‘How My Family Makes It Work Living on One Income’

Caucasian mother and son working at table
Groceries, car payments, the mortgage, clothes for the kids.

If you’re like most families in America, that’s just a fraction of what you need to take into consideration when mapping out your monthly budget.

And these days, unless you or your spouse is commanding a high salary, the idea of stretching one paycheck to cover an entire family can be daunting.

Still, some folks — more than you may think — are finding crafty ways to make it work. Here’s just how many more: According to a Pew report, the ranks of stay-at-home moms are on the rise, with some 85 percent making the choice to care for their families. And being a stay-at-home dad is now almost twice as commonas it was in the ’80s.

To hear firsthand what it’s like to make the leap to single-income status, we asked families across the U.S. to share their stories — and their best money tips.

Who: Sarah Prince, 29, project manager for a genetics company, Salt Lake City.

“My husband, Trevin, and I met in college, and when we got married 10 years ago, I became the primary income earner while he pursued a career as an artist.

We now have three little boys, ranging from 3 years old to 7 weeks. But even before we welcomed our first child, we felt the best thing was to have a parent at home. Plus, if we opted for day care, it would eat up Trevin’s earnings.

Sometimes one of his art shows would do well, and we’d have extra income. And sometimes he wouldn’t sell anything.

So we both came to the decision that he’d care for the kids and do art on the side.

Our single salary secrets: I’ve changed jobs and gotten a few raises, so I now earn about $47,000. Although money has been tighter than we’d like, we’ve managed to stick to a budget and provide for our family.

Our situation is pretty great. Trevin is incredibly close to all three of our boys — most kids only see their father for an hour or two at night after work.

Feeding five can be a budget buster, so I buy our most expensive items — like diapers — at Costco. We have the executive membership, in which you get 2 percent back, and that always covers the $110 annual fee.

Our go-to supermarket sends me coupons based on our regular purchases, and I use DealsToMeals.com for alerts about which stores have the best prices that day.

When I cook I always make extra, saving the leftovers to take to work instead of buying lunch. And we only eat out for special occasions.

I also shop at thrift stores and use hand-me-downs — I’ve never had to buy new clothes for my youngest son.

What I love about our life: I’m lucky to have a flexible work schedule, so I go in really early in the morning and come home at 3 P.M. That means I can still bring my kids to doctors’ appointments and take care of things around the house.

Trevin and I also make sure to communicate openly about finances. Each month I put aside $100 for him (sometimes $200 if things are going great), so that we each have our own spending money.

In the future, I’d love to be able to work from home. I have a website, and I do affiliated marketing that brings in a few hundred extra bucks a month. Eventually, I hope it can become a viable source of income.

But, for now, our situation is pretty great. Trevin is incredibly close to all three of our boys — most kids only see their father for an hour or two at night after work.”

Who: Daniel Ruyter, 40, digital marketing manager, Orlando, Florida.

“My wife, Jen, left the workforce two years ago, when our sons were 3 and 11.

Although she has a degree in communications, she’d been working at a restaurant so that we could better juggle out schedules to avoid paying for child care.

But that proved stressful for both of us. She’d wake up early with the kids, and often wouldn’t get home until 2 A.M. And I had to rush back from the office so that she could leave for work.

Something needed to change.

Either we’d put our youngest in day care, or we’d see if we could swing it with one income. In 2013 I got a pay increase — and although it didn’t offset the loss of Jen’s income, we made the joint decision that she’d quit.

Our single salary secrets: There was definitely an initial learning curve. We hadn’t trained ourselves to adjust to one income — and our budget took a hit. So we sat down with our financial planner and discussed where to cut back.

The dynamic in our relationship was awkward at first — even though Jen staying home was a mutual decision, it felt a little ‘Leave It to Beaver.’

One area was eating out. We were spending $200 to $400 a month on lunch, and another $200 on dinner. Now I pack my lunch, and we have a monthly $50 date night.

We also watch our frivolous spending. I was always an early adopter of gadgets, but I’m no longer the first or even second person to have the latest iPhone. I choose my purchases carefully, and think about the long-term.

For Christmas we realized we’d been shelling out upward of $1,000 on our kids — some of which has gone unused. So this year we set a limit of $100 per child. We’ll put the savings toward a family cruise.

We’ve also been able to save on home improvement costs, since Jen has tackled some projects during the day, like painting, landscaping and refinishing furniture.

