Minor League Baseball is a Great Value

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[Editor's Note: This is one of the few baseball posts NOT written by our resident expert baseball addict Kosmo. I'm going to try my best to live up to the high standards he sets.]

Several years ago, when my wife and I lived out in California, we went to our first Minor League Baseball game. It was a Modesto Nuts game that was part of some work deal*. The experience made my list of one of the best ways to Save Money at Baseball Games.

Pawtucket Red Sox - Free Brady

Pawtucket Red Sox - Free Brady Friday

Last Friday, I went to my second minor league game... our local (Rhode Island) Pawtucket Red Sox playing some Louisville Bats**.

At the time, I noted that just going to a baseball game is great if you are a fan. The grass, the organ, the food... it's just a great atmosphere. It isn't obvious, but Minor League Baseball has a few advantages over Major League Baseball. There are more creative promotions. At the Modesto Nuts game, they had something every inning. (My favorite was the inning of Dollar Drafts.)

Another advantage is that it is extraordinary family friendly. I've only been to two Minor League games, but I didn't find a single drunk, surly guy, heckling a 20 year old kid. This is in sharp contrast to the bleachers Fenway during Red Sox/Yankees games where I always learn a few new slang words.

Finally, there's the obvious advantage Minor League Baseball... it's much cheaper. Tickets are cheaper. Beer is cheaper. (The food unfortunately, was not much cheaper this time unlike the Modesto game.) Parking is cheaper. Souvenirs are cheaper.

There's a trade-off to minor league baseball obviously. You don't get to see the top stars. Also, if you follow the major league team, as most fans do, you probably don't care about the results of the minor league game. You probably want the affiliate of your major league club to win, but it can be more about following the players.

The promotion last Friday was enough to get us to bring the kids to the park. With a 2 and a 3 year old, you never know what their attention span is going to be, especially for something that typically requires sitting in place for 3 hours in the evening.

The price of the tickets were $12 (a dollar off for Tom Brady) for a box seat. We got 4. So the best seats for a family of four run around $50 total. I think the face value on some of the Boston Red Sox tickets go between $140-175 for face value alone for these seats... and that's just a single seat. Tickets alone for the family of four can easily run $400 or $500. (It doesn't help that they are some of the most expensive tickets in baseball.)

Parking cost us $10, but I see that parking at Fenway is "$40+." The concessions were probably not much of a discount, but still a little cheaper. We didn't by any souvenirs... a blessing of having the oldest be only 3. I wouldn't have said it was a cheap evening, but it could have been much worse. (If we planned to eat before, it also could have been much better.)

As for the event itself there were three things of note besides the game (the PawSox scored a lot early and coasted to an easy win):

  1. Great Promotions - Just like the Modesto Nuts, there was a promotion nearly every inning. My favorite was this Hurl the Pearl game for charity. If we had time before the games starts, we'll look to do that next time.
  2. Linda the Usher - We had the best usher in the history of mankind. I hadn't seen someone rock her job in such a long time. It seems somewhat of a local celebrity for her ushering skills. I learned that even mundane-looking jobs can be made exciting.
  3. Talked with an Important Executive - Around the 7th inning an important-looking person in a suit came by with Linda. I think he was intrigued that our 2 and 3 year olds where still having a great time that late. I immediately noticed his World Series ring and figured he was a top guy. We talked for about 5 minutes about the promotion. I learned that the competing Buffalo Bison promotion was politely discussed with the PawSox and approved because it was all in good fun and it went to help charity.

    Later on, I looked up who it was and it was Dr. Charles Steinberg, the President of the PawSox! That kind of stuff simply doesn't happen at the Major League level.

We're already looking forward to our next game.

* Interesting fact: I always associated the Modesto team with the Oakland A's. They were called the Modesto A's and were the minor league team for years. It wasn't until I started to write this story that I realized they had been affiliated with the Colorado Rockies for more than 10 years, including the time that I saw them.

** Interesting fact 2: The Louisville Bats use the mammal as the core logo, which may be unexpected considering they are known for the bats are used to hit baseballs. Good pun, but on this particular night, they played like they were relying on their sonar a little too much.

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Posted on June 17, 2016.

My Mammoth DisneyWorld and Universal Studios Review

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Last week, I was on vacation. It was one of those vacations where I felt like I needed a vacation after the vacation. My wife and I took our 2 and 3 year old to DisneyWorld and Universal Studios.

As I type that last sentence, I realize that it sounds like the least frugal, poor-planned financial decision I've made in years. When the kids are older they won't remember the trip. It seems like a lot of money to not make lasting memories.

As usually, the devil is in the details. Our reasons for traveling were a little unique. Here's a few reasons why:

  • We have friends from California going. It is closer for us to fly from Rhode Island to Florida to see them.
  • We had a timeshare week that was expiring so we had to use it or lose it. Usually they can be sold, but since it was banked so long ago, the rules prevented us from selling it.
  • My wife's military benefit gives us close to half-price tickets to Disney and the 2-year old didn't need a ticket.

That's not to say that it was cheap. We still had to fly there. It was the first time that we've had to pay for 4 tickets. And while we had the place to stay mostly covered, it was around $300 of fees to bank the timeshare and use it. Finally, even with the military discount, the combined 6-days at DisneyWorld and Universal Studios adds up.

