Making your cash last until the end of the month

Written by Sam on December 18, 2006 – 10:06 pm -

If you’re a regular reader of GFD, you’ll know I’m a big fan of using cash to control your spending. But up to this point I haven’t really gotten into a lot of detail about how I manage my cash. To tell you the truth, there are almost NO tools out there for managing a cash-based budget other than the common envelope. Wallets are great for carrying a single chunk of cash, but they don’t help you organize cash by categories. This leaves a lot of room for creative thinking about how to manage your cash.

Greg over at has a unique and GTD friendly way of managing cash involving envelopes, index cards, and paper clips. His method is a great way of divvying out your cash so you don’t spend it all at the beginning of the month, leaving you living like a pauper at the end of the month. It’s essentially a sort of cash tickler file (look under “Tools and techniques”).

Please let us know how you manage your cash!

Cash Allowance File

Posted in Budget, Budgeting, Cash, Finances, Money, Personal Finance, Spending, Tools | 5 Comments »

10 ways to save money this Christmas

Written by Sam on November 29, 2006 – 10:15 pm -

Another holiday post? Yes, Christmas shopping is on my mind. As my wife and I plan our Christmas budget, we’ve come up with several tips to help decrease holiday spending.

Christmas tends to be a very stressful time financially. Most people grossly underestimate how much they are really going to spend and often take on additional debt to pay for all the extra goodies. With a little planning and forethought, you can still have a full tree without taking on additional debt. Wouldn’t it be nice to not worry about money this holiday season?

1. Decide ahead of time how much you plan to spend on whom.

The first step is to create a spending plan on paper (or a spreadsheet) before you start shopping. By looking at all of your planned gift giving at once, you’ll make better decisions once you get into the thick of holiday shopping.

Sit down together with your spouse and write out a list of everyone you can possibly think of that you would want to give gifts to. Ideally, do this in a spreadsheet. Here’s a list to get you going.

  • Immediate Family
  • Extended family
    • In-laws
    • Cousins
    • Aunts and Uncles
    • Grandparents
  • Friends
  • Co-workers
  • Neighbors
  • Community/Civic Acquaintances
  • Church members
  • Include any people you want to send a Christmas card to

Keep adding people, even if you’re not sure you’ll give them a gift. The idea is to empty your brain and make sure you don’t experience the “oh, I forgot to get so-and-so a present” phenomenon. One of the reasons people overspend during the holidays is because they only budget for their family. Most people realistically buy many friends and acquaintances gifts as well.

Once you’ve completed your list, record how much you think you’ll spend on each person. If you don’t plan on buying a gift for a person listed, simply put $0. At this point, don’t worry about the total, just list what you’d like to spend. You’re estimates will be much more accurate if you think specifically what you’d like to get for that person rather than just putting a random dollar amount. List off to the side the item(s) you plan to buy. Of course, this process will be more involved when estimating planned spending for family members and may require multiple entries for one person.

Now add all the amounts together to see the damage. When my wife and I did this exercise, we were unpleasantly surprised at the total. It was way more than we were planning on spending.

Compare the total with the amount your were planning on budgeting for Christmas. Assuming the total exceeds your planning budget you need to either increase your budget or start cutting down your list. Keep reading for some great ideas at cutting your Christmas spending.

The whole point of this little exercise is to make your holiday spending explicit and conscious rather than spending blindly through the holidays only to find a very unpleasant surprise when the January bills arrive.

2. Give homemade gifts

It might seem cheap to give homemade gifts, but bare with me, they can be quite nice. When it comes to gifts for friends and acquaintances, it’s often the thought that counts more than the gift anyway. Here are a couple ideas.

  • Cookie/Cake mix – We’ve received this gift several times and always enjoy it. You just take a canning jar and fill it with the dry mix in the right measurements to make cookies or a cake. You can use either a store bought mix or “homemade” ingredients (flour, sugar, chocolate chips, etc.). You can spruce it up by putting a bow around the jar. Or, let your kids be creative and decorate the jar their own way.
  • Family history chart – We made our own 10 generation family history chart for my parents based on a design by Ancestry Circle. We printed it out on a poster-sized sheet and bought a $20 frame for it. It was a fair amount of work but was a meaningful and very unique gift. If you would like the template Adobe Illustrator file, send me an email. If you’re not looking to save money, Ancestry Circle will print a custom chart using your family history GEDCOM file for a reasonable fee of $79.95.
  • Make cookies or treats for neighborhood gifts. By simply giving a plate of cookies or brownies, you could give to all your neighbors for under $10.
  • Personalized Stationary – One year we made homemade stationary using Microsoft Word and a printer. We bought a ream of fancy paper and a box of matching envelopes. We had the paper cut in half at Kinkos and printed a design (using a word template) along with the person’s name on each sheet.
  • Pictures make great inexpensive gifts for family members. Do your parents and grandparents have your most recent family photo? There’s probably nothing they’d rather have.
  • Burn family photos or family history to a CD. Total cost: less than $0.10 each.
  • Give homemade gift certificates. You can give an elderly person in your neighborhood a certificate to mow her lawn or shovel her snow. Give a certificate for free baby sitting to acquaintances with children. Give your spouse a certificate for a massage. Your creativity is your only limitation on this one.

3. Shop online and use RSS feeds to find great deals

It’s still not too late to find great deals online in time for Christmas. Learn how to use RSS feeds for shopping to be notified when an item you want goes on sale. Many online stores allow you to make purchases just days before Christmas and still have them shipped in time for the big day.

4. Buy used when possible

Using RSS feeds makes it easy to find items for sale on eBay or Craigslist. This is particularly great for younger children who don’t care if an item is used. Would you rather pay up to $50 for a Little Tykes basketball hoop or $5? For adults, electronic items can make great used gifts. People upgrade so often, you can find great deals on computers or mp3 players that are still in perfect working condition.

5. Give your “Favorite Things”

My father started this tradition and my wife and I have adopted the idea. By giving inexpensive items that you love and use everyday, not only will the gift be more meaningful, but the recipient will think of you whenever he/she uses the gift. By giving a gift with meaning, you deemphasize how much the item cost. Last year, my sister gave me a little packet of some of her favorite things that included her favorite gum, mints, and beverage. I loved it. It was neat for her to share those things with me and I could have cared less how much she spent.

6. Find great children’s gifts for under $5

Target, Wal-Mart and any dollar store have some great gifts for under $5 that kids love. Target and Wal-mart both have great generic-brand toy packages in $5, $10, and $15 increments. These toy sets include balls, play doctor kits, die-cast cars, doll sets, toy trucks, a velcro target and balls, and train sets.

7. Tell your family you’re trying to get out of debt

Let your family and friends know that you’ll be giving small gifts, or no gifts at all, because you’re trying to avoid debt during the holidays. Your family and friends will respect the fact that you’re aggressively trying to get out of debt and you’ll get the added benefit of their support. Of course, only do this if it’s true.

8. Make an agreement with others about gifts

The fact is, your friends and family are probably stressing about Christmas finances just as much as you are. Approach them with the idea of making a pact to not exchange gifts this year or to keep the gifts within a certain dollar amount. You’ll both be relieved to not have high expectations hanging over your heads about what to give and how much to spend.

9. Buy them Total Money Makeover for $10 a piece

Dave Ramsey sells his hardcover “Total Money Makeover” books for $10 a piece if you buy a pack of 10. Note: the link to his online store was broken as of this writing. I’ll keep checking and post the link when it’s working. While it might seem like a lot to drop $100 on books, you’ll actually be giving a $17 gift for only $10 while taking care of 10 people on your gift-giving list. Plus, books make the best gifts in my humble opinion.

10. Use cash and/or save receipts

I’ll admit that it’s tough to use cash when you’re making so many purchases in such a small time frame. Credit and Debit cards really are more convenient. But if you really want to guarantee you’ll spend within your means, you’re best off dividing up your Christmas funds and giving cash to each family member. Once they’re out, they’re done spending.

