Sunday, October 26, 2014

DIY Gift Baskets

Courtesy of Cherry Blossom Floral

It’s that time of year, when you are considering your Christmas shopping budget. You could be considering your lack of one too. Instead of a run to the mall or hovering over your laptop, you could make or assemble your gifts. I’m a big assembler.

DIY Baskets

       I save any decorative box, basket or tin for this purpose. I also pick up baskets at yard sales and thrift shops.

Coffee or Tea basket- Include a pound of coffee or tea boxes, cups, a box of cookies, and possibly a chocolate bar.

Cook’s Basket- Works as a wedding and house warming gift too. Group hard to find and essential tools together. Suggestions: garlic press, cheese slicer, cheese grater, bottle opener, corkscrew, pan scraper, vegetable brush, cheese cloth, dish cloth, dish towel, hot pad, egg timer, kitchen timer, meat thermometer, egg separator, whisk, wooden spoon, slotted spoon, measuring cups, butter brush, and measuring spoons. (Most of these items are available at the Dollar Tree.)
Couch Potato Basket- Think of the recipient’s favorite junk food. A universal remote, TV Guide, and a DVD is a nice touch too.

Emergency Kit- This isn't for your survivalist friend, but something kept in the car for personal emergencies as opposed to the end of the world kind. Contents can vary depending on the sex of the person. It is also great for the traveler. A small zippered pouch or even a pencil bag works great.
Contents: granola bar, water enhancer mix, gun, mints, individual packet of aspirin, antacid, bandages (2), wet wipes (2), small package of tissues, small deodorant, perfume or cologne samples, tiny sewing kit, comb, emery board, dental floss, Wisps tiny toothbrush, lip gloss or Chapstick, and a small bottle of hand cream.

Hot Chocolate Basket- This is the same as the coffee basket with hot chocolate tin or mixes, candy canes, marshmallows and a small stuffed animal. (This one could go to a younger relative or friend.)

Italian Dinner Basket- Spaghetti sauce, pesto, salami, breadsticks, Italian cookbook and pasta.

Movie Lovers Basket- This is similar to the couch potato basket, but it is heavy on DVDs. It should include popcorn and movie candy. (Walmart, Big Lots, even Amazon are great places for cheap DVDs.) You don’t have to get the latest movies, but stick to a theme depending on the person. A big fluffy throw can line the basket too.

Scrapbook Basket- Fill it up with multi-colored Sharpies, wooden stamps, stickers, craft scissors, and a gift card to the local craft store. A small scrapbook works too. (Scrapbooking is expensive, which means this might be on ongoing shopping project. Buy out of season stickers once the season passed. Dollar Tree has several of these items too. Michaels features a 40% off coupon in their weekly ad. )  

Teacher Basket- Teachers spend major dollars supplying their own classroom. They don’t need any more teacher-themed accessories for their desks. They could use a heavy-duty stapler, good scissors, Sharpies, large paper clips, pushpins, Post-it notes, yearly planner, colored pencils, dry erase markers, box of generic notecards for personal notes, and a calendar for the classroom. Depending on the age of the students, you might include aspirin, stickers, and wooden stamp and an inkpad.

Romantic Picnic Basket- A picnic basket with a tablecloth & napkins, plates, wine glasses and a bottle of wine. (I’ve picked up picnic baskets at yard sales and thrift shops. Check out the clearance section in home and discount stores for tablecloth and napkins.  A patterned tablecloth hides stains too.  Single wineglasses are available at the Dollar Tree or Goodwill.)

You can create all sorts of baskets. One of my standbys is the generic basket. It’s for when someone gives you a present you didn’t expect. It also works for people you don’t know well.
The Generic Basket- small to medium basket, which can include, but not necessarily all, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, cups (2), cookies, chocolate, nuts, and an ornament.

Romantic Gift Basket 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Winning Contests, Raffles, and Sweepstakes

Jumping for Joy

Let me start this out by admitting, I’ve never won the lottery jackpot.  I’ve won several other things including:
·         Grocery Shopping spree
·         Calvin Klein Wardrobe
·         Flowers
·         Tickets to movies, events, and concerts
·         Food
·         Chocolate
·         Books
·         DVDs
·         Gym membership
·         Trips
·         Amazon Gift Cards
·         Starbuck Gift Cards

What all of these things have in common is that I entered to win. I never got a mysterious email stating I won a contest I never entered. This is a phishing scam that will either solicit your credit card number or ask you to pay shipping.  A variation of this is they’ll ship the items, and then tell you you’re obligated to pay for them or you’ll be turned over to collections. If you didn’t order it, postal guidelines are you don’t have to pay for it.  If you want to avoid the barrage of threats, send it back.

Second secret to winning is enter when there is a small pool of applicants. That’s usually a local contest for a short time period. Publisher’s Clearing House or Powerball aren’t a good bet. People often spend chunks of money chasing after a winning number combination. There are commercials about how someone won forty million dollars. The flipside is people have gone bankrupt or to jail for writing bad checks in an attempt to buy thousands of dollars in lottery tickets. A couple dollars isn’t too bad, but when you’re skimping on other things to justify it, you’ve crossed the line.

Some effort is involved. On the grocery contest, I raced my grocery cart around competing against other shoppers trying to grab $200 worth of food and check out. The winner snagged groceries for a year. As a runner up, I got a $100 gift certificate. Not too bad, when you consider I didn’t win.

Enter contests that require some skill from writing a jingle to a cute photo of your pet. Often people will bypass a contest that expects something. Read the rules carefully. Occasionally, there’s a prompt to answer.   Disqualification happens because people fail to follow the rules. If you’re writing about using a product, mention the product by its full name.

Location is another item to consider. Particularly your location, this weekend I was at an author faire with a listed giveaway time. People entered and drifted away.  When no winner came forward, a new ticket was drawn.

Enter often. My daughter remarks that I win every time, but I don’t. I enter hundreds of contests, and every now and then, I win something. One of the easy wins for me is radio contests. I always have the radio on; it makes sense to enter a contest that involves listening to the radio.

Go small. It’s easier to win a quilt or a hanging basket at the local church picnic than it is the lottery. It’s still a good feeling.

Be careful of contests that are only building mailing lists. These are usually at big events including state fairs and concerts.  If you don’t mind getting a call about replacement windows or timeshares, then go ahead and enter.

Beware of spending too much time, entering contests. What’s too much time? My guideline is more than 10 minutes a day. Don’t enter a contest if you don’t want any of the finalist prizes.

Some contests don’t deliver. You may have won, but you never get the prize. Happened to me once. Wrote to the company, even copied my winning announcement letter. Nothing. As a result, I never entered any contest sponsored by that company again.

Your local lottery or casino plasters posters of winners holding up an oversized check to prove they actually give away the money. Go with contests you know have proven winners too. In the end, it is about luck, but believing you’re a winner helps too. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hotel Discount Website Secret

I recently discovered a secret when it comes to the travel discount websites. They’re no discount, really. Let me explain why. A hotel might go for $89 on Orbitz, Travelocity or numerous other sites. Good deal when the price is normally $115 a night.

As some of you’ve discovered when you click on the button and try to reserve the room for a desired night, the price might change. You’ve made the mistake of wanting a room on a weekend, or worse yet, a holiday weekend. The $89 jumps to, surprise, $115. The discount sites do not add taxes and associated fees that can be sizable in resort areas. So even now, that discount room is back to regular price, and then some.

My daughter works in the hotel industry for a major corporation; she gave me insights about website discounters. People assume their reservation happens immediately as they type in their credit card number. Not so, a third party at the website has to contact the hotel to make the actual reservation. This doesn’t always happen in an expedient manner resulting in no reservation. The disappointed traveler usually takes their anger on the desk clerk. The wrong number of nights, rooms, even hotels, especially when there is more than one Marriott or Holiday Inn in a city happen when a third party makes the reservation.

Your best bet is to contact the hotel yourself. Mention the $89 room special, most hotels will match the price or even offer a better deal. In the end, the hotel gets $89. If you go through a discount site, they may only earn $50. Direct booking benefits them.

If something goes wrong. Your reservation never occurred, you need to cancel it, or you want your money back, you have to go through the web discounter. Good luck with that! My cancelled flight I booked with a web discount site is a case in point. Drove to the airport, expecting to fly out on my vacation, but had to stay overnight nearby to avoid the long drive home.  The airlines told me if I booked with them directly they’d put me on the next direct flight. Since I booked with a website discounter that I’d have to work it out with them.

This involved a series of phone calls. Most of the time I listened to a recorded message before disconnection. Finally, I reached someone in a call center who insisted I fill out a travel insurance, which I did.

As for flying, my only instructions were to arrive early the next day and try to fly stand by. Ironically, the website service kept calling me and telling me my luggage was ready for pickup in Atlanta. Pretty weird, since I hadn’t even boarded a plane.

More than a year later, I received my reply from the travel insurance company. Despite all my documentation, they refused my claim deciding that losing a vacation day, flying standby, driving back and forth to the airport repeatedly, and staying at a nearby hostelry was not a hardship.

I book all flights direct now. As for hotels, I book direct too. Most hotels have loyalty programs; you can’t use points earned with discount websites. I recently redeemed a free night at the Marriott. It was totally free, no hidden charges. As a loyalty member, by going to the members reward site I receive a bigger discount than the public on room rates.

As for the discount travel websites, I do use them to read reviews, check out area attractions, and flight prices. After doing that, I often use the name of the place I want to go and Google it. I found several discounts that way on our recent trip to San Diego. Once there, I ask locals about good places to go or discounts. They’re able to tell me, which restaurants offer two for one specials, or the best beach to visit.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Local Vs. Corporate

When we moved into our current residence, we had the furnace serviced. The man, who did it, not only charged us $600 for the service, but also talked us into a service plan. The service plan results in a technician coming to our house every couple of months and insisting a $200-$300 repair must be done or our house will self-combust.

This is odd considering we had a very thorough home inspection done and nothing appeared to be wrong with the heating and air system. They would need to be replaced eventually, but not just yet.  We’d signed with one of those national corporations with a catchy commercial. I noticed that none of the techs were never the same or even had the same diagnosis. When I would repeat what the last one said, the current tech would roar with laughter as if I were conducting a comedy routine.

This was all a bit unsettling.  A clogged dryer vent due to a bird nest would cost almost $500 to remove. I may know nothing about heating and air, but I knew that was too much. I decided to ask for a second opinion of a local contractor. He was his own company and charged only one-fifth of one my corporate tech charged.

When our air conditioning wouldn’t work, we decided to go with the local man as opposed to endless techs that worked for the major corporation. He came late on a Friday evening to examine our air conditioning and would only take a standard service charge for his visit that left our air conditioning humming.

The independent contractor gave us an estimate of $3600 to replace our furnace and air conditioning. Big difference from the $11,000 the corporation rep quoted us. Keep in mind; we have a small slab house that barely measures a thousand feet.

In the end, I’d rather go with the local guy than the large corporation and the endless army of techs.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Ever envy celebrities in their customized clothes? They don’t battle with gaping pants waistlines or dresses that don’t fit across the shoulders because of linebacker shoulders. Wouldn’t it be great to get something made just for you? Wouldn’t it be better if it fit?

That was the premise that interested in me in Eshakti. An ad kept popping up in my Facebook sidebar about custom dresses for a fraction of the cost. Yeah, probably like the article in a popular woman’s magazine that thought $200 was not too much to pay for jeans that fit. I clicked on the button and Eshakti had a sale going. They usually have some type of sale going.

I decided to investigate. All customizing fees were waived for the first order. I could change the neckline, hem or sleeves.  To customize an outfit to fit me I had to take exact measurements with a tape measure. This is a very important step and I’ll explain later why.

For my initial order, I picked out a sleeveless lightweight dress and a three quarter sleeve dress of heavier winter weight. This cost me about $35 a dress and postage, which is less than an off the rack dress. It took about three weeks for the dresses to arrive.

The sleeveless dress fit fine. It really looks good on me. Amazing what the right fit can do. The winter weight dress was tight across the shoulders. Turns out, I could not accurately measure my own shoulders and the material had no give. Each outfit has a description of what type of material is used. Keep this in mind when measuring your bust, waist and hips. If you’re a 38” in the bust, you don’t want something that is 38” because it will be skintight.  You can choose regular sizes too, still vary the hem length, and sleeve style. Most dresses come with discreet pockets and bra strap holders, which is great with the wider necklines or sleeveless dresses.

I had to send back my winter weight dress. Eshakti refunded me $44, which included postage. For filling out a survey about the process, they sent me a $25 credit.  I used the credit to buy a darling clearance dress for a mere $10. Clearance dresses are probably returns and only come in standard sizes. I usually buy dresses in 10 or 12. I decided to go with a twelve since the previous material had little give to it. Good decision on my part because the dress fits wonderfully.

If you’re a fan of dresses, this is your go to spot. Factor in ironing too. Not all the dresses need pressing, but the majority do. 


We need five more people on our phone plan. Kids, got any suggestions?
Who hasn’t seen Sprint’s kitschy commercials about adding on family members and near friends to get a small phone rate of $25? Sounds great, doesn’t it? I thought so too.  Commercials are misleading. At the end are disclaimers this is for only new service. You already have Sprint, and then you aren’t eligible. You could add someone new onto your phone and he could benefit, but there’s no real value until you hit seven people.

Why would Sprint do this? Each person receives a separate bill as stated in the commercial, several times. Great, you won’t be responsible for Cousin Edna’s bill. Around $25 is added onto each bill for taxes and other vague charges. At the cheapest rate, each person is paying $50, which is actually more expensive than the former family plan.  Each person pays a $35 activation fee. If you managed to coerce or bully ten people into joining that's $350 for Sprint. 

What if your daughter's boyfriend breaks up with her? Of course, you drop him from the plan or he just stops paying. Your rate automatically goes higher. You can't guarantee any of the people you put on your Framily plan will keep up their side of the bargain. They had no real investment; it's your plan.

I’ve been a Sprint customer for over a decade. Every two years, I get a new phone when I re-up for another two years, except this year. True, I only got the most basic phone, but it was free. This year I had to pay from $60 to $199 for my choice of a phone. This was with my upgrade too. You’re starting to see how Sprint is changing the game. They are not losing money. Even if you think you’re saving money, you’re not.

It is a highly sophisticated shell game. This is one of the reasons I split company with Sprint, but there is another reason, a huge reason, a $700 reason. My husband’s company would pay $150 phone bill reimbursement if it were in my husband’s name, instead, of mine. Sounds like a no-brainer, right. We spent four and half months trying to get the bill changed. Initially, we were told it couldn’t be done, but eventually customer service warned us of dire consequences before sending us long legal documents to fill out, scan and send back with our photo identification. We also conducted two conference calls with both of us on the line swearing we really wanted to do this. This took so long because the automated system would throw us out of the process forcing us to start again.

We spoke with people in the United States, who could understand what we were saying, but still the account was never changed as specified. I spent hours on the phone and online on this one simple matter. We lost over $700 in possible phone reimbursement. My frustrated husband started an account with a competitor in his name only.

I tried to make a go with Sprint with the two remaining family members. I wanted to downgrade our plan to call and text only with the most basic phones. The only phones they’d show me where Droid phones, despite my insistence I didn’t want one. Their basic phone package was still $140 dollars, which was what we were paying for three people.

Sprint was more like a disagreeable relative that I tried to get along with, but finally had to distance myself from for peace of mind. Yes, I did get the talk and text plan for $30 a line. I also snagged two phones for the grand total of $1.07. I went with Verizon who was willing to give me what I wanted and didn’t try to sell me up.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Are You A Target?

Stick Figures Tell Total Strangers with Criminal Intent Too Much
Find out Why. Read More

Ever wonder how robbers pick homes to rob? It usually isn’t impulse. The important thing is to avoid being a target.  What are the ways we make ourselves a target?

*Checking in at various locations via your smart phone. Anyone with social media knows where you’re at and it’s not at home.

*Broadcasting your vacation plans before or while you are on vacation via social media. Plenty of time to post after you get back.

*Big events announcements such as a wedding, funeral, even graduation can lure a burglar to your house. A house sitter or a neighbor would be helpful on these occasions.

*Bought a new television or computer? Cut up the box as opposed to leaving it whole beside the trash can. You might be excited about your new toy, but no reason to advertise to would be burglars.

*Do you have sliding glass doors? If so, use the pole stick in the door to keep uninvited guests out. This is the number two method of burglars entering a home.

* The favorite entry is through unlocked doors. Many people, especially those with children, leave doors unlocked when they leave. Not on purpose, the children who have been running in and out of the house left them unlocked.

* Lock second stories windows do not assume they’re unreachable.

*Change your garage code if it is 000, 1234, 2345, 9999, etc. An enterprising robber can go through a quick series of common numbers.

*Know your neighbors. Bold burglars showed up with a moving van systematically robbed a swanky neighborhood. They would occasionally change out the moving van for a white panel van. The neighbors never expected anything even though they watched the robbers load all the goodies into the van. Staying current with the neighbors would have alerted them of any moving plans or not.

*Got vanity license plates on your car? Con artists are very fond of these because it demonstrates a strong need for attention and the belief that the owner is special. These are key elements for a face to face con.

*Stick people on cars, especially if they include sports figures. Your son’s football helmet with his name identifies that he’ll be at practice or games. It isn’t hard to look up school games and knowing when the family will be gone.

*Pedophiles can use the stick people to shop for potential targets, especially if emblazoned with the child’s name. (Of course, a mini-van is hint enough you have children.)

*Being nice & talking to strangers. Remember your mom always warned you about strangers. Con artists approach people who are nice to them. Those who rebuff them are saved the trouble of trying to get out of a too good to be true deal.

*Don’t Expect a Free Lunch. Ever found yourself in a resort city and been approached by timeshare rep offering you free or reduced tickets for a few minutes of your time. First, it will a daylong ordeal, leaving you little time to use the hard-earned tickets. Using your AAA discount is a better solution.

*Secure Your Valuables- This no brainer is true for any time.  Traveling-hide your valuables, lock your car, and use the hotel safe. Often robbers aren’t always strangers. With this in mind, keep your valuables locked up. Often prescription medicine can be the item targeted as opposed to grandmother’s pearls. Be aware of who is in your house from maid service, handy men, etc. Once something is missing, it’s gone. A high deductible would cancel out any benefit of even registering a claim. Often insurance companies refuse to pay, especially if the house was unlocked or you have no proof of purchase of the stolen item.

Your best bet is try not to be a target.