Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #6 Protecting Your Children’s Credit and Yours

Our county school district recently announced that multiple teachers and students had their data stolen and posted on the dark web. There have been few details shared and no indication of exactly who or what is now available for others to see or purchase online. No doubt, our kids’ identities are at a higher risk now of being stolen than ever before.

In the past I’ve sporadically checked my sons’ credit reports, just to make sure no one is using them. I’m now in the process of checking their reports again and then freezing their credit.

Credit Reports

Credit reports are documents that provide details about your credit, including your credit history, activity, and current status within your credit accounts. By reviewing your credit reports, you can see if others have opened credit accounts in your name or if any companies have mistakingly reported information about your accounts to the credit reporting agencies (e.g., like credit card bills or mortgage payments not getting paid on time).

You can check your credit reports (and those of your children) for free at annualcreditreport.com. According to U.S. law, you can get one free credit report from each credit reporting agency within a 12 month period. There are three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.

If you wanted to be able to regularly check on your credit throughout the year, here’s how you could do it yourself for free. Every four months, request a credit report for each member of the family from one of the credit reporting agencies. So, for instance, in January request reports from Experian, in May go to TransUnion, and in September go to Equifax. I’d have to put this to-do item in my Cozi calendar so I wouldn’t forget.

Requesting a credit report is easy at annualcreditreport.com. You fill out a form, request which credit reporting agency you want a credit report from, and then answer a few security questions. Then you can review the report online to make sure the information presented is accurate. There are further directions on the credit report explaining what to do if you find an inaccuracy. I just requested and reviewed my credit report, and it literally took all of five minutes.

Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for more information about credit reports and how to read them.

Credit Freeze

A credit freeze stops potential creditors (like loan officers) from accessing your credit file. By placing a freeze on your credit, you can stop a bad actor from using your identity to open credit in your name (e.g., like a car loan or a credit card). Now, a credit freeze stops ALL potential creditors from accessing your credit file, and it doesn’t distinguish between illegitimate and legitimate requests. This means that you will need to unfreeze your account to access your credit (like when you want to apply for a home mortgage loan or refinance your credit card debt).

The Federal Trade Commission gives guidance on how to place a credit freeze at all three credit reporting agencies. Basically, you must visit each credit reporting agency’s website to follow their process to request a freeze. I just did it for myself, and it took about 5 minutes per site (while being regularly interrupted by Mr. 5 year old during his virtual school time).

To place a freeze on the kids’ accounts, I need to mail a letter or form, like the Minor Freeze Request Form for Equifax, to each reporting agency along with proof of their identity and mine. The other two credit reporting agencies have similar requirements, so if you collect the needed information from one credit reporting agency, you should have what you need for the others. That’s a bit of a pain in the neck, but it is manageable.

I figure the boys aren’t going to be accessing their credit any time soon, so we better protect it for them. All in, I think this task of running credit reports and freezing credit for all four of us will take me an hour or two of my time. It’s a well worth it return on investment for me to protect the entire family and give me some peace of mind.

Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash

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Reflections On How Time Is Perceived

I’m currently reading Laura Vandercam’s book Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. Of course, with that title, I couldn’t pass it up. Plus, I’ve been following Laura on her Best of Both Worlds podcast for some time. I like what she has to say.

My October book recommendations post will surely rate this book highly. But, even now, when I’m only halfway through it, it’s made me reevaluate about how I’m using my time. It’s a concept I circle back to regularly in my life, and I guess we all should revisit the idea from time to time. Am I spending time on pursuits that I value, bring joy, and make this one life we are living better for me and others?

I remember going through this reflective exercise after my older son was born. I have always been a list-maker who only feels accomplished as plans are executed. Babies and toddlers don’t follow plans. Ha! Nope, not at all. I had to shift my mindset. My goals were no longer to spend the weekends getting dishes done, laundry washed and folded, etc. as fast as possible so I could relax. My focus was on spending time with my little guy. Now the chores still needed to happen, so when my son was old enough, he helped. Sure, it made the whole endeavor take three times longer, but my perception of how I was supposed to be spending my time changed, so it didn’t matter.

