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The Simple Dollar

Making your own soda and snack foods is economical and health-conscious, and probably easier than you think, Hamm says. (Brittany Lynne Photography )

The secret to wealth and health? Make your own snacks!

By Guest blogger / 03.23.12

Soda and fast food are both convenient pick-me-ups that many people utilize for a sweetness fix or for getting rid of a case of the munchies.

From a personal finance perspective, though, there are much better choices for each of those options.

Let’s look at soda for starters. You have the sticker cost of the soda, of course, which can vary greatly but often seems to settle at somewhere around $0.05 per ounce. Of course, on top of that, there are health costs. Studies have shown a direct correlation between soda consumption and health care costs later on in life. Quantifying it down to an exact cost per ounce is impossible due to the variables (not all sodas are the same, not all people are the same, not all diets are the same, etc.), but there is a real connection and a real cost there.

Simply put, if you’re looking to quench your thirst at a bargain price, look at water. A glass of tap water is incredibly inexpensive, and even filtered water gets down to a tiny fraction of a cent per ounce. If you need that sweet fix, do what I often do: squirt a little bit of lemon juice into a big cup of water and add a pinch of sugar or two, then stir. That’s still far less expensive per ounce than your average soda. Want it convenient? Fill some water bottles and keep them in the fridge as a replacement for soda.

You can tell a similar story with fast food. Much like soda, it’s convenient and it can often become part of a normal routine. Much like soda, the cost each time doesn’t seem like too much. Much like soda, it’s usually tasty. Much like soda, there are long term health costs associated with repeated use.

If you want to replace the convenience and tastiness of fast food, make it yourself in advance of your crunch time. Make a big batch of homemade breakfast burritos and nuke them on your way out the door. Keep a container of nuts in your car to munch on instead of swinging into the Mickey D’s drive-thru. Prepare meals in advance so that all you have to do is pop them in the oven when you get home. There are tons of inexpensive recipes where the cost per serving just blows away fast food in terms of immediate savings.

I’m speaking from experience when I say that the hardest part of switching away from routines of drinking soda or eating fast food is not giving up the item, it’s breaking the routine. Human beings are creatures of habit and shaking our routines is something we’re not particularly good at. Over the years, I’ve found a few specific tactics that really work for me when it comes to breaking an unwanted routine or establishing a new one.

One, try to change just one routine at a time. If you have a routine of getting a soda and a burrito after work each day, just focus on breaking that routine. Ignore other changes you want to make in your life right now. Focus just on going home instead of stopping for that snack, and keep that money in your pocket. If you want to, eat something else instead when you get home – something that’s likely far less expensive.

Two, minimize the resistance to the new routine. It’s a lot easier not to pick up a soda if you’ve got an easy alternative to grab when you’re thirsty, such as a water bottle you filled yourself earlier and stuck in the fridge. It’s a lot easier to ride right by a fast food restaurant if you have a few nuts in your vehicle to munch on instead. It’s a lot easier not to eat out if you have an easy meal at home all ready to toss in the oven (or is sitting there ready for you in the crock pot).

Three, find alternatives you really enjoy. I used to really enjoy drinking a particular type of soda. I liked it so much I didn’t really believe I would get enough enjoyment out of anything else to make it worth the savings. What I did is I spent some time just experimenting with different alternatives until I came across a great mix of water, a bit of lemon juice, and a pinch of sugar that I really, really liked. Having a cheaper alternative that I genuinely liked made the switch much easier.

Finally, recognize what you’re gaining from the change. If you eliminate three sodas a day (on average) that cost $0.50 each (on average), you’re saving $500 a year in immediate soda costs, plus a significant amount more in long term health care costs. If you move from eating one $3 fast food snack a day to eating a homemade snack that costs $1 to make and a few nuts that cost $0.50, you’re saving $500 a year in immediate food costs, plus a significant amount more in long term health care costs. Keeping those dollars and cents in mind was a real motivator.

The thing to always keep in mind is that there are a lot of savings to be had from changing your dietary routines. Nothing is sacred as long as you’re meeting your basic nutritional needs.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

Aidan Hernandez, 4, smiles as he swings on a swing being pushed by his father,Raymundo Hernandez, at Hazle Township's Community Park in Hazelton, Pa., in this file photo. (Ellen F. O'Connell/AP/Hazelton Standard-Speaker/File)

Community resources are there to save you money

By Guest blogger / 03.23.12

This past weekend, Sarah and I went on a long walk in the woods at a state park, checked out the restored birthplace of President Herbert Hoover, ate a picnic meal in a beautiful grove, found a bunch of Devonian-era fossils, and played with our children on a playground.

Our total cost for all of this – minus the food we brought ourselves – was nothing. All of it was made free to us by our community and other communities in Iowa.

In the past month, my family has gone ice skating in a public rink, played disc golf, played tennis, played basketball, watched an outdoor concert, and enjoyed a pile of food samples. Cost (beyond stuff we already own)? Nothing.

In the next month and a half or so, my children are participating in a youth soccer league, my oldest may be participating in a youth baseball league, we’re going camping for a weekend (probably), going to a couple of concerts, watching at least two parades, eating a ton of food samples and at least one meal, watching multiple live sporting demonstrations and tournaments, playing and eating picnics and exploring and hiking in several public parks, going on a family scenic bicycle ride, and observing the religious practices of several world religions. Cost (beyond stuff we already own)? Nothing.

The amazing thing is that we’re barely scratching the surface of what’s available to us. The vast majority of the free options we have on hand are discarded without discussion, and quite a few more are tossed aside after discussion. There are still more things to do and enjoy in our community and surrounding communities that are free than we can ever take advantage of.

How do you find all of this stuff? Here are several tactics to use.

Read any and all free local newspapers. They are almost always full of notices of free community events, festivals, parades, concerts, and other things of that nature.

Find your community’s parks and rec department’s website (and those of towns nearby). Search for your town’s name plus the phrase “parks and recreation” in Google. Look at the offerings they have, from bike and hiking trails to parks and organized sporting activities.

Find your community’s calendar of upcoming events (and those of towns nearby). Search for your town’s name plus the phrase “community calendar” or “upcoming events” in Google and you should find something (provided your town has at least a little size to it). Do the same for surrounding communities. You’ll find tons of different activities, from community festivals and parades.

Keep your eyes open. I’ve discovered many community events by simply examining the bulletin board in local stores or outside the local post office or near city hall. I’ve found posters for interesting events all over the place, from being taped to light poles to being stuck in our front door.

We’ve found that, as a family, if we have a long list of free things to do, we eventually find a few that we all have at least some interest in doing, and if it’s a free activity that’s enjoyable for all of us, that’s a big win. We aren’t spending money, but we’re all having fun.

If you can find fifty free things to do, you only need to have one of them be appealing to you to have something free and fun for you to do.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

Setting up money jars for your kids where they divide their allowance between spending, saving, investing, and donating can be an effective way to teach budgeting and personal finance, Hamm suggests. (Brittany Lynne Photography )

Allowance tricks to teach your kids

By Guest blogger / 03.21.12

Each week, my children receive a small allowance. It’s not tied to any chores; instead, it’s mostly a tool to teach them about money management.

We pay them in quarters, with each child receiving twice the number of quarters as their age. So, a five year old would receive ten quarters, a three year old would receive six quarters, and so on.

When each child has turned four, we’ve started having them segment their allowance into four different groupings. At a minimum, they’re required to put one quarter in each of the four segments (after age eight, two quarters is the minimum).

The four segments are spending, saving, investing, and giving.

The spending segment is just like it sounds: they can spend it on whatever they like, within reason. This money goes for short term wants like trading cards or other such things.

The saving segment involves them picking a specific savings goal, then putting aside their money in that segment until they have enough to buy it (usually along with money in the “spending” segment). This usually ends up being savings for a larger toy, like a Nintendo DS.a 

The investing portion is a long-term savings that won’t be touched until they’re at least sixteen, but with it they get to see the power of long-term saving and compound interest. So far, we’re just letting this segment build and talking about how much is in there, but eventually we’ll put it in a bank and perhaps invest it in other things.

The giving portion is just that: it’s given to a charity of their choosing once a year or so. We like to focus on charities where they can, in some direct way, see the good their money is doing, but they have the final decision about what charity to aid. We usually present several options to them, talk about each one, and they choose one.

We’ve been using the Money Savvy Pig for this separation (it made for a wonderful fourth birthday gift for our oldest and our middle child), but you can certainly replicate this scheme with four jars. You can also make up your own divisions and assign your own rules to it – whatever works for you.

