Friday, July 1, 2011

Create the life you want by making some simple changes

When we added children to our family, I dubbed the time between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. the “witching hours.” During this window of time, our children often become restless and whiny. They’re more prone to fighting, and we’ve had several incidents in which one of them decides to ride the dog or invent new uses for their art supplies.

There may be variations in this “witching hour” scenario—someone starts an empty washer by randomly pushing buttons or systematically drops a bunch of Goldfish Crackers down the heat register—but the end result is the same. Those pre-dinner hours are almost always stressful and frustrating.

As I scramble to decide what we’re going to eat and to start the meal preparation, the house threatens to erupt into anarchy. In the midst of this, I wonder why I don’t give more attention to meal planning. In fact, creating a comprehensive meal plan tops my list of things I could do to make my life better.

Sometimes, when we’re so busy with our daily lives, we might believe that sweeping change is necessary to make our lives better. We might think, for example, that moving to a bigger house would make life easier, but the simpler (and perhaps better) change might be to downsize the amount of items we own. It’s often the smaller, more immediate changes we make that have the most power to improve the quality of our lives.

For me, devoting an hour each week to meal planning would help to restore some of my sanity and to diffuse the evening chaos. When I asked other people what they could do right now to make their lives better, they responded with equally simple changes they would like to make.

In a few cases, people reported that a single event would make their lives better, such as organizing their living space or creating a realistic plan for paying off debt. More often, those I talked to said that consistent changes over time would benefit them the most.

Several people told me that they believed carving out more time for reading would improve their lives. Some said committing to regular exercise would make them happier, and one person told me having more focused time with his children would make him feel more satisfied when he is at home. Eating a more balanced diet topped the list for several people, and a few mentioned getting more sleep. And some, like me, said better meal planning would make them happier.

Significantly, none of the people I talked to mentioned any material possessions that would make their lives better. In fact, most of the changes people wanted to make had nothing to do with money or possessions. The more I talked to people, the clearer it became that we don’t necessarily need bigger paychecks, expensive belongings, or major life overhauls to lead more satisfying lives. What we need instead is to take smaller, more deliberate steps to create the lives we desire.

Being reminded of this inspires me to take the small step of planning meals. My meal plans may not spell out specific menus, but they could list items we have in the house that we could eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Whether meal preparation that day falls to my husband or to me, a general plan will ease the decisions about what to eat. By planning ahead, my grocery shopping could become more streamlined, as well.

What small, deliberate step could you make? Start today, and you’ll be on your way to the satisfying life you truly want.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Spending money on what you value brings real happiness

My husband and I have a good life. We have flexible work schedules and a home in the country where we grow a large garden and keep a few chickens. We’ve been known to float homemade rafts and dangle our toes in the nearby creek with our four children, and to eat s’mores made in our fire pit for dinner.

In general, I’d say we live a slow, deliberate life. We don’t have television reception where we live, and we have no cable. And we have pay-as-we-go cell phone plans because we don’t get service in our area. Our two cars have a combined total of over 330,000 miles on them, and we do almost all of our shopping for clothes and other household needs at thrift stores.

Now, it’s quite possible that the idea of going without cable, weeding a garden and paying 10 cents a minute for cell phone calls might literally sound like torture to you. And that’s OK—because my definition of a good life cannot (and should not) be the same as yours.

Too often, people look around at what others are doing and buying, and decide that those things are necessary for a good life. And so begins a vicious (and often debt-ridden) cycle, where other people’s lives and possessions become the measure of our happiness. The result is that happiness becomes elusive, always just one purchase or activity out of reach.

This isn’t to say that material possessions don’t have the potential to improve your happiness quotient. In fact, I unequivocally believe they do—as long as the things you buy reflect what you sincerely value. My husband and I, for example, value nature and look for ways to spend more time outdoors.

Accordingly, we invested in a 1978 pop-up camper last summer. It’s got brown plaid seat covers, gold linoleum and a few dents here and there, but it suits our family well right now. We also saved for and built a screened porch last winter. We knew we wanted a room that, for three seasons of the year, would shelter us from the weather and keep us sequestered from mosquitos. Both the camper and the porch have improved the quality of our lives by giving us more ways to enjoy the outdoors.

Figuring out what you value isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the effort to do it. Begin by asking yourself a simple question: What is important to me? If you can, list at least five things. The things you list will be your unique values. When you identify them, and start making decisions based on them, you will be happier and more satisfied with your life.

My own list includes beauty, creativity, family, flexibility and, as I already mentioned, nature. With this list at the top of my mind, I am better equipped to make decisions about how I do and do not wish to spend my time and money. Sure, I may still admire a friend’s new car or the fashionable way she dresses, but I don’t value driving a new vehicle or wearing trendy clothing. I have learned that I get genuine satisfaction from spending my money to outfit our camper with the supplies we need for a weekend getaway, or to create a playhouse for our children.

When you understand what you value, you’re more prepared to create a budget that actually works. Your budget will help you focus on spending your money in ways that will help you achieve the good life that you – not your friends or neighbors – really desire.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Anticipating the pleasure ahead adds richness to life

If you were to stop by my house about 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, you would find me standing at the counter in my kitchen. I’d probably still be sporting pajamas and may very likely be dotted with flour. Our children would be intermittently darting in and out of the room as I rolled out a sticky rectangle of dough. I’d have offers to stir the filling, and I’d be fielding arguments about who got to make the frosting last time.

“Saturday morning cinnamon rolls,” as they’ve come to be called at our house, mark the end of our week. Making these rolls is a simple ritual, but one that is already deeply rooted in my family’s story. It’s what we do together on Saturdays, a tradition that gives us something to anticipate.

As parents, we want to help our children anticipate good things, to celebrate the pleasure of looking forward to moments we have planned. Fortunately, young children don’t need a lot of prompting to relish the excitement of good things to come. At our house, it’s just a simple, “Do you know what tomorrow is?” reminder when we put them to bed on Friday. They squirm and chatter about cinnamon rolls as we close their doors for the night.

The notion of Saturday morning cinnamon rolls may not be squirm-worthy to you, but there is a great deal of value in learning (or rather relearning) the art of anticipation. Anticipation can fuel hope and become a counterpoint to the general busyness, and the sometimes mundane moments, of daily life. Anticipation lets you relish the best of what is to come, and it is a worthy defense against expectation.

Unlike anticipation, expectation tends to leave you disappointed. You don’t have to be an adult long to realize how often circumstances don’t turn out as you might have planned. It happens virtually every day, in things big and small: Your offer on a house is turned down, you get overlooked for a promotion or you don’t get the birthday gift you asked for. And when you’ve expected a certain result that doesn’t work out, you can easily feel deflated, even angry.

Disappointments are a natural part of life, but you can have fewer of them when you learn to shift your focus from expectation to anticipation. You can start doing this by giving yourself more good things to anticipate.

In other words, deliberately plan – and then do – things that will boost your happiness, either as one-time events or ongoing rituals. Organize a picnic with your friends or family. Meet a friend for coffee, visit your favorite bookstore or antique shop, go fishing or start a weekend breakfast tradition, such as freshly brewed coffee and blueberry scones on the porch.

You can also look for intentional ways to savor good things to come. Get a small notebook, or even a small piece of scratch paper. Write today’s date on it and write down something you’re looking forward to today. Next, ask yourself what you are looking forward to tomorrow, next week and next month. The very act of chronicling the things you’re anticipating will help you enjoy those experiences even more.

As for me, I’m looking forward to digging in the dirt when I get home today. Tomorrow, I’m anxious to make headway on a major project at work. Next week, I’m anticipating some of the first fresh greens from the garden. And next month, I’m looking forward to taking a weekend family vacation.

What about you? What good things are you anticipating in the days to come?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Relaxing without shopping made for a memorable vacation

My husband and I have just returned from five glorious days of soaking in the Mexican sun. At the outset, the goal of our vacation was simple: do nothing. No meal planning or chasing dust bunnies. No worrying about the ketchup handprints on the back door or about getting everyone to bed at a decent hour. Nope. This vacation was intended for lounging by the pool, dangling toes in the water and walking on the beach.

We paid for a trip to an all-inclusive resort so that our expenses would be finite—no leaving in search of a restaurant or something to entertain us. Instead, we planned to settle in and enjoy the best our resort had to offer, which included nightly shows and such personal touches as a chocolate fountain with fruit skewers served in the lobby.

