Tax Professional or DIY? Here’s How to Choose

The thought of filing taxes on your own can be daunting. At the same time, hiring a professional accountant comes at a price: around $273 of your potential refund.

But, with the availability of low-cost online options – like TurboTax and TaxAct – you may still be wondering if hiring a tax professional makes the most sense for you. To help decide which way to go when filing your taxes, here are a few questions you should ask yourself.

Have you experienced any life changes this year?

Major life changes can definitely be a reason to seek out the help of a professional tax preparer as these events have the potential to complicate the tax filing process. Here are a few lifestyle shifts that may prompt you to hire an accountant:

  • You had a baby. While it’s fairly easy to input the child tax credit on regular tax software, if you had a baby within the last year, you may want to seek out a professional to help you figure out possible medical deductions pertaining to your child’s birth. You may also be able to deduct childcare costs.
  • You moved. Whether you moved across the street or across the country, if your relocation involved the purchase or sale of a home, you may want to get in touch with a tax professional to make sure you’ll benefit from possible tax breaks.
  • You earned more money. If your income spiked significantly in the past year (especially if you made over $250,000), you may benefit from the help of a professional. Why? Taxes often get more complicated as your income rises, and a professional who understands the tax code can often help out.

Do I feel confident doing my own taxes?

You may be great with a budget and managing your money, but taxes are an entirely different beast. If you have a simple return with only your W-2 information to input, you may be ok filing on your own. But, if you started up a new business or have a side hustle in addition to your job, it may be worth the peace of mind to hire a professional.

Also, if you’re going through the free filing process and find that you’re second guessing yourself, it’s time to outsource your taxes. Keep in mind that working with a pro can help you find deductions you never knew existed — like the ability to deduct home office space used to run your side hustle or moving expenses incurred for a new job.

Am I ready to deal with the IRS?

If you are filing solo, even if you feel certain you did everything right, there is no guarantee that you won’t get audited by the IRS. The audit process can be time consuming, nerve-wracking, and costly. Also, if you’re the one preparing your taxes, you’re on the hook should an auditor come calling.

If a tax professional prepares your taxes, this person or firm will be required to defend your return to the IRS. Instead of you, your accountant will be the contact person required to answer questions posed by the IRS, even though you’ll ultimately be on the hook for any amount owed. For this reason alone, hiring an accountant may be worth it.

How much time do I have?

The average time it takes to complete a tax return, according to the Washington Post, is about 13 hours. If you’re already strapped for time, you may want to consider outsourcing this work. And, if you do want to prepare your taxes on your own, make sure you get organized early and set aside plenty of time to file before the April 17th deadline.

Make a decision and start planning

The earlier you plan for tax season, the better off you’ll be. Weigh the pros and cons now to help you decide whether to file alone or hire a professional. And, one final tip: make sure you sign up now for a Chime account. This way, you can get your tax refund deposited directly into your account. Better yet, you’ll get your refund in three weeks rather than waiting for two months.

 

8 Things You Need to Do in the New Year to Set Yourself Up for Financial Success

The holidays are behind us and it’s time to look ahead to the new year. You may have already given some thought to your New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps you want to lose weight or travel more. Or, maybe you want to reach new financial goals.

Achieving financial success doesn’t have to be difficult. But, it does take a solid plan and dedication. Is 2018 going to be the year you get ahead and perhaps save more money? If so, read on and make sure you follow these 8 tips to get started down the right path.

Become a goal setter

Having defined goals can make a difference in all aspects of your life. It’s nearly impossible to attain anything when you don’t have a clear idea about what your end goal is. So, make sure you define your goals and break them into bite-sized pieces. For example, perhaps you want to increase your contribution to your retirement account or pay off your credit card debt. While becoming financially successful is the big picture goal, it may take many smaller steps to get there.

Change the way you think about money

If you want to make a real change with your finances, it starts with the way you approach money. This often means dropping the excuses and making a change in your life. According to an American Psychological Association study, 71 percent of adults report money as a major stress in their lives. This doesn’t need to be the case.

Instead, prioritize what is most important to you. Do you need a brand new iPhone or will an older model work? Do you need to buy a new pair of shoes or will the shoes you have last a little longer? The less you spend each month, the more opportunity you have to save.

Budget, budget, budget

Everything starts with a budget. It’s crucial to understand how much money is coming in each month and how much is being spent. Without this information, you’ll be in the dark when it comes to your financial state. But, once you have your budget set, you’ll have a better idea how much you can save each month.

To get going, pick a budgeting tool to help make the process easier. Now, get to work. Before you know it, budgeting will be a normal part of your routine each month.

Build an emergency fund

One of the best things you can do to protect your finances is to build an emergency fund.  Ideally, you should have anywhere from three to six months worth of expenses available in your rainy day fund. This will provide you with a cushion to fall back on in case of a job loss or another serious strain on your finances.

For a starting goal, aim to save $1,000 as quickly as possible. While you should work within your budget, the faster you save, the faster you’ll reach a sense of financial security. Once you’ve saved the first $1,000, you can try saving even more.

Chime can help you speed up the saving process with its automatic savings feature. Each transaction you make with your Chime card is rounded up to the nearest dollar. The rounded up amount is then transferred to your savings account. In addition, you can also elect to have 10 percent of every paycheck automatically moved into your savings account.

Set up automatic transfers to your retirement accounts

If you have a workplace 401(k), there’s a good chance your contributions are already deducted automatically from your paycheck. However, if your primary retirement account is an IRA or another type of retirement plan, you’re in charge of your own contributions. When income is tight, this is one of the easiest items to cut from your budget. Instead, set up automatic contributions. This way you are always paying yourself first.

Make sure your bills are set to autopay

One of the worst ways to get stuck paying late fees is to forget about paying a bill. Setting up autopay on things like your mortgage, utility bills, insurance, cable, and Internet will help eliminate this concern. Just make sure you check in periodically to ensure that the correct amounts are being deducted.

Work to reduce your debt

Americans have more credit card debt than ever before. In June 2017 this debt amounted to more than $1.021 trillion. If you are contributing to this staggering figure, then you should make paying off your debt a priority. Once your debt is gone, you can use the extra money in your budget to start creating wealth.

Plan a financial date night

Don’t attack your financial goals alone. Involve your significant other or a friend. Talk about your goals and what you plan to achieve. Then, make sure you celebrate the win because you earned it.

Final words: you can achieve financial success

As you can see with the steps above, achieving financial success doesn’t have to be difficult. You just need to be willing to work hard, set goals, and make changes in your life. Are you ready to make 2018 the year you hit your financial goals?

 

Do You Really Need to Set Goals for a New Year?

As we move into the final weeks of the year, there’s a good chance you’re looking ahead to next year and trying to figure out what goals to set.

While I love goal-setting, and I’m usually working on at least one area of my life, I’m not sure you really need to set goals for a new year each year.

In fact, one of the reasons 2016 was so great was because I chose not to set goals. I had an amazing year. The fact that 2017 has — in many ways — been a disaster is a completely different story. But I did learn through a year of no resolutions that sometimes you need a break from the constant push to move on to the next thing.

If you are struggling and not sure how to set goals for the coming year, here are some ideas of what you can try instead:

Enjoy a Year of Exploration

I loved 2016 because I used it as a year of exploration. Rather than trying to set goals or change my life, I instead tried to figure out what I wanted in my life. To that end I:

  • Volunteered
  • Tried different business ideas
  • Spent more time with my son
  • Traveled
  • Experimented with my schedule

The idea wasn’t to try to force myself into something. Instead, coming off a divorce and a cross-country move, I wanted to figure out how to make my life work. Additionally, I wanted to think about how I want things to look going forward.

Staying away from the goals helped do that. At the end of it, I had a pretty good idea of the kind of life I wanted — and some ideas on how to adjust my life in a way to allow me to create that life.

Work on One Area of Your Life

Rather than a laundry list of resolutions that encompass all areas of your life, consider focusing on one area of your life during the coming year.

You don’t even need to set specific goals right now around that area of your life. Instead, identify a part of your life where you could improve. It could be parenting, business, health, money management, spirituality, or anything else.

Start the year by considering what it is you’d like to see in your life in that one area. Take a few weeks to examine your current situation to see if it meshes with your expectations or values.

Once you’ve done that, you can figure out if there are some things you can do to improve. Start working on that improvement little by little. You have the rest of the year to make gradual changes that stick.

There’s nothing wrong if you want to set goals for the new year. However, if you are getting tired of goals that feel like they are forcing you down a path, consider adjusting how you approach life and self-improvement. Use this year as a chance to reflect and grow. Think of it as a step in your journey and go from there.

 

9 Ways to Host While On a Holiday Budget

Growing up in a family where we hosted everything from birthday parties to Christmas gatherings to Fourth of July barbecues, it’s just in my DNA to host parties.

The problem? Hosting a party can get ridiculously expensive – particularly when you’re trying to budget and for an upcoming holiday.

Over the years, however, I’ve learned how you can host a party on the cheap that’s still top-notch.

Find out how by following these 9 tips.

1. Create your budget.

Thanks to this handy party budget estimator from Evite, you can calculate the cost of food, drinks, decorations, venue, and entertainment for your upcoming party so that you don’t overspend.

If you do go over budget, then think about whittling down your guest list or looking for cheaper food, drink, and decoration alternatives so that you can reduce the cost of the party.

As with any budget you create, make sure that you stick to it.

2. Pick a theme.

Before you start buying food, drinks, and decorations, settle on a theme. This will help guide you in setting the budget I just mentioned since you’ll know exactly what you need to purchase for the party.

If the theme is too expensive to pull-off, then look for another theme that’s not as pricey.

Another perk of picking a theme is that you may find a ton of DIY ideas on Pinterest or Instagram, which could potentially save you a ton of money in decorations or entertainment.

3. Go green.

Unless it’s for a more formal event, like a wedding, there’s really no reason to send out paper invitations – especially when you can send out invites digitally on Facebook or Evite for free.

The same is true with paper and plastic plates, silverware, and glasses. Washing them may be a hassle, but using the dinnerware that you already own cuts out this unnecessary expense. Besides, real dinnerware makes you party seem a bit more eloquent.

4. Skip the big meal.

I honestly enjoy dinner parties. But, they can get real expensive. Instead of having a traditional sit-down dinner, just offer hors d’oeuvres or appetizers, such as cheese/charcuterie plates, veggies, and bread bowls. Usually, these ingredients are inexpensive or can be bought in bulk.

Just remember, make your presentation unique and appealing based on your theme, as opposed to the ordinary and humdrum. If the presentation looks amazing, your guests won’t even know that you didn’t spend a whole lot dough on food.

5. Stick with a signature drink.

Just like food, you have to provide your guests with drinks. The problem is that having a full bar is extremely expensive. Don’t spend hundreds of dollars on a variety of alcohol. Instead, come up with a signature cocktail that matches your theme. This way you’re only purchasing one or two types of alcohol.

If you do want to have more of selection, then buy your alcohol in bulk or at places like Trader Joe’s where decent bottles of wine can be found for under $10. Of course, there’s also the classic BYOB option.

6. Keep entertainment and decorations simple.

You can’t host a party without entertainment. Thankfully, you can entertain your guests on the cheap thanks to music apps like Apple Radio, Spotify, and Pandora where can make playlists for the theme or holiday.

Besides background music, you can play cards or board games, have dance-offs, or have a pool party. You can even purchase or rent a karaoke machine for under $200 if that’s your thing.

For smaller gatherings, you could have a movie marathon, video game challenge, or under $20 gift exchanges.

If there are kids at the party, set up an area where they can color and do simple crafts. You can even hire a neighborhood babysitter to help with this — and they usually have great ideas of their own. It also wouldn’t hurt if there are kid-friendly movies and games available.

Besides entertainment, keep your decorations simple. Look for DIY decoration ideas on Pinterest, shop at dollar stores, and keep the bulk of your decorations in areas where there’s going to be the most amount of traffic.

7. Ask your guests to pitch in.

Most quests don’t have the nerve to show-up empty-handed – even if you tell them not to bring anything. To make life easier, and keep your expenses low, ask your specific friends to bring their favorite drinks or signature dishes.

If planned correctly, and planned ahead, this should take care of at least some of the appetizers, snacks, desserts, and drinks from your budget.

You can also throw a potluck dinner. If you’re not a fan of that term, then call it a “recipe exchange” party.

8. Party during the day.

Nighttime parties are the norm. But, they can get pretty expensive when guests expect plenty of food and drinks – which sometimes can extend into the wee hours of the morning.

Instead, consider throwing a party during the day, like a brunch, barbecue, pool party, or game day gathering.

While you still have to provide food and drinks, these items are often less expensive, you can make a ton of pancakes relatively cheap, for instance. Also, since it’s during the day, your guests are less likely to drink as much,

9. Throw a progressive dinner party.

If you do want to have a dinner party, then ask your friends, family, or neighbors if they would be interested in throwing a progressive party dinner together. Instead of one person playing host, the dinner party is divided by 3 to 5 different people.

