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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Saturday, January 6, 2007

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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Get--and give--free books

My friend Naomi (hi, Naomi!) recently turned me on to BookCrossing. It's a non-profit endeavor designed to help spread the joy of reading. The basic idea is that people give books away and then track their progress around the world. I have registered several books that I will be "releasing into the wild" this weekend. Each book has a BCID that I've printed on a lable inside the front cover. I've written a little journal entry for each book, and then, as people find the books, hopefully they will read them, post their own journal entry, and then re-release them.

It serves several thrifty purposes, including two of my most favorite: free entertainment and clutter-clearing.

Commit random acts of literacy! Read & Release at
http://www.bookcrossing.com/friend/graychase

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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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