Might as well start out this savings thing on the right foot.  My first assignment is to make an actual budget.  I used to be really good at these; lately, I’ve fallen off the wagon (and it shows).  Today I’m going to do a budget.

If you never done a budget before, there are plenty of guides on the internet to get you going.  You don’t need fancy software, although it’s out there.  (After all, if you’re trying to save money, why spend money on expensive software?)

Mint.com has a very simple, easy-to-use site.  I’ve also used Dave Ramsey’s free budget planner.  If you’re good with spreadsheets, you can use Excel or Google Spreadsheets.  You can even just use plain old paper.  Just pick what you’re going to use and, for now, stick to it.

Step One: Write down all your expenses.  Seriously, write down everything.  Ladies, don’t forget those pesky feminine products.  Men, unless you cut your own hair, toss in a haircut now and then.  Put it all on paper with a rough estimate of what you spend on it.

Step Two:  Group spending into categories and major expense items.  I tend to have a miscellaneous category that includes “health and beauty”.  You divide it how it makes sense to you.

Step Three:  Give each major category a percentage of your income.  Divide that money between the items underneath it.

Step Four:  You can spend too much in an item line and move money from another item line in the same category, but you cannot move money between categories unless you have an emergency/ miscellaneous category.  You can move that one around.

Step Five:  Stick to it!  It will be very hard at first, but it will get easier as it goes.  I promise.

Go do your budget.  Don’t stop until you have something that uses up all the money you make each month but doesn’t go over.  If you have a fluctuating income, try a financial site like Dave Ramsey or Crown Financial to help you budget.

Challenge:   Track all your spending this week and put it into your budget.

Ready?  Go!

Charles Koch, whose personal wealth is estimated around 43.4 billion dollars, apparently believes that anyone making $34,000 a year should be rolling in dough.  Not that I make that much anyway, but I’d like to take issue with his assumption anyway.

While I do believe most Americans are blessed way beyond what they realize and that many times we squander our income, $34,000 means an entirely different quality of life in different areas.

When I lived in Springfield, Illinois, $34,000 meant a nice, 5-bedroom house on a 1/4 acre lot in a quiet neighborhood, two cars, a reasonable food and clothing budget, and enough extra to occasionally travel or splurge a bit.

Here in Southern California, $34,000 means a one-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood (I’ve been looking, so I’m pretty sure about the rates).  Clothing and food are within budget, but I’d anticipate being limited to one (older) car and not much travel.

Don’t get me wrong.  I see $34,000 as doable.  I’d love to be making $34,000.  But cost of living should definitely be factored into the equation.

I do hope Charles Koch donates a minimum of 10% of his income to charity… as I would hope those making $34,000 do.  Again, I’m talking about what is doable, not what is easy.

Anyone can do easy.

I recently posted that I needed to be better about my finances and directed my readers to Dave Ramsey’s site.  Since I’d just touted it, I thought I should pay a visit myself.

I did the free budget, using (mostly) the amounts suggested by the site.   For the record, I put food right at the max percentage and debts a little over (because otherwise I’m never paying those suckers off!).

First of all, it’s going to take a huge step of faith to faithfully tithe an amount that is more than half of my food budget.  Ouch!

Second, I’m not sure how I’ll find a place to live on the housing limitations (and I put housing almost at max), but at least I know now to say no to anything well out of the ballpark.

The big one, though?  Food!  How do you feed three growing boys and two less-voracious females on $60.50 per week??  I have problems feeding just me on that amount.

I’ve already had beans and rice recommended to me.  Beans are not a friend of my ulcerative colitis, but brown rice is.  Maybe I’ll start having brown rice with every meal.  I don’t seem to have any sensitivities for that. 

This might not be the best time to be giving up eggs and dairy, though.  I don’t mind the soy, gluten, corn, and sugar.  I can manage with the peanuts.  But eggs and dairy… those get me through a lot of tight budget days.

Time to get creative.

Want to save money, save time, reduce stress AND lose some weight?

Plan your meals.

Planning your meals isn’t all that difficult, either.  All it takes is about two hours a week to start (as little as 30 minutes once you get going) and a few simple guidelines.

1.  Get some sort of planner.  I always did my menus in Excel and just printed them myself, but any large-box calendar will work; just divide each day into three meals.

2.  (This will help reduce time in the future)  Make a list of some of you or your family’s favorite breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks.  Don’t worry about ingredients; just get a main dish.  List at least seven in each category, but more is actually better in this case.

For example: Breakfasts might have oatmeal, egg sandwiches, yogurt, and french toast.  Lunches might have soup, sandwiches, salad, and tacquitos.  Dinners might have pasta, meatloaf, chicken stirfry, and fish sticks.  Snacks might include oatmeal cookies, apples, ice pops, and rice cakes.

3.  Figure out which days have time constraints.  If you have soccer practice for two kids on Wednesdays from 4-6 pm, you don’t want a time-consuming dinner prep.  If you have a run-out-the-door morning on Mondays, you might want to do yogurt.

4.  Fill in each day (for either a week at a time or a month at a time) with a main dish.  Monday breakfast: yogurt; Monday lunch: PB&J sandwich; Monday dinner: Crockpot chili; Monday snack(s): red apple; rice cakes.

5.  You can stop here if you want and just wing-it with sides, but if you really want to lose weight and have a balanced meal, you’re going to want to fill-in the sides:

a.  Every breakfast should have a protein, a serving of fruit or vegetables, a serving of whole grains, and a dairy (which can sometimes double as the protein).  For the “yogurt” on Monday, you could also have a cinnamon bran muffin (whole grain), blueberries and slivered almonds to mix in, and 8 oz of juice.

b.  Every lunch should have a protein, 2 servings of fruits and/or vegetables, a serving of whole grains, and a dairy.  For the “PB&J sandwich”, you have peanut butter for protein and can use whole wheat bread for the grains.  Toss in a serving of carrot sticks and 8 oz of your favorite veggie juice smoothie (2 servings of veggies) and a small handful of cheese cubes (dairy) and maybe have 8 oz of water.

c.  Every dinner should have a protein, 2 servings of vegetables, a serving of whole grains, and a dairy.  For the crockpot chili, make sure you put veggies like green and red peppers into the pot at the last minute, have a side salad, piece of homemade cornbread, and glass of milk.

d.  If you only have one snack, it should be fruit- or vegetable-based (the opposite of breakfast works well) AND have a small protein and glass of water.  So have a handful of pea pods with hummus and a glass of water.  If you’re having a second snack (keep that metabolism ramped up!), then you can be a little more liberal (oatmeal cookie and some grapes, maybe?).

Viola!  You have up to four weeks of meals all planned out.  Each night, see what you need to defrost or prep for the next day.  Then each day just follow the menu and you’ll reduce stress, eat better, and save money.

Still don’t feel like going through all the effort to make menus?  Let me do all the work!  One personalized month of menus, including grocery check-off list for each week, for just $50… or sign up for a four-month  subscription (4 months of menus, delivered month-by-month) for just $100 ($25/month).  Email everydaygirlguide@gmail.com for details.