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10 Tips for Thrifty Travel

January 12th, 2012 at 02:06 pm

When money is tight, as it has been for many Americans over the last few years, it's easy to get into a cycle of work, work, work, with precious little time for fun. However, the adage "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" definitely applies here. If you are yearning to see new sights but fear you will never be able to afford it, fear not! Here are 10 tips for traveling on a budget:

1. Think local. You don't have to travel across the country to see new places! I live in Indianapolis, and I find that even a quick trip to Chicago is enough to rejuvenate my senses. I just book a room in one of my favorite Chicago hotels and spend a day or two wandering around the city, seeing new people, places, and things.

2. Save money whenever you can. This way, you will have more money to spend on luxury items such as travel. You can save money by using coupons, scouring the Internet for sales and deals, hitting up the clearance racks and dollar bins at your favorite stores, and living modestly.

3. Don't be afraid to penny pinch. When you are traveling, be as frugal as you can be, so you won't deplete your bank account. Pack your own food whenever possible, look for deals on your hotel and any attractions you decide to visit, and look for free things to do at your destination.

4. Plan your trip for the off-season. If you are traveling to the beach, for example, don't book your trip during Spring Break, as prices will likely be raised to take advantage of the crowds. Research your destination and determine when a less busy time will be to visit, and your trip will be less expensive and stressful.

5. Visit a grocery store once you get to where you're going. It's easy to eat out every day when you're on vacation, but if you take a little extra time to buy some basic grocery items, you will save a ton of money. This works best if you are staying somewhere with a kitchenette, but if not, you can still buy non-perishable goods such as snacks and drinks.

6. Pack light. If you're flying, this will do away with expensive fees for checking luggage. If you're driving, it may help with gas mileage, even if just a little (every little bit helps, right?). Unless you're a clothes horse, you should easily be able to fit a week's worth of clothes in a duffle bag or two.

7. Take it easy on yourself. Don't plan a huge, extravagant trip. This will not only blow your budget out of the water, but it will place undue stress on you, making it more difficult to enjoy yourself. What's the point of a vacation if you spend the entire time being stressed?

8. Leave your plastic at home. To some, this may seem like an impossible feat, but if you plan well, you can pay for everything with cash (or a prepaid credit card), ensuring that you will not overspend. That way, you're not greeted with credit card statements when you return home.

9. While you're at it, leave your car at home. Yes, you heard that right. If you can get to where you're going by plane, train or bus, and use public transportation (i.e., city buses) to get to around, you will be surprised at how much money you save. You can think of your trips around your chosen destination as little adventures, and you will get to know the area much better.

10. Plan as thoroughly as you can, and have back-up plans for your back-up plans. Something unexpected will always come up when you are on vacation. Rather than being caught unaware and potentially having to spend money that you hadn't planned on spending, be sure to have contingency plans for everything. This will make your trip relatively hassle-free, and keep unwanted spending at bay.

As you can see, it is possible to travel, even when you don't think you can afford to. By taking a little extra time to plan your trip, and keeping your finances in mind throughout the planning and execution stages, you will be able to have an enjoyable time while still remaining within your budget. Bon voyage!

Putting Tanning Beds into a Positive Light

January 2nd, 2012 at 07:38 pm

For many, winter is a time of joy. The air is cold and snow is on its way; the holidays line up one after the other, with promises of fun family memories; and children are hoping for a snow day or two.

But for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD, the wintertime has an entirely different meaning. This disorder, which is caused by a Vitamin D deficiency, can cause prolonged, severe, and often debilitating depression throughout the dim days of winter, and there is precious little that can be done to alleviate this.
While there are medications such as Bupropion that have been shown to alleviate some or all of these symptoms, many are reluctant to be on medication, as they feel that they should be able to "shake this off" and return to their normal happy selves. Others worry about becoming dependent on a medication, and prefer more natural methods.

