Santa sprinkled with a bit of Scrooge

It's the holidays! Everywhere you look there are decorated trees, mesmerizing lights, and the smells of cinnamon and pine. For many individuals, this time of year is not as exciting as it is for others though... It also means buying gifts and spending money they may not have. While it may not seem like a large amount, an extra $20 here and there can add up quickly.

As the holidays approach you may find yourself in a bit of a bind: Consumers are in a spending mood this year, with plans to hand over 4.1% more than they did during the last holiday season. That puts the average of $1,000 per shopper, according to the National Retail Federation. Everyone wants to be a Santa, but it pays to through in a bit of Scrooge. Here are some tips to help make sure your holiday spending doesn't go from "Ho, Ho, Ho" to "Ho, Ho, Holy cow I spent how much?"

1. Have you made a holiday budget? 

Before hitting the checkout lanes, it's a good idea to create a list of people (and pets) you plan to buy gifts for, including a budget for each person. That will help keep the spending within reason. A list also helps wrap your head around how much you are actually spending overall. While $10-$20 gifts for your co-workers doesn't sound like much, it can add up quickly. Make sure to keep a line item for those last-minute gifts you may have forgotten about. Already have your shopping underway? It's not too late! Even doing this after the fact can be a helpful lesson to be mindful of gifts purchases in the future.

2. Have you started shopping? 

Shopping throughout the year is a great way to level out your spending and snag some great deals. If you see the perfect gift for a friend on sale in July, grab it now and stash it away until the right time. This doesn't just apply for Christmas shopping, but for birthdays, anniversaries, or any other gift-worthy mile-stone. I tend to buy things on clearance and stash them in a spare closet. When the time is right, they get a great gift, and I have saved a lot of money.

3. Do you have rewards points to cash in?

Many stores, or cards, have loyalty programs that you can cash in this time of year. For instance, I have an Amazon Visa, and throughout the year I use it for almost all of my purchases. Gas, groceries, household items, items for the office, travel, etc... I allow the points to accumulate, and when the holidays roll around, I have already built up a decent amount of points that convert into dollars on my Amazon purchases. This year I handled almost all of my shopping by cashing in my points. It's a great way to save throughout the year, while still purchasing those much-needed items.

4. Be cautious of the sites you shop on...

When it comes to sales, the old saying "you can go broke saving money" could not be truer. While a merchant can throw a sale sign on just about anything, make sure you can't get a better deal somewhere else. It's important to check bargains against the original site to see if the deal is really a steal. Sites like Ebates or Wikibuy are great resources to check for deals and coupon codes. The run all of the published coupon codes and let you know which apply to your purchase. Even though I'm pretty thorough in my frugal research, I have even been surprised with a better deal a few times. (Side note: By clicking the links above, I may benefit monetarily)

5. Want a fun gift idea?

I've never really understood the whole White Elephant holiday gifting game. I mean, you buy a random gift with no particular person in mind and pass it around a certain number of times until you wind up with something you may or may not like. Yes, there are some laughs to be had, but I think those would probably be had regardless if I were having a gift "stolen" from me. 

How about giving gifts that every recipient will truly appreciate and love? Grab multiple pairs of socks, gloves, toiletries, and snacks to create holiday gift bags to hand out to those less fortunate. You can have those same laughs watching your friends and family decorate the gifts bags, or make it a game and divide into teams to see who can bag the most items.  It's a great way to enjoy that gift-giving feeling and helping out someone in a time of need. 

6. Bringing it home...(made)-

Instead of putting your finances in a bind for the next year, consider gifting items you've created on your own. Don't get me started on the number of ideas Pinterest has, and there are plenty that you can involve the kiddos with as well... 

Michelle Kuehner is a Registered Investment Advisor Representative and President of Personal Money Planning. She is also a Certified Credit Counselor and Certified Financial Health Counselor, writes Fix Our Budget blog, and has over 25 years of experience in the financial industry.

Don't start your budgeting journey with a budget

Typically when someone decides it is time to put together a budget, one of the first steps they take is to find the right tool to use. This could be an app they download on their phone, a software program, an excel spreadsheet, a template they’ve found on Google, or even a Big Chief tablet and a crayon. However, none of these are the right first steps in creating a successful starts with the data.

When I provide budgeting assistance through our Financial Coaching program, the first thing
I tell our clients is not to use a budget. Yep, you heard me right. For the first month or so I
want to collect data, not try to plug numbers into a predesigned template that may not be the best option for their lifestyle. That's like trying to force a round peg into a square hole. 

