Money-Savin’ Mama: Be cautious when ‘saving’ equals more spending

A sale sign lured me from the mall’s wide corridors last October. Everything in the children’s clothing store was $16.99 or less, it promised.

I don’t normally shop at Gymboree, its regular prices out of my wallet’s comfort zone. But beneath that sign were tulle-lined holiday dresses, regularly priced around $60 each.

The saleswoman confirmed the dresses were included in the inventory-clearing sale. I bought three – one for my daughter, Eve, and early Christmas presents for two nieces – paying less total than one would have cost.

I stayed within my gift-giving budget for the girls, and bought Eve a new outfit for not much more than I usually pay for a used dress.

And, because I spent more than $50, I received bonus “Gymbucks” for $25 off a future $50 purchase, valid from the end of January into early February.

So a few weeks ago, I wandered back into the land of kiddy chic. Happily, many of its racks were on clearance, discounted 30 percent to 60 percent.

I picked out itty-bitty shirts and pants as a gift for my newborn nephew, a skirt and top for Eve, and an adorable hat for one of my nieces.

With the clearance prices and the $25 coupon, my bill came to $32.18, a far cry from the $125 the original price tags totaled.

I celebrated my money-saving prowess, but warily.

Because, had I really saved any money at all?

It’s a dangerous trap to think you’ve saved money when in reality, you spent.

It’s an issue I struggle with as I see frugal blogs touting ways to score major discounts on tank tops, kids’ toys and toiletries.

Yes, you’re paying much less than the suggested retail price. This is great when they’re items you need or gifts you’d be buying anyway.

But did you have that money in your budget to spend for those items? Did you need those tank tops or toys or toiletries?

I found myself falling into a similar scheme a few weeks later. Several friends have had good luck purchasing items from Zulily.com, a daily deal site geared toward moms. A Facebook ad lured me into the “shopping destination.”

There, I found a discounted pair of My Little Pony pajamas, a perfect birthday present for Eve. Several pairs of shoes caught my eye, and I took a chance on a pair of black wedges, as my current go-to black flats each have a hole in the sole.

At the checkout, I hesitated, realizing the shipping costs would eat away at my savings, but after some quick calculations, clicked buy.

A congratulatory note for my first purchase popped on the screen, along with an offer of free shipping on any additional purchases made through the weekend.

Free shipping? Well, I should probably take advantage of that …

I started to scan the site for more “deals.”

And then I stopped.

None of these deals would mean more money in my bank account.

They’d just mean stuff I don’t need at my doorstep.

That’s no deal.

Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and employee of The Forum. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com

Money-savin’ Mama: No wrong way to start saving

The picture of a coin-and-bill-filled jar started making its way around social media a few weeks back. It accompanied a 52-week money challenge chart that, if followed, would result in $1,378 in savings by the end of the year. The idea is to start by saving $1 in week 1, and then increase that by a dollar every week to gradually ease into the saving habit.

Soon counter-posts criticizing the method filled my Facebook wall. They put a large red X through that challenge chart.

If you don’t have $52 a week to save now, you certainly won’t come next December, they said, advising instead that you start with $52 and taper by $1 a week. That way, you’ll harness the motivation you feel right now, and be rewarded with having saved a couple hundred dollars in a matter of weeks, instead of several singles.

Then there were the even-keeled kind who proposed a different approach. Why don’t you just save $26.50 each week all year long to reach that $1,378 goal? And why not do so through automatic transfers into a bank account, instead of keeping a big, tempting jar of cash in your house?

So, Money-Savin’ Mama, what’s the best way? Answer: Whatever works for you.

Truth is, there’s no bad way to start saving.

A math teacher I once met said he tells his students there are many right ways to solve a problem. Some make the problem quicker to solve, others are roundabout ways to get there. But finding the right answer is what matters.

Even if you choose the most roundabout way to reach your savings goal, it’s better than doing nothing.

