Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Free Plants & Mulch

This month I have a tip posted on's Frugal $ense Tip Contest. I hope you'll vote for mine (entitled Free Plants & Mulch) with the highest rating (7 on a scale of 1-7). Here is the link where you can read the tip and vote. The winner gets $100 from

If you can get your friends and family to vote 7 for my tip too, I'd really appreciate it. The contest ends June 30, 2009 (despite the fact it currently says May 31st). So, vote before the end of this month. Thank you!

The editors actually truncated the tip I submitted. Too bad because there was an additional good point about using Freecycle and Craigslist. But just for you Save 4 Fun readers, I'll post the whole thing here:

When planning yard landscape, consider looking to friends, family, and neighbors for new plants. Take advantage of their surplus and no-longer-wanted plants when they are thinning out their flowerbeds. I’ve filled our yard with beautiful flowers for free. My parents gave us some daffodil bulbs from their yard. A coworker thinned out her irises and gave me some. I got some daylilies from someone on who needed them removed so he could use the space for a vegetable garden. ( and are great sources for free plants, including shrubbery, perennials, herbs, groundcover, etc.) Also, I get free mulch from my county’s waste management department. Like many municipalities, they turn brush and leaf pick-up into mulch and offer it to residents free of charge.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Married Couples: Watch Out for that Stimulus Money

If you are married and both spouses work, watch out for the stimulus money that the federal government is giving to you in your paycheck. I read this article on which explains how it works.

Couples who are eligible to receive the stimulus money and file married/jointly will be overpaid because the system is set up to assume the other spouse doesn't work. Singles are supposed to get $400, and couples are supposed to get $800. But the article says that it's actually set up so that each spouse in a married couple gets $600, which means we'll get $1200 when we are only supposed to get $800. If we don't do anything, we'll end up owing $400 back to the government next April.

So dumb. It was easier to just get a check than to fool around with payroll.

Looks like it is time to revisit the IRS Withholding Calculator.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

A Real "Deal" at Circuit City's Liquidation

With so many big name retail stores going out of business lately, there are a lot of reports in the news about how liquidators raise the prices and then start small with their discounts when clearing out the merchandise.

When Linen 'N' Things was under liquidation, my sister and I went to look at what they had when the discounts were 30% and 40%. No deals there.

Early in Circuit City's going-out-of-business sale, Michael and I went to see what they had. We weren't looking for anything in particular, but we just wanted to see what was going on. No deals there either.

Yesterday was Circuit City's very last day of existence. Michael and I were running errands near one of their stores and decided to stop in -- just to see what might be left. There was hardly anything at all. It looked like most of their sales were of the store's fixtures. I even saw a lady get a Circuit City hand-truck/cart type thing that had been used to roll big items out to the curb for customers. She bought it for $10.

One of about two shelves that still had anything on it was stocked full of hi-speed USB cables. Then, I remembered -- I actually need one of those. Over the summer when I bought my new printer/scanner/copier (from Circuit City!), I borrowed my sister's USB cable to hook it up because I didn't have one. However, months later I still hadn't gotten one of my own, and she was looking to get hers back.

I really had no idea how much a cable costs, but they had them marked with a regular price of $33.99, and sale price of $1.50. $33.99 -- really?! I decided to buy one because even though I didn't believe I was getting that big of deal, I didn't figure I could get it anywhere else for less than a buck fifty.

We had to go to Target next, so out of curiosity, we went to the electronics department to see how much a similar cable would cost. It was $10. Come on now -- where did the liquidators come up with that $33.99 "original" price?

It's okay. We definitely got a deal. But it sure did prove that those news reports of jacked up prices before liquidating were true!

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Monday, March 2, 2009

We Scored Big on Craigslist!

When I'm on the Internet, I usually keep an eye on Freecycle and Craigslist's "free" section for my area. Every ten minutes or so I'll just pause what I'm doing and click the refresh button for each. You can find some amazing things that people are giving away, but you usually have to be fast to get the best things.

Last Saturday afternoon while Michael was out running, I was working on the dinner menus for the following week and the grocery list. As usual, I was popping in and out of what I was doing to see what people were giving away for free.

I came across and interesting post on Craigslist that said the poster was planning to have an estate sale but ended up moving sooner than he or she thought. Everything had to go. There were some amazing things in the three photo galleries they posted -- art, decorations, furniture from various places around the world. I couldn't believe it was all going to be free. They were making everything available from 7 AM until noon on Sunday only.

When Michael got home, I told him about my find. However, by that time, the post had been flagged (meaning a reader of Craigslist believed something was wrong with the ad). **Sigh!** I guessed it was too good to be true. Yet, the advertiser re-posted it two more times. It seemed to be legitimate. We decided we'd check it out.

