It’s October, which means it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. The fight against breast cancer is a cause near and dear to my heart. After my aunt died from the disease, I used part of my inheritance to make a sizable donation to a breast cancer charity. I continue to give what I can. I don’t, however, buy “pink” products that claim to make donations to charity. I also don’t buy red products for AIDS or any of the other stuff that supposedly supports a charity. The very idea that we can buy stuff to fight a disease or support a cause is ridiculous and makes me very stabby.

Why Businesses Go Pink
It’s another p-word, but it has nothing to do with helping women. It’s profits. They know that we consumers will buy more of a pink-ribboned product during October if we believe that we’re somehow helping support breast cancer charities. We will buy these products over non-ribboned products, even if they cost a little more. According to a recent study, “79 percent of respondents said they were likely to switch from one brand to another if was associated with a good cause.”

If they were truly concerned about breast cancer, they would make donations without requiring consumers to do anything. It would simply be a part of their corporate philanthropy. Avon, for example, sells pink-ribboned products to raise money for breast cancer, but they also operate a breast cancer foundation that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars through non-product fundraising programs. Obviously they have an ulterior motive – their market is most at risk for breast cancer – but they’re not doing this simply for market share.

The Problem with These Promotions
I have a few problems with these promotions. First, many of them give a paltry sum for your purchase. Maybe 2-3 cents per labeled item sold. Yes, these can add up, but they’re probably earning fare more in additional profits. As it stands now, anyone can slap a pink-ribbon or pink label on something and rake in the dough, often for a tiny donation compared to their profits.

Second, some manufacturers sell pink-ribbon products to raise “awareness” and don’t make any donation based on the purchase! Most don’t disclose this on the product, just slap a pink ribbon on it and let you infer their support.

Third, some of these promotions require consumers to do something before a donation will be made. One example is Yoplait’s pink lid campaign. It’s not enough for you to buy the yogurt. You have to wash your lid, bag it, and mail it to the company, which will then donate 10 cents per lid. They do have a substantial minimum commitment, but last year was the first time they met their maximum donation cap. That means a whole lot of people were buying their yogurt and then not sending in the lids. People who do send in the lids also have to spend more money, in the form of postage, to mail the things. If you’re going to that much effort, why not just make a donation?

How to Offer True Support
If breast cancer or AIDS or any other cause is important to you, don’t wait for its official month. Don’t buy a product because the manufacturer will make a small donation to your cause. Instead, make a direct donation. It’s doesn’t have to be much, even just $5-$10. If everyone who bought a pink-ribboned product did that, we would truly make a difference.

Finding Money for Your Donation
Even if you have a tight budget, you can still find the money to make a donation.

Use coupons. Whether or not your regularly coupon, do it for one month. Combine your coupons with in-store sales for maximums savings. Make a note of the amount you saved (it should be at the bottom of your receipt.) At the end of the month, total your savings and then send that to your charity of choice.

Don’t spend change. Use only whole bills for one month. Put your change in a jar every day. At the end of the month, tally up the change and send that amount to charity. You can do it directly through a CoinStar machine for free.

Eat a few meals in. If you normally go out to lunch every day, brown bag it twice a week for a month. If you go out to dinner once a week, skip two of those dinners out. Donate the money you saved by eating in to your charity of choice.

Donate the money you would have spent buying a charity product. If you were going to buy a shirt for $20, and saw a breast cancer shirt for $25, get the cheaper shirt and send that $5 to a charity. They’ll see more of that $5 if you send it direct.

For several years, an at-risk youth group would come to my door shilling newspaper subscriptions. They’d get $10 for each subscription. Since I didn’t want a newspaper, I asked the adult mentor for the organization’s contact information to make a direct donation. He gave me a flyer and told me to put the child’s fundraising number on it so he’d get credit toward the trip he was earning. Everybody won – a worthwhile organization got money, the kid got his reward, and I didn’t have another newspaper to recycle.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy a product with a pink ribbon, just make sure it’s something you were going to buy anyway and aren’t paying extra for the privilege of seeing the company make a tiny donation to a cause.

Today’s post is for the ladies. I hate clothes shopping. I don’t love spending money. There are many things on which I’m not willing to spend much money, but there are three items that I will absolutely not be skimp on: bras, annual exams, traveling alone at night.

Buy Well-Fitting Bras
I know, you can go to the drugstore and get a bra in a cardboard container for $15, but I don’t suggest it. I’m also not saying you need to spend $300 on the La Perla lace dream. However, you should make a point of visiting a store to be properly fitted at least once a year and plan on spending at least $50 on a good, basic, well-fitting bra. Trust me, it’s better for your body and your other clothes will fit better. Wearing an ill-fitting bra not only makes you look dumpy.

How to Get Fitted
You’ll have to comfortable having a woman measure you, but this is okay. I recommend visiting Nordstrom or a specialty bra store known for fitting women of all sizes. Nordstorm saleswomen go through extensive training before they start fitting bras. Victoria’s Secret says they fit bras, but they don’t carry all sizes, so they can’t truly fit you for the correct size.

Each brand will fit a little different, so you may have to go up or down one cup size for a proper fit. That’s fine. Don’t, however, buy the claim that you can wear a 36A if they’re out of 34Bs. The cup may be the same size, but the bra isn’t. Visit a store that has your size.

Get Annual Exams – Even If You Don’t Have Insurance
If you don’t have insurance, your annual pap smear can be expensive. Given the discomfort involved, you might see your lack of insurance as a boon and opt to skip the exam. Don’t. Most communities have low-cost women’s health clinics or you can visit Planned Parenthood (they provide all kinds of care involving reproductive health.)

You should get an annual exam even if you don’t need birth control, have been monogamous, or aren’t currently sexually active. A pap smear is still the only way to check for cervical cancer. Although most cervical cancers are caused by HPV, some aren’t, so you need to be checked even if you’ve never had HPV. You’ll also receive a breast exam while there, which is another key to maintaining good health.

Stay Safe When Traveling Alone at Night
When I’m in a big city, I don’t mind walking or taking mass transit, except at night. If I’m traveling alone at night, I opt for a cab. Yes, the subway is cheaper than a cab, but it’s not safe to ride alone late at night. You never know what might happen. You should be safe on the bus, but waiting at a deserted bus stop can be dangerous.

If you’re driving along the highway late at night, don’t stop at rest stops to use the restroom. Always wait for a restaurant or gas station with a 24-hour attendant. People have been murdered at rest stops during the night. Don’t take the chance. If you have to buy something in order to use the bathroom, do it. The cost of a cup of coffee or a candy bar is a small price to pay for safety.

I’ll admit that I’ve bought cheap bras and been tempted to ride the subway at night. Fortunately, I let my comfort and safety outweigh my desire to save money. Ladies, if there are three areas where you sacrifice frugality for your greater good, these are them.

In addition to the many other credits and programs included in the stimulus bill was a small allotment for the purchase of energy-efficient appliances. It’s taken months, but the credit will soon be available. Here’s how it works:

How to Apply for Cash for Appliances
Unlike Cash for Clunkers, the First-Time Homebuyers Credit, and the New Car Tax Credit, which were administered by the Federal government, the Cash for Appliances program will be administered by the individual states. The states have until tomorrow to submit their plans and then will receive their disbursements by November 30th, just in time for the holiday sales. Visit regularly to find out which local utilities or state agencies will be operating your state’s program.

How Much You Can Get
The total allotment for the program is $300 million, which will be divided up among the states. The states will then determine how much of a rebate to offer for each appliance they’ve chosen to include in the program. Expect most rebates to be somewhere between $50 and $200.

How Long It Lasts
The duration of the program depends entirely on how long it takes us to use up the money. Some states may run out of money earlier than others. If you intend to use the rebate, I would shop for new appliances the first weekend the program is announced. That should be sometime between October 15 and December 1, 2009. I’m hopeful that the program will last a little longer than Cash for Clunkers because the rebates are significantly smaller. At an average of $150 per rebate, that would be two million appliances.

How It Affects Other Rebates
The rebate will have no impact on manufacturer rebates, unless they decide to stop offering them. The rebate will be in addition to any other rebates currently being offered by your local utilities. For example, I would receive $65 for buying an energy-efficient refrigerator, and $35 for recycling my old one. Any Cash for Appliances rebates will be in addition to this $100.

How It Affects Other Credits
If you buy a new, energy-efficient heating or cooling units, you can also qualify for a Federal tax credit. The Cash for Appliances program doesn’t change this, so start getting estimates and planning your budget if your HVAC units are due for replacement – you could save a lot more by combining all available rebates and credits.

Qualifying Appliances
The specific appliances that qualify will depend on the program created by each state. The appliances must at least meet EnergyStar standards, but states can be stricter if they choose. The appliances must also be those that use the most energy and have the most potential to save energy, such as:

  • Refrigerators
  • Freezers
  • Heating and cooling units
  • Water heaters
  • Washing machines
  • Dishwashers

You’re not going to get a rebate for your toaster oven. You’ll notice that the biggest gas and electricity hogs – dryers and ovens – aren’t on the list. The government has determined that these are mostly equal in energy use across all brands and there isn’t a technology available that would significantly reduce their demands.

Recycling Your Old Appliances
Unlike Cash for Clunkers, you don’t have to turn in your old appliances, however, you might get an additional rebate for doing so. Check with your local utility to see if they offer anything for picking up your old stuff.

My husband and I were planning to buy a new fridge in November, because ours makes very bad noises. Now we’re planning to wait until the rebate comes out because every little bit helps.

Following yesterday’s post about planning your Thanksgiving menu early, Bucksome Boomer asked me to post the recipe for the Cheesy Olive Puffs. These are not only delicious and cheap, but they can be made ahead and refrigerated until it’s time to serve them. The biggest problem? Trying not to eat them all before your guests arrive. If you’ve got a big group coming, consider doubling the recipe.

The Recipe
4 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons softened butter
1/2 cup flour
dash cayenne pepper
1/2 cup stuffed olives, drained and chopped
5 ounce can water chestnuts, drained and chopped
1 egg lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to  400 degrees.

Use a nonstick baking sheet or prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat mat.

Blend cheese and butter, then mix in everything else. It will be lumpy.

Place rounded tablespoons onto the baking sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes until firm and golden. Let cool slightly and serve.

Makes 25.

If you refrigerate them ahead of time, let them cool slightly and then stack them on a plate covered in plastic, in a zipper bag, or in reusable plastic containers. They can be reheated in a microwave, but I usually pop them in the oven for five minutes until they’re warm.

I usually use the pimento-stuffed olives, but you could use any kind that would taste good with cheddar. You could probably also substitute another cheese as long as it melts well. If you need to make it gluten-free, you can substitute superfine rice flour, a mix of tapioca starch and potato starch, or a non-bean flour mix.

Unfortunately, I can’t source the recipe for you. My mom found it in one of those holiday traditions recipe books they sell at the grocery store checkout sometime in the 1980s.

Buy the Ingredients on Sale
If you buy these ingredients at full retail price, it will cost you about $6-$7 to make this appetizer. If you plan ahead, you can get most of the ingredients really cheap, if not almost free.

I frequently see olive coupons in the Sunday paper. Cut out as many as you can find, then watch for a sale on olives to combine with your coupon. The jar will keep for months if you don’t open it.

Cheese also goes on sale regularly. I often get coupons, and see it on a 2 for $4 sale at the grocery store for the shredded packages. You can also buy it in a block and grate it yourself. If you buy the bags of shredded cheese, pop them in the freezer until you need them. Use what you need for the appetizer, then serve the leftovers over chili, tacos, or nachos.

Water chestnuts are usually pretty cheap, but you’ll also see coupons and sales for these around the holidays. Watch your flyers and circulars.

Butter, eggs, flour, and cayenne are pantry staples, but also go on sale around the holidays. Stock up if you’ll be using these ingredients in other items.

For those of you in Canada, happy Thanksgiving! For those of you in the US, you’ve still got six weeks until the big day. However, it’s not too early to start planning your menu, especially if you’ll be baking or require a lot of ingredients. Once you have your menu planned, make an ingredients list and check it against the store flyers every week. Buy whatever you can ahead of time, because you can always freeze it.

One of my favorites are cheesy olive puffs, which are delicious and can be baked ahead of time. Then you just throw them in the oven to rewarm them. Cheese and crackers are also a good, simple choice that don’t require much prep. For a fancy twist, wrap brie in puff pastry and bake it. Serve with slices of baguette.

Main Course
The main course is the turkey, obviously. I know some people like to get creative with ham or goose, but make sure the rest of your family will accept a non-turkey main dish on the big day before you decide to go untraditional.

When it comes to turkey, you have a few choices: fresh, frozen, kosher, pre-brined, etc. You can usually get a free frozen turkey from the grocery store with a $25 purchase. These aren’t necessarily the best turkeys, but free is good if you’re on a tight budget. If you choose this option, then you should plan your $25 shopping trip for the Saturday before Thanksgiving to ensure that the bird has time to defrost in your fridge. If you don’t get a free one, expect to pay anywhere from 19 cents to 59 cents a pound.

Fresh turkeys are more expensive than frozen, but you can usually pre-order them at the grocery store and request that they be held until Tuesday or Wednesday to save more space in your fridge. If you choose fresh, expect to pay 99 cents to $1.59 a pound.

Kosher and pre-brined birds are also more expensive, and are usually fresh. I’ve seen them priced up to $1.99 a pound. Some people say they taste better, but you should be careful with the pre-brined turkeys if you have any food allergy sufferers coming to dinner because it can be difficult to know what was used to prepare the bird.

Before buying your turkey, I would also plan your leftovers menu. For example, I make turkey soup and turkey chili, so I need sufficient leftovers for that. I also need beans and other ingredients. Add those to your shopping list so you can watch for sales. The general rule of thumb is 1.5 to 2 pounds of turkey per person if you want leftovers, or you can use this calculator. For me, it says 12 pounds, but I’ll probably do 14 just to make sure we have enough for my soups and my guests.

Side Dishes
The classic side dishes are rolls, stuffing, green beans, salad, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce. This is where you can really get creative though, so drag out your cookbooks and magazines to find something new and unusual. If you want to buy the sale items, choose a few options for sides and put all the ingredients on your list, then buy those that come up on sale.

Pie, either apple or pumpkin, is the traditional dessert. Homemade pie is nearly always cheaper than a store-bought pie, so either add that to your list or assign it to a guest who’s a good baker.

Once we get past Halloween, there will be weekly promotions on the popular items, so carry your list with you at all times. The circulars usually come out on Tuesday or Wednesday. Check your mailbox and plan to shop Wednesday or Thursday night of each week to ensure you get the best deals on everything you need, even if you usually shop on the weekends. Last year I found that the really amazing deals were gone from the shelves by the time I got there.

My List
As an example, here’s my Thanksgiving menu:
gravy made with drippings
green beans sprinkled with pecans
cranberry pecan salad
mashed potatoes
pumpkin pie
cheesy olive puffs
cheese and crackers
fancy nuts
cornbread and sage stuffing

Leftovers menu:
turkey soup
turkey chili

Then I would get out the recipes and list everything I needed:
Potatoes – 2 pounds (from the farmer’s market)
Turkey – fresh, 14 pounds
Dried cranberries – 1 bag
Chopped pecans – 1 bag
Green beans – 2 pounds (from the farmer’s market)
Lettuce – 4 heads (from the farmer’s market)
Canned cranberry sauce – 2 cans
Fancy nuts – 1 can
Jarred olives – 1 jar
Water chestnuts – 1 jar

As each item came on sale, I’d buy it and either put it in the cupboard or freezer to keep until it was time to start cooking. If you plan properly, you should be able to save significantly on your Thanksgiving meal without sacrificing your traditional dishes or new experiments. Last year I spent $25 for dinner for two. This year I’ll have six and I’m aiming to keep the price tag under $50.

As each holiday season rolls around, people start talking about gifts as expressions of love. To some extent, yes, you should try to buy thoughtful gifts for the people you love. I think choosing gifts carefully shows that you really know the person and their interests. However, I start to get stabby when I hear people, especially parents and spouses, explaining that they have to buy a really expensive gift in order to show love.

Gifts Do Not Equal Love
Gifts are certainly an expression of your feelings for a person, but an expensive gift does not automatically mean you love the person more. It means you bought an expensive gift. For several years, my husband and I didn’t exchange gifts at all. I didn’t feel unloved. I also didn’t feel more loved the year he bought me a $200 iPod. I felt loved because he got me exactly what I’d asked for, and managed to keep it a secret so it would be surprise. He knows I like to be surprised by my presents.

Diamonds Do Not Equal Love
Every holiday season you’re guaranteed to see almost daily commercials declaring that this year’s trendy diamond necklace is the only way to show your wife you love her. Poppycock! If your wife has always wanted a diamond necklace and you can afford it and you choose one specific to her style, then yes, it’s a great way to show that you care. But defaulting to the journey pendant or the heart pendant or whatever pendant was in the commercial is not the same as putting thought into a gift.

Cheap Can Equal Love
I’ve shared this story before, but the best gift I ever got my husband cost one cent. I’m pretty sure it had been closed out and the store didn’t realize they still had any copies of the computer game on hand. Nevertheless, the clerk insisted on selling it to me at the price it rang up. I felt so guilty about only spending a penny on my husband that I went and bought him another game. He still plays the first game six years later and hasn’t played the second game a single time. So, it really doesn’t matter what you spend if the gift you choose is perfect for the person receiving it.

Thought Equals Love
So, please, as we edge into the holiday season, try to remember that the gift is a reflection of your love for the recipient, it isn’t actually love. It doesn’t matter what it costs as long as it’s something you choose carefully and know the recipient will love. Even if it only costs a penny, choosing the right gift is the best way to show your love. Frankly, if you order a bunch of gifts without thought, but they cost a lot, that’s a sign that you don’t care enough to make an effort. That speaks volumes.

Since we bought a foreclosure, we have to do more than the typical amount of maintenance a new homeowner is responsible for. Although the bank did the termite work (apparently a rarity with foreclosures), we have to trim trees, repair the roof, and fix a few other things that turned up in the inspection. While scheduling the work, I’ve learned a few things about hiring contractors.

Get Referrals, Search Yelp, and Read Your Mail
In addition to referrals for roofers, handymen, etc. that we received from our real estate agent, I’ve also relied on Yelp and ads mailed to our home to find our contractors. Some of these ads had coupons, some didn’t. I pulled all the ads and then looked at their websites.

Check the Better Business Bureau and the State Licensing Board
Once I’ve checked their Yelp reviews (some don’t), I look up each company at the Better Business Bureau. Not all companies are there, but most are. I also look up their license number at the state licensing board’s website. The license number should be in the ad or on their website. If it’s not, they may not be licensed, but you can ask them for the number to verify. I generally looked for companies rated A or B by the BBB.

Schedule Three Estimates
With our floors, I actually only scheduled two estimates because of the tight timing, but otherwise I’ve scheduled three. With the tree trimming estimates, only two showed up. With the roof estimates, three showed up, but only two actually provided me with estimates. Make sure that the same person meets all the estimators so you can compare demeanor and gut feelings. So far, that person has been me.

Don’t Rush Into a Decision
My husband and I reviewed each estimate and discussed it. With the tree trimmer, we didn’t actually receive a written estimate from the guy we chose. He gave me his card and told me a figure. However, he’s also a gardener and we needed sprinkler work and other advice. We chose him in hopes that we could use him for multiple jobs at a better price, and indeed we did.

Don’t Always Go with the Lowball
For our floors, we actually went with the higher price per square foot. We just felt better about the estimate and it was better for our schedule. For the tree-trimming, we did go with the lower price, but for the reasons stated above. We’ll probably also go with the lower bid for the roof repair, but he was the roofer recommended by our real estate agent. The other bid was $1200 higher and involved way more work than the inspector told us was necessary for the job.

Never Commission Work without an Estimate
Even for jobs we have our handyman do, we ask for an estimate first. That way we can budget for the cost and figure out how soon we can schedule the work. You don’t want to call someone out, have them do the work, and then find out the price.

I have generous health insurance through my employer, which covers me and my spouse (and dependents, were I to have any) without cost to us. My husband also has free coverage for himself through his employer. That’s served us well in the past when our employers bought insurance through different insurers. My insurance counted payments from his primary coverage toward his deductible under my plan. They also covered the portion we would have paid as a deductible under his plan. They then covered the 30% gap in coverage, so we paid almost nothing for his care. Unfortunately, that will all change in January when we will both be covered through the same insurance company, but under different employers. Depending on how your coverage works, double coverage could save you a small fortune, or it could cost you one.

Choosing a Primary Insurance Provider
If you and your spouse both have coverage, you can opt for double-coverage under your plans. Some employers require you to pay to cover a spouse and dependents, some don’t. However, there are some tricky aspects to choosing a primary insurance provider. Your employer’s insurance is your primary, and the same for your spouse’s insurance through his or her employer.

If you have children, you can add them to either or both plans. If you had them to both plans, the insurance for whichever spouse has the earlier birthday in the year will be primary. If you were born May 5 and your spouse was born May 6, your insurance would be primary. The year of birth or age of the spouse is irrelevant.

Paying Deductibles
Deductibles can be tricky. Some will use deductible payments under one plan as deductible payments under the other, and some won’t. Now that my husband and I will have insurance from the same insurer, we’ll have to pay two deductibles in order for him to receive coverage under both plans. That brings our total out-of-pocket from $500 to $750 if we use both plans for him.

The Co-Pay Gap
Typically, you’ll pay the basic co-pay when you visit a doctor and the insurance pays the rest. This is true even with double coverage (only one co-pay is required, not two.) However, most plans only cover a portion of non-basic care, tests, etc. For example, my plan covers 90% and I pay 10%. My husband’s covers 70% and he pays 30%. Under our old double coverage, my insurance picked up that other 30%, so we paid nothing. Under our new double coverage, my insurance will only pay the gap between mine and his, so they’ll pay 20%, leaving us to pay 10%. Frankly, my employer is getting cheated on that one.

When Does It Make Sense to Use Both Policies
Since we’ve already covered our deductibles for the year, those will carry over to the new plan until the end of 2009. My husband can continue to use both policies to cover 90% of our costs. Once we get into 2010, we’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it to submit claims under the secondary insurance. So let’s do the math:

Basic care: Same co-pay, same coverage. There’s no benefit to using both plans for basic care.
Prescriptions: Same co-pay, same coverage. No benefit.
Expensive tests: Here’s where it could get tricky. Let’s say he needs a test that costs $1000. If it’s his first test of the year, we’d owe $500 and his insurance would pay the rest (the 30% is included in the $500). If we also submitted my insurance, we’d actually pay $750 for it.
Surgery: What if he needed surgery, which could easily run into the thousands of dollars. We’ll say $12,000 to be conservative. If his deductible hadn’t been met, we’d pay $500 for that, plus $3100 for his contribution. If we then added my plan, we’d pay $750 for the two deductibles, but the secondary insurance would kick in an additional 20%, so our contribution would only be $1200. In this case, the double-coverage would save us $1650.

Alternative Care: Most policies will cover a portion of a certain number of chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy, or mental health visits in a year. With double coverage, he can get covered up to the combined limit for both policies, so rather than 24 visits, he qualifies for 48. However, first we’d have to figure out whether the additional deductible would be less than or equal to the amount covered by the secondary insurer.

If you can get free secondary coverage from your or your spouse’s employer, you should consider accepting during your next open enrollment period in case a major emergency arises, but be careful how you use it on a regular basis. Make sure that the coverage gap will cost more than the extra deductible before you submit that second claim.

While hunting for our washer and dryer, I must have looked at half a million review sites. I found that I kept returning to the same few sites over and over again. Some were better than others, but I compared them all to narrow down my options and get buying advice.

Consumer Reports
This is the oldy but goody of the bunch. It’s also the only one that costs money, however I found their in-depth testing of the products to be very valuable when comparing machines, especially when trying to sort out just how water efficient a washing machine really was. Although they can’t lab test EVERY product, I found that they had fairly even performance across several versions of a product in the same brand and line. If it got a poor review in CR, it didn’t make the potential list. The downside of Consumer Reports is the cost. Since we’re planning to buy several appliances and a car this year, I sprang for the one-year membership, but you can also pay by the month.

When it comes to consumer electronics, CNET is my first stop for lab reports and reviews. I find their recommendations for digital cameras, printers, etc. to be top-notch and accurate. It’s also incredibly easy to search. Of course, like Consumer Reports, they can’t test everything, but you can get a general idea of a manufacturer’s quality.

I found this one while searching for washing machine reviews. This features a buying guide and snapshot reviews of the other review sites, which comes in handy if you don’t want to pay for Consumer Reports. I also like that it breaks down reviews by price point and other important differences, such as gas vs. electric dryers.

If your focus is buying cheap, then stop by Cheapism to check out their specific buying guides and advice. They’ll tell you what you can really expect from a cheap product, both good and bad. It looks like we’ll soon be in the market for a new laptop (earlier than planned), so I’ve been reading this site as well as CNET to form our potential shopping list.

I’ve been using epinions for years, although I have to admit it’s not my favorite anymore. It simply doesn’t have as many reviews as it used to, and I often wind up in the shopping portal when I want to find reviews. That said, you can find very detailed and helpful reviews from real people.

Online Stores
Finally, I browse around a few of the most popular online stores to get a picture of what real consumers think of products. For the laundry machines, I looked at Sears, Best Buy, and Home Depot. For Blu-Ray players, I looked at Best Buy, Costco, and Amazon. Whatever sites you choose, they should carry a wide-range of products within that category and be large enough chains that they have a strong user-base. Don’t rely on one site – look at two or three to get a true picture of what people think.

Friday I saw a flippant post that listed ten things not to buy at the dollar store. It so ticked me off that I’ve decided to create a list of ten things you should buy at the dollar store.

Kitchen Towels
If you’re looking to replace paper towels, hit the dollar store to buy cheap kitchen towels. Even if they only last a month or two, that’s still cheaper than paper towels.

Party Supplies
Hosting a party? Skip the dollar store where paper plates and plastic cups cost a fortune. Even the grocery store is too steep. Instead, stock up at the dollar store. It’s not like these things have to last a long time.

Kid’s Party Favors
I know some kids give out fancy favors, but I was always happy with the cheap plastic doohickeys I got as a kid. For a dollar, you might even to be able to “splurge” on larger toy favors.

Pregnancy Tests/Ovulation Tests
Here’s a little secret: many of the dollar store tests are the same tests used by doctor’s offices because they can get them in bulk. Some of them are actually more sensitive than the “real” tests you can get at the drugstore. My friend who took fertility medication told these dollar tests come in handy when testing frequently. Then she bought a “real” test when she saw a positive. Why spend $60 a month on tests when you can spend $6? She recommended the “Dollar Tree” brand.

Personal Care Travel Sizes
Drugstores usually have a travel size aisle, too, and sometimes these items are less than a dollar, but sometimes they’re not. Try the 99-cent store to see if you can find travel sizes for less if you’ve got a long trip planned.

Trendy Makeup
If you’re dying to try this year’s new blue eye shadow or saw a daring lipstick in the fashion magazines, skip your drugstore’s $5 eye shadows and head straight for the dollar store. You don’t want to spend too much money on trendy colors that you might hate or that will go out of style before you use them up.

Hair Ties, Clips, Combs
Anything you’ll be using to pull your hair back at the gym or shower should be cheap. I seem to run through my stash of hair elastics really quickly, so I buy them at the dollar store where I can get a bunch at once. Then I can keep them everywhere – in my purse, in my desk, in my car, in my gym bag.

Wrapping Paper
Why does wrapping paper cost so much? The recipient is just going to rip it up anyway. So, hit the dollar store for your gift wrap and gift bags unless you find a super deal at Costco or Target after Christmas. There’s just no reason to spend $6 on a roll of gift wrap.

Household Cleaners
Is Comet really better than the no-name brand? Is Mr. Clean better than the “Ms. Clean” brand at the dollar store? No. Household cleaner is household cleaner. If you’re not making it yourself and not a super-couponer who can get it for free, then hit the dollar store for your household cleaning supplies.

Paper Goods
If you’re still buying paper towels, then get them at the dollar store unless you’re a coupon maven who gets her paper towels for free. The same goes for toilet paper.

Yes, there is a lot of junk at dollar stores, but a lot of the stuff that seems like junk is actually a pretty good deal. Shop carefully and don’t overbuy just because it’s a buck.

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