Saturday, January 31, 2009

Surviving the Ice

I don't know about you, but making it to the end of January without going over budget has been challenging. When you are paid bi-monthly, the months with 31 days can seem especially long. However, I was talking to a friend yesterday who is paid every two weeks, and I think that can be hard as well. We both sat talking about our budgets and to tell you the truth, we were whining a little bit.

Now in our defense, it has been a difficult week for stay-at-home Moms this week. The ice and snow have meant long, long days trapped inside. Our homes are destroyed by toys and goldfish, our children are fighting because they just have too much energy to be contained inside for that long, and every Mom I know is ready to go somewhere, anywhere.

However, since it is the end of the month there is a lot of desire to get out to go, but not much money to go on. As I was talking to her, I found myself wanting to complain. It was then that I remembered that I don't budget because I am poor. I budget because I want to be purposeful with my money. I could take money out of savings for groceries. I could spend money from other categories like gas money. It is not that we don't have money, but rather that we don't want to waste what we do have.

As my friend and I started reminding each other of why we do what we do, I felt such renewed strength to keep going. It occurred to me that many of you may need the same reminder.

This is what has been in my heart for you and for me: God in His divine power has given you all things that you need for life and Godliness (2 Peter 1:3). What does this mean for you? It means that you already have everything that you need for your life today. This doesn't mean that you aren't walking through a very challenging situation in your finances and life. It doesn't mean that you will have everything that you want. It means that whatever your need, God has already made provision for you. You have His strength to face your giant. You have His wisdom to help you stretch your dollars further than you could see. You have His provision in His promise that you will not lack.

If your budget feels tight and restrictive, I would like to remind you of why you budget. Your budget is not a prison, it is more like a funnel. It helps you to take what you have and be purposeful with those resources so that they can get you where you want to go.

Have you ever tried to pour water from a bucket into a bottle. It is a very frustrating and wasteful endeavor as you inevitably spill more than you save. This is also true of your finances without a budget. You will waste more than you save and end up not being able to do the things that you really want to do because you simply won't get enough of your resources into the bottle.

However, when you place a funnel on that bottle, you will likely not waste even a drop. You have to pour a little slower, and you may resent the restriction, but it would be foolishness to remove the funnel just so you could pour faster and without restriction. The funnel isn't your enemy, it is merely a tool to enable your purpose. This is exactly the function of your budget.

I hope this analogy helps you at the end of the month as you press through in budgeting. You may even need to repeat these points to yourself:
~I have money, but I am CHOOSING to be purposeful with it.
~I have everything I need for life and Godliness.
~God has promised that I will not lack.
~My budget is not the enemy, it is a tool to enable my purpose and dreams.

The truth is, as difficult as this week was for me, I saved a lot of money by not being able to leave my house. Of course, it also drove me a little stir crazy, but I think it may of helped my budget. Yet at the end of this week it is so good to get out, it is so good to renew my mind in my purpose for budgeting, and it is really good that payday is almost here. However, if you still have another week until payday and you are at the end of your budget (and if you don't live anywhere near me!)... may I suggest praying for ice?

God bless.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ten Trillion Dollars and Counting...

"Prosperity is when people buy things they can't afford; recession is when they stop doing it." ~H.E. Martz, The Wall Street Journal, 1963.

It is a funny thought to me that due to what is happening in the economy, people have started doing what they should have been doing all along. They are saving their money, starting to budget, watching prices, cutting back on their credit spending. All of this horrifies the economists. "Spending more money is the answer to the economy", is the government's brilliant strategy to combat the fact that people are coming to a place of reality and spending less. They are so intent on this plan that they are now planning to take on more national debt to give us more money to spend. What kind of crazy plan is this?

I know I am just a simple budgeter, but I wonder what a philosophy of "if you don't have it, don't spend it" would do to the federal government? I read another great quote by Harry F. Byrd, who was a US senator from Virginia in 1958, who said, "Those who favor a deficit as an alleged anti-recessionary measure tell us that it will be 'temporary.' But there is no such thing as temporary large-scale deficit financing." I think Senator Byrd was correct because I don't really see a way through the mess that we are currently creating with our enormous deficit.

To me, healthy economies go through natural seasons of correction. These corrections weed out what shouldn't be there, and add stability to the economy. By artificially propping up businesses and programs through ridiculous government funding, the government is attempting to avoid the natural correction in letting these businesses fail. Ironically, I believe that they will eventually fail anyway if they are not sustainable on their own, but the American people will have thrown billions of dollars at them in the mean time. It is a crazy cycle that we are all watching in powerless awe. What in the world are they thinking?

We may not have say over the spending habits of the government, but thankfully, we can control our own budgets. We can pray for our leaders who govern us and ask God to give them wisdom (please, please give them wisdom... or even common sense). I joke, but I really do believe in the power of prayer and I sincerely feel that many of the people in decision making positions over the financial health of America are operating out of a sense of desperation and even false urgency. It is a powerful reminder in our own lives that many of the decisions that you make in "urgency", you would never make otherwise. That is why wise counsel is so important in your finances, and that you realize that you always have time to hear what God is speaking to your heart. Don't make decisions out of fear, but rather wait for the "peace that passes understanding" to lead you.

We are in for some interesting days ahead as we continue to watch the ramifications of the decisions that are currently being made. I have no idea what lies ahead, but I am so glad that though I live in America... my real citizenship is with my heavenly Father. He is bigger, stronger, wiser, and His wisdom is freely available to all who ask. (James 1:5) I may not have a say over the national debt that our government is accruing, but I do have a say over my own personal debt. I want to challenge you with the same: do what you know to do, don't spend what you don't have, and keep asking God for His wisdom in your finances. We all need it.

PS. Sorry for the soapbox today... it's been brewing for a little bit :)

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Sound of Maintenance

Last week as I was leaving my house on an errand, I happened to roll down my window as I reversed out of my driveway. It was then that I heard that familiar high pitched squeal: the squeal of money flying from your wallet, carried away by the cost of new brakes for your car. I inwardly groaned at the thought, knowing that we faced birthday party expenses that weekend. I also wondered how long my brakes had been singing to me since I could not hear them at all with the window rolled up.

I continued on my errand, but as I drove I felt this stronger and stronger urgency in my spirit that I did not need to drive my car anywhere else and that we needed to get my brakes checked immediately. It was one of those moments where I have learned to trust the voice of the Holy Spirit in my life. When He prompts you that something is urgent... you had better take Him seriously.

The next morning, Matt and I dropped off the car at the repair shop and sure enough, they called to tell us that one of the brake pads was completely gone and had started to go into the rotor. Fortunately they were able to grind down the rotor and repair it (I know mechanics everywhere are groaning at my terminology ~ please forgive me) and we didn't have to pay to replace it. We have had to replace a rotor before and it was a few hundred dollars! Matt and I were so relieved and thankful to the Lord in the way He had taken care of us. Instead of groaning about the money that we had to spend on new brakes, we were celebrating that we didn't have to buy new rotors! It is amazing how your perspective can change so quickly. A little gratitude really goes a long way.

It is funny how often we view the maintenance and repairs that come along with owning a vehicle or home as the enemy. We groan when we have to repair something, and wonder where we will get the money. Yet the reality is, if you are going to own a vehicle there will be costs to maintain it. Your brakes will need to be changed about every second year. Your oil will need to be changed twice a year. Your tires will need rotating. You will need new windshield wipers every so often. Every few years you will need a system flush, a new car battery, or brand new tires, or minor repairs. Unfortunately, these repairs usually come at unexpected moments. I think it is actually the difficulty of planning for the timing of repairs that makes car maintenance such a hassle.

