I realize this is likely to be a controversial title in this season of holiday shopping excess! But if you truly want to get a handle on your finances and achieve real financial balance, the holidays are actually an excellent time to take a look at your spending and assess your priorities.

Where are you spending your money? Is the money you spend actually providing real value - that is, do the things you buy actually enrich your life, or are you just trying to "keep up with the Jones's"?

If you overspent this year on things you didn't really need (or even want all that much, now that you think about it), now is a good time to set up a spending plan or a budget for next year, keeping in mind your most important goals and priorities.

Here are 4 tips to spending wisely throughout the holidays and beyond.

Fresh fruit
We've all heard how much healthier organic foods are for you, but we also know that buying only organic foods can get pricey pretty quickly. If you want to make your food dollars work efficiently for you, and get the most bang for your buck, so to speak, while still taking care of your health, there are a few strategies you can use to eat healthy without going broke.

We've shared some tips for saving money on organic food in previous posts, so I won't cover those again here today, but be sure to check those out as well. (Of course, the best way of all is to grow your own food! But we'll save that for another day.)

One great way to make sure you're eating healthy is to choose whole, unprocessed foods. Processed foods command a premium, as we have previously mentioned. You're paying a lot for someone else to process and package your food for you - and in the process, you're also losing nutritional value. Whole, natural, unprocessed foods are cheaper by the pound than any seemingly "cheap" processed items you can buy - and better for you, to boot. Want to save money on food - and eat healthier? Buy the fresh, unprocessed ingredients, and make it yourself!

But another thing to be aware of is that some foods are more important to buy organic than others. You can strategically save money and still buy and eat healthy foods, if you know which non-organically raised foods to avoid, and which ones are okay to eat. That way, you can put the "organic" portion of your food dollars towards foods that really shouldn't be eaten any other way.

Healthy eating
I've noticed something interesting about our weekly email updates that we send out to our subscribers. Whenever we send one that focuses on something like improving relationships, or financial balance, fewer people open the update than when we send one that directly addresses a specific physical health topic like healthy eating, or fighting disease.

From a marketing standpoint, you might say that in that case, it would be better not to focus on those topics. But this defeats the purpose of our main premise of holistic living - that is, that everything is connected!

While most people may think that being healthy simply means eating foods that are good for you, and getting enough exercise, in fact, we feel that True health goes much deeper than that.

Tax refund
Whew - taxes are done, and now it's time to celebrate with the tax refund that's hopefully on the way, right?

As we have discussed in the past, if you're getting a large tax refund every year, you might want to adjust your withholdings. After all, it's your money - what's the sense in giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan every year? (It always surprises me how many people seem to look at a tax refund as a free gift from the government.... You do realize it was your money that you earned to begin with, right? That's why it's called a "refund.")

That said, many people will receive a tax refund of some kind this year, so if you're one of those people, what should you do with that "extra" money?

Sadly, some of you probably have spent it already before it was even received. But if you would rather not let your refund get gobbled up by bills and shopping, it helps to have a plan in place ahead of time for what you are going to do with that money, and there are several things you can do with it that can actually help improve your overall financial picture in the long term.

Organic foods
Organic has become quite the buzzword in recent years, and most mainstream grocery stores now stock at least a small section of organic foods. The benefits of eating organically grown foods are many - from improved nutritional quality, to fewer ingested potentially harmful chemicals, to preserving beneficial soil microbes, to reduced pollution of the environment at large. But it can seem daunting if you are trying to feed a family on organic foods, as they often come at a premium when it comes to cost. However, there are definitely things you can do to make eating organic foods more affordable.

Here are 4 tips that can really help cut costs when it comes to buying organic:

Homeless man
I recently read an article by a woman who implored others to be more forgiving and less judgmental towards "the poor," who have little resources and therefore have a difficult time bettering their lot in life. This woman listed a litany of unfortunate things that had befallen her, as well as a number of reasons why her lack of money prevented her from having the opportunities that those who are better off have access to - such as physical and mental health care.

The first thing that struck me about this article was actually my negative reaction to it. Despite the many Facebook comments commiserating with the woman, I found myself quite indignant at some of her assumptions.  (Upon further reflection, I found this rather interesting, considering that I was in a position not that much different from her just a few years ago, and I realized just how much my mindset has changed in that short time period!)

If you are in a similar position to this woman, I hope you will take these observations to heart, and realize that YOU have the power to change your circumstances if you don't like where you're at!

