ClassicCloseouts 50% Off Sale

For those of you who want work clothes or outerwear to transition into Spring, you might want to take advantage of ClassicCloseout's 50% off sale. The sale ends soon (it "ended" on Monday but was extended). There are some stellar deals.

I love trench coats, and I really like this yellow one. It was $18.99, so with the coupon it comes out to $9.50. Not bad for outerwear! I'm really tempted to get this one, but I should restrain myself (even though this is really cheap for outerwear). For the non-label-whores, there are some good-looking aviator jackets and long coats for $12.50 from ClassicCloseout's own label. There are also some nice BR twinsets at $12.50. I'm not into them (I prefer crisp dress shirts), but I know a lot of people are.

Not to be outdone, the guys section has good sales items too. Lots of polos, sweaters, and dress shirts from Old Navy, DKNY, Dockers, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, and BR, most of which are under $20. Now you've got no excuses for not looking sharp.


Lean and Crafty Look

I am not doing anything productive today. I wrote 15 pages of a 20-page appellate brief in 7 hours yesterday...that's roughly 2 pages per hour (a new record!) I slept in, ate a microwavable lunch, and bought a pair of earrings from Etsy.

What's Etsy?

If you haven't heard about it, Etsy is the craftster's "buy it now" version of eBay--you leave feedback, you can pay by PayPal, but there's no bidding. I'm really turned off by the hypercommercialism that is fashion these days, with all the logo accessories and the "it" bags carried by everyone on the street just because "Jessica" has one. I want some unique things, but not the exorbitant prices. Sometimes I make stuff, but I'm limited in what I can do because I have neither time nor a sewing machine. However, I'm also not willing to pay $8 shipping for something that costs $2 (this happens a lot on eBay).

That's why I like Etsy so much. A lot of craftspeople make cool jewelry and bags, among other things (like clothes, furniture, objet d'art). There's also a small section of vintage stuff. I'm really digging the jewelry section, since a nice pair of one-of-a-kind earrings can cost as little as $3-5 (some really simple but still really cute ones are as little as a dollar), and shipping is often less than a dollar. Lots of hand-made pendants are really unique and cheap, but I'm trying to keep myself from going shopping-crazy again. I recently bought this cute bag for $5, with $4 of shipping, whch isn't bad considering it's fairly unique.


Rx samples = $100+ savings

My medical woes are starting to stack up. First I had to argue with insurance company and medical group reps, then my bills start to come in, and today I learned I'll have to pay full price ($107) for a 30-day supply of a brand name drug because there are no generics for it. Since my insurance has a $750 brand name deductible, I'll have to suck it up. Looks like I'll be paying around $250 for this bout of illness, so I really hope this round of drugs will make me feel all better. Could have been a lot worse without insurance, but still, I really can't afford to spend any more money. This means I'll have to find a summer job that pays instead of working for the common good (which pays me in lots of satisfaction but no cash). Additionally, shopping is off-limits in the months ahead =(.

What I should have done was ask my doctor for samples of this new prescription. She gave me a month's worth of samples last time (thus saving me $100+ at no cost to herself), so I figured she didn't offer this time because she didn't have any. But who knows? Doctors are busy and don't always remember these things.

Hopefully someone can learn from my costly mistake.

Suddenly, CA state legislators (or their minions) are your friends...

...in the sense that they can save you money at Tahoe resorts. I got a call from a friend who works for an assemblywoman in Sacramento, and in the midst of our conversation, he mentioned that there's a deal for the big wigs and their employees. If I was able to go skiing in March, he could have gotten tickets to the Northstar resort for me at $15 a day for a 3-day pass! That's a pretty huge chunk off the $63/day price tag! Of course, you have to buy the tickets a week or so in advance. I'm murky on the full details, but what little I heard sounds pretty good to me.

I doubt that very many of us have friends in high places, but if you renounce your statement that all politicians are evil (or be willing to make a deal with the devil), you might be able to save a huge wad of cash.


