Sunday, January 25, 2015

Catching Up

Well then, happy Halloween, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

It's been a long time hasn't it?

Where the hell have I been?

Traveling for work, busy as hell, sick, working on buying a house (yay!). SO much going on.

The real deal is that I was traveling for three months for work. Its all good stuff, just kept me really busy. Factor in visiting with family and friends over the holidays, coming home in January and promptly getting laid up with a nasty cough and sinus infection, and now my husband and I found a house we love and are under contract to buy it! Phew!

I promise I will be back to this blogging business now that I am home and normal-ish life is returning. I've still been plugging away at debt, saving money, making money, and loads of mystery shops. I'll be doing some upcoming posts on the progress I've made in 2014 on our debt and mystery shopping companies that I have working a lot for so keep an eye out for that.

If there is anything that you really want me to cover about personal finance, mystery shopping, making money online, or other blogging topics please shoot me an email at I want this blog to offer helpful information to help you live your best frugal life and if you need something, let me know!

Monday, December 8, 2014

3 Early Christmas Shopping Budget Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Image Source
Black Friday has some great deals! And Cyber Monday’s sales are stupendous! By late November, the deals are all around you and life is awash in blinking “sale” signs. We all love a good deal and have a budget we have to plan around, so shopping these sales seems like the logical choice right? Get a good deal and get the shopping done so we can focus on other things like spending time with family, mailing out greeting cards, and baking delicious holiday treats. But watch out! There are still ways that shopping early can derail your plans for an easy, frugal holiday.

The Sales Keep On Coming
Everywhere you look there are more sales, all December long. Every time you set foot in any store, turn on the television, log into your email, browse online, or even walk down the street in a commercial district, the sales are begging you to shop them. And since retailers really want your cash they are offering some legitimate bargains. “Oh look, little Johnny has been wanting that train set and it’s 50% off now! Mom would love that sweater!” Being constantly bombarded with sales may make you want to buy another gift that the recipient may legitimately really like, but alas, you have already bought them a gift. If you want to keep your budget in check, return the item you already bought or pass up the new sale.

Pre-Purchase Leads to the Illusion of More Available Money
You planned and budgeted your Christmas shopping money, carefully saving all year to be able to afford those special gifts for those special people. Once those gifts have been bought and the savings depleted, we bask in the momentary glory of our budget victory. Our November and December regular monthly budget hasn’t been touched! Then come the remaining weeks before Christmas when we begin to shop again, using our regular monthly budget to add supplemental gifts because we think we can afford it since we weren’t feeling the pinch. Remember, you set a gift budget and saved for a reason. If that reason was to make sure to not overspend so that you can keep paying off debts or save for a family vacation, don’t put those plans in jeopardy just because you’re feeling jolly.

One for You, One for Me
When everyone else has been taken care of, it is quite customary for our minds to drift back to ourselves. That list has everyone and everything checked off, you feel a sense of accomplishment, and when walking out of the mall you spy those shoes that would be a perfect gift for yourself. Self-gifting is a concept that retailers love and are doing a heavy marketing push for this year. After everyone’s gift is bought, don’t fall into the trap that now is the time to buy yourself something shiny and new too.

Just how do you avoid these early shopping budget pitfalls?

Take your Christmas Gift Shopping List with You.
Whenever I see a brilliant gift idea for someone, I look at my list. If that person is crossed out and their gifts have been purchased, then I jot down the idea on the back of the list for next year. Sales are cyclical and that item will be on sale again next year.

Watch Out for the Greed Trap
When shopping for others we can often get greedy and desire new gifts as well and so we go out and buy them for ourselves. But that can lead to budget busting and guilt, especially when we realize we were cheap about a gift we gave someone else and look down at our more expensive new shoes. Remember to enjoy the concept of gift giving for what it is, giving a gift to someone because it will bring them joy or fill a need they have. Side stepping a feeling of entitlement and focusing on the gift giving can allow you to walk out of the store without extra gifts for yourself. Besides, most of us will also be receiving gifts this year and not filling our homes with gifts we bought ourselves will allow us to appreciate the gifts others bought us, and allow us to keep from having to make a lot of returns because they gave us just what we wanted and which we had already bought ourselves. And if that thing we really wanted isn’t under the tree this year? Well, that’s what after Christmas sales are for.

Track Your Spending

On my Christmas shopping gift list I put next to each person’s name what I intend to buy them and how much I intend to spend to stay on budget. When I buy them an item, I jot down what I bought (because sometimes I change my mind and get them something else entirely) and the amount I actually spent (because hopefully it was on sale and under budget!). Then I keep tallying up that total so I can see how much I have spent on each person and as a whole. Seeing the numbers right in front of me helps to curb excess spending.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why Rent to Own is a Trap

In my entire adult life, college included, I have never paid more than $50 for a sofa. Seriously, that's what Craigslist is for. That and friends that are moving and need to sell all their posessions right out of their storage unit. I am absolutely willing to pay $50 for that blue sofa (for some reason I keep buying blue sofas over and over again). My friend needed the cash and I needed a new place to sit my bum.

I bought my first couch when I was 22, freshly graduated from college, and was moving into my first place that I had to furnish since I was no longer just renting a room. My boyfriend (now husband) and I were moving in together, along with a few other friends, and my boyfriend's recliner and television console were all the furnishings we had for the living room. My parent's gave me their old dining room table and chairs, antiques actually, that they had kept for just such an occasion since they knew one of their daughters would want it when they got their own place. That left us with a gaping hole in the living room that only a couch would fill.

I knew exactly what to do to get a couch. No, I didn't drive down to Ikea or Marlo. I went online and checked out Craigslist. Being in DC, there was always a multitude of people moving in and out of the city and there was always loads of furniture to be gotten at a good price. A few emails and calls later, I had secured a haggled deal for a blue pull out couch, living room rug, and side table all for $50. My friend offered to drive me to pick them up with his pickup truck and an hour later we had it all moved into the house. Done and done. I knew I couldn't afford fancy furniture and Craigslist is what was expected from someone my age and in my financial situation.

Over the years I have acquired a few loveseats and sofas from friends that were looking to give them away or needed a few bucks for them and I was glad to make the deal. Yes, nothing matched. But that's what slipcovers are for.

Fast forward a few years and now I am thirty, married, have two dogs, and want matching furniture. Why is it that just because I am older I think that I am entitled to something fancy like matching furniture? Keeping up with the Jones just causes envy. I have friends now that have bought their own houses (want), have nice, new, and matching furniture (want), cars less than 8 years old (want), and babies (want). I feel that these are my peers, my equals. Shouldn't we be able to have the same things? No. That's the trap. Just because I want something doesn't mean I am entitled to it. Sure, my peers have that thing, but it doesn't mean that I can afford it. Hell, it doesn't even mean that they can afford it even though they own it.

Being an adult means thinking through the choices I make and making responsible decisions. It does not mean that I am entitled to anything. That's childish. But this concept of getting what you want no matter what you can or can't afford, is just how rent to own companies make their (many) dollars.

So you want that matching furniture set or even just a new couch that someone else hasn't sat/slept/drooled/gotten dog hair on. Say you also want a new washer dryer set because yours is grimy/old/yellow/or just broke. Maybe football season is in mid-swing and your television just broke and you are having friends over to watch the game this weekend. Nevermind that you have bad credit and no money saved. If you want it, someone is willing to sell it to you for a (big) price. It's ok. You're entited to it. You're an adult. Go ahead and throw your money out the window. You'll end up paying much more for that couch than it's worth and still not own it. Have fun with that matching loveseat and couch. I'm sure it's worth it. Me? I'll just be here on my old blue couch, trying to live like an actual adult and within my means.

Check out this article from the Washington Post for more on this. Take heed people. Warn your friends. Rent to own is a trap, just like entitlement.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

How to Cut Textbook Costs

College tuition costs are rising, room and board costs are going up, and you need $190 for your Biology textbook. Seriously? How can a single book cost that much?! Staring down the barrel of textbook costs may have you facing $500-$700 just for bound paper and words, just for one semester, depending on what you are studying. Sciences students will have a higher number of pricey textbooks that they need but Humanities students may be able to purchase less expensive paperback novels for their classes. Regardless of what you study, textbook costs add up and they are often not covered by grants and scholarships. But there are many simple ways to save on textbook costs and keep focused on learning what’s in the books rather than worrying about what they cost.

Buy Early
Usually book lists are posted by professors online a few weeks before the semester begins. Keep an eye on your school’s online bookstore, the professor’s Blackboard page, and other communications from school. As soon as the book list is posted, nab your books. If the start date for classes is approaching and the list has not been posted, email the professor to get the book list. The sooner you get the list, the more time you have to allow for the book to arrive when you order online and the more likely that you can get a used copy before they all get bought up and you are left scouring the school bookstore for the sole remaining $190 new biology textbook two days before classes begin.

Buy Used
How can you get that $190 Biology textbook for $57? Buy it used. Used books are the best value in textbooks and you can often find books that are almost-new in quality. When buying used, whether in person at the school bookstore or online, remember to check out the book’s condition. Does it have a lot of highlighting or writing? Are sections of pages falling out? Is the spine broken or intact? Getting a book with some writing, underlining, or highlighting is not going to detract from studying but too much can be hard to read. Pass on books that have broken spines that can cause pages to fall out. And if there’s writing in the margins you’d better hope that the guy who had this copy of Hamlet last semester understood Shakespeare's prose and complex character relationships, but maybe he didn’t so don’t count on them as free crib notes. A used book can often cost more than half of the cost of the new book, depending on how many years the book has been out and the volume of used books available. A used version of a book that was just released last semester may only save you $20 but hey, that’s still $20 in your pocket that can cover burritos for a few days.

Buy Online
The best prices for books are online and I use because they have stellar prices on new and used books, they offer free shipping for orders over $25, and offer even cheaper books through their marketplace sellers. You can also sell back your textbooks to after the semester ends and they can even guarantee a buyback price if you originally bought the book from them, which leaves you with a little beach money for the summer. The upside to buying online is that you can get better prices on books and there are more used books to choose from than just the school bookstore. The downside of ordering online is that you have to allow time for items to arrive before classes start. Ordering direct from will get you your books faster but ordering from a marketplace seller can take 7-10 days, so make sure you order early and have time to get your books before class begins so you’re not that confused guy in the back of the class with no textbook. They also offer ebooks for some books if you prefer to read on your computer or Kindle. Compare prices with other online textbook stores such as,, and to get the best deal you can.

Rent It
Depending on how well you take care of your books, renting a textbook may be a smart option. The school bookstore may offer rental options, as do online bookstores. You pay a low rental charge, usually less than the cost of buying it used but not always, and you agree to return the book by a date at the end of the semester in a good condition. Usually you can make a few highlights or marks in the book, but if you are a rabid highlighter or have a dog that thinks that books are chew toys, this is not the option for you as you are responsible for the full cost of the book if it is not returned on time and in good condition. If you never even crack the spine of the book except to do a couple reading assignments and otherwise leave the book alone, renting it may be your best bet.

Check It Out
Another reason for getting that book list early is that you may be able to snag a copy of the textbook you need at the local library or from the school library. This works best for humanities classes which require a large number of novels or non-fiction books that you do not need to keep all semester, just during the time that you have to complete the reading and assignments. When I was in graduate school I checked out about half of my books from the local or school library each semester and saved hundreds of dollars. Of course, you have to make sure to renew the book and your library may limit the number of renewals you can get, so be prepared to have to return the book and then check it out again the next day. As long as it is not a very popular title you shouldn’t have a problem getting renewals. If you really need the book an extra two weeks to finish out the semester or an assignment you can always just pay the late fees after you return it, which is still cheaper than buying the book.Textbooks may be in higher demand to check at the school library because other students will need the same books, so go to your local library or use inter-library loan to get the book. Again, if you have to request the book via inter-library loan make sure that you have time for the book to arrive before you need it for class. Then bask in the glory of your free textbook and snub your nose at the other students and their empty wallets. Sure, you can’t highlight in this book and you’d better not lose it, but free is free. Use sticky notes to make notes in the book and mark pages instead of highlighting and it won’t mar the book.

Use the Previous Edition
Textbooks are often edited and re-released with a new edition every couple of years. Sometimes these new editions are drastically different than the previous one, sometimes they just have a shiny new cover and a higher price tag. If a new edition for the textbook you need just came out, chances are that the professor says you need it. But check the syllabus for a note from the professor about which edition is required or email them to ask if you can use the previous edition that is half the price. If the professor says that the previous edition works just fine for the class, remember that the assignments on the syllabus will list page numbers and chapters from the current edition so you may have to take a few extra minutes to find out that chapter 2 in the new edition is the same as chapter 4 in the old edition. When in doubt, ask the professor and they will help you find the right pages for your assignment.

Buying used books can save a ton of money and take a bite out of those textbook costs. To get the best prices and to find the best deals on textbooks, think outside the box and the school bookstore. You may even get them for free from the library! Taking the time to plan ahead and checking multiple resources for textbooks can really pay off.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Avoiding Debt Collector Scams

Today we have a guest post from Frank McCourt on avoiding debt collection scams. My friend just got a call from one of these con-men so this is very timely. Keep on guard!

There you are, sitting at home minding your own business when your phone rings. It seems to be a debt collector. The collector tells you that you are in debt and you need to pay fast or face some serious legal action. But wait, you don’t remember taking out any loans, what is this person even talking about?

