23 June 2011

Things to do for those around you...

Today was a big day for me. I went on my first sales call! It wasn't just a sales call...it was one that I made the first contact and worked to arrange a meeting time. I went to Six Flags today. There was a lovely lady (by the name of Darlene Blevins) who handles group sales and events. She showed me and my general manager a little bit of the park and we talked about things we could offer our hotel guests. We would be able to sell tickets as a part of a package for our hotel guests at a pretty good rate. She talked about upcoming ideas she wanted to implement to give local kids something to do. That got me thinking.

Perhaps the same could be done for low-income kids. If offered a lower rate, I'm sure some low-income families wouldn't mind paying for park tickets. But why stop there? Perhaps there are things for the kids to do in the area that could either be cheap or free. Our housing manager for our housing authority (Mr. Peet) has some good money-raising ideas that the kids could also be involved with to help pay for costs. It would sure beat sitting around every day during the summer.

Even if not all days are filled with activities, there should be some things here and there available for them to look forward to doing. Also giving them a part in raising money for their activities should not only give them a sense of responsibility, but help them to know what it feels like to reap the benefits of their hard work.

If you have any ideas (namely those that don't cost too much or are free), please let me know! A few ideas that I'm working with:
* Trip to D.C.
* Swimming at a local pool
* Picnics
* Trips to the zoo

21 June 2011

Don't Hate The Grocery Game

I'm just a player!

I haven't been doing much in the way of shopping lately. Usually, I'm spending hours every 1 - 2 weeks with grocery planning and shopping. Now, I'm spending less time. Since I've started the Grocery Game, I haven't had to keep going out to the store as much as before. I've been able to stock up a little bit on some things.

Today, I spent some time gathering my coupons. It really wouldn't have taken as long as it did if I hadn't let the newspapers pile up over the last month or so. I'm also working on a better filing system. I haven't decided what works best for me yet. I have some coupons sorted, in hanging file folders, by date. When I pull up my shopping list from the grocery game, I can go right to that particular date and insert and find the coupon(s) I need. The other method I'm trying out is clipping the coupons ahead of time that I'm likely to use and sort them in an organizer by type. The latter seems to be the messier way of doing things for me. It seems that at the time I may feel a coupon is useless, then I see that I can get the item for dirt-cheap, I can't find it when I go looking for it! When I just keep the inserts sorted by date, nothing gets pre-cut, so everything stays put, until I need it or it expires and it's time to purge.

I've seen people with rather large 3-ring binders with plastic inserts sorting their coupons. When I go to the store, I usually have a child or set of children with me. I would rather not take something large and bulky with me. So, I keep 2 coupon organizers with me. They fit nicely in my purse and can each hold quite a bit. One keeps my coupons that I have pre-selected for each store's shopping list. The other has the rest of the coupons I've already clipped, in case I find something else I wanted. Those other coupons are sorted by category.

All in all, I'm doing alright with the coupon clipping. I'm thinking about giving a little more time and maybe venturing away from the Grocery Game, to see if I am still able to save. Since I don't have much leftover after bills and other obligations are covered, I could probably use the $10 a month for something else. At the same time, I love the convenience. The grocery game makes it so much easier for me to get the maximum savings and it saves me a lot of time with sales research. I think I will stick it out a bit longer, especially when I'm spending $10 a month, but saving over $100...I really don't think that's a bad trade-off...

I wonder who has some TGG tips to save even more? or how to really stay organized?

15 June 2011

Where in the world is...

...my sanity!

I've been ripping and running (or so it seems) this last month. I'm tired and a little bit frustrated! Do you feel the same? If you do, then perhaps we are together suffering from Early Summer Chicken-With-No-Head Stress Disorder. Oh, the humanity!

Haven't heard of it? Well, to sum it up:

1. You never actually got around to finishing your spring cleaning.
2. You want to plan fun activities with the kids, friends, and family, but feel overwhelmed with all the plans (and obligations) you already have.
3. You're concerned about how much money you will not have saved up (or available period) to do anything extra.
4. You seem more so confined to a few places which occupy most of your time (work, household chores, etc), and have actually realized how much you want to get away for a bit.
5. ..anything else you can add to this list that is driving you crazy this time of year...

Does that sound like you? Yes? Well, while there is no permanent cure for ESCWNHSD, there are some effective treatments.

1. Pray. Stay in church. We sometimes have to be reminded of what we should be focused on. None of us can do it all by ourselves. God stands with you and wants to see you at peace. Remember that.

2. Be sure to take some time and list the things you want to accomplish for just one week. Break those tasks down into days. Try not to do more than 2 tasks per day (depending on the size of the task).

3. Schedule relaxing things to do on a daily basis. Whatever it is that you like to do (play an instrument, sing, walk), be sure to set aside at least a half hour (or an hour) daily to just do that. Make sure it's something that will help keep your mind off all those tasks you have to complete by yesterday (and if you would rather not be bothered, try to keep it at at a time you can remain distraction-free).

4. Get more rest at night. Sleep in the right quantities can help with so many things, including weight loss. Play hard then, sleep tight. You shouldn't be necessarily focused on how many hours you get. The important thing is to get enough "good sleep." That's you, not tossing and turning and actually waking up feeling rested. If you have an iPhone/iPod Touch, I suggest you try the app Sleep Cycle. It's pretty good at waking you up at the "right" time, based on your sleep cycles. Try to give yourself at least 6 hours.

5. Talk to someone. While you could pay a therapist/counselor to help you talk through your troubles, it is also very helpful to have a couple of people that you can trust to talk to. Regular time with friends or family will help you to not only vent, but to focus on more happy aspects of your life. Besides, if you need help, how will you get it if you don't tell someone (who loves you) what the problem is?! Do try not to fall into the habit of only talking to people when there is a problem. There is so much more to life!

6. Eat well. It is all too common for us to screw up our diets when we are stressed out. Whether you're not eating enough or eating too much; when it comes to your eating habits, try to be more strict on yourself when you're stressed out. I tend to be at both these extremes when I'm stressed out. I may go days without eating, but when I do eat, I overload on ready-to-eat junk food. If you've got a lot going on, consider what you're buying at the grocery store. Perhaps you should purchase complete meals that don't require much work. Be sure to check the nutrition label, and avoid those loaded with salts and sugars (as well as the things you may be allergic to). Buy more fresh fruits and veggies that you can snack on on the go. If I were to follow this advice, it would take me about 5 minutes to warm up a frozen dinner (with side veggies) and I would have plenty of fresh fruits (like strawberries or blueberries) to snack on in between meals (or with meals). Another thing I like to do is buy frozen fruit and throw them in a blender (with some kind of liquid) for a smoothie. It's fast and delicious even when I don't have an appetite.

7. Exercise. Your body will fare better in stressful situations if you are taking good care of it. There are many physical signs of stress that can be reduced or eliminated if you were to have a regular workout routine. You don't have to join a gym to exercise. Daily walks around your neighborhood, find free videos on the internet, or even join a free fitness community online (like SparkPeople).

It really helps to be already organized when we're hit with feeling overwhelmed. Usually, we are not that fortunate when that feeling hits. Following these steps will help you to crawl out of the abyss, into the light, and get back to feeling like a normal human being. Even better if you can make these suggestions a permanent part of your life, to help keep you from getting to that burned out feeling.

Now Onto Some Crazy Savings!

I don't know about you, but I like not spending too much on a single item. Earlier this week, I went to Target and look at what I saw...

Plastic dishes on clearance for $0.98. Not just any kind of plastic...these seem pretty sturdy and are dishwasher and microwave safe. I got black and yellow (yeah, uh huh, you know what it is) to match my kitchen decor. Sets were 6 small bowls, 4 medium bowls, 6 small cups, 4 medium? cups, 1 large bowl, etc. I'm not sure how many plates were bundled (My Target didn't have black, so I didn't check).

Always check the ends of the aisles at Target because there are so many things on clearance.

Target has some AWESOME prices on food. If you have a Target Grocery near you, I urge you to check it out. There are even some pre-prepared meals in the fridge. Since it's summertime, you'll find ready to cook kabobs, pre-seasoned meats, and pre-packaged fresh salads. I saw large pizzas for $7 and they accept foodstamps. Take that Pizza Hut!

Earlier this month, in preparation for Ocean City, I was pricing beach chairs on Amazon and Walmart. I found a lot of nice chairs, but they were so expensive. I ended up getting these fold-up arm chairs for $9.88. Not bad, huh? They could even be used at other events/locations.

Well...while at target, I found these folding jelly chairs on clearance for $7.70. Wow! They, too could work at the beach or anywhere else.

Supplies are limited. If you're looking for something to keep in the backyard and are concerned about the color, why not get 'em anyway, then make your own chair covers (and cushions?) for a customized look?!

Five Below also never ceases to amaze me. I found an umbrella at Amazon for $17. This was great, considering it's tough to find one under $40. Five Below has them for just $5. They even have beach towels.

Why don't you share some tips to keep your insanity in check? Also, have you found any great bargains this week? Please share!

12 June 2011

Financial Planning Resources

Take a Step!

If you are reading this, I hope it's because you want to take a step toward taking control over your finances. Most people are stressed by their budgets. Why? Why is it such a hassle to take the time to create a financial snapshot? Why do we dread crunching the numbers? I think it's because we are reminded of what we don't have. You've seen my budget...I'm not working with very much after my bills are paid and allotments are made for essentials. Knowing what you're working with will work for you!

We all have to do it! If you didn't plan or even have an idea of exactly how much you have, you would really be flying by the seat of your pants (or rather, your pockets). You would end up over-spending in several areas and not having enough money for the things you need (including emergencies). Perhaps the first time you sit down to analyze your spending will take you an hour, but if you make it a regular habit to revisit your budget, you'll find you have more time to enjoy doing other things.

Why would you want to take advice from me? Why wouldn't you?! I'm sure people would be pretty hesitant to listen to financial advice from a person who is on welfare. There is a stigma about those depending on government assistance as they are tagged as being unwise or just freeloading. While I cannot speak for everyone, I can simply ask that you read on. Perhaps there will be some information you haven't thought about, or maybe reiteration/reminder of what you've already learned. It helps to get information from different sources, so that you can mix and match based on what you need or what's easiest for you.

Track Your Income & Expenses

I have stated before that I like Crown Financial Ministries for their worksheets. You can actually download them for free. They have this envelope budgeting thingy that helps you to allot money to specific needs. I'll talk a bit about that later. Even googling "financial worksheets" would bring up a slew of resources (what would I do without Google?).

First things first, you'll need a list of all your sources of income and all your expenses. Try to break everything down monthly. If you get paid bi-weekly or if you pay a bill every six months, be sure to break down what that will turn out to be every month. Once you have done that, you'll see what you have to work with. Remember My Budget post?

Next, subtract an estimate of how much you will need of that leftover money for things like food, gas, etc. These would be the things you have to spend for on a regular basis, but don't have an exact total. One of my favorite worksheets to use is the Income Allocation Sheet.
You can break down every pay period per month and get a good idea of how much you are working with at the beginning and the end of the month. This gives way to finding out how much you'll need to set aside every pay period specifically for all of the expenses you already know about. Remember, if you have expenses that you pay yearly or every 6 months, break them down to what they would be monthly and include them. It's not a bad idea (if you would like) to round up to the nearest dollar if you have cents in your amounts (just don't round down). When you get to that point in time where you have to pay that lump sum again, you'll already have it all saved up for that day.

I like to use a blank calendar and fill in what's due, when, and how much. This gives me a chance to see my daily or weekly break-down, as I'm a very visual person. It's easier for me to see that on 6/22/11 I need to transfer $320 to my bill paying account. If you would like to use a blank calendar, you can google "blank calendar" and pick one that suits your style. I used timeanddate.com and printed one out. There is also your computer office software, calendars associated with your email account (I like Google calendar), or even within your email client (Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird). The dollar store sells little pocket calendars for (as you can guess) a dollar!

I also like to keep a list of my expenses (sorted by date due). On this list, there is also a total of how much to set aside per pay period for my bills. If you have a wall calendar or a fridge calendar in your home, don't be shy about writing your bills on their designated due dates (especially if you don't have automatic payments set up).

My list is usually updated every pay period (bi-weekly for me)...just to make sure I've got things where I need them to be.

If writing things down by hand is not appealing to you, you can always use financial planning/budgeting software. Quicken has been around for so long. It's tried and true, but paid financial software companies will usually encourage you to upgrade to the newest version. Before buying an older version, keep in mind that perhaps there will be no support or bank account synchronization available. You don't have to pay an arm and a leg for software. If you're like me, you'll try not to pay retail price. You can find financial freeware through sites like download.com, or you can use simple spreadsheet software. Openoffice.org has a free download of office software (comparable to Microsoft Office). There are even online planners that can sync with your bank accounts to give you up-to-the-minute totals. I've used Mint.com in the past. It's free, there is even a mobile application for your smartphone or iPod touch.

Some banks (if you have online banking) will allow you to link your accounts to all your financial institutions. This is helpful so that you don't have to open multiple web pages to view all of your balances. There may even be a free mobile application. Bank of America and USAA each have one.


Most people today have some form of debt. When considering paying back your debt (and you really shouldn't just consider it, but actually do it), there are few things to keep in mind. Always remember to include these obligations in your monthly expenses when you do your budgeting.

It's absolutely necessary to have a plan to pay off your debt. Whether it will take you 5 months or 10 years, make sure that you have a plan to pay it off for good. Lenders may even work with you to create the best repayment plan for you. I have USAA and have access to financial advisors at any time. Use your resources. Find out if your financial institution has someone you can talk to about managing your debt. If you have to pay for it, check to see if you can actually afford it, or simply look elsewhere. This country is in massive debt as a whole. Wouldn't it be nice to not be in the same boat as an individual?

Allocations and Accounts

I had mentioned Crown's envelope budgeting system. When you understand how much to set aside from each pay period for your bills, you can break it down even further into categories. Each envelope would represent an expense category. The money for that category would go into that particular envelope and once it runs out, you are not to spend anymore (not even from another category). This is a great way to allot money for vacation, children's allowance, or the occasional night out. If you don't usually carry cash, and would rather use your check card, you can use the Individual Account Page to set aside money. You would want to have one for each category, and when you allot money to the category, you would put it in your checkbook ledger. Say you allot $40 weekly for your groceries...

You would subtract the amount from your checkbook ledger...

..then add it to your Grocery Account Page. Whenever you spend money on groceries, subtract it from your Grocery account page (NOT from the checkbook ledger).

This is a very easy way to make sure you don't go over budget with things like groceries, clothing, housewares, etc (basically, those expenses that you spend on regularly, but are not exact like bills). Even if you receive foodstamps, it's pretty easy to budget. You already know how much you're receiving and when you'll receive it. Just keep a running tab of what you're spending, so that you don't go over.

I have a separate account for paying my bills. Every pay period, I transfer my allotment to my bills to that account. Only bills get paid with the bill paying account. You could have multiple checking accounts for your specific needs. I wouldn't advise you get 10 different accounts. I would say perhaps no more than 3 or 4, as there are also sometimes maintenance fees. No matter what, try to keep things at a minimum, but you need to have everything accounted for. You don't want to have too many things going on. The less you have to keep up with, the easier it is to stay organized.


Perhaps the most important thing with any kind of planning is organization. Keep your financial planning tools together. Use a notebook for all your worksheets. Keep one computer file for all your virtual financial documents. Be sure that you know where your checkbook is and use it regularly to keep it up-to-date. Don't hesitate to review your documents to be sure you have everything in the right place and remove things that don't belong there.

Image: jscreationzs / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

These steps will give you a good picture of where you are currently. It's always surprising to see that, even when it doesn't feel like it, you can make a budget work. I had a friend who commented on how little I made (I made even less money then), but how much I've been able to do for my family. Don't ever think that you don't make enough or you make too much to budget. We all need a plan. There are other tools that will help you with where you want to be, but we will touch on those another day. I think I could go on about all the things you can use and do to for your finances.

Here is a list of books and things that I've used:
Young Couple's Guide to Financial Planning
How to Manage Your Money
Financial Planning Workbook
Crown Financial Ministries
Quicken Financial Software
timeanddate.com online calendar
OpenOffice.org Software
Microsoft Office (there are even templates you can download for free, based on what version you have).
Microsoft Works
Microsoft Money (if you're familiar with MS Money, then you know that it doesn't exist anymore, but Bundle is available online, free to use. I have not tried Bundle.com)
Incomeptech.com has different kinds of pre-made paper to download, if you would like to write things down. I love to use the cornell lined paper for notes.


01 June 2011


This year, I've decided to do the summer vacation thing better than before! Last year, I was very hesitant about taking the kids someplace, because I was concerned about saving money. We went with a co-worker of mine to Solomon's Island, MD and enjoyed a cool September day.

I really enjoy going to Ocean City, MD with the kids, so I want to try to make it a yearly thing, even if it's for a weekend. This year, I've been planning ahead and will probably take a week off from work either prior to or after our vacation weekend. We get paid days off and must use them before they expire. So...How does one plan some time away without breaking the bank? Vamos a ver...

Cutting Accommodation Costs:

One thing that I can benefit from is using my hotel employee discount. I'm able to find hotels all over the country (maybe even the world). I have to say it's a perk I am glad to have. If you don't work for a hotel, perhaps you know someone who does. Friends and family discounts can be pretty awesome. For Choice Hotels, they can be as low as $49 a night and as high as $69 (based on availability). I haven't used any discounts from friends at other chains, but you basically get to stay in a good quality hotel for motel prices!

Another way of cutting costs is to travel with a few people who will equally contribute. Some of my family recently went to Myrtle Beach and was able to stay in thousand dollar vacation homes because they had quite a few people to stay and split the costs.

If you are going some place where you have friends or family that don't mind you staying with them, then you should! Usually you can stay with people you know for free and you can save a bit of money on food.

Cutting Food Costs:

It's inevitable that you will have to eat while you're on vacation. I find the best thing to do is buy groceries (especially if you receive foodstamps). Make a shopping list and plan out your meals, so that you don't get too much or too little. Of course you should plan your snacks for the ride to and from your vacation spot. Many hotels will have a micro-fridge in the room and a continental breakfast. Some even have microwaves in the room or the lobby to use. Take advantage of all of it. Keep in mind where you will be and what would be appropriate to pack for lunch or to have for dinner.

Don't think that just because you want to save money on food, you don't get to eat out at all. Remember, planning is the key. Before you go, search for information on restaurants in that area. Keep in mind dining styles and prices. If you're going with kids, seek restaurants that are family friendly. If you're going with a group of people, look for places that have a good variety on the menu, so everyone can enjoy something.

You can use Restaurant.com to purchase gift certificates for local restaurants ahead of time and use them when you get there. I have scoped out 4 places in Ocean City that are family friendly and are not too expensive. Using the Memorial Day promo code, I was able to find some $25 gift certificates for $2. *Big Smile*

Cutting Fuel Costs:

This one is tough. If you are driving, then you should have an idea of what it takes to fill your tank. You should also have an idea of how much driving you can do before having to fill it up again. Create a fuel budget and save up that money on the side, to make sure you're not cutting into funds for something else (like, say food?). Also consider tolls along the way.

If you are taking another form of transport (plane, boat, train, etc.), then make sure you have enough for your tickets, and a little extra for other traveling costs (especially if you're unable to bring your own snacks for the ride).

If you are driving, be sure to have your vehicle's regular maintenance up to date before taking off. In my case, I need to change my oil and my front brakes. You can even look for coupons for auto services.

Cutting Entertainment Costs:

Depending on where you're heading and who you're with, you may need to have some money on the side for fun things to do. Since we are going to the beach, most of our fun will be in the sand or the water. We've been able to get away with not spending anything at the beach during other trips in the way of toys or souvenirs (or rather we could have...I usually can't help but to get a box of salt water taffy...).

If you plan to go to a show or see a movie, try to have an idea of what you want to see, and check for discounts. Yes, I don't think I can stress enough how important it is to plan ahead. Not so much that every minute of every day is thought out, but make sure you have made provision for as many things as possible, so that you don't feel unaccomplished when you return home. The main thing is making sure you have the money available. If you don't use it, even better. You won't return home more broke than when you started.

We like to take our own things with us, especially for the car ride. Coloring books and various toys keep little ones busy (along with the snacks that keep their mouths full and tummies quiet) and each one of us has a digital camera.

Had Enough Planning Ahead?

Well, I hope not! It makes it so much easier. The more time you have to plan, the better, as you won't have to worry about getting so many things done at once.

I like to make a list of things we will need and make a mark next to the things we already have. Looking for things that we don't have is pretty simple. I first check my local Freecycle group for anything that may be on my list. If I don't find it there, I check my websites...Craigslist, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and eBay. If you can find something for free, go for it! If not, don't pay retail!

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was looking for some beach chairs. Someone was giving 3 away for free on Craigslist. Unfortunately, I was too late. I didn't find anymore until today, when I decided to check my websites. Wal-Mart had the lowest price. $9.88 for a folding chair (with cup-holder).

Don't forget that you can also check thrift stores in your area. While I wouldn't buy a bathing suit from a thrift store, I will be going in search for some beach towels and maybe some sand toys. If you're pretty crafty, perhaps you can make your swimsuit or beach towel? I've found some pretty easy tutorials on sewing your own towel wrap. Just google something like "how to make beach towel wrap" and get inspired.

You can always google "free/cheap things to do in [insert city here]." You will be amazed at how many things you can do, without spending any money.

If you have any questions on ways to make vacation cheaper, ask away.

My next post will be a more in-depth look at financial planning resources.