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Sticking to a family budget Make list to decide what you need vs. what you want

With nine children and another one on the way, Jennifer and Al Baker watch what they spend.

With careful budgeting, the family's lone paycheck covers all the necessities, as well as a few treats. They have seven children at home; the two oldest live on their own.

Jennifer Baker's philosophy on setting and sticking to a budget is the same as the advice from professionals.

"You have to make a list between your needs and wants," she said. "You have to decide what you really need and what you can truly afford."

She has budgeted her money for as long as she can remember.

"I started doing a budget because there never seemed to be enough money to stretch. We had to decide what was really needed."

Baker started by keeping track of all of the family's expenses. She also knows how much her husband makes. She divides the expenses and income into weekly allotments. For instance, she buys a membership to the Auto Club of Western New York once a year, but she saves out a little bit in each paycheck to cover the cost.

"I try to reassess every year or so," she said.

That's the same advice Consumer Credit Counseling gives to its clients.

"You have to sit down and do a basic inventory of what you have coming in, and what you have going out," said Paul Atkinson, president of Consumer Credit Counseling. "It sounds simple, but it's not frequently done."

Once you start matching up what you have coming in with what you have going out, you can start to make some assessments.

There are many free forms available on-line to help families create a budget. Consumer Credit Counseling has a budget analysis form on its Web site, www.consumercreditbuffalo.com.

The form has lines to list the cost of items of housing, utilities, food, transportation, clothing, child care, gifts, charity, health and others. Also, bills that are owed, how much is owed and when it is due, as well as income.

This becomes the foundation of the budget.

"Once you compare those two, then you're going to have a bottom line. If you find that is woefully behind," Atkinson said, "then it's time to give us a call."

But if the money coming in is more than the money going out, a consumer can see that, also, and decide where to put the extra resources.

"It almost becomes a business plan for you," he said.

And when Johnny comes home and wants the shoe laces that glow in the dark, or a catalog comes in the mail with a great sale, you can pull out the budget, and see if those items are on it.

Budgeting is routine for Baker, and she is teaching her children about it. The family's grocery list is posted in the kitchen. Each time someone eats or uses the last of an item, he or she writes it on the list. By keeping a close eye on what is needed, making many items from scratch, and buying meat by the whole or half cow, the Bakers keep their food bill to about $200 a month.

Some children may not have parents who stick to a budget, but more schools are offering finance and budget classes.

Lancaster Central High School is one of several area high schools with courses that teach students how to create a budget. Scott Dixon, director of the school's Academy of Finance, said he has students consider their own goals, like planning for college or saving for a car. He suggests they account for their fixed expenses, then set aside small amounts each week.

"We start small. Then we also get into the bigger things, like homes and retirement," he said.

If you come to the realization you need to save money, there are ways to do that: Atkinson said many families look at whether they can walk instead of drive, shop on-line instead of driving to a store and look for sales and coupons.

If you're trying to save money and stay on a budget, know that it is not easy.

"It's very difficult to live within your means if you haven't before," Jennifer Baker said. "Yeah, there's times I really want to buy things, but do I really need it, or do I want it?"

e-mail: bobrien@buffnews.com

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