Friday, May 15, 2009

Verizon Frustration

Hello, Thrifters,

I haven't written since last winter--more on that another time.

Wanted to quickly share an absurd encounter that ultimately validates the worth of hanging in there with customer service issues.

I recently signed up for a mobile broadband account with Verizon Wireless. I now own a cute little (overpriced) USB wireless modem and for $60/month, I can use it to download 5GB of data each month.

The gizmo had a 30-day money back guarantee, so I waited until it ended to pay my bill as the jury was out until the last minute.

I then tried to go online to pay, but in order to set up an account, I had to have a temporary password. The only way to get a temp pw was to receive a text message.

Verizon has set up their mobile broadband service as though it's a mobile phone service. I have a phone number attached to my account. But, remember, I don't *actually* have a mobile phone, just a little USB dongle/router.

Since there was no way around the temp pw text situation and my bill was due, I put a check in the mail.

I then got my next bill, which included a $5.00 late fee and a .20 cent charge for the text.

It's the kind of eye-roll inducing big-sigh moment when you wonder if it really is worth it to make a phone call and navigate the phone trees and talk to at least one person just to get your money back.

I decided it was.

Luckily, I was able to convince the automated voice to give me a human being fairly quickly. Three selections and an assertive "speak to a representative" command later, Lisa came on the line.

At first, my dilemma puzzled her. "Did you post-date your check?" she wanted to know.

"What?...Post-date? No." I couldn't think what else to say.

Turns out, the check was received and credited to my account nine days after it was due, so she thought I had post-dated it.

At any rate, she was nice and after I explained the reason for my late fee--couldn't pay online because couldn't get a text message--she refunded me for the late fee and also for the text message, which was supposed to be free.

After a short while on hold, she then connected me to Collette, who took me through a circuitous pre-determined script for setting up my online account. Turns out, I *can* receive text messages to my modem (who knew??) via the management software. She showed me how to find the password.

A few frustrating Verizon.com loop-de-loos later, and I was in. I paid my next bill early.

But, we'll see if the two additional texts with two new passwords that Collette and I sent to my modem result in forty more cents on my next bill.

Collette, by the way, confirmed they are supposed to be free. What a racket, right? If Verizon is forcing any customer who wants to pay their bills online to receive a text message and pay .20 cents for it...those cents would really add up.

For another Verizon encounter, read this blog post from a colleague of mine.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Saving Money at the Holidays

It's no secret that the--well, "secret"-- to having more money is basically to earn more and spend less. But knowing this and doing this is very much like knowing the secret to weight loss is essentially to eat less and burn more calories. It's easy to comprehend the math; it's difficult to figure out how to change your life in order to incorporate it. Our American lives have so much capitalist momentum--so much STUFF--and we've developed such bad habits, with both food and money, that stopping ourselves and making changes feels a lot like trying to stop a supertanker going full tilt at an iceberg.

The secret, by the way, to saving the Titanic was to accelerate, not slow down. The oceanliner couldn't stop in time to avoid the iceberg. What Captain Smith needed--apart from heeding the iceberg warnings in the first place--was to accelerate in order to fuel the powerful turn that was needed. It's against our instinct, though, to step on the gas when headed for a crisis. So, of course, he ordered the opposite of what was needed, and the ship slowed down, couldn't turn fast enough, and it grazed the iceberg all along the side of its hull--a fate more deadly that if it had simply hit the thing head-on, it would seem. Well, you know the rest.

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20. Mostly.

Where am I going with all of this? I'm going to Christmas. Or, to other holidays, if you celebrate them at this time of year and if they tend to wear you out and cost you lots.

Reduce, re-use, recycle

I just finished wrapping what I think is my last Christmas gift of the season. I may still have one more to go, depending on whether we can find the wireless doorbell my brother and sister-in-law are hoping for.

I'm the world's worst wrapper, I confess. But all of the gifts are wrapped, labeled, and some of them even have lovely bows. And I wrapped them all--about 20 gifts in total--without purchasing a single ribbon, bow, or sheet of paper this year.

Every year, I carefully unwrap and save paper when possible--at all occasions--and I gather up and save bows, ribbons, and gift bags. I also planned ahead and bought six rolls of wrapping paper 75% off on clearance after Christmas last year. This allowed me to get away with not spending a single penny on wrapping this season. And, I still have four and a half rolls left for next year.

I made a point of buying some paper last season that was not exclusively seasonal--silver with polka dots for instance and red and white striped and solid green. I used these throughout the year for birthday gifts and other presents and they worked just fine. So, my total wrapping costs this year? About $2.00, if you count what I invested in paper at the end of last season.

Do you gift wrap?

This question is one of the best ones you can ask this time of year.

"Do you gift wrap?" And "Is it free?" come out of my mouth at any retailer where this seems even remotely likely.

It turns out that a surprising number of stores offer free gift-wrapping, but it's been my experience that almost none of them advertise it.

I got free gift bags with tissue for two gifts I purchased at Silkweeds in Bucksport. I also got gifts wrapped at A Different Drummer's Kitchen in Northampton. Ten Thousand Villages will give you free gift boxes with informative inserts, if you ask. Barnes and Noble also gift wraps, I think.

Set limits and stick to them

Rather than going pell-mell at Christmas, take a firm and reasoned approach. When I spoke about accelerating in a crisis, I did not mean you should accelerate your spending.

It may be too late now, but whether it's this year or next, before you buy one single, solitary gift, figure out what you can really spend. This should be your first step, always. Proceed from there.

Don't think about what others will spend on you. Don't think about what you wish you could give, or--God forbid--what you feel you should give. Don't let guilt guide you. Think about what you honest-to-god can afford to buy, in cash, right now, for Christmas.

I am hear to tell you that it IS possible to buy or make wonderful Christmas presents without breaking your bank.

Finding good deals

I always seem to manage somehow to get by at Christmas and stick to my budget. In the years when I was really broke, it made me super-sad and super stressed out to try and find gifts for measly amounts. Now, I have slightly more freedom, which really does help. Nevertheless, it is possible to spend as little as $5 or $10 and get a nice gift--and by nice, I mean one that will make the recipient happy.

A few tips:
  1. Start early. Start planning, searching, thinking, researching, saving, and hording gifts as early as September.
  2. Pay attention. If you are a true thrifter, you spend time at discount department stores, thrift stores, yard sales, and the like. Pay attention all year round and you can pick up things that will be beloved by your Christmas gift recipients, but that would be hard to find for such a low price on short notice. Store them someplace safe. If you pay attention to prices and what you can usually find on sale, then when it comes time to buy later in the year, you'll know how much a digital picture frame or your mother's favorite candy usually costs and you won't be taken in by hyped up sales. You'll know a good value when you see one. Last, but not least, pay attention to the people in your life and notice what they really want. This year my boyfriend is unemployed again. Last year, I showered him with gifts thinking it would cheer him up. And he liked them and was sweet about it. But this year, he let slip that Christmas sucks when you're poor. I know this all too well, but I couldn't resist the urge to give last year. This year, I realized that it made him feel crummy that he wasn't able to match my gift-giving. So, this year, even though I wanted to give him the moon, I spent only a fraction of what I spent last year. I got him a few gifts that I know he'll love and spent only about $30. My biggest gift to him was to resist the urge to give. I also paid attention when my stepmother started saying a few years ago that she just can't stand the idea of having any more stuff. For her, gift certificates, edibles (or drinkables), or experiences are much better gifts than another sweater or pair of earrings.
  3. Do due diligence. Don't buy anything unless you're sure it's a good deal. Make sure you know return policies and warranty information where applicable. Research all purchases online to see if you really are getting the best deal. Googling the product name will get you started. You can also go directly to the retailers you'd be likely to buy from. And shopping bots, such as MySimon.com and PriceGrabber.com, are also useful tools.
  4. Use Half.com. I've come to rely on Half.com, which is now owned by eBay, for books and DVDs. You can find new or gently used copies of books, CDs, and DVDs for as much as--and sometimes more than--half off the retail price. I bought my mother a cookbook, for instance. And I bought myself Seasons 1 and 2 of Futurama. All together, I saved about $50 combined just on these three purchases by using Half.com. Just keep in mind that unless you pay for a shipping upgrade, it could take as long as three weeks for your item to arrive. And be sure to read the comments and check up on your seller's feedback--and ask questions if you have them--before you buy.
  5. Look for free shipping--and also beware of it. When shopping online, I have a firm policy never to pay for shipping. Every now and again I make an exception, but in general, if I can't get free shipping, I won't buy online. Lots of times, though, the free shipping depends on consumers spending a specific dollar amount, usually $50, $75, or $100. Be sure to calculate the cost of shipping into any product research you do online. And really think carefully about spending up in order to get the free shipping deal. I recently spent $19 on a candle so that I could get free shipping from Aveda.com. There was an item I wanted there, very badly, that I could have ordered through my local Aveda salon without paying shipping, but for some reason I was so intoxicated by the instant gratification of it showing up at my door without my having to drive almost an hour round-trip to the salon, that I went ahead and spent up in order to get the free shipping. It seemed to make sense at the time. Rather than paying $8 for shipping, I paid $19 for a small (and lovely) candle. And I also got a free sample. It wasn't the thriftiest choice, but in terms of quality of life, it worked for me. I didn't have to call the salon to make the order and I didn't have to drive 45 minutes to get it. I regret having paid $19 for a candle--that's just absurd--but I don't regret taking care of myself. I love the scent of the candle. I burn it during meditation and yoga every day. And I'm glad I didn't have to go to the salon. In the math that is thrift, QOL is always the dominant variable.
  6. Employ coupons and leverage sales. If you have paid attention and planned ahead, you can really make smart choices and get good deals. Let's use yesterday as an example. Because I have been paying attention to digital picture frames for a year, and because I researched online, and because I knew there was a sale at RadioShack, yesterday I got a good deal on a frame. Regularly $79.99, I got it for $49.99. I also got a phone on clearance. We've needed one for months, but I waited until I could get the exact right deal on the one I wanted. Replacing the whole phone was cheaper than buying new batteries. I also got a compact flash card reader for a fair price because ours has stopped working in my computer and I need to figure out if it's the USB port or the device. I then went to a kitchen supply store and bought three items, all of which I'd researched. One of them was a very fancy blender, which I had spent hours researching online and in-person at the gourmet store. Because I'd done so much research and spent so much time contemplating the purchase, I knew I was ready and that this was the right one at the right price. I could have saved $15 and gotten one online using a coupon at Macy's, but (I hate Macy's for this!) the Macy's site was not clear about the product model number and getting help was difficult. So, in the end, I spent more money, but put that money into the local economy and was certain that I'd gotten exactly what I wanted--which I couldn't do at Macys.com. I got free gift-wrapping on all three items that I bought, and while they were wrapping, I picked up dinner at our favorite (very affordable) Mexican place--and saved 10% using a coupon.

An alternative to Christmas

I'll say more about this in another post, but I also want to mention that the bloated and frenzied spending ritual that has become Christmas is not really what Christmas is all about--you do have alternatives.

If you are a practicing Christian, perhaps it's time to turn Christmas into a more spiritually-based event? Scale back the buying and spending and invest in service, charitable giving, church attendance, or other forms of worship and observance. Establish new rituals--light of candles, eat special (biblically traditional?) foods, spend time with your family reading the story of Christmas, singing, or making themed arts and crafts.

If, like my family, you are not Christians, or not practicing Christians, you might do what we do. For myself, I celebrate the solstice. I conduct a pagan spiritual ritual and host a gathering for friends where I serve traditional food and drink (such as glog). The focus of the event is an appreciation of darkness and a celebration of light. It's beautiful and costs next to nothing.

With my family on my mother's side, we have the Annual Family Winter Games. My mother hosts--on any day other than December 25th. We gather to eat and drink together and compete in a series of clever games and projects that my very creative mother devises. There are scavenger hunts, craft projects, riddles, puzzles, and an amazing assortment of contests appropriate for almost all ages. We exchange small gifts and there are also lots of little prizes for the winner of each game. (I hope to write more about these alternatives to spend-heavy Christmases in a future post.)

Iceberg dead ahead

The Titanic sank--and most of its passengers and crew perished--because of the greed and hubris of its makers and its captain. It's time for American consumers to remember that we are the captains of our own financial ships. We do not have to cave in to pressure to behave recklessly. We can stock our ship with plenty of lifeboats and we can chart a course through dangerous waters that will allow us to reach our destination safely.

And we can start with our approach to Christmas.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Heat Yourself First

Among the best winter heating tips I can offer is this: heat yourself, not the air around you.

It's much more affordable to invest in a good pair of long underwear or cozy socks than it is to turn the thermostat up another five degrees.

I've found these things to be very helpful:

--Sleep in your socks.
--Wear layers, including long underwear top and bottom.
--Don't be afraid to wear scarves, neck warmers, or hats at home.
--Leg warmers and arm warmers make a surprising difference. I got my black leg warmers at Target and my arm warmers at Sock Dreams. Sock Dreams is a woman-owned, independent business based in Portland, OR. Their mail order business offers free shipping on all orders and their customer service is excellent. I wear my chenille arm warmers when I'm working at my computer. They keep my palms and arms warm while I'm typing without interfering with the keyboard or my typing.
--Put extra blankets on the bed and tuck in your top sheet.
--Snuggle. :-)
--Keep cozy blankets any place you find yourself sitting. We keep several on the couch and stuffed armchair in the living room so that we can be comfortable when watching TV or reading, etc.
--I find that wearing long socks helps me, so that my ankles are never bare and there's no gap between the bottom of my pants and my socks.
--I also find that tucking in my bottom layer--usually a tank top--helps me a lot. Keeping my abdomen covered makes a big difference in my overall warmth and comfort.
--Keep your trunk warm--wear a light fleece vest, for instance, as your outer layer at home.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Avoid Finance Charges

Even if you pay off the balance of your credit card every month, you may find yourself paying finance charges if there is no grace period. It's important to know your card.

On the back of your statement, in all that fine print, there should be specific details that outline your card agreement. (I keep all of my statements on hand in a filing system so that I can check on them if I need to. I kept paper statements for five years when I was self-employed. I advise keeping them for at least a year--and to always keep the initial card agreement and other relevant documents.)

Look for a section labeled Grace Period. Also read the sections on Finance Charges.

Also keep in mind, that many cards use an average daily balance, so that even if you pay off your balance in full before it's due, you may find yourself paying a finance charge.

I recently paid off the balance on a card, but because it was a balance that had been sitting on the card for more than one billing cycle, there was no grace period. I paid $4.74 in finance charges for the month AFTER I had paid it off. My balance was zero, but I owed $4.74 in interest.

This is another reason why it's important to always open and look at your statements immediately. I almost didn't bother to open that statement because I knew I had paid off the card, but if I hadn't, I wouldn't have known that there was a small balance due--and I would have been dinged for late fees of more than 600% of that balance.

The moral? Know your card(s)--and always open your statements promptly, even if you're afraid of what's there and even if you think you don't owe anything.

If you have the ability to schedule e-mail alerts for things such as approaching your limit or a new statement, I also recommend doing this.

And, of course, the best practice is to liberate yourself from credit cards entirely.

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Discount oil changes for ladies

Brake King in Northampton offer's half-priced oil changes for women on Wednesdays. The service is friendly--and they even have a "queer-safe" rainbow sticker on the door. I think I saved about $13 by going there for my last oil change--which translates to about three and a half gallons of heating oil.

236 Pleasant St
Northampton, MA 01060
(413) 584-4988

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

In Celebration of Progress: $11,000 in debt is gone!

One year ago this week, I started my new salaried position as an editor. After ten years of freelancing, I was ready to settle into a steady 40-hour-a-week project with a regular paycheck and benefits when just the right thing came along.

52 weeks later, I can report that I love my job! And I've been able to make good progress toward my goal of living sustainably.

For me, living sustainably is not just about recycling or growing my own dirt using worms and table scraps in the basement; it's not just about reducing my carbon footprint or the mess I make on this earth. For me, it's really about living in a way that is actually sustainable.

Toward that end, I have set about removing myself from the shackles of debt that have plagued me in all the years that I've been too ill to earn a living wage--in other words, too sick to sustain myself. It began with the Year of Healing, which sent me deeper into debt, but which helped me to get well enough to do this job I now have (which sustains me).

Phase one accomplished.

Commencing phase two.
With a level of health that was still not 100%, but which allowed me to complete my 40-hours-a-week of work from home, last November, I set about reducing my debt and increasing my savings.

