Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bundled Services

While I think it's creepy to have mega-conglomerates or single corporations owning all of my telecommunications dollars, I'm also not about to refuse the opportunity to get a better deal by bundling, if the savings are substantial.

I've been using Verizon for my phone service, both home and office, and Charter for cable TV and Internet. (I tried Verizon's DSL with disastrous results a few years ago and will never go back.)

While my initial foray into VoIP was TERRIBLE with Vonage, I'm game for giving it another go because of the savings--and the office landline as a backup.

My introductory rate with Verizon was up a few months ago. I called them to see if they'd extend it--or even just match the Charter rate, but they declined.

So, tonight, I invested half an hour and got the switch to Charter taken care of.

It took some time to sort out the best deal. I could save by using a coupon that came with my bill, by using a bundled purchase option online, or by calling. A few minutes spent sorting the options and chatting with a rep got me my new deal.

I'll have everything I have now (all my cable channels and the same Internet, plus voicemail and unlimited long distance, etc.), but it'll cost me a total of $119.97/month versus the $162 I've been paying since my Verizon rate went up.

It was a nuisance sorting through the various options. And I was misinformed by the online chat rep about being able to use my $50 coupon. So there was an extra phone call involved to sort that out.

In the end, though, I invested less than an hour in the project and will save $42/month for the next 12 months, a total savings of $504. Not a bad hourly rate.

Moral of the story: It's worth it to take the time to research options and combinations when shopping for TV, Internet, and phone services in order to get the very best deal.

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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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Friday, October 3, 2008

Why I love the LL Bean card

Far be it from me to encourage credit card spending, but for me, the LL Bean card (now from Barclay's) is the very best of what credit cards can be. The perks are big; the downside minimal.

Let me explain.

I frequently shop at LL Bean. Maybe it's because I'm a Mainer. Maybe because I live in New England where good, durable foul-weather gear is a must. Maybe it's because I'm so practical, but I love LL Bean.

Everything you buy has a lifetime guarantee. You dig? You can buy a pair of winter boots and never have to replace them again as long as you live. Ditto tents, sleeping bags, winter coats, sleds, furniture--everything they sell. You can return whatever you buy at any time if it starts to fall apart--only it pretty much never will. So, rather than buying something somewhere else and paying to replace or repair it, with LL Bean, you opt into a system of quality and dependability that is unmatched.

I recently bought an air mattress, for instance. I had been shopping around for them for years. And every one I had ever encountered had developed a leak, was uncomfortable, or had some crazy pump system--or lack thereof. Enter LL Bean. I found one--on sale ($40 off, I think)--that was durably constructed, got rave reviews from users, and has a handy-dandy-built-in pump. Like, you literally just push a button and the thing blows itself up and then deflates itself, too.

(We haven't slept on it yet, but we did inflate it and spend an evening lounging on it and watching TV and we pretty much decided its better than at least one of our real beds!)

Because I have the LL Bean Visa card, I paid no sales tax, no shipping, and if it turns out it isn't right, I can return it free of charge, too! Plus, if it ever--for the rest of my life--rips, leaks, or fails me in any way, I can return it. For free. AND, because I have the LL Bean Visa, I earned 3% of that purchase back towards another purchase.

Today, for instance, I bought a pair of winter boots. They're vegan, which is hard to find. And by applying my LL Bean coupon dollars ($10), which were a reward for opening the card and making the mattress purchase, I saved $19.95 on shipping and the price of the boots. Plus, I'll earn $7 in coupon dollars toward my next purchase because of a double coupon dollars promotion. I also saved by not paying any sales tax.

If they don't fit or I don't like them, I can just send them back, free of charge, or take them in on my next trip home. (I actually have here a pair of LL Bean boots that I bought a few years ago, but which are horribly uncomfortable and which have a flaw in the lace-up construction--the metal loops shred the laces. I want to return, but keep feeling shy about it since it's been so long. Once I get up the nerve to send them back, if I apply that credit toward this purchase, it's like getting half-priced boots, really.)

Last month, when my sister-in-law wanted to buy her daughter a monogrammed LL Bean backpack for kindergarten, I ordered it for her. The monogramming and shipping were both free, saving her about $20 and earning me $1.65 in coupon dollars.

Seriously, I love this card. The important thing to watch out for--for me--is that I don't get shop-happy and start buying all sorts of things just because it's so easy. I stay away from the catalog until after I've decided I need something--such as a backpack, boots, or an air mattress. I also have to remember to pay off the balance immediately because the interest rate is very (very) high.

The card also gives me 1% in reward dollars for other, non LL Bean purchases. And has some excellent travel-related and other perks. So, at some point, I may start using it for regular monthly purchases--such as the cable bill--so rack up more coupon dollars (which don't expire for a year) but for now, I want to use it only for LL Bean purchases--or large one-time purchases--so I don't fall into the trap of spending more money than I have.

I'm not saying you should necessarily get the LL Bean card. But I am saying that if you're going to have a credit card in your life, it's worth shopping around and finding the very best card for your lifestyle. To learn more about the card, visit LL Bean.com.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Compare Heating Oil Prices

As we move into the dreaded heating oil season, it's important to make an informed choice when you purchase your home heating oil.

To research prices in New England, visit NewEnglandOil.

As of 9/25/08, the best price in my area appears to be $3.43, down from $3.89 this summer. (I'm so glad I didn't buy then!)

If your dealer doesn't offer it outright, go ahead and ask if they offer a discount for paying in cash/check, or for paying within a certain time period (a week, ten days, 30 days). I've been able to save ten cents a gallon by paying my dealer within ten days by check.

Prices are fluctuating daily, so be sure to call ahead to check pricing and availability in your area. Also ask about the minimum delivery amount.

Crude oil prices dropped to a new low today, so it may be a good time to check in on your local dealers' prices.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Two Real Life Thumbs Down for eBay and PayPal

I know some people have had great luck with eBay. They live for it. They live with it. Whatever.

I almost never have a good experience. And yet, once or twice a year, I forget that and give in to the temptation to get something I want cheaper than I can find it elsewhere--and then I suffer the consequences.

Most recently, I wanted to buy a book on ayurvedic cooking and healing techniques. The cheapest copy I could find was available on eBay. I bid on it. I won it--for $1 plus shipping and handling. I paid the seller using PayPal.

Then I waited.

Four weeks later, still no book. So, I checked eBay. The seller is no longer registered with eBay. I checked with PayPal--I hadn't received a refund. I also haven't received any communication from the seller.

So, the question becomes, how much of my time is it worth to recoup my $5 loss? Not much, theoretically, except that it's the principle of the thing.

I began by investigating my history at PayPal, to be sure I hadn't been refunded--or that the transaction had been canceled by the buyer. It didn't seem to have been, although it was all pretty confusing, to be honest with you. There was a debit when the money was sent to the seller; and then a credit when it came in from my bank account. So, on the face of it, it seemed like there had been a debit and a credit, but the credit came from my checking account, not from the seller. So my PayPal balance is $0, when it should be $5, if the refund came through.

Next, I tried to find some help options as PayPal.

Since there wasn't an FAQ, Disputes, or Help button readily available on the page, I clicked on the Contact Us link, which is in the fine print at the bottom.

My first option was to Chat with Sarah:



I was in a rush, so I mistook Sarah, "my PayPal virtual help assistant" who "is available to chat with me at any time" for a real person. That's amazing, I thought. They have such excellent customer service that someone is available immediately, all the time.

Here's what ensued:


Sarah - PayPal :
Hello, I’m Sarah, and I’m here to answer questions you have about PayPal. Just type into the box below and click Submit to get started.
I’m in training now, so if I don’t know the answer to your PayPal question, I’ll try to learn it for next time!
You :
Hi, Sarah
Sarah - PayPal :
Hello, you're an early bird! How can I help you?
You :
An early bird? It's 4pm...
Sarah - PayPal :
Do you mean:
How do I add/remove/edit personal information on my PayPal account?
What is PayPal's phone number?

You :
I purchased an item using PayPal through ebay, but the item has not arrived and the seller and the listing have been removed from ebay.
Sarah - PayPal :
Sorry, but your phrase is too long and I will not be able to perform a full analysis. I would be very grateful if you could try to make it a bit shorter and more concise.
You :
what do i do
Sarah - PayPal :
I'm not sure I've understood. Could you please rephrase your question?
You :
oh, i get it. you're not human. well...is any of this getting through?
Sarah - PayPal :
I'm a virtual person, and I'm programmed to do my best to help you with basic customer care issues.
You :
that's creepy.
Sarah - PayPal :
I apologize if you can't find the infomation you seek by speaking with me. I'm unable to help with your request. Please enter a new question, visit the Help Center, or Contact Us.
You :
id you get my question
Sarah - PayPal :
Do you mean:
I am unable to login, what can I do?
What if I've forgotten my email address?
Can you tell me more specific details about my account?

You :
fraud ebay help
Sarah - PayPal :
Could you be more precise please?
What is eBay?
My buyer is trying to defraud me
Can you tell me more specific information about my eBay account?
How can I report potential fraud to PayPal?

You :
How can I report potential fraud to PayPal?
Sarah - PayPal :
If you notice unauthorized activity from your PayPal account, report it to us immediately through the Resolution Center. If you notice an unauthorized transaction on your PayPal Debit Card report it to us immediately by calling the telephone number or sending an email to the address listed on the back of your debit card.
If you received what you believe is a fake PayPal email, or you've come across a spoof PayPal website, please report it to our Customer Service team. If possible, please forward the original email to spoof@paypal.com. Anything else I can do to help you?
You :
this is useless
Sarah - PayPal :
Really, that frustrates me... Because I do my best to improve every day. Really, that frustrates me... Because I do my best to improve every day. Do you have any other questions?
You :
i still have my original question.
Sarah - PayPal :
I'm not sure I've understood. Could you please rephrase that?
You :
i bought an item on ebay. it never arrived. buyer protection?
Sarah - PayPal :
OK. I'm unable to help with your request. Please enter a new question, visit the Help Center, or Contact Us.
Sarah - PayPal :
I've just opened the right page for you. Please let me know if you have other questions.
Sarah - PayPal :
I'm about to open a page which will allow you to send a copy of our conversation.
Sarah - PayPal :
I've just opened a page allowing you to send an email with the transcript of our conversation. If you cannot see the page, this may be because your pop-up blocker is activated. Try clicking on yellow bar at the top of your window to deactivate your pop-up blocker.

[This Page Could Not Be Found]

You :
you have to do it again, please
Sarah - PayPal :
What precisely are you looking for?
How do I update or edit the Shipment Tracking Information that I previously provided to the Buyer?
How do I track packages with labels created on PayPal?
How do I obtain Shipment Tracking information from my seller?

Sarah - PayPal :
I've just opened a page allowing you to send an email with the transcript of our conversation. If you cannot see the page, this may be because your pop-up blocker is activated. Try clicking on yellow bar at the top of your window to deactivate your pop-up blocker.

[This Page Could Not Be Found]

**
I have now composed an e-mail to PayPal, which also required some irritating navigation of passive-aggressive and unhelpful menu trees so that they can categorize my e-mail.

We'll see if I get any help.

I can't even ding the seller with negative feedback because he's gone.

This is what's wrong with eBay--seriously.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Best Deals on Non-PVC Yoga Mats

There's a reason that your average sticky yoga mat is so inexpensive. They are made with PVCs (poly vinyl chlorides), a common (but toxic) thermoplastic resin, that doesn't biodegrade and can off-gas or leech during use.

If you're looking to upgrade to a more eco-friendly type of mat, you have a lot of choices--but you have to be willing to spend significantly more than you would for a regular sticky mat. Thrifters know, however, that that doesn't mean you can't get the most for your money.