And I’ve started doing consulting on the side, which has bumped my overall earnings to nearly $100,000.

I do design work or write content for a client after the kids are in bed, early in the morning, and on Saturdays. The income from 20-plus hours of weekly consulting goes toward savings and big-ticket items.

What I love about our life: The dynamic in our relationship was awkward at first — even though Jen’s staying home was a mutual decision, it felt a little ‘Leave It to Beaver.’

Her role is to take care of the kids, have dinner ready and clean up afterward. My role is to provide income for the family. But, overall, we’re happy with this setup.

Still, I want to work toward increased financial independence so that we can ramp up our savings and take more vacations. With that goal in mind, now that my youngest is in kindergarten, we’re looking to build a home-based business for Jen helping people plan weddings on a budget.

Ideally, she’d be able to make money, while also being available to pick up our kids from school, help with homework and take them to playdates. That was my experience growing up, and we’d love for them to have that too.”

‘We Made a Cost-of-Living-Based Move’

Who: Sarah Gumina, 42, president of Sarah Gumina Public Relations, Conifer, Colorado.

“When I got pregnant with my daughter in 2007, my husband, Joe, and I were living in Southern California.

I was climbing the ladder at a PR agency in the entertainment field, and he was working with special needs kids at a middle school.

We looked into child care options, but the cost was the same as Joe’s salary. He always wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, so he jumped at the chance to do so.

Our single salary secrets:Bringing in the income for the whole household has been stressful. For example, if a client was upset, I’d get really nervous about the possibility that they’d jump ship. I never used to let that kind of thing get to me, but there was so much riding on my salary.

I think it has been a great experience — and sets an example for our kids that women can be breadwinners and dads can change diapers.

In 2011, when I was on maternity leave after my son’s birth, a major client left the agency — and we had layoffs. I lost my job a month after I returned to work. As a family, we were in a really tight financial position.

I started doing freelance work, but it took us two years to recover to the point where we felt stable. Even now, as the owner of my own PR company, my income fluctuates.

So we learned to be very frugal. Our vacations are never farther than a two-hour drive, and we stay in condos that friends let us borrow.

We also signed our kids up for a co-op day care, where parents take turns working once a week to keep costs down.

But the biggest budget game-changer was the fact that we moved to Colorado and bought my childhood house from my parents for less than $300,000. Our mortgage is half of what we spent renting in California, and the cost of living is generally cheaper.

What I love about our life: Despite our efforts, we’re still living paycheck to paycheck, and don’t have a huge amount in savings. This has occasionally led me to make difficult decisions, like taking on a lackluster client for the money.

Joe always planned to go back to work eventually, and now that our youngest is in kindergarten, he just started as a special ed paraprofessional at our kids’ school. His income will go to savings and health insurance.

One of the biggest challenges was dealing with some of Joe’s macho guy friends, who would make backhanded jokes about him being Mr. Mom. It didn’t affect our relationship, but I got tired of defending him all the time.

Still, I think it has been a great experience — and sets a terrific example for our kids that women can be breadwinners and dads can change diapers.”

What Couples Really Want in Retirement

Grandmother playing with grandson

Ah, retirement. That second honeymoon you’ll spend lounging around with your main squeeze. Which is who, exactly?

While about 60 percent of men want to hang with their wives during retirement, only 43 percent of wives agree, according to a survey from Fidelity and the Stanford Center on Longevity.

Instead, 70 percent of women cite quality time with grandkids as a big motivator to retire. The survey draws on responses from those ages 55 and up — and as workers get older, turns out the idea of spending retirement with a spouse loses more of its luster.
Could that be encouraging some employees to stick it out at the office well past 70?

Another thought-provoking survey finding is that about half of Americans plan to stop working on a specific date — no matter how much they’ve saved up for retirement.

They’ve got big plans that involve, well, not really needing to plan anything. Almost 75 percent of respondents expressed that the No. 1 reason for retiring was to have freedom and flexibility, even to simply relax at home.

And if they do take on a side gig or two, 61 percent say it’s because they enjoy doing the work and want to feel valued.

Or, just maybe, it’s a welcome break from spouse overload. Right, retired wives?

If you’re looking to get on the same page as your significant other, here are sometips for talking retirement dreams — and finances.