After one year, I am able to report that I have reduced my credit card debt by more than $11,000. I have invested 3% of my gross income into a 401k with company matching. And I have in my savings two months worth of living expenses. And I did all this while supporting not just myself, but my partner who arrived here in late December.

I confess I wish that it were all happening quicker. I wish the economy were in better shape and that my partner could sell his house and find lucrative work here, which would free up more of my resources to get myself out of the hole--and into a home of my own.

Nevertheless, now that I sit here surveying the work of the past twelve months, I am savoring the progress. It feels really good to have come this far.

How I did it.
I've employed a lot of money-saving techniques that I never seem to have the time to write about here. But, in a nutshell, I followed the basic rules I think are necessary to live a thriftful and sustainable life.
  • I increased my income. In addition to my full-time work, I kept a couple of freelance clients. It was often exhausting to stay at the computer nights and weekends, but it's been worth it.
  • I set a detailed and specific budget in an Excel spreadsheet.
  • I tracked all of my actual spending for one month and compared it to the budget I had set out.
  • I paid cash for things and used my credit cards only for airline tickets, hotels, and rental cars.
  • I took a good solid look at my debt. I got out all of my credit card statements and made a spreadsheet in Excel that listed the cards, their current interest rate, the monthly finance charge I had paid, and the amount I had left to pay.
  • I felt truly dismayed and overwhelmed--and angry--as I looked at that massive number. Then, I took a deep breath and I made a plan.
  • I mapped out in Excel my Debt Reduction Plan. I figured out--based on my original budget--how much I could put each month towards my credit card debt while still meeting my savings and investment goals.
  • I then stuck to my plan. Every time a bill arrived, I opened it, then opened my spreadsheet and updated the interest rate, balance, and finance charge. Then each month, I made a large payment to one of my cards based on the Debt Reduction Plan.
  • I chose to pay off the smallest cards first, rather than going after the ones with the highest balances or the highest interest rates. It created a feeling of accomplishment. Right away I was able to say, "I paid off a credit card today!" and this helped fuel my desire to keep going.
  • I made realistic allowances, such as reducing the amount I would put toward my debt in December and January, in anticipation of holiday expenses--travel and gifts, etc. Ditto June, when everyone in my family seems to have a birthday (or Father's Day).
  • I was a conscious consumer. I paid attention to what I spent money on and I employed good thrift thinking--I used the library a lot. I ate in. I bought things on sale. I planned ahead. I gave myself room to splurge now and then. I was especially diligent about weather-proofing and reigning in winter heating costs. I was blessed by the generosity of friends, who let me stay with them on vacation, significantly reducing my expenses. In other words, I spent carefully and freely, but with thoughtfulness and power.
  • I also used my spreadsheet to motivate myself. I resented that when I began my journey, I was paying more than $140 per month just in finance charges on my various cards! It spurred my desire to reduce that cost. When I wanted to splurge on a large purchase--like a couch, which I want SO badly, or new luggage or a Wii--I thought about that money just disappearing every month to the credit card companies and I made a conscious choice NOT to spend on anything else until that money was back in my hands. Now, my monthly finance charges have dropped to about $50--and that number shrinks every month.
  • I called my credit cards occasionally to lobby for lower interest rates. When I started, the average interest rate on my cards was 7.51%, with the worst one at 17.15% (the card with the highest balance).
  • I switched balances to cards with lower interest rates when the offers suited me. Now, my average rate is 4.74%.
I still have a ways to go, but I'm more than two-thirds of the way there. My current plan has me credit-card-debt-free in April of 2010. This plan allows for a generous contribution to my savings, though, so that I can meet the Phase Three goal of saving up a down payment for a home of my own. However, with some good luck this winter, some careful planning, and continued gainful employment, I may just decide to knock that last bit off a whole lot sooner so that I can celebrate the completion of phase two and finally (finally!) declare myself credit-card-debt-free!

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Calculate your gas mileage

The calculations won't be exact, but to determine your gas mileage, fill up your tank. Make a note of your mileage or set your tripometer. At your next fill up, make a note of the number of gallons you put in. Then, divide the miles by the gallons.

For example, on a recent drive to Maine, I traveled 380 miles on 12.24 gallons, which worked out to about 31 mpg (with the AC on). Around town, I tend to get 26 or 27 with the AC on.

I drive a 2004 Ford Focus 5-speed hatchback and I love it. It's zippy, comfortable, surprisingly spacious, and as you can see, good on gas. And my car payment is half what it would have been if I'd bought a Corrolla instead. Yay, thrift.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money This Year: One

1. Don't apply for new credit. Every time a creditor checks your credit, it damages your credit score. It's an ignorant, unfair system that doesn't allow for sensible choices on your part, but since this IS the system, you must choose wisely and act accordingly.

Why shouldn't you apply for new credit? Because it damages your credit score, which means that you'll wind up paying higher interest rates on car loans, mortgages, credit cards--or any other form of loan--which means, in the end, you lose money. The difference between a half a percentage point (or more) on a mortgage, for instance, can result in tens of thousands of dollars lost over the course of the loan--or hundreds of dollars each month. Think I'm exaggerating? Check out these numbers:

If your credit score is in the top range (720+) you'll qualify for the best interest rates. On a three-year car loan, for instance, let's say you got 7%. If you had a credit score in the lowest range (500-579) you're looking at a rate of something closer to 15%. Think that's not so bad? Think again. You'd lose an extra $75 or so each month for three years, which means you'd lose $2700 over the course of the loan. (Numbers from Suze Orman's The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, & Broke, p.24)

Think this is just a scare tactic? Unfortunately, I know of what I speak. My credit score dropped with one (major) credit reporting agency by 40 points in one year. I had reduced my debt by 20%, paid all my bills on time, and earned another year of perfect credit post-bankruptcy and yet my score really dropped! The reason? I had applied for too much new credit. Each time had a good explanation and if evaluated on its own by a human being wouldn't affect my credit poorly, but for the algorithm that creates our scores, it is only seen as bad.

In my case, one credit inquiry was for my new car. My old car died and I had no choice. I chose a car that was in my budget, that is reliable, under warranty, and saved me two hundred dollars a year in insurance, and yet, FICO dinged me for this. Another credit inquiry was from Macy's. I was spending several hundred dollars on interview clothes for a high-paying job I eventually got. When the salesgirl offered me the chance to save 20% by opening a Macy's card, I said, "yes," thinking only of the immediate savings. Another credit score ding.

Another inquiry came because I applied for an LL Bean VISA. I order from LL Bean frequently and with their VISA, I can earn useful points toward future purchases, get free monogramming, and most importantly, get free shipping. Also the rate being offered was lower than the average rate on my other cards. The annual savings would be substantial, so it's a sound financial choice to apply for the card--but to FICO, it makes me seem unstable. Another ding.

The other two credit inquiries were when I applied for low-interest cards so that I could transfer my balances and pay off the cards more quickly (and lose less money to interest payments). Again, a sound financial choice. But to FICO...not so much.

So, even though I made responsible choices in all of these credit situations, my credit score dropped by 40 whole points. To make matters worse, because my score had dropped, after my car loan was approved, I wasn't approved for any of the money-saving cards I applied for, so my score dropped and there was no upside.

This year, I am shopping for houses, so its especially important for me to have the highest credit score possible. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that even despite reducing my debt by 20% and paying all my bills on time in the last twelve months, my score had not risen--it had dropped--by a lot.

In a nutshell: always say "no" when the cashier asks you if you want to "save" by opening a store credit card. The interest rates are always high, and the inquiry on your credit isn't worth the damage. Don't apply for more than one new card per year. You are probably better off living with whatever rate you have than applying for lower-rate cards and watching your credit drop.

The good news: Your credit is not damaged when non-lenders check it. If you check your score, or if a landlord or employer checks your score, you shouldn't experience a hit. There is also a special exception (I think) for mortgage shopping. I believe you get a two-week grace period. So, if you are ready to buy a home, do all your mortgage shopping within a two-week period and all of those hits will only count as one, no matter how many lenders check your credit. (Please double-check this before acting on it...just in case the rules have changed since I researched this.)

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money This Year: Two

2. Shop with a list. (And don't shop hungry.)
  • This also falls under the heading of #3, Plan Ahead.
  • Peter and I keep a notepad on the fridge. It cost 79 cents and comes with a magnet that holds it up. One pad lasts almost a year. Whenever we run out of something or think of something we want, we put it on the list. Then, when we go grocery shopping, we bring the list, cross things off as we find them. This saves time and it saves money, because we buy fewer impulse items. It also helps to ensure that we have all of the ingredients for our planned meals.
  • Last week, I sat down with the sales circular from our local Big Y grocery store. I made a list of items we needed that were on sale. We drove three miles to the store, bought the items on our list, plus a few others, and saved over $50.

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Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money This Year: Three

3. Plan ahead.
  • Hallowe'en is my favorite day of the year. It's one holiday I feel is really worst investing in. So, I am constantly on the lookout for costume-related items and decorations. I've found almost all of the parts of my best costumes in May or February or some other time of the year when the last thing on most people's minds is Hallowe'en. I find them at yard sales, thrift stores, curb sides, or other free or cheap locations.
  • My stepmother decided that this year would be the last one in which she purchased a "real" tree for Christmas. Instead of going out and buying an artificial tree right away, though, she waited until after Christmas and saved 75%.
  • Every year, on November 1st, I go shopping for half-priced (or better) Hallowe'en decorations. I set a specific budget--say, $5 or $10--and I can usually find plenty of things. I have a plastic bin in the attic where I keep all of my Hallowe'en items, and these things go in there, until the next year. Over the years, I've acquired a great collection, almost all of it at 50% off the retail price (or more).
  • My college class has a reunion every five years. My friends and I always go. One of the important traditions is Ivy Day, when we all dress in white and march in a parade. Rather than scramble for something white to wear, I planned ahead and purchased a white dress at a thrift store for $2--two years before my next reunion. So long as it still fits then, I've made a good investment.
  • Planning ahead works for purchases, as in the examples above, but it also works for saving. If you check the weather and bring along a rain coat or umbrella, you won't be caught buying a cheap poncho for $10 at Disney World or Fenway. If you bring a snack or fill-up a bottle of water, etc. with you when you go out to run errands--or even commute--you'll save the money you would have spent on grabbing a snack or a drink at a store.
  • Sometimes planning ahead means accepting hand-me-downs that might not immediately be useful. I accepted a cake tray, for instance, that was beautiful and would have been expensive to purchase on my own. I almost threw it out once, but was glad I saved it when it was exactly what I needed to present cupcakes during a surprise party, or to hold a crucial item during a solstice ritual, etc.
  • Other plan-ahead items can be things like purchasing gifts ahead of time, when things are on sale, remembering to bring coupons when you go shopping, booking travel in advance, or checking the air in your tires before a long trip, or keeping a bottle of windshield wiper fluid in your car. You get the gist.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money: Four

4. Cancel your magazine subscriptions. You'll reduce waste, free up some time, save money, save some trees and reduce your carbon footprint (those magazines have to be shipped to you on airplanes and trucks) and have less clutter around the house. Some other ways to enjoy magazines for free or cheaper:

  • Request back issues on Freecycle.
  • Check them out of your local library.
  • Share a subscription--or swap--with a friend.
  • Redeem rewards. I collect Coke Rewards codes and then cash them in for prizes. Most recently, I got a year's subscription to O at Home magazine.
  • Get someone to give you the subscription. Every year, my Dad and stepmom give me a year's subscription to the magazine of my choice. And every year, I give one friend a subscription to BUST. (BUST lets subscribers give away one free subscription every year at Christmas when they renew for another year.)
  • Participate in a magazine swap. In my area, there are several. At the Cup and Top cafe in Florence, for instance, there's a magazine rack where people drop off their unwanted back issues and others can take them home or read them on the spot. If there isn't a magazine swap in your neighborhood, why not start one?
  • Read online. (I personally hate reading things online, which is ironic since I make my living writing things online, but, if you don't hate it, this could be an affordable alternative to subscribing to a magazine.)
As with all of my tips, it's first and foremost about quality of life. If you absolutely LOVE your magazine(s). If you look forward to the day it arrives and read it cover to cover and recycle it when you're through or keep it on your shelf and return to it again and again, then, by all means, keep your subscriptions. If, however, you don't really have the time or energy to read them all, let them go. If you want them bad enough, you'll find a free way to still enjoy them.

If you find yourself buying them regularly at newsstands, however, stop that immediately and go back to your subscription. It's much more affordable.

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Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money: Five

5. Invest in a candle warmer. You can get one online for about $15. In my experience, they make your jarred candles last 200% longer, which, for a typical Yankee Candle candle, means you save up to $40 per candle. (Since new ones cost about $20.) They also reduce (or practically eliminate) the risk of starting a house fire, which is a very expensive proposition. And, they reduce waste.

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Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money This Year: Recap

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money this Year: Seven

7. Clear your clutter. Clearing your clutter has myriad money-saving advantages.
  1. If you donate items to non-profits, you can deduct the donation on your taxes. This is really only helpful if you take more than the standard deduction, but still...
  2. You can improve the feng shui in your home. It can help you have more energy, be less depressed, manifest greater prosperity, better health and well-being. For an excellent resource on how to clear your clutter with feng shui, read Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui" by Karen Kingston ($10.95 new; about $6 used.)
  3. You can make some money getting rid of unused things. Sell them online via eBay, Half.com, Craigslist, or some other reputable outlet. Last year I made hundreds of dollars selling CDs, books, and consumer electronics that I no longer needed or wanted.
  4. Clearing clutter helps to create order, which helps to create both a sense of well-being and a better perspective on what we own and why we own it. Clearing clutter can help you purchase fewer things, because once you've cleaned everything up, you may not want to mess it all up again. It can also help you to identify poor spending habits. Are you buying clothes in the wrong sizes in the hope that you'll get smaller (or larger)? Do you find that you have more shoes than you can ever wear, or a closet full of craft supplies you never use? Clear your clutter lovingly, consciously, and intentionally and you will reap thrift many rewards.

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Ten Things You Can Do to Save Money this Year: Nine

9. Pay your bills online. If your bank doesn't offer free online bill pay, you can generally set it up directly through the company to whom you owe money (such as your phone or cable company).

The savings will vary, but include the cost of checks and the cost of stamps (roughly $25/year if you pay five bills per month through the mail). (Can you think of anything you'd rather do with $25 than buy stamps?)

Additional savings include late fees associated with lost checks, lost or misplaced bills, and late payments.

Automatic online bill pay features can also be advantageous if you are trying to pay down debts, such as credit cards, mortgages, or car loans. If you set a certain amount (above what's due) to go every month, it will definitely happen--and on time--versus the old-fashioned check-writing method, which is more fallible. Some months you may feel you can't afford the extra cash toward a credit card or mortgage if you are the one taking the time to physically write the check, but, if your checking account just does it automatically, you only have to make the decision once.
The one caveat here: if you are a person without a regular income, without direct deposit, with a shared checking account and a flawed system for managing it, etc., don't set up auto bill pay features. Remember, in order for auto bill pay to be beneficial, you have to have the money in your account. If an auto bill pay feature causes overdraft fees, you'll only be causing yourself additional stress, strain, and expense, so skip the tempting convenience and keep writing checks or using manual online bill pay.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Save on Candidate Gear

If you're looking to support Barak Obama, now is a good time to visit the official online store of his campaign. Through Sunday, December 2, enter coupon code "Fall07" to save 10% on your oder. Enter coupon code GFC to save 15%. I don't know if you can use the two together...

Also, the store is discontinuing some of its merchandise so there are some deals to be had, including $10 tank tops. Enjoy.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Furniture Shopping

I moved in May, and when I did, the old behemoth of a dresser I'd been using finally broke to the point where it was more satisfying to dispose of it than to find a way to repair it. I'd gotten it for free and used it for more than three years, so I felt that the $15 I gave the guy at the dump to take it off my hands was worth it in the end. (Although it really is sad to send anything to the landfill, isn't it?)

Since then, I've been living without a dresser. I've shopped around, but everything was super expensive, cheaply made, or not my style. For a while, my temporary solution was to use a plastic set of drawers that I bought on sale at Target. I don't like bringing more plastic furniture into my home. It's not attractive; you can't recycle it; it always breaks; the potential bad effects of the off-gassing make me nervous; and it's made from petroleum. But, one night just after I got my new job, I was so frustrated by my lack of storage space and the complete absence of drawers in my life, that I drove down to Target and bought the drawers.

Meanwhile, I continued to troll Salvation Army, yard sales, and other sources of inexpensive furniture with no luck. Finally, I asked a friend who used to buy, refurbish, and sell furniture where she might go for an affordable, attractive dresser and she sent me to the antique shops on Market Street (in Northampton, MA).

