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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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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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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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

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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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 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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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 22, 2008

Affordable Cross-Country Moving Solutions

I've been doing a little research into cross-country moving alternatives. I've moved across the country three times so far, and cobbled together some strange money-saving techniques that were fairly time-consuming and involved some special circumstances--like access to free storage and lots of free cross-country plane flights--but I'm still looking for the perfect solution.

Recently, I came across this very thoughtful review at epinions.com of ABF, a company that will put your stuff in a tractor trailer and haul it cross country relatively cheaply. The process requires some planning on the part of the mover, and some patience with the flawed system, but can, it seems pay off nicely in the end when properly executed.

If you're considering this option, this woman (who moved 2,000 miles using ABF), has some very helpful tips. Totally Thrift-approved. Click here to read her review.

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Avoid Sneaky Late Fees

The credit card industry makes a large portion of its income on its exorbitant late fees. They want you to be late. Devising a system that works for you is essential. For instance, always putting your bills in one place when they arrive or always paying bills on the same day of the week works well for a lot of people.

I, myself, like to receive both paper and electronic bills--plus I have set up all of my credit cards to send me little reminder e-mails when my bill is ready and when it is approaching its due date.

It can be tempting to pay your bill at the last minute--to hang onto your own money as long as you can before you hand it over to them--but beware. Even if you make an online payment, which should be instantaneous on a business day, you are likely NOT protected from incurring late fees.

HSBC, for instance, a major credit card lender, warns its customers who pay online that standard payments "post in 1-2 business days, late fee may apply." For those paying by check through the mail, it's important to leave at least ten days--more to be safe--to allow for transport time and "processing" time.

Of course, if you want an instant payment, HSBC will let you, but at a premium.

In a nutshell, pay your credit card bills early, even if you are paying online. Make a note of your transaction number and print and keep a receipt. If you pay two days before your due date and are still charged a late fee, make a polite, but assertive phone call to your credit card company, provide them with the confirmation number that proves you paid on time, and see if you can get the fee refunded. If you are a customer in good standing, they will often do this. Sometimes, they offer to refund half the fee. Still annoying, but better than sucking it up.

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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

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

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

6. Advocate for yourself.

  • In December, I bought a book via Half.com. The book should have arrived in two weeks. I took the time to read the rules, followed the correct procedures, and got a full refund. For an investment of about 15 minutes of my time spent searching for and reading instructions, writing e-mails to the seller and to eBay, I got all of my money back. The seller finally shipped the book, six weeks after I ordered it, but by then I had already gotten my refund. Sadly, the seller left angry feedback, which reduced my seller rating from 100% positive to 98.7% positive. Even though this buyer called me "stupid!!!!!!!!," I think it was a smart choice to go ahead and file the claim and post honest feedback about my experience.
  • In December, I also bought myself two CDs online from a yoga specialty store. They didn't arrive on time, so I began writing to the store. It took many assertive e-mails, but eventually I got both of my CDs (it took about a month), as well as two bonus CDs and my shipping refunded.
  • Last week, I went to my homeopath for a follow-up visit. He prescribed a remedy that he had told me at the last visit I could throw out because I wouldn't need it any more. The remedy cost $26 to replace. When I mentioned that he had told me I could throw mine away, he replaced it for free.
  • I switched to a new gynecologist. My new gynecologist wanted to perform a new cervical exam and pap smear (something I did not want to pay for--or experience if I didn't have to. Once a year is quite enough, thank you.) I was able to convince her to skip the procedure, even though it was protocol, by telling her I'd have my most recent exam records sent over to her office. It took about half an hour of my time to deal with the bureaucracy at the two offices--and 41 cents for a stamp--to avoid the (financial, physical, and emotional) cost of the exam.
  • I ordered a $1,000 piece of exercise equipment from Amazon.com. (Don't worry, I got it on sale for $600 and got free shipping.) When it arrived, one piece was broken. It still worked, but didn't look as nice with this piece broken. Even though I was dreading the inevitable phone tree--and also wasn't sure where to begin--I dug through the paperwork and started making phone calls. My first call was to the shipper. They were very nice--and picked up the phone right away--but directed me to Amazon. I called Amazon and got a human being right away. She was super friendly and helpful and offered to send me a whole new machine! Since that wasn't necessary, she put me in touch with the manufacturer. I navigated a phone tree, got a very friendly, helpful employee, and in three days, had the part I needed at no cost to me. It was worth the 20 minutes or so I spent on the phone and digging through paperwork to have a pristine machine. It will also help in terms of retaining some measure of re-sale value, should I decide to unload it at some point.
When advocating for yourself, it's best to be polite, but assertive. Take notes. Take names. And use the phrase, "Is there anything you can do for me?" You can also ask for specific things, such as a "courtesy discount" when you've been inconvenience, or a refund of your shipping charges if there's been a serious delay or some other shipping-related issue.

