Frugal Win: Happy Halloween

31 Oct

Happy Halloween, everyone!

I’m a big fan of this holiday and, as usual, went a little crazy with face “paint” this year. I’ve found face makeup and a good wig are all I need to make a statement without spending too much money on Halloween. My mom made the best costumes for us as kids, and as such I can’t touch the store-bought ones that are overpriced and poorly made. One year, I tried to put together a costume with clothing I already own and just a few inexpensive accessories, and ended up looking more like a talk-show host than the superhero alter-ego I was going for. So, I now focus my efforts on my face and hair!

This year, I opted for a deer — my company hosted a murder-mystery themed holiday party last year and I was assigned the role of Vixen, so I had the makeup, wig and deer headband already. My mom and I created the headband from sale items we found at JoAnn Fabric — easy peasey! The wig and headband lasted until just about an hour ago — they’re cute but very uncomfortable! I may be minimizing my Halloween look even more next year by just sticking to makeup!

Decor-wise, my husband is hellbent on growing the biggest pumpkin possible, so we always have plenty of homegrown beauties to carve. We spent the afternoon yesterday carving four pumpkins, and we’re quite pleased with the results. Growing pumpkins from seeds is as frugal as you can get! Comparable pumpkins from Walmart or a local supermarket would cost us $7 to $15, while a pumpkin patch would be double that.

Candy is my Achilles Heel during the month of October. Since I often contribute to articles about saving money, I start talking Halloween in mid-September, so images of candy corn and Halloween candy plant themselves in my psyche early. When candy corn was priced at two for $6, I caved. Twice. That’s right — I’m one of the few lunatics who likes candy corn.

I held off on buying candy for trick-or-treaters until last Wednesday, and have been munching happily on the bag ever since. I buy in bulk from Costco because they have all my favorites in a single bag and it’s EASY. I could save about 30% by comparing sales and stocking up on sale candy at big-box stores or even grocery stores, but I’m afraid I value my time more than the $5 it would save me to do so (right or wrong!).

So that’s it, folks. Another successful Halloween in the books! How frugal was your All Hallow’s Eve?

The Importance of Reading Reviews

18 Jul

Yellow Cab by Divya Thakur via Flickr Creative Commons

By now, you’d think a savvy shopper like me — who goes on record as being a “savings expert” — would know the importance of reading reviews before booking a service for the first time. But alas, even I’m prone to stupid mistakes, and a recent airport shuttle booking gone awry served as a reminder to never trust anyone. Especially when it leaves you and your mom stranded at an airport at 1am.

My only excuse in booking this service without properly vetting it is that, um, I was running out of time. Thankfully, cab drivers were on hand to rescue us from our predicament. They warned us that Super Shuttle “never picks up past 11:45pm,” but I thought I was making progress on hold (and I also thought the drivers might be just a little opportunistic). After 30 minutes on hold and absolutely no sign of a shuttle, we took a cab and made it to Grandma’s in 20 minutes. Insert dramatic *face palm* here.

The next day, I called Super Shuttle to demand request a refund. (Who am I kidding? I’m too nice to “demand” anything, even when I’m completely within my rights to do so.) I was given a claim number and told the Customer Advocacy Department would be in touch, and that since it was a holiday weekend, it likely wouldn’t be until Tuesday or Wednesday. I waited that whole week without a phone call, and placed a call 10 days after the incident. When I reached someone, I was told my claim had been approved but for whatever reason hadn’t started processing, but would be finalized within 48 hours. 96 hours later, the refund was pending on my credit card, and this weekend it cleared. Phew.

Then and only then did I post a Yelp review about my experience, which echoes other reviewers’ sentiments. All this headache could have been avoided had I read the reviews in the first place. But alas, I was in a hurry, and taking three minutes for a little research wasn’t possible for this too-busy-and-important savings expert.

How to Budget Without a Budget

12 Jul

Pretty Smug by Simona via Flickr Creative Commons

I recently drafted a response to a reporter query about how some people are able to “budget without a budget.” It took me very little time to whip up my tips, and I was feeling pretty confident about my chances of being included in the story. Then I re-read my advice and realized something:

I sound pretty darn smug about not having a budget.

While everything I drafted is true, it’s not the whole story and omits some important information. For example, I have a steady, well-paying job, very few debts, and a shared income with my husband. I also don’t have children or anyone else depending on me financially. So, while part of my budget-less success can be attributed to self-discipline and big-picture thinking, it’s also because I’m a lucky as heck to be who and where I am.

With that context, here are the ways I stay in budget without a formal budget.

I avoid common budget busters (most of the time). Often times, it’s the little things that add up to big money woes for those who struggle with overspending. I drink my coffee at work, bring my lunch from home, and dine out infrequently. I don’t have cable TV or a gym membership, and I don’t desire the latest tech gadget or designer labels on my clothing. These are not sacrifices because they’re not my priorities (though pricey cupcakes continue to be my kryptonite). Think about what your true priorities are and stop spending money on everything else. 

I don’t let lifestyle inflation level me. Lifestyle inflation is another common budget buster, albeit a counterintuitive one. Instead of celebrating a raise or a bonus by “buying” a cooler car or shopping at pricey clothing stores, I save the money. If I receive a raise, I put the difference into my retirement fund. If I receive a bonus, I deposit it into my savings account. This enables me to be more mindful about the best use of that money instead of impulsively spending it while I’m in a celebratory mood. (Disclaimer: My car is already really cool.) 

I work a side gig for “fun” money. I do occasional desktop publishing jobs for my former boss. I charge a rate that makes the task worth my free time, and I enjoy the work since it’s different than what I do at my current job. The money I make from this side gig usually goes towards travel expenses or splurges on food, which helps me from feeling deprived.

I’ve embraced minimalism. I used to love shopping. The high I received while spending money was addictive, yet I found that high subsiding faster and faster after the purchase was made. After cutting down the contents of my closet by two thirds and reading about those who live minimally, I realized how ridiculous it is to collect things that only provide momentary happiness. I’m more thoughtful about what I buy and still seek out ways to save on these purchases so I’m not overspending (translation: #Coupons4Ever).

We pay ourselves first. My husband and I set up an automatic transfer between checking and savings so we’re always squirreling away funds each week. This helps us afford vacations, home improvements and unexpected expenses without racking up credit card debt.

What’s your take on budgeting without a budget?

Saving on Cooling Costs: A Parody

17 Jun

When you write about saving money all day, every day, some topics are inevitably more compelling than others. I tend to get distracted on sunny Friday afternoons like this one, when I’d rather be feeling the breeze on my face with cocktail in hand than writing about saving money on summer cooling costsSo, at the suggestion of a most beloved coworker, I drafted the following parody as a much-needed diversion. Read these six tips at your own risk.

40+280 Heat by Bark via Flickr Creative Commons

#IceBucketChallenge, all day, err day.
Sure, we all pretended the ice bucket challenge was actually a challenge at peak heat in July. In truth, it’s exactly what we needed, which is why conducting an #IceBucketChallenge every half hour between June and September just makes good sense. Don’t let those hippie environmentalists from California shame you into stopping, either; there’s no such thing as a drought.

Become a nudist.
When people complain about how hot it is, do you notice how much clothing they’re wearing? Vitamin D is good for us, people. The next time you feel the urge to complain about the heat, strip. It will cool you down while performing the public duty of distracting everyone else from the weather.

Spend your weekends at the mall (and sleep at the office).
To compensate for the unsavory summer conditions, retail establishments and office parks around the country set their thermostats to arctic-like depths. Simply change your summer plans so you can sleep at the office and spend your weekends trolling the malls like a moody, prepubescent teen.

Build a tent around your house.
Why anyone hasn’t thought of this before is beyond us. Simply closing your blinds in the morning isn’t nearly as thorough as building a custom tent made from solar-blocking fabric around your entire abode. Sure, it’s expensive, but this is an investment in your comfort. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of building a tent yourself, import a bunch of termites into your home and commission a whole-house fumigation, then request the tent remain intact. You paid for it, after all.

Hire a personal fanner.
It worked for Julius Caesar, so why not you? Place a personal ad for a personal fanner or two and have them follow you around wherever you go. If anyone finds this arrangement curious, just tell them you’re creating jobs.

Attend a hot yoga class.
This one doesn’t sound right, but hear me out. Most hot yoga classes are between 85 to 102 degrees, plus humid as Satan’s armpit. For those living in the sauna that is the south, these classes will feel cool by comparison. For those whining about 80-degree dry heat, you’ll likely die of heat exposure 20 minutes into class and weather will no longer be a top concern.

Tipping: My Financial Bane

9 May

Photo by AberroCreative via Flickr Creative Commons

Confession: I really, really hate tipping.

