Tag Archives: lessons learned

How to break the cycle of paycheck-to-paycheck living

This post was originally published on June 8, 2010.

Paycheck-to-paycheck living has become all too common, especially in this economic climate. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle, and when you’re in the middle of it, it can feel impossible to break out of it. It seems that every time you start to get ahead, there’s a car problem or a medical emergency or some other sudden expense that lands you right back where you started. I know from personal experience.

Nothing reminds you of how unsustainable paycheck-to-paycheck living is like losing your income. My husband and I supplemented a low income with our savings account for 8 months in 2010, and I can’t help but think about how different our situation would be if we hadn’t broken free of the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.

The good news is, it’s not impossible to break the cycle. It takes time and patience and perseverance, but you can dig yourself out of the rut of paycheck-to-paycheck living. Here’s how:

Stop blaming your income.

One of the biggest complaints of people living paycheck-to-paycheck is that they simply don’t make enough money. It’s easy to tell yourself that your income is the problem, and that making more money is the answer. The problem with that line of thinking is that lifestyle inflation usually goes hand-in-hand with income increases when you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck. The sad truth is that it doesn’t matter what you make; you will find a way to spend it all. So stop blaming your income, and start thinking of ways to fix your situation now.

I know there are people who legitimately struggle with low income. If you’re in that situation, and you’re taking advantage of all of the government programs available to help you get back on your feet and still struggling, the only advice I can give you is do what you can to survive for now. It won’t last forever. But someday when you’re earning more, remember this time. It will motivate you to save a cushion that will protect you from going through this again.

Spend less than you make.

If you’re stuck in a paycheck-to-paycheck rut, the only way to start digging your way out is to start spending less than you make. The very first step is to build a budget and cut any and all unnecessary expenses. If you’re ever going to get ahead, you need to free up some money in your budget to give yourself a cushion. Take a serious look at your spending habits. If you’re struggling to make ends meet, it’s likely that you’re overspending.

If you’ve taken a serious look at your finances, and you continue to struggle despite the fact that you’re not eating out or making unnecessary purchases, it’s possible you fall into an income category that could qualify you for government assistance. Consider taking advantage of those programs to help you dig your way out of your rut.

Save for emergencies.

If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, this scenario is probably familiar: every month, you try to put money in the bank, and every month something comes up that forces you to clear out your savings account. Before you can truly break the cycle, you need to be prepared for emergencies. Once you’ve cut your spending, start putting every extra cent into savings. Don’t be discouraged if you hit a few setbacks. Just keep saving. Eventually, you’ll build a cushion of $1,000-$2,000 for financial emergencies.

Pay this month’s bills with last month’s paycheck.

The ultimate goal is to get ahead of your expenses. Once you’ve saved for emergencies, it’s time to build a cushion on your checking account. If you’ve built a budget, then you should know approximately how much you spend each month. Instead of spending extra money, put it aside to put yourself ahead. Once you’ve saved an entire month’s worth of expenses, you’ll no longer be waiting until payday to send a check or restock the refrigerator.

Be disciplined.

When you’ve got several thousand dollars in the bank, it can be hard not to feel so confident in your finances that you go right back to your overspending ways. Remember, though, your savings doesn’t change your income. What I mean is, if your paychecks equal $3,000 a month, and you have $5,000 in the bank, it may feel like you can spend $3,500 a month. But remember, your savings won’t last forever, and you’ll end up right back where you started in four months. Budget according to your monthly income. If an emergency forces you to tap your emergency savings, be diligent about replenishing what you spent. Otherwise, you’ll end up living paycheck-to-paycheck again.

How I fail every day

In the past few weeks, I’ve made a few new wonderful friends in my community. We met through a playgroup at the public library, and they’ve become a wonderful support network not to mention a fun social outlet for me. I’ve shared this blog with them, and last week a conversation with one of my new friends made me realize that I may be failing my readers. Big time.

“You can never see my house! I read your blog,” she told me. Her point was that she feels disorganized and messy compared to the posts I write about organization and simple living.

I should say here that I have seen her house since that conversation (she welcomed my family into her home to hide in her basement during last week’s storms), and it was nowhere near as bad as she made it seem. She’s become a dear friend to me, and I’m not writing this post to make her feel bad (if you’re reading this, do NOT feel bad). But she made me realize something: my readers only see part of the story. I’m not purposely deceiving you guys, but I think of you as guests in my life. Of course I shine everything up and make it look pretty before you come over.

When I write about organization, simplicity, parenting, and even money, I write about what I strive to be. I don’t think I make myself look perfect, but I definitely do make myself look better than I am. Don’t we all put our best feet forward in public? I’m nowhere near where I want to be, though. Not by a long shot.

Over the past four years, the readers of this blog have built me up, supported me, and helped me to become a better wife, a better mother, and a better person. The very last thing in the world that I want is to make any of you feel inadequate.

So I want to share with you some of the ways that I fail, and how I want to become better.

I’m not as organized as I seem.

Like I said, what I write here is what I strive to be. It’s true that I’m pretty tidy in general when it comes to our living space, but when I write about organization tips, I’m sharing the ideas I’ve had for how I can get better. In a perfect world, I would follow these tips to the tee. I don’t, though. My drawers are overstuffed with clothing. My closets are packed to the brim (and sometimes so stuffed that they’re hazardous to open). I’m trying to get better, and when I write here about organization, it motivates me to get it together.

I’m thankful that children are so forgiving of their mothers.

I love my son and I’m so thankful to have him in my life — that much is absolutely true. But when I write glowing posts about the joys of motherhood, I leave out a lot of the normal challenges. He is a toddler now, and he can be frustrating. Sometimes, he drives me absolutely bonkers. I feel terrible admitting it, but I have raised my voice at times when he’s repeatedly getting into things, even though I know he’s not able to understand why I’m angry and I know that kind of discipline doesn’t work. I try to interact with him and play with him as much as I can, but there are days when I’m exhausted, sick, or busy and he watches one too many episodes of Sesame Street. I learn from my mistakes, and I like to think I’m becoming a better mother every day. I certainly don’t think my failures are doing any permanent damage, but I do fail him daily. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

My financial choices aren’t always the “right” ones.

This is admittedly a particularly sensitive subject for me, because I have gotten comments from trolls in the past, and the last thing I want is to get so sensitive about it that I don’t want to write about my personal finances at all (on what is supposed to be a money blog). But here are a few choices I’ve made that I know aren’t considered “right” by most finance experts:

  • We’re not in a huge hurry to pay off our remaining student loan debt. In fact, we took a big vacation to Europe, had a baby, and bought a house while making minimum payments on that debt. I have no regrets, but I know I have readers who feel this choice is irresponsible.
  • We financed a used car last year instead of saving to pay with cash.
  • We bought a house before we had a full 20% down payment.
  • We purposely set our tax withholding too high, because we’d rather receive a refund than a tax bill every year.

I’m sure there are other choices I’ve made that personal finance experts don’t agree with me on, but I’ve always stressed on this blog — my financial choices are my own. They have worked for my family, and even if we’re not perfect, our goal is to strike a balance between smart financial choices and quality of life. Could we build wealth faster if we squirreled away every last penny into savings? Sure, but it’s not for us, not at this point in our lives. So we save some, spend some, and try to balance future security with present happiness.

I don’t always make healthy choices.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you now: I don’t know exactly how much weight I gained during my pregnancy with Judah, but I stopped looking at the scale after I’d gained 60 pounds, and that was only 2/3rd of the way through my pregnancy. I’m still struggling to lose quite a bit of that weight. It’s true that I try to eat healthy and exercise, but there are days when I hit the snooze button instead of rolling out of bed at 5 a.m. to go to the gym. There are days when I eat one (or four) too many cookies. And yes, sometimes all I want in the world is a cheeseburger and french fries. If I didn’t make the wrong choices a lot of the time, I would have been back at my ideal weight months ago. But I really do just love a good cheeseburger.

As for Judah, I had all kinds of plans for his diet when I was pregnant. He was going to eat organic fruits and vegetables, no processed food, organic milk, yada yada yada. Then he started having weight gain issues. We offer him fruits and vegetables at every meal, but the truth is, he doesn’t eat them as well as I’d like. When he fell of the charts for weight, I was so desperate for him to eat anything that I became much more lax with his diet than I’d like. I let him eat chicken nuggets and other processed foods, because he would eat them, and all I wanted was for him to gain weight.

He’s been doing a lot better with his weight recently, so I’ve been encouraging him to eat more vegetables, but his diet isn’t perfect. I let him eat Teddy Grahams and Goldfish crackers and, yes, chicken nuggets (they’re not even homemade or organic!). It’s another area where we strive for balance. I don’t think any picky 15-month-old eats a perfectly balanced diet, but we’re trying. We do our best to set a good example, and that’s the most important thing, I think.

I struggle with chronic anxiety and depression.

I try to keep things positive around here. The last thing I want to do is complain because I know just how blessed I am. But the truth is, I do struggle with an anxiety disorder and at times in my life I’ve been clinically depressed. I don’t tell you this for sympathy, but I hope those of you who struggle with these disorders (they’re common, to be sure) can relate to me a little better. I am happy overall (at least I have no reason to be unhappy), healthy, and blessed, but there are days when I feel sorry for myself for no reason at all. Even if you don’t struggle with anxiety or depression, we all have bad days. I am no exception.

The point of this post isn’t to beat myself up by any means. I’m proud of a lot of things about my life, and I like to write about what makes me proud. I don’t focus on my failures on this blog, because I think we should all focus on what’s positive about ourselves and our lives even as we strive to be better. But I wanted to be honest and clear with you guys that even though I don’t write about it all the time, I fail daily. No one is perfect all the time, and my life isn’t always sunshine and daffodils.

We all have weaknesses, but we also have strengths. I choose to focus on my strengths on this blog, and I strive to focus on my strengths in life. I think if we can all succeed at that, we’ll be much happier and healthier.

Photo credit

Why my failed 365 Project was really a success

Last year aside from my standing resolution to eat healthier and lose weight (pfft), I resolved to take at least one photo every day. This is known as the 365 Project, and people all over the Internetz and Flickr participate in it every year.

My motivation lasted longer than pretty much any other resolution I’ve ever made. I took a daily photo (skipping a few days here and there) until the middle of July. Even though I only made it halfway through the year, I learned so much. Here are a few things I took away from the project, and why I believe everyone with an interest in photography should attempt to do it.

It made me a better photographer.

When I look at the photos I took at the beginning of the year and the photos I take now, I am blown away at how much better my photos have gotten. At the beginning of the year, I used the terrible built-in flash on my camera for indoor photos, which washed everything out. Now I shoot in RAW, color correct photos in Photoshop, and I’ve learned better angles and techniques for getting the shots I want.

I learned that special occasions aren’t the only moments worth capturing.

I had two goals when I started the project: I wanted to take better pictures, and I wanted to take more pictures. Judah was 5 weeks old when I started the project. I felt like he was growing so quickly, and I wanted to create a permanent time capsule to remember him at each stage. Because I was always on the lookout for a daily photo, I learned to view everyday moments as photo-worthy. Some of my favorite pictures were taken on some of our most boring days around the house. But those are the moments that we most easily forget, I think. That’s why it’s so important to photograph them.

I learned not to force it.

Some of my least favorite photos were taken at the last minute when I said, “Oh, crap. I never took a photo today!” When you’re trying to take a photo each day, there will inevitably be days when nothing photo-worthy happens, or when you don’t feel well, or you’re just too busy to remember to pick up your camera. I don’t regret taking these last minute photos, because it doesn’t hurt to have them, but I learned not to waste my time forcing photo shoots if I’m not feeling inspired.

I learned the importance of editing, deleting, and organizing photos.

I already had a pretty good process in place for editing and organizing photos before I began the project, but when you’re processing 100-200 photos a week like I was at the beginning of the project, you realize just how important it is to delete the doubles and bad photos, edit the good ones, save them in an organized way, and back them up in multiple places.

If you’re dumping every photo you take into a folder on your hard drive, I urge you to resolve to stop doing that in the new year! You are killing your storage space with photos that aren’t worth keeping, making it harder to find the good photos, and the more time passes before organizing them, the harder it becomes to delete even bad photos. Every photographer takes five or ten or even twenty bad photos for every good one. Delete the photos that aren’t worth saving, and organize the ones that are!

I learned that the secret of taking good photos is taking a lot of photos.

I am the first to admit that I’m not a great photographer, especially when it comes to my wiggly baby who refuses to sit still. Most of my favorite photos were taken by holding down the button, and taking 10 photos in a row while Judah runs wild. At the end of many photo shoots, I was convinced that I didn’t have a single good photo. But when I went through and edited them, I was surprised to find a lot of good ones. If I hadn’t taken a million photos, I wouldn’t have gotten those good shots. I am not ashamed to admit that many of my best photos are taken totally by accident. My New Year’s resolution for 2012 is to take more good photos on purpose. For now, I’m just happy to have some of the shots that I took accidentally.

If you’ve never tried the 365 Project, you want to improve your photography skills, or just force yourself to take more photos, I definitely thing you should do it! You will be amazed at how much you learn, even if you end up quitting halfway through the year like me.

You can see all the photos I took this year here. I’ll also have my yearly slideshow ready sometime after the 1st. :)

Have you ever tried the 365 Project? What did you learn?

Is sticking to your budget hurting your savings account?

This post was originally published September 3, 2009.

piggy bank

“Wait, wait,” you’re saying. “Budgeting helps you make better decisions with your money, which should be helping your savings account. Isn’t that the whole point?!” And you’re absolutely right.


This summer, I learned a valuable lesson that I want to share with you. Sometimes being too rigid in your budget can actually lead you to make bad budget decisions.

This isn’t one of those posts about how you need to treat yourself every now and then to avoid burn out. This is about how sticking to a budget can sometimes make extra money feel, well, extra. And if it’s extra, why not just spend it? You deserve it after all that hard work budgeting, right? The problem is, this mindset can prevent you from growing your savings account.

I am constantly vowing to use the snowflaking method to increase my savings, but my strict budget gets in the way. If I receive unexpected “extra money” in the middle of the month, I often end up spending it. After all, this is extra money. I’m technically sticking to my budget, right? So I can spend this money on whatever I want.

It’s a bad habit, and it’s slowing down our savings progress. If we saved this extra money instead of spending it, we would be saving a lot more.

So how do we break this bad habit? I have a plan. Part of the problem is that I feel compelled to make a plan for unexpected money right away. Whether it’s $10 or $100, I decide how to spend it immediately, and more often than not it involves spending it on something we don’t need because, hey, it’s “extra.”

From now on, unexpected money will be deposited and ignored until the following month when it can be added to the budget. It’s much easier for me to commit money to savings when I’m creating a budget than it is for me to commit unexpected money to savings when the budget has already been set for the month.

I’m hoping that adding it to a budget will help me view it as part of our income instead of “extra money.” I’m much less likely to spend our regular income than I am to spend money that I don’t include as part of our income.

Is this a problem you face? How do you combat “extra money syndrome”?

Photo by alancleaver

Three years of blogging

Early in August, this blog passed a milestone, and it didn’t even occur to me until a few days ago that I missed it. As of August 3, this blog is three years old.

Normally when a birthday passes, people marvel, “Where has the time gone? It seems like only yesterday.” In this case, I don’t feel that way AT ALL. Instead, I’m all, “Seriously? It’s only been three years?! It feels like AT LEAST ten!”

My life is so drastically different now, it’s amazing to me that it was only three short years ago that I wrote the first post. For starters, just look at how skinny I was in the picture on the right — taken the night before my wedding a little over a month before I started blogging. Pfft.

  • My husband and I were newlyweds and child-free.
  • I was working full time while my husband was in grad school.
  • We lived in North Carolina.
  • We carried a large enough balance on our credit cards that we couldn’t pay it off in a month (though we were already well on our way to paying it off, and we’d drastically reduced our credit card debt in the year before I started blogging).
  • We were renters with no plans to buy a home for the foreseeable future.
  • We had no savings, no budget, and no financial plan.
  • The idea of saving money for an emergency fund, a down payment on a home, and our future was so overwhelming that I remember feeling like it was impossible.

I don’t feel like the same person I was when I started this blog. Probably because I’m really not!

  • I’m a mama now, which I suppose is the biggest change.
  • My husband and I have swapped roles, as I’m a stay-at-home mom while he brings home the bacon.
  • We live in Indiana again (and we couldn’t be happier about it!)
  • We no longer carry a balance on our credit cards.
  • We’re homeowners.
  • We have a healthy emergency fund.

Most importantly, the past three years have taught me that no financial goal is impossible. Sure, it can be overwhelming, but if we’ve been able to make it work on our income, you can, too!

We’re a single-income household earning pretty close to the median income for our area. And yet careful budgeting, prioritizing, and planning allow us to live comfortably — even afford some little luxuries — without living paycheck-to-paycheck.

It’s amazing how much can change in three years. I wonder what the next three years have in store for us! I have a few new goals:

  • Now that we’re homeowners, our focus is shifting to finally paying off our student loan debt.
  • We’d like to increase our emergency fund savings to provide extra protection now that we have a mortgage to pay.
  • We also have a list of home improvement projects we’d like to undertake once we’ve saved the cash.
  • Totally unrelated to our finances, I’d like to be that skinny again. Whether that’s possible remains to be seen. Oof.

I hope you’ll stick around to find out what the next three years brings. I plan to keep writing as long as you keep reading. Actually, for the first 6 months or so, no one was reading, and I kept writing anyway. So I guess I’ll be around as long as I’ve got something to say, whether anyone wants to read it or not. :)

Are you managing your money, or is it managing you?

budgetingWhile visiting my best friend last weekend, we had an interesting discussion about budgeting. She and her husband are in the same place Tony and I were when we decided to start living frugally. They’re looking for ways to cut back after moving to a new city and taking a pay cut. Like a lot of 20-somethings, they have a lot of aspirations for their money, and they’re looking to make their dreams come true faster by saving more and spending less. They’re definitely on the right track.

During the conversation, we came to a conclusion that I think explains proper budgeting more simply than any way I’ve tried before: The problem is that many people choose the lifestyle they want, and they try to earn enough or stretch their money so they can live that lifestyle. Proper budgeting is the other way around. You need to look at how much money you have, and determine the lifestyle you can live with it.

This is the number one mistake I see new budgeters making. If you’re trying to make your income match the lifestyle you want, you’re setting yourself up for a life of debt, paycheck-to-paycheck living, and constantly feeling behind financially. Proper budgeting is about finding the best balance for spending the money you have.

Controlling my budget this way also makes it easier to increase savings. Extra money shows up as a surplus in our budget. I’m already used to getting by on less, so I’m more likely to throw extra money into savings. If I was constantly working on a deficit, that money would just be eaten up by daily spending.

I’m not against working harder to increase your income if you can do that. But don’t budget for that lifestyle until the money is in the bank.

Zero-based budgeting is the easiest way I’ve found to do this. If you’re setting up your first budget, don’t look at expenses first; look at income. Zero-based budgeting forces you to divvy up your income based on exactly what you earn. It allows for greater flexibility in your income. Some months you may earn more. Some months you have extra expenses. Creating a budget every month based on the money you have allows you to stay in control.

Remember, budgeting is about controlling your money. If you feel like you’re not in control of your money, it’s time to reevaluate your budget.

This article from my partners at Debt Advisory Centre * provides a little more budgeting advice.

Photo by think panama

*This post includes a link from one of my partners.

Breaking a lease — how I avoided a $1500 termination fee

This post is based only on my personal experience. I am not a legal expert, and nothing written here should be considered legal advice. If you have a legal issue, always seek the advice of a legal professional licensed in your state.

One of the only cons about buying our house when we did is that we were locked into a lease until next January. We had the option to terminate, but I decided we’d only do that if we found a really special house for a great price, because breaking our lease was expensive. According to our lease, we had to pay a termination fee equal to two months rent.

Of course, we did find a special house for a great price, and interest rates were extremely low, so we decided it was worth the extra cost to buy this house and terminate our lease. I never regretted our decision, because I love our house, and I know it wouldn’t have been on the market by January.

A friend from high school who is a lawyer saw me talking about the apartment lease termination fee in a Facebook post, and she contacted me to offer her advice. “Those termination fees aren’t legal,” she told me.

Here’s what she said: when a contract is broken in my state (Indiana), the other party cannot hold you responsible for any more money than they actually lost as a result of the broken contract. If I break the lease, and someone moves in immediately, they can’t charge me two months rent, because they didn’t lose the equivalent of two months rent due to the broken lease.

Theoretically, I could have been responsible for rent payments for the remainder of our broken lease, but ONLY if the apartment complex made their best efforts to fill the vacant unit and it remained vacant. I knew that wouldn’t be the case, because my landlord made a big deal about the fact that ours was the only available 2-bedroom unit, and she thought it would rent quickly. Landlords are also not allowed to collect rent from two tenants simultaneously.

I was nervous and skeptical about it. It’s not that I didn’t trust that my friend was right. I just assumed that it would take a long legal battle (read: lawyer and court fees) to get out of the fee. I wasn’t interested in going to court. In the end, I was concerned that I’d spend more time and money fighting it than I would if I just paid it. So I sent the check.

My friend suggested that if I didn’t want to deal with a legal battle, I should just give them a little resistance and see how they reacted. Oftentimes, landlords know these fees aren’t legal, so if you give them even just a little push back, they’ll let it go.

“Landlords do this sort of thing all the time. They know it’s void, but they don’t expect anyone to question it, so they’re usually able to collect the fee without problems.”

That made me angry. I hate to think that landlords are collecting all this money from people simply because most of us don’t know our rights.

Two weeks later, I went to the move-out inspection. Things had calmed down a lot, and I regretted that I hadn’t fought the fee. It was a lot of money. After the inspection, I brought it up.

“I’m confused about the termination fee,” I said. “The way I understand it, it’s illegal to collect double rent. How is the termination fee not double rent if you have another renter living in the apartment?”

She seemed caught off guard by my question. I honestly don’t think very many people had ever questioned it. It’s in the lease, so they think it’s set in stone. Like me, they don’t know their rights.

“We don’t charge double rent,” she said. “If someone moves into the apartment right away, we don’t charge a termination fee.”

Huh. That’s funny. Because she was the one who told me there was no way out of the fee, and in the same breath, she told me our apartment was the only 2-bedroom available and it wouldn’t take long to rent it.

“If you find a new tenant sooner than two months, I should get a refund for the remainder of the two months I paid for my termination fee then, correct?”

“Yes, but I doubt we’ll have a new tenant that soon,” she told me.

Do you know for sure that you haven’t found a new tenant yet? I asked. “I don’t know. I’d have to check,” she said.

She didn’t seem to be in a big hurry to check. I followed her back to the office, and before I left, I asked her to check. Sure enough, a new tenant was scheduled to move in two weeks after we moved out.

“Great! How much money will I get, and when will I receive it?” I said.

She acted really funny about the situation. She went into the other leasing manager’s office, and closed the door. I waited. Ten minutes later, she came back out with a number written on a Post-it note. It was the amount of my expected refund — 80 percent of the total termination fee I paid. I would only be responsible for paying the equivalent of two weeks rent since that’s how long the apartment would be vacant.

They both acted like no one had ever questioned this termination fee, but once I brought it up, they had to refund me.

They couldn’t confirm that I’d actually receive it until the new tenant signed the lease and actually moved in. They told me to call in two weeks.

They gave me the run-around a little. I had to make several follow-up calls. But this week, I received confirmation that I would receive 80 percent of the fee that we paid back.

Like I said, I am by no means a legal expert, and my friend is licensed to practice in just one state (not even my state), so this is not true in all cases or all states. As I mentioned, if there are a lot of empty units in your apartment complex, it’s probably worth it to pay a termination fee, because otherwise you could be responsible for rent payments for the remainder of your lease term if the unit remains empty. But if you break a lease, be adamant about checking to see if the landlord has found a new tenant, because it likely means you are owed a refund for any fee you paid.

The lesson here is just that it’s absolutely worth learning your rights and being persistent about exercising them. Even if you’re like me and you’re wary of a long legal battle, it can’t hurt to question a policy if you think something is fishy. It can save you a ton of money.

3 simple things you can do right now to improve your state of mind

This post was originally published on July 16, 2009.

to do list

Sometimes when my to-do list is a mile long and I’m short on time and feeling overwhelmed, I feel like if I can’t finish everything right now I’m going to lose it. Don’t you hate those days?

Well, when I’m having a day like that, there are a few things I do to immediately make myself just a little calmer. That little bit of perspective is usually enough to allow me to get it together and get things done.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, here are some easy things you can do to get it together:

Clear your space.

Even if you don’t have time for full-fledged cleaning, take some time to ditch the clutter. I’m talking about the papers on your desk at work, the weeks of junk mail and magazines piled up on the table, and the breakfast dishes in the sink. My husband uses the dining room table as an office, which doesn’t bother me, until he gets a few days worth of papers stacked up all around him.

Take five minutes to clear the space around you. Get rid of the clutter, throw the papers into the recycling bin, and put the little nick nacks back where they belong. This includes your email inbox. Go through your emails, tackle the easy stuff with a quick reply, and add more involved tasks and responses to your to-do list. You’ll feel better instantly.

Make a list.

Now that your space is clear, take a few minutes to prioritize your to-do list. If you’re anything like me, your to-do list is scrawled in no particular order or, worse, stored in your brain. By making a physical list, you can not only prioritize and visualize what needs to get done, but you’ll get the satisfaction of crossing off your accomplishments.

I usually try to tackle the most difficult tasks first, but if you’re already feeling burned out, it may help to start with something easy to help you recharge. Find an order that works for you, and take a moment to evaluate your list and determine the best way to get everything done.

Take a walk.

I know, it seems counterproductive to take a break when you’re already short on time. But sometimes you just need to remove yourself from the stressful situation and take a time out to gather your thoughts and your sanity. I write a lot in my job (and of course for this blog), and sometimes I’ll spend two hours looking at a blank screen before I get up and take a break. After a quick break, I often come back and finish the project in 30 minutes because I’ve had a chance to gather my thoughts.

If you can’t take a walk, at least take a few minutes to take some deep breaths. If you feel tied to your to-do list, it’ll only make you feel resentful and you won’t be as productive. Remind yourself that you’re in control of the situation, and you can take a break if you need to. When you return, you’ll likely be more focused.

What do you do when you’re feeling overwhelmed?

Learn first aid to save money and avoid trauma

Let me start this by saying I would never condone risking the health of yourself or anyone in your family to save money, no matter what the cost. My family’s health is our top priority, and we will spend whatever is necessary to keep all of us well.

That said, emergency room visits are outrageous. Even with good insurance, our copay is $200 for an ER visit. If we were uninsured or paying 100% out of pocket until we hit our deductible, a single trip to the ER for something simple could easily cost over $1000. Not to mention, you’ll often sit in the waiting room for hours. Before spending that kind of time and money, you need to know that the injury really does warrant a trip to the emergency room.

Last Friday while packing some glasses, Tony accidentally broke a glass in his hand, and it cut him. It was deeper than the average “put a Bandaid on it” cut, but it didn’t look deep enough to require stitches. Again, if I really thought he was seriously injured, I wouldn’t have questioned taking him to the hospital. But we just didn’t know.

Judah was already in bed, and we were in the middle of packing and moving. The last thing either one of us wanted was to sit in an ER for hours for him to be bandaged up and sent home.

Both of our moms are nurses, so I put a call in to each of them. The consensus seemed to be that based on where the cut was on his hand and the fact that it wasn’t terribly deep, he would probably be okay with some butterfly bandages.

I’d never done anything like this, and I was incredibly nervous. The last thing I wanted to do was screw it up. My husband is better at this sort of thing than me, but he couldn’t do it one handed, so it had to be me. We put pressure on it with a clean towel, and he sat with his hand elevated for about 30 minutes to stop the bleeding. We cleaned it well, applied the butterfly bandages, and put Bandaids over it to keep it clean.

I think the bandages could have been applied better by someone with more experience, but it seemed to be good enough, because a week later it’s healing well. He will probably have a scar, because I didn’t get the butterfly bandages quite tight enough. But because of where it is on his hand, it won’t be easily visibly.

Would they have given him stitches? Maybe. Now that it’s healed, it looks a bit deeper than we thought. But it seems that in most cases, the only reason a clean cut with no jagged edges or increased risk of infection would need stitches is to stop bleeding or minimize scarring. If you can get the bleeding to stop and it’s not in a place where a scar would be noticeable, a butterfly bandage will fix the problem most of the time. If you’re skilled at applying butterfly bandages, scarring can sometimes even be reduced with a butterfly bandage because there are no jagged Frankenstein lines from the stitches.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I need to take a first aid class. Part of our problem is that we were clueless. We could tell the wound wasn’t too bad, but we still weren’t sure if stitches were necessary. I can see how that doubt and fear would be even greater if the wound had been on our young son.

I’m sure we’ll encounter many bumps and cuts as Judah gets older. I want to know more about first aid not only so I can know whether professional medical care is required, but so I can provide him with basic first aid instead of rushing to the ER for every little thing.

When I was a kid, my dad was excellent at patching us up. He was an expert butterfly bandager. When I was 7, I busted my chin on the side of a dresser when he was out of town on a business trip. He later said he probably wouldn’t have bandaged it himself, because the chin is such a tough place to heal without stitches. My mom rushed me to the ER. We waited forever, and I was panicked and scared after my sister jokingly told me they were going to stitch me up under a sewing machine. She was trying to make a joke, but I took it literally, and I was terrified.

I think in most cases, getting first aid treatment from a parent at home is less traumatic and scary for a kid than a visit to the hospital. If I can learn to provide that basic care for Judah myself, we can avoid putting him through a traumatic ER visit unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Learning first aid can also prepare you to provide first treatment for serious issues that require professional medical care. Driving to the hospital or waiting for an ambulance takes time, and it’s important to be able to take the right steps immediately after an injury.

I’m looking into first aid classes now. Even if we pay a good chunk of change to learn these skills, I think it’s valuable beyond the money we’ll save in ER visits.

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