Make a list, and check it twice

If you've waited until the last few days before Santa comes to town to finish your Christmas shopping, here are some ideas to get you through the holidays on a tight budget.

What do you need?

First, take a closer look at what you're dealing with. How much do you still have allocated in your budget for gift-giving? Who do you still need to buy a gift for? It's important to make a list to ensure you aren't forgetting someone. Having to make an unplanned purchase later may throw you over budget.

Check your list twice

Santa was on to something when he made his list and checked it twice. Maybe consider doing the same. Do you really need to buy a gift for everyone on your list, or did they make the cut simply because you're in the Christmas spirit? It's easy to get overzealous and want to give a gift to each friend, colleague, and teacher your child has. However, that can get super expensive. Review your list and narrow it down to only those that are truly necessary. This will give you a better idea of how much you can spend on each gift.

Don't overindulge

There will be plenty of cakes, pies, cookies, and other treats to overindulge with this season. Make sure you're checking account isn't included on that list. Consider purchasing your gifts using only cash or gift cards. It's easy to spend an extra few dollars here and there to upgrade a gift, but it's not necessary. Trust me, your friends and family would not want you in a financial bind over a Christmas ornament or candle box set. As Jim Carrey says, "No holiday should manipulate you to the point where you're going into debt just to show someone you love them."

Bust up the boxes

Speaking of box sets, consider splitting up a gift set. Yes, you heard me correctly. Bust the set apart to create multiple gifts. For example, I recently purchased a two-candle set, each with a different scent. Although it was boxed together, separating them could provide me with two gifts instead of one. This allows you to spread the joy to more recipients.

Boutique antique

Remember, it is "Tis the season to give", not "Tis the season to buy". Consider making something to give as a gift. Are you good at baking? How about crafts? Oftentimes you can find clearance items at discount stores or even a thrift shop. Dust it off, spray it with some Windex, and slap an initial on it. Now, instead of something used or boring, you have a boutique style one-of-a-kind gift.

Consider donations

If you're the type that burns your cookie, or your finger on a hot glue gun, you can always take a different route. Consider making a donation to a favorite charity. Some shy away from this, out of embarrassment for the size of the donation they can afford. Believe me, the charity will be happy to receive any amount. You won't even have to let the recipient know how much was given. Simply give them a card that says "Merry Christmas! A donation to (fill in the blank) was made on your behalf."

If you would rather take a more hands-on approach when making a donation, you can always check with the charity and see if volunteer help is needed. Your card can then include something like "5 hours of work was donated on your behalf". 

Gifting it forward

It's also important to remember that gift-giving issues are truly a first world problem. Some would care less about the scent of a candle versus the warm that it can provide. Consider creating gift bags with socks, gloves, toiletries, and snacks to hand out to those less fortunate. For the amount of money you plan on spending for one gift, you could make multiple gift bags. I assure you, it will truly be appreciated.

If you're really short on cash, consider giving the gift of time. No, I'm not talking about a watch, but your actual time. Set up a meeting for now or in the future to get together simply to hang out. It may be over lunch or even a cup of coffee.

Whatever you choose to do, just make sure not to overdo it, with the cookies or the gift spending.

Merry Christmas! 

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.

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 throw 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 gift 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.