A Financial Education Event

Thanksgiving Traditions

Thankful Traditions

The Kay family photo for Woman’s Day magazine.

Back when my co-host of The Money Millhouse was just a little girl with a big smile, we created memories through holiday traditions.

One of the things I discovered is that not every “savings” can be measured in dollars and cents. One of the things we emphasized in our family is the saving of memories. Our Thankful Tree was featured in a Woman’s Day magazine one year. It took two photographers 8 rolls of film and four hours to get one 3 x 5 photo in the magazine. Joshua was missing for one roll of film and we didn’t notice until we saw him making faces from behind the photographers and we asked, “What are you doing back there?”

The tip we gave is how we’ve stayed in touch with family and friends during this holiday. On November 1st, we made a Thankful Tree on poster board and put it on our wall or front door. The tree was bare because the leaves that we made out of construction paper have not yet been gathered. The leaves have the person’s name on them and say, “Papa is thankful for _________.” But we left the tree bare at the beginning of the season to teach the children how barren our lives are without the giving of thanks.

We made and sent the leaves to friends and family around the world along with a self-addressed envelope. When these envelopes came back, the children got excited as they took turns opening them. At dinner that night, we read the leaf and give thanks along with those who are thankful and put the leaf on our tree. By Thanksgiving Day, we had a tree full of thanks. We carefully saved the leaves in an envelope marked by the year and kept all in our Thanksgiving decoration box. Each year, we read the leaves from past years.

We never know when this year’s leaf might be someone’s last, or which family might have a new leaf on next year’s tree. So we give thanks.  These days, we gather “thankful comments” from facebook, email and twitter, but the point is we are connecting with friends and family in a meaningful way.

This holiday, what are YOU thankful for?  Besides our health and our family, we are thankful for two weddings this year, healthy grandchildren, and the chance to be together during the holidays.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ellie Kay


Talking Turkey!

It’s the MOST, wonderful time of the year!! No, not Christmas–but Thanksgiving. Early November is when the Sunday paper has loads of FSIs or Free Standing Inserts, filled with tons of coupons. By following my layer-upon-layer of savings, I’m getting lots of food for pennies or free. For example, yesterday my bill before savings factors was $123.56 and I only paid $22.01 for a cart full of groceries. Look at it this way:

Duncan Hines brownie mix regular price $3.19

Sale price is $1 per box a savings of – 2.19

Manufacturer’s coupon is $1 off 3 – .33 @

Double coupon store-another $1 off 3 – .33 @

Total Price I pay .34 cents per box

Here are the savings factors:

Store Cards
These are sometimes referred to as “clipless coupons.” Sign up for the card at the customer service desk and as it is scanned at the checkout, you will receive all the store’s special values for the week.

Sale Ads
The store’s weekly sale ads either come in the mail or are a part of the mid-week newspaper inserts. Match up the sale ads with some of the other savings factors listed and you’ll soon find yourself with products for pennies.

Manufacturer’s Coupons
These are traditional coupons issued and reimbursed by the manufacturer. If you
ead the fine print of the coupon, you’ll see the manufacturer’s name and mailing address. Here are a few places to find these coupons:

Double Coupons
Some stores offer “double” coupons. This is where the coupon is worth twice the face value—so a .50 coupon is now worth $1.00. There are limitations issued by the store, such as “only double up to $1.00” so check the customer service desk for details. Go to the links page at elliekay.com to find a link listing all the stores that double coupons in your state. http://couponing.about.com/cs/grocerysavings/a/doublecoups.htm

Unadvertised Sales and Clearances
Check the store aisles for sales and clearance tags. As much as 50% of the weeks’ sales are not advertised.

Web bucks

Watch for signs in the store, telling you you’ll get certificates/coupons at the register for purchasing these items. The cash back certificate can be used on your next shopping trip.

Price Comps

Some grocery stores, including Wal-mart superstores http://www.walmart.com/ will match competitor’s ads. Just take in the sale ads from all your local grocers to that store and you’ll get the sale prices from the ads. It saves time and money.

Happy Shopping!

–Ellie Kay

America’s Family Financial Expert (R)


Money Making Kids

“I know how I can make some extra money” read the caption on the outside of the card featuring a woman from the 1950’s with a big smile. When you opened the card it read: “I’ll sell one of the kids!” My son, Daniel, gave me that card, knowing how perfect it was for his mama!

Well, I learned how to save money using my kids, but in a slightly different way (rather than putting them up for sale on e-bay.) Jonathan, who prefers to remain anynomous (thus, the mask) wanted to earn money for a new electric guitar. I realized that I could turn over my “coupon job” to him and let him “earn” money by maintaining my coupon box. I’ve been so busy in the last few weeks, that I didn’t have time to keep up with those little critters. I knew I was missing out on these savings in the grocery store.

So Jonathan began cutting, organizing and filing my coupons. The agreement was that he got the money I saved at the store from the manufacturer’s coupons (including double coupons when I shopped at that kind of store) and I kept the savings from the store sales and store coupons. The first week, the total before savings was $189, the amount I paid was only $81 ($44 sale savings, $23 store coupons,and $41 in manufacturer’s coupons). Jonathan bagged the $41 in cash and it was a win/win for both of us.

If you want to make money off your kids, you’d better watch it, especially if you have a really smart child! The next week, we ran to the grocery store to pick up a pharmacy prescription. Jonathan picked up a store coupon featuring sodas “four 24 packs for $7.99” with store coupon. He handed me the coupon and asked, “I know you don’t usually buy us sodas because you don’t think they’re healthy. But do you think you could make an exception this week–especially since we have this coupon? Pleeeeze?” He batted his big brown eyes and gave me a sweet smile.

I bought the sodas, saving $10 with the store coupon.

When we took the stash to the car, Jonathan unloaded the drinks into the trunk, got into the car and turned to me, “Hey mom, do I get my $10 now?” I was incredulous, “What, Jonathan?” He grinned sheepishly, “You know… I gave you the coupon and you saved $10?” I smiled back at him, “Son, do you honestly think that I’m going to PAY you $10 for the privilege of BUYING you some soda? Besides, I used a store coupon, not a manufacturer coupon. ” He was busted, “Well, it was worth a try.”

Email this to your friends with teenagers and let them in on this way to make money from your kids! If you aren’t familiar with ways to incorporate store sales, coupons, double coupons, store coupons, etc, then link onto the “Grocery” label and read the “how to” on my blog!

Ellie Kay
“America’s Family Financial Expert” (R)

Texas to Toronto – From Ya’ll to Eh!

My “Living Rich for Less” book tour took me from my original stomping grounds in Texas all the way to the frozen white north of Toronto. I tend to adapt easily to my surroundings, so when I did TV shows in Canada, I found myself saying, “The thing aboot finances if that you have to stay on top of them, eh?”

In Dallas, I had to keep myself from saying, “Hey ya’ll, I’m fixing to tell you some thangs that are gonna help you a bushel with yer money.” But somehow I managed and you can see some of these clips to get short, pithy and helpful hints that will help to save you $30,000 in 2009! This was on CBS NEWS You be the judge and tell me if you think the Financial Expert or the Texan took over in these interviews!

Ellie’s personal story: Runs 2:40
– Ellie on the economy: Runs :43
– How to save on Homeowner’s Insurance: Runs: 1:51
– How to save on Auto Insurance: Runs 1:31
– Grocery Savings: Runs 1:14
– Restaurant savings: Runs :55
– Saving Is Cool: Runs: :24
– Tips on Refinancing your mortgage: Runs: :47
– Charitable Donations: Runs: 2:09

I’ll be back to Texas to do shows for CBS “Prime Time” (interactive perhaps?) and other shows on March 19th–so stay tuned!

Hey ya’ll, check back again for more helpful hints on my blog, eh?

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert

ABC News Now – Frugal Holiday Tips Starting NOW

Here’s the link to my major media appearance on ABC News Now “Good Money” where we talked about frugal holidays. View the winning tips entries from Summer who lives in Springfield, OR; Sasha Payne and from Ann in Charlotte, North Carolina. Each of these frugal tipsters got a complimentary copy of my book, The Little Book of Big Savings, just for sharing their tips.

It’s no surprise that everyone racks up massive debt during the holidays, but I say the time to start saving and preparing is now! Buying early is the key to holiday savings. Set a holiday spending plan, make your list, scour the sales and mark off items purchased. By the time the holidays get here, you could have most of your gifts already bought and consequently have minimal credit card charges.

There are 2 areas we can save the most money: gift giving and the food. First, shopping for clothes: I think they are going to be a common gift item as families need practical gifts to recover from the recession year. The next time you’re shopping clearance racks at your favorite clothing store in the mall, don’t let the wrong size on the rack become a deterrent to saving. First, ask the sales associate to check the back for your size. Many stories do not put all their clearance items out front. Secondly, if they do not have your size, ask them to check another store, give you the sale price and ship it free. More and more stores are starting to offer this service in order to compete with online retailers.
The second area is food and it’s important to look out for how much you spend on groceries for the holidays. Don’t settle for just one kind of savings at the grocery store. Instead learn to add “layers” of savings such as store sales, coupons, double coupons, cash off your next shopping trip, store coupons and more. One place to go is http://www.couponmom.com/ to see what items are on sale with a coupon in your neighborhood. According to the USDA cost of food at home in 2008, the average family of 4 spends $7,968/year on food and by following these tips can spend in the thrifty category of only $4,068/year.
Thanks for your tip entries and keep posted for our next contest where you can win a book and have your tip or question featured on national television, too!
Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert

ABC News Now – When Two Incomes Becomes One

I just love my bloggers, FB friends & eblast recipients! Once again, you guys helped make the latest segments on ABC NEWS NOW really great!

You can view the first segment and then be sure to view the questions and answers, where YOU had your questions answered on the air and WON a copy of Little Book of Big Savings!

Here’s part of the transcript
ELLIE: I think these numbers only indicate part of the problem. For every person we have who is unemployed we have others who have taken pay cuts to keep their jobs or they’ve had to accept a position significantly below what they had before. Even when the recession ends and we are in recovery, I think we’re going to see the contagion effect of unemployment and underemployment.

ELLIE: Step one is to “Review and Re-evaluate your Financial Goals.” When you go from two paychecks to one, all of the sudden money for your four year old’s college fund and/or funding retirement isn’t as important as making the house payment. It’s time to radically re-evaluate what needs to get paid to survive. Essentially, you will work backwards. Determine what you need for the end of each month to cover the basics (house, car, insurance, credit card bills, food, etc) and then work backward toward that financial goal.

ELLIE: Establish a “One Income Budget.” This will, hopefully, be temporary, but you will need to readjust how money is spent until your spouse is employed again. This will include cutting back on expenses where you can. But don’t panic. Before you cut the cable or disconnect the internet, look at ways to cut back that are less painful and more productive.

ELLIE: Call the company and let them know you think you are paying too much & that you can get coverage cheaper elsewhere. It’s amazing how motivated they’ll be to help you reduce costs. You can raise deductibles to cover the big things and then lower those again when your spouse is employed. My literary agent took this tip to heart and discovered he had an old policy that had been grandfathered in, when they updated it, he saved $475!

ELLIE: It costs less to insure a car that is no longer driven to and from work. Go to http://www.progressive.com/ to get comparison quotes on your auto insurance, then call your provider and ask for all the discounts that are available to you. Most clients I’ve worked with save an average of $350.

ELLIE: Whether you live on one income or two, you still have to buy food. By taking ten minutes to go to http://www.couponmom.com/ before you shop, you can save as much as $4,000 per year. The site does most of the work for you as it tells you what is on sale, what manufacturer’s coupons are available, what other store coupons are offered and the final price of what you’ll pay. There are dozens of items each week that cost only pennies or are free.

ELLIE: Proactively Plan for Your Financial Future. Just because you’re unemployed does not mean you should enter the panic mode-this can lead to poor financial decisions. Go get help at the National Consumer Credit Counseling service (nfcc.org) which is a non-profit that won’t make you accrue more debt as the “for profit” counseling services will do. Oftentimes the nfcc knows the programs that you may qualify for in order to keep your house, renegotiate with lenