Category Archives: Spend Less

Money in the Bank

Last week I had a conversation with a coworker about how many of my other coworkers eat out every lunch. He said that it was something that he, as a husband and a father, just couldn’t afford to do. I replied that I didn’t feel I could afford it either, even with only having myself to support.

His response, “So you have money in the bank.”

I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but that’s exactly what not eating out meals has afforded me. When I was younger, I used to be just like my coworkers, eating out most meals. Sure, they weren’t anything fancy, but $5-15 each meal adds up very fast. Not to mention the types of food I was eating added to the 112 pounds that I’ve been diligently working to get back off me these last few months.

So instead of all those delicious, convenient meals, I have “money in the bank”. I am still eating pretty tasty fare that is as convenient as sticking today’s previously-homemade meal in the microwave for two minutes.

This conversation made me realize I needed to re-calculate my net worth. Sure enough, for the first time in my adult life, my net worth is larger than my annual income:

Ronnica's Net Worth

It’s excited to see that number grow as I continue to squirrel away money towards a future home purchase and even more long-term, for retirement. I still feel like I’m playing catch-up a bit from the time I spent in my 20s spending every dollar I made, but slowly the numbers are starting to work in my favor. That’s only going to continue to be the case as my money starts working for me, too. As Chris Hogan says, “Interest paid is a penalty; interest earned is a reward.”

The Art of the Staycation

A highlight of our recent staycation was the zoo!
A highlight of our recent staycation was the zoo!

It was spring break for Bean recently.  After some tears upon realizing she would not be in school for a full week and a half (parent-teacher conferences were a couple of days before the break), she inquired what her classmates and beloved teacher were doing.

I happened to know:  they were going on vacations.

And not just any old vacation–some of these trips were quite exotic.  I should not have been a bit surprised when the first question out of her mouth was this:

“Well…where are we going on vacation?”

I had to break the news to her that not many people are able to take vacations over spring break; perhaps someday we will be able to, but Daddy’s work and the family budget mean that we cannot go on vacation. But I emphasized that didn’t mean we couldn’t have fun.

And boy, did we have fun.  That’s one of the perks of having a staycation in a major metropolitan area–we had lots of fun opportunities available to us, including the aquarium, the children’s museum, the zoo, and grandparents coming to visit for a couple of days.  The days blew by.

Here are a few generic staycation tips–may they work for you, too!

1.  Plan.  Just because you are staying close to home doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan.  Quite the contrary–you may need to purchase tickets for certain attractions, you don’t want to over- or under-plan, and of course, without planning, you cannot…

2.  Budget.  Staycations defeat their primary purchase of saving money if you don’t set aside a certain amount to use.  For our four main activities, we budgeted a total of $200.  Not bad, especially considering where we went, and compared to a typical vacation for a family of four for the same length of time. (Hint:  Coupons helped!)

3.  Meals at home (when possible).  Along the same lines as budgeting, try to eat in as much as possible.  A meal out for a family of four can exceed $30 or more in this area, and that adds up if eating out for all three meals a day.  It may not be as much fun, but limiting your eating out to just a couple special meals can make a difference in the bottom line.

Got any staycation tips?  Please share them with me!  With summer vacation coming up, I’m eager to get a start on planning some fun family activities.

Amanda’s Buy Little Month Wrap-Up, January 2016

unnamed (13)January was “Buy Little Month” in our house.  Ronnica sang the praises of intentionally minimizing purchases, so I figured…why not try it?

We did not keep records as meticulously as she did, instead opting to track expenses as we would ordinarily.  Rather, our thought processes were what we took note of more than anything.  “Is this a need or a want?” is something that crossed my mind whenever potential purchases came up.  (I think this is how Riley thinks on a regular basis, Buy Little Month or not, so this month really benefited me more than anyone in that regard!)

That said, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that not much changed in how things went–we didn’t save a great deal of money (although if one considers what has been saved via the new grocery shopping method alone, we did pocket an extra couple hundred dollars).  It turns out, one of our financial strengths is that we tend to be pretty intentional and thoughtful when it comes to purchases.

What I did appreciate about our Buy Little Month exercise was the fact that it was good to refocus on our financial goals at the beginning of the new year.  I don’t know that this is something we will actually sign on to do again, but making sure we continue to stay on the same page as a couple is always a good practice.

Be sure to come back on Thursday to read about Ronnica’s Buy Little Month experience!

Groceries Update

My trusty grocery sacks.
My trusty grocery sacks.

