11 Ways To Avoid Turning On The Furnace

Whether your furnace is broken or you’re just looking to save a buck, you might be surprised at how well you can get along without heat. Personally, I seem to manage to blow out my pilot light at least once a winter and end up freezing until someone who isn't scared of my furnace comes over and relights it for me. Today is one of those days. So here are some simple and inexpensive ways to make cold days and nights more comfortable without touching the thermostat.

Wear layers: I’m not just talking about wearing a long-sleeved shirt under your sweater. I’m talking about wearing a tank top under your long-sleeved shirt, a short-sleeved shirt over your long-sleeved shirt, a sweater over that and a robe or giant sweatshirt over your sweater. I’m talking about wearing tights, then long underwear, then legwarmers, then pants. I’m talking about two pairs of socks followed by thick slippers. And don’t forget to wear a hat and a scarf, even indoors. It's not super comfortable, but it's better than freezing.

Create temporary relief stations: I find a cold bathroom particularly unbearable. Also, my bathrooms are the smallest areas of my house. Putting a space heater in the bathroom thus provides me with moments of temporary warmth throughout the day, making the overall cold more bearable, and allows me to create an entire warm “room” in just a few minutes and at minimal cost. I also keep a space heater next to my bed that I turn on just for a few minutes, until my body heat has sufficiently warmed up the sheets. Space heaters will really escalate your electricity bill, though, so it’s best to use them sparingly. My tiny one uses 500 watts--about ten times the electricity usage of a lightbulb.

Snuggle with your pets: If you’re cold, chances are your pets are, too, and they’ll be all too happy to sit on your lap for hours.

Stay active: Now is the time to do all those projects around the house that you’ve been putting off. You’d be surprised how much warmer you can feel from a simple task like cleaning out the closet. Keep your body moving and you’ll stay comfortable. Even going for a quick 20-minute walk outside in the cold can warm you up and keep you that way for 30 minutes or an hour afterwards. As long as you dress appropriately, only the first 5 minutes or so of your walk will be really cold. After that, you’ll be comfortable (and you will have gotten some exercise, too).

Consume a steady stream of hot foods and beverages: Now is not the time to have a salad and a Diet Coke for lunch. Soups and stews are the way to go. In between meals, sip on hot coffee and tea to stay warm, and for dessert, have hot chocolate, a chai latte, or some warm bread pudding. Keep in mind that all this consumption of hot things doesn’t have to result in weight gain or a jittery caffeine buzz. Herbal teas are caffeine free, calorie free, and very inexpensive, and many soups are low in fat and high in vegetables, making them comparable to salads in terms of healthfulness.

Cook from scratch. Using the oven and/or stove for long periods of time can create a nice, toasty kitchen that will keep you warm the entire time you’re cooking (and for a while afterwards). (It is not recommended to use your oven specifically to heat your house--it's considered unsafe, but I'm not sure why.)

Don’t be still without a blanket: Whether you’re eating dinner or watching TV, keep a blanket on your lap for warmth when you’re not moving around. At night, dress both yourself and your bed in layers. Sleep under three, five, or seven blankets if you have to — whatever it takes to stay warm. And don’t forget a comfortable hat to keep your head warm while you sleep. It will make a big difference.

Get out of the house: Go to a friend’s or relative’s house, the library, a coffee shop, or any other place that’s inexpensive, will allow you to linger, and will be heated. If your car has heat, you can even use the drive to warm up. You probably won’t notice the difference in your gas mileage.

Use a hairdryer: Having wet hair is a great way to make the cold weather feel even colder, so dry your hair completely after taking a shower. If you don’t have any space heaters or other source of heat, you can even blast yourself with a hairdryer a few times during the day to temporarily warm up.

Sit in front of a sunny window: If you’re lucky enough to have sun on a cold day, find the sunniest window in your house and sit in front of it until you get warm.

Take a hot shower: As long as you have the aforementioned hairdryer, the hot water combined with a steam-filled bathroom can warm you up both while you’re in the shower and for a whilte afterwards. (Taking a hot bath won’t have the same effect, as your head will be freezing cold the whole time, the water will quickly cool off and the bathroom won’t get steamy.)

While going without heat is unpleasant for many of us, there are ways to make it more bearable that are simple and inexpensive enough for anyone to implement. Try some of these tips and you’re sure to save money this winter without freezing.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

How Much 10 Common Grocery Items Cost Savvy Shoppers

After following sales and coupons religiously for several months, I’ve started to get a sense of the best prices for various items.

The best way to get these prices is to use the Coupon Mom method of combining a store’s loyalty card discount with sales and coupons. However, over the last several months, it has been possible to get some of these prices without additional coupons from the Sunday paper by either cutting out a store coupon from the store’s weekly circular ad or by printing a coupon for free from Coupons.com.

I was able to get most of these prices at the major chain grocery stores that are located almost everywhere in the United States under different names: Safeway, Vons, Kroger, Randalls, Albertsons, Ralphs, Pavillions, Tom Thumb, Carr’s, Dominick’s, Fred Meyer, QVC, and so on. Some of the lowest prices I found were at small, local chain stores, but I didn’t need a warehouse club membership to get any of these deals.

Soda: For a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans of soda made by Coke or Pepsi, I’ve paid between $2.00 and $2.60 (not the “regular price” of $6.00). The lowest price I’ve seen for 2-liter bottles is 79 cents each. Personally, I prefer the cans since you can drink them at your leisure without worrying about the soda going flat. If I had a larger household full of soda drinkers, the 2-liter bottles might be a better deal. If you don’t mind off-brand soda, you can get good deals without waiting for a sale (and the best deal of all is to just drink water, of course).

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (fresh, not frozen): I thought I got a deal one week when I paid $3.50 a pound (half off the sticker price of $6.99 a pound), but once I started paying more attention I noticed that I could get the same thing for $1.50 to $2.69 a pound. There never seem to be coupons for this item, only sales. When the price is low, I stock up on as much as I can fit in my freezer since we eat a lot of chicken. It’s healthier than corn dogs or hamburgers and cheaper than fish.

Salty Snacks: The regular price on Wheat Thins can exceed $3, but the sale price for a small box is generally around $1.69. I recently printed some $1.00 off coupons from Coupons.com, so I’ll be getting my next two boxes for 69 cents each. Along similar lines, chips shouldn’t cost you more than $2 a bag, if that. On sale, I’ve seen Pringles for $1.00, Doritos for $1.69, Ruffles for $1, Sun Chips for $2, Mission tortilla chips for 99 cents, and on the list goes. Pay attention to your store circulars to find these deals. Sooner or later, your favorite brand will be a bargain.

Milk: If you’re paying more than $2.00 a gallon, you’re overpaying. At least one store in my area has this price every week. The Safeway family of stores, at least where I live, generally requires you to buy 2 gallons to get this price, but other stores will give it to you with the purchase of just one gallon.

Ice cream: Where I live, a half gallon of Breyer’s ice cream costs $6 at regular price. On sale, it costs around $2.50, and the Proctor & Gamble Brand Saver coupons that come with the Sunday paper once or twice a month often have a coupon. Most of the time, I only pay $2 for a half gallon of name-brand ice cream. Premium ice creams like Starbucks (my favorite), Ben and Jerry’s, and Haagen Daas also go on sale for as little as $2.50 some weeks (unfortunately, I rarely see coupons for these). And while drugstores rarely have spectacular deals on food, they do sometimes have cheap prices on ice cream.

Eggs: I remember five years ago being able to buy a dozen eggs for less than a dollar. Now it seems the price has multiplied, and with the increased popularity of cage-free eggs and the like, it’s not uncommon to see a dozen eggs with a price tag of over $4. The last time I bought eggs, I used a store circular coupon to get 18 for 99 cents. I used two store circular coupons on two separate trips to get a total of 36 eggs for $2. This was a spectacular deal that I don’t expect to get every week, but I won’t pay more than $1.50 for a dozen. Eggs tend to last longer than their expiration date would have you believe if your fridge is cold enough, so I tend to buy two or three dozen when the price is right.

Butter: I used to think $2.50 was a good price for a pound of butter, but recently I’ve gotten it for as little as 52 cents. A flurry of good butter deals over a period of about two months has me stocked up on butter–I have three packs in the fridge and another three in the freezer. It will probably last me through the end of the year, and the most I paid for any of those packs was $1/lb.

Cheese: For plain old cheddar cheese, you’re throwing money away if you’re paying more than $2.50 a pound. Safeway regularly puts their 32 ounce blocks of cheddar on sale for $5. It’s easy to pay more, but there’s no reason to. Of course, you will have to put in the extra effort to grate it or slice it yourself.

Cereal: I can no longer bring myself to pay more than $2.00 for a box of brand-name cereal. At full price, most cereals seem to cost around $4. I usually get mine for $1.25 or $1.50 using a combination of sales and coupons. Some brands go on sale frequently (like Cap’n Crunch and Life) while others you have be patient for (like Banana Nut Cheerios).

Produce: I’ve purchased a 5-pound bag of Russet potatoes for $1, a pound of carrots for 25 cents, and large yellow onions for 25 cents — and these deals were pretty easy to find. Some of them weren’t even sale prices. If you start paying attention, you’ll probably notice that some grocery stores in your area have drastically cheaper produce on a regular basis (hint: they’re probably not the big chains). I purchased cherries for 99 cents a pound by going to one such store in my area. Also, if you have a store that marks down its produce right before it’s about to go bad, you can save a bundle. If I can get a deal on produce this way, I’ll go on a vegetable-eating binge for 24 hours or freeze the stuff. Of course, the best way to get cheap produce is to grow it yourself, but I’ll save that for another post.

Even if you hate to track sales and clip coupons, if you do it for just the ten items that you purchase the most often, you can save a bundle. Then you’ll have extra money to buy more food, spend on something else, or put in your piggybank.

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Saving Money on Groceries with the Coupon Mom Method

The only thing I used to do to save money on groceries was to make a list before each shopping trip and stick to a monthly grocery budget. I didn’t use coupons because I figured I saved more money by purchasing store brands (preferably store brands on sale) and shopping at discount stores and farmers markets. I wouldn’t buy everything on my list sometimes — if something was too expensive that week, I would either do without or substitute for something cheaper. I didn’t clip coupons and I didn’t even get the weekly grocery ads in the mail because I had unsubscribed from them and every other conceivable form of junk mail.

Then I learned about the Coupon Mom, Stephanie Nelson. Through her website, www.couponmom.com, she teaches people how to save 50-75% on their grocery bills by using a combination of sales and coupons. I’ve had incredible success following her advice. Here are some items I’ve purchased recently and how much I saved:

Item Regular Price Sale Price Coupon Paid Percent Off
Chewy Bars
$2.50 $0.99 $0.50 $0.49 80.40%
Starburst Jellybeans $3.50 $0.99 $0.50 $0.49 86.00%
Essences Shampoo
$4.99 $2.99 $1.50 $1.49 70.14%
Crest Toothpaste $2.50 $1.00 $1.00 $0.00 100.00%
5 oz. Mahatma
Saffron Rice
$0.99 $0.99 $0.38 $0.62 37.88%
Prego Tomato
$3.59 $2.50 $0.40 $2.10 41.50%
Chocolate Chips
$4.19 $2.00 $0.75 $1.25 70.17%
Honey Mustard
$4.19 $0.00 $1.00 -$1.00 123.87%
Honey Dijon Mustard
$4.19 $2.00 $1.00 $1.00 76.13%
Pasta Sauce
$3.59 $2.50 $1.00 $1.50 58.22%
16 oz.
$3.99 $2.49 $1.50 $0.99 75.19%
Hand Soap
7.5 oz.
$2.39 $1.00 $0.70 $0.30 87.45%
Dole Superfruit $2.50 $1.50 $1.00 $0.50 80.00%
Cap'n Crunch
16 oz.
$3.99 $2.29 $1.30 $0.99 75.19%
water 24×12 oz.
$5.49 $3.33 $0.56 $2.77 49.54%
Life Cereal
15 oz.
$3.99 $2.29 $1.30 $0.99 75.19%
TOTALS $56.58 $14.48 74.42%

The percentage savings may seem a bit inflated to you. The reason the percentage savings are so high is because many chain grocery stores have high regular prices compared to what you might spend for the same item at a discount mass retailer like Target or Walmart. However, because many chain grocery stores double coupons (or partially “double” them—for example, giving you $1.00 off for a 55-cent coupon), you can still come out ahead at the grocery store if you use the sale/coupon method of shopping. Also, no matter where you shop, free is a good price for a full-sized tube of toothpaste.

You may have noticed that one of the items listed above, French’s honey mustard, was free, and I
had a coupon for it, so I actually made $1 on the transaction. This happened because I was overcharged for the item and brought it to a manager’s attention. He refunded the full price of the item and let me keep it, too. Paying attention during checkout and reviewing your receipt carefully before you leave the store are important components of getting the full savings you should on your groceries.

I almost never buy anything at the major chain grocery stores anymore unless the item is on sale and I have a coupon for it. I plan my shopping in advance by looking through the weekly ads and using the Coupon Mom website, which has a database of the unadvertised deals at grocery stores across the country (updated weekly) and even tells you which sale items have coupons and where you can find those coupons. I usually only buy about 10-20 items per week that represent the best deals on the types of products I would buy anyway. And if there’s an item that’s still not a good price even with a sale and a coupon, or if it’s something I don’t need no matter how good of a deal it is, I generally don’t buy it. However, I have bought a few things I’m not sure I’ll use because they were so cheap ($1 or less) and I can always donate them to charity if I end up not using them after a few months.

Finally, this shopping method has allowed me to start accumulating a stash of emergency food and water for both my home and my car. I’ve always put off doing this in the past because I couldn’t see spending $100 or so on food that was just going to sit around. Now that I am regularly getting grocery items for 50 cents or $1 each week, I am able to inexpensively accumulate emergency items.

It’s also important to note that some sale prices are better than others. One week pizzas may be on sale for $4.50, while another week the exact same pizzas may be on sale for $3.50. Once you start paying closer attention to sale prices (and perhaps even keeping a grocery price list), you’ll know then the best time to buy is. The best prices usually roll around every few weeks, and you should stock up and use your coupons then.

If you’ve been looking for a way to cut down on your grocery bill, I highly recommend trying the Coupon Mom’s method. Once you get the hang of the system, you won’t be spending much time clipping coupons or planning your shopping trips, and you’ll be amazed by how much money you’ll save.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

Standards for Living Expenses

If you’re trying to scale back your spending and live within your means or just save a little more each month, how do you determine reasonable spending amounts for each category of spending in your life like food, clothes, and transportation? Well, there are several government standards that you can use as a guideline.

The Internal Revenue Service has a set of standards for living expenses that it uses with people who are repaying delinquent taxes. Those filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the kind of bankruptcy where you gradually repay your debts, are allowed the same amounts by the U.S. Department of Justice. So it would seem safe to say that these amounts represent at least a bare minimum, if not a little more, of how much these expenses should cost each month.

National Standards: Food, Clothing and Other Items











Housekeeping supplies





Apparel & services





Personal care products & services















More than four persons

Additional Persons Amount

For each additional person, add to four-person
total allowance:


Source: http://www.IRS.gov

National Standards for Health Care
The IRS allows this amount in addition to a monthly amount for health insurance premiums. This money is expected to cover expenses such as doctor visits, eyeglasses, contact lenses, and prescriptions.

Out-of-Pocket Costs

Under 65


65 and Older


Source: http://www.IRS.gov

The IRS also allows expenditures for transportation, of course. How could you repay your debts if you couldn’t afford to get to work?

National Standards for Public Transportation



National Standards for Ownership Costs

One Car

Two Cars




Source: http://www.IRS.gov

Personally, I think the food allowance is very generous. For $528 a month, my two-person household could go out to eat quite a bit or buy all of our groceries at Whole Foods. We normally spend about $300 a month on groceries and a little more for restaurants. However, we spend a lot more than $165 on “miscellaneous.” It’s hard to say what we spend on housekeeping supplies or personal care items since we generally only buy these items a couple times a year — I try to stock up during sales. The health care allowance seems reasonable to me only if you are completely healthy.

I couldn’t believe it could cost $173 a month to use public transit, but some research revealed that a certain commuter bus pass in the Los Angeles area costs $180, and I imagine lengthy commutes on public transit in other geographically large cities might be equally as pricey. The national vehicle ownership costs are based on the monthly expected payment for a loan or lease. According to Bankrate.com’s monthly auto loan payment calculator, $489 would be the monthly payment on a $19,300 loan at 10% with a four-year term. Considering that it’s possible to purchase a brand-new, entry-level car for around $10,000, this amount seems pretty generous to me. And if you had this much money to buy a used car, you would have a wide range of options, many of them quite nice — a 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid, a 2005 Acura sedan, or a 2006 Mazda 6, to name just a few I found in a quick perusal of vehicles listed for sale by owner on Craigslist.

Note that there is no allowance for things many of us consider “necessities,” like cable TV or internet or even pet ownership.

