Monday, March 31, 2008

A Frugal, Flexible & Creative Gift Registry: Community Group Offers Free Alternatives for Gifts

Wedding guests spend about $19 billion annually on gifts selected from bridal registries, according to The Knot, a wedding planning resource.

There are ways to get the gifts you want, be it for a bridal shower or baby shower, and let the givers be frugal and green.

Hardware stores and specialty stores are two options for unusual gift registries. Another is the Alternative Gift Registry from the consumer group Center for a New American Dream.

Registration is free and users can request merchandise from any retailer such as an energy-efficient toaster from Target, organic-cotton sheets from Bloomingdales or a handmade vase from a small gallery.

But whether you sign up for the Alternative Gift Registry at or generate your own wish list to e-mail to your friends, the site provides a wealth of gift ideas.

For weddings, consider:
Recipe cards: Engaged couples request recipes for easy-to-prepare meals that can be cooked in a crock pot or in simple steps.
Green appliances: Couples can direct wedding guests to the federal Energy Star website, ( for a list of energy-efficient appliances, their names and model numbers. Use search engines to locate places where they're sold.

For baby gifts, consider:
Used clothes: New Dream's registry lets parents request gently used clothing for infants and toddlers.
Baby-sitting services: Use the registry to line up friends and relatives to help out for date nights and other outings. Specify an amount of hours and the registry will let browsers know when the time quota has been filled.
Meals: With a new baby, who has time to cook? The registry provides space for home cooks to sign up to provide new parents one or more free meals.



Sunday, March 30, 2008

Clothing Swap in NYC & Other News: Weekly Reading: My Favorite Links

My reading list includes details about a huge clothing swap in New York, reality checks and cheaper pharmaceuticals. Here are a few of the posts that caught my eye this week:

From The Budget Fashionista: Swap-O-Rama-Rama: Mark Your Calendars (I might go to New York just to check out this event, which includes workshops as well.)

From The Happy Rock: How Much House Can You Afford? (Hint: Ask another question.)

From Wise Bread: Extreme Thrift: Going Green on a Shoestring (Great eco-friendly tips that don't cost a bundle. My favorite: Use bar soap instead of the liquid stuff.)

From Get Rich Slowly: When the Going Gets Tough, Get Back to the Basics (Down-to-earth advice about saving money in a tough economy.)

From A Manhattan Girl's Outlook on Money and Finance: Stop the fantasy (An insightful reality check about cost of really living. Forget the television version of life in the city!)

From Single Ma's Fabulous Financials: Oh, the Irony (This post had me ROTFL)

From Mrs. Micah: Finance for a Freelance Life: The Amazing Powers of’s Prescription Card (This is a helpful piece about the cost of prescription drugs.)



Friday, March 28, 2008

Sell the Coach Bag? What I'm Willing To Give Up for Financial Security

Why doesn't she sell her coach bag or expensive bracelet? That was one reader's comment about the CNN story featuring $70K-a-year woman, who lost her job and is tapping into food banks and other forms of assistance. I featured the report in this post. Here's the comment, one reader left:

Anonymous said...

Instead of just reading the article, I decided to watched the video. And in the video, she talked about how she took off her Tiffany bracelet and left her Coach handbag in her car before hitting the food bank.

Her house is 1000% better than the place I rent. Hardwood floors everywhere. Flat screen plasma in the living room (although CNN tried to angle the camera to not capture it). Black galaxy granite kitchen counters with a giant center island. Stainless steel refrigerator. Custom ceramic appliances. Blue lighting flashing against the teapot.

Ahem ... how about selling the bracelet, selling the coach handbag, selling some of the immaculate possessions they have in their house ... before letting somebody perhaps even harder off at a food bank to pay your utility bill. Incredible.

The reader's suggestion about selling personal assets and perks prompted me to remember a past episode of Ugly Betty (season 1), in which Betty trades her expensive designer bag for high-priced medicine for her dad. The pharmacist really loves the fancy purse and Betty makes the trade. It's her practical solution to a medical care cash crunch.

Since then, I've periodically thought about what I would and would not give up when faced with a financial crisis:

Here's what I would sell:

1. Almost all of my jewelry. I actually know people who have sold trinkets and gems to raise cash. I know of one blogger, who sold a car to pay debt.
2. My violin: It was a high school graduation present from my parents. I love it, but I rarely have time to fiddle anymore. What's more, if my kids needed something very badly, I would sell the violin in a heart beat.
3. Books: With the exception of a few favorites, I would liquidate everything.

4. Clothes: Due to a few wealthy friends, I have an enviable wardrobe of high-end clothes, including a few designer pieces. Those hand-me-downs would fetch handsome prices at an upscale consignment store.

Here's where I've already cut back:

1. Yoga trainer: I share a trainer ($70 an hour) with a group of women. This arrangement cuts costs. We each pay only $10 for a session in a small class setting. However, I had also arranged for my family to have a private class with the yoga trainer. It was great for my kids: improved self-esteem, flexibility and concentration in school. But the extra $70 a week was a budget buster. We cut back to every-other week and then to once a month. And now the private family sessions have completely halted. The funds were needed elsewhere, including the emergency fund.

