Category Archives: Budgeting

Birthdays On A Budget

So, having just survived both the twin’s first birthday (January 31st) and my daughter’s fifteenth birthday (February 25th) on a limited income, and successfully managing to give them both a special day, I thought I should write an entry on it.

Trying to celebrate any special occasion like a holiday or a birthday when you don’t have a lot of money can be difficult, and it wasn’t easy, but it can be done. Of course planning a little bit ahead and setting money aside a little bit at a time during the preceding months seems like the most obvious solution, but since my children’s birthdays are fairly close together, and right after the Christmas holidays, having three gift-giving occasions three months in a row really tapped me out.

For my kids I planned for their gifts months ahead of time. I put an item on layaway for my daughter in September, so I could spread out the payments and have plenty of time to finish paying for it. For the boys I was able to buy their gift when I was out doing Black Friday shopping before Christmas, so I got a really good price by taking advantage of the huge sales at that time of the year, and just holding on to it for a little longer.

I realize this isn’t the fast, convenient solution everyone wants, but we all know when the important dates are for our family – it’s not something that sneaks up on us – so it can be planned for well in advance. If money is tight, and not spending a lot is important to you, start thinking about these dates three or four months ahead of time. Try to decide what you want to get for your kids well in advance so you can set a little bit of money aside each check so you don’t have to pay for everything in one big chunk during the month of the birthday and break your budget. Since you’re planning well in advance, you can also look for a good sale and save money by purchasing the item(s) you want ahead of time and just holding on to them so you don’t have to pay full price later. If there isn’t any good deals for the items you want, or you can’t take advantage of any sales, then if possible, put the item on layaway so you can pay over time. The key here is to plan ahead, and make sure you’re not stuck at the last minute having to pay for gifts and a party all at the same time.

For the party itself, keep it simple and have it at home or at a local park. Don’t spend a lot on decorations either, they’re really not all that important, and you can buy basic items (like streamers and banners) cheaply at most dollar stores. They even usually have matching party supplies like cups, napkins, and paper plates if you feel the need to get these. I bought streamers, a big birthday banner, a table centerpiece, and 1st birthday candles at the dollar store for the twins party and spent a grand total of $7 on everything, and was able to decorate the entire living room and get that special “party” feel.

For older children go over their guest list with them and invite only the friends they really want to be there, not necessarily every single kid in their class or everyone they know. Making it more personal with a smaller number of friends is actually usually a lot more appealing because they’re spending time with the people they really want to hang out with, versus socializing with a lot of guests that really don’t matter to them as much. By not having a lot of extra guests, you save a little extra money on food and drinks.

If you’re having a party where you’re inviting other parts of your family, consider a potluck so you don’t have to do all the cooking (and shopping) to feed everyone. Relatives usually don’t mind pitching in to help out a little by bringing a dish, plus it can add extra variety to your spread.

You might also want to consider planning your party at a time of day when a meal wouldn’t be expected, like morning time or after lunch, and let everyone know that you’ll only be serving refreshments such as cake and ice cream and beverages, if you can’t afford or don’t want to cook or buy something to feed everyone.

Skip the party bags for guests, these are entirely unnecessary and can add up quite a bit if you’re not careful. Your guests shouldn’t expect to receive something when coming to a party other than a good time, but if you absolutely feel like you have to give out something to the other kids, than consider buying generic cellophane bags (you can get 20-40 for about a dollar at Walmart or your local dollar store) instead of the more expensive party favor bags that usually only have 8-12 in a pack, and then fill them with homemade cookies or some sort of cheap treat that you can buy in bulk or large packages like animal crackers or non-individually wrapped candies. Then just pour a little in the bottom of each bag and tie it off with some ribbon like a little satchel to make it look cute, versus stuffing it to the brim.

Whether you’re having a meal, or just refreshments, plan your menu ahead of time and shop smart. (See money saving tips for grocery shopping here.) Try to keep drinks simple by offering something you can make large quantities of such as punch for the kids and iced tea for the adults instead of soda, or if you must, buy generic and opt for 2-liter bottles and cups instead of individual drinks. If you are serving a meal, go for something you can make a lot of without spending a lot like hot dogs or hamburgers, and don’t feel the need to offer a lot of extra sides or condiments – just get the basics.

Finally, make the birthday cake yourself. Even the most inexperienced cook should be able to follow the basic instructions on the back of a cake mix box. If you’re still worried about it not looking right, try cupcakes instead, and you get the added bonus of them being extremely easy to serve and you don’t have to worry about forks. If you’re a bit more of a skilled baker or feel adventurous in the kitchen, and your kids have their heart set on a novelty cake or a certain theme, you can still try to do it yourself. They sell lots of different types of decorative icing and frosting in various styles, textures, and colors depending on your needs, they even sell prepackaged rolled fondant at many stores if you want that smooth “professional” look, or are trying to make something with a different shape. A little creativity can go a long way.

I made this for my kids:

TARDIS Cake with Rice Krispie Daleks

The cake I made (above) is the TARDIS and two Daleks from the show Doctor Who on the BBC. The Daleks were shaped out of Rice Krispie treats and covered in fondant, the base was chocolate cake with butter cream frosting and food coloring, and the TARDIS was white cake (stacked) covered with fondant. Then I decorated the designs and everything else with icing and edible dyes, and used a few marshmallows for accents. I’d like to note that this was my first time working with fondant, and although the process was a little time consuming from start to finish, it wasn’t that difficult. Altogether I didn’t spend that much money on the components to put this together and make it myself, probably about $10-$15, and since they were all unprepared food items, I was able to pay for everything with food stamps. A more generic, prepared cake from a bakery or store would have cost $20-$30, and a complicated cake like I made would have been a special order from a high end bakery that would have been much, much more expensive – and I would have had to pay cash for either option. Not only did I save money, but I made a one of a kind creation that everyone remembers, and it was an extra special effort that I made for the kids, which I think means much more in the long run.

I’m not saying you have to go to these kinds of lengths, a regular birthday cake with icing that you decorate yourself serves the same purpose, and can usually be made for ingredients that cost less than five dollars. The purpose is simply to show that a regular person is capable of doing much more at home than most people realize, with just a little extra time and effort, and it needn’t be expensive.

In the end, all of my children had nice birthday parties, special cakes, and a nice gift, and with a little planning ahead and smart shopping I was able to do all of it on an extremely limited budget without spending a lot of money, and you can too.

What other party planning tips or advice to you have? How else can you save money on birthdays and special occasions?


Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Budgeting, Family, Holidays, Shopping


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Money Saving Tips For Grocery Shopping

Now, I am not an extreme coupon shopper that tries to buy a thousand dollars worth of groceries for less than five bucks. I’ve watched the shows (and been amazed), I’ve read and learned about all the techniques on the various websites and forums that exist for this purpose, and I know the general principles fairly well. But let’s face it, for the average woman or family, this type of shopping just isn’t practical. The amount of research and preparation that has to go into each shopping trip, plus all the time spent collecting and amassing the necessary amount of coupons to do this to begin with, is simply beyond the scope of most people.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. It is possible and there are plenty of individuals out there who do it all the time, I’m just saying I don’t think it’s useful information that a lot of people hoping to save a few bucks on their regular grocery bill can put into immediate use. If you’re looking for that type of information, there are plenty of those websites out there already – and I can even refer you to some if you like – so I’m not going to talk about those techniques here.

With that said however, cutting and using coupons is still very useful and can save you a lot of money, and I highly recommend it, I just don’t feel it has to be taken to extreme levels to be successful.

Besides, I have twin infant boys. I can’t cut out coupons half of the day. Do you know how hard it is to clip coupons with two babies trying to crawl on you?

So, I thought I’d put together a more practical list of shopping techniques. Most of these things can be put into practice immediately, and overall they require only a small amount of  pre-shopping planning to be effective. Best of all, they work. I use these methods all the time, and I can usually walk out of the grocery store with an overflowing cart of quality items for less than a hundred dollars.

It’s also worth noting that I don’t live off of beans and rice (or the like). I do buy fresh meats and fruits and vegetables. I buy the normal things that most families would when doing their shopping, I just do it a little better – for less.

  • Buy fresh ingredients whenever possible instead of pre-prepared meals, or “heat and eat” dinners.
  • Look at the weekly store ads they send you in the mail and see what items are on sale, then try to plan meals around these. Keep this in mind for side dishes as well.
  • Make a list after you look at the ads and stick to it, trying to buy only things that are on sale each trip.
  • If you want something in particular, try to wait until it goes on sale. If possible buy a little extra to last until the next sale, so you don’t spend full price and waste money inbetween sales cycles. Most items (or types of items) will usually go on sale at least once every few months, though some items go on sale every few weeks, so try to keep track of the items you buy the most. (The period can vary depending on the item and where you live.)
  • Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season and priced lower.
  • If you eat a lot of a certain fruit or vegetable, and it’s on sale at an extremely low price, consider buying a little more and freezing the extra for future use so you won’t have to pay top price for it later on.
  • Do the same thing for meats when there’s a really good deal on ones you buy all the time or use a lot of.
  • Compare prices at your local supermarkets and farmers markets to find the best prices.
  • Typically certain items will go on sale at several stores at the same time, but  each store will have slightly different prices/offers on each item, some which are better than others. Go to the store that has the best overall deals for the items you will be getting.
  • If a different store has a much better price on one particular thing you want (or only a handful of things) – like the meat you really want for dinner, for example – whereas the vegetables and pantry items and everything else are better priced at the first store, buy everything at the first store and stop at the second store (if not too far out of the way) and pick up just the meat (and handful of other items that were priced better) on the way home. I only recommend this if it’s a significant price difference though, otherwise it’s usually not worth the extra gas and driving time.
  • Try to limit grocery shopping trips to twice a month for your main shopping, where you buy all the primary items for your meals and stock up your pantry, and once a week (on the weeks inbetween your main shopping trips) for incidental and fresh perishable items that you use more quickly. The less trips you make, the less you will chip away at your food budget with little purchases here and there. I find that it’s the little trips that tend to add up more, because you’re less likely to keep track of what you spend during these visits, and it tends to add up quite a bit more than you might realize over the course of the month.
  • Look for combined values and savings. Sometimes stores run specials that will take $5 or $10 off your overall purchase if you buy a certain amount of items (usually 10) from one section of the circular. Look through the ad and see if these are items you might be buying anyway, and make sure you have the proper total amount. Sometimes grabbing that second extra box or jar of something makes the difference between 9 and 10 items off the list, which can save you more than that last item would cost on it’s own.
  • Don’t be conned into buying more of an item by “10 for $10” and similar ads if it’s not something you need a lot of that you will use before the next sale cycle. Unless it says “must buy 10” to get this price, it still means they’re only $1 each, whether you buy 1 or 10. If you only need 3, only buy 3. Don’t buy 10 just because the sign says so.
  • Don’t be fooled by “fake” sales either. Sometimes a store will list an item as “2 for $3” for example, which means $1.50 each, but the regular price may only be $1.29. If you keep track of how much the items you buy generally cost, and how much you usually pay for them, these bumped up prices disguised as “deals” should stand out.
  • Check the unit prices on items – that is, the price per pound, or per once – and try to buy the size that is the cheapest per unit. This is not always the largest size! Many people assume the biggest size is the biggest value, but this isn’t always the case. I often come across items where it’s cheaper to buy two medium sized (or smaller) units than one large one, and sometimes you even get more of the product overall for less.
  • Do clip and use coupons and combine them with sale prices for maximum savings, but only on the items (or types of items) you would regularly buy anyway, and only for the amount of food that you actually need and will use.
  • Consider buying a different brand if it’s on sale, or if you have a coupon, of something you would already purchase if it’s cheaper that way. Only do this if it’s really something you would buy and use though!
  • Consider buying value brands/generic items when possible. Many items there is absolutely no difference between the generic brand and the regular one. Sugar anyone? Could you tell the difference between store brand and name brand flour? Salt? Spices? Be practical and ask yourself if it really matters and save yourself the markup for a label.
  • Check the clearance bins and daily specials in the store. Most grocery stores have a bin, shelf, or rack somewhere in the store (usually in the back) of items that are still perfectly good but are priced to move because they have to rotate their stock. These items aren’t usually advertised, so you have to look for them.
  • Look for other sale prices and deals in the store that aren’t advertised on things you regularly buy and use.
  • Try not to buy extra snacks and junk food! It’s okay to treat yourself to something extra here or there every once in a while if you must, but limit these purchases to one or two items per shopping trip. Try to focus on what you need for your family’s meals.
  • Buy in bulk if the unit price for that item is cheaper that way, but only if it’s a product that you use regularly enough that a bulk purchase makes sense – and only if you will use all of the item before it goes bad.
  • Make sure you sign up for, and use, the store rewards card for the places you shop if they have one. These are free and save you a lot of money, and sometimes the stores even have programs that give you a certain amount of store credit back off future shopping trips based on how much you use your card in a given period, so keep your information up to date and use your rewards when you earn them.
  • Also look online at the store webpages for extra electronic coupons and deals that you can load to your store rewards card before your shopping trip. These extra savings will automatically come off your bill during your checkout when you swipe your store card.
  • Finally, don’t go to the grocery store hungry! You’ll be much more tempted to buy extra snacks and goodies that you don’t need or wouldn’t regularly buy.

Was this list helpful? Was there anything you saw here that you might not have thought of before? or that you don’t already do when shopping on your own?

What other tips and money savings techniques do you use when you go grocery shopping?


Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Budgeting, Family, Money, Shopping


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How To Make A Budget & Then Make It Work

Due to my extremely limited income, and thus, extremely tight monthly budget (of $725 cash, plus food stamps, per month, for me and three children – two of which are twin babies) and the fact that I’m still surviving somehow, and even able to plan ahead and accommodate things like holidays, birthdays, back-to-school expenses, and the like, I’ve had several friends and family members ask me how my budget works.

The answer is very precisely.

But in all seriousness, it got me thinking about how I never really ran a detailed budget before (we had a loose “general budget” when things were better) and then I thought about all the people who think budgeting is only for the poor, or who don’t know how to make or follow a budget at all.

Budgeting is an essential tool for maintaining healthy finances, and should be an essential tool for every family’s money management.

So because of this, I thought I’d share the basics of putting together a functioning budget, and a few tips on making it work well for your family. Most of this may seem pretty basic, but even if you already have a budget and think you manage it well, reviewing it again never hurts, and reading up on how others manage with less can often put things into perspective.

1) Make a list of your family’s needs. These should include both the immediate needs and your short-term and long-term financial goals.

Immediate financial needs are the obvious things that you have to have, and can’t do without. They are things like housing, utilities, food, transportation, toilet paper, clothing, etc. There are obviously many more specific things, and you should list them out, in detail, to give yourself an idea of all your necessities. Most people think they don’t have that many immediate needs, but when you start to write it all down, you can realize quickly how many more items (like shampoo, and laundry soap, etc) you might not have thought of at first.

Short-term financial goals should include the things you want and/or need in the near future, usually within the next year or two. A good example of a short term goal is to create an emergency savings fund, to pay off the balance on your credit cards, to save up for a special purchase, to take a vacation, or do some home repairs. Everyone’s situation is different, so write whatever is applicable for your family.

Long-term financial goals should include the things you want and/or need (as the name would imply) for the more distant future, and are things you should try to start working towards and saving for as soon as possible, because it will take longer to reach these savings goals. A long-term goal could be coming up with the down-payment for a house, saving money in a college fund for your kids, or planning for retirement.

Again, everyone’s situation is different and this list will differ from family to family, but try to be realistic and limit your list to things you feel are truly attainable and that you really want.

2) Assess the general state of your family’s finances by comparing total assets to total debt.

Your total assets are the value of everything you own, including cash, savings, investments, the value of your home and any real property, including vehicles, as well as your belongings such as furniture and appliances.

Your total debt is the amount of all money you owe, including unpaid and past due bills, outstanding medical expenses, any and all loans (including student loans), credit card balances, your mortgage balance, and other debts you might have.

Once you have your total asset and debt figures for your family, compare them to determine which is higher. If your debt is higher than your assets you should try to start steadily paying your debt down with a realistic payment schedule.

3) Determine your family’s total monthly income and expenses.

Although this step seems like the most obvious in creating a budget, it’s often the one that is not given enough attention.

Your total income should include all regular sources of money such as salaries and wages, as well as any income received from any and all other sources such as SSI, child support or alimony, food stamps, and interest and dividends from bank accounts or investments if you have these. Only count the amount of money that you receive after taxes and deductions for the purposes of creating your budget.

When determining your total monthly expenses, don’t forget irregular expenses that you only pay for every few months, or once or twice a year (like car registration) and divide their cost across the amount of time they cover to arrive at a monthly figure.

Divide all your expenses into two categories: fixed (those that cost the same amount every month) and variable (those that may be different from month to month). Fixed expenses usually include things like rent, insurance, car payments, loan payments, childcare, and certain telephone and internet plans, or cable bills, if the amount is the same every month. Variable expenses may be similar from month to month, or vary widely based on usage, and can include things like utilities, food, transportation costs (like gas), non flat-rate phone plans, personal hygiene items, medical and/or dental costs, and money spent on entertainment or going out.

It might be a good idea to keep a spending diary for a few months, review old bank statements or checkbooks, and even go over receipts to get an accurate estimate of how much you really spend each month. Many people grossly underestimate how much they really spend on things like groceries, or how much they use on entertainment purchases each month. Keeping track for a while to get a real picture of where your money goes each month is one of the most important parts in creating a working budget. If you don’t know how much you really need, then you can’t allot yourself the right amount of funds within your budget, and then it won’t work.

Once you have your real figures, as best (and hopefully, as accurately) you can determine, and compare them, then you can start creating your actual budget. The lower the expenses are in comparison to your income than the sooner you will be able to work towards and achieve your short-term and long-term goals that you outlined before.

If your income is higher, make setting aside a little bit of your leftover income in a savings account for an emergency fund part of your budget (if it isn’t already) so you’ll have extra cash to cover unforeseen expenses should they arise. Ideally an emergency fund should be able to cover your expenses for several months, but start with a smaller, achievable amount to begin with, and then add to it over time to build it to where you need. If you already have an emergency fund in place, or once you do get one set up, you’ll be able to start saving the extra income towards your other goals.

If your expenses are higher than your income, and there’s no way to increase your income through additional work, than you’ll need to find ways to lower your expenses. (I will deal with tips for this part separately, at the end, in step 5.)

4) Set up, and keep track, of your new (actual) budget.

Using the figures you determined in step three, physically write out an actual budget with a total that does not exceed your total (guaranteed) monthly income.

List all your fixed expenses first, since these do not change. Then write out all your variable expense items, and set a realistic spending limit for each one. Base the spending limit on your spending history and/or on the average bill amounts.

If you are trying to cut spending in any area, make sure the cuts and limits are realistic. It does you no good if your budget looks great on paper if you won’t stick to it.

Make sure you also create a section for your monthly savings goals.

Then, finally, write down (in a column next to your spending limits) what you actually spent on each item. Try to stay as close to your actual budget as possible, and refer back to it often to help stay on track. Make a new column for each month as you go along to keep track, and so you can continue to compare your spending habits.

Your total budget for each month should always balance. That is, your total income for that month should always match your total expenses.  Keep track of all spending and account for all purchases so you can see where your money is (and isn’t) going. Record both expenses and savings.

Review your budget every few months and make adjustments to your savings goals and adjust your spending limits accordingly until you find a balance that works for you and is right for your family. You may also need to review and adjust your budget if your family size changes, your expenses or income change, or if your family’s goals change.

5) Be smart with your money.

Try to find ways to lower your expenses. Involve your entire family to help come up with ideas and to make the budget work. Even little things like walking or riding a bike to school or for short trips instead of driving so you save money on gas can add up to significant savings over time.

Below are some suggestions and tips on how to lower expenses and save money in little ways that can amount to important savings in the long run. The more things you do to cut out extra spending, the more you’ll save, and the more you’ll be able to contribute towards reaching your goals.

  • Walk or bike whenever possible instead of driving.
  • When you are driving, try to combine errands into one trip, and if possible, park in a central location for multiple stores/businesses and walk in between them instead of driving to each separately.
  • Eat out less or cook meals at home instead of eating out.
  • If you already cook all of your meals, try to buy fresh ingredients as much as possible to lower costs.
  • Compare prices at your local supermarkets and farmers markets to find the best prices.
  • Look at the weekly store ads they send you in the mail and try to buy items when they’re on sale.
  • Use coupons and combine them with sale prices for maximum savings.
  • Consider buying value brands/generic items when possible.
  • Eliminate small costs that aren’t necessities, for example, use cloth hand towels that you can wash and reuse instead of paper towels.
  • Instead of buying soda, make tea, or better yet – drink water!
  • When you do go shopping, make a list and stick to it! Buy only what’s on your list and what you really need. Don’t get distracted with impulse buys. A good way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to not go shopping when you’re hungry, as you’re less likely to pick up extra junk food or “goodies” that you might otherwise grab if you were shopping on an empty stomach.
  • Buy in bulk if the unit price for that item is cheaper that way, but only if it’s a product that you use regularly enough that a bulk purchase makes sense – and only if you will use all of the item before it goes bad.
  • When shopping for non-grocery items, like clothing, furniture, or anything else, determine if it’s something you really need before spending any money on it. If possible, wait a few weeks to give yourself time to think about it and see if you still want/need it.
  • Compare prices not only in stores, but also online.
  • Whenever possible, see if you can get the item cheaper by purchasing it used. You can look through classifieds, your local pennysaver, craigslist, or even second hand stores or yard sales.
  • Also, buy the items that only have the features you really need, don’t spend money on “extras” that you really won’t use,  or aren’t necessary.
  • Always ask yourself if it would be better to spend the money on something else, or even save it, before you decide whether something is worth purchasing or not.
  • Pay your bills on time to avoid late fees, and if possible, pay online or over the phone so you don’t waste money on stamps.
  • Be careful when using credit, and use it wisely by only charging what your budget allows. If you can’t pay the balance off each month you will have to pay extra finance charges that can add up fast.
  • Save money on your heating and cooling costs by setting the heater slightly cooler, and the air conditioner slightly warmer. You can always wear warmer or cooler clothes to make up for the difference. A few degrees change on the thermostat can make a huge difference on your bills.
  • Also consider using fans instead of your air conditioner whenever possible, and try to let the sunlight in when it’s cold, and to keep it out whenever it’s hot.
  • Switch your light bulbs to energy-saving compact fluorescent bulbs – these make a huge difference on your energy usage and your bill.
  • Use natural light instead of turning on lights when possible, and make sure you turn off lights that aren’t in use.
  • Also consider unscrewing extra lights you don’t need at all. For example, if there are four light bulbs in a ceiling for a room, or in a fixture, consider unscrewing two, or even three of the four bulbs. Use the bare minimum number that you really need. I know I lived in a place once that had “vanity” lights over the bathroom mirror. There were about ten bulb sockets in one bathroom, and six or seven in the other. Unscrewing all but one or two bulbs still gave off plenty of light though, so I just left all the other sockets empty.
  • Don’t leave your computer or television or any other electronic device you’re not using on if it doesn’t have to be. If it’s not in use, turn it off.
  • Consider minor changes, like cooking in a slow cooker or crock pot instead of the oven, as this uses much less energy.

Make your own list of money saving ideas! Brainstorm with your family and try to think of other ways that could shave off unwanted and unneeded expenses wherever you can.

Stay organized. Keep all your papers (bills, receipts, bank statements, cancelled checks, etc) together and review your records and your spending diary or checkbook monthly. This will not only ensure you pay bills on time, but it will also help develop good financial habits and help you keep better control of your budget, and you’ll be able to plan better for the future.

Evaluate your goals often to stay motivated. Remember what you’re working towards!

There are plenty of other ideas and tips that aren’t on this list, but it should give you a good start on how to start thinking thrifty and saving, and if you follow the basics to setting up your budget, you should start to see improvement in your money management techniques within a few months.

Remember, keep track of everything, and be realistic with yourself both about what you can – and can’t – cut from your budget, and set attainable limits and goals to keep yourself motivated and on track.

Good luck!


Posted by on January 25, 2012 in Budgeting, Family, Money


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Holidays On A Budget -or- How I Made It Through

I haven’t had a chance to post a new entry in a while. Part of this was due to the hectic holiday season and part of it due to the increased mobility of the twins, and the time consuming nature of taking care of two infant babies intent on destroying, er, I mean exploring their environment. However, I do want to post a summary of my observations and learning on the best way to make it through the holidays on an extremely tight budget. It is possible! I did it, and rather well I might add.

So, in my last post I stressed the importance of signing up for assistance and charity programs that are out there and exist expressly for the purpose of aiding families during the holiday season, and of course being on top of the signup dates and times and arriving early. This definitely helped.

For Thanksgiving we received a food basket from the Salvation Army with: a turkey, potatoes, butter, canned goods (including green beans, corn, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes), bread, and stuffing. In fact, the food basket alone probably would have been enough to make our Thanksgiving meal, but careful budgeting and planning ahead earlier in the month contributed to make it a much nicer dinner – and ultimately, holiday – than if we had relied on that alone. Not knowing exactly what (or how much) we would receive, and knowing Thanksgiving comes at the end of the month when the food budget (i.e. food stamps) is typically running low, a simple bit of preparation and pre-planning really went a long way.

Obviously you always want to shop sales and stock up on items when they’re at their cheapest when doing your shopping, that kind of tip is a no brainer, but making a list of everything we needed and doing my shopping earlier in the month really saved me, not just money, but also the stress of last minute grocery shopping in crowded stores. Plus I was able to compare deals and early sales and really get everything out of the way in advance. Having bought enough “just in case” ahead of time, anything we had leftover that we didn’t need to use after we received the food basket we were able to set aside for later.

The second thing that really helped keep the stress off of Thanksgiving for me this year was a division of duties. Since typically people tend to get together with their family and loved ones anyway, we made it a group effort. Everyone who was invited to dinner was assigned one or two dishes to prepare and bring, and this also kept costs down so we weren’t responsible for every item on the menu.

Between what family members brought and contributed, what I bought in advance, and what we received, not only was there plenty for everyone in attendance, but it didn’t even feel like a Thanksgiving on a budget. We didn’t lack for anything, and even got my pantry semi-restocked with all the leftover extras that didn’t need to be used, which came in handy come Christmas-time.

Shopping during the holidays, and being able to buy at least a few presents for your kids, is probably every poor family’s worst nightmare when money is so tight. Again though, a little foresight and planning goes a long way. Setting aside as much as you can in the previous months leading up to the season, even if it’s just a little bit each check, goes a long way in alleviating stress so you don’t have to worry about not having enough available in a single month come December, and you don’t have to stress that your bills won’t get paid if you want your kids to have a Christmas.

Finally, and I know this isn’t something most people want to do, but if you’re broke it really is the best option: take advantage of Black Friday sales and be a door-buster. It may seem inconvenient to wait in long lines in advance and deal with crowds, but if you prepare yourself for it and can try to get all your shopping accomplished on this one day, not only will you save a lot and be able to shop on whatever your limited budget is, but you also don’t have to stress for the rest of the season, because everything is already taken care of.

Do your research in advance and have a game plan.

Be flexible about what types of gifts, or specific items, you’re going to purchase for your family.

Buy for the smallest amount of people you can. Most of your friends, coworkers, and other relatives will understand if you don’t buy them all a gift – and probably won’t be expecting one anyway, if you’re on a limited income – so don’t try to buy for everyone.

Save the ads they send you in the mail the week leading up to Thanksgiving, and buy the newspaper Thanksgiving Day to look through the different specials. Decide which store (or stores) you will be shopping at and look at those ads (or on their websites) in advance to see which items they will have on sale, and make your list.

Try to limit your shopping to one store (if possible) or the smallest number of stores you can, by purchasing as many items as you can at one location. Make that main store the first stop, and arrive early (or line up in advance) so you can assure you get the most amount of sale items on your list as early as possible, because if you go to more than one location there’s no guarantee the items you want will still be available by the time you arrive.

Buy only items that are at a significant discount to take full advantage of the sales that are offered on this day. Anyone can do shopping for non-sale items any day of the year, so don’t waste your time or energy on this one special day when so many items are offered at such low prices on anything other than sale items, and particularly aim for the extremely reduced priced items and offers if you can.

Stick to your list and don’t get distracted or lured into spending extra money on other items that aren’t on your list. No impulse buys! You have a plan and a budget and you need to stick to it!

Plan for a few alternate gifts. If one of the items on your list isn’t available anymore by the time you get there, have a second-choice item already selected in advance (that is also on sale) so you don’t have to scramble and try to find something else at the last minute and end up spending more than you had intended.

Don’t go overboard. Buy the bare minimum number of gifts you are comfortable with and can easily afford within the set amount of shopping money you’ve saved.Your kids don’t need to have a hundred gifts under the tree to unwrap. A couple presents each, or one nicer “big” present, for each person you’re shopping for, along with one “Santa” gift for each younger child should be more than enough.

If it’s the first holiday for your kids (like it was for my boys) don’t worry too much about having to make it “extra special” or try to “go all out” – your kids won’t remember it anyway, or really understand what’s going on. Make it nice, buy a few items as long as you don’t spend too much, and keep it simple.

Don’t dip into other funds that are set aside for other things in your budget. Never say, “Oh, I can wait on paying this bill this month, and use that money…” That money will have to come from somewhere later on, and you don’t want to throw off your budget for the following month (or months) playing catch up. In the end, it is not in your family’s best interest to be behind on bills or in debt for months to come over one holiday.

Finally, as I’ve stressed previously, arrive early. It may seem like a hassle, but getting in line ahead of time and saving a spot gives you the highest probability of finding all the sale items and extreme deals you have marked on your list before they all get snatched up by other shoppers.

And that’s that. That’s exactly what I did.

I did my research, picked my primary and secondary stores, and made my list based on what gifts were for sale at extremely reduced prices. Everything on my list was priced so low, I was even able to add a couple extra items to the list that I wanted to buy in advance and save until January, for the twins first birthday. I figured buying it now, when it was so cheap, and holding onto it until then would also save me money in the long run.

After we finished our Thanksgiving meal I drove to my first store and got in line, where I waited several hours until the doors opened and the line advanced enough to allow me inside. Once in, I began looking for the items on my list and did not distract myself with any other non-sale items. Amazingly I was able to find everything I wanted from my list, with no items out of stock yet, then I waited in line again to check out, which took several hours.

By the time this was over I was very tired, but the end was almost in sight. I went to my second (and last) store to look for the last handful of items on my list, and surprisingly, found those still in stock as well. I waited in line again to pay for my final purchases, and went home. I was very tired, but also very proud of myself, because I had managed to do my entire Christmas shopping in one night, with such a small amount of money, and the rest of December I didn’t even have to think about shopping.

Then of course, I knew the kids would be receiving a few extra items as well from the Salvation Army’s Christmas Angels program, but again, without knowing exactly what those things would be, wanted to make sure they were still covered. However, knowing that, I also didn’t feel the need to spend too much (though I managed to get much more than I thought I would be able to on such a small amount of money) because there would be some other gifts to supplement whatever I bought, so that also kept my mind at ease.

Then, as a last minute surprise, on Christmas Eve, I received a phone call from Toys 4 Tots letting me know they had extra last minute donations, and offering a few more items for each child.

Between my planning in advance, signing up for programs and special services available to me, and careful shopping, not only were we able to get through the holiday season with little to no pain on our limited budget, but it actually turned out to be quite a nice one at that.

And the icing on the cake? I don’t even have to spend any money on gifts for the boys first birthday – which is exactly in one week – because I set aside some of the items I bought for super cheap during my Black Friday shopping spree for exactly that purpose.

Like I’ve said, a little planning goes a long way.

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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in Budgeting, Charities, Family, Holidays, Money


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Self-Imposed Spending Filters

Something that happens rather quickly when one is on an extremely tight budget, is you start viewing all potential purchases through what I like to call a spending filter.

A spending filter is when you look at what you’re considering buying, and then compare it with all the other items you could be buying instead for the same amount of money, or a portion thereof, and weigh which items have the highest priority. If you can think of another item that is needed more, has a higher priority, or is more practical, for that same amount (or less) than you don’t make the purchase.

This is a self-imposed habit, and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it does make shopping, even for basic necessities rather a chore. It’s also a valuable lesson in priorities, and for a mother, it’s often simple equates to a “the kids come first” mentality, whereby items I need are almost always postponed or foregone altogether in favor of buying something my children need. In fact, their wants often precede my needs as well, as trying to maintain the happiness of a child when in a difficult situation often seems like a top priority in and of itself. I tell myself, “My kids deserve this.” And they do. It’s just a matter of finding a way to fit it in, which usually means cutting something else out.

So my priorities basically look like this:

1) Family necessities: Things we all need, general household expenses (rent, utilities, food, toilet paper, etc).
2) Children necessities: Things the twins or my daughter absolutely cannot go without (diapers, wipes, feminine products, etc).
3) Children high-priority non-necessities*: Things the kids need, but will usually not cause an emergency if it has to wait a few days (clothing, shoes).
4) Children regular-priority non-necessities: Things the kids could use, or items that are needed but with more notice, a longer lead time, or are less urgent or have more flexible timings for purchase (i.e. “I need Item Z for school by next week” or “I’m running low on Item Y and need more before X date” in the case of my teenage daughter – or – baby gear items, like: highchairs, a crib, the next stage car seats, etc. in the case of the boys – items I know they need, but usually can plan for in advance, or make due some other way in the meantime).
5) Children’s wants/non-necessities: Any and all other items that my kids want, or I want to get for them, that they can live without and don’t absolutely need but as a parent I would like for them to have, because it will make them happy or enriches them in some way (toys, books, entertainment, etc).
6) My needs: Only if absolutely necessary (i.e. over the counter medicines like Ibuprofen, replacing an item – like if my nursing bra breaks, or my shoes wear out – unplanned expenses, etc).
7) My wants: Not really on the list to be honest. By the time we reach this priority level the money is spent.

* The only reason the items listed in point three are not considered necessities and grouped with point two is due to the fact that they have these items already for the most part, but when we reach this point on the list it is either to get new items in place of things outgrown, add something that is missing but needed now (that may not have been needed before, due to weather or other circumstances), or get something that is otherwise worn out and/or unusable any longer and is in need of replacement.

So, I realize that all sounds rather complicated, so let me give you a real world example of my spending filters in action.

I go to the store to buy something we need and have to have, like diapers, and while shopping I see something I could use, like a pair of pants (since I only have two pairs that fit) that are relatively inexpensive. Immediately in my head I think of all the other things that I can buy for the same amount of money as that pair of pants.

“I could get another box of diapers for that price, or two value boxes of wipes, or that could pay for a third of the price for the second highchair they need. Alternatively, I could buy four new outfits for the boys, or a pair of toys, or three books for my daughter, or pay for her to go to the movies. It’s also a bottle of ibuprofen, some dish-soap, and a large pack of toilet paper…”

This can go on for quite some time. In the end, this  means the pants go back on the shelf. Now, it does not always mean I seek out and purchase the other items I realized might be a better buy. Quite often the money isn’t even spent at all other than on the specific things I came to get in the first place. But this mental exercise helps me see the value of things, and avoid frivolous and non essential purchases.

I never just pick up coffee or a burger and fries, because I don’t see a quick snack, I see shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, or baby powder and wipes, or a ticket for my daughter to go to a school dance.

So in the end, all that money that might have been nickeled-and-dimed away gets set aside for necessities, or saved up to purchase the larger items I need for my kids that I can’t usually afford out of what is left from any one check by itself.

When I went to the fair a couple of weeks ago, it was only because my mother and her boyfriend decided they wanted to take me and the kids as a treat, because in my head I couldn’t justify the expense. I didn’t see fair tickets, corn dogs, and carnival rides, I saw baby clothes, new shoes for my daughter, and/or (possibly) money set aside for Halloween costumes for the kids.

Just because we’re on a very limited income, does not mean I don’t believe my kids shouldn’t still get to celebrate holidays like any other child would be able to – and my teenage daughter, especially, is very excited about dressing up for Halloween. A desire that trumps her whim to go to the fair, though – thanks to my mom – we did not have to choose between the two this time. I’m happy to announce that we did, in fact, buy her costume, and it was the one she wanted. I would not have been able to do this if I didn’t have this filters in my head that prioritize my spending, and limit me from using money on other items.

We may not have a lot of extra things these days, but we have the basics; and my kids are cared for. I’m even able to get them the items they want a lot of the time as well, it just requires a little planning and budgeting, but when your children don’t ask for much, or often, you find a way to make it happen – even if that means you’ll continue to only own two pairs of pants (that fit) for the foreseeable future. It’s well worth it.


Posted by on October 14, 2011 in Budgeting, Family, Money


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The Extravagance of Welfare

I’m not a deadbeat. I’m not a drug addict.

In fact, overall, I’d like to think I’m a pretty good person. If a see a lost dog wandering around, I’ll stop and look for the tag and call the owners, or, if there’s no tag, I’ll call a no-kill shelter to pick it up so the poor thing doesn’t get hit by a car. I volunteer with the Girl Scouts. I give food to homeless people. I read to my kids. I vote.

I’ve been to college and have a Bachelor’s Degree in International Business Administration. I even graduated  with honors (magna cum laude) and I was my class Valedictorian.

I’ve worked in marketing for Procter & Gamble, interned (briefly) at the United Nations Environmental Programme, and held various sales positions, among other things.

Yet, despite everything, I am currently a welfare recipient, something this country tries to make you feel ashamed about, as if no one who is intelligent and/or hard-working can ever fall on hard times. But this is a lie. It can happen to anyone… and it happened to me.

So, what’s my point?

Well, currently on almost any given day you can see both politicians and pundits making claims about the poor people “living off the system” and “getting a free ride” as if those on welfare are living it up, or like this is a choice people gladly enter in to.

The fact of the matter is that I would love to be working, but with a stagnant economy and high unemployment rates, I was not able to find work. Then, when I became pregnant with my twins, my options were even smaller. I needed Medi-cal to safely deliver my babies. I needed to be able to feed and shelter my kids. I swallowed my pride and applied for social services. After all, isn’t that what they’re there for? To help us through the tough times when we’re in desperate need and have no other options or choices? Isn’t this what the taxes I paid when I was working helped to pay for? Why should I be ashamed? It wasn’t as if I wasn’t trying, but sometimes just trying isn’t enough.

Still, most people in this situation are loathe to admit it, let alone talk about it. There’s a stigma associated with welfare. We are supposed to be ashamed and hide it. We’re a burden on the system. So much of a burden, in fact, that this is one of the areas that spending needs to be cut. Mention raising taxes on the top 1% and you’re engaging in class warfare. Heaven forbid we suggest multi-billion dollar corporations have a few tax loopholes closed. No, we need to make the nation’s poorest, already struggling to just survive, live on even less.

But before you all get in a huff about this, let me elaborate on exactly what “less” means, and how little help is actually received.

I’m a mother of three. I have a 14-year-old teenage daughter, and twin boys, currently 7 and 1/2 months old. This means I have a family size of four. Me, and my three children, two of which are in diapers.

So, how much does the government deem is sufficient for a family of four with no other income? How much do I actually receive from Social Services to live off of and support my three kids and myself each month until I get back on my feet?

$725. A month.

Let me repeat that: a month.

This is meant to cover rent, utilities, transportation, diapers, any clothing needs that may arise (which for those of you with children, you know is something kids need; trivial items like clothes and shoes), school supplies, and any non-food products. You know, little things like soap, shampoo, toilet paper, feminine products, etc. I do get a separate amount in food stamps, which – thankfully – is enough to make sure we’re all fed, but absolutely everything else is meant to be covered by that $725.

And according to the GOP, that’s just too much. They want to cut it even more.

Now, I manage. I’m resourceful. I’ve found a way to stretch that tiny amount of money as far as I can, and so far, we’re getting by, but there are plenty of others who are not able to. A single mother with only one child only gets $473 a month to live off. For those of you that live in California, I’d like you to think about that for a moment.

$725 a month to support three kids.

Could you do it?


Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Budgeting, Money, Politics, Welfare


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