Budget Halloween Costumes

October 8, 2015

Budget-Halloween-CostumesThe countdown to Halloween has begun. Soon ghosts and ghouls will be roaming the streets, asking the age old question: “Trick or treat?” In the buzz of costume hunting, candy collecting and visiting haunted houses, it’s easy to lose track of your budget. However, Halloween is a great opportunity for DIY which can add up to huge savings. Instead of spending big bucks on a store made costume for your children, check out some of these wallet-friendly, classic ideas:

  • With the zombie craze still going strong, this is a popular choice with lots of creative options. Either go to the thrift store or raid your child’s closet for items that are no longer worn or have been outgrown, then have fun destroying them! Cut holes, roll in the mud and add fake blood (try mixing corn syrup, red food coloring and cocoa powder) to “zombify” the outfit. Put some dark eye shadow under your child’s eyes and have fun practicing their zombie walk.
  • Secret Agent Spy. Stop by the thrift store for a black jacket and pants for your child. To complete the outfit, get some fun accessories such as a pair of dark sunglasses or briefcase. Build up your child’s spy arsenal with an old watch to act a secret communication device.
  • Stick Man. This costume requires a white shirt and pants, black duct or electrical tape, a paper plate and some string. Use the tape to create a line down the front of the shirt to create the body, and lines for the arms and legs. Draw a simple smiley face on the paper plate, cut out eye holes, and use the string to hold it in place.

If instead of the classics your trick-or-treater is looking for something more “of the moment,” there are plenty of options to recreate outfits without having to go over budget. Here are a few ideas:

  • Joy from Inside Out. With Inside Out coming out to DVD soon, Joy is a great emotion to feel and emulate in costume. Check thrift stores for a yellow dress and spruce it up with some blue glitter paint. Pick up a can of blue hair spray from the dollar store or party store and your child will jump with joy at the great costume.
  • Charlie Brown. The Peanuts Movie is due out later this year which means Charlie Brown has begun to make a comeback. All that is needed for this costume is a yellow t-shirt or polo, black pants and black duct (or electrical) tape. Use the tape to create the zig-zag pattern along the bottom of the shirt. To really spruce up this costume, use a washable black marker to draw the curly hair on your Charlie’s forehead and have your child carry a white stuffed animal dog to be faithful Snoopy.
  • Minion from Minions Movie. If your child has a yellow shirt and blue jeans, you already have half the costume ready. You can add suspenders, black gloves or a yellow stocking cap to help complete the outfit. Swing by the dollar store for safety glasses and hot glue the rims of two mason jar lids for minion goggles and your minion is ready to go!

No matter what your kids decide to be on Halloween, a little creativity will go a long way in helping keep costs low. Most thrift stores carry discounted Halloween outfits this time of year and dollar stores are packed with dress up clothes and accessories. If you have a cardboard box and some paint, there are plenty of options! No matter what the costume, the key to a successful Halloween is lots of fun at the end of the night.

Heart of Florida United Way is focused on addressing the five major building blocks of financial stability in order to provide low-income working families the services and support necessary to succeed. For more information visit www.hfuw.org or if you are in need of assistance, call 2-1-1, our 24-hour Information and Assistance helpline.


Credit 101

September 3, 2015


If you’ve ever applied for a loan or financing, such as when buying a car, you’ve probably been asked about your credit score. However, according to a recent survey, the majority of Americans do not know their score or what a credit report is. Your credit report is an important source of information. By understanding what it is and how to maintain or improve it, you can save money in the long run.

What is a credit report?

A credit report is a biography of your credit use. Your report has a list of all debts you have taken on, from student loans to credit cards. If you’ve ever applied for a credit card, that will show up too. Inquiries others have made into your credit — such as a landlord or car dealer checking your background — will also be listed.

Despite what ads you may see advertising credit reports for a fee, your credit report is completely free for you to access once a year. To get your free credit report, visit AnnualCreditReport.com or call 877-322-8228.

When you get your report, check it over for any discrepancies or issues. You may find a credit card you did not open, a typo affecting your report or even evidence of identity theft. By getting your credit report, you can tackle these issues right away and get them removed from your credit report.

What is a credit score and how is it different from a credit report?

A credit score is a three digit number that is based on your credit report. The score lets lenders know your credit worthiness — that is, how likely you are to repay your debt on time. Scores range from 300 (the worst score) to 850 (the highest). The higher the score, the better off you will be. Individuals with strong credit scores — 750 or above — can get lower interest rates on loans. If you have a poor credit score, you may not be able to get a loan at all, which will limit your options when shopping for big items, like a car or a mortgage.

Several different factors affect your credit score. These include:

  • Credit utilization: This is how much you use your credit cards. The lower your credit card balance, the better.
  • On-time payments: This is how often you make your payments on time. The more on-time payments and fewer late payments, the better a candidate you are to lenders.
  • Derogatory marks: This is the amount of major issues on your report. This can include bankruptcies, accounts sent to collections, or a tax lien against you.
  • Variety of accounts: This is the different types of credit you have. Lenders like to see you can carry debt responsibly, so having a range of credit — such as a credit card and a car loan — is actually beneficial to your score.

Your credit score is not part of your free credit report. To get an actual credit score, you will need to purchase it. Reputable sites include Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.

What if my score isn’t good?

Don’t panic. Your credit score isn’t set in stone and you can take steps to improve your score.

  1. Be on time: Above all, make your payments on each account on time. Even if you can only afford to pay the minimum, it’s better to pay that amount for each account on time every month.
  2. Apply for credit wisely: While credit card reward offers can be tempting, applying for several different cards will raise eyebrows for lenders. Only apply for cards you really need and if you will use it — and most importantly — will pay off it on time.
  3. Minimize your overall debt: Pay down your debt to keep your credit utilization low and your credit score up. Pay a little extra each month to bring your debt down.

Now that you know about credit reports and credit scores, get to work! Use that information to improve your credit health. It will go a long way to help you save money and protect your financial future.

Heart of Florida United Way is focused on addressing the five major building blocks of financial stability in order to provide low-income working families the services and support necessary to succeed. For more information visit www.hfuw.org or if you are in need of assistance, call 2-1-1, our 24-hour Information and Assistance helpline.

13 Ways to Prepare for an Income Reduction

May 11, 2015

This article originally appeared on “Surviving and Thriving” and has been reposted with permission by Donna Freedman.


A reader suggested an article on preparing for income reduction. Not layoff or job loss, but rather a partial loss of expected funds – salary reduction, an end to child support and the like.

“Where you still have a job, but really need to evaluate the ‘new budget’,” she says.

I’ve written on this subject before, calling it the “financial fire drill.” You figure out how little you can get away with spending – and you do it with an attitude of calm preparation, not fear of deprivation.

This baker’s dozen of tips will get you started.

  1. Figure a baseline budget. This is the absolute minimum needed for basic shelter, food, utilities, and mandated payments like child support or student loans. Best-case scenario: Trimming some budgetary fat partly or mostly offsets the income reduction.
  2. Track current spending. If you haven’t got a budget, build one – with pen and paper or with a free online tool like Mint.com. Again: Knowing where it’s going can show you places to cut.
  3. Pay down any consumer debt. Trimming some budgetary fat, as noted above, can give you extra bucks to throw at debt. Two other potential tactics: Try to negotiate a lower interest rate or see if you can get a balance transfer.
  4. Ease off on prepayments. Have you been paying extra on your mortgage or your student loans? Redirect that money into savings; as my MSN Money colleague Liz Weston points out, even a $500 emergency fund can make a huge difference.

Cut some costs

  1. Re-think your auto. Can yours be a single-car or even a car-free household? If so, sell or garage one vehicle. Don’t cancel your car insurance outright, since it can be hard and/or expensive to get back in. If you truly need wheels, then talk to your agent about raising your deductible. While you’re at it, look for a better insurance rate.
  2. Inventory your stuff. Is any of it saleable? Somebody paid $1,200 for my little plastic statue of Bob Feller.
  3. Cruise frugality sites. May I suggest the following: my site (of course!), The Dollar Stretcher, Wise Bread, Get Rich Slowly and I Pick Up Pennies. May I also suggest that you incorporate changes gradually, so that you don’t burn out?
  4. Seek utility discounts. Some have reduced rates for people in reduced circumstances.

Just in case

  1. Got kids in school? Talk to the financial aid office; a change in circumstances might mean your scholar is eligible for additional help. (Avoid more loans, though.)
  2. Still paying your own student loans? Learn about forbearance now, before you need it.
  3. Know what’s out there. Go to Benefits.gov to learn about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and any other programs for which you might be eligible. Check local resources like food banks and public health clinics, too; visit the 2-1-1 page for links to services in your area. As with forbearance, find out these programs before you need them.
  4. Seek a side hustle. Even a few extra dollars could be a huge help. See “Can’t get a job? get a microjob!” for specifics.
  5. Think about boarders. Maybe a friend or relative (or a grad student) needs a room. Or check out home-stay programs like Airbnb.com and Roomorama; one couple I interviewed pays most of the mortgage this way.

Does all this sound drastic? Remember, you don’t have to do all of it – and you might find more suitable ways to cut costs.

Attitude is as important as any frugal hack. This is not about deprivation, but rather about smart use of available funds. If your income is reduced your outgo better shrink, too. Continuing to live the way you always had would be financial suicide: Those credit-card bills will keep coming in whether or not your ship eventually does.

Readers: Have you had to (or did you want to) cut spending? Got any advice to share?

Donna Freedman has been making a living as a writer for 31 years, the last eight of them as an online freelancer. She recently compiled her expertise into an online course called Write A Blog People Will Read; follow the link for a 25 percent discount.
Heart of Florida United Way is dedicated to changing lives for the better by helping families and individuals gain access to resources they need to stay afloat and succeed financially. For more information about Heart of Florida United Way’s efforts to improve employment and financial stability in Central Florida, visit www.HFUW.org.

Using the Cash Envelope System

April 21, 2015

Cash Envelope System

It’s easy to break out the credit card for routine purchases like groceries, gas, clothes, and fast food. The convenience can’t be beat, but using that credit card can cause you to spend more money that you intended and rack up debt. According to a recent study, people spend up to 18% more when they use a credit card rather than cash.

The envelope system is a great way to get a handle on your spending and help you keep to a budget. It’s easy and requires no special tools or software, just some plain envelopes.

To get started with the envelope system, follow these steps:

  1. Make a budget: Review your spending over the past month and your bills. Bucket your expenses into categories, such as rent, groceries, gas, cable, etc. Then create an envelope for each one and label each envelope with a category.
  2. Fill your envelope: Set aside the amount of money for that week for that category in each envelope. For instance, if your grocery budget is $400 a month, you would put $100 in that envelope for the week.
  3. Spend! The fun part! Spend your envelopes on each category as needed. The important part is not to borrow from one for another category—no raiding the grocery budget to pay for shoes! If you run out of money in any category, spending is over.
  4. Adjust: If at the end of the week you have any money left over, deposit the extra amount into savings or pay down debt. Even an extra $5 each month can make a difference over time.
  5. Refill the envelopes: At the start of the next week, refill the envelopes and start again.

If you’re used to carrying a credit card, it may take some time to get used to the envelope system. But give it time. Adjusting to a cash system will make you more aware of your finances and spending, helping you keep on budget and build your savings.

Heart of Florida United Way is focused on addressing the five major building blocks of financial stability in order to provide low-income working families the services and support necessary to succeed. For more information visit www.hfuw.org or if you are in need of assistance, call 2-1-1, our 24-hour information and referral helpline.

The ALICE Report

November 19, 2014

Cover imageThe phrase “working poor” can elicit images of someone who is severely under-employed and living at the federal poverty line. But a new report released by United Way says not only is that picture inaccurate, the phrase “working poor” is inaccurate.

Developed by Rutgers University, the report calls attention to a population it refers to as ALICE, an acronym for ASSET LIMITED, INCOME CONSTRAINED, EMPLOYED. Set aside the jargon, and what’s being talked about are workers, some with families, who earn either just enough to get by, or are not quite making ends meet. These are everyday people who hold jobs as hospitality workers, daycare teachers, landscapers and so on. Their incomes simply don’t meet the cost of living.

“We all know ALICE,” says Heart of Florida United Way President and CEO Robert H. (Bob) Brown. “ALICE is the recent college graduate unable to afford to live on his or her own, the young family strapped by child care costs and the mid-career professional now underemployed. These folks are vital to our future economic well-being, and they face barriers beyond their control frustrating their ability to become financially stable.”

More than 203,000 tri-county households fall into what United Way calls the ALICE population. These are households earning more than the official U.S. poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living. This is more than double those considered in poverty by federal standards, which accounts for over 101,000 households in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. Combined, ALICE and poverty households, account for about half of all households in Central Florida.

According to the United Way ALICE report, 45 percent of Florida households are struggling to afford food, housing, childcare and transportation. However, a closer look at local numbers tells an even stronger story of hardship.

• Nearly 50% of Central Florida families do not earn enough to consistently cover the basic living expenses highlighted by the ALICE Threshold.

• 69% of all jobs in FL pay less than $20 an hour and most pay between $10 and $15 an hour. The jobs forecast shows that low-skill and low-paying jobs will dominate Florida’s future if the economy continues on its current trajectory.

• Of the ALICE population in Osceola County, 47% are homeowners and 1/3 of homeowners are cost burdened (pay more than 35% of their income on their mortgage). Likewise, in Orange County 39% of the ALICE population owns homes, with 29% cost burdened; and in Seminole County 34% own with 27% cash burdened.

• A significant majority of households below the ALICE threshold rent (69% Orange County, 62% Seminole County, 71% Osceola County). Approximately half of all renters are cost burdened (pay more than 35% of their income on their rent).

• Central Florida needs more than 95,000 affordable rental units to meet the current demand for affordable homes, with more than 65,000 of those needed in Orange County.

• Florida became less affordable from 2007 to 2012. Despite the Great Recession the cost of basic housing, child care, transportation, food and healthcare increased by 13%.

• Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties all rank in the bottom 1/3 of counties in Florida for overall housing affordability, with Orange County being the 4th worst in the state.

• Orange, Seminole and Osceola all rank in the top 1/3 of counties in Florida for job creation.

This is a population that United Way has been serving for over 75 years, but this new report sharpens the focus on the overall economic health of our community, which could ultimately lead to improvements for ALICE. Awareness can bring business and community leaders together to find workable solutions to affordable housing, affordable childcare, affordable healthcare and access to transportation that can help bring incomes more in line with the cost of living.

United Ways in six states commissioned Rutgers University-Newark, School of Public Affairs and Administration to conduct the ALICE research. The report was funded by grants from AT&T, Atlantic Health System, Deloitte, FamilyWize, Novartis, Post Foods, and The UPS Foundation.

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