I had a great time shopping, so on its own it was a good, affordable way to spend time, but it also turned out to be an excellent source of quality used furniture.

Before I went, I thought about what I'd like. I measured the spaces in my room where I wanted a dresser to fit. I wrote the measurements down and I brought along my tape measure and as much cash as I was willing to spend.

I found two dressers I liked in my price range at one store, but didn't buy them that day. I went home and mulled it over. It was clear that I wanted the larger of the two dressers for sure, so on Monday, I went back and made the purchase. Two friends went by the next day with their SUV and picked it up and delivered it for me.

A couple of weeks later, I realized that I was still thinking about the other dresser, the smaller of the two. I was also still using the plastic dresser because the first set of drawers wasn't quite big enough to hold everything. I also had an extra motivation: I wanted to clear out one of my closets for my boyfriend who's moving in next month. So, today on my lunch break, I decided to go back and get it. It was still there. I never seem to have the courage to dicker, although I think in general it's expected. But, when I went to pay, I took a deep breath and then asked the woman if they gave a discount for paying cash. She happily took off $4, about seven percent.

By paying cash I saved about seven percent, plus the interest I would have paid if I'd used a credit card.

Altogether, my purchases cost about $110. I have two beautiful, functional antique dressers and I love them.

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Free Stuff: o.b. tampons

Johnson and Johnson has set up a web site called mighty small where you can sign up to get a free sample pack of o.b. tampons along with an attractive little carrying case. You have to provide them with shipping information and an e-mail address, but you can opt out of receiving future e-mails and promotional material. You don't have to pay shipping. It takes 6-8 weeks for your sample to arrive.

I don't know how large the sample pack is or what the retail value of the case is, but o.b. tampons go for $5.91 plus shipping for a pack of 40 at Drugstore.com.

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Friday, March 2, 2007

A Place to Call 'Home': 3.2.07

Since I became clear that my main focus--the thing I want most in the world--is a home of my own, I have learned and done the following things:

1) Checked my credit score. It's up 40 points since this time last year! This moves me into a whole new realm of lending rate possibilities! Combed over three credit reports from the three major companies that produce them to make sure the information was correct. Devised a strategy for raising that score even more in the next six months. (Seriously pay down balances, in part by borrowing money from my mom short-term at 0%; increase credit limits; don't apply for or open any new cards; continue to pay on time and pay more than minimum payments; don't use the cards for new purchases; transfer balances to lower rate cards whenever practical.)

2) Sat with a friend and looked on the Internet at every single available house we could find in Greenfield (half an hour north of here) as well as the ones near my price range in Northampton and other towns. Found one near my price range that I absolutely loved, but by the time I got up the courage to call a realtor, the listing had been removed.

3) Asked a homeowning friend if her home-improvement wiz partner would possibly help me in my search by doing some walkthroughs or helping to answer questions or talk to realtors and/or sellers.

4) Investigated options at the USDA. Their rural development office may just have a program that could assist someone like me. Requested information via e-mail, but was told it would be better to come in person.

5) Instituted a new spending policy and budget method. I have alotted $50/week for groceries and I do not go over this amount. I have allotted $30 per week for entertainment and I keep that cash in my wallet. I re-up on Wednesdays. I do not go over. It's tremendously satisfying to still have cash in my wallet at the end of the week. And it prevents me from making purchases because I have to think--do I really want this? This way, I only get the things I really do want. This week, I only was able to give myself $10 of entertainment money because I didn't earn enough to do more, but I spent less on groceries, so the combination of food and entertainment money seems to be happening sort of organically. I can make choices about how to re-allocate funds on an as needed basis, as long as I don't go over. For instance, there was plenty of food in the cupboards, so I had enough money to treat myself to take out food twice, a coffee, and a soda so far this week--entertainment expenses that came out of my grocery budget.

6) Began investigating alternatives to traditional homes. For example, Tumbleweed Tiny Houses. Perhaps buying land and building a home like one of these will be the answer. I'm also interested in looking into Cob houses, and found a woman who does how-to workshops. She doesn't have a web site, but you can e-mail her at amlywig@yahoo.com. (Her name is Amber DeVoss.) I haven't contacted her yet, but if I do, I'll post the results here.

7) Got some information about local resources, including a lead on classes for potential first-time hoembuyers; a recommendation for a good loan officer at a local bank; and the name of a local housing organization (HAP).

8) Created a notebook where I can take notes, keep track of ideas, and form a coherent plan.

9) Read part of a book for first-time homebuyers.

10) Pursued work with higher-paying clients; completed and invoice for work more quickly.

11) Was conscious of every purchase I made--from underwear to coffee to gas--in terms of my home ownership project. Every dollar I spend on something other than a home is a dollar I spend on something other than a home. It's okay to do this; I just want to be really aware of and satisfied by my choices as I go. I don't feel deprived. I feel excited and alive.

12) Created this category at my Thrift blog.

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Saturday, January 6, 2007

Thrift: Great Find

Every summer, the Hospice Thrift Store in Northampton has a bag sale to clear out its inventory. This year, I got two vintage dresses, a pair of shoes, two sweaters, two pairs of pants, a night gown, a blouse, five bras, a nightgown for my niece, a book for my friend Jemma, some ribbon, and an assortment of sewing supplies. Had I paid full-price at the thrift store for them, they would have cost $48.50. I paid $6.00 for the whole bag.

Four months later, I can report that I've worn almost everyhing I purchased at the sale repeatedly. The shoes are cute and fit great. One of the vintage dresses is just waiting for the perfect opportunity to come out and show its stuff. And for a while I was wearing the nightgown every night. It was definitely money well spent.