I went through this exercise again right before I started this blog. It had been a daydream of mine for years to start a blog, but I never began. Oh sure, there were tons of reasons. I didn’t know how to start. No one cares what I have to say. I didn’t have the time. These were “reasons” and fears that I could overcome. After going through a time tracking exercise, I realized I did have the time to blog. I Googled a bit to figure out how to do it, picked a path, made a loose plan on what to write about, and started writing. I hope others read it, but I’ll write nonetheless.

I’m starting to get that itch again that I want to experience more in life. There are things I want to do with the kids before they are too big. There are places I want to explore around where we live that we never go to because we live here and “we can go any time.” Well, “any time” needs to happen. And as much as I want someone else to plan all of these adventures for me so I just have to show up, that’s not going to occur. I need to make the plans for any activity our family deems safe at the moment and just do it.

To begin, of course, I made a list. Then, we talked about it as a family. (What?! You don’t spend family meals planning out a bucket list of experiences!? Ha!)

I aim for the stars. “Let’s go to the Grand Canyon!”

The kids don’t know what they don’t know and ask for the familiar. It’s evidence that we’ve made some fun memories in the past that they want to repeat. “Let’s go back to the trampoline park!”

My husband likes to relive favorites with the boys. “Let’s watch the Marvel movies together.”

I think the best way to start making these happen is to consider adding them to our seasonal bucket lists posted on our command center. Every time I make the next season’s list, I’ll try to add at least one or two items from our family bucket list so they actually get the attention they deserve and start to happen.

This is my kind of thought exercise! I’m not trying to get more productive so I’m getting 6 hours of work completed in 4 hours instead. I’m thinking about how I want to spend time with my family and get more joy out of life. This is my true priority.

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #5 Tips for Making Long-Term Savings Stick

Like so many faraway goals, it is easy to say that you’ll take care of it later. I’ll lose weight after this junk food is out of the house. I’ll see my doctor after I lose 10 pounds. I’ll write a novel when I get more free time. I can fall into this trap myself, and I have many times. When it comes to our financial health, I’ve adopted a few tricks along the way to help make our long-term savings plans stick.

Right now we’re saving for some significant long-term goals including our retirement and the boys’ higher education. Now, I need to preface this post by pointing out that I was not totally on top of starting these savings funds right away. We didn’t get serious about our retirement savings and significantly up our monthly contributions until we bought our first house (and had higher incomes), and we didn’t start 529s for the kids’ college funds until Mr. 5 year old came along. My point is, it is never too late to start. Anything you do today will help tomorrow.

Tip 1: Pay Yourself First

This has been a family motto since I started collecting an allowance. The best way I’ve found to pay ourselves first has been to never even see the money. For instance, our 401K contributors through our employers come right out of our gross paychecks. We never see the money, and we don’t count it in our budget. Our budget template only accounts for take home pay.

Another way to implement this tip is to make sure your savings are fully funded for the month before spending money on any extra expenses, like restaurants, entertainment, and clothing.

Tip 2: Increase Your Savings In Time with Pay Bumps

This tip assumes some stability in your income and would be harder to do when cash flow is unpredictable. My husband and I know what month our annual performance reviews occur each year, so we schedule our retirement savings rate to automatically go up that same month each year. This way, our savings increases before we’ve had the chance to spend any of the extra money. It helps us to avoid lifestyle creep, the effect of increasing your expenses as your income rises. Items that were once luxuries can start to be viewed as needs.

Tip 3: Set Up Auto Transfers

Our children’s college funds are paid into each month on a schedule that automatically occurs without any inputs from me. My husband and I set the amount, and then it is just paid, like a bill, every month. We, of course, have the option to throw in additional money when we want as well, but it’s nice to not have to think about it. This means money is added more consistently and is able to grow more over time.

