How to Get Free Zagat Guides

Zagat Guides are a convenient way to locate a new restaurant, especially if you will be dining in an unfamiliar part of town or unfamiliar city. They retail for anywhere from $5.95 to $25.95 depending on the city and the edition.

However, you can get them for free if you help write them! The guides are a composite of real diners' opinions. If you go to Zagat's website, you can register and rank any restaurant you've eaten at in any city. Then, when the new edition is published (this occurs yearly), you'll get a free copy of that guide in the mail!

I recommend ranking restaurants for your city, the America's Top Restaurants book (where you can again rate restaurants from your city), and any cities you visit frequently. This year, I'll be getting three guides. I'm especially excited about America's Top Restaurants because it will save me a lot of time wading through Citysearch when I'm traveling.

Saving Money on Travel-Sized Toiletries

With a little advance planning, you can avoid ever having to purchase overpriced travel-sized items. Here's how I do it.

Companies are constantly giving away free samples of new products. I request free samples of everything I think I might use. It usually takes 6-8 weeks to receive the freebies, but I usually have a constant stream of them coming in, which means that I always have enough shampoo, conditioner, and lotion for traveling.

Usually, these items come in small flat plastic packages, not bottles. I didn't have any trouble getting through airport security with these in my carryon (just put them in your quart ziplock bag with your other toiletries).

Another thing I do is use old film canisters to store items like lotion and face cream. I haven't tried taking these through security in a carryon, though. With film canisters becoming rarer these days, your best source may be to simply ask for a few from the photo department the next time you're at the drugstore. The canisters are airtight and leakproof, and hold a surprising amount of product.

Also, I often take hotel shampoos and conditioners with me when I stay at hotels. I hate the stinky shampoo they provide, but I dump it out and save the bottles to fill with my own products. Whenever I acquire a travel-sized bottle, I tend to hold on to it and refill it as needed.

When Should You Replace Your Toothbrush?

When I was growing up, I learned that the American Dental Association recommended replacing your toothbrush every three months. I don't think I ever religiously adhered to this guideline, but I do think I unnecessarily retired quite a few toothbrushes because of it. I always thought it was odd that my dentist only gave me one toothbrush every 6 months, though. If changing your toothbrush was so important, why didn't he give me two? I'm sure toothbrushes are very cheap, if not free, for dentists.

On the other end of the spectrum are those people (and you've seen their toothbrushes) who seem to use their toothbrushes for ten years. The bristles are splayed out everywhere like an automatic car wash brush. At this point, the toothbrush has lost its shape and probably most of its effectiveness.

I have been using the same toothbrush for the last year, and it looks very much the same as it did when I started using it and still works just fine. I'm inclined to think that you don't really need to replace your toothbrush on any specific schedule--that's just the industry line to get us to buy more. As long as your toothbrush still looks similar to how it looked when you bought it, I say keep using it. Just make sure you clean it once in a while, for cosmetic reasons, and if you're worried about germs, dunk it in some boiling water every few months. And when you're finally ready to retire a toothbrush, save it to clean difficult parts of the shower. I find toothbrushes to be better than larger brushes for cleaning grout and shower window ledges.

When the Savings Aren't Worth It, Part 2: Getting Glasses Made by Costco

Though I primarily wear contacts, I recently decided to get new glasses. I'd been wearing the same pair for four years and, while they are a fairly classic style, I felt unattractive wearing them. I also didn't think the prescription was good enough for me to wear them while driving at night if need be, and I was having trouble reading in them.

Finding glasses frames that look good is always a painful ordeal. I went to Costco first for their low prices and didn't find anything after trying on about 75 frames. Then I went to a glasses store and found that all their frames were about twice as expensive and still none of them looked right. I returned to Costco with the decision to replace the lenses in my existing frames, but they charge you $15 to use your existing frames, and, more importantly, it was going to be two weeks until my glasses came back. With my vision, there was no way I was going for two weeks with no glasses. This time, I got lucky found new frames that I liked and I was on my way. I was going to get new glasses and new frames for a mere $130, less than the price of the most frames at the glasses store.