For example, guests would first come to your home for hors d’oeuvres and cocktails. After about 45 minutes or so, everyone would go to your best friend’s house for appetizers, followed by their neighbor for a dinner course, and then another friend’s home for dessert and after dinner drinks.

This is also a great, “get to know the new neighbors,” party.

The logistics can sometimes be a problem, so this only works if everyone is in close proximity, but it’s a unique party idea for your inner circle where the expense and responsibility of hosting doesn’t fall just on you.

 

Why You Need To Make Your New Year’s Budget Resolutions NOW

With the holidays right around the corner, you may be focused on what potluck dish you are bringing to the next Christmas party, who you need to buy presents for, and how to keep your travel plans running smoothly. We get it, there’s a lot on your plate this time of year.

While staying on budget for the holidays should definitely be high on your priority list, it shouldn’t be your only priority. In fact, now is the perfect time to take a step back and think about how you want your bank account to look after the hustle and bustle of the holiday season is behind you. Here are our top 5 tips to get your finances in shape as you head into the new year.

1. Look at last year’s Christmas budget 

If your holiday budget isn’t set in stone, take a look at your spending during previous years. Also, look at your credit card statements and bank accounts to see where you may have gone astray. Do you always forget to budget in enough for holiday meals? Do you go overboard on stockings and stuffers at the last minute? Do you need a little more wiggle room than you normally give yourself? Try to pinpoint where you may need to spend a bit more this year before you blow through your budget. Asking yourself key questions and researching your past spending habits can keep you on track while you’re in the midst of seasonal celebrations. More importantly, fixing these problem areas before you overspend can help you start the new year off on the right foot.

2. Factor in saving up for fun stuff

We all want to save more, invest responsibly, knock out debt, and cut back on unnecessary expenses. However, when you approach financial resolutions with a mindset that you can’t spend or save up for anything fun, you may lose the inspiration to save at all.

To avoid this, try shifting your focus to the fun stuff. For example, think about where you want to travel or consider a big ticket item that you really want to buy. From here, you can start setting up savings goals to move you closer to your target. You’ll still need to think about your 401(k) and emergency fund, but if you get psyched up for your bucket list purchases first, you’ll get in better financial shape overall.

3. Think about your long-term financial goals 

Instead of getting overwhelmed by long-term goals and crunching numbers, try to put aside the financial worry and dream about what you want your life to look like. What sort of future do you envision for yourself and your family? Maybe you want to buy a house with a big backyard so you can finally have a dog. Maybe you’d like to retire early and devote your life to humanitarian work.

Once you have your big picture in mind, you can start working backwards to figure out how much that dream will cost and how you can achieve it. Remember: it’s fine if your dreams shift and change over time. Gaining financial security along the way will benefit you no matter what.

4. Set up your automatic savings now 

Once you have financial goals in sight, protect them by setting up automatic savings. With a Chime bank account, for example, every purchase you make on your debit card will be rounded up. Chime’s round-up savings account is an easy way to save money every time you spend money. You can also sign up for Chime’s “Save when I get paid” feature, which automatically puts a portion of your paycheck into savings as soon as you receive it. This ensures that you’re paying your future self first.

Valuing your goals is a surefire way to guarantee success. If you leave your savings goals until the end of the month, chances are high that you will run out of money or an “emergency” will crop up that derails your opportunity to save. By designating your savings to a separate account, it automatically becomes more sacred and untouchable.

5. Create new healthy habits

When it comes to making financially responsible decisions, it can be an uphill battle. If you’re stuck in bad money habits, like overspending or not budgeting, forming new habits can be hard. But, you still should aim for new healthy financial habits.

Maybe this means leaving your credit card at home and only shopping with your debit card or cash. Maybe you need an accountability partner to motivate you to stick to the path you’ve chosen. Or, perhaps you need to treat yourself when you complete certain milestones. Different methods work for different people. The most important thing is that you develop habits that will help you get ahead.

There’s no time like the present

It may seem like overkill to add something else onto your to-do list when you’re in the midst of making holiday lists, but budgeting for the new year now can save you heartache later. By getting a jump on your priorities and ending the year on a strong note, you’ll enter 2018 focused and ready to tackle your finances head-on.

