How to Afford Your Social Life

 

Hi, readers!

I spent my leanest years in some pretty rockin cities, and I didn’t let a shortage of cash get in the way of my social life. There are lots of ways to have a really good time without spending too much money- you just have to be clever about it. Here are my best tips about having an amazing social life while not going broke.

Keeping food/alcohol bills low

  • look at the menu before you agree on the restaurant. If you can’t afford it, suggest an alternative
  • sign up for Open Table and then make reservations for the group. You can earn dining points which add up to a free dining check when you have enough points.
  • pay attention to food costs- soups, salads, appetizers, sandwiches, hamburgers and pizzas are usually cheaper and can be as filling as an entrée. I can’t even remember the last time I could finish a whole restaurant hamburger, so there is lunch for tomorrow, too!
  • don’t drink to excess- learn to nurse your drinks. Alternating alcoholic drinks with nonalcoholic drinks will cut your bill in half, and you will feel better the next day.
  • cocktails are (almost always) more expensive than wine, wine is usually pricier than beer, and craft/imported beer is usually more expensive than domestic beer. Think about how much you plan to drink, and order accordingly
  • look for happy hour/appetizer specials
  • try to get separate checks when in a large group- no one intends to short the bill, but even though you would like to believe your friends all know how to add….evidence has shown time and time again that they can’t. Avoid the stress when possible.
  • avoid the extras- skipping an appetizer, dessert and beverage can cut your bill in half
  • eat before you meet your friends and then order something small or just a drink
  • look for Groupons or livingsocial deals for the restaurant you are eating at

Instead of going out, host at home

  • potluck dinner parties are an inexpensive way to enjoy meals with friends
  • having a barbeque and asking everyone to bring their own item to grill is another alternative
  • learning to make fancy cocktails at home is much more affordable than ordering them at bars
  • soups, tacos, vegetarian dishes and egg-based brunch dishes are inexpensive ways to feed crowds
  • ask guests to BYOB for dinners or house parties to keep your alcohol costs low
  • host a movie night with frozen pizzas, beer and popcorn to save on theater costs
  • game nights are a great way to spend time with your friends without spending a lot of cash. I especially like winter game nights because I never feel like getting dressed up for cold weather and then navigating bars with a coat.
  • if your house isn’t available for hosting, consider hosting picnics in public parks (check local laws before bringing alcohol)

Check out what is happening on weeknights

  • There is usually great local music available with no cover when you go mid-week.
  • Sometimes clubs/bars will have midweek theme nights (ie, Tuesday Funk Night, Thursday Line Dancing) that you don’t have to pay a cover for. They can be more fun than weekends!
  • If you have clever friends, check out trivia nights. Trivia is fun, and the prize for winning is usually money off of your bill. Less popular trivia nights= more chances of winning for you!

Getting around

*Don’t ever compromise your safety or the safety of others to save money. DUIs are expensive, hospital bills are expensive, car repairs are expensive, increased insurance is expensive, getting your car from the impound lot is expensive…and there is a lot more at stake than just money. Spend the tiny amount of money for a cab, choose a trusted designated driver before you leave home, or don’t drink. That is what adults do.

  • being the designated driver will save you cab fare and a bar tab. Often bartenders won’t charge for nonalcoholic drinks if you tell them you are the designated driver (don’t forget to tip)
  • if you know you will need a cab, consider taking public transportation there and then a cab home
  • sharing a cab will keep costs low
  • if your city has Lyft or Uber  you can usually get less expensive rides than a typical cab, and they often offer promotions.

General tips

  • If you take charge of planning events, you will have more control over how much you (and the rest of the group) spends
  • Keep an eye out for free community events- concerts, outdoor movie screenings, festivals

The point of having a social life is to enjoy time with your friends, and it should never make you go broke. Follow these tips, stay safe, and have fun!

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How to open a Roth IRA

My good friend Kimberlyn and I were talking about personal finance at a party (what else? I am a really fun party guest). Kimberlyn told me that when she was in college she had a professor who told everyone they should open up a Roth IRA immediately. Kimberlyn’s amazing response?

I couldn’t even afford crackers, how was I supposed to save for retirement?

I hear ya, Kimberlyn. Not only is it pretty intimidating to open up a new type of money account for the first time, but you were told to do it when you had no ca$h money at all. I worked two jobs in college and I was still super broke- it’s not an easy time, financially, and it is hard to think about saving long term when you are buying store brand saltines.

But Kimberlyn’s professor was right, starting a Roth IRA as early as possible will pay off hugely in the long run (because of compound interest. Do I sound like a broken record yet?)

I opened my Roth IRA in 2010 when I was living in a double wide trailer making about $1200 a month. If I managed to do it, you can do it, too!

Lots of Roth IRAs have a minimum deposit of $1000-$3000 before you can even open an account. I have (to this day) never had $1000-$3000 sitting around, and you better believe that double wide lifestyle was never going to allow me to save up $1000 to get started. Luckily, I found an easier way to get started.

At the time, ING Direct had a program that allowed you to put in  $50 a month as long as you set up automatic deposits. I had $50 a month, I already loved automatic deposits- boom! Roth IRA was set up and my compound interest makes me happy every day! $50 a month= $600 a year, which is not a ton of money, but that cashola has grown quite a bit! I didn’t have time or the money to muck around with trading stocks and paying fees (“um, I would like to buy 1 share of stock X for $14. Oh the fee to trade is $6 per transaction? Huh.”), so I chose to put all of my money into the 2050 retirement fund and I stick to it. The 2050 retirement fund is a plan already set up by ING Direct that invests my money more aggressively (aka, takes more risks) now, because I am young. When I get closer to retirement (in 2050…the year I will be 65) the money will be moved over to more conservative investments. I don’t have to do anything at all!

 

The bad news: ING Direct is now Capital One. And they don’t offer the awesome $50/month sign up deal anymore…so you guys can’t copy what I did exactly.

The good news: I will still tell you how to open a Roth IRA without needing $1000-$3000 in your piggy bank.

TD Ameritrade has no minimum and no annual fees (I HATE fees!) and they have a number of funds that you can trade around for free, if you are into that sort of thing. You can still set up automatic $50 (or $5…whatever you can afford) deposits, so it is kind of like you can do exactly what I did four years later!

It is worth it to give it a whirl. Start with an amount you won’t miss. I like to think of the money I invest as “night out equivalents.” If I went out for dinner and to a movie twice a month, that would cost me (more than) $50. I think it is snugglier (and cheaper) to make homemade (or frozen) pizza, buy a 6 pack, and rent a Redbox to watch with friends on the couch twice a month. Look at that! I saved for retirement!

Remember that unlike savings account it is not risk-free. But, you will have access to the original capital you put in at any time without penalty, so it’s like a secret emergency savings account. However, you will not see your money benefit from compound interest if you don’t take risks with it, and it is nearly impossible for the average Joe to retire if he has not invested his ca$h.

There you go! How to open a Roth IRA (relatively) painlessly. It will pay off tenfold when you are ready to retire, so it is worth it to get started now!

 

What to do when you win the lottery

…or get your tax refund.

Suddenly you have a ton of money! Yeah! But what do you do with it? You are my wise and clever reader, so you know it is not smart financial planning to blow it all on a sports car. But this new money isn’t in your budget, so how do you fit it into your spending and your goals?

First, you celebrate! It’s exciting, you have a little spare cash! Go buy that jacket you have been dying for. Try that new restaurant. Replace your ratty old gym clothes with something that makes you excited to exercise. Make the celebration reasonable- it should be about 10-20% of your new ca$h money. Spending $500 on a new tv when you got a $1000 tax refund might be going overboard, but maybe getting HBO might be a nice splurge.

Next- look at your debts and your savings goals.

  • Can you pay off a credit card with this cash? Won’t that feel awesome, to not pay interest anymore?
  • Is it enough to make yourself an emergency fund? Then you won’t have to worry about unexpected expenses, and the amount you were saving already towards your emergency fund can go to feed the general pot.
  • Can you invest it in your 401k or your Roth IRA? Earn some crazy compound interest on this free money to make even more free money?!!
  • Should you use it to pay off some student loan debt?

If I were you, I would do a mix of the things above with my newfound cash- but you have to be wise about it (consider your interest rates, my friend). If you can pay all of your debt off- do it! But paying just some of your debt off all in one big chunk may not actually be the best choice.

What if the cash you just received is big for you, but it is just a fraction of your overall debt?

Suppose you are the newly graduated Dr. John Doe. Medical school sure was fun, but the average cost of med school is $170,000. Your monthly payments are almost $2,000. Yikes.

But wait! An unknown- yet extremely wealthy- elderly relative just died peacefully in his sleep. He was so proud of his great-great-nephew the doctor that he left Dr. Doe $20,000.

If Dr. Doe immediately puts that $20,000 into the balance of his student loans, he will now owe $150,000. His monthly payments will be a little over $1,700. Is that much better for Dr. Doe, who may be struggling to make his rent while working those crazy shifts as a resident at his new hospital?