For example, most financial experts will tell you, when it comes to paying off debt, you should put more money toward the debt with the highest interest first (then, once paid off, add that payment to the second-highest interest debt). But others, including Dave Ramsey of Financial Peace University, say to pay off the debt with the lowest balance first to earn a sense of accomplishment (and then add that payment to the second-lowest balance).

While I fall in the interest-first camp (it will save you more money), any extra effort to pay off debt more quickly is working to solve the problem.

If you’re motivated by the satisfaction of paying off a bill quickly and it will keep you on the road to being debt-free, pay off that $300 balance first (and then add that payment to the … you get the idea).

The key is to start. Just start. Whether it’s $1, or $52, or $26.50.

Parenting Perspectives: Not just ‘Honey’ or ‘Daddy’; he’s still my Craig

My toddler son’s cries dragged me out of bed at 1 a.m. I sleepily trudged down the stairs and into his room, where I confronted a pile of puke on his mattress.

“Craaaaig,” I called up the stairs to my husband. “I need you.”

He joined me downstairs to tag-team the post-vomit cleanup. He washed our son and changed pajamas. I tackled the bedding. We took turns cuddling Owen back to sleep.

An hour later, back in our shared bed, Craig made a late-night confession.
“Whenever you say my name, it’s like nails on a chalkboard,” he said.

My mouth dropped. This is not a good thing for a husband to tell a wife.

“You only use my name when you’re yelling at me,” he explained, or to enlist him in an unpleasant parenting task.

It’s true. The rest of the time, to me, he’s a term of endearment, like “Sweetie.”

Back in college and the prehistoric age of landlines, I’d call the large apartment Craig shared with his fraternity brothers. Whoever answered would teasingly summon him to the phone by saying “Honey, it’s Dear.”

When we became parents nearly six years ago I started calling him a new name: Daddy.And I became Mommy, not just to our children. I pondered this as I lay awake, digesting Craig’s revelation. Many couples with kids call each other Mom and Dad. My parents, married 53 years, have as long as I remember, and still do, even though we kids have been out of the house for many years. Craig, whose parents are divorced, thinks it’s cute.

But names are central to our identity. Dale Carnegie said the sweetest sound to a person is his or her own name.

Not in my husband’s case, at least not from my lips. By using his name in only negative situations, I’d conditioned him to expect the worst whenever I uttered it.
While I regularly express appreciation and affection for the husband (“Dear”) and father (“Daddy”), was I disregarding him as a person, the guy I started dating 15 years ago, by not making his name a sweet sound?

I vowed to change it. The next morning, eating a quick breakfast at the kitchen table, I called down to the landing where he put on his coat.

“Craaaig?”

He responded with a pained groan, a verbal grimace to the screeching chalkboard.

 “I love you,” I said.

He laughed, realizing what I was doing. Since, I’ve started using his name frequently, when I say something sweet or silly or mundane. It still sounds a little awkward.
Our daughter, Eve, tried to admonish me. “Don’t call him ‘Craig,’” she said. “He’s Daddy.”
Yes, he is. But he’s also my Craig. The one who responds for middle-of-the-night cleanup duty, no matter how I yell up the stairs.

2013: What I Read

As 2012 came to a close, I ran through my Kindle history and shared what I’d read that year. I knew I wanted to do so again this year. It’s a good exercise for me to recap and remember the words I’ve consumed, the influence they had in the moment, and how I can carry the positive forward into a new year.

