Monday, November 30, 2009

7 Money Saving Tips That Put Over $4100 Back in My Pocket

Thanksgiving week was a great reminder of how truly blessed we are. Our family has grown smaller as loved ones have passed on, but their spirits filled the festivities as if they were still with us. The older I become the more simplicity stands out as a necessity. There are so many things to distract us from noticing the everyday touches of grace. Cell phones, email, TV, video games and even blogs seek to build barriers from experiencing that gentle divine voice from within (:

Economic times have also brought simplicity closer. Not only is it good for the spirit, but also for the pocketbook! I have to admit I'm a bit of a frugal gal. I'd rather create it, paint it, build it or sew it myself than spend the extra cash on something already put together. Over the years that frugal nature has come in handy, especially during financially challenging times. Here are some money saving tips that put over $4100 back in my pocket and hope they might help you as well.

1. Change Your Mobile Service
Is a Blackberry REALLY necessary? Switching my Verizon mobile service over to Straight Talk (a no-contract service of TracFone Wireless that operates on the Verizon network) was a no brainer! The same service for less! It includes unlimited minutes, messages and data for only $45 a month. With two phones it's brought down my cell phone bill from $135 to $90. This also affords me the opportunity to get rid of the home phone since the new mobile service is unlimited. Another $36 saved bringing the total to $81 so far! (Straight Talk also has a $30/mo plan including 1000 minutes, 1000 texts and 30MB of data making this option even more economical).

If you do still want a home phone, try Magic Jack. It works great and only costs $20 a year (or $70 for 5 years) and comes with free voicemail, free caller ID, free directory assistance and free call waiting. They even have a 30 day free trial right now. Try it before you buy it! I use 2 for business lines and am very happy with the results!

2. Negotiate Your Lease
If you're a renter and the lease renewal is coming up, see if they might be willing to come down in price. I asked for $50 less a month and agreed to sign a new lease for 18 months. To keep a good tenant they gladly accepted, especially due to the high volume of available rentals on the market.

3. Letting Go of Cable and Internet
Depending on your service, this could save you anywhere from $40 to $135 per month. Now, I know this may sound drastic to some, but I have a friend who did this and hasn't missed it at all. She hits the WiFi spots when she needs to go online (she uses this time to watch some of her favorite TV shows she just can't miss by watching them online), catches up on her reading and listens to the radio instead of watching hours of TV.

Personally this was a tough one. Working from home means high speed internet is a must and the only TV shows I watch are on cable channels. So instead of cancelling I called the cable company in hopes of negotiating a lower price, mentioning that the preference would be to lower the cost instead of cancelling service. They immediately offered a deal to lower my bill by $35 on the condition that a 2 year contract was accepted to lock in the price. Well, of course! This might be a concern if the cost would lower in the next few years, but our services are actually increasing in price so the contract worked in my favor.

4. Cut Out the Non-Essentials
Last year I rented a storage unit to hold my father's items after he passed away. Because his death was unexpected, I wasn't ready to go through his belongings. The plan was to gradually sort things week by week, but the weeks turned into months. That year gifted perspective and the time to grieve which in turn gave the strength to sort cherished mementoes. Closing the storage rental saved $50 a month.

5. Eat at Home
This is a simple common sense tip, but one that can sneak up on you. These days it's so easy to meet friends for dinner or to pick up something on the way home from work. Plan ahead. On the weekends prepare and freeze meals that can be heated up during the week on busy family nights. These same meals can also work for an impromptu dinner party for unexpected guests. Lasagna and garlic bread are favorites in our freezer! Add a salad, wine, good music and voila! Instant dinner party! I used to eat out around 3 times a month. By inviting friends over and eating at home I save $30 a month!

6. Declutter and Make Money
Clutter not only takes up physical space, but it takes up mental space as well. Purge, purge, purge and let Craigslist be your best friend. As you open your living areas you'll be bringing in the green! Go through closets and get rid of pieces you haven't worn in over a year. Search through decorative items and loose what no longer represents the person you are now. Are your library shelves overloaded with books you no longer need? Add them to the list of items to sell. What about pots, pans and baking sets you never use? Free up that space! Once you've collected everything for sale, take good photos and describe the items in detail. Include the color, size, name brand, and any imperfections. I never used Craigslist before and was a little skeptical, but I sold clothes, accessories, furniture, books, magazines, craft items, kitchen pot sets, home decor and so far it's added up to over $800. Not bad for stuff just sitting around the house (:

And the purging never ends. The "1-in, 1-out" rule has served me well. If a new item comes in the house I look for something that can leave. Each week I reevaluate my surroundings and continue to post listings as new items are found. If they don't sell after one month then the items are donated to a local charity.

7. Shop at Goodwill
Why would you pay full price for a perfectly good designer suit when the same suit could be purchased at Goodwill for under $15? Now is not the time to be snobbish. Much of the clothing donated to Goodwill has never been worn and many times tags are still on the garments. My mother lost a lot of weight and purchased quite a few new pieces from her favorite clothing store only to loose more weight. The new pants and shirts she just purchased no longer fit. Mom didn't want to spend even more money after the first investment so, off to Goodwill we go! We were able to purchase 1 fitted blazer, 3 pairs of dress pants, 1 pair of jeans, 2 cardigan sets, 4 sweaters and 4 blouses for under $70 and almost all of the items were designer names. She would have easily spent over $500 for the same items had she gotten them from the original stores. Set a budget, look for basic key pieces, build a wardrobe that suits your lifestyle and spend some of the money you've saved on great shoes that will last. Not only are you spending less, but the money made at Goodwill is going to a good cause and helping the community.

That makes $246 saved each month by lowering my monthly bills equaling $2952 for the year, plus the $800 earned by selling things just sitting around the house and then saving $430 on a new wardrobe. That brings the total to $4180 back in the pocket at the end of the year!!

Those tips didn't dramatically alter my lifestyle, but by tweaking just a few things I was able to save in a big way. Can you imagine what might happen if you tweaked your food budget or your purchasing practices? More to come on those so check back!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tuesday Treats...Pumpkin Pasta

This Tuesday treat is a favorite that Mom and I both love!! We use it to usher in the Fall and to celebrate the harvest of the season. This recipe is from Rachel Ray of 30 Minute Meals. It's a simple dish that's fast and easy, but packs a LOT of flavor...

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
1 pound bulk sweet Italian sausage
4 cloves garlic, cracked and chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf, fresh or dried
4 to 6 sprigs sage leaves, cut into chiffonade, about 2 tablespoons
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock, canned or paper container
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 cup (3 turns around the pan) heavy cream
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg, ground or freshly grated
Coarse salt and black pepper
1 pound penne rigate, cooked to al dente
Romano or Parmigiano, for grating
Pumpernickel or whole grain bread, as an accompaniment

Heat a large, deep nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and brown the sausage in it. Transfer sausage to paper towel lined plate. Drain fat from skillet and return pan to the stove. Add the remaining tablespoon oil, and then the garlic and onion. Saute 3 to 5 minutes until the onions are tender.

Add bay leaf, sage, and wine to the pan. Reduce wine by half, about 2 minutes. Add stock and pumpkin and stir to combine, stirring sauce until it comes to a bubble. Return sausage to pan, reduce heat, and stir in cream. Season the sauce with the cinnamon and nutmeg, and salt and pepper, to taste. Simmer mixture 5 to 10 minutes to thicken sauce.

Return drained pasta to the pot you cooked it in. Remove the bay leaf from sauce and pour the sausage pumpkin sauce over pasta. Combine sauce and pasta and toss over low heat for 1 minute. Garnish the pasta with lots of shaved cheese and sage leaves.

Serve pumpkin sausage pasta with pumpernickel or whole grain bread and Spinach Salad with Apple and Red Onion.

Spinach Salad with Apple and Red Onion:
1 pound triple-washed spinach, de-stemmed
1 small Golden Delicious apple, quartered, cored, and sliced
1/4 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons (a couple of splashes) apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon grain mustard
1 tablespoon (a good drizzle) honey
Coarse salt and black pepper

Place spinach, apple, and onion in a salad bowl. Place oil, vinegar, mustard and honey in a small plastic container and fit lid on container. Shake dressing to combine, 1 minute. Pour dressing over salad, toss, and season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Yield: 4 servings

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Musings...Birthday Lessons

Turning 40 is something I've been looking forward to for a long time. Yes, I'm turning 40 and LOVING it!!! For some reason, in my mind, the fabulous 40's have magic fairy dust attached to them (:

The past couple of years have been very challenging for our family. My father passed away, then my grandmother last Christmas Eve with my other grandmother passing a few days later and we almost lost my mother. This time has greatly shown me what is truly important in life. It's not what you have, who you know or what position you hold. Life is about legacy and the love that is shared. I've been blessed to learn so many life lessons from the cracked nuts called my family (:

So in honor of those who have gone before me, I'm continuing a birthday tradition my mother started back when I was in college. Instead of having parties where people bring gifts for the birthday girl/guy, a charity is chosen and guests are asked to donate items for that particular charity. People can either bring a monetary donation or items that the charity might need. For the first of year our new tradition we chose the local Ronald McDonald house. A meal was prepared for the families staying there in honor of the birthday girl.

This type of party also frees up any gift giving anxiety (I don't experience this, but many people do). Your friends may be limited on funds but the spirit of giving can still be experienced during tough economic times. If your charity is for a homeless shelter, then your guests can prepare like we did or perhaps go through their closets and bring clothing they no longer use (or maybe several of their most cherished pieces). If your charity is the local animal shelter, guests may have extra blankets or animal products on hand to donate. If your friends and family only have $1 to spare, then that's $1 any charity would be thankful to receive. It's not the amount of the gift, but the intent behind it.

This idea is also a great way to begin teaching your children the art of giving. Discuss several charities, how they help others and allow the children to choose the charity for their party. It could even be a themed celebration. The kids could come dressed as their favorite animal if the charity is for the local animal shelter or they could dress up as their favorite book character if you're donating to the library...the options are endless!! Have fun with it!! Halloween shouldn't be the only time of year to don your favorite costumes (:

I'm using this same idea for a Christmas party this year. We'll collect items and cards for the troops and then spend the evening packaging the goodies and writing letters to our men and women in service.

So, how will you celebrate this year? Just remember, you are the gift to those around you...go forth and share your light (: