Friday, May 29, 2009

Cheap Passport Photos ... That Actually Look Good

I love to plan trips.

Reading the guide books, creating an itinerary, even packing-- they're almost as exciting as the trip itself.

Not really, but you get the point.

But I don't like just everything about vacation preparation. Case in point: renewing my passport.

Passport photos are a huge waste of money. They're only about $7, but that seems ridiculous when you can buy other photos for just pennies apiece.

And besides, if I have to live with a photo of myself for 10 years, I want it to look good. I don't trust a drug store, AAA or any other common source of passport photos to tell me if I look like an idiot as I'm waiting for the bulb to go off, and I doubt they're going to give me a free do-over.

So I was determined to find a better way. And I did: ePassportPhoto.

Have your photo taken with a digital camera against a white or off-white background, following a few simple rules (details are on the site). My husband and I spent about 15 minutes taking several photos of each other, instantly deleting the pictures that made us look like a doofus.

Upload the picture of your choice to ePassportPhoto, crop to specifications, and save. I had photos of myself and my husband printed at a local drugstore for a grand total of 58 cents.

I have yet to send in the photos to actually renew my passport, so I'm still crossing my fingers that they won't be rejected.

Want to see the photo? That's going to require an in-person visit to me. Even the best of passport photos doesn't make you, me or anyone actually look good ... only better.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Perfect Pet

Item: Cat tape dispenser

Price: $12.50

Where to Buy: Pylones

Review: You've read about my love of the store Pylones. This cat tape dispenser is one of the reasons why.

And I don't even really like cats.

Despite their occasional attempts at being adorable, my ... ahem, my husband's ... two cats, Will and Grace, are always under my feet whenever they take a break from knocking over full glasses of water.

But one look at this tape dispenser and I can't help but remember how cute kitties really are.

Sometimes I wish I could turn Will and Grace into quiet, stationary office supplies. Until that day comes ...

Image from: Pylones

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Opposite of Thrifty

On this Memorial Day, I'd be perfectly happy with a well done burger covered in a good spice rub cooked on a hot Weber grill. Alas, even if we could fit a grill on our fire escape, it would probably be illegal.

For gourmands with an unlimited budget and a more sophisticated taste in hamburgers, there's always the Wall Street Burger Shoppe in Manhattan. That's where you can get a gold-flecked hamburger for $175.

That's right, readers, there's no decimal point in that price.

The 10-ounce Kobe beef patty is also topped with black truffles, foie gras and aged Gruyere.

I'm sure the burger's good, but that wouldn't stop me from feeling sick over all the money I just spent downing cow covered in gold.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Real Postcards for the Digital Age

Item: Photo Postcards

Price: $1.50

Where to Buy: Hazel Mail

Review: The vacation season traditionally starts with the long Memorial Day weekend. I love to receive postcards detailing others' travels, but sending them? Not so much. The pictures look so cheesy, and who wants to spend precious vacation time browsing postcard racks?

That's why I love the idea of Hazel Mail. Upload one of your photos (the picture of my husband snow tubing, above, would have been perfect), craft a short note, and pay by credit card to send your custom-made postcard anywhere in the world.

Just another reason why Budget Travel is my favorite magazine -- Hazel Mail was profiled in the March issue.

Love this idea too? Send me a thank you postcard!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Are the Deals? Try the Dollar Store

I needed a comb.

When I got my hair cut short, I didn't need the large brushes I used when my hair reached my shoulders. But when I went to the drug store, the cheapest combs were in packs costing upwards of $10-- much more than I expected for something I used to get free on school picture day.

So I went to one of my neighborhood's dollar stores. I easily found a pack of eight combs for about 2 bucks -- and the combs were sparkly, too.

I'm not the only one who relies on dollar stores for some basics.

A New York Times article reported that "while most big retail chains are closing stores and radically cutting back on new outlets, the dollar chains are planning to open hundreds of stores this year in some of the best locations to which they have ever had access."

There's no need to be a dollar store snob. I've purchased everything from greetings cards, loofahs, plastic cups and even glow-in-the-dark maggots. (My cousin was the lucky recipient of that last one at my grandparents' annual bingo extravaganza on Christmas, but you get the idea.)

If you haven't stepped in a Dollar Tree or its kin for years, now might be the time to give it another shot. According to the Times, some stores are even installing refrigerators and freezers to offer a wider selection of food.

It'll be awhile before I depend on Dollar General for my groceries, but perhaps the future is closer than I think.

Monday, May 18, 2009

FREE Chocolate Every Friday!!!

The only thing better than chocolate?

FREE chocolate.

Every Friday through September, Mars is giving away up to 250,000 coupons for free Mars products including M&M's, Snickers, 3 Musketeers, Milky Way, Twix and (my personal favorite) Dove bars.

Sign up each Friday at the Mars Real Chocolate website. I did last week and got an email informing me that my coupon would arrive in about six weeks.

The Mars promotion continues until Sept. 25. You know what that means: I have 19 more candy bar coupons to collect.

Friday, May 15, 2009

We'll Always Have ... Our Eiffel Tower Grater

Item: Eiffel Tower Grater

Price: $25.00

Where to Buy: Pylones

Review: As I made my way to a Payless shoe store in New York's Financial District during my lunch break a few weeks ago, I noticed a new store next door that was about as un-Payless as they come: Pylones.

Pronounced "pee-lone," the store calls to mind Alice in Wonderland- normal, everyday items that come to life through vibrant colors and unique shapes. It's a store full of double takes.

I absolutely hate grating cheese, but I might be the teensiest more willing if each flick of the wrist seemed to bring me closer to Paris. At $25, this Eiffel Tower grater is a bit more expensive than a ticket to the top of the real thing, but it's a whole lot closer.

Image from: Pylones

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Frugal and loving it"

It took a world economic crisis, but people are finally seeing things my way: Thrifty is chic.

As 36-year-old San Francisco resident Cooper Marcus said in a New York Times article, "I'm frugal and loving it."

The article explains how people throughout the country in all social strata are cutting back and, as the Times puts it "outsaving the Joneses."

I don't enjoy hearing about failing banks and soaring unemployment rates. But if there is some icing on this unappetizing cake, it's that it's no longer necessary to hide frugality. More and more people really do seem to understand that cheap and chic aren't always mutually exclusive.

I tend to agree with Vicki Robin, the author of "Your Money or Your Life." I've never read the book, but based on her comment to the Times, I bet I would enjoy it.

“There is no joy in other people suffering," she said, "but this validates the choices I’ve made.”

I would exchange that validation for a sound economy in a minute. After all, thriftiness gets you only so far; you can save only the money you actually make. Thriftiness may provide a cushion, but it does only so much to break the fall.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Grape Salad from My Mom

And today, a recipe from my own mother. It's my favorite recent addition to my recipe box, and a quick side dish or dessert that's easy and cheap.

Grape Salad

2 pounds (or more) of grapes
8 ounce package of cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix the last four ingredients until smooth. Stir in whole grapes. Enjoy!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Muesli From My Mother-in-Law

Happy Mother's Day (almost) to all those moms out there!

I'm not one myself, but I do have a pretty great mother and mother-in-law, so here's to you both. Cheers!

In their honor, I'm featuring one tasty, thrifty, easy recipe from each of them. My mother-in-law's muesli gets the spotlight today. And on Monday... well, you'll just have to see the recipe my mother has shared with me.

I like cereal, but I absolutely love this muesli. The recipe's pretty adaptable-- you can make it sweeter or healthier with little effort. I always half the recipe (and usually keep it in the oven for about half the time). The muesli stays fresh for a long time-- but it tastes so good that you'll probably never find out exactly how long!

I'll post the recipe exactly as it was given to me, but I usually change it based on what I have around. I use quick oats, skip the wheat germ, nuts & pumpkin seeds, and up the brown sugar and sunflower seeds. I'd like to try it with dried cranberries, too. Enjoy!


1 cup wheat bran
6 cups Old Fashioned rolled oats (not quick oats)
1 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup sunflower seeds
1 cup nuts or pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup oil
1 1/2 cups raisins

Mix dry ingredients except raisins and heat in 300 degree oven for one hour. Stir every 15 minutes. A few minutes before removing from oven, stir in the raisins and heat another 5 minutes. Heat oil and honey together and pour over the dry ingredients after they are removed from the oven. Mix thoroughly. After cooled, store in air-tight container.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

More FREE Ice Cream

Cold Stone Creamery's latest ad asks if you love your mom.

The more important question: Does your mom love ice cream?

If the answer to both questions is yes, find last weekend's Sunday ad inserts. Hopefully, your ad includes a coupon for a free Create Your Own Yogurt or Ice Cream + 1 Mix-In for your mom when you order one for yourself.

This may be a regional offer, so check your coupons carefully or call your local Cold Stone to see if they are honoring this promotion.

As if you needed an excuse to get ice cream.

Monday, May 4, 2009

One Week to Get Cheap Stamps

Remember: Postage goes up one week from today. Rates to send a letter increase from 42 cents to 44 cents on Monday, May 11.

Save a few pennies and stock up on some forever stamps while they're still at the lower price. And while you're at the post office, get a handful of 1 cent stamps, too.

About half of the people who get Christmas cards from me this year will see last year's holiday stamp with a couple of penny stamps on their envelope. The other half will probably get forever stamps. I'm tired of buying cute stamps for the season that I can never use up before the prices shoot up yet again.

I never use them all precisely because I'm thrifty. Nearly all of our bills are on autopay. The only check I send out anymore is for the highest bill of all: rent.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Metropolitan Opera on the Cheap

You and a friend can watch New York City's Metropolitan Opera for $50 flat without resorting to standing-room-only tickets, and it's easier than you think.

1. Each Monday, register for a $25 ticket in the weekend ticket drawing section of the Met Opera's website. Tickets may be available for Friday and/or Saturday performances.

2. On Tuesday, the drawing is held. Winners are posted on the website and notified by email.

3. Tickets must be purchased by Wednesday. Each winner is limited to two tickets.

Ta da!

I tried three or four times before I finally won Saturday night orchestra tickets that are normally about $100 to L'Elisir d'Amore. The competition is fierce. On the weekends I lost, there would be page after page after page of winners, and still my name was nowhere in sight.

If you don't mind going to the opera on a weeknight, the Met has an even better deal: $20 orchestra seats Monday through Thursday. Read more about the Met's special ticket offers and how you can get a little culture on the cheap.