We still get lots of exercise and I invite the kids to work out with me by using a Yoga tape. We walk and enjoy other frugal forms of exercise.

2.Elaborate Orlando vacations: My folks live in Central Florida and we often do the Disney/Orlando theme park tour when we visit them. But we now spend fewer days in the theme parks, where tickets are now almost $56-$66, and higher per ticket. We spend more time looking for free or low-cost activities.

3. New clothes: For almost every holiday or major event, I would shop for new clothes. Now I try to avoid buying anything new, with very few exceptions.



Thursday, March 27, 2008

How Bad Is It? One Family's Slide from $70K to Handouts

How big is your emergency fund? My just-in-cast fund needs a major boost and this story from CNN has an extra message about the need for emergency funds and the importance of a diverse stream of income.

The news story features one woman's drop from a salary of $70,000 a year to the food bank line.

Here's the opening:

When she was laid off in February, Patricia Guerrero was making $70,000 a year. Weeks later, with bills piling up and in need of food for her family, this middle-class mother did something she never thought she would do: She went to a food bank.




Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Improved Savings Plan: 9 Ways to Save More by Earning More

My upgraded business & savings model is based on a plan to increase the amount of money flowing into my house. As such, I've been trying to restructure our home finances for some time with more weight on the income side of the balance sheet.

In doing so, I'm taking the advice of Bo Bennett, author of the book, Year to Success . On "Day 130," of his program, Bennett offers his view of "A Better Way to Save." He argues that trimming fat and fluff from the family budget can only take you so far. It's a fiscal move with limited upside potential. "When you save money by 'cutting back,' you are working with limited resources." Your savings, Bennett says, is limited to your disposable income.

"Also when you save by cutting back, you are, in practical terms, reducing your quality of life," he says. Not everyone will agree with his logic, but Bennett argues that cutting out the little perks and luxuries of life can hurt our self-esteem and attitude.

As an alternative, Bennett recommends that we save more by earning more. Income sources:

1. part-time job

2. side business

3. business partnership or revenue affiliation on the Internet or some other vehicle

4. request a raise

5. expand your current business or customer base

To that list, I add the following:

1. Sell new stuff. I once read an article about a group of kids who made money by flipping toys on the Internet. The strategy: Buy new toys at steep discounts and sell the merchandise through e-stores or on eBay at higher prices. Buy low and sell higher.

2. Sell your old stuff: Garage sales, Craig's List or consignment stores are money-generating uses for the extra stuff in our closets.

3. Cash in on a hobby or a sports interest: Schools and community centers often pay decent wages to adults who coach after-school sports teams or provide after-school workshops. I know people who have made extra money by offering craft classes, computer workshops and sign language seminars through after-school or community programs.

4. Market areas of specialty: Small and mid-sized businesses need a variety of skills and services, including event planning and technical support. Some companies are willing to pay for quality-of-life services and programs for employees, including Yoga, Spanish or parenting classes. As such, some corporations invite professionals or experts to offer on-site workshops for the staff. Your skills may be ideal for a company-sponsored event or seminar.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Budget Reality Checks & Other Links from 118th Festival of Frugality

The: Festival of Frugality #118: ABC Edition is up at My Dollar Plan. With organization and style, the host has put together a great lineup. Thanks to My Dollar Plan for including my post in the mix.

Here are a few of the posts that caught my eye.

From Yan: 14 Easy Ways to get the best Shopping Deals posted at A very helpful list of shopping tips.

From Shana: Smart Easy Money: Budgeting is Only for Lean Times?? posted at Smart Easy Money. This is a very thoughtful piece about the need for budgeting in a boom or bust economy. This post delivers a great reality check!

From Silicon Valley Blogger: Serious Savers Who Died Very Wealthy posted at The Digerati Life. I enjoyed this piece about secret millionaires who saved large fortunes and gave a portion to charity.

From Steward: Save to Buy … If You Buy At All posted at My Family’s Money. This is an instructive strategy for buying only what you need and can afford.

Once again, thanks to the host (My Dollar Plan) for taking the time to put together a great festival!


Monday, March 24, 2008

Saving Power & Money with Solar Energy

The push to live green and save money is giving solar-powered gadgets and home systems a boost. Appliances charged by the sun provide an alternative source of energy, especially during power outages and emergencies.

Here's an overview of a few popular solar-operated products:
  • Portable solar chargers: ''Solar chargers that charge batteries, mobile phones, digital cameras cut down your electric bill and/or extend the life of your batteries,'' says Stephanie Welbes, author of ' The Cheap Diva, a weekly blog. Welbes likes a $60 solar charger by Freeloader, which can recharge cellphones, digital cameras and portable music players. The device is sold by Solar Technology through eBay. Solar Style ( and NRG Dock ( make similar products

  • Homewide systems: Solar panels or modules, installed on a roof or near the home, collect energy from the sun, which is then converted into electricity. The cost ranges from $125 to $800 per panel.

  • Solar appliances: Home Depot sells outdoor accents lights for the home that cost between $30 (for a set of four small lights) to $284 (for a solar-powered lamppost).
    ''Solar-powered flashlights and calculators are just two examples of solar-powered electronic devices that save money by eliminating the need to buy and replace batteries altogether,'' Welbes said. The equipment is charged in sunlight and will run for hours on one charge. Solar-powered flashlights, great for camping, cost about $10 to $30. Solar calculators and flashlights are sold at hardware stores and office supply stores.

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Weekly Reading: My Favorite Links

Great posts this week. Here's my weekly roundup of interesting reading. The following posts caught my eye:

From The Budget Fashionista: The Financial Diet: Personal Finance

From Blunt Money: The high cost of inertia

From I've Paid For This Twice Already: How Small a Transaction Before Plastic Seems Absurd?

From Wise Bread: If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?

From The Diary of a Reformed Spendaholic: Taking the rush out

From Beachgirl's Budget Blog: My Story


Saturday, March 22, 2008

7 Tips for Saving Gas & Money

In the Palm Beach area, the monthly cost of gas has spiked to an average of $219 as of February 2008, a gain of 20 percent relative to the average of $182 in the year-ago period. These gas-conserving, money-saving tips are from CCCS.

1. "Lighten your load - If you have a trunk full of stuff, you are getting fewer miles per gallon. Empty your trunk and save. Consider filling your tank just half way-each gallon of gas adds 8 pounds to your vehicle. You'll have to visit the pump more frequently, but you will get better gas mileage.

2. Keep cool - On hot days, set your air conditioner to recirculate after reaching the desired temperature. Park in a shady spot and use a sun-shade in your front window.

3. Don't speed - Driving the speed limit reduces gas consumption. Use your cruise control; avoid quick starts from traffic lights and stop signs.

4. Filling tips - Fill your tank at the coolest time of the day, usually first thing in the morning. Don't wait until your tank is empty-fill when you reach half a tank. Be patient-don't put the nozzle on full blast. A slower, steady flow will put less air and more gas in your tank.

5. Look for discounted gas or rebate options - Some retailers offer discounts on gas for shopping in their stores. Wal-Mart offers 3 cents off per gallon discount if you use a pre-paid Wal-Mart card. Other big box clubs, such as Costco, offer membership options that include a 2 percent rebate on all purchases, including gas. Grocery stores with gas pumps may offer other deals.

6. Pay cash for gas - If you don't know how much you are spending in gas, or if you are struggling to pay off gas purchases made on a credit card each month, use cash to pay for gas.

7. Maintain your vehicle - Perform routine maintenance on your car and keep the appropriate air pressure in your tires to get the best gas mileage."

Source: CCCS


Friday, March 21, 2008

Ask for Camp Scholarships! Money is Out There

While researching two education stories for the Miami Herald, I've discovered that money is out there for kids. Many camps --Spring Break mini camps, after-school camps and Summer Camps-- offer a wide variety of program discounts. But in some cases, there's a big catch: You have to ask.

I've had directors at expensive, private day camps, inform me that registration fees and tuition costs can be waived for families that need help. But that information is sometimes whispered or delivered in very hushed tones. (A private camp may not want to be swamped with scholarship requests or may lack the staff to review inquiries.) But there are full scholarships, partial fees, sibling discounts, early-registration fee cuts and other discounts. There are also resident, neighborhood or membership-only tuition breaks.

Some camps award financial packages based on standardized forms and "needs test." Other camps only ask for letters requesting scholarships or discounts. "There's no child left behind,"said one camp director. But he acknowledged that although fee-discounts are available, the burden is on each family to request assistance.



Thursday, March 20, 2008

Kiplinger's: Top 100 Values in Public Colleges has re-launched its “Best Values in Colleges.” The Special Section includes Top 100 Values in Public Colleges and tips about paying for college and arranging financial aid.

Here are a few of the titles from the section:



Tips for Reducing Pet Care Costs

Pet owners spend about $41 billion annually on our pets. After a recent costly experience with overnight care for our family dog, I read the following frugal tips about pet care with great interest. These tips from CCCS offer practical ideas for containing pet-care costs.

I especially like the tip (#5) about trading overnight pet care duties with friends. In fact, after I shared my doggy cay care experience with another pet owner, she kindly suggested that we board each other pets whenever one of us has to travel. If our dogs get along, we might try that money-saving options.

Here's the guest post:

"According to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association (APPMA), consumers will spend $40.8 billion dollars on their pets this year, including more than $16 billion on food and almost $20 billion on vet care and supplies. Pet owners will spend $2.9 billion on grooming, boarding and other services for pets.

