Sunday, March 30, 2008

Frugal Travel

This past week we went on a trip. With three kids and the both of us you can imagine how much is involved. Here are some things that did to ease the dent in our pocket:

1. Do not use the luggage carrier - With the price of gas being so high we decided to pack light and put the luggage in the back of the Landcruiser instead of attching that plastic thing on top of the vehicle that causes more drag and you fly down the highway, thus increasing your gas consumption.

2. Do not eat on the road - I spent the two days before we left baking cookies, treats and buscuits. I used the leftover ham from Easter and made ham and cheese buscuits (recipe here - super easy). We had fruit and some peanuts and bottled water in the cooler. In a six hour trip we spent zero dollars on food. I also made enough for our trip back.

3. Free entertainment to keep you busy - word searches, crossword puzzle, I organized my coupons, sew. For the kids I print some activities off the computer and put about 20 pages into a separate file folder for each child. That was they are working on "new to them" stuff and don't get bored quickly. We borrow movies from the library for them to watch.

4. Came to visit and just visited - the family that we visited had asked us what we wanted to do when we came and we said that they did not have to entertain us but that we were coming to just to spend time with them. Plus we don't need to spend money needlessly. We see them once a year, we can see Chuck E. Cheese any time. The kids played outside ALL day long and did not even miss the fact that we did not go to a theme park or somewhere kid related. Just spend time with the people you visit.
Travel does not need to be expensive. Some pre-planning makes all the difference.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Seven little words. Use them. They work.

Somewhere in the last few months I read this article about this lady who uses the phrase "Is that the best you can do?" when trying to negotiate a lower price for services. I think she was trying to negotiate for tires if I remember correctly. I thought she was brilliant to use this strategy and started to adopt it to my approach. I shared this with Husband. Cut to two weeks ago when Husband needed to get new tires for his vehicle. He has done all the research and found the set of tires he wants for the price he wants. He goes to the counter and begins to pay for the tires:

The clerk says "Okay it will be XX dollars sir."

My husband says "Is that the best you can do?"

The clerk looks at him, cocks his head, and says "Excuse me?"

My husband says again "Is that the best you can do?"

"Um, well, uh, we can maybe throw in a free oil change."


Granted the lady in the story where I first heard about this did her negotiating up front and then purchased her tires and my husband was basically at the counter paying after the work was done when he remembered but it was still worth it in the end because he got a better value for his money.

When using this tactic, make sure to leave it as an open-ended question. Just say the seven words and nothing more. You want them to conjure up in their mind whatever it is that they are willing to offer you so do not suggest anything to them.

Seven little words. Use them. They work.
Ask and your wish just might be granted. But you will never know if you don't ask.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Snowflake report - $8.99

Yesterday I received in the mailbox (It's like Christmas!) a rebate check from Rite Aid for $8.99. If you are unfamiliar with rebating for Rite Aid or Walgreen's stores it is something that you need to add into your Debt and/or Savings Strategy. The comapniaes give away free items every month and all you have to do is purchase them and then send in the rebate forms. Free stuff free and clear. Some people like to rebate items and have RiteAid put the refund onto a gift card so that when they go into the store again they do not have to pay anything out of pocket. Their previous refunds pay for the new merchandise. They roll this over ad over so they never have to pay anything out of pocket.

I do this a different way. I have them send me a check instead of putting it onto a store giftcard. I like getting the rebate checks becasue as soon as they show up I count them as snowflake money and put them right towards debt. If I were just have them put it onto the giftcard each month then I would just spend this money again. This way I feel like I am really using the money for debt rather than just savings.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Steps - Recap

Step #1: Make a Budget

Step #2: Know what and who you owe.

Step #3: Read Self Help Personal Finance Books.

Step #4 – Snowflake

Step #5: Comparison Shop for Everything

Step #6 - When you are not happy with the situation seek out alternatives and tell others about your plight. You never know where help might come from. And it might be free.

Step #7: Menu Plan for a Month at a Time

Step #8 - Make sure that you consider all the options before you even think about letting your money leave your hands. Clearance does not always mean cheaper

Step #9 - Be resourceful.

Step #10 - Tell companies you like their products and/or services to get coupons or free stuff.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Budget Helps

I hate to budget. I never even had one until a couple of months ago. Sad to hear considering I used to own a national company and was responsible for the payroll of my employees. Scary. Anyway I have found that it is necessary to have this tool to navigate the financial hurdles that are bound to creep up. In all honesty, I can say that for the first time in my adult life I feel good about where we are financially. Ironically we are making less money than we ever made before in our entire working careers. The "feel good" part is that I know that the bills will be paid, I know that we are saving money, and I know that there is enough money in the bank for our needs. No more worrying that since the checkbook isn't balanced whether we will be overdrawn. No more wondering if I paid a bill or not. When you keep track of your money things like that just don't happen anymore. It is a nice feeling.

1. Notebooks, pencil, & paper - this is the method I use. Sure I would love to have those fancy pie charts and it would be nice to click on a link and know exactly what your net worth is but I am a busy person and I hate doing a budget so 30 minutes once a month is about all I would like to spend on this since I will never get that 30 minutes back and I would much rather being doing something else with my time. I do it because it is necessary, just like check ups at the doctor. Your notebook budget does not need to be fancy. Here is mine:

Notice the Target clearance sticker in the corner. I revise the budget once every month for the month coming up. So for April's budget I set aside some time to write out the bills on the corresponding paydays. Each penny is accounted for. We pay some bills with the first check and some bills with the last check since we are paid on the 1st and the 15th.

So it may look like this:

1st check:

776.17 mortgage
100.00 groceries
67.50 gas
59.75 life insurance
138.00 tithe

In this notebook I also have my Financial Goals for 2008. If you look closely you will see that I have highlighted three of them. This means that I have succeeded in obtaining them and crossed them off of my list. Granted there are a bunch more goals to meet but the very idea of crossing something off a list gives you a sense of forward momentum - that you are accomplishing something or moving, albeit slowly, towards what you said you would do. I am a chronic list maker and crosser-off- er.

I keep this notebook on my desk so I can refer to it often and be able to access it pretty easily to find out financial information. Again some people may spend a lot of time using Quicken and Microsoft money or other programs. I would rather spend my time on something besides seeing how much money I don't have. But don't get me wrong - this is a very necessary and critical step to your being financially independent one day. Do not skip it. Just don't spend all day on it. Spend time with your kids or your parakeet or doing something to contribute to your love of life instead.

2. Online services - Pear Budget , Mint and others - I have heard good things about these sorts of online services. The only thing is that it takes a lot of time to plug in your information and the very idea of someone else having that much financial information on me would make me nervous.

However you decide to handle a budget does not matter, just make sure you do it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Email Companies to Get Free Coupons

I have discovered that it is worth your while to send a quick email to companies to let them know you appreciate them. A couple of weeks ago I was on the Pace site and just drop them a quick email and they sent me a link to a free item in an email as a thank you. I emailed Mission tortillas and they sent me two free tortillas coupons just to say thanks.

It takes 1 minute to kick out an email to tell a company that you appreciate them and most of the time they will send you coupon for cents off or for a free item. Definitely worth it for you to incorporate it into your strategy. It is a small investment that gives you a big return.

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #10 - Tell companies you like their products and/or services to get coupons or free stuff.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Pay Off Debt With Savings - Yes or No?

This is a touchy subject with most financial gurus out there. Some subscribe to the discipline that it is better to have a certain amount in savings (like an emergency fund) and then start paying down debt. Others beleive that you should not agressively save to get to XX amount of dollars to build an emergency fund but instead save a little bit and throw the rest at your debt. I do agree you should have a good amount in an emergency fund before anything else - minimum $1000.00. It just makes good financial sense to not have to go further into debt if something unexpected should rear its ugly head.

But what if youhave a situation like mine: I have the dreadful orthodontist bill with a balance of $1665.00. We have plenty in savings so have no worries about an emergency popping up and not being able to cover it. So why don't I just take some out of savings and pay the balance off to get it over with? Herein lies the caveat. Yes, I could pay off the entire balance from savings but choose not to and here is why: The orthodontist does not charge me a finance charge. When we decided to have my son in braces it would have been advantageous for us to pay for it in full, from savings, becasue we would have gotten a 5% discount for paying the bill up front. Since we opted for monthly payments we are responsible the entire amount (including the 5% which I am assuming is the built in interest). Becasue we elected to have monthly payments there is really no hurry in paying it off faster becasue I am not accruing more interest. The only reason to take the money out of savings and pay it off in full now would be for my piece of mind. I would not have to be sending snowflakes to it or a monthly payment to the bill.

The reason I elect not to take this burden off my mind is two fold -A.) I like looking for snowflakes. It keeps me motivated. It keeps me working towards a goal. If I weren't looking for snowflakes for the ortho bill, I would be doing it for savings, or for the student loan; and B.) I like having money in savings and somehow psychologically, seeing my balance in savings go down by $1665.00 would cause me anxiety. Yes I know it would be for a good cause like paying down debt, but there is just comfort in having a good amount in savings and when your balance takes a hit it almost seems like you are regressing some how. Somehow it seems like you would have to claw and scratch your way back to where you were before before you could breathe again.
I think I will continue paying the bill a little at a time. By doing this I can chip away at the bill and simutaneously be able to save money and watch the savings account balance get bigger.

What would you do?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Soap Dispensers Rob Parents and They Know It

How many of you parents out there have kids that go to wash their hands and squirt a shot of soap into their hands and go about their business? Yep, just about everyone.

Each time we, they, whomever washes their hands they pump a bunch of soap out of the dispenser. And in a couple of weeks you have to replace it. Not at our house! Because I get the soaps so inexpensive (.19-25 cents each) I don't buy the big refill jugs. When a dispenser is getting low instead of throwing it out and getting a brand new one we fill it again about a third full with soap from another dispenser, fill it the rest of the way with water and voila! a full soap dispenser at minimal cost. You do not need fully concentrated soap to get your hands clean. A minimal amount of soap, water and old fashioned friction will get your hands clean. Train your kids to only push down the dispenser tab half way, thus getting only half a squirt rather than a full blown squirt to stretch it even further. Again, you are not going to suffer, other than your pocketbook, by not having a fully concentrated, full blown soap squirts each time you wash your hands.

But that is what the soap companies would like you to believe.

Minimize soap use to keep more of your hard earned moneyin your pocket.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Using Coupons - Hardcore Crash Course - Part 1

Hold on to your hat. This is the real deal. In this series I am going to show you how I saved loads of money by using coupons. If you are truly ready to save money and be a convert continue reading.

