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.


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. 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 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.


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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