REI: Great Clearance Gear, Great Discounted Lift Tickets

When I went skiing this weekend, I had no plans to do any shopping. However, that all changed when we made a pit stop at REI in Sacramento. We went there primarily to get discounted lift tickets for one Tahoe resort (another friend had gotten tickets for another Tahoe resort earlier). The discounted prices are available only to those with REI memberships (which costs money), but the $7-14 off for each resort (depending on where you're going) is well worth it.

On the shopping side of things, REI was having a winter clearance sale, with an additional 50% off their clearance merchandise ending in $.83. Even non-clearance items were 25-50% off. You know how women are so happy to find the last pair of discounted shoes in their size? Well, I got really excited over a pair of climbing shoes, as if they were Manolos. Normally the shoes run around $90 and up, and even when they're on clearance, they rarely get marked down to $50 and below (my first pair was around $50). I got mine for $30! It costs about that much to get shoes resoled, so why not just buy a whole new pair instead? It didn't bother me that they were a discontinued line, since 2 of my friends have that pair of shoes, I have a pair of the same brand, and all 3 of us are happy with our shoes.

If you're a skier or snowboarder, you might be able to find good boots at a great price. Prices are likely to go down even more in the next month or two, just in time for a Spring Break trip (for you college kids out there).

Footnote: I think the sale I went to was a President's Day sale, but I'm sure things will still be on clearance after that. Maybe the prices won't be as jawdroppingly low, but they still ain't bad.


Target's Markdown Schedule

A while back, I lamented about my ignorance of Target's markdown schedule. Well, the ladies at Slave To Target took care of that. I'm not sure if this is a uniform system that applies to all the stores, but it's the most useful forecasting tool yet.


Saving Your Money and Your Health: Part III

I was going to do some serious work, but after a 10-hour day at school, I just can't focus. Maybe I'll get some energy back after procrastinating/resting. May as well procrastinate in a quasi-productive way, namely blogging.

In my corporate law class today, the prof said that one of the first expenses flagging small businesses would cut is insurance: they either downgrade to less coverage (hence smaller premiums) or nix the policy altogether. It is very problematic when an incorporated, uninsured mom-and-pop joint is negligent and hurts a customer. If the corporation is in such bad shape that it's judgement-proof, the victim is out of luck; the business owners's/shareholders' assets are safe. The story is quite different for individuals. A lot of people skip health insurance when they are short on money, but in doing so, they are exposing themselves to much greater risks. Individuals, unlike corporations, don't have the benefit of limited liability short of bankruptcy. We'd like to think that we're healthy, and that it's unlikely for anything to happen to us. But what if something does happen? The consequences can be dire. You might be saving hundreds, or even a couple thousands, a year, but you're playing chicken with *hundreds* of *thousands* of potential medical expenses. Your state might foot the bill for indigents, but you're in trouble if you don't qualify.

I'd like to think I live a fairly healthy lifestyle--I eat balanced meals, I'm fairly active, hardly ever get sick, had no need to go to the doctor for years. All of a sudden, I was involved in a freak accident. "It'll never happen to me" just happened. Even with a pretty good insurance policy, with most of the costs footed by my former employer, I had to shell out quite a bit of money. This happened a couple of years ago, and from then on, insurance coverage was high on my list of priorities. When I was about to go back to school, I decided to quit my job at the beginning of August instead of the end of July just so I could eek out another month of coverage. That bought me some time to shop for insurance, since my school's catastrophic insurance policy was expensive and useless.

Shopping for insurance is tedious, but it has to be done and done soon. Get new insurance within 63 days after your old policy lapses. Otherwise, if you have a preexisting condition, insurance companies would make you wait 6 months before they'll start paying for costs incurred by that condition. Also, even if you're healthy, the underwriting process is a lot longer if you do nothing until Day 64. However, don't rush to get insured without doing your homework. First, think about your needs. Are you generally healthy, or do you need to go to the doctor often, or do you need medication regularly? Do you engage in dangerous sports/other activities? How much can you afford to pay each month? Once you figure that out, make a list of major insurance companies, then visit each company's website for plans and rates. Knowing exactly what each plan covers, and how much, is crucial. Read the short overviews first to narrow down the plans you want. Since I'm all about being cheap, price is the first thing I look at when I slim down the list. It's important to read the rate tables carefully, since premiums cost more in in certain geographic regions. However, be flexible with your minimum price (more on this coming up).

After you get information about plans that you like, it's time for another elimination round. Price isn't everything--even if you get a cheap plan, it won't do you any good if it doesn't suit you. See if the cheapest package gives you enough coverage, then think about what you're willing to trade off or pay more for--is it worth paying $20 extra a month if you can get prescription drugs on a $10 copay, or would you rather save your money (because you hardly get sick) and risk paying a lot for meds? Could you afford to pay $30 more a month so that your deductible goes down by $1000? Would you rather have lousy drug coverage but better professional services discounts? Once you've gotten the list of candidates down to 2-4, read the fine print for each policy. When you're sick or hurt, you're not just paying the doctor--there are lab tests, physical therapy, and obviously, prescription drugs, and it'll be nice if those things are at least partly covered.

Generally, prices are directly proportional to the amount of coverage, but just because a plan is more expensive doesn't mean it's the best for you (see the trade-off discussion above). Comprehensive HMO's are going to be expensive, so it's out of reach for most people. Cheaper (but not the cheapest) plans tend to be PPO's with really high deductibles; when deciding how cheap you want to go, one thing you might want to think about is how much is in your savings account at any given moment, in case you need to fulfill the deductible in a single moment. Personally, I'd rather pay a little more just so that I won't get slammed with too huge a deductible. If you can afford to pay the extra $10 (or however many dollars) to bring down the deductible to a manageable level, then I would recommend doing that. High deductible plans, in my opinion, are much better than the cheapest bare-bones catastrophic plans. For an extra $20 or so per month, you get at least a small discount for office visits even before hitting the deductible, and most likely some drug coverage. Catastrophic plans are for disasters, which are rare to begin with, so I feel like I'm not getting my money's worth; I'd be paying a whole lot of money without getting any discounts for occassional doctor's visit, which is more likely to occur.

Unfortunately, health insurance is inherently expensive and it's hard to get discounts on your own. If you're a student, the first place to turn to is your school (but then again, the one offered through my school really sucks, so it might not be the best option). If you're not a student but you're in certain organizations (such as alumni associations), ask whether group insurance plans are available. They might not be the best, but collective bargaing probably works better than prices you get when you're on your own.

Finally, I'll end with a note on billing. When you're billed more than you think you should, don't just take it--ask for an explanation. Your doctor's office or insurance companies may make mistakes, so that's why it's important to know the fine print of your insurance coverage. Recently I got overcharged simply because the medical group screwed up with a very simple thing. I knew my bill couldn't have been right because the dollar amount was so high. My insurance company was of no help--the rep gave me an explanation for the charge, but I was directed to call the medical group to fix it. The medical group's billing rep told me that my insurance company's rep didn't know what she was talking about. If I had just accepted her explanation, I'd be stuck, frustrated, and might even go along with paying more than I should. Instead, I decided to fight. I was literally arguing with billing rep before she checked my records throughly and acknowledged that I was right (clearly, she didn't do a good job of it when she first started talking to me). If you know your plan inside and out, it'll be easier for you to explain your situation, and argue if necessary. Also, keep tabs of these mistakes. Chances are, the same screwups will happen again, so it'll save you time if you can tell them how they screwed up and how they can fix it.

Oops...I thought this would be short, but clearly I'm wrong. That's why I'm not in the psychic business.


Saving Your Money and Your Health: Part II

No one likes to hit the gym, but for many, it's a necessity. Some people do it to lose weight. Some people do it for rehab. Others go for the Meet Market. Whatever it takes to get you to go, that's fine. Either way, you'll feel more energetic, get stronger, and in the long run, save yourself a lot of money that would have gone toward medical expenses (a sedentary lifestyle can lead to an array of expensive health problems). However, you don't need to go to the gym just to stay fit. It's nice to have access to a gym, but gym memberships tend to be pretty expensive and people often don't go enough to make their investment worth it. In my case, I'm paying for a membership to a gym that I go to once a week for a specialized activity, but it's quite far away = expensive to drive to = hard to get out there more often. Still, I try to find other ways to exercise more than just once a week. Now, I don't profess to be an workout guru. I'm just here to dispense some money-saving tips that are incidentally laced with exercise advice.

If the cost of gym memberships is an issue, there may be some ways to make it less of an issue. If you're a college or graduate student, there's a good chance that your school has a gym or offers discounted memberships to local gyms; sometimes your family member(s)/significant other/roommate(s) can enroll along with you and enjoy the same low price. However, I gather that most people are not students, or if you're like me, your school has no gym and doesn't offer any discounts. Fear not, there are other avenues to pursue. The first option is a no-cost one: friends who live in places with gyms. Try to make them your workout buddies. If that doesn't work, there are the discounted options, sometimes springing from unlikely places. Does your health insurance offer discounts as part of their preventative health program? It won't be much, but it's still better than paying full price. My old insurance did offer a discount, but I never looked into it because I didn't need it; there was a gym at my former place of employment and employees got good discounts. If your workplace doesn't offer such a perk, you might want to find out whether local community centers have exercising facilities that you can access for low or no cost. Another place to look to, if you live close enough to it, is your college alma mater--sometimes colleges offer discounted rates to alumni, especially those who fall into the "young alumni" category (e.g., those who have graduated within the past 5 years). You may have to pay for an annual alumni association membership in order to enjoy this benefit, but when all is said and done, it's probably still cheaper than 24 Hour Fitness.

If none of these options work for you, one thing you may want to consider is getting together a group of like-minded friends for some collective bargaining. As I mentioned before, my school doesn't have a gym, nor does it offer any discounts for local gyms. However, a number of students tried to gather a group of 20 people necessary for a discount at Gold's Gym. If I'm not already paying for a gym membership and supplementing it with an at-home exercise program (see below), I would have gone for it.

So what happens if it's impossible to get a cheaper gym membership? Well, you can do without it. You really don't need machines to break a sweat or bulk up. The most obvious exercises that don't require much equipment is running or walking. To make things more challenging, do the stairs or hills. A few words of caution: first, if you think there are health issues, consult your doctor before embarking on your exercise program; second, pick a safe place to do this. I hate running, but even if I didn't, my neighborhood isn't all that safe after dark, so running/walking is out.

There are alternative exercises that you can perform right in the comfort of your own home. The best thing about exercising at home is that I can do it anytime; if you're weary about scheduling a specific time for working out, you can do it between commercial breaks or do different routines throughout the day when you have a moment to spare. My home gym is composed of a yoga mat, an exercise ball, and a few hand weights; my roommate has some resistance bands and a few other small gadgets. An added bonus to an exercise ball is the entertainment value. When I have guests over, that's the first thing they play with (boingy-boing). As with other products, do comparison shopping for exercise equipment; don't just run to the first Big 5 you come across (though I've found pretty good deals there). I've seen yoga kits at places like Ross and Marshall's. Outlet stores of major sporting goods stores can really shave costs on big-ticket items. Heck, even Big Lots has bench presses and such.

Typically, I do some pilates-based exercises on the mat and with the ball (just sitting on it and balancing is really good for your core muscles), along with some forward and backward lunges. Those exercises work the legs and core muscles. The 5- and 10-pound hand weights are great for building up back, chest, and arm muscles. I had some training on those exercises, but for the uninitiated, it's good to do some research on the Internet, ask friends to show you exercises, or get exercises videos/DVD's. For weight training and more specialized exercises like yoga, it's much better to have a live person show you how to do things, since form does matter if you want to make the most of your workout and avoid injury. Hence, depending on your budget, it might be worth it to take a class or have a personal training session; once you learn the ropes, you can do the rest on your own. Your local YMCA or community center might offer free or low-cost courses. You can also try enrolling in a community college course for exercise or dance; in California, it's $26 a unit, which isn't bad. Still, many exercises are easy enough that you can learn on your own, especially if you have some understanding of how things work. Public libraries often have instructional media that you can check out for free, but if you're concerned about the cheesy 80's look and decidedly low production quality, you can always get newer ones from Overstock, which has pretty good prices and a sizable selection. Sometimes the equipment comes with posters and basic instructions for a few exercises to help you get started.

Like I said, I'm no exercise guru, so there's really nothing left for me to say. Next time I'll talk about health insurance. Originally I thought Part III would be really short, but I realized that billing is an issue to watch out for, so I'll have more to talk about (but it'll still be short).


A Footnote for Part I

I just realized that I forgot to mention coupons. Coupons obviously save you money, especially when certain markets give them double value. However, they don't really figure into my personal shopping equation. I try to minimize my processed product purchases, and most coupons are for, well, processed products, and in rather large quantities, too. They might be useful in cases where you're shopping with or for someone else and you can split the 12- or more- pack.

Milk is one of those things where you save when you buy 2 gallons instead of one, so try to see if a friend or signifcant other needs a gallon in his/her fridge.

If I want to indulge in fast food once in a while, I find that fast food coupons are actually pretty good. What to do with that extra burger in the "buy a value meal, get another burger" deals? I just put it in the fridge and nuke it in the microwave for the next meal. While it's not as good as hot off the grill, the taste, texture, etc. is essentially the same. Every dollar saved counts in my book. However, don't read this as an encouragement to turn indulgence into a routine =)


Saving Your Money and Your Health: Part I

My mom would always tell me that if I can't get enough sleep, I should at least eat well. I can't agree more; if I have to eat takeout everyday, I would feel terrible all the time. I just don't know how people do it. In college, I hear about many a bachelor whose concept of cooking is sticking something in a microwave. Yes, there are many girls who can't cook (or don't want to) as well. I have to admit that around finals, I find myself eating a lot of things out of a box or a can, or a combination thereof. Lately I've also gotten myself into the bad habit of eating out or heating up instant foods for meals; when you're sick and you've been at school for 10 hours, you just don't feel like cooking.

Eating out can get very expensive, very quickly. Do the math: if you want decent food and enough of it to fill you up, it'll cost you at least $5 per meal. Even if I don't count breakfast, which is much cheaper, that's $10 a day, $70 per week, $240 a month! When I get $50 worth of groceries, it's enough to feed me for 3 meals a day for a whole month. This alone deters me from being lazy about cooking.

Still, some may feel apprehensive about getting into cooking especially when they've never done it. As daunting as cooking sounds, there are many benefits. Yes, it takes time, but in the end you can take pride in your culinary masterpiece (and eat it too). You get to perfect a skill that many people don't have. Cooking is also a great stress relief activity. I may be tired starting out, but I become more and more awake as time goes on; I get stimulated by the idea of putting dishes together (generally I don't use recipes or measure portions), and most of the tasks like washing and cutting are mindless enough that I can just relax. Finally, I save LOTS of money by bringing leftovers to school for lunch. I feel even more proud when someone comments that my lunch looked or smelled good and wants to know what it is or how I made it. Oftentimes what I make is so much better than what's served in the cafeteria (a couple of days ago there was a pot of curry spinach with [something] soup...WTF?!?). It just feels healthier to eat my own food, knowing exactly what the ingredients are and that there's little grease.

In order to save money by cooking at home, you have to be careful about how you shop for groceries. Before you hit the grocery stores, do a bit of planning:

-First, think about what kinds of food you need and what quantities are necessary. How much you should buy each time is dictated by how much you eat and how frequently you head to the supermarket. When I say "necessary," I'm referring to what you'll actually eat in between your trips to the market. One of the biggest money drainers is rotten food, so you want to avoid that trap.

-Try to limit the amount of microwavables and processed foods. Not only are they less healthy, but they tend to cost more than fresh meats and produce. Besides, those tiny $2 Lean Cuisine dinners can't fill you up like $2 worth of home-cooked food. However, it's good to have a little bit of frozen/canned food around, especially vegetables, for days when you come home tired. Heating up food in your home is much better than spending more gas money/time in the car and then more time/money at a restaurant. Just don't go overboard with the frozen/canned goods, since you might end up being tempted to skip cooking more often than you should.

-If you live with a roommate (or roommates), you all get along, and have similar tastes in food, you might be able to cut down costs on certain food items. My roommate and I take turns in buying milk, bread, and eggs. We both like this arrangement because neither of us can guzzle a gallon of milk in 2 weeks on our own, eat all that much bread, or use eggs quicky enough before they go bad. Of course, this doesn't work for everyone, but if it does, it's another money-saving avenue.

