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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Cheapest New Year


Photo by Vox Efx

My plans for New Year won't put me on any roster of Who's Who.

With 10 inches of snow falling from the sky, a husband who just slipped and fell in the driveway, and four of us hacking up lungs, my plans are ultra cheap, and ultra-safe:

A bottle of Robitussen and thou

And a cuddle on the couch to watch It's a Wonderful Life


We may even have some leftover beef stew. I repurposed (the cheap, tough) roast we had for Christmas into this Italian beef stew last night. I took some liberties: doubled the recipe, added a couple of generous glugs of cheap red wine, peeled and cubed a few potatoes, thickened with a tablespoon or two of flour, and cooked uncovered for an additional 20 minutes to tenderize the beef more. If I were going to make it again, I'd use just one can of diced tomatoes instead of two. It was a hit, even among my normally picky eaters.

The whole evening will be much cheaper, cozier and safer than on of those overpriced prix fixe holiday dinners at a fancy restaurant. Cheers.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Credit Check for the Cell Phone


Photo by MarĂ­lia Almeida

Add the mobile phone company to the list of reasons you don't want to mess up your credit.

Prissy Poorhouse needs a way to get in touch with Mom and Dad during the work day. We've had one to many times when the teenage babysitter told us during the day that she wasn't going to pick up the kids. (And yes, we're kicking her to the curb, but that's another story.)

So, now that my employer is picking up part of the tab for my mobile phone, we figured we could afford the $10 a month to make sure the kids get home safely every day.

How thrilled she would be to get a phone for Christmas.

Except.

Did I mention I may have been a bit sporadic in paying my bills this year? Yeah, well, I have been. Mind you, all my bills (except the taxes) are current now. But I have had that spotty payment history.

So to add a line, the phone company gets you for a two-year contract. At 10 bucks a month, that's $240, right?

But they run a credit check. And my credit, as loyal readers will know, is not so good right now. So they want a $300 deposit.

Mind you, I just turned on my Blackberry service for $40 a month additional (employer-paid) with never a how'dya'do. But for a 2-year contract, which we don't even want, it seems I need to pay a deposit.

Yeah, but I don't have $300 to tie up in a deposit.

Looks like we'll be looking at a prepaid phone for Prissy.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Samaritan with a Shovel


Photo by Andrew Macgill

One of the problems with being without money is that you have to wait until you have money to do the Christmas shopping. (How's that for an excuse to procrastinate?)

So there we were at the mall today, the entire Poorhouse family, in a blizzard nobody with any sense was braving. No sweat, says Mr. Poorhouse, our little fuel efficient car can do anything in the snow.

So we shopped. And went back to the car. The access roads throughout the parking lot had been plowed. But not the aisles. The snow ruts were taller than the tires. We were stuck. The plows kept driving by on the access roads every few minutes, but they didn't seem to notice us, S-T-U-C-K.

Until the guy with more generosity than hair came out to his minivan, saw the situation, reached into his car for a full-sized shovel, went to work on all four tires, and then helped Mr. Poorhouse push the blasted fuel-efficient car to the access road with me flooring the accelerator and spinning the wheels the whole way.

Then he hopped into his car, and drove out with no problem.

I ran back to him before he left the lot and dropped a gift certificate in his hand.

Thanks guy. You good.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Another Mortgage Story

This post has been included in the Carnival of Money Stories #91 Manifesting Wealth in 2009 hosted by Greener Pastures Personal Finance, where you will find a wealth (I know, groan...) of useful posts on money matters. Please visit the carnival after you've looked around here. Don't forget to subscribe to my RSS feed if you enjoy what you read.

Photo by woodleywonderworks

An acquaintance told me another mortgage story yesterday. She and her husband are young and talented. They are ministers. (Ministers don't make a lot of money, especially in their denomination.) They recently moved across country (from a point in the contintental US as far as is possible to be from their new home.)

They moved for a job. A great job. One with promise. One with excitement.

Like many young couples, they had scrimped and saved, and bought a house. To start their new life, they need to sell the house. Unfortunately, thanks to the burst housing bubble, they owe more on the house than it is worth, so they can't afford to sell it.

Luckily, they are not in foreclosure. But they are losing $1000 a month renting it out. In other words, their expenses are $1000 more than the rent they are getting.

And though they moved for one great job, they intended to get another when they got settled. But the economy tanked, and Bernie Madoff has single-handedly decimated the coffers of the local charitable organizations. So though they are talented, dedicated, and hard-working, nobody is hiring.

These two people did everything right. They saved. They bought a house. They invested in their financial future. They chose careers that help other people.

Tell me again that the victims of the mortgage crisis deserve what they got because they splurged on big-screen TVs. I'm not buying it.

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Wrapping for Less

I'm pleased that this post has been included as an Editor's Pick in the Festival of Frugality #158 hosted by The Well Run Dry. I like the Well's philosophy of simplifying, so have a look once you've messed around here. And please subscribe to my RSS feed if you'd like to read more.

Photo by vespar avenue

It's officially time to start wrapping.

I have three suggestions to keep the cost down:

1. Gift Bags

You saved them from last year, didn't you? Wrap a label around the handles so you can easily remove it for next year. Bags are pretty, easy to store, and will last a really long time. Whatever you do, don't buy them individually. They can cost as much as a frugal gift. You can get good deals on multi-packs at the warehouse stores.

2. Artwork

Face it, if you're a parent, you have too much carp, er, I mean, artwork, that comes home from preschool, school, art class, scouts, and other kid endeavors.

Can't bear to throw it away? Find a big box, throw it in. Now come gift-giving season you have the perfect personalized paper. No cost. No loss. Perfect.

3. Brown Paper

No kids? I got this one from a decluttering TV show. Wrap everything in plain brown wrapping paper (the kind you use for Post Office packages.) Splurge on pretty ribbons and bows. (Or for the truly tight, repurpose the ribbons and bows from last year's presents.) This also solves the problem of where to put all the paper in the off season--there isn't much, and you can use it all year.

Wrap on...

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Clergy and Town Officials Help Homeowners at Risk

This post has been included in this week's Carnival of Personal Finance #185 Cheesehead Edition hosted by The Fraud Files Blog and was also given a special mention at the Festival of Frugality #158 hosted by The Well Run Dry. After you poke around here a bit, and subscribe to my RSS feed if you like what you see, please visit these sites for more great posts.

Photo by KitAy

A town in Massachusetts held an innovative event to help homeowners in financial distress earlier this month.

The program, called "Neighbors Helping Neighbors," aimed to provide resources to homeowners having trouble meeting mortgage payments. And while the turnout for the event was small, the organizers, who included clergy from seven local churches plus local officials, are planning to build on the event. The rise in foreclosures of 68 percent in their community this year literally hit home.

The problem is one of stigma--In a middle-class suburb, it isn't OK to tell people that you may lose your house. I understand it perfectly; it is why I write under a pseudonym.