If you fall into this category, you are definitely not alone. Here are three practical things that you can do to help relieve your depression. While the results may not be immediate, you will start to notice a change, especially if you consciously implement these activities into your daily routine.

Tanning

Due to fears of skin cancer, tanning salons have earned a bad reputation, but this is the first thing that you can do to help with your SAD. Not only will tanning beds provide the Vitamin D that you are lacking from the shorter days and less intense sunlight, but on a more practical level, they provide you with the opportunity to relax and de-stress for a little while, which is always good for those who suffer from SAD. When tanning, be sure to follow the suggestions of the tanning salon, and tan in moderation. If you are unable to find a tanning salon close to you, then you can also buy a light box.

Exercising

In addition to improving your overall health and increasing your self-confidence—both of which go a long way toward warding off depression—exercise releases endorphins and increases dopamine, which essentially mimics the effects of most antidepressants and helps to alleviate stress and depression. Whether you work out with a certified trainer, or venture into the gym on your own, the key is to get (and stay) active, even after your SAD abates for the year. On a side note, excessive exercise can actually have a detrimental impact on your mental wellbeing, as you will be exhausted and risk the chance of burning out.

Eating Healthy

For many, this is a natural way of life. However, one of the side effects of SAD is a craving for starchy foods in order to increase your energy, which leads to excessive weight gain. This means that, for those who endure SAD, a healthy diet is especially important. Be sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, as these are a healthy source of carbs, and lay off of candy, chips, cookies, and other "junk foods." Drink plenty of water and juice and eschew coffee whenever possible. Finally, be sure to take a multivitamin everyday, as this will ensure that your body is getting all of the necessary vitamins and minerals.

The most important thing to remember when you realize that what you thought was simply a case of the winter blues is, in fact, a recognized disorder is that you are not alone. According to FamilyDoctor.org, "between 4% and 6% of people in the US suffer from SAD. Another 10% to 20% may experience a mild form of winter-onset SAD." What this means is that there are plenty of other people who are experiencing what you are experiencing, and you needn't be embarrassed to talk about it with your family and friends, and your doctor. With proper attention, you will find that your symptoms will abate significantly, and things will start to be right in the world again.

Budgeting after the Holidays

December 22nd, 2011 at 06:33 pm

So the holidays are over. You've bought everything from baby dolls to power tools and your wallet is begging for mercy. Your credit cards have been worn to a nub. Sound familiar?

If you find yourself in dire financial straits and would like to remedy the situation, follow these ten steps to make your wish a reality:

1. Stop spending. I know this may seem overly simplistic, but sometimes, when you get in the habit of spending money, it's not an easy habit to break. Because you were out and about, you may have become accustomed to picking up a latte in the afternoon to rejuvenate yourself, and that's all well and good, but you will not be able to achieve your goal if you nickel and dime your money away.

2. Find out the full extent of the damage. Go through all of your receipts and credit card statements, and try to organize everything in one place—in the form of a list, on a spreadsheet, whatever strikes your fancy. The key here is to be honest with yourself, and to organize everything as efficiently as you can, so you have the most accurate picture of your finances.

3. Look at what you owe. Instead of thinking of these as several small bills, look at the overall amount, and divide it by however many months you think you can reasonably have your debt paid down. The key word there is "reasonably".

4. Pull out your current budget. If you don't have one, make one. This can be done by simply taking note of your income, then noting all of your expenditures (separated into various categories), then doing a little math. Once you have your budget in front of you, take the monthly amount that you calculated in step 3 and plug it into your existing budget.

5. Don't panic. You will undoubtedly notice that you suddenly have a lot less disposable income, but surely you saw this one coming. The only way you will be able to keep your head above water is if you learn how to tighten your belt and need/want less.

6. Start to brainstorm on ways to save money. Clip coupons, seek out sales, hit the discount bins…whatever it takes. Just refer to step #1, and when you must spend, do it as frugally and wisely as you can.

