Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Stress-Less Christmas

Is a stress-less Christmas really possible? I think it is. 

When I first had my oldest son, who is now 19, I started to hate the holiday seasons. I was a new mom, with a new baby, and had to try to figure out how to visit my family and my husbands family all in the same week. Along with juggling the malls and department stores to purchase approximately 40 gifts for family and extended family. To say the least, I started to get stressed out. I couldn't imagine doing all that year after year. 

Then during one of my holiday visits I was visiting with my elderly grandmother. She lived alone and really counted on my visits because she did not drive and she was unable to do a lot around the house for herself. As the visit was winding down I was looking through her book shelf. I noticed a book "360 ways to prepare for Christmas". I asked my grandmother if I could borrow it and the rest was history. 

Seriously, this book gave me some great ideas on how to limit some of the stress in my holiday life. Here is a little bit of what I took away from this wonderful book:

Tip #1: Setting up a gift closet.

For at least 17 years I've been doing this and I find it amazing that people haven't really thought about this on there own. It is the #1 suggestion I share with everyone when they ask how I have ALL my holiday shopping done by Thanksgiving. 

This is what I have done and continue to do....
I have bought plastic shoe boxes for all my "normal" shopping people. These boxes dont take up a lot of room and are easily stackable. I have taped a post-it note with each persons name on the front of the box. I stack them either on the top shelf of my bedroom closet or the front hall closet (I have moved these boxes from location to location over the years). I also have one "general" plastic box that I keep on the side for great deals and white elephant gifts. 

Through out the year as I'm wandering craft stores, antique stores, farmers markets, or even regular stores I always seem to find something that someone I know will love. I tend to never hold back and will purchase that gift right then and there, specially if it's on sale. Now, here's the trick, as soon as you get home grab that gift and put it in their plastic show box and shut the lid. You will be surprised at how quickly those boxes will fill up and now you will always be ready for a birthday, hostess gift, or Christmas with out all the struggle of last minute shopping and trying to figure out where the money to buy those gifts will come from. 

As for the "general box" here is what I do. This box is used for great sales that I have no clue who the gifts will go too and also for gifts we have recieved that are duplicates, not wanted, or simply just not us. 

It never fails that at least once during the year a toy company will have a great sale at the same time a store that sells their products will also have a complimentary sale. During those times I will purchase the products. Those go into the "general box" right when I get home. Then, when one of the kids comes to me and says they have a friend who's have a birthday party, or what ever the occasion, I am ready. This also goes for outlet store finds for those grown up people you know too. 

As for those unwanted gifts, what I call white elephant gifts, I have a little secret. I hate making people feel like all their efforts were for nothing. I have taught my kids the same thing. Sometimes the ones buying for you might not have had the funds to really buy things, were at a loss at what to buy you, or maybe they really thought it was somethings you would like. When I get a gift like this I always act happy, just as happy as normal, as I would if it was the perfect gift. I thank them, because truthfully it IS the thought that counts NOT the gift. When I get home, I put the name of the person that gave it to me on a post-it note on the gift and I place it on the gift and it goes in the "general box". 

So, your probably wondering why I put a note on the gift. This is so, when I find the right person to give the gift too I am sure that the original gifter, or their friends and family, are not the ones that are getting the gift. 

Trust me, you will eventually get rid of that gift. Work place parties, friends out of state, hostess gift for a party one of your friends invites you too, ect.

Another couple of things this system does is:
*Organizes the people you gift to year after year
*Makes it easy to see who you may have missed purchasing for as it gets closer to the holidays...in my case, that means right around Halloween

Tip #2: Don't be afraid of home-made gifts

With the invention of Pinterest, and the Internet, this is something that's do-able for even the person that believes they are not creative. 

Most people really do appreciate handmade cards, presents and decorations. Don't be afraid to try something out. Start small and simple if this is your first time. 

