Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Summer Fitness Plan: Lifting Weights & Pumping Fiscal Goals

Summer is a great time for physical fitness, and I am lifting weights twice a week. But beyond the beach-ready body, we should also think about boosting our fiscal fitness.

To beef up my finances, I purchased a July 2009 - December 2010 calendar last week. The calendar -- 20 percent off -- is designated for tracking my financial goals, which include saving money for my kids college education, retirement and the all-important emergency fund. The new calendar, even has a built-in pocket for receipts and other papers.

Goal-setting is just one of several fiscal fitness tips recommended by the folks at Women & Co. Here is one fitness plan:

"Assess Your Health: Gather all important financial statements and review what you own, your assets, and what you owe, your liabilities. Look carefully at how you’re putting your hard-earned cash to work – what you’re earning, spending and saving. Then set aside some time every few months to file important papers and keep them organized.

Know Your Numbers: Your credit score is a key indicator of your financial health. It’s a primary criteria used by lenders to determine your likelihood of defaulting on a loan and that may impact your ability to get many types of loans, including a mortgage. Request your free annual credit report from each of the 3 major credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com.

Set Your Goals: Once you know where you stand today, set goals. Short-term goals are those you’d like to accomplish within one year (e.g., pay off credit cards); mid-term goals, within 5 years (e.g., make down payment on a new home); and long-term goals, 5 years or more (e.g., save for retirement). Write these down, using the worksheet from Women & Co. to help you clarify and prioritize your financial goals.

Protect Yourself: Maintain appropriate insurance coverage; keep your beneficiary forms for your 401(k), IRA and insurance up-to-date; and put your wishes in writing by executing a will, living will, power of attorney and health care proxy.

Conduct Annual Check-ups: Review your finances at least once a year with your financial advisor. Keep in mind that life transitions such as having a child, getting married or divorced, or moving to another state, often bring with them financial, tax and legal implications."
--quoted material from Source: Women & Co.


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.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Finding Money & Spotting Financial Errors in the Mail

It's possible to make or save money by just opening the mail. Bills, pay stub statements and even junk mail can be a source of savings. Within the last two weeks, a careful review of bills and statements has led to a savings of more than $200 in my home.

Phone and utility bills: My husband Avi recently spotted two mistakes totaling $110 on our monthly phone bill. We were billed $80 for a home repair of our wireless network. The repair did not happen. We challenged both charges and were given credit for the errors.

Magazine renewal fees: Through a special promotion, we had ordered several magazines for $2 per annual subscription. Last week, we received a postcard with details about an automatic subscription renewal. After reading the fine print, we discovered that the renewal rates were substantially higher than the initial promotions. We were billed $120 to renew four magazines. We canceled the subscriptions.

Phantom monthly charges: After examining her Internet and cable television bills, my mother discovered recurring charges for features she had not ordered. She protested and had the charges removed.

Pay stub mistakes: Review pay stubs. You may be responsible for tax or income errors. If you've been overpaid, your company could request immediate repayment. A friend once faced a substantial tax penalty for a recurring tax error that was ultimately her responsibility.

Promotions: From free facials to complimentary cups of coffee, we have found useful discounts by reading promotional mail, including e-mail. Coupons for food, entertainment, merchandise and services have yielded valuable savings and services.


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, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: RIP & Currency for Peace

Monetary hits have limits and a language of loss. But there are few words to express bankruptcies and losses of the heart. Therefore, cliches become the currency of pain and, we just say:"Rest in Peace" Michael Jackson.

May your wealth, poverty, moon-walking leaps, talent and fame in this world pay real dividends of peace in the World to Come. Shalom!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Black Holes in Relationships: What Spouses May Not Know About Money

You could fill a vault with the things men and women don’t know about their and the spouse’s money. That's the word from the folks at MassMutual. Here's a list of five great questions to ask.

"Who 'owns' the assets? Is anyone cheating on the budget? Will each spouse have to fight for what’s his or hers? And, are they putting their lives, homes, and assets at risk by not asking the right questions?

“Through death or divorce, many women will be alone at some point in their lives; they should be aware of their husband’s financial plan because someday they may have to live with it,” said Beth Wood, assistant vice president, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual).

“Conversely, for the growing number of households where the woman is the CFO, there’s no excuse for the man not to know what’s going on with the family finances,” said William Dougherty, assistant vice president, MassMutual.

Wood and Dougherty have developed five questions spouses and partners should ask each other.

1) Are there hidden pockets of money?
Identify all accounts including checking, savings, retirement, investments, on-line trading, IRAs, etc. If you’re left alone and don’t know about the money, it could go unclaimed and neither you nor your children would get the cash. With today’s technology and being able to receive statements on-line, there’s no paper statement that necessarily comes in the mail. A spouse may just get an email that says ‘Here’s your statement.’

“Communication between spouses can be good - trying to "hide" money really won't work in the end especially if you file a joint tax return - you don't want to hide money from your spouse and you certainly don't want to hide money from the IRS, so full disclosure and honest communication about financial goals is key,” said Dougherty.

2) Am I the owner of this account?
One spouse may have opened a checking, savings, or investment account; but if you're not named as owner or beneficiary, there could be issues and complications as to how that money gets distributed in the event of death or divorce. It's a good idea to know what accounts exist, where they exist, and whether you're an owner or beneficiary.

“This isn’t about one person snooping on the other; this is about working toward a healthy financial life and relationship. If there are secrets out there or things you don’t understand, that can never lead to any good,” said Wood.

3) Are you cheating?
Anyone in the relationship could run up huge credit card bills. Is someone living beyond the budget? Are you saving for college, mortgage payments, cars, and vacation – or is someone spending their money on “toys?”

“If you don’t share and stick to common financial goals, it can break the budget and the marriage. There may be an awful lot of spending for sports, electronics, spa treatments, and clothing outside the household budget,” said Wood.

4) Where’s my cut?

Have a budget, but don’t let it be your ball and chain. It’s important to do things for yourself. Peel off a portion of the household income for things important to you - but don’t call it an allowance.

“It’s important that each spouse feels they are a valuable, contributing member of the household – whether they bring home a paycheck or stay home to take care of the children and run the house; both are full time jobs,” said Wood.

5) Do your safety nets have holes?
No harm done if the milk expires, but it could be a huge problem if a spouse’s life insurance protection expires - and you don't know it. “There are critical differences between the many kinds of insurance people use to ensure the family can continue to pay its bills and survive if a spouse dies too early, lives too long, or becomes disabled along the way,” said Dougherty.

Mass Mutual offers more than two dozen free calculators for savings and financial planning.


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.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Airport Survival Trips: How to Wait for Your Flight Without Spending too Much

Grounded by delays or missed connections, it’s common to spend hours waiting for a flight at an airport. But when boredom arrives at the gate, common sense often departs. That’s when we become easy targets for extra travel pillows (two for $20), colognes or luggage. Here’s how I avoided temptation while waiting for a flight to Orlando.

BYOB: Bring your own books. With books from home, I’m less tempted to make an impulse purchase. For instance, Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Stop Worrying & Start Living,” saved my sanity when I was stranded for six hours in an airport.

• Bargain books: If you forget your own books, look for discounted items and special promotions at airport bookstores. At one store, I spotted red-tagged books marked down to as low as $3.99. Additionally, some airport bookstores, will let customers return hardback books and receive a 50-percent discount on a future purchase at one of their stores, with a six-month time limit for the exchange.

Set goals: Nonprofits and corporations hold annual goal-setting conferences for executives and staff members. Likewise, I participated in a small goal-setting retreat at an airport. The session – sparked by boredom -- would have cost a fortune if I had hired a life coach or attended a motivational conference. My agenda included short-term, 12-month and life goals.

Exercise: Airport hallways offer a respectable workout opportunity and a moving sidewalk can be a practical substitute for a treadmill. Impatient pacing can become a cardio-workout, with carryon luggage filling in for free weights.

Go sightseeing: At the Orlando International Airport, I watched a family of four pose with a statue of Snow White. Watching their smiles, I realized that any trip can be a vacation if we enjoy the scenery. In fact, at several airports, I’ve seen sculptures, photograph exhibits, murals and funky lounges. It’s all in the frame and while bored, I’ve learned to create a better frame of mind.

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.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Be an Electronics Expert for Father's Day & Other Free Gift Ideas

Instead of giving our dads new gadgets for Father's Day, we can provide our services as gadget masters and computer programmers, according to the folks at iVillage. They've assembled a list of free and creative gift ideas.

Here's a sample:

"While computers, mobile phones and iPods make fine Father's Day gifts, they always require some set up. Free up your dad's time for some of his more entertaining pursuits by plugging in all those wires, programming his most-dialed numbers or downloading some new tunes for him." -- source: iVillage
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.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mascara, Movies & Other Odd Economic Indicators: From Kiplinger's

Movie theaters, dry cleaners and mascara can tell us a lot about the economy, according to Kiplinger.com , which has put together a funny list of "10 Quirky Economic Indicators." Here's a sample from the list:

· "Dry Cleaning Pickups Are Down The International Drycleaning and Laundry Institute is hearing gripes from many of its 5,000 members. Because of the poor economy, customers are visiting less frequently and leaving clothes longer. Customers who once came weekly now visit every two weeks, monthly customers visit bimonthly, and some people delay their pickups even longer to avoid the bill.

· More First Dates. Misery loves company. In the fourth quarter of 2008, online dating service Match.com was its busiest in seven years. When the Dow Jones industrial average dropped to a five-year low last November, the company had its second-busiest weekend of the year. Match.com believes people are looking for someone with whom they can forget about money troubles—or share the pain.

· More Green Thumbs. The National Gardening Association finds that the number of households that will grow their own fruits, berries, vegetables and herbs this year is 19% higher than in 2008. That makes 43 million gardeners in the United States this year—54% of whom say the prospect of saving money on groceries motivates them to till the soil.

· Goopier Eyelashes. You’ve got that recession look in your eye. Total eye-makeup sales at supermarkets and drugstores were up 8.5% in the one-year period that ended on March 22. In that period, more than $260 million was spent on eye makeup—in particular, eyeliner was up 9% and mascara almost 13%, the industry says. The leading lipstick indicator—the past trend that lipstick sales rose in economic downturns as consumers settled for inexpensive luxuries—is not holding up. Lipstick sales are down 11%.

· Romance Novels Are Hot. Harlequin, the giant romance-novel publisher, says its sales were up 32% in 2008 from the year before. In 2009, sales are still rising. The publisher credits the increase to its uplifting stories that offer a haven, and to the low prices of the books relative to other entertainment. Harlequin saw a similar sales increase during the recession of the early '90s.

· Packed Theaters. When times get tough, people go to the movies. Box-office sales have increased in all of the last five recession years. According to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the number of movie tickets sold in the first quarter of 2009 increased more than 9% from last year. People continue to fill theater seats, NATO says, because movies are one of the least expensive entertainment options out of the house. "

--source: Kiplinger.com

The full list of “10 Quirky Economic Indicators”


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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wash It Yourself & Other Ways to Save Money on Organic Fruits, Veggies

My children appreciate the added flavor in organic fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Unfortunately, organic products, which are grown and packaged without pesticides, artificial coloring or preservatives, are expensive. The following strategies have helped us to purchase organic products while staying on a tight budget.

Follow the loss leaders. Grocery stores and specialty chains typically offer several heavily discounted items each week. These promotional items are called loss leaders because stores are willing to take a financial hit on them in order to bring consumers into the store. Stock up on sale items in the organic section and build menus around them.

• Stay local. In-season and locally produced fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper than out-of-season items that have been imported.

• Wash it yourself. We pay a premium for veggies that are already washed, peeled or cut. When time allows, I save money with do-it-yourself washing, peeling and chopping of fruits and veggies. The savings are significant.

• Hit the freezer. I love organic blueberries, but when the out-of-season price spikes to $6.99 for six ounces, I go to the freezer aisle. That's where I pick up a 10-ounce package of organic berries for about $4. The freezer section offers a variety of frozen organic fruits at reasonable prices. Frozen fruits are great for snacking or baking.

Join an organic co-op. Before we let our membership lag, we were part of an organic food co-op in our neighborhood for over a year. We have since joined another group and are pleased with the savings. Our produce bill has dropped by 30 percent due to the co-op, which purchases fruits and vegetables in bulk from local, organic farmers.