For expenses like housing, utilities, and the operating costs of owning a vehicle, local standards, determined by the U.S. Census Bureau, apply. Look up the local standards for your area here. To give you a couple of examples, a 2-person family in St. Louis, Missouri is allowed $1,008 per month for housing and utilities; in San Francisco, it’s $2432; and in Dallas, Texas, it’s $1451. All of these amounts seem reasonable to me; you might not be renting a luxury apartment, but you definitely wouldn’t have to live in a bad neighborhood to meet these allowances. It might be hard in some areas to get by on these amounts if you’re a homeowner rather than a renter, however.

Another standard is the amount allowed for food by the food stamp program. This benefit is not a set amount, but is determined by factors like size of household, childcare expenses, income, and housing costs. For a 2-person household with no income, no childcare expenses, $1000 in housing costs and $100 in utility costs, $323 in food stamps would be allowed. Some people might look at this number as a poverty standard, but my household spends less than this amount on groceries and we’re not exactly living off ramen. Our diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen food items, none of which are particularly cheap. You can use this calculator to plug in variables and calculate a monthly food stamp benefit.

Since the government standards for living expenses mostly seem pretty reasonable, if your expenses fall far above these amounts and you’re trying to cut back, these guidelines should give you a reasonable, if not generous, starting point. How do these national standards compare to your spending habits?

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

Another Chase Freedom Credit Card "Promotion" Fails to Entice or Impress

I received the following email from Chase about a promotion involving my Chase Freedom card. This credit card offers 3% back on your top three spending categories each month and 1% back on all other purchases. I've earned a lot of cash back from this card over the two or three years that I've had it, but I stopped using it because some bloggers reported receiving letters that the 3% back offer was being discontinued. Since you can't cash out your rewards until you reach $50 in cash back, I didn't want to get stuck earning only 1% back on my purchases when I have other credit cards that allow me to earn more.

But this promotional email caught my eye. The subject line was "Triple Rewards until the end of the year." "Wow," I thought. Not only are they not discontinuing my 3% back, they're going to give it to me on everything!


This is yet another one of Chase's meaningless "bonus" offers. Here are the details:

"Enroll now and earn 3% Cash Back for every eligible dollar you spend above $1,500 on discount store, computer/electronics store and bookstore purchases between October 1 and December 31, 2009 ."

How is this a good deal? I have the Citi Forward card that gives me 5% back on all bookstore purchases, including all purchases at Amazon.com, without having to meet any threshold whatsoever, let alone a sky-high $1500 one. I'm not planning to make any computer or electronics purchases or any discount store purchases (unless Target is a discount store?).

Really, this "promotional" offer just underscores why I've quit using my Chase Freedom card. There are better deals to be had elsewhere. It's too bad that credit card offers and terms change so often that it's hard to keep the same card for years if you want to get the best deals. The only card I've kept in my wallet for years is my Discover card. From October through December, I'll be getting 5% back on all my grocery purchases. From June through August, I earned 5% back on gas. Those are meaningful rewards.

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Anatomy of a Bargain Hunter's Grocery Shopping Cart

I've written several posts now about how I save money on groceries, primarily by using the Coupon Mom method. In this post, I'll take you with me through a typical shopping trip to show how I planned my trip, what I bought, and how many great deals I got.

First, I created an account with CouponMom.com. Then, I clicked on the link "Grocery Deals by State" and clicked on the name of the store I wanted to visit. Because I had already perused the store's weekly circular, I knew they were having some great sales that I wanted to take advantage of. The Coupon Mom site would allow me to see both the store's advertised and unadvertised sales in an easy-to-read list format and alert me to which items had coupons available. I read these lists and noted all the items I wanted to buy, their prices, and whether they had a corresponding coupon. I try to buy everything when it is both on sale AND I have a coupon for it.

I went to the store with a list of sale items I wanted to buy as well as a list of other things we were out of that I hoped to pick up for a reasonable price. It isn't always possible to buy everything on sale and/or with a coupon, but I try to at least get everything at a fair price (for example, I never pay $4 for a gallon of milk or $7 for a 12-pack of soda--both are terrible deals where I live).

So here's what I bought:

Barilla whole wheat pasta: On sale for $1.50 for 16 ounces. A good price for a pound of pasta is $1. Anything less than that is great, especially for whole wheat pasta, which typically costs $1.29 a pound at best. I had a coupon for 50 cents off. The store doubles coupons, so I got this pound of pasta for 50 cents.

Barilla piccolini pasta: Same thing, except this is a type of miniature pasta instead of whole wheat. I really don't care that much what size my pasta is--I'm just happy to get another pound for 50 cents.

Tyson frozen breaded chicken breasts (4): On sale for $3.59. I have a coupon for $1 off, getting me the 10 ounce box of chicken for $2.59. No, this isn't the best price for chicken, but considering that it's already breaded and already cooked, the time I'll save on dinner one night is worth the extra cost.

Lean Pockets: On sale for $1.99 a box (a box has two lean pockets), but if I buy ten participating Kraft and Nestle items, I get $5.00 back, or an extra 50 cents off each item. I also have two register coupons for Lean Pockets from previous purchases. One is for 75 cents off three and one is for 75 cents off four. Perfect. I'll buy seven boxes. These are store coupons, which are not doubled, but I still get 7 boxes of lean pockets for $9. That's 14 Lean Pockets for $9, or 64 cents for a meal that involves nothing more than 2 minutes in the microwave to prepare.

Jello: I don't normally buy jello, but it's part of the $5 off on 10 items sale and I also have a coupon, and I can get the sugar-free kind so I'll have a healthy way to fulfill a sweet craving. The jello is $1 per box, and my coupon is for $1 off 2 boxes. With the additional 50 cents off each item from the $5 off 10 items sale, I essentially get two boxes of jello for free.

Buitoni fresh grated parmesan: Here's an example of something that isn't a great deal, but it's not a rip off, either. The container is $3.50. It's worth the convenience of getting the week's shopping done at one store to settle for a reasonable price on this item.

Bounty paper towels: On sale for $1, and I have a 25 cent off coupon which doubles to 50 cents. That gets me one roll of quality paper towels for 50 cents. Good deal.

Nestle chocolate chips: This is one item where I will only eat the name brand. I blame my mother for raising me on the back-of-the-bag Toll House recipe. Regular price, $4 a bag. On sale for $2.50, plus part of the $5 off 10 items promotion. I also have a coupon for $1 off a bag. Final price: $1. I know I'll use these come December to make holiday cookies as inexpensive Christmas gifts.

Tic Tac Chill: This is a new "high-end" mint. It's on sale for $1.00, and I have a coupon for 75 cents. The 75 cent coupon "doubles" to $1.00, so I get the Tic Tacs for free.

Deli turkey and ham: While I'm looking for the Foster Farms deli meats, which I have printed coupons for from Coupons.com, I notice some Oscar Meyer lunch meat with "manager's special" stickers on it. Eh, a package for $3.29? That's no deal. But wait! This isn't an ordinary 9 ounce package, which normally sells for $3 on sale. It's a full pound. There's also a package that's marked down to $1.99. Ca-ching! I buy all the remaining manager's special boxes on the shelf. It's probably marked down because it's approaching a sell-by date, but I've yet to see a piece of lunch meat go bad in my fridge.

Foster Farms marinated turkey tenderloins: I've never had these before, but they're also on manager's special. $4 for 24 ounces. Plus, there's a peel-off instant coupon on the package that will give me another $1 off. I peel off the coupon right away and put it with my other coupons so I won't forget to use it at the checkout. $3 for a pound and a half of healthy, name-brand meat that's already marinated? Good deal. Also, I can freeze it until I'm ready to use it.

Challenge spreadable butter: This is a product I actually use. It's on sale for $1.50 for 8 ounces, and I have a coupon from Coupons.com for 75 cents off and another for 55 cents off. Both will double to $1, getting me 8 ounces of butter for 50 cents, times two. Butter normally costs $2.50 a pound on sale, so $1 for a pound is great. Not as good as the free butter I got a few months ago, but still worth picking up.

I bought a few other things that I won't bore you with. It's important to note that I've purchased things I actually want to eat--I didn't just buy Lean Pockets because they were on sale--I actually like them. It's not much fun to get stuff on sale if you're not going to enjoy eating it. My total bill came to $74.11. The food I bought, plus a few things I have at home, will feed two people for at least a week. My total savings, printed at the bottom of the receipt, is $43.71, so overall I got my groceries for 37% off. Some weeks I do even better percentage-wise, but that's usually if I have a shorter list that includes nothing but sale+coupon items. Still, I got some great deals and I'm happy with my purchases and my savings.

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Inexpensive Ways to Get Organized

If you can’t afford the luxury of a professional crew of organizers and designers to organize your clutter and maximize your space, that doesn’t mean you have to keep living in chaos. Those of us on a budget still have plenty of options for getting organized. All you need to get started is some time and $30 (or maybe even less).

First, decide what area you want to focus on. If your home is in decent shape, you may feel comfortable focusing on your home as a whole. If every square foot is a disaster zone, pick a small area to start with, like the entryway or a bedroom.

Here are some techniques you can implement and inexpensive items you can buy to start getting organized. (Try buying them at a dollar store to get more bang for your buck.)

Trash bags: It’s difficult to get organized when you have too much stuff. Take two trash bags (or boxes) and fill one with items to donate and one with items to throw away. Don’t stop until you’ve filled both—the impact will be significant.

Ziplock bags: Ziplock bags are great for grouping small, like items together. For example, if you were organizing your desk drawer, you would put pens in one bag, pencils in another, highlighters in third bag, paperclips in a fourth, and so on until every category of item has its own bag.

You may have a drawer full of bags when you’re done, and it may not be as pretty as a plastic organizer tray, but it will be a lot easier to find what you’re looking for when everything is grouped together in manageable bunches than when it’s all tangled together in one big heap.

GladWare containers: I use these inexpensive plastic containers (or their store-brand equivalent) to organize toiletry items in my bathroom and linen closet. I like to buy the 64 ounce size because it holds a lot of medium-sized items, like travel toiletries, bars of soap, razors, or air-freshener refills. If you also have a lot of smaller items to organize, like lipsticks, buy some smaller containers.

Of course, these containers aren’t just helpful in the bathroom. You can use them in the garage to sort hardware (screws in one container, nails in another), in the office to sort supplies, in the kitchen to sort all those packets of ketchup and disposable silverware packets you’re hanging on to, or anywhere else you have lots of small items that need decluttering.

Clear, one-quart containers: I’ve found these for $1 at Target. Larger than GladWare containers, they’re good for sorting and neatly storing items like video game controllers, computer software disks, small computer accessories, and stamps and envelopes. It’s important to buy clear ones so you can easily see what’s inside and find what you need after you put it away. If your organization system doesn’t make things easy for you, you won’t stick with it.

Accordion folder with multiple file slots: I use this to sort my mail so it doesn’t end up in an ugly, overwhelming heap on my dining room table. Each day when the mail comes, I quickly go through it and sort it into four categories: recycle, shred, file, and deal with later. Then I put each pile into one of the slots in my accordion folder.

Some people may prefer to get rid of the recycle and shred stuff immediately, but I find this method easier to stick with because it takes less time. And having all the “deal with” stuff in one place means I can sit down for an hour once a week and knock out a bunch of things at once, reducing the amount of time I spend dealing with bills and other annoyances.

You don’t have to use a folder like this just for mail — you can use the same system in any room you’re organizing where you need to go through lots of papers.

File boxes: You may not be able to afford (or find space for) an entire filing cabinet, but you can pick up a plastic file box and some hanging file folders for about $20. Use this to store your important documents, like tax records, bank statements, and health records. Put new documents in a “to be filed” folder at the front of the box as you receive them, then make it a point to file them in their respective folders once a month.

If you’re not sure where to put something, just make a new folder for it – it’s easy to put things away as long as you have a place for them. This system takes very little time to maintain.

Hangers: It’s easy to end up with a messy closet, but it’s a simple problem to fix. You probably won’t need to lay out any cash for this one, either. First, decide which items you wear often enough that they merit taking up the limited space in your closet. Put each item on a hanger, then sort the items into piles on your bed by category – tank tops, short-sleeved shirts, long-sleeved shirts, sweaters, jeans, work shirts, and work pants, for example.

Then, hang up each pile in an order that’s logical to you. Put the items you wear most in the part of your closet that’s easiest to access. For all the clothes that you decided don’t need to hang in the closet, get rid of them if you’re comfortable with that, but if not, fold them up and store them in boxes. While getting rid of things can be an important step toward getting more organized, I think some organizing gurus place too much emphasis on this step, making it difficult for people who like to hang on to their stuff to get organized. If you find that you don’t miss the stuff you’ve put in boxes, you can always get rid of it later.

If you want to take your closet organization to the next level, hang everything with the hanger backwards. Then, after you’ve worn an item (and washed it), hang it back up the regular way. This allows you to see which clothes you’re actually wearing and which you aren’t. (I got this tip from Nate Berkus on an episode of Oprah.)

You’re probably busy and stressed out enough with the activities of your daily life — why make it worse by continuing to live in a space where it’s hard to find what you need when you need it, where piles of stuff make things feel even more chaotic? Just a few hours and these inexpensive items can make a big difference, and you can even do it with music or the TV on to make it less of a chore.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

15 Things that Make Flying Coach Bearable

Baby boomers remember a time when airline travel was a luxury and a reason to dress up. But these days, does anyone look forward to flying? Passenger complaints have been increasing along with consumer activism and lobbying congress, but the myriad annoyances involved in taking a commercial flight aren’t expected to get better in the forseeable future.

Until the system has been overhauled, here are some things you can bring on board that will help make your flight as pleasant as possible, whether everything goes according to schedule or you get stuck on the tarmac for seven hours.

1. Medication. If you take any prescription medications regularly, make sure they’re in your carry-on, especially if taking your medication on time is critical to your health. You also might consider bringing any nonprescription medications that could ease your flight, like ibuprofen for a headache, Dramamine for motion sicknesss, or pseudoephedrine for stopped-up ears.

2. Headphones. You can go all-out and purchase some noise-canceling headphones from Bose for $300, or you can try one of the many knockoffs that start as low as $30. These over-the-ear headphones can add unwanted bulk to your limited carryon luggage, though, so you might consider some noise-reducing earphones instead like Shure’s E2C headphones, which go into your ears like earplugs and create a seal to block out sound (they make your breathing and eating sound very loud, but it’s better than enduring crying babies or those constant, unnecessary in-flight announcements).

3. Snacks. If you can mange the space, you might want to bring as much as 24 hours’ worth of food with you in case there isn’t any available to buy during a delay. Dense, high-calorie foods like protein bars, nuts, and dried fruit are good options that will provide you with filling nutrition for minimal space. They’ll also save you money if you normally buy the tiny, overpried snacks sold on board.

4. Water. Flights are notoriously dehydrating, and those tiny cups from the beverage cart won’t quench your thirst. Bring your own water bottle, the larger the better. You can still take it through security as long as it’s empty, and then you can fill it up at the water fountain before boarding your plane. Then, you can enjoy the luxury of taking a sip whenever you’re thirsty instead of whenever you’re fortunate enough to have a beverage cart pass by.

5. Toothbrush. This small, lightweight item can go a long way towards making you feel refreshed during a long flight or delay.

6. Travel blanket and pillow. We’d all like to think that the pillows and blankets provided by airlines (when they’re actually available) are clean, but there’s no way to know for sure that your blanket doesn’t contain a previous passenger’s drool. Plus, the pillows are too small and the blankets are always staticky. Instead, bring your own travel pillow ($10-$30) and blanket (compact silk sleep sacks are surprisingly warm and can be had for $20-$30) to stay comfortable and warm on a cold flight. Also, putting a small pillow behind your back on the plane can make your seat a lot more comfortable, and both items will be indispensable if you get stranded in an airport overnight.

7. Plenty of warm clothing. Who knows why some flights are warm and stuffy while others seem to let in the freezing air from outside the plane, but since you never know what you’ll get stuck with, it’s always a good idea to dress in layers. Relatively small items like legwarmers and hats can add a lot of warmth for not much carry-on space.

8. iPod video. Though certainly not in the budget-saving category, for some people the best way to lose track of time and their surroundings on a flight is to watch TV shows or movies. Since not all flights offer in-flight shows (or ones that you’d actually want to watch), bringing your own entertainment is the way to go. The battery won’t last long with constant video watching, however, so make sure to purchase a portable charger like the i-Turbo (which provides about 25 minutes of viewing time per AA battery).

9. Podcasts and audiobooks. Another great benefit to bringing an iPod video on the plane with you is that you can also pass the time (or lull yourself to sleep) with podcasts and audiobooks. The podcasts, at least, can be free.

10. Laptop. If you have the space and aren’t skittish about your computer getting stolen or damaged during your trip, consider bringing your laptop on your next trip. You’ll have multiple activities at your fingertips to distract you during the flight. Depending on the length of your flight and what you’re planning on doing, you might want to get an extra battery and a privacy screen.

11. Portable DVD player. If you’d like something that has a larger screen than an iPod, but that isn’t as cumbersome (or as expensive) as a laptop, a portable DVD player might be a good idea. If you find a good deal, you can get one for under $100. (Unfortunately, the battery life on these isn’t any better than the battery life on your laptop, and extra batteries are expensive, so on long flights, you’ll need more than just a portable DVD player to stay entertained.)

