30 November 2010

Holiday Resources

With December starting tomorrow (eep!) and Christmas just around the corner, it's time that I came through on my promise of a bargain shopping post.  George and I love shopping for Christmas gifts.  He likes to buy something just right (i.e. expensive) and I like to buy for everyone... you can see how this would quickly become a problem.  One of the hardest parts of our financial journey has been to convince ourselves that good gifts should be thoughtful, not perfect.

The last two years we have successfully given ourselves a per-person spending limit.  We decide together who we're buying for (8 people this year, excluding ourselves), what our total budget is, and divide, leaving a little margin for error.  Since we're a military family, the rest of our families live hundreds of miles away, so that limit includes everything: the item, taxes, & shipping.  You don't pay taxes and shipping with Monopoly money!

I'm still choosing gifts for everyone this year, but while I'm doing that, I'm using some basic techniques and tricks to stretch our budget as far as possible.  Here's what I've come up:

  • Shop Online - In my world, online beats in line any day.  Internet sites can be a great way to compare prices, look at reviews, and avoid buying related to social pressure ("I came in so I should buy something to make the trip worth it...").  I recently posted about how I saved 66% on some books that I ordered; 2/3 of that discount came just from shopping online instead of in stores.  Some people enjoy the "thrill" of shopping in a store, but I always feel stressed when I shop.  Thus, the lack of instant gratification is great for me (i.e. I can't buy to make myself feel better because I don't feel bad in the first place).  I can sit back, make a calm decision, and either buy (cheaply!) or walk away with no problem.  *See my note at the bottom for info about paying online.
  • Comparison Shop - This is the #1 rule of bargain hunting (#2 is probably Never Pay Sticker Price).  Search for the lowest price, keeping in mind extraneous costs like shipping.  This is about an information imbalance: if only the seller knows the cost, you lose.  If you comparison shop, you are correcting that imbalance in your favor.
  • Coupons - Coupons aren't just for grocery shopping!  They can save you hundreds when used properly.  Sign up for your favorite stores' emails (see the email section below) and you'll get coupon codes for online shopping as well as in-store discounts.  There are a number of sites that collect coupon codes (my favorite is RetailMeNot and there are others), but you can just Google "(store name) coupon" to find them, as well.  There are also online sites that have deep discounts advertised for local activities or one day deals: Groupon is the most famous, but again, sites like this are growing in number.
  • Cash Back Programs - This is as close to free money as you're going to get.  There are two ways to get cash back on purchases and yes, they can be used together!  The first method is the "old fashioned" way - that is, rewards cards, which can be used in stores or online.  Every credit or debit card we have is linked to some type of rewards program.  (As a personal note, I think if your bank or card company doesn't offer a rewards program for free, it's time to swap banks... yours isn't working enough for you!)  Some of these give you a percentage back, either on your statement or in the form of a check, and some earn you points towards gift cards.  The second method takes advantage of the advertising arrangements between online retailers.  It involves signing up on a website (generally with just an email address and name) and then using that website to link to wherever you're shopping online.  My preferred site is Ebates but there are several other reputable sites out there (and again, it pays to compare!).  This article from Living with Less has a great overview of available sites and how to use them.
  • Discounted Gift Cards - Still going to the store to buy gift cards?  Think again.  Sites like Plastic Jungle buy gift cards that people don't want at a discount from the face value (another money source if you have these laying around) and then sells them to people for a slightly lower discount. There are many sites like that, so I use Gift Card Granny to find them.  This can be a great way to save big right up front.  Standard discounts generally run from 5-15%, but I have seen much bigger numbers.  You can use this two ways: to get gift cards as gifts for others at a discount or for yourself to use to purchase gifts.  Combined with a coupon, this can add up to a very big discount.
I would be remiss if, along with those methods listed above, I didn't mention a couple of things that I do to make my very busy life a little less stressful.
  • Email Address for Advertisements & Orders - I have a separate email address for all websites.  Every coupon site, every store, every newsletter goes to that address.  It's easy to get a free email address these days; I recommend gmail because of their phenomenal spam detection and organizational tools.  I opened that address thinking that stores were selling my email address and I didn't want to wade through spam or advertisements not targeted at me.  In fact, it has been a great organizational tool because all of my coupons and ads go to that account and all of my online order info is there as well.  And I have to say, having had the address for the better part of a year, not a single spam item has been found... not by the spam filter and not by me in the inbox.  Which should tell you something about those forwards your friends and family send you...
  • Security when Buying Online - Shopping online is easier and more secure than ever.  Most companies have shipping date guarantees and tracking numbers; the information that you enter is fairly standardized (name, address, card #, etc.) so you can detect anomalies easily; you can use a payment service (like Paypal, although there are others) instead of your credit card if you prefer; and your Visa or MC is protected from fraud liability as long as you report it.  Major credit card companies also offer an option to use a "dummy number" that they generate for your online purchases, which you can get through their websites when you log in to your account, as an extra layer of security.  While you should be careful when shopping online, using a major credit card, looking for the https:// instead of http://, and being heads up about what information a company actually needs are good ways to ensure your information is being properly used.