As has been mentioned here on more than one occasion, groceries are one area of our budget that we have a good amount of control over.  As the primary grocery shopper in the family, I am always on the lookout for new ways to cut costs but still keep some semblance of nutritional value.

To that end, I wanted to give you a little update on two modifications to my grocery shopping habits–while one has worked remarkably well, I am still on the fence about the other.

First up: being more flexible with how often I go shopping.  For the longest time (we’re talking years), I stayed true to grocery shopping every two weeks.  Any longer than that and we ran out of fresh produce and dairy, and any shorter than that was a scheduling inconvenience.

These bananas fell victim to my "old" way of shopping.
These bananas fell victim to my “old” way of shopping.

For the last couple of months however, I have only gone when I needed to.  Sometimes that’s once a week, and sometimes that’s longer than three weeks.  I make it a point not to go for one tiny thing, and still continue to go by the grocery list. But if we need, say, diapers and milk, I won’t hold out–I go out and get what we need, plus whatever is on the list at that point in time.

What I’ve discovered with this modification is that I wind up spending less because I’m not as focused on stocking up on things we don’t need for the immediate future.  We also waste a lot less because I’m not as determined to stretch the food for longer periods of time (which meant that produce often went bad before we used it).  The verdict:  I think I may keep doing this…it’s working well for us.

Also, we have paid for some groceries using cash.  A quick search for how to save money on groceries will invariably point you to the cash-only route.  While I love how this method forces me to stick tightly to the list and all but eliminates impulse purchases, I find that I am a bundle of nerves when it comes to checking out, because I am fearful that my cost estimates are off and I won’t have the right amount of cash on me.

If we decide to continue this grocery shopping modification, I am going to have to continue to carry my debit card on me, just in case.  This will be especially critical with larger purchases, at least until I become more confident in my math skills!

So once again, I am reminded that flexibility is a key trait to exercise, especially where groceries are concerned.  How do you stick to your grocery budget?

Child Christmas Gifts for $6 Each

Every year one of the presents I give my niece is nephew is my reading them a book, recorded on CD. I’ve been reading Chronicles of Narnia for my niece, and Roald Dahl books for my nephew.

This year I decided to supplement those gifts with another homemade gift: personalized “Find Its.” This is the finished product:

Homemade Find Its

I used a couple of sites for information and inspiration: for the Find It and for dying rice. I’ve included the steps I used and my observations below.

1. Find and prepare a clear, plastic container. I used peanut jars, and removed the sticky residue after I removed their labels by rubbing them down with oil, then dish soap.

2. Gather the items to include. I was all about using existing material, but I really didn’t have enough small items that would be fun for almost-4-year-old Bean and 2-year-old Peanut. I asked my friends with kids to supplement the items, which they did very helpfully.

The smaller the item, the better. I initially had a few larger items (2″ or so) in them, but it kept everything else from being able to move around.

Here’s what I included:

Find It itemsFind It objectsThe only thing I bought was the foam letters.

3. Dye the rice. The rice will take a day or two to dry, so make sure you give yourself enough time. I included 10-20 drops of food coloring with a few tablespoons of vinegar, then mixed it in yogurt containers with the rice. I didn’t like the color of the purple, so I ended up replacing that rice with rice I dyed yellow.

Dyed rice in yogurt containers

To help them dry, I spread the rice out on paper plates.

dyed rice drying

4. Take a picture of the objects you’re including, if desired. I’m printing out the above pictures and laminating them.

5. Once the rice is fully dry and you’ve taken a picture of your items, combine the rice and items in your container. I used 2 different colors of rice in each container. It mixes together as shown above very quickly.

6. Super glue or hot glue the lid onto the container, so that nothing escapes.

For this project I spent:

$7.98 on rice and peanuts (I’m saving the peanuts for future trail mix, and just used the containers)
$1.52 on printing and laminating the pictures
$1.93 on foam letters
$11.46 total

At $5.73 a Find It, that’s 1/3 the price they would be at Walmart, plus you can personalize them to the kid’s interests.

Amanda’s Christmas Secret

69681668-3243-45d2-8de0-15cd197bc0dfI have a secret to share with you.

I went into this holiday season without a set budget for Christmas gifts.

So now that the big secret is out, let me explain.

I’m not proud of this tidbit.  Initially, I had a budget lined up (if little else), but that was before the recipient list widened considerably.

Due to many factors, there wound up being seventeen people on our Christmas list this year, and three December birthdays to plan for.  That is a whole lot of dough to spend, particularly if one is an “average” American.  Let’s just say we didn’t have several hundred dollars at our disposal.  (In that respect, I suppose our budget was, “As cheap as possible.”)

I briefly considered going the craft/homemade gift route, but realized I did not have the time necessary to create a thoughtful and creative gift.  Instead I opted to do one of four things for each recipient on our list.

We had family pictures taken and ordered prints. With a coupon coupled with an amazing online sale, this turned out to be a really great idea.  The recipients of this gift (grandparents, etc.) are always appreciative of a personal gift…especially where our kiddos are involved. Bonus:  we got family pictures for ourselves as well, which were long overdue.

We gave a donation.  Using points sites, we were able to give charitable donations in the gift recipient’s honor.  Bonus:  it made us feel like we were contributing to something greater than ourselves.

We gave an experience.  Nothing says “Happy Birthday” like taking someone out to eat at a favorite restaurant.  Bonus:  the restaurant is a favorite of all in attendance!

We gave gift cards and cookies, or traditional gifts.  Although these were among the more expensive gifts on our list, for these recipients, gift cards were preferred gifts, and the cookies added a personal touch, as well as something to “unwrap.” We were able to choose our denomination for the gift cards, which helped keep costs down.

Our kids (and Riley) are the primary recipients of the traditional gifts.  To keep things simple, I adhered to the, “Something you want, something to read, something to wear, and something you need” gift-giving philosophy, so each kiddo is getting just four small gifts from us.  Bonus:  We get to see their little faces light up when they see their gifts. (Although they are very easy to please.  Peanut, for example, would be thrilled with just the wrapping paper.)

Each recipient has either already received their gift, or knows of it, or (as in the case of our kids) can’t read yet, so this post should not spoil anyone’s surprises. But I do want to share one more thing.

We spent around $250 total.

While certainly far below the national average, that is still a lot of money to spend in the span of just a few weeks, and I blame going into it without a Christmas budget.  Note:  there are a couple of gifts under the tree for me from Riley and the kids, and those are not factored into the total…because I have no idea what was spent (though Riley and I are on the same page as far as family finances are concerned, so I doubt it is a huge sum!).

Bonus:  now we know just how important budgeting is.  And this has also served as a great reminder of the true meaning of the season…and reminded me how important simplifying the holidays is.

Getting Away on a Budget

With a little research, I was able to find the hikes just perfect for me, like this one to Mills Lake.
With a little research, I was able to find the hikes just perfect for me, like this one to Mills Lake.

I’ve made no secret of my goal to spend as little as possible. This hard-fought frugality has allowed me to pay the second half of my student loans in 8 months.

While paying off debt only took me 8 months of hard work, reaching my pre-house savings goal is going to take me closer to 8 years than 8 months.

I will still continue to practice a disciplined budget with my long-term goals in sight, but in the meantime, I’m willing to make a few calculated splurges. One of those I mentioned previously is travel.

To that point, I took my first non-family trip since I moved to Colorado and spent two nights in a cottage near Rocky Mountain National Park.

It felt a little wrong to spend the money, but it was money that I had budgeted for this purpose. I’ve been wanting to take a trip like this for a long time, and it was wonderful to know that I could do so without guilt.

Keys to vacation on a budget:

1. Set aside money monthly toward your vacation goals. For me, I budget $22-159/month for travel (the actual amount depends on the amount I make that month). This averages to be about $90/month.

This cabin was everything I expected based on the reviews I read.
This cabin was everything I expected based on the reviews I read. It even was visited by elk!

2. Decide what matters to you. For me, that meant finding a place close to hiking. Eating out was not an important part of the trip, so I wanted a place with a kitchen so I could cook my own meals. Paying a little more for my cottage meant I could spend less on food and spend more time doing the things I wanted: hiking and reading. If you’re primarily interested about getting away from your daily routine, consider a staycation…only don’t answer your phone or email, or you may not be able to get “away.”

3. Don’t go if you will have to scrimp in areas you’ll be tempted in. If you love to try new food, don’t go if you can only afford to eat McDonald’s. You’ll either be disappointed or splurge, both that will be counterproductive to your revitalization. Delay your trip until you’ve saved enough to do what you really want.

4. Research, research, research. In the age of the Internet, we can all be our own travel agent. Read reviews to determine the best place to stay for you, not just the highest rated place. After all, people may be rating their experience on factors that does not matter to you.

I’m already looking forward to making a similar trip next fall!

Christmas Prep

156362_904223042779_1338120_nI don’t think there has ever been a year where I have waited so long to start planning for Christmas as this one.  (Yes, even a Striving Stewardess procrastinates.)

That is not to say I haven’t determined various aspects of the holidays–the logistics, for example, likely won’t deviate from holidays of the past.  We know where we will be and when.

No, I mean gifts.  Experience-based or not, I have dropped the ball in this arena.  About as far as I have gotten in this is the budget and a few ideas for each person on the list.

I have figured out a common gift for extended family that will serve the four of us as well; now I just need to execute my plan!  The challenge I am running up against is buying for those in my own household:  my husband, two children, and yes, budget permitting, the pets.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas–as noted above, I absolutely do–but the budget is pretty tight this year.  Saving a lot throughout the year was next to impossible for a variety of reasons, so the gift budget is coming in at a pretty small sum; I won’t disclose the amount here (yet), but suffice it to say that it is what most people would spend on one gift for one person…not several gifts for several people.

Stay tuned to see what we wind up doing for gifts.  Experience-based?  Traditional gifts under the tree?  Forgo gifts altogether?  We shall see!

Are you ready for the holiday season?

Eating Out Rules

3773196199_6094c7d815_mAs much as I have come to enjoy cooking healthy, tasty meals for our family, I enjoy a good meal out too.  There are times when we want to celebrate something special, and call for a meal out (and I want to enjoy a night off from cooking).

How do we make that happen on a tight budget?  Here are a few of our eating-out rules:

We only eat out for special occasions.  And we have outlined exactly what those special occasions are (birthdays, anniversaries, recognition at work), so there is no room for debate later on.

We go where the deals are.  See if your favorite restaurants offer birthday coupons, “Kids Eat Free” nights, or deals online.  It’s worth signing up for emails (use a designated email address for this, so as not to clutter up your regular email address) to get a good deal.

Cash has benefits.  Namely, you have a designated amount for eating out, helping to rein in any unnecessary spending.  When the cash is gone, it’s gone.

Consider alternatives.  Craving the pasta dish from your favorite restaurant but its not in the family budget?  Have a hankering for the scrumptious dessert from that bistro down the street but no funds?  Consider checking out options online.  You may be surprised at the number of recipes you can find online (or in cookbooks from the library!) that mirror your favorite dish.  The perk of this is that you control what goes into it, and you will almost always have leftovers for the next time a craving hits.

Bonus Tip:  Order the kids’ meals first.  Before you even look at the menu for yourself, order for the kids at the table.  It generally works best to look at the menu before you arrive at the restaurant so that when your drink order is being taken, you can also place the order for the little people in your midst.  Not only does this help prevent meltdowns from hungry toddlers, but it also helps keep costs down, as you won’t be tempted to order appetizers to appease hungry little tummies while you wait for the main meal.

Your turn!  What are your eating out rules?

Photo by Jim G.

Things I Don’t Splurge On

When it comes to writing, I have a thing for opposites.  You knew that after this post, a post outlining its opposite would be on the way, right?

We do splurge on various things–living the simple life doesn’t have to involve abject poverty and deprivation.  However, what one chooses to splurge on (and not splurge on) requires a careful evaluation of priorities and finances.

Careful evaluation of our family’s priorities and finances have resulted in the following “non-splurges.”  (For some families, these may well be listed as priorities, but remember that each family is different!)

We choose not to splurge on…

unnamed (2)Cosmetics.  Ronnica writes a bit about this topic here.  Admittedly, this is something that tends to affect only myself, although Riley and I have been known to enjoy some cologne/perfume at times (that falls under “cosmetics”, right?).  I have never been a huge fan of the way make-up feels and what it does to my skin, so this isn’t really a sacrifice for me.  Castile soap and deodorant are pretty much the extent of my cosmetic usage.  That said, Bean has developed a huge interest in nail polish…but hey, Christmas is coming!

Clothing.  The vast majority of my clothing comes from thrift stores, with the rest coming from gift cards and saving up as needed.  Riley and the kids also ask for (and, especially in the case of the latter, usually receive) clothes for holidays and birthdays, so we are typically set in this department.  Name brands and the latest fashions are not a priority for us; as long as we are clean and sufficiently clothed, we tend to be pretty content.

Pets.  I suppose this one could be up for debate, as we do splurge on their food.  That said, our dogs don’t have big expensive beds (they sleep on old blankets and pillows on the floor…or the couch!), and except for the occasional rawhide, they don’t have any legitimate dog toys.  They do play with tennis balls, which we seem to have an abundance of in our garage.  They also don’t get have any dog treats, with the exception of a carrot or broccoli piece here and there.  That actually works in their favor–their weight (and health) stays in check without the treat temptation!

What do you not splurge on?