Here are some of my favorite things to handmade for people on my list:

*Vinagers, dressings and oils-
For just a couple of dollars you can pick up some awesome jars with lids/corks. These make great gifts for anyone you know that loves to cook or eat! Do you know anyone that falls into at least one of those groups? I do. 
Look on-line to find some great recipes and for tips on how to prepare the bottles prior to using them. 
For vinegars I love to add fresh spices such as basil or rosemary to the bottles before adding the vinegar. 
Salad dressings are a combination of oil and vinegar with spices. 
Oils are the most fun for me to do. I love mixing rosemary with garlic in the bottles prior to adding the oil. Or mixing peppers and garlic. Most combinations infuse very well with oil and make a great addition to most dishes. 
The best thing about these types of gifts is that the longer they sit, the best they taste so you can make them a couple weeks before your ready to give them out. 

Here is a recipe you can try now:
Garlic Herb Vinegar

1 cup fresh basil sprigs
8 garlic cloves
4 cups red wine vinegar, plus more if needed

1. Rinse basil and dry completely between towels. Divide between 2 sterile pint jars. Crush the garlic with the side of a knife, and discard the papery skin. Add 4 garlic cloves to each jar. Pour in the vinegar and cap the jars tightly. 
2. Let the jars sit in a sunny window, turning every few days, for about 1 month before giving as a gift. During the turning process make sure the herbs stay covered with the vinegar, add more vinegar as needed. This vinegar can be stored at room temperature for approximately 4 months. 

*Infused honey-
I love honey. I love having a cup of hot tea in the morning (or at night because I try not to limit myself) with some honey and a slice or two of lemon. And, I have found that a lot of my friends fell the same way. Also, there are a lot of benefits to local honey found at farmers markets. 
So, this gift is always welcomed. 
My favorite honey to make is very simple. I start with a mason jar, usually about a 12 ounce size, and I layer in slices of lemon with slices of ginger. Once the jar is full I add the honey, making sure that the honey gets in between each layer. Once the jar is full I close the lid and put it in the refrigerator. I let the honey jar sit for about 2 weeks before I give it away. (Again, check on-line for tips to preparing the jars before doing this.)
When the gift goes out I decorate the top of the lid with some ribbon and a tag. 
*Homemade ways to hide gift cards or money-

So this year my grown nieces are getting cold hard cash from me. My plan for making this fun is.... Putting a paper roll (such as a cut piece of a paper towel roll) in the center of a mason jar, place the money in the roll and fill the empty spaces between the paper roll and the glass with plain m&m's. From the outside of the jar they will be thinking we gave them a jar full of m&m's. Once it is open, they will know the truth. 
Other ideas include:
*Homemade Chai or drink mixes-
Every year my sister in law gives me a mason jar full of Chai mix. All I have to do is add water to a spoon full and I get to sit back and enjoy. This is a gift that last me a couple of months and every time I make a cupful I think of her. I look forward to this gift every year. 
You can find several recipes for drink mixes on-line and most of them are very simple to make. 
*Cookie or soup mixes- 
I have never recieved or made these. Ever. But I love the way they look and I would try them if I was given one as a gift. 
Again, recipes can be found on-line. 

Homemade gifts such as listed above can be easy and fun to make. You can even have the kids help you make some of them which helps them feel included during the holiday gift giving process. You can even re-use jars that you have on hand to recycle and save some money. Just make sure if you are re-using jars to prepare the jars prior to filling them up. 

Tip #3: Don't be afraid to gather through out the year. 

Don't be afraid to buy in advance. Seriously!  

I purchase my holiday wrapping paper after Christmas. It's usually more than a ½ off. I can also dig through the bins and find solid papers or paper that will work well for birthdays and other celebrations. Same thing goes for after other major holidays. 

This tip also works for new Christmas decorations, gift tags, ribbons, ect.

Do you have a friend that decorates for every holiday and throws holiday parties? A Martha Stewart type? If so, after Halloween, or a similar holiday, purchase decorations that can used as a hostess gift next year at her Halloween party. Just put it in the "general box" when you get home. 

After Easter purchase cheap neutral baskets and use them instead of gift bags at Christmas time. Specially if your planning on making homemade gifts to give.  
Did you get a great gift bag that can be re-used? If so, fold it up and place it with your other bags and gift wrapping supplies. 

Tip #4: Repurposed and Reuse

I love going to antique stores and second hand stores through out the years. If you like the same things, don't be afraid to purchase gifts for those friends or family members that love the same things. 

For example, I have a friend who I frequently shop together with. We love finding hole in the wall shops in remote locations. Well this friend loves mismatched dishes, and tea. If during the year I find a cup and saucer that she would love, I purchase it. At gift giving time, I can put a few bags of our favorite tea in the cup with shredded paper and wrap the gift up. 

So, as you can see, a little bit of planning and you can have a little less stress during the holidays. It will only take you a few moments to get everything organized, and after a couple of years you won't even notice the time it takes to purchase a little throughout the year. 

Those are my tips....do you have any other ideas on how you can save some stress during the holidays?



Monday, December 7, 2015

Week 1 Update: No Spend December

So our first week went pretty well, even though we did have a couple of hiccups. 

Pit Falls
1. I didn't balance the checkbook as much as I wanted too. Matter of fact, I didn't balance it at all last week. 

I got my paycheck in the middle of the week and already knew I was overdrawn due to last months overspending. But short of going grocery shopping we didn't spend too much more out of that account. 

I balanced the check book today and did realize that I still don't have enough money in this account to make me happy. But isn't that to be expected after an over spending month? 

2. We did go out to eat three times last week. I know...I know. This was a no-no!

The first time was after my OB appointment on Thursday. My appointment was for 4pm and our plans where to go to the appointment and then after run to the store, do a little shopping and then come home and eat. That was the plan.

The actuality was that we didn't get into the doctors office until after 6pm. When we finally got out of the appointment it was after 7pm. I was starving! So, we went out and grabbed a cheap meal at a little cafe around the corner. We spent under $20, with dessert.

The next morning I was supposed to take a fasting 3 hour glucose lab. I woke up late, searched for my lab slip, couldn't find it, drove 30 minutes to the doctors to get a replacement slip and then hit a HUNGER wall. I couldn't go on! I decided that doing the lab the next morning, bright and early would be best. So, we went to breakfast (another $20!) and then went grocery shopping. 

The 3rd time was the next day, after the lab. I didn't get up early so the lab ended at noon. This meant another excuse to go out. This time it was just under $30. 

But, if we can now STOP less than $100 is much better than $1000.00!

Where Do We Go From Here?
We are still planning to continue with our on spend month. Like I said above $100 is much better than $1000.

We have learned that this no spending thing is going to take a lot of for thought prior to starting our day. Making sure we make lunches/snacks prior to leaving the house if we are planning on being away from home for any length of time. And, we have learned that we need to go shopping for food prior to running out! Having to shop to eat when your hungry is no plan at all. 

So, that is all for now. We will keep updating with our wins and losses. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

No Spend December

Our “No Spend December”

Yesterday, November 30th, I went to make our house payment and realized that I was $1000.00 short! I started freaking out to say the least. It was the last day of the month and the house payment was already due (on the 15th) and now I have no way of making this huge payment that was due. But before I go on, I should give you a little history about me and my lifestyle.

History of Me!

I am a 40 year old divorced woman with two kids. I have a son who is almost 19 and lives away from home most of the week due to him working out of the area. I have another son who just turned 12. I get $500.00 a month in child support, no alimony (I did not want alimony), and I work 40 hours a week as an LVN. I make average wages for the position I hold. Oh, and I am pregnant with another baby who should probably be here within the next 16 weeks.

Prior to my divorce my house was taken out of my name and a mortgage was taken out on it. That mortgage was never paid current and was in foreclosure at the time of my divorce. This is the house that I grew up in. My safe haven from the world my mom had created that I was forced to sometimes live in. This house was my grand-parents house. The one place I could go to feel like a kid again, to get away from every day stress and tension, to feel safe and loved.

I was lucky enough to have my ex-husband help me get the house on a forbearance plan (as the house is still in his name) but this meant that my house payment would more than double for the next year. Making the actual house payment more that what I bring into the house monthly through my working income. Do you see the issues here? But, I was able to keep the house that I loved and that my oldest son has lived in since he was 5 years old.

So 1 month after my house payment went up I asked my boyfriend to help out and commit to helping me with my bills. He had already been staying there for the most part but is going through a long drug out divorce where close to half his income is going to his ex-wife. He doesn’t have much, but what he has is a great help. Luckily he doesn’t have any children (except this little pumpkin that will be appearing soon enough) to help out with but the new living situation means that his daily commute will be longer and cost more in gas.

Now, in my 40 years of life I don’t think I have ever been very money smart. I have great ideas but actually following through with those money ideas never has happened. I have no savings, no retirement (yes, I even walked away from my ex’s retirement when we divorced), no real plan. I have good intentions on keeping a check register but seen to “forget” ½ way through the month to keep it updated. I have no clue the last time I paid a certain utility bill and usually wait for the disconnect notice to appear on my front door. Yes, my financial life is a HUGE mess.

After my divorce I had great intentions. I really did. I knew that I was going to have to continue raising two boys on my own with approximately $80,000.00 less than I had with my ex-spouses income (which is a little more than double my income). I was taking all the debt that was in my name during the marriage, including all my youngest sons medical bills as I was the primarily the one who carried insurance on him during the marriage. I didn’t want their lives to change more than it already had. So, knowing this 

I made a plan:
  1. Research money saving ideas
  2. Take a financial course to help me learn what I needed to do
  3. Keep a check register and actually use it
  4. Pay my bills on time and regularly

Well, for the first 3 months I did really well.
  1. I kept a check register and updated it daily or every other day
  2. Most of my bills were behind but I juggled and was paying them on a regular basis
  3. I did a lot of research and started using pinterest to keep all my research sites in order (and filed for easier grabbing later)
  4. I found a financial program I really liked and read through it, listened to it, and started making baby steps to start living it.

After the 3rd month mark I went back to work fulltime. Prior to this, when I was making all these great changes, I had been on workman’s comp for a crazy accident that had happened. I wasn’t prepared to do all the “full time” budgeting work while working a full-time job. I have never been one of those people that are a true go-getter. You know the type. The “up before the sun” people who run 5 miles every morning before getting ready for their day. The “constantly moving” people that even after a 8, 10 or 12 hour day still have energy to come home, scrub the house, do the laundry, make a wholesome dinner and dessert for their family and then go to be around 11:00pm just to wake up again at approximately 5:00am in the morning. I have friends like this, and I give them credit. I am amazed at their zest for life and all they can accomplish. I know we all have the same 24 hours a day but I am not one of those people that wisely know how to use those hours.

At the end of my work day, I am tired. I give so much at work and to my patients that I am done by the time I get home. The last thing I want to do is then sit in front of the computer, review my daily finances, pay bills, then go cook and clean up the house. What I really want to do is sit in front of the TV with my feet up and close my eyes. The TV doesn’t even have to be on! And, on the weekends I have all the household cleaning and laundry to tackle that I didn’t do during the week.

In all actuality it’s probably more than just my finances that are in a messy state. But, I digress.

So now I have to figure out how to get my life on track at the age of 40.

Current Events

After I realized that I did not have enough money to pay my current, past due mortgage payment I pulled out my check register (which I had not touched since around the 13th of the month) and logged into my bank account and started updating my records.

Then I logged into the financial budgeting program that I started using during the first of the year, when I was being good about my finances, and started making a November budget (yes, on the last day of the month) and inputting my expenses during the month. This gave me a clear picture of the income I had coming in, and going out.
I was amazed. I knew we went out to eat a lot during the month but I was shocked to see that we ate out 38 times at a total of close to a $1000.00. This did not take into consideration the amount of money spent on going out that came out of my boyfriend’s bank account. Just the joint account! So, this is our major area to focus on.
Plus spending the time to input our expenses brought to attention that my utilities are some times higher than I imagined they were.

After I seen this written down, graphed out, and in bold print, I called my boyfriend and had a heart to heart with him. We both agreed that we needed a re-set of our lifestyle and needed to plan a new way of living.

New Plan

We decided that moment that we needed to do our first ever “No Spend Month”. But, without planning we had to tweak what the standard “No Spend Month” plans usually looks like. We had to make it work for us.

