Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Polite Persistence Pays

I've written before about the value in asking for discounts whenever you shop, whether it is a retail situation, for travel or entertainment, or even for medical services. The key is to be persistent and polite.

I was reminded by the value of persistence yesterday, when I made a purchase at Target.com. I had clicked over from the college-saving site Upromise, com, where Target was promoting free shipping for members who made purchases of at least $50. Since I met that criteria, and the site calculated the shipping fee at a whopping $27 (for a few frames and household items), I was anxious to get the discount. Unfortunately, Target.com didn't automatically apply the discount to my order, so I called their 800# (listed on the site). Their customer service reps knew nothing about the Upromise.com relationship and were basically useless and rude. But I persisted, both writing a quick email and calling the corporate headquarters. The result? I received my savings along with apologies for the original mistake. So don't give up -- get the discounts you deserve!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Frugalista Fashion Finds

There are some companies that consistently deliver fashionable looks for a fraction of what you'd expect to pay elsewhere. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Newport News get high marks and frequent mentions in magazines like Lucky and Oprah for interpreting the season's top trends at low prices. Sign up to receive their email newsletter and you'll save an additional 15% off. And be sure to check out their online clearance section for great deals at up to 65% off and lots of items you'll love for less than $10.
  • Spiegel features a variety of luxury fabric collections, like sequined cashmere, silk velvet, and pinstripe suiting, in rich textures and dramatic colors. Right now, their online outlet has items for up to 90% off.
  • Chadwicks is a good source for low-cost, high-style fashions. And now, with a clearance sale of up to 80% off and a Thanksgiving special of an additional $50 off a $150 purchase; $30 off a $80 purchase; or $25 off a $75 purchase, the savings are better than ever.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Saving Money at the Grocery Store

Since everyone has to shop for food one way or another, saving money at the grocery store is an easy way that everyone can cut expenses. Here are some ideas:
  • Get the frequent buyer card at all grocery stores you frequent regularly. Most of these cards will allow you to get weekly discounts automatically (no need to clip coupons from the weekly flyer!). As a bonus, you may also find that you'll get extra savings by registering your card at sites like Upromise.com.
  • Use your credit card to pay for your food shopping and receive extra frequent flyer rewards (the assumes you are enrolled in a reward program and that you pay off your balance every month).
  • Check out online coupon sites for discounts on brands you intend to buy before you leave for the store.
  • Make a shopping list based on your meal plan and stick to it.
  • Don't be tempted to buy loads of perishables just because they are on sale - lettuce that wilts at the back of your fridge is not really a bargain. But if pantry staples are on sale, you should load up.
  • Shop seasonally - buy strawberries in June, apples in October and so forth. Not only does seasonal shopping save you money, but it is tastier, too.
  • Know when things go on sale: for example, turkeys and baking items are cheapest during the holidays when they are often priced as loss-leaders, and use your freezer to help you take advantage of these sales.
  • Buy food that is in its most natural - and most inexpensive - state. Prepared and packaged foods are always pricier. So opt for a whole chicken instead of chicken parts; for plain rice instead of seasoned rice (it's easy to add your own herbs and spices) and so forth.  Here are some easy ways to save on convenience products:
    • Make your own croutons by cubing stale bread, coating the cubes with olive oil, sprinkling on some salt, pepper and herbs of your choice, and toasting them in a 350 oven until they are golden brown.  You can store the bread in the freezer until you are ready to make the croutons.
    • You can also use stale bread (or the heels of each loaf) to make bread crumbs.  Just put slices of any type of bread in the oven at 300 degrees F for about 15 minutes. Then grind them in a food processor or with a rolling pin. For seasoned bread crumbs, add dry herbs like oregano or thyme (a little garlic powder tastes great, too). To make flaky panko-like crumbs, mince fresh bread by pulsing it in a food processor, then dry the crumbs at 250 degrees F.

    • Instead of buying jarred spagetti sauce (which is full of sugar and salt), saute a bit of chopped onion, a minced garlic clove or two, and 1/4 cup olive oil in a medium saucepan until soft. Add a 28-ounce can diced or chopped tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon dry oregano and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with ground black pepper.
    • And who needs Bisquick or Aunt Jemima pancake mix when you can quickly make pancakes and waffles from scratch?  All you need is 1 3/4 cups flour, 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Mix the dry ingredients in one bowl.  Then, in another bowl, whisk 2 eggs and 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into 1 1/2 cups milk. Add liquid to dry mixture and whisk. Don't overmix; batter should be lumpy. Makes 10 to 12 pancakes.
  • But at the same time it is good to buy food in its most natural state, don't overlook frozen fruits and vegetables - they are often less expensive than the same item in the produce aisle when it is out-of-season (for example, you can save by buying frozen blueberries instead of fresh in January and they will taste just as great in muffins and pancakes) - and just as packed with nutrients.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Getting "the Look" for Less

