this decade.

 Admit it. Grocery shopping is painful for most of us. I go shopping armed with a plan, a budget, my list and some coupons. My intentions are good and I'll even go so far to say I do a pretty darn good job of feeding my bottomless pits known as children. However, there's always that painful sting I feel at the cash register when I see the total.

The best defense at preventing sticker shock is to purchase as many multipurpose foods as you can. I began doing that in college and have relied on it ever since. These are foods that can be used in a variety of ways without getting boring and are mainly on the healthy side.  Combined with sales and coupons, you will stretch your budget into infinity even further.

Apples: Raw, chopped in salads and yogurt, sliced with melted cheese on top, dipped in peanut butter or other spreads, thinly sliced on pb &j's or bagels, baked, applesauce.

Roast beef: Main meal, roast beef au jus sandwiches (Meat, cheese, sub sandwich bread, gravy for dipping), thinly sliced in tacos, fajitas and omelets, homemade soups and stews, with rice and spices in lettuce cups/wraps.

Rice: Fried rice, chicken and rice soup, rice pudding, mix with warm milk and add honey/maple syrup, etc. for a nutritious breakfast.

Potatoes: Mashed, baked, oven fried, potato pancakes (add onion, egg, salt and pepper), can use as a thickener in soups and stews (mashed) for added nutrients, baked ones can be sliced and pan fried.

Tortillas: Soft tacos, burritos, baked chips (savory or sweet), shaped and baked to make salad and chili bowls.

Lettuce: Salads, sandwich fillers, lettuce cups and wraps.

Canned chicken: salads, homemade chicken noodle soup, omelets, tacos, burritos.

Eggs: Basic breaksfast dishes, deviled, sandwiches, salads, hard boiled and chopped in Asian noodles or broth bases soups, protein snack before work outs.

The options are endless. Your job is to find basic and simple foods with three or four (or more!) uses. Leftovers are always appreciated in a frugal kitchen but it's also a good idea to ask yourself  how much variety you can get from some of the ingredients you already have on hand. Cultivate that list and you won't go hungry.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

How to Effectively Shop Second Hand

Thrift and consignment stores as well as yard sales offer buyers a great opportunity to get amazing deals. Whether you are trying to reduce your spending budget or looking for things to resale, here is your chance to find fantastic items without watching your wallet cry in agony.

Have a goal.  It's perfectly okay to make a spontaneous purchase every now and again. That's how I ended up with a brand new ellipitical machine and a great art print for my reading corner. I certainly would have missed those opportunities. However, let that be your exception, not the norm. Random and spontaneous shopping can lead to a houseful of junk you're never going to use. Always have an idea in mind. A dear friend  always shops for furniture with great bones and lots of potential that she can upcycle and sell for a profit. Her shopping list is specific which helps her reach her shopping goals quicker.

Know your product. You don't have to be an expert but you definitely have to possess a fair working knowledge of what you're wanting to buy.  That piece of mercury glass probably isn't the rare one you want if it says 'Made in Wherever" on the bottom with smudged ink. A little working knowledge will save you money in the long run.

Carefully inspect the item.  You should not assume that everything you see is showroom quality. Bear in mind you are shopping at a second hand establishment and you're going to have to scrutinize everything. Look for stains, uneven seams, faux leather and damage that cannot be repaired. I promise you the little horse logo isn't supposed to have three ears. Make sure electronics work or the expense of repair still makes the item worth buying. Before purchasing my ellipitical machine, hubby and I scrutinized every nook and cranny. The missing manual wasn't an issue because we can just Google that information and the only repairs needed were the tightening of all the screws. Nobody wanted to be bothered with it so we purchased it for pennies on the dollar.

Watch your budget.  Just because it's a great price doesn't mean you need to buy it. Never, ever forget that. Buying a $250 print for $10 isn't a great deal if you don't have the wall space for it. You could have used that money for something else of even better value. Don't buy for the sake of buying.

Make sure you know where you're going to put this stuff.  Alrighty then, you've bought the best gun cabinet ever. You've carted it home only to discover this behemoth fits nowhere in your house. Okay well maybe it fits in the baby's room but that is both dangerous and weird. Now what do you do? Resell it for a loss? Give it away for an even bigger loss? Leave it outside in the rain? Keep some basic measurements with you when you're shopping. I currently need a new (or new to me) entertainment stand and I'm armed with the dimensions I need to get the best item possible.

Understand the pricing and merchandising schedules. Most second hand stores and consignment venues put out more merchandise on specific days. Price reductions work in the same manner. Get to know some employees and you may be able to reduce the impact on your budget. For yard sales the rule of thumb is simple: the earlier you go, the better the selection. The later you go, the better your chances of haggling the price.

Today's economic climate means more people are both buying and selling second hand.  Arm yourself with some knowledge and you will find success at every turn!

Friday, August 24, 2012

How to Improve Your Weekends

Friday rolls around and you couldn't be more relieved. No cubicle for two days. No clients, cranky coworkers or time clocks to worry about. Just doing whatever you want, whenever you want, any way you want.

And then you wake up.

We all have that dream and yet we all know that, week after week, it won't turn out like that. There's all the errands you couldn't do during the week you've now got to jam into those two precious days. And we can't forget to go to the gym, mow the lawn, repair one thing or the other, take the car for it's overdue oil change, chaufffer the kids (if you have them) to sporting events, sleepovers and club meetings. And when all that's done we can hang out with friends, try a new recipe/hobby, chill out by the pool, finally read the book everyone else read last year and get caught up on all that email and bill paying. Now you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, any way you want. No, not really. You still have to eat and sleep. The weekend is over and you're back to your weekly grind. There's a reason it's called a grind: it grates on our nerves.

Here's a few steps to help you change those weekends from stressors to stress relievers.

Prioritize. Quickly, decide what can be eliminated from your schedule. I'm not suggesting you eliminate the important things. You definitely need to pay the bills and change the oil. I am, however, suggesting you determine what matters most and work from that point. If you can postpone or even eliminate a few tasks without causing any hiccups to your schedule, you're going to clear up a lot of time for what you really want to do. Do the things you absolutely have to do and rework the rest into another day.

Reorganize your work.  You could potentially save a good hour or two by bundling some errands such as dropping off your dry cleaning on your way to the market. Consider carpooling and you will only be inconvenienced every other weekend. How about taking turns? If I cut both yards, would you rake both? Or you mow this weekend and I'll do it next time. Get creative and add some hours back to your weekend.

Schedule your down time.  You may not want to adhere to a schedule on weekends but it will alleviate some of your time crunch if you pencil in some down time on your calendar. Block out a few hours to go to a dinner party. Wake up an go straight to the gym. Make plans for that hour in the hammock. It's okay. I give you permission. Getting that down time is going to recharge your batteries.

Get your Zzzzs.  I don't like going to bed early on weekends either and I'm not suggesting a sunset bedtime. Still, going to bed a little earlier, say midnight instead of 2 a.m., may give you the energy you need to zoom through your weekend responsibilities without hitting an energy slump. Get the work done, have more time to play. See? It's a good plan.

Aside from the yearly vacations, weekends offer us the next best opportunity to recharge our batteries while having a little fun and adventure.  Take a little time to rework your thinking in order to reclaim some of that precious time.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

How to Prepare for Cold and Flu Season

Once school begins, it's only a matter of time before somebody gets sick and brings home a germ or three billion. Now, add to that the fact that cold and flu season is right around the corner and it's better to be prepared than not.  Start now and by the time the sniffles hit, you will be well prepared.