We got up at 5:00 AM to get ready for the day and left the house by 6:20 or so. MapQuest said it would take 30 minutes to get there. We arrived right at 7:00. One other car was there waiting. Another had just pulled up behind us. The people in the house were just opening the door and blinds.

It turned out the super-duper amazing things were either not there or for sale -- not free. But there was a house full of things for the taking. They said they'd like a small donation if you could, but it wasn't mandatory. It appeared to be three people in their late 20s or 30s (cousins, we found out) who were doing this for the mother of one of them. I think she was the older woman with a cane who we saw there. They said the donations, if you made one, would be for her since she was moving.

We've been trying to clean out our own house of unnecessary stuff, so we didn't take anything we couldn't use or didn't really like. Here's what we got: a brand new, unopened game of Scrabble (perhaps we'll keep, give as a gift, or give to Toys for Tots next year); a doll-sized Windsor chair (because it may find a place in our guest room, because it was too cute to pass up, and because it looks like it could possibly have been hand-crafted); a set of 3 wall hangings for the kitchen; a 37" x 31" framed, triple-matted, signed print by Pollyanna Pickering, and a little white storage bench type of thing.

We have been struggling with decorating our house, specifically the walls. We don't want to put a ton of money into it, but we would like it to look nice and coordinated. These new-to-us wall hangings and picture came just at the right time. The ones for the kitchen will look nice -- albeit probably not something I would have spent money on. They look like something you would pick up at T.J. Max or Ross. Unless you are my mother-in-law (who finds amazing deals on this kind of stuff that an ordinary human couldn't otherwise find), they probably would have been $8-$12 each. That could really add up...

The framed Pickering print is quite nice. The colors and subject (little birds setting on a wagon wheel) work well with our guest room. I wouldn't have paid the $350 price that is penciled on the back of the framed or even the $120 they were asking for it if they had sold it at an estate sale. But for nearly free, it's perfect!

Just as we were leaving, Michael spied a cute little white bench type of thing. It's hard to describe. It's like a one-person bench that has a seat that lifts open and has storage space inside. When he showed it to me, my first question was, "What would we do with it?" He didn't know, but he thought it looked neat -- maybe something for a kitchen. I mentally scanned all of the rooms in our house and couldn't find a place for it. It's hard to pass up something that seems like it would be so good, but we really just don't need more random stuff. Then, Michael said he thought it would look nice on his parents' newly refinished back porch. "Oh, it would! Let's get it for a gift for your mom," I said.

When we got home, I realized this little bench needed some TLC. However, after vacuuming, scrubbing, and taking the Magic Eraser to it, it looked as good as new! There was a T.J. Max sticker on the back of it that said the "regular" price was $149; the T.J. Max price was $79.99; it was on clearance for $70.00; and the estate sale price tag said $55. I'm not even sure I would have paid the lowest price for it, simply because it wasn't something I needed. It was also too much to pay for a used thing to give as a gift. But for nearly, free -- again, it was perfect!

I was really excited at the prospect of giving this bench to Michael's mom. I thought she would enjoy it and that it would be nice on their back porch. However, I was falling in love with it -- all shiny and freshly scrubbed. But what would we do with it?

We actually found a great place for it in our kitchen. It holds our newspaper, mixed paper, and cardboard perfectly before taking it to the curb for recycling each week. I've been wanting something to hold that stuff for a long time so that it didn't just set in the middle of the floor. This is great! (Sorry, Michael's mom! We're keeping the little storage bench.)

Anyway, before we left the estate sale/giveaway, we dug into our pockets and found $21 between the two of us. We showed one of the guys what we had and asked if that little bit of money would be sufficient. He agreed it was. While I know we were helping them by just getting rid of what was probably unwanted junk to them, I felt better paying them a little something for it. After all, we got a number of really nice things. So, it wasn't quite free. But all of that for $21 -- that was a super deal. And we left just as the house was getting super crowded with other bargain hunters.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Price of Stamps is Going Up Again

I just read that the price of first class postage stamps is going up another 2 cents in May. I still have a few Forever Stamps that I bought last year before the price increase. I guess I need to count how many I actually have on hand and then estimate how many we'll need for the next year.

We don't use stamps a lot anymore. We still pay three of our bills by check, but the rest are done electronically. I like paying for as much as possible, including the bills, with my credit cards in order to reap the cash back rewards. We put that money in our Travel Fund. (Of course, we pay the credits off each month. There's no savings if you are paying finance charges!)