Here are several assumptions that may be keeping you stuck feeling like you're one of the "have-nots" - and what you can do about it:

A recent study shows that for the majority of Americans, a mere $400 unexpected expense would force them to have to either go into debt, or sell something just to cover it. The same report found that while just over half of Americans are saving at least some portion of their income, a full 1/5 were spending more than they earned. (Source: Federal Reserve Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2013.)

Meanwhile, another Federal Reserve report, the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, showed that the combined retirement accounts per household nearing retirement averaged only $111,000, which would equate to approximately $500/month in retirement income. How well do you think you and your spouse could live on $500/month?

Pre-packaged salad
I read an interesting article the other day about how much the "convenience premium" really costs you when buying convenience foods. Most people don't think about the fact that they pay a premium for foods that are partially prepared for them. When considering the things you can do to save money, buying whole foods and preparing them yourself is quite a bit cheaper. Is it really worth it to buy pre-cut vegetables, when you can easily chop them yourself in just a few minutes?

As the author points out, you might save 2 minutes by not chopping your own onions, but you also had to work extra to pay for the convenience of having the onions pre-chopped - which means more time at work, and less time with your family, friends, or just relaxing and taking care of yourself.
So how much did you really save?
While it may just seem like a few dollars here and there, it certainly adds up over time - especially with the amount of "convenience" foods that so many families buy on a regular basis. 

As promised last week, I'm back today with a post about finances. I'll try not to rant too much in this one, but I can't make any promises! Some things just get me going, and irresponsibility is one of the big ones - health-wise of course, but also as it relates to finances - and our country has got to be one of the worst offenders in both categories. But it's not just this irresponsibility itself that really gets me; it's the assumption that this is totally okay, and a completely acceptable way to live! But let's get specific here - no sense in beating around the bush, right?

Here is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. I was standing in line at the bank one evening after work, waiting to deposit a couple of checks into my checking account. The bank branch I frequent is located inside a large grocery store, but they have their own little corner, filled with signs and propaganda for loans, home mortgages, and such. You know - the glossy brochures, "Ask us how you can own your own home today!", etc. Only the tag line they were currently using on their brochures was a blatant display of encouragement to irresponsibility, and I was rather shocked, not to mention disgusted, by the complacency of our populace that we just accept such a thing as a  matter of course....

"Borrow for your dream!"

declared the brochures in large bold print.  I might have actually chuckled out loud in disbelief. Our grandparents would roll over in their graves if they knew how much debt their grandchildren carry.... And not just carry, but lug along with them throughout their lives as a matter of course, without a second thought.

What ever happened to SAVING for your dream?? When was the last time you saw a promotion that said THAT?

A dream used to be something you worked hard for. Something you saved for for years and years, and when you finally saved enough to buy it, finally having it was so, so sweet. (Maybe some of you remember feeling this way when you were children, and saved up your allowance for that special doll, bike, model car, etc.) But nowadays, the mindset seems to be, why spend all that time saving, when you can just borrow the money, and have your dream now?

I'll tell you why: because borrowed money is not real money. People throw around credit cards like they're cash - but they're not. Borrowed money is not money at all - it's CREDIT, and there's a big difference, because credit always comes due. No matter how you shuffle around low-interest rate cards, choose zero-interest promotions, or try to work out some way that you will come out ahead of the banks and credit card companies, you never will. It will always come due at some point, and then you will have to pay up. Only by then, you've borrowed for 5 more "dreams," and it's a never-ending cycle. Borrowed money is not real money - it's a rope around your neck.

In fact, there's really only one good way to borrow - and that is to borrow from yourself.
Huh??  What in the world does that mean? Isn't borrowing from yourself the same as regular spending?  Not when done honestly.

Let me explain....

Finding financial balance is a common topic on our website and blog, and for good reason. I don't think anyone today would disagree that our country's financial system is completely off balance - and that applies to the personal finances of most of its citizens as well. How did we get to this point? There are probably a lot more reasons than I could list here, but just a few include:

* Unbalanced spending
* Unbalanced lending
* Unbalanced borrowing
* Unbalanced financial world view favoring short-term "gains" over long-term stability
* Generally poor management of available resources

Obviously there are many more as well, but these are probably the biggest issues that would apply to both governments and individuals.

So what is the solution? Our modern money paradigm is obviously not serving us as well as we would have hoped. From major stock market losses, to virtually non-existent savings, to literally trillions of dollars worth of debt on student loans, credit cards, and more, as a country and as individuals, most of us are moving backwards financially.
Maybe it's time for a new (or rather very old) money paradigm. Maybe it's time to get back to basics.