Shop Wisely.  You don't need to go out and purchase everything today. Look in your medicine cabinet and assess what you already have. Look through your coupons and match them up to sales. Also look for gifts with purchases (free sample of vapor cream with purchase of tissues), buy one, get one free specials and back to school sales (great for sanitizer and tissues.)

Stock Up.  I guarantee you will need more than one box of tissues. Give your best estimate as to what you'll use and stock up. There's no need to overdo it, but the goal is to be well prepared.

 Here's a basic run down of what will work for most people.

Basic MedicinesIbuprofin, acetamenophin, aspirin, cold remedies, medications for stomach ailments, vapor creams, vapor tablets for the shower, cough medicine, saline spray, eye drops, hard candy/cough drops.

Allergy medication: Some allergies symptoms present themselves as cold symptoms. Keep these medications available also.

Paper goods.  Tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning wipes (especially if you have kids or are prone to vomiting.)

Cleaning supplies. If you or a loved one is very sick, you may experience a variety of 'accidents.' Be sure to always have available disinfectant, cleaning wipes, carpet cleaner, laundry detergent, bleach, etc. If you prefer natural cleaners keep items such as baking soda, vinegar and club soda on hand.

Simple foods. Juice or juice concentrate, low sodium soups, crackers, ginger ale, tea, lemon, honey, rice, plain pasta, applesauce. Remember everything tastes awful when you're sick, so stick with simple things that will 'stay down' and nourish you.

I always dread cold and flu season because if one of my darling kids gets sick, then at least two more of the household gets sick with them. If we're all laid up in bed together, it really helps to have the basics covered. That way you can just sit back and sleep, sneeze and sip your way to a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How to Prevent Simple Financial Mistakes

No matter how savvy we get, there are those days when we if it isn't one mistake or headache, it's another. The financial ones really bother me the most because I'd rather keep the money in my pocket than give it away due to to my stupidity lack of financial accumen.

Here are a list of some very common mistakes we've all made (or are about to make) and how to prevent them.

Ignoring Time Limits on Introductory Offers.  It appears your new cable/satellite provider was very generous and offered you a free sports channel for six months. How thoughtful of them. Flash forward about seven months and you get an overdraft notice from your bank. Impossible, you think. You've been very good about watching those balances. How did that happen? Somehow you translated six months to mean forever and not only did you get hit with a $49.99 increase in your bill, you also got hit with a $30 overdraft fee, too. Oh, the pain. If you leave it alone, your soccer habit is going to cost you $599.98 your budget isn't prepared for, not including all the overdraft fees and hiccups that will cost you.

The fix: Make a notation on your calendar/ budget app for the fifth month. That will give you a little buffer for anything unexpected. Choose to add it to your budget or to cancel the Soccer Channel. Either way, you've given yourself time to figure out your next move and prevent any injury to your wallet.

Ignoring Your Natural Financial Instincts.  My good friend Hammond is very careful with  his money. He can tell you to the penny what's in the bank. Back in the day, checkbooks were balanced and statements were reconciled. Eventually, it all went awry and Hammond had a few overdrafts as well as one or twelve late notices from his credit card issuer. The reason? He hates (as in H.A.T.E.S.) online banking. Paying with a debit card and then checking the balance later didn't come naturally to him. He isn't the kind of person who scans over emails looking for bills to pay. It would take him a week or longer to round up all the stray receipts and compare it to his online balance. 'I feel like a dinosaur,' he complained, 'but I still use a checkbook register to record everything.'  Once he started using the tools he felt comfortable with, things improved. Hey, I'm not knocking it because  he hasn't caused an overdraft since President Clinton was in office.

The fix: Figure out what works for you and stick with it.   This step often takes a little thought to figure out what is most comfortable for you. Mobile alerts, spreadsheets, old timey bank ledgers, online services, etc. Stop using methods that rub your financial fur the wrong way.

Taking too Long to Pay off Balances.  Those 0 % offers are pretty tempting until the time runs out and you're hit with interest fees that back date to the original purchase. For the uninformed, seeing all that interest just suddenly appear on your statement can make you feel positively ill. It's incredibly painful to your wallet and you end up feeling like an idiot for falling for the oldest credit card trick in the book.

The fix:  This one takes a little bit of focus and a few minutes. Whether you've charged a new purchase or taking advantage of a balance transfer option, take that amount and divide it by the number of months until the interest kicks in. Don't forget to include some kind of time buffer to account for due dates not coinciding with pay dates.

Not Making Those Returns/Exchanges.  I committed this crime just a few days ago. I made a purchase and discovered the item didn't suit my purpose. Did I mention the part where it was a cash transaction and I've thrown the receipt away? Can you say 'you ought to know better?' Sometimes it's just a matter of scheduling. Maybe you're too busy to drop off that return to the post office. And who has time to go back to the store for the refund, anyway? You are now the proud owner of useless stuff and as a reward your bank account is much smaller.

The fix.  You are going to just have to bite the bullet and make yourself more accountable. But have no fear, it's not hard. Keep your receipts in a single location until you know you'll be keeping the item. Bundle your errands so make sure the post office trip isn't out of your way. Put the package in your trunk the night if your prone to forgetfulness.

For me the most irritating financial hiccups are the unnecessary ones that I've created all by myself. With a little forethought and a small amount of time management, many of our financial headaches can be completely alleviated.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Protect Your Budget in a Tough Economy

Did you notice anything the last time you went to the grocery store? Could you feel that stinging sensation as you handed over your debit card or feel that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realized you were just a little more broke than before you went shopping?

We can blame the  dry weather, the economy, whatever for the increase in prices but no matter what's the cause, the fact remains that meeting our needs is getting more expensive. And painful. We all have our little tricks and hacks that help us stretch our dollars. We eat out less, we only buy on sale (with a coupon) and even the Java Hut is getting less of our money. Been there and still doing that. I happen to have one more little trick up my sleeve that helps out on so many levels that I don't think I could manage without it.

I stockpile.

No, not the weird kind where I keep 200 bottles of syrup in the bathtub. That's just strange. I'm talking about the kind of stockpiling that helps when you're too sick to go to the store or during inclement weather. I'm talking about the kind of stockpiling that gets you from one paycheck to the next or helps you out until you find another job. I'm talking about stockpiling  just in case.

I'm not prone to excessive shopping but I do have a few guidelines that help me make stockpiling successful and easy. Here are my rules:

I set limits to what I stockpile. There's no need to hoard peanut butter as if they've quit making it. My oldest loves the stuff, so I'll keep about 5 jars or so, not 50. Never 50.

I use my available space wisely.  I preferred to rework my cabinets and closets rather than store food under a bed. It's also wise to store things as closely to where you may need it: Toiletries near the bathrooms, food near the kitchen, you get the idea. Sometimes it isn't possible, but from a time standpoint, it keeps you from wasting minutes trying to run down the location of something. And never store chemicals with food. Drain cleaner does not belong near the pasta.

I never buy everything all at once.  It's true I've got five jars of peanut butter, but I didn't buy it all at once. Let's say my budget is $100. I tend to keep a running total of what I'm spending on the same envelope that has my list written on it and coupons stashed inside. Now suppose I've spent $95. I'll try to find $5 worth of something to stockpile. No, it isn't a lot of money but at this point anything I buy is going to be extra so even the small dollar amounts will make a big difference.

I won't stockpile unfamiliar items or too many kids' favorites. Both of these are just common sense ideas. If I don't know if I like it, there's no point in buying a dozen and with kids, well, they just tend to change their minds a lot. That's why six cans of pineapple makes more sense than six cases.

I stockpile what will make my life easier. Here's my basic stockpile list and I try to aim for several month's worth, accumulated over time. Your list will probably look different depending on your wants and needs.

Household items: paper goods of all kinds, vinegar, bars of soap, batteries, furniture cleaner, baking soda, laundry supplies, dish detergent air freshener, tub cleaner, air filters, tape of all kinds.

Kitchen: soy sauce, pasta, rice, oatmeal, peanut butter crackers, canned goods, peanut butter, coffee, juice pouches, spaghetti sauce, cereal, paper plates and cups, plastic utensils (hey, some days they just work best), zip bags, aluminum foil, certain meat, condiments, honey, baking goods.

Personal: deodorant, shampoo, swabs, cotton balls, dental care items, lotions, wet wipes (not just for babies, works on a ton of surfaces), razors, soaps, lotions.

Medical: Basic over the counter medications including ibuprofen, expectorants, saline solution, cough drops, vapor ointments, bandages, and a variety of medicines to cover stomach ailments, heartburn, etc.

It's an incomplete list, but you get the idea.

Having extras on hand is easy to do and very affordable. It protects your budget during economic distress. Just ask yourself 'What things would I need if I couldn't get to the store for a while?' Whether you're snowed in, not feeling well or laid off, anything that would help you make some meals, get you through some sick days or until the next paycheck will be beneficial.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Take Five #6 Back to School Lunches

It's that time again, parents. The dreaded school lunch headache is back. Whether your kiddos eat at school or take their own, we worry about everything. Are they really eating what's on their lunch tray? Did they trade for the sweet stuff? Is that PB &J  good enough? It's enough to run you mad plus you start stressing out, which eats up your time....and who wants that?  I've got one kid who wants to eat breaksfast at school as a means of social time and both kids take their own lunches.  Here's a few quick tips on how we handle lunches every morning, which works just as well on the adults as the kids.

Take Five is geared toward taking a few minutes now to save you time, money (and headaches) later. It is quick wins that make things run much smoother.

Start the night before.  Get as much prepared in advance as possible.  After dinner, place empty, cleaned out  lunch boxes on the counter. Fill with anything that doesn't need to be refrigerated such as raisin boxes, chips, juice boxes.etc. Make sure ice packs are in the freezer. It's incredibly frustrating to realize somebody left the ice pack in their lunch box and you now need a Plan B. By the way, make sure to have an extra one in the freezer, just in case. Not that it ever happened to me. Prewash and cut fruits and vegetables, prepackage dipping sauces. Go ahead and place in containers/zip bags.

It doesn't have to be a sandwich.  Little Brother never would eat at school and he ran for the hills whenever he saw a sandwich. I took a cue from a friend who's little one had the same lunch affliction.
The answer: send the lunch meat, but not the sandwich. Brilliant! Why didn't I think of that? It got a few odd looks at first but then the folks at school realized that unlike a lot of the kids, he ate all of his lunch every day. All I had to do was chop up the Honey Roasted Turkey, put it in a tiny container and send a plastic fork.  If your kids like leftovers, go ahead and pack up lunch portions when you're cleaning up after dinner. Hey, if it works for the grown ups, it might work for the kids.

It doesn't have to look like a traditional lunch, either. Sometimes, kids prefer a sampling, rather than a full meal. That is a very good thing because you can squeeze in more variety. Because the portions will be smaller, there is always the chance your student may even be willing to try something new. Think bento box - style eating. If one isn't available just use a divided container or silicone baking cups placed in a container. Fill the little cups with fruit, crackers, vegetables, sandwich meat, home made nuggets, cheese cubes and mini sandwiches. Cutting things into shapes sometimes make them taste better, too. Just saying.

Don't overthink it.  Big Brother wants a sub sandwich every day. Every single day. It's always the same: Honey Roasted Turkey with spicy mustard, pepper and lettuce on whole wheat sub bread. Did I mention he eats it every single day? I finally quit worrying about it when I realized  at least he was eating. I add variety by changing up whatever else he takes. Fruits, yogurts, beverages all get switched up daily. Besides, breakfast and dinner provide a ton of variety. As long as it's healthy, I give you permission to stop fretting.

Finish in the morning. Just throw in the cold stuff with the ice pack and you're finished. If you're sending leftovers quickly reheat the meal before putting in a thermos and you're all done. You can do all of this in a minute or two without interruption to your morning routine.

 No one likes rushing around in the mornings. Getting lunch ready can be a snap if you take five minutes to think it through, get creative, and do a few minutes prep work.

Friday, July 27, 2012

How to Help Others During a Tough Economy

You took a look at your last paycheck and your heart sank. It is a cruel world out there and the forces of nature are against you. You've got the ever shrinking check being mauled by the brutal increases in prices on everything and, yet, you want to do the right thing and help others. Here are a few simple ways to help others using a limited budget.

Of course, well known charities would appreciate your donation of time or money, but let's think on a smaller scale that can still make a big impact.

Schools  If you have school aged children, consider donating simple items to the school. Supplies for the Art Department are welcome. During the Book Fair, purchase a few books for the library or your teacher's classroom. Some schools have herb gardens, food drives, weekend backpack programs (filled with nonperishables for underprivileged students) and the donations are very cheap to purchase. I've often donated extras from my own school supply stash and it is always appreciated.

Daycares  Your child's daycare might be able to use diapers or wipes your wee one has outgrown. Is there a coupon box in the lobby? Send some outfits your child has outgrown to other classrooms to be used for kids who have had accidents. Donate adult button-up shirts to be used as art smocks.

Animal Shelters Old bath and beach towels are welcome items at pet shelters.  When we adopted our darling puppy, we received a coupon for a free bag of dog food. It wasn't a brand we intended to use, so we took the bag and donated it back to the shelter. Many shelters operate on donations only. Consider giving them any food your pet doesn't like. Thanks to my aunt's picky feline, who changed its mind about the menu monthly, her local shelter had a healthy supply of a multitude of feline flavors.

Nursing Homes and Medical Facilities  After my mother and aunt passed away, I was left with enough brand new craft supplies to open a small store. The nursing home and a group home for mentally challenged patients received the bulk of the supplies and it was heartwarming to know it was all put to use by people who would truly appreciate it. My aunt was in a nursing home for a while before passing away. We had made every effort to make her room cozy and comfortable. After she passed away, we donated her clothes, room decorations, phone, wall clock, art work and other items to the facility. The local War Veteran's Home is a good option, too.

The Giving Jar In the kitchen, we have a huge glass jar labeled 'The Giving Jar.' Spare change that doesn't make it to the Vacation Jar ends up here. It's also a great visual for kids, too. We've used the money to buy a meal for neighbors who've had loved ones pass away. We've also used the funds to buy a gift card to a local restaurant. We put it with a take out menu and gave it to the new parents down the street. If no big events come up, we take the jar and put the proceeds in a Christmas bell ringer's bucket. Donating to our puppy's animal shelter is probably going to be this year's donation site.