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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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Ten Things You Can Do To Save Money This Year: Number Ten

10. Stop watching (commercial) television.
If you are a TV-lover like me, this might seem shocking and impossible-slash-obnoxiously-liberal-intellectual, but hear me out. Commercial television's primary purpose is to create desire in you. Unnecessary desire. To be different than you are, have more and different things; the primary purpose of commercial television, in short, is to get you to buy stuff.

According to Tom Bell, Staff Writer for the Portland Press Herald business section, "Consumer debt is at record levels, and the personal savings rate has fallen into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent. The savings rate has only been negative for a full year twice before, in 1932 and 1933, when Americans were struggling through the Great Depression."

I believe this lack of savings is due in large part to our near constant contact with television and other forms of advertising. It's everywhere! Football stadiums, magazines, tee-shirts, even in some schools. We'll get to those other things later, but for now, if you want to save a substantial sum of money this year, stop watching commercial television. Here's how:
  1. Invest in TiVo or another DVR technology and fast-forward through commercials. Become a conscious consumer of television. Choose your shows, make a schedule, watch the things you know you want to watch and skip all the commercials. You'll be amazed at how light you eventually feel! Without watching all the ads in between the segments of your shows, you are left only with the desire you create yourself (plus the desire created by the things in the show itself and the other ads you consume, but still, it's an improvement!). It feels really good to want only what you really want, not what someone is trying to sell you. On your own would you want an iPhone, or is it just the ads that make them seem irresistible? On your own, would you sit on the couch and feel that you needed a new Toyota/a Thighmaster/a freezer full of Lean Cuisine/a pair of jeans from Old Navy? Odds are, that no, you wouldn't generate that desire on your own. Spending on things that aren't coming from your authentic desire is a huge waste. Investing in a TiVo or DVR is a case where spending money can ultimately save you money.
  2. Stop watching altogether. Cancel your cable and listen to the radio, read the paper, and watch shows and movies on DVD or online. Netflix has an excellent selection and presents a good bang-for-your-buck. Choose this method and you can save money (by not spending on cable) and save even more by cutting out *even more* unnecessary desire than with the TiVo/fast forward solution. Yay! My friend Maria is doing this this winter and so far, it's been a great success for her.
  3. Go old school. I still tape all of my shows using VCRs. I have three VCRs. Two built-in to TVs and one separate. I have a complex system of taping and reviewing and I manage to tape and watch all of my shows without viewing hardly any commercials. This method is more affordable than the DVR version, but also takes more commitment.
  4. Cut back on your cable package. Are you paying for channels you don't really watch? In Massachusetts, most Red Sox games are on NESN, a network you have to pay extra for. But there's no rule that says you have to pay for that channel all year long. If you added a channel for a certain benefit--to watch Dexter, The Sopranos, the Red Sox, etc.--cancel it once that benefit is over. I don't need to pay for NESN during the winter. I don't need to pay for HBO or Showtime when none of the shows I like are airing new episodes. If you don't want or need any premium channels at all, you can call your cable company and ask for "reception" cable. It's the most basic of the basic, and they often won't tell you they offer it, but they are required by law to do so. The price should be about $5 per month, and it should give you all the major networks (ABC, NBC, PBS, CBS, FOX) plus some others. I've used this version of cable in Massachusetts and California and received as few as 13 channels and as many as 57. No matter what your cable operator tells you, they are required to give this to you, so if they give you a hard time, keep at it until they acquiesce.

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Dealing with Deadbeats

As most of you know by now, my one most passionate dream is to own a home of my own. Having spent much of my childhood homeless or on the verge of it--and being a Cancer, of course--I crave a nice, safe, clean, wonderful home of my own with an unparalleled constancy. This urge has driven my every move since my last intense craving--a college education--and is with me every waking moment, and often in my sleep as well.

