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Answers to Ask the Experts “Balancing Your Budget” Featuring Money Saving Mom

This past Wednesday, January 22nd, we asked you to submit your questions on how to balance your budget, and again the response was great. This week’s expert, Crystal Paine from Money Saving Mom who was recently on Good Morning America, shared her knowledge and expert advice to help our fans become budgeting wizards.

Be sure to visit us next Wednesday and come prepared with your questions for our next topic: “Paying off your Debt.”

Saving Money

How can I save money for my family in case of an emergency when my husband won’t downsize our bills?

I’d recommend focusing on saving in those areas that aren’t monthly bills — such as groceries and clothing. These are two of the easiest budget categories to lower. One of my favorite ways for reducing the costs of food and clothing is by pairing coupons with sales. When you’re getting ready to purchase clothes online or in-store, visit RetailMeNot.com for coupon codes and printable coupons you can use at the store or site where you’re planning to shop. It just takes 30 seconds to search for these and can often save you 5 to 15% off your purchase total! Pair this coupon with a sale to further stretch your dollar.

The same principle can be applied to groceries. Look at your local grocery store’s sales flier to see what’s on sale. Search for items on a coupon database (we have one on MoneySavingMom.com) to see if there are any printable coupons available and you’ll often be able to pay pennies on the dollar for your grocery purchases. For ideas on ways to further lower your grocery budget, check out my series on 31 Ways to a Better Grocery Budget.

I am a Mother of 5 kids I work at jack in the box I would like to know how to save money on a very low income.

First off, I encourage you to keep a hopeful spirit, even though you’re in a hard place. A can-do, committed, creative attitude will take you far!

I’d recommend starting with the two areas I mentioned above — groceries and clothing. Once you have cut those down, check out my series on 52 Different Ways to Save $100 Per Year for many more ideas and suggestions.

Budgeting

I want to switch to a cash budget for my family’s grocery bill. It’s seems scary because I don’t like feeling poor when I’m shopping. What if there’s a really good deal on something we use regularly and I only brought enough cash for what I had on my list? Can you give me a few baby steps to start with? Thank you!

I encourage you to take a 3-Month Cash-Only Challenge for your grocery bill. Here’s how it works:

a) Commit to only spend what is in your grocery envelope for the next 3 months.

b) Go to the bank and withdraw cash in the amount of your pre-determined Grocery Budget. Put this cash in an envelope and keep it in a safe place. For more on cash-only shopping, read The Envelope System Experiment.

c) Leave your credit/debit cards/checkbook at home and only bring your cash envelope and a calculator with you to the grocery store.

d) Calculate your purchases on the calculator as you add them to your cart. This will motivate you to carefully evaluate all purchases, will make you aware of how much items actually cost, encourage you to look for the best deal, and force you to get creative if your list is longer than you have room for in the budget.

e) Pay with cash when you checkout and see significant grocery savings–hopefully!

Do you have a good list or guide to use?

If you’re new to budgeting, I highly recommend picking up a free copy of Dave Ramsey’s Guide to Budgeting. It’s packed with practical advice to help you get started and be successful in budgeting.

I know how to use the programs/spreadsheets to lay out my fixed bills every month. But for the variable ones- gas/groceries how do you know how much you can spend? What’s the best way to fill in the blanks around the fixed items?

It takes a few months to really get a handle on how much you spend in variable categories — and it can fluctuate depending upon the season. If you’re new to budgeting, I recommend looking at your past expenditures from the last few months and then rounding up and giving yourself some cushion. As time goes on and you become more proficient at saving money and budgeting, you will probably be able to lower those categories a bit.

We make more than enough to live on, but have been having problems figuring out how much to put in each category… We have been putting as much as possible into our school loans, but that ended up putting a strain on our marriage. (My husband felt constricted and like he wasn’t providing enough because the other areas were so tight.) Now we are trying to find a balance. Just because we can live on $600 a month, does not mean we should… What is the best way to divvy things up without going to extremes on either side?

Each couple and situation is different. I encourage you to sit down and have a heart to heart talk about what will work best for you. If the budget is causing stress, give yourself a little wiggle room and see if that fixes things. If not, go back to the drawing board and try again. A great budget is not something that’s fixed in stone; it’s something that you continue to tweak as the seasons of life ebb and flow.

Speaking of which, I’d heartily encourage all couples to have regularly-scheduled monthly Budget Accountability Meetings to discuss your financial situation, to create and revise your written budget, to talk about financial issues that have arisen in the last month, and to review your financial goals and objectives. If you’ve never done this sort of thing before, it may be very difficult going at first, but it will be worth it.

Also, I highly recommend that you budget some blow money for each of you every month. This is cash that can be spent on whatever you like… be it a treat, something for your hobby, or to put into savings for a larger ticket item.

For a spender, this greatly reduces the stress of sticking with a budget since they get splurge money allotted to them every month! For the saver, this greatly reduces their stress because they know that whatever their spouse is splurging on isn’t blowing the budget.

We just paid off all of our debt! Yahoo!!! We sold our most reliable vehicle (which we were paying payments on) to do so. We are now down to one vehicle, a 98′ jeep wrangler with two kids. My husband works for his dad who is letting him use a very small work truck for the time being. We are expecting some money back from taxes, and were wondering if we should use that money to buy another vehicle, or put it towards our emergency fund?

Way to go on paying off your debt!! That’s exciting! Not knowing more details on your financial situation and how much you already have in savings/emergency fund, it’s hard for me to suggest what I would do in your shoes. If you don’t have any money set aside, I would put your tax money into an emergency fund for now. You can always use it for a vehicle should your one vehicle break down, but if you can keep driving your ’98 Jeep Wrangler for a little bit longer and can put your former car payment money into a car savings fund, your current vehicle just might hold out long enough for you to save up to pay cash for a replacement vehicle — without you having to touch your emergency fund!

I know cash is best for budget, but what’s the best system for capturing the credit card rewards. Currently all fuel purchases are on our credit card to get the 5% bonus (it’s hard for me to “splurge” on fuel so it’s the only “credit card safe” budget category for us).

I don’t recommend using credit cards. :) In fact, we have a policy at our house: if we can’t pay cash for it, we don’t buy it. It’s a plain and simple policy, but it’s saved us a boatload of debt, fights over money, and stress about our finances.

You can read about 4 reasons we use cash instead of credit cards here.

Work

Legit work from home jobs for stay at home moms?

There are many ways that stay-at-home moms can earn money from home. I recommend first considering what your gifts and talents are and if there’s a way you can turn those into a marketable skill. If you can’t think of any talents or skills you have, ask your friends and family for ideas. Once you have some ideas, do your research and just slowly start trying things. Often, just jumping out and getting your feet wet is the best way to learn! For some ideas, check out my series on 30 Ways to Earn Extra Cash.

We are in a starting over phase. We have good credit but my husband is in a somewhat entry level job in an organization he’d like to advance in. Until he can advance, his salary meets only our basic bills (no frills, just basic utilities and some credit cards); his overtime work or credit cards pay for groceries and gas. I’d love to work from home to be w/our kids…but I can’t find work. I have tried blogging, freelance, and a few other ventures unsuccessfully even though I have English and clerical education and experience. Is there a better way to deal with this time of transition or do you recommend I try to get a “normal” job??

Working from home is hard work — and it’s not usually something that happens without a lot of time and energy invested. I don’t say this to discourage you, but to encourage you not to give up. It also takes time to see an income coming in, so if you need the income right now, I’d recommend that you continue working at least part-time while you try to build up an at-home business on the side. For more encouragement and ideas, read The Other 8 Hours and also my series on Becoming a Work-At-Home Mom.