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My Christmas Budget – Things Change and They Remain the Same

J Money’s post about his budget from years ago inspired me to look up my past too.  My husband and I set a budget of $500 for Christmas for the last 4-5 years, and we generally do pretty well.  The main difference has become that we used to hang out with 20 or less people including family…now it’s 35-40.  I consider that an amazing life change.  But it has changed our shopping habits.

Christmas Budget

Our Christmas Budget in 2011

We spent $510 on our families and friends in 2011.  There were 18 people – 9 family members and 9 friends.  If you do the math, those numbers mean that we spent an average of $25-$30 per person.  There were some $40-$50’s and some $10-$15’s, but we definitely spent more per person back then than now.  It helped that it was a great financial year.  That was the year that I went self-employed, still had a classic day job for 6 of those months, and my husband was a public school teacher.  I had very little time away from the computer, but I was excited about a new path.

Our Christmas Budget Now in 2014

This year, we have spent $470.   There are 35 people on our list – 12 family members and 23 friends.  More friends is a “problem” that I am so thankful to have.  :-D  It just takes a little extra planning and some serious thoughts on people’s inner wants, lol.  These numbers mean that we are now spending an average of $13.50 per person.  That’s about half of what we used to spend on each person, yet I think our gifts are more thoughtful and will be better-received.  I’ll let you know if I’m wrong.

We made some of our gifts, splurged in some places, but also found amazing deals right before Black Friday.  Honestly, the 30% off at Think Geek, Groupon Good sales, and good deals on Amazon accounted for the majority of our gift list.  I also made beer bread and Mr. BFS mixed up some homemade spice mixes since one of our friends needed stuff to fit in a small living space.  About $40 was spent on little extras here and there like stocking stuffers.

How has your Christmas budget changed over the last few years?

The Budget Cuts Finally Happened…

I posted that we were making $500 in budget cuts in early June 2014, yet by September 2014, we had only cut cable.  I had been procrastinating on switching to Ting wireless from Sprint.  Well, here is how our monthly budget is looking now:

Our Current Monthly Budget

  • Income Taxes – $2500
  • Home Mortgage – $990
  • Home Insurance/Property Taxes/HOA – $750
  • Rent House Home Insurance/Property Taxes – $300
  • Health Insurance – $275  $320
  • Car Insurance – $85
  • Gasoline – $200
  • Life Insurance – $30
  • Electricity – $150
  • Water – $50
  • Natural Gas – $40
  • Restaurants – $250
  • Groceries – $250
  • Cell Phones$150  $75
  • Medicines – $20
  • Internet (DSL) – $55
  • Housekeeping – $175  $0
  • Lawn – $50 (average over the year)
  • Netflix – $10
  • Hulu Plus – $10
  • Miscellaneous – $200  $150
  • Entertainment – $50
  • Cash – $100
  • Total Expenses = $6435

Monthly Income

Our total income each month fluctuates, but here are our monthly averages in 2014:

  • Online Business – $6250
  • Rental Income – $1800
  • Pet Sitting – $800
  • Sports Officiating – $600
  • Total Average Income 2014 = $9450


Self-employment is inherently risky to some degree.  We diversify our income to help alleviate as much of that risk as we can.  Our lowest month this year has been around $7000 in September, and our highest month was more than $11,000 in October.  We attempt to keep our expenses set based on the “bad” months so that the “good” months can be used for savings, investments, and padding.

Our expenses fluctuate too, but as you could probably see from the budget, we are sort of locked in at around $6000 a month.  That just covers the income taxes, property taxes, home owner’s insurance, life insurance, health insurance, mortgage, utilities, and $350 for food.  I price check those expenses annually to grab up the best deals.

Based on our general lower average of monthly income in 2014 as compared with 2011-2013, our income taxes should decrease at least a little in 2015, which will help.

Using the Extra

Our main retirement priority is to fully fund each of our Roth IRA’s for a total of $11,000 each year.  We are saving any further extra to either buy another rental property of to pay off our current home faster.  Adding another property now (and even more in the next 10-15 years if possible) may end up leading to ongoing income streams that could possibly fully fund our retirement. I do enjoy that idea…

About 10% of the extra is also set aside for travel and fun since life is better when you budget in the fun stuff too.  ;-)

Actually Saving the Savings

After following along with J Money’s Challenge Savings Account updates, I have been inspired to do the same thing.  J Money has opened a savings account that is solely funded by what he is “saving” by cutting expenses and from selling stuff on Craigslist.  He decided to really save the money and squirrel it away for at least a year just to see exactly what can come out of making simple budget cuts.

Right now it is at $195 for the 3 months of savings from cutting cable.  It should grow pretty quickly now that we’ve also switched to Ting (should save at least $50 a month) and are cleaning our house ourselves (will be saving $175 for the months we do this).  I’ll also see what we may want to sell on Craigslist, although I don’t seem to buy cool things to resell from garage sales like J Money.  ;-)

We’ll see what happens by September 2015…

How is your budget working out? What are your future plans?

Our Monthly Budget Update – Some Cuts Made

I posted that we were making $500 in budget cuts in early June 2014, yet they just started.  It took us longer to cut cable than I had expected and now we are reviewing everything to make sure that we are content with our budget as it is now.  Let’s see where we stand…

Our Current Monthly Budget

  • Income Taxes – $2500
  • Home Mortgage – $990
  • Home Insurance/Property Taxes/HOA – $750
  • Rent House Home Insurance/Property Taxes – $300
  • Health Insurance – $275
  • Car Insurance – $85
  • Gasoline – $200
  • Life Insurance – $30
  • Electricity – $150
  • Water – $50
  • Natural Gas – $40
  • Restaurants – $250
  • Groceries – $250
  • Cell Phones – $150
  • Medicines – $20
  • Internet (DSL) – $55
  • Housekeeping – $175 (average over the year)
  • Lawn – $50 (average over the year)
  • Miscellaneous – $200
  • Entertainment – $50
  • Cash – $100
  • Total Expenses = $6670

Monthly Income

Our total income each month fluctuates, but here’s a quick general rundown of our monthly averages in 2014:

  • Online Business – $6500
  • Rental Income – $1800
  • Pet Sitting – $1000
  • Sports Officiating – $550
  • Total Average Income 2014 = $9850
Crystal's Budget Meme

I just created this meme at Meme To Go!  The ecstatic, awesome Pug is Maggie, one of my pet sitting “Happy Campers”. :-D


Prioritizing the Difference

That monthly average of income has fluctuated by up to $1500 depending on the month, so we don’t tie up the extra as much as we did in the past when our income was a little more stable.  To be really clear, our monthly extra has ranged from $1000-$3000.  The $3000 months felt like mini-miracles, but the $1000 months felt pretty tight with a pinch of worrisome.

Lately, we make sure to fully fund both of our Roth IRA’s ($11,000 a year total) as quickly as possible.  In the last few years, we’ve been able to do that within the first half of the year.  The rest has been squirreled away towards a car fund, an emergency fund, a rental property maintenance account, a cash account for future investments, a home account to pay off our current mortgage faster, a joint vacation/fun expense account, and our personal fun money accounts.

Cash Options

You may notice that having accounts for all of those goals means that most of what we are squirreling away is actually in cash.  We don’t particularly want to keep quite that much cash on hand instead of invested since 0.75% is a crappy rate of return, BUT we are saving as much as we can this year to see what we truly want to do with it in 2015-2016.  Plus, during our worst months in 3 years, having cash on hand kept us from totally and completely freaking out.

I already bought a new car, but since it’s at 0.9% for 5 years, we will probably not use the car account to pay it off early.  I think we could use the investment cash, the car account, and the home payoff account to put 20% down on yet another rental home.  Land lording isn’t all rainbows and butterflies, but it has become a nice income stream for us.  Even after property taxes, insurance, and normal maintenance, the extra is making a significant dent in our own mortgage payments for our current home.  Adding another property now (and even more in the next 10-15 years if possible) may end up leading to ongoing income streams that could possibly fully fund our retirement.  I do enjoy that idea…

If we don’t go the rental home route, we may simply invest more cash in our Scottrade stock investments and see what happens from there.  No matter what, I know we want to spend the majority of our saved money to make us more money.  A small percentage of it will probably be used for further vacations since I seem to have caught the cruise bug and always seem to be looking for the next awesomely cheap deal.

How is your budget working with your current expenses and income?  What are your future plans?

New Orleans on a Budget

As I mentioned yesterday, I was in New Orleans last week with my husband and a couple of our friends.  I’ll be going back in September for the 2014 Financial Blogger Conference.  I figured I could help a few of us out by posting how we can visit New Orleans on a budget.

New Orleans


For this last trip, we drove to New Orleans from Houston, TX using our 2007 Prius.  Altogether, it cost $60 for gasoline.  If you live close enough to drive, it may be something to consider.

If you can’t drive, check out your public transportation options.  I’m using the Megabus in September to get to New Orleans and my mother-in-law is picking me up.  The 1-way Megabus ticket cost me $9.75 and that includes the upgrade to the best seat and the 25 cents to receive text notifications of any changes.  It looks like most tickets cost $2-$50 depending on the location and whether you need a round trip ticket or not.  Check out your local bus and train stations to see if you have any affordable options.

For flights, you may want to figure out the direct flight cost from your city OR look at flying into a different airport and then finding a cheaper route from there.  For example, it may cost $400 to get from your city to New Orleans round trip, but it may only cost $200 to get to Houston and back and another $100 to get from Houston to New Orleans and back.  It pays to look at all of your options.


The FinCon14 hotel this year is a Marriot at 555 Canal Street.  It’s running about $150 a night with taxes.  If you need to save money, you should consider splitting the room.  You can cut your hotel bill in half or more depending on how many of you decide to bunk up.

Another option is to stay somewhere else and either walk or drive in each day.  I generally use Priceline or to research my options, and then I go directly to the hotel’s site to see if there are any specials or AAA discounts.  My hubby, friends, and I stayed at the Best Western Bayou Inn in Westwego, Louisiana and drove the 20 minutes in each day to New Orleans.  The Best Western was $80 a night and we shared the room with the 4 of us.  Each couple only ended up paying $160 for 4 nights.

The drive in was easy and we parked at Harrah’s Casino.  Their lot costs the same as other parking near Bourbon Street, unless you gamble for 30 minutes.  So we signed up for their free casino card program (like at Kroger’s), plugged the card into a penny slot every day before we left for our hotel, made a few inexpensive bets over 30 minutes, ordered a few free drinks right from the screens while we waited, and ended up getting nearly free parking all week.

Harrah's Casino

The parking is across the street…


New Orleans has amazing food, but it was a little difficult to find inexpensive options.  There’s always fast food, but that is sad to eat on vacations.

We ended up settling on finding restaurants with generous portions and splitting them.  For example, Deanie’s Seafood has a $56 fried seafood plate that can easily feed 5 or 6 hungry people – it’s HUGE.  They also sell a half seafood plate for $29 that you could split 3-4 ways.  Oh, and they had giant bowls of delicious soups and bisques for $9 (cups were $5).  My husband and I split a bowl and were very full plus we had leftovers.

If you are in the mood for a fun class plus delicious food, you can pay $22-$25 per person to learn from and eat at the New Orleans’s School of Cooking.  The class takes a couple of hours since you are watching the demo of how it’s made the whole time.  If you need something faster, Harrah’s had a deli and a Fuddruckers inside that ran about $8-$10 per person.  There’s also an Arby’s right next to the #FinCon14 Marriot.

If you are willing to walk, Café DuMond is about 10 minutes away and costs $2.42 for 3 beignets or a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.


Yep, there were 3 beignets there right before I took this picture…but they told me to eat them and I obliged.

There were dozens of restaurants along and around Bourbon Street too.  They all seemed to run $8 per person on the cheap side up to $20-$30 a plate.  But if you are walking around with the right group of people, you can have a lot of fun finding yummy food that you can afford.


People watching was the ultimate free fun.  We walked around a lot and took a ton of pictures of the historical buildings like St. Peters church.


We also enjoyed taking our time at the penny slots at Harrah’s and drinking free cocktails (although we did tip $1 each).  Altogether, a week of gambling for about an hour a day cost us $55 for tips and gambling, but it got us about $80 in free parking and more than 14 mixed drinks overall.  I have found out that I adore Fuzzy Navels…

For a great deal, although not technically “cheap”, you can spend $40 0n the Audubon Experience Package ticket.  That one pass will let you into the Audubon Zoo, Aquarium, Insectarium, and Imax once each over 30 days.  That’s $10 per activity, which is well worth it.

New Orleans Aquarium July 2014

I’m the one holding the cell phone in the picture. How cool is this view?!

Overall, a visit to New Orleans doesn’t have to break the bank.  Just pay attention to all of your options and choose the best deal for you.

Budgeting for Unexpected Expenses – Istanbul and Italy

Quick background:  I host monthly giveaways via my newsletter.  Readers enter by first signing up to receive my weekly newsletter, and then by leaving a comment on my giveaway post.  I ask for that comment to be a question for me if they have one. chooses the winner each month.

Reader Question

Here was a recent question from Carmen:

My kids have gifted me with a ticket to Istanbul & then Italy for my daughter’s wedding in Autumn…what is the best way to budget for additional trip expenses?  Thanks–take care!

Okay, so most of us are probably thinking that the best way for budgeting for unexpected expenses is to save money in advance.  You’d be right, but that isn’t helpful if that hasn’t been done yet and the expense pops up anyway.  Plus, that may not be the question…

Travel on a Budget

How to Estimate Travel Expenses

First thing’s first.  Carmen may be asking how much she should budget for the trip, not how to come up with the money.  Either way, she’ll need to know.  For travel, I generally search around online for recent personal stories from other people to see how much things run.  I research them based on the big categories and round up to cover anything I may have forgotten:

  • Hotels/Where You are Staying
  • Food
  • Transportation
  • Planned Fun

As a fun example, I actually researched the general prices of Istanbul and Italy to help Carmen out.  I don’t know any more than any of you do about her trip, so these are just general targets.


I found an Istanbul Travel Guide at Leave Your Daily Hell that says that a hotel will run you $55+ per night, but a hostel would be between $15-$30 a night.  Based on that same post and a 2013 Trip Advisor forum post, it looks like Istanbul runs about $75 a day for everything else including food, transportation, and fun.  You can eat cheaper and visit less museums and save even more.


According to this 2013 post on Slow Travel Italy, you may spend between $300-$425 a day in Italy depending on how fancy your hotel is and where you eat.

If you want to spend less, check out this Walks of Italy post about cheaper options.  I love the idea of staying in an agriturismo – an old farm house that offers you fresh made meals and they range from rustic to luxurious.  Most often they cover your room and breakfast and dinner for $70 or less per night (50 euros).

Then you just have to worry about your transportation around Italy, your lunches, and what you want to do for fun.  Getting around by train is an option that costs about $30 for most trips.  You could also rent a car, but that looks expensive.  You can grab lunch for less than $25 a day and then budget what you need to for fun based on where you go.  You can easily stick to a $150-$200 a day budget if you want to splurge a little but not a ton.

Budgeting for Unexpected Expenses After the Fact

Overall, it looks like you will want to budget for about $150 per day for your trip and you can bring that down by cutting back in whatever category you see fit by hunting around for less expensive options.

Cutting Expenses

The only way to save up extra money for something like this is to either cut expenses or increase your income.  You can cut your expenses by taking a close look at your spending – first get rid of the easy stuff and then put yourself on a strict spending plan for the categories that you want to cut back on after the easy stuff in handled.  We recently cut down our budget by $500 mainly through a stricter food budget and less fun money.

Make More Money

You can make more money in a bunch of ways, but the ones that pop into my mind are generally side hustles and hobby jobs since selling stuff is a one-time fix and generally, I like my stuff or I wouldn’t still have it around.  I also like having roommates since it’s pretty easy side income without a lot of hassle if you find the right person or people, but that is also more long-term.  Short term, look into summer jobs.  I made a whole list of summer jobs and hobby jobs last week.  I’m personally bringing in about $750-$1200 a month through pet sitting.  Babysitting and house keeping are always in demand too.

Hope this helps, Carmen!  Does anybody else have some ideas for her?  Please chime in!

Living It Up On the Cheap!

Our income isn’t where it has been for the last 2-3 years, but it usually picks up after the summer.  Mr. BFS and I are cutting back on the unnecessary general splurges voluntarily to buy ourselves enough time to either see an online income increase again in August-September or to make a new plan of attack.  We are making more than enough to get by, but no reason to tempt fate.  :-)


Cutting Back Doesn’t Have to Mean Cutting Out

BUT, cutting back on spending doesn’t mean that you have to stop having fun!  I started this blog in order to point out how you can save for your future and live in the now at the same time.  It’s doable even when you don’t have a ton of money.  Here are some ways that we are still having a great time without breaking our budget to do it – that means keeping it to less than $50 a month on average.  Say hello to cheap fun!

Movie Nights: $Negligible Now

Movie Nights

We’ve done movie nights at our house for more than 5 years. It can be as easy as sitting around the tv in the living room. But my husband and I used some of our fun money in early 2013 to install a $1400 system in our media room. We have a great projector that displays a VERY clear image, a 100 inch screen, surround sound, no windows, and enough seating for 6 people to comfortably watch movies all night long. We want to finish it off with actual in-home theater seating like recliners with cup holders, but that is a $1000-$1500 plan that will have to wait.

We have movie nights as a couple a few times a month and with groups of friends about once a month (other than the Game of Thrones night that you’ll read about next). Generally it costs nearly nothing. We have Netflix streaming already for about $9 a month in order to watch our favorite tv series now that we are cutting cable soon, our friends bring DVD’s, we have some DVD’s, or we rent a new release from Redbox using a coupon (so it’s usually less than 50 cents per rental). Thanks to my mom’s sense of humor (which I inherited), we also have a 10 year supply of popcorn kernels (a Sam’s Club special – 30 pounds of kernels) and our roommates/friends have an air popper that we use to make the deliciousness.

Game of Thrones Night: $5-$10

Yep, Game of Thrones is awesome.  This “Honest Trailer” pretty much sums up its awesomeness.  Seriously, watch this – it is HILARIOUS!

Basically, one of our friends has HBO Go and there are 5 of us that have decided to pick a night every week to watch the latest Game of Thrones (GOT) episode together.  We meet at around 5pm, all contribute ingredients to the meal that my husband usually volunteers to cook, we watch GOT, and then we play board games until everybody has to leave.  Since everybody contributes to the food, and our friend already has HBO Go, it ends up being about $5 a person per week overall.

Once this season wraps up, I am going to ask if we can re-watch Orange is the New Black – I’ve LOVED both seasons!!!

Cheap yet Yummy Alcohol: $5

Cheap Wine

Did you know that Aldi’s sells alcohol?  I didn’t even notice until about 2 weeks ago.  On a whim, my friend and I tried a $5 bottle of Red Moscato from California, “Moiselle”, and it is freaking YUMMY!  Seriously, it’s just $5 a bottle and we have confirmed its yumminess with at least a half dozen of our friends.  You need to try it, that’s all I’m saying.  Oh, and that for $5 a person, we all have a very giggly evening in.  ;-)

Groupon Specials: $20-$50


It doesn’t sound cheap/frugal, but spending $20 on a foam run (a 5k run/walk that shoots you with glow-in-the-black-light-foam at night) is a steal since it lasts for hours and is a memory that will last forever.  I also have recently spent $50 on 10 pole dancing classes is going to be great too.  That’s $5 per class!  Not bad for an activity that strengthens your core and develops your arm and leg muscles!  Way to go Groupon!

I’ve also used Groupon for $5 movie tickets and discounted frozen yogurt coupons.  Here’s a picture of a color run I was able to afford thanks to a Groupon special.  Overall, I seem to spend about $100 a year on these online coupon deals…

A Hot, Colored, Mess

And here we are after the festivities! From left to right – Ivy, Isabelle, me, and Anne

And even though the Groupon links are my own referral links to them, they never asked for me to post about them or anything like that.  I just use Groupon and like it, BUT ONLY WHEN YOU BUY SOMETHING THAT YOU WOULD USE ANYWAY OR THAT YOU WOULDN’T USUALLY DO BECAUSE OF COST.  Memories and time with others is what I consider the most important parts of life.  Getting a great financial deal on them is just even better.

Have you done any of the activities that I mentioned?  What other ideas do you suggest for living it up on the cheap?  Isn’t the Honest Trailers guy FANTABULOUSLY FUNNY?!  My friend got me hooked a few months ago…

Pretending Your Money Isn’t Yours

Managing your own money comes with emotional baggage.  You know what you like, want, and need, BUT it’s hard to easily categorize everything.  Here’s a trick that works for me – pretend you’re actually managing someone else’s money.  We all judge others day in and day out.  Most of us want to point out where others could do better.  Now turn those hawk eyes onto your own circumstances instead.


Think Like NOT You

You probably already cut, changed, or accepted your budget based on your norms (even stricter ones than usual if you are really in need).  Now look at every category again and act like you are giving every tip you ever heard of to someone else.

For example, a mortgage payment seems set in stone.  But if someone asked you how they could cut expenses, would you suggest that they look into moving if their mortgage payment is higher than necessary?  Or would you suggest getting a roommate?  Or would you suggest renting out the home if the rental market was excellent?  Sure, none of those options may work for you, but would you even think of them if you were just being you?

Getting out of your own head could help.

Works for Me

I use lots of little tricks.  Generally, I am motivated by my big goals.  But I stink at getting out of my own head.  For instance, I am not a “frugal blogger”.  I don’t make my own laundry detergent or use washable toilet paper.  But I did realize that washing all of my non-nasty clothes in cold water helps keep my gas bill below $25 every month once I tried it.

If I make myself think of every possible option, I usually find one that seemed odd before but awesome in retrospect.  I used to take my old car to my mechanic any time it had any issue at all.  But I was feeling especially annoyed one day about a spark plug problem, and then realized that I could solve the smaller issues at O’Reilly’s or Auto Zone.  Not everything needs a mechanic.  Spark plugs are way easier than most people know, and YouTube is a treasure trove for new knowledge.  Online videos helped me replace the broken glass on my old smart phone too – $15 instead of $155.

Overall, looking at my own money like it is a random stranger’s instead has ended up leading me to thousands of dollars saved that I would probably have wasted otherwise.

Have you ever tried something financially that seemed way out of character and it turned out amazing?  Or the other way around – ever try something that ended up costing you in some way?