Caring for your cat or dog will cost about $11,000 over their lifespan, which averages 8 years for large dogs, 14 years for smaller dogs, and 16 years for indoor cats. Does your pet have feathers instead of fur? Some birds have a life expectancy of 40-50 years.

CCCS suggests that consumers consider all the costs before bringing Fido or Fluffy home:

1. To purchase or adopt: While purchasing a pet from a private breeder is the most expensive option, it may be the best way to guarantee that you are getting exactly the breed of dog or cat you want. Costs can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Pet stores are another option for finding the perfect pet. Adopting a pet from your local humane society or animal rescue organization is much less expensive and most adopted animals will already be spayed or neutered.

2. Healthcare: While annual vet visits for dogs and cats can cost $175-$250, keeping your pet healthy will save money in the long run. Annual physicals, routine dental care, and vaccinations are all part of ensuring an active and healthy pet. Some owners consider pet insurance, especially those willing to spend anything to save their pet.

3. Food costs: Consumers will spend an average of $188 to feed a cat this year, and $217 to feed a dog, according to the APPMA. The cost to feed a large dog can be up to $10 or more per week. This doesn’t include vitamins or treats, which add another $70 to $140 per year. For homes with multiple pets, the cost of feeding the animals can get very expensive.
4. Boarding: If you plan to take a vacation this year and leave your pets behind, boarding or pet sitting costs can add hundreds to your annual budget. The average family will spend $150 to board a cat and $225 to board a dog this year. In-home pet sitting services may cost a little more, but can be less stressful for your pet. Offer to trade pet care duty with a neighbor and you’ll have more money to spend on your vacation.

5. Grooming and basic care: Keeping your pet groomed won’t just make him look better; it can improve overall health. Regular trips to the groomer can add up to hundreds of dollars a year, but there are inexpensive things you can do at home. Keep your dog or cat’s nails trimmed. Brush them regularly—this will help cats avoid hairballs.

Learn how to clean your pet’s ears, especially if they are prone to ear infections. Brush your pet’s teeth regularly with toothpaste specially formulated for them. This can help prevent the needs for dental cleanings, which can cost $200 or more per visit.
If you have cats, maintaining litter boxes can add an additional $250 or more to your annual budget.

6. The little extras: Designer pet attire, brand name shampoo and grooming products, gourmet treats and food, personalized food and water bowls… there is no shortage of items out there for the pampered pet. Whether it is a trip to a doggy day spa, a monogrammed sweater, or a self-cleaning litter box, the cost of these pet accessories can add up quickly. Avoid the impulse to spend money on these items and opt instead for some quality time with your pet."



Wednesday, March 19, 2008

New Stove, New AC Unit: Solutions to the Energy Theft in My Home

Our landlord has come through. After an energy audit showed that our old stove and AC units were costing a fortune, our building management team took money-saving actions.

The drama started when I discovered that our electric bill was twice as high as a neighbor with a similar lifestyle and apartment. So we arranged for a free audit from FPL, our local energy company.

The free energy audit pointed to several budget-busting culprits:
  1. The older central AC/heat unit represented about 47 percent of our monthly bill. The unit was inefficient due to damaged coils and other defects. We're hoping that the replacement unit will yield greater savings and a lower energy bill. Already we've noticed that the new AC unit works less to cool the air. Since the new system operates in smaller blocks of time --relative to the older model -- our bill should reflect the reduced consumption.

  2. Our little stove was also an energy hog, representing about 3 percent of the bill. Due to a defective switch, the unit often failed to fully shut down. As such, our older stove was a constant energy drain. The new stove looks great; we're hoping that the shiny exterior will yield attractive savings.

Other problem areas:

  • an inefficient water heater = 31 percent of our monthly bill. We have a smaller-than-needed water heater and therefore, the temperature is set at a high level in order to quickly heat hot water for showers, baths, etc. But the audit showed that we could save $10 to $20 a year, by lowering the temperature on the water heater to a level of 120 to 130 degrees. (That's a safer level, with less danger of burns.) And we can save $2 a month, or $24 a year, by turning off the water heater during the day or using a timer. This will be our next project.

  • lighting = 7 percent of monthly bill

  • appliances= 6 percent

One by one, we are tackling the assorted energy-related problems in our home. Living in a rental apartment is a mixed blessing. On the downside, we have less control over the products purchased or the timing of replacement units. But on the upside, we did not have to pay for the new AC unit or stove. Our building manager reviewed the energy audit report and took action. We're grateful.

If your local utility offers free on-site energy audits, I highly recommend the service. Ask the energy management team for a written report. This document showed our landlord that we weren't just making hot-air complaints. The problems and proposed solutions were clearly outlined in objective language from a third-party, namely the utility company. What's more, I frequently review the comments and suggestions that are mentioned in the report.

The audit is wonderful for homeowners. The report outlined different rebate programs offered by the utility company. Basically, the program rewards homeowners who install energy efficient appliances and systems.

