6 Ways to Stop Blowing Your Grocery Budget

Saving money on groceries doesn't need to be difficult and it doesn't always mean cutting back.

If you’re like many Americans, a large chunk of your budget is spent on food — maybe 10% or more. Percentagewise, we spend less on food than we did in the ‘60s, but 10% is not an insignificant portion of your income.That’s why so many money-saving articles focus on groceries as a great place to cut back on spending.

And the truth is that grocery spending is so variable. You could spend $200 per month to feed your family of four, or you could easily spend more than $1,000. With all that variability, it can be easy to blow your budget for groceries. If you find that you’re consistently spending more than you’ve budgeted for groceries, following these tips can help with saving money:

1. Figure out If Your Budget Is Even Reasonable

One issue might be that you have an unreasonably small grocery budget. Maybe your budget is inspired by a few articles from Pinterest about feeding a family of seven for a mere $250 per month. Let’s get real, though. Those families (often the moms!) spend hours meal planning, cooking from scratch, clipping coupons and driving to various grocery stores to snag the best deal.

Their results are amazing but that amount of effort isn’t feasible for everyone. As a working mom in a two-income family, there’s no way I can spend that much time saving money on food.

So if you’ve budgeted $150 per month to spend on groceries, maybe that’s not enough. Here’s how to find out:

a. Break Down Your Spending by Category

First, dig out your grocery store receipts from the past several weeks. If you don’t usually keep receipts, make a point to save them from your next few shopping trips. Shop as you normally would for those trips.

Then, break down your grocery spending by category. For instance, you might divide it into meat, dairy, breads and grains, premade items, veggies and fruits, etc. If you purchase items like cleaning products, cosmetics or toilet paper during your grocery shopping trips, divide those into a separate category as well. Remove everything that’s not actually grocery store spending from this category. Fast food and restaurant spending should be dealt with separately.

Once you’ve got your categories, add up what you spent in each category over the course of a month. This may not be a true average, but it’s a starting place.

b. Set a Reasonable Budget

Finally, you can see what you actually spend on food groceries. Now it’s time to see if that budget is reasonable. A good place to start is with the USDA Food Plans, which average the cost of cooking at home each month. In May 2017, the USDA thrifty plan for a family of four was $561 per month. The liberal plan for a family of four was $1,097 per month.

If your food spending is close to the thrifty end of things, maybe you’re actually not spending too much on food. Maybe you’re just setting your budget too low. But if you’re coming out on the high end of food spending — or if you want to outdo the USDA — use the following steps to trim your spending.

2. Look for Savings in Your Highest Spending Categories

Since you’ve got your spending categorized, you can easily find out where you spent the most money. For instance, if you’re consistently spending half your food budget on meat, it’s time to start cutting back there — perhaps by eating meatless meals a few times a week. Or maybe you’re spending a bunch of money on prepared meals that you could make much more cheaply at home.

Once you know where you spend the most, you can target that category for reducing spending. Some options include clipping coupons for items in that category, shopping manager’s specials, or simply cutting back on eating those types of foods.

3. Look Into Different Local Grocery Stores

There’s a reason Whole Foods is nicknamed “Whole Paycheck.” It’s a great place to find certain specialty items. But if you’re doing all your grocery shopping at high-end stores like these, you will spend more.

Our family saves a fortune just by shopping at Aldi, a discount grocery store that’s becoming more common across the nation. We used to do most of our shopping at a local chain but realized we saved a couple hundred bucks a month just by buying what we can at Aldi.

Chances are you’ve got some cheaper grocery options local to you. For instance, ethnic stores can be a fabulous place to pick up exotic spices and basics like rice and pasta on the cheap. Or you may find that a wholesale store membership saves your family a ton on food staples. Plus, you can use reward credit cards while shopping to earn even more deals. (Before applying, remember that most reward cards require a decent credit score — you can check two of yours for free with Credit.com.)

4. Create a Bank of Easy-Fix Meals

If your family is anything like mine, quick to prepare weeknight meals are a necessity. Without them, you fall back on going out to eat. Pinterest is a great place to find recipes for quick and easy meals that rely on whole, healthy ingredients.

Start trying out these types of meals. If you find a hit, keep the recipe close by. Try to find at least a few of these recipes that use ingredients you tend to keep around.

5. Do Some Freezer Cooking

When you find a great sale on expensive ingredients, pick up extra. Then, double up on your recipe, and put half in the freezer. This is a win-win. You get to save on groceries, and you have a meal ready to go for a busy evening!

For instance, if you find a great deal on ground beef, buy enough to make two lasagnas. Make them both at the same time, and pop one in the freezer. If you get into this habit, you could suddenly find yourself spending less on expensive ingredients, and you’ll have a freezer full of delicious meals to choose from.

6. Cut Back on Waste

How much of your grocery budget goes down the drain the form of wasted food? If you’re like most Americans, it’s a lot!

Start keeping a tally of the foods you throw away after they go bad. Keeping track for a month or two could reveal some interesting information. Maybe you’re over-ambitious when you buy fruits and veggies. You think your family will eat them, but you never get through them all. Or maybe you consistently throw away leftovers. It’s time to freeze those leftovers, pack them for lunch or make smaller servings of your recipes.

Cutting back on waste is an amazing way to save on groceries. Make a point to wait to grocery shop until the fridge is nearly empty. You’ll get more specific with your grocery shopping and more creative with your meal plans.

Even if you’re already saving on groceries, there’s usually room to save more. These tips will help you do just that.

Image: vgajic

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13 Things That Can Help You Survive a Road Trip With Kids This Summer

If the thought of hours in the car with your kids doesn't thrill you, here are some tips that can make your summer road trip downright enjoyable.

My family is getting ready for our very first vacation as a family of four. We’re so excited. But our five-year-old is already complaining that we’re driving instead of flying. (And we haven’t even packed the car yet!)

Tackling a seven-hour road trip with a five-year-old and an eight-month-old is a little daunting, I’ll admit. But I’ve been looking at some ways to hopefully survive the trip without spending a fortune on new toys and games. Here’s what we’re planning:

1. Relax!

First off, understand that your trip is going to take way longer than Google Maps says it will. That’s just part of road tripping with kids. My husband can normally drive seven solid hours without stopping even once. I’m preparing him for much more frequent stopping on this trip.

If you need to get out and let the kids walk (or crawl) around so that they’re less fussy for the next hour, go for it.

2. Plan for Some Fun Pit Stops

Don’t make your end destination the only thing you’re looking forward to, especially on a long road trip. We’re personally planning a lunch stop at a very cool dairy farm about a third of the way through our trip. It gives us something fun and delicious to look forward to.

Check your route ahead of time on Google Maps. Find a city a few hours in, and look for something fun to visit there. Bonus points if that something lines up with a meal you’ll need to eat anyway.

3. Spend a Few Bucks on New Apps

Even parents with strict screen time rules are likely to relax the rules a bit on long drives. We certainly do!

Our daughter will be using the shared family tablet for some of the trip. I’m giving her a $5 budget to spend on new apps. She’s got some old favorites on there, but new options will keep her engaged for longer.

4. Invest in Comfy Kid Headphones

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to actually hear all those new apps my daughter will be using. When her tablet is on, her headphones get plugged in. We had a hard time finding ones that work for her, but settled on the kind that are embedded in a fleece headband.

Luckily, you can get decent kids’ headphones (with volume control!) for well under $20 on Amazon. They’re an excellent investment, but if money is tight, you could consider using a cash back rewards credit card to pay for them. Use that same card to pay for your gas, food and lodging on your trip, and they’ve paid for themselves. Of course, you’ll need good credit for most cash back rewards cards. If you don’t know where your credit stands, you can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com. (Also check out some of these great electronic gifts kids love.)

5. Put Together a Coloring Kit

Most little kids can color for ages on end. My vacation coloring kit includes coloring books, plain notepads and crayons galore. I’ll also pack her some of the stickers from our seemingly endless supply in the art cabinet.

The trick here is to keep the coloring stuff accessible. Put everything in a bag or backpack that will slide beside the colorer’s car seat during the drive.

6. Check out Reusable Sticker Kits

If you don’t mind spending $5 on extra entertainment for the trip, check out reusable sticker kits. You can find them on all sorts of themes on Amazon. We bought a fairy one and a cupcake decorating book for our trip. I swear the five-year-old is more excited about opening these than she is about going on vacation.

7. Pack a Cooler

You probably already know snacks are indispensable on a road trip with kids. But packing a small cooler can give you more options, especially for healthier snacks. Just be sure the cooler can fit between your kids’ seats and the front seats. That way you won’t have to stop the car every time your kids need a snack.

Our snack list includes bottled water, string cheese, grapes, apples, small oranges and mixed nuts. We’ll also throw in some usually forbidden unhealthy snacks because we’re on vacation, after all.

8. Strap on the Pacifier

Traveling with an infant who likes a paci to sleep? Invest in a pacifier strap and strap the paci to the car seat. We keep ours strapped to the side of the car seat near the front passenger seat. This makes it way easier to find when the baby is ready for a nap, but can’t reach his pacifier.

9. Drive Over Nap Time

This is a simple one that just involves planning. If you can, drive when your kids would normally be sleeping. Even our five-year-old, who doesn’t always nap these days, will knock out in the car under the right conditions.

Some parents prefer to leave late in the evening and drive overnight. I’m too old for that now. But we’ll be leaving for our road trip around the baby’s morning nap time.

10. Pack Blankets & Pillows

With that in mind, pack blankets and pillows. We’re always warmer in the front seat than the kids because of the sun coming through the windshield. So we crank up the A/C and then the kids get cold. Pack some lightweight blankets and small pillows so kids can make themselves comfy.

There are all sorts of pillow-like gadgets on the market for kids. But check out your car seat’s instruction manual before you use anything that attaches to the seat!

11. Try a Family Audiobook

We’ll be listening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone together for some of our trip. Other excellent chapter books that will please a variety of ages include the Chronicles of Narnia series, the Boxcar Children books, and the Little House on the Prairie books.

We get many of our audiobooks from our library’s app, so they’re free. Other options include Audible and Playster, which are both subscription-based services. Both have free trials, though, if you just want to give it a shot for your road trip.

12. Pack a Potty

If you’re in the early stages of potty training a toddler, put on pull-ups just in case. If your child has been potty trained for a while, he’s not going to want to wear a diaper, but little kids also aren’t great at holding it.

The best way to solve this problem is to pack a small portable training potty in the back. You can pull over just about anywhere for a kid to use this potty. It’s gross but better than having to find a laundromat to wash your car seat cover after an accident.

13. Go to the Library

We just picked up a huge stack of books from the library yesterday. They’ll live in the car while we’re vacationing so none get lost. Reading aloud from the front seat is an easy way to keep the kids entertained, though showing off pictures could be more complicated if yours are still rear-facing.

Image: Imgorthand

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The Pros & Cons of Sharing Your Finances as a Married Couple

We’ve collected the pros and cons of combining your finances and keeping them separate so you can decide which method will work for you.

For years, the standard financial advice for couples was to combine their finances. All income, debts and expenditures belong to both parties, so why not put them together?

Combining finances makes sense for many reasons, but not everyone wants to take this direction. If you’re preparing to tie the knot, you might wonder which option is best for you. We’ve collected the pros and cons of combining your finances and keeping them separate so you can decide which method will work for you.

The Pros of Combining Your Finances

Combining your finances can be tricky, especially if both parties have their own debts, accounts and assets coming into the marriage. But it might be worth it for the following reasons:

Women May Have Greater Security

Other research shows that women have greater security when they combine finances with their spouses. That might seem counterintuitive, but remember, women are typically more prone to income interruptions, as they may take time off to start families.

It Keeps Things Simple

Splitting finances may work for some couples, but it can also lead to complicated conversations. Who pays which bills? Should you split evenly when there’s income disparity? Who should pick up the check on date night? If all the money is going into and coming out of the same pot, it may help simplify things.

It Allows for More Flexibility

When you can rely on your spouse to foot the bill while you take parental leave, go back to school or start a new business, you may be more likely to take certain career risks. And in the long run, those risks can be good for the couple if they pan out. If, on the other hand, you have to keep paying your share of the bills, you might be less likely to take the leap.

It Creates Shared Goals

When all the money comes from the same place, the couple needs to communicate. That can be a good thing, as couples can thrive on having common financial goals to work toward.

The Cons of Combining Your Finances

Combining finances may not be the solution for everyone. This strategy also has some potential downsides:

Making Debt a Bigger Issue

If one partner comes into the marriage with big financial problems — including hefty debt or terrible credit — that can turn the relationship sour. In these instances, it can sometimes be better to separate accounts while the indebted spouse works on their finances. (You can keep tabs on your finances by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

You Can Feel Constrained

As an adult, it’s natural to want to spend your money however you see fit. After all, you earned it. When all the money is combined, you may not get to spend on those personal things you have in mind, especially if your spouse has a say in your spending.

It Can Cause Arguments

What if each spouse has a different idea of what financial responsibility looks like? Maybe one spouse prefers to pay down the mortgage, while the other thinks it’s wise to invest. Or maybe one spouse is frugal, while the other’s a spendthrift. In this case, combining finances requires take serious communication and the ability to compromise.

The Pros of Keeping Things Separate

There are plenty of ways to keep your finances separate. Some partners split expenses down the middle while others split them according to who earns more money. Some partners maintain a joint account for overarching expenses like housing but hold separate accounts for everything else. Regardless of how you do it, keeping separate finances can be good for a few reasons:

Keeping Spouses From One Another’s Messes

If you’re going into marriage with a lot of student loan debt or an otherwise complex financial situation, you may want to keep your money — and money problems — to yourself. This can make your spouse more comfortable and shield them from disaster in an emergency.

Giving Both Spouses More Autonomy

Perhaps the main reason couples decide not to combine finances is because they like having autonomy. Having control over your own money may cut down on fights and allow each spouse to meet their own financial goals.

The Cons of Keeping Things Separate

Here are a few reasons to avoid this option:

It Can Devalue a Spouse

Splitting household expenses by income may seem like a good idea, but it can make each spouse feel their value in the marriage is tied to their salary. However, splitting things 50-50 can make things stressful for the spouse who earns less.

It May Diminish Risk-Taking Ability

As we noted above, one of the advantages of a joint financial approach is that it allows for risk taking. When you have your spouse’s income to fall back on, you can go start a business or have a baby. The opposite may be true of couples who split their finances, unless the couple works out a system to allow for such ventures.

For many couples, the best approach to will be somewhere in between. My husband and I, for instance, combine most of our finances. But we each maintain a separate checking account for “fun money.” We can transfer a predetermined amount of money out of the joint checking account each month and spend that money however we wish. This helps us have a bit more autonomy, but ensures we’re still on the same page about our finances.

Whichever approach you choose, keep evaluating what works and what doesn’t. And don’t be afraid to discuss your feelings and change your approach if things aren’t working.

Image: PeopleImages

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Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Cut Your Budget to the Bone to Get Out of Debt

Getting out of debt is a lot like dieting. Sure you can stop eating, but that approach isn't sustainable. Here's how to focus on the long term.

So you have some debt that you need to pay off. If you listen to the advice of many get-out-of-debt gurus, you should pay it off as quickly and intensely as possible. They say you should never set foot in a restaurant, go on vacation, or do anything “extra” until the last credit card and student loan are paid off.

This seems like a good approach. If you can just cut out all your extra expenses — and maybe bring in some additional income — you’ll get out of debt much sooner, right?

Well, maybe not.

In fact, becoming debt-free may be quite similar to getting to and maintaining a healthy weight. The intense, fast options may seem like a good idea, but they can actually have negative consequences.

Paying Off Debt & Yo-Yo Dieting

Intense weight loss strategies can often result in what’s called a “yo-yo diet.” It’s when you lose a bunch of weight quickly only to gain it back quickly after your intense efforts are done. Even Biggest Loser contestants aren’t immune to this problem.

If you cut calories dramatically for three weeks before a big event, sure you’ll lose weight. But you haven’t made sustainable changes that will help you stay healthy over the long term.

This is similar to getting out of debt. Sure, you can cut your budget to the absolute bare bones to pay off credit cards in a matter of months. But does this approach really help you build sustainable habits — and a sustainable budget — for the long run? Maybe not.

My husband and I struggled with this early on in our marriage. We wanted to pay off our student loans and car loan desperately. So for a few months, we’d cut everything extra out of our budgets. No restaurants. No fun money. No nothing.

It would work for a bit, and we’d make some progress. But eventually, we’d get to the point where we felt so restricted, we just had to break free. And break free we did. Usually to the tune of a couple hundred dollars or more of “unnecessary” spending.

We went through this cycle for literally years until we learned to take a more measured approach to our “debt diet.” We still keep a close eye on our spending and try not to waste money. But we each have a monthly allowance for things like new clothes, our hobbies, and other personal items. And we have a date night fund so that we can enjoy each other’s company out of the house at least once a month.

This extra spending means we’re not paying off debt as quickly. But it also means that we avoid those splurges that used to throw us completely off track.

You Should Still Enjoy Life

What’s the main point of losing weight on a diet? Sure, you want to look good in a pair of jeans. But you also want to be able to move more freely, have more sustainable energy levels, and just enjoy life more.

What’s the main point of getting out of debt? Sure, you want to stop paying ridiculous interest rates on your credit cards. But you also want to free up money in your budget so that you have more options financially, so that you can enjoy life more.

So what’s the point of dieting or paying off debt if you’re miserable for months or years while you’re doing it?

When you’re dieting, you could cut out everything but salads with dry grilled chicken and probably lose weight very quickly. Or you could learn to make delicious, healthy meals that you love. And you could give yourself tiny splurges once in a while. You might see slower, steadier weight loss progress, but you’ll enjoy life while working towards your goal.

The same applies when paying off debt. You could spend on only the absolute necessities — food, housing, utilities, and transportation — to pay off debt more quickly. Or you could create a reasonable, sustainable budget that allows for frugal vacations, occasional meals out, and entertainment options you love. Again, you’ll see slower, steadier progress, but you’ll actually enjoy life while getting to that debt-free goal.

Your Approach Depends On Your Situation

Are there some times when a quick crash diet may be appropriate? Sure. Bodybuilders who are already in excellent shape will often cut calories dramatically right before an event. They’re just taking their everyday discipline one step further for a few days or weeks.

Similarly, what if you’re generally good at managing your money but just had an unexpected emergency — a broken-down vehicle or a medical emergency, for instance — that bloated your credit card debt? In this case, a few weeks or a couple months’ worth of cutting your budget to the bone to pay off the debt may make sense. Since you’ve already got good money management habits in place, you’re unlikely to rebound into more unnecessary spending.

But if you’re staring down a scale that says you need to lose 50 pounds? Research shows that slow and steady is the way to go.

And if you’re staring at massive amounts of debt? Slow and steady may work better for you, too.

Some Tips & Tricks

So how do you get started with a slower, steadier approach to paying off debt? Here are some tricks we’ve swiped from the diet world:

Make smart swaps on things you eat every day. When you’re trying to cut calories, it’s amazing how much progress you can make just by switching to a lower-calorie salad dressing or sprucing up your breakfast routine. The same goes for your finances. Try refinancing your mortgage or auto loan, renegotiating or even eliminating your cable bill, or revamping your insurance policies for painless ways to save money month after month.

Also keep in mind that your credit can impact how much you pay in mortgage and auto loan interest, and even increase your insurance costs if it isn’t very good. You can keep track of your credit by checking your credit scores regularly right here on Credit.com.

The quality of your calories matters. More and more research is saying that “calories in, calories out” isn’t the end-all-be-all of dieting. High-quality foods, especially healthy proteins and fats, can keep you satisfied for longer, making cutting calories easier. Similarly, not all spending is equally satisfying. If you only have a few extra bucks a month to enjoy life, spend it on what really makes you happy. (Hint: Experiences are usually a better bet than more stuff!)

Track your progress. Weekly weigh-ins are an important part of many weight loss programs. Weighing in often helps keep you motivated — and lets you spot problems quickly so you can correct your course. When paying off debt, keep track of your debts each month. Consider using a line chart to get a visual representation of your debt dropping each month over time.

Budget calories for enjoying. Many successful weight loss programs operate with the idea of a cheat meal, cheat day, or set number of cheat calories per week. This means you know how much and how often you can splurge. Do the same for your budget. Set aside some fun money each month, and you’ll reap the benefits of staying on track without feeling miserable.

Paying off debt isn’t exactly like dieting, of course. But you can draw plenty of parallels. So when you’re trying to get debt-free, think about ways to make your progress steady and sustainable over the long haul.

Image: LeoPatrizi

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How Transferring a Balance Affects Your Credit Score

Are you thinking about taking advantage of a balance transfer offer? They’re awfully tempting and can be an excellent way to efficiently pay off your debt.

Thinking of taking advantage of a balance transfer offer? It can be an excellent way to pay off your debt. But how will transferring a balance affect your credit score? And of what potential pitfalls should you be aware?

It’s impossible to predict exactly how any one financial decision will affect your credit score. We can guess based on what we know about credit-scoring algorithms, and credit score simulators are can show you how a particular choice might affect your score. But so many factors influence your score that an exact effect is difficult to predict.

With that said, we can look at two areas of your credit score a balance transfer will most likely impact: your credit utilization and new credit inquiries.

Balance Transfers & Your Debt-to-Credit Ratio

Your credit utilization, or debt-to-credit ratio, is the second most important piece of your credit score, behind your payment history. It’s essentially a measure of how much you owe versus how much credit you have available.

Say, for instance, you owe $1,000 on a card with a $2,000 limit. In this case, your debt-to-credit ratio is 50%. (You can see how your debt is impacting your credit by viewing two of your scores for free on Credit.com.)

If you’re approved for a new credit card with a balance transfer offer, you’ll wind up with a higher overall credit limit. This could be a good thing, since it will push your debt-to-credit ratio lower.

In the above example, if you’re approved for a new card with a $1,000 limit, your total credit limit will be $3,000. As long as you don’t accrue more debt, your total debt-to-credit ratio will be about 33%. Since that’s better than 50%, your credit score should be fine. Plus, with a lower interest rate, you can presumably pay off the debt quicker. As your debt decreases, so will your debt-to-credit ratio, which means your credit score will climb.

What About New Credit Inquiries?

A balance transfer’s effect on your credit score isn’t all good. To open a new credit card, the card issuer will pull your credit score, which will most likely add an inquiry to your credit file and cause a small but temporary decrease in your score. The impact won’t likely be large unless you apply for several balance transfer cards at once.

The Possible Pitfalls of Balance Transfers

A balance transfer card can be good in some circumstances, but it has potential drawbacks. Here’s what to avoid if you opt for a balance transfer:

Taking on More Debt 

If you’re already dealing with credit card debt because of your spending habits, a balance transfer may be the wrong choice. Opening a new credit card gives you access to more credit, and with that access can come the temptation to spend. If you’re likely to reach your credit limits, a balance transfer card may not be for you.

