It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas…

I love the holiday season, I really do, but I do not enjoy when it begins in September. Yep, that’s when I saw Christmas trees and decorations up in my local BJs this year. Can you say, “Christmas creep”? But now that Halloween is just days away, it’s inevitable that stores will begin promoting everything for the holidays this weekend. (They were packing up the Halloween stuff at my local Target on Monday!)

So I can’t help but start thinking about the holidays, and gift-giving in particular. Our list of family gifts is fairly small, thankfully. My husband and I give each other a few smaller things, we buy gifts and stocking stuffers for our daughter from Santa, we buy gifts for our two nephews, and some small gifts for our parents. It feels like a long list typing it, but I have friends who give gifts to many more family members, sometimes out of a sense of obligation more than anything else.

My husband is generally pretty good about listening to the hints I drop about what I want, but he’s also good at picking out thoughtful gifts on his own. Since these days I really like to receive more practical things for gifts, I’ve gotten pretty obvious with my hints. But that feels so anti-spontaneous! This is actually why my sister and I decided to stop buying gifts for each other and our husbands. We found ourselves just asking what everyone wanted, and buying those things. It took all the joy out of gift-giving.

The other significant list of gift recipients we have is my daughter’s teachers and other school staff members. While I’m genuinely grateful to the people who teach and support her, drive her to and from school safely, and encourage her growth and development, I’ll admit to sometimes feeling a little resentful as the gift tabs adds up. In the past, we’ve given small gifts to the teacher and two assistant teachers in her preschool classrooms. This year there’s only one teacher in her classroom, but there’s also a bus driver, an art teacher, a music teacher, a library teacher, and a PE teacher. Whew!

Do you exchange holiday gifts with family members, friends, and/or coworkers? Do you drop hints about what you want? What do you give to teachers and school staff members?

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Grocery Challenge, Update #2

After recently discovering that I was overspending on groceries, I created a challenge for myself: spend only $75 in cash, per week. (Due to extenuating circumstances, my budget was only $20 last week, and I came in $7.50 under budget.)

I returned to the store yesterday, list in-hand. I had expected to come in $2-$3 under-budget, based on what I thought everything would cost. Here’s how I did:

receipt

My total was $75.98, putting me $0.98 over-budget for this trip. (I’ll also be receiving $0.25 cash back from Checkout 51, for purchasing bananas.) So close!!! What sent me over-budget? Please don’t judge me, but it was this stuff:

velveeta

Yep, I bought Velveeta for the first time, so I can make this mac and cheese recipe my daughter asked me to make, for her fifth birthday tonight. (I’m going to leave out the bacon, and serve the peas on the side.) Never having bought – or even priced the stuff – before, I has no idea what it would cost. I’ll admit, given what it is, I assumed it would cost $3, when it was actually closer to $6. So for reasons of both health and finances, Velveeta will be an infrequent “treat” in our home!

So, I didn’t technically come in under-budget on this week’s grocery trip, but I’m going to call it a near-win, anyway, for two reasons. First, my goal was to total $95 in groceries (adjusted down from $150) over the last two weeks of this month, and my actual total was $88.48. Second, I paid cash for my groceries both weeks. Even though I’ve been paying cash MUCH more than I used to, I rarely do so when I grocery shop.

Do you use Velveeta much? Is it as tasty as it looks? :) How are you doing with your grocery budget?

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Lessons from an American Girl Doll

Are you familiar with American Girl dolls? I believe I first heard about them when I was a teenager, and already past “doll age”. They then re-entered my consciousness in the last two or three years, when I started receiving their catalog in the mail. (Isn’t that impressive targeted marketing??) I also noticed the older sister of a boy in my daughter’s former swim class brought one with her to class. And, of course, there’s the American Girl Doll night at our local performing arts center. I haven’t been to it, but I understand that it’s a night of age-appropriate ballet, and girls bring a doll “friend” with them to the show.

Not familiar with American Girl dolls? Essentially, they’re very expensive dolls, and you can purchase all sorts of clothing and accessories for them. There are even American Girl Stores, where dolls and their human companions can eat out, dolls can get a new hairstyle, and of course, dolls and accessories can be purchased. I only glanced quickly at the most recent catalog I received, but I think I recall that the dolls cost $120. As a frame of reference, here’s “Isabelle“:

isabelle

My daughter is turning five this week, so she’s on the cusp of being the target market for American Girl dolls. I admit to once letting her “read” the catalog about six months ago, and perhaps this is why she has some awareness of these dolls. Fortunately, she’s not really brand-aware yet, so she believes the Target line of “Our Generation” dolls, are the same thing. The Target dolls are $25-$35 each, and you can purchase comparatively priced clothes and accessories for them, too. My daughter fell in love with “Peyton“, and declared her the thing she most wanted for her birthday. (A well-informed family member purchased it for her.)

The topic of these dolls recently came up on a distant friend’s Facebook page. She posted that she was glad her daughter wasn’t into dolls, because she couldn’t imagine spending that much money on one. A lively debate broke out in the comments under her post, and I was surprised by how many people thought that buying a $120 doll was a lovely thing to do for a girl. I was also struck by the original poster’s implication that she would have to spend $120 on a doll, were her daughter into dolls. I’m not claiming to flawlessly communicate messages about frugal living to my daughter, but this exchange made me feel a lot better about the job that I’m doing!

What items that some parents buy for their kids, do you consider ridiculously extravagant?

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I Really Like Structure

About nine years ago, I lost 27 pounds using the Weight Watchers online program. Every day, I diligently entered my food consumption and activity into the system, and without much discomfort at all, I dropped the pounds. Sure I could’ve tracked the same things for free on a spreadsheet, or even a scrap of paper, but I didn’t. In fact, I wouldn’t have. The Weight Watchers program imposed a comfortable structure on me, “forced” me to track my results daily, and ensured that I stuck with the program. (It also didn’t hurt that I had positive results, relatively quickly and painlessly.)

Starting this blog was in large part an attempt to harness this same source of motivation. I’ve been tracking our debt totals for a couple of years, but putting them out there for anyone to see added a level of public accountability, which motivates me.

Now that I’ve realized that I’m spending a lot more on groceries than I thought I was, I’ve started a challenge to help limit my spending. I first put the challenge into practice a few days ago, and am happy to report that it was a success. Do you know what my favorite part of the challenge has been? Taking the picture of my receipt, and sharing it here on the blog. Yep, I really love structure and public accountability.

Rather than delve into the depths of my psyche to explain this trait, I’ve decided to use it to my advantage. I’m going to extend the grocery budget challenge for the foreseeable future. Expect to see more giddy posts with photos of grocery receipts. If I really want to challenge myself, I might even post some Target receipts…


How do you feel about imposed structure? Does it motivate or irritate you?

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Grocery Challenge Check-In #1

After realizing that I was over-spending on groceries by WAY too much, I determined what I believe a reasonable grocery budget is for our family ($300 per month), and decided that I must get into the habit of bringing only the weekly $75 budget in cash, into the store with me. However, I adjusted this week’s budget down to $20, because we have tons of leftovers from our visit with family members and my daughter’s birthday party, on Saturday. As a result, all we needed to get through this week was some milk, and some fresh produce.

Here’s what I took in with me:

BudgetHere’s what I came out with:

receiptSo far, so good.

What’s your grocery budget for your family?

 

 

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Six Months In – What I’ve Learned

I was so focused on preparing for our weekend guests and my daughter’s birthday party, that my six-month blogging anniversary passed last week, without me even noticing! When I started this blog in April, I was buried in credit card debt, and looking for support and guidance. Six months later, I’m still buried in credit card debt, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount. As I look back, here are some of the key things I’ve learned:

  1. I’m not being as careful about my spending as I thought I was. This is a fairly recent revelation, and it followed my first couple of months of closely tracking our expenditures. It was eye-opening to say the least, and while I’m disappointed that I allowed myself to stay in the dark for as long as I did, I’m glad I’ve got the undeniable numbers staring me in the face now.
  2. Cash really is king. Prior to starting on this journey, I rarely paid cash for anything. Just one look at my debt totals provides proof of this. While I haven’t completely cut the credit card cord, I now pay cash for many more things than I used. (I’ve never written so many checks in my life!)
  3. I’ve been fooled, big time. From Target to credit cards, I’ve fallen for lots of the tricks companies employ to get consumers to spend more. Buying things I don’t necessarily need at the moment when there’s a buy-two-get-a-$5-gift-card deal? Check! Rationalizing my credit card charges because I’m earning points? Check! I was well-aware of these techniques, but still fell for them. Here’s an great article about how mindfulness can help overcome this. It was interesting to read that even the researchers fell for some of these credit card traps.
  4. The PF community is truly wonderful! Not only have I been amazed at just how many PF bloggers there are and how diverse their stories are, but also how welcoming and supportive this community is. I’m in this slog for the long-haul, it’s not always pretty or easy to stay positive. The support, guidance, and even gentle advice, has been much appreciated.

Thanks so much for reading. Here’s to another six months!

 

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Achieving Business Balance

I have a very small business selling children’s books, and educational toys, puppets, games, and more. I started out as a direct seller of Barefoot Books, and over time added other brands that seemed to complement the books well. I’m no longer an official Barefoot Books “Ambassador”, but a generous former team member agreed to place wholesale orders on my behalf after I left.

As you can probably imagine, the holiday season is by far the busiest time of year for a business like mine. Last year, I did a large number of events – mainly cash-and-carry, but also some preschool fundraisers – and made a good chunk of change doing so. However, one of my costliest mistakes of 2013 was over-buying merchandise for the events I had scheduled. A fair amount of that inventory remains with me today, unfortunately. In my defense, several of the events I did were new to me, so I had no frame of reference. They were order-based events, with only a few days to fulfill the orders. Therefore, it was necessary for me to have ample inventory on-hand to fulfill the orders. And because I had no idea what the order volume would be like, I had no idea how many of each item I would need. To be safe, I ordered liberally.

I was able to sell some of the inventory to local customers, and some via my Amazon store, but I have plenty left as I head into this holiday season. At the same time, some of my most popular items are sold-out, and I’m feeling like maybe I should purchase some of them in preparation for this holiday season’s events. After all, I know these items sell well for me, so I may be giving up some easy sales without having them in my inventory…

The decision I’ve come to is to not place any additional orders, unless a customer specifically requests a particular item. After all, at any given event, customers see and shop from what I have on-hand, and have no idea what else I could have, but don’t. Perhaps if I wasn’t working to pay off so much debt, I would be a bit more liberal with my ordering again this year, but I’m just not in that position right now. Instead, I’ll be selling what I have, and (finally!) recouping last year’s expenditures.

(And if you know anyone interested in purchasing high-quality children’s books, toys, puzzles, and more, please let them know that they can save 20% sitewide with code SPOOKY, through 10/31/14.)

What do you think? Did I make the right call?

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Last Week’s Frugal Highs, and a Challenge Update

Happy Monday! How was your weekend? Ours was busy! Our weekend guests started arriving at 2pm on Friday, and the last left at noon on Sunday. I love spending time with our families, but I feel a little like I need another weekend to recover! The great news is that the rain cleared just as my daughter’s outdoor birthday party was starting, so the party went off beautifully!

Here are last week’s frugal highs:

  1. Earned cash back from Checkout 51 for purchasing bananas, carrots, and tomatoes.
  2. Received a payment for items purchased from my Amazon store.
  3. Watched several episodes of Boardwalk Empire,Season Four, on DVD, borrowed from the library.
  4. Continued reading Little Girls Can Be Mean, which was borrowed from the library. (I’ve been reading it in bed at night, so I’m only getting through a few pages at a time.)
  5. Received a payment for items purchased from my small business. Also registered for two book festivals early next month, where I’ll be selling my products.

On an unrelated note, you may recall the grocery challenge I created for myself last week. (Basically, after tracking our spending for a couple of months, I realized that I have been greatly overspending on groceries, and decided to allow myself a $75 cash budget for each of the next two weeks.) Anyway, we ended up with a lot of leftovers from our meals with our weekend guests, we have plenty to eat all week. The only thing we’ll be a little short on by the end of the week is fresh produce and milk. So, I’m giving myself just $20 to spend on groceries this week. I’m sure we’ll be very tired of leftovers by Friday, but there’s just too many to justify buying any groceries.

How was your weekend? What were your frugal highs last week?


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Weekend Plans

Happy Friday! We have a busy weekend planned here. My parents are arriving this afternoon, and my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew are arriving around dinner time. They’re all coming from out-of-town to attend my daughter’s fifth birthday party tomorrow. Please say a prayer to the weather gods, as it’s an outdoor party, and the weather looks a little iffy… I believe I’ve set a new record for number of times checking the hourly forecast in a single day! The rest of the weekend will be spent visiting with our family members.

What are you up to this weekend?

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Dirty Secrets, and a Challenge

I started tracking my family’s spending in August, which means I have two full months to look at now. (To be clear, when I say that I’m tracking our spending, what I mean is our variable spending, things like food, clothing, entertainment, etc.) I’m doing this for a few months to help make more informed decisions as I finally stop procrastinating put together a budget.

Right off the bat I realized what an education this would be, but it wasn’t until I finally totaled last month’s numbers by category, that I realized just how surprising some of them were. (And a good reminder to total as I go, rather than wait until the end of the month, when it’s no longer salvagable!) When I look at August vs. September, I’m pleased to say that our total spending went down almost $100, but the good news pretty much ends there. Can you guess what our top three categories were? Go on, guess…

 

 

 

 

 

Got your guess? Here’s what they were, in descending order: medical, gas, and food. Yep, food was our biggest expense.

If you asked me to guess what I had spent on food in September, I would’ve been off by $200. Gulp. There’s no good reason for this, since we didn’t host any parties, or feed lots of guests last month. (I don’t include eating out in this category, just groceries.) I just spent way too freely at the grocery store and Target. (Damn you, Tarjay!!!) I always shop with a list, but I do occasionally allow myself some off-list purchases. I try to meal plan and shop the pantry as much as possible, but I obviously need to get better.

I think I need a challenge to jump-start this process. I need to give myself a set-in-stone grocery budget, and bring only cash into the store with me. I clearly need to eliminate the credit card safety net, so there is simply no possible way for me to spend more than I’ve budgeted. Okay, here it is… I believe a reasonable amount to spend on food for our family of three is $300 per month, or $75 per week. So, for the next two weeks, I’ll bring only $75 in cash to the grocery store with me. End of story. To keep me honest, I’ll post pictures of my receipts. This is gonna be good…

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