Mortgage lenders, tax officials, and representatives from local food pantries all participated to let people know that help was available for them. I found it particularly interesting that many municipalities have tax relieve programs available that may help homeowners temporarily if they can't make their total payments.

Religious communities, of course, have long provided charitable support for those in need. What I find fabulous about this program is that it trains the resources of people from multiple faiths to address a common problem. The program isn't expensive--it just provides information and outreach about resources that already exist.

And while I'm sensitive to the issue of inappropriate merging of church and state, I think this kind of cooperative effort is to be lauded, but even better, to be duplicated. Communities can take care of their own if they know that there are problems.

Gotta love a program where compassion rather than blame is the order of the day.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Drama For a Song

This post has been included in the Happy New Year Edition of the Carnival of Family Life, hosted by Mixed Metaphor. Please explore the other family articles at the carnival after you've had a chance to look around here. And do subscribe to my RSS feed if you're interested in what you find.

Photo by Ivan Salas

My 5th grade daughter, Prissy, came home in a lather about trying out for the spring musical. Auditions were the next day. I told her we couldn't afford the $500 (yikes!).

She cried for an hour. The next day she called Mr. Poorhouse from school. "The girls say," she reported, "that if you're really really good, you can get a scholarship."

We relented. She auditioned. She didn't get in. (Am I a bad mom if I'm relieved?) She cried for a few minutes and then moved on.

So now there's an opportunity to be in a play at church. She's got a great part. She has her lines memorized, is waltzing about the house in queenly costume, and is learning to ar-ti-cul-ate.

How much is all this costing? It's free.

Nearby towns also have children's theater opportunities for a fraction of the cost of the play for which she auditioned. They are not as convenient, but from what I've heard, they are terrific programs, AND unlike the play Prissy didn't get a part in, they aren't directed by a woman who routinely yells at and belittles the kids.

The moral: comparision shopping works for lots of things.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Most Popular Yankee Swap Gifts


Photo by Martin L

As the experienced participant in two, count 'em two, Yankee Swaps in one day, I now feel qualified to give advice as to the most popular gifts.

Swap #1 was for a work lunch (mine) held at a restaurant. Strangely enough, NO ONE swapped. Everyone seemed to enjoy the gift he or she picked. The most frequently given gift was chocolates: Lindts, gourmet hot chocolate, and dark chocolate macadamia nuts. There was also the ever-present holiday candle (with a lighter), and a much appreciated book light.

Swap #2 was a work dinner (casual bbq with video games and pool and significant others). Much more swapping went on. Hotly contested items were a set of steak knives, a bottle of Kahlua, and a usb fridge that holds one can. (Huh?) This one was lots more fun.

As an aside, it seems like a Yankee Swap is the perfect opportunity for regifting those white elephants.

Related Posts: The Yankee Swap

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Elizabeth Warren to the Rescue


I was somehow reassured to hear on NPR recently that Harvard credit expert and consumer credit activist Elizabeth Warren is overseeing the handouts, er, I mean bailouts to the financial sector. Sure she and 3 other people are only working part time and still haven't found office space (according to the Huffington Post), but she is a creditable expert who's on the side of the average Joan.

Of course, the less good news is that she admits she hasn't got any idea what the heck is happening to the money. No wonder Congress shied away from bailing out the auto industry without a plan in place first.

Hmmm. Wonder if she'd be up for a job in the new administration?

Further Reading: "Why Elizabeth Warren is an Inspired Choice to oversee TARP," from Conde Nast Portfolio

Related Post: More Children Have Experienced Bankruptcy than Divorce.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Oops--Miscalculated on the Coinstar Thing

The small print of the Coinstar offer for your free money and the gift card with no service charge (posted here) says to expect the gift card in 6-8 weeks.

There goes my plan to use it for Christmas shopping. Bummer.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bye Bye 27.99%

{{Potd/2008-03-06 (en)}}Image via WikipediaSo I finally zeroed out the Amazon Chase card that was charging me 27.99% interest because of a universal default clause that got triggered when I missed payments to other creditors. (The back story is here and here.)

I paid a lot of it off, but I also transferred some of the balance to other, less usurious credit cards (like those I have with credit unions). And I haven't made any purchases on those for months. Good girl.

And now my highest interest rate is 10 percent. I still have lots of debt at that rate, but I can actually pay it off now.

The couple of hundred a month I was paying to Chase will now go to the IRS and the State Department of Revenue for back taxes. Once that's paid off, I'll start chipping away at the other credit card debt. Whew...

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Gift List: Solved


Photo by Beatrice Murch

I found an unbelievable bargain for my Christmas shopping. Restaurant.com sells gift certificates at an enormous discount. I mean $3 for a $10 gift card, $10 for a $25 gift card, and $30 for a $75 gift card.

This is the perfect gift for people who are far away and have too much stuff. You can enter their zip code and choose a restaurant near them. And most are independent, not chains. I found a bunch of restaurants I know and like.

Be aware, though that there may be some restrictions on the gift cards. Like it may require an additional purchase, or it may not be valid on weekends. In these cases it's more like a coupon. Still, in these days when fewer people are eating out on their own dime, it's nice to have the cost of a nice meal subsidized.

But wait, there's more. If you shop through (which is a good idea anyway) you can stash 15% of the cost in your college savings account.

Even if you don't have kids of your own, you can designate Upromise savings for some other kid you know.

Win, win, win.



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Bah Humbug to Bank Fees


Photo by Ava Harvard.

Bank fees get my goat. I'm not proud of it, but I have bounced my share of checks this year. At 33 buck a pop, that's just plain stupid. Now that I have a steady income, it's easier to avoid those totally unnecessary feas.

There are lots of bank fees I'm become acquainted with: wire transfer fees, the ever-popular late fee, account maintence fee (now there's a way to teach a kid to put her savings under her mattress instead of in the bank).

But the one that really peeves me is the ATM fee. At $1, $1.50, or $2 for a transaction at a machine other than your own bank, those little buggers really add up. Plan ahead. Go to your own bank for cash. Just say no to fees. You'll thank me later.

Now excuse me while I go back to my cold fireplace and count what little money I have left.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Yankee Swap


We'll be exchanging gifts at my new office's holiday luncheon. I suggested we have a Yankee Swap instead of a normal gift exchange, because I had heard that they are fun, but had never experienced one.

For non-Yankees, my understanding is it goes like this. Everybody brings a gift. There is a spending limit--in my case $10. Everyone picks a number out of a bag. Number 1 picks any gift from the pile. Number 2 has a choice of picking a gift from the pile or taking Number 1's gift. Number 3 can take Number 1's gift, Number 2's gift, or a gift from the pile. The last person can choose any gift. Some people play that the 1st person gets another chance at the end.

So much question is this--what's the best $10 gift you ever got? What's the best Yankee Swap you ever got? I'm anxiously awaiting your input.

