Budgets: How to Set One Up and Tips For Staying on It

Budgets are capable of striking fear into the hearts of even the most dedicated of organizers and planners. Making a list and checking it twice is far easier when it comes to buying Christmas presents than it does to budgeting for said presents. However, it is possible for even the most disorganized people to master a budget and stick to it. To do this, you need to create a budget which is within your means and simple enough to use consistently.

Write Everything Down

In order to create a budget you must first gather all of the needed data. Look at receipts, bills, paychecks, and bank statements from several months to get a grasp for how you are currently spending your money. Add up each category within the months to create totals for yourself. Evaluate your income and whether or not the way you are currently spending money fits your income. If there is an imbalance in money coming and going, look for items you may be spending too much on. Once you have done this, gather all of this data up and head to the next step.

Divide and Conquer

Once you have all of your spending, earning, and saving habits laid out in front of you, it’s time to categorize it. Start with the absolutes: your monthly income, rent, bills, savings accounts, and loan payments. These are the essentials to your budget so make sure you are setting aside enough money for these every month. Next, categorize your non-essential spending and set limits. Be firm with yourself and as specific as you need. Some people may only have an Entertainment item in their budget, while others may find it more helpful to have Movies and Leisure Activities in two separate categories. Also, some non-essentials may overlap with essential categories. For instance, Groceries may be an essential category, but Eating Out may also be a category in your non-essentials. Make sure that overlaps like this are taken into account so that you don’t cut yourself short or overfund one area.

Set Goals

Budgets are created to help people manage their money so they can accomplish more with it. As such, a budget must have a goal. Each category should have a hard limit and a plan in place for coping with overspending in one or more areas. For instance, if you have an unexpected bill from the mechanic, will you take from your Coffee Fund or from your Savings? If your goal is to save an extra five thousand dollars this year, you may want to skip the mochas that month. By keeping your goals in mind, you won’t be as likely to spend money without realizing the affect it has on your budget. Goals are also helpful in prioritizing your budget in the long term. If you are more concerned with paying off your student loans than having a nice car you may want to purchase a cheaper car with smaller monthly payments to free up money. As your goals change, your budget can change to reflect those goals.

Be Realistic

Finally, be realistic with yourself and your budget. If you find yourself overspending in the same categories each month, adjust your budget. Your budget needs to be the right fit for you. Whether that means using cash in envelopes to budget or having a detailed, two-page spreadsheet, it’s important to make your budget work for you. By doing this, you will be more likely to stick with it and accomplish your goals.


Home Equity Loans

Equity in your home is value that is just sitting there not being utilized.  For some, they are perfectly fine with accruing as much equity as they can, and do not even consider their home as an asset when making financial plans.

Reinvesting the money from your home’s equity back into your home is probably the best thing you can do with it. You are taking money from your home to make it more valuable, therefore creating more equity.  If you are looking to sell your home, you can get the work done, and pay off the loan with the sale of the house.

There are other things you can do with the money you borrow against the value in your home, but you have to proceed with caution.

  • Investments

Home equity can be used to make further investments.  However, those investments should be researched by the proper professionals.  You need to make sure your estimated return exceeds that of the amount you are being charged to borrow the money in the first place.  If your home equity loan is for, let’s say, 4%, and your return is only 2%, you are actually losing money.  With the volatility of the stock market, taking a loan to make an investment is something you should talk to a financial advisor about.

  • Use Equity as a Student loan

Using your home’s equity as a student loan may be a good move since the interest rate may be lower than a student loan. Though depending on how many kids you have, you may not be able to cover the cost of higher education solely by using a home equity loan.

  • Consolidating Credit Card Bill

It may seem like a great way to have a single payment per month, but you have to ask yourself if you think you will be getting into more debt.  If you are living beyond your means, and you take a loan to pay off debt only to get into more debt, you will be compounding your problems instead of fixing them.

  • Starting a Business

If you are going into business for yourself, your home’s equity may give you the boost you need to get started.  Before you tap into your home’s value you need to make sure that the business you have is viable.  If you take a loan against your home, then the business fails and cannot pay back the loan, you can lose your business and your home.  A bad double whammy.

A home equity line of credit can be a great way to finance upgrades or repair your home.  It is also a great reserve in the case of emergencies or a one-time expense, but be careful how you use it.  If you use the money in a way that can risk the money or the investment, you may find yourself unable to pay back the loan.  Whenever you make a major financial decision, it is best to talk to a financial advisor to have peace of mind you are making the best move you can make.


Valentine’s Day Without Breaking the Bank

Happy Valentine’s Day!  For some it is the time of year to celebrate the love you feel for that special someone in your life.  It is up there with birthdays and anniversaries when it comes to showing what the person in your life means to you.  It is a time of romance, love and appreciation.  For some, however, it is a time of wondering how, this close after the holiday season, can we possible afford an expensive dinner with presents, a night out, and a babysitter.

Have no fear!  Valentine’s Day does not have to be a drain on already stretched resources.  There are plenty of ways to celebrate your love and relationship without worrying about adding to any monetary stress.

  • Have an indoor picnic

Cuddle up with your honey at home.  An indoor picnic is more romantic and you don’t need the expensive reservations or a crowded restaurant.  If you have kids, you can wait until they are in bed for the evening.  If you have a fireplace, get the fire going and you have a perfect pre-made location.  If not, set up a coffee table with candles, a soft light, a champagne bottle and couple of glasses so you have a centerpiece that sets the rest of the meal and the evening.  Go all out with the table linens and formal table settings.  You can enjoy your dinner while relaxing on pillows around a lower table or if pillows aren’t your style, a table well prepared close by will also work rather well.

  • Have nature set the mood for you

February is cold in some parts of the country, but weather permitting, a cool walk by the beach to watch the sunset or a walk through a park under the moonlit night is just as good.  If the weather is too much or venturing away from home isn’t a possibility, enjoy the night sky from your backyard or patio.  A bottle of wine and some Valentine’s Day chocolates can round out the setting.

  • Movie Night!

Do you have kids and no babysitter?  Movie night is the way to go!  Lower the lights, get some popcorn and treats, pick out a great old movie that the family will enjoy.  After the movie, and the kids are asleep, choose the second part of the double feature and snuggle up on the couch for the remainder of the evening.

  • Be Creative and Playful

Put “I love you” notes inside balloons and leave then throughout the house and bedroom.  Have your valentine pop the balloons and share the messages.  Leave other secret love notes throughout the house, in the bathroom under the soap, in the medicine cabinet, on the mirror in the steam.  You can also send notes and pictures through text… or secretly change the wallpaper on your partner’s phone!

Valentine’s Day does not have to be expensive.  It is all about being together, celebrating each other and being in love.  Don’t worry about spending a lot of money and get creative.


Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Online TheftIdentity theft is a crime where a person steals personal information, then uses that information to commit fraud.  A stolen identity can be used to open up a credit card account, obtain other services such as a cell phone account, to file false taxes or even to obtain medical services. It can result in the victim’s credit being ruined and getting harassed by creditors or even the law for things they have not done.

Often, identity theft can happen to those whose credit is not often checked, so the thief could get away with the crime for even years at a time.  Children are particularly susceptible to identity theft since, in most cases, a person’s credit is not checked until they try to open their first credit card account.  Seniors are also at a higher risk because they are in more frequent contact with medical professionals or care-givers and staff at long term care facilities, who have access to personal information and financial documentation.

There are several things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from identity theft.

Keep your Social Security Number secure.

Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet and do not write your number down on checks.  Only give it out when necessary.

Do not respond to unsolicited requests.

If you receive an email, phone call, message or any sort of correspondence requesting you to verify any sort of personal information, do not respond.  These scams, called phishing scams, can be quite elaborate, and recently they have been clever enough to fool even the those who are usually very careful.  If you get an email from what looks to be your bank, and there is a link, attachment or a phone number, ignore all of it.  If someone calls you directly, do not give any information.  Do not give out information on any call you did not initiate and never give information through email.

