Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Five Favorite Products of 2014 (FREE, CHEAP, or WORTH THE MONEY)

It's been forever since I've compiled a list of my new favorite things. And lately, every time I've been using one of the below items, my head explodes with a chorus of, "This is AWESOME. People need to know about this." So maybe you already know about all of these things. If not, you're welcome in advance.

--FREE--

1. Stuff You Should Know Podcasts (You'll especially dig these if you love Malcolm Gladwell books) - Free

Even though I love being a stay-at-home parent, sometimes my brain feels like Jello. Enter podcasts. I now feel connected to the outside world again. I'm learning, even though I rarely have time to open a book or laptop (without being attacked by my little ones). Back in the day, downloading podcasts was a pain. Now with smartphones, it's a hundred times easier:
(1) Download the "Podcasts" app
(2) Search for awesome podcasts. My favorite podcast is "Stuff You Should Know." It took me about three episodes to get hooked. Josh and Chuck are my new besties. They've taught me about everything from CPR to Willpower to Trickle-Down Economics. (Speaking of economics, the "Freakonomics" podcasts are also excellent. Start with "The Economist's Guide to Parenting.")
(3) Listen to them while you're getting ready, driving, or cooking. Last week, I started making dinner when my 3-year-old demanded hearing a "story" (podcast) on my iPhone.
p.s. Any other podcast listeners out there? I'd love any recommendations.

--CHEAP--

Alert: If a runner is on your Christmas shopping list, this is a good one:

2. EARBUDi Clips for iPhone ear buds - $9.99

EARBUDi Clips for iPhone ear buds
If you use the iPhone earbuds, I have no idea how you live without these. Last spring when I started running again, I began an intense search for the right earphones. One criteria I had was an attached microphone and control button (did you know you can use that button to pause/skip/go back while listening to music?). Anyway, after buying and returning a couple pairs of earphones, I realized what I really wanted was my good old iPhone earbuds, but I wanted them to actually stay in. Enter the EARBUDis. They attach to earbuds and keep everything perfectly and comfortably in place. My only complaint is that they have a habit of disassembling when they're rattling around in my (super messy) purse. But as long as I have them in a pocket, they stay intact. They're not fancy, but I've had them for over eight months now and they're still going strong. I can't stand using earbuds without them.

3. Nuk Silicon Spout Active Cup - $6-$7

This is the best for babies switching to sippy cups. My sister recommended this when my little guy was having a hard time making the switch. Worked like a charm. They have several designs available (I kind of wish I had a girl because the Hello Kitty design is the cutest).
My little guy loves his Nuk Active Cup. But you probably shouldn't trust his judgment because he also prefers this ratty bear to all the new, nice bears given to him to try to replace the ratty one.

--WORTH THE MONEY--

4. New & Improved ProMist Microfiber Spray Mop (Better than Swiffer) - $27.99

Besides the fact that the ProMist has a superior design, I'm sold on it because: (1) It has washable pads (as opposed to overpriced one-use pads) and (2) you can use whatever cleaning solution you want. Cha-ching! I did end up buying a spare refill pad since I only do laundry once a week. I'm happy with the ProMist. It cut my mopping time (over my old sponge mop) by 75%.

5. YouCopia SpiceStack - $29.99

Okay, maybe I was the last person on earth to organize their spice cabinet, but since buying this baby, I'm pretty sure I've gained hours of my life back. Seriously, I just did the math-- if you spend 2 minutes a day digging around for the right spices, that's over 12 HOURS per year. I can't believe I used to dig around my spice cabinet like a sucker. It comes in several different sizes. Whether you buy this or not, I highly recommend organizing your spices somehow. I think my blood pressure dropped significantly since I did.

And that's it! Write any questions in the comments below or on our Facebook page and I'll get back to you ASAP.


What products have you discovered lately that you're loving?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Budget Boot Camp - Cutting Expenses (It's Not What You Think)

Pin this article for later here.

This is not going to be a regular list of suggestions about dropping cable and eating out less. If you've read one of those articles, you've read them all (our list is at the bottom of this link). The truth is, if there was an easy way to save money, you'd have already done it. Who doesn't like saving money? The purpose of this article is to help you figure out what matters to you and to convince you to let the rest go. Budgeting is not about blindingly slashing as many expenses as possible, it's about making conscious choices about what matters most to you personally and spending accordingly. By the time you're done reading this, you'll know exactly what changes (if any) you need to make to your spending.

Step 1: What Does "Rich" Mean To You?

One of the best takeaways I got from the book I Will Teach You To Be Rich is that it's important to first figure out what "being rich" means to you. If you were rich, what would it look like? Maybe you want be able to take a trip to Disneyland every year. Maybe you couldn't care less about vacations, you just want a home with a yard. Or all of your kids in piano and dance lessons. Or a weekly date night. Maybe what you really want is to have a room full of gold coins you can swim in daily à la Scrooge McDuck. Whatever your goals are, write them down. The more specific, the better. It's okay to pick more than one, but make sure you order them from most to least important. Being rich isn't about having it all, it's about having what matters most. 
Note: I know "Saving for Retirement" probably wasn't on your list of financial priorities, but unless one of your goals was to "work like a dog until the day I die," you should go ahead and add retirement savings to your list. How much should you be saving towards retirement? I'm going to throw out the guideline 15% of your income and refer to my favorite article about saving for retirement.

Step 2: Figure Out Per-Month Cost

For each financial goal, figure out what it would cost you per month.
Example: Save for Retirement.
Annual income: $50,000 x 15% = $7,500 per year / 12 months = $625 per month.

Example: Piano Lessons for kids.
$75 per month x 3 kids = $225 per month.

Example: Disneyland Trip
$1,200 / 12 months = $100 per month. (I'll be honest--I just threw $1,200 out there. I live in CA and my sister works for Disney, so feel free to hate me for how economical Disneyland trips are for us).
From our last Disney trip. Yes, I'm a grown adult and yes I wore that crown in the park.

Step 3: Target Expenses to Eliminate

Now whip out your budget and figure out where you stand. How close are you to being able to achieve your goal(s)? What could you do to make it work? For some reason, trying to cut expenses arbitrarily (just because it's good to cut expenses) isn't very motivating. But if you have something specific you're working towards, cutting expenses suddenly becomes a meaningful, motivating goal.
Method 1: Pick Some Easy Targets
Look are your budget line by line to analyze your spending and then pick some easy targets. Maybe you really want that Disneyland trip and you're spending $125 a month on random shopping trips. Done. Now the next time you want to buy yet another purse you don't need, you're not denying yourself by not buying it, you're making a conscious choice to go to Disneyland instead.
Method 2: Make Some Meaningful Trade-offs
Maybe you'd be willing to ditch cable so you can put your kid in gymnastics. It's all about trade-offs and priorities. So pick your goals, pick which expenses you're willing to cut back on or eliminate and get to work.
When You're Out of Expenses to Cut
Maybe you are already in debt or you've already eliminated all discretionary spending (eating out, shopping, clothes, vacations, memberships, cell phones, etc.). Now it's time to look at the bigger expenses. Can you live in a more affordable apartment or home? Or maybe it's time to look at last month's Budget Boot Camp ideas for increasing income. It may take putting a long-term plan in place, such a getting additional education for a better job, but you can make it work.

Have any questions? Need help figuring out how to reach your goals? Comment on our blog here and we'll get back to you ASAP.


p.s. My product recommendation of the month is my mattress pad heater because it's getting chilly out there. I've had mine for years and years and I'm still obsessed.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Budget Boot Camp - Ideas for Extra Income


Okay, so at this point in the Budget Boot Camp, you should have your budget set up and running. You set your financial goals, you're tracking your spending, and you even know how to avoid scrabbling to pay for big expenses. If not, feel free to rewind and check out our past articles

Increase Your Income

Are you doing the best you can, but your expenses are still exceeding your income? 
-or- You're not hitting all of your savings and/or retirement goals? 
You have two options: Increase your income or lower your expenses. This month, we're giving you ideas for increasing your income. These tips are great if you're looking to create a lasting income stream or even if you're just trying to save some extra money for an upcoming purchase. Of course, these ideas are only worth anything if you actually pick one and decide now you're going to make it happen. Feel free to take a minute to work up some resolve and willpower. ***DEEP breath*** Okay, let's do this...

#1 - From a current job: Ask for a raise

If you think this option is as easy as marching into your boss' office and saying, "I need more money!" then you've already lost. The process to get a raise doesn't happen in a day. The whole process takes a few months and begins by asking your boss how you can increase your value to the company (and then later showing him or her how you've created that value). For more information about the whole process (it works!), check out the book I Will Teach You To Be Rich (Lauren previously recommended that book here--I just got around to reading it. It's awesome-sauce).

#2 - Make a new source of income: Get Creative

Asking for a raise is not an option for me. I ask my bosses for a raise all the time. But since they are both under the age of four, their resources are pretty slim and they keep turning me down. So if you're like me, you'll have to explore other options. Luckily, the possibilities are endless.
Now's a great time to turn your hobbies and skills into income. With the internet, the whole world is your market and somewhere out there, lots of people want to pay for your skills. Maybe it's not even a skill yet, just an interest. Start practicing and make it a skill. 
Like crafting? Open an Etsy shop or start a blog. 
Like kids? Start babysitting (even if you already have kids of your own). 
Were you kind of a test-taking nerd in school? People pay big bucks for SAT tutors! 
Like taking pictures? Start a photography business. 

#3: Need more ideas? 

Check out our previous post: 10 Money-Making Jobs for the Stay-At-Home Mom

Don't Let Fear Stop You

Does starting a business make you want to panic? Take a few minutes to write down your top three fears. But don't stop there. Take another minute to address each fear. 
These are the fears I had about starting my businesses (and how I addressed them):
- I'm worried my skill isn't professional enough to be worth anything and the market is already overcrowded. (There's only one way to find out--put yourself out there. Note: I was wrong. I just started a photography business last week and already had to turn down a client to avoid double-booking. I felt like a rock star).
- I don't have time. (Your schedule may be super crunched right now. But if you truly need the money, you'll find a way to make it work. Consider doing babysitting swaps with a friend to help with child care. When there's a will, there's a way. The week before I launched my business, I was feeling stretched. I temporarily deactivated my Facebook and Instagram accounts. It's embarrassing how much time magically reappeared in my schedule).
- I'm concerned it will distract from more important things, like relationships with loved ones. (I think this is actually the most valid concern. I resolved to only work while my kids are sleeping. This has worked out great.)

What's your next action?

Don't worry about everything you have to do, just pick what your next step is (make it attainable--something you can get done in 30 minutes or less). For example, don't write "Create a profitable business" on your To Do List. Instead, write down something like, "Spend thirty minutes talking to a friend/spouse about my idea." Once you get that done, pick your next action item. Baby steps. One thing at a time. You can do it.

 Have any questions? Need a pep talk? Post your comment over on our blog and we'll get back to you ASAP.







Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Budget Boot Camp - Help Your Marriage - Have a Monthly Budget Meeting


So I was reading this article about how arguments over finances are the #1 predictor of divorce. I think a lot of people suspected or assumed that was true, but this study proved it. The part of the article that got me excited was the researchers' suggestions for preventing and repairing those issues because they're both related to budgeting. They are two very simple things, yet so crucial, they could be the difference between making or breaking a marriage. And they're things anyone can do, financially-minded or not.

Marriage-Saver #1: Each Spouse Should Have a "Fun Fund"

The first solution is for each spouse to have their own "fun fund," as mentioned in a previous Budget Boot Camp post.

Marriage-Saver #2: Have a Monthly Budget Meeting

To quote one of the study's co-authors Sonya Britt, "Couples should set times where they talk about the budget and if changes need to be made to the way they are allocating their money." She continues, "This advice remains the same no matter how long the couple has been married. Our preferences change all the time, so it is important that how the couple is spending money reflects changing preferences."

Budgeting may be a pain at times, but it's a *whole* lot easier than dealing with the fallout from not doing it. Budgeting doesn't have to be hard (see our "How To Budget" here) and it doesn't have to be perfect. It's about putting something together that is good enough to facilitate that monthly discussion revolving around:
- How are we currently spending our money?
- How do we want to be spending our money?
- What changes do we need to make to reach those goals? (e.g. "How can we lower our gas expense?" "Do we need to allocate more money to groceries?")

Getting Started

My marriage isn't perfect (my husband won't play Ticket To Ride with me anymore--I'm kind of a sore loser). But despite our shortcomings, we don't argue about money or finances, largely due to our commitment to making a budget AND sticking to it. By having a budget, the discussions about finances occur when everyone is cool and you are logically making decisions based on needs and wants instead of pointing fingers and being accusatory about the spending habits of your spouse.

What A Monthly Budget Meeting Might Look Light

Every Sunday night, my husband and I spend about 15 minutes updating our budget (meaning, downloading the transactions and re-categorizing as necessary).Once a month (usually on the first Sunday of the month so we can review the previous month) we have a "budget meeting" to review how we did and make adjustments as needed. Some months are smooth and it's a happy, 5-minute "looks good" discussion. Occasionally we realize certain expenses have gotten out of control and it takes 20 minutes to figure out how we're going to deal with it (e.g. "Maybe we need to take money from our entertainment budget and increase our grocery allowance" or "Ugh...time to cut back on eating out. Our "dining-out" budget got slaughtered this month.") It's a time investment, but because those discussions happen regularly in a productive and structured setting, we spend little to no time outside of those meetings discussing money and virtually no time arguing about it. It's a beautiful thing.

If you and your spouse argue about money, you're in the majority. But decide now to do something about it by taking these two steps towards a healthier relationship (and healthier finances!). It takes a bit of work, but the payoff is huge. Consider it an investment in the most important relationship in your life.



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Budget Boot Camp: Hate Scrabbling to Pay for Big Expenses?


Irregular expenses are a big topic in budgeting, so to ensure it was explained clearly, I turned to my husband Bryan (a non-accountant) to explain how we budget for our non-monthly expenses (e.g. car repairs, insurance, property tax, etc.). Bryan's just a regular guy who been sucked into my budgeting madness. Here he is holding our two boys (I know--they're all pretty cute).

Note that the example below is for known expenses, but we also use it for some of our "unknown" expenses (e.g. car repairs and general savings) using estimated amounts. So when we have big car repairs, they're already saved for. We simply pull the money out of this account that has been accruing savings for months and months. It'd worked like a charm so far. So without further ado, here he is:

We have all been there, you are going along, life is good, the checking account is growing and then all of a sudden, those big expenses hit and you are scrambling to pay for everything.  Budgeting to the rescue!  A few weeks ago Lisa asked me to write about how we set our budget to accrue monthly for expenses that occur once or twice a year.  This system helps to level out the known planned expenses by saving for them every month.  
To start off, I am sure there is some accounting principle that Lisa could explain around this, but the easiest way for me to explain it is that we know some expenses happen a few times through the year (life insurance, property tax, car insurance, etc.) and we take the annual amount (say $1200 for car insurance) and then divide by 12 to get our monthly amount of $100.  At the beginning of each month, I transfer the sum of all those monthly amounts into our savings account (a separate checking account at an online bank).  See the example table below.
Expense
Annual amount
Monthly Amount
Car Insurance
$1200
$100
Homeowners Insurance
$600
$50
Life Insurance
$500
$42
Property Tax
$4000
$334

In the example above, the monthly transfer is $526.
When the bill comes to pay those expenses, we pay them out of our savings account (where the money have been accruing and collecting interest).  The true beauty of this system is that there is no worrying about how we are going to pay the property tax bill, or the car insurance bill, because we have already paid it.  The table below outlines an example of how the system would work

Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
June
July
Aug
Sept
Oct
Nov
Dec
Start
2000
2526
1052
1078
1604
1830
1756
2282
808
1334
1860
2086
Additions
526
526
526
526
526
526
526
526
526
526
526
526
Expenses
0
2000
500
0
300
600
0
2000
0
0
300
600
Ending
2526
1052
1078
1604
1830
1756
2282
808
1334
1860
2086
2012

Our budget is happy because we avoid the stress of seeing the monthly budget in the red. And we are happy because all the stress associated with trying to pay the big expenses disappears as we have already paid for them.  The key to making this system work is to move the money into a separate account.  The reason why this is important is so that you are not tempted to spend it, or think you have enough savings.

This system takes some discipline and I would strongly encourage you to set auto transfers to make it easier.  But the pay off when the expenses hit is completely worth it.
Any questions?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Best Buys at Trader Joe's

When we moved to Boston, we lived a few blocks from Trader Joe's, so that's where I did 95 percent of all our grocery shopping. Over time, I've learned that a few things are particularly good buys there. Here are some of my favorites.


Face Wash: Pretty cheap, pretty natural, and this stuff seriously lasts forever because it's so thin.

Jojoba Oil: I use it as a makeup remover. Another cheap, natural alternative. And it takes forever to get through a bottle (a major plus).

If you like buying real maple syrup, this is the place to get it. It seems expensive when you buy the 32 ounce jug, but it's WAY cheaper than buying the small containers at the regular grocery stores.

TJ Brand Pirate's Booty: Okay, I know this stuff isn't actually healthy. But it is so delicious, and it's much cheaper here than the Pirate's Booty brand is at normal grocery stores.

Cheese: Really any and all kinds. They have a wonderful selection (like their honey goat cheese? Yes, please). I just have normal cheddar pictured here, but it's still pretty good and the price is pretty good.

Nuts: They have a great selection of nuts at pretty good prices.

Bananas: At our Trader Joe's at least, bananas are a loss leader item always priced at 19 cents each. 

Share-- What are your favorite items at Trader Joe's? What are your favorite grocery stores?


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Budget Boot Camp: To Do #6 - Budget for "Funds"


Note: To join our once-a-month e-mail Budget Boot Camp, sign up here. Here are the lessons we've done so far:

I like to budget for expenses that are more flexible in terms of when you spend them, like money for dates, decorating, clothing, personal spending, etc. using "funds." Basically all this means is each month you add a specified amount to your specific fund. The unused portion rolls over to the next month. 

Why do I love budget funds? I love using funds in budgets for a lot of reasons. 
  • Funds are extremely powerful tools to cap runaway spending. The types of things they are best at tracking (clothing, random fun personal purchases, home goods, etc.) are just the types of things that tend to be impulse buys.
  • They make your budget more flexibility-- and that's something that really makes living with a budget more enjoyable and successful. It helps not feel so pinched if you know you can still buy the things you enjoy, you just have to save up for them. 
  • They can help your marriage. Even if you and your spouse are both frugal, you're not the same person, so you're not going to value everything the same. Having a personal fund enables one spouse to buy things they enjoy without guilt (or resentment from the other spouse). Lisa gives some other good marriage money tips in this post.
How do you track funds? There are a couple of ways to track funds-- in Excel, on paper, online, or using the envelope system.
  • Excel. I have a separate tab in our family budget file where I track our funds. There's a column for each different fund. You can download our free template on our Facebook page here. Or you can make your own that suits your needs. The monthly budget shows the full amount of your fund flowing out every month. But you track the balance on a separate tab. Here's what ours looks like.
  • Paper. I know historically I haven't been super supportive of using paper for budgets, but here's one area where it can work pretty well. When we were first married, we tracked most of our budget in Excel, but we had a sheet of paper taped to the fridge where we tracked our fun spending money. On the first of the month, we would add $15 to our account (we've since increased it a bit). Any time we spent money for fun discretionary items, we would write the expense on the paper and update the running balance. It was kind of fun to have it up in an easy to see place (although we would usually move it if we had people over...)
  • Online. Honestly, I haven't tried to do fund accounting using software because I found it a bit frustrating. But, similar to budgeting for irregular expenses, I think you could use the rollover function to make this work on Mint (or whatever you're using).
  • Envelope system. This system uses cash. You deposit your monthly allotment in an envelope, jar, or other container each month and spend out of it throughout the month. The leftover stays in the envelope at the end of the month and "rollsover" to the next. Pros: You will never overspend. Cons: You have to go get the cash each month, and it doesn't work as well for online purchases. 
To Do #6: Set up your funds
  1. Decide what types of funds you want to have (date, individual spending, etc.)
  2. Decide what amount to allocate to each fund monthly.
  3. Set up your system (Excel, paper, online, or envelope).
And here are the products I'm loving: Mr. Clean Magic Erasers (gets crayon off walls, need I say more?) and these leather earrings. My baby always rubs her face up against my cheek, but these are nice and soft and don't scratch her. 

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