We found a few things to save money during the vacation that I'd like to share. None of them are revolutionary, but together they added up to real savings.

Staying in the timeshare helped save us money vs. staying in a typical hotel. We had a very functional mini-kitchen. We were able to make a hot breakfast and keep milk cold without having to make numerous trips to an ice machine. The first day we spent about $50 at the grocery store which covered us for many meals during the week.

DisneyWorld is relatively unique where they allow you to bring in outside food and drink. We brought two Vacuum flasks with us. One was filled with Diet Coke (for the adults) and the other with milk (for the kids). We brought some snacks and lunches as well. They weren't hearty lunches, just sandwiches, but they were enough to keep us full until early afternoon when we could eat a late lunch and beat the crowds... at least some of the time.

Sometimes we ate lunch with our friends from California. It may sound odd to only do it sometimes, but their kids were older and their schedule was very different than ours.

Universal Studios only allows for light snacks, so we weren't able to bring our food there.

Because we stayed in the timeshare, we needed to rent a car. Now I know that we could have earned some extra miles on Southwest by going through their portal. I found that out after it was too late. We brought our own car seats, which my wife reports was a big savings (I didn't rent the car.) We spent $30 on Swap.com for two car seat bags, but we saw people using a trash bag and even nothing at all. Perhaps we could have saved some money if reviewed the airport's or airline's policies. Live and learn, I guess.

We also parked far away from the airport and used a shuttle. The Providence airport (PVD), which is not in Providence, has a deal with a coupon that allows you to pay $50 per week for parking. I don't think I've ever paid so little for parking at an airport.

We bought Disney gift cards from our local grocery store as we get a 6% cash back at grocery stores with our Amex card. Between parking at the parks for 4 days, food, and other things, we probably spent around $500. That's $30 back in our pocket. Every little bit helps, right?

Those were the main things that we used to save money.

A Brief Review of DisneyWorld and Universal Studios parks

I'd also like to share a little about the trip... just in case you haven't been. (I'm also writing it for selfish reasons as I sometimes use this blog as a journal. I want to refer to this the next time we go to Orlando.)

Keep in mind that our trip was a little odd. I don't think I saw anyone with two kids with their oldest one being 3. While the theme parks have something for everyone, there's a significant number of things that we simply couldn't do. It wouldn't be fair for me to criticize them for that, but am going to biased to the ones that were better-suited for our odd circumstance.

Magic Kingdom

This is what everyone goes for, right? Unfortunately, there was very little magical about the start of our trip.

In order to get into the park we had to take a tram from the parking lot, to a ferry, to a bottle neck of security. It was more than 3 hours to go from our hotel which was 4 miles away to be inside the park. Our friends who were staying on the property got a break and "only" had about a 2.5 hour wait. This doesn't appear to be typical as locals with annual passes said they've never seen it like this.

I have to question the wisdom of ferrying people over a lake. Seems like they could build a bridge or something so that everyone isn't stuck standing and waiting for a boat. We could have taken the monorail instead. That may have been a better plan, but we weren't sure if we could bring our stroller on it or if we'd have to stop and fold it up as we did on the tram. When you have it loaded up with food, jackets, diaper bags it can take a couple of minutes and we don't want to hold everyone up. It seemed easier to just stroll onto the ferry.

After we got in, it was so crowded that it really wasn't fun. It was more stressful than anything else until around 3PM when the crowded started to disperse. Prior to that, it was a 45 minute wait to get an ice cream around Main Street. After 3PM we actually were able to go on a number of rides, many more than I thought we'd be able to. So it all worked out in the end, but the start of the day had me thinking that it was like paying money to be stuck in a phone booth with 2 other people.

Fortunately FastPass+ is the best thing ever to happen to DisneyWorld. You essentially book an appointment with a ride, so you don't have to wait in long lines. You've got a range of time to go on the ride, so it's not like your whole day is rigidly scheduled. The only downside is that after the three you are allowed to schedule to start, you have to wait in kiosk line to schedule more. There's a lot of kiosks and essentially you are swapping one line for another. The kiosk line doesn't move very fast as families crowd around it and debate the pros and cons of various rides that are presented. You are essentially trading one line for another.

They have a FastPass+ smartphone app that you can use to view your appointments, but you can't make new ones like you can at a kiosk. Seems kind of silly, but maybe that's done on purpose. If everyone could easily book FastPass+ on their phones, it would probably cease to be fast.

There were a lot of rides that the kids could do which is nice, but Disney doesn't have the characters that my kids like. They prefer PBS Kids and Nick Jr. characters such Deigo (and Baby Jaguar), Curious George, Blaze, and Paw Patrol. My kids do like Lightning McQueen and Mater from the Cars franchise, but we couldn't find one attraction in any Disney park that featured it. I think they have something in Disneyland, but I guess that 10 years isn't enough time to get them to the east coast.

Epcot Center

This was our favorite of the Disney properties. Instead of the 3 hours it took to get into the Magic Kingdom, it might have been about 6 minutes. That's the walking time from where we parked to the security, which took less than 30 seconds. What a difference when you start the day on the right foot.

We appreciated the rides and attractions at Epcot more than the Magic Kingdom. You learn something from many of their rides. (I now know what neem looks like. I also like to say "neem." Neem.) The animals were perfect a perfect attraction for our kids. The 3-D Pixar shorts were really well-done.

We then went to "World" part of Epcot and did something that we couldn't do at the Magic Kingdom... enjoy some adult beverages. One website I found claimed there was only one place where you can have a beer at the Magic Kingdom... and I think it's a sit-down restaurant after 8PM. At Epcot, you can get beverages from around the world, so that's kind of nice. You can also eat food from each of the countries.

If you can't go to Europe or travel the real world, Epcot's "World" gives you a little flavor of many countries... certainly something I recommend for everyone.

Between the two sides of Epcot we had a full-day and hit just about everything that Epcot has to offer.

Hollywood Studios

This was our least favorite park. It's not that it's bad, but that it simply isn't a good fit for us.

Most of the rides aren't good fits for a 2 and 3 year old. The park feels like it is 60% Star Wars. I'm not much of a Star Wars fan and the kids are too young to get into either.

There's a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse attraction, which is a favorite of our 2-year old. That was an entertaining show 20 minutes. However, even that pushed other Disney Junior shows that my kids aren't into like Sofia the First and Doc McStuffins.

There's also a Pixarland, but it consisted of one Toy Story ride. I'm reading that they are expanding it to include more Toy Story stuff, but it doesn't seem like there's anything else from Pixar which is disappointing. I had high hopes that there would be something with Cars, but no luck.

Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom is a cross between a zoo and a theme park. It's perfect for our kids.

They had a lot of fun going on jungle cruises and safaris. For two kids who are huge fans of Go Diego Go! this is probably as good as it gets.

While I personally get a little bored at zoos, this "super zoo" kept my attention. It's also easy to enjoy something when you see the smiles on the faces of your children.

Universal Studios

We greatly preferred Universal Studios to Disney. This may be because the brands are ones my kids are familiar with, but also they have things that seemed to better geared for the younger crowd. Getting in was like Epcot. You drive and park and there's no need for a tram that requires folding up a stroller. In fact having the stroller got us through the line faster as we were directed to the wheelchair line at security.

I knew the day was really getting off on the right foot when I turned my head to find a store selling Serenity shirts.

After walking out of the store, we immediately found Diego and Baby Jaguar were on a parade float going down the street. (Dora was there too, but who cares about her?) I've never seen my wife run so fast. I don't think I've ever seen my children happier. (The only thing that could have compared would be to have the Octonauts or Blaze the Monster Truck.)

My kids love Curious George, so seeing him does so much more for them than the Disney characters. The area of the park with Fievel's World is kind of a big playground with things to climb and jump in. It's kind of an expensive McDonalds' Playplace, but it works kids age 2 and 3. The 3-year old was just tall enough for the smallest roller-coaster (Woody Woodpecker) which he loved. It had no line so we went twice.

We didn't have time to take in any Barney stuff or the E.T. ride because there was so much other stuff to do. There was an animal show that had famous trained animals. We were relieved to find out that the dog that played Marley in Marley and Me is still alive and everyone got to pet him.

My wife loves Harry Potter and that's the big attraction here. She said that the Escape from Gringot's Bank was the best ride ever (I stayed with the kids while they napped.)

My wife declared CowFish to be the best restaurant she's ever eaten at. That's pretty lofty praise. I think she appreciated that it had something for her (sushi) and something for me (burgers), so we don't have to compromise where we go.

Universal's Islands of Adventure

This is the other side of the Universal, so getting in is the same as above. They do a wonderful job of crowd management.

There wasn't as much for the kids, but Dr. Seuss land certainly had enough. One playground area was fun for the kids for hours. We also had a lot of fun Jurassic Park in a discovery attraction that has you exploring caves and tunnels and such. It was perfect for the kids.

Other than that, my wife got to do more Harry Potter stuff. I thought I'd like the Marvel area more than I did. I think I'm just a casual fan and not a super fan like I would be Firefly/Serenity.

The park closed at 6PM the day we went. That's the earliest of any park we went to, but it was just as well as we were kind of finished. It was the last stop of the trip and frankly 12 hours a day at a theme park with kids as young as ours had us exhausted.

We finished off the day by meeting our friends for dinner at Vivo Italian Kitchen on the Universal CityWalk. It was probably one of the best Italian restaurants I've been to, but I'm not an expert in them.

What we'd do differently next time

If you happen to be military, you can hack together a relatively cheap Disney vacation. There's an on-property hotel called Shades of Green that's exclusively for military. I know that I wrote above that the timeshare saved us money, but we also had to rent a car. Staying on the property will save us that money and give us more time at the park. We may not be able to get to the grocery store to bring our own food. If you've stayed in Disney itself, please let me know what you do to save money on food.

We'll also look to use credit card rewards to build up frequent flier miles to cut down the costs of flying. With the kids, the cost of flying has doubled and this is the only way I can see to mitigate that.

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Posted on April 14, 2016.

3 Incredibly Simple, Inexpensive DIY Beauty Staples

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I'm on vacation this week (could you tell?), but fortunately staff writer Christina Garofalo has pitched in an article that should save you money.

A couple months ago, while staying with a friend, I noticed a stack of cleansers, creams, and scrubs in her bathroom -- delicious combinations like coffee-coconut and sugar-mint that smelled better than anything I'd found at the store. When I asked about them, she told me she had made them herself.

I've seen recipes for DIY beauty products in the past, but they always seemed to involve too much time and effort. However, lately I've been changing my tune.