For Christmas, I decided to do my homework and buy myself an earth-friendly mat. I did tons of research and found that the best deal for me was at Barefoot Yoga. I paid $38.95 for a TPE mat (thermo plastic elastomer), a non-toxic plastic that can be melted down for reuse.

I chose this mat after narrowing my options to nine online stores. (Because of time constraints, I didn't feel I had time to call around or visit local yoga studios to see if they carried any perfect mats.) I found the nine online outlets by Googling and using shopping bots, such as MySimon.com. I also checked Overstock.com to no avail.

I decided to purchase some additional items at Barefoot Yoga, so I got free shipping.

Other options included Lotuspad, which calls PVC yoga mats "some of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. The site quotes Greenpeace as saying, " The manufacture, use, disposal, and recycling of PVC releases some of the most toxic chemicals we know of. Mercury, lead, dioxins and phthalates are all used or released in the manufacturing of PVC. In fact, PVC manufacturing is the single largest use of industrial chlorine. These compounds cause cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive system harm, immune system damage, and other serious health problems..." [Read the full Greenpeace quotation here.]

At the time I was shopping, Lotuspad was offering $5 shipping, which was better than competitors and was having a 25% off sale. However, the colors and sizes of its TPE mats weren't quite right for me, so I decided to buy elsewhere. If you're looking to buy kid-sized eco-mats, definitely visit Lotuspad and look around.

I also tried Natural Fitness, which sells "premium eco-fitness products." The mats were reversible, available in pleasing colors, and some included DVDs. However, after factoring in the cost of the mat ($39.99) and shipping ($7.95), I decided not to buy there.

Yogasite.com has an Eco-Friendly Yoga section with mats ranging from $34.95-$79.95, including bio-degradable mats. I found the color selection to be too limited, however.

YogaAccessories.com also sells ECO mats, but only in one color combination (blue/black reversible).

Last on my list was Target, which sells a couple of Gaiam brand natural mats at decent prices (roughly $38-$40) plus shipping. However, since the pricepoint was almost identical to Barefoot Yoga, I opted to go with the independent business with the earth-friendly business philosophy and specialty in yoga accessories, rather than the big box store (with a smaller selection).







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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Buy Forever Stamps

On May 12, 2008, the USPS will raise its rates again. Currently, you can by Forever stamps for 41 cents and, as their name suggests, they will be good forever, no matter how high the postage rates go. If you stock up now, you'll see an immediate return on your investment when you start using the stamps in May--you'll save one cent per stamp. And, if you have enough of them and hang onto them long enough, the savings is sure to increase.

It's up to you how much you want to invest in Forever stamps, but at least they are one investment that is sure to increase in value.

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Save Money on Heating Oil

If you live in New England and heat your home or business with oil, before you buy your next batch of heating oil, visit NewEnglandOil.com. Click on your state to get a chart of local rates from various suppliers.

I tried this out recently and was pleased to discover that my supplier is one of the least expensive in the region. However, the rate indicated in the chart did not match what I paid when I ordered oil last week, so clearly the chart isn't up-to-the-minute. But, I think it still pays to check it out and perhaps call around to confirm prices.

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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

Music and movies

I've been doing some clutter-clearing--weeding out my music and DVD collection. Perhaps my trash is your treasure. If you'd like to take a look at what's for sale, visit my Half.com shop.

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Free Stuff: Hillary for Pres. Bumper Sticker

If you're supporting Senator Clinton in this year's Presidential race, you can get a free bumper sticker here. Go, Hillary!

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Sunday, January 6, 2008

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

8. Try Before You Buy. I've saved a ton of money by trying things out before I bought them. Often, I'll hear about a book or product, or I'll hear a song and want to get it right away. But I've gotten in the habit of resisting these impulse buys, even though I'm really good at convincing myself that I should get it, get it, get it!

My best resource for trying before buying is my local library. Even though I live in a small town, I'm fortunate that we have a big library--made even bigger by the CWMARS feature, which allows residents of any MA town to borrow books and other resources from any other MA library for free. If I hear about a book, for instance, I can almost always get a copy from my local library. I simply go online, log in to my account, search the catalog, and order the book. A copy is delivered to my local branch, I get an e-mail, and I go pick it up. Nine times out of ten, the book I want is available. And, nine times out of ten, I decide I don't need to buy it after all.

Other resources are friends, who will often loan a book or CD or movie to me. I'm always careful to keep track of what I have, who I got it from, and to return it promptly.

Rhapsody (an online music subscription service) has a massive database of songs and will let you listen to every song they offer three times for free. If you hear of an artist or a song, you can listen before you buy.

In the case of shoes, exercise equipment, accessories, clothing, etc., I will often seek out a local source where I can try on, touch, or try out the item. If the local price is anything close to what I can find online, I buy local. But, sometimes, the price differential is so substantial that I shop locally, but buy online.

Recently, I wanted a Lexie Barnes bag. I did extensive research online and nearly bought a bag, which was originally $85 on sale for $40, with free shipping and a free gift (a smaller matching bag regularly $18)--the best deal online. However, I just couldn't quite tell if I'd like the pattern or the size of the bag. So, I found a local retailer where I could try the bag on for size. In the end, I loved it--and the salesgirl!--so much that I bought it there. I didn't get the free bag, which I'm still kind of bummed about, and I paid $4 more than I would have online. But, I got instant gratification and I supported a local business. Two things worth feeling good about.

And, for those Thrifters who are aghast at the expensive bag, I'll say that I expect to have this bag forever. As a woman who kept her first pretty bra for twenty years and owns four comforters with an average age of fifteen years, I can assure you that once I buy something I like, I buy it to last. This bag meets my Thrifting biggest rule of thumb: it was a conscious consumption. I thought long and hard about it. I researched my options. I tried before I bought. and this interesting, durable, waterproof, practical, gorgeous, (okay, trendy) bag makes me happy every time I use it--which is every day!

For years, I'd been using tote bags that I'd gotten for free and embellished with buttons, vintage fabric scraps, etc. But as much as I loved them, I also felt sort of dowdy and dumpy whenever I slung them over my shoulder. Now, I feel sporty and special and ready-for-anything. In my version of Thrift, this is what it's all about.

If you're looking for a good deal on a Lexie Barnes bag, by the way, the Lexie Barnes site's sale section has good deals on discontinued patterns. And ebags.com also has good deals and promotions.

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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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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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Food Budgets

In order to understand exactly how much I spend on grocery bills, I started keeping track of my receipts. The system is simple. I taped a blank sheet of paper inside a convenient cupboard door. Whenever I bring home groceries, I make a note of how much I spent, where, and when. About every three months, the sheet gets full and I tally it up and keep a running average in an Excel spreadsheet.

Because I don't want to take the time to itemize the bills, my food budget actually includes all items bought at the grocery store, including things such as razor blades and cleaning supplies. As of the end of 2006, I've managed to get it down to an average of $128/month. And I almost never eat out, so that pretty much constitutes my entire food bill for the month.

Part of the reason I can keep it so low is that I belong to a CSA farm, so for half the year, I get lots of fresh veggies that are dramatically lower-priced than they would be at the store. I also eat a lot of meals at home, always eat the leftovers, buy limited quantities of fresh foods so that they don't go bad before I can eat them (i hate that!), and I try really hard to plan ahead, so that I only buy what I'll actually eat. I also keep a good stock of emergency foods on hand, so that when sick, tired, or in a rush, I can feed myself without having to resort to take-out or some other pricey alternative.

There's also a store in Northampton called Deals N Steals where I can get great prices on organic and natural food products that are usually 25% more expensive if bought in a regular grocery store.

Trader Joe's also contributes to the affordability of my grocery bill.

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Good Deal/Gift Idea

Among my favorite magazines is BUST. It costs $19.95 per year for a six-issue subscription. Which isn't any kind of great deal, BUT, every winter, they offer a two-for-one subscription offer. So, if you subscribe for a year, when you renew, you and a friend can split the subscription and only pay $10 each for your very own year of BUST. Or, you can give a subscription as a gift, which I do every year.

BUST is a fun, indie, feminist magazine that screens its advertisers, which I really love.

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The Value of L.L. Bean

I'm from Maine, so perhaps I'm biased, but I love L.L. Bean. They make merchandise that you know that you can count on. They take their lifetime guarantee very seriously, so even though their products often cost more than comparable alternatives, the investment in Bean's items is always worth it.

For example, in 1990, I was given an L.L. Bean backpack by my grandparents for my high school graduation. Four years later, I ran over it with my car (by accident) and the zipper burst. On my next trip home, I stopped in at Bean's and they replaced the backpack with no hassles whatsoever. I even got to choose a new color that I liked better.

Several years later, I upgraded to a larger backpack in a different color. (I can't remember what went wrong with it the second time.) I paid the difference in price between the two packs and have had that pack ever since.

I also own a collection of luggage-like duffel bags in assorted sizes and colors. After many, many trips across (and around) the country, one of them had worn a few holes in the bottom. Last week, I brought it back to LL Bean. I had no receipt and couldn't even remember when I bought it. They gave me a gift card for the full price of a new bag. I used that money ($61.75) towards the purchase of a new winter coat, which I got on sale for $69.99 (saving $30.00).

The coat was on sale as part of Bean's annual winter sale, which I highly recommend you check out. I also returned a pair of gloves I had bought a few weeks earlier, that were too small, and used that money toward a new nightgown, which was on sale.

All in all, I spent about $20 and came away with $140 in new merchandise--merchandise that is guaranteed to last a lifetime.

If you live within driving distance, shopping at the store is great. I always stop on my way to and/or from visiting my family in Maine. If you're shopping via catalog, I recommend using the Web site. There are always items being discontinued or put on sale for other reasons. For instance, I had been wanting a pair of rain boots, and I found them (a pair of colorful jodhpur Wellies) for 76% off last month. I used SmartPost to get free shipping, so for less than $10, I got a $50 pair of boots. And if I ever have any problem with them, LL Bean will replace or repair them for me.

Whenever I shop for outdoor apparel, I stop by LL Bean's site first. I often also start there when shopping for gifts. The free shipping is great--and there's no sales tax, unless you ship your item to someone in Maine. In the lefthand menu at the home page scroll down to Also From L.L. Bean. The first item in this section is Sale.
Since items are grouped by category, you can poke around pretty quickly and see if there's anything amazing on sale for yourself or someone for whom you are shopping. Over the years, I've gotten presents for my younger sister (who's 11), my niece, my nephew, my dad, my stepmother, my mom, and my brother.

If you shop at Bean's frequently, and are good at paying off your balance each month, I also recommend the L.L. Bean credit card. It has perks that really pay off if you shop there frequently.

Thrift recommendations are the result of my own personal experience and are not paid endorsements. For more on my recommendation policy, see this post.

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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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Free LL Bean Shipping

LL Bean offers an option to its online shoppers called "Smart Post." It's provided by FedEx and can take up to 14 calendar days--but it's completely free.

To use Smart Post when buying online, you must have a coupon code. These codes change from time to time. The most recent one, 2324840, seems to have been discontinued. I haven't ascertained the new code yet. If you have, please drop me a line or post a comment.

If you're ordering via catalog, I think you can ask the customer service representative directly for SmartPost, although I've not yet tried this.

When I get the new code, I'll post it here.

If you have a SmartPost code, here's how to use it:

When checking out, click the Redeem button, then click the Promotions tab, and enter the 7-digit code in the box. Then click Continue Checkout. Your order total in the upper right corner (and in your shopping cart) should reflect the savings.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Eddie Bauer coupon December 2006

Save 15% off any purchase, plus get free shipping at eddiebauer.com. During checkout enter DREALSIMP in the Promotion Code Box on the Delivery & Extras page. If you order by phone, mention code Q272. The code can be used more than once. There is no minimum purchase. The shipping is free, but a $3 handling fee still applies. Coupon expires 12/24/06.

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