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10 Things We Overpay For

by Alexandra Zega

You can save a lot by buying cheaper alternatives.

Especially in these tough economic times, you don't want to tear through your hard-earned cash. Here are 10 ideas to cut costs by paying less for everyday purchases and even little splurges:

1. Gift Cards

For the person who has everything (or whose tastes you simply cannot fathom), gift cards are a safe bet. You can find cards on discount at www.giftcardgranny.com.

The site pulls prices from six gift-card discounters, which buy unwanted cards from other people that they then resell for less than face value. Discounts can be as much as 50%, although most are in the 15%-to-20% range. And the rules for gift cards just became more consumer-friendly.

2. Closing Costs

If you're buying a house or refinancing a mortgage, you can save by negotiating down the lender's origination fee and other closing costs. Lenders will be willing to strike a bargain for your business if you have great credit and adequate equity. And if you're prepared to walk away unless they offer you a great deal, you'll have even more leverage in negotiations.

Also try hitting up the seller to pay some or all of the closing costs -- which average about 3% of the purchase price, and go as high as 6% in higher-tax areas. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae allow sellers to pick up closing costs worth 6% of the purchase price for loans with 10% or more down; the Federal Housing Administration allows up to 6% (but is considering lowering the limit to 3%); and the Department of Veterans Affairs allows 4%. You even get a tax break for mortgage points the seller pays (each point is 1% of the loan amount).

3. Checking Accounts

Banks everywhere are eliminating free checking accounts, but with a little creativity you can still avoid paying that extra $8 to $15 a month. If you arrange for direct deposit or maintain a minimum balance, or bank online and skip the paper statement each month, your bank is likely to waive the fee.

About 750 community banks and credit unions offer free checking accounts with no minimum-balance requirement. They'll also pay as much as 3.5% interest if you use your debit card ten to 15 times a month, arrange for one automatic payment or direct deposit each month, and receive your statement electronically. A partial list is available at www.checkingfinder.com.

4. Groceries

For many families, a bulging budget is the result of excess spending at the supermarket. Ditch the gourmet grocers and shop at Trader Joe's or warehouse stores.

While you're at it, use coupons, which you can find online (at CouponMom.com, Coupons.com and CouponCabin.com). Or, for $5.95 a month, you can get customized coupons from Shopping Nanny. Shopping Nanny recently guaranteed that if you spend more than $90 a week at the grocery store, you'll save $40 a month using its service -- or your next month's membership is free.

5. Connectivity

Bundling your cable-TV, phone and Internet service can save you -- dare we say it -- a bundle. For example, you pay just $85 a month for 12 months if you sign up online with Verizon for unlimited local and long-distance calling, high-speed Internet service and DirecTV with DVR service. That saves $50 a month compared with buying the same services separately.

6. Long-Distance Calls

E-mail and Facebook are great ways to stay in touch with friends and family, but sometimes you simply need to hear a familiar voice. With Skype and Google Talk (you'll need a Gmail account), you can "call" anyone in the U.S. for free via your computer as long as they have the same software in their computer. If the computers have a built-in camera (webcams cost as little as $30), you get video as well as audio. Logitech webcam owners can also use the free Logitech Vid service for video calls.

7. Cell-Phone Plans

Wireless carriers keep you tethered to them with two-year contracts and tempt you to renew with snazzy new phones or monthly discounts. But you can slash your costs with a prepaid plan, especially if you're paying extra for text messaging and data plans.

All of the major carriers plus a number of smaller firms offer prepaid plans. Compare them at www.prepaidreviews.com/compare, then check the carrier's website for more details. Before you compare plans, decide what is most important to you. For example, some providers offer free talk on nights and weekends, no activation or roaming fees, or free 411 calls.

8. Greeting Cards

We've been listening to that Hallmark slogan "when you care enough to send the very best" too long. You don't have to spend $3 to $5 for a greeting card. You can find hundreds of free cards online that you can send via e-mail. And handmade cards from your children wishing friends or family members Happy Birthday or Happy Anniversary or inviting them to a party will mean more than a store-bought card. (If you're hosting an event, don't forget about Evite.)

9. Water

A low-flow shower head is easy to install -- just screw off the old shower head and twist on the new. Because it restricts the water output to no more than 2.5 gallons per minute (older shower heads send as many as 5.5 gallons per minute down the drain), you can save 25% to 60% of the water and 50% of the energy it takes to shower and shampoo you and your family. The shower heads generally run $10 to $20 a pop (some utility companies give them away) and screw into existing fittings. The new fixtures -- labeled WaterSense -- go as low as 1.5 gpm, saving 7,300 gallons and $30 to $100 a year over their 2.5-gpm counterparts.

For gardens, consider installing a drip irrigation system, which maintains moisture in the soil. Drip irrigation can reduce water loss by 50% to 60% compared with hand-watering or sprinkler systems. A drip system consists of a tube or hose with holes or emitters along it. It uses a timer to deliver water to plants. By maintaining the moisture level of the soil, less water is lost to the sun and the wind.

10. Jeans

Suppose you try on a pair of True Religion jeans that look great and fit you perfectly. But they cost $200. Go home and log on to a discounter site, such as UpscaleJeans.com or Bluefly.com and save as much as 50%. Or check out a consignment store near you for a gently worn pair.

 

(c) Joan Goldwasser, Kiplinger'sPersonalFinance

 

10 Ways to Make a Small Room Look Larger

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA, Most people have one: that room in the house that they wish was just a little larger. What many don't realize is that with a little work and some TLC, they could have exactly what they're looking for.

Here, Lowe's offers 10 designer tricks to help you make any room look larger:

1. For the illusion of a larger room, use a color scheme that is light rather than bright or dark. Pastels, neutrals and white are all color possibilities.

2. Use a monochromatic color scheme on the furniture, rugs and walls. Select different shades and textures of your single color.

3. Lighting is a key element in opening up a space. Recessed spot lighting is visually appealing and is perfect for a small space. A torchiere light is great for bouncing light off of the ceiling and back down on the room.Skylights and solar tubes are natural alternatives for adding light to a room.

4. Limit the number of accessories to avoid the cluttered feeling.

5. The floor and the ceiling are the fifth and sixth walls of every room. A light-colored flooring such as light oak or a light-colored carpet will make the room appear brighter and more open. The same applies to the ceiling—use a light color or white to "open up" the space above.

6. Increase the appearance of the size of the room by adding wall mirrors. They not only reflect images, they reflect light and color. Be a little daring! Use mirror tiles to mirror an entire wall. Your room will appear to double in size.

7. Don't place too many pieces of furniture in a small space. A love seat may work better than a full-size sofa depending on the size and shape of the room. Add two medium-sized chairs or two small wood chairs. Place the chairs closer to the wall and then pull them into the area when additional seating is needed.

8. Add paintings or prints to the walls. One large painting works better than a group of small paintings.

9. The visual balance of a room is also important. A large, brightly colored element can overwhelm a room and decrease the appearance of space.

10. A glass table, whether it is a dining, coffee or end table, will keep the appearance of an open and free space.

Prepare Your Home for Winter with These Simple Tips

by Alexandra Zega

Now that summer is a distant memory, and the fall temperatures are continuing to get cooler, homeowners across the country are thinking ahead and preparing their homes for the Winter weather that will be here before we know it.

True Value offers the following steps homeowners can take now to ensure their family’s comfort as the cold weather approaches in addition to keeping their heating bills from going through the roof.

Check for and seal foundation cracks
Look for any cracks or openings in your foundation, exterior walls and around pipes, and be sure to seal them with exterior caulk or foam insulation. Clear away leaves and other debris from the foundation to make sure you haven’t overlooked any cracks. Check the roof for problems such as broken tiles and shingles that could become a larger issue when snow comes. Clean out gutters and downspouts and make sure they’re working properly.

Inspect the chimney and fireplace
For safety reasons, you should examine your chimney each fall. Make sure it is clear of any bird or animal nests. Check to see that the flue opens and closes fully and that it can be locked in either position. You should also check to see if the chimney drafts properly by lighting a small fire and watching the smoke rise up and out. If you find that there is an obstruction, clean your chimney using special rods and brushes designed for this purpose. If your fireplace leaks air, you can cut a piece of fiberglass insulation and place it behind the fireplace doors. Just remember to remove it before building a fire. Additionally, check the brick in the fireplace for any open mortar joints. Have any open joints repaired immediately as fire can spread through open joints into the wall.

Install storm windows
Windows are a common culprit of wintertime heat loss. If you have single-pane windows, remove screens and install double- or triple-pane storm windows before winter comes. Be sure to pull down both the top and bottom storm windows to help prevent heat loss.

Check the furnace
Check the condition of your furnace in late fall. Turn off the electricity and gas, and then use a wet/dry vacuum to clean the entire burner area. Clean the thermocouple with a cloth and use a precision duster with compressed air to clean the pilot light. Replace any disposable air filters and clean washable ones with mild detergent and water. Clean fan blades with a brush and lubricate the fan shaft. If the motor has oiling ports, apply a few drops of heavy-duty electric motor oil. Be sure not to over-oil your furnace and never use automotive motor oil or 3-in-1 household oil.

Winterize your water heater
Because water heaters can be inefficient, it is important to insulate your hot water tank with a water heater blanket. Also, check the water temperature of your water heater. A good energy-efficient temperature is around 120 degrees. It's never a good idea to turn off your water heater completely if you will be away from home for an extended period of time. Instead, turn the water heater's thermostat to the "vacation" setting or a similar low setting. The pilot light will remain lit, maintaining a slightly warm water temperature within the unit until you return.

Insulate exposed piping
Using a pipe insulation kit to add insulation around accessible water pipes will save you energy, lower your heating bills and prevent pipes from freezing during the winter months. Look for water pipes that pass through spaces where cold drafts are likely, such as crawl spaces, garages and attics. Check the pipe leading directly from the hot water heater and don't ignore hot water lines. Though slower to freeze, they are more likely to burst than cold-water lines. Make sure the pipe insulation kit you choose includes adhesive tape or contact cement for sealing. The most common pipe insulation is a tubular foam sleeve slit lengthwise. Tubes without slits are designed for installation over new piping, but they can easily be slit with a sharp utility knife. Open the pipe insulation along the slit, press it onto the pipe, and seal it with adhesive tape or contact cement to prevent summertime condensation.

Additional ways to warm your home
There are more easy ways to make and keep your home warm in the winter. By simply reversing the spin of your ceiling fans and setting them on low speed, you'll send warm air down into your living space. In winter, your fans should spin in a counter-clockwise direction. Most fans have a small switch to set the spin direction. If yours doesn't, you may want to upgrade to a new energy-efficient ceiling fan. Using your ceiling fans to circulate warm air in the winter saves money and keeps your furnace from having to work as hard.

Keeping blinds and curtains open on sunny days will naturally warm up any room. Closing them at night will help keep the heat in and the chill out. Save costs and concentrate warmth in your home by only heating rooms you use. If your heating system has vents, close the ones in unused areas of your home. Use a humidifier—just adding moisture to the air will make your home feel warmer. And as an added bonus, humidifiers also cut down on carpet shocks from dry static electricity.

(c) RISMEDIA, Paige Tepping



Weekend Trip: Best National Parks For Fall Foliage Viewing

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA, October 15, 2010--Looking for a low-cost, family-fun getaway this weekend? Take a trip to a national park.

The National Park Foundation has announced the 2010 "Top National Parks for Fall Foliage" list. Each national park location offers unique ways in which visitors can view the colorful foliage. Whether by water, foot, bicycle or car, however, the dramatic colors of the season are not to be missed.

This year's list, and the optimal times for foliage viewing, includes:

* Blue Ridge Parkway – Peak colors expected mid-to-late October
* Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area - Peak colors are expected through Thanksgiving
* Fire Island National Seashore – Peak colors covering the dunes and beach plants expected late October
* Flight 93 National Memorial – Peak colors expected second and third week of October
* Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore - Peak colors are expected through the third week of October
* Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve - Peak colors for Fall wild flowers expected through November
* Minute Man National Historical Park - Peak colors expected Columbus Day weekend through October
* Olympic National Park - Peak colors expected through October
* Timpanogos Cave National Monument - Peak colors expected through October
* Yosemite National Park – Peak colors expected late October into November

To learn more or find a park near you, visit www.nationalparks.org.

Surprising Origins of Everyday Phrases

by Alexandra Zega

Has anyone ever told you a "bare-faced lie?" Or have you ever "buttered someone up" before? You probably know exactly what these funny-sounding phrases mean but are clueless about where on earth they came from. That's why we went to historian Albert Jack, author of Black Sheep and Lame Ducks: The Origins of Even More Phrases We Use Every Day to find out the history behind some of the most commonly used sayings.

"Bare-faced lie"

If someone has ever told you a bare-faced lie, you know they didn't make any effort to show guilt or remorse. According to Jack, the phrase refers to the idea that a clean-shaven face could not conceal any lies, unlike a bearded mug, which could hide all manner of deceit. But over time, explains Jack, "the phrase came to describe a person who didn't care whether or not he was lying and had no real intention of concealing his deception."

"More than you can shake a stick at"

Farmers with more sheep than they could control with their wooden staffs are believed to have inspired this phrase, which means you have more of something than you need. But according to Jack, there's a second possible origin. "After George Washington was once seen waving a ceremonial wooden sword over the British troops he had recently defeated, other American generals began to use the expression to justify themselves when they had not been quite as successful as the great man himself was in battle. 'We had more men to fight than you could wave a stick at' was apparently a common excuse for failure on the battlefield."

"Run amok" or "run amuck"

A raucous partygoer can be described as going wild or running amok, an expression that derives from "the Malaysian word amoq, which, when literally translated, describes the behavior of tribesmen who, under the influence of opium, became wild, rampaging mobs that attacked anybody in their path," writes Jack. He reports that the phrase became popular in England during the 17th century, when travelers would try to impress people with their knowledge of foreign cultures.

"Blood is thicker than water"

Anyone with a tight family bond will tell you blood is thicker than water. But they may be surprised to learn that the saying has little to do with familial ties. Jack explains that in ancient Middle Eastern culture, "blood rituals symbolized bonds that were far greater than those of the family." That explains "blood brothers"—warriors who symbolically shared the blood they shed in battle together—having a stronger bond than biological brothers. Furthermore, Jack says there is an expression from 3,000 years ago that says: "The blood of the covenant is far stronger than the water of the womb." Jack suggests that the true meaning of this phrase became muddled by English nobility who wanted to stress the importance of bloodlines.

"Butter someone up"

It's easy to assume that the idea behind this phrase—which means to lay flattery on thick—has to do with how smoothly butter spreads onto bread. Not quite. Jack reveals an ancient Indian custom of "throwing butterballs of ghee (clarified butter commonly used in Indian cooking) at the statues of the gods" to seek favor. Additionally, the Tibetan tradition of creating butter sculptures for the New Year "can be traced to the Tang Dynasty and the belief that such offerings would bring peace and happiness for the full lunar year."

"Cat got your tongue?"    

According to Jack, there are two possible sources of this phrase, which refers to when a normally chatty person is at a loss for words, often for suspicious reasons. The first refers to when victims of the cat-o'-nine-tails––a whip the English Navy used for flogging––were left speechless from the pain inflicted upon them. The second, which is equally morbid, traces back to medieval times, when punishment "for liars and blasphemers [was to] have their tongues cut out and then fed to the cats." Ancient Egyptian cats were considered to be gods (and would eat just about anything), so giving them the tongue of a liar was "seen as a human offering to the gods."

"Have a yen for"

When you really want something, it can be said you have a "yen" for it. But the phrase doesn't actually refer to Japanese currency—it refers to Chinese opium, which was available in Britain and America in the late 1800s. "The phrase comes from the Chinese word yan, which can be translated to craving," Jack writes.

"The writing is on the wall"

The roots of this phrase, which means that something negative is inevitable, trace back to the Bible, explains Jack. In the Book of Daniel, God punishes King Belshazzar for boasting and foreshadows his demise by having the words for “Numbered, Numbered, Weighed, Divided” (which all refer to how he was to be taken down) literally written on the wall.

"Turn a blind eye"

The 1801 Battle of Copenhagen is at the root of this saying, which means to pretend you don't know what's happening, Jack explains. During the battle, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, commander of the British fleet, attempted to stop Horatio Nelson from launching an attack on the enemy. "When Nelson's officers pointed out the order, he famously raised a telescope to his blind eye and replied: 'Order, what order? I see no ships.'"

"Pass the buck"

Don't want to take responsibility for something yourself? Just pass the buck, or hand off the duties to someone else. The phrase originated in the American Wild West during poker games, according to Jack. "The most common knife available was known as a buckhorn knife. As all cowboys and ranchers carried them around, one of them would be placed in front of whoever was due to deal the next hand, and in games where the stakes were running too high for a player, he could opt out of his turn at dealing by passing the buckhorn knife on to the next player. But even if he did choose to play, he still avoided the responsibility of setting the bets next time around by passing the buck along."

"Give the cold shoulder"

Giving someone the cold shoulder is a rude way of telling the person he or she isn’t welcome, but the origins of this phrase are actually quite polite, explains Jack. After feasts in medieval England, the host would signal to his guests it was time to leave by giving them a slice of cold meat from the shoulder of beef, mutton or pork. "It was regarded as a civilized and polite gesture."

"Go cold turkey"

If you want to quit anything, from alcohol or cigarettes to chocolate or soda, without weaning yourself off it, you can say you're "going cold turkey." "The original idea was that a person withdrawing from using drugs would find his or her skin turning hard to the touch and translucent to look at, with goose pimples all over—like the skin of a plucked turkey," writes Jack. It's also been suggested that the phrase is a comparison between eating a no-prep meal of cold turkey and stopping heavy drug use without preparation.

"Eat humble pie"

Oddly enough, making an apology and suffering humiliation along with it, as the saying connotes, has little to do with "eating humble pie." Jack explains that the phrase dates back to the Middle Ages, when, during a post-hunt feast, the lord of the manor would eat the finest cuts of meat. But those of lower standing would be served the entrails and innards, known as "umbles," baked into a pie. "It was common practice for people to be humiliated by finding themselves seated at the wrong end of the table and served 'umble pie’.

"Blow hot and cold"

Have a friend who constantly changes their opinions? You might say he’s "blowing hot and cold." Jack informs us that the expression comes from a story in classical mythology in which a traveler is given food and shelter by a kind woodland god. "According to the legend, the woodland god gave the traveler a room for the night and some hot soup. The man blew on his fingers to warm them and then, with the same breath, blew on the soup to cool it. Irritated at the man's apparent indecision, the woodland god packed him off outside and sent him back on his travels."

Want to learn more origins of popular sayings? You can purchase Black Sheep and Lame Ducks at Amazon.com or learn more about Albert Jack at AlbertJack.com.

Original article appeared on WomansDay.com.,Amanda Greene

10 toughest things to get rid of

by Alexandra Zega
old paint cans
(Photo: Getty Images)

It’s hard to know what to do with cans of leftover paint or electronics that have seen better days. You know you shouldn’t throw them in the trash, but they’re not typically recycled at the curb. So how exactly do you get rid of them?

Luckily, if you’re armed with the right info, it can be easier than you think to dispose of these things. It’s worth any extra effort because many of the items on this list contain toxic chemicals that can contaminate the environment or cause other damage if not carefully disposed of.

The laws for disposing of household waste vary depending on where you live, but here are some general guidelines and resources:

1. Batteries
Recycling rechargeable batteries is fairly easy. It’s a good thing because throwing out lead-acid batteries is illegal in 41 states, according to Trey Granger at Earth911. Home Depot, Staples, Radio Shack, Best Buy, and many other retailers take them back free of charge. There are fewer options for single-use batteries, but look for bins at your local library. Otherwise, your best bet is a nearby household hazardous waste (HHW) drop-off site.

2. Electronics
Every retailer that takes back rechargeable batteries also accepts mobile phones, as do most wireless providers. For computers, cameras, televisions, and others it's worthwhile do a little homework because some stores charge fees depending on item and brand. Check out Best Buy, Staples, and Office Depot to see what's the best fit. Some places, like Radio Shack, have trade-in programs where you can receive store credit for your old gadgets. You can also turn your old electronics into cash thanks to a growing number of websites designed to help you easily sell them.

3. Paint
This is among the harder items to dispose of, but it's still totally doable. Some ideas to try first: Do your best to make sure it gets used. Give it to a friend. Use it for primer. Donate it to a charity, such as Habitat for Humanity or a school theater group. If you can't reuse it, then search to see if you can recycle it. If you just can't reuse it, you might need to throw dried paint in the trash if it's not against the law in your community. Remove the lid from a latex paint can and let it dry out until it's completely hard. Take any oil-based paints directly to your household hazardous waste center.

4. CFLs
Fluorescent bulbs contain tiny amounts of mercury that can leach out if broken, so it’s important to properly recycle them. Luckily, these energy-sipping light bulbs are relatively easy to get rid of. Just drop old bulbs off at any Home Depot or Ikea for free recycling, or search for other nearby solutions. If you have absolutely no other options and must throw them in the trash, then the Environmental Protection Agency suggests sealing CFLs in two plastic bags before disposing.

5. Medications
Don't flush them down the toilet or pour them down the drain because tiny amounts of pharmaceuticals are making their way into our streams, rivers, and lakes. Your best bet is to find a program that will take back unused medications. Check with your local government to see if it's hosting a collection event. Ask if your pharmacy or HHW collection program will accept old prescription drugs. Otherwise you’ll have to throw them in the trash. Remove all personal info before chucking bottles to avoid identity theft. Crush pills to make medicines unusable in case they accidentally get into the wrong hands.

6. Cooking oil
Bacon grease or cooking oil can clog up your pipes and ultimately back up sewer systems. Rinsing with hot water as you pour it down the drain won't help. Once that grease cools down, it solidifies and sticks to pipes. Your best bet is to absorb small amounts of grease with shredded paper or kitty litter before throwing in the trash. Or you can pour oil or bacon grease in a coffee can or other metal container and throw it out once it solidifies.

7. Aerosol cans
Empty cans can be recycled fairly easily through your curbside program or at your local recycling facility. Partially full cans are harder to get rid of. Don't try to empty them yourself. Instead, see if your recycling or HHW drop-off center will take them. It's also not a good idea to send pressurized cans (empty or not) to a landfill because they can explode if a fire breaks out.

8. Appliances
Most retailers will take away your old refrigerator, dishwasher, or other large appliance when you purchase a new one. Also check with your municipality because many cities and towns offer free curbside pick-up. For small appliances, try Best Buy or Goodwill.

9. Packing materials
Bring packing peanuts and bubble wrap to a local mailing center (such as the UPS Store or Mail Boxes Etc) if you don’t have room to store them for future use. You can also give them away by listing on Freecycle or in the free stuff section on Craigslist.

10. Car stuff
Wal-Mart, Autozone, JiffyLube, and others recycle used motor oil. Ask if they'll take your old filters back for recycling too. Return dead car batteries to the store where you are purchasing a new one and ask if they'll recycle it. If not, check with your local HHW center.

 

(c) Yahoo, Lori Bongiorno

Displaying blog entries 1-6 of 6

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