I'm planning to actually send Christmas cards this year. (Despite my original plan, I only did a few in 2008 -- as many as I could write while I was in the waiting room as my sister had knee surgery.) So, I need to figure out how many stamps that will be.

Yes, I will work on saving every little bit I can, even in postage. That doesn't help the economy -- and definitely not the post office. In fact, I'll be pretty sad if they cut back mail delivery to 5 days a week as they are considering. Since I was a little kid, I have always loved seeing what came in the mail. Of course, these days it's mostly junk or bills. But still, there's something exciting about seeing what's there. So, I guess by paying most of my bills online and then buying Forever Stamps before the price goes up, I might be contributing to the demise of 6 day delivery. But I'll take every little bit that helps our bottom line and progress towards our savings goals...even if it means one less day each week of seeing what the mail man brought.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Married Life: The Culture of Gift-Giving

As I mentioned last week, one interesting challenge that the Mister and I have encountered in new married life is gift-giving. In fact, it was probably the biggest puzzle we faced in combining our finances.

Until my brother got married in 2000 -- well, actually, not until my nephew was born several years later, I never gave one iota of a thought to the culture of gift-giving in families. I knew how my immediate family did it...and that's all I needed to know. It worked. It made sense.

I won't go into the details because it's not the real point of this story; however, once my brother's son came on the scene, I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about my sister-in-law's family's culture of gift-giving. While normal in the whole scheme of things, it was different from what we did, which did cause some interesting friction.

Having that experience in my background, going into my own marriage I knew I had better find out about my in-law's gift-giving practices before the occasions arose. In fact, as Michael and I discussed our credit histories and current financial status soon after our engagement, I inquired about his family's culture of gift-giving (even though I had a feeling I already knew what it was).

Just as I thought. It was completely different from the way my family handled things.

My family gives one gift to each member of the immediate family (now defined to include spouses-in-law and children of siblings) at Christmas. If they have a big one-time life event (i.e. marriage, birth), we give gifts for those occasions too.

For birthdays, we might send a card to immediate family members. We almost always call the birthday person on their big day (except that my brother doesn't usually remember anymore). We never give gifts (except to children). (Although our parents still give us something for our birthdays.)

For the most part, we treat Mother's Day and Father's Day the same way as we do birthdays (card and phone call)...unless we happen to be with them on that occasion and then we'll treat them to lunch or something.

My husband's family does things differently. Gifts are a very big deal. You have to give something, and you will receive something for Christmas and birthdays. Phone calls and cards are optional. Mother's Day and Father's Day also require gifts, cards, and phone calls.

Trying to merge two different gift-giving cultures is not easy. If you make a change to what your family is used to (stop or start giving gifts when you used to give or not give), you will cause waves that will ripple out to everyone in the family.

For example, if out of the blue we gave my brother a birthday gift this year, my sister may feel guilty that she didn't also give a gift to him. Maybe she feels like suddenly she's going to have to start giving him a birthday gift too. He also may feel bad that he never remembers anyone's birthday anymore. And that means we also need to give my sister, sister-in-law, and parents birthday presents too...and they will feel like they need to reciprocate to us. In the interest of fairness, it would also mean that they would have to give each other gifts too.

Likewise, it would be odd if Michael stopped giving gifts to his family for these occasions.

This is my problem with gifts. Even if no one should feel obligated to reciprocate, they do -- we do.

I pondered this situation for several months before we were married. It would start to get really expensive to give gifts to 13 family members for all of these occasions. It wouldn't settle well with my siblings in particular if Michael and I started a new practice of giving everyone birthday gifts. It wouldn't settle well with Michael's family if we quit giving so many gifts. For me, in the interest of fairness, giving extra gifts to one family and not the other was out of the question.

What would we do?!

A few weeks after we returned from the honeymoon I worked on a household budget for married life. (I do the number-crunching and budget-making and then take the results to Michael for approval.) With 13 immediate family members and lots of friends and family who have special occasions, gifts was going to be a significant line item in the budget. But how much? How would we give gifts and keep everyone (and us) happy?

The solution: the 13 close relatives each get a dollar amount assigned to them for the usual gift-giving occasions (birthdays, Christmas, Mother's Day/Father's Day). There are three categories of people: parents, siblings, and children. Everyone in each category gets the same amount budgeted each year. Michael and I decide for our own family members how we want to use that money. The adults in my family don't get birthday gifts, so they have a larger amount for Christmas. Michael divides his allotments up by all of the occasions. So, we spend less on their Christmas gifts, but they do get birthday gifts.

