How To Teach Kids the Basics of Budgeting and Spending Responsibly

Budgeting and spending responsibly aren’t skills that should be developed later in life. Money knowledge is on the same plane as reading and being polite. By instilling positive, responsible spending habits, you’ll set up your kid (or kids) for success.

Set an Example

There’s no doubt about the fact that kids are great observers and absorb what’s going on around them. So, be cognizant about how you talk about money and how you actually spend money. When it comes down to it, practice what you preach.

An Allowance

In the world of parenting, allowances are extremely common. However, they are about more than just simple cash every week. Make an allowance something that is earned from doing chores/homework, not something that is a given. If they aren’t good or tasks aren’t completed, don’t give an allowance. This shows kids the connection between doing work and receiving money.

Additionally, you can also use allowance money and birthday/holiday gifts to form a mini bank. Let them know how much money they have. You could keep the information in a notebook or maybe display it on the fridge, so it’s visible.

When they want to buy something, like a toy, have them look at the cost of it. Then, have them compare the cost to the amount of money they have. In order to help them make educated choices, help them set goals. Good questions to ask include:

  • What do you really, really want? Based on its cost, how many weeks would you need to save to get it?
  • Is there anything you can do to get to your goal quicker, like a lemonade stand or additional chores?

It can be helpful to keep the money that accumulates in two jars: spend and save. Instead of the traditional opaque piggy bank, try something see-through, so kids can visually see money adding up.

Apps/Games

For young kids, it may be difficult to tell the difference between game currency and actual in-app purchases. A good amount of parents have been surprised when they’ve been charged for in-app purchases when their kids use their tablets.

A great lesson revolves around the difference between play money in games and actual currency. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to block in-app purchases, either.

Real Budgets

As kids get older, they can handle more complex information about money and finances. Of course, you probably don’t want your kids to know the ins and outs of your personal budget, but what can you share? Think it over by yourself or with your spouse, and share what you feel comfortable with.

Explain your thought process and let your kids know when you’ve run into challenges. That way, they’ll be able to see that budgeting isn’t a black and white process, and it can be difficult sometimes – beyond just buying a recreational item.

At the end of the day, whether you’re a mom or a kid, budgeting is difficult. There is always more to learn (after all, that’s probably why you’re reading this blog!). Emphasize this to your little ones as they grow up into young adults, and you’ll be sure to see them flourish financially.

Five Ways to Throw a Kid’s Birthday Party on a Budget

If you’re looking to throw a kid’s birthday party on a budget, we’ve come up with five things you can do to save money but still have a great time and a party your child and all his or her friends will remember.

These days, more and more parents are embracing the trend of throwing crazy, over-the-top birthday parties for their children, even those who aren’t old enough to understand the concept. For some parents, the idea of a kid’s birthday party on a budget just doesn’t register.

Some parents rent out banquet halls. Other hire actors to portray their children’s favorite TV characters and take over their local kiddie gyms for hours at a time. Those with large enough backyards have been known to rent amusement park rides, cotton candy machines, and snow cone makers to rival the carnival experience. And let’s not forget the celebratory junior spa day, where kids as young as four or five will spend hours getting pampered with age-appropriate face masks, manicures, and mud baths.

Even if you actually have the desire to throw such an elaborate bash, you may quickly run into one major problem: money. Unless your only aim is to impress the other parents, these extravagant birthday affairs are never worth their exorbitant costs. You’ll end up spending  the next 12 months paying off a credit card balance for an event that will last just a few hours. It is a little ridiculous considering that kids don’t care how much you spend; they have just as much fun and possibly much more fun with a low cost affair.

With a little creativity, you can find a cost-effective way to say “happy birthday.” Thankfully, you’ve got plenty of options for throwing an awesome kid’s birthday party on a budget.

1. Open Up Your Home

Throwing a birthday party at home means opening up your space to an influx of kids. It’ll take time to do the setup, and you’re almost guaranteed to be left with a mess. The good news? You can save several hundred dollars by not having to rent out a space.