You don't have to be rich to share. You just have to have a big heart and a little creativity.

How to Afford Great Home Furishings

Has this happened to you? While visiting someone, you take a glance around and realize their home looks great. Really great. The furniture is chic, the artwork is ever so perfect and everything just feels like style, class and money. And then you think to yourself, "Geez, I wish my home looked like that."

Guess what? It can. Here's how you can get the gorgeous look you want for very little money.

Keep in mind that just because something may be  used it will be new to you. I've said before I used to have an aversion to cast-offs, yard sales and second hand stores. It took a very patient husband who showed me through his own purchases what I was missing out on. Now that I've expanded my comfort zone, I have also expanded my opportunities to find great pieces for my home.  A great example of this is our recent living room furniture acquisiton. Family members purchased new items and offered their old furniture to us. I'll admit that it really wasn't my style. It was great furniture, mind you, it was just that I didn't love the style. But it was very doable so my husband and I compromised: he got the furniture he really wanted and I got to do what I wanted with it. Once I got the placement right, I removed a ton of the loose pillows, rearranged the rest and added a soft throw (in an unexpected color to pull out the more subtle shades of the design). 

A great way to redecorate is to repurpose items. How about a quilt for a tablecloth?  An old silver loving cup to hold your kitchen spoons? Awesome!  Go ahead and purchase that tacky painting with the fabulous frame.  Replace the print of Ichabod Crane with a mirror and now you've got a great statement piece that's so much better than the builder's grade guest bath mirror you already have.

When you're looking for home furnishings, try seeing things through new eyes. Let's say you see an outdated brass chandelier at a yard sale. Eww, I don't want that old thing in my house. But, I could see it repainted in brushed silver or oiled bronze with little shade covers. Or maybe it would look fabulous painted in some funky, trendy colors for a teenager's room.  I could purchase the fixture and everything needed for the upgrade for merely a fraction of the price of a new one.  It's so easy to give a new life to something old when you repurpose it. Open your eyes and see things with a new vision. You will save big bucks that way.

As you decorating your home, don't forget to embrace some of the things you may have inherited along the way. I found myself in the position of having my grandmother's hand carved jewelry chest. It isn't my taste. It's just a carved box with a wopsided lid---and I couldn't part with it. I struggled with what to do with it and after looking around I realized I had a few other boxes, some decorative and others more utilitarian. There you go! I've got a shelf with a box collection. Yes it sounds weird but it isn't and I get compliments on it all the time.

So here's a what my living room holds: Furniture from family members, an inherited chest repurposed into a coffee table, an inherited floor lamp and a yard sale print. I've also got a sculpture my husband made in college sitting next to a faded old Coca Cola crate with bottles. There's a simple wall shelf that was a birthday gift as well as an inherited milk glass loving cup.  The only things purchased new were the audio/video equipment, a lamp, an entertainment center and the dog bed. There's a few other new purchases but I don't think candles and coasters count.

You're getting the idea. It only takes a little imagination, a little money and some gracious 'thank yous' when you accept second hand things from friends and loved ones.

I promise the next time you visit your friend with the great living room, you'll be telling yourself. "My home looks as good as there's...only better."

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to Save Fifty Dollars

In a previous post, we covered some ways to spend an extra fifty dollars that might just happen to fall in your lap. Now, let's look at ways of saving the same amount.

**1** Buy the latte, skip the muffin.

**2** Save all one dollar bills. Or fives.

**3**  Do your children need unlimited texting and data plans during the summer? Ask your service provider to downgrade their plans for those few months.

**4** Skip the magazine rack and get a subscription or, better yet, read them at your local library. The library is also a great choice for checking out movies.

**5** Revisit your employer's benefit plan. Take advantage of parking passes, free tickets to local events, discounts at the gym, free evaluations with dieticians, etc.

**6** Ask local businesses if there are military, educators and organization/club discounts.

**7** Take gently used items to high-end consignment shops. You can usually opt for a cash option which will net you for a little less than if you consign the items for sale.

**8** Go an extra two weeks between salon visits.

**9** If you have books in good condition you're willing to part with, try selling them at websites such as Sites will require the ISBN number that is found on the copyright page or the back of the book.  You can also take paperbacks to the second-hand bookstore.

**10** Lower your grocery budget by ten percent and deposit that amount into your savings. You will eat very well with the remaining 90 percent and hardly notice the difference.

**11** Eliminate premium channels from your cable plan. Rent an entire season of your favorite program and enjoy.

**12** Borrow instead of purchasing. Use your neighbor's pressure washer instead of paying an expensive professional. As a way to say thank you, consider offering to pressure wash his home as well.

**13** Verify all debit and credit charges. Mistakes can happen so try catching them quickly.

**14** Split fees with a friend or neighbor. If your yard is tiny, share the cost of fertilizer or a flat of young plants.

**15** Compare your auto insurance rates. Make sure you're getting the most affordable plan for your needs.

Just a few simple and painless changes can put an extra $50 in your hand.  Financial adjustments don't always have to be huge. Often, the smaller steps are more manageable and that makes us more inclined to make the attempt.

Clutter Into Cash: Easy Yard Sale Part Two

In this series, we are taking a look at how to have a great yard sale. Items have cleaned, priced and stored. You have also made sure to advertise as much as possible. Now it is time for the next step.

The day before the sale, make sure you have enough change. For my own sales, I keep about 25 -$1 dollar bills, 4 -$5bills, maybe a $10 bill and about three to four dollars in quarters.  Keep track of your petty cash in order to determine your profit after the sale.  Go ahead and put up your signs to take advantage of the evening rush hour traffic.  If possible, put all items necessary in a centralized location. Sometime the day before (or possibly earlier in the week) I remove all boxes from the attic and put them in my dining room. Make sure the tables you will be using are in good working order, clean and ready to use. If you are using any table covers, place those with the tables. The key is to prepare everything now so tomorrow morning, the set up will go quickly. If this is your first sale, you will be shocked at how early people show up. A final step is to clear out the trunk of your vehicle. I'll explain that later.

The day of the sale is finally here. Set your clock to wake up early. Really early. My own sales start at 7 and I've been seen dragging boxes outside at 5! Give a quick drive by to make sure your signs are still up and make sure they remain secure. How you display your items is second in importance only to the pricing. The way you show off your items will affect how buyers view what you are selling. Much the way a seller stages their home for potential buyers, you will also be staging your items because there are those who cannot see past the heaps and piles to appreciate the hidden potential. I am like that. Show me a piece of furniture that is damaged and avocado green and all I see is a really old 1970s has-been dresser far past it's prime. Let my husband see the same piece, and he can envision a classic refinished dresser perfect for a guestroom. Like me, most people will only it's present form. Take the two minutes and dust it off. This is also why you need to treat your items with respect. For example, throw all the clothes on a sheet on the ground and people will walk by, maybe a few will touch a piece or two. Fold those same clothes and place them on a table in same-size piles and they will be gone in minutes. It is all perception. I think buyers get the impression 'I want nice things and look how these are folded and so neat. Somebody must have taken good care of them.' You don't need to look like a boutique, just place things together in a way that is pleasing to the eye.  I like to place eye catchers right next to the street to lure the buyers. Bicycles, strollers, lawn mowers, larger toys or nice chairs will do the trick. Also make sure to put some of the known sellers toward the back of your sale. This forces the crowd to move through the space pretty much the way you walk through a grocery store to the back to acquire the loss leaders. You are hoping something else will catch the buyers' eye.

