Friday, July 30, 2010

Weekend Reading: Thrifty, Living the Frugal Life with Style

Thrifty: Living the Frugal Life with Style.
By Marjorie Harris.
House of Anasasi Press, 2010.

I don't know what it was about this book, maybe I just couldn't get over the cover, but I really felt like I was reading my mom's guide to frugality. Sure, older people have a lot to teach me about ways to save money, but I also couldn't really connect with a lot of the advice in this book. It may speak to me in twenty or thirty years, but right now, not so much.

Case in point, Marjorie begins with telling us that she hired a friend of hers to come over and organize her house. Well, that seems very extravagant to me, and though she said having a better organized house will save money and time in the future, I'm just not sold. She mentions estate sales and auctions, which is somewhat frugal and green, but also can be very pricey. This is frugality for people who have already lived a frugal live and have a little money, not for those of us up to our eyes in student loan debt and working part-time.

Actually, a lot of the book is just her talking about how great her friends are. I'm certainly glad she likes them, but, again, it didn't do much for me.

Best Takeaways:

Cheap but decent wine list.
Marjorie has a friend who is a wine author who made a list of good wines for less than $20. As I know very little about wine (usually preferring the boxed variety, but I can't really serve that to guests or bring it to dinner parties), it's nice to have a list of good brands that don't break the bank.

Ask for an appliance demonstration before buying.
Granted, I've never bought an appliance, so maybe this is standard, but it's definitely good advice. If you bring home a dishwasher that you paid good money for and you hate the way it sounds or it's way too loud, there's not much you can do.

Run the dishwasher and other appliances at night when electricity is cheaper.
Ok, is this actually true? This sounds like something that people who used to have to pay for minutes on a landline phone would say. I realize that there's less stress on the energy grid overnight, but does that really effect price? Someone get back to me on this.

Overall Opinion:

This is not the book for me. However, I like very much that she draws the distinction between thrifty and cheap, "Being thrifty requires a brain, being cheap doesn't. Being thrifty means figuring out how things work and making them work more efficiently. Being thrifty means being self-aware." (4)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I began couponing with a vengeance last summer when I had a lot of time on my hands. As a result of my over-the-top ways when I decide to go for something with gusto, I wound up spending tons of money and going to the grocery store up to four times a week (not often, but a few times). I've calmed down and become quite bit more reasonable about things, I promise.

I have a love/hate relationship with coupons because I love to save money, but I hate the fact that most of the foods you find a lot of coupons for are foods I would never (should never) eat. Before I started couponing, I thought I'd be saving tens of dollars per grocery trip, shaving 60% off my food bill, and maybe I did shave off a significant percentage of what I might have paid, but again, I wound up with a lot of crap that I wasn't too keen on that I wouldn't have bought had I not had a coupon. Some people save tons of money using coupons, as this woman illustrated on Good Morning America, but I am not that woman. I've realized that paying attention to the weekly circular and basing my grocery list on that is far more conducive to the way I eat than is clipping every coupon that comes my way. However, there are a few items that I will not purchase without a coupon.

Cat food: The brand my cat eats (because it's the cheapest and his litter preferences are quite fancy) always has coupons. I don't think I've bought a bag without a coupon in the last three years or longer. I usually have two or more bags of food on standby, but who cares, it doesn't go bad and the cat doesn't care.

Hair Dye: Again, this is something you need pretty infrequently, but it can add up. $8-$10 a box is certainly a bargain compared to the salon, but I would still rather pay $5. Hair dye coupons are plentiful in Sunday papers, and if you're not too picky, you can get great deals. It's all the same anyway.

Shampoo & Conditioner: I'm not a fancy girl, I buy the stuff at Target because I grew up using salon quality and my hair looked the same. I've got a gnarly mop regardless, so I might as well have extra money to spend on other things. The brands I use are the brands that frequently have coupons available. Coincidence? Actually, yes, but a lovely coincidence. If I get a lead on a good coupon, I grab as many as I can, then note the expiration date and wait for that product to go on sale. Usually it will before the coupon expires, and I load up. This also means that I never find myself in the shower with no shampoo contemplating what will happen if I use bar soap. I always have backup.

Facewash: Sensing a theme here? Since most of the food items that give out coupons frequently are so processed that they better resemble sculptures of what perfect food looks like, I use coupons most frequently for beauty products. Many stores let you stack coupons as well i.e. use more than one coupon for a discount on the same item. If you find an item, have more than one coupon and the item is on sale--that's a glorious feeling.

So, where do you get all these glorious coupons? That's the easiest part of all, they're everywhere. The Sunday paper is the first place most people go for coupons, and it's a good place to start. Often, the coupons you really want are online, but there are a couple drawbacks to using those.
  1. I have not, as yet, been able to figure out a way to print from my home printer using only black and white ink. Often, you have to install a coupon printer on your computer, and it overrides your settings, and prints in color whether your want it to or not. Not much savings if you're blowing the extra money on ink cartridges.
  2. Printing coupons wastes a lot of paper. If you're printing a number of coupons from one site, it will put up to three on a page. If you're just printing a lone coupon from a manufacturer's site, usually they fill up the bottom of the page with advertising. Cruel and wasteful, this is.
Because of these drawbacks, I'm extra careful about which coupons I print, and I make a point to not grab more than I'll use.