Tip 4: Don’t Let the Pursuit of Perfection Be the Enemy of the Good

In part, I delayed in setting up college savings accounts for our sons because I was afraid I’d pick the wrong type of account that would somehow screw up our chances to save enough money for them to get a benefit from the fund. Well, you know what, we weren’t doing them any favors leaving money in a low-interest savings account. Once I figured that I should stop with my analysis paralysis, I made a choice and jumped in. It seemed like a daunting task to research, select, and start funds, but it wasn’t really a chore once I began.

My point to this post is that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have a large income to start (although that certainly helps). Any systems and tips you can implement now to start, even a little bit, will make a big difference in the long term. Experiment and find what will help you reach your goals for the future.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Fall Bucket List Printable

It’s officially Fall! That means it’s time to pull out my Fall bucket list and add it to our family command center.

Our Fall Bucket List

I had to make a few tweaks to it this year, with COVID limiting some of our activities. I don’t see us going to any of the local Fall festivals this year (if they’re even open). But even without some of our Fall traditions, there’s still plenty to do. We did sneak in apple picking last weekend, so we’ve already started “falling into fun.”

If you’d like to make your own Fall bucket list, feel free to download and use my fill-in-the-blank template below.

Why do I bother making these lists? It’s simple really.

We typically only get 52 weekends a year. Divide that by four, and that means about 13 weekends of each season per year. Our boys are still young, 5 and 7 years old, but they are growing up quickly. I want to take advantage of our time together and fill our weekends with as much fun as possible. Having a list means that when I’m looking for something for us to do as a family, I have a pre-planned idea of the things we enjoy doing annually. They become our family traditions and the memories the kids will take with them after they leave home. It’s the type of intentional planning that fully embodies my reflect, plan, live attitude.

Posted in Blog

Virtual Learning Update: Tips and Early Adjustments

We are two and a half weeks into this 100% virtual learning school year, and I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised how well it is going. The teachers have been utterly fantastic, and the boys have been resilient and unfazed through it all. I realize not everyone will have or is having the same positive experience, but for us, at least, it has been fine.

Actually, I think my social butterfly does better in this virtual environment because he’s not distracted during class. He’s actually getting his classwork finished quickly instead of it piling up on him.

A few weeks ago I shared how we were preparing the kids for virtual learning. Here are some of the adjustments and new practices we adopted since then.

Get Outside Frequently

We get outside every morning before class for at least 15 minutes. We take a walk or play tag or red light, green light. It’s not a long stretch of time, but while the weather is nice I want to get them moving a bit before sitting in front of a computer for most of the day.

The boys have an hour for lunch, so I send them outside for “recess” after they eat while I clean up. After school, I encourage more outside time so they can run around and stretch their legs. We have to take advantage of the nice weather while it lasts.

Set Reminders

I mentioned previously how my husband and I are working in shifts so we get some focused work time each day. That’s still working well, but I’ve started using the kids’ magnetic drawing board to note for them who is “on duty” at the time. So, before I head for my office at 10am, I erase “Mom” from the board and write “Dad.”

I also updated our Alexa. She is no longer providing five minute warnings that class is about to start. Instead, two minutes before class officially starts she announces that class is starting now. This gets my kids into panic mode and back to the computer in time (after a quick drink or potty break or any of the other myriad of things they should have been doing during break).

Use Video

Our school district isn’t requiring the use of video for a variety of reasons, but I require my kids to have them on. They don’t always like to when they are bored, but I want the teacher to have this visual feedback. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to teach to a bunch of blank and (oftentimes muted) screens.

Stay Outside the Room Where It Happens

Don’t try to be like Aaron Burr. #HamiltonJoke

Strive to stay out of the room where the kids are “in school.” If they don’t see me, they don’t tend to “need” my help so much. I stay within earshot, but that’s it. They know where all of their classes are online, there are books by their desks, and paper and art supplies galore are nearby. They don’t usually need me unless there is a technology question, which is only a couple of times within a two-hour window now.

Put Irregular Events on Work Calendars

Both boys have a variety of weekly classes with the librarian, guidance counselor, or special services that are outside of the typical school day schedule. I’ve put all of these on my work calendar (marked as private) and my husband’s calendar so we remember to check to see if the boys logged in like they are supposed to do.

That’s about it for now! We’re at this 100% virtual situation until at least November, so we’re going to make the best of it. Staying positive has helped the adults and kids maintain their sanity. Please let me know if you have any other tips! I’ll take all of the help we can get.

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #4 Let’s Get Real on When Financial Planning Happens

Although I talk in earlier money planning series posts (1, 2, and 3) about our monthly budget and how we think about our expenses and income as monthly, I don’t personally look at our budget that often anymore. I used to do it religiously every month, particularly when my husband and I were engaged and living together. I would collect all of our receipts, sort each purchase into a category, figure out who paid for what, and then determine how much money one of us owed the other so everything shared was split 50/50. I’m pretty confident my husband thought it was a bit overboard, but we didn’t yet have merged finances and I didn’t want him to feel I was taking advantage of him. Plus, I was establishing baseline data of our spending and saving.

Now though, after over ten years of tracking our money, I look at our budget in detail every quarter. I may look more frequently if we want to make a big purchase and we need to determine if we have the finances available. Otherwise, once a quarter does it. Our spending is pretty predictable, so looking at our budget every month wasn’t changing our spending for the future. It just didn’t become worth my time to budget monthly.

You may be thinking, “But, Stephanie, don’t you have monthly bills? When do you pay those?”

I automate as much as I can: utility bills, credit card bills, cell phone, school lunch expenses, the kids’ 529 plan contributions, HOA dues, etc. Our paychecks are directly deposited in our bank accounts. Our 401K contributions are automatically withdrawn from our gross pay so we act like it doesn’t exist in our budget. In our minds, there’s no option to ever spend that money before retirement.

If I can, I put the bills on my credit card for the cash back rewards. If I can’t do that, then I have the money taken directly out of a checking account. Sure, I look at bills when they are sent to us to make sure I don’t see anything funny (purchases we didn’t make, unusually high or unusually low transactions, purchases in unexpected locations, etc.), but I’m no longer pouring through charges and receipts like I did in the early days of our marriage. Someone will contact me if my auto payment doesn’t go through, I’m sure.

Now, when I do review our budget, we tend to make financial moves afterward. We may determine to scale back house projects, make a charitable contribution, invest more, or set limits for ourselves on Christmas spending.

I think the trick here is to find a system that works for you. Create space in your life to look at the money coming in and going out at an interval that works for your family. Perhaps you want to look at your finances after every paycheck, before the first of the month, or every quarter. You do you. This quarterly financial review works for us, and that’s what counts.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Easy Family Fire Drill Topics to Cover with Kids

Several weeks ago I used the power of song to teach my boys important information like my phone number, how to spell their last name, and our home address. Last weekend we tested this information during a family fire drill, something I do with them about twice a year.

They were in the middle of playing when I started to make a loud alarm beeping noise. Mr. 7 year old immediately knew what was going on and rallied his brother to get out of the house and run to our designated meeting area (a neighbor’s tree that they can get to without crossing the street). “Forget your shoes, little brother! Just run!!”

We follow the American Red Cross guidance and review:

  • Our designated meeting place
  • How to exit the house from their bedroom while staying low and blindfolded
  • What the smoke alarm sounds like
  • How to call 911 from our house phone and cell phones
  • What you would say to the 911 dispatcher (e.g., what’s the emergency, parents’ full names, how to spell our last name, our address, etc.)
  • How to feel the door to see if it’s hot and what to do if it is
  • Do NOT hide!
  • What firefighters may look like with all their gear on and a mask

Now, I’m not painting a picture of doom and gloom with the kids so they expect a fire. There have been no nightmares or irrational fears following these drills. They are a conversation and make believe. They know it’s a serious topic, but I don’t aim to make it scary.

I forgot the whole stop, drop, and roll bit, so I’ll have to review that with them. We also have an escape ladder (thanks, Mom and Dad!), but we haven’t reviewed that with the kids either. Next time!

All in all, the whole exercise took about 10 minutes to do and made me feel better that we are prepared for a possible fire emergency.

Photo by Tobias Rehbein on Unsplash

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Money Planning Series: #3 Rundown of Our Provided Budget Template Excel File

Happy Wednesday! This is the third post in my money planning series. The first post covered our budget tracking system. The second post discussed how we integrate Mint into this system. Today’s post combines the two to some degree. I’ll start by sharing the budget template I created that models our budget tracking system.

The first thing my husband and I did when we set up this document was determine how much we wanted to have in each virtual envelope (Column B). These were definitely goal amounts in the beginning (like making sure we have a fully-funding emergency fund). It gave us goals though and helped frame our conversations about money and our priorities.

I also needed these goal amounts because I wanted to know when we should stop filling some of these envelopes. If we put a set amount of our income into our health: medical/dental virtual envelope each month, I wanted to know when it’s full and can stop putting money in there.

Next, we had to set up a plan to get to these goals without surpassing our income. We accomplished this by documenting how much we wanted to spend or save each month within each virtual envelope (Column F). This was best guess, wish list level planning at this point. (For instance, if we want to go on vacation next year to Disney World, it’s going to cost about X. There are eight months left so X/8 is how much we need to save per month.)

Next, we wanted to compare our spending and savings plan with our monthly income. Luckily for us, my husband and I are both salaried, so we have set and regular paychecks, which is our only income. However, since we are paid every two weeks, most months we receive two paychecks each and some months we earn three. I wanted to look at our budget with and without those “extra” monthly paychecks. Once we entered our take home pay per paycheck into the budget (Column H), our planned monthly payments were subtracted from our monthly incomes and we saw how much was left over or overspent.

Armed with this information, we revisited our monthly payments (Column F) and made adjustments. We decided which expenses to eliminate or reduce or discussed how we could raise our income. When we’re saving for something in particular, like a new home project we’re planning, then we may decide to cut back or temporarily stop funding some virtual envelopes (like vacations or our fun money).

Personally, I like to plan to live off 24 paychecks from each of us per year so the two extra are surprise money we can drop into any virtual envelope we want, often more dinners out, paying down debt, or gifts/charity. So, at this point in the budgeting process, I’m making sure every dollar of our monthly income is allocated to one of our virtual envelopes (Cell H17).

The first time we used the Excel budget tracking document, we had to determine how much money to put in each virtual envelope to start. We could only put money in these virtual envelopes if we had actual cash or money in the bank for them. To figure this out, we documented how money we had (Cells B42-B51) and how much money we owed (Cells C42-C50). Whatever was leftover was free to put into any virtual envelope we pleased (summed in Cell C51). Some envelopes were easy to determine. We knew our cell phone bill would be X, so we better have X in that envelope for the month. Others were more variable, like groceries or restaurant spending. (Over time we’ve used Mint’s trends feature to see how much we spend in these categories to set better targets.)

Once our virtual envelopes were filled, we double checked to ensure everything balanced out. Every month, the money we have (Cells B42-B51) has to equal the money we owe others (Cells C42-C50) plus what we owe ourselves/what’s in our virtual envelopes (Cell C51). Mint tracks how much money is in each account, so I can easily grab numbers for the spreadsheet here. If the money we have doesn’t equal what we owe others and ourselves, then the amount in each virtual envelope has to be adjusted.

So, at this point, we have goals (Column B), a plan for monthly payments (Column F), and a way to track that the amount we have doesn’t exceed the amount we other others and ourselves (Row 53). Now we’re in execution and maintenance mode. Each month we track what’s coming in and out of each virtual envelope and how we’re tracking against our goals.

