Friday, December 31, 2010

Great Budget Bubblies for New Year's Eve

Freixenet from Spain has long been one of my favorite bubblies.  I drank it in college and have served it at parties ever since.  It is in expensive but delicious.  Looking for a great sparkling wine with which to ring in the New Year?  This is a perennial at the top of my list.

Korbel from California is another favorite.  Both my sister and I served it at our weddings -- and never regretted doing so.

Want more budget bubbly suggestions?  Click here for five more.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

7-Figure Secrets of Real Women

I found the title of a recent Redbook magazine article, The Seven-Figure Secrets of Real Women, a bit misleading, but the last page of the piece had useful web site links for those who are resolving to put their financial house in order for the New Year.  So whether you want to plan a realistic budget, save for the future, or get out of debt, this article recommends helpful web sites to put you on the right track.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Frugal Family Fun

We love The Nutcracker as much as anyone else, were excited when Elf hit Broadway, and have seen Radio City's Christmas Show Spectacular more times than we care to admit.  But taking the family to one of these special events is extremely pricey.  And let's face it: the kids don't always enjoy it enough to justify the high cost.

So here's another, lower-cost alternative: create an annual of watching your favorite holiday movie together. Make it a special event with popcorn and hot cocoa -- and enjoy the fact that if someone gets cranky or someone else nods off to sleep in the middle, you haven't spent a fortune on your entertainment.

Not sure what would work?  Try one of the films recommended by Redbook magazine.  Click over to their website and you can even see clips from each movie.

Monday, December 20, 2010

More Discount Decorations

Looking for ways to make your home feel festive, but rather not spend much money doing so?  Try out some of these ideas:
  • Use fruit as a centerpiece in a bowl or on a platter.  Red and green apples are a natural, since they already emphasize the traditional Christmas colors, but consider citrus fruits too, especially since they are at their most delicious and inexpensive at this time of year.
  • Be big and bold - a few large ornaments always make more of a statement than a mass of small ones.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pretty Packing Materials

Here's the best idea I've heard yet for recycling small pieces of used wrapping paper: simply pass them through your paper shredder for a festive (and frugal!) alternative to bubble wrap, newspaper or packing peanuts.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fun But Frugal Holiday Parties

The usual cocktail party can be quite expensive, with pricey hors d'oevres and drinks.  But you don't need to spend a lot of money to have fun with your friends.  Here are some festive yet frugal ideas for some low-cost get-togethers:
  • Host a tree-trimming party with ropes of popcorn and cranberries on strings, or long strands of paper looped decorations.  Pump up the Christmas, serve a luscious punch and holiday cookies, and wait to turn on the tree lights until the decorating is done, for a grand finale.
  • Have your friends over for a wrapping paper.  Everyone brings a roll of wrapping material - it can be everything from Kraft paper to be decorated with stamps, old maps, extra wallpaper - the options are endless.  You supply the tape and the treats.  Everyone gets to socialize and finish a must-do task at the same time.  For tips and tricks to spiff up the look of your gifts, check out these gift wrapping ideas.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

All Things Santa

For an in-depth collection of Santa Claus and Christmas-related articles, ideas, tips and tricks, including many that are free or quite inexpensive, click over to SantaClaus.com.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Gifts Under $25

Family Circle has published a useful list of their best gift ideas for under $25.  It has the perfect present for everyone on your list, from just $6.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fun and Free Holiday Activities

Sometimes with the holiday hustle and bustle - rushing to the stores to buy gifts, decorations, and seasonal treats - it is hard to remember that there are plenty of ways to celebrate the season that don't cost a thing.  So put your wallet away and enjoy one of these free holiday activities:
  1. Sing a Song.  Whether you warble a bit in the privacy of your home or go out caroling with a group of friends, there is nothing quite as uplifting as traditional Christmas carols.
  2. Share a Smooch.  You don't really need mistletoe to reach out and show your affection - just do it!
  3. Scent the Air.  All you really need is a bit of cinnamon in a pot of water simmering gentle on the stove to make your home smell wonderful.  Got some cloves, star anise and orange peel hanging around, too?  Add those to the pot for a richer aroma.
  4. Savor the snow.  Catch a snowflake on your tongue, just like you did when you were a kid.  Or, if there is no snow where you live, recreate another memory from childhood by cutting snowflakes out of scrap paper.
  5. Wonder at the windows.  Whether you choose a trip downtown to peek at the store window displays or a stroll through the best-decorated neighborhood in your community, the walk and the appreciate of others' efforts to celebrate the season will do you good.
  6. Help those in need.  Whether you clear your cupboards of extra pantry staples you know you'll never use (that can of sardines or the extra box of Cream of Wheat, perhaps?) for the local food bank, donate an old coat and other warm clothing to a charity for the homeless, or spend an hour at a soup kitchen, you'll feel better for having helped others less fortunate than yourself.
  7. Remember What It's All About.  Even if you are an atheist or agnostic, attend at least one religious service during December as a reminder of where all the holiday traditions began.  Think of it as a cultural experience.  And even if you are an active member of your church or temple, consider going to a service totally different from the one you usually attend for a new perspective.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Frugal for the Holidays 2010

The media has been full of stories about holiday shopping for weeks now. All the stores are bedecked with sparkly decorations (and many have been since Halloween). And even after Black Friday and Cyber-Monday (which seems to have taken place the Monday before Thankgiving this year), most of us are still receiving a full complement of come-ons and special holiday offers.

But don't let all this holiday hoopla entice you into spending more than you intended. What follows is a compilation of all of the holiday Tightwad Tips we’ve posted so far this year and last year. Throughout this month, Top Tightwad Tips will continue to suggest ways that you can save money, while still enjoying the spirit of the season. So sit back and relax and let the frugal holidays begin!

So whether you cradle it, dreidel it, deck-the-halls it, matzo-balls it, O-Holy-night it, 8-Days-of-Light it… celebrate the season...frugally!

Holiday Decorations

You don't need to spend lots of money to make your home look festive and fun for the holidays. Here are some low cost ideas:

• Place inexpensive votive candles among masses of evergreens to provide a festive feel.

• Use inexpensive (or old and damaged) tree ornaments in bowls or apothecary jars or mixed in with the greens on your mantel or tabletop – the more the better.

• Raid your jewelry box – I decorated my first Christmas tree with earrings, bangle bracelets tied on with ribbon, and beaded necklaces and it looked great.

• Gather masses of pinecones, nuts, etc. and paint them silver, gold or red and green. Or leave as is. Heap them on mantels and tabletops. Display in glass apothecary jars or in bowls. You can also affix fasteners with hot glue and hang them on the tree.

• Find tall tree branches – they look wonderful painted gold, silver, or white and set into an umbrella stand or tall vase. You can even decorate them with lights.

• Keep a tight color scheme of 2 or 3 colors to tie everything together. For example if your color scheme is white and gold, you can accent a white tablecloth with a gold runner, gold rimmed white china; adding a centerpiece of gilded tree branches, pinecones, and ornaments looks great.

Tightwad Tree Ornaments

Department stores and specialty shops offer beautiful and unique Christmas tree ornaments. But you could spend thousands decorating your tree if you buy all your ornaments there. So why not create some unique ornaments of your own? Here are some thoughts:

• Make gingerbread cookies - you can even personalize them to make them more special.

• Rather have ornaments that last from year to year? Use the gingerbread cookie idea, but make and decorate the shapes with home-made play dough instead.

• Create painted wooden ornaments, using jigsaw-cut shapes from your craft store or cutting your own.

• Cover Styrofoam balls from the craft store with glossy thread and then decorate with bits of fabric, lace, beads, buttons and other pretty bits 'n' pieces.

• Make egg shell ornaments by pricking holes in each end of a raw egg with a pin, blowing out the insides, and then carefully cutting out an oval shaped hole in one side. Paint inside and out with nail polish or high-gloss paint and then decorate with bits of fabric, lace, beads, buttons and anything else you have on hand.

• Cut out paper snowflakes.

• Crochet snowflakes (use starch to keep them stiff).

• Don't forget the classics: paper loop chain (use construction paper, old wrapping paper, unused rolls of wallpaper, or the colorful parts of old Christmas cards), paper snowflakes, and strings of cranberries and popcorn.

Holiday Entertaining

When you are planning your next holiday get-together, remember that the real purpose of the event is to spend quality time with family and friends. So feel free to ditch anything that is too fancy or pricey. For example, if you maintain a casual dress code, you and your guests won't feel the urge to go out and buy a special new outfit. And if you make the meal potluck (providing, say, the main course and wine, while guests bring sides and desserts), the costs, work - and even the clean-up (since guests will take their dishes home) is shared. Your party can still be plenty festive and fun. Sometimes having a theme makes up for the lack of champagne and caviar -- perhaps host a viewing of your favorite holiday movie (we never get tired of Elf, for example) -- or bring out the funniest and most outrageous holiday sweater you own.

Tightwad Tips for Holiday Gift Giving

Some folks contend that only Scrooge would skimp when shopping for holiday gifts. To that, I reply, "Bah humbug!" Honestly, if you buy bargains for yourself, it is certainly ok to do the same when you shop for others. Of course, on the other hand, if you buy your clothing at Bergdorfs, it IS cheap to buy all your gifts at the Dollar Store.

I think we all need to remind ourselves from time to time that the spirit of the season doesn't require that we all go deeply into debt or go hungry just so that we can lavish luxurious gifts on our loved ones. Gift-giving is just one way to express the joy of the holidays. So don't obsess about what you can't afford. Instead, set a reasonable budget and then work on finding thoughtful and imaginative gifts that reflect your affection towards the recipient. Remember that some of the most appreciated presents don't require a cash outlay at all: for example, you can volunteer to babysit for parents with young children; cook a meal for someone who hates to turn on the stove; or run errands for busy friends.

One of the best ways to save on gift-giving costs is to trim your gift list. Suggesting to your extended family members that this year, you hope to buy only for the kids or buy only one thing for each household/nuclear family (like a gift basket or museum membership) is not being a Scrooge. Instead, once you suggest that everyone cut back a little, you'll be surprised by how relieved everyone will be (because even those who aren't trying to spend less money shopping will be happy to spend less time shopping!). Other options for trimming your list include picking names out of hat so you're responsible for just one family member or officemate instead of many. Some groups agree to go even further and limit the cost of each present to, say, $5. Then part of the fun becomes seeing the variety of imaginative gifts available in that price range.

Regifting is another way to save. True, regifting has an ugly reputation. Seinfeld devoted an episode to mocking it. Nancy Reagan was criticized for doing it. Etiquette mavens generally frown upon it. And yet to frugal folks like me, it makes more economic sense to pass along a (new and unused) item rather than to let it waste away at the bottom of the closet. The key is to make sure, as you would when you purchase a new gift, that you are matching the regift with the needs and tastes of the recipient. Even if you aren't buying something, gifts should remain a token of affection and appreciation - not a way to get rid of something you dislike.

Shopping Strategies

I've always found it difficult to focus when I'm in the stores doing my holiday shopping. Deals like "buy one, get one half off" call to me, even if I don't really need two of whatever is on special. The cute sweater and adorable shoes call out to me, even though I"m supposed to be shopping for other people, not myself. So how to I deal with these distractions and get what I need, on time and within my budget? Over the years, I've developed a list of questions I ask myself before each purchase. Here they are:

1. Can I afford it?
Sometimes I'll run across the perfect gift for someone on my list - but it costs twice as much as I was planning to spend on them. If other gifts I've already purchased cost less than I expected, or if I know I can substitute a less expensive gift for someone else on my list (that they will love just as much), maybe I'll make the splurge. But I try never to go above my overall budget for holiday purchases. This is especially true for those who don't have money in the bank to pay for the item in full; charging it to a credit card if you carry a balance just isn't worth it.

2. Have I found the best deal?
I always want to make sure I'm receiving the lowest price. This is easiest to do online, but if you know what you want, it doesn't take too long at the mall either. And whether you are shopping online or in a store, don't complete your purchase without checking to see if there is a coupon you can use. Salespeople will usually tell you if you can get a coupon at the customer service desk. And online, just search for the name of the web site plus "discount code" or "coupon" to see if you can get money off or free shipping. Even if there is no discount now, ask if it's going on sale; some retailers will hold it for you for a day or two. Online, you should sign up to receive email notices about sales and special promotions. Planning to do lots of shopping on "Black Friday?" Make sure you know in advance about what will be on sale by checking out all the Black Friday ads and using the "Black Friday Deal Filter" on FatWallet.com.

3. Will the recipient really love it?
If you're not completely confident that the item is 100% perfect when you're buying the item, you won't be happy when the bill arrives, either.

Homemade Gift Ideas

One of the best ways to save money on your holiday shopping is not to do it at all. Instead, make homemade gifts that reflect your personality and the time and care you are willing to devote to family and friends. Here are some ideas:
• Fire-starters (dip pine cones in hot, colored wax) and package in a pretty basket.

• A clove-studded lemon or orange pomander (which one of my children's Kindergarten teacher rated as his all-time favorite gift). Here's how to make one: 1. Place 2 wide rubber bands around a lemon or orange. The bands will leave spaces for a ribbon later. 2. Use a wooden skewer to pierce the exposed skin of the lemon/orange with holes about ¼ inch apart, then insert whole cloves into the holes. 3. On a plate, mix together 3 tablespoons each of cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and ground ginger. Roll the lemon/orange in the mixture to coat it. 4. Keep the lemon/orange and plate inside a paper bag in a dry spot in the house. Roll the pomander in the spices once a day until the lemon is hard and dry; this can take 2 to 6 weeks depending on your climate. 5. Once the pomander is dry, remove the rubber bands and tie fancy ribbon around it. Use the pomander in a closet or on your tree.

• Baked goods (how about making large gingerbread men, customized with the recipients name and perhaps personal characteristics like hair color, eye color, etc.).

• Homemade candy (e.g. fudge).

• Coupons good for services (staying up late, dinner of choice, etc. for kids; massage, breakfast in bed, and chores for spouse); housecleaning or homemade meals for elderly relative; closet organizing for friend who shops all the time but can’t seem to find anything to wear. Make them funny and fancy.

• Cookbook of your favorite recipes (w/description of how you encountered it, serving tips, memories of dinner parties, etc.)

• Photo album or scrapbook.

• Map coasters.

• Home-made tree ornaments.

• Tin can luminaries. Luminaries made from tin cans are great both as holiday decorations for your home and as inexpensive gifts you can make yourself. Here's what you do: 1. Fill an empty can with water and freeze it. 2. Trace the shape you want (festive forms like a snowflake, Christmas tree, or Star of David are all contenders) on a piece of paper. 3. Wrap the paper around the can and secure it with tape. 4. Punch holes with nail to create an outline of the shape you've chosen. The ice keeps the can from denting while you hammer the holes. We've found that keeping the holes about 1/3 inch apart works best. 5. Once you’re done and the ice has melted, you can paint the can or leave plain. 6. Use a store-bought or homemade candle (to make the candle, fill the can halfway with melted wax; as it starts to firm up, put in a wax-coated string for the wick.

• Flavored coffee mixes make a unique and splendidly frugal gift. Package them in a glass jar and print up labels from your computer with instructions for using them. Here are our favorites:

1. Café Vienna: ½ cup instant coffee, 2/3 cup sugar, 2/3 cup nonfat dry milk solids, ½ tsp cinnamon, stir and process in blender until powdered. Instructions: use a ratio of 2 tsp mix to one cup hot water. 35 calories each.

2. Italian Mocha Cappuccino: 1 cup instant coffee, 1 cup sugar, 4 ½ cups nonfat dry milk solids, ½ cup cocoa, stir and process in blender until powdered. Instructions: use a ratio of 2 tbsp to one cup hot water. 60 calories.

3. Swiss Mocha Espresso: ½ cup instant coffee, ½ cup sugar, 1 cup nonfat dry milk solids, 2 Tbsp cocoa, stir and process in blender until powdered. Instructions: use a ratio of use 2 tbsp to ½ cup hot water. 40 calories.

Saving Money on Gift Baskets

Themed gift baskets have become big business in recent years. Groceries and gourmet shops tout their expertise in putting together sumptuous assemblages of tempting goodies. Companies have formed whose entire purpose is to create and market an assortment of gift baskets. Even florists have jumped on the gift basket bandwagon. While I love the concept of the gift basket, the prices that most retailers charge is troubling to a tightwad like me. Invariably, the total cost is significantly higher than the sum of the gift basket components -- in part to account for the work of putting the basket together, but also because that's the price the market will bear.

So it isn't hard to figure that you can save money by putting together your own gift baskets. You, too, can fill a pretty basket with exquisite fruits, cheeses, jams and nuts. Or tuck a bottle of bubbly and two champagne flutes into a basket and tie it with a pretty bow. But if you're saving money by making your own gift basket anyway, why not let your imagination soar and create something really distinctive. Consider the following ideas, and then think about what special container and contents will work for you:

• Office supplies, like pens, pencils, in wastebasket

• Beach toys in a bucket

• Picnic supplies, including a pretty tablecloth, in a picnic basket

• Tote with travel goods, like guide books and maps

• A diaper bag with baby essentials like diaper cream, cornstarch and wipes

Save When You Ship Holiday Gifts

Shipping experts recommend that you allow at least three weeks during the holiday season for any gifts you are mailing to arrive. But just as important as the timing of shipping your gift is packing carefully so that it will arrive intact. Office supply stores and UPS stores are full of pricey peanuts and bubble wrap to help wrap your gifts safely. But here are some less expensive options that work just as well:

• old newspaper

• (unbuttered) popcorn are good options

• shredded paper (if you have a paper shredder -- and you probably should – they can be found inexpensively and the protection of shredding all sensitive documents, including financial statements can make them well worth the cost)

Of course, if you have Styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap on hand that you can recycle, that's a real bonus!

If your gifts are books, DVDs, or the like, consider shipping them via the "media mail" rate at the USPS. This is often cheaper than 3rd class mail.

Holiday Greeting Cards

While I'm all in favor of reaching out to extended family and friends at this time of year, the costs of buying and mailing elegant holiday cards (and you do want them to be quality cards that reflect your aesthete) can be significant. Here are some money-saving ideas:

• Trim your list. As with gift-giving, it doesn't make sense to always do things the same way year after year just because you've always done it that way. If you haven't heard recently from that nice family you met on vacation 10 years ago, now is the time to strike them from the list. Also, there is really no need to send cards to close family members if you'll be sharing the holidays anyway, or to office-mates who you see every day.

• Make your own cards. My sister and her husband are extraordinarily creative and I look forward to their imaginatively crafted cards each year. Sometimes they send cards with witty pen-and-ink drawings; other years they employ clever cut-outs; and one year they photo-shopped their faces onto a couple of mall Santas. But you don't need to have graphic arts or computer skills like they have to compose a heartfelt greeting and add an illustration to make your annual card uniquely your own.

• Send email greetings instead of mailing letters. It's faster, more planet-friendly, and costs literally nothing. Plus there is no space limit if you want to describe your family's accomplishments for the year and you can easily link to photos and videos that illustrate what's on your mind this year. You can use e-card services like ecards.com, americangreetings.com, hallmark.com or bluemountain.com. Or you can just dress up a regular email with graphics and attractive fonts and be done with it. Bonus: by saving all that paper, you're helping the environment, too.

• Shop the sales. If you plan ahead, you purchase your cards at 75% off (or maybe even more if you time it right) by shopping right after Christmas for the cards you'll use the following year.

Inexpensive Gift Wrapping Ideas

For years, we laughed at my mom who dutifully saved and reused wrapping paper each year. We joked that our gifts would get smaller and smaller, so she could use the same piece of gift wrap the next year without even having to take off the tags. The irony was that she didn't even have to pay for the wrapping paper -- as the owner of a small print shop, my dad received boxes of it each year from his paper suppliers.

But although my family eventually got into the habit of tearing and shredding paper in response to my mom's frugal ways, to this day, I still save nice ribbon, especially wired or fabric ribbon (but not the plastic-y stuff or curling ribbon which is hard to reuse). I also stock up on wrapping materials for the year at the after-Christmas sales: I look for neutral patterns and colors that can be used throughout the year. And since I buy sale paper and other materials in bulk, I create a signature look each year that I use for everyone, from teacher gifts to presents for the extended family.

Here are some other ideas for frugal gift wrap:

• Use newspaper (especially the comic pages), old maps, and other colorful paper you have on hand

• Wrap gifts in plain Kraft paper (which can be bought inexpensively at office supply stores and craft stores ), then decorate it by stamping, stickering, drawing with markers or crayon. You can stencil design on it, too. Or tie the package with twine and then add an embellishment made of pine cones and evergreens for a rustic look.

• Use wallpaper (from leftover projects or from sample books).

• Wrap gifts in bits of leftover fabric – I once saw squares of Japanese silk on sale for this purpose in a museum gift shop -- and it adds an elegant touch that can't be beat.

• Reuse gift bags and shopping bags (spray paint the latter to cover up names and logos).

• Use cut felt, yarn, colored twine in place of store-bought ribbon.

• Create a reusable fabric-covered box – just tie with ribbon and add a card.

• Buy clear cellophane (you can get it from craft store or florist in sheets or bags) – wrap the gift in colored tissue underneath and then tie the whole thing with ribbon or twine. This is especially useful for odd-shaped gifts that are hard to wrap in other ways.

• Add a special touch to each package with glittery accessories. You can easily add glitter to pine cones, evergreen branches, acorns and other natural materials: thin Elmer's glue w/water until it’s the consistency of paint; brush this liquid on the item you want to sparkle; dip it in the glitter; let it dry on waxed paper for 10 minutes, then affix to the wrapping using a hot glue gun.

• Use interesting containers for homemade goodies (such as decorated cookie tins) and you won’t even need to wrap your gift. You can also shop for pretty bowls, teacups, mugs, platters, and plates at discount stores and yard sales. Just wrap the whole thing in cellophane, tie it with ribbon and you're good to go!

• It is fun to wrap gifts in unconventionally-shaped boxes. This prevents the recipient from immediately guessing what's inside and reflects your sense of humor. So go ahead and place a gift of jewelry in huge carton; wine in a large shoebox, silk tie in cylinder, etc..

Fabulously Frugal Gift Tags

Gift giving is sharing love – so of course you want to present your gifts attractively. So in addition to wrapping gifts in a way that is both appealing and distinctive, without resorting to spending big bucks at the Hallmark store, you want to create personalized gift tags that also achieve both objectives. Here are some ideas:

• Use old Christmas cards, cutting off the side with the picture (which typically does not have writing) and trimming it with pinking shears or another type of craft/scrapbooking scissor. Tie to package with ribbon or yarn.

• Make your own address labels on your computer, using clip art from the Internet. For the best effects, use colored paper and/or a colored printer.

• If you are making homemade treats as gifts, paste on labels announcing your "Outrageously Decadent Triple-Chocolate Brownies" or tuck in the amusing story of the origin of the Tollhouse cookie.

• Buy plain oak tag labels at the stationery store and decorate them w/stamping, stenciling, stickers, etc.

• Skip the gift card altogether and write right on package with marker – make it festive with a silver or gold sharpie and make sure to include your most flamboyant lettering. (We learned this trick at kids’ birthday parties where gifts often get separated from cards.)

Top Tightwad Tips for Stocking Stuffers

I’ve seen ipod shuffles ($99), cashmere and leather gloves ($150), classic Ray-Ban sunglasses ($139) and the like listed as stocking stuffers. To tightwads like me, anything that costs that much is a major gift, meant to be wrapped and placed under the tree so it can be opened with much hoopla and oohing and aahing.

Stocking stuffers are meant to be just a little something, like an hors d’oevre to whet the appetite for the main meal. When I was growing up, we received things like socks, toothbrushes, and oranges in our stockings. And while I don’t necessarily advocate going that far into thrift and practicality, it does seem that there is a middle ground of items that are fun, fanciful, and frugal at $5 or less. Here are some ideas:

for adults:

• Flavored lip gloss or lip balm

• Hand and body lotion

• Cocktail napkins

• Seed packets

• Candles

• Soap

• Cookie cutters

for kids:

• Small toys: matchbox cars, little slinkies, mini-play dough containers

• Crayons, colored pencils

• Trading cards

for both:

• Candy canes

• Chocolate bars

• Fun pens and pencils

• Personalized gingerbread men

• Playing cards

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Creative Holiday Decorations

I stumbled across this holiday decorations slide show and wanted to share it because it so clearly demonstrates that you can be festive, fun and frugal for the holidays.  Use your creativity to showcase what you love (and already have on hand), be it a Christmas tree decorated with fishing lures, or an outdoor display of winter sports gear.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Home-Made Gifts

Making something to give to someone special is both a lovely way to showcase your creativity and to save money.  The Better Homes & Gardens web site has a nice selection of craft ideas, including a section of projects that cost less than $10 (assuming you have to buy the materials - you may find that you already have some items on hand).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gifts for Everyone on Your List for $20 or Less

I've scoured the web for great bargains and have come up with thrifty gift ideas that will impress the recipient far more than the price tag would suggest:

For Her
For Him
For Kids
For Teens

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Make the Most of Your Money When Holiday Shopping

I've always found it difficult to focus when I'm in the stores doing my holiday shopping.  Deals like "buy one, get one half off" call to me, even if I don't really need two of whatever is on special.  The cute sweater and adorable shoes call out to me, even though I"m supposed to be shopping for other people, not myself.  So how to I deal with these distractions and get what I need, on time and within my budget?  Over the years, I've developed a list of questions I ask myself before each purchase.  Here they are:

1. Can I afford it?
Sometimes I'll run across the perfect gift for someone on my list - but it costs twice as much as I was planning to spend on them.  If other gifts I've already purchased cost less than I expected, or if I know I can substitute a less expensive gift for someone else on my list (that they will love just as much), maybe I'll make the splurge.  But I try never to go above my overall budget for holiday purchases.  This is especially true for those who don't have money in the bank to pay for the item in full; charging it to a credit card if you carry a balance just isn't worth it.

2. Have I found the best deal?
I always want to make sure I'm receiving the lowest price.  This is easiest to do online, but if you know what you want, it doesn't take too long at the mall either. And whether you are shopping online or in a store, don't complete your purchase without checking to see if there is a coupon you can use.  Salespeople will usually tell you if you can get a coupon at the customer service desk.  And online, just search for the name of the web site plus "discount code" or "coupon" to see if you can get money off or free shipping.  Even if there is no discount now, ask if it's going on sale; some retailers will hold it for you for a day or two.  Online, you should sign up to receive email notices about sales and special promotions.  Planning to do lots of shopping on "Black Friday?"  Make sure you know in advance about what will be on sale by checking out all the Black Friday ads and using the "Black Friday Deal Filter" on FatWallet.com.

3. Will the recipient really love it?
If you're not completely confident that the item is 100% perfect when you're buying the item, you won't be happy when the bill arrives, either.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Holiday Entertaining

When you are planning your next holiday get-together, remember that the real purpose of the event is to spend quality time with family and friends.  So feel free to ditch anything that is too fancy or pricey.  For example, if you maintain a casual dress code, you and your guests won't feel the urge to go out and buy a special new outfit.  And if you make the meal potluck (providing, say, the main course and wine, while guests bring sides and desserts), the costs, work - and even the clean-up (since guests will take their dishes home) is shared.  Your party can still be plenty festive and fun.  Sometimes having a theme makes up for the lack of champagne and caviar -- perhaps host a viewing of your favorite holiday movie (we never get tired of Elf, for example) -- or bring out the funniest and most outrageous holiday sweater you own.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Save When You Ship Holiday Gifts

Shipping experts recommend that you allow at least three weeks during the holiday season for any gifts you are mailing to arrive.  But just as important as the timing of shipping your gift is packing carefully so that it will arrive intact.  Office supply stores and UPS stores are full of pricey peanuts and bubble wrap to help wrap your gifts safely.  But here are some less expensive options that work just as well:
  • old newspaper
  • (unbuttered) popcorn are good options
  • shredded paper (if you have a paper shredder -- and you probably should – they can be found inexpensively and the protection of shredding all sensitive documents, including financial statements can make them well worth the cost)
Of course, if you have Styrofoam peanuts or bubble wrap on hand that you can recycle, that's a real bonus!

If your gifts are books, DVDs, or the like, consider shipping them via the "media mail" rate at the USPS. This is often cheaper than 3rd class mail.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Holiday Greetings

Buying and mailing holiday cards can be expensive, especially if the list of people you contact every year is extensive.  So if you are trying to cut back on costs a bit, consider emailing your seasonal greetings instead of mailing letters.  You can use e-card services like ecards.com, americangreetings.com, hallmark.com or bluemountain.com.  Or you can just dress up a regular email with graphics and attractive fonts and be done with it.  Bonus: by saving all that paper, you're helping the environment, too.

Monday, November 8, 2010

I'm often asked about the appropriateness of seeking bargains when you are buying holiday gifts.  Here's my take on the issue: if you buy bargains for yourself, it is certainly ok to do the same when you shop for others.   But if you buy your clothing at Bergdorfs, it IS cheap to do all your holiday shopping at the Dollar Store.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Trim Your Holiday Shopping List

If you haven't already had "the talk," now is a good time to approach extended family members and friends about ways to save on gift-giving this holiday season.  Emphasize that this isn't about becoming Scrooge; rather it is a way to focus on the joy of the season and spending time together, rather than racing around spending money on buying and wrapping gifts that might not hit the target.  Here are some ideas to try:
  • Buy only for the kids.
  • Buy one thing for each household/nuclear family (e.g. gift basket, museum membership)
  • pick names out of hat.
  • Limit the cost of each gift to $5 or $10 (you'll often find a gain in creativity with this approach).
  • Have every in the class/team pitch in for a combined gift for your child's teacher, coach, etc.
  • Reconsider gifts to mail carriers, newspaper deliverymen, etc.  Perhaps a nice note of thanks will suffice instead?

    Thursday, November 4, 2010

    Holiday $urvival Guide

    The Ladies Home Journal recently published a list of ten tips to help you survive the holiday season with your financial health intact.  Here they are:
    1. Buy gifts that keep on giving, like guitar lessons or contributions to a 529 college account.
    2. Pay cash - studies show you are likely to buy 15% less.
    3. Make an extra mortgage payment the gift you give yourself.
    4. Review all of your financial documents.
    5. Check your property appraisal - it may be easier to lower your tax bill than you think.
    6. Ask for a lower rate if you are carrying a credit card balance.
    7. Refrain from accepting offers for store credit cards - not only are you likely to spend more (see #2), but it may affect your credit score.
    8. Find cash at home by selling items you don't use (including gold jewelry now that gold prices are at an all time high).
    9. Track all your spending to see where your money really goes.
    10. Make sure you have a plan for your financial future, especially for a long retirement.
    To see the full article, including ideas for achieving all of these tips, click here.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    Frugal but Fancy Feet

    No need to hit the salon for petal-soft peds!  Here are a couple of tips for keeping the skin on your tootsies smooth and beautiful:
    • Get rid of calluses by applying wart remover (like Compound W, which is available at drugstores) overnight and then using a pumice in the shower the next morning.
    • Wrap up your feet in plastic wrap after you've lathered them with a thick lotion or with petroleum jelly: your skin will absorb the moisture more quickly and even very chapped feet will be soft in a half hour or so.  You can try this with hands and other body parts, too.

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    The Cost of your Commute

    If you can walk, bike or take public transportation to work instead of driving - even part of the time - you can realize significant savings in several different ways:
    • you'll save gas money
    • you'll save on your car maintenance
    • you can save on your auto insurance - call to let them know how many fewer miles you'll be driving on an annual basis and your fees make decrease by more than $100
    • you won't have to buy a gym membership
    • the additional exercise will make you healthier, reducing health care costs

    Thursday, October 21, 2010

    Dialing for Dollars

    We've all seen the Geico insurance commercials that brag "one call can save you 15% or more."  And if you haven't called around to see if you can save money on your insurance policies (without giving up benefits), you certainly should: one call might save you hundreds of dollars.  To make it easiest, start by calling your current provider and see if they can offer a better deal that you already receive.

    But don't limit your calls to your insurance company -- call your phone company, cable provider and anyone else to whom you make monthly payments to see if they have a program that can save you money.  Maybe you are paying for services (like call waiting on your phone or premium cable service) that you don't really need.  Or maybe they have a different plan than you have currently use that is more appropriate for you (for example, perhaps your cellphone contract has ended and there is a better unlimited texting plan).

    And even if you are already getting the lowest price possible - you've lost nothing but a few minutes of time.

    Wednesday, October 20, 2010

    Don't Just Recycle, FREEcycle!

    One of the best way to save, is to get what you want for free!  If you haven't checked out Freecycle.org yet, you should -- it is a great way to score kids clothes, home fashions, sports equipment and lots more!

    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    Make Your Own

    Here's a book to look for: P.S. I Made This... by Erica Domesek provides tips for creating your own fabulous fashions, like ribbon-wrapped bracelets and bedazzled high heels.

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Back to School Savings???

    I went shopping with my kids today for back-to-school supplies and was a bit disappointed at the stock at my local Staples.

    First, let me assure you that we've re-used as much as possible from previous years.  My son's school encourages families to hold on to folders, composition notebooks, and everything else possible over the summer and send it back again in the fall.  So we relabeled folders, tore pages out of composition notebooks so that they would be ready for the new school year, and collected other items like pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, scissors and so forth.

    But there were a few items on the list that we had to purchase and this is where my disappointment comes in.  It appears that Staples takes advantage of the back-to-school fervor by stocking up on multiples, while single-pack items disappear from the shelves.  For example, my son needed a glue stick - but there were no single glue sticks to be found - they only came in packs of three or more - so we needed to pay for more than we really needed.  It isn't the end of the world, of course, he'll end up sharing with classmates who didn't bring any glue sticks at all, but still...

    The glue sticks were relatively inexpensive, but Staples pulled a similar trick with the clipboard that my son was required to buy - I had to purchase a set of three of these, too.  I sent in only one - I'll save the other for future years or other uses - but Staples' low, low prices are hardly helpful if I'm forced to buy more than I need.  Shame on them!

    Sunday, September 5, 2010

    Top Tightwad Tips for Home Decorating

    I love looking at decorating magazines with their luscious photos of beautiful rooms.  But reading the likes of Architecture Digest can easily convince you that only the wealthy can live in well-designed, attractive homes.  Not so!  Here are some books (all available on Amazon for $1 or so) that provide tips and tricks for updating your home with a minimal budget:

    • Leslie Linsley's High-Style, Low-Cost Decorating Ideas by Leslie Linsley
    • More Splash Than Cash: Decorating Ideas by Donna Babylon
    • Decorating Hints & Tips by Julian Cassell and Peter Parham
    And if you want to save even more money, learn how to make easy home repairs by reading Mrs. Fixit by Terri McGraw.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Making Use of Multi-Use Products

    We love products that can be used in a variety of ways.  Not only do you save money by buying fewer items, but many of these basics are less expensive than their specialized alternatives.  Here are some examples:

    Baking Soda
    • Leaven quick breads and other baked goods.
    • Freshen fridge and freezer.
    • Open a slow-running drain, in combination with white vinegar.
    • Create a spectacular volcano effect (also with vinegar).
    • Mix with water and use as toothpaste.
    • Deodorize a whole host of items, including smelly shoes, rugs, upholstery and your garbage disposal.
    • Sprinkle on a moist sponge to clean appliances, counters, sinks, pots and pans and other items scratch-free.
    • Brighten and whiten laundry by adding a cup to each load.
    Vaseline
    • Use as a lip balm.
    • Smooth callused heels and elbows.
    • Add shine to freshly shaved legs.
    • Comb through eyelashes for a bit of thickening and shine.
    • Protect baby's bottom from diaper rash.
    Toothpaste
    • Fill small nail holes in the wall before repainting.
    • Removes white rings from wooden furniture.
    • Clean chrome and silver (including jewelry and flatware).
    • Smooth the surface of your steam iron.
    • Dry up pimples overnight.
    • Remove stubborn smells from hands.
    • Remove tar from skin.
    • Clean teeth.
    Lemon Juice
    • Flavor foods and beverages.
    • Keep apple, banana and pear slices from turning brown.
    • Whiten and brighten the laundry without the problems of bleach.
    Samy Professional Dry Icing Instant Re-Styler
    Fabulous hairstyling product use as:
    • Pomade
    • Mousse
    • Gel
    • Hairspray
    • Texturizing ceam

    Friday, August 6, 2010

    Beauty Savings and Splurges

    The Real Beauty web site has a helpful article about which beauty products are worth splurging on, and which you can score at the drugstore for big savings.  Here's a summary:

    Save
    • Shampoo and conditioner 
    • Mascara (lots of good choices at the drugstore, plus replacing it frequently is more important than using top-name brands)  
    • Sunscreen (buy lots and wear it every day!)
    • Make-up remover and toner
    • Cold cream for cleansing, makeup removal, or even to calm sunburned skin
    Splurge
    • Facial moisturizer and night cream (moisturizing is one of the most important things you can do for your skin, so take it seriously)
    • Good make-up brushes (and be sure to take care of them by washing them often!) and other tools of the trade like tweezers, eyelash curlers, hairdryers, flatirons and hair brushes
    • Foundation (you need to choose the right formula, color, and texture to match your skin)
    To see the full article, click here.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010

    The Recession's Positive Side

    Talk about making lemons out of lemonade - I just read an article about the 10 Good Things About Our Bad Economy.  True, many of the ideas mentioned - like making more meals at home, entertaining yourself and your friends on the cheap, "shopping your own closet" for new looks - have already been discussed here (and elsewhere), but seeing the list withe all the positive sides (e.g. it's more healthy to make your meals from scratch, spending time with friends matters more than what you do together, it helps you feel more creative to add fashionable flourishes to what you already own than buying a new sweater), is endlessly encouraging!

    Sunday, July 25, 2010

    Redbook's List of Websites That Save You Money

    Like many smart shoppers, the folks at Redbook magazine are big fans of comparison shopping.  As they say, "You can't even begin to negotiate on an item until you know its lowest possible going rate. "  And so they've put together a list of useful websites that offer ways to compare prices across the web.  Read up on what these sites offer by clicking here, and then put your new found knowledge to work!

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    Drugstore Deals

    Even beauty magazines like Marie Claire consistently recommend drugstore products as money-saving ways for looking good on a budget (no need to spend more at a department store or salon when the low-cost version is just as good!).  Here are some of their latest picks:
    • Eucerin Redness Relief Soothing Cleanser and Dove Beauty Bar, two cleansers that are gentle and do a bang-up job removing dirt and makeup.
    • Nivea Creme - consistently one of the best moisturizers on the market.
    • A pair of $5 Bath Secrets Exfoliating Gloves - more effective than many other products.
    • Neutrogena Summer Glow SPF 15 (many "designer" sunscreens are too greasy and their fragrance attracts insects).
    • Almost any drugstore shampoo and conditioner has a bigger R&D budget than little boutique brands - and so they often do what they say they will as well -- as better than their pricier counterparts from the salon.
    One of my favorite drugstore beauty deals is Vaseline -- not only is it inexpensive (especially if you buy the no-name brand petroleum jelly), but it serves a multitude of purposes: use it as a lip balm; moisturizer - especially for the dry skin on elbows and heels; and make-up remover.  It will also sooth the chapped skin around your nose when you are suffering from a severe cold or allergy attack; make just-shaved legs smooth and shiny; provide a subtle gleam to fngernails; and pinch-hit for cuticle lotion.  You can even use a tiny dab to provide shine over your eye shadow (or on your bare lids), to moiturize your eyelashes and eyebrows at night.  And if you save money by coloring your hair at home, follow the practice used by most salons and protect the skin around your hairline by dabbing Vaseline along that area.

    For even more beauty-related tightwad tips, click here.

    Friday, July 9, 2010

    Top Ten Budget Web Sites

    Creating a budget that is reasonable for your income, lifestyle, and financial goals is not always easy.  Thankfully, there is lots of help online.  Here are ten of our favorite web sites to help you develop a budget you can stick to:
    1. CNNMoney.com - a straightforward approach to budgeting
    2. Mint.com - recommends their own software as a budget tool, but even if you don't use that, their tips are helpful
    3. About.com's Financial Planning section - lots of good advice
    4. FreeFinancialAdvice.net - includes a useful budget template
    5. PBS Kids - great advice for teaching your kids to manage money
    6. Budget for recent grads - good review of possible categories to help you consider all expenses
    7. Redbook magazine - the basics delivered in a friendly format
    8. Ehow - standard advice in video format
    9. Sample Excel spreadsheet
    10. Kiplinger's worksheet - a useful tool for comparing projections to actual figures

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    Tightwad Tips for Keeping Cool

    A blast of heat has hit a good number of us -- summer has really blazed in this week!  With temps in the high 90s (or above!), many of us frugal folk are struggling to find ways to stay cool without resorting to turning up our own air conditioners, or enjoying someone else's air conditioning by escaping to a costly movie theatre, or a shopping mall where there is no end to the expensive temptations.  So here are some ideas that won't cost as much:
    • Hydrate. Drink plenty of cold water to keep your cool.  And spray yourself with a spritz of refridgerated water for an extra cool boost.
    • Eat icies.  Make ice pops from fruit juice and eat them often to keep your temperature down.  (It's been proven that melting ice makes the mercury fall faster than just freezing something - that's why the old-fashioned ice cream makers required salt for the freezing process.)  Freeze fruits like seedless grapes, watermelon, and bananas, too, for more frugally frigid treats.
    • Turn off the lights. Not only do lightbulbs increase a room's temperature, but a darker room will just feel cooler.
    • Take a tepid (not cold) shower, since the shock of cold water will only make your body conserve heat.  Follow up with lotions that you've cooled in the fridge for a bit.
    • Check out more online tips for keeping cool at The Boston Insider.

    Thursday, July 1, 2010

    Tips For Making a Budget

    Lots of folks want to develop and stick to a budget, but they don't know how to get started.  So here are some suggestions of what to do to first figure out how much you have and how much you need, and then to plan how you'll spend what's leftover.

    1. Make a list of all your sources of income: what comes in (after taxes and automatic deductions for healthcare, etc.) on a monthly basis.

    2. Track what goes out (separate essentials – like the rent or mortgage – from the non-essentials (like your afternoon trip to the coffee shop or vending machine for a pick-me-up), writing down ALL expenses for at least a month.  If you are having trouble keeping track of your spending, you might consider using one of the. web sites like Wesabe.com and Geezeo.com that allow you to securely upload bills and credit card and savings accounts; slot them into categories; and view everything in colorful, easy-to-read graphics.

    3. Consider your goals – are you saving for college? For retirement? For a special vacation? To pay off credit card debt? Separate goals into short-term goals (replace the water heater this year) and longer term goals (retire when you’re 65).  Note: if you don't already have an emergency savings fund (at least six months of loving expenses in an easy-to-access account in case you get sick or lose your job), that should be your top priority.  If you don't already have and contribute to an IRA or 401(k) account, that should be your second priority.

    4. Consider how much you want to save and find a way to do this. Perhaps you have 5% of your take home pay directly deposited into a special savings account at your bank to fund your long-term goals, and then put all your spare change into a jar at home to spend on monthly splurges like a special dinner out.

    5. Take a look at what you spend money on and cut back on the little things that will help fund your goals. First, cut out any expenses that are essentially throwing money away - like paying bills late so that you also have to pay late fees or interest.  Then consider small lifestyle changes: perhaps carry a water bottle you fill from the tap rather than buying bottled water. But there is no need to make yourself feel deprived – if you typically eat take-out twice a week, cut back to just once a week at first.

    Continue to monitor your expenses, so that you are actually putting money toward reaching your life goals, rather than letting other things interfere with what you really want.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    Save on a Summer Pedicure by Skipping the Spa

    Looking your best when you wear Summer sandals requires that your feet be in tip-top shape.  But as lovely as it is to book a pedicure at the local spa, all that pedi-pampering can cost big bucks.  You can create a luxurious experience at home for a fraction of the cost.  The result?  Beautiful feet that look like you just walked out of a spa.  Here's what you do:
    1. In a mixing bowl combine 1/2 cup sugar, the juice of a grapefruit, lemon, and lime, and 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil with a splash of warm water.  Bring this bowl with you into the bathroom, along with 1/3 cup of sea salt and a lemon, cut into 1/4 inch slices.
    2. Run warm water in the tub to a depth of about 6 inches.  Add the sea salt and lemon slices and soak your feet for about 5 minutes, enjoying the citrus scent.  Use a pumice stone on your heels and balls of your feet to slough away calluses.
    3. Exfoliate your feet and calves with the citrus/olive oil scrub, then rinse it off with warm water. Finish by applying a rich body cream to your feet and calves to keep them soft and hydrated.
    4. Trim and file nails, if necessary and then buff them briefly to get rid of any ridges on the surface.
    5. Gently push back cuticles with a cuticle stick.
    6. Wipe your toenails with a cotton pad soaked in nail polish remover.  It is best to do this even if there's no old nail polish to take off, because you want your nails nice and clean with no lingering lotion.
    7. Thread a folded piece of Kleenex or toilet tissue between your toes to separate them.  If you don't have time to sit around while your polish dries, this is a good time to put on flip flops, too.
    8. Apply a thin base coat followed by two coats of polish in your favorite color.
    9. Seal with a high-shine topcoat and let toenails dry for at least 30 minutes before putting on shoes or socks.
    Want the feel of a spa at home?  Check out Real Beauty's tips for an amazing at-home spa experience.

    Monday, June 21, 2010

    Summer Sales

    You don't usually find deep discounts on summer merchandise until late July, but already stores are full of summer savings.  Ann Taylor currently offers 40% off a wide variety of of summer tops, bottoms, dresses and accessories and 30% off bathing suits.  Banana Republic also has a 40% off sale going on, as does Lands End.  You can also find great bargains on summer fashions for women at JJill.com, where discounts are to 80% off and at Coldwater Creek where almost 700 items have had prices slashed to $25 or less.  Spiegel is touting their summer sale with savings up to 70% off and Newport News is advertising their semi-annual sale with savings of 75%.

    It isn't only women's clothing that's on sale.  Crate and Barrel's summer sale is now in progress with deals at 50% off; Lillian Vernon has a large selection of items with discounts of 70%, and Target has lots of good deals at 65% off.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    Money-Saving Tips from Redbook Readers

    I often get frustrated when I read magazine articles that offer generic advice about saving money, like "spend less" and "put money in the bank to take advantage of compound interest."  Certainly almost all of us know these things - it's kind of like knowing that if you burn more calories than you take in, you'll lose weight (easy to say, harder to implement because of all the temptations).

    I generally find that regular people often have more practical, usable suggestions about how to get from Point A to Point B.  And the recent round-up I found of money-saving tips from Redbook readers is no exception.  None of the advice here is really earth-shattering, but they are real tips that you can use on a regular basis to avoid the temptation to spend instead of save.

    Monday, June 14, 2010

    Frugal Summer Fashion

    I just signed up for a guest membership at BagBorrowOrSteal.com, which features the latest trend in frugal fashion — luxury rentals.  Now you can feel like a celebrity who doesn't have to dish out hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars to show off the latest purse, jewelry or other accessory at a special event.  Of course while celebrities get these items for free, you'll have to pay a small fee to borrow them, but the result is the same: you won't be spending big bucks for items that you'll wear once (or only for a short time).   

    Here's how it works: as a Guest you're entitled to:

    • Access to the world's most coveted designer handbags, jewelry, sunglasses and watches
    • Savings of up to 70% on BBOS Private Sale purchases
    • A personalized Wish List to keep track of items you love
    • Weekly email updates of new product and hottest trends

    But if you are convinced that this "Netflix of Purses" is for you, you can get an instant $60 rental credit by signing up for a $60 annual membership.  As a member you'll also enjoy:

    • 20% discounts on all rentals
    • BBOS Private Sale access
    • Wait List privileges for popular items
    • Loyalty Rewards
    • First access to new arrivals.

    So don't buy, just borrow!

    Thursday, June 10, 2010

    Frugal Ideas for Summer Entertaining

    As we've said in a previous post, one of the best things about summer is how little you have to spend for entertainment. Basically, if you're outside enjoying the sunshine and warm weather, you're almost guaranteed to have a good time. It is the same with entertaining guests, as it is with providing fun for yourself and your family.

    Summer parties tend to be much more relaxed.  No need for the fancy champagne and caviar you might serve at a New Year's Eve bash.  Instead, rely on inexpensive dishes like pasta salad, corn on the cob, and hamburgers and hot dogs.

    Similarly, whereas a full bar might be appropriate for a holiday cocktail party, all you need for summer entertaining is beer, refreshing white wine spritzers, and a big pitcher of iced tea.

    Dessert can be as simple and cheap as icy watermelon slices or a bountiful fruit salad served in a hollowed out watermelon.  Or here's another idea for serving deliciously sweet seasonal fruit like berries or cherries: make an ice bowl decorated with sprigs of mint or edible flowers.  (To make an ice bowl, use two nesting bowls that have a 1/2 inch to 1 inch between them when the smaller is inside the larger.  Fill the space between them with water - first placing any decorations in the larger bowl - and let the water freeze overnight.  To unmold, let them rest on the counter for 10 or 20 minutes - do not run under water.  Then keep the ice bowl frozen until you're ready to use it.)

    And perhaps the party decorations are the simplest and easiest of all -- just rely on the beauty of your backyard or deck to serve as the festive setting for your party.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010

    Links for Frugal Summer Fun

    Here's a round-up of web sites offering ideas for lots of fun but frugal ideas for the summer:

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010

    Frugal Summer Fun

    One of the best things about summer is how little you have to spend for entertainment.  Basically, if you're outside enjoying the sunshine and warm weather, you're almost guaranteed to have a good time.  Here are some ideas to get you started on a summer full of frugal fun:
    Go to the Beach
    Whether you live by an ocean or a lake, it's great to lie in the sand with the option of taking a dip in the water from time to time.  Be sure to take a blanket and a picnic lunch (plus plenty of sunscreen) so you can make a day of it.
    Play Ball
    Play catch in the park or practice hitting curve balls at the batting cages.  Either way, you'll enjoy a taste of competitive spirit while getting a bit of exercise outdoors.
    Feed the Ducks
    Gather up your stale bread and feed it to ducks at a pond. Some things just never get old!
    Stroll Through the Park
    Find a Little League team to root for, smell the roses in the garden, or just enjoy an unhurried walk.
    Go Fly a Kite or Toss a Frisbee
    Need I say more?
    Pack a Picnic
    It doesn't matter whether it is coffee and croissant in the morning, sandwiches at mid-day, or wine and cheese in the evening, it all just tastes better on a blanket in the grass.  Don't feel like making the effort?  Just eat outside on your porch, patio or front steps.
     
