5 Ways to Save this Holiday Without Being a Scrooge

It’s December 1st. Which means my decorations are up, my advent calendar is out, and I will be playing Hanson’s Snowed In on repeat for the rest of the month. In other words, I am ready for Christmas.

Hanson-Snowed_In

Don’t lie. If you were alive in 1998 you own this on cassette tape.

One thing that might not be so ready, however, is my wallet. No matter what holiday you celebrate or how long your “nice list” is, budgeting for the holiday season can be tricky for even the savviest of shoppers. Between gifts to buy, parties to attend, and meals to make it’s easy for your credit card balance to soar higher than your good holiday cheer.

So to prevent any post-holiday horror at how much you spent being merry, I’ve come up with a few tips on how you can be both festive and budget-friendly this year.

  • Give DIY gifts Are you crafty? Can you knit? Or draw? Or take great photographs? Then maybe you can make a gift for less than you could buy one. Pinterest has no shortage of easy DIY gift projects with step-by-step instructions for how to make them. What’s more, your gift will have more sentimental value than a store-bought item because you personalized it. Or if you’re not that confident in your crafting abilities, check out gifts on Etsy. They’re often creative, fun, and handmade but often less expensive than what you’d find at the mall.
  • Or give a helping hand Sometimes the things we do for others are more valuable than the things we buy them. If you’re handy, offer your services fixing small problems around your grandparents’ house. If you’re good with makeup, volunteer to beautify your sister before a big night out (Note to my sister – don’t worry. I will not go near your face. This idea is meant for people who can be trusted not to make you look like 1985 David Bowie from the movie Labyrinth). Your time and help can make a much better gift than a last minute purchase from the bargain bin, and it will save you money.
  • Track your spending ‘Tis the season for giving, but that doesn’t have to mean giving more than you have. Keep track of your holiday spending closely with a notebook or online tool. Determine ahead of time how much you plan to spend on each person on your list, on holiday parties, and on other holiday activities. Then make sure stick to the plan. Writing down what you spend will hold you accountable to yourself and your budget.
  • Create a new traditionIf your gift-giving budget is tight this year, chances are the same might be true for your friends and family. Get together and create new holiday traditions that save everyone a few dollars. Consider doing a Yankee Swap or Secret Santa instead of a traditional gift exchange. Or pool the money you would have spent as a group on gifts for each other to do something good for your community, like sending care packages to local troops overseas or hosting a holiday dinner at a nursing home. It’ll get you in the holiday spirit without hurting your wallet.
gifts 2

At our credit union we have an awesome Adopt-A-Family tradition we do every year where we collect gifts for a local family in need. It’s a great way to get in the spirit and do something good for others! 

  • Consider a Holiday LoanUnless you’re a total Scrooge, holiday expenses happen. If you haven’t saved up money throughout the year it can be tough to find the money to pay for your holiday needs. Your financial institution might be able to help! My credit union offers a Holiday Loan that lets members who qualify borrow up to $2,500 for 12 months at a low interest rate. It’s a way smarter option than putting all your purchases on your credit card because the interest rate is typically much lower. Plus with an installment loan making the minimum payments will guarantee that you pay back the debt in one year. With revolving debt like a credit card it could take much longer. Holiday Loans can be a great way to get some extra jingle without hurting your credit.

Hope these tips help you get in the spirit while still staying on budget. Happy Holidays!

Tips for Furnishing Your Home on the Cheap

Recently my roommate of two years moved out of my apartment. Mostly I am suffering from separation anxiety. I have to watch the Real Housewives alone?! Who will listen to my angry feminist rants?! Who will order an unnecessarily large amount of Chinese food take out with me?!

But I also had this frightening moment a few weeks ago when she started packing where I suddenly realized that all of the things in the apartment are hers. The couch, the coffee table, the dining room table, the TV, the plates, silverware, pots, pans . . . ALL THE THINGS. I looked around and was like, “What do I even actually own in here?!” The answer is a large, framed One Direction poster and a microwave. What else do you need in life, though? I’ll be fine.

Maybe I will just give up my apartment and start living under my desk at work.

Maybe I will just give up my apartment and start living under my desk at work. It’s comfortable there. 

Luckily my new roommate is a real adult who owns stuff like a couch and spoons so I won’t be living alone in a completely empty apartment. But the change in living arrangements did make me realize how expensive it is to live on your own. Besides being able to afford your rent or mortgage payment, you also have to pay for all of the stuff that goes inside your living space. If I had needed to start from scratch on my own here’s an estimate of the things I would have to purchase and their cost:

  • Couch – $299.00
  • Chair – $109.00
  • Coffee Table –  $49.99
  • Area Rug – $300.00
  • TV – $139.99
  • Dining Room Table & Chairs – $500.00
  • Pots/Pans – $29.99
  • Cups, Plates, Bowls – $9.99
  • Silverware – $19.99
  • Toaster – $19.99

Total Cost = $1,477.94

That’s a lot of money! I don’t know about you, but I don’t have $1,500 just laying around. Here’s a few tips to help make the cost of filling your living space more manageable:

  • Ask family and friends – People are always moving, redecorating, and reorganizing. You never know who might be looking to get rid of just the item you need. And they most likely will be willing to sell it to you for much cheaper than you could buy it new. Or maybe they’ll even just give to you for free. The only household items I do own are all things that were donated to me by friends and family. That microwave was given to me by a coworker. My bed I “borrowed” from the spare room at my parent’s house. But the One Direction poster, I will have you know, I bought with my own hard-earned money.
  • Buy used – If no one you know has the household item you’re looking for, try a consignment store or website. They often have gently used items for a reasonable price. People tend to think places like Goodwill or the Salvation Army only have clothes, but they often get larger items donated too. And online sites like Craigslist make it easy to shop for what you want. Even yard sales can have the items you’re looking for. It doesn’t have to be brand new, just functional and clean!
  • Shop bargain stores – My best tip for buying household items is the Christmas Tree Shop. If you’ve never been there you are missing out. They have a ton of kitchenware, furniture, decorations, etc. for super cheap. That’s where I found the pricing for the stuff on my list like plates and silverware. They had an entire 21-piece set of plates, bowls, cups, and mugs for $9.99. It was plastic and bright red but hey, it’ll do the job just fine!
  • Prioritize – Furnishing an apartment or home can be costly. Like I said, I certainly don’t have the extra cash in my budget to buy all the stuff I listed above in big big shopping spree. So the solution might be to prioritize what stuff you can’t live without and buy those things first. I need plates and forks so I don’t have to eat with my hands. But a rug can probably wait until I can save up the money to purchase one. You don’t have to buy it all in one day. Pace your purchases so they are affordable.

Hopefully one day soon I will have my own furniture and kitchenware. But until then, I have my poster of One Direction to keep me company while I eat my microwaved meals with my fingers. 🙂

Overheard at the Financial Fitness Fair

Today I helped out at a Financial Fitness Fair at a local high school. What is a Financial Fitness Fair, you might be asking? Well, it’s basically a more realistic version of the game LIFE for high school students. Usually it’s juniors and/or seniors who participate. They start with the idea that we are time-traveling to the future when they’re 22. The students are assigned a job with an entry-level salary and then are set with the task of creating a monthly budget based on that salary. The fair has nine different booths the kids have to visit that cover different expenses like food, transportation, and student loans. It’s a valuable learning experience for the students and I believe the general consensus is that it is much better than going to class.

My friend Paige hanging out at the Clothing Booth.

My friend Paige hanging out at the Clothing Booth.

To give you an idea of what the Financial Fitness Fair is like, hear are five things I overheard today while volunteering:

1. “Why didn’t we have this when I was in high school?” At every Financial Fitness I go to, I hear this from the adult volunteers and teachers. I’ve said it myself like a million times. Before I started working at a credit union, I knew nothing about money besides how to spend it. We learn so much in school, but often times practical skills like how to budget, how to save, or how much college really costs unfortunately get left out. A study done by Learnvest and Chase Blueprint showed that 52% of teenagers want to learn more about money, so the Financial Fitness Fair is a great opportunity for them to gain some of that knowledge. Although we only have an hour of their time, the fair gives the students some basic financial skills that they can build on as they get older.

2. “Dude, I got totally wrecked on student loans though. $50,000 – that’s an outrageous number! Like no one actually has that much in student loans.” I heard a kid say this today after his buddy gave him a hard time about ending up in the red when he finished his monthly budget. And although I agree with him that $50,000 in debt is an outrageous number, it’s sadly not an unrealistic one. The average student loan debt for a four-year degree in the U.S. is $29,000. And if you’re a doctor, like this kid said he wanted to be, that number goes up to $166,750. So his estimated student loan debt was actually kind of low. Too often kids go off to college without really thinking about how much it costs and definitely with no idea of what their monthly student loan payments will be once they graduate. It was interesting to see kids start to understand how much a student loan payment could really affect their future lifestyle.

3. “I don’t need clothes, I’ll just go to work naked.” I volunteer at the clothing booth, where the kids have to figure out a monthly clothing budget for their work wardrobe. At least once at every fair a kid makes this same joke about how they will just save money by going to work naked. High school humor at its finest. I also once had a boy ask me which store I recommended he shop at. “Not like budget-wise,” he said, “but from a fashion standpoint.” This is why clothing is the most entertaining booth.

4. “It’s all about choices, Brian!” I heard a kid say this to his friend today in his best dad-voice. He might have been being sarcastic, but this is actually a really great point. Being successful at the Financial Fitness Fair is really all about making good decisions with your money. When you’re still in high school your parents pay for everything so it’s easy to imagine that you’ll have a ton of money when you’re an adult. It’s fun to go through the fair buying the most expensive clothes, purchasing a Ferrari, and eating out every night. But in the real world, very few people have the budget for such a luxurious lifestyle. At the fair you see kids making compromises in some areas in order to make room for an expense in another, like living with a roommate so they can buy a nicer car. We all have to make those choices in real life, so it’s cool to see them start to think that way now.

5. “This is super helpful. I’m like actually going to save this budget sheet so I can use it when I graduate.”  A student said this to her friend when she was walking away from our booth today and I was like, “You go girl!” It always surprises me how engaged the students are in the fair. You volunteer expecting a certain amount of teenage apathy, but workplace nudity jokes aside, most kids tend to be pretty interested in the activity. It gives you hope that they’ll leave with some valuable information that they can apply in their real lives once they graduate.

If you want to see more about the Financial Fitness Fairs put on at high schools across the state by Maine’s credit unions, you can check out this cool video.

It’s Okay to Say No!

Seriously. It’s okay. Don’t feel bad about it.

Tina Fey says in her book Bossypants, “Say yes, and you’ll figure it out later.” I love me some Tina Fey but this seems like a risky life policy, especially when it comes to finances. It’s great to say yes to new opportunities, to adventures, and to challenges. But you can’t do it all. And unless you’re Bill Gates, you definitely can’t pay for it all. It’s tempting to buy something you want now and figure out how to pay for it later. If it’s a $3 coffee you want, this plan might work. If it’s a $30,000 car, not so much. Successful budgets take thought, planning, and some self-restraint. Learning to say no is essential to financial success.

I don’t know about you, but saying no can be REALLY difficult for me. This is especially true when I’m saying no to paying for something I want. We all want to buy that pretty dress we saw on Mod Cloth. We all want to go on that spring break vacation with our roommates. We all want to throw our older sister the most awesome bachelorette of all time. Plus as a girl, I think I might be physically conditioned to say yes to everything. Saying no often makes me feel uncomfortable or worse, it can make me feel like I’m letting people down. Don’t give into saying yes just because it’s easier. If you struggle to say no, here are 3 easy steps you can take to make the negative seem a little more positive.

leslie-knope-no

1. Take a deep breath before you say it. I often find myself agreeing to things before I really think about them. My default setting is YES! But oftentimes once I’ve had a minute to think about it, I find I’ve yes’d myself into something I don’t really want to do. I try to avoid this by pausing before I agree to anything; having a minute to take a deep breath gives me time to check in with how I truly feel about the question. If it’s still a yes after the breath, then great! If it’s a no, I feel more confident in my refusal since I’ve thought things through.

