I am a recovering financial disaster. I would like to say I’m fully recovered, but I know how easy it is to slip into past bad habits. I’m writing this article as much as a reminder to myself as to be insight for others. I was a single mom for 18 years (until getting married last year), and I spent most of those years living hand to mouth. Some could argue this is normal for a single parent, that it’s hard to make ends meet with one income. I would argue that anyone can live beyond their means, no matter their circumstances. My point is that at some juncture about six years ago I decided to stop letting my single parent status be an excuse for poor finances.

Full disclosure, it took me about a year to really turn things around, and that year included attending Financial Peace University (completely worth the $99 investment). At the end of that year I didn’t have more money coming in, but I DID have less stress because I knew exactly where my money was going, and I knew I’d be able to make payments on time. It was a wonderful feeling, after a few years of being in a state of constant stress about whether or not I’d be able to pay my mortgage any given month. The FPU program is great at teaching how to create an accurate budget and stick to it; I highly recommend starting there! Below are additional tips I picked up along the way:

  1. Create a Family Vision Board. Kids are visual and they stay excited longer about a goal when they have a visual reminder. And if we’re honest, so do adults! Some of you have already started a version of a dream board on Pinterest, but this is something you should do with your family together. It will start a great conversation between you and your kids about your family’s savings, giving and other goals.

  1. Get your kids involved. Show them exactly what the budget is. Show them areas where they can help you stay on track, like at the grocery store. Let them have a little input on the grocery list, hand them a calculator and ask them to add things up while you shop. You’ll be amazed at how responsible they will be when they know the budget, AND how motivated they’ll be by the family goals and dreams you put on the Family Vision Board.

  1. Meal Planning. Some of us are better at this than others, but you don’t have to be a great cook to be a good meal planner. The less you enter the grocery store, the less impulse buying will occur. And the more prepared you are for mealtimes, the less likely your family will be to run through the drive-through or go out to eat. Twice a month, I look at the upcoming two weeks and estimate about how many meals I’ll need. I pull recipes from Pinterest, recipe sites and include a few of my old stand-bys. I make one list and try to only shop 2-3 times per month. I don’t like to plan exactly what we’re eating each day, but this gives me the flexibility to come home and make whatever sounds good from the list. However, there are websites that help with this:

    1. http://www.plantoeat.com, drag and click recipes into your calendar

    2. http://www.cooksmarts.com, hands off, does all of the planning and lists for you

    3. http://myfridgefood.com/, enter the food you have on hand and it comes up with recipes for you!

  1. Set up automated bill payments using your bank’s online bill pay service. Most online bill pay services through your financial institution is free to you (save on postage, save on time!). Not only will it keep great track of your bill payments, but paying online through your bank prevents you having to give out your information to the vendors themselves. Plus, you can set these up to pay automatically in advance; you can schedule all of your bills to pay and reduce the risk of being late with a payment (and having to pay late fees). Another quick tip while we’re on the subject of banking: set up automated overdraft protection to draw from your savings account if you accidentally overspend on your checking account. The holidays can be an easy time to lose track of spending and that extra $25-50 overdraft fee really stings!

  1. Celebrate successes! My discipline in any given area is usually short lived unless I can see progress. Set small milestones and decide how you’ll celebrate them in advance. When you hit $500 in your emergency fund, the family goes to the movies. When you pay off a credit card, allow yourself a fun purchase from an endcap at Target. Or for every 25% of your savings goal, you’ll bake a cake with the kids. I have a friend who is GREAT at celebrating small successes; she and her husband keep small bottles of sparkling juice and wine on hand and they shout “Champagne!” and toast with each success. Just make sure that you have fun while you get your finances in order.