How to Win Black Friday

Black Friday

Holiday shopping season is upon us, and this year, it’s going to be capital-B Big. The average American plans to spend, on average, $1,128 this season, according to a recent survey by RetailMeNot. Broken down, that’s $141 per person for eight people total.

Translation: Expect your friends and neighbors to be out in full force on November 27, looking to scoop up the best deals. To help you keep your holiday spirit, despite the crowds and frenzied energy of the day, I’ve compiled a few of my favorite tips for Black Friday shopping. Try them out, and you’ll not just survive the day, but you’ll score the best bargains with the least amount of stress.

Be the first to know: By signing up for stores’ email lists in advance, including Target, Macy’s, Best Buy and Toys “R” Us, or by downloading their shopping apps, you can get a sneak peak at their best deals before the circulars hit your doorstep. That may give you just enough of a head start to do your research on the sale items, so you can sort out the good from the not-quite-as-good.

Make a list: Black Friday is not the day to browse or get ideas for the loved ones on your list. It’s the day to just get in and get out. So don’t even think of entering a store without a crystal-clear objective. In other words, knowing you want to get your son a new flat-screen TV isn’t enough. On Black Friday, you should know the brand and model number, too. That may mean going to the store before Thanksgiving to determine which one you’d like to buy. The more focused you are, the more successful you’ll be in achieving your goals.

Map the store: There’s nothing quite so stressful as walking into a large store and having to circle the place several times, through the crowds, to find what you’re looking for, especially when what you’re looking for is only being sold in limited quantities. Rather than wander aimlessly, go the store on any day before Black Friday, so you know at least in general where, say, the toy section is in relation to electronics.

Bring snacks: Think of shopping on Black Friday as an endurance sport. You’ve got to be smart and quick, as you’ll also likely be on your feet for hours and hours. To avoid wasting time in line for sub-par soft pretzels or a slice of barely warmed frozen pizza, take along your own energy snacks. Bring some trail mix, a handful of almonds or a couple of granola bars to nibble on while you’re standing in line.

Choose the best line: There’s no bigger retail buzz kill than finding the perfect gift and then waiting in line for an hour just to pay for it. (Anyone who’s ever been to Ikea surely knows this.) Two things to keep in mind, here, though: First, if you see a single monster line snaking to the back of the store but leading to multiple registers, rest easy. Those types of lines, known to queuing theorists as serpentine lines, where the first person is distributed to the first available cash register, look the longest but are the fastest. Second, f it’s up to you to choose the best line, you may be better off heading to the left, according to “The Math Geek” by Raphael Rosen. “Approximately 90 percent of the population is right-handed, and so they tend to naturally head to the right,” he writes. “So heading left is worth a try.”

Score a plum parking spot: It’s easy to waste your precious time and your equally precious patience looking for a good parking spot. Here’s the key: Don’t try following a shopper with bags to her car. If she cuts across the lot, even to just one row over, you’ll have wasted your time. Also, don’t keep circling in hopes that a spot right next to store’s entrance will miraculously open at the exact moment you’re passing by. Your best bet, according to the International Parking Institute: Commit to a row, any row, and then pull into the first available spot you see in it. Even if it’s farther away than you’d hoped, you’ll spend less time walking to the store than you would trolling for a closer spot. You’ll also be able to start your shop in a good, rather than rageful, mood.

Boost your buying confidence: To help you get the best deals and save the most money, download RetailMeNot’s app before you shop. It gives you instant access to any available coupon at thousands of stores. No clipping (or printing) required. Just flash the code on your phone to the cashier to instantly save bucks.

Just buy gift cards: Okay, so it’s the not the cutest or most glamorous gift you could give, but it may in fact be the most thoughtful. According to the National Retail Federation, six in 10 people say they’d love to receive a gift card, making it the most frequently requested present for the past nine years running. The best part: Since you can order them online anytime, or pick them up when you’re shopping for your Thanksgiving feast, you can spend Black Friday at home, relaxing with your loved ones.

Procrastinate: If you just don’t want to brave the crowds, that doesn’t mean you’ll miss every last great deal. There’s always Cyber Monday, after all, and if you have a computer, iPad or smartphone, you can shop that sale at home in your pajamas. No lines, no crowds, no stress. Have fun!

How Americans Really Feel About Financial Risk-Taking

finger pointing at pie chart on tablet

You may be quick to try a new food or the latest thrill ride, but when it comes to taking risks with your finances … ?

If you’re like most Americans, you’re playing it safe—maybe even too safe.

Almost three-quarters of investors would rather avoid or mitigate risk than manage it, according to a new Ameriprise study.

It highlights four investing personalities: risk avoiders (31%), risk mitigators (42%), risk managers (25%) and risk embracers (3%).

Young investors might seem more likely to embrace risk, but age didn’t turn out to be a factor. The general hesitation to take financial gambles was consistent among Millennials, Gen Xers and boomers alike.

“Given the recent market volatility, it’s not hard to see why some people are cautious,” notes Marcy Keckler, Certified Financial Planner™ and VP of Advice Strategy & Programs for Ameriprise, in the report. “The key is to arm yourself with knowledge to help you make informed decisions.”

Here are some lessons to consider from the survey’s results.

On creating a strategic plan … Among risk avoiders, 73% lack financial plans. So it seems like no coincidence that only 24% of this group feel confident about their nest eggs. Formalizing a financial plan can help you get on track for retirement and other goals—which may make you more confident about taking calculated risks.

On seeing the bigger, unclouded picture … Risk mitigators focus specifically on investments with a guaranteed return. And 64% regret losing money in the stock market more than missing out on potential gains. Keckler describes this approach as “triggered by doubt.” It’s an example of how emotions can negatively impact your money moves—one of six common portfolio mistakes.

On playing an active role in money management … Risk managers tend to see risk as opportunity, and 67% take the time to research their decisions. They pay attention to how their 401(k) is invested and its rate of returns.

On knowing the wrong kind of risk … The fraction of investors who identify as risk embracers also turn out to be less likely to weigh their financial opportunities than risk managers or mitigators. They’re the segment least likely to have a diversified portfolio—and 16% are inclined to overpay for a house.

To better understand what amount of risk is right for you, consider consulting with a financial planner.

American Airlines Revamps Its Frequent Flier Program

Florida Daily LifeNEW YORK — American Airlines (AAL) is changing its frequent flier program, becoming the latest carrier to have passengers earn miles based on how much they spend rather than how far they fly.

The move announced Tuesday follows similar changes by Delta Air Lines (DAL) and United Airlines (UAL) and benefits business travelers who purchase expensive, last-minute tickets.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline also tweaked its reward chart, effective for trips booked after March 22. A domestic roundtrip award ticket remains 25,000 miles but flights from the U.S. to Canada and Alaska will go up to 30,000 miles roundtrip. Off-peak flights to Hawaii also become more expensive at 40,000 miles instead of 35,000 miles but peak flights remain 45,000 miles. Some long-haul flights to South America, Europe and Asia are increasing, too.

The biggest change domestically is the introduction of new 15,000 mile roundtrip awards for short flights of 500 miles or less.

American spokesman Casey Norton said the most-popular awards aren’t changing. At least 75 percent of the award tickets booked wouldn’t cost more under the new system.

But it will likely be harder for those infrequent travelers to earn miles.

Under the current system, a non-elite member of American’s loyalty program flying roundtrip between New York and Dallas would earn 2,778 miles. Starting in the second half of 2016, that same passenger would earn 5 miles for each dollar of airfare — excluding government taxes and fees — they spend.

So a passenger flying on deeply discounted $148.20 roundtrip advance-purchase ticket ($111.63 base fare plus $36.57 in taxes) would only lose out, netting only 558 miles. But somebody buying a last-second $1,174.20 ticket on that same route ($1,066.04 base fare plus $108.16 in taxes) would come out ahead by earnings 5,330 miles.

Elite fliers would earn seven, eight or 11 miles a dollar based on their status tier, similar to Delta and United’s programs.

American had held off making any changes to its program until it finished its merger with US Airways. The new combined airline recently unified its reservation systems — the hardest part of any merger — and is now moving on to make other changes.

Will Having a Mortgage Improve My Credit Score?

Worried woman looking at billsUntil the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act was signed into law in 2003, Americans weren’t entitled to a free copy of their credit reports. And 24 years ago, when I began my career in consumer news, you couldn’t see your credit score at all, at any price.

Consumer access to credit reports and scores is a good thing. After all, if someone’s going to make important decisions about your future based on this stuff, we have both the right and obligation to make sure it’s accurate, as well as understand how to improve things.

While it’s good to be vigilant, however, let’s not become obsessed. Here’s this week’s question:

On my latest credit check, there was a remark about a lower ranking because “I had no mortgage.” I paid my mortgage off by 1996 and don’t understand how that could be counted against me. How can I fix this? -Helen

Here’s your answer, Helen!

Can a lack of debt hurt your credit score?

When it comes to credit scores, by far the most important factor is how good you’ve been at paying your bills on time, every time, for a long time. Do that flawlessly, and you can rest easy.

While a long, on-time history is the main thing, however, it’s not the only thing. Something else lenders like to see is a mix of different types of credit. The two major kinds are revolving credit, like credit cards, and installment credit, like car and mortgage loans.

So what Helen may have seen when she checked her score is a notation that it may be negatively affected by a lack of installment loans.

I can’t blame Helen for being concerned. After all, scores are important and when a notation indicates you may have done something wrong, it’s easy to think it’s a big deal and needs fixing. But in this case, it isn’t and it doesn’t.

What should Helen do?

For starters, take note that only 10 percent of your score is related to your credit mix, according to Fair Isaac, originator of the most widely used score. So having a variety of credit types isn’t hugely significant.

Of course, there’s a quick, albeit ridiculous, solution if Helen wants to try to raise her score by diversifying her credit portfolio. She could take out a mortgage, car loan, signature loan or other type of installment loan.

But unless Helen’s life depends on earning the highest possible credit score, she’d be nuts to take out a loan for the sole purpose of making Fair Isaac happy. If she has a great history of paying her bills on time, the impact on her score of not having an installment loan will be negligible. If her history isn’t so great, she’s much better off simply continuing to make on-time payments rather than taking on new debt.

I found an article on Kiplinger that addressed a similar issue: How paying off a mortgage affects credit scores. From that article:

Craig Watts, a spokesman for Fair Isaac, the firm that created the widely used [FICO] score, says that your credit score will likely be unaffected (by paying off a mortgage.) If your mortgage is your only installment loan, however, your score could suffer a slight ding, although not enough to make you want to change your plans.

Bottom line? While Fair Isaac or potential lenders may want you to have lots of different kinds of credit to earn the highest possible credit score, let’s not get carried away. Paying interest is almost always a waste of money and often a source of stress. Please: Pay off your mortgage, credit cards, car loans and anything else you owe. And when you do, don’t worry about any notations you see and don’t obsess about any potential negative impact it will have, particularly if you aren’t going to be borrowing soon. If you pay your bills on time, both you and your score will be just fine.

Got a question you’d like answered?

A great way to get answers to just about any money-related question is to head toour Forums. It’s the place where you can speak your mind, explore topics in-depth and, most important, post questions and get answers. It’s also where I often look for questions to answer in this weekly column. You can also ask questions by replying to our daily emails. If you’re not getting them, fix that right now by subscribing here.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’ve earned a CPA (currently inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. Got some time to kill? You can learn more about me here.

Cheap Gas Fueling Expanded Thanksgiving Travel Day

A motorist fuels his vehicle Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, in Gilbert, Ariz. With Thanksgiving gas prices at its cheapest since 2008, the number of travelers is expected to rise. (AP Photo/Matt York)LOS ANGELES — An expanded version of America’s annual Thanksgiving travel saga was under way Wednesday with gas prices low and terrorism fears high.

An estimated 46.9 million Americans are expected to take a car, plane, bus or train at least 50 miles from home over the long holiday weekend, according to the motoring organization AAA. That would be an increase of more than 300,000 people over last year, and the most travelers since 2007.

Among the reasons given for the increase: an improving economy and the cheapest gasoline for this time of year since 2008.

On Tuesday, some travelers were gearing up for an early exit.

Fanni Farago, 26, of Tempe, Arizona, sat in the Albuquerque airport with her sister Flora Farago, 30, while waiting for their parents to arrive from Dallas. The family was planning on driving to the mountain resort of Red River, New Mexico to revive a family Thanksgiving tradition.

“My parents warned us about the travel warning so we decide to get started early,” Fanni Farago. “And since it’s so cheap to drive, we are going to rent a car to go up to Red River.”

Americans prefer auto travel because it provides more control over expense, trip distance and duration, said Susan Hiltz, AAA spokeswoman in Michigan.

“Auto travel volume tends to be evenly spread out over the five-day holiday, but airports are especially busy on Wednesday and Sunday,” she said.

Anyone trekking to a major airport should factor in 50 extra minutes on the road, according to the traffic data company INRIX — and that’s just getting to the airport, never mind getting through security.

Though there have been no changes to the nation’s terror alert status, the recent attacks in Paris, West Africa and elsewhere prompted the State Department to warn American travelers about the risks overseas.

On Tuesday, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, Peter Neffenger, boasted that the U.S. has the world’s best aviation security and assured the public that TSA is “taking every measure to protect the millions of air travelers in the coming weeks.”

At the Phoenix airport, Teri Robert said the notion of flying from Arizona to West Virginia to see family gave her pause, but in the end she decided she had to go.

“I’m not going to let the terror alerts and things stop me, because then they win,” she said.

Airfares have increased just 69 cents on average since last year, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp., which processes ticket transactions for airlines and travel agencies.

7 Kids’ Charities That Make It Easy to Give Back This Season

World Human Hands Holding Word GiveAre you generous with your time and money? If you’re like most Americans, you probably are.

According to a recent report by the Charities Aid Foundation, 61 percent of Americans said they volunteered or made financial contributions to a charity organization last year. Overall, that made the U.S. the second most generous nation in a global survey involving 145 countries (Myanmar came out on top with 66 percent of charitable residents).

But with the holiday season in full swing, it can be tough to find the time to not only identify new charities but to actually organize your giving. To help you out, we’ve pulled together a list of organizations that support kids both across the ocean and in your own backyard. And some are even creating innovative ways for you to assist in their mission.

Didn’t think your foodie Instagrams could make a difference? Want your holiday shopping to do good? These groups make it possible to incorporate charitable giving at whatever level that works for you.

Help At-Risk South African Kids Get Healthy MealsThe Mission: To teach South African schoolchildren about healthy eating by providing a rotating menu of nutritionally fortified foods. The organization’s secondary focus is female empowerment, and it employs previously out-of-work women from local communities to help prepare and serve the food.

The Impact: Simply put, when kids are well fed, they have more energy and are better able to focus on other things — including their schoolwork — enabling them to create new lives for themselves.

“We’ve seen children who rely on The Lunchbox Fund as their sole food supply experience major academic success,” says Sophie Barnett, the organization’s digital coordinator. “A recent program graduate completed high school with honors and matriculated to college on a full engineering scholarship.”

The Lunchbox Fund launched 10 years ago, and in 2015 it provided 2.6 million meals to children in early childhood development centers, primary and secondary schools, and after-school homework assistance programs in townships and rural areas across South Africa.

“The program now feeds 13,000 children per day,” Barnett says. “Our current goal is to reach 50,000 children by 2017.”

How You Can Help: Because meals are only 25 cents each with 100 percent of proceeds going toward the mission, each of your donated dollars provides four meals for a child in need.

You can donate money through their site, and use social media to support the cause. Using the organization’s app, Feedie, you can take a picture of your meal at a participating restaurant across the U.S., Europe, Asia and South Africa, and the eatery will donate a meal to a child via The Lunchbox Fund.

Now that’s a “foodstagram” you can feel good about.

Help Find a Cure for Childhood Cancer

The Mission: To raise funds and awareness for childhood cancer research and empower people — especially kids — to make a difference.

Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation began in 2000 when 4-year-old Alex Scott, a cancer patient, wanted to create a lemonade stand to raise money and help find a cure for all children with cancer. Although Scott died in 2004, the project grew and continues to help children nationwide today.

The Impact: The organization raises money to help fuel cancer research and has given more than 500 research grants to over 100 organizations. One child who benefited directly from the organization is Zach Witt, who had an aggressive type of cancer that didn’t respond to chemotherapy. After receiving treatment partially funded by an ALSF research project, doctors found the medication that helped Zach become cancer-free.

“Within two days, he was up and running around the hospital,” says Elizabeth Romaine, the foundation’s director of communications and PR. “In the last several months, he’s been able to return to a normal childhood — he’s even playing baseball.”

How You Can Help: The idea is simple: Support in any way you can.

You can follow Alex’s example and host a lemonade stand to raise money. Or, If you’re athletically inclined, you can join Alex’s Million Mile, where people walk, run or bike to help reach the goal of a million miles traveled in the name of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September.

Want to think — and raise money — outside the box? Romaine encourages it.

“There’s an attorney in New Jersey who calls himself ‘The Caveman’ — for one full calendar year, he won’t shave or cut his hair,” she says. “He started in January, and so far he’s raised just under $5,000. He’s creating a visual reason to have the conversation.”

Help Kids, Parents and Teachers Use Technology to Succeed in School
The Mission: To enable students in grades K-12 to thrive by offering special websites, videos, games, mobile devices and laptops for academic exploration. The goal is to leverage tech to improve interactions between students, teachers and parents, and increase engagement and learning.

The Impact: The nonprofit’s free online platform, PowerMyLearning Connect, helps drive personalized instruction and self-directed learning, complete with fun games and activities.

“We now have registered users from more than 40 percent of U.S. public schools, a figure that’s tripled over the past two years,” says CEO and co-founder Elisabeth Stock. “Teachers and parents continue to be the individuals who have the greatest impact on a child’s academic success, and using technology to make them more effective is our secret sauce.”

How You Can Help: Financial gifts are always welcome, but you can also donate new or used laptops to the program.

“We launched our #BelieveInFamilies campaign so more low-income families can support learning at home using the transformative power of technology,” Stock explains. “We’ve already served more than 60,000 families in high-poverty communities, and we hope this campaign will help us bring in enough financial support to reach another 5,000 families in 2016.”

Give New Shoes to Kids Who Need Them

The Mission: To help children attend school in comfort — and with dignity — by giving them shoes to wear.

The Impact: Since its humble beginnings in 1992, the organization has reached 1.4 million children around the country.

“Last year we helped more than 90,000 kids in more than 2,000 schools and 46 states and D.C. — all with one office in California and about six staff members,” says Lee Kane, the charity’s program manager.

How You Can Help: Shoes That Fit recently kicked off its holiday campaign to provide 20,000 pairs of new athletic shoes to schoolchildren this winter. Through Dec. 24, supporters can purchase a $10 giving card from their local Nordstrom or Nordstrom Rack, which will go toward buying a pair of sneakers for a child in need.

And if you want to go beyond a cash donation, Kane notes that supporters can replicate the program in their own community on a smaller scale. “We help match groups with nearby schools, and they go out and buy shoes directly for those students,” Kane says.

Feed America’s Hungry Children

The Mission: To end childhood hunger across the country by making sure all kids get nutritious food.

The Impact: One in five children in the U.S. struggles with hunger. Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry initiative, which began in 2006, is tackling that problem in many ways, like connecting kids with programs that provide breakfast at school and summer meals.

“We want to make breakfast part of the school day,” explains Clay Dunn, the program’s interim chief communications and brand officer. “In the past, kids who wanted breakfast would have to arrive at school early, and there was a stigma attached — the ‘poor kids’ were going to the cafeteria.”

Now breakfast is served directly in the classroom, and all the kids eat together.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the second largest in the country, recently finished its three-year rollout of the program, and breakfast is now available to every kid in the school system. The East Coast is up next.

“Earlier this year we got a commitment from New York City to offer breakfast to every elementary school student over the course of next year,” Dunn says.

How You Can Help: You can donate online, and for every $1 you give, No Kid Hungry can offer as many as 10 meals to children.

And if you’re feeling political, you can take things to the next level. The organization is currently lobbying Congress to change the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, which governs most child nutrition programs like school breakfast, lunch and summer meals. Their hope is to increase children’s access to nutritious food even when school is not in session.

Help Kids Whose Parents Are Deployed With the National Guard or Reserves

The Mission: To provide grants for sports, fine arts and tutoring to the children of deployed or severely injured National Guard and Military Reserve members.

The Impact: While the organization has been helping military children for 11 years, this past one has been especially successful. “Through October we’ve been able to give out more than 3,000 grants and more than $1.2 million,” says AnnaMaria Gallozzi, the charity’s communications associate. “We’ve seen an increase in dance, martial arts and gymnastics grants allowing children to be active in their communities.”

Not only do the children get to participate in enriching activities, but the organization’s annual survey found that 92 percent of families saw an improvement on the child’s stress and anxiety.

How You Can Help: With 93 percent of each donation going directly to help a child in need, a financial contribution made to Our Military Kids can go a long way.

And if you’re looking to do extra good while holiday shopping, sign up onAmazon Smile to donate a percentage of what you spend to Our Military Kids. You can also donate via eBay for Charity, which lets sellers donate a portion of their sales, and buyers support the organization by shopping.

Bring Playgrounds and Activities to Kids Everywhere

Carde CornishThe Mission: To make sure children can participate in active play wherever they are — especially if they’re in underserved areas. Best known for building playgrounds, KaBOOM! also focuses on creating opportunities for kids to “play along the way” — like adding a hopscotch outline at a bus stop, for example.

The Impact: Since its launch in 1996, KaBOOM! has built more than 2,700 playgrounds across the country, including three new playgrounds in Baltimore as part of its Play More B’More initiative this past October. “We want to help bring back hope and pride in communities there,” explains Amy Levner, the program’s vice president of communications and marketing.

In 2015, with the help of thousands of volunteers and donors, they’ve created new play opportunities for more than 1 million kids.

How You Can Help: Of course one easy way is to donate money to help support their efforts around the country. But to really up the ante, consider setting up a donation party, or ask that friends donate to the cause in lieu of getting a gift. “We also love to get community help and support on playground builds,” Levner says.

5 Things to Do on Black Friday Instead of Shopping

Woman Adjusting Bow on GiftBlack Friday — the day after Thanksgiving — has become associated with a huge rush of shopping for many Americans. Stores offer a variety of sales, and people run to get discounted items to check off their holiday gift list or to get something new for themselves.

For some, however, Black Friday has become an experience to avoid. The crowded stores, the sales on items they don’t really need, the spending of money on unthoughtful gifts — it adds up to an event that many people want to skip.

Still, if you have Friday off from work, why not use it to prepare for the holidays in other ways? Here are five great ways to spend Black Friday without rushing to the stores and opening your wallets wide.

Make homemade gifts. One great gift-giving strategy for the holidays is to make your own gifts. It’s not too difficult to make batches of homemade soap, jams, custom stationery or even homemade beer.

The real trick with homemade gifts is that they take time more than anything else, and that’s exactly what Black Friday gives to many of us — particularly when we’re not shopping. Pick up your supplies just before Thanksgiving, then settle in with a good movie or some holiday music and spend the Friday after Thanksgiving making gifts for your friends and family.

Write thoughtful holiday cards. One of the best ways to show your friends, professional contacts and family members that you truly care is a handwritten card during the holiday season. A simple, tasteful card with a thoughtful note on the inside that says something about the connection that you share is a spectacular way to maintain a relationship and show someone that he or she really matters to you.

Settle in a nice workspace including a few pens, a stack of cards and envelopes, some stamps and your address book, and write a few dozen thoughtful cards for people on this Black Friday. Drop them in the mail, and they’ll find their way to the important people in your life, giving them something to smile about when they check their mail.

Make a truly thoughtful gift list. Many shoppers simply make a list of people who they need to buy gifts for and brainstorm ideas as quickly as possible, often grabbing thoughtless items at the last minute or giving generic gifts that don’t match the recipient’s interests at all. Nothing tells people that they were a footnote like giving them a thoughtless gift they wouldn’t want or use.

Spend Black Friday doing some thinking and research into the people you care about. Visit their Facebook pages, and see if you can figure out things that interest and excite them. What do they post about? What do they have listed as interests? Those will often lead you right to a great gift idea that matches the person well.

Decorate your home tastefully and frugally. A festive home adds a special flavor and joy to the holiday season, but it often feels like an incredible chore to get out all those decorations and fill the house with them. It can also be a big expense.

Take a different approach this Friday. Spend some time in a park gathering pinecones or other materials for handmade natural decorations. String popcorn or dried berries together. Teach your children how to make handmade paper snowflakes, and use them for decor. These inexpensive decorations can give your home a festive and natural look for the holiday season.

Make a plan so you’re not panicked before the big holiday. What are your plans for the holiday season? Are you going to have guests over? Are people going to stay at your house? Are you traveling? What kinds of meals are you going to be expected to prepare?

Get a jump on these things now, and spend Friday figuring out exactly what you need to do. Then, come up with a plan for the month of December that allows you to get all these things done one step at a time. Give yourself some tasks for the first week, some for the second week, and then a few daily tasks after that, so that if you follow the plan, the holidays go off without any unexpected hitches or big expenses.

You don’t have to go out shopping on Black Friday to fill yourself with the holiday spirit. A day spent doing other things, like making homemade gifts or writing holiday cards for friends and family, can put you in the holiday mood without spending a lot of money on stuff you don’t need and your family likely doesn’t want.