 

5 Resolutions to Get Your Finances in Order for the New Year

The New Year is the perfect time to reflect on your life and how you can make positive financial changes. In fact, according to a survey by Statistic Brain, making financial decisions is the third most popular resolution people make.

Yet, considering how difficult it is to stick to New Year’s resolutions, it’s important to commit to those that will make a meaningful impact. Here are 5 ideas to consider.

1. Stop comparing yourself with others

It can be hard to see your friends drive nicer cars and own bigger houses than you. As a result, you might be thinking that they make more money than you and you need to keep up.

But in reality, it’s quite possible that your friends are broke, stretched so thin by debt that they’re barely treading water. In other words, appearances aren’t always evidence of stability and happiness.

If you’re going to compare yourself to anyone, look in the mirror. Think about what you accomplished financially over the past year and set goals to make better progress in the new year.

2. Start automating your savings

Roughly a third of Americans don’t have any short-term savings, according to the 2017 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Even if you are saving, setting more money aside for your financial goals can help you reach them more quickly. For starters, you can try automating your savings.

There are two ways to do this. First, sign up for Chime Bank’s Automatic Savings program. Simply use your Chime Visa® debit card for everyday purchases, and Chime will round up the transaction to the nearest dollar and transfer the difference to your savings account. The program also allows you to automatically set aside 10% of each paycheck in savings as soon as you get paid.

The second way is to set up automatic transfers at the beginning of every month from checking to savings. Doing this at the beginning of each month makes that amount money unavailable to spend. This means you’ll need to learn how to live on the rest – while watching your savings account grow.

3. Add another percent to your retirement contributions

Long-term savings is just as important as short-term savings. If you have an employer retirement plan — for example, a 401(k), 403(b) or 457 plan — your contributions are typically based on a percentage of your income.

For example, if you earn $60,000 a year and contribute 5%, your monthly contribution is $300. But, if you up your contribution to 6% this year, this amount goes up to $360. That’s not a big increase, but it can make a huge difference down the road as your retirement account balance compounds with interest.

4. Reinvent your gift-giving

A 2014 survey by Eventbrite found that 72% of Millennials prefer spending money on experiences than material things. As a result, aligning your gift-giving in the new year to focus more on experiential giving can help improve your relationships.

In many cases, this won’t even require that you spend more money on gifts. And, if you’re going to spend the money anyway, you might as well make it more meaningful. For example, instead of buying my dad gifts for Father’s Day and his birthday this year, my brothers and I decided to take him pheasant hunting. That time together with his boys meant more to my dad than any item we could have bought him.

5. Spend more on food

Spending more money isn’t your typical New Year’s resolution, but in this case, spending more in the short-term can help you save in the long-run.

Healthy food typically costs more, but all the fat, sugar and additives in processed foods can cause health problems down the road. Because spending more on fruits, vegetables and other whole foods can help you prevent major health issues in the future, consider it as an investment with favorable returns.

The bottom line

As you’re planning your money resolutions for the new year, it’s essential that you choose ones that are realistic and you’re excited about. Otherwise, they’ll likely fall by the wayside within a month or two.

Since every person’s financial situation is different, it’s possible that not all of these resolutions are a good fit. Know yourself and your needs, and avoid pushing yourself too hard. As you plan your money resolutions carefully, you’ll be more likely to keep them and establish healthy financial habits for life.

 

How 5 Millennials Really Spend for the Holidays

The holidays are a time for celebrating with family and friends. But the joy of the season often comes with its share of stress. Namely, you may be worried about how you’ll afford all this holiday spending.

Budgeting for the holidays is no easy task, and unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for handling money during this time of year. There are so many factors to take into account: who should you buy gifts for, how much should you spend, and how should you factor in spending without going into debt. Since money is such a taboo subject and you may want to buy whatever you want, it can be hard to cap your holiday spending.

Although we don’t recommend comparing yourself to others, it can sometimes be helpful to learn from those who find themselves in a similar spending quandary. So, we asked five millennials to discuss how they spend and budget during the holidays. Their answers may surprise you:

Sami Lynn, 32

Annual Holiday Budget: $0

While most people find themselves with a spending hangover after the holidays, this isn’t the case for Lynn, a medical consultant from Oklahoma City. She generally doesn’t celebrate the holidays at all, opting instead to either work or take vacation during that time. She budgets 10 percent of her income for travel, and uses it during the holidays. While she may buy presents for a few close friends, she takes that out of her regular budget rather than saving up for months in advance. She wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I’m not in touch with my family so it’s mostly about myself, my critters and my friends,” says Lynn.

