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 email@example.com
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.
It’s been an expensive fall for Money-Savin’ Mama.
No big, unplanned expenses put a dent in the family finances. Rather, I’ve let little splurges raid my wallet.
We’ve been on the go a lot, with a wedding in Minneapolis and a banquet in Grand Forks. My best friend came to Fargo for a few days. My husband used a flight voucher to visit his brother on the East Coast.
We dined out and paid for drinks. I bought new (secondhand) clothes, and planned fun excursions for the kids while Dad was out of town.
These are all wonderful things I happily loosened my purse strings to enjoy. After all, that’s the point of saving, and why we have an online money market account set aside for travel and gifts.
The problem is tightening those strings again. Because like saving, spending is a habit. And little expenses here and there add up.
For example, it worked best to get lunch from fast food restaurants on our way to and from the Cities. I quickly got used to the practice.
I could have packed sandwiches to eat on our dinner-hour drive to Grand Forks a couple weeks later but didn’t, thinking how much easier it was to stop at the Burger King along the way.
Easier, yes. More expensive, also yes.
Another day this month, as I picked up Owen from his drop-off daycare center, I had a sudden craving for curly fries from the nearby Arby’s. I swung through the drive-thru and ordered a combo meal.
A few days later, I really wanted those seasoned curls again, and once again, treated myself. I hadn’t eaten lunch yet and had another appointment in half an hour, I justified.
The third time I found myself pulling into the drive-thru, I realized what was happening. I’d turned that one-time craving into a habit.
I ordered only a small sandwich and fries from the value menu, reducing my bill by several dollars, and vowed to cut myself off.
The fact that the server at the drive-thru window recognized me and Owen cemented by desire to get back in control.
In his book “The Power of Habit,” New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg shows how easily spending – like smoking, exercising, eating or any behavior – can become an unconscious habit.
Duhigg illustrates the habit loop. A cue (picking up Owen from daycare) triggers a routine (going to the drive-thru), which results in a reward (mmm … curly fries).
Appropriately rewarded, we start to repeat the loop without thought.
When we spend because of a habit (like a morning coffee or weekly trip to the mall) we aren’t getting the best value from our money. We’re letting it slip through our fingers instead of doling it out wisely.
While there is no silver bullet to changing habits, Duhigg points out that recognizing our own cues, routines and rewards is the first step.
I recognized my potentially expensive curly fry habit quickly. I’m becoming more cognizant of other recent spending urges.
Even though I didn’t fall out of the savings habit (automatic transfers ensure our retirement, medium-term and emergency funds continue to increase), it’s time to stop my autumn of excess.
Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The radio ad for an ab sculpting company caught my ear, not because of the inches it promised to whittle from my waist in a few easy sessions, but for its tagline, which said I “deserved” the stomach of my dreams.
Ha! I’m pretty sure I deserve the flabby tummy I have. It’s been carefully crafted by childbirth, potato chips and my German heritage.
I shook my head at the concept that just because I want a trim waist and six-pack abs I should have it.
And then I realized this is the attitude that causes so many people financial distress.
“I’ve been working so hard, I deserve to splurge on a new outfit.”
“My friends all have fancy phones. I deserve one, too.”
“I deserve the finer things in life.”
There’s very little in life any one of us deserves. Dignity? Yes. Dolce and Gabbana? No.
But we’re living in a culture that tells us that if we want something, we should have it, that we deserve it.
It’s a lie, told to drive consumerism.
You don’t deserve your wants. You deserve what you earn, what you’ve worked to achieve.
It’s a foreign concept to those with a sense of entitlement, who think they’re somehow innately worthy of their wants and have been given free rein to pursue them thanks to easily accessed credit.
It’s a pursuit that ends in debt and unhappiness.
This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t obtain your wants. It means you need to plan, budget and work for them first.
You have to earn them.
My oldest brother introduced me to a concept at an early age, two words he said would make all the difference in my life if I could grasp them: Delayed gratification.
Work hard now. Enjoy the fruits of it later.
It’s something I’m now trying to teach my 5-year-old daughter.
Recently, she saw a stuffed My Little Pony doll she just “had to have.” I put it in my cart and told her she could have it, but she’d have to work for it first.
Over the next few weeks, she did several cleaning tasks around the house, above and beyond her regular chores. I gave her 50 cents for each one.
