Don’t Let Your Gift Cards go to Waste!

Did you receive gift cards this holiday season? Did you know that $41 million in gift cards have been unused since 2005? That’s crazy! I share my 4 Tips for Using Gift Cards over at this week. Check it out!

Money-Saving Habit #8: Get Items for Free





Now that you’ve considered the idea of buying used goods, let’s sweeten the deal. How about getting them for FREE?

Freecycle: You know I love Freecycle. I get great new-to-us toys and other household items there (remember this huge castle?). Basically, is a local community group that saves items from going to landfills by sharing them via an email group. You post what you’re offering and someone who needs/wants the item contacts you; then you arrange pickup. If you need something, you post a “wanted” email, and hopefully someone has what you’re looking for. I have gotten everything from paint to kids’ winter coats on Freecycle. Just last week, I picked up a nice king-sized duvet cover with matching pillowcases for FREE.

Freepeats: Freepeats is a great new service offered in 50+ cities nationwide and growing all the time. It works like Freecycle, where you post to a group what you have available and what you’re looking for, but Freepeats is limited to maternity, baby, and kid items. It’s a great resource. Here in the DC area, it’s just getting started and we need more members—so join us! It costs $1.00 to register, then you can start giving and receiving.

Local Networks: Do you belong to a MOMS Club, a multiples club, a church group, etc.? Whatever your social network is, send an email out to the group asking for whatever you’re looking for. It’s likely that someone has one they’ll give away or let you borrow. Back when my twins were infants, I needed a second swing but didn’t want to pay for a new one since it would only be used for a little while. Another mom was happy to lend me hers and free up her storage space for six months while I used it.

Craigslist: Your local Craigslist has a FREE section listed under the “For Sale” category. Just look up your town or neighborhood and see what’s being offered. If you’re looking for something specific, you may need to look for several weeks or months, so keep that in mind. This month, I picked up a box of scorers and wallpaper remover so I can start on that ugly bathroom project.

When you take part in the cycle of receiving things for free, it’s great to give back. When you’re done with your children’s toys and other equipment, what about sending them back out into the community? Giving and receiving FREE items throughout your community not only saves you money, it also helps the environment. Instead of sending useful items to a landfill, you’re also saving the energy needed to create and package new products.

Getting items for FREE works with new products, too. Do you know how to get toothpaste, feminine products, make-up, and more for FREE through The Drugstore Game? Look for Habit #9 in my series of 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series next week, and I’ll share some great strategies for getting new products for FREE.

What have you gotten for FREE?

Money-Saving Habit #7: Rethink Buying Used Goods

The next in the series 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009

Oh, I remember the days when I was home with a newborn baby, surrounded by shiny new baby equipment. That shine didn’t last long! Once you get to the second or third kid, you realize that it wasn’t so important to purchase everything brand-spanking new. The same goes for you—whether it’s clothes, home decor, or furniture. Especially with today’s economy, buying used is often the smarter way to spend. Some parents compromise by purchasing only certain things new—say, kids’ shoes—while the rest is used or handed down. Figure out what you’re comfortable with, then plan your next shopping trip.

Where can you find used bargains?

  • Shop Yard Sales and Consignment Sales—Check your local paper, Craigslist and GarageSaleTracker for sales in your area. Shop smarter by hitting the multi-family or neighborhood sales, church tag sales or association consignment sales. You’ll see much more merchandise without having to drive around.
  • Shop on Craigslist—This seems dependent on your geographical area, but some parts of the country have thriving Craigslist communities. Just this week, I showed you some of the items I’ve bought off Craigslist. Make sure you ask questions over email before you meet up, and plan to meet in a public place or outside the person’s house–I ask them to meet me out front with the item(s), or I send my big scary husband. Be safe! And if you don’t like the idea of meeting strangers, then…
  • Shop on Ebay—Ebay is just one giant yard sale, spread out all over cyberspace. If you’re looking for something specific, like name brand clothes, bedding, etc., Ebay can be helpful. I purchased used Pottery Barn Kids crib bumpers, crib skirts, and a wall quilt for my twins’ nursery for a fraction of the cost they would have been new.
  • Shop at Consignment and Thrift Stores—Look around your area for hospital and other charity thrift stores, Salvation Army, Goodwill, and others. For some examples of fabulous used finds, check out Nesting Place or Southern Hospitality. Each of those inspirational blogs hosts links to lots of great blogs where people show you what they paid for their used items and how they incorporate them into their homes.
  • Ask within your Social Network—Are you part of a MOMS Club or have an email list from your child’s class at school? Ask around and let people know what you’re looking for. This also allows you the Craigslist experience but with people you know.

No matter where you are in the financial spectrum, it can be worthwhile to purchase used goods. Free up your dollars to pay down debt, save an emergency fund, or enjoy time with your family. By embracing the concept of buying used and doing it regularly, you save hundreds and thousands of dollars over the course of a year.

As a last note—remember that you can also re-sell your used goods after you’re done with them. By purchasing high-quality children’s clothes (either used or on clearance) and reselling them at yard sales and consignment sales, I recoup some of my cost, saving even more money. This is also true of household items, furniture, and everything else you’re bought used. That’s how I spent only $100 net on my dining room table.

What are your best used purchases?

Read the other articles in the 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series.

Money-Saving Habit #6: Change How You Shop Online

The next installment in my 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series…

Besides being very convenient, online shopping can sometimes be a real moneysaver. If you’re an online shopper, there are ways to tweak your shopping to help you save big. Here’s how I do it:


  • Never shop without coupons and codes. There are several ways to do this. One, sign up for emails and newsletters from the stores you shop online. Remember to use your junk e-mail account for this so your personal mail isn’t inundated with junk. You can also go to websites like RetailMeNot and search for the store. They list all the current coupon codes.
  • Be willing to wait for free shipping. When you shop with free shipping and have the ability to return items to a store (or return them via mail for free), it’s even better than regular shopping. I do this often with shoes; I buy several pairs to try them on, then return those that don’t fit me.


  • Shop through an online shopping portal. A portal is just a website that helps you earn something (points, rebate dollars, etc.) because you shop through them. Some credit card rewards offer points per purchase, or you can use a site like UPromise, MyPoints or Swagbucks. I use Ebates because I wanted cash back instead. When I make my online purchases through Ebates, I get a percentage back of what I spend. It accumulates in my account and when it reaches the payout threshold, it’s paid to me in my Paypal account.


  • Double-check your packing slip and receipt as your package arrives to be sure you were charged the correct amount.
  • Note the return policy on your receipt—do you have 15 days, 30 days, etc.? It’s too easy to put packages aside and never get around to returning them. If you miss your return window, you’ve thrown your money away.

Yes, it takes a little more effort to shop this way—there’s a little more research and clicking—but it can pay off for you.

Read the other articles in the 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series.

*When you sign up for Ebates and make a purchase, you’ll earn $5 in your account and so will I.

Money-Saving Habit #5: Learn to D-I-Y

I’m picking up where I left off on the 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009. Each and every one of these habits are small changes you make to your life, but when done regularly over the year, they can make a BIG difference to your family budget. Every time you plan to spend money, think about how you can do-it-yourself:

Food: Are you purchasing the pre-cut, pre-washed lettuce at $3.00/bag? Can you do it yourself for .99? What about making your own pizza? I’m saving several dollars each week making my own waffles instead of buying them. You don’t have to do it for every meal every time (goodness knows there are weeks when convenience is more important), but adopting these small changes help your grocery budget greatly.

Home Improvements: Are you paying someone else to mow your lawn, do small repairs around your home, etc.? What can you do yourself? Remember that Home Depot offers FREE Workshops on how to tile a floor, install a ceiling fan, and maintain your lawn & garden. You’ll save hundreds of dollars in labor, and it can be very rewarding to walk into a room and see something you’ve done yourself. Personally, I draw the line at electricity and plumbing, but some people have a knack for that too.

Home Decor: What are some projects you can do to decorate as opposed to shopping even at discount stores like Home Goods and Marshall’s? I save money each time I “make” a frame for .50 as opposed to purchasing one for $4-20. I’ll be sharing more Wall Art on the Cheap as I decorate my own home this summer. Look how much I saved by painting a $20 yard sale buffet instead of buying new.

Other Services: Think about what you’re spending on services like car washing and haircuts. Get the kids outside with the hose and wash your own car. It’s fun and frugal. Then, learn how to do a simple boy’s haircut with clippers (I paid less than $20 for mine at Target). By cutting my son’s hair, I save $14 each haircut (warning—it is messy, but it’s worth it to me to save the big bucks).

When you learn to do-it-yourself in so many areas of your life, not only will you see savings on your family budget each month, you’ll feel a sense of pride for what you have accomplished (well, maybe not while you’re chopping lettuce).

What are some ways you save money by doing-it-yourself?

For more Money-Saving Habits you can apply to your life and your budget, here’s the series so far:

Know Your Store Policies
Be Willing to Stockpile
Buy Meat in Bulk & Cook Ahead
Use Your Public Library

Money-Saving Habit #4: Know Your Store Policies

You probably frequent the same stores, whether locally or online, so it’s worth it for you to know your store policies so you can speak up if you need to.

When shopping online, be sure and check the returns policy before you buy. Some online retailers (like Ann Taylor) do not let you return clearance merchandise to the store. Also, some online retailers (like Office Depot) will price match, so be sure you know the procedure before you purchase. Amazon has recently (as of September 2008) dropped their price reduction policy; but brick-and-mortar Target (not will honor a price drop for up to 14 days. I can bring in their ad showing a sale price plus the receipt for the item I purchased, and they’ll refund the difference.

Some stores will accept competitor’s coupons; Home Depot and Lowe’s will accept coupons for the other store, but they may not accept printables. You’ll need to check with your local store for details.

At the grocery store, since you’re probably shopping at the same chain week after week, learn about the store’s coupon policy: do they double coupons? to what amount? will they take internet-printed coupons? Most grocery and other stores (Target, CVS, etc.) will take two coupons per item, both a store coupon and manufacturer coupon, on a given item unless either coupon prevents that. Should you have a problem with a cashier accepting both coupons, you can easily ask for the manager to verify the coupon policy. What happens if an item scans for a higher price than the shelf tag stated? In some stores, you get the product free. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself if you feel you have been charged unfairly.

How can you find out a store’s policies? While you’re at the store, ask at the customer service desk or ask to speak to a manager. Be polite and curious, not accusatory. Try saying, “What are your coupon policies? I am a coupon user and want to be sure I’m following the rules.” It’s easier to have that conversation before you shop than while you’re at the register with a line of people behind you. From home, you can call the store and ask for the manager. You can also try calling a Corporate phone number for the store’s overall policy, but most companies will tell you that the individual store policy is determined by that store’s manager.

If you find that you’re having trouble at a particular store, you might try printing out the store’s policy and carry it with you to use at checkout. Here are a few links to coupon policies:

  • Giant (from their website, look under “Shopping FAQs”)
  • CVS (from an email to Penny Pinching Diva, Oct 2008)
  • Rite Aid (from an email to The Freebie Blogger, Sept 2008)
  • Safeway (the corporate policy on internet coupons; regarding doubling, it varies depending on your region and the store management–ask your store manager for details)
  • Target (from an email I received)
  • Wal-Mart (from their website)
  • Walgreens (from an email to Sense to Save, Nov 2007)

All in all, it’s worth a little bit of your time to learn the policies of the stores you frequently shop.

Read the other articles in the 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series.

Money-Saving Habit #3: Be Willing To Stockpile

Image courtesy of Andrew Hounslea

That word seems to induce fear in most people. I think they envision Costco-sized boxes and cans hanging out of every closet and crevice in their home, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

First off, let’s talk about when and why you should stockpile. When? When the price of an item, usually by combining a sale price with a coupon, is the absolute lowest price the item goes. For example, Giant has L’Oreal Kids Shampoo on sale for $2.50, and this past Sunday 1/4 there was a .75 off coupon in the inserts, which Giant now doubles. That brings the price down to $1.00 on a shampoo that’s usually $2.99. This is my preferred brand for my girls’ very curly/frizzy hair, so I’m buying as many as I have coupons for. I’m not using this a deal example–as you may not need shampoo–but as an example of when to stockpile. Storing 3-4 bottles of shampoo doesn’t take up much space in my home, and I know it will get used up.

What should you stockpile? Think about the items you use the most, or the ones that cost the most. I’ve already mentioned stockpiling meat (by way of cooking ahead and freezing). Shampoo is expensive, and with two girls we go through it, so saving $1.99/bottle is what makes it affordable for me to have a preferred brand (my husband and I use whatever I get free at CVS). What does your family run through a lot of? Pasta? Tissues? Diapers? When you see a sale on something you buy regularly, purchase 2, 4 or 6 of the item so that you save money versus purchasing it every week or two.