Depending on Dr. Doe’s income, it might be better to save the $20,000 and to use it to make the monthly payments. He can make 10 months worth of payments with the $20,000. The total interest he will pay will be slightly more than if he had paid a lump sum off at once- but not by much (an $8,000 difference). I suspect that early in his career, Dr. Doe would value 10 months of being able to pay his bills worry free more than he will value $8,000 after he is an established doctor.

 

Moral of the story: when you suddenly come into some money, think about your overall financial picture. Paying off part of your debts all at once might not make sense if you are struggling to make monthly payments- but if it lowers them enough to ease some of the burden, then go for it! Look at the parts of your budget that are difficult for you (maybe you just can’t quite squeeze enough cash into your emergency fund) and use the newfound money to help with those areas that are challenging.

Congrats on that lottery win, by the way!

Car shopping

I don’t know anything about cars except that you shouldn’t put diesel into a car that doesn’t take diesel and also something about sugar in a gas tank will wreck the car?

Understanding cars is a monster subject. I don’t even own a car, so this is the first installment of a few guest posts by Darius about our most loved appliance.

You are ready to buy a car, you say?!  You have followed Kate’s budgeting advice and you want to hit the road.  Great!!  What do you think the first step is?!  Color?  Brand?  NO!  The first step should be listing the criteria you want your new car to meet.  Only one of those criteria should be price.  Here is a sample list:- How many people do you want to carry?  Seems simple but it is a valid question. Why buy a four door pickup that can seat six when it’s just you?! (a tip for the boys…size really doesn’t matter). Do you and your friends take turns being sober drivers? You might want more seats for more safety.  For the ‘about to have kids’ readers, the smaller the person, the more junk they need. ‘Lower lift height’ is a parent’s new best friend.  Plan accordingly.
– How much cargo do you need to carry/tow? Cargo capacity is not just the weight a vehicle can haul.  An SUV with a racy and slick curved rear roofline looks nice but you can’t fit nearly as much into the back as you can with an SUV that has a more squared off look.  It’s just geometry (<—this is the moment your math teacher told you about). *Note from Kate: my mom has a Honda Fit and one time we fit a shelf, two dressers, a nightstand, a mirror and two people in there without even breaking a sweat! That car is a miracle clown car!*
– What kind of mileage do you want?  Automakers want you to focus on the highway mileage of their cars.  Unless you are commuting 50 miles over a traffic-free highway per day, you want to disregard this number. The EPA has implemented it’s ‘combined’ fuel economy rating and it is the BIG number on the car sticker.  This is calculated using a mix of driving 55% in the city and 45% on the highway and should give you a better idea of what mileage the average user can expect (and should help you estimate gas costs)
– Do you live in an area that requires four or all wheel drive?  Four wheel drive (in most cases) weighs more and lowers fuel economy.  It also costs more (except on Subarus) and requires that much more maintenance.  Does it make the car safer to drive?! On snow, ice, hurricane level rains, mud, and loose dirt: yes. Otherwise…no. If you don’t live in an area where you need the extra safety, save yourself some cash and stick with two wheel drive.
– How much do you want to spend? There are a few options to get your hands on a car. You can:
  • Pay cash. This means no interest and therefore will save you money in the long run. Cash price=sticker price.
  • Finance. Remember this simple rule…on average for every $1000 you finance (fees and interest rates included) with a bank, it will cost you $16.67 per month in payments for a five year car note (60 months) (depending on your loan rates).  $17,000 financed = ~$283 per month. The total amount would be lower if you paid cash up front.
  • Lease. Leasing means that you can pay less to get a nicer car (overall), and you don’t have worry about maintenance because the car is under warrantee. However, this is not a good financial option because you end up with no physical asset at the end of your lease- you have been making monthly payments and when your lease is up, you have no car. For most twentysomething readers, this is a bad financial decision.
  • If you have bad credit, do NOT sign up for a high interest loan. Horror story from the front page of the LA Times here. (Summary: Ms. Lee paid $3000 down and signed a loan with 20% interest for a $7500 car. Over the next year and a half, she paid $6,966 more on the loan ($9966 total for a $7500 car). According to the terms of her loan, she still owed $11,610. When she fell behind in the payments her car was repossessed and she was left with nothing (even though she had already paid more than what the car was worth. This is not an unusual story. If you have $3000, buy a less nice car with cash and then save up for a nicer car.)
  • Don’t forget to budget in your insurance costs.
– Do you live in an urban or rural area?  Buying a 4X4 Heavy Duty pickup when you live in a city will mean that you will be very frustrated driving to (and parking!) any event in the city.  Parking spaces are tight and parking garages have an average clearance of 6′ 6″.  Consider where you live…trust me…you will do your future self a lot of favors.
Next time:  Resources for Car Knowledge.