Several things have stood in the way. Student loans, illness, an unsteady and frequently very low income, six years spent renting in one of the most expensive cities in America, and an inability to figure out exactly where I want to settle down top the list of obstacles to my home ownership.

Last March (2007), I publicly declared my desire to own my own home and I set about trying to bring that dream to fruition. The first step was to leave the overpriced apartment I was renting in a (terrible) co-housing community in Northampton. I was paying $825 plus utilities for a tiny, basement 2BR apartment. In order to cut my overhead, I relocated to Easthampton, the smaller, more working class neighbor to Northampton, and rented a 3BR duplex for $900. My intention was to rent one of the bedrooms and split utilities with someone, while still having rooms in which to sleep and work. The apartment was perfect for this, but the plan has not worked as I hoped.

I moved in on May 1st, covered the nearly $3,000 in move-in costs, and then looked for a roommate for June 1st. Only one person showed up for his scheduled interview, but he brought me iced coffee, seemed very easy-going and personable, and said that he had made more than $100,000 the year before. I liked him, so even though he said his credit was bad, didn't have a checking account, and couldn't pay the move-in costs all at once, I took him.

I have regretted this decision ever since. While he is a very good guy in many ways, he is not a good roommate. In all the months he's lived here (nearly eight) he has never paid his rent or any of his bills on time. For the first four months, I paid our rent with my credit card. I had my portion (which is nearly 2/3 of the rent), but not his. Since the lease is in my name, it was my obligation to pay the rent on time, even when he didn't.

Every month, he had a story. Once he said he set himself on fire. Twice he was in the hospital with kidney stones. Once he fell 14 feet off a building. Three times someone died. Twice his employer didn't pay him for a total of one month's wages. The last time, he just didn't come home on the day rent was due. He showed up the next day in tears and said he'd almost killed himself because he felt so bad about not having rent. I had promised myself the month before that if he didn't pay his rent on time one more time, I'd kick him out, but when faced with a sobbing 26-year old ironworker, I could only offer him hugs...and candy.

I think he's probably not a bad guy. Twice I've gone out of town and he took good care of my kitty. He has helped me move heavy things. If I ask him to do something--like turn the TV down or use the bathmat--he does it. But the entire point of having him here was to get myself into a better, more relaxing financial position, and instead, I have been frustrated, stressed out, and angry.

Part two of my home ownership plan was to increase my income, which I have done successfully. On October 1st, I took a full-time work-from-home editing job for which I am well-compensated. It takes away much of the stress associated with rent, because I can now afford to pay both mine and my roommate's without resorting to credit cards, but it does not take away the anger, resentment, and frustration.

I have talked with him about the toll this takes on me. He seems sincerely sorry. He pledges to do better. I have told him, month after month, that this can't continue. He says it won't. But then it does.

Two months ago, my concession was to agree to a weekly payment plan. He would pay me $100 per week, rather than trying to come up with his $385 in rent all at once on the 1st of the month. He never came through with any payments, though.

In December, he paid his rent ten days late. As of today, January 6th, he owes me $276 for November, December, and part of January's utilities.

The good news is that I finally kicked him out. Just before Christmas, I talked it over with him, and he agreed that he could leave by February 1st. Since my boyfriend is here now, hopefully the finances will balance out again. But since Peter just moved here, he hasn't found work yet, so for the time being, it's all on me.

Even though my roommate didn't have to pay rent this month (because he paid his last month up front)--and has no student loans, credit card bills, car payments, or other debts that I'm aware of--he still hasn't paid the utilities. His security deposit is only $230, so even if I changed the locks today, I would lose money. I would lose part of what he owes me for utilities. I would lose the money for the locksmith. And I would lose the cost of hiring someone to clean his filthy, stinking room.

From a Thrift standpoint, where did I go wrong?

