Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Family Finances

This month, I've been tackling our family finances.

Thanks to a frugal upbringing, I entered my adult life without debt. My husband, alas, did not. In fact, because he decided to leave the Marine ROTC after receiving two-years of tuition at Boston college, he entered his post-college life with around $60,000 in debt.

He managed to wipe out more than $50,000 by joining the Navy and serving four years as an enlisted man - quite possibly, he ws the only enlisted man at the base who had a four-year degree.

Time and time again, I've read that money is the number one cause of divorce. It really doesn't have to be this way.

There are lots of online resources to help you get out of debt and manage money. And there are different ways of making it work if you and your spouse have different ideas about how to manage money. For years, one of my friends and her husband held separate accounts. They split their bills, each paying a percentage based on income. This worked for them for years. After the birth of their child, they merged accounts but by this time, they were on the same page financially, more or less, and they have an incredibly strong marriage and are financially healthy today.

When I married my husband, we set out to knock out the debt immediately. We went to extremes to do this: One car, beans for dinner, a crappy apartment, no new furniture and thrift store clothes. Of course, the fact that the Navy provided all his work clothes helped a lot on the wardrobe budget. I drew a bar chart on a piece of ruled paper and tacked it to our fridge. Each month, I'd color in our debt contribution, so we could see our progress.

We're debt free - except for our mortgage - and now we're applying those same techniques to savings. Yes, sometimes we still haggle over money, but we're never overwhelmed by our financial situation.

Here's an article to help you if you're dealing with family and financial stress. I particularly like the advice about setting aside money for your basic needs first. I would add a few more tips, though:
  • Set aside some money for savings. The rule of thumb is 10 percent, but if you can only save $10, then do that. Saving may seem like a luxury, but it's not. It's the only way to get out of debt in the long run. By creating a savings, you're building a cushion to pay for emergencies without incuring more debt. When we were young, lived in an apartment and had no children, I found that a $200-500 emergency fund would take care of most emergencies. When we bought a house, we needed more like $1000. Now that we have a child, I've realized we need more like $5000-$10,000 to comfortably deal with the myriad of things that can go wrong in a given year. We're not there yet, but we're working on it.
  • Decide how much you can pay on debt. If this is below what creditors want you to pay, then contact them and tell them what you will be paying. Really, devote 10 percent of your take-home to debt reduction and find a way to live off the rest. If you have more to spend, then you can try Dave Ramsey's Snowball approach or you can pay down the highest interst debt first. The first is psychologically rewarding and may be the carrot you need to keep going. The second is financially 'smarter' but can be discouraging if you have tons of different bills and collectors calling.
  • Cut expenses and stop spending. Some people call this "budgeting." If you hate that term, here's an easy fix for you: Grab some envelopes, get 70-80 percent of your money in cash and then start dividing it into the envelopes. Label the envelopes: Rent, food, gas, utilities, phone, clothes, household. Put more in food than you think you'll need. Not enough for clothes and households? Shop yardsales and thrift stores. Ask for clothes for your birthday. If you run out of gas, walk, carpool or take the bus.
  • Get another job. Hey, no one should ever be too good to deliver pizza. Not your teen, not your spouse, not you.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Monday Quick Tip: Tax Tips for All Ages

The IRS posts a tip each day about taxes. This newsite has gathered all the tips in one place. You can scroll and skim for the tips that apply to you and your family.

I always review family finances in general around tax time. I can do this because hubby generally prepares the taxes. This year, I'm investigating 529 college savings plans. Here's a quick tip from Money magazine: Check into your state's 529. Does it offer deductions for contributions to its 529 plans? Mine, and many others, do not. Oh, sure, they'll tout that they "don't put income tax on earnings used for qualified expenses," but that's the very definition of a 529 - nobody taxes the earnings if they're used for qualified expenses.

If there are no tax benefits, then investigate another state's plan. It doesn't matter where you invest - you can use the benefits in any state, at any college. If there aren't tax deductions with your state, you may be better off going elsewhere. The key is to look at the expenses in managing and opening the fund.

Money suggests the Utah 529. I looked into it and thought the Virginia 529 plan also offered similar benefits, so I'm looking into both. Either plan offer great management, low expenses and are top picks.

You can research 529 funds at SavingforCollege.com.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Video Games: Good for Families?

Read just about anything that's family-oriented, and you'll find video games are widely disparaged. They lead to attention deficit disorder, obesity and isolate your child (or husband) from the rest of the family. "Get outside, do something together, have a game night," these sources all say.

All of those things are good, of course. But I think it's time to back up off the video games.

Not long ago, we visited a family and stayed overnight. The next day, we all enjoyed a quiet Sunday and I got a sneak peek inside their regular weekend experience.

They played video games.

And they had a blast.

True, they couldn't all play together. Mom did spend some time working on her computer, but she was there in the family/dining room with everyone and frequently commented or laughed at things she heard. Dad was having a great time, doing something he loved with his son and older daughter. The youngest child went back and forth between watching and doing her own thing, but she was very happy to laugh at their antics.

They took turns, talked smack, moved around a lot, (video games can be very physical), and included my husband. They had a great time.

I don't see that this is so different than other hobbies and games. Right now, my hubby - who took the day off - is playing Lego Star Wars with Tidbit. She's asking lots of questions and they're talking. She's learning how to use the controls - which will help her later when we finally set up a computer for her. (We're a very technology-oriented family, since we both work in technology.)

I think the key is to make it a family activity and not let your child sit alone in a basement for hours playing video games. Set up a few rules about usage. Find child-friendly games and avoid the violence.

Gamer Dad is a great resource for age-appropriate video game information. That's where I learned about our favorite family games: Katamari Damacy, Dance, Dance Revolution, and Lego Star Wars I.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Building Family Bonds During Holidays

Holidays mean family gatherings, and, for many, that translates into stressful and potential volatile interactions.

Diffuse the holiday with a little planning. This week, plan something you can do to lighten the atmosphere. Games are always a good choice. Everyone moans at charades, but it's always fun, and all ages can play. If it's fair weather, head out for an Easter Egg hunt - hey, who said adults don't like candy? - or a scrimmage game.

Or get out. Go boating, canoeing or hiking, if your family is so inclined. If the parents or grandparents won't go, then go with your siblings or younger relatives. There's nothing that says everybody has to stay in the same room after the meal. Breaking into smaller groups can help you bond with individual members of your family.

If you don't think you can get your family off the couch after the big meal, try these alternatives:
  • Bring a game system and play something fun, like Lego's Star Wars or Dance, Dance Revolution. No G games? You can always rent.
  • Beg, borrow or rent a Karaoke machine.
  • Play poker or Rook.
  • Look through old pictures of vacations and other fond memories.
  • Rent a fun movie everybody can enjoy. Even animated feature - such as Shrek - which appeal across the generations. Pop Peeps instead of Popcorn.
Studies indicate that couples who engage in fun, new activities renew the feelings of falling in love. Why shouldn't this logic apply to families as well?

I'd like to hear other ideas on how you can build family - instead of fight - during a holiday. Our next major holiday: Mother's Day!

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

We Try It: The YMCA's Healthy Kids Day

Nationally, the YMCA's Healthy Kids Day will be April 14. But for some reason, our Metro Y decided to host the event earlier.

We were pretty excited to have a free, family-friendly event. As it turned out, a lot of people felt the same. And by "a lot," I mean thousands. A half hour past the start time, there was still a line just to get into the stadium parking lot! And a line to get into the stadium, where the event was held.

My first thought: Wrong day. There must be a game.

But then I saw the tiny yard signs indicating that, no, this was the right day. And yes, all these people were here for the YMCA Healthy Kids Day.

So, my first advice: Go early. Or go very late.

As it turned out, the Y staff was just as dumbfounded at the turnout as we were. Who knew there were that many families looking for fun all on the same day? Maybe it was the free t-shirts - which apparently ran out immediately - or the offer of free food -ice cream gone in the first hour, apples gone in the second. But it seemed like every kid in my city came.

The activities were cleary designed for a smaller crowd. The dance and jump rope demonstrations were sidewalk level, which caused a traffic jam with a lot of people standing around, unable to see. The karate demonstration, held on a sloping hill, was a bit easier to see, but it was a bit unorganized and, well, slow, so nobody paid much attention.

There was a half hour line at least for the three blow-up bouncers. We dutifully stood in line with our one child, who, when faced with the grinning catepillar bouncing maze, said, "I don't want to go," and started putting her shoes back on.

Inside the stadium, we found a relay race of some sort. Unfortunately, you couldn't just jump in. The teams were set up ahead of time, which was a huge disappointment to me. Also, the children all seemed to be in the late elementary range, which cut out a huge chunk of the child population.

There were some games involving a football and bean bags, but they only had one of each, which translated into long lines.

The police and firefighters brought their usual State Fair trucks for children to learn about fire drills and meth labs. We had to leave the police truck, because the pictures were a bit horrific for a four-year-old: What does it teach my child to see a toddler with third degree burns from a meth-lab accident? Don't hang out with bad parents? And do parents who run meth-labs go to health fairs? Do they take their kids anywhere near the state police? I dont' think so.

The bicycle obstacle course seemed fun, although, again, too old for my child. And no way was she going anywhere near a fire drill.

It wasn't the best time we've had. And I didn't feel like we learned anything about how to become more active as a family or how to make sure our child gets enough exercise. I mean, I knew there were places we could take karate!

But we did get a lot of free stuff: Two toothbrushes, two packets of peanuts, two cheese sticks - notice a pattern here? They also had lots of free water, which was really smart, especially since they apparently built this stadium without waterfountains.

Final verdict: For us, the best part was people watching and the wonderful weather. We'd also never seen the city's new stadium, so that was interesting. But overall, we wished we'd gone for a hike at a park.

This event offered little for families with young children or teens. It was designed almost exclusviely for the elementary age bracket.

Hopefully, in the future or perhaps at other locations, the Y will find ways to involve children of all ages. It'd also be nice if it were more family-oriented. Let's face it: In cities, which is where the Y tends to operate, children aren't going to be out and exercising if their parents are inside on the couch.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Quick Tip For Monday: April Fools Tricks for Families

Despite the success of Punked and other prank-playing shows, it seems to me practical jokes are getting rarer by the year. I can't remember the last time someone I know pulled a really funny, decent prank on someone.

Yesterday was April Fool's Day. I always forget until the next day, but this year, I decided to do better. So I wrapped a rubber band around the sprayer on the kitchen sink. The idea was my husband would get a glass of water and the sprayer would turn on, dousing him.

Great idea - except I was up hours before my hubby and I managed to drench myself three times before he finally woke up. Patiently, I waited. He showered, got dressed for church and I had forgotten what I'd done until I finally hear him tell the dog, "Are you out of water? I'll get you water!" in his usual marytr tone.

Splash! From the kitchen, I heard, "Hey!" and I lost it.

He admitted it was a good prank, but added wistfully, "If that's how you want our relationship to be."

And there's the rub. If you pull a prank, you'd better watch your back and prepare to laugh it off when your victim seeks revenge.

Pranks are a great way to build family bonds. While you should be careful when you pick your victim - stodgy, angry Uncle Dude probably isn't your best first choice - there's no reason why you shouldn't introduce a bit of humor into your family life. Just make sure your prank is fun, innocent and done in good spirits - and that the 'victim' can laugh at his or herself.

Family Fun offers a list of pranks, including a slew of food pranks to play on the kids. Okay, it's not April 1 - but a day late makes the prank all the more surprising, doesn't it?

Oh, for you Internet fans, Google got me with this one, though I protest it's only because I hadn't had my coffee.

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