Once she had $5, we traded the money for Pinkie Pie. It’s now her most treasured fuzzy friend, her bedtime companion.
Of course, she later accused me of stealing her money, but with time, I hope we’re building a foundation for financial success.
I hope when she’s grown, the only thing she’ll say she deserves is to feel financially secure, and that she’ll follow the straight though difficult road to achieve it.
What does financial security feel like? It’s having your toxic debt paid off, an emergency fund stashed, and monthly expenses that are less than your income. It’s having a plan for your future, and taking the steps to get there.
It’s a road that requires patience and perseverance, the core attributes of delayed gratification.
They’re qualities that will take you far and make your dollar go farther.
Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at email@example.com
This spring, I wrote about how my husband and I were debating switching to smartphones. Our cell phone contract was up, giving us a window to make the leap.
My concern, of course, was the cost. Not just of the physical phones, but the monthly data plan and the temptation to purchase apps and other downloads. As I wrote, it’s way too easy to allow your tech wants to become expensive “needs.”
We talked with several friends and family members, compared price packages, and researched, researched, researched.
Finally, after months of debate (and years of being behind the tech curve), we recently leaped into unlimited minutes, texts and 2 GB of data each.
Best of all: Our new phone plan costs only $10 more per month total than we were paying for 700 shared minutes, 250 texts each and no data.
Of course, there are trade-offs. I’ll get to those.
In the end, we went with Straight Talk, a no-contract cell service sold through Wal-Mart. We had to buy our phones outright, and now pay $45 a month plus sales tax each for its Unlimited* plan (Note the asterisk, as the data isn’t actually limitless). You can enroll in auto pay, or buy the service cards in store or online.
Different Straight Talk phones operate on different networks. It was important to us to have service in rural eastern North Dakota, as that’s where we travel frequently, so we made sure the phones we purchased were designated CDMA-V, indicating they would use the Verizon network. (A Straight Talk CDMA-S phone would work on the Sprint network, as I understand it.) The codes are prominently displayed online, though I had trouble finding them in-store.
Because my husband loves his iPod Touch, I encouraged him to go with an iPhone. We were able to get a refurbished iPhone 4 for $300 through the Wal-Mart website. Not the latest and greatest, but that’s not what we need.
I wanted an Android, as I’m more familiar with that platform, so chose the
cheap basic Galaxy Samsung Centura. The phone was $100 — a steal for a smartphone, it seems — and has so far been a good way for me to tiptoe into the smart world. I am a bit disappointed in the camera. (Because it doesn’t autofocus, barcode scanning apps don’t work well on it, and I was so looking forward to having a comparison shopping tool in my pocket. Also, there’s no flash.) Other than that can’t complain about the phone.
I can complain about the customer service. While my hubby was able to activate his phone with no problem, mine wasn’t properly scanned at the store which led to three hour-long stints on hold, conflicting advice from the customer reps and an all-around hair-pulling experience as I had to go back to the store and swap phones. But, as they say, you get what you pay for, and apparently you don’t get great customer service when you pay $45 a month for a data plan. (You also can’t tether devices on Straight Talk, which may be important to some.)
The activation headache aside, I’ve been pleased with our new cell service. We got to keep our numbers, the call quality has been good, and I’m now able to answer my inane trivial wonderings in the car.
I also haven’t paid for an app, and don’t plan on it.
Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be a recommendation for Straight Talk, simply an explanation of my experience for fellow frugalists out there looking to upgrade to a smartphone. I have not been compensated by any of the companies mentioned.
I stared at the long and brand-specific kindergarten school supply list and compared it to the back-to school-aisle, which had already been given prime store placement in early July.
Fifty cents was a good price for the 24-count boxes of crayons, but I’d heard rumors of 25-cent boxes at Toys R Us. The folders were supposed to be just a penny at an office supply store, if I spent at least $5 on other items. And did I really need to buy Elmers glue, when the no-name bottles were half the price?
My mind swirled at the classroom requirements, the store options, trying to finagle the best deal on each piece. Until I realized all the planning and driving and shopping would likely save me a grand total of $3.18, not even enough to cover the gallon of gas I’d use.
Instead, I picked a week when it looked like most stores had most items on sale, took my 5-year-old daughter on a shopping date to one of them, and fulfilled the list in one quick trip.
Well, it would have been quick if I hadn’t had a panic attack about the zipper pouch (“No plastic pouches”? They’re all plastic!). And the “Pointed Fiskars For Kids” scissors (These say “Fiskars,” but aren’t pointed. These say “pointed” but aren’t Fiskars). And the two-pocket PLASTIC folder (Bold and underlined must mean it’s of dire importance I get the right one.) And the large container of Clorox wipes (The regular-size one is large, but the jumbo size one is larger). And the 10 yellow pencils (Pencils are not sold in packs of 10!)
All told, I ended up spending about $30 for the supplies and an insulated lunch box for my new kindergartener. We packed them in a backpack she’d gotten as a gift.
But of course the back-to-school expenses didn’t stop there. There were new shoes for growing feet. A couple new shirts (purchased on clearance, of course). Checks were written for school lunches and PTA dues. Soon book order sheets and classroom fundraisers will fill her school bag.
I realized growing kids come with a whole slew of new expenses and not necessarily any more income to offset them.
I’ve been working some level of part-time hours since Eve (and then Owen) was born, and I’ve been fortunate to do so with minimal day care costs, putting in most of my hours remotely.
Until recently, I mused how much more financial sense it will make for me to work more hours once Eve was in school, and I’d only need to pay child care costs for 2-year-old Owen.
Oh, how wrong I’ve been, completely omitting from my math the after-school care needed from 2:42 p.m. each day, the myriad weekdays off and, my greatest miscalculation, summer.
Those three previously fleeting carefree months now loom as a potential financial burden.
There’s far more to every family’s work/home debate than just the dollars and cents. It is, however, the most tangible factor.
A lot of online calculators can help you see whether you can afford to stay home (Check out www.parents.com/app/stayathomecalculator). Few tell you if you can afford to go back to work, though entering in different scenarios is helpful.
I’m thankful to be married to an accountant who can precisely crunch the numbers, adding up increased wages and benefits, figuring out the additional taxes based on the progressive federal tax rate, and subtracting out the expenses like commuting costs, a work wardrobe and child care.
There are creative solutions to offset school-age care costs if you can swing them, like swapping child care with friends, staggering shifts with your partner, or working from home.
While our work/home debate isn’t settled yet, one recent headline made me a lot feel better: Some parents in New York now take out loans to pay for day care.
And I thought washable markers were expensive.
Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
I received a news release today I wanted to share. The North Dakota Department of Human Services announced an expansion of its child care assistance program.
Two major changes to note: 1) Qualifying income levels have been increased. 2) Family co-payments have been reduced.
“A family of three now can have a gross income up to $4,915 per month to qualify for the program. Families will also see a reduction in their monthly co-payment, which is the amount they are required to pay towards the cost of care. A co-payment is determined on a sliding scale based on income and family size,” the news release says.
A monthly gross income of $4,915 for a family of three translates to nearly $59,000 a year. It’s worth noting that, according to this census data, 35 percent of North Dakota families earn less than $50,000 per year.
The maximum income limits for the child care assistance program increase with family size (see the eligibility chart here).
For low- or moderate-income parents having trouble making ends meet, this could mean the difference between swimming or sinking financially.
According to the news release, the program currently serves about 2,420 children per month, with an average family monthly payment of $407. Those with the lowest incomes receive the most help. It’s funded by a federal block grant and state funds.
When my husband and I discuss a purchase, one of us will often turn to the other and ask about the utils. “Does that give you positive utils?” “Which one of these is worth more utils?”
I never took econ in school but find myself using that economics term – short for “utility” – on a regular basis. It’s a concept my accountant husband introduced me to, and one that’s allowed us to think about our money in a different way.
In economics, utility refers to the satisfaction or usefulness received from consuming a good or service. If you like apples more than you like oranges, apples are worth more utils than oranges.
Of course, it’s far more complex than that. Utility can be expressed as a formula using symbols I don’t recognize and calculated in theoretical ways I don’t pretend to understand.
Instead, for me, utils (pronounced YOU-tils) are a casual way to discuss discretionary spending.
I’m sure my rudimentary understanding will make some economics professor throw down his newspaper in disgust, but here’s how I think about it. Utils help me discern when I get more joy out of spending money than not spending it.
Let’s say a massage costs $50. When your back is killing you, you might be willing to pay $100, meaning the $50 massage would provide positive utils compared to the money spent on it. When you’re already feeling relaxed, a massage might only be worth $25 to you. So spending $50 on it would create negative utils.
If you’re starving, a $1 double cheeseburger would be an amazing amount of positive utils. But after you’ve eaten 12 and are so full somebody would have to pay you to eat another, buying another would put you in negative util territory.
So to make the most of our money, my hubby, Craig, and I like to make sure we’re always getting positive utils.
For example, our home is just outside the flood zone in Fargo. We aren’t required to buy flood insurance, but the peace of mind having that policy definitely gives Craig, who lived through the 1997 flood in Grand Forks, positive utils.
I couldn’t justify spending $200 on a new pair of boots this winter. I just wouldn’t get that much use – utils – out of them. But when they were marked down to $40 on clearance, I happily purchased them, knowing my utils on the brown boots would be in the black.
As a treat, I occasionally splurge on a frappe. If I bought one every single day, they wouldn’t give me as many utils. But denying myself a frappe when it would provide me positive utils isn’t a great idea, either. Deprivation can lead to excessive spending later.
It’s a matter of finding the balance to maximize the utils.
I often preach that people learn to distinguish their wants from their needs. This is crucial to balance an out-of-whack budget and rein in spending. But what’s life without some wants? That’s where utils come in.
They help me understand whether this want is really worth what I’d spend on it. The exercise forces me to further analyze my wants in terms of the money I have available.
For me, utils are useful, even if I never cracked an econ book.
Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum.
I glared at my printer and cursed, stressed out and angry, all over a 75-cent coupon.
So far that day I’d bought two new cartridges of ink, signed up to receive dental care newsletters, downloaded coupon-printing software, printed a smudged, unusable coupon and gone back to the store to exchange the ink cartridges.
Now the website said I wasn’t allowed to print the coupon again. After a bit of profanity, I hooked up another laptop and signed up with another email address to print that 75-cent coupon and another $1 coupon for a bottle of mouthwash I didn’t even really want.
I was trying to play the “drugstore game,” something I’ve seen fellow frugalists do with great success. Combining sales and coupons with store reward programs, they end up with piles of products for free.
I’d followed the advice of a blogger who routinely outlines these sorts of matchups once before. Buy a Revlon nail product at a CVS Pharmacy and get $3 in “ECBs” – Extra Care Bucks, which can be used on a future purchase. She suggested purchasing a $3 nail clipper, making it free.
But when I tried it, the clipper didn’t trigger the ECB deal. So I bought a bottle of sparkly red nail polish for $5.79 (the cheapest they had), and used a 20 percent off coupon. With my $3 ECB, I effectively paid $1.98 for the polish after tax.
It’s a good price, but I didn’t need nail polish.
This is why I’ve avoided super-couponing. It doesn’t matter how large the discount. If you spend money on things you don’t need, you’re not saving anything.
The week of the printer profanity, however, I thought I had it figured out. Between a sale price on the mouthwash, the printable manufacturer and in-store coupons and an ECB deal, the bottle would be free.
Except when I got to the register, the manager wouldn’t take the $1 coupon, saying it wouldn’t ring up as an item. Flustered and frustrated, I walked out of the store, leaving my hard-earned and still valid 75-cent coupon on the counter.
I tried to play the game for a few more weeks anyway, seeming to fail at every turn.
The bottle of lotion bloggers claimed would be free wasn’t on the shelves at my store.
I didn’t have hoards of coupons dating back to April, and the inserts I did have didn’t always include the coupons bloggers said they would.
Finally, last week, I actually had the necessary coupon that would be a “moneymaker,” meaning I’d get more back in ECBs than I spent. But I realized at 5:45 p.m. on Sunday that the coupon expired that day. The store would close before I could get there.
I did have some measures of success. One week I walked out with a box of Cheerios, a bag of M&Ms, bottle of body wash and box of tampons for $3.05 out-of-pocket plus a 75-cent ECB. I also was able to get $7 back on a $7.49 palette of eyeshadow.
But the resources and time it takes to put these deals together – even when sisterly savers outline them for me – just don’t seem to justify the game for me. And really, how much makeup or mouthwash do I need?
Some people are able to do it really well, including a friend of mine who gives her spoils as housewarming or birthday gifts.
But I’d rather save my pennies, profanity and printer ink than spend them trying to score free stuff.
Sherri Richards is a thrifty mom of two and reporter for The Forum. She blogs at http://topmom.areavoices.com