Paying Too Much in Balance Transfer Fees

Most balance transfer cards come with a one-time fee. This fee may be worth it if it gets you out of paying loads of interest every month. But it might also cost more than you’re willing to pay. Be sure you know what the fee is upfront.

Maxing Out a Credit Card

Scoring algorithms like FICO’s look at both your overall credit utilization and your per-card credit utilization. So maxing out a balance transfer card to take full advantage of a low- or no-interest offer may negatively affect your credit score, even if opening the new card decreases your overall debt-to-credit ratio.

Should You Transfer a Balance?

Is a balance transfer right for you? If transferring a balance helps you save money and pay off debt faster, it’s most likely the right choice. Just be careful if you’re preparing to apply for a larger loan, like a mortgage. Even a small ding at the wrong time can hurt you. Still, transferring a balance and efficiently paying off debt will have great consequences for your credit score over the long term.

Image: Geber86

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How to Make Summer Camp Fit Your Family’s Budget

Affording summer camp can be a struggle for many working families. Here are a few ways to make camp fit any family budget.

Last summer, the New York Times ran a piece about families who can’t afford summer camp or other programs for their kids. It highlights a problem for many working parents: Summertime care for kids is expensive.

This is especially true if your kids are in public school during the year. You suddenly go from paying nothing to have your kids cared for all day to paying a whole lot of money. Many parents may not have much choice but to find summertime childcare.

If this is the boat you’re in, here are a few ways to find a summer camp for your kid and options that may make it more affordable.

1. Check Online for Summer Camp Options

These days most states and major metropolitan areas have parent blogs or magazines devoted to the local area. In my local Indianapolis, for instance, we have Indy’s Child magazine and IndywithKids.com. Both feature a listing of local summer camp options.

Chances are you can find something similar for your area. If you can’t, there are national resources, too. The American Camp Association has a database for finding day and overnight camps in your area. It leans towards ACA accredited camps, though it will list some not accredited. When I ran it for our area, it turned up some but not all the options I know are available. Still, it could be a place to begin your search for a summer camp.

2. Choose a Less Expensive ‘Base Camp’ Option

One thing that makes summer camp expensive is the specialized options. I’ve seen sports camp, Lego camp, technology camp, horse camp and more. If your kid goes to these specialty camps for the summer, you’ll undoubtedly spend more money.

However, many local YMCAs, schools, daycares, churches and city parks programs offer more traditional summer camps. Our daughter’s daycare, for instance, offers a school-aged summer camp program where they hang out at the daycare for much of the day, but also take trips to local parks, libraries and pools. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s safe, fun, affordable childcare.

If you can find an option like this, build your summer around it. Then you can splurge on a week or two of more expensive specialty camps for your kid.

Where do you find these less expensive options? Check out the following:

  • YMCA: The Y runs summer camps all over the U.S., and sometimes offers a sliding scale fee to make things more affordable. While they offer more expensive specialty camps, most local Y’s also offer traditional day camp options.
  • Churches and religious centers: Many churches and religious community centers offer summer-long day camp options that are quite affordable.
  • Schools: Local schools with before- and after-care programs may transition those into affordable summer camps with fun activities for kids.
  • Parks and recreation: City and county parks and rec departments also run summer camps, and these tend to be more affordable than other options.
  • Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts: If your child is a scout, look into their summer camp options. These are often overnight options, but they tend to be very affordable.
  • Local businesses: Sometimes local businesses offer summer camp-like programs that are for mentoring older kids who may want to become entrepreneurs. These camps may be based on an application process, so be on the lookout well ahead of time.
  • Local colleges: Often local colleges and universities provide camps as a way to get their own students teaching, leadership and coaching experience.

3. Consider a Nanny Camp

Can’t find any affordable summer camp options in your area? Consider putting together a “nanny camp” with friends or neighbors. This is basically a summer-long nanny sharing program.

You’ll hire a nanny to take care of a reasonable number of kids — say four or five — and the nanny can do some summer-camp activities, like going to local parks and pools. This works best if the kids in the nanny camp are around the same age, and if you can provide the nanny with a safe way to get the kids around town.

4. Ask for Assistance

If you can’t afford even the least expensive camp option on your list, ask for financial assistance. Many summer camps offer scholarships for enrollment fees. Sometimes the information about these options isn’t easy to find, so ask about it. Even if you feel like you make too much money to qualify, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

You should also check for discounts. Some camps offer early registration discounts, and others will give you a reduced rate if you pay for the whole season at once. Tons of summer camps also have sibling discount options, which is why it often makes sense to enroll your kids in the same summer camp.

Making summer camp fit into your family’s budget can be tough, especially if you’re not already used to paying for full-time childcare. But there are plenty of excellent, affordable options out there if you just know where and how to look.

Cards for Camp?

You may be tempted to apply for a credit card to earn rewards for your summer expenses. If you do, be sure to check the terms and conditions so you know what you’re getting into. Also, make sure to check your credit to make sure you’ll qualify. You can check two of your scores on Credit.com.

Image: SolStock

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How to Get the Most Out of Amazon’s ‘Subscribe & Save’ Program

You can save both time and money by automating the purchases of things you buy the most. Here's how to do it right.

The Amazon Subscribe & Save program can be a great way for Prime members to save money while automating a bit of life. For my family, Subscribe & Save is a way to buy items like toilet paper that we never seem to realize we’re running low on until the last minute. Here’s how the program works and how you can make the most out of it.

How ‘Subscribe & Save’ Works

Tens of thousands of items on Amazon are Subscribe & Save eligible. Basically, when you buy these items you can either buy them normally to ship with your next manual Amazon order, or you can add them to your Subscribe & Save list. This list sets up regular delivery dates — from monthly to every six months — whatever fits your needs.

One of my favorite parts about Subscribe & Save is that you can set different items to different schedules. For instance, you could have toilet paper arrive magically at your doorstep each month, but get toothpaste shipped to you every other month. The trick is to make sure you’re getting the items you need without ordering more than you need.

What Are the Benefits of ‘Subscribe & Save?’

Besides just making life easier by automating the shipment of certain items you need on a regular basis, Subscribe & Save has a few other benefits, including:

  • Discounted prices. The basic Subscribe & Save price for nearly all items is a little lower than the normal sticker price. But you can stack those savings up even more by adding five or more eligible items to your subscriptions. For some items, the savings is 15%, and for diaper subscriptions, it’s 20%.
  • Coupon options. You can add even more savings by clipping Amazon coupons when you check out. These coupons often apply to the first time an item ships as part of your Subscribe & Save cart.
  • Free shipping. Even if you’re not an Amazon Prime member, you get free shipping when you use Subscribe & Save. This also applies to small items Amazon calls Add-On items, which even Prime members have to add to a cart with at least $25 worth of goods to ship for free.
  • Flexible delivery schedules. Like I noted above, you can set items to a delivery schedule that fits your needs. And you can always update your delivery schedule if you find you’re receiving too many or too few shipments for your personal use.
  • Changeable delivery date. On top of that, if you need to bump your delivery date a few days — say you’re running low on toilet paper and need a delivery a week early, it’s no problem. Just log into your Amazon account, and change your delivery date.

How To Get the Most Out of It

Now that you know what Amazon’s Subscribe & Save program is and how it works, let’s talk tips for making the most of the program:

  • Do some price checking. Obviously it’s in your best interest to get familiar with Amazon’s prices versus prices at your local grocery store, discount store or warehouse store. Sometimes the convenience of a Subscribe & Save option will be worth a slight premium, but you should aim to save as much as possible on individual units of each item that you order. And don’t just price check once. Take note of the prices of your favorite Subscribe & Save items each time you’re in the store, just to make sure you’re still getting a good deal. Note that Subscribe & Save offers almost all name-brand items. If you have a more-affordable, off-brand counterpart that you like, you’ll probably save money by going with that item, instead. But if you have certain preferred name brands for personal care, household, baby care or even food items, you may find them on the Subscribe & Save list.
  • Check your cart’s prices every month. One of the worst parts about Subscribe & Save is that prices on these items change with their Amazon list prices. This can be a little tricky, especially if the prices go up. Make a habit to log into your Subscribe & Save account each month to make sure you’re not paying way more for a particular item than you should. Amazon will tell you when you can last edit a Subscribe & Save item, which is typically several days before your scheduled delivery.
  • Add additional items just before your ship date. Loads of deal and coupon websites give lists of the best Subscribe & Save deals for that particular month (or you can download an app like Honey that will automatically check to see if any coupons are available for the item you’re considering). Check these deals out before your order’s last day to edit.
  • Always have at least five items in your Susbscribe & Save account. The best way to net 5% to 15% savings on Subscribe & Save is to schedule at least five items for regular delivery. With all the available Subscribe & Save items, it’s pretty easy to find some household basics to help you meet this savings threshold.
  • Look for coupons. Amazon offers the option to clip virtual coupons as they’re available. Again, you can often find lists of coupon-eligible items on deal sites around the web or with savings apps. These coupons typically only apply to your first Subscribe & Save order, but they can be a great way to net some initial savings.
  • Skip shipments when necessary. Perhaps the hardest part about making Subscribe & Save work for you is figuring out when to order certain items. I know, for instance, about how much toilet paper and how many diapers my family will go through in a week. But how often do I buy a new tube of toothpaste? I’m not really sure. Make your best guess when setting up your shipment times. Then if you’re not running low on an item when it’s scheduled to deliver, hit the “skip” button. This will push the item back a month, and reset its whole delivery schedule based on that shipment.
  • Edit items as you go. If you find yourself consistently “skipping” one or two items, make your life a little easier: edit the shipment times. Again, you can have your Subscribe & Save items shipped as often as once month or as infrequently as every six months. Tweak your shipment times as you go, and you’ll put less time into managing your Subscribe & Save list each month.

You can save even more by applying for one of Amazon’s credit cards. You can read here about whether an Amazon credit card is right for you. You’ll need good credit to qualify, so if you don’t know where your credit stands, you can check your credit scores for free right here on Credit.com.

Like all Amazon tools and programs, Subscribe & Save won’t always save you money. Sometimes there’s a premium to be paid for convenience. But if you use these tips, you can probably get great discounts on items you would have purchased to begin with.

Image: AdrianHancu

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10 Tips for Doing Whole30 on a Budget

With proper planning, you can try the Whole30 diet and stick to your grocery budget.

If you’re just now starting on your New Year’s resolution to get healthy, you might find yourself considering the Whole30 program. The latest diet craze, which is meant to be a sort of physical reset button, requires you to cut out grains, sugars, alcohol, processed foods, legumes and dairy for a full 30 days. So basically you feast on meats, veggies, fruits, nuts and eggs.

Lots of people are jumping on the bandwagon, and not without reason. Changing your eating habits in this way can help you find trigger foods that cause you problems. And this kind of structured diet can set you on your way to a true long-term lifestyle change. (Of course, every person’s different and, if you have concerns about changing your diet, you might want to consult a professional before getting started.)

But there’s a big financial catch: The Whole30 diet can be expensive!

My husband and I have been doing a Whole30, and it’s definitely increased our grocery budget. On the one hand, this is fine. I’m OK with paying a little more for food that I know is better for my body. But I don’t want to pay a lot more, especially since we plan to stick with this style of eating for much longer than 30 days.

