How to Meal Plan on a Budget

I received an email and comment lately asking if I could outline exactly how I meal plan for my family and so here we are. I don’t know how to explain this easily in written form so I hope it’s easy to understand!

I can’t stress the importance of meal planning enough. Yes, it can be time-consuming but once you get used to doing it, it becomes second nature. Like anything, practice helps.

My specific meal planning involves a lot of list making, and remaking. To start I make a quick list with the days of the week and a quick note of anything of significance going on sort of like this:

M:

T:

W: hubby soccer 9pm- light dinner

R:

F: eat out date- No cooking!

S: 4pm church- slow cooker meal.

Su:

This helps me visualize my week and what sort of meals I will be looking to plan. I used to just write all over a calendar but I like having a little list/note on my actual grocery list to remind me why I’m buying certain things (like why I’m doubling a recipe because we’re having friends over when normally I don’t buy so much).

Once the week is planned out in my head I look to see what we have already. To start, I have a quick look to see what’s in the house already and see if there is anything I can plan around before going any further. For example, right now I have a bunch of crushed tomatoes and kidney beans in the pantry, I also have some cut up peppers in the freezer so I will add lean ground beef to my list of ”needs” to make chili for the week. One meal (and lunch leftovers) planned already!

After see what I have in the house already, I head to the flyers to see what is on sale and head to my personal recipe book. This is something I keep updated of meals we like so I have a go-to when we’re thinking ”what do we want to eat this week?”. The book itself is a simple three ring binder of sorts that I keep everything in and organized. Sometimes it’s a simple recipe like ”Grilled cheese sandwich with fixings (avocado, bacon and tomato)”. Not that I need directions to make something like this but it acts more of a reminder when making my shopping lists up.

After I check the flyers I fill in my daily list and now it will look more like this, noting only what I don’t already have:

M: Rotisserie chicken from Costco (make side of steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes)

Need: Chicken bought monday at Costco

T: Club sandwiches w/ home fries (using leftover rotisserie chicken)

Need: bacon, lettuce

W: hubby soccer 9pm: Spaghetti w/ dinner rolls

Need: Pasta sauce, rolls

R: Breakfast supper (bacon, homemade homefries, fruit salad, toast)

Need: Bacon, fruit for salad (already have apples and oranges)

F: eat out date- No cooking!

S: 4pm church- slow cooker meal- Chili (double recipe and freeze leftovers in serving size for lunch)

Need: 2lbs lean ground beef

Su: Sweet and sour meatballs and rice

Need: 2lbs ln ground beef, can of pineapple chunks

Things to note:

  • In this example, lean ground beef was on sale so I opted to have a few meals around that.
  • I try to plan meals that make a lot, and could eat for leftovers, early in the week. Having meatballs on Sunday means we’d have an easy lunch option for both Monday and Tuesday if we wanted.
  • I don’t plan something like a roast unless it’s on sale.
  • Breakfasts supper is one of our favorite go-to’s when all else fails.
  • Potatoes are super easy to make a million different ways so we eat them often (mashed, boil with butter/salt/pepper, home fries, french fries, stews&casserole base ). I bought a 15lb bag of potatoes for $2.00 so I plan on eating them!
  • Don’t forget about frozen fruit and veggies!
  • I only like to do one week at a time so I can capitalize on the best sales but nothing is stopping you from doing more.
  • Doing a ”big cook” can be hugely convenient and save a lot of time (especially on maternity leave!).

That’s the quick and dirty way I meal plan. My lists are atrocious with chicken scratch all over them but they keep me sane, I couldn’t imagine grocery shopping without them!

How do you plan your meals? Any tips to add?

Renewing Our Mortgage Early Saved Us Big Bucks!

We’re four months away from our mortgage renewal date so it has been at the forefront of my mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about achieving our financial goals and things we can do to help them so we can move forward into the next stages of our lives.

I’ve mentioned before that we will indefinitely be moving from this home. We purchased this home knowing it wasn’t going to be forever, it’s simply too small for a family larger than what we have. Even now we’re borrowing storage room from family since this home seriously lacks it. With our goals in mind, we had to decide what we wanted in our mortgage when time came.

One thing was for sure, we were hoping for a lower interest rate. We went through a broker when we purchased our home five years ago when rates were ”as low as they will ever be”. I think the average rate was a full 1+% lower within six months of us moving in. These are things we obviously can’t predict but the rates are certainly better now than they were offered to us five years ago.

The other thing we needed to start thinking about was our future. If our plan falls into place and we’re (non-mortgage) debt free in less than three years, we will be moving between years three and four. We ruled out signing to a five year term almost immediately. We want the option of seeing where things are (financially) in three to four years.

We opted to re-sign our mortgage at four years. We’ll be debt free in just under three years and won’t be jumping right into a major move immediately. I have to consider our plan may have some hiccups delaying our pay-off date a bit, as well we need time. We’ll need quite a few months to get our affairs in order, and actually house-hunt, before we move so a four year term seemed appropriate for us.

In terms of our first wish of a lower interest rate? With an early renewal rate (penalty free) we saved 1.35% which equates to six years saved off amortization if we opted to keep payments the same or an extra $180 per month for debt if we keep amortization period the same. Given our goals we opted to use the extra money to pay down debt, the faster we can get out, the better right?

I did shop around a little before signing the final papers. I happen to have a friend who does mortgage lending and she assured me everything was as good as it sounded, we got a really great deal.

I’m really glad we looked into early renewal options rather than just signing the auto-generated package that would likely come in the mail in the upcoming weeks!

Gifts I Want For Christmas That Aren’t Things

wpid-20141201_222038.jpgWhy is it so hard to believe some people really don’t want things?

I don’t consider myself difficult to shop for but I think most people would argue this point. The reason being is that people have a hard time accepting some people really don’t want things. I don’t necessarily live like a total minimalist but I have a minimalism mindset and have little use for stuff in my life.

I know there are people out there who can relate but for the most part, I just don’t want things. Most people I know have lists long of things they want. Don’t get me wrong, there are things I want, or need, in this world, like underwear or a pair of new jeans but these are things that are more of a need and things I’d rather just buy myself, with my money not receive as a gift.

Instead of any one thing, these are things I want for Christmas, that really aren’t things at all.

Time with my family and friends. The reason I look forward to this time if year so much is that it is family time on steroids and I LOVE IT. I’m lucky that my family is close and we see each other frequently but I especially love just being with them during this super special time of year (interpret ”super special” time of year per whatever beliefs you may or may not hold).

Eating, drinking and more eating. I love food. I love the food I only eat this time of year the most. Give me a plate with some delicious cheese and I’m a happy camper. There is a ton of food we as the family save to make this time of year and I look forward to it every year.

Creating tradition. Especially now that we have a child I love creating memories with her. Some old traditions passed on and some new. Memories are the very best gift of all!

A break. I really take the time to enjoy all of the above. It’s a crazy time of year but I look forward to the rest of my life slowing down, my job, this blog, daily routine. It all takes a break and allows me to refocus my priorities.

Christmas is my favorite time of year for a million reasons, gifts not being one of them. While gifts will be exchanged, and I spend a lot of time and effort into them, it’s not what I’m looking forward to the most.

What is your favorite part of the Christmas season?

Adapt the Principles of Debt Consolidation To Your Life Situation

You know how whenever someone gets into an accident, there always seems to be a personal injury attorney hovering nearby, just waiting to hand over his card? These types of lawyers have a nickname: ambulance chasers.

Guess what: there are ambulance chasers in the personal finance world too and they are much more aggressive than the guy hanging around in hospital waiting rooms.

