Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Living Large in the Summer


Living Large in the Summer - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
Montrose Beach Volleyball Court
For someone like me, summer is the best time of the year.  Not only is the weather conducive to hanging outside 24/7 and the days are longer so you can fit more activities in, but it’s the easiest season to save money while still having fun.

Winter is tough, because if you’re watching your wallet by foregoing dining out, pricey movies, and paid events, inclimate weather may keep you stuck inside and potentially isolated.  Spring and fall fare better on the penny pinching scale, as you can at least more easily incorporate outdoor transportation such as walking, biking, or even waiting comfortably for the bus or train, when it comes to getting to and from fun events or activities.  Summer, on the other hand, offers a plethora of opportunity for fun in the sun on the cheap.  Check out these no-brainers for enjoying those things in life that are important to you while living comfortably within your means.
  • Put your gym membership on hold and get your fit on outdoors.  Exercise on your own or get a group together for community sweat.  You could save $20-$100 month on club dues alone.
  • Forego the cabs, UberX, cars, and public transportation and walk, run, skate, scoot, or bike to and from social outings.  Commute with your own legs for work also, and you could be saving $5-$50 per day.
  • Attend free organized events that interest you and keep a cool head when it comes to spending once you get there.  Many festivals and parties will suggest a donation of X dollars for entrance, but it’s just that, a suggestion.  There is not requirement to pay a dime.  Plan ahead by packing your own snacks/drinks if you want to go the extra mile and spend nothing at all, which is my preference.  
    Living Large in the Summer - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
    Andersonville Midsommarfest with own food and drink
  • Engage in your city’s free daily offerings.  In Chicago, I like to visit the free Lincoln Park Zoo and Conservatory with my kids, people watch by the hour at Navy Pier or Mag Mile, swim and play at the free park district beaches and pools, and attend free concerts and dance lessons at Millennium Park.  Investigate what your city’s offerings and get going!
  • When dining out, choose BYOB establishments.  Depending on your alcoholic intake preference, liquor can account for up to half of your tab.  A beer averages $6 at a restaurant, while you can usually buy the same quantity and take a few with you for less than $1.50 per beverage.
    Living Large in the Summer - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
    Lincoln Park Conservatory Garden Picnic
  • Lose the expensive organized sports, activities, and shows, and instead engage with your family one-on-one.  Take an extended family walk or bike ride to a new area or neighborhood, grill outdoors for meals, hit the outdoor courts for a game of tennis, basketball, or volleyball, work together in the garden or on an outdoor project, or build a campfire outdoors and tell ghost stories.
  • Get together with friends and plan events at free outdoor locations instead of restaurants, bars, or other venues.  Sit on the stoop with neighbors, meet friends at parks and public gathering places, and invite others over for dinner or drinks on the patio or yard.
There is no reason to overspend in the summer.  Use common sense when it comes to spending, plan ahead by researching free offerings in your area, and organize your outings.  How much can you set aside this summer while still having a ball?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Free Cone Day at Haagen-Dazs

I simply cannot pass up the 'FREE' in Free Cone Day at Haagen-Dazs without passing it on.  Today from 4-8pm, stop by any US Haagen-Dazs store for a free kiddie-sized cone per person, no purchase required.

Here in Chicago, looks like you're confined to the 'burbs today in either Naperville, Rosemont, or Lincolnwood.  If you're out that direction or live there, make sure to stop by for your cool sweet treat this afternoon.  Anywhere else in the US, click here for a list of store locations.

Here's the deal, go in, get your free ice cream, and hit it out the door.  Don't upgrade to a larger size or buy another treat or get a pint to take home.  Just grab and go for it to be truly FREE.  Spending money at a free offering defeats the entire purpose.  Living Large is engrained in my makeup.  Simply practice living well within your means while wholeheartedly enjoying those things in life that you love, and you too can be Living Large and enjoying Easy Street too!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Traveling on the Cheap

ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder - Travel on the Cheap
Rental Bike in Paris, Courtesy of The Alternative Consumer
Love to travel but hate how much money you blow every time you go out of town?  You don’t have to spend tons of money to enjoy jet-setting.

When it comes to flights, buying your tickets 30 days early seems fair, but CheapAir has concluded that if you buy exactly 47 days in advance, you’ll likely be getting the best rate for your trip.  Scouring at the last minute for trips to anywhere can be cost-savings as well.  Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays are usually the most cost-effective days to fly, so start there.  Subscribe to your favorite airline or travel site alerts so you can be advised when flights are on sale for specific destinations or last minute discounts are offered.  

Luggage fees can add up.  If you can choose an airline that allows free checked bags, do it.  If not, check the size requirements and bag fees before booking, as $20 versus $50 per checked or carry-on bag can make a huge difference in your transportation expense.  Become a master packer and work with just a carry-on to avoid fees altogether, as most airlines still allow 1 carry-on for free.

Save money on lodging by rate shopping and check out all the hidden fees.  $250/night vs. $150/night can seem like a savings unless you forgot to add in the hotel tax, entertainment fee or local sales tax, which is some locations can skyrocket upwards of 20% per day.  Use the regular sites like Orbitz, booking.com and hotels.com for comparison purposes, but don’t forget to call the hotel directly, not just the 800#, as in many cases the best rates come directly from the business.  If you’ve got time, or if the hunt is part of the fun, wait till you arrive and go door-to-door, where I’ve experienced savings as much as 35% less than published rates.  Don’t want to arrive without lodging, but can wait for the best rate, download the Hotel Tonight app which allows you to books last-minute rooms for same day and next day, with an average savings of $25/night.  Use promo code HT30 after registering, and receive $30 off of your first booking if spending over $100.

Avoid tourist traps by avoiding hotels altogether and rent a house, condo, or apartment on Vacation Rentals By Owner or Airbnb,  Most places have a partial or full kitchen, which lends to buying groceries and cooking or preparing at least some food ‘at home’ instead of dining out every meal.  Take it one step further and ask to stay with a friend, relative, or acquaintance in the area where you want to visit.  You could take that lodging money and either save it, or re-appropriate it to other vacation expenses such as entertainment, and still have plenty left to buy a nice thank you gift or meal for your host!

Once you arrive at your destination consider alternative options to mainstream traveling habits to save money.  Walk, take the bus or train, rent a by-the-hour bicycle, or use an Uber to get to and from locations, including the airport, in your destination city instead of taking expensive cabs or renting a car that requires additional overhead expenses like fuel and parking fees.  


While there’s hundreds of ‘tricks’ to saving money and stretching your dollars when on vacation, traveling on the cheap is best achieved by using good common sense.  Research, plan, and budget your trip in advance if possible, then stick to your guns!  Save the money in advance that you plan on spending during your trip.  Take cash or travelers checks to spend instead of a debit card, as you will naturally stay within your budget, as once the cash is gone, you’re done spending.  Make smart decisions on the fly regarding expenses.  And whatever you do, don’t  use evil credit cards to finance a vacation you can’t afford. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Time Alone Makes Time Together Better

Time Alone - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
I am a poster child for taking time for myself.  As a child chit chatter and showoff entertainer, I needed downtime away from the same people I craved in order to recharge.  As a teenager, I wore the title social butterfly, but spent equal time alone listening to music, reading books, and just existing independently.  Living alone as a young adult I was Julie the cruise director when it came to mingling with others, but I treasured every single minute I got to spend alone in my apartment.  Today as a parent and spouse, I find taking time to myself is a difficult task, yet more important than ever, as I’ve realized that I most appreciate my family, friends, co-workers and neighbors when I take regular breaks from them.  

Maybe it’s the ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ thing or maybe it’s truly a case of everything in moderation, but taking time away from the Mardi Gras of life as I know it is vital to keep my relationships in check.  A planner by nature, traditionally I schedule time out each week for myself to do the things that I love…play volleyball, watch crappy Lifetime movies, spend time with friends, read a good book, or explore a street festival.  Occasionally, though, the trials of life keep me from my alone time, and like clockwork, I turn into a downtrodden mess of a Negative Nelly, sometimes unable to even process the daily tasks I perform, or the conversations I partake in, as I’m functioning on auto-pilot.  With the all-important me-time out of whack, my relationships with my kids, wife, close friends, and sometimes even casual acquaintances, suffer.

Time Alone - ParentUnplugged - Stacy SnyderIn order to replenish my soul in these cases, I have to physically remove myself from my life, even if just for a few hours.  This week I’m in Miami.  I’m flying solo in a condo overlooking the beach.  I’ve been so strung-out with the pace of life recently that I envisioned just chilling on the balcony reading books all week, while occasionally looking out over the ocean.  Instead, I’ve filled my days with self-inflicted challenges, like bombarding as many swanky hotel pools as possible without being thrown out, and living as frugally as I can by taking public transportation, shopping for the best Happy Hour specials, and carrying a backpack full of food down the beach so I don’t have to dine out.  Other dares include testing how far I can walk on my blistered feet in flip flops before I have to amputate my feet, and entering as many cheesy surf shops as possible in search of gifts for my kids, knowing full well that I will never buy a single South Beach item.

Time Alone - ParentUnplugged - Stacy SnyderRejuvenation takes many different forms for different people.  For me, hanging at a bus stop chatting with self-proclaimed “Mr. South Beach” who’s trying to convince me that Mango’s is the only place to be if you’re anybody, works.  Getting caught in a rainstorm while riding my rented Citibike down the beach, and not caring in the least bit, is restorative.  Dining alone on Ocean Drive and watching the parade of people strutting their stuff invigorates me.  While attending a screening of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, I realize that I absolutely despise the female short films I’m watching; walking out of the theatre without watching them all makes me feel alive again. 

But best of all, seeing a picture of my kiddo with a newly missing tooth, hearing about my other kid’s ‘most excellent’ day, and listening to my wife tell me she misses me, brings me around full circle.  Just what the doctor ordered….a dose of anti-reality to bolster the appreciation for reality.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

ALDI is the Answer

ParentUnplugged - ALDI is the Answer - Stacy Snyder
I can literally think of over 100 ways to save money right this very minutes:  cutting back on discretionary expenses like dining, entertainment and vacations, bargain shopping for big-ticket items likes cars and couches, turning your thermostat down/up at night when sleeping, utilizing store coupons and reward programs for discounted prices, and reviewing your budget monthly in order to better plan your future purchases.  But the easiest day-to-day, fool-proof, no-brainer advice I can give to cut costs is to grocery shop at Aldi.

ParentUnplugged - ALDI is the Answer - Stacy SnyderI don’t mean stop by after work to grab their bacon-wrapped filet mignon 2-packs for $3.99 for a cheap steak dinner date or to run in on your way to little league to pick up pre-packaged individual granola bars for $1.79 a box.  I mean to literally shop at Aldi on a regular basis as your main grocery store.  You’ll save 30-50% compared to your regular grocery store right out of of the gate, with no coupons ever required.

I know, you’ve got a ‘but’ opposition to my suggestion.  Everyone does.
But don’t you have to pay to rent a cart there?
But I can’t buy everything there.
Bagging your own groceries is ghetto.
But they don’t have good produce.
But they don’t have the name brands I buy.

I’ve found that the dissenters, for the most part, are simply looking for an excuse to kill time while trying to really figure out why they aren’t shopping at Aldi already.  Look, if you don’t need to save money on your grocery bill or if you have limitations that keep you from going, or if you just don’t want to, it’s all good.  But if you really want or need to save money and aren’t because you’re scared of change, you’re slowing your own roll. 

Yes, you put a quarter in the cart when you walk in the door, and take the quarter back when you leave the cart.  Big whoop.  

You can’t buy everything anywhere, same as with Aldi.  They carry about 1400 of the quickest-moving grocery items, plenty to choose from if you have the slightest bit of flexibility. 

Bagging your own groceries and bringing your own bags is the same as stowing your own luggage on the airplane and pumping your own gas at the station.  It’s the way of the world.  Self-checkout is available and encouraged at most every major grocery store in the country.  

Aldi’s produce is top notch and has stricter standards than most major grocery stores, so you’re getting the freshest, ripest food around, at literally half the price of other stores.  To me, the produce is one of my favorite reasons for shopping at Aldi.  It’s fresh, it’s abundant, there’s tons of options, including organic, and I save about $25/week on produce alone in comparison to Jewel, Mariano’s, Kroger, Albertsons or Winn-Dixie!  

Aldi occasionally features some name-brand foods, but the majority of Aldi’s food is private label, which is made of the same or higher quality foods as national brands.  All you have to do is try it…the proof is in the taste.

It’s that easy.  Food is food.  Buy your food at Aldi, where it costs less.  Today I got cucumbers for $.29 each and 2 bags of baby carrots for $.49 each, a bottle of private label Prosecco for $4.99, and a 12 oz loaf of fresh gluten free bread for $3.99.  It can’t get easier than that.

ParentUnplugged - ALDI is the Answer - Stacy SnyderTake it from me, who spends under $100 for my weekly food bill for a family of 4 at Aldi.  As a family, we pack lunches every day, eat at home for dinner, and take our own snacks when we’re out and about.  The same foods used to cost me $165 at Jewel-Osco.  Or take it from my Aldi tester friend, (insert any name here, as most of my cohorts now shop at Aldi) who shops for a family of 6 on a weekly basis, traditionally spending about $250-$300/week at a large chain grocery.  When she shops at Aldi for the same food and quantity, she usually spends between $150-$200.  She has officially made the switch!

Check out her competing receipts for a review.  While not all items listed are “apples to apples” price comparisons, the few that I’ve highlighted are MAJOR price differences for the exact same sizes and ingredients.  If you save on nearly every item you buy at Aldi in comparison to your national chain grocery, how on earth could you not consider shopping there?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Taking Care of Yourself Makes You a Better Parent

Taking Care of Yourself - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
You may have the best parenting intentions in the world, to create the most caring, loving, well-rounded, independent kids in the world, but that plan will fail if you don’t take care of yourself first.  Attending to your own needs, whether they be physical, mental, social, or spiritual, is healthy.  A healthy parent will lend to healthy children, as you’ll not only be better equipped to raise your kids, but you will also be giving them an example to live by.

For some, self-care comes in the form of taking chunks of time for oneself, grabbing a massage after work, or scheduling time with the local psychotherapist for regular visits or check-ups.  For others it may look like grabbing dinner or drinks with friends sans kiddos, attending church or prayer groups, working out, or honoring a sweet tooth.  Still others nourish themselves by volunteering, guarding intimacy with a spouse or beau, or stimulating the intellect through reading, solving, or creating.  

Your sustenance is your own.  Make it a point to respect it every day for a better you, which ultimately leads to a better parent. 

In the name of self-care, I’m partnering Dallas Caramel Company for a free candy giveaway!  In caring for myself a few years ago, my wife and I high-tailed it out of Texas back to Chicago, after residing there for a dazed five years, but Rain McDermott, a native Texan and owner of the company, helped make our time there palatable with both her friendship and her sweet treats!  

With 12 unique flavors to choose from, many inspired by Rain’s love affair with Dallas and its inhabitants, each creamy, chewy caramel bite offers a sweet retreat.  While I’ve been feeding my candy whims for years with Rain’s original caramels, my favorites from the sample gift batch she just sent us are Sea Salt, Drunken Nut (Texas Whiskey & Texas Pecans), and Bacon.  Most of the caramels are gluten free and all are available online, most running $12-$15 per 1/2 pound bag.

Simply click below to enter to win a free 1-lb caramel variety bag, compliments of Dallas Caramel Company.
Required disclosure:  Dallas Caramel Company will provide one randomly selected winner the caramels, valued at $24.  All opinions are my own. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Credit Cards are Evil


Credit Cards are Evil - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
Dr. Marten boots rock when you pay cash!
Don’t use credit cards unless you have the financial means to pay the card off in full every month.  There’s no points program in the world that’s worth carrying a balance on a credit card, as the interest, which is the fee paid for the privilege of borrowing money, no matter how low, accumulates at an alarming rate.  The minimum payment calculation equation was not created with the consumer in mind, but instead leans toward bringing in the maximum amount of interest to the creditor. 
When you leave a credit card balance unpaid in its entirety by the monthly bill date, you get charged interest on the outstanding balance.  If you continue the next month without paying off the entire balance, you end up being charged additional interest on the same balance AGAIN, as well as on the interest that was added the month before!  Effectively you’re growing your balance every day you don’t pay off the full balance.  In many cases, if a balance is strung along over many years’ time, one can end up paying more interest payments than the amount of the original credit card debt.
It’s sounds simple not to use credit cards for purchases, but it’s actually quite complex when you consider that the norms in our society include borrowing liberally to leverage our purchase power, especially when it comes to education, transportation, housing, and small business.  Basically it’s financial peer pressure.
I was given the basics as a child.  I learned to make money early-on by watching my mom take odd jobs to come up with enough money to make ends meet in our household.  Not just any job, but jobs that she could complete while still attending to my sister and I, as well as all our activities, i.e. Living Large.  She worked as a part-time secretary in the mornings, and conducted market research studies on Playboy magazine readers who “just liked the articles” on weekends so she could cart me around to play practices and auditions after school.  She walked door-to-door during the daytime verifying contact information for local phone directories so that she could attend my sister’s tennis matches in the afternoons, and she secret shopped and sampled products at stores during high-traffic hours so that she could pick us up from school and take us to the counter at Kresge’s dime store for a burger at lunch occasionally.  I may have had an allowance as a child, but with my first part-time job in my early teen years, I quickly got the idea of making my own money.  I also quickly learned that I could only spend so much on clothes and candy and outings before my wallet or bank account was empty.  Those years were fun and simple when it came to money….work more or spend less if you wanted to save for something big.
Credit Cards are Evil - Stacy Snyder - ParentUnplugged
Then college came around and despite taking years of trigonometry and calculus in high school and establishing financial independence with the money I’d earned from my part-time jobs, I had never been exposed to the concept of credit and interest.  I just knew you couldn’t spend what you didn’t have…that is until I strolled through the line of credit card vendors in the commons that first week of college.  “Buy it today and pay it off later,” they flaunted as they handed me my free dorm-room-shower-caddy for opening up a revolving credit account at 21% interest.  “Establish your own credit history,” they boasted, and I was fished-in on the independence reel.  I started using the cards for little things just to use it….a movie at the 400, a pack of smokes, or a few books for school, but soon it turned into bus tickets to visit friends for the weekend, a pricey pair of Dr. Marten’s, and a tattoo to match the image.  The purchases added up and the interest began compounding; the bills started showing up at an astonishing pace.  
I’d pay this one with the little money I had at the time and hope nothing else showed up until I got my next work-study paycheck or made a few bucks typing papers for fellow classmates.  Never once did I sit down and write out a budget of what little money I was actually bringing in on my full-time student and part-time employee status or what large amounts of money I was spending in the little time I had between work and class and homework and partying.  Had I done that I might have been able to balance out the scales early in the game. I had no concept of interest. While I could easily calculate the interest rate into dollars on the balance, I didn’t get the idea that the unpaid balance left each month after the minimum payment was made would just keep getting re-penalized monthly, compounding to the balance, ultimately increasing your balance each day.  I just kept running, trying to make more money to pay more debt.  Creditors’ reminder calls started coming in as I got behind on payments and soon escalated to threats of home-visits and repossession of purchases.  While dreaming up new ways to dodge the calls and throw off the creditors provided hours of free entertainment to my roommates and me, it was actually super stressful, extremely overwhelming, and sometimes downright scary.
Ultimately I turned my personal finance situation around, but I continued to feel the social pressure of leveraging my purchase power with extended credit well into my 30’s.  I was challenged to “stretch” on the mortgage of our properties by lenders and “trade up” on the car for just an extra hundred a month, and even to finance my cell phone for mere pennies extra each month.  I look back now and can’t believe the thousands of dollars I wasted on unnecessary interest payments because of the need for status and instant gratification. 
Had I not calculated my interest expenses in a budget, though, I might not have come to my senses enough to stop using credit cards unless I can pay the balances off in full.  It all comes back to budgeting, which is part planning and part monitoring.  If you can see what you’re spending, you can see where you can cut expenses, and high interest payments, which provide you with zero return, are a glaring example of what to add to the chopping block.
When it comes to purchasing, cash trumps credit cards.  Buy what's important to you, spend what you can afford, live within your means, and ix na the credit cards.   They can lead to financial disaster if not completely understood.