Sunday, March 31, 2013

The True Cost of Fast Food

A recent survey showed the average American family ate fast food 2-4 times a week, some even ate five times a week, and a smaller percentage seven times a week. My first thought was how can they afford it? CNN described eating out as cheaper than cooking at home. Check out the article out for yourself. In the article, CNN shopper pays $4 for spaghetti, seriously? They also skip the expensive drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and dessert. If I am going out to eat, it is a special event and I’m getting dessert.

Back in the day, when my children were small I knew when various restaurants offered free kid meals. I may have milked that cow dry. The age keeps getting younger and younger for the elusive free kid meal. The children meals you buy are almost as much as an adult entrée. How do you beat the high price of eating out?

Realize eating out is not a right, but a luxury. Most people want to eat out because they are tired and don’t want to cook. Even elbowing your way into the drive-thru line at your local burger barn will take 20 minutes out of your commute. It costs an average family of four between $32-40 dollars per fast food meal. Twenty minutes you could have nuke lasagna, baked chicken strips and fries, or set the table for a crock pot dinner you started before work. You could also bake the bargain pizza you have in the freezer. If you don’t think you’ll feel too much guilt about it, eat cereal.

Going back to the CNN article, which was little more than a commercial for Darden restaurants. Hey, I like all the Darden restaurants, but it is misleading. When I buy a bag of salad, I never pay four dollars for it and I do not eat it all myself. The report gave each person their own bag of salad, a bunch of asparagus, and even a box of overpriced pasta. Not only could these items be divided up among family members, there might even be leftovers. If you dine at a mid-range sit down restaurant, you have taxes and the tip, which makes the total even more.

How to eat out, but not pay too much while doing it tips.

1.       Cut out all the fast food coupons and mid-range ones too. I’ve even googled them. Keep them in the car or your purse. A coupon you don’t have doesn’t do you any good.

2.       Eat breakfast out. It is the cheapest meal of the day.

3.       Order water

4.       Go during the weekday lunch specials (avoid the weekends and dinners at mid-range restaurants since the price goes up)

5.       Buy the smaller portion or dollar menu items. You may find you are not as hungry as you might think.

6.       Want fries, then share a large.

7.       Get kids meals. Use the drive-thru. I have never been denied a kids meal.

8.       Sign up for every birthday club you see. It is a free meal.

9.       Start saving the money you’re not spending on fast food to do something fun and healthy such as miniature golf or canoeing.

Is it cheaper to eat out than stay at home and cook? Not the way I shop, and probably not the way you shop either. Do you spend $60 every night to fix your family of four dinner? That’s what I thought.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Free Cost More Than You Realize

The Dangers of Surveys, Freebies, and Coupons Printers

Doesn’t the idea of something free or at least half off sound appealing? I thought so I was anxious to download the coupon printer. What I was unaware I loaded malware to my computer so deadly that it took down my computer. Think about this, I can load coupons directly onto to my loyalty card at grocery and store sites without a coupon printer. Instant deals arrive as phone texts. Emails appear regularly from stores for time-limited discounts. Then there is the old school method of coupons in the paper, magazines and direct mail. Pour through your magazines because they can have some major coupons. With that in mind, why would you need to install a device called a coupon printer? You don’t. Its only purpose is to track where you go, often diverting you to their sites, and at times crashing your computer with its associated viruses.

Freebies sound like a no brainer. Remember that there is no free lunch. My FB friend sent me sample link to get all these free items, and they immediately want my credit card number. Suddenly it doesn’t feel so free. They promise to send me a sample if I pay the inflated postage. Why do I want to spend four dollars in postage to get an item worth less than a quarter? The item is one I could have received free or did receive free via store promotions or direct mail. Personally, it is never a good idea to give out your credit card numbers to these firms. You will soon find yourself getting all sorts of items you cannot use, and charged handling expenses.

The survey come-on that promises you will make all sorts of money is tempting. You may have checked something when you were trying to register for the free laptop or restaurant dinner you supposedly won.  I did this. The first survey promised I would get twenty dollars by signing up for a Discover card. Well, I didn’t need a credit hit on my rating, so I declined. The money didn’t come from the survey company, but from Discover after I charged so many items. That was their best offer. I often find myself doing long complicated surveys that take over an hour only for points in my credit bank. What can I do with the points in my bank? Almost nothing, if I gather enough of them I might get six months of a magazine I don’t want.

I am offered the same magazines free, after completing an order with H.H. Gregg or Vista Print. Makes you realize the survey companies do not value your time or at least the online ones don’t. I have participated in physical surveys where I tasted something, made a dish, or use a particular detergent and was paid cash. I found out about these by reading a small ad in the classifieds. All three of my children took part in a chewing gum test where they were paid twenty-five dollars each. Some surveys are real. You can look them up on the Better Business Bureau website to check.

Then there are the home surveys you have to bid on. You register using your credit card to be able to bid on certain surveys. This is a great way for them to make money, not you. I almost fell for this one too. The reason I didn’t I Googled it for complaints, and there were thousands. If something sounds too good to be true, then, research it.

Every now and then, something good happens. I walked into the grocery one day and they were having a grocery derby. The object was you race around the store throwing items in your cart equivalent to $200 in less than 10 minutes. The person closest to $200 without going over won the grand prize, it wasn’t me. I did get $100 for competing though. I probably wouldn’t have if my children hadn’t urged me on. The good thing about the derby was there was no entry fee, no handing over my credit card number, and no long-term interaction. For less than ten minutes, I had to bear public scrutiny while my children cheered.   I would do it again in a heartbeat.
You can get legitimate freebies. You do it all the time. An example is a sandwich or coffee card that once it is filled up you are entitled to a free one. I develop all my film at Walgreens, which leads to me occasionally getting discounts and free photos.  This perk keeps me loyal to Walgreens. While I am at Walgreens picking up my free photo, I might purchase something else. If I am on Amazon and I spend $25, then I can get free shipping. Of course, that means I bump up my order to get the free shipping. If you understand how the freebie system works, you realize no one gives anything away free.

Before you decide to do the survey, sign up for the freebie delivery, or install the coupon printer, think about what they get out of it, as opposed to you. Could be they are getting a much better deal than you are.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Hoarders and Spring Cleaning

Here’s a cautionary tale. My previous house belonged to hoarders. When the bank finally foreclosed, they pulled many items out onto the lawn as if to take it with them, but eventually just got in their car and drove away.

We found an attic stuffed with sixteen artificial Christmas trees, and rooms filled with mountains of clothes, books, toys and takeout menus. As we moved items out, we discovered new items in unopened packages. Apparently, when they couldn’t find what they needed they bought it repeatedly. The stuff took on a life of its own eventually chasing the owners out.  The idea of getting everything in order so overwhelmed the owners that they never tried.

Do hoarders spring clean? Probably not, they hear the same commercials as we do and get the same cleaning products coupons too. What does spring cleaning mean to you? Most people wash windows, sweep out the garage, even, clean the carpets. It could be an opportunity to chuck a few things.

While you clean you find lost earrings and missing socks. Part of cleaning is getting rid of the stuff, but this is  often hard because we have rationale for hoarding. Yep, it is hoarding if we don’t use it currently, or have never used it.

Reasons We Save/Hoard

1.       We might need it in the future.

2.       Books, newspapers-we plan to get around to reading them. Set a deadline of one week.

3.       Food. Often people have cabinets of food because it gives them the sense they will never go hungry. Food does go bad. Check your labels and toss if expired.

4.       Baby Clothes and toys. Your children do not want these. Pick out a timeless item such as a book to pass on to your child.

5.       Clothing-you hold onto the skinny jeans in case you lose weight. Newsflash: If you do get to that size, you’ll want something new.

6.       Broken items- you are either going to fix or save for parts. If you haven’t fixed it, then you won’t. As for parts, you have to have the same twelve-year-old vacuum cleaners to make the broken one of use. Most likely the same part will be broken.

7.       Undone projects- this includes puzzles, half-stripped furniture, to partially restored cars. Set yourself a deadline to finish, then, get rid of it when you don’t finish it. Seeing the undone project causes stress and family arguments.

You can get a jump on chucking stuff and get the house clean too.  Decide what is the littlest you need. The china set for twelve you’ve hung onto, but used once could be gracing someone else’s table. It often helps to solicit help rather like a twelve-step program, so you don’t put it off. Call on a friend or relative, or at least ell them your plans to have accountability.