I’m one of those people who would rather pay more for restaurant meals, transportation and other tip-heavy services just to avoid it. It’s not that I don’t think people in gratuity-based industries deserve tips; they absolutely do. I just don’t have the capacity to calculate an appropriate tip on a whim, and I very rarely carry cash. I’m also often caught off guard, not realizing gratuity is expected until someone is looking at me expectantly. As a result, I’ve committed many a tipping faux pas which has further contributed to my distaste for the practice.

Big cities are where my tipping idiocy really shines. I accidentally gave a valet parking attendant $25 after a one-night stay in Denver, thinking I had to pay him directly for the service. After an impromptu networking dinner at a fancy restaurant, I had to borrow cash to tip the valet who brought me my car. During a business trip to Chicago last year, I watched a bellhop unload five boxes worth of props in my hotel room knowing I had absolutely no cash with which to tip him.

In all these cases, I righted my wrongs: I justified the extra big valet tip as a holiday bonus; I repaid my generous dining companion the next time I saw him; and I tracked down the hotel bellhop later in my trip to tip him for his services.

I’m nothing if not thoughtful.

There’s been talk in the media recently about restaurants that are increasing menu prices and doing away with tipping. While only time will tell on the effectiveness of this strategy, both for restaurant business and for waitstaff wages, I’m totally in favor of the change. In the interim of a successful nationwide rollout of this format, however, the best way I combat my issue with tipping is advanced planning. Preparing my budget for the added expense and bringing the appropriate cash denominations are instrumental in a) keeping me from seeming like a horrible human being, and b) avoiding unnecessary dings to my budget due to lack of planning. Case in point, I researched tipping etiquette ahead of a recent food and wine tour of Gettysburg, Pa., and brought the correct amount of cash to tip our host who was truly a gem and deserved every penny. No humiliation, no remorse.

What’s your biggest financial bane?

Recurring Expense Hacking FTW

19 Apr

An alternative title for this post: Justifying My Cupcake Addiction. The reason will become clear.

Photo by 401(K) 2012 via Flickr Creative Commons

Recently, my husband hacked our auto insurance renewal and saved $250 on our annual premium. Then, he reduced our Verizon bill by $15 a month. His successes led me to finally cancel a $30-per-month supplemental insurance policy I’ve had for over a decade and never used. All this happened over the last few weeks, but it wasn’t until I read Jim Wang’s recent Elite Daily article that I realized what we’ve accomplished.

We saved money without changing our lifestyle one bit.

Spending less is tough when you’re focused on reducing or cutting out specific expenditures. It’s especially hard since the first things to go are often experiences or indulgences we enjoy most. In my case, the areas in which I planned to spend less actually don’t represent hefty expenditures. I dine out infrequently, don’t have cable and spend very little on clothing.

Yet, my first idea for cutting expenses was reducing the whopping $4.50 average monthly cost of cupcakes. There are health reasons for that reduction too, of course, but really? I think I looked at an easy expense to cut and chose that one, because it’s so obviously unnecessary. However, reviewing recurring expenses and making cuts there has had a much bigger impact on our budget without affecting our lifestyle at all.

Obviously, consumers who want to save money should reduce daily spending AND look for ways to cut back on recurring expenses. Together, these pursuits will free up some cash to be applied towards financial goals. But focusing solely on daily expenditures as I initially did is shortsighted and, in some cases, cruel. After all, punishing myself for a $5 monthly indulgence is not going to help me achieve my financial goals.

2016 Spending Goals

19 Feb

Photo by m01229 via Flicker Creative Commons

Last year, I spent $56 on cupcakes.

I reviewed my year-end credit card summary recently and noticed several charges from ButterCream Cupcakery, the hard-to-resist bakery cruelly located across the street from my yoga studio. This local shop has regular flavors and recurring daily specials, and Thursday’s flavor is the proverbial icing on the cake. To paraphrase Bogart, of all the cupcake combos, in all the towns, in all the world, salted caramel comes on Thursday.

So far this year, I’ve visited the cupcakery twice, kicking off 2016 by spending $8.70 on sugary deliciousness. At the time, the expense seems totally worth it: my teeth sink gingerly into the thick frosting, slowly cascading through the buttery sponge, rewarding my taste buds with a salty sweetness that lingers on my palate briefly enough to have me begging for more.

Sigh. I could really go for one of those right now.

But alas, my goal this year is to spend less on such indulgences. This is not to say I won’t enjoy another salted caramel cupcake all year; rather, I’ll make the experience less common. Ultimately, I’d like to cut my overall credit card spending by one third, specifically focusing on the dining and “merchandise” categories (though the latter is a rather broad bucket featuring everything from groceries to apparel to race registrations). As I aspire toward a more minimalist lifestyle, passing up clothing and shoes will be far easier than ignoring the siren song of salted caramel after a sweaty vinyasa flow. The sacrifice will be worth it, however, both to my budget and to my health-related goals, which include reducing my sugar intake and avoiding such self sabotage as eating sweets after a workout.

So goodbye for now, dear cupcakes. We’ll always have 2015.

Hello…it’s me.

11 Jan

Photo by Tim G. via Flickr Creative Commons

The last few months have been a whirlwind of activity, as the holiday season typically is for those of us in the shopping and discount industry. While I’ve been radio silent on this blog since September, I promise I’ve been spreading the good word about bargains, savings tools, shopping strategies and more through other means. That said, I miss my Hassle-Free Savings posts and, in the spirit of joining all the other suckers out there in making ill-fated New Year’s Resolutions, I resolve to post more frequently to this blog in 2016. Am I instilling you with confidence yet?

My problem, like most maintaining a blog, is coming up with clever, captivating content that doesn’t revolve around TJMaxx as the ultimate shopping solution. I also struggle with creating content that doesn’t shove minimalism down the throats of readers seeking practical money-saving solutions to everyday expenses and splurges. That being said, something I heard Joshua Fields Millburn say during a recent podcast by The Minimalists inspired me to re-commit to this blog (and other pursuits I have in the hopper):

“Our affinity for perfection or getting it ‘just right’ prohibits us from actually doing it.”

How true is this? I think it’s the perfect statement right now, during a month in which many of us make lofty resolutions that inevitably lose steam in just a few weeks. As a perfectionist, I’m hesitant to start anything unless I know it will work out “just so,” which is completely ridiculous. In reality, my standards are made impossibly high so I can opt out of change altogether, even if change is what’s desperately needed.

I may be getting off track here but the quote was so inspirational that I had to share it with you! And I’m using it as a launching board to get back on track with this blog, however imperfect my attempt may be. I look forward to interacting with my readers again and learning about the ways in which you’re making your life, money-related and otherwise, more hassle-free in 2016. Cheers!

Seeking Savings on Sight: My Experience with Warby Parker

15 Sep

Disclaimer: Warby Parker did NOT pay me for this review, nor did they request it. 

Confession: I’m blind as a bat.

My first pair of glasses graced my visage in the second grade, during which time I distinctly remember wearing those funky black paper glasses they give you after dilating your eyes all. day. long. I failed to understand the glasses were only for the trip to school and maybe during recess if it occurred within two hours of my appointment. When I arrived home still wearing them, my mom greeted me with an expression of bemusement.

Fast-forward to today and I’m seriously wondering how much time my eyes have left. I’m hoping for LASIK surgery but that can’t happen until my prescription evens out, which it has yet to do. I required a stronger prescription YET AGAIN and now have to order specialized contact lenses not offered by the likes of Bausch & Laumb because it’s JUST THAT STRONG. In addition to poor eyesight, I also have astigmatism in both eyes, which could sabotage my dreams of laser surgery. And the final cherry on top: I’m at a pretty high risk for glaucoma.

Thankful for your eyes yet?

The point of this rambling is that eye care is expensive for the average person. For someone with my special needs, it can be exorbitant. Insurance only gets you so far, and since walking around sans either contacts or eyeglasses is not an option for me, I need both. Insurance doesn’t cover both, at least not in the same calendar year. So, I typically put off spending money on frames every year and instead spend my insurance money on contacts, since I wear those most of the time anyway.

The last time I purchased frames was about three years ago. Instead of carefully studying the “non-designer rack” –> i.e., the frames insurance pays for in full –> I opted for an exorbitant super-cute pair of Michael Kors frames. After adding all the bells and whistles that now come with glasses lenses, including the high-index option to keep me from looking like Urkel, I paid over $500 for those puppies.

From a cost-per-wear perspective, I’ve definitely gotten my mileage out of the frames. However, I know the expense is totally unnecessary, especially when you can find similar-looking frames for less. This time around, I decided to try Warby Parker. A close friend with whom I spent my 30th birthday weekend was sporting her WPs (I just made that up — clever, no?) and they looked very similar to my pricey frames. A few weeks ago I started the process, which includes a Home Try-On kit featuring up to five frames.