-When deciding what type of meat to buy, think about how much time you have that week. Usually I'd buy the cheapest cuts of meat that have bones/fat rather than the more expensive boneless varieties. However, I recognize that time is money, and it does take a lot of time to debone, etc. I'm a cheapskate and would rather put in the time, perhaps on the weekend when I'm not as busy. One of my college roommates was busy all the time; she would always buy the pre-cut items, which were obviously more expensive, but she could cook up a dinner at the same speed as her life--lightning fast. The time/money balance is really dependent on your evaluation of your budget and lifestyle. However, even the boneless cuts of meat can go on sale sometimes (see next point), and when they do, you can buy more, separate into ziplock bags, and freeze.

-Read the weekly ads for your local markets, because the savings can be quite substantial (up to 50% off). I pay particularly close attention to prices on meat and canned soups, which I use as a base for many dishes. Meat is probably the most expensive of the grocery items, followed by dairy products, canned/frozen stuff, breads, cereals, and produce, more or less in that order of descending prices. Oftentimes Ralphs would have great 50% off sales on certain cuts of meat and Food 4 Less would have some great 10 for $10 sales. Sometimes one market would price their bell peppers 3 times less than a competitor (I see this a lot). Hence, it may be worth it to go to several supermarkets to get what you need, provided that the markets are in relatively close proximity to each other or if you're willing to go to each market on different days.

-As a corollary to the last point, different types of supermarkets offer different prices on food. Ethnic markets are often a great source of cheap groceries. A few Asian and Hispanic markets in my neck of the woods have the lowest prices in fruits and vegetables. Warehouse stores are great for large quanities of nonperishables, such as canned soups and paper towels. They also offer good prices for perishables, which is hard to take advantage of if you live alone or have a small family. However, there are ways you can reap the savings. Ask your roommate (if you don't share food), friend, significant other, or family members who live nearby if they need anything or if they want to go shopping with you. That way, everyone gets their groceries and save money. Also, shopping trips can be quite fun; I fondly remember how my college roommates and I would go to Ralphs at midnight and how we'd always go to the same cashier.

-Supermarkets also have bargain bins, but I'm more leery when it comes to perishable foods. When I hit the meat section of Ralph's, I often see "manager specials" that are significantly cheaper than the rest of the meat because they've hit the expiration date. I bought one of these packets once, but only after throughly inspecting the meat to make sure it's still fresh--good color, no runny blood, etc. If you buy one of these, it's best to eat it the same day because they're not going to keep for long. At the very back of the market, usually near the bread aisle or bakery section, you'll find "closeouts" of buns, breads, cereals, or seasonable items. Apply even more caution to bakery items, as they go bad even more quickly than meat and flora/fauna are often hard to discern behind the wrappers.

After you're done shopping, you should plan out your cooking strategy:

-If you're a "time is money" person, be prepared to cook big batches and distribute them into freezer-safe tupperware. Cooking big batches saves me oodles of time--I cook once, and I get 3 days' (sometimes even a week's) worth of lunch and dinner. Of course, the down side is that you'll get sick of your food fairly quickly, so you might want to do several entrees and rotate between them.

-You've got the food, so how do you cook them? If you're afraid that creativity = culinary disaster, you should follow recipes. Sure, you can go out and buy a cookbook (the Barnes and Noble "bargain books" section is great). Cookbooks are especially helpful for ethnic cuisine, but why do that when you can get recipes for free? Supermarkets often have recipe cards, and packaging on pastas, soups, etc. also have recipes on them. Don't forget about the power of Google and the Internet in general! Allrecipes.com is my favorite recipe site. There's a huge collection of recipes, ranging from quick and easy to gourmet. Many of the recipes are submitted by everyday people, and they are rated according to how good (or bad) they are. Many of those who left ratings leave behind useful comments about how the recipe worked for them, what they did differently, and suggestions on how to make it better.

Talking about food makes me hungry already. Hopefully these tips are helpful. The down side of eating is the potential of eating too much, so we can't neglect another aspect of healthy living: exercise. Next time I'll talk about gym memberships and simple home exercise equipment (should be a fairly short entry).