I’ve written many, many posts on affordable holidays and holiday shopping. Why I even compiled an entire e-book on the topic. But, if you’re revving up for a big shop, here are my five quick tips for keeping your holiday shopping affordable.

Carry Your List with You at ALL Times
Put your Christmas gift list in your wallet or purse so it’s ready whenever you spy a potential gift. Consult your list and your budget. If it’s not in the budget, it’s not going home with you. If it’s in the budget and it’s a better gift than the item you already had in mind for recipient, then buy it and mark that person off your list.

Note Online Prices on Your List
In addition to name, gift, and budget, I also write online prices on my list, with shipping and tax added where applicable. That way I can determine whether the item I see in a store is cheaper than the item I see online. If it’s not, I go home to order it. Order your gifts by about 12/10 to ensure it will get to you or to the recipient in time. Or, if it’s a specialty retailer participating in Free Shipping Day, wait until 12/17 to order.

Remember, Stores Will Run Low This Year
If you see a perfect gift and it’s in your budget, snap it up. In past years, you could wait until later to markdowns, but the stores majorly reduced their stock this year. Most will not be offering major markdowns as the season progresses, they’ll simply be running out of stuff. Don’t be like Joey and Chandler and present your friends with gifts from the gas station because you waited to shop.

Set Aside One Weekend Morning or Mid-Week Evening to Shop
Once you’ve finished your list and determined your stores, figure out which mall has most of those stores (unless you’re lucky enough to have one mall with all the stores.) I find that a Wednesday evening in early December is an awesome time to shop. I can get in and out quickly with minimal crowds. I hit the mall closest to my office, then by the time I’m done the commuter traffic is gone so I can zip home.

If You Must Shop a Weekend Evening, Make it a Date Night
Take your spouse with you for dinner and shopping. If you have time, see a movie. Yes, the stores might be more crowded, but they’ll be open later. Just make sure you make a reservation or get to the mall early to snap up an early seating time. Two years ago my husband and I did this. We arrived at the mall at 6:30 and got a 7:30 seating at the Cheesecake Factory – the most in-demand restaurant in the shopping center. By the time we finished eating at 8:30, they were handing out 11PM seating times. We pre-shopped, enjoyed a lovely dinner, and then went back to the stores to buy our final choices. We ended up missing the movie because we didn’t want to wait for an 11PM show, but we still had fun.

And finally, when in doubt, give truffles. It’s the cheap, no-fail gift, and completely in keeping with the season: I love you, here’s something delicious and fattening.

We’re already refinancing our mortgage due to the recent rate drops (it’s a free refi that doesn’t increase our loan balance). So, we had to get reappraised. I didn’t think we’d see a value increase because it’s only been 4 months. Well, I was wrong. Our appraised value went up 2% in four months, and I think I’ve figured out why. If you’re planning to sell your house in a traditional sale, take these steps to improve your home value and your chances of getting the price you need.

Polish or Refinish the Floors
We bought a foreclosure with bamboo floors. Unfortunately, the previous owners used it as a rental property and the tenants had a dog. Bamboo floors and dogs don’t mix. The floors in the main living areas had deep dirty grooves in them. We had the floors refinished before we moved in. All the scratches are gone and they gleam beautifully.

Apply Fresh Interior Paint
When we bought our house, all of the walls were Swiss Coffee – the classic rental color. It’s also boring as hell and the walls were filthy. The furnace had never been cleaned (it has been now), so it had 5-7 years worth of dust and grime in it. That black grime was on the ceilings and the walls in the rooms closest to the furnace. We scrubbed the walls and applied fresh paint in several attractive colors. The walls look fresh and bright and new.

Install Shutters and Blinds
We didn’t install shutters and blinds in the whole house, just in the rooms where we’re not making curtains. These stay with the house when you leave, so they also add to the value.

Clean Up the Yard
Although it’s not really supposed to influence the appraisal, a messy yard can. Our yard wasn’t raked, but we’ve trimmed the trees and removed two dead ones. Even if it doesn’t affect the home value, overgrown trees can detract from a buyer’s impression of the house because they’ll factor in the cost to trim them.

Paint the Trim
When the termite company repaired the termite damage, they didn’t prime the replacement boards on the front of the house or in the carport. They just left it bare wood. I recently primed and painted those boards. At the same time, I peeled off some of the paint in areas where it was visibly peeling and cracking and painted that, too. I had the paint matched perfectly, so you can’t even tell where I touched up. The house looks much better with fresh trim.

I can’t say for sure how much these things improved the value, but the living room paint was five days old when the appraiser came. He even commented that it was a nice color, as did our handyman and my parents. I walked him through and showed him everything we’d fixed or had done.

Now, if you want the bank to agree to a short sale, don’t do any of these things. You want the house to look bad and overgrown so the bank will think it’s worth less and won’t get much as a foreclosure.

It feels almost like a pregnancy, except it won’t be over in nine months. Maybe I’ll just stop counting by the time nine months have passed! This last month has presented us with several more challenges, but what some of my homeowner friends are going through is much, much, much worse.

Don’t Buy New Construction
This isn’t my lesson, this is my friend’s lesson. So far he’s discovered that his brand new condo was improperly plumbed (found courtesy of a major leak) and improperly wired (found courtesy of sparks shooting out of the wall after he plugged something in.) Those aren’t minor issues. Meanwhile most of the problems in my 60-year-old home have been minor, or are at least big things that can wait and that are to be expected in an older home. If you’re thinking of buying a condo, do not buy new. Buy one that’s at least five years old. True, it may not have of-the-moment fixtures, but you also won’t be the one to discover the bad wiring, plumbing, etc.

Even the Simple Things Go Wrong
So, in my last homeownership update, I talked about the surprising cost of blinds and shutters. Now a new problem has developed. The major company we went with screwed up our order. I discovered it during the installation. I immediately called and was assured that the replacement shutters would be ordered. Fast forward a week and I haven’t been able to get confirmation of the order. Finally I called the shutter company – they have no order. I called the company’s local office – no order. I was assured that they’ll contact the consultant to sort it out and then call me tomorrow about fixing it. I’m not hopeful. Meanwhile I’ve got a wrong set of shutters that are only half installed.

Eventually the Warranty Has to Cover Something
My friends who recently bought have had nothing but good things to say about their warranty. This morning was my fifth claim, and the first thing to get covered. I think my warranty sort-of sucks.

Claim 1: Leak next to the dishwasher. It turned out the leak was from a disconnected tube under the faucet. Dishwasher guy didn’t fix it – I found a valve and turned it the other way to see what would happen.

Claim 2: Mysterious damp spot on the upper corner of the wall that forms nightly. They sent an AC guy – nothing. They sent a plumber – nothing. Finally our roofer went up there and patched it. It’s not entirely gone, but it’s better. I’m considering going up into the attic and poking at the insulation to see if that’s the problem.

Claim 3: Inadequate heat in the back bedrooms and a weird rattle in one register. The heater guy adjusted some registers to balance the heat, and determined that it was too cold in the back because the “standard-sized” ducts are too big for the rooms next to the furnace, and too small for the rest of the house. New ducts: not covered, but not in dire need of replacing. Meanwhile it’s 5-8 degrees cooler in the back part of my house.

Claim 4: Circuit breaker trips when we use more than one kitchen appliance at a time and some of the breakers are wiggly. The appliance issue is insufficient wiring: not covered. He said the wiggling was normal. Except that he knocked out power to whole house before he left and then the bathroom didn’t come back on because of that wiggly circuit. Once again we had to go out there and jiggle it until it came on. I called warranty, and the electrician insisted the bathroom problem was from the kitchen wiring and refuses to see if it might be unrelated unless we either a. fix the wiring in the kitchen, or b. have our own technician diagnose the problem. If he deems it’s not related, warranty will consider covering it.

Claim 5: Plumbing stoppage this weekend. Warranty called to warn me that if my cleanout was outside the foundation of the house, they wouldn’t cover it. Fortunately, the plumber snaked it and they did cover it. Finally, we got one thing covered. And it only cost us $260 in claims to get there. Sigh.

Make Sure You Buy the Right Paint
We had to paint one of our ceilings. I went to the paint store and asked for “flat white for the ceiling.” What I got was the pastel base with no color mixed in. We discovered this after applying the first coat late Saturday night. It was splotchy and uneven. We scoured the internet for a paint store that was open Sunday, thinking we needed the same paint for a second coat. That’s when we found out the base looks white, but can be transparent. And it’s not meant for ceilings. My husband came home with a can labeled “ceiling paint” that had been tinted “ceiling white.” Problem solved, but we wasted money and three hours on that first can.

Isn’t home ownership grand?

We’re T -3 to Thanksgiving, so it’s time to kick it into high-gear. Since I have experience both hosting and traveling, I’ve got Thanksgiving countdowns for both options.

Thanksgiving Travelers’ Schedule
If you have to travel, I feel your pain. I flew home for several years, until it became too expensive and started to take nearly as long as the drive. I switched to driving 11 years ago. It’s awful, but better than the airport. (Shudder.) Here are my tips for a reduced-stress trip.

Monday
Make your packing list. If you have kids, make their lists, too.
Make sure everything on the packing list is clean. If not, do laundry.
Check the weather for both your departure and return days. Plan alternate routes if you’re driving and there may be snow along your preferred route.
If you’re flying, make a parking reservation if you haven’t already.
Refer to my list of Thanksgiving travel tips to make sure everything is covered.

Tuesday
Get out the suitcases.
Pack.
Buy snacks and water.
Double-check your backroads.
Pack car games or something for the airport/plane.
Stop the newspaper/mail (if you’ll be gone long enough).
If you have pets, confirm with their caretaker and exchange keys.
If you’re flying, check in online.

Wednesday
Pack final toiletries, pajamas, etc.
Pack the car.
Put everyone in the car.
Leave as early as possible.

Thursday
Make yourself useful to the host or get out of the way.
Eat, eat, eat, eat!

Thanksgiving Hosts’ Schedule
If you’re hosting, then your work is just beginning. Hopefully you’ve shopped for most of the food, but I’ve included a shopping trip in case you’re using a fresh turkey that will need to be picked up.

Monday
Make bread if using for stuffing so it will have time to get a bit stale.
Set bread out to dry.
Vacuum.
Make up guest rooms.
Put fresh towels in guest baths.
Make final shopping list.
Put turkey in fridge to defrost if using frozen and not brining. If you are brining it, it should already be defrosting.
Make Thursday cooking schedule, counting backwards from the time you want to eat.

Tuesday
Chill the wine.
Make rolls.
Mix dip or other appetizers.
Make pie crust.
Pick up turkey.
Begin brining turkey if brining it.
Make cranberry sauce it not using canned.

Wednesday
Make pie.
Cook appetizers.
Put brined turkey in fridge to rest so skin is nice and crispy.
Wash china/crystal.
Polish silver.
Iron linens.
Set table.
Sweep/dust.
Make stuffing.

Thursday
Wipe down bathrooms.
Stuff turkey.
Put turkey in oven immediately.
Make side dishes.
Make salad.
Warm and plate appetizers.
Remove turkey, let rest.
Heat rolls.
Make gravy.
Serve cranberry sauce.
Eat, eat, eat, eat.

Friday
Enjoy leftovers.

Just two carnivals to share this week, but they’re both awesome because they both included my posts as editor’s picks!

First, M is for Money hosted Carnival of Personal Finance #231. In addition to my post about my emergency fund saving us from a paycheck error, I also recommend Engaged Marriage’s post about the best way to avoid money fights.

Second, Cheap Healthy Good hosted Festival of Frugality #204. In addition to my post about questions to ask before getting engaged, I also recommend The One’s tips for saving $10,000 on your honeymoon.

Today’s guest post comes from Mr. Credit Card. If you like this, subscribe to his feed for more great stuff.

Hi, I’m Mr Credit Card and I write and review credit cards at my site www.askmrcreditcard.com. I started this site because while I was looking for a credit card a few years ago, I could not find any site that really reviews credit cards in depth. If you are looking for a new card, please check out my best credit cards recommended list.

Like Aryn, I have been an avid user of credit cards and taking advantage of rewards. I have not taken advantage of any 0% APR offers or even any sign up bonuses for points. What I have done is just to make use of a couple of cards and racked up lots of points which I used for airline tickets and cash rebates. Aryn wrote a guest post on my blog telling us how she is looking to earn miles for her next trip to Australia. Today, I am going to share some tips on saving money on your airline travel and perhaps highlight some tips for her as well.

One of the keys to saving money on airline tickets, like Aryn mentioned, is obviously to get chalk up reward points or frequent flier points. Aryn mentioned that she has the Delta Skymiles Credit Card. But there are obviously other cards which you can use. The average number of points required for a domestic round trip economy restricted flight is about 25,000 to 30,000 points. Hence, spending that amount of your credit card in a year (not an unreasonable assumption) is already one free ticket.

Earn more miles with a business credit card – When I started my first job in sales, my company gave me a business credit card. It was a gold Amex charge card. The company I worked for allowed me to accumulated membership reward points. So whenever I took clients out for dinners and entertainment or flew an airline, I used the my business card and racked up points really fast. And since the points do not expire, I could wait for the right moment to get the right airline tickets. After I was issued the card by my company, I immediately got out and got an Amex Gold Card for personal use. Since I can link my account, I can earn points even faster (though it would not have as fast if I did not have the business card).

But even entrepreneurs can take advantage and get a business credit card that matches their lifestyle and reward goals and rack up points quickly. Since most business expenses are larger than household expenses, you can earn points really quickly.

Ask for everything under the sun when you book your hotels – My wife Mrs Credit Card used to work in hotel sales. So whenever we go on vacation, she does the booking because she knows what to ask for. Regardless of what hotel or where you book, here are somethings you simply want to ask for.

  • complimentary late checkout – even if you do not intend to (but it is an option). Ask early
  • complimentary breakfast – some hotels would not give you if you do not ask!
  • good room views – always ask for a good room view and chances are that you will get the best one available
  • ask for corner rooms – as they tend to be bigger and quieter because they are away from the elevators
  • ask for a room on a higher floor
  • ask for special room upgrade

How to ask for room upgrade – I want to devote a little time on this topic because there is an art in going about doing this. Firstly, ask when you are booking over the phone if they have complimentary upgrades. Mention that you have this credit card or that you are a member of AAA and ask if there are any special deals.

Also, ask if there is any promotions for room upgrades. Hotels have programs where they up sell rooms. Sometimes, an extra $20 or $50 fro example can get you a suite upgrade.

If it does not work over the phone, ask when you check in. Be polite. Say something like you are not feeling well or that your kids are cranky and not feeling well and ask if they could upgrade your room. Smile too!

With a little luck, you can get a much nicer room than you paid for.

Book hotels directly with the hotel – I have the Amex Platinum Card and one of the perks is that you earn double points for booking through their travel site (which by the way is powered by Travelocity). I did that once and when I wanted to cut short my stay when I was already at the hotel, I was told I could get no refund from the hotel and instead had to go back to Travelocity. Even Amex could not really help me.

When you book directly with the hotel, you can request for all the stuff that I just mentioned and if you need to change your schedule, they can do it. Once you book through a travel agent, your booking falls under a separate system. By the way, Aryn also recommends booking your flights directly with the airline.

Join the frequent guest program of the hotel you are staying in – Once you have booked the hotel, immediately join the frequent guest program and make sure your points are credited into your account when you check in. But more importantly, frequent guest program offer meal vouchers and discounts. Hence, you should always be on the lookout for promotional codes and vouchers. During my last stay at the Hyatt, I got a $150 mean voucher simple from getting the code from Hyatt’s Passport website.

Transfer Miles and Earn More Miles – Right now, Aryn is trying to save miles for a trip to Australia. One tactic she can consider is to transfer miles. Delta Skymiles is now having a promotion where you can transfer miles to someone else and get 50% more miles. This offer is valid until 31st December 2009. Aryn can transfer miles to her hubby and vice-versa

She can also consider getting a Starwood credit card since she is a member of Starwood Preferred Guest program. Starwood allows you to transfer points 1:1 to most airlines and you will get a bonus 5,000 miles when you transfer 20,000 points into miles!

Ending Thoughts – There are numerous other ways to save and earn miles for your next vacation. I have just touched the tip of the iceberg. I hope you have found these tips helpful. Just a reminder, Aryn has written some great travel tips in the past:

  • How to Pay Bills While On Vacation
  • Cheapest source of Foreign Currency On Vacation
  • Most years, my husband and I leap into the car at about 1:30PM on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving with our snacks and saddle up for the epic sojourn 400 miles to my family’s house. Unlike the usual trip which logs in at 5.5 to 6 hours, depending on the wait time at McDonald’s and the frequency of my pee breaks, our day-before-Thanksgiving trip is a minimum of 7 hours, and has topped out at 8 hours. That was a special case, though. The City of LA decided it would be a good idea to close a major street near a freeway for an afternoon concert. That idiot moved resulted in a one-hour trek along the one-mile from our apartment to the freeway.

    But that’s a rant for another day. Here are my top tips for turkey day:

    Leave Early
    The earlier the better. If you have a long drive (more than six hours), aim to leave no later than 1 PM. If you have a shorter drive, you could leave as late as six and actually miss some of the major backup. Even better, leave Monday or Tuesday, but not all of us can take that much time off.

    Work from Home that Day
    Most offices take a half-day for Thanksgiving. If your office is one of them and your standard commute is more than 15-20 minutes, ask if you can telecommute the day before Thanksgiving. Otherwise, you’ll have a longer commute to work, and then face a longer commute home before you can leave. You could wind up spending more time commuting than you do working.

    Research Backroads
    This weekend, get out your map and study potential backroads. My husband and I discovered one shortcut by listening to the traffic radio, but we found others by simply studying our map. Note that the online mapping systems usually won’t tell you about these routes. You need to actually look at a map with detailed roads so you can see whether that road you think you might take actually goes through. My husband and I discovered the hazards of off-the-cuff shortcuts when we tried to go around a serious truck accident, but the road we chose dead-ended. We had to turn around and go back to where we started.

    Your best bet to find backroads is to look for roads that run parallel major interstates. In California, our urban freeways were built beside major surface thruways. It might not be quite as direct as the freeway, but there won’t be as many people on it. You won’t find these roads in the middle of nowhere (but that’s not usually where the backup is.) Save your search for the urban sections where more people join the trek.

    Pack Snacks
    To reduce your number of stops, fortify yourself with healthy snacks. Since I’m gluten-free, my favorites are Trader Joe’s mini rice crackers. They taste almost like corn nuts and we scarf them down every time I bring a bag. I also pack bottles of water, a bag of nuts, and fruit that can be eaten in small bites, like grapes or orange sections.

    Don’t Drink Too Much
    Drink enough water that you won’t get a headache from dehydration, but don’t drink so much that you need to stop every half hour. There will be lines for all those bathrooms. Since you’ll be sitting, you don’t need to drink a whole liter of water on the trip. Small sips will keep you hydrated and on the road.

    Plan Lunch
    If at all possible, pack your lunch and find a rest stop where you can eat. You’ll probably need to eat in the car, but it won’t be too bad if you eat quick. If you can’t pack a lunch, then avoid stopping at lunchtime or dinnertime. Stops between 2:30 and 5 and after 7:30 will help you avoid the long lines.

    Bring Games for the Kids
    At least part of your drive will be during daylight hours, so bring a car game or craft that the kids can do. If they’re readers and don’t get motion sickness, books are great distraction. Handheld games (with the sound off) are good, too. After dark, consider bringing a pack of trivia cards and a flashlight so you can quiz each other. If you have an in-car DVD player, by all means use it, but I survived 18 years without watching DVDs on long drives, your kids can, too.

    Find Traffic Stations
    A quick internet search will give you a list of all the traffic radio stations along your route. As you enter each new radio station’s area, tune in to check on upcoming closures. That way you can make any bathroom or meal stops before you find yourself in an hour-long backup with nowhere to stop.

    Need more advice? Check out my previous posts on long holiday drives and the Thanksgiving drive specifically. AAA estimates that 1.4% more people will be on the roads this year. I’ve made holiday drives 46 times. Please learn from my hard-won experience.

    We’re at the one-week countdown to Thanksgiving. This is a family holiday, so no need to go all out and spend a fortune on your tablescape and whatnot. Keep it simple and it should be pretty frugal, too. Here are my top 10 tips for a frugal Thanksgiving.

    Use Your Coupons Wisely
    Next week is the big week for food shopping. Most grocery store circulars come out today, so check them for super deals. If you see a great deal and can combine it with coupons, consider buying enough non-perishables to get you through Christmas and beyond. Last year I had a great canned pumpkin deal, and discovered that the can would keep until this Thanksgiving, so I stocked up. Check out these money-saving tips from Woman’s Day to help you cut your food bill even further.

    Shop Early and Often
    The really super amazing deals will go fast. Consider taking a trip to your grocery store this Wednesday or Thursday to buy the non-perishables that are on sale. If you’re buying a fresh turkey and not one of the free frozen ones you get with a $25 purchase, you’ll have to go back next week for your turkey. Ask the meat department if they can put it on hold for you until Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on your brining/rubbing plans.

    Visit the Farmer’s Market for Produce
    The farmer’s market will be packed this week. PACKED. On the plus side, the farmer’s know this and stock extra. So, find the largest Saturday or Sunday market in your area, get up early, and bring a friend or spouse to help carry your load if you’re buying for a lot of people (especially if you’re buying potatoes or squash.)

    Clear Out the Fridge and Freezer
    If you’ve got lots of leftovers planned, make room in the freezer for the future contents. Obviously you’ll need to make room in the fridge for the big bird and all the sides. I planned a light menu for the days leading up to Thanksgiving so I can preserve the room in the fridge. My freezer is filling up, but it’s filling with components of my leftover dishes.

    Make Your Schedule
    Start planning your cooking schedule now. Figure out what you can make ahead. Also start planning your cleaning and project schedule now so everything will be done before the guests descend. Again, you don’t need to go all out, but sweep the floors and change the sheets on the guest beds.

    Don’t Try Complicated New Dishes for the Main Meal
    Want to get creative with your leftovers? Go for it. This is not the time to try a complicated new dessert or side. One year my sister tried a new apple pie recipe that took six hours. I still don’t comprehend how a pie can take six hours, even if you picked your own apples and milled your own flour. She contends that I don’t understand because I’m a baker and she’s not. Nevertheless, if you look at the recipe and any portion is confusing or it has many, many complex steps, skip it. Save it for a potluck where you can pick something up at the store if your dish is a total failure.

    Don’t Choose Dishes with Pricey Ingredients
    In the name of frugality, don’t choose recipes with expensive, out-of-season, or rare ingredients that will require you to stop at a dozen stores. Save those for a gourmet dinner party. Thanksgiving is about comfort foods. If someone asks where the mango chutney is, tell them that you’re trying to be authentic and eat seasonal items the way they did at the first Thanksgiving. (Hopefully your guests won’t know that the first Thanksgiving didn’t include pie, cranberries, or potatoes.)

    Buy What You Need Before Thanksgiving
    More stores are open on Thanksgiving than when I was young, but it’s still best to avoid running out to pick something up on Thanksgiving, when most of the sales will be over and you’ll be left with the last pickings.

    Skip the Tablescape
    Sandra Lee “fans” are shuddering with me. But basically, keep your table decorations simple. A couple mini pumpkins, a couple candles, a few fall leaves. That’s about all you need, because you’ll need lots of room for the food. Remember what this particular holiday is about – gorging ourselves until we’re too stuffed to move. What? You thought it was about giving thanks? Pshaw.

    Skip Black Friday
    I posted last year about my hatred of Black Friday, so my most frugal tip is to skip it. Stay home, snuggled in your bed. Even if they have amazing stupendous gobsmacking doorbuster deals, not spending money at all is still cheaper.

    Yesterday I did some creative couponing that netted me four brand new, brand-name boxes of cereal for a dollar. We don’t actually eat cereal, but we have house guests coming who do, so I wanted one box for them. My choice was to spend $2.50 for one box, or $1 for four. So, thanks to the joys of grocery store math, I decided to buy four boxes and donate the excess three to a food drive.

    How the Deal Went Down
    This was a spectacular deal, but you do see things like this at the grocery store a few times a year. It’s a great opportunity to stock up on food drive donations so you can help those who are less fortunate.

    It started with a special:
    General Mills cereal for $1.50 per box if you bought four boxes in one transaction, otherwise it was $2.50 a box. If you bought four boxes, you also got $4 off your grocery order.
    So, $6 -$4=$2 for four boxes. Not bad, just 50 cents each.
    But it got better. I had a coupon for $1 off 2 boxes. My store only doubles up to $1 max, so $2-$1=$1 for four boxes.
    I could have gotten the cereal free if I’d had one more coupon with a value of 50 cents or more, but I settled for 25 cents per box.

    What to Watch Out For
    When you’re doing deals like this with an eye toward donating the excess you won’t eat, always check the condition of the donated item. Choose cans or boxes that don’t have dents or tears, because the food bank may not be able to accept it. You should also check the expiration date. Make sure that it’s far enough away that you’ll have time to find a food drive and the food bank will have time to distribute your items before it expires. In my case, the cereal doesn’t expire until October, 2010.

    Creative Couponing Opportunities
    All though super-amazing deals like the cereal deal are less frequent, you’ll still have plenty of opportunities. Personal care items are a big one for super deals, and charities always need things like toothpaste, shampoo, and diapers, which are donated less frequently than food. Here are a few creative coupon methods to score free or cheap items to donate:

    B1G1 or BOGO Deals – Combine a buy one, get one free special with a coupon. You’ll get the single item you wanted very cheap, plus a free one to donate.

    Close-outs – Sometimes close-outs are too close to the expiration date to make it a good deal, but not always. You might see a big sale on something like cranberry sauce after the holidays. It’s not expired, but the store knows it won’t sell. Charities, on the other hand, don’t care if cranberry sauce is a holiday item. A close-out may also occur if the store is scheduling a remodel or phasing out a brand. I’ve seen close-outs for a packaging change, too. When Tropicana’s new package flopped, they significantly marked down their juice to get rid of the new cartons before re-releasing the old design.

    Rebates - Several times a year, a manufacturer will offer a rebate for certain grocery or personal care products. Buy twice as much as you need. Donate half, and then keep the rest to submit your labels for the rebate. Often you’ll at least cover the cost of the donated food, and might even make a little extra on the deal.

    Free with Purchase – This happens more often at Costco, but I’ve also seen it at Target and grocery stores. Sometimes the manufacturer will bundle a product with a sample size. Donate the sample sizes and it costs you nothing. I have one sample size of my shampoo, body wash, etc. If you need the sample size for traveling, keep one that you can refill (the top comes off if you pull hard enough) and donate the rest.

    If you watch your coupons and store circulars carefully, you can score lots of free or nearly free items that are perfect donations to a food drive. Why not use some of your good fortune to help someone else?

    A few months ago I checked out gardening books to settle on those that are best for my local area. Now it’s time to buy a home maintenance book to help solve those simple problems without having to call Dad, search the internet for a reliable solution, or call a handyman. I borrowed five potential books from the library. Here are my reviews for all of them.

    Home Maintenance for Dummies
    Just about everyone I know owns at least one Dummies book. They really are well-written and informative, despite the title. This book is no different. It’s quite comprehensive and includes both pretty big fixes that you can DIY as well as tips for annual maintenance and inspections that will help you avoid costly repair bills. It includes EVERYTHING in your home, from the foundation to the roof and everything in between. However, I do wish it had more step-by-step instructions and illustrations. It’s very text-heavy.

    The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Home Repair
    This competitor to the Dummies series is equally well-written. It has more illustrations and step-by-step instructions, but it’s not quite as comprehensive. It also covers from foundation to ceiling, but I couldn’t find some small to medium fix-it issues that I found in the Dummies guide. For example, I have a draft in my French door sidelights. The Dummies guide told me how to fix door drafts, but the Idiots guide doesn’t. On the other hand, the Idiot’s guide shows how to fix a bent track of a sliding door, but the Dummies guide doesn’t even mention it.

    The Reader’s Digest Do-It-Yourself Guide to Preventing Costly Home Repairs
    Like the title implies, this book is geared towards saving you money. It tells you just how much you can expect to save by making simple home repairs or maintenance. It was published last year, so the figures are still fairly accurate. You could walk through your house with this book and check everything listed using the Care and Maintenance tips. It also provides quick fixes, but most of the items are relatively minor. There aren’t any mid-size or large jobs in this book. For example, it simply recommends installing weather-stripping, but doesn’t offer details.

    Knack Home Repair and Maintenance
    This book is organized into projects, like repairing a chipped finish or installing a pet door. It has very detailed pictures and instructions for most of the projects you might attempt around your house, including in your yard. Most projects get a two-page spread with 3-4 pictures and tips. The weather-stripping section is the most detailed of all the books.

    The First-Time Homeowner’s Survival Guide
    This book covers some repairs, but it’s mostly geared toward helping new homeowners figure out how things work. It provides advice for planning renovations, hiring contractors, paying taxes, and buying insurance. In some ways, it feels written for flippers rather than long-term owners.

    If I were only buying one book, I’d personally get the Dummies guide, but the Idiot’s guide and Knack book are strong runners-up. I’d recommend checking all three out of your library and choosing the one that’s best for your home and needs. I like the Reader’s Digest book, but I want something more detailed and more hands-on for my home repair manual.

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