Dorm Room Shopping on a Budget

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Back to school is right around the corner and for incoming college freshmen, it’s time to start packing up your things to start a new chapter in your life! Shopping for your college dorm room can be fun if you love to shop, but it can also be a huge hassle because there is so much to get. Not only is there a large variety of items to choose from, but there are a lot of unnecessary and expensive things that you don’t need in your room. Here are some tips to help make your dorm room feel like home without breaking the bank!

Make a list
Before you head to the store, make a list of the items you really need! This will eliminate the impulse shopping. Stores like Target and Wal-Mart reel you in with all of their back to school stuff on display right when you walk in the entrance! Heck, I graduated five years ago and it still gets me sometimes! Be smart and don’t give in to the cool – but unnecessary items!

Here are 5 things that I DO recommend buying:
1. Mini Fridge
2. Storage Bins
3. Shower Caddy and Shower Flip Flops
4. Laundry Hamper
5. Mattress Pad

Shop at home
Before you go shopping, go through your school supplies from last year and figure out what will still work for you this year. There is no point to purchase new school supplies when you have left overs from the years before! You most likely have a backpack and a calculator left over from high school that you can reuse.

Partner with your roommate
Chances are you and your soon-to-be roommate have similar shopping lists. Avoid doubling up and wasting money by touching base before hand to figure out what you each can bring. After all, in a crowded room who really needs two printers? If you are assigned a random roommate, dorm furnishings are a good way to break the ice via email or Facebook!

Ask friends and family
Who said hand-me-downs are a bad thing? Check with your friends or family to see if they have any dorm furnishings they are looking to get rid of! This will save you money and you may be doing them a favor by cleaning their basement and getting rid of their unwanted stuff! First-time students can turn to family and friends for more than a used microwave or rug, though. Those who have been to college recently may just have some tips for your first year on campus!

Make Craigslist your new best friend
Craigslist in a college town is an awesome way to get nice and affordable furniture and electronics! Many students move away after graduation and sell all of their college stuff on Craigslist! Take advantage of this! Spend some time to look for those items you need such as a mini fridge, mattress or futon! This time of year you will be sure to find good deals on these items! Just remember to be smart and safe and always take someone with you when shopping from a random person on Craigslist. If shopping online isn’t your cup of tea, check your local consignment stores! They always have used college necessities and more often than not, they are as good as new!

Use shopping apps
Between coupons, clearance and back-to-school sales it is good to shop around to ensure you are getting the best deal. Instead of spending hours scouring department stores and websites such as Overstock.com to try and score the best deal, use mobile shopping apps such as Amazon Price Check, which allows you to scan the barcode of an item to see if it’s available for less via the online retailer.Coupons can also offer a deeper discount! Instead of clipping 20 percent off squares from ads in the Sunday paper,  use apps such as Coupon Sherpa to maximize your savings.

With these smart tips to save on college dorm needs, you can save yourself some much-needed cash. Your wallet will thank you for thinking ahead when school is back in session. Now that you are all ready for college make sure to have fun and enjoy the next four years! Cherish these moments because they will be over before you know it!

Good Luck!

Jessica M.

Breaking Up With Name Brands

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As you walk up and down the aisles at your local grocery store, shopping list in hand, do you stop and think about how you could save big bucks on your entire purchase without having to become an extreme couponer?  The secret? Buying private-label products instead of brand-name products.

What are private-label products?
Commonly referred to as “store brand” or “generics,” private-label products are manufactured by a supplier and offered under another retailer’s brand. Some suppliers exclusively offer store-brand products, while others are brand-name manufacturers who use their facility to also create value-brand products in a non-competitive category (a brand-name ketchup producer may also manufacture a store-brand tomato paste, for example). In some cases, a single supplier may provide products (with different recipes and formulas) for a number of different store brands.

Why are they so much cheaper?
Private labels are able to sell their product for less because their marketing and advertising costs are significantly lower than their brand-name counterparts. Interestingly, even though they’re priced more cheaply, store brands usually provide the supermarket with a higher profit margin than brand names do. So, not only are generics a good deal for you—they’re also a pretty good deal for the store’s bottom line!