Some months will have no expenses but have a monthly payment plan. In those cases, you can decide what to do with this “found” money. For instance, some months our pet expenses are $0. We are well stocked on her food and meds and there are no vet appointments. However, every month we plan to spend $67 on her care. In this case, we keep that $67 in her virtual envelope until we get to the envelope cap. This covers us when her $350 vet bills come around. Once we meet the envelope cap, the extra money goes wherever we want (typically other virtual envelopes that overran or savings categories).

And, the best part is, when I know there’s money in the budget for it, I won’t hesitate to spend it according to our plan. I can enjoy an extra night of takeout when I don’t want to cook or splurging on a gift for someone. And I feel mighty proud of us when we meet a savings goal or pay off a major debt, even if no one else ever hears about it. As Hannibal often said on The A-Team TV show and is captured in my budget template, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Considerations When Preparing Elementary Students for Virtual Learning

Virtual school is about to start for us after Labor Day, so I’ve been spending a fair amount of time thinking about how we’re going to make our 100% virtual school work for a kindergartener and second grader and two parents attempting to simultaneously work from home. Here’s my plan. (Let’s revisit this post in six weeks and laugh at how naive I may be here.)

Give Each Student Their Own Space to Limit Distractions

We are lucky to have a formal dining room available (that we’re obviously not using right now) that we can spare for the kids learning space. I’ve rearranged the furniture in there multiple times since COVID started to adjust to our needs, and we recently did so again to prepare for full-time virtual school. Since both kids will be on video conferences most of the school day (!!!), they needed to have separated spaces.

I arranged it so each kid essentially has their own “cubicle” with an old school student desk (thank you in-laws for the great gift provided pre-2020). They have been able to customize them how they like by picking where exactly to place their desks, setting up their laptops, picking out supplies, etc.

To help them (and my husband and I) stay focused, we’ve posted their schedules and other info they need to have handy next to their desks. I also wrote a note of encouragement for each boy that is posted as well.

Allow for Adjustments Based on Activity

Our kids are going to be taking all types of classes in this space, including reading, writing, physical education, and music. I attempted to consider this when creating the space by:

  • Providing a table nearby for the kids to rest the laptop on if they have to write or use other materials at their desks. Their desk space isn’t particularly big, so this is our workaround.
  • Leaving at least some empty space around the desk to allow for jumping around. I’m expecting there to be some movement breaks throughout the day, so they need space to move around.
  • Placing age appropriate books within arm’s reach of the desk. I’m sure the kids are going to be directed to digital libraries, which mine will likely favor, but I want them to have the option to pick up a paper book if they want it.
  • Having an art space in the room for them to do messy projects. I’m really hoping the school doesn’t go in this direction, but we’re prepared with an ever-covered table in the room just in case.

Foster Independence

My husband and I are going to try and get as much work done as possible during actual business hours this Fall, so we need the kids to be independent. We are not going to sit next to them throughout the day. I would go insane, and I don’t think the kids will need it. We’ll be on call if they need us though. My husband and I am fostering their independence in a few ways.

First, just like in the regular classroom, the boys each have their own pencil box that they stocked with pencils, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, and other commonly used items. They keep these in the storage space under their desks. I want them empowered to find and use the supplies they need to get their work done.

Second, we have them practice using their technology, particularly Mr. 4 year old because it’s all new to him. He has been practicing logging into his computer, using the mouse, and finding his virtual classroom. I should have him practice using headphones too.

Third, we will have established routines. Only certain scheduled breaks will be designated as snack time. I will give the kids ideas of things to do during longer unscheduled breaks by setting out puzzles, Play Doh, or LEGOs. Alexa is set up to provide reminders five minutes before each scheduled break ends. I’m going to be flexible here and adapt our routines as needed as the year unfolds.

