Category Archives: Money saving steps

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!

 

 

Unintended Consequences

Sometimes when you make a decision, you end up with unintended consequences.  Sometimes those consequences are bad (for example…you find a parking spot in the Katz lot but you end up with a ticket because your meter ran out before you left the building).  But sometimes those consequences can be good (like when I gave up cable TV and my electric bill went down because the cable boxes are power vampires).

My New Year’s resolutions this year included a “healthier living” component.  This includes not only exercise (and yes…I’m still winning my StepBet!), but also eating less processed food.  Some things (i.e. potato chips and pretzels) that used to be staples in my life are just not a part of it any more.  Now when I think of snack food, I’m usually thinking fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, or applesauce.  And my one true snacky weakness—popcorn.  Popcorn is a true whole-grain snack food that doesn’t have to be bad for you.  I recently acquired a microwave popcorn popper.  This provides me with oil-free popcorn in minutes that can’t cause popcorn lung. Add a little salt while it’s still hot, and I’ve got a delicious, easy, healthy snack.

But the thing that caught me off-guard about this dietary change is the unintended consequences.  I’ve read a million times that the best way to shop in a grocery store is “around the edges” where the fresh foods are kept.  And this change to my diet has led to more around the edges shopping and a lot less of picking up boxes, bags, and jars from the aisles.  And this is where the unintended consequences come in.  I’ve been spending a lot less money on groceries since the start of the year.  A dozen eggs, a bag of clementine oranges and a bag of apples costs about the same as one bag of chips and one bag of pretzels (and will make you feel full a lot faster).  And a jar of un-popped popcorn kernels costs only a few dollars but will last for weeks on end.  While this may not seem like a budget busting discovery, I’m easily saving $10 to $20 per week on groceries by sticking with healthy food.  And over the course of a month that’s $40 to $80.  Over a year it can be as much as $1,000.  And that’s a significant chunk of money.

You never know what unintended consequences may come from decisions you make.  But sometimes they’re really good ones.

Wallet Versus Winter

Winter is here.  Full-blown freezing cold and snow.  And while you may not realize it, there are some things you can do to help keep your seasonal costs down.

If you are paying for your own heat, turning the thermostat down a few degrees can save you a LOT of money.  But it may lead to you feeling cold in your home.  There are a few easy things you can do to combat this, however.  If you feel cold air coming in around your windows, it’s easy to cover the windows with plastic.  You can pick up inexpensive kits at any hardware or big box store that give you what you need to put double-sided tape around the windows, cover it with plastic, and use a hair dryer to stretch it tight.  It’s amazing the difference this will make in how much cold air sneaks in!  And if you’re still feeling chilly, the quick and easy answer is to add more clothing.  Long underwear goes a long way this time of year.  Turtlenecks and scarves can keep you toasty.  Wool socks are awesome on the feet (and there’s no shame in doubling up on these when it’s really cold out!).  And for the ladies, fleece tights are a game changer if you like to wear skirts.  I’ve often been heard saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothing.”  I stand by that statement.

So you are now warm in your home…but you still have to leave the house.  There are things you should know about how to care for your automobile when the temperature has dropped beyond belief.  Those stories you’ve heard about how you shouldn’t let your gas tank get below ¼ of a tank?  That’s really true when it’s cold.  Condensation in the gas tank can freeze and cause you some real grief if your tank is too empty.  It’s definitely cheaper to keep your tank closer to full than to repair the car.  And while you are taking care of the gas, it’s best to make sure you keep your washer fluid topped off, too.  Winter roads can be sloppy and salty and you want to make sure you have some anti-freeze washer fluid available if you need to clear the windshield.  Driving around looking through a salt-smeared view isn’t safe for you or the drivers around you.  And finally, it’s a good idea to check your tire pressure.  Air expands with heat.  Likewise it contracts with cold.  If the last time you checked your pressure was at the start of fall semester, it’s likely that they are a lot less full now than they were then.  And you could be causing undue wear on your tires because of it.  Your local Sheetz has an awesome digital air pump available for free.  Better to pump them up than to need new shoes for the car sooner than you’d like.

I could go on and on (winter being my favorite season), but I think you get the idea.  Be aware that life is a bit different in the winter and will demand different things of you.  But if you are prepared, you can safely and warmly enjoy our winter wonderland!

A Trio of Thanksgiving Tips

The week of Thanksgiving is an abundance of riches when it comes to topics for financial bloggers.  Travel…food…shopping.  These three things are all at the front of my mind and I’m having a hard time deciding.  So this week, you get a three-for-one.

Holiday travel is the worst…especially if you are flying.  Every time I fly, it seems like it’s less fun than the time before (and I assure you—it hasn’t actually been fun in many, many years).  But one thing remains constant when I travel.  I always throw an empty water bottle and travel coffee mug into my carry-on bag.  Most airports (including the tiny University Park airport) have bottle filling stations by the water fountains, so I can fill my water bottle once I’m through security and be set for the trip without buying expensive throwaway bottles.  And most places (including airport Starbucks stores) offer reduced pricing on coffee if you bring your own travel mug.  Carrying my own drinking vessels saves me a bundle when I fly!

Thanksgiving is a holiday that revolves around the family table.  But when the meal is complete and the dishes are done, my favorite part of the holiday is still to come:  the leftovers.  It’s so rare in today’s busy world that we prepare a large meal with lots of sides and a huge entrée.  But Thanksgiving usually means a full turkey.  Which almost always means leftovers.  So now is the time to make those turkey salad sandwiches and Google recipes for casseroles made with leftover turkey.  Freeze some for later.  And enjoy the fruits of the Thanksgiving meal for weeks to come.

And if you’ve been anywhere near a TV in recent days, you are more than aware that the busiest shopping day of the year is coming up on Friday.  I’m a sucker for a good sale and love early morning shopping on Black Friday.  But I never go at it blind.  I like to make a plan.  There are certain items I’m looking for as Christmas gifts, and there are some things I want for my home that I’ve been waiting for sale pricing on.  I’ll sit down Thursday night with the sale flyers from the newspaper and plan my attack.  Once I know what I’m buying where, I’ll compare store opening times and locations and make my list.  Usually I’m done shopping and back home by 8 am (and I usually don’t start until at least 6 am).  Shopping with a list is pretty efficient.  The key to not spending too much is to not stray from the list.  No impulse shopping means no overspending.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

 

For just a few dollars more…

I hate talking on the phone with a representative from the cable company.  It seems like they are always misleading.  That’s part of the reason that I became a cord cutter several years ago.  And usually I’m pretty good at not answering my phone when they call me to try to sell me services I don’t want.  But they caught me last week and I found myself on the phone with the cable people.

They tried to offer me a “great deal” to add cable television to my internet plan, keeping my costs basically the same.  Having been down this road before, I asked them to expand on what they meant by “basically the same.”  I asked specifically what would happen to the price if they were to add in taxes, fees, and the cost of renting a cable box.  Then “basically the same” turned into “only a few dollars more per month.”

I didn’t stay on the phone long enough to find out exactly what “a few dollars more” actually translated to.  I just declined.  Because “a few dollars more” is too much for me to pay for something I don’t want.  I don’t want cable.  I like having to carefully choose what television shows I use to escape life.  Hulu and Dish Sling and Netflix give me all of the TV I could possibly need.  Cable would load me up with excess channels I don’t care about.  It would burden me with an electricity sucking cable box.  And it would make it difficult for me to unburden myself from the cable company when whatever promo deal they were trying to sell me expires and they jack up the price (it took me about 40 minutes on the phone to cancel cable in the first place!).

I just said no.  They tried to tell me it was a deal I couldn’t afford to decline.  But any price at all is simply way too much when you are paying it for something you don’t want or need.  There’s a big difference between a bargain price and a burden.  Wise people can recognize the difference.