Friday, September 25, 2009

How to Trim Fat From the Family Budget

Small changes have reduced electrical charges in my home. On a year-over-year basis, we have used 20 percent less electricity due to two minor adjustments. We have switched most of the light bulbs to compact florescent bulbs (CFLs), an energy-saving option. Additionally, during the day and vacations, we turn off the water heater, a move that generates cool savings.

(photo by Yael Rosenberg)

Those are just a few of the ways of finding additional space in a tight budget, according to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) of Palm Beach County, Fla., and the Treasure Coast. How do you cut the fat if your budget is already lean? A reality check will help you write smaller checks for household bills, according to the folks at CCCS.

"Successful saving starts with a realistic look at how you are spending money now and what changes you can realistically make," said Jessica Cecere, president of CCCS.

For example, consumers can cut electric bills by $50 or more by washing clothes in cold water, using energy-efficient bulbs and installing a programmable thermostat, Cecere said. Here are other recommended changes:

Trim salon visits. It's possible to save several hundreds of dollars annually with do-it-yourself haircuts, manicures and pedicures. If you're hooked on salon pampering, stretch out visits to the professionals with home-grooming sessions.

•Free movies. Libraries and community centers are a source of free movie rentals. One credit counseling client saved $20 to $40 every month by borrowing movies from the library. Another option: Set up an informal movie library with friends, neighbors and co-workers.

•Review monthly expenses. Periodically review automatic bill-paying charges, credit card statements and other monthly bills. Automatic debits may include gym fees, vacation clubs, publications or other subscription services that you may no longer use, according to CCCS. Scan bills for overcharges and other errors.

•Go green. Energy efficient appliances use less energy and save money over the life of the product. In my home, we were surprised to learn that our old refrigerator and stove were energy hogs. Likewise, a CFL bulb uses 75 percent less energy than a standard light bulb and last 10 times longer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Currency Exchange & Other Tricks to Save More Money

Currency exchange is a thrifty tool in my home. To save money, my 11-year-old daughter has swapped five single dollars for a five-dollar-bill and has traded up for even larger denominations. She uses the larger bills to preserve capital.

“When I see smaller bills, I think I have more money to spend,” my daughter said, adding that it’s tempting to buy treats with single dollars. “I’m not going to buy a chocolate bar with a $20 bill.”

It’s a numbers game that we all play with our budgets and wallets. In fact, banks, financial planners and marketing gurus have launched a variety of programs built on different savings techniques. Here are a few of my favorite money-saving tricks.

Loose change: Bank of America has a “Keep the Change Program,” in which purchases made with a debit card are rounded up to the nearest dollar and the difference is transferred from the customer’s checking account into a savings account. My do-it-yourself version of that program is simple. Just toss your loose change into a jar every day and watch the coins accumulate. It’s a painless way to create additional savings.

Dollar matching: While saving for a home, my brother created an unusual program. For every dollar he spent, he placed 20 percent of the purchase amount into a savings account. That system helped to create a nest egg for his first home. Other savers recover from frivolous purchases with a dollar-for-dollar transfer into a savings account. This dollar-matching strategy discourages careless expenditures and forces you to cut fat from the budget in order to fund the matching transfer.

Pause button: Whether shopping for clothes or cars, cooling-off periods can eliminate impulse purchases. Some families hit a 24-hour pause button when considering merchandise over a certain dollar amount. I’ve also met shoppers who use the checkout line to debate the necessity of smaller items in their cart.

Related Posts:

10 Creative Ways to Save Money: Bank Survey

6 Ways I Scam Myself into Saving

photo credit: Sharon Harvey Rosenberg

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rosh HaShannah: New Year Greetings From an Ironing Board

We can iron out past wrinkles in money, relationships and clothing. That's what I learned as I ironed clothing for Rosh HaShannah, the New Year on the Hebrew calendar.

Even if you don't celebrate the holiday, September is still a time of beginnings and renewal, including a new school year, a post-Labor Day cycle on Wall Street and changes in leaf colors.

Long before I converted to Judaism, I always felt a shift in September. Here's what I learned while ironing garments this September.

1. Restoration: Wrinkles can be removed from shirts, relationships and money. The process requires time, tools and enough heat.

2. Execution: It's a cliche. But it's so true: Anything worth doing, is worth doing well. If I'm balancing my checkbook, reading a story to a child or ironing a blouse, it's important to give my best to the moment and the task. We only have the present moment, everything else is an illusion.

3. Housework: Don't overlook the value of housework. Sweeping floors is important. Washing clothes is valuable, and ironing creates value. Household chores represent an investment in our personal space. What's more, the process can create a valuable meditative exercise in humility and patience.

4. Frugal values: It was tempting to go shopping for new clothes for the new year. But time and budget restraints detoured my shopping trips. Instead, I plugged in the iron and pressed dress clothes that were laundered. With the investment of time and heat, all of the garments --including my sons' dress shirts -- looked near-new. I also found shirts, skirts and jackets that I had forgotten about.

5. Pay attention: I burned the thumb on my left hand in a moment of carelessness. My hand was on the iron, but my mind was elsewhere. Likewise, I have made financial and personal mistakes through reckless actions. Time has taught me to pay attention to duties, responsibilities, commitments and my higher self.

Rosh HaShannah is a time of apology. I offer a heartfelt apology to anyone I may have injured through carelessness, thoughtfulness, bitchiness or other moments of insecurity or inconsideration.

6. Do for others: This afternoon, I applied a hot iron to garments for my entire family. It's not enough for me to look pressed and cleaned; my family should also benefit from my work. It's the same with money and health. I enhance my own wealth when I share with my extended family and community. It's not enough for me to have health insurance; it's important that we all benefit from wellness, preventive medicine and cures.

I wish everyone a sweet New Year, filled with healthy new beginnings, universal love and peace. And of course, universal healthcare. L'Chaim...To Life!!

L'Shannah Tovah!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 7 Lessons From the Financial Meltdown

In this guest post, offers 7 Lessons from the Meltdown, including:

"1) Where's the money? You'd better know—literally. The reported $50-billion swindle orchestrated by Bernard Madoff and other fleece jobs should put to rest the notion that you can get rich from unpublicized investment opportunities unavailable to mere mortals. If you give any adviser discretion to buy and sell investments without your prior go-ahead, you must demand to know where your money sleeps.

2) Cash is never trash. True, you'll never get rich earning 1% a year in a money-market fund. But that's no reason to insult a larger-than-usual cash reserve. The beauty of cash in times like these isn't that it protects you from losses in stocks and other stuff, although it does do that. The lure of cash is that it enables you to pick up investments on sale. Gobs of quality stocks fell more than 50% but have now risen substantially in the last six months. You couldn't buy them unless you had some money in reserve.

3) Wild swings over short periods are the new normal. How many times in the past year and a half have the market and sector averages fallen hard one day and soared the next? Or bounced more than 1% up and down several times during the same day's trading? "Fire, ready, aim" describes how traders act today. Don't expect any change soon, if ever.

4) Don't deify those who warned about losses. Few people who get paid to predict the market's fluctuations get it right. However, if you have an adviser who isn't habitually negative but urged you to switch more into cash and Treasuries a year ago, then you should shower him or her with praise. Sending over a nice bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers would be an appropriate thank-you gesture."

Here's the link: For the other financial meltdown lessons.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Cheap Cleanup: Washing the Stove & Tiles With Vinegar

You don't have to spend a lot for eco-friendly household and personal care products. I use vinegar and water to sanitize my home without the expense or waste of harsher chemicals. Beyond toss salads, I use white vinegar for the following cleaning duties:

Kitchen surfaces: With two capfuls of vinegar and a half cup of water, I have cleaned and polished a white enamel stovetop. The homemade solution cut through a mixture of cooking oil and splattered tomato sauce. The same solution works on kitchen countertops and stainless steel sinks. White vinegar also effectively cleans cookware, coffeemakers and carpet stains, according to How to Clean Practically Anything, a reference guide published by Consumer Reports.

Tile floors and walls: My husband cleaned our white tile floors with a bucket of vinegar and water. He mixed one cup of vinegar per half-gallon of hot water, with a few drops of essential lemon oil. That mixture cleaned the floor and left a fresh lemon scent. I have applied a similar mixture to the bathroom tiles and countertops.

All-purpose cleaning spray: recommends filling a spray bottle with equal parts of water and white vinegar. Use this solution to clean appliances, countertops and other surfaces. Some restaurants and daycare centers use vinegar and water to clean tables and chairs.

Hair conditioner: Organic apple cider vinegar (ACV) provides a great hair tonic. Mixed with water, ACV conditions the hair and combats dandruff. As a hair rinse, ACV has left my hair cleaner and softer. The acid in the vinegar removes the buildup left from commercial hair care products and kills bacteria, according to, which recommends mixing one-third cup of apple cider vinegar with a quart of distilled water

Friday, September 11, 2009

Finding My Money Leaks: The August Report

Yup. I could have saved more and spent less in August. As promised, I paid careful attention to my spending, saving and consuming habits in August. We all have money leaks. Here are my downfalls & solutions:
  • Lost items: I use paraben-free cosmetics from Origins and Burt's Bees. Unfortunately, while at the zoo with my kids, I lost my favorite lip gloss. I was careless and should have paid more attention. The replacement cost represents money that I could have saved or used for other expenses. My goal for September is to lower or eliminate careless costs.

  • Expired coupons: As a member of the frequent shopper program at CVS, I often receive coupon offers that are attractive. For example, during the summer, I received a coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase, which would have been perfect for school supplies. But I didn't check the offer date, and the deal expired before I used the coupon. My goal for September is to be more vigilant about deals and deadlines. I also plan to make better use of my calendar by flagging important expiration dates and stashing my receipts in the folder section of my home calendar.

  • Light check: We have made tremendous progress on our electric bill and have converted our home to CFL bulbs. With the exception of the light bulbs in the display case and the the lava light, my home is illuminated by energy-saving CFLs. However, sometimes when we are rushing out of the home, we have forgotten to turn off lights, the air conditioner the fans. One ceiling fan can cost up to $7 a month if it runs nonstop. My goal: No matter how busy, I plan to double check lights and power before the morning or afternoon rush hours.
  • Costly delays: I traveled a lot during the summer, including short trips to Pittsburgh and Orlando. Travel specials offered great deals, but I could have spent less if I had not procrastinated. My goal: Book early, save more.

  • Keep records: My August money leak challenge prompted me to pay closer attention for 30 days. On a scale of 1-10, my attention span hit the mid range of 6-7. I can do better. My September goal: From September 15 -30, I plan to keep an expense journal. With a shorter tracking period, I hope to gather more insights and cut more waste. Watch this space.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Poll: Saving $50 Beats Diets, Love & Time

If you had a choice between saving an extra $50 a week or gaining an extra hour daily, what would you do? I vote for the extra hour, (seven hours a week). But more money beat out diet, time and sex, according to this recent survey from Here is a snippet from the full survey results:

- Over half (57%) of those surveyed would rather save $50 an extra week

- vs. 31 % who would rather lose one clothing size

- or 6% who would opt for more sex

- or 6 % who would rather have an extra 60 minutes each day.

The Real Bonus

My choice:
Please give me another hour every day! With an extra seven hours a week, I would use 33 % of the extra time to earn more money, 33% of the bonus time would be spent relaxing, and I would spend the remaining time with my children.

Here's another nugget from the poll:

"More women (45%) feel better when they’re cutting grocery costs vs. sticking to an exercise regimen (24%)."

Once again, I disagree with that allocation of time. A commitment to an exercise program can yield both long-term savings and better health. Preventive medicine and exercise represent savvy investments of time and money. Consider the cost of obesity.

The Power of Coupon Clipping

"Consumers are changing their spending habits, but not drastically. The survey, conducted by DMS Research with 5,877 respondents (5,250 females and 627 males), uncovered that small changes such as clipping more coupons, are taking precedence over large lifestyle adjustments like driving less or cancelling gym memberships.

Across all categories of spending, more women tend to be tightening their belts than men, cutting back on vacation, spending, and dining out.

The survey revealed:
Almost three-quarters of respondents (71%) are now clipping coupons;

Four in ten respondents (41%) consider treating themselves to something under $49 to be a splurge;

Even in a tough economy, just over one-quarter (28%) of respondents won’t give up purchasing quality items and 17% won’t give up buying their favorite beauty product

'We know how important saving money and saving time are these days, so we aren’t surprised with the findings that something as simple as using coupons – and increasingly, electronic coupons – is on the rise,' said Tara Trocki, director, AOL’s 'This is a testament that using a free, simple service can lead to significant financial savings without having to make a major lifestyle adjustment.' "

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Cut Your Beverage Tab at Bars, Restaurants & Resorts

It's possible to spend less for drinks at bars, restaurants and resorts. Here's my list of do-it-mostly-yourself drink recipes.

  • Spiked & flavored coffees: At bars, restaurants and resorts you can save a lot by ordering plain American coffee and a shot of Baileys Irish cream liqueur or other liqueurs. One shot of liqueur is good for spiking several rounds of coffee, especially if the establishment offers bottomless cups of coffee. Final ingredient: Tip the waiter or bartender generously.

