Friday, June 28, 2013

The Packaging Shell Game

Food prices are higher; there are no two ways about it. Anyone who has walked out of the grocery knows that, and suddenly the staples you usually bought don’t go as far. What’s up with that? It’s packaging. Manufacturers found we could be easily fooled with less in the package.
The first forerunner of this is the 12-ounce soda bottle, advertised by its price of ninety-nice cents. People willingly snap it up because they assumed wrongly that it was a 16-ounce bottle. If the store carried cans of the same drink it was only seventy-five cents or less. Suddenly the consumer was paying more for less and often unaware.
The second step was changing package for environmental or personal good. The ice cream container became rounder to prevent freezer burn and eliminated two servings in the process. Amazing how freezer burn was never an issue in the past.
Cereal or any dry substance that came in a pound box shrank down ounces in the same size carton. Often you open the box and find it is only half-full. Bags of cereal give you more of a feel of what you are actually buying. Hot cereal will stretch farther for your grocery dollar.
The number of servings change from less lunchmeat slices to less bread slices in the loaf.  Sometimes the shrinking item sports a new feature to confuse you. Tropicana Orange Juice has an easy pour spout, but seven less ounces.
What common items have changed in your store?  These items have changed sizes under the watchful eyes of consumer advocates. The Consumerist found these obvious changes:
Bounty: 60 towels to 52 towels
Science Diet dog food: 17.5 lbs to 12 lbs (Big jump)
Purina dog food: 20lbs to 18lbs
Glad trash bags: 96 bags to 80 bags  (Good size jump too)
Tropicana OJ: down 7 ounces
Edy's Ice cream: 1.75 quarts to 1.5 quarts
Dial soap for men: 4.5 oz to 4 oz
Skippy: 18oz to 16.2 oz
Brawny paper towels: 110 sheets to 88 sheets
Frito Lay chips, various brands: 12 oz to 10 oz
Faultless Spray Starch: 22oz to 20oz
White Rain shampoo: 19.95 oz to 18 oz
It isn’t just our groceries that are going down in size. Everything from aspirin to potting soil and you are getting less than you used to. Even portions sizes in restaurants are sinking, but that might not be a bad deal for our waistlines.
How do we fight shrinkage?
1.       You can go to stores such as Big Lots, Dollar Tree or Deals that often gets the ends of lots. Maybe you can actually find the full size version there.
2.       Compare unit prices. It might be beneficial to go up to a bigger size.
3.       Consider switching brands. Often the generic is as good as the brand that did the size switcheroo.
4.       Buy local or grow your own produce.
5.       Go without. This is especially true with snack foods.
The price of steak fries run between $3.75-5.00 for a bag that doesn’t even equal two meals. Instead, I’ve been buying ten pounds of red potatoes, sunflower oil and spices. For a total of $4.50, I have 12 servings instead of my 3.5. Time wise, I spent two minutes cutting potatoes and the oven does the rest. The potatoes came from Aldis. The sunflower oil and spices from Big Lots. This is one of my alternatives.  I would love to hear about some of yours.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Charities: Follow the Money Trails

The red kettle is where you should be your charitable money. Let's find out who to avoid.
Recently a news story broke about an aunt of the Newtown school shooting victim collecting money for…herself. She had set up a bogus charity that people around the world were contributing to in the belief that they were helping. They were helping her to a nice car, a better wardrobe and exotic vacations. How can you be charitable and not be ripped off?
Whenever a disaster happens, either natural or manmade, charities spring up and most of them are fraudulent. If you want to give money to victims of a disaster often, you have better chance of donating supplies to a local drive that is sending supplies. A couple cases of water to hurricane victims is more likely to get there than the ten dollars you sent via an online contribution site.
This has become such a problem that the Tampa Bay News revealed fifty of the worst offenders. Despite the fact that they collected millions of dollars often less than 1% went to the cause they supposedly represented. They used names with the emotional labels such as veterans, kids, children, cancer, police, state troopers, wish, and most importantly breasts. People will throw all sorts of money at breast cancer or at least at ‘charities’ that pretend to raise funds for breast cancer.
In the documentary Pink Ribbons, oncologists complain that they never see any money from all these pink ribbon projects. Less than one percent goes into research. The rest promotes more campaigns and events and disappears into the pockets of administrators. This is similar to a bold family who started their own drive.
A family at my school used chicken buckets covered with white paper, wrote Johnson Family Fund on it, and set up their own roadblock. Their son proudly told me they collected over two hundred dollars and went out to eat that night. Did anyone wonder what they were contributing to? How do you know a charity is legitimate?
Technically an organization has to file the legal paperwork to become a non-profit organization. Failure to do so does not stop them from advertising, having a website or soliciting funds. However, many organizations are legit they just never get the money to where you thought it was going. It takes a detour through several different hands.
Did someone contact you for this charity? I used to get calls all the time for the widows and orphans of state troopers victim fund. It sounded like a phone bank. Still, it seemed like a good cause until a state trooper explained that they took care of their own, and not by soliciting.
Those direct mail letters asking you to help fight against a disease are administrator heavy. Very few if any money gets to where the name states it will go. Often these organizations get mailing lists of cancer victims’ family under the ruse of helping them. I can only hope HIPPA regulation put an end to this practice. You would be better offer just sticking money in an envelope and giving it to someone who has cancer.
Tampa Bay listed the less well-known offenders. Do you know who the big guns are? Snopes listed the top money earning charities padding their name recognition and executive pockets.
1.       Unicef
2.       Goodwill
3.       The United Way
4.       World Vision
 Goodwill’s CEO collects almost 700,000 and benefits compare this to the Salvation Army’s CEO who collects a mere $13,000 for the two billion dollar organization.
Moved to give a dollar to the March of Dimes, consider only a dime is for the children, the other ninety percent is going elsewhere.  Images of big eyed children starving in other lands cause you to write out a check to World Vision. Consider World Vision president receives a base salary of $300,000 with home valued at $800,000 with maid service, and all utilities paid. His children receive their private schooling paid for with World Vision funds. He also receives a luxury automobile, generous food and clothing allowance and free high-speed cable and Internet. He also has a hefty expense account to treat folks who could benefit himself or World Vision. Ironically, none of this is taxable because it is a religious organization.
Next time, you feel moved to give. You’re better off throwing your money into Salvation Army’s red kettle. At least you’ll know it will go to where you think it will as opposing to paying for  someone else’s exotic vacation or private school tuition.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Coin Collecting as a Hobby

Recently my husband talked about taking up coin collecting as a hobby. I know many people enjoy it and it seemed like something that would suit his personality. Suddenly, I entered the sometimes tricky world of coin collecting clubs and businesses.
Did you ever find yourself lured into filling out one of those cards in a magazine where you received twelve CDs for a dollar? After the excitement of getting your twelve CDs wore off, you may have found CDs by groups you didn’t like in your mailbox because you weren’t fast enough with the reply card. Even if they were groups you liked you found them surprisingly expensive. In the very fine print of your offer, there is an obligation to buy twelve more overpriced albums. If only you did the math first, you’d have realized what you thought was a bargain was no bargain. Many companies are smart enough to get members to agree to have the charges put automatically on their charge card. Good luck trying to get that removed.
So what does this have to do with coins? A lot, many coins and stamps business work on the same premise. They send you overpriced coins you don’t want, bill you for it, and even threaten collections if you do not pay. If you are thinking about responding to a wonderful offer in your Sunday paper, check the complaint board first. This allows you to see if several people have a complaint against the company. Learn from their experience.
I have found legitimate companies that offer coins at reasonable prices. I like Littleton Coin Company they only send you coins you are collecting and send a prepaid envelope to mail back what you don’t want. They aren’t overpriced. You build up points with every purchase that becomes a form of currency to buy future coins. Coinword is a handy online resource that allows you to look up the value of a coin before purchasing it.
At first, coin collecting appears expensive, but it depends on how you do it. My husband started out with pennies and nickels. We told friends, families and co-workers that he started collecting. Suddenly, people are bringing us their excess change or collections they started and loss interest in. There are many ways to collect coins.
1.       Legitimate firms-Littleton Coin Company
2.       Estate auctions-most collections go for less than they are truly worth.
3.       Ebay-often the items up for bid are part of an estate auction (Use you Coinworld to check prices.)
4.       Amazon-there are decent prices on Amazon.
5.       Coin Swap Meets.
6.       Antique or junk shops
7.       Friends and families
8.       Yard Sale—mainly I buy coin books at yard sales
9.       The bank-ask for a roll of nickels or pennies to start your search.
Some people will try to inflate an item price by telling you it’s uncirculated, It should be in some type of sealed container and pristine. Honestly, you won’t know. The best way to deal with this is to go back to people you’ve had the most luck with. Sometimes the dealer doesn’t know either. It isn’t that important unless you plan on selling the coin to another collector.
Consider coin collecting as a hobby as opposed to a wealth garnering mechanism. With this in mind, you’ll have fun and not get taken.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


We have two special offers. One is for get two pairs of single vision glasses for $78 including lenses, while the other is get your first pair of glasses free. I decided to try them both and this is the outcome of my actual experience.

How often have you seen $99 for two single vision glasses or something like that? I’ve been wearing glasses forever and I fall for this every time.  Trust me; I went to six different places in my effort to find the elusive eyeglass bargain. This is my experience.   
I am at the store where I explain I want the advertised special. There is a small collection of truly ugly frames. The fitting specialist tries to steers me to the $200 frames, which are not a part of the special. She tells me other stylish women preferred these frames. Read: do I really want to look awful by buying the cheap frames.
I am strong. I go with the cheap frames. I have two cheap frames clutched in my hands.  Once I sit down to try on my glasses, I discover that my insurance will not cover the cheap glasses. I will admit my insurance isn’t that much, but it is worth almost $200 against the total bill. If I decided not to use it, I will supposedly pay $78 plus tax on my own. I am almost convinced.
 There are a few caveats, though. The offer only applies to single vision glasses and the doctor has prescribed bifocals for me. I told the doctor going in I do not wear bifocals. I only wear glasses to drive, watch movies and to spy on birds at the bird feeder. For the last ten years, optometrists have been prescribing me a clear bottom half of the lenses so I can look down and read. This invalidates any special offers and ups the price majorly.
Nope. I do not want bifocals. If the day comes, when I need reading glasses I will get them, not bifocals. Okay, that was the first attack on the special offer.  Oh no, the doctor wants a special lenses for my prescription that are so much lighter. Guess what…this is not part of the special offer and cost 3x as much as a regular lenses. Then suddenly, I have astigmatism. What, I haven’t had one before in the last thirty years of wearing glasses. Glasses for astigmatism are not part of the offer either.
I still have my $78 frames and my $200 worth of insurance. I refused all the special add-ons and my glasses still cost $187 out of pocket. This is for only glasses only, not the vision exam, which was covered by my insurance. I went to the cut-rate place, not the place that looks like an upscale spa.
Later  that day, I asked my daughter to show me how to order glasses from Coastal. Their advertisement is your first pair of eyeglasses is free. Using my latest prescription, we filled out the online form, did the pupil measurement. Within a week, I received a stylish pair of lenses for postage and handling. The frames alone would be over $200 at the first store because they look good.
I am tempted to order a backup pair because I do have a tendency to lose glasses. As for seeing, the clarity and focus is great with the Coastal glasses. I used the same prescription on both glasses.  This is my real person experience.
In retrospect, I have never received one of those advertised offers for the actual stated price. The offer just got me into the door, which was what it was supposed to do.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Making Gardening Work for You