What about the difference in quality?
One of the biggest obstacles in switching over to a store brand is a psychological one: getting over the idea that a brand name automatically means top quality. We’ve all had the experience of being disappointed after straying from a brand-name product, but by convincing yourself that all off-brand products are low quality, you’re missing out on some great deals and products. In a Consumer Reports taste test, more than 60% of store-brand items were judged as good as or better tasting than the national brand-name items.

In recent years, retailers have been doing their part to make store brands more appealing to shoppers by updating their branding and packaging designs, and by including exciting specialty products in their store-brand lineup. Some grocery stores, including Target and Hy-Vee, have managed to build extreme brand loyalty to their store-brand products.

Here are a few strategies to start incorporating more private-label products into your shopping list.

Single ingredient? No-brainer.
When something on your list has a single ingredient (ex. salt), it’s hard to justify paying more for a brand name. The same applies to simple pantry items such as flour, sugar, and spices. For produce, learn to read the signs for freshness before defaulting to the label. Other kitchen cupboard staples such as canned foods can typically be interchangeable as well.

Play with preference
Take a peek inside your fridge and pantry and take note of the products you consistently buy brand name. Is there a reason why you’ve never strayed from them? Do you have a real preference for the taste, or are you buying them simply because that’s what you grew up with? Substituting the occasional brand-name items can be a great way to save money while exploring new flavors and products.

Be selective about your brand loyalty
Sure, sometimes a brand-name product will outperform its generic version—but before you automatically reach for the national brand, think about whether that performance is really worth the extra expense. You will find that some items in your shopping cart are completely non-negotiable, whereas others have more relaxed requirements. For example, shelling out for brand-name super-soft tissues with lotion might mean the world to someone who suffers through allergy season, but for the occasional nose-blower, a store-brand box of tissues will do the trick. Be critical and selective about which specific products deserve your brand loyalty.

Trial and error
We tend to be creatures of habit. As a result, it can be difficult to introduce change into our routines. Not every generic product you try will be a winner, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any generic winners out there! Instead of getting rid of your entire shopping list all at once, try swapping out one or two products every time you go to the store and see what works for you. Over time, you’ll be able to keep your household running while saving some cash at the same time.

Until Next Time,

Jessica M.

 

Sources: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/generic-vs-brand-name-is-there-really-a-difference/

How-to-Tuesday: Landscaping on a Budget

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You don’t have to break the bank to redo your landscape with style. With a little more sweat and strategizing, you can pull off a landscaping project easily on a lean budget. Here are six budget friendly tips to help revamp your yard from beginning to finish.

  1. Plan Ahead
    Before you plant a single seed in your yard, come up with a plan of action. The idea of having a backyard pond surrounded by lush vegetation may appeal to you – until you research the price tag. Gardening books and websites are smart places to search for initial inspiration. Or take a stroll around your neighborhood or local botanical garden to see what other gardeners have created. Take note of what appeals to you.­ From there, tally up the expenses required to make that vision a reality. From there, you may have a better idea of what you can realistically afford.
  2. Do It Yourself (DIY)
    Three words should become your motto for frugal landscaping: Do it yourself. If you aren’t prepared to get a little dirty and sweaty, you’ll have to pay the premium for professional help. There may be some jobs that are too big or complex for one person, but when you’re brainstorming goals for your landscaping project, think about what you can do alone and when you might need to call in the pros. Also, consider asking for help from friends or family who might be willing to share the workload in exchange for dinner or a favor.
  3. Find the Freebies
    Instead of racing to the nearest home improvement store or nursery and purchasing every supply, think about free resources at your disposal. Have a friend with a green thumb? Ask for clippings of your favorite plants from his or her garden that will grow well in your yard. Know someone who works at a nursery? Find out if you can inspect the plants the nursery throws away for any salvageable ones. However, stay away from becoming a green-thumbed robber. Stealing clippings from public places such as parks or botanical gardens will often carry significant fines if caught.
  4. Shop Offseason
    You may feel an itch to landscape once the weather turns warm, but it may be wiser for the wallet if you hold off. The prices of plants and gardening supplies fluctuate with the seasons. Since demand peaks in the spring and early summer, that’s when you’ll pay the most for popular flowers. If you wait until the end of the growing season, you can find plants on clearance that are still in healthy condition. That’s also a prime time to stock up on other supplies, including gloves, garden hoses, sprinklers, and tools since few people will be putting things in the ground once the weather cools.
  5. Buy in Bulk
    You may plant only one or two plants in your yard, but you’ll probably need dozens of bedding plants and tons of soil and mulch. For those plants or materials that you’ll use in large quantities throughout the landscaping process, buy in bulk.­ Your wallet will thank you in the long run.
  6. Keep It Up
    Whenever you start landscaping, you’re never really finished. Plants grow, die and roots dry out. For that reason, don’t waste your hard work by neglecting your newly landscaped yard. Putting those plants in the ground not only costs you money, but it also costs you time. Unless you want to do that over and over again, maintain the perfect appearance by spending time in your yard on a regular basis. Pluck some weeds from the flower beds every few days and trim the shrubs when they start to lose form. 