Which leads to the question: how do you budget for car maintenance? There are a couple of ways to do it. If you keep a logbook of repairs for your vehicle, it may be easy for you to look at car expenses for the year and come to an estimate. Taking into account the infrequency of repairs, I would actually take your total of the past three years, add up your receipts, and divide that number by 36. This will give you a rough monthly total of what you should be putting in an “automobile” savings account every month as part of your budget.

However, if you have no idea what your maintenance schedule is or even what a logbook is, you might have to determine your costs a different way. The following is a rough guide to maintenance costs for a mid range or economy vehicle. If you have a luxury vehicle or sports car, these prices could double or triple. Another things to keep in mind is these costs are only for one vehicle:

Windshield wipers: $40 once a year or even every second year

Brakes: $160 every second year

Tire rotation and wheel alignment: I suggest going to a place that offers FREE brake inspection and then ask them to rotate the tires when they are putting your wheels back on. Your wheel alignment will cost you about $80. The wheel alignment is more infrequent, but you really should rotate your tires often.

Oil change: $20-30 twice a year (you may have to change your oil more if you drive a lot or very hard, or you can go by your vehicle’s recommended oil change schedule which is about every 5,000 miles. Note: the only places that recommend every 3,000 miles are the oil change shops and dealers because the more you change your oil, the more money they make! Check your vehicle’s manual for recommended mileage between oil changes.)

New battery: $60 every 3 years or so. The limited warranty on a new battery is usually for three years although some batteries can last for much longer, or much less.

General Repairs: varies in what it is, but we seem to need some sort of repair work every two years or so (air conditioning, or some valve goes out, or electric malfunction)- $500

In total you will spend about $840 every two or so years on car maintenance. That breaks down to about $35 dollars a month to put into a savings account for auto repairs and maintenance. Again, if you have a luxury vehicle, you may need to double or triple that amount. That may seem like a lot, but if you choose not to maintain your vehicle, then you will certainly face major engine repairs and a car that will be worthless when you try to get out of the money pit it has become. The question is not “if” you will put money into your car to maintain it, it is “how much?”

If you already have a savings account for your auto insurance payments, you could use this account for your maintenance savings as well. Every month, you would make a payment into that account that would be available for you to draw from when you have any maintenance needs. It is actually a wonderful relief to face a car repair bill knowing that you already have the money set aside for that need.

However, if your budget is already stretched to the max, you may want to consider your automobile expenses as part of your emergency savings needs. Matt and I have done this in the past. We put a sizeable amount into our emergency savings account every month and then when repairs were needed, we drew from that savings account. It is less to track, but it is also not the best plan. When you draw from your general savings, you are depleting your money for other emergencies and needs as well. It is a better plan to have money specifically for automobile needs. Whatever plan you choose, accepting automobile repairs and maintenance as a part of life and as a part of your budget will set you up for fewer financial surprises, and better preparation for the costs of owning a vehicle.

On a closing note, I would like to put in a plug for keeping records of your car maintenance. My Dad has always kept a logbook for each of his cars. I kept one until my senior year of college when he told me that I didn’t have to keep one anymore for my vehicle. “Hallelujah”, I thought and I have never kept one since.

However, in researching for this blog, I discovered several articles on the value of keeping a logbook, and I think I am having a change of heart. According to one of the articles, a logbook of every repair done to your car can help you know if your new brakes are still under warranty, or can indicate a bigger problem. It can help answer the question, “Didn’t I just buy a new battery for my car?” With a log and an envelope to keep your receipts in, you’ll know who did the work and when, and whether or not there’s a warranty on the repair. A service logbook is also an asset when it is time to sell your vehicle.

I still don’t want to track my gas mileage like I used to, but I do see the value in tracking my maintenance and repairs in a log book and I am going to start one for each of my vehicles. Fortunately, I already save all of my receipts for repairs and maintenance, but it would be very useful to have that information to see at a glance. I think it will actually help me to be able to predict brake life for my vehicle, and the more I am prepared for the expenses that are coming, the better I am able to budget for it. Hopefully, next time I won’t have to wait to hear my brakes singing to me to know it’s time to replace them; I’ll already be prepared for the chorus.

God bless,
Tracy

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Luke's Birthday Party


~Luke riding his sister's bike yesterday. He actually gets going quite fast on that little bike and loves every minute of it. There is no place Luke would rather be than outside.

What a lovely birthday my little son had, and a wonderful birthday party today. Luke had a fantastic time playing with all of the kids. Matt and I had a wonderul time with our family and friends and because the food was so easy. It was a bitterly cold day outside, but so lovely in our home filled with the squeals of children, the smell of coffee and pancakes, and the laughter of people we love. It reminded me why I love birthday parties and why they are worth the effort. I only wish my house were bigger to hold all of our friends... but then again, that wouldn't have been a party for Luke, not to mention it would have killed our budget.

But for this day, in celebrating my two year old son and his precious life, the party was perfect.

Here are some pictures of the fun:Luke playing sword-fighting with a friend. The friend he was fighting was two years older, but notice how Luke had him on the defensive... classic Luke. I have no doubt he will take on the world one day with courage and fierce determination. He packs a lot of power in his little two year old body... and unfortunately, he still has very little concept that he might actually hurt you with his sword. Probably, his little friend had already figured that out.

~Opening presents with Mommy. Luke got so excited about the first present that he didn't want to open anymore. We had to keep trying to bring him back to open the rest. Fortunately, the other children were only too happy to help him out with the opening.



~Yummy birthday cake. Noah had the sword for this picture, but Luke was done fighting. Who wants to fight when there is icing to eat?

~Luke having a little rest in the middle of the party. He played hard, fought hard, ate well, laughed a lot. It was a good day to be 2.
Happy Birthday sweet Luke! I am so very thankful you were born and for the joy that you bring to our family and to my heart.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Icing on the Cake

I am in the birthday zone, baby. Today is Luke’s 2nd birthday, and we are celebrating on a budget. Yea. I have to be honest, it’s not quite as much fun as celebrating without a budget. But then I remind myself that he is only two, and it all comes into perspective. He’s only two, he’s only two, he’s only two… once.

My perspective is still a little fuzzy. Yet, when the party is all said and done, all that matters to Luke is getting to play with kids, not being left out (EVER!), and candy. So on a limited budget, I am putting my money into what really matters, and having my most un-party like birthday party I have ever had.

I think it will be fun, but there is no theme, no balloons, and no decorated kid’s tables. For the first time in 11 birthday parties that I have thrown for Noah, Ava, and Luke, I didn’t send out invitations. Yet we will have a cupcake tower, and a pancake and waffle fiesta with all the toppings. The kids will be running all over the house, and Luke will still get presents and probably even get to have some candy. It will be a perfect day for him because he will be loved on and celebrated, not because Mommy did a great job of decorating.

For this birthday, for my sweet Luke, I am throwing a party FOR Luke. I am not throwing a party for my friends and family, although I want them to be well fed and enjoy themselves. Luke doesn’t care about decorations. In fact, if I were decorating for Luke I would scatter goldfish all over the floor and crush them into my carpet. I would get yogurt and finger-paint all over the walls. And I would dump every toy in Luke, Ava, and Noah’s room in a huge pile in the living room. Now that would be a Luke styled birthday… and his mommy’s nightmare.