2. Don’t Serve a Meal

Between food allergies and pickiness, feeding a room full of children is a challenging prospect to begin with. Rather than serve a meal, time your birthday party for 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon so that there’s no expectation of lunch or dinner. This way, all you have to do is serve up some snacks, put out some beverages, and bust out a cake. Speaking of which…

3. Make Your Own Cake

Even if you’re not a baker, you can whip up a simple, delicious cake for a fraction of the cost of a bakery cake. The secret? Cake mix. Don’t be ashamed of it. Lather it with a $3 jar of store-bought frosting, throw on some sprinkles, and you’ll be all set. It may not look as cool as the custom superhero or construction zone cake your neighbor’s son had at his party, but at 1/5 the cost, it’ll probably taste just as good.

4. Forego the Party Bags

Most parents don’t want extra candy or small, plastic toys lying around, so why spend money on stuff nobody needs? Instead, have the kids do a craft for entertainment and let them take their creations home.

5. Skip the Invitations

Every parent has email these days. Rather than print and mail out invitations, use email or free tools like evite.com to let your guests know they’re invited.

As noble as it is to want to throw your child a birthday party he or she will be raving about for weeks on end, it’s not worth busting your budget for a mere two hours of entertainment. And besides, once the party’s over, it’s all about the presents anyway.

Save Money on Groceries: Simple Ways to Slash Your Grocery Bills

It takes money to keep a family well-fed. The average American spends $150 a week on groceries, and if your diet is rich in fruits and vegetables (as it should be), you’re probably spending more. If the cost of food is wreaking havoc on your on budget, here are some ways you can save money on groceries without compromising on the quality of the meals you’re serving up:

Plan Ahead

Some people get to the store, see what’s on sale, and make purchases based on what they think they need for the week. By doing this, you’re more likely to waste both money and time. Instead, plan out your meals before shopping and make a list of the ingredients you’re missing. This will enable you to stay focused when you hit the supermarket and help you avoid having to go back later in the week.

Track Your Inventory

A lot of people waste money on groceries by buying things they don’t actually need. One way to combat this is to keep an inventory spreadsheet of the things you have in your pantry and fridge. Print out an alphabetized, easy-to-scan copy before heading to the store, or make sure it’s accessible on your mobile phone. This way, you can compare what’s on sale to the things you already have stocked and avoid spending money on unnecessary supplies.

Get a Store Card

It’s usually not a good idea to open too many credit cards at once, but store cards aren’t like that. It makes sense to get a store card for every supermarket you shop at, including the ones you visit infrequently. Often, you need a store card to take advantage of sales and promotions. Some supermarkets, for example, offer holiday bonuses, like free turkeys around Thanksgiving time, for spending a certain amount of money the month before—a perk only available to cardholders.

Check for Digital Coupons

You may be used to checking the circulars that come in the mail for weekly sales and specials, but how often do you go online to look for deals? Many supermarkets offer additional savings via digital coupons, which you can find online and load to your store card. Remember, you won’t save money on groceries with coupons if you buy stuff you wouldn’t ordinarily buy just because you have a coupon.

Buy in Bulk, But Only When it Makes Sense

Buying in bulk can save you money if you do it wisely. If there are certain staple items that you use frequently, by all means, stock up if the price is right. But if the on-sale bulk item in question is not a popular one in your household, you’re probably better off passing up the so-called deal. Remember, even canned goods and pantry staples have expiration dates, and if you wind up throwing out food, you’ll have wasted money for no good reason. If the bulk price is truly unbeatable but you’re not sure you’ll use up your purchase before it goes bad, try finding friends, family members, or neighbors who might be willing to split the goods—and the cost.

Embrace the Season

Seasonal items tend to go on sale to coincide with consumer demand. Barbecue staples and condiments, for example, are usually available at a discount before holiday weekends, and baking supplies are often reduced in the weeks leading up to the holidays. If you start running low on non-essentials, before you restock, think about whether waiting a few weeks will bring you closer to a lower price.

Never Shop Hungry

It’s a tried and true piece of advice: The hungrier you are when you hit the supermarket, the more likely you are to make impulse purchases. Do your shopping after a meal, or grab a quick, energizing snack before you go. Otherwise you could wind up buying things that are not only bad for you, but bad for your wallet.

Top 5 Money Tips For New Parents

A new member of the family means a lot of things, from new experiences and memories to new fears and frustrations, chief among them the fact that you now have to stretch your money to completely support a new person.

Budgeting for a family is no small chore, especially if you’ve never had to do it before. It doesn’t have to be difficult or intimidating, though. By following these 5 money tips for new parents, you can get your new family’s finances off to a solid start in no time.

Establish An Emergency Fund ASAP

You’re probably concerned enough with just covering the day to day expenses when it comes to your new family member. Savings, beyond what you may or may not have automated, might not seem like a primary concern from the beginning.

It should be, though. It’s recommended that you have six months’ worth of non-discretionary income set aside to make ends meet should something happen to your earning ability. It’s not always fun to think about losing your job when you have a new baby, but it does happen, and if it does, your family needs to be ready.

Try to have enough to cover half a year’s worth of basic living expenses, including rent or mortgages, utilities, bill payments, food, and baby expenses such as diapers and new clothes, set aside in advance. Whether you’re getting this set up before baby comes or you’re starting after the fact, worry about this before you start worrying about college funds or pre-school tuition. Those things are important, but so is your family’s living security.

While you’re at it, take a look at life insurance. It may have been frivolous when it was just you or just the two of you, but now that someone is going to be depending on your income for several years to come, life insurance is an important security measure to make sure that your child is cared for in tough times.

Evaluate Your Primary Expenses

Next on our list of top 5 tips for new parents is to take a look at how much you’re spending on the necessities.

You know that adding a new person into your family budget is going to change things, but have you truly considered by how much? Remember, you’re not just going to need to buy one wardrobe’s worth of baby clothes that will last until they reach their toddler years, you’re going to need to re-outfit that growing body every couple of months.

There’s no one number that’s going to tell you how much extra your kid is going to cost you, and you’re going to have to be prepared for your budget to not go exactly as planned, but it’s important to look into the potential cost of raising your child, and evaluate your budget from there. There are even a number of online calculators to help you get started.

When you know how much you need for your child, you’ll be in a better place to decide how the rest of your budget should be allocated. Necessities like food, shelter, utilities, etc., aren’t going anywhere, but you’ll be surprised where you’ll be able to cut back.

Look Into Alternative Options

Once you know where you absolutely must spend and where you can cut costs, don’t be afraid to look into alternatives where costs are still high.

New parents are easy targets for advertisers because your time and mental resources are already pretty tight, but the newest or flashiest isn’t always going to be what you need. Buying gently used on things like furniture and clothes for your new kid is a good way to cut some of the initial costs that are only going to last between a few months and a couple years.

Look into alternatives for things like health insurance, too. Increased premiums might make employer benefits a costly addition to your budget. Government-backed coverage might save you some cash while still keeping your whole family healthy. If you do run into emergencies with your budget, there are options such as collateral loans that you can look into.

Look Into Tax Advantage College Savings

You might need that safety net first, but saving for college should be something that starts early. With estimated costs at a quarter of a million dollars by 2030, college isn’t going to come cheap and it’s not going to happen on its own.

Options like a 529 College Savings Plan provide parents a chance to save without the savings being subject to federal and in most cases state taxes, meaning that you’re getting a full dollar for every dollar you put in.

Don’t Hesitate To Ask For Help

When you’re tired, stressed, or just don’t know what to do, loading up on hundreds of dollars’ worth of baby books and paying for top notch sitters and nannies won’t get you nearly as far as your own network.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your supporters, whether that’s other new parents, your own parents, or other friends and family. If you need a sitter or help getting your kid to an important appointment, talk to someone you trust with your kids. Often, they’ll do it for nothing more than the promise that you’ll return the favor down the road.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, either. Things like medical needs should never be overlooked but a seasoned parent might be able to reassure you that a red spot is nothing more than diaper rash and save you the cost of a copay that you didn’t account for. Remember, it takes a village.

There’s no set number when it comes to budgeting for a growing family, and there’s no definitively right way to do it. Just set your priorities, look at all your options, and don’t be afraid to take help where you can get it. Most of all – don’t be afraid to not be afraid. You’re going to be a great parent.

Free Things To Do With Your Family in the Summer

Ah, Summer. Long, sunny days when the kids are home from school. It can be easy to wish the kids back into the classroom, but this year consider an alternative: find free things to do with your family in the summer. Doesn’t sound possible, but it is. Communities across the country are committed to offering a variety of activities that families can enjoy for little or no cost. Ready to get in on the action?