12. White noise/relaxation tracks. If you really just want some silence, the closest thing you’ll get when surrounded by 200 other people is a white noise or relaxation track ($10). You can buy these as downloads to simplify the process of getting them onto your MP3 player, or if you’re still operating from a tape deck or CD player, just buy a tape or CD.

13. Icy Hot patches and/or pain medication. Sitting in a cramped space for such a long time and carrying around heavy luggage can take a toll on anyone, but especially people with pre-existing pain issues. Icy Hot patches don’t smell as strong as pain-relieving rubs, allowing you to sooth your pain without overly irritating the people sitting around you. They also don’t count toward your carryon liquid allowance.

14. Earplugs. If you don’t have noise-reducing headphones or don’t want to spend the money on them, earplugs are a small, lightweight, and inexpensive alternative. If you want to make some friends on the flight, bring extra pairs to hand out to your neighbors when the babies start crying.

15. Eyeshade. You never know if the person next to you will want to leave their reading light on during the entire flight when you were planning to get some sleep. Bring a thick eyeshade that really blocks out light and you’ll be able to rest regardless of the time of day or the activities of your neighbors.

Whether you bring all of these items or just a few, you’re bound to have a better flight with them than without.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

Getting Married: A Losing Financial Proposition?

I hate to say it, but one reason I am hesitant to get married at this point in my life is because of the financial implications. I think about the financial implications of everything I do, so it follows that I would be no different when it comes to the decision of marriage--which is one of the biggest financial decisions you'll ever make.

Unless you have so much money that you don't need to think about the financial implications of your decisions (which probably isn't the case if you're reading this article), you should consider these potential financial disadvantages of marriage before you get hitched.

1. How much will the act of getting married cost us? The cost of joining in holy matrimony can be as low as the fee for a marriage license or as high as the sky. If you have well-to-do parents who are paying for your wedding, cost may not be an issue for you. If you want to have a wedding and are planning to pay for the wedding yourself, however, it may be difficult to do so for under $5,000. In my opinion, there are many better things a young, newlywed couple could do with even $5,000 than throw a large party, let alone $10,000 or $25,000. Even if the funds for your wedding are coming from parents, consider what they could do for you with that money instead of throwing a wedding--like provide a down payment for a house, or start a college fund for your future children (if that's in your plans). The flip side is that the only other occasion in your life when you're likely to get everyone you like and love together under one roof is at your funeral, so it might be worth spending a few bucks for this occasion. No, you can't put a price on memories--but you don't have to put a price you can't afford on them, either.
2. How will getting married affect our income tax liability?Depending on your combined incomes and the details of your individual tax situations, getting married can either reduce your combined tax bill or increase it. There is no blanket marriage penalty or marriage reward when it comes to income taxes. If money is tight and getting married means you're going to owe another $1,000 a year in income tax, maybe you're better off postponing the official husband and wife thing and saving that $1,000 a year until your incomes rise enough or your expenses decrease enough that it becomes less significant to you.

3. If one partner is self-employed and the other is an employee, how will getting married affect the self-employed partner's medical benefits? The income tax code infuriatingly takes away the ability to claim health insurance premiums as a tax writeoff for the self employed once you are married if you are eligible to participate in a spouse's program. This means that either your health insurance premiums effectively increase by your marginal tax rate, or you have to go with your spouse's group policy (a change which comes with enough implications for a separate article).
4. Do I trust my potential future spouse with my money? If you don't, well, you probably shouldn't be getting married until the situation improves or you find a more reliable partner. Getting married will increase your spouse's access to your money on all levels. A spouse who is dishonest, a spendthrift, has a gambling problem, is irresponsible, or who refuses to become informed about basic money management is going to affect your financial situation whether he knows your PIN or not.
There are, of course, more aspects of the decision to get married than the financial ones, as any long-term couple who doesn't have the right to marry will attest, but I think that many people, blinded by love and convention, do not consider the financial aspects of marriage at all until after the fact. At the very least, people should be aware that there are financial implications to the decision and make a consious choice of whether to factor finances into their decision to get married, even if they ultimately decide that factors like religious beliefs or emotion are more important.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

Teach Your Partner About Household Finances

If you're reading this, chances are the person who manages the finances in your household is you. But even if your significant other isn't very good at it or is happy to let you handle everything, it's best if both people are aware of key accounts and how to access them, especially to be prepared for an emergency. My Investopedia article, Teaching Your Partner About Household Finances, will show you how to get another person up-to-speed on this important topic.

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Why I Don't Care that I May Have Overpaid for My House

I may have overpaid for my house. This is pretty surprising behavior, coming from someone who routinely gets strange looks at the grocery store for doing things like stocking up on twelve-packs of soda when they're on sale for $2.00. So why on earth would I blow off how I could have gotten a house for a lot less money? Well, there's a lot more to buying a house than looking at the price tag.

1. I had to move (sort of). Making the decision to buy a house when you are in a situation where you have to move is never ideal, but it's a situation many people find themselves in. While I technically did not have to move, as I could have continued living in an apartment where my rent was unceremoniosly increased every month, my privacy was repeatedly invaded, the building-wide fire alarm went off at least once a month, I did not feel safe, and roaches were taking over ever inch of my living space, I had reached a breaking point where I no longer felt able to live under those conditions or risk living under similar conditions in another apartment, as most of the apartments I'd lived in had considerable issues with some combination of noise, maintenance, pests, and safety. For the sake of my sanity, and perhaps my safety, I needed a dramatic improvement in quality of life. So I "had to" move and I "had to" buy a house (condo living just seemed like a worse form of apartment living to me, with higher stakes and decreased mobility).

2. There were very few options in my price range. After I started house hunting, I quickly realized that the amount I had set out to pay for a house wasn't an option. At best, it might be an okay amount to spend in the short-term, but I knew it would be a poor decision in the long term. I learned that I was going to have to find a way to spend considerably more unless I wanted to live on a very busy street, in an unsafe neighborhood, or in a very run-down house. In the short run, some of these tradeoffs might have seemed acceptable, but since one of the major reasons I was moving was to improve my quality of life and since I wanted to at least have the option of living in the same house for the rest of my life, I decided to take a more long-term view and stretch my budget to get a nicer place.

3. I know I can make up for part of the cost by paying off my mortgage early, refinancing at a lower interest rate, or selling at a profit someday. Yes, I could also do these things with a less expensive home, saving myself even more money, but at least there are ways to decrease the total cost of this home, should I choose to take advantage of them.

4. Without overpaying, I wouldn't have gotten this house. My boyfriend and I only looked at 13 houses because there were so few options in our bottom-of-the-market price range, but we felt and still feel that this was the one and only right house for us (on the market and in our price range, that is), and we have continued to feel this way even after continuing to look at listings for other homes that have come on the market in our area in the months following our purchase. We bought a foreclosure, and at the bottom of the market, houses were being snatched up in no time at all. We acted quickly and put in an offer slightly over the bank's asking price, rather than underbidding by several thousand as our very experience agent suggested because he felt the house was overpriced. But the bank accepted our offer almost immediately, and on a weekend, no less. We could have offered less, but we didn't feel that the risk of ending up in a lesser house or continuing to rent was worth the possibility of saving this money. We knew that in our price range, we had come across a uniquely nice foreclosure, and that we wouldn't be the only people to notice those things.

5. I wanted someone else to pay for my closing costs. One of the things I was long dreading about buying a house was dealing with the ripoff of closing costs. Books and articles (including articles I've written) will tell you that many closing costs are negotiable and that if you present yourself as a savvy consumer and stand firm, you can get many of them waived. Well, I wasn't able to get some of my bogus closing costs waived, and I had a sense that might be the case. Rather than stressing out over every penny (or, as the case was, every hundred dollars), I wanted the seller to pay my closing costs. I also wanted to reduce the amount of cash I needed to come up with at the outset, since the foreclosure needed some work to be a pleasant place to live. I knew that asking for thousands of dollars in closing costs would be a lot more likely to go over if I put in an attractive offer on the house. And I did get my closing costs paid. I only had to come up with the down payment.

6. Sometimes money does buy happiness. I have, in fact, been much happier since I moved out of the apartment and into the house. At the rate the apartment situation was deteriorating, with the constant rent increases and burgeoning roach population, I am extremely grateful to have spent the last nine months living in a clean, safe environment where (so far) the monthly payments have been the same every month. Though it has cost me much, much more to live in this house than it would have cost me to continue living in the apartment, and my disposable income has decreased dramatically, it has been worth it.

7. I had to consider someone else's wishes. If I were still single (and, let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that I could afford to buy a house on my income alone), I would have chosen to move to another apartment and wait for the absolute perfect house to come along (the one I bought, though the best available, is not absolutely perfect). But my boyfriend did not want to move twice. And it wasn't just that he casually didn't want to move twice--he vehemently didn't want to move twice. There are not a lot of things that my boyfriend insists on. He is extremely easy to get along with. So the fact that this was so important to him was something I felt I had to take seriously. Some people really hate moving. I am not one of them, because I don't have a lot of stuff and I like the change of scenery, but I get it. Moving takes a lot more time and effort than what happens on the moving day itself. It involves searching for a new place to live, hours of packing and unpacking, going through everything you own, living out of boxes, physical pain, and spending money on things you need for the new place that you didn't need for the old place. In our case, it also meant getting skittish kitties used to a new environment. Why go through all of that twice if you don't have to?

8. My home is my favorite place to be. I don't really mind being house-poor for the time being because my home is my favorite place to be. It is quiet, peaceful, and decorated exactly the way I want within the confines of my budget. I haven't really missed not being able to buy what is ultimately random junk (do I really need a fourth iPod?) and I have survived not going out to eat three times a week and taking fewer trips. I may be spending a lot of money, but at least I enjoy and appreciate what I'm spending on, and the thing I am spending it on will last a lot longer than the many trivial items I might have purchased otherwise.

Closing Thoughts

Don't get me wrong--I'm not advocating stretching your budget to buy the nicest place you could hope to live in. If you don't have to go to the top of your price range to buy a house you will be content with, please don't. There's no reason to create unnecessary financial pressure in your life.

But buying a house, like most purchases, is not just a financial decision, it's also an emotional one. Sometimes it just doesn't make sense to overlook the emotional aspects of a purchasing decision, even if it means spending more money.

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Making Home Ownership Affordable

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Post by Amy Fontinelle

My Biggest Banking Pet Peeve: Teller Indiscretion is Okay?

When it comes to banking, there is nothing I hate more then cashing a check. Why? Because the tellers count out your money as if there is zero chance that someone nearby can see or hear what is going on, which is not the case at all.

I used to have to cash petty cash checks for work, and the checks were for about $1,500. The tellers would count out the money for all nearby to see and hear. I always felt nervous walking away from the transaction, going to the parking lot, getting into my car, and driving back to work. I was afraid someone would try to mug me in the parking lot or even follow me in my car to mug me later. I felt like a walking target. I had the same problem when I withdrew a large sum of cash from my account to purchase a used car.

Why do bank tellers insist on counting money for customers indiscreetly? There is no need to lay out the bills on top of the counter, count them loudly, then hand them over to me sans envelope (even when I ask and provide the envelope, I might add). The fact that most banks I visit do not have any sort of glass separating the tellers from the customers makes this lack of discretion even worse. I know that tellers deal with so much money that it probably seems like no big deal to them, but it is a big deal to me.
If you work at a bank, I would love to hear your take on this. And if you have similar feelings about this practice or suggestions on how to deal with it, please tell me.

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Post by Amy Fontinelle