We all know that coupons can save you money. If you apply a couple of different strategies and methods you can get out of a store by spending mere pennies. We all know people who do this but most cannot really figure out how it is done.

I'm going to tell you how it is done step by step.

Start by getting organized:

#1. Getting a big binder. 2" or 3" binder is perfect for this.

#2. Get a pack of baseball card holders. These are clear plastic sleeve like things that fits right into your binder.

#3. mini calculator.

#4. tabs to label your individual plastic holders.

#5. get some coupons.

The secret to serious couponing is organization. A lot of people shy away from using coupons because they fear it is time consuming. If your coupons are organized this will not take much more of your time. I have seen online and people in the store with those plastic shoe boxes with their coupons organized in envelopes. This is not the most efficient way to coupon. The method I will teach you is very efficient and if you need to find a coupon while in the store it takes no time at all. With the shoebox method you will have to sort through 30 coupons in your "deodorant" envelop. Sorry I don't have time for that and you probably don't either!

Organize your coupons into your binder by slipping them into the plastic sleeves that you would normally put baseball cards in. Make sure that you can see the picture of the product. It does not matter if you cannot see the amount of the coupon. You want to be able to see the product at all times. If the coupon is too big bend it so that it fits with the picture showing. In some categories you will have several pages/sleeves since there might be many coupons in this category. Make sure to have a page/sleeve in the front for competitor's coupons, rain checks, gift cards, store discount cards, whatever, that will be easily available when you need them.

Okay go!

Once you have done this come back and join us as we learn how to use coupons effectively in Part II of this series.

Snowflake Report - $22.75

I love snowflakes! I can't believed I even lived with out them before - how could I have managed? Here is the report:

Bought wrong sized canning lids so I returned them - $1.97
canvas bag I thought I needed but decided I didn't - $3.99
Walgreen's EasySaver rebate - $14.97

Now who knew, but apparently my mother bought me a subscription to the lottery and I won $2.00 so she hands me a check from the lottery place for $2.00. Who knew you could win the lottery when you don't even play the lottery?!? - $2.00

Total Snowflake Money - $22.75

All going into the orthodontist envelope in my desk to be paid the next time I am in "town" and in that neck of the woods.

Ortho balance: $1642.25

Again I cannot say how important it is for you to collect small amounts of money and put them towards your debts. There were so many times in the past that I got an unexpected $10 and blew it and never could tell you where it went. I decided that I did not need that money when I did not know it was coming to me so I do not need it now. Almost like it doesn't exist. I put it straight to debt. Once I am finished with the orthodontist bill I will then concentrate on my student loans from snowflaking. Remember this money is in addition to your regular payments. My regular payment to the orthodontist is $135.00/month. Money I make snowflaking is extra and pays down the balance much faster.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Power Bill Tip You Can Actually Use

Okay here is a tip you can use and not "Tape plastic over your windows to seal in the heat" which is ridiculous. Who does that?

Call you power company and tell them you would like to get set up on their budget billing. In our are what this means is that instead of getting surprised every month when you get your power bill you have a set amount each month that you pay based on your last six months worth of use. So whatever the average is for that six months, that becomes your flat rate that you pay.

I did this recently and it was awesome! We had bills from $97.00 in the months where we did not use heat or air conditioning to $278.00 in the dead of winter for a 2800 square foot house. Our monthly fixed payment is $135.00. What?? Yes, $135.00 per month. Every month. Now this is not a license to freak out and use all the electricity that you want to because you have the same monthly payment each month. They regulate it by doing an audit on your power usage every six months and reconfigure your payment to that. So as long as you don't go crazy and use relatively the same amount that you have been using then your payment should stay around the same amount. Ideally you will be practicing all kinds of power saving strategies so your bill would actually turn out to be less when you came up for audit.

The second blessing in this is that you now can budget exactly what your power bill will be each month - no more surprises.

The Great Paper Towel Challenge

A couple of months ago Husband and I decided that we use too many paper towels. We were going through two papaer towel rolls per week and at 6.00 per 8 pack that was out of control. We told the kids that we were going to try and cut out paper towels and only use them when absolutely necessary. This way we might save some trees and and some money.

I made a one-time purchase from Walmart of $2.50 for a pack of white washcloths. I think there were 10 in the pack. I bought two packs of white. ($5.00) We told the kids that they are not to use paper towels but white washcloths for any spills or for cleaning. If they thought they absolutely needed a paper towel for something they could ask and we would let them know if they could get one. This system worked beautifully! We had the same roll of paper towels on the holder for two weeks! We couldn't believe it. The kids got used to grabbing a cloth instead of a paper towel. We had a rule that they could keep the cloth on the sink after they wiped up a spill throughout the day and that way if someone else needed one they would see it and use it for their spill rather than getting a fresh one. At the end of the day when someone was going to bed they would just throw it into the washer to be washed the next day since I start a load every morning of laundry.

The reason that we only use white washcloths for spills or wiping counters or the dining room table is that it is easily distinguishable from the dish cloths. I use one green washcloth per day to wash our dishes. I do not want you to wipe down the counter with the washcloth I use to clean dishes that we eat off of - just doesn't work for me. So in the drawer there is a stack of white washcloths and a stack of green washcloths. If a spill is wiped up off the floor then they can go ahead and take it to the laundry room right after they are done. Again this is to prevent them from using a washcloth on the floor and then someone else coming along and wiping my counter or table. I've got issues I know! Also using white deters any color running from the cloth onto say a chair or the carpet.
We are now down to 1 paper towel roll for three 1/2 weeks!

In a related topic we used to cut a paper towels into fourths for napkins for dinner. There is no reason a five year old child should have a whole paper towel to wipe her sweet little mouth on one corner. As the children set the table one would just cut the paper towel with scissors into four pieces and put that next to the plates - the child sized salad plates and not regular adult plates as I spoke of in my post here.

We personally use napkins that I sewed from regular fabric. It cuts down on paper towel use and they are so much more charming. Here are my chicken napkins cut from a yard of fabric ($2.00/yard) :

After dinner whomever is doing the clean up can toss these along with the used "spill" washcloths into the washer.

Challenge your family to see how long they can make a paper towel roll last. If your family needs some incentive perhaps offer to rent a movie if they can make 1 paper towel roll last for four weeks. This is just to get them into the habit of grabbing a washcloth instead of a paper towel. After the four weeks it should be second nature and you will not need to provide incentives.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Baked Chicken Morphs Into Chicken 'n' Dumplings

If you read my previous post How to Feed a Family of Six on $200 you will appreciate this post. Part of the success of my menu planning is that I choose meals that are low in cost and that stretch to cover another meal or three if I am really on a roll.

Yesterday's dinner was baked chicken. Husband procured a natural free range 7 lb chicken from Trader Joe's for $13.00. You could get this figure down to really cheap if you did not care if it is natural or free range. For the first night we had baked chicken, mashed potatoes ($1.50) & gravy (free) and canned organic green beans (2 at a $1.00 each) ($2.00). The next morning I took the chicken carcass, still half full of meat, and put it into the crock pot and let it boil all day. Once the meat was falling off the bones I cleaned the carcass, put all the chicken back into the broth and simmered the rest of the day. Half and hour before dinner was to be served I added frozen, boxed all natural Anne's Dumplings ($2.50). Half hour later dinner was served. There was some left over for my husband to take for lunch the next day and for my children to eat for lunch.

This is a prime example of being able stretch one meal into three meals thus reducing your grocery bill. Again, that is the secret to being able to feed 6 under $200 - being resourceful.

Here's the breakdown:

$16.50 - feeds six people three times = $5.50/meal - you could get this figure down further if you bought a less expensive chicken.

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #9 - Be resourceful.

Savvy Shopper Report

My friend called me this morning and said "I'm going to town to shop. Do you want to come?"

Savings #1 - Free ride/no gas. Town is 30 minutes up the road.

Harris Teeter:

Kellogg's cereal - sale B1G1F - 3.49/each before sale - $48.86
Minus - Sale price - 17.95 MiniWheats; 6.98 Special K
Viva paper towels - $2.39
canvas grocery bag - $2.99
$10.00 Competitor's coupon

Total - $19.31 - $10.00 off next shopping trip coupon I got from buying this.

Total out of Pocket - $9.31

I normally do not buy processed, sugar- bomb cereal. The only reason that I bought this is because I received a Catalina notice (those things that print out along with your receipt that sometimes have coupons on them) that said if I purchased Kellogg's cereal during the month of March and if I purchased seven I would get $10.00 off my next shopping order. When I happened to see that these were B1G1 I went ahead and bought the required 7, ended up with 14 because of the B1G1 sale and have a $10.00 off coupon for my next shopping trip. most of these cereals will go to the Food Pantry in our community since I volunteer there. Technically we could say that this really only cost me $9.31 since I got $10.00 back to apply to my next shopping trip.


Dole Pineapple juice (2) large cans - $1.02 clearance -$2.04
Juicy Juice (6) - $1.81 clearance - $10.86
Arm & Hammer Detergent (2) - 2.48/1 clearance - $4.96
Juicy Juice coupons - $1.00/2 - I had three of these
Minus $5.00 Target gift card
Total out of pocket: $11.86

Not bad but this could be better. The juice would not have been a good deal if I did not have the $5.00 Target card.
Here's why - even though it is clearanced and you have a coupon pay close attention to the amount of juice. One of those big 1 gallon grape juice jugs is $4.26. Three of the Juicy Juice bottles equals 1 of those but 3 x 1.81 = 5.43. So it is better, even with them being on clearance, to buy the Walmart brand juice. If I did not have the additional amount off I would not have bought them, even though they were clearanced and even though I had coupons. Be careful that you look at all the information. I also could have made this a better deal if I had Arm & Hammer coupons but I didn't have any and needed detergent so I still think I did not do too bad since they were on clearance.

But remember clearance doesn't always mean cheaper.

Debt and/or Savings Strategy #8 - Make sure that you consider all the options before you even think about letting your money leave your hands. Clearance does not always mean cheaper.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Snowflake Report - $6.00 - Checking the Mail is like Christmas!

I love to check the mail. The regular snail mail. Today in the mailbox was a check from LiveActive cheese. It was my rebate for trying their cheese. They have a guarantee that if you try their cheese you can send in for a rebate. I got $6.00 back!
This will go into the envelope in my desk for the orthodontist. $6.00 closer to paying them off!
I believe that the Live Active guarantee is still going on until July 2008. Find a sale where they are 2/$6.00 or Walmart sells them for $2.77. There were printable coupons online a month or so ago for $2.00/1 but unfortunately they are no longer available - I just checked so I cannot link you to any current coupons for the cheese. If you can get your hands on some that were in the papers in the last couple of months or find some from another source it would be less out of pocket for you. However, because you are getting them free when you get your rebate it really won't matter in the end.
Here is the rebate form for you to fill out and send it with your UPC's.
Make sure that you snowflake the money from the rebate when it comes in. Make a commitment to yourself now that any rebate checks that some in, no matter what, that you are going to snowflake them towards debt or savings. You did not miss that money when you did not have that check in your hand - don't even think about it- just put it towards something that will help your situation and don't look back.

This Week's Carnival of Personal Finance #144 - St. Patrick's Day Edition

This Carnival of Personal Finance is being hosted by Being Frugal this week. A big thanks to Being Frugal for my post Hives in the Eggs Section being included in the round up!

Carnivals are wonderful because the authors consolidate a bunch of related links all in one place. It is a huge time saver since you can look through many different articles in a short amount of time.

Please visit this week's carnival! Enjoy!

And if you are new to my new-ish site thanks for coming please look around!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

How To Feed A Family of Six on $200.00

Okay you've seen the budget. You know that I have $200.00 to work with each month to feed six people, one of which is a full grown man and the other is a 16 year old boy. They might each equal two people so effectively I might be feeding 8. Mind boggling.

In order to even try to feed these people I need to have a plan. if I were one of those people that ran around the grocery store just picking things out to eat this would be impossible. First things first though - we do not eat processed foods. We only eat whole foods which means that we make almost everything from scratch and usually with 6 ingredients or less. We also abuse the crock pot in such a way that we should be jailed. So if you are saying to yourself "Well this is not going to be feasible for our family. I work all day and the last thing I want to do is come home and cook a dinner from scratch so I'll be moving on to the next blog now." Wait! It is possible to feed your family on $200 and work full time - I swear!

First things first. Decide that you are not going to buy any more processed garbage food. If you are committed to saving money this should be on the top of your list as things that will save you money. If you dump garbage into your finely tuned, well-oiled machine it will gunk it up and it will not work properly and thus, you will have medical bills. Case in point: I have four kids - 16, 10, 8, 5 - and none but 1 (last month to be exact) have had ear infections and none have been to the doctor their ENTIRE lives but twice, except for well checks. Not kidding. Husband and I have also not been to the doctor in many years, probably 10 or so, for a malady. We do go for routine check ups. Do you think this is good genes? Perhaps partly, but the other half is our eating habits.
Once you have decided that you will not eat processed food the next step is to round up 31 days worth of recipes. We have a monthly menu that we use each month. Every 1st of any month is always the same breakfast, lunch and dinner. My family never tires from any one thing because they only eat that item once a month except for breakfast and lunches which may repeat because good heavens I am not a restaurant. So to clarify you will make a month's worth of menus that you will start over again the following month. So in essence you have a year's worth of menus with your 1 month menu plan.
Print out a blank calender from your Microsoft program of choice or here and blow the dust off your cookbooks and sit down for an hour and fill in that calender. In each box denoting a day of the month write what you will have for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We are looking for simplicity here. Do not get crazy and think you will make fois gras on a Thursday night before karate class.

Here is an example of from one of our days:
eggs & toast
Soup & grilled cheese sandwich, apple slices, string cheese

So in each block, or day, write out a list of what you will eat for the day. Once you have all of your blocks or days filled with breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, you need to number each week. So the first full week will be Week 1, Week 2, and so forth. Let's say that March 1st and 2ND fall on a Friday and Saturday - Does that count as Week 1? No. That would be part of the previous week and would share that week with the end of February. Your calender should look something like this (this one is incomplete):

For desserts or snacks pick three for each week and write them either in the margin or down at the bottom. I like to write them in the margin of the corresponding week so I know when I am supposed to make it. After you have completed this step you need to secure five pieces of paper and each you will Name Week ___ Shopping List. Go to Week 1 on your calender and make a list of all of the things you will need to accomplish those dishes onto your Week 1 Shopping List. That way at any given week you know what you need to shop for. You do not need to deviate from this list unless you have run out of staples. So you will/should have relatively the same total to budget for every week you go grocery shopping. No more of these wildly fluctuating amounts to pay for groceries each week. Do this same thing for all the weeks in the month - you should end up with five just to cover you in all cases.
Now you have a months' worth of menus and your shopping lists for each week. Place all of these items into a binder.
Behind your Monthly Calender you need to put tabs with Week 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5 on them. This is so that you can file all of the recipes for that week behind the tab. This way when you need to look up March's Week 4, Thursday's recipe all you have to do is flip to that section in your binder and you have everything ready. If someone else is doing the cooking they will also be able to find out what to cook for the night with relative ease.

The key to making this work is selecting cost effective dinners that you can stretch or get the ingredients for less. For example on the nights we have chili, I make a big crock pot full so that you can bet that you will be having chili the next day for lunch. Or lets say that you have crock pot chicken 'n' dumplings. That requires a chicken carcass (for my recipe) so I can make chicken broth from that that and it can be used for soup later in the week. Be creative. Come up with menus for different days that compliment other days. Grow a garden so you can have fresh produce and you might be able to whittle down your weekly shopping bill even more.
If you work full time this is not a problem. Set aside a Saturday to cook some of the things that you can freeze like lasagna. Other things that are crock pot recipes - get up 10 minutes earlier and put all the ingredients in and have a hot meal done and ready when you get home. On the Saturday you decide to cook a couple of things go ahead and chop a bag of onions or carrots and put them into a Ziploc so you don't have to cut anything during the week. This should not take up a long time on Saturday - maybe two hours or so. If you have kids you need to put them to work. Ages 8 and up should be allowed to peel carrots, dice onions, etc. Being in a family means that you contribute to the family's well being. That means helping in meal preparation so mom or dad are not bogged down from trying to feed then after they (parent) have been working all day.

And no, they don't get paid for it. Does their mom get paid for doing their laundry?

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #7: Menu Plan for a Month at a Time

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Hives in the Eggs Section

As a family that cooks almost everything from scratch you can imagine how many eggs we go through a week. Three dozen. When the price of groceries started to go through the roof you can probably visualize my breaking out into hives standing in front of the eggs section looking at the soaring prices. As I regained control of my body from shock I grabbed three dozen, and these are natural free range eggs, so the pricey ones, squeezed my eyes shut and put them into the cart. I didn't look at them for the rest of the shopping trip - even when I checked out.

I decided that there must be an alternative. Aside from obtaining a flock of 50 hens myself I had remembered seeing a sign for "2.00 natural eggs" at the farm on one of the back roads to town. I live in a semi-rural area where "town" is about 30 minutes up the road. There are a lot of homes in the country, peppered with a few farms here and there. I stopped in to talk to the lady about her eggs. I wanted to know what she feed them and if they were truly free range or natural. Lo and behold, my friends, they were! This touched off a 45 minute visit where my girls and I got a tour of the farm, the chicken coop, fed the chickens, and read the supplemental seed bag. These eggs are a free range as you can get! They just aren't certified organic. Fine by me. I took two dozen that day. And to think I drove by that sign a million times. $2.00 a dozen for all natural eggs. Better than what I was paying at the store.

I was happy with the story. That was two weeks ago. I shared my story with my husband and did not think about it again. My husband comes home one day and tells me that he told someone the story and they said their parents have chickens, free-range & natural (shut-up!) and they have a surplus they throw away. What?! So Husband now gets two dozen from her - FREE. Yep, free.

The story gets better. So then Husband was working at a new fire station that he got transferred to and relayed the whole story again to someone and this guy he works with says - you guess it - "Hey, I keep chickens on my 12 acres to keep the mosquitos and ticks down. I have a surplus of eggs too. Want 'em?" What?! FREE. Yes, free, people. So Husband is getting two dozen from him a week.

So because I was distraught about eggs and looked for alternatives I now get four dozen all natural, free-range, close to organic eggs for FREE.

Okay what is the moral of this story?

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #6 - When you are not happy with the situation seek out alternatives and tell others about your plight. You never know where help might come from. And it might be free.

Kids Will Not End Up in Therapy Because of Regular Dishes

A friend of mine who has five children was over recently and two of her children ate dinner with us that night. She came to pick them up and noticed that they had salad plates rather than regular dinner plates and commented on how at her house her husband serves her kids on dinner plates and fills the plates up and then they get yelled at for not eating all of their food. That night at our house her kids cleared their plates.

A great money saving tip that we employ having four kids is using smaller plates for mealtimes. If you set the table and use regular adult sized dinner plates chances are you are going to put more on the plate than the child can actually eat, thus creating waste and throwing money out the window. For kids ages 10 and under I recommend using the salad plate to serve them rather than a large dinner plate. Their portions will be smaller. Remember a child's stomach is only expands to the size of their fist. Giving them more portions on a big plate will lead to problems - namely getting yelled at for not eating their food. If they eat everything they can always go back for seconds. This way you are minimizing waste.

Most of you are saying "Yeah, we have those cute little kid plates that I picked up from Target with Barbie on them! I know exactly what you are talking about." Uh no. We do not have any fancy "kid" plates. Kid plates are a frivolous expense and if you are trying to cut down on your money outflow you can't run out and buy kid friendly plates. Use good old fashioned grown-up salad plates for your kids. It's not like you are robbing them from something important in their life and they are going to end up in therapy all because they ate off of regular dishes. Invest in their character and not in things for them.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Car Insurance Loyalty to Customers - Ummm, ma'mam, who are you again?

I've been with Geico for 7 years. 2555 days. I've never had an accident. I have never filed a claim. Even when my child's portable DVD player was stolen out of the back seat I didn't not complain. I'm complaining now however.

They don't care.

They raised my rate. Not just a couple of dollars either. $89.00.

My policy is up for renewal so I call and ask:

"So why is my rate so much higher?"

"Has anything changed ma'am?"


"No teenage drivers?"


"No accidents or claims?"


"Ma'am, I really don't know why your rate has gone up but I see you have all of the discounts and have been with us for seven years so we thank you for that."

"Apparently you guys thanked me by raising my rater."

"Really ma'am that is the best we can do."

On to comparison shopping for car insurance. Even though I would much rather spend my Wednesday morning, oh I don't know, plucking all the hairs our of my head, I spent what was and hour and a half on comparison shopping different companies to give me quotes for a new policy. I gave the same information four times to four differnt companies. They cannot just give you a ball park number. They need your mother's Social Security number and your genetic code is on your 8th chromosome.

I did find a reputable company that I had heard of, and not Joe's Auto Insurance located on Riff Raff Road, that will give me a comparable policy and a great rate. Allstate ended up being the winner here: $411.00 for six months! $121.00 savings! For a hour and a half worth of work. So what's that - $80/hour? Not bad. And all because I did not just accept the shaft from my current insurance company. I spent a little time, granted aggravating and irritating time, but still, the less money out of my pocket for things like insurance is more money towards debt and savings.

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #5: Comparison Shop for Everything

Snowflake Report -$19.49 just deposited $19.49 cents! WooHoo! That is sad. Really. I am overjoyed that $19.49 was deposited in my account. The world is twisted when you can get excited about $19.49 and a hot date with your husband is couponing at Harris Teeter on a Friday Night.

If you are new to saving money and paying off debts and have not heard about the concept of Snowflaking it is something that you want to add to your strategy. It helps, little by little, for you to pay down your debt or sock away money in investments or savings. Paid Twice over at I've Paid For This Twice Already coined the term off of Dave Ramsey's term Debt Snowballing. Paid Twice has now developed sort of a underground movement where people really got on board with the idea that you could actively pay down your debts in small increments in addition to making monthly or bulk payments. It's a great concept and one that I embrace. Thus the excitement about $19.49. You can read Paid Twice's Primer on Snowflaking here.

Okay so on to the $19.49! I sell my textbooks or books that I am trying to get rid of on It is so easy to use and and great way to rid yourself of unwanted books that you have to dust. Actually I guess you could make your kids dust. But look at it another way - that is money sitting on your shelf that you have to dust. Would you rather put that money towards your debt or dust it?

Selling books on that site is a great way to earn snowflakes. Once your item sells they notify you, you ship the item and then the make a deposit twice a month into your account. It's that easy! I've never made a huge amount except for the first time I got started where I sold a bunch of my current graduate school textbooks for $87.00. Still, $87.00 more than I had. And I put that into savings rather than having to dust it on the shelf.

Snowflake Report:

$19.49 goes into the orthodontist envelope sitting in my desk. In the envelope I keep miscellaneous amounts of money that I gather as extra to pay down the ortho bill.

The balance is $1763.00 for the ortho bill.

$332.00 Last payment from pool we sold
3.00 Change jar
$1408.51 Balance

Not bad.

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #4 - Snowflake

Personal Finance Books = Peanut Butter Cups

My name is ChouChou and I'm addicted to self-help finance books. Well that and peanut butter cups. Both provide such a sense of pure and instant gratification as I devour them. Both cost me money. Both leave me with a sense of feeling "full" after I am finished. I love them both. Tremendously. A lot.

I have just finished reading "The Five Lessons a Millionaire are Taught Me." This was an easy read. Straight forward and to the point. Just like peanut butter cups. I have a hard time weeding through complicated books on personal finance. Just tell me bluntly flat out what I need to do. The chocolate is on the outside, the peanut butter on the inside - clear, concise. Love it.

The book is broken into five lessons, thus the title. And all of the lessons are not anything new that we did not know before. But that's okay. Doesn't matter if I know it or have heard in the past the content because once I read it again it gets me motivated.

If we're honest, most of the things in these books really are rudimentary concepts that are common sense and easy to apply. However, because people like me with a household to manage, kids to home school, and a myriad of other things, I need a handbook where the information is compiled in one spot. If others want to do the work by all means let them. Face it - we're busy people and you can only pack so much into your brain. Having the information in other places helps.

So part of your overall strategy to live on less and pay down debt should include personal finance self help books. Why? Because the information is in one place. Because these people spend more time researching the very topics you need to know about, might even be experts in the subject, so you want good, clear consice information. Because you want to stay motivated. After I read a good personal finance book and am even more motivated about saving and immediately want to do some of the techniques that I have learned or "forgot" about. It keeps all of the information in front of me so that I can make sure that I am doing all that I possibly can to be an active participant in debt reduction and living lightly on the planet.

And somehow in the grand scheme of things, peanut butter cups do that too.

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #3: Read Self Help Personal Finance Books.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The neighbors think we sell crack out of the garage

Actual conversation:

"So, you stay a home?"
"And your husband is a firefighter?"
"Wow, how do you do it? You live in a nice house and drive an SUV. What, are you guys doing - selling crack out of the garage or something?"
"Excuse me?"

When people hear that we are not a dual income family - okay, not the norm, but not a big deal. When they see other aspects of our lives an eyebrow tends to go up. Maybe two. People tend to have this idea that if you are living on one income, especially a fire fighter's income, that you are poor, maybe cannot have some of the finer things in life, and surely should not have things that would define a dual income lifestyle. I think people just naturally assume that if you aren't making much money you can't really be living the good life.
This isn't true my friends.

It is all about choices. Do you want to eat a dinner that you will be paying for three years from now and not even recall what you had or do you want to be able to say "Hey, let's take a little out of the vacation fund and go to Washington D.C. this weekend for some fun." Do you choose to have a brand new top of the line car so you can impress people at the stoplight or would you rather have a nice emergency fund in case you have a need for quick cash?