Will it be strange to Michael that I won't give my sister a birthday gift in a few weeks? Yes. But was it unusual to me that he sent his sister-in-law a check (because he couldn't think of an actual gift to give) for her forty-something birthday this past fall, oh yeah! -- especially, since the check was cashed but never otherwise acknowledged.

It's not a perfect system, but nearly 6 months into marriage and many gift-giving occasions behind us, it's working because we are each pretty much happy with it.

What is your gift-giving culture?

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Money Talk: A Financial Course for Women

If you are a woman and live in the Arlington, Virginia area, here's some great news for you: the next Money Talk course is open for registration. (If you don't live in this area, check with your local Cooperative Extension to find out if they will be offering Money Talk near you.)

Several years ago I took this class, and I highly recommend it. I had friends who took it with me. They aren't personal-finance nerds like me, but they got a lot out of it too. Afterwards, I recommended it to another friend who gathered some friends and coworkers and drove in from Fairfax to take the class. (You don't have to be an Arlington resident to take it.) They felt they benefited from it too.

So, here's the scoop:

Money Talk: A Financial Course for Women
Women have unique financial needs. Most will at some time be on their own financially. Some will never marry, some will see their marriages end in divorce, and others will outlive their husbands. This course will provide you with information that you need to take charge of your financial future. The course includes five classes:

February 4 Financial Basics
February 11 Insurance Basics
February 18 Investing Basics
February 25 Investing for Retirement
March 4 Planning for Future Life Events

All classes will be held 7:00-8:45 p.m. at Arlington Central Library (1015 N Quincy Street). Cost: $20 (for the accompanying textbook). Access the registration brochure at: or contact: or (703) 228-6417. This is a program of Virginia Cooperative Extension and Arlington Public Libraries.

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Here I Am!

Oh wow! I haven't blogged in so long. It's almost been two months. What in the world have I been doing?!

Well...December got really crazy. It mostly had to do with the fact that it was serious gift buying season. I have it noted to blog about it in the future -- now that we are married gift-giving has taken on a new form.

We had to (wanted to) get Christmas gifts for our immediate families -- that includes two sets of parents, two sisters, two brothers, two sisters-in-law, two nephews, and a niece. We also had to (wanted to) give birthday gifts to the niece and nephews at Christmas to avoid shipping charges. (Their birthdays are in November, January, and February.) We also had to give a gift to a sister for her December birthday.

So, we had to think of things to give to all of these people for all of these occasions. And then we -- okay, let's get really -- I had to wrap them all (except for the one Michael was giving to me).

We were also hosting an early Christmas celebration at our house for my parents and sister since we wouldn't see them on Christmas this year. As part of our marriage compromise, we are visiting one family for Thanksgiving and then the opposite one for Christmas. The plan for next year is to swap holidays. We were with my family for Thanksgiving this year, so we had to make other arrangements for celebrating Christmas with them.

It suddenly occurred to me that we -- okay -- I had to do the gift shopping much earlier. So, I had a bit of a last minute scramble, which normally doesn't happen to me. (I tell you in a later post about why I was the primary gift-shopper.)

We left very early on the morning of Christmas Eve for Atlanta to spend the holiday with Michael's family. When we make that long trip (about 11-12 hour drive), we usually stay a few days to make the visit worth the effort and expense. However, Michael wanted to run the Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, MS on January 3. So, we extended this trip -- by a lot.

It was a pretty good idea to combine trips. After all, we were already in the South for Christmas. It made sense to head deeper south from there than from all the way up here in DC. We added in some sight-seeing and family-visiting in Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana. And that made a 13 day trip!

It took a while to prepare for that big excursion. It also took a while to recover...and unpack all of those gifts. Not only did we receive Christmas gifts, but birthday gifts too because Michael is a December baby, and my birthday is in January.

All that, plus we have still been trying to get our house settled since we got married 5 and a half months ago. It's just been hard to keep up with daily life and all of the longer term projects. So, I started cutting things out of my life, including my dearly-beloved blog.

Last week we had a 4-day weekend thanks to MLK, Jr. Day on Monday and Inauguration Day on Tuesday. (Being in DC, January 20th is a holiday for both of our companies every 4 years.) Ever since (a few months ago) I discovered that the calendar was creating this generous holiday weekend, I had been longing for it. Two-day weekends just don't cut it. I always have more things to do than I have time. But with 4 consecutive days off, I got tons -- TONS -- done. And it was great!

Now, I'm not exactly were I'd like to be in terms of my projects. Currently, I have a list of 21 things to work on that don't include daily living (i.e. grocery shopping, meal planning, laundry, cleaning). But I'm going to try a very conservative goal for Save 4 Fun -- writing at least once a week. Eventually, I hope to get back up to speed.

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