Back from the Wedding in the Wild West

There are people who love weddings and people who hate them. This is only the 4th one I’ve ever been to, and the score is even between love and hate. This one, I loved – and that’s despite constant altitude sickness (migraine-like headaches, nausea, moments of gasping breathlessness, fatigue). I had three drinks the entire 5 days I was out there: champagne toast at the rehearsal bbq, champagne toast after the wedding ceremony, and my personal favorite – the shot of tequila with my fellow bridesbitches on the way from the ranch house to the outdoor “aisle”. Mom caught us (we’re 29, 37, and 39!) and hissed. Highlights included a rap battle between the bride’s BFF and one of the band singers (tall leggy blond girl v. short badass blond boy) and a ceremony written by the “preacher” (the friend who introduced them) and approved by the couple. It was a sweet roast – apparently they met when she shot him in the head with a paintball, then they became roommates a few years later, and the groom apparently has a track record of turning roommates into girlfriends.

Looking for a financial angle? There was one in the ceremony – “And with a single kiss, J got himself a girlfriend and M saved $600 a month rent” (which isn’t quite true, but it was a cute line). And in the Best Man’s toast, there was a joking reference to J being a multimillionaire based on his large amount of toys (snowmobiles, bikes, etc), so when it was my brother’s turn to make a little speech, he started off with “I’ve learned so much about them as a couple from their friends, and the best part was that J is a millionaire. Love ya, bro!”

FLIGHTS: It was a shockingly cheap weekend, considering this all happened in Aspen. Sure, it’s technically off-season, but they had six weddings going on that weekend, so the Denver-Aspen flights were packed and the hotels were happy. I booked my flight 3 months in advance, and it cost me less than it ever has in the 10 years I’ve been travelling out there – $270 including taxes, plus $30 for checked luggage. I flew Frontier, Denver airport is awesome, only one hiccup that could have been disastrous for getting me there, but magically they had a spare plane (does that ever happen with such a small airline? wow, lucky).

AIRPORT TRANSFERS:  Getting to LaGuardia airport cost me a lot less than expected. Normally I’d take a taxi for $25 + tip, but with all kinds of unpredictable frozen zones on the eastside, I opted to take the subway out to Astoria for $2.25 and then take a taxi the rest of the way, usually $10 including tip. However, the M60 bus to the airport was right there when I got off the subway, so I took it (free transfer). Got picked up by little sister Starfish at the other end. Would have taken the free public bus to the airport to fly back, but it didn’t start early enough for me to make a 7am flight so I splashed out on a taxi, $22. Then back in NYC, the woman who runs the almost-official shelter for young adults about 10 mins from the airport picked me up and drove me home – wouldn’t even take gas money! I’m not sure she realizes how much that meant to me.

HOTELS:  I suppose we were staying at the budget end of things, but the cute cabins at L’Auberge d’Aspen were pretty awesome – kitchenette, comfy bed, and a jacuzzi-tub in addition to the communal hot tub outside. Including taxes, that ran $85/night for 2 nights (shared with my Mom, but I paid). A month earlier, the bride reserved the 3BR ranch house at Avalanche Ranch and I paid my $100 share ($50/night per person) back then. I spent my last night at Mountain Chalet in the center of Aspen for $77/night including breakfast – very plain room, but great amenities, service, and 7am-10pm coffee/cookie/lemonade buffet (Mom paid for that).

RESTAURANTS/FOOD:  Extended family kept picking up the tab for non-wedding meals together, we cooked breakfast at the ranch house, I arrived so late on Wednesday that eating out wasn’t an option and when I got to the cabin, Mom was at the stove boiling me up some tortellini from the supermarket (cuteness!). And my last night I was so whacked with altitude sickness that I spent the evening in bed – Mom brought me back her Mexican leftovers but no utensils, so I scooped rice, mashed beans, and 1.5 delicious enchiladas with my paws. Attractive, I’m sure. I spent maybe $10 in tips and $2 on an iced tea? Oh, and because everyone kept buying the meals, I left the big room tip at the ranch house – one cleaning (upon leaving), 3BR…$15, and we ran the dishwasher for them.

