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How Meal Planning Can Save You Money on Groceries

If you are serious about saving money, you already know that cooking meals at home instead of eating out can make a significant difference in your finances. However, you can find an abundance of ways to cut costs at the grocery store as well. Meal planning is a great way to ensure you are buying only what you need. Consider these meal planning tips before your next trip to the grocery store:

 

  1. Start by thinking about your lifestyle. Will you be able to plan each meal down to the day, or will planning by the week be more beneficial? Most people find that taking a more rigid, daily approach to meal planning is difficult due to unplanned events that may arise. Planning by the week can be simpler and sometimes less wasteful.
  2. Gather some of your favorite recipes and categorize them by difficulty. Your arsenal of recipes should include those that are for fancier occasions, as well as for quick and easy meals you can prepare in 30 minutes on busy days. Pinterest can be extremely helpful in accumulating tasty recipes.
  3. Determine how many meals to cook per week. In a typical week, you will eat seven lunches and seven dinners (breakfast can be much simpler — just pick up a few of your favorite breakfast items and alternate each morning). If you like leftovers, you will not have to cook as often; however, if you like a little more variety in your meals, there are still ways to switch it up without buying extra ingredients. For example, grilled chicken for dinner one night could be a chicken caesar salad for lunch the next day. Depending on your preferences and how many people you are cooking for, decide how many meals you will need to cook in a week.
  4. Decide which meals you want to cook and prepare a shopping list. It’s time to dip into your stash of recipes. Pull out the number of recipes you want to make and draft a shopping list at the beginning of each week. You can do this by hand or using an app such as Menu Planner, which creates a shopping list for you based on the recipes you have chosen. Before creating your list, be sure to check your pantry for ingredients you may already have. Also, you should look in your refrigerator to see what’s left over from last week that you could potentially plan a meal around.
  5. Go to the grocery store with a plan. It’s important to purchase only what is on your shopping list. It should include ingredients for meals for the week, breakfast items, and a few snacks/desserts for you to have on hand. Anticipate what you will need in advance and buy nothing more than the items on your list.
  6. If you have the time, and want to save even more money, try couponing. It can be a hard skill to master, but coupled with your new meal planning knowledge, you could save double the money at the register. For an easier approach, download your favorite grocery store’s app to see what kind of savings they are advertising.

Food and groceries are a significant percentage of your monthly budget, but being intentional with your meals can help exponentially. Meal planning is a creative way to save money and add variety to your diet, all while freeing up your budget and creating less waste.

Cutting the Cord: Money-Saving Cable Alternatives

Cable television has been around for decades, and the majority of American households have had a cable plan at some point. However, with cable bills on the rise — averaging $103 per month — the service can consume a significant chunk of one’s monthly budget. If you are looking for ways to cut down on costs, and you have yet to “cut the cord,” reevaluating your cable situation may help you save money — and have more leftover — to allocate to other categories of your budget. Keep reading for tips on how to survive without cable, including adopting money-saving cable alternatives like:

Streaming Services

If you are not a big cable TV viewer, you might want to consider getting a subscription (or multiple) to a streaming service. The three most popular streaming services are Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. As far as pricing, Netflix and Hulu cost the same ($8-$12 per month) while Amazon Prime Video goes for $99 per year and includes other perks like free 2-day shipping on Amazon orders. Each have overlapping content, but Netflix is known for having the most movies, and Hulu is known for television shows that can be streamed soon after they premiere on cable TV. Amazon Prime TV features a variety of TV shows and movies, including new releases. These services stream over the Internet, and can be viewed on your Smart TV or through streaming devices like AppleTV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV.

Cable-Replacement Services

There are two types of television-watching people: those who are content without the traditional cable channels and can get by with streaming services, and those who need their channels. One misconception about cutting out traditional cable plans is that you will no longer be able to get access to your favorite channels like HGTV or ESPN. Fortunately, there are several cable-replacement services that allow you to customize a channel plan that fits your preferences. Services like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue let you pay for only the channels you want and work exactly like traditional cable, except they stream over the Internet. PlayStation Vue packages start at around $40 per month, while Sling TV can run around $20 a month for the basic package of 25 channels, with the option of adding extra channel packages that range from $5 to $15 extra a month. Like streaming services, cable-replacements can be streamed through streaming devices.

More cable companies have started adopting the customizable cable packages. For instance,  Dish Network recently rolled out their new “Flex Pack,” which starts at $39.99 per month and includes a base package of 50 channels and one “add-on package,” and Comcast is set to introduce their customizable cable package soon.

Crunching the Numbers

How much can you really save by cutting out cable? The answer depends on the cost of your original cable bill and which of the above services you choose. To give an example, say your cable bill costs the average $103 a month, and you want to pick one streaming service and one cable-replacement service. You can pay a one-time fee of around $40 for a streaming device like Amazon Fire TV, $8 a month for the basic Netflix package, and $25 a month for Sling TV (with the sports package add-on). That makes a one-time payment of $40 and a monthly recurring cost of $33 — saving you $70 a month and $840 a year. Savings like this show that if you are looking for an area of your budget to cut costs in, your cable package is a great place to start.

How to Create a Zero-Based Budget

It is a well-known fact that a budget is a useful tool to take control of your finances, pay off debt, and save for the future. If you have started a budget and it is working for you, chances are you have money left over by the end of the month to spend freely. You have successfully stuck to your budget, so why not treat yourself with the remainder? You spend what is left and start over next month. However, after a while, you may be scratching your head wondering where all that extra money went. That is where zero-based budgeting comes in.

What if you were told to “spend” all of your income each month? This might sound crazy at first, but many financial experts regard this method as the most effective one out there. The concept of zero-based budgeting is that your monthly income minus your expenses should equal zero. The idea is that each dime you make should have a “job” and fall into a certain category in your budget. For example, if your take-home pay is $5,000, you have exactly $5,000 to spend, save, or invest. Here is how you can create your own zero-based budgeting system:

  • Track Your Expenses

In most cases, you will need to track your expenses for a month or two to see what you typically spend in each category. Figuring out what percentage of your income goes to which expense can help you when writing your budget. If you already have a budget that works, you can move on to the second step.

  • Create Categories of Expenses

Based on your monthly expenses, make a list of the major categories you spend money in. First, think about your fixed expenses — mortgage, utilities, phone bill, student loan payments, car payments, credit card bills — and create a category of recurring expenses. Then, analyze your bank statements to determine other categories such as transportation/gas, groceries, entertainment, and personal care (clothing, haircuts, etc.). Be fairly generous to yourself in these categories — you want to allocate enough to them so you will not be tempted to use your leftovers. Once you have done this, the next step is assigning an amount of money to each category based on previous months.

  • Assign the Leftovers to Categories

Subtract the amount you have allotted for each of these categories from your monthly income to see what is left over. In a regular budgeting system, you might save a percentage of your money and spend what is left over. However, in zero-based budgeting, each dollar must be accounted for. You will want to save or invest the remaining balance. Assign each dollar to one of those categories until you are left with zero.

Maximize Your Wealth-Building Potential

When every penny you earn serves a purpose — whether going toward paying your monthly expenses, investing, or straight to your savings account — you know exactly where your money is going, and you will never have to wonder where that extra $250 went. With the zero-based system, that $250 is probably in savings, and you are well on your way to financial freedom.

Renting vs. Buying a Home

In the past, becoming a homeowner was regarded by most as a long-term goal and benchmark for financial success. However, with the cost of owning a home on the rise, according to a recent Bloomberg article, the national homeownership rate has dipped to its lowest since 1965. Renting is now seen as a more feasible and smarter financial decision for many, especially millennials and individuals in their mid-to-late 30s. Still, those seeking to buy or rent a home want a clear-cut answer as to which is the better option, but it is not that simple — there are many factors to consider. If you are currently weighing the pros and cons of buying a home versus renting, consider these factors in making the housing decision that is right for you:

  1. Your Numbers

As with any large financial decision, it is important to assess your budget and overall financial situation to determine what you can afford to pay for your housing. A great rule of thumb to follow is the 30 percent rule, which states that your housing costs should not exceed 30 percent of your income. With that, you need also consider your other monthly obligations — such as health insurance, student loans, auto expenses, food, clothing, utilities, etc. — when budgeting an amount you are comfortable spending on housing each month. One mistake many people make when deciding whether to rent or buy a home is comparing monthly rent payments to mortgage payments. There are several additional liabilities that come with homeownership, like property taxes, monthly maintenance costs, and homeowner’s insurance, that factor into the monthly payment. Gauging every potential financial obligation that comes with purchasing a home, versus renting, can help you get the most accurate estimation of what you can afford.

  1. Your Area

Depending on the area you are looking at, the costs of renting and buying a home can differ. In some areas, renting is the cheaper option because purchasing a home is simply too expensive. However, in other areas, the cost of purchasing a home may be lower than monthly rent. Try using this calculator from Realtor.com — it will show you the cost of renting versus buying a home, based on your area.

  1. Your Future Plans

One of the main advantages of renting is flexibility. With a mortgage, you are more “tied down,” which means it will be harder to move, if needed, due to the obligation of selling your home beforehand. Renting is more beneficial for those who knowingly plan to move in the near future, as renting affords more mobility in the event of major life changes like marriage or new jobs in different areas. On the other hand, if you foresee yourself staying in the same place for a while, purchasing a home may be the right move for you.