Luke and I have decided to meet in the middle and just have fun without decorating or destroying the house. I will post pictures after the birthday event.

It is possible to throw a party on a small budget, but it does take letting go of expectations and being willing to give up the need to perform for others. If you are throwing a child’s birthday, think of that child and try to make their party catered just to what would make his/her day so special and fun for their friends and then skip the rest. Invite just the children your child plays with instead of inviting all of YOUR friends. Instead of having a lot of variety of food (if you do food… which I always do. Parties make me hungry!) try serving just one thing or a meal with simple ingredients.

For Noah’s birthday last year I did a pasta dish (manicotti stuffed shells), Caesar salad, and breadsticks. We had cupcakes for desert and I fed a large group of people on a small budget. For Luke’s birthday brunch, I am serving pancakes and waffles and fruit. As my husband reminded me when I tried to add bacon, egg casserole, and cinnamon rolls to the menu, “Everyone will already have eaten breakfast at 10 in the morning. It is just too much food. Simplify and people will enjoy it more.” I think he’s right, and I think I will definitely enjoy it more.

If you are on a tight budget and throwing a child’s party, I hope this helps you to get a little perspective. Parents all turn into crazy people when it comes to our children, yet the key is to celebrate your children with what you have and to not to into debt to do it. Your children may be like my Noah who remembers in detail his 2nd birthday party and every birthday since, but he doesn’t remember how much I spent on his party. To him he was celebrated, he was surrounded by friends and family who love him, and he had a wonderful time. Everything else was the baking cup for the cupcakes… nice if it’s there but no one will miss it if it’s not… and not nearly as vital as the icing. There are some things you just can’t do without on your birthday, and for Luke, that’s icing :)

God bless and I’ll be back after the party.
Tracy

Monday, January 19, 2009

Redeeming Sickness?

I was sick last week. Not a life and death condition, just sick enough to stop caring. My sweet husband sent me to bed, and when he suggested take-out I said, "Whatever you want to do honey." He was thrilled. Matt loves take-out.

The week came to a close. I finally felt better, and at the end of the siege I surveyed the damages. Children still alive? Check. House destroyed? Check. Finances? Good… wait a second, I better check my wallet. On Wednesday, during a brief respite from feeling yucky, I had made a deposit at the bank and withdrawn cash for our discretionary spending. I knew what should have been in my envelopes, but all was not as it should have been. All of a sudden my words were coming back to me.

The problem with being sick is that consequences do not register in a "sick" brain. There is only what is in front of you. In the moment of your illness when you are offered a meal and your family is taken care of and being fed, you don't ask questions. "Take my grocery money," you find yourself saying. It is in those moments that you understand how Esau gave his birthright away for bowl of soup… he probably had a cold.

We had survived the week, and I am so thankful to my darling husband for taking such good care of our family. However, we killed our grocery budget. In total shock I realized that we had used $70 from my grocery budget to eat out last week!!! "Matt, I have no idea how we are going to do this," I warned my darling husband. We have lots of food in our house in meals that I can prepare, but our next paycheck is still almost two weeks away. That is a long time to have such a big chunk taken out of our grocery money. Yet, at the same moment that I felt the sense of panic starting to rise, I also felt my faith rising. Lately, whenever I want to say the words, "It feels like an impossible mountain," I immediately think that it is a great opportunity for the Lord to flex His muscles on my behalf. Remember my blog on Grace for the Giver, well that word has been so alive in my spirit. When I am weak, I get to experience his strength.

Yesterday afternoon as Matt and I were playing with our kids, I found myself talking to the Lord about our grocery budget and starting to worry about it again. I really could not imagine being able to stay within our grocery budget with $70 less. My grocery budget is very precisely planned to be just enough. I coupon and plan my meals in order to be able to do with a smaller grocery budget. What more could I do to make that money stretch?

A crash from the pantry jerked me from my prayer/panic. "Matt, we have to get a latch for our pantry to keep Luke out!", I said in frustration. Luke had made a tower from the paper towels I have stored in the bottom of the pantry and was busy exploring the upper shelves that are usually beyond his reach. "I think we have a latch," Matt said and disappeared to rummage through a junk drawer in our bedroom. "Tracy! Come here!" he called after a few minutes. Matt stood holding a bank envelope that he had found in rummaging through the drawer. We had been saving it for a project that had long since been paid for and was past. Inside that envelope was $60. We both looked at each other and started laughing. God is that good.

He redeems even sickness. He restores what has been stolen. He hears the prayers of a mommy's heart. He hears the prayers of your heart. He is even big enough for your budget and where it may come up short. Life is full of surprises and the unexpected. We plan for as much as we know through budgeting. We can even have a savings account for the unexpected expenses, but there will always be times when it is more than you planned for. It is in those moments that you need His grace. Thankfully, God's grace is there to help you to budget, and when life goes beyond your budget… so does His wonderful grace. If you are facing the end of this month with less money than you planned in your budget, ask God for grace and for His help.

I laugh when I think of the Lord planning this months ago, knowing that we had forgotten that money, and waiting for the right moment to surprise us with it. He has known about that money all a long , but as I wrote yesterday, His timing is so perfect. It makes me wonder how often our challenges are actually opportunities to discover God's goodness. What does God have hiding up His sleeve for you? Your current difficulty may just be the struggle to unwrap what God has already prepared for you. Whatever His surprise may be it will be full of His goodness; it will once again remind you of His amazing love for you, and it will sing a song of redemption over whatever you have walked through. He IS that good.

"But as it is written, 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.'" I Corinthians 2:9

God bless,

Tracy

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beautiful Things

I am missing my flowers. This picture was taken in their glory this past summer, and I miss their color, their fragrance, but not their thorns. I still have a thorn lodged in my finger that I can't seem to get out. Nevertheless, I find myself longing for spring on this cold winter day. I long for the warm summer winds, the ladybugs, even the feel of the cool soil as I plant my annuals.

I am looking forward to the squeals of my children as they spend endless hours splashing in our kiddie pool and digging in the dirt beside me. Their brown faces kissed by both the sun above and the dirt from their fingers. If summer has a color it is gold, and today my heart is longing for that warmth.

Because if January has a color it is grey. The dance of Christmas lights are gone, the red berries from the holly trees have faded, and a leafless grey has descended on the world. Everywhere I look, the world is crying out for a blanket of snow to hide it's nakedness. My roses stand like soldiers at attention, waiting patiently for their call to life again. Their stems are barren, shorn to protect them from winter's icy fingers. They wait, but my heart does not feel their patience.

I wrote a poem once about the effect of beauty on our souls, "Beauty is the kiss of God calling us out of our slumber and evoking a depth a worship we might never know without it." Today I feel it's pull on my heart. I had a friend ask me the other day why I garden? I answered her with tales of my grandfather's magical garden, and how I have always loved flowers. However, the truth is that my soul craves beauty. I garden so that when I am in my yard that so easily could be a cubicle, my soul can be restored. Here in this home that God has given me I create, I paint, I write, and I plant so that His beauty can be revealed. In the garden that surrounds my home, I pray that my children will experience the presence of God like I did in my Grandfather's garden. In the stillness of earth and flowers and the soft rustle of leaves, I first experienced poetry in my soul.