Doing a Whole30 may increase your grocery budget, but it doesn’t have to blow it out of the water. (That would seriously damage your wallet  —and your credit. You can keep an eye on how your scores are doing for free on Credit.com.) If you decide to try this way of eating, use these tips to keep from spending way too much.

1. Don’t Worry About Going Organic

The Whole30 guide suggests going organic. After all, you want to cut out all the nastiness from the food you put into your body. But if you can’t afford organic meat, fruits and veggies, don’t sweat it. Consider just purchasing organic if your produce is on the “dirty dozen” list of foods most impacted by pesticides. The bottom line: Even conventional fruits and veggies are much better than processed foods. So go with what you can afford.

2. Get Familiar With the Best Prices

Now is a great time to get familiar with different grocery stores in your area. We personally try not to make more than two stops on our Saturday morning shopping trips. You may find it’s worth your while to make three or more stops. Consider shopping outside of the big box stores. Try your local Trader Joe’s for Whole30-approved snacks like plantain chips. We love Aldi for scoring most of our meat and produce at great prices, and local farmer’s markets may have in-season produce for a steal.

3. Keep Emergency Snacks on Hand

The first couple of weeks of Whole30 can be rough, I won’t lie. I was hungry basically all the time and really craved carbs. This is totally normal, but you can push through it. It’s a good idea to keep emergency snacks on hand so you can stick to your eating plan. Some options include nuts (buy in bulk and portion them into small packages), fruit (apples and bananas keep well in the car or a purse), and, in a pinch, certain Larabars (when on sale!). Emergency food can also keep you from dining out, which is confusing, frustrating and even more expensive when you’re on a Whole30.

4. Plan Your Meals

I’ve always been a meal planner, but I’ve gotten even more serious about it since starting the Whole30. Now I know each day what we’ll have for dinner. I plan everything on Saturday before we grocery shop. When you plan your meals, you don’t buy extra food that ends up spoiling. And if you really want to be cheap, you can make just enough extra food to have leftovers for lunch the next day.

5. Don’t Be Afraid of the Freezer Aisle

You might think eating Whole30 would mean all-raw fruits and veggies. But that’s not the case. In fact, oven-roasted veggies drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar are our favorites right now. And those can be made with frozen veggies as easily as fresh ones. You can also save on meats, fish and berries when you buy frozen rather than fresh.

6. Try Some Canned Items

Cheap canned goods aren’t off limits. You’ll want to read labels to make sure nothing weird has been added to your canned veggies or tuna. (Some canned tuna has added sugar.) Once you find brands and types you know are compliant, you can work them into loads of different meals to stretch those savings.

7. Choose Conventional Lean Meats

Organic grass-fed meats are the best option, but they’re also super-expensive. If you can’t afford this type of meat, don’t sweat it. However, you’ll probably want to steer clear of fattier cuts of conventional meats. The worst of the toxins stored in a cut of meat will be in the fat. So just go with leaner cuts while you’re doing your detox.

8. Get Used to Making Eggs

The Whole30 relies heavily on protein and fat to keep you feeling full and satiated without a constant intake of carbohydrates. One way to get both of these macronutrients without spending a load of money is with eggs. Keep hardboiled eggs on hand for an easy snack. Make a sweet potato hash with eggs for breakfast. Serve a frittata for dinner. Just generally get comfortable with making eggs every which way, and they’ll save you money while keeping you on track.

9. Skip Expensive Whole30-fied Products

Yes, you can buy Whole30-fied beef jerky, mayonnaise and salad dressing. But these products can be hard to find and very pricey. If you need to stick to a budget, make them yourself or cut them out of your diet altogether. I discovered in this journey that making mayo is incredibly simple and cost-effective. And homemade mayo makes a delicious chicken salad!

10. Keep it Simple

There are loads of great Whole30 recipes online. Pinterest is chock full of them. Many include a variety of delicious spices, veggies you’ve never heard of and interesting cooking techniques. And this is definitely a good time to expand your palate with some new tastes. However, don’t go crazy with the brand-new recipes, especially those that will require you to buy a bunch of new spices or cooking equipment. Instead, keep things simple. A piece of grilled meat and some roasted veggies will do.

Following this popular eating plan can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be too hard on your wallet. With the proper planning, you can succeed at the Whole30 and stick to your grocery budget, too.

Still looking for ways to chop down your food costs? Check out these tips for how to eat for less than $6 a day

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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Renting Out Your Home? 9 Expenses You Can Write Off

Here are some tax deductions home renters should know about.

Home sharing through sites like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway are becoming more and more popular. My family jumped on the Airbnb hosting train recently, and we made a tidy little side income in January renting out our spare room. I won’t have to pay taxes on that income until next tax season, but I’m already wondering what expenses I can write off.

It turns out that lots of Airbnb host expenses are deductible, and those deductions work for other home-sharing services as well.

The Basics of Taxes & Home Sharing

Renting out a part of your home is similar to becoming a landlord for an entire property, and it’s a lot like running a small business. The general IRS rule is that you can deduct expenses that are “both ordinary and necessary” for your business. But you’ll pay taxes on any income that you earn over and above those deductions.

There’s one caveat: the 14-day rule. If you rent part or all of your primary residence to others for less than 15 days out of the year, you don’t have to report that rental income, but you can’t deduct any expenses.

If you really like being a host, though, and rent all or part of your home for 15 days or more, you’ll have to report the income. So you’ll want to take all the deductions you possibly can. When it comes to deductions for rentals, you need to be careful, though. You can only deduct expenses that were spent on your business.

So if you buy new bath towels that your renters just happen to use in your shared bathroom, you can’t deduct the full cost of the bath towels. But if you buy linens just for your Airbnb renters, you can deduct the full cost.

With that in mind, below are some expenses you might deduct.

9 Expenses You Could Deduct

1. Service Fees: Most short-term rental services charge hosts a fee that comes off the top of the rent paid by the guest. Even if this fee comes out of the guest payment before it hits your bank account, you can deduct it as a business expense.

2. Advertising Fees: If you pay for any advertising outside of that offered by the rental company (and, therefore, covered with your service fees), deduct those expenses.

3. Cleaning & Maintenance Fees: If you buy cleaning supplies for your rental room, deduct those. If you pay a professional for cleaning, deduct that expense, too. Any maintenance costs related to the rental property are also deductible. If you pay for whole-house maintenance, such as a furnace tune-up or a roof replacement, a part of that cost will be deductible.

4. Utilities: If you’re only renting part of your home part of the time, you’ll split the utilities — part as a personal expense and part as a business expense that can be deducted.

5. Property Insurance: If you need to pay more insurance on your home because of having renters present, you can deduct the extra cost. Even if your property insurance fees haven’t increased, you can write off part of the expense as a business expense.

6. Property Taxes: The same goes for property taxes: You can write off the portion of your property taxes equal to the portion of your home being rented.

7. Trash Removal Services: Services that you pay the municipality for can be deducted, because they’re both reasonable and necessary.

8. Property Improvements: You can deduct the cost — or the interest paid on a loan, if you don’t pay cash — of improvements made to the property if those apply to the rented area.

9. Furniture, Linens & Food: You presumably provide guests with at least a couch, if not a bed. If you buy new furniture for your guest room, you can deduct that. You can also deduct the cost of linens, curtains, shower supplies, or food that you provide to your guests.

Splitting the Expenses

Unless you’re renting your whole home for the full year, you’ll need to prorate these deductions. In short, you can only deduct these expenses when they actually apply to the rental space while it’s being rented.

As you can see, things can get hairy! If you decide to host through Airbnb or another similar service this year, here’s what you need to do:

  • Keep detailed records. Know exactly when you had renters and for how much. Keep all your receipts related to expenses for the rental, or for improvements or utilities for your whole house.
  • Know your local laws. In some cases, you may have to pay additional local taxes when you do a short-term rental. Get familiar with those laws, which vary by state and locality.
  • Get a professional to help. Because these issues are so complex, it’s best to consult with a tax professional about your rental income, especially if you made a decent amount of money through the year. You want to take all the deductions you can to lower your tax bill. But you also want to make sure you’re doing it legally.

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5 Ever-So-Simple Strategies for Paying Off Debt in 2017

Here are some tips for paying off debt in 2017.

Want to pay off your debt and save more money in 2017? You’re not alone! According to one survey of Google search data, searches for “Spend Less/Save More” were up 17.47% from 2016. Want to achieve your get-out-of-debt goal? If so, we recommend trying one of the five strategies here.

1. The Debt Snowball

This debt-payoff method, made famous by financial guru Dave Ramsey, has you pay off your smallest debts first. The idea behind the debt snowball is that you get a quick psychological boost from paying off some small debts from the get-go. This gives you the mental momentum to keep going when paying off debt.

To start a debt snowball, list your debts in order from smallest to largest. Use any extra money to pay off the smallest balance while you make minimum payments on your other debts. When your smallest debt is paid off, snowball that debt’s minimum payment, plus your extra cash towards paying off the next debt. By the time you get to the largest debt, you’ll be throwing a lot of money at it each month. (You can see how your debt is affecting your credit by viewing two of your credit scores, with updates every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

2. The Debt Avalanche

This is similar to the debt snowball in that you pay off one debt at a time. But it’s actually the more economical method of paying off debt. Instead of paying off smaller balances first, the debt avalanche has you start by paying off the debts with the largest interest rate.

The debt avalanche is a smart method if you already have the determination to make it through a long debt payoff process without the boost of paying off a few smaller debts early on. It can get you out of debt faster since you’ll stop accumulating interest on high-interest debts much more quickly.

3. The Debt Snowflake

This is a method that can be combined with one of the above options or used to pay off debt in any order you choose. The idea here is that you find small ways to save a few bucks, and then transfer that money saved toward debt payments.

With the debt snowflake method, you’ll need to be exceptionally aware of your spending patterns. For instance, if you normally spend $10 on a lunch out at work, but pack your lunch one day, you could save $5. That $5 is a snowflake that can then go toward paying off debt.

The key to debt snowflakes is to make sure they don’t “melt.” Get into the habit of transferring “snowflake” money to debt accounts immediately, or at least on a weekly basis. Otherwise, you run the risk of that hard-saved cash being used for other purposes.

4. The Credit Card Transfer

If much of your debt is in the form of high-interest credit card balances, consider using balance transfer offers to pay off that debt more quickly. Since credit cards often have interest exceeding 15%, it’s not unusual for most of your minimum payment to go toward interest, even on a relatively small balance. If you can transfer that balance to a card with a 0% introductory annual percentage rate, you can put more money toward the principal balance each month, paying off your debts more quickly.

Be careful, though, to read all the terms of a credit card balance transfer. Most cards charge a fee for the balance transfer. If you’ll pay off the card’s balance quickly, the transfer may actually cost more than it saves. You can find more info on some of the better balance transfer credit cards here.

5. The Half Payment Method

What if you’re on such a tight budget that you can’t even squeak out some extra dollars to start on a debt snowball or avalanche? One option is to start making half of your minimum payment every two weeks. Bi-weekly payments, which may fall when you get a paycheck, can save you money over time on debts that are compounded daily or monthly based on the average balance.

The reasoning behind biweekly payments is somewhat complex. But, essentially, paying more often allows less interest to accrue between payments, which means more of your payment goes toward the principal. Plus, if you make a half payment every two weeks, you’ll actually have made a whole extra minimum payment by the end of the year!

Half payments can help even out your bank account balance and can help bring down your debt balances more quickly. Combining the bi-weekly payment method with another method for applying any extra cash you scrape together toward one debt at a time could be a powerful option for meeting your financial resolution this year.

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