The average woman spends $15,000 on makeup alone over the course of her lifetime, and many of these products contain parabens that may cause hormonal imbalances and other health problems down the line. Natural and organic cosmetic lines are generally even more expensive than the conventional ones, forcing me to choose between my health and my budget.

With my friend's recommendations and a bit of my own research, I found a few staple recipes that are easy and far less expensive than the natural products in the beauty aisle -- and they give me control over what's going onto my skin.

Recipes

There are a ton of natural ingredients -- most of which you can find in your kitchen -- that have great benefits for your skin.

The first are oils, primarily coconut and olive oil. These are the most expensive of the ingredients up front, but if you buy them in large quantities and use them for cooking as well, like I do, it ends up being cost effective in the end. Oils are great for moisturizing and for exfoliators.

Coarse sea salt, raw sugar, coffee grounds, and oats all make excellent exfoliants. Add these to any of the oils and you already have a simple, effective (and tasty) moisturizing scrub. One thing to note is that salt scrubs can be pretty tough on your skin, so I'd recommend keeping those to your body and reserving finer white table sugar or oats for your face.

Other ingredients you might want to consider are Vitamin E and aloe, which are great for restorative and anti-aging products, especially in winter. These you typically only need a tiny amount of at a time, so a little bit goes a long way. If you're not already using something with a powerful scent, like coffee grounds, peppermint oil or dried lavender can make a great addition; I'd suggest the former for a refreshing morning cleanser and the latter for a relaxing evening one.

To make all of these, mix the ingredients in a separate bowl before transferring it into the final container.

Here are three super easy recipes I love.

Coffee-Coconut Exfoliator

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There are few things more uplifting in the morning than a fresh cup of coffee, so filling your steaming shower with that scent might be the *best* way to start your day. Aside from the invigorating smell, caffeine is also the active ingredient in most cellulite treatment creams. This scrub is ideal for exfoliating and rejuvenating your skin, while simultaneously moisturizing it. The consistency should be oily enough to stay together but be solid enough to scoop into your hands.

Ingredients

8 heaping tbsp of coconut oil
1 cup of ground coffee beans (do not use instant coffee)

Instructions

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Scoop coconut oil into a microwave safe bowl and heat in microwave for about 25 seconds or until it's completely melted. Add the cup of coffee grounds. Mix thoroughly, and scoop into a mason jar.

Note that coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so I like to bring the jar into the shower with me for a few minutes to soften a bit before use.

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Moisturizing Lip Scrub

All winter, the cold dry air and wind take a toll on my face -- especially my lips. Sometimes they become so chapped that they begin to peel, and Chapstick just globs on and doesn't really seep in. This scrub gently removes the peeling skin from my lips while moisturizing them at the same time, plus it tastes good -- a little bit will invariably get into your mouth.

Ingredients

1 tsp olive oil (I like the extra virgin olive oil infused with lemon, also great on salads)
3/4 tsp white sugar

*or*

1 tsp crystallized honey
1 tsp olive or grape seed oil

Instructions

Mix ingredients in a separate container. Adjust to desired thickness, and transfer to a wide, shallow container to store.

Natural Eye Makeup Remover

The skin around your eyes is the most sensitive skin on your body. It's surprising to me the number of people I know who use harsh clothes and astringents to remove their mascara and eyeliner. Mascara is already tough on your eyes, and many makeup removers don't get all of the makeup off, instead pushing it further into the skin around the eyes or severely drying that skin out. This all-natural eye makeup remover balances the astringent and soothing qualities I like to remove my makeup. Tip: After washing your face, use a Q-tip with an extra dab of Vitamin E oil to go over the eyelids and lashes to get rid of any leftover makeup.

Ingredients

2 tbsp vitamin E oil
2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
3 tbsp of alcohol-free witch hazel
1/2 cup purified water

Instructions

Pour all ingredients into an eight ounce bottle that has a secure lid. Shake before each use.

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Posted on April 7, 2016.

Saving on Holiday Fashions

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[Editor's Note: I'm a little late to the game in publishing this article. To make up for it, I'll add an additional holiday tip myself. Last year, I found that Christmas sweaters (ugly and regular) get huge markdowns following the season. I picked up 3 at more than 50% off then, so this year I'm all set.]

With the holidays fast approaching, you’re probably being bombarded with party invites and family obligations. It’s exciting if you’re a social butterfly like some in my family. However, it can also quickly add up price wise when you’re factoring in all those new, fancy clothes you’ll need to get through the company party, Christmas card photos, or outings with grandma.

But spending on fashion doesn’t have to empty your wallet. In fact, it doesn’t even have to cost you a thing! From kid styles to ugly sweaters, there are tons of ways to save on getting dressed for the season. Here’s how to stay fashionable this holiday season without going broke.

4 Ways to Save on Holiday Clothing

Thrift and Resales

One of my guilty pleasures is hitting up resale popups for my daughter’s clothing. It can be a bad habit, but when you walk away with 10 new items of clothing for a dollar each, it’s easy to see how it can become an addiction fast!

My trick is to only go to sales on the last day or during the final few hours – when most resale shops do steep discounts, such as dollar-dashes or half-off everything. Don’t be afraid to negotiate, either. The longer the item stays on the shelf, the deeper the discounts get. Even saving $1 here and there can go a long way.

I also like to buy holiday clothing out of season when other sellers or thrift stores are desperate to get rid of them. It’s a great thing to remember come spring when everyone else is shopping for tank tops and shorts!

Borrow or Trade

Having a fancy company holiday party to attend can really eat at the budget, especially for those attending black tie affairs. Women, in particular, will most likely need to find a new gown as I don’t know many who keep a long, evening appropriate outfit in their closet year round!

Instead of making a trip to a designer or even a big box store such as Macy’s or Nordstrom, check around with your friends first. Because evening gowns are so distinct, most don’t want to wear them a second time. Even more so, a friend may have a daughter’s prom gown lying around or a discarded bridesmaids dress that will work. Offer a trade for your past evening gowns for theirs. Who knows, it may lead to an entire closet exchange!

Rent

In addition, if you do want something completely unique, you can also use online services such as Rent the Runway, which allow you to “rent” an evening gown at nearly half the price, then return it when you're done. This service can be a savior if you have multiple parties to attend!

Men should consider doing the same thing with their suits and tuxes. Rental suits are relatively affordable, but booking way in advance is absolutely necessary if you want the best deals. Put your order in before Thanksgiving and score some great discounts.

Stick to the Basics

If your family style is more causal for the holidays, consider buying all year round. Simple, staple items such as a red sweater, a black dress, tights, etc. can all be re-worn during the holidays without looking out of place. And while buying holiday clothes and dresses for your kids are fun, they look just as adorable when wearing a cardigan and a pair of corduroy pants.

If you already have the staples in your closet, I suggest taking everything out and playing a matching game. Pair your red vest with a white button down and then replace the vest with a green sweater. Change up the pants from black slacks to brown… and suddenly you have three outfits with pieces you already own and love! Take pictures of each combination so you remember your options!

Saving money is hugely important during the holidays, especially when it comes to superficial things such as clothing or designer goods. You don’t have to buy up a store for your kids or hit up a shopping center for a party dress. By sticking to what you have, what your friends want to give, and the good deals out there, you can keep your holiday clothing costs to a minimum.

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Posted on December 23, 2015.

5 Inexpensive Ways to Decorate for Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is a holiday perfect for pulling out all the stops. But decorating for such an occasion often requires a seemingly endless budget. But there are plenty of great DIY projects that can transform even the most boring of tables. Here are my five favorites.

5 Inexpensive Ways to Decorate for Thanksgiving

Fall Garlands and Banners

Garlands and banners make a perfect way to set the stage. To create the perfect Thanksgiving garland, pick up some bright-colored plastic leaves at your local craft store. Then, use clear fishing twine or invisible thread to stitch through the leaves (usually about three stitches down the center will do). Leave extra slack to have enough room to tie around a window’s curtain rod or a hook on your mantle.

Save Money Thanksgiving Decorations

To make a simple “Give Thanks” banner, use a design program to make pendant shapes with a letter in each and print on cardstock. Then, using a hole puncher, make two holes at the top to thread a long bit of thick ribbon through. Alternatively, you can cut recycled fabric into the shape, write the letters out with fabric markers, and sew or glue onto the ribbon.

Autumn Centerpieces

Though centerpieces are a Thanksgiving necessity, large flower arrangements are not in everyone’s budget. But anything around the house can make a great centerpiece: clear jars, empty lanterns, even unused serving bowls. To spice them up, head outdoors to find acorns, leaves, stones, and pinecones (or purchase at the craft store).

Arrange your centerpiece by placing heavy items like twigs and stones at the bottom. Next, add texture (acorns, pine cones). Top off with color (leaves, plastic berries) for a great holiday look!
Frugal Table Linens
Sprucing up an old table doesn’t have to require a new, expensive tablecloth. In fact, you can reuse your old one by dyeing it in a harvest color such as gold or brown.

To do this, wash the old tablecloth, but do not dry it. Purchase fabric dye at an art store in the color of your choice. Use a tablespoon of dye in a large bucket and slowly add 1/6th cup of salt and six cups of boiling water. Mix with a paint stirrer or old wooden spoon until you no longer see the salt. Place the still-wet tablecloth into the bucket and stir for roughly 3-5 minutes every 20 minutes for an hour total and then let sit for 2-3 hours. When done, lay outside for 24 hours to dry. You’ll be impressed at how amazing your new table cloth looks when finished!

Candle Reboot

For the adult table, candles are essential. Luckily, they are pretty inexpensive decorations when you buy them at places such as dollar stores. You can also go thrifting for great, vintage candleholders that you can remove the rust or even touch up using spray paint.

If you’re going for a more DIY look, try spicing up your candles by wrapping around autumn staples such as twigs, cinnamon sticks, or leaves. To make a cute candle holder, use a large glass jar and insert the candle. Then, fill in the space with candy corn, berries, sticks, or stones. You can use plastic berry leaves and water in tall, thin pitchers with floating tea lights for an added, tall centerpiece effect.

Guest Creations

One of my favorite ways to decorate a table is to make interactive placemats. They are a great way to get people talking and sharing (while keeping them out of the kitchen). Purchase paper from the craft store and cut it into large squares big enough for plates, silverware, and glasses. Then, add a writing prompt such as “What are you thankful for?” or “Name this year’s turkey.” For kids, you can print theirs with games, puzzles, or coloring prompts.

