Janet Patton: Having a plan can limit life's costly surprises

jpatton1@herald-leader.com,Janet PattonJune 6, 2014 

Life is messy, and messy can be expensive.

You've probably heard the nursery rhyme that starts "For want of a nail, a shoe was lost" and ends with losing the whole kingdom.

Running a household can seem like that.

You are in a hurry, so you go to the grocery store without a list — and forget stuff for your kids' lunches. So you scrape something together, and they are late to school and end up outside the principal's office.

Where they start down the road to trouble. And there goes the scholarship to college.

No college. All because you forgot to make a grocery list.

That's an exaggeration, but it's pretty much the kind of refrain running through the heads of parents I know.

So, let's do all our kids a favor and make a grocery list so they can go to college.

To make that easier, let's make a meal plan. Nothing fancy, just map out four or five meals. Then make enough extra to give you some leftovers to cover a lunch or dinner or two.

One of my colleagues is famous for her "mixtures." She takes all the leftovers, mixes them together in a casserole or pot pie and calls it dinner.

This kind of personal household management philosophy isn't so much about scraping and saving, although it will save you money if you waste less.

It's about taking good care of what you have: Saving money by having a less messy life.

One way to eliminate some of the mess of life is by building in basic maintenance. Here are some suggestions.

■ Do you have a car? Routine oil changes and rotating the tires are not sexy, but they sure beat costly repairs.

■ Lucky enough to own a house? The least exciting makeover I can think of is a new roof, but it might do more for the long-term value of your property than gleaming granite countertops will.

■ Is your family in good health? Keeping your basic health needs met with annual exams, well-child checkups and visits to the dentist will protect your most valuable assets.

■ Don't forget your financial health. If you have a 401(k), look at your actual investments and consider what might need to be shifted.

■ At least once a year, sit down with your household budget and go over it line by line to see what you spend and look for ways to cut costs. If you don't have an actual budget, go through your bills. If your credit card offers a yearly total of spending by category, that can be illuminating. Seeing how much you spend at restaurants will remind you to pack a lunch. Seeing how much you put into your gas tank might convince you to keep up with that engine maintenance.

Planning can make a difference. The goal is to limit costly surprises. Is your child likely to have multiple birthday parties to attend? Buying games, books, puzzles and other gifts when they are on sale might make sense. Don't forget tape and gift wrap.

Are you going to need cookies for the bake sale, treats for the soccer team, a dish for potlucks at work? Think ahead and buy in bulk when you find a deal.

This month's homework: Sometimes simple fixes can save you big headaches. If you don't have one already, get a big, blank calendar.

(Many people find doing this electronically works out well because they can share the document with other family members, who also can update it. But if you are still a paper person or don't have access to a computer, tablet or smartphone, a no-frills office-type calendar works just fine.)

Then make it as comprehensive as you can. This needs to be more than just holidays and birthdays.

Put in all school breaks, if you have kids in school. Likewise for potential commitments for band, sports, church and after-school activities.

Don't forget vacations.

If there are definite work events that you have to have covered, put them in as well.

Put in your weekly meal plans. (You did make a meal plan, right? Keep it easy. One weekend meal might be a pot of soup or beans.)

Add your financial details, such as mortgage or rent payments, car payments, day-care or school payments, any bases you know you will have to cover.

Knowing when to expect expenses can go a long way toward keeping your finances stable and healthy.

Look for Janet Patton's smart spending column in Living on the first Saturday of each month. Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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