As soon as you make your decision to pay off debt public, they come out of the woodwork. Suddenly you are inundated with offers of loans and debt settlements for pennies on the dollar. You get emails from people trying to sell your their “patented 100% guaranteed pay your debt off tomorrow or your money back!” systems.

Here’s the truth: the best way to pay off your debt is to not use some “get out of jail free” scheme. The best way to pay off your debt is to work really hard at it and to be as diligent as possible. Scrimp and save however you can so that you can put as much as possible toward your debt. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t still sort of “game the system” on your own, as long as you are smart about it. You know what I’m talking about, right? I’m talking about debt consolidation, you-style.

One of the best ways to do this is with a balance transfer card. These require a little finesse because their terms are tricky. At the outset, it looks great: transfer your existing balance into this new account for NO INTEREST (for X months)! Here is what these creditors always relegate to the finest of the fine print: that interest still accumulates over your grace period. It simply does not get applied to your account until you fail to pay off your balance in time. A single penny left in your account a single minute past the grace period’s expiration time will result in all of that accumulated interest being dumped into your account for you to pay off. Worse, that interest immediately starts earning more interest, and usually at a higher rate.

But! If you’re careful, you can game this system. Here’s what you do:

First, find the card that offers you the best terms (make sure to read that fine print!) and the longest grace period.

Then, start transfer your debt to a no interest credit card.The key here is the word ‘start’. Never ever ever ever transfer your entire balance onto a balance transfer card all at once. Yes, even if you are feeling optimistic and things have been going well. Instead, only transfer over as much as you know you can pay back within that grace period.

Be practical here: start with the first number you think you can realistically pay off and then subtract 20%. This final number is the amount you should transfer.

Pay off that balance.

When you pay off the balance and your account is sitting empty, the creditor will get itchy for you to start charging again. They’ll usually allow you to transfer another amount for another extended grace period, to keep you as a customer. Repeat the process above. Keep repeating until you’ve paid off all of your debt!

It is important, of course, that you understand a couple of things about this process:

You still need to make payments to any accounts with existing balances. Otherwise you will wreak havoc on your credit.

This method won’t exist your debt from your credit history, the amount of debt you owe will still be very visible to potential loan officers, etc. All they will see is that the amount is shifting between owners. This shouldn’t impact your credit score much, as long as you don’t open too many new balance transfers. Remember: the number of accounts you have still affects your score.

Finally: this method is not fool-proof! Your mileage may vary! Still, if it helps reduce your debt, then every little bit helps, right?

Are Daily, Invisible, Lifestyle Inflations Interfering With Your Goals?

We all know about lifestyle inflation and how detrimental it can be to ones budget. The more money we make the higher propensity we have to spend, and the larger the lifestyle we tend to live. When trying to reach financial goals, lifestyle inflation can be killer.

It’s easy to say getting a raise or making more money somehow is the ticket to reaching said goals, but if we don’t appropriate the money, then it gets absorbed into our daily cash flow and it’s too easy to overlook the increase in spending.

Maintaining a budget and tracking your spending is the only way to ensure that when extra money does become available, it isn’t absorbed into inflation. What we often overlook though, are the invisible, daily, opportunities for inflation to creep in.

In the past few weeks gas has gone down drastically where we live. A fill-up for us used to near $100 and now, with the sharp decreases (down 0.36/L from its highest) it’s closer to $75, while still a lot of money, is a big difference in our budget. Given that we were used to budgeting approximately $100 per week for gas now that it’s only $75, practically speaking, we should be appropriating the ”extra” money towards our financial goals, but we’re not.

This isn’t even anything I noticed initially. I’d see the extra cash in the accounts and allow it to get absorbed by spending more on groceries or eating out when really, that $25 should be used for reaching our goals. If gas stayed this price for a month that’s a $100 difference, or almost 1/4 what we were short in last months financial goals.

These day-to-day lifestyle inflation opportunities are everywhere when I look at my budget. Our December daycare bill is significantly lower because of vacation and holidays, while this difference should, again be put towards our goals it seems to be absorbed in extra spending for the month. Over time these seemingly invisible opportunities for lifestyle inflation is allowing us to miss out on hundreds of dollars a year towards our goals. Instead we ignore the opportunities and spend more than we’d like, or need.

I’m happy to say that since taking time to notice these daily lifestyle creep opportunities, I have gone forth and fiddled around with our projected budget and for the first time in a long time, altered the amounts of spending we get, putting more money towards our goals.

Avoiding these invisible lifestyle inflation creeps can be easily avoided if you’re one to track your spending a whole lot more diligently than I. While I monitor our money closely I am far from pinching every penny but near-miss opportunities like this remind me why it (literally) pays to keep a closer eye on things.

Do you allow ”invisible lifestyle inflation” to interfere with your goals?

Navigating the mortgage maze – How to get the right mortgage

Buying your own home is probably one of the largest financial decisions that you are likely to make in your life, so it is vital that you choose the right mortgage to help you pay for your dream home.

There are many aspects to taking out such a large loan secured against your property and it would definitely help you to choose the right product if you could gain a good understanding of how mortgages work.

Long term commitment

The origin of the word mortgage is old French mort gage, which literally translates into dead pledge.

When you take out a loan for the standard 25 years you are pledging to pay instalments over what is normally a 25 year period, or until you die and your life insurance takes up the slack.

That cheery thought at least demonstrates how big a deal taking a mortgage really is and why you need to consider all aspects of what is a long term commitment and a large financial outlay over the life of the loan.

Security

The meaning of security when it comes to mortgage is a double-edged sword, as you are enjoying the security of having a roof over your head but the lender also has the security of the property, which they can repossess and reclaim should you default on your payments.

Affordability

Now that you have had all the relevant warnings of what you are signing up to, it’s time to take a look at what the current mortgage market has to offer.

Mortgages used to be a combination of cheap and easy in the not so distant past but despite the fact that interest rates are still historically low and lending is therefore cheap in comparison to previous periods in time, getting a mortgage is no longer as easy as it once was.

Affordability rules were introduced in early 2014 as a way of regulating lending so that people could only take out a mortgage for an amount they can comfortably afford to repay back on a monthly basis.

Lenders now ask for proof of what you earn and what you spend and they will require details of all your household bills and personal expenses so that they can arrive at a monthly figure you can afford. They will then either offer you a mortgage for an amount they think you can afford or actually refuse your application based on the information you have supplied.

Getting the right mortgage

Getting over the affordability hurdle is just one part of the equation and as there is still a dazzling array of different choices and mortgage products available despite a tightening of lending policy.

You need to decide whether you should go for a fixed rate deal so that you know exactly how much you will have to pay for a defined period of time or should you consider a variable rate deal and hope that interest rates remain low for longer than anticipated.

Fixed rate

A fixed rate mortgage offers is advantageous in some respects but not in others.

If you took out a five year fixed rate deal, your repayments would be exactly the same each month regardless of whether there was an interest rate rise during that time. The downside is that if mortgage rates fall during that time, you remain locked into the higher rate until the deal expires, which could be costly.

Tracker

You might want to consider a tracker mortgage, which is linked to the Bank of England base rate. This means that if the interest rate rises, your mortgage payment will rise in unison, so a half percent rise in the base rate would add a the same to your mortgage cost.

Tracker mortgages can often be cheaper than fixed rate mortgage rates and it is easy to understand what rate you are required to pay because it is directly linked in with the bank base rate.

Deciding which mortgage the right one

If you are just getting on the property ladder and finances will understandably be a little tighter than they might be a few years down the line, you might want the comfort of fixing a rate so you can budget with an element of certainty.

If you think that you may move on again to another property in a few years, you should perhaps avoid tying in to a deal that may cost you financial penalties to get out of if you have to switch mortgages before the end of the agreed period.

Navigating the mortgage maze is about finding the right deal that suits your circumstances and risk preferences, especially when it comes to deciding whether to fix your rate or not.

Jamie Wells is a personal finance consultant. He has a background in banking where he used to authorise and issue mortgages. Since then he has been investing in property himself. His articles appear on property investment blogs.

November Debt Repayment Update: Annual Goal Met

I am in total and complete denial that it’s December. It has been unusually warm here so it has been totally screwing with my internal clock. No, I haven’t done any Christmas shopping…the worst is over though, we have made a list and just need a day to execute it sans child.

November wasn’t as stellar as I was hoping. Like Holly, we had quite a few unexpected expenses, most due to my husbands work travel expenses, some of which we’ll recoup but had to take out of our cash flow for now. Better than going into debt right?

To remind you, we need to be putting $2,068 towards debt every month to meet our target. This month we came in a little short at $1,574. I’m hoping to make this difference up in the next few months but I’m not going to worry too much about it right now. I also want to beef up the ER fund a bit more so we’ll see how things work out.

This time last year I published a post about finally breaking the 100k (worth of debt) goal. At the time, early November 2013, we owed about 97k and in the same post I wrote out the goal of hoping to enter 2015 owing less than 78k. I’m happy to report that as of today, we owe approximately $77,700. Entering 2015 I suspect we’ll owe about $77,000. We were able to pay off 20k worth of principal alone in the last year. I didn’t know if we’d meet it but we did :)

How are your goals coming along?

Seeking New Employment in the Digital Age

We’ve all heard about how today’s economy and job market is are certainly not ideal for job seekers, and I’m not one to disagree. With the majority of people now possessing at least a bachelor’s degree, competition for the best jobs is tough. If you want a good job with decent pay and benefits, you better be prepared to talk yourself up in interviews, and be willing and able to fill whatever role the company whose job you are applying for is seeking.

But on the plus side, one of the best things about looking for a job today is that the majority of your initial job searching can be completed via the internet at any hour of the day in the comfort of your home, as long as you have an internet connection that is. But even if you don’t have access to the internet at your home, more and more places are now offering free high-speed internet to visitors. The majority of coffee shops, libraries, and hotels, for example, all offer free internet to patrons.

Online job search engines, like http://london.trud.co.uk/, can even provide you with job opportunities near and far. With so many job opportunities available from one source, it’s easy to find the job that’s right for you or in the location you seek. Plus, many companies will allow you to complete the entire job application process online. You can fill out their forms and questionnaires, attach your resume, and more all online.

Once the application date has passed, their recruiters will review your information and decide if you are still in the running for the position. In my experience, there are lots of companies who complete their first round of job interviews via the telephone or by using a video conferencing system, like Skype. This gives recruiters a chance to speak to you without either one of you having to incur any travel costs or other hassles of an in-person interview.

Only after the initial round of phone or video interviews will you finally get the chance to meet face-to-face, rather than via technology, with your potential new employer.

As you can see, seeking new employment in the digital age is a much simpler, and self-paced process than it was when every step of the process was completed in person. Technology has changed how we do many things in life, including finding new employment.

Have you used technology to find a new job?

What To Do When a Couple Doesn’t Agree on a Large Purchase

wpid-2014-11-30-17.19.40.png.pngI have a financial confession. This weekend my husband went out and bought a new, over-the-top television. Did we need one? Nope. Did my husband really want one? Yup. Could we have used this money in other ways? Yup again. But we didn’t. While my frugal heart strings were pulled really tight as he rang the purchase up, I didn’t have much to say about the matter.

My husband, the main TV watcher in the family, has been pining for a new TV for about two years now, always (realistically) putting his desires aside so we could reach our financial goals. A few months ago when while visiting family, my husbands desire increased exponentially while playing with his grandfather’s new super-duper 60’’ TV (with me rolling my eyes at every praise he mentions). It took some time, but I accepted that he really wants this, probably as much as I want our debt paid off, so we needed to compromise.

