Written by a FSN Family Advocate, Jackie Southwick

An average month of maintaining just a typical household has certainly gotten expensive over the years, usually requiring two incomes; but as life goes, we know we can always count on a month… or 2 or 3, that will absolutely beat your wallet to death!

For me, this year, it started in June. My last child graduated from college (woohoo!) in May and I had been celebrating that money faucet being turned off! After I came down a bit from that natural high, it was time to celebrate my son’s success with a party in June. Oh, but wait…the last phase of my backyard makeover which began in 2014 needed to be completed. Arborvitae bushes needed to be planted for more privacy between my neighbor’s house and my own. Off to the garden center and plunked down $500. For 6 of these bushes which included a 20% discount that my son’s friend was able to give us. A little bit of labor on our part and the bushes looked great.

So, as most parties do, party planning began with writing out the guest list. Family for us means lots of grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, in-laws, great nieces and nephews, so the list starts at 50. The number doesn’t faze me, I consider it a blessing; then add on friends and I’m certainly glad I have a big back yard! I enjoy cooking and eating homemade food, especially my mom’s recipe for homemade potato salad, so I decided to make the food myself. Of course, I was smart enough to solicit the help from my good friend to cook and took up on offers from others to bring dishes. Having such big family we believe in “ringing the door with your elbow” when we go to each other’s homes for any event. After adding up the amount I spent on paper products, food and drink, my cost came to just over $500.

The next day came with rest and relaxation and higher temperatures outside and unfortunately inside the house too! Uh oh, what’s going on? The air conditioner couldn’t break, it was just replaced 3 years ago, but no worries, it came with a 10 year warranty. Turns out, though, it was the condensation pump that needed to be replaced and, of course, that warranty was only for 2 years since it’s actually a separate part of the air conditioner. $400 later we were cooling off again. Soon after, since my son was not working full time yet, he graciously volunteered to take our dog for his yearly checkup and vaccines. I gave him a signed blank check and from past experience expected the bill to be about $150..  I was shocked when I saw the visit totaled almost $300. I had no idea that since the dog reached 10 yrs old that he needed “senior” bloodwork which was $171. itself!

In the midst of all of this, invites were still coming in and plans being made for other events coming up in July. It consists of a birthday party for a dear friend, a bridal shower for my nephew’s fiancé (the wedding coming up in August), a baby shower for another nephew’s wife, my son’s birthday, a farewell party for my daughter who will soon move to Arizona, and a birthday party for 5 people in my family who will reach a “milestone” this year. We haven’t even reached August yet, with vacation and a wedding! This is a heavier summer than normal, but with a family like mine it’s going to happen!

Does all of this sound familiar? You might not be having graduation parties, or attending baby or bridal showers or fixing air conditioners; yours might be new tires, travel sports tournaments, weddings and Dr. bills. The point is, we all have those times during the year, besides even Christmas, that extra “stuff” comes up to bombard us. So what do we do, panic, and then just whip out our credit cards and load it all on, right? Well this is what I used to do without even giving it much thought, it was the way of the land and I’d concern myself later about paying it off. Well, this year there was no panic, no debt accrued; only cash, peace, and contentment.

The transformation of my attitude toward money management and being able to go from panic to peace has occurred over the past couple years and I’m  still a work in progress. After my 57 yr old husband passed away 4 years ago from cancer, I not only needed to learn how to manage my household myself, it was learning to do it with only one income. I thought I was doing pretty well, such as only putting the couple hundred dollars on my credit card that I knew I could pay off the following month. After becoming a Family Advocate for my church with the Family Strengthening Network (FSN) nearly three years ago, however, I heard about Financial Peace University (FPU), a money management program they highly recommended to teach families how to budget their income and manage money. Two years ago we offered this at our church and those 9 weeks we spent learning from Dave Ramsey transformed the way I thought about money. Well, thinking and learning about it is all well and good, but applying what I learned to my everyday living is key to finding peace. This doesn’t happen overnight, it takes the baby steps that he teaches as well as setting up and keeping to a monthly “zero-balance budget”, using cash (no credit cards) and learning to live within our means. So far this isn’t sounding like too much fun, but when you assign every dollar that is brought in to your household a place in your budget, you don’t experience the mayhem of money seeming like it’s flying out the window every month and your debt skyrocketing!

It starts with budgeting for EVERYTHING, whether you will need it for the current month or for some time in the future. My budget starts with my tithe to the church which is 10% of my income, something I believe I can’t afford NOT to do. Then there are the typical monthly expenses like a mortgage, groceries, the car insurance, utilities, cell phone, cable, etc.. An emergency fund also needs to be put in the budget until you reach $1,000. (Baby Step #1) because eventually something will come up that can’t be predicted.  If you own a car and most households own two, not only do you need to budget for the gas, but also for the inevitable new tires and repairs it’s going to need sometime in the future. There needs to be a plan in the budget to pay down credit cards and other debt (Baby Step #2). Don’t forget that you also like to have a little fun with your family like a trip to the zoo or eating out once in a while, so put that in your budget also. Birthday parties, weddings, Christmas, all which need gifts purchased need to be included, as well as a little money into savings. It does take months of budgeting to get these numbers near accuracy, so don’t despair. Be sure, though, to always do the budget monthly with your spouse or an accountability partner.

After all of these expenses are put down on paper, they need to be added up. Also add up the total income for the month, then subtract the total expenses from that and it needs to come to zero. (That’s a “zero-balance budget”) It most likely does not, there is probably even a big negative number, but it’s not time to panic. Most budgets need a little “tweaking” here and there but the further apart your income number is from your expenses number, the more tweaking is needed. For instance, finding ways of cutting some off your grocery bill, shopping around for car and other insurances, not eating out as often, being a little less generous with gifts, as well as looking for ways to cut the cell phone and cable bill, are just a few ways to make a big difference in the monthly budget.

Putting this all into practice for the past couple years has taken some sacrifice, a little ingenuity, resourcefulness, discipline, mixed in with a little grumbling to myself about Dave Ramsey, but the rewards have been tremendous. I know automatically to look for discounts, especially with bigger items; to use my talents for cooking more which is less expensive but also healthier and took on a second job to give me more room in my budget. With my moderate income but my house already paid off, I’ve been able to pay down $8,000 in debt and not accumulate any new debt. Freedom and no guilt also come from handling money in this manner. For instance, I may accumulate money in my monthly clothing budget for a while and then have the freedom to go shopping and hand them cash. When I received my federal tax refund this year I set aside the money for my son’s graduation party, the Arborvitae bushes I intended to purchase, as well as the amount of taxes I owed the state of NJ. (Ugh! I used part of my emergency fund to pay for the air conditioner repair which has since been replenished. The portion of the Vet bill I had not planned on came out of my savings account.  It’s a great feeling to know the money is there when needed.

As a Family Advocate with the Family Strengthening Network, I enjoy helping others to know this peace and freedom from learning how to manage their finances properly. Just imagine how much more money we could have in our savings account instead of giving it all to the credit card companies? Imagine what this world could be like if we were all able to teach our children to be financially responsible? It can be done.