For all you fashionistas out there, here is a handy web page that compares designer duds to less expensive knock-offs: Cosmopolitan's round-up of "splurge vs steal" articles. You'll see photos of both the pricey original and the cheaper copy with complete pricing info and links of where to buy both.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to ... Make a Starbucks Caffè Mocha at Home

I've blogged before about how giving up little, but relatively pricey habits (like a daily barrista drink from Starbucks) can save lots of money in the long run. So we were delighted when we found this inexpensive alternative to our favorite $4 drink at Marie Claire magazine:

1. In a small bowl, combine equal parts warm water and sweetened cocoa powder.

2. Stir until it forms a smooth syrup.

3. Pour 2 Tbsp. of the syrup into an 8 oz. cup.

4. Add a shot (1 oz.) of espresso or double-strength, dark-roasted coffee. (To brew double-strength coffee, use 4 Tbsp. of ground coffee for every 6 oz. of water.)

5. Fill the rest of your cup with steamed milk. (If you don't have a milk steamer, heat milk on the stove to between 140 and 160 degrees.)

6. Top with whipped cream and enjoy!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

$20 Gifts That Look Like They Cost More

You don't need to wait until Christmas to take advantage of these low budget (but not at all cheap looking) gift ideas - I like the idea of the Chalk Note Glassware, the Cocktail Maker Set, or the Champagne Flutes as a Thanksgiving hostess gift.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Making the World a Better Place... One Penny at a Time

Experts estimate that there are over $2 billion of unused pennies in homes across America. Each autumn Penny Harvest has worked with American school children to put those pennies to good use. The students and their families collect pennies for charity and the results are truly amazing. For example, during last year’s Penny Harvest, students across New York City raised about $750,000 – in pennies!

This collection is just the beginning. When a school fills 25 canvas sacks with 30 pounds of pennies each, it is awarded a grant of $1,000 and forms a Philanthropy Roundtable. A roundtable is where student leaders meet to research community needs and decide how to allocate their grant money to charitable organizations or community service projects. Not a single penny collected by students is used for overhead, operations or any other purpose.

One of the great things about this program is that it empowers kids by letting them experience how even a group of small kids working together can do big things - the same way a lot of practically useless pennies can add up to $750,000!

One of the consistent messages of this blog is to offer money-saving tips that are easy to implement. Many of them require lots of little, every day actions that pay off big over time, much the same way that the pennies - worth almost nothing alone - provide a big pay-off when combined together.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Great American Apparel Diet

I'm intrigued by the idea of The Great American Apparel Diet. The premise? A group of women have vowed to buy no new articles of clothing for a full year. Some of them appear to be real fashionistas, others express ambivalence about staying in tune with fashion trends; but all of them recognize that while this experiment will surely save them money, it has value far beyond that.

Like many of the women participating the the Apparel Diet, I have full closets and drawers (and yet, amazingly, often "nothing to wear"). Sometimes, my shopping is a source of entertainment ("I wonder what's new?"). But more than anything else, it is the result of my constant search for the perfect outfit that will hide all my figure flaws and make me feel truly beautiful.

Even before reading about the Apparel Diet, I toyed with versions of it on my own. I've gone months without new clothing purchases (e.g. nothing in June or July, took advantage of sales in August, nothing in September, treated myself big for by birthday in October, going cold-turkey now in November). For a while, I wouldn't allow myself to buy anything new unless it was replacing something I was getting rid of. Some times I include shoes and accessories in my new clothing ban; other times I don't.

I'm lucky that most of my clothing purchases are discretionary. I did really need a new winter coat last year. And because I'm a runner, it is essential that I replace my running shoes regularly. But other than that, I can mostly do without new things. So while I probably won't be joining the Apparel Diet, I applaud the women who are participating in this experience and I wish them luck.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Halloween Candy Alternatives

For several years now, I have been offering the trick-or-treaters who come to my door an alternative to loading up on even more sugary candy. No, I don't mean that I am one of those dreaded homes that offers apples, raisin boxes (or worse!). I have plenty of Reese's, M&Ms, Snickers and the rest to give out. But along with candy, I fill my Halloween basket with leftovers from the goody-bags from my kids' birthday parties: things like pencils, fun key chains, mini-games and card decks, stickers, temporary tattoos and magnets. I encourage everyone who comes to my door to pick what they want from the basket. Inevitably, the non-candy doo-dads are chosen first. Even those tough-to-please pre-teens ooh and aah over the unexpected booty.

I like the money that I save by buying less candy. And I like using up the odds and ends that never made it into party bags (you know how it goes - goody bag trinkets always seem to be sold in lots of 8 or 12 and we always seem to have just enough guests that I have to order the extra pack). So everyone wins!