Clothes That Fit the Budget

Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? –Matthew 6:30

photo 2 lilies

I was stopped at a red light the other day when I happened to notice a bird pecking around the new grass a few feet from the curb. I’m not a bird watcher and don’t know how to tell one from the other, but I knew this one was new to the area. Maybe he was resting his wings on his migration south.

This bird was beautifully clothed with blue and purple iridescent feathers. All animals are perfectly garbed for their habitat. My dog has the prettiest fur, though she really doesn’t need it in our air conditioned house. But if she lived in the wild, she’d stay warm.

As you’ve noticed, human beings don’t come with clothing. So how does God clothe us? By providing a brain and two hands with opposable thumbs to earn the money to buy the clothes. And we should have enough brain cells left over to manage our clothes budget wisely.

Your Spring Wardrobe.

What better time to think about new clothes? As a rule, I don’t like dressing up, but Easter is the time for wearing your best. Shouldn’t we at least look as good as those lilies pictured here?

Clothes are on the expense side of the budget, but when you think about it, this is an expense that’s more variable than any other. We can spend very little and be well clothed, or we can spend too much in an attempt to…what? Impress people?

Having money doesn’t mean you have to spend it.

This is one of my top ten tips to living richly and nowhere is it truer than applied to the clothes budget. Even if you can afford a $500.00 handbag, should you buy it? I think not. What else can that $450.00 be used for?

Big name brands have spent millions to make us think we have to have a certain brand, and they’ve been very successful. But honestly, there are knock-off brands that look and wear just as well. I know. That’s where I go, and I don’t think my reputation has been damaged over the years.

Clothes should have a longer life than style.

Being locked into a particular style begins when you purchase the garment. Buying something that’s flashy and different is bound to lose its appeal sooner than a more classical style. Spend more money on the little black dress or the classic black suit. Dress it up or down as you wish. Buy clothes that you’ll want to keep more than one year.

Don’t over-buy. No one needs more than a dozen pairs of shoes. The first decision to make when buying clothes is need. After that is taste.

No one’s ever accused me of having expensive taste. But I’m an old fuddy-duddy. Style means more to young people. I understand that, and young people don’t usually have as much to spend. If your taste exceeds your means, all I can do is point you to thrift shops, and if you’re willing to spend a lot of time shopping for something that appeals and fits, try them.

Modesty is never out of style.

No, not even for young people. It goes without saying, you have to consider your age and body type as well as your means. The dress pictured here is modest and fits a teenager well, but at my age, I’d have to add a couple of inches to the hem.photo kaitlyn2

There’s no doubt some teenagers dress outrageously, but whose fault is it? Young people haven’t developed the brain cells to know better. It’s we parents who bear the responsibility. What are the parents thinking to allow their son to walk around (with difficulty) in pants below the crotch, or their daughter to leave the house dressed like a hooker? I suppose some parents think it’s cool. But caring parents will use the power of the purse to exact discipline. Yes, it does come back to money and our responsibility to spend it wisely. The consequences go far beyond the numbers sometimes.

Let me get off my soapbox and back to the budget. If you don’t already have a certain amount budgeted for clothes, it shouldn’t be hard to estimate a monthly amount for the family clothing costs. Keep it reasonable for your lifestyle and income. Then look for those sales. There’s no need to spend more than necessary, especially for clothes.

Now that we’re dressed up, how about a night on the town. Next week I’ll discuss entertainment expenses.

 

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Protecting Your Electronic Money

But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. –Matthew 24:43

Everywhere money goes, thieves follow. In recent history people began to depend on banks rather than burying their treasure, although there are still those who stash it in the mattress or bury it in the backyard. But banks weren’t a perfect solution. They were still robbed and banks failed.

Then the government guaranteed your funds under the FDIC. Generally, this covers deposits, checking and savings, money market deposit accounts, and certificates of deposit up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank, for each account. That covers me and then some, but only against bank failure. There are still those pesky thieves.

Over the years banks have made it more convenient for us to use our money electronically all over the world. The credit card allows access to money up front, and we pay after. Debit cards require payment at the moment we access the money.photo 1 one cc

Plastic is wonderfully convenient for those who control their spending and manage their money wisely. But thieves still lurk, only now they don’t have to break into our houses or banks. They can pull it out of the very air from under our noses. They don’t have to be in the neighborhood. I’ve had credit cards stolen by thieves in Germany and India as well as in a couple of distant states.

Here are some things we can do to protect our electronic money.

Guard Your SSN

The social security number is your identity. Never give it out over the phone to someone who contacts you. EVEN IF THEY SAY THEY’RE A GOVERNMENT AGENCY. Thieves are also known to lie.