    Run Through the Sprinkler
    Go ahead: put on your swim suit and turn on the water.  On a hot, hot day, you'll be so glad you did!
    Gaze at the Stars
    Not only is it more pleasant to stay outside late into the evening in the warmer weather, but the plethora of shooting stars (especially in August) makes it more fun.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010

    Enjoy a Free Summer Vacation

    For the last two years the best way for folks hit hard by the Great Recession to take a break was to book a "staycation" - staying at home but trying to make the best of it with museum trips, time at the beach or community pool, and maybe a trip to the local zoo.  If you feel overcome by wanderlust and the need to get away, a third year at home isn't going to cut it.  But what if your bank account hasn't caught up to your yearnings for a real vacation?  Take at look at the nine suggestions in The Ultimate Guide to Free Travel -- while all of them might not be for you (house-sitting, for example, might be more work than its worth), you might find something that that will allow you to enjoy a real summer vacation - for free!

    Friday, June 4, 2010

    Free Shakespeare

    Every summer I look forward to free outdoor shows - it seems that every city and town brims with free concerts and theater performances when the weather gets warm.  The New York Times reported today on the proliferation of free Shakespeare performances throughout the greater NYC area.  Here is a partial listing of free NYC theatre:

    INWOOD SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL “The Comedy of Errors” (through June 19)

    HUDSON WAREHOUSE - “The Trojan Women” (through June 27); “Cyrano de Bergerac” (July 8-Aug. 1) and “Romeo and Juliet” (Aug. 5-29)

    NEW YORK CLASSICAL THEATER - “Richard III” (through June 27); “Much Ado About Nothing,” in Battery Park City (July 17-Aug. 1) and then Central Park (Aug. 5-29)

    SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK - two plays (June 9-Aug. 1): “The Merchant of Venice,” starring Al Pacino as Shylock, and “The Winter’s Tale”

    GORILLA REPERTORY COMPANY - “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (June 20)

    BOOMERANG THEATER COMPANY - “The Tempest” (June 19-July 18)

    SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARKING LOT - "Love’s Labour’s Lost” (July 8-24) and “Julius Caesar” (July 29-Aug. 14)

    HIP TO HIP THEATER COMPANY - “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Macbeth” (Aug. 10-29)

    Friday, May 28, 2010

    Weekend Miser

    A new column debuted in the New York Times weekend section today. Called Weekend Miser, it's objective is to report on interesting ways to spend time in the New York City area (where almost everything is expensive) without spending lots of money. If today's column (describing places that offer free fencing lessons, yoga and ballet) is an indication of what's to come, I'm definitely going to be a fan!

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Re-usable Containers Save Money - And the Environment

    Use reusable containers (made of plastic or glass) instead of plastic baggies, aluminum foil or plastic wrap to store leftovers and other food items.  Not only will you save money, but you'll be adding less trash to our nation's landfills.

    Friday, May 14, 2010

    Saving Water

    In areas where water prices are high, being careful about water use can save you lots of money.  But even if your water bill isn't out of control, it is worth thinking about ways to use less water for environmental reasons.  Here are some tips to consider in the kitchen:
    • Reuse your cooking water, either for another cooking use (for example, use the water you use to steam or boil vegetables for making pasta, rice or soup -- which has the bonus of adding flavor without cost or calories) or to water your plants.
    • Use as few pots and dishes as possible so you'll use less water to clean up.  For example, one pot meals, like stews and stir fries, require less dish washing (and as a bonus, use less energy to cook).
    • Don't run the dishwasher until it is full (in most houses, that goes without saying).  And unless you have an older, less efficient machine, don't worry about rinsing off dishes in the sink first -- almost all dishwashers are now designed to allow you to skip this step.
    • Catch any water you normally run down the drain when waiting for the water to warm up (or cool down) in a bowl or pan. Use this water for your house plants or in the garden.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    80% off Sale Prices at Barrie Pace

    I've received Barrie Pace catalogs in the mail for years.  The styles were a bit mature for me and the prices tended to be out of my range.  But occasionally I've snagged a tailored jacket or dress on sale and have been pleased with the quality.  So I was delighted today to learn that they are offering 80% off already discounted prices.  I found two date-worthy dresses - one for about $12 and the other for about $20 - both a tiny fraction of their usual prices.  I just placed the order today and so can't report on whether the quality is up to their usual standards, but this is definitely a sale worth checking out!  Just click over to Barrie Pace and use code "final80" at checkout.

    Tuesday, May 4, 2010

    Cooler Kitchens

    As summer approaches and temperatures rise, it is worth thinking about all the ways you can keep your house cooler without turning up the air conditioning.  One thing to consider is employing cooking strategies that rely less on your oven, thus keeping your kitchen from over-heating.  We all tend to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, which don't require as much cooking.  Here are some other tightwad tips for a cooler kitchen:
    • If you must bake something, consider using your toaster oven's convection setting instead of the regular oven. It's so much smaller that it creates considerably less heat than a conventional oven.  And you'll be surprised by how much you can fit into the toaster oven.
    • Use your slow cooker instead of the stove burner for soups, stews and sauces.  Because it is contained, it will not overheat your space.
    • Cook as efficiently as possible, broiling instead of baking when you can (food cooks more quickly and you don't have to preheat the oven), and being sure to cover pots on the top of the stove so they cook faster.

    Friday, April 30, 2010

    Saving vs Hoarding

    I'm fascinated by the fine line between the kind of saving that tightwads do (along the lines of putting things aside to reuse for another purpose) and, hoarding, which is basically what my dad used to call "saving string too short to save."  I save the rubber bands that come wrapped around plastic boxes of produce (unless they are stained by, say, overripe raspberries) rather than purchasing new elastics from Staples for my kids to use in their various slingshot and projectile projects.  I reuse plastic bags from the drugstore to line wastepaper baskets.  But I remember being horrified by my mom's collection of plastic grocery bags - she had drawers and drawers of them in an unused bedroom - more than she would ever reasonably use.

    Compared with the people Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee write about in their book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (see the Wall Street Journal review here), my mom is an amateur, of course.  There is no doubt that hoarding is a problem, like obesity is, that arises from affluence and abundance.  But my mom's "collecting" tendencies seemed to arise from a desire to save money, so I do worry...

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    Avoiding Checked-Baggage Fees

    You can avoid the now-standard $25 fee that most airlines for checked luggage when you fly JetBlue or Southwest Airlines, neither of which has yet adopted the fee.  Or you can shave a few dollars off (usually $2 or $3) by checking in online.  But if you have lots of luggage and/or heavy or oversized items (think skis, snowboards and golf clubs), you might do better to have the items shipped ahead.  The Postal Service, UPS and FedEx provide this service, of course, but you can also try one of the companies that have risen up to take on this task.  Check out the Insider Travel Guides for a list.

    Friday, April 23, 2010

    Frugal Yogurt Face Mask

    This is the last -- I promise -- in a series of posts about cheap and easy ways to use household items as beauty treatments.  I've written about the benefits of avocado, olive oil and egg whites.  Today, I want to talk about yogurt. 

    We eat lots of yogurt in my house.  But not every family member likes every type - my younger son likes the fruit-filled little dannon and stoneyfruit cups; my older son likes greek-style yogurt; and I prefer la liberte yogurt that has some walnuts already mixed in.  So with all these types of yogurt sitting in the fridge, inevitably, someone isn't in the mood for yogurt for a while and it slips past its expiration date.  I hate to throw food out, but I also hate the idea of eating something that isn't quite right.  What to do?  I use it as a face mask!

    If it already has stuff in it, I just put it on as is.  If it's plain, I add a little honey and sometimes some pureed cucumber.  Either way, I smooth it on my face, let it sit for 15 minutes or so (while I read the morning paper) and then rinse it off.  My face is refreshed -- plus I feel virtuous for having put the old yogurt to a good use.

    Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    Go Green, Save Green

    In honor of the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day tomorrow, it seems worth mentioning that saving the planet and saving money have a lot in common.  Almost any time you conserve your own resources -- whether it is by turning off lights to reduce the electricity bill, taking a shorter shower to save on the water and electrical bills, buying in bulk rather than individual servings so that you aren't paying for excess packaging, or walking/biking rather than driving your car to save on gas -- you are also taking steps that are earth-friendly.  So keep up the tightwad habits tomorrow and be happy knowing that you're also doing your part for Earth Day!