New Year’s Resolution Reminder!

Today seems like a great day to automate your bill payments!

This task will take approximately 30 minutes.

Less time than an episode of New Girl. You can even do it while you watch an episode of New Girl.

It will save you massive amounts of time, stress, stamps, late fees- and it may help improve your credit score.

Pay your set expenses through your bank, pay your variable expenses (electric bill, water bill…) through your utility company website.

While you’re at it, automate a transfer into your savings account so you can start saving up for your emergency fund and for that vacation to Europe (you can save for both at the same time, it’s totally cool).

You are officially 1/4 of the way through revolutionizing your budget! Good job you responsible adult, you!

Eating on a Budget: The No Ramen Plan

I really like to eat.

I watch the Food Network, I buy cookbooks for the photos, I subscribe to cooking magazines, my Zagat guide is full of notes from new restaurants I have tried.

I like cooking, I like being cooked for, I like eating out, I like hearing about recipes and I really like taste testing.

This habit can become expensive.

I try not to eat ramen…but there have been times in my life when I could hardly even afford that. What was a poor kid with a developed palate to do?

I had to learn to cook at home- and not only to learn to cook at home, but to learn to cook meals that a. I love and b. don’t break my supermarket budget (and optional c. impress my dinner guests. Having dinner at home saves on restaurant bills!). As I have mentioned before, knowing how to cook is a trait that everyone finds sexy. So cooking at home will not only decrease the cost of food, but it will up your sex appeal. (Is the oven making it hot in here or is that just you? Oh baby.)

Over time, I am going to share with you some of my most delicious budget friendly recipes. However, I am not an excellent recipe writer. My directions usually say things like “Bake a sweet potato at about 350. Or 400. 425 is fine too. It should take about 40 minutes. Or maybe an hour. Depends on the size of the potato. If you squeeze it and it feels like you want to eat it, then it is done.” To spare you from my massively unhelpful recipe writing, I decided to borrow recipes from the internet that are similar to my own favorite bargain recipes. (Did you know? The internet is full of recipes. You never need a cookbook). Stay tuned, but until then…

Here are some general tips that will help you slenderize your grocery budget:

  • Beans are given a bad rap. Sometimes they stink (hehe literally…get it?). But sometimes beans are creamy, or garlicky, or spicy, or smoky. Beans are high in fiber and are an excellent source of protein. When I went to Barcelona I kept ordering this local dish of white beans and sausage. I could care less about the sausage, but the beans were SO GOOD. I passed up all sorts of “fancy food” in favor of those beans. If anyone knows how to recreate them, I want the recipe!
  • Eggs! What a fantastic, versatile, filling, cheap food. You can eat eggs at every meal. They are so comforting and delicious. They can be a convenience food (hard boiled) or a gourmet food (poached in white wine, fancy!), food for a crowd (quiche) or comfort food (scrambled with buttered toast). Excellent invention, chickens! A dozen eggs costs less than a cup of coffee and it can feed you a number of meals for a week (if you are me).
  • Think about buying and using meat as a seasoning rather than as the main entree. Meat is usually the most expensive item that people buy, but you can use it for flavor and get your protein elsewhere to stretch your budget without going totally veggie. For example- I make this absolutely delicious meal* with butternut squash, white beans, kale, polenta and bacon. The whole dish uses three strips of bacon and the flavor is fantastic. Bacon, sausage and ham all have a strong flavor punch, especially in soup.
  • Think carefully when buying in bulk. Do you cook for one? What are you going to do with 10 lbs of bananas that were on super sale at Costco? Buying bulk for things that don’t spoil quickly (onions, potatos, squash, peanut butter) = good. Making 12 loaves of banana bread because you couldn’t eat those bananas in time = defeats the purpose of saving by buying bulk. But wait! Do you have a friend or roommate who is also on a food budget? Buying in bulk and then splitting the haul is an excellent solution- especially if only one of you has a bulk store membership.
  • Bargain produce to consider eating more of: bananas, cabbage (seriously! great on tacos, in stir fry, cole slaw, stuffed cabbage, cabbage soup), potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash and carrots. Frozen produce also can be a bargain. Don’t forget to buy seasonal produce to get the best deals (and the best quality produce!).
  • Try growing your own herbs. Dried herbs are expensive (and not as tasty), but fresh herbs will cost you your entire paycheck. Each herb plant should be $3-$4 at a garden store and will keep producing (just don’t kill it, obviously). I also would recommend growing your own vegetables, but as a hobbyist veggie gardener myself I know that this hobby sometimes costs more than I get out of it in produce so don’t start a veggie garden expecting to save money on your first try.
  • Make your own chicken, turkey or veggie stock. This is easy to do- after you roast a chicken (significantly easier than you think it will be, I promise!), save the bones and boil them for a few hours with some salt and vegetables like onion, carrots and celery. My best no-waste trick is to save the little bits of veggies that you won’t eat (like the ends of carrots or onions, or celery leaves), put them in the freezer, and when you are ready to make stock use those instead of putting in whole good vegetables.
  • You can avoid buying green onions if you do this. I have been doing it for years and it is yummy and also lovely decoration!
  • Cheese is the only food you can safely just slice the mold right off of and keep eating. (Is that gross? My dad told me that trick and I haven’t gotten sick yet. Blue cheese is half mold anyway so it must be ok.)
  • Freeze fruit that has a weird texture or produce that is almost spoiled that you won’t eat in time. Make some smoothies, put the veggies into soup, bake the fruit into oatmeal or rice pudding, or make a pie. I just made an amazing pot of applesauce with a few disgustingly mealy apples.
  • Generally, not wasting food will save you money. But cooking for one without being wasteful is a challenge. Sometimes I am better at this than other times. Making an effort to rotate my fridge, freezing leftovers that I can’t stand to look at anymore, and doing some meal planning can all help reduce your waste (and can give me some ready-to-eat lunches for later on, which is another money saving tip!)
  • Depending on your milk consumption, consider buying more expensive organic milk- it tends to have an expiration date a few weeks after non-organic milk (my dairy industry friend says that it has to do with freshness and shipping). When I buy normal milk I usually have to toss half of it, when I buy organic I am more likely to finish it before it expires. It costs more up front but it saves me money over time.
  • Shop the sales. If broccoli is on sale this week and cauliflower is not…this might be a broccoli week, my friend.
  • Chicken with bones in and skin on is cheaper than boneless skinless. It takes about 5 minutes of grossness to peel the skin off of chicken and it saves a lot of money. I personally think bone in chicken is always tastier because it makes the meat more tender (and you can save the bones to make stock, you clever bean!)
  • Having a party? Embarassed about not buying nicer wine and/or your sad liquor selection? Try making a crowd-pleasing sangria with some Two Buck Chuck (yum yum yum yum). Or, for wintertime dranks- mulled wine!
  • Speaking of hosting- throwing a party can be quite expensive. Try going potluck (one of my best themes was a “Dip-off” party where everyone brought their favorite dip) or go for some crowd-pleasing cheap eats, but put some thought into them. I have a killer 6-bean veggie chili recipe that I serve with a baked potato bar- including bacon, cheddar, sour cream, scallions, caramelized onions etc. etc. The topping options (which can top either the potatoes or the chili) makes the whole meal seem a little fancier, and feeding a crowd on beans and potatoes won’t break the bank, will leave vegetarians happy, and will fill up my guests.
  • Soup is (almost, unless you are making lobster bisque) always a bargain meal that is lovely in the wintertime. When I visited Paris I discovered the reason why French women don’t get fat- who can afford the food?! My hostess and I made a few pots of potato leek soup (melt butter, boil potatoes and leeks with some water and then add salt and pepper and mash) and we felt tres Parisian eating leek and potato soup with baguettes and cheese and a bottle of wine, but I didn’t spend all my euros on it. And it was SO GOOD.
  • Buy meat in bulk and freeze it in useable portions.
  • Lots of inexpensive foods (beans, eggs, cabbage, sweet potato) tastes better as a taco. You know what else is inexpensive? Tortillas. Yum.
  • As I have already mentioned, I have a CVS problem. While CVS is not exactly a full-service grocery, they do have some great sales on the food they do have (and most of their food does not spoil). This week I am planning to buy 8 containers of mixed nuts (usually $6.29 each) for $4 each. When you buy $30 worth, you get $10 extra bucks back. So I will get 8 containers of mixed nuts for a net of $22 ($2.75 each) instead of spending $50 for the same quantity of food. No coupons even needed! Eight containers may seem excessive but my boyfriend eats them almost every morning for breakfast, so I know we will use them quickly.
  • If you don’t already, buy generic. Usually generic brands are made by the same manufacturer as name brand so you are getting the exact same product. I haven’t found much difference between the two except with Cheerios, and I am going on the record to say I think generic brand Cheerios are weirdly dusty and have the wrong texture.

Tips I have already mentioned:

  • Sign up for your grocery rewards program and then check to see if you can pre-load electronic coupons onto your card online. Almost no effort, saves hundreds of dollars. (My grocery offers $5 off of $20 purchases all the time. That is basically a free $5 and all I have to do is log into one website).
  • Try ethnic groceries for produce. Be adventurous and look for stores that sell “seconds” (produce that has been rejected from the chain groceries but is still in great shape.
  • If you need more kitchen supplies, try Goodwill. They always have huge selections for bargain prices.

*See what I mean about recipes? This is the recipe I started with but I used less bacon, switched butternut squash for pumpkin, added some chopped kale and then served it over polenta. Sorry. Even though I can’t write up a better recipe than that I encourage you try making this anyway!

My Version of Extreme Couponing

By writing this post I am revealing a somewhat embarrassing part of my budget strategy. While I admittedly love the show Extreme Couponing, I also think those people are a little crazy and I don’t think that extreme couponers offer much wisdom to ordinary people who don’t have access to 200 newspapers and 40 hours a week.

However.

CVS + coupons= AHmazing savings.

And the thing is, it is hardly any effort! I swear.

The first thing you must do to start your CVS savings spree is to subscribe to the Sunday paper. I would do this even if CVS didn’t exist because I like to see what Dagwood is up to while drinking my Sunday morning coffee, but Sunday paper delivery is usually less than $2 per week so even if you don’t read it, it’s not that expensive.

Next you need to sign up for a CVS card. Sign up for email too (even if you are normally opposed to sharing your email). Just do it.

Once you have your CVS card and newspaper in hand (plus coffee and a donut, because it’s Sunday)- look at the CVS circular. There will be a list of sales.

  • Some of the sales will be listed like a normal store- say, “2/$5”. Easy enough.
  • Some of the sales will have a little picture of a black scissors in the corner. This means that there is a coupon IN THE VERY PAPER YOU ARE READING for that product. Also very easy.
  • Some of the sales will give you something called “Extrabucks.” Extrabucks are basically free money to use at CVS on future purchases. You can find them at the end of your receipt after you have finished your purchase. They do expire, so make sure you use them. I keep them in my wallet just like normal cash (I live closer to a CVS than a grocery so it is good to have them when I need to pop in for more handsoap).
  • Sometimes the items on sale will have coupons in the paper but there won’t be a little black scissors symbol, so keep your eyes peeled when you are looking for the coupons that you already know are in there.
  • Almost every week, CVS has a deal on something that is completely free. This week it was a packet of M&Ms. Sometimes it is a roll of paper towels or a tube of toothpaste. CVS wants to get you in the door, and you can get free stuff!
  • Usually the items that go on sale are on sale in phases- so if you see that contact solution is on sale one week, buy it then! If you wait you probably won’t get as good of a deal. This is part of why all of those crazy couponers are kind of hoarders as well- but you are my clever reader and I know that you can be reasonable and realize that you don’t ever need 150 deodorants.

From just checking out the one flyer in your Sunday paper, you can plan a pretty good trip to CVS. But there are a few more tricks that can help you save even more!

  • That crazy price scanner machine at the front of the store is actually an amazing coupon dispenser. Swipe your CVS card at the scanner (before you start shopping!) Good. Now swipe it again. Keep swiping until the machine is out of coupons. That is a little trick from me to you!
  • When a CVS coupon says, say “Save $3 when you spend $12 on hair products,” the $12 is the pre-coupon amount. So say you have 3 coupons for $1 off of a shampoo that is normally $4. You can buy 3 shampoos, apply the $3 off coupon, and then apply the 3 $1 coupons. You pay $6 for $12 worth of shampoo. Totally legit.
  • Those emails that you signed up for will send you awesome coupons in your email. Like $10 off when you spend $30. Or 25% off of your purchase.
  • Sign up for the CVS beauty club (men can do this too). This offer gives you $5 in extrabucks when you spend $50 on applicable “beauty” products- which not only includes makeup but also includes shampoo and lotions. Basically 10% off of certain purchases all the time.
  • If you get really into CVS coupons you can use iheartcvs.com to plan your trips. I find it a little tricky to use, but lots of people love it.

Here is an example of what you can save at CVS with a minimal amount of work (this week, so you can still get these deals!)

-Cheerios are on sale 2/$6, but when you buy 2 your get $2 in extrabucks back. The newspaper had a buy 2 get $1 off coupon, so I paid $1.50 per box of Cheerios. They usually cost $4.50 per box. Yum.

