Category Archives: Money saving steps

A New World for Entertainment

My idea of entertainment has changed quite a bit since mid-March.  Those who have been reading my posts for a while know that I love live music.  A normal summer for me would include 8 or more music festivals.  Fall and winter for me usually involve several concerts.  I also love theater, movies, and Friday evenings at my local brew pub.  Of course, thanks to a global pandemic, none of these things are happening as they used to.  But art finds a way.

I’m grateful that live music is still happening.  Over the last 6 months I’ve attended concerts in some very unusual ways.  Most of the “live” music I’ve seen has actually been recordings of shows from the past.  But I wasn’t there the first time, so watching those streams on my television was brand new for me.  Then came the “empty venue” shows.  Artists got creative and started playing live shows in empty venues to be streamed.  To make it easier for the bands, sometimes this even includes a Zoom with the fans so the band can see the fans reacting to the music.  (And I have to say…one of the coolest things I’ve experienced during this pandemic was watching one of my favorite bands watching me on a screen while they played.)  And then came the drive-in concerts.  Live concerts where tickets are sold by the carload.  Each car gets a designated space beside their car for tailgating and dancing.

Watching a new release movie has been a much different experience this summer as well.  “Straight to video” used to mean the movie was terrible.  Now it means it’s good enough that they really want people to see it, so it’s released immediately into streaming rental.  So I pop my own popcorn and watch from the comfort of my living room.

Big Ten football is soon to be making a reappearance.  And I won’t be disappointed to watch Penn State play.  I typically prefer to watch on TV anyway.  But for those who will miss the tailgating, there’s no rule saying you can’t tailgate at home!  Set up the canopy.  Fire up the grill.  Get out the cornhole boards.  You don’t have to be at Beaver Stadium to have the typical tailgate fun!  I had a few front yard cookouts over the summer just to break the monotony of quarantine, and it was really fun to chat with any neighbors that walked by and to share a socially distant beverage with a few friends.  Football could only make that better, right?

I haven’t really delved into socially distant Zoom theater, but I know it is happening.  I no longer eat and drink at my local brewpub, but I still enjoy their takeout food and canned beverages.  Whatever it is you normally love for entertainment, there is probably some new safe way to experience it like never before.

The hidden bonus of all this change is the cost.  Streaming a new release movie at home is less expensive than going out and buying popcorn and soda.  Streaming a concert is MUCH cheaper than going in person (sometimes it’s completely free!).  Even drive-in concerts saved me a bunch of money on food and beverage (because you can bring your own in your car!).  Eating and drinking at home is cheaper than in a restaurant.  A front yard tailgate is cheaper than football tickets.  My entertainment budget LOVES this pandemic.  (Not to mention that most of the music festival tickets I bought for this year I have rolled over to next year, so next year’s budget won’t feel that hit either).  We’re all feeling the fatigue of the pandemic.  But it is still possible to have a lot of fun in some creative ways.  And you can save money in the process!

Camping is Cool

Camping seems to be the cool way to have fun this year.  It’s an outdoor activity.  It’s by nature socially distant.  It’s a way to travel without being in contact with people or eating in restaurants.  And there are options for every budget.

You may think of camping as a tent in the woods and cooking over a fire.  You may think of camping as a giant motorhome in an RV resort bordering on Disneyworld.  And there are a million variations in between.

When my husband and I decided to go to a pair of drive-in concerts this weekend, I didn’t think twice about where to stay.  More than one night at a place more than an hour and a half from home in the summertime automatically made me think of camping.  I booked a site at a State Park near the concert.  For $60 I got a place to stay for those two nights.  If I hadn’t wanted to pay a little extra for convenience (electricity and showers), I could have chosen a site in a State Forest for free.  I packed and cooked my own food.  And I slept in my camper bed, which is actually more comfortable than the bed in the last hotel I visited.

Camping is often thought of as an activity unto itself.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a low-cost travel lodging option.  For many (hopefully including myself after I retire) it’s a full-time living choice.

Break out the hot-dogs and marshmallows.  Camping is cool!

 

Wrap It Up for the Future

The last few weeks my husband and I have been dabbling in make-ahead wrapped foods.  I bought a pack of burrito tortillas at the local warehouse club and threw caution to the wind.  I got out my Instant Pot and cooked up some chicken breasts in barbecue sauce.  I shredded the chicken then wrapped it up in the tortillas with some cheese.  It made 9 wraps that I wrapped individually in aluminum foil and put in the freezer.  A week later I took four of them on a camping trip, heated them up on our grill (still wrapped in the foil) and had a really easy (delicious) meal!

My husband decided to tackle the rest of the tortillas last Friday and make some burritos.  He’s a better cook than I am so he made his own refried beans, rice, and seasoned ground chicken to stuff them with (along with cheese, of course!).  Amazingly, what he prepared used exactly the remaining 7 tortillas from the jumbo pack I bought.  And then we had even more already prepared food that just needed to be heated up.

Now here is where my ultimate frugal side comes into play.  This weekend we went to a pair of drive-in concerts and stayed in a hotel (because I had enough hotel reward points for a free room).  And we didn’t want to eat in restaurants because of the pandemic.  But we had burritos and chicken wraps ready to go.  So one of the things I packed for the weekend was my slow cooker.  I know…who takes their slow cooker on a hotel vacation?!?!  I do.  It’s perfect for heating up those foil wrapped burritos and chicken wraps and toasting up the tortilla a little bit in the process.  We saved the cost of eating out.  We ate food that wasn’t fried.  We didn’t have to risk Covid to eat in a restaurant.  It was the perfect choice for us at this particular time in life.

Sometimes you stumble into a good idea that’s worth keeping around.  I’ve never taken my slow cooker on a hotel outing before.  But I probably will again someday.  And I’ve never made wraps or burritos just to put in the freezer for the future.  But I likely will again…very soon!  It’s terribly convenient on those days when you don’t want to cook to just reach into the freezer and have something home cooked that just needs to be heated.  Times are weird right now…but weird times can teach us things that are useful going forward!

Food on the Road

Thanksgiving is the biggest travel holiday of the year in the United States.  Whether by car, train, bus, or airplane, there are steps you can take to save a significant amount of money on food while you are traveling.

If you’re heading out on the ground (car, train, or bus) it’s easy to pack a lunch, including drinks, to eat along the road.  A sandwich and soda or water that you bring from home are a lot less expensive than those you buy along the way.   Throw it all in a bag and you are set for hundreds of miles!

Things get a little trickier when you are traveling by airplane.  The TSA has restrictions on what you can bring through security.  Luckily, the restrictions only apply to liquids.  So your sandwich (and apple, and chips, and crackers) is fine to go through security.  The beverage is the tricky part.  When I fly I always carry on an empty refillable water bottle.  Most airports have bottle filling stations, so once you get through security you can fill your bottle and be set for the day (also an effective strategy for staying hydrated at the law school!).

Traveling is expensive enough on its own.  There’s no need to compound that with the cost of road food!

Kitchen Gadgets and the Money Saver I Never Saw Coming

I can’t help myself.  I love a good kitchen gadget.  If it’s supposed to make cooking easier, healthier, or more fun, I’ve got to have it.  So, on Black Friday when the shopping discounts were flying madly, I grabbed myself an Instant Pot.  Everybody seems to have one these days, so I had to have one too.  I laid out my money, hoping this wouldn’t turn into one of those gadgets sitting on top of my cabinets collecting dust and kitchen grease.

Now that the Instant Pot has been unboxed for a couple of weeks, I have my doubts about whether this thing will ever leave my kitchen counter.  I have long loved my slow cooker and my rice cooker.  And this can replace both of those and do so much more.  The first experiment was a batch of macaroni and cheese.  Way better than the box and in about ten minutes.  The Instant Pot had my attention.  My next go-round was Thai peanut chicken ramen.  And if someone had told me a month ago that I had the ability to make Thai food that good I would have laughed.  Yet here I am…somehow a master one-pot chef!

Since I now have the ability to cook a lot of food really quickly (this is where the Instant Pot really excels!), it dawned on me that I should join the meal prep movement.  I love the ability to just grab a dish from my fridge or freezer for the day’s lunch.  But Lean Cuisine has grown a bit tiresome and I can certainly do without the extra sodium that comes in those convenient plastic dishes.  So Sunday afternoon I grabbed a five-pack of those infamous meal prep containers from my local Wally World and got to cooking.  I started with a jumbo batch of brown rice, which the Instant Pot makes perfectly in about 30 minutes.  Then I whipped up a big batch of my Asian favorite, chicken and broccoli.  And just like that I had lunch for the week, with a few extra cups of cooked brown rice on reserve in my freezer.  I’m sure the total expense of the ingredients was significantly less than I would have paid for five Lean Cuisine entrees, and I feel like the food is better for me.

I’m a gadget girl.  But with this particular gadget I somehow fell backward into the money-saving world of bulk meal preparation.  Right now my plan is to continue that trend.  I’ll probably slip up at some point.  But this week I’m loving my own cooking for lunch!

Cutting Corners Without Blowing the Budget

We have officially arrived at the most stressful point in the semester.  Classes are winding down or already completed.  Papers are coming due.  Exams loom near.  Sometimes it seems like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.  It happens to everyone.  And, sadly, it doesn’t end when you finish school.  There will always be times in your life when you find yourself overextended.

I’m having one of those weeks right now.  I was traveling this weekend, so I didn’t have quite enough time to get all of my typical weekend adulting done.  I was able to complete my laundry, but I just didn’t have it in me to get to a grocery store last night.  Sometimes you have to cut corners when time is tight.  But the important thing is not to overextend your budget just because your time is stretched too thin.  It would be really easy to exist for the entire week on takeout food and Au Bon Pain.  But that would cause serious pain to my pocketbook.  The better alternative for me was to log into the Walmart grocery app this morning and put together a grocery order for pickup tonight.  Since I really don’t have anything resembling a dinner in my house right now, I’ll stop at Wegmans on my way home to grab something from the frozen case for tonight’s nourishment, and then by 8 tonight I’ll have my Walmart grocery order.  It could have been a whole week of restaurant food, which would have easily been $20 a day or more for my husband and me.  Instead, I took a short cut to really get some groceries.

We can’t always do things exactly the way we’d like, especially when time is tight.  But in this world of modern conveniences there are ways to less expensively work around time constraints.

Exam time is hard.  Sometimes corner must be cut.  But you’ve got this.  Use the tools available to you, and you will make it through!

Procrastination Has a Price

Sometimes procrastination can be expensive.  I discovered recently that I had become complacent about some things in my finances.

I told you last week that I had bought a new (to me) car and had used financing available through the dealership that was not my best deal.  I knew when I bought the car that I was going to refinance the loan at a lower rate with my credit union.  But I bought the car in May and didn’t get around to handling the refinance until November.  Now that it’s done, I’m paying $8 more per month, but for 6 months less than it would have been had I not refinanced.  Ultimately this is saving me more than $900 in interest.  If I had done it sooner it would have been a lot more.  But I procrastinated.

My husband used to drive for Uber.  If you’ve ever been picked up by a really big guy in a little black Prius, that was him.  But he decided to give up the driving business after spring semester.  I should have called my insurance company immediately to let them know that our vehicle usage had changed.  But I procrastinated.  I finally reached out to my insurance company last week, and now I’m going to be paying about $30 per month less for my car insurance.  Procrastination cost me $150.

I’ve long been a fan of online savings accounts.  The interest rates are always a lot higher because they don’t have the overhead expenses that bricks and mortar banks do.  I jumped onto the online banking train nearly 15 years ago with ING.  A couple of years ago ING folded and all of a sudden my accounts were with Capital One 360.  I’ve never loved Capital One, but I didn’t really think about it at the time.  No banks were paying much in interest at the time, so I just rolled with it.  But savings rates have been creeping up for the last year or so.  I decided to take a look to see where things were with Capital One 360 and was surprised to see things were not so great.  Their rates are comparable to other online banks, but only if you carry a balance of $10,000 or more.  Since I don’t have anywhere near that, I was only earning about half of what I could have been on my meager savings.  So I started shopping.  Now I have a brand new online savings account with Ally Bank (one of three options I decided were worthwhile—Discover and Amex also have great rates and good reviews).  I’ll be earning almost twice the interest I was before, and I no longer have to deal with a bank I never wanted to choose in the first place.

Finances are definitely a participation sport.  You have to put in some effort to get the best results. If you don’t….you end up missing out.  Procrastination can be expensive.  Have you been putting the necessary work into your money?  If not, it’s time to think about it!

Lottery Fever

Just a week ago the whole country was going a little nutty for the Mega Millions lottery drawing.  The idea of winning $1.6 billion overnight can definitely pique a person’s interest.  I admit it.  I bought $20 worth of tickets myself.  I spent $20 for the privilege of dreaming of what I would do with my millions in the off-chance that the numbers fell in my favor.

I didn’t win.  I didn’t expect to win.  I’ve run the numbers myself enough times to fully understand what my father always told me:  “The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.”  If you play with regularity…yes….you might win a little bit from time to time.  But usually you don’t.  And if you were to put that money into a savings or investment plan rather than spending it on the lottery you would come out much further ahead.

Yet I played.  I knew I wouldn’t win and still I played.  I didn’t pay my money expecting to win.  I paid my money for a couple of nights of dreaming that maybe I could win.  I didn’t mortgage my house to buy thousands of tickets.  I bought what I was comfortable with losing.  And that’s what makes it ok.  It was $20 worth of entertainment.  I knew it wasn’t an investment in my future.  It was just fun to be a part of it and dream a bit.  That’s the way gambling is supposed to work.  Never bet more than you can afford to lose.  And don’t continue to play after you lose that amount.

And my fun isn’t totally over yet.  In my wallet I have a raffle ticket that I bought for $25.  Tonight I’ll find out if I win a brand new Subaru Forester (or $20,000 cash—my choice), or if I’ve just donated $25 to a local animal shelter that I probably would have donated to within the next few months anyway.  You can’t win if you don’t play.  But you should only play with money you are prepared to lose.

Can I Get a Second Opinion?

Sometimes you really should get a second opinion.  You think about it with medical issues.  One doctor says you are going to die of random disease X, so you seek a different doctor who may offer you different news.  But you should really think about it in terms of other things that cost a lot of money.  Car repairs immediately come to mind.

There have been a couple of times that I took my old Subaru Forester to a local repair shop and was stunned by the quotes.  When I called my father in tears, wondering how in the world I would pay for $1000 in repairs on my 2004 Subie, he advised me to get a second opinion.  My dad is a wise man.  I made an appointment at one of the places that he takes his car.  It was a two hour drive, but I got to spend some time with my parents so I didn’t mind.  In the end, I got that repair done for half of what I was quoted in State College.  That second opinion saved me $500.  Some of the work recommended at the State College garage wasn’t even deemed necessary.  The work that was required was done at a much less expensive price.  I felt like I won the lottery.

Owning a car is definitely a double edged sword.  If you don’t have one, you are slave to the bus schedule.  If you have a new car, you likely have to deal with monthly car payments.  If you have an old car, you are likely waiting for the other shoe to drop with the next major repair.  Any path you choose will at some point seem like the wrong one.  But never be afraid to second guess the “experts.”  It’s always ok to get a second opinion.

 

Tales from the Bus

This weekend was my first Blue and White outing.  After working for Penn State for 15 years, I finally ventured to campus on game day.  One of the reasons I’ve never done it before was because I didn’t want to deal with the issue of how to get to campus.  I could drive and park in the East Deck, but then I would have to deal with the frustration of traffic and I would have to avoid adult beverages.  I could take a cab or Uber, but that gets expensive when you are dealing with big campus events when rides are in high demand.  So I returned to a blast from my past from the days when I lived and worked in Chicago.  I decided to take the bus.

We are fortunate that we have pretty good public transit available in State College.  My husband and I will from time to time take the bus to concerts at the State Theatre and then Uber home afterward, to allow for safe consumption of adult beverages without breaking the bank on transportation costs.  But traveling solo on Blue & White weekend, I decided that the bus both directions was the way to go.  So I put a couple of tokens in my pocket and my Kindle in my backpack and off I went.

There is a bus stop a block or so from my house in Park Forest.  And the W bus has always been pretty darned empty when I’ve ridden it.  When I got on the bus, this was true.  But as soon as the bus arrived at The Heights, we were suddenly jam-packed with undergrads headed to campus for tailgating and the game.  With each stop the bus became more and more like a sardine can as students continued to pile on and no one got off.  I never did pull out my Kindle.  The people on the bus where quite enough entertainment for my 30 minute ride.  When we finally arrived at my stop near the Creamery, I was relieved to get out into the fresh air and walk over to the law school.

After a fun afternoon of blowing off steam with the law students (thanks for making me feel so welcome at the tailgate!) I knew it was time to find my way back to the bus.  I briefly considered summoning an Uber, but decided to stick to my guns on not spending extra money.  I returned to the same bus stop where I got off….and discovered that I had just missed the W.  This meant either a very long wait, or a re-route.  I saw a V bus heading around the corner, took a quick look at the CATA app on my phone, and knew that this bus was my answer.  I became one of the sardines boarding at a very popular stop.  Standing room only.  I asked a young man to give up his seat for a pregnant woman, but I don’t think he was thinking clearly at the time.  The pregnant woman decided it was easier to stand.  The entertainment value of the clientele was multiplied on the way home, as many had been indulging in more than just football. The bus continued to fill up as we wound through campus, but started to empty as soon as we hit College Avenue.  But things were pretty crowded from the start, so I didn’t find myself in a seat until well into my journey.  But finally we stopped at Wegmans, where I got out to grab some things for dinner.  I got my food and walked the half of a mile home, pleased with how the day had gone.

Is the bus the most comfortable way to travel?  Probably not.  Is it the quickest?  Definitely not.  But will it get you where you are going in an efficient way for just a little bit of money?  Absolutely.  And if you are looking for an entertaining study in human behavior, the bus on game day can DEFINITELY provide that!