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Fabulous Freebies

by Alexandra Zega

 
By Erin Burt, Kiplinger.com
Fabulous Freebies 2011
Photo:Images_of_Money/Flickr

At Kiplinger, we believe you can have the best of both worlds: that you can live frugally and live well.

To prove that point, we're back with our fifth annual list of fabulous freebies. We found 31 categories of quality goods and services -- from free financial services to free entertainment, no useless junk allowed! -- that you would happily pay money for, except you don't have to.

Welcome to the land of the freebies, the home of the savers.

Free Hobbies
Yoga Session

Free Hobbies

Want to learn something new in your spare time? Many local retailers offer free workshops. For instance, you can improve your culinary skills at Williams-Sonoma's free technique classes. At REI, take advantage of free clinics on bike maintenance, backpacking, camp cooking and more (offerings vary by location). Lululemon Athletica stores host free yoga sessions. Apple, Home Depot, Lowe's and Michaels stores offer free classes for adults and kids.

Check your local library, too. We've seen free hands-on workshops for computers, chess, knitting and more. You can learn a new language at FSI-language-courses.org, learn to draw at Drawspace.com, or improve your golf game at Golf.com, just to name a few resources.

Free Food
Photo: ibm4381/Flickr

Free Food

Your favorite snack shop or fast food restaurant may have an annual freebie day. Mark your calendar for free IHOP pancakes and Rita's Italian ice in March; free Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Pretzelmaker pretzels, Cinnabon treats and Starbucks coffee in April; free Haagen-Dazs ice cream in May; a free Krispy Kreme doughnut and TCBY frozen yogurt in June; and a free Chick-Fil-A meal in July -- to name a few.

You can also sign up to score free food on your birthday from Famous Dave's BBQ, Cold Stone Creamery, Denny's and other eateries. Search the Web for "birthday freebies," or call your local restaurants to ask whether they offer such a deal.

Free Investing Apps

Stay up-to-date on the financial markets with free apps on your iPhone, Blackberry or Android.

Some of our favorites: Bloomberg for up-to-the-minute stock quotes and breaking news, Morningstar for mutual fund research at your fingertips, and Yahoo Finance for the latest financial headlines, stock news and videos.

Free Investing Apps
Photo:John.Karakatsanis/Flickr
Free E-Books
Photo: Wolfgang Lonien/Flickr

Free E-Books

If you own a Kindle, iPad or other electronic reader, you can populate your e-library without breaking the bank. E-books commonly sell for $9.99 -- less than hardcovers but about as much as paperbacks. But at Gutenberg.org or the University of Pennsylvania's online books page, you won't pay a cent to legally download thousands of books whose copyrights have expired, including War and Peace, Moby Dick and Little Women.

You can also search for free e-books at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, iTunes.com and Kobo.com. Or check your public library, where you can get newer titles for free too.

 

Free Shipping

If you love to shop online but hate to pay for shipping, go to FreeShipping.org. The site can direct you to retailers -- such as BlueNile.com, Linens 'n Things, LLBean.com and Zappos.com -- who still offer free shipping on every order, big or small. The site also gives you coupon codes to snag free shipping at other retailers.

Also, many retailers' sites offer free shipping if you'll pick up your order at a local store, such as AceHardware.com, BestBuy.com, Payless.com, REI.com and Walmart.com.

Free Shipping
Free Shipping
Free Diet & Fitness Help
Photo:therichardlife/Flickr

Free Diet & Fitness Help

Need help sticking to a diet and exercise plan? At Fatsecret.com, MyFitnessPal.com and SparkPeople.com, you can craft meal plans and count calories, put together a fitness plan and track your progress, and get support and advice from other users.

Some employers offer free diet and fitness help to their employees. After all, it's in their best interest that you stay healthy and show up for work. These programs may include free gym access, weight-loss support groups and smoking cessation programs. Some will even pay you for your progress. Ask if your workplace has a wellness plan in place.

Free Kids' Meals

How much do you hate buying a $12 entrée for a picky 6-year-old? If the answer is "a lot," visit KidsMealDeals.com. The site points you to restaurants in your area where kids eat free (usually at certain times or on certain days). It includes independent eateries as well as national chains.

Also, call your local eateries and ask if they offer kids' deals. Some do but they don't advertise them, so it's worth asking.

Free Kids' Meals
Free Kids' Meals
Free Outings
The Getty Center Garden
Photo:dichohecho/Flickr

Free Outings

You can entertain friends, family or even a date for free -- without looking cheap. Many top-notch museums, galleries and zoos offer free admission year-round, including the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., the Getty Center in Los Angeles, and Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. Others, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, let you in for free on certain days of the week or month. And many college campuses host free concerts and student art exhibits.

Every October, select theaters nationwide give free performances. Go to FreeNightofTheater.net to learn more. And public parks, beaches and forests are ideal settings for walking, biking, hiking, sledding, wildlife-watching, picnicking, kite flying, stargazing ... the sky's the limit.

Free Books, Music, Movies & More

No list of freebies would be complete without our perennial favorite: your public library. Most offer books, magazines, audiobooks, e-books, video games, CDs and DVDs for free (as long as you return them on time, of course).

Your library may also host free activities, such as book clubs, lectures, film screenings, children's story hours and craft activities.

 

Free Books
Free Books
Free Tax Help
Free Tax Help

Free Tax Help

Understanding the U.S. tax code can be, well, taxing. But Kiplinger.com is here to help. During tax season, we publish a tip a day to make sure you get every dime you're due. Also check out the discussion board at HRBlock.com, which is monitored by tax professionals during tax season.

The IRS wants to help, too. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Call 1-800-829-1040 to get answers from the people who enforce the rules. You may also qualify for free face-to-face help from a tax pro volunteer. See the IRS's list of free tax return preparation resources for details

What Rock-Bottom Interest Rates Mean for Consumers

by Alexandra Zega

provided by
FoxBusinesslogo

In an unprecedented move on Tuesday, the Federal Reserve said definitively that historically-low rates are here to stay until at least mid-2013, essentially eliminating the possibility of a hike in interest rates for the next two years.

While stocks reacted favorably to the news — the Dow soared 429 points — determining the impact of extraordinarily low interest rates for the next two years from a personal finance perspective is a bit more ambiguous.

On the one hand, the Federal Open Market Committee's decision to keep rates low for more than just an "extended period" — as it has previously stated — is an indicator the Fed expects the economy to remain sluggish. That could mean we will see continued high unemployment, low consumer confidence and slow economic growth, all factors that do not give one much impetus to borrow and spend money.

On the other hand, it has never been cheaper to borrow money; if you can qualify for a loan, now (or sometime before mid-2013) is the time to get one. But personal finance experts caution against making any purchasing decisions based on interest rates, warning consumers it's important to keep the bigger picture in perspective.

"I certainly wouldn't be basing my decision to buy a car, a house, or take out a loan because interest rates are going to stay low for a couple of years," said Erik Carter, a certified financial planner with Financial Finesse, a Los Angeles-based financial education firm. "Really, it's about focusing on your goals, focusing on the fundamentals and not being distracted by what the Fed is saying today."

Carter said if it makes sense for you to buy a car, consolidate student-loan debt, or refinance your mortgage, now is as good a time as any with these historic rates, but major spending decisions should be made based upon your current financial picture, not the federal funds rate.

The fact that we know rates will be low for the near future is a positive thing for consumers who are looking to buy a home or refinance, according to Paul Bishop, vice president of research for the National Association of Realtors. He continued to explain that fear of rising mortgage rates is not really the primary concern weighing on borrowers. For most consumers, it's high lending standards, not interest rates, that are holding them back.

"It's really the availability of mortgages at this point that is a problem for consumers," Bishop said. "Underwriting standards are fairly strict and are likely to remain that way for some time."

Still, knowing we will see two more years of low interest rates is not a bad thing for prospective home buyers, who can work to improve their credit without feeling they might miss out on an historic deal. For those with good credit, Bishop reiterates that it is tough to beat flat housing prices and rock-bottom interest rates, if you are considering the purchase a home.

From a retirement perspective, a protracted period of depressed rates means socking money away into the standard high-yield savings account is not going to cut it. Mark Singer, a certified financial planner and author of "The Changing Landscape of Retirement," said most conventional investment strategies can not satisfy most investors' goals anymore.

"Eighty percent of the money invested in 401(k)s is in equities — they're getting crushed, and are moving from one headline to the next," Singer said. "You can't use the traditional stocks, bonds, cash and mutual funds formula anymore, you have to use alternative investment classes." He continued to cite managed futures, long/short funds and market-neutral strategies as better alternatives.

Singer explained that for people nearing retirement that have hit their target retirement "number," or the amount of money they can live comfortably on in retirement, they need to take low-risk strategies to maintain that number against inflation. For those who have not yet reached their retirement goals, Singer advocates carefully evaluating how much risk you need to take in order to reach the target, but warns against putting a lot of money in the market and investing everything in bonds, regardless of where interest rates stand.

The idea of the Fed giving us a more transparent outlook as to how interest rates will look for the next two years may be atypical, but there is nothing stopping the committee from changing its strategy in a few months if the economy were to suddenly stabilize. In light of that, Carter reiterated consumers should not alter their fiscal picture much from what they were already planning on the spending or saving front.

"You have to keep it in perspective — the fundamentals are the same," Carter said. "You're always trying to earn as much interest as possible and pay as little interest as possible."

In other words, act in your own best interest, regardless of interest rate levels.

(c) Kathryn Glass, Fox Business

The Most Affordable Cities to Live In

by Alexandra Zega
What are the most affordable cities to live in? The answer depends on how you define "affordable" and how you define "city." For example, a city can be defined by its formal boundaries or by the broader metropolitan statistical area that the U.S. Census Bureau considers it to be a part of.

Using a variety of metrics, here is a look at some of the places in the United States where your money will go the furthest.

Youngstown-Warren-Boardman and Niagara Falls: Lowest Home Prices

According to National Association of Realtors data, the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman area of Ohio and Pennsylvania, situated roughly halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh and a little over an hour's drive from each, had the lowest median sales price for existing single-family homes in the first quarter of 2011. The Lansing, Mich., area was a close second. Forty-three of the 50 areas with the least expensive single-family homes are located in the Midwest or the South.

Youngstown remains in transition economically.
Photo: flickr | stu_spivack

Coldwell Banker issues a similar report, but its rankings are based on the average listing prices of four-bedroom, two-bathroom homes rather than on median home prices. By Coldwell Banker's methodology, Niagara Falls, N.Y., was the country's least expensive real estate market in its 2011 Home Listing Report with an average list price of $60,820. Detroit comes in at No. 5, with an average home price of $73,363. Of the 50 least expensive cities in the report, the majority are in the Midwest or the South.

Memphis: Big City, Low Cost Of Living

For many people, an area needs to have a large population to really feel like a city. Kiplinger's May 2010 "How Does Your City Stack Up?" report makes it easy to see which big cities (defined as having a population of more than 1 million) have the lowest cost of living.

Memphis is starting to bounce back from the downturn.
Photo: flickr | Matt Lancashire

The cost of living ranges from 86% to 89% of the national average in six major metropolitan areas. This cost takes into account both housing costs and other common household expenses such as food, utilities and transportation.

Here are Coldwell Banker's average listing prices for these cities.

Memphis - $127,024
St. Louis - $192,306
Nashville - $193,895
Oklahoma City - $157,131
Houston - $187,211
Cincinnati - $186,937

Even though housing expenses are the largest monthly expense for most people, cities can have significantly different housing costs and still have low overall costs of living. We'll see further proof of this fact in the next section.

Harlingen, Texas: Lowest Cost Of Living - Period

The Council for Community and Economic Research's quarterly ACCRA Cost of Living Index ranks more than 300 urban areas from most expensive to least expensive. The index is based on the costs of housing, utilities, grocery items, transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services. In the first quarter of 2011, an ACCRA press release named the following 10 cities (five of which are in Texas) as having the lowest cost of living:

Harlingen, TX - $152,245
Fort Smith, AR - NI*
Pueblo, CO - $141,160
Cookeville, TN - NI
Temple, TX - $168,653
Muskogee, OK - $149,654
Martinsville-Henry County, VA - NI
Round Rock, TX - $201,150
Sherman-Denison, TX - $168,847
Brownsville, TX - $124,523

*NI indicates that the average listing price for this city is not included in the Coldwell Banker report.

Best Places To Live

Just because a city has low housing costs or a low cost of living doesn't necessarily make it a desirable place to live.

Data analyst Bert Sperling's well-known "Find Your Best Place" quiz helps people figure out where in the United States they might enjoy living based on factors such as climate, taxes, employment and job growth, utility costs, air and water quality, violent and property crime rates, recreational activities and commute time. Sense of community, proximity to family and employment opportunities in one's field are also common deciding factors when people are choosing where to live.

In April 2008, for example, CNN's Les Christie reported that Youngstown's population was less than half of what it was 40 years ago. A thriving steel mill business once helped the town reach a population of 165,000. One consequence of the massive decline is a great deal of vacant real estate - hence, the low property values.

The Bottom Line

People are willing to pay median sales price ranging from $439,300 to $579,300 to live in places like New York, California and Hawaii because these places offer cultural amenities, job opportunities, climate and natural beauty that are harder to find or nonexistent in many places that have low housing costs. If affordability is your overriding concern, locations like Youngstown and Harlingen are worth consideration.

 

(c) Amy Fontinelle, Investopedia.com

Displaying blog entries 1-3 of 3

The property listing data and information, or the Images, set forth herein were provided to MLS Property Information Network, Inc. from third party sources, including sellers, lessors and public records, and were compiled by MLS Property Information Network, Inc. The property listing data and information, and the Images, are for the personal, non-commercial use of consumers having a good faith interest in purchasing or leasing listed properties of the type displayed to them and may not be used for any purpose other than to identify prospective properties which such consumers may have a good faith interest in purchasing or leasing. MLS Property Information Network, Inc. and its subscribers disclaim any and all representations and warranties as to the accuracy of the property listing data and information, or as to the accuracy of any of the Images, set forth herein.”