It's important to be be very polite without being overbearing.  There is no need to be a sales person but if your buyer wants to know if the drill works or not, have an extention cord ready for them.

Don't be insulted by the haggling. Think of it this way. It's a two dollar shirt and the lady is buying every Lego that isn't nailed down. It's okay to let her have the shirt for a dollar (or even free). But be warned there are those buyers who will wait until the last minute and say 'You don't want to drag that tiller back to the shed, do you? The tag says $20, I'll give you $5.' Obviously, it's your call and you can politely say no if you choose. Just always remember your goal. I am usually motivated by needing the space, so I would probably counter with trying to make it a $10 tiller.

Sometime after lunch, the crowd will have a natural tendency to thin out or cease completely. Now it's time for the next step. Box up all the leftover bits and pieces and put them in the newly emptied trunk. As soon as possible--right now would be great--drop them off at your favorite donation site. It is very tempting to take the leftovers back inside, but don't you dare. You've enjoyed these things all you can and now it's time to let someone else have them. You get to keep your cash, enjoy your cleared out space and have the satisfaction of knowing all your treasures are now treasured by others.

I used to get overwhelmed when I thought of having a yard sale. I had so much stuff that, despite being boxed and labeled, I felt crowded and cluttered. Even the thought of dragging it all outside and talking to strangers just wigged me out.  I got over all that as soon as I saw how quickly the dollars were adding up. With each yard sale I put under my belt, I got a little more savvy and earned a little more money. I actually look forward to them.

Good luck!

Organizing and Creating Space Cheaply

I never have enough time or money. Who does? And I definitely do not want to spend my time frantically looking for something that is probably right in front of my face. Here's some of my favorite quick tips for making your home more organized (which also saves time) and doing it very inexpensively.

**1** Keep a mason jar with teaspoons next to your stove. You've got instant tasting spoons without having to continually dig in the cutlery tray. The long handles make it easy to dip into a pot for a quick taste. You can use mason jars for a million things: dry pantry goods, buttons, paper clips, it is an endless list.

**3** Use a cedar chest or foot locker as a coffee table. They can be rustic or chic, plus they have great storage possibilities. Or you could keep it empty and just stash your clutter inside when company is unexpectedly dropping by.

**4** Use sturdy leftover boxes wrapped in colorful duct tape or gift wrap as storage on shelves. Classic designs can be used for adult spaces; colorful ones for the kiddos. Diaper, baby wipe and certain shoeboxes are incredibly durable.

**5**Empty  96 pound cheese doodle containers from the warehouse store are perfect for the kids tiny blocks and cars. The wide mouth makes it easy for little hands to reach in and the square shape allows it to fit better on a shelf.

**6**If you are getting rid of old furniture, take the drawers out of a dresser and use them to slide under your bed. Perfect for holding shoes and small weights. Casters on the bottom are optional.

**7** The classic clear shoebag over the closet door is still worth mentioning. You will be amazed at how much space is created when used in bathrooms, clothes closets and pantries.

**8** Repurpose furniture into other uses. A long dresser can become a changing table or tv stand. An old wooded ladder can lean against the wall and hold magazines over the rungs. Everything stays neat and tidy and your home looks deliberately stylish.

**9** If you are a true member of the Digital Age, you may no longer need your half-filled photo albums. Try to repurpose them into coupon holders. The same principle applies to three-ring binders. Just fill with sheet protectors and use for recipes, important documents, kids' art work, old momentos, etc.

**10** Look around the kitchen for 'leftovers.' Do you still have the crock from your broken crockpot? Well, now you have a new flower pot. Just make sure you provide proper drainage. Did you find the faux silver tray you purchased for the office party? Go ahead and put it on your bathroom counter for an elegant place to display your pretty soaps and a candle. A little candy dish with the missing lid?  Now it can hold cotton balls or jewelry.

Over the years, I have repurposed all kinds of things and always out of necessity because I'm not inclined to go shopping for one little bitty thing when I can just as easily use what's available. Plus, like a lot of you, I will look at something and wonder 'What can I do with this?'

By getting your home better organized, not only will you eliminate time that gets wasted hunting for lost things, you're also going to uncover some long lost treasures you forgot you even had. That is what I call Win-Win.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Back to School: The Classroom Version

As a parent you've been working steadily to get your little students ready for school. Clothes have been purchased, laundered and put away. School supplies are gathered and is ready for that all important first day. You may have even stocked your kitchen for lunch, snacks and quick meals.

You can now turn your attention to gathering your contributions to the classroom. There is always that one time when you get notified that your little angel has volunteered to bring something to the classroom the very next morning. Do a little preplanning and you will eliminate the headache before it begins.

I've never met a teacher who didn't love cleaning supplies. Many teachers often let you volunteer to send in the same thing in on a regular basis which makes it even easier to stock up. Just notate on your calendar to send the items in on a regular basis. The most popular things  in our schools are large bottles of hand sanitizer, paper towels, baby wipes, cleaning wipes, tissues, and plastic grocery bags (for the wet clothes when the littlest ones have accidents.)

Snacks are also a welcome addition for the classroom, especially during standardized testing, field day and regular events like Movie Friday. Before the school year begins grab some juice boxes, brownie mixes, snack packs and fruit cups. If you prefer homemade, think in terms of  basic baking goods.

Another area to consider is classroom supplies. Budgets are smaller and teachers often have to fill in the gaps themselves. Glue sticks, printer paper, dry erase markers, poster board, pencils, construction paper or tape would be very much appreciated.

By far, my most favorite donations are to the Treasure Box. Every class has one and every kid loves it. Occasionally, I'll send in stickers. glittery pencils, mini bubble wands, tiny cars, bead necklaces, fancy erasers, tiny boxes of crayons/markers, colorful plastic rulers, pencil sharpeners, snack size (non melting) treats such as granola bars or fish crackers, If it's possible I send a few things that are season or holiday appropriate.

If you're unsure of what to send, ask the teacher what she prefers. Remember, you aren't the only one trying to stock the classroom. Other parents are doing the same thing, so you'll only have to send a little every now and again but you will be making a huge impact.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How to Have Luxuries While Being Frugal

Wanting to have luxuries and wanting to be frugal aren't mutually exclusive. You can actually have them both at the same time and all it takes is a little thought combined with some common sense.

One of the most important factors to achieving some balance between the two concepts is the art of prioritizing. Back in the day when I was single living and working a bazillion hours every week, I still managed to pay for cable. It was one of the most expensive things in my budget but I hung on to it for dear life.  I didn't have the financial ability to spend every weekend and Ladies Night at the local night spots and I wasn't spending any money at restaurants. I worked tons of hours so a day off watching a great movie seemed like a little slice of heaven. I pretty much traded some little luxuries I wasn't interested in for the one luxury I did want. The same thing happened with my work clothes. I was required to dress very nicely and I had to look polished. I always had a full closet that made me feel like a million dollars and I barely paid anything.  During my lunch hour, I would look through the nearby stores searching the clearance racks and search  for sales. That patience paid off time and time again.

It also makes sense to make sure the luxuries are simple. If you cannot give up your muffin-latte habit, you don't have to. Just try buying the muffin one day (make your own java) and the latte the next.  I love to crochet and it's important to me because it's very relaxing. Nothing makes me happier than a crisp fall day, a great cup of coffee, and an apple scented candle. Throw in the yarn and I'm so very content. So while it's summer, I'm slowly accumulating some high quality yarn (with half off coupons!) and when the time is right, I'll have what I need for a perfect afternoon.

Sometimes your luxury may require a little delayed gratification. Let's say you want a very chic but insanely expensive piece of electronic equipment. You could go out and buy it right this minute and end up being in a financial pinch for quite some time. Or, you could surf the net looking for sales and competitive prices.  Another option would be to wait a few months until the newest revision is available. Now the one you want is going to be marked down while customers clamor to get the upgrade. If your luxury is travel, consider waiting until off-peak season. You would be surprised how much prices fall if you're willing to wait a month or two. That also gives you a little longer to save up.

It doesn't matter if your luxuries are big or small. A weekend trip is just as important as that delightful French pastry from the corner bakery you want every Saturday afternoon. There is so many ways to get those luxuries while being frugal. It's all about cutting out the spending on things you don't care about in order to spend on what you do care about.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Back to School : The Kids Version

I am refusing to spend the last week of school running around, stressing out or doing anything other than playing, relaxing and having some fun. How is that going to happen? Well, I'm so glad you asked. I'm organizing the kids. Yes, the kids.

I've done quite a lot of back to school preplanning and prep work. The last few things are primarily for the kids' sake which, in turn, directly affects my sanity and stress level.

As their school clothes are purchased, they are washed and put in the closet--no waiting until the last Sunday of the summer. For Little Brother, I'll hang shirt and shorts together, to have a full week's wardrobe at the ready and it will make picking out his clothes so much easier for the both of us.

New shoes are purchased early and they get worn around the house a few times in order to break them in. All it took was for Big Brother to come home the first day of school with blisters and I learned that lesson.

The backpacks are already packed, zipped and ready to go. For Little Brother, this was very simple.  Pencils are sharpened and placed in the pencil box with crayons, scissors and glue sticks. Folders are filled with paper and everything is labelled with his name. The middle schooler requires more supplies but still a very simple process. All binders are prepared with tab folders and plenty of paper. Taking a cue from a wonderful teacher, everything is color coordinated. The red binder gets the red folder, etc. It's so simple, but it really helps in eliminating chaos. Another tip we're trying this year is putting a pencil pouch in every binder. I grew weary of hearing how he had to borrow a pen every other day. Now there is three binders with three pouches filled with pens and sharpened pencils. No matter which class he is in, at least he won't be fumbling and searching for something to write with.

Their work space has been put into order. I've cleaned out all the gum wrappers and stray video games. I've polished their desk and restocked all supplies including sticky notes, staples, paper, markers, and tape. A little organizing will go a long way.

I've come to realize the few days prior to school and the first days of their new schedules cause my kids a certain amount of anxiety. If I can make the transition go a little smoother, they aren't as nerve-wracked. When the last week of summer rolls around, we can take a trip, go out for pizza and movies, or do absolutely nothing at all. We won't be scrambling around at the last minute trying to get everything done. Where is the fun in that?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saving Money at Thrift Stores

Shopping at thrift stores did not come naturally to me. When my husband and I were dating, he loved looking for what I like to call fashion treasures at consignment and thrift stores. He would be so pleased when he found high quality items in great shape for next to nothing. Eww, was all that came to my mind.

My opinion changed after we held our first yard sale. While I was trying to make a few dollars, I observed the shoppers. Who goes out and buys all this used stuff? As I had more yard sales and did more people watching, I learned a few things. These shoppers were young parents trying to give their little ones nice things while staying within their budgets. There were students getting ready for college and elderly people looking for arts and craft supplies. I also saw collectors and independent shop owners. They seemed more like me than I expected, although I don't know what I really expected. The most striking customesr imaginable were the couple that showed up in a very lovely convertible and purchased a few art pieces and an old candy dish. The lady wore the most exquisite emerald ring I'd ever seen based on all the years I sold fine jewelry.

That is when it hit me: Wealthy people have money because they don't spend it all. They make smart financial decisions. Once I figured that out, I was hooked. I, too, could spend less in some areas so I could spend/save/invest  more in others.  I think being so picky from the beginning helped me make better choices when I shopped second hand.
First, I take my time. Thrift store shopping takes longer because there are no returns. You are stuck with what you buy. I look over housewares carefully searching for any damage or missing pieces. I inspect clothing for stains, working zippers, missing buttons, and name brands. I'm not a brand snob, but I recognize certain brands as being more durable or made with higher quality materials. Before I purchase anything, I mentally make a note of what I can wear the item with. Even, if it's a $4 designer blouse, it is no bargain if it won't go with anything already in my closet. Being a label reader also helps you spot the difference between a pretty teacup and a pretty, Royal Dalton teacup.

Second, I buy with a purpose in mind. I never get something with the idea it's such a great deal I can figure out what to do with it later. That wastes time and money and I can't spare either. Recently, I stopped by the thrift store with the idea of getting a vase. They always have zillions of flower shop-style vases and not all of them are the generic clear ones. I found a cranberry frosted one with very simple, clean lines. Overflowing with grocery store flowers and a free, on-trend ribbon I already had at home tied around the middle made a lovely get well gift. My friend actually asked which florist I used. Score! A gift that looked like it cost $24.99 that really only cost $7. You have to love that!  You should always keep your eyes open for opportune purchases but that should never be your priority.

I also shop with the intent of repurposing an item. I recently found a thin, vertical shelf. I'm not exactly sure what its original use was, However, with some new paint and hanging in my closet, it is my new, space friendly nail polish rack.  That pretty teacup, Royal Dalton or otherwise, could be turned into a scented candle for a hostess gift.  If my intention is to find a soap dish for the bathroom,  you can bet I'll be giving a glancing at all the housewares: shallow candy dishes, single cup saucers, you get the idea. Imagination goes a long way in these kinds of stores.

It's important to know I don't do all my shopping at the thrift store. I still purchase things at other places and I love doing a little online purchasing, too. However, second hand shopping helps me fill in my creative gaps and keep my budget under control. That always comes in handy when I have a ton of neighbors that I want to give a little something to at Christmas. A bargain holiday cookie plate with some homemade snickerdoodles  wrapped in pretty celophane and a darling bow will put a smile on a neighbor's face. I like to think of those purchases as 'embellishments.' The treats are the gift, the container is the embellishment. The recipient ends up getting two gifts and that's never a bad thing.

I am so glad my husband taught me how to treasure hunt. I rarely buy anything but when I do, it's a great deal on a great item. Following these tips keeps me within my budget and without a load of junk I've carted home just because it was cheap. It also feels pretty good to look around and realize I've made some positive additions to my home and wardrobe (and to a friend) for very little impact on my wallet.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How to Have a Vacation on a Budget

We all need a vacation but none of us want the bill that comes with it. Is it possible to have an enjoyable vacation without putting it on a credit card or paying an arm and a leg? It's definitely possible as long as you are creative and think outside the box. Like all great vacations, a little preplanning goes a long way.

