Five smart ways to maximize your budget starting today

AJ & KJ: With a fresh start to the new year, here are some ways you can stretch the value of your dollars just a little bit more. Most of these are so simple, you’ll probably wonder why you haven’t done this before. With this year just beginning, sit down with your budget and see which of these options you could adopt for your family to stretch your bucks just a little bit further in 2015.

Buy in bulk and store smartly
Whether you’re trying to plan for just yourself, you and a significant other, or an entire family, buying in bulk can be the best way to stretch the value of your dollars.

One example of when we did this recently that was an AWESOME find was our recent fruit purchase at Sprouts. They were doing a special on fresh berries for very cheap, so we did what we always do when something is heavily discounted – we buy a TON! We probably spent about $70 on fresh fruit alone, and you’re probably wondering how we didn’t have so much of it go to waste since berries are obviously (pretty quickly) perishable. Angela laid out the berries on several baking sheets in one layer and threw them in the freezer. After about a day or two, we essentially had individually flash frozen berries that could then be pilled into ziplock bags for future use. A month later, we’re still filling our smoothies with the fruits of our labor (pun intended!).

Also, anytime chicken, steak, pork, you name it, is heavily discounted, we buy about as much as we can. Then, as soon as we get home, we portion out the food into individual ziplock bags and store it in the freezer, so we don’t have to thaw the whole package when it comes time to actually use it.

The key to success with buying in bulk is knowing what you typically pay for specific items prior to buying large quantities of it. Even when we don’t need something, I’ll stock up on it because it will ultimately save us money though at times it can feel like I’m a food hoarder!

Track your expenses
If you’re not tracking your expenses, how will you be able to identify ways to trim your expenses? The answer is you generally can’t! So, jump on the bandwagon for, Quicken, or any of the other expense tracking sites to find one that works for you and your family to keep you on track.

For us, the wheels come off of our bus completely when we’re not properly tracking our expenses. We each manage expenses in a different way, so we can compare notes on what’s already hit the accounts vs. what is still left to hit in that month to ensure we’re staying the course.

Credit cards with rewards points
We’ve recently reassessed our credit cards that we use to see if there is a way to maximize our purchases. It ultimately came down to making a few changes to the cards we have on hand.

We now are utilizing the Fidelity American Express credit card where we can earn 2% back on ALL purchases. Sure, Amex isn’t approved everywhere, but it’s now our main go-to card for purchases. Previously, we used the Chase Freedom card where you would get 1% cash back on all purchases, but 5% back on certain rotating categories. Then, you would get an additional 10% bonus on your rewards each year. After 2015, Chase is no longer going to be offering the 10% bonus, plus, the rotating 5% categories are seldom how we actually spend our money, so it’s really not all that great of a card for us anymore since the card only ends up offering just slightly more than 1% on average.

Fortunately too, we found another card through American Express that offers 6% back on supermarkets and 3% back on gasoline with 1% back on other categories, and despite it’s annual fee, it’s worth it for us based on our home’s expenses in these categories. Not all credit cards with an annual fee are worth it, so you just have to run the numbers and see how your family spends money to know if it’s worth it. The key is first tracking your expenses, so you can be able to easily do this assessment!

This is something that Kirby manages for us, as I have a hard time keeping up with which expenses can be maximized on which cards. It’s SO worthwhile to get your credit cards to work for you, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and it’s not a set it and forget it approach.

We only recommend products that we feel strongly about, so for more details on these cards, please contact us. We can send additional details on these cards. With the the regular Amex with the extra grocery rewards, you can get a $150 bonus after spending $1,000 in the first three months (plus it will help support our blog a little bit) – win/win!

As a final caveat, don’t get a credit card unless you will be paying it off in full each month. Carrying a balance is a surefire way to eliminate ALL of the rewards benefits in an instant.

Grocery rewards
Join your local grocery store rewards programs, and read the fine print! Our preferred grocery store is Tom Thumb, and their Just 4 U program is excellent and super easy! You can pre-load coupons to the card for instant savings the next time you’re at the grocery store.

Also, Tom Thumb (and a lot of other grocer stores) offer 2-5X rewards points for gasoline by purchasing gift cards. We’ve not yet found this AS valuable – unless they’re doing an additional discount on gift cards – since we use quite religiously, but it’s something on our radar nonetheless.

If you haven’t checked out, then you should head on over there ASAP. We’ve spent a lot of money through them throughout this last year for a lot of our major projects and expenses, and we’ve saved TONS of money on items we were going to spend on anyways. The key (with this and with all gift card discounts) is to only purchase items you would normally buy! Don’t use it as a way to spend extra money when you’re at [insert store name here] if you weren’t going to spend the money anyways.

This site is a great way to stretch the value of your dollars too. Plus, if you got a gift card that you know you wouldn’t want to use, you can sell it to them and put the money to better use.

Aside from Home Depot gift cards, we typically purchase e-gift cards that we turn around and use within the same day for online purchases we’re already planning to make. It’s definitely an extra step and if you think you might be returning the items it can be a little annoying because then you will mostly receive your money back in the form of store credit, not ideal. Several of the retailers we shop with have more than a 6% discount on them and when you tack on other discounts and coupons you can find through sites like, maximizing online purchases is fast and can save really significant amounts.

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Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.

What a year!

What a year!
AJ: A few times in the last month I’ve found myself thinking and saying “good riddance, 2014!” and yet, when I sat down to outline this out-of-the-norm year, it had a lot of high points!

In 2013 when we laid out our budget there were all kinds of unknown variables we were up against that we couldn’t have anticipated but were able to work through given our slush fund, our years of planning and saving and our commitment to staying the course in the midst of significant expenses. Good thing for emergency funds!

We’ve covered details of what I’ve lovingly deemed “the year of spend” throughout the year, but as we prepare to move forward into a year of focused saving and re-prioritization, here’s what 2014 looked like for us:

1. Medical expenses hit all-time highs.
We discovered we’re now old, physically speaking. We kicked off February with KJ in the hospital for a week with a mysterious, very scary illness that resulted in us hitting his insurance deductible in a day. We maximized that with a year full of medication, physical therapy, doctor visits and more. Who knew there would be a benefit to hitting your medical deductible early in the year!

Then, in March, AJ got a medical diagnosis that added significant monthly expenses in supplements that were unplanned and not covered by insurance which will continue to impact our budget monthly.

After two rounds of eye-opening physical changes we signed up for a monthly boot camp in July that adds significant expense to our monthly budget, but it has reduced stress and waistlines and gives us an awesome outlet for our competitive energy, we’ll take it!

Sure there are ways to spend less in this area, but it’s what really works for us, our lifestyles, and making a commitment to actually exercising!

2. Home renovations.
Our first full year in our not-so-new-anymore-house brought with it a ton of changes that checked off a lot of our wish-list boxes:

    - We spent a few back-breaking weekends refinish our deck that’s now beautiful, sturdy, well-used and loaded with gorgeous furniture.
    - We installed a huge, privacy-giving, expensive fence that completely changed how we love and use our backyard.
    - We built raised beds for produce which we’ve successfully cultivated and enjoyed all year.
    - We painted the entire inside of the house which immediately made it feel more cozy and like our home.
    - We replaced our previous builder-grade washer and dryer with shiny, new machines that I adore.
    - We upgraded our TVs. This one doesn’t feel like a renovation but it was on the list of things we wanted for our new home, so we’re thrilled, and for budgeting considerations, this is expensive enough to count as a renovation :)

3. We committed to donating more.
We were both raised by generous people to be generous people, and it’s a combined passion of ours that becomes increasingly important to our family. Historically we’ve split our financial and time commitments 50/50. This year, our jobs and commitments didn’t allow for as much time, so we shifted to a 75/25 financial vs. time commitment. It certainly had budget implications, but the long-term benefit to our community is well-worth the budget sacrifice we made.

We’ve had a banner year, no question about it. We’re infinitely more appreciative of our health and our physical well-being which we absolutely took for granted. We love sharing our home with family and friends and are thankful to have a physical representation of our love for each other and our families. And most importantly, we’ve outspent our budget and have lived to tell about it. KJ is always more level-headed about spending and about small set backs being just that, small blips on the radar, not the major crises they can feel like in the throes of course-altering changes and we’re looking forward to a more lean year ahead.

We wish you and your family health, happiness, perspective and budgeting in 2015!

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How do you balance cost and quality? Is the more expensive option actually better for your budget?

Shopping Carts
KJ: We’ve all bought something at some point because, hey, it’s cheap! Why not spend the $1 or $5 on [insert product]? What could you possibly lose? Well, as the adage goes, you get what you pay for [sometimes]. It’s not always best to just go with the cheapest option just because it is cheaper. But, it’s also not always the best to just go with the most expensive option. It seems that products in today’s world have a more limited shelf-life than they used to, so knowing a product’s shelf life before you make a purchase can work wonders for your long-term family budget.

This is often a discussion we have in our household particularly as it relates to all of our major purchases like appliances, but it also applies to everyday items like nice clothes, paint for the walls, and household goods. Knowing the answer to the following questions for each purchase you make though – no matter how big or small – will help set you up for maximizing how far your household’s budget will go.

AJ: When Kirby and I first started dating and were shopping for college necessities he absolutely insisted that he needed only one of each of the following items: a cup, a plate, a bowl, a fork, a spoon, a knife. WHAT?! I thought he was completely crazy! The longer we’ve lived together, though, I’ve come to appreciate Kirby’s philosophy. I’m a never-run-out, come to my house in case of emergency or natural disaster kind of shopper. I own two of most every pair of pants I’ve bought in the last ten years, I never buy one of anything, and I can always find something else I want. Thus, we comparative shop. We balance Kirby’s desire for practicality with my desire not to have to run to the store multiple times a week and shop smarter.

What is the average life span for the product?
Basics, people. If a major appliance comes with a one-year warranty, think twice. Read reviews, do research, price compare. Are there significant maintenance or return experiences from other customers? Our research seldom leads us to the cheapest out-of-pocket option today, and in fact, it often leads us to one of the higher end options. For instance, if you have a product that costs $200, yet you have to replace it every 3 years, then wouldn’t you prefer to pay $500 now for a more reliable product that lasts 6 years? Not only do you get an option that is often more durable and reliable, it often coincides with a more stable brand (especially when you factor in warranties or any other product guarantees – they’re only as good as the company backing that guarantee!). While the math is seldom as simple, it’s an exercise worth calculating when making almost any purchase. Being proactive about your major purchases means building in flexibility and the power to choose. Waiting until something pricey breaks to competitive shop means you’re forced to take whatever is available, often at the expense of either quality or price.

What is the price per ounce, gallon, unit of measure?
You have to start with the most fundamental detail – is this stuff physically going to rot before I can use or consume it? This is one of the easiest to calculate when it comes to the grocery store. Most grocery store companies now let you price compare instantly as you shop the aisles and can quickly see the cost per unit. Don’t just assume though that the lowest cost per unit is the best value for you. We’ve run into this a number of times in the last several years where a product seemed like a better choice for the budget, but it ended up costing more in the long-run. If something is half the cost, but you end up throwing away more than half of it because it expired sooner, is that really any savings to your family? Surprisingly, you could have bought the more spendy product with a higher quality and more durable shelf life. We’ve run into this with sour cream where the cheaper options just don’t last as long, so we actually end up spending more each month.

Now, I’m not advocating that all higher end products are worth the cost, but it’s definitely worth considering their long-term impact on your budget and not just the “whatever is cheapest now” option.

AJ: This concept becomes especially relevant for those of us buying in bulk. Not only are products often of an entirely different level of quality at super stores, but they’re also not always cheaper by ounce. The easiest way for me to keep track of what is really a good deal versus what is really just a whole lot more is to know what I pay per pound, per ounce or per unit on average. This applies to supplements we take, paper products, meats, produce, etc. It can’t always be about cost, but tracking can make a huge difference.

Is it cheap for a reason?
Not much to say here other than some products are just cheap for a reason. They aren’t durable, they are low quality, they break instantly, etc. Hey, that’s fine for some things – like a cheap gimmick item or one-use type products, but for most everyday products, it just doesn’t make sense.

AJ: Cheap is often about as good as “light” is delicious. Unless you’re talking about birthday candles and cotton balls cheap usually isn’t worth the paper your money is printed on.

The more spendy category can be difficult at first
When you first start saving and budgeting it can be quite difficult to shell any more out of pocket than the lowest of quality and cost. I can’t even think of spending an extra $100 NOW…I don’t have that in my bank account! But once you get yourself on better financial footing, you’ll find that you may actually be able to absorb the difference in your regular monthly budget. If not, maybe you’re able to trim a little bit over a few months to make it work.

Sometimes it’s hard to see past the end of your nose
In today’s world, we’re so used to having instant gratification on almost everything that it’s difficult to truly plan for any period of time past tomorrow. Teaching yourself discipline and really thinking about the long-term for you, your family, and your cash flow, will take you far. Few goals are just a month away, so reframing how you look at a purchase can make very meaningful differences on your family’s bottom line!

    What tips do you have when evaluating a purchase for your family?
    Share with us your experiences where cheap-for-the-sake-of-cheap worked well and where other times it didn’t quite work to your favor.

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How do you balance cost and quality? Is the more expensive option actually better for your budget? is copyrighted by without consent to republish.

Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.

10 signs that your budget needs a makeover

Hand Holding Dollar
AJ & KJ: Here are our 10 signs that your budget needs a makeover:

1) The words “I’ve never made a budget” come out of your mouth
WHAT!? Okay, so forgive my shock and awe, but this is a no brainer. Never made a budget = never been aware of your true expenses. Get to cracking and check out a lot of the simple and free options out there for starters to see how to create a budget.

2) You say things like “I don’t know what I spend per month on [xyz]…”
If you don’t have a clue what you spend in a given month in any particular area, that’s typically an indication that your budget is a leaky faucet. Time to get out Quicken or and run the numbers to see what you’re spending. It can be a good chance to find an area to trim where you didn’t realize you were over spending!

3) Your budget contains more categories than you can count
Simplify categories to show your primary fixed items (or relatively fixed items when it comes to insurance, utilities, etc.) and create as few categories as you can on the discretionary items so you can more easily see the total dollars you’re working with on a month-by-month basis.

4) You don’t “close out” the month
This is a must for us and should be on the list for all budgeters. Make sure you true-up your expenses for the month, so you can identify what (if anything) can hopefully be swept into your savings accounts! Don’t fall into the trap of spending right at the end of the month thinking you’ve earned it only to come apart at the last minute.

5) Your budgets are too idealistic
Yeah, that’s right. Sometimes you can create a goal that is too aggressive for even you. Create budget amounts that are both realistic and attainable.

6) You don’t pay yourself first
Priority numero uno is to pay yourself first! Have some of your savings come off the top through programs like payroll deduct or automatic monthly transfers, so you don’t have it to spend regularly.

7) You don’t have any room to save
Blasphemous! No matter how good of a budgeter you are, there are always ways to trim a little to make sure you are saving to meet your goals. If that’s not one of the highest priorities in your budget, then think again, and get back to the drawing board!

8) Roth IRAs are non-existent
Especially for you young savers out there, if your budget doesn’t include some savings to Roth accounts (via Roth IRA or Roth 401(k)), then you should reconsider and reevaluate your options. Roths can be a great tool for those young savers at heart!

9) You don’t plan for upcoming expenses
Make a list before each month and update it as irregular expenses come up. Maybe this month you need to buy dog food or pay for an insurance policy or have a lot of gifts to give. Keep track of it and plan ahead, so it doesn’t surprise you at the last minute!

10) And lastly, you don’t budget with financial goals
No. no. no. Why save if you don’t know why you are saving or what target you’re saving for? Get a plan in place so you can stick to it and know what you are aiming for!

Just starting out? Check out our budget quick start guide to learn what you can do to get on track!

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10 signs that your budget needs a makeover is copyrighted by without consent to republish.

Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.

What does cash flow mean and how do I apply it to my life?

Stack of Bank Note and Pen Calculator On Note Book
KJ: One of the most critical concepts to managing your family’s finances is to understand cash flow. What it means, how your family receives it, and how to plan around it. We’ve dedicated a post to helping you understand this financial metric and how you can apply it to your personal situation.

Definition of cash flow
Cash flow is essentially a look at all of the monies deposited into your account from whichever sources derived less all of your expenses and cash outflows – in whatever form it may be.

Make an inventory of your cash inflows
Make a list of your income and income cash flows. It may be earned income or it may be considered “unearned.” Include specific information about the regularity of the cash flows (weekly, biweekly, semi-monthly, quarterly, yearly) as well as the level of certainty (regularly recurring, one-time payments, variable payments (commissions, bonuses), etc.). Below is a list of a few common income flows:

    Child support
    IRA distributions
    Income from bonds paid to you*
    Income from stocks paid to you*
    Income from other investments or business interests*
    Income from a savings account paid to you*
    Credit card bonuses or rewards (we save ALL of these!)

*Pay particular attention to only include these items in your household’s cash flow if there is some regularity to them and the amounts are paid to your checking account and not reinvested within the account. If the amounts are simply reinvested or paid within an account you don’t use for your expenses or cash flow, then counting them is not going to help improve your cash flow!

Make an inventory of your cash outflows
Prepare an equally detailed list of all of your expenses. Pay particular attention to the timing, amounts, and frequency of each expense that you may have in a year. Below is a list of common expenses to consider:

    Mortgage (including interest, taxes, and insurance)
    Homeowner’s Association dues (HOA)
    Insurance (life, health, auto, disability, etc.)
    Food (groceries, dining out, fast food)
    Utilities (television, internet, phone, water, gas, electricity)
    Charitable donations
    Pet (grooming, food, veterinary)
    Medicine/Doctor (medication, doctor visits)
    IRA contributions
    401(k) contributions
    HSA contributions
    Savings account contributions
    Investment account contributions
    Taxes (state and federal income tax – can be yearly, quarterly, and/or withheld from a paycheck)
    Travel (hotel, estimated food, airline)
    Credit card payments and interest (hopefully you’re not paying any and the cards are paid off!)
    Child support paid
    Alimony paid

Evaluate the net number
Add up all the income sources and subtract out all of the expense categories for each month. If you find that you come up with a negative number, then something’s gotta give – no wonder you’re having cash flow issues!

If you and your family have a complicated cash flow situation with irregular income payments, then consider projecting out all of these items throughout the course of a year.

Even if your calculation turns out positive, doesn’t mean you’re on the track that you need to be. Look closely at the savings contributions (IRA, 401(k), HSA, savings, investment account) to make sure you are putting aside the amount of money you need.

Having a comprehensive view of where all of your expenses are going will allow you better decision-making power to choose how to reallocate those scarce resources. It could allow you the knowledge to know when, where, and how to cut out certain items from the budget if something unexpected happens – like a roof repair, fallen tree, or garage breakdown!

AJ: The need to “find” money in order to cover additional expense costs in a given month is my ongoing motivation for budget tracking. What comes in is pretty consistent in our household but what goes out is always variable. We’re constantly making improvements to our home, getting involved in charitable opportunities and going out with friends and family, so variable expenses are the name of our game. Without understanding the in there’s no way to stay ahead of the out.

KJ: One reality you may be living is you could have a very positive net worth or savings targets, but your cash flow is very tight in certain periods throughout the year – particularly common for what I call “lumpy” cash inflows throughout a year. Figuring out both when and why those happen can help you single out what can be done. Maybe it’s keeping more in a readily accessible savings or emergency fund or maybe it’s switching the timing of some of your expenses (as able) to help get you on track. Try funding those irregular expenses into a specific account each month to make sure there is sufficient cash there when the expense is ready to be paid. This can be very common with life insurance premiums, quarterly taxes, or real estate taxes, but you may find you have other expenses like this.

    What tools have you used to build a cash flow statement for you and your family?
    Are you cash flow positive or negative?
    Share with us the tools you are using to get on track or to stay on track.

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What does cash flow mean and how do I apply it to my life? is copyrighted by without consent to republish.

Some of the links in the post above may be affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. We feel strongly about only recommending products or services we use personally and/or believe will add value to you, our readers. Read more about our commitment to providing quality product recommendations.