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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

They Lived in a Station Wagon: Lessons From One Family

A family from Copake Falls, NY lived in their car for two months and 11 days. Both parents were employed, but became homeless when their landlord went into foreclosure. From laundry to dinner meals, basic living expenses cost more when you don't have a home, according to Dennis and Pamela Marks.

Their story was featured in the April 2009 issue of All You magazine.

Dennis and Pamela Marks, plus five children, lived in a trailer. With the pending arrival of a sixth child, the family was outgrowing that home.

They sold the trailer and rented "a nice three-bedroom house with a yard." It was sweet set-up, until a three-day eviction notice arrived. The landlord had fallen behind on the mortgage payments, and the bank had seized the property. That was in May of 2007.

Finding a new -- and affordable home -- in three days was difficult. Very few people wanted to rent to a large family. "By then end of the third day, we had no more options --we slept in our old Ford station wagon that night," Pamela Marks told All You magazine.

Life in a Car:
With kids ages 4-16, the family slept in the parking lot of their employer. At times, the school-age children spent nights in the homes of friends, but on most nights the family slept in the station wagon. Finally after two months, the Marks were able to find an affordable home.

Life Lessons From Pamela Marks:

  • The homeless tax: Life costs more when you have less. For instance, the Marks paid about $200 per month to do the laundry. Likewise, meals at fast-food restaurants created a high monthly tab. "The kids hated it, but it was all we could afford," Pamela Marks said.

  • Appreciation: When they found a home, the family was grateful for small pleasures, such as stability, home-cooked meals and fresh vegetables. The children learned to be more compassionate and are eager to help others in need.

  • Ask for help: There were a variety of programs that could have provided the Marks family with shelter or assistance, but after being urned down by one program, the family stopped seeking help. Pamela Marks offers this advice for those facing financial trouble: "Wade through the bureaucracy to find the services that you need...Looking back, I wished we had reached out more for help."

  • Look for free activities: While they were homeless, Pamela and Dennis Marks entertained their kids with a wide range of free activities from parks, museums and libraries.


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.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Welcome ABC News Now Viewers: How to Unspoil Your Child

I recently had the pleasure of appearing on ABC News Now to chat about the subject of children and money.

The topic was prompted by this post: How to Unspoil Kids: A Crash Course from Money Magazine with insights from Linsey Knerl of Wise Bread, who has written a great piece about what we should tell our kids about money.

Here is a link to the ABC News video segment: How To 'Un-Spoil' Your Child.

Thanks to the folks from ABC for inviting me to appear.

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.

Cheap and Easy Repairs for Wardrobe Malfunctions

At work, parties or other formal occasions, wardrobe malfunctions can be expensive. Sudden downpours, popped buttons and scuffed shoes can lead to quick-fix shopping sprees or expensive repair bills.

But the annual ritual of preparing for hurricane season and other household emergencies has taught me to develop a survival kit for fashion emergencies. The following tools can be money-savers.

Weather-proofing: Carry a folded plastic poncho in your car, briefcase or purse. Portable rain gear can be purchased at drug stores, dollar stores and other outlets for $1 to $5, and easily stored in small spaces. The investment can save a suit from ruin or prevent a costly trip to the dry cleaners.

Instant shoe repair: A black marker can instantly banish scuff marks from black leather shoes. Likewise, I’ve make quick repairs with matching shades of navy and red markers.

Staples and hooks: Before meetings, I have stapled the hem of an unraveling skirt, and I’ve used staples to repair broken hook-and-eyelet fasteners. When a clasp falls apart, I’ve replaced the broken eyelet with a vertical staple in the inner seam of the garment. I then link the hook to the staple. With this repair, a skirt or cardigan closes perfectly.

Quick hem: I’ve repaired falling or missing hems with adhesive strips that are applied with a hot iron. This quick fix — available at drug stores or specialty retailers — has been used for bridesmaid gowns (hours before a wedding), boys’ dress pants, curtains and skirts. Scotch tape also doubles as a great short-term fix for falling hems, but is less reliable.

Spare shoes: Puddles, broken heels and other emergencies have taught me to stash spare sets of shoes in the office, gym locker or family car. An extra set of dress shoes provides a quick transition from business casual to more formal attire.