  • The plan was a solid one, but I think I overestimated the appeal of living in Easthampton. There were almost no takers for my roommate listing, where I thought I would have a good selection. So, I would up taking someone unsavory.
  • I should have seen his inability to pay the first, last, and security up front as a sign of his financial instability and reconsidered him at that point.
  • I should not have reduced the security deposit from $385 (the maximum allowable by Massachusetts law in this case) to $230. I knew this was unwise, but I caved and I regret it now.
  • I should have drawn up a sublease and had him sign it, but I didn't. Again, this was very uncharacteristic of me. With all other roommates, I have had a legally binding document that spelled out the terms of the arrangement and the penalties for non-payment of rent, etc. But, in this case, he convinced me this wasn't necessary.
  • I should have put him on notice after the first late rent, and removed him after the second. However, in my defense, I suffered a terrible injury at the end of his first month here, and was unable to walk, drive, or take care of myself. I was in no position to switch roommates, and couldn't handle the payments--or living alone--if he left, so it was an extenuating circumstance.
At this point, I have, at least, asked him to leave. So, that's step one. I am taking a harder line with him this month about the overdue utilities, but I don't know if it will create results. I've told him he can't do his laundry here until he pays the gas and electric bills. If he doesn't pay today, then I will take away his parking privileges. I can insist that he be out no later than January 31st, whereas before, I had told him he could pay week-to-week if he needed to stay longer.

What kills me about this situation is that he showed me a check for $2700 that he'd gotten just last weekend for selling his Pats/Giants tickets. So, I know he has the money. And yet, he hasn't paid me.

Having Peter here helps because I think my roommate may be less likely to make up stories or behave badly...but still. It's a lot like the frustration of freelancing. I would complete a job on time, but then a client would take weeks or months to pay me. The work is done, but the payment doesn't come. In this case, I pay Seth's bills, but he drags his heels for days or weeks before paying me back. In his defense, he doesn't spend much time here, but that doesn't excuse him from his obligation to pay the rent and his half of the utilities.

It seemed like such a good idea to get a bigger place and get a roommate. I should have saved more than $400 a month, but that's not what's happened. Even though he always has gotten around to paying me eventually, the lag in payment has caused stress, budgeting crises, and incurred interest payments on my end. Even though the money has always come eventually, there is a feeling of always being behind and never knowing if or when he would pay his bills.

I'm so glad it's ending and I just can't wait for him to be gone. I want to tell him to just get out tomorrow. I could keep his security deposit and suck up the loss (the difference between what he owes and the deposit, plus any costs associated with cleaning up after him or changing the locks, etc.) Sigh.

But, for now, I'm going to continue to ask him to pay his bills and hope that he goes peacefully on time.

Once Seth is gone and Peter is working, the path to home ownership will, hopefully, me more clear and swiftly traveled.

In addition to sorting out this roommate revenue stream issue and getting a better job, I am also paying down my credit card debt in order to increase my credit score and improve my solvency, so as to be in a better position to shop for mortgages, possibly as soon as the end of the year.

3% of my pre-tax income goes into my 401(k), to be matched by my employer. I've set up an auto-transfer of a certain amount every week from my checking into my savings. And I've created a comprehensive budget that will get me out of credit card debt by the end of 2009--sooner if I'm lucky and aggressive.

More on this is future posts, but for now, wish me luck in my dealings with Seth. He's promised to give me the $276 tomorrow. But, I've heard that before. I've told him not to come home until he's paid me, but I don't know if he'll take heed.

Good luck to all of you thrifters out there. I hope 2008 is prosperous for you all!

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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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Bankruptcy Advice

It's been a long time since I've contributed to my Thrift blog, and a lot has happened in the interim. I'll update you at some point, but for now, I wanted to share an e-mail I sent to the mother of a friend over the weekend. The mother, whom I'm very fond of, had written me for advice about bankruptcy, because her other daughter is planning to file. I'm sharing the e-mail here because I think it might be helpful to others. The names have been changed. **Please don't make a bankruptcy decision based solely on my advice. I am not an attorney and strongly urge you to consult one before making a decision this important.**

One thing to keep in mind if you find yourself considering bankruptcy: you are not alone. Personal bankruptcies are up nearly 50% this year. Collectively, Americans carry almost $980 billion in credit card debt. It's time for things to change.

Also, one thing I don't mention below is that I think it's possible that you may have to report the amount of debt discharged as income in the tax year in which it was discharged. This all depends on whether the creditors report it...and this is a matter for you, your accountant, and your attorney to sort out. The laws have changed since I filed, but this was the law when I went through it.

The attorney I mention below is Denise Shear of the Ostrander Law Office in Northampton, MA. If you are in Western Mass. and need a bankruptcy attorney, I can't recommend her highly enough.
Here's my e-mail:

Hi, Mary,

I'm so sorry to hear that Julia is in this bind, but I'm so glad
that she has the courage to make the right decision for herself.