WEDDING APPEARANCE:  I wasn’t openly bargain-hunting for a dress, but the only one out of 20 that I tried on that looked decent on me happened to be on Clearance at Lord & Taylor, and I had a coupon for 20% off any one clearance item: $148 reduced to $88, paid $70. Given the outdoor venue, I deliberately cheaped out on the shoes – $20 dark silver flats, and it was a smart move because as soon as the sun went down, most of the girls ditched their dressy shoes and pulled on their Uggs. But I did splash out on having the hairdresser do my hair – $75, not a “wedding up-do”, looked pretty snazzy! None of us are particularly into make-up, so we did our own.

OWED:  I think I owe my mom about $30 towards food and incidentals that she, for simplicity, paid for on my behalf, but she owes me about $50 towards the difference in hotel bills. Eh, I won’t ask her for it, but I suspect she’ll figure it out and pay me anyway.

GIFT:  I’m planning to pick up the tab for some aspect of their honeymoon, which they’re tentatively planning for January/February (she’s only been in her job 2 months, needs to put some more time in to earn 2 weeks). How much I spend will depend on how much I manage to earn over the next few months, anywhere from $200-$500.

TOTAL:  $670 + Gift ….. Considering that it was a destination wedding, 5 days in a resort area, and I was in the bridal party, I did way better than expected. I wasn’t intending to cheapify anything but the airport transfers and the shoes, so all the other stuff was an unplanned bonus!

Bye bye, landline – Hello, $70!

I’ve actively dithered over it for nearly a year, passively more several more than that, but when I checked my bank balance online yesterday and saw that the monthly price for my cable TV/internet/phone package had not so much crept as JUMPED up by $14 to $148, I got a little pissed and called RCN. Got chatting with a nice customer service lady in Pittsburgh – they’re gearing up for that G20 meeting next week so I shared my tales of snipers and sniffer dogs while she waited for the system to update my changes.

In the ridiculously fiddly “rules” for bundled services, dropping my landline would actually make my price higher – unless I kept my Mach 10 internet service instead of downgrading to the regular Mach 3 one. So by agreeing to that $10 premium, it somehow saved me $60 of the base price because I could retain assorted discounts. I grumbled something about, “yeah, plus all those stupid fees and surcharges and taxes”, so after suggesting that I cross the street and give our president hell for such things (what can I say, she was fun to shoot the breeze with), she mentioned that most of those dumb charges were associated with phone service, so that $68 price would not magically inflate to $90. In other words, not only am I saving over 40% on the base price, but I’m dropping disproportionately more on the taxation part of the bill. That should put my monthly bill between $75 and $80. I really thought I’d at best save $20, so of course I’m kicking myself for not doing this sooner. Ah well, at least it’s done now. I’m looking forward to keeping $70 more of my hard-earned money every month!

My ‘hood is the biggest bull’s eye on the planet right now

Every year, Bill Clinton holds his annual Global Initiative conference at the Sheraton New York across the street from me in a timeframe that overlaps with the big pow-wow at the United Nations. Well, our current prez was in the ‘hood yesterday afternoon for the Letterman taping, and now he’s back – along with all the other Heads of State – for the opening of CGI.

I have a front-row seat to all the security hullaballoo because they all arrive at the side door, which is EXACTLY across the street from my door. However, no one gets to see any of the bigwigs. They put up a huge tent on the street for the cars to pull into, close the flaps, let the VIP out, open the tent, pull away. They’re never exposed to the light of day – or the cameras of random spectators.

I saw the change-of-shift for the snipers on my roof on my way out to the bank. Around the corner was a staging point for the NYPD, with over 50 uniformed officers lined up for instructions. Passing tourists jumped in for a photo op, I kid you not. The street is crawling with earwigged agents from the Secret Services of many nations. I never felt safer walking the streets of New York City with a large amount of cash in my purse! 

Since I wasn’t going to actually see anyone because of the big tent, I decided to head upstairs while my lunch was still hot. The doorman did call me back for a moment to witness the antics of the bomb-sniffing dogs checking out the big planters at the entrance. He told me that when “the big guy” himself arrives, it’s like someone hits the Pause button on the world. Very electric atmosphere, and what can I say, just very entertaining to live exactly where I do.

