Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I'm Back..from Switzerland

Many of my readers have been wondering where I was this past week. The answer was in Switzerland. I went there for both work and vacation, and had limited internet access. However, the trip has inspired me to write a new series of articles on cheap travel!

I have been to a great many places for a lot less than you'd expect. People often think I am well off when they hear I am traveling yet again. The truth is, that with some diligence and hard work you can great travel deals and limit spending while abroad. Travel will never be dirt cheap, but it can be made more affordable for everyone. It is one of those luxuries that I save up for, because I think it's worth it!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Homemade Truffles

I used to think the best food related gifts were the ones purchased at fancy shops and wrapped in colorful shrink wrap with ribbons and bows. They were also the priciest. Somehow a store would arrange three cookies in a giant tin and make the entire thing look like it was full. They would also make a killer profit. The mark-up on food is usually huge. Add to that the $10-20 tacked on for "arranging" the food items aesthetically and you have one expensive gift assortment.

Then I read Taste of Home Gifts From the Country Kitchen. This book made me realize that not only could I make those fancy edibles by myself I could also arrange them beautifully. Plus I could give twice the amount for a fraction of the price. Life has never been the same.

Every year, around this time, we give our annual gift of homemade truffles to friends and family. The are super easy and super delicious.

Homemade Truffles:
12 oz. semisweet chocolate chips
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 Tbs. of your favorite extract (almond, orange, peppermint etc.)

White chocolate or candy melts
crushed nuts

Melt the chocolate chips either in a double boiler or in the microwave. To properly melt chocolate in the microwave place it in a Pyrex dish and microwave it for 15 seconds. Stir the chocolate and repeat the 15 second microwave pulses until it is smooth. Alternating short pulses of microwave time with stirring is crucial to avoid burning the chocolate.

Once the chocolate is melted, stir in the condensed milk and extract. Chill the mixture in the fridge for half an hour or until it starts to harden. Shape the chocolate by rolling it into balls and placing them on wax paper to dry for several hours. Store in the fridge.

Optional tips for fancier truffles:
Take your shaped truffles, use a toothpick to pick them up and dip them in melted white chocolate or white candy melts. I like to sprinkle crushed nuts on top of almond flavored truffles and press a mint leaf on top of peppermint truffle. You can drizzle different candy melt colors or melted chocolate , or grate some fruit zest over the top as well.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deal Alert: free Quaker Oatmeal Squares

This is one of my top ten favorite cereals. However it is so expensive I never buy it. Now you can send it to ten of your friends (some of whom may live in your house...) for free!

Click this link and click the "start sharing" button. You will be asked to input the email of the ten people you would like to send samples to. They will receive an email saying "Get Your Squares" to confirm they want the sample. Cereal should arrive within a few weeks.

Yet another example of free food for those who are willing to look for it.

Get Your College Education the Smart Way

This is the time of year when teenagers across America are getting their college acceptances. As they debate about which school to attend finances are often brought up. The cost of tuition at public and private colleges in 2008 was estimated at $24,000 a year by college board. It has only gone up since. And that doesn't include room and board.

Many are left wondering if this astronomical sum is worth it. Financial aid counselors are not career councilors. Their job depends on students coming to this school and shelling out exorbitant amounts of cash, making them less than ideal sources of information for young impressionable students. Parents are left in a bind, assuming schools will counselor their kids about repayment (often they do not) and assuming the future success of their child is connected to the prestige of the school he or she attends (often it does not). Students assume they have no choice but to shell out whatever cash they have and to take out loans to cover the rest.

There are other options. A smart, proactive student will instead research not only the academic rigor of various colleges but also the financial implications this decision will have on their entire life. I cannot tell you how many people struggle until they are in their 50's to pay back their hefty student debt and how many people gave up on their dreams because the heavy burden of undergraduate debt forced them to seek other jobs immediately. Think about your career goals and whether an expensive education is the best option for those goals. For some it is, for others it is not.

To get the most for your money, consider some of these tips:

1) Pick a practical major. If you want to pay off your loans, you are going to need to be employed. People who major in humanities subjects often have real trouble finding a job. A woman's studies major, for example, has limited options. Most of these option require further schooling and debt accumulation. More graduates students looking to go into academia are produced each year than there are slots to accommodate them. Acquiring a PhD is not an unemployment panacea.

Having a major in something practical can land you a job, fast. There's no need to give up your passion for American Studies or Latin. Just tack on a second major in something like accounting or physics. Yes, you read that correctly. Physics majors have some of the highest job rates post graduation. They are hired by all sorts of industries from pharmaceutical companies to wall street brokerage firms, because they are seen as high level thinkers. Most colleges charge full time students per semester not per credit, so you have nothing to lose by taking more classes, so long as you can keep up academically. You can continue to work on that great novel you proposed in your Creative Writing Thesis while your job as a math teacher pays the bills.

2) Pick the right school for you. The best educations are not always the most expensive ones. The name recognition you get from a prestigious school does not always mean you have a leg up in the job field or the graduate school admissions process. A Dance major from Harvard is going to have to audition for a job the same way a Dance major from Local Yokel University will. The better dancer is going to the job, not the one with the most student debt. Furthermore many schools that offer full scholarships actually have more challenging academic programs and better job placement, mentoring and advising than some more expenssive big name schools.

Don't get caught up in a name brand education. The right academic program, mentoring and support are more important. When you go to revisit colleges ask about student life and academics, but also about student success post graduation, internship opportunities, networking opportunities for students and career counseling. It may be that for your career name brand recognition is important, but be sure to weigh the pros and cons.

3) Look at schools with merit scholarships. Unlike "need" scholarships, merit scholarships are not based on how rich or poor your parents are. They are given to students who have high academic potential. These scholarships are an investment by the school in your future, because you are an exceptional individual. See below for a list of such programs as well as "tuition free" schools.

4) Look for outside scholarships. Don't wait for your campus scholarship office to come knocking on your door. Research potential scholarships yourself. They look great on your resume and can really help you meet the cost of education. Do not sneeze at essay contest that offer $500. How long will it take you to write that essay? half an hour? an hour? And that money can buy all your books for an entire semester or more if you shop wisely.

5) Employment is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a good thing. If you can handle a part time job during your studies, then do it. If you are studying film, go out there and get an internship in film. Any experience, even if it is working for the local wedding videographer, will be another line on your resume. Some internships even pay you. Others will qualify for college credit.

Schools with Merit Scholarship:
Macaulay Honors College: Macaulay is a program within the City University of New York school system that accepts high achieving students. Students are given a full scholarship, an opportunities fund for internship and study abroad as well as laptop computers. Students can complete their studies at any of CUNY's seven senior campuses and participate in special cross-campus seminars with other Macaulay students. The program focuses on mentoring and small classes creating a small college environment within this big university.

The Cooper Union: The Cooper Union is a school in NYC that focuses on art, architecture and engineering. Students are given a full tuition scholarships and a free dorm for the first year of school. Classes are small, hands on and students are encouraged to get experience in the field.

College of the Ozarks: This small school located in Missouri has five goals: academics, vocation, christian faith, patriotism and culture. It is named "Hard Work U" because students work in lieu of paying tuition.

Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering: This school located in Massachusetts focuses on creating the next generation of engineers. Each admitted receives a four year half tuition scholarship.

Deep Springs College:  Deep Springs is a small, all-male college located in the California desert. Students attend for two years on full tuition scholarships after which they transfer into four year universities to complete their degrees. Most go to high level programs.

Curtis Institute of Music: Located in Pennsylvania this is a specialized school for the study of music. Full tuition is scholarships are given to all students. Admissions is based solely on musical talent.

Berea College:  Berea is another Christian faith college that uses work study programs in lieu of tuition. It is located in Kentucky.

Alice Lloyd College: This small liberal arts college focuses on service to the Appalachian area in lieu of tuition.

CUNY Teacher Academy: The teacher academy is run on several CUNY campuses and focuses on creating superior math and science teachers for the NYC public school system.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WhatIPurchased with my GapCoupon

A few days ago I posted a Deal Alert about obtaining a coupon for $25 off $50 at The Gap.

I just went to the store and here is what I brought home for $25. This is doubly sweet since I had a gift certificate I had to use anyway.

The skirt and top are usually about $80. Through various in stores sales combined with my coupon they came out to $25. Including a pair of socks!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Grocery Shopping in the Big City

Food prices everywhere have gone up, but in NY city they are astronomical. Manhattan is not an island that favors the frugal food shopper. I once told friends that in the average Food Emporium, D'Agostino's and Gristedes the cost of a loaf of bread is $4.50, a small cottage cheese retails for $3.89, bananas are 79 cents a lb and sweet potatoes are 95 cents a lb. They freaked out and assumed I was lying. Sadly, I was not. Those are the LOWEST regular prices I could find for those items. While there are plans for a Wholefoods and a Fairway to open in my neighbourhood within two years, for now these stores are what I am stuck with unless I get a car or limit myself to what can be carried home on the metro. Managing to keep grocery bills low takes a lot of planning and foresight. Different strategies tend to work for different food itmes.

Vegetables and Fruit:
I tackle this issue in a multi-step fashion. For 6 months of the year I belong to a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) project. For an upfront payment I get a share of the produce from a farm in upstate NY. So from June-November I get fresh, organic vegetables straight from the farm delivered to my area. Eating with the seasons takes patience (you've got to clean every vegetable and find the occasional inch worm) and some finesse (I had so much squash in my house at one point the average person would have despaired of finding creative ways to use it). It is totally worth it. Our diet gets a huge influx of vegetable and fruit, we learn about exciting new vegetables like garlic scapes and celeriac, and the price is great for this neighborhood. To find a CSA in your neighborhood try visiting LocalHarvest. Some CSA's even give a free share to several "volunteers" who help with distribution of the produce during the season. I love this program so much I am the volunteer coordinator for my CSA despite the fact that this position comes with more work and no free food or perks. I love meeting the people and sharing a sense of community and responsibility for the food we eat.

The other 6 months of the year are the real challenge. Tricks that work for other foods do not work for produce. You can't really stock it in advance and low income areas that typically have cheap prices in their grocery stores generally have low quality produce. It would not be practical or cost effective to get on the metro every week to buy produce in some of the outer boroughs. My solution has been to buy whatever is on sale (usually wahtever is in season) and to get friendly with the people that run vegetable carts on the streetsof NY. By trying produce from several carts I was able to identify those with high quality goods. Stopping by when they get their deliveries ensures you get the freshest items. Because these vendors have very little overhead they beat grocery store prices.

Another alternative is to try frozen and canned vegetables. These can be purchased in bulk when they go on sale, and it is worth the trip to another neighborhood to take advantage of sales like the ShopRite can can sale. However, canned vegetables are often high in sodium. To eliminate most of this excess sodium wash the vegetable thoroughly before use. Canned veggies are great for soups, and baked goods. Frozen veggies work great in soups and stir fries.

Meat and Chicken:
This is a complicated item since I have special dietary requirements. However, the best thing to do is to buy these items in bulk at other boroughs, take them home and split them into portion sized packages and freeze them raw. I actually have a second freezer for this purpose. I do not pay for electricity, but if you do make sure your second freezer is energy efficient. This protects the planet and your electric bill. Some foods actually freeze really well in marinades that can then be defrosted and immediately cooked. Portioning into individual packets lets you thaw just what you need. Make sure to label items well with a sharpie and use heavy duty foil and freezer proof bags.

 There is no way to avoid purchasing milk and eggs in the area where you live or work. However, you can choose your store wisely. If you live in NYC your best bet is to go to a national chain drug store like Walgreen's. This is because prices for these staples are set on a national level not an individual one.

For cheeses, I usually purchase in bulk when I go shopping for meat and freeze. You'd be surprised how well mozarella and muenster cheese freeze. Mozzarella can be grated and then frozen in a zip-lock for convenient use. For the best price, buy large blocks and cut them into smaller pieces before freezing. I would NOT freeze Goat cheese or feta. In my area the best place for these items is Costco, if you happen to have a membership or a friend willing to take you.

Everything Else:
This strategy is going to sound mean, but generally grocery store prices are driven by afluence of the neighborhood they are located in. If you want cheap shelf stable products the best thing to do is find a poor area and go to their grocery store. I like the various stores in Harlem. Another good move is to stock up on sales at stores like Shop Rite. Since these products are shelf stable you can usually get away with making 3 or 4 bulk buying trips a year. Keep everything in air tight containers once opened to prevent spoilage and bug infestation.

In addition if you keep an eye on the circulars of those National Chain drugstores you will notice that many sale prices are also determined on a national level. When Walgreens or CVS has a sale, it's good. I buy all my flour during Walgreens baking week. Note that Duane Reed is a drug store invented for NYC and not a national brand, so their sales are usually not that remarkable.

All this sometimes means a change in cooking styles - using some odd vegetables, cooking squash 30 different ways, canning/preserving summer vegetables for later use, using cans etc. But it can be very worth it. Plus I will be posting recipes to help you!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Deal Alert: $25 off $50 at the Gap

Gap is running a promotion for 25$ off of 50$. Click this link to sign up. You will need to enter your mobile phone number.

If you are like me, and do not have a texting plan make sure to remove yourself from their text list after you receive the promotional text.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Make Money by Unloading Your Clutter

Part of my March goals is to de-clutter my apartment. Progress has been slow, since time alloted to this task is limited, but steady. I've reduced my stacks of magazines to a small pile of clippings by cutting out pages and recipes I want and throwing away the rest. The recipes are now being placed neatly into a photograph album in lieu of a box or binder. I've also given away several items like painting and gardening supplies that have been sitting around my apartment unused for more than a year.

The two main space killers in my apartment are books and clothes. I have a lot of shoes that I bought on deep discount last year. Plus I have not thrown out a shoe since freshman year of high school. This takes up a lot of shelf space, but I am loathe to throw them out. I delude myself into thinking I will find some excuse to wear them despite the fact that a few are falling apart. The time has come to face reality. Any shoe that has not been worn in a year and I do not foresee myself wearing in the near future is gong to consignment or to charity. The ones that are falling apart will finally be laid to rest.

To learn about selling your extra clothes, shoes, handbags and other clutter through consignment try this website that lets you search for consignment stores in your area or this one that let's you get rid of clothes. For a more general approach you can sell items on ebay. For baby clothes I highly recommend thredup.com where you can swap your used baby clothes for clothes in a different size.

The books are another story. I accumulated a lot of medical textbooks. Some I used, others were given to me by students who graduated and did not want to take their books along when they moved. My bookshelves are crammed with medical books, many of which I probably will never use again. I passed USMLE Step 1, so why am I keeping four different USMLE step 1 review books? I never intend to take the GRE so why am I keeping a GRE review book? Is a copy of respiratory physiology from 2004 really going to be up to date when I finally need it in 2013?

The simple solution is that these books MUST GO. However, some of them were very expensive. Others just seem too good for the landfill or recycle bin. I cannot bear to see them go. Unless, of course, they go to good homes. So here's how I am de-cluttering my textbooks guilt free and making a little money in the process.

The first option is to sell directly to customers on sites like ebay, half.com or amazon. I personally find that I get the best prices on amazon. Their commission might be a little higher, but there is no fee to list and there is no hassle of dealing with an auction. On ebay you occasionally will have a shady buyer or two who abuses the generous customer satisfaction policies. Ebay almost always sides with the customer even when gross abuse is gong on. Ebay is also hard to break into without already having good ratings. Yet, the auctions mean you sometimes get a higher price than you would with just the "buy it now" feature and Ebay is more advanced in terms of letting you set your own shipping prices. Half.com is a textbook specialty site owned by ebay. Spend some time on each site to see which user interface you like better. IN my opinion books are best sold on amazon or half.com. Ebay if for selling things like iPods.

Another option is to sell directly to students in your school. This eliminates the middle man so you keep more of your asking price and the students get a good bargain by not having to buy full price or pay shipping for a textbook. You can post a flyer on your school bulletin board or use your schools online message board or email list service. Make sure to give detailed information about the books condition. Be open to negotiation. And remember - these are your peers. Give them your honest opinion about whether or not a book will be helpful. Do not try and upsell them on books you wish you had never purchased.

Another option is to sell on a book buyback site. These sites buy books directly from you and pay for shipping. They then try and sell these books to students. The prices are generally a lot lower than what you would get selling directly to the student, but you get your money immediately and do not have to wait for a buyer. Sites to check out include Blue Rectangle, Abe Books and BookScouter which allows you to search several buyback websites at once for the best price. In fact I know several people who keep these sites on their web capable cell phones so that they can go to thrift stores and yard sales and search if the buyback price on a book is more than the thrift store price. They buy and immediately ship out those books, netting a small profit.

The profits from de-cluttering your home are not going to make your rich. But they can help ease the guilt of clearing out items you feel are still usable. Onward with the De-clutter!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Deal Alert: Free Stroller from CVS

CVS is offering a free Cosco umbrella stroller when you purchase $25 or more of baby care items.

Click Here to add stroller to cart.

Click Here to fin $25 of baby care items to add to the your cart.

For a $10 discount off $50 add another $25 of any item to your cart.

At checkout write FREESHIP in the code box to get free shipping.

New Sources of Income

If any of you write for content mills and internet sites like suite 101 or hubpages, you know that google recently changed its algorithm for displaying search results. This change has "devalued" the content on many of these sites and made them appear further down on search results. The result has a been a large decline in the traffic on these sites.

What this means is still unclear. Some site,s like Suite 101, have taken huge hits. Some writers who were earning passive income on websites like hubpages or squidoo (myself included) have seen a dip in their traffic and thus their revnue stream. What this means for the long term is unclear. Several content sites are restructuring the way they accept writers and aritcles. Others are changing their standards in the hopes of receiving a better valuation by gogle. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Good writers should still survive while the bad ones will get weeded out.

However, for those of trying to eek out an income by writing, these are uncertain times indeed. While I wait to see where the chips will fall on each individual site I an also trying to diversify the websites that I write for.

Demand studios properties, particularly livestrong.com and eHow, seem to be doing pretty well. however they are making several changes to how writers can access articles and how writers are evaluated in order to ensure their quality impresses google. I am continuing to write there, but titles have become scarce as the reorganization progresses.

My application to Wisegeek.com is ongoing. I was invited to test last week and am awaiting the results. The pay is not as god as demand studios, but right now the titles seem more abundant and easier to write.

I am continually looking for About.com jobs that fit my resume and applying for them. however About.com is notoriously slow to respond and even harder to get into.

I am also looking into generating passive income via things other than my squidoo pages. I am considering writing and eBook. I am also spending more time on this blog, because here I can control the content.

Non-web clients are another ideal way to expand and I am actively looking to recruit some. So far I got a decent lead from a work at home mom website that lead to a small gig.

Perhaps this algorithm change has been the kick int he pants we all needed tog et out there and diversify our writing portfolios.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why I Never Pay for Underwear

Victoria's Secret gives it away for free.

That may seem bizarre to you, but for some reason Victoria's Secret thinks the best way to get to you to make a purchase from them is by bringing you into their store to get your free underwear. Sometime ago I ordered a small item from Victoria's Secret - I believe it was a $5 scarf. This gave them my address and they promptly added me to their mailing list. Every couple of months they send me a coupon for a free pair of underwear. You just have to pick it up in the store. I got another one yesterday.

Also going on at Victoria's Secret right now is their Secret Rewards promotion. If you buy anything - online or in the store - you get a reward card of unknown value (ranging from $10 to $500).