The Do and Don’t of Dollar Store Shopping

Dollar stores exploded in popularity during the Great Recession and their growth shows no signs of slowing down. Two of the nation’s larges dollar store chains – Family Dollar and Dollar General- opened more than 1,000 stores across the U.S. last year.
There is no question that dollar stores are a great way to stretch your budget for grocery and household essentials, not to mention the fun of throwing a few extra finds in your cart when your budget allows. But because something is just a dollar doesn’t necessarily mean it is a good deal. Read on to learn which items to go for at the dollar store, and which items to leave on the shelf.
Seasonal and Party Goods: You can’t beat the dollar store for great deals on seasonal and holiday decorations, party accessories, greeting cards and wrap supplies. Some stores even offer helium-filled Mylar balloons.Cleaning Products: Bleach is bleach and toilet bowl cleaner is toilet bowl cleaner. The makers of brand-name cleaning products would like you to believe otherwise, but it simply isn’t true. The product’s active ingredients are going to be similar regardless of the name of the bottle or the scent of rain-kissed wildflowers.
Spices: While you probably wont find pricey, exotic spices, the dollar store is the perfect place to stock up on pantry basics like cinnamon, black pepper, onion powder and chili powder. Just remember to check the expiration dates to ensure maximum flavor.
Grooming Essentials: You will find all your grooming basics at the dollar store including deodorant, toothbrushes, toothpaste, shaving cream, bar soap and body wash. And don’t be surprised if you see recognizable brand names. Dollar stores often buy excess inventory of limited edition or seasonal scents and packaging.
Other dollar store do’s: Picture frames, plastic storage containers, boxed movie theater candy, and hair accessories.
Toys: Most dollar store toys aren’t even worth a dollar. They simply don’t last long enough to be worth it. Plus, the parts and paint used to make them may not conform with U.S. regulatory standards. You are better off spending a few extra dollars on a safe toy that lasts.
Batteries: A buck a pack might seem like a bargain. Until you realize you have to buy five packs to get the battery life of one back of the name brand. Dollar store batteries lose power quickly and, like toys, may contain unregulated, unsafe components.
Vitamins and Over-the-Counter Medication: Saving a few dollars isn’t worth your family’s health. Dollar store vitamins and medications may not be subject to the same regulations and testing as drugstore brands. And a Consumer Report investigation found that some dollar store vitamins contained less of the active ingredient than the labels stated.
Power Cords, Strips and USB Cables: Don’t sacrifice your expensive electronics by connecting them with dollar store cables and cords. Subpar manufacturing standards can damage your items or worse, start a fire. Stick with cords from the electronics or big box store instead.
Other dollar store don’ts: Pet food, bottled beverages, knives, scissors and cotton balls.
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Stock Your Pantry to Save Money

There’s a persistent myth that healthy eating is too expensive or time consuming. Many assume a quick stop at the drive-thru for selections from the “dollar menu” is an easy way to save money on food. It is not. Preparing your own food at home is always going to be less expensive and a much healthier habit.
Whether you are an experienced home cook or just starting to pan and prepare meals at home, a well-stocked pantry will make meal planning much easier and help you stick to your food budget. Start with this list of pantry staples and modify it to match your family’s tastes and dietary needs.Dry Goods:

Brown or white rice, quinoa or couscous
Dry pasta
Nuts and seeds (don’t overbuy, high oil content can cause them to turn quickly)
Dried beans

Canned and Jarred Goods

Pasta sauce
Canned tuna, salmon or chicken
Peanut, almond or other nut butter
Tomatoes (keep paste, sauce and diced on hand for different uses)
Canned vegetables
Canned beans
Canned soup (for quick meals)
Chicken or vegetable broth
Canned fruit
James and fruit preserves

Baking Needs

All-purpose flour or whole wheat flour
Sugar/Brown Sugar/Powdered Sugar
Baking powder
Baking soda
Old-fashioned oats
Chocolate chips
Raisins, dried cranberries or other dried fruit
Pure vanilla extra
Honey, maple syrup or agave nectar

Condiments and Spices

Soy sauce
Barbeque sauce
Black pepper
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Chili Powder

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How to Shop Smart at Warehouse Clubs

Shopping at warehouse clubs such as Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s can be a great way to save money. Maintaining a well-stocked pantry and keeping household basics on hand can help reduce those in-between shopping trips that end up costing more than you planned. But you have to shop warehouse clubs wisely. If you don’t, you can end up wasting more money than you save.
Stock up on the household basics, including toilet paper, paper towels, laundry supplies and cleaning supplies. Unless you are an extreme couponer, these items will almost always be cheaper at a warehouse club rather than buying smaller quantities elsewhere. Remember to store the items in an area that is protected from pests and extreme temperatures.Load up on dry goods with a long shelf life, including dry pasta, rice, flour, sugar, dry beans and other staples. Be sure to store them in airtight plastic, metal or glass containers to maintain freshness and mark the containers with the purchase date.
Set a spending limit and shop with cash. This will help you stick to the list and avoid adding in extras just because they look like a good deal.
Split large quantities with a friend or family member. If there is something you need but you know you won’t use it all before it goes bad, see if you can find someone who wants to split the cost and share the item.
Overbuy perishable products. Always check the expiration dates on meat, fresh produce, dairy products, prepared salads, refrigerated juices and other perishables. The low prices may seem irresistible, but if the food goes bad before you have a chance to use it, it is money wasted.
Get tempted by samples. It wouldn’t be a trip to the warehouse club without enjoying the samples, just don’t be tempted to buy them all. Unless it is something you or your family already loves and you had planned to buy it anyway, just enjoy the sample and move on.
Pay with a credit card- don’t even bring one with you. It will be too tempting to add extras you didn’t plan on buying. Plan to pay with cash and keep track of your total as you shop so you don’t go over your pre-determined spending limit.
Forget to factor in the annual membership fee.  If you only shop the warehouse club a few times a year, it might not be worth the annual fee you have to pay.
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It’s TIme to Cut the Cord and Save

You have heard about it, you have ready about it, maybe even someone you know has even done it (and brags about it all the time). But can you do it? Would you ‘cut the cord’ and get rid of cable or satellite TV as a way to save money?
As streaming services gain more and more content and the promise of forthcoming standalone apps for HBO, Showtime, ESPN and Nickelodeon offer additional freedom of choice, the idea of deciding on your own terms what media to consume is more appealing than ever. And just imagine never again having to wait on hold for a cranky cable company customer service rep. Sounds good right?Here are some things to consider when deciding to cut the cord:
Initial Investment- If you don’t already have one, you’ll likely want to invest in a streaming device such as Roku, AppleTV or Amazon Fire TV, that allow you to watch streaming content directly on your television (rather than a computer or other device). They all ring in around the $100 range and are often available at a discount. You will want to do a little research to find out which one plays the best with all of your other devices for a maximum versatility.
Monthly and Annual Subscriptions-  Once you have a streaming device, you need something to stream. Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime video are the big three players in the streaming business. Netflix and Hulu charge monthly, while Amazon Prime Video is one part of an annual subscription that also includes other benefits. Even if you subscribe to all three, your monthly charges will still be far less then cable or satellite.
Less Exposure to Advertising- Most streaming content is delivered commercial-free, which limits how much advertising you will see. This is especially beneficial with children’s programming and can help minimize kids getting a case of the ‘I wants!’ just because they saw a commercial for something on TV.
Less Wasted Time- Not having 200+ channels to flip through means less time wasted mindlessly channel surfing, looking for something worthwhile to watch. Your viewing habits will become much more specific and intentional, and chances are you will log less screen time overall.
Don’t Get Discouraged-  Cutting the cord requires making some adjustments, but any initial inconvenience you experience is worth it when you begin to reap the savings in both money and time. Once you get used to this new way of consuming content, you will wonder why you waited so long.
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Help Your Teen Find the Right Summer Job

During the Great Recession, teens faced stiff competition for summer jobs from older, more experienced workers who were happy to take any jobs just to be getting a regular paycheck. Now that the economy has stabilized and most mature workers are back to jobs more in line with their qualifications, the market for teen summer jobs is looking better than it has in years.
Check out what you can do to help your teen prepare to sang a great summer job:Prepare a Resume- Though many part-time summer jobs do not require it, preparing a resume is an important step in the job-hunting process. It will help your teen think critically about their skills and experience. And putting together a resume every summer is great practice for future job hunts. Make sure they include all work experience, including volunteering, and even odd jobs like babysitting and mowing lawns – anything that demonstrates they are responsible and willing to work. Be sure the finished product is free of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and typos.
Review Social Media-  It is a fact of life that prospective employers will look through applicant’s social media accounts. Go through your teen’s accounts with them and have them remove anything that could cause prospective employers to get the wrong impression. It is a good opportunity to remind young people that what they post on social media now will follow them for years to come, and could even be a factor in college admission and post-collegiate employment decisions.
Research the Opportunities-  Many teens submit applications all over town and take the first job they are offered. While that willingness to work is admirable, it might not turn out well for your teen or the employer if the position isn’t a good match. Have your teen research the positions they are interested in, find out what the job duties and expectations are, and make informed decisions about where to apply.
Rehearse the Interview- While it might feel a little awkward, role-playing the interview with your teen will help them nail it when they go through the real thing. Make sure to talk about the importance of a firm handshake, steady eye contact, good posture and being well-groomed. Help your teen come up with some insightful questions about the position, and remind them that asking about pay rates, breaks and time off are likely to raise a red flag for employers.
Create a Plan to Save – Nothing teaches teens the value of a dollar better than earning it themselves – and they are not going to want all that hard work go to waste by spending every last dime. Talk to your teen about what they plan to do with their earnings and encourage savings to be part of that plan. Whether it is contributing a portion to an existing savings account, adding to a college fund or putting the bulk of it towards a large goal, such as buying a car, help your teen come up with a plan to make their money work for them.
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The Best Budget-Friendly, Last-Minute Gifts

With Christmas approaching quickly, there’s a good chance your gift-buying budget might not be what was expected. Here are some easy, inexpensive and thoughtful gifts you can whip up yourself with minimal time and just a few steps. You might even have some of what you need on-hand already. And the best part? They don’t look or feel ‘last-minute’.
Christmas Stovetop Potpourri- The scents of citrus, cranberries and spice are unmistakably festive. Who wouldn’t love getting all the ingredients together in a jar, ready for simmering? It’s easy, fun and cheap, too. Put together a few jars for neighbor gifts or to have o- hand if guests drop by unexpectedly. Cinnamon Honey Butter- If you’ve been doing any holiday baking, chances are you already have everything you need to make this sitting in your kitchen: butter, cinnamon, honey and powdered sugar. It’s delicious on waffles, rolls, muffins, pancakes- just about anything made from dough. Whip up a batch, put it in cute jars, and you have several gifts. 
M&M Cookies in a Jar- Maybe you meant to bake but never got around to it. That’s OK. Layer all the dry ingredients in a jar, tie it up with ribbon and attach the full recipe for a fun and easy gift that will come in handy when post-holiday cookie cravings hit.
Movie Night- Get a classic holiday DVD like Elf or Home Alone, put it in a popcorn bucket with a few boxes of movie candy and some sodas, and you have a fun gift that is perfect for a wide range of age groups and interests. 
Money Tree- A gift of cash is always appreciated. You can make it creative by folding it into the shape of a Christmas tree. It’s cute, easy and makes cash so much more giftable. 
Mini Emergency Kit- There isn’t anyone who wouldn’t appreciate having a kit filled with those little things they can never find when they need them. Take a plastic travel soap holder or small metal box and fill it with a few Band-Aids, mini hand sanitizer, a Shout wipe, safety pins, lip balm, antacids, pain reliever and more. it might not be glamourous, but it will become someone’s favorite gift ever when they can find exactly what they need in a pinch. 

Budget Gifts with a Twist

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean the pressure to spend has gone with them. Retailers pull out all the stops this time of year to make us believe that everything they offer is a ‘must-have’ or the best deal ever. They’re so good at it, in fact, that the National Retail Federation predicts consumers will spend more than $6 billion on Holiday gifts this year. Seems excessive, right? 
The good news is you can still enjoy the thrill of exchanging gifts with friends and family, while staying out of the malls and big box stores. Using your creativity, innovation and a giving spirit, you can create moments of surprise and delight that mean more than any sweater, toy or gadget ever could. 
The Gift of Time- There’s no greater gift you can give than yourself. Offer the gift of your time to a friend, neighbor or relative you know could use your help. Whether it’s baby-sitting so your sister and her husband can enjoy date night, setting aside some time each week to take an elderly relative grocery shopping, or feeding the neighbor’s cat so she can enjoy a weekend away, your time means more than anything you can put into a box. Present the gift by creating a simple coupon or certificate, rolling it up like a scroll and tying it with a ribbon. 
Secret Ingredient: Love-Giving homemade treats as budget gifts is certainly not a new idea, but there are easy ways to make it fresh and unexpected. Instead of your usual stand-bys look for updated recipes that add a new spin on the old favorites- like a sprinkle of sea salt on your famous chocolate chip cookies or the kick of cayenne pepper and cinnamon in a batch of peanut brittle for a sweet, spicy surprise. 
Or try going in a whole new direction with a jar of homemade salted caramel sauce, a canister of spiced chai tea mix or a sugar bowl filled with flavor-infused sugar. They may sound complicated, but they are actually simple to prepare and sure to stand out. You can find loads of innovative recipes online. Just be sure to make a test batch if it’s something you’re making for the first time. 
A Gift a Month- In this age of digital everything, there’s something familiar and comforting about receiving a magazine in the mail and flipping through its glossy pages. And because of our migration to tech, hard copy magazine subscriptions are more affordable than ever – many ringing in at less that $10 for a full year. They make great, budget friendly, gifts and recipients will think about you every time a new issue arrives in the mail. 
Present the gift by rolling up a copy of the current issue and tying it with a festive ribbon. Most publishers also send recipients a postcard indicating when the fist issue is scheduled to arrive. 
Teachable Moments-  Maybe you know how to do calligraphy, or bake a perfect loaf of bread, or have a flawless golf swing. Whatever your special talent is, if you have a skill that others often tell you they wish they could emulate, teaching them how to do it is a budget gift that costs nothing more than your time. 
Whether you offer a full-day “immersion” session or spread the lessons out over time, you’ll get to spend time with someone you care about and teach them something you love to do. It’s really a gift for both of you. 
Make a Memory- Group buying sites like Groupon and Living Social are filled with fantastic deals on on, local activities – often priced at 1-for-1 or even less. You can find deals that make unexpected budget gifts like concerts, dining out, classes, wine tasting, hot air balloon rides- the list is almost endless. Of course, it will vary based on where you live, but you’re sure to find something new and interesting. The best part of giving an experience as a gift is the lasting memories you’ll create. Whether you go along and participate in the event or just hear the stories afterward, you  and your giftee will never forget it. 

Keeping your 2017 New Years Resolutions

For many of us, New Year’s resolutions often vanish in days – weeks at most.

“Weight loss” is the No. 1 New Year’s Resolution with 21 percent of respondents, followed by “improve finances” with 14 percent. Nearly half are successful by the six-month marker; the rest give up during that timeframe.

Your personal finances require a better outcome. Even if you’ve resolved before and failed, there are still ways to set a course and stay on track.

Resolution-keeping starts with good resolution-making. It’s one thing to say, “I want to pay off my student loans,” or “I want to retire early.” It’s another to measure the size of the challenge, identify obstacles and build a task list to make that goal happen. So if you’ve committed to a particular resolution, go through it again and identify the behaviors and practices you need to change.

For example, if you wonder whether you’re saving enough, maybe your first resolution is to make or review your budget to get a realistic picture of where your finances stand at all times.

Want to add some fairly easy money resolutions that can help your finances overall? Consider the following:

Know your net worth. Budgeting involves day-to-day tracking of finances, but having a quick way to determine your net-worth – your assets minus your liabilities – offers the biggest picture of how you’re doing and what next steps you might take to improve your circumstances. Make this calculation an annual kickoff to the New Year.

Build an emergency fund. If you don’t have money equal to three-to-six months of daily expenses set aside, make that a priority. Shoring up an existing emergency fund – and evaluating whether it’s still adequate to your needs – is probably one of the best ways to keep other financial goals on track. After all, when emergencies happen, it pulls funds away from bills you need to pay as well as savings and investment goals.

Automate. Depending on your comfort level with all things digital, virtually every aspect of your financial life can be managed online or with computer-based software. From setting up a basic online calendar to track pay dates, bill due dates and deposit dates for savings and investments, automation could help you create a daily series of reminders and action items that will keep your money issues on time and on track.

Recommit to retirement. If you’re employed or self-employed, here’s how to make a retirement savings resolution stick. First, make sure you’re signed up for a 401(k), 403(b) or 457 plan at work or a corresponding SEP-IRA, self-directed 401(k) or other self-employment retirement plan that fits your tax and financial situation. Then check what your maximum contribution is for your respective plan. Finally, through budgeting or a plan to bring in more income, determine how you can come as close to your maximum contribution as possible for the coming year. And of course, don’t forget about Traditionial or Roth IRAs that you can contribute to independently of these employer-based plans. All of these options can improve your retirement prospects while saving you considerable money on taxes.

Review your benefits and insurance. For most employed and self-employed people, open enrollment for health and other company benefits wrapped up before year-end. But that doesn’t mean you can’t spend time reviewing the choices you’ve made for health insurance, retirement savings or flexible spending plans, as well as reviewing your personal home, auto, life and disability coverage for potential savings and/or better coverage. If you work with a qualified financial planner or tax professional, you might want to bring up some of those questions with them.

Reset savings and bill repayment goals. By now, you’re probably getting a very good indication that most of your financial decisions are linked. Get some assistance in determining how best to address the amounts and types of bills you have so you eventually free up more money for savings and investments.

Set regular reviews. It’s generally a good idea to review your budget performance monthly to identify unusual items and plan for expenses you’ll have to tackle in the future. You may want to take an overall look at your finances in January and June to make sure spending, savings and investment goals are on track.

Bottom line: Making financial resolutions makes you feel good. Keeping those resolutions feels a lot better. Develop long-term money habits that position you for success.

Be on the Lookout for Senior Financial Scams

Financial scams are an unfortunate fact of life. While no one is immune from them, seniors can be especially vulnerable. Many scammers target seniors, assuming they are not tech savvy or that they have high balances sitting in a checking or savings account.
Whether you are a senior citizen yourself or have friends and family who are, you should be aware of some of the most recent financial scams targeting seniors.Telemarketing- According to the National Council on Aging, seniors make two times more purchases over the phone than the national average, which leaves them especially vulnerable to telemarketing scams. While there are infinite variations of these kinds of scams, recent ones include:

Grandchild Needs Money- Someone calls a senior claiming to be the person’s grandchild who is stranded or injured and needs to have money wired to them. They will often start by saying, ‘Grandma (or Grandpa), do you know who this is?’ When the person responds with a name of one of their grandchildren, the scammer is off to the races. If you receive a call like this, simply hang up. You should also ask your grandchildren to identify themselves by name when they call so you do know it’s really them.
Charity Scams – There is always some version of this scam going around, but they always spike after a national tragedy or international disaster. If you feel moved to donate to any cause, do so on your own, rather than responding to a phone call soliciting funds.

Unsolicited Home Repairs- Usually working in teams of two or more, scammers go door-to-door in neighborhoods with high populations of seniors and claim they have spotted an urgent home repair issue they can fix. They demand payment in cash up front, then proceed to do shoddy, unlicensed work that often creates a problem where there wasn’t one to begin with. If someone you haven’t contacted yourself comes to your door offering home repair, tell them you already have a trusted handyman who does that work and send them on their way.
Reverse Mortgage Scams- The popularity of reverse mortgage has skyrocketed in recent years, opening the door to fast-growing financial scams targeting seniors. Scammers offer seniors unsecured reverse mortgages and promise homeowners cash on their vacation homes (neither of which actually exist) in exchange for the title to their property.
If you feel you or your loved one has been the victim of a financial scam or ID theft, there is help available. First, file a police report, and in the case of identity theft, visit the Federal Trade commission’s website and follow their detailed instructions for creating an identity theft report.
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Housing Counseling: Key to the American Dream

The American Dream of owning a home is certainly rewarding. It can also be challenging. Many homeowners and potential homeowners struggle through challenges on their own, not realizing that help is just a phone call away. Some never realize their dreams of home ownership because they don’t take advantage of the assistance available.Whether you are excited to buy your first home, need help staying in your current home, or are returning to the market after financial hardship, Housing Counseling can help you meet your goals.
HUD- approved Housing Counseling services may be the key that unlocks your dreams of homeownership.