Sunday, 29 January 2017

On Getting Older, Frugally


There's just a whole lot of gray in my hair these days.

On top of that, the lines under my eyes don't smooth out, no matter what concoction of filler or revitalizer or primer I use. The line that I noticed crossing my forehead in my twenties has deepened and invited a couple of friends to hang out there full time.

Not to mention whiskers.

I don't want to rain on the parades of any pert twenty-somethings that might be reading this, but getting older can be ghastly. I once bragged that, for a gardener, I had no problem with cracked feet like many gardeners that I know. Within a couple months my big toe developed a painful fissure and now I struggle to keep it from getting sore whenever I work outdoors (which is basically all summer). Of course I don't have scientific proof that cracked heels or toes has anything to do with my age, but it's another glaring example of how I feel like everything is changing as I barrel towards approach forty :)

Does this mustache make my nose look big?

When I was pregnant with J I didn't colour my hair, paint my nails, or do anything that involved chemicals. Same with my second pregnancy, with O. After we had J there was really no money. When my last drop of hairspray was gone I didn't buy more. I used up all the last partial bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body wash etc that we had in the back of closets and in the bottom of suitcases. None of my clothes fit. I continued to gain weight after having the baby and, like most new moms, my world was upside down as far as sleep and routine were concerned.

I'm not complaining. Those baby years taught me a lot. For one thing, I was absolutely certain that we would be okay money-wise. I often said that at that stage I wasn't able to earn but I could do my best to save and that I did. We paid off Husband's debts, his dirt bike, his truck. This was while we had bought our very affordable house in a small time and did some updates on it. All the while, I didn't have hairspray and finally I ran out of foundation for my tired looking skin.

And I resented it.

At some point I began to feel that our success at paying off debts was coming out of my own hide, if you will. I actually signed up to sell Avon so that I could get the discount on the products that I wanted. I am still using them (got most of them for free and they've lasted all these years with my infrequent use), although I didn't cut it as a salesperson ;)

Slowly, over a few years, I began to buy a few pieces of clothing and now have a winter and summer wardrobe that, while not flashy or expensive or overly "hip", I am comfortable wearing. My friend dyes my hair in exchange for baking or meals (my mom is also a hairdresser but she's so busy all the time I try not to bother her with one more job). My point, though, is I have found that I am happier when I feel like I've pampered myself a bit or at least paid some attention to how I look. And, as a very frugal person, I think it is important to draw the line when frugality starts to make you unhappy/unappreciated.

As I see myself starting to look older, I have to acknowledge that this is the start of the next phase of my life. Yes, I'm frugal. I buy literally nothing that isn't essential or food. I especially don't buy much for myself, and that is a choice that I no longer resent. Because I have an almond scrub that I use on my face from time to time, and a tube of blue mask that makes my pores look so much better. I moisturize. I exfoliate. I use a toner and a primer and I finally threw away the eye shadow I bought in university (gross, I know).

I guess my point is, you can take care of yourself in a frugal way. I'm sure I will never get a day at the spa and I don't need that to be happy. I'm quite sure spending that much would make me ill. But I CAN do a few little things as part of my routine that make me feel better about myself. The main one is exercise and fresh air. A big one is adult conversation. And I'm finally admitting that trying to look nice makes me feel happier and there has to be a place for that in my frugal routine.

I read blogs where the women wear all thrift-store clothing and have forsaken make-up. Good on 'em. If they still feel beautiful (and believe me, they are!), then by all means I think that is wonderful. I think you need to find your comfort zone. If you are resisting cutting back on spending in one area, question why that is. In my case, I might spend $100-200 on clothes for myself in a year. Other years I might spend $0, yes, $0. This year I bought an $89 winter coat because the one I was wearing is misshapen from 2 pregnancies and I've been wearing it for over 8 years. It's very good quality and very warm (alpaca) so it's still in the closet, but...I felt dowdy. So I bought a new coat. I also got the winter boots I wanted because they were $100 less on a boxing day sale and my old ones were so worn down on the soles I kept wiping out on ice. For some people, having the money to buy new winter gear is something they dream of. I never lose sight of that. I have waited for 8 years to buy a new coat because I really didn't "need" one. This year I bought one because continuing to wear the old one had started to bring me down.

I don't want to resent the sacrifices I make for our financial goals. I also don't want to look tired and wore out.

I shop thrift stores, folks. There's not always something that fits or looks good. You put this body in a summer dress that is 10 years out of style and it is embarrassing. I don't spend much on clothing for myself but, when I do, I make sure it is something I will wear and feel good in. Yes that might be a hand-me-down from a friend or a thrift store find (love it when that happens!). But if I need a piece of clothing I will also watch for sales and shop around until I find what I need. No apologies. That is why I save. I buy absolutely nothing we don't need and I count our pennies. I do this mostly so that we have emergency funds for when Husband is not working (it's somewhat seasonal so there are down times to be expected every year). If times are tight, I am obviously not going to go buy myself something to wear. During those times I can do a home facial, using the drugstore products that I've had for years, and still feel good.

When you live frugally, especially if you are just starting out, it can get to feel like a lot of sacrifice. But a beauty regime is not much different than anything else--the more work you can do yourself, the more you can save. Buy a home waxing kit and skip the salon. Try colouring your own hair or ask your stylist if she works from home. Do your own nails. Go on Pinterest and look up a homemade facial. There are ways to pamper yourself and feel good without spending much. If you let your frugal endeavors steal your sparkle, though, there is a good chance you won't stick with it. Maybe it is better to allow yourself a few treats here and there and stick with the overall goal.

What is your opinion? Do you think it's okay to splurge a little, when the money is available of course, to feel better? And, if so, what is it that makes you feel better? Notebooks? Nice pens? A book to read? A new hairstyle? Coffee out? I'm interested!

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Weekly Column: Some (late) financial resolutions

This post was written before Christmas but was not published until the new year. It's actually interesting to read and think about new year's resolutions a few weeks after the fact--does anyone remember what they were?

Some financial new year’s resolutions

New year’s resolutions are notoriously short lived. When thinking of one’s finances, it’s foolhardy to count on a midnight wish to bring about any real change in your situation. That said, if you have run into trouble or just want to take a more serious approach to handling your money, there’s no time like the present and the start of a new year is as good a time as any to begin. Rather than just hoping things will improve, there are some strategies that will help you turn your resolutions into real action.


Perhaps you’ve heard that goal-setting is more effective when you follow the acronym SMART. If you would like to pay off a credit card, say, just the vague notion that you would like to do so doesn’t mean that you will. You stand a better chance of achieving your goal if it’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.

In our example, paying off a credit card won’t happen unless you make a plan to do so. Be specific. How are you going to come up with extra money every month to pay down the debt? Make your goal measurable: how much, realistically, can you put towards that debt every month? This goal must be attainable in that if you put every extra cent against your credit card you may end up having to use it again to cover expenses. Remind yourself why this goal is relevant to you. It may seem painful to cut back spending or take on extra work to pay off the card, but doing so is saving you the interest and allowing you to put that money towards other bills, savings or recreation. To actually succeed, you must give yourself a deadline—the time-based portion of this goal is to decide when you want the card paid off in full and then follow through.

Baby steps

Don’t set yourself up for failure. Have a realistic look at your situation and note areas where you think you can make some positive changes. Perhaps you would like to spend less on groceries. Maybe this is the year you quit smoking or use your treadmill daily. Whether your focus in the new year is on your finances, your career, your health or your relationships, you must keep your goal in the forefront of your mind to succeed. Tweaking your routine ever so slightly can contribute to your accomplishment. Park further away from the door in large parking lots and take more steps in a day. Boycott the drive thru and bring your own travel mug of coffee from home. Calculate how much you save and put that amount towards a debt. 

Educate yourself

How much time does the average person spend making funny faces on snapchat or surfing the Internet in a day? There’s a multitude of more useful things to do with your time. Rather than reading the latest celebrity gossip or checking Facebook, how about resolving to learn more about personal finance this year? If you feel you don’t have the time, try leaving your cell phone on a high shelf and retrain your attention span not to reach for it every ten minutes. You might be surprised how quickly you can read a book or magazine when you stop distracting yourself.

Track every penny

If there is one new year’s resolution that will absolutely help you get control of your money, pledge to record every cent you spend. The old expression “take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves” is as relevant today as it ever was. There is no way to put a dent in your debt load if you have no idea where your money is going every month. While your cell phone is on that high shelf, go through your bank and credit card statements and get a good look at your spending. You may be surprised how much money is trickling between your fingers.

Get help

Some problems are bigger than a new year’s resolution can handle. The stress of job loss, debt, making the mortgage and, frankly, paying for Christmas can be too much for even the strongest to bear. If you or someone you know is beginning to feel isolated and like there’s no hope, get help. This is a terrible time for some, but with support you can weather any storm. Contact the Alberta Mental Health Helpline (toll free in AB) 1-877-303-2642 if you feel you can no longer cope. Contact Credit Counselling Canada and arm yourself with trustworthy, professional financial advice. Knowing what needs to be done can’t be as bad as worrying about the unknown. Let 2017 be the year you take control of your future, whether you make resolutions or not.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Weekly Column: Have an emergency plan

Have an emergency plan

Anyone that depends on the oil patch or agriculture for their livelihood knows that during certain times of year payday just doesn’t come. An overly wet, drawn out spring break up or a disastrous harvest can leave many area residents scrambling to make their payments.

When you are self-employed, an emergency plan is a must because you aren’t eligible for unemployment. But even if you are an employee with a seemingly secure job, saving an emergency fund is an essential part of anyone’s budget. Having a line of credit with the bank does not count as an emergency fund. If you dip into your line of credit you must have the funds to pay it off before interest sets in or you’ve only managed to create a real emergency by using it. The interest may be lower than a credit card, but incurring more debt because you didn’t save is no plan at all.

What is a real emergency?

Needing winter tires in October does not constitute an emergency, and shouldn’t drain the reserves of money you have set aside for the unforeseen. The same goes for that warm vacation or the larger screen TV. Experts recommend keeping 3-6 months worth of your necessary expenses saved for calamities like illness, job loss or any event that prevents you from having an income for an extended amount of time. Seeing what has happened with the price of oil, many people can say from experience that having a year’s worth of expenses saved is a better idea.

Regular car maintenance like tires is a predictable expense. If you have a vehicle you must anticipate that it will cost you money and save accordingly. Saving for emergencies has to happen in addition to saving for regular expenses that happen in life. Yes, shingling your house will be a major expense but if you are on year 30 of a 25-year shingle it is time to start thinking about how you will pay to redo your roof.

Don’t be emergency prone

In other words, be proactive. Have a look around your house, yard and family to identify what is coming down the pipe. Is your eldest planning on college? Youngest needing braces? Maple tree touching a power line? No one is saying it’s easy to save for all of these possibilities plus the depressing prospect of losing your job, but it does take the lustre off another trip to the mall, doesn’t it? Before you spend unnecessarily on “wants”, have a realistic look at your “needs”. While expenses like mortgage, power and water are obvious in the budget, make sure that you are also saving for the less common (but no less expensive) eventualities that should not be paid for out of emergency funds.

This column is such a drag

It can be hard to squirrel away money and not touch it. Over time, people relax and begin to look at their emergency funds as spendable cash. But doesn’t it make more sense to hide that money on yourself and begin a different savings account—one that can be touched—for all the things you would like to purchase?

It’s not that you will never get to eat out again in your life. With careful saving, watching for sales and a lot of patience, hopefully you can find a balance between delaying gratification and getting your financial ducks in a row. Yes, planning for a stable future will likely mean some sacrifices now. It is a lot easier to eliminate some discretionary spending before an emergency strikes than to try to save money in a scenario of restricted income. Put off painting your house. Make do with the mismatched appliances and last year’s winter coat. Get some emergency funds in place before you spend on things that can wait.

If you’ve honestly looked at all the money you spend in a month and can find nowhere else to make cuts, pat yourself on the back and keep searching for ways to make a little extra. Divert any extra money to one of two places—paying down your debt with the highest interest rate and saving for the unforeseen.

If you regularly spend your entire paycheck without contributing to emergency savings (and don’t have any money set aside for a real crisis) please sit down with pen and paper and determine how much money you would need to pull yourself through an unexpected job loss, illness or accident.

Preparing for the worst doesn’t mean you wish for it to happen. If you are very, very lucky you may never use that emergency fund. But having it and not needing it is sure preferable to needing it and not having a penny set aside to back you up in hard times.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Sweet Sunday

We took the new camera out for a spin yesterday. By the time we had fed and bedded down the animals with extra straw (cold snap coming on) and hauled some wood, our faces were too cold so we only made it to the end of our lane before turning back. You can see how gray and dismal it can be in winter, but I do love the frost. It doesn't show up as beautifully white in these pictures although I'm sure there's some way of tinkering with them that would fix that.

My 6 year old will soon be 7 and he's been invited to a couple birthday parties of late. He was picked up by his little friend's dad and went with them to a movie a few days ago. Today he was off with a different family for laser tag and a romp at an indoor playground.

It is so very, very nice to see the little guy making friends and excited to go have an adventure without mom and little brother along. O howled to hear that he wouldn't be going, and I confess that a part of me howled to see him being driven out of the yard today. It suddenly feels too fast, this growing up thing. A couple years ago he had some health problems and wouldn't leave my side. We were lost without each other then and now what am I to do?

O needed a special day with Gramma, seeing he couldn't go to the party. Of course, it had to be without mom along too. So I happily spent the day writing, writing and writing. An entire day flew by and I didn't do housework beyond outside chores and hauling wood. I am finding more time to write, finding more time and fewer distractions. It's what I want and need. Today was bittersweet, but mostly sweet, as I had a few hours to myself and my kids had their own adventures without me.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Weekly Column: Have a Reason Why

I am indebted to bloggy friend Frugal Desperado for the original post that sparked the idea for this column. Moreover, I'm always indebted to my favorite bloggers that take time to write about their frugal adventures and also to all those that comment here. Thank you for reading and commenting!

Have a reason why

In your circle of family and friends, you can probably think of a few individuals that always seem prepared for an emergency. They don’t live a flashy life but, instead, quietly put aside money for retirement, family vacations, education and unforeseen events. Although these conversations rarely happen, if you were to ask those folks why they feel it is important to save their money you might get a variety of answers.

Many people would simply reply that it is how they were raised—living within their means and saving for a rainy day is second nature to them. Others feel that they must be self-reliant because there is no one to bail them out if they get into trouble.  Most realize that government pensions won’t be enough to live on and so are planning for their own comfortable retirement without being a burden to their children. Many want to leave their kids a legacy that will help them have a stable future. A good portion of this financially prepared crowd would say “all of the above”.

At the same time, you may know some people that do not yet have their financial wish list in place, but they are working on it. This group has come to realize that incomes can fluctuate and it’s important to control spending in order to accommodate those fluctuations.

If questioned as to why they set aside money for tomorrow rather than just living “in the moment” and spending everything they make, this group may have many of the same answers as the group discussed above. But you might also hear reasons like they need to pay off student or consumer debt in order to buy a home, they want to travel and live worry free. Perhaps they want an income property or to put their money to work for them through investments. Like their more financially stable counterparts, this group of people has a goal in mind and actively pursues it through controlling spending, paying off debt and, when possible, saving their money.

If you look hard enough, among us there is also a group of people that feels it is impossible to control their financial situation. There may be a variety of reasons for this sad outlook. Perhaps an individual is in a relationship where one spouse controls and mismanages the money. Many people were ill-prepared for the downturn in the economy and feel powerless to correct their state of affairs. Divorce, death, lawsuits, foreclosures or countless other calamities can understandably sour your viewpoint.
Even though the future may look bleak, it is still useful for people who feel buried by their finances to have reasons why they want to get things under control. Is it so your kids can have a better life? Or so that you will not have to feel worried and stressed as more bills pile up? So that you aren’t always on the brink of disaster? So that a small crisis like a flat tire doesn’t create a domino effect of overextending credit, interest charges and inability to pay for daily essentials?

For this latter group, the question is not only why—why try to get back on your feet, get in control, overcome these financial hurdles—but also how. How can you eventually count yourself among those who are consistently paying down debt and making progress towards goals like home ownership, a good credit rating, some money in the bank? Where on earth will you start?

For those who are completely overwhelmed by their financial problems, there are organizations that can help. Go to the Credit Counselling Canada website to find a credit counselor near you. Yes, it will be stressful to lay out your paperwork and truly confront your situation, but not doing so causes even more stress and ensures the trouble will follow you long into the future.

There are other community resources at your disposal. AlbertaWorks and CanSask have offices in Lloydminster to help residents with job searches, training and assistance. 3A Academy helps people improve workplace and job seeking skills. The Lloydminster Learning Council provides a number of affordable programs for the public. And don’t forget the local library as one of any community’s most important sources of information.

For those who want to reach financial stability, having a goal is the first step. Keep your goal in mind as you make a plan to achieve it. Reach out to reputable, non-profit community organizations for help. Be honest about your situation and get the referrals and resources you need. Once you have been pointed in the right direction, use your “reason why” to stay motivated. Accumulating debt can happen fast, paying it off is going to take time, hard work and commitment. Think of a good reason to get started.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

On the Homefront

We are slowly adjusting to "real life" after the haze of Christmas holidays. I really crave my routine when it is upset by things like holidays and vacations. Although the rest and visiting is great, I can't help but allow my diet and exercise to eventually slide. I did much better this year than most. Through it all I managed most evenings to do at least 10 minutes on the elliptical trainer to combat the bloat. At many of the potluck and family meals I was able to fill my plate half full with vegetables. It really did help prevent my feeling lousy and gaining a bunch of weight (3 lbs at last check).

I am slow to get a budget done. My mind is full of ideas and happy intentions but I feel like there won't actually be time to do any fancy spreadsheets or write a great post about it. Basically, the plan is pay off the camper by end of summer.

When the camper is paid off, the monthly over payments will be applied to the new truck until it is paid off. Then, the mortgage. Being mortgage free would mean we can relax and Husband doesn't have to travel far and wide working. We could afford for him to have a lower paying, local job and be home every night and do normal things like coach hockey and ball and get groceries for me ;) I could work, too, and with a double income (though probably still lower than what he makes now) we could still live comfortably and save for a decent if not adventurous retirement. These are all the plans that are rolling around in my mind. But first, the camper.

Husband has a company and I pay him out of the company account. I try to maintain the company account balance at a certain amount which includes several months worth of company expenses (money for taxes, insurances, truck payments) plus several months pay for him personally. Of course, if he is off work for any amount of time the money very quickly depletes and we revert to what I call a bare-bones budget. After years and years of doing this I don't lose sleep (as often) and I have learned to have faith that we will always get by one way or the other. I recognize that not everyone is so lucky and I can empathize with the stress they must be under. While it might sound good to have "several months" saved up, it is my goal to have a year's worth of money saved, both for ourselves and the company. An accessible way for us to save, personally, is to consistently move money into our Tax-Free Savings Accounts (a financial goal from last year was to get Husband set up with a TFSA, which I did).

Because the company is taxed at a much lower rate than we are personally, it makes more sense to leave as much money as possible in the company account and invest it from there (corporate investment account). One of my financial goals last year was to set up a corporate investment account that I could move money into when it felt safe to do so. I am very proud to say that I managed two such payments of a decent size last year.

So to clarify what all of this means, I pay Husband as little as possible because as soon as that money comes to him personally he is taxed on it at a rate of 30-35% (guessing). As long as it is in the company account, I can access it if need be but pay lower taxes (possibly around 13%? I'm hopeless with numbers). So rather than paying him lots and letting it sit in our savings account, more money is left untouched in the company account. When it rises above my magic number, I skim that off into the investment account.

Investing money from the company account into the corporate investment account rather than into our own savings and TFSA, RRSPs etc means we save on company taxes and aren't taxed personally at the higher rate. But out of our own personal money we are still contributing to Registered Education Savings Plans for our kids, each of us has RRSPs, plus our own investment portfolios (another goal was having Husband set up with personal investments in 2016. I'm starting to feel like I did pretty good last year!).

So, back to the camper.

My challenge is to hone my household budget down as strictly as possible so that I can still make a number of sizable over payments on our camper without paying Husband more out of the company account (and paying more in tax).

Since I already pay us fairly closely to what our expenses are, there won't be a pile of wiggle room but that is the challenge. Saving on groceries and reducing our discretionary spending, cutting the satellite dish come spring, doing some side jobs personally, all of this will contribute towards our goal of paying the camper off ASAP. Because of the interest. And because I am uncomfortable having more than one loan (besides our mortgage) at a time.

It is important for me to note that from the monthly amount I pay Husband I also need to save for birthdays, Christmas, 2 small vacations, skating and/or hockey as J has declared he wants to try hockey next year. I drive an 8 year old truck which will need replacing eventually. We have property taxes and home insurance due in the spring. Basically, there are a lot of things to save for. Even just writing this out has convinced me to make time to do up a proper budget to keep it all straight.

I do find this all a bit overwhelming. Without steady work we would go from possibly paying something off to, instead, being relieved that we are even able to make regular payments while paying the interest, saving less, and doing without the extras. And that could easily happen. BUT. And this is a huge BUT. Having the singular goal of paying that camper off by the fall of 2017 gives me the incentive to save more. Resist temptation. Eschew splurging on non-essentials. Get creative about making money on the side. Trade. Barter. Borrow.

I think I will leave you now and go sit down with a very sharp pencil and start combing through statements. I am sure that I can find ways to cut our spending and reach our new 2017 goals. I plan to do this by:

1) Menu-planning to save on groceries
2) Reduce fees and service charges if possible
3) Make more money on the side (future post on this subject!)
4) Have No Spending Days Weeks Months
5) Use cash back air miles and PC points to have at least one month's free groceries (put that month's grocery money towards camper)
6) Get very creative planning our family vacations to minimize spending while maximizing fun
7) Purge and sell unnecessary and unwanted belongings
8) Use cash and gift cards that we have on hand
9) Make it do or do without!

Monday, 2 January 2017

Weekly Column: Enjoy a Christmas Potluck

I am so over Christmas that I actually hate to post yet another Christmas-related column. However, thinking of the cost of food is something that we should be doing year round. I hope 2017 is off to a great start!

Enjoy a Christmas potluck

Ah, the season of over-indulgence! Christmas is a time of excess, where most of us splurge on a few extras to make the holiday special. Whether it’s decadent cream cheese dips and desserts, fancy cheeses and a nice bottle of wine, or the hostess gift that you can’t resist, those little extras can add up to a lot of money and stress before the season ends.

Even those who do their shopping early and stick to a plan can see things get out of hand when it comes to entertaining and attending all the obligatory Christmas parties and celebrations. If you haven’t factored the cost of these events into your Christmas budget, you should. A few cab rides, extra drinks and spur of the moment gift exchanges can quickly sink your budget.

It’s hard to say no at Christmas time. How do you allow your financial constraints to deprive your children of the joyful experiences of Christmas gatherings and traditions? Perhaps you can still host or attend these events but, by adjusting your expectations, make them more affordable for all involved. With careful planning, you can make just as great an impression without spending as much money.

Divide the work and cost

Be considerate. Don’t wait for your host or hostess to admit that they are struggling to put on the usual holiday feast. If a friend or family member has had a decrease in work over the last few years, assume that an offer to bring a dish or beverage to the meal will be well received. As the host, be gracious. Allow your guests to share in the work and expense of the gathering. Not only will you have more time to visit, it’s an opportunity to sample some new delicious food and swap recipes. Of course, if you suspect your guests are struggling as much or more than you are, you might gently refuse their offer or assign them a less costly item to bring.

Budget for meals, too

If you’re getting through the holidays on credit, you must factor the cost of what you are eating into your budget. Even if your prime rib days are long behind you, you can still enjoy wonderful food without going into credit card debt. Watch for in-store deals on turkeys and hams—in fact, watch the grocery flyers for all kinds of deals at this time of year. You might save substantially by shopping at a few different stores if you have the time.

The meat you serve is generally the most expensive dish in any meal. These prices are taken from 3 different local grocery flyers this week: $19.99/lb for a half rack of lamb. Compare that to leg of lamb for $7.99/lb and see how you can save just by altering your cut of meat.

Fresh Atlantic salmon will cost around $14/lb while a spiral sliced honey ham or good old ground beef are both $3.99/lb.

For just a bit more ($5/lb) you can impress your guests with an eye of round beef roast, but at 77cents/lb you really can’t beat the utility turkey. It’s no wonder turkey has long been the centerpiece of the holiday meal!

The point is not to advocate for one meat selection over another, but rather to point out how tweaking your choices at every meal can add up to a big savings in the end.

Delicious and affordable potluck ideas

If you are taking part in a potluck, don’t sweat it that you have to contribute the fanciest, most expensive dish there. Sometimes a simple offering is the biggest hit, particularly for the kids and picky eaters in the group. Consult with your hosts and offer to bring garlic bread or fresh buns, a big pot of whipped potatoes or a casserole.

 Pasta salad or coleslaw, fried rice or some homemade baked beans are a treat and not expensive to make. Crackers often go on special and can be served with some meat, cheese and pickles as a tasty appetizer, and don’t forget that a simple cake with icing is a crowd pleaser for dessert. Let good company and conversation be the star of your gathering and stop fussing about who brought the most extravagant food.

The reason for it all

If you think the quality of your holiday season depends on the fancy food you serve or the gifts you give, you’re wrong. Invite someone that might not be getting a Christmas meal this year. Remember the food bank and call men's and women's shelters to see what is needed. Stretch your dollars while also concentrating on the people you want to spend time with. Enjoy the small gestures of the season without worrying about how you will pay for it.