When money is tight, we often give the least to those who mean the most.  Instead of forgoing neighbor gifts or teacher gifts, we decide not to do anything special for our spouse.  Sometimes the stress of thinking of another gift causes us to enter into a gift-giving truce with our husband or wife.

Here are some strategies to save on spouse gifts, while still giving thoughtful and meaningful gifts.

Focus on Needs

When finances are tight, we often avoid buying things for ourselves even when they would normally be justifiable needs.  Chances are, if money is tight, both you and your spouse have legitimate needs that are going unmet.

If you have a little bit of money set aside for Christmas gifts for each other, focus on things that your spouse really needs instead of spending it on frivolous niceties.

Make Something for Each Other

If you enjoy a good challenge, setting a “handmade challenge” for Christmas gifts might be totally up your alley.

Even if you aren’t crafty, a thoughtful love letter, a creative book of the top ten things you love about your spouse, or a compilation of favorite photos or memories is something anyone can do.  You’ll find that handmade gifts from the heart will mean much more than any gift you could have bought.

Give the Gift of Time

Most of us are spread so thin these days that the people who mean the most sometimes get very little of our time.  The gift of time, especially when it’s scarce, is more valuable than what you could buy in the store on any budget.

Remember when you were a kid and you made coupons for mother’s day that your mom could redeem for breakfast in bed, mowing the lawn, or a big hug?  Why not do the same for your spouse?  You can get creative and make it fun, thoughtful, and personal.

How About You?

  • Do you and your spouse give each other gifts?
  • Do you have a price limit or rules about spouse gifts?

Originally published 17 Dec 2014, but updated to be included in the Frugal Festivities series.


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A gift that fills a need or a want is good, but with some extra effort you can make that gift great. The best part is that taking your gift from “good” to “great” doesn’t cost any extra money.

A gift that fills a need or a want is good, but with some extra effort you can make that gift great.  The best part is that taking your gift from “good” to “great” doesn’t cost any extra money.

Adding a personal touch takes a gift up a notch or two.  For me, the personal touch involves words. Words that convey feeling and emotion.

Most people say the same things in their cards– the standard greetings, the same well-wishes, just enough to fit nicely in the card without being too full or too sparse.  We figure the purpose of the card is to say who the present is from and share an appropriate customary phrase or two.

Have you ever been at a gift-opening occasion (birthday, Christmas, baby shower, wedding, etc) where the gift opener read the cards out loud?  Amidst all the standard greetings, the recipient starts reading an un-assuming card, when she suddenly stops reading aloud and becomes emotional.  There may be smiles, there may be tears.  Her face lights up, there is a giggle or a thoughtful sigh.

That card was different from the others.  It conveyed more than just the appropriate seasonal phrases and the to/from details.  That card warmed a heart and touched a soul.  The gift in the box will take on a new level of meaning because of the depth and the thoughtfulness of the card.

Has this happened to you?

Let me tell you how my husband made a good gift great a couple of years ago to illustrate this principle.

My birthday is in August, around all of the back-to-school mayhem. As I was picking up school supplies for my kids (and of course stocking up on extras), I fell in love with a set of 21 different colored Sharpie markers.  I was tempted to buy it for myself, but I felt silly buying something for myself when my birthday and anniversary were just around the corner.

There was no way my husband would ever think to get me colorful Sharpies as a gift, so I dropped some hints.

You might remember that I’m not a list-maker when it comes to gifts, which my husband thinks is funny because I make lists for everything else you could possibly make a list for.  He really appreciates hints, though, so I dropped some hints about the Sharpies that I wanted.  There is no way he would ever think of that one on his own.

I told him how I really wished that I had Sharpies in lots of colors when the kids made shirts to enter in the fair.  Did you know that if you draw dots with Sharpies on T-shirts, then spray them with rubbing alcohol, they bleed and make cool designs?  They do.  You can see a tutorial here.  There are also cool mugs you can make with Sharpies.  The list goes on and on (do a Pinterest search for Sharpie crafts if you don’t believe me).

I figured my hints were obvious enough, that he would probably get me the markers I had my eye on.

I was right, but he did much, much better than that.

My wonderful husband is very vocally affectionate, always telling me the many things he loves about me. He has an amazing gift to always speak kindly.  He has honestly never said anything hurtful to me, ever. Anyone who knows him will tell you that he never says hurtful things about anyone.

My point is that I really am blessed beyond anything I could ever imagine, so I should be content with the love he showers on me.

Yet I still ask for more.

I always tell him that I want him to write love notes to me so that if anything ever happens to him I can have his precious words to read over and over.  He knows that heartfelt, written love notes mean so much to me.

Instead of just giving me the set of markers, he made it personal.  For each of the 21 colors, he wrote several sentences sharing something thoughtful, meaningful, or sentimental. It brought tears to my eyes and is a special treasure of memories and love through his eyes.

Thoughtful words can take a good gift and make it great.

I love the markers– they are useful and just what I wanted.

The three typed pages oozing with love and memories?  They are priceless.  I love that man!

Go the Extra Mile

As you are giving gifts this holiday season, take a little extra time to put sincere thought into them.  Whether it’s a gift for your spouse, your kids, or your next-door neighbor.  Really touch someone’s heart by giving a piece of yours.  The words you share will likely outlast the gift itself, as they become a pick-me-up later down the road.

How About You?

  • Have you given or received a good gift that was made great with heartfelt personalization?
  • Is anyone else a sucker for love notes?

This post contains affiliate links for products or services that we use and love.  For more information, see our disclosure policy.

Originally published 18 December 2015 but updated to be added to the Frugal Festivities series.


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Want to host a Christmas party but think you can’t afford it?  Think again!  I’m going to share some tips with you that will totally bring down the cost of hosting your own Christmas get-together.

Welcome back to our Frugal Festivities series where we’re sharing 25 days of Christmas Cheer on a Budget!

