Looking Back at Our First Cash Only Christmas

I guess I didn’t really know how it would go, but this Christmas came and went just as quickly as the others before it. However, the big difference this year is that Christmas won’t be lingering in the form of credit card debt or budget regret. I can’t even begin to express how good that feels!

We didn’t plan all year long and we didn’t start saving last Christmas, but we did sit down in November and make a plan for Christmas- and we stuck to that plan. We took a portion of the money that would have gone toward extra debt payments in December and budgeted $800 for Christmas. That included gifts for everyone on our list, cost of food for hosting Christmas dinner at our house, and a little extra padding for unexpected expenses. I am happy to report that we came in under budget, by about $90.

This is the first Christmas I can remember that we didn’t use a credit card and didn’t over spend. Working with a budget for every person on our list was quite liberating. It made it easy to decide what to buy for someone- if we planned to only spend $25 on someone we wanted to make sure we got the best value we could for the money.

What to do if you took on debt to pay for Christmas this year:

If you had to use credit cards to pay for Christmas this year, don’t beat yourself up over it now. Recognize the mistakes you made and take action TODAY to prepare for next Christmas and to be ready to handle it with cash. If you don’t have one yet, open a savings account for Christmas. Call it your ‘Christmas Fund‘ and only use the money for Christmas. Decide now how much you need to spend for next Christmas and divide that total by 11 or 12 (decide if you want to count this month or start in January or whatever). The best advice is to set up an automatic transfer each month for your monthly Christmas Fund contribution so that you won’t even have to think about it. Personally, I don’t like to set up automatic payments or transfers for non-essentials so I will manually move the money each month- decide what works for you here and what you can safely commit to doing.

An example– I opened our Christmas Fund yesterday (with ING Direct) and funded it with $50. I chose $50 because I always start my new ING savings accounts with $50 (no particular reason for that). We have decided to budget $1,000 for next Christmas, which leaves $950 to save from January through November (11 months = $86.36 per month). That’s it! Next Christmas is taken care of! Of course I need to make that transfer a part of my monthly budget, but we can afford it so that won’t be a problem. So whatever your budget may be for next Christmas, decide it now, plan for it now, and get started TODAY! I promise you won’t regret it.

Remember, by preparing for next Christmas now, not only are you taking control of your money and making it work for you, but you are reversing the damaging effects of interest that you would be paying to a credit card company and actually earning interest all year long on your savings account. Compound interest working against you is the enemy of financial freedom and wealth. Compound interest working for you is your greatest ally in changing your financial future and becoming wealthy. This distinction is probably the greatest difference between the poor and the wealthy- don’t let this be another year that you move in the wrong direction.

Best of luck and Merry (cash) Christmas!  🙂

Savings Tip- Charge Yourself Exorbitant Bank Fees

If my bank charged me a 10% fee to transfer money between accounts, I would promptly be seeking a new bank. However, if those fees were being paid to me, it would help my savings to build up over time. That is the premise behind my simple idea to help increase my emergency fund.

We have all heard the advice ‘pay yourself first’ and I do that, but I am intentionally keeping my savings rate low while I work to get out of debt. I started a basic emergency fund with $1,000 and I set up an auto transfer of $25 each month to slowly build that up.

It seems that starting an emergency fund is all you have to do to start creating financial emergencies in your life! Only a couple of months after making the fund I have accumulated nearly $1,000 in ’emergency’ type unexpected expenses. I have put back all of the money I have used from the account, but when I have to tap into that $1,000 balance it always makes me start to wonder if that is really enough- even while I’m in this debt repayment phase.

To help build the balance a little faster I decided to implement a rule that I would repay any withdrawals from the emergency account plus a flat 10% fee, rounded up to the nearest dollar. It’s unlikely that an extra 10% would negatively effect my budget in any way and it will help to build up a more comfortable cushion of cash. It is also a smart system because it responds to my actual emergency fund needs- if I am making a lot of emergency withdrawals, then it makes sense that I need to be saving more for emergencies. If I rarely touch the account, then it makes sense to keep it low while I am working on getting out of debt. This month, I had to spend $170 from the emergency fund to get our oven fixed, so when I get my paycheck next week I will be transferring $187 back into the account.

