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. CafĂ© 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