We decided:
  1. December 1st (the next morning- less than 16 hours away) we would start a 31 day no spending month.
  2. We do have to be able to purchase groceries though since my pantry isn’t as stocked as it normally is….but first we will use what we have and out of the emergency kit (as most of that supply should be rotated by now anyway)
  3. We will still need to purchase gas to get us to work. The boyfriend drives at least an hour a day to work and sometimes more for work. Luckily for me, I work 15 minutes from my house and will be going on maternity leave any moment now so that will cut down on my share.
  4. We will have to pay household bills.
  5. Nothing more, nothing less.


This means:
  1. All meals must be made at home. No last minute rushed calls for pizza because it is late and we are starving.
  2. No going out for lunches. Leftovers or sandwiches will have to be made and taken with us. (We throw out so much food that this is actually a good thing.)
  3. No running through a fast food restaurant or gas station in the mornings for breakfast or coffee. We can make food at home that morning or the night before and we already have travel cups that we can use with our Keurig before leaving the house. As for Starbucks, I have a Keurig that makes those too.
  4. No soda/tea runs during the day while at work (or night while we are watching a movie).
  5. All food shopping needs to be done on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule, with a shopping list, for what we need for the following week(s).

Okay, I get it; but December, really?

I know what you must be thinking…. “I get the whole needing to re-set thing but you are crazy choosing December! What about Christmas?”

Well, luckily for me, this is not an issue. Years ago I made myself a small promise. I would never go gift shopping anytime after Thanksgiving. This includes Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping. I did this because crowded malls and parking lots stress me out and usually put me in a bad mood so then the day is wasted; and, all in the name of saving a few dollars? It never made sense to me.

Instead I have been purchasing stuff throughout the year. I still have some gifts to make, but even all the supplies have been purchased. This plan has saved me so many times when it comes to birthdays, anniversaries, retirement parties, graduation parties, ECT. I usually will always have something on hand that I can wrap and give.

I usually store everything in individual “shoe box” storage containers in a closet in the house. When I purchase something for someone it goes in the box that has their name on it. If it is something I purchased because it was on sale or it would make a great gift but I had no intension on who it was actually for, it goes in a separate container. If it is a gift that I received but don’t like or is something I already have I will stick a note on it saying who gave it to me, and it goes in the community box for re-gifting. Same goes for the boys gifts also.

This is a big joke with my family and friends but it works. And I’m usually not the one stressing out around the holidays.

So, to say the least, my part of the Christmas shopping is done! My boyfriend is not that organized; but, if we can do this for the next 31 days that will be a great present for me. I will have less stress during this month and I will know that my bills are being paid.

Any other plans?

Yes, of course. Here they are:
  1.  Balance the checkbook every day or every other day. And, keep up the color coding for easier figuring of where the money is going.                                            
                                                                            Pink=Bills                      Yellow=Going out to eat       Green=Groceries   Blue=Income          Orange=Bank Transfers       Blank=Gas/OtherExpenses
  2. Use the budgeting program after balancing the check book to make sure we are staying on track and getting a real picture of where our money is going.
  3. Clean out the garage and have a yard sale. (Idea here is that my bills have been behind since before my divorce, it would be nice to purge my life of crap and be able to get caught up)
  4. Realize that I/we might fail and be okay with this. You can always re-start immediately right after a mistake instead of scrapping the whole month.
  5. Re-evaluate during the month. Write down challenges and successes so that we can learn from this.
  6. Play more at home…after all, we own games, cards, and video games. Why not use them?

And, the biggest one: IF THIS WORKS OUT, PLAN TO REPEAT IT IN A FEW MONTHS!

My promise to you

During the month I am going to be checking in a reporting on our failures (I am sure there will be a couple) and our successes. I will keep this updated and give a real time picture of what a no spend month looks like for a family of 4, soon to be 5.

I will also share tips I have on making this work. Like I said earlier, I am not a go getter personality so not having the convince of going out to eat will be a challenge to me. Plus, I am on doctors orders to not be up cooking and cleaning much as it is.

I want to make a lifestyle change here. Something my family and I can live with. Life is a journey and seriously my life is half way over. I want the second ½ to be better than the first half.