Meghan O’Dea, 31

Annual Holiday Budget: $200

Instead of going all out in December, O’Dea of Chattanooga, Tennessee keeps her holidays low key with immediate family and then celebrates Christmas in July with extended family. A scholarship program coordinator, O’Dea admits that neither of these approaches is considered “traditional.”

Her immediate family members exchange books and stockings on Christmas. In July, her extended family takes a beach vacation. During this time, each relative picks a Secret Santa and buys a gift for one person.

When it comes to spending for Christmas, O’Dea sets aside $200 to buy gifts. She picks out presents that she knows her family will love throughout the year. This way the cost is spread out and she can work within her budget to buy meaningful gifts.

“We love focusing on books and food. It makes the nebulous week in-between Christmas and New Year’s extra cozy. Eating leftover Yorkshire pudding and cracking open a new book with some eggnog is the best part of Christmas.”

Lisa Bryant, 23

Annual Holiday Budget: $500

Bryant, an engineer from Sparks, Nevada, typically spends the holidays with either her family or her fiance’s family. She focuses on spending time together over everything else. She spends around $500, mostly on gifts with some money left over for decorations. Since her IRA company allows her to skip a monthly contribution, she skips December and uses this extra cash for the holidays.

Generally, this frees up enough money to buy one big gift for her fiance, plus presents for her parents and a few close friends. She also tries to give one hand-made gift per year and uses her holiday budget to pay for supplies.

“I’m usually pretty good at spending within my means.”

Alaina Leary, 24

Annual Holiday Budget: $800-$1000

Leary, a freelance editor from Boston, saves up for Christmas all year long but ramps up those savings starting each summer. Between family gatherings, “Friendsmas”, and lots of winter-themed fun, there is a lot to take into account when budgeting. Generally, Leary uses about $500 of her holiday funds to buy gifts for her partner, close friends, dad, and cousins. The remaining $300-$500 in her budget is earmarked for experiences. Some of Leary’s favorite holiday experiences include a weekend away with her partner in Maine, a long sleigh ride, and dining out after watching Boston’s annual tree lighting ceremony.

“I budget my money for experiences over gifts, because I’d rather spend time with people than spend money on them.”

Colleen Stinchcombe, 26

Annual Holiday Budget: No limit but $75 per person cap

Stinchcombe, a writer and editor from Phoenix, usually spends the holidays at her house with her family. She asks everyone to agree to a $75 spending cap. While that cap may seem high, this works for Stinchcombe as she budgets for this annual gathering and only buys for her immediate family and maybe a couple of close friends. Instead of saving throughout the year, she sets aside money that she would ordinarily spend on herself for things like eating out, new clothes and other unnecessary items.

She says her gifting style is to give as she would like to receive. With this in mind, Stinchcombe chooses gifts that her family and friend would otherwise buy for themselves.

“I’m not a fan of holiday gift-giving as something extravagant.”

How Should You Budget For The Holidays?

As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how you should spend money during the holidays. The most important thing is to take stock of your priorities and your bank account, and find a happy medium this holiday season.

 

15 Fun Things to Do This Winter That Won’t Ruin Your Budget

Shorter days, colder nights and…deeper pockets?

When the weather changes, so do our spending habits. But with a little planning and this list of 15 budget-friendly outdoor and indoor winter activities, it’s easy to feel warm and fuzzy about your finances – even when you’re out in the cold.

Go sledding.

Don’t have a sled? Make one using items you have on hand such as a yoga mat, shower curtain or even a trash bag.

Build a snowman.

Even if you’re no longer a kid or don’t have any of your own children, this is still a timeless activity that you can enjoy if it snows in your neck of the woods.

Enjoy a winter hike.

Hiking isn’t just for warm weather conditions. But, if you’re going on a long or treacherous winter hike, be sure to prepare adequately and travel in a group.

Go ice skating.

Some ice rinks offer free admission and only charge for skate rental. This will typically run you only a few dollars. But, if you’ve got your own pair of skates, then this can turn into a free winter activity.

Build a bonfire or firepit.

Invite a group of friends over for s’mores by the fire. Except for the cost to buy the ingredients for the s’mores, this is free. Another perk: you won’t even have to leave your house, thus saving you money on gas or public transportation.

Go star-gazing in your backyard.

One of my friends recently told me that star-gazing is her favorite winter pastime. So, invite some friends over and ask them to bring blankets for the perfect budget-friendly winter night. You can even throw in hot cocoa.

Check out a local festival.

You might be surprised to learn that local outdoor festivals exist in the winter and sometimes they’re free. This is a great opportunity to meet people if you recently moved into a new neighborhood.

Lend a helping hand. 

Volunteering your time or skills is a great way to give back without breaking the bank. Help a neighbor shovel snow or consider volunteering at a local festival (free food is often involved).

Try a new recipe.

If you’re craving comfort food this winter, why not try out a new recipe or two instead of ordering in? I recently stepped up my culinary skills and finally learned how to make hearty chicken soup at $1.50 per serving.

Host a potluck.

There’s no need to give up entertaining during the winter because of the cost, and hosting a potluck offers the perfect solution. If your friends prefer to contribute cash instead of their favorite dish, they can easily send you money through the Chime app.

Learn a skill on Netflix.

There’s nothing I love more than curling up on the couch with a plush blanket, popcorn and hot chocolate to binge-watch my Netflix shows. The best part? Many Netflix shows offer pearls of wisdom that can be applied to your everyday life and that includes your finances.

Schedule in some self-care.

There are many inexpensive ways to practice self-care such as taking a long bath, making a homemade face mask or even carving out some time to read a novel by your favorite author. Taking care of your mind and body year-round can have a positive impact on your financial health as well.

De-clutter your home.

You can either donate items to a local charity or consider selling items for cash. Sami Hageman of Eat Pray Budget has been selling unwanted stuff online using websites like Facebook Marketplace. The extra cash ($2,000 in the last two months alone) has helped her pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. Hageman likes Facebook Marketplace because you get to screen who you do business with, plus you can either arrange for a pick-up at your front door or ship the items to the buyer.

Start a side hustle.

My favorite thing to do instead of spending money is to make more of it. There are many ways you can earn extra income that are easy to start from the comfort of your own home. You can learn to code, become a proofreader or even become a virtual assistant.

Get started on spring 2018 plans.

As the saying goes, the best part of winter is when it ends. That said, it’s never too early to take a look at your calendar of events for spring and prepare your budget accordingly.

Bonus Tips: Winter-Proof Your Budget

While you’re planning all kinds of budget-friendly winter activities, take a look at a few of our top tips to help keep even more money in your pocket as days grow increasingly longer and colder.

  • Beef up your emergency fund. For the past two winters, my husband and I have added a little extra padding to our emergency fund, and it always seems to come in handy. This year, we’ve already had to use some of it, with an unexpected expense of $250 to repair our furnace. However, having the extra money in the emergency fund gives us peace of mind whenever these winter-related expenses decide to pop up.
  • Unlink payment methods. This tip is especially important for my fellow winter homebodies. While staying indoors can sound like an inexpensive option, this isn’t always the case. Unlinking payment methods to Amazon and other online stores can help remove the temptation of overspending. We often think twice about making a purchase if we have to take out our wallets and manually enter our payment details.
  • Switch to debit. Another excellent way to prevent overspending is to use a debit card for online purchases. A debit card is similar to using cash in that you can only spend what you have in your bank account. However, sometimes it can be difficult to get a handle on your actual bank balance to ensure that you make the most informed financial decisions. Luckily there are bank accounts out there – like Chime – that are designed to help you track your finances with features like daily balance notifications and automatic savings.
 

This Is How Much Americans Are Spending On Thanksgiving

For a holiday that revolves around a flightless bird, it’s ironic how much Americans spend on travel for the Thanksgiving holiday. Almost half of the expense of the long weekend is gobbled up (sorry) just by the cost of getting to the dinner table, according to a poll from LendEDU.

LendEDU asked 1,000 American adults how much they expect to spend to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. The average total expense is $165.14. LendEDU also asked respondents to estimate how much of that expense would be due to traveling costs like plane tickets, gas or hotel stays.

These costs made up 40.9% of what respondents expected to spend on Thanksgiving, or $67.59. Mike Brown, a research analyst for LendEDU, stressed that these numbers were averages and that many people, especially those requiring a plane ticket or hotel room, would pay much more.