Yet it is only January, and the last frost is still three months away. So as I wait for spring, I will rejoice that my blog is now a more beautiful place to visit thanks to my darling husband. We are still working on it, but he gave me such a sweet gift this weekend in giving my blog a beautiful new face. I hope you like it, and that you will keep coming back. I hope that it is a refreshing place to visit. Because even in the dreary winds of winter, beautiful things are still growing. There is so much more going on beneath the surface than we ever realize. This mystery of what is hidden beneath a veil of bleak and lifeless longing actually reminds me of a song I used to sing in Sunday school as a little girl:

"In His time, in His time.
He makes all things beautiful in His time.
Lord please show me everyday,
As you're teaching me your way,
That You do just what You say
In Your time."



I pray that your heart today (and mine) would be satisfied by the knowledge that the world will be beautiful again, and that God is at work to turn even what is ugly and hard in our lives into beautiful things... in His time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

On the Rollercoaster

It the 15th of January today! I can hardly believe how quickly this month has passed. My Mom always used to say when I was growing up that it felt life just kept getting faster and faster. I think it has a lot to do with watching your children grow. Once they have grown, I think it slows a little in the wait for grandbabies and then the joyful rollercoaster begins again. The cycle of life is always a thrilling ride.

Right now the ride seems so fast that it is difficult to imagine that it could go any quicker. However, I have heard from friends that the pace of teenagers is even more frantic. That is a daunting thought. I think the key is to enjoy whatever place or stage you find yourself in because there is only grace for the ride today. Tomorrow's grace awaits the new morning.


In my life, today's grace was needed for sitting with my finances and reconciling my budget. We deposited our check, withdrew the cash that we needed for our envelopes (see the envelope sytem to find out more), and then I sat at my computer and entered our deposit and all of the bills that are going to be automatically debited in the next few days. The books reconciled beautifully (again only 15 minutes!). There was nothing to "jimmy-rig" or move around because we have stuck to our budget.


I then as a precaution checked the balances on my credit cards ( just in case, and because it is wisdom to regulary check up on your cards) and gasp... there was a charge there. $0.99 for itunes! What horror! What devestation! No seriously, I think we can handle $0.99. It did suprise Matt though who went to check his itunes records to make sure. However, even if we did put a charge on our credit card, I will make that 99 cent payment with joy because of what it could have been. We are living within our means, saving at least 10% of our income, and debt free. Hallelujah!


It feels so good to have plugged all of the leaks in our financial boat, and to once again see our money working for us and bringing us toward our dreams. I was able today to put our first significant deposit into our 10th Anniversary savings account and it felt wonderful. Without living on a budget that money would have disappeared. We would have eaten it in eating out, or spent it on pricier birthday presents, or just wasted it. Instead, we have started on our way to England for our anniversary.


I started this "Life After Credit Cards" series at the beginning of this month with so much hope, but also some anxiety at giving up my spending "crutch". However, I have not for one second had to do without. Our budget covers our needs, makes place for fun, and is more than enough if we just live within the comfort of it's walls. For us, taking away the option to sneak out the window has helped us to once again just relax in what God has given us, and find joy in His abundant provision, rather than being filled with desire for what we don't have. It has been a very peaceful month so far, and I am actually excited to walk in this place for the rest of the year. Life may be going quickly, but thanks to living within our budget... our money isn't.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Document People!

Have you ever called a company and spoken to a lovely, helpful soul who answered all your questions with patience and kindness and made you so glad to do business with them? OK, that doesn't happen very often, but if it has happened to you, have you ever called back only to get the polar opposite person on the phone? Grumpy, irritable, miserable in their life and work, and their only mission in life seems to be to make you feel stupid about your question and get you off of the phone? That happened to me today.

For the last few months, Matt and I have been going through the process of getting a new roof due to extreme hail damage. It has meant multiple phone calls to our insurance agency, various roofing companies, our mortgage company, our final choice for a contractor to roof our house, an inspector, the roofer again, the insurance again... It just goes on and on. Our roof is finally finished (we ended up loving our roofer who did a great job and in the process became a friend) and today I was trying to get the check released from the mortgage company to pay the roofing company. I have spoken to the mortgage company several times and the last few times I have spoken to a lovely, helpful person. Today was a different story.

I'll spare you the angst, but I got off the phone frustrated at the difficult and unhelpful woman I had spoken to. I immediately called my dear friend Deana (who is my go-to expert on home renovation, repair, insurance companies, and lots of other things). She gave me some wonderful advice, as always, but as she was talking she asked me this question: "Did you write down the name of the woman, date, and a summary of your conversation?"

"Noooo...", I answered, "Should I have?" "Absolutely," she said. She then told me that for every phone call that has to do with her business, her bills, her mortgage, her credit card, anything of importance, she writes down on the statement or bill the following information:

1) The name of the person she spoke to, 2) Their ID number, 3)The date and time of the conversation, and 4)A brief summary of the conversation

"That way," she added, "if I speak to someone really helpful I can request them by name or number the next time I call." Wow, I thought to myself. Why have I never known to do this? I can't even tell you how much hassle this simple practice would have saved me through the years. It only takes a second to do, and it really could serve so many fantastic purposes. For instance, if you need to document your argument in fighting for a refund, or on a fraudulent charge, it would be incredibly helpful and pursuasive if you had recorded all of that information.

Honestly, my financial life will never be the same after today. Perhaps you already document all of your calls, but if you don't... document, people! Next time, I'm going to ask for the sweet, helpful lady by name, and as I am smiling through the process I am going to be thinking in my heart, "Thank you Deana!" Hopefully, you will be doing the same.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Designed to Dream

“Mommy, I have to potty.” I think those are some of the most torturous words you can possibly hear at 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s not the urgency of the words, it’s the repetition of broken sleep night after night. As you climb back into bed with cold feet and deep weariness, all you want to do is recapture that last fleeting image of the dream you were having. Was it a flying dream? Was it a romantic dream? Was it the dream where you are late to class and realize you have forgotten your clothes? Finally, you begin to drift, to soar, to climb to wherever your dreams take you.

Did you know that dreaming isn’t frivolous? It is actually one of the miracles that God hardwired us with, that we actually have to dream at night to wake rested. If we don’t dream or achieve that deep sleep known as REM sleep where we dream, then we will live in exhaustion.

It is actually the lack of REM sleep that makes life so difficult with an infant, or a potty training toddler. It’s not that you aren’t getting enough sleep, but because your sleep is so broken, you aren’t getting the right kind of sleep. Our bodies struggle to keep functioning, but they are struggling against their design. Because no matter how inconsequential the dream may seem, we were designed to dream.

It is my belief that our nocturnal need for dreams isn’t the only place where we need dreams. Dreams enable us to see beyond what our eyes are telling us, to hope further than we can reach.
It is in dreaming that the flicker of possibility ignites, and there really is no telling the reach of the bonfire that can roar from a simple dream. We need dreams in our lives to stay healthy and energized. We need them in our hearts to hope, believe, and move forward. We need them for our children so that the hoped for joy of tomorrow invigorates today. And we need dreams for our finances so that we can have purpose and joy in what God has entrusted us with today.

In this time of dark economic clouds and rumblings of failure, we need to dream more than ever before. There is a temptation in the face of darkness to pull back to the place of necessity and deprivation. Like a mother of a newborn, we hoard the little we have, thankful to just close our eyes and rest, but we miss out on the restoration of our souls as we let go of our dreams. Just like that sleepless mother, we can do it for a little while but we cannot thrive in that place of deprivation.

No matter what is facing you on the horizon, God has placed those dreams in your heart for a reason. Do you dream of doing missions in Africa? Do you dream of owning your own business where you get to create every day? Do you dream of vacations with your family, or traveling to exotic lands? Do you dream of getting out of debt and being free to start your financial life again? Do you dream of having children? Do you dream of owning your own home? Do you dream of touching the world through something you have made or created? There are as many dreams as there are people, because for every one of us, God dreamed of us first.

His dream for us is not bound by the economy, or circumstances, or the government. His dream for us is filled with hope that we will choose Him, and follow after Him. He dreams that we will shine so brightly with His reflected glory that all men might know Him. God dreams big, and we were made in His image. It is time to dream again.

Budgeting without dreams is like car without oil. Dreams give the whole machine grace. It reduces friction and burnout. It flows throughout the entire system to keep that engine moving in a common purpose, and that purpose is to get you where you want to go. Figuring out your budget isn’t just about putting the parts of the engine together. In the budgeting process, you also have to look at why you are saving money? What is your motivation for getting out of debt? Why not buy the big TV and put it on the credit card? Why do you want to budget? To get answers to these questions, you are going to need to ask yourself, “What is your dream for your life?” Because when you finally identify your dreams, you will discover the oil that makes the whole budgeting machine so successful.

Dream because you were designed to dream. Dream because God dreamed of you first. Dream because it is the oil that God has designed for your life. And if all of these aren’t enough reason, dream because you can’t afford not to.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Life Changing Freebie

I was thinking about the Suse Orman freebie today, and it occurred to me that many of you many not know that my Mom and Dad (John and Beverley Sheasby) have started offering all of their preaching series on line for FREE. I don't know of another ministry that does this, but it is something that the Lord really laid on my Dad's heart. My Dad is the most incredibly gifted preacher (yes, I am biased, but it also happens to be true). The Bible just comes alive as He speaks, and you feel like you have just been introduced to your Father God all over again. If you don't know what series to start with try Show Us the Father . I know it will be a blessing to you. Or choose from any of their series to download for free HERE.

Anyway, I am just full of free goodies today :) Although, I think these messages will impact your life way more than Suze Orman ever could. So get yourself a cup of tea, download a message, plug in your headphones, and prepare to be blessed today. Download time... varies. Message cost... free. Getting your heart rocked from the comfort of your own home... priceless.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Free Book Offer

Hey friends, this is just a little freebie I found. Until this coming Thursday, you can download Suze Orman’s new book for free from Oprah.com . Suze Orman appeared last Thursday on the Oprah show. I didn’t see the show and I haven’t yet read the book, but I’m excited to read it for free. I don't agree with her on everything, but she is a straight shooter and does have a lot of great insight. Here is a summary taken from Amazon.com:

The unexpected can happen. In fact, sometimes a whole lot of unexpected happens all at once (see: 2008). No one can control external events, but you do have absolute control over the most powerful tool: your will to make the smart and right choices that will insure your financial security, no matter what happens. As I have said for years: Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

If you plan for life’s “what if’s” there’s no need to panic when the news turns bad. An emergency cash fund is your security when a recession causes rising unemployment. A long-term investment strategy that employs a mix of stocks and bonds makes it easier to get through scary bear markets; living within your means, rather than running up credit card and HELOC debt leaves you better able to weather financial storms.

My 2009 Action Plan is designed to make sure you are ready for the unexpected—this year and every year forward. I most certainly hope things get better for us all, but in the meantime I want to make sure you have a plan in place that will protect you no matter what “what ifs” lay ahead."


Just a fun gift for you finances today :)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Budget Friendly Date Night

When was the last time you dated your spouse? No, Christmas shopping for your relatives doesn't count. Neither does the drive to church. I know not everyone is married who reads this blog, but I wanted to give a little budget friendly date idea for those of you who are. Many people will spend a small fortune while dating on dinner, movies, flowers. However, it is very easy after marriage to forsake the romance for convenience.

Especially after children come along, you can easily become a partnership of survival. Poopy diapers, snotty noses, and even homework can suck every romantic impulse from your marriage. Date nights can seem like an olympic event to co-ordinate: organizing the babysitter, feeding the kids, tidying the house from the day, trying to feel like a woman again instead of a snot covered jungle-gym in sweat pants. There are times when I have left the house for a date with Matt feeling like I have survived a war and all I wanted to do is drive around the block and go back home.

Dating is also one of the quickest categories to drop when you are trying to make room in your budget. These days, dating can be even more expensive than before we were married. Matt and I are so blessed to have our wonderful Moms in town who often babysit for us, but did you know that babysitters are now charging $10 an hour? Just seeing a movie can cost us about $40 for the babysitter and the movie!!! Aaaahhh!!

However, if all this sounds eerily familiar to you, I have a great budget friendly idea for you. My friend Amy introduced me to the idea and I loved it. Matt and I have started having "Date night at home" once a week. We get pizza or an easy meal for the kids. Then while the kids are eating we have apetizers so that we aren't starving. We then bathe the kids and put them to bed, and after they are asleep we cook together. Without the kids around, cooking together can be a relaxing time to have great conversation and a lot of flirtation.

Matt and I actually decided what we were going to make early in the week (this week's menu was spring rolls for appetizers, chicken pad thai for the main course, and FREE Ben and Jerry's icecream from last weeks Walgreen's deal for dessert). It was perfect for us, fun, and incredibly budget friendly. We talked, laughed, played, and remembered what we love about each other... which is the whole point of a date after all.

So try a date at home. It takes some planning, and minimal cooking skills, but even making a mess of a new recipe can be fun if you are doing it together. You can always eat the left over pizza from the kids if things go horribly wrong. Regardless, you will have made a memory together, and you won't have burned your budget to do it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Grace for the Giver

There is something special about January and it isn't just because it's the new year. In January, Matt and I get to celebrate the births of 7 of our friends and family, including our own sweet Luke. On top of that are two anniversaries (including my parent's anniversary - 36 years on the 20th!!),one late birthday present, and three baby gifts that I need to get in the mail. It is a very full month of celebrations and presents.

I have to be honest, my gift budget has been one of the areas that I have been the most concerned about in not using credit cards. It just takes a lot of creativity and planning to stay on budget. For those 7 birthdays I have a budget of $50.... yea, that's how I feel too. It has felt impossible.

In December, I started looking ahead to the birthdays in January. The only way I could see a way through was to ask the Lord for His grace to help me. I have prayed and prayed about creative ways to give gifts, that the Lord would lead me to the right gift at a fantastic price, and that He would help my budget go further than I could even imagine.

So at my crazy black Friday Christmas shopping adventure, I also bought for Luke's birthday. I got some wonderful gifts for him at incredibly low prices. All in all, I only spent about $30 on Luke's birthday. But that money came out of kid's birthday money and so is not a part of my $50 gift budget. . I bought my niece's birthday gift at the same time for an incredible price, and got to send that home with Brad and Jess when they left, so no shipping charges (yea!). But that still left me with 5 presents.

I just want to tell you that I have seen God help me this month in the most amazing ways! He has reminded me of presents that I had hidden away from sales last year and helped me find amazing deals. But more than anything, having a limited budget has really made me put thought into the gifts that I am giving, rather than just spending more. A big, nice gift is wonderful, but many times the most meaningful gifts are the ones that say, "I know you. I know who you are and what you love, and I really thought about you in buying this gift." Even if it doesn't cost much, that kind of gift is such a blessing. It is the thing that everytime you use it or see it you will feel the love of your friend or family member.