-Men’s Gillette razors are buy 2 get $3 extrabucks. The newspaper had a coupon for buy 2 get 1 free. Each 4-pack of razors was $8.50. I spent $14 and I got $26 worth of razors.

-Women’s Bic razors are on sale for $6.99 and when you buy one pack you get $2 extrabucks. The paper had a buy one get one free coupon, so I spent $4.99 for $14 worth of razors (even better!)

You get the idea. Today I spent $45, got $13 in extrabucks back, and got $112 worth of products. I didn’t have to go dumpster diving for coupons, I didn’t spend 60 hours prepping for my trip, and I only bought things that I need or that I will need in the next few months (not deodorants I won’t use until 2050). Sometimes when there are excellent deals on things I won’t need or don’t use (free diapers anyone?) I donate them to charity, but I don’t let it take over my life or my closet space.

Mainly, I just think of it as a game. If it ever becomes unfun or too much work, I won’t do it anymore. But until then, I’ll keep on enjoying my free M&Ms.

It’s Textbook Buying Time!

It has come to my attention that it is that time of year again…textbook buying time.

Now for those of you who are out of school- you are lucky. You never have to go through the trauma and massive money-suck that is buying textbooks.

Buying textbooks is stressful and risky. This is because:

  • You probably aren’t certain of which classes you are taking. If you buy your books too early, you might drop the class and be stuck with the book. Too late, and you are behind in your readings!
  •  Some professors (if you are a professor and you do this, STOP IT) don’t really assign reading for their classes. They make you buy a book and then they don’t ever once reference the reading in class and you suspect they never actually read it themselves. Some professors make you buy whole books and then only assign a chapter or two. Alternatively, some professors assign “optional” reading books that aren’t actually useful at all (I’m looking at you, Greek Mythology Book Assigned to my Contemporary Art History Class). This is a massively frustrating waste of time and money.
  • You will always lose money on your textbooks. There is no textbook website in the world that is not making a huge profit off of reselling your textbooks. I’m sorry.
  • The university bookstore is the most expensive place to buy your textbooks. It is also temptingly convenient.
  • Each textbook can cost the same amount as your grocery budget for a month. Your student years are the time in your life that you are the poorest (hopefully things will only get better from here). This is a stinky fact of studenthood.
  • Buy or rent? Download the e-book? There are a lot of decisions to make in a short amount of time.

Lucky for you, I have compiled a list of tricks to help you avoid spending all your beer money on books.

  1.  Try to buy your books off of a friend (or stranger, whatever) who took the class before you.
  2. If your roommate is in the same class as you, see if you can share a textbook, too. This may or may not work, depending on your study schedule, how useful the book is, how early you both like to get your work done and how much you like your roommate. If you both have the same exam on the same day and you need the book to make sure you are doing the examples right- don’t share a book (this applies to lots of economics, business, math and science courses). If the book is more of a reference and/or providing background information- think about it (might work for an English, history, art history, music or poly sci).
  3. Obviously, try to buy used books over new. This is an easy one.
  4. Buy your books online. This can be a double edged sword because you might end up waiting a long time for your books to come in (check where they are shipping from!) which can be stressful. However, you will probably save a lot of money buying online instead of at a bookstore. Search by ISBN to make sure you have the right edition (although this often doesn’t really matter), and buy early (especially if you know you have to take the class and there is no chance of dropping it). Some websites I have found useful for used textbooks include: textbookfinder.com, which compiles all of the deals from all of the websites. Also good are: half.combetterworldbooks.comabebooks.com.
  5. If you have a question about the book- like if it comes with a CD and the used version is half the cost but doesn’t have the CD- email your professor to see how necessary the supplemental materials are before spending the money. You will be mad if you pay for the CD and it sits in the sleeve all semester.
  6. Sell your old textbooks back. You can either do this at the bookstore (usually during finals week) or online. I haven’t really noticed much of a price difference between selling online and selling at school, but sometimes the university bookstore won’t buy back a certain book because the class isn’t being offered again, and then you can sell the books online. You have to pay a small fee for shipping (and also you have to buy mailing envelopes). I have used half.com and amazon.com to resell textbooks.
  7. If you are trying to decide whether to rent or buy, use this rule of thumb: if the rental price is 30% of the used price of the book, rent! You probably wouldn’t make more than that reselling your book anyway, and this way you won’t get stuck with the book if there are no buyers when you try to resell.
  8. If you are in a small program where everyone more or less takes the same classes, see if you can set up your own online marketplace. My small grad program (150 students) set up a googledoc where 2nd years posted the books they had available, their contact emails and the prices they wanted for the books, and then new 1st years could email with offers. The spreadsheet was updated when the books were sold.
  9.  ebooks- as a happy new kindle owner, I am beginning to love ebooks. However, I am not sold on e-textbooks (especially math and science books) because you often need to flip around in the book. Also, active reading (highlighting, taking notes in the margins) has been shown to increase comprehension. Use your best judgment on this one.
  10. Don’t forget your library! Your school library will probably have a copy of the book on reserve, and you can check it out for a few hours at a time (meaning, you can’t go too far with it. Shucks). This is great if you only need the book occasionally (check the syllabus) or if you suspect your professor is one of those inconsiderates mentioned above. Also, (I would not be posting this to a public blog if I was still in school because this is my sneaky trick) if you are in a small class, there is often one copy of the textbook in the stacks at the library. Snag it FIRST THING in the semester and you can usually check it out for the whole semester. Hopefully no one else will request it- but if they do, you usually have two weeks to return it which means you can order it online if you really need it. This is great if you aren’t sure about staying in the class.
  11. This may just be a my-college-specific thing, but my senior year of college I won a bookstore-sponsored scholarship. I got $500 worth of free books from the university bookstore for the year, which more than covered everything I needed (including notebooks!) Keep your eyes peeled for little pockets of scholarship money. $500 may not seem like a lot when applied to tuition, but not having to worry about paying for textbooks felt great!
  12. Remember that one day you will never have to buy textbooks EVER again!