How you can save on travel

There are plenty of ways you can lower your Thanksgiving travel cost. One unpleasant way is to travel on Thanksgiving itself instead of the day before like everyone else. Flight comparison site Hopper found that departing Thanksgiving and coming home the following Wednesday (Nov. 29) was $54 cheaper than departing Nov. 22 and returning the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

It’s also a good idea to book early. It’s probably too late for this Thanksgiving since it’s only a week away, but if you haven’t booked your flight yet, DO IT NOW.

For next year, the best time to book a Thanksgiving flight is probably 11 weeks out, according to a study from Skyscanner. Mark your calendars.

You should also try to avoid paying full-price for a hotel room. If you’re visiting family, see if your old bedroom is available. If your dad has turned it into a home office/studio/man cave/yoga studio/giant walk-in closet, try splitting the cost of a hotel with other visiting relatives or opting for alternative accommodations like Airbnb, FlipKey or HomeAway.

Check out our other tips for saving on holiday travel here. Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, all you’ll have to worry about is avoiding awkward conversations about politics, religion or your depressing dating life.


This article originally appeared on Policy Genius.
Image: fstop123

 

Here’s How to Decide How Much to Spend on Christmas Gifts

With Christmas right around the corner, you may be finding yourself already stressed about your gift list. Are you going to have the time to buy everything? And most importantly, can you afford to buy for everyone on your list?

According to a survey done by T. Rowe Price, 64 percent of American parents admit to spending too much over the holidays. Nine percent of them dipped into emergency funds, and seven percent went as far as raiding their 401(k) or IRA accounts to pay off their holiday debts.

What happens in the weeks leading up to Christmas that cause you to spend too much? Why do these months bust your budget? For starters, a barrage of advertisements sometimes entices you to spend more than you want. You may also fall into the trap of comparing how much you spend to others in your inner and outer circles.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid spending more than you should. Read on to learn more.

Create a Plan to Rein in Holiday Spending

It feels good to give gifts. But, spending money that you don’t have will end up hurting you in the long run. To help you decide how much you can afford to spend, start by creating a budget and then commit to it. In the end, you and your wallet will be happy that you did. This may sound pretty obvious, but with two-thirds of Americans not having a budget at all, you’re not alone if you find yourself trying to curb your spending at this time of the year.

For starters, sit down and actually create a budget that works for you. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it needs to include all fixed expenses so that you can determine your disposable income. Keep in mind that saving and investing are also considered fixed expenses. If you notice that you simply don’t have much money left in your budget for holiday gifts, don’t fret. Hold a family meeting and be transparent about your financial state. From there, you can come up with a plan on how to enjoy Christmas without spending money on costly items. The last thing you want to do is put yourself into debt on your credit card or rick racking up overdraft fees with your bank.

Enlist Help

In order to prevent overspending and blowing right through your budget, it’s important to hold yourself accountable. The easiest way to do this is to enlist the help of a friend. Pick someone that you trust, someone who is a straight-shooter. Remember: the person you choose will be the one helping you stick to your budget so you don’t go overboard.

If you’re like most people, you’ll probably want to skip this step. Instead, you’ll just divvy out some cash and try to rely on your own discipline. While this may work, finding an accountability partner often works far better than going it alone.

Now It’s Time for Sensible Spending

After determining how much you can afford to spend, it’s now time to get down to the nitty-gritty: what you’ll buy, who you’ll buy for, and how much you’ll spend in total.

For starters, come up with your total spending limit based on roughly 80% of what’s in your budget. So, if you can afford $500, spend $400 instead. This will allow you a little leeway in case something comes up during the month.

Here’s where a lot of us get into trouble. Say you decide to spend $50 per recipient because that’s the amount that you factored into your budget. But, when you set out to shop, you may fall prey to the “perfect gift” scenario. For example, if you see a potential gift that costs $54.99, you may think the extra $5 is no big deal. However, now you may feel obligated to up your limit from $50 to $55 on everyone else’s gift as well. Before you know it, you’re over budget.

To reduce costs, you can simply stick to your original budget, or perhaps spend even less per person and invite your friends over for a holiday potluck dinner and game night. Chances are everyone will have a blast – without spending a lot of money.

Enjoy the Season

Now that you have a plan in place to spend sensibly, it’s time to focus on what’s really important: spending time with people you care about, exchanging thoughtful gifts and experiences, and celebrating good times. ‘Tis the season to create lasting memories without busting your holiday budget.