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Saving You Money through Simple Methods

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Does Saving Money Save You Money?

Clearance Deal of the DayCould not live without!  (never used)

 

When you read a blog about saving money, you already possess the most important aspect needed, proper mindset.  Financial awareness is a key component in saving money over the long term.  It’s very easy to think that saving a dollar here or there is no big deal.  For instance, I always use those credit cards which give me the highest return on every purchase.  I have an American Express Blue Cash Preferred card that gives 6% cashback at the grocery and I will use it every single time.  My wife on the other hand will go to the grocery store and just grab any card available.  Her rationale is that if she is only spending $20, that card would only save $1.20 so it’s no big deal.  However, every trip to the gas station, grocery store, or other retail establishment offers a chance to save.  The way I see it is that if I’m going to be making the purchase either way, why not put it on a credit card that will reward me for that purchase?  Why use cash when I can pay with a credit card and get an instant discount a discount that comes after I shop for the best prices and use cashback portals!

The biggest problem for many of us comes from trying to save significant amounts of money by purchasing things we otherwise do not need.  The “Extreme Couponing” craze is one such example of this as those people who follow these methods clip every coupon every week.  If I can buy a can of beets for 10 cents each why not do it?  Because nobody likes beets, they’re garbage, they taste gross and you just wasted your money! This is the opposite of not using your discount when the amounts are small.  You use the discount on items that are deeply discounted, but do they offer a value to you?  If you were some kind of masochist with a beet addiction 100 cans of beets is a fantastic deal and likely saved you about $100, but if you are a normal human being then you probably would have been better off burning the $10 you spent.

This phenomenon is not only present in the extreme couponing circuit.  In fact, every trip to Target provides an opportunity for those demons lurking on the endcaps to claw at your soul.  As you walk the perimeter of the store you see the red homing beacon that are the red clearance stickers.  They sing to you from the cream colored shelves like Sirens in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  Powerless over the possibility of saving tremendous amounts of money you are pulled into their orbit.  Assuming you are not currently reading this while at Target, let’s speak rationally about these fine deals.  Clearance items are only a deal if these are things you would normally buy anyway.  If you have been looking for a bedding set, and had decided on one that was $300 and you find one on clearance for $50 this is a superb deal.  By contrast if you are walking down the aisle and see 80% off a camo beer coozy that says , “My neck may be red, but I’m well read” don’t buy it.  Actually, you’re probably getting this ironically, you can go ahead and get that.  The point is that these items that are “only a dollar” really tend to add up over the course of the year.  In fact these can add up far faster than the “only a dollar” rewards my wife loses when she fails to use the right credit card.

It’s far too easy to base your savings off the MSRP rather than what you truly value an item to be worth.  A better exercise would be to look at these clearance items and ask, “Do I need it? Do I really want it? Would I buy it anyway?  What is it worth to me?”.  So if you walk past the endcap and sunscreen is on sale at 75% off go ahead and pick some up because you probably need it and if you don’t buy it now you will buy some day.  If you walk past the aisle and there is something you have always wanted, but price has kept you from buying it then I think this is a fair purchase.  The Suze Ormans of the world would disagree and advise you to only buy absolute necessities,  fund your emergency savings, fully fund all retirement accounts and then with anything leftover spend money on your wants.  My opinion on this is that sometimes you need to spend some money on the things you want.  So if there is a lamp or shirt you think looks great buy it.

The problem with these deep discounts is that we often go overboard on these clearance items.  In the haze of getting a great deal we often make purchases of things that we do not need or even really want.  As I am composing this my wife came in the door with 3 big bags from Target.  She purchased an $18 lifejacket for $5.38, not a bad deal since our kids will need a lifejacket next year and if she did not make the purchase on clearance we would have paid closer to 20.  However, she also purchased a rug which was on sale for $7.50, she wanted a rug, but I have a feeling that all things equal she never would have bought this style.

My wife happened to be the person who peaked my interest on this topic.  She said, “I used to never look for sales and just buy things I wanted.  I think that I spent less back then than I do now.”  Her hypothesis was that when you go into a store and do not look at prices (but have limited funds) you only purchase things you really want.  Both of us have been guilty of going to Target and buying multiple items, especially clothing, which were on sale.  When my beautiful wife last cleaned out her closet there were multiple items new with tags.  Just as bad there were countless items that she wore only once.  She is not the only one guilty of this either.  I have gone into the store at certain times of the year and bought 5 pair of shorts, but only ended up wearing 3 of the pairs and only a couple times.  Once it’s time to wear them again I’ve undoubtedly gained or lost weight making them useless.

Rather than buying multiples of things you like a little, buying one thing that you really love can be a better deal.  At the beginning of the summer I bought one pair of golf shorts for regular price, but only bought one pair.  I wore these shorts a couple times per week all summer long.  At the end of the year they were 50% off so naturally I bought 5 pairs!  Yet I have worn each pair only once.  One pair is still in my closet untagged.  Basically I spent $20 and wore the shorts 30 times (60 cents per wear), but spent $50 on the discounted shorts and worn those only 5 times ($10 per wear).  So even though my closet looks better with more choices, I’ve likely wasted money overall.  Of course the best option would have been to buy only 1 or 2 pair on clearance and then wear them and I’m saving money.  The problem with clearance deals is they usually don’t work like that.  You end up overspending on things that you don’t need because you feel like you’re saving money.  Unless we think about this consciously we are all subject to doing it.  Which brings me to the question, does anyone want to buy a case of corn on the cob holders?  Accidentally bought too many.  Asking for a friend.

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How we did our California Vacation on a Budget (across the country)

Flight

In June of this year planning commenced on a 6 day fall vacation.  We had initially planned to fly from Louisville, KY to Orlando, FL, but Southwest had a special sale for flights into San Diego for the same price.  Since we had never been to California we decided that a California Vacation would be the best choice for us.  I purchased the plane tickets using points earned from signing up for Southwest Airlines.  I booked a flight for daughter and me, which cost about 36,000 points total.  At the time of booking I had only earned 105,000 Southwest points and had not yet earned my “Companion Pass“.  Once I earned the additional 5,000 points to reach 110,000 I earned my companion pass and simply clicked on my flight to “Add a Companion”.  At this point my wife was added to the itinerary.  Total out of pocket for our cross country flight was $15 round trip.

Car Rental

I knew we would need a car to get around California.  I wanted to rent a vehicle that would be big enough to accommodate our car seats and luggage.  With these options in mind we decided to get an SUV, although my wife was really pushing for a convertible.  I searched online coupon codes and used CarRentalSavers.com .  I found this website to be the best because it included the best coupon codes.  I looked at many different sites and found this one to be at least $30 cheaper for the week. Other sites may have been comparable or even cheaper if we had a normal rental, but ours was one way.  This meant we picked up the car in San Diego and dropped off our car in Santa Ana as we flew out of John Wayne Airport.  The car included unlimited miles and was a very nice car.  We had no trouble at Alamo and even used the kiosk when picking up the car, which allowed us to forgo getting hassled about all of the extra insurance and other upsells.

Lodging

IMG_6042First Hotel 

Obviously we needed to find a place to stay each night of the trip.  Since we were staying 3 days in San Diego, 1 day in Anaheim, 1 day in LA and 1 night near our departing airport a condo or house were out of the question.  Finding an area in San Diego for our home base was not a problem at all.  We stayed near La Jolla and Torrey Pines as it provided better prices, access to La Jolla and was only a 20 minuted drive back to San DIego Zoo.  We knew we needed a hotel close to Disneyland in Anaheim so that was not much of a problem either.  Our day in LA proved to be a bit more difficult because the city is so big and traffic is not great to drive through.  I ended up booking a place that was vouched for by my cousin.  It was near Burbank, supposedly close to Universal Studios, but actually ended up closer to North Hollywood.  The last night we stayed in Huntington Beach which was a quick 15 minute drive back to the airport.

IMG_6696View from Country Inn Room

We stayed at a Country Inn and Suites in San Diego which I highly recommend.  It was in a beautiful location with a nice view of the mountains out our window every morning.  They also had an excellent breakfast which really worked well to save us money on food as one meal was included in the price of our stay.  Most travel blogs emphasize staying in really expensive hotels.  One of my problems with sites such as Priceline is that their rating system puts no value on free breakfast.  I strongly disagree with this valuation because if we were to go out for breakfast and get eggs, waffles, sausage, juice, yogurt and milk it would end up costing us at least $20.  Sure we could go to a fast food place and the 4 of us could eat for less, but it would be far less substantial.  We ate breakfast in our hotel 5 out of 6 days.  The last day we had to be at the airport before breakfast was served.  We ended up buying breakfast at Carl’s Jr. and it cost $9 and that was just for my wife and daughter.  My daughter was complaining that she was hungry 2 hours later.

In Anaheim, our hotel was literally across the street from Disneyland.  Probably 5 blocks if we walked, but since our Disneyland tickets included parking we just drove to the lot.  This ended up being a great idea since by 11:00 PM Pacific Time both kids were passed out.  Which would have made the extra 5 blocks perilous.  I booked our room through getaroom.com which advertised a rate $20 less than booking through the hotel itself.  Unfortunately they add taxes and unnamed fees which put the total at only $2 less than booking directly with the hotel.  I did book through TopCashBack.com which earned me 10% cashback on the stay, which was pretty nice.  The hotel was the Best Western Plus Stovall Inn, which had very nice updated rooms, but they also charged $10 for parking.  The breakfast there was acceptable, but there were so many people that the staff couldn’t really keep up even with the large dining area.

Best Western Stovall's INN Pool Area

Our 5th night was spent in a Comfort Inn near Universal Studios.  The area was in North Hollywood, which is a bit grittier than we would like.  My daughter looked out the window of our room and asked, “Why would they build a hotel here with this terrible view?”  The view out the window was a local mechanic shop, so we did have an excellent view of oil changes.  This room was also recently updated and seemed clean.  It’s not exactly a hotel I would rave about, but for the price and a place to sleep it was okay.  The breakfast area was very nice and clean.  They had cheese omelets, juice, sausage and typical hotel breakfast items.

Our 6th night took us back south to another Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach about 10 miles from the airport.  It was updated, nice and looked (and smelled) very clean on arrival.  The area is also very nice just a few miles from the ocean.

Activities

Many of the activities that we did on the trip were very low cost or even free.  Walking along La Jolla in San Diego was not only free, but it was among our favorite parts of the trip.  The seals on the beach were amazing to see and the views were breathtaking.