All but one of these frames cost $95, including lenses. The final frame cost $145 with lenses, possibly because of the metal detail on the side of the frames. After trying each frame on, I narrowed it down to three contenders.

As a test, I wore each of the three contenders for 30 minutes to see if any of them slid down my nose like my current frames do. Two out of three did, including the pricier pair.

The winner is a two-toned looker called Wilkie. With a base price of $95, I added high-index lenses for an additional $30. Total damage: $125. Already I’m about $400 ahead of the game with these frames.

Submitting my prescription was a cinch — I uploaded a photo from my smartphone. The next day, I received an email from Warby Parker saying they needed a measurement not listed on my prescription, something called a Pupillary Distance. To get this information, I was required to do this:

While ridiculous, I commend Warby Parker’s creativity in acquiring technical information from people with absolutely no grasp of optometry. Throughout this process, I was reminded of just how difficult it must be to manage a mostly-online business selling products as personal as eyewear.

I received my shipping notice email Sept. 9 and was giddy (albeit surprised) to learn my glasses would arrive by Sept. 11.

Imagine my disappointment when they didn’t arrive. The tracking information didn’t update until the next day, and I received a quirky apology from Warby Parker and updated information on the status of my glasses. They arrived the following Monday, still just four business days from when they shipped.

When I giddily opened the package, I was disappointed again. The frames were way too wide. They fell off my face almost immediately, invalidating their original appeal. I decided to email WP to see if I needed to return them for a proper fitting, and then realized how dumb that was. Obviously they can’t adjust my frames remotely, so I took a quick trip to a nearby optometry practice with whom I’ve worked in the past and waited for my turn with the glasses person. During that time, I received an email from Warby Parker apologizing for the poor fit, along with this:

Whaa? How awesome is that? They managed to exceed my expectations by actually elevating them to a practical level. What I mean is this: my expectations are often low when it comes to service transactions because it seems like EVERYONE wants to nickel and dime you these days. It makes sense that a eyewear company would want their customers to be 100% satisfied with their product, and a proper fit is a big part of that equation. Covering the cost of a fitting is the obvious right thing to do, and yet so many companies FAIL TO DO THE RIGHT THING.

I didn’t end up paying anything for the adjustment and couldn’t be happier with them. It’s only been a few days so time will tell if they wear as well as my pricey pair, but I have high hopes. As a marketing major, I also have to give mad props to the marketing people at Warby Parker – their communication is on point, offering levity without sounding juvenile and providing instruction without overdoing it. Case in point, this response to my survey:

So, there you have it. If you managed to stick with me this far, remember that Warby Parker did not pay me for this review. I figured anyone toying with the idea of trying their service might find my experience helpful. Also, remember the company donates a pair of glasses through their nonprofit partners to someone in need. How cool is that?

A Case for Cost Comparison

14 Sep

Photo by The Busy Brain via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve written a lot about comparing prices on this blog (herehere and here) and in the advice I give as a Savings Expert for In fact, I would go so far as to say comparing prices is my top tip for saving money. Why? Because you never know how the cost of a product or service compares between competitors unless YOU do the research to find out.

Case in point: auto repair services. My parents recently discovered the alternator in one of their vehicles needs to be replaced. My dad called our local Toyota dealership who told him it would cost $1,200 to replace and he’d have to wait two weeks to get it done. He then called a mechanic’s shop he trusted, and they gave him a bid of $750 along with a one-week delay. Finally, he contacted another local shop (with whom he’s worked with previously) and they told him it would cost $450. What’s more, they could get the repair done immediately.

Bottom line? 20 minutes of phone calls resulted in $750 of savings.

Dealership prices are almost always higher – that’s a given. But not everyone understands just how much higher these costs can be, so taking the time to find out for yourself could result in a significant cost savings. I mean, $750? That’s huge!

Another tool I discovered during this process is AutoMD’s repair cost estimator. It helps you estimate auto repairs based on your vehicle’s make and model, and the zip code in which you plan to have the repair. My dad tried it and found the tool’s estimate to be very close to the mechanic charging $450.

As someone who knows next-to-nothing about cars, having a ballpark understanding of what a repair should cost is invaluable. Same goes for any purchase, really: if you know a product or service’s price history, it’s much easier to shop around and negotiate. It takes more effort, but the payoff can be huge.

Spill: what’s the most you’ve saved by comparing prices?