  • Virgin drinks: When lounging poolside at a resort, beach or hotel, save money by ordering the non-alcohol version of pina coladas or other mixed drinks. Spike your virgin drinks with your own small bottle of rum or vodka. At one one resort, virgin drinks were $4-5 each, compared to $8-12 for the spiked versions. Note: Only use this recipe at resorts where it's customary for guests to carry DIY snacks, sodas and food. Many resorts have no problem with customers bringing brown-bag treats from hotel rooms, beach bags, the food court or other take-out establishments. Final ingredient: When you order the virgin drinks, be sure to tip the waiter or bartender generously.

  • Watered down drinks: One area resort serves strong drinks. When I asked for a watered down version, one fellow customer chided me. She told me take the strong drink as-is and to request an extra glass of soda to dilute the original drink. In this fashion, it's possible to create your own two-for-one drink special. Final ingredient: Tip the waiter or bartender generously.
  • DIY iced tea or iced coffee: Some hotels and resorts offer guests free (hot) coffee and tea bars, with high-end herbal teas and gourmet coffee. At one resort where we were staying, I made a cup of hot passion fruit tea and requested a cup of ice from the bar area. With the ice cubes and the hot herbal tea, I was able to create a tall glass of iced tea at no charge. The same strategy works for turning hot coffee into a chilled-out drink. And of course, it's good karma to tip the bartender for the ice.

  • Drink water: It's healthier. It's cheaper.


Sharon is the author of the Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money -- a coming of age memoir about money -- and a contributing writer in Wise Bread's 10,0001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.

Friday, September 04, 2009

How to Find Cheap Food at Airports

Stormy weather delayed my flight plans and prompted me to spend over 10 hours traveling through three airports. My growling stomach felt like extra baggage as I tried to find a frugal meal plan. I fed my appetite without starving my wallet with the following steps:

Find a drugstore. Many airports have vast shopping malls, which include national or regional drugstore chains, where prices are competitive. At a chain drug store in Pittsburgh International Airport, snacks and beverages were cheaper than comparable items at other shops in the airport mall. For instance, a package of two large peanut butter cookies was 79 cents, compared to prices of $1.50 to $3 per cookie at other vendors in the food court area. Yogurt, iced cappuccino, crackers, nuts and other food items were also good bargains at the drugstore.

Drink tea. Beverage carts, cafes and specialty stores sell hot coffee and specialty espresso drinks for $3 to $4 per cup. In contrast, from one high-end coffee stand, I purchased a large cup of Earl Grey tea for $1.80. With cream and a dash of cinnamon, the tea was a taste of luxury.

•Go green. Basic green salads are reasonably priced at many airport food courts. Veggie-only salads cost $2 to $4 at fast-food restaurants. What's more, packets of mayonnaise, ketchup and mustard can be mixed with pepper to create French dressing. Ask for crackers.

•Pack food. I often carry small bags of baby carrots, single-serving cans of tuna fish and snacks when I travel. This survival kit becomes valuable when late afternoon travel plans stretch beyond midnight.

Sharon Harvey Rosenberg is the author of the "Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money" — a coming of age memoir about money — and a contributing writer in Wise Bread's "10,0001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget," both available on

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Fixing the Ferret: Lessons From a Faulty Toy

My daughter fixed her ferret with a foot of fishing string. As such, our story about a defective toy has a happy ending. Our quick repair taught us valuable lessons. Here's what we have learned:

  • Hit the return button. Why didn't we return the broken toy, asked one reader after reading the original story: Cheated By a Ferret: One Child's Lesson. We have several reasons: 1) We lost the receipt; 2) we trashed the original packaging, and 3) most importantly, we were too annoyed to think of the obvious. Anger can be counter-productive. Anger can be expensive. The faulty ferret should have been returned for cash or store credit.

  • Be creative: My daughter found inspiration in a piece of clear fishing string, which resembled the original "invisible" string that made the ferret move. From her repair, I learned to think outside the tackling box and to constantly consider ways to find new uses for everyday materials that are around the home.

  • Repair, recycle, reuse: It's tempting to toss out worn, broken or outdated merchandise, including toys, clothing and shoes. We live in a disposable society, and we're often quick to contribute to landfills. My goal is to find new uses for old items, including an old teapot, worn out socks and old calendars.