AT&T customers, check your plan!

Internet shopping by cell phone - concept illustrationWhen I heard last month that AT&T was dropping prices for its wireless plans, I thought our family could save a little money. I was startled to find we can save a whopping $60 a month and get a plan with twice as much data.

AT&T cut its prices to compete with T-Mobile and the pay-as-you-go companies that have been offering a lot more data for a lot less. But AT&T isn’t going to foist the savings on you–you have to seek them out. Fortunately, that’s as easy as going online to check your account (a savings offer should show up on your screen) or you can just call the carrier from your phone and ask how you can save.

I try to make it a point to call our communications providers once or twice a year to see if we can get a better deal. I wished I’d called this one a little earlier, because I was only able to backdate the changes to the beginning of last week (the start of our current billing cycle).

Changing plans does not extend your service term or add any additional termination fees, an AT&T rep assured me. So if you’re under contract to AT&T, go save some money!

Tips for a great (and affordable) road trip

Majestic Vista of the Grand Canyon at DuskMy daughter and I just got back from a 1,300-plus mile road trip so I could attend a business conference in Phoenix. Along the way we checked out Joshua Tree, Prescott, the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Montezuma’s Castle and the Tuzigoot National Monument. The trip back included stops at the Salton Sea and the amazing Living Desert zoo and botanical gardens near Palm Springs.

Her dad and I took several road trips before she was born, exploring the West and Southwest. They were among our most memorable (and cheap) vacations.

I was pleased to find road trips can still be a frugal way to travel. Our motel rooms typically cost less than $100 a night; even at the Grand Canyon’s comfortable Yavapai Lodge, we paid just $140 to sleep in two queen beds not far from the South Rim. Meals were rarely more than $20 for the two of us, and we spent less than $150 on gas thanks to my 36-mpg-plus Chevy Volt.

So here are my best tips for a memorable road trip that won’t cost a fortune:

Bring the right supplies. Snacks, breakfast makings and a cooler can save you a lot of money on the road. I bring oatmeal (which you can make in a mug, adding water heated by the motel coffee maker), peanut butter for the kiddo, fruit, milk and crackers.

Spring beats summer. At least in the West, the crowds tend to be thinner and the weather less scorching. Since schools schedule their spring breaks at different times, you’re not traveling at the same time as every other family in the freakin’ universe.

Use Yelp. Or TripAdvisor. I found good, affordable places to stay and eat thanks to user reviews. The best find was The Views Inn in Sedona, a clean, comfortable spot with a nice breakfast and an eager-to-please manager. Being willing to stay on the outskirts of town rather than in the center can save you $100 or more a night (or $200, when it comes to Palm Springs in high season).

Ask the locals. Yelp is also good for finding great cheap eats, but asking locals for their recommendations is a great way to start a conversation.

Give the kid a camera. We figured out years ago that our daughter stays much more engaged when she can capture what she’s seeing. Yes, she winds up with 16 pictures of lizards scuttling through the desert, but so what? I have many, many more of her grinning in front of various national monuments.

Catch the ranger talks. I didn’t think “Men, Mules & Mining” at the Grand Canyon would be particularly riveting, but I was so wrong. The stories and accompanying slides were fascinating. So was the geology talk the next day at the Yavapai Museum of Geology. Most of the rangers we encountered were good story-tellers and great about keeping kids engaged.

Set limits on your driving time. When our daughter was an infant or a toddler, driving four hours a day was a lot. Now she can tolerate more, but I found myself pretty weary at the end of an 8-hour travel day. Which may explain why I blearily clipped a dead elk some other unfortunate driver had previously killed on the road to the Grand Canyon. No damage to us or the car; wish I could say the same for the poor elk. In any case, next time I’ll probably limit drives to four hours, tops.

Download an audio book. There are only so many rounds of 20 Questions an adult can, or should, play. Fortunately, we had the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy to keep our minds occupied for much of the trip home. Your local library has tons of audio books you can borrow (in CD version or via digital downloads).

Bring emergency supplies and tools. We never needed the water or trail mix I always pack in the trunk, but I always feel better knowing they’re there.