Accessory collection: For an instant wardrobe upgrade, a friend keeps several ties and a jacket in his office. Those items are helpful when he’s called into sudden executive meetings or other formal gatherings. Likewise, I know women who use shawls and other accessories to deliver quick makeovers without spending a dime.

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, June 05, 2009

Islands of Stability? Kiplinger's: 10 Best Cities for Jobs

"Kiplinger’s Personal Finance has named its 10 Best Cities of 2009, selecting areas offering solid employment opportunities and the talent to create new, well-paying positions. A healthy job market means these cities will suffer less during the recession and will have a head start toward growth when the recovery takes off.

Kiplinger’s Best Cities of 2009:

1. Huntsville, AL—This northern Alabama city represents critical mass for the nation’s missile-defense and aerospace industries as well as medical and life-sciences sectors. In addition, Huntsville owes much of its red-blooded vitality to the U.S. Army, which employs more than 14,000 people at the 38,000-acre Redstone Arsenal.

2. Albuquerque, NM—Albuquerque’s desire to bring good jobs to its residents is represented by its budding film industry, which has grown from 100 people eight years ago to 3,000 today, many of whom are locals trained for the new jobs. It’s had even more success in attracting companies in the solar-energy industry—such as Schott North America, which has its flagship solar-panel plant in the area.

3. Washington, DC—The federal government employs one in eight workers in the Washington area and fuels nearby companies in almost every industry—law firms, lobbyists, and aerospace and defense companies in particular. High-tech firms in northern Virginia and biotech companies in Maryland offer many employment opportunities.

4. Charlottesville, VA—From the University of Virginia to the downtown promenade, the Charlottesville community is an unexpected blend of Southern charm and liberal edge with a strong business base. UVA employs one-fourth of the local workforce—and the faculty’s research often results in private spinoff companies.

5. Athens, GA—The Classic City is home to the University of Georgia, the city’s largest employer. It is also a hub of regional medical services, including Athens Regional Medical Center, St. Mary’s Health Care System, and Landmark Hospital, providing health care and jobs not only for the community but also for nearby counties. International manufacturing companies, such as Carrier and DuPont, also have operations in Athens.

6. Olympia, WA—Employing about half of the city’s working population, the state government is the keystone of Olympia’s economy. Education is another big driver of the city’s growth and character. Evergreen State College, a liberal-arts school specializing in the social sciences and visual and performing arts, helps fuel the creative spirit, and Saint Martin’s University, a private school located in neighboring Lacey, is known for engineering and applied sciences.

7. Madison, WI—With a jobless rate three percentage points below the national average, Madison’s ready-made economy feeds off of its two largest assets: the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin state capital. But these two institutions account for only 20% of Madison’s jobs; the rest come from its strong mix of tech and biotech firms.

8. Austin, TX—Last year, the Texas capital added 3,300 jobs, the biggest bump in the country. The increase covered a broad swath, from professional services, education and hospitality to health care and government. Give most of the credit to government and higher education. State government employs 170,000, a fifth of the city’s workforce, and the University of Texas at Austin alone employs more than 6,000 people.

9. Flagstaff, AZ—The Old West charm of Flagstaff is infused with new energy—both from its residents and from the college students at Northern Arizona University. The university adds jobs to the city’s economy, plus arts and entertainment to its cultural scene. The government is big business in Flagstaff (which is the Coconino County seat), as is tourism—a result of the city’s proximity to the Grand Canyon.

10. Raleigh, NC—Raleigh has an enviable economic base, built on three universities and Research Triangle Park, where employers in everything from biotech to computers still thrive. Although Raleigh’s unemployment rate has doubled in the past year, to 8.6%, it’s still much lower than the 10.8% rate for the state as a whole.
This year’s favorites are profiled in the July issue of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, on newsstands June 9, and online , with additional interactive features:


· Narrated walking-tour slide shows
· A Which City is Best for You? calculator to help readers determine the city which best matches their goals and tastes
· A spreadsheet that lets readers see where their own city ranks in different key categories

Kiplinger’s included data on population growth, unemployment rate, income growth, and cost of living to determine city rankings. Based on the formula, Kiplinger’s looked for places with a professional, high-quality workforce that will help generate new jobs and businesses once the recession ends.