The reason behind giving an allowance and segmenting is because, in the end, this is a budget. Segmenting an allowance means budgeting. They’re learning that when their income comes in, there are good reasons to split it up and to save some of it for the future. You should spend less than you earn in any given week, because if you do that, you’ll have money for other things later on.

This technique lets children see personal finance at work in a very tangible way in their own lives, which is the best way to make it real for them. There’s no abstraction at all. They feel the physical quarters, they see them in the jars, they get to make the choices as to how to spend them, they see the benefits of those choices.

Not only that, it gives you (as a family) an opportunity every week to talk a little bit about good personal finance practices, and that little chat can often be just as much of a motivator toward good behavior for the parents as it is for the children.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.  

Now that the weather is getting warmer, there are tons things to do outside that cost little to no money, Hamm argues. (Brittany Lynne Photography)

Nine cheap things to do outside

By Guest blogger / 03.20.12

Over the last week, I’ve mostly discussed indoor activities when discussing inexpensive ways to spend time with your family. Art projects? Usually inside. Reading? Usually inside. Making things in your kitchen? Usually inside.

We’ve just been through an Iowa winter. Much of the last few months was spent on indoor activities. Today, though, the weather is beautiful. The sun is shining. The temperature is warm.

Open up your front door, and there’s much more to explore.

If you can’t find something free and enjoyable to do outside, you’re not trying. Here are some suggestions.

Go on a wandering walk. Go outside your front door. Decide to walk left, right, or straight. Keep walking until you find the first interesting intersection. Go in the most interesting direction. Repeat until you’re on the verge of being lost, then find a new path home. I’m almost sure you’ll find something interesting out there.

Enjoy the services of your local parks and recreation department. Visit their website and see what kind of facilities they have and what kinds of classes are offered. The fields near our home are in almost constant use throughout the spring, summer, and fall, with activities for children and for adults.

Visit a park. National parks are beautiful, but can cost you. State parks are often just as beautiful and they’re often free. Pack a picnic lunch and head to a state park. Explore the trails, see what nature has to offer, enjoy a meal together, and get tons of exercise and fresh air.

Go camping. I never sleep better than I do when I’m camping. I love nothing more than going to some secluded area on a hot summer day, pitching a tent, exploring the area around me, building a campfire, cooking food over that campfire, playing an outdoor game or two, and passing out from the overdose of warm fresh air and lots of exercise.

Have a cookout. Invite some friends over. Put up a volleyball net or set a football out in the yard. Cook some food over a grill, share a meal together, and get lots of fresh air and exercise.

Start a garden. Rent a small tiller for the day from a hardware store (or borrow one from a friend) and till up a patch of earth near your home. Plant some vegetables, fruits, and flowers there. Check on it each day and keep the weeds away. Before you know it, you’ll have a bounty on your hands (or, at the very least, a learning experience!).

Play an outdoor game. Teach your child how to play catch with a ball. Start a game of tag, touch football, or soccer. Turn on a sprinkler and run through it (yes, I do this with my kids several times each summer).

Go to a local public swimming pool. Many communities have public pools with open hours. It’s a wonderful time to swim, particularly outside of the “peak” hours (early evening, usually).

Go to a free outdoor concert. These happen weekly in communities near ours. Just pack a picnic and a blanket, go to the concert site, kick back in the grass with the family, enjoy some fresh food and appreciate the wonderful music.

Get outside. There’s so much to see and do, and virtually all of it is free.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

A boy plays with an umbrella in the flooded Saint Mark's Square in Venice this past November. Just about anything can serve as a toy, as long as it's safe and sturdy. (Manuel Silvestri/Reuters/File)

Turn everyday objects into toys

By Guest blogger / 03.18.12

Whenever I watch my one year old at play, I can’t help but notice that there really are only a few requirements for entertaining him in a safe way.

The item needs to be fairly sturdy, as he can get mad and throw it. He’s one, so emotional control isn’t really part of the equation, nor is an understanding of any sort of “correct” way to play.

The item needs to have virtually no intricate parts. If it does, a one year old will break it. They are incredibly crafty little people who find new and inventive ways to dismantle items.

The item needs to be reasonably safe for him to put into his mouth, but not small enough to be swallowed. Inevitably, an infant or a young toddler will put things in the mouth. This means it shouldn’t be toxic or coated in a toxic paint, and it shouldn’t be very small lest it be a choking hazard.

The truth is, he’ll play with pretty much anything we put in front of him. He prefers that it makes noise or that he can make noise with it. He likes it if it’s something that his older siblings will also play with, particularly at the same time.

Most of the time, he just talks to the toy and holds it. He’ll sometimes put it in his mouth, almost to give it a taste. He’ll hit it on the floor or a table to see if it makes noise or if it changes shape. If it makes noise or changes shape, he’ll hit it over and over again. He likes to give the item to other people for a bit, but they need to give it back within ten seconds or so.

In other words, there are dozens of items already around our house that qualify perfectly for a toy for this child.

When you have a small child to be entertained, bust out the pots and pans and wooden spoons and let them go to town. Sure, it can be noisy. Sure, you can get tired of the racket. Still, there are few things that entertain a young child more than playing with the stuff that a grown-up uses, particularly when it makes noise and they’re given freedom to do with it what they will.

There have been countless times when I’ve just given my child a wooden spoon and a few pots and pans and just let him (or her) go to town on the kitchen floor. The child laughs. The child makes a lot of noise. The child pretends to stir things in the pot. The child flips the pots and pans over. The child will try to wear lighter items for a hat.

This is a perfect way to keep them entertained for a while as kitchen duties are taken care of. Afterwards, I just give the items a quick cleaning and they go right back in the cupboard until their next use.

Of course, this just scratches the surface of possibilities. With the older children, paper towel rolls have been converted into telescopes, toilet paper rolls have been converted into binoculars, empty soda bottles (with a bit of super glue, glitter, water, and food coloring) have been converted into oceans in a bottle, and large boxes have been converted into houses.

Your house provides an endless supply of items for children to play with without needing to buy them toys. That means you can certainly get away with less toy buying, which means you can provide more financial stability for your future and your children’s future.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

Using a simple mold and an oven, its easy to make new crayons out of discarded nubs, according to Hamm. (Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File)

Get the most out of your crayons

By Guest blogger / 03.15.12

For Christmas, my children received an interesting gift: a Crayola Crayon Maker.

It’s a cute little device. All you do is break up some crayons (they come with the crayon maker) and put them on a little tray in there, flip on the switch, and wait for a bit. The crayons melt, then you tip the tray over and the melted wax pours into some crayon molds. Wait a few minutes and you have new multicolored crayons!

It was one of those toys that my children had a lot of fun with for one day, then it got set aside and hasn’t really been thought about since. However, the core idea behind it is something that can really be of use to frugal families where the children are really into drawing and art.

At the bottom of our crayon bucket, you’ll find a lot of nubs. These little mostly-used crayons are now short enough that our children’s fingers don’t hold them very well. Often, the nubs are the result of accidental crayon breakage; other times, the crayons are short due to wear and tear.

These stubs might get thrown out at some houses, but at our house, they’re a perfect item for recycling.

We just take out a silicone mold we found at a garage sale for a quarter (like this one), break up the nubs into tiny pieces, and fill up the mold with the pieces.

Then, we pop the mold in the oven at a fairly low temperature – say 200 F – and leave it in there for fifteen minutes. We often do this alongside something that’s baking for other reasons. The melting point of crayon wax seems to be around 130 to 150 F depending on the color, so 200 F is a great temperature for the crayons to melt together in the mold.

When they’re done, just put the mold out on the table and leave it there until the crayons are room temperature, then pop them out of the mold. If needed, you can carefully cut the new “crayons” into smaller shapes that are easier for drawing.

This gives the children very interesting swirled crayons to use, costs us virtually nothing, and enables us to put those crayon stubs to good use. That’s a win all around.

On top of that, this is a perfect lesson for the children about recycling and reusing things. There’s no reason to throw something away if there’s still a perfectly good use for it, after all.

In fact, we’ve actually taken a big pile of crayon stubs from the children of friends who were happy to hand them over at first, until we explained what we were going to do with them. They then seemed to change their minds a bit, thinking that it seemed like a pretty nifty thing to do with their kids.

If you’ve got kids and crayon stubs and if you have access to a silicon mold of some sort, give this a try. It’s easy, demonstrates recycling, costs almost nothing, and results in some cool crayons for your children.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. 

It's easy to make homemade Play-Doh using a few common household ingredients, according to Hamm. (Courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography)

Make your own Play-Doh

By Guest blogger / 03.15.12

Our children have several small tubs of playdough, both the name brand Play-Doh and other brands of similar material, that they’ve received as gifts over the years. The contents of those tubs have been played with, sculpted, mashed, combined, and used in countless different ways.

It’s actually a toy that Sarah and I quite like as it encourages our children to make whatever they want from it. It’s an incredibly open-ended toy (as long as you avoid the various plastic “factories” that channel the playdough into some specific style of play).

Our kids make sculptures of people, make checker sets, make pretend sandwiches, mix the different colors together to see what new colors are created, find ways to make perfect (or close to it) spheres and cubes, and so on.

Eventually, though, the playdough gets old. It dries out. It gets contaminated with something due to dropping on the floor. An overzealous child throws some away during cleanup. It gets mixed together until you have an ugly brown lump.

Going out to the store to buy new batches of playdough would add up in cost. Instead, we make our own. It’s pretty easy, it’s quite fun for the children to help when making it, and it’s pretty cheap, too.

The only supplies you need are two cups of flour, one cup of salt, two tablespoons of vegetable oil, and one tablespoon of cream of tartar.

Based on my own calculations, that’s about $0.30 in supplies ($0.10 for two cups of flour, $0.10 for one cup of salt, $0.03 for the vegetable oil, and $0.07 for the cream of tartar). This makes enough playdough to fill roughly two large playdough containers with the stuff. You may also want a few drops of food coloring for your preferred colors.

Put all of those ingredients (except the food coloring) into a saucepan over very low heat. Add two cups of tap water and stir it. It will eventually thicken to the point that it has a playdough-like consistency.

When it seems pretty consistent and very hard to stir (which shouldn’t take long at all), take it off of the heat, hold it in your hands, and knead it. Massage it until it has a very standard consistency throughout. What you’ll have is playdough.

Storing it is easy. We usually separate these batches into two or three or four separate small balls and store them in unused playdough containers. If you don’t have those around, pretty much any reusable sealable container will work for storing the stuff.

If you want colors, just get a set of food colorings. Add a drop or two to each ball of it and knead until it’s consistent in color. If you want brighter color, add another drop.

It’s incredibly easy to make, our children have a blast playing with it and making it, and it’s roughly 75% cheaper than buying playdough at the store.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

In this March 12, 2012 photo, a shopper carries bags of merchandise in Freeport, Maine. (Pat Wellenbach/AP/File)

Talking yourself out of an unecessary purchase

By Guest blogger / 03.14.12

I don’t play video games that much at this point in my life because, frankly, I don’t have very much time for them. I perhaps play for four or five hours a week. Usually, it’s when the children are about to nap or drifting off to sleep, and I play so I can be within earshot of them. A few times a week, I’ll play an online game with friends for a laugh (and usually be the worst player on the team), mostly as a way to keep in touch with people who are spread out.

Still, there have been a few games over the last few years that I have really enjoyed. Two examples: Heavy Rain is an amazing murder mystery, and Flower is probably the best single example of “video game as art” that I’ve ever experienced.

However, two of the most memorable games I’ve played over that time frame were Mass Effect and its sequel Mass Effect 2. Together, the two games tell an amazing and deeply engaging interactive science fiction story that I deeply enjoyed and which resonated with me for a long time after playing the two games. The best video games of the latest generation have genuinely crossed the line into deep, compelling storytelling, and this series is a shining example of this.

Last Tuesday, Mass Effect 3 came out, concluding the story of the main character of the series, Commander Shepard.

One might simply assume that because I’m in a relatively good financial position and because I enjoyed the first two so much, I would automatically buy the third one. Truth be told, I don’t own it yet and I probably won’t for a while.

The thought process that led me to not buy the game is actually a pretty good example of the frugal mindset at work, so I thought I’d share it with you.

First of all, I made the observation that once a video game is released, the price of it slowly drifts downward over time. For example, I’ve watched the price of Civilization V slowly drift downward over the past eighteen months, from a $59.95 price at release to a fairly steady price between $20 and $25 right now. Simply by waiting 18 months, a person can often save 60-75% on a major new video game title.

There’s also the factor of game sales. Many stores and gaming services put different games on sale at various points. For example, with the above mentioned Civilization V, I’ve seen sales for the title recently going as low as $7.50. That’s an 87% off sale.

Simply put, waiting for a while after the day of release will save you significant money on a game.

So, the question is whether or not there’s real value in buying the item on the day of release. Does playing the game right now add any value for me? Other than the personal impatience to play the game, there isn’t. I have several gaming friends, only one of which actually owns the game at this point. There is no social reason to play the game at this point. Instead, most of my friends are simply waiting until they see the game at a sufficiently low price.

So, there’s a reasonable financial case for waiting for the purchase, but that still doesn’t change my desire to dig further into the story and enjoy the gameplay. I find the storyline deeply engrossing and the gameplay entertaining.

The thing is, if I love the previous installments in the series so much, why not just replay them? They’re sitting there on my shelf. While I have fond memories of the storyline, it’s been long enough since I played them that I don’t remember some of the finer details. Playing them again now accomplishes several things at once: it allows me to derive more enjoyment from something I already own, it allows me to freshen up my details of the storyline, and by the time I finish the two games (again), the price of the third will be much lower than it is right now.

I do this with the various fantasy series that I read. I’ll get on the waiting list for the newest installment at the library and start re-reading the whole series while I anticipate the newest volume. Quite often, I’ve re-read the series (and enjoyed myself) and refreshed the story in my head just in time to pick up the new volume at the library.

Plus, between then and now, there are a number of small gift-giving occasions where my immediate family will exchange gifts. My children always select an item for Father’s Day, for example, as well as one for my birthday, and if my gaming skills are particularly rusty, there’s always Christmas. We tend to focus a great deal on getting each other desired gifts, and while my children won’t read this post, they will be aware that I am playing Mass Effect. That way, instead of buying two items purely for fun, only one is purchased, saving us money.

Many basic principles of frugal shopping are on display here. Use what you already have. Wait for a sale or a lower price. Think about a purchase before you make it.

Those principles have moved me from just automatically buying things like Mass Effect 3 and instead conserving my money and making more sensible choices.

Hamm argues that trading babysitting with families you know and trust is an inexpensive alternative to paying for a sitter. (Courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography)

Sitters too pricey? Try a babysitting exchange

By Guest blogger / 03.12.12

Within walking distance of our home lives another couple that’s about our age. They have two children, both of which are in the age range of our own children, and the older ones have become friends due to interacting at the same preschool.

Over time, we’ve developed something of a babysitting exchange with them. Once every few months, we watch their children so they can do something together for an evening, and then they reciprocate. In an emergency (like a recent medical one), we also have a very convenient place to leave our children.

There’s no cost to either of us for this. It’s just convenient. It’s with people that we’ve built a relationship with, so we feel secure leaving our children there. It’s a win in almost every way.

Naturally, the idea of such an exchange will raise a few questions.

First, how does one start such an exchange? The best route is to talk to the parents of friends of your children, particularly those that live nearby. Invite them over to dinner and get to know them a little. In most cases, they’ll eventually reciprocate, which will give you a better glimpse of their home life.

If you seem to have an ideal partner in this, suggest a monthly babysitting exchange. One evening a month, you watch their kids. One evening a month, they watch your kids. You can set up additional guidelines however you like (the kids have to be picked up by 8, for example).

Another useful tactic is to get multiple exchanges going. If you have two or three potential eligible families for this, start exchanges with all of them. You’ll have double the kids two or three nights a month, but you’ll also have two or three nights a month without children – and there’s no cost to it.

There are also a lot of little things you can do to keep an exchange going. So often, it’s the small things that make all the difference in making something like this work.

Be flexible and expect that things won’t always work out perfectly – after all, you’re dealing with busy schedules and busy parents and kids that sometimes get sick or have other concerns. If they have to cancel once or twice, don’t get angry about it. It only means that you shouldn’t feel bad if you need to cancel.

Give plenty of notice. Check on potential dates at least a week in advance. Don’t show up at the door of your exchange partner one night and hand them your kids or you’ll find the exchange ending quickly. Also, if you know there’s going to be a change, let your exchange partner know as soon as you can.

Treat the children you’re watching in the same way you’d want your children to be treated when they’re away. It’s a great idea to plan an interesting kids’ activity for the day when you’re watching those other children. The last time we watched children in our exchange, we had a do-it-yourself pizza night and worked on multiple art projects, for example. It kept both their children and our children entertained and focused and they all had a great deal of fun, meaning that the children were really looking forward to the next time we could do this.