Sorry for my Inconsistency

I really want my blog to be directed towards personal finance, but I’m not doing a whole lot of weighty stuff because it’s a little hard to focus when my work patterns have disappeared and taken massive chunks of my income with them. I’m a little freaked out that we’re a year into the financial meltdown, with the news spouting crap about the recession being over and the Dow flirting with 5 figures again – and for the first time ever in my life, I will probably have to hit my savings to meet my expenses this month. It’s also painfully disheartening that over 3/4 of new business inquiries are men looking for some minor prostitution activities – it makes me wonder what I’m really selling here, e.g. a jumped-up lapdance?

So if you’re wondering why most of my posts are about coupon games and donating the stuff I accumulate, just know it’s a $10-a-week hobby that gets me out of the house, connects me with people who think I’m good for something other than fantasy material (I’m old and chubby, wtf!), and distracts me – perhaps to my detriment – from dwelling on the insults and uncertainty. Besides, everyone else is writing about The Latte Factor, credit card grievances, and debt-busting – it’s not like I’ve got anything new to add. Hence my sporadic posting…sorry 😦

One year into my Whole Life policy

Last month I coughed up my 2nd annual premium, which I set at a level I could sustain paying even if my income took a 10% hit. Sadly, that decision was made just weeks before the Manic Money Panic (my infinitely more accurate term than “economic downturn”) struck. No, this is not another post bleating about my change in circumstances and overreaching – it’s about the silver lining despite the 30% hit my income has taken.

I recently got a check from my whole life provider for a dozen bagels shy of $400. It was sent in error – I had set the policy up to reinvest…ugh, what do they call them, bonuses? dividends? Before you think I’m a complete moron for not knowing something so basic about something I’m putting so much money into, I’m just getting the terminology a bit garbled because I know this product better in its British form, where it’s referred to as a “With Profits Endowment” and is often used to pay the principle in conjunction with an interest-only mortgage. Not sure if that’s still the case today though, my info and bi-dialectalism is a decade old. Anyway, the point is that in addition to its modest guaranteed rate of growth, it earned an additional $400 based on the company’s performance. That’s a return, for lack of a better word, of 4.36%. Of course, this is all fairly irrelevant because the policy has a cash value of about $0 for the first couple of years and isn’t even worth what I put into it for the first 10-13 years. I do, however, get to see the future minimum value change as well as the increased death benefit. Of course, that only happens if the $400 is re-invested as intended, so I sent the check back and had my adviser/agent rectify the admin error that resulted in a tempting (but taxable) check.

If I’m still having difficulty meeting the premium next year, I’ll ask if my dividend/profit/return/bonus can count as part of that premium. After all, my advisor said that by the time the policy is worth the same as my deposits, the bonus will be approximately equal to the premium and can pay for itself if I so choose. So why not before that, if necessary? I hope it’s not, but I like having options.

Yes, I know Suze Orman doesn’t like this financial instrument – it’s not suitable for everyone, but I chose it for reasons I’d rather not share, pretty much all related to being self-employed. And as much as I currently regret the amount I selected to pay into it, I’m otherwise reasonably happy with the home my retirement money has found.

Because so many of you are sending me coupons…

I’m branching out with my donation activities. Okay, so I’m also branching out because I need a distraction from the complete nosedive my work has taken in the last 3 weeks (pretty sure it’s seasonal/temporary, but still, the fear persists), but this post is dedicated to the many readers who’ve been printing, clipping, and mailing me packets of coupons. This is what I’ve been able to do with your help.

I recently came across another post on craigslist worth pursuing – a woman with 4 kids of her own plus a husband, and they take in stray 17-22 year olds, let them sleep and hang out in their 3BR apartment in the projects, and help them get GEDs and jobs. She’s been doing this for 10 years because she was once a homeless street kid herself. She’s in the process of applying for non-profit status so that it’ll be easier to solicit donations – she and her husband have both been laid off, so they can no longer afford to do this on their own.

We met on Sunday, and she brought her oldest (21…and she’s only 36, wow) plus 3 of her – what should I call them? Let’s call them semi-kids. In future, I might do the deliveries myself, out of curiosity mostly. Joanna and her husband are currently caring for 13 male semi-kids, and there are about 5 girl semi-kids that don’t sleep there but visit during the day for food and other support. Joanna’s goal is to one day have her own shelter of sorts, because 13 troubled teens plus 3 of her own kids (only one is really young) plus them = not a lot of privacy.

