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A Few Tricks to Keep Your Budget Cool This Summer

A Few Tricks to Keep Your Budget Cool This Summer


Jamie Griffin is a Middle School Teacher and Blogger who runs the site He and his wife are working hard to pay off their student loans and teach others how to Do Money Differently.


Summer is my favorite season of the year! It is full of adventures at the beach, hiking, playing golf, grilling, and camping. Oh, and if you’re in your 20s, don’t forget about all the weddings you will get invited to or asked to be in. Summer is time to let loose a little more, get outside, and be more active. It’s also a time where it becomes really easy to spend more money than you really want to. That’s right, those extra activities aren’t free! Now I’m not saying to skip out on all the awesome, fun adventures. Definitely have fun, hang out with friends, and make some great memories. I am saying however, that you don’t need to break your budget to have fun this summer! I want to share a few tips to help you get the most out of your summer, and stay out of the red.


Map Out Your Summer Ahead of Time

March and April seem to be the months that I start making plans for summer vacation. Since I’m a teacher, I still get to dream of and enjoy a true summer vacation 🙂  I’m a huge baseball fan, so I try to get to at least one game every summer, two if I’m lucky. I feel like my wife and I talk about taking a camping trip every year, either together, or with friends, or heck, maybe both! It is a lot easier to travel and visit friends and family who live a few hours away, so we make sure to include those mini trips into our calendar. Plus, my family usually spends a week camping in our neck of the woods around the 4th of July, so that throws off our normal schedule of meal prepping. The warm weather seems to beg us to buy brats or steak to throw on the grill and have a few beers while we host some friends on our back deck. And that isn’t even close to all of it! Your summer schedule can fill up so fast, with an overabundance of events, dinners, adventures, and traveling. If you don’t sit down to map out your summer, you could end up spending money like a football player who just signed a $20 million dollar contract, which I can only imagine is like crazy! Don’t let summer get out of hand, take control now!


You may have picked up on this by now, but Jenna and I are really intentional when it comes to our money. Therefore, we don’t just plan out our summer adventures ahead of time, we also plan out how much our adventures will cost. In my dream world, I would love to go to a Minnesota Twins game a couple times a month, go on a long road trip to the east or west coast, and spend a few nights a week grilling out with friends. But the realistic part of my brain, and also my practical minded wife, kick in and remind me that it would be crazy expensive to always do whatever we want each summer. Yes, we might have fun, but we would also be cringing on the inside knowing that we are spending a lot of money, moving us further away from our goals.

Make a List and Estimate Your Costs

When you start to make a list of your summer plans, estimate the costs of each adventure. It helps put into perspective how much money you will need to save up ahead of time. We like to make lists, or at least my very organized wife does. On our list we write down all of our plans, and then we write the best guess price next to it. It really helps us visualize the value in terms of cost and enjoyment. Another nice benefit of actually making a list is it helps you prioritize what you actually want to do, and can afford to do. Which conveniently leads me to my next point.


Prioritize Your Plans

If you can afford all of your summer plans and that is truly how you want to spend your money, I say go for it. Do it all! Traveling, camping, and visiting friends is always a blast if you don’t have to stress about money. Carpe that Diem! But if that’s not possible, the list you make will help you figure out which plans are important and what is actually feasible with your budget. It also helps you see if you even have enough free weekends to get everything done, and not feel burned out. When I see a price next to an event, I can more easily weigh the cost against the experience. Is it really worth it to spend $250 on a weekend out of town to watch a Twins game, eat out downtown, and stay in a hotel? Or is it more worth it to spend that $250 on a week long camping trip? Or going to see the Opera or a concert? There are so many ways to spend money and time during the summer. Choose what is most important to your family, and start booking weekends to make it happen.


Save Money Ahead of Time

I have always been a saver when it comes to money. Even when I was a kid, I would hoard Christmas and birthday money for years before spending it. I didn’t always know what I was saving it for, but it seemed like a better idea to keep it tucked away than to spend it on candy and pop. Maybe that is why I love planning ahead and saving for things I really want. It helps remind me every month of what I want to do and gives me something to look forward to. Saving also helps me determine if I really want something, or if it is just an impulse. For example, if I see a shirt I like at Target, I like to carry it around the store while I do the rest of my shopping. While I am carrying it, I can continue to analyze if I really want it or if I’ll actually wear it. When I get done shopping, if I still feel like it’s something I want, and I have cash for it, I buy it. If not, then I put it back. Saving for summer plans can work the same way. If you spend a few months saving, you might decide that you don’t really want to charter a sailboat for a week after all.


I also feel like it is more satisfying when I know I have been working hard to plan and save money. I like to reflect on the journey it took me to be where I am, and it feels good to know I met my goal. I appreciate the journey as much as the reward.


Find Free and Cheap Dates and Adventures

For the past four years, we have been extremely frugal with our money and in the process found a bunch of dates and mini adventures that are free or very cheap! In fact, sometimes the cheap dates were more fun and memorable than when we splurged. One of our favorite dates that we repeat every summer is “Act like a tourist day.” We live on Lake Superior where tourism rules during the summer. There are all kinds of fun activities around town especially driven by the tourism industry. On act like a tourist day, we choose a handful of these mini adventures and do them with full enthusiasm, including taking all of the typical tourist pictures. Last year we spent $10 on a ship tour, wandered through the gift shop, explored art galleries, walked along the lake, and skipped rocks into the lake. One year we even talked in accents the entire time and built up a backstory in case anyone asked where we were from. For the record, I claimed to be from Ireland and Jenna was from London and we met while I studied a semester at the University in London. We explained the trip to Duluth as our honeymoon to America. It was an absolute blast!


Our city also has a free movie in the park every Friday in the summer, and one time we even brought our own computer down to the park with speakers, a blanket, and pillows to watch a movie. We always enjoy a good trail hike, packing a picnic, and spending quality time with each other. If you are creative enough and willing to be goofy and silly, there are loads of things to do really cheaply right in your own backyard!


Wrapping It Up

Summer is awesome. Period. But to get the most fun without stretching your budget too far, make a plan and prioritize what is most important to you. Save up and have a blast without the stress. And don’t forget about the free stuff around town. There is always free stuff!


Let Me Know in the Comments
What are your favorite summer activities? Any free or cheap date ideas or getaways?


Tithing: Honoring Jesus with our Finances

Tithing: Honoring Jesus with our Finances


Jamie Griffin is a Middle School Teacher and Blogger who runs the site He and his wife are working hard to pay off their student loans and teach others how to Do Money Differently.


Last year I wrote a post about tithing, and it was by far one of the most popular posts on my blog. Plus, with Easter last weekend, it is a pretty fitting time to bring the topic back around. In the Bible, God asks all who follow Him to give back to him the first 10% of everything we have. That is the basic definition of a tithe. If this is a new idea for you, whether you actively follow Jesus or not, tithing can have a powerful impact on your finances. In this post, I want to share how tithing has blessed our financial journey through honoring Jesus, learning to be stewards of our resources, and practicing becoming more generous


Honoring Jesus


To honor someone is to hold them in high esteem and treat them with respect. The definition seems easy enough to understand, but I don’t feel like honor is a word that is used very often. I most commonly associate it with funerals, and doing the best we can to honor a loved one’s wishes in death. But I think we can apply this to living people we encounter everyday, and definitely to Jesus. Another common use refers to authority figures. You can honor a person in authority by doing what they ask of you. When I was a kid, I honored my parents by doing the dishes or taking out the garbage, not because I wanted to, but because they asked me to and they were the authority over my 8 year old self. We can apply the same principle to Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus asks us to tithe the first 10% of everything we produce. If you choose to say yes, you are being obedient and intentionally choosing to honor Him.


At first, you might not like the idea of giving away 10% of your income, and to be honest, neither did I. But the more you do it, the more it becomes about loving Jesus and falling under his authority, and less about trying to aggressively clutch onto every penny you get. I think love has an important connection to honor, and without love, the honor doesn’t mean much. Showing honor is an act of love, and that’s what tithing can become. Be intentional and choose to honor Jesus with your finances.


Being a Steward of Money


I mentioned that Jesus is an authority in our lives. The cool thing about Jesus is that he also gives every one of us authority. He commanded us to go out and make disciples, spread the Good News, and speak and act with His authority. How cool is that! He gives us authority over our families, our neighborhoods, and the world around us and gives us the charge of taking care of it. Whether you know it or not, you are a steward to the world around you and everything in it. Well, one aspect of this world is money, and that is also a gift from Him. It is our responsibility to be good stewards with our money, and a great way to do that is to tithe. Tithing acknowledges that our money came from Jesus, and we are giving back to Him what is His.


Tithing Leads to Generosity


Tithing is a wonderful act of giving, and I believe that giving teaches us to be generous. There is so much we can give. We can give our time, our energy, our ideas and intellect, our food, our hospitality, and an abundance of resources (including money)! I’ve said before that budgeting and being intentional with money takes practice, and I believe the same goes for tithing. Each month you get the opportunity to practice giving your money back to Jesus! But like any new skill or act, the more you do it, the better you get at it and the easier it becomes.


Tithing has led us to becoming more generous with our money. Since my wife and I started dating, we made tithing a non-negotiable and haven’t missed a month in four years. Through our giving, we have become more generous people, and have found ways to give more of our money than just 10%. In the past year, we started giving away $50 each month in practical ways, in addition to our tithe. It might be a check in the mail, donating to a charity, or buying a gift for a family. Each month is unique and we treat it that way, finding a new way for our giving to be a blessing to others. Our goal is to increase this amount each year and eventually give away 50% of our income each month! It might sound crazy, but tithing has taught us to be generous with our money, and content with our lifestyle. I look forward to the challenges of growing in our giving as the years go by.


How to Get Started


At first, it might feel weird, or counterintuitive. Like how am I supposed to save money and get out of debt if I am giving money away!? Trust me, I have thought the same thing before! Right now we are sitting at about $9,000 left on our student loan debt! We are so close! Last year we tithed nearly that amount, so it is really easy to think, “if we only used that money to pay our debt, we would be debt free by now!” But I truly believe that we wouldn’t be. Jesus has blessed our socks and shoes off (in that order), and it is because we are good stewards of his money, are obedient, and honor him through tithing. For Jesus, 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2; it equals whatever he wants it to be! Trust him and let him be your financial planner.


If you feel Jesus tugging on your sleeve to start tithing (or just want to explore it more), I have some practical tips to help you get started.


Step 1: What is 10%


Figure out what 10% of your income is. This seems like a no brainer, but sometimes you have to start with the basics. Find out how much 10% of your monthly income is and see if you can pay all of your expenses without it. It might mean reconfiguring certain parts of your budget, but see how you can make it happen.


Step 2: Tithe Right Away


If you are worried about having enough money at the end of the month, don’t wait until then to tithe. It is a lot easier to tithe the first 10% of your paychecks than the last 10%. If you wait until the end of the month, you run the risk of spending extra money going out to eat, seeing movies, or a whole lot of other fun things. If you tithe right away, it is over and done with! It might mean adjusting the entertainment budget, or a few more home cooked meals, but it can definitely be done!


Step 3: Be Consistent


Once you start tithing, don’t skip a month. It is like building a muscle, your tithing muscle. The more you work it out, the easier the workout becomes. Make a decision to be consistent and tithe every single month.


Wrapping It Up


Tithing has been an unbelievable blessing to my family! It has taught us to really trust Jesus and become more generous people. By giving Jesus the first 10% of your paycheck, you are choosing to honor Him and be a good steward with what he has given you. Tithing will also help you become a more generous person, not only with your money, but also with your time and energy. It is another way to say Yes to Jesus!


Final Questions


Why do you tithe? How has tithing changed your finances?

How Decluttering Your Home Can Build Your Financial Foundation

How Decluttering Your Home Can Build Your Financial Foundation


By Jamie Griffin


In Minnesota, spring is right around the corner, and with it, spring cleaning! Everyone I know has stuff that they don’t need, or maybe more accurately stuff they don’t use. Stored in garages, attics, basements, and storage lockers across the country are piles of stuff that are taking up space, forgotten, unused, and unappreciated. Instead of your old stuff wasting away in a dark corner, you can dust it off and sell it to someone who can put it to good use. Not only will it create more space in your house, but it can help you get started saving money and build an emergency fund.


Emergency Fund = Financial Foundation


An emergency fund is a great first step to building a solid financial foundation. According to Dave Ramsey, prominent author and speaker on personal finance, it is the first step toward true financial freedom. The entire purpose of creating an emergency fund is simple; it is a reservoir of savings meant to help your family through unexpected emergencies. These can include a wide variety of things such as car repairs, hospital bills, or broken household appliances. When an emergency hits, most people are unprepared. I recently read an article from Market Watch that says 62% of Americans do not have more than $1,000 in savings. That means if the furnace stops working in the middle of winter, a lot of people will have to rely on credit, loans, or build a fire every day to get by. If you already have debt, the last thing you want to do is add more to cover emergencies.


A simple way to combat unexpected expenses is to plan for them to happen, because trust me, they will. Just last summer my car started making a bunch of scary clunky noises and the repairs were about $900! It was the least stress I have ever felt with a car problem. I simply transferred money from savings and it was covered. Then we set to work to rebuild our emergency fund back to where it started. Without preparation, this could have turned into a stressful situation that would have set us back on paying off our loans. Instead of a giant crater in the road, it was a small speed bump. Trust me, creating an emergency fund will go a long way to setting you up for future financial success. Let’s see how decluttering can help get you there.


Declutter Like Crazy


Back to the basements, attics, and garages. If you don’t have an emergency fund, you probably have your jump start lying around waiting to be sold. A favorite quote of mine is from Jim Carrey’s Grinch, “One man’s toxic sludge is another man’s potpourri” is a perfect way to sum it up. (Or you may be more familiar with “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” :)) If you aren’t using it, it serves no purpose to you, so why not sell it. My wife and I like to go through our house a couple times a year to reassess and reevaluate what we still want and what we are ready to get rid of. In the last month, we sold a snowboard with a bag, an electric guitar, and some old beanie babies for $150! It was basically free money since we hadn’t used them in years. We have a few more items waiting to be sold that can make us another couple hundred bucks.


And it is so easy to sell your stuff today! There is craigslist, ebay, and even facebook. If you use facebook, there is a garage sale type group on facebook for almost any community across the country. The bigger city you live in, the higher probability you will find someone that wants your old junk! But even if you live in a small town, all you need to do is find the right person. I’ll bet if you declutter with a sense of purpose, you can make $1,000 within a few months and voila, emergency fund complete!


Inspired by Minimalism


When I first began taking control of my finances and started living on a budget, I was highly inspired by the blog Becoming Minimalist. The entire premise is to declutter your life and focus on what is truly important to you. They have a lot of articles about practical steps to declutter your possessions and become a minimalist with your finances as well. Part of our debt free journey has involved being minimal with how we spend our money. We say ‘no’ to a lot of things that our friends and family don’t and choose to live very simply. I believe this has helped us stay focused and motivated to get out of debt and provided a basic framework for our financial philosophy. Give his blog a read and see how it can apply to your own attempts to declutter and start your emergency fund.


Wrapping it Up


Creating an emergency fund is a big first step to prepare for the unexpected and set your finances on the right track. Spring cleaning is the perfect opportunity to not only declutter, but to get a jump start on your emergency fund. It may be hard to part with some things, but if you can say goodbye, you can earn some serious money basically for free. Then as a side benefit, you may be inspired by your new life of being more minimal.


Endnote: How has an emergency fund saved your finances? Tell me a fun decluttering story. If you want to hear more about how my family handles finances, budgets for expenses big and small, and for tips on how to get out of debt, follow the link to my official blog at





Welcome to February

Adventures in PHOTOGRAPHY . . .

This month we’d like to introduce our Blogmaster, Brad Tombers, who patiently puts up with us and also shares samples of his extraordinary photography from time to time.  In addition to being tech savvy, he has his own photography business and teaches high school in Alaska.

He has agreed to share some of his photos with us, along with a brief commentary during the next few months.

To get remarkable photos, it’s often necessary to put yourself in remarkable circumstances.  Whether it involves climbing a mountain in subzero temperatures or getting up hours before everyone else to get a sunrise shot, the pictures are amazing because they let people experience the world in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

This particular photo/experience comes from Eklutna Lake, a glacier fed lake about 20 miles north of Anchorage.  The water that melts off of the glaciers into this lake will ultimately be used by the 300,000 residents of the area for drinking.  It tastes good.

I’ll be posting a different picture every month accompanied by a tip or thought.  If at any time you want to see more of my work, visit



Welcome to February, a month for Presidents, lovers, groundhogs,

& so much more!

Did you know that February also designates special days for:


Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day (It’s the first Saturday of the month, but if you’ve missed it, you have our permission to make up for it next Saturday.)

Thank a Mailman Day (4th)

National Weatherman’s Day (5th)

Do a Grouch a Favor Day (16th)

Random Acts of Kindness Day (17th)

Love Your Pet Day (20th)

Oscar Night and Superbowl Sunday are also coming up this month!


Jamie Griffin Financial Management; Getting Back on Track

Happy New Year!!!


We are delighted to introduce a guest blogger we think you’ll love.   His name is Jamie Griffin, and, appropriately, he has experience and expertise in the area of managing finances.


He will be back again to give practical ideas about other aspects of financial management, but today he is talking about a most timely aspect:


Getting your finances back on track after the holidays


3-2-1…HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!! First off, let me introduce myself. My name is Jamie Griffin and I am a middle school teacher. Aside from teaching, my other great passion in life is to teach people how to get out of debt and get ahead in finances. I graduated from college with about $50,000 in student loan debt, which jumped up to $90,000 when I got married. In the last four years, my wife and I have worked extremely hard to become debt free. We will achieve our goal in April and we couldn’t be more excited! I want to share our story and help as many people as I can destroy their debt! My goal today is to help you get on the right track as you start the new year.


In all the excitement of a brand new year, millions of people around the country are creating New Year’s Resolutions. The idea of a new year is so freeing! It is a chance to start over, to fix past mistakes, to pave a new future, and a wondrous chance to make this year, better than last year. In the end, a New Year’s Resolution is a goal that people hope will last an entire year, many centered on improving the quality of life. On average, about 50% of Americans make some sort of resolution, but according to Forbes, only about 8% actually achieve or keep their resolution for the entire year! That is crazy! How is it that so few people stick it out? What happens along the way? I’m sure there are a lot of answers to those questions, and I am certainly not going to take the time to answer them. Sorry, but we have more important things to discuss! I am here to talk to you about financial goals.


The website Statistic Brain states that the third most common resolution made by Americans is to spend less, and save more. And I can see why that is such a common goal. After three months of holidays stacked back to back to back (Yes I am counting Halloween as a holiday. People spend a crazy amount of money on costumes and candy!), people are hitting the stage of the year where they think, “Oh crap! We really need to get back on track with our finances! It brings up the question, what does it actually look like to set goals and get back on track after an expensive holiday season? Let’s dive in and take a look.


Step 1: Analyze Spending from the Holiday Season


One important step to getting your finances back on track is to figure out how much you actually spent during the holiday season. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all have expenses that need to be accounted for, and sometimes it is difficult to keep track of when you are in the midst of the hustle and bustle and the rapid succession of the three holidays. One minute you are buying costumes and planning trick or treating routes, and the next thing you know you are loading up the car preparing to risk your lives driving on icy roads to a Thanksgiving feast, while simultaneously planning out Christmas shopping lists and how on earth you can possibly attend four Christmas celebrations in two days. It is madness!!! It all flashes by so quickly and hundreds of dollars are spent along the way. Now here you are in January wondering what the heck happened. I believe this is a common scene in America, one I was certainly a part of as a kid. If you plan ahead and set aside money throughout the year to spend during the holidays, I tip my hat to you and invite you to keep reading to see if you have any advice for my readers. However, if you are like most Americans and are hitting the “Panic!” button, I have a few basic steps to figure out your finances for the new year and make plans to avoid the same spending extravaganza next holiday season.


So now that the dust has settled, it is time to start picking up the pieces and putting your finances back together. One thing my wife and I do to help plan and track holiday spending is to make notes in our budget. The notes include how much money we spent on Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas presents, and extra traveling expenses. As a result, when November and December roll around, we only need to look at what we wrote down from the previous year and plan to spend the same amount of money this year. It is super helpful! Without these records, there is no way we would remember how much we spent the previous year. Now, we didn’t always have this practice in place. In order to leave ourselves accurate numbers, we had to sit down after our first year of marriage and actually track how much we spent!


Make Notes for Next Year


My wife and I are pretty diligent budgeters, so tracking our spending is already a part of what we do with all expenses we encounter. If you don’t normally stick to a strict budget, it is time to go back through your bank account or read through your receipts and start adding up expenses. I highly encourage you to keep expenses separate for each holiday. If you are like my wife and I and don’t spend much on Halloween, don’t even worry about that holiday. By the end of tracking, you should have a number for how much you spend on each holiday. It is also really helpful to break it down into subgroups. For example, my wife and I spend $50 on Thanksgiving dinner so we keep that expense separate from our $50 we budget for our Christmas tree, which we also buy in November. In the same way, Christmas presents are a separate expense from any food we buy for Christmas. Once you have tracked all of your expenses and split them into categories, write it down in your budget! We keep our budget on Google Sheets, but Excel or paper work just fine too. Whatever your system is, utilize it efficiently by writing notes to help you plan for the year!


Step 2: Analyze Credit Card Spending and Make a Plan to Pay it Off


In the 1920’s, Henry Ford was rolling out his assembly line and making automobiles more affordable to the middle class working family. One great innovation that Ford, and several other businessmen of the era, used to help make big purchases like a car more affordable was to encourage people to buy expensive items on credit. This trend roared through the 1920’s but didn’t stop with the stock market crash. In today’s society, most people don’t save up ahead of time for holiday spending, instead relying on credit to make holiday purchases. As a result, families rack up credit card debt in the frenzy to buy everything on the Christmas list, especially big ticket items. In 2014, an average of $986 was piled on top of already existing credit card debt! If you rely on minimum payments, that could take over a year to pay off with high interests rates, especially if you open the all too enticing store credit card to save a few bucks at check out. The point is, if you used a credit card to make holiday purchases, it is time to make a plan to pay it off fast! (And then a plan to avoid using credit cards next year)


Pay more than the minimum and Make extra payments


If you used a credit card (or two) during the holidays, the new year is the perfect time to check out your balance and make a plan to pay it off. One of the best pieces of advice I have about any kind of debt is to always pay more than the minimum balance. Most credit cards only require $15-30 as a minimum payment, which is next to nothing and will take you forever to pay off. Instead, I urge you to pay as much as you can to kick this nasty debt in the pants! Plan out your monthly budget so you know exactly how much extra you will have, then pay as much as you can each month until the debt is gone! In extreme cases, this might mean you have to go on a spending freeze or limit yourself in other areas like entertainment or eating out, but it will be worth it to get rid of the nagging expense of a credit card payment each month.


Another great strategy for destroying credit card debt left over from the holidays is to make multiple payments each month. I have done this personally and it really accelerates the process! Some credit card companies even make it incredibly simple by giving an option to set up automatic payments. All you need to do is schedule a payment to occur every Friday or every payday and you will see your credit card bill quickly disappear! Whatever your plan is, make sure you stick to it. Getting out of debt is about many small decisions applied consistently over a long period of time! You can do it!


Step 3: Start Saving for Next Year RIGHT NOW!


You are already set up perfectly to do this after steps one and two! If you followed the first two steps, you already know how much you spent on the holidays. (For complete accuracy, make sure you include your credit card balance in this total!) Now that you have the total, you can plan ahead to save that much throughout the entire year. The simple math is to divide the total amount spent on the holiday by ten. I know there are twelve months in the year, but I prefer to have all of my holiday spending money saved up before the holidays really start to alleviate any anxiety about breaking my budget and spend more freely. If you want to include Halloween in your holiday spending, it might work better to divide your total amount by nine so you can start spending in time for costumes and candy. The dollar amount you get after this simple math is how much you should set aside each month. You can put the money in a savings account and keep a running total of how much is there, or pull the money out as cash. It might even work best to open up a separate account you only use for holiday expenses.


Tips for Saving


If you have trouble saving money, use this tip my dad taught me. For years, my dad has always budgeted for Christmas by setting up a direct deposit with his paycheck. Each payday a specified amount goes directly into an account set aside for holiday spending. The money is taken out before he even gets to see it and he always has enough spending money when the holidays come around. Regardless of how you choose to save up for the holidays, January is a great time to start so you can avoid the trap of swiping the credit card next year!


Wrapping it up


If the holiday season put your finances over the edge, sit down with your family this month to track your holiday spending, analyze your credit card purchases (if you have any) and make a plan to pay it off fast, and finally begin planning to take some of the stress out of next year’s holiday season by saving all year long. Now that sounds like a New Year’s Resolution to stick with!


Endnote: What strategies do you use to plan and save for the holidays? How does your family get back on track after the holidays? If you want to hear more about how my family handles finances, budgets for expenses big and small, and for tips on how to get out of debt, follow the link to my official blog at



Practice Giving Thanks

Practice Being Thankful.  It’s a good deal!

By Sharon Sheppard

As a freelance writer and former teacher of writing, I’m occasionally asked to help people write letters.  I’ve never been asked to do a love letter or a “Dear John” letter, but one of the most extraordinary letters I’ve helped with did have to do with the heart.  Not a valentine, but the kind of heart that pumps.

While my husband was at Mayo Clinic recovering from a stem cell transplant, I met Scott, a young man in his 30s who had just undergone a heart transplant.   I asked whether I could interview him and write his story, and he agreed.  After the interview, he said, “I need to write a thank you letter, and I don’t know what to say.  I mean, it’s such a huge gift, how do you say thanks for a heart?  I don’t know where to begin.”

The family who donated their teenager’s heart had declined to meet the recipient of this gift, but the thank you letter was required by Mayo, and they would deliver it to the family.  Scott came to me with a rough draft, which needed only a little tweaking.  It was sensitively written and filled with abundant gratitude, as he expressed how important it was to him to be able to live to help raise his two little boys.  He had been at death’s door, and only a donor heart could save his life.  In his letter he told the grieving parents of the donor that his goal was to get out of the hospital in time to walk his five-year-old son, Chase, to school for his first day of kindergarten.  It was the most genuine and profound thank you letter I’ve ever read.

Most of us will not be required to write a letter of that magnitude, but we are constantly showered with gifts:  air to breathe, food to eat, stunning scenery and natural wonders we often fail to give more than a passing glance.   Many of us take the Creator and His work for granted.

Not long ago Forbes Magazine published an article written by Amy Morin, in which she cited a number of scientifically proven benefits of gratitude—physical, emotional, and even social.  Studies show that people who practice gratitude have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, higher levels of optimism and happiness, fewer physical aches and pains, and feel less isolated.  That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

There is a Donor who gave His life for you and me.  It was an amazing act of grace—incalculable in value.  It was the act that made it possible for us to be forgiven for our sins.  No medication or treatment or white-washing of our sins could make us whole.  He died so we could live.  If we offered only one prayer on Thanksgiving Day, it should be this:  Thank you, Jesus, for dying in my place!  I don’t deserve it, but I accept your Gift!

The Apostle Paul gave us this recipe for happiness.  It’s found in I Thessalonians 5:16-18:

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.


Life is Filled With Transitions

Life is filled with transitions . . .

~ By Sharon Sheppard

Expanding or downsizing.

Starting a family or emptying the nest.

Starting a first job or retiring from a lifetime of working.

Sudden or long-anticipated.  Carefully planned for or blindsided.

Whether change is chosen or thrust upon us, delightful or tragic, change can be bewildering.

No matter how excited we may have been about that first job, when the day came, it was terrifying.

One of the scariest days of my life was my first day of teaching.  I was afraid those college students would quickly figure out that I didn’t know what I was doing.  And then what?

When I walked our youngest child to her first day of kindergarten, I heaved a huge sigh of relief, but I cried all the way back home.

I learned many things from my wise husband.  For example, when I dreaded something, he’s ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”  And then, “What are the chances of that happening?”

When bad things happened, he’d say, “Is there a silver lining to this?” “What can we learn from it?”

Before I became a widow, my husband worked hard to prepare me.  But even though his preparation was enormously helpful, I found that few things could truly prepare me for the tremendous sense of loss.  Though I will never truly “have it all together,” here are a few things I’ve learned from my transition to living alone:

  • If you are a person of faith, cling to God. Let Him become more real to you than He has ever been before.
  • Become your own best friend. Learn to savor aloneness by developing hobbies, interests, and inner resources that don’t necessarily depend on other people.  What have you always wanted to do?  What gifts or interests do you have that you’ve never fully developed? Travel?  Music?  Fitness? Crafts?
  • Find new purpose in life, a reason for living. This may involve volunteering, reaching out to others in need, helping others less fortunate than you.  You’d be surprised at what a difference a change in focus can make.
  • Cultivate your senses and learn to savor—new tastes, textures, aromas, musical (either as a performer or a connoisseur).
  • Don’t wait for others to come to you, reach out. But work toward creating a balance between enjoying your own company and enjoying the company of others.


Alice Koller says, “Being solitary is being alone well:  luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice….  Solitude is an achievement.  It is your distinctive way of embodying the purposes you have chosen for your life.”







Just a Little Snap

Back to School

By Mary Z

In my memoir, “An Upside-Down Heart,” I gave a snapshot of how life was in the late-forties…quite different than today. I went to District 32 country school, where grades one through eight met in the same room. Usually, there were 15 to 20 kids for all the grades, and of course there was only one teacher. We had a potbelly stove that heated our one room.  In the winter my sister, Sharon, and I walked the mile to school.  Our teacher sometimes had a basin of warm water waiting where we could soak and thaw out our feet next to the stove.  We had no such thing as indoor plumbing, so we used the two-hole outhouse, a short walk behind our school.                                   

Lunch time was interesting.  If you were willing, there would be a lot of sandwich trading.  Anyone who had something better than a pickle sandwich was willing to trade up. Typically, Mother packed an egg salad or Spam sandwich for me, and I would sometimes be willing to trade half my sandwich for an apple.  A lot of families in our neighborhood were extremely poor.  Occasionally, a milk delivery truck dropped off half-pint glass bottles of milk in the cloak room. Because there were fewer chocolate than white pints of milk delivered, there was always a race for the chocolate flavor.

Recess was the highlight! By the time I was a fifth grader, I was pretty mature.  My classmate Arlys and I had put away the Sears Roebuck paper dolls that we had cut out of the catalog and played with at recess. Now we had our personal diaries with little gold keys to lock up all our secrets. At recess we would take out our diaries and share our hopes and dreams. One of my secret dreams was to be a pastor’s wife, cherished and loved.

Children today may not have the same rural inconveniences I had, or the simple lifestyle, and Sears Roebuck dolls to play with as I did as a third and fourth grader, but children today are still full of dreams and desires to “belong and be somebody.” In my observation, there is a slow erosion for children’s well-being in today’s busy, device-driven, distracted world. May I suggest three ways that will help prepare our children and grandchildren for being more grounded and socially influential.
~ Encourage play time: Children need time to be imaginative and creative. Therefore, they need time alone to be free to explore and grow. Set limits around screen time and be sensitive about not over-scheduling your children with extra-curricular activities. Kids who play by themselves learn to have more fun on their own, and also playing by themselves brings a sense of calmness and well-being.

~ Encourage reading time: Children will learn to read and enjoy books if they are surrounded by them. Have a large array of interesting books at their reading level. Encourage them to read menus, road signs, movie names etc. Reading and time alone to create and imagine are the foundation for a child’s development.

~ Encourage sleep time: Children need to go to bed early during the school year, no excuses. It’s important for hormone growth because a child’s growth is produced in the fourth and final stage of sleep. Moreover, children will be more active in class and have better recall and memory when well rested. The habit of children going to bed early will have positive consequences throughout their entire life. By being aware of these practical principles, we are helping our children embrace a sense of security and a knowing that they belong and are important individuals.

                 “Children do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”


Mary Z.

Lifestyle Secrets

Lifestyle Secrets

By Mary Z

I think it would be safe to say that most of us have secrets we are not so proud of, or would not want to share with the world. However, that reminds me of one of the quotes of the AA recovery program which states, “We are only as sick as our secrets.”

I deceived myself for years that my secret wasn’t hurting me or anyone else. I was a closet eater, though out in the world I was a pretending and in-control dieter. For years excess food had become a source of comfort, and a lifestyle–and a secret.  However, it backfired by fueling a bigger fire—the continuing of self-hatred.

My weight had fluctuated over the years, and at one time I weighed quite a bit more than 200 pounds.  But I didn’t weigh that now, so I could pretend there wasn’t a problem. Lots of friends would ask, “How do you keep your weight down so well?” Needless to say, they didn’t know the misery and vexation inside my heart. As Overeaters Anonymous teaches, “The irony of addiction is that it eliminates hunger and intensifies cravings.”

The truth is that a lot of us crave counterfeits to fill the voids in our lives, but life becomes increasingly difficult in this dark place of deception. Buried within and under the disguise of excess food was the continuing nagging lie, “You are not good enough.” Yet, the cycle continued my human effort, willpower, and promising to do better at controlling my secret. Coping skills developed as an attempt to manage deep wounds that do not vanish overnight. But God has been faithful to me and provided His Living Word, the Bible, as my roadmap.

I now have a lifestyle secret that has transformed my life, and that I want to share with the world.  I have faith in a God who claims, whatever the secret lifestyle, “I have made a way of escape for you. I will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you cannot stand against it, and when you are tempted, I will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

I with the Apostle Paul declare that we are transformed into new persons by changing the way we think. Then we will know what God wants us to do and we will know how good and pleasing His will really is. (Romans 12:2)

Will you join me in accepting God’s way by declaring; “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God!” (Hebrews 10:9)

In Honor of My First Piano Teacher

In celebration of the month of MAY,

A Tribute to My First Piano Teacher, MAY Johnson

By Sharon Sheppard

The woman who patiently unlocked the puzzle of note-reading for this undisciplined young musician who had learned to play by ear deserves a (posthumous) medal.

The term musician is used very loosely here.  I began playing the piano as a young child on a homemade keyboard drawn out on butcher paper.  With carefully crayoned black keys in sets of twos and threes as markers, I could plunk out the tunes I heard in church each Sunday, though not nearly as intricately as red-haired Caroline Bundy played them.  I sat near the front each week watching with my eyes and listening with my heart as her nimble fingers rippled over the keyboard.  Someday, I determined, I would play like Caroline.

When I got a little more sophisticated, I created an octave of notes by filling drinking glasses with graduated quantities of water.  It was easy to tap out melodies with a spoon.

Then one magical winter day the parents of my dearest childhood friend, Shirley Beggs, hauled in their old upright piano and slid it onto the linoleum floor of our living room.  It was a painful tradeoff as Shirley and her family headed north to accommodate her dad’s railroad transfer to another small Minnesota town.

I lost and gained my best friend that day.

There would never be another friend like Shirley, but the ecstasy of having a real piano in our living room can’t be captured in words.  I played and played each day almost to the point of exhaustion until my dad would finally say, “Time for bed, Sharon.”

Eventually the day came when my parents decided that it was time I learned to read notes, an exciting, but threatening prospect.  I could already play.  Why did I have to learn a whole new system?

Our town of 350 people did not have many piano teachers to choose from, but fortunately, May Johnson lived just two blocks from our house, and she was patient, kind, and long-suffering.  There was so much to know, and I didn’t like all the constraints that note-reading required.

Each Monday after school I’d trudge over to May Johnson’s house two blocks from our own, with a crumpled dollar bill in my pocket.

What difference does it make which finger I use on which key?  It sounds the same no matter which finger plays the note!  If she would just play through the song for me, I could play it on my own without going through the agony of learning the names of the notes.

The worst part was the lousy time signature and having to count out the rhythm.  It was all so tedious.  But eventually it began to make sense to me.  And when she pulled out cardboard boxes of musty-smelling sheet music, my heart thumped.  Sheet music!  And the ability to play a song I had never heard!

May Johnson lifted out sentimental songs from the 1940s by Carrie Jacobs Bond, their covers adorned with pink cabbage roses.  “When you come to the end of a perfect day,” one began, “and you sit alone with your thoughts…”  Sappy, but I was learning to play by note.

It wasn’t long before I was playing one of Carrie Jacobs Bond’s most famous songs at weddings as a 14-year-old pianist: “I Love You Truly…”  Again, sappy, but I could play it. Reading the notes.

Though I eventually graduated to more advanced teachers, minored in music in college, and ultimately taught piano, I’ll always prefer the free-wheeling, no-rules method of making music.  Improvisation.  Jazzed up hymn tunes. Make it up as you go along.

Playing by ear.  Playing by heart.

©Sharon Sheppard, 2016