Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My Money Diet

Instagram-ing my freezer inventory
makes it look more important, doesn't it?
It's January, and a little extra spending in December for the holidays and emergencies has resulted in a tighter-than-normal budget this month. We are buckling down, as they say, more than ever, trying to pay a few things that need to be paid and not dig deeper into debt or savings that we don't touch.

Life is expensive, isn't it? And it doesn't seem to be getting any better, or easier, for so many of us. I shouldn't complain really: We have a roof over our heads and two working vehicles and my husband has a job. We are able to put money into retirement and college accounts each month, and even if those extra dollars could help us right now, we make the sacrifice for the future. But it seems that things are always, always cropping up, making our available cash extremely tight.

Our washer was leaking last week; on Friday, the repair man quoted $350 to fix it. Our washer is about 7 years old, and the repair man said the inside was in decent shape other than the failed part. My dryer is still good in good shape. I was hoping to get a few more years out of both, and then upgrade to something more efficient. But that will not be the case. After much thought and discussion, it looks like we are going to get a new washer. Unfortunately, it will likely not be the washer of my dreams. And we will have to stick it out with the leaking washer for a few weeks and see if we can "make do," as they say. Luckily, the leak is not bad -- yet -- and can be taken care of by smashing a towel under the washer. But I will have to be careful.

The money train is pretty empty right now. We also have past medical bills to pay, and Big Girl goes to the orthodontist today which is expected to result in some expensive dental work in the very near future. And anytime we would like to do things with the kids, or if Big Girl wants to have enjoy an activity, it seems rather costly. We also need to get the twins into real beds, which means we need to purchase mattresses, as well as wood and supplies for my husband to build the frames. It's always something.

With all this looming, and hanging over our heads, we are trying to maximize our talents. My husband is going to sell prints of his nature photography, which is why he started his photography blog. Look for a link to a new store for his awesome photos in the coming weeks right here. And I am always looking for extra writing work that is doable with two active young ones at home.

But in the meantime, I keep trying to make the best use of each possible penny. It is very hard to keep a household running on basically one income with three kids. I freelance, and the money helps, but it is not enough some months.

So, as I write this post, I am coming up with a plan to help us through the first few months of the year. I am calling it my money diet. Forgive my stream-of-consciousness writing on this post... I am going to brainstorm a dozen ideas as I write this... And I am sharing my ideas in the hopes that others in the same situation will find ideas and/or comfort in that you are not alone!

1. Freezer/Pantry Inventory
The first thing I did Friday morning was go through my entire freezer and write down everything in it. I try to do this often, and keep a list on the side of the fridge so I know what is in there. But, I confess, I have not done this in about two months due to the holidays and being busy. My old list was outdated. I now have a working list and I am pleasantly surprised to see how much food we really do have on hand -- a blessing right now! We also have a produce bin in the fridge with many apples and oranges, onions and potatoes in the pantry, several boxes of our kid staple Annie's Mac & Cheese, and a decent assortment of pantry supplies, like flour & sugar, canned soup, veggies and fruit, and cereal.

2. Meal Planning
From this freezer and pantry inventory, I am creating a meal plan. I try to have one for the week, but I'm going to write down meal ideas for everything and look at our calendar and come up with a plan for several weeks. The plan will include ways to stretch dinners into leftovers for lunches, as well as plan for breakfast, lunches and snacks, which I don't usually plan out on paper. We will also try to have less-costly meals, such as breakfast for dinner, meatless meals, and stretching cooked meat into a second meal.

3. Going "bare" at the store
The bare necessities are the only thing being purchased in the next few weeks. I made a list of the things I will definitely need to buy in the coming weeks to keep us going: milk, bread & eggs; fresh produce and cheese; gas for the car; diapers and baby wipes; toilet paper... AND COFFEE! (Can't live without my coffee. I buy ground coffee and use my reusuable K-Cup for my Keurig. Much cheaper!) I'm going to set a dollar amount for what I will need to spend on these things for the month, and shop at Aldi for the grocery basics that don't have coupons or for which I can't find a better deal elsewhere, like milk, produce, eggs, etc. I was waiting for my freelance checks to arrive this weekend, and I had $20 in my wallet to get a few staples. I was proud of myself for being able to stick to my list and my limit. My iPhone calculator was my friend at my quick run to Aldi, Dollar Tree and Target this weekend.

4. Couponing
I will be clipping and reorganize coupons to get better deals. I always do this, but I will be looking for the best deals for everything. For example, I don't need diapers or toilet paper this week, but I will by the end of the month. If I see a good deal this week, I will buy them. (I usually do this, but we all know we sometimes get under the gun to buy a necessity at the last minute. During December, that happened a lot!) I am basically trying to get back on track. On Sunday, I clipped all the coupons I had stashed in my file and will file them away today, as well as check online for additional coupons.

5. Planning ahead 
I know the twins have "well visits" to the doctor this month, my daughter has a Girl Scout event with a fee and is selling Girl Scout cookies. Big Girl also has a father-daughter dance coming up and will need something to wear, so I have to keep my eyes open for a dress/outfit for this occasion because I don't think there is anything suitable in her closet right now. (She has grown so much!) I will also need to drive a few places for activities, so I will need extra gas. I want to set the money aside in advance so I am not caught off guard. The calendar will be my friend this month!

6. Staying home
Speaking of driving and gas... I'm going to try and just STAY HOME as much as possible. This reason is two-fold: Saving gas and spending unnecessary money; and AVOIDING THE FLU. The flu stories are currently really freaking me out! So we are staying home, watching movies and the new "Brady Bunch" re-runs on the Hallmark channel, reading books and hopefully doing a few crafts with things on hand. (My own holiday treat for myself was a K&Co. Smashbook -- I'm dying to work on it!) When Big Girl was a toddler, I made a game one winter of seeing how long we could avoid going out because there was so much sickness. It was a great experiment in planning and I got so much done at home. The only glitch in my plan right now is the twins -- they might get bored! On Sunday, we had a lazy morning and clipped coupons, then walked around the neighborhood selling Girl Scout cookies in the unusually warm weather. We returned home for a snack, and found two great family movies in a row -- "Matilda" and "Ramona & Beezus" -- to stretch out our afternoon. Free, family fun. It was a good day.

7. Baking! 
I will be baking a lot and wrapping/bagging individual portions of things for lunch. I do this often, but I do also buy a few pre-packaged items. This month I will be trying to stretch the snack budget. This means homemade popcorn, banana bread, muffins, brownies and cookies and treats will go in lunches. I have already started this, and have a bowl filled with treats on our counter for quick snacks, mostly for my husband and Big Girl. And for some reason, when there are baked goods on hand, it makes me feel like a better mother. Old-fashioned, I know, but it does! I have a bunch of frozen blueberries in my freezer, so I'd like to turn that into something the family will enjoy. (Here's an article I did on "Saving Money on School Snacks" with many tips.)

8. Gathering gift cards
I am making an inventory of what gift cards we have so if we need a special treat, we can have it without spending money. I have Dunkin' Donuts, iTunes, Starbucks, and the kids' have Toys'R'Us cards. I am holding out using the latter until spring when we need to replenish the "outside" toy supply. We have so many toys right now. But if Big Girl requests something, I will remind her of her gift cards or her holiday money. It's good for a tween to learn money management skills early, and she is pretty good at volunteering her funds when she wants something.

9. Getting an early start on spring! 
I am going to go through the kids closets and pull out things they do not need or will not wear to sell. Once Upon A Child, here I come! I got rid of a few things before the holidays that family and friends do not want, and I came home with a few dollars. It was worth the trip. During my clothing clean-out, I also plan on seeing what we have for Easter, which comes early this year. It's time for the holiday clothing preparations! I also need to prep for a very small Valentine surprise for the kids; buying Valentines for Big Girl for school; a visit from the leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day (family tradition); Easter baskets; Easter egg-stuffing treasures for our egg hunt; and the Easter meal. I'm making a list.

10. Clearing out clutter.
I read somewhere that clutter is related to debt as well as weight problems. So, I am clearing out the clutter and organizing to see what we have that can be reused, re-purposed, sold or just eliminated from our house to make life easier.

11. Perform Random Acts of Kindness 
Why mention this, on a money diet? Because I believe that doing good for others helps one feel better, keeps one track instead of feeling like one can't help, and puts some good karma out in the universe. And there are many ways to help without spending money, whether it's baking a treat, sending words of encouragement or just doing a quick physical chore.

12. Being resourceful
I am going to seek more work. I have a bunch of things I can write, so I will write them. I'm going to help promote my husband's photography business. And I'm going to gather up loose change, which sounds ridiculous, but every dollar counts.

Want to join me on my money diet? 

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