How to Cut V-Day Spending in Half

4 Feb

Photo by me.

Photo by me.


So…what the heck happened to January?

The first month of the year evaporated for me despite being totally relaxed compared to the hectic holiday season. It’s already February and I’m busy outlining travel plans for the year and stuffing my face with heart-shaped confections. Does anyone else get excited about holidays purely for the candy?

I was reading the spending estimates for Valentine’s Day the other day and am totally floored by the amount people dish out for Feb. 14 festivities. According to the National Retail Federation, guys will spend an average of $190 on flowers, candy, jewelry and dinner out. Women, on the other hand, will spend about $95. Overall, total spending is expected to exceed $18 billion.

I thought it would be fun to calculate how much typical Valentine’s Day gifts cost and offer ways to cut that cost in half. What do you think? Is this about right or am I totally off base?

One dozen red roses in a clear vase runs about $55 on 1-800-Flowers. Get it delivered on Valentine’s Day and you’ll add another $17.99. Factor in tax and your total is close to $80.

Cut it in half: Opt for a bouquet of 50 Peruvian Lilies and deliver them on Feb. 12. This way, you avoid the Valentine’s Day delivery fee and provide public adoration for your sweetheart. Use a coupon code for 20-percent off and pay a little over $40 total.

A 1-pound heart-shaped box of See’s Candy will run you $30. Add a Hallmark card and supermarket bouquet of flowers and you can increase that to about $45.

Cut it in half: Buy an 8-ounce heart-shaped box for $12.50 instead, which contains plenty of sweet treats and doesn’t sabotage your sweetie’s New Year’s resolutions. Add a dollar-store card for $0.50 to that supermarket bouquet and you’ll spend about $23 total.

I’ll assume you’re not going to pop the question on Valentine’s Day and opt for something less significant, albeit thoughtful. A trendy bar necklace in white 14K gold, for example, runs about $350 from Jared.

Cut it in half: At Macy’s, a similar style bar necklace in sterling silver is currently priced at $120. Using a coupon code, you can reduce that by 15 percent to just over $100. Meanwhile, Nordstrom offers a similar style for $68, and Etsy offers several hand-made styles for less than $30.

The Cupid’s Combo package at The Melting Pot in my area features a four-course dinner with a bottle of either Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernet, plus a “Touch of Romance candle and petal package dressing the table.” Cost: $125 per couple, or $150 when you factor in 18-percent gratuity.

Cut it in half: My husband and I could share an appetizer, two premium sushi rolls and two local craft brews at our favorite sushi restaurant for $50 (including the 18-percent gratuity). We could then head to The Melting Pot for dessert fondue, which costs about $10 per person. Total damage: $72.

How much do you plan to spend this Valentine’s Day?

Your Money: Costs Rising in 2015

27 Jan

Happy New Year!

I know, I’m about a month late with that sentiment. What can I say, recovery from the holiday season takes time.

This year, I’m transitioning from blogger at Hassle-Free Savings to Savings Expert with Coupon Sherpa. That doesn’t mean I’m abandoning this blog — I still plan to make monthly updates and posts — but it does mean I’ll be spending a bit more time promoting the “Himalayan Haggling He-Man of Bargains” in upcoming media spots.

My latest segment on Good Day Colorado is a fascinating one, at least from a research standpoint. In addition to the products and services featured in this clip, prices on bourbon are also going up. Why? Hipsters. Egg prices are on the rise due to California’s requirement that hens get more space in their pens, and if you do nothing else with this topic today, read this incredible story about “blood” avocados in Mexico.

Conquer Fear in Customer Service

23 Dec

A not-so-scandalous experience.

A not-so-scandalous experience.

I had a great customer service experience recently and have been meaning to share it with you all. The holiday season had other plans. I’ve been go-go-go since October it seems, and I’m still scrambling to get ahead. I’ll be one of those poor schmucks shopping on Christmas Eve, desperately looking for that perfect gift for the remaining people on my list. Wish me luck!

My positive retail experience occurred after a Black Friday purchase of a truly extravagant self-gift — wine glasses. Specifically, Crate & Barrel wine glasses often featured on the show Scandal. Judge me if you will, but my husband and I both drooled after those glasses the first time Olivia took a sip while ruminating on the crisis de jour. With free shipping and a coupon code, I ordered both red and white wine glasses (though I’m really just a red girl).

