Manage Your Credit Cards

Plastic.

Do those words get you excited? Does your pulse go up and you think, “Sales!” Do you envision buying everything you ever wanted? If so, you may have to pull it together. Credit cards can be wonderful tools, but can also get you in some trouble. If you are a plastic fiend, you may have to cut up some cards to get on the right track.

One very important way to keep your credit cards under control is that you must pay more than the minimum each month. Even it is only $50 more, it will go a long way to saving you some of that nasty interest in the long run. By only paying the minimum on a 12, 15 or 18% card, you are basically trapping yourself into a very, very long time of card payments. Possibly even the rest of your life.

Not only should you pay more than the minimum, you should also keep an eye on the interest rate. Credit cards will give you low introductory rates and than start raising them. If you find yourself with a higher rate than you would like, who hasn’t, just call the company and see if they will give you a lower rate for a certain period of time. You can also see if any of your other cards, though you should only have a few, has any good deals that will allow you to transfer the balance and save some money. Although this is just delaying the payment, not solving your problems, it is still better than paying huge interest fees.

Something to definitely avoid in a card is a yearly fee. This rarely occurs anymore with Visa or Mastercards, but just be on the lookout. Also, credit cards offer protection for fradulent use, so don”t be sucked into any extra fees for added protection. They should be helping you as it is! Buying a shredder is another way to protect yourself, make sure to shred all statements after you pay them. Or just sign up for paperless statements online, most card offer this.

Using credit cards to build a credit history is a great idea as long as you keep them under control. Once you begin living within your budget and are confident that you can handle the plastic, start paying with most of your monthly items with your card. Then, pay it off every month. Before you know it, your credit history will be looking pretty good. Make sure you cancel any credit accounts you still have open but do not use, your credit score doesn’t really like that. You should also obtain your credit history to check on how you are doing. Checking this yearly is a good idea.

Many cards offer rewards to users. These can range from 1% back at the end of the year to points, spendable at stores. The Disney card is a nice one for parents, you get 1% back in Disney bucks and trust me, you will spend them.

Another benefit of a credit card is most allow you to download your transactions straight into your financial software, whether it be Quicken or just a spreadsheet. Most of your transactions will be categorized so you can easily sort them and see how you did in a month or over a longer timespan.

Above all, remember that your credit card habits will be passed onto you children so make sure you get them going on the right track and not into 50 years of interest payments on that flat panel television and playstation.

Public Library Fun

In our household, we have an expression, “There”s always room for One More Book!” Back when we were DINKs (Double Income, No Kids), we would often find ourselves browsing the bookstores on the weekends and bringing home a new book or two. When we began to embark down the road of Single Income Parenting, we realized this was an area of spending that needed to be curbed. Consequently, we have become quite well acquainted with our local library (the librarian and most of the assistants there know me by name). Our local library has a great online reservation system. We can request a book online and, even if it is located at another branch, it will be delivered to our own branch for pick up. We get a handy little email reminder when our books are ready for pick up and due to be returned. I still like to browse the bookstores, but now I write down the titles that appeal to me and request them from the library.

Do we still buy books? Yes, but usually for kids” birthday and holiday gifts. We want to foster in them the same love for reading that we have. As an aside, the best way to get your kids to read and love it is to model your own love of reading! Let them see you reading your books and magazines. And of course, read to your children daily! Ok, I”m off my soapbox for now.

Not only does the public library have books to check out, but they also have movies, magazines and newspapers. Do you subscribe to several magazines? Stop paying for them and hit up the library once a week or so to read them. Of course, this is assuming that you don”t like tearing out all the pages of cool ideas like I do.

If you truly think you need to own certain books, check out your Friends of the Library annual book sale (if they have one) or yard sales in your community. These are great places to find kids” books especially. There are also some book trading websites out there: titletrader.com, paperbackswap.com and abebooks.com to name a few.

Ok, but what about these free activities that I mentioned at the beginning of this post? Our local library offers some pretty cool activities for kids. There is a weekly Storytime for preschool kids and younger that we often try to hit up. We are lucky enough to live within walking distance of our local branch, so Storytime is a good excuse/reason to pop the kids in the stroller and get out of the house. There are also seasonal activities, such as a Winter Festival (meet Santa and do some arts and crafts) and Family Reading Festival during the spring. There are activities for adults too! Local and not-so-local authors have come to speak at our library. So get out there and find out what sort of fun activities your local library offers! Start in on that long list of books you”ve always wanted to read. Join your local Friends of the Library group and have some say in what kinds of offerings are made to the general public. Read!

Reduce Your Energy Costs

If only you could buy barrels of oil and store them in your house. It would allow you keep a better handle on energy prices. But you can’t so you have to look elsewhere to save a little money.

One of the items that many people recommend are compact lightbulbs. These last a lot longer and use about a third less energy. This sounds nice, but they are pricey and I have not found them to last anywhere as long as they say. You should make sure to replace them in light fixtures that are on for long periods of time. Rooms where lights are turned off and on frequently don”t make good candidates. You can also buy them at big box stores for some savings. They will only get better in regards to technology so you may as well start buying them.

Another way to save costs is to just admit your parents were right and start turning off lights when you leave a room. All those kilowatts add up and will cost you a couple bucks a month. Also, if you have a CRT monitor, replace it with a LCD or make sure to turn if off. They use a ton of energy and also heat a room which is bad in the summer in, say, Florida or California.