I contacted her offering my usual shampoo/toothpaste/deodorant care package and mentioned that sometimes I get large amounts of a single product, like cereal or Pop Tarts or mustard but that at the moment, my stockpile was low.  So below is a picture of what she got – plus 8 bags of Chex Mix and 3 dozen eggs (forgot to put them in the picture!) that I blew a bunch of $1 RRs at Walgreens on:

SeptShopping 004

Would you want to know if you had a ticking health bomb?

As I may have mentioned, Bridezilla was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis a few months ago. She just saw a specialist and found out she’s got the worst possible case – something to do with blood markers (genetics?) that indicate she will never experience remission. Eventually, she will end up on Enbrel – a $1200/month prescription.

I’ve asked two Real World people if I should have my doc include a test for RA in my next batch of annual check-up labs. One said no, she would not want to know, it would change how she lived her life. The other said yes, he’d want to know so he could plan for the possibility. I realized that since RA hits the hands the worst and those are my moneymakers, I should get tested. It doesn’t mean I’ll definitely develop it, and if I do, there’s no way of knowing whether it will be in 2 months or 2 decades. But this not only affects my livelihood – it also influences future changes in health insurance providers. Right now I have a policy that doesn’t cover prescriptions, and if I end up needing a drug like this before a generic is permitted…yeah, you know where I’m going with that.

So given your own circumstances, would you want to know if you had a significant probability of a debilitating but not deadly disease looming in your future? If so, why, and what would you start doing differently?

Supersizing a deal: Sale + Coupons + Rebate + Free Gift

I buy massive amounts of cereal. I only eat it a few times a week, but as most of you know by now, I’m fond of donating it. I get asked a LOT how I get this stuff for a net cost of free, better-than-free, or like 25 cents a box. What they don’t know is that I do even better than that sometimes…

Kelloggs has a “Fuel for School” rebate offer, where you buy 10 qualifying Kelloggs/Keebler products on one receipt, submit it with the bar code, and get back $10. I did this at Target when they had Kelloggs cereal on sale for $1.88 a box and there were valid $1 coupons available. I spent $8.80 for 10 boxes of cereal, and will get a rebate check for $10.

Many of the cereals have a couple of cute free gift deals valid thru sometime next year. You cut the tokens off the boxes and submit with the form printed on the inside of the box. Some of the gifts don’t appeal, like “classic” DVDs of Rocky 3 and such. However, there are two things available for the “Wake Up To Breakfast” token:  a digital alarm clock and a cereal cup that keeps the milk separate and chilled. So far I’ve sent away for two alarm clocks – 6 tokens makes it free, or you can send 2 tokens plus $5.99, shipping included either way.

So let’s see what the true cost of this venture was. I did two rebates (one for my address, one for my mother’s):

TOTAL COST:  $21.78
$17.60 … 20 boxes of Kelloggs cereal @ $1.88 – $1 coupon
$2.50 ….. Purchased 20 x $1 Kelloggs coupons, incl shipping
$1.68 ….. Postage for submitting for rebates/gifts
GET BACK:  $20 in rebates + 2 free alarm clocks valued at $5.99

I keep hoping General Mills will start offering cute gifts. They put out some great printable coupons, and I did a 4-boxes-for-$8 deal at ShopRite yesterday using .55 & .75 coupons that double (whee!), so I spent $2.80. Lo and behold, amongst the less-than-interesting deals spat out by the catalina coupon machine was a “$2 off your next order” coupon, making the net cost just 20 cents a box. Didn’t notice it until I got home, otherwise I’d have done it all over again. As it is, I managed to get 10 boxes of Eggo waffles for $9.90, used 5 x $1-off-2 coupons, paid $4.90, and guess what? It qualifies for that $10 Kelloggs rebate deal. I spent $13.50 total on great deals at the supermarket (3 boxes Betty Crocker cake mix, 3 cans of BC frosting, 4 boxes General Mills cereal, 2 jars of Welch’s grape jelly, 10 boxes of waffles plus a $1 donation to a local food pantry drive that earned me a free reusable tote). So I got a $2 instant rebate from the cereal, will get a $10 rebate for the waffles…and ended up a whopping $1.50 out of pocket for all this.

