Monday, March 30, 2009

White Lies .. and Affordable Wedding Gifts?

I opened my mailbox Saturday and there it was.

The first wedding invitation of the season.

And while I won't be able to go to all -- or even most -- of the happy events over the next few months, I will be buying them all gifts. I try to look at the newlyweds' registry, but when I'm sending a gift or flying to the ceremony with only a tiny suitcase, I tend to choose something small and easy: a gift card.

Don't want to go that route? Earlier this month the New York Times published an article with tips from etiquette experts about affordable wedding gift-giving. One tip especially caught my eye:

“I always go to a small, unknown antiques shop and buy something very inexpensive,” [etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige] said. “I write a lovely note on the card that this item is very old, perhaps 100 years old, and from Vienna. Just that note makes the gift rise in value. It’s called a gentle white lie.”

I'm all for creative presents, but it seems like this is going a bit too far. Surely you can think of a good gift without resorting to lies, white or not! Thoughts?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Best Hotel Deals: Looking Beyond Priceline

I've long extolled the virtues of Priceline. I mean, how else would I ever have stayed at the Chicago Hilton across from Millennium Park for a mere $60 a night?

But while Priceline certainly is a wallet-saver, to get the best hotel deals you need to visit yet another website before you ever name your own price. You need to visit Bidding for Travel.

Click on the state you want to visit and you'll get a list of successful Priceline bids submitted by the users themselves.

Staying in Cincinnati? A room in a a 3-star hotel is going for $35 in June. Flying into Phoenix? Based on the listings, I'd start my bidding around $40.

By visiting Bidding for Travel before Priceline, I've reserved cheap rooms in cities such as Chicago; Pittsburgh; Seattle; Montreal; Portland, Maine and yep, even Cincinnati.

Thanks to my thrifty ways, our February visit to Burlington was only $51 a night. At that rate, a month in Vermont would be nearly as cheap as a month in our Brooklyn rental-- and the Burlington hotel came with breakfast!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Exploring NYC Like a Local

Item: City Walks: New York

Price: $14.95

Where to Buy: Chronicle Books

Review: When my husband and I moved to New York a year and a half ago, City Walks: New York was one of the first things on my wish list. Lo and behold it was under the Christmas tree that December.

OK, the size of our new Brooklyn apartment didn't permit a Christmas tree, but you know what I mean.

The 50 walks have you hoofing it mostly in Manhattan, but there's a few adventures in the boroughs as well. The box is sturdy and the cards are easy to read. My only complaint? The cards are just a little too big to be inconspicuous. I don't want to look like a tourist-- especially when I'm not one, exploring my adopted city.

In any case, the City Walks cards are just as fun to look at as they are to use, and they do provide some good ideas for escapes within the city.

City Walks are available for metropolitan areas throughout the country and around the world, making them an ideal going away present or gift for the travel-hungry friends and relatives in your life.

Image from: Chronicle Books

Monday, March 23, 2009

Morality at the Grocery Store

A couple of weekends ago I got 20 flour tortillas for 32 cents and left the grocery store feeling like I saint. Here's how:

I watch the grocery store scanner like a hawk.

The store nearest our apartment has good deals, but the sales are frequently unmarked on the shelves and about half of the items have no price label on them whatsoever. I carry the weekly sales flier with me through the store, carefully choosing the correct brands and sizes. Often, my husband will unload the cart while I point out a mistake or two to the person checking us out.

Invariably, there is a mistake. We leave with a correction on our receipt maybe once out of every two or three visits. Not good odds.

A few weekends ago I noticed a sale on flour tortillas, so I picked up two packages. Like usual, the packages themselves didn't have price tags. The cashier scanned them for $2.09 apiece, which I knew was too high.

She asked me how much they were marked for. $1.69, I thought.

She canceled the sale and punched in the new price. Only she forgot the last number and charged us 16 cents.

I'll admit it: I hesitated. We've gotten ripped off here before. But I pointed out the error.

Now it was time for her to hesitate. But only for a moment. It must have been a long day, because she left the price alone.

If the price rings up a dime more than it should be, I keep my mouth shut. Maybe 20 cents. But more than that, I'll let the cashier know. I'm nice about it, and they are too. Do you point out mistakes to cashiers?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Throw Your Worries Away

Item: Worry Dolls

Price: $2

Where to Buy: Global Marketplace

Review: It's the first day of spring-- throw your concerns to the wind with worry dolls from Guatamala.

Legend has it that you tell one of the dolls a worry and then place it under your pillow before you fall asleep. While you sleep, the worry disappears.

I should try this more often.

With six dolls to a box, you can get rid of no less than 42 worries a week. What a deal! In economic times like these, maybe worry dolls should be a necessity right up there with food, drink and shelter.

Image from:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Double the Fun with Thrifty Gum

Item: New Slim Pack of Wrigley's gum

Price: FREE

Where to Buy: Any grocery store

Review: I don't chew gum, but I'll give it a try if it's free.

Check your SmartSource advertising insert for a coupon for a FREE Slim Pack of either Doublemint, Juicy Fruit, Wrigley's Spearmint, Big Red or Winterfresh gum. Coupon expires May 31, 2009.

Coupons occasionally vary based on your location. I'm in Brooklyn, New York, and received mine this past weekend.

Happy chewing.

Image from:

Monday, March 16, 2009

5 Cheap St. Patrick's Day Food & Drinks

Tomorrow's the big day celebrating everything Irish: St. Patrick's Day.

But not everyone has the cash (or vacation days) to take the day off work and spend it downing Guinness in the local pub. If you're hosting or attending a St. Patrick's Day Party, here's 5 cheap "Irish" foods you can present with a few bucks and maybe a bit of food coloring.

1. Potatoes are Irish. Green is Irish. Put a little food coloring in your mashed potatoes for an Ireland-inspired treat. Fun for the kids, and easy.

2. Don't put away the food coloring yet-- now it's time for an adult treat. Bars don't have to be the only ones to serve green beer. Get your favorite light-colored alcoholic beverage and tint it to your heart's content.

3. For a cheap and easy side dish on St. Patrick's Day or any day of the year, cut up a head of cabbage and place it in a large microwavable bowl. Top with a couple of tablespoons of butter and some salt. Heat until the butter is melted and the cabbage is warm. Yum!

4. Drinks all around-- the non-alcoholic kind. Make some Irish breakfast tea for the crowd.

5. No green food coloring in the cupboard? Don't have time to go to the grocery store for some sauerkraut? Tie a big green ribbon on your serving dish and call it a day.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pretty Peruvian Good Luck Charms

Item: Silver Peruvian Earrings

Price: $20

Where to Buy:

Review: I'm a big fan of gifts that are good conversation pieces.

The shop HuayruroPeru alerted me to the jewelry, keychains and other accessories they sell online- all under $50. What makes them unique? The red and black Huayruro seeds are good luck charms in Peru.

As the economy takes a beating, I'll take some luck however I can get it. Especially when it comes in such a pretty form.

Image from: HuayruroPeru shop on Etsy

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chocolate, Creamy & Spreadable: Nutella

Item: Nutella Hazelnut Spread

Price: $5.49 (or less)

Where to Buy: Your Local Grocery Store

Review: My husband is allergic to nuts, so he regrettable has never tried Nutella, the chocolate hazelnut spread that I adore. I secretly think that's OK- that means the whole jar is mine.

Prices vary, and the spread sometimes goes on sale. It's a delectable treat with a European flair, despite the fact that one of the plants it's manufactured in is actually in New Jersey.

No matter. Nutella is still tasty on toast, crackers, crepes-- really nearly anything you can think off. I occasionally make peanut butter-Nutella sandwiches: a thick layer of pb on one side, a thick layer of Nutella on the other. Yum! Next up: on pancakes.

Image from: Nutella USA

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cheap Eats (and Drinks) in New York City

Now that the site's thrifty gift guide has a couple of dozen entries, it's time to focus a bit more on what I really love: saving money.

At least once a week I'll still be featuring cheap gift ideas that I find (A) fascinating, (B) practical, (C) unique or (D) all of the above. But now you can also look forward to posts and discussions about saving money at home or out on the town.

New York City is one of the most expensive areas in the world, so living a thrifty lifestyle is all relative. Still, a night out in one of Manhattan's most popular neighborhoods can be just as cheap as any other town if you know where to look.

So where should you look? Crocodile Lounge, at 325 E. 14th St., just a short walk from Union Square. For 5 bucks you get a pint along with a free personal brick oven pizza.

Want to splurge? Order a $6 beer, or get a topping on the pizza for only $2. But I'm fine with a Yuengling and a cheese pizza I load up with the herbs, red peppers and garlic provided gratis.

The beer's cold, the pizza's good and the ambiance isn't bad either. Crocodiles are the name of the game. Look for the "statues" on the ceiling.

In a city where it's rare to get a beer for less than $6 or $7 (or more), Crocodile Lounge really is a gem in a crowded jungle.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Classic Toy for the Young & Young-At-Heart

Item: Etch-A-Sketch

Price: $17.99

Where to Buy: World-of-Toys

Review: My end table has the obligatory pile of books for us or our guests to peruse in spare moments of boredom. But the place of honor at the top of that stack goes not to a book, but a toy: the Etch-A-Sketch.

Maybe location is why I have a special affinity for this toy-- the first Etch-A-Sketch rolled off a production line in 1960 in Bryan, Ohio, just one city over and 21 years before I was born in nearby Defiance.

But really-- who can resist trying to write their name in cursive, carefully turning the white knobs that at once seem too sensitive and not sensitive enough? I was never too interested in drawing pictures with the Etch-A-Sketch, but I was fascinated by the geometric possibilities. More than once have I filled the entire screen with lines mere millimeters apart, yet never touching.

The Etch-A-Sketch is a classic toy that doesn't go out of style. Introduce it to a child for the first time, or buy it as a coffee table knick knack for your sibling or best friend.

Image from: World of Toys

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Plan Your Dream Vacation from Your Armchair

Item: Budget Travel magazine

Price: $12/year (10 issues)

Where to Buy: BudgetTravel

Review: I subscribe to one magazine, and Budget Travel is it. And why not? It combines two of my passions: traveling and saving money.

I love the tips, like packing a deflated beach ball to blow up on a plane, balance on your lap and use as a pillow.

I love the articles, which even teach me new things about Brooklyn, my new abode.

I love the pictures, taking me to places I'll never visit and maybe even a few I might.

Budget Travel really is for the everyday person who has a few weeks of vacation and wants to make the most of them. They don't ignore the major tourist attractions of the US and Europe, but they also visit places you may never have considered. A recent spread on Kuala Lumpur comes to mind.

For a gift the keeps giving all year long, I highly recommend Budget Travel for travel pros and armchair travelers alike.

Image from: Budget Travel

Monday, March 2, 2009

Moon Globe

Item: Moon Globe

Price: $49.95

Where to Buy: Scientifics

Review: I have no less than five globes.

OK, two of them are banks the size of softballs, but that's still a lot of globes for a small Brooklyn apartment.

In addition to two normal-sized replicas of Earth: A moon globe. Until I met my now-husband, I never even knew such a thing existed. The moon globe was one of the few things I was truly excited about merging with my own stuff when we got married. (I wasn't quite as thrilled about the old Nintendo magazines he insisted could not be stored in the trash can, but that's another story.)

With only different shades gray, the moon globe certainly isn't as colorful as it's Earth counterparts. But it is surprisingly detailed and a thoughtful gift for a cartography-minded friend or relative.

Image from: