So You Think You Can’t Save?

According to Moody Analytics, young Americans have stopped saving money and by young we are talking about adults under age 35—the so-called millennial generation. That compares with a positive savings rate of about 3 percent for those age 35 to 44; 6 percent for those 45 to 54, and 13 percent for those 55 and older.

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Take a minute to find yourself in that statistical lineup. Are you behind or ahead in the savings game? If you aren’t saving you need to be. And if you are? You need to save more.

Here are five of my favorite almost-painless ways that any determined person really can spend less to save more.

Become your favorite creditor. Take an envelope and write your name and the amount you intend to save from each paycheck and place it in the front of your “Bills to Pay” file. Make this the first bill you pay each month. If you use online bill pay, add your savings account as the number one creditor—the most important bill that is paid automatically each month.

Stash a C-note. Crash-save until you have enough in coins and currency to exchange for a crisp, new $100 bill. Stash it into a very safe place known only to you. Whenever you get the urge to purchase something or feel overcome by a case of the “I wants,” tell yourself, OK, but you’ll need to go home and get that $100 bill. For some reason, the urge will pass quickly. Knowing you can if you want but you choose not to has a wonderful preventive effect. You are going to amazed.

How to Live on a Budget and Love It

For many years I wouldn’t have anything to do with a budget because I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone—or anything—telling me how to spend my money. And where did that get me? Into one big financial mess.

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Every month, when I ran out of money, I would turn to MasterCard and Visa for a bailout. Really bad idea.

What I learned from going through that experience and finding my way back to solvency is that, as much as we may loathe it, a budget is the ticket to financial happiness―not the straitjacket I feared it would be. I’ve come to prefer to call this a “spending plan” rather than a  budget, but honestly, the terms are interchangeable. It’s just a way to pre-spend your income on paper first.

A good spending plan gives every dollar a specific job to do. Once you have it just the way you want it, the plan becomes a handy road map for keeping your finances on track.

So, take a deep breath and let’s walk through the basics of creating a simple budget, or spending plan.

Step 1: Write down your total take-home monthly income. This is the easy part. Jot down what you earn. Because many expenses are billed monthly, it makes good sense to use monthly income to create your budget.

Step 2: Write down your fixed expenses. Start with fixed bills like rent, mortgage, car payment, credit-card debt and insurance, then factor in other monthly costs that are always the same. These are your essential fixed expenses.

Step 3: List your variable expenses. You know you’ll have these bills, but the amounts vary. Examples are your phone, utilities, food, household expenses, gasoline, medication, public transportation, shoes and clothing. You can assign an estimated amount to each based on past experience, rounding to the closest $10.

Step 4: List reasonable amounts for nonessential expenses. This includes entertainment, eating out, hobbies and other ways you spend money on a regular basis.

Step 5: Find the extras. Go to your checkbook register, credit card statements, Quicken reports or what have you, to see what expenses you’ve left out. You’ll likely see items for car maintenance and repair, gifts, vacations, Christmas and holidays. For items that do not recur monthly, determine the annual cost, then divide by 12 to see how much you should set aside each month to anticipate that irregular expense.

Step 6: Figure out your totals. Add up your expenses, then subtract that amount from your income. Ideally, you’ll come out in the black, with at least a little money left over. But if your expenses exceed your income, you’ll see a negative sum. Don’t panic—this is just the start of an ongoing process.

Step 7: See where you can cut. If you came up short, go back to your monthly expenses and see what you can get rid of. Look first to your nonessential expenses. Which items can you remove altogether for a while (eating out seems like a fine target; perhaps hobby expenses, for a season)? Keep going through the list, making adjustments until your total expenses are less than your income.

Step 8: Follow your spending plan as closely as possible. Track your spending every day. Take notes and research ways you’ll be able to do even better next month. At month’s end, add up your actual spending and compare it with what you planned. Use this information to create the next month’s Spending Plan.

Even if you find yourself in a particularly tight financial position right now, take heart. As you pay off debts and find more ways to cut expenses, you’ll begin to sense a significant loosening of financial pressure. Soon you’ll be ready to add new categories to your spending plan for things like saving for a new car, home improvements or going back to college.

The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll be on your way to reaching financial freedom.

The Other Gift-Giving Season

Most of us think of December as the big gift-giving season of the year. But there is another and it is right now. Don’t believe me? Check your mailbox.

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Undoubtedly, you’ll see graduation announcements, invitations to baby showers, bridal showers and loads of wedding invitations, too. Add to that Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Easter and you’ll know why spring has become the other gift-giving season. Ka-ching!

It’s time to get creative. I’ll bet you’re not at all surprised to know that I have a few ideas to get you going.

HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE GRADS

Laundry kit: a mesh laundry bag, detergent, dryer sheets, lots of quarters and directions on “How to Do Laundry.”

Mug with instant coffee, hot chocolate, tea and cookies.

Paper money. Get creative with the presentation. Google origami money for instructions on how to fold bills into creative shapes.

Container of coins good for laundry, vending machines or coffee.

The Story of Soilove

For years I thought I was the only person who knew about  something called Soilove.

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I first discovered it back in 1982 while searching for a laundry stain product that could beat the outrageously high price of the name brands. They were easy to spot because they were always shelved at eye-level.

When I reached to the top shelf and found a lowly mint-green bottle of an off-brand stain treatment called Soilove (pronounced “soil-love”), I was suspicious that anything so cheap could be any good. Still, I decided to give it a try.

