I love couponing. I’ve waxed poetic about the awesomeness of coupons on this site more than once. I’ve even been known to send friends links to really cool coupons involving free chocolate. However, there is a right way to use coupons and a wrong way. You don’t want to be the crazy coupon lady irritating everyone in line behind you and the cashier. Thus, today features a new stabby post all about the crazy coupon lady I encountered this weekend.

Signs of the Crazy Coupon Lady
I’m impressed by the women who buy $400 worth of stuff for thirteen cents. I marvel at their achievement. However, these women don’t truly qualify as Crazy Coupon Ladies because they’re organized. They know how to move through the line quickly and when to drop an argument. Here are 5 signs that you’ve crossed the line from Coupon Marvel to Crazy Coupon Lady:

  • Your coupons are a jumbled mess that takes five minutes to sort out at the register.
  • Your coupon wad blocks the infrared sensor that prevents the conveyor belt from moving, but don’t realize it and wonder aloud (and rudely) why the cashier is stretching to reach all of your groceries.
  • You try to return an expired item from your stockpile.
  • You argue with the cashier who explains that she can’t accept expired food as a return.
  • You try to use coupons for things you didn’t buy or for a different brand, and then rudely ask the cashier why she can’t take them.

Don’t Be the Crazy Coupon Lady
So what can we learn from the crazy coupon lady I encountered this weekend?

Keep Your Coupons Organized
It’s not enough to have some sort of organization method before you get to the store. You must also have an organization method while in the store. They should not be wadded up in your wallet and then dumped out for you to sort while the cashier rings you up. I keep the coupons I might use in one pocket of my purse and then move them next to my wallet once I have the appropriate item in my cart. That way they’re in a neat stack when I reach the register.

As a subsection of this item: don’t rest your purse, wallet, or messy wad of unsorted coupons on the conveyor belt in front of the infrared beam. If you do, don’t accuse the cashier of trying to rush you through when she has to reach to the very back of the stationary belt to reach your items.

Rotate Your Stockpile
This is an actual transcript of the conversation that transpired between the Crazy Coupon Lady and the Beleaguered Cashier about a bottle of expired salad dressing:

CCL: I need to return this.
BC: Do you have a receipt?
CCL: No, I can’t find it.
BC: It’s expired. I can’t take back expired food.
CCL: I didn’t see it was expired until after I ate it and had a reaction.
BC: I’m sorry. I can’t take back expired food without a receipt.
CCL: But I had a reaction to it.
BC: I’m sorry. I can’t take back expired food.
CCL: It was expired when I bought it and I didn’t notice until I had a reaction.
BC: (grumble) I’m sorry. I can’t take back expired food. Maybe if you had a receipt it would be different.
CCL: I’ll take it to another store. They’ll let me return it without a problem.

During this exchange, I could read the cashier’s mind: “CCL didn’t buy this expired. It was in her stockpile and expired before she got to it.” If you’re going to stockpile, make sure you eat or donate food before it expires. Don’t let it sit in your cupboard and then try to return it without a receipt after it expires. Also, don’t be annoyed with the cashier for observing the store policy about expired food. I have had to return soft cheese that had gone bad (before it expired), but I discovered it within days of my visit and still had the receipt. The store simply exchanged it for a good one.

Make Sure the Right Items Are In Your Cart
Finally, make sure that you actually match up the coupons with the right products. It can be tricky sometimes – the coupon might be for lipstick and you buy mascara in the same brand. That’s understandable and the cashier might push it through or you can dig into your coupon box to retrieve the right one.

Don’t, however, try to use a coupon for the wrong brand and then rudely ask the cashier why she won’t accept it. Pepperidge Farm is not going to reimburse the store for a coupon used to buy a Pillsbury product. I don’t care if they’re both “Toaster Toasts.” Buy the right brand or don’t use the coupon.

I will say this: the CCL so irritated the cashier that I got great service by simply being polite and having my coupons neatly organized. Of course, I had extra time while waiting for the CCL to finish arguing and move out of the way. Have you encountered a CCL? What was your reaction?

I’ve already collected a few gardening tools, and eagerly borrowed several gardening books from the library to start planning my garden. I’ve settled on Square Foot Gardening for my vegetable garden, but will also have to do some flower planting this fall to prevent our hill from sliding during the El Nino rains. I’ve pretty much worked out what I plan to grow on the hill, but I need more ideas for our vegetable garden.

Square-Foot Gardening Made Simple
The All-New Square Foot Gardening book explains in detail how to make raised beds and then plant different crops in each square foot. That way you avoid over-planting one particular crop. Since I’ve never grown vegetables before, I plan to start with one full-size box and then a few smaller boxes. I’ll expand as needed in my second growing season.

Potential Crops
Remember, I live in Southern California, so I’m both blessed and cursed. I’m blessed because my growing season stretches from March to December. I’m cursed because we have severe droughts, constant water crunches, and flooding roughly every seven years. That’s one reason I’m waiting until March to plant veggies – I don’t want to drown the poor dears my first growing season.

My current plan is to build one four-foot by four-foot box (sixteen squares) for veggies, one one-foot by four-foot box for climbing vine plants, one one-foot by four-foot box that’s a foot deep for long veggies, and a one-foot by one-foot box for herbs.

4 x 4 Box
My plan is to put the following in the 4 x 4 box:
Red lettuce
Green leaf lettuce
Yellow onions
Red potatoes (2 spots)

1 x 4 Climbing Box
The climbing box will contain:
Green peppers
Red peppers

Deep 1 x 4 Box
So far I’ve only decided on one crop for this box:

Herb Box
In addition to the herb box, I’ll have separate pots for mint and rosemary to keep them from taking over the whole box. The herb box will contain:
Italian Parsley

As you can see, I have way more space than I have crops. So, this is where you come in. What else should I grow? I’ve got eight open spaces in the big box, one open space in the climbing box, three open spaces in the deep box, and probably a lot more room in the herb box. I’m thinking of putting snow peas in the fourth climbing spot, even though I won’t see results until the following year.

Post your suggestions in the comments, but keep the following in mind: I don’t want to grow any seriously water-hogging plants. I know the lettuce and tomatoes will take more than other vegetables, so I’m compromising there. Other plants should be able to withstand high summer heat, too. We don’t have much humidity, so they have to like dry air.

Help me grow my garden! I’ll be posting my progress with photos as the season progresses. Right now I’m in the information gathering phase. What are your secrets for gardening success?

On the first anniversary of the “official” start of the financial crisis (even though it was creeping up on us well before then), several articles have argued that the crisis resulted in a “new frugality” that has permanently altered the spending behavior and attitudes of an entire generation, similar to what happened after the Great Depression. I call BS.

This Recession and a Great Depression Are Not the Same
So far the recession has lasted a year to a year and a half. That’s longer than most, but nowhere near as long as the dual recessions that made up the Great Depression. It’s also true that the impact on people’s wallets will be felt for longer, but I doubt we’ll see the same wreckage we saw in the Depression.

No Food Shortages
Remember, the Depression was also accompanied by a drought (the famous Dust Bowl) that saw many, many crops fail. Although we still have droughts, our farmers have learned the lesson and don’t farm that way anymore, so we’re not looking at the food shortages that caused people to stretch groceries and stand in bread lines.

Cheaper Products
During the 1930s, some products were imported, but most were built right here. They also cost a LOT more to replace. Even with the recession, a family in need of new socks can find cheap options rather than learn to darn a sock. I don’t think people will take to knitting (which would be expensive) to repair cheap items. In addition, our stuff is no longer designed to last a long time, like it was 80-100 years ago. This weekend our DVD player broke. It would cost as much to fix it (if we could even find a repairman) as it would to replace it. Regardless of how the economy fares, we will still be faced with products that aren’t designed to be fixed.

Smaller Job Losses
Yes, we have high unemployment, but it’s still half the level of the Great Depression and it appears to be slowing. We will likely continue to see lags for the next few years, but unless we have a serious double-dip, I don’t think we’ll get to 25%.

We’re Not Heading into Rationing
This is something I considered this weekend, which I think most commentators ignore. World War II is credited with ending the Great Depression. However, the scope of the war was so great that the US government was quickly forced to start a rationing program for many household goods, including food.

There was essentially a 15-year period where a generation had to learn to do without or make do with less. That indeed does have a lasting impression and will form the behavior of a generation. I don’t think the current recession will last long enough to make a real change in American consumer behavior.

It’s Not All Bad News
I do hope that some of the changes will be lasting, partially because they were already the trend and partially because it will only take a few years to make something into a habit.

Increases in the Savings Rate
I hope that people will continue to see the value in saving money after the recession is over. Because it looks likely that it will take a few years for the jobs market to completely recover and credit will be tighter for a while, people will have a few years to turn saving money into a habit. Hopefully it will stick.

Interest in Sustainability/Anti-Consumerism
Sustainability, simplicity, and reduced consumerism were buzzwords before the recession, so I think they’ll continue to be popular after the economy recovers. Hopefully that will encourage people to make better choices, but at the same time we’ll still have products that are designed to be disposable. We’d have to make major global production changes to return to the era of repairing rather than fixing.

Delayed Gratification
Parents are learning to say “no.” Again, this was happening before the recession. Parents were realizing that molly-coddling kids and giving them everything they want is bad for them in the long-run. The recession intensified that trend and I hope it sticks. Our instant gratification society is part of what got us into this mess and fixing it will help us avoid getting there again.

Has the recession permanently changed your attitudes and behavior? Do you think the changes in attitude will last or do you already see people itching to spend? What one societal change will stick?

Experts say there is a best time to buy anything. Big screens after the Super Bowl, laptops for back-to-school, and here’s one I’ve just discovered: patio furniture and grills after Labor Day.

Which Stores Have Big Sales
A full-time patio store may have some items on clearance after Labor Day, but since patios are their year-round business, don’t look for big markdowns any time of year. Instead, check out the seasonal players.

Sears: Sears actually has pretty nice patio stuff. We’ve had our eye on a set since late June and have watched the price rise and fall. I thought it might go on sale for Labor Day, but it actually returned to full price in time for the holiday. It’s now 50% off. They need to move the patio stuff out to make room for Halloween and Christmas stuff.

Home Improvement Centers: We were at Lowe’s before Labor Day, and they had no sales. They still don’t have great sales on some of the items, but some of their patio furniture is significantly marked down. I expect I’d find the same situation at Home Depot or OSH. Like Sears, they have to make room for the winter goods, even in always-warm Southern California. Now if you live in Hawaii, don’t expect to see markdowns anytime soon.

Department Stores: Places like Ikea may keep some patio furniture around year-round, but they mark down much of it to make room for holiday stuff. The same goes for the major department stores like Macy’s, JC Penney’s, etc.

Discount Stores: It’s time for Target and Costco to start moving this stuff out. They have Christmas merchandise to put in its place. You may not find deals online, where they have warehouses to store everything, but check the stores to find deals.

Outdoor Living Options
Some of the more expensive items may not be marked down because they can be returned to the manufacturer, but the low and mid-priced items are priced to sell.

Grills: Look for the basic grills to go on sale, but the $5000 mega-grills, also called outdoor kitchens, will probably keep their sky-high prices because those are home improvement projects, not summer buys.

Umbrellas, Pagodas, and Awnings: Most people take down their shades and put them away for winter, so now is the time to buy them. Just put the whole thing in the garage or shed until next summer, confident that you saved 50%.

Dining Sets: Mid-priced dining sets should be significantly marked down so buy them and put them in the garage or shed for winter unless you live some in a place where you can eat outside for a few more months.

Seating Collections: I saw minor markdowns on outdoor seating collections. These outdoor “living room” sets are currently very trendy, so I wouldn’t expect them to be seriously marked down quite yet, but you should check around to see if you can snap up any bargains from desperate sellers.

I know it seems odd to be buying patio furniture at the end of summer, but it always makes sense to buy at a time when you can get a better deal than at the peak of the season. True, the selection is more limited, but there are still nice items to be found if you’re willing to visit a few stores.

My mom first taught me to sew when I was a pre-teen. I made one or two outfits and then promptly stopped sewing. But it was still a lesson that stuck with me and already it’s saved me money. Although a sewing machine costs up to a few hundred dollars, it’s well worth the investment if you learn to use it.

Fixing Clothes
This is the most basic money-saver and in most cases it doesn’t require a sewing machine. Everyone should know how to sew a button or tack a seam. You can even use hem tape to avoid the sewing if you want to. I still have to learn how to hem for real, but it’s on my list because it will save me serious cash.

Making Curtains
Our new house has lots of windows and not one window covering. We’ll be buying blinds for some of the rooms – and no, I don’t recommend DIYing blinds – but for other rooms my mom and I will be sewing curtains. Most of my windows are custom-sized, which means drapes or curtains easily cost $200 each. For example, I need three 43 x 23 inch curtains for the master bedroom. If I had those made, it would run me $600. I can buy the fabric and make them myself for $50, even if I buy expensive fabric and make Roman shades. Simple café curtains for the kitchen would set me back all of $10. Of course, there are some cases where it’s cheaper to go down to Bed Bath & Beyond and buy off-the-rack, but if you want something fancier, learn to sew them yourself to save hundreds of dollars.

As I detailed last year, I decided to resume my sewing career by making slipcovers. I also made produce bags and yoga mat bags while I was at it. However, slipcovers probably weren’t the best choice after 22 years of not sewing. It took a long time and lot of stabbed fingers, but it also cost me $200, which is at least $600 cheaper than custom covers would have cost.

Children’s Clothing and Diapers
If you have kids, then learning to sew can save you hundreds of dollars over their childhoods. Here’s a short list of things you may have to sew at some point: Halloween costumes, school plays, cloth diapers, cute dresses and shirts, hems so you can buy pants too long and let your kids grow into them, nursery curtains then later other curtains as they grow.

Now that I own a home, I intend to buy my own sewing machine. There are so many projects I want to make. Of course it helps that I have one of the country’s largest garment districts in my backyard, so I can get cheap fabric quickly and easily, but you can also find fabric online or with a coupon at a local fabric store.

It used to be that sewing clothes was cheaper than buying clothes, but that’s not the case anymore. Still, fixing clothes and making non-clothing items can save you thousands of dollars over a lifetime. If you want to learn to sew, you could take sewing classes at a store, but most people have moms who sew. Most moms also have sewing machines. Ask her to teach you how to sew. I’m sure she’ll be delighted to show you.

There has been a lot of talk about the anniversary of the financial collapse this week. Most of it has focused on either the reporters who covered the story or the financial systems that were in trouble. I’m going to get a little more personal and talk about how my life has changed in the last 12 months.

We Paid Off Debt
Shortly after the beginning of the global meltdown, we completed the last of our planned debt reduction. We’d been working on it for months, and the changed financial system didn’t deter us from our path.

We Bought a House
We took advantage of low interest rates, the foreclosure boom, and the first-time homebuyer tax credit to buy our first house. It took us six months of looking to finally have an offer accepted, but we also managed to amass 20% down and make a good deal on a foreclosure in great condition.

We Kept Our Jobs
This is key – we were able to do all of this because we kept our jobs. My husband received a raise a few days after the crash, but other than that, our income has remained flat. We’re not complaining (too much) about that, because we’re happy both of our employers have survived without cutbacks in salary or benefits. We know we’re much better off than most people in that regard. We have friends who haven’t worked in months, but we also have friends who are independent contractors and are busier than ever.

I Didn’t Lose Our Retirement Completely
I kept investing in my 401K at the same level as before the crash, so I eked out a 0.8% gain over the last 12 months. Of course, the bulk of that gain is from my contributions, but the stock market rally has improved my balance slightly in the last 3-4 months. I had a fairly aggressive portfolio because I’m young(ish) and have a long timeline. That means my balance crashed more than the S&P 500, but also received more benefit from the rally.

We Have Some Savings
Even after putting 20% down on a house, we still have a cash reserve as an emergency fund. It continues to grow, despite the higher mortgage, insurance, and property taxes, because the mortgage deductions and first-time homebuyer credit significantly reduced our tax burden. Rather than file an amended return for 2008, or wait until next year, we simply adjusted our withholding so that we won’t be withholding Federal taxes through the end of the year. We’ll still get a small refund in March when we file our taxes, but we’ll get most of the money through the rest of the year, just as we start buying furniture. We actually would have lost some of the credit if we filed an amended return for 2008 due to our taxable windfall income. This year that’s not a “problem.”

All told, I think we did pretty well for the biggest financial disaster since the Great Depression. We’re grateful that we haven’t suffered the way some of our friends have. How about you? Where do you stand a year later? It’s time to finally open those 401K statements and take stock of your current situation so you can move ahead to the future.

This morning I saw an interesting article in the New York Times about the rise of self-storage facilities in this country. Most people don’t need these. I have actually used a storage unit once, for three months to avoid carting my college stuff home for the summer, but we got the first three months at half price, so it wasn’t a bad deal. I’m also a member of a non-profit that has a storage unit for the equipment that is used once a year at our annual event. We have no office, so this solves the problem of storing stuff none of us want in our homes the other 364 days a year. I’m not saying the units don’t have a purpose, just that the way most American us them is a waste of money. It’s time to get rid of yours.

Stop Storing Stuff You Don’t Need or Want
According to the article, a full 15% of storage unit renters are storing stuff they “no longer need or want.” What? If you don’t like something enough to want it, and you don’t need it anymore, why don’t you sell it or throw it out? As the article pointed out, you’re more likely to buy something new when you do finally need a replacement. By storing it, you’re throwing away money rather than throwing away an object that has no value anymore.

Stop Storing Excess Stuff
Some people have so much stuff that it won’t fit in their homes and overflows into a storage unit. If you have that much stuff, you probably have stuff you can get rid of. Rather than pay hundreds of dollars for a storage unit, have a garage sale and make a couple hundred dollars. If it’s something you don’t value or don’t use often enough to keep in your home, it’s not something you need to own anymore. The argument that you paid for it so it has value,  is bunk. That money’s gone. Don’t throw more money after it.

New Stuff is Cheaper Anyway
If you spend $200 a month to store an item originally valued at $800, you’ve exceeded its value after just four month. So, give it away, throw it away, or sell it. Then buy something new. It will probably be cheaper. Why not put that $200 a month into a savings account to go towards the purchase of replacement stuff when you need it? Then your money could actually make you money rather than being wasted.

Ignore the Emotional Attachment
I knew a woman who had a storage unit crammed with stuff that had belonged to her deceased father. Because it was his, she attached value to it. Except that she was keeping it in a storage unit rather than enjoying it, so had no true value. If you’re storing something that you have an emotional attachment to, but no actual use for, take a weekend to go through the stuff. Experience the memory, and then move on. I doubt your father would want you to spend $200 a month storing his old furniture (non-antique). He’d want you to save your money.

Don’t Store Other People’s Stuff
This is the most egregious example in the article. A man was storing stuff for his ex-fiancee, stuff that had once been stored in his garage, and then moved into a storage unit that she made him pay for. I also read a story in Dear Abby about someone who had been storing a friend’s stuff in her garage for six years, and now needed the room. She wondered if she was obligated to get a storage unit for it. If your friend, neighbor, relative, or ex hasn’t laid claim to their stuff in years, they probably don’t need it. Give them a call and tell them they have 10 days to remove their stuff, or it will be thrown out. If they don’t, get rid of it. You are under no obligation to pay to store the junk someone else dumped on you.

A Better Storage Option
If you have valuables that you must store off-site, get a safe deposit box. It’s much cheaper than the $50-200 a month that a storage unit would cost, and more secure. Other than that, if it can’t fit in your home, garage, or shed, get rid of it. I bet that you’ll never know it’s gone.

After our new dryer was installed, we asked the Gas Company to come out and perform a safety check. If you’re a new homeowner, it’s worth it for peace of mind, and may prevent future potential problems.

How to Arrange the Safety Check
Simply call your gas utility and ask for a “safety check” appointment. If you smell gas, tell them and they should be at your house within 15 minutes. If you don’t smell gas, they’ll schedule an appointment during regular business house.