Make sure your computer is protected and secure before typing in personal information of any kind. Even though my computer is protected, I never type in my SSN to the computer. This is a real problem during tax time. They want you to electronically file, and you can’t even get forms except by downloading them. I download the forms and fill out everything except the SSN, then print them out, write the number in, and mail the forms by snail mail. I don’t know how long I’ll get by doing that, but that’s what I’ll do as long as I can.photo 3 laptop

Why? Because anyone in the world can take your SSN and open a credit account in your name and number, and use it—a lot. Since you may never know this happens until you try to buy a house or car, it’s a good idea to check your credit score regularly. Creditreport.com and Credit Karma are a couple of the subscription companies. There are others, but take care. Some trick you into subscribing for a fee, and that may not be necessary.

 

 

Spread Your Money Around

Or don’t put all your eggs in one basket. This is especially important if you use debit cards regularly. Set up a separate bank account in a different bank or credit union just for purchases. Keep the balance fairly low, a thousand or so. This way, if your card is hacked, you’ll only lose up to that balance and your entire fortune won’t be in jeopardy.

Use Credit Cards for Store Purchases

If you don’t want to go to the trouble of setting up a separate checking account in a different bank, use the credit card for purchases. The thieves are stealing from the bank, not you, and while it is an annoyance to change card numbers, you won’t lose much money. There is a drawback, however. If you don’t pay off the credit card balance every month, you run the risk of going into debt. But if you’re disciplined, this is the best approach.

Change Those Passwords

It’s annoying to keep changing passwords, but that’s the price for the convenience of plastic. Change the password to your computer and your debit card. DO NOT USE PASSWORDS FOR CREDIT CARDS AT ALL. The only reason you’ll need it is for cash advances, and this you should never do if you budget wisely. The cost for cash advances on credit cards is enormous. Repeat after me, I will never use a credit card to withdraw money from the ATM.

Don’t use ATMs in Unsecured Placesphoto 5 atm

Go inside the bank’s building to use your debit card or go to the window to make withdrawals. Don’t use those drive-thrus in isolated places. It’s a good idea not to make withdrawals except during regular banking hours. And please take care during vacations. Thieves know people are relaxed and casual on vacation and likely to let their guard down. Even on vacation, go to the bank or other inside, secure location.

 

Identity Theft Protection

Is identity theft protection necessary? I don’t use it, but if it gives you peace of mind, and it works in your budget, go for it. Lifelock certainly advertises more than any, but as with anything, shop around and read the reviews. Others are Metlifedefender and Idprotectionpro.

Something you should absolutely do is talk to your bank to find what it offers, usually for free. Some banks will send you a text message every time your card is used. If offered, sign up for it. If you get notice of a charge you didn’t make, you can immediately freeze the account.

Sign of the End?

When I considered all the difficulties modern international commerce places on us to protect our money, I couldn’t help but believe it is a sign of the end. It will soon be impossible to protect our identity unless it’s embedded on our person. World controlled money system? Mark of the Beast? Unless we’re prepared, it’ll come like a thief in the night. But for those of us ready to meet our Lord, does it really matter?

 

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The Gadget Budget Trap

There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. –Luke 16:1

It’s criminal to waste another’s money. It’s sinful to waste resources. But it’s stupid to waste our own. Even so, we do it all the time. The smart thing to do when you have a need for any durable good, and gadgets fit into that category, is to consider the return on investment (ROI). This rule applies if you’re buying equipment to earn money or for personal use.

New or Used?

Used is not always the most economical. I’ve never bought into the idea that a late model used car is best. Yes, its depreciation rate is high up front, but if you intend to keep the car as long as it runs, the new one may be your best buy. How do you know which? Just divide the purchase price by the number of years you intend to keep it. A new car may cost $5,000 more than one three years old, but the price divided over ten years may be less than the used car divided over seven. Time is just as important as cost in the equation. Be shrewd.

Gadgets are another story. The buying public throws away perfectly good items for no other reason than they want the latest and greatest. Apple and the other big producers take advantage of this fact. Why else would they bring out a new model every year? Falling into this trap can put a unnecessary dent in anyone’s budget. If your gadget doesn’t last longer than a year, you’re not getting a reasonable ROI. photo tech

If you’re someone who budgets wisely, you can take advantage of the fact that there are a lot of unwise people upgrading every year. This makes for a lot of good used gadgets, and they are discounted a lot more than good used cars.

Don’t Give into the Kids.

Would you believe all those gadgets pictured above belong to three teenagers? Image how much could have been saved if those items were purchased used from Amazon, e-bay, or any of the reputable sites offering such things.

It’s not a question of need. Kids today do need cell phones and notepads. One day while driving my granddaughter home from school, she was sitting in the passenger seat doing her homework and using her cell phone at the same time. When I grumbled, she showed me her assignment on the phone. Can’t lose your homework that way.

But don’t let them use need to take advantage of you. I shouldn’t have to mention that children will want the latest and greatest. I would guess they’d rather have a used gadget than no gadget at all, though, so stand firm. Use this as a means of teaching them to withstand peer pressure and use good judgment. It’s a life lesson that can save them from a mess of misery down the road.

Repair or Replace?

My husband is of the opinion that everything I want to replace has at least two good years left. I divide these years into the tinkering stage and the duck-tape stage. But I’m in agreement that my computer should last as long as possible. This laptop has been to the shop three times. I’m loath to give it up. It still has Windows 7 on it. Need I say more? When it does die, I’ll be looking for a used one.IMG_0071 computer

Budgeting for Gadgets and Other Durables.

Yes, yes, yes. You must budget for durables, but they are not included in expenses. Short term saving is usually the way to go. Only as a last resort should you use your emergency fund or put these purchases on a credit card, except when you intend to pay off the credit card when it’s billed.

The steward in Luke 16 was unjust, self-serving, and a crook, but he was shrewd. If we are to live richly, we have to be as shrewd as the unjust of this world. Just because we need a gadget doesn’t mean we have to have the latest model. The item that satisfies the need at the lowest price is shrewd. Being able to afford it isn’t a good reason for wasting money. We are accountable down to the last cent. Those who are accountable for the least will be given more. That’s an irrefutable law.

How do we protect ourselves from the wicked but shrewd of this world? That’s a topic I’ll address next week. Until then, budget and spend wisely.

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Beware the Marketplace

The wisdom of the prudent is to understand his way, but the folly of fools is deceit. –Proverbs 14:8

I was supposed to write about discounted and used items this week, but when I selected this verse another topic sprang to mind—avoiding deceit in the marketplace.

The sheer volume of products and services can be overwhelming. Variety breeds advertising and product branding, neither of which are deceitful, but any seller is going to slant his product any which way he can.

As an aspiring author, I’m aware of branding in the wide-open field of publishing. One would think there isn’t much room for deceit in publishing, nor in other industry. The author’s books speak for themselves, as all goods and services eventually succeed or fail based on the merits. Still, millions of consumers are duped every day.

I’m of an age when I don’t pay much attention to advertising. That’s why advertisers target the young. And the more variety there is, the more dissatisfied I become because what I’m looking for is never quite there. You know what I mean? Why is it that, once I like a product, they quit making it? Why is it that when I want a particular flavor, size or color, it’s always sold out? There is a reason.

Tricks of the Tradephoto 3 icecream3

Companies have all kinds of tricks to snare even discriminating shoppers like me. Some years ago I discovered a new ice cream flavor. Out of hundreds of flavors this stuff stood out—big chunks of premium chocolate in wide ribbons of velvet caramel and fudge embedded in a rich vanilla flavor like the old-fashioned kind before they began adding artificial flavors and preservatives. Not only did it taste good, it had a couple of grams less fat than regular ice cream and sold for less than premium brands. How did they do it?

Two well-known clichés come to mind. If something is too good to be true, it is, and all good things come to an end. There on the ice-cream carton was a little circle with the words, “limited edition.” This has been a favorite technique of businesses for ages. It’s called bait-and-switch. This wonderful ice-cream was put out by the company to lure customers like me. Then when we got used to this flavor and this brand, the wonderful ice cream would be quietly discontinued, or if continued, those big premium chocolate chunks would shrink to little imitation chocolate slivers and the big blobs of caramel and fudge would shrink to ribbons the size of the lead in a pencil. Artificial flavors replaced the genuine.

There’s nothing wrong with this. You have to expect it in a capitalistic economy. How else could the Dow have broken 16,000? But the wise shopper will be aware of such tricks.photo 4 stocks

The Savvy Shopper

And the wise shopper will seek recommendations and reviews for mechanics, doctors, lawyers, hair-stylists, contractors, plumbers, electricians, any provider you’re unsure of. Amazon and Angie’s List are the big review providers.

Do others a favor and post reviews of those who are particularly bad as well as those who are good. This is the best way to keep businesses honest.

Although you’re a savvy shopper, there are those who aren’t. Charlatans prey on the old and young and poor.

Be Aware of the Following

  • Computer games that target children to put charges on their parents’ credit cards. Keep a close check on your children’s computer usage and protect those devices by password.
  • Telemarketers who scam the public with contests, vacations, investment schemes, and a hundred other ways. They change their tactics so often, it’s hard to keep up, but discuss this with your elderly parents and their friends. If you hear of a scam, pass the warning on by word of mouth and social media.
  • Pawn/check cashing/gold buying businesses that target the poor. Some of these businesses are legitimate, but it’s a shame they’re necessary. If a friend or relative is having a hard time, lend them a hand. You’ll be blessed for it.
  • Slot machine and gambling establishments who entice people to lose their rent or grocery money. Run them out of business, if you can. Pressure the local authorities to take action to outlaw them. Remember what happens when good people do nothing.

If you’re savvy enough to care about your budget, you’re probably not easily deceived by dishonest advertising and business practices. But any time money is involved, there’ll be ways to lose it.

Next week I’ll get back to the budget, but being aware of deceit in the marketplace will always save money. The prudent shopper will know what’s going on.

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Money Really Does Grow on Plants

Another parable He put forth to them, saying: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. –Matthew 13:24

As I was writing a blog about gardening, it hit me that spring was the perfect season to remind people if they grow their own food, they’ll not only eat healthier but cut their grocery budget as well. Why don’t we? Some are like me and just don’t have a talent for growing plants, but the greatest reason is convenience. Grocery stores are a lot more convenient than clearing land, preparing the soil, planting, watering, harvesting. Besides, most of us don’t have a lot of real estate to invest.

We do Things When the Need Becomes Great Enough.

Everyone was called on to contribute to the war effort in WWII. One of those ways was to grow a Victory Garden, the idea being if people grew some of their food, there’d be more to send to the soldiers overseas. Gardens sprang up in the country and in towns. I’m sure even apartment dwellers had their container gardens. That was a real “get ‘er done” generation.photo 3 victory garden

We don’t have a world war going on now, but the economy has made it expedient to do anything to stretch the budget. Produce is an expensive item. You can do a lot of stretching with not much effort.

Consider a Herb Garden.

The price of fresh herbs is outrageous, and if you want “organic” you’ll pay even more. It takes little effort to construct a box planter, and those helpful garden supply people can answer any question. Just remember they may want to sell you more than you need. A container, soil, and a sunny spot is all required. Put it outside if it’s warm enough, or keep it in a window, and you can grow herbs all year. The garden may inspire you to cook more, and the dishes you do cook may be more flavorful, motivating everyone to want to eat in, and eating in will definitely save money.

Expand to a Kitchen Garden.

If you have the space and the energy, think of a kitchen garden. Lettuce, cabbage, carrots, radishes, beets, tomatoes, onions, berries. All those salad and stew vegetables that cost a lot in the grocery store, and you don’t know how they were grown despite what they claim. Adding all those vegetables to your family’s diet can only improve your health, so you’ll save on health care costs too.

I admit the only vegetables I’ve successfully grown are spinach and tomatoes. They’re the only vegetables I’ve ever tried to grow, but they make a good salad. If they just grew at the same time… But I count the effort worth it. I get two months of the freshest, most tender spinach possible, and a whole season of the sweetest, juiciest tomatoes on the planet.

Go Big Time with a Truck Garden.

photo 4 truck garden

With enough land, you can even grow a truck garden and have an abundance of vegetables. You can stock your freezer and pantry for the whole year. But anyone serious enough to have a truck garden already knows that. Here’s something else to consider.

Grow more than vegetables.

Most large gardens produce more than the needs of the average family. Gardeners are a generous people, and they share with friends, relatives, and neighbors. I’ve been on the receiving end of their generosity many times.

Even so, sometimes produce dries up in the field or is thrown away. I’ve seen this happen many times, and it’s a sad sight when so many are malnourished. Take care not to let this happen. Call on your church or children or anyone to help harvest the vegetables and take them to food shelters or just leave them at the corner of a street in a needy neighborhood. They’ll be snatched up.

We have the ability to sow good seed in the spirit as well as in the ground, and while saving money in your budget by growing your own food is good, this by-product of generosity is more important. If you truly want to live richly, there’s no better way than this.

Whether it’s a pot of herbs set in your kitchen window or a field of vegetables to fill up your own pantry and share with the needy, nearly everyone can benefit from working in the good earth. So get those little seedlings growing.photo 1 speedlings

Next week I’ll be discussing buying second-hand, where you can find items for one-tenth the price of new, and serve the purpose just as well.

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Record Keeping for Taxes

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness – Ephesians 6:14

Telling the truth may be complicated by failure to remember what the truth is. This sometimes happens while filling out tax returns. Most people don’t make mistakes on a return because they set out to defraud, but simply because they don’t have the facts straight.photo calculator

Unfortunately, the only way to have the facts straight is to keep records. I don’t like record keeping. Strange to say since I worked in that line and I like numbers, but that’s the way it is. Record keeping is tedious, so many small things to account for like bills and receipts and payments. There are various ways to approach this.

The Shoe Box

In this method you just toss everything in a shoe box. At tax filing time, you take your box down to the tax return preparer and set it on his or her desk. Unfortunately, the preparer doesn’t like this approach and probably won’t accept it. H/she wants you to give the amounts to fill in the blocks—just the facts. So you’ll have to go through that box and add up the amounts before you go. I’ve got to tell you this approach will cause you drink too much caffeine and tear your hair out. And it may lead to some big mistakes.

EZ If You Can

For those who file the EZ method, this will work. All you have to report is earnings. Standard deductions are worked into the charts. Only W-2s and 1099s are required. These are fairly easy to keep up with, although I confess I’ve managed to lose one or two over the years. If this method of filing fits your situation, you don’t need help with preparation. In fact, the IRS will figure it for you. State returns may be just as easy. Read over the rules every year to make sure you qualify.