The first step is to assess what you really want to achieve with your vacation. Most of us would conclude that getting a break and making memories are a priority. A cruise or a trip to a gigantic theme park would be fantastic, to be sure. If that doesn't fit your budget, that's okay. There are lots of options out there.

Let's see, you need a break but it needs to be close to home so that you save on travel expenses like gas and eating out. Have you considered state parks, theme parks closer to home or a simple overnight trip to a nearby destination? One of the most fun times we ever had was a vacation to a local lake.  I'm
not sure a three day trip to stay in a cabin at a lake is classified as a vacation by some people, but we had a blast and it was inexpensive. The trip was less than thirty miles away from home but it felt like a whole lot more. Our only expenses were the cabin rental and the food we took, most of which was just taken from our own kitchen.  Hiking--or Exploring--as the Little Brother called it, playing on the beach, paddle boat rides, gathering wood for a fire (make that an accidental bonfire), making S'mores and eating outside were a blast. All of it was just ordinary fun, but it seemed exciting and extraordinary. Eating late, searching for constellations among the zillion or so stars not usually seen due to light pollution added to the memories. Sometimes even a day trip will work. My youngest relates to things in a great way. The last thing that happens is the thing that gets the most attention. I think a lot of us are that way. If we take a day trip to the beach,  play all day, picnic and then stop for ice cream on the way home, I guarantee he will tell his teacher that his vacation was awesome.  If you're going to a local theme park be sure to  eat and hydrate before you go to lessen your cravings for the more expensive fare. Be sure to budget for some sweet treats or a souvenier because you're there to have fun, not stick your nose to the windowpane and wish.

What if you want to go out of town? Consider off season travel. Our best times are never summer vacations. We had a blast going to a coastal town in fall while it was still warm and to an Aquarium during Christmas Break.  It may be easier to get your vacation time scheduled during the off season since most employees prefer the traditional summer break. Destination places will be busy but less crowded, prices may be a little lower because it's off season and you are less likely to feel rushed. Win-win. If you have kids, consider travelling during fall break, teacher work days, long weekends and part of your holiday vacations. You can pack a lot of fun in three or four days.

Look for as many Vacation Values as you can. We always stay in a business class hotel for this very reason. They are super clean, have breakfast bars (saving time and money), amenities like pools, posh lobbies  and fitness areas. Also be sure to stop by the hotel desk. This spring we went to a theme park about two hours from home and stayed overnight. The hotel was offering open-ended tickes to the same place for a very good price. Although, we already had ours we purchased more for a return visit. Our kids think we are rock stars. Hotels often have coupons for restaurants or City Passes that can be purchased once and used at multiple venues. Here's a surprise Vacation Value: Our local grocery store is offering a $50 gas gift card for $40. Sure it is only $10 but I'd rather have it in our pocket than someone elses. If you're travelling by car, stock up on water bottles and non messy snacks. No one wants melted chocolate in the back seat. Our kids appreciate the little things so we will make at least one stop at a convenience store for gum, chips,etc. Just once won't break the bank.

Figure out your spending plan and determine what you can afford. Great memories will be made no matter what you do or where you go. The extra bonus will be knowing you had a lot of fun and the bills won't be facing you when you open the mailbox. Instead of Keeping Up with the Jones, try Keeping Up with the Budget. I guarantee no one will ever look back and say, "Well the campfire would have been more fun if we'd paid more for it."

How I Really Save at the Grocery Store

It's true that I use coupons, watch for sales and stock up. I do this to help me save as much as I can, but there are other tricks of the trade I use that really are the key to keeping my grocery store shopping as low as possible.

**1** Nothing Goes to Waste. This is one of the most important things to our budget. We literally don't throw away any food. That bit of mustard gets added to a few ingredients so that we have salad dressing. When there's not enough corn flakes to make breakfast, we crush them as fine as bread crumbs and save until later use. Conditioner that we don't like gets used for shaving gel and we squeezee the last dot of toothpaste out of the tube. Liquid soap and hand sanitizer gets smacked out of the bottle. You aren't being a Scrooge; you're stretching your budget as far as it can go and you're environmentally friendly, too. Here's a tip: If you can change the look/feel of the leftovers you and your family will be more likely to eat them. Roast can be turned into open faced sandwiches  two days later with sauteed onion, a little cheese and  homemade (and easy) sweet potato chips. Leftover pasta sauce and meatballs make wonderful subs and all you need to add is some fruit or homemade baked fries or chips.

**2** Do Not Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Who thought up that one? I think it's a plot to get us all to use more of a product, which means we have to buy more. Very good for the manufacturer, not very good for my budget. There are many times when you will need the exact amount of a product (certain ingredients in recipes) but there are other times when you can use a little trial and error to see what's really needed. Case in point: I found out that if I reduced the sugar added to those powedered drink mixes, it tasted exactly the same and I ended up buying a whole lot less sugar. Same thing with shampoo and certain cleaning products. And never lather, rinse, repeat.

**3** There is no Mindless/Spontaneous Shopping. I'm not referring to finding a great deal on applesauce cups that can be used in lunch boxes. I'm referring to running into the store for a gallon of milk, then asking myself, "I wonder what else I can find." Notice I said 'find,' not 'need.' That one distinction can be a budget buster. I'm also referring to when you are on your way to the dry cleaners and stop in next door at the organic store to window shop. You're going to end up leaving that place with a five pound bag of Honduran Almonds that only set you back $24.99 and in my universe, that same amount would make lunches for all four of us for a week.  I have no idea if there is such a thing as Honduran Almonds but I do know mindless shopping is a big money drain. And it's a time suck as well. Let me add, if I do find a good value on something, I will get it. That's not the same as aimlessly wandering around looking for unnecessary stuff.

**4** Backtracking is a Bad Thing. If I forget to pick up an ingredient, I won't be going back to get it. I'll find a substitute or postpone that meal until I can get whatever is missing. Retracing your steps costs, time, gas and more money if I add more items to the cart than the original forgotten item.

**5** There is a Reason Junk Food is Called 'Junk.'  I confess that it's not just the kids who like junk food. I like a good candy bar or chips and dip myself.  I also know it isn't good for us and we don't make a habit of eating tons of it. It's as bad for my budget as it is for my health. If you have kids you may find that they balk at the absence of all that salty, fatty, expensive goodness. Guess what? Not only do they adapt, but if they are truly hungry, they will eat what's available. Did you know a bag of apples is less expensive than a large bag of name brand chips? I can do more with apples, too. If that isn't your favorite fruit, then look around, scan the grocery ad and see what else can be substituted for those Munchable, pseudo lunch-style snacks the kids love gobbling up.It doesn't have to be fruit, but find a way to back off the budget busting junk food.

My family consists of a newly minted teenager, a little one in elementary school, a husband who is a hearty eater, me and two pets.  They are all bottomless pit, eating machines. I have to feed them and I can't go broke doing it.  I use these time and again and if I ever get off track (and I do sometimes) all it takes it one look at the total on the bottom of the receipt to remind me these tips really work.

What is your most effective savings tools at the grocery store?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Back to School: Organizing Your Space

My organizational philosophy is very simple: In order to keep ahead of everything, don't let things pile up. It's fairly easy to apply to my family's day-to-day living. When I leave a room, I make sure to grab something and take it back to it's rightful place. I clean as I go,  I try not to leave things until 'later.'  It's the the one thing I do that helps keep us on track. Now, having said that, I have to admit real life gets in the way and sometimes when I look up to take a breath, I see disaster zones lurking in every corner. There is no need to flip out or worry. I tackle it a little at a time. Your situation may be different but the same steps will help you get your spaces back-to-school ready.

