Post-Holiday Debt Blues
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If the holiday season left you with a pages-long credit card bill, you're probably feeling debt's bite. But there's no use in abstaining from fun altogether.
If December's plastic charges have turned into lengthy paper bills, put away the credit cards and turn to cash, suggests Jen Dotson, who blogs at "Thrifty Northwest Mom," a site focused on frugal deals.
In January, write down your projected expenses in a notebook or in a categorized spreadsheet and set aside cash for each category. "We have been using a cash system for the last year and it has helped us to become debt free," Dotson says.
And while you're paying down post-holiday debt, try these seven ways to spend smarter. You'll reduce expenses without denying yourself or racking up new account balances.
Instead of Winter Sports, Try Geocaching
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Don't let expensive ski apparel and tickets put the freeze on your monthly budget. Instead, try the new geocaching craze, says Lynn Colwell, co-author of the book "Celebrate Green!"
Geocachers use GPS devices and clues to discover caches (boxes or cylinders) hidden in parks, in the wilderness or on city streets. The caches contain a log for you to document your find, along with a trinket or two for swapping.
The Seattle-based company Groundspeak helps to manage geocaching hide-and-seek expeditions, and offers an iPhone application to help you find caches, available for a one-time fee of $9.99.
Geocaching is a frugal way to discover your city inexpensively. "I love discovering places I'd never normally find -- the streets I've never been down and little nooks and crannies in parks," Colwell says.
Instead of a Bookstore, Try a Library
Libraries don't just offer the books we remember from our childhood. Today, libraries offer money-saving fun for all ages, says Isra Hashmi, who blogs at "The Frugalette." Libraries offer a frugal entertainment alternative with their extensive music and DVD collections. Children and teens alike can be kept busy with library story reading, craft projects and singalongs.
Some libraries even offer passes to museums and attractions. These passes can be checked out, just like a book. "In Boston, just for having a library card, I've gotten free passes to the aquarium and zoo," Hashmi says.
Dine Out Without Breaking the Bank
While admonitions to quit eating out sound wonderful, few of us stick to beans and rice at home every night.
Hashmi's family uses two different approaches. One approach is to eat something light before they go such as a small salad or half of a sandwich. When at the restaurant, they order an appetizer, which is often less expensive than a menu item but still full-size. At the restaurant, if they do order a full meal, they ask the waiter to "take half to go," and are served only half of the portion at the restaurant.
"Restaurant portions are huge," Hashmi says. It's also better for your health and pocketbook to scale back.
Or take a cooking class to learn to saute and flambe. "Learn a skill that will end up paying for itself," says Stephanie Ann Welbes, who blogs at "The Cheap Diva." "If fashion is your passion, take a sewing or jewelry-making class," Welbes says.
Community colleges are good sources for affordable, noncredit classes that boost your knowledge without depleting your bank account.
Frugalize Your Parties
Just because it's January doesn't mean the fun needs to stop. You can invite friends and family over for gatherings but still be frugal.
Choose a daytime get-together, such as a brunch or luncheon, to celebrate birthdays or other occasions. These tend to be less expensive because you can skip the alcoholic drinks, says Stephanie Nelson, who blogs at CouponMom. "Invite fewer people and keep it casual -- chili and hamburgers rather than beef tenderloin," Nelson says. If you want to do a dinner, don't offer multiple side dishes. Instead, go for one-dishers such as enchiladas or lasagna. Watch for menu items to go on sale in the weeks before.
"Guests always remember whether or not they enjoyed the company at a get-together, not necessarily whether it was a white tablecloth affair or not," Nelson says.
Skip the Movies, Do Free Family Activities
What's going on this weekend? Give it a second thought and be creative, fun and frugal, suggests Karen Hoxmeier, blogger at MyBargainBuddy.com. The Hoxmeiers also participate in unusual free things such as touring new model homes. "When my kids were younger, they would immediately run to the bedrooms to claim theirs," Hoxmeier says.
Hoxmeier's 12-year-old son enjoys bike rides. "To make it more fun, I let him lead, and he does his best to get us lost in our neighborhood," Hoxmeier says. "My daughter, age 14, has the job of getting us back home. Besides being great exercise, it helps develop their sense of direction."
Instead of Shopping, Try Swapping
Ugh, did you receive a CD you already have on iTunes for a gift? Or another set of garden tools? The site Swap.com allows interested swappers to trade books, CDs, DVDs, apparel, electronics and even unused gift cards.
"It's a great way to recycle those not-so-favorite holiday gifts for stuff you actually want," says Jeff Bennett, CEO of Swap.com.
Historically, swapping sees a 30% surge in activity during January as people trade gifts they didn't want and clean out their closets for the new year. The only expense is shipping if your swapper isn't local to you. Locally, you also could start or join a trading club in your neighborhood with an existing moms' group or other organization.
Instead of a Vacation, Enjoy a Staycation
Is the winter-break vacation to Hawaii or Mexico impossible this year? Visit your local tourism bureau's website to find frugal "staycation" ideas. Tourism sites often offer inexpensive festivals, events and free entertainment picks such as municipal-sponsored concerts.
For something different, Welbes suggests the Factory Tours USA's website to find out whether any factories in your area offer tours. "If you look for factories that make food products, you might end up getting free food samples," Welbes says.
Local volunteering is also a way to participate in entertainment that might be out of your budget, Welbes says. For example, you could volunteer to usher at the local theater or symphony, or to take tickets at a designer house show.
"The important thing to keep in mind is that you must volunteer for a position that requires you to be on hand for the event if you want to enjoy the entertainment," Welbes says.