Thursday, November 27, 2008

What are you thankful for?

As I prepared our turkey this morning -- well, technically I made Love prepare it, I can't stand touching raw poultry -- I realized that another year has come full circle. And what a fast year it's been. Although it's hard (at least for me) to concentrate on being all warm, fuzzy and giddy over cranberry jelly, what with what's happening in India right now, it's still important to ruminate on the past year and reflect on what you're thankful for. Perhaps some spiked cider would help.

Ever since the beginning of this summer, most of us have been bruised by the limping economy, by either losing our jobs or seeing friends who've lost jobs (I've seen 4), struggling to pay back debt (whether it be credit cards, student loans or house payments), or perhaps even seeing our homes foreclosed. Those of us who were frugal to begin with now just find our "talent" at finding the best deal or best coupon that much more in demand. All of sudden, a personal finance blog is the trendy must-have accessory in 2008, like a BMW or "it" bag was to 2005. Google searches for such terms as "Bahamas cruise" or "2008 Audi" have tapered like an out-of-fashion 80s jean, now more people Google "how to save my 401(k)," "tips to beat the current recession," and "save money on food." Ah, it's like 1929 all over again. (Cue big band music.)

At least there's solace in the fact that we're going through these damaged financial times together, and (hopefully) learning from them. Like I've said before, we're not alone in the struggle and we're all affected by some degree. Case in point: My love affair with free samples and coupons? Never would have been lit without the kindling of current fiscal malaise.

That's one thing I'm thankful for -- that I've learned the full value of being frugal and routinely using store deals to my benefit. Sure, I've always shopped around before to find the best bargain, but now my searches are more magnified and more well-researched.

Other things I'm thankful for:
  • That I'm very healthy, and everyone I care about is also healthy. (Except my grandfather, but I learned he just opened his eyes from his coma-like state yesterday, which is very promising.) No amount of bargain-hunting, coupons or money can buy you good health.
  • I'm married to a fabulous guy who wants the same things out of life as me, shares my sense of quirky humor, and balances me out in a way that no other guy could. Where I'm emotionally impulsive, he's solid and rational, where I'm "crazy," he's even-keel and sensible. We bring out the best in each other and feed off one another's energy. It's all so "Barefoot in the Park."
  • I have a marvelous job that I love, am paid very well for and allows for somewhat flexible hours. (I get to work from home in the mornings and come in around 10:30 am everyday.) I feel like I have good job security and am rewarded well with solid raises.
  • Love and I don't have to worry about money that much. Granted, we are living solely off my salary while he is in law school, and we do watch our spending to a certain degree, but I don't feel like it's a struggle. When I want something I usually buy it without having to save up (lavish trips and cars aside), and I can still buy as much two-ply toilet paper as I want, which I've amusingly gathered is a good gauge as to whether one is "struggling."
  • We don't have that much debt to tackle, except for Love's law school tuition, which won't be knocking at our door till after he graduates and gets a litigation job, which should quell any strife over paying it back.
  • Now is a fabulous, I repeat, fabulous time to get into the stock market if you're a newbie to the investing scene. We have not seen these kind of discounted prices since, well, the good ol' Great Depression, and might not see them again in our lifetime. For someone who wants to retire early (read: me), now couldn't be a better time to carpe diem and plan for a luxe life where I can plant the seeds of early retirement in discounted stocks, take my earnings later and invest in the greatest of investments: real estate in the Bay Area.
What are you thankful for this year?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

5 Things to Never Say to a Debt Collector

I'm pleased to publish this guest post from my pal Jonathan over at Master Your Card:

Dealing with a debt collector is hardly ever pleasant, even if the debt collector is respectful and cordial. No matter how nice the collector seems, the fact remains that you're behind in your payments and it's this person's job to get the money from you. This is simply not a scenario that lends itself to pleasant conversation.

Debt collectors have a slew of tricks up their sleeves. Although there are rules that dictate how collectors can talk to people, there are many different methods collectors use in order to get the money they are tasked to collect. For this reason, you need to remain on guard when having a chat with a debt collector, no matter how friendly the conversation may seem.
  1. "Here is my checking account number." By allowing the collector access to your checking account in order to access whatever payment you need to make, you're opening up a can of worms. Depending on the original agreement, you may find that more money is debited from your account that you thought would be.
  2. "Stop calling me, stop contacting me, and leave me alone." According to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you can demand that a collector stops contacting you altogether. You'll have to make this request in writing, but once you do this you won't hear from the collector until the debt heads to court or the collection agency just gives up. This is not a smart move. You need to stay informed when it comes to your debt, no matter how unpleasant it is.
  3. "Forget it…I'm declaring bankruptcy next week." The mere threat of bankruptcy doesn’t protect you from collectors. If anything, it may force the collector to kick efforts into high gear before you go file the papers.
  4. "No, I don't need that in writing." You work out a settlement agreement with your collector, but then you send in the payment before getting the agreement in writing. The next thing you know, you get a statement thanking you for your payment and demanding the remaining balance. Without the agreement in writing, you will have a difficult time proving the verbal agreement you had with the collector you originally spoke to.
  5. "Screw you, you blankety-blank-blank-blank." Yes, you're frustrated and stressed out that you allowed yourself to get into this financial mess, and the person calling to insist on payment may seem like an easy target to vent your frustrations on. Try to keep everything in perspective. A debt collector is someone doing a job. This person is actually in a great position to help you by accepting a payment plan or a settlement instead of going after the full amount plus fees and interest. Try to work with the collector instead of taking out all your anger on him or her.
Sometimes debt collectors cross the line and break some rules (and basic manners) in order to collect money. They may intimidate or ridicule you, or on the other hand they may act like your best friend in order to get into your wallet.

Most collectors, on the other hand, are just people doing their job while staying within the rules governing debt collection. Try your best to work with the collector to get your debt paid without falling for any tricky ploys the collector might try to use on you.

For more by Jonathan, read his latest post on credit card arbitrage.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Get a headstart on Black Friday deals

I meant to post this weekend but my grandfather ended up in the hospital and isn't doing well so I didn't feel much like writing. (Not surprising.)

I did want to share some Black Friday news though, for all you who plan to brave the stampede of shoppers (or lack thereof, this year?) when the flood gates open. Because of the state of the economy and the retail sector hurting in the current environment -- especially since so many businesses depend on holiday sales to act as a savior when all else fails -- it turns out Black Friday has become Black Week. This (obviously) means there are some great deals to be had all week -- not only on holiday gifts for others, but also for you. Treat yourself -- you know you deserve it, especially after pinching your pennies all year long.

Start your search today instead of waiting for Friday to roll around after you emerge from your turkey-induced tryphtophonic haze Thursday night. and track Black Friday ads for you, so you don't have to loll about in crowded malls and parking lots, trying to deduce the best deal on that cashmere sweater or cinnamon-scented candle set. Mmmm, cinnamon. There are many other ad tracking sites, but these two are my favorite.

Also, take advantage of fabulous sales all week by checking in daily with the respective websites of your favorite stores., for example, has started a Fri-Daily blog touting a new Black "Friday" deal every day this week. A half-price Abba box set? Music to this chiquitita's ears and wallet.

