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How Stereotypes Are Reenforced – Part 2: Drug Testing

For those of you just joining me, this is the second of three posts I’m making in a series in response to this article. After reading it I wanted to write about how the stereotype of the free-loading welfare recipient is reenforced by the very type of dialogue these legislators are engaging in, and how it’s a far cry from the reality of the situation of most poor people that receive social services.

If you missed my first post in this series, please refer to yesterday’s entry here.

If you haven’t read my original post on in regards to the reality of welfare benefits, and why I started this blog, you can look at my thoughts on the extravagance of welfare by clicking here.

In my rant post today I’d like to address the part about mandatory screening tests for those on social service programs, which include not only cash aid, but also recipients who receive only food stamps or Medicaid.

Although it’s a common cry that is often heard to “test for drugs” before an individual is allowed to sign up for welfare benefits, and at first glance, this type of request seems harmless, even prudent – again, we miss the bigger picture with these types of proposals.

First and foremost, this is unconstitutional. The Fourth Amendment specifically protects citizens from unreasonable and unwarranted search and seizure. This is the same reason a cop cannot search you during a routine traffic stop without cause, and why refusing to consent to a search is not (in and of itself) reasonable suspicion to conduct such a search.

The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights reads:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

A drug test is a type of search, a very personal and private one. It is not legally (or even morally, or ethically) considered “reasonable” to search a person solely because they are poor, and need assistance. Having little or no money is not probable cause that you are a drug user.

There is absolutely no basis to assume that because someone is struggling financially that they must therefore be using drugs. Furthermore, there is no research that shows the percentage of drug users amongst welfare recepients is any higher than the percentage found within the rest of the population.

Translation: Some people use drugs, some people don’t. It has nothing whatsoever to do with poverty levels or whether someone is on general assistance programs.

To group everyone together and force them to submit themselves to a very personal, unreasonable (illegal) search with no just or probable cause in order to receive help they are qualified to receive, just because some people in the general population break the law, is humiliating and unfair. It also further reenforces and perpetuates the stereotype that if you receive social service benefits, you are a sub-par citizen, not deserving of the same equal treatment and rights of the rest of the population.

I understand taxpayers don’t want their money to end up in the hand of someone that might potentially use it to buy illegal substances. I don’t want that either. But it is a risk that is taken with every single government employee, legislator, senator, or anyone who receives payroll from the government, or who is subsidized with government grants or programs.

We do not force congress and the senate to submit themselves to drug testing before they are paid. We do not make sure college students are drug-tested before they qualify for a government student loan or grant. Farmers do not have to pee in a cup before they can receive a subsidy for their crops.

It is exactly the same. Because there’s no probable cause or reasonable suspicion, even though a certain percentage of all of those groups are (statistically) invariably guilty of some type of illicit drug use as well, as stated before, this is true of the entire population – regardless of income levels or job position. Drug users exist in society across the board, and their existence alone is not sufficient reason to suspect everyone is guilty.

This is why federal courts have blocked similar laws in the past that various states have passed, (most notably Michigan in 2003 and Florida in 2011) due to their violation of constitutional protections.

This entire argument is all based solely on the fact that such drug testing is unconstitutional, without even getting into the murky areas of the fairness of innocent children being potentially denied or delayed access to benefits if a parent fails (or refuses to take) a test.

Finally: “Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, has introduced a bill to require Medicaid recipients to submit to random nicotine testing.”

Really?

This doesn’t just have to do with the right to purchase, as I addressed yesterday, but the right to use an item. It would also prohibit the various forms a substance could be used in by making it restricted completely for certain people.

You can’t have special rules for the poor that don’t apply to the rest of the citizenry. They’re now going to prohibit citizens from partaking in a product that is legal to purchase by an adult?

And here’s the kicker on this one, not because it’s a waste of taxpayer money if a recipient chooses to use income to purchase tobacco products, but because “tobacco-related diseases cost the state $264 million each year in direct Medicaid costs.” So, if a person has no health coverage whatsoever, not even Medicaid, that will somehow cost the state less when they have to treat that person anyway?

What about people who are quitting smoking but are using nicotine patches or gum? They’ll still have nicotine in their system. How can you possibly differentiate this through random nicotine testing?

Again (going back to other government employees) what about the armed forces, congress, the senate, and all other government employees that receive health insurance provided by the government… Will they all be forced to quit smoking and submit to nicotine testing as well to avoid paying their “tobacco-related” health care costs?

Why do all the justifications and excuses the legislators use to attempt to explain these proposals and bills only apply to the poor on social services?

