Saving in the Season of Spending

Photo Credit: Johanna Abzug via Flickr

Photo Credit: Johanna Abzug via Flickr

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the Christmas season sets in after Halloween is over. I’m one of those people who thinks that it is sack-religious to listen to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. So, you can imagine my frustration when the commercials begin to feature Christmas lights, trees and music. But, I have to say that my largest frustration with this season is its eternal encouragement for you to SPEND, SPEND, SPEND not just others but also on yourself. I want to offer an alternative message this Christmas season, instead of focusing on spending why not focus on saving?

First, save money on gifts. I encourage you to make a budget for all of the gifts that you intend to purchase this Christmas season and stick to it. Make your money last by using coupons and checking out sales. Buy or make gifts that matter this Christmas, rather than just buying something for the sake of it. Think about how you can give of your time and not just your money to those you love. Check out this article on frugal gifts!

I absolutely love giving gifts, but we have to make sure, as frugal people, that we are giving for the right reason this season. Are we giving because we love to shop and buy gifts? Are we giving because we want to top someone else’s gift? Or, are we giving because we love and care about people and want to give them something meaningful? Better yet, are we giving in celebration of Christ’s coming? It is not worth spending our money on anything that is less than meaningful this season.

With all of that money that you save by giving frugal, meaningful gifts that fit into your budget, I encourage you to do two things with it: save the day for someone in need and save money for the future. First, save the day for someone in need. Take the time to celebrate the season by giving away some of the money that you would have spent on Christmas gifts. Maybe you choose to buy Christmas gifts for those who can’t afford it. Maybe you choose to give your time to serve Christmas dinner to folks at a shelter. Or, maybe you choose to incorporate giving into some of your Christmas gifts by giving money or items to an organization in honor someone. Check out Oxfam America, Sevenly or ELCA good gifts for some great ideas!

Lastly, save money for the future. It can be SO tempting to spend money on yourself during this season. Begin “acting yourself into a new way of thinking” by intentionally setting aside money that you may have spent shopping and putting it away in your emergency fund, retirement savings or other short term savings fund. This is one of the absolute best gifts that you can give yourself, even $20 can make a difference. For more information about the importance of saving for the future, check out this post.

I challenge you this season to save rather than spend. When you do spend, spend that money on gifts that matter. Check out the Advent Conspiracy for more information on making your Christmas season meaningful.

Join the Conversation: How are you saving this Holiday season?

Fall Budget Challenge: Step One Discover Your Habits

By 401(K) 2012 under CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr

By 401(K) 2012 under CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr

Fall is here and the school year is now in full swing! As you get used to the new school year and the challenges it brings, why not consider how this year will affect your finances? Fall is a great time to set your budget for this year. Whether you have never had a budget or you religiously track each purchase, it is a great to consider or reconsider making a budget that works for this year. This is especially important if you are just starting school, have a new job, new living situation or you want to get a better picture of where you stand financially. Budgeting can help you see how much money you actually have (probably more than you think) and where that money is going (probably more places than you think). This fall join me in the Fall Budget Challenge. Together we will discover our spending habits, align our spending with our values and create a budget that we can maintain, all in just a few weeks!

We begin by discovering our spending habits. Over the next month, you have one task: track your income and your expenses. You may think you know where your money is going, be prepared to be surprised. Over the next few weeks track every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out. This includes everything from bills to paychecks to birthday money to the dollar you used to get a diet coke from the vending machine. Every penny counts. There are a variety of ways that you can do this:

  • Journal Method: Carry around a small notebook or journal and track every purchase you make whether with cash, credit or check. On another page track your income.
  • Excel Method: Instead of using a journal, track all of your income and expenses in an excel spreadsheet. This works best if you set aside some time each week to put in each transaction, if you do it with any less frequency you might forget some of the smaller purchases. This method works best if you keep your receipts from all of your purchases and write down those for which you don’t have a receipt. Microsoft provides a variety of personal budgeting templates.
  • Software Method: If Excel isn’t your thing, but you still want to track your spending on the computer there are a variety of different programs out there, one of the most popular is Quicken. This software will also be helpful later when we create a budget.
  • Online Method: There are a variety of websites that can help you track your income and expenses as well as create a budget. I use Mint.com because it syncs with my bank account, categorizes my transactions and tracks my budgets all in one place. There is also a great app that allows me to track on the go! Again, it is important that you set aside time each week to track your expenses on the site to make sure everything is categorized correctly and all of your cash purchases are included as well. For more information on other personal finance apps, check out this article.

Happy Tracking!

Join the Conversation: What has been your biggest surprise that you found out about yourself while tracking your spending?

How to (Re)Decorate Your Apartment on a Dime

Have you just moved into a new place that you would love to decorate?Have you been dreaming about redecorating your apartment but you aren’t sure if you really have the time or the money to do it? Does your apartment still feel reminiscent of your college dorm room? Never fear! You can decorate or redecorate your apartment on a small budget, check out these tips to help you get started:

  • Get Inspired: Start out by finding some photos of rooms, apartments or items that you like. Check out Pinterest or Apartment Therapy for ideas. Apartment Therapy has a great section on Decor Styles that offers examples of different styles so you can hone in on yours. You might also want to go out to some furniture stores, like Ikea, if you live close by so you can get a feel for different spaces that you like.
  • Start Small: If you are on a tight budget it may be best to start small. Pick out one room that you want to (re)decorate and imagine what items you would like to add to it. You don’t have to completely overhaul the space. Shifting the furniture and adding a touch of color with paint, new lamps or window treatments may be all that you need. Pick the space, and figure out the things that you would like to change.
  • Set a Budget: Next, set a budget and be stick to it. You would be surprised how much you can do with a small amount of money if you are careful about. Get some ideas for inexpensive DIY projects that you can take on. Check out Better Homes and Garden’s Ideas to steal for your apartment, HGTV’s 15 budget decorating tips, apartment therapy’s 25 DIY project that cost less than $50 and Budget DIY tips for stretching your project dollars.
  • Get Shopping: Now is the perfect time to hit garage and estate sales while the weather is still warm. Check out Goodwill, Freecycle, Craigslist and other thrift stores in your area. You will be surprised what treasures you can find.
  • Need a Little More Help? That’s ok! Apartment Therapy has the Style Cure to help you redecorate a room over a month. They will send you an email each day with a specific assignment to help you keep on task. Best of all, it’s free!

You can (re)decorate your apartment on a budget! So stop pinning photos on Pinterest and get moving! 🙂

Join the Conversation: What apartment DIY projects have you tackled?

Frugal Ways to Treat Yourself

Whether you just finished finals or you just need a break from work, here are some suggestions for how to treat yourself and relax without breaking the bank:

  • Indulge Yourself: Cook your favorite dinner or bake yourself some goodies.  Order takeout from one of your favorite restaurants or pick up dessert from your favorite bakery. Order your favorite specialty drink from a coffee shop. Choose one item to splurge on and indulge yourself in your special treat!
  • Pamper Yourself: Light some candles, add some scented oil and take a bath. Pamper yourself with a “homemade spa day” paint your nails and give yourself a facial. Check out these simple, homemade facial recipes!
  • Spend Time with Friends: Call up an old friend or invite a friend over for dinner. Have a good, long conversation without worrying about all of the other things that you have to do.
  • Get Outside: The weather is finally warming up. Relax at a local park. Go hiking, walking, swimming or biking and enjoy the fresh air!
  • Check the Deals: Check out the living social, groupon, and amazon local deals in your area. They have great deals on restaurants, activities, and spa treatments!
  • Watch A Movie: Go see a discounted movie. There are many discount movie theaters in the Twin Cities including: Brookdale 8, Maple Grove Cinema 10, Hopkins Cinema 6, and the Riverview Theater.  Also, the St. Anthony Main Theatre offers $6 tickets with student ID. Or, have a movie marathon at home by borrowing movies from a friend or getting them from redbox.
  • Catch up on your shows: Catch up on your favorite shows! Hulu Plus and Netflix have free trial offers that let you use their services for a short period of time, just make sure to cancel them before you get charged.
  • Explore Your City: Check out a neighborhood, museum, or park in your city that you have never been to before. Use your student discounts!
  • Sleep: Sleep in without an alarm. Take a nap! Extra sleep can be so restful.
  • Exercise: Take some time to go workout at the gym, do yoga or pilates! This is a great stress reliever, your body will thank you.
  • Guilty Pleasure Reading: Indulge in some a guilty pleasure reading: gossip magazines, cheesy romance novels, or whatever your pleasure. Read for fun!
  • Clean: Believe it or not organizing and cleaning can be very relaxing and fulfilling.
  • Get Creative: Let your creative juices flow: draw, sketch, paint, knit, take photos, do some scrapbooking!
  • Dance: Turn up the music and dance around the house!

Join the Conversation: What are your favorite frugal ways to treat yourself?

Frugal Fashion: Thrift Shop

One of my favorite songs on the radio is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis because it is so catchy and it has a really great overall message – you don’t have to spend a lot of money to look good! A few weeks ago, I went thrift shopping with a friend and had a wonderful time. It is amazing what kind of clothes you can find with such great prices!

I absolutely love fashion, clothes, and accessories but I have found ways to express my love for fashion in a frugal way. I am overjoyed to offer you a few tips on fun and frugal fashion this week. Whether you’re a budding fashionista or you could care less about fashion, I hope that you will find a few helpful tips about shopping and keeping your style in tip top shape!

  • Get Inspired: Fashion magazines, websites, and blogs are great inspiration for reinventing your style and your closet. Lucky Magazine is all about shopping and the subscription is very cheap. For online inspiration check out frugal-fashionistas or The Fab & Frugal blog.
  • Reinvent Your Closet: If your style feels flat and you’re out of money the best thing to do is to take some time to sift through your closet. How many new outfits can you create by mixing and matching some of your old pieces? You may even find that gem that stuck in the back of the closet!
  • Tailoring: If you really enjoy an old piece of clothing or a pair of shoes it is often easier to get them repaired than buy new ones. Just make sure to find a good tailor and/or cobbler.
  • DIY: Update something old. Put new buttons on an old jacket. Dye your old jeans. For inspiration check out these DIY fashion blogs. I recently added some sparkle to one of my dresses using a silk sash and vintage pin that I already had in my closet.
  • Real Vintage: There is always talk of “vintage” style, instead of investing money in “vintage” clothing why not scour some of your mother or grandmother’s old clothes and accessories? Some of my favorite jewelry came from my great aunt; it is fashionable and it tells a story.
  • Clothes Swap: Clean out your closets, grab some friends and have a clothes swap. Your old clothes will find new life and you might just find a new treasure!
  • Borrow: In college I had an “open closet” policy, many of my friends borrowed my dresses for dances or dates. If you have a special event coming up, consider borrowing instead of buying new and encourage your friends to do the same.
  • Invest In Quality: Although it can be alluring to buy a lot of pieces from a cheaper clothing store, instead of just a few from a more expensive store it is often better to invest in quality over quantity. Invest in quality, versatile pieces that you can reinvent for any season. Then you can buy a few, cheaper, seasonal pieces.
  • Sales: My mom is a fantastic shopper and her cardinal rule is to beeline for the sales, you can see the other items when they go on sale. Collect coupons, many stores will let you combine deals just keep an eye on the small print. Limit yourself to shopping during big sales, just be careful not to overbuy.
  • Thrift Shops: Thrift/Second Hand Stores can be hit or miss, but often they are chock full of good deals if you are willing to sift through everything. My favorite second hand store in the Twin Cities is Second Debut 2. The one I went to last week is called Turn Style. There are many great boutique and chain thrift stores you just have to do a little research to find them.

Join the Conversation: What is your number one frugal fashion tip?

Summer Budget Challenge Part 2: Confessions of a Foodie

A few weeks ago I challenged you to discover your financial habits by tracking your income and expenses over the last month. If you missed it, check out the first segment of the Summer Budget Challenge. This week, I am continuing the Summer Budget Challenge with an article on evaluating your spending patterns and aligning your spending with your values.

Over the last month, I have been tracking my own spending on mint.com. I carefully categorized my income and expenses, evaluating the trends. To be completely honest, I didn’t expect to find much. Being a naturally frugal person and writing a frugal blog has kept me away from lots of bad spending habits. Yet, I was surprised when I found the majority of my budget (outside of housing expenses) was going towards food!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to eat. I am self-proclaimed foodie. Restaurants are great, but I would much rather make a really fun, elaborate meal and have friends over. I love to cook using fresh ingredients. I don’t cut corners. If I indulge myself, it is generally in this area. Needless to say, my grocery bills frequently exceed my idealistic grocery budget.

Anyone who tracks their expenses and income, particularly if they are tracking it for the first time, is likely to find a few surprises. While awareness is a big step, what you do with this information is even more important. Begin by asking yourself: Does your spending align with your values?

In my case, while I enjoy eating good, healthy food and having company over, it is not the most important thing to me. My first priorities are giving and repaying my debt. If my love of food impinges upon my giving or my ability to make my debt payments, then something is wrong. While my habit has not quite gotten to that point, it is definitely in critical danger of doing so. When I create my new budget I will red flag this area making sure that I set solid boundaries that allow me to indulge my love of food without overspending.