You have just fallen victim to a debt collection scam. Each year thousands of people fall victim to fraudulent debt collectors. This scam comes in a number of different ways, but the most common aspect is that the consumer is in debt and needs to pay it right then or there will be repercussion.

These crooks will use any means necessary to get into your wallet, using manipulation and fear tactics to set you into a state of panic, where you are more prone to giving in. They don’t stop there either, it has been noted that they even use phishing scams in order to gain your personal information. For instance, they will call your house, leave a voice mail telling you to call them back, and then when you do, there will be an automated system asking for you to enter your social security number, leaving you to be a victim of identity theft.

How do you go about avoiding these situations? First off, always ask the debt collector to provide official legal documents that prove you have this debt as well as their name, company, street address, and phone number. Never provide them with any information regarding the debt, including credit card numbers, bank account numbers, or any other personal information until you know for sure the person you are talking to is a legitimate representative of a debt collection agency. If you did accidently let something slip, contact your bank immediately. Remember that there are Federal telemarketing laws set in place, and a rude collector would be in violation of these laws if they were to be abusive. If it turns out to be a legitimate debt collector and they are abusive, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. If you’re concerned that the debt may actually be legitimate, contact your creditor, they will be able to tell you who the creditor authorized to collect the debt. If they keep badgering you, try to get their address and send them a letter demanding that they stop calling you.

Real debt collectors have to stop calling you if ask them to do so in writing, if you do end up doing this, keep a copy of the letter for your own records. Last but not least, report the call to your Attorney General’s office, they can help determine your rights under your states law. and the FTC are also good places to report fraudulent activity.

Remember that even if you are in debt, you shouldn’t let debt collectors walk all over you. Collectors have strict guidelines must follow and will be imposed penalties for any violations. If you do need help with debt, there are several organizations out there that can help you.

About the Author: After almost getting caught in a Wellsfargo bank scam a few years back, Frank McCourt made it his mission to familiarize himself all of the scams that con-men might ambush him with. He's happy to say that the only organization stealing his money is the company that holds his student loans. And that is entirely legal.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

July Update and Post-Travel Money Pit

July has been a very busy and expensive month for me. Great and filled with fun memories and family, but expensive.

My husband and I started out the month by flying to England to meet up with my family, host my little sister's bachelorette party in London (the Brits call it a hen party) including seeing the Book of Mormon on stage in the West End (it's really, really funny), sightseeing, eating out a lot, and celebrating my brother-in-law's birthday with a tasty French meal and seeing the Phantom of the Opera. There's so much to see and do and London is a lovely city, but expensive and we really lose out on the exchange rate. Prices may look the same but have a different currency sign in front, meaning that for Americans everything costs twice as much.

After five days in London we drove up to Cambridge in a strange left-side-of-the-road and circling muliple times around roundabouts caravan. While in Cambridge we visited with my little sister's new in-laws, walked around the city, decorated the marquee tent for the wedding reception, worked on last minute wedding items, stress argued with eachother, had a lovely wedding for my sister and her hubby, danced the night away at the reception, went punting down the river Cam (it's like a gondola in that you push the boat along with a long pole), wrangled with the airline to fix my flight so I didn't have a 6 hour layover on my way home, sat on the tarmac in the rain for an hour anyway, and finally returned home. Overall, we had a really lovely time and even though traveling with family can be stressful, I was glad we could all be together and celebrate my sister's marriage.

We went over budget by about $280 for the trip to England, which is pretty good considering I realized about a week before we left that we had planned poorly to have only $1000 USD spending money. We figured $100 a day would be enough (albeit tight) to cover food and miscellaneous expenses for two people, especially since we were staying in rental houses and could go to the grocery store and eat at the house for many meals. But with the US dollar only being worth .59 GBP we essentially only had $500. Yikes. I totally forgot about the exchange rate. We ate out a lot with family every night while in London and tried to keep costs down by eating at the house as much as possible, but we ran through almost all of our money before we left London. We had already pre-paid for the play tickets and housing (well, we are still paying back my family for the housing) so at least we didn't have to worry about those costs while we were there. We didn't buy souvenirs for ourselves (aside from the jeans my husband bought because he forgot to pack some and we had luckily won 50 GDP at the casino in London) and only got a couple small items for other people.