7. Learn to enjoy your frugal lifestyle. Don't think of this as a momentary lull in your spending before the holidays roll around again. Embrace frugality! There are plenty of places you can go that are free or almost free, and there are many things that you simply don't need. By reprioritizing your spending, you won't have to do this again next year.

8. Allow yourself a tiny treat here and there. While I staunchly advocate living a thrifty lifestyle, there are occasions when you deserve to treat yourself. Go for it! Be wise about your "treat"—don't let it be anything more than $20 unless it's for a really special occasion—and don't allow yourself too many of them, but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. By treating yourself on occasion, you will better able to maintain your penny-pinching ways.

9. Start saving and shopping for the holidays early. Always look at discount and dollar bins, and any sale that you come across, in order to make small purchases throughout the year (rather than waiting until the last minute and doing panic-shopping). If you can, pay for these gifts with cash, and set a limit on how much you will spend on each person.

10. Maintain your resolve. There will undoubtedly be moments when you are tempted to slip back into your old spending ways, but be strong and resist the urge. Remember how horrified you felt when you saw how deeply in debt you were, and how good it felt to slowly climb out of your financial morass. Don't get caught back up in the spend-owe cycle. Open a savings account instead, and place any money you were tempted to spend in it instead.

Budget and Reality: Combining Both

December 19th, 2011 at 02:59 pm

When you're managing the budget for a family of four, it's tricky enough. You have to know precisely how much you and your significant other are bringing in and when, and you have to be able to make this income stretch to meet all of your family's needs. Now, imagine that you are a family of three – that is, a single parent with two children relying on you for all of their needs.

This is where it starts to get really tricky. Whereas before, you have two breadwinners pitching in, and there was sometimes money left over for "fun things", those days are long gone. Now you understand what it feels like to be the end-all-be-all for everything—judo classes, ballet lessons, schoolbooks, a wardrobe that must keep up with ever-growing children—plus have enough left over every month for those pesky bills and your mortgage payment.

So what should I do?

If you find yourself in a situation like this, the first thing to do is try to take it easy on yourself. Avoid comparing your finances to anyone else's, even another single parent. Instead, encourage yourself at every turn, even—especially—when things seem to be going to roughest. By keeping your confidence high and your optimism intact, you are more likely to stay on track with your intended budget, and avoid behaviors like impulse shopping and overspending.

Yeah, all of that sounds great, but how what should I do next?

After you are confident in yourself and your abilities, then roll your sleeves up and get to work. You should basically start to think of everything that you buy as taking away from possible future purchases. In this way, you can start to see where you are nickel-and-diming your money away, and you will be able to reign in spending. Even simple steps like clipping coupons, packing a lunch, and investing in a reusable water bottle and filling up at the tap can help you save tons of money.

As you're focusing on these "small details", also start to take note of which bills are due when and how much these bills are on average. Once you have a good idea of when all of your bills are due, decide which bills will get paid with which paycheck (for example, electricity, cable, and phone will be paid with first paycheck of the month, rent and car insurance will be paid with the second). If you must, list everything out for the next six months, with your pay dates heading columns that contain which bills are due at that time.

Finally, start looking into a budget worksheet, where you can organize everything into one place and see at a glance where your money is being spent, how much will be left over every month, and so forth. This way, you can be sure that all of your money is being well spent, and the likelihood of actually having extra money every month increases.

And on a final note…

While I may have made this seem very simple and cut-and-dried, the reality is that, depending upon the state of your financial affairs, this process may take weeks, or even months, to fine tune. If you are contending with debt in addition to your everyday expenditures, then it may be daunting to see everything written out on paper.

However, the more organized you are throughout this process, the easier it will go overall. Additionally, if you are honest with yourself, and cut yourself just a little slack, then what may have seemed hopeless at one point will now seem much more bearable, and you will understand that you are not alone. There are many others who share your frustration, but you can and will make it through this in one piece