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If you are among the millions of people in this country who don’t really know how or when they will see another paycheck, chances are you’re either unemployed or self-employed—which now that I think about it, being self-employed can be a lot like being unemployed except for an unemployment check.

If you are a freelancer, a consultant, work in commission sales, the arts, or some other form of self-employment and don’t know when, how, or how much you’ll get paid from month to month, the word rollercoaster may bring more to mind than something in an amusement park. 

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Some months you work yourself nearly to death but produce absolutely no income. Then a deal closes or you have a pretty good month, and it takes nearly all of that money to pay last month’s bills.  

Then miracle of miracles, you have a $10,000 month and suddenly in your mind, you’re making $120,000 a year. Time to call the travel agent and book a European vacation!

Does any of this sound familiar?

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It’s not exactly a new word to me. But I’m pretty sure I’d never actually used the word predetermine in a sentence until my pastor referred to it recently—and in a way that turned on a bright light in my noggin.

To predetermine is to make a decision in advance.  That describes perfectly what it means to budget. You get your paycheck and before you do anything with it, you predetermine where every dollar will go. You give each dollar a job to do—in advance. You predetermine!

Here we are on the cusp of one more glorious, fabulous, exciting and joyful Holiday Season. How can we do this without going into debt? Predetermine. That’s it! Decide or establish in advance what we will do, how much we will spend; where you will go, what you will do. Yes, I know that sounds very much like a Spending Plan and it is. The way to get to a Spending Plan is to—you guessed it!—predetermine.

Take the gift-giving part of the season. How can we predetermine in that area? Two things:

COST: Look at your gift list and predetermine how much money you will spend for each. Decide this fact. Plant it in your brain. Write it on your heart. Write it down or whatever else it takes to establish this in advance.

GIFT: Here is a foolproof way to select the perfect gift for each of your giftees: Ask yourself what does he or she really care about? By that I mean what would this person say they could never have enough of?

For my husband, a hobby woodworker, the answer would come without hesitation: He could never have enough clamps. Every year I make sure there are clamps under the tree for my favorite woodworker and every year he says that same thing: “Oh good, I can never have too many clamps!” Read more

Do you wonder why you never have enough money to save some? Why there’s always so much month left at the end of the money? Maybe it’s time to consider that you’ve been handing over your savings to local restaurants, drive-thrus, diners and coffee shops. Think about it.

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What if you didn’t eat out so often? What if you were strategic in buying basic ingredients and then cooking great meals at home? What if you had more of your money tucked away in savings rather than in the coffers of local eating joints?

No matter your lifestyle, I am confident that with the right strategies, you really can reduce the amount of money you spend on food in order to have more money to save—and still eat healthy, satisfying meals.

MORE TIME THAN MONEY

If yours is a single-income household struggling to survive in a two-income world, keeping food on the table and the bills paid can be quite a challenge. The good news is that time is on your side. The one not working outside the home has the time—it takes time to carry out the best strategies—to keep the cost at rock bottom without sacrificing quality.

MULTIPLE STORES. All grocery stores and supermarkets have tremendous weekly sales—even Whole Foods and Sprouts. And they announce these details in their weekly flyers—in print and online.

MORE: 25 Ways to Chop Your Food Bill

EAT THE SALES. Buy only loss leaders and items that are on sale. You won’t starve and you’ll have a huge variety of food items to choose from and in every department. All food stores, even Whole Foods and Sprouts, have weekly sales. When your budget is really, really tight don’t give in to the temptation to buy more just because it’s on sale.

COUPON LIKE CRAZY. Matching coupons to sales is the best weapon you have against rising food costs. There are free websites like CouponMom.com that will hook you up with the best coupons out there—and teach you how to use them to your best advantage.

BECOME AN EXPERT. Invest five weeks and $39 in Erin Chase’s Grocery Budget Makeover! (she’s the $5 Dinner Mom). You’ll gain expert status in no time—and recoup the cost the first five minutes you put this valuable information to work. Registration for the class closes soon, so if you’re interested, do not delay.

LITTLE TIME, TIGHT BUDGET

For dual-income families with kids, time becomes an especially valuable commodity. It’s scarce. Both of you work full-time jobs. Kids are in school plus all of their extra-curricular activities.

Then there’s church and weekends filled with sports and just playing catchup to get ready for the next week. You don’t have time to visit every store; to take advantage of a variety of sales. But money is still really tight, which makes the challenge even greater.

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If the word budget is like nails on a chalkboard for you, you’ve got a friend in me. I know that feeling.

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. Every month, when I ran out of money, I would run to MasterCard and Visa for a bailout. 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. Still, I don’t like the word, so if it’s OK with you, let’s drop the b-word and call it a spending plan. So much better. Read more

Wallet a little thin this Valentine season? That shouldn’t mean you cancel all dates until things begin to look up in the finance department. The solution is to get creative, to find reasonable and fun alternatives that require only pocket change and the right attitude—or with any luck, some that are absolutely free.

Here are nine ideas to get your creativity going:

VOLUNTEER TOGETHER. Find a local charity that meets the needs of some area of life you are passionate about, such as a soup kitchen or pet shelter. Volunteer for the day—together!

FREE DAY. Most art galleries and museums have a free day or hours each month or have gone to a “pay as you wish” policy. Here’s an example: Los Angeles County Museum of Art is free after 3pm Monday-Friday for L.A. County residents; also free on the second Tuesday of each month. Also in Los Angeles, The Getty Center is always free. Check those in your area.

KARAOKE. Just hear me out. Karaoke is guaranteed to be a fun night, even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Let your hair down, spring for a few drinks and have a ball.

STAR GAZE. When is the last time you lay down on a blanket and stared at the stars? Grab some hot chocolate, warm blankets and your best gal or guy, then try to find your favorite constellations. If you need some guidance, you can download apps like Star Tracker (Google/Apple). Read more