Pay attention to bills, mail and receipts

Check your statements every month.  Check your bank accounts and or credit card statements.  Go through your mail to make sure you are not seeing things that you do not recognize.  Question entries you do not immediately recognize.  If fraudulent charges are caught fast enough, they are a lot easier to reverse.  You also want to be proactive.  Call your banks and credit card companies and ask about the processes in case you see fraudulent charges in the future.  If you know the process beforehand you will be better equipped to handle any situation that may come up.

Create Unique Passwords

Do not use the same passwords for different online sites.  You always hear about websites being hacked.  Most people use the same user name and passwords on multiple sites.  If they can steal user names and passwords on a small vendors site, which are usually less secure, the thieves then take those user name and password combinations and start to check out banking sites, and if they get a match, they can easily wipe you out.

Order your credit report

Order and review your credit reports once a year for everyone in your family.  Review all the entries to make sure you recognize everything.  If not, contact the company you do not recognize to figure out what is going on.

If you have been the victim of identity theft, contact one of the major credit agencies to have a fraud alert placed on your account.

Equifax: 1-888-766-0008

Experian: 1-888-397-3742

TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289

You should also contact your financial institution right away.  Identity theft could ruin your credit and cause you long term financial issues.  Do not take it lightly.  You have to protect yourself.


Setting SMART Goals

Have you made your New Year’s resolutions?  Of course, you have.  We all do it.  How long before you forget or give up on those resolutions?  Pretty quickly in most cases.  The reason that most people give up or never attain their goals is that they do not know how to set goals in the first place.  That’s right, there is a proper way to set goals.  It is great to say that you want to pay off your credit cards, save for a house or new a car, but just writing down those goals doesn’t get you any closer to achieving them.  How do you properly set goals?  You must be SMART.  No, we are not using caps to yell at you.  SMART goals are the key to success.

goals-objectivesSo, what is SMART?  For your goals to be meaningful, they should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Agreed-upon
  • Realistic
  • Time-based

SPECIFIC – Let’s talk about the common goal of paying off your credit card debt. It’s a great goal, but very general.  Most people have more than one credit card and carry quite a bit of debt. You want to be very specific in defining what you are talking about.

MEASURABLE – The first thing you need to define is how much are looking to pay off within the year.  Put a number on it.  Once you say how much of your debt you want to pay off, you have a number you can compare to at the end of the year.

AGREED-UPON – When it comes to financial goals, you are not always on your own.  If you have a spouse, significant other or a business partner, you should make sure the goal is agreed-upon by everyone. If not, you may find yourself swimming up-stream.

REALISTIC – Be realistic with your goals. You do not want to be too aggressive and set a goal that is impossible to meet, and you also don’t want to be too easy and set a goal you can achieve too quickly. Finding a balance in your objective is key.

TIME-BASED – The last thing about goal setting is goals should have a deadline.  It may be easier to break your goals into tasks and give each task a deadline. If you put a deadline in your calendar and see that it is coming up, even if the deadline is arbitrary, you are more likely work on completing the tasks.

successHere is a bonus piece of advice in goal setting: share your goals with a close friend or family member you can trust and discuss your goals and your progress on a regular basis.  If you make yourself accountable to someone else, you are more likely to see your plan through to its successful end.

Once you know how to set your goals, the sky is the limit!  Prioritize your debt by getting rid of high interest debt first, open an IRA and start to save for retirement, and use the tools at hand to help keep track of your money and budget.

These things will become so much easier if your goals are set up in a way that help you achieve success.


Easy Recipes for New Year’s Eve

Don’t look now, but we made it through most of the holidays. While some like to bring in the New Year with a big blow-out celebration, for a lot of people, it is a time to get together with friends one last time before everyone must head back to work, school or just back to their lives in general.

For those of you who are planning a party, or even a quiet movie or game night, at home or a friend’s house, we have some easy recipe ideas.  Bring in the new year with friends, family and some great food!

Turkey Taquitos

If you have never made taquitos before, then you are simply missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.  These are a favorite for any age or crowd.  They are quick and easy and taste great with a side of ranch, sour cream, or salsa.  Don’t worry about whether you have made enough because the answer is always going to be no, you haven’t.


pretzel-bitesPretzel Bites with Spicy Beer-Cheese Dip

The key to a great New Year’s Eve dish is its simplicity.  After Thanksgiving and all the December holiday gatherings, New Year’s Eve is the time to dial it back and keep it simple. This may look like a lot, but the dough is easy to make and the baking is easy, but one bit of advice, don’t add the baking soda to already boiling water unless you want to make a mess of the kitchen.  You will not be sorry.  These little treats are fantastic!


Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms

If you are talking about putting out “finger food” then you can’t pass on the fresh stuffed mushrooms!  The stuffing for the mushrooms, including sausage, scallion, Parmesan, and softened cream cheese.  It is an easy dish to make and it promises to go fast.  It is fragrant, mouth-watering and easy to make. You may need to make a second batch!


Baked Bloomin’ Onion

If there are 2 words that will instantly make your guests happy, those words are “Bloomin’ Onion”.  The reason that most of us would not make this at home is because deep frying anything is just not an easy thing to do, and there is the fact that deep frying is not good for you.  Well, now there is no excuse.  This is baked!  And it promises to be a conversation stopper.  You will still get that crispy taste you know so well without the grease or the mess.


Strawberry Champagne Cupcakes

What is New Year’s Eve without champagne?  Does it matter that this champagne is in dessert form?  Absolutely not!  These cupcakes are fun and delicious! Now when you bring in the new year, you have a choice:  you can drink your bubbly or you can eat it!



Regardless of how you spend your New Year’s Eve, we hope you have a great time!  If you decide to take our advice and try out one of these recipes, we would love to hear about how it went!  If you have your particular favorite recipe, leave us a comment below and we may just give it a try ourselves.


Gift Ideas for Your Co-worker

Buying gifts for family is hard enough.  How many times have you thought about a sibling, a parent or even your spouse and came to a complete blank as to what to buy for the holidays.  You want the gifts to be meaningful, yet personal.

If buying for family and friends is hard enough, now imagine buying gifts for coworkers.  Whether it is a friend at work or you are part of a secret Santa in the office, buying a gift for someone you only know in the office can be very difficult.   Buying a gift for a coworker can feel like it is more of a challenge, but in truth you have something major in common: you work in the same place.  If you narrow your gift ideas to the area of what would be good for your coworker at work, then you have both narrowed your search and broadened your options.  We have a few ideas you may consider:

Desk Calendar

2017-calendarSo much of work is about the schedule and deadlines.  Everyone has their online calendar where they keep their meetings, but a lot of people still like to have that physical calendar they can use to keep track of their days and count the days until their next vacation.  A calendar, whether it is a page-a-day calendar or a weekly or monthly calendar is something most people can appreciate.  If you are buying for a specific person you can also find a theme that is perfect for them, or if your gift is a part of an overall gift exchange, more generic themes can be found as well.  Just remember to keep it appropriate for the office, and if you don’t know who the final recipient will be, keep it gender neutral as well.

Coffee or Tea Gift Sets

Regardless of the type of office it is, if there is one thing that can be counted on, it is the coffee break.  Coffee is a ritual to a lot of people.  For some, it is tea.  Regardless of whether it is coffee or tea, it makes a great gift!  If you know that someone likes something specific, then it is easy enough to find it. If your coworker is a little more adventurous, you can easily find gift packs with different flavors and styles of coffee or tea.  It is a great way to liven up your coworker’s day.


Business Card Holders

With all the high-tech devices, a staple of the office is still the business card.  It is a thing that has largely gone unchanged throughout the years.  If you are in a position where you are in a lot of meetings or you are out meeting people throughout the day, you probably hand out a lot of business cards.  The last thing someone wants is to be fumbling through pockets or briefcases in the hope that they remembered to bring their cards.  Business card holders, which can easily be personalized are gifts that are very much appreciated by a person who gives and collects business cards as a part of their day.

USB Hubs

Everyone has tons of technology and sometimes we find ourselves with so many things we need to plug into few available USB slots, we must remove something to plug in something else.  There are some great and inexpensive fun USB hubs out there.  Whether it is a standard straightforward hub or one that is a little more fun, like one shaped as a rabbit, it is the perfect gift for the technophile in the office.

This is hardly a full list of possibilities when it comes to office gifts.  What are some of your ideas?  Have you received a gift from a co-worker you particularly liked?  Share it with us, we would love to hear about it!


Tips for Keeping the Costs Down on a Holiday Party

December is the month for holiday parties.  There are work parties, parties for friends and parties for family that you will not see on the holiday itself.  While ultimately these parties are a fun time, the planning can be quite stressful.  What are you going to wear?  Can you get a babysitter?
If you are hosting the party, then you have the challenge of having a great party that isn’t going to cost you a small fortune.  We have some tips for you to host a great party and keep the costs under control.

host a holiday bunch
Instead of a dinner party, make a brunch party.
When it comes down to it, eggs and hash browns are a lot less expensive than a leg of lamb.  Besides less expensive food choices, if you are not having a sit-down dinner, the party can be less formal.  Brunch menus tend to be quite simple and it is easy to set it up a buffet rather than a full several course meal.   With a buffet, you can also invite your guests to bring their own contributions.  A pot-luck meal keeps your food costs down. Most of the time people are happy to bring their own signature contribution to help liven the party!

Keep the decorations to a single theme.
You can easily blow your entire party budget on decorations.  Decide on a single theme and stick to it.  This way, even if you see that cute ornament that you otherwise might think you must have, you can pass on it since it does not fit with the theme of the party.  Sticking with a theme lets you really focus your decorating dollars effectively, getting a great effect with less money spent.

holiday_drinksHave a signature drink
Stocking a full bar can be very expensive.  If you set up and prepare a signature drink, you can cut your costs by focusing on a few key ingredients.  For people who do not like the drink you chose, you may choose to add a couple of bottles of wine.  Remember the non-alcoholic choices for the designated drivers.

Keep the entertainment focused.
The less you have to do, the more people are going to be eating and drinking.  Games have been a signature at holiday parties for generations.  They even played games in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.  Depending on the number of people you have, you can go with some old classics like charades or pick up some great group games like Scattergories, Pictionary, Apples to Apples or for the more risqué crowd, Cards Against Humanity.

The right food, drink, and decorations all help to set the mood of the party, but in the end, these are probably some of the least important things in the whole party.  People don’t remember the decorations and they don’t usually reminisce about the food in the months following the party.  They remember the laughing hysterically after someone throws just the right card in Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity.  They remember watching their friend act out “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” while playing charades. The parties thrown on a shoestring budget are usually the ones that are the most fun because you aren’t focused on the seven course meal, you get to strip away the window dressing and focus on what matters, friends and family.


Holiday Traveling

The days around Thanksgiving are the busiest travel days of the entire year.  If you are traveling by car, you should give yourself a lot of extra time to get to your destination.  Traveling can be stressful enough, add the delays and lines, if you’re traveling by plane or rail. Now… add children.

family on hikeTraveling with children doesn’t need to add to your worries. There are quite a few things you can do to mitigate or even avoid some of the issues usually associated with traveling with the young ones.

Give yourself plenty of extra time.

If you are running late, then things start to spiral out of control very quickly.  If you are with kids, even the slightest infraction from them can lead to issues.  The best way to remain calm and cool is to not be fighting against the clock.  Pack your bags and the car the night before.  Take care of as many things as you can prior to the day you are traveling.  Get your tickets and ID all together.  Print your boarding passes or download your airline’s mobile app the day before you leave.

Pack plenty of things to distract your kids and to keep them busy.

busy kid on planeDo your kids have a favorite book or video game?  Have they written their letters to Santa yet?  Everyone has all sorts of mobile devices with game and videos.  Make sure your batteries are fully charged and make sure you have your charger handy.  Even if you have set rules about the amount of time you allow your kids to be staring at a screen, now is not the time to be strict about it.

Get disposable child friendly cameras and give it to your child.  Make a game out of it.  Tell them to take pictures of things that they like.  It will not only keep them busy, but you then have a way to sit with your kids and relive the trip through their excited eyes, not just your tired and weary ones.

Plan ahead as much as possible.

The last thing you ever want when traveling with kids is unscheduled time.  If you are going to an amusement park then you are mostly set, but if you are traveling to family or another destination and you haven’t figured out your itinerary, then you could be in trouble. While you do have your mobile devices to use as distraction during travel times, it doesn’t have be to your go-to.  Do your research and find local attractions and places to go.  The secret is to keep them moving.

Use public transportation if possible.

mother and son on trainThis one may sound a little weird, but especially for kids that do not usually travel by bus, train or ferry, it is a great novelty and can be very exciting for them.  If you are worried about the crowds, invest in a child locator just in case you get separated.

If you are traveling by car, have family games, songs and conversations at the ready in case of delays.

Have you ever played the license plate game?  Who can spot the most plates from different states?  For the younger kids, I Spy is always popular.  Punch Buggy is always fun, except we would recommend a highly modified version of the game that removes the punching.

The object of traveling is fun, family and relaxation.  Don’t let the travel that bookends the trip cause stress so you either can’t enjoy your trip or lose the calm you gained from being away.  Traveling with kids is all about the planning.  The more planning you do, the better off you will be.  Have a great Thanksgiving and travel safe!


Healthier Thanksgiving Recipes

Thanksgiving will be here before you know it. Plans are being made and everyone is trying to figure out what they are going to cook for the big dinner. While everyone has their take on the holiday, the menu is almost as traditional as the holiday itself. Sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, pumpkin pie, and of course, turkey are staples that can be found at almost every Thanksgiving meal. Another tradition on Thanksgiving is eating entirely too much of everything. In the spirit of not overdoing it, here are some healthy options to some of the Thanksgiving classics.

Sweet Potato Casserole

We love sweet potato, and a casserole is just amazing but the typical recipe is loaded with gobs and gobs of butter, not to mention marshmallows, which some people can take or leave. This amazing recipe is vegan, so it is dairy-free, gluten-free, and naturally sweetened. It is also going to be one of the best side dishes you will ever experience.


Green Bean CasseroleSweet Potato Casserole

Around here, the green bean casserole is just as important as the turkey itself. It is not officially a Thanksgiving dinner until this dish is served. The problem with how this dish is usually made is that people use processed soup mix or canned veggies. This version gets rid of all the processed foods and canned onions and the result is a casserole unlike anything you have ever had.


Pumpkin Pie Dip

A pie dip? You might be thinking we have lost our minds. Well, perhaps. Face it, there is going to be pie. There is no way around it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an alternative that does not have all the heavy carbs in the crust. Basically, make the pie, and just leave out the crust. And it is extremely easy to make. Serve with it ginger snaps and you are good to go!

Pumpkin Pie Dip


Wild Rice and Cranberry Dressing

What is the turkey without the side dish of stuffing? Everyone has stuffing, but no two recipes are ever the same. When you hear about recipes being a secret, one of those recipes is usually the stuffing. The problem with stuffing is in the name. It is how you feel after you have the stuffing. This healthy alternative has wild rice, is studded with tart cranberries and vibrant green herbs.


Herb-Roasted TurkeyHerb-Roasted Turkey

Turkey is generally healthy to begin with, but leave it to us to take it and do something like wrap it in bacon. It might sound good, but bacon isn’t exactly a health food. This Herb-Roasted turkey not only looks good, but keeps the turkey nice and moist. You are going to want to show off this bird before you carve it.


We hope we’ve inspired you to take a good look at the recipes you choose. If you have your own healthy choices, we would love to see them.

From everyone here at UNCLE Credit Union, Happy Thanksgiving!