2013 started with some titles I knew I was going to read, and veered from there, based on what looked appealing from Fargo’s online library. Here’s the rundown:

“Gone Girl: A Novel,” by Gillian Flynn
“Have a Little Faith,” by Mitch Albom
“Cemetery Girl,” by David Bell
“Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake,” by Anna Quindlen
“Torch,” by Cheryl Strayed
“The Pact,” by Jodi Picoult
“Edward Adrift,” by Craig Lancaster
“January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her,” by Michael Schofield
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot
“Kiss Me If You Can,” by Carly Phillips (I’d like to pretend this was not on my list. I didn’t realize it was a Harlequin romance when I started it. That said, I can’t justify finishing it.)
“The Hunger Games,” “Playing with Fire,” and “Mockingjay,” by Suzanne Collins
“Bad Monkey,” by Carl Hiaasen
“Revenge Wears Prada,” by Lauren Weisberger
“Star Island,” by Carl Hiaasen
“Sharp Objects: A Novel,” by Gillian Flynn
“The Time Keeper,” by Mitch Albom
“Sh*t My Dad Says,” by Justin Halpern
“Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” by Sheryl Sandberg
“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” by Mindy Kaling
“The Fault in Our Stars,” by John Green

My reading habits declined sharply in November, between increased hours at work and holiday busyness.  I downloaded “Life of Pi” last month, but never got a chance to crack click it before my loan expired. So I’m seeking recommendations for the New Year to relight my reading lamp.

What did you read this year? What are you most looking forward to reading in 2014?

Money-savin’ Mama: Make sure your financial resolutions are SMART

As I think about the New Year, I picture bright blue water, white sand beaches and the green it will take to get there. This year will mark a decade of marriage to my accountant husband, and we’re planning a tropical getaway for the end of 2014.
Saving for the trip is among our financial goals for the year, along with continuing to max out retirement contributions, pay down the mortgage, and add to the kids’ college funds.
I was glad to read we’re not alone in making money-based resolutions. Fifty-four percent of Americans will consider financial resolutions for 2014, an all-time high, according to the fifth annual Fidelity New Year Financial Resolutions Study.
While long-term savings goals lead the way, more Americans are leaning toward short-term goals, the study found. And these short-term goals have become more practical (like stashing an emergency fund or paying down credit card debt) versus luxurious. (Sorry, boat salesmen.)
For the third year, the top three resolutions are to save more money, pay off debt and spend less money. While those are all worthy resolutions, stated as is they’re not “SMART.”
SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.
It’s not enough to resolve to “save more money” or “pay down debt.” You need to get down to the nitty-gritty of how, how much and when. That’s where the SMART acronym comes into play. It can help you make your financial resolutions a reality, regardless if they’re set Jan. 1 or mid-July.
Let’s apply SMART goal-setting to our second honeymoon:
 • Specific: The goal needs to be concrete. “We’re saving up for a vacation” is too vague. We need to say where we’re going, when and for how long.
 • Measurable: We need to have a target, in this case an actual dollar amount, so we know when we’ve reached the goal. Being specific will allow us to research travel packages and get an accurate figure, but let’s say $2,000 for now.
• Achievable: Is this goal within reach? If not, we could plan a less expensive vacation or wait another year.
• Relevant: Is this trip important to us? Should other financial goals take precedence?
• Time-based: In this case, our travel dates provide us with a timeframe. We’re looking to go in mid- November, which gives us 11 months to save up the $2,000. That’s $182 a month, or $42 a week, or $6 a day.
To accomplish this, we could set up regular automatic transfers into a savings account. When we took a trip to Jamaica in 2008, I set up a spreadsheet to track extra cash from bonuses, gifts, coin jars and even recycled cans.
Some take SMART another step, adding evaluate and re-evaluate for SMARTER goal-setting.
Either way, it’s a tool that can firm up your resolve, whether you want to make changes to your work life, waistline or wallet.
Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com 

Parenting Perspectives: Wild child humbles this second-time mom

I used to judge the mom at story time whose little boy wouldn’t sit still. Now I’m the mom who doesn’t even attend library events because it would result in nothing but chaos and wreckage.

I see the glares and hear the snide comments from parents who don’t understand what it’s like to have a “wild child.” The message, whether intended or perceived: Why can’t she control her offspring?