Soon they will be proposing no Medicaid coverage for the overweight, due to the high costs of treating obesity-related illnesses. (Which, by the way, I’m pretty sure we spend just as much money on in healthcare costs in this nation.)

Where does it stop?

Pundits and politicians and certain factions of the media often want to shift the public focus to welfare, as if this is the only place where tax dollars are used. Your money isn’t taken from you and given to the poor like Robin Hood, and the poor don’t get nearly as much as you think they do, and certainly don’t have extra to waste. Far more tax payer money is used and spent on so many other aspects of government than welfare, and there’s so little room to trim in an already extremely underfunded system, that I can’t understand why this one use of funds receives so much resentment and attention. Is it really that horrible to spend a little money on keeping your fellow man alive within your own country compared to the massive amounts we spend to wage war elsewhere in the world? or the huge bail outs we give to Wall Street and the large financial institutions? How about random drug and nicotine testing for all the geniuses that caused this economic meltdown to begin with?

Are the poor really the ones we should be upset with for “wasting” tax dollars?

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Posted by on February 12, 2012 in Politics, Welfare

 

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How Stereotypes Are Reenforced – Part 1: Vanity Plates

So, yesterday I read this article,  and it reminded me why I started this blog to begin with. There were so many stereotypes being thrown around in these proposed bills by these legislators that I found it sickening.

The stereotype in this case is of the high-spending, free-riding welfare recipient that throws money around wasting it on frivolous things. We all know that’s not the case. If you haven’t read it already, take a look at my original post on the extravagance of welfare by clicking here.

I’d like to address a few of the various points brought up in the article, including the points on community service and various screening tests, but I will address those in separate entries. In today’s post I just want to focus on the stupidity of the vanity plate issue, and the idea of spending restrictions.

Do I feel spending $30 extra on a vanity plate is a good use of money? No.

Do I believe the government should have the right to regulate what someone is allowed to acquire based on the fact that they’re poor or have special circumstances and need health insurance? Absolutely not.

I also find it ironic and absurd that all these proposals come from the political party that supposedly wants less regulations and smaller government, but we all know that only applies for big business and the wealthy. When it comes to the so called lower class, the working poor, and those in poverty, then more rules, regulations, tests and barriers to programs that barely help someone survive is all the rage.

The supposed justification for this is that taxpayers contribute money to a social program, and someone receives it, so that person is responsible for using that money in a manner that the taxpayers would not deem wasteful. Or rather, they must use all of their money, from any source – even if they work and earn money and just happen to receive only medicaid benefits – on only the bare minimum necessities to live, because they received some sort of aid, and are therefore beholden.

I quote: “If you’re on welfare, you ought to spend that money on medicine or food,” Sen. Merle Flowers, R-Southaven said. “If the taxpayers are picking up the tab for your health-care costs and/or your welfare benefits, you ought to be responsible enough to spend our money wisely.”

You hear that? If the taxpayers are picking up the tab…

And we all know that if you have $30 for a vanity plate you can afford thousands of dollars on medical bills. It’s exactly the same thing. (For those of you that don’t know me, that was sarcasm, by the way.)

So, since the taxpayers also pick up the tab for the salaries of legislators, how about we pay them the bare minimum to survive? Why should we “pick up the tab” to pay for fancy suits and briefcases, high-end cars, vacations, etc.

But, but… That’s different!

What about how tax dollars are spent on absolutely anything else for that matter? We have no oversight over spending to ensure funds are used in the most efficient manner possible, that’s simply not how the system works.

I personally wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on special monkey wrenches and hammers either, but we know it happens with taxpayer money. No one stops the army from wasting money on flying expensive celebrities out to entertain the troops. Why not just pop in a video?

But, but… That’s different!

Money is wasted across the board on just about every program we manage. This does not make it right, of course, but to point the finger at the poor and blame it on them, as if that is where all the waste can be trimmed from is ridiculous. It’s also not fair to limit how an individual chooses to enrich their life in some way, or how to manage their money and purchases in a way that they choose.

The idea that if you’re poor, you’re less deserving of any creature comforts above and beyond solely food and medicine is sad. You must only eat and live. That’s it. Really?

Do we include everyone that is on any social program? Remember, this also includes the working poor who do have jobs but still receive additional assistance because their income is so low, those who make barely enough to survive and may only receive food stamps and/or Medicaid? Those who receive some cash aid to supplement an extremely low income that is not enough to support their family size? Those like me whose only income currently comes from public benefits?

It’s a slippery slope. If we start on it, where do we draw the line? What other purchases can we limit and regulate to ensure the taxpayer money is being used wisely? Should it be against the law to “waste” money by renting a video? To pay for cable – which most often is the only entertainment most poor people can afford? To go out to eat for a meal instead of preparing everything from scratch every single night? Can you only buy generic toilet paper and toiletries? (Assuming you don’t already…) If you need to buy a “new” clothing item are you only allowed to purchase it in a secondhand or thrift store? Are you no longer allowed to buy a toy or present for your child for a birthday or holiday?

