Budget control 101

Controlling a family budget may be thought of as keeping a firm hand on the spending-valve. Relax your grip and the flow increases. Tighten your grip to reduce it to a trickle. Like many, I’m facing a need to cinch the valve a little tighter to get through these troublesome times. Happy-go-lucky shopping and recreational habits of the past just don’t fit my finances.

The bright side is that being mostly retired, no one can lay me off. The dim side is that my retirement fund took a hit with the market’s decline while consumer prices continue to rise. So I’m challenged to make smarter choices than I did a year ago. And I’m getting tougher. When a billing agency tries to sneak in hidden charges or exclude me from their “new low rate” they hear from me. A threat to take my business elsewhere usually fixes things.

We’re changing shopping habits. After emptying a jar of orange marmalade we picked up another for $1.00 at the north Marysville Dollar Store instead of replacing it with a $2.89 jar from our usual food market. What a deal. We also picked up a $1.00 box of snack crackers and a $1.00 back of tortilla chips while there.

Cutting spending doesn’t have to mean cutting back on nutrition. Fresh broccoli at $0.89 cents per pound is marginally more nourishing than frozen at $1.29 per pound. Replacing Cap’n Crunch with oatmeal increases nutritional benefits and cuts harmful additives at one-fourth of the cost per serving.

A general rule for highly-processed confections we sample at Costco is, don’t buy them. Though they taste delicious, the cost per serving tops the cost of home-cooking and they’re typically loaded with fats, salt and sugar. While munching down free samples I make a point of reading the nutritional bad-news on the packages to hapless food demonstrators.

Choose a bank wisely. Travelers, business-people, students, homemakers; each person has special banking needs that a carefully-selected bank will supply at a lowest cost. The fine-print on bank contracts lists overdraft fees, speedy check-clearance fees, check-deposit fees, electronic transfer fees, account inquiry fees, counter cash withdrawal fees, ATM fees, ATM inquiry fees, checkbook fees, stop-payment fees, overseas transaction fees, card replacement fees, counter check fees, certified check fees, statement fees, dormant account fees information retrieval fees, coin supply fees, coin counting fees, and more.

Different lists of charges, different charges per service. The wrong choice means needless dollars charged to monthly statements. The same holds true for credit cards. The card that might be best for careful budgeters who never let a balance carry over might be the worst choice for sloppy budgeters who run up long-term credit card debt. Check web-sources that compare benefits of different cards.

Even snowbirds are pinching pennies. If a couple flies off to the Palm Springs-Hemmet area, a car that rent in Palm Springs for $392.12 can be rented in San Diego for the same period of time from the same company for $281.14. The clerk will attempt to sell you damage insurance for $15 per day, supplemental liability insurance for 9.95 per day and personal property insurance for another $8.45. It adds to $33.40 per day which actually tops the daily rental rate for the car.

Check the terms of your car insurance policy and AAA if you are a member. Check the medical coverage and travelers’ features in your credit card contract. Drivers with good coverage won’t need supplemental insurance from a rental agency. If you think $33.40 per day is exorbitant, you are right. It would take only 420 days at that rate to match the retail price of your rental car.

I have the choice of shelling out $1.50 for a Starbucks coffee or $0.75 for my senior-special Seattle’s Best at McDonalds. It’s a small difference, but one I’ll seize even at the loss of a little ambience. Especially since Seattle’s Best coffee topped Starbucks and Tulley’s in a recent blind taste-comparison of top PNW brands.

When dining out I can choose between a waterfront restaurant with entrees ranging between $17.95 to $34.95 and house wine at $6.00 per glass or Marysville’s Christiano’s where the bill for a tasty dinner with wine totals less than half as much. Up-scale dining is down, according to the waterfront restaurant’s cashier who told me that business in her restaurant has dropped almost 30% over the same time last year.

One benefit of lean times is that kids get to witness parents modeling economic survival tactics. Working out choices of clothing, food and entertainment becomes the stuff of family conversation. Think of it as home-schooling where the cost and priority of everything from Dad’s golf to the brand of peanut butter gets a new level of scrutiny. But given their generation’s history of spending, it may be parents who suffer most from giving up habits of instant-gratification.

It seems odd that in these wacky, crazy times I should feel unafraid and optimistic. When belts are tightened, what better time to prioritize what’s truly important and re-adjust life’s focus. In a time of cautious investing, what better time to really consider how to best invest in one’s dreams. And in a time of wide-ranging armed conflicts, what better time to cultivate love and peace.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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