Apparently the American wallet is aching to be taken out for a spin and a slew of people have decided that thrift stores are the best place to do that. I haven’t been to a thrift store in a while, but this weekend I decided to walk down to one while waiting for my oil change. I expected it to be quiet and empty. Boy was I surprised!

The place was packed. The aisles were jammed with stuff. I saw whole families inside. And it wasn’t even a very nice thrift store. It was somewhat messy and cramped. But that didn’t stop these bargain shoppers!

There were several families with small children at the thrift store. The toys were piled on top of the clothing racks, but I saw several kids toting “new” toys. None of the toys were in terrible shape, so I’m guessing it’s a great place to get a recently hot toy that some other child doesn’t want anymore.

There was a decent selection of books, some of them hardcovers in excellent condition being sold for $2-$3. I saw a few kids in this section, too, looking for the Lightning Thief series.

There were several parents in the children’s clothing aisles. If you’re going to buy one thing at a thrift store, this is a good choice. Kids grow out of their clothes so quickly that you can find trendy stuff at bargain prices. Just make sure you check the elbows and knees for wear and examine it for stains. Missing buttons are easily replaced.

Depending on your area, you may also find amazing clothes for adults, including designer clothing and expensive shoes at bargain prices.

Dishes/Home Décor
They had a variety of dishes in decent condition priced $1 and up. I saw platters, fancy wine glasses, matching plates, and some glass knick-knacks. If you’re hosting a party and want real glassware, a thrift store is a fun place to pick unusual choices on the cheap. Recent grads and college students – this is the place to stock up on everything you need. All your friends will have cast-offs and thrift store finds, too, so you’ll be in good company.

I was surprised to see a decent selection of small TVs. They weren’t flat screens, but they’re good options if you need a TV for a guest room or workshop. Some of them may need a digital converter box, so make sure you can turn it on and get an over-the-air signal if you don’t own a box or have cable.

I know from a quilting friend that thrift stores are very popular among quilters and crafters looking for vintage bed linens or unusual fabrics. I saw tons of comforters, sheets, and tablecloths. I even saw what appeared to be several yards of purple organza – perfect for a little girl’s costume. If you’re a crafter or need some inexpensive fabric for any reason, this is the place to go.

Wedding Dresses
I won’t say these wedding dresses were the most fashionable I’ve ever seen, but most of them were clean and in good condition. If you want to make your own dress, consider hitting up a thrift store first. You can use the beads and lace to rebuild the bodice. You might be able to use the skirt and train without too much modification. You’d pay hundreds of dollars for this fabric at another store, so make the most of a thrift store bargain.

This particular store was too small to have a significant furniture section, but I once found a microwave stand at a thrift store. Well, actually, it was just a small rolling cart, but it was $10, so I bought it for my microwave. It’s now my “bar.” At Thanksgiving, it was my rolling buffet because I didn’t have enough room on the table. Larger thrift stores are great places to find dressers, couches, and other furniture if you’re willing to put a little work into them, or are a college student on a budget.

If you need to shop, but don’t want to spend a lot, check Yelp for reviews of the local thrift stores and then hit up the largest one. You might find an amazing deal on exactly what you need. I don’t remember Saturday morning, though. That’s apparently the time to shop.

If you’ve visited any store at any point since December 26, you’re no doubt aware that Valentine’s Day is coming. Even worse, this year it falls on a Sunday and a holiday weekend. The pressure will be high to go romantic and go big. But I say ignore the pressure and go small, if you go at all. Here are five more frugal ways to celebrate V-Day.

Vow “Just Cards” This Year
Maybe a chocolate or two, if you must. If you both make a vow that it will be just cards, and promise to keep that vow, and agree that no one will be offended if you don’t get “a little something extra,” this vow should keep your money firmly in your pocket. So ladies, if you go “just cards,” don’t decide to pick up “just a little something,” because you know that will just result make him feel bad.

Make a Nice Home-Cooked Meal
As much as I try to ignore the holiday, it’s still ingrained on me that I should do something. Usually I make small steaks (3-4 ounces each, not 22) with a red wine sauce, thin-sliced roasted potatoes, and a walnut-gorgonzola salad. Served with wine and a scrumptious dessert, and it’s perfect. And since I serve small steaks, we’re not too exhausted for after-dinner activities.

Eat Out on a Different Night
There will probably be more people choosing this option this year, but if you’re set on going out, try Friday or Saturday rather than Sunday. Don’t try to go out Monday, though. It’s a holiday, so you really will be eating the slimmest of the slim pickings!

Rent a Romantic Movie
After eating your home-cooked meal and reading your cards, you might want to settle in for a romantic movie. If you have Netflix or Blockbuster Online, adjust your queues now to ensure that something appropriate to the evening arrives that week. Appropriate to the evening depends entirely on your tastes! It might be a horror movie, a comedy movie, a drama, it doesn’t matter so long as you can snuggle up while watching it.

Go Out to Breakfast
Instead of making a big “to do” about dinner, go out for a nice breakfast. It is a Sunday, so you may have some competition from church-goers, but it’s also brunch day, so you should be able to make brunch reservations somewhere. Then you’ll be free to enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend without the pressure of ROMANCE!

As you can see, I’m not a huge fan of V-Day. I was into it when I was younger, but then I got tired of the crowds and forced feeling of it all. The Valentine’s Day that coincided with the All-Star basketball game being played in Los Angeles was the last straw. I may never go out on V-Day again!

Want more ideas for avoiding the day? Check out my previous posts on cheap Valentine’s Day ideas and five ways to save money on Valentine’s Day.

I’ve got the ultimate conundrum for a dedicated frugalist: the broken cell phone. First the story, then the conundrum.

The Cheap Phone Plan
As soon as my husband and I got married, we merged our cell phone plans into a family plan. About a year after the first two-year agreement expired, the hinge on his phone cracked and we decided it was time to upgrade. We both went to the AT&T store and bought matching phones. They weren’t the cheapest phones in the store, but they were basic flip phones. My husband considered a Blackberry, but decided to wait until the next contract expiration.

Breakable Flip Phones
Last Thursday the hinge on my phone cracked. I currently have it taped together, but it’s not a long-term solution. However, we’ve got nine months left on our phone plans. It’s a known issue, so I’ll be calling LG to see if they’ll fix it free, even though it’s out of warranty. We also have insurance on the phone, but the deductible will be at least $50 and I’ll get a refurbished phone.

The iPhone Conundrum
Here’s where it gets tricky. Currently, we both receive cell phone reimbursements from our employers: $40 for me, $50 for him. That completely covers our current phone plan, so our phones cost us nothing.

My employer also offers company phones. They’ll give me a free Blackberry or I can buy an iPhone and they’ll pay for the service and data plan. But, I would have to get a new phone number or transfer my number. I’ve had my number for 13 years – I don’t want to change it!

If we upgraded to an iPhone for me and a Blackberry for him, we’re looking at $179 a month plus taxes vs. $70 a month plus taxes. We could use the lowest cost plan with rollover minutes since we have 4000 minutes accumulated, but that would still cost $125 a month.

My plan was to wait until October so I could go on my company plan and we could put him on an individual plan for a Blackberry. It would cost the same as it costs us now, but the net after his reimbursement would be $30ish, instead of $50ish.

Why I Want an iPhone
I primarily want an iPhone for the browser. There have been several occasions where I wanted to get directions, or check an online price, or find some other information while out and about.
I hate texting, but I do have friends who insist on texting me, so the iPhone would make that easier.
It’s becoming more important that I have access to office email on the weekends.
My co-workers all have them and use them during conference calls, while I sit quietly staring at the wall.

Why I’m Hesitant about the iPhone
I don’t really care about the apps. I’ve had a PDA before and used apps. Although handy, I wasn’t addicted to them.
I prefer to use a paper notebook to keep notes, to do lists, etc. It’s faster to write by hand than it is to keep it on a PDA.
I hate the iPhone keyboard – it’s hard to poke the letters with my fingertips. Maybe it’s just because I used to use a stylus and I’ll get used to it.
I already have an iPod that still works perfectly well, so I don’t need it for the music.
I just bought a new pocket calendar for the year and I like it.

My first plan of action is to try to get my current phone fixed for free. If that doesn’t work I’ll have to decide my next step. If we break our family plan now, we’ll have to pay a $100 early termination fee, unless we can avoid the fee by replacing our family plan with an individual plan at equal cost. Hmmm, I’ll have to look into that. If we can, then I’ll jump onto the office plan. If we can’t, then we’ll be doing some more math.

So, are any of you iPhone users? Do you think it’s worth the extra cost?

The other day, someone commented on my blog that she didn’t worry about customer service when making a computer purchase, because she replaced it every two years. I have to say, my jaw hit the floor on that one. A new computer every two years? Unless she’s running uber-powerful programs, that seems excessive. So just how often should you replace your stuff?

Right now my car is nearly 12 years old. I prefer to replace them every 10 years, but it wasn’t in the budget and the car is still running fine. It does have some annoyances – like the jammed passenger side lock vandals broke years ago. It opens; I just can’t unlock it from the outside. The other locks are also starting to get temperamental in the cold. Still, a lot worse could happen to a 12-year-old car.

I’ve heard the advice that you should replace your computer every two years, but really, that seems excessive. Even my work laptop is older than that. My home computer was replaced in the last two years, but it was built by our friend and it was replacing the computer he built for me five years ago. It needs a new motherboard now, but that’s still cheaper than a whole new computer, and much fewer parts to recycle. We’re also looking at replacing my husband’s laptop, which is seven years old. Yes, after seven years, a laptop really does show its age! Rather than every two years, I’d say you should replace a computer every five years or so, which is about when you’ll start to notice significantly reduced performance and more frequent issues.

This one depends on the shoe. If the soles of your good shoes wear out, then get the soles fixed and keep the shoes. If your kids outgrow their shoes, obviously they need new ones. If you wear gym shoes for exercise regularly (several times a week), then replace them every six months to ensure you don’t get injured.

Major Appliances and Electronics
I’m taking about laundry machines, refrigerators, etc. I’d say these can usually last at least 15 years, sometimes longer. You know it’s time to replace the fridge when it starts making bad sounds and doesn’t properly chill anymore. At that point, you may get more bang for your buck by replacing it instead of repairing it because energy efficiency may have significantly improved. TVs can usually last at least ten years. I usually replace them when I start to see weird effects on the screen, like shadows or missing pixels. I don’t replace it just because a new technology was replaced. Shows still display fine on my old one.

Replace it when it wears out or doesn’t fit anymore. By buying classic items, I don’t have to worry about staying on-trend. There is one exception: bras. Daily-use bras (not the fancy special occasion ones) should be replaced every six months because that’s about how long it takes for the elastic to wear out if you wear it a couple times a week.

Yes, they have longer warranties, but mattresses tend to sag after ten years. Your body will thank you for continuing to provide it with proper support.

Pillows, on the other hand, should be replaced annually, or at least every couple of years. They tend to go flat pretty quickly, and they also fill up with dust mites and other icky stuff. You can wash them, but once they stop fluffing up, it’s time to get a new pillow.

Sheets and Towels
I pretty much keep my sheets until they rip, which takes about three years of daily use. I keep my towels until they stop fluffing and I can’t get the smell out, no matter how many times I wash them in vinegar and baking soda. It’s taken me four years to reach that point.

At risk of sounding like a raging environmental wacko, we Americans replace our stuff altogether too often and our landfills are overflowing because of it. It’s time to slow the replacement cycle. Make your stuff last a little longer. Take better care of it. When you do need to replace something, find a way to recycle it if possible. Contact your city to find out how to recycle electronics – they’ll help you, they might even pay you for it!

I’ll admit that I sometimes get sucked into that crappy show “Rehab,” if only to wonder why people willingly pay $50-$150 for admission and $20 a drink to hang out at a pool. This week featured one of the waitresses serving a cabana of Brits, whom she assumed wouldn’t tip. She reminded them that they needed to tip her repeatedly, to the point of being obnoxious, and then chased them down when the tip wasn’t sufficient. That, combined with my experience of ordering blinds, got me thinking – what’s the price of good customer service?

Do Servers Always Deserve 20%?
Sure, I have to agree that a bunch of guys with a $3200 a bar bill should have tipped their waitress more than $200. At the same time, was it appropriate to chase them out and tell them they “owed her” $600? She may think she gave them great service, but they may think that constant hounding for a tip was irritating and she therefore deserved less. I know servers work hard, and I never tip less than 15%, but I still think 20% is only for excellent service. Crying and carrying on because she got less than she thought she deserved was childish. If the establishment requires servers to tip-out, then that’s something they should take up with the establishment, not their customers.

Are You Willing to Pay More for Good Customer Service?
In some respects, I would be willing to pay more for a product if I thought I would need regular customer service. For example, when buying a computer, I would choose a manufacturer known for good customer service over one known for bad customer service. The prices would probably be comparable, but I might pay $100 more for a better manufacturer because something is very likely to go wrong.

On the other hand, I wasn’t willing to pay several hundred dollars more to buy blinds from the independent blind salesman who stressed his reputation and business manner. Instead I opted for 3-Day Blinds, which is also known for producing a quality product, and whose sales rep was equally nice and responsive. If anything, she was better because she wasn’t obviously nonplussed when we didn’t place the order on the spot.

The independent seller offered to look at the second estimate and “get within the range,” but that still sounded like he’d cost more. I don’t expect to need a lot of ongoing customer service for window blinds, so I opted for the better deal from a well-known company.

Does the Length of Involvement Play a Role?
At what point is the price more important than good customer service? If the service is part of the experience then I’ll pay more for it. When I bought homeowners insurance, I opted to pay a little more for a policy from an insurance agent who represented one of the bigger insurance agencies than to add homeowner’s to my current low-cost auto policy. The biggest reason was the customer service – the insurance agent was very friendly and attentive while preparing my quotes. She also thanked me for calling her. My current insurance company sent me to a call center, even thought I’d called the office where we bought the insurance. When it comes to insurance, this is a long-term relationship. Paying a slightly higher premium for an agent I know will be there for me is worth it to me.

What about you? Are you willing to pay a premium for good service? Where do you draw the line?

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.

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?

Try saying that fast three times! This weekend we went to buy a sofa bed for our guest room. I’d researched possible stores and narrowed it down to two options. We decided to go with one from Jennifer Convertibles. The price was $599, which was within our budget. We liked the color it came in, so we didn’t go for a custom fabric. I’m not sure if that would have raised the price or not, and I actually forgot to ask about other colors when I was there. However, once we settled on the sofa we wanted, my frugality fell apart.

Taxes and Delivery
These were unavoidable, and I had factored them into the budget. However, I live in California, so that tax was nearly 10% of the price! Still, a big tax and a delivery fee aren’t frugal. If I were going to get uber-frugal, I’d borrow a friend’s truck and tote that thing home myself.

Sofa Bed Sheets
These are $69.99. I probably don’t need them, but I let myself be talked into them. When compared to regular Queen-sized sheets, that’s a reasonably-priced set. However, it’s $20-30 more than sofa bed sheets available online, and has a lower thread count. I didn’t even think to research sheets before I walked in that store, and I should have.

Fabric Protection
Now for the worst failure: fabric protection. I let the saleswoman talk me into buying the $99 fabric protection plan, which they claim covers stains, tears, etc. My husband left the showroom when she came to write up the order, and let me make the call. I reasoned that we have two cats with a penchant for vomiting, but I could have just Scotchguarded the sofa myself. I also hadn’t researched the program, and there have been complaints about making claims. I guess we’ll see what happens.

I still came in under my budget, but if I’d been more careful and thought things through, I could have saved $185 on the purchase. I’m sure this isn’t my worst frugal failure ever, but it’s certainly not a high point for me.

I’m usually a more careful shopper than this, but for some reason I let myself be led by a salesperson, something I try never to do. Maybe it was just because I was frazzled. We had a lot more unpacking to do and I wanted to get home. Next time I’ll give myself more time and even be willing to return later to complete an order after I’ve had time to do some research.

With home prices falling, people who were considering selling are now staying put and learning to live with what they have. But you don’t have to put up with stale design elements. If your home’s size and layout still works for you, here are some simple, mostly affordable fixes that can update your home and make it feel newer.

Painting the outside of your house can cost a few thousand dollars, but it will drastically improve your curb appeal if you haven’t painted in a long time. If the outside is fine, you can paint a room on the inside for as little as $50. Spending a weekend applying a new color can transform the look and feel of the room. Just make sure the color complements your furniture, unless you can afford to buy a new sofa or slipcovers.

Make Slipcovers
If you’re handy with a sewing machine and have a fairly simple couch design, you can make slipcovers with a few weekends of work. I don’t necessarily recommend doing it with a complicated couch like mine, but it can be done, and it can be very affordable.

Change the Decorations
Has that vase been on the mantel so long it’s left an imprint? Rather than changing the paint or the slipcovers, just swap out your dusty candles and vases for something else you find in the closet. Or visit a home décor store to pick a few attractive new items on sale. It will feel just like a model home, at least for those few minutes before everyone else comes home.

Update the Yard
It never hurts to update your landscaping. Prune back the overgrown roses and other bushes. Dig up dead flowers and plant new ones. Paint some pots for your flowers. Buy new cushions for the patio table. Restain the deck. All of these are affordable things you can do to make your home more enjoyable.

Update Your Appliances
This costs a bit more, but it’s much more affordable than a complete kitchen remodel. Newer appliances may also be more energy-efficient and simpler to use. Take the measurements, then visit a home store to find out what current appliances cost. You should also check your local water, power, and gas utilities to see if they offer rebates for purchasing certain appliances, or for having them pick up your old appliances. DWP in Los Angeles gives owners $35 for turning an old refrigerator. You can get up to $75 for buying a new energy-efficient washing machine.

Add Chair Rail or Wainscoting to a Room
Chair rail or wainscoting in a living room, dining room, or bathroom can really make it feel more luxurious, for a lot less than new furniture or a bathroom remodel. In most cases, installing chair rail is a simple weekend project. Wainscoting requires a little extra effort, but not much. Warning: do not attempt crown molding unless you’re an experienced woodworker. It requires special cutting tools and knowledge that most people don’t have.

Update Fixtures
If your chandelier or bathroom fixtures came with the house, consider updating them with newer, more modern-looking options. Again, these are relatively cheap, but really change the look of a room. If you’re replacing a ceiling light fixture in the bedroom or a main living space, consider adding a fan to keep the room cooler without running the AC.

Clean the Walls
This one’s nearly free! Paint is washable, so you can update a room simply by washing off all those smudges and marks. Start with a magic eraser (about $5 in the grocery store cleaner aisle) to remove major marks. Then a bucket of soap and water and a sponge will do the rest. You may be surprised how much you like the color once the walls are clean. Bonus points: it’s a good arm workout.

Buy New Dishes
I don’t mean new fine china. But you can buy a set of new everyday dishes fairly affordably. Using them in place of your old chipped set will make you feel a lot better without a lot of expense or effort. If you still like your old set, consider the modern twist of mixing and matching various dishes.

Clear Clutter
If your home feels too small, see if clearing the clutter will make it feel large again. With all the stuff gone, you may be able to rearrange the furniture, which will also change your perspective on your home.

You can easily update your home for anywhere from $10 to $3000, both of which are far more affordable than buying a new home, and easier, too. Do you have tricks for updating the look of your home? Share them in the comments.

I recently read Mark Bittman’s new book and discovered his recipe for homemade microwave popcorn. I don’t usually buy microwave popcorn because it’s expensive and I’m not a fan of the taste, but I’ve recently been craving popcorn like nobody’s business. My office supplies free snacks, so I could use their bags, but I still don’t like the taste or all the chemicals.

Today I gave the homemade microwave popcorn a test run and I’m hooked. It’s easy and cheap! Certainly a lot cheaper than the $1.20 you’d pay for each bag of microwave popcorn. As a bonus, it’s also better for you and you can better control the serving size.

Homemade Microwave Popcorn Recipe
Here’s what you need to make your own microwave popcorn snack:

Brown paper lunch sack
2 tablespoons popcorn
½ teaspoon olive oil
Towel, paper towel or napkin

Pour the kernels in the bag. Add the oil and salt. Shake. Fold the top of the bag down 1 inch and crease tightly. Fold down again and crease again. Place napkin or paper towel on microwave plate. Set bag upright on paper towel. Microwave 3 minutes, or until there is a 2 second pause between pops. Open carefully.

You may need to add additional salt. Some people use a pat of butter instead of oil. Others add butter or oil later – it’s not necessary for cooking, just flavor. You could also try seasoning salt, garlic powder, parmesan flakes, butter spray, butter flakes, popcorn salt, or any other topping that floats your boat. Make kettle corn by adding a couple teaspoons of sugar to the bag before microwaving.

The towel, paper towel, or napkin is very important unless you enjoy wiping oil off the base of your microwave.

Cost of DIY Microwave Popcorn
This recipe makes about half the amount you get in a typical bag of microwave popcorn.

Paper bag: 4 cents
Popcorn kernels: 4.5 cents
Salt: 1 cent
Oil: 2 cents
Total: 11.5 cents for 2 tablespoons of unpopped corn, about 2.5 cups popped corn. That would be 23 cents for the same amount you’d get in a $1.20 bag of microwave popcorn, but without all the dangerous chemicals.

Even better, if you have a few unpopped kernels, you can eat all of the popped corn and then microwave the bag again.

When I’m home, I still prefer my air popper and real melted butter for a decadent treat, but this is a cheap and easy way to enjoy a healthy office snack. To get it to work without messing up my lunch sack, I put the salt and corn in the paper bag and folded it up a few times. I put the oil in a tiny plastic container and then used a spoon to add it to the bag when it was time to cook it. Adding the oil too far ahead would just be messy, and cause the bag to soak up most of the oil.

If you’re already bringing your lunch to work to save money, consider packing in your snacks, too. This is a great one to add to your repertoire.

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