2. Offer another possible solution. Saying no can be easier if it’s not the end of the sentence. Let’s say your friends really want you to go out to dinner and a movie with them but you don’t have the cash in your budget for it this week. Just saying, “No,” is sad and final. Or if you give a reason like, “No, I don’t have enough money,” your friends might try to talk you into splurging. But a, “No, I can’t swing that in my budget right now. How about we cook dinner and have a movie marathon at home instead?” presents an alternative that works for everyone. They get to hang out, have dinner, and watch a movie and you get to save money.

3. Think about all the times you’ve said Yes! Guilt is often the biggest reason we cave and do something we don’t want to. Whether is breaking your budget or working extra hours, you don’t want to disappoint anyone, including yourself. Assuage some of that guilt by reminding yourself of all the things you have said yes to recently. Maybe you had to pass on that weekend road trip, but you were able to pay off your credit card this month, redecorate your bathroom, and get tickets to that Ed Sheeran concert. Thinking of what you were able to pay for can make turning down other purchases worth it.

Remember, no isn’t a four-letter word! It’s not wrong to say no to things that aren’t in your budget or don’t match your financial goals. If you need to, say that no loud and say it proud. 🙂

Oops! Fixing Money Mistakes

We all make mistakes now again when managing our money because, hey, nobody’s perfect (well . . . except maybe Harry Styles but that has more to do with his voice and his hair than any financial skills he might possess). Whether it’s over-drawing your checking account or spending a little too much cash during that night out, we all slip up occasionally. It can be tempting, and frankly easier, to just sweep these errors under the rug. If you don’t acknowledge the problem, it’s like it never happened, right?

WRONG! The key to getting your budget back on track is not to close your eyes tightly and hope the mistakes disappear; instead, try to identify where you went wrong as soon as you discover the error. I came across the following passage in a book recently that sums it up perfectly:

“Tip # 22: Pay Attention Immediately After You Make a Mistake. Most of us are allergic to mistakes. When we make one, our every instinct urges us to look away, ignore it, and pretend it didn’t happen. This is not good because as we’ve seen, mistakes are our guideposts for improvement. Brain-scan studies reveal a vital instant, 0.25 seconds after a mistake is made, in which people do one of two things – they look hard at the mistake or they ignore it. People who pay deeper attention to a mistake learn significantly more than those who ignore it.

Develop the habit of attending to your errors right away. Don’t wince, don’t close your eyes; look straight at them and see what really happened, and ask yourself what you can do next to improve. Take mistakes seriously, but never personally.”

– Daniel Coyle, The Little Book of Talent

So the next time you make a mistake with your money, don’t just brush it off. Identify the mistake right away. Why did you overspend? On what? What made your account go into the negative? And then, figure out how you’re going to stop it from happening again. Maybe you need to adjust your budget or just check your balance on your mobile app before you make a purchase. Use your mistake as a tool to do better in the future.

5 Smart Ways to Spend Your Year-End Bonus

If you just found out that you’re getting a holiday bonus this year – WOOHOO! Way to go you! Getting a little extra cash this time of year is super exciting and a well-earned reminder of all your hard work. But before you get too far into your plan to fly to Las Vegas and double your loot by playing the slots, may I suggest a few things you could do with your money that might have a higher return?

1. Save it. Present You might find this idea kind of boring. But Future You will thank Present You when your car breaks down 6 months from now and you can use your bonus money to cover the cost of repairs. Emergencies happen. Having money saved for those occasions can help make them less stressful. So consider using some of your bonus to start an emergency savings fund. You’re welcome, Future Kelsey!

future dwight

2. Pay off high interest debt. Also known as, CREDIT CARDS! Use a portion of your bonus to pay off a chunk of your credit card or other high interest debt. This will lower the amount of interest you pay in the future and it will feel good to see that balance on your statement look smaller than it has in months.

3. Invest it. The extra cash could be your chance to start investing in a 401K, IRA, or mutual fund. And also your chance to start dressing like the Monopoly Man. But all kidding aside, investing isn’t just for the wealthy. Talk with a financial advisor and find out what investment options make the most sense for you.

4. “Treat Yo Self.” It’s okay to splurge a little and spend some of your bonus on something special. Bonus money is basically free money, meaning that it’s money you didn’t expect to get. What better opportunity to buy those concert tickets or get that flat screen TV than with cash you didn’t have to take of your monthly budget?

treat-yo-self2

5. Break it up into 12 mini-bonuses. That way you can enjoy your bonus for a year instead just a few weeks. Put your bonus money into savings and then set up an automatic monthly transfer to your checking. An extra $100 or $200 a month could mean a lot throughout your year.

But what happens if you don’t get that big holiday bonus? Hopefully you’ll get your bonus and won’t find out. But if you don’t get one, rather than throwing a pity party GoGirl Finance recommends looking for opportunities to prove your worth. “Don’t look at this as a time to slack off because they aren’t paying you as much as you thought they were.” Instead, try to find concrete ways you can help increase your company’s financial success. Maintaining a positive attitude will make you stand out from the crowd as well as improve your chances of earning that bonus in the future.

5 Things You Don’t Need to Buy for Back-to-College

They say the hardest part of college is getting in. But I think it might actually be the packing. Right now, around 20 million college students are preparing to head back to campus and there’s no shortage of retailers out there telling those students just how badly they need this or that to make their dorm room complete. Some things, like flip-flops for the shower or duct tape, are actually integral to surviving life in the dorms. Others are just a drain on precious funds that could be used for books or late-night pizza deliveries (to help power your studying of course). Here’s 5 purchases you can skip to save some money in your back-to-campus budget.

  1. Memory Foam Mattress Topper – I feel like almost everyone I knew in college had one of these on top of their dorm-room bed, as if the 2 inches of foam makes a crappy twin mattress magically softer and more luxurious. I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve slept in dorm beds with the memory foam and dorm beds without it and you can’t tell the difference. Save yourself the $30-$100 by skipping the memory foam and investing in good pillows and a cozy comforter instead.

    This one from Target also claims to have a "fresh scent." Does that creep anyone else out?

    This one from Target claims to have a “fresh scent.” Because that’s not creepy at all, Target.

  2. Iron and Mini Ironing Board – I never ironed anything in college. Not once. Because sweatshirts do not need to be ironed. Unless you’re a business major who has to dress up for class or maybe a hipster who has decided to bring Perler Beads back into fashion, you won’t use an iron again until you have a real job.

    I used to love Perler Beads! Maybe I'll bring them back . . .

    I used to love Perler Beads! Maybe I’ll bring them back . . .

  3. Shoe Organizer, Pencil Organizer, Organizer Organizer – The retail industry truly believes that college kids are unorganized. And while they’re probably not wrong, in my experience none of the myriad of different plastic contraptions they have come up with to help students be more organized actually work. Instead of buying expensive organizers, invest in those big plastic storage bins, especially the rolly ones that can slide under a bed. You can stuff them with whatever fits when you need to pretend your room is clean for parent’s weekend.
    This you will fill with all your stuff you don't have a space for in your room. It's worth the $8 you spend on it.

    This you will fill with all your stuff you don’t have a space for in your room. It’s worth the $8 you spend on it.

    This you either will never use or will cram with so much stuff that it will be impossible to find anything and will be too heavy to hang.

    This you either will never use or will cram with so much stuff that it will be impossible to find anything and will be too heavy to hang.

  4. Mini Fridge – What? No mini-fridge?! Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that you skip out on this dorm-room staple. Just that there are cheaper options to buying one new, which can cost as much as $300. Many schools now participate in mini fridge rental programs, where students can rent a fridge for the school year at a fraction of the cost of purchasing one. Check online to see if your school participates in a rental program. Additionally, plenty of people have a mini fridge in their garage or basement from their college days that they no longer need. Before you buy, ask relatives or friends if you can borrow theirs or hunt around yard sales to see if you can buy a used fridge for less.
  5. Television – Not gonna lie, I was definitely a kid who thought a TV in my dorm room was a must. What else am I supposed to do in my spare time? Read? It’s not like I was an English major or anything . . . oh wait. But as a reminder, I headed off to college way back in 2007 when streaming TV online was very new, very blurry, and mostly illegal. Now-a-days every student has a laptop, which means every student has access to unlimited television 24/7 (and no commercials). So skip the TV and invest in a Netflix or Hulu Plus subscription. Your wallet will thank you.