Two weeks later, my glasses came back, and I couldn't see straight out of them. I had to go back to the eyedoctor, get a different prescription, and send the glasses off again. Two weeks later, the new prescription turned out to be wrong, too. Two more visits to the eyedoctor to make sure my new prescription was right and more turnaround time for the glasses and I finally have new glasses I can see very well out of. The whole process took almost four months though, since I live 11 miles away from Costco and have been on several vacations which prevented me from picking the new glasses up as soon as they were ready.

Moral of the story? Next time, I'll go to a place that makes glasses in an hour, even if it costs more. (I might pick up some frames at Costco first, though.) Not only was the process of getting my glasses made at Costco very time consuming, it was also very frustrating. Every trip to Costco took at least an hour because they are so understaffed and slow, and the crowds are always maddening. One of their eyedoctors was incompetent. And while it's great that they redo your glasses for free if the prescription is wrong, it sucks that there is no way to speed up the two week process if you have to get your glasses remade. Costco's eyedoctors are considered independent from Costco's labs, so if the eyedoctor makes a mistake, they won't put a rush on your glasses order. They'll only do a rush order if the lab makes a mistake.


Discover Card $40 Enterprise Rent-A-Car Certificate

For me, Discover is not the greatest credit card to have. Some places (like Macy's) don't accept it, and their cash back programs are generally inferior to those of the other cards in my wallet. Here's a detailed analysis of why.

First of all, here are the details of the Discover Platinum cashback program:

Earn 5% Cashback Bonus on purchases throughout the year by participating in each Get More program. In addition, earn a full 1% on all other purchases after your total annual
purchases exceed $3,000; other purchases that are part of your first $1,500 earn .25% and other purchases that are part of your second $1,500 earn .50%. Purchases made at select warehouse clubs, discount stores and their affiliates earn .25%. Rewards are redeemable in $20 increments. Rewards have no expiration date; however, certain circumstances, such as account closure and inactivity for more than 36 months, could result in forfeiture of some or all of your Cashback Bonus. Full terms and conditions will be sent with your Card.

So why do I have this card? My parents like Discover, so naturally when it was time for me to get my first credit card, I went with what I knew. Now, it's my oldest credit card, which helps my credit history. It also has a considerably longer repayment period than my other cards.

I don't use it often, but they do have occasional good deals that make me happy. For example, right now their Get More program gives you 5% cash back on all purchases made at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders, Circuit City, Crutchfield, Napster, and Waldenbooks. The caveat with the Get More program is that you have to register for each and every promotion several times a year, and keep track of the ever-changing promotions. Registering your card only takes five seconds, but is an extra step that Discover is counting on many people to forget.

However, this program allows you to get cash back on purchases that other cards do not. Last winter, they offered 5% back on doctor visits, which got me $15 back on my expensive eye doctor appointment and contact lenses. I like taking advantage of the Get More programs in addition to the other cashback card I have that offers cash back on drugstores, grocery stores, and gas, month in and month out, no additional registration required.

So once I accumulate my $20 cash back with Discover, I then take redeem it with Enterprise, where I can double my $20 and get $40 off an Enterprise reservation. What a steal!

Well, maybe. I called the special reservation number to use one of these certificates for the first time and asked to apply it to an existing reservation, a $150 weeklong rental. The Enterprise representative cheerily informed me that Discover "stipulates the pricing" on rentals using these certificates and that my weekly rate would go up to $157, meaning that after my $40 discount I'd be paying $117. I went ahead and took it, because I rarely rent cars, but was a little annoyed that my $40 certificate was really only worth $32. I suppose if I were making a more last minute reservation with a higher price, Discover's "stipulated price" might help me, though.

The other reason it's not such a steal is this: I get $3.75 back for the first $1500 I spend. I get $7.50 back for the next $1500. Only after that do I start getting a full 1% back on everything. Assuming I never participated in a Get More program, I'd have to spend $3,975 to get $20 cash back or $40 at Enterprise (or another of their merchant partners). That's not such a steal, after all.

Saving Money on Frufru Drinks

One of the best ways to save money at restaurants is to drink water. But I really like wine, coffee, horchata -- and most of all, I really like boba tea. All those artificial flavors and colors and sugar are terrible for you, I know, but it tastes so good! I generally shell out around $3.50 for a 16 oz drink. If my boyfriend and I each get our own drinks, we pay a total of $7. However, if we agree on a flavor, we can upgrade to a 20oz for about 50 cents. Yes, we each get 6 oz less to drink, but I often don’t finish the whole drink anyway.

If you grew up in a family with mulitple kids, you’re probably already familiar with this concept. My parents would always get two extra large sodas at fast food restaurants and the five of us would share. I really hated sharing straws, but my dad saved a ton of money over buying five individual drinks.

So the next time you’re buying a drink with someone you’re close to, consider getting the larger size and sharing and you’ll each save a couple bucks.

Citi Cards $100 Gas Rebate Certificate

Citi Cards is currently offering a $100 gas rebate certificate for enrolling in their credit protector program. I’ve noticed lately that lots of credit cards are offering incentives to enroll in these programs (most noticeably, Chase’s $20 check). While the $20 checks are a faster, easier way to score some extra cash, the $100 gas rebate certificate is by far more rewarding.

What is a credit protector program? Essentially, it allows you to suspend payments in your credit card for a while in the event of certain major life changes, like getting married, having a child, or getting fired. How sweet of them, right? Of course not. If you don’t watch out, you’ll get screwed in the end, which is exactly what the credit card companies are counting on. The main thing to pay attention to is the monthly cost of signing up for a credit protector service. Usually, they are free for the first 30 days, and after that you pay 89 cents a month for each $100 of the closing balance on your credit card. At that rate, your $20 bonus check will get eaten up pretty quickly.

How do I beat the system? I only sign up for credit protector for cards that I don’t really use. These cards are generally ones that I applied for solely to receive an opening bonus like Thank You points or frequent flyer miles. If you don’t use the card, you don’t incur any credit protector fees, but you do get to keep the nice bonus.
There isn’t a lot of fine print on the online offer page or on the gas rebate certificate itself. For example, it doesn’t say that you have to use the same card that you enrolled in credit protector to purchase the gas. It doesn’t say that you actually have to be the one to purchase the gas, either. The main way they try to make it difficult for you to get your $100 is by requiring that “receipts for purchase of gasoline and this certificate must be sent within 30 days of gasoline purchase and no later than December 31, 2006.” Personally, I do not spend $100 on gas in a month, so I am asking my boyfriend to save his receipts too. Still, I have a feeling it would be a problem to send in receipts with someone else’s name on them, so he’s going to pay cash for his gas.

This promotion expires at the end of the year, so sign up soon if you’d like to take advantage of this free money offer. As with all rebates, make sure to read all the fine print, follow their instructions exactly, and keep records of everything you mail in.

Photo by arbyreed

Saving Money on Restaurants

I love to eat out. Trying new and unusual (to me) foods is one of my passions in life. It's also an area where I could save a ton of money if I would quit eating out two or more times a week.

However, while I really like to save money (had you noticed?), I also believe in enjoying the money I work hard for. Since it will be a long time before I reap the benefits of most of the things I'm saving for (retirement, house), I think it's a good idea to have some short-term benefits to keep me motivated to work hard and continue to seek out ways to save money or get extra cash.

The good thing about my restaurant habit is that a lot of the food I like is cheap, sometimes as cheap as a much less delicious frozen dinner from the grocery store. Going out for foods like Indian and Thai helps keep my dining out costs down. Of course, I also like sushi and upscale restaurants, and those add up fast.

As long as I'm making a comfortable amount of money, I plan to continue my dining out habit. It's nice to know, however, that should money become tight, this is one area where I can cut back and save a lot of money.

Saving Money on Hobbies

This scarf was more or less free. I knit it on needles I already owned using yarn a friend gave to me during time when I wouldn't have been engaged in a money-making activity anyway.

If you have a hobby, get to know others with the same interest by joining a group of enthusiasts. Search for them on Google, Meetup, Yahoo Groups, and Craigslist. And if you can't find a group, try starting one. Not only will you have people to share your passion with and learn from, you're also likely to pick up freebies and deals as a result of your relationships. You'll probably end up with some new friends, too.

In my case, I find that hardcore knitters always purchase more yarn than they can use and end up giving stuff away or selling it for very little. In the time I've been knitting, I've only purchased six skeins of yarn. I got five more for free, and paid $3 for another. I've also acquired a pair of knitting needles and had a pair of socks and a shrug knitted for me.

Knitting and other hobbies can become expensive quickly, but there are simple ways to keep your costs down no matter what your passion.

Saving Money on Laundry

Most people won’t be able to pull this off, but it’s worth testing. I use a coin operated communal washer and dryer. They cost $1.00 each, according to the number of coin slots they have. However, I’ve discovered that by placing three quarters in particular slots, I can actually wash my clothes for only 75 cents.

Also, I save money because I don’t believe in sorting. When I buy a new item that’s especially bright or dark and therefore likely to bleed, I do wash it separately to avoid ruining my other clothes, and I’ve learned the hard way that washing it by hand isn’t sufficient to remove the extra dye, and that dye that doesn’t show up in a sink wash will still find its way onto your light clothes in a machine wash. But most of the time I just wash everything together in cold water with zero problems. Savings? $1.75, a scoop of detegerent, and an hour and a half of clothes sorting, machine monitoring, and load changing.

Saving Money on Energy Bars

I eat a lot of Luna Bars and Larabars. At about $1.30 each, they’re quite an expensive habit. I realize they are somewhat similar to granola bars, but I don’t care for granola bars. I’ve found a couple of ways to save on these items, however.

1. Buy in bulk. If you have a favorite flavor, buying the whole case of 16 or so can save you as much as 25%.

2. Stock up when you’re at an inexpensive store or find a good sale. Buying these items from stores like Trader Joe’s generates a significant savings over buying them at Whole Foods or a conventional grocer (where health products are always overpriced).

3. Make your own! Here’s a recipe I like. Each bar costs around 80 cents after you make 2 batches (to offset the higher cost of certain ingredients that last a long time). It’s also incredibly fast and easy.

1 c. carob powder

1 c. honey

1 c. peanut butter

1 c. sunflower seeds

1 c. sesame seeds

1 c. non-instant oats

1/2 c. shredded coconut

Mix everything together. Form into bars. Coat lightly in coconut.

As an added bonus, they have a considerable shelf life and are great for hiking and camping trips. Also, if you keep the ingredients on hand, they are a good food to prepare if you get stuck in some sort of disaster since they require no cooking and the ingredients are nearly non-perishable.

Saving Money on Books

1. I check my local library catalog online to see if they have the book I’m interested in. If so, I jot down the information for my next library trip. Some libraries will even pull books off the shelf and hold them for you so that you don’t have to spend any time at all hunting for them. My library charges a fee for this service, so I do it myself. I like to wait until there are several books I’m interested in before investing the time to go to the library.

2. I consult AddAll, a book price comparison search engine. Usually, the best deals are on Amazon or, but occasionally ABE Books or another vendor will have the best price. AddAll even factors in shipping costs.

I’ve noticed lately that Amazon seems to be pricing their books such that to buy your book from Amazon with free super saver shipping is the same price as buying the cheapest used book. So it may be worth it to wait until you have two or three items to purchase and get a brand new book from Amazon for the same price as a used book elsewhere.

When I was in college, I saved loads of money on textbooks buy avoiding the college bookstore as much as possible. (Confession: I actually worked there and felt bad for all the people who bought their books full price.) Online sites devoted exclusively to textbook sales are often almost as big of a ripoff as the college bookstore, but you can often get textbooks from vendors like Amazon for a fraction of their retail price. I also usually resold my books this way rather than taking the insulting pittance the bookstore buyback service offered. Splitting the cost of a textbook with a friend (ideally someone in the same dorm) is also a good way to save, as long as you are disciplined enough to study when it’s your turn to use the book.

Photo by quinn.anya

When the Savings Aren't Worth It, Part 1

There are several areas of my life where I could be saving money but choose not to.

1. Lightbulbs - I really hate compact flourescent bulbs. In fact, I even hate regular light bulbs. Both make my surroundings feel cold and cheap. I pay a premium for GE’s Reveal bulbs that emulate the quality of natural light (these are the purple-tinted bulbs). Yes, they really do look better and make my home feel homier. One of my friends has suggested only using energy saving bulbs in places like the pantry or the garage where the quality of the light isn't important or where lights tend to get left on for long periods of time by accident.