Start with a couple of items–grocery or otherwise–and see how it feels. You do not need to turn your basement into a warehouse store. Find a little space under your bathroom sink or in the linen closet to hold a few extra items. I’m storing Kleenex in the top of my son’s closet, and I have enough cupboard space to hold an extra jar or two of salsa or spaghetti sauce.

Stockpiling isn’t just for food or toiletries. This concept works with clothing as well, though the outlay can be more. If you find a fantastic price on kids’ basic tees, shorts, etc., buy 2-3 as long as you know they will be used. The key is, be willing to buy a few extras of your family’s staples when they’re at their lowest price.

Read the other articles in the 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series.

Money-Saving Habit #2 Buy Meat in Bulk & Cook Ahead

There are many ways to save money on groceries and I’ll cover several of them during this Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series. If you’re new to the frugality mindset, however, before you dive into couponing and non-couponing strategies, I recommend you make an effort to save money on one of the most expensive things you’re eating: meat. Here’s how you can save big:

  1. By purchasing chicken, pork, and ground beef in bulk packages when they’re at their lowest prices (known by tracking sales at your local stores or just checking blogs like this one), you lock in the low price for the meat you buy. The down side? Now you have to deal with all that raw meat. I’ve posted several tutorials on how to process ground beef and chicken breasts when purchasing 10 pounds at once. I have found that 10 lbs. is the amount I can handle; more than that takes too long for me, and it’s usually enough to get my family through until the next sale comes around. In my area (Northern Virginia), the cheapest I have seen 93% lean ground beef if $1.99/lb, and the cheapest boneless, skinless chicken breasts are $1.69/lb. The sale cycle tends to run every 6-8 weeks, so I buy enough to last us until the next sale comes up.
  2. Besides repackaging the meat into smaller portions and freezing it, you can also prepare some of it–by cooking and freezing it–to save yourself time on a busy weeknight. This encourages you to eat at home and avoid expensive takeout or restaurant meals. By defrosting the pre-cooked meat/chicken the night before, you can add it to a crockpot meal or make a quick meal like tacos in just minutes. For quick recipe ideas, look at the end of each of my Cook Once, Eat 10 Times articles.

Learn other ways to save money by reading the other articles in the 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series.

Money-Saving Habit #1: Use Your Public Library

Image courtesy of rockcreek

If entertainment costs are too high in your family, consider the incredible resource of your public library. There are so many opportunities for saving money:

Renting DVDs: Our library has every Nick Jr. and PBS show on video, raising an argument for cancelling satellite TV (hubby is the holdout on that). We also have many kids’ studio movies on DVD (Stuart Little, etc.), so there is no reason to spend money at Blockbuster or Netflix for children’s movies. Some library systems even rent adult studio movies, which saves even more money.

Books, of course!: We can borrow up to 50 books per library card, which is great for increasing our children’s library and exposing them to many types of books. If you’re the type who likes reading the newest books, find out how your library handles new releases; there may be a “Hot List” where you can get on the wait list before books even arrive in the system.

Books on tape/CD: If you’re a walker, a jogger or someone with a long commute, audio books are a great way to stay entertained without any out-of-pocket cost. You can also find children’s books on CD, which I use with my son on long car trips and to improve his listening skills.

Kids and Adult Programs: Most libraries offer free storytimes and other programs for children. What a great way to expose your kids to the library and get some free entertainment, especially when you’re a stay-at-home mom looking for activities for the kids. Adult programs can be book clubs, lectures, art programs, computer training, etc. Check online for your library’s schedule or look for notices once you’re there.

Reference Desk: If you’ve just moved to a new area, head to your local library and talk to the reference librarians about what your community offers. They can tell you about support groups for stay-at-home moms, mothers of multiples clubs, and lots of other opportunities for you to meet new people and get connected to your new town.

Learn the Computer System: One of my favorite features of our library system is that I can look up books from home and have them waiting for me at the front desk. This is a huge help when I go into the library and the toddlers turn ornery. I can also renew books online, so I make it a point to check our accounts once a week to avoid any late fees. Speaking of which…

Make sure you keep your library books organized at home–we have a box upstairs and a basket downstairs designated for library books–so you don’t incur fines. Keep an eye on your account by checking online and renewing your books as necessary, make your kids take good care of their books, and keep the service FREE for your family.

Read the other articles in the 20 Money-Saving Habits for 2009 series.