Believe me, I love to find a bargain. But when the bargain brand outperforms its pricey competitors? Well, that really revs my engine.

Soilove is such an amazing product. It removes stains from laundry like you can’t believe. I’ve used Soilove it to get out new stains, old stains, red stains, grass stains, baby stains, food stains, blood stains, makeup stains, pet stains and every other kind of stain imaginable—except for yellow mustard. Not even Soilove can handle a yellow mustard stain.

Back then (we’re talking 33 years, here), I paid $.79 for a 16-oz bottle of Soilove. By some kind of cheapskate miracle, today a 16-oz bottle of Soilove retails for just $.99 provided you know where to look. 

Keep Produce Fresh Weeks Longer

Fews things are as discouraging as opening that refrigerator drawer only to see the produce you just bought (seems like yesterday) has gone bad. Oh, I hate when that happens.

Shouldn’t there be a reasonable way to make fresh greens, vegetables and fruits last at least as long as it takes to reasonably use them up? Apparently there is, and today’s first great reader tip shares the secret!

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PRODUCE LONGEVITY. I wanted to comment on the rusty lettuce. Just in case you weren’t aware of this magic product, called Bluapple. It’s the best thing since lettuce. You place this little device, that looks like a blue apple, into your produce drawer in the refrigerator to absorb ethylene gas—the culprit that causes produce to ripen and get rotten so fast.

I have been using Bluapple in my refrigerator for years now, and have saved so much money. In fact, I went to Europe for 10 days, came back and my lettuce AND spinach were still fresh!  Not kidding. 

 I used to buy the refills in the local market but now get them online at Amazon because the store stopped carrying them. You replace the absorber every 3 months, but it is so worth it. Kathy, Minnesota

LEFTOVERS GOTTA GO. I enjoy your cheapskate information! In our family, we call leftovers “Mustgoes” as in, food that must go. Konnie B., email

From Chuck Roast to “Prime Rib” in Three Hours Flat

Shortly after this column posted on the specific steps to roast a cheap cut of beef so that it turns out like prime rib, I got an email from faithful reader, Mary B. We went back and forth a bit as she prepared this for guests. I thought you would enjoy the feedback.

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But first, here’s a quick refresher on how to do that:

1. Make sure you have a good oven proof meat thermometer and an oven thermometer. Exact temperatures are the secret.

2. Tie the roast with white cotton string so it’s compact and evenly shaped.

3. Place inside a roasting pan, uncovered.

4. Insert meat thermometer into the thickest part of the roast.

5. Preheat oven to exactly 250 F using an oven thermometer, not relying on the one that is built into the oven. This is critical.

6. Leave roast in oven until its internal temperature is exactly 130 F.

7. Remove from oven, wrap it in foil and allow meat to rest for exactly 20 minutes.

Garage-Sale Proof the Gifts You Give

Recently, lots of families in my new neighborhood got together to host a colossal Neighborhood Garage Sale.

I didn’t participate as a seller but did my share of browsing.

photo credit: johnbeagle

photo credit: johnbeagle

Of course I was hoping to come across a couple of Longaberger baskets for a buck. Or a lamp with Tiffany written all over it, but in that secret place only we Antiques Road Show groupies know about.

That didn’t happen.

While I didn’t carry anything back to my house, I did pick up something quite valuable: A healthy dose of reality. Gift reality.

Most of what people were trying to unload that day were not antiques. There were a few pieces of furniture; I didn’t see a single collectible. Table after table, what I saw were gifts. Not new gifts, but discarded gifts. Very recognizable items once displayed on the pages of well-designed catalogs; items that were artfully arranged in department store cases. But they don’t look the same once opened and then left to languish in the hot sun on someone’s driveway.

14 Mother’s Day Gifts to Fit Every Budget

Since Mother’s Day is only a couple of weeks away, and since I’m a mom and many of you are moms, and since just about everyone has a mom or mom figure in their lives—it’s hard not to conclude that Mother’s Day is something worth celebrating.

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Which brings me to Mother’s Day gifts. I know this can be intensely personal and emotion-packed. So let’s do this: If you are just not into Mother’s Day gifting or even celebrating, consider what follows to be “Mary’s Favorite Things.”

Truth be told, I’ve had a lot of fun coming up with this  list of great gifts I’d be thrilled to receive—for Mother’s Day or any other day, for that matter.

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1. Rough Day Wine Glass. This beautifully etched wine glass will bring out the sense of humor in mom. What a cool gift. Make it even more special by pairing it with a bottle of her favorite wine.

2. Coffee Mug with Important Message. She already knows it, but why not remind her every day from here on, what a great thing she did when she had you.

3. Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 Instant Film Camera. Sure, digital phone cameras are hip and cool, but show me a mom who wouldn’t love to snap a picture and  instantly have that photo in her hand—on photo stock paper. Look at this new version of a “Polaroid-like” camera from yesteryear. This little sweet pea will easily fit in her hand, comes in a variety of pastel colors and is just cooler than cool. Don’t forget she’ll need extra film to go with it. Yes, film like from the olden days.

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4. Shark Navigator Pro. I just read some lame rule for Mother’s Day gifting: Never give your Mother a vacuum cleaner for Mother’s Day. What?! How many ways can I disagree wit,h that? I already have a Shark, but I’d die for an even better one like this particular awesome model. And yes for Mother’s Day! I’m pretty sure your mom will agree.