Do the poor (on assistance) have to get marked or stamped on their IDs to differentiate them in a store so we know what they are and are not allowed to buy? Does everyone just get carded? Do those not on assistance have to carry around a special card or ID that they show the cashiers to let them know they’re exempt and allowed to buy whatever item they choose?

“An automobile license plate is a privilege, just like your driver’s license is a privilege,” Sen. Flowers said.

Yes, and not everyone has the privilege of air conditioning, so only fans for the poor!

And where do we stop? Who decides what one person needs, or wants, and differentiates whether they have the right to buy it or not?

This is not the same as a felon not being able to buy a gun. They committed a crime, and have to deal with the repercussions and consequences. The poor are being (further) punished for nothing more than simply not having enough money and asking for help in a time of need.

Again, I really don’t think the purchase of a vanity plate is a good use of money. However, I just can’t abide the principle of taking away a right from someone (even just a right to purchase something) that other individuals in this country have, based solely on the fact that the person has a limited income that qualifies them for assistance.

Is this really the type of path we want to start down? Once you take away a few freedoms and infringe on a few rights, it becomes even easier to justify taking away more. The poor and impoverished should not be targets of the government. They are not scapegoats. Being poor is not a crime. How can you possibly justify trying to take away something from someone who already has so little? Why?

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2012 in Politics, Welfare

 

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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?

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

 

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Things That Are Taken For Granted

I just had a severe “duh” moment this morning at the store that made me feel both a little sheepish, and a bit embarrased.

I spent half an hour in the beauty products aisle of Walmart staring at moisturizers and creams. I was completely lost and out of my element.

It has literally been years since I’ve purchased anything like this. Typically the only “Health & Beauty” category items I buy for myself nowadays are shampoo and conditioner, soap or bodywash, deodorant, and feminine hygiene items. I buy face wash and acne treatment items for my teenage daughter, but I don’t buy special cleansers or similar types of items for myself.

I realize these are things most women get, but I just don’t; partly because I don’t want to waste the money, and partly because I’m not really all that girly. I don’t wear makeup – except on the very rare special occasion, and I don’t use lotions and creams.

However, the winter weather has been exasperating my already dry skin to the point where I had to do something. It’s been pretty bad for over a month now, but I kept putting it off because I didn’t want to spend the money on something that I typically see as frivolous and unnecessary. So, when it got to the point where my skin was looking so bad that even I had to admit I needed to do something about it, you know it was pretty severe.

I’d just run to the store real quick and grab a cheap face moisturizer for dry skin and be right back. Simple, right?

I had no idea…

First of all, to all you other ladies out there, I have this to say: HOLY CRAP! Do you all really spend $10, $15, $20 or more on teeny-tiny little ieensy-bitsy bottles and tubes of random serums, creams, treatments, or whatever they’re called? There were hundreds of products in that aisle with different names and labels, but most of them seemed to do the same thing, so I’m not sure why you would need five different types of products by the same company for the same treatment. I understand anti-aging and fighting wrinkles and looking younger is a concern for many women, but really? Really? Really?

Not only did it take me forever to find what I was looking for – a simple facial moisturizer for dry skin, not anti-aging, not renewal serum, not wrinkle guard, not defense cream, not eye treatment, or any other random name put together by a marketing department, just something to help moisturize me – but when I did finally find it buried amongst the other products, I had to look for another one, because there was no way I was going to pay that much for a tiny bottle of what is basically glorified lotion.

Eventually I found one that didn’t make me want to cringe at the thought of spending the money on it, and I left.

In the end, I paid $7.47  just so I will no longer feel like a leper. (I’m exaggerating of course, but still…) That may not sound like much, but I could have bought four bottles of shampoo and conditioner (two of each) which would have lasted me for approximately 3-4 months with less money as my 1.7 oz of moisturizer cost.

It really got me to thinking about all the little small things that are taken for granted that most people shell out money for on a daily basis without blinking an eye, and how these things become so ridiculously out of reach when you’re on a limited income. To me this was a luxury I would not have bought except in this extreme circumstance, and I felt silly that I was putting so much thought and effort into it.

What do you think? Do you think women spend too much on health and beauty products? Ladies, do you feel they’re worth the extreme prices that are paid out for them? Do you use them daily? or not at all? What other little items do you probably have that you think are taken for granted?

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Health & Beauty, Money

 

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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!

 
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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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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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