June 29, 2014

Crazy Days of Summer

Mama and baby penguin.
We just got back from an almost-week-long vacation to upstate New York to see A's dad. M2 had fun hanging out with grandpa, playing with grandpa's big dog, going to Fort Stanwix and the Syracuse Zoo, having her first ice cream cone, meeting family, visiting Grandma's grave, and more. She got spoiled with Grandpa's cooking, which included homemade potato pancakes and kabobs. M2 loved the potato pancakes covered with apple sauce. It was one of the few things she refused to share with the puppy.

As our fun trip came to a close, something struck me. This next month-plus is going to be crazy for A, M2 and me. I've got to unpack everything, do laundry, restock the fridge (I planned ahead and used everything up before we left) and clean the house. That's not even the half of it, though.

M2 loves elephants!
We've got to clean out, sort and organize the entire basement to prep for a yard sale August 9. Our whole plan when we moved in was to have an organized storage area so we can get to what we need and also have a nice laundry area. Right now, it's a huge mound of stuff.It's full of things we didn't need in our new house, stuff we haven't used since moving so I've decided we don't need, things the previous owner left and boxes of who-knows-what that I had as a kid from my parents' house. We were planning to do a spring yard sale, but with nasty morning sickness that didn't happen. August 9 is now our drop-dead date as that's when the 50-mile yard crawl along the main road we live off takes place. We're hoping it'll draw tons of customers so we can clear out the space and make some extra cash for the baby items we'll need. All this will have to be done when A isn't working as I can't lift the heavy boxes and when M2 is napping--added challenge!

Elephant ride with Daddy.
All the beds in the yard have to be weeded as well. The weeds are taking over and eating up the good plants! They must be brought under control and regulated to the trash bags so they don't eat up my flowers.

On top of that, we've got a prenatal appointment, M2's checkup (both of which are an hour away so eat up time) and the anatomy scan to find out what Baby2 is (that one is 1.5-2 hours away so takes up the whole day), two vet appointments, peach picking and baking with the peaches, parties and activities for M2, car safety inspections and things I know I'm forgetting.

Plus, the usual house cleaning, laundry, cooking, shopping, etc., that has to be done anyway. And, of course, blogging!! I can't forget about all our readers. It'll be quite a challenge to get everything done. Luckily, morning sickness is wearing off a bit and I've got some more energy. Nothing can really be taken off the list, especially the big items, and I'm determined that it'll all get done!

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June 19, 2014

Easy Money Saving Tips: Round Four

This article is part of a series. You can read the other articles here, here, here, and here.

It's time again for more money-saving ideas!
  1. Bring water bottles and snacks with you. I've found that when we're out doing errands or fun activities, we get more tempted to buy bottles of water, sodas and quick snacks. Doing this every time where were out was really eating into the monthly budget and taking cash away from things we needed more. Now, we fill up reusable water bottles and bring them with us along with granola bars (the cheaper store brand ones) or other easy "throw in your bag" snacks. M2 loves the applesauce fruit pouches, which are cheaper than the fancy singles you find in the baby section.
  2. Skip store bought or delivery service water. Buying water or having it delivered through places like Culligan adds up. Fast. All the trash doesn't do the environment any favors, either. Instead, we have a filter in our fridge connected to the door dispenser that gets changed out every 6 months or so. If the water in our area wasn't hard, we'd even skip that. The water is just as good as the bottled kind (I actually think it tastes better) and is much cheaper. Before we had the built-in fridge filtration system, we used a Brita pitcher.
  3. If you don't need it, don't buy it. Stores often run sales that make items you wouldn't usually buy so tempting. While setting up our budget, I found I was running into the pitfall of buying those "good deal" items. Then I realized--It's not such a good deal if we don't need it. It's also eating away at having money for things we do need. Now, everytime I pick something up, I ask myself if we 1. Need it. 2. Will use it. 3. Would it be something I'd buy if it wasn't on sale. If I can't answer "yes" to all three, I put it back.
  4. Group trips to save gas. Rather than breaking up my errands and activities, I plan each trip to make the most of my time and gas. Each week, I look to see what activities we have going on and what errands I need to do. Then, I group things together as much as possible to make the least amount of trips.
  5. Weigh sale price vs. how much the gas will cost. When I go through the weekly circulars, sometimes there are only one or two items at a store that I'd need. I then decide if I'd actually be spending more on gas to drive for the savings than I would if I got the items at another time at a slightly higher price. Sometimes, it's not worth the drive.


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June 14, 2014

How M Determines, Sets, and Follows a Budget

This article has been updated. Check it out for newer, more in-depth info and a handy printable.


Family accountant is one of the many jobs I have. This means doing the taxes each year, paying the bills each month and --you guessed it-- figuring out and setting our budget. It actually sounds much scarier than it really is.

Going from an office job to freelance writing and
editing meant new challenges professionally.
And meant it was time for a new budget.
I started from scratch for our new budget last year after I left my office job to be a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader and a stay-at-home mom. There are different ways to budget and some people do things differently. It's a trial-and-error to see what works best for you. Here is a step-by-step on how I budget that is easy to follow. A handy printable is included.

Step one Follow your spending for a few months. How much is going to groceries? Household items? Cell phones? Electric? Student loans? Internet? Mortgage? Gas? Water and sewer? How much is spent over all? Once that is done, you can look at everything again to see where you can cut back. For tips, check out my Easy Money Saving Tips series. Part one, with links to the others, is here.