IMG_6124

The San Diego Zoo is how Disney would do a zoo.  I know, you are thinking, Disney basically did a zoo, it’s called Animal Kingdom.  Having been to both the San Diego Zoo and Animal Kingdom I believe San Diego Zoo is superior.  That being said, I’m sure that Animal Kingdom will be pretty great in their 97th year as well.  There was something to see every step of the zoo.  Whether it was an animal exhibit or just the assortment of botanicals.  If you enjoy zoos it is definitely worth seeing.

We also visited Torrey Pines State Reserve which offers a beach and beautiful overlooks.  We paid $15 for parking and that was it.  The only problem is for some reason the restrooms and water were all turned off.  This is problematic when you play in the ashy sands of the Pacific and need to get back into your car.

 

We decided to go to Disneyland on Tuesday for “Mickey’s Halloween Party”, it’s a special event that is ticketed separately from the rest of the park.  Disneyland closed on Tuesday at 6PM and Mickey’s Halloween Party took place from 6-11, but you could enter at 3.  We arrived at the park at 3 and enjoyed it immensely.  Instead of the normal price of admission Mickey’s Halloween Party only costs $59 per person.  They only sell a certain amount of tickets, you can trick or treat throughout the park and most attractions are still open.  There were characters out in full force even when we were leaving.  More things for guests to do means that any one line will be shorter.

IMG_7052

In LA we went to the Getty Center, which is fantastic.  It’s a billion dollar art museum that opened in 1997.  The museum was free which I did not know going into it.  Parking is $15, but that is definitely a bargain price even if you were going by yourself.  It’s not exactly the most entertaining for small children as it is not a hands on science museum.  If my wife and I had gone alone we could have spent nearly the entire day touring the massive collections, but with our kids a few hours was ample.  Just seeing the building itself was worth it to me.

We went to Hollywood to check out the sights and typical tourist type things.  We paid $7 to park at the Hollywood and Highlands Center.  It is a very ornate shopping center built around its view of “The Hollywood Sign”.  My daughter wanted to see Hollywood, hoping she would be discovered.  She looked at the sign for about 30 seconds and said, “cooool” then was ready to see the next thing.  We followed the Hollywood walk of fame.  Saw that TCL Chinese Theater and had fun comparing our hands to the stars.  My daughter was a bit disappointed because she wanted to have her footprints and handprints immortalized in the cement, but alas that will have to wait.  I guess seeing Hollywood is worth the $7 parking charge, but otherwise the experience was ruined by the vendors, celebrity impersonators and people in cheap costumes hoping to hustle tourists out of money.

Huntington Beach was a nice way to end our trip watching the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.  They charged $15 for parking, but only $13.50 if you used a credit card.  Since I was going to use a card anyway this worked out perfectly.  The beach was huge over 100 yard from the parking lot to the ocean.  We were also basically alone on the beach which was nice for pictures.

Food

One way we save money on a trip is to minimize our food costs. When we arrived in California we were expected to be absolutely blown away by the prices for food.  I fully expected that if I went into a Subway asking for a $5 footlong they would oblige me with, “Okay sir, that’s one $5 footlong, that will be $28.75.”  This was not even close to reality.  The first night we went to a nice Mexican restaurant that was having huge frozen Margaritas, 5 flavors to choose from for $3 each.  We ordered a margarita, beef nachos, pepsi, and 10 tacos and paid $19 plus a $6 tip.  $25 is cheaper than we eat at the Mexican restaurants in Kentucky.

We try to eat breakfast in our hotel which saves an immense amount of money.  If we had stayed in a condo or rented a house we would have tried to prepare meals at home which would provide huge savings.  Ultimately though, my wife and I value food in much the same way.  I fell like food only gets so good.  Meaning that a $100 meal is not 4 times better than a $25 meal.  We have gone out to very expensive restaurants, but usually feel that they could not live up to expectations.  We might splurge for a meal or two on vacation, but for the most part we try to keep our spending in line with what we spend on food normally.

Total Spent

Flight (3 paid tickets and 1 lap child)                               $30

SUV Rental                                                                      $287

Gas                                                                                  $86.37

Travel Total                                                                  $403.37                                 AVG. $67.23 per day

Food Total                                                                    $166.40                                 AVG. $27.73 per day

San Diego Zoo (2 adults, drink, child free October)     $116.30

Disneyland (3 tickets)                                                   $177

Getty Center                                                                  $15

Torrey Pines                                                                  $15

Hollywood                                                                       $7

Huntington Beach                                                          $13.50

Total Activities                                                             $343.80             AVG.  $57.30 per day

Country Inn & Suites (3 nights)                                      $236.40          The best hotel we stayed in, great staff, great pool, great breakfast.  (78.80 per night using discount, normally $105 +tax)

Best Western Stovall’s Inn (1 night)                              $133.43           Paid for the area near Disney.  Nice Rooms, Awesome pool and topiary area, Adequate Breakfast.  ($10 parking, worst value)

Comfort Inn Universal Area                                            $110.88           Nice room, good breakfast, terrible parking lot, not a very nice area

Comfort Inn Huntington Beach                                       $61.94            Great room, very clean, did not eat breakfast (left too early).  Best value.

Total Lodging                                                                $542.65              AVG.  $90.44 per day

Total Miscellaneous                                                     $66                     AVG.  $11 per day

Trip Total                                                                        $1,522.22          AVG.  $253.70 per day

We could have done the trip for cheaper, but we would have sacrificed some things.  We could have gotten a smaller car and saved a hundred dollars or so.  Driving less miles or having a fuel efficient vehicle could have saved gas.  We could have saved more money by only buying tickets at the zoo ($88), but I am not going to avoid spending at the cost of fun.  We had also budgeted to go to Sea World, but we were enjoying San Diego too much to sacrifice a day doing that.  All around there’s not too much I would change.  Although the Best Western and Comfort Inn were both pricier than I would like and neither was as good as the Country Inn and Suites or the Comfort Inn in Huntington Beach, both about half the price of the Best Western.

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Now until December 31, 2014 any Flight Booked on Southwest is Buy One Get One Free!

You read the title correctly folks, for the next 16 months any flight that I book on Southwest will include a free ticket for my wife!  Unfortunately, this does not apply to everyone, but only applies to very valuable customers such as myself.  As I have tried to make clear throughout every post of this blog, I am not particularly affluent.  I do enjoy traveling, but the fact is that I have not been on an airplane in about 8 years and my wife has never flown.  This makes having the ability to fly so inexpensively even more exciting for me.  Yesterday, I signed into my Rapid Rewards account and found the following:

Southwest Companion Pass Earned

 

As the above photo states there are two ways to earn a “Companion Pass”.  Method A, requires making 100 “qualifying flights” during one calendar year.  As I have already stated, I have made 0 flights in over 8 years.  The other method is slightly more attainable.  Method B, requires you to earn 110,000 rapid reward points over the course of one calendar year.  That is the one I did.  As you can see above, I have accrued 110,519 points.

 

How did I do it?

Obviously that sounds like a ton of points and it is, but there are definitely some shortcuts to take to get you there quickly.  The first thing that I did was sign up for two Southwest Credit Cards, each one had a 50,000 point bonus.  After meeting the $2,000 spending I had 104,000 points in my account!  Gathering the next 6,000 was not quite as easy.  I continued to use my credit cards to gather points at a rate of 1 point per dollar spent.  This earned me 2,116 additional points (I would have much rather signed up for another credit card and received a nice bonus).  I also used the Southwest shopping portal this earned me 303 extra points.  I could have really maximized this method, but it seemed that I always waited too long when a great reward came along.  Some of the best included 9 points per dollar at Staples and 6 points per dollar at sears.  I was going to buy a TV from Sears and that would have earned me the 6,000 points no problem.  I messed around waiting for a big reward total and then feared I would miss getting the pass in time for my flight.  Although transfering points from Chase Ultimate Rewards do not count toward the pass, transfers from Hyatt do count.  I transferred 8,000 points from Chase to Hyatt, then those 8,000 points turned into 3,600 Southwest points.  Not a great ratio compared to Chase’s 1 to 1 ratio, but still earned my pass.

I booked my flight for October back in June when the prices got very low.  With the 110,000 points in the account I was able to book flights from Louisville, KY to San Diego, CA for 18,000 points round trip.  If my wife and I were the only two flying we could fly across the country for 18,000 points total.  We spent another 18,000 points for my daughter’s ticket, but it’s still pretty amazing that a family can fly across the country for 36,000 points especially when those points all came from signing up for a couple credit cards.  Each card had a $100 fee, so we will be able to take 3 round trip, cross country trips for $200 bucks.  If we leave the kids at home we would get even more value.

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How I earned 6% Cashback and 20 points per dollar on Spending this year

 

“Daddy, can we fly on a plane someday?” A simple question set forth by my daughter January of this year. As a father and husband I wanted nothing more than to book a flight to some beautiful destination at that moment. Unfortunately, in my capacity as the personal financial planner I am much less flexible. Absent a wealthy philanthropist deciding to sponsor our family sometimes we will not be afforded certain luxuries.

 

 

A few days later my brothers returned from a ski trip and my mother suggested that we take a big family ski vacation during Christmas Break. In the same way that my daughter’s idea to fly on a plane sounded fun, this also sounded great. However, my mind slipped back into the “how can I make this happen” mode. Obviously to even consider this kind of endeavor we would need to tighten our purse strings and save as much money as possible. We would need to purchase at least 3 plane tickets, which would cost at least $300 each. At this point I stumbled upon credit card offers that may help my family out.

 

 

I have been a long time user of a couple different cashback reward cards and feel that these are fantastic. The first card I signed up for was an American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card that would earn me $200 sign up bonus and 6% cashback on any grocery purchases. At this point I figured that I would buy gift cards from Kroger and use the extra $200 bonus to pay for these. This card also has a 0% intro rate for 12 months so it was nice. This card is very nice, but is only part of my overall spending strategy. It seemed that the more I looked into credit card offers the more benefits I found.

 

 

After that card I found the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card which has a 40,000 point signing bonus which can be used as a statement credit and be worth $400! I signed up for this card as well, met the spending and got the bonus points.

 

 

My biggest score of the year I will be writing in more detail about in a few days, but I was able to sign up for 2 Southwest credit cards. This netted me 106,000 points which are good toward about $1,908 worth of flights, but it actually gets better. When you earn 110,000 points in one year you earn a “Companion Pass”, this allows me the opportunity to bring a companion (my wife) along with me for free on any trip I book. Even if that flight is booked and paid with points. This effectively doubles the value of my points.

 

 

So far this year, as of 7/30/2013, my wife and I have racked up many miles, points and cashback. These have been earned through cashback portals and credit cards. In cashback alone we earned more than $775 in cashback. Even after paying the $75 annual fee on my AMEX we have earned over $700 cashback this year on our AMEX, Discover, Gas Reward Card and TopCashBack. We earned nearly 6 cents back on every dollar spent. We used this money to purchase a computer, which I built.

 

 

Even more amazing is our return on points and miles! We have earned over 400,000 miles! Even if you value these at only 1 penny each this means we have $4,000 worth of travel in our future. However, 235,000 of these miles can be used toward Southwest, which means they are worth about 1.8 cents per mile (doubled to 3.6 cents per mile with Companion Pass)! If we used all of these for flying Southwest we could get as much as $8,460 worth of travel on those 235,000 miles. Most of these points and miles came from bonuses and they all came from spending money normally. We earned nearly 20 points per dollar spent. That is like getting a 20% (or more) discount on everything we bought, even after finding the lowest prices.

 

 

In order to maximize our points per dollar spent we focus our credit card spending on those cards that provide the biggest payoff. I have a 6% Grocery Card, 5% Gas Card, 2 points per dollar on restaurant and travel. Even with these bigger returns my focus is on meeting spending limits on individual cards that offer big bonuses. If I need to spend $5,000 in 3 months to earn 60,000 points this is far more lucrative than the 5% or 6%. So if I am at the grocery and have not hit my $5,000 amount I will use the card with a spending goal rather than a 6% grocery card.

 

 

Using credit cards has been very lucrative for us this year and we look forward to taking many enjoyable trips at a deep discount. The use of credit cards inappropriately can be very dangerous. If you do not have the money to spend in cash, then using a credit card for spending is out of the question as well. We pay off our bills every month and have not paid any credit card fees over this amount of time. Also be sure to not bite off more than you can chew. For instance if you spend $1,000 a month normally do not sign up for cards that will require you to spend $4,000 each month in order to get the bonus.

 

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Lower Grocery Budget without Extreme Couponing

 

junk-foodphoto

Food expenditures are probably the easiest places to make budget cuts for younger Americans, but the grocery budget is also the easiest to justify keeping.  After all, statistics show that most Americans eat food on a regular basis (citation needed).  In fact, many scientists would probably agree that food is nearly a necessity for human survival.  With all of these facts buried in your brain, spending money on food is viewed as a necessity and unconsciously we reason that “our bodies need the nourishment and our bodies are worth the expense”.  There is nothing wrong with this assertion on the surface we do need to feed our bodies quality foods in order to keep them working in optimal condition.  Unfortunately, drawing a line between expense, nutrition and necessity is based on flawed logic.

Let me be clear, I am not advocating only consuming a dense diet void of any taste, but I would reason that spending more on your groceries does not make you healthier or love yourself any more than the rest of us.  I have drilled down into my spending data for the past few years and have noticed some amazing trends.  The statistics show (in my household), that those times when our food bill is lower correlate with better eating habits.  So, I can back into the reasoning that spending less on food makes my family healthier (not even considering less stress that accompanies bettering your financial situation).

I know that there are those among you that will argue, “it’s cheaper to eat unhealthy foods than it is to eat healthy.”  In many ways this assertion is correct, but there are moves we can make that swing the scale in our favor.  We must learn to value our food differently.  Rather than looking at food’s value on a calorie per dollar basis, we need to evaluate foods on a nutrients per dollar basis.  It’s much easier to get full on high quality foods.  Try this experiment, eat as much chicken and broccoli as possible, then eat a similar meal from McDonald’s.  You will consume more nutrition, get full on far fewer calories and spend less.

Eat at Home

Without question eating at home saves money.  If you are spending more by eating at home, you’re doing it wrong.

 

Go to the Grocery for Big Trips After Dinner

The times when we eat most unhealthy and spend the most money happen to coincide with those times when we have less food available at home.  Too often my wife and I will look in the refrigerator or pantry and say, “You want to go get some dinner?”.  This plays out poorly and expensively in two ways.  First, if we go out to dinner we will spend between $10 and $30 for that meal.  Option 2 is that we go to the grocery with our hungry eyes.  We purchase those items that would not be part of a normal shopping list.  From a psychological perspective it’s much easier to handle these smaller expenditures.  You don’t feel like you’re spending much money if you just spend $25 on most of your grocery trips.  It’s easy to splurge when your total is relatively low, plus you’re hungry and you’re worth it.

Going to the grocery for one big trip each week is easier to handle because you are less likely to make off the wall purchases.  Going to the grocery on a full stomach keeps your brain in control of food purchases.

Make a List

Knowing the items that your family consumes is important for shopping successfully.  Some items that we always try to keep in our house are Bread, Chicken Breasts, Ground Turkey, Ground Beef, Frozen Vegetables, Cottage Cheese, Peanut Butter and the list goes on.  The point is that we have taken a mental inventory of those items we eat on a regular basis and we buy them when they are on sale.  These tips also can be applied to other non-food items as well.  We are not super rigid with our lists, but we know that keeping these key items on hand around our house give us many of the ingredients needed for dishes we eat regularly.

Shop the Sales or go to a Salvage Grocery Store

This likely goes without saying, but making purchases when items are on sale is pivotal to saving money.  Knowing the list of ingredients your family enjoys is key, but so is purchasing these items when they are at their lowest prices.  At our local grocery store the regular price on a loaf of “Nature’s Own” bread is about $3 per loaf, but at the local Salvage Grocery Store they sell the same exact bread for $1 per loaf.  It’s the same delivery guy and everything.  Very often, going to a salvage grocery store is a better deal than even regular couponing and sale shopping.  Most recently, I found a 10 pound  “Black Forest Ham” that is normally found behind the deli counter.  At the local deli they charge more than $5 per pound on this item, but I bought this for $2 a pound.  Always keep stocked up, it might cost more up front, but you spend much less over time.

Buy a Freezer

Frigidaire Freezer

Around the holiday season 2012 my wife and I really started to embrace the stocking up on sales mentality.  We found turkeys were deeply discounted for Thanksgiving.  We ended up buying 6 of them in total and each one was a great deal.  I think the two cheapest were less than 20 cents per pound.  We also found glazed hams for at GFS for $1.30 per pound and ground turkey for $1.45 per pound.  We bought 100 pounds of the ground turkey and 5 hams.  We spent a ton of money, but we used my parent’s spare freezer to store these items, but it was running out of room.  It was then that my wife and I decided that we needed our own freezer.  We ended up purchasing a stainless steel upright freezer that was on sale at Lowe’s.  We ended up spending about $600 for the freezer, but by having the freezer we were able to capitalize on sale prices.  One of our first purchases after buying the freezer was buying boneless skinless chicken breasts by the case at Sam’s Club.  Normal price for chicken breasts seem to hover around $4 per pound or more.  We ended up buying 100 pounds for $1.77 per pound.  Our freezer has already saved us more than it cost in the ability to always eat sale priced food.

Credit Card Cashback

Of course anyone who has read the blog knows that I advocate getting money back by using credit cards for purchases you are making anyway.  So while you’re buying food on sale you might as well get a bonus discount after all your sale prices, coupons and smart shopping are considered.  With the exception of Sam’s Club, I can get cashback for grocery purchases.  One card give 5% at grocery stores, another gives 6% cashback at grocery stores which can really save quite a bit of money over the course of a year.  If I spend $6,000 a year at grocery stores then I will get $360 cashback on my American Express card which is pretty great for expenses I would incur under any scenario.

Start a Garden

Vegetables can be quite expensive when purchased at the grocery store.  My dear wifey bought bell peppers last week at Kroger for 50 cents each because she needed them for a recipe she had been eying.  We have grown accustomed to having a garden, but with the move and home renovation we did not get one planted soon enough.  Today we went to the local farmer’s market and actually purchased pepper plants for 50 cents each.  Even if each plant only produces one pepper we will be ahead.  We planted a late summer garden today and all of the seeds were a bit over $10.  Hopefully this small investment and minimal sweat equity will end up paying for itself many times over as we enjoy our fresh organic vegetables this fall for minimal cost.

 

 

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Reward Miles and Points Valuation

Trying to decide how to top off the extra 5,000 miles I needed to attain a companion pass I tried to do some evaluation of valuations.  I looked around to see different ways to transfer miles to Southwest that will count toward the companion pass.  I have some Ultimate Reward points from Chase, which transfer to Southwest at a 1 to 1 ratio, but do not count toward the Companion Pass.  However, transfers from Hyatt to Southwest do count, but the transfers from Hyatt to Southwest are at a rate of 10,000 Hyatt points to 4,800 Southwest points.  I would transfer 10,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards to Hyatt and then get 4,800 points.  How could I even consider such?  Afterall Chase Ultimate Rewards are worth 2 cents per mile and with this valuation I would be getting only 48% of the possible value.  A poor value proposition by any standards.  This got me thinking, what is a point worth to me?

Ultimately I did not decide to go this route, but it did make me further examine valuations that I have seen on other blogs.   The most baffling valuation to me comes from Starwood Preferred Guest points and their SPG AMEX card with a 25,000 point bonus.  It seems like many bloggers push its benefits and some say that it’s worth 2 cents per point.  Making the sign up bonus worth at least $500.  I have not signed up for this card, because it does not seem very valuable to me. Many people argue that you take the retail price of a room and divide it by the number of points needed and you come up with value.  Thus, if you spend the night in a room that is normally $900 per night and you spend 30,000 points you are getting 3 cents per mile of value!  I wholeheartedly disagree with this kind of valuation and reject the premise entirely.  Simple economics suggests that something is only worth what someone would pay for it.  I would never actually pay $900 to stay at any hotel so believing I got $900 worth of value from 30,000 points is a bit silly.  What is my opportunity cost of using these points?  Are there other options that would offer more nights?  I would be much happier staying 5 nights in a 5,000 point per night room that usually costs $100 per night even though my value is 2 cents per point, I am much happier.

Another favorite move of bloggers is to overvalue a first class award ticket.  I understand the desire to have bigger seats and more leg room on a plane.  I would also love to fly first class if anyone is interested in proving to me why it is worth doing.  However, I have read many accounts of trips stating, “I used 125,000 miles to fly first class roundtrip on a flight that would have cost $7,500 I maximized value by getting 6 cents per mile!”  Certainly telling your friends that you took a $7,500 flight for free is remarkable.  Again, this kind of valuation ignores the opportunity cost.  Let’s assume that instead you could book an international flight in coach for 50,000 points, but that flight only costs $1,500 normally this is only 3 cents per mile, which is pedestrian compared to the first class flight.  My first thought is that a plane is for transportation.  The goal is to get from point A to point B, if I want to sit in a comfortable chair I would just stay home.  I would never pay the $6,000 fare difference to ride first class so why would I sacrifice 75,000 more points?  What is my opportunity cost of doing this?  Instead of one first class flight I could (assuming award availability) invite a friend along and pay their way and still have 25,000 points to spare.  Many people use Chase Ultimate Rewards to top off their travel, but these 25,000 Ultimate Reward points are minimally worth $250 as a statement credit.  Which sounds like the better scenario, flying alone across the ocean or flying with a friend and arriving with $250 of free money to start?

When it’s all said and done only you can decide what is important to you.  I like to get more value out of my miles by purchasing more happiness and creating more memories.  Sure, I would probably love 1 night at the W. in Washington, D.C., but if I could get a week’s worth of hotel stays instead I am doing that.

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“Doesn’t getting a card lower my credit score?”

Last month my sister was planning a rare international flight.  I recommended she pick up a travel rewards credit card.  The Chase Sapphire Preferred rewards 2 points per dollar spent on travel and gives a 40,000 point signing bonus if you spend $2,500 in the first 3 months.  The cost of an international flight alone is about $1,500 so hitting a bit over $300 a month in 3 months is easily attainable.  Minimally all the points could be applied directly to the statement to pay for her trip. Her reply was “Doesn’t getting a card lower my credit score?”

Theoretically, it could since inquiries do negatively impact your credit score.  However, using a smaller portion of your available credit has the opposite impact on your score.

For the past few years I have only had a few credit cards in my wallet.  My primary card was my Discover Card, which earns 5% cashback on revolving categories throughout the year.  All other spending earns 1% cashback which is not really a bad deal.  For gas, grocery and drugstore purchases I had an old credit card that rewards 5% in those categories.  In February, I called Discover about my account and customer service did very little to resolve my issue.  At that point I decided I would focus my spending on other cards.  When researching online I found a plethora of very great credit cards and companies competing for my business with nice bonuses.  I pulled a few credit reports and all of them put me in the low 700s range.  I have never missed a payment and nearly all of my spending is put on a reward credit card.

Since then I have applied for 4 different credit cards and been accepted for all of them.  Over the same time span my credit score has increased substantially.  All credit scores I have checked now put my credit score at over 750 and the only thing I have done is get more credit cards (more available credit) and paid off the balances in full with each statement.  In my personal experience, applying for credit cards actually helps to improve your credit as long as you are a responsible borrower.  In no way is this meant to condone applying for credit cards wrecklessly, but if you are dilligent with your finances your credit should not suffer.

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Walt Disney World on a Budget – Saving Money (Tickets) (Part 3)

Save Money at Walt Disney World

Save Money at Walt Disney World

 

Finding a place to stay and determining the best method of travel is only the beginning of the expense for a trip to Walt Disney World.  If you were just wanting to drive to Orlando, Florida and stay in a hotel the total outlay for such a trip would be quite low.  Unlike other Florida vacations, where your family relaxes carelessly (and cheaply) on the beach, you will find no beaches in Orlando.  This is where careful planning might pay off.

The last time I took a trip to Walt Disney World was in 2011.  We had actually thought about visiting Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.  I actually love Universal Studios and find it to be very fun.  However, due to the pricing structures of bothe Walt Disney World and Universal Studios the economics of visiting both parks is difficult to make work.  Both companies charge more for a single day ticket than they do for a multi-day ticket (on a per day basis). From a business perspective it’s a fantastic choice, but for a family wanting to enjoy both parks it can work be difficult to accomodate.  A 1 day ticket to WDW is $95 per adult and $88 per child 3-9.  A 7 day ticket, by comparison is $302 and $282, which breaks down to $43 and $40 per day.  Let’s imagine that on day 8 you wanted to go to Universal Studios for this extra day you would pay about $90 per adult and $85 per child.  Alternatively, you could spend your 8th day at a Disney Park again for an extra 10 bucks per person.  This really complicates the vacation math and in my case made us stay with Walt Disney World for the duration of our 6 day trip.

Ticket Inflation

When you are trying to vacation on a budget, the last thing you want to hear is for someone to recommend you buy in advance of your journey.  In 2011 2 adult tickets for 6 days were $242 each for my wife and me.  This same ticket in 2013 would cost me $296 through Disney.  This is a 18% increase in 2 years!  So one surefire way to save money on your tickets is to buy them early!  When’s the best time to plant a tree?  20 years ago.  When’s the best time to buy a ticket to Walt Disney World?  20 years ago.  If you cannot swing buying them years early definitely buy them before the yearly price increases.

Cheapest Tickets

When purchasing tickets outright the best company that I found was Undercover Tourist.  In 2011 their price was better after tax than Walt Disney World tickets were priced at before tax.  Remember that Undercover Tourist shows total price you pay while the Walt Disney World website just throws the tax in at the end.

Ticket Discounts

Although I purchased my tickets from Undercover Tourist in 2011 I do not know if they are truly the best choice today if you are willing to take a little extra time.  I used the ticket comparison calculator for 2 adults and 2 children on a 6 day ticket the total from Undercover Tourist would be $1,103 while the price through Disneyworld.com is $1,145.  Certainly Undercover Tourist is $42 cheaper which makes them 3.67% cheaper.  If you just want to buy tickets quickly, this is a good bet.

However, if you time your purchase right you can save more than this by paying with a gift card.  Sign up for an American Express Blue Cash Preferred (special offer through card match tool)which gives a $250 sign-up bonus 6% cashback at grocery stores and 0% interest for 15 months ($75 annual fee).  Let’s assume you only get this card for your Disney trip and that’s it.  At my local Kroger they offer an incentive of 2x fuel reward points on any gift card purchase.  During certain times of year they offer 4x fuel reward points on any gift card purchase.  What does that mean?  Every 100 points earned is good for 10 cents off per gallon.  I went to Kroger when they offered 4x fuel reward points and used my American Express card to buy gift cards to pay for Walt Disney World.  The price is $1,145 which will earn me $68.70 cashback and 4,580 fuel reward points.  The rule for gas points is you can redeem up to 1,000 points for $1.00 off 35 gallons of gas.  Purchasing tickets with this method would earn $68.70 (6% cashback) +$250 (sign up bonus) – $75 (annual fee) + $157.50 (gas savings) = $401.20 in total savings on a family of four.  That works out to 35% off which is better than the 3% off offered by Undercover Tourist.  Plus, the 0% interest means you can pay your card off slowly like a nice savings account.  If you really want to amp up the savings take all of your gas with you on the trip and you will be filling up on $1 off gas!  I would not condone, recommend or try this trick myself, you would be saving cash on gas.

Ticket Choices

I have read other advice in the past and have heard many people suggest that people buy Park Hopper,  No-Expiration and other more expensive tickets.  I found the incremental cost to purchase these tickets were not cost effective.  This just goes to show that there are no right answers if two people will recommend opposite things.  As adamant as I am to not get the Park Hopper option, other people suggest it’s “a must”.  I believe Disney is expensive enough and there is enough to do without worrying about such an option.  For instance, if you go to Magic Kingdom, you can leave in the middle of the day and go back to Magic Kingdom.  With a little extra planning you can easily get by without the Park Hopper.

Park Options

Just as opinions vary on what upgrade options should be added to your ticket there are many strong opinions on which parks to see.  I find Epcot to be quite boring when compared to the excitement of Magic Kingdom.  I believe that Animal Kingdom has promise, but currently there’s not enough to do in the park.  That being said, I have had people come up to me and say “Animal Kingdom is so great!” or “I could spend the whole week at Epcot”.  I think that spending a week in Orlando and wasting every day at Epcot would be a punishment.

When my family went we had 6 days.  We went to Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios twice and Epcot and Animal Kingdom once each.  I used touringplans.com and undercovertourist.com to plan my trip.  I actually made a spreadsheet and evaluated each day based on expected crowd levels.  I also looked at the calendar to be certain that we were in attendance during “must see” events.  We went to Hollywood Studios on at least one day when Fantasmic was showing.  Without good preparation we could have easily just gone to the park and not known what we missed.

 

 

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Kohls 10x Savings

I love being able to double dip on savings.  Kohls is one of my favorite places because they sell a variety of things and are not afraid of coupons or other discounts.  I used a Visa prepaid gift card that I bought using a cashback credit card.  When I bought this card I made $8.50 in cashback and gas per $100 spent.

I then went to the Chase Ultimate Rewards Mall and clicked on Kohls 10x.  I then proceeded to buy a $100 Kohls gift card earning 10 points per dollar.  This simple transaction earned me 1,000 points which I can use as a statement credit worth $10 or get between $16 and $20 worth of free travel!

Obviously once I get the Kohls card in the mail I will use it through the Ultimate Rewards Mall and earn another 1,000 points.

 

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Discount Gift Cards Lock in the Savings

Using coupons and shopping portals are great avenues for saving money.  It usually takes minimal effort to type into google and find a great coupon code.  The same is true with shopping portals.  It literally takes two minutes and can save many dollars.  I also advocate using reward credit cards to further amplify the cost savings.  This is only a beneficial approach if you pay off your credit cards each month.

Using any one of these methods will save some money, but with a little extra effort and some stacking you can save a lot more money.  Here’s my most recent example.  Yesterday, I used my Blue Cash Preferred American Express (earns 6% cashback) at Kroger to purchase a $500 Visa gift card +$5.95 activation fee.  After taking the 6% cashback into account the card ended up costing about $475, plus I got 500 gas points, which will translate into $17.50 discount on gas.  With the gas and cashback savings that works out to $8.50 per $100 or 8.5%!

I buy dog food from Tractor Supply and try to time my purchases for their discounted prices every couple months.  Usually though I have not been able to gain tremendous value using this method.  However, that’s where buying discount gift cards comes into play.  I took my Visa Gift Card from Kroger and went to TopCashBack.com and clicked to Raise.com.  I found Tractor Supply gift cards for 14% off so I made my $100 gift card purchase, which also earned 3% cashback.  So this portion of the transaction earned me $17 off of $100.

Raise.com emailed me my $100 e-card nearly instantly.  I prefer a physical gift card so I had the idea of using my electronic gift card to buy a physical gift card.  I went through BeFrugal.com to earn 5% cashback.  I put a $100 gift card in my shopping cart and checked out.  I paid with my e-card.  The transaction went through flawlessly.  So I earned another $5 for turning my gift card into another gift card.

Once I receive the gift card in the mail I will use BeFrugal.com again to earn 5% cashback on my purchases of dog food.  The food is usually $31 a bag, but I will wait until the price goes down to $25 a bag.  With all of the discounts stacked, I will be able to get 4 bags of dog food for   $64.50, which is the price I would normally pay for 2 bags of dog food.  Not including discounts or coupons I might find I will save 35.5% by just using cashback portals and credit cards in an advantageous manner.

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