For years, I was among their ranks, mother only to a relatively laid-back kid. On some level, I credited my parenting for her good behavior. By that reasoning, bad behavior would result from poor parenting.

And then there was Owen, my beautiful, cherished little boy who came out of the womb like Bruce Banner after the gamma radiation.

Hulk smash!

He’s focused, determined, driven and independent. All are qualities I will admire tremendously when he’s 26. Not when he’s 2.

As a toddler, those personality traits translate into “unruly,” “naughty” and “wild.” After Owen’s first day of day care last month, our provider commented we “have our hands full.”

Every few weeks my husband and I attempt to bring Owen to church. It has yet to end well. The last time he crawled under pews until he was halfway up the sanctuary in a row of strangers.

In a matter of days in October, he ripped half the keys off my laptop’s keyboard, shattered my coffee pot, and broke a table lamp, the latter resulting in a small cut on his forehead.

The pediatrician who glued his cut (a purple blob he pulled off within the hour) suggested we enroll Owen in gymnastics to use up his “excess energy.”

We’d recently attended a birthday party at a gymnastics studio. I spent the entire party chasing him away from off-limits areas and dangerous apparatus.

And then there was the trail of destruction he left at my parents’ house over Thanksgiving: vacuum cleaner attachments strewn and broken (though big sister may be to blame for that), the plastic grapes plucked from their stems and chewed, the strip of paint he peeled off the basement floor, fragile tchotchkes wrestled away and placed up high.

“Giving in to him will reinforce his bad behavior,” my sister-in-law said after I told her about my failed attempt to teach Sunday school with Owen in tow. Tell that to the third-graders who wanted to hear a Bible story and not blood-curdling screams of a toddler held in a classroom against his will. And tell that to Owen, who has mastered the art of opening doors.

“Just distract him,” my mom has advised. Except he can’t be distracted from whatever forbidden fruit he’s discovered.

“Have you considered a padded cage?” a friend asked in response to the coffee pot fragmentation. That suggestion has potential.

I now empathize with those mothers I once smugly judged. I recognize their exhaustion, frustration and the valiant effort they make in simply going out in public with their wild child.

Maybe one day I’ll be as brave as them.

I wonder if Owen will enjoy story time at age 26.

Sherri Richards is mother of 5-year-old Eve and 2-year-old Owen and a reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com

Money Savin’ Mama: Find ways to give that fit your budget

My column in today’s Forum talks about being frugally generous. What tips do you have to give and save?

When all year long you penny pinch, you run the risk of becoming a Grinch.

In the season of giving thanks and holiday giving, I have to remind myself to loosen the Scrooge-like grasp on my purse strings, before three ghosts visit me in the night.

But being generous and being frugal are not mutually exclusive. It’s all about being efficient with your money, and maximizing what you can give within the constraints of your budget.

Call it frugal generosity. It can apply to Christmas gifts and charitable giving.

One of my favorite ways to give frugally is on Giving Hearts Day. During the Feb. 14 event, hosted jointly by the Impact Foundation and Dakota Medical Foundation, online donations of $10 or more to select nonprofits are matched up to $4,000.

It’s an easy way to stretch your giving dollar, making a larger impact than you otherwise might afford. A similar event featuring Minnesota organizations, Give to the Max Day, was held Nov. 14.

For food drives, I often donate cans from my pantry, which I’ve stocked when on sale or by redeeming store deals.

For example, Cash Wise grocery stores offer a free, usually nonperishable item with a $30 purchase. If you scan the free item coupon before other coupons, you can still get the item if your out-of-pocket total is less than $30. Even if it’s an item you wouldn’t use, it can still be put to good use.

That goes for more than food. I’m an advocate of re-gifting, provided it’s done with class. That is, it’s never been used, it would be loved by the recipient, and you’re gifting well outside the social circle where you received.

When I helped pack Operation Christmas Child boxes this month, I collected uneaten Halloween candy and unopened Happy Meal toys from my house. I’ve also given away gift cards I earned for free through MyPoints.com.

When approached with fundraising catalogues, I try to do double-duty, supporting the cause by buying something I can give later as a gift. I do the same when attending home parties or vendor shows.

Gift-giving is part of our household budget. We automatically add $90 every two weeks to an online money market account designated for pet expenses, travel and gifts.

To make the most of those dollars, I try to leverage pre-Christmas sales. I combined a sale price and texted coupon code to get the doll my 5-year-old daughter wanted for half its regular price.

I also hit up post-holiday sales. One year for Christmas, I gave her a Cinderella costume I’d bought at a deep discount the week after Halloween.

The key is to not get hung up on the dollar amount. Just because you found the gift for less doesn’t mean you have to spend more. It’s about the gift – and the thought – not what you spent.

Finally, I like to think about my family’s “needs” when drafting wish lists. Clothes, art supplies and bigger bike helmets are great gifts and already part of the household budget. Both my kids’ stockings will be stuffed with kid shampoo, new toothbrushes and toothpaste.

That way their teeth, like the holidays, will be merry and bright.

May all your Christmases be in the black.

Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com

A dollar from my daughter

Yesterday, 5-year-old Eve and I made a quick trip to a local store. I needed a sheet of poster board for a project. We decided to swing through the toy aisle to get gift ideas for her friend’s upcoming birthday party.
I warned Eve this was not a trip for her to get a toy. I’d recently bought her an extra bling-y wall clock for her room. It’s going to be awhile before we splurge again.
She said she understood. Soon, though, she became enamored with a stuffed kitten, on sale for $5. (It’s not too surprising. On Saturday, she became enamored with a real orange striped kitten at a pet store. She’s still trying to finagle getting that one. N-O.)
Again, I told her I wouldn’t buy it for her, but she could save up money and buy it for herself.

I was up early this morning, getting the coffee brewing, when I heard Eve patter up the stairs. She was waving five bills excitedly. She’d raided one of her two piggy banks (one is for saving, the other spending).
“Mom, look, I have five dollars! I can buy the kitty!” she said, proudly.
I pointed out that two of her bills were actually worth $2 each. She actually had $7.
She beamed. “I can spend this on something that’s worth $2!” she said excitedly.
I explained that was true, but she needed to remember that once she spent money, it was gone. Was she sure she wanted to spend this money on the stuffed kitten? She said she was happy with her choice.
Then, she stopped to look at the two dollar bills in her hand.
“Here,” she said. “I want you to have this one. For everything you do for me.”
My heart melted with love and gratitude for my sweet, thoughtful girl. “Are you sure?” I asked as I wrapped her in a hug.
“Yes. Now you don’t have to worry about working for money anymore,” she said.
Inside, I chuckled at a 5-year-old’s perception of a dollar while simultaneous shoving down that mommy guilt we working women feel.
I tried to tell her I didn’t need her dollar, that she could keep it. Offended by my attempted refusal, she told me no. Then she gave me a penny, too.
There are so many values and lessons we try to impart upon our children. It’s hard to know which will stick.  I’m feeling proud today of my generous daughter, and am excited to welcome the newest member to her horde of fluffy family members.

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the knife-wielding reporter who doesn’t know how to cook

I’m not sure how this could have happened, but I became a 33-year-old woman without ever having cut apart a whole chicken.

This astounds me given the regularity with which my mother would divvy up a chicken and oven fry it, including chickens she and my dad used to raise on the farm.

But since establishing my own presence in the kitchen, I’ve been a frozen-boneless-skinless-chicken-breast kind-of girl.

Until last night.

I had a fresh buttercup squash from my in-laws’ garden I wanted to bake, and decided it would be delish served with fried chicken.

I made a special trip to the grocery store to buy a box of Oven Fry (I won’t tell you how long I stood there debating between that and Shake N Bake) and the chicken. As I compared the package of cut-apart chicken pieces and the whole chicken, my frugal side won out.