It didn’t take long, however, for our “do nothing” goal to be challenged. In fact, the moment we walked into the lobby, a handsome and plucky hotel concierge tried to arrange a special breakfast where we could learn about all the benefits of purchasing a resort membership. He plied us with offers of a couple’s massage and cold hard cash.

Not long after that, the travel company we used to book our vacation had arranged for a representative to meet us to schedule our return transfer. In truth, he was trying to sell us tour packages.

Add to this offers made to have our photograph taken with the Benito the monkey, with a pair of beautiful macaws and a long-tailed lizard. We could have bought silver jewelry from the young men walking up and down the beach, purchased a new swimsuit from a poolside kiosk or jumped on a nearby boat for a parasailing or snorkeling adventure.

Everywhere we went, someone, somewhere was trying to sell us something. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time my husband and I said “no thank you,” we probably could have paid for most of our trip. And though having Benito the monkey perch on top of my head for a photo wasn’t exactly a tempting prospect, I did find myself browsing the racks of swimsuits and cover-ups near the pool.

In the end, we resisted all the offers to go and do and buy, reminding ourselves that the goal of our vacation was simply to relax. Neither Benito nor a new swimsuit were ends to that goal. Our overarching vacation goal served as a slide rule, of sorts. It helped us to filter through all the messages we were getting and to stay focused on doing what we had set out to do.

Our experience in Mexico reminds me how essential goals are to all of life. They’re really the most effective way to ensure that you remain focused on doing and buying those things that bring you true satisfaction.

At home and virtually everywhere you go, some company or individual is trying to convince you to buy what they’re selling. The messages may be subtler than those of our hotel concierge, but they are present nevertheless.

Decide what you want. Put it in writing and use what you have written to guide all of your spending decisions. My husband and I don’t regret spending a single penny on our vacation, but we probably couldn’t say that if we were staring down a picture of us posing with Benito.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Traveling light saves money, hassle and stress

The last time I was on an airplane, I was traveling with three small children, which necessitated bringing two umbrella strollers, three car seats, and a suitcase full of things like onesies, bibs, sippy cups, diaper rash cream and baby spoons. By the time we reached our destination, I felt like a beleaguered pack mule.

On my upcoming vacation, I’m planning on a much more relaxing flight (reading or watching an in-flight movie, instead of passing out stickers and lollipops for three hours) and I’m only packing what fits in a single carry-on.

I’m getting ready for the first vacation my husband and I have taken alone in nine years. The last thing I want is to be bogged down with too much stuff. By packing light, I won’t be subject to airline baggage fees ($25 per checked item), and I can bypass the check-in counter and the baggage claim carousel, saving myself extra time and hassle. Plus, I’ll be certain to arrive at my destination with my luggage in tow—no lost or delayed bags.

What’s more, by limiting myself to a single carry-on, I will only be able to pack the essentials. This means I won’t be lugging around dead weight (like three extra pairs of shoes), and I won’t need the assistance of a skycap or a bell hop (and therefore I won’t need extra cash for tipping).

While there are plenty of reasons to pack light, it does require extra thought and planning. Travel experts assert that one of the reasons many people overpack is because they fear the unknown. These unknowns become “what ifs.” And ultimately, those “what ifs” result in travelers bringing too much stuff—the proverbial “bringing everything but the kitchen sink.”

Travel often comes with a few hiccups, but minimizing the unknown is one way to help you travel light. To prepare for our upcoming trip, I first got a handle on the type of weather we can expect, and I downloaded a few sample packing lists from fellow travelers. This general information will help me get a more specific idea what I should, or shouldn’t, bring.

I’ve also made sure to review the Transportation Security Administration’s rules on what I can pack in my carry-on, specifically as it relates to liquid and gel limitations. Accordingly, I stocked up on 3-ounce travel bottles and bought trial-size versions of products I commonly use. Having to replace an oversized item that gets confiscated, such as a pricey facial cleanser, could end up being more expensive than simply checking a bag in the first place.

Learning the airline’s carry-on size limitations is another way to minimize unexpected expenses. If it turned out that my bag didn’t meet the airline’s requirements, I would be required to check it and pay a higher fee than if I had prepaid the baggage fee.

Finally, I plan to use a few savvy packing strategies. One of these strategies will be to pack clothing in two colors; I’ll be able to wear those items interchangeably and create several outfits from just a few key pieces. And since the weather is likely to be very warm when we arrive at our destination, I’ll pack light, wrinkle-free separates, because the last thing I want to do on vacation is be uncomfortable (or have to iron).

With a little advance planning, you can pack a small suitcase that holds everything you need—and nothing more. In the process, you’ll save money and will be able to focus on the most important aspect of a vacation, which is to simply relax.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Successful ‘Summer Manifesto’ returns to help us savor simple pleasures

As I was tucking our 5-year-old son into bed a few nights ago, he looked me squarely in the eyes and declared, “Mom, we need to make our summer list. When will we do it?” Before I could answer him, he announced, “We never had balloons on a picnic last year, so we need to put that on our list. And camping should be on the list, too.” He rattled off a few more ideas as I tried to slip out the door.

It surprised me that the boy who can never remember where his dirty socks go should so passionately recall last year’s summer list, which we dubbed our “Summer Manifesto.” What began as simple way to ensure we were making the most of our summer months has already become a fixture in our household. Clearly, our children were invested in last year’s list and already have very specific ideas about ways to spend our time this summer.

After a little family brainstorming, we decided we’ll repeat some of last year’s highlights: having a water gun fight, flying kites, grilling peaches, roasting marshmallows in the our fire pit and going to the lake. We’ll also tackle a few activities that we didn’t manage to accomplish last year. Namely, camping in the back yard and making red popsicles. Along with these activities, we’ve added some new ones to our summer list.

At the top of my husband’s summer priorities is building a playhouse for our children. Though it’s a major undertaking that will require a significant amount of time and energy to complete, he’s anxious to start the project. He’s been gathering supplies reclaimed from various sources and has already been “building the structure in his mind.” While he’s thinking about building the structure, I’m dreaming about what color to paint the shutters on the playhouse and how wide to make the front porch.

Not surprisingly, playhouse chatter has been contagious, and our oldest daughter is already dreaming about a space to host sleepovers and make mud pies. A water balloon fight, an afternoon family hike, and oddly enough, gathering turkey feathers are her other contributions to the summer list.

Of course, we’ve added “balloons on a picnic” for our 5-year-old and “catch things with our butterfly nets.” (He’s hoping to net himself a bird.) Riding bikes, getting the privilege of staying with Grandma and Grandpa (where he wants to take a dip in the city pool) and gathering firewood are our 3-year-old’s contributions to the list.

My own summer aspirations center on learning a few new skills. I hope to make my own chamomile tea, become more adept at succession planting, and learn how to prepare fried zucchini blossoms. I’d also like to hunt for wild mushrooms and can my own applesauce, neither of which I have done before.

Like last year, our list largely involves simple pleasures that we can experience together and that cost very little. By declaring what we hope to do this summer, and posting our list in place where we see it often, we can be intentional with our time and money. Plus, doing things like hiking together and hanging around our back yard fire pit create a vacation-like feeling without us ever having to venture far from home.

Make the most of your summer by taking the time to make your own list, either on your own or with your family. You’ll be surprised to find how quickly you start realigning your priorities so that you can accomplish what’s on your list. And in the process, you’ll make many sweet summer memories.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kitchen vigilante wages war against wasting food, money

Some recent number crunching confirmed my nagging suspicion: we are once again breaking our monthly food budget. In fact, a closer look revealed that our spending has gone up incrementally during the first four months of this year.

On one hand, hearing my husband rattle off those numbers made me cringe. On the other, it reaffirmed that I want to be more diligent than ever about avoiding food waste. After all, if I suggested you withdraw $100 in small bills from your bank account and drop them one by one into the trash, you’d think I’d lost my mind. Yet when we waste food, that’s essentially what we’re doing.

Avoiding food waste lets me be a good manager of what I have and helps save me money. Still, little to no food waste is only possible with a lot of diligence and creativity. So I am publicly declaring myself as a kitchen vigilante with this pledge: I will do all within my power to ensure I use the food I have. I will not be deterred by the likes of stale bread or languishing apples. I will resourcefully repurpose the food in my kitchen to create delicious and satisfying meals.

You might be wondering if the words “delicious and satisfying” can rest comfortably alongside “resourcefully repurpose.” Can using up bits of leftovers and past-its-prime food actually result in something worth preparing—and more importantly—eating? I believe the answer is unequivocally “yes.”

With a little practice, you can transform all of your kitchen bits into something better. A good place to start is by learning the many uses for stale bread. Who hasn’t had slices of bread or bagels that have lingered a bit too long?

Bread crumbs, croutons and stuffing are all common uses for stale bread. I’m much more likely to cube it and throw it in a freezer bag to use for dishes sweet and savory: egg strata, baked French toast, or bread pudding. A strata is particularly good use for old bread, and you can toss in other foods you need to use up, as well. Leftover vegetables, small amounts of meat, and a variety of cheeses are all good compliments to strata.

Fresh produce is another kitchen staple that seems to spoil faster than I can use it. I’ve gotten in the habit of freezing overripe bananas in their skins for smoothies, breads, and muffins. If berries get mushy, I throw them in the freezer, too, or I use them to make syrup for pancakes or waffles. Grapes that have softened can be frozen and used for snacks. We’ve also been known to grate mealy apples for muffins, pancakes, and oatmeal or to sauté slices with a little butter and brown sugar for a tasty side dish.

Soured milk generally works well as a replacement for buttermilk in baked goods such as pancakes and biscuits. Single servings of yogurt that are approaching their expiration dates can be thrown into the freezer and eaten later; the result is similar to sorbet. Leftover rice can be used in soups, to make fried rice or for rice pudding. Small servings of pasta can be used in frittatas, while the extra spaghetti you have hanging around in the fridge can be reinvented into a baked dish; just add ingredients such as cured meat, sun-dried tomatoes and a strong cheese, like fresh parmesan.

With some creativity, nearly any food you have on hand (unless it has spoiled) can be transformed into a recipe that will make you wonder why you ever thought of throwing that food away in the first place.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Life’s messy, risky adventures can bring great satisfaction

Drippy snow cones, unwieldy light sabers and crowds of people aren’t exactly a prescription for a parent’s happiness. But it’s a gleeful combination if you’re a kid at the circus.

Our 3- and 5-year-old boys waved those light sabers with wild abandon, and our 6-year-old joyfully wore remnants of a sticky snow cone from her neck all the way down to her toes. Even our youngest babe watched dancing dogs and horses with rapt attention, jabbering about the raucous display in front of her.

I wasn’t exactly looking forward to sitting through the two-hour show with four small children. In fact, I would have rather been at home, where there was at least the possibility of relative quiet. But had we stayed home, I would have missed the gleam in my children’s eyes as they took in the high wire act or each relished having a snow cone all to themselves.

There’s no question that the circus is messy. But being afraid of life’s messes and clinging to the safety of the ordinary can deprive us of some of life’s best moments. The point of stagnation, when we aren’t willing to embrace new and unfamiliar experiences, can be a major roadblock to happiness.

I find positive change often happens when I’m a little uncomfortable and when I’m willing to take a risk. Sure, there have been many times when I literally don’t have a clue what I’m doing, like when I decided to take a solo (and somewhat impromptu) backpacking trip to Europe. I’d never been outside the country, but when the opportunity to travel abroad presented itself, I took a leap.

’ll never forget sitting in London’s Heathrow Airport, staring at the ticket desk and wondering if I should just purchase a return ticket and go home. Despite my fear (and not having a single plan made), I stayed for the entire month and trekked across three countries. I made new friends, saw some of the most amazing sites of my life, and learned a tremendous amount about myself and my abilities.

I’ve experienced the same kind of satisfaction from doing something as simple as planting my first garden. I’d never grown a single thing before that first venture, but that year, I ended up with a bountiful harvest and a new passion for cultivating the earth that has stuck with me ever since.

I even count learning how to make my own hamburger buns as a rewarding experience. Homemade buns aren’t a revolutionary idea, but this small kitchen success has buoyed my confidence and encouraged me to make more food from scratch. My family eats better food, and we save money in the process.

Even if you can’t plunge head-long into a new adventure right now, you can tackle a small hill - even a hill as small as making homemade buns. That adventure may not turn out quite as you had planned. But this doesn’t mean that the unexpected (and often messy) moments aren’t worthwhile. In fact, they often end up being the very best moments of your life. What small hill can you tackle today?

Monday, May 9, 2011

A simple plan cuts the cost of wasted food

For the past two weeks, I’ve been staring down a small container of cherry tomatoes. They haven’t spoiled, but they are definitely past their prime. I don’t want to throw them away, but a dozen lackluster tomatoes aren’t inspiring my inner chef. Plus, I feel a twinge of guilt when I think about wasting food, particularly when we devote such a large portion of our budget to feeding our family.

Having a trio of backyard chickens has made it possible to redeem almost all of our kitchen scraps, and I work hard to use up the food we have. Still, I know I could do better with things like the aforementioned languishing cherry tomatoes. I’ve even been known to avoid opening food storage containers in my refrigerator because I’m afraid of what might be lurking inside.

What’s even more frightening than unearthing furry food is the cost of wasting it. According to the USDA, Americans throw away about 14% of the food they buy; some other independent estimates put that amount closer to 25%. If my family’s experience rings true—even to the more modest estimate—we’re literally throwing away $70 every month, or $840 a year.

I could think of a lot of ways I’d like to spend $840 this year—but wasted food doesn’t make the list. Becoming more intentional with my food dollars and my cooking habits will help ensure that more food gets used, and less is discarded. There’s nothing revolutionary about the plan I’ve sketched out for my family, but it will help me make the most of what I have.

First, I will recommit to creating a weekly meal plan and writing it on the family calendar. Doing so allows me to take stock of ingredients I already have, and plan meals accordingly. (Plus, a meal plan avoids “what’s for dinner?” tension at the end of the day.) For example, I have some small pieces of ham and a bunch of boiled eggs leftover from Easter, so I’ll prepare a chef salad. I also have a large tub of ricotta cheese (and those leftover tomatoes) lingering in my fridge; I’ll put both to use in lasagna.

Second, I want to have a specific purpose in mind for everything I buy. Contrary to traditional budgeting advice, I don’t shop with a strict list. My grocery list includes staple items I need, such as spices and baking ingredients. Otherwise, I shop for what looks good at the best price. Last time I went shopping, for instance, organic beef was on sale for half price. I hadn’t planned to buy beef that day, but I scooped up the last four packages, knowing that I could freeze it or use it to make sloppy joes and taco pizza.

Designating a specific spot for leftovers in the refrigerator is another easy-to-implement strategy that I’ll employ. If I know that all leftovers are on the top, right-hand shelf, then I’ll be able to look past the tubs of homemade playdough and the cartons of eggs to see what we need to eat first.

Lastly, I want to find more uses for leftovers and food past its prime. I’ve always thrown away broccoli stalks, but I know they’re suitable for stir frying, soups, and frittatas; I just need to get in the habit of using them. Carrot and onion peels, wilted celery ribs and other vegetable miscellany will be put to use in homemade broths, rather than going to the chickens.

This plan will take effort, but I’m looking forward to less spoiled food, less cherry tomato guilt, and to stretching my food dollars further.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Groans of regret echo long after impulse purchases are made

Somehow, we’d managed to stuff a live Christmas tree, a large dog kennel, and all of our luggage in our small, two-door sedan. Getting stuck in our driveway when we arrived home from our trip, however, became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

I don’t remember who made the pronouncement that “we need a bigger, four-wheel drive vehicle,” but one of us did. We found ourselves cruising through car lots the next day. If I remember correctly, we test-drove three vehicles. A few hours later, we were signing the loan papers on a new-to-us SUV.

Though we drove away congratulating ourselves on the new purchase, it didn’t take long for a wave of regret to roll over us. We had been just a few payments away from paying off our sedan. Now, we had a loan for a gas guzzler with an unknown history and high miles. What’s more, we’d gotten a pittance on our trade-in, and because we didn’t shop around, we didn’t really know if we’d gotten a good deal on our new car.

We drove the vehicle for several years, but always with a lingering taste of regret. Interestingly, the word regret literally means, “to groan long after.” For anyone who has regretted making a particular purchase, “to groan long after” is a fitting definition.