What can you do with what you don’t need?

1.       Donate it to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or DAV . Your donations are tax deductible.

2.       Sell it On Ebay or a Rummage Sale (Make sure this happens soon or you’ll end up reclaiming it all.)

3.       Historical items such as letters and journals could of value to your local historical society.

4.       Adult children need to get their stuff out of your garage or you’re trashing it.

5.       Barter it. There are many barter sites online. Refer to previous blog.

6.       Take items to a Swap meet. Look for this online or in your paper.

7.       Call Freecycle (This organization helps your items find new homes.)

8.       Sell Your Books, movies, video games, and music CDs at HPB or a used bookstore. Donate them to a library.

9.       Consignment Stores. There are ones for clothing, home furnishings, even sports equipment and musical instruments.

Maybe you have items in a storage unit. The fact you have it in a unit is proof you don’t need or use it. One man stored over 5,000 text and reference books, many out of print in a rental unit. When he decided to search for one book, he found his unit had a leak that damaged all his books. He could have donated the books to his alma mater’s library, been able to visit his books when he wished, and taken a hefty charitable deduction. He had to toss the damaged books.

I often wonder about my home's hoarders who left so much behind that it took four full dumpsters to get rid of it all. Did they start out new convinced they wouldn’t fall prey to the same incessant collecting? Maybe. Once you cleaned out your closet, garage, shed, or bedroom closet, do not see that as a sign to fill it back up. Resist. Be strong, and you’ll find there are other things to do in life besides shopping, collecting and cleaning.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Barter System

Merriam-Webster defines the word as to trade by exchanging one commodity for another. It can also be the act of exchanging services for a desired service. Bartering used to be rather popular in years gone by. My father engaged in it, although he never called it that. As a small farmer, he didn’t have a combine. One neighbor did. In exchange, my father helped him with his harvest, and boarded his horse.

Bartering is coming back in the public view. In the classified ads, I often noticed boats and RVs  as a trade item usually for a car. The owner burdened with an item he or she no longer needs and is unable to sell resorts to bartering.

A recent episode of Picked Off on the history channel featured teams with the same amount of funds trying to get the best bargains. Well, we all know if you have the same amount of money how can one person triumph over the other. One way was the teams offered to pad out their bid with work. Other times they offered another item to trade for what they wanted. It never occurred to me that I have skills and even items other people might want.

Originally bartering was something everyone did, now organizations exist to help you find fellow barterers. Barterquest is one that allows you to barter cars, homes, timeshares, and even swapping homes for vacations. Some companies tend to be regional like The Barter Company, which is in the Florida, Georgia, Carolinas region. This is important because if you are bartering for a vehicle you may want to see it and test it first. Tradeaway is another barter company that allows you to display your barter item, rather like Ebay, except you aren’t being paid in cash. Like the popular auction service, they do take a cut. Some businesses will engage in bartering to augment their regular cash business using such companies as Barter Depot.

You can barter on your own without using companies in you are in a local network. Here are a few tips:

1.     Be detailed. Have photos if you are offering merchandise, even services. If an item is broken, do mention it is for parts only.

2.     Consider the real value and value to you. Often we overpriced items because of sentimental value. If you don’t use it, then its value to you is limited at best.

3.     Don’t get stuck. Bartering for a vacation? Look up reviews for the cozy condo up for barter.

4.     Be aware that battering is different. It isn’t the same as buying something at Target. Your merchandise and follow through can generate future business, and even friendships. Be clear on your terms; even draw out a contract to prevent misunderstandings.

TLC also recommends these organizations for getting the most out of your barter: U-Exchange, Trashbank (which is a free service), Care to Trade, and there is always Craigslist too.

Do you throw wonderful parties, cook delicious meals or desserts, create great resumes, even pet sit, and then you have a service to offer. Maybe you can do yard work, plumbing, dry wall or car repair. One testimonial in the barter system was from a man who bartered to get his daughter the wedding of her dreams.

In case, you are wondering about tax implications about larger items, here is a short instructional article from How Stuff Works. Good luck in your bartering endeavors.