Budgeting for Beginners

Creating a budget can be intimidating at first, especially if you feel like math and money are not your strong suits. A lot of us tend to ignore budgeting and go on living our lives without any familiarity with the ins and outs of monthly income. Some have the misconception that budgeting will be restrictive in their life. But when you learn to make a budget and stick to it, you gain freedom and confidence. If you are a newbie to budgeting, then it’s time to buckle down and face your fear head-on.

  1. It all comes down to cash in versus cash out. Know how much you make in a month and how much you spend. This is the nitty-gritty part of the process. Get ready to roll up your sleeves and dig deep into your finances. Figure out how much income you bring home each month. Browse through your spending history. There is nothing like the perspective you get when you realize you’ve been spending an egregious amount of money every month on lattes. It’s helpful to cover a period of at least three months so you can get an average idea of your financial ebbs and flows. Not every month looks the same, even when you budget. Knowledge is power, so be as thorough as possible. Since this stage is about gauging your financial health, it is also very helpful to make a list of all your debts. Write them down in order from those that are most pressing to those that are long term.
  2. Once you wade through your financial history, it’s time to build a budget. After you figure out how much you make in a month, figure out how much of that amount you should save and how much you need to put towards debt. After figuring the amounts for savings and debt reduction (some people also add a giving category), then write down all your expenses. This includes bills and all other expenditures. Put them into categories that make sense for you. Don’t forget to add a miscellaneous category, because there is always an expense that you can’t anticipate. After you have written down all the categories and how much you should allow for each one, add them all up and make sure they are equal to your monthly income. This is the moment you’ve been sweating and probably dreading. If your expenditures are way more than what you make in a month, then this is the hard truth you need to acknowledge. But don’t freak out. There is always spending you can reduce and some you can eliminate all together. It might not be easy, but when you figure out a way to make your income and the amount you spend even, then you’ve given yourself a precious gift of freedom and confidence.
  3. Keeping track of what you’ve spent and if you are on target with your budget is essential. There are many apps to track your spending, or you can simply use a pen and paper. Another tip for keeping track of your money is to use cash. I’ve learned that the months I use cash for the categories in my budget for which it makes sense, I do a lot better. There is more of an attachment to money when you see it being spent, so it makes spontaneous spending easier to avoid. Another tip for budgeting is to find creative ways to save. Collecting your coins or cutting out a coffee run every week can really add up over time. If you are really worried about saving, then you can look for other ways to make money. If you know there will be a particularly difficult month financially, look around your house and find something to sell, or better yet, have a garage sale. Chances are you have items you don’t use that are just taking up space.

Congratulations! You’ve created a budget. Remember, even though it truly is scary to admit you don’t know or understand what is going on with your finances, it is always better to sit down and face the music. Also, don’t forget that knowledge is power, and that budgeting is the first step to gaining confidence and freedom.

Moving Again…But This Time Without Orders

Most of the time when military families move it’s because of orders. But recently, my husband and I took a little leap of faith and moved locally. We had been stuck in the renting cycle for a while, and after some thought, decided to put our VA loan to good use and buy our first house!

Our lease was ending in the spring, so we began looking for houses in December/January. We started by making a list of want we needed, wanted and our absolute deal breakers. Then we worked on our budget. This really helped us figure out how much we wanted to spend with our VA loan. I used Excel templates to compare rates, mortgages and taxes. At the end of the day, you absolutely want to make sure you’re able to afford your home. Lastly: location, location, location. We mapped out a 2- to 3-mile radius of where we wanted to be, and even though we don’t have any kids, we made sure to check the local school districts as well.

Once we had a general outline of what we were looking for and a budget, we started going to open houses. Even if we didn’t love the layout of a house, we went anyway. We did this just so we could gauge how well the places were built and get a feel for the age of them as well. Also, you might be surprised when you see a place in person. We spent about two months looking around at places and didn’t find anything that we loved. Then one night, I saw a condo online. On our checklist, it hit all the marks, but aesthetically, the place needed some TLC. On top of that, it was very overpriced. I convinced my husband and realtor to look at it with me anyway, and after seeing it, we agreed that we wanted to make an offer. We sent in a fair, but low offer based on the amount of renovations it needed. It took almost a month of negotiations with the owner, but we finally got our new home within our budget!