Step two Figure out the absolute lowest amount you can get away with spending each month based on the numbers in step one. The lowest amount includes everything you need monthly with a bit of cushion to cover the things that pop up here and there, like new clothes and shoes, fun activities, treats or doctor appointment copays. This is your monthly spending portion of the budget. 
Math and money
Step three Add up all the expenses that aren't monthly. Vet bills, insurance payments, property tax, house repairs, car repairs and maintenance, new appliances, holiday and birthday meals and gifts, etc., all fall into this category. I find it's better to estimate high and pad it a bit. I'd rather figure we need more here and have money left over than run short. Each month, try to work as much of these pop-up expenses into the monthly spending as you can. It doesn't always work, but that's what this budget section is for anyway. 

Budgeting for the holidays!
Step four Figure out how much you need to save each year, in case of emergencies or unplanned expenses. This fund also helps determine what trips and fun activities are possible. I try to budget and plan so that as much as possible comes out of the monthly spending. All the big ticket things we'll need for Baby2 comes from here. The main goal of this part of the budget is savings, after all!

Step five At tax time, once the W2s were in, figure out how much money you bring in each year after taxes, pre-tax deductions (like health care and flex spending), and 401k contributions. This lets you know if the other budgeting is on track or if it needs to be tweaked and tightened more.

Step six On you have all the above info together and are confident that your spending and saving is as mapped out and budgeted well, pull up good old Excel. Make a spreadsheet to track each month's spending so not only do you know where we stand, but next year you'll be able to make any needed adjustments. After all, what good is a budget if you don't make sure you're following it? 

You can plug in the monthly spending amount and break it down between each category of spending. Make slots to stick in the non-monthly expenses as they pop up so you can keep track of those as well (this is really helpful when the next year comes along to plan for the next budget). If anything changes, update that category. For us, I did that when our internet bill went up and water bill went down with a new washer. When food prices went up, I came up with some more ways to save in order to compensate for that. 

This isn't my real spreadsheet, it's just an example.
Step 7 Throughout the month keep an eye on what's being spent in each category and to what the electric, water and other bills come. That way, if you're in danger of going over, you can cut back other places if possible (such as putting off buying household things you don't need right now until next month, tightening up on gas use or skipping treats). 

Step 8 At the end of the month, enter in what was spent in each category in the Excel sheet, add it up, and mark whether or not you broke even, went over or saved. If you went over, that overage needs to come from somewhere else whether it be the next month's cushion, non-monthly, or savings. Some months we have slipped up. No one is perfect. It will happen. Having the budget and tracking it let you see that it's happening so you can address it before it gets too bad.

The next year,  take a look at the spreadsheet and see how the budget worked for the year. Take into account anything that you need to change for your new budget. Hopefully, you'll be right where you planned financially, if not better.
 
Happy budgeting!


Disclaimer: I am not a financial expert. This is simply how I do our budgeting and what has worked for us. For professional advice, contact an accountant.

June 12, 2014

M2's Big Announcement

M2 made a big announcement on Facebook today.
The new baby is due the same month as her birthday, hence why he or she will be M2's "birthday present."
This is the other part medical stuff that has been going on with me (you can read more about that here). Lucky for me, I'm now in the second trimester and the Vitron C is building up. I'm not quite as sick or tired, but it is still rearing its nasty head. 

You can expect baby-related posts as Baby2 grows and I get the hang of having two rather than one. We'll find out the sex in July so then the real planning can begin! I've already got a nursery theme in mind for a boy and for a girl. A and I are really excited to see what is in store for our family with this new addition. I have a feeling it'll be a big change to go from one baby to two!


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June 5, 2014

Cooking with M: Black Beans and Rice

This is a dish I haven't made in awhile. The other day while going through the cabinets, I realized we had a big bag of black beans, rice, sausage that needed to be used up and tons of frozen peppers. Time for an easy, cheap, yummy, filling, lots-of-leftovers dinner! You can make this a meatless meal to make it even more cost effective--just leave out the sausage.
Ready to eat! Yummy.

Ingredients
1 lb. black beans, dry not canned (it's much cheaper to buy them this way, they're healthier and last longer)
8 servings rice from a large bag, not minute rice (much cheaper than instant)
1/2 lb. frozen mixed peppers
1/2 cup frozen onion
1/4 lb. Italian sausage
1 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. onion powder

Directions

  1. Soak black beans over night, per directions on bag in a large pot
  2. Cook black beans for 2 hours
  3. After 2 hours, continue to cook beans while you cut up sausage into small pieces and brown it
  4. As sausage browns, prepare rice according to directions on the bag
  5. When rice is taken off heat, microwave frozen peppers, drain beans and let sit 
  6. Add rice and sausage to pot of beans. Stir well.
  7. Add in thyme, onion powder, frozen onion and heated peppers. Stir until well mixed.
  8. Serve and enjoy!
A big pot of leftovers ready to chill in the fridge.
This recipe will leave you with plenty of leftovers, about 10-12 servings. If you don't want all the leftovers, you can reduce the amounts to better serve your needs. It's a really easy, filling and cheap recipe that's fairly healthy. To cut costs even more (and up the health factor), you can leave out the sausage. You don't really need it, I only added a small amount for flavor and because we had some to use up. There's plenty of protein in the beans alone. Since you've got your grains, veggies and protein all together, you don't need to worry about sides. A really enjoyed it, M2 wasn't as big of a fan. She's very keen on eating chicken right now so the beans and peppers didn't please her. 
At least she tried it. Maybe next time she'll eat it!


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