In January, to start the new year off right, I’m hosting the Frugal Fresh Start Challenge.  Every weekday in January we’ll be tackling a new way to be more frugal, budget and get your finances in order.  Sign up for the challenge so you can download the workbook before we get started on January 1st.

Okay let’s talk about hosting on a budget! I would love to here your tips and ideas in the comments!

1- Go digital with Invitations

Buying or making cute paper invitations is fun, but then you’ll have to pay to mail them.  At $.50 each for postage, it adds up fast.  Go digital.  Use Facebook, Evite or another free website to send your invitations. Your guests will also appreciate a simple way to RSVP.

2- Buy white

Instead of buying seasonal plates, cups, and napkins, just buy plain white.  Not only will buying plain white be cheaper than the seasonal colors and prints, but it will be great all year long, so you can make good use of the leftovers.

3- Go Potluck

Planning a meal for a big group of people gets expensive fast, not to mention it’s a lot of work.  Save time and money by assigning out various side dishes, drinks, and desserts.  People will be more than willing to help!

4- Skip the Meal

Instead of having a big meal have desserts or appetizers instead.  You can still simplify the cost and effort by asking guests to bring their favorite Christmas dessert or appetizer.  Your guests will be excited for the opportunity to share their favorites or specialties with the group.

5- Be your own entertainment

Instead of spending money on entertainment, play interactive games, do karaoke, sing carols, play minute-to-win-it games, or have a white elephant gift exchange.  Pinterest and Google will give you tons of ideas for party games for any group.

Our experience

We host an annual Christmas carol sing-along that we call “Carols and Cookies.”  We send out a digital invitations through Evite which makes responding easy for guests so we get a good count of how many are coming.

We ask our guests to bring a plate of their favorite Christmas cookies to share. We make a giant batch of hot chocolate and spiced apple cider and provide several plates of cookies to get the cookie table started.

We go plain and simple with paper products.  And it’s a blast! There’s a Christmas movie on for the kids, a piano to accompany those who want to sing, and Christmas treats with games and friends.

Don’t wait to get invited to a Christmas party.  If you want to get together with a group of friends or family, don’t be afraid to plan your own!  If your space isn’t adequate, collaborate with a friend. If you want to host a Christmas party, don’t let your budget stop you!  You can make it work.


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What if I told you that last year my kid who doesn’t love reading (I’ve only got one of those) said one of his favorite Christmas gifts that year was a book?!  I want to show you exactly what we did to turn a book into a most amazing gift.

We’ve done the same thing for each of our older kids (who can read) for the past couple of years and each one has been a hit.  I’m going to share with you specific ideas for kids of varying ages and interests, so feel free to use these exact ideas for people on your giving list!

We don’t buy a lot of “new” books around here.  Most of our kids are voracious readers and would quickly read us out of house and home if it weren’t for the library and the thrift store.  BUT in this case we do buy a new book because I’m looking for a specific book in most cases (though if you find the right book used, then by all means get it!).

Pick the perfect book

The first thing you’ll need to do is pick an awesome book.  The kind of books we’re looking for are books that teach something exciting that your kids want to learn.  Let me give you some examples and then I’ll share with you the key to making this gift awesome.

My son who doesn’t love reading is currently 10 and is a maker at heart.  He loves engineering, building, inventing, and projects.

Some of the books I looked at for him were:

The one I decided on was Rubberband Engineer, but I’ll probably get the other two in the future!

In a minute we’ll look at lots of other ideas for kids with other interests.

Address the problem

Now if you’re a kid like my son and you thumb through a book full of really cool projects with great instructions and pictures on Christmas morning, what are you going to want to do?

You’re going to immediately want to get started on those projects!  But while the supplies are fairly simple and inexpensive, you don’t have the things you need to make the project you want to start with.  So you flip to another page, eager to try that project, too.  But same problem– you don’t have the supplies you need.

After this happens a few times you give up and shelf the book.  You ask your mom to pick up the supplies next time she’s at the store, but she’s busy and doesn’t remember.  Your cool book isn’t nearly as cool anymore.

Make it a magical gift

The key to making this gift awesome is that you include supplies needed WITH the book!  Of course you don’t have to include everything you need for every project, but having a good arsenal of supplies to start out with– so that you can do some of the projects– makes a huge difference.

So when we gave our son Rubberband Engineer.  We also gave him:

We wrap the supplies right with the book so that the kids immediately know that they have what they need to get started with their projects.

More Examples

Here are some examples of some of great books and the supplies that go with them:

 Braids & Buns, Ponies & Pigtails Hairdo book

  • comb
  • hair brush
  • hair elastics
  • bobby pins

Kids Book of Hand Lettering

The Drawing Book for Kids

Kids’ Paper Airplane book

Baking Class

Awesome Science Experiments for Kids

The possibilities are endless!  Just think about the interests of your child, find a book gear toward kids that teaches that topic in a fun way, and include some of the necessary supplies along with the book!  If you’re kids are like mine, they’ll dive right in and get started while there’s still wrapping paper all over the floor!

What type of fun “how to” books would your kids love?


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Truly Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but some years we are so busy that we miss the most important parts of the season. It's okay to scale back and simplify. Here are 7 practical tips to have a simpler Christmas this year.

Truly Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but some years we are so busy that we miss the most important parts of the season.  It’s easy to let presents and decorations and travel and parties and making everything perfect crowd out the calm and joy that should come when we spend time with our families and contemplate the life of the Prince of Peace.

On top of the usual busy-ness, when finances are tight the holidays can become stressful, even dreaded.  Instead of seeing a time to join with family and celebrate the birth of the Savior, you worry about how you will manage to make ends meet with all the extra costs brought on by Christmas.

It’s okay to scale back on Christmas.  You definitely don’t want to add to your debt by going overboard on holiday expenses.  As an added benefit, you might find that a simpler Christmas is more enjoyable and meaningful.

Here are 7 practical tips for having a simple, low-stress Christmas:

Limit and prioritize your activities.

One way to minimize the busy-ness of Christmas is to talk with family members about the one activity that is the most important to each of them.  If they could each only choose one holiday activity what would it be?  When planning out your December schedule, prioritize each person’s most important activity.  You might choose to add in other activities, but they will be secondary.