I got out my butcher knife and a cutting board, unwrapped the chicken, and panicked.

I had no clue what I was doing.

I grabbed my Betty Crocker cookbook, the one my mother gave me when I was first starting out on my own. The poultry section includes a six-step, photo illustrated guide on “How to Cut Up a Whole Chicken.”

Oh so easy, right?

Unfortunately for me, I got lost on step one — to place chicken breast down on a cutting board — as I wasn’t really sure which side was the breast.

Once that was determined, I managed to cut off each wing. I ungracefully hacked off the legs, accidentally de-boning one of them. I became confused again at which side was the neck. I pleaded to no one in particular for help as I sawed the back from the breast (pretty sure I did not do that correctly) and became really confused at what the “keel bone” was. But in the end, I managed to dissect my chicken and bread it.

I totally ran out of the Oven Fry by the time I got to the breasts, so used some leftover Shore Lunch to bread them. It worked, but I wouldn’t really recommend it …

My husband declared it delicious and well-cooked. The kids ate the the small shreds put on their plates (I was too worried about bone fragments to give them whole pieces). Owen also loved the squash (He called it “cheese”).

I’m sure this all sounds ridiculous to any accomplished (or even not so accomplished) home chef, but I’m feeling pretty proud of my poultry escapades.

Here’s hoping practice makes perfect.

Parenting Perspectives: Starting school means a new identity for daughter and mother

When my now kindergartner was 2, she started telling me about things she did when I wasn’t there and people she knew whom I hadn’t met.

From my copious new-mom reading, I knew babies slowly learn they are a separate identity from their parents. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that I would need to learn Eve was separate from me.

Fast-forward several years and one elementary school, and our separate identities are more apparent than ever. Eve, 5, even has her own school ID number.

Now she spends more than 7 hours a day doing interesting things without me, with people I mostly haven’t met.

It’s a much different experience than when we were part of a home-based “daycare family,” or the last two years at a morning-only preschool center.

Preschool drop-off and pick-up meant daily face-time with Eve’s teacher. I saw the art projects hanging on the wall, got to know the other kids by name, and chitchatted with other parents over the sign-in and -out sheet.

Because Eve now rides the bus, I have limited interaction with all those people.

Instead of teacher recaps, I have to rely on Eve’s somewhat scattered recollection of the day. (“There was just so much fun stuff, I can’t remember it,” she tells me.) The kids in her class are largely just names on a snack list, and their parents email addresses on the teacher’s listserv.

The handful of preschool and playgroup friends we knew would be at the same school are all in different classrooms. I’m thankful Eve has become “besties” with the one girl whose mother I knew.

That mom, the room parent, emailed to see if I knew any parents who could help at an upcoming classroom party.

I don’t even know any of the other parents, I replied sheepishly.

Growing up in a small town where everyone knew everybody else, this has been the biggest paradigm shift for me, as I adapt to my new identity as the parent of a school-ager.

While Eve seems to be plenty popular among her classmates – “They must really like me,” my mini-Sally Field exclaimed one day when several had given her marker-adorned paper hearts – I still feel like the new kid, anonymous and a little lost.

I attended my first PTA meeting – a sentence that makes me feel oh-so-middle-aged – in hopes of making more connections. I eagerly put all the school’s events on our family calendar.

Because Eve becoming a kindergartner means I’m also beginning to identify as part of a new community, even if I still don’t know its members.

I think that’s why, when Eve’s teacher sent home a note a few weeks ago that her classmate’s mother had died, I took it kind of hard.

Like I said, I didn’t know this woman. I hadn’t met her daughter. But I cried for her.

I emailed the teacher asking if there was something we parents could do.

After all, we’re all part of the same “school family.”

It’s a new identity – for Eve and me.

Sherri Richards is a reporter for The Forum and mom to 5-year-old Eve and 2-year-old Owen. She can be reached at srichards@forumcomm.com