Lastly, I incorporated common words seen in directions into our “mommy school” activities over the summer (e.g., words like write, circle, add, subtract, answer, complete, etc.). We did this because I wanted Mr. 7 year old to be independent enough to read the directions for his assignments without always asking his teacher or us what he needs to do.

Set Expectations

We’ve started talking with the boys now about what this school year is going to look like and how different is going to be. We’ve begun conversations about the need to listen to the teacher, have fun, and get your work done while you’re in school. There have been conversations about how mommy and daddy will be working while they’re at school and what that means for them.

The boys are still sharing a space, and we’ve made it clear that school happens in the dining room. I think we’re going to be stricter this Fall about school happening in that space to help compartmentalize when to work and when to play. This may be one of those things that I laugh about in six weeks because I’m not sure if it will work or end up being helpful.

Plan to Adapt

I know I’ll go into the school year with a much better mindset if I anticipate that the plan will change. We will all learn a lot as a family regarding what works for our professional, family, and school lives, and we’ll make tweaks and be better for it. This growth mindset will be the key to our survival.

As my bestie always reminds me after I call her fretting about something school related, we do hard things. We got this. And you know what, so do our kids because we will lead the way.

Posted in Blog

Money Planning Series: #2 How Mint Helps Us Budget

Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored or compensated in any way by Mint.com. These opinions are all my own.

Mint.com is one of the popular tools out there to help people manage their budgets and plan their finances. We’ve been using it for 10+ years and have incorporated into our Excel-based budgeting system. And, the best part is, it is free!

Essentially, Mint is a way to connect all of your financial accounts in one location so you can get a comprehensive look at your financial status at a glance. Mint has a variety of features built into the site that help with tracking bills, setting financial goals, managing investments, analyzing savings and spending trends, and checking your credit score.

We have used many of these features, but I’ll focus today on how we use Mint to manage our budget. The first thing to do is to log in and link views of each of your financials accounts to Mint. By linking views of each of your accounts (e.g., savings, checking, investments, debts, etc.) and listing your assets (like real estate or vehicles), you can see your net worth.

NOTE: You are not able to manage any accounts through Mint, only view them. So you can’t transfer money from your savings account to your checking account, but you can see transactions in and out of each account.

To align Mint with our Excel-based budgeting system, I then created a “budget” for each virtual envelope we use and set a monthly amount to be spent within each. Then, as each transaction posts to one of our financial accounts, it shows up in the global list of transactions. I can sort through the transitions and assign each of them to one of the “budgets.” The best part is, I can establish rules that automize a lot of this by auto-assigning purchases from certain vendors to particular categories (e.g., Wegmans purchases are always classified as groceries). It’s to the point now that I can quickly scroll through the list of monthly transactions and just double check that it’s right in a matter of minutes.

As an aside, I used to sort through receipts from big-box stores and split transactions among multiple categories (e.g., part of a Costco transaction would fall under groceries and the remaining portion household goods). I’ve moved away from this because it was too time consuming and our spending wasn’t variable enough that we were changing our spending. I now put all of the Amazon, Target, Costco, etc. purchases into one generic shopping category.

Now, you may be asking, isn’t the act of having what Mint calls “budgets” with set spending and savings amounts that you track over time essentially a budget? Well, yes. You could exclusively use Mint for your budgeting purposes and be completely set. My Excel-based budgeting system came first though, so I’ve incorporated Mint into my system. I like my system better for tracking savings though.

I use Mint as a shortcut and grab totals. For instance, I take the total monthly amount spent listed in Mint for each virtual envelope (what Mint calls “budget”) and put that number into my Excel-based budget file. Back in the day, I would enter each receipt total manually in Excel, which would take a significant amount of time. Using Mint has saved me at least an hour a month.

I think I’ll leave it there for now. I highly recommend checking out Mint to see if it will benefit you and meet your money management needs. If you have specific questions, let me know!

Photo by Abby Boggier on Unsplash