Get Moving

Summer is a great time of year to get outside and get moving. With kids (and adults) watching more TV than ever, having the opportunity for some exercise is too good to pass up. Consider biking as a family each day or night. To make it even more fun, you could bike ride to the park with plans to meet friends there, or pack a picnic lunch.

Hiking is another wonderful opportunity to get outside and explore nature. Pack a water bottle and hit the trails.

An alternative to hiking is geocaching. Even though you’re still outside and hitting the trails, you’re also looking for a cache. It’s like going on a treasure hunt, but instead of a map, you use GPS coordinates to find the treasure. With over 2 million geocaches worldwide, there are probably some near you. Search www.geocache.com to begin.

Other free activities that can get the whole family moving include:

  • Swimming at the beach
  • Playing in splashpads
  • rollerskating/blading
  • Go to the park and play
  • Host outdoor neighborhood games

Get together with families from the entire neighborhood to play softball, kickball, kick the can and other games you loved to play growing up.

It’s not entirely free because you have to pay for shoes, but there are many locations throughout the U.S. that let kids bowl up to three games per day. Perfect for a rainy day or those hot days where you just don’t want to go outside.

Learn Something New

Just because it’s summer doesn’t mean there’s no learning to be done. Summer reading programs are a fantastic way to get the whole family sharp. The following are just a sample of those available:

Many libraries and book stores have reading hours. You might also see if there are reading programs at local parks. Check and see if any authors of your kids’ favorite books are doing book signings in the area or will be by checking the author’s websites. They might enjoy hearing how they came up with the stories and asking questions. You might even be able to combine the activity with a road trip.

Many businesses offer free classes. Whether your family is into technology and wants to attend Apple Camp, loves working with wood or enjoy crafting, you can learn something new. many of these are free, some may have a small charge to cover the cost of the products.

One on One Time at Home

Some days it’s best to just stay home. But that doesn’t mean you have to watch TV all day. There are lots of great fun that can be had at home. Best of all – it won’t cost you a cent. Consider the following ideas:

  • Build a massive fort
  • Create a scavenger hunt
  • Have a dance party
  • Pull out the board games
  • Make your own board games
  • Have a water balloon fight
  • Test out science experiments
  • Create obstacle courses

You could also teach your kids to cook. Whether they’re at the stage where they can just start to add in the flour or can make dinner by themselves, doing it together could lead to new recipes, new things to try and some great memories.

Out on the Town

Does your town have a police or fire station? Why not call up and arrange a tour? Local factories might be willing to give tours, as well. And sometimes candy stores will show you how the magic happens – for free. You might also visit a farm to see where the produce comes from and see some animals.

Do you love to fish? Get a fishing pole (a toy one for very young children might be wise) and teach your little angler how to cast the pole and reel in the fish. Share a favorite fishing spot.

Maybe not much happened in your town, but local museums are sure to have captured the local flavor and history and they usually don’t charge much – they might even have free days.

What about giving back? Maybe a local garden or a school could use your help. Get the whole family involved in a volunteer project.

What’s going on at your park district? Many towns have activities set up throughout the summer that are family-friendly. This could include free days to swim at the pool, live music, free petting zoos and free movies in the park.

If you’re a movie-going family and want the opportunity to see other movies during the summer, consider paying a nominal fee (50 cents to $1 per film). The following are sites where you can see movies near you on the cheap:

You Gotta Eat

Food. Whether you want to cook together or you’re doing all the cooking yourself, a meal is a great way to spend time with family and friends. Visit a local park for a barbecue, take a drive to a picnic or hit up some local restaurants on days where kids eat free. In some towns and cities, particularly lower income areas, the USDA has partnered with local schools to provide kids 1-18 with free lunches.

Spending fun time with family and making memories doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Take advantage of this summer and spend time together doing activities for free.

Are Farmers Markets Too Expensive?

Are Farmers Markets Too Expensive?

Fresh Georgia peaches

Summer brings about the return of farmer’s markets, local garden, and fresh produce. Farmers markets usually have fresher, higher quality goods and produce than the grocery store selections. Their haul is also often organic and locally grown and produced. But when you visit your local farmer’s market, are you paying more money than you should?