Spending a fortune on Thanksgiving decorations doesn’t have to be on your holiday list. Instead, find simple, easy DIY projects that will create the atmosphere you love without overspending.

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Last updated on November 16, 2015.

Switch to Cricket Wireless?

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[Editor's Note: The first time I published this, I found a bug in the WordPress publishing system where one typo can make the whole article disappear. Let's give this another try.]

A year and a half ago, I wrote about the Best Cell Phone/Plan Savings Today. Nearly 18 months later, I still think the Nexus 5 on StraightTalk is extremely competitive. That phone cost me around $399 for a 32GB and StraightTalk is between $42-45 a month depending on how many months you buy at a time.

The cell phone industry moves fast and there's more competition nowadays. There are bunch of Motorola Android phones that fall in the under $200 range (some even under $100). You have to be a little careful if you want LTE, the fastest data speed. I'm not sure sure if they come with full 1080P screens, but remember that Apple went "retina" with worse resolution quite a few ago. And if you don't want to pay $399 like I did on a Nexus 5, you can get it on Ebay starting at around $250.

I've always be a fan of spending a little more money on the better phone. If you think about it, even spending $45 is spending $540 a year. You'll pay more in service than for the phone, so a cost of an $50-100 shouldn't break you. This is specially true considering that it was fairly normal to pay $100-$120 a month just for service as recently as 3-4 years ago.

What's caught my attention is the Cricket Wireless's new plans. They are offering a 2.5GB plan on AT&T's LTE network with unlimited talk/text. The price is $35 if you give them a credit card to put it on autopay. My Straight Talk plan is 3GB, but everything else (even the network) is the same for that $42-45 a month. I rarely use more than 1GB of data, so the amount of data doesn't matter to me. Thus I'd be looking at $35 with Cricket vs. $42-45 with Straight Talk.

A switch could save me $100, even $150 a year. That's better than a poke in the eye, right?

I typically have the mentality of, "Why fix it if it isn't broken?" There's new sim card purchase involved, which is a few dollars. That's a one-time cost, so it is still something that will be made up in a few months.

I'm a little on the fence of whether it was worth it until I realized that it would be around $250 a year because it is two phone plans (my wife and mine). That's enough to swing me into action.

P.S. I know some people really like Ting. I think it has save families some money by sharing all the minutes, data, etc. However, I don't like the idea of feeling like "the meter is running" when I use my phone. It is worth it to me to pay a little extra every month knowing that I'm not going to get surprised with a big bill. I think this Cricket deal makes Ting a non-starter for us.

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Posted on March 16, 2015.

Saving Money with Ground Turkey and Beef

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Over the past year, I've seen the price of beef skyrocket at my grocery store. A couple of years ago, I'd be able to get 93% lean ground beef for well less than $3 a pound at the local military commissary. It was the best price in town.

Lately, I've seen prices of over $4 a pound. The prices for even 80% lean ground beef is over well over $3 now.

As a result, I've steadily been opting for poultry such as skinless, boneless chicken breast that is usually priced at $1.99 or less. A great side-benefit of that is that recent guidelines advocate lean meat.

The only problem: It's hard to make burgers out of whole chicken breasts.

This past week, Aldi was having a sale on ground beef. The sale illustrates how high prices have risen. You could buy 5lbs of 73% lean beef in bulk at a price of $2.89. At the same time, I noticed something next to it... ground turkey at $2.79.

Perhaps you can see where I'm going with this. What if I mixed ground beef and ground turkey and froze the result?

A spreadsheet can help us look at the results:

 PoundsPrice/poundTotal PricePercent LeanLean Meat
Ground Beef5$2.89$14.4573%3.65
Ground Turkey2.4$2.79$6.7093%2.23
Sum7.4$2.86$21.1579%5.88

Focus on the bolded data above. The average price per pound of my Franken-meat is $2.86 and it is 79% lean. That's better than paying $3.29 for 80% lean. From a numbers perspective, I could have simply gone with all ground turkey and had 93% lean meat at $2.79 a pound.

Of course, food isn't all about the cost or the fat percentage. It is about taste too. I'm banking on the fact that by having twice as much beef as turkey, my burgers will still taste like beef burgers, not turkey burgers.

I had hoped to find someone on the internet that has done this before and reported on the taste. Maybe my searching skills have gone way down, but I couldn't find a single record on the internet. I did find some tips suggesting that I could grind my own ground beef and save money that way. That's interesting. If I'm going to grind meat, I might as well consider grinding chicken breast (at $1.99) or chicken thighs (even cheaper).

Maybe the right mix could get prices below $2 a pound, with good nutrition, and still taste good? If nothing else, it seems like a fun experiment.

I'll have to come back and update this article with the results of the taste test.

If this experiment comes out well this Sunmile 1HP Meat Grinder that I found on Amazon looks to be the way to go. At a sale price of $80 today, I'm tempted to jump on it.

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Posted on February 20, 2015.

Save Money on Drinks with SodaStream

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[Editor's Note: As I was writing this article, SodaStream emailed me with a couple of Cyber Monday deals. All SodaStreams are 20% off with free shipping. There's also a deal that if you buy 2 you get one free (good for gift giving). Finally, their outlet store has everything 50% off. Just go to SodaStream's website. You may have to use the promo code of CYBERSODA14 to see the savings.]

All the way back in 2010, I named SodaStream my Product of the Year (Read the review). In fact, I invented the Product of the Year category specifically for SodaStream.... that's how awesome SodaStream is.

While it didn't prove to be a savings in terms of providing cheaper soda, it had other advantages:

  • Health, Flexibility, and Savings - Instead of making soda, I make lemon-flavored seltzer using the equally awesome True Lemon. When I drink this, I avoid drinking soda and the health issues that come with it. Making seltzer with SodaStream is cheaper than I can buy it in the store.
  • Environmental Impact and Laziness - Lugging a bunch of 2-liters of soda around isn't fun and doesn't help the environment.
  • Space Saving - Rather than needing to dedicate a place for soda, I only need to store the small amount of syrup that I use.

Water is cheap. True Lemon is cheap.

That leaves one more pricey component, the price of carbonation. With plentiful $5 coupons at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, I've gotten the price of the carbonation down to around $11 (including tax) for 60 liters of carbonated water. That's about 37 cents for a 2-liter, a good savings over the dollar of soda at my local supermarket.

However, it's always worth asking the question, "Can I do better?"

And you can... a lot better.

When I first wrote about SodaStream, several commenters suggested that I get a FreedomOne from Co2 doctor which allows one to use CO2 tanks from sources other than SodaStream's custom tanks.

While I recognize the savings, I was hesitant to buy into it. My wife wouldn't want a big CO2 tank hanging around in the kitchen. I wouldn't want to go to the basement to make the SodaStream from a tank. I didn't know if the CO2 that I'd buy from my local welding shop is really the kind of thing I want to consume. And there's the risk in using pressurized gas incorrectly.

However, all these concerns proved to be overblown. I'll explain, but first here's my SodaStream set-up:

My SodaStream Set-up

Let's start with the CO2. That 20lb tank came from a local "indoor plant growing hobby shop. I'm pretty sure that's code for Weed-R-Us. I thought I'd be the only person to go in there for carbon, but beer enthusiasts get CO2 for their kegerators. It's definitely a consumable grade gas.

Second, the design is very safe and the instructions were easy. I think the warnings are just to cover the manufacturer's behind in a legal sense.

Third, my wife is a fan of this new set-up. I found that it fits under the sink in the bathroom. Now the SodaStream doesn't sit on the kitchen counter. I don't have to the basement to make it either, which is a big plus.

The SodaStream bottles expire every few years, so I make a liter in one good bottle and transfer it to several expired bottles that I have. This way I can make 5-6 liters at a time.

"Show me the Savings!"

That's what you are here for right? Okay, let's dig in.

Commenter Brian realized that SodaStream's gas costs 4 times as much as what it cost to fill his 5lb tank. Here are the details of that math, but don't spend a lot of time on it, because we're moving on quickly:

You don’t need a huge 50lb tank to make buying your own gas practical. I bought a 5lb tank (equivalent to 5.5 of your 14.5oz bottles) and fill it up for $13 total. Let’s assume your $10 / 14.5oz. That gives:
$10/14.5oz vs $13/80oz
$.69/oz vs $.16/oz
If it’s $15/14.5 oz, the savings becomes:
$1.03/oz vs $.16/oz

Assume 14.5oz/60-liters = .24oz / liter
$.17/liter vs $.04/liter (plain sparkling water - I don’t use the mixes)
~50 cents a liter(supermarket) or
17 cents a liter(SodaStream) or
4 cents a liter(DIY)
It costs 4 times as much to use their gas!!
@ 1 liter/day:
$62.05/year (SS)
$14.6/year (DIY)
$47.45 savings a year.

His math for a two-liter of SodaStream using their CO2 canisters comes out to the same as mine (which is always reassuring).

With his modification, his price is down to 4 cents a liter. As he points out, that if you drink a liter a day, it's $47 of savings a year.

That's good for Brian and his puny 5-liter CO2, but what about my 20lb tank?

The economy of scale grows quite a bit, because you get four times the gas with the 20lb tank vs. the 5lb tank (yes, I did that math in my head), but the price to fill either tank is typically between $20-25.

That $20-25 will make appropriately 1,324 liters of carbonation. That brings the price down to about 1.8 cents a liter. So for around 3.5 cents, I get a 2-liter of seltzer. I was paying 37 cents for the same amount using SodaStream canisters. And to think one could pay a $1.00 for a 2-liter of Seltzer at their grocery store... Yikes!

This may sound like pennies, but at a liter a day, it adds up. Instead of paying $62 a year for carbonation, I pay under $5. However, since it's not unusual for my wife and I to each drink a liter a day (I've drank two some days), we end up paying around $120 a year in SodaStream carbonation (still a bargain over what most people pay in soda). That $120 can be reduced to about $10, for a savings of $100 a year. Our sons of 26 and 11 months are too young to drink carbonated beverages, but at some point our demand will rise and the savings will even be larger. Plus it will be nice to not have to go to Bed, Bath, Beyond for refills any more.

There's one thing that dampers this double rainbow of savings: the start-up costs of the system. This one-time cost shouldn't be ignored, but in the long run, it doesn't amount to much. The tank itself cost me $125 and the FreedomOne was another $100. The combined total of around $225 means that it will be two years before the savings kick in.

If you run the numbers for 20 years the savings are fairly significant. The cost of a liter of soda (or seltzer) per day is comes to around $169 annually. That's $3380 over 20 years. After buying the SodaStream machine, the tank, and the FreedomOne, the annual cost for a liter of seltzer with True Lemon is around $23.28. With the one-time costs, the total cost of drinks for 20 years is around $750 That's a savings of $2629.

Now, you might not jump and down about saving $2629 over 20 years. I thought it would be more myself. However, giving all the other advantages, saving any money at all is a nice perk.

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Last updated on June 29, 2016.

Should I Upgrade My Furnace and Water Heater?

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Sometimes, I ask a question and I have a good hunch of what the right answer is going to be. Today's article is not a such a case. As I write this article, I don't know where it will go. That's very different from most of my articles.

In my last article, I wrote about how I got a recently energy assessment. One of the things I learned is that we have a 24-year old furnace.

I had been told that the furnace was old before, but it was so clean (perhaps because it is a natural gas furnace), I thought that the company might have been trying to snow me on buying a new system that I didn't need. It turns out they were right.

While the furnace works fine, it is in only about 60% efficient according to the estimates. There are systems that are 95% efficient today. So it would seem like nearly a third of my heating bill could be avoided by replacing the furnace. It's probably a little less since we use gas for cooking and laundry.

Looking at my average bill, that's a savings of around $45/mo. It may not seem like much, but that's like getting free HBO, free Netflix, and a still having money left over for a monthly pizza.

Right next to the furnace is the water heater. It looks much newer, but the estimate is that it is just about as efficient (or inefficient) as our furnace. Now that I think about it, we use gas for the water heater, so to save the full $45 a month, we'd probably have to replace both.

And that's where the question comes in. If you've got working equipment, is it worth replacing it to make it more efficient? The answer would require an estimate for the cost of the new equipment. Unfortunately that's not something I've had the time to look into.

While we could replace the older furnace and not the water heater, I've heard there are combined systems that might be cheaper. Perhaps, just as important as saving money, would be saving space. As the kids grow, I think finishing the basement is going to look more and more attractive. That's going to go a lot smoother if we don't have big water heaters taking up all the room.

If I had to estimate how much the new heating systems would cost, I'd go with $15,000. That seems like a lot of money to spend to save a little more than $500 a year in more efficient fuel usage, right? Part of it is that the cost of natural gas is low enough that even being inefficient isn't a huge deal.

The wild card in all this is the energy company has some incentives, like rebates and interest-free loans to spread the cost over several years. That's definitely something to look into, but I'm expecting that the savings won't cover the cost.

The situation reminds me of one where you have a car that isn't fuel efficient. It's rarely worth it to scrap a working car. Instead, the most cost-effective thing to do is drive it into the ground. That's my hunch here.

Readers, what do you think?

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Posted on November 20, 2014.

Energy Assessments: Free Stuff and One Secret, Sneaky Tip

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When was the last time someone showed up at your home to save you money... and gave you over a hundred dollars worth of free stuff? This happened to me recently... and I want to share the experience with you.

A few weeks ago I wrote abour our journey to solar power I like to think that I covered it in excruciating detail at that link.

As a condition of getting the state grants to subsidize our solar panels, our energy company has to review our home. At first it seems kind of strange, but when I thought it further it made more sense. The state shouldn't subsidize solar panels for me unless I can show that I'm focused on effectively using energy in my home. After all, if I have a refrigerator from 1970, they should tell me to buy a new refrigerator, right?

Fortunately, the energy assessment is free*! That "*" means that it isn't really free, but comes at no additional cost to me. Every month we pay a little money for these services... similar to paying E911 on your cell-phone bill. The difference is that you can get the benefits from the energy assessment right away... and without there being an emergency.

There were three major financial benefits to getting this energy assessment... and in no particular order...

1) The solar panels that I mentioned earlier... It looks like they'll save us tens of thousands of dollars over time.

2) I had my house scoured in detail for anything that might help me save money on electricity bill. You'd think that you might pay third party $300 for this service. And if you did, it still would likely save you money. It wasn't looked at from just an electricity point-of-view, but also from an heating efficiency one.

As far as this assessment went, our home aced everything in flying colors. I'd love to take credit, but the previous owner did most everything. The only thing I did was go crazy with LED and LCD light-bulbs.

3) Free stuff!!! Who loves free stuff? This guy! Here's what we got:

* Two smart power strips that are very useful for entertainment centers. The explanation is a little long for this place, but it keeps your DVR plugged in and running while your TV isn't using "vampire power." You want your DVR plugged in to record your shows. You don't care about your TV using energy until you are watching it, right?

* LED Light Bulbs - Here is the secret, sneaky tip... I had a lot of LED light bulbs in the house - I wrote about it recently: Digging into LED Light Bulb Savings. I also had some Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs). I found that in the areas that I didn't those light-bulbs - such as a bathroom using G25 LEDs (something that I learned afterwards), they will replace them for you! It is almost worth buying in-efficient lightbulbs just to get all the best bulbs, right?

It's strange. I'm trying to very conscious of our energy usage and we found a ton benefits.

And sometimes you can bring your tricks to the party. I showed the energy assessment expert my HDHomeRun Prime: End Cable Box Rental Fees!. I also mentioned how it is a crazy power hog. The cable companies won't work to make it better so consumers have to cobble a situation to make it better... and that's what I did.

Do you have any tricks to save money on energy? If so please let me know in the comments.

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Posted on November 18, 2014.

 
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