My Valentine's Day Success

In my previous post about avoiding restaurants on Valentine's Day, I wrote about the extra hassles and expenses involved in dining out on this supposedly sacred day.

I thought I'd report back and let you know that my plan to dine out on the night before Valentine's day went extraordinarily well. The restaurant emptier than usual, so we were able to sit outside and have the entire patio area to ourselves! Also, instead of a $65 set menu with only three options, we had our choice of anything from the full regular menu plus six, count 'em six, specials. We achieved all of our goals: we spent less money, we had a full menu to choose from, and we avoided the crowds. Most importantly, nothing could have been more romantic than having an entire section of the restaurant to ourselves. I plan to stick with this strategy from now on!

Sneaky Coupon Tricks

When I'm bored, one of the things I like to do is sign up for free samples. I prefer to use fake information to minimize (or at least be able to identify) junk mail, but you should do whatever your conscience dictates.

I recently got a free sample in the mail from Dove. Dove is one of my favorite free sample givers because they tend to give generous samples. Also, I actually like some Dove products, so the coupons that come with the free samples are useful to me, and the samples themselves are great for trips.

I was checking out my new coupons ($2 off a bottle of lotion that only costs $6? Sweet!) when I noticed the fine print:

By submitting this coupon, you acknowledge that Dove may also send you information, samples, or offers it feels may be of interest to you about Dove, or other complementary brands from UNILEVER or other carefully selected companies. If you would like more information about UNILEVER's privacy policy, please visit www.unileverus.com/privacy or call 1-866-204-9750.

What??? By using a coupon, I will undo all of my carefully protected efforts to avoid spam? I guess the coupons have some kind of tracking code to determine the conversion rate on the coupons that came with the free samples. Talk about walking the thin line between brilliant marketing strategy and downright creepy. If you go to the webpage listed, however, it's easy to put yourself on Unilever's Do Not Contact list and then select the brands you don't want information about. This way, you can keep getting your Dove free samples, but not get anything on, say, Degree.

So next time you think about using a coupon that is mailed specifically to you, check the fine print first. Don't use the coupon unless you're okay with the consequences, and look for ways to get around being spammed.

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Self Employment via Ebay: Update

Shortly after my initial excitement about becoming an eBay powerseller after starting to read a book on the subject, I realized that I don't really like selling stuff enough have the necessary drive to try to turn it into a source of full-time income. But I did want to try to keep using eBay as a source of side income in a way that would be enjoyable for me.

In January, I had great success with selling a pair of shoes on eBay that I purchased for a fraction of their value at a thrift store. I made a significant profit, so I decided to repeat the experiment.

I went back to the thrift store, and this time I found two pairs of nearly new brand name women's shoes. I wanted to buy both, but I didn't want to risk $18 on an experiment that might not be successful a second time around. One pair of shoes was the one you see here. I'm no fashionista, but they didn't look out of style to me and they were a basic color that matches plenty of things, so combined with the semi-designer label (Kenneth Cole Reaction), they seemed like a safe bet. The other pair was pink suede and Aerosoles brand, both of which seemed riskier, so I decided not to purchase those and just go with the brown shoes. The only catch is that the brown shoes were a size 6.5, which isn't the most common women's size. However, the shoes I sold before were a 10, which is also on the edge of the size spectrum, plus they were red, which is a less popular color.

Unfortunately, there was no real way to duplicate the experiment, and I complicated things by starting and ending my auction on a Tuesday instead of Sunday (Sunday is considered by many to be the best day to have an auction end, though from my fairly limited eBay experience I honestly can't say how much it helps). This time, I lost about a dollar on the transaction, plus the time I spent finding the shoes and packing and shipping them. Though I've only done the experiment twice, I feel discouraged from continuing it at this point. I realize that being successful in business involves a certain amount of risk, though, and I shouldn't consider my business model a failure after one unprofitable sale any more than I should consider it a success after one successful sale. I'll keep you posted on future experiments.

For more ideas on making side income, check out J.D. Roth's new series on the subject over at Get Rich Slowly.


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Citi Card Refer a Friend

If you are a Citi Card holder, here is a deal for you. Follow this link to refer your friends for a Citibank credit card, and if they apply and are approved, you'll get $25. Here are the offer details:

*This reward will only be issued in response to this offer. The reward is issued for each approved account up to a maximum of 5 approved accounts. You will receive 25 Dividend Dollars per approved account. The statement credits will post to your account within 2-3 billing cycles from the date your referral is approved. In order to qualify for this reward, each person you refer must verify your unique customer ID number, provided to him/her on the email you will forward. In order for you to receive this reward, the person you refer must apply for and be approved for a Citi Card. Your account must be open and not in default under any Card Agreement to receive this reward. We are unable to provide you with information about who has been approved or denied credit, or the basis for that decision.

It does not say that the person actually has to activate or use the card, which is interesting.

The Citi Dividend card is my favorite credit card and I recommend it to people all the time with or without a $25 payback. They are currently offering 2% cash back on groceries, drugstores, utilities, and gas and 1% back on everything else. Unlike some other cashback cards, there is no minimum amount that you have to spend before the full cash back percentages kick in. I save a couple hundred dollars a year because of this card. If you are a big, big spender, you may find a better deal with other cash back cards, however, because Citi caps your cash back at $275 a year. Or you may want to use this card until you max out your cash back and then start using the next best card.

If you're interested in applying for the Citi Dividend card, I'd be happy to send you a referral email. I'm on (gmail) at twopenniesearned, or simply leave a comment on this post with your email address (I promise not to publish the comment, but I will get your message). Unfortunately, this card does not offer a signup bonus for new cardholders, but if you let me refer you and I get the $25 bonus, I will donate the full $25 to the charity of your choice.


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Chase $20 Credit Protector Certificate

When I signed up for the United Airlines credit card through Chase Bank to get 20,000 frequent flyer miles, I also got a $20 check which, upon deposit, would enroll me in Chase's credit protector program. Most credit card companies seem to have some sort of credit protector program, and many offer a cash incentive for signing up because they know that in most cases, they will quickly make their money back, and then some. I knew that I was done making purchases on my United card and that I would soon be cancelling it, so I could essentially take the $20 and run. And I did.

The way the program is supposed to work though is that you deposit the check, which signs you up for your no-risk, free 30-day trial, then you forget that you're enrolled, and you start getting charged a small monthly fee based on your total balance, usually something like 89 cents for each $100 of your ending monthly balance. Anyone who doesn't closely review all the charges on their monthly statement could easily overlook this small extra charge which, over time and multiplied by thousands of people, adds up to lots of free money for credit card companies.

The supposed benefit of the program is that if you have a major life event such as having a child or losing your job, you can put off paying the balance on your card without penalty. I've never tried to do this, but to be honest, I have very little faith in credit card companies and I wouldn't trust them to follow through on their end of the bargain--I'd expect them to find something in the fine print that they would use as an excuse to deny the grace period. On the other hand, I might be wrong about that--the other possibility is that they'd be happy to allow the grace period with the hopes that I'd rack up more than I'd be able to pay off when the grace period ended, allowing the credit card company to levy all sorts of ridiculous interest fees.

At any rate, I'm not sure how difficult it would be to cancel the credit protector program after the free trial ended, so I would never sign up for it with a card I was planning to keep unless the check was for significantly more than $20. But I was able to make $40 free and clear by depositing checks from two different credit protector programs for cards that I was about to cancel, making it an easy source of free money. When I cancelled my cards, my enrollment in credit protector was automatically cancelled, but the incentive was mine to keep.


News Worth Repeating

I try not to do a lot of speedlinking on my site because I feel like I should be coming up with my own original content rather than linking to other people's. However, when I come across something that's too good not to pass on, I still post it here.

Jonathan of My Money Blog recently posted about a PayPal promotion for a $15 rebate on any purchase of $30 or more. Here's an extra tip: this promotion is not only useful to you as a purchaser on eBay--it's also fantastic for sellers. By promoting this promotion in a recent eBay listing, I was able to sell an item for a higher price than I expected. The seller got a great deal--$15 off--and I got a great deal--I sold my item for its full retail value. The extra 50 cents I paid to eBay for using the subtitle feature to mention this promotion in my listing sure paid off!

Consider Buying a Fixer-Upper

Many real estate books advocate purchasing fixer-upper properties to increase your profit potential when you sell. I've got another great reason to buy this kind of property, though: neighborhood revitalization.

But what's in it for you?
-Tax Advantages
-Major bargains on the purchase price
-Karma points
-Being a part of something bigger than yourself
-Learning new skills
-Potential for higher profits when you sell
-Older buildings often have more character and charm than newer ones
-Preserving historical architecture
-Contributing to city beautification
-Getting involved with neighbors and community groups who are undertaking similar projects

How does one find these types of properties?
-Real Estate websites like realtor.com (make sure to keep the minimum price at zero)
-City websites (may take a lot of poking around)
-Through neighborhood revitalization groups
-Some cities have rehab clubs that teach citizens how to rehab buildings. Any club like this would be able to show you how to find that city's fixer uppers (as well as teach you how to fix up your building once you buy it)

The downsides, as you probably already know, are that the cost to fix up a downtrodden building can sometimes exceed what the building will be worth after you finish fixing it, rehabbing frequently costs more than you think it will when you start the project, and it is very time consuming and requires a great deal of patience and vision. That being said, if I had the money, I would very seriously consider taking on a fixer-upper for all the reasons listed above.

Never Refuse Free Food

Why is it that as we get older, we suddenly feel like we need nicer and nicer things? This is the thought I had as I flipped through one of my college photo albums the other night. I came across a photo of my favorite apartment (favorite until my current place, that is) where I was only able to spend a short four months. Back then, a spacious (compared to the dorms) bedroom with a big window, a wall-to-wall closet, creaky old wood floors, a $16 potted palm tree from Home Depot, and a sizeable kitchen were enough to make it my dream apartment. I made an end table out of two milk crates and a dry erase board (and was thrilled with its functionality and my ingenuity), and decorated my walls with photos of friends and past vacations (no frames required, just masking tape). I had a nice system of carboard boxes in my closet instead of a dresser (one box for socks, one for underwear, one for belts, etc.) and $15 plastic drawer sets held all of my toiletries and office supplies. I got my comfy recliner from a thrift store for $30. I had everything I needed.

Sometimes I miss that kind of simplicity and the freedom that comes from knowing that even though you don't have much, you're don't need it to be happy. Back then, I sometimes longed for nicer things, but I couldn't afford them, so I did without.

Several months after I graduated, I wanted to have nice things, so I bought a matching new desk, bookshelf, and nightstand, a down comforter, a silk duvet cover, and matching sheets (none of which I could afford, as I wasn't employed!). Ever since then, I've upgraded more and more. Now my photos all have to have frames (and the frames all have to match). The floors need rugs. The furniture needs to match each other, and it needs to match the rugs.

I'm not actually unhappy about the money I've spent on these things--I really love the way my apartment looks. I guess what I miss is the feeling that I don't need it. Once you're an adult with a real job, most people expect your place to look a certain way. Even with all of my decorating, my place is still pretty minimal compared to most adult places, simply because I refuse to own a lot of Stuff. Places with lots of furniture and lots of Stuff always look more grown up to me.

Impressions of what one needs to fit in certainly depend in part on the company you choose to keep--if my college friends were still around, I could live in a small room with nothing but a mattress on the floor and none of them would blink, because that's how they still live (perhaps more out of necessity than choice, though since they have college degrees, I could easily argue that they've chosen to not get jobs that pay well--which is fine, of course). But my new friends all have professional jobs and the nice stuff that tends come with having that extra money.

I try not to get too caught up in the rat race, and remind myself that by keeping some of my college student survival tactics even as an adult, I can save a significant amount of money and lead a simpler life. I have managed to hang on to a few, so far, even as I feel the need to decorate and have everything match. I buy a lot of my furniture from thrift shops or recover it from the alley. I get everything as cheaply as possible. I recruit friends as movers. I sell my used books on Amazon. I drive a very old car. And I never refuse free food!

I will probably never again go back to living out of cardboard boxes and taping my photos to the wall, but I find it comforting to know that if I had to, it wouldn't have a major impact on my overall happiness.



What's the Deal with E-Filing?

The IRS sent me a card in the mail with peer pressure rhetoric about how I should be e-filing because everyone else is and I'm behind the times. This really ticks me off because e-filing costs $15.95. Why would I pay money to file my taxes when I could just mail them in via certified mail with return receipt for $4.50?



Redeeming Recyclables for Cash

I haven't taken my empty cans and bottles to a recycling center since I was about nine years old. Igot into both environmentalism and thrift at a young age (I had my very own copy of 101 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth), so what could be better than turning used cans into cash? We received so little for them though that it was depressing and didn't seem worth the effort. Our community implemented a recycling program around the same time, so we just put our cans and bottles out on the curb with the newspapers.

My boyfriend doesn't have recycling bins at his apartment complex, so he's been saving cans and bottles for months to take to his parents' house where the city will pick them up. Well, we went on a cleaning spree this weekend, and one of the easiest ways to declutter and make more space was to get rid of all the bottles and cans that had invaded the kitchen counter, the space underneath the kitchen sink, and even the balcony.

We took four bags full to a recycling kiosk in a nearby grocery store parking lot. We fed cans and bottles into an automated machine that whisked them down a conveyor belt, counted them with surprising accuracy, and then gave us a voucher to redeem in the store. We got 5 cents for containers under 24 ounces, 10 cents for containers over 24 ounces, and found out that the machine won't take empty sauce jars, champagne bottles, or wine bottles (even though they're made out of perfectly recyclable glass). Our total haul was $8.40, which we were able to use as a coupon to reduce the cost of our groceries. We could have also exchanged it for cash. We had so much fun feeding the bottles into the machine and getting a cash discount on groceries that we plan to continue this method from now on.

To find out where you can recycle cans, bottles, and all sorts of other items that you probably didn't even know you could recycle, visit Earth 911.

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Stock photo courtesy of nasa.gov

The Shaving Cream Myth

Back when I was an impressionable young lass, the writers of Seventeen magazine and a certain shave gel company had me convinced that to shave my legs using soap and water was a crime against humanity. Given that I do, in fact, have sensitive skin (there is only one brand of lotion I can put on my legs after shaving without causing my skin to burn like crazy), I believed the hype, and purchased expensive cans of shave gel for about ten years. Actually, it was my parents doing most of the purchasing back then, but you get the idea.

Self-imposed poverty forced me to give up such luxuries as shave gel, and that's when I discovered that soap and water work just fine, thankyouverymuch, and that I don't nick myself any more or less often using soap or shower gel than I did using high-tech foaming shave gel specially formulated for sensitive skin. The only time I notice a difference is if I shave using no soap at all or, god forbid, shave dry (oh, the agony).

Moral of story? Try not to let companies convince you that you need things you don't without experimenting first and seeing for yourself.


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Counting Your Blessings and Sharing Them with Others

For many poor, inner city residents, living in neighborhoods full of buildings like this one is a fact of daily life. Industries that once supported city residents have long since left the cities (and in many cases, the country), causing many people to move closer to new jobs in the suburbs and others to be left in the city with few viable sources of employment. White flight has also been a significant factor in this kind of neglect and deterioration.

I would venture to guess that most people reading this article have the luxury of not dealing with problems like this on a daily basis. If that is the case, I hope you will consider starting a regular program of charitable giving. Some religious institutions and personal finance books advocate giving 10% a month. That's a great goal, but I can't stomach that, so let me tell you what I do.

To be honest, I am a tightwad and it is very hard for me to give away any money whatsoever, whether it's buying dinner for a friend or donating to charity, so I've decided to make giving a non-negotiable part of my monthly budget, just like paying my phone bill or buying groceries. I have started giving a minimum of $20 a month to a cause that is important to me, more when I feel particularly strongly about a cause. By choosing a charity whose mission really means something to me (in my case, groups that help revitalize inner city neighborhoods and groups that help feed the hungry), giving doesn't feel burdensome. I feel excited about contributing to something I care about and knowing that I played a part in restoring a historical building, providing a farm animal for a hungry village in Africa, or providing meals to the homeless, just to name a few possibilities.

For those of you who, like me, are skeptical of giving because you really have no way of knowing if your money ever makes it to the right place, choose charities that use the majority of your donation dollar to actually provide the service you are trying to give rather than spending it on high administrative costs, for example. Charities that do this will generally make a point of publicizing this information.

If you need a starting point, check out Network for Good and Case Foundation. And if you really can't stand to part with your money but you still want to help, consider volunteering your time or making a microloan to Kiva. Personally, I don't do any research -- I find that by keeping my ears and eyes open, I always run across more than enough great charities to donate to. I like to donate to small, local groups with a proven track record. Giving to the Red Cross or United Way is just too generic to mean anything to me, and just because an organization is large and well-known doesn't mean they won't abuse your donation.

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Received my Free iPod Shuffle from Hedge Street

Back in December, a new company called Hedge Street had a promotion where you could earn up to two iPod Shuffles and two $50 Amazon gift certificates (one reward for signing up for an account and completing a trade, and three rewards for referring friends). Unfortunately, I missed the deadline for referrals and only ended up with the one iPod, which I was pretty bummed about, but I really can't complain.

What was a pain is that the iPod was sent Fedex signature required to my home address. I understand why Hedge Street would require a signature on an expensive item, and I even understand why they might not ask if I had a different mailing address I would have preferred. Unfortunately, most people are not home during the day to sign for a package, meaning that I and who knows how many other people are making evening treks to out-of-the-way Fedex warehouses to pick up our prizes. I made my trip into an excursion involving a stop at a favorite restaurant, so it all worked out okay.

To be honest, I never managed to figure out how Hedge Street's trading program works, and I still don't understand futures trading, but thanks to Jonathan of My Money Blog I did manage to figure out how to execute a trade with minimal risk (I lost $3) so I could get my free shuffle.

Hedge Street sent me a 1099 for my $3 loss. I wonder if next year I'll get a 1099 for the value of the shuffle?

(By the way, in case it wasn't clear, this promotion has ended--but there are always new iPod Shuffle offers cropping up.)


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Stock photo courtesy of Amazon.com