Good luck this semester!

Quick update for 1/10/14: Amazon is having an 80% off sale on educational Kindle books.

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution!

The number two resolution for 2014 is to make a budget (right behind weight loss, which I have no advice about other than: stop eating so much ice cream for breakfast).

Hopefully you have already been reading my brilliant blog and are taking all of my amazing advice immediately. Right? Right?!?

If, instead, you have just been reading my brilliant blog and then intending to take my amazing advice at a later date….that’s ok too. But things won’t improve unless you take action, so let’s use New Year’s as an excuse for some action! Yeah! Plus isn’t improving the state of your bank account more appealing than getting up at 5 am in the icy cold tomorrow to run 5 miles? (why the heck do people do that??!)

Here is your New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution Plan:

1. Set up at least two bank accounts: one for checking and (at least) one for saving. Make sure you aren’t paying any extra fees (because that is NOT a good way to start the New Year). Might I recommend Charles Schwab for checking and Ally or Capital One 360 for savings? Fill out the forms and call the excellent customer service numbers if you need help. This one takes a few days for the paperwork to go through, but it is worth it!

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: January 15. Yeah! Pour yourself a hot toddy, this was the most annoying part of your whole resolution!

2. Set up automatic bill pay for all of your bills. Never pay late fees again! Pat yourself on the back for being a financial whiz kid!

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: January 31.

3. Start tracking your spending. This one is ongoing, but thanks to Mint (or whichever tracking software you use) it should be painless (and if you are like me you will think it is fun to play with the graphs).

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: set up a budget tracking system by February 15.

4. Make your best guess at a budget (based on your spending) and do your best to follow it. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right at first, it is a marathon, not a sprint!

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: make a budget by March 15 (beware the Ides of March!)

5. Start paying off your credit card balance and use automatic bill pay to pay off more than the minimum each month. This will feel awesome! Make a plan and stick to it, and you can beat the system!

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: April 1.

6. Start an emergency fund. Again- marathon, not a sprint. You won’t suddenly wake up with a rainy day fund of savings- this may take a year or two to accomplish. When you start it, have money automatically transfer into your savings and then poof! You have completed step 6 of your Budget Revolution Resolution!

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: April 15 (tax day, boo!)

7. Start investing to earn some sexy compound interest! More information coming soon on where you actually are putting your money when you invest it.

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: May 15.

8. Review your budget and tweak it. In the red? Try slenderizing your spending (stopping eating ice cream for breakfast works here too, your ice cream bill will go down).

New Year’s Budget Revolution Resolution deadline: June 1.

What is this? Just halfway through the year and you are already done with your New Year’s Resolution?!?! You didn’t even have to get up at 5 am in the icy cold to go running? YOU ARE AMAZING!

Obviously some of these items will need updating or monitoring as your finances change in the future, but the hardest part is getting a system set up. Six months of baby steps to set up a system that will lead you on the path to long-term financial confidence- that is an awesome resolution!

Here’s to a financially savvy 2014!

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