I should quickly point out that I recommend doing all of this in addition to having a solid financial plan.  If you can't afford it in the first place, no discount is going to make your situation better.

It's been a long post, but I know most of my friends are as bargain minded as I am, so I hope you found it interesting.  There are lots of opportunities to spend less.  Is there anything you do that gets you more for your money?  Tips or techniques to use in combination with these?

29 November 2010


Ten days since I posted last!  I hope that everyone had a happy Thanksgiving full of family, friends, and good food, just like I did.

After a very busy week (week?  month!), I had some downtime today to catch up on my Google Reader articles.  I've recently added several science blogs to my subscriptions, catching up on current science trends and discoveries.  Several articles and an email lead me to thoughts about validation through peer review.  It's a time honored scientific mantra that research isn't valid until it can be reproduced and subjected to critical review.  The underlying assumption, of course, is that the reproduction and review are done by other people.

Under certain circumstances, that is absolutely necessary.  Specifically, if you want other people to believe your science, your methodology needs reproducibility and peer reviewing.  But what if you don't want to publish your science?  Nothing in the definition of science says that it must be shared.

Regardless, that's largely a philosophical argument, the kind best done around dinner time with good food and wine available.  The practical implications of peer-reviewing are a little jarring to an introvert like me... maybe they are to extraverts, too.  For instance, this article, which describes a trial being started with autistic children.  It's a bit long but not dense and it rightfully points out that there are a number of unscientific and unethical aspects to this trial.  But the article also says this:
 There is no evidence, other than a non-peer reviewed paper Montagnier self published in a journal he edits, that this is possible.  This paper makes most extraordinary claims that remain unreplicated – a basic requirement for research to be considered worth responding too, much less accepted.
 If the science is wrong, say so.  If the evidence does not substantiate the conclusion, call it out.  But don't condemn the work just because you didn't have a chance to give your opinion.

Even that example is a little esoteric.  So let's bring it to the quotidian, shall we?  Let's say that you want to host a group event.  You check with a couple key members of the group, who green-light things (I did my social due diligence! screams the introvert).  You send the invitation.  You get good responses back until... The One.  Who says s/he is upset that s/he can't attend... but really means to say (and does a good bit of implying) that the real problem is that s/he wasn't consulted and her/his opinion was critical to this event.  Who has implied that their opinion is more valuable than yours, as is their time.  Peer review!  The opinions of the peer group (in this case, the invitees) is more important than the originator (the host), regardless of whether or not the original idea was quality or not.

In case it's not obvious, I'm very over this mentality today.  It does, however, remind me of a great quote by one of my favorite historical figures:
“Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” ~Alexander Hamilton
I guess some things never change.

19 November 2010

Savings Article

When I first started this blog, I was also discovering other web features.  The one I've used most so far is Google Reader.  This is a cool (and free!) organizational tool that lets me collect, via RSS feeds, all the blogs and websites I read into one location.  I just sign into my Google account and voila, interesting updates tailored to me (and by me).  It's also the source of most of the articles that I feature here.

I read several interesting articles today, learning that I don't know squat about tea (yet!) and that Patrick Rothfuss' annual Worldbuilders fundraiser has restarted (great cause + cool swag = awesomeness).  My blog following is a little eclectic, but centered on a lot of the themes I use here: books, authors, tea, history, economics, and personal finance.

