Thursday, June 25, 2015

Get Your Money Back

Get Your Money Back - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Living Large equates to living well within your means while thoroughly enjoying those thing in life that you love.  Making spending choices requires thought and consideration.  Once you've made a purchase, don't be afraid to change your mind.  When your money is on the line, you should be absolutely certain it's well spent. Whether its simply the wrong choice or an inferior product or service, don't be shy about asking for a refund.

Yes a return usually requires the extra step of contacting, visiting, or shipping items back to the company of origin, which keeps many from requesting a refund, but protecting your hard-earned resources is worth the effort in my book.  Sometimes you don't realize your purchase wasn't sound until well after the specified return timeline. Don't consider your money gone. It can often still be recouped. Case in point is my recent Quicken experience.

Spending within the boundaries of your income requires you to self-monitor, which starts with budgeting.  My long standing software choice for organizing my personal finances on a PC has been Quicken for Windows, made by Intuit.
Get Your Money Back - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder

As a PC owner, I've relied on Quicken for over a decade to accurately help me track, budget, and simplify my finances. Options such as manual entry or automatic downloads from financial institutions, quick pictures or detailed reports of current or projected financial status, and payment reminders or automatic entry make it super customizable.  While I still recommend Quicken wholeheartedly for PC users, my purchase of Quicken for Mac proved so substandard to its PC counterpart, that I don't even think there should be a charge for it.

I argued this point with Intuit recently and received a full refund of my purchase price, well outside of the 60 day refund period.  It took me 20 minutes to draft the letter, 5 minutes to research the address of the corporate office and a forever stamp and walk to the mailbox to process.  Completely worth the time and energy, not only for the actual money restored to me for an incompetent product, but in this case, to have my complaints and feedback ingested by the source.

If you dropped three Andrew Jacksons out of your pocket while walking, you'd take the time to zig zag back on your route to look for them in the name of being a decent steward of your money.  Do the same with your purchases.  If the product or service is not what you want, get your money back.  Otherwise you're throwing money away.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When to Skimp and When to Spend

 L'Artiste Spring Step Shoes
When you practice living within your means while wholeheartedly enjoying those things in life that are important to you, it forces you to identify your own priorities.  Living Large means making judgement calls on your personal expenses, based on those considerations. 

Financial priorities change throughout our lives.  For example, taking care of myself, on the inside and out, has always been important to me.  Skin and hair has always been a forerunner in personal care.  At certain points in my life the best I could afford was a daily double dosing of soap and water and a little store-bought moisturizer on the face and a free or discounted cut or color, sometimes as a hair model, but always at a top-notch salon, similar those offered at SalonApprentice.  Today I spend top dollar for Arbonne facial products and haircuts from Gia at Charles Ifergan, as the game has changed slightly.  Yes, I make more money than I did twenty years ago, but more importantly, I’ve learned how to skimp on other things that don’t hold as much weight for me, like name brand clothes, speciality groceries, and designer furniture in order to pay face value for other things that do. 

Good shoes matter to me, from the quality, to the fit, to the comfort and durability.  I have no problem whatsoever dropping a Franklin and a half on a pair of good shoes.  In fact, I do it with enthusiasm, as my investment saves me money in the long run in replacement value, as most of the shoes I buy last 5-10 years.  Dr. Martens, Steve Madden, FitFlop and Asics are on my short list when it comes to comfort and durability.

A new brand I’ve come to adore is Sping Step Shoes.  Not only do they have the word comfort in their tagline, but their style options are unique.  Looking through Spring/Summer shoe catalog after being referred to the company by a family member who works for them, I honestly wasn’t sure I would like the shoes, as many of the styles are super bright in color and intricately floral in design, which isn’t my usual go-to in footwear.  However, once I checked out the company website and saw the shoes paired with various garments and styles, I could see the appeal.  

I chose L'Artiste by Spring Step Soatico to sample and review, as the hand-painted leather sandal’s heel measured just over 2”, which is now my daytime threshold after a recent knee surgery has left my normal 3-4” everyday platforms collecting dust in the closet due to the pain they cause.  These sandals have a graduated platform that covers the entire bottom of the shoe, which is a necessity for me since it allows me to stably and comfortably walk distances of up to a few miles at a time without switching to sneakers.  The padded footbed, cushioned insole, and cork construction aid both in support and shock absorbency, while the nubbed rubber outsole, which is slightly smaller than the footprint of the entire shoe, allows for more traction and less clomp when it hits the pavement than most platform shoes.  Finally, and some may think most importantly, the flirty strappy style and phenomenal color combination, deep fuschia-purple and various shades of camel, turns heads and elicits compliments every time I wear them.

When to Skimp and When to Spend - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
I truly feel like I’ve hit the jackpot by being offered the courtesy of a test-drive on these sandals in exchange for an honest written review!  I have worn these warm weather shoes to death, tromping through all sorts of weather, terrain, and temperatures (I live in Chicago you know!), yet the leather straps have held their tension and the sturdy soles still look brand new.  I’m pumped to have a new shoe company to rely on for quality and comfort. 

You can hit the motherlode too, as Spring Step is giving away a free pair of L'Artiste sandals to one lucky ParentUnplugged winner.  Ride out the summer in style and comfort; enter below to win.

Required disclosure:  Spring Step will provide one randomly selected winner a pair of sandals, valued at $89.99  All opinions are my own.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

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, and 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?