In fact, when I asked friends and acquaintances to tell me about the purchases they most regret making, it was almost as if they let out a collective groan. One friend that told me that she regretted the $1,200 vacuum she bought from a very convincing in-home salesman. She even went so far to say, “I hated that vacuum every day it took to pay it off and until the day I sold it.”

Garish wallpaper (that took a great effort to hang and therefore stayed up for a long time), an oversize leather coat, a pricey engagement ring, a used car bought out of frustration, an expensive purse, and a collection of other, smaller buys made the list.

My favorite response came from a friend who bought an expensive aromatherapy wrap from a slick salesman. She recalls, “The last thing I remember hearing was, ‘Hey, pretty lady.’ The next sound I heard was the register dinging. I had immediate buyer’s remorse.”

For all the responses I received, one major theme emerged. The purchases that most often lead to “long groaning” are those bought on impulse. This applies to purchases big and small, on everything from the shirt that didn’t quite fit right to the $8,000 piece of jewelry. Even so-called bargains can lead to regret when you buy them impulsively.

We’ve all made impulsive purchases. But the best way to prevent ourselves from getting caught up in a cycle of impulse buying is to create a filter that we can hold up to anything we might want to buy. The most basic question should be this: Will it make my life better? If it will, and you can afford it, then go ahead and make the purchase.

Next, ask yourself, “Is it fabulous?” Too often, we end up buying things because they’re on sale or because they’re so inexpensive that we think we can’t possibly pass them up. The result is that we end up with a bunch of things that we only marginally like and that clutter our closets and all the recesses of our homes.

If it won’t make your life better and you can’t honestly say that it’s “fabulous,” then you’d be better off leaving it at the store (or on the table at someone’s garage sale).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Preparedness eases stress when the unexpected strikes

A few weeks ago, I awoke at 5 a.m. to a peculiar humming sound. I trundled out of bed to investigate, but I already knew that something was amiss. The sound was caused by a problem with our water system; our cistern wasn’t filling, and we had no water.

While I waited for a reasonable hour to call for help, I contemplated making my morning coffee. Without running water, the small carafe of water in the refrigerator became precious, and so did the notion of being able to flush the toilet.

Thankfully, I had a couple of five-gallon containers of water stored in our crawlspace. They became necessary for preparing meals and for priming our pump when the water was finally restored. Being without water for half a day was a minor inconvenience, but having a source on hand eased the frustration of not being able to use the faucet.

The situation reminded me how important it is to be prepared for the unexpected. Preparedness isn’t needless worry or frenzied stockpiling; it acknowledges that disruptions in normal services can and do happen. A little bit of advanced planning can reduce the stress and discomfort of these disruptions and can make it easier to cope with unusual circumstances.

When you make preparedness a habit, instead of a reaction to bad news, you can make sensible choices that can protect you in case of a disaster. You can also keep your budget intact when you gather supplies over time, and when they are readily available.

The most successful way to build a preparedness plan is to start with a few small goals. I suggest you start by creating a simple communication plan. Knowing the answers to a few key questions can help you make contact with your family following a disaster.

In the event that you cannot contact your family after a disaster, have a plan in place to meet at a specific location. Where will you meet if you cannot go home? Who will pick up the kids if you are faced with an emergency? If your children are old enough to be left alone, what should they do if they are separated from you?

Once you have a plan to ensure you know how to find one another, a good second step for preparedness is to create a financial binder. By gathering your most important personal and financial documents, you have a set of data that can help you restore order following a disaster.

Next, consider how you will ensure that you have enough food and water if you aren’t able to get to a store or if supply chains are disrupted. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that individuals and families should have enough food and water to last a minimum of 72 hours.

FEMA recommends that you store at least one gallon of water per person per day. For our family of six, this means that we should have 18 gallons of potable water on hand. As for food, what you store will depend on your family size and any specialized needs you may have. If you have an infant, or any dietary restrictions, then you should plan accordingly. If you have pets, they will need food and water, as well.

A well-stocked first aid kit, flashlights and batteries, a basic toolkit, a hand-crank radio, and weather-appropriate clothing for everyone in your household are other essentials you should have readily available.

Disasters and disruptions are never easy, but being prepared can relieve some stress until life returns to normal.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Careful planning creates a more carefree vacation

Planning a vacation on a budget for two adults and four kids ages 6, 5, 3 and 1 is no easy feat, but it’s an endeavor my husband and I recently undertook. With or without small children, travel is often expensive and complicated.

One way to minimize expenses and keep complications at bay is to plan your vacation with a clear purpose in mind. What are your main priorities? How do you want your getaway to feel? Adventurous? Relaxing? How much are you willing to spend to achieve those priorities? Your answers will help to ensure that you make the most of your vacation.

In the case of our family, our upcoming trip is to celebrate my in-laws and their 40 years of marriage. Accordingly, we determined that our vacation priority was to spend time in a relaxing atmosphere, doing activities that we could enjoy together as family.

Determining our purpose was the easy part. It was a little trickier planning a vacation that would suit our budget and our small children. We knew our destination had to be family-friendly, and that we wanted to avoid harried airport transfers and rental car desks. Those guidelines narrowed our search tremendously.

We also needed to consider how luggage fees would influence the overall price of our trip. After all, we’re still toting things like diapers, sippy cups and ear thermometers, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to skate by with carry-ons, even for a short getaway. With the cost of one checked bag coming in near $40, we decided that we’ll be packing lighter than usual.

Once we had a destination in mind, we started looking for a hotel that could accommodate us. After searching multiple sites and comparing room rates, we found a two-bedroom suite—with a full kitchen—for $160 a night. (The suite sleeps eight, so we’ll be splitting the cost with my husband’s parents.) The hotel is outside the most popular part of our destination city, but it still has plenty of amenities. And with a full kitchen, we’ll be able to save money by preparing some meals in our suite.

While we were trying to decide if this suite was the right choice, the price increased from $160 to $195 a night. The increase wasn’t a deal breaker, but it was disappointing, nevertheless. We did learn a valuable travel lesson, though. If you find a deal that fits your budget, it’s best to book it, rather than hope that the price might go down.

Now that we have booked our hotel suite and paid for our tickets, we have turned our focus to planning our trip activities. We’re planning a loose itinerary that sketches out some specific places that we’d like to visit and restaurants where we’d like to dine. We won’t be scheduling every waking moment, but we’ll use our itinerary to help us anticipate expenses and to ensure that we’re making the most of our getaway. Of course, we’ll include plenty of downtime in our plan, too.

In the end, we plan to spend a total of $1,500 for a resort-style vacation for our family of six. While our vacation is an investment, we feel it’s one worth saving for. We’ll build precious memories as a family and enjoy a respite from our everyday routine.

As the summer months approach, I encourage you to consider your vacation priorities. Thinking about your vacation and carefully considering what activities you hope to do will help keep your budget intact. It’s much easier to return home feeling relaxed when you know your vacation is already paid for.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Birthday boy reminds me of the best gifts in life

For weeks, I’ve been asking my soon-to-be 5-year-old what he wants for his birthday. He’s never wavered from his initial response: “Balloons, and party hats, and peanut butter sandwiches.” In fact, he rather convincingly maintains that “it isn’t a party without balloons and party hats.” And you have never seen a boy so enthusiastic about eating peanut butter.

I assure him that his dad and I can meet those requests, but I try to reframe the question by asking, “What would you like inside your presents?” He flashes me his signature grin and says, “Jelly beans and a package of balloons.” After asking the same question several times in different ways, it eventually dawned on me that I was making a simple situation far more complicated than necessary.

Amazingly, my son was focused on the experience of celebrating his birthday, and on the way he wanted his special day to “feel.” I, however, kept trying to boil down the celebration to something to unwrap. This boy has always relished simple pleasures, including things like jelly beans and curvy straws. His birthday requests reminded me, once again, that even as children what we most want and cherish in life are heartfelt experiences, not “stuff.”

So, the party itself will be our gift to him. This party will consist of a cake, made by grandma, in the shape of a hot air balloon. He’ll be sharing his cake and a platter of PB&J sandwiches cut into balloon shapes with our extended family. Bottles of soda, bunches of grapes and a few bags of chips will round out his birthday meal.

In keeping with the balloon theme, we’ll hang our birthday wreath on the door (a straw form with 72 balloons pinned to it) and fill our dining room with dozens of free-floating helium balloons. I’ll also hang the pennant bunting we used for the last round of birthdays at our house. And we’ll pass out party hats, of course.

He will have one small gift from us to open, though technically I consider it part of the overall experience. That present will be a t-shirt bearing a drawing he made a few months ago. He’d drawn it after I’d asked him to make a picture of something that made him feel happy. Not surprisingly, he drew a picture of himself, wearing a party hat and holding a bunch of balloons. (As funny aside, his drawing bears his sister’s name, because he can’t quite write his own.)

When I look at the details of his drawing, I see a moment captured in time, a moment when my little boy finds pleasure in the smallest of things. I want to do the same. I am so grateful for this balloon-loving boy who shows me that many joys in life are found in simple things. Planning a party that celebrates him and what he loves reminds me that, in any season of life, our lives can be rich in pleasures that cost very little.

Simple pleasures are even better when shared with family and friends. Planning my son’s party also reminds me that, despite my repeated attempts to find out what to buy him, this celebration isn’t about presents. Having people to celebrate with is perhaps the best gift of all. What I most want, and what I most want to give my son, are experiences that can be enjoyed with the people we love. And if those people happen to be wearing party hats and holding balloons, it will be a perfect birthday indeed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

List of goals moves me toward a satisfying life

When life moves at such a frenetic pace, it's difficult to carve out time for things I enjoy. In fact, it's even difficult to tackle some of the more mundane tasks, such as cleaning out my giant chest freezer (with 10 pounds of frozen tomatillos lurking in there somewhere) or researching which waffle iron would be the best choice for my family.

Knowing that my life fills so quickly, last year I wrote a list of things I wanted to accomplish before my next birthday, which is approaching in May. I wrote those 36 things on a large piece of poster board and hung it in a place where I would pass by it many times each day.

It was an ambitious list, one where I let wild, impractical ideas co-mingle with more practical ones I could easily accomplish. On the side of impractical was the idea that I would sew a skirt; I've never sewn a garment in all my years and don't even have a working sewing machine. Still, I put it on the list, knowing that the only way I'd make room in my life for learning a craft was to make it a priority.

More practically, I committed to reading the giant tome Anna Karenina and to baking a pie from scratch. I also decided that I wanted to paint a canvas, go on a garden tour, and book a vacation, all items I've been able to accomplish and joyfully cross off my list. As for the vacation I booked, if all goes as planned, my husband and l will be waking up in a hotel overlooking the Caribbean on the morning of my birthday.

Other goals, such as getting a new manual focus camera and learning how to use it, probably won't happen before my birthday arrives. But what has happened is that I became more motivated to take better photographs with the camera I already have (which really was as simple as reading the user's manual). Similarly, I had a goal of journaling for my children 50 times over the course of a year. I didn't reach 50, but because I made writing for my children a priority, I was encouraged to write more often.

In some cases, my priorities simply changed during the year. For example, I thought I'd wanted to wallpaper my living room, but I realized that I didn't want the hassle or expense of taking on the project. Changing my mind—and even not reaching some of the goals I wrote down—is fine with me. The list, after all, was more about giving myself the space—and the permission—to acknowledge what brings me joy.

Over the last 10 months, I've been reminded how satisfying it is to take the time to figure out what I want and put it in writing. Sometimes, that's all it took for me to begin realigning my priorities and to work on reaching my goals. Other times, I had to take an honest look at those goals and ask myself, “Is this truly what I want?” In either case, I have been empowered to spend my time and money in ways that bring fulfillment.

You don't have to wait for an upcoming birthday, the start of a new year, or any other magical moment to start making and reaching your goals. Start with three things you want to accomplish and put them in writing. Put the list somewhere you'll see it often, and you'll be surprised by how quickly you start making choices that move you closer to getting the life you want.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My simple garden gives us beauty, food without fuss

My life is complicated, with four kids and one very stubborn hound dog, and so I resist things that require fuss. I don’t buy clothing that needs to be dry cleaned, or even ironed for that matter. I don’t grow finicky houseplants or prepare recipes with long lists of ingredients. I won’t even wear a hairstyle that requires frequent trips to the salon.

In general, I make choices designed to keep my life as simple as possible. Not having to run clothing to the dry cleaner, for example, means I save myself time and money. The same is true for preparing uncomplicated meals at home.

My garden is no exception to my keep-it-simple mantra. Sure, it’s possible—even easy—to make gardening complicated, by growing varieties of plants that need pampering and by worrying about things like soil temperature and PH, for instance. But again, I avoid all the fuss. Instead, I get seeds in the ground when the weather becomes pleasant, and I grow tough-as-nails plants that can tolerate a little neglect.

I work with simple and inexpensive tools—a hand trowel, a spade, a hoe, and a rake—and use composted manure I collect from my neighbors’ horses to fertilize my garden. As for my garden beds themselves, they are built with rocks foraged from our property, and the paths are lined with reclaimed woodchips.

When I started gardening, I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Though I had read a few primers and absorbed garden wisdom from my parents over the years, I had no formal instruction of any kind. Instead, I literally just dug in and got my hands dirty, learning as I went.

I quickly discovered which plants thrived in my garden, and I decided to “love what grows,” abandoning specimens that didn’t perform well or that seemed to require extra care. I also recognized that perennial herbs and fruits are good investments; my chives and rhubarb come up in early spring and produce all summer long.

Now six years later, I have a large garden filled with sturdy perennials and with beds devoted to growing fruits, herbs, and vegetables. And from May until September, I am able to gather fresh produce by taking a few steps outside my back door. (As an added bonus, my children will eat anything that comes from our little plot—even onions.)

This year, I spent $48 on new heirloom garden seeds, which I’ll plant alongside seeds leftover from past years. For the first time, I’ll be collecting and saving the seeds from these heirloom varieties, which means I’ll have an even larger return on my initial investment. I’ll also be devoting more time to learning about companion planting—placing certain plants next to one another to improve plant growth and to repel pests.

I started gardening with only a willingness to learn and a desire to use the resources available to me. Together, these two things have made it possible for me to enjoy a frugal hobby that is good for me and for my family. By keeping my garden plan simple, I enjoy the benefits of homegrown food, without having to spend more time or money than I want to.

If blooming flowers or picking garden-fresh tomatoes seem alluring, I encourage you to dig in and try it this spring. Start with the space and resources you have; perhaps a friend or family member will even give you some seeds or transplants. Investing in a garden, big or small, can bring you a lot of satisfaction without breaking your budget.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Small steps toward my dream cultivate happiness

For as long as I can remember, I have loved old, white farmhouses. I moon over their clapboard siding and steeply pitched roofs, their mullioned windows and gracious front porches. I love them even more when they are surrounded by white picket fences, with red barns nearby.

Fueled by my farm infatuation, I have spent many hours trolling real estate sites looking for my own little white house with a big red barn. I have also been known to endlessly blather to my very patient husband about apple orchards and milking goats.

However, I began to realize that the more time I spent imagining my life in a white house, tending to my Nubian goats, the more restless and discontented I became. In fact, focusing on what I didn’t have was making me noticeably unhappy.

When I look closer at the situation, I recognize that I’d unconsciously gotten caught up in the “I’ll be happy when” mentality. I’d made my happiness conditional, believing that somehow being there—wherever there might be—was better than being here. What’s more, my conditional happiness was based more on romantic fantasies than the gritty realities of farm life.

Unfortunately, getting caught in the trap of conditional happiness is easy. What isn’t so easy is learning how to quiet the “I’ll be happy when” messages we send ourselves. These are the messages that say, “I’ll be happy when I get a promotion.” Or, “I’ll be happy when I get a new car.” The fact is that if you were unhappy before you got the promotion or the new car, you’ll very likely feel the same way after the initial buzz of achieving these things wears off.

For me, acknowledging that I was postponing happiness for a pipe dream was essential. (Again, enter my very patient husband, who helped me realize this.) Once I did this, I was better able to appreciate what I have right now, which includes a small acreage with a creek running through it, a neighborhood filled with people willing to help one another, and a sizeable garden that produces hundreds of pounds of produce every summer. I’m continuing to expand this list in a gratitude journal I have been keeping.

Although I may not be able to have a full-blown farm right now, I recognize that there are some intermediary steps I can take in the meantime. Building a small chicken coop out of reclaimed cedar and getting a few laying hens was one of those steps. We’ve been collecting over a dozen of our own farm- fresh eggs every week, and we have enjoyed watching our hens strut around the yard – a pastime we have dubbed “chicken TV.”