My friends and family actually read this blog, so I can't tell you exactly what I have bought for them (that would just steal the fun). But I can tell you that I have had so much joy in the giving. I haven't had the stress that I expected to accompany my limited budget. It definitely takes a little more time and energy to give a thoughtful gift, but I also find myself giving more out of my heart as I give less out of my wallet.

So, the blessing is that I am on track to make my budget. I still have two more gifts to get, but I already know what I am going to give and still have money left to buy them. I am actually so amazed and thankful for the grace that God has given me in this process. It is amazing, but when you ask for grace and wisdom, He gives it.

Acts 20:35 quotes Jesus as saying, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." But as I have experienced so far this month, it is not only more blessed to give, but it is also more fun to give when you are giving by the Holy Spirit. No matter what your budget, I challenge you to include the Holy Spirit in your gift giving this year. Then just do what He tells you. Don't apologize for the cost, or the smallness, or the largeness of your gift. Give from your heart and ask God for the grace to cover the process.

So February is already coming and it is another big birthday month, but instead of dread, I feel excitement. God has shown me His grace so wonderfully this month, and His grace will be there next month. And when the budget is not enough, I will trust Him for provision.

As the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." When I feel the weakest is when I really turn to the Lord and seek Him and welcome His grace. God loves it when I surrender my independence and rely on Him and He just shows up and reveals His power in the middle of weakness. So for me gift-giving is a weakness, but it has really been because I have been trying to do it in independence (which always lands me over budget). As I have faced this impossible mountain, I surrendered my independence and I found His grace and His strength to move the impossible. So really, in my giving this month, I have been given the best gift of all: a greater surrender to my heavenly Father and seeing His amazing grace once again. Isn't that just like God's goodness?

God bless,
Tracy

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Coralling Your Credit Cards

This post is re-run from June of 2008. I started to write a new blog and went back and discovered I had already written what I wanted to say! Yea, I took the evening off and still get to say what I wanted to. Thank you Jesus :)

So I feel your heart torn… why give up the convenience of your credit card for all of that paper money? It is just so easy to swipe and go. It is also almost impossible to buy something online without one, or to rent a car. Why stop using them?

And it is true, there are many reasons for having a credit card in our society. Credit cards also help your credit score in demonstrating your credit history. How old your card is, and if it has been kept in good standing are two variables that help to determine your credit score. You can keep your card in good standing by simply using it occasionally (like once every six months to keep it from going inactive) and paying your card balance on time.
It is also a good idea to not have high balances if you are looking to get a loan in the near future as that will affect your debt to credit ratio, which also affects your credit score. And if you have read the entries in my blog on debt, it is also a good idea to not have high balances just because it is not a good idea. Period. But basically, credit cards are not all bad, and especially in business, they can definitely be an asset.

The key to credit cards remaining an asset instead of a financial liability is in how they are managed, and that makes a world of difference. If you are one of the people who hate cash and are determined to use a credit card then today’s blog is for you. If you are going to use credit cards then I want to set you up for success.

Matt and I do a mainly cash system, but we also occasionally use credit cards. Mainly Matt uses it for convenience, for business purchases online, and we use it for large purchases. But here is the key to successfully managing your credit card: never make a purchase that is not backed by cash in hand. I have witnessed so many people making purchases on credit cards based on speculation of a check coming, or a bonus at the end of the year only to be very disappointed when the money didn’t come through or something else came up and left them in a hard financial position with credit card debt as a result. It is a dangerous gamble to buy on “spec”. I think it is safe to say that you will get burned the majority of the time, because things rarely go according to plan. Especially when your plan depends on other people coming through. So from this foundation of a cash-in-hand mentality, it is possible to manage your credit card responsibly.

The first thing to do is to start a ledger for your credit card. Just get a bank checkbook register and use that to track your credit purchases. It will take more “paperwork” time and management then the cash/envelope system, but it is easier in the checkout line. Every time that you use your credit card, write in the purchase into your register and designate a category from your budget for that expense. So let’s say that you spent $60 at the gas station. You would write $60 into your ledger and then add it to your account balance in your credit card ledger. You would also write on your printed budget -$60 beside gas money and subtract it to track your spending. Then when you go to pay your credit card, the $60 would still be in your bank checking account because you are not using anything from that account that is not budgeted. So you would simply pay the $60 credit card bill and then write the payment into your credit card ledger as a -$60 bringing your balance in the ledger to $0. So you will never use your card without then taking the time to track how you are paying for your purchase. Just remember, it either is in your budget, has to be drawn from savings, or it will end up as debt.

Now if you have a program like Quicken, or Money, this whole process of tracking your purchases is a lot easier. It actually replaces the written Credit card ledger because you can simply download your purchases into the program’s ledger. However, sometimes it can take purchases days to show up on your credit card, even weeks if it is an online order, so I manually enter all of my credit card purchases to make sure that I do not forget a purchase and spend the cash that I have “backing” that purchase before it posts to my credit card and subsequently to my Quicken register.

Also, as I manually enter it, it gives me pause to subtract it from the appropriate category in my budget to make sure that the funds are always there to cover my credit card balance in full. Because we mostly use cash, I will take the cash from the appropriate envelope and put it in a “To be deposited” envelope that I will then deposit back into my bank. Then twice a month when I sit and pay my bills I first go and pay my credit card bill with the funds that are waiting in my checking account for those purchases. I do not wait for my credit card statement because I have found that it is too easy to loose track of your spending when you wait an entire month to pay your card.

The reason that Matt and I use our credit card to make large purchases is that we have a card that pays us cash dividends on all the money we spend. So for us, getting 3% back in cash on a large purchase is a good deal. However, once again we never spend what we do not already have in hand. Many times large purchases will come from our savings account because we will have been planning and saving for them and so we will then immediately transfer from our INGsavings the necessary funds to cover those purchases and pay our credit card balance.

In fact, several years ago when we first got our dividend card we decided to try to start using our Credit card for all of our purchases. It pays up to %5 for gas and grocery purchases and we just felt like, “Why not try it?” We had always done the cash/envelope system but we were game for getting money back. So we started a credit card ledger (we didn’t yet have Quicken) and I tracked all of our purchases, just like I have detailed to you in this blog (with a couple of exceptions).

However, what we found was that we had no real boundary for when to stop spending in a category. With each passing month it just became easier to say, “Just put it on the card, we’ll figure it out later.” So we would get to the end of the month and go to pay off our card and would be a couple hundred of dollars short! It is astounding how “miscellaneous” purchases add up so quickly. We would then find ourselves in a position where we were borrowing from the next paycheck and month to pay for last month and so we would then be even more short the next month. Then we would take money from savings to try to get even again. We finally realized that it was just too tempting for us to overspend without the definite boundaries that the cash system provided. So even though we were making money by using the dividend card, we stopped using our credit card for our discretionary spending and went back to the cash/envelope system. (Just like we are doing right now!)

However, even though it didn’t work well for our family, it may work for yours. There is not just one answer for every financial situation. I think if you have a program like Quicken or Money, this will give you a tremendous advantage in succeeding in staying on top of your credit card. In addition if you are frequently managing what is on your card and where the money is coming from and not just waiting until you get your statement, I think you will also have a better chance of succeeding than we did. Yet never forget that your credit card is a wild horse just waiting for a chance to run away from you. The only safe place for it is in the "corral" of your budget. And if you ever do find yourself starting to get frivolous with your credit card spending and feel like it's getting out of control, just remember, it’s never too late to try cash. :)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

After the Band

In 1998, my husband Matt was touring as a professional musician with a band. He spent most of his time out on the road, and as part of that lifestyle he put everything on his credit card. He never really thought about his credit card because he was being paid well, and every month he would just pay it off. However, he had nothing in savings and every month he would spend everything that he made.

Then in the Fall of that year, the artist that Matt had been touring with suddenly decided to stop touring. It came as quite a shock to Matt as all of a sudden he was without a job, he had no savings, and he had $2,500 on his credit card that he was unable to pay off. In a kind of desperation, Matt took a job at a telemarketing company where he was paid a whopping $800 a month!! He was supposed to be able to earn more if he hit his commissions, but hardly anyone ever got there. So, all of a sudden that credit card debt became an enormous mountain which was more than triple his monthly income. (Take your monthly income and multiply it by 3, and that was the reality of the debt that he faced)

Matt and I started dating during this time and it was such a hard season for him, and much of the burden of it had to do with that credit card debt. Then one day, a good friend took Matt to lunch and told him that God wanted to deliver him from the debt. He said, “First of all just ask for forgiveness for spending that money recklessly and then ask the Lord for the grace to get out of this debt.” Then he added that he felt like Matt need to sow some seed toward the elimination of his debt. Matt really took it to heart, and the next day Matt took the contents of his wallet (which amounted to $1) and sowed it into the life of a friend from work. It sounds like a small thing, but as he gave it Matt knew that there was power in it. “This seed is for the elimination of my debt,” he told his friend. Faith was stirring in His heart. He knew that he was in an impossible situation with his debt-to-income ratio, but He really felt like God was going to make a way.

Within a week, Matt received a phone call for a job that would actually pay off a huge chunk of his debt. He was also given money by various other people, and within a month Matt’s debt was completely paid off. It was such a dramatic deliverance from what had been such a bleak situation, but that lesson has stayed with both of us in a powerful way.

I’m telling you this story today because it has definitely played a part in us giving up credit cards this month. Matt and I are moving into a more uncertain season in our finances… not that we are expecting lack. We feel such a confidence in God and that He is taking care of us, but that may not mean that we are always going to have a definite paycheck in the 1st and the 15th. Client’s may only pay on the 23rd or the 7th or when their financing comes through. We both feel that now is the time to be purposeful with our money and to use wisdom in not spending money that we don’t have. It is a dangerous game to spend counting on money that hasn’t come in and is not guaranteed to come in by the credit card due date. As Matt experienced as his tour ended, many things can fluctuate in your external circumstance that could trap you in credit card debt.

In fact, if you have any question about the security of your job, then stopping your credit card usage is a brilliant move. Otherwise you may face an unexpected mountain of debt if something happens to your job. It is not ever that you believe for the worse or expect to have no income, but things happen in this world that are not God’s heart for you. When they do, it is so much better to have your trust be in God rather than in the plastic in your wallet.

And I’m telling you this story because no matter what pit you may find yourself in, God has a song of deliverance for your life. There is always hope and always a way through. I want to add that what the Lord led Matt to do is not a formula for debt deliverance. God is not bound to doing the same exact thing every time. Sometimes it is a slow, diligent walk out of debt where He teaches you all along the way. And sometimes as you repent and turn towards God there is a sudden turnaround. As I have said so many times, it is all about your heart.

For Matt, his experience in debt had an impact for his entire life and for our marriage. He has never wavered in his determination that debt is not God’s plan for our lives, and we should never again open up a door that may lead down that road. But even when we have made an unwise choice (like our spending habits for the last few months), it is just a simple matter of responding to the Holy Spirit as He so wisely moves our heart and prompts us to change. It is in our independence that we get into trouble.

And the Holy Spirit may not lead you to totally give up credit cards. In fact, I am going to talk about wise credit card management tomorrow. But the key is to follow wherever He leads you. If you are with Him you are safe. If you are with Him it doesn’t matter what storm surrounds your boat. It’s only as you take back your independence that you risk sinking. Repentance simply means “to turn towards God”, and that means going wherever He leads you… even if that is into a life after credit cards. Because as Matt discovered there is life on the other side of credit card debt. There is even life after the band :)

God bless and have a wonderful day,
Tracy

Monday, January 5, 2009

Life After Credit Cards - Suprises

I had such a light-bulb moment this morning as I sat down to work on our finances, and I am so excited to share it with you! It really was one of those moments when all of the pieces came together, and I finally saw the genius of what the Lord had put in our hearts to do.

First of all let me say that I had deposited our salary check on Friday so I knew that we had funds to cover whatever might be automatically debited over the weekend. Therefore I was able to relax over the weekend and only sat down to reconcile our bills this morning. Almost every bill of ours is automatically debited from our account on a certain date. On a side note let me say that automating your bills is such a fantastic way to make sure that you are never late on a payment. It takes a huge amount of stress off of you as well, because instead of worrying about 25 bills all due at different times, you are only concerned that you deposit your paycheck into your account on time. Many employers even offer direct deposit which can save you from even this hassle. Anyway, all of this to say that I wasn't being negligent waiting until Monday (just in case you were worried about me :).

So here is the fantastic part: balancing my books and making sure my bills were all entered into my financial software took me 15 minutes!!!! I could hardly believe it. I suddenly realized that what has been consuming my time in my finances has been reconciling my credit card and figuring out how to pay for everything that I have charged in the last two weeks! I would have to take cash out of my envelopes to re-deposit and try to untangle what money was coming from where. It really is not very fun, although very neccesary if you are going to use credit cards.

And this morning, my credit card balance was zero... I can't even begin to tell you what a weight has been lifted off of me. I didn't even know that I was carrying a weight, but not having to figure out the credit card is like this enormous gift. Now, I have never carried a balance on a credit card. I pay it off every single month, and yet it has still been a weight to me. I can't imagine the weight that it must be if you are unable to pay it off at the end of the month!

However, it is not just having credit card debt, it is the burden of knowing that you are continually making more debt that can be so overwhelming. Even if you have debt, stopping using your credit cards can halt that downward spiral and help you to take control back in your finances.

For Matt and I, we have really only relaxed and started using our credit cards more in this past year. Before that we have always used the cash/envelope system and used our credit cards for large purchases (to get the cash back dividends) which we would have already saved for and then immediately paid off the balance. I honestly have been puzzled in the past year and couldn't understand why doing our bills seemed so much harder, when it had always been a breeze. What used to take me 15 minutes had turned into whole evenings of figuring out our finances. Until this morning, when I finally realized why and it was totally because we had been using our credit cards.

The truth is if you only spend what is in your budget and use the cash/envelope system for discretionary money, reconciling your finances will be a breeze. Your bills are all listed in your budget, along with your discretionary spending (categories like groceries, entertainment, gifts, gas, clothing, etc). If you stay within your budget by only using what you have instead of "borrowing" from the credit card company and spending what you don't have, then you never have to figure out how to pay for it later :) It sounds so simple, but it is actually genius.

And I only realized how genius it is today. I know that the Lord led Matt and I to stop using our credit cards, yet I had no idea how much He was freeing us from. Isn't that so often true? He asks us to do something and we only see such a small part of the "why". Then later we turn around to look back and we stand in amazement because of all of the good that the Lord has brought out of our simple act of obedience. We stopped using out credit cards in obedience to what God was putting in our hearts, and I now see that He was also freeing me from a weight I didn't know was there. And even more than that, He gave me back at least two evenings a month which I was wasting on bills. And I know that there will be even more than that that I will see in the future.