3 steps to less money stress in 2014

PoiseIf you’re stressing about holiday bills and other year-end expenses, the following suggestions might help you have a better 2014:

Try a no-spend month. The first time I led a “no spend” experiment at MSN nearly a decade ago, readers reported saving hundreds of dollars. But the bigger benefit was their increased awareness at how often they buy stuff unnecessarily—because they were bored or stressed or simply didn’t take the time to find a spend-free alternative.

The rules for a no-spend month are pretty flexible, but generally you stick to buying only essentials. For us, that means replacing the milk or toilet paper or anything else we’re about to run out of, but otherwise making meals out of what we already have stocked. We put on temporary hold any eating out, trips to the movies and shopping trips; plus I stay away from deal sites for a month. I’ve even adapted the rules to deal with business travel, since I often have a trip or two planned during the month: I spend if it’s a legitimate business expense, such as meals or lodging; otherwise, I make do.

Set up savings buckets. Think about the year ahead and the big, non-monthly expenses you’ll face. For us, that typically means property taxes in April and December; vacation expenses in March (spring break) and August; back-to-school shopping in July; life insurance premiums in October and holiday costs in November and December. Divide each expense by the number of paychecks you have until the cost is incurred, and start putting that much aside each payday in a designated bank account. (Most online banks allow you to set up designated “subaccounts” to keep the money separated.) Once the event is paid for, adjust your transfers to reflect the remaining period until the expense rolls around again. For example: you have three months, or about six paychecks, to save for a spring break trip. If you expect to spend $3,000, you’d need to put aside $1,000 a month or $500 a paycheck. Starting in April, you’d adjust the transfers to reflect the fact you have 12 months to pay for the next trip, so you’d put aside $250 a month or $125 per paycheck.

Obviously, savings buckets work when you’re not living paycheck-to-paycheck. If you’re spending every dime you make on monthly expenses, you won’t have anything left over for the inevitable extra expenses that come along. If that describes your situation, read “Why you need $500 in the bank” to start.

Drop one bad habit. We’ve all got them. A lot of them cost money and some are bad for our health to boot, like smoking, drinking too much or eating junk food. Whatever your vice, consider kicking the habit, or at least doing without it for a month and seeing what that does for your bank account (and your body).

It’s all about balance: balancing our desire to live for today with the needs to pay off the past (debt) and provide for the future (savings). Incorporating all three goals in our financial plans can help us achieve the balanced, less-stressed life we want.

Zero waste: our progress so far

Garbage dumpA few weeks ago I wrote about how the “zero waste” movement had inspired me to look for ways to cut back on the garbage our family generated. I’m not aiming to eliminate all the waste. I’m looking for ways to be a bit gentler on the planet while, hopefully, saving money and not adding inordinately to my workload. Turns out there are plenty of ways to do that.

Here’s what has happened so far:

The composter’s in place. I bought this beauty for $20 from the City of Los Angeles, and got a worm bin for an additional $5. (The worm bin is basically a plastic tote with a few holes drilled in the top.) Then I bought an attractive little bin to sit on my countertop for another $20. Nope, the little bin wasn’t at all necessary, but it’s easier to use than the large plastic peanut butter jar with a screw-top lid it replaced…and it looks a heck of a lot better sitting out in the open. My husband’s an artist, and he’s taught me to consider aesthetics at least occasionally.

The little bin holds about 12 cups of food scraps, vegetable peels and other kitchen waste, and I empty it into the composter at least every other day. That’s a lot of garbage being redirected to a better use.

This is also getting me to think more about ways to cut back on kitchen waste, particularly on food that’s not getting eaten. That’s meant more consistent meal planning and using up leftovers, which helps reduce our grocery bill.

The reusables are getting used. I bought a reusable plastic cup with lid and straw from Starbucks and keep it in the car along with a commuter mug. So far, all the places I’ve asked—Jamba Juice, coffee joints, even fast food restaurants—have been fine with letting me use my own cup instead of one of their disposable versions. This doesn’t save me any money (well, maybe 10 cents at Starbucks) but it doesn’t cause much inconvenience, either. Ditto for the reusable shopping bags, which now live (mostly) in the car rather than scattered throughout the house.

I’m giving props to my city. I had a vague idea that Los Angeles was recycling more stuff than in the past, but the list has gotten amazingly long—way longer than in many other communities I’ve read about. In addition to the usual suspects of glass, paper, aluminum and plastic, LA recycles:

  • Styrofoam containers
  • Wire and plastic hangers
  • Drink cartons (for juice, wine, milk, heavy cream…you name it)
  • Plastic bags (including grocery and dry-cleaning bags)
  • Aerosol cans (with the plastic tops removed)lastic toys
  • Plastic toys
  • All aluminum, tin, metal and bi-metal cans
  • Clean aluminum foil
  • Clean film plastic

I’m still looking for ways to reduce the volume of what we discard (more on that in a later post), but for right now I’m pleased that a lot more stuff can go into the blue recycling bin and a lot less into the black trash bin. Again, no big savings that I can see, but also no inconvenience encountered.

If you’ve found ways to reduce waste and save money, I’d love to hear about them!


Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

School Kids DiversitySaving on back-to-school shopping, tool to make managing your money easier, and what you need to do financially when your marriage comes to an end.

Be Smart on Back-to-School Shopping
How to fill their backpacks without emptying your wallet.

8 Money Tools You Should Try
8 tools to make managing your money much easier.

How To Reduce Your Debts Without Spending Unnecessarily
You shouldn’t have spend money to get out of debt.

Save Your Way to $1 Million Dollars
It might be easier than you think!

We’re Getting A Divorce, Now What?
Ways to protect yourself financially when your marriage comes to its end.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailAdvice on how to hire a contractor, how not to waste your summer vacation money on AMT fees, and what to do when you realize someone has hacked your email.

Top 8 Pro Tips on Hiring a Contractor
Home renovations can be much less stressful with the right contractor.

Save Money on Summer Travel by Avoiding ATM Fees
How not to waste your souvenir money on ATM fees.

9 Things to Do When Your Email is Hacked
Panicking is not one of them.

9 Ways to Save on Flights
How not to waste the aforementioned souvenir money on plane tickets.

Do Women Over 50 Need Life Insurance?
The pros and cons of purchasing a policy after 50.

Is moving in with Mom unfair?

Dear Liz: I just read your reply to the woman who was struggling to make ends meet with her part-time job. She was wondering whether she should sell her house and move in with her mother. I couldn’t get to my computer fast enough to ask you how on Earth you can recommend with a clear conscience that someone move back in with a parent because she can’t pay her bills.

Why should she be able to mooch off Mom and expect her to take her Social Security check to pick up the slack? I was in basically the same situation when I was 39, except that I had three kids and my ex passed away within a week of our divorce, so I got no child support. I still managed to find a full-time job, maybe not the job of my dreams, but it paid well and allowed me to keep the house and continue to raise the kids. I built up a good retirement, which I felt I had earned and was enjoying very much, until my adult son went through a bad divorce and “temporarily” moved himself back into my home.

I’ve tried to help him get back on his feet and moving again, but so far all that has happened is my credit cards are getting out of control, my home equity line of credit is maxed out, my property has been damaged, and my life is now miserable, as I share my once-lovely home with an ungrateful jerk, his girlfriend and three cats. I can’t figure out how to get him out, and I can see no end in sight. I’m not saying this woman would do the same, but it’s still not fair to expect her mom’s life to be disrupted, no matter how nice the lady is.

Answer: The other reader was considering going back to school to get training that would qualify her for a full-time job. Selling her home and moving in with her mother would allow her to keep her current part-time job while she went to school. There was no suggestion that Mom would pick up her bills — only that she would share her home for a finite period.

So the other reader’s situation probably isn’t like yours. But perhaps it’s easier to get mad at a stranger than to acknowledge that you helped create this mess and you’re the only one who can fix it.

Schedule a meeting with an attorney familiar with landlord-tenant laws in your state so you’ll understand the best way to evict your freeloader. Then do.

Perhaps your parents did a better job of setting boundaries with you than you did with your son, but it’s not too late to reclaim your retirement, your house and your life.

Are you ready for a “zero waste” lifestyle?

Garbage BoatMost of what we buy or consume requires trade-offs. When it comes to some of the most important features–convenience, thrift and environmental friendliness—we often settle for one or two out of three.

A book and a few Web sites devoted to the “zero waste” movement have convinced me to try a little harder on the third count.

At first I was skeptical of claims that the typical American produces more than four pounds of garbage a day. Just observing our household patterns, though, convinced me that we’re generating a lot more trash than I thought. And too much of that trash either wasn’t being recycled or couldn’t be recycled. (We’re not alone…I found this rubbish map from the Economist showing the U.S. and Norway, of all places, are tops at producing trash.)

I’m not ready to go to some of the lengths that the truly devoted advocate to reduce our trash to what would fit in a Kleenex box.  But we’re taking a few baby steps:

We’re finally getting a composter. We composted on the farm where I grew up, but it was a pretty simple chore. Compostable food scraps went into a bucket Mom kept under the sink. Every few days it was my job to take the bucket and a shovel to the garden to bury the scraps. They disappeared almost magically. We never turned up an eggshell or coffee filter later on. The small lot we live on now doesn’t allow that kind of “lazy composting,” but the city of Los Angeles offers a $20 composter I’m going to try.

I’m remembering to take my reusable bags to the store. They’re way better than the flimsy plastic bags grocery stores provide (and that LA is about to ban). But I managed to ignore that until a lovely, expensive bottle of olive oil fell out of tear in one of those flimsies and shattered on our driveway. Now my groceries come home in strong, resilient, reusable totes that don’t let the contents roll all over my car.

I’m thinking about packaging before I buy. There’s usually a choice between recyclable and not. Surprisingly often these days, you don’t have to pay more for the greener option. This extends to fast food outlets. Carl’s Jr., a favorite burger chain here, wraps its food in paper and cardboard. McDonalds, by contrast, continues to use Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic. The purists would bring their own plates, cups and cloth napkins to a fast food joint, or avoid such restaurants altogether, but for now I’m content to pick Carl’s.

We just had an almost-zero-waste BBQ. I’d convinced myself you couldn’t have a party without filling a trash bin, but I was wrong. I made pitchers of lemonade and cucumber water instead of providing bottled water. We used cloth napkins, regular cutlery, and real plates and glasses for the most part. The plastic cups for the kids were recyclable (as were the beer and wine bottles). I even managed to skip the Styrofoam trays that usually accompany meat: We bought some lovely tri-tip roasts from a local butcher, who wrapped them in paper. At the end of the night, the only thing that went into the trash were the hot dog wrappers. It was fun, and the cleanup wasn’t that hard.

Some resources if you’re interested in learning more:

The Zero-Waste Lifestyle: Live Well by Throwing Away Less” is a book by Amy Korst that suggests ways to reduce, reuse and recycle that range from the easy (like remembering those tote bags!) to the advanced (Diva Cups, anyone?).

Zero Waste Home is the blog of Bea Johnson, who wrote a book by the same name. I especially like the posts where she talks about zero waste and raising kids.

The Nonconsumer Advocate is a perfectly delightful Portlandian named Katy Wolk-Stanley who describes herself as a “library patron, leftovers technician, Goodwill enthusiast, utility bill scholar, labor and delivery nurse, laundry hanger-upper, mother and citizen.” Her commentary about some of her more absurd Goodwill finds—found under the heading “Goodwill, Badwill, Questionable-Will”—are particularly hilarious.


Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

iStock_000016540552XSmallWhat 20-somethings can learn financially from their elders, how much that adorable new baby is going to cost you, and why the more you know could mean the more you spend.

7 Key Money Lessons for 20-Somethings
Old-school money habits can help the new school financially.

Raising Baby: Just How Much Does it Cost?
So very cute and so very expensive.

Same-Sex Couples Face New Financial-Future – and Opportunities
What same-sex couples should focus on financially now that DOMA is done.

When Informed Shopping is Dumb Shopping
How more information can lead to dumber purchases.

How Credit Card Companies Spot Fraud Before You Do
Credit card companies are tracking your spending patterns in order to prevent fraud.

Friday’s need-to-know money news

HertzThe best place to rent a car for your summer road trip, six surprises that could ruin your retirement and how baby boomers can keep their identities safe both online and off.

The Best Car Rental Agency in America
Before you hit the road this summer, find out who has the best rental policies.

Insider Shopping Tips From a Grocery Store Cashier
How to get more for your dollar at the supermarket.

Don’t Let These Six Surprises Ruin Your Retirement
Rule No. 1: Expect the Unexpected

Homeowner Tax Breaks Not as Great as You Think
Tax breaks always sound good, but they don’t always pay off.

How Boomers Can Keep Their Identities Safe
Simple tips to protect your identity.