Holiday Helpers

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Gift Yo' Self

With the turkey comas of Thanksgiving comes the arrival of the holiday season, in full force. Whether you take part in black Friday and cyber Monday or not, gifts and other holiday expenses are likely on your mind this time of year. As you plan out your remaining purchases, make sure to factor in a little something for yourself.

We're not talking about the newest and greatest this or that; we're talking about gifts for financial wellness. It may not sound like the most exciting gift, but taking measures to better your finances, especially during the holidays, can bring more joy than any gizmo or gadget.

  • Give yourself a break. During the holidays it can be easy to get caught up in the spending frenzy to find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Before this happens, take time to remind yourself what really matters. Chances are your family and friends would be very upset if you strained your finances to buy them gifts. Be disciplined about the holiday budget you set and feel proud when you stick to it, or come in under!
  • Save! Or put money towards another financial goal you may have been putting off. Starting now will help give you momentum to keep going in the new year.
  • Plan ahead.Schedule a money date with yourself to start your financial plan for 2014. Here are the top three things to do when it comes to year-end financial planning:
    • Make sure you have all your documentation together for your 2013 tax return.
    • Look back on your finances to see what you did well and what you should have done differently.
    • Set goals for 2014. Setting goals can be your best offense for saving by giving you a clear picture of what you're working towards.

For more tips on end of the year planning for your budget, check out the replay of our Facebook chat!

There's a Chill in the Air...

Rising utility costs can be scarier than a zombie on Halloween. Even if it feels like it's still barely fall, cold temperatures will be here in no time, and that means higher heating and utility bills. Here are some tips to help take the bite out of your bills this winter.

  • Get stripping. Leaving things plugged in when not in use is a huge drain on power, but it can be hard to always remember to unplug every little thing. Consider using power strips. That way you can disconnect everything with one flip of a switch. Just make sure that when the strip is on, you don't leave things plugged in that you're not using, especially limited use items like stereos, chargers and lamps.
  • Contain your cool.When it comes to your inside cooling, professionals recommend setting your fridge to 40°F and your freezer to 0°F. If you don't use ice on a regular basis, forget the icemaker – they gobble up energy faster than turkey on Thanksgiving.
    • Bonus tip: Don't let out more cold than you need to. Know what you want to eat before opening fridge and freezer doors. The more cool air you let out, the more energy it takes to get the inside temp back down.
  • Upgrade. If you're in the market for new appliances, make sure to look for Energy Star labels. They can save you big bucks on your bills.

For more great seasonal tips, check out my tips pages on Pinterest.

Festive Frugal Fun (say that three times fast)

The holidays can be one of the most difficult times to save. Between extra cooking, travel and gift giving, even the most frugal shopper often finds they spend more. As you've likely heard, more than once, a budget can be your best defense against overspending, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Making saving enjoyable, and something you look forward to, can help boost your success--and for those with kids, it can help them understand and accept that they can't have EVERYTHING they want. Here are some ideas to help boost your festive fun.

  • Game on. Instead of looking at saving as a chore, look at it as a game. Just how much can you save? Bring friends into it and create a fantasy football type league where the biggest saver wins!
  • Frugal food. Attending or hosting a party? Instead of putting all of the pressure on one person to provide the food, make it a potluck. To help keep the costs down even more, set a price limit for each dish. Bonus: you can share your frugal recipes for use throughout the year.
  • Free for all. Instead of focusing on things that require spending, take advantage of all of the free events taking place this time of year. Perhaps there's a free concert or play, or create your own event by making a thermos of hot chocolate and going on light tours or have a snowman building competition with your family and friends.

Above all, remember that the holidays are not about the money you spend, but the time you spend with those you love.

Have your own thrifty holiday tips? Share them with me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest!

Invest in Your Health

October 6 was  Child Health Day, a good reminder that it's never too early to start taking care of your health. With healthcare costs sitting as one of the biggest variables in long-term financial planning, it makes sense to teach your kids healthy habits, while also modeling them yourself. Chronic and expensive health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity are preventable through healthy habits that are formed early and practiced throughout life. Here are a few pointers to get you started.

  • Work together. Show your kids the value of healthy eating by encouraging them to help you plan menus, shop for healthy ingredients and prepare tasty, good-for-you meals. Explain to your kids that while nutritious foods often cost more, it is an investment in their long-term health.
  • Get moving. Plan activities for your family that involve exercise – bike rides, hikes, or even just playing catch. These are great ways to teach your kids that staying healthy can be fun and good for you!
  • Wash up. As we enter flu season, remind your kids about the simple power of washing their hands often and covering their mouths when coughing. And if you aren't feeling well, stay home, just as you'd keep your kids home when they're sick. Show them that taking care of yourself when you're sick is a priority and also a courtesy to those around you.

Investing in your and your family's long-term health is one asset that will pay dividends for years to come!

Travel on Your Holiday Horizon? Plan Now.