Given the size of the purchase, we really needed to discuss the purchase. While we don’t consult on every purchase, anything more than about $50 we at least mention to the other person regardless of its ‘’importance’’. We have 100% combined finances and needless to say, I’d notice if he just went and dropped $1,000 on a television without talking to me. After I got over the initial stage of acceptance, we needed to come up with a plan to make us both happy.

There was no way I was going to allow our regularly budgeted funds to be used for such an unnecessary purchase, nor was my husband asking us to compromise any one thing or any goals. We wouldn’t be using budgeted Christmas funds or extra debt money for this purchase which left us with one option. We’d need to earn it over and above our regular funds and additional debt payments. I say we but I mean he.

Though our funds are combined, we have to agree on all family purchases and this was, and still is in my mind, an unnecessary purchase. But guess what? There is two of us in this marriage and just because we’re together doesn’t mean I get to make all the decisions. I could just as easily spend $1,000 on new stuff for the house like bedding and casserole dishes, things my husband couldn’t care at all about, it goes both ways. Our rule is that if we want something that we do not agree on as a couple, we have to earn it outside our regular family money or income, which he did.

My husband has been working a ton of overtime and travel, both of which he gets additional income for. Though we could have used this money for debt, we were still on track for our monthly target which keeps me happy. While I’d love to have put that money onto our debt as well it was his money and he could do what he wanted with it.

With a plan in place we were able to execute both additional debt payments (or in the case of this month, additional savings- more on that later) as well, he got his big ‘ol TV. While it’s ‘’his baby’’ I’d be lying if I didn’t say watching sports on it is pretty spectacular (Shhhh don’t tell him I said so!).

How do you manage purchases you and your spouse don’t agree on?

Giving To Those in Need- On a Budget!

Though I think those fortunate enough should give back to those in need whenever they’re able to, this time of year seems to be the most crucial. This doesn’t always mean handing out cash though. Even in my days with limited additional cash (arguably now with debt repayment goals), I have found ways to give back to people less fortunate.

Donate Old Prescription Eye Glasses

Most people don’t realize that your old prescription eye glasses can be used by someone else. Optometry clinics, and some pharmacies, will have drop off boxes you can donate your unused prescription glasses in to be used by someone else in need, often in third world countries.

Round up Your Credit Card Purchases

This is a new concept currently used by a few banks and credit unions. It’s called ”ChangeIt”. According to their website:

ChangeIt lets you automatically round-up your debit, credit, or mobile wallet purchases and donate the difference to causes you care about.

I love this idea, especially for people who use their credit cards often. ChangeIt rounds your purchases up to the next dollar amount and donates that money to a cause of your choice, which is key. Smaller donations like this throughout the year is a much easier way to ”give” than a lump sum come end of year too.

Donate Your Stuff

Anytime I have stuff to get rid of I always donate it to a local store that uses the profits for one of two local charities that I support. Someone else gets to enjoy my unwanted stuff while the local charities benefit from the profits made, win-win.

Volunteer

This is pretty self-explanatory but giving yourself and your time to someone or some cause in need is always appreciated. Especially at this time of year there is no shortage of need.

Look for Opportunity in Your Daily Life

I work with a very diverse clientele in my job. I see everyone from the richest socialites to the poorest recovering addicts. When someone in need comes in, and there is something I can do, I usually capitalize on it. It may be a free fluoride treatment or getting them some dental supplies they may not be able to afford, it’s something though. I’ve also done simple things like giving my ‘free cookie with coffee’ purchase away. Simply asking your friends, family, church or community if there is anything you can do to help is a great deed.

Our current primary goal is to pay debt off, which, for us, means allocating all necessary funds toward said goal. That doesn’t however excuse us from helping those in need. As mentioned, we should do good deeds year round but heart strings are pulled especially tight during the holiday season, please give what, and when, you can.