Friday, January 28, 2011

Tightwad Tips for the Telephone

Yesterday's New York Times had a great round-up of the ins and outs of Internet calling.  The bottom line?  All the current services, including FreePhone2Phone, Fring, Google Voice, Line2, Skype, TextFree with VoiceTruphone, have their pros -- and their cons.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Top Tightwad Web Sites

Some time ago, we published our list of Top 10 Budgeting Web Sites.  Since then, we've found a whole host of web sites like ours, written by ordinary people who want to share their top tips for saving money.  Here is a list of our favorites:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Now that gas prices are on the rise again, there is no better time to make sure that every drop counts!  With thanks to The Insider Travel Blog, here are lots of trips and tricks that will help you make the most of every tankful:

The Basics

Slow down! Since fuel economy drops rapidly over 65 mph, make sure you don't rest your foot too heavily on the gas pedal.

Keep your speed steady. Lots of quick starts and stops use more fuel than maintaining a consistent speed (so on the highway, use cruise control if you have it).

Keep your tires inflated properly. Driving on under-inflated tires can drastically reduce fuel efficiency (10% under the optimum pressure translates to about 3% more fuel).
Lighten your load. It takes more fuel to move a heavier car around.  Remember that even the little things add up, so remember to keep your car cleaned out!

Let the breeze blow. At speeds of less than 60 mph, you'll save gas by cooling off with a breeze from an open window; at 60 mph and above, it is better to use your car's air conditioning system to reduce drag.

No more circling. Can't find the perfect parking spot? Quickly settle for second (or third, or fourth) best rather than wasting fuel driving around the lot.

Keep Clean. Clean the air filter monthly to keep your engine running efficiently.

Don't Idle. If you are stopping for more than a minute or two, it uses less gas to turn off the engine and start it up again than to leave it idling (of course this doesn't apply in traffic or at stoplights). Similarly, "warming up" your car just wastes fuel, except during winter in the coldest of climates.

On Vacation

Don't get lost. Use a GPS device to ensure that you're always on the right route so you don't spend extra miles out of your way.

Tune in to technology. Use web sites like those from traffic.com and the Federal Highway Administration to avoid detours and traffic tie-ups that would otherwise cost you extra time and fuel.

Web Resources

Find the gas station with the lowest price in your neighborhood at GasPriceWatch.com and GasBuddy.com.

More resources for finding cheaper gas are at MSN.com.

Look for credit cards that offer rebates for gas purchases at BestCreditOffers.com and inns that are reimbursing you for your gas expenses at About.com.

Above all, you need to plan every car trip like the investment it is. If you can just as easily accomplish your goal by walking or biking or using public transportation, it almost goes without saying that that's what you should do. But if you truly need your vehicle, think about mapping out each stop in a careful, organized fashion or doing your errands on the way home from work so that you drive as little as possible.

Update: Check out the New York Times round-up of mobile apps -- including GasBuddy, Where, and Poynt -- that help you find the cheapest gas in your area.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Redbook's 5 Beauty Products for $5 or Less

I am impressed that Redbook recently listed their 5 favorite beauty products that cost $5 or less each.  So many magazines recommend pricey products - it is a relief to see a parcel of products that I can actually be interested in!  Here they are:
  1. Nivea SOS Lip Balm, $4
  2. New York Color Long Wearing Enamel in Big Apple Red, $1
  3. E.L.F. Luscious Liquid Lipstick in Pink Lemonade, $1
  4. Suave Professionals Damage Care Conditioner, $3
  5. Milani Crystal Gloss in Secret, $5
To read more, click over to their original article.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Unlimited Music for Just $10

Music is an integral part of my life and always has been.  When I was young, I sang in the church choir, the school chorus, and at various times played violin, clarinet, oboe, flute, recorder, and saxophone.  While I no longer play, sing or perform with any musical group, listening to music is still part of my life every day.  My musical tastes are extraordinarily eclectic.  I enjoy classical music, jazz, rock, show tunes, the blues, rap, hip hop and much more.  I love making seasonal play lists for all occasions (e.g. St. Patrick's Day, the 4th of July) as well as more personal playlists (e.g. workout songs).  So when I discovered Rhapsody some years ago, I knew this service was perfect for me.  For just $10 a month, I get unlimited music.  I can listen on my laptop or download songs.  I can explore music in a ton of different categories.  I can make my own playlists - as many as I want - and listen to playlists that other subscribers make.  I can find out what's hot, and what Rhapsody editors recommend (both methods have exposed me to lots of artists I might not have otherwise found on my own).  The library I can easily access for the monthly fee - which is searchable by artists, song title, album title and more - is enormous and would cost a fortune if I had to buy the songs or albums individually.  I can listen to full songs - not just a 30-second clip - before I download them, which is a real advantage.  I'm not always a fan of open-ended subscriptions, but this one as definitely proved to be worthwhile!
Setting up a free account at Pandora.com is also a great way to listen to music.  Once you list several of your favorite songs or artists, a super-computer will create personalized "radio stations" based on the music you love the most.

Update: Spotify is another online music service that you can use for free, although unless you upgrade to the premium service, you'll have to endure annoying commercials every few songs.  The real strength in Spotify's approach is the ability to share music with friends via Facebook.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unclaimed Funds

Sometimes the easiest way to get some extra income is to find some money you didn't even know you had.  It is worth checking every year to see if you are owed any of the $32.8 billion in unclaimed funds being held by state governments. You might be owed money from a forgotten checking account or a mislaid security deposit. Go to IRS.gov (for tax refunds) and to MissingMoney.org and Unclaimed.org (for everything else), and type in your name and all the states where you have lived or worked.  For best results, just type in your last name to see what variations come up -- I discovered funds listed in both my mother- and father-in-law's names - both of whom are long deceased.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Big Box Store Bargains

To be honest, I'm generally not a huge fan of the big box stores, like Costco, BJs or Sam's Club.  I find that the average household doesn't end up saving all that much money buying in bulk, once you factor in the annual club membership, the extra stuff you invariably buy "because it is available at such a great price," and all the waste that occurs when you buy a gallon tub of mayonnaise which goes bad before you can use it all.  But this online article has almost convinced me to give the warehouse stores another look.  Here are their tips:
  1. Purchase store brands.
  2. Buy big - and then transfer to smaller containers.
  3. Buy bulk meat (you'll find real savings here).
  4. Avoid the middle aisles (just like at supermarkets).
  5. Shop with a list - and don't deviate from it.
  6. Share a membership (and that 26-roll package of toilet paper) with a friend.
  7. Master the art of unit pricing.
  8. Grab a bite to eat - the prices at the cafe can't be beat.
  9. Take advantage of seasonal savings.
For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Chic Hair at Cheap Prices

Going to the salon regularly to touch up the color on your tresses can get extremely expensive, even if you are only a few shades away from your natural color.  But as good as at-home color has become in recent years, there is no question that having a professional colorist does the best job in creating a natural look.  The best compromise?  Visit the salon every 8 to 12 weeks, while touching up your roots at home every 2 weeks or so in between.  Here are some drugstore products created exactly for that purpose:
  • Clairol Nice 'n Easy Root Touch-Up (my favorite)
  • Clairol Nice 'n Easy Perfect 10 (although I've found it isn't best for resistent greys)
  • Rita Hazan Root Concealer - a water resistent spray (about $24)
  • L'Oreal Paris Root Rescue (although the bottle dispenser didn't work well for me and even 20 minutes of processing didn't cover my greys)
  • Revlon Root Erase by Colorsilk - has a sponge applicator filled with ammonia-free dye to cover greys and roots in 10 minutes
  • Samy Fat Foam Hair Color (about $9)
  • Ted Gibson Individual Color Shampoo and Conditioner (about $24.95 each)
If you need an even faster touch-up (e.g. you notice lots of grey strands just as you're about to head out the door and so don't have the 10 to 15 minutes that the products above require), try TouchBack Hair Marker by Colormark, which is basically like a Sharpie for your hair or Roux Temporary Haircolor Touch-Up Stick, which looks like a lipstick.  The main downside to these two products is that they extremely temporary - all the grey will reappear when you shampoo.

John Frieda's Sheer Blonde Controlled Lightening spray (about $10) contains hydrogen peroxide, so it is permanent, but still an easy way to brighten your hair and help diffuse dark roots.  It uses the heat from your hair dryer to gradually lighten your color.

Or try Clairol Professional Jazzing semi-permanent hair color (about $6), which is supposed to brighten and add shine to colored or highlighted hair and stretch time between appointments.
If you've gone too long between visits and need more than a quick touch-up, some folks recommend Clairol Nice 'n Easy Color Blend Foam - supposedly it is more like a mousse than a liquid and so doesn't drip (thereby staining your skin and clothes) like some other at-home color kits.  I didn't find this to be true, however, and I wasn't impressed with the color results, either.

Brassiness or an orange-y tint can sometimes be a problem with home hair color.  If you find that this is the case, try Rita Hazan Foaming Color Gloss, which adds shine, smells good, and counteracts brassy/orange tones.

Highlights are another good way to freshen up your color at home.  L'Oreal  Paris Touch-On Highlights Kit uses a plastic brush that many folks find easier to use than the classic plastic cap (remember that?) or foils (which are virtually impossible to do yourself at home).  And since the product is blue as you apply it (which can be disconcerting, I admit), you'll know exactly where you've placed the product.One product I'm not particular keen on is Clairol's Natural Instincts -- while I find the concept of demi-permanent color appealing, I've found that the coverage isn't all that great, especially if you are trying to cover some greys. L'Oreal Root Rescue (about $7) is also less effective on greys than some other products.

Whether you color your hair at home or at the salon, it pays to take care of it afterward, since color can dry out your hair, making it seem dull.  Condition it regularly with special color-specific products like Pantene Pro-V Color Nourishing Treatment, John Frieda's Color Collection (look for the formula that matches your hair color), or even the popular Aussie products.  You can also maintain your shine with products like Aveeno Living Color Preserving Shine Glaze,  Nice 'n Easy's Color Boosting Glazes, and L'Oreal Paris Colorist Secrets Shine Gloss (about $9).

Another maintenance tip: think purple!  Some people swear by using grape Kool-Aid as a brightener - just mix 1/4 tbsp of the purple powder with your shampoo and wash as usual.

Remember that no matter what product you use, you shouldn't use shampoo right after coloring your hair -- just rinse the product out and then condition your hair -- many coloring kits include specially formulated conditioner -- or use your own.  And then for the next couple of days, use a gentle shampoo, especially not a clarifying or dandruff shampoo which could strip the color.

Note that all of the items mentioned are available in most drugstores and cost a lot less than salon products.

Ladies Home Journal's how to guide: Be Your Own Hair Colorist offers tips and tricks, including how to correct your color if all goes wrong.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Tale of Two on the Same Income

When I think about the long-term benefits of making thrifty choices in order to reach your financial goals, I often think about Carol and Tim, two colleagues of mine many years ago. They both made about the same amount of money, were about the same age (mid-40's), and had worked together at the same company for roughly the same time. Carol often marveled that Tim generously supported a family of four; while she, a single woman with no dependents, struggled to keep her financial head above water. "How does he do it?" she often asked.

She would point to the fact that she lived in a studio apartment, while he and his family lived in a three-bedroom house.  But here's the thing: he and his wife had struggled to save for their down payment, postponing purchases of new clothes and dinners out, and took advantage of the favorable mortgage rate offered to employees by the bank both Tim and Carol worked for.  Tim and his wife chose a house in an up-and-coming community in NJ and did most of the work to renovate and update it themselves.  They decorated it modestly with family finds and big box store bargains.  Meanwhile, Carol had spent lavishly on herself, buying new designer clothes each season, choosing things like imported high thread-count sheets for her bed, and priding herself on being one of the first ones to try each new hot NYC restaurant.  Her apartment was in the pricey Upper East Side neighborhood of Manhattan.  But since she didn't have space to store her extensive (and always growing) collections of clothes and other items (like books), she also paid for a large storage room in a separate facility.

Since she lived by herself, Carol preferred to eat meals out with friends rather than cooking at home.  When she did stay in, she often bought prepared foods at the fancy food store Agata & Valentina.  Meanwhile, Tim's family created a menu of healthy meals made from scratch, buying what was on sale at the supermarket and taking advantage of special deals at places like Costco.  He often brought his lunch from home on weekdays, citing the high cost of buying a sandwich from the local delis compared with making the same thing at home.

Carol marveled that Tim took his family skiing in the winter and on a beach vacation in the summer, lamenting that she could only afford one get-away each year.  But Tim always shopped around for a good deal, being careful to avoid popular spots and times to save money.  He joked about how he and his family packed their belongings in trash bags rather than buying suitcases - making the point that they valued the vacation experience too much to worry about arriving in style. Carol was openly derisive about Tim's packing predilection, noting that it just wouldn't pass muster at the fashionable spots in the Hamptons that she frequented.

Carol spent more than $10,000 to buy a purebred terrier; Tim's family chose their pet from an animal shelter.  Carol brought bottled water to work; Tim quenched his thirst at the office water cooler.  Carol leased a new car; Tim drove a vehicle he had bought used 5 years ago. 

I could go on and on, but the bottom line is this: Carol freely spent money on things that appealed to her sense of aesthetics with little concern for what would create lasting value in her life, while Tim had a plan for his family's future, and preferred to set aside money for big purchases that would be meaningful in the greater scheme of his life, while foregoing momentary pleasures (like an afternoon cappuccino).  As a result, when we were all laid off in the inevitable banking consolidation, Tim had savings to fall back on, but Carol didn't and fell even more deeply into debt.