Shopping Around

I don’t know about you, but dealing with everything to do with healthcare freaks me out. I don’t like making appointments, I don’t like talking with doctors, I don’t like feeling sick, I don’t like going in when I am feeling healthy because the only news you will get is that you are not healthy after all. I really don’t like (and don’t understand) health insurance.

I get especially freaked out about doctors and money because sometimes doctors don’t tell you the test they are doing (or sometimes they do, but they don’t mention to you that it costs more than the GDP of some small countries) and then 6 months later you get an outrageous bill. I already feel nervous and intimidated (and often I feel like I am being rushed along) when I am in the office and I never remember/feel awkward asking about the costs of the procedures. I really don’t understand how healthcare costs work and I generally feel like I am getting scammed by the exact people with whom I am trusting my health and well being.

Needless to say, I am not ready to write a post about making good financial healthcare choices because it is an area of adulthood that I definitely don’t excel at.

It is something that I need to work on. But this week I took a baby step towards getting over that by starting with a doctor and a procedure that I am very comfortable with- a cleaning at the dentist.

Here is what I did:

I am overdue for a cleaning, but I don’t have a dentist in the area. I looked on Yelp to find a highly rated dentist in my area. When I called to make an appointment, I asked (big step for me!) how much a standard new patient cleaning costs. $250! Holy cow! I said thank you and hung up without making an appointment. Not too hard or too embarrassing.
I kept calling around and was quoted prices from $190 to $340 (how is this last dentist even sleeping at night?)
Finally I found a dentist who has 5 stars on yelp who charges $150 for a new patient cleaning. Perfect. I have an appointment next week.

Baby steps. Instead of showing up, having my teeth cleaned and then being shocked at the bill, I did a little research and saved myself a bit of anxiety. I also saved myself (up to) $190.

I think I’ll try this again in the future.

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Tips and Tricks to Slenderize Your Spending

So you’ve made a budget, you’ve tracked your  spending, you’ve made your goals…but something isn’t quite adding up. Your input is not matching your output, and if you keep this up you will go into unwanted debt (or maybe you are digging yourself out of debt).
How do you slenderize your spending without sitting in the dark alone on Saturday night?
Here are some tips and tricks  to help you cut back on some of the expenses in your budget.

  • Sign up for your grocery store’s discount card program online. I have access to internet coupons that load directly onto my grocery card, and it takes me about 5 minutes to prep for my shopping trip. My grocery card not only gives me coupons on things that you can’t get from normal newspaper coupons (discounts on produce, fresh bakery items, meat), but they also track my purchases so that I get special deals on the items I buy the most. I can upload my list of coupons to my phone so I can double check that I have the brand right while I am in the store. For 5 minutes worth of work, I save 20-30% each time I go grocery shopping. It’s slightly annoying to get it set up (but really only takes 10 minutes) and I have saved hundreds of dollars on groceries this year.
  • Does your work reimburse you for commute expenses? At my work, I have to submit a ton of paperwork to get reimbursed for public transportation costs when I go to meetings. It is super annoying to track $2 each time I go anywhere, but I do it quarterly and so far this year I have been reimbursed for $400 that I otherwise would have just eaten the cost for. That $400 is a mini vacation that I otherwise couldn’t afford- well worth the hour’s worth of paperwork I have to do every three months. That is like making $100 an hour…more than I make at my day job, that’s for sure!
  • Do you eat out a lot? Consider cooking at home more. EVERY PERSON in the entire world finds cooking skills to be an attractive quality. Short on equipment? Goodwill has a ton of cooking equipment that costs about 10% of what you would pay for it new. Grossed out by Goodwill? How is buying a dish at Goodwill and then washing it at home any different than eating off of a dish in a restaurant? Also, you are reusing an item that might otherwise end up in a landfill- awesome! Short on time? Look for a crock pot and a rice cooker at Goodwill. Bam! Dinner is served! If you are opposed to cooking in general or seem to set the fire alarm off every time you try, buying frozen prepared foods is still cheaper than buying fast food meals. With God as my witness, you’ll never go hungry again!
  • Buy bulk. Not a good option if you live in NYC, but if you have the storage space it is better to pay $.40 per roll of toilet paper in that ginormous pack than it is to pay $.80 per roll for the tiny pack. Plus you run out less frequently and that is always good (and you save on gas because you have fewer trips to the store). Keep in mind: don’t assume that bulk stores (Costco, BJ’s) are always cheaper because sometimes sales at normal stores lower the price further than a standard price at a bulk store.
    I hate buying toilet paper. It just feels like I am flushing my money away! (yuk yuk yuk)
  • Buy things in the off season. Christmas wrapping paper is cheap on Dec 26, not so cheap on Dec 24. Sweaters, coats, boots- cheaper in the spring! Bathing suits, shorts, sandals- buy ’em in the fall! (The selection is not as good, though.)
  • Buy things when they are on sale. My favorite razors are on sale this week for half the cost of what they usually are. I bought multiple packages, because I know I will use them and I would rather not run out and then have to pay a higher price.
  • STOP BUYING BOTTLED WATER. It costs $.08 per year to drink tap water for all your water needs. EIGHT CENTS. YOU CAN FIND THAT LAYING ON THE STREET. Fussy about water? Buy yourself a Brita, sign up for Amazon.com to automatically order you filter refills on a schedule, buy yourself a few reusable water bottles and stop wasting money and plastic.
  • When you buy online, check out retailmenot.com for online coupon codes that are all compiled in one place. Pretty handy.
  • I wish I had more information about how to find this one, but some places have grocery stores (usually they are ethnic stores or those weird off-brand groceries) that have massively cheap, fresh and amazing produce. I had one where I went to grad school where I could buy more produce than I could carry and I never spent more than $20. This is because these stores carry “seconds,” which are fruits and veggies that have been rejected by the major groceries but are still fresh and good to eat. So if a box of apples has one rotten apple, it is likely the whole box will end up at the seconds store for a fraction of the price. Awesome deal, but I don’t have any hard and fast rule about where to find the stores that carry seconds. I guess you just have to be adventurous in your grocery explorations!
  • Check out the perks that go along with things you already have. I get 10% off of train tickets (something I use quite a bit) and discounted movie tickets with my AAA membership. I get a certain percent off of purchases that I make with my credit card when I go through the credit card’s website to get to the store’s website rather than just going directly to the store’s website.
  • Evaluate your entertainment habits. Rent a lot of movies? Try checking out the selection at your library. My library has a ton of movies and tv shows on dvd. Do you watch your cable enough for it to be worth it, or should you buy a Netflix subscription instead? Do you have Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and Cable? How do you have time?! Prioritize your favorite media sources and ditch the rest.
  • Can you extend the amount of time you wait between recurring expenses? I love getting pedicures, but instead of getting them every month like I would like to, I get them every 6 weeks instead. After 3 weeks I do a quick refresher coat on my own, which doesn’t look as good but it definitely doesn’t look as bad as chipped polish. Now you know intimate details about my toes. You’re welcome.
  • Speaking of eating out a lot…do you pack your lunch? Make your own coffee? Why don’t you whip out your new crock pot and make a week’s worth of lunches at one fell swoop with minimal effort? Doing things yourself can save a significant amount of money in the long run. $7 for eating out every day is $1820 a year. Spent on sandwiches.
  • A few months after I started working in an office, my friend organized a clothing swap. A bunch of girls cleaned out their closets (added bonus!), all got together, poured some wine and swapped clothes. This was not only super fun, but professional clothes can be very expensive and this was a good way to get new clothes without having to spend a lot of money. We donated the remaining clothes to Dress for Success. 
  • I am terrible at handwashing clothes, so I will never recommend that you forgo washing machine use to save money. I will,  however, recommend forgoing dryer use! At the last apartment I lived in it cost $2 for one hour in the dryer, and my clothes were usually still damp! $4 to dry each load? Where the heck was I supposed to get all those quarters?! After some trial and error, I invested in the best drying rack of all time. You will notice that this drying rack is not inexpensive, but I paid for a study, large, adjustable drying rack and I expect it will last forever. At that apartment, it paid for itself in 10 loads of laundry. If you have a dryer in your home, using a drying rack will save you about $.75 per load. This doesn’t sound like much, but after a year of drying one load per week your fancy clothes rack will have paid for itself. Added perk- air drying makes your clothes last longer and it is better for the environment.
  • I will run another post on the wonders of CVS deals, but if you save your extrabucks and use their coupons, you can save a TON of money.
  • Check out my post about romancing your squeeze on a budget. Many of those ideas are transferrable to hanging out with friends, as well.

This list is called “Tips and Tricks” not “Do This Because Kate Said To.” If you don’t have space to dry your clothes- don’t worry about it! You can cut back in another area. You love Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime? That’s ok! Try making your own lunches for work instead of cancelling your Netflix subscription. The point is- make your budget work for you. Cutting back on expenses isn’t fun, but managing your expenses is a judgment call and you are the boss of your own finances, so only you can decide what to cut and what to leave.

Can’t Buy Me Love

Can’t buy me love- but you can buy your squeeze dinner and a movie. But dinner and a movie might just blow your entire month’s entertainment budget (have you seen movie prices these days?!!) and (hopefully) you want to see your squeeze more than once a month. What’s a Romeo or Juliette to do?
To date without breaking the budget, you have to get a little creative. The main thing that makes a successful date is a little planning- not spending. Here are some of my best suggestions for dating on the cheap- each city I have lived in has different resources so some of these may be appropriate for different areas of the country.
My boyfriend calls these Kate Dates (if you just vomited in your mouth, I apologize. We can’t help it).

  • Picnics are always a good idea! Go to your local park with a blanket (put down a shower curtain liner or a dry cleaning bag underneath if it’s wet). Make some sandwiches, grab some sunscreen and some books, buy yourselves some sparkly lemonade or those individual wine boxes that my family calls “juice boxes” (there are no children in my family, it’s totally cool.)
  • Go for a hike or a bike ride. Pack a picnic! Alone in nature with a view and the one you love…sigh.
  • Check out community events. There are probably historical tours, guest speakers, interesting/and or funny museums, outdoor movies (this is very common in the summer), festivals, free concerts, holiday parades. Everywhere I have ever lived (urban or rural- and I mean RURAL) had community events that were worth checking out.
  • Speaking of museums, check for free admissions days or night openings. I know of a few museums that had jazz nights or cocktail hours in the evenings- not necessarily cheaper, but you got more bang for your buck when you got to hear music and see art at the same time!
  • Gallery openings have free wine, cheese, interesting art and interesting people.
  • If you are a theater fanatic, see if you can volunteer to be an usher. Being an usher is more of a regular commitment, but you go early, help people to their seats (or take tickets) and get to watch a free show! This is a great way to see a large variety of performances.
  • Colleges and universities often have concerts, sports events and performances that are very affordable. No major league baseball in your area? Grab a bag of peanuts from the grocery and check out your college team. No college nearby? Check out your local high school teams!
  • Hopefully one of you has a reasonably clean kitchen. Why don’t you try learning a new recipe together? Have a frozen pizza on hand just in case.
  • Watching movies at home becomes a lot more romantic if you planned a gourmet popcorn and a special cocktail or drink for the night. My favorite popcorn recipe: put olive oil in a smallish pot with a lid. Add salt. Let it get hot. Add popcorn kernels to cover the bottom of the pot and add some fresh or dried rosemary. Cover and shake over high heat. Stop when the pot is full of popcorn (DON’T BURN IT!). There you go: incredibly impressive Olive Oil Rosemary Popcorn for about $.17 total.
  • Spending too much on movies at home? Check out the selection at your local library.
  • Make a string of dates around a theme, like “Finding the best donut in town.” Sounds like multiple trips and multiple donuts…yum!
  • Try to check out popular locations in the off season or play hooky on a weekday to avoid crowds. I once visited my friend in LA and instead of going to $90 Disney world, we went to $30 Knotts Berry Farm on a weekday in the off season. There was no one there and we went on every single ride (except for that one that drops you 5,000 feet because we are weenies). Sure beats paying more to stand in line all day!
  • My family is full of board game fanatics. You know what is a fun date? Board game night! You can make your famous Olive Oil Rosemary popcorn!
  • Take a day trip to a nearby city that you don’t know very well. Be tourists! If you want to stay overnight somewhere, I have had good luck with AirB&B as an alternative to hotels or hostels.
  • Actually, most people miss out on tourist attractions in their hometowns as well. Pretend you are moving in six months. What should you have done in the area that you just haven’t gotten around to doing? Go do it!
  • Going to or live in NYC? Check out todaysthedayi.com for some creative activities in New York that you probably wouldn’t find on your own (written by my beautiful and talented friend Lydia)
  • You know what is romantic? Stargazing. Especially if you have done your homework and know what’s what up there.
  • I am a sucker for sunset picnics at the beach.
  • Bowling is usually pretty affordable and also pretty fun. Ditto darts or pool. A little friendly competition never hurt anyone (and if it does, dump him/her immediately. Life is too short to date someone who can’t lose gracefully.)
  • Pay attention to little perks you might pick up from your everyday life. Your work might offer free sports tickets or tickets at a discount. This year I got a 4 pack of major league baseball tickets for free because I bought bras (that I was going to buy anyway, all I had to do was take a photo of the receipt) and I also got a 4 pack of Steve Winwood tickets (I know, you are totally jealous) because I subscribe to the Sunday paper. Both of these events required me to do about three clicks worth of work with my phone, I don’t get any spam mail because they are from two companies that I already buy from and the total value of the tickets is over $400. Awesome.
  • Groupon, Living Social and Restaurants.com all were invented so you can live like a manager on an entry-level salary.
  • What if you volunteer together? Pick a cause you really believe in or work that you enjoy. I have had a number of lovely days helping out with Habitat for Humanity and I picked up some home repair skills, as well!

I’m sure you get the idea. To have a successful date you

1. need to like the person you are with and

2. need to do a little planning.

Other than that, you can wine and dine your squeeze while not spending a lot of money, as long as you have spent a lot of thought! Have fun, you two!

I would love to hear about your own successful Kate Dates.

Doing Christmas Right This Year

We hosted a Christmas party for a few of my friends last night. It was fantastic, and one of the most successful parts of the night was the gift swap that we organized. This particular group of friends is very environmentally conscious, so I knew they would be into the theme, which was:

Zero Net Impact Gift Swap

The rules were traditional except for a twist: no buying anything new! Gifts could be 1. something you already had around the house but were ready to part with (a book you’ve read, exercise equipment you don’t actually use) 2. a re-gift (remembering to be sure the original giver wouldn’t be at the party!) or 3. something purchased from a consignment store/Goodwill. I reminded everyone that the people invited to the party are FRIENDS so crappy gifts aren’t appreciated (a risk you run with any gift swap). This might not work with all groups, but these pals are pretty good sports.

It was a big hit! No one had to spend any more money or do any extra errands (although if you were feeling desperate you could have gone to Goodwill I suppose), you got to clean out your closet or get rid of an unwanted gift that made you feel guilty. Someone else got use out of it, and at the very least….we all had a good laugh!

This is an alternative to consider if you are looking to cut back on the superfluous gifts on your to-buy list, if you’re in charge of your office holiday party or if you are a large family looking for ways to cut back on spending. Christmas consumerism can feel stifling, especially when you have to buy gifts without a specific person or need in mind. This is just a small way to reduce your impact while still celebrating and having fun with the people you love.

Merry Christmas!

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