So it should come as no surprise that it was this Freakonomics article that captured my attention this morning.  It discusses an interesting idea about using incentives to encourage savings.  Using some quick Google research, the current savings rate in the US is anywhere from a negative number to about 4%, depending on what you count as "savings".  It always surprises me how little financial preparation many people have; the article's note about half of Americans not being able to access $2,000 in 30 days is pretty jarring.  Speaking from experience, our financial planning and savings have been fundamental to our success in the last year, in which I have been unable to find a job commensurate with my skills and education.  I can't imagine going through these months with no savings account, knowing that any unexpected financial burden would drive us further in debt.

The best aspect of articles like that one?  It reminds me that even when money is tight that we took the right steps.  It's good to keep it all in perspective.  What finance statistics and factoids surprise you?

16 November 2010

Book Elimination Progress

My bookshelf already looks better.  I got rid of 12 books from my spreadsheet that I know I won't read.  Plus, there were over a dozen books that had crept onto my shelves with no mention in my reading list.  Most of those were put out as well, and I added the seven books that I do intend to get to.  I also put 8 more titles "on notice" by sticking them in a box.  All told, I eliminated 4,932 pages from my reading list, about a 20% reduction.  The eight boxed books are potentially another 2,644 pages to go, although some of those titles will find their way back to my reading list.

Overall, I'm proud of myself for this.  My bookshelf is cleaner, my reading list is up to date, and my reading is not an emotional drag for the first time in months.  Of the books that I own and will read, I have 21,535 pages to enjoy, although that number will drop as I finish a few more books before the end of the year.  I would love to be below 20k pages by January 1st, but hesitate to set that goal knowing how busy I am between now and then.  In any case, that is a do-able number for next year's reading and I intend to set that New Years Resolution for myself.

Next up are my Goodreads shelves.  I already created a couple of new exclusive shelves, titled "potential to-reads" and "removing from reading list".  The "removing" list currently stands at 43 books and growing; I'll delete this list and its contents once I've gone through all the unread books.  I'm moving books I'm interested in but not actively pursuing from "to read" to the "potential" shelf.  This will create a pool of books to draw from if I want something new but also remove the emotional burden of a 200+ title "to read" list.  Books that I own will stay on the main list, as will books on my "anticipated purchases" list.

Okay, that's all very complicated.  But the point is, I'm lightening my load and making reading a fun hobby rather than a chore.  It's very much like handling our finances; now that I know where things are, I feel more relaxed and in control.  Anything that helps reduce stress this time of year is definitely worth the time.

Now there's a better question: what to do with the books I'm not reading?  Options include donating, trading, or selling.  I'm leaning toward selling for the money and because it wouldn't create more books for me.  Has anyone else done online book selling?  Or have a good charity to donate to?

15 November 2010

Used Books

Based on a comment from one of my book reducing blog entries, I thought I'd talk a little bit about my philosophy on used books.  Succinctly, I avoid buying used books whenever possible.  Before that sounds a little harsh, here's why: The author doesn't get credit.

I'm a big believer in honest free market trading.  I feel that if there's a way for me to help an author to benefit from their craft, I should do it.  Used book sales are not tracked and do not generate royalties for the author.  So I make every reasonable attempt to buy new copies of books that I read, in the hopes that the author makes enough money to continue writing books that I enjoy.

Yes, this is impactful from a financial point of view, but not as much as you'd think (see my previous post on my 66% book discount!).  Used booksellers are getting smart and comparing prices online.  Even in the last five years, the number of good deals I find are diminishing noticeably.  I completely understand that some people only buy used for financial reasons, needing to watch every single cent.  If it comes down to feeding yourself or buying a new book, I feel like the choice is obvious.  Realistically, I'm no longer in that position, so I can afford to stand on principle on this issue.

So when do I buy used?  When a book is out of print and no longer available new, of course.  Then there's no way for the author to receive credit, so I feel free to enjoy the book on whatever terms I can find it.  I'm very excited about authors who are working to publish their backlist as ebooks.  When I get an e-reader, that will be the first set of books I buy.

In the spirit of holiday bargain shopping posts, you might be interested in the best find I ever made in a used bookstore.  Six years ago, I found a hardcover copy of On Basilisk Station, which a friend had recommended to me.  At $0.25, it was much cheaper than a new paperback (this was in my college days when it really was a choice between groceries and books!). I bought it, read it, loved it, and started looking for copies of the next book in hardcover online.  I was shocked to find that because of limited printings (the early hardcovers for the series were published retroactively), the book that I bought for $0.25 was worth over $40 online!  I purchased the next few books new in paperback.  Years later, once I could afford it, I purchased all of the in-print hardcovers new and am only missing one of the out-of-print books.  I still have that original book... it was worth more to me as an enjoyable story than the $40 return on investment that I could have received.

What's the best book deal you've ever gotten?

14 November 2010

In Which I Gloat About Cheap Books

I'm slowly learning that everything can be had for a bargain.  Paying sticker price is rarely either a good idea or your only option.  There are some days that this goes better than others.  For instance, I shoot for an average 10% coupon rate at the grocery store, but that means that I range anywhere from about 4% to my all time high of 17%.

Today, though, I'm pretty sure I got one of my best deals ever on books.  I purchased three books (not all for me) which were list prices of $29.99, $15.00, and $15.00, or $59.99 total.  At least, that's what they would have been in the bookstore...

I do a lot of my shopping online; it makes it easier to compare prices, make calmer decisions, and to walk away from an item I'm not 100% sold on.  Knowing that I wanted to purchase these books, I turned to online retailers to see what kind of a deal I could get.  I settled on Barnes & Noble because I had a gift card and because I almost always have a coupon.  Amazon rarely sends out coupons and Barnes & Noble has been on a successful push to narrow the online price gap (the difference in totals came out to a few cents and I don't remember in whose favor).

Just for shopping online, the prices of the books are $16.43, $8.72, and $10.59, or $35.74 total.  That's already a 40% discount, just for clicking the mouse instead of wasting gas money!  The other great thing about internet shopping is how savvy people have thought of so many smart ways to use the web.  So even though the most recent email coupon I had from Barnes & Noble was expired, I just Googled "Barnes & Noble coupon", and voila, coupon codes!  In this case from Retail Me Not, which had a 25% off one item code.  After putting that in, my final total was $31.63, a  47% discount.  Could it get better?  Oh yeah.

The piece de resistance is that I had a $11.14 gift card from returning a book I purchased a few months ago and decided I would never get around to reading in my recent book elimination efforts (new post on that coming soon!).  Because I made a smart choice in trading in a book I wouldn't read, I paid $11.14 less than the discounted price for books I will read.  It hardly seems worth mentioning that the credit card I used to finish the transaction gives me 5% back on book purchases (I will, of course, pay off the balance just as soon as the transaction clears and my books arrive).

Even after factoring in taxes, and we all know lower sales price means less sales tax, I paid $21.56 for what should have been a $64.19 purchase.  I saved myself 66% off the sticker price.  Not too shabby, if I do say so myself!

Could I have done better?  Believe it or not, yes!  If I had a Barnes & Noble Membership I could have saved another 10% off the discounted price (saving about another $3, or 5% overall).  I could also have purchased a discounted gift card to use on the purchase.  I could have gotten my purchase price below $15 if I had really wanted to, and honestly, I'm kicking myself a little bit that I didn't.  But not too hard.  Because you have to admit, 66% off is a pretty awesome discount.

11 November 2010

More Randomness

Sometimes I feel like most of what I post is a round-up of interesting links, but I also feel like I can't help it.  Too much interesting stuff is going on in the world!  And the internet brings it right to me to share!

First, the best piece of the day: Karen Traviss' blog.  Karen Traviss is a British sci-fi/fantasy author that I follow.  Her writing is phenomenal (even if I have only read her Star Wars work; the rest are staying on my to read list) and I respect her views on many topics.  The entry linked above is about Remembrance Day (Britain's equivalence to Veterans Day, both coming from the Armistice Day holiday) and what we owe our veterans.  It's a long post and totally worth it.  If you don't read anything else from this entry, check out that blog entry.

Second, some interesting info about e-book sales from publishers, rather than retailers.  I've never seen hard data on market share for genres before this article (admittedly never having searched it out) and I'm surprised to learn that sf/f sells better than romance.  Go figure.

Lastly, I found this blog entry from a Freakonomics article about the same paper referenced in the blog.  I'm not a big fan of the climate crisis panic, but this is fascinating information about the effectiveness of female education.  TEDTalks has a lot of info on that topic and I'm slowly going through some really brilliant speeches by people who are making a huge difference in this field. I'll try to post some of them soon.

"Down Time" Escapes Me

So in what is all too typical of me, I managed to cram everything under the sun into my 5 days off.  My house is finally clean... well, the downstairs is, anyway.  And the finances are updated/readjusted for now and I made some progress on Lego Harry Potter.  But what I'm really excited about is this weekend!  I have an action packed three days coming up:

Friday is a day trip to New Orleans with some of the ladies from the local spouses' club.  This should be a good trip because we really have not taken advantage of the closeness of NOLA yet, so hopefully I'll get some inexpensive day trip ideas.  Plus, I get to hang out with a good friend!

Saturday is the Renaissance Festival in Hammond, LA.  In honor of Veterans Day, this weekend is half off for military families.  I've heard nothing but good about this festival and I'm very excited to be going with yet more good friends!

Sunday is my cram day of sorts... we were originally going to spend the whole day at the semi-local Celtic Festival (complete with jousting, music, and sheep herding dogs!).  But of course I had to get on the internet and one thing led to another (as it often does for me) and I found a Christmas craft fair!  And, even more unsurprisingly, it's only this weekend, just like the Celtic Festival.  Thus, Sunday is just going to be busy and that's all there is to it.

You may notice the lack of book clearing.  Not to worry, I started the list two days ago and just have to go take them off my shelves now.  Going to squeeze in the worst part of that before we go out to dinner tonight.  But first, I have to kick the two napping beagles off my lap!

09 November 2010

Today's Finds

While I'm waiting for my class' website to load, I'm happy to announce that I finished my final paper for my second class!  Yay!  I'd like to thank all the History and English teachers I ever had for giving me so much work that I learned to write a 4,000 word paper, complete with research and editing, in 10 hours.  And also for their unending patience with my stubborn reticence to improve my writing, despite their excellent teaching efforts.

Whew!  Now that that's done, let's move on to something more interesting.  Or rather, several somethings:

First up, yet another cool article from Get Rich Slowly.  This one is about how to make car dealerships fight over your business.  Or, at least, how to stop getting ripped off so horribly.  What I got out of this, besides how to make my introverted-self very happy if we ever buy a car from a dealership, was the writer's solution to a gender issue, namely that car salesmen offer better deals to men.  Because after all, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

Secondly, a short article about natural versus human-made systems.  This one's particularly concerned with genetically modified food.  My favorite quote:
The fact that cross-species gene transfer happens without human intervention in nature, however rare, provides further justification for viewing transgenic technology not as a Frankensteinian intervention into the natural world, but as yet another method of trait selection, something we’ve been doing with heroic results since the dawn of agriculture.
Believe me, statistically speaking, you wouldn't be here without that intervention.  For info, look up the history of fertilized soil some time.  I'm reposting this article because the underlying lesson is a favorite philosophy of mine: That every choice, even making no choice through non-action, has consequences.  The point is not to avoid them, because you can't, but rather to engineer them to be positive consequences, something that human beings are uniquely suited to do.  In short, don't hate humanity!

Lastly, a few weeks ago I posted my review of Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From.  As my review implied, I'm completely enamored by this book and have referenced it countless times since I read it just a few months ago.  This article from the UK's Guardian says everything I felt about this book, but in a more journalistic, readable way.  If I'd said it, it would have rambled.

And while I've been typing, my paper is officially submitted!  All done with my second class.  My third class, Project Planning Execution and Closure, starts Sunday.  Too bad I'll be at the Celtic Festival!

04 November 2010

Back to the Book Question

I feel a bit like a kid today: I'm counting down the days until school is out.  Or rather, till my current class is done (5 days!).  I have three more assignments, including one 15 page research paper, which will be about the systems engineering behind e-readers.