If you Google “budgeting worksheet”, you come up with a little over $4.4 million results. This is because budgeting is not a one size fits all issue. I’m sure the first person that uploaded their budget template onto the internet thought theirs was fantastic. Then someone else came along with a tweaked version, and so on and so forth. It’s important to personalize the tool you plan on using.

Why you NEED a Financial Plan...

We've all heard the terminology, but do you really know what all is involved in a Financial Plan? 

To give you a quick breakdown, a comprehensive plan takes into account:

  • Investment Management 
  • Tax Strategy Planning 
  • Estate Planning 
  • Dementia Planning 
  • Education Planning
  • Budgeting
  • Cash Flow Needs
  • Retirement Planning
  • ...just about anything else money related-

Instead of reading about the importance of having a plan in place, just take a quick look here... Financial Planning

Michelle Kuehner is a Registered Investment Advisor Representative and President of Personal Money Planning. She is also a Certified Credit Counselor and Certified Financial Health Counselor, writes Fix Our Budget blog, and has over 25 years of experience in the financial industry.

Are You Spending Too Much On Groceries?

One of the most challenging tasks when trying to rope in your finances is creating a budget. It's not so much gathering all of the data...that's the easy part. Maybe a bit time consuming, but still rather easy. Nor is it plugging those figures into a software program or spreadsheet. It's not even seeing the results, good or bad, once you hit the enter button. Where I find most people have problems is figuring out what they should be spending in each category.

How will the rate increase on student loans impact you?

For the past several years, government bonds have paid out fairly low-interest rates. Depending on which side of the fence you’re standing on, either borrowing or investing indicates whether you felt this was a good or bad thing.

From the investing standpoint, it was not a great thing. Many experienced low rates of return on savings accounts, checking accounts, money markets, and even CDs. If one were living on a fixed income and depended on these investments as part of their cost of living, they definitely felt the impact.

Stay On Budget While Ordering Take-Out

For the last many months I have been suggesting something I never thought I would be suggesting... To just order take-out to stay on budget.

Now before you unsubscribe or block me for thinking I've gone off the deep end, let me explain.

I recently had a client come in for budgeting advice. They couldn't understand why their budget was so far off track.

After some further investigation, it was pretty clear... Groceries were the culprit. However, it wasn't really the "groceries" that were pulling them down, but the "other" stuff that ended up in the basket that got dumped into the "grocery" category. 

For this example, I will use Walmart. Not because I have anything against Walmart. I don't. Really. I shop there frequently. (Sorry, Target...).

So to set this story up, the individual had trouble staying on track with the grocery budget. They had an ample amount in place but always seemed to go a lot. I thought maybe part of the issue was buying prepared food, so for the next month, we created a meal plan. 

We scoured the advertisements for items on sale. For this, I used Flipp, which provided me with all of the local ads. One of the benefits of using Flipp is that it is searchable, meaning that if I'm looking for "chicken" I can type that into the search area, and everyone that has chicken listed in their ad will be displayed.

First, we focus on proteins, then veggies, and lastly the extras. We did this for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for the entire week. In fact, we found chicken on sale for a pretty reasonable price, so we ended up planning two weeks worth of meals, using it in various ways... 

Obviously, the family would get tired of eating chicken, so we threw in a few other meals. We looked for beef, pork, and seafood, and while the latter proved to be a bit more difficult, we were able to alternate and shuffle the meals with other proteins.

The saving grace of it take-out. Yes, I said take-out. You can save money ordering take-out... To be more exact, I mean take-out to your car. 

Many stores are offering "take-out" services, where you can order online, schedule a pick-up time, and pull up for your stash to be delivered to your vehicle. It's fast, convenient, and can save you cold hard cash.

How? Because you never have to enter the store. That means the bag of M&M's, nor the cute little dog clothing will ever end up in your "cart".  

I had some pushback on just how helpful this service was, saying the prices may be more expensive than you could find in the store, so I thought I would put it to the test. Here are my results...

Nope. Just as cheap. Sorry-

So how does this save you sooooo much money? Because you aren't IN the store throwing the extra crap into your basket. It's typically the "other stuff" that makes your budget suffer, so by eliminating that, you can stay on track.

Not a believer yet? Give it a try... And please, share your experience. I would love to hear how this worked for you-

Michelle Kuehner is a Registered Investment Advisor Representative and President for Personal Money Planning. She is also a Certified Credit Counselor and Certified Financial Health Counselor, writes Fix Our Budget blog, and has over 25 years of experience in the financial industry.

Your Home Sweet Home (Repair) Fund

We all know (or should) that an emergency fund is a vital part of any savings plan. Having three to six months worth of non-discretionary monthly expenses to continue paying the mortgage, vehicle payments, and other bills can be such a blessing in the event of a financial catastrophe. However, that isn’t all you should be saving when it comes to protecting the roof over your head.