While it may feel too early to be seeing Santa Claus in store display windows, it's not too early to start planning your holiday travel. If upcoming celebrations require you to pack a suitcase to see loved ones in the next few months, the best way to avoid a New Year's financial hangover is to plan your budget and start saving now.

  • Airfare. Analysts have found that the cheapest airfares are available seven and half weeks out, but, unfortunately, this does not always apply to holiday travel. If you haven't already, it's probably best to buy your ticket ASAP! Make sure to check multiple sites to ensure you're getting the best fare available. 
  • Car travel. Traveling via car can save a bundle, as opposed to flying, just make sure you budget for the appropriate amount of gas needed for the journey, a cost often forgotten in holiday budget planning. It's also a good idea to double check that you are up-to-date on vehicle maintenance before hitting the road. Nothing breaks the holiday budget like an unplanned towing bill or flat tire.
  • Logistics. If you're flying for Christmas, consider shipping your gifts ahead to save on baggage fees. Major shipping retailers often charge less to ship to business addresses, so, if you can, save a few extra dollars and send your package to someone at work. Just don't forget to budget the cost of shipping into your gift-buying budget. Bonus Tip: If you're ordering gifts online or over the phone, consider having them shipped directly to your destination and wrapping once you arrive. That way you don't end up paying to transport the same item more than once.

Above all, taking the time now to map out your holiday travel spending will give you a better idea of how much you may need to cut back your spending now in order to cover everything in the months ahead, which could be the ticket to keeping your savings goals on track right through the New Year.

Spooky Savings

Halloween means plenty of spooky sights and crazy costumes. In the spirit of the holiday, here are some out there ways to save, if you dare...

  • DIY, to the max. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times: it's cheaper if you do it yourself. This is especially true when it comes to Halloween. But just how much can you DIY? With DIY heavy resources like Pinterest, it's easier than ever. Repainting your bathroom? Piece of cake! Have scissors? Learn to cut your own hair! A women's haircut can cost more than $60 in many areas—think of the savings!
  • Recycle and reuse. Recycling is not only good for the environment; it can be good for your wallet too. Instead of spending money on reusable containers and plastic bags, wash and reuse containers from the food you buy anyway. This goes for plastic bags too. If you take a sandwich for lunch every day, save the bag and wash it out for use the next day. Just make sure to keep everything sanitary. If it held raw meat, don't reuse.
  • Buy nothing but ingredients. Cooking at home, as opposed to eating out, is one of the best ways to save on food. You can take that saving even further by making EVERYTHING at home. Stock up on yeast and flour and make your own bread. Mix your own herbs and oil for dressings. If you have the space, get a chicken or two and have fresh eggs! Think of how prepared you'll be for a zombie apocalypse if you can make everything yourself!

Remember, not all super saving tactics may be for you—really, cutting your own hair?! —so keep working until you find the tricks and treats that work for your lifestyle. Who knows, maybe you'll discover a money saver that you can turn into a money maker…. 

4 Tips to Holiday Budgeting

There's no avoiding it, the holidays are fast approaching. Now is the time to establish your holiday spending budget so that you can enjoy the good times and cheer without the money stress that often accompanies this time of year. Here are four steps to set and stick to a budget this holiday season.

  1. Write it out. Take 10 minutes and write down every person you'll need to gift. Don't forget teachers, door people, office gift exchange, etc.
  2. Not just gifts. It's not just gift buying that causes the spike in spending. Account for travel, decorations, good, charitable donations, etc.
  3. Assign dollar amounts. You should already know how much in total you can afford to spend on holiday expenses. And while you may not know exactly what you'll purchase yet, divvy up that total number among the various people/events/needs.
  4. Plot out your spending. Schedule your holiday meal grocery shopping trip into your calendar right now. Same for gift shopping and other errands. It will be easier to stick to the limits you set if you know ahead of time when you'll be spending the money. The last minute, emergency trips to the mall or supermarket are often what derail your budget. Planning ahead can help negate that, while ensuring you don't over-schedule yourself.

Taking the time before the invitations start rolling in to make sure the little details are handled will free your mind, and your wallet, from the frenzy and allow you to fully enjoy each event that makes up your holiday season. 

Celebrating Our Veterans

Our country would not be what it is today without the service of our veterans. As we pause to honor and thank our nation's heroes this Veteran's Day, here is a guide to some of the resources available for our service men and women. 

Resources for veterans:

Thank you to all our veterans for your service and sacrifice!

3 Tips to Master Holiday Shopping

Aaaaand we're off! The holiday shopping season is in full swing which means most of us will be doing some kind of gift shopping in the coming weeks. Before you step out to the mall or click online for some deals, take a few steps to prepare yourself for temptation so you don't end up with a cart full of "To: Me, From: Me" gifts.

  • Make a list, check it twice, then commit to sticking to it. Writing out your list or using an app to plan specifically what you're looking to buy for whom will make you less likely to stray from your budget.
  • Make a wish. Shopping for others really is a great way to build your own wish list. Just make sure you're adding the items to a list and not your cart.
  • Make an exception. Consider allowing room in your budget to purchase one thing for yourself that you know you'll love. This way you'll be less tempted to go nuts on spontaneous deals without feeling like you're depriving yourself.

Truth be told, this is a great time of year to score deals on things you want or need. Just be mindful of the tricks retailers use to separate us from our money this time of year and stay clear on your  wants versus needs.

Small Dollars, Big Impact

Giving season is in full swing, and not just gifts to friends and family. Last year Americans donated a collective $241 billion dollars to charity, with more than a third of that given in the last three months of the year. Even if you can't give big bucks to causes you believe in, there are still ways to make a big impact with little dollars.

  • Volunteer. Whether it's visiting seniors who don't have family nearby or walking dogs for your local shelter, volunteering costs nothing but can make you and others feel like a million bucks. 64.5 million adults volunteered 7.9 billion hours of service in 2013, at an estimated value of $175 billion. You can't deduct time you spend volunteering from your taxes, but you can deduct any miles you drive to perform your service.
  • Think local. If you want to make an impact with your money but adding several zeroes at the end of your donation check is not in your budget, that's ok. There are many organizations that need every penny and even a $10 check could make a difference. Look for charities that can clearly articulate how they would spend your money and make sure they have a good track record of fulfilling that promise.
  • Take a field trip. You could host a party to fundraise for a cause you believe in, but to take it to the next level, invite your friends to join you on a visit to the charity you're supporting. Seeing the direct impact of your dollars and donating some time makes giving much more personal and can be a good networking opportunity too. Document your trip in a blog post to drum up even more support!

The saying is true: the heart that gives, gathers. It may seem counterintuitive, but adding a component of giving to your budget can have a huge impact on your future prosperity.

How to Avoid Overspending on Gifts

It's easy to get carried away with gifts this time of year. It starts with showing appreciation for family, friends and co-workers, and can quickly morph into gifts for your hairstylist, dry cleaner, and even the bus driver who greets you with a smile on your way to work each day. Before it gets out of hand, try this idea to control your spending while still leaving a little room for your inner Santa to shine. 

Use Envelopes! Using envelopes is one great way to budget in general, but take it to the next level this holiday season by making one for each person you have to buy gifts for, plus one for unexpected gift exchanges. Label each envelope with the budget you've set for that person, then fill the envelopes with cash or use it to save receipts for tracking total spending. When you purchase multiple gifts on the same receipt, simply make a note on the outside of the other envelopes to track totals. 

How do you make sure you stay within your holiday gift budget? Share your tips with us on Facebook

Last-Minute Shopping Tips

If you waited until this week to complete your Christmas shopping, you're in good company—the National Retail Federation estimates that 12% of consumers plan to wait until December 23. Here are a few tips to help stick to your budget while out with the masses: 

  • Take a list and stick to it: Impulse purchases are the death knell to holiday shopping budgets. See something you would love to find in your stocking? Take a picture with your phone, and if Santa doesn't bring it for you, maybe a post-Christmas sale will make it even more of a deal. 
  • Bring snacks: If you're planning a marathon shopping session or going after work, don't forget to take care of yourself—make sure you eat before you head out or pack snacks and keep a bottle of water in your bag or pocket. Shopping while hungry or thirsty can lead to lower defenses against over-spending, and let's be honest, when we're hungry or thirsty we tend to get cranky. That's not really the best way to navigate long lines and busy crowds!
  • Keep it jolly: Many people find the last-minute shopping madness to be quite fun—the crowds, the music, festive atmosphere—they are part of their holiday traditions. Others will be out because they haven't yet found the time and may not be in as happy of a mood. No matter which camp you fall in, try to keep it fun and don't be a Grinch. Remember why you're out there in the first place, to buy gifts that will make your loved ones smile! 

And above all, our warmest season's greetings to you and yours! 

Can't Buy Me Love

Whether you're celebrating this Valentine's Day with your crush or showering yourself with love, there are ways to express yourself without breaking the bank. Here are some of our favorite ideas from around the web: 

  • Candy TerrariumsAll you need is some candy and a mismatched wine glass from your own cupboard to make this adorable gift or decoration. 
  • Rose Sugar ScrubWhether your sweetheart surprised you with roses or you "treat yo self" with the flowers of love, this is a great way to make those scented beauties last longer with ingredients you probably already have in your pantry. 
  • Cocoa Bath SoakIf you're more into chocolates than flowers, here's a way to indulge in some chocolate without the calories and sugar. 
  • 15 Cheap (but not cheesy) Valentine's Day Ideas: No matter who your Valentine is this year, you're sure to find an idea in here to make them smile without making your bank account cry. 

Impress your honey without spending too much money, and start making your savings plan today. Happy Valentine's Day!