To identify the Best Cities of 2009, Kiplinger’s teamed with Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank that studies economic prosperity. Stolarick evaluated U.S. cities for their growth potential, looking not just at the overall number of jobs but also at the quality of those positions and the ability of cities to hold on to them when the economy softens.

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.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Putting a Price Tag on Good Grades: Cell Phones and Cash Bonuses?

Extortion or an incentive plan? If a child asks for a reward for good grades is that extortion? If a parent pays a cash bonus for each "A" on a report card, does that bonus represent a bribe?

Those are a few of the questions that were debated among a few friends today when one parent shared the news that his award-winning 10-year-old son wanted a new cell phone as a reward for earning great grades and several top academic awards.

The father agreed to the cell phone request. But Anna, a mutual friend, was appalled by the cell phone-for-good-grades barter: "Kids are supposed to get good grades. They don't get paid for that," Anna said.

But in the work world, adults receive bonuses for meeting sales goals or for outstanding performances. Likewise, I know of a family that pays a cash bonus for great grades. It makes sense. Sort of. But I'm torn.

It's important for kids to make a link between hard work and financial rewards. In fact, I'll be discussing that topic on ABC News Now.com at 4 p.m. on June 4. I think children should receive bonuses for completing chores and small jobs around the home.

And I applaud a 10-year-old who is savvy enough to use an excellent report card as a negotiating tool. But I have mixed feelings about parents who give in to those demands. The scenario became even more complicated because the student asked his father to pick up the new cell phone immediately after work.

That demand was vetoed. The kid could wait until the weekend, the father said. As a friend, I nodded in agreement.

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


Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Eating Out, Spending Less: Tips from Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports recommends the following strategies for spending less while eating out:

"Look for bargains on the menu. CR found: buy-one-get-one-free appetizers and entrées; all-you-can-eat specials; lower prices for smaller portions; off-peak dining specials; low-cost upgrades (add chicken to a salad for $1); flat-rate discounts of as much as 20 percent; even free food and more on almost all of the chains in the ratings.

Sign up for e-mail alerts. Chain Web sites are the best source of menu specials, discounts, and other promotions. That’s how CR learned about IHOP’s national free-pancake-day campaign and Denny’s Grand Slam and Grand Slamwich breakfast giveaways. After signing up for e-mail at dozens of chains, we were flooded with coupons.

Show your age. Many family chains, including Bob Evans, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery, and Eat’n Park, have reduced-price menus for kids (usually under 10 or 12) and seniors (usually 55 and up). Some dinner chains offer incentives too, such as free meals for kids on Tuesday (Black-eyed Pea, Chevys Fresh Mex, and Beef O’Brady’s). If you reveal your birthday (sign up online), some chains are particularly generous.

Time your visit. On weekdays and at off-peak hours, there are many chances to economize. Texas Roadhouse, for example, features 10 $7.99 dinners Monday through Thursday. Lone Star Steakhouse has a $7 soup-and-salad-bar buffet on the same days, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Eat at the bar. Pricey McCormick & Schmick’s has a bar menu offering cheeseburgers and fries for less than $3, tuna rolls for less than $4, and jambalaya for less than $5. T.G.I. Friday’s has bar appetizers for a penny if you join its Give Me More Stripes frequent-diner program. It’s free.

Order takeout. Getting food to go at least saves the cost of a tip, and the list of chains accepting online and telephone orders is growing. So are the ranks of those allowing curbside pickup."

In a survey, Consumer Reports rated 101 chain restaurants and provided other money-saving tips in the July issue. _______________________________________________________

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

Monday, June 01, 2009

Catch Up With Me On ABC News Now: New Date!

* Editor's Note: Please Note The Date Change

ABC News Now has invited me to appear as a guest on Thursday, June 4, between 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. I'll chat about kids and money. What kind of financial education should we give our kids? That topic is up for debate on ABC News Now.

Here is info about ABC News Now: "ABC News' digital cable network, ABC News NOW, is available on cable, broadband and mobile. ABC News NOW is an entire network devoted to better living..." Please tune in. Thanks!
Sharon is the author of the Frugal Duchess: How to Live Well and Save Money and a contributing writer in Wise Bread's 10,0001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget.