Welcome to Smart Living, where every month you'll find ideas to help you live smarter. We'll be talking about the daily choices we all face and ways to make the best decisions to suit our own individual situations. Then we'll look at how to stick with our well thought out plans so we can live better, happier and longer.
This month, as we move ever closer to tax time, all of us would be wise to sit back and reflect on our financial situation. All of us have dreams. Some of us may want to buy a new car or a home, to pay for more education so we can get a better job, to pay off our debt, or to retire. Others simply want to buy a really special pair of shoes.
While our financial dreams may change over time, if we hope to achieve them, the first step is to start saving for them. The importance of saving can't be overstressed. America Saves week, a campaign coordinated by the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, starts on Feb. 19. If you haven't already done so, this would be a great time to develop a plan to build your financial capacity. If you do have a financial plan, it's a good time to assess how you're doing and think about actions you can take now to make your financial dreams into your financial reality.
Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator, Cindy Reidy, leads a group through the Money Game, a fun way to begin looking at budgeting.
For those without a financial plan, the first step is to create a personal or family budget. A budget helps you look at how much money you have coming in and how much is going out each month. It will also provide an opportunity to examine exactly how much you have saved; not only for your future, but also for all those special things you want soon. As you put your budget together, you'll want to be sure you have built a financial cushion to pay for special occasions like weddings, birthdays, holidays and vacations, as well as to make sure you have enough money to cover unexpected emergencies, like a broken appliance, blown transmission or a flooded basement. Since your budget will become your road map to a rosy financial future, don't forget that a good budget will help you look at where your finances are today so you can begin to track your spending patterns. It also makes it easier to find places where you can cut back so you can build your savings.
One of the easiest ways to start saving is to activate an automatic savings plan. Think of it as a way to pay yourself. For many of us, having some, or all, of our paycheck or other income checks put directly into our bank account prevents us from quickly spending the money we'd have in our hands if we cashed our checks. Most of us spend what we see we have available. If you don't see it, you likely won't miss it - or spend it all. Instead, you can have all, or a portion, of your checks put directly into your bank account. Talk to your bank or your employer to find out how you can set up direct deposit. You can also save monthly by setting up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account, a U.S. Savings Bond or stock mutual fund.
Another good way to move toward financial security is to stop borrowing and to pay off your high cost debt. It's just way too easy to slide one of those little plastic cards and not give a second thought to how much your purchase will ultimately cost. Most people are shocked once they look closely at their credit card bills. Items often cost dramatically more than we thought they would once we add on interest charges. With accumulating interest it's not unusual to be paying for things long after we no longer have them. Think twice before you buy using credit. Is it really worth it in the long run?
In the end, we'd all be so much better off if we could train ourselves to live below our means. It helps to always be on the lookout for small ways to save. However, using a coupon to buy an item you really don't need or buying something just because it was on sale for a great price will not help your bottom line. Instead, find little ways to save on items you really need or want. Those types of savings can add up fast. For example, just think about how much you could save over the course of a year if you made your coffee at home rather than paying a premium for every cup at a drive through or if you used a refillable water bottle rather than purchasing beverages from vending machines.
As you look at your finances, don't forget the rest of your family. Make sure your kids have a piggy bank or a savings account of their own. It's never too early. Take your toddlers to the bank with you. Let your children see you save and explain to them why saving is so important. You'll set them off down a lifelong path toward achieving their dreams.
With a plan, anyone can improve their financial situation. While taking that first step can be the hardest part, once you do commit to your goals, following through gets easier every day, and more rewarding. Then one day your financial dreams will become your financial reality. So set aside some time during America Saves week to reassess your financial situation and goals. Then make a solid plan and change your life for the better.
If you're looking for more money saving ideas, call Cornell University Cooperative Extension at 664-9502, Ext. 217, to learn about upcoming classes near you.
While you're putting together or reviewing your budget, save a few pennies by serving this nourishing and comforting recipe:
Macaroni and Cheese
2 cups uncooked elbow macaroni
4 Tablespoons all-purpose white flour
2 cups fat-free milk
2 cups shredded low-fat cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 cups cooked chopped broccoli
Be creative: Add a drained can of diced tomatoes and/or chopped, cooked carrots instead of broccoli.
1. Cook macaroni, following the instructions on the package.
2. Drain the cooked macaroni and return to the pan.
3. While the macaroni is still warm, sprinkle in the flour and stir thoroughly.
4. Over medium heat, slowly stir the milk into the macaroni.
5. Add the cheese and pepper.
6. Stir over medium heat until the milk and cheese thicken into a cream sauce approximately 7-10 minutes.
7. Stir in the broccoli, heat thoroughly.
8. Taste; then add a small amount of salt if needed.
9. Refrigerate leftovers.
Yields about 6 servings.
Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1 cup, 260 Calories, 35 Calories from Fat, 3.5g Total Fat, 13.5% Calories from Fat, 2g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 10mg Cholesterol, 270mg Sodium, 39g Total Carbohydrate, 3g Dietary Fiber, 6g Sugars, 19g Protein, 15% Vitamin A, 30% Calcium, 40% Vitamin C, 10% Iron
Source: Adapted from Eating Smart, Being Active, California EFNEP and Colorado EFNEP.
Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in the OBSERVER's Sunday Lifestyles. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.