Coupon Codes and Freebies

REI.com: New subscribers to REI Gearmail receive a coupon for 15% off one full-price item. Not insignificant given how expensive their merchandise is. Even though they charge $12 for a single pair of hiking socks, I love REI. They are one of the most consumer-friendly stores known to man.

Vons.com: Free delivery with $50 minimum order. Code: SURPRISE. Expires 2/15/07.

Free sample: 10 pack Charmin Freshmates

Saving Advice/Freebies: This site is my favorite source of free sample information for all categories of samples. I usually sign up for a couple a week. They don't all arrive, but the only effort required is filling out a short form. Make sure to use fake contact info (including your name) to avoid junk mail spam in the future.


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Avoid Nice Restaurants on Valentine's Day

My boyfriend and I picked out a tried-and-true favorite and made Valentine's Day dinner reservations, only to find out that instead of the usual menu, they will be serving a fixed menu for $65 per person. This is a common restaurant practice on this day because it helps them keep up with the high volume of orders and churn out more meals.

We had to ask ourselves, why would we pay higher than usual prices to have a much smaller selection and eat in a crowded restaurant? Why not go out to eat on February 13 or February 15 instead, when traffic will be lighter, restaurants won't be packed, prices will be lower, and the full menu will be available? So we're changing our reservations to Tuesday. We haven't gone out for a nice dinner in a long time, so we're opting for the earlier date, but other good options for Valentine's Day would be staying in and cooking, ordering takeout, or dining at a low-key restaurant that doesn't change things up for Valentine's Day.

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My Budgeting Strategy

Different personalities prefer different budgeting strategies, but I'd like to tell you about my method since it's worked very well for me.

Quite simply, I have a spreadsheet on my computer where I write down every single thing I spend and every single thing I earn each month, rounded to the nearest dollar for simplicity's sake. Though I do not live paycheck to paycheck, my budget is set up as if I did. I think this method helps me save more, since I force myself to work with what I'm paid each month rather than with the whole amount that's in my bank account or my credit card limit. It also helps me save more because instead of automatically saving a certain amount each month, which would have to be a low amount that could safely come out of my checking account each and every month, I adjust my savings monthly depending on my circumstances and usually end up saving significantly more than the 10% minimum (that's because I'm a natural saver, though).

Let me give you a general idea of what my monthly budget spreadsheet looks like. It's really just a simple list. Pen and paper work just fine with this system, but I make fewer mistakes using a spreadsheet.

Income:
Salary $xxxx
2nd job income $xxx
Amazon/eBay sales $xx
Online survey income $xx
Other misc. income $xx

Regular Monthly Expenses:
Rent $xxx
Renter's Insurance $xx
Health Insurance $xxx
Cell phone $xx
Gas for car $xx
Gas bill (every 2 months) $xx
Electric bill (every 2 months) $xx
Groceries $xxx

Fun Money $xxx
_________________________
Total Income $xxxx
Total Spending $xxxx
Total Savings $xxxx


Underneath this chart, I write down everything I spend in one column and keep a running total of how much I have left in the column next to it.

Despite what the experts recommend, my budget has always been based around my income. You might think that this would cause the dreaded increased income --> increased expenses cycle, but for me that hasn't been a significant problem. I have increased my standard of living from uncomfortable to comfortable, but I haven't gone overboard.

Just I adjust my savings each month, I also change the amount of fun money I allow myself depending on what the month looks like. In the months after Christmas, I give myself very little since I've just received a bunch of gifts. Towards the end of the year, I give myself more to allow for plane tickets and Christmas gift purchases. Major purchases (i.e. a new computer) and unanticipated major expenses (car repairs, medical bills) generally come out of the same month's savings. If I exceed any pre-alloted amount for any of my recurring expenses (like groceries), that also comes out of fun money.

Writing down every single purchase may seem tedious, but I have to do it. During my budgeting life, there have been a couple of periods, usually only lasting a couple of months, where I chose to not track my spending. Both times, I ended up spending significantly more than I made that month and dipping into my savings for things I didn't really need or could have put off purchasing until I had more money. Both times I didn't realize what was happening until I went back later and did the math. I learned from those experiences that I'm not yet ready to try living without a budget. Those little things add up all too quickly, and having hard numbers in front of me keeps me on track.

My strategy does take a bit of time, but overall it's pretty simple, it's free, and I find that it works well for me. I update it in the evenings while I watch TV, so the extra time it takes isn't really an issue. What kind of budgeting strategy do you use?

Photo by wolfpix

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A New Sweater Costs $50, but A Button Kit Only Costs $2

We live in a society where it is standard to toss anything that's broken and replace it with a new one. The high cost of repairs and the time involved in making them, combined with the low cost of new items and the ease of acquiring them, often makes replacement the most logical choice.

However, we're so accustomed to this mindset that we sometimes forget that certain repairs are cheap and easy to do ourselves. One example of this is mending clothes. While I have had no success with mending holey socks, I have managed to save sweaters with holes in them using a simple needle and thread (no sewing machine required), my favorite comforter (thanks to the generous help of two good friends with a sewing machine and sewing machine skills), and numerous other items that didn't quite fit and would have gone to waste without the minor alterations I made to them (I have no training in this, by the way).

The next time you think an item needs to be replaced, first consider whether there might be a cheap and easy way to fix it.


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Stock photo courtesy of bigfoto.com

When The Savings Aren't Worth It, Part 3: Vidal Sassoon Beauty School

I live in a city where haircuts are unreasonably expensive (an average $60 and up for a woman's haircut). In college, I'd tried several super cheap haircut places, but was horrified by how they treated my hair (what kind of salon doesn't wash your hair, or cuts a woman's hair without getting it wet first? That's just asking for an uneven cut). Getting a cheap haircut isn't worth it if you walk out with your hair looking worse than it did when you came in.

So I decided to try another method of saving money: go to a beauty school whose graduates go on to work at the pricey salons.

I knew going in that my haircut might take two hours (that's what the receptionist told me was standard at the school), but I had more time than money and since I have long, straight hair (nothing could be easier to cut), I figured I might get off easy. Wrong.

Not only did my haircut take an astounding three hours during which I was bored stiff (it's difficult to get involved in book when you're constantly interrupted), the woman supervising my hairstylist refused to allow me to get my hair cut the way I wanted it because she didn't like it. How does a haircut take three hours, you may ask? Well, when the student has to have nearly every snip of the scissors approved before and after making the cut and the supervisor is dealing with ten other students, it really can take three hours. Given that a haircut normally only uses up about 45 minutes of my life, I didn't think the $20 - $30 I saved was worth it at all given that I sacrificed almost an entire Saturday afternoon and didn't even end up with the haircut I wanted.

Sometimes spending the extra money is worth it. I've found that a better way to save money on haircuts is to go to a stylist I trust and stretch out the time between haircuts to four months instead of the recommended 6-8 weeks (which I think is a myth invented by hair salons, anyway).

Photo by stgerhm

Saving Money on Beauty Products

One of the biggest problems I have with buying toiletries, cosmetics, and other beauty products is that I often don't like what I purchased because it doesn't work or the color is hideous. Since I hate wasting things, though, I'll often make myself use a whole bottle of shampoo even though I don't like it.

There are better solutions than wasting money or using a product that you don't like. Here are a few:

1. Save all of your receipts for these purchases. Surprisingly, I've learned that most places will accept returns of these items, even if they've been used. I've returned lipstick, shampoo, and even used medicine that didn't work. If a product doesn't meet your expectations, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to return it. While most stores will accept returns like this, Rite Aid is one of the only places that makes their return-friendly policy widely known. I don't go to the stores where I buy beauty products and toiletries very often though, so sometimes returning an item is more trouble than it's worth to get the money back.

Your friendly demeanor and the way you explain your return can have a big impact on whether you get your money back on a used product. My policy is to always be nice and don't offer any explanation unless asked. If I am asked, I keep it simple: "It didn't work." People who work in retail are often underappreciated by snarky customers and low pay (I speak from experience), so a little kindness can go a long way towards making them more interested in helping you out than in staunchly protecting their store's bottom line.

2. Read reviews of products before you buy them. Like I've said before, Paula Begoun is my hero. Not only did her book teach me how to clear up my skin, but her book Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me has also prevented me from wasting money on tons of beauty products that are either bad for you or just plain don't work. You'd be surprised at how many beauty products are detrimental to your skin.

3. Try before you buy. Open things at the store and smell them, make good use of testers, and use friends' products before you open your wallet to a product you've never used.

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Quick Tip: Long's Drugs has Printable Coupons

You can print weekly coupons for Long's Drugs directly from their website (coupons are only valid in-store). I think this is fantastic, because it means that even if you don't subscribe to the Sunday paper, you won't miss out on savings. I wish more stores would do let you print coupons from their site.

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Ask and You Shall Receive: My Consumer Victory with The Gap

The Gap and Old Navy are pretty much the only two stores I shop at for clothes. Their clothes generally fit me significantly better than those sold at other stores, plus The Gap has killer sales and Old Navy has killer everyday low prices.

These stores, along with many other retailers, have a price adjustment policy. The way The Gap's policy works is this: If you buy a shirt for $30 and sometime in the next 14 days the price drops, you can ask them to refund the difference to you. Stores do this because they know that most people won't pay attention to the price of an item once they've already bought it, so the store won't end up issuing too many price adjustments. They also know that having people buy things, return them, and instantly rebuy them at a lower price is a major hassle.

I recently asked for a price adjustment on two longsleeved shirts I purchased, but could not get a brick and mortar store nor Gap's customer service phone support to refund the difference, even though I knew I was well within my rights to ask for a price adjustment. I sent a letter to Gap's corporate office, using the correspondence address easily available on The Gap's website. I explained what had happened, said that I had been a customer for twelve years and was also a shareholder (six shares at $20 each, but hey, why not mention it?) and I would really appreciate it if they'd give me my $9.

Within two weeks, I received a positive response and a $15 gift card. My letter was even signed with real ink by a real person. Thank you, Gap! I am a happy customer once again.

If you have a bad experience with a store, it never hurts to write a letter (or make a phone call, but I'm more comfortable writing). Just make sure to keep your tone pleasant but firm--ranting is a big turnoff to the person reading your letter, especially since that particular person probably had nothing to do with your complaint. Of course, you won't always be so lucky on the first try--that's what The Consumerist is for.


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How to Avoid Accidental Overtipping

Are you overtipping when you go out to eat? When the bill comes, you'll get an itemized list of everything you ordered, the subtotal, tax, and grand total. When you hand over your credit card to pay, however, that itemized bill disappears and you're returned a signature slip with only the grand total. Most people then end up basing their tip on this amount.

But wait! You're supposed to base your tip on the subtotal! While I can't prove it, my guess is that while restaurants know this, it isn't in their best interest to keep that subtotal in front of your eyes when you're figuring out the tip--so they deliberately don't. There's no other good reason (that I know of) to not return the itemized bill to you along with the credit card slip.

In order to avoid accidental overtipping, you have a couple of options:
1. Pay in cash, so that you don't lose sight of the subtotal when figuring your tip.
2. Figure out the tip before you hand over your credit card (what I plan to start doing).
3. Become a math whiz, so that you can compute and subtract the tax from your grand total when you are presented with the signature slip.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't tip extra well for good service if you so desire. I just want you to know that you may be getting suckered into tipping more than you need to or want to by this common restaurant practice. Just the other night I ended up overtipping $3 (and the service was mediocre at best).

If you eat out once a week, overtipping by even $1 per meal will add up significantly over the course of a year. $52 can buy me enough groceries to last a week and a half!

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Spice Trading Party

Spice Trading Party

Some international markets and wholesale markets sell large containers of spices for what is often close to the same price you pay for one small bottle at the grocery store. But you'll never use the huge container before the spices lose their potency, and you don't have the space for all those containers. What's a cook to do?

Have a spice trading party with your friends! First, get friends to commit and submit a list of spices they want. Then, have one or two people go to the store and purchase all of the spices on your friends' list. They should also buy a bunch of the smallest Gladware (or similar cheap tupperware) containers you can find and some labels. Then get everyone together to divide up the spices and pay their fair share. Write the name of the spice on a label and stick it on the side of each Gladware container for easy identification later. Everyone will leave the party with a huge assortment of spices acquired for a fraction of their retail grocery store price.

Thanks to reader Miranda Todd for this idea.

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Save Money by Exfoliating with Baking Soda

Here's a quick and easy tip I picked up from Paula Begoun, author of Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me and The Beauty Bible. I'm a huge fan of her work because after dealing with 10+ years of not being able to control my skin, her advice, product reviews, and line of skin care products finally cleared up my skin--something that dermatologists, pills, and expensive creams were never able to do. They just irritated my skin, not to mention my wallet.

Exfoliating your face occasionally will help prevent breakouts and remove the unsightly flaking that can plague skin during dry winter weather. Instead of paying extra money for a facial exfoliant that is probably too harsh for the delicate skin on your face (despite what the manufacturer would have you believe), just add a little bit of baking soda to some Cetaphil (an excellent mild face wash that I use twice a day), mix with your fingertips, massage in circles all over your face, and rinse. For a gentler exfoliant, simply use more Cetaphil and less baking soda in your mixture. If you already use Cetaphil (you should!) and you already have baking soda in your home, using this recipe is like getting a beauty product for free and will save you $3 - $30, depending on how much you typically spend on facial cleansers. And if you don't normally buy exfoliating products, now you have a new skin solution you can try risk-free.

(If you don't already use Cetaphil, you can get a large 16 ounce bottle for about $9 at Target. You can decrease the cost by buying a smaller bottle (although that will cost you more per ounce) or buying a store brand, which in my experience is just as good.)

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Cheap Long Underwear

If you live somewhere cold, will be traveling somewhere cold, or plan to do any winter camping, you might be considering buying some long underwear. Personally, any time the temperature drops below 40 degrees and I'm going to be spending some time outside, pants alone just don't keep me warm enough. I get cold easily.

Shopping for long underwear is an incredibly frustrating experience, though. For some reason, they all seems to suffer from one or more of the following:
-They're hideous
-The waistband comes up uncomfortably high
-The waistband size to leg width size doesn't work with my body type
-They're expensive
-They're too bulky to wear comfortably under my jeans

Forced to be creative, I found a fantastic and much cheaper solution: tights. I got some thick black cotton tights at Target for $5, cut off the feet (I didn't want to deal with two layers of foot covering, but if they don't bother you, the feet on tights can help keep your feet toasty when you add socks), and viola--long underwear that fits, keeps me warm, and barely made a dent in my budget. Tights also tend to be a lot stretchier than long underwear, which means that they can accomodate more body shapes.



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Google Named 2007's Best Company to Work For in America

Fortune is about to release its annual issue listing the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. Google earned the #1 ranking this year. Check out The Today Show's video of what it's like to work for Google--it nearly brought tears to my eyes. For more details on the perks of working for Google, check out these articles.

To find the video (there was no direct URL to it) locate the horizontal strip of videos just below the fold (you shouldn't have to scroll down) and then scroll over about 3 clicks using the small blue arrow to the right of the videos. There you should find the Google video.

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Save Money by Shopping at Farmers' Markets

At farmers' markets, customers pay similar prices (sometimes lower prices, depending on where you live) but get a vastly superior product--one that was picked the day before, at peak flavor and nutritional value. Even at stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats where we pay a premium for what we think is better produce, that produce has likely been sitting around for up to a week before we even buy it. In my experience, farmers' market produce is much more flavorful.

Farmers' markets give farmers the opportunity to reap a financial reward for doing good work and provide an incentive to grow crops that are outside the mainstream. A traditional farmer selling to a national supplier may make a profit of only a few cents per pound on his peaches, but if he sells directly to his customers via a farmers' market, he can earn a couple of dollars per pound. Similarly, while a national supplier may not pay a farmer enough to make it worth her while to grow tricky produce like Snow Queen nectarines, farmers' market customers will. By shopping at farmers' markets, I've discovered a love of produce I didn't even know existed, like persimmons and fresh figs (I ate almost exclusively canned fruit for the first 18 years of my life). I also like being able to interact directly with the farmers, who can authoritatively answer any questions about produce I'm unfamiliar with and provide samples so I don't waste money buying things I might not like.

Sometimes farmers' market produce may be more expensive than what you find at the grocery store. Keep in mind that farming, just like real estate, computer programming, or any other business, has significant overhead costs like rent, fuel, labor, and insurance. These things aren't cheap. Farmers' market produce, unlike the stuff from the supermarket, reflects the true cost of food--the cost to bring you fresh, sustainably grown produce. Unfortunately, the price does not yet reflect the true labor costs involved in raising food: due to the very high cost of living in California, where most of our country's produce is grown, it is rare that a farmer is able to pay his workers a living wage (keep in mind that this problem is not unique to the agriculture industry - most of the businesses you frequent probably aren't paying most of their workers a living wage, either).

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Just Ask

In the last two years, I’ve been given two weeks’ free rent, received several hundred dollars in bonuses from financial institutions, doubled the size of my apartment while lowering my monthly rent, and increased my gross income dramatically. I’m amazed at the things you can get in life by just asking for what you want and not settling for less.

Many people are too underinformed, too unmotivated, or too afraid to ask for what they want. Others don’t really know what they want. And truthfully, if everyone knew and asked for what they wanted, there might not be enough to go around. But there are a lot of things out there just waiting to be claimed by those who are bold enough to speak up.

There are three keys to getting what you want:

  1. Do the research and preparation before asking for what you want.
  2. Make sure to not shortchange yourself–ask for what you really want and aim high.
  3. Don’t back down, even when being accommodated and getting more than you thought you could.

Let me give you some examples of how these three principles can work together to get you exactly what you want, if not more.

Recently, I had an annual review at work. First, I had to ask for the review — don’t expect your boss to offer one. Next, I made a list of what I wanted to get out of the review, including a salary increase and a company contribution to a retirement plan. Then I researched what other people with my job description make, being sure to use a reputable source; I made a detailed list of the things I had done to deserve a raise, and I listened to an audio book on negotiation. Finally, in the meeting, I made my case. I was offered a higher raise than I expected, but I was not offered a retirement contribution. I held my ground and made my original argument for the retirement contribution. I ended up getting both! The increase in income not only dramatically improved my financial situation, it also improved my attitude about my job.

Earning more money didn’t happen all at once. Sometimes you will find yourself in a situation where you must temporarily accept less than you want or deserve to create a future opportunity. The key is to remember your goals and not get stuck in the lesser position.

Asking for what you want isn’t just important in your professional life. When I was looking for an apartment, I applied the same principles. I originally had to deal with something that wasn’t what I wanted: a small, expensive apartment with lots of noise and little privacy. I wanted a bigger, cheaper apartment with lots of peace-and-quiet and lots of privacy. I also wanted to be on the second floor, to be able to paint the walls, have a parking space, and about twenty other things. I spent three weeks looking and viewed at least twenty apartments. I considered taking places that weren’t what I wanted, because I was afraid that what I wanted didn’t exist — I had set my standards really high. But I didn’t settle, and I did find my perfect apartment. However, I didn’t stop there. Once I found my perfect apartment, I was able to negotiate my move-in date and get two weeks’ free rent.

Sometimes you don’t even have to do any negotiation to get what you want. Sometimes it really is as simple as just asking. Here are a few examples.

If you forget to pay your credit card and they slap you with a late fee and finance charges, a simple phone call can sometimes get the charges dropped, even if your excuse is lame and barely thought out.

At Starbucks, if your drink is made poorly or incorrectly, ask to have it re-made — it barely costs them anything, but it makes a big difference to you.

If you have a terrible experience at a restaurant, fill out a comment card or write them a letter and you may get a gift certificate inviting you to come back.

Many banks and credit card companies will give you $100 just for opening an account and following a few simple guidelines, after which you can close the account if you want — no strings attached. There are also credit cards that will give you a significant amount of cash back each year — but you have to take the initiative to sign up for the cards and then use them appropriately.

So the next time you want something, remember:

  1. Research the available options and clearly define what you want.
  2. Ask for what you want and aim high.
  3. Remind yourself that you deserve it and don’t settle.

Finally, if you have any questions about how to get what you want — just ask.



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