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    Bargain Beauty Tips from the Kitchen

    There's no need to spend big bucks on fancy salon or department products when you can easily -- and very inexpensively --  create a wonderful facial, scrub or hair treatment with something you probably have sitting in your kitchen right now. 
    • All you need to do to revive tired, dull skin is crack open an egg in a bowl, separate the yolk (and save it for another purpose, of course!), and whisk the egg white.  Apply the egg white directly to your face, leave it on for five minutes, then rinse off.  The proteins help to heal and restore skin's moisture.
    • Looking for an inexpensive way to exfoliate?  Try some cornmeal.  Mixed with warm water, it makes a nice scrub that has the extra benefit of absorbing any extra oil in your pores.  Use no more than twice a week.
    • Sugar mixed with a little olive oil makes another good facial scrub.  And while you're busy cleansing, don't forget your lips - they look plumper and smoother if you scrub them, too.  Note that any sugar - granulated, brown or raw unrefined works well for this scrub.   If your skin is on the oily side already, use milk instead of olive oil.
    • Lemon juice is a well known hair lightener.  Mix it with chamomile tea to keep your hair's texture smooth.
    •  Create that "just been to the beach" look by spraying your hair with a mixture of water and a dash of salt.

    Friday, April 16, 2010

    Priceless Advice: The Key to Saving Money Is Spending Less!!

    I've been a big fan of Neil Templin's Cheapskate column in the Wall Street Journal and so I was sad to see yesterday's announcement that it will be discontinued.  But I encourage everyone to take a look at the archived columns, where he described (with good humor) his attempts to save money and his family's attempts to foil him at every turn.  Above all, I urge you to heed his timeless advice: the key to saving money is spending less.

    Thursday, April 8, 2010

    More Bargain Beauty Tips

    As a follow-up to yesterday's avocado mask and moisturizer recipes, it's nice to know that even something as simple as olive oil can be used to make an at-home cleanser.  Mix a quarter cup of olive oil with a teaspoon of brown sugar and dab onto dry or flaky areas to exfoliate the dry skin.  Note that this is best for normal-to-dry complexions, and those with oily skin are better off using a formulation designed especially for them.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    Avocado-based Beauty Treatments

    Avocado is a natural moisturizer, making it the perfect basis for a variety of inexpensive beauty treatments.  Here's a sampling:

    Soften Your Skin All Over
    Remove the pit and skin from several ripe avocados and mash them up in a bowl. Smooth the mixture all over your body, let it sit for 20 minutes, then shower. It is a messy process (you'll want to sit on a towel for sure!), but the resulting soft skin will be well worth the effort.

    Treat Yourself to a Facial
    Remove the pit and mash one ripe avocado with a little bit of lemon juice. Apply this mask to your face and neck for toning/firming treatment.

    Long-lasting Hand Cream
    Mash a peeled and pitted avocado with course salt and rub all over your hands.  Again, you'll want to protect the surfaces around you while you sit for 20 or so minutes to let the avocado do its job.  Then rinse it off and you're good to go!

    Enriching Hair Mask
    To soothe dry hair and tame split ends, make a mixture of the mashed flesh from one avocado, one egg yolk, and a teaspoon of olive oil.   Mix well and apply to hair in sections.  After 30 minutes, rinse the mask off, then shampoo and condition as usual.  Especially helpful for curly hair.

    Monday, April 5, 2010

    Save on Books - Redux

    I come from a long line of avid readers, married a bookworm, and together we produced two more book lovers. So it is no surprise that left unchecked, our tendency to aquire books to read would quickly take over every corner of our home, emptying our bank account along the way. Here are some strategies we've developed to keep that from happening:
    • Use the local library whenever possible. Even if our branch doesn't have the book we want in stock, they can use the inter-library loan system to obtain it for us.
    • Buy used books from online sellers at Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com (and then sell them back to someone else, when we're finished).
    • Check out web sites that allow you trade books you have for books you want, like PaperbackSwap.com and BookMooch.com
    • Try Project Gutenberg, which offers more than 20,000 books, like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, as a free download.
    Of course lots of other places to find books at bargain rates: for starters, look for school-sponsored book swaps, thrift shops, library sales, yard sales, etc. (it seems like everyone has books to sell!). A friendly reminder: as with everything else, if you are just browsing at these sales and end up buying books that you wouldn’t have otherwise, just because they were cheap, you really haven’t saved money in the long run.


    I should note that there are some online programs that just haven't worked for us -- but maybe they will appeal to you. 
    • BookSwim.com lets you organize a "pool" of titles you'd like to rent (just like a Netflix queue) for as little as $13.98 and as much as $59.95 (shipping included), depending on the number of titles you'd like to have at a given time.  I can imagine that this is valuable to folks who don't have time to visit their local library or don't have access to a wide pool of used books, but since my family has both of these, BookSwim is, comparatively, a pricey option for us.
    • BetterWorldBooks.com collects used books for free and then sells them online, donating a portion of the proceeds to a variety of charities.  But their prices are generally high compared with thrift shops (which, by the way, also sell donated books for a good cause).  In fact for bestsellers, their prices are more in line with retail bookshops.  The prices I get with my Barnes and Noble membership undercut Better World Books for every title I looked at -- so if I want to do good, I could just donate the difference to the charity of my choice and call it even!
    11/7/11 Update: Try Litfy.com, an online service (now in beta) that allows you to read all the novels you want, anywhere, anytime, on any e-reader device, for free.

    6/25/14 Update: Check out this list of places to find free and low-cost ebooks.

      Wednesday, March 31, 2010

      Top Ten Beauty Products Under $10

      I was delighted to find RealBeauty.com's list of great beauty products that cost less than $10 - they've proved once and for all that less is really more!  Here's the list:
      1. CoverGirl LashBlast Length Mascara
      2. NYC Blushable Crème Stick
      3. Nature's Gate Deodorant
      4. Freeman Beauty Mint & Lemon Clay Mask
      5. Milani Body Bronzer
      6. Essence Blush Brush
      7. Maybelline Lasting Drama 24-hr. Gel Eyeliner
      8. St. Ives Green Tea Scrub
      9. Aussie Hair Insurance Leave-in Conditioner
      10. Organix Acai Berry Avocado Shampoo and Conditioner
       To learn more about each product, click over to the RealBeauty.com article.

      Tuesday, March 30, 2010

      Get Fashion for Free with a Clothing Swap

      I've participated in lots of book swaps, so I like the idea of applying the same notion to sharing clothing you no longer wear with friends (and getting some new duds back in return).  Redbook.com has an article about how to put a swap together - you can check it out by clicking here.

      Saturday, March 27, 2010

      Fashion Basics

      One of the best ways to build a wardrobe that looks like it costs a lot more than it really did is to start with classic building blocks.  You'll want to buy these on sale of course, but if you know what you're looking for, it is often easy to hold out for the high-quality pieces that will look great, season after season.  So here's your fashion basics shopping list:

      Tops
      • White blouse (I especially like no-iron cotton shirts).
      • White t-shirt.
      • Embellished top that can glitter under a tailored jacket or dress up basic jeans.
      • Cashmere turtleneck (unless you live in a warm climate), 2-ply rather than 1-ply may cost more but will pill less and last longer.
      • Pretty cardigan in a fine-gauge knit.
      Pants
      • Black trousers.
      • Perfect-fitting jeans.
      Skirts
      • Neutral colored pencil skirt or A-line skirt (depending on your body type).
      Jackets & Coats
      • Trench coat in a neutral color with a figure-flattering belt that cinches at the waist.  Get one with a zip-out lining for 3-season wear.
      • Suit jacket that matches either a pair of pants or a skirt - you don't always need to wear them together, in fact it's great to purchase them with the idea of mixing and matching - but nothing is quite as authoritative as a real suit.  For the most flattering look, choose a jacket that nips in at the waist.
      Dresses
      • Solid color dress (it doesn't have to black) that fits and flatters.
      Shoes
      • Solid pumps or sling-backs that coordinate with your suit, heels with pointed toes are the most flattering.
      • Strappy metallic heels that dress up everything.
      • Comfortable flats.
      Accessories
      • Leather purse in a size and shape you can use for work or play.
      • A distinctive, eye-catching piece of jewelry in a shape and color you love.
      • Black leather belt that's about an inch wide.
      Of course, you want to make sure that everything you own fits and flatters you.  Sometimes, that may involve a trip to the tailor - remember that a good tailor can perform miracles far beyond just hemming pants to the perfect length.

      Update: Real Simple has a useful wardrobe basics checklist as well as tips for shopping and saving money on these wardrobe essentials.