For us it is simple - we look at it as do we choose the family or do we choose "X"? Sure it would be nice to have a nicer car but that would mean that Husband would have to work more or I would have to go to work, thus compromising our personal commitment to putting our family first. (Disclaimer here: this is just the choice for our family - by no means am I saying that if you are working that you are compromising your family.) For our family, we want them to have a parent in the home full time. Those are our beliefs and those are our choices that trump everything else.

So start to look at things as a choice and find something to compare it to. Do you choose the new red shirt or do you choose to have extra money so your kid can take soccer lessons?
It is all about choice. And you don't have to sell crack out of your garage. where's the debt in this budget?

We do not have any credit card debt. We do not have any car payments - we drive second hand vehicles. I have been imprisoned by that monster one too many times in my life so we make sure that we do not carry balances.

We do however, have student loan debts to the tune of 33,000. Well, not "we" - me - I do, because I decided I was going back to graduate school. How I managed that in a year and a half is mind boggling. We do have other debts - the orthodontist bill - down to $1700.00 right now from $3000.00 (all from snowflaking which I will share with you later) - and we have three other children that will be needing braces all within the next few years. We do have a mortgage but I will not consider this a part of my debt reduction until everything is paid off. Since I am currently in school I do not have to pay the student loans as I am in the grace period currently, but having that hanging over me makes me lose sleep at night. Just the very thought of having a monthly payment equivalent to a car payment or some mortgages makes me shudder. I need to pay it down now while I am in school.

We do have savings accounts, 2 Roth IRAs, Husband's 401K, Money market - all vehicles for saving money that we put into place recently to make sure that we were saving money while we embark on this. Since I have the looming braces freak show upon me in three consecutive years for three kids in a row I want to budget and pay for those out of pocket rather than financing like I had to do this time.

You could say that we might be in better financial shape than some - I mean, we have no car payments, we have no credit card debt, we have savings - that isn't bad. But we weren't always in that position.

And we still have a long way to go. Being debt free is being debt free.

Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #2: Know what and who you owe.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

$ on earth?

Yep, I thought that too as I stared at our income versus our bills. I considered jumping off the roof to an untimely death at one point but then came to my senses. After pulling my hair out I crunched all the numbers and came up with a budget. I have never had a budget before, never had to, so I have revised that thing like weekly, probably a million times by this point, but I now had a working plan. That was our first step. Take an honest look at the reality we were facing. After getting up off the floor we decided that we knew two things for sure:

1.) I did not want to work anymore. I sold the company so I could spend more time with the kids. I did work from a home office so I wasn't technically "away" but I did not want to spend time "working" on things that were not related to the family.

2.) We knew that we did not want Husband to work more than 11 days per month. He left a high paying position with a major company so that he could not work 50 hour weeks and just work 11 days per month. When I was still working we made that conscious desicion so he could be home more. We knew we did not want him to have to find other employment or get a second job.

Since we were both in agreement on these two things, which is most important, we set to the task of figuring out how to get to this goal.
Hence the dreaded current budget:

Husband is paid twice a month:

1st - 1200.00

776.17 mortgage
100.00 groceries
135.00 power
30.00 cable
50.00 gas
60.00 tithe

What's left: $48.83

2nd - $1200.00

776.17 mortgage
100.00 groceries
59.00 life insurance
30.00 telephone
120.00 tithe
50.00 gas

What's left: $64.83

$113.66 - are you serious?

There it was. But okay. We were in the black. Not by much but were there. Now the challenge was to figure out why we were spending upwards of $4000.00/month. This is our current working budget. We used to have things like a cable bill that was $75.00/month, or a cell bill that was $80.00 but we felt that we were trading these things for time we would have to work so we chose the children instead. We used to have an $800-1000 grocery bill. As you can see I have whittled that down to around $200.00 per month. All of these items reflect our fixed expeses.

It can be done and I am going to tell you how we did it.

But the first step to get where you are going is to know where you have been. Put together a budget and face the reality at hand.
Debt and/or Savings Strategy Step #1: Make a Budget


I should have done this a long time ago. I mean really, a loooonggg time ago. I spend so much time on the web, learning about personal finance, peeking into other people's lives through their blogs, that is just makes sense that I do it too. So how did I get here? November 2006 I sold my company for a profit to become a stay at home mom and return to graduate school. We were debt free except for our mortgage and somehow, some way, I have managed to incur $35,000 in school loans, a personal loan, an orthodontic treatment loan, and still have a mortgage. Part of the problem was that I was still living at the same level that we were when I was working. Being a dual income family meant there was lots of disposable income. Our bills were based on my husband's salary so the several thousand I made was really play money. Once that was gone things should have changed but they didn't. Sure I got a lump sum for the company but that went to savings which I cannot touch. So I just spent whatever, whenever, living like I did before we went down to one income. Not a smart move.
Cut to March 2008. The reality of our liquid savings going down and my credit card use going up hits me like a ton of bricks a few months ago. In the last few months I have become something of a personal finance guru. I can budget like no one's business now (I've never had a budget before). I can snowflake with the best of them. I have increased our savings and developed multiple ways to increase our income all the while living on less than $2400.00 (take home) per month. That includes the $1500.00 mortgage payment. Yes, we live on $900.00/month and we can still put away money in savings. Yes, we have four kids. Yes, we eat mostly organic. Yes, we have three cars.
So join me as I share tips, ideas, creative loopholes, and other unbelievable ways to cut your spending and increase your savings at the same time. this is how we do it....