I received the glasses and was happy to find the red ones as stunning in real life as they are on screen. The white glasses? Not so much. They seemed oddly small and disproportionate. The foot of the glass was the same diameter as the bowl, which for some reason made them appear poorly designed. Understanding the red wine glasses have a whopping capacity of 23 oz., I compared the white wine glass to the ones I have in my cupboard. Even compared to an average white wine glass, these glasses looked comically undersized.

Long story short, I wasn’t satisfied. And this left me in a pickle since I’m 60 miles from the nearest Crate & Barrel store, and my whole purpose in ordering during Black Friday was to dodge the $18 shipping fee. Return shipping fees would no doubt eat into my refund, and after complaining about it my money-savvy friend, she suggested I contact customer service and ask them to waive the return shipping fees.

My initial reaction was “yeah, right.” Why would they? After all, I’m not a regular Crate & Barrel shopper. This is the second item I’ve ever purchased from them, and I did so at a discount. I was afraid of having my plea rejected and feeling even more foolish. Despite my reservations, I placed the call and figured it would be a good example in future stories and segments if it worked out in my favor.

The first person I spoke to seem genuinely concerned that I didn’t like the white wine glasses. She immediately transferred me to customer service where another rep listened to my story and responded with a version of this:

“Tell you what. Because I’m feeling good today and because you’re likely a fan of Scandal, I’m going to send you a prepaid FedEx mailing label for you to return the white wine glasses.”

We then talked about the show and its ability to make us crave red wine and popcorn at inappropriate moments during the day. Apparently Crate & Barrel could barely keep these glasses in stock last year all thanks to their near-constant cameos on Scandal.

By conquering my fear of rejection, I was able to avoid exorbitant return shipping fees and have my faith restored in customer service. This experience is definitely a bright spot in an otherwise hectic holiday season.

You & Me This Morning Segment

11 Dec

I had the pleasure of visiting the Windy City earlier this week and offered some money-saving tips for the holidays during WCIU-TV’s You & Me This Morning. I also had the opportunity to meet Joe Minoso, who plays Joe Cruz on NBC’s Chicago Fire. Bonus!

Your Money: Shopping Secrets for Target Fans

19 Nov

In my latest segment on Good Day Colorado, I talk shopping secrets for Target shoppers with Kirk Yuhnke. I kind of blew his mind. And I must say: best. screenshot. ever.

Paradise Has a Price: The Fun

14 Nov

I know, I know: it’s about time. Part three to my “Paradise Has a Price” series has been a long-time coming. If you’re just tuning in, check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the full experience.

Boats at sunrise. Photo by me.

Boats at sunrise. Photo by me.


Everywhere you turn, there are booths and tents and storefronts dedicated to selling you tourist packages. Activities range from ziplining to helicopter tours to deep-sea fishing excursions. Each come with a price, of course, as well as persuasive messaging reminding you that your time in paradise is short-lived. If YOLO were an island in the Pacific, it would look like Kauai.

My practical husband and I weren’t swayed by all the opportunities to experience this island via tour guide. We left Kauai feeling fairly accomplished, having seen and experienced most of what we intended, and even a few things we didn’t. Here’s my not-so-quick guide to saving money and still having fun on Kauai:

Prepare to drive. When we first started planning our trip, we contemplated not getting a rental car. I’m so glad we decided to get one, because otherwise it would have been difficult to explore the island on our own terms. Kauai is relatively small, but each side has its own charm and it’s fun to explore each area. Hanalei Bay offers lush jungle and insane ocean views, while Princeville gives you a glimpse of the high-end perks enjoyed by those with more money than you. Poipu is populated with resorts, rocky shores and tourist shops, while the area surrounding Waimea Canyon is far more open and agricultural than the rest of the island. Getting a vehicle with good gas mileage is key!

Instead of hiring a chopper tour, walk the trail. Helicopter tours offer an unparalleled vantage point from which to see the Napali Coast and other picturesque areas of the island. If it’s in your budget and something you want to do, by all means, go for it! At $250 to $350 per person, it was most certainly not in our budget. So, we opted to hike the Napali Coast instead and experience the scenery from our own two (four?) feet. Aerial views of the water and mountains are great, but you can’t take a dip in the cool-water streams or smell the ever-present guava and passion fruit littering the trails from the confines of a chopper cabin. Just saying.

Napali Coast Overlook. Photo by me.

Napali Coast Overlook. Photo by me.


DIY. We passed countless tour buses as we explored the area in Scooter McGoo, and sometimes I wondered how they navigated the narrow roads and tight corners. While you miss out on the history and other educational opportunities associated with tour buses and guides, you are tethered to a schedule. A bus tour for Waimea Canyon, for example, would run about $100 each and last 11 hours. While you’re sure to see all the highlights of the area, this tour does not include food and, in my opinion, lasts far too long. Again, if that’s you scene, no judging, but for us, we like to go when we want, stay for as long (or as briefly) as we like, and leave when we’re ready for something different.

Wing it. We discovered Queen Anne’s bath, the perfect early-morning destination to watch the turtles get batted around by powerful waves and look on as brave tourists and fearless locals splash about in the choppy waters. We also found a tasty taco stand in a local shopping area in Kilauea; a quiet beach area visited by locals (and not overrun by tourists); and a few homes for sale. Looking at the selling price and layout of homes on Kauai was oddly entertaining. One place was composed of 10 acres of macadamia nut trees and featured three properties: a mansion with panoramic views of the ocean and cliffs; a cottage on the opposite side of the property for visitors; and a workshop/studio space. For the bargain price of $12 million, it could be ours.

Queen Anne's Bath. Photo by me.

Queen Anne’s Bath. Photo by me.


Splurge selectively. One excursion I wish we would have done was a kayaking trip to the base of a waterfall. Our friends did it and paid $80 (not including tip) for both of them. They set out early in the morning before other tours started crowding the river, and they were the first ones to the final destination. Our friends said the tour guide was very informative and laid back, and they got a good workout in before splashing about in the water to cool down.

Balance relaxation with exploration. Overplanning during a vacation can make you feel exhausted by the time you get on the plane. Putting off plan-making until the last few days of your trip can also cause you to do way too much (and spend too much) toward the end of your trip, having languished a few days in the beginning. Strike a balance between the two: your first day should be spent lounging at the beach and getting your bearings. The next day can allow for more formal exploration, making notes of sites you want to visit and learning about the excursions you should take.

Enjoy free pool time. A week into our trip, a couple from our party got engaged and then married on the island. They booked a room at the Grand Hyatt in Poipu and invited us all to join them in the afternoon for cocktails and pool time. There was some concern that we’d be kicked out of the lagoon-style pool because we weren’t staying with the hotel, but we learned later the pool is open to the public. While the cocktails weren’t cheap ($14 for a specialty mai tai – ouch), the pool and ambience offered a wonderful alternative to ocean swimming.

Waimea Canyon. Photo by me.

Waimea Canyon. Photo by me.


Think outside the tourist box. My friend and I were excited for oceanside yoga, via Kauai Yoga on the Beach. Sadly, my blistered feet forced me to cancel, plus the impromptu wedding required the attendance of my friend. At $20 a pop, this experience isn’t exactly frugal, especially since I likely could have led myself through a yoga practice for absolutely free. However, I’m a big fan of the studio scene, and the investment seemed worth it to me since it would allow me to be led through a series of delicious asanas while enjoying a sunrise view. Sun salutation indeed!

Enjoy the in-between. This lesson from yoga definitely rings true on a destination-oriented vacation. Sometimes we’re so caught up in our final destination that we fail to recognize the beauty of the journey and transition. For example, the tree canopy along a short stretch of road between Lihue and Poipu was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and caught us completely by surprise. The rich green mountains and cinnamon-hued soil never ceased to impress us, and the ocean, well, it’s pretty spectacular.

And so ends my epic three-part series surrounding our big adventure on Kauai!

Happy Halloween!

31 Oct

Happy Halloween, dear readers! As I mentioned in my previous post, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and to be honest, I went a little nuts this year on the costume and decor front. Luckily, I didn’t spend much and had a lot of fun in the process. Here’s a glimpse of my efforts:


Chalkboard Art
I found this design on Pinterest and instantly fell in love. I actually did a whole Macbeth theme with the bottles I used for my props during this segment about saving money on Halloween, so this sign fit perfectly!

Halloween Entrance
Again, Pinterest inspired my entrance composed of floating witch hats. I found two at Michaels for 70-percent off, paying less than $1 for each. I found the remaining three at Target for $2 each, which isn’t as much of a bargain but at this point during the shopping trip, I was willing to overlook it. We had visited Party City where I nearly purchased a $4 hat, so the Target find is a win in my book! The enormous pumpkins were grown by my husband and were the hit of the evening with kids and parents alike.

Treat Table
These TV props make for the perfect accompaniment to my candy bowl display. I also used my trust black cat candle that I’ve had since junior high school and a couple pumpkins my husband grew in our garden. I also received the fabulous green heirloom pumpkin from my friend who harvested thousands of them for sale this year.

I’ve been wanting to try Dia de Los Meurtos for a few years now and finally cultivated the gusto this year. I’ve never worked with face paint before so I was a little nervous the morning of, and used Pinterest as my inspiration for the design. Half way through the HOUR it took me to do this, I realized winging it was better than trying to follow a specific design. I purchased the face paint kit from the grocery store of all places, since it was available for 50-percent off ($3). The wig was gifted to me by my cousin, and the floral crown is made from a headband and silk flowers I already own. Big thank you to my mom for crafting the headpiece! She still makes the best costumes.


Dining Table Decor
Using another free heirloom pumpkin from my friend (called a Long Island Cheese Pumpkin – yes, please!), I re-used stems and pinecones I’ve had for years and added small pumpkins and gourds that I purchased from Walmart ($10). I also purchased half-price styrofoam gourds and a few autumn berry sprigs from JoAnn Fabrics (>$10). It took some arranging and rearranging, but I’m quite content with the finished product.

Whew! All that for one night. Oh well – I had a blast leading up to the event and didn’t spend much at all, especially considering I plan to reuse much of what I purchased this year.

How did you stay frugal this Halloween?

Your Money: Save on Halloween

15 Oct

I interrupt my “Paradise Has a Price” series with an important segment about saving money on Halloween! Halloween is likely my favorite holiday, mostly because I get to dress up as someone else AND it doesn’t cost me that much. Americans seem to share my enthusiasm for Halloween, as overall spending has increased 55 percent since 2005, and the National Retail Federation expects consumers to spend over $7 billion on costumes, candy and decor this year. So, how best to keep those costs contained while still looking like you went all out? Check out my tips (and amazing DIY skills) on Good Day Colorado with the fabulous Brooke Wagner.

Paradise Has a Price: The Food

7 Oct

The one and only tropical chick drink purchased during our trip.

The one and only tropical chick drink purchased during our trip.

The primary way we save money (and our sanity) during vacation is having our own food to make and not relying on restaurant food all day, everyday. Having a kitchen in the rental house was a big selling point for the trip since it would allow us to store and prepare our meals.

When we finally landed in Lihue, we were exhausted and looking forward to reaching our final destination. We met our party at a sports bar overlooking the ocean, hoping to get a cheap bite before heading to the house. The bite was neither tasty nor cheap, costing us over $40 for incredibly bland pub food. The view was great, but we left ready to stock up on real food for the rest of the week.

After a detour to the rental car agency to exchange our vehicle, we were led astray by Google maps, who routed us in circles trying to find the Safeway. We settled for the Big Save Markets and were immediately slapped in the face with the reality of island pricing.

Here’s a little rundown of the first few items we saw:

  • Red Bell Peppers – $6.99 per pound.
  • Orange Juice – $10 per jug.
  • Dozen Eggs (white, non-organic, not cage-free) – $6.

It was like getting sucker punched, only worsened by the fact that we were still nauseas over the exorbitant price we paid for subpar restaurant food. We spent over $30 on six staples (eggs, bacon, coffee, cream, pineapple and butter), and then bought another $30 in wine and beer because at this point, we both really needed a drink. We found our way to the rental house and vowed not to make any more purchasing decisions until after a good night’s rest.

We found the elusive Safeway the next day and tooled around the aisles in search of more palatable prices.  Overall, Safeway seemed to have better prices than Big Save, albeit not by much. We decided to load up on essentials for the week so we could avoid the experience of shopping for groceries as much as possible. I left my husband in the meat department to find healthy produce that wouldn’t cost us our flight home. Here’s what I found:

  • Tomatoes – $4.99 per pound.
  • Avocados – $1.99 each.
  • Green Bell Peppers – $2.99 per pound.

I thought BLTs would make for a simple dinner, until I found the price of bacon was $9.99, and that was for the cheap stuff. At this point, I glanced back at my husband who was standing in the same place I left him, staring at two packages of meat in disbelief. He seriously looked catatonic, and it occurred to me he might need medical attention before this shopping trip was through. Every fiber of his being seemed to fight these prices, to the point where it left him powerless to make a purchasing decision.

By this time, the store was getting busy and we both have trouble focusing in crowds. We made quick decisions on our purchases and tried unsuccessfully to do self-checkout. After much frustration, we packed up our goods and headed to the regular checkout, leaving a queue of annoyed shoppers in our wake.

By the time we left the store, we were both ready to go home. Like, back to the mainland, where prices for basic tomatoes didn’t rival that of heirloom varieties that receive their nutrients exclusively from unicorn tears.

Despite these initial setbacks, we did finally find our groove when it came to buying food. I’ve created the following five-step plan to help you avoid the shock and dismay we experienced.

Step 1: Acceptance.
We struggled with this throughout our trip, but ultimately there’s nothing you can do about island pricing. The cost to ship fresh goods across the Pacific gets transferred to the consumer, and you just have to determine which high-priced items fit best in your budget.

Step 2: Co-hosting.
Each couple cooked for the entire party one night, essentially providing everyone with three free meals. My husband grilled tri-tip steak (the poor man’s ribeye) and russet potatoes, and I made a cucumber-tomato salad. In turn, we enjoyed sushi, grilled steak with kimchee and seaweed salad, and pizza on the beach from our party.

Step 3: Brown bagging.
With restaurants charging $15 to $20 for lunch entrees, we decided PB&Js would be perfect hiking and touring food. The initial cost of ingredients was hard to swallow ($15!), but we ate every last slice of bread and put significant dents in the preserves and peanut butter. Coupled with water and orange Gatorade, these on-the-go meals were 100 times more satisfying than our first lunch on the island.

Step 4: Loyalty.
We became loyal customers of Bubba’s Burgers, a fast-casual burger joint that sold delicious Kalua pork sandwiches. At $7 a pop, they weren’t exactly cheap but they were filling and highly satisfying.  We dined here three or four times during our stay.

Step 5: Sharing.
Share restaurant food as much as possible! At Bubba’s, we shared fries and a drink, and filled up our second sip for just $0.50 (compared to $2 for an additional beverage). We split an appetizer at the Mediterranean restaurant on Hanalei. We also shared the three-taco special from a food truck in Kilauea. In each instance, we both left satisfied and confident we paid as little as possible to get that way.

All in all, we spent about $350 on groceries for the week (not including booze), and around $250 on dining out (including booze). We figure you can take your typical grocery budget for the number of days you’ll be vacationing in Hawaii, and then increase it by about 30 to 40 percent. This will help temper the shock of island pricing.

Paradise Has a Price: A Series

24 Sep

“The only thing cheap on this island is us.”

This direct quote from my husband pretty much sums up our recent experience on Kauai. While the sandy beaches, tropical sunsets and fragrant air made for an overall great vacation, the high prices of everything from food to fuel to funsies was tough for two frugal people to handle. From the minute we ordered our first meal to the moment we crossed the threshold of the local grocery store, my husband and I knew we were in for a very pricey 10 days. And while it’s understandable that an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean cannot compete with mainland prices, we never really recovered from the sticker shock.

Beach at Hanalei Bay. Photo by me.

Beach at Hanalei Bay. Photo by me.


To help others looking to spend a future vacation on the Hawaiian islands, I’m writing a three-part series on how to save on paradise prices. My intent is to help you better budget for your trip and learn from my experiences.

Part 1: The Car — Our rental car ironically represents one of the cheaper expenditures during our trip, but one that could have cost a lot more had I bit on any of the numerous upsells thrown at me during the checkout process.

Part 2: The Food — This will be eye-opening for some and will help travelers better budget their food costs since “everything is more expensive here” is a pretty vague form of preparation.