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

No Matter How Far Away You Roam

This post has been selected as part of the 156th Festival of Frugality, hosted this week by Naturally Frugal. The carnival has stockings stuffed full of frugal holiday ideas and tips for green living, so when you're done here, have a look.

Photo by Gordon Flood

Truly, there's no place like home for the holidays. If you're like me, you have roamed very far indeed from your nearest and dearest. How to stay close this holiday season? Read on.

1. Oh Christmas Cards, Oh Christmas Cards.

Come on, now, get out a nice pen, some beautiful cards adorned with your darling children or pets, and write a real letter. What are you doing? How are you feeling? What do you miss about the recipient? There is no substitute. (Especially not the form letter that tells everyone how fabulous you and your children are and how much money you spent at the dude ranch this summer. Ugh.) Yeah, I know I already posted about that, so read here if you want to know what I had to say.

2. Facebook

Post some pictures of your tree or your feast, or better, your face. Poke a long-lost friend. Go wall writing with messages of good cheer.

3. Use Those Minutes

You've shopped wisely for your mobile phone and landline plans. Got rollover minutes? Now's the time to use 'em up.

4. Make a Calendar

Surely you can find twelve pictures and 20 bucks to share a little piece of your life that will remind your loved ones of you all year long. (Warning: Only try this for people who really care to see your shining faces each month!). They are much easier now than with the online services. Try Shutterfly, Snapfish, Kodak, Kinkos, or VistaPrint to start.

5. Skype

I had a 45 minute conversation with my manager today. Not odd, until I tell you that he was in another country and that we had a video link. How much better would that have been if it had been somebody I really cared about, like my sister and my niece? Oh, and the cost? Well, yeah, free.

6. Go

If you really truly absolutely have to be home for the holidays, don't forget the travel triumvirate of the tightfisted: Sidestep, Hotwire, and Priceline. (And for bidding strategies on priceline, check out biddingfortravel.com. Just be careful to read all the FAQs carefully or the moderators will yell at you.) For all of these choices, be prepared to have flexible travel plans and accept non-refundable tickets for the best fares.

You can count on me...

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Employee Reimbursement Tips: Part II. What's Reimbursable, Anyway?


This is Part II of a two-part post. See Part I for some ideas about how to keep your work expenses out of your private life.

I've only been back in the workforce as an employee for 9 months, so I'm a little rusty on what kinds of expenses employers will pay for these days. But here are some that make sense. It never hoits to ask:

1. Mobile Phone


Mid-sized and larger corporations may actually pay the whole bill. Smaller companies may reimburse you for business expenses on your own phone. Where it gets tricky is when you have an unlimited minutes plan that you use for both business and personal calls. How much do you expense?


2. Landline


Do you use your personal phone for business? Make sure to log and expense all the outgoing calls. And, if you work hard to save your employer money by using Skype instead of the landline, maybe the company ought to spring for your headset. The should definiately pay the minimal annual Skype fee that allows you to call VOIP to landlines.

3. Home Office Expenses


Remember we're not talking about the IRS here--we're talking about what an employer will pay for. If you work at home 2-3 days a week, like I do, who pays for paper, toner cartridges, and office supplies. Is it kosher to take them home from the office? Do you just eat the expense? Clearly you pay for utilities (heat, lights, water, toilet paper) and Uncle Sam won't kick in on these if your employer provides you with an office away from your home. I'm actually interested in reader feedback on this one, as it seems to be a grey area.

4. Gas, Parking, Public Transportation


This may be more of a benefit than a reimbursable expense, but do check to see if your employer provides any commuting benefits. Some may subsidize parking. Over the summer when gas prices rose so rapidly, employers started adding gas subsidies. Other employers may pay for or provide subsidized public transportation vouchers.

You may even have a company car. If not though, and you make trips by automobile for business, do not forget to claim the mileage for each trip. And tolls. And parking. Save those receipts. If you forget to set the trip odometer, use MapQuest Driving directions to get a good approximation of the distance, and submit it as backup with your expense report.

5. Internet Connection


If you you work at home a fair amount, would you consider it reasonable to ask your company to kick in a certain amount for your internet service, without which most of us would be completely unable to do our jobs?

6. Mobile Data Service


For institutions with their own Blackberry Exchange Servers, this probably isn't an issue--the company will be direct billed for data service. But for smaller organizations, if your manager expects you to be responsive to emails when you are in meetings or travelling, they will likely spring for the cost of data service on your mobile phone.

7. Clothes and Care for Clothes


Mr. Poorhouse works retail, so his employer buys his embroidered shirts. It's a small, local, business, so he also bought polar fleece jackets with the company logo embroidered on for him, and for me too. The owner figures both Mr. Poorhouse and I walk around town alot--we might as well be billboards for the store.

Also, employees who must wear a company-supplied uniform (think fast food) often also get a maintenance stipend for washing the onion smell out of the smocks.

If you're more the business traveller type, you may be able to expense the cost of dry cleaning when you're on the road if you're away for an extended period of time.

8. Passport Fees

What about the fees to acquire or renew a passport? I'm facing a couple of upcoming international business trips, and it will cost $75 to renew my US passport. Should my company pay?

9. Computer Accessories and Software


Sure, your employer buys your computer, but who pays for the video interface to your external home monitor, your USB backup drive, your essential software that moves Windows files to the Mac, creates wonderful address labels, or scans your business cards. Your company should probably.

10. Subscriptions and Licenses

Do you pay for industry journals or magazines or online subscriptions that help you do your job better? Don't. Let the company take care of those.

11. Association Memberships


Submit those to the company. It's possible they already sponsor the organization and get a few free memberships with their package.

This is a wide open area, but the general wisdom is if you're attending a conference, take a customer or prospect to a meal, the per diem expands from subsistence to entertainment expenses.

In summing up, in no way am I suggesting that you abuse the employee business expense reimbursement offered by your company. Managers can pretty easily see who's making unreasonable requests. On the other hand, you don't want to spend your own money on your employer's behalf.

As usual, I did some googling to find the kinds of expenses that are reimbursable by most business, but didn't come up with much. Please post your experiences on what's reimbursable in the comments so we can all gain information.


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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Employee Expense Reimbursement Tips: Part I: Protecting Your Credit and Cash Flow

This is Part I of a two-part post. See Part II for thoughts about what is reimbursable these days.

Photo by Loty
Paperwork is a bore, but when you have a cash flow problem, it can be worth your while to expedite it. Today I'll discuss some strategies for making sure that expenses you incur as an employee don't impact and are not impacted by your personal financial situation.

One thing I have been known to put on the back burner are requesting reimbursement employer-related business expenses.

Every employer has different policies. Here are a few options, listed in the order of most to least desirable for the employee:

1. Get a Corporate Card Card.

This option is the best and easiest for employees. Need to fly to Paris for a week of meetings? Have to buy your own laptop? Charge it directly to the corporate card and you don't have to worry about your own credit limits. (I learned this lesson the hard way during the worst of my money troubles. I found myself in another city unable to check into a hotel because of a hard limit American Express put on my charging capability.)

If you have a corporate card, do your accounts payable department a favor and be just as diligent with the receipts as if you needed to keep them for your own reimbursement. After all, the company will need to properly classify the expenses.

While you're at it see if they have a corporate phone card program too.

2. Request a Corporate Check

No corporate card available? You may be able to get a corporate check cut to pay expenses such as conference fees or association memberships. If there isn't an immediate need to pay the supplier, request a check. This method keeps the expense out of your own credit accounts.

3. Use Somebody Else's Card

Need it right away? Maybe your manager has a corporate card he or she would be willing to use. I recently had someone buy my notebook computer this way.

4. Get an Advance

You may also be able to get a travel advance to pay for expensive trips. You will still have to keep track of detailed expenses, but at least you aren't out the money up front. Be careful, though, that you don't dip into the advance while you are waiting for the credit card bills to hit. That money is to pay for the expenses you incur.

5. Get Reimbursed


Finally, at last resort, you may have to use your own credit card. If so, submit those expenses immediately after you incur them. For example, let's say you are a responsible doobie, so you made airplane reservations 30 days in advance for that trip to Paris to get the best fare for your employer. Don't wait until after the trip to submit that expense. Include all prepaid reimbursable expenses like conference registration fees in the expense report you submit up front. Yeah, that means you have to do two expense reports for the same trip, but it's worth it not having your cash or credit tied up in the meantime.

While on your trip, take one of those envelopes in the hotel-provided stationery kit in your room, and put it in your purse or jacket pocket. Then every time you take a taxi or have a meal, but the receipt in your envelope. Each night when you get back to your room, make a note of all the cash tips you gave on the outside of the envelope.

Do your expense report on your computer or PDA or whatever works for you on our way home--while you wait for your plane or train, or in flight. Submit it first thing the morning you are back in the office. Do not let them pile up to do them once a month. Get it done. The less the elapsed time between the trip and your report, the less likely you'll forget those little expenses like tips and tolls.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II of Employee Reimbursement Tips: What's Reimbursable, Anyway?

Friday, December 5, 2008

10 Grocery Gains

This post has been included in the Festival of Frugality at Greener Pastures. After you've had a look around here, stop by and see the suggestions for cheap tacky Christmas chic at this fun festival.

Photo by ralphbijker

Have you noticed that despite the dramatically lower price of gas at the pump these days, the price of groceries has not fallen? It don't get it. This summer the rationale for rising food prices was higher fuel costs. Economists call that "sticky" pricing. Once consumers prove they will pay a higher price, suppliers have no incentive to lower the price again.

The continuing high prices at the supermarket and the incredible shrinking package sizes are getting on my nerves these days. Nora Dunn at Wisebread had a good post a couple of months ago on "Supermarket Shopping for Savers."

We employ a couple of additional strategies:

1) Use a Store Discount Card


Shop at one store for most of your purchases, bring your store card, and stock up on sale items, BUT ONLY IF IT IS SOMETHING YOU ROUTINELY USE. If you forgot your card, the clerk may swipe a counter-card for you. If you're buying groceries away from home, ask the cashier if there is a guest card program.

2) Explain Unit Pricing to the Kidlets.

They get a free math lesson, and you get a reminder the unit prices as well. For example, I was surprised this week to discover that fresh precut pineapple and a fresh whole pineapple were about $3.99 per edible pound, but that canned pineapple was on sale for $1.20 a pound. I would have thought fresh would be cheaper. I guess it depends on the time of year, your climate and how far the produce has to travel without spoiling.

3) Scan It.

If your store offers them, consider scanning your own groceries with a handheld scanner. I fought this the way my parents fought answering machines and ATMs, but I think I'm finally getting on board. The best part about it is that you get a running total of your order, so you don't spend more than your budget. It also automatically gives you the store card discount on any sale items.
I find it very satisfying to know that I can generally save 10-15% off my order by buying stuff on sale. (This from somebody who thinks clipping coupons is for the birds.) Beware, though, that the pop-up ads don't tempt you into impulse buys. Some special prices are only available to scanner users, but again, it's only a good deal if it is something you were already going to buy.

Photo by Belinda Hankins Miller

4) Think Small.

Just stopping for bread, milk, and eggs? Don't get a cart. If you have two cars, take the smaller one to the store for routine trips.

5) Don't Let the List Limit You.

Use a list yes, but be flexible enough to buy stuff on sale. For example, we use the chile/taco/sloppy joe type seasoning packs for last minute meals. They keep forever. So when there's a sale, we stock up, even if it wasn't on the list. The key is only to buy sale stuff you use all the time (or stuff that is a substitute for what you normally buy).

6) Think hard about buying in bulk.
It may be cheaper to buy a gallon of ketchup, if it's going to take two years to use it all up, maybe you'd rather have a smaller bottle and more cash in your pocket now. This principle applies even if the miracle food has a long shelf life.

7) Stoop for savings.

The stores will place the most expensive merchandise at eye level (or worse, kid eye level). Reach up or lean down to buy less expensive stuff.



Photo by Jeff Keen

8) Let the Kids Help

If they're choosing the next thing on the list and checking unit prices, they aren't bugging you for Green Slimy Monster Cereal. Set a limit in advance that they can each choose one item (Cereal is a good place to let them go, if the no-sugar-bombs rule is in play.)

9) Use the Cell Phone

Mr. Poorhouse and I text lists to each other all the time when we need to pick up a few things after work. It keeps us from getting the wrong thing and forgetting the right thing. That can save the gas for another trip.

10) Buy Marked Down Meat with Caution
Sure, a couple of dollars off on those nice looking steak tips looks great. But if it spoils, it wasn't much of a bargain. Only buy meat if you have a definite plan for when you are going to cook or freeze it.


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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Gaming the Systems, or What to do When the Kids Ask Santa for Expensive Stuff

Welcome Money Hacks Carnival goers. This post has been included in the Laid Off and Freelancing Edition of the carnival at Financial Wellness Project, and there are lots of other good frugal ideas over there this week. After you you've had a look-see here and subscribed to my RSS feed or email subscription, head on over and check out the other great ideas.


Photo by Jennifer Lee

The magic of Santa meets economic reality in a big way for us this year. We've been talking a lot with the kids about how times are hard for everyone in the world now, and that Santa can't get expensive things for everybody who asks for them. This is a big bit to chew, especially for my more materialistic child.

Now, understand that my kids limit themselves to one request each from Santa. This wasn't a rule we imposed on them--it just evolved at our house, the same way Santa doesn't wrap gifts. (Now there's a nice tradition that came from my last minute parents!)

We sometimes give our kids strategies for deciding what to request from Santa. They know that Santa will not bring toys of which Mom and Dad don't approve. But they have been gaming the system a little in the past couple of years--Mom and Dad can't afford whatever it is, so let's ask Santa!

This year the requests are pretty big--an iPod Shuffle, and a Nintendo DS. I'm already starting to panic about where the money is coming from for presents in general this year. We can't really afford much of anything, but we did set a budget. There will be 2 nice things and a bunch of really inexpensive things. And mom and dad don't need anything this year.

So, I think I may have a solution. Neither of the two Santa items are routinely available at a discount. Granted, the prices have come down on iPod Shuffle. The answer is my new favorite word: Refurbished.

Apple sells reburbished iPods and computer systems through their online store. Gamestop sells reburbished game systems, including the Nintendo DS Lite, for 30% off the cost of a new system. That should make Santa happy. They also have a very wide selection of used games that start as low as $3.99. That is, if Santa were looking for a supplier.

Plus, if you sign up for their email list, you get a coupon for 10% off used stuff (games only, not systems). Still I just saved myself a pretty penny on the stuff that goes with the stuff Santa will bring. If you have a gamer in your life, you might too. As far as I can tell, there is no reason to buy games at full price anymore.



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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Santa Strategies

This post has been included in the Carnival of Family Life Trivia Edition at All Rileyed Up. Welcome and have a look around, maybe subscribe to my RSS feed if you like what you see. Then, when you've had enough of my trivia, head back over to Riley's for more on what families are up to this week.

Photo by Vanessa Pike-Russell

We had an awesome experience at the mall tonight. The kids had wanted to see Santa over the weekend. I don't DO Black Friday. As a matter of fact, we managed to stay away from stores altogether this weekend. My plan, and it was a good one, was to see Santa late on a weeknight to skip the crowds.

So after work tonight, we drove up to the mall. We got there at 7. And there was no line to see Santa. None. Nada. Now I don't know whether that was because the economy is officially in recession as of today, or whether folks were home nursing their spending hangovers from the weekend. But we had agreed that for the first time we were not going to spend the $30 on pictures with Santa this year.

I wasn't sure if that's kosher. I mean, Santa's helpers and photographers need to get paid and all. But Santa's charming helpers asked right up front if we were there for pictures or just to visit. And Santa charmed my sometimes skeptical kids with stories of elves, and cookie breaks, and efficiency experts. There was nobody behind us and nobody in front of us, and frankly, I think Santa was feeling a little lonely.

So other than the money we spent at the food court (we did have to feed the rugrats after all), the whole Santa experience was, um, let's see, FREE.

Not to mention magical. Thanks, Santa.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

So I'm a little bit embarassed about this, but I've noticed lately that people have a lot of compassion.

Like one day a few months ago when I met a friend at our farmers market to chat. My kids were with me, but I didn't have any money for them to buy any of the goodies. They wandered around a little and came back with free loaves of bread from one of the vendors! I felt a little like Fagin, but I have to admit, the bread was delicious.

Or the day last week when I bought ordered a bagel and a cup of coffee only to discover that I didn't have enough money. I told the counter clerk to just give me the bagel (she hadn't poured the coffee yet.) After she rang me up, she gave me a cup of coffee. I looked up quizzically, and she smiled and said, "It's on me."

Or today when during a day of errands I realized the kids were hungry, so my kids each ordered their own sandwich and donut at Dunkin' Donuts. The counter staff thought they were so cute, they threw in two extra donuts.

I don't think it's that they are looking undernourished or anything...

Anyway, thanks, guys. You don't know how much these little things can really make a person's day when she is struggling.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Free Money


Photo by CleanWalmart

I read about this elsewhere in the blogosphere last week, but it bears repeating. The kids and I took a trip to the grocery store to find the CoinStar Machine a few days ago. Why? Because not only does CoinStar waive fees if you request a gift certificate instead of cash, but they are also offering an additional $10 gift certificate if you redeem over $40 before December 7.

We had previously scoped out all the local banks, and could not find one that a) had a coin counting machine or 2) didn't charge a fee to count the coins. For little Paul Poorhouse, it didn't seem fair to have to give up some of his hard-saved $65 in coins. The problem is the same with Coinstar, but only if you take the money in cash.

Paul didn't really want to spend all his money at one place. So here's what I did: We emptied Paul's jar plus Mr. Poorhouse's drawer, plus my kitchen coin stash all together. I will request (by mail) an Amazon gift card for the $132. I will give little Paul his $65 (I can finally swing that) and I will spend the gift card on holiday presents for my remote family, which now, thankfully I don't have to mail, because I have Amazon Prime which gives you free shipping for a year.

So, I have $77 in free money--cuz face it, when it's in the drawer, it isn't money--to spend on gifts that I didn't think I had.

Cool.

Win win win.

Here are the details from CoinStar's site.

Be careful not to lose your receipt from the machine though. This is a mail-in program, kinda like a rebate. I'm guessing there are lots of people who end up not claiming their gift cards. Don't be one of them!

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turkey Talk: 10 Leftover Ideas

Mr. Poorhouse bought a twenty-pound turkey for only four people this year. The good news is it was only $.99/pound. The bad news is it's, well, turkey, and it's starting to dry out. Here are 10 quick ways I have to use it up without going insane.

1. Papa Poorhouse's Turkey Sandwich


Sliced leftover turkey
toast (sourdough bread works too)
mayo
leftover cranberry sauce
romaine lettuce
thin slice red onion

Yum.

2. Thanksgiving, Part II


Pile one of each of the leftovers on your plate. This is why God make microwaves. Use lots of gravy if the stuffing and turkey are a little dry. You may want to freshen up the mashed potatoes with a little milk or cream first.

3. Turkey Soup


After salvaging all the meat possible to a ziplock in the fridge, break the carcass into 4-5 pieces. Put it in a big stock pot with a chopped up onion, any leftover veggie trimmings from your Thanksgiving prep, a chopped carrot and chopped celery rib, a bay leaf, and some thyme. Simmer gently (this is the key) for a couple of hours. Skim the foam off as it cooks. Strain, discarding the veggies and bones and meat. Chill. Remove the fat layer. Add new chopped carrots, celery, rice or cubed potatoes. Season. At the last minute, add chopped turkey from your leftover stash and noodles if you didn't already use rice or potatoes. Cook for 5 minutes. Season again.

4. Open Faced Turkey Sandwich

This one's easy. Bread (or toast), turkey, gravy. Whatever sides you have left.

5. Potato Pancakes

Do you have leftover mashed potatoes? My mom used to add egg and fry them up and call them potato pancakes. You could add bits of chopped cooked bacon, sausage (or even turkey--Bwahahaha!) or veggies, garlic, and spices first for an easy variation of the Czech bramborak.

6. Turkey Tetrazinni


This was a one of my Mom's standard post-thanksgiving meals. It's a fancy version of southern Chicken Spaghetti, with mushrooms, cream sauce, spaghetti or linguini, and a dash of sherry. It is a casserole dish. Warning: make sure the spaghetti is completely covered in sauce before baking, or you get crunchy dried out noodles, which, in my book, is a texture violation. I don't have her recipe handy, but this one from Cooks.com looks close.

7. Gobbledygook


This very 50s-style recipe is actually called "Gobble-Good Turkey Casserole" but we like our name better. It is a tuna noodle casserole variant made with cream of mushroom or cream of celery soup, and, of course, turkey instead of tuna. My son brought this recipe home from school one year and now asks for it after every Thanksgiving.

1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of celery soup
1 package onion soup mix
1 1/2 C milk
2-3 C leftover turky
1 C cooked rice

Combine all ingredients in a large casserole dish. Bake covered 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

8. Turkey Curry

Colin Firth at the Nanny McPhee London premiereImage via Wikipedia
This one's in honor of Bridget Jones's mother. I think I'll try this recipe from The Daily Green tonight. Serve it in a buffet on New Year's Day, and maybe Colin Firth will stop by!

9. Pulled Turkey Sandwiches

This option is very not-turkey-like and much healthier than the better known pork alternative. It's a good way to disguise the turkey when your family starts to rebell!

Here's the recipe I used last year from Favorite Brand Name Recipes.

10. Devonshires

My mom's recipe calls for chicken, but I don't see any reason why you couldn't use turkey. Here it is:

4 slices light wheat bread
12 slices bacon, cooked
1/4 c bacon drippings
1/4 c flour
4 C 2% milk
2 C shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 t dried mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1/8 t ground sage
4 slices cooked chicken (or turkey) without skin
8 oz. grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast bread. Warm bacon fat in sauce pan, add flour, cook until flour is brown. Make a roux with the milk, stirring constantly until thickened. Add cheddar cheese and mustard, stir until melted in. Season with salt, pepper, and sage.

Put 3 slices of bacon on toast, a slice of turkey, and sauce. Sprinkle parmasan on top and bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

When all else fails and you can't face another bite of turkey, give it to the dog. I guarantee you she will not mind!

Further Reading:


Uses for leftover Mashed Potatoes from The New York Times.cooked

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

More On Penny-Pinching Parenting

Once more, Grey at http://frugal-fu.blogspot.com/ and I are on the same wavelength. Check out her post on why having your kids do the dishes is as great as taking them to the ice rink.

It's eerie how she and I think alike. See my earlier post on Cheap Things to Do With Kids and you'll understand what I mean...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Home Never Seemed so Sweet

I'm very pleased that this post has been chosen as recommended reading in the 87th Carnival of Money Stories, hosted by The Financial Wellness Project. It has also be chosen as "The Best Post of the Week, Anywhere" in On the Moneyed Midways, Political Calculations' roundup of the best financial carnivals of the week. Please visit these sites for other interesting reading about personal finance. While you're here, please poke around at some of my other posts. If you like what you see, please sign up for my RSS Feed. Thanks for dropping by.
Like many of us, I've taken stock of my blessings during this season of Thanksgiving.

I am most thankful that we still have our home and that it looks like we will be able to stay in it. In past years I have taken this fact very much for granted.

This house represents stability to me. To have lost it would have nearly broken my heart, although I know we would have managed somehow.

Yes, it's cluttered. We've deferred maintenance. The basement is dark and damp. The kitchen needs to be painted. The weeds have taken over the yard. But it is where we became a family.

My parents and Mr. Poorhouse's are gone now. His childhood home is occupied by another family, and another little boy lives in his room. As an Army brat, I have lived in upwards of 20 houses. My mother made a home in each of them by accumulating stuff (much of which, I'm ashamed to say, I still have).

In my twenties and thirties, I spent many years in a major city. I loved almost every minute of it. Mr. Poorhouse, on the other hand--not so much. A carjacking finally kicked us to the suburbs. I made a fantasy wish list: our dream house would have a porch, sidewalks, a garage, a yard, 3-4 bedrooms, and a hallway staircase. It would be an older house within walking distance of shops, public transportation, and good schools. It would be in a place with a strong community feeling.

When we first toured our house, it was way out of our price range. It was the last of seven houses on a kamikaze house-hunting weekend day. As we walked out the front door that day, I sighed to Mr. Poorhouse, "This is a great house. Wouldn't Christmas be wonderful here?" The agent, rather desperately I thought, said, "Make us an offer." We just laughed.

We started calling it "The house with the weird porches" because not only did it have one porch, it had three--a front porch, a partially enclosed side porch that had been part of the original wraparound porch, and a screened-in porch added in the 50s.

As we got closer to actually making a decision (months later), we engaged a buyer's agent to help us. One day she said, "The next house we'll see is in a far better neighborhood than anything we've seen yet, but it has a structural problem."

It was the house with the weird porches. The price had come down. We swallowed hard after our home inspector gave us the run-down. "At no point," I said to him, "did you say the words 'falling down'."

"No," he replied, "It is not falling down."

So after reading his 20-page report, we made an offer, closed, and dealt with the structural issues. We stalked the neighborhood for weeks before we actually moved in, and every time we met people on the street, they looked us in the eye, smiled and said hello. This behavior was foreign to us. Where we had lived, making eye contact was a losing sport.

The first week in the house, we made a home video for our parents modeled on This Old House (complete with Fat's Waller's Louisiana Fairy Tale playing in the background.)

The house was built in 1904. The architect lived in our neighborhood and designed each house to look a little different. It was a bedroom community built within walking distance of the first commuter rail line in the country. I went to town hall and looked up the census to see who had lived here before. I pulled the engineering permit and was charmed to find the hand-written request from the 1920s "for to enclose the piazza" which explained one of the weird porches.

A four-year-old neighbor girl came over one day and asked us if we had any kids. When we said no, she looked dejected and wandered away. We learned quickly that without kids, you're nobody in this town. We discovered our neighborhood used to be known as "Rabbit Hollow" on account of the number of large families who have been raised here.

Even the plants spur memories here. Like my brother-in-law telling us with absolute certainty that the big tree in the back yard was a linden tree. (It's a pignut hickory, for the record.) Or the Tropicana rose we planted to remember my Grammie, the Peace rose for Gramps, and the burning bush we planted in memory of my father-in-law, who passed away during our first year in the house. Or the weeping cherry we planted when baby Prissy was born. Or the maple tree I hugged with all my strength while in labor with baby Paul. Our first year we re-graded one side of the house and planted shade-loving plants which our new neighbor dubbed our "love garden." Mr. Poorhouse planted corn three years in a row, only to finally have it all stolen by squirrels, who not only ate it, but left the cobs strewn about the entire neighborhood.

The inside of the house, too, surrounds us with memories of our families. Many of the rugs and furniture were Grandma's. The walls are littered with paintings by Mom, Grandpa, and my mother-in-law, who I never met. Upstairs in the hall we have the wall of babies--family pictures from many generations. Adjacent is the wall of teenagers--our parents and grandparents when they were young. Also upstairs is a box of letters Mr. Poorhouse's parents wrote to each other when his father was in the Navy, one for every day of his three-year tour on an aircraft carrier. Another box contains the letters my mom sent to her mother from every new house we lived in when I was growing up--from Alabama to Frankfurt.

Almost as soon as we got the key, our first order of business was to get a dog. Pal, though not cleverly named, was a clever dog. A shelter dog of Australian Shepherd descent, he would escape the house at every opportunity, and then herd all the neighbors to their porches. He wouldn't actually run away, but just buzz anybody who was trying to catch him. And you couldn't catch him the same way more than once. He wouldn't come home until he was completely worn out. Sometimes this took twelve hours! Everyone in the neighborhood got in on the action trying to help us catch this evil genius. In every other way, Pal was a gentle and loving friend.

In this house I stayed up with our 20-year old black cat, PJ, as she breathed her last.

Eventually, we also lost Pal to kidney failure at the age of 11. We invested in a fence for the back yard for our new puppy, Pax. She became part of our family routine, without the drama Pal had provided.

How could we forget the day a film crew with its award-winning director spent a rainy day on our front porch and in our basement creating a short film that went on to win critical acclaim at a number of festivals?

Or the many Thanksgivings? My brother-in-law was a regular at our holiday feasts until a falling out last year. One of the most memorable was the Thanksgiving day we brought new baby Prissy home from the hospital. My mom and sister were here to manage the cooking while I set up a nursing nest in our crazy blue striped library. I spent many hours in that room--nursing and snoozing and reading and crying and laughing as Prissy and I worked out our sometimes tumultuous mommy-baby relationship.

On our front porch, we met our dear au pair Pavla, as she literally charmed a bird who hopped right up to her. We stripped and sanded three generations of old wallpaper on plaster walls in our spare room into lavender splendor for our first au pair, Patricie. Mr. Poorhouse joked that these wonderful young women were more responsible than we were!

I started a business and worked from a converted bedroom for seven years. I remember the phone calls I took at my desk--the call when my mom told me she had breast cancer--the call from my Dad when my lovely niece was born--the call from my mother's neighbors the day they found her on the floor of her condo.

One of my favorite memories was of our long-awaited piano sailing through the back yard because it wouldn't go up the steps to the front porch. I played late into the night for months. Though we can't afford lessons anymore, the kids still play on occasion, and it feels right.

This is where I came home to be with my family when I left work early on September 11, 2001. On this porch I stood on with a candle later that week. Here is where we hang our flag. Here is where we have watched in dread and relief as elections have been won or lost.

Prissy and Paul are now 11 and 8. This home is the only home they have ever known. I wonder sometimes what that must be like. They have friends they've known since preschool. They've dressed as characters from their favorite books and movies for Halloween, run through the house and yard finding Easter eggs, lit the Menorah in the window over prayers, and wondered with delight at their presents from Santa.

Here we cuddle on the couch for family movie night and pile into bed together to read Harry Potter. Here the kids can go outside to play with friends without us having to arrange formal play dates. They walk to school and back on their own now. How grown up they are.

In the past year, we have been through two periods of foreclosure warnings from our bank. It looked for a while like we would lose our home. We only dodged the bullet by being lucky enough to find better jobs (not easy after extended periods of unemployment and self-employment) and by the generosity of my father's wife. We have a 30-year low-rate fixed mortgage. We have equity. We just didn't have the income to pay our bills.

A few years after we moved in to this quirky, not-falling-down, fabulous house, I found that list I had written describing our fantasy home. I realized this house had everything on that list. Plus things we could not have begun to imagine then.

I am thankful for my home.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Holiday Cards

Wow. Thanksgiving is here. Time to get those holiday card orders in.

I may be old fashioned, but I'm not yet ready to send electronic-only greetings. Nor am I a big fan of the postcard style family photo with just room to scrawl "Happy Holidays!"

Nope, I like a nice, generously sized folded card. I never write real letters anymore except at holiday time.

Here's how I save money. For casual acquaintances and business associates, I send cards that I picked up at a steep discount at the previous year's post-holiday sales.

For personal friends I have used Vista Print for the last couple of years and have been satisfied with their templates, their flexibility, and their speed, as I always seem to be doing this at the last minute. If you don't fall for all the add-ons, they can give quite a good price, especially with their "10 free cards" offers. (Full disclosure--I am part of the Vista Print affiliate program, but only because I have used them and am satisfied with their product and service.) If you want to give it a try, This link will give you 30% to 60% off holiday products.


I have previously had cards printed at FedEx Kinkos, but they are more expensive and less skilled. Plus they didn't have a way to eliminate their own logo on my expensive cards, which I thought was kind of tacky. That may have changed as I haven't used them for awhile.

In both cases, you can design your cards online. With FedEx Kinkos, you can also go into a participating store to order the cards if you like talking to a real face.


10 FREE Holiday Products from VistaPrint!


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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Job Checklist--Making the Most out of Benefits

This post has been included in the Carnival of Personal Finance, Cyber Monday Edition, hosted by Mighty Bargain Hunter. Please have a look at some of the other great financial tips there this week.
As I have mentioned a bunch of times, I started a new job a few weeks ago. (And I am very thankful for it.)

The benefits are good, but I needed to do some planning to make the most of them. I finished the paperwork today:

Flexible Savings Accounts

I have one for dependent care and another for medical expenses. Here's where people who track their expenses with Quicken or MS Money have the advantage--just run a report on your last year's spending on these categories, think ahead to any big known medical procedures or changes in child care arrangements, and you're done. Make sure to look at your plans covered expenses and exclusions as well--you don't want to set aside money and then lose it because the expenses aren't eligible.

I had to do a little homework to see if money paid to high school babysitters (we use them after school) qualify for the dependent care FSA. (They do, but if they are under 19, they can't be related to you. I'm not sure if that's an IRS rule or one for my plan, so make sure to read your own plan carefully.) I think the forms require Social Security numbers and paper backup, which is a little hard to produce with an informal hourly arrangement. Time for better record keeping.

If you can't estimate accurately, be conservative, because whatever money you save and don't use, you lose!

Retirement Plan
I'm not eligible for the 401K program for 6 months, but you bet I'll be taking advantage of that as soon as I'm able. My plan is to start with the percentage I was contributing at my last job plus 1/2 the percentage of my salary increase. Once we get the debt thing under better control, I hope to bump up to the maximum allows, which is currently $15,500 per year for most people. And once the new plan kicks in, I'll also roll over the small amount of money from my previous employer's 401K into the new one so that it's easier to track. (I'm trying not to look at the actual value for the time being.)

COBRA
My previous employer gave me a COBRA form. I have until the first of the year to claim COBRA health coverage from them. I will not need it, but I'm holding on to the forms just in case something catastrophic happens. When you leave a job that provides health insurance, for specific reasons, the company will offer you the option to continue on their health plan (at your expense, of course). The quirk that works to your advantage is that you have a 60 days (or so) to sign up, so if you don't end up needing the insurance during that period, you don't have to spend the money. Anyway, even those who are young and healthy with no dependents should not be without health insurance, so if you are among the (too) many unemployed, hang on to that COBRA paperwork, and if you don't have a prospect of another job by the time the deadline looms, find the money and sign up.

All the Rest
Of course, I also did the the paperwork for the health, dental, disability, and life insurance.

Further Reading
US Department of Labor COBRA information
Maximize Your Employment Benefits from About.comThis

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Monday, November 24, 2008

10 Bargain Birthday Ideas

This post has been included in the 154th Festival of Frugality. Join the other cheapskates over at Living Almost Large for some great tips for putting the reins on holiday spending.


Whew! The last of the giggling gaggle of giddy girls has left the building. Birthday season at the poorhouse is officially over, and we managed to have fun and save money at the same time. Read on for ten ways to control birthday party costs without making your kids feel deprived.

1. Avoid Prepackaged Parties

Choose a theme by all means, but don't buy the overpriced instant paper goods sets from places like Birthday Express.

Every couple of years we go to iParty, buy a roll of plastic table cover in a bright solid color. It lasts us through several birthday parties, Girl Scout events, and messy kitchen crafts.

2. Try a local salvage or job lot store for inexpensive napkins and paper goods.

For our recent pirate party, we found red cups and black and red napkins dirt cheap. You may find mismatched cups and plates, but with the plain napkins and table cloth, you may find something that works.

By the way, we usually are greener than this, and don't use paper plates and cups and plastic utensils, but we make an exception for birthday parties.

3. Make your own invitations.

You can get themed printer paper, design something on the computer, and print away. We used a scroll paper for a princess party and the pirate party. For the pirate party, we saved on stamps by rolling each invitation in a cleaned soda bottle, tying a ribbon around it, and leaving it on the guest's front door. They loved it. The same paper doubles for thank you notes.

For the Star Wars party, Mr. Poorhouse made a short video with letters scrolling away from the user (like in the movies) including some home videos of the birthday boy. The DVDs were the invitations. This was probably expensive, but we already had a spindle of DVDs lying around, so there was no out of pocket expense.

4. Put together your own goodie bags.

Those preselected favor boxes in the catalog stores are overpriced. Use your imagination. You can get colored bags at your local Michaels or AC Moore. Use them plain, or have your kids decorate them with markers, stickers, or stamps. Or, use Chinese food take-out boxes for a fun change of pace. If you are having only a few kids (like for a sleepover) you may be able to get an inexpensive bag as a favor.

4. Try Mail Order for Favors

We use Oriental Trading Company. They have a lot of cheap junk, but if you shop carefully, you can get a couple of cute things. Also, we've noticed that most of the junky stuff sold for goody bags at iParty comes from Oriental Trading Company, so you might as well eliminate the middle man.

A friend of mine forgoes goodie bags altogether and gives books related to the party theme as favors.

5. Make your own cake

As Martin Short so eloquently put it in Father of the Bride "everything revolves around the cake." But that doesn't mean you have to spend big bucks on a spongy, bland, and expensive supermarket cake. You can make a cake from scratch for a fraction of the cost. If you're pressed for time, cake mixes are often on sale and taste OK.

Now before we go on, I must confess that I obsess about birthday cakes. I've been known to stay up all night on cakes in the shape of Thomas the Tank Engine, a pink princess castle, a sports field with soccer ball, a cake in the shape of Madeleine's hat, and, most recently, a pirate ship.

As time wears on, I've learned a few tricks. First, bake the cake itself a week ahead, cool it, wrap in plastic wrap, and stick in in the freezer until the morning of the party. Make your own frosting, or color canned frosting the night before the party.

These cakes don't take any particular skill to make. A number of internet sites have clever ideas you can steal for almost any theme. And the kids love it.

Try these for starters:
Betty Crocker
Better Homes & Gardens
Coolest Birthday Cakes

6. I've had parties where I cooked and parties where we ordered pizza. The fact is, the kids always eat the pizza and it's cheap and easy.

7. Go easy on purchased decorations

Try ebay for inexpensive one-of-a-kind decorations. We scored an American Idol bus poster one year. The kids sang karaoke in front of it (dressed in shades and boas) and had a blast. Another year we tried to make a paper mache Death Star. That didn't go over so well because we didn't allow enough time. We used to do balloons, but they are always a pain to pick up and half the time the guests forgot to take them home. We haven't had them for the last few years, and nobody seems to have noticed. Maybe it's just that our kids are getting older.

8. Buy fewer presents

If your kids are like my kids, they get more stuff from their guests then they need or can neatly store. So go easy on your own gifts to your kids. One nice thing they really want is plenty. If parents of the guests call to ask what your child wants, consider giving them the name of your child's favorite author.

9. Don't Try to Keep up with the Jones's Entertainers

This may be your biggest budget item. When I was a kid, we had parties at home, played pin the tail on the donkey, opened presents, and called it a day. (Well, actually, I'm a Halloween baby, so we usually went trick-or-treating too.)

In our affluent suburb, the party venues my kids have attended are varied and almost extravagent. Party places include the gymnastics school, batting cages, rock climbing walls, trapeze schools, hotel pools, the dreaded Chuck E Cheese (or Chucky Cheezits as we like to call it), bowling, and even fencing. Home parties have included paid entertainers like animal guys, the ubiquitous clowns and magicians.

But it doesn't have to be so. If you live in a warm climate, or the birthday is in spring, summer, or fall, do what my neighbors do for their athletic son: Have all the kids meet you on a neighborhood field for a day of sports, and then head home for cake & ice cream.

For winter parties with lots of little kids, I totally understand wanting to have the party somewhere other than home. We have had luck with reasonably inexpensive parties at locations like the show room for a play structure manufacturer, our local recreation department (they even provide a teenager to facilitate active games), and a pottery painting studio for kids. In the latter case, the piece they create is the favor, so the whole thing is very affordable.

As the kids get older, the slumber party reigns. Eleven-year-old Prissy Poorhouse just had three girls overnight and then went to a movie. To be honest, they would have been fine without the movie. A few bottles of nail polish, hair doo-dads, lip gloss and sparkle powder was all it took. I realize that wouldn't work for all girls, but it did for mine.

10. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Return, and Reciprocate

After the presents have been opened, save those gift bags. They are green! They can be reused numerous times. They're easy. The tissue paper can also usually be folded and reused a few times as well. Win, win, win! We also wash the candles and cake toys. They burn just as brightly a second and even third time.

When the party is over, take the unopened napkins, cups, favors and what-have-yous back to the store. Or, better yet, donate them to a local children's center where the kids might not have birthday parties without donations. Birthday Wishes is another organization that will accept such donations.

Have fun at the party!

Further Reading
Cheap Birthday Party Ideas