I feel so released and so grateful. I really do love budgeting, but not the way that I have been doing it the past few months. I had gotten lazy and thought I was making my life easier by getting to use cards instead of cash, or just depositing the cash when I used my card, but instead I was adding burden and weight to my life. It feels so good to simplify again, and get back to the simplicity of budgeting... 30 minutes a month, people!!! And with my "Life After Credit Cards" challenge, this too can be yours :)

God is just so good. Sorry this blog is a bit rambley, but I hope that there is hope in it for you as well. Even the things that might seem so difficult to you, if God is stirring your heart to do it then plant that thing as a seed and you will be amazed at the garden that will grow. For me, I planted a seed of obedience, and so far I've reaped less stress, 2 or more evenings in my month free from figuring out my finances, and a debt free life. That's a pretty good return on my seed already. I can't wait to see what else God has in store for me on this adventure.

God bless,
Tracy

A Table Before Me

Can I just tell you this morning how Good our God is! He is not fazed by economy, or climate, or circumstances. He is unchanging in His Goodness towards us. This morning I am meditating on Psalm 23, especially verses 5 & 6:
"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

I truly believe that even in the most desperate of circumstances (for the Psalmist David, he was being pursued by his enemies), God has prepared a table before you. His heart is so good toward you that He is chasing you down this morning with His goodness and love. We get so frantic with all of the enemies chasing us that we forget who our God is and how great is His plan for us.

Sometimes you just have to still your soul and look for the table that the Lord has set before you instead of at the enemies of your soul. In other words, you may be dealing with all kinds of enemies like health crisis, or debt, or broken relationships, but as these enemies chase you, know that God has made a place of refuge, safety, and abundance for you. It's in Him, and that is good news because sickness is not the final outcome. Debt and financial distress are not the final outcome. Broken relationships are not the final outcome. God is a refuge for you today and He alone has the end of your story.

Psalm 46 says,
"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging...

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
but the LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
'Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.'
The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress."

God is a fortress for your soul today, so be still and rest in Him. When you look at David's circumstances you would never have said that His "cup overflowed". He was hunted by his father-in-law Saul who wanted to kill him, his wife was given to another man, he lived in caves, and was an outlaw, he had nothing... but in the midst of all these "enemies", he was more aware of God's goodness, favor, and love than he was of the valley of the shadow of death.

So this morning, I am looking for the table. I am looking for opportunities to celebrate the goodness of God. Thank you God that Matt has work, that my children are healthy. Thank you for a roof over my head, and for friends and family. Thank you that I have food in my refrigerator, that I have a refrigerator. Thank you for a joyful heart that is so full of Your goodness.

Just thought I would share a little bit from my heart to start your Monday out. Today is a good day to be alive and a great day to let the Lord be your shephard. After all, He knows all the best picnic spots :)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Feeding the Mogwai

Enemy, thy name is Ebay. Seriously, Ebay can be so difficult to say NO to. Especially when you find a great deal on something that you never knew you always wanted. All of a sudden that magical countdown clock until the end of the auction becomes your deadline for how badly do you want this one of a kind whatever? The minutes tick by, you refresh the page, the price climbs slightly, you feel a moment of "Oh no, I'm not going to win it." Ebay should really come with warning signs like "Not for the fiercely competitive" or "Remember, you have to pay with real money". The game is the fun. Paying for it after is not.

Really, I make it sound like I have fierce Ebay addiction. I don't, but I definitely have friends who do (not you, of course). Kind of sounds like denial, huh. What I think I have is a very cheap way to buy exactly what I want and get it shipped to me quicker than any store will ship. Like I shared with you, I bought most of my Christmas presents at the black Friday sales, but almost everything else I bought online at either Ebay or Amazon.com. I now LOVE shopping online. I don't have to drag my three children into the store. I don't have to go to 5 different stores to find what I want. Plus I can check the other stores prices and usually find it for cheaper. It is brilliant! ...and slippery.

The ease of purchasing at a click with the fantastic power to find everything you want makes for a deadly budgeting combination. There is an old joke that the easiest way to save money shopping is to not go shopping. If you never go to the stores you are guaranteed to spend less than if you go all the time. It just makes sense. But the problem with Ebay and Amazon.com and shopping online in general is that the store comes to you.

So here I am in the throws of quiting my credit card and you just absolutely can not order things online without a credit card. I can use my bank account directly, but quite frankly that makes me a little nervous. But how do I get the cheapest prices on a birthday present for my sister-in-law that needs to ship ASAP? And what do I do with finishing shopping for Luke's birthday? I am still in the quandry over these things, but what I do know is that it is time to tame the Ebay monster in my life... and mine only looks looks like a mogwai (you know the very cute and cuddly pet that when they ate after midnight they became hideous Gremlins? If you haven't seen "Gremlins", please don't rush to rent it. It's scary. I had bad dreams for a long time after...). But it's time for the mogwai to stop eating. Maybe your online shopping habits look more like a full out nasty Gremlin. In which case, I might be touching on a very sore spot for you.

The thing is, that if you weren't looking at those things on ebay, you would never know what you were missing. You would spend less, you would somehow make do with less. How did you survive before online shopping? I think my rule is going to be, if it is something that I am going to physically drive to a store to find, then I can look for that online. But if it isn't worth a trip to the store and if I don't have a plan (in advance) for it in my budget, then I definitely don't need it.

The whole point of this month of blogs entitled "Life After Credit Cards" is that credit cards can many times sabotage your dreams and they can be a very easy pit to fall into and extremely difficult to get out of. If you have a spending problem (which you may need to ask your husband or wife or close friend if you do, because it can be easy to justify it in yourself and thereby difficult to recognise) then places like Amazon.com and Ebay may not be safe for you. If you are living in debt, or would like to be in a different financial position than you are right now, then online shopping might be the hole in the boat that is sinking your dreams. If it is, it is time to stop feeding the Mogwai and get a hold of your spending. Anyway, that is my plan. However, that is also terrible news for the new pair of boots I have been wanting. Whatever will I do? I guess I'll just have to let the auctions pass and wait until I have the money in hand in order to buy the boots. The waiting is the hard part and is what throws many of us off, but the truth is that the waiting can make it all so much sweeter when you finally get to buy it.

I have seen God do miracles before I buy something and after I have already bought something, and I would much rather the before. It is so fun to ask Him for the provision for new shoes (or whatever), and then see Him provide for those shoes, and then to go buy them. The issue is that we often don't even include Him in our decision making process and so we buy things not knowing where the money is coming from and then ask God to provide when we get our credit card bill at the end of the month.

Anyway, this is part of the pattern that I am stopping in this "Life after Credit Cards". It is time to believe God in advance. It is time to be careful what my eyes see because it causes my heart to go after other things than what God has for me. In other words, it is time for me to stop feeding the Mogwai :) How about you?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

From my home to yours, have a wonderful New Year. I am excited to see what this new year holds and so grateful for what God did in 2008.

I hope you enjoy the first day of the year today. Do something different. Celebrate your life and the people that you love. It is a good day to be alive and it is a good day to open your heart to God and all that He has for you in this year. Begin anew. Focus on the important rather than the urgent.

God bless and have a happy and blessed New Year!
Tracy