My favorite sites for online coupons: and

Also many of the blogs in my sidebar post about coupons from manufacturers and other deals. There are also sites to buy coupons and trade coupons, but I'm not into all that.

If anyone has any feedback of other good sites, let me know.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tuna Wraps

This is not an exotic recipe by any stretch, but it's something I have for lunch most days of the week, and I haven't gotten tired of it yet. Plus, it's a good mix of protein, fiber and greens, it's cheap, and I came up with it all on my own!

  • Whole wheat or other "exotic" tortilla i.e. spinach, sun-dried tomato, etc. I've tried with regular flour tortillas, and it's fine, but less good
  • Can of solid albacore tuna
  • Hummus--any variety will do
  • Some kind of greens--usually I used pea greens, but salad mix, spinach, anything works
  • Salt, pepper, olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar

  1. Mist the tortilla slightly with water and warm in microwave for 20-30 seconds. Usually, the tortillas I buy end up going moldy before I can use them all, so I store them in the freezer. If you take one out, give it a quick rinse under the tap, and then microwave for 30 seconds, that both warms and steams it perfectly so it rolls exactly right
  2. Smear a generous portion if hummus in the center of the tortilla creating a thick line.
  3. Open can of tuna into a reuseable container and add salt, pepper and olive oil to taste. Mix, and add desired amount of tuna to tortilla right on top of the hummus.
  4. Add a handful of greens
  5. Add a dash of balsamic vinegar--I've used tzatziki sauce in the past as well, to be a bit more decadent
  6. Roll like a burrito and enjoy

Monday, July 26, 2010

What do you actually like?

I've found that like dieting, the hardest thing about making the shift to a more frugal lifestyle is the tendency to take it to an extreme that's impossible to maintain. If you vow one day, "I will stop eating out, I will stop buying things, I will live on rice and beans." You're doomed to fail. Sorry, but it's true.

If you approach frugality with a more reasonable attitude, you're much more likely to gain long-term success, and as you go along the frugal journey and become more adept at stockpiling, couponing, doing without, etc., you will save more money than when you started out.

The hardest thing, I find, is going through the day-to-day of mindful spending without really having a goal in mind. If your goal is to eradicate credit card debt and that's enough to keep you going, I commend you. Me, I need a little bit of a treat as well, and that's why I advocate a fun money fund as well as a regular savings account.

There are rules to the fun money fund:
  1. That money cannot be used for anything practical--ever. It is solely reserved for fun, and if I come up a little short on something else over the course of the month, I dip into my regular savings account rather than my fun money fund. Paying for car repair is not fun.
  2. My fun money fund is where I stash the money from my odd little jobs. Secret shopping, cat sitting, the 1% I get back when I shop at my regular grocery store--it all gets socked away in this fund, and sits there earning (very little, admittedly) interest. Every now and then, I pay myself a little extra toward the fund, but only after I've put money in regular savings, and made a student loan payment.
  3. This fund is kept at a different bank from my primary just so I'm less tempted to dip into it, and I cut up my ATM card. If I want money out of this account, I have to write a check, stand in line and cash it.
My fun money fund exists to subsidize my travel habit. You could put it toward a number of little things, if you like, but I think it's much more rewarding to save it up for a bigger purchase. If I pair my fun money fund with the travel rewards I get on my American Express--that's a pre-paid vacation.

So what do you like? What's your big guilty pleasure? It doesn't even have to be that guilty. I read plenty of frugality blogs where people are saving 100% down on a house, or planning to pay cash for a new car--and maybe that will be me someday when I grow up a bit, but not right now. If frugality is going to be a lifestyle and not just a phase, you need to understand yourself and your priorities.

Make a list of what is most important to you, and tailor your fun money fund based on that. If fine dining is something you look forward to most, save for it. If you're an avid rock climber, save for it. If you love photography and want a fancy camera, you'll probably be really thrilled when you can walk in, and buy it guilt-free. There's nothing fun about feeling guilty blowing your budget on something you really love.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Weekend Reading: Shift Your Habit

Shift Your Habit: Easy ways to save money, simplify your life and save the planet.
By Elizabeth Rogers. Three Rivers Press. March 9, 2010

This isn't so much a book as it is a guide to small tweaks that a person can make to cut daily expenses and waste. Therefore, my plan to sit down and read it in one sitting failed spectacularly (but talk of cleaning products prompted me to get up and scrub my sink). Rogers is an environmental consultant who wrote 2007's The Green Book: The everyday guide to saving the planet one simple step at a time. Rogers follows a few families who agree to shift habits that they have that are costing them a lot of money, and those families give a few testimonials along the way, but the bulk of this book is just lists of things to do to save money.

I have to say though, she's got some good ideas, and there's a pretty kick-ass website to go along with the book:

The book is broken down into sections: Home and Garden, Food and Drink, Kids, Pets, Work etc., so you can read what you want, discard what doesn't apply to you. I skimmed all the sections paying particular attention to Home, Food and Drink, Work and Travel and Transportation.

Best takeaways:

After opening a jar of tomato sauce, freeze it in an ice cube tray for future use.
I can never get through one of those giant jars before it goes moldy, but it seems like as soon as I throw one away, I want pasta again. I am very pleased with this idea.

