Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holiday Manifesto

I’ve confessed before that I have a knack for making things far more complicated than necessary. It’s a trait that often leaves me scrambling and my husband tearing out his hair. “Why can’t anything just be simple around here?” he’s been known to ask. Though I’ve balked at his question over the years, I have to admit that my husband is right: simple is better than complicated.

Yet it’s easy to make things complicated, without fully realizing I’m doing it. Perhaps this is no more the case than when it comes to the holidays. Holiday schedules fill up too quickly, the gift budget gets stretched, the dinner menu keeps growing and the days seem to morph into one another, sometimes becoming one frenetic blur.

To help keep us focused on the simple things we enjoy, we’ve revived our manifesto idea from last summer and created a Holiday Manifesto. Together, we’ve made a list that will help us to be intentional with our time and money and to savor the best of the season.

List suggestions for our manifesto run the gamut from traditional activities, such as sledding and making snow angels to more unique ideas that include making super hero ornaments and homemade peppermint ice cream. At the urging of our stick-obsessed four-year-old son, we plan to play broomball on a local pond. We’ll also work on building a snow fort and roast marshmallows in our backyard.

Like our summer list, the suggestions our children offered tended toward the simple (except making super hero ornaments, perhaps). And almost all of the ideas we compiled will cost virtually nothing.

When my husband suggested we add “have a slumber party by the gas stove” to the list, for example, the kids got so excited that I thought they’d jump out of their skin. Their excitement had me recalling my own childhood memories of camping out on the living room floor, of waking up and seeing the twinkling lights of our Christmas tree. Dragging out sleeping bags and sprawling out on the floor couldn’t be simpler, but it’s very likely that we’ll be making memories that last a lifetime.

My own contributions to our Holiday Manifesto include sending out Christmas cards (the first time I’ve done so in more than 11 years), making candy bar hot chocolate with real whipped cream, and decorating our home with natural elements we already have or that we can forage from our property.

Some other items that made the list include decorating cookies, singing Christmas carols, and baking an apple pie. Perhaps my favorite suggestion came from my six-year-old who thought we should make sleeping in one morning a priority. For parents who almost always get woken by the sound of four pairs of stampeding fit, sleeping in would indeed be a welcome treat.

The point of our list isn’t to put pressure on us, but to give us a visual reminder of how we really want to spend our time this holiday season. To make your own list, you might try taking stock of what you did last year. What did you truly enjoy? What activities seemed to cause chaos and stress? What did you want to do but didn’t?

With answers to these questions, you can craft a list that will help you to prioritize how you want to spend your time and your money this year.

Need some free help? Let us know!

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman


(605) 348-4550

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Retailers have their red mark-down pens out earlier than usual this year, meaning that many consumers will begin taking advantage of bargains in advance of the traditional Black Friday rush.

As consumers hit the malls this holiday season, some are experienced shoppers, having weathered many years of finding just the right gift at just the right price. Nonetheless, whether novice or seasoned veteran, it’s always smart to arm yourself with timely shopping tips.

Family Services, Inc. reminds consumers of five things not to do at the mall:

· Do not carry your checkbook or more credit cards than you will use during that shopping trip. If your wallet is lost or stolen, this will limit the damage. Tip: Make a copy of the front and back of all credit cards, and put the list in a safe place at home. In an emergency, you will have easy access to a list of all your cards, the account numbers, and the bank’s Customer Service number to report the incident.

· Do not carry large amounts of cash. Even if you are committed to paying for your purchases with cash, be aware that pick-pockets take advantage of crowded areas and distracted people. Tip: Instead, make frequent trips to the ATM to replenish your stash of cash. Or, consider using your debit card for transactions, being sure to hang onto receipts and record in your check register to avoid overdrafts.

· Do not shop while in a hurry or at the last minute. You’ll end up spending more than you should simply to be able to mark the item off your list. Tip: Block out a specific time for shopping. Make your first trip a leisurely one, simply getting an idea of what’s available this year and at what price. Take notes, and once back at home, get organized for the actual buying adventure.

· Do not shop without a list. Santa thinks it’s a useful tool, and so should we. Tip: Make your list specific. Don’t just include the names of those for whom you need to purchase a gift, but also include the specific item you’re looking for, and most importantly, the amount you intend to spend. Having an overall holiday budget floating around in your head isn’t good enough. Without a plan, you’ll likely get caught up in the hype and overspend in the blink of an eye.