In any case, I get a very short break between classes, only 5 days, so what I'm actually thinking about is how to spend those days.  Two of them, Saturday and Sunday, will be taken up with a Renaissance Festival and a Celtic Festival and Highland Games (very excited about both... even budgeted for souvenirs, i.e. cool jewelry...).  For the remaining three days, there are two goals (big step for me: notice the lack of house cleaning objectives!):

  1. Beat Lego Harry Potter (almost done w/ Year 4, just need to go back and play to 100%)
  2. Par down my to-read lists.
No typo, lists.  There are 3!  One on Goodreads, one on a spreadsheet, and one that's a stack of books in my room.  Obviously, there's a lot of overlap, but I suspect some books have sneaked onto one list or another without my acknowledgement.   Based on what I wrote before and the awesome feedback I received, here are my new book elimination rules:
  1. Any Star Wars books/series that I started and didn't like (I'm looking at you, Coruscant Nights!) or that I haven't yet started will be eliminated.
  2. Any book I've owned more than 4 years without reading will be eliminated or boxed, no exceptions (and I can't cheat here, there's yet another list with proof of ownership for that long).
  3. Any book that I feel will not be read will be eliminated or boxed.
  4. Parts of series that I've never bothered to collect will be eliminated.
Even if I wuss out a bit on #3, I think that's going to take care of most of the dead weight on my shelves.  Anything in a box (call it a "maybe toss it" box) will stay until January 1st.  If I can't remember it in two months, it goes.  I track my reading annually and I want to start next year's reading feeling lightened and not duty-bound to read something because it's on a list.  I want to go to a bookstore and pick up a book without feeling guilty that I have dozens at home that are unread.  I'm inspired by the success of others and knowing that when I eliminate Stuff, I feel healthier.

Are there other rules you would recommend?  Have you successfully done this yourself?  And how do I have a book list party to add some social pressure?  Or should I bribe myself with a treat to celebrate afterwards?

03 November 2010

Narrators and Biases

I forgot to add this article to my earlier post about books:

Kate Elliott's Blog which links to this blog post: Michelle Cooper: Just a Girls' Book.

I know from experience that this happens all the time with children's and YA novels.  What do you think?

Book Issues

This month the book club I'm part of is reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  I sort of wish it was here this morning because it is storming outside.  It is so gray and nasty, the perfect day to cuddle up on the couch with hot tea and a long book.

Speaking of long books, I recently finished Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule.  As you can see in my review, I was un-enthused.  Very disappointing, as I had several friends whose opinions I trust recommend this series.  I'm pushing through the second one, Stone of Tears, which seems to be picking up a bit, but even on this rainiest of days, I don't feel compelled to read it.

What I'd really like to be reading is the penultimate Wheel of Time door-stopper, Towers of Midnight.  I tried to order it last night, along with this month's book club selection.  On Amazon, the order came to around $24.50 and on Barnes & Noble, $26.03.  Those of you familiar with online ordering know that I wanted to order from B&N because I would get free shipping.  So I put both books in my online cart and, lo and behold, the price of Towers of Midnight dropped by $1.42.  Which would normally be great, but this time would in fact cost me $4.98 in shipping, a losing deal.  I'm not going to the store to pay full price for either book, so I guess I'll wait a few days and see if either book price increases by $0.39.  Only I could be upset at prices dropping!

So instead of reading today, I'm applying for a new job.  Wish me luck...

In for a Penny

This is the smartest article I've seen in awhile:

One Dunkin’ Donuts store is taking a stand against the penny.  A sign at the store reads “We will be rounding your change to the closest nickel. For example, if your change is $2.03, we will give you $2.05. If your change is $2.22, you will receive $2.20.  For any customer who still would like their pennies, please just ask the cashier and we would be happy to accommodate you.” The change is designed to speed up service. Here’s hoping the initiative goes viral. 
 In case you weren't aware, it costs more than $0.01 to make a penny (and more than $0.05 to make a nickel).  So basically, every time a penny or nickel is made, we lose money.  Lots of people have advocated for the U.S. to stop producing new pennies and nickels and Congress will review a bill to change the metal composition of coins to reduce production costs next year.  It may not sound like much, but think about the billions of pennies and nickels out there... yeah, it adds up (more info here).