A housing maintenance fund should also be established to help cover those inevitable expense that creep up. Here’s why…

Say you finally were able to save three months of salary when suddenly your roof decides to spring a leak. Odds are your homeowners policy won’t pay for the repair since it typically doesn’t cover normal upkeep and maintenance. That means the roughly $6,000- $8,000 bill will have to come from somewhere, and that typically ends up having people tap into their emergency funds. To make things a little more interesting, let’s say right after forking over the cash for the new roof you get laid off of your job. Now what?

If you had a home maintenance fund in place, you may still be able to manage your temporary set back. So how much should you hole away? Here are some ideas:

The One Percent Rule
Many experts suggest you stash away 1% of the purchase price of your home per year. That means if you purchased your home for $300,000, then you need to save $3,000 per year. Read that correctly…$3,000 each year, not $3,000 total.

This does not mean you’ll end up spending the full amount each year, but allows the funds you don’t use to accumulate for a larger ticket item down the road.

While this is a great idea in theory, there are a few drawbacks to this method. First, it suggests you save 1% of your purchase price. But what is you got a heck of a deal on your home? The maintenance costs may outweigh your savings rate.

Better yet, what if you purchased the home many years ago in a down market, and the value has since skyrocketed. Using the current fair market value may be a better solution when determining a desired savings amount.

For inherited property, using the fair market value as a guideline may also be your best option.

The Square Foot Rule
This technique suggests using the square footage versus the purchase price to calculate a reasonable amount to save. Simply multiply the square footage of your home by $1 to give you the maintenance savings goal. Let’s say your $300,000 mortgage was able to buy you a 2,000 square foot home. Your suggested savings would be $2,000 per year.

There is a bit more validity to this method, as many contractors charge based on the area that needs to be repaired. However, it does not account for the full value of the materials required, nor the increasing labor costs. Let’s face it, certain cities have a higher cost of living than others, so this method may not allow you to accumulate a large enough amount for large ticket items.

It also does not take into account the types of materials to be used. While it may give you a good base amount to start with, higher quality materials will require a higher savings amount.

Factors To Consider
Age: The age of your home plays a large factor in your needed savings. A newer home will most likely require fewer repairs than an older one.

Climate: The weather your home is exposed to has a big role in the repairs that may need to be completed. Homes where freezing temperatures are a norm may experience higher repair bills than unexposed homes. The same goes for homes in extremely warm areas, and those that experience a large amount of rainfall.

Condition: How well did the previous owners of your home take care of the property. Shoddy repairs, cutting corners, and neglect can all contribute to how well your home holds up.

Materials Used: Upgraded materials will obviously increase the costs of repairs, so make sure to accommodate your account savings level to your desired taste. Replacing carpet with tile, or using granite instead of Formica can make a big difference as to whether or not your goals are financially met.

Home Warranty Plans: Having a home warranty plan that cover your systems and appliances can drastically decrease the out of pocket costs you may encounter. However, like any insurance policy, there’s no way to guarantee that the costs of the repair will outweigh the price of the plan. Running various costs analysis projections can give you a better idea of which policy may or may not be a good fit.

If you are good with your hands, and can handle most minor repairs, these plans may not be as cost effective for you. An extended warranty on a particular item might be an alternative.

How Much Should YOU Budget?
I like the idea of using the best of both worlds, so let’s combine both strategies.

Average the two amount together, and make adjustments to the total. For example, the average of $3,000 and $2,000 is $2,500. Take the $2,500 base amount and add 10% for any adverse factors you may have. So if your home is 10 years and the climate is prone to drought, add an additional $500 (20% (10% for age + 10% for climate) x $2,500) to your $2,500 total. Your annual savings should be $3,000 per year, or $250 per month.

If you have a home warranty plan, calculate the total costs of all potential repairs/replacements that could happen over time. Take into account any trade service call fees and other out-of-pocket expenses that could occur. Always use the worst case scenario!

These funds should be dedicated to all household repairs. That includes appliances, roofing, flooring, and plumbing. Make sure not to go overboard with one repair, and not leave enough for another. While the self-cleaning toilet sounds like an amazing find, it’s best not to flush away your entire budget one repair.

Michelle Kuehner is a Registered Investment Advisor Representative and Managing Director for Personal Money Planning. She is also a Certified Credit Counselor and Certified Financial Health Counselor, writes Fix Our Budget blog, and has over 24 years of experience in the financial industry.

Photo by hywards. Published on 20 June 2014
Stock photo - Image ID: 100268787