Other plans include ordering some dwarf fruit trees for our existing garden and expanding the variety of other produce we grow. (One of those new varieties we’ll be planting is stevia, an herb known for being a potent sweetener.) We also bought a bundle of posts that we plan to use on the back portion of our property to build a fence for some animals (which are yet to be determined).

Instead of feeling stuck because I am waiting on happiness in my white farmhouse, I’m focusing my energy on creating a farm-like atmosphere for myself and my family right now. I’ll take satisfaction in the flowers and vegetables that emerge from my garden this year, and in delicious eggs from my own hens. This kind of happiness costs me very little. It only takes determination to look for the good in what I have now.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Healthful snacks can be good for you and your budget

At our house, it’s not uncommon for our children to be eating one meal and already asking about what I’m serving for the next one. And my family’s food-centric ways aren’t limited to meals. Snacks are supremely important, too—even for the baby who doesn’t yet talk but who pounds on her highchair when she’s hungry between meals.

With four children, who each eat at least two snacks a day, I’m serving up a minimum of 56 snacks a week. Providing this many snacks stretches my creativity—and my budget. An extra challenge is providing healthy snacks that don’t require a lot to time to prepare. (Serving 56 snacks over the course of a week already takes a significant amount of time.)

Though the kids moon over blue yogurt in tubes and little boxed lunches with cheese and crackers, we try to avoid prepackaged (and expensive) snacks like these. Instead, we try to focus on giving them whole foods—although to be honest, they aren’t exactly gobbling up celery and carrot sticks when I serve them.

To help us keep our budget in check and to encourage the kids to eat more healthy foods, popcorn has become our go-to snack. I simply heat a tablespoon or two of canola oil in my 8-quart stock pot and drop in a half-cup of popcorn kernels. I put the lid on and stick close to the stove, shaking the pan on the burner when the popping begins to slow.

In less than five minutes, I have a bowl of warm popcorn that costs about 25 cents to make. Even drizzled with butter and a little salt, homemade popcorn is far cheaper than any microwave popcorn—and much better for us.

Popcorn also lends itself to many easy additions. These include dried cranberries, a tablespoon of apple or pumpkin pie spice, a few tablespoons of powdered sugar mixed with a little cocoa, freshly grated parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning, cinnamon and sugar, mini chocolate chips and—our current favorite—a few handfuls of mini marshmallows. Dropping the marshmallows on warm popcorn makes it taste like a popcorn ball, without any of the work.

Fruit and yogurt smoothies are another household favorite that meet the criteria of inexpensive and healthy fare. I scoop up past-their-prime bananas when my local grocery store discounts them to 25 cents a pound and store them in the freezer in their skins until I’m ready to use them.

When I need to prepare a quick snack, I defrost a banana long enough so that I can remove its skin. I drop it, along with a few spoonfuls of plain yogurt, into the blender. Sometimes I add other frozen fruit or fruit that needs to be used up, with a little honey or raw sugar. Smoothies are flexible enough that I’m generally able to use what I have on hand. Last time I made them, in fact, I even dropped in some spinach, which was stealthily camouflaged by the blueberries I added.

When my own ideas for snacks run low, I can turn to sites online for a wealth of healthful snack ideas. The Mayo Clinic site, for example, suggests stringing chunks of fruit on wooden skewers to make fruit kebabs. Parents magazine’s site touts cheese as an excellent snack, and suggests serving chunks of it to children on “skewers” of pretzel sticks. Or, if your children are reluctant to eat fruits and vegetables, Parents’ site recommends preparing zucchini bread or carrot muffins.

With a little imagination, snack time can be fun, delicious and budget-friendly for you and your children.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Warmth and better meals some rewards of cutting our food budget

Last summer, after my husband and I did some honest budget-crunching, I revealed that we were spending an average of $800 a month on food for our family of six, with approximately $200 of that amount going toward meals out. (Some months, we discovered, we spent close to a $1,000 on food. Ouch! )

At first when we realized what we were spending, we decided to cut our food budget in half. It was a drastic move that forced us to rethink how we were using our food dollars. We started using cash and reconsidered buying many of the items we thoughtlessly threw into our cart. While I’m glad we reached a new level of consciousness, we all ended up feeling deprived—and crabby.

We realized that, while we're capable of spending half as much as we once did, we honestly didn’t want to make such a sweeping change. Instead, we decided to slowly increase the amount we were spending on food, until we arrived at a level comfortable for us. As of now, we’ve determined that we’re comfortable with spending about $500 a month on groceries.

Two notable changes have taken place since our food budget revelation. First, by shopping more carefully, we have freed up cash to help us reach one of our financial goals, which was our original motivation for changing how we shopped. That goal was to install a source of backup heat, which we were able to accomplish in early fall. We now have a small gas stove in our living room, a place where we’ve been curling up and spending lots of time together on cold winter nights.

Second, as we’ve become more aware of how we’re spending, we have become more conscious of what we’re eating. We’re eating out less and preparing more satisfying and nutritious foods at home. We’ve also cut out most prepackaged foods, including things like frozen pizza and pudding cups, and we have switched to an almost all-organic diet.

Seeing our food budget through new eyes has definitely been a learning experience. Not only have I had to learn to shop differently, but I’ve also had to sharpen my skills in the kitchen. The first time I made cooked chocolate pudding from my mother’s old recipe, it was so runny that it was more like chocolate sauce than pudding.

To be honest, it’s taken some adjusting on the part of our children, as well. We don’t buy the super-sweet 8-ounce containers of yogurt or microwave popcorn anymore. But we do enjoy plain yogurt sweetened with a little honey, and popcorn made in a kettle on our cook stove. Finding suitable substitutes for the pricier convenience foods we once ate has helped with the transition. Getting my children more involved in meal preparation has helped, too.

Having my children work alongside me does take extra time (and patience), but when they’ve made an investment in what they’re preparing, I’ve found they’re much more likely to eat it. I suppose you could say buying and preparing wholesome food is the same for me: it takes time and a little bit of patience.

Still, even while I may be devoting more time to shopping or spending a few more minutes in the kitchen, we’ve enjoyed the tangible (our new gas stove) and intangible (increased energy, improved health) rewards in a way that makes this kind of conscious spending feel like a worthy pursuit.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Before you buy it, ask yourself if you really need it

Our 4-year-old son is obsessed with baseball. His face lights up when he catches a snippet of a game on television, or even when he sees a drawing of a ball and bat in one of his activity books. He winds up like a pro and has the kick-the-dirt action of baseball players down pat.

Several months ago, while we were walking through the sporting equipment aisle, he announced, “I need a baseball mitt.” I reminded him that a baseball mitt wasn’t a need, but a want. He cleverly countered with, “If I’m going to play baseball, I do need a mitt.” He was right. He couldn’t play baseball without a mitt, but I was amazed by how quickly and adeptly he was able to spin the situation in his favor.

Of course, it isn’t only children who confuse their wants with their needs; my husband and I are sometimes guilty of doing the same thing. What’s interesting about co-mingling our wants and needs is that we often do so unconsciously. What starts out as a want unwittingly turns into a need.

Take the situation with our home computer, for example. After the hard drive died, we basically had two options: invest in a new hard drive and spend about $200 for the repair, or buy a new computer, which would cost us $400 to $600. At first, we had planned on spending the lesser amount and repairing what we had, but as we looked at new computers and the dizzying array of options available, we slowly began to shift our focus. We started saying things like, “We could really use a computer with more memory.” “A faster computer would be nice.” And, “With a bigger monitor, our kids could watch movies in the kitchen.”

Without really noticing, we had changed our dialogue. When discussing our plans with family and friends, we started saying, “The hard drive in our computer is bad. We need a new computer.” In reality, we wanted a new computer because we got caught up in the idea of all the extras we could enjoy.

I wouldn’t say we’re kicking ourselves over buying a new computer. We had the money set aside to buy it, and we will certainly appreciate increased browsing and download speeds, along with a larger, clearer monitor. Nevertheless, the experience reminds us that it’s difficult to make wise financial decisions when we let our wants become our needs.

Part of that difficulty arises because wants and needs in a consumer-driven society are often relative. Where you live and who you spend time with helps shape what constitutes a “need” in your life. If all your friends tend to communicate with each other via text messages, for example, then you’re more apt to believe you need a cell phone with texting capabilities, too.

A pervading sense of entitlement is another reason we blur the line between wants and needs. When you work hard, you might feel that you “deserve” a vacation, or a massage, a new set of tools or some other special reward. It’s easier to spend money unconsciously with an attitude that says, “I am owed this.”

It’s not always easy to be honest about our wants and needs. Our needs are simple. What isn’t simple is learning to look carefully at our lives and sort through the messages—our own and others—that tell us to do and buy and upgrade. Thoughtfully spending money on what we truly need and want – instead of buying to keep up with trends – can help us keep our budgets focused on what’s most important to us.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A financial binder can help you cope with disaster

When I took our computer to be repaired last week, the technician confirmed my suspicions: the hard drive had gone caput. Thankfully, I’d sensed trouble, and was able to copy five year’s worth of pictures (and some important documents) before it stopped working completely.

Having our computer crash was a poignant reminder that technology can (and will) fail. It was also the motivation we needed to start working on one of our family goals for this year, which is to create a financial binder.

Although we have a fairly complete and comprehensive filing system, our documents are spread out in several places right now. With a financial binder, we will gain quick, easy access to our personal and financial information in the case of an emergency. Faced with a natural disaster, a fire or an unexpected death in the family, we will have the information we need to manage our financial affairs.

Though computers and other electronic devices can store and manage a tremendous amount of data, paperwork will truly be the key to disaster recovery. Our plan for pulling that paperwork together is simple. We’ll get a few inexpensive supplies—a large, three-ring binder and a few colored dividers—and spend a couple of hours making copies and assembling our information.

The first section in our binder will be labeled “Identity.” In it, we’ll include copies of each family member’s Social Security card and birth certificate, immunization records, and copies of our marriage license and driver’s licenses. In addition, we’ll make a list of people to contact in an emergency, including business, medical, religious and professional contacts.

Next, we’ll gather our financial records. The “Financial Records” section will include information about our checking and savings accounts, installment loans and credit card accounts. Social Security benefit statements, retirement account information, wills, life insurance, and tax and trust information will also go into this section.

A “Home” section in our binder will include copies of our home insurance policy, our mortgage, and an inventory of our personal property. Information about our vehicles, including titles and insurance policies, will be filed here, too.

Finally, we’ll include a section for “Medical” information, where we’ll make copies of our health, vision, and dental insurance cards and policies. If you take prescription medication or have other special medical needs, include that information here, too. For example, one of our children has a life-threatening food allergy. We’ll add the contact information for his allergist and include copies of his allergy tests, which detail the foods he must avoid.

While you’re gathering the information you need to file your taxes, you might want to copy your important documents and start your own financial binder. You can create it using the system I describe, or you can go online to find more detailed instructions about how to pull together your personal data. You can even buy complete kits that come with preprinted labels and contact sheets – although nothing that formal or expensive is necessary to create a financial binder.

When you’ve completed your financial binder, store it in a secure place, such as a safe deposit box or a fireproof safe. You need to tell a trusted family member or friend where to find the binder, and be sure to review the information once a year or when you’ve experienced a significant life change, such as a marriage, divorce, death, or relocation.

It will probably take a few hours to assemble your financial binder, but the time you spend now gathering these documents can help ease the stress and uncertainty if you need this information in an emergency or a disaster.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Investing your time, creativity can build richer relationships

Of our four children, one is particularly “spirited,” which is another way of saying that the boy is an expert at sniffing out trouble. Just yesterday, he was happily occupied with a small, battery-operated vacuum cleaner. When I looked away for a moment, he decided to take the brush attachment from the vacuum I was using, dip it into the toilet, and “help me” by “scrubbing” the floor.

Moments like these often leave me frazzled and worn out, a familiar state for virtually anyone in the trenches of parenthood. This is true whether you’re tending to a newborn, chasing a toddler, running a tween to baseball practice or dealing with teenage angst.

In the midst of the chaos and the fatigue, the busyness and the routines, my husband and I have learned how difficult it can be to connect with our children in deep and meaningful ways. But we have also learned that, above all else, connectedness is what we want and what our children need.

Still, connectedness doesn’t always come naturally for us; honestly, we’ve found that it can be easier to divert or distract our children than to connect with them. In our home, movies often end up being our go-to diversion. Television, video games, the Internet, cell phone apps, a barrage of extracurricular activities, or buying new material possessions can just as easily serve as distractions and time fillers that keep us from building the relationships we really want.

Although diversions do give us an occasional break from the demands of parenthood, my husband and I want to invest in the relationship we have with our children. We try to do this by spending our time and our money in ways that enrich our family.

We often spend time together on simple activities. We pull out board games, do artwork at the dining room table together, include our children in meal preparation (as painful as it might be to wait for a 6-year-old to finish peeling three carrots), and try to engage in the things they love. We drive Matchbox cars and sword fight, sip water from tiny tea cups and swaddle dolls.

In the evenings when we’re all home together, we gather in the living room to read. One of the tangible investments we’ve made in our children is a library of beautiful and engaging books. We’ve received some as gifts; the others we’ve picked up at rummage sales and secondhand stores for a dollar or less.

We prefer investing our money in books and playthings that encourage our children to use their time creatively – and that sometimes allow us to jump in and play with them. We like simple, low-tech items such as new cookie cutters that can be play dough tools, wooden bowls for their little kitchen, thrifted dress-up clothes or paint sets and sketchbooks.

Finding ways to connect with older children can be challenging, but it is just as essential. Start by committing to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time with them. Resist the urge to send a quick text message, answer the phone, send an e-mail, or start dinner. Challenge your children, too, to take a break from their electronic devices to spend time with you.

Being wholly present may take some practice and effort, but investing in your children, regardless of their age, has rich rewards.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Banish winter blues with flowers, friends and fun projects

When I pad down the stairs in the early morning light, l instinctively head to the thermostat. On this morning, it reads 11 below zero. I shiver and let the familiar sense of dread settle in, wondering how we’ll spend another day together indoors.

Faced with perpetual gray skies and freezing temperatures, I battle the impulse to hunker down and wait for winter to pass. It’s almost as if I am holding my breath, waiting for spring’s return. Despite these feelings, however, I know I don’t want to let one day blur into the next. I want to do my best to celebrate what I have right now.

In Calvin Coolidge’s words, “We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once.” So even if I can’t eradicate all my winter angst in a single swoop, I can make small, deliberate choices to find joy. It’s even possible to do so without breaking my budget.

One budget-friendly way to lift your spirits, according to research from Rutgers University, is with a bouquet of fresh flowers. According to a series of published reports from Professor Jeanette Haviland-Jones and her colleagues, flowers have an “immediate and long-term effect on emotional reactions and social behavior,” for both men and women. In other words, flowers are clinically proven to reduce stress and make people happier. Investing in a small supermarket bouquet can cost as little as $5, but it’s a simple and cost-effective way to improve your mood.

Similarly, making an effort to cultivate relationships is a low-cost way to beat the winter doldrums. Try gathering friends to share a meal or enjoy a game night together. You don’t have to put on a full spread for everyone; you can make a big pot of soup and ask guests to bring bread and dessert to share. Or you can gather after meal time and serve a light snack.

You can easily elevate simple, inexpensive fare to impressive party food. For example, a bowl of popcorn topped with crumbled bacon (and some of the pan drippings) makes a crowd-pleasing snack. Pair this with rich candy bar hot chocolate and gather around the fireplace or the coffee table for a game or good conversation.

Getting outside is another easy, inexpensive way to squeeze some joy out of winter – even if it’s difficult to find the motivation to do so. Take a brisk walk, go sledding, or build a snowman. When you’re engaged in physical activity, your brain is releasing endorphins. These chemical messengers reduce your perception of pain, boost your immune system, and generally promote physical and emotional well being.

Learning a new skill or reviving an old interest can have a similar positive effect on your mood, as I found out when I recently pulled out the pasta maker I inherited from my grandmother. The process of rolling out pasta dough, and then slowly turning the crank on the machine, was almost meditative. I stood in the kitchen and surveyed the long strands of pasta with great satisfaction.

If you’re looking for ways to banish winter doldrums, make a list of three things you’ve always wanted to do or that you haven’t been able to finish. Perhaps you have a craft or cleaning project that has gone undone; now may be the perfect time to finish that novel or reorganize your closet.

When you make it a point to enjoy what you have right now, you might find that, instead of the winter blues, you have a warm sense of satisfaction—and that’s something worth celebrating.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Investing in good kitchen tools has some delicious rewards

As a child, I remember restaurant pizza being expensive and a rare treat for my family. Store-bought pizza was pricey, too, and it didn’t taste that good. And then there was the homemade variety: hamburger pizza made on a giant, blackened cookie sheet and always a little too doughy for my taste.

These days, it’s easy to get a decent pizza at a reasonable price, but I’ve found it more difficult to prepare pizza at home that excites my family— in the same ways that store-bought or restaurant pizza might, at least. In fact, until quite recently, I’ve had moments of “homemade pizza anxiety,” because my pizza doesn’t behave precisely as it should. It sticks to the pan, or won’t slide onto the pan, gets too puffy, or browns too quickly on top, leaving me with the kind of too-doughy crust I don’t like.

Convinced that pizza should never make me crabby, I decided to invest in some tools that will help me make truly good pizzas at home. First, I bought two baking stones and some cornmeal. The idea is that you preheat the baking stones to 500 degrees; then slide the prepared pizzas onto them. The stone meeting the crust is supposed to be a little bit of magic—that is, if you can manage to slide a 12-inch pizza onto a crazy hot piece of ceramic.

As you might have guessed, this process did not work as well as I hoped. I tried sliding the pizza from the back of a cookie sheet onto the hot stones, and I also tried not preheating the stones as suggested. More than once, I dropped my pizza on the oven rack or sent a shower of cornmeal into the bottom of my stove, or ended up with subpar pizza.

My mother, having observed—and sympathized—with my frustration, gave me what is known as pizza peel, the flat shovel-like object used in pizzerias. The result has been nothing short of a miracle, as it relates to the quality of pizza we’re eating. This homemade pizza is better (and far cheaper) than what we can eat out or buy at the store. Plus, we’re happily trying different kinds of toppings: spinach and goat cheese, caramelized onion and fresh mozzarella, and chicken apple sausage with feta.

The lesson, as it relates to finances, is that it pays to invest in good-quality kitchen tools that you will actually use. I got my pizza stones on sale for $10 each, and I’m guessing that the cost of the pizza peel was about $20. With $40 worth of appropriate tools, I can make meals that fit our budget and our lifestyle.

On the other hand, a kitchen full of unused—even wacky—gadgets is money sitting on your shelves. This means that as interesting as an automatic peppermill with a light might be (yes, such a product does exist), if you don’t need to light up your salad while you’re grinding pepper on it, then you shouldn’t buy it.

The only way to know what tools you need is to be honest about how you use your kitchen. Start with a kitchen inventory and pull out anything you haven’t used in more than a year; sell or donate those items. Then, consider which tools you believe indispensable to the way you live. For our family who eats pizza at least once a week, we’ve already gotten our money’s worth out of the pizza-making equipment. Over time, we’ll save ourselves hundreds of dollars we might have spent buying pizza, without depriving ourselves of the pleasure of a dinnertime favorite.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Distractions can be hard on your finances

I can easily get distracted when I’m at home with our four young children. The level of my distraction is well illustrated by the story of the missing cheese. Recently while making dinner, I somehow misplaced a two-pound brick of cheddar cheese (yes, two pounds). Try as I might, I couldn’t find it anywhere. After much fuming, I finally gave up, imagining that I’d unearth a moldy mass of cheese months later.

I eventually found the cheese (in our large chest freezer, thankfully), but the experience reminds me of the dangers of not paying attention to what I’m doing. When the cheese “disappeared,” I’m reasonably certain I was multi-tasking – probably talking on the phone or tending to a child – and I wasn’t in tune with the task at hand.

It’s humorous that I lost (and then found) a block of cheese, but it isn’t so funny when I find myself losing money because I’m preoccupied. While at the drugstore recently to pick up teething medicine for my fussy 1-year-old, I grabbed what I needed and headed to the register. I laid out my purchases and handed over my debit card, signed my receipt and lugged my now-sleeping daughter to our van. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d been overcharged by $8.

Had I been paying closer attention, I would have saved myself the hassle of having to return to the store for a refund. And while $8 isn’t what I’d consider a lot of money, I don’t want to be cavalier about losing any amount of cash. If I’m not looking out for my best interests, no one else will. This is true whether I’m overcharged a few bucks at the pharmacy or thousands of dollars on a major purchase.

Paying close attention to the details of your financial transactions is the only way to ensure that someone hasn’t made a mistake or isn’t trying to take advantage of you. This can sometimes mean taking on tasks that you may find mundane, or even unpleasant. You may not be in the habit of balancing your checking account, for example, relying instead on the online details of your account. Nevertheless, if you’re not taking the time to reconcile your account, it’s easy to let mistakes or errors go unrecognized.

This is true for other kinds of financial business you conduct, too. When we received a $25 bill for a well-child visit, my husband believed that our insurance should have covered the service. He dug out and read the policy to be sure, then called our insurance company to dispute the charge. If he hadn’t been familiar with the particulars of our insurance coverage, and done the work of reading the specifics, we could have unnecessarily spent $25.

It might take some practice, but you can train yourself to pay closer attention. The next time you’re in a retail store, make a mental list of prices and keep a loose running total as you shop. Before you leave the store, review your receipt for accuracy. If you’re taking advantage of an advertised sale, bring along the sale flyer so you can verify the price if there’s any dispute. When you receive your credit card statements this month, look at all the charges carefully and take note of the interest rate you’re paying (nearly a third of cardholders don’t know their interest rate).

Avoiding distractions could add up to a lot of “found” money. If, by paying closer attention, you saved yourself even $50 or a $100 this year, just imagine how much you’d enjoy some extra cash in your wallet.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Investing in each other, not things, brings lasting happiness

A few nights ago, I sat with my children, husband, and parents in our living room. We’d just shared a pot of chili and homemade blueberry muffins and were sprawled out on couches and chairs. Soon after, my 6-year-old daughter brought over a bowl of small, smooth “story stones.” (Our story stones are rocks decoupaged with pictures of woodland creatures I clipped from an old children’s book.)

She sidled up to my mom, handing her the bowl and pleading for a story. I sat back and listened as my mother plucked stones from the bowl one by one and wove a story about a wayward chipmunk looking for a new home. My daughter listened, too, with rapt attention, and then took the bowl of stones and told her own story. It was the simplest form of entertainment—a meal shared together, followed by a time of storytelling and conversation—and an evening I won’t soon forget.

Such shared experiences, according to scientists, have a significant influence on individual happiness. In fact, several published studies have concluded that time spent building relationships makes people far happier than getting any new material possessions, even so-called luxury items. In part, this is because the initial pleasure of getting something new, such as a computer or car, fades so quickly.

Just how quickly a person’s exuberance over a new purchase wanes is astonishing. Psychologists report that we typically get used to seeing a new purchase, and therefore adapt to it, in a matter of six to eight weeks, or three months at best. This phenomenon, known as “hedonistic adaptation,” explains why lottery winners return to their original level of happiness not long after they’ve collected their winnings.

On the other hand, when we invest our time in relationships and in collective experiences, we create memories that we can draw on for many years to come. Unlike material possessions, our memories generally make us feel more alive, according to assistant professor of psychology Ryan Howell.

It seems that investing in other people’s happiness pays dividends, too. A 2008 study from Harvard Medical School and the University of San Diego concluded that your happiness is not only influenced by the people that you know, but by people they know. In other words, you’re more likely to be happy if your friends are happy, and even if your friends’ friends are happy.

It’s amazing to think that happiness has this kind of domino effect, indirectly spreading to a vast network of people, even influencing someone whom you may have never even met. It makes sense, then, for you to cultivate relationships in deliberate and meaningful ways.

The beauty of being intentional with your relationships is that it doesn’t have to be a costly endeavor. For example, you might host a neighborhood potluck or write a hand-written note to a friend with whom you’ve been out of touch. Play a board game with your spouse in the evening, or take a child on an individual “date” and share a piece of dessert. You could invite a group of friends to start a supper club or undertake a volunteer project together. Or you might consider joining a group that is devoted to something you enjoy, such as gardening, archery or French.

No matter how tight your budget is, you have the ability to create a richer, happier life - right now - by simply investing your time, love and talent in those closest to you. Happiness doesn’t depend on more money or the latest gadget. In tough economic times, that’s refreshing, encouraging news for us all.