The three offending areas that will directly affect by kids (and me!) when school begins are their room, the car and kitchen.  So, these are the spaces I need to work on and I want to do it without the fuss of an all out production. Here's how I do that.

My boys share a room and because there is more than a five year age difference, it is challenging to make it work for them both. Luckily, they get along beautifully so it isn't that difficult but I still have to put a lot of thought into it. First, I took a trash bag and threw out everything useless: dried out markers, old toys from fast food places, ancient papers, broken toys, etc. Anything that could be donated was set aside in a box. This included clothes, shoes, books, toys no one played with and old movies or electronic games. The exception was anything that I felt we could repurpose (within reason) or could sell at a yard sale. Their bookcase is a 7 feet tall, five feet wide behemoth; Big Brother gets the top half and Little Brother gets the bottom half. After removing everything from it, I polished it and replaced only what would be needed currently. Even the Art Box got a once over and the old Sesame Street coloring books have gone on to their just reward. More space! Love it!  I quickly cleaned under the beds (it helps to keep very little under there but I did find two mismatched socks and a sweater.)  Next, I took care of the desk, which had somehow become the holding facility for some gum wrappers and a ton of broken crayons. Um, no.  The only thing really left was the basics I would be doing anyway like dusting and vacuuming. It didn't take all that long especially because I am a firm believer in moving quickly and not getting distracted.

Like all parents, my car is the rolling office, medical facility and kid zone all rolled into one. I have a morbid fear of car trouble, so the oil has been changed. Just before school begins, I'll get a full tank of gas. The car gets cleaned out--which doesn't mean I did the total car wash and wax--and it will get stocked with travel tissues and a few prepackaged wet wipes in the glove box. I'll put a few dollars in there also for those days when someone for gets to pay for Popcorn Friday and a spare set of drumsticks get placed under a seat. I'll make sure my phone charger is in the car and it will be all set.

The kitchen is the hub of all activity in my home. If it ever gets out of whack, we are all in big trouble. It's got to help me zoom through the morning routine and it's got to be smooth sailing through what I like to call 'The Witching Hour" --that awful time between coming home from school and putting the evening meal on the table. That's the time when kids are grabbing snacks, lunch boxes are emptied, the meal gets started and homework begins. I don't want it to feel like a pressure cooker. They're tired, we're tired and I don't want to make it worse. I do a ton of simple things like stocking up on snacks, sort through storage containers making sure everything has a lid, and if needed rearranging things so everything is user friendly. If the kids can reach their own snacks, then I don't have to do it. Win-Win. If there's time, I'll put together a few meals in the freezer for those days I'm stretched beyond all reason. I try hard to make sure that I clean the kitchen after the meal because I don't want to face it tomorrow morning. No, I don't like doing this part, but it's better than waking up to a mess you've got to clean up.

Figure out your hot spots and work methodically to get them organized right now. It's going to bring a sense of cohesion to your home and helps you give your family a sense of calm.

How do you get your family back into the swing of things?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Survive Back to School Madness

In the area of the country where we live, school will be starting in three weeks. As in a split second. Time has flown and I want no part of schedules, bedtimes, homework, projects and the like. I want to grab my boys and run like crazy to the Land of Fun but, alas, it is coming so I might as well just get ready.  Here's what I've done so far and also what's remaining on the To Do list.

**I Started at Home** I looked through all my supplies before making the first purchase. There's no point buying what I don't need. I did the same thing with the clothes, sorting as I went. Stained items became rags and the ones that didn't fit were boxed up for the next trip to Goodwill. The exception was anything Big Brother could pass down to Little Brother. I only save classic items I truly feel will be used in the future. Trendy things go to Goodwill so they can be used while they're still in style.

**I Started Early** The school district sent supply lists with report cards as well as posted them on their websites. Little by little, I purchased the majority of what was required. Let me add that I didn't make any special trips to the store; just an item here and there everytime I happened to be out. I also didn't wait for any sales. Sure, I could wait until the week before school starts to get everything for mere pennies, and money is important, but I just don't want to spend the last week of summer rushing around in the heat and crowds, stressing over a free-with-purchase box of crayons. Now, having said that, if (and it's a big if) the sales are good enough I might go out and buy extras, but at least it will be an option not a requirement.

**I Bought Extras** I also picked up things that weren't on the list but I know will come in handy. These included poster board, sticky notes, printer paper, ink cartridges and basic items for elementary school projects (craft sticks, construction paper, pompons, googly eyes, etc.)

**Few Clothes Are Purchased** I know a lot of parents who are dropping a few Benjamins on each child's wardrobe. It just isn't practical or financially wise to buy an entire wardrobe when it isn't needed. I have been purchasing warm weather gear for pennies on the dollar thanks to clearance sales, online coupon codes, free shipping, etc. I will get a couple of items for cooler weather 'just in case' simply because I like to be prepared.

**The Meals Get Prepped Early Too** I've got about two or three grocery visits before school starts and that means I can get a few extras during each trip. Everything from juice boxes, sandwich bags, snacks (anything nonperishable) will get set aside in the closet hidden away from little eyes. I'll also be on the lookout for items that will make a few quick meals for those first hectic days. This might include new/old favorite recipes for crock pot meals, frozen meals I've prepared (it's as easy to make spaghetti sauce for two meals as it is for one).

**I Start Getting Back Up Plans In Order** Somebody always forgets something and then it's Mama who has to hear about it and go home to retrieve the missing item. My coping mechanism is simple and based on the age of the poor victim. The younger they are, the more lenient I am but having said that, I still have limits. I'll go back and get the lunch box a few times but after that they will just have to eat the school lunch (there's always at least one thing on the menu they can tolerate). I just make sure there is always lunch money on their school accounts. Extra pens and pencils are in the car's console and I even have a pair of drumsticks under the car seat for the middle schooler who forgets them on a regular basis. Anything I can do to plan ahead and keep myself sane also keeps my family sane.

**'The Schedules Start Falling Into Place** The days will gradually become more routine as we get closer to the schools' start date. I'll transition them toward earlier bedtimes with movies instead of video games. The baths will happen a little earlier and I'll wake them up a few minutes earlier than the day before. Once I waited until the last day of summer to get them to bed on time. Epic fail. Won't make that mistake again.

**Know Your Child's Weak Spot** Big Brother hates shoe shopping. He would rather chew off his arm than buy shoes. That is why his get purchased now. If we look and can't find his size, he won't get frustrated because I can calmly say "We still have time, don't worry." It takes the edge off  his anxiety and mine as well. Little Brother has to participate in the changes in order to accept them. We make an effort to let him feel like he's part of the decision making. Simple options like choosing bathtime before or after the movie, the red backpack or the blue one and what to wear tomorrow gives him the feeling of control and he's more willing to accept the change.

I rely on these steps to keep these last days peaceful for all our sakes. Summer is such a great time for a family; there's no reason it can't end as pleasantly as it began.

These easy steps help me get ahead (and stay ahead) and make these last few days of summer vacation so much for fun and enjoyable.