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Category Archives: Holidays

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?

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

 

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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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You Have To Arrive Early…

So, when economic times are hard, we all know things become tougher for many families. However, when lots of people who aren’t accustomed to having to ask for help or assistance suddenly drop down a few rungs on the figurative class ladder, they find themselves turning to these organizations for the first time.

Case in point: The Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army is a wonderful organization, and as anyone who’s ever been outside a store during Christmas-time and seen the volunteers with their red tins and bells may already know, they offer assistance to families in need during the holiday season. They call it their “Christmas Angels” program in most places, and they will help provide gifts (toys and sometimes clothes) for your little ones under twelve years of age, as well as a Christmas food basket that’s custom sized to the size of your family, which includes all adults and children in the household.

What you may not know is that the sign-up period for this program begins in October, and ends in the beginning of November, long before Thanksgiving, before most people are typically thinking or worrying about Christmas yet. So by the time many people realize they may need some help, it’s already too late to apply.

Then there’s the issue of those who do know. The people who take advantage of the services these charities offer every year. The “lower class” that the press loves to demonize. You know, the people so far below the poverty line that they can’t afford gifts for their children for Christmas. Many are the working poor, and many are on social services, like me. We’re all people on a tight budget to get by month to month, with little wiggle room for other expenses. Now, granted, these charities offer these programs exactly for people like this, like us, in these situations, but if you’re not a regular beneficiary of these types of services, have never used them in the past, and aren’t used to the procedures, you might be a little overwhelmed and surprised by the process.

The key lesson to be learned? (Not to mention my number one piece of advice.) You have to arrive early.

And by early, I don’t mean during the early part of the business hours, or even five or ten minutes before opening. I mean early, like door-busters or Black Friday early.

Because I currently live in an area with a large percentage of the population on fairly low to extremely low income, I knew well enough that there would be a high demand for these services. I also had the foresight to call well enough in advance inquiring about the program to find out when the signups were, even though I didn’t expect them to be as early as October. Still, I knew. I found out ahead of time.

In my town, the first day of the sign-ups was yesterday, from 1:00pm-3:45pm. I showed up at 12-noon. I had wanted to be early, but I do have infant twin boys that are still breastfeeding, so even when someone else is keeping an eye on the kids, I have to feed them first before I leave, and can only be gone a limited amount of time before I have to be back and feed them again. (I do pump and store, but they refuse to take a bottle.) This obviously limits exactly how long I can stand in line, and how early I can show up. I assumed one hour would probably be early enough to get a good spot, and hoped that after the Salvation Army offices opened, it wouldn’t take that long.

Even at noon – an hour early – there was already a decent sized line. Still, it didn’t look like it was so extensive that it couldn’t be handled within  3 hours and 45 minutes. I assumed everyone would be served and taken care of, we’d just have to wait our turn. Hopefully the office was used to this, and efficient, and would take care of everyone quickly. Many, many more people showed up and arrived after me. The line grew.

I had brought all the documents I assumed they might require, such as proof of residence, proof of income, identification, etc. They hadn’t told me over the phone exactly what to bring, so I just grabbed it all, to be on the safe side.

I waited. I talked to the people around me. I waited some more.

At 1 o’clock they opened the doors and employees started coming down the line, asking people how many children were in the household and handing out numbers. When they arrived to the person in front of me they gave her the last number and informed us (i.e. myself, and everyone else behind me) that they could only handle paperwork for 40 people that day, and that we would all have to come back the next day if we wanted to try again.

I was the 41st person in line.

It was incredibly frustrating to be so close, and yet still denied. I had just wasted over an hour with nothing to show for it. However, I now had an idea about how many people to expect the next day. I knew, that at the very least, all those behind me would probably be coming back the next day, based on all those who were turned away. In addition I assumed there would be people who would show up later that same day (who weren’t waiting in line ahead of time) who would also be turned away once they arrived, as well as people who might prefer the morning hours of the second day versus the afternoon hours offered the first day. Add to this all the people who might not know about the first day of signups, who would find out from friends and family as word of mouth spread, and I figured day two would be much worse.

In total, there are only six sign up days for the Christmas Angels/Baskets program in my area. Two this week (yesterday and today), two next week on Wednesday and Friday, and two the week after on Monday and Wednesday. Then they’re done. That’s it. After November 9th, if you haven’t signed up, you can’t participate. Now this might seem sufficient time for people to sign up for a service, until you take into account that they’re limiting the amount of people that can sign up each of those days, which means there’s a limited number of total spots.

Day one they only allowed 40 people. They had three hours and forty-five minutes to help those 40 that received numbers and process the paperwork, but Day 2 had much shorter hours (from 9am-11am), so before I left, I had the foresight to ask. “How many people will you be taking tomorrow?”

The answer: probably no more than 30.

So I asked for a list of all the information I needed (so I could make sure I had everything I needed ahead of time) and I went home and planned my battle attack.

I had to be there early. I absolutely had to get one of those 30 spots. I couldn’t risk waiting until next week, when even more people would probably be showing up.

And today I’m proud to announce that even though it was very, very cold this morning, and the twins were at home nestled all snug in their bed sleeping in after an extra-early morning feeding (with their Uncle Andrew watching them, prepared to feed them baby food if they woke before I got back), I was in line – holding a number 18 in my hand. I wasn’t first, but it was good enough.

They only took 30 people today.

I felt badly for the people behind me. I didn’t feel too bad, however, about speaking up to the women who tried to cut in front of their friends in the line and push everyone else who had been waiting back a spot.

And now? Well, my kids are signed up, but I still feel badly for the people who may show up on the remaining four signup days. I feel bad because they may not have found out early enough when the signups were, or thought since there were multiple days, they could pick the one most convenient for them. Like me, they may not find out until they’re there that there are a limited amount of spaces each day, and waiting until a later date might mean they can’t signup at all.

And even if they do know, they better arrive early.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2011 in Charities, Family, Holidays

 

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