What Consumers Believe Versus The Actual Facts

People often claim cost as the main reason why they don’t frequent their local farmer’s markets. Many consumers believe that farmer’s markets are more expensive than their grocery store when comparing the same items. But is it true?

The Nevada County Public Health Department gathered data from the prices of their area farmer’s markets and compared it to prices obtained from area grocery stores from January 2014 to July 2014. They found that while farmer’s market produce is very similarly priced to the grocery store counterparts. In fact, 5 out of 10 item prices measured found that the farmer’s market prices were equal to or cheaper than the grocery store alternative.

Organic Produce Prices from Placer and Nevada Counties

Another study in 2007 by University of Seattle economics professor, Stacey Jones, found that a comparison study of 15 items revealed that the farmer’s market items were slightly cheaper than the nearby grocery store’s items. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture studied conventional food in four Iowa cities and reported that the farmer’s market prices were more often cheaper or equal to prices at the neighboring grocery stores.

Across different tested regions, farmer’s markets proved to be cheaper than most consumers expected them to be. But are you always saving money when you visit your local farmer’s market?

It seemed to depend on the produce; for more commonly found vegetables that are easy to mass-produce, the grocery store prices tended to be slightly cheaper than the farmer’s market prices. But for more specific kinds of produce like sweet potatoes and butternut squash, the prices were equal. For things like apples, beets, and chard; the produce at the farmer’s market was cheaper.

Pros and Cons of Grocery Stores and Farmer’s Markets

So with prices that are fairly comparative between the two, which offers a better buy?

The Grocery Store

  • Pro: You can find out-of-season fruits and vegetables that have been shipped in
  • Con: Their frozen produce is typically cheaper than their fresh selections
  • Pro: There is greater consistency in product with factory farming methods
  • Con: You’ll pay much more for organic produce here than at the farmer’s market

The Farmer’s Market

  • Pro: Produce is much fresher (usually harvested within the last day or two before your purchase) and often organic
  • Con: Your selection is limited to local growing conditions and season
  • Pro: You’re supporting small, family-owned businesses
  • Con: Non-produce items like locally-raised meats, honey, etc. are more expensive here than the grocery store’s factory-produced versions

In the bigger picture, the grocery store offers more selection that offers slightly lower prices than the farmer’s market. But much is factored into the price of your produce: production and shipping costs, time, labor, variety, season and weather conditions, demand, and quality, just to name a few examples. Take that into mind when deciding whether or not your farmer’s market is excessively expensive.

What You Pay Depends on What You’re Shopping For

In another study done by Jake Robert Claro, a graduate student at Bard College, they found that organic items found at farmer’s markets were 40% cheaper than the grocery store’s organic counterparts in the area. So if you’re looking for naturally-grown, organic produce that you know exactly where it came from… the farmer’s market will have cheaper selections for you and your family.

But if you’re buying imported produce in bulk- the grocery store is still marginally cheaper than the farmer’s market. Another consideration to make… how long is the shelf-life of your purchase?

Price becomes tricky when you’re trying to pin down what you’re paying for. It makes it difficult to determine whether or not you’re paying too much for your produce. Something to consider is how long you’ll be able to use that head of lettuce before it spoils.

Grocery store produce isn’t as fresh as farmer’s market produce. That’s almost always a guarantee just because it’s more cost-effective to have that produce shipped into the store from further away. Farmer’s market produce is local, so it was more recently harvested.

So if you buy a head of lettuce from the grocery store for a cheaper price than you would at the farmer’s market, but it only lasts you two days before it begins to wilt rather than the farmer’s market lettuce that would have lasted you the week… are you really saving money when you just had to throw away the majority of that lettuce?

Again; it depends. You’d be saving money if you use your grocery store produce within the first few days after purchasing it. But if you need to keep your food fresh a few days longer, the farmer’s market might be your more frugal option.

How to Make Farmer’s Markets Cheaper

If you do decide that your local farmer’s market is a better deal, then you should know how to get more bang for your buck. While data seems to support that farmer’s market prices are often equal to (or even cheaper than) grocery stores, not all farmer’s market selections are going to be cheaper than the grocery store versions. You’ll need to know what to look for and when to shop!

Some money-saving tips to help you shop smarter at a farmer’s market:

  • Scope out the area, and go for a smaller market rather than the bigger, busier ones that tend to be higher-priced.
  • Become a repeat customer; get to know your local farmer… they’ll tip you off when the prices dip lower.
  • Don’t become set in your shopping list; often the items you planned on buying are too expensive… opt for cheaper produce and try out a new recipe instead.
  • Buy in bulk; because seasonal items are in surplus, buy a lot of whatever’s at a low price then freeze or can what you don’t need right now, or go in on the purchase with your family/friends and pay almost nothing.
  • Walk through the entire market before making your purchases; some vendors will offer lower prices than others for the same items, or have buy-one-get-one deals.
  • Play the waiting game; prices often drop just before the market closes, or if you haggle a bit. It’s risky since you might not buy what you came for, but it can save you money.
  • Bring cash; most vendors deal exclusively in cash (or in goods and services if you have those to offer for a better bargain).

Farmer’s markets don’t seem to be “too expensive.” In fact, they seem to be trying to compete with or even beat out the grocery store prices to capture your business. Visit your nearby farmer’s market this summer and take note of the prices then compare them to your grocery store selections. Those prices can change on a daily basis, but if it ends up being cheaper than your local grocery store it could be well worth the change in your routine.

Eating Healthy on a Budget for Families

Eating Healthy on a Budget for Families

Hear us out when we say: we get it. Feeding a family healthy foods on a budget is no easy task. Kids complain about health foods not tasting as good as their processed counterparts, Ingredients can be expensive, and prep times can go on for hours depending on the dishes you serve.

But fear not – there’s no reason to panic or navigate away from the page just yet. We’ll start with some cheap (but nutritionally powerful) ingredients, and some simple meals you can make with them. However, we’ll also throw in some incredible tools that can help you make a healthy, inexpensive meal for your family out of the ingredients you have lying around your house. And when we say “any,” ingredient, we mean “any.”

Bananas

Benefits: You have probably heard it shouted from the mountain tops that bananas are an excellent source of potassium. Well, the mountain-shouters are right, but did you know bananas are also a great source of fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and vitamin A? Among many other nutrients! Plus they’re usually one of the cheapest fruits out there, usually falling in a price range south of $1 a bunch.

Quick meal idea: You can eat them on their own or add them to other healthy breakfast foods. Try slicing up a banana and adding it to another inexpensive nutritional power-player: oatmeal. Both are packed with fiber, which will keep you feeling full for hours after your meal.

Eggs

Benefits: Full of nutrients like choline, sulfur, and lots of protein, eggs are the gold standard for a healthy food that won’t bust your budget. The beauty of eggs is they can be incorporated into a variety of different meals and dishes, from their simple fried or scrambled forms to quiches and casseroles.

Quick meal idea: Whether you prefer to cook with the entire egg or just the egg whites, there are so many ways to use this food of many faces. One great meal that also allows you to incorporate some greenery in the form of broccoli is a simple scrambled eggs with ricotta dish. Throw some broccoli, salt, and oil into a pan for about 6 minutes. Then add 8 large eggs, scramble until almost set, then remove them from the heat and sprinkle on some ricotta.

Beans

Benefits: Beans have long been a favorite of herbivores and omnivores alike because they can take on many different forms and flavors. With flavor, fiber, protein, iron, and antioxidants, ingredients like black beans are tasty, nutritious and cheap, often costing just 99 cents for a can.

Quick meal idea:From black bean soup to black beans and rice, there’s almost nothing you can’t do with these legumes. Try simmering a can of black beans with some minced garlic and onion. Then pour them over some brown rice and sprinkle with cheddar cheese, cilantro, tomato, avocado, and whatever other vegetables you enjoy. If you’re feeling really crazy, add some hot sauce.

Cabbage

Benefits: It’s a cheap, healthy ingredient that’s also incredibly underrated. Though it may get a bad wrap for being an incredibly uninteresting food most often incorporated into your grandmother’s questionable casseroles, there’s actually a lot you can do with a head of cabbage and a little imagination.

Quick meal idea: It’s as simple as chopping up a head of cabbage into thinly-sliced pieces (think: coleslaw), throwing it into a heavy-bottomed pan with some butter for 10 – 15 minutes, then seasoning it with salt and pepper.

Spice Things Up with a Cutting-Edge Cooking App

You may see this list and roll your eyes at the overly simplistic portrayal of foods, but did you know there’s a way to make a tasty meal out of just about any combination of ingredients, including those on this list?

If you’re like NPR correspondent Eliza Strickland and you’re into food experimentation (or you’re sick of the frustration that comes with making a trip to the grocery store and forgetting a key required in your dish), there’s an app for that, and its name is Watson.

After being programmed with the information for over 9,000 recipes from Bon Appetit magazine as well as the flavor compounds found in foods, Watson can create recipes from just about any combination of foods. So if you’ve got food lying around the house that you’d like to incorporate into heart-healthy dishes, let Watson do the thinking while you do the cooking.

Remember, food is the fuel your body uses to function, fight off disease, and heal from injury. Feeding yourself (or your family) meals full of preservatives and overly-processed foods is kind of like pouring sugar in your own gas tanks (no pun intended). It doesn’t just give your body fewer nutrients to work with – it oftentimes contributes to and exacerbates certain ailments.

How to Create a Family Budget

How to Create a Family Budget

How to Create a Family Budget

Creating a budget is personal. You have to customize it to fit your income and expenditures and the things that are important to you. Begin creating a family budget that you’ll stick to because it allows you to pay bills, save money and still get the things you love. Work with your spouse to see where your money is going and design a plan that fits you and meets your needs.

Step One: Acquire Your Detailed Bank Statements

It’s easy to think you know where and how you’re spending your money. Looking through your bank statements gives you the nitty gritty details of where it’s really going. Print them out or view them online. Look at every purchase you’ve made for the last three months and break it down into a category, such as:

  • Bills and Utilities
  • Food and Dining
  • Household expenses
  • Credit cards and other debts
  • Car Expenses
  • Gifts and donations
  • Travel
  • Education
  • Health care

Figure out a way to identify each individual category, whether you list them out, use a different colored highlighter for each category or use a budget site like Mint.com. You may want to break some of the categories up further. For instance, you may have car payments, gas, car repairs and regular maintenance, like oil changes. The amount you spend on gas will change each month and you won’t have an oil change every month, but you will have a car payment.

For each category record the individual expenses and get an overall estimate of what you’ve been spending.

Which purchases surprise you? Which ones don’t?

Add up the amount you’re spending each month. Chances are you spend different amounts each month, but they should be pretty close to one another, barring high unusual (or surprise) expenses.

Now add up your income. How does what’s coming in compare to what’s going out? Are you making money or are you in the red?

Step Two: Identify Your Needs

As you look at your expenditures, you should start to recognize patterns. But how many of them do you need?

Of your purchases, which can you not live without? Consider the following:

  • Groceries*
  • Rent/mortgage
  • Clothes*
  • Utilities
  • Gas for car

Obviously, food is essential. But there are groceries you don’t need – like organic milk or the expensive steak. Similarly, you need clothes, but not designer clothes. Internet is not a need unless you work from home. Cell phones can be a need if you don’t have a home phone, but a data plan is not. TV isn’t a need, but it’s a want a lot of us share. On the other hand, you have to make that payment until it’s repaid.

These needs make up the bare bones of your budget. This is what you will need to survive if you lose your job (or jobs). Multiply it by six and you have the amount you should (eventually) have saved up in your emergency savings fund.

Step Three: Discuss Your Wants

What things do you want? Don’t limit it just to financial things, like saving money. Dream a little. For instance, do you want to:

  • Take an annual vacation?
  • Have a family (or a larger one)?
  • Buy or build a new house?
  • Have a date night every week?
  • Go out with friends every month?
  • Stay home with the kids?
  • Start your own business?
  • Lose weight and get in shape?
  • Get tickets to watch your football team play?
  • Buy a boat and live on the ocean for a year?

The things you want are an important part of the budget because they affect how you spend the money that’s not needs-based. Some people like big expensive vacations. Others want expensive houses or cars. Others want to have comfortable furniture and a huge TV to relax in front of. None of those things are wrong or bad. But you have to plan so you can get the things you want.

What do you need to do to get things you want? For instance, if you want a date night every week and you have kids, you need a babysitter. That could mean calling Grandma, a friend, or hiring someone. The dinner, movie and drinks may not be your only expense. How much will the items on your want list cost you?

How will you get the money for your wants?

For instance, if you want to take a vacation, you could start a vacation fund that you put money in every month. How much should you put in? Should you make a babysitter a line item on your budget? If you want to stay home with the kids, how much money will you need to cut out of your expenditures to make up the difference from what you’re earning?

One thing you may not consider that you should is your partner’s “love language”. Different people express and feel loved differently. This can affect your budget. For instance, if your partner’s love language is gifts, chances are he will give nice, thoughtful (and sometimes expensive) gifts to you and expect the same in return. Even if “nice presents” aren’t a stated want, a gift line is important to incorporate into your budget. Your relationship is important and showing affection to one another in the way you receive it best helps keep it strong.

When you have your wants in order, prioritize them so you can begin moving in the direction of your dreams. Corny, but true.

Step Four: Address Your Fixed Expenses

Not all of your fixed expenses are needs, but if you have a contract, you have to pay them. Add ’em up.

Now look at the items that aren’t contracted, or that have contracts ending soon, like the satellite TV bill. Could you call up and ask for a lower rate? What about getting a smaller data plan on your phone – or asking for a discount for being a good customer? Are discounts from your employer availabl. Are there any fixed expenses that you don’t find yourself using?

Or maybe you’ve realized you can’t go down in data on your phones, but need to go up because you’re always going over. Maybe you only use the internet on your phone and having home internet isn’t actually saving you any money.

If there’s nothing you can cut out, that’s okay, but if there is, there’s no reason to hang onto it. If you have a subscription to Hulu that you never use, that’s $8 you can put toward something you actually want.

Step Five: Address Your Variable Expenses

How much do the variable expenses on your needs list cost you in a year? What do gas and groceries run you, on average? This amount can vary month-to-month, but it probably isn’t too different, overall. It’s important to know where you actually fall – that you’re spending $500 on gas, not $300.

Now consider your other variable expenses. The ones that could be cut out, if necessary. How often are you going out to eat? Buying coffee? Getting fast food?

As with your wants, none of the answer to these questions are wrong. The question is just to get you thinking about whether or not your money is going where you want it to. If you want to get in shape, but you’re stopping at McDonald’s every day, you’re probably sabotaging your efforts. You’re also be spending money that could go toward a gym membership or buying a workout bike so you can exercise at home. The question boils down to what you want and whether or not you’re moving in that direction.

Using your bank statements from the last few months, write down all of your fixed bills and all of your variable expenses that are needs, with the amount each cost (realistically!). How much are you spending? Subtract that from your income and that’s what’s left in your budget. If you ever experience a financial emergency, sometimes the best solution for you would be a car title loan. This option will allow you to pay your bills on time, just make sure you can pay the loan off in the future.

Step Six: Create an Automatic Savings Plan

If you already have an emergency savings plan that has at least 6 months of expenses and you’re saving for other “smaller” things, like a riding lawn mower or your next vacation, you can skip this step. Otherwise, you need to start saving.

Man people think saving money sounds like a real pain. One they can’t afford. The truth is, you can’t afford not to.

Saving money can provide you with a cushion in case of emergencies (and let’s face it. They happen. Usually all at once). It can also help you get the things you want.

To get started, consider an online bank. Many have excellent interest rates on savings accounts. Some, like Capital One 360, allow you to open multiple accounts, so you can save for all the things you want. Not sure where to start? Consider these:

Set up automatic transfers to your savings account(s). You can do them once each month, every pay period or even small amounts every day. The important part is that you’re saving money for the things you want later, whether it’s a fantastic vacation or a down payment on a house.

Step Eight: Spend the Rest Appropriately

What’s left is for you to spend. Some might go toward dining out. Some might go toward stuff for your house. For the next few weeks record every penny you spend, so you have no surprises. This can help you keep on track. Then you can make decisions, together, about how to spend it.

For some people, tracking every cent is important. For others, it’s frustrating and obnoxious. Depending on how you do your finances best, you might choose whether to record every cent or if you want to allot an amount that each person or you as a couple can spend in a pay period, a week or throughout the month. What you choose doesn’t matter as long as it works for you and you’re not overspending – or delving into your savings.

Creating a family budget can be intimidating, but having one can make the difference between living your life the way you want to and living paycheck to paycheck. Know where your money is going and make the changes you need to get to the places you want to go.