Head on over to and you'll get a detailed update on holiday deals as they roll out ahead of Thanksgiving. Case in point: Macy's is having a sale of up to 50% off (with an extra 20% off using your Macy's card) on clothes, shoes, handbags, etc. but this deal only lasts Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

For this who like to satiate their retail appetite with a more designer twist, check out, where you can snag a $1,475 black Alberta Ferreti dress for $890, or a $415 Vivienne Westwood blouse for $125. (Not everything on the site is designer, but deals still abound.)

I know many of you like to wait until after Christmas/New Year's for the best prices on everything from coats to clearance Christmas cards to use in '09. Just consider Black "Week" more ammunition to use in your frugal arsenal.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

To find the best deal, it's all about timing

You've wanted to buy that that to-die-for Michael Kors peacoat since you spotted it mid-summer (haven't we all, honey?), but it's already getting cooler and, well, coats are flying off racks faster than you can say "Minus 10 degrees with wind chill." If you had planned ahead, you'd be strutting around right now in your new warm and toasty Michael Kors coat, coffee cup and cute bag in hand. Unfortunately, due to lack of a good sales price and everyone wanting the same popular coat, the only thing that fits in your budget is a bad Rampage knockoff from Burlington Coat Factory. (And you have yet to ever fully feel warm in the godforsaken unlined thing.)

From now on plan ahead when you'll buy the bigger purchases in your life to maximize the savings you garner with each item. Time, it seems, really is of the essence!:

What: Airline tickets

When to buy: 1 a.m. on Wednesday
Why: This is the best time to find a deal because airlines reset their fares every Wednesday just after midnight, says Women's Health magazine. I wrote a whole blog post in July on how to snag cheap airfare, if you're curious.

What: New suit
When to buy: January or July
Why: The spring collection hits stores in January, so find a deal on fall suits; they'll be marked down as much as 30%. It's the reverse in July.

What: Gym membership
When to buy: July and August
Why: New memberships plummet midsummer, so you might find a deal because gyms are in a negotiating mood.

What: Car
When to buy: November and December
Why: Don't, as many experts say, buy the previous year's model in late summer when the new models hit. There's a year of depreciation on them already. Instead, buy next year's model late in the year, when dealers are antsy.

What: Caribbean vacation
When to buy: March and April
Why: There will still be plenty of chilly weather at home to escape in early spring, and you'll save 25% or more by avoiding the peak season of December to February, says Orbitz travel expert Kendra Thornton.

What: House
When to buy: October to December
Why: Real estate varies from place to place. But in general, supply exceeds demand in the fall, after the school year begins. [Women's Health Magazine]

Do you have any good, not-so-obvious tips on when to buy certain things?

What we've learned from the economic crisis

In an open letter to two his two daughters published this week, Money Magazine assistant managing editor Pat Regnier recently mused on what the current economic crisis has taught us, and how his children -- and really all of us -- can benefit by learning from the mistakes that were made before it all came crashing down. I love this letter because it's simple, reflective and neatly summarizes how current sentiment came to fruition.

What we're experiencing now is indeed a historical event -- one that we may not see again in our lifetimes, at least to this degree. It's important for us, like Regnier, to pass on any reflective wisdom we've managed to pull from the situation so we can educate future generations to not make the same mistakes. Granted, it's normal for the economy to go through recessions and experience both ups and downs, but this is a "down" moment we can all learn from:

Dear Lucy and Emile,

You are both too young to read this letter now. But in a decade or so, I suspect you'll be hearing about the events of autumn 2008 in your history class. You might wonder what it felt like to live through a global crisis. And when you learn about the years just before the crash -- the houses that magically doubled in value, the no-questions-asked mortgages -- you'll surely ask what all of us crazy old folks could have been thinking. I'd like to take a stab at answering those questions today, while the events are still raw and before we know how this story ends. Your mom and I are learning some big lessons right now, ones we might not recall so well after the good times return.

First let's talk about the hardest question: Why didn't people see this coming? Well, we sort of did. Talk of a real estate bubble was common by 2003. But bubbles do funny things to your head -- you'll see that when your generation's bubble comes along. You may read in your textbooks about the euphoria and optimism of boom times, but what I remember most was the worry.

In 2005, a year when home values in our neighborhood jumped 25%, your mother and I would talk anxiously about not having a giant mortgage. We didn't want to stretch for a loan before we had saved for a big down payment. That conservatism hurt: Our chances of joining what was called the ownership society seemed to become more remote with each uptick in real estate prices. We were worried that our new family would never be financially secure. Or even truly at home.

So this is how you'll know when a strong market has turned into a bubble. If you stick to prudent rules you learned before the market took off, you are bound to feel at least a little bit stupid for a while. Learn to regard that sinking feeling in your gut as a sign that you are doing something right.

Another thing we're discovering is how quickly the rules can change. For years the good jobs were in construction, real estate and, of course, financial services. All those industries are shrinking right now. And for Dad, who has spent most of his adult life either working in or writing about finance, this is...uncomfortable.

I wish I had a few more tricks up my sleeve. Unfortunately, it's hard to fully hedge your career bets -- there are a lot of struggling actor-waiters, but I know only one money manager-neurologist (my magazine's own William Bernstein).

At least educate yourself to be flexible. Try to hone a couple of concrete but transferable skills, such as writing plus some basic science (and not just the "rocks for jocks" courses). Keep learning after 21, and take some career risks -- but stretch for experience, not just money. Do this especially early on, when the cost of failure is low.

Finally, remember that it's not all about you. The next couple of years are going to be bumpy, and one of the odd consolations is that it's happening to everybody. A financial or career setback is slightly less ego-bursting when you can blame it on a bum economy. By the same token, though, that means you ought to be humble about your success when the wind is at your back. The practical lesson is to live a bit below your means in the flush years to give yourself some backup.

But more important, back up others. My deepest regret today isn't how much I saved or what I did at work but how little I've pitched in - with money, with time - in our community. It's obvious to me now, when I'm anxious about what's ahead for my own family, how important it is for people to pull together. Wasn't that just as true a year ago, when plenty of folks were already hurting? I've learned this year that I owe much more. And I'm writing this down so the two of you can hold me to that.

Love, Dad

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

You can survive being laid off

A couple of my friends and I got together this evening, including my good friend who was laid off from my company two months ago. (You might remember her as as my guest poster a while back.) We rehashed how the past week or two has been on the unemployment front over Baja Fresh tacos and subsequent lattes (I happily picked up the tab), and the overwhelming topic of conversation (no surprise) was unemployment, the state of the economy and how we're all drastically cutting back on our spending to pad any "worst case" scenarios, should they happen.

My friend was laid off in September and has yet to find a job as the end of November is rapidly approaching.

"What should I do? Am I going to be okay?" she asked in her car, as she dropped me off for the night. (This is after broke, laid off ex-colleague #2 sped off with a parking ticket flapping from under his windshield, which was highly amusing and ironic.) I looked at her and answered back with brutal honesty: "You're going to be completely fine."

You all are. With Citigroup's recent announcement yesterday that they were eliminating another 50,000 jobs, law firms folding right and left, and unemployment over 6% in the United States, any of us could be wiped clean from our organization's payrolls in a second. For all you Grey's Anatomy fans out there, being laid off is as instanteanous and jarring as Erica Hahn performing cardiothoracic surgery one minute and then leaving Seattle Grace for good the next, minus all the McSteamy drama to cushion the blow.

So, to quote my friend, what should you do? On the jobs front, all you can do is keep applying to as many openings as you can and stay on top of interviews and callbacks. Don't take it personally if you never hear back after submitting your cover letter and resume -- it's not you, it's the economy. Seriously.

On what to do on the finance front after you've been laid off, SmartMoney Magazine wrote a fabulous article with tips on staying afloat:

  • Negotiate. While not required to do so by law, many employers offer laid-off employees severance packages. Typically, these packages are on the table for a limited amount of time. Pay is usually based on the employee's length of service. (One employee may qualify for an amount equal to two weeks of salary while another, for as much as a year's worth.) The good news: Employees, especially those who've been at the company for many years and have a stellar service record, can often negotiate a better deal.
Try to cash in unused vacation days, for example, says Laura Moskowitz, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a nonprofit that helps low-wage workers and the unemployed. Employers in 24 states — including California, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Illinois — are required by law to include unused vacation pay in an employee's final paycheck, according to Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit promoting worker rights. Employers in other states may do so voluntarily, or are bound to do so by corporate policy. Unused sick days, on the other hand, won't be included unless it's mandated in an employment contract. So be sure to inquire about your employer's policy.
  • File for unemployment benefits promptly. Even while receiving a severance package from your employer, you're entitled to unemployment benefits. Just make sure to file for those benefits right away because once you apply, there's usually a few weeks lag time until the first check arrives.

Depending on the industry you worked in or the circumstances of your layoff, extended benefits or subsidized training may be available to you through a government program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). The TAA assists those who've been laid off due to increased imports from, or shifts in production to, other countries, says Maurice Emsellem, public policy director at NELP. Lose your factory job because the company moved its manufacturing facilities to China, and you may be entitled to up to two years of subsidized retraining and up to 52 weeks of extended unemployment benefits, according to the Department of Labor.

  • Access health-insurance options. If you can't join your spouse's employer-sponsored health plan, consider either extending your previous coverage through COBRA or buying an individual policy.

Under COBRA, workers keep the coverage they had through their employers without worrying about getting turned down due to illness or a pre-existing condition. This option is pricey, though: You'll pay the entire premium plus a 2% administrative fee, which for a family, could top $1,000 a month. If you're the head of a family or middle-aged, for example, and have higher use of medical services, then COBRA would make more sense.

If you're young and healthy and just want coverage for medical emergencies, then look into private insurance. These health plans have lower premiums — on average $344 a month for families and $148 for individuals — but carry much higher deductibles.


  • Tap into your 401(k). You're out of a job, have bills to pay and your savings account is dwindling. Your 401(k) might be calling your name, but tapping into the retirement account should always be your last resort.

Beyond the fact that you're dipping into your nest egg, the biggest problem here is Uncle Sam: Say a laid-off worker in the 30% tax bracket withdraws $10,000 from his tax-deferred retirement account. Not only will he pay $3,000 in income taxes, he'll also pay a federal penalty of 10%. Once everything is paid out, he'll be left with just $6,000 in spending cash, the article states.

  • Overuse your credit cards. Interest rates alone should be enough to keep people from using their credit cards too much. If a payment is late — even by one day — your card issuer may jack the interest rate up to 20% to 25%, says the article. Credit-card companies are also tightening lending standards and lowering credit limits for high-risk cardholders, which makes it that much costlier should you get into the habit of overcharging. If you're desperate for cash, take money out of a standard savings account or taxable investment account, such as a stock portfolio, before turning to your credit cards or 401(k). [SmartMoney Magazine]

Monday, November 17, 2008

No cash to donate? Then use your card!

The New York Times reported on Friday that the Salvation Army is experimenting with a plastic alternative for people who do not have cash to throw in a holiday red kettle.

This season, five bell-ringers in El Paso County, Colo., will be the first to test accepting debit and credit cards along with spare change and bills. Salvation Army officials say the kettle tradition needs to be tweaked as consumers increasingly carry only plastic.

When I first read this I thought it was a terrible idea. Just what the economy needs, people donating money they don't have, on top of paying off debt they shouldn't have charged. Brilliant. But the more I think about, the more it makes sense -- as long as the card in question being swiped is of the debit variety, where the cash will come straight out of your account.

Like I said before, I never really carry cash, so a set-up like this would more fit my lifestyle. There have been times when I've wanted to drop a few dollars into a shiny red Salvation Army kettle, but came up short with some lint, a hair tie and a couple bobby pins from the bottom of my purse. Unless it was a charity for Macguyver, I don't think they'd appreciate my offer.

On the other hand, charging donations just doesn't seem like a kosher thing to do, especially in the current state of the economy. What do you guys think? Can you picture a bell-ringing Salvation Army elf with a card swiper affixed to the inside of his jacket? I think I've seen stranger things.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

You may already have that insurance...

Before you commit to that insurance coverage (from car to health, and everything in between), make sure you're not already covered! Many organizations like credit card companies and even AAA offer automatic insurance on certain things just by being a member. Sneaky, sneaky. You may have insurance without even realizing it. Save and don't overpay by figuring out what you might already have:
  • Your homeowner’s policy may cover lost luggage, as well as items stolen from your car and other locations, such as your purse. It also may cover items you have borrowed, property damaged by vandalism, or property damaged in a move.

  • Your credit card may provide accidental death insurance for you if your airline tickets were purchased with the card.

  • Some credit cards offer $1,000 in life insurance for cardholders, free for the asking.

  • AAA insures its members for hospital and death benefits if they are in an auto accident.

  • Your auto policy includes medical coverage, so if you are in an auto accident, your costs may be fully covered regardless of the co-pay and deductible provisions of your health insurance policy.

  • Your health insurance may cover children who are away at college—check before you buy separate insurance for your college-age kids.

  • Clubs, fraternal organizations, credit unions, and other groups may have free life insurance benefits with their memberships.

  • Your auto policy or credit card may cover damage to rental cars, saving you money on expensive rental car insurance. [from It's More Than Money - It's Your Life!]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Debit or credit?

"Debit or credit?" Ah yes, the conundrum posed by many a sales associate at the culmination of your shopping trip. I almost never think twice about my answer every time I swipe my (debit) card -- and this is even for purchases of as little as a few dollars (I never carry cash, it's a bad habit).

"Debit," I answer. Of course. It is a debit card, after all, so why would I use it as credit?

According to, 26.6 billion transactions were made with debit cards in 2006 alone, so all signs point to plastic being more popular than paper nowadays. (Not sure if that's such a good thing, being mired now in this credit crisis, but that's beside the point.)

When a cashier asks you "credit or debit" (in what tends to be a somewhat monotonous tone -- they could really care less) do you consciously ask yourself which is the best alternative -- the PIN or the pen? Surprisingly there is a difference, and depending on what kind of spender you, your answer can drastically alter the rewards you reap in the end. There may actually be more perks to using your check card as a credit card over one of the debit variety.

Usually people spout off an answer based on pure personal preference alone, tied to however they are feeling in the heat of the moment. Even I've been guilty of this, which I guess isn't all that surprising -- I do get caught up in emotional impulse more often than rational logic, the latter of which I have Love for.

Within the debate, fees are a defining characteristic according to which side of the debit v. credit coin you land on. Type in your PIN and you make the merchant happy because the cost of processing your debit transaction is less than if you had chosen "credit." (The fee tacked on to the merchant's cost is usually just a few cents, but if you're a retailer like Target, a few cents here and there definitely adds up.) Choose the pen over debit and sign for your purchase, though, and then Visa and MasterCard will be elated -- they can then process your transaction through their networks, and not through the retailer.

Of course for you as the spender, the merchant versus card company fees issues don't play into your decision; the money will come directly out of your bank account either way. But according to a 2004 MasterCard survey, 70% of debit card holders didn't know that swiping their check cards as credit was even an option -- one that may actually be the better choice.

Here's why:

  • Signing saves you fraud headaches. When you pay with a check card, your transaction has two ways it can go (depending on whether you choose debit or credit): If you enter your PIN, then your transaction gets processed through an EFTS (or "electronic funds transfer system") such as STAR or NYCE. Unfortunately EFTSs don't offer liability protection. On the other hand, signature transactions get processed through Visa or MasterCard, for example, who guarantee you won't be liable for any fraudulent use (that is, if you report it in a timely manner). As I mentioned a couple months ago, I had $600 withdrawn from of my bank account from ATMs being simultaneously used in Cuba, Chicago and Mexico. Luckily my bank (Bank of America) refunded all the money that had been stolen (after I had to go through much paper work), but what they found was that my PIN had been stolen and duplicates of my card had been made. I've had never written my PIN down or told anyone what it was, so I was shocked and suprised, but thieves have a myriad of ways they can find out your code these days. If typing in your PIN is more your style, be careful.
Also, don't forget that in case your bank doesn't cover your stolen amount, you should still report the fraud ASAP. Federal law says that if you report the fraud within two (business) days, you're liable for no more than $50. Wait up to 60 days and you're liable for up to $500. Beyond 60 and you can most likely say bye-bye to getting any back. Sometimes procrastination just sucks.
  • Paying by PIN could lead to small fees for you. A Federal Reserve study released a couple years ago stated that 14% of banks add a fee for PIN-based transactions. Those that do, the study reported, charge you about 75¢ per use. Of course this doesn't pertain to the big wigs like Bank of America and Wells Fargo, but if you're with a smaller bank, don't forget to ask about their policy on PIN use.
  • Extra "rewards" can come with signing. Many cards have promotional deals affixed that can earn you "points" or "rewards" toward snazzy deals like cruises, airfare deals and...magazine subscriptions. To reap all these rewards though -- who wouldn't want a free year of Horse and Hound? -- you usually have to sign for your purchase.
So why use a PIN at all? Now that I'm rethinking the PIN vs. pen debate in my own life, one giant use comes in handy when answering "debit" -- it gives you cash back! For a girl who never carries cash (again, I really need to break that habit), I often find myself in a position where I verily need paper money, but there is nary a Bank of America in sight. Of course, this is precisely when all other banks seems conveniently parked on every street corner. "Where is a Bank of America when you need one?!" I grumble -- until I spot a 7/11 emerge from the flock of Wells Fargos and Wachovias. Sweet. Not only do I get to buy a slurpee, but I can also get a $20 back in the deal.

Use just any bank's ATM and run the risk of being hit with severe fees (these are a huge pet peeve of mine). Usually the ATM will charge you at least $1.50, but I've even seen fees as high as $3. And that doesn't even count whatever fees your own bank will slap you with (generally another $1.50 to $2). As someone on a budget, I can't think of a worse personal hell than being stuck having to withdraw a $20 from a nondescript ATM, and mentally tacking on the $5 total in fees that come nefariously attached to my cash. It's a violating feeling, to say the least, and a PIN acts as a definite savior in the situation.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cheap airfare sale for this winter

If you're still wondering whether you can afford expensive plane tickets to head back and visit family for the holidays, there may be hope for you yet!

Southwest Airlines just announced a special fare sale that will include Winter holiday travel! (Exciting news, considering most airfare sales always block out December and early January as not applicable.) The news gets even better considering the savings you accrue from Southwest being one of the only fee-free airlines to fly in the United States.

The firesale offers one-way tickets for $49 to $109 (Monday through Thursday and Saturday) or $59 to $159 (Friday and Sunday) for all dates between December 2, 2008 through February 11, 2009. One caveat, though: The travel deal isn't available from Orange County, CA or Washington DC (Dulles). Bummer.

Act fast though: You have to book your flight by midnight tonight (November 13th), or else your one-way coach will turn into a pumpkin.

For those of you who planned to wing it solo for the holidays, the sale makes that mini-vaca to Aspen for snowboarding thatmuch more attainable. Now you'll only have to worry about what to wear on the slopes!

For more details, visit Southwest.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Fashion on a Budget: Target edition

On nights when I have nothing to do, I often end up at Target's online storefront. I know, I'm supposed to be saving because Love and I have all these financial goals we want to meet -- such as t0 move back across the country to California and buy a home (while repaying his uber-expensive student loans off) -- after he graduates law school in about a year and half. But when it comes to fashion I can't help myself. And until I can routinely hand my debit card over to a Nordstrom's associate for something that's either a.) consistently above $200, or b.) not on super sale, I'll always have Target. Oh who am I kidding -- even if I had all the money in the world, I'd still skim the racks at the House of Red, wouldn't you? There's just something so satisfying about leaving the store with bags of goodies.

And their new fashion shipments do not disappoint!:I want, I need the Anya Hindmarch for Target black python handbag above ($44.99). Classy and chic? Check. Modern yet retro? Check. Would Holly GoLightly approve? Che-he-HECK. Oh, and then I would need the Anya Hindmarch for Target black python clutch ($19.99) on the days where I can go "light." I love it when designers throw their chips in with Target, it makes everything luxurious feel so attainable. (Can't wait for the Alexander McQueen line!)

High waisted pencil skirt in black, for only $12.99! I hate how they paired it with the black tights (yuck), but throw on a killer pair of black Angelina Jolie-esque peep-toe pumps and you'll be good to go! If I didn't already own a black high waisted pencil, I'd definitely be on my way out to pick this one up.
Black accordian ruffle dress (above), $29.99. I love the simple, timeless cut, cute puffy sleeves and ruffle detailed around the lapel. My favorite dresses are ones like these, that you can throw on in a moment's notice and still look as put together as someone who spent an afternoon trying to figure out what to wear. (Would pair quite nicely with the aforementioned Anya Hindmarch clutch.)
Wrap dress in Phantom Grape, $29.99. Surprisingly, I don't altogether hate this ensemble the way its paired with flats (I'm a heels girl), although I do think a pointed-toe kitten heel pump, at the very least, would look even better. This reminds me of one of those dresses you'd see Sophia Loren wearing in some early 1960s movie set in Italy. A little Tuscan-countryside-girl-spends-the day-shopping-in-Rome (via Vespa, of course).
Saniya pointed-toe black flats, $16.99. FINALLY, a pair of basic black pointed flats for under $20. I think I'll pick up a pair for this fall/winter. They also have them in a metallic hue.Vira fringe pumps in dark camel, $27.99. These are a knockoff of the L.A.M.B. "Yoyo" heels, which retail for about $400, so at $27.99, these guys are a steal. Like all these finds, I'm going to especially need to see these heels in person, because they look like they may have an air of cheapness to them, but then again it may just be the fringe talking.

While are quite a few hits, there are also some misses:

Seriously, are we really going there now, people? It's like some disgruntled fashion intern in the depths of Vogue concocted a devious plan to throw like acid in Anna Wintour's uptight face. "I know how I'll get this cold, mean-hearted fashion world back," surmises said intern, hidden beneath layers of cubicles. "I'll make spandex silver lamé leggings the new 'it' thing to own! That will teach them!"

Honestly, how could anyone dig these appalling things? (Okay, aside from Lady Gaga and any ex-back up dancers from In Living Color?) And it's not just a Target thing; I've noticed them in many stores these days. News flash: It isn't 1979 anymore, and even if it was, this is not one of its shining moments.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kick the tires of your car insurance

Nothing says "I'm an American" more than that car insurance sitting in the glove compartment of your ride. Car insurance is one of those requirements we must all research in depth (ahem), find the best deal for and commit to with our initials on the dotted line and reoccurring payments in our outbox.

But with Veteran's Day around the corner, have you done your "duty" to your budget and kicked the tires of the ol' car insurance plan to see if it's still the best deal for you? In the beginning you may have signed up for too many bells and whistles in your insurance plan, because, well you wanted to cover all your bases, right? It's like buying your first designer bag and choosing the way-too-trendy Gucci hobo that by next season will be living on a Nordstrom's clearance table under a pile of Juicy Couture bags. Shudders. Luckily for you, your car insurance (unlike that Gucci disaster -- hey, it was your first big buy) is "returnable" in that you can add and subtract what pieces of the plan you want to keep and discard in order to get the best deal.

When signing up for car insurance or reviewing your old plan, make sure to consider these factors:
  • If you stick close to home when driving, ask your insurance agent about a "recreational use" policy. It's designed for those who rarely drive out of their neighborhoods and can save you 10% or more on your policy.
  • Take a defensive driving class. (The AARP and driving schools offer them.) Your diploma can save you up to 10% on your insurance premiums. (Cue visions of me blasting down a test-area roadway, running over parking cones and shrieking out of terror.)
  • Compare your current auto policy with others before you renew, since identical coverage can vary wildly in price from company to company. Visit to compare your policy to those from other companies and potentially save hundreds of dollars.
  • Raise your annual deductible. If you boost your deductible from $200 to $500, you can save up to 30% on your collision and comprehensive auto coverage.
  • Ask for discounts for multiple policies, cars with anti theft devices and drives with no accidents or speeding violations.
  • Either drop or reduce the comprehensive and collision part of your car insurance if you own an older automobile. If your insurance premiums are at least 10% of your car's market value, get rid of that particular coverage.
  • Unless you use AAA for its discounts at hotels and area attractions, you may want to reconsider your membership. Your insurance company -- or even your cell phone providers -- may offer roadside assistance for substantially less. [Good Deals & Smart Steals]
It's easy to let car insurance fall by the wayside after you've chosen your plan and commenced making payments on it, but it's not a fixed price that you have to be stuck paying forever. Woefully looks at too-trendy Gucci. Just be aware of what you need and don't need in your automobile endeavors and don't be afraid to ask your company any questions you have about certain aspects of your coverage and what specific things you may not understand.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Why does food cost more these days?

The increase in food prices has been a reoccurring subject I've noticed in many personal finance blogs over the last few months. Some gripe of the exorbitance of the matter and some offer solutions (which I even did recently), but do you know exactly why the cost of food has seen such an uptick?

The answer to that question may conjure up uncomfortable memories of you spacing out at your desk during the dreaded economics classes we were forced to take in the heyday of our youths. As the teacher droned on about something called "supply and demand," many of us had already checked out, hitting our mental "snooze" buttons as we daydreamed of the Jordan Catalano look-alike three seats ahead of us.

I admit, economics is taught all wrong to us in our formative years because it's the farthest thing from boring. In fact, it's downright fascinating -- and this is coming from an English major, people, so that's got to mean something. Consider this a non-boring, hopefully amusing brush-up in Econ 101: Why is the cost of food rising so fast?

The overarching answer lies in biofuels. Fuel, you ask? What does that have to do with food? Well, a certain type of biofuel -- called ethanol -- is a clean-burning fuel made from crops, such as corn. (Corn is a fundamental ingredient in much of the food we eat, but I'll get to that in a minute). Everything so far sounds peachy and green, right? Well, according to the American Coalition for Ethanol, pure ethanol cannot be used as a motor fuel by itself; instead, a percentage of it has to be combined with unleaded gasoline to fuel, say, a car. But greenies everywhere do tout the cleaner-burning gasoline as beneficial to keeping our environment pollution-free, although many studies also argue that it's an "energy neutral" fuel, since it takes much pollution in ethanol factories to make the fuel, but that's another subject unto itself.

The fundamental problem with ethanol is when it comes to the world's food supply. Because it takes crops like corn to make the fuel, that's less food on people's plates to eat and more food being grown to power cars. This makes food more scarce, which makes it more valuable when it's in a grocery store, hence the cost of it rises because it's worth more.

Just how much have food costs risen because of biofuels? According to a confidential World Bank report that was leaked by the Guardian this summer, biofuel was responsible for a 75% rise in food prices, and "has distorted food markets in three main ways:"
  1. "By diverting grain away from food for fuel, over a third of U.S. corn is now used to produce ethanol and about half of vegetable oils in [Europe] go toward the production of biodiesel."
  2. "Farmers have been encouraged to set land aside for biofuel production." Land that would otherwise be used to grow crops to eat.
  3. "It has sparked financial speculation in grains, driving prices higher." As more grains are being used to produce biofuels, they become more scarce because they are in such high demand. The more in demand a commodity is, the more people will pay for it.
The Guardian said the report was suppresed so the Bush administration would avoid embarassment since it had dismissed the impact of biofuels on the rising cost of food. A separate biofuel report conducted by the British government sided with the World Bank's findings and proposed the Brits "put the brakes on its biofuel policy."

Politics aside, it is an inarguable fact that the rise of biofuels has sparked the onslaught of higher food costs because of it's all-consuming need for corn in the production process. Okay, so it makes sense now that the price of any food that includes corn syrup, corn starch or other corn-based products is rising. But what the rising price of things like milk, meat and eggs? Simple! Cows, cattle, livestock, chicken and cattle all eat corn feeds. Think of it as the great "circle of life." (Cue Lion King soundtrack.)

There are also other factors that add to the high-priced plight, such as nasty droughts and floods, an increased global population that demands more food, and higher fuel costs, which make cross-country truck deliveries from the farm lands of California or the Mid-West to your Safeway grocery shelf that much more expensive. According to the USDA Economic Research Service's (ERS) consumer food price index, food prices normally rise 2.5% per year. For year-end 2008, the ERS forecasts prices to rise 5% to 6%, which is obviously a huge jump.

All of these factors -- biofuel production at the helm -- have swirled together and gained speed, like a tornado of disastrous proportions, creating a perfect storm of rising food costs.

For an econ lesson minus the Jordan Catalano-esque eye candy, that wasn't so bad, was it?

For more on the confidential World Bank report, read the
Guardian's story.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Plan a wedding on a budget (Part 2)

Me on my wedding day. My husband is on the left, while his brother and my sister (my maid of honor) are on my right.