Simplified Bookkeeping

If you take deductions like home mortgage interest, state and local taxes, charity, medical expenses (lots of changes in that this year), you can get by with simple ledgers for each deductible. Recording the expenses as they occur on an excel spreadsheet will do nicely. It’ll add and subtract for you. Be sure to date and identify, and don’t forget travel expense allowed for a particular deduction like medical or charity. Actual expenses are almost always more than the standard allowance tables. Stuff the receipts into envelopes or file folders, identified for the applicable deductible.

When tax time comes around, you’ll have the amounts ready to plug in or give to your preparer to plug in. Yes, this method is tedious, but much more reliable than digging through a shoebox of receipts and trying to remember what goes with what. Record the information at least weekly, and ladies, don’t wait three months before cleaning out your handbag as I’ve done in the past. I’ve found a receipt for a local taxes at the bottom of my bag that had scribbles on the back and folded so many times I could barely read the numbers.

Home Based Business

There are millions of home based businesses in the United States, and even the most simple sole proprietorship demands a bookkeeping system, if not the traditional double entry type, at least a debit/credit incoming/outgoing facsimile with a ledger for each expense. In fact, as soon as you determine your enterprise is a business and not a hobby, and write out your business plan, it’s time to set up bookkeeping. Here’s my money saving tip of the week.photo 2 Self Empl

When your tax return gets to the degree of complication that self-employment requires, it’s time to seek professional help. Find a tax accountant experienced in small business and sole proprietorships. Before your appointment, make a list of all your questions, and when you go in, pick the accountant’s brain. Cover every state and local law and regulation as well as federal. It may cost more, but this is the only time you’ll need to consult him or her. Before you leave, make sure you understand how each item on the tax forms was obtained and why. Your copy of these forms and the answers to your questions will be your prototype for your future returns. If you’re intelligent enough to run a business, you’re plenty smart enough to do your own in the future. Yes, there are changes to the tax code each year, but rarely will they affect you, and even if they do, you should be able to figure it out.

Speaking of changes for home businesses, there is a change this year that simplifies taking a deduction for the home office. Instead of jumping through hoops like most tax forms require, you can now multiply your home office’s square footage by $5.00 up to $1,500.00. But actually, if you take my advice and get a one-time professional help, you’ll be able to jump through the hoops and fill out the regular Form 8829 and Schedule C without having to worry about an IRS audit. Provided you have a good bookkeeping system in place.

Something else that’s new provided by the IRS is electronic filing that’s supposed to be as easy as those computer tax programs in the stores. You know, it’ll take your information and tabulate the forms for you. I haven’t tried it myself since I file by paper and snail mail. I just don’t trust my SSN on the computer. But if you have any spare time, visit IRS.gov and make yourself at home. It’s more user friendly than healthcare.gov, I promise.

Keeping records will help you know and report the truth, and as we all know, that will make us free. So put on your armor of truth and have the records to back it up.

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Why Pay Taxes Before They’re Due?

Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s – Matthew 22:21

Taxes are a periodic expense      photo 3 1040
Most of us don’t think about taxes—until they’re due. Except for sales taxes, which might as well be considered a part of the purchase, payment is scheduled periodically, usually annually. But like all periodic expenses, they have to be budgeted each month. Actually, income taxes are collected periodically, with each paycheck, assuming your income is paid by an employer. Everyone knows that, but here’s something a lot of people don’t know apparently. They overpay, and do so deliberately, because they use this as their savings account.

How can I say this so I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings? This is D. U. M. B.

Since I worked in accounting, I got to know a lot of accountants. I didn’t know one of them to ever get a refund on their taxes. There was this one accountant who made it a ritual to wait until April 15 to start working on his taxes, and he was in the car line-up at the post office at twelve o’clock midnight. I don’t cut it that close, but I wait until the last week. I knew this other accountant who always filed for an extension. Why, I don’t know since you have to pay the amount you owe on April 15, whether or not you file for an extension to file the forms.

What does this tell you? That the people who know how the system works never overpay. They put off what they pay until the last minute because the money stays in their hands, not the government’s, and time is money. The government doesn’t pay you interest.

It’s complicated on purpose

The federal tax code is over 70,000 pages long and growing. Every page has been lobbied for and continues to be. Remember when Bill Cosby explained why they couldn’t get the children to leave home. With eyes bulging, he said, “These people are serious.” A funny line when referring to kids who want to keep living off their parents. Not so funny when it’s those who want breaks written into the tax code so they don’t have to pay as much as the rest of us. But make no mistake, those who lobby for their favorite part of the tax code are serious—a lot more serious than the American public who pay before they have to, then have to pay preparers because it’s too complicated to do their own and follow the rules contained in 70K pages. The preparers have their lobby too.

I doubt that anyone in government really wants this to change. The only movement to come around for the purpose of tax reform and reduction is the TEA Party. Taxed Enough Already. A catchy name. Some serious people got involved, serious enough that the supporters of the status quo started a media blitz to cut this effort off at the knees. Is it any surprise that the IRS targeted organizations associated with the TEA Party? It might be that the TEA Party is a serious threat to the tax structure, not because the members are conservative.

Since tax reform isn’t likely to happen any time soon, we’ll have to deal with the situation, which means budgeting for taxes–federal, state, and local. If these aren’t taken out of your paycheck, you’ll have to account for them in your monthly expense budget, but you can keep the money in your bank account until the taxes are due.

People who use tax withholding for savings do so because having someone else hold their savings keeps them from spending it. That does make sense, but it also indicates those people can’t control their money. No one can live richly unless he can control his money, so more on that subject later.

Get an instant pay hike

If you get a sizeable refund this year, do yourself a favor and have your withholdings adjusted to reduce the excess. You’ll get a pay increase just like that. But you’ll also have to put the increase in your savings to pay for that vacation or down payment on a car or whatever. Don’t do it expecting to earn much interest but simply for the principle of the thing. You’ll be on the way to using your money as it’s meant to be used—to serve your needs and wants.

Pay Caesar what he’s due, but not before it’s due.photo 5 tax clock

Next week I’ll discuss tax preparation for those who do their own, or even those who don’t. You may discover it’s simpler than you think, because most of those 70K pages of tax code don’t apply to most of us. Make sure you don’t pay more than is due either.

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On the Move at a Sensible Speed

Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase – Daniel 12:4b

Welcome to the end days. It seems that the more knowledge abounds, the more ignorant people become. Maybe our brains can’t hold it all. Too bad. Nothing wastes money more than ignorance. From both sides of the balance sheet. Wasted budget dollars and wasted potential income. But that’s a topic for another day. This week I’m going to discuss what it costs to run to and fro.

The right vehicle

There are many ways to travel. Planes, trains, ships. Some people still travel by horse and buggy. If you live in a big city, public transportation may be your monthly ticket, but for the big transports, planes, trains and ships, expense should be budgeted in the trip itself. If for pleasure, in the vacation budget, if for business, in business expense.

Most of us get around by car, so our first budget decision is what kind of car and how much we can afford. If you’re rich, get a luxury car, but if you’re not, get the least expensive car that will get you from point A to point B in a reliable, safe, and cheap manner. There are a lot of options out there.photo cars

Should you get a new car or a used? I prefer new, but that may be because I come from an era when a lemon meant a lemon. The quality of cars has increased to the point you can depend on many years of worry-free transportation with a late model car. But a low mileage, late model car won’t save that much over the long haul.

Now as a budget fanatic, I have to tell you the best way to buy a car, new or used, is to save for it, not get a car loan. Loans of any kind are not good for a budget, but if you have to, you have to, just make sure you’re not being taken by the car dealer. Look at how much the loan will cost over the entire life of the loan, including principal and interest, and over the lowest number of years possible. Over five years, I’d say you can’t afford it, period. Remember, don’t be ignorant. Beware of low interest or no interest loans. If the cost isn’t the same as you’d buy the car for cash, it’s not a good deal. Again, look at the bottom line when shopping around.

Keeping it running

Even if your car is paid off, you’ll have to keep it running, which means maintenance and fuel. Unless your car has major problems, maintenance isn’t a huge expense, but be sure to plug it into your monthly living expenses. Never short-change upkeep costs. You’ll pay for it in the long run.

Of course, no one can forget fuel costs. They fluctuate, but the trend is always up.photo pump

My husband recently traded to a F150 truck. I can’t complain about the cost of the vehicle. He traded even, the truck for his small Saturn and an antique Model A Ford. The only problem, that big truck uses twice the gas as the little car. The Model A hardly ever left the garage. That’s why I’m having to rework the budget. But apparently a man has to have his truck and ride around town for no reason at all.

Outside of the type vehicle you buy, there isn’t much you can do about fuel costs. I have a loyalty card that saves a good bit, but other than that, shopping around doesn’t help. Here’s what does help.

Cut out unnecessary trips

If you read my tips for grocery shopping, you’ll know one of the best ways to save is to cut down on trips to the store. That saves transportation costs too. As does, running to the store for other things, or running around anywhere. If you don’t have a specific need to go, don’t.

Share transportation costs

Have we forgotten car-pooling? Not just to go to work. To church. To club meetings. What about transporting kids to practice? This may help you get to know your children’s friends’ parents, always a good idea. We’ve become such an isolated society. Everyone wanting to go his own way, without being bothered with other people, but there’s still value in getting to know people outside your family and tight circle of friends.

Where is it going?photo charge

Environmentalists are trying to change fuel consumption, but don’t expect them to help your budget. Even if you save gas by buying an electric car, the cost of the car, except a very little one, can be exorbitant. The power from the charging station comes from something, and it’s my guess it’s not from sun or wind.

Not much wiggle room in the transportation budget, but it’s a monthly living expense we can’t get along without. This modern way of life demands we go to and fro, so post the amount of your expense and hope it doesn’t have to be readjusted upward too often.

Next week I’m going to cover taxes, something we should think about all during the year, not just on April 15th.

Have you got all your monthly living expenses listed yet? On paper or computer where you can check it regularly? Good. These things aren’t easy to control unless you keep tabs on them.

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Eat Well, Save More

Man does not live by bread alone. –Matt.4-4

No matter what your grocery budget is, you can cut it by at least $10 a week…easily…and eat just as well. There are so many options and so many items. Take coupons. Here is a short list of places you can find coupons.

www.coupons.com

www.Lozo.com

www.familygrocerynetwork.com

www.printingfreecoupons.com

www.smartsource.com

www.valpak.com

www.mommysavesbig.com

www.coolsavings.com

Some people save hundreds of dollars on their monthly grocery bill by clipping coupons. I’ve never gotten into it. Usually the stuff I’m looking for doesn’t have a coupon available, or the store brand is really cheaper or, and here’s the biggie, I don’t have the time. But if the coupons are conveniently available, and they’re for something I need, I use them and save maybe $10 a month. Not much, but every little bit helps.

If you’re not a coupon clipper, or even if you are, I’m going to give you two ways to make a big dent in the grocery budget. They’ll save at least $10 a week, probably much more. In case you don’t think that’s worth the effort, consider that’s $40 a month, $480 a year, $2400 in five years. Whoever said time is money was right.

Buy in Bulk

photo vegs

On the American prairie of the 1800s, there was only one grocery store. Actually, it was pretty much the only store. Every food item, and every household article, every implement, was packed into its 500 or so square feet. It was the town’s mercantile. We have them today. They’re called Walmart, Sam’s Club, Target. But we don’t shop like the settlers.

They didn’t drop into the mercantile every day on their way home like we stop by Walmart for a couple of items and wind up buying ten. The farmer or rancher often lived far from town, and they made the trip once a month or once a season to buy what food they needed to supplement what they grew, as well as other items they required. Beans, flour, meal—all came in huge sacks. Yes, they had to deal with weevils, but things like that didn’t bother them the way they do us.

We could learn a lot from the settlers. Things that come in small volume naturally cost more because packaging and handling add to the price. So, for items you use anyway, buy in bulk and when they’re on sale, stock up. This applies to more than food. Groceries include all those household items we have to have—cleaning supplies, paper products, personal grooming items. Even when they don’t come in large packages, they can be bought in large numbers. If shampoo is half priced, buy a three-month supply.

Some of those store brands are almost always on sale. You don’t even have to look at the sales circulars. If the item is on sale, and you’re not already overstocked, grab it.

Brand names are almost never the best buy. Advertising is built into the product. But I have to admit only one brand of toilet paper will do for me, and it has nothing to do with advertising. It’s habit that keeps me stuck to that brand, but a habit I want to keep indulging, even if it does cost more. I stalk the aisles for this brand, and if it ever goes on sale, a lot of it goes in my buggy.

Targeted Shopping

Targeted shopping requires planning, but not much. You already know your menus. Make a list of the ingredients you’ll need for the entire week. Make a list of all your needs. Is there an app for that? There should be.

Once you have your list, target the store. Your neighborhood grocery store may be a better source than Walmart. If food items are better, fresher, and cheaper at one store, go there. Another store may be a better source for household items.

Consider dollar stores for non-food items, especially those that don’t have an expiration date, like paper towels. Speaking of paper towels, you do know to buy by unit cost? Appearance can be deceiving. Read the labels and compare. You can save big at dollar stores on things like napkins, wrapping paper, candles, foil, etc. But be careful of liquid anything that might have been watered down.

As you’ve probably already noticed, living richly on a budget requires being smart. The advantage of targeted shopping is you aren’t as likely to be lured into buying things you don’t need. Stick with what you know. There’s a reason you’ll find 580 varieties of the same cereal. Companies know people (especially children) want the latest and greatest. If possible, leave the children at home when you go shopping, or take the time to explain to them why they can’t have that cartoon shaped cereal.photo cereal

Target the time you go shopping. Not when you’re hungry, tired, rushed, or when the stores are crowded. I don’t have to explain why. We just don’t think well under these conditions.

Resolve and Commitment

Success in any endeavor requires resolve and commitment. Developing smart shopping habits certainly do. It doesn’t help to cringe and shake our heads when that grocery budget isn’t stretched enough to cover costs with a bit of reserve.

Man doesn’t live by bread alone. God has given most of us the brains to figure out how to feed ourselves, and I’m pretty sure He wouldn’t want us to waste food dollars. Yes, it takes effort to change attitudes, but it gets easier with time. Let these two ideas get you on the road to better money management. Buy in bulk when possible and target what, where, and when you buy groceries. You might well be able to save enough in these efforts alone to buy a good used car in two years’ time.

Speaking of cars, next week I’ll discuss transportation. For most of us this is another one of those necessary living expenses. So rev your engines.

In the meantime, if you have other ideas for saving on the grocery budget, please share.

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Prepare For Jolts in Your Utility Bill

Go to the ant, you sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise. –Proverbs 6:6

Boy scouts aren’t the only ones who have to be prepared. Anyone who wants to live richly has to. The easiest expenses to prepare for are utilities. Everyone who maintains a household for a few months knows what to expect, so you should have a pretty good estimate of these monthly living expenses. If it’s so easy, why do we get jolted and look like this guy?                      man head in hands

Here are the givens about utilities. (1) We have to have them. (2) We have little control over usage or cost. (3) They come every month (4) They fluctuate. Guess which one causes the biggest problem.

Modern living can be expensive.

Before the 20th century most people got by with well water, kerosene, candles, and coal or wood. There were no supply and delivery systems. You bought what you needed and handled the delivery yourself.

Innovation exploded. Electricity. The light bulb. Oil drilling. Monopolies flourished. Municipalities helped them. The perfect marriage—big business and government. A marriage of convenience.

That’s what we got—convenience, but no say in what we get or the price. If you don’t believe that, consider this. Did anyone ask you if you prefer this squiggly bulb? Me either, but there are some things we can do to tweak the utilities budget.photo light

Water is our best buy.

We have to have water to live. Next to air, it’s most essential to life. I love to watch those survivor shows where they’re dropped into a hostile wilderness. The first thing they have to do is find drinkable water, and it’s kind of fun watching how much trouble they have to find it.

Unless there’s a drought, we don’t have to think about it. Municipalities do a good job of providing clean water at a relatively low cost. But we should never take water for granted. Conserve when you can because it’s a precious commodity, not because you’re going to save much money. If you’re really serious about saving water, put two kids in the bathtub at the time, or take showers with your spouse. You might even improve your marriage.

To my way of thinking, the best way to save money on your water bill is to stop buying bottled water. Lots of tests confirm tap water is just as good, maybe better than, as bottled. Go to waterepa.gov to look up water purity in your zip code.

Here’s a tip you can take to the bank. Buy a pack of bottled water and after you’ve drunk its contents, save the bottles. Before going to bed, fill them from the tap and put them in the refrigerator. The next morning, you can take your bottle jogging, to work, or wherever. No one will know the difference, and likely you won’t either. The water bill won’t change, and you’ll save a little on your grocery bill.

It’s hard to believe a water bill will cause any problems with the budget, even with sewage included, but I’ve seen a sign at my water department telling customers to roll up change used to pay bills. So, yes, even an increase in the water bill can cause problems.

Who controls energy costs?

The public doesn’t. Aside from increasing with usage, gas and oil prices are controlled by the international market. The industry follows China more closely than the United States. But all in all, things are looking up. Gas and oil production is up in the U.S. no thanks to the government that’s doing its best to wean us of oil consumption. Unfortunately it’ll have to wean China too. Look for gas and oil to fluctuate and trend upward. Electricity just trends upward, so adjust your budget periodically for energy costs.

As with all utilities, all we can do is conserve. The best way to reduce energy costs is to make sure your house or apartment is well insulated. Power companies may come out and run a test to tell you where you’re losing heated or air cooled air. Take them up on it. I found I was losing a lot of energy from the bottom of exterior doors. A strip made to stop drafts is best, but a rolled up towel can make a difference. Caulking windows is a cheap way to reduce energy loss too, and increasing the insulation in walls and ceilings may make a good investment.

What you must do.

No matter how well you insulate, energy costs are going up, as are bills for phone, computer service, and TV cable. This is where you need to be prepared. Your budget has to show an excess at the end of the month of one to two hundred dollars. Not too much, you understand. Having too much excess in the budget means you’re not budgeting wisely. Anything over a couple of hundred dollars should be put into interest bearing savings or investments.

I think everyone knows it’s not wise to live from one paycheck to the other. You have to have some excess in your checking account to take care of those fluctuating monthly bills. And, tweak the budget once or twice a year to re-estimate monthly expenses. Utilities will rise and fall with usage, but the price will surely increase.

There’s no way to live richly without utilities. In fact, this is my most prized material possession.

photo thermo

Because I write historical romance, I research how people lived in the days without utilities. I enjoy learning about it, but I wouldn’t want to live like that.

Notice my temperature setting? Actually this is my nighttime setting during the winter. I’m in bed under a thick comforter. I tell myself this makes up for setting the thermostat at 70 degrees in the summer.

I do what I can, but also make sure there’s a little excess in the budget to take care of fluctuations in utility bills.

Next week I’ll cover another living expense. Something we can’t do without so we have to pay for it. So get those coupons and sales circulars out. Grocery bills can be tweaked more than any other item in the budget.

Do you have any ideas for keeping utility costs down?

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