· Do not pile new debt on top of old. Some people are still paying for 2009 holiday expenses as they enter the 2010 buying season. Don’t make your financial situation worse by being one of them. Tip: Think about it, you’re buying for friends and relatives who will be the first to understand if you need to cut back. If you are in a tenuous financial situation, it will only be made worse through irresponsible spending. Consider writing a heartfelt note to those on your list, being sincere about your feelings toward them and why they mean so much to you. Most people can’t recall what they received last Christmas, but this will be a treasured gift remembered for years to come.

“The holidays can be particularly difficult for those unemployed or facing foreclosure. However, even if your situation is not that serious, we’re living in tough economic times, and no one should be spending money they don’t have,” said Michaele Pena, Director of Consumer Credit Counseling Services division (a division of Family Services, Inc.). “Being financially responsible this holiday season is a gift to yourself and to those you care about.”

If you need help creating a holiday budget or paying off an existing debt load, don’t delay reaching out for help. To reach Family Services, Inc. dial 843-744-1348 ext. 7802, or go online to www.fsisc.org.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Budget challenge: Can organic foods be good for your wallet?

Something unexpected has happened as my husband and I have looked more closely at how we spend our food dollars. As we began paying closer attention to what we were spending on food, we gradually became more aware of exactly what we were eating.

In other words, our spending and eating consciousness were both awakened. Now, when I walk the aisles of the grocery store, I consider how the price of one item will influence what I have left to spend on other things. I’m also more apt to think about the nutritional value of everything I put into my cart.

The results of this combined awareness have prompted us to prepare more meals at home, led us to rely less on convenience foods, and taught us that eating well doesn’t necessarily cost more. We’re eating tastier, more wholesome foods than we ever have before, and we’re spending half as much as we used to. We’ve reduced our monthly food budget (including groceries and eating out) from $900 to just over $400.

Some small, yet significant, changes have made this possible. First, I’ve started making more of the foods that we once ate at restaurants or bought as convenience foods. For example, we no longer buy what my children have deemed “cardboard pizzas” (a telling descriptor). We enjoy rolling out our own dough from an old family recipe (find the recipe at stressfreefinancial.blogspot.com/). I invested in pizza stones so I could achieve that restaurant-quality crispiness. I’ve also introduced some new recipes; caramelized onion and goat cheese pizza is our new favorite.

Second, I’ve begun to prepare more vegetarian meals, enjoying dishes such as baked macaroni and cheese, vegetable fried rice, and parmesan risotto. If I use meat in a dish, it’s more as a complement to it, rather than the main focus, such as the pancetta I used in minestrone I made last week. These dishes may sound like gourmet fare, but they are surprisingly easy to make, and my children love them.

I’ve been including more whole grains and vegetables in our meals, and I’ve started looking for more simple, approachable ways to prepare wholesome foods for our family. That is what motivated me to visit a local organic market a few weeks ago, where I was greeted by Vinny Alessi-Narr, one of the store’s owners.

With a squirmy 2-year-old on my hip, I struck up a conversation with Vinny. I explained how I (and many others I know) understand the importance of eating well, but we sometimes feel that organic foods are prohibitively expensive. Vinny made a case for why it’s worth it to pay a bit more for organic foods. Most significantly, he maintains that organic foods are more nutrient dense, therefore meaning that a person will, by nature, eat less. (This resonated with me particularly well, considering that all six of us in our family have legendary appetites—just ask our friends and family.)

I asked Vinny point blank, “Is it possible to eat the way you’re suggesting and still keep my budget intact?” His unwavering answer was yes. So, I asked Vinny if he was up for a challenge: help me find practical, affordable ways to include more organic foods in our diet.

Since then, we’ve roughed out a plan for doing just that. Together, we’ll be looking for simple ways to eat well for less money and exploring which organic foods represent the best value. We’ll also be adapting and creating family-friendly recipes that are wholesome and affordable.

I’m looking forward to learning alongside Vinny and sharing this new knowledge with you in the weeks to come.

CCCS/ACCE –American Center for Credit Education

Carey Denman


(605) 348-4550