Taking control of your finances

I few months ago, I did Financial Peace University with Dave Ramsey through my church. As a former single mom, I thought I knew pretty much everything I could about stretching my dollar. And I had a good start, but I was far from knowing everything (and I still have a lot of new-to-me ideas to hone in on).

My husband and I took this course at the urging of several friends and my own sister. When my parents decided they wanted to take it, we decided it was as good a time as any to sign up, just to get everyone off our backs. But it didn’t take long for us to realize we’d just made the best decision we could.

Whether you decide to follow suit and find a FPU course of your own to join (and yes, it’s Christian based. But there are real life habits the course teaches that every person, regardless of faith, should learn), here are the three biggest take-aways I want to share with you about gaining control of your finances.

1. Tell your money where to go. This is also known as the “envelope system.” Every month, I take my paycheck and split it up into categories of where it will be spent. Dave Ramsey suggests going to a cash only system (putting money in pre-labeled envelopes) so you can actually feel yourself spending money. When you use your debit card, it’s easy to be immune to what you’re spending. Actually taking the money out of your wallet and giving it to someone else for a service or product keeps the awareness on how much you are actually spending. Personally, I use a hybrid of using cash and debit. For things like gas and bills, I use my debit card (as even DR does). For things like groceries, our family only uses cash. We have managed to shave $400 off our family’s food budget just by doing this alone! I also plan for large expenses like summer camp, my son’s braces, vacations, birthdays, etc. Each month I set aside a small amount for each item, and over time it builds up.

This first rule is, in my opinion, the most important of all financial decisions you can make. I am never caught with an empty wallet when it comes time to pay the piper, and I’m always prompt with my payments. It’s a really good feeling to be able to give my kids’ summer camp $300 of my hard-earned money and not feel pinched by it because I’d planned for it ahead of time.

2. Cut up your credit cards. I know. You want to build your credit up so you can have a nice credit score so you can buy big things. But how about, instead, saving money to buy those big things? There’s a more in-depth description at FPU detailing how you can even buy cars and houses without credit, but I’m not going to go there. But I will tackle the smaller topic of using a credit card for things like groceries, electronics, gifts, “emergencies”… When you pay off those things you used credit for, you are also paying up to 22% more in interest. That’s such a waste. If you follow the first step of planning out your money’s path, step two will be easier. And if you don’t have the money for something, DON’T BUY IT.

Note on emergencies: We’ve all been there. The car breaks down. The roof has a leak. The kids need new clothes. The dog falls and breaks his leg (true story). FPU’s true first step is to save $1000 and put it away for EMERGENCIES ONLY. In the case of the broken dog, we had to shell out $400 for x-rays (before the $3200 surgery bill….yikes). Thanks to our emergency fund, we were able to pay that first $400 right away.

3. Snowball your debt payments. Gather up all your debt and become clear what you owe on them, and what the minimum payments are. Pay the minimum on each one except the smallest one. On that smallest one, pay the most you can each month until you’ve paid it off. Then apply that amount to the next debt. And so on. With each debt that’s zeroed out, momentum starts to increase. And soon it will actually feel possible to get out from under all that debt.

Further money making/saving ideas:

If you’re in a bind right now, look through your things and see where you can save. Are there areas you can trim in your food budget? Are you paying too much in the entertainment department? Are there things you can live without for the time being (like a data plan on the cell phone, or cable/internet, or…..)? Search your house for things you can sell on Craigslist. Consider taking up an odd job or two for a little while, like cleaning houses or baby/pet sitting.

Do you have some tried and true methods you’ve used to keep your budget low? Share them in the comments!

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8 tips on getting through the un-merry holidays

For many, December is the season for the Christmas Blues – the time of year that becomes the most dreaded instead of the most joyous despite how many songs have the word “merry” in them. That feeling of dread only grows if you’re broke, if you are missing a loved one, if you find yourself suddenly single… If one more person says “merry” to you, you’ll shove that merry up their….mistletoe.

I can’t promise you guaranteed happiness over the holidays. I won’t insult you by making light of your situation by telling you to fake it till you make it. The holidays can be the hardest time of year, mostly because everyone expects you to be happy – or at least pretend to be happy so everyone around you can be comfortable. Let me be the one to give you permission to cross anyone’s name off your gift-giving list if they try to pressure you into feigned happiness.

And then let me give you a few tips on how to get out of your slump on your own terms:

1. Give to others who can’t pay you back. The holiday season is supposed to be about giving and goodwill towards others. Some still abide by this. But for the most part, I think many of this has been lost. It doesn’t even have to be big. Buy a box of hand-warmers and pass them out to the homeless. Go a step further and give them a blanket too. Donate your time at a soup kitchen. Take a few hearts off the Secret Santa tree. Go to the Volunteer Center and see where they can use your help. If you personally know of a family who is struggling, lighten their burden with a bag of groceries, help with cleaning, or offer them free babysitting. Small things add up to big things, and smiles are contagious. Trust me, the love you give results in a warmed heart, and soon it becomes easy to forget who’s getting the better deal out of your generosity.

2. Refuse to overspend. Set a realistic budget, and then stick to it. Vow to keep the credit cards sheathed, and just use the cash you have. Don’t have much? Get creative. Check out Pinterest for a few ultra cute ideas. Give the gift of service instead of a wrapped gift. Bake your present. Write a poem and frame it. Write a nice letter. But don’t give so much in December that you’re hurting in January. No one wants that for you.

3. Exercise! I know, I know. It’s cold outside. The mornings and nights are too dark. That holiday pie is weighing you down. There’s too much to do. And did I mention it’s cold outside? Yes. Whine about all your excuses. Get it all out there. And then put on your walking shoes and take a walk around the neighborhood. Grab a few friends and do it every day. Do whatever you can to get your body moving. It’s hard at first, really hard. But if you stick to it, soon it will become your favorite part of your day. And then, you’ll feel restless if you don’t exercise. And then….you may even feel (cringe) happy.

4. Get your Vitamin D. The days are shorter, meaning that it’s dark when you go into the office, and dark when you leave. But Vitamin D is the happy vitamin, and so important to keep you out of the doldrums. My first suggestion to you is to make sure you take at least 20 minutes in your day to sit outside in the sunshine (when it’s not raining or cloudy). But my second suggestion is to make sure you’re taking a Vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter months. The recommended dosage is 600 IU for anyone under 70 years old, and 800 IU for anyone 71 and older.

5. Keep organized. It’s easy to feel like there’s no time in your day if you’re not sure how you’re spending it. But if you create a schedule and try to keep to it, you’ll be surprised at how much you can get done in a day. Same goes for how much money you’ll find when you stick to a budget, and how much sanity you’ll have left if you keep your house clean. Do your best this month to keep all areas of your life contained, and you may even develop a new habit for the new year.

6. Don’t over-budget your time. Be realistic, you can only do so much in one day. So don’t create some crazy schedule that will only make you feel like a failure when it collapses in your lap. Instead, put a star next to two or three things you have to get done today. Then, if you finish those and still have time, you can get a jump-start on a few things on tomorrow’s list as well.

7. Allow yourself time to be sad. Let’s face it, sadness happens – and that’s okay. It’s a necessary emotion that everyone must feel sometime or another. Own it. Spend a day in it. Truly feel it. Don’t mask it with electronics, or hide it behind a smile. You are sad. And the only way to get past being sad is to give yourself permission to be sad.

8. Ask for help. If you can’t get past the sadness, there is no shame in seeking out a professional’s assistance in lifting you out of that deep hole of depression. If that’s too scary for you, talk with a trusted friend and let them make that call for you. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be so incredibly sad that everything tastes bland, every day is on repeat, life has no purpose, and the sunshine just can’t reach you. And I know that when it gets to the point, the hardest thing to do is ask for help. Be brave, and ask for it anyway. It’s the best gift you can give to yourself, as well as to those who love you.

Stocking stuffer ideas for tweens & teens

When it comes to Christmas, the catalogs and store shelves are filled with fun ideas for the younger crowd. But what about when kids get older? Toys are generally not as exciting, and the gift options become fewer and more expensive. This doesn’t exactly make it easy for Santa’s helpers to know what to put in a teen’s stocking…

In our house, stockings are just as exciting as the bigger gifts – even in the teenage years. But what the kids don’t realize is that I struggle with what to fill them with every year! So this year I enlisted the help of a few Facebook friends, and together we came up with this list of items that teens and tweens might love.

P.S. Feel free to add to this list in the comments!

Stocking stuffer ideas for tweens & teens:
– Silly socks
– nail polish or lip gloss
– candy, gum, mints, etc.
– retro toy from Cost Plus
– magazine
– book
– DVD
– earrings, bangles, etc.
– pen and journal
– lotions and bath soaps
– travel games
– card games
– cell phone accessories
– earbuds

Gift card ideas
– gas
– coffee
– smoothies
– fast food
– movies
– restaurant
– clothing

IOU ideas
– night out sans siblings
– night with later curfew
– night off from chores
– activity of their choice

Even pretend weapons can be dangerous

I have a 12-year-old son who is a 7th grader this year. Like most 7th grade boys, my son’s actions don’t necessarily involve a lot of thought. Just this week alone, he decided that buying and consuming a Monster energy drink right before bed was a good idea, skipping his chores and lying about them being done was perfectly acceptable, yelling at his stepdad would have no repercussions, and leaving the house and not coming back until after 8 p.m. (with no cell phone or note) was okay.

And in the past month or so, he has also pointed his fingers at other cars while I’ve been driving, pretending to shoot at them.

replica gunYesterday, our county was rocked by the news that a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed by the police in a southwest Santa Rosa neighborhood. The first reports spoke of a man carrying assault weapons who was shot down. But the developing story evolved, and it became clear that no would-be murderer was killed – it was just a boy, carrying “toy” guns, or rather, replicas of real guns.

I can’t comment on who is at fault in this situation. There just isn’t enough information yet about what went down in the time when this kid was spotted, and when he was fired upon. But I do know that nerves are rattled at the recent news of a boy the same age who brought a gun to his Nevada school, injuring two students and killing a teacher before turning the gun on himself. I know that there are news stories all over the nation of kids who are capable of heinous crimes. And I know that a boy around the age of 13 would think nothing of carrying around a toy gun that looked exactly like the real thing – because they’d WANT it to look like the real thing.

This morning, I sat down with my son and told him about this 13-year-old boy’s death and his family’s tragedy. I took the opportunity to discuss how there is nothing funny about pretend violence – how it can actually lead to something tragic like this. And I laid out some firm guidelines for him:

– Never go out in public carrying anything that might look like a real weapon. Nerf guns are one thing – their bright colors and odd shape makes them apparent they’re just a toy. But anything that is supposed to look real can be mistaken for the real thing, and could get you injured or killed.

– Never point your fingers at anyone else to look like a gun. You don’t know who you’re pointing at, and it could have the real thing pointed back at you in return.

– Always, ALWAYS respect the law and those employed to enforce it.

This boy’s death is a tragedy for his family, and for our community. There are no words to describe the sorrow I feel for everyone involved in this devastating event. Yes, there was a time when a kid wouldn’t get shot for carrying something that is only meant to look like a weapon. But times have changed. Even “just playing around” can be deemed unsafe.

I urge all parents to take a moment and speak with your kids about the importance of weapon safety – even if that “weapon” is just pretend.

Helping with the middle school transition

School has been in for about 4 weeks now, and the reality of middle school is finally hitting the fan for my 7th grade son. With 6 classes and homework assigned in each, my organization-challenged son has been fumbling a bit with the amount of work he still has to do once the school bell has rang. Last week was especially hard for him since he was sick on Monday, and then tried to play catch-up all week long.

Friday morning he came to me in tears because his homework wasn’t done for his hardest class. Of course, he’d had plenty of time the day before to use up his videogame time and play with his friends in the evening. And when asked if his work was finished, he swore that it was. Obviously that wasn’t true.

Looks like we’re in for a few changes in our household.

I’ve had to come up with a new plan to hopefully encourage success this 7th grade year, and maybe help him take on a few better habits before the year is up. To help out other parents of struggling middle schoolers, here are a few things I’ve incorporated to help him gain control over his school work.

Get them a daily planner.
Most schools now require these. If not, get one for your child anyway. Have them write down their homework DAILY, and then check it every day to make sure their homework is done. If necessary, ask each teacher to partner with you on this to ensure your child knows their homework assignments. After all, your child’s teachers want your child to succeed.

Write down your expectations.
Your child is 12 or older. They’re not little kids anymore. However, some kids this age are going through such information overload, they can’t keep two thoughts straight. Create a checklist of what you expect them to do so they won’t forget. If it’s an unchanging list, you can even laminate it. Trust me, many kids will actually appreciate this.

No electronics until work is done.
That means no TV, no computer, no videogames, no phone…no nothing. If they need to use the internet for their homework, have them do it in a common room (if possible) and stay close enough that you can check to make sure it’s actually homework and not social media they’re working on.

Enforce appropriate restrictions.
If your child isn’t capable of pulling a B in his class because the work is too hard, don’t punish him. However, if your child’s grade is affected by not turning in homework, by all means, start taking privileges away! And be firm – don’t give them back until progress is made. Nothing works like a little incentive.

Limit after-school activities.
I’m sorry to all you sports families out there (we’re one of them, too), but if your child is struggling to get their homework done, then they may need to take a pass on Fall Ball or soccer. It seems ridiculous to be challenging your kid in sports, dance class, or any other extra activities if their school work is suffering.

Be available.
School is hard. Junior high is hard! I look at my kid’s homework, and I am grateful I don’t have to go to school anymore. But they do – and they need your help. You might not know everything they’re learning (which is a humbling realization), but you can at least be there for moral support, and to guide them in how to figure out the answer. Who knows, you might remember a thing or two from your Jr. High Algrebra class…

What are some ways you help your kid be successful in school?

Hacking your kids’ online accounts

A friend of mine wrote recently about an incident in her childhood that left a bad taste in her mouth. Her father had set her up on a private computer, telling her she could write about anything she wanted to without worry of anyone seeing anything. What he didn’t tell her was that he’d mirrored her computer on his own, allowing him to see EVERYTHING she was writing. She only discovered this when writing about personal feelings, and her father came to talk with her about it.

What this dad did, in my opinion, was commit a gross violation of his daughter’s trust. He led his daughter to believe she could be her most candid. And then he took advantage of that. His actions had the danger of affecting his daughter’s feelings about trust for life. (You can read her post HERE.)

But even after saying all that, I do believe a parent has the right to check their children’s online activity. In fact, I think it’s mandatory!

My kids are now 15 and 12. Several years ago when I first allowed them to go online, I let them know that I was to have access to all their passwords and would be checking on them from time to time. This included email and Facebook. I let them know right up front that their activity online was not private from me. This did two things – it forced them to make sure their online activity was at a standard their mom could live with, and it gave me the guiltless permission to check their online business.

This proved vital last year when my daughter got into a relationship with a guy who just wasn’t trustworthy. She became ultra sneaky, and I really questioned what was going on. My daughter had since changed all her passwords, but had a habit of leaving herself logged into my computer (perhaps on purpose…). The messages I saw between the two of them proved to be far beyond what a healthy conversation should be. And I confronted her.

The result? She was furious, of course. She felt betrayed, of course. But soon we were able to talk it out and come to some understandings.

Since then, we have a much more open relationship. I have made it safe for her to share with me what she needs. She has stopped being so secretive. I have no need to hack into anything of hers – though I’m sure she knows I will if I feel it’s necessary.

I feel like things would have been much different had I not been able to peek into what she thought was private.

So yes, I think parents should monitor their kids’ online activity. But they should also respect their child while doing so. It should be divulged upfront that the parent can and will access personal online data if the need arises. And things like private writings in a personal document must always be respected as PRIVATE (unless their are questions about the child’s safety).

What’s your opinion? Should parents “hack” into their kids’ accounts online?

The one where I’m unable to accept HELP.

My husband and I take part in a cooking team that makes meals for the Sunday service at our church. We only do it once a month, and it’s admittedly a lot of fun. But it’s also 4+ hours of hard work prepping, cooking, cleaning, setting up, serving, tearing down, cleaning more… You get the picture.

Our team consists of four members with random help on the side. But mostly, our group of four is responsible for seeing things through. We each took on a job to get the meal – nachos – done. I decided to take on the cheese sauce. And since I would be at the stove anyway, I’d take on browning the turkey too.

More than once, I was asked if I needed help. And every time I insisted I was fine. I was determined to get it done, to prove I could do it all.

I set about the kitchen, running back and forth to get the meat into the pan while the butter melted for the cheese sauce. I got the rue going, and then began adding milk. Then I rushed back to the meat to make sure it wasn’t burning. I finished adding the milk to the rue and stirred it.

And then I smelled it. Burnt.

Thing is, if I had asked for help, none of that would have happened. I had to bite back my pride and admit that the sauce was ruined. There was no more butter, so one of the guys had to go to the store to get some more. And when he came back, I asked him if he could be in charge of the sauce while I focused on the meat.

The story would be fine ending there. But it doesn’t.

After handing off the cheese sauce, my only job was to stir the two pans of meat in front of me. I could handle this, I got this. My pride was terribly wounded from the cheese sauce fiasco, but I was determined to get the meat cooking right. So when one of the girls came up to see if I could use some help, I told her NO. She started stirring one of the pans anyway.

“But this is my job,” I protested, as if I were a 5 year old guarding my mountain of blocks.

“But my job is done,” she cheerfully replied. So we stood together, all three of us surrounding this stove to finish cooking everything up.  At first I was terribly bothered. It was too crowded. And she was probably stepping in so I couldn’t screw this up too. I felt tied up in knots inside. But then, I decided to let it go. I took a deep breath and let it out. And then we all chatted the rest of the time. It was actually fun.

The meal was done, and we set it out to serve it. I stayed with the turkey while my husband poured the cheese sauce. The other guy offered to take over for me so I could eat, but I told him I was fine. When the line dispersed, I got my own plate. Then I served the stragglers in between bites.

Once everyone had eaten, it was time to start bagging things up. We all started putting things away. The cheese sauce had a ton leftover, so I started pouring it in bags so people could take some home. It was a messy job, and by the fifth bag I was beginning to wonder if it would ever be over.

“Here, I’ll hold this for you,” the girl said to me.

“I got it,” I said.

This time she didn’t fight me. And I saw myself in her eyes as she gave up and walked away.

grumpy girlI was selfish. I was unfriendly. I was a snob. I couldn’t find it in me to step down off my pedestal and accept that I NEEDED HELP.

What is wrong with me? I hate that I do this! The truth is, I can always use some help! I can’t do it on my own! And there’s nothing wrong with working together to get things done.

It might just be my single-mother syndrome. I spent all those years actually doing things on my own, and taking pride in that. Before that, I hadn’t been able to do anything on my own at all. I depended on everyone. But when I got on my feet and was able to provide for my kids without a husband, without my parents, without state money…it just felt good.

But now? Now I’ve got this chip in my shoulder that has me believing that accepting help is a sign of weakness, when it’s totally the opposite of that. There are strength in numbers. And we are here on this planet to build each other up.

I didn’t like that person I was on Sunday. I’m embarrassed at the way I acted. But maybe it needed to happen to drive the lesson home that it’s okay to receive help. We can all use help. It gets things done faster, and it builds connections.

I think this is going to be a hard lesson to forget.

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Giving the kids something to talk about in therapy.