Part of the fun of planning a wedding is to personalize the details that make up your big day. Throwing cash at a wedding planner is an easy way to avoid the time -- and to some, the hassle -- of party prepping. But no one said "easy" would be the most cost-efficient. A few days ago I mentioned a few tips to have a snazzy wedding on a budget, from hiring your iPod to be your personal DJ to putting together your own wedding bouquet. Here's Part 2 of what would have been a novella if I had crammed it all under one post!

Things you can do yourself, contrary to what any wedding planner will tell you:

Table centerpieces. Bouquets, boutonnieres and centerpieces, oh my! It's seems like the glue that holds any wedding together (in the decorative sense, at least) are flowers, which, as the mainstay of any decadent party, will be most on display as the table centerpieces guests face as they socialize over lamb shanks and Pinot Noir. To many brides, these floral focal points can make or break a truly fabulous wedding reception. There have even been times in history when royal marriages failed only because the table centerpieces had been all wrong at the weddings. Okay, so that may have never happened, but you get the point: They set the theme for your reception's ambiance. But don't let the gravity of the matter deter you from constructing them yourself! I mentioned in Part 1 that you can buy all the flowers you want wholesale for a fraction of the retail price. Now imagine if you paid retail and had the arrangement done for you. Hint: It would definitely up the price. The total average cost for floral table centerpieces is $1,272, according to The Bridal Association of America (BAA). That's $1,200 you could potentially save by doing them yourself with wholesale flowers. (Ordering from a florist may cost even more than $1,200 depending on what style centerpiece you get and how many you need.)

And if you want more candles or other decor and less flowers, well that saves you even more! You can buy many decorations at Michael's or Jo-Anne's Crafts for cheap, especially if you use coupons. Floating candles, centerpiece dishes, ribbon and a myriad other table decor ideas await you in the wedding aisle. What are you waiting for?

Makeup and hair. Wedding professionals love to have you think that you won't look "your best" on your wedding day unless you have your makeup and hair professionally done -- for what usually ends up costing what could be a small home mortgage in some states. Guess what? The BAA reports that the average bride spends $183 on hair and makeup, and that number can double or even triple in larger cities, where beauty services are generally more expensive.

I get it: Part of the fun of getting prepped on the big day is that you get treated like a princess and have people dote over you, touch up your rouge, curl your hair, the works. I love being spoiled more than anyone I know (okay, almost anyone) and I think it's great to be pampered on your day, but I do think that makeup and hair is something you can do on your own. There are a plethora of YouTube videos on how to do both, and many are taught by experienced makeup and hair professionals. and are great places to start browsing videos.

If you don't trust yourself, but don't want to pay the high beautician fees, than you could always check out a local beauty academy. Academy prices are a downright steal and any wedding-day-related services you get done (like a hairdo or makeup application) won't be permanent in case it turns out not to your liking. Just make sure you have a "practice run" a few weeks before you walk down the aisle. That way you won't be crying tears of mascara-ridden frustration two hours before the ceremony, frustrated and surprised by the too-curly poodle coif you're sporting. (Word of caution: Do not get a haircut or highlights at a beauty school directly ahead of your wedding day!) Right before I got married I had my hair professionally highlighted and cut by my stylist (which I do every 3 months anyway), and did my own hair and makeup on my wedding day. It turned out beyond fabulously! It is possible, ladies.

Bridal veil. Ah the wedding veil, yet another project I undertook myself when, after seeing the price tags on bridal veils I was riffling through, half-choked on my Chipotle soda I had brought along for sustenance. Maybe it's because a needle and thread don't scare me, or maybe it's because I can hold my own in clothing design, but $200+ on what couldn't have been more than two yards of tulle sewn to a cheap plastic hair comb was shocking. Absolutely shocking. I pushed the "bridal veil priority" to the backburner of my mind (I had already bought my dress) and let it simmer there, knowing that I'd be able to construct a better veil for far less than what I had seen in the bridal shop. And guess what? In about one hour on a Thursday night, I constructed my double-layered veil out of two yards of a tulle, a plastic hair comb, and about 5 inches of satin ribbon to hide the stitching. (Check it out in the picture above). Total cost? Here's the breakdown (all bought at a local craft store):

* Two yards of tulle ($3.50)
* Clear plastic hair comb (50 cents)
* One foot of satin ribbon ($1.00)
* White thread ($1.00)

Everyone was impressed with the final product, including me (since I had been in a hurry while crafting it). And it only cost $6.00!

Even if you're not a designer at heart, bridal veils are INCREDIBLY EASY to make. I cannot stress that enough. I know I've repeated that everything is "so easy" to do yourself, but trust me on this. I've seen veils sell for between $150 and $500, which is a complete and utter rip-off. (I don't care if it was featured in last month's Bride Magazine.) Wouldn't you love to use that extra $200 you saved on a veil to pay down your debt or put away in savings? That's what I thought. Next time you're at the bridal store, study one of your favorite veils from the bunch and examine the shape that the tulle is cut and how it's assembled onto the comb. This is how I usually get my ideas. If you feel you're still a novice in the sewing department, there's a plethora of veil patterns online that are a cinch to use. Check out

Wedding Cake. When Love and I got married, our wedding cake cost almost $2,000. Yes, $2k on a cake is ridiculous -- especially when most of our guests were beyond full when the cake cutting rolled around anyway -- but my parents helped plan most of my wedding, and they insisted on it. If I hadn't been so lucky to have such great parents I would have had to come up with a cheaper alternative to spending a small fortune on the tiered confection.

Bake it yourself? OK, that may be slightly out of the question (especially for those of us who aren't the savviest in the kitchen), but you could get creative with what kind of cake you budget for. For example, if you order a three-tier cake in plain white frosting and NO decorations, you could decorate it with your own ribbons and fresh flowers before it's presented at your reception. And be sure to check out what the bakery at your grocery store has to offer over a stand-alone bakery. Since they are usually independent franchises and cater to the wedding demographic, bakeries tend to have over-inflated wedding cake prices even for the most basic of flavors.

For the adventurous brides out there, the "it" desserts these days are cupcakes. Why not incorporate them into an avant-garde wedding cake? That would be so 2008. And the best thing is that a cupcake wedding cake is very do-it-yourself friendly. Mix and match different sized cupcakes in any flavor on as many tiers high as you want your "cake" to be. (Check out the example pictured.) Not only is this a fun, quirky take on the traditional cake, but it will make passing out "slices" that much easier. You and our husband can still cut one of the large ones and feed each other for photo-ops -- or lovingly smash the dessert into one another's faces. Either way.

But if you're a classic single-cake girl and refuse to give up tradition, what if you rented your wedding cake for the day and sent (most of) it back after the party's over? Wedding cake rentals have been all the rage in recent years, mainly because the cost far outpaces any bakery-bought cake. Don't worry, if you rent your cake you can eat it too -- well, at least the bottom tier. The top tiers are usually made of poly-styrofoam and covered with real frosting and fondant, so no one will be able to tell it's made of compressed packaging material. And if they find out your little secret? Well, that may be downright awkward. For more info, visit

Wedding invitations. Pop quiz: What costs near $1,000 and is thrown away after about one use? Gold-plated toilet paper may be a good guess, but I'm actually talking about wedding invitations.

After Love and I were engaged, we went to a chic stationery store in the Santana Row are of San Jose. (Think a 4-block version of Rodeo Drive, minus the airhead socialites and fake boobs.). I went in enthusiastic and I left jaded. Inside, the sales woman thumped three giant binders of wedding invitation samples in front of us, which we silently gawked at after seeing the prices. With the flip of every page I became increasingly amazed that anyone would spend that much on, let's face it people, something the majority of your guests will probably throw away after they've marked the date on their calendars. Not only that, cards are a cinch to make, and are better done yourself in order to get every detail exactly the way you want. No "extra" charges for ribbon or special-colored card stock required.

Before you sit down to create your enveloped masterpieces, browse ideas online and in stores for how you want your invitations to look, paying attention to what shape and color is your favorite. The accoutrements -- such as tissue paper and ribbon -- are usually the icing on any invitation, and can be bought for cheap at craft stores, where you'll also find envelopes in every color sold in bulk.

To save money on postage for your RSVPs, ask your guests to reply online or by the telephone. Starting an email account just for RSVPs (i.e. is fast and -- key word here -- free. We made our own invitations (pictured above) with pink, brown and creme cardstock, and topped it off with a bow glued between the layers.

Videographer. If you're on a budget, choose between either having a professional photographer or videographer. (I would choose the photographer.) For my ceremony and reception, I bought an HD $499 30-gig hard drive camcorder that my friends and family took turns using throughout the day and night. (This saved us thousands of dollars that videographers would have charged.) At the end of the day we had tons of excellent footage that was beyond easy to edit in iMovie. If you don't have a Mac for video editing, most cameras come with a disc that includes free editing software you can download. The best is that you get to add in all your own music, transitions and favorite shots without the videographer's cheesy choice of having Michael Bolton's "When A Man Loves a Woman" play during the slow-motion cake-cutting scene. Yuck.

Things I wouldn't skimp on, but would budget for realistically:

Professional photographer. That's not to say a $10,000 bill from a wedding photographer is at all called for or necessary, but there should be a happy medium between the uber-expensive and doing it yourself. The best photographers are ones who allow you to keep all prints and negatives, over them selectively choosing which ones to give you. Wedding day pictures will probably be the most important shots of your life so I think it's well worth it.

Wedding Dress. If you've ever had a day where you've just felt blah (and really, who hasn't?), you probably wanted to curl up in your PJs and wait for it all to pass. This shouldn't be the case on your wedding day. Feeling confident and beautiful will not only help you enjoy your big day day even more -- if that's possible -- but it will also help you shine in your wedding photographs. Don't just buy the cheapest wedding dress you can find because it's cheap, but "splurge" a bit if you need to get that wedding dress you know was just meant for you. Hey, sometimes fate happens.

Just remember that the right dress isn't always the most expensive, though. Anything with the word "bridal" affixed to it automatically sees a jump in price (it's the nature of the game in the wedding business), so try looking for a white dress that isn't necessarily for a wedding. These can include a white evening gown, or even a bridesmaid's dress (nobody has to know). To give you an idea of the drastic difference in price, you can spend upward of $2,000 on your dress while a bridesmaid's dress made of the same fabric will cost around $200.

Superfluous extras that will break your budget:

Transportation for wedding party, guest shuttle and/or parking attendants. You're plunking down a pretty penny so your guests can enjoy pricey food, bottomless beverages and styrofoam wedding cake -- er, you know what I mean. I don't think you also need to play public transportation for the day, too. If your ceremony and reception are in different locations, I'm sure everyone can probably figure out "how to get there" with maps that you'd provide beforehand. Most convenient for guests? No. Most cost efficient for you? Check.

Gifts for bridesmaids, groomsmen, parents and welcome baskets for out-of-town guests. All these extras would be affordable if your last name was "Trump," but in the real world they are unnecessary and tend to push budgets even higher. Your wedding day is more about you and your husband- or bride-to-be, not about your guests. I know you want to celebrate and spread the love on your day, but I doubt your bridesmaids are ever going to use those fluffy monogrammed pink garters you specially ordered for the occassion.

Wedding planner. As a bride on a budget, I'm assuming you're an innovative, enterprising, roll-up-your-sleeves and do-it-yourself kind of girl. This alone nixes the need for a wedding planner. Don't worry, your reception doesn't need to be the second-coming of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, with big-budget visuals and breathtaking fireworks, although the latter would be nice. A wedding planner is expensive and hypes up the day as if it were a giant theatrical performance -- one that you could direct yourself for less.

Remember, it's a special day, so don't spend so much time squeezing the worth out of every last penny that you over-exhaust yourself and wring the fun out of your big day. Just be rational about the easy things you can do yourself, and try to find the best deals on everything else that should be left to professionals. Great places to start thinking of ideas for do-it-yourself projects are Target's "Club Wedd" wedding aisle and craft stores such as Michael's, AC Moore and Jo-Ann's. If you don't mind "recycled" decorations, etc., don't forget to check eBay for excellent deals.

When you do find that you need professional help with something, don't scream from the hilltops that it's for a wedding. I know, I know. Getting married is so exciting that you can't help but tell everyone about it, but many of these florists, bakers and others make a living off of inflating normal prices when they hear the word "wedding." Just say it's for a party; they don't need to know. Seriously.

Youtube is also an excellent place to research the best ways to do things yourself, from makeup and bouquets, to centerpieces and invitations, if you're clueless as to where to start or just aren't that crafty, Youtube is a goldmine of easy, do-it-yourself online tutorials.

In a day and age where you can book your own flight, car and hotel sans a travel agent and you can invest in the stock market sans any stock broker, then you can definitely plan and prepare your own wedding.

Happy planning!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Barack the vote! Or McCain it, whichever way you swing!

The day has finally come, my lovelies! I won't remind you all to go out and vote today since I know you've already planned to...right!? I'm so excited about this election because I truly feel like a historical event is taking place in my lifetime that I can be a part of. It's a marvelous feeling.

Anyways, what I did want to remind you of after you emerge from the booth adorned with your tres chic "I voted" sticker (they are so in), is to remember all the free offers being handed out on Nov. 4th:

• Coffee. Starbucks expects to hand out "hundreds of thousands" of free 12-ounce drip coffees (valued at about $1.75 each), says spokeswoman Jenny McCabe.

• Doughnuts. Some 85 of Krispy Kreme's 231 locations in the United States will hand out about 200,000 star-shaped, red-white-and-blue sprinkled doughnuts valued at 99 cents each. Being patriotic never tasted so good.

• Ice cream. Between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. in each time zone, Ben & Jerry's ice cream shops will hand out single-scoop ice cream cones (a $3.40 value). "What better way to encourage people to be politically active than to give away free ice cream?" asks spokeswoman Liz Brenna. The woman has a point.

• Sandwiches. Several hundred of the nation's 1,400 Chick-fil-A stores will hand out $2.70 chicken sandwiches to adults who show proof that they voted. This is where that trendy "I voted" sticker comes in handy.

• Discount haircuts. Then, there's Cristophe Schatteman, a top hair stylist known for giving former president Bill Clinton a $200 haircut on Air Force One. His salons in Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Beverly Hills and Orange County, Calif., will offer all services — including haircuts — at half price today. A $500 haircut from Cristophe will go for $250. Deal or no deal? You decide. [USA Today]

Who will you be voting for today??

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The $30,000 question: Plan a wedding on a budget (Part 1)

If you had $30,000 would you spend it all in one night?

Unless one too many margaritas have clouded your judgement in Vegas, I'm going to assume your answer would be "no." (The small amount that would consciously spend that much in one sitting can probably afford to anyway.) But what if you were neither rich nor impaired by inebriation, and were instead getting married? Would your answer to the $30,000 question change?

The wedding industry in the United States has been trotting along at a sprightly pace with its head held high for many decades, regardless of how the economy is doing. Recession who? Subprime what? Exactly. A total of $125 billion -- about the size of Ireland's GDP -- was spent on 2.1 million weddings in 2005, according to the "American Weddings" study conducted by The Fairchild Bridal Group. estimates the average U.S. wedding costs about $30,000 -- not including the engagement ring or the honeymoon. A breakdown of the $30,000 looks something like this:

Reception: 50% (Site fee; rentals; food; beverages; cake)
Ceremony Site: 2% (Location; officiant; marriage license)
Wedding Attire: 10% (Gown; accessories; groom’s attire)
Photography/Videography: 10%-12%
Flowers: 10% (Bouquets; boutonnieres; décor)
Entertainment/Music: 4-6% (Ceremony; cocktail hour; reception)
Stationery: 2-3% (Invitations; programs; thank-you notes)
Wedding Rings: 2-3%
Transportation: 2-3%
Gifts: 2-3% (Attendant gifts; favors)
Tax/Tips: 5%

Before I begin, a may-juh (or so Posh would say) congratulations goes out to Cali Bar Girl, who jut got engaged!! She asked if I had any ideas on how to plan a wedding on a budget because she felt that she and her fiance's income could go to better use than on a one-night wedding party -- perhaps paying off loans, or saving for retirement. I agree that when rationally examined, the money can definitely be put to better, planned-out use, such as a downpayment on a home. That being said, I feel like weddings tend to sap all rationality out of a budget, so no judgement on those who plunk down $50,000 to $100,000 on their wedding. (I've been to a $100,000 wedding and have to say, it was downright fabulous.) Most of us don't have $100k laying around, though, and probably wouldn't spend it all on a wedding if we did, so where to start?

First off make a real budget. Seriously. There are so many extras and details in the wedding planning process that if you dive headfirst into the riptide without a budget, you will most certainly be swept out to the sea of overspending. Statistics show brides tend to outspend their budget by about 15% on average when all chaotic planning is said and done.

So grab a cup of coffee and make a list of all details that will revolve around your big day. The list will probably look a lot like the bulleted breakdown mentioned earlier. You probably won't know how much is "realistic" to spend in certain areas, such as food, flowers and wedding favors (I know I didn't!) so do some research online to see how much on average things cost.

Once you've set your budget, the challenge for you savvy savers will be to get as much as you can done for far below what you have budgeted for. Consider your price points as "maximums" (i.e. the maximum amount you would pay for each thing). The less you spend on wedding details, the more you'll have left over from your planning budget to use elsewhere in your life, such as putting aside in savings, or paying down debt!

Right off the bat, there are four steps you can take to save loads of money:

Completely forego renting a traditional venue and have your wedding and reception at a state park, beach, or public garden. These days even a seemingly "lavish" wedding on a beach in Malibu is possible, since the state rates for public sites are a pittance (think a couple hundred dollars), and many sites have historic "clubhouses" or "mansions" that you can use to take photos, set up tables and get prepped in. (As an example, check out these state park wedding sites in California.) This will save you tons of money, since the cost of the ceremony/party venue can be upward of 30% of your wedding budget. For more information, google your state's official website and see what your region has to offer.

If you insist on celebrating in a traditional venue, say a local winery, then plan to have your wedding during an off-peak season. Spring and summer are the most popular seasons for weddings, so plan on paying top dollar for a wedding site if you get hitched during this peak period. If you're flexible with dates, check out prices between late October through February. The cheapest months to hold your wedding are January, February and March, according to In many places, such as the California coast, you can still have a "garden wedding" in the fall and winter because of the moderate climate.

Have your wedding and reception on any other day than Saturday. Saturday night is the most popular time of week for ceremonies and receptions. Try booking a venue for Friday night or early evening on a Sunday.

Choose flowers that are in season and easily attainable. I'm sure you really need that rare, eggshell-hued exotic genus of hibiscus ... or do you? To drastically cut down the cost of your wedding, research which flowers are both common to your area and are in season. Gerbera daisies, traditional daisies, chrysanthemums, statice, Queen Anne’s Lace, freesia, baby’s breath and gladiolas are generally the best-priced flowers year-round, while spring is best for irises, violets, daffodils and tulips. Lilies are abundant during the summer, and sunflowers and orange blossoms abound in the fall. For a list of all flowers by season, click here. I'm a classic girl and wanted roses (my favorite flower) at my wedding. Roses are notoriously one of the priciest flowers you can buy, but with a little research we were able to buy roomfuls of roses at wholesale prices in the colors I wanted at a local nursery. Research nearby nursuries and ask about special wholesale rates, even if they don't specifically advertise for this.

Part of the fun of planning a wedding is to personalize all the little details that make up your big day. Throwing some cash at a wedding planner is an easy way out, but no one said "easy" would be the most cost-efficient.

Things you can do yourself, contrary to what any wedding planner will tell you:

Why hire a DJ when you have an iPod? Enlist your husband's best man or your favorite charismatic relative (ideally before they've had five glasses of champagne) to announce the bride and groom's entrance, the father/daughter dance, first dance and toasts. No long-winded speeches by your "stand-in DJ" required. For the rest of the night let your iPod "wedding playlist" (which you planned in advance, of course) run on its own throughout the night for free. Music never sounded so good!

Wedding favors. Ah, the wedding favors -- yet another way the wedding industry suckles every last penny out of your wallet. There are many vendors out there who'd love to capitalize on your anxious desire to buy 150 boxes of personalized M&Ms at $5 a pop, or 200 boxes of heart-shaped "Love Beyond Measure" mini-measuring spoons (yes, they really do exist) at $3 each, but if you're on a budget don't give in! Wedding favors are one of the easiest things to do yourself. For some ideas: One of my friends burned CDs with songs they knew they'd play at their wedding, and personalized each with sticky labels and cases they printed out themselves. Or you can buy candles in bulk and cover each with a square of tulle and ribbon, which my mom did for my wedding. Target offers a bevy of favor box options (such as these or these) that you can fill with candy bought in bulk and adorn with ribbon. (One spool of ribbon, which is probably all you'll need for these, can be bought at any craft store for cheap.)

The wedding bouquet. Having a special wedding bouquet made for you by a specialist can cost anywhere from $100 to $250. Sometimes even more, depending on what flowers you choose and what kind of an arrangement you want (cascading versus hand-tied, etc.). A charming old Italian florist named Bepe made my wedding bouquet for about $100 in the Tuscan town of Lucca where Love and I got married. Stateside, though, it generally costs more, depending on where you live. Don't forget your bridesmaids and groomsmen will also need bouquets and boutonnieres. These extras can cost between $50 and $125 each and definitely add up, so if you're feeling creative or know someone in your family who is good with flowers and can help, make them yourself. There are a myriad of videos on YouTube (such as this one) that you can learn from and many professional florists even teach the tutorials!

Phew, that was a long post. Log on next time for cost-cutting ways to plan a wedding on a budget, Part 2!
Blog Widget by LinkWithin