Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Free Tour of Europe (in DC)

Once again, if you live in or are planning to visit Washington, DC this weekend, there is another great free event in store: EU Open House! On Saturday, May 3, 26 of the European embassies are opening their doors for free programs, food, tours, lectures, music, and more. The open house is running from 10 AM - 3 PM. They are offering free shuttle service from some of the Metro stations to the embassies that aren't Metro accessible.

I've been wanting to go to this event for several years, but this is the first year I'm available to go. I can't wait! I love Europe -- and a free visit close to home, while not the same, should be fun. With all of the food and drink samples being offered, maybe we can even manage to make lunch out of it! :-)

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Shoes from Payless

I've been working on some more wedding planning over the past week. One of my tasks was to find shoes for the bridesmaids. While I let them pick the style of dress they will each wear, I want them to all wear the same shoes. The dresses are tea-length, so everyone will see their shoes. It will look better if they are the same.

I have 5 bridesmaids who live in 3 different states, none of whom live in the same city. I needed to find shoes that they could all easily get. I wanted a style that looked nice with a heel that was no more than 2" (so they don't kill themselves trying to get down the aisle). They needed to be black. I wanted them to be under $20, so in the event they don't like them or have no other reason to ever wear them again, they didn't lose a ton of money on these shoes.

After much searching, I found shoes at Payless that fit all of the requirements, including only being $17.99! (There's a store within 8 miles of all of the bridesmaids.) The only problem was that I couldn't find these shoes in the store when I first started looking. So, my sister (roommate/maid of honor) bought them from They have free shipping to a store and easy returns/exchanges. Luckily, we liked them, and they fit. However, if they hadn't worked out, she could have easily gotten a refund at the store without the hassle or expense of returning them by mail.

So, if you are looking for shoes that may be for a one-time use (like for a wedding), look at what Payless has to offer because they have good prices and offer free shipping if you can’t find what you want in a store. Just watch out for the dyeable shoes because they can be more expensive (as much as $39.99). It’s much better to buy shoes that are already made in the color you need or to buy a complimentary color.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Which Car is Less Expensive to Drive?

When planning a recent long-distance trip, Michael and I were trying to decide which car we should take -- his or mine? He assumed my little compact sedan would get better gas mileage than his full-size sedan. I thought that was probably true, but I do like seeing the proof in the numbers.

I used AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator to find out the real answer. I was surprised to learn that on the same trip, it would only cost $8.06 more in gas (total - round trip) to take his car than mine. So, if we needed more space or find his car to be more comfortable, it would be fine to take his car. Of course, I realize that this calculator is only factoring the price of gas and not which car may cost more to maintain. But it is a helpful tool in budgeting a good estimated cost of gasoline for a road trip.

In addition to helping you decide between which car to use (assuming your traveling partners also have cars and you have a choice of which one to take) and helping you to budget for gas for a trip, this calculator may help you decide between two different cars to buy. Plug in the numbers for a city/area to which you make frequent trips (maybe for an annual vacation or to visit family or friends). Try it with the two different cars that you are considering to buy. It may help you understand the big picture better than the miles-per-gallon listed on the car.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Coming Soon: Baskin Robbins' 31 Cent Scoop Night

It looks like Michael and I will be having ice cream date night two times in a row next week!

While it may not be as good as Ben and Jerry's Free Cone Day, Baskin Robbins' 31 Cent Scoop Night is a great deal and for a good cause! They are offering small scoops of ice cream for just $0.31, from 5 PM - 10 PM on Wednesday, April 30, 2008. On their website, you can find a participating store near you and sign up to get an email reminder of the event. They are doing this event as a way of honoring America's firefighters. At some locations, you may have an opportunity to make a donation to your local fire charities.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Coming Soon: Ben & Jerry's Free Cone Day!