If paying cash is not realistic for you, be sure to save all your receipts. Empty the receipts from your wallet at the end of a shopping day and put them in an envelope for safe keeping. Before you wrap your gifts, you can review how much you spent and, if you’re over budget, you can decide which gifts to return. With all the gifts in front of you, it’s easier to make trade-off decisions about which ones to keep. When you’re at the store in a shopping frenzy, it’s much harder to make such a level-headed decision.

Decide not to go into more debt this holiday season

Most importantly, make a decision along with your family not to go into additional debt during the holidays. You don’t want to be “experiencing” Christmas long after it’s over and the thrill of new toys has faded.

What do you do to save money during the holidays?

Posted in Budgeting, Cash, Finances, Money, Personal Finance, Saving, Spending | 11 Comments »

How to become a personal finance “black belt”

Written by Sam on October 3, 2006 – 11:56 pm -

David Allen in “Getting Things Done” compares productivity to the martial arts. He gives instruction on how to become a black belt in your personal productivity with a “mind like water” that allows you to handle anything that comes your way with a balanced response. When a stone is thrown into a pond, the water reacts with perfect balance. It reacts just enough to disperse the energy, no more, and then returns to a calm state. It doesn’t over or under react.

Becoming a black belt and having a “mind like water” in your personal finances is very similar. It means you can take whatever is thrown at you without knocking your finances out of control. You can respond to any situation with perfect balance. Unexpected events or changes in your finances, good or bad, can be handled with optimum efficiency, and little or no stress. It means you can direct the flow of money where you need it almost effortlessly.

In an effort to help people gauge where they are in their personal finance development, I’ve defined what people at the various “belts” might look like. Where are you?

Read more »

Posted in Budget, Budgeting, Budgets, Cash, Couples, Credit Cards, Emergencies, Finance, Finances, Money, Personal Finance, Relationship, Relationships, Saving, Spending | 20 Comments »

A friendly challenge – Credit Cards vs. Cash Showdown

Written by Sam on September 26, 2006 – 7:06 pm -

I’m a big fan of Ramit Sethi’s personal-finances blog It’s no secret that he spends everything on his credit card (paying it off every month) and is opposed to a cash-based budget. About 4 weeks ago, I read a transcript from a chat he conducted and found the following question and response:

Q: what do you think about not spending anything on credit cards? everyone else is in trouble so why not use cash only!”

A: that advice is not for smart people who read personal-finance blogs. i hate that ad-vice because it panders. it assumes, “everyone else mismanages credit cards, so you probably will too” ARE YOU A MORON I WANT TO YELL answer: no.

For the past few weeks I couldn’t get this statement off my mind. It’s one thing to have a strong position ;-). It’s quite another to insult those who follow a perfectly legitimate and arguably superior system of financial management.

To resolve this issue, or at least let the blog-reading community decide for themselves, I challenge Ramit to a good-spirited showdown: Credit Cards vs. Cash. Ramit can present the credit-card arguments and I’ll present the cash/debit arguments. The readers on each side can also chime in. I read a similar showdown about productivity a while back and thought it was useful.

Please leave a comment and let us know what questions or views do you have about credit cards vs. cash? What questions would you want to see addressed if a showdown takes place?

If Ramit accepts we’ll decide the terms, time, and format. Let’s have Ramit express his spirited feelings in a more articulate and useful way.

Posted in Budget, Budgeting, Budgets, Cash, Credit Cards, Debit Cards, Finance, Finances, Money, Personal Finance, Spending | 26 Comments »

Budgeting on a self-employed or irregular income

Written by Sam on September 6, 2006 – 10:05 pm -

Since I wrote my post about “How to create a zero-based budget,” I’ve had a lot of feedback asking how to budget if you’re self-employed or your income is irregular or unpredicitble. For the most part, the process is the same regardless or how regular or irregular your income streams are. However, there are a few tips that will help take the bumps out of budgeting an unpredictable income and may even make budgeting a pleasant experience.

Read more »

Posted in Budget, Budgeting, Budgets, Cash, Emergencies, Finance, Finances, Money, Personal Finance | 22 Comments »

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