This is a simple idea, but it goes along nicely with my philosophy of small steps and slow changes that add up to big progress over time.

How I Saved $44 on My Water Bill

To be honest, I don’t deserve any credit for this one. I only had the opportunity to save $44 because I let a leaky toilet run for about four months and only did something about it when my bill for one month was $83! For reference, my normal bill should be in the $32 – $35 range. It slowly started creeping up and I didn’t think too much about it until the problem had snowballed and I had easily let more than $100 run down the drain.

Now the good news. Fixing the toilet only took about ten minutes of research and about fifteen minutes of work. The only tool required was a Philip’s head screwdriver. I’m not a handyman by any means, but I can take care of most things if I have a good set of instructions. This article from Ace Hardware is very comprehensive and includes some illustrations and a list of parts you may need. If you want something a bit more short and sweet, try this article with a nice illustration from Denver Water.

It turned out that I didn’t need to buy any new parts and just making some adjustments solved the leak. So….I traded about a half hour of effort for well over $100 wasted due to my laziness. Ouch! I have to admit that I’m somewhat new to the homeowner thing, going on three years now, and I really didn’t get the fact that a little running sound coming from the toilet could cost so much money. All I can say is, pay very close attention to your statements and as soon as you start to see water usage trending up, start looking for the problem. I wish I had jumped on this sooner. I hope this will save someone some money!

How I Saved $432 On Groceries Last Month

I posted earlier this month about my seemingly out of control spending on groceries. Now that we have reached the end of the month, I have some nice progress to report.

Quick review- in August, for two people, we spent $628.26 on groceries. To be clear, that was just groceries. No eating out, no fast food, and no household items. Seems like way too much money to me.

Now the good news- for the month of September, we managed to spend only $195.83. How did we do that? I’m not sure if I know exactly what made the difference, maybe we just got lucky, but I will try to share all the details I can think of now.

My first trip to the grocery store this month was very different than it used to be. I actually have fun shopping for groceries and because I like to cook I tend to spend a lot of time looking for specific, hard-to-find items that I may have seen on a cooking show or heard recommended somewhere- almost like a kid in a candy store, but with produce and spices.  🙂   This time, I didn’t allow myself to do that. I stuck with the list I had prepared and I didn’t always look for the ‘best’ items. I spent quite a lot of time comparing prices across different brands and doing some quick math to figure out what was the best deal per unit. I also brought an envelope full of coupons and made sure to use them all (can’t tell you how many times I’ve brought coupons with me and simply forgot to use them).

I saw results right away after taking this new approach. The bill was much lower than I had expected for the amount of food that I purchased. I also made sure to pick up items that I knew could go a long way for little expense (bags of rice and beans for example).

The other change I made was to focus on eating what was already at home. Yeah, that probably sounds obvious, but I would always go out and buy more food when I already had a lot to eat at home and this often led to me throwing away a lot of food.

That’s about it really. All it took was some effort. Instead of just walking through the grocery store with only a vague idea of what I needed, and grabbing what looked good along the way, I planned ahead, I stuck to my plan, and I really labored over every extra penny I had to spend. For example, we wanted a little Mac and Cheese (not healthy and the stuff in the box is really awful compared to home-made in my opinion but my wife likes it). First I looked at the Kraft brand, it was $0.99 per box. Then I found some generic brand for about $0.70 per box. I thought I had found a winner until I looked a little further down the shelf…and there it was! The cheapest of the cheap, $0.33 per box for Mac and Cheese. That’s a huge price difference and there is very little taste difference, if any.

Ultimately, if I want to lose weight, I can’t afford to be eating cheap food that is loaded with empty carbohydrates and lots of sodium. I really want to explore how to prepare my own foods at home, make them as healthy as I can, and do that while still spending less money. In my mind, I have always equated eating healthy with spending a lot of money on groceries, but I suspect that isn’t really true. Look for more on that some day. For now, I will take the $432 saved on groceries and throw it at the debt snowball.