Last Friday evening, Michael and I walked down to the Ben & Jerry's in Old Town Alexandria. It was a warm spring evening, perfect for walking to get ice cream! I took the buy one regular cone/dish, get one free Ben & Jerry's coupon out of the Entertainment Book, so we got a deal too!

While we were there, I noticed that Ben & Jerry's 30th birthday is coming up on April 29 (one week from today). As usual, they are celebrating by giving away free ice cream! We've been to this event in the past. The line is long, but so worth the wait! Find a shop near you that participates in Free Cone Day and mark your calendar.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

WalkingTown, DC Spring Edition 2008

If you live in the Washington, DC area or happen to be visiting this coming weekend (April 26-27), Cultural Tourism DC is hosting their bi-annual free walking tours! Michael and I have gone on a few of these tours in the past and really enjoyed them. It's a great way to get some exercise and learn more about the city -- for free! They offer 80 tours, so you are bound to find one or two with a topic that interests you and that fits into your schedule. In addition to walking tours, they offer a few bike tours too.

Check out the list of tours here!

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Saving Some Allowance

Did you figure out how much your childhood allowance would be worth in today's dollar with the calculator I posted on Monday?

I actually had to ask my sister if she remembered what we got for allowance because it wasn't a figure that has stuck with me all of these years. I did, however, remember that we got two parts of our allowance: the part we could spend and the part we had to save for college.

It's a good idea to have the savings pass through little hands. Just like I mentioned with having to save gift money, seeing that money come to me and then stuffing it into my Mickey Mouse bank probably did some good for my financial literacy during childhood. Having the college fund magically appear when I graduated from high school wouldn't have been as beneficial because I would not have felt the pain of saving over all of those years if I didn't pass through my hands. I also wouldn't have felt the victory and accomplishment of saving and reaching the goal either.

Of course, as an adult, I find directly depositing money from my paycheck into my retirement and other savings accounts to be much more efficient (and more likely to be saved) than seeing it pass through my hands or checking account. I feel less of the pain of saving that way. Considering I still vividly remember what it feels like from childhood, I don't need to revisit that lesson so intimately anymore!

It never crossed my mind as child to "steal" from Mickey -- or to even borrow from him. Of course, Mom would have known that my deposit would have been short some cash had I done that, and I would have been in hot water! However, I don't think my child mind was advanced enough to realize she would have known. I just knew it was really Mickey's money and not mine -- at least not right away. It's the same with my retirement money now. While I protect it like it is my money (because it is!), my brain understands that it's not for current if it's not my money. And I'd be in hot water with the IRS in terms of major penalties if I did pull money out of my retirement savings.

Some of life's great lessons...Happy Financial Literacy Month!

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Gifting an Education, Life-Lesson, and Financial Freedom

I just read something interesting on Washington Post Personal Finance Columnist Michelle Singletary's weekly e-letter from March 27. (When you click on the link, scroll down to the heading Asking for Money.)

Michelle asked her reads,"Is it rude for parents to ask that you give money for a college fund?"

I decided to email her a response. Here's what I said:

Dear Michelle,

If someone is asking what to give a child, I don't think it's rude to request money to go towards a college education. If the gift-giver would prefer to give a toy, book, etc., then they could just say that they would prefer something that will allow for instant gratification and ask for the child's favorite cartoon characters or current interests. But I like the second mother's idea of giving the child a small gift and then some cash for college savings.

I don't have children, but I can speak from being a person who received money for college when I was a child myself. Well, I never was 100% convinced that money I received as gifts was truly for college, but my parents always told me that was what the giver intended. (I usually got a small gift/toy from my aunts and uncles and grandparents and some cash too...and I would have loved to have spent that money at the toy store!) I had a Mickey Mouse bank, and all of that gift money went directly to Mickey. (Mom would clear out Mickey and take his savings to the bank every so often.) As a young child, college savings frustrated me. I didn't even really know what college was, except that it was sucking up a lot of my money! Even as a teenager when I knew I was definitely going to college, I didn't completely appreciate that money.

Once I was in college, Mom pulled the money out of my savings account and put it into my checking account for me to write the checks to the school. Wow - "thousand" was a really long word to write on a check!!!

My parents (with the help of all of those monetary gifts upon my birth, birthdays, Christmas, and other occasions) were able to pay for my undergraduate education. I left college with a bachelor's degree but no debt! Many of my friends weren't so fortunate. And many of them spent a lot of time working on things that I never had to know about out in the college's financial aid department. Many of them paid those loans for a long time after graduation. It was at that point I finally appreciated what my parents, my Mickey Mouse bank, and all of our kind friends and family did for me -- they gave me financial freedom! That meant I was able to start contributing a decent amount of money to my retirement fund when I got my first job after graduation...I think it also meant that I understood what it was going to take to save for a huge goal (i.e. retirement) that was many, many years away. A college education, a life lesson, and a jump start on retirement savings from a mere $10 or $20 gift. What a deal!

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Monday, April 14, 2008

How Much Would Your Allowance Be Worth Today?

Here's a fun calculator on Allowance Inflation.

It looks like what my parents gave me in 1985 when I was 9 years old would be worth nearly double that amount in today's dollars. Wow!

Did you have to save part of your allowance as a kid? I did. It definitely was not fun back then...but it paid off. (Parents can be pretty smart sometimes!) We'll talk more that later this week.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

More Wedding Gift Savings: Look Beyond the Registry

I am a fan of buying wedding gifts from registries because I know it will be something the couple likes and wants. However, sometimes you can find the exact same thing from their registry somewhere else for a better deal. Of course, the key here is to make sure it is indeed the exact same thing (brand, color, size, style, etc.). It's also best to send/give this gift early. Once they get it and realize it is from a store at which they did not register, they can mark it off their registry before someone else buys it. Also, make sure the recipient gets a gift receipt and/or the packing slip so that they can return/exchange it if need be.

Let me give you an example by looking at a 5-piece place setting of our fine china by Lenox.

If I were to buy the place setting tonight, here are the prices I'd pay at various online retailers where we are registered. (Note: I've chosen the least expensive shipping method in each scenario.)

Macy's (through registry linked with
Price: $158.00
Tax: $7.90
Shipping: $17.95
Total: $183.85

Bed, Bath, & Beyond
Price: $109.99
Tax: $5.50
Shipping: $11.95
Total: $127.44

Price: $109.99
Tax: $6.30
Shipping: $15.95
Total: $132.24

Now, let's look at the exact same place setting at retailers where we are not registered. (not through the registry)
Price: $109.99
Tax: $5.50
Shipping: $15.95
Total: $131.44
Price: $109.95
Tax: $0
Shipping: $0
Total: $109.95
Price: $109.85
Tax: $5.52
Shipping: $12.95
Total: $128.32
Price: $109.00 **Includes a free pasta/soup bowl from this pattern (value $70)!
Tax: $0
Shipping: $8.95
Total: $117.95

Now you can see that the lowest over all price is from and the best deal is from because they offer a free bowl. ( did have this deal recently but not currently.) Once again, it pays to shop around!

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Friday, April 11, 2008

If It Doesn't Fit, No Deal

At the end of this month, Michael and I will take our engagement pictures. It's an hour-long session that we'll probably do in a park. For me, getting good pictures for our wedding is important. I also really wanted to find a reasonable package that included an engagement session. Not only do I think it will be great to have these casual pictures of us, it's also a good way of getting to know our photographer, the photographer getting to know us, and getting used to the idea of being photographed for a long period of time. Hopefully, it will help us look a little more relaxed and natural in our pictures.

Anyway, I was looking for just the right thing to wear for this photo session. I knew I wanted a causal, but not too casual dress. I toured around the mall last night. I found some nice dresses on the clearance rack at Ann Taylor, but they either didn't fit just right or they weren't exactly what I was hoping to find. At 60% off, that was very disappointing. I thought long and hard about one of them. But the reality is that if it doesn't fit well or doesn't look right, I won't like it when I get it home, regardless of the price. So, that makes it a bad deal because I won't wear it or at least not many times and won't be happy with it.

I searched more stores -- the regularly priced clothes and the sale racks. Finding just the right fit for me can be difficult. And regardless of your size or shape, clothes that fit well look soooo much better!

I finally found a very cute dress at The Limited that fit like it was made for me. Why it couldn't be on sale, I don't know. I decided not to buy it right away. I thought I should think a little about it and try it on again. So, I went back tonight after work and decided I indeed really liked and it really fit. I bought it...but of course, I got a deal after all!

I looked on The Limited's website today and found a coupon! It's good until May 4, 2008, and you can save $30 on a $100 purchase or more (regularly priced items). Well, the dress I wanted was $98. So, I found nice necklace that I can wear for the engagement pictures too. It was reasonably priced and pushed me just over the $100 limit. Total savings was 24%. Not bad -- especially since this purchase was for a very specific purpose and I would have gotten it anyway. It is worth searching around for coupons!

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Easy Dinner at Home: Slow Cooker

My favorite tip on Bankrate's Frugal Sense contest this month is Dinner's Done from Melissa Yau of Birdsboro. A slow cooker (Crock Pot) is a great, easy way to make a good dinner. Just dump the ingredients into the pot, and give it 4 to 8 hours (depending on the recipe) and there you have it: a yummy dinner!

However, I'm not sure if I'd leave mine on while I'm out of the house as she suggests. We turn ours on overnight. Then, reheat the cooked food for dinner that the next night. When we were kids (but old enough to stay home alone, follow instructions, and plug in an appliance), Mom would have us start the slow cooker when we got home from school. She put all of the ingredients in the pot and put it in the refrigerator the previous night or that morning. Then, she'd leave us a note as to what time to put it on the base and plug it in. When she would get home from work, dinner would already be ready.

Like Melissa says in her tip, the slower cooker liners are awesome. Reynold's makes them, and they aren't too expensive -- especially if you can get them on sale and with a coupon. You just line the pot with one of the bags and then put the food in. When you are done and have removed the food, throw away the liner and quickly wipe down the pot.

If you are like me, you'll eat more at home (and save!) if it's quick and easy. This is one great way to make cooking and cleaning a snap.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Postage Price Increase & the Forever Stamp

Have you heard that on May 12, 2008, the price of postage is going up again? The price of a first-class stamp will increase from 41 cents to 42 cents. (You can find all of the details of the new prices on the US Postal Service website.) Of course, the Forever stamps that the USPS introduced last spring will still work for first-class postage after the increase even if you bought them for only 41 cents each.

Are you going to stock up? With a one-cent increase, I may have normally considered getting an extra book (for a total savings of 20 cents), but I wouldn't have stock piled. However, my upcoming wedding is requiring a lot more mail than in an average year. So, I already have started to stock up.

Luckily, our wedding invitations are only going to require a regular first-class stamp. (And what better stamp to have on a wedding invitation than Forever?!) We'll also need stamps for the response cards that will go inside of each invitation. I'll also mail invitations for the bridesmaids' luncheon. Of course, there will be lots of thank you notes to send: wedding gifts, shower gifts, and friends and family who have helped with various aspects of this event. We will have a few payments that need to be mail after May 12th. And Mom says it's customary to send Christmas cards the first year after the wedding to everyone who was on the invitation list.

So, I estimate the grand total to be about 400 stamps! Wow! No, the savings won't be huge, but I'll take the $4 savings by stocking up on Forever stamps now.

I found interesting commentary and calculations on The Simple Dollar blog that might help you decide if you should stock up on stamps too.

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Sunday, April 6, 2008

More Wedding Gift Savings: The Value of Shopping Early

I mentioned on Friday that on one of our trips to Macy's to work on our wedding registry, Michael and I overheard a couple complaining about how expensive something they were buying off of a wedding registry was. Don't worry -- I didn't ask them about this situation! But I did wonder about it.

I suppose their bridal friends may have only registered for very expensive gifts. But I'm willing to bet the real problem was that they waited until the last minute to buy a gift. If that was actually the case, then two things probably happened: 1) most of the items on the registry were already purchased and 2) they didn't have time to comparison shop or wait for a sale. No wonder they were bitter.

I read a blog posting on about selecting your wedding gift early. I suppose a gift card or check for the amount you were planning to spend on a gift is a good alternative, but Plan A is still a better idea -- shop early!

Actually, couples usually register 6 months or more before the wedding. Even if they haven't notified you of the registry, look them up at stores where people usually register (i.e. Macy's, Target, Bed, Bath, & Beyond) or a store that you know to be one of their favorites (i.e. Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma). Then, watch for coupons and sales. I've never actually done this for anyone I've known to be getting married and for whom I was going to give a gift. But watching the prices drastically fluctuate on my own registries, I will definitely start keeping an eye on these gift lists early for friends who are marrying in the future! In fact, just this weekend Belk dropped the price on our fine china by 46% off of the regular retail price. What a deal! (I sure hope people aren't paying full price.)

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Saturday, April 5, 2008

How Much in Taxes Should I Withhold from My Paycheck?

Being the person in my company's human resources department who does the employment paperwork with new hires, I've come to realize that most people have not the slightest idea of the number of withholding allowances they should (or want) to put on their W-4. I'm not a financial advisor or a CPA, so I can't help them. They struggle through the crazy little worksheet that is supposed to help them figure out the number of allowances they should choose. And then they look at me and say, "Does that sound right?" I have no idea. I can't help them.

What I do assure them is that they will pay the same amount of income taxes no matter what they fill out on their W-4. The question is: will they pay the taxes during each pay period or on April 15? Will they get a big refund, owe more in taxes, or break even? There are so many factors that go into income taxes that there is no simple answer, which is why I do not have one for them.

The good news is that you can change your withholding allowances by filling out a new W-4 at anytime. Of course, that doesn't help what happened during past pay periods, but it does affect the future.

Personally, I prefer to have my withholding to be as close to the amount I will owe in taxes as possible. I don't want to owe more in taxes come April, but I also know that getting a big refund isn't advantageous either. (If you want to know more about that, read Savvy Strategies for Tax Refunds from the USA Today.)

Right now, I'm in a good place with my taxes. But come August, I'll get married, and my tax situation may be changing. I'll also have to consider what is going on with Michael's income and taxes. But rather than take a wild guess or try to figure out what to do based on that rather confusing W-4 worksheet, I'm going to use a tool on the IRS website: IRS Withholding Calculator.

If you have recently had or are going to have a change in status (i.e. marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, home purchase) or if you just don't like your current way of paying taxes, check out this calculator. If you figure out that you need to make a change, go to your HR department and ask to fill out a new W-4.

Have you gotten or will you be getting a big refund this year? Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary will tell you how to Use Your Foolish Refund Wisely.

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Friday, April 4, 2008

Macy's Red Star Event Sale - this weekend

I have written previously about how to save on wedding gifts at Macy's. Based on the traffic on that posting, I can tell that it's a subject of interest! Also, a few weeks ago Michael and I were in Macy's finishing up our registry when we overheard a couple complaining about the price of something that they were buying for someone off of a wedding registry. Well, that's really a discussion for another time, but if they had just waited for a sale, like the Red Star Event happening this weekend, they could have saved on that purchase.

Anyway, now through Sunday, April 6th, you can save 15% off of regular, sale, or clearance purchases in-store and online! The sale includes Macy's online wedding registry through! (The sale offers 10% savings on small electronics.) They do exclude a lot of name brand items that may be on a wedding gift registry (i.e. All-Clad), but they also include many of them too (i.e. Lenox). In Macy's stores, you can also pick up a game piece to win a trip to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Macy's July 4th Fireworks Spectacular, or a Macy's gift card worth up to $500.

Don't forget that Discover Card's 5% Cashback Bonus promotion this quarter includes department stores. So, between this bonus and the sale at Macy's, you could save up to an additional 20%!

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Free: White House Spring Garden Tours

As I'm sure I've said before, one of my favorite things about living in the Washington, DC area is that there are so many fabulous things to do for free! If you live here or live within reasonable driving distance, take advantage of these great things and have fun (while you are saving on the cost of entertainment). If you don't live here, DC is an awesome place for an affordable, fun vacation. You could really fill your days with all sorts of free activities.

What I consider to be one of the coolest free things is coming up next weekend: the White House Spring Garden Tours! This year it is being held on Saturday, April 12, and Sunday, April 13. It's free, but you do have to get timed entry tickets for everyone (including small children).

The inside of the White House is definitely a terrific (free) tour. But to me, the gardens are special because they are just as famous as the interior (i.e. Rose Garden). After spending a lot of time as a tourist on the outside of the iron fence, it's interesting to see what's in the President's yard. You get to see some hidden areas like the Children's Garden and the tennis court. You can also see the outside of the Oval Office! None of these things are on the regular White House (interior) tour.

Michael and I have gone on the Spring Garden Tour as well as the Fall Garden Tour. Both times, we've gone on a Sunday and went to worship service at St. John's Church across from the White House in the morning before the tour. It's known as "The Church of the Presidents" and is where every president since James Madison has attended on occasion or a regular basis. The President wasn't there either time we went, but it was still really cool to go to a service there.

Here are some pictures I've taken at the White House and St. John's Church when we've gone for a garden tour:

St. John's Church Jacqueline Kennedy Garden

Rose Garden Oval Office

View from the South Lawn

Bush Twins' Hand Prints in the Children's Garden (done when their grandfather was president)

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Saving Money for College

As I mentioned yesterday, I do a fair amount of thinking about my financial goals. I wonder if I'll be able to meet them. I try to think of new ways to save -- but of course, also still have fun and having fun doing it! All of this thinking and planning isn't something that is new to me.

In fact, knowing that a lot of financial goals take many years (even decades) to reach and knowing that one goal is that I hoped to marry and have kids and that those kids would go to college, I started thinking a bit about saving for college several years ago...before I even met my now fiance! Of course, I wasn't going to start allocating a part of my savings to children that I didn't have -- after all, I have so many other "real" things to save for. However, five years ago I came across something called Upromise.

Upromise is a rewards program that helps people save for college. It's free to sign up, so I did. My thought at the time was that if it wasn't going to cost me anything, why not? If I never had kids of my own, I could give it to someone else -- now, it would be my nieces and nephews. However, at the time of registering, I didn't have any of them. But, I figured in 18-20 years I would know someone who was going to college who could use it. So, why not sign up? After all, it was free money!

There are several very easy ways to save with Upromise. In fact, I've blogged at Save 4 Fun about some of them, including restaurants, travel, shopping online at stores like Target and Macys, and shopping in stores like Bed, Bath, & Beyond. You can also save at grocery stores, drug stores, and gas stations, among other places.

All you have to do is register for a free Upromise account. Then, link your store loyalty cards and/or credit/debit cards to your Upromise account. They do the tracking for you when you shop at a partner company and/or buy a partner product. With online purchases like at, you get credit when you link to Target's website through Upromise's website and make a purchase.

During the month of April, Upromise is running a promotion. When you open and activate a new account by shopping online, Upromise will put $10 in your account! What a great way to get started! (I wish they were offering that when I joined.) If you already have an account and are saving for a specific child or children, ask your friends and family if they would help you save too. They can open an account and then designate your child(ren) as the beneficiary. You'll save even more!

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