During World Wars, most families had a victory garden to help with limited food supplies. It wasn’t a hardship because people usually gardened. Now, it seems like people make it into such an ordeal, that they do not want to garden. A garden, even a container garden, can help trim your budget. There are a few things to do to make your garden work.
1.       Sun-your garden will need it. Find a sunny spot in your yard, flower box, apartment rooftop, etc.  Lettuce can tolerate shade. Root vegetables do well with six hours of sunlight, but most veggies needs as much sun as they can get. 
2.       Now, you are ready to build your garden. Making a raised or container garden is often easier because you can control the soil, weeds, even ground funguses better. (Be careful where you get your supplies, some people think abandoned railroad ties would make a great raised garden, but the chemicals on the wood will end up killing your plants.)
3.       Soil-it depends on what you are growing and where you live. Blueberries need more acidy soil than my vegetables so they are all in containers with an acid soil base. (You can make your soil more acid by using sulphur usually available at hardware or home improvement stores in the garden section.) I usually mix top soil, compost with my pre-existing soil. Watch for sales because this is where you invest your most money.
4.       Watch the price of your supplies. Often you can get ordinary gardening tools and pots at yard sales. I wanted a huge pot for my blueberry bush. The cheapest I could find was $14, but I found the idea pot at a yard sale for $2.
5.       Water-your garden has to have access to water. Rain just won’t do it. Living in the Midwest, we suffered through two droughts the last two years. It is better to have a hose than a bucket because people get tired of toting the bucket and often skip watering their plants.
6.       Decide what plants you want.  Many people plant tomatoes, peppers, herbs, broccoli, beans and squash. These are easy growers. When buying seeds it is  good to buy seeds labeled disease resistant and drought resistant.  When planting seeds, realize if you can stagger your planting by planting a few seeds each week all the beans will not be ready for harvest at once.
7.       Getting rid of garden pests- about the time you decide to have a garden, a family of rabbits move in. You can plant marigolds around the edge of your garden, which offer an unpleasant smell to animals. Be aware now the rabbits may dine on your decorative plants. Use one tablespoon of hot sauce to one gallon of water and spray on plants to discourage chewing. (Do not spray this on the blossoms because it can burn them.) You can also buy granules containing fox urine at your hardware store. This makes the rabbit think a fox is patrolling the garden.
8.       Insects can be an issue too. I have almost no insects in the garden due to a three-prong approach. I have a bird feeder in my back yard and a large bird population that eat insects. I also use spent tealeaves around the plants, which repels insects. I spray the plants with insecticide soap if I spot any leaf damage or bugs.
9.       Pests from below the ground trouble gardens too, especially if they contain root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots.  My raised garden has a plywood bottom, but you can do the same with several layers of garden mesh or even newspapers. This will cut down on weeds too. Have a big garden. Plant an onion or garlic bulb between plants. The smell drives the ground dwellers away.
10.   Fungus occurs in plants that tend to hug the ground like melons and squash. You can trellis your squash to have it grow up saving space. Melons are too heavy to trellis, but you can carefully move the fruit so it does not consistently sit in a damp spot causing it to rot. You can even dry off damp areas on the melon with a paper towel too.
11.   Feeding your garden is necessary. Can’t plant it and forget it. Carefully washed crushed eggshells add calcium to the soil and spent coffee grounds around the tomato plants give the plants a caffeine jolt allowing them to grow faster. You can use plant food, but do not overuse it. Dilute properly because it can burn your plant.
12.   Pick your veggies before they are absolutely ripe. If you wait too long not only might your veggie become tough or bitter, but also your plant will start to die. Your plant has one mission to produce veggies. A completed perfect huge fruit signals the mission is done causing the plant to die. That’s why many people finish ripening their tomatoes in the window. I also pull up the herbs and repot them before winter hits to have fresh herbs inside for cooking.

At first, it sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t. I spend about 10-20 minutes a day on my garden. Most of it, is monitoring to see how things are growing. This is also an amazing opportunity to teach your children about nature too.  My garden produces for about twelve weeks saving me over $300 dollars in groceries. It is more about taste, convenience and knowing my produce isn’t harboring a disease.