Monday, November 24, 2014

Increasing Your Earnings to Decrease Your Debt (or Increase Savings)

We've been working really hard over the last few years to eliminate all our debt (mortgage is next on the list, I think) and increase our savings for retirement and other long-term goals.  We've trimmed all the fat from the budget--and some would say we've gone beyond that into sacrificing.  Now, we're on to finding avenues to help us increase our earnings so we can meet our goals even faster.

Find Professional Development that is Free or Pays You

I've gotten in the habit of only accepting professional development opportunities that are free that sound fabulous, or ones that pay me.  For example, NCCAT (the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching) offers seminars to teachers for free.  You have to pay your travel, but they help with sub cost, and house and feed you like royalty.  This is a great way for me to get a little R&R on someone else's dime, while also getting some great PD that keeps my license current.

This past summer, I was accepted into the Governor's Teacher Network, which pays me a significant stipend for producing professional development for other teachers.  I can get some credit for completing their online course, while also getting paid.  The NEH has great summer opportunities for teachers all over the country and world, and they pay you to go.  I'm applying for one of their workshops this summer.  If I get accepted, it will be great because we have family in town, which means less money will be pulled from my stipend check since I won't stay in a hotel.

Now, I realize that you may not always be able to implement this strategy, and it may not work for all fields, but for teaching, this has been great.  It also helps me to make sure that I'm not giving up valuable time with my family for mediocre PD.

Ask for a Raise

As a state worker in a non-union state, I can't exactly do this, even collectively with other workers.  However, it is a strategy that works for people in other sectors.  I was blessed this year that with pay scale adjustments, I received a raise of about $150 per paycheck.  (Though I know others with different levels of experience actually had their pay reduced, which is another discussion entirely...)  If you work in a job where you can ask for a raise, and you haven't had one in a while, consider if you could request one.  Or maybe you need to work a bit harder, develop your skill set more over the next six months, get the boss's eye, and then ask for one after he sees how hard you're working.

Work a Side Gig

I recently accepted a job tutoring a younger student after school.  It will take a significant portion of my planning time, but the extra pay was worth it.  I tried to be reasonable with my fee, knowing that not all families can afford professional rates, but also knowing that my skill is more than just babysitting.  If this tutoring continues, it will add almost an extra $200 to our monthly income, which will really allow us to pay down the home equity line faster.

Many people could work a side job like this in whatever your field of expertise might be.  Maybe it's teaching music lessons, or doing yard work for someone who hates it, offering a  design consult to someone who lacks color sense, babysitting, or something else entirely.  What could you do to make an extra $20-$50 each week?

Sell Your Stuff

Or someone else's... We're not shy about taking people's cast-offs.  We find that we'll either put them to good use, or we can make a little extra cash by selling the stuff on eBay or Craigslist.  It's important if you're going to do this that you know your product.  You can't mark stuff up too much, otherwise it'll never sell.  You also won't make much if you sell it too cheaply, and it won't be worth your time.  I know some people scour yard sales and thrift shops for stuff to resell online, and have made a business doing it.  We're not to that level, but it is a strategy that has helped us pay for the "extras" we'd like, but aren't necessities, like our CSA share or new bedding.

Sell Your Space

We've rented an upstairs bedroom in our home for several years now and will begin renting our basement apartment soon.  There have been lots of benefits to this arrangement outside of finances, but the primary reason we did it was so that we could use the rental income to pretty much cover our mortgage payment each month.  I realize that not everyone may be comfortable with renting a room in your home, but we have found that it's led to some wonderful relationships that we never would have found otherwise.  As long as you're selective about where you advertise, and about who you interview for the space, then we've found it to be a great bonus in more ways than one.

All in all, I figure our extra income streams actually amount to about $800 or more per month, which is pretty impressive, since a few of them (like rental income) are pretty passive.

What could you do to increase your earnings?  Here's to living and saving green!  I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cutting Christmas Costs without the Cutting the Celebration

We've had to cut back on our overall budget in several ways, but holidays was one easy place to trim quite a bit.  I love the holidays; the decorating, wrapping, celebrating, and baking.  But our culture often tells us that the more we spend on these things, the better.  Here are a few ways we trim the budget, while not trimming the spirit.


Several years ago, we bought some lighted garland at an after Christmas sale, so it was deeply discounted.  That same year, we bought some plastic metallic ornaments, snowflakes, etc.  We use these each year to decorate the handrail to upstairs and the mantle.  I use a lot of my silver plated stuff to sprinkle in on the mantle to add more sparkle, which I already had.  Much of this stuff is sentimental too:  Grandma's silver candle sticks, a set of pottery candle sticks given to us by my aunt, a silver platter we bought at an antique store on a date one time.  I use wired ribbon to weave through things too, which can be reused each year.

We have several artificial wreaths I decorated over the years which we store in plastic bags.  This is the easiest decorating ever... just pull the bag off and hang it on the door!

Outside we do very little.  Most of this is because we don't know if it will blow away or get covered in snow or ice for weeks on end.  We do put window candles in our windows, and some years, we scavenge tree trimmings from friends to use outside.  These trimmings I stick in some all-weather flower pots (not pottery, they will crack if you have big temperature fluctuations) and fill the pot with water.  Then, the water will freeze, holding the branches in place.  You could do the same with holly branches, etc.  These just end up being more festive if we have snow fall.

Wrapping and Cards

I've gotten in the habit of saving large pieces of wrapping paper and gift bags for years.  Now we have a substantial stash, so we reuse these.  Often we reuse the wrapping paper for kids gifts, since this paper is more likely to be torn.  We also reuse tissue paper for stuffing gift bags and for wrapping stocking gifts.  My great aunt, who grew up in the Depression era, has mastered wrapping without tape, which is a skill I have yet to learn, but would love to.  These strategies save us lots of money, as well as save valuable paper resources.

We save the fronts of gift cards and Christmas cards to use as gift tags or upcycle into new Christmas cards.  I also make hand-stamped Christmas and thank you notes, which saves a ton of money over buying gift cards.  I use my ink rewards from Staples to "buy" cardstock and envelopes, so I have only the cost of the stamps and ink invested.  This year, we'll take advantage of some of the great photo deals out there on photo sites to print a family portrait to give with Christmas cards.

Gift Giving and Celebrating

When it comes to gift giving, we're all about homemade. We make jams and jellies throughout the summer and fall to give.  I've also found some recipes for homemade soup mixes, which are fun to give with a loaf of homemade bread.  Giving bread is cheaper than giving cookies because there's less sugar, chocolate, or nuts involved, all of which are expensive when compared to the cost of a bulk bag of flour.  We also make homemade vanilla extract for the bakers in the family, and I put away a few pounds of herb butter in the freezer made from herbs we grew this summer.  For some friends, they'll get a loaf of homemade French bread and a stick of herb butter.  All of these are gifts that come from the heart and are genuinely appreciated, and they cost us far less than buying something for everyone on our list.  Giving a gift certificate for services is also fun.  I gave my mom a gift certificate for a bread a month, which was really fun.  She didn't use it every month, but she did enjoy it when she took advantage, and it was nice when she was entertaining for her to not have to worry about that, but just call me to bake a loaf for her.

We also get creative about how we purchase gifts that we need to.  We use Amazon credit, I'll use Recyclebank points to give magazine subscriptions, or we'll purchase used and upcycle.  We might buy some picture frames at the thrift store and remix them into something that suits the recipient, and give a family portrait that way.

You can also get creative with celebrating.  We do lots of potlucks this season, where everyone brings their favorite holiday side dish.  Sometimes, we've done a Feliz Navidad theme, which is kind of fun and a nice departure from all the same kinds of foods.  By going potluck, it takes the pressure off the host and means everyone got at least one thing they like to eat.  By hosting, it means that we get to enjoy everyone getting together, and it's far cheaper than eating out with everyone (and less chaos since most of us have kids).


I save on baking this time of year with the same basic grocery strategies we use all year.  Buy in bulk, use coupons, shop sales, etc.  This time of year is a great time to stock up on baking necceties, though.  There are always sales and coupons for spices, brown sugar, nuts, etc.  I try to save a portion of November's grocery budget just for stocking up on baking supplies so I don't have to buy them later in the year.  I'll try to buy enough brown sugar this month with coupons and sales to last us for the year.  We'll stock the freezer with fresh cranberries this time of year so we can make cranberry muffins, bread, and cranberry chutney throughout the year.  We love all these things, and the chutney is great on bagels with cream cheese or mixed into oatmeal.  The chopped frozen cranberries are also great in popsicles or cooked with cabbage as a side dish.

How do you save green at Christmas?  I'd love to hear from you!