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Friday, December 1, 2006

This Day in Thrift: December 1, 2006

Today I...

...got $25 worth of free gas using a gift card I received from Verizon for switching back to their service from Vonage. I read the insert completely so I'd know how to use it, and put it in my wallet so it would be handy when the time came.

...went to my mechanic about an issue I was having with my headlights. It turned out it was something I could fix myself. He explained how and saved me about $40 in labor. This sort of savings is the happy result of fostering good relationships with people. Being kind, polite, courteous, respectful, and friendly to the people who take care of you is an investment, which usually rewards you with either direct financial dividends, or the less quantifiable but still satisfying emotional ones.

...shipped a DVD I had sold at Half.com. By selling it, I earned $10 back on a DVD I purchased for about $20 and watched once. I shipped it first class, rather than media mail, because the price was nearly the same. By opting for first class, I could ship my package from the automated postal machine, which saved me from spending my time standing in line. Using first class also gives me a competitive edge over other sellers who use the slower media mail option. I advertise the free upgrade to first class with all single DVD or CD orders, and it sets me apart from other sellers offering the same or similar prices for the items I'm selling.

...shopped at Deals and Steals, which my friend Tim calls, "the used food store." I remembered to bring my shopping list with me, which helps. And even though I was hungry--a "no-no" for any food shopping--I still made good choices. For those of you who've never been, or aren't local, Deals and Steals is where dented and scratched goods and foods from places like Whole Foods wind up. It's a great place to get organic foods, for instance, but at half what you'd pay for them at a fancy retail store--or even at your co-op. Today I spent less than $20 and I came home with the following:

2 Newman's Own dark chocolate bars, $.75 each, approx. savings: $2.49
32 oz Grapeseed Oil, $6.75, approx. savings: $1.25
Tom's of Maine Toothpaste, 4.3 oz, $2.25, approx. savings: $.45

I also bought several cans of organic foods that I use often, including diced tomatoes and prepared foods like soups and one of my favorite treats, Amy's spaghetti-o's with tofu meatballs. I saved more than a dollar on each canned product I purchased. These have the added benefit of saving money later because on days when I'm too tired, or busy, or sick to cook, instead of eating out or ordering in, I can heat up something easy and good for me without spending any extra money.

Deals and Steals also sells clothing, shoes, and accessories, and I was able to try on a pair of earwarmers ($25 retail) that I'd been eyeing in the LL Bean catalog. It turns out that they weren't as comfortable as I thought they were. If I wanted to buy them, I could have gotten them for $9.99 (saving roughly $15), but since I now know I don't want them, I saved $25.

...heard about a book on Oprah ("The Money Coach's Guide to Your First Million") that I was excited about. (I like reading the advice of money coaches and financial advisors.) But, I have a firm "try before you buy" policy when it comes to books. So, instead of buying the book, I went online to my local library's website. I searched for the book, found it, and requested it. When it comes in, I'll get an e-mail and go pick it up. I'm lucky to live in a state where the public library system is really strong, has an online presence, and is extremely well-integrated. I'm able to request books from all over the state, and they are delivered right to my local branch.

Because I appreciate and use this service so often--and it saves me so much money--I wrote a thank you note to the director of the library this summer. I am not in a position to make a meaningful financial contribution to the library, but taking the time to write a note of thanks to a person, business, or institution that serves you well is an important way to show your support and encouragement. It's always worth doing and I strongly recommend it.

...I made dinner in--one of the canned treats I got today. I am tired and there's a big thunderstorm happening, so I'm spending my Friday night at home doing things that are free. I'm catching up on work and volunteer projects, doing some comparison shopping for Christmas gifts and other things, and later I'll watch one (or two) of the DVDs I've got from Netflix, and/or read the book I started this week (a gift from a friend who owns a bookstore.) I may also take a bubble bath, with some aromatherapeutic bath suds that I got on a different trip to Deals and Steals, or may take an epsom salt bath, a good way to relax and reduce aches and pains. (I got epsom salts BOGO a few months ago, so I'm well-stocked.)

...protected my appliances and conserved electricity. This thunderstorm is a real doozy, with lightning cracking so close and so loud it vibrates inside my chest. The warnings were all over the news today. So, when the storm started, I went around the house and unplugged every appliance that I could. If there is a lightning strike, I won't lose my TV or my DVD player, my humidifier or my lamps, my printers or my laptop. These things would be very pricey to replace, and upsetting to live without. It's not likely that my home or these power sources will be hit by lightning, but the simple step of unplugging things tonight offers a great potential savings, so it's completely worth it.

...checked my lottery ticket to see if I won. The other day, on a whim, I bought a lottery ticket. I had run into my ex-boyfriend someplace so utterly unexpected (and got really upset about it) that I decided I should try and turn my "luck" on its end. If I could run into him against the greatest of odds, perhaps I could win the lottery! I didn't. But it still cheered me up to buy the ticket...so I think it was worth the dollar. :-)

…listed an item for sale on eBay. It's a vintage TV Guide issue with Dinah Shore on the cover. I used to collect women's sports memorabilia, but now I'm letting go of most of it because I just don't have the space to properly store it. I won't get much—if any—money for it, but since I don't know anyone who'd like to get it as a gift, attempting to sell feels better than just dropping it off at the Book Shed at the dump, or at Salvation Army. (The book shed is--well, a shed--full of discarded books at the dump. You can leave yours, and also take anything you like.

…found the receipt for an office visit to my physical therapist, for which the billing department says I didn't pay. Now I can write them and, for the price of a stamp and a photocopy, resolve the issue.

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