Returning home, we found ourselves with a number of extra expenses for the month, some of which we knew we would have to pay and others which were unexpected:

  • Parking our car at the airport- $168
  • Paying our friends for dog-sitting both dogs while we were gone- $460
  • Taking a dog to the vet the day after we returned because he had a skin infection + follow up appointment and treatment for ear infection (and no, we haven't yet signed him up for pet insurance, drat)- $253.78
  • Higher cable bill because they charged us for someone to come fix the cable box when it was their fault (currently disputing)- extra $60
  • Higher electric bill because it's summer in Louisiana- extra $50
  • I dropped my phone and broke it - $300 to repair
  • Assorted medical bills waiting in the mail for us-  $253.09
  • Our microwave broke and we had to replace it- $54.11

That's an extra $1810.98, including the overage spent on the trip. It makes me hyperventilate.

I can't put any of these things on my credit card since it's maxed out. Yes. Here I am, a personal finance blogger sharing with you my major money problems. This is why I blog anyway, because I am trying to share my shortcomings and victories. Life happens and this is exactly why I need more money saved in an emergency fund.

We knew some of these expenses were coming and I worked extra hard in June on side hustling so that we would have the money to cover things like the dog sitting expenses. Unfortunately, we only had $60 in savings (due to depleting the money for car repairs, etc months ago and not rebuilding it). The rest of these payments have to be paid out of our monthly budget and luckily we budget a month ahead so we have buffer money in the account and are not overdrawn.

We have paid around $630 already for these expenses out of extra side hustle money or our regular budget and are still $1180.89 in the hole, borrowing against next month's money (September's money since it's August now). My plan for digging us out of this hole is to trim expenses in our regular budget and work my ass off side hustling. Update: Oh thank God. I just realized that I got an extra paycheck this month so I have a full paycheck that I can use to right this sinking ship and put money aside for savings to help prevent this in the future. Hallelujah!!!

So here I am in all my glory, over spent and stressed (though very relieved now). I share this because I want to be accountable and also because I am sure many of you can relate to overspending on a vacation and unexpected expenses that you didn't have enough money in savings to cover. Yay real life. Anyone have any freelance writing they need done?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Maximize Your Savings with Travelocity Top Secret Hotel Deals

Snagging a great hotel deal while traveling is the holy grail of vacationing, next to getting a flight for free with airline miles. Some of the best hotel discounts to be found are by booking a top secret hotel deal with Travelocity or similar travel sites. These promotions offer deep discounts by allowing you to book a hotel room at a ridiculously low price because they hide the hotel name and brand until after you have booked and paid so that the hotel chain doesn’t have to compete with their competitors over that low price.

You can use these secret deals to your advantage by finding out the exact hotel and location offering the secret discount deal. That way you can book nearby friends and family, get points for staying at the chain you have a frequent traveler card with, or just stay at your favorite chain with the soft sheets and great smelling shampoo. Booking a great price at and getting frequent traveler rewards is a stacked deal!

Top Secret Hotel Deals at Travelocity
Travelocity offers top secret hotel deals in major cities across the country and around the world, but they are not offered in all cities. To find out what is offered in the city you are traveling to, go to the Travelocity website and click on the hotel tab, then search for the city and dates you are staying. Scroll down in the search results and you will see the orange image and link for top secret hotel deals. Click on the link to open the top secret deals, then run your search again in a new tab so that you can compare the results for the regular and top secret deals.

Comparing Results and Finding Your Hotel
When you have both the top secret/name your price and regular hotel prices showing, compare your results. Say you want to stay at a 4 star hotel in the French Quarter of New Orleans. In both the secret deals window and the regular price window, narrow your search to four star hotels in that part of the city. Depending on the location you may have many results or just a few. Next, select one of the secret hotel deals and click on its name to read a full list of amenities. Then go to the regular hotel results and check the boxes for the amenities that your selected hotel has to narrow the results. If that doesn’t narrow to a few results, then look to exclude those hotels that have amenities that your hotel doesn’t have, for example being pet friendly or on-site spa services.

Match it Up
Click through the remaining results to see what the hotels offer and try to match up those amenities to the amenities offered by the secret deal hotel. If you think you have a match, check the regular price for the room. If the regular price of the room is about the same as the secret deal price, it is probably not the correct hotel. Alternatively, if the hotel room is $250 a night and the deal is offered for $88 a night, it may not be the correct hotel either. Look for a discount of 40-50% though you may find a discount of more or less.

Through this comparative process, I narrowed down 23 hotel results to find the one that matched the top secret deal and found a $179 a night room for just $82, and I am 80% sure that I figured out the exact hotel! While it is not exact, comparing the results can help you narrow down the secret hotel deal to one or two hotels. Then you can book the secret deal knowing where you will likely end up and where you can use your frequent traveler card. Enjoy those savings and those soft sheets!