Monday, November 28, 2016

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Holiday Shopping Tips

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Holiday Shopping Tips: December brings celebration and good cheer, but this month also puts many people at risk of overspending. Here are a few tips to help you k...

Holiday Shopping Tips

December brings celebration and good cheer, but this month also puts many people at risk of overspending. Here are a few tips to help you keep your budget under control, yet still enjoy the holidays:

Pare down your gift list. Are there people you exchange gifts with every year out of obligation? And then the items you receive end up in a garage sale or Goodwill bag? Opening presents is fun for the children in a family, and who wants to take that away? But do all the adults really need to exchange gifts as well? Perhaps a nice Christmas card or get-together would suffice. Some large families save money by drawing names, so everyone will still get a nice gift but no one will feel overwhelmed and over-extended.
Consider charitable donations. Some people on your list may be difficult to buy for, since they appear to “have everything.” Is there a cause near and dear to a friend’s heart? If so, ask if you can make a contribution in the person’s name. No extra clutter for the recipient, and a possible tax write-off for you!
Consider homemade or perishable gifts. If you have the talent and energy, why not bake cookies or make other holiday comestibles? The recipients can enjoy them with family and friends over the season, and not have to worry about more clutter coming into their homes. Or perhaps a wreath, plant, or other holiday decoration?
Ship early. If you are shopping for people who live out of town (and you won’t be getting together with them over the holidays), ship your gifts early to avoid paying expedited shipping rates or rush fees to guarantee delivery by Christmas. Of course, this also requires getting your shopping done early. Some people collect gifts year round—when they travel, or when they see something on sale a loved one would like. If you do this, just remember where you put that “perfect item” you bought last May.
Save money on shipping. If you shop online, have the gifts sent directly to the recipient instead of to you, to re-package and mail. Most vendors will allow you to include a personalized message, and also to track your package. Double up purchases where practical to take advantage of free shipping offers. If you are mailing packages yourself, consider gifts such as books or CDs that can be sent via the media rate.
Shop around. Take advantage of sales. Retailers are clamoring for your business, so don’t pay full price. Look for promotions, coupons, competitor matching. Don’t be afraid to ask for a discount. And just because an item is located at the head of the aisle, with a big SALE sign, or just because it is sold in an outlet or warehouse store, doesn't mean it's a bargain. Have an idea of what you should expect to pay before making a major purchase.
Pare down your Christmas card list. Are you sending cards to people you haven’t seen or heard from in years? Maybe it’s time to cut them off. And consider emailing holiday greetings where appropriate instead of paying the postage to mail an actual card. It arrives faster and cuts down on clutter for the recipient.
Be cautious about gift cards. If you don’t know what to buy someone, but you know that person loves a particular store or restaurant, a gift card might be a wise choice. It’s flexible, easy, and economical to mail. But make sure you understand--and communicate to the recipient--any restrictions, expiration dates, inactivity fees, etc., that could dilute its value.
Be cautious about surprises. We all dream of surprising that special someone with the perfect gift, but in reality, many surprises turn out to be unwanted. (Especially live ones.) A direct conversation with the recipient might take some of the fun out of the holiday, but could save time in the Returns department on January 2.
Go easy on the food and drink. Holidays are the time to indulge, but be sensible. No need to jeopardize your health by overdoing the sugar and fat, or to get a D.U.I. after too much spiked eggnog.

What tips do you have for holiday savings? I would love to hear your comments.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money at Thanksgiving

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money at Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving Day is almost here. Traditionally, it's the holiday when we Americans lounge around with family or friends, watch football...

Saving Money at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is almost here. Traditionally, it's the holiday when we Americans lounge around with family or friends, watch football, and stuff ourselves with rich food. It's also a day to give thanks for what we have—family and friends, leisure time, plenty to eat.

But Thanksgiving also marks the beginning of the holiday spending spree. After all, the Black Friday sales await. And then Cyber Monday...

Here are some tips for how to save money at Thanksgiving and still enjoy the holiday, so it doesn't have to be more expensive than necessary.

  • Take advantage of sales on traditional holiday favorites and their ingredients. While you don't want to wait until the last minute to do your grocery shopping, some bargains pop up as the big date nears.
  • If you're serving turkey, try not to buy a much larger bird than needed for the group you're expecting. (Good luck if there will only be two of you for dinner, and you like both dark and white meat; plan for plenty of leftovers.)
  • Follow food safety protocol when thawing, stuffing, cooking, storing, etc. Read instructions. Keep the kitchen clean as you go; wash utensils and cutting boards frequently. Who needs the added expense and inconvenience of a trip to the emergency room for food poisoning?
  • Pets will probably enjoy a holiday treat, too, but be careful what you feed them; they could get sick on some of the rich human food you're serving. And don't give poultry bones to dogs or cats. They can splinter and cause internal injury. Also, keep your trash can and recycling bin out of reach of animals; they could cut themselves licking sharp edges of cans not thoroughly washed. Keep your pets safe and healthy, and avoid an unexpected visit to the veterinarian.
  • Store leftovers promptly. Not only do you want to avoid food-borne illness and an unhealthy temptation for your pets, but it's a shame to waste good food by letting it sit out and spoil.
  • If you have a lot of leftovers, freeze part of them right away. Warmed over Thanksgiving dinner tastes scrumptious the next day, but after several days of grazing on the same feast, people are ready to eat something different. Separate the leftovers into usable portions and label them if necessary. My mother used to fill aluminum TV-dinner trays with single servings of turkey and trimmings and then freeze them—perfect for feeding the kids months later on a parents' night out. I like to divide boneless, skinless meat into portions measured for future casserole dishes. (Turkey makes a great substitute for chicken in many recipes.)

A lot of money, time, and effort can go into preparing a Thanksgiving feast. Why not make the best return on investment possible?

What tips do you have for saving money at Thanksgiving? I would love to hear your comments.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money on Beverages

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Saving Money on Beverages: One of the keystones of a good weight-loss plan is to drink lots of water. When I first joined Weight Watchers, we had to track the number ...

Saving Money on Beverages

One of the keystones of a good weight-loss plan is to drink lots of water. When I first joined Weight Watchers, we had to track the number of glasses of water we drank (6-10 a day recommended).

Drinking water curbs your appetite, eases digestion, and helps flush out impurities from your system. It can dilute the effects of alcohol and mitigate the risk of a hangover. It's the best beverage to quench thirst.

Drinking mainly water can also be a great way to save money on beverages. In restaurants, the mark-up on carbonated and alcoholic beverages, and even tea, coffee, and juices, is huge. In the U.S., most servers will bring you a big glass of ice water at no charge and respect your desire not to order another beverage, which can save you many dollars on your tab. Even fast-food restaurants let you get away with choosing water, although some charge a nominal fee for the cup and ice.

But big business has capitalized on the healthy benefits of water, and has convinced us that we have to buy it in plastic bottles—at prices comparable to other bottled and canned beverages. Americans spend more money per gallon on their bottled water than they do for gasoline!

What happened to good old-fashioned tap water? In most municipalities, the water supply is closely monitored and perfectly safe to drink. In fact, more than half of all bottled water sold to us actually came from someone's tap, and the standards are not always as rigid as for the public water supply.

If you live in a community where the water is suspect or tastes bad, consider installing a filtration system. In the long run, you can probably still save money over the cost of buying bottled water on a regular basis.

And what about all those plastic bottles? Fortunately, there are plenty of programs for recycling them, yet many still end up in landfills. You can drink tap water out of reusable bottles, and help the environment as well as your wallet.

We wash and refill our plastic water bottles with tap water, then chill them in the refrigerator. Once the tap water is cold, it tastes fine to me. The bottles are portable for the car or office, and no one knows I'm really drinking tap water.

It is a good idea to keep a case or two of bottled water on hand in the event of an emergency, such as a water outage or contamination. And have some "clickers" to offer to guests who can't stomach the thought of drinking tap water.

What are your thoughts on bottled water vs. tap water? I would love to hear your comments.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Senior Discounts

Countdown to Financial Fitness: Senior Discounts: Getting old, although it beats the alternative, is no fun. But there is a consolation prize: senior discounts. My mother-in-law was alw...

Senior Discounts

Getting old, although it beats the alternative, is no fun. But there is a consolation prize: senior discounts.

My mother-in-law was always too embarrassed to ask for a senior discount at a movie theater or a museum; it was like admitting she was old. Not me. If I have to admit I'm old to save money, so be it.

Eligibility for senior discounts can vary. I used to assume you had to be 65 to be considered a senior. But ask. Sometimes it's 62, sometimes 60, maybe even 55. AARP lets you join at age 50.

I just paid my property tax, which offers exemptions for seniors. Most require you to be 65, and earning a low income. But this year, I noticed one that applied to ages 62-65, with no income limitations.

One great bargain for seniors age 62 and older is the lifetime Senior Pass, which for a one-time fee of $10, admits you (and everyone in your car, senior or not) to all of the U.S. national parks, forests, monuments, refuges, and recreation areas. The "Golden Geezer" pass, as my brother and I like to call it.

The Kroger in my neighborhood gives seniors age 60 and older a 5% discount on groceries every Wednesday. Not a good day of the week to shop there if you're in a hurry...

Many hotel chains and cruise lines extend senior discounts to guests over 55. Our local Taco Bells give customers over age 50 a free drink with a purchase.

So once you hit the half-century mark, start asking about senior discounts. You'll be surprised at what all you may qualify for.

Some establishments require identification in order to provide the discount. But others take your word for it. Or worse, offer the senior discount without being asked. When that happens, whether I'm really eligible or not, I feel like I'm entitled.

What tips do you have about senior discounts? I would love to hear your comments.