Part 3: The Fun — I’ll offer low-cost ways to experience the highlights of the island, based on what we did and what others in our party did.

Here goes…

Scooter McGoo: A Story of Rental Car Savings

Most savvy travelers know to avoid all the upsells associated with renting a car. However, it can be hard in the moment, when a persuasive sales rep can make you feel foolish for not getting the extra insurance coverage or prepaid gas tank. As always, knowledge is power, and the following specific examples from my experience in Kauai will hopefully help you avoid any future indecision while renting a car.

Tip 1: Avoid the rental car upsell. I reserved the economy car for $232, which amounts to a relatively inexpensive rate of $23 per day. Immediately the rep classified my reservation as “the smallest car we have,” and asked if I would be interested in a special discount rate on a convertible Mustang. Usually, the upgrade costs $70 per day more than my economy rental, but just because I’m special, that rate will be just $15 more each day. I declined. “What if I can get that down to $10 per day?” Listen, that’s nice, but there’s no way in hell the real rate is an extra $70 per day if you’re willing to part with it for 85-percent less. You have to keep this in mind when they offer you special deals on upgrades. It’s like the “compare at” prices from TJMaxx or outlet stores; the item likely never sold at the “original” price, so the difference between it and the selling price is arbitrary.

Also, the gas mileage on a Mustang convertible is terrible, especially compared to the whopping 41 MPG we achieved with our economy rental. You must always keep in mind gas mileage and expected use when considering an upgrade, as it’s typically a bigger car that isn’t as fuel efficient.

Tip 2: Deny the insurance offer. Naturally, I was pitched the Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) to protect myself against liability for damage or theft. After declining it and explaining our credit card offered this coverage already, the rep said our card’s coverage “probably didn’t cover” accidents that were not our fault. Scary, but I declined nonetheless. According to my credit card benefits, I am covered by a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), synonymous with an LDW, when I charge the full amount of the rental car to my card and decline the rental company’s coverage.

I know some travelers who prefer to pay for peace of mind than decline extra coverage for the sake of savings. Obviously this is your call, but research what your auto insurance and credit card companies will cover so you don’t end up paying for redundant protection.

Tip 3. Decline the prepaid fuel pitch. The rep stated their company’s fuel price cost 10-percent less than elsewhere on the island, making us sound foolish if we declined. She even scrunched her nose and looked at me incredulously when I said “no.” The thing is, we’d be prepaying for a full tank of gas, even if we returned the car with half a tank. The company’s terms specifically state this: “There is no credit or refund given for any fuel in the tank at the end of the rental.” Did she mention that? No. Instead, she made me feel like an idiot for not prepaying for cheaper fuel.

And PS: her suggestion that fuel averaged $4.68 on the island was bogus! We got it for $4.42, and because we’re Safeway Club members, we received two fill-ups for 10-cents less per gallon than advertised. Where’s your scrunchy face now, huh?

Tip 4: Note any issues and make a change immediately. Upon leaving dinner, we felt the rental car stutter and make grinding noises. Rather than grin and bear it, we returned to the rental car facility and requested a different vehicle. We received a Mazda 2, even smaller than the Ford Focus, but it worked just fine. It did so well, in fact, that we named him Scooter McGoo, and offered words of encouragement and gentle pats on the dashboard as he methodically made his way around narrow roads and steep inclines.

In fact, opting for the small car actually helped us squeeze into tight parking spaces and navigate the exceedingly tight and often one-way passages around the island.

Tip 5: Avoid using the air conditioner. On day three of our vacation, my husband and I took a road trip around the island just to escape the heat. We stopped at several places along the way and getting out of the car was like hitting the brick walls of Hell. The contrast of air-conditioned air to the hot, muggy atmosphere actually made our experience worse. Once we turned off the A/C and traveled windows-down style, we found ourselves far more comfortable. The flow of air and occasional trade winds helped us from overheating and allowed our bodies to adapt quicker. Bonus: we nearly doubled our fuel efficiency by avoiding the A/C.

Hopefully this detailed account helps you better understand why all the upsells associated with renting a car are, by and large, a waste of money. For even more proof, check out Forbes’ contributor Roger Dooley’s experience with a rental car agency who tried to upsell him on a vehicle they planned to give him anyway.

How do you avoid rental car upsells? Do you think some options are worth the extra cost?