Friday, January 29, 2010

Date Night Ideas

Just as the recession encouraged many families to transform their summer vacations into "staycations" last August, money worries are likely to keep many couples out of pricey restaurants this February 14th. But the truth is, you don't need to spend lots of money to have fun on a Valentine's Day date. Many of the ideas we suggested in our "Fun on a Budget" article are perfectly appropriate for date night.
And you don't even need to leave the house: here are some suggestions for creating a special evening with your sweetie right at home:
  • Bring out the board games or video games (we especially like wii boxing to get those competitive juices flowing, and Twister for its touching!)
  • Take a bubble bath or shower and lather each other well (light candles to make the moment extra special)
  • Create your own wine tasting, cheese tasting, chocolate tasting – or whatever tempts you -- comparing notes on what you like and what you don't
  • Do home-spa treatments like facials or massages
  • Complete a simple project together (like making a scrapbook of your vacation photos)
Prefer to get out of the house together?  Here are some ideas for dates that won't cost you a dime:
  • Go for a walk, hike, or bike ride together.  As an added bonus, the exercise will make you feel fitter and sexier!
  • Drive to a pretty spot for a picnic.  Set up your blanket on the beach and watch the waves roll in; perch on a hilltop and enjoy the view; or just go to a local park and enjoy being outdoors together.
  • Go to a free wine tasting.  Many wine stores offer complementary samples so check the shops in your area or click over to for a city-by-city list.
  • Sign up with local art galleries - and then attend their art show openings, for free wine and hors d'oevres plus, of course, the art!
  • Keep your eyes open for local events - for example, many libraries and museums offer free film screenings and concerts, and museums, zoos and such often have a free afternoon or evening.
  • Attend weekend open houses and imagine what it would be like if you owned the place - just check the listings in your local real estate guide

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Frugal Flying

Sometimes finding the cheapest airfare is a matter of timing. For the greatest choice of low-cost flights, go online early in the morning. Airlines often reset their discounts at night, and you'll find the widest selection before East Coast workers get to the office. Avoid flying Monday mornings and Thursday evenings when flights are crowded with business travelers; instead think about flying on Saturday morning. As always, book as far in advance as possible -- last minute deals are always possible (but if you find one later, some airlines will credit you the difference) -- but as a general rule, prices don't drop as the flight-time approaches; they increase.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Frugal Facial

Here's a way to get that just-back-from-the-spa look without spending hundreds of dollars for a fancy facial: mash a ripe, medium-sized banana (the overly-brown kind that is otherwise only good for banana bread) and mix it with 2 tablespoons honey. For a thicker consistency, add 2 tablespoons plain yogurt. Apply to your face and neck for 10 to 15 minutes. Rinse off and enjoy a brighter, tighter complexion!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

10 Healthy Foods Under $3

Just ran across this list of 10 healthy foods under $3 and wanted to share it. For those who don't want to click through, the list includes:

  1. Non-Fat, Plain Greek Yogurt
  2. Whole Grain Pasta
  3. Bananas
  4. Brown Rice
  5. Frozen Peas
  6. Almonds
  7. Eggs
  8. Sweet Potatoes
  9. Canned Beans
  10. Broccoli
If you do click through, be sure to look through the reader comments - there are lots of good ideas there, too.

I would add a couple other items to the list of consistently inexpensive foods: dried beans (even more of a bargain than canned) and non-instant, whole-grain oatmeal.

Caveats about Online Discounters

I've mentioned more than once that I love the great discounts that you can find when you shop online. But online shopping can be a tricky thing - when you can't try things on, feel fabric, or match colors in person, you need to read descriptions carefully, check measurements, and above all, be sure that you can return everything (because you aren't saving any money at all, if you can't get a refund if something doesn't work out for you).

The Wall Street Journal had a recent piece about discount sites that inflate the amount of the savings they offer by mis-stating the original retail price. It also indicated that some of these retailers don't accept returns. And finally, it implied that some of the merchandise sold by discount sites is not identical to that sold by brick-and-mortar retailers. All of this reminds me of shopping at outlet malls, which have similar issues. The bottom line? As always, caveat emptor!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Make Your Own Play Dough

As the long ennui of winter sets in and the choruses of "Mom, I'm bored; what can I do?" become a daily occurrence, think about mixing up a batch of play dough to keep the young ones entertained. Younger kids will enjoy the squishy-ness of it all and will be entertained by rolling it out, making shapes with cookie cutters, and so forth. Older kids can use uncolored play dough to make sculptures (which will last, if you let it dry for a few days) that they can paint as they like.

Here's how to make it:

1. Ingredients: 1 cup all purpose flour, ¼ cup salt, 2 tablespoons cream of tartar, 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, 1-2 teaspoons food coloring (if desired).

2. Combine ingredients in saucepan over medium heat. Stir for 3-5 minutes until mixture forms a ball. Remove from heat and gently knead on a floured surface.

3. Store in resealable plastic bag (unless you are preserving your child's creation).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

More on Loyalty Cards

I've touted the benefits of loyalty cards from major drugstore, grocery, sporting goods and office supply stores, but I should also mention that even mom and pop organizations like to reward their loyal customers. My kids' favorite ice cream parlor offers a free cone or cup after 10 purchases - we just have to have our card stamped every time we buy a treat. The deli where I occasionally pick up a quart of milk, offers a free quart after the purchase of 10. My husband loves Così sandwich shops, where he receives a free reward after ten purchases. And I know that hair salons, nail salons, coffee shops and many other places have similar deals - so even if your favorite spot doesn't advertise their rewards program, why not ask if they have one?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Saving Some Green by Going Green

If you’re buying new energy-efficient appliances – either because you’re old appliances pooped out or because you’re upgrading as part of a plan to live a greener lifestyle, find out if your state or community provides a rebate for doing so. A list of incentives organized by state is at You might find that the rebate plus the on-going savings on your electricity bill adds up to a lot of green!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Retail Rewards

I'm a big fan of retail rewards programs (also known as loyalty programs) and carry around cards for my drugstore (which gives me a 5% rebate on all my purchases), my grocery store (which automatically applies all store coupons at the register without me having to search through their weekly flyer) and my local sporting goods store (which gives me a $20 gift certificate for each $400 in spending - which happens more than I'd like with 4 active family members to keep outfitted in sneakers and sports gear).

One of my favorite retail programs is Staples Rewards, which provides a 10% rebate on paper, ink, and copying; plus a flat $3 rebate for each toner or HP printer cartridge returned to the store. My color printer uses 6 cartridges at a time so the rebates add up quickly. I especially like the fact that I can use the rebates to offset the purchase of anything in the store or online, so I can use my home office expenditures to subsidize back-to-school shopping.

Incidentally, the one kind of retail reward program I don't typically engage in are store credit cards. Sure, most retail credit card offers involve a discount for your first purchase and some ongoing benefits, but I don't find that the costs of having more credit cards offset these benefits.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Return-on-Investment for College Costs

Many parents and students assume that a college education is a necessary toll on the road to success. And a recent article in the Wall Street Journal indicates that this is so: college graduates earn, on average, 60% more than those with only a high school education, which more than pays back the cost of their education. Some colleges and some courses of study pay back more than others, of course. So if you want the biggest bang for your buck, you might want to take a look at another article that provides more details about weighing the price of a college education and choosing a school that offers the most value for the money.

Sneaky Savings for Online Shoppers

Saving money by shopping online is one of my passions. I've blogged before about good sites and good strategies to use to save money online. But here's something I hadn't considered until it had happened to me multiple times: if you leave something in an online shopping cart for several days, you'll often get an email offer (which I assume is automatically generated by the retailer's software system) for an additional discount to encourage you to complete the purchase. I've saved an extra 10% with this strategy!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Seasonal Sales

Most of us are used to taking advantage of seasonal sales at this time of year, like holiday decorations and wrapping that are discounted at 75% off and white sales that allow us to stock up on sheets and towels at significant savings. But did you know that January is also the best time of year to have things dry cleaned? It is typically a slow time of year for cleaners, so they often offer specials to tempt you into bringing in your down coat or duvet. Don't see a sign with savings at your cleaner? Ask if you can have 10-15% off just for being a loyal customer.

Here are some other seasonal sales:

  • Chocolates and other Valentine's Day-related merchandise typically goes on sale after the 14th.
  • Look for sales on summer clothing and bathing suits.
  • Stock up on office staples at back-to-school sales.
  • Buy next year's Halloween decorations right after October 31.
  • Stock up on grocery staples right after Thanksgiving.  And comb your newspaper for great deals: more food coupons are issued in November and December than in any other season.
And at the end of every month, quarter and year, shop for major appliances when sales people are most eager to fulfill their sales quotas.

Update: for a more complete list of monthly savings, click here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Save When You Soak

The cold days of January, when long weeks of winter stretch out forlornly ahead, are the perfect time to get in the habit of spending a relaxing evening in a hot bath. And by making your own soothing bath blend, you can enjoy all the luxuries of an expensive spa treatment right at home without spending a time. Here's how: just mix 2 cups baking soda with 1 cup Epsom salts and 2 tablespoons ground ginger and pour it into the tub as you run the water. The result is fragrant and restorative, yet soothing.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Goo Be Gone!

Every so often, we find a product that we think is just wonderful. Goo Gone is one of these. It does exactly what it says it will, removing all kinds of goo and gunk from your precious possessions. I find it is great for getting those annoying price stickers off plastic items. More than a year ago, a toddler stuck decorative decals on my marble floors and wooden doors - this stuff removed the leftover goo without a trace. It's for cleaning up thrift store and yard sale finds, too. Plus it has a pleasant orange fragrance.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Glittering Gold

If raising some extra cash is one of your New Year's resolutions, think about raiding your drawers and jewelry box for single earrings, old brooches, and broken chain necklaces and selling the gold. The Wall Street Journal had an article about how selling gold jewelry has become extraordinarily popular in these times of high gold prices and eroding incomes. If you're interested, check out these companies, all of which were mentioned in the WSJ article:

a. Gold Mine Party LLC
b. Party of Gold
c. My Gold Party
d. Cash4Gold

Monday, January 4, 2010

Honey Elixir: A Frugal Cure for a Sore Throat

I love this frugal cure for a sore throat; it uses ingredients you probably already have on hand rather than requiring a trip to the drugstore and it really works! Here's all you need to do to start feeling better right away:

  1. Mix 2 parts honey to 1 part lemon juice.
  2. Heat in microwave or on stove top.
  3. Sip slowly.