Aluminum foil is not necessarily eco-friendly.
I assumed that because it can be recycled, aluminum foil is a better way to store things that may not fit in a container, or better than plastic bags for sandwiches. Not so. Production of aluminum foil involves mining, transport and water costs for something that is rarely necessary. I feel a bit foolish now that I've been trying to actually increase my aluminum foil useage. I'll cut that out.

List of recipes for household cleaners.
Vinegar as a fabric softener? I'm curious... Over the years, I've stumbled across recipes for making your own laundry detergent, window cleaner, drain clearer etc., but this book has a handy list for stuff I hadn't even thought of.

Tips for storing food.
Admittedly, I really don't know much about the best way to store a lot of foods. I've learned a few things by trial and error, but never really know if what I'm doing is right or not. This book breaks it all down from freezing to produce--how long your food can last, and when it's time to let go. Plus she includes a ideas for what to do with food that's right on the brink of going bad.

Overall Opinion:
A lot of this isn't new information, but it's good to have it repeated. The format is very easy in that you can find what you want to know quickly, and there isn't a lot of extra talk surrounding it. The index is very nice. I devour books and blogs even if I've heard it all before just because I may have forgotten something, or in the case of the pasta sauce, I just hadn't thought if it. It's good to just keep frugality in mind all the time. So, no, I wouldn't pay for this book, but I'm glad I got it from the library.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Socializing on the Cheap(er)

One of the most difficult things about making the shift to a frugal(er) lifestyle is the hit to your social life. If you are friends with a lot of people who like to go out every night for dinners/drinks/shows etc., and you make the conscious effort to trim down your entertaining costs, you may find yourself a bit lonely.

It sucks, but it's not hopeless. Just like everything with frugality, employ a little ingenuity, and you can figure out a way to have fun with your friends without breaking the bank.

Pot Lucks-- Pot lucks are awesome because they give you a chance to sample a bunch of different food without having to cook it all. Each guest brings one dish to share, and everyone has some. You can ask people to announce what they're bringing beforehand so you don't wind up with five salads and five desserts, but I usually just leave it up to the guests and it always works out. Hosting a pot luck is an excellent way to introduce different friend groups i.e. work friends and college friends, and also a pretty sweet way to score loads of leftovers.

  • a place big enough to hold the number of people invited
  • seating for about 3/4 of those people--not enough seating encourages mingling, which makes everything a lot more interesting.
  • Enough dishes and silverware for everyone. This part is always a bit tricky. It's not economical to buy a bunch of paper plates and plastic silverware, but it's also hard to gauge exactly what you need as some people may take a new plate for dessert, etc. I have a lot of dinner and dessert plates, and I put out all of my silverware. I have plastic silverware for backup only, and I made a point to buy the really sturdy stuff so I can wash and re-use it.
Groupon-- I love Groupon, I am a Groupon fan. What it is, if you haven't heard of it, is every day there is one local deal. You get an email outlining that deal, and if you like it and the price is right, you take the deal and agree to the price listed. If enough people take the deal, you get it! Your credit card is charged the amount listed in the deal, and you print off a groupon that functions as cash when you bring it to the business. Usually the daily deal is for more then 50% off goods or services, and often it's for restaurants. Get a Groupon for a restaurant you would go to anyway, and have a night out (cheaper) with your friends.

Local Deals-- Some areas have other local deals similar to Groupon. In my part of the country, there are discounted gift certificates that you can buy through one of the local radio stations, and one of the news stations. Often, you get a $50 gift certificate for a business for only $25. Sometimes if they don't sell as many was they want, they drop the price down to $12.50. Presently, I have $100 worth of gift certificates for a mid-priced restaurant within walking distance of my house, and I'm pretty pumped about it. Look around to see if you can find something similar for your area, or ask other frugal friends. I found out about the radio deal through a thrifty co-worker.

Happy Hours and BYOB-- Even if your friends aren't budgeting, they probably won't pass up a kick-ass happy hour deal. Just do the research in advance and make the suggestion to your friends and they probably won't even know that you're angling to save money. Often, you can get cheap appetizers and drinks, which winds up being a nice meal without all the leftovers.
Sadly, BYOB does not exist in all states, but where I live, there are plenty of restaurants that can't sell you alcohol, but don't mind if you bring some with you. Alcohol is where most restaurants actually turn a profit, so prices are exorbitant. Usually you can get a six-pack of beer off-sale for what a restaurant charges you for one glass or bottle. If this is an option where you live, find the places and ask your friends along.

Free activities-- Yes, some activities out there are super lame, but there are also some good ones too. Do a bit of scouting in your area and see what you can find.
  • Local libraries often do evening programs where you can learn something or just be entertained. Often, local authors will do readings or sign books, and it's a free way to feel smart.
  • Free movies or discounted movies. In my area, there is a weekly free movie screened on the side of a building downtown. You just bring a blanket or chair sit back, and enjoy. Many libraries show free movies as well, and a lot of movie theatres have late-night cheap screenings or a bargain night where regular run movies are cheaper.
  • Discounted or free museums. Our local libraries have museum passes that patrons can borrow. These passes give you free of discounted admission for a number of regional museums and parks. Sometimes the passes are all checked out for peak holiday weekends, but with a little advance planning, you can snag one.
  • Free events around town. If you live in a decent-sized city, there is no excuse for not finding free things to do. Live music, independent theatre, gallery openings--there's plenty of stuff out there, you just have to find it.
  • Local tourism. Often we live somewhere for so long that we stop appreciating it. Try to re-visit your town with the eyes of a tourist. Take an organized tour, if your area has one, and you may learn a bit more about the place you call home. If you go to your local National Parks office, they often have walking tour brochures, take one, and learn while getting some exercise.
One of the hardest things is just being honest with your friends about your budget. Yeah, it may be embarrassing, or you may feel like a buzzkill for bringing it up, but if they're your real friends, they'll understand. After all, socializing should be more about spending time with people who's company you enjoy than it is about spending money.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Never buy Mustard in Winter

You're looking at that title thinking, where is she going with this? but I do have a point and it all goes back to mindful shopping.

If you use mustard regularly or semi-regularly, then you probably buy more one to two times per year. Occasionally, you can find coupons for mustard in the Sunday circular, but they're not too frequent. While coupons are all well and good, step back for a second and think about when people use the most mustard. Answer: grilling season.

If you wait until Memorial Day, 4th of July or Labor Day weekends to stock up on your mustard for the year, you will save probably 60-70% per bottle versus buying in in December with a coupon. If you have a coupon while it's on sale, double bonus because what's better than free mustard?

The point of this little anecdote is not really telling you how to save money on mustard, which is a cheap condiment that certainly doesn't compromise your grocery budget, it's more of an exercise in smart stockpiling and mindful shopping.

Financial advisers who go on Oprah like to say things like, "If you just cut out one latte a week, you'll save $250 a year!" This is completely true, but shouldn't count for just indulgences like that. The point of frugality and budgeting is to start saving small amounts daily, and redirecting that money toward something that matters. Saving $2-3 on mustard may seem like a silly waste of time, but money saved is money saved, and it takes very little time or effort. It's just about a shift in perception.

Start paying attention to when things go on sale. Read your grocery stores weekly circular, and you will start to realize that it's all cyclical. Once you start to notice a pattern, you can start to make plans, and rejuvenate your stockpile accordingly. All this takes time, to be sure, but frugality isn't a diet, it's a lifestyle. You're setting yourself up for the future.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Free Technology

Everyone knows that you can't get very far these days without using a computer. Instead of breaking the bank buying proprietary software, with a little work and willingness to learn, you can find free, compatible versions of many programs. My motto (one of them anyway) is why pay for something you can get (legally) for free. Sure, these versions may not be what you're used to and there may be a bit of a learning curve, but some are actually better than what you would pay for, and they save you money.

Open Office: Open Office allows you to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations, database and drawings. It's basically Microsoft Word without the hefty pricetag. Open Office documents are compatible with other programs, so if you need to save something and open it on a different machine to print it, you can do that. It's far more user-friendly than MS Office 2007, which I hate completely. As an aside, at the library where I work, we have MS Office 2007 on the public computers, and I spend a significant chunk of my day-to-day helping people figure out how to do the most basic things like print or single space. Open Office actually just works the way it should.

Google Docs: Google Docs is a very stripped-down version of MS Word or Open Office. Google Docs are handy because you can create documents and share them with people via email. You can give people permission to view the documents, or edit them as well. This came in tremendously handy when I was doing group projects in grad school--everyone would write their own content right into the document and it saved us emailing back and forth and retyping things. I've mentioned google docs before, because that's how I opted to do my budget. Google docs are stored online, so your harddrive doesn't get cluttered up, and you can access them from anywhere you can check email.

Picasa: Picasa is free online photo storage and manipulation software from google. I'm just getting into using Picasa, but it's incredibly handy, and I have friends who have done some pretty impressive things with the photo manipulation tools. Frugal Girl is a Picasa wiz, and has started sharing her secrets. Even if you don't want to do anything with photos beyond storage, Picasa allows you to free up harddrive space by storing things online; and you can share albums with family and friends by invitation.

GIMP: GIMP stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program, and I always call GIMP the poor man's photoshop. Honestly, I've never used photoshop, and I doubt I ever will since my needs aren't that exotic. What GIMP does is allow you to crop and manipulate photos; you can insert graphics, paint, splice backgrounds, insert text and a lot more other stuff. I've managed to impress a lot of people with my "design" skills just based on what I've figured out about GIMP. There's a very thorough online help manual, and the commands are quite logical.

Cam Studio: Cam Studio is a groovy little program that seems like it meets a need you don't have. In actuality, what will probably end up happening, is that you'll say someday "I wish I could just show people how I do this thing online..." That's what Cam Studio does. It records your movements on your own computer, and stores them as a movie you can then share with other people. Also, if you have a program or a shortcut that you've figured out, you can record yourself using it so you don't forget. It's pretty handy.

Audacity: Audacity is a sound manipulation program that I haven't actually used too much, but a former boss raved about. Audacity allows you to upload sound recordings and manipulate them. If you do podcasting, you can record in into Audacity and edit out any stammers or long pauses, you can add in background music, you can plug your keyboard directly into your computer and become the next Corey Hart. Plus it's fun to play with.