Many utility companies offer on-line/Internet-based audits and tests. Hmmm. Those interactive, multiple choice exercises are fine. But we received the greatest benefits from a personalized visit to our home. Request an on-site audit, with a written report. Nothing beats real time/face time.

related posts:

Shocking Results from My Free Energy Audit

Electric Bill Update: Energy Vampires & Power Hijacks?

High electric bill



Tuesday, March 18, 2008

My Favorite Picks from the 117th Festival of Frugality

The 117th Edition of the Festival of Frugality is up at I’ve Paid For This Twice Already. It's a great lineup. Here are a few of the posts that caught my eye.

Uncommon Cents offers a great post that everyone should read before shopping: Frugality in Practice: Discipline and Restraint.

Sound Money Matters tells us why frugal living has become so trendy: Is Frugality in the Air?.

For those of us with home offices, Squawkfox offers: Hooking up a Home Office for Less.

Thanks to the host (I’ve Paid For This Twice Already) for putting together a great festival (with insightful quotes). Excellent job! Thanks for including my post in the mix.



Monday, March 17, 2008

My Wise Bread Interview: Thanks Myscha!

Myscha Theriault of Wise Bread recently interviewed me and featured the profile in this post: Her Royal Highness Speaks: An Interview With the Frugal Duchess. I enjoyed the interview and appreciate the opportunity. Thanks to Myscha (great questions!) and to the other folks at Wise Bread.



Cheap & Easy Ways to Organize the Garage

The family garage is probably the most used and abused room in a home.

''The average two-car garage has basically become a no-car garage because it's crammed full of so much clutter,'' says Barry Izsak, author of Organize Your Garage In No Time (Que Publishing, $11.50).

Fortunately, it doesn't cost much to organize the family garage, says Izsak, who is also the past president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Here are a few low-cost solutions:

Think. How is the garage used (workroom, storage, extra kitchen)? Do you want or need to change its use? Are you effectively using the floor and walls?
Pick easy targets. Toss out the rusty wheelbarrow and the 10-year-old magazines.
Learn from the kitchen. Kitchens have built-in organizational systems such as the refrigerator, cabinets and drawers. Create a system for organizing your garage.
Create zones. Use a hardware store model to solve the turf war among craft materials, sports equipment and lawn supplies. ''Keep similar things together,'' says Suzy Wilkoff, owner of Tasks Unlimited, a professional organizational service in Miami.
Find a new purpose for the old furniture in your garage, Izsak says. A discarded entertainment center can be recycled as a work bench. Compartments in baby furniture or old desks can be used to store items.
Organize a garage sale or donate unwanted items to charity. The family garage should be purged and organized once or twice a year, Wilkoff says.

And finally, ''Save room in your garage for at least one car,'' Wilkoff says. ``That's what it was built for.''

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.


Friday, March 14, 2008

5 Money Moves for New Parents: A Guest Post

"Mike Sullivan, director of education for Take Charge America, a national non-profit credit counseling agency, says many parents underestimate the cost of raising children.

“It’s impossible to plan for all of the expenses associated with raising children. However, parents can make conscious efforts to save money on frequently-used items. This effort can pay off big in the long run,” he said.

Sullivan offers five smart-money moves for new parents:

Shop Used – You can purchase used baby clothes and toys at resale boutiques and consignment stores for a fraction of the price of department stores. You should also check out online listing and auction sites such as and for used items. Conversely, you can sell your gently-used baby gear at resale stores or through Internet sources for an extra cash cushion.

Be Careful with Coupons – Coupon clipping is a great way to save cash as long as it’s for items you use on a regular basis. Keep an eye on the expiration date of the coupon and don’t purchase items just because they are on sale.

Join or Form a Mom’s Group – Swap tips with other cash-savvy moms. A mom’s group is great way to meet other moms who are willing to trade or share used baby items. You can also form group shopping trips to discount warehouses and split the cost of bulk items.

Look for Grocery “Baby Clubs” – Check with your local grocery stores to find out whether they offer a “Baby Club.” These clubs are very similar to other grocery discount programs, except they are tailored specifically to baby goods. Many are also accompanied by rebates and coupons for parents.

Steer Clear of Baby Specialty Stores – If you are looking for a deal, don’t shop at baby specialty stores. You’ll pay considerably more for high ticket items compared to discount, resale and consignment stores."




Thursday, March 13, 2008

How to Avoid a Personal Recession: Guest Post

Cut the premium cable channels, eliminate lottery tickets and seek out a budget plan for your home utility bill. Those are a few of the money-saving tips from CCCS, which has provided this thoughtful piece about avoiding a financial meltdown in a difficult economy:

Stay employed! If you have concerns that your employer may start downsizing, update your resume now so that you are prepared. Network with other professionals and organizations in your field, and stay current on the trends in your industry. Work on increasing your credit score, as many employers use this as a variable when selecting candidates.

Save. Start, or add to an emergency fund. Having 6 months of living expenses in a savings account will ease the financial burden if you have a sudden job loss or an unexpected expense.

Pay down your debts. Start with unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical debt and student loans. Pay off balances with the highest interest rates first. Once your unsecured debts are paid, tackle secured debts such as car loans, mortgages, and equity lines of credit.

Consider refinancing. If you have an adjustable rate mortgage and you are worried that your payments could skyrocket, refinance to a fixed rate while rates are low. Start by contacting the bank that holds your current mortgage. If you can't qualify for a fixed rate loan, work on paying down the mortgage and try to refinance at a later time.

Control spending despite rising costs. Food and gas costs are on the rise, so save money on groceries by using coupons and shopping wisely.
  • Take the following steps:
    Look for buy one, get one free deals, but only on things you would normally buy.
  • Compare prices and buy in bulk when it is more cost effective or when non-perishable items are on sale.
  • Save on gas by planning your travel to limit driving time, carpooling to work when possible, or coordinating with neighbors to get the kids to school and share the expense.

Cut back. Reduce your daily expenses by cutting out expenses that are not necessities. You can also:

  • Bring your lunch and snacks to work.
  • Eliminate your land line and use just a cell phone.
  • Cut out the premium channels and get back to basics when it comes to television.
  • Pass on purchasing lottery tickets-that money will serve you much better in your emergency fund.
  • Call all your current utility providers to make sure you are playing the lowest competitive rates for service, and ask to be placed on their budget billing plan."

Source: Consumer Credit Counseling Service



Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hidden Fees for Doggy Daycare, Plate Sharing & Beverages

A doggy daycare/boarding facility provided my family with a few extra lessons in frugal living. Due to a fine-print charge, we paid far more than expected for dog-sitting services. And while talking with a friend, I've discovered that a number of consumer services carry extra fees that inflate our costs.

Here's what happened to us: We were traveling and faced limited options for our dog. We could not bring him with us and friends weren't available to watch our dog Scruffy, pictured on our couch. Therefore, we booked our dog at an overnight boarding service that charges $35 a night. But in making reservations, we did not consider the additional fees, including a bathing fee and a late pick-up fee.

Basically, if your dog stays for two days or more, the doggy daycare operator automatically gives your pet a bath and charges you for grooming. (Prices vary.) Additionally, if you pick up your pet after 2 pm, there is an additional fee of $15. The service also charges a $15 evaluation fee.

Bottom line: We paid far more than $70 for a two-night visit.

I shared my doggy daycare experience with a friend and together we brainstormed about other hidden fees that can bust a budget:

1) Extra cruise fees: Family cruises, especially some of the budget lines, are packed with hidden fees. For example, day trips (diving, sightseeing, touring) at different ports cost extra. Using the gym or the cruise ship spa services may also carry additional fees. And even with an all-you-can-eat menu, some ships charge extra for soda, coffee, juices and other beverages.

2. Tailoring fees: We purchased a suit for my middle son at a very fair price, but when we brought the suit to the tailor, we were unpleasantly surprised by a $30 charge to hem the pants and nip the waist.

3. Plate sharing fee: Some restaurants charge a fee (about $2.50) if you share your entree with someone at your table. The eatery doesn't give you more food, but charges additional for splitting the entree.

4. Ticket broker fees: Some online and phone ticket vendors charge hefty transaction fees. I purchased bargain tickets and the fees were almost as much as the individual tickets.

The lesson: Ask extra questions and fully investigate the total cost of a product or service.



Monday, March 10, 2008

Dodging Junk Mail: Strategies to Save Time & Paper

Don Quixote battled windmills. We duel with junk mail.
Americans tossed about 6 million tons of catalogs and other pieces of direct mail solicitations during 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. Junk mail represents a waste of time, money and paper.
Here are a few strategies for handling unwanted mail and phone calls.

Open mail near a trash can. Quickly sorting and discarding mail eliminates clutter and temptation.
Opt out of junk mail databases. When you buy a product, you have a right to demand privacy, according to the consumer group Center for a New American Dream. When filling out a magazine subscription card or a product warranty form, make the following request: ''Do not rent, trade or sell my name or address,'' or write: ``No mailing lists.''
Sign up for the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service (MPS) at and you'll be removed from junk mail lists. It costs a dollar and can be completed online or through the mail.
Banish unwanted credit card offers by calling: 888-5-OPTOUT (888-567-8688). This phone call removes your name and address from the registry maintained and sold by the major credit reporting agencies to third-party vendors. A voice prompt will request your name, address and Social Security number. ''Don't feel obligated to provide a Social Security number,'' says Tim Sanchez of the Center for a New American Dream.
Limit unsolicited material by calling the toll-free customer service number listed on a mailing. Request the removal of your name and address from the company's mailing list.
Eliminate calls from telemarketers by registering at
Stay alert. With every purchase (online or mail order), your name can be sold again. ''It's important that you stay on top of that. It's easy to get back into the system,'' Sanchez says. ``Be diligent.''



Sunday, March 09, 2008

Layoff news: Weekly Reading & My Favorite Links

This roundup features posts about job layoffs: coping, surviving and even gaining a small benefit from the loss of a job. These layoff-themed items and a few others about frugal living caught my eye this week:

From Frugal Village: Surviving a layoff
From Escape Brooklyn: Good advice for potential layoff

From The Budget Fashionista: Getting a Second Job: Personal Finance

From Blueprint for Financial Prosperity: Reward Yourself for Frugal Behavior

Friday, March 07, 2008

From the Vault: Check Your Medical Bills for Errors

This post--about absurd errors in medical bills -- is one of my favorites from my vault:

My parents — retirees on Space Coast of Florida — have become especially vigilant about scrutinizing medical bills after spotting errors on a hospital bill a few years ago. While they were grateful for the excellent care, my folks were less than thrilled about questionable charges for phantom treatments.“We successfully challenged the charges and they took it off,” my mother said. “You can go directly to the billing department and ask for an itemized bill.”

Annually, consumers and insurance companies are hit by about $54 billion in either fraudulent or illegal medical charges, according to the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association (NHCAA), a nonprofit foundation. And while medical scams account for a large percentage of those charges, billing errors also contribute to the toll. Erroneous charges — including genuine mistakes — are often veiled by complex billing codes and undecipherable medical terms.Some billing errors seem absurd.

For example,, a South Florida-based independent research company — reports that billing errors have included $129 for a “mucous recovery system,” also known as a box of tissues. That fiscal care is recommended by the experts at and NHCAA. Here is a rundown of other steps that you can take to safeguard your financial health.

• Know your benefits. Closely review health care documents and track the paperwork from your insurance carrier, physician and hospital. Read every “Explanation of Benefits” statement, which provides a rundown of billing charges. Report any discrepancies to your insurance carrier and to the hospital.

• Scrutinize “free” medical services. Although many community groups and non-profit organizations offer legitimate free medical screenings — blood pressure, vision, cholesterol test — there are also fraudulent operations that use so-called free services to gain access to your personal data, including your insurance information.

• Safeguard your health insurance card. Treat it like a credit card. “In the wrong hands, a health insurance card is a license to steal,” according to the NHCAA.

• Establish a medical log. Your records should include a list of tests, procedures, treatments and medications. recommends that you ask a relative or friend to do the record-keeping if necessary. Those notes will be helpful if you need to challenge hospital charges.

• Bring your own prescriptions. If you will be taking everyday maintenance medicine (for high-blood pressure or diabetes) while in the hospital, you’ll save a bundle by bringing your own. Check with your doctor.

• Don’t be shy. Call the hospital or office billing department for a full explanation of confusing, questionable or obscure charges.Also if you don't have medical insurance, there are options for getting discounts for prescription drugs. This post is helpful:Cheap Drugs

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Budget Bombs: Avoiding and Recovering from Spending Attacks

Stealth attacks happen: I permanently park the shopping cart. I consciously forget the mall's store directory. And then -- Boom! -- fiscal disaster strikes. My savings plans will be decimated by a spending binge.

That's a "budget bomb," according to this article from 6 Budget Bombs By Shelly K. Schwartz. Here is the list of spending bombs:
1. Cut out all the fun stuff. : "All budgets should allow for entertainment. Think about where your recreation priorities lie and add up how much you spend each month on those activities. If the total is more than 10 percent (5 percent is ideal) of your total household budget, it's time to scale back. But don't blunder by eliminating recreation altogether or your best-laid plans will eventually self-destruct. "

On that list, #1 really hits home. An overly rigid approach to budgeting leads to collateral damage. Basically, it's pocketbook rebellion. When I'm too rigid about planning the budget, I attempt to balance my emotional accounts by overspending. But without a plan, I overspend. The solution: Create a plan with perks. I like the 5 percent target suggested in the article.

Here's my plan for avoiding and recovering from spending attacks.

1. Be honest. Sneak attacks occur from the deep pockets of low self-esteem, dishonesty or frustration. Key questions: What do I really need to spend? How can I reward myself for good behavior? Can I really live within the confines of this budget? Do I need to add some wiggle room? Am I being honest about wants vs. needs? And my personal favorite: "What's really bothering me?"

2. Go for a walk: Long walks really help me to maintain balanced emotional and financial accounts. As I walk past large homes with beautiful gardens, I am reminded of how much I need to save and earn to reach financial goals. On the other hand, sometimes I chat with a homeless woman named Marie. She's about my age -- maybe a little younger. (It's hard to tell.) I give her money and muffins. She gives me a constant reminder of my good fortune.

3. Balance Check: On difficult days, I am tempted to run off to the nearest Day Spa and just stick my head in the deepest mud bath. Fortunately, my Day Spa Diva moves back to reality after checking the status of various accounts and outstanding bills. Invariably, I realize that my available funds are low relative to the high cost of a mud bath.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

My Point Guard Post in the March Madness Competition at Free Money Finance

Free Money Finance is hosting a March Madness tournament for Personal Finance bloggers. Today one of my posts is on the court. Please check it out: Free Money Finance March Madness, Round 1, Posts 49-56 . The competing post (about Roth IRAs) is excellent. It's a win-win situation.

Thanks to the host for including me in the mix. Thanks to anyone who votes for my post.

Monday, March 03, 2008

My Latest Newspaper Column & A Forever Stamps News Roundup

The cost of a first-class stamp will increase to 42 cents on May 12. But between now and May 11, it's possible to lock in lower rates by purchasing ''Forever stamps.'' Introduced in April 2007, Forever stamps are valid first-class stamps regardless of future price increases.

Forever stamps purchased in April 2008 for 41 cents can be used to mail a first-class letter without additional postage even after the new rate kicks in.

''In this case, forever means forever. There is no fine print,'' says David Partenheimer, a spokesman for the U.S Postal service.
"The Forever stamp is a big hit for us.''
The Post Office already has sold five billion Forever stamps and plans to issue another five billion to fill demand. They are sold at the Post Office, over the Internet ( and by phone (1-800-stamp24).
Some financial speculators spot a long-term investment ploy that involves purchasing and hoarding large quantities of Forever stamps and watching the value of those stamps appreciate as a result of future rate hikes.
As an investment, however, Forever stamps may not yield a practical return, according to See post: For the love of God, do not invest in forever stamps (top 5 reasons why not) Storing and cashing out on large quantities of stamps may not be realistic. Other investments -- stocks, bonds and money market accounts -- offer potentially higher rates of return.
The stamps definitely have an ''economic value,'' but convenience is the main selling point, Partenheimer said, adding that Forever stamps eliminate the need to scramble for additional penny stamps when postal rates increase.

Here's a a short roundup of posts on forever stamps:

From Living Almost Large: Thrifty Tip: Buy Forever Stamps

From I've Paid For This Twice Already: Forever Stamps - Why Buy Anything Else?

From Blueprint for Financial Prosperity: USPS Price Hike - Stamps to 42 Cents

From Zen Personal Finance: Stock Up on Forever Stamps and Save Penny After Penny!


I received several emails about my recent newspaper column on coffee makers: Saving Money with Home Brewed Coffee Some took issue with the $900 Francis Francis, a 13-inch espresso machine featured as a frugal, step-saving alternative to espresso machines costing $3,000 and up. ''Hardly frugal,'' wrote a South Florida reader Elizabeth Smith, who uses a paper cone filter and boiling water to make a single cup of coffee.

Other coffee fans lobbied for Bodum or French press coffee makers ($20), in which hot water is poured and filtered over ground coffee. (Later this week, I'll write an extended piece about coffee maker tips from readers.)

This is from my latest column in the home & design section of the Miami Herald.


Saturday, March 01, 2008

7 Tips for Facing a Tax Audit: Red Flag Warnings From Tax Experts

Here's a list of 7 Audit Tips from the tax experts at J.K. Lasser:

"If there is a golden rule for audit, it is to not offer more information- spoken or written- than is absolutely necessary. Don’t give the auditor any reason to expand the scope of the audit.

1. Don’t Ignore the Notice

2. Organize your records. Making the auditor’s job easier may help the process go more quickly and will help create the impression that you are an organized person.

3. Replace missing records. If you can’t obtain a duplicate copy of a missing record look for other ways to support your deduction. Diaries, logs, and other contemporaneous records may help support your claim.

4. Bring only what you're asked for. Additional records and items not requested in the original audit notice should be left at home. That way, if the auditor is curious about something else on the tax return, but the item was not on the original audit notice, you can politely tell him or her that those records are at home.

5. Stay on point. The auditor will be able to obtain some very valuable information during what seems to be simple and friendly discussions. When you meet with the auditor, in essence, you're providing testimony. So answer as many questions as possible with a simple "yes" or "no" response. If you must expand or explain, keep it brief and very much to the point. Don't give the auditor a reason to expand the audit just because you tend to ramble on.

6. Provide only copies. If you bring original records, do not give them to the agent. Allow the agent to make copies but make sure you retain the originals. You must be careful because the IRS isn’t responsible for lost documents.

Know your rights as a taxpayer!!

7. Red Flags- In general, red flags are assigned to any aspect of your tax forms that seems inconsistent with other reported figures. So, if you donated 75% of your net income to charity or work from home, but claim generous travel and entertainment deductions, it will catch someone’s attention
*Substantial business meal and entertainment deductions
*Excessively high income compared to previous years
*Large deductions relative to income
*Excessive home office deductions
*Losses from a hobby rather than a business venture
*Low income, but significant business deductions
*Non-cash charitable deductions

Discrepancies between different tax forms are big red flags. For, instance if you’re a freelance writer or accrued interest on a bank account, you should receive a Form 1099 information return documenting how much you earned. You are assured some contact with the IRS if the tax return doesn’t accurately reflect the information returns on file with the IRS.

J.K.Lasser’s Your Income Tax 2008 and the Supplement at "