 

Do you have any affordable or budget friendly landscaping tips? Share with us in a comment below!

Until Next Time,

Jessica M.

 

How to Tell You’re Ready to Buy a House

Making the decision to become a homeowner is emotionally and financially complex. Here are some key things to ask yourself if you’re considering whether buying is right for you.

Do you have a good reason to buy?

Sometimes switching from renting to buying is a no-brainer.  Maybe you live in a modern one-bedroom apartment in a chic part of town, but you have a baby on the way. If you want a place in a good school district, with more square footage and a yard, buying may well be your best bet.

Other times, the urge to buy is driven by emotion: You see a house you like and you “just know.” There’s nothing wrong with that reaction, but take time to check out the property before you make any commitments. If it’s too far from work, near a noisy road or the best house on a bad block, it may not be as good a deal as it first appears.

And remember: Houses go on the market all the time, and there are tens of millions of single-family homes and condos in the U.S. So there’s no need to worry if your first choice doesn’t work out; your home is out there.

Can you make the upfront investment?

Buying a home requires an initial investment that you can’t ignore.

First, many lenders require a down payment of 20% of the home price. That’s $40,000 for a home that costs $200,000, about the median price in America. You’ll also owe closing costs, which could include loan-origination fees, discount points, appraisal fees, survey fees, underwriting fees, title search fees, and title insurance. Those could total another few thousand dollars.

The expenses don’t end there. You’ll want to hire an independent inspector to look for defects in a home before you buy.  This will cost several hundred dollars, but could save you thousands in repairs. And then there are moving costs, state or city taxes, utilities installation and the costs of changes you might want to make to the home — such as new flooring or painting — that are easiest to do while it’s empty.

This isn’t meant to scare you off; buying a home is still a smart choice for many people, despite the costs. But it does take a lot of cash.

Can you afford the upkeep?

Your mortgage payment might be fixed for the next 30 years, but your property taxes and insurance rates can rise. And if you didn’t make a 20% down payment, you’ll have to buy private mortgage insurance, or PMI, until you have 20% equity in your home. It costs about $165 per month on a $200,000 loan.

Once you’re a homeowner, you’ll also have to pay certain utility bills that might have been included in your rent. And you’ll be responsible for maintenance: double-pane windows one year, a new garage door the next, fixes to the roof five years up the road. It adds up.

These numbers are based on averages.  Plug your specific figures into a rent-or-buy calculator to find out if you’re ready for homeownership. And know that there is no one answer that’s right for everybody. Whether you keep renting or buy, your decision should be right for you alone.

 

© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Credit Union History

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It Pays to Start Saving Now – Compound Interest

In case you haven’t heard, compound interest is the best. 

You may remember it as an equation you had to memorize for math class, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the concept that powers all sorts of savings and investment products and, over time, allows you to turn your money into, well, more money!

Even though compound interest is easy to understand—compound interest = more money for you!—those who can potentially benefit most from it (those in their teens and 20s) don’t seem to be taking advantage of it. Savings contributions and retirement savings participation rates are falling among young adults. 

So if we understand that compound interest translates into free money down the road, what could possibly be standing in the way? 

As it turns out, it’s not so much a math or finance issue as it is a life issue—if we have trouble identifying our life goals, we’ll also have trouble planning and saving for them. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil, we need to understand ourselves before we can fully understand our finances. 

Acknowledge the big picture

This is a tough one, because a lot happens between your teens and your 30s. You’ll experience a combination of moving out, starting your career, dealing with student loans, getting married, financing a home—all these things have their own set of stresses that make it difficult to see past them. When you’re a new grad and job hunting, it’s hard to imagine yourself retiring in 40 years. If you’re living with your family rent-free, it’s hard to imagine yourself putting down a deposit on a home. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to imagine having enough to pay off your student loans.

The first step is to acknowledge that you want these things, even if they seem impossible right now. You want to retire comfortably. You want to buy a home. You want to live debt-free. You may even want to travel or go back to school. These goals may seem far away, but they’re definitely there and they’re certainly not going away. Every day that goes by is one day closer to the time when you want to achieve those goals. 

The good news is that a little bit of your time and energy now can go a long way later. Make an appointment with your credit union to learn about their savings products. Take 10 minutes and set up a direct deposit into your savings account. When you’re dealing with compound interest, the longer you wait to get started, the less money you’ll earn in the long run.

Lack of clarity is self-sabotage

If you’re already at the stage where you can see the big picture, it’s time to get specific. You know you want to save for your retirement—great! But how much is that, exactly? $350,000? A million dollars? More? Do you have any idea? 

These questions aren’t meant to overwhelm you, but if they caught you off guard, that means it’s time to add some real dollar amounts and real timelines to your big-picture goals. For example, you could turn “saving for home ownership” into “saving $50,000 in the next 12 years for a down payment on a home”. 

Details make your goals more tangible, more immediate and, therefore, easier to commit to. Take a little time, do a little research and turn your big picture into something you can start on right now. 

Don’t let decisions overwhelm you

Not many people enjoy making decisions—especially when it comes to life changes and major financial commitments. It’s easy to understand why—decision-making is scary (not so much the actual “deciding” part, but more the “fear-of-making-the-wrong-decision-and-regretting-everything-forever” part).

Savings goals require you to make a lot of big decisions. You need to choose goals to focus on, you need to choose between different banking products and you need to choose how to distribute your savings contributions. Sometimes the choices are brutally blunt, such as choosing between owning a car and paying off your credit card debt. 

The important thing is to not let all that decision-making overwhelm you. Remember: just by facing those decisions, you’re making progress, because you’re establishing what’s most important to you and you’re renewing your commitment to your goals. 

Memorial Day Weekend on a Budget

Memorial Day WeekendMemorial Day weekend is about honoring the men and women who have served our country, but it is also the unofficial kick-off to summer! No matter what your plans are, check out some helpful money-saving tips this Memorial Day Weekend!

If you’re traveling, here are some ways to save a little extra cash:  

  • Tune up your vehicle to get the best gas mileage:
    • Check your tire pressure to make sure each tire is inflated properly. You can improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3% by keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure.
    • Use cruise control while driving! The consistent speed will save you money on gas and might save you from an expensive speeding ticket.
    • Empty your trunk of any unnecessary items and save at the tank! For each additional 100 pounds loaded into your car, you lose 1% to 2% in fuel efficiency. For every 100 lbs. you manage to shed, you’ll save the equivalent of 6 cents per gallon.
    •  Finally, turn off the air conditioner, open the windows, and enjoy a little fresh air!
  • Pack a cooler full of snacks and refreshments! While traveling, you might have a tendency to eat at nice restaurants or fast food chains which can all add up quickly! By packing food ahead of time, you can save money to do other fun things on vacation!

Here are some ways to enjoy your weekend if you’re on a budget or want to keep it simple :Memorial Day Food

  • The warm weather is finally here! If the rain decides to stay away this weekend, take some time to enjoy the sun, have a bonfire or a picnic with your family. Outdoor activities are generally free, so they fit in perfectly with a thrifty lifestyle.
  • Spend time on the water! Rent a boat, kayak, canoe or fishing boat. Get a group of friends to help split the cost. Bring your own beverages and snacks and enjoy the soothing waves while catching some rays!
  • Go Camping! Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of camping season! With no work or school on Monday, many of us will break for the outdoors to embrace the warm weather. Campsite spots fill up fast so call ahead to see if they have anything available.
  • A barbecue is also a great way to enjoy the outdoors while feeding your friends and family on a budget. Hamburgers and hotdogs are always a great choice and won’t break your bank account. Don’t be afraid to ask guests to bring sides or drinks to a barbecue, saving you a few more dollars. Most likely, they will be glad to help out! Play some music and grab a bags set or some other fun outdoor activities you and your guests can enjoy. It’s sure to be a hit!
  • Instead of traveling, or hosting a party, enjoy your three-day weekend in the comfort of your own living room. Rent some movies and enjoy quality time with your loved ones for little or no cost.

Most importantly have fun, be safe and take a moment to remember why we celebrate this special day!

 

Have a great weekend!

Jessica

10 Life Hacks to Help You Free Up Money

screen-shot-2015-09-17-at-2-15-00-pmAre you looking for ways you can cut down on expenses and put a little extra money aside? Maybe you’re looking to budget more efficiently, fund that big vacation or save for retirement.

This post is dedicated to little tricks to keep more of your money in your pocket. You can have a little fun with these things, too.

1. Call to Cancel. See How They React.
Savings doesn’t always mean going without. Sometimes when you call to cancel a service (e.g. cable, Internet, satellite radio, etc.), they’re very motivated to retain you as a client. After all, some of your money is better than none at all.

If they’re focused on retention, they may give you a reduced rate for a certain period of time or direct you to a plan that costs less without 37 channels that show 20-year-old movies.

Another good strategy in this situation is to research their competition. Tell them you’re switching to Competitor X who’s offering the same or better level of service for $50 cheaper. Play them against each other. Even if they just offer to match, this works to your advantage. You don’t have to take the equipment back.

2. Cut the Cord
A lot of people are cutting the cord and canceling cable for good. A couple of technological developments happening right now make this very possible.

For starters, you can now get HDTV out of an antenna to watch your local programming. You can also subscribe to multiple services like Netflix, Hulu and even HBO online to get your television for less than you would pay on a monthly basis for a cable subscription.

However, you might run into a problem with sports. Many games are shown on cable, but all the major professional leagues have their own subscription services now. Just be aware you may have to pick and choose sports to make cutting the cord cost-effective.

3. Reacquaint Yourself with Your Local Library
Take some time to browse your local public library. While it is good to see they still have books at the library, they also have a large selection of CDs and DVDs.

You can also check out e-books! Seriously though, your library may have a lot more education and entertainment options than it used to. It may be worth checking out if you haven’t been there in a while.

4. Lunch at the Grocery Store
Check out your grocery store’s sample selection – it’s worth your while. A motivated person has many choices, often including dessert, from various sample lines. Why do you think everyone is queued up when you go in there on a particularly busy Saturday? They’ve discovered a secret.

“Of course, I’ll try the chicken cordon bleu…Why yes! I think I’ll have a butterscotch cookie.”

It’s important to note that the portions are small. You can definitely make this work for lunch, but not dinner.

5. Pay Attention to Those Receipts
After you’ve done your shopping (and maybe gotten a midday meal in the bargain), it’s time to head to the cash register. However, it’s important to remember the savings doesn’t always stop when you check out.

Many stores add coupons to the backs of receipts now. It’s their way of keeping you coming back for more, but it also saves you money to use those coupons.

6. Get That Deposit Back
Many states charge a small deposit on the purchase of all bottles and cans. You get that deposit back when you bring them back to the store and feed the machine.

You won’t be able to retire early on the amount you get back, but it will give you some spare change for the drive-through.

7. Save Those Ketchup Packets
Save those extra ketchup packets from fast-food restaurants. If they give you four sauce packets and you only use two, stick the others in a drawer. They could come in handy when you run out!

8. Rewards Programs
Many businesses have rewards programs for their customers. You can shop around to see who gives you the best deal. There are programs for things like credit cards, airline miles and grocery stores. Although these are the more traditional ones, you can find rewards programs for all sorts of things like movie theaters, pharmacies, etc.

9. Attend Matinee Movies
There’s not many things you want to roll out of bed before 9 a.m. on a Saturday for, but it might be worth it for a matinee movie. Different theaters will have different times, but if you go to one of the early showings, you can often get a ticket for $5 or $6.

It can be super cheap entertainment if you manage to run through without succumbing to the smell of the popcorn stand. But there is one trick that could save you a couple bucks: If you and your friend are going to drink the same beverage, don’t go with two smalls. It’s often cheaper to get a large drink and two straws. Just make sure you know whose is whose. Plus, the same matinee strategy will work if you go to the theater for a play as well.

10. Gift Card Sites
There are sites online where you could sell such unwanted gift cards to someone else at a slight discount to benefit you both. Convert a gift card you’re not going to use into cash and get a great deal on something you would use!

*Original article source courtesy of Kevin Graham of ZING!

Tips for Post-Graduate Life

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The day has finally come – College Graduation! You’ve walked across the stage, you have your diploma in hand and you spent several hours fidgeting in your seat at your graduation ceremony. You’ve earned this. It’s YOUR college degree. Now, it’s time to prepare for life after college. Are you ready? Below are several tips I gathered to help prepare you for the real world.

1. Start Paying Back Your Student Loans
Just when you think college is behind you, it’s not. Now, you have a pile of student loan debt that will haunt you for the next ten years. It’s too late now to look back – it’s time to look ahead to a bright and cheery future…a debt repayment plan! Some advice: Don’t miss the first payment and put a reminder on ALL of your calendars. Start paying early if you can. The average debt load for students is $35K, so it is wise to stay on top of your payments and to get out of debt quickly.

2.  Get on a Schedule!
Your weekends no longer begin on Thursday and days that end at noon are no longer a thing. Say goodbye to sleeping in and get prepared for an 8 to 5 schedule, Monday through Friday. 

Prep Tips: 

  • Slowly set your alarm earlier and earlier each day
  • Get into a scheduled routine and start going to bed at an earlier time during the week
  • Get used to functioning properly during an eight to five timeframe
  • Research how to be productive

3. Know Your Credit Score
Credit is something you’re hopefully already familiar with because it plays a huge role in some major life purchases that will soon be coming your way. A good credit score comes with a history of making payments on-time on your credit card, loans, and other bills. It proves that you’re a responsible borrower when it comes time for you to borrow money. 

Tips:  Always pay your bills on time. You can schedule automatic transfer payments right from your checking account to ensure you pay the bills each month. Getting behind can hurt your credit score and your finances.

4. Know the Difference Between Wants and Needs
After college, there is a new sense of independence. Now, you’re truly responsible for the next steps in your life, and that means making smart decisions with your money. Now that you’re paying for everything, the difference between things you want and things you need becomes clear pretty quick.

5. It’s Okay to Live With Your Parents (Just Don’t Abuse It)
Live within your means and continue sharing living expenses. Get a roommate or roommates, so that you don’t have to afford living by yourself. If you’re not sure what your plan is, live at home for free until you get things figured out. The extra money you save can go toward the security deposit on a new place.

7. You Will Have to Make Some Hard Decisions
For example, what should your priority be:  paying off student debt faster, or contributing to your retirement fund? But seriously, which comes first? The answer? They are BOTH important. 

Funding your retirement early is critical because the earlier you start, the more you’ll have in your account once you retire. Because of compound interest, your money builds on itself and therefore grows at a faster rate each year.

Paying off your student loan debt is also important because the faster you pay it off, the less interest you will pay over the life of your loan. Plus, who wants all of that debt weighing you down?

You should continue to pay off your student debt. However, don’t pay more than necessary and sacrifice your retirement fund to do so.

Financial planners suggest that “if you have income left over once you’ve met all your debt obligations, your retirement should get priority over paying more than required for student loans.”

8. Not Ready for the Professional World?
Keep learning! Develop your professional skills. Learn how to network and attend seminars that will help you with your personal and professional growth. Read books and practice interview questions. There are so many resources out there to help prepare you. Plus, making an effort will pay off! 

9. Your First Job Probably Won’t be Your Dream Job – And That’s Okay!
Realize that your first job might not be your final stop. Continue to pursue possibilities and opportunities. Push yourself, and never get too comfortable. 