2. Frequent Visitor Cards - I cannot stand carrying around those buy ten, get one free cards that you get at various food and beverage establishments. I would even go so far as to say that I resent the companies who distribute them, because they’re just not that great of a deal. Personally, I make purchases at these places so infrequently that it’s not worth it to me to take up the space in my wallet for two years so that one day, I might save $4. However, if I were a frequent customer of one of these businesses, carrying the card would definitely be worth it.

3. Jeans - I almost always spend $60 + tax each time I buy a pair of jeans. I wear jeans every day, so I want them to be comfortable and reasonably in style. I’m not willing to cut corners here.

4. Shopping at Wal-Mart - I can’t support this company no matter how much I might save. Locking in employees overnight and preventing employees from unionizing are not things I’m willing to vote for with my dollars. I’ve read The Wal-Mart Effect, so I know that like it or not, my wallet benefits from Wal-Mart’s low prices. And I will admit that I do shop at other stores that have questionable business practices. But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I feel that Wal-Marts prices are too low and don’t reflect the true cost of the goods they sell.

What are some ways that you could be saving money but choose not to?

Saving Money on Toothpaste and Lotion

You’ve probably heard that you can cut open an almost empty tube of toothpaste or lotion and get a ton more product out than you thought you had left. But have you ever actually tried it?

I do this with every bottle of lotion I own. I cut off the top a couple inches down. Then I can scoop out lotion until the tube is totally empty. My lotions tend to last another week or two this way, and there’s no painful squeezing at the end.

To make sure the contents don’t dry out, I use the top that I cut as the new cap. Just pinch together the long part of the tube and put the short part of the tube that you cut off over it. Or, put the cut tube in a ziplock bag. If doing this makes you feel cheap, don’t let it! Instead, feel smart that you know this trick, and enjoy saving a few bucks a year since everything you buy that comes in a plastic tube will now last longer.

Another way I save money on lotion is by stocking up at after-Christmas sales. Bath and Body Works often has fantastic after-Christmas sales where you can get lotion at half price (and not just Christmas scents). I’ll buy three or four tubes of body cream and that lasts me until the next sale. Of course, the best way to save money on lotion is to not buy designer lotion, but if you don’t like any drugstore brands, now you know how to save money on a mall brand. This tip applies to men, too–if your girlfriend/sister/mom likes this store, go stock up at the holiday sale and save your spoils for the next gift occassion. You’ll save both money and last-minute gift-buying stress.

How I've Earned $1250 in Free Money This Year

We often hear about how much money people lose to credit card companies and banks every year due to interest, late charges, overdraft charges, and fees, but did you know that there is a way for you to actually make money from these institutions? Many credit card companies and banks give out opening bonuses and referral fees, and if you have a good credit rating, you'll probably be able to take advantage of most of these offers. The offers change periodically, but I like to keep up with the latest ones by reading My Money Blog. Here are some offers I took advantage of this year that really added up. The only time and effort it cost me to take advantage of these offers was a couple of minutes to fill out a credit card application, a few minutes to follow up and make sure I earned my reward, and a few minutes to cancel the cards and close the accounts that I didn't really want.

1. Rebate Checks from my Citi Dividend Card
My Citi Dividend Card gives me 5% back on gas, groceries, and drugstore purchases and 1% back on everything else. Too bad they've discontinued new applications for this card and I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before they cut me off (probably when my card expires next year, if not sooner). Since there's a $50 threshhold to cash out your rebate, I'm not cashing out any longer until my card expires, which will ensure that I get my entire cash back reward and also give me a fat bonus all at once.

2. Redeeming Thank You Points for Gift Cards
When I signed up for the Citi Diamond card, the Citi Professional card (twice), and the Citi AT&T card, I got 10,000 Thank You points for each card, which translated to $400 in gift cards. I chose to redeem my points for gift cards that are as good as cash to me: gas,, and Target. Total: $400

3. Taking Advantage of Credit Protector Freebies
I got $20 for each credit card I have with Chase and a $100 gas rebate certificate through Citi for signing up for credit protection programs. The programs were free for 30+ days, then had a monthly fee of $10-15. I made sure to cancel before the monthly fee kicked in. The credit card companies, of course, are banking on your forgetfulness. Keep a calendar and make some extra cash. Total: $140

4. Sharebuilder Account Opening Bonus
I signed up for Sharebuilder to get their new account promotion. The bonus gave me $65 since I have a Costco membership. If I didn't, I still could have banked $50. Following Jonathan's suggestion, I purchased less than $1 worth of stock, then took my bonus money and ran since I don't invest in individual stocks and certainly don't want to pay $15.95 per trade to sell them.

5. Trade King Account Opening Bonus
I earned $100 for opening an account, moving some money around and placing one trade. Net gain after trading fees: $90

6. ING Referrals
I convinced two friends to open an ING account. Total: $20. If I were a new customer, I also could have gotten $25 for opening an account. (Actually, I got a better, $50 promotion that was being offered when I opened my account a few years ago.)

7. American Express Business Credit Card
Just for opening the card and making a purchase, I got a $250 statement credit. Their customer service got very mad when I took my bonus and canceled the card immediately, but that's not my problem. I just don't feel guilty about taking money from a company that rips off thousands of consumers every year and feels no remorse about it.

8. MBNA $100 Opening Bonus Statement Credit
I made one small purchase, and a $100 statement credit was all mine.

9. Sony Card $100 Statement Credit
Have I mentioned that I love statement credits? They're the shortest path to free money.

All in all, I made about $1250 doing these things, and it was very easy. If you'd like to give it a shot, I recommend creating a spreadsheet to help you keep track of your new cards and accounts, when you opened them, what bonus they are offering, when you should receive the bonus by, and when you need to cancel the card by in order to avoid an annual fee (if there is one). Otherwise, you're likely to forget about one of your accounts and possibly incur some hefty fees. That's what the credit card companies are hoping for, of course, but you're in this game to win it! So keep you eyes peeled for offers, stay on top of your accounts, and beat the credit card companies at their own game.

Photo by evanleavitt

Saving Money on Common Household Items

Paper napkins and paper towels: I save money on napkins and papertowels by minimizing my use of them. They are a recurring cost, and I hate those. Dish towels, on the other hand, can last for years and years, often do a better job of cleaning up or preventing messes, and can be quite cheap if you buy them wisely. I don't use paper napkins at all, and I have a large stash of rags that I sometimes use instead of paper towels. Of course, it costs money to launder rags, and that's a hidden cost--I don't know how much it costs me to do a load of laundry. To cut my paper towel costs, I make sure to always buy them on sale. I don't buy the cheapest paper towels available, since they don't work well and I'm looking for the best value, not the cheapest thing out there. But I don't pay more than $1 per roll. I like Bounty, in case you were wondering (though if they weren't so expensive, I'd buy Viva).

Hand soap: Purchased individually, hand soap can cost anywhere from $1 for a standard 7 oz. dispenser to $20 or more for high-end soaps (a total waste of money, in my opinion). However, I purchased a 64 oz. container of Dial, which came with a full 7 oz. dispenser, for just $5 at Target. That's the equivalent of a little more than 10 bottles of soap for $5, or 50 cents per bottle. By purchasing your soap in bulk, you cut your soap costs in half, not to mention that you won't have to shop for it nearly as often. Combine coupons and/or sales with the already low cost of buying hand soap in bulk and you'll save even more. Just make sure you like the way it smells before you stock up!

Dish soap: I find that dish soap is too concentrated. Also, while I only need a drop or two to clean a dish, I end up pouring out far more. So to make my dish soap the strength I like it, I mix half a bottle of dish soap with half a bottle of water. If you don't have a spare bottle around to make the mixture right away, just wait until your current bottle is half empty then fill it up with half water. When the bottle runs out, make sure to keep it so that when you buy more dish soap you can create the half and half mixture right away. Dish soap is already inexpensive, so this tip won't make you rich, but every little bit adds up.

Cleaning supplies: Cleaning with baking soda and vinegar is very effective in some situations and very inexpensive. For example, I liberally sprinkled my very dirty cutting board with baking soda, poured vinegar over it, and let it fizz. Then I wiped up the mess with a sponge. I couldn't believe how well the solution worked! Stuff that had been stuck on the board for weeks came right off. My cutting board hasn't been this clean since I bought it. Note that I do not ever put meat or fish on this particular cutting board. If I did, a different cleaning method would be in order because the board would need to be sterilized.