Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Sign of the Times

My sister, a regular gym-goer, always complains how busy the gym gets in January and the early part of February. Folks have obviously made their New Year's resolutions to get fit/lose weight, and they pack the work-out facilities. By the end of February and into March, as folks start breaking their resolutions, attendance starts to peter out and just the die-hards remain.

It appears that this downturn in the economy has made people start their resolutions now to cut back on expenses even though January is still 2 months away. Like those exercise-resolution-makers who pack the gym, people who have resolved to save lately are packing my Rite Aid drug store at 7 AM on Sundays!

In the past 3 weeks, I've been in town -- and at Rite Aid -- on two Sunday mornings. Rite Aid has had some great deals, many of which are free after rebate. I've learned over the past 3 or 4 years of being serious about sales, rebates, and coupons that you do have to get to the store early to ensure you'll get items you want. The best deals go fast.

A Rite Aid that's not too far from my house opens at 7 AM on Sundays. Knowing there really is no other fool who is going to be there at that hour on a Sunday, I drag myself out of bed and swoop in to get my pick of everything during the first minutes of that week's sale. I may run into one or maybe two other people -- usually a senior citizen buying a newspaper -- but I rarely see anyone honing in on the sale and rebate items like me...until recently.

Three weeks ago there were so many people there after the rebate items that I thought it was Black Friday! I couldn't believe it! This past Sunday there was similar crowd. Now the store wasn't really packed, but usually it's just me. Now I have 4 to 6 fellow early-bird deal-finders.

Then on Sunday afternoon, I read an article in the business section of the Washington Post about Snipping, Clipping, Scrimping. Apparently, it is a sign of the economic times.

It's hard to say when, but the economy will one day get back on track. I wonder if people will continue going after the sales, rebates, and coupons -- continue saving money -- after the stock market works itself out. Or will they fall off the bandwagon like so many of the exercise New Year's resolution people at my sister's gym?

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Traveling with a Budget

Believe it or not, I've never been too good with a budget. I think I'm too much of a literal thinker to make it work. Variable expenses (i.e. electric bill, water bill) frustrate me. It's high one month and low another month. Even grocery shopping is like that. Sometimes I want to stock up on a sale item, but that puts me over budget. I understand the concept. I've even had others explain it to me. But it's just never worked for me.

However, there is one budget that I actually like: our travel budget.

My husband and I take 2 to 4 trips a year for him to run marathons. He has a goal to run one in every state! It's a great way to see the country. This past Saturday, he just completed his 24th marathon (23 states plus DC). This time we were in Newport, RI. He only has a handful of states left east of the Mississippi, which means the cost of these ventures is going to start to really increase (when we add in airfare for two). But marathon trips are our "thing," and we have written the expense into our monthly savings plan.

We put a small amount of our paychecks toward our Travel Fund. Then, we beef it up with a variety of other sources (i.e. proceeds from yard sales/Craig's List sales, credit card cash back bonuses, savings account interest). It's a really good plan.

Then, before a trip, we think about all of the things we want to do while we are gone. We include budget line items for lodging, gas, tolls, airfare, car rental, food, admission fees to attractions, souvenirs, race entry fee, etc. Of course, I have a spreadsheet for our travel budget. I print it out, fill in the actual spending as we go and track our progress.

Thanks to a drop in gas prices, we did extremely well with our budget on our trip to Newport. We are leaving the leftover money from this trip in our savings account to put towards a future trip. Maybe this kind of budget works for me because it's over just a short period of time...

The budget actually helped us "live large" on this most recent trip without feeling guilty. I think it's because we had a complete understanding of what we spent and what we still had.

Michael's treat after a marathon is always a big steak dinner. This post-race celebration was no different. However, we were in the Ocean State, so we had to get some seafood too. We went for the $35 surf and turf -- filet minon and half of a lobster! We budgeted a decent amount for the steak dinner, but our big dinner choice put us $15 over the limit. No problem! We knew we still had money in the budget. We weren't looking to use up every penny just because it was there. However, this was a great way to treat ourselves -- guilt-free! And what a great dinner it was!

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Monday, October 20, 2008

It's Worth Shopping Around

We are still working on getting our "married" house in order. The other week Michael came up from the garage and declared that we really needed shelving down there to help get organized. I supported that idea. We were discussing what freestanding shelves would cost. I figured at least $50. He thought that was entirely too much and thought we should look for something less expensive or scrap the idea. My thought was that if it's something that we really do "need," and it could be used for a long time to come, we should go for it.

It just so happened that the next Sunday a set of shelves like I already have in a basement closet was on sale at Target for $50 (regular $55 -- not a huge savings, but a savings none-the-less). I already know that I like this shelving unit, so I suggested we get one or two more to put in the garage.

Michael suggested that we shop around. Ugh. There a bit of irony here, but when I get my mind set on something, I don't actually like to shop around. I know that seems really strange given my frugal-ness. But I knew it was a product I liked, and the price was reduced. What more could we need? However, I agreed to get other "bids."

I checked out the websites for Target (in case they had something better than this shelving unit), Wal-Mart, Lowe's, and Home Depot. We don't actually have a Lowe's or Wal-Mart very near us, so it would have had to have been a great deal for us to consider buying anything from either of those stores. But I needed to check them out. I also thought I should check out Craig's List.

As it turned out, we found a great shelving system that someone was offering on Craig's List. There were two sets, and each held more than the one I liked at Target. The seller was offering them for $25 each, so we could get two for the price that I was willing to pay for one. Home Depot sells them, and the description sounded great and the ratings from consumers on the website were nearly perfect. We went to check them out, and they looked great. They come apart and can be reassembled so easily. Best of all, the seller was offering them for 38% less than we could buy them new at Home Depot. (I doubt Home Depot would ever put them on sale with that deep of a discount.) They are in good condition...maybe a little dusty/dirty. However, they are going to be in our garage and probably get dirty anyway.

We got them last week the night before we were going out of town for several days. Michael put them together that evening and we started filling them. We haven't finished yet, but they are perfect!

Wow! I couldn't believe this deal. I was so glad that Michael strongly encouraged me to shop around, despite my resistance. Looking on Craig's List really paid off. We are on our way to having an organized garage -- at a discount. You can get much better than that! ;-)

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Friday, October 10, 2008

I Made $31 on Craig's List Tonight!

This evening I sold some leftover things from our wedding through ads on Craig's List, and I made $31 more for our Travel Fund! It's amazing because I didn't have a lot of things from the wedding that I could sell. I know so people buy lots of vases, linens, etc. But we didn't have any of those things. I'm also keeping several things (i.e. my dress, veil, flower girl basket, ring bearer pillow). However, so far, I've made a total of $51 on Craig's List with wedding leftovers. Not bad.

There is apparently a pretty big market for wedding stuff on Craig's List. I suppose it's because weddings can be expensive, so people are looking for ways to cut corners. I've sold my things for about 60% of their regular retail prices. Most of this stuff you can get at craft stores like Michael's and A.C. Moore. The biggest discount I've ever seen on wedding-related items at one of those stores is 55% off, but usually 40-50% is the best you can do. So, by just undercutting the regular retail price, I'm able to move this stuff on to a new home.

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Finding More Ways to Be Thrifty

"Goodbye, Money!" That's what I've been saying over the past week as I've watched my retirement savings shrink and shrink. Of course, I've got decades to go before I need to use that money. So, it's painful to watch, but I'm confident the market will be in good shape again one day...I'll be okay. In fact, we aren't changing our contributions to our 401(k)s or IRAs. It's actually slightly exciting to know that we getting stocks on sale. (Now, if I could only find a coupon for Target 2045!)

I suppose a lot of people who haven't been super thrifty are at least thinking about it now. As I mentioned in The Same Old Message, I still listen to all of the saving ideas out there in print, on TV, and on the web. However, it's becoming more and more challenging to find new ideas.

My friend Bryan and fellow Save 4 Fun reader emailed me about an idea he got from Clark Howard that he's trying this year. My dad told me about this one believe it or not, it wasn't new to me. However, I haven't actually tried it. But I might now. Here's what Bryan wrote:

Late last year a caller to the on the Clark Howard Show was asking Clark about his shaving razors...Razors are something I bought frequently and aren't cheap (I like the Gillette Sensor 3, which , in my area, typically costs about $12 for 4 or 5 blades and I was replacing the entire pack every two months or so).

The caller and Clark discussed the reasons razor blades become dull. There are two main reasons: the obvious one where the blade gets dulled by contact with the hair follicles, but the other (and most substantial reason) is because of oxidation of the blade after it has been in contact with water. So, they suggested drying the razor after every use. There are three main methods that they mentioned and I've tried all of them: 1) the best, in my opinion, is to use the hair dryer - typically, it's right there on the counter for most people in the bathroom and it only takes about 10 seconds to dry the blade, 2) wiping it off on a towel - again, this is fairly easy, just make sure to wipe in the opposite direction of the blades - you don't want to cut the towel - and thus damage the blades or 3) dip it in rubbing alcohol - this makes the alcohol replace the water and then the alcohol dries out very quickly - I don't prefer this one because I'm just paranoid I'll forget to rinse the blade before the next use and then I'll be cutting my face with alcohol - not pleasant.

SO, the big question: does it work? I started trying it in January of this year. It's now October and I'm on the same blade! My shave this morning was as close as it was 10 months ago! One note: I don't shave every single day - typically every other day. Clark says it works with disposables just as well. This year, I've spent about $2.40 (for one blade) - compared to last year when I spent about $72 (for about 30 blades total). So, spending 10 seconds to dry the blade each day I shave has saved almost $70.

The next best thing to hearing a new saving tip is knowing someone who has made it successful and has actually saved using it. Right now, I have a basket full of razors I've gotten for free or a little bit of money (because of sales, coupons, and rebates). I'm not too picky on my razors. However, I might choose a good one and try this idea. I know it will take a little time for me to remember to do it each morning after my shower. But I'll eventually make it a habit, I'm sure.

This is also a good way to not only save money but create less waste!

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Making More Money in the Yard

Getting our new "married" home settled has taken quite a bit of time and effort. Especially after the arrival of all of the wedding gifts, we had so many duplicate items. In some cases, we had triplicates (his, hers, and ours). That called for another yard sale!

We did better than during the spring yard sale in terms of planning and the outcome. So, here's what worked for us this time:

1. We priced items as we found them. Last time, we made a huge pile of the course of several weeks and declared it yard sale stuff. Then, after it was all gathered, I priced it. That was one huge task that took forever. This time, before it hit the yard sale pile, it had to be priced. Come Saturday morning, we were all set to go.

2. I tried posting on this time, but I don't think it helped. I put a note on that ad about asking for an additional discount, but no one mentioned it. That leads me to believe no one saw the ad there. However, I did post it on Craigslist on Thursday and Friday and then again on Saturday morning. That required being a little creative because last time they flagged (deleted) our attempts to post after the first time because they don't allow duplicate ads. This time, I changed the heading and the wording in the body. All three were posted.

3. We put up more signs directing people to the sale from more intersections. I think that helped because we had a lot more traffic this time. I also made them on the computer rather than handwriting them like last time. During school supply sale season, I bought poster board and glue sticks for super cheap. They came in handy for the signs. We just printed out the text and then literally cut and pasted it on the poster board. They were easy to make and could be read easily on the road.

4. As things sold that were displayed on the tables, I pulled more things out of boxes and put them on the tables. As I emptied boxes, I turned them upside down to make little tables to display stuff. As more boxes emptied, I stacked them under the boxes that were serving as tables so that the items were in easy reach. Basic merchandising: People are more likely to look (and then buy) things that they can easily reach with little effort on their part.

5. I asked people to make offers if they seemed to like something but didn't buy it. It didn't work in all cases, but many people did buy after I said I was willing to give a lower price. It meant getting less money on some items, but if no one bought it, it was probably going to Goodwill for free anyway.

This yard sale, we made $225 and some change. That was much better than the last sale. Michael and I have already decided that proceeds from yard sales and Craigslist sales are going into our travel fund.

I'm already thinking about doing another yard sale in the spring. I know we have more things around here that we don't need/want anymore. I didn't have time to go through everything before this sale.

The stuff that remained from this sale mostly went to Goodwill (a whole car load worth). But I held a few things back that I'm going to try to sell on Craigslist. If they aren't sold by spring, we'll try them at the yard sale again. If they aren't sold then, they are bound for Goodwill. I even salvaged many of our signs to use next time -- with a new date. I'm already looking forward to the next spring sale!

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

What to Do When You Are Tired of Sandwiches

After The Same Old Message post, I received a few comments about taking your lunch to work. For one, Mom emailed to remind me that you are probably packing something that is more healthy than an inexpensive microwaveable meal. Kate posted a comment along those same lines and noted that knowing it's healthy is one motivation to eat yet another sandwich at work.

Michael could eat a turkey and cheese sandwich every work day between now and retirement (which is decades away!). Not me. I need some variety. I don't mind eating the same thing five days in a row for lunch, but I need to change it up the next week.

One of my duties in our marriage is the grocery shopping. That means, I have quite a bit over the control of the weekly menu (which I think for Michael is where that "for better or worse" part of our wedding vows sometimes comes in).

I choose the sandwich meat, cheese, and bread based on what is on sale and has a coupon available. That keeps a fair amount of variety in just the sandwiches. Sometimes I'll buy a little less meat and cheese than we need and then I'll eat peanut butter and jelly one or two days -- or maybe the whole week. That helps with the grocery budget too.

As regular Save 4 Fun readers know, I also am a fan of little pizzas in my lunch. I haven't made them in a while. I'm going to have to watch for English muffins to go on sale again. I already stocked up on pizza sauce the other weekend when Harris Teeter was doing triple coupons.

My sister told me that this week she is taking taco salad to work every day. She cooks the meat on Sunday night. Then, she packs a serving of it up along with all of the fixings. She assembles her salad at work, and ta-da -- something better than a sandwich!

Mom reminded me in her email the other day that taking leftovers from dinner to work makes a good lunch. In addition to the grocery shopper, I'm also the head chef in our household, and I only cook about 3 nights a week. So, we are usually eating leftovers the rest of the nights. However, tomorrow I'll be eating some leftover soup that I made the other night for dinner. It was supposed to last two nights, but it wasn't very good. It's edible but not great. Michael wasn't a fan at all. So, I'll have to come up for a new plan for what was supposed to be the second night of the soup. He won't eat it anymore. You know me...I'm not going to throw it away. But I don't like the idea of him getting something better for dinner one night while I'm eating that not-so-great soup. So, I'll finish it up for lunch.

What do you do when you are tired of eating sandwiches for lunch?

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Calculating Your Tax Savings

*** Update: 10/3/08: It's been brought to my attention by a financial planner/Save 4 Fun reader that the Additional Annual "Catch-Up" Contribution for Employees Age 50 & Over function on this calculator is not up to date. For 2008, the maximum is $5000. However this calculator will only allow a maximum of $3000 for the "catch up" contribution.

I finally found a simple calculator that tells how much I will save in taxes now based on how much I put into my 403(b). (In case you didn't know, a 403(b) is the same thing as a 401(k), but the former is for non-profit organizations while the latter is for for-profit companies.)

So, if you are looking to put money into your employer's pre-tax retirement saving plan, check out this calculator. You will realize that you won't be parting with as much as your money right now as it seems.

Using the figures that the calculator has as its default settings, if you earn $50,000 annually, pay 5% in state taxes, are married and file jointly, and put 6% ($125/month) into your 401(k), you are really saving $25/month in taxes! That's $300 savings for the year!

In this example, increase your contribution to 10% of your gross paycheck, and you'll save $1000, annually. Better yet, put in 15%, and you'll save $1500 for the year! (And in the case of 15%, you'll have socked away $7500 for the year for retirement.)

You can use this calculator to figure savings if you use other pre-tax benefits too. For example, my husband just signed up with his employer to have his Metro fare taken from his paycheck pre-tax. He'll be saving $25.50 each month in taxes by using the pre-tax payroll deduction over going to the machine to buy fare for the bus and subway. That's $306 for the year! Trust me, we can think of far more "fun" things to do with that $306, than paying it to Uncle Sam for Michael to get to work.

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