Reporter and columnist Paula Wethington started blogging about personal finance for The Monroe News in southeastern Michigan by sharing her own experiences managing her family budget, so she's intimate with the subject matter.
When asked about the most common mistakes that families make when managing their money, Paula says we're often not prepared to handle those expenses that pop up only once or twice in a lifetime because we don't have the background to estimate what it might cost.
"How much does it cost to get senior yearbook pictures taken? You don't know until your child is a senior and you see examples of a professional sitting. How much does it cost to buy a child car seat and how much time elapses before you have to buy the next size up? Those expectations and rules have changed quite a bit since I was a parent of a toddler more than 20 years ago," she says.
We recently caught up with the writer behind Monroe on a Budget to get tips for managing a family budget and advice on living frugally.
Paula, tell us the story behind Monroe on a Budget.
Monroe on a Budget started in January 2007. At that time, my newspaper, The Monroe News, was expanding its digital media projects and a blog network was part of that portfolio. I made a pitch to my editor that I could blog "about living in Monroe on a budget," spinning off the experiences my family had after my husband was laid off and going farther back, my single parenting years. In addition to my own stories, I would share the headlines and public service announcements that ran in our newspaper and were of interest to middle class families.
The idea was accepted. My site launched that day, and my co-workers were among the earliest fans. The digital readers responded so well to the content that by March 2009 I started giving presentations in the community on "budget blog" topics such as couponing. Also about that time, we started running occasional spinoff pieces in the newspaper.
Monroe on a Budget became a regular weekly column in the newspaper about a year and a half ago; and has led to other print features such as for our monthly parent magazine.
In response to the coupon craze, I included weekly sales and deals; along with extensive couponing discussions; for about four years, on the blog. The readership on those posts dwindled and I've dropped that topic unless someone has a specific question that should be answered or addressed.
The blog is still active, and is back to its original concept of overall tips, personal stories, headlines and public service announcements.
Who should be reading the blog?
The original demographic was middle class families in southeast Michigan. We've since expanded the target audience to include the working poor. Much of the traffic that comes my way via search engines indicates keywords relating to food stamps, child support and seeking help for a specific need.
Why are you passionate about personal finance?
I'm probably the last person who expected to be a personal finance columnist! I didn't care much for math as a student; and did well in my basic accounting class only because I put some effort into earning the grade.
This topic became mine because I understand what it's like when there isn't enough money to do everything you might like.
How could I afford to have fancy Christmas dishes? I received them piece by piece as gifts. How could my daughter afford to go to Japan as a high school student for a summer exchange program? She saved up her birthday and Christmas money, and worked at a part-time job. How could I afford to take out student loans to help my daughter with college expenses? My husband and I don't have car payments, because we drive cars that are paid off. How could my husband and I furnish our house after we bought it; and later, take on a major renovation project? Much of the furniture was second-hand, or we already owned it. We also scheduled the home upgrades as cash was available, even if that meant only $20 at a time invested into supplies.
What's the most surprising thing you've learned about money management since starting the blog?
One of the surprising things I've learned is how hard it is for an individual or couple to get an understanding as to whether spending overall, or in a particular category, is appropriate to income. Not many budgeting systems help explain what is an appropriate amount to spend on various categories given a specific income bracket.
The main question a typical budgeting system answers is whether you have spent more than your income. Crown Financial Ministries is one exception as that system does give percentage examples. It also is difficult for people whose families are in different demographics (empty nesters vs. three children at home) or in different cities (rent, car insurance and commute expenses among the variables) to understand why a certain income amount is sufficient for one household to live reasonably well but not nearly enough for another household to pay for basic needs.
What are some of the most outside-of-the-box ways you've heard about to save money?
I never understood the rationale of "buying" coupons through clipping services. There is a point of diminishing returns even to couponing when you are feeding a family.
How do you think the recession has changed your readers' views of money?
I think my readers in southeast Michigan feel overwhelmed and unsure of what to do next. Economic downturns have affected the region before, but this was different. It was more long-lasting and hit in many more directions. Some will never be back to where they were financially.
What are the smartest things families can do to get a handle on their finances?
The first step is to monitor the bill due dates and pay everything on time. If all you can pay is the minimum due, that's fine. But late fees will make the financial situation worse.
What are some easy ways to trim your grocery store bill?
The key is to understand which money-saving tactics you are willing to use and apply, and then shop at the stores whose promotions match your preferences. If you don't like to coupon, there are stores that have great specials without coupons. If you think shopper card discounts and rebates are the best idea a supermarket or drugstore created, then you should make as many purchases as possible at retailers that roll their deals onto shopper cards.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about living frugally?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that a frugal lifestyle is the cheapest possible. It doesn't have to be. Frugality really means being resourceful, and sometimes, being patient.