  1. Other Important Factors

Along with considering your finances, area, and future plans, there are other components of renting and buying a home that may be important to you. With owning a home comes more customization — you are free to paint the walls, add a room to the house, replace the carpet with hardwood flooring, and whatever else you see fit. Renting can be more restricting. Maintenance is another factor to consider. When you own your own home, you are entirely responsible for the maintenance of your property, and cannot simply call a landlord to make repairs, as you could with renting. One last thing to consider: Until you fully own your home, it is technically owned by the bank; thus, you are susceptible to foreclosure and completely losing your home if you fail to make mortgage payments.

Decide What is Right for You

Deciding whether to buy a home versus renting is a complicated decision. With all the factors involved, it is impossible to simplify. In some situations, it can be smarter to rent, while other situations and times may prove that purchasing a home is more favorable. Ultimately, the correct decision is the one that is right for you.

 

Top 5 Barriers Stopping Millennials from Being Homeowners

The Basics of Buying a Car

Aside from mortgage or rent, a car payment may be your next-largest monthly expense. Whether this is your first or fifth car purchase, shopping for a car and determining how to finance it can be overwhelming. Follow these steps to ensure that you are getting the best deal when it comes to vehicles:

  1. Determine What You Can Afford

When taking any large financial step, such as buying a car, the first stage of the process is to consider your finances and calculate a practical amount to spend on a monthly car payment. Generally, experts recommend that you should spend no more than 15 to 20 percent of your total budget on all automobile expenses (including a car payment, car insurance, gas, and regular maintenance). One factor that is important to take into consideration is that the sticker price of a car is not all you will be expected to pay — you must also account for sales tax, title and registration fees, extended warranties, and any other fee you may incur. Edmunds.com’s affordability calculator is a great resource for determining how much you can afford — it even has a section to enter your zip code to find the rates and pricing in your area.

  1. Get Preapproved

If you plan to finance some or all of your vehicle purchase, you may be able to take advantage of savings before stepping foot in a dealership by getting approved for a low-interest rate with a local bank or credit union. First-time car buyers may unknowingly offset any savings gained during the negotiating process by agreeing to an unnecessarily high-interest rate on a loan in the dealership’s finance office. Since interest rates affect both the amount you pay each month and the total cost of your loan, comparing interest rates on new or used car loans in advance can result in legitimate savings in your budget.

  1. Shop Around

Once you have calculated what you can afford to spend on a car, you want to make sure that you get the most car for your money. Make a list of factors that are important to you like fuel efficiency, mileage, year, make/model, size, etc. — and start shopping. Websites like AutoTrader.com offer customizable online car shopping based on your budget and important factors. Shopping online may be a better way to look for cars instead of bouncing around from dealership to dealership. It can save time, and if you are shopping on a tight budget, you will not be tempted by the more expensive vehicles on the car lot.

Some financial experts state that buying a new car (especially using credit) is a terrible investment. This is due to the notion that a brand new car is worth an estimated 30 percent less the second after you drive it off the lot. However, if it is a car you plan to drive for as long as possible, this may not bother you. Plus, you may find solace in the idea that one else has driven your new car and no hidden issues exist. While there are many pros and cons of choosing a used car versus a new one, it is important to note that a used car will typically save you money and help you get the most out of your allocated car budget. However, keep in mind that used cars usually carry higher interest rates, depending on your credit score. Check out this post to learn how to build or raise your credit score, which may help you get a lower interest rate.

  1. Negotiate a Deal

What many car buyers, especially first-time buyers, do not know is that it is possible to lower the price of a car by negotiating. Once you have found a few cars within your price range, do some research on what the cars are actually worth. For new cars, look to Edmunds.com, and for used cars, try KBB.com to determine the market value of the cars you are interested in. From there, set a price to negotiate for — try asking for $500 to $1000 less than market value for new cars or 5 percent less for a used car. According to Jason Lancaster, a former car salesman/manager, there is one fundamental tactic when negotiating: stay firm with your price and politely decline counteroffers. If they do not initially accept your offer, leave your phone number with them. They will call you back if they decide your price is feasible for them to sell you the car. If you want to call back and follow up on your offer, the most opportune times are the end of the month and the end of the day on Saturdays and Sundays. At these times, managers and salespeople are under more pressure to sell and may be more likely to accept your offer.

Get the Most for Your Money

Above all, your number one priority is to stay within your budget and purchase a car at a price you can afford (if you like — or love — the car, even better. Just make sure it is safe and can get you where you need to be.) To stay within your budget, you need to calculate a price and stick to it, take the time to shop around and negotiate a deal with your salesperson. Who knows — you may be able to purchase a car for less than what you have budgeted and have more money left over to save.

 

Should You Lease or Finance a Car