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November 2011 - Posts - Dollar Stretcher Guest Blogger
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November 2011 - Posts

  • Is Buying Airline Miles Really Worth the Cost for Holiday Travel?

    by Bill Hazelton

    Almost anyone who travels or owns an airline credit card can expect to receive regular offers to purchase additional miles on their card.  With constantly changing travel prices, it’s easy to wonder, but difficult to truly know, if it's actually a good deal to buy additional airline miles to get you those rewards that you’d really like.

    The short answer is that it depends. While the incremental cost is relatively low (often miles are sold in 500 mile segments), the cost of buying enough to qualify for a free ticket (usually a minimum of 25,000 miles) can add up quickly.  Also, keep in mind that reward seats for the minimum number of miles tend to sell out quickly so you may need to purchase even more miles that you think to get that free ticket.

    In general, depending on the time of year you need to travel, some online research and smart buying strategies can help you buy a ticket for less than the cost of using miles for an award ticket. That very same research will tell you what your "value threshold" for miles should be.

    For example, let's say an airline lets you buy miles at a rate of $10 for every 500 miles. The cost of a reward ticket (assuming you find an available seat for 25,000 miles) would be $500. An economy ticket, not purchased around a busy holiday travel season, can likely be purchased for less than $500 so buying miles wouldn't be an ideal fit.

    Where buying miles often makes sense is when you need just a few more to push you over that rewards threshold required to qualify for a rewards ticket. To continue the above example, if you had 24,000 miles in your rewards account and needed 25,000 to book a rewards ticket, you essentially can get your airline ticket for $20 by purchasing two 500 mile blocks and then booking the flight with the requisite miles.

    Many airlines will also let you use miles to upgrade to a higher class of service, which is often times the most economical use of miles. You can purchase a non-refundable economy ticket for a low price, then cash in miles for an upgrade. While you may want to upgrade to first class service, many airlines now offer an enhanced section of their economy cabin that features more leg-room and priority boarding. For a few thousand additional miles, this option can be a great deal for the budget conscious traveler.

    Keep in mind that award seats will sell out far in advance of busy travel holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.  While prices will be higher to fly at these times of year, this is another time of year to consider using your miles and getting the most value out of them. Because you'll want to book the ticket as early as possible before award seats sell out, this can be another time when it makes sense to purchase miles to get yourself to that requisite rewards threshold. For example, if you know you need to fly across the country on the day before Thanksgiving and can plan months in advance, an award ticket may be a great deal compared to the cash cost of the same ticket, and if you need to buy a few miles to raise your award balance to the right threshold, buying some miles probably makes sense.

    Finally, keep in mind that some airlines now let you use miles for many more things than just free airline travel. If you don't have enough for a rewards ticket, but you do need to cash in the miles, ask the airline about other offers as they may very well offer other discounts, including airport lounges or even magazine subscriptions for a relatively modest amount of miles.

    This is a guest contribution from Bill Hazelton, CEO of Credit Card Assist, where he offers a wide variety of tips, news, advice and recommendations on all things credit card-related.

  • Save with Gift Cards

    courtesy of CardCash.com

    Here are some tips for saving with gift cards this holiday season. 

    1. Wait for a holiday season when all merchants run sales.

    2. Use a shopping comparison website to find the merchant that has the items you want for the cheapest.

    3. Apply for a cashback credit card (some credit cards can give you 1-4% cash back on your puchases).

    4. Use the cash back credit card card to purchase gift cards to your favorite merchant at discount gift card sites where savings run from 15% to as high as 35% off.

    5. Browse online to find coupons for that merchant. Coupons can be combined with the gift cards purchased at a discount to save you even more.

    6. Then if placing the order online, first go to a cashback website where you can get cash back from the purchase you make online (these cashback sites can give you an additional 2-4% cashback, which is part of their affiliate commission they get from the merchant for referring you).

    7. Use the discounted gift card with the coupon you found to pay for your order online.

    These suggestions courtesy of CardCash.com, where you can purchase gift cards at a 15% to 35% discount from many of your favorite merchants.

  • The Secret to Be Productive, Always

    by Barbara Friedberg, MBA, MS

    "Research suggests that individuals can achieve an improvement in work performance by as much as 20-25% simply by goal setting." (Center for Management &Amp; Organization Effectiveness)

    You’ve heard it a thousand times; set goals, make to do lists, and everything will be great. I’m going to show you the simplest way to get more done with time left over for fun!

    Action Steps

    Gary wrote that he really likes the "Action Steps" from Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance and asked me to write about them at The Dollar Stretcher.

    Goal setting sounds like a big ordeal, and as with many "big" actions, we tend to avoid them rather than getting started. Here’s how to get the "goal setting" benefit by doing less.

    Secret: Do Less

    1. Get a notebook and label it "Action Steps"

    2. Every couple of months or so, sit down for 5 minutes and write down 2-3 things you want to accomplish the next few months. But here’s the trick. Don’t just write down some vague idea like, "Pay off debt." In order for this to work, the action step must be specific and quantifiable.

      Good action step: Make $150.00 payment every month for the next three months on Bank of America credit card.

      Bad action step: Pay off all credit cards.

    3. Every morning, list the 3 most important action steps for the day. Stop the squealing in the background. I know you have a million things to do every day, but choose the 3 top items for the day and write them down. Same rules as before, specific and quantifiable.

      Good action step: Call 2 contacts and ask for support for ABC project.

      Bad action step: Call people about project.

      Good action step: Go to Bank of America website and find out how to schedule direct $150.00 fund transfer from checking account to Bank of America credit card. Notice that this action step is a tiny step, you aren’t paying the bill yet, but you are taking an action to find out how to schedule a direct payment.

      Bad action step: Pay off credit card.

    4. When you complete the action step for the day, cross it off. That’s it. You’re done. If you complete all three action steps, anything else you do during the day is gravy.

    Avoid the temptation to write a list a mile long. Of course, there are a million items you could put on your list, but you are more likely to complete your "action step" if you keep it small and measurable.

    The Result

    This strategy insures that you get the absolute most important stuff done. You progress towards the activities that you deem the most crucial. You’re not spending time on little time wasters that don’t move you forward!

    Get started right now! Try it for 3 days and see how it works out!

    What is your best action step?

    Barbara Friedberg, MBA, MS is editor-in-chief of Barbara Friedberg Personal Finance.com where she writes to educate, inspire, and motivate for wealth in money and life. Learn about personal finance from a real life Portfolio Manager & MBA professor! Stop by the website and download a valuable free eBook, 20 Minute Guide to Investing.

  • Black Friday Survival Tips

    by Teri Gault, CEO of TheGroceryGame.com

    As CEO of TheGroceryGame.com, savings lover, and bargain hunter extraordinaire, I do go for Black Friday steals and deals. I approach it with glee and a little “black” humor! But I won’t be had by would be Black Friday deals, and I will certainly make sure I maintain my sanity (or at least attempt to)!

    1. Shop online. Due to the economy, Black Friday may be busier than ever. While consumers may not actually be spending as much as before, more people will be flooding stores, and fighting each other for things they may not buy anyway. Since many Black Friday deals can be equally as good online, it just might the best time to shop in your robe and slippers.

    2. Save on shipping fees and your sanity. Some retailers offer early Black Friday shopping online, and allow you to pick it up at the store even days after Black Friday, after the madness has subsided. And if you can’t pull yourself away from the computer to shower or change clothes for several days, just go for pick up in your robe and slippers. I’m sure they’ll understand that you’re just one smart shopper!

    3. Shop early. Numerous websites, like Amazon.com, already have daily Black Friday deals in limited quantities. So browse early and browse often. This is not the time to clean house or do any other chores.

    4. Don’t get caught up in a feeding frenzy! Just as sharks will eat anything while in a frenzy, you don’t want to buy something just because you’re caught up in the hype. Most Black Friday deals are for a limited time, or limited inventory. Online, you may even find a clock ticking for the deal to expire or a ticker tape telling you the inventory is about to run out. None of those things actually prove anything in terms of value. And by the way, contrary to what you may feel at the moment, you’re not going to die if you don’t get that deal. There’s plenty of fish in the sea for you and all those other sharks! Don’t be pressured into buying before you take the time to find out if it’s really the best deal or not. Always compare prices online no matter where you shop, online or in the stores. Hmmm… maybe that was just bait after all?

    5. Search for promo codes. When shopping online, before going to checkout, search the web for promo codes. Amazingly, last year, I was able to use promo codes at checkout even on super discounted Black Friday sales. Sweet!

    6. Steer clear of deep discount stores. Deep discount stores like Target, Kmart, Walmart, etc. will draw the most crowds. While those discount retailers may have killer deals, other mainstream retailers also have great Black Friday offers. Stores like Office Max, Staples, and others tend to have fewer people competing for deals, and the whole scene is much more like a shopping experience than a heavy metal concert. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the former.

    7. Try to avoid the big ticket items. The limited offer big ticket items like the big screen TVs will draw the biggest crowds and the most hair pulling, scratching and biting. Consider this… If you have say a $300 budget for Black Friday, you could either fight the madness for a $700 TV for $300, or you could get $700 worth of several smaller items for that $300. The same value for one big thing can be found in lots of little things. Choose instead to shop for Christmas gifts and other events in the coming year, like birthdays and anniversaries. You’ll probably get the same value, and you just might come home with all your hair and teeth!

    8. Get a head start. Some stores are open on Thanksgiving Day for Black Friday sales. If you can break away from stuffing your turkey, you just might get a head start at some of the hottest deals without too much chaos. And if you find you’re doing really well, and just can’t bring yourself to go home and finish your Thanksgiving meal, just buy each person a Thanksgiving present instead of food. Rush home and set a gift on each person’s place setting, and tell them it’s a low-cal meal.

    9. Use the buddy system. If you decide to brave the crowds on Black Friday, see if you can find a victim, err… I mean “friend” to go with you. Find someone you want to get back at, or someone you’ve genuinely been wanting to spend time with, and make it all about spending time with your friend. You may have hours to catch up on things while waiting in long lines. And I do mean HOURS! Then, if you do manage to nab some deals, that’s just the frosting on the cake.

    10. Bring music or a book. If you can’t convince a friend to go into battle with you, borrow your kids’ iPod or bring a good book on something light, like quantum physics or how to boil water. Anything will be better than standing in long lines with nothing to do.

    11. Carry a backpack. If you do choose to go out for Black Friday, be prepared for a marathon. Ditch the purse in favor of a backpack or fanny pack, and if you carry a wallet, put it in a backpack with water and snacks. You may not be able to leave a good line for hours, so maybe a porta potty too (just kidding, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed). And if you have a football helmet and pads, those could come in handy, too.

    12. Sign up for Black Friday emails, apps and Twitter alerts. If you want to be first to know as the deals break, you can sign up for special alerts via email, apps or Twitter. Then when the alert comes through, run, don’t walk, to the mall or the computer!

    13. Dress appropriately. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. And above all, wear your smile and have a great time!

    Lifestyle expert Teri Gault is an industry leader helping people learn how to save money shopping. Teri has been featured on television shows such as GMA, Today Show, Fox Business, CNN and local outlets cross the country. In addition to serving as both CEO and key expert for The Grocery Game, Inc, Teri frequently speaks to women's organizations across the country, explaining how The Grocery Game allows her to streamline grocery shopping to save both time and money. TheGroceryGame.com

  • My Story: Our Small, Stylish, Frugal Wedding

    contributed by Mr. & Mrs. Ireland

    I would like to share the story of our frugal wedding. My husband and I were in the start of our careers. He proposed to me only eight months since we met, and at that time, I was living in the UK and he was living in Ireland. I moved over to Ireland a month after our engagement, keeping one of my part-time jobs in London. We rented a house, bought a car with the help of my future in-laws, and adopted two cats and a dog. Then we agreed on the date of our wedding and submitted a notice to a local registrar. It was a beginning of July and the wedding was due in the beginning of October. There was no time to waste.

    We both agreed that our wedding ceremony will be small, consisting of a few close friends. So we emailed everyone and then prepared and sent away the invitations. It was important to notify people as soon as possible as flights tend to be more expensive the longer you wait. We also lined out our bride and groom outfits, wedding meal, flowers, and food for our guests (all our 5 guests stayed at our home with us).

    Being a keen frugal fashionista as well as a professional researcher, I used the internet to compare different classic and current trends in bridal wear. Pretty soon it was clear that buying a new wedding dress (even with a discount) is one of the most expensive options. So I decided to use my grandmother's white wedding dress and enlisted the help of a local dressmaker/alteration lady. The dress looked like a night gown, but the material was great. I chose a pencil dress silhouette and Kate, my dressmaker, did an amazing job. On eBay, I found a beautiful pair of red court shoes by Hobbs. For my head piece, I was lucky to find a small wedding hat. It was sold in  a charity shop and cost just a fraction of a vintage hat in a vintage or bridal store. Underwear and tights had to be "invisible" due to a dress, so I used regular skin tone ones and not special bridal underwear. The total cost of my outfit was dress (including alternations) for $70, shoes for $20, tights and underwear for $30, and hat for $10.

    Knowing how much my husband hates suits, I managed to find on the internet a picture of a groom wearing a very funky combination of black shirt, black suit trousers, a red tie, and red Converse shoes. My idea received 100% support. Oh, I forgot to add that during my life in London, I became a proud owner of an old bowler hat. This added an extra touch to my fiancee's outfit. Apart from suit trousers that he already owned, we spent $40 for the good quality shirt, $10 for the red tie (both items were bought from a designer outlet shop), $70 for the shoes with 10% going to support a children's charity.

    The next thing was to decide upon the wedding meal. Considering that all our guests were coming from abroad, we decided to have our reception dinner at a traditional Irish pub. There was one near our home and we loved the food, atmosphere, and staff of the pub. After talking with the manager and placing a booking, our hearts were at peace. Our final bill was $200 including the tip. It would be appropriate to mention that our attempt to make a homemade wedding cake failed. So we bought an organically produced fresh cheese cake and a pot of raspberries to decorate the cake with our initials, spending extra £20. There were no complaints.

    Two things that were not cheap on our wedding were flowers ($200) and a photographer. Three girls that were in my wedding each had a small rose bouquet that we made a day before the wedding ($5 each). My bouquet was made by professionals and cost $100. Each man, including the groom and our small dog that came with, had a red rose buttonhole made by professional ($15 each). We decided to spend this money on flowers as this is one of the details that leaves a chic impression. When we look at pictures we do not regret the decision.

    In addition to flowers, we booked a professional photographer for the ceremony and an outdoor session that was carefully chosen by my fiancee. The total price was $200, including CD with all the pictures.

    Finally, what I totally forgot to mention was my make up and hair. I did a lot of research. My choice was to save rather to spend. As my hair is boyish short and I managed to find an original and stylish hat, I saw no point in booking a stylist. I had a hair cut three weeks before the wedding and styled it on the day of the wedding with a little wax. The makeup was a similar story. I was and still am fortunate to have a kind of skin that looks better than an advert of an expensive foundation. So with a little eye shadow, mascara, and hot red lipstick, I looked gorgeously classy.

    Like any other wedding day, ours passed surprisingly fast. We had a great day enjoying every single moment of it. When we shared our pictures with people who were not at the wedding, everyone complimented our choice of garments. Also those who were with us told us that they enjoyed the day and the food and had a feeling of being on holiday, experiencing Irish food, culture and scenery.

    Everyone is smart about something! That's why we have The Dollar Stretcher Guest Blog. If you have a story that could help save time or money, please send it by email to MyStory@Stretcher.com.

  • An Economical Approach to Caring for a Newborn

    by Christine Allen

    Babies are adorable. They don’t ask for much except love, attention, comfort, and a place to sleep. Nonetheless those adorable creatures can become very expensive, even without trying. The initial costs, even though they occur only once, can be significant. Cribs, playpens, carriages, bassinets, and changing table are must haves, and they can be quite expensive. Items that are bought and replaced periodically, like breast pumps, bottles and nipples, and clothing, can also require significant outlay over time. The real cost, however, is in the much used consumables like formula and diapers. There are ways for the prudent shopper to save money, however.

    1. Buy Used and Save Big

    The first thing to remember is that the baby doesn’t care whether the items purchased in his or her behalf are new or used. It’s the parent who worries about such things. There are some things, such as a christening outfit, that parents may insist be new. However, some parents find that using a family heirloom may be even more fitting, and cost nothing. Most items like furniture, clothing, and certain accessories are perfectly suitable when purchased used provided they are of good quality, in perfect condition, and safe for use.

    Most furniture that is required to care for a baby at home need only be clean and sturdy. The single exception is the crib. Older cribs are generally unsafe due to the dangerous spacing between slats and the faulty mechanisms that control the sliding side. Never buy any crib that does not meet the current government standards.

    Craig’s List and eBay often have excellent buys on furniture and some baby clothing. A more convenient source are thrift shops, Goodwill stores, and Salvation Army stores. Garage sales are also excellent sources. When you buy clothes, whether new or used, never put them on the baby until they have been machine washed in hot water.

    2. Borrow from Friends and Family

    Unfortunately, for some parents, the cost of even used baby furniture can be prohibitive. Where possible, borrow the needed items from family or friends. Obviously, the cost savings is phenomenal, but the responsibility is great. When you borrow something like baby furniture, maintaining it in good condition for its eventual return is crucial. Be prepared to replace it with a new item if it is damaged while in your care.

    Borrowing clothing is a bit more difficult. The clothing will get dirty and oftentimes damaged to the point where the original owner would not want to use it again. If you want to borrow clothing, reserve that option for special clothing used for special occasions like weddings.

    3. Buy Multi-Use Baby Products

    Many couples who are having their first child are often living in small apartments that are quite limited in space. If there is a separate room for a nursery, it is often quite small. In many cases, the baby must share space in the apartment’s single bedroom. Obviously, this is not a situation where a suite of baby furniture would be appropriate. There are several manufacturers of baby furniture who produce multi-use products: bureaus with changing table adapters on the top, cribs that convert to a playpen, cribs that can serve as changing tables, and other combinations. There might be a small savings, buying the multi-use furniture, but there’ll be a large savings in space.

    When you are shopping for a multi-use product, check it out thoroughly. Read the manufacturer’s instruction manual, and be sure you understand it. Make sure that any mechanisms or latches that must be used to change from one mode to another are strong and that they function correctly. Safety is the most important characteristic required from any piece of baby furniture whether it be single use or multi-use.

    4. Check for Bargains, Discounts, Coupons, and Specials

    Check the newspapers and internet sites for bargains, sales, and going out of business specials. It’s important that a piece of baby furniture be sturdy and safe, but it’s not so important that the finish be perfect. A scratch or dented piece that is functionally perfect can often be purchased at a considerable savings.

    When it comes to saving on consumables like formula and diapers, be on constant lookout for coupons. Check out the manufacturer’s website. They often offer specials to encourage first-time buyers. Some offer rebates when you buy a certain amount of their products. Check the websites for all your local supermarkets to see which one offers the products at the least cost. Don’t be afraid to try equivalent store brands for diapers and other baby consumables. Most are just as good. Some may be made by the same manufacturer that makes the name brand.

    5. Buy in Bulk and Save

    There was an old joke floating around when the Costco chain of warehouse stores opened, claiming that warehouse stores were places where you can buy products in sizes so large that you never use them up. That may be true for small families, but it certainly is not true for diapers and formula. Buying these things in bulk can be a real money saver. Babies go through diapers as quickly as someone with a common cold goes through facial tissues!

    It’s natural for moms and dads to want the best for their babies, but budgets do have a way of dictating reality. If you follow the tips given above, you can provide your child with everything he or she needs using products of high quality, but a significant savings in cost.

    Christine Allen, a stay-at-home mom, gave up her own career to take care of her two babies and her husband. Now she is an editor of http://www.livesnet.com/, a site offering baby gear reviews and tips on problems parents encounter in daily life. She’s surely willing to share her own experience and tips. You can contact with her by email at christine@livesnet.com, or you can find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/livesnet. Please visit Livesnet and read her recent review on DaVinci Kalani convertible baby crib.

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