Customer Service is A Friend To The Frugal

Something I have picked up from a few years of being a frugal person is that businesses want your business. Profound, I know. I went to college. But what this really means is they will often go to great lengths to keep you coming back. Why not get this to work to your advantage, even in the smallest ways? All you have to do is ask.

CLOTHES

I was in Banana Republic on my birthday last year, eyeing a dress I had seen a few days earlier and concluded would never be mine. For those who don’t know, the average dress there is over $100. I went back in to stare at it, only to discover it was now 40% off. Obviously I nabbed it and got in line–but my frugal mindset didn’t stop there. Upon checkout I asked if they would give an additional discount because it was my birthday. The cashier got permission from her higher up and kindly took another 10% off. Just like that, I was getting an expensive dress for half off. She didn’t even ask for an ID to prove it was my birthday. Waiting pays.

UTILITIES

Last Spring, my husband and I concluded we could not endure another hot summer in our non-air conditioned apartment and would need to buy two window ACs! Ouch. We paid for one with a Lowe’s gift card from credit card rewards and the rest in cash, with a small rebate for it being an energy saving model. The second one? I got for free. Around this time the apartment next door had been vacated and was under renovation. I noticed my former neighbor had left her window AC unit behind. I walked over and asked the workers if I could have it. They checked with the former tenant and property owner and I got the green light; saving me three hundred dollars that I would have spent on a new model.

I have been with Time Warner Cable for eight years and formed a very fun friendship with them. It works like this: my promotional discount ends, I call them and explain the situation, they transfer me, I explain the situation, they transfer me, I explain the situation, they say “there’s nothing we can do”, I threaten to go to AT&T, then they suddenly find another promo that lasts “only six months” and my bill is lowered. It’s EXACTLY like friendship. Our internet bill consistently hovers around $38, but in certain seasons I’ve got it down to $29. This takes some serious dedication as I have to monitor when the bill changes even slightly and be adamant about not hanging up until I have a discount. Plus they have records of when and why a customer last called, so they certainly know I’ve been doing this sort of thing for years. I like to think it makes us closer. In the end, they always oblige because they don’t want to lose a loyal customer. Don’t be deterred by long, annoying phone conversations–there’s money saved on the other end.

CELL PHONE

Until last summer, I had been with T-mobile for something like ten years. And that’s how long it took me to call in for a discount (don’t form this habit). I had a $98 package with unlimited everything and I was relatively happy with it. Then one day, I decided to try to my TWC method and see if they would lower my bill. The lady dropped it $20, no questions asked…actually, no explanation given either. Fine by me. My plan didn’t change and I enjoyed less of a hit every month.

BANKING

Is it weird to anyone else that checks cost money? It’s free to get cash out of the ATM. My debit and credit cards are sent to me without cost. Why should I have to cough up anything for this outdated form of payment? Guess what? I don’t! Wells Fargo charges $25 to order a new set of checkbooks. But rather than using the convenient options of ordering online or over the phone, I go into the fancy branch and sit down at one of their fancy desks and talk to a real live banker with a fancy tie. They are all about customer service, so every time I have ordered checks there, it’s complimentary. But if they tried to charge me, I’d probably say something like “Oh, the nice man here last time gave them to me for free…would you be able to do that today?”. Similar to cable companies, banks are scared to death of losing your business. They’ll say yes.

When it comes to customer service, you are dealing with someone who doesn’t have a horse in the race. That is to say, they don’t care if you ask for a discount. Most likely, it’s not the person’s company or money. The usual response is, “let me ask my manager”, so there’s nothing to be intimidated by. The examples here are specific to what I dislike paying for and what I’ve learned through time, observation and practice. How could you customize these concepts to save on costs that frustrate you?

 

Getting Organized = $

Do you have a corner of your home that needs some TLC? Spring started last week and because our society professes it the best time of the year to clean, ’tis the season for household projects! Unless you’re like me and gave your closet a makeover in January. Our spare bedroom is primarily an office and stores many a DVD and blu-ray. And that’s just what’s in the actual room! The spare closet used to be filled with VHS tapes, comic books, CDs, two bookshelves, two plastic stacking drawers, our luggage, a guitar, tents, sleeping bags and some extra clothing that was never worn. I had dominated the entire upper shelf with heavy yearbooks, binders, boxes of sentimental paraphernalia and every diary I’ve ever written in since childhood. You should have seen the look on my husband’s face when he saw that I not only kept every note ever passed to me since middle school, but had them organized in a binder. There was so much weight up there that the entire shelf was sagging in the middle and clothes could not be hung on most of the rack because the two were pressed against one another. This is the city dwellers version of a basement or garage. Anytime we received something that didn’t have a home, it was adopted by our spare closet. I’m happy to say those days are gone and fortunately for me, I don’t have a good “before” picture to show you.

A good place to start when taking on a project of this sort is, “what can I sell to pay for the changes?”. Naturally, my first instinct was to sell of all my husband’s stuff. Instead, what we did was pull out the contents and separate what we wanted to keep from what we didn’t. I came up with two bags of things I figured were unsellable and donated them to Goodwill (tax write off!). My husband chose some DVDs he didn’t want, cut his VHS and comic book collection in half and sold every thing to Amoeba Music in Hollywood.

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This cleared out an entire closet bookshelf, one which I had owned for far too long and happily gave away. We also emptied the two plastic stacking drawers and sold them for $5. Because I love to sprinkle my posts with Craigslist tips: if you are simply trying to get rid of something and profit is not the primary purpose, sell it in the $5-$10 range. People will think it’s a good deal even when the item is worthless to you. I originally put these drawers on our curb hoping someone would take them within a few hours. When I noticed no one had, I swooped them back up and posted them on CL. The guy who ended up buying them thought I had meant $5 a piece and offered me $10 total. (I didn’t take it.) The point is, someone else thought our trash was worth double what we asked. A valuable lesson for future sales. We also sold a DVD player, a GPS and a backpack for $10 a piece and some free weights for $5. That’s $40 for useless-to-us stuff. Eric got $87 in store credit from Amobea, though had he taken the cash instead, it would have been around $65. That could be $105 towards a closet makeover.

In the past year, we’ve accumulated so many board games that we had to divide where they were stored. Half were in the spare closet on a shared shelf that also held toiletries, and half were inside a trunk in our living room. Needless to say, this was sloppy and inconvenient. I took the brackets off an old shelf that I had just taken down in the kitchen (left by previous tenants) to make more room for the kitchen island project. Then I threw out the actual shelf to replace it with a large wood sign I made and didn’t like. I flipped it over to hide the writing and screwed in the brackets to create a second and much larger shelf for storage (for free!). Now all the board games are in one place and the bathroom supplies have moved.

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I look at The Container Store as a playground for adults. That is: neat, efficient, organized adults who value system and order. That’s all of us, right? Hello? They carry clever storage solutions that many retailers do not. Last year during an Elfa sale I was able to get an over-the-door wrapping paper unit for our living room closet, which has been a great space saver. They make many versions of this nifty contraption and I had remembered there was one specifically for media. Elfa was having another sale in the winter, so I sprang for it and got the entire unit for $74.68 down from $107.90. I fit all of my husband’s remaining VHS tapes in it, along with two racks of CDs. I also bought two plastic Christmas bins that were 50% off for $20. We used them to consolidate our respective containers of personal items, thereby minimizing the amount of space needed on the upper shelf. I threw away seven small boxes and recycled hundreds of pieces of paper; did I mention I also saved every greeting card I ever received?

I had some scraps of wood on hand that I was able to use to prop up the sag in the middle of the upper shelf, opening up the entire rod for potential clothes hanging (free). Once we were done replacing the contents, there was way more empty space, very few hangers in use and only one bookshelf left. We put a hook that we already owned (free) on the pivot door for bags and managed to store some things under our new bed frame and in our recently emptied trunk. The spare closet is feeling pretty spacious these days. It’s certainly not as neat as one of those closet organizing systems with fancy shelves and whatnot; but it’s a DIY version of that at little cost. We spent $55 to make these changes if you subtract the amount for items sold on CL. And had we cashed in on the Amoeba sale, the entire cost would have been covered with a $10 profit. That could be your story. Alternatively, we could have spent nothing, kept the cash and found even more creative ways to store things. That’s money in the bank. What could you sell today that would buy you a closet makeover tomorrow? Happy Spring cleaning!

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Surprising Treasures And The Legend Of Zelda

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Today I’m going to deviate from my traditional type of post to share a story about money that’s worth mentioning because it could happen to anyone. You may have seen in the news this week that a man unknowingly bought a Faberge egg for $14,000 and later found out it was worth $33 million dollars. After thinking he had overestimated the worth of his purchase, he hoped to get $500 for it to be melted down for the material. Then he did some googling and discovered the egg in his possession was highly sought after and had been missing for a century. Just like that, an insta-millionaire. What are the odds of this kind of thing happening to you? Not very high? Not so fast…

Last summer, my husband and I brought back a car full of goodies from his father’s house after rummaging through the basement to help him clear out some space. One of these was The Legend of Zelda, a Milton Bradley board game from the 80’s. Because it’s one you don’t see around much, my husband looked it up and stumbled upon this listing:

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$18,000 for an unused version of the game. Sixty-two watchers and eighty-two bids as of today. At the time of our discovery, there was only one other listing for it on eBay. Now there are at least five, the lowest with nine bids and selling for $55.00, the second highest being $6,500. If that thing really goes for thousands of dollars, it will make everyone who is selling for double digits think twice (pun!), even if their versions are used or flawed. When I asked my husband if we should put it up for auction, he said no, which I think is a wise choice. Why not sit on it another twenty years and see what happens then?

These stories are a great reminder that you never know what family heirlooms or piles of junk could be worth some major cash. And that maybe a google search of your findings would be the first thing to do. Also, if you buy a fancy golden egg with a clock inside adorned with jewels and inscribed with a name like “Vacheron Constantin”, you probably don’t want to melt it down. It feels harder for young people to accumulate much of value without an older generation’s help, but not impossible (still holding out for the those Beanie Babies, huh?). With technology taking over, there are plenty of seemingly worthless things you own that will someday be very hard to come by. My husband has an out of print DVD that was posted on Amazon for over $5,000. My mom hung on to her collection of 1960’s Beatles handbills which can apparently be worth up to six figures for the number she has if they are in mint condition. The man with the Faberge egg bought it at “a sale”, which sounds easy enough. I go to sales. I’m sure there are people who make a hobby of this sort of treasure hunt. There is no reason you can’t have in on the fun too. What have you had in your possession that was surprisingly valuable? Did you sell? It might be wise to take a second look at your stockpile before the next Goodwill run.

Amazon Prime: Is It Worth It?

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Amazon recently announced they are hiking their annual membership from $79 to $99. It’s time to ask yourself an important question…is it worth $100? What do you really get from it? I was a Prime member in the early years when I could still use my edu email address and get the student rate of $39/year. When it came time to renew, I would have had to pay the full $79 and my instinct was to do it until my husband pointed out that we don’t use it all that much. How easily I could have fallen for another year’s payment, with their hands-free automatic deduction and all. Let’s consider the reasons people have Prime.

VIDEO STREAMING

Sure, it’s great to have an additional streaming site for videos, but how often do you actually watch something on it? At the time I was considering dropping it, I thought back and realized almost all of the things we watched on Prime were rentals that we paid for–not the free streaming that comes with the membership. We already pay $8 a month for Netflix and have Apple TV and HBO Go, which offer rentals and free movies respectively. Not to mention, we love our neighborhood’s independent video store (I’m a 90’s kid, I’ll always call it that) and try to take advantage of their “rent one, get one free” nights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The other awesome option is Redbox, which we’ve been using more frequently lately. We rented an Oscar nominated film a few days before the awards show for $1.33! And we were able to reserve it online first to ensure it was in stock when we went to pick it up. With all these options at our disposal, the streaming reason is no longer an argument for keeping Prime.

FREE SHIPPING

The more common use for the Prime, is of course, the free shipping. I invite you try an exercise with me. I’ll wait. Go to your amazon page, click on “your orders” and check out how many you’ve made so far in 2014. For me, it’s five in just about three months, or 1.67 things a month. I can’t wait to use that .67 of the screen protector for my phone. Anyway, if you take the new rate and divide it by a year, you will be paying $8.25/month for this service. And if you’re anything like me, you’re buying one thing a month. Maybe you’re not, maybe you use it constantly (why are you buying so much stuff?!). Either way– here’s the thing: I have paid zero in shipping so far this year. I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll say it again, I HATE PAYING FOR SHIPPING, so why would I pay for it in bulk? I’m sure you’ve noticed that Amazon offers free shipping on orders over $35. Not everything qualifies for this, but a lot of items do. This is how we buy everything on there, in groups of $35 or more. I will sit at my computer and manipulate my shopping cart so that I get just the right amount of used items that qualify for free shipping and total the minimum they require. I have actually played around to compare the difference of when you don’t do this and had my cart full of things that totaled around $11 in shipping. When I rearranged the purchases of the exact same things (switched out for a different seller or used version), I got rid of that wasteful extra cost. It just takes time and thought and honestly, it’s a fun achievement when you pull it off. It feels like you’re cheating the system…that they…invented.

TWO DAY SHIPPING

The last and perhaps most attractive reason for Prime is that you get what you ordered in two days. Man is that nice for the non-planner. But assuming you are a reader who is trying to live a quality frugal life, then you must know by now that a huge part of this journey is planning ahead. In what scenario do you need your item in two days? I can’t think of one. You know you’re going to that baby shower at least a month in advance. You don’t need a book that fast do you? It’s a trick! They are preying on our society’s need for speed! The “downside” to the $35 free shipping is that you have to wait longer; between 5-8 days, but it’s often faster. If it really is an urgent need, most towns offer actual buildings that you can walk into and buy things.

I think this is surely a convenient option to those for whom time is money, but I still deem it unnecessary. No one needs it, you just want it. You’d never heard of it five years ago. What did you do before? Today is the last day that new members can sign up and still get the $79 subscription. Starting tomorrow it will be $20 more. So now is a good time to challenge yourself and ask, is it worth it? What else could you be doing with $100?

A Free Day in San Francisco

ImageWho likes free? ME! ME! The beauty of California is that you could spend years vacationing here and still feel like you are having a completely different experience each time. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and have taken many a visitor to some of the sights you’ll read about today. In the future, I plan to blog about free adventures in other cities and this one will arguably be the easiest for me. Aside from that fact, San Francisco seemed like a great starting point for this series because it is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. Let’s try to take that statistic and punch it in the face, shall we? If I can do it here, you can do it anywhere.

To start the day, I planned ahead, researching what free opportunities there might be in the city the week I would be there. Much to my excitement, The Exploritorium, a popular hands-on science museum, was having a free day. It recently moved locations to the Embarcadero on Pier 15 and I hadn’t been to the new venue yet. I was keeping it on my to-do list for a future visit, but at $25 a photo 2ticket, it wasn’t really a priority. You will find most major cities have museums that do a free day once a month, but The Exploritorium is an exception–they only do five all year. Because it was Pi Day, they not only let people in for free, but served free pie! That morning, my sister and I got in line thirty minutes before the opening and waited for our free tickets. After exploring to our heart’s content, we left only to find the line had tripled in size since we had gone in. This is a good time to point out that not only do you want to take advantage of paying nothing, but your time is money too. We easily could have lost two hours waiting outside if we hadn’t arrived before it opened. Think ahead! COST: FREE

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Blue Bottle Coffee

Next, we walked over to Pier 1 to visit the Ferry Building— a converted old transportation hub made into shops and restaurants with a killer view of the bay bridge. This is a fun place to grab a coffee or lunch if you’re on the go–but you can also just walk around and spend absolutely nothing! Worth a wander for the layout and bustle. COST: FREE

My favorite neighborhood in San Francisco is North Beach. Here you will find busy streets jam-packed with restaurants and history, as this region was once the pulse of the beatnik generation. It is also Little Italy, but there are all types of restaurants to choose from. My family tends to drop in here semi-regularly to scope out the bookshelves of City Lights, an IMG_5332_2independent bookstore co-founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the days where Amazon and Barnes and Noble reign, browsing an old, small bookstore is becoming a rare opportunity. Take it while you can! COST: FREE

Coit Tower is walking distance from here, so you could also check that out while you’re in the neighborhood. It’s free to climb the Filbert Steps, but $7 if you want to ride the elevator to the top for a 360 degree view. Not bad for a historical landmark.

Our next stop was the Golden Gate Bridge. Ah, heights. Gotta love them? Not so much. We parked in a lot that is the last exit before the bridge, so as to avoid the toll, and got the vantage point you see in the introductory photo. It was beautiful and could have been enough. But I had committed to the idea of walking the bridge, as I’d never done that before. I can confidently say I will never do it again. If heights don’t bother you, then this is a great opportunity to see yet another gorgeous view of the bay area and say you stood on the most famous bridge in the world. COST: FREE

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A childhood favorite of mine was visiting Ghirardelli Square, where they produce the famous chocolates and ice cream you see all over the U.S. It is also great to walk around and watch the factory at work, an equally sweet treat. Being so close to the water, you can take two minutes to walk down the hill and watch the sail boats go by or head South to Fisherman’s Wharf. COST: FREE

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View from the top

Another incredibly popular attraction is Lombard Street on Russian Hill. You know, the most crooked street in the world? Or something like that. We weaved our way down and parked at the bottom to snap some photos like the twenty-five other people around us were doing. It’s a fun ride and never gets old, no matter how many times you’ve done it. COST: FREE

So there you have it, an activity-rich free day in San Francisco. There are costs involved in parking or public transportation and a bridge toll depending on where you’re coming from. You also have to pay for food, unless free pie is enough to satisfy you (in which case, I’m inspired by your dedication to frugality!). I chose to leave those things out of the equation because I think everyone’s circumstances would be different.

The experiences I’ve mentioned today are some of the more famous things one can do in SF. But there are many more free options I could write about. For instance, did you know Anchor Brewing Company is one of the oldest breweries in America and does tours and tastings for free? There are also countless locations you can drive past where they shot scenes from photofilms like Vertigo or Mrs. Doubtfire. On this trip, we made a point to drive through the Presidio to see the infamous corner where the Zodiac killer struck (mainly because we love the David Fincher movie). There’s also the massive Golden Gate Park to explore, which I didn’t even touch on.

What I hope you take away from my day is that it doesn’t matter how expensive a city is, there are always free options and they can often be the main attractions you’d want to see anyway. It takes some sacrifice in that you may have to limit the depth of the experience, but it can still be a fulfilling visit. I would make the argument that it is more fulfilling because you did it on a budget. The key to a quality frugal lifestyle is finding success in the venture of your choice and saving money at the same time. Try planning your next vacation with this goal in mind and see where it takes you!

My First Fan Letter

I received my first letter from a fan! Oh what a feeling! And by “fan” I mean friend and by “letter” I mean text. So, my first text from a friend! Wait…I mean, friends text me. Obviously. I’m cool. Anyway, here it is:

Dear Sara,

I love your blog and am a devoted fan. I was wondering if you’d consider an entry that included some of your best tips for those for whom time is tight. Many of your tips include watching, monitoring, calling and waiting. What is your advice on living on a budget when time is money? 

Your Avid Reader,

“Cora” (I made that name up to protect the identity of the innocent)

This had me thinking all week. Sure, I’ve been busy. Fourteen hour days on set can be grueling and leave you with little time for much else. But so busy that it prevented me from being frugal? Psh! No such thing! I tried to put myself in the shoes of my friend, who is an attorney. From what I understand, people in that world often pay for little luxuries because it’s more convenient than taking the time to do the thing (read: nicer apartment that’s closer to work, Starbucks every morning, house cleaning, eating out most days). But here are the things I know to be true about my friend: she pays low rent in a shared apartment, she’s hosted clothing swaps and garage sales, works for a firm that often pays for dinner or happy hour, uses money savers like living social and is actively chipping away at her law school loans. She seems to be doing so much right. Without a specific, “I have this situation, how could I handle it frugally?”, it is harder for me to advise beyond my own experiences. But here are some general things I came up with for someone who has no time to stalk the prey before the kill.

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Who here has heard of Hukkster, raise your hand? Hukkster is a website that does for you what I do for me. Huh? It allows you to bookmark items in your web browser that you want to keep your eye on and notifies you when the thing goes on sale! Right there you have saved yourself seven (or more) clicks a week of an item you would be checking back on. You don’t have to give it another thought. Not only that, but you will be one of the first to know it’s on sale and can grab it, because most people don’t have a fancy gadget monitoring this sort of thing for them.

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Don’t use a brown bag, they cost $.10 a pop in LA

It is very hard to meal plan when you are working long hours, let alone find the time to scour the aisles of the grocery store for the right items. I know all of that goes out the window when I’m working on set and my husband has to fend for himself. I would imagine the “I can afford it” justification pops up when meal time rolls around in lawyer land. Don’t let these moments of weakness dictate your behavior. Look at them as the exception to the rule, not the standard. You should not be swiping that card for food or drink without knowing you were going to do so in advance. If I’m going to eat out, I almost always know it on Monday of that week. Of course this is not an absolute, but it is the goal. In general, I plan out my entire grocery expedition with the knowledge of when and what our meals are going to be. Just because you have the cash, doesn’t mean you spend it.

I’m going to say a bold word and I want to give you fair warning, because it is not appropriate for the weak or sensitive. You should stop reading if you’re uncomfortable. 3,2,1… Coupons. I know, I know, you hear that and it’s hard not to have a negative reaction. “Coupons? Aren’t those for old ladies? Or cheapskates? Or hoarders? I would never have the time to find the ones I Untitledneeded and it’s not even worth it for a $.50 savings.” If any of these preconceptions crossed your mind in the millisecond I gave you to consider, you would be wrong. As a recent convert, I can understand this way of thinking…that is, until I learned about digital coupons. All you do is download the app for the grocery store of your choosing. My favorite of the moment is Vons because they have so many items on sale everyday. I love TJ’s as much as the next girl, but let me tell you, I’ve been happier since the switch. Sign up for a rewards card if you don’t already have one and make an account, indicating the location you frequent. Go through each product category and add the coupons to your rewards card that you think you’ll need for the trip. Then when you’re checking out in the store, all you do is swipe the card and the discounts come off along with the rewards savings. If you’re really savvy (obsessive), you can actually tally these things up as you make your list and estimate the cost of your trip before you even enter the store. I guarantee that you can add these coupons to your card in the time it takes you to walk from your car and up the elevator to your corner office. No clipping, no hunting for newspaper inserts, no stack of coupons to hand the grocer. Try it this week and see if it works for you. I have consistently stayed within my grocery budget since adopting this habit, which was not the case before. It’s a time and money saver, but requires the discipline of someone willing to cook at home.

And now for a list of quick fixes you can start today to help get motivated:

  • Automate everything. Most do this already and it’s a huge stress saver (you also save on the cost of stamps!).
  • Sign up for credit cards that have a cash back incentive and then use them all the time–paying them off in FULL every month. You will earn money from doing something you’re doing with debit anyway. If you are recovering from recent credit card debt, then this suggestion is not for you.

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  • Make coffee at home and bring it into work. I know this one sucks. Who doesn’t love their fancy coffee in their name brand cardboard cup? That’s what the reusable ones are for! Trick yourself into having the experience of a fancy $4 coffee with the $.20 grounds from home. It will probably give you back ten minutes a day. Fake it ’til you make it.
  • Finally, get a Mint account. It is a budgeting device that keeps tabs on all of your accounts in one place so that you can better understand how you spend your money. I could not do my grocery budgeting without it.

An important component of a quality frugal lifestyle is and always will be planning ahead. No busy job will make that fact untrue. You cannot do most things in the spur of the moment and get the same satisfying financial results as the person who thought about it in advance. So that is a quality you need to develop if you don’t already have it. Consider it a muscle you are building and each of these steps as exercises. Just like weight loss, there is no magic button or special diet that will do the work for you.

To continue with the metaphor; consider me your personal trainer. And that this is a gym. And each drop of sweat represents a dollar saved… Juuuust kidding you guys! I swear I’m cool. What I’m trying to say is, I invite others like “Cora” to write me privately with their questions and I’ll do my best to help out. You can email me through the About the Author section. Thanks for reading!