Give of yourself instead of spending money on gifts.

Think creatively about how you can give thoughtful gifts through service without spending a lot of money.  One of my favorites is to offer to scan old family photos (the ones gathering dust in your parents’ garage) and put them on a CD or USB drive for family members.  What a treasure!

Do you remember making coupons for your mom for mother’s day that she could redeem for a hug, breakfast in bed, or a chore of her choice?  You can still give those as grown-ups too!  The important part is to make sure that you follow through.  Don’t wait for the recipient to ask you.  Keep reminding them.

Resist the social pressure to give gifts that are outside of your budget.

Don’t compare what you are giving to what someone else gives you.  I know this is easier to say then do, as we naturally tend to compare ourselves to others.  Remember the purpose of a gift is not to impress or to get praise.  The purpose of a gift is to show love.  Your gift does not need to be expensive or match any monetary standard to show love.

Give fewer gifts to your children.

Children can be easily overwhelmed by the hubbub of receiving.  In fact, sometimes we do our children a real disservice by over-giving.  I like the advice, “Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read.” We stick to that pretty well, though we usually give some family gifts as well, like a game or a special experience.  Giving is fun and it’s easy to want to shower our children with gifts, but too much of a good thing stops being good.

Trim down your giving list.

Some years it is fun to include the postman, the plumber, and every teacher your kids have ever had when you’re giving treat plates or “neighbor gifts.”  Other years you just need to simplify and be more selective.

If you’re feeling the need to simplify this year, whether out of time or budget, give yourself permission to cut your giving list down.

Give where it matters.

A couple of years ago, my husband told me that one of his co-workers announced that he and his wife decided that instead of spending the $200 they usually spend on making goody plates for all of their co-workers, friends, and neighbors, they planned to take that money and donate it straight to the food bank.

What a wonderful idea!  Not only are you saving yourself all the time and stress of making and delivering treats (and let’s be honest, no one really needs more treats during the holidays), but you’re giving in a way that makes a bigger difference.

If you’re hosting, make it a potluck!

Many hands make light work.  In many families (including mine) this is standard, but often the burden of the entire elaborate meal is left on one person’s shoulders.  Don’t hesitate to ask others to contribute to the meal.

If you’re that person, don’t hesitate to ask others to contribute to the meal.  They will feel happy to contribute and you will have more time to actually enjoy their company instead of slaving in the kitchen the whole time.

Those are just a few of the ways we’ve simplified Christmases.  I would love to hear what you have done to simplify, whether it was motivated by time, energy, focus, or finances.

How About You?

  • What do you do to simplify Christmas?
  • How do you keep from getting too busy?

This post was originally published 9 Nov 2015, but has been updated to be included in the Frugal Festivities series.


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Want to see some ideas for some random acts of kindness that you can do no matter your budget?  Some that don't cost a thing!?  Want to hear about some of the random acts of kindness that our family has been the recipient of?

Originally published in 2019

I love hearing about and seeing random acts of kindness, especially nowadays when so much of the media is filled with terrible things.  What’s even better than just hearing about random acts of kindness is being a part of it.

So often we think, “when I’m in a better position financially or when life slows down and I have more time, I want to give back to my community and help others out,” but the truth is, wherever you’re at right now, THAT is the best place to start.  Cultivating a giving attitude and mentality where you’re at right now will ensure that you will continue to give as your situation improves.

Want to see some ideas for some random acts of kindness that you can do no matter your budget?  Some that don’t cost a thing!?  Want to hear about some of the random acts of kindness that our family has been the recipient of?

Well you’re in for a treat today! For Day 2 of our Frugal Festivities 25 days of Christmas Cheer on a Budget I’m collaborating with a bunch of great YouTubers and Bloggers to bring you a bunch of ideas for Random Acts of Kindness you can do with your family this season.  At the end of this post I’ll share the list of others who are participating so you can check them out. I know you’ll be inspired!

Okay, now let’s talk about Random Acts of Kindness.

I really wanted to get our whole family involved in the planning and execution of blessing some people with our random acts of kindness.  They had lots of great ideas.  I love that kids don’t worry about logistics or limitations, they just think big.  So while some of their ideas were out of our budget (like “buy a car for a homeless person”), they were thoughtful and sincere.

I also wanted to give some ideas of things you can do to make a difference no matter what you financial situation is.

Thoughtful notes for nursing home patients

We thought about the forgotten elderly people at the care home where great grandpa lived before he passed away and thought we could write thoughtful cards to them and have the nursing home staff pass them out to the patients who are lonely and don’t get any visitors, especially at the holidays. The patients loved seeing the kids when we’d go visit great grandpa each week.

Mike also had the idea to include a picture, not because we want them to recognize us or anything like that, just because it’s tangible evidence that someone cares. They love looking at pictures and having things to decorate their rooms.

Other random acts of kindness that don’t cost anything

We rarely get snow where we live, but a big storm was on the forecast for yesterday.  The kids thought it would be great to shovel driveways for people anonymously.  Sadly we didn’t get any snow, so we didn’t have that opportunity.

Those are both opportunities that don’t cost anything. There are so many others.

  • You could offer to babysit for a busy mom.
  • You could write thank you notes for those who serve your family but are often overlooked like the school crossing guard or custodian.
  • You could make a point of giving sincere compliments to strangers.
  • You could donate blood.

With some time and thought there is so much good you can do even when your budget is tight.

Care packages for the homeless

The next project we took on required some funds but we account for giving in our Christmas sinking fund.

We thought about the homeless people we regularly see as we drive out of the store parking lots in town.  We often share a box of crackers, an apple, or an ice cream sandwich or something from the groceries we just bought, but thought it would be nice to have something more to give them.  We wanted to make bags with some necessities that would be useful for them.

The kids decorated ziploc bags with pictures and positive messages.  In each gallon bag we put:

  • Wool socks
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Nail clippers
  • Wet wipes
  • Bandages
  • Beef jerky & cheese
  • Applesauce pouch
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • Salmon packet
  • Bottled water

We will keep a couple of these bags in our car so that we have them easily accessible when we meet someone who could use one.

On the receiving end of random acts of kindness

I also wanted to share with you some of the sweet acts of kindness that our family has been the recipient of.

A couple of years ago, we took our kids to Chipotle for the first time.  They had earned free dinner coupons from the summer reading program at the library and were eager to redeem them.  We were taking a while to order because we had to tell our kids all of the options and they each had to make their decisions.  It was pretty obvious we weren’t regulars to eating out.

As we got to the cash register, the man in front of us handed my husband a small envelope and said “God told me to give this to you.”  Thinking it was a religious tract or something, he simply put it in his pocket.  The cashier, who was a little dumbfounded asked my husband if he knew that man.  He shook his head.  Then the cashier said he just gave you a $50 gift card.  Confused, Mike opened the emall envelope and found that sure enough it contained the gift card that the man had just purchased.  Of course he was long gone at this point, so we couldn’t even thank him.  As we prayed before eating, we gave heartfelt thanks to that generous stranger and asked God to bless him for his kindness to our family.

Another time I was at the grocery store with my kids. At the time I had four or five. A stranger asked if they were all mine which is a common question. And then she complimented me on how well behaved they were. She could have stopped there and my day would have been made, but she didn’t. She handed me some cash and asked if she could treat them to ice cream. And that made the kids’ day!

More inspiration for random acts of kindness

No matter what your budget, there are plenty of great ways that you can give. Check out the other posts and videos in this collab for even more ideas.

I would love to hear what acts of kindness and service you have done or been the recipient of.  Please share down in the comments so we can get more great ideas!


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If you’re in debt, then chances are good that you haven’t been saving all year for Christmas. Here's what you can do.

It’s the time of the year when budget-minded people start thinking about how their finances will accommodate the extra expenses of the holiday season.

Actually, the really budget-minded people have been preparing financially for the Christmas season all year long.  Divided over twelve months, the holiday expenses are barely noticeable.

If you’re in debt, then chances are good that you haven’t been saving all year for Christmas.

In fact, if you have debt, you might be tempted to say, “What’s a little more debt?” when it comes to holiday spending. Don’t do this!  Don’t lose momentum in your debt payoff and definitely don’t go deeper into debt in the name of the holidays!

This is why you need to think ahead and budget for Christmas now.

What holiday expenses do you anticipate?

Think through past Christmases and write down what you plan to spend money on.  Here are some common categories to help spark your memory.

  • Cards— Include price of cards and postage
  • Travel— Include all expenses of your trips
  • Gifts— Who are you planning to give to?  Immediate family, extended family, neighbors, teachers, friends, co-workers?  Include:
    • Stocking stuffers
    • Wrapping supplies
    • Shipping
  • Treats— For your family and to share
  • Meals— Are you hosting a meal or attending a holiday potluck?
  • Decorations— Do you buy a live tree?
  • Charitable Giving— Holiday-related giving
  • Other— Does your family have another tradition that involves an expense?

For gifts, I recommend writing out an inclusive list of everyone you plan to give gifts to, whether they are large or small expenses.  Even though this is an expenses list, I would still write down people who I’ll be giving handmade gifts to.  Then you can happily put a big $0 next to those.

Prioritize your list

Once you have your list, start prioritizing it.  You probably won’t have the time or money to do everything on your list, but there will be some items that are more important than other things.

For example, it would be nice to give a hostess gift to Great Aunt Mildred, but if push comes to shove, you’d probably rather get your daughter a doll and some new pajamas. Or, while it would be nice to bring treat plates to all of your neighbors, it’s more important to pay for gas to get to grandma’s house for the family dinner.

I like to prioritize in three tiers.

The “gotta” expenses are the bare essentials.  They include the gifts, decorations, or food that is most important to me and my family.

The “wanna” expenses are not absolutely essential for a happy holiday, but they are pretty standard for our family and we would really like to do them.

The “would be nice” expenses are ones we’d enjoy if we had the time and money, but are really just extra.

Even though it would be nice to do everything on your list, both time and money will pose limitations. How you prioritize is completely personal. By prioritizing your list now, you’ll make sure that the most important traditions are included before you spend money on things that don’t matter much.

How much will you have available spend?

If you have been budgeting and tracking your expenses for more than a year, it’s easy to go back and look at previous years to see what you’ve spent. But what if you’re new to budget and tracking expenses?  That’s when it gets tricky, but that’s when the need is the greatest!

If you haven’t budgeted (or kept track of expenses) for Christmas in the past, then you probably don’t have any idea how much you actually spend on the holidays.  In fact, you would probably be pretty shocked to see how all those little (and big) purchases added up.

Instead of choosing an arbitrary number or even an amount that you think you’ll need, look at what you have available to spend.  Maybe right now you have $0 in your Christmas fund.  There’s no better time to start saving than now (well, besides yesterday, but we won’t dwell on that).

In the weeks before Christmas, you can add to your Christmas Fund by cutting costs and earning extra.

What costs can you cut between now and Christmas to contribute to your Christmas fund?

Here are a few ideas:

What can you do to earn some extra income between now and Christmas?

  • Sell stuff that you don’t need or have sitting around.  This is a great season to put the toys your child has outgrown on Craigslist, Facebook, or Ebay.  Not only are you decluttering, and earning extra income for your Christmas fund, you’re helping out other parents who are looking for cheaper-than-new gifts for their children.
  • Sell your specialty.  Do you make great pies or rolls?  Maybe you make cute hair bows or personalized ornaments.  Try selling on a local Facebook group or to friends and neighbors.
  • You could offer babysitting for friends who would want to go Christmas shopping together without their children.  Set a block of time on a Saturday and offer your services to several families.  With lots of kids, they’ll have fun playing together, making it easier on you too!
  • Do you have a job that offers overtime?  Could you pick up an extra shift?
  • Here are some more ideas for earning extra money that you can get paid for quickly.


Accept that it’s okay to simplify.  It’s okay if this Christmas looks different than in years past.

Decide that your financial goals like getting (or staying) out of debt are more important than giving expensive gifts and having the perfect table spread.

Realize that those who love you would rather have you get closer to financial peace than have a costly gift from you.  There is nothing more awkward than getting an expensive gift from someone who you know can’t afford it.

How About You?

I’m excited to hear your ideas and experience in managing your holiday budget!

  • Do you start saving early for Christmas?
  • How do you decide on and prioritize your Christmas budget?
  • Has debt affected your Christmas budget?

This post was originally published 19 October 2015, but has been updated to be included in the Frugal Festivities series.

When finances are tight, budgeting for Christmas can be tough. Here are some practical ways to work out your Christmas budget when you're in debt to avoid throwing off your payoff plan or going further into debt.



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September was a good month for income. That’s important because we have a big solar payment due as soon as our system gets final approval and is connected to the grid. Hopefully that happens soon because the amount we are paying for electricity every month is ridiculous (and just keeps going up). Our water bill was also atrocious this month (more on that one below).

The good news is that we kept our grocery spending to less than $250. We did that on purpose, knowing that we will have a big solar bill coming up. It feels good, especially in this time of crazy inflation, to be able to choose how much we want to spend on groceries and not have to completely submit to the current prices.

Gas, on the other hand, is still through the roof, as you’ll see below. I wish gas was something you could stock up on when the price was low so you don’t have to pay whatever the current price is!

Let’s take a look at our numbers for September. As always, feel free to ask if there’s anything that doesn’t make sense or you would like me to clarify.

Income Earned in SEPTEMBER – $16,936

We live on last month’s income. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, check out the video explaining how living on last month’s income changed our lives or the post explaining how we got to that point.

This income section shows the money we earned in September, which has all been set aside to use in our October budget. The spending section below shows the money we earned in August and spent in September.

Attorney Income – $8,698 Mike works as an attorney for the state of California. This is his take-home pay after taxes, social security, his pension contribution, and health insurance premiums.

Rental Income – $2,244 We rent out a one-bedroom apartment on our property. Our long-term renter moved out in June, so we’re back to Airbnb. If you’re thinking about renting out your space on Airbnb, check out Mike’s post about dealing with insurance for your Airbnb rental or our explanation of how we handle our Airbnb finances.

Law Firm- $4,000 Mike does some legal work on the side completely unrelated to his job at the state. He has had a steady stream of past and potential estate planning clients continue to come to him after he started working for the state. He had stopped taking clients for a while but now that he is working from home (not commuting 2-3 hours a day) he has more time.  Accepting some clients again (instead of referring them to other attorneys) can help us pay for our solar system.

Blog – $1,994 My blogging income is still recovering from having it on the back burner during Covid when I started homeschooling my kids. I don’t pay myself every month, but I paid myself in September knowing that our final solar payment will be coming up soon.

Spending in September

Each month we budget the previous month’s income down to zero. This is how we spent the money that we earned in August.


Tithing – $1,181 We always pay a 10% tithe on our income. This tithing, like all of our September spending, comes from the money we earned in August. You can read our thoughts on paying a 10% tithe here.

Fast Offering – $100 Each month we take one day to fast (go without food and drink) for two meals and contribute to a program that provides assistance for local folks who need it.

Monthly Bills

Mortgage – $2,380 We have a 15-year mortgage on our house. With mortgage interest rates going up quickly, we’re so grateful we were able to lock ours in at 2.375%. If you’re interested in the details of our Dec 2020 refi, you can check out all of the numbers and details.

Electricity – $544 This bill was a painful one because our solar should have been installed before the summer even started. The price of electricity keeps going up. We can’t wait to be using this money to pay for our solar instead of continuing to pay an electric bill.

Car Insurance – $101 Our insurance is through USAA and we love them! If you, your parent, or your spouse were/are in the military, you’re probably eligible for USAA too!

Internet – $70 Having good internet access is super important with everyone at home for work and school. We’re so glad we invested in bringing internet access to our property when we first bought our house. That $5,000 investment was worth every penny!

Water – $260 We got a shocking water bill of $445. We had set aside $185 in August and had to budget the remainder in September (this bill comes every other month). Last weekend Mike discovered the reason. Most of our garden terraces are on timers, but the orchard terraces weren’t on timers yet. We water the fruit trees overnight, once a month. He had turned the water on the orchard and forgotten to turn it off the next morning, so the drip system on the trees was running for an entire month. Now looking up on the hill, standing out against the general landscape colored by drought, I see the vibrant green weeds growing through the woodchips around our young fruit trees. Sadly, our next bill that comes in November is also going to reflect part of this expensive oversight.

Garbage- $46 The bill for our curbside trash pickup also comes every other month so we set aside half of the bill each month.

Cell Phones – $84 We have three cell phones: one for me, one for Mike, and one we use as a home phone for when the kids are home without us (or that the older kids take when they babysit or work at someone else’s house). They are all through Visible. Visible is a Verizon subsidiary that offers wifi calling and unlimited cell calls and data on the Verizon network. We’ve been using them for over three years now and have no complaints at all. It is $25 per phone, but right now you can get the first month for just $5 through my link. We have a Gabb watch for our oldest, which gives us the ability to call and text with her, but without many of the negatives of a regular smart phone.

Music Lessons – $0 We paused music lessons again because of an extremely busy schedule.

Everyday Expenses

Food – $234 We made a conscious decision to spend less on groceries in September knowing that we have a big solar payment coming up when we get connected to the grid. I didn’t do a normal big monthly grocery haul. We mostly ate from the pantry, garden, freezer, and food storage. We did buy dairy and produce, and we even got thirty dollars of pizza one night. No one in the family noticed any difference because we try to have enough food on hand (or growing in the garden) that we can go for several months before it starts making much of a difference.