Yes, it’s fiddly. Yes, there’s some $$ outlay up-front. But once you get this all going, you’ll be getting back rebate checks for past purchases that roughly cover your current rebate spending. The sad thing is, this doesn’t work so well for families that live paycheck-to-paycheck. Plus, you need to enjoy the game or else you’ll never remember to follow through.


Just wanted to send out a THANK YOU to A.P. and J.P. for signing up for Swagbucks through the link in the left column of my page. Every time you earn a buck, I earn one too for your first 100 Swagbucks. I will happily use those SBs for the greater good 🙂

I’m not sure who you are (keeping your first names secret though, to preserve your anonymity), but feel free to let me know in the comments what your bloggie name is!

9/8 Update:  Two more people signed up for Swagbucks through my link — L.A. and M.O — THANKS!!!.

I also have a lot of others to thank for mailing me coupons, though I have trouble matching up real names with blog names, and quite a few of you have chosen not to put any name at all – sometimes not even a return address! Anyway, I’ve been using quite a lot of the coupons you all have been sending me, especially the internet printables. You all rock!

Again – THANKS!!!

Swagbuckers: Can I borrow a $5 Amazon gift card?

A couple of weeks ago, I told my beloved readership about a mom-of-9 from the Bronx whom I’d helped out with a care package…and then met up with again a week later to give school supplies. Well, today she emailed me about her 6-year-old with a bad case of canker sores, asking if I thought she should make him rinse with peroxide. I thought it was almost Twilight Zone weird that only an hour before, the freebie blogs had all put out a link to a coupon for free CankerMelts, and I had thought – nah, I won’t bother with that one, too hard to give away. Now I’m hoping the stores actually have them in stock!

Then she told me that she just found out this week that Little CankerSore Boy didn’t have any school pants that fit. She had hit up three Good Will stores and they didn’t have black or gray in his size. As you might imagine, a woman with 9 kids isn’t going to enjoy shopping excursions much and doesn’t have extensive internet browsing capability (Sidekick), so her attempts to find affordable pants yielded a best price of $20 a pair, and he needs 5 pairs – not doable on her budget. Since I’m such a good shopper, she thought I might know where to get a great deal since she couldn’t come up with that kind of dough for one kid’s school needs.

After deciding that I’d contribute 2 pairs no matter what, I took a cyber-stroll over to OldNavyWeekly to see what they had on the go. This week’s selection kinda sucked – I was hoping for a 30% off coupon, but most of the “achievable” ones available specified men’s/women’s clothing – in other words, not valid for a boy’s size 8. So I printed a $10-off-$50 purchase and am crossing my fingers for a decent Labor Day weekend sale. I’ll be visiting my mom in the burbs this weekend, so there’s always hope for an amazing sale at Sears or JC Penney’s or Kohl’s. I emailed Mom-of-9 about my plans and the two pairs I’d be getting her, and she was quick to let me know that she was happy to buy them herself, it’s just that she didn’t have access to a decent deal. Now…how do I hand this exhausted welfare mom 5 pairs of pants and ask for money? I can’t do that, I just can’t. 

…and then I had a stroke of genius: Amazon! I have $20 worth of gift cards I got for free by accumulating Swagbucks (see left sidebar), and there are pants that match Ricardo’s (aka CankerSore Boy) needs for $15-$18. So I can get 2 pairs with free shipping for $10-16. I’m pretty happy with that. And then I remembered how so many of you have readily stepped up to supply me with coupons, and figured it might be worth putting out another little appeal:

Do any of you savvy Swagbuckers have  a $5 Amazon gift card to spare?

I’d like to “borrow” one – meaning I’ll give you a future $5 Amazon GC code (you’re welcome to donate it to this little project, but this is my cause, not yours – I’m just happy to have the loan!). I earn one every 2-3 weeks and am one little Swagbuck away from my next GC, but they take about a week to process. This way I can get 2 pairs for completely free, or maybe pay a little and get a third pair depending on the response. Hoping to place the order asap. Anyone…?