Purchasing energy efficient appliances, such as washers, dryers and fridges is another great way but that will set you back up front. Dryers use a lot of energy (even the energy-efficient ones), so if you live in an appropriate climate, try stringing up a clothes line in your back yard. We line-dry pretty much everything during the summer. Even socks and towels. They get a little stiff, but the trade-off is a lower energy bill.
*NOTE: Don’t hang your clothes out on the line if there is a 500 acre grass-fire burning in the vicinity. All your clothes will be smoky and then you’ll just have to wash them again!

Air conditioning seems to be the main expense for most people living on hot climates such as California and Florida. In California it has been known to double our total energy bills! During the summer, in order to skimp on using the a/c, we keep the windows open at night and close everything up during the day. We are fortunate enough to live in an area where we often get a cool breeze in the evening. As soon as the sun starts heating things up in the morning, we close the windows and blinds all the way. Not only does it keep out some of the heat, but a darkened house seems a bit cooler during those hot months.

If you have the option, go with a gas stove/oven. Natural gas is much cheaper than electricity. If you already have an electric stove/oven (as we do), use your microwave when you can. It takes more energy to heat up the oven and stove than it does to use your microwave. This is a hard one for me, as I love to cook and bake! One small trick that I have for the oven is this: I keep a pizza stone in my oven on the bottom rack. I preheat the oven all the way to 500 or 550 degrees, then turn it down to the needed temperature for baking. The stone helps regulate the temperature inside the oven and may (or may not – the jury is still out) save a little energy.

What to Buy in Bulk

Before thinking about buying household items and groceries at your local bulk store, come to grips with how much storage space you have. You don”t want to come home with 24 rolls of paper towels and have to line your bedroom with them. Back when we were still DINKs (that’s Double Income, No Kids), we managed to buy an average-sized home which gives us some good storage areas, especially in the garage. Additionally, we bought a second freezer for perishable food storage. So, to sum up, we can only park one car in the two-car garage, but we do save on certain grocery and household items by buying in bulk.

We buy almost all our meat in bulk. 6 pounds of ground beef, 10 pounds of chicken breasts, tilapia (fish) fillets, pork tenderloin, pork chops, ground turkey, spiral sliced ham, bacon, salami, and lunch meat are the most common purchases (not all at once of course!). All of these items, when brought home, are repackaged into smaller components and stored away in the freezer. I love having certain meats on hand – particularly ground turkey or beef and chicken breasts. When I get ready to prepare dinner, I can pop out to the garage and take out one pound of ground beef for the spaghetti sauce or two chicken breasts for the grill. The key is having a defrost setting on your microwave or planning tomorrow”s dinner today so that you can begin your meat defrosting in the fridge. *Remember to defrost meats in the fridge, not on the counter!

Other food items that are easy to purchase in bulk and have on hand: tortillas, bagels, english muffins (repackage all of these bread products into smaller units and store in your freezer), soda, pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, some common spices (I only buy my frequently used cinnamon and vanilla in bulk), cold cereal, instant oatmeal, macaroni and cheese, pasta sauce, chicken broth, and sliced, shredded or string cheese (as with other perishable items, repackage these into smaller parts and freeze). I am an avid baker and I go through quite a bit of flour, so I buy 25 pounds of flour at a time. I divide it into gallon ziploc bags and store it in the freezer as well. Other frozen items, such as instant waffles can usually be found in bulk.

I only buy perishable items like milk, eggs, fresh vegetables and fresh fruits if I know that I am going to use them in the immediate future. Personally, I don’t usually purchase those items at the bulk store. Also, keep in mind that a giant bag of chips might look delicious, but do you really want to be eating the same thing for seven nights in a row? Giant bags of chips, once opened, go stale at the same rate as regular sized bags. Because you are buying in bulk, be sure that what you are buying is something that you do enjoy eating. Some bulk stores, like Costco, often have tasting stations where you can try out what you might buy.

Because I repackage so many things into smaller parts, I use Ziploc bags like crazy. So, to begin my list of household items to buy in bulk: Gallon, Quart and Sandwich sized Ziploc bags. 🙂 Other household items: toilet paper, paper towels, paper goods (if you use them, like plates, napkins, etc.), cleaning supplies (such as lysol spray, lysol wipes, swiffer refills, etc.), sanitary supplies, garbage bags, Advil or other frequently used medications (Tylenol, Claritin), and vitamins. We also buy shaving cream, toothpaste, bar soap and lotion in bulk if they carry our brand. When the kids were babies, we purchased formula in bulk. Diapers and wipes are available at most of the bulk stores as well.

Remember to go shopping (any shopping – not just bulk) armed with a list and a full belly. It is far easier to stick to your list when you are not hungry. If you”re taking the kids, go at a time when they are most likely to be cheerful. The great thing about buying in bulk is that you won”t have to make those twice-weekly trips to the store. You can go once a week or maybe less!

I am a huge fan of Costco, so that is where we buy (and save) on most of these items. We use an American Express card so we do get cash back at the end of every year, based on our purchases. Other things we save on at Costco that are not listed above are tires, printer ink. Check for when these items go on sale, or have rebates or coupons attached.