Thursday, December 29, 2011

Today's best deal! 12/29/11

The Foursquare Promotion is back!


Shop Small to support small businesses! Load this offer to your synced AMEX Card: Spend $10 or more in one purchase at a participating small business and get a one-time $10 statement credit. Statement credit fulfilled by AMEX and processed within 3-5 business days. Purchase must be made within 24 hours of offer load. Limit one $10 credit across all participating merchants.

To find deals near you, launch the Foursquare App. from your phone. Click on Explore, then click on Specials. It will list up to 30 specials within 10 miles. Look for the ones marked with the AMEX logo.

To sync your AMEX card, go to

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Couponing: Basics

Coupons come in several types: the most common are Manufacturer’s coupons (MCPs) in those inserts, Catalina machines, and other sources. Then there are Restaurant/Service coupons (RC/SvC, in the ValPak envelope); Store coupons (SCs) in their flyers are often called in-ad coupons. Recently Jon picked up a Macy’s Reusable Discount Card, stiff glossy card with start and end dates. Lastly, you'll find coupons on or in the goods you buy. Stuck on a product, it's a "peelie"; inside the product I would call In-Item Coupon, such as I've found in Pampers boxes, Celestial Seasonings Tea, and Duracell batteries. P&G likes to put coupons for various products in its boxes.

Charity coupons (CCs) on purchased goods are increasingly popular. My binder has a tab for BoxTops for Education (BT4E), and I print a collection sheet, and glue the little suckers on there. When it’s full, I take it to my local elementary school, where the twins will be attending in 4 years or so. Other charities with on-product coupons include the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and Campbell’s Labels for Education. I play Scavenger Hunt in my pantry for CCs. Also, there are Codes to turn in for goods; Pampers' Gifts to Grow program puts labels in its baby products, as does Coca Cola. You enter these online and use the points to purchase goods.

Coupons come in several value groups. I break them down as:

20¢ - 49¢ Low. I’ve never seen a coupon lower than 20¢.

50¢ - 99¢ The Golden Range.

$1 - $1.50 Most coupons these days are $1, usually off two items. Occasionally stores double coupons to $1.99.

$2 – $2.50 These coupons are rare.

More than $2.50 “High dollar coupon”

BOGO —Buy One Get One Free

BOGOHOFF—Buy One Get One Half-Off

Now, which is the most valuable coupon? Most of the coupons I see are for $1/2 items, more rarely $1/1. But some stores will double coupons with a face value 99¢ or less. So an 80¢ coupon is way more valuable than the $1 one, because it’s worth $1.60 at stores which double coupons[i][i]. Occasionally stores (such as Bloom) run promotions where they double coupons to $1.99. Depending on the cost of the item, the BOGO and BOGOHOFF coupons may be High-Dollar. Some stores double coupons to 49¢, 50¢ and up doubles to $1.

Your Assignment: Get some coupon booklets. Booklets are widely available. Most freebie papers include them; these are delivered to your home once weekly, or are available at malls, libraries, and grocers. Some stores put out their own coupon books and fliers, including Target, Giant, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and CVS. Ask for these at the service counter if you do not see them around the store's entry. The most ethical way to collect some spare booklets is to only take one free paper when you pass a stack. Maybe two. Check to be sure the inserts you're after are there. Although I personally feel someone else might want the rest of the paper, this rarely turns out to be the case. I asked about this on a message board, and was overwhelmingly voted down; the consensus -- take the whole paper, not just the inserts, and recycle it.

For us, I aim for between two and six sets of (nearly) identical booklets. The booklets differ by region and source; the Post may have different ones than the Baltimore Sun, slightly, and these may be slightly different than the ones in your freebie paper, all of which may be very different from the coupons in the LA Times. When confronted with the rare but happy sight of a stack of new SC books, I take six. No more. Why six? There are four of us in my family, and I like to share with a couple of friends.

There is no need to be gluttonous about coupons. Pick a number that is roughly equivalent to the size of your family as a reasonable maximum goal. If you want extra coupons for a particular product, there are many ways to get one-offs (check out eBay and printable coupon sites).

Assignment Part B: Once you’ve collected some booklets, look through them. On the first pass, clip coupons for items you currently have in your home, or which are on your grocery list. Use Listerine? Clip that $1 off 2 ($1/2) coupon. Use Trash bags? Clip that coupon. Is “cheese” on shopping list on your fridge? Clip it. And store them in a box (I used a large Ziploc fridge container for a while.) Find Coupons for items on your shopping list? Clip them to the list, and give it a try at your next shopping trip.

Assignment Part C: Use some coupons at your next shopping trip. Part of some people’s resistance to couponing is that it smacks of food stamps. I do it with as much polish and calm as I can muster given mothering twins. It’s just another form of tender. Don’t be nervous no matter how many coupons you have, don’t worry about the people behind you (for large trips or complicated series of transactions, warn them cheerfully), and check your receipt before you leave the cashier’s station, your purchases as you load the car. I've had more than one instance where an item wasn't loaded into my cart, or the coupons didn't post right.

Always remember: It’s a penny earned.

I’ll discuss the various aspects of couponing over the next several blogs.

Basic Terms and Abbreviations:

  • $1/1, $1/2: Save one dollar off one item, one dollar off two items
  • BOGO: Buy one item get one free
  • B2GO: Buy two items get one free
  • BOGOHOFF: Buy one get one Half-off
  • Blinkies: Coupon dispensers found on store aisles
  • CAT: Catalina machine coupons print out at grocers, including Safeway and Giant
  • CC: Charity Coupon
  • CRT: Cash register tape.
  • CODES: Rewards codes found in products, such as Pampers' Gifts to Grow program
  • DND: Do not double
  • ECBs: ExtraCare Bucks, CVS
  • FAR: Free after rebate
  • IVC: Instant Value Coupon, Walgreens in-ad coupon
  • MCP: Manufacturer Coupon
  • MiR: Mail-in rebate
  • OYNO: On your next order
  • Peelie: Peel-away coupon on the product package
  • PQ: Printable coupon
  • PSA: Prices starting at
  • RC: Restaraunt Coupon
  • RRs: Register Rewards, Walgreens Catalina rewards program
  • SCs: Store Coupons
  • SCR: Single-Check Rebate, Rite Aid monthly rebates program
  • UPC: Universal product code or bar code
  • WYB: When you buy

[i][i] Giant and Safeway claim to double coupons every day. Walmart and Kmart double coupons once in a while.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Savings Idea #4: Couponing without the Crazy

For most people, buying food and homegoods (diapers!) are the third biggest expense after their mortgage and car. It’s also the expense with the most flexibility. It's easy to see why people coupon, particularly after nearly a decade-long soggy economy.

Recently I got into the show Extreme Couponing, on TLC. It’s fascinating, and it’s full of tips on how to get the most mileage out of your food budget, and stuffed with drama onscreen and off. I had shied away from coupons for years, but one recent episode asserted that you can get more than junk food. So I tried it. And it’s true.

Those couponers on TLC are… more than a little crazy. All the ones I’ve seen would have to be classified as hoarders; first they hoard coupons then they hoard a year’s worth of goods. I’m not suggesting anyone clear out the garage and install library shelving so you too can have a $20,000 stash of goods bought at less than wholesale. But I do know after 5 week’s research and shopping that you can easily save 30-60% off items for which you have coupons, and here and there you can get an item free. Once I've had the store pay me to take an item home (they accepted a $1/2 coupon for a set of items, one of which turned out to be free at transaction's end; they paid me 50 cents to take it home).

According to the USDA, a family of four with children under 5-years-old spend $800 to $1000 monthly on food. Even on a thrifty plan, they spend $520 a month. With coupons and careful shopping, anyone, no matter their spending level, should be able to cut 30% off their grocers’ bill. In a week. Note that $800 a month x 30% saved = $240 a month saved, or about $3,000 a year. This seems like reasonable couponing to me. My goal is not to be an Extremist, but a Zen Couponer; if you rarely use coupons, consider yourself labeled: Dabbler.

The reason the Extreme Couponers on TLC attract attention is that they go to great – sometimes illegal – lengths to acquire coupons and cheap or free products. The illegal methods are anecdotally interesting, and include a method of using coupons for products other than those intended (coupon fraud resulted in a change in the UPC codes on coupons, to tie them to the intended items). Suffice it to say that trespassing and stealing your neighbor’s purchased subscription are illegal (criminal trespass and petty theft), as is buying coupons (which constitutes fraud in the coupon’s fine print). Dumpster diving may be illegal in your area. Certainly it's gross, and extreme.

Here’s the problem with hoarding coupons: it’s difficult to come by dozens of coupons for the same item, and pair them with the right deal before they expire. I’ve been clipping coupons since late October. The coupon cycle is 12 weeks. That is, most of my coupons expire Dec. 31, no matter when I clipped them. On January first, 90% of my coupons will make a very colorful ticker-tape parade for the babies' second New Year.

Before you get started, commit to Zen Couponing. To me this means having one place in my life where I exert organized control (did I mention I have twins?), and have a little fun while seeing how much I can squeeze out of a good deal for items I really want or need. Zen Couponing is fun; I do not stress over expired coupons, just let them float into the recycle bin; certainly Zen Couponers are savvy shoppers, but they are not so emotionally invested that losing out on one (or many) coupons feels like they "lost a family member", as one Extreme Couponer on TLC's show asserted. Expired coupons make fun confetti; that's all.

Zen Couponing, like many profitable hobbies, is fun, enlivening, and offers ample opportunities for rewards without the extremes reached by Extremists. Zen Couponers buy items they need whether they have a coupon or not, they do not go out of their way to make purchases they wouldn't normally make, and they maintain a small stockpile of dry goods and needful items.
I'm brand loyal. For anything that is going in (food, drink) or on (lotion, makeup, detergent) my body, I am particular. We use only Tide Free detergent, Dreft for the kids, and buy organic veggies, fruits, and meats. Every time I put the boys in something other than Pampers they get diaper rash. However, everything else is up for grabs. Toilet Tissue? Razors? Sponges? Who cares what brand of trash bag you use? You're just going to put trash in it.

In college, one of my professors (Sociology) told our class that almost any product has one of two to five manufacturers. Pick a product: TP, car, shampoo, trash bags, candy. Any product. The number of manufacturers making that product is between two and five. (Test Yourself: name more than 3 brands of anything.) Which means you're likely to find coupons for those major manufacturers' products regularly. Smaller companies, such as Earth's Best (I like their toddler foods and diapers), don't put out coupons, usually. But the large companies put out so many it's easy to create a large stockpile in just a few months.

My question is: Why would you want to?

No one needs 500 rolls of toilet paper in a basement storehouse, unless they’re running a mid-size business, or selling the excess to neighbors and eBayers. I actually wonder if many of TLC's Extremists are actually running small neighborhood stores out of their homes. It's assured no one needs 1000 razors to last them until the next big sale. A three-month supply is plenty for dry goods, a three-week supply is plenty for foods. Meat goes bad even in the freezer after 3 months. Why keep 12 years of detergent when you’ll be moving on from college in a few years? Why paint “The Joneses’ Store” on the door to your hoard of freebies? Why does the show’s announcer refer to these hoards as “minit-marts” and “in-home stores”? Hmmm.

Zen Couponing means keeping it small, manageable, organized, and still save half off goods you normally buy without devoting a room of your house to it. If you have the room for a store in your home -- a huge pantry, a large unused utility room, an empty bedroom -- go for it. Most of us would rather use the space.

The Extremists remind me of the Steven Wright joke: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Savings Idea #3: Earn by Selling

Savers are “scrappers” at heart. It’s a funny old term. Scrapper. My Granny was a scrapper. The dictionary definition is: “a person who removes or does away with scraps,” which fits nicely with my desire to reuse and recycle. It can also mean a fighter. To Granny a scrapper was someone who got down and did the work necessary for earning a living.

The consignment sales discussed last week can be money-makers for you. In 2011, I participated in two Consignment sales for our mom’s group (CAMOM), and earned serious cash for the twins’ 529 Plan. I sell books to a local reseller, and have sold off old appliances rather than letting the delivery guys haul them away (even broken ones can be recycled for cash). I have sold some small items on eBay, though it makes more sense to me to use an intermediary like I Sold It for larger items ($50+) than deal with it myself.

If your community hosts a yard sale day, join! We earned over $200 at each of our last two yard sales for scraps we didn’t want or never used: lamps, building supplies and tools, old bikes, kitchenware, working electronics, and goods NWT sell easily (more about yard selling in the spring). Consignment stores earn you the lowest percentage, but I’ve tried them. Even donations can garner your extra bucks back in tax breaks, but keep careful records.

Scrappers know nothing is scrap. Everything has some value, and it may be worth your time to sell that old appliance on Craig’s list. Have a beat up auto that hasn’t run in 10 years in your yard? Sell it for scrap and get $300 to $500 and have it hauled away free. If a contractor offers to haul off the “scrap” from a job for free, consider carefully. Those holey copper gutters you replaced, brass faucets, and ancient chandelier are composed of valuable metals. Even old wiring has copper in it which recycling centers will pay for. These will earn your contractor a profit at the local for-profit recycling center; insist he leave valuable metals behind for you to recycle into cash.

Stop lugging around those old college texts and half-read books. BookHolders has locations in MD, VA, Austin TX, Tampa FL, and Morgantown WV. Half-price books has locations in various states. Essentially, these resellers will buy your books outright, or list them online and pay you as they sell. Bookholders mails me a check when they sell something. Bookholders will store them, list them for 18 months, then donate or return them. We figure we’ve earned more than $200 since we began lugging our unwanted books to their storefront shop in College Park. Check near your local university for second-hand booksellers.

You can also find resellers for CDs and DVDs, auction houses for old furniture, jewelers who buy the vintage jewelry you never wear, and pawn shops for electronics, valuable coins, and scrap jewelry. Even Amazon will outright buy your out-of-print books on occasion.

Granny used to keep everything for 7 years; if she didn’t find a use for it, she’d pass it on to someone who did. The point is, before you trash or donate something, think creatively. Is it intrinsically valuable (made of a valuable material), or still useable (good items for Craig’s list)? Do you have a place to store items for a yard sale? Before you unload all your old goods into the donation pile, take them first to an appropriate reseller, who will buy what they want and return the rest. If you can’t sell it, or don’t want to, donate the old car to Purple Heart, books to the library, clothes and household goods to Goodwill, and take the tax write-off; for every $100 you create in taxes you get a $30 refund. Just keep careful, honest records! And enjoy the de-cluttering.

Lastly, if you have a blog, monetize it!

Monday, December 5, 2011

How to Hit a Consignment Sale. Hard.

Most people drive by a consignment sale sign and pop in to see if there is anything they like. Saavy shoppers prepare. Start by researching area consignment sales on the Internet. Check out twins’ moms groups in your area; most have biannual sales and there are two or three of everything and lots of double (and a few triple) strollers. These biannual sales usually occur in March/April and September/October. In Maryland, try the roving Totswap, which holds 2 to 3 sales annually around the State.

Second, get an advance ticket. Advance tickets are usually available for a nominal fee if you have an infant or toddler, or are pregnant, or are consigning items. (Consider joining a Mom's group that holds regular sales; by belonging to CAMOM, I get in early; by volunteering, I get in the night before!)

Third, prepare a careful list of what you actually need. I’ve attached a worksheet at the bottom to help you out. Look over their wardrobes, consider how tight their clothes are right now (you might skip a size), and think about what goods you want for their rooms.

Fourth, recognize that time is an essential element of breezing through consignment sales, so, have a clear idea of what you want before you go in, scan the aisles quickly and zero in on items that fit your needs. Note that these rules also apply to consignment stores and yard sales too.

The Plan:

  1. Leave the kids at home.
  2. Get a supply kit: Your list, 3x3 Post-its, a marker, a measuring tape, cell phone, and a checkbook or cash.
  3. Clean out your car. With multiples, I am always lugging around two car seats and a double stroller. These eat up most of the space in my roomy Prius. Leave them with the kids.
  4. Make a list of items you absolutely need, with dollar figures and numbers to buy, and stick to it.
    Big Ticket items: Changing tables, high chairs, play yards, exersaucers, strollers, swings. Measure your space for furniture, and note the maximum available space on your list. Do NOT buy a used crib.
    Baby Care: Bottles, feeding items, blankets, sheets, nursing pillows, breastfeeding supplies.
    Clothing: Kids need pretty much the same wardrobe you do. Buy enough for 2 outfits and one pair of Pjs per day for 5 days at least. That’s 5 Pjs, 10 shirts and 10 pants/skirts (or rompers), 5 pairs of socks, two light jackets, a winter coat or bunting, a sweater, and a hat or two. Buy sizes for the next 6 months, to cover your kids until the next sale. (If you have a 6-month infant, buy two sizes ahead at least, three if your baby is growing very quickly. For older children, buy a size or two ahead.)
    Toys & books: Buy for the next 6-12 months. Consider holidays and birthdays. Get some ideas of what will be age-appropriate online. Include a maximum number of books, DVDs, and toys on your list.
  5. Research prices online, especially for big-ticket items, to avoid overpaying. Best places to research: eBay’s completed items, Amazon, Overstock, and Froogle give an idea of current low prices. Write average prices on your list. If you know your favorite stroller is $220 new, then you won’t pay $150 for a used one, but $70 is a decent deal, $40 is a steal. I try not to pay more than half the cost new, unless the item is NWT.
  6. Have a budget. Include on your list how much you want to pay for each large item, and a total for clothes and toys. Research big-ticket items new and used prices, so you won’t overpay.
  7. Strategize. Hit your most important big-ticket items first; high-price items sell the quickest because the savings are bigger and there is a smaller selection. There is usually a huge selection of clothes, so scan the racks later. If you want a big-ticket item, take the ticket off the item, and use your Post-its to put “SOLD” and your name on it. Make sure a salesperson knows it’s for you, or move it to the hold area. Head to baby care items next, because most people will still be crowding the overfilled clothing racks. Once the clothes are thinned out a bit, hit the racks before grazing along the age-appropriate toys (6-12 months older than your kid). Of course, if your primary need is for clothing and you have no big-ticket items, hit the racks first, but prepare to be elbowed.
  8. Review your purchases before checkout. This is a vital step. It’s easy to overbuy or make mistakes with all the commotion and excitement. While shopping, spend no more than 15 seconds considering basic items, no more than 5 minutes looking over big-ticket items. If you’re unsure, put it in your bag or reserve the big item; you can always put it back, but purchases at these weekend sales are final. So grab anything that fits your basic criteria for size, color, brand, and style, then find a quiet corner and go through your choices carefully—at your leisure—before you buy. Literally sit down on the floor, lay out every piece of clothing one at a time (you’ll be cleaning them anyway), and consider each carefully. Look for busted seams, fraying, buttons, zippers, fading, labels, washing instructions, pilling, hems, and price. Consider the brand name in the cost. Eyeball the size, or measure to make sure it’s larger than your kid. Your goal is to return 10% or more of your selections to the sales floor.
  9. Check large items for recalls. Either have a smartphone with you or a friend with a laptop waiting for your call. By Googling the brand and model no. of large items, you can quickly ascertain whether the item’s been recalled. I never buy recalled items, even if they’ve been repaired. It is illegal to resell recalled items, as per the CPSC website. Don’t waste your money.
  10. Don’t waste time or money on broken goods. If it’s cracked, missing parts, badly stained, or torn, it shouldn’t even be for sale. I bypass DVDs with missing labels, pop-up books with small tears, anything that looks chewed-on, or items that look ratty. Let someone else have it.
By planning ahead, sticking to your needs list, and reviewing your purchase before heading to the checkout, you'll save time and money. Happy hunting!

Sample Shopping list:



No. to Buy

Price NEW

My price

Big-ticket Items



Car Seat

High Chair


Changing Table


Play Yard

Baby Care Etc.





Nursing pillows