How does your spending reflect your values? Over the next two weeks, evaluate your spending habits, align your spending with your values and begin to identify problem areas that should be addressed in your budget. Stay tuned for the next part of the Summer Budget Challenge: Creating A Budget.

Join the Conversation: What are the problem areas in your spending and how are you addressing them?

Making the Most of Your Staycation at Home

Is your budget too tight to go on an out of town vacation this year? Why not try a staycation? A staycation is a vacation where an individual, family or friends relax in their own city and make day trips to area attractions. Whether you have just a few days or an entire week, a staycation is a great option.

While staycationing at a hotel can help you get the out of town feel, you can also get this feeling at your own home by following these simple tips:

  • Clean and Redecorate Your Space: Before your staycation, clean your house and do all of your laundry so you have no chores left to do. Decorate your space for a vacation by adding candles or moving the furniture around. You might even bring hotel amenities home by purchasing terry cloth robes, high thread count sheets, or nice chocolates to put on your pillows at night. While this may seem expensive, for about the same price as one night in a hotel you can purchase luxuries that you can enjoy for many years.
  • Take A Time Out: Turn off your cell phone. Set your email to “out of office” and don’t look at it until your staycation is over. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, take off your watch and remove all of the clocks in your home. You’re on vacation time!
  • Do A Little Research: Plan your staycation like you would a regular vacation. Check out the local attractions. You’re likely to find out some new things about your city and maybe even a couple of new favorite places to frequent. This is a great time to use your student discounts.
  • Get Outside: Staycations are a great excuse to get outside. Go camping at a local campground or in your backyard. Explore a biking or hiking trail. Have a picnic. Go to the pool.
  • Enjoy Your Time at Home: If you’re at home it can be easy to just do chores and zone out in front of the TV. Instead, indulge in a vacation reading binge, have your own three-day film festival, turn your home into a spa, take up a new craft project, or challenge yourself by trying a new, cooking recipe.
  • Splurge A Little: One of the best parts of a vacation is that you can splurge a little bit and enjoy a few things that you wouldn’t normally allow yourself. You are already saving quite a bit of money by staying local, why not try out that expensive restaurant you’ve read about? Stay at a bed and breakfast for one night? Or, go to a concert or play?
  • Make Memories: Just because you are in town doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t document the occasion. Take pictures and put them in an album. Make a staycation video. Collect brochures of the places you visit and make a scrapbook. Buy souvenirs.

For more staycation ideas check out this REAL SIMPLE article. Happy Staycationing!

Join the Conversation: Have you ever been on a staycation? If so, what is one of your favorite things to do on a staycation?

Frugal Entertaining: Hosting a Party on a Budget

Summer is the perfect time of year to host a party and with the Fourth of July just around the corner, entertaining is on the mind. So how do you host a frugal party without looking cheap? Here are some tips for how to entertain without breaking the bank:

  • Choose a Theme: A theme will help you keep the party food and décor cohesive as well as keep you from splurging. You might choose a seasonal theme (Fall), a type of food (Mexican), a holiday (4th of July) or something entirely different. Be creative! Take a look at this wisebread article or my article on hosting a party for some fun party ideas. Also, check out House Party and apply to host a party with some fun freebies.
  • Vary the Time: If you want to host a party, but you’re not sure you can handle a dinner party. Why not throw a brunch party, it is just as fun but a lot cheaper. Or, throw a dessert-only party later in the evening.
  • Splurge Strategically: Keep the party menu simple, using as few ingredients as possible. Find an inexpensive main dish, such as pasta, a casserole, or grilled chicken, then splurge on one or two ingredients that will really make a difference. For instance, you might make pasta but choose to add gruyere cheese or some greek olives to add a little opulence to a traditional favorite. Check out frugalfoodiefamily or The Frugal Chef for some fun frugal recipes.
  • Shop Smart: Make sure to check the sales and know what is in season before you get to the store. Set a budget and stick to it. If you have trouble with this, bring cash to ensure that you don’t overspend. Have a defined menu in mind, but also have an open mind in case you stumble upon some really good deals.
  • Nail the Presentation: Presentation is everything. Buy inexpensive garnishes such as herbs and fresh fruit, to dress up your plates. Take extra time to arrange your dishes, this makes any dish look more appetizing. I once arranged a plate of Chips Ahoy and Oreo cookies and people thought they were eating classy food.
  • Let the Guests Help: Although you may want to do it all yourself, it is a whole lot cheaper if you let your guests help. You might try a spin on the traditional potluck by assigning each guest a different course according to your theme. If you decide to do most of the cooking yourself, many of your guests will likely ask you if they can bring something. Take them up on this offer. Let them bring a starter, dessert, or bread, something they can easily make or pick up on the way to your party.
  • Décor: Use what you have creatively and borrow anything that you don’t have. At my first dinner party I used my grandmother’s china that I inherited and had a friend bring over his inherited china and we alternated place settings. Even though it was mismatched, they looked great together and we both got use out of china that we never use. If you must buy, check the dollar store for napkins, plates, silverware, and décor.
  • Fourth of July: Hosting a Fourth of July party? Check out this wisebread article for some creative party ideas. Take a look at beating broke and kens5 for some delicious and festive recipes. Happy hosting!

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Join the Conversation: What are some of your favorite frugal party recipes? Leave a comment on this post.

Summer Budget Challenge: Step One Discover Your Habits

Summer is a great time to begin planning your budget for the next school year. This summer join me in the Summer Budget Challenge. Together we will discover our spending habits, align our spending with our values, and create a budget that we can maintain, all before the school year begins this fall. Follow frugal-community on Twitter and Facebook to hear more about what I have discovered and join the conversation.

We begin by discovering our spending habits. Over the next month, you have one task: track your income and your expenses. You may think your know where your money is going, be prepared to be surprised. Over the next few weeks track every dollar that comes in and every dollar that goes out. This includes everything from bills to paychecks to babysitting money to the dollar you used to get a diet coke from the vending machine. Every penny counts. There are a variety of ways that you can do this:

  • Journal Method: Carry around a small notebook or journal and track every purchase you make whether with cash, credit or check. On another page track your income.
  • Excel Method: Instead of using a journal, track all of your income and expenses in an excel spreadsheet. This works best if you set aside some time each week to put in each transaction, if you do it with any less frequency you might forget some of the smaller purchases. Microsoft provides a variety of personal budgeting templates.
  • Software Method: If Excel isn’t your thing, but you still want to track your spending on the computer there are a variety of different programs out there, one of the most popular is Quicken. This software will also be helpful later when we create a budget.
  • Online Method: There are a variety of sites that can help you track your income and expenses as well as create a budget. I use Mint.com because it syncs with my bank account, categorizes my transactions and tracks my budgets all in one place. Again, it is important that you set aside time each week to track your expenses on the site to make sure everything is categorized correctly and all of your cash purchases are included as well.

Happy Tracking!

Going Out on A Dime

Do you love going out for dinner or drinks but hate the high cost? Here are a few tips that will help you enjoy going out without the guilt trip.

  • Set Spending Limits: Give yourself a spending limit and don’t surpass it. This can make dining out fun by encouraging you to try all kinds of new menu combinations as you try to stay within your budget.
  • Coupons: There are a plethora of different online sites that offer discounts and daily deals that can save you lots of money and help you find new places to try. Sign up for Groupon or Living Social to get daily deals on restaurants, massages, travel and much more in your area for 30-75% off. Check out Restaurants.com to find deals on gift certificates for restaurants in your area, like a $25 gift certificate for $10. Remember, even if you use a coupon, you should always tip on the original amount. Tipping on the discounted bill is cheap, not frugal.
  • Happy Hours: Many local restaurants have fantastic happy hour drink and food menus that can save you a lot of money and allow you to enjoy food in smaller portions. Check out thriftyhipster to find happy hour deals!
  • Snack: Have a quick snack before you go out. Then you can order a smaller, less expensive meal like an appetizer or salad.
  • Save on Your Entrée: Most restaurants serve large portions, why not split an entrée with your dining companion? Or, just eat half of your order and take the rest to go. Check the appetizer menu, many restaurants offer smaller portions of their entrées as appetizers for half the price.
  • Kid’s Meal: If possible, order off the kid’s menu. This works really well at fast food restaurants that offer kid’s menus with nice size portions for lower prices.
  • Save on Drinks: Save on drinks by ordering water, to add some flavor to your water ask your server for some lemon, lime or a sprig of mint. If you want wine with your meal, call the restaurant ahead and ask about their “corkage” fee. Some restaurants will let you bring your own bottle and charge only a small fee to have the waiter serve it.
  • Skip the Extras: Adding appetizers and desserts can add a bundle to your check, either skip the extras or order one for the table. One great way to save on dessert is to have your entrée at a restaurant and then pick up dessert at a grocery store or bakery on your way home.
  • Take Out: Enjoy food from your favorite restaurant without the additional temptations by ordering take out. You save on the tip and get to enjoy dinner in the comfort of your own home.

Join the Conversation: Where are some of your favorite happy hours in the Twin Cities?