If you’re a parent and would love to have an evening or two a month free without having to pay for a babysitter, a babysitting exchange or two is pretty much perfect. It gives parents a free evening, both in the financial sense and the “not worrying about kids” sense.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

In this file photo, a man walks past a collage of copies of Chinese RMB, U.S. dollar and other foreign bills at a money exchange store in Hong Kong. Hamm argues that persona finance can be frustrating,but there are ways to get through it. (Kin Cheung/AP/File)

Breaking through the frustration of personal finance

By Guest blogger / 03.11.12

Personal finance can be really frustrating at times.

For starters, money success can take a long time to achieve. If you’re in a big hole of debt, you’re looking at years of digging just to get back to zero. People are often encouraged to start saving for retirement in their twenties, even though most won’t actually retire until their seventies. The time frame for most personal finance moves is measured in years and decades, not weeks and months.

Another frustration is that every financial move you make costs you in some other regard. If you put away $50 a week for retirement, you’re now bringing home less money, and that means less money to spend on the things you need and the things you want. You’re probably giving up something like a dinner out with your partner or something else you’d like to have every single week in order to make that savings plan work.

I’m often frustrated by both of these things.

Whenever I look at my account balances, I really want them to be higher. I have big goals in mind and although I’m moving towards those goals, the progress is slow. The little devil on my shoulder will start agitating and whisper in my ear, “You’ll never make it to that goal. It will take forever.”

Each month, when I look at how much went into savings for various goals, I can’t help but get a twinge in my stomach thinking of some of the more immediately enjoyable things I could be doing with that money. Again, that little devil pops up and tells me that I could trim back on those savings plans just a bit and enjoy some things I’ve wanted.

When I mix those two feelings together, frustration is the result. I feel like I’m saving for something I’ll “never” reach, and that saving is keeping me from making some choices in the here and now that I’d like to make.

That moment of frustration is the point when I’m most likely to make a big financial blunder. I’ll listen to that devil on my shoulder a bit too much and before I know it I’m ordering something online that I shouldn’t be buying or planning some event that I shouldn’t be planning.

So, what do I do to make sure that the little devil on my shoulder doesn’t come out on top?

I keep a big visual reminder of my long term goals front and center. Right at my workstation, I have a large picture of a house in the country. It’s a nice house with a new looking barn behind it. It has a bunch of trees nearby and a small open field. There are two children in the yard playing catch.

Not only is this a picture at my desk, it’s also the desktop wallpaper on my computer and the start page on my web browser.

Whenever I’m at that temptation point, my eye will hit upon one of those three pictures, and I’ll remember, just for a second, what the big picture is. It causes me to stop and rethink what I’m doing and that little pause is enough to break down the mistake I’m about to make.

I spend as much time with my family as I realistically can. When I look at the long-term goals I have in my life, all of them revolve around my family. I want Sarah to have the country home she’s always dreamed of. I want to show my children some of the beauty of the world and, later, make sure that they can follow whatever career path they want. I want to be able to retire with Sarah and enjoy some healthy and happy years together in retirement.

Sarah and our three children are a living reminder of all of that. When I spend time with them, those goals feel real and alive and urgent.

When I’m alone running numbers through a spreadsheet or checking account balances, those goals feel less urgent, which leaves me more prone to giving into frustration.

My solution, then, is to spend as much time with my family as I possibly can. When I do that, the larger goals I have in my life become so natural and essential that when I’m doing that financial work, the reinforcement of those goals carries over and keeps me on the right path.

I focus a lot on the experience of day-to-day life. In other words, I simply try not to think about what may yet come and instead focus on the things my life holds for me today.

Even in the most dull of days, there are countless things worth enjoying and remembering. My one year old will come racing into my office and insist on a hug before returning to his play. I’ll play a board game with my wife and my friends, and the intellectual enjoyment of figuring out a good strategy pairs wonderfully with the social enjoyment of the people I’m with. Sarah and I will work together to make a really good supper and that first bite – loaded with fresh ingredients and spices – is absolutely delicious. My daughter and I will spend two hours sitting at the kitchen table creating a giant drawing of a warm summer day at the park.

Those are little everyday things, sure, but I make a conscious effort to reflect on and focus on those things. I keep a journal and each evening I try to write down the best little experiences of that given day.

What this does is it builds and perpetuates a strong sense that my life is really good right now.

It’s harder to get frustrated with what you don’t have when you know how much you really do have.

Don’t give in to frustration and impatience. Instead, spend some time each day focused on your goals and why you have them, and pair that with a constant reflection on how much you have right now. It goes a long way toward making the frustration of not reaching your goals quickly that much easier to handle.

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