Hope this helps!

Until Next Time,

Jessica M.

Budgeting Basics

Budgets are like the New Year’s resolutions of personal finance. We all know we should have one and we all know it’s a fairly simple thing to follow—at least in theory. Like resolutions, we often map out personal budgets with the best of intentions, only to abandon them a couple of weeks later. 

It’s easy to blame our budget failures on the numbers we use, or the categories we create, or even the specific app or budgeting system we choose—but more often than not, the underlying cause of a hard-to-stick-to budget is our relationship with it. Just like resolutions, if we design budgets that are too restrictive or too vague, there’s no motivation to follow them.

Whether you’re planning your first budget or re-evaluating your current budget, the ground rules listed below will set you up for success by changing the way you look at budgeting. It doesn’t matter if you manage your budget on your smartphone or if you prefer good ol’ pen and paper—these budgeting basics can be applied to every budgeting system.

Budgeting Basic #1: Budgeting is about confidence, not guilt

A reason lots of people avoid budgeting is because they think it means giving up everything they love and converting to a super-frugal lifestyle. Or, they might be scared they’ll discover that they’ve been spending lots of money on the “wrong” things. 

Budgeting is not meant to shame you into being financially responsible. At the end of the day, budgeting is simply about awareness. If you fully understand where your money is going each month, you can design a budget that allows you to truly enjoy your money. How fun is a shopping spree if it’s what’s keeping you in credit card debt for another month? How much can you enjoy your new apartment if the rent payment is stressing you out? Budgets are helpful when it comes to managing your bills and saving up for future expenses, but they’re also the key to spending your money confidently. 

Budgeting Basic #2: Stop comparing yourself to others

An effective budget is tailored to your specific combination of wants and needs, so forcing yourself to live within a sample budget you found online or in a personal finance book is not a long-term solution. Budgeting categories can vary wildly depending on where you live, where you work, how you get from point A to point B, what you do for fun and what your personal goals are. Finding a budget that works for you will take trial and error, and the end result will look different from every other budget out there. Get comfortable with the idea that everyone has different priorities, and that no two budgets look alike. 

Budgeting Basic #3: Be real about your income

A rookie mistake when it comes to budgeting is using your salary (divided by 12 months) or your hourly wage (multiplied by hours worked) as your monthly income. Instead, take a couple of minutes to calculate your monthly take-home pay—this is your income after estimated taxes and other deductions (like health care, social security and retirement savings contributions) have been taken into account. Your deductions should be listed on your paycheck, and there are plenty of income tax estimate services online that you can use for free.

Budgeting Basic #4: Savings is an expense, too

If budgeting categories were a high school gym class, savings would be picked last. In many budgets, the savings category ends up getting whatever is left over after the “more urgent” expenses have been paid (and—in most cases—the not-so-urgent ones too!). The only way to take your savings seriously is to give it the same priority as your living expenses. If you contribute a set amount to your savings at the beginning of the month, your savings will grow so much faster and you won’t be able to “accidentally” spend that money on something else. 

Budgeting Basic #5: Look to your budget instead of your balance

For many people, budgeting simply means checking your account balance before making a purchase—and although it’s good to stay on top of your account totals, looking at your balance is an unreliable way of determining what you can and can’t afford. Your account balance can’t communicate, for instance, how much money needs to be left untouched in order for you to pay your taxes this year or to renew your gym membership next month or to repair your car next week. Get into the habit of referencing your budget instead of your account balance before spending your money.

Budgeting Basic #6: Prepare for emergencies

Emergency expenses have a knack for breaking even the best budgets because they can very easily turn into a huge source of debt. If you don’t have the cash on hand to take care of them immediately, you’ll have to put them on a card or take out a loan, which will have you paying interest on top of the cost of the expenses. 

Emergency funds are an important part of any budget and should be a separate category from general savings goals. In order to be effective, your emergency fund can only be accessed for real emergencies—like sudden unemployment, an unexpected medical emergency, or a critical home or vehicle repair. Instead of looking at your emergency fund like yet another savings category, look at it as a way to strengthen your entire budget. Not only will it cover tough situations, but it will also save you stress and give you peace of mind.

Until Next Time,

Jessica M.

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