My parents are visiting for the weekend, so I don't have a lot of
time, but wanted to get some thoughts down to you quickly. (There's
actually a lot here. Once I started, I couldn't stop!)

I filed before the laws changed, so some of what I know may not be
applicable, but most of it will be, I think.

I can say, right off the bat, that it's important to find a good
lawyer. And by good, I mean affordable, knowledgeable, and kind. My
lawyer was crucial to making my bankruptcy bearable. The hardest part
is the shame and guilt. She helped me to see that that wasn't
necessary or helpful. She cost $1009 and that was payable up front.

My attorney practices in Mass. and I think Julia is in California,
right? If Julia would like to contact her she may be able to
provide her with a good referral. I also have some attorney friends
with California connections who might be able to help. Just let me
know.

My second piece of quick, major advice, apart from forgiving herself
and getting a good attorney, is to open a new credit card before her
debts are discharged, if she can. This will give her a new line of
credit that can a) help her in an emergency in the next two years when
it will be hard to get a card and b) help her re-build her credit.

When she goes through bankruptcy, she will choose which creditors to
include. If she has a card with a zero balance, she should NOT include
it. Her rate will likely skyrocket, but the card should still stay
active, and this will be a vital part of recovery for her.

My attorney advised me to stop making payments on my cards as soon as
I knew I'd file for bankruptcy. I don't know if this is still an
advisable practice--and I think in the end it did more damage to my
credit history...but she should ask her attorney about this. If she's
already fallen behind in her payments, then it's a moot point.

I was careful to always pay my rent and my utilities, no matter what,
even if I had to use credit cards. This is wise because it will make
it easier to get apartments and utilities after the bankruptcy. I
would advise using her cards to pay these things off before the
bankruptcy, but again, she may want to ask an attorney if this is her
situation and is advisable.

I would also want to make sure that she understands that student loans
and back taxes can never be forgiven. If her debt is largely made up
of these things, it may not be the right choice for her to file
bankruptcy. These things will follow her to her grave.

also, if she has an IRA, she should NOT touch it. She is allowed to
protect up to $10,000 of her own assets, I think, and she should
absolutely NOT drain an IRA to pay for credit cards, particularly if
she's filing bankruptcy.

One important to statistic to keep in mind: more than half of all
people who file bankruptcy once, file twice. I know that Julia does
NOT want to be in that category. The reason this happens is that
whatever was wrong in a person's life the first time--if it doesn't
get fixed, it'll just keep happening. Especially since now they are
burdened with shame and a bad credit score.

Whatever has been the cause of her insolvency, she needs to face it.
No matter how hard it is. If she has health issues, depression, career
confusion. If it is the result of a bad relationship or reckless
spending--whatever is at the heart of the problem needs loving, brave,
honest attention.

I would recommend any and all of Suze Orman's books. Most importantly,
"Young, Fabulous, and Broke," which will give easy-to-digest practical
advice. I think she should immediately read that and either "Money and
Women" or "The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom" (or all three).

What she needs is a way to understand her relationship to money so
that she can get herself back on track. These books will help her to
understand her self and they will also help her to craft a realistic
budget and make a plan for moving forward, with or without bankruptcy.

Before the bankruptcy, she should do some practical things. She should
take care of anything and everything she can that she will need that
depends on a good credit score.

So, apart from getting a new credit card with zero balance, she should
get herself some health insurance. (I think Alice mentioned that
Julia didn't have any and is self-employed?) If she is going to
stay in California, then she has lots of affordable options. It will
be easier to get health insurance without a bankruptcy on her record.
And it will be easier to avoid future financial disaster if you have
insurance, and also it is an important step towards taking good care
of yourself, to invest in health insurance.

I suggest she start here:
https://www.blueshieldcaplans.com/(ykulyw45h25qigvz41ttxxvb)/default2.aspx?marketcode=00000203MC

Second, she should sort out her living arrangements. If she needs to
rent a room or get a new apartment, she should try to do that BEFORE
her debts are discharged. Same with a car. She will not be able to get
an auto loan for some time after the bankruptcy. (She may not be able
to get one now...but if she depends on having a vehicle, she should at
least consider her options.)

She should also come up with a solid plan for how she will live after
the bankruptcy. If she has been meeting her basic living expenses by
borrowing, the she will have to have a way to live once her credit
cards or other creditors are gone.

She should also check her credit score and print out her full credit
report now. She should keep this on file and then check it once a year
to be sure that everything is in order, and hopefully to watch her
score climb.

Once her debts are discharged, her job will be to a) continue to be
kind and forgiving with herself b) live within her means c) establish
good credit and raise her credit score to 760.

She can establish good credit and raise her score to 760 by continuing
to make regular payments on debts that didn't go away (student loans,
taxes). And by making small purchases on that zero balance credit card
she kept and then paying it off EVERY month in full. This card is
never, ever to be used for things she cannot afford to pay off
immediately, unless there is a dire emergency.

Six months after the debts have been discharged, she should apply for
one new credit card. Never accept a card that requires an annual fee.
Every six months, she should apply for a new card, based on offers she
receives in the mail or offers she finds online, until finally she is
approved for a new one. No matter how high the interest rate, she
should take it, and use it for small monthly purchases--a tank of gas,
her cable bill, etc.

It's important to only apply for credit once every six months because
applying for credit LOWERS your credit score, and our goal here is to
get her score UP. it's a balancing act.

She should never close a card, no matter how high the interest. We
want her to have a good debt-to-income ratio. And we want her to have
a good available credit to debt ratio. So, for instance, a person with
$25,000 of available credit (on cards) who is carrying a balance of
$5,000 will have a better credit score than a person with no credit
cards or a person with one $500 credit card and a zero balance.

But, all that stuff will come later.

For now, it's important to make a wise decision about whether
bankruptcy is the right thing, and then proceed bravely, gently, and
responsibly.

So, quick review of the most essential things:

1) Forgive yourself.
2) Get a kind, affordable, knowledgeable attorney.
3) Do not touch your IRA
4) Do everything you can to make sure you have one credit card,
active, with a zero balance at the time your debts are discharged.
5) Remember that taxes and student loans cannot EVER be discharged.
6) Get Suze Orman's books, read them, and do the work.
7) The Orman books will help her to do the most important thing (after
forgiveness), which is to understand why it happened and how you will
keep it from happening again. If watching is easier for her than
reading, I think there may be Orman DVDs...or she also has a TV
show...but, really, the books are vital.
8) Get health insurance. Blue Cross Blue Shield of CA is good and has
affordable plans for individuals.
9) Get an apartment or a car or anything else you really need squared
away before the debts are discharged.
10) Make a solid plan for how you will meet your living expenses
without credit cards or other loans available to you. If she's
thinking of going back to school, for instance, it's important to
understand that even though student loans cannot be discharged by
bankruptcy, a bankruptcy can make you ineligible to get new student
loans. So, if her plan is to start fresh with graduate school and a
new career, she should find out if she'll be able to get the loans
BEFORE she files. I was prevented from going to law school for this
very reason.
11) Print out a full credit report and KEEP it on file. www.myfico.com
is a good place to go. Re-check it every year, but not too often.
Inquiries into your credit score lower your credit score.
12) Immediately after your debts are discharged, begin working on
re-establishing credit.

I'll end with some good news. Bankruptcy is not the end of the world.
In fact, if you truly are insolvent, it is the most caring,
responsible thing you can do for yourself. Get the load off. Start
(sort of) fresh.

In my case, I was able to re-establish my credit relatively quickly.
Within two years, my credit score was back above 700, I was able to
get a car loan when my truck died, and I have lots of revolving credit
available to me, some of it at 0%. And, some mortgage lenders won't
consider a bankruptcy against you as early as one year after your
debts are discharged.

oh--that's one more thing. there is a lapse in time (I think it might
be a couple of months?) from when you file to when your debts are
discharged. you won't be free (or a person saddled with a bankruptcy)
until the debts are actually discharged.

I would suggest getting caller ID, if she doesn't have it already
and/or changing her number because the creditors will call,
constantly, at all hours until the debts are discharged.

It took a lot of very hard, very difficult work to climb back up. And
I'm still working on it. But it is possible if you're committed.

