In the coming month, many Americans of all ages – not just children – are going to be enjoying spring break. Students, teachers, school employees, college employees, and many others will enjoy a partial or full week away from the regular demands of their life to recharge and pursue other projects.
In my own family, that means everyone but me will enjoy a spring break in the near future, as my children are all in school and Sarah is a teacher. Most years – this one included – I plan around it, get some extra writing done in advance, and enjoy a bit of a spring break as well. Spring break is definitely a real presence in our lives.
So, what exactly can we do with this free week in order to tidy up and strengthen our financial lives? Here are twelve ideas for things you can do during your spring break – or even a long weekend during March or April – to put yourself in a better financial place.
Idea #1: Do your own taxes.
If you’re like most Americans, you have a stack of W-2s and 1099s in a folder or a cupboard somewhere, waiting until you get around to doing your taxes or take them to a tax preparer. Don’t let those forms wait around. Take care of those taxes sooner rather than later.
It’s pretty easy, actually. Just download some tax preparation software – I like TurboTax, personally – and fill in the blanks when prompted by the program’s questions. You’ll want to have all of your tax documents available when you start so that you can just grab them and type in the numbers as you go.
The whole process is actually very simple provided that you have a somewhat typical financial life. If you just have a bunch of W-2 forms and some 1099s from banks or investment firms and maybe a few more from consulting gigs, along with perhaps some mortgage interest statements and some charitable giving documents, then you should be able to burn through your taxes easily. It just requires you to sit down and do it – and then, when it’s done, it’s done.
- Related: Best Tax Software for 2017
Idea #2: Study the investment options available in your retirement plan and make a strong choice.
Many people sign up for their retirement plan at work or for their own Roth IRA, choose a default investment option when they start, and then just let it ride from there. They don’t really put in any additional thought as to whether the investment choices make sense to them.
Spend some time looking at the investment options available to you in your retirement plans. If you’ve chosen a target retirement fund, does it mature when you intend to retire (or a few years later)? Have you looked at the actual investments in that fund to see what it’s made of? If you’re in other investments, have you looked around at similar offerings within your account to see whether they offer similar risks and rewards with a lower fee? Are there index funds that do more or less the same thing as your mutual funds?
If you find something that matches your needs well, don’t be afraid to shift funds within your retirement account to those new investments.
Idea #3: Write a business plan for your side gig.
If you’ve ever thought about launching a small side business for yourself to run in your spare time, right now is the time to take the first big step toward that dream in the form of writing a simple business plan for your idea.
This might seem strange – shouldn’t you start with the actual work? – but the purpose of writing a business plan for even the smallest entrepreneurial endeavor is so that you think through what you’e trying to do and avoid obvious pitfalls from the start. It’s akin to sharpening your ax before chopping down a tree, to borrow an Abraham Lincoln anecdote.
Take the basic structure from our simple business plan guide and start filling in the pieces with elements of your idea and see what you come up with. You may be surprised at what comes out and what develops later as you revise and update the plan. It can turn a pipe dream into something real and actionable, something that could change your life.
Idea #4: Read a personal finance book – or other personal growth book.
For many people, spring break is a time to simply kick back and relax from a crazy start to the year. I know many students and teachers who fall into this boat, as the period between the start of the year usually represents the first half of a spring semester, in which everyone involved needs a chance to stop and breathe after midterms.
One great way to do that is to devote some significant time to reading a personal growth book of some kind – ideally, a personal finance book (this is The Simple Dollar, after all). Kick back with a good book and keep a notepad and a pen nearby to jot down thoughts and things you want to follow up on.
Want some suggestions? If you’re just trying to get a strong overall perspective, I recommend Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. If you’re struggling with a mountain of debt, I recommend The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. If you’re trying to learn more about investments and aren’t afraid of a bit of a challenge, I wholeheartedly recommend The Bogleheads’ Guide to Investing by Taylor Larimore, Mel Lindauer, and Michael LeBoeuf.
Honestly, any book that looks interesting in the personal finance section of your library is a good idea, though I’d avoid any book that talks about getting rich quickly or becoming a millionaire at age 30 or any nonsense like that.
Idea #5: Clean out your closets and prepare for a Craigslist sale or yard sale.
Almost all of us have unused stuff stowed away in our closets – items that we bought or were gifted to us with the best of intentions, only to go unused, put aside, and forgotten in the flow of our busy lives. Even if the item seems great, on some level, we’ve come to realize that it just isn’t for us, so it winds up in storage.
Now is a great time to go through those closets and pull out all of those items that got stowed away for later. Pull out those garments, those kitchen utensils, those DVD box sets, those project kits, those forgotten books, and make the choice to get them into the hands of someone who will actually use them.
This can be the first step to running a yard sale a bit later in the year – ideally, on a weekend where there’s a citywide yard sale so you can attract lots of customers – or it might be the start of a big selloff on Craigslist. Put all of the items in a big pile, get some sense of what they might sell for on Craigslist or at a yard sale, price them all out, and sell, sell, sell! You’ll make some money and free up some space in your home!
Idea #6: Weatherstrip your doors.
If you ever find that there’s cold air drifting into your home from the edges of a door on a winter day, you not only have discovered something that’s making your house chilly, you’ve also found a place where money is literally pouring out of your home. Your furnace and/or heaters are working overtime to heat up that chilled air and it’s costing you money.
The solution is simple – just install a weatherstrip where the cold air is leaking in. A weatherstrip is a simple strip of metal or other material that covers up that gap while the door is closed so that air doesn’t leak through it any more. It’s simple to install one with the right tools – you usually just need a drill and a kit from a hardware store.
Once it’s installed, you’ll find that cold air doesn’t leak through that gap any more and thus your furnace runs less often than it used to. In the summer, the reverse is true – it keeps hot air outside and thus causes your air conditioning to run less frequently. Both of those results are big money savers.
Idea #7: Caulk your windows.
A similar phenomenon happens around your windows. Many windows, especially older ones, will leak a little air around the edges and when there’s a big difference between the temperature of indoor air and outdoor air, that can result in your furnace running more in the winter and your air conditioner running more in the summer.
Go around your home, identify the leaks, and then get out a caulking gun and some caulk (both available at your local hardware store for a very reasonable price) and apply some caulk to those leaky seams to block that air flow.
Much as with the weatherstripping, this simple project will keep cold air out in the winter and warm air out in the summer, and the result of that is that your energy-hogging furnace and air conditioning will run less during their prime seasons, causing your energy bill to drop significantly.
Idea #8: Check and update the insulation in your attic.
Another place where the flow of warm air to and from the outdoors can really affect the energy efficiency of your home is in the attic. Many attics are full of insulation to create a block between the outside air and the inside air so that you don’t gain unwanted heat in the summer or lose heat in the winter.
A quick peek up into your attic can tell you pretty quickly whether there are any gaps in your insulation. Just look for places where you can see light coming in from the darkness or where you feel air that’s of a different temperature than the inside of your home to see a spot that should be filled. Visit your hardware store, pick up some attic insulation, and fill in the spots where you see light.
It’s a simple task, but for many people, getting up in the attic and wandering around, then going to the hardware store for a bit of insulation, then getting up there again to install it is something they just don’t get around to. Make this spring break a time where you do get around to it.
Idea #9: Install a programmable thermostat.
Another simple energy improvement task you can take on to tidy up your finances a bit is to install a programmable thermostat. If you’re typically not at home during the day, a programmable thermostat can save you a surprising amount of money.
Installing them is a snap. It’s mostly just throwing a breaker so that you don’t get shocked, then removing the current thermostat (usually just a screwdriver is needed) and putting the new one in its place, connecting the wires as instructed. Take pictures as you go so you can diagnose problems later if any arise (like your air conditioner running constantly, which can happen if you didn’t connect a wire in the right spot).
Once you have it installed and working, it’s usually very easy to program. Just instruct it to not have the air conditioning or furnace running while you’re at work or asleep unless the temperature gets extreme. Our programmable thermostat allows the temperature to go as low as 50 F at night without the furnace kicking on and as high as 82 during the day without the air conditioning kicking on. This helps immensely with our energy bills.
Idea #10: Replace all of the lights in your home with LEDs.
Here’s yet another little project you can take on to improve the energy efficiency in your home. Just go around your home to every socket with a normal incandescent bulb in it and replace that bulb immediately with an LED.
LED bulbs are so efficient and long lasting that it is more cost-effective to remove a still-functioning incandescent bulb from a socket and replace it with an LED than to wait until the incandescent burns out normally. So, you’re better off updating all of your bulbs at once.
Head to the store, pick up enough LED bulbs to cover all of the sockets in your home that still have an incandescent bulb in them, and then go home and swap out some bulbs. Your energy bill will drop noticeably.
Idea #11: Practice cutting your own hair.
Here’s a secret: I cut my own hair. Sure, I have a simple short haircut where I trim the sides pretty short with a short clipper attachment and then trim the hair on top with a longer attachment and then even out the dividing line with a graduated attachment. It’s easy to do. The truth is, though, that most simple haircuts are things you can do for yourself in front of a mirror for free.
The first time you try to do it is pretty intimidating, which is why it’s a good project to try during a break from work or community responsibilities. If you mess something up, you can go to a professional to “fix” what you did. If it turns out fine, then you know you can do it and then can repeat it with confidence.
Right now is a perfect time to give this little project a shot. Get out a comb and some hair scissors or a set of clippers and get to work on your hair. Better yet, see if your spouse can cut it for you or if you can cut your spouse’s hair.
Idea #12: Prepare a bunch of make-ahead meals and freeze them.
There are few things more convenient and more wallet-friendly than having a bunch of home-cooked frozen meals in the freezer. You can go home after a busy day, preheat the oven, take one of them out of the freezer and put it in the fridge (for a day or two down the road), take one out of the fridge that you put in there a day or two earlier, and pop it right in the oven. An hour or so later, you’ll pull out a home-cooked meal for everyone in your family to enjoy. It’s a low-cost and super-convenient home-cooked meal.
The catch, of course, is that you need to prepare a bunch of these meals in advance. That’s where spring break comes into the picture. You can just take a lazy day and make several pans of lasagna and several batches of homemade soup and several pans of tuna casserole and put all of them away in the freezer (except for one, which you eat for dinner that night). There are many “make ahead” recipes online, so just Google a make-ahead recipe for anything you like. (Note that virtually any soup works great as a “make ahead,” just use about 20% less liquid than the recipe calls for and freeze it in quart or gallon freezer containers or bags when it’s mostly done cooking.)
A freezer full of low-cost home-cooked meals that you can pop right in the oven or onto the stovetop to finish up whenever it’s convenient is an enormous money saver – and a time saver on a busy night.
Even if you find time to do just one or two of these things during your spring break, you’ll find that any of these projects will result in a greater understanding of your financial situation or more money in your pocket. Many of them will result in a permanent reduction in your bills, and some will even result in time saved over the long run.
What about me? What’s my big spring break project? I actually have four of them, three of which are straight from this list. I’m going to read a personal finance book (one that I’ll probably talk about or review later on The Simple Dollar, but that I’m reading primarily for my own enrichment) on the philosophical basis of frugality. I’m also going to do my family’s income tax filing, and I’m going to write a business plan for a side gig I’ve had in mind for a while. My final “spring break” project this year isn’t really personal finance related – it involves spending a day with a few old friends playing a very long board game together.
As for you? Set aside a bit of spring break time for a financial improvement task, and maybe some time for a special personal project, too. You won’t regret it!