Thursday, July 17, 2008

Surveys and Free Stuff

There's all kinds of survey scams out there that promise to pay you for doing X-amount of surveys. The problem is that once you've answered 10 questions, they tell you that you're not qualified and will receive no compensation.

I've been lucky however to have joined up with two survey companies that do offer valid rewards for my time. The first is HiPoints, or Harris Poll Online Surveys. They offer HiPoints for every survey you complete as well as a chance to enter their sweepstakes. I never pay much attention to the sweepstakes as I'm not generally a lucky person. But the points add up and they have some good prizes. When we were in our money crunch, we took advantage of the $5 paypal deposit that one of the prizes offered. Higher levels offer appliances, books, dvds, cds, and computer stuff. One of the first things I used my points for was a magazine subscription, so I know it's valid. I'm currently saving up for either a coffee pot or a second crock pot.

The other one is called e-rewards and offers small "monetary" type credits for completing surveys. While you don't actually get the money, you do get to spend it on nifty rewards. This one is limited on what you can get, and some of the awards require that you spend money first. For example, you can save $100 at Omaha Steaks, but you have to buy $300 first. Or you can only get certain prizes once a year or once every six months. However, through this program I've gotten two really cool rewards. The first was $15 in Borders Bucks that I used at the mall on new cookbooks. The second was one we just redeemed today: two coupons for a free pre-viewed movie at Blockbuster. It seemed like such a neat thing for us to go pick up two new DVDs for our collection at no cost to us (Juno and Sweeny Todd if anyone was wondering).

If you can find a good survey program that really will offer you some good rewards, I say go for it. It's usually only a little bit of your time and there's nothing wrong at all with free stuff.

To Netflix or Not to Netflix?

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine sent me a free month of Netflix. Not being one to turn anything down for free, I took it. The BF and I had talked about getting Netflix as we're both avid movie and television series lovers. I'd subscribed to Netflix before and always had a good experience with it.

To take advantage of the free month, he signed up rather than me re-opening my account. True to the promo, we got our month free before they started doing their automatic withdrawal. We did discuss it however to make sure it fit into our budget and if it was even worth it. On the three movies at a time unlimited plan, the cost is 16.99 per month (18.23 after taxes here in good ole KS).

If a movie rental is an average of $2.00 per movie (which is somewhere between the cost of an old release and a new release depending on which store you go to), we figured we'd only need to rent 10 movies a month to make it worth it. In a regular four week month, this is a cycle of DVDs per week (get three, watch them, return them). Already we've made it worth it for us, as some weeks we've gotten six DVDs because of the way the weeks and the shipping dates fall.

Not only are we saving money on rentals, we're saving money on the gas that it would take to get to the video store to rent and then take back . We're also saving on any late charges we might incur (something that I was always bad about). And watching movies keeps us home and out of spending trouble.

Though it doesn't work on our system at the moment, Netflix also offers a "Watch Now" option in which you can watch movies directly on your computer along with the ones you get in the mail. If you're a major movie buff, you can probably lower the cost per movie to $1.00 each. Or even $.50.

There's also Blockbuster Total Access which works much the same way but offers in-store rentals as well.

Movie lovers, I highly recommend one of these but only if you can fit it in your budget and only if you know you're going to get your money's worth out of it. If all you're going to watch is three movies per month...go ahead and go to the video store.

Current Situation and How Far We've Come

It's been a long time since I've blogged, partially due to life just getting busy and partially because my inspiration was waning. I didn't have any great tips on saving money. I'd used them all up. And I didn't think anyone would really want to read about what we spent in a day's time or every little way we saved a buck. Though sometimes I did want to write about that stuff, just because it was exciting to me and reminded me of why we were doing what we were doing.

So tonight I thought I'd throw out a little update. I may do a few more blogs...a few exciting things have happened that sort of center around money. I've had a few new ideas to share and at some point I'll post some more recipes. My friends have given me all kinds of great ones to try and I've collected so many I think I have enough to get me through the rest of year. If anyone out there actually reads and uses them, let me know and I'll get on posting some more.

We, meaning the BF and I, are doing really well considering how we started out. Alot of times we'll remind each other of how it was the first month I was here. "Remember when we only had $10 and no jobs?" We joke about it, but I've told him many times that I never want to be in that situation again. I never want to be in any situation I've been in in the past. I don't want to worry that I can't pay the rent or my car payment. I don't want to avoid the letters from the bank because I know they're telling me that I've overdrafted. I don't want to realize that a "treat" to myself ended up being a day's worth of spending that ended up costing me triple what it was worth in overdraft and late fees.

At present time, there is enough in the bank to cover all our bills with some leftover for us to "play with" over the next two weeks until our next payday. We have a savings account, my first in a number of years and his first ever. There's enough in savings for me to finally go to Michigan at the end of the summer with some to spare, and we still have time to keep socking money away in there for spending money. And still have some left. There's this sense of security that I haven't had in a really long time, but there's also a scary sense of "If I screw this up I'm going to backslide again." I've been diligent about keeping track of the checkbook, so much so that I balance it everyday to make sure nothing is going on with it that I'm not aware of.

For the most part, we're still being frugal. We're still getting help with the Vision Card, but July is the last month we'll be getting them. However, groceries have been costing anywhere from $30 to $50 at a time and lasting us for two weeks at least. We take advantage of free stuff when we can without taking advantage of any one person. But we're also letting ourselves a little lee way. My big splurge for this year, besides my trip to Michigan, was the massive amount I spent on Mary Kay stuff. I haven't told anyone how much I spent on it, at least not anyone online, because how do you justify spending money like that when you've cried poor all your life? To get it out into the was a little over $300, paid in monthly installments through the rest of the year. On a high note though, I really like it. It seems to be doing good things for my complexion and I've narrowed down what I'll actually want to buy in the future vs. what I splurged on to see how it works.

The BF hasn't been left in the cold either. He's been able to buy gaming books, a new paintball gun and paintball accessories, and had money to actually go gaming and paintballing with his friends instead of borrowing money from them just so he could be social. As for the two of us, we're still cooking at home alot, but we're okay if on a random night we decide to order a pizza, or on a weekend we decide to go out for lunch. In fact, this coming weekend, we're going to the movies to see "The Dark Knight" and out to lunch at a local downtown restaurant and we're treating his brother for helping us move. I have a BOGO coupon for the movie and a $10 gift card I won at work for the restaurant, but there's nothing wrong with a frugal splurge either.

That pretty much sums up where we're at right now. I hope to get some more blogging in like I did before, both to update and to keep myself motivated. It's so easy to think "Hey, I've got money...let's go spend it." I want to continue to be conscious of where and how my money is being spent so that the days of financial issue induced ulcers can be long gone.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Stimulus Check

I got my stimulus check this past week. While I was originally given the $600 as promised (it seems that some people were shorted) my check came up about $130 short of the mark.

After doing some searching and calling the IRS hotline, I found out that contrary to some of the things I'd been told, the amount that I owed for taxes was in fact taken out of the stimulus check.

While it was kind of a bummer not to have the whole amount, it's also a really good thing on my part. I had signed up for an extension to make my payment and now I don't have to worry about it. Since I won't have anymore accrued interest, I'm saving some money in the long run (not to mention the mess I would have been in if I'd forgotten about it altogether).

As far as taxes go, I'm paid up for this year but due to some problems I had filing this past April, I will have to invest in an accountant for the next year to help with state and fed taxes. I'm okay with this, or at least I am now. I'm confident that both me and the BF (who also had some issues) will get them all worked out in the spring. Just a note on a littel faux pas I made. Having been told that I could take up to 2 dependents as a single person to give myself a little extra money out of every paycheck, I had went that route this past year.

While this may work for some people, and some might even need it, I won't be doing this again. Had I been a little bit better with my money in the first place, I doubt if I would have even missed the little bit extra that taking 0 dependents would have cost me. I would have had a refund and I would not have been so stressed out at tax time.

This round, I made sure that I'm claiming zero dependents. While past tax mistakes may actually eat up any big refund I would get in 2009, at least I'll be working towards the top of my hole, not digging myself further.

So what am I doing with my check? Over half of it went into savings, the rest into checking to help pay bills and give me a little "free" money to have fun with. However, the amount in savings will also be going to my trip to Michigan in a couple of months...a great investment for me and my personal situation.

Recipe: Tortilla Casserole

I believe this recipe came from the Betty Crocker website though I had a hard time finding the recipe to post the link. However, the BC website has alot of great and easy recipes to check out.

This one was extremely good, though a bit spicy. I don't have the exact cost of everything for this one, but it was relatively cheap to make. Also, the original recipe called for some name brand items which I'm making generic as I don't usually buy the name brand if I can find a cheaper version.

1lb lean ground beef
1 small onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups hot water
1 cup medium salsa
1/2 cup milk
1 package Hamburger Helper Cheesy Nacho or Crunchy Taco mix
6-6 inch flour tortillas
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook beef and onion in 10 inch skillet over medium hight heat until brown. Drain any grease.
3. Stir in hot water, salsa, milk, and Hamburger Helper components (make "topping" sauce separate and then add).
4. Heat to boiling, stirring occassonally. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until pasta or rice is tender
5. Cut tortillas in half. Spread 2 cups of skillet mixture in ungreased baking dish and top with six of the halves. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup of shredded cheese.
6. Repeat the layer process, ending with the last of the beef mixture and shredded cheese on top.
7. Bake uncovered 15-20 minutes or until hot and cheese is melted

When I first saw this recipe it looked pretty complicated but it's not at all and it's really really good. Not only was it great as a main meal, it sets up beautifully and makes some great leftovers. It gave me and the BF two dinners and two lunches with good sized, filling, portions.