Monday, July 22

Just because it's a good deal doesn't mean you have to buy it.

When you are shopping sales and collecting coupons, it gets really tempting to take advantage of every good deal that comes along. Getting into the habit of buying up every sale item can get very costly though, and can defeat the purpose of shopping sales to stay on budget. Here are some tips I use to help me to keep my sale-spending in check:

  1. Will I Use It?
    Not all sale items are useful, at least not to me. If it isn't a food that we'd normally eat, a product that we'd normally use, or a service that I know we need to take advantage of then I'm not going to buy it. I don't want to end up with a house full of stuff, so I do my best to pass on the impulse buys.
  2. Will It Expire?
    If an item has a short shelf life, I try to decide if I think I will use it before the "Sell By" or expiration date. For example, milk goes on clearance at my grocery store pretty regularly but the sale milk is always only a day or two away from the expiration date. If I've got a dairy-heavy meal plan that week, it's a great deal. But if not, then it's literally pouring money down the drain.
  3. Will It Go On Sale Again?
    Some items go on sale regularly. My store often has clothes, shoes, bakeware and dairy items on sale. Because of this, I know I don't have to grab the deals before they're gone because I know by the time I need to pick up a few things to restock, the sale will have come around again.

Wednesday, July 17

Budgeting 101

Do you use a budget to track your living expenses, spending allowances and savings goals? Budgeting is probably the single most important way to get ahead of your debts and build a financially secure future. So many people and families operate without a budget - although with the financial crisis of our country (it seems the government doesn't know what a budget is sometimes either) keeping track of your money is more trendy than ever.

The hardest part about starting a budget is sitting down and taking a hard look at your bank account. Once you get over the "hump" of financial denial and open your eyes to your spending, building a framework for your finances can be pretty easy.

  1. Step One: Open your last three bank statements and review where your money has been going.
    This can be a scary thing, and if you are a big spender all the lines of transactions may blur together. It may be helpful to get hard-copies of your statements and get four different colored hi-lighters (example: pink, yellow, blue and green). Then highlight the transactions based on what they are so that you can visually categorize how many of each type of transaction you have and start tallying your totals. Your categories might be:
    1. Pink: Living expenses such as mortgage/rent, utilities, groceries.
    2. Yellow: Loan and credit card payments.
    3. Blue: Entertainment, shopping and travel.
    4. Green: Transfers to savings, retirement funds, etc.
  2. Step Two: Make a chart with a total of how much you spend per month on average (using the previous three month's data).
    You will probably be surprised to see how much money is leaving your bank account each month, and where it is going. 
  3. Step Three: Decide which spending habits you want to keep, and which ones you want to change.
    It can be hard to change the way you shop, dine and travel, but once you're informed with where your finances are you CAN make a difference in your financial future. Building a budget doesn't mean you have to stop all the things you enjoy doing. It just means keeping track of the essentials and setting limits on the extras. Plan on big ticket items (home/auto maintenance, travel, gifts and holidays) ahead of time so that when the need arises you have cash to spend instead of needing to charge credit cards. 
  4. Step Four: Make a plan and DO IT.
    The biggest reason that budgets don't work is that the people who need them don't use them. If being on a monthly budget scares you, start off with a weekly budget and just see how it goes. Adjust and refine your budget at the end of the time you've set (never on a day-by-day basis, and never mid-way. If you set a budget for a month, do it for a month; if you set it for a week, do it for a week) until you  find the budget that works for you.
Some budget stories from the front lines:
I've been building budgets since I was a kid, and I've helped lots of friends, family and customers to get their finances in order. Here are just a couple of notes from people I helped, and some simple changes they made to save money.
  • I once prepared a budget for a friend and she discovered that she was spending over $200 a month on her morning coffee! She was struggling to make her credit card payments and discovered that she could make the minimum payment and add extra each month to start paying down her balance if she'd just brew coffee at home and drink the shared office coffee instead of going out to Starbucks every morning and afternoon.
  • I had a customer who wasn't able to pay her mortgage. After a short conversation about her spending habits, it turned out that she was making payments on three new cars. It didn't take long for her to see that if she sold two of the cars (one she had purchased for her teenager to drive and one that was a secondary family car) the difference in her auto insurance and the two loan payments would cover her entire mortgage payment.
  • Another friend of mine spent his paycheck as soon as he got it. A grown man who had never been taught about finances, he would quite literally shop until his debit card was rejected at the checkout stand. By sitting down with his bank statements and showing him exactly how much money he was making after taxes, and showing him how to track his spending (a.k.a. balancing the checkbook) he was finally able to start a savings account for the first time in his life. Within two years he was completely out of debt.

Wednesday, July 10

Couponing: Like Printing Money!

I've tried to coupon a few times in my life, and I used to get frustrated and give up on it. That is... until I got addicted to the show Extreme Couponing and really started doing some research on making coupons pay off big. I've even gotten a couple of friends in on this as a hobby, and we excitedly exchange tales of great deals from across the nation.

I don't coupon to the point that it would be TV worthy, but I have figured out that by buying multiples of things that I normally buy when they are on sale and I have a coupon, I can save 40-80% over time. For example, I haven't had to buy toilet paper since early in April because I was able to get 4 packs of 24 double rolls of our favorite brand of toilet paper for less than $10 each.

Yes, I did spend $40 on toilet paper in one day and that may seem a little crazy. But, I was buying a package of 12 double rolls at around $8 per package. Over time, to purchase the same number of rolls, I would have spent $64 on the same toilet paper! By buying the big packs when they were on sale and pairing the sale with a coupon I had, I was able to save $24.00.

To answer a lot of questions that have come up (and that I had myself) about couponing:

  • I don't buy something just because it's on sale, and I don't clip every coupon I see. I only purchase non-perishable items that I would normally buy in the course of the next 3-6 months OR items that I think I might be able to get for free to donate to local charities.
  • I hold onto coupons until the item goes on sale at a local store. That way I can maximize savings.
  • I try to buy 4 or more of an item when savings are good, and store them until I need them. That way I have enough to hold me over until the next big sale.
  • Yes, managing all those coupons can make your head spin. But there are lots of ways to file and track coupons. A coupon binder divided out into the sections of my local stores does well for me.
  • I survive if my coupons expire. I don't have to throw them away though, I mail them to a military family overseas who can use them for 6-12 months after they expire.
The best advice that I can give you if you want to try couponing is to start small. Start collecting the weekly paper and going through the coupons and ads. Save coupons each week and see how they match up to sales over the course of a couple weeks... then when you think you see a good deal go get it! By starting with just a couple of items at one store you can see how easy it really can be and get motivated to coupon more. 

Wednesday, July 3

Redbook Got Something Right

Somehow we ended up with a free subscription to Redbook. I don't know if it was a gag gift from a friend, or if we got on someone's mailing list who thought it would be an added value for our household. Either way, it isn't a magazine that does much for our family and it's rare that I give it a second glance once I bring it in from the mailbox.

In the July issue though, there is an article called The Challenge: Save More, The Winner: YOU (page 112). There are some really great money saving tips in this article, and if you happen to get Redbook I encourage you to take a look at some of the stories of women who are taking a creative approach to saving money.

For those of you who don't get Redbook, here are some highlights from the article:

  • Set a savings goal each week. The article talks about the "52 week savings challenge". The gist is, pick a sum of money that you plan on saving each week, and then do it. Bank those savings for getting out of debt or keep it for the future.
  • Don't be afraid to buy second-hand. You'd be amazed at the like-new items that are available out there in thrift stores, on craigslist, and on eBay. Buying second hand you can easily save 40-75% on clothes and household items. For example, I recently purchased a Fisher Price Learning Home at a local children's resale shop. This toy which retails on for $94.49 + shipping, was just $38 used and is in great condition. 
  • eBay is your friend. If you're looking for a great way to de-clutter your life but don't have the time to have a classic garage sale, consider putting your items up on eBay. It will still take time to list, pack and ship your items as they sell, but it's all stuff that you can do after-hours from the comfort of your pajamas. The big bonus? A clean house and a full PayPal account.