What They’ll Check
When they come out for a safety check, they will check all gas appliances and gas lines. For example:

  • Dryer
  • Heater/Furnace
  • Oven
  • Stove
  • Food Warmer
  • Gas Fireplace Igniter
  • Water Heater

The Gas Company inspector first checked the dryer. It didn’t have a leak, but he found that they’d used an unnecessary connector that would have eventually caused a problem. He removed the connector, resealed the gas line, and checked the dryer. He also confirmed what our home inspector had told us about the fireplace missing one of the gas pipes and advised us to get it fixed before using them. The pipe isn’t leaking gas, but we can’t turn it on without fixing that pipe.

Emergency Gas Galls
I once called the Gas Company when I smelled gas in my old apartment. I thought it was the heater, and he found a small leak there, but he also checked my other gas appliances and found that the stove was actually the culprit. It looked off, but was turned on so low that it was leaking gas.

My husband once called at his old apartment and found that the gas pilot in their oven had gone off, and was leaking gas. The Gas Company relit the pilot and checked the pipes to make sure there wasn’t a leak there.

Safety Check Fee
Our safety check was free, but even if it was a nominal fee, we would have done it. By checking our appliances now, we were able to prevent a future problem. For example, I’d forgotten about the gas pipe missing from the fireplace. We’ll also be using that dryer a lot. I’d rather prevent a problem than spend hundreds or thousands fixing it later.

Scheduling the safety check is easy. Just call your local gas utility and schedule the appointment. You will have to be home during the appointment window, but it’s a small inconvenience for the peace of mind.

This week I have just two carnivals to share.

First, the Carnival of Personal Finance hosted by Stretchy Dollar.  In addition to my post about cheap foreign currency, I also recommend My Dollar Plan’s budget travel tips.

Second, the Festival of Frugality #193 hosted by the Canadia Finance Blog. In addition to my post about new homeowner tools, I also recommend Kitchen Stewardshi’s tips for cleaning your stove and oven without expensive cleaners.

Labor Day is once again upon us. My holiday will be spent doing all the things I couldn’t do while prepping for my move, like getting an oil change, a hair cut, and a car wash. We also plan to hit a couple of the sales to buy a bunch of stuff we need for the house. Normally I avoid the sales and other events and just relax, so here are seven cheap ways to celebrate Labor Day.

Use a Museum’s Air-Conditioning
It’s going to be hot in a lot of places this weekend, but you can avoid using your air-conditioning by using someone else’s instead. Check local museums to see if they’re offering a free Monday. Also visit Target.com to find out if they’re sponsoring a free day at a local museum or Bank of America for their free weekend museum list.

Attend a BBQ
Know any friend’s hosting barbecues? Grab a discounted bag of chips and then head over to hang out with friends on the last weekend of summer (by tradition, not by the calendar).

Stop by a Farmer’s Market
We’re reaching another transition season, when all the delicious summer fruits and vegetables are nearing the end of their seasons, but the fall and winter fruits and vegetables aren’t quite ready yet. Visit your local farmer’s market to buy some of the last berries, peaches, nectarines, plums, and other goodies that will soon be gone until next year.

Make Ice Cream
This weekend I will be making ice cream. Most likely it will be lemon ice cream, since my lemon tree has come into another crop of them. I’m looking forward to it already. It’s the perfect, refreshing follow-up to barbecued burgers and hot dogs. What’s more American than that?

Bake a Pie
I know, baking requires turning on the oven. If it’s too hot to contemplate baking a full pie, make a cobbler or a crumble so you don’t have to use the oven for as long. Whatever you make, it should use those fresh, end-of-season fruits you picked up at the farmer’s market or produce stand.

Check Out a Local Nature Spot
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for fifteen years, and there are still tons of hiking trails and nature spots I have yet to visit. Chances are you do, too. So pull up a local hiking guide online or visit your city’s tourism website to find possibilities. Then pack the cooler with sandwiches and snacks and head out to enjoy nature before it gets cold again.

If you’re like me, the thing you’re looking forward to most is the chance to sleep in. So sleep all you want. Sleeping is free.

Got any more ideas for a fun, frugal Labor Day? Share them in the comments.

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