Celtx: Celtx is a very specific program that perhaps a lot of people won't have a need for, but I have to mention it because as a sometime screenwriter/screenwriting instructor, I just love it. If you've ever done any screenwriting, you've learned pretty quickly that aside from coming up with a brilliant new idea, the hardest part is the formatting. Of course, the formatting also has to be completely perfect or a fantastic screenplay can get thrown out without a second glance, and the writer can spend hours fine-tuning spacing line breaks etc. There are programs that can do that for you, like Final Draft, retailing at $249, or you can download Celtx, for free. Admittedly, I've never used Final Draft, but I've also never needed to because Celtx does everything I need.

This is just a glance at what all is out there as far as free technology. I'm sure there's lots more, and I'd love to learn about it. If you've found something for free that you can't live without, mention it in the comments or send me an email:

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Spicy Black Bean Cakes with Lime Sour Cream

These make an excellent, flavorful side dish, or you can slap it on a bun and call it a veggie burger. The sky's the limit!

  • 1 TB olive oil
  • 4 scallions, chopped finely
  • 6 garlic cloves, pressed
  • 1 to 2 jalapeno chiles chopped (remove seeds and ribs to tone down spiciness)
  • 1 TB cumin
  • 2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and coarsely grated
  • 1 large egg, slightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs

  1. Heat broiler
  2. warm 1 TB olive oil in small skillet and cook scallions until soft (1 min)
  3. add garlic, chiles and cumin and cook until fragrant (30 sec)
  4. transfer to large bowl
  5. add beans to bowl and mash with fork or potato masher until only 1/4 beans remain whole, or chop beans with food processor.
  6. season generously with S&P
  7. fold in potato, egg and crumbs
  8. divide into 8 balls of equal size and flatten into patties
  9. brush baking sheet with 1 TB oil and place patties on sheet
  10. broil until golden brown (9-10 min)
  11. flip and broil until crisp (2-4 min)
  12. serve with lime sour cream and avocado

Lime Sour Cream

  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 tsp lime juice
  • 1 small jalapeno chile, minced
  • salt
  1. Combine ingredients in small bowl

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Credit Cards

A lot of people say that in order to save money and get out of debt, you need to cut up your credit cards and use only cash. While that advice is very sound for getting out of debt, I'm a firm believer in incorporating credit cards into your thrifty lifestyle as long as you're smart about it.
There are three big ways to be smart about credit cards:

1. Never carry a balance. Never, never, never. If you cannot pay off your card each month, you are spending too much and need to take a step back a re-evaluate what you're buying. Paying interest on a credit card is just giving someone money for nothing, and that is the least fun thing ever. Pay off cards, in full, every month or don't have them.

2. Make multiple payments per month. This would have been laughable ten years ago, but with online bill pay, there's really no excuse to not. I make a credit card payment every time I collect a paycheck--weekly. I look at my pay, I check my balances and I look at other bills I may have. Even if I don't have a balance on a credit card, I may make a payment just to get a little ahead. My cell phone and netflix automatically charge to my American Express once a month, so I know that money isn't going to be sitting there long. Doing this also gives a shot in the arm to a flagging credit score. It's the fastest way to boost a flagging score, and is quite simple to pull off.

3. Take advantage of rewards. If you have a good or even just moderate credit score, there is no reason to settle for a high interest no benefit credit card. Shop around for cards that give you the kind of rewards you'd like to see i.e. travel points, gift cards at certain stores or cash back. Be mindful of annual fees, as a lot of cards that reward with airline miles do have annual fees. Just like interest, there is no reason to pay an annual fee for a credit card, unless you rack up so many air miles that it actually pays off. Do the math for yourself and see what works best for you.

In order to maintain a good credit score, you need to have and use credit. Having a good credit score will come in handy when requesting a home loan, car loan or any other major type of credit. It influences the interest rate you get on major loans, and can save significant sums of money in the future. I recommend two major banks cards and one store card. No one should have more than three credit cards because that does not look good to the credit reporting agencies. The way they tabulate your credit score is by looking at income and total amount of credit available. If you have ten cards and make $25,000 a year, it reflects poorly on you even if those cards are in good standing.

However, it also reflects poorly if you rush to close five credit cards in one day. If you have a large number of cards, close one every six months or so. If you just need to get rid of one or two, wait up to nine months to close the account. You should stop using the card, but closing too many account in rapid succession is another red flag.

Presently I have one American Express card which nets me travel points for every dollar that I spend. Once I reach a certain level of points, I can cash them in for a $100 credit on a travel purchase like flight, hotel, rental car etc., or I can take $50 cash. This is my primary card that I use for nearly every purchase I make. I also check my balances at least every other day to make sure there aren't any unauthorized purchases, and to track my spending independent of my budget.

I also have one Visa card because not everywhere takes American Express, and it's good to have two cards from major banks. It's also nice to have a backup should something happen to my American Express card. I opted for the visa, which issues points similar to the American Express except you can redeem these points for giftcards. They also recently added a whole host of other point redemption options including cash back. I rarely use this card, except for Amazon purchases, but it's nice to have a backup.

I have one store card as well in my cache--an Old Navy card. I chose this one because I do most of my shopping at Old Navy, plus this card also works at Banana Republic and The Gap. For every $200 I spend, I get a $10 gift certificate, plus they send me birthday presents and coupons in the mail all the time. I never go shopping there without at least a 20% off coupon, or knowledge that the store is running a sale, so it actually takes a while to reach the $200 limit to get a certificate, but I don't mind at all.

The interest rate on the store card, as with all store cards, is exorbitant. I've called and asked them to reduce it at least twice, and they will not budge. This is one major reason that if you have a problem with overspending using credit cards, you should not get a store card under any circumstances. The interest rate is typically 20% or more, which is just ridiculous. You could skip the coupons and deals from that particular store, use your Visa or other card, and reap rewards from it instead.

Before I settled on these three cards, which I've had for years now, I did a lot of shopping around. Look at card websites to see what kind of perks they offer; talk to friends about which cards they're using and pick the best deal for your needs. also has a list of the top four cash-back credit cards.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gimmicks and Schemes

One thing I learned reading Confessions of a Shopaholic, is that the ways to get out of debt or save are SL and MMM i.e. Spend Less and Make More Money--always easier said than done. To that end, I have tried all manner of schemes and gimmicks to bring in little bits more money here and there. All of this money goes directly into my travel fund, where it earns interest until my next adventure or comes in the form of giftcards. Even though the pay for these schemes isn't great, they usually don't take much time and tend to add up.

Online surveys: My favorite two online survey places are Lightspeed and Pinecone. I've also heard good things about Opinion Outpost, and MySurvey. As with all things, there are pros and cons.

Pros: Survey opportunities are frequent, and some are worth a lot of points, points can be redeemed for gift certificates for a number of places including Amazon, and also cash via Paypal.

Cons: Though there are a lot of surveys to try, you frequently get kicked out of them and get nothing for your effort. This is all down to demographics, it's not personal, but I've spent up to five minutes answering questions only to get dropped like a hot potato. You get points instead of cash and it may take a while to accrue enough points to get anything back.

Pine Cone:
Pros: You get $3 for each survey completed, and you never get kicked out of one. Once I even got a free sample of fitness water to try, and another survey about that, which paid another three dollars. The pay is prompt, usually within hours of completing the survey.

Cons: Surveys are pretty infrequent, so this is no way to get rich. I'd estimate that I get a survey in my inbox every other week, but money is money, so who cares.

Secret Shopping: I don't do a ton of secret shopping, but every now and then it's a decent way to make a little bit of cash. I've signed up with ath Power Consulting and Bare International. Both require you to take and pass a test before you start working for them, but once that's done, you have access to the job boards, and can get emails of shops in your area. Shops typically pay between $5-$20 dollars depending on how involved they are, but every now and then you find one that pays really well.

Pros: Easy money, often for something you were going to do anyway like go to the bank or go to the mall. I made $12 once just by going into Sephora, looking around and requesting a sample which I then got to use.

Cons: A lot of the shops are a lot of work and not much pay. I recently shopped Urban Outfitter and had to go to the store twice, once for the purchase, once for the return, and on the initial visit inspect three areas of the store and try something on. Maybe it's just because I don't like that store, but it was way too much work for $16.

Text message answering: I've only worked for kgb, but there's also ChaCha. Both are pretty much the same service except kgb charges the user $.99 per answer. People text in questions to the service, and you, the operator, answer those questions through an online platform. They're both open 24 hours a day so you can work around your class/work schedule.

Pros: Flexibility and you can work in your jammies. You also get some hilarious (often unintentionally) questions,so it can be pretty entertaining.

Cons: You only make $.10 for each answer you send out, and it can take a while to find good answers to some questions. Some answers you can bang out in a few seconds depending upon typing speed, but others, like sports statistics when you know nothing about sports...yeah.

Medical Studies: I was always quite skeptical of this route, but then I actually did one last summer, and it wasn't bad at all.

Pros: They pay well, the longer the study goes on, the more you make.

Cons: This can take a lot of time and be a bit embarrassing. I had a friend, when I was in college, who basically did this professionally--he had no other job. Because of that, he'd often get locked in at the research place every weekend from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. If you already work a 9-5, this is not a soothing way to spend the weekend.

Pet Sitting: I love cats, and don't mind dogs, so all of my pet-having friends know that they can call on me when they go out of town to administer love and foodstuffs to their little buddies. Some also give me money, those that don't, often get called on to watch my cat at some point. It's a win-win.

Freelancing within your field: I'm a librarian, but I'm also a writer, so there are lots of little things I can (potentially) do to exploit my skills. To date, I've hired myself out as a research assistant to a person who couldn't travel to do her own research, I've done programs at other libraries for a fee, I've done freelance editing and I've worked for online content generators as well as actual publications. Finding writing work that actually pays is a bit tricky, sadly, but it is out there. Whatever it is that you do, keep your ears open, you might stumble across something.

Stockpiling vs. Hoarding

Most frugal bloggers rave about the notion of stockpiling i.e buying necessities that don't go bad (or last a long time) when they're on sale and just keeping a collection for future use.  This makes tons of sense, if you have a place to store stuff that you know you will use, why not save money on it?  Sure it costs a bit more up front, but overall it's very worth it.

Passion for Savings is doing a series on how to stockpile so I won't cover that.  I will serve as a cautionary tale, however, because there is a fine line between stockpiling and hoarding, and I've crossed it.  I'm currently in the phase where I'm dealing with it and trying to whittle down my stockpiles, but it's a long a winding road.

A year and a half ago, I was a graduate student in library science watching the economy tank and my job prospects along with it.  Needless to say, I panicked a bit.  I started buying up nonperishable food items every time they were on sale, and because I had so much cupboard space, I didn't really realize just how much food I had until it was too late.

This was the state of my cupboards when someone finally intervened.  Now, a year and a half later, this is what my cupboard looks like:
Much more reasonable, but still a work in progress (canned goods not pictured).

Stockpiling is a wonderful way to save money, but you have to think while doing it too. I was hoarding food out of panic, and convinced myself in the moment that I wouldn't mind eating Pasta-Roni every day for the rest of my life.  Clearly that is not the case, as evidenced by all the Pasta-Roni I have left.  Also, Pasta-Roni goes on sale all the time, so all I've done is doomed myself to eat expired product that I don't really want instead of going out and buying something I do want.

Now when I stockpile, I do it with items that I know I will use, but I still don't let myself go overboard.

Some of my biggest stockpile items:

Bread--I eat sandwiches several days out of the week because they're cheap, delicious, filling and I can bring them to work.  Bread is rather expensive regularly, and I'm picky about what I like.  So when my bread goes on sale, I usually buy three or four loaves, and put most of them in the freezer.  This doesn't last me until the next time bread goes on sale, but then I just buy one loaf at a time until I can stock up again.

Tuna--For my sandwiches, naturally.  I also add tuna to a lot of dishes because it's a quick easy protein.  I don't eat meat other than fish, so I'm always trying to find as much protein as I can.  Tuna at my grocery store is regularly priced between $1.50-$1.75 a can, but it frequently goes on sale for 10/$10.  Those tiny cans take up very little space, and I use them.  I will not allow myself to have more then 25 in the house at one time, however.

Peanut butter--Peanut butter is expensive, if you can get it cheaper, do it.

Condiments--When mayonaise, mustard or ketchup go on sale, I buy them.  Since this is something that lasts a long time, I only allow myself one or two backups of each.  Then, by the time I've used that up, it's on sale again.

Tea--I drink at least one cup of tea a day, usually more, so it's a no-brainer to buy it in bulk if I have the option.  I keep one box out, and then just stash the rest wherever.

Basically, smart stockpiling means that you need to inventory what you currently use, and will continue to use.  Unless you're planning to go off the grid and need a year's worth of stuff, do not do what I did.  Think about recipes you often make, and try to stockpile ingredients.  If you don't think you have enough room to store things, make room.  Who cares if you keep a few jars of unopened peanut butter in your clothes closet?  If you save $5, it's worth it.

Cheddar Broccoli Soup

This is possibly the easiest thing I've ever made--simple, simple, simple, and made easier by the fact that I got myself a new immersion stick blender! Purchased with my Amazon Rewards Visa... rewards. Wow, life changing. It seems silly to be posting a soup recipe in July, but I don't care, it just tastes good.

I've tried to use the hand mixer in lieu of the blender, and that was a splattery disaster, plus a cleanup hassle. This time around, I made a bit of a mess, but not bad at all. Plus my hand mixer is silver--it's so sexy.

  • 1 14-ounce can vegetable broth, or 1 cube bullion + water
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 pound broccoli crowns, trimmed and chopped (about 6 cups) --I used 1 bag frozen, rinsed to get the freezer burn off
  • 1 14-ounce can cannelloni beans, rinsed--Canned beans are super high in sodium, but I tried dried beans, and even after two days of soaking they were still a bit crunchy. I need to get better at working with beans, clearly.
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt --I did not add salt because the canned beans are salty already, as is the bullion--tasted great
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper or black pepper
  • 1 cup shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
  1. Bring broth and water to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add broccoli, cover and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in beans, salt and pepper and cook until the beans are heated through, about 1 minute.
  2. Transfer half the mixture to a blender and puree, or use kick-ass hand blender.
  3. Transfer to a bowl and blend the other half of the mixture.
  4. Stir in cheese.
Yes, this looks like throw-up, but it is delicious and fantastically fast and easy. I will be making it again soon.

Vegetable Fried Rice

This is one of my favorite cheap and filling meals.  However, I told my best friend about it a while back (she's a bit of a foodie), and she said "sounds awfully bland."  I don't find it bland at all, and it makes the perfect side dish.  I usually bring it to work since it travels well, and just needs a quick zap in the microwave.

It's good, she's a jerk.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil-- 6tbsp
1 can corn, drained
1 can black beans rinsed and drained
1 can diced tomatoes
4 cups cooked brown rice--follow directions on bag
spices to taste--I use oregano, basil, salt & pepper

1. Heat the olive oil on medium.  Add herbs and stir to coat with the oil. Stir in the corn and cook 3-5 minutes
2. add the black beans and cook 3-5 minutes longer
3. add the tomatoes, stir to combine and heat 3-5 minutes
4. add the cooked rice, stir to combine, and heat through

Total cost for the recipe: $4.25
Cost per serving: $1.06

Honestly, this is way more than four servings for me.  Usually, I divvy up the finished product between two one-quart square containers, and freeze one.  That way, I don't get sick of it, and nothing goes bad.  To defrost, just move from freezer to fridge and wait a day.  Microwave as usual and enjoy.

Budgeting 101--Tracking expenses and staying organized

This is post #2 in Budgeting 101, here is the first post in the series.

Obviously it's a bit challenging to remember every single place you spend money in a given day and enter it into a budget. There are several ways to get around this.

1. Update your budget every day at the end of the day. I sit down with my budget every night before I go to bed and enter what I bought in the appropriate columns. If I haven't spent any money that day, I give myself a star (an asterisk*). This way, it's a habit to update the budget, and also a nice way to reflect on your day (I know that's a bit of a stretch, but I truly believe it). It takes practically no time, and if you go the google spreadsheet route and check your email before going to bed, it's right there! No excuses.

2. If you have a hard time remembering where you spent money, start collecting receipts. Then you have a record right there in front of you. Enter in the amounts, then recycle the receipts.

3. Personally, I hate receipts. I follow that rule for purchases at places like Target where I've spent money in more than one category i.e. food and misc. Then their receipts are very handy because they break down the categories for you, and you just plug in the numbers.

4. My favorite way to track expenses is to just charge everything on one credit card, which I then pay off at the end of each month. That's right, I advocate using credit cards. Controversial for sure, but I also maintain that if you use them responsibly, and track your spending as you do it, there is no reason to ever pay interest. Plus you might get some cool perks as well. With the credit card, you have the place and amount spent, and you can just look at it on your online account. It takes a couple days to post, but it's certainly easier to wait a bit than it is to try to remember every amount you spent for a week.

You should have set your columns to autototal by highlighting the column, and selecting the Sum option from the top of the page. This automatically gives you the spreadsheet formula, so you don't really have to know anything, and then it adds everything together as you go.

This helps keep your spending on track over the course of the month. If your monthly budget for food is $200, and you've already spent $150 by the 10th, then you know you need to reconsider eating out. It's a nice check and balance.

Budgeting 101--Getting Started

Calculator with documents
Budget--that's an ugly word isn't it? It doesn't have to be though, and over the years I've come to love my budget and would feel lost without it. I like being able to look back on a given month and know exactly where my money went. I haven't experimented with many of the software budgeting programs you can buy, mostly because I'm too cheap, but I've heard good things about You need a Budget, and Quicken. Maybe these programs do save enough time to be worth the price tag, but in my mind, it seems counterintuitive to pay for something that is supposed to save you money.

So what I've done to get around that, is create a free and highly low-tech google spreadsheet. I used google because I'm too cheap to pay for exel on my home computer, and because I can update it anywhere I can sign into my email. This means fewer mistakes and fewer missed entries.

To set up the spreadsheet, just open a google spread sheet, and insert columns for the major areas you spend money. For me, my columns are Food, Alcohol, Misc, Clothes, Gas, Bills. It makes it look like I have a bit of a drinking problem that I have a whole column devoted to alcohol, but it is a regular expense, and one that I can trim heavily if I've gone over in another area. Food includes groceries and eating out, some people put meals they eat out under an entertainment heading, it's all about what works for you. Personally, I built entertainment right into my budget this way because if I allotted myself $50 a month for entertainment, I would feel I have to spend it each time. This way, it looks more like a bonus. I'm not too proud to trick myself.

At the end, I have columns that total my income for the month, as well as my total output. The goal is, obviously, to have the income column be significantly larger than the total output. Further down, not totaled in the total output are savings and student loan payments. These aren't totaled because in my mind they're bonus money. I don't make enough to factor regular student loan payments into my monthly budget, but it does make me feel warm and fuzzy to kick them a bit of money when I can spare it. Same goes with savings, unfortunately.

Once the spreadsheet is set up, it should look something like this:

Each column is labled, and has a box for description of where the money was spent. For example, the food column will have groceries in the first column, and the amount in the second or the name of a restaurant in the first column and the amount spent in the second. This is so you can insert a formula to make the numbers total automatically at the bottom of the screen. That was you can see where you are, budgetwise, at any time of the month.

At the end of each month, I check the total spent against my monthly goal. I try to keep monthly goals pretty static, but if I know that I'm taking a vacation and will be spending more on food and booze than usual, I build that into the budget. If I'm over budget for the month in a certain area, I try to cut back the following month. Some may consider this cheating, but I don't change my amounts enough for it to be that big a deal. Basically, budgeting is keeping yourself accountable, so just like I wouldn't go on a diet, and then eat nothing but ice cream, I'm not going to allot myself $500 a month for food, and then wonder why I'm so broke all the time.

In order to get started, you need to track your spending to see where your money is currently going. You should make a separate spreadsheet like the one above, but without prescribed monthly goals. Then track, honestly, where your money goes over the course of three months. This should give you a fairly good average of how much you spend, and potentially how much you can cut (if that's your goal).

For example, based on my monthly income of $1200, I allot $200 for food, $50 for alcohol, $400 for misc $50 for clothes and $700 for bills and household expenses. Looking at those numbers, I'm already over budget, but I also know that the misc column is where I can cut if I need to. Misc is where things like cleaning supplies, beauty supplies, car insurance, and activities get filed, and I really don't spend $400 on that stuff every month. I leave it at $400 because months where I have a large expense like car insurance, that column goes into the red, and underspending the rest of the time helps me get back to even. Also, knowing that I'm already over budget motivates me to find ways to make extra money (more about that later).

This may be a strange way to do things, but again, find what works for you.