There was endless paperwork during the negotiation process. We were constantly with the mortgage company, inspectors and realtor. When closing day finally came, we signed more papers and got our keys. We immediately began renovations – which we mostly did ourselves – and completely transformed the house in two weeks. But our biggest misstep was packing – we completely underestimated packing. We are so used to big moves that we barely packed anything in boxes. We ended up just throwing everything into our cars and shuttling it down the road. It was a mess. Here are some takeaways from our experience:

  • Don’t underestimate your local move. Use your pro packing skills or you will end up driving in circles, literally.
  • Get your finances together ahead of time, and stick to your budget.
  • Your future house might not look exactly how you want it to – a fresh coat of paint makes a world of difference.
  • Start looking early. Look at everything because you might just change your mind.

Happy house hunting! I hope all your future home buying adventures go smoothly.

Preparing Your MilKid for (Another) New School

It’s PCS season, which means that military kids across the country are preparing to enter a new school. For some students, who move every two to three years, this is a familiar yet dreaded routine. Parents of military kids can’t erase the difficulty of starting over and making new friends … again. However, there are steps you can take to ensure your child’s transition to a new school goes as smoothly as possible.

Before the move to a new school:

  • Begin researching early. You can begin learning about a new duty station before your service member has official orders. School options will be directly related to the area where the student lives, so it’s important to research schools and housing options at the same time. You can use websites that provide school “grades” to get a general overview of local options, but do not rely solely on these reports. You will get more detailed feedback by discussing schools with local parents. Try the local base spouse groups or neighborhood groups for more reliable information. You also have the option to call potential schools and speak with the principal or administrator to see if the school is a good fit for your child. Be sure to ask about start and end dates for the school year, the enrollment process, and any requirements for transferring credits.
  • Contact a school liaison officer. An SLO (school liaison officer) is a great resource for military families. Contact the SLO at the school you are leaving to gather all essential documents for your student. Then reach out to the SLO at the new location to learn about the local school options, ask questions or get more details about the transfer process. The Department of Defense provides a list of SLO offices at edu.
  • Know your student’s rights. The Interstate Compact is a document that protects the rights of military children moving to new school districts, especially across state lines. It details the student’s ability to enroll in the appropriate grade, continue advanced courses they were previously taking, and complete exams or graduate on time. The compact also guarantees that students with special needs can continue to receive necessary treatment and services.

During the move to a new school:

  • Hand-carry essential paperwork. When moving to a new location, be sure to gather all the paperwork you will need to register your student at the new school. Do not pack these documents in boxes, because they may be lost in the move. Be sure to include shot records, recent physicals, birth certificates, income verification (service member’s LES), and the school’s application, which can usually be downloaded online. You should also hand-carry the student’s education binder discussed below. Once arriving at the new location, save a copy of the lease or mortgage or a utility bill to show proof of residency.
  • Put together an education binder. This should include at a minimum the student’s report cards, any IEP or 504 plan paperwork for the student, input from the classroom teacher, standardized test results, gifted and talented designation, plus samples of recent work. You can also include feedback from coaches or elective class teachers, any awards the student received, reading lists they have completed, and notes from Parent/Teacher conferences. Saving all this information in one place will make it easier to give new teachers and administration a quick overview of your child’s needs and abilities.
  • Discuss the school with your child. Depending on their age, your student will have different questions and fears about a new school. Take the time to listen to their concerns and discuss how you can face those challenges together at the new location. Try to put a positive aspect on the move and point out new opportunities, because it’s natural for children to focus on the negative aspects of moving and all that they are giving up. Research sports teams, extracurriculars and clubs that may interest your child and help them make new friends. Set up a tour so they can visit the new school before their first day and talk through their daily routines.

After your child begins at a new school:

  • Follow up with teacher conferences. You do not need to wait until the next scheduled parent/teacher conference to discuss things with your child’s teacher. Set up a meeting with your child’s teacher within the first few weeks of them starting at the new school. This is a good time to discuss any details of military life (moving, deployment, previous duty stations) that may be unfamiliar to the teacher. Verify the student’s placement levels and enrollment in special programs. If you have an education binder for your student, you can discuss any gaps in curriculum that they might miss between schools and decide how to best solve these.

Starting at a new school is a challenge for military students at any age, but with preparation and assistance you can help the process go more smoothly for your child.

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