21 April 2012

Budgeting & Savings Basics

It's hard to swallow some times, the word budget does not sit well with some people. If you are making good money and meeting your basic needs, why not just spend whatever you'd like? Life is short, right?

Kind of.

Yes, life here on Earth is short, but blowing all your money on a cool new car does not make it easier. And, not much fun if you have no money for gas! So why not save up for that hot rod AND gas to drive it around! You can have both.

I am of the financial conservative bunch. My money is important as a tool for living healthy, meaningfully and within limits. While I want to spend my money selfishly some times, it is not always in my best interest to do so (yet, those shoes are so cute!).

Coming from a background in economics, I understand the value of a good credit rating, your earning vs. savings ratio and the necessity of saving now. I doubt that many in my generation see that value. I know plenty of awesome women who live on graduate student budgets and lower paying jobs who do great, but in general I find these people too far in between.

From what I see in my own life, media and hoards of stories about people filing for bankruptcy I think there is not enough attention paid to the benefits of good, sound personal finances. No matter your job or stage in life there are endless ways to budget and save money. I will share a few of the tricks and benefits of saving & budgeting I use in my daily life.

*Note: I am not a certified financial planner. I offer this post as friendly ideas. Take it or leave it. This information is not meant to serve as financial services from a certified planner. If you have concerns or want to talk to a professional, contact a certified financial planner or accountant.

  • Start a budget. 
 Ok. Maybe this point is too obvious for some but it's a good reminder. I will be the first to admit before I really sat down and studied financial statements I didn't know this was the way to go. I kind of always kept track but never paid much attention to budget limits. It wasn't until my husband (back when he was my boyfriend) and I had a talk about this point did I realize I needed a budget. Life gets a little crazy, a budget helps you keep track.

We use Microsoft Excel. It came with our computers and does the job for free. I suggest making a template to use each month so you have some consistency. If you have an on-line banking account which keeps track of your credit/debit receipts that is also a helpful tool. I have used Mint.com in the past as well (if you have multiple accounts, Mint can access them all at the same time! phew!).

  • Keep it easy.
In starting a budget you can get ahead of yourself easily. There are hundreds of categories you could make or fancy equations to make your bottom line look better. Take time to think about the things you absolutely need to budget for, and what things you don't need to include. For instance, we try not to get too particular with "home things". We have a general category on our budget for home things; which has included repairs, a new backyard table and even fabric for curtains before.

Letting your budget outline the most important bills and obligations keeps it from seeming like an overwhelming, tedious task. If you know when or the exact amount of some items (like rent or mortgage for instance) you can use a template with those cost already entered, making the budget easier to use for forecasting.

  • Make an "guesstimate" of your expenses and savings.
If you are just starting a budget perhaps one of the reasons is because you feel like you are spending too much in some areas and not enough in others. A budget is a great place to set goals or limits for your spending.

If you want to start saving more, make a column for that too. Many financial professionals will tell you that having only one savings account is not optimal. In order to save, its best to have multiple savings for various items. Some banks have this option for free, others charge a fee. In order to negate any extra cost of saving our money, we employ a "bucket" system. We take out of our spending allowance any amount we want to save and put it in a corresponding "bucket" (aka-a cell in Excel). So when we go to pay bills or eat out, we are only using money we actually have for that expense. It can sound confusing but when you get the hang of it, it works. 

If you have a rough idea of what you would like to spend in a certain area then setting aside a column labeled "estimated" next to an "actual" column you can easily see where you can save money. When we are feeling like the budget is too tight, we use the actual cost column to find where we could cut out some expenses.

  • Use your budget each month (or week or day).
Using your budget for your needs is equally important as getting started. My husband and I work off a monthly budget as I get paid every month and allowance for his graduate school can easily be divided amongst months. Try making a budget for a couple of time periods and see what works best.

At the end of the month, my husband and I sit down and enter all our credits and debts. With a few of the debts already entered on a template, we just plug in the miscellaneous debts from the month's expenses. For us this process is a good routine that doesn't take much time.

  • Check with your budget before (insert buying objective here).
One of the best things about being financial savvy is ability to have more purchasing power. For instance, if you want to budget for a new car for several months (or years) when you can allow the budgeted saving line for the car increasing to a point where you feel comfortable making the purchase. And boy, does that feel good. I don't think there is anything better then knowing you saved, budgeted and gave up other wants to accomplish a need. That is financial freedom.

Reviewing your budget before a large purchase can make you understand where the money is coming from and how it is going to affect you. There is a lot of stress taken off a decision if one of the bottom line factors is how much you will be negatively affected by the decision.  

  • Keep the budget personal.
No matter how you set a budget up, just keep it personal. Make it easy for yourself or someone else to use or read. You will be more prone to use a budget that fits your specific needs.

I hope that everyone can find financial freedom in their lives. By making sound decisions and keeping track of your money, budget can be a friendly tool. Don't be afraid of the "b" word!

15 April 2012

Running 101: Beginning Workouts

I am always very glad to hear the word workouts. It makes me think about a good sweat, running fast and improving my running speed. When you are getting started with running, don't be afraid of this word! It is not as scary as it sounds. Let's break it down...

What is a "workout" ?

1. A workout, in my terms, is different than just a run. A workout will have 3 different parts which all have a purpose. A run might just be some light stretching then running 4 miles. A workout will have a more distinct plan.

2. A workout does not always mean running same distances or speed over and over again . Although repetition is a great way to build up speed, it isn't the only way to complete a workout.

3. When you are training for a specific race or distance, a workout helps establish you race pace. If you tend to run 8 minute miles for a long run, a workout might require you to run closer or at your goal pace for the race. 

4. Math time!  
One of the "over sights" of the American counting system is our lack of using the metric system. In running, as well as various other international sports, most races & distances are measured by meters or kilometers as the metric system is used by almost every other developed nation as the standard of measure. New runners might wan to brush up on some common conversions but here are few frequently used race lengths:

5 Kilometers (called a 5K) = about 3.1 miles
10 Kilometers (called a 10K) = about 6.2 miles
15 Kilometers (you get the idea) = about 9.3 miles

400 meters = 1 lap around a regulation track (those found at high schools and colleges are 400 meters)
1600 meters = just under 1 mile
3200 meters = just under 2 miles

Although many track athletes use the terms 1 mile and 2 mile interchangeably between the 1600 and 3200 meters, they are different distances.

get used to the metric system, most races are set in metrics rather than miles! 

The Joy of Racing!

What does a workout look like?

An example of a beginning workout for someone racing a 5 Kilometer distance (which is about 3.1 miles. get used to the metric system, most races are set in metrics rather than miles!):

Warm up: 10 minutes of easy jogging. Stretching for about 10 minutes
The purpose: Getting your body warmed up will prevent injuries, get your heart rate up and help you run faster when it comes time.
Workout: 1200 meters at race pace or just above, 2 minute recovery, 800  meters at race pace, 2 minute recovery, 2 x 400 meters at race pace (with a 1-2 minutes recovery between each 400)
The purpose: Giving your body burst of speed followed by a short recovery will get your body used the pace you want it to run. When you are running a speed workout you are using different muscles than those used on longer runs. 

Cool down: 10 minute of easy jogging, stretching for 10 minutes
The purpose: You worked up a sweat and got your heartbeat going. Cooling down gives your body time to recover and get oxygen to those hard working muscles!

Ta Da! A workout. This set of intervals would be great for a beginner, but if you feel like a 3/4 mile close to your race pace is too much to start, try running 2 x 800 and 3 x 400 meters instead.

A workout should aim to be about 1/2 to 3/4 the total distance of the race you are preparing for. The idea of a workout is to get your body used to the speed and fatigue during a race. Going all out on every repetition is not the best way to train you body. You want your body to feel what "race pace" feels like. 

A workout should be tailored to your needs. If you are following a running plan and your body does not feel ready for the prescribed workout, running 4 miles instead will be fine! When you are ready to push your self, plan a workout for another time. If you need longer recovery times between each interval don't be afraid to take an extra breather at first. Don't just stand around. Lightly jog in place or around in a circle. Don't allow your self to fully recover your breath if you can.

Before you set out on a workout it is a good idea to do a few of the following things:

  • Find a flat, even surface for your workout. A track is a great place to start, but if you don't have access to one, try a block around your house. Most city blocks are square and can be used to measure about 400 meters. If you can, mark out a location by using your car and picking significant points for you stop/start. 
  • Decide what intervals you want to do and how many. Although plans may change if you find your self feeling great, having a plan ahead of time will help you keep track of progress.
  • Use a stop watch to record your time per interval. Using the lap button on most wrist stop watches you can save your workout while you run. Pen and paper works well too!
  • Plan your warm up so you are close to you start location so there is less wasted time. 

With a little planning, a workout will soon be a great addition to your routine. Try to aim for 1 to 2 workouts a week for the first few weeks. Don't over due it yet. If you are still getting used to running more than 3 or 4 times a week, hold off trying a workout until you are running 4 or 5 days a week consistently. 

Running with friends or family can making racing even better!

05 April 2012

Time Off

I hope you all have a wonderful and happy Easter weekend. I am hosting family this weekend in for the holiday so I will be taking some time off. Enjoy the warm weather and good company.

Before I go: A few links to keep you busy!

I'll be back next week!

02 April 2012

Running 101: The Beginning

As much as running can be a part of your every day life, it is always good to have a reference starting point. Running is great personal time, but when you loose site of why you started or where you want to go with it, it can be frustrating.

If running is not yet a part of your life, this post is for you too! 

The very best place to start is the beginning.

The Why: If you want to start running regularly, take time to think about why you want to run. 

Fitness reasons? Ability to keep up with children? Complete a marathon? Loose that last 10 pounds? 
Whatever your reason is, keep it in mind each time you lace up. If you find a reason for running that motivates you, you will be more likely to make it a habit. 

Running can take so many shapes. Some days your intention is strictly personal, or maybe it is for a good cause. Whatever your why is, keep it positive. Running is a wonderful sport that can change with your life's happenings. If you feel in rut, change your why. Running should fit you needs & wants now. (Advice myself need to heed)

The What: Running is putting one foot in front of the other for a set distance. A personal set distance. 

Honestly, start small. Run 1 minute, walk 1 minute, run 2 minutes, walk 2 minutes, etc.. Work up to running a mile at a time. Don't worry too much about your per mile pace right now. Run for a set amount of time to get used the leg work involved. Start to notice your form. Keeping your shoulders relaxed and arms swinging from your hip to your mouth (think of feeding yourself from you pocket!). If you can stand it, try running without a mp3 player at the beginning. Focusing on your breathing, notice how it feels & the rate.

The When: Whenever! Really! Whatever works for your schedule. The great thing about running is that there is always a treadmill, indoor track or the streets to run on. No team needed! 

Word of caution: Keep in mind traffic patterns and busy roads if you are heading outside. Try running in well lit areas or during daylight hours while you are getting started. If you aren't comfortable in your neighborhood, find a safe location. Don't risk injury or being frightened for a run.

The Who: Yourself. Your spouse & you. You & friend. You & running group. 

Throughout the country there are hundreds of running groups around. Do a quick Google search for running groups in your area or use the Road Runners Club of America website. If you would like the encouragement and company, most clubs have all levels of abilities (really!) and pace groups. Call ahead to find out where they are meeting and on which days. Especially during warmer months as the location might change weekly. Ask if there is a fee (just in case) or anything special you need to bring. If you have a local sports store, inquire with an employee, they might know of a group. If you belong to a gym, ask the front desk if they know if a running group exists. Blogs and on-line forums are also great places to check for clubs or groups.

Find what you like to do best. Maybe meeting with a group on Saturday's works best or maybe you can find a partner to meet with several days a week.

Beginning running can look from the outside like a challenge. So may options and opinions out there. Try several different methods to find what is best for you. That is the best part of running. Finding a sport that fits your needs. No matter what.

The Joy of Running! (and my hunky husband is the one in front!)