If you are ready to get your family’s grocery spending under control, sign up for Grocery Budget Hero and you will learn the exact strategies I use to feed my family on a low budget (even with rising prices). Enrollment is open now! Get $20 off with the coupon code STARTNOW.  That puts your total cost at $59, and I promise you’ll earn that back many times as you build your grocery budget hero skills.

Fuel – $665 Gas prices went nuts in California in September. The very cheapest station in town got up to $6.29. Last time I filled up I was thrilled to find a station that was $6.05. It’s painful!

Household Misc – $648 Our electric company, PG&E, is notorious for shutting of power regularly to prevent wildfires. Sadly, their equipment has caused many of the largest, most expensive, and deadly fires in California over the  last few years. To help mitigate the power outages, PG&E offered us a $500 rebate toward a generator or large battery to use during these outages. We ordered this large battery, so we ended up paying about half the cost after the rebate. Other than that, we had minimal normal monthly expenses. For the last year or so, those normal monthly expenses include a $12/mo Scribd subscription. We love the unlimited access to so many audiobooks, and the kids listen to hours and hours of books every month.

Clothing – $305 – We bought running shoes for two of our kids. I also did some clothes shopping so we could have something coordinating for family pictures.

Animals – $124 We bought 2 bags of cat food, 2 bags of chicken feed, and a bag of dog food.

Allowances – $84 We give our kids “practice money” as a weekly allowance.  You can read all about why we decided to pay our kids allowance that’s not directly tied to chores, as well as all the details of when and how much in this blog post.

Sinking Funds

For most of our budget categories, we zero out what is left at the end of the month and send it to whatever our big financial goal is at the time, but in our sinking funds we set aside money each month for periodic expenses and let it build up until we need it.

The amount in bold is the amount we added to the fund this month. Any spending is noted in the comments along with the current balance of each fund.

We do not have separate bank accounts for these funds. All of the money sits in our checking account. We’re not worried about getting the money mixed up because we spend according to our budget category balances, not our checking account balance. We seriously never even look at our checking account balance unless we’re reconciling the account. We track our budget categories and spending in YNAB.

Medical/Dental – $400 added. We spent $5 in September. Current category balance is $2,126.

Car Maintenance – $0  added.  We spent $120 on an oil change and a new brake light and cover. Current category balance is $2,747.

Christmas – $200 added. We didn’t spend anything for Christmas 2022. Current category balance is $1,438.

Disability Insurance- $190 This will replace about 2/3 of Mike’s current income if injury or illness leaves him unable to work as an attorney. Our income potential is our greatest financial asset right now and disability insurance helps us protect it. Current category balance is $1,104.

Life Insurance – $75 added. Next year’s life insurance premiums will be due in November. Current category balance is $779.

Birthdays & Gifts – $0 added. We spent $0 in September.  Current category balance is $180. 

Car Registration & Smog – $40 added. We spent $0 in September. Current category balance is $140.

Family Fun Fund – $0 added. We paid a $150 for a deposit on a cruise that Mike and I might go on next year. It’s a promotion that makes it free except for this deposit. Current category balance is $567.

Home Projects- $0 added. We didn’t spend any in this category even though Mike did do some projects around the house.  The category balance is currently $170.

Garden & Orchard- $0 added. We didn’t have any garden expenses in September. The category balance is currently $112.

Homeschool – $69 We already had about $90 in this category from last month. I bought a subscription to Nicole the Math Lady and it has been amazing! We use the Saxon match curriculum, which I love, but sometimes the grading stacks up and gets overwhelming for me. With Nicole, the kids enter their answers online as they do the problems and they get immediate feedback on each problem. I can set how many tries they get on each problem. I go over the ones that they need help with, but otherwise I just get an email with their results for each lesson. It’s better for them because they know immediately if they have the answer right or not (rather than waiting for me to grade it) and it’s a lot of work off of my plate. Also, there is a teaching video of each lesson, so the kids don’t have to wait until I am available to work with them one-on-one, they just watch Nicole’s lesson. I love it and wish I had found this program years ago. It’s well worth the money (and it’s priced for the family, not per student!). If you’re a homeschooling family who uses Saxon, I definitely recommend checking it out (here’s a discount code: 5PEROFF_1478 ). Current category balance is $0.


Kids’ 529s – $150 We know that $25 per kid per month invested for college isn’t much, but college costs are not our highest concern. Scholarships, grants, loans, and jobs during school worked for us. We may accelerate this savings later, but we’re ok with small, consistent payments right now.  The kids like to see their balances growing, and it adds up and teaches them good savings principles, even if it won’t entirely pay for school. You can read about our decision to start saving a little for college in this post.

IRA (Steph) – $500 With $500 monthly, I’ll max out my $6,000 IRA contribution for the year.  Mike has about $1,100 each month deducted directly from his paycheck for retirement.

Goal Progress

We are pausing our mortgage payoff goal for the next two years to tackle a new goal. Mike and I shared all the details here about why we are getting solar, how much it costs, and how we’re planning to pay for it here in this post.

We started making payments on the $50,000 loan in April. Our payments are $1,502 per month.

We also have another $20,000 that will be due by the time everything is done. The total cost of getting solar is $70,000 (plus about $3,000 of interest on the $50K loan if we pay it off in 2 years).

Our contribution to our solar goal in September was $1,703 which isn’t much more than our monthly payment on the loan, but with our September income, we’ll have more for next month.

That brings the total we’ve saved toward paying for solar to $22,231.

The way we have it set up in our budget is kind of like a sinking fund. We put money into our “solar” category each month. Some months it is a lot; some months it is a little. There is an automatic payment of $1,502 toward the solar loan each month that comes out of that budget category. At the end of September the “Solar” category balance was $6,470. In addition to paying the solar loan, the balance in our solar category will goes toward the additional $20,000 over the $50,000 loan.

We are almost all set up. The panels are installed and working during sunny hours, but we are not hooked up to the grid yet. When we are hooked up to the grid, what we produce (over what we use) during sunny hours will be sent back to the grid and will help offset what we use during non-sunny hours. Our system doesn’t include any batteries.

I made a chart to keep track of our progress. I color in a little square for each $250 we put toward our solar purchase.

How About You?

  • How did your budget and/or debt repayment go in September?

This post contains affiliate links for products or services that we love and recommend.


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There's one step in paying off debt that seems so obvious to me that I've never really considered an alternative. However, as I read more widely in personal finance, I discovered that many people intentionally skip this important step. I hope you're not missing it!

Originally published February 17, 2016

There’s one step in paying off debt that seems so obvious to me that I’ve never really considered an alternative.  However, as I read more widely in personal finance, I discovered that many people intentionally skip this important step.

The question is whether to start paying off debt immediately or to first save up an “emergency fund.”

The pure mathematics argument is that every dollar you pay off now, is a dollar you’ll never pay interest on again.  Why would you save up a bunch of money that’s earning next to nothing when you could be making progress on both principal and interest by putting all of that toward debt?

You know I love the numbers, but for me personal finance is as much about psychology as math.  While you may have to pay a little more in interest and have your debt last a little longer, there are lots of reasons having an emergency fund makes more practical sense than jumping straight into debt payoff mode with no savings at all.

Why you should start debt payoff with an emergency fund

Keep your momentum up

Tackling debt is not for the faint of heart.  It takes serious determination to stick with your goal and not give up.  Having an emergency fund allows you to handle financial emergencies that arise without derailing your entire debt payoff plan.  Being able to cover emergencies (and by that I mean real emergencies, not just splurges) means that you won’t have to incur more debt, but instead can make steady progress toward your goal.

Have peace of mind

This one is huge for me!  Knowing that we have a cushion of money available if we need it gave me a sense of security, even amidst serious debt.  I wasn’t afraid to throw every extra cent at our debt each month because I could rely on the emergency fund if a crisis were to arise.  I can’t image what my stress and anxiety levels would have been without having an emergency fund in place.  In reality, we’ve only had to actually use our emergency fund a few times, but having it available really brings peace of mind.

Problem solve creatively

I don’t know about you, but our emergency fund almost feels sacred– like we will do whatever we can to avoid touching it.  If you’re like us, you’ll think of more ways to solve your financial crisis when using your precious emergency fund is the alternative.  When you have an emergency fund as your backup plan rather than a credit card, you are more likely to come up with other solutions or decide the situation isn’t really an emergency after all.  Putting an emergency expense on a credit card is way too easy because it feels more financially distant and less tangible than dipping into a sum of money you have worked hard to save up.  I can’t prove it, but I’m inclined to believe that just having an emergency fund prevents emergencies.

Avoid tailspin of repeated failure

Unplanned expenses come up for all of us who can’t see the future.  Without an emergency fund, our only line of defense against these emergencies is a credit card.  Getting into new debt while trying to get out of old debt is terribly discouraging.  Feeling defeated leads to letting other expenses slide as “emergencies” and before long you’re worse off than when you started.  All those failures, even if they were not individually large financial blows, add up to paralyzing discouragement.

Are you convinced about having an emergency fund before tackling debt?

Are you with me?  Before you go all out and tackle your debt, are you going to save up some emergency funds?

Now that we agree that an emergency fund is a wise idea, let’s talk about how to build an emergency fund, how much it should be, and where you should keep it.

Build your emergency fund

There are essentially two ways to build an emergency fund: save more and earn more.  Or you could wait for a windfall, but I don’t advise that.  If you are expecting a tax refund, however, socking it away for true emergencies would be a great idea.

I like to start with saving money.  If you have leaks in your budget and you aren’t spending your money wisely, making more money won’t improve your money management skills.  This is precisely why I wrote Frugal Fresh Start.  Decreasing your expenses and optimizing your budget will go a long way.

With a functional, optimized budget and reduced expenses, all the extra money you earn will be put to good use.  The extra money you earn won’t get lost in your budget or go toward lifestyle inflation, but will be put to good use: first to build your emergency fund, then to pay off debt.

How much do you need in your emergency fund?

Just to be clear, we’re talking about an emergency fund during debt payoff.  Once your debt is paid off, you will likely opt for a larger emergency fund.  A standard starting point for an emergency fund is $1,000, though for most people that is on the low side.  For anyone like us with an older car, pretty much anything that can go wrong with your car could cost you more than that.

I can’t tell you what the right number is for you.  You’ll want to consider factors like what your “emergencies” have looked like in the past and how much your normal expenses total for a month.  The size of your emergency fund will also depend on how long you expect your debt payoff to take.  If you anticipate a longer debt payoff time frame, you’ll want to have more saved.  Choose a number that you are comfortable with.  There’s no right answer.

Personally, we kept around $5,000 in our emergency fund while paying off debt.  Even though we didn’t have to worry about any housing expenses (we were living in my in-laws’ unfinished basement during our debt payoff), we both drove (and still drive) older vehicles and at the time had three to four children.

Where do you keep an emergency fund?

An emergency fund should be liquid.  In other words, you don’t want your money tied up in investments.  It should be easy to access.  At the same time, you don’t want your emergency fund too easy to access, especially if you aren’t very financially disciplined.

We kept our emergency fund in an online savings account during our debt payoff. While our emergency fund didn’t make tons of interest, it also didn’t cost us anything since there were no fees or minimum balances.

It’s worth it!

If you’re looking solely at the numbers, then taking time to save up an emergency fund before starting to pay off debt will result in an imperfect maximization of funds.  However, for us humans, the peace that comes with having money earmarked for emergencies is priceless. Knowing that you have money to fall back on should a large unforeseen expense arise allows you to give your all to paying off debt.  You can move forward with your payoff plan without getting sidetracked by the risk of additional debt and its degrading effects on your financial morale.

How About You?

  • Would you consider tackling your debt without an emergency fund in place?
  • How much of an emergency fund do you feel comfortable with during your debt payoff?


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I love this homemade soft French bread. It’s ALL soft, outside and in. The method is different than regular loaf bread, but with a photo tutorial and recipe it's easy!

We make most things from scratch around here.  I’ve made sandwich bread for years, but my favorite is French bread.  We all love it so much that I’ve even started making sandwiches with it!  Yep- PBJs on soft French bread is what’s for lunch around here.  Of course it makes a perfect companion for any soup or salad, and also makes great garlic bread.  We even love it plain or with butter.  You really can’t go wrong with homemade soft French bread.

My favorite part about French bread in general is the soft, yummy inside.  I have never been a big fan of the crunchy outer crust.  That’s why I love this soft French bread.  It’s ALL soft, outside and in.

For those of you who are intimidated by any sort of homemade bread, I made a complete photo tutorial to make it super easy for you.  Trust me– you’ll want to give this recipe a try.

Will homemade French bread save me money?

I know what you skeptics are thinking.  A loaf of French bread costs a dollar or two at the grocery store.  Why would you want to spend time making your own?  How could that really save money?

Have you ever gone to the store and walked out with just French bread?  I didn’t think so.  While the loaf itself isn’t going to break your budget, you will inevitably pick up more than just bread when you drop by intending to just grab a loaf to go with your spaghetti.

Oh, and trust me when I say it’s SO much better than what’s been sitting in a paper bag at the store for who knows how long.

Are you ready?  I’ll start with the recipe intertwined with the photo tutorial.  Scroll to the bottom for the printable version.


  • 2 Tablespoons Yeast
  • 3 Tablespoons Sugar
  • 1/2 Cup Hot Water
  • 2 Cups Hot Water
  • 1 Tablespoon Salt
  • 1/3 Cup Oil
  • 6+ Cups Flour, divided
  • Butter


In a small bowl, mix together yeast, sugar and 1/2 cup hot water.  Let sit.

In a large bowl (I use my Kitchen Aid mixer bowl), mix 2 cups hot water, salt, oil, and 3 cups of flour.


Add yeast mixture.


Mix until incorporated.  Add in 3 more cups of flour and mix until dough pulls away from sides and forms a ball.  You may have to add up to 1/2 cup more flour.  You want the dough so that it isn’t too sticky to touch.


When dough is a nice consistency, move to a floured surface. Knead 30 times.



When I knead, I fold the top of the dough down on itself and push with the heels of my hands.  Then I turn the dough 90 degrees, fold the top down and push again.  Each time I push down the dough, I count.


Set a timer for 10 minutes and allow the dough to rise.  When it beeps, come back and knead the dough about 20 times.  Set the timer again and repeat 4 more times for a total of 5 kneading sessions.  I use wheat flour to roll out the dough, even though I make the bread with white flour.


Divide the dough in half.  Take the first half of the dough and roll it out into a rectangle.  The length of the rectangle should be approximately the length you want your bread.  It takes some persistence to get the dough rolled out, as it likes to stretch then shrink back.  It will have lots of air bubbles in it that you will be rolling out.  It reminds me of bubbles in silly putty.  Try going from the middle out to each corner.  You might have to get out your muscles and show it who’s boss.  In time you’ll end up with a nice-looking rectangle.


Starting on a long side, roll the dough up to form the loaf.  Tuck the ends under and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.


Using a serrated knife (I use a steak knife), cut three or four diagonal slashes on the top.  Cut deep enough that it goes through a couple of layers of dough.


Form the second loaf the same way.

If you want you can brush with egg whites.  Call me lazy, but I always skip this step.

Allow loaves to rise for 30 minutes.

Turn the oven to 375 degrees.  Bake loaves for 25-30 minutes or until they’re just past golden brown.


After removing from oven, use a stick of butter to coat the top and sides of the loaf.  The butter keeps the crust nice and soft, and gives a nice shine and that yummy buttery taste.


Cut with a bread knife and serve warm (but it’s delicious when it’s cool too).

I love this homemade soft French bread. It’s ALL soft, outside and in. The method is different than regular loaf bread, but with a photo tutorial and recipe it's easy!

Soft French Bread


Soft and delicious French bread goes great with any meal, but is good enough to eat on its own!


Serves: 2 loaves


  • 2 Tablespoons Yeast
  • 3 Tablespoons Sugar
  • ½ Cup Hot Water
  • 2 Cups Hot Water
  • 1 Tablespoon Salt
  • 5 Tablespoons Oil
  • 6+ Cups Flour, divided
  • Butter


  1. In a small bowl, mix together yeast, sugar and ½ cup hot water. Let sit.
  2. In a large bowl, mix 2 cups hot water, salt, oil, and 3 cups of flour.
  3. Add yeast mixture. Mix until incorporated.
  4. Add in 3 more cups of flour and mix until dough pulls away from sides and forms a ball. You may have to add ½ cup more flour. You want the dough so that it isn’t too sticky to touch.
  5. When dough is a nice consistency, move to a floured surface. Knead 30 times.
  6. Set a timer for 10 minutes. When it beeps, come back and knead the dough 20 times. Set the timer again and repeat 4 more times for a total of 5 kneading sessions.
  7. Divide the dough in half. Take the first half of the dough and roll it out into a rectangle. The length of the rectangle should be approximately the length you want your bread. It takes some persistence to get the dough rolled out, as it likes to stretch then shrink back. It will have lots of air bubbles in it that you will be rolling out. Try going from the middle out to each corner. You might have to get out your muscles and show it who’s boss. In time you’ll end up with a nice-looking rectangle.
  8. Starting on a long side, roll the dough up to form the loaf. Tuck the ends under and place on an ungreased cookie sheet.
  9. Using a serrated knife (I use a steak knife), cut three or four diagonal slashes on the top. Cut deep enough that it goes through a couple layers of dough.
  10. Form second loaf the same way.
  11. If you want you can brush with egg whites.
  12. Allow loaves to rise for 30 minutes.
  13. Turn the oven to 375 degrees. Bake loaves for 25-30 minutes or until they’re just passing golden brown.
  14. After removing from oven, use a stick of butter to coat the top and sides of the loaf





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