It may also be possible for her to do something OTHER than bankruptcy.
As I said, if taxes or student loans are the biggest problem, don't
file. There are also ways to negotiate payment plans that involve debt
reduction. She may not need to pay back ALL of her debt. She should
start with the debt counselors at the National Foundation for Credit
Counseling. www.nfcc.org, 18003882227. If they think they can find a
way to get you out of debt in five years, they'll sign you up for a
repayment plan. It will be better--SO MUCH--better than bankruptcy and
will resolve the matter more quickly, actually, because bankruptcy
lasts for more than five years on your record.

She may also be able to negotiate directly with the card companies or
other creditors. Or, if it's possible to get the money from a family
member or other benefactor as a gift or loan, that would be
preferable.

She may also want to consider other drastic measures--like moving back
home, if that's an option, or leaving California (which is so darn
expensive). If she suffers through a year in CT (or Massachusetts
where the state gives you health insurance, for instance), and could
live for free or cheap, then she might actually be able to
realistically reduce her credit card debt substantially. For instance,
if she could live for free or really cheap and could devote 50% of her
income to paying down debts for one year, could she reduce the debts
by $15,000 maybe? that's great progress! and maybe realistic. I would
urge her to consider that.

I had absolutely no where to go and no one to help. If she has
somewhere to go and someone to help, she should strongly consider
that. If that option is absolutely unavailable or unacceptable, then
she can choose not to do it, and choose bankruptcy instead. But it
should just be an INFORMED choice.

The new bankruptcy laws are pretty vicious. So, this is NOT something
to enter into out of sheer desperation. It should be carefully
considered and she should get good advice from an attorney and from
the NFCC. (Although, I think the NFCC is funded by credit card
companies, so they have a vested interest in making sure they get
their money...)

If any of this doesn't make sense, or if there's anything else I can
do, please don't hesitate to ask!

I hope you and Victor are well. I'm so glad Julia has your support.

I haven't talked to Alice since the baby's surgery, but I'm thinking of
them constantly and hoping all is well. You must have been out of your
mind with worry.

Much love,

Naomi

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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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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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Affordable Solutions: Cord Clutter

Problem: Masses of tangled cords; long expanses of dangling cords; etc.

Pricey Solution: Cord containment products ranging from $15 and up.

Thrift Solution: garbage or bread bag ties; OxoGoodGrips Cord & Cable Clips ($6 for 4, plus shipping); rubber bands.

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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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Know Where Your Money Goes

I confess: I don't balance my checkbook. I know I should; I know it would be the smart, responsible thing to do. I used to, years ago, when I was sixteen and had my very first checking account. But times were simpler than. There were no ATM cards, no direct deposits, no freelance accounts receivable or online banking or auto-debit bill pay systems. I've made valiant efforts over the years to balance my checkbook, but it never sticks. And once I'm behind, it just seems like a hopeless task to try to sort it all out.

If you're like me and can't bring yourself to deal with balancing that bottom line each month, take heart. Don't bury your head in the sand, just because you can't face up to the debits and credits and checks outstanding on your statement. Shame often keeps us from doing good things for ourselves. And while it may seem like a little thing, many of us are ashamed that we don't do a better job of balancing our books.

If you--like me--just CAN'T, then find something that DOES work for you, that serves the same purpose. Make sure you open your statement every month, for instance, and skim it for things that seem out of whack. Are there fees you didn't expect? Did your paycheck go through? Are there any charges you don't remember making?

And be sure to keep a rough idea of your balance. Check it online or over the phone or at the ATM, and maintain as much of a buffer as possible. Don't rely on overdraft protection to save you--it frequently comes with devastating charges.

You may not balance your checkbook to the penny, but by keeping an eye on it, you will be more active and alert about your finances, and less likely to bounce checks or make purchases you can't really afford.

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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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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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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

This Day in Thrift: Nov. 28, 2006

Today, I picked up a prescription at the Stop N Shop Pharmacy. It was a re-fill, so I had already researched the price. It was significantly cheaper to fill it at Stop N Shop than at CVS. And, when you factor in in shipping, it was also less expensive than at Drugstore.com. I haven't checked the price at the small, family-run pharmacy in town, but I plan to. I'd like to give them my business, if the price is right.

I also went to the pet store and picked up my favorite brand of cat litter, "The World's Best Cat Litter." (It really is.) I shop for pet supplies at Dave's Pet Food City because it is conveniently located, the staff is friendly, the prices are competitive, and with my Club Dave's Card, I earn coupons and free products simply buy buying the things I like to buy anyway. This week, I had a coupon for $5 off anything in the store, if I bought an 8lb or larger bag of Dave's brand cat food. This is my brand of choice, so I bought one and saved $5 on my cat litter purchase.

The Club Dave's Card is the most useful store club card I've ever used. If you forget yours, the employees are happy to look you up. There's no cost, no catches, no hassles, and while you lose some anonymity by allowing a store to track your purchases, the brands I prefer are part of the Club Dave's program, so after I've bought a certain amount of litter or food, I get a free bag, which makes it worth it to me.

I also went to see my chiropractor/homeopath. My bill for the office visit and remedies was over $200. I paid with my debit card, but asked them to run it as a credit card. I earn reward points for using my debit card as a credit card, and it costs me nothing--no interest, no fees, no charges. Unfortunately, the rewards are not very good. You have to accumulate a very large number of points to get anything worthwhile, but it still makes sense to accumulate the points rather than not. And by paying with my debit card, I essentially paid cash. I was tempted to put it on my credit card because it was such a large purchase, but I refrained because even if I paid it in full on my next statement, because I carry a balance, it would have accrued interest. It's always better to pay cash (with check or debit card) if you can, except in specific instances where purchasing with your credit card is beneficial. I'll cover some of those in the future.

Unfortunately, I forgot to eat before I left for the doctor, and I was headed for a serious blood sugar crisis. I stopped at a local market that was on the way and was going to by a Balance bar, for a little less than $2, but instead, I bought half a sandwhich for $2.75. I got some protein and felt more full and happy than I would have if I'd just gotten the Balance bar.

In the evening, I chose not to go to the healing clinic I usually go to on Tuesday nights. At the clinic, I receive alternative healing for about an hour for $10 (or less if you can't afford to pay). The healers are kind, gifted, and generous, and it's worth ten dollars just to be around them for an hour every week. They are students who use reflexology, acupressure, reiki, and other energy work to treat patients.

This week, for a variety of reasons, it felt right and made sense for me to skip the clinic. Instead, I did some yoga at home, had a good dinner (salmon and rice), got some work done, and then went out with friends. I spent $13 on drinks and food, danced until 2am, and had a great time. Since I saved $10 by not going to clinic, my night of fun really only cost me $3 more than any other Tuesday.

Since there's more to thrift than just dollar amounts, it's hard to quantify the value of things, or to make choices based only on the financial price of things. Everything also has a quality-of-life price that we each have to calculate for ourselves. Everyone has to use their own personal judgement to make the call. If trading the clinic for the night out would have made me sicker, it wouldn't have been worth saving the $10 (especially since they'll treat you for free if you need them to).

For me, finding and maintaining wellness is paramount. I wish I had remembered to eat at home, but since I didn't, it was worth it to spend $2.75 to avoid the physical and emotional effects of a blood sugar crash. And, in the evening, I really needed to get out and have some fun. I haven't been dancing in so many months--or years?--that I can't even remember the last time I went. There was no cover charge, and I didn't have to spend money on drinks, but I did, because I was happy to be able to. It felt like an important part of the experience.

You might have chosen to spend your money differently in this day--you may have different priorities, tastes, desires, and goals. But so long as you were conscious of your spending and making informed choices, you were living in thrift.

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Living in Thrift

I've been on my own financially since I was 18. I put myself through college and have lived on modest to meager incomes ever since. My hope is that one day I will live comfortably. But even when that day comes, and my income far exceeds my cost of living, I will still practice thriftful living.

Thrift is a state of mind. A way of being. It is a practice of thoughtful spending and resourcefulness that is satisfying, rewarding, and socially and environmentally responsible. Like meditation, you can do it a little or do it a lot, and it will be beneficial either way.

When you practice thrift, you don't eat out just because you can't figure out how to eat in. You know how to stock your kitchen and plan ahead and feed yourself. And when you eat out, it's because you chose to do something special for yourself or someone you care about, or because it was necessary and/or more efficient to do so.

In thrift, we understand the connection between our life energy and our income. We don't spend blindly. We consider the source of our desires and find the best solutions to them. We are empowered by knowledge, and we try to make informed choices about what we bring into our lives, how we pay for those things, and what we do with them once we have them.

This blog will offer tips, guidance, and real life stories to help you increase and better enjoy your thriftfulness.

Yours in thrift,

Naomi Graychase
November 2006

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