As we here at Peak Personal Finance have stated repeatedly, there are lots of great tidbits of personal finance advice out there that are great in theory, but not so great in the real world (with bills to pay, mouths to feed, and unexpected expenses). We know, many of these can seem daunting at first, but here are 3 things you can start with little nibbles to get on the right financial path:

1. Three Months of Emergency Savings

For most people this sounds so difficult to do that they never really start trying. Yet, in these days when some creditors are going out of business and/or reducing their credit lines without advance notice to customers, having an emergency fund set aside is more important than ever. But remember, you don’t have to have all three months of savings at once.

We suggest starting today and setting it up electronically so that your online banking account automatically sends funds to your savings account at each payday — this makes it less painful. You can start with a small amount (maybe $20) and then bump up that amount once you find that you can manage without it, and at the very least bump it up every time you get a pay raise. It is fun to watch the money start to add up.

2. Max Out Your 401(k)

Yes, the market is down now, but if you still have a decade or more left before retirement chances are that you can look at this as a good time to “buy low”. Again, the idea of setting aside around $16,000 may be daunting at first, but you can take baby steps here too.

First, if you are lucky enough to still have your company matching your 401(k) contributions to a certain percent, then you are leaving money on the table if you are not taking advantage of that. Next, though you don’t have that money, it is also not taxed now. And once you divide what you would have had after tax by the 24 or more paychecks it is spread out over, the sting each paycheck is not that bad. Again, just get started with a small amount, and bump it up every time you get a raise. Don’t worry so much about short term losses, as this is a strategy for the long haul.

3. Line Up Your Bills

This is probably less enjoyable than the first two tasks, but it is oh so crucial. If you have multiple credit accounts, line them up and form a plan of attack to “take out” the ones with the highest interest rates first by paying as much extra as you can each month. Try not to be distracted by “shiny things” like promotions, “special offers” or other incentives creditors might throw at you to try to keep you indebted to them. This is a polite war, you against them, over who gets to keep more of your money.

And the answer is “yes”, you should start all of these today. You will have to budget how much you can put into each task, but don’t wait to complete one before taking a small step on the others. As they say, every journey starts with one step. Why not take a small step on each of these personal finance tasks today?

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Summer days are longer and the kids are home from school, so that means your air conditioner is being used more, and it’s easy to increase the amount of energy you use every day. This can cause a big increase in your average electric bill, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By being more conscious of how you use the air conditioner, coming up with outdoor activities that require little or no energy, and making some changes around the house, you can lower your energy costs during the long days of summer. Consider the following energy efficiency tips to save money and have an energy efficient summer.

1. Try to keep your air conditioner off as much as possible.

Running your air conditioner is one of the biggest household energy expenses at any time of year, but it’s especially bad in the summer. Many experts in the prepaid electricity industry note that usage skyrockets because of  air condition use. You can cut down on those bills if you keep it off most of the time and make a few simple adaptations to your usage patterns. First, you can use fans more frequently, while keeping the windows closed and the curtains shut so your house will be cooler when the sun’s at its hottest. When it’s cooler outside, you can open the windows and try to create a cross breeze. If you have a two-story house, you can also spend more time downstairs or create a family center in the basement where it is cooler. Go outside for a few fun activities in the summer sun, including swimming and picnics. You can also go out to air-conditioned places like the movies, the mall, and other fun venues. Make sure you encourage your whole family to wear light clothing that they’ll stay cool. If your family is staying inside wearing sweatshirts in the summer because the air is too cold with air conditioning, you are simply wasting energy. Instead, use the air conditioning less and wear clothing appropriate to the season. When you are using your A/C try to keep it at 78° for optimal energy efficiency.

2. Make sure your air conditioner is energy efficient.

When you are using the air conditioner, make sure it’s running efficiently. It’s a good idea to look into this before the heat of summer is upon you. Check your home insulation and seals to make sure the cool air stays in and the hot air stays out. Change the air filter when it’s dirty to prevent the air conditioner from running longer and wasting energy. You might need to look into buying a newer, more energy-efficient air conditioner if you have an outdated model. Plus, do chores that cause heat, like drying clothes and using the oven, at night when it’s cooler so the air conditioner doesn’t have to work as much to keep the house cool.

3. Cut down on indoor cooking.

Use the grill for most of your cooking during the summer months. Grilling is a great summer activity and can expand your cuisine from winter comfort foods. You can grill meats and even many of the side dishes, including corn, vegetables and toasting buns. You can even cook some foods in baking dishes and pots on the grill, like baked beans and berry cobbler for dessert. If you decide to cook some items inside, try to keep it to only simple side dishes and do the bulk of the cooking on the grill. Another option is to make more lettuce salads and cold summer dishes like chicken salad and tuna salad that don’t require cooking. Cutting down on cooking inside will also prevent the house from getting as hot, so it can cut down on costs to keep the house cool. If you need grilling ideas, checkout this post on cheap and easy grilling recipes.

4. Take a break from electronics.

Kids and adults spend endless hours on the computer, on smartphones, watching TV, playing video games, and using countless additional electronic devices. But summer is the perfect time to enjoy some electronics-free fun. There are endless indoor and outdoor activities for kids and adults that can save on energy costs, including bike rides, reading, putting on a play, playing dress-up, playing board games and with toys, playing with water guns and water balloons, exploring the outdoors, fishing, camping, going on day trips, and more. Try to get the neighbors involved as well, so the activities can be more social. By engaging in more of these activities, you can save energy by not using electronics all day, plus you can unplug them during that time to prevent wasting energy through the standby functions.

5. Cut down on hot water use.

During the summer, it’s hot anyway, so it’s not so hard to cut down on hot water and save money on water-heating costs. Encourage your family to take cooler showers, which can be refreshing after a hot day in the sun. Practice shorter showers, no baths, and turning the water off when brushing teeth and shaving. Use cold water to wash the car and water the plants.

6. Cut down on the costs of your pool.

Pools take energy to run the filtration pumps, plus extra if you heat them and run lights at night. To cut down on energy usage here, consider going to a community pool instead, using a friend’s or neighbor’s pool, or going to the ocean or other natural bodies of water. If you want to continue to or start to use a pool at home, there are a few tricks that can help you save money. Use a cover on the pool when it’s not in use to cut down on cleaning, to prevent evaporation, and to keep the water warmer. Consider investing in a solar heating system if you need to heat the water. Also, specific filters, such as sand multi-layer filtration systems, can help you save money in energy costs by not using as much hot water.

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As our lives become increasingly mobile, it is little surprise that we are interested in taking more of our finances with us. And with smart phones, like the iPhone, Blackberry and G1, it is possible to keep track of just about everything related to your financial world.

Using apps on your smart phone is a great way to make sure that you are always up to speed with your financial situation — no matter where you are and what you are doing. Some of these financial apps are free, and others will cost between $1.99 and $25, depending on the company and the version that you get.

Here are six different types of financial apps that you can use on your smart phone:

  1. Banking/Personal Finance: It is easy to find apps that can help you with your banking and personal finance. Most of the major banks now have apps that allow you to check balances from your phone, as well as make balance transfers and pay bills. You can also find nearby ATMs. Personal finance apps let you keep track of your income and expenses remotely, and many of them can be attached to your bank accounts so that you get access to those as well. Mint and Pageonce are two examples of personal finance apps.
  2. Investments: If you are an investor, you can get the latest price alerts, stock quotes and financial news. You can also see if your brokerage offers apps for your smart phone. If so, it is sometimes possible to manage your account, buying and selling from your cell phone. Bloomberg Mobile and iStockManager are two examples of investment apps that can help you stay connected to your portfolio.
  3. Calculators: There are some really cool calculator apps out there. These do more than just help you add up numbers. You can can calculate tips, get the latest currency conversions and even figure out a pay-off rate for debt and a payment schedule for your mortgage. Some apps that fall into this category include Pay Off Debt, Mortgage Calculator and eCurrency.
  4. Shopping: You can even increase your shopping efficiency with the help of your cell phone. There are coupon applications that help you search for the coupons you want and then download them to your phone — no paper necessary. Additionally, it is also possible to use some applications to comparison shop with other places in town or online. Some great shopping apps include ShopSavvy, GasBuddy and Coupon Sherpa.
  5. Searching Real Estate: If you are interested in getting a little help with home shopping, there are a number of apps that can help you locate homes in the neighborhood you are in. Many of these apps use a mash-up with mapping technology to help you search homes via MLS. You can also do some research and find agents. Some of the real estate search apps you can try include Zillow and Homes for Sale.
  6. Add Money to Your Parking Meter: This is actually a really cool idea. In some 100 locations around the world, including Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Vancouver and Dallas, you can sign up to pay your meter remotely from an account. This will work with any cell phone. All you do is call the number on the meter, enter the code, and decide how much time you want. You are billed later. Your cell phone will keep you updated with regard to how much time you have left. Verrus and Clancy Systems International provide these services.

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I was recently talking to a friend about how to add more vegetables to her family’s diet. She tends to feed her family a lot of rice, noodles and potatoes. As I was giving her some recipes, I also stated that she should include vegetables in her meal planning. She then admitted that not only does she not menu plan but she isn’t really sure how to do that.

Hence, this post.

How to Menu Plan to Save You Time & Money

Menu plans should be created for the same length of time you have between grocery trips. If you shop every two weeks, then you’ll want to create a two week menu. I shop every week therefor my menus are for one week at a time.

Menus should be created before you shop, not after you’ve gone to the store and bought a ton of food. This method will cause you to buy more than you need, stocking your pantry and fridge with items that may go unused and wasted. If you wish to save yourself money and prevent as much waste as possible, plan your menus before you shop.

1. Assemble your supplies.

You are going to need the flyers or websites for the stores that you shop at, your coupons and any coupon sites that you utilize (don’t forget your grocery store’s own site, you can find a lot of digital coupons there), your family’s calendar, a pen, a pencil, highlighter and a notebook. You will need to decide how you want to write out your menu out whether it is on a blank calendar page that you print off, a board hanging on your fridge or just a piece of notebook, find what works for your family and use that.

Organizational Tip: write your obligations in pen but write your menu in pencil, at least initially. You may make changes as you are working through it.

2. Fill out events and obligations on your menu.

What I mean by this is write down any days that you will be away from the house at dinner time or have to be somewhere late, making dinner difficult to cook. Some weeks this might be 3 or 4 days, some it may just be one. Planning ahead for times when you can’t spend a lot of time will save you from eating out or wasting food in the fridge.

3. Evaluate your schedule and plan accordingly.

For this step you are going to take a look at any days that you or your family is going to be busy during or close to dinner time. If you will be home but then have to leave around 6:30, maybe you plan for quick sandwiches for dinner. If thee’s a night when you know you’ll have a late meeting and won’t get home until 6:00, that may be a great night to have an easy “Breakfast for Dinner” or a Baked Potato Bar. Maybe you can make a casserole ahead of time and ask someone at home to pop it in the oven before you arrive. This is a good time to see when you can utilize your crockpot or a meal made in advance. Really evaluate your days and nights to decrease your desire to dine out and your frustration in the evening.

4. Shop your pantry.

Before you add anything else to your menu, look in your pantry, freezer and fridge to see what you have that can be eaten in the next week. Did you make a lasagna last week but ended up freezing it? Serve that this week. Maybe you bought all the ingredients to make a great Mexican dish but something came up and it didn’t get made, add that to the menu for the coming week. Is there any meat that you bough on sale a few weeks back that hasn’t been used yet? The key here is to reduce what you buy at the grocery store which will save you money (Tip: Any money you save under your weekly grocery budget should be moved into your Emergency Fund if you are building it or towards debt repayment if you are working on that.).

5. Check the grocery store sales.

Check for any great deals that you might be able to take advantage of. It could be a great deal on boneless-skinless chicken breasts and you’ll want to plan a night or two that utilizes those. The idea during this tip is that you don’t want to be buying something that is not a great deal when there are other things you can have that will save your family money. Save a beef night for when beef is on sale, roast a whole chicken when you can find it at a reduced price. Pair your menu with the places that will maximize your budget.

Just yesterday I was doing this and saw that pineapples were going to be $1 each. This is an amazing deal as I typically pay over $3 for a pineapple. If you have a recipe that uses pineapple (Teryaki Chicken, maybe?) this would be a great week to make it. For us, we LOVE fruit smoothies any time of day so we’ll be having breakfast for supper one night this week which will include smoothies that have pineapple in them!

6. Plan your menu based on the sales.

You have the days when dinner will need to be quick and easy filled in, you’ve filled in nights when you can use things from the pantry, it’s time to add in items that you will find on sale this week. Your menu should be pretty filled up by now but if it’s not, it’s time to check out Pinterest for some new recipe items. I challenge you to add in a Meatless Monday (or Wednesday, Friday, or heck go crazy and do it every day like I do!) Meatless meals will save you on your budget, especially if you make your meals with things like rice, dried beans, and potatoes which are very budget-friendly.

7. Examine your menu closely.

Now is the time to use that eraser on the pencil you’ve been writing your menu with. It’s time to evaluate what type of a plan you have in place. Are you spending too much time in the kitchen? Swap out a meal or two that has you in the kitchen every night. Plan for leftovers. I will generally cook two nights in a row and then call for leftovers. The rule in my house is that you can have leftovers that night like the plan says or you can make yourself a bowl of cereal. (Tip: This is a great plan for nights when you won’t be home until late.) Also, during this time you should be evaluating how much you are potentially spending during your menu. If you have too many beef nights planned, then you may need to make adjustments to accommodate your budget.

Organizational Tip: Use your highlighter here to draw your attention to any meal that needs advance preparation. If rice needs to be cooked the night before or beans need to be soaked, write that on your menu somewhere for the night it should be done.

8. Create your grocery list.

Check your pantry, your freezer and recipes then write down the items you’ll need. As you are doing this, check for coupons and pull them out for when you are shopping. I always put a star next to items on my list that have a matching coupon to make sure I don’t forget them.

9. Shop, cook, eat and enjoy!

You’ve created a great menu, you’ve planned, shopped and cooked. It’s time to eat dinner with your family and enjoy the reduction in stress and the decrease in your budget.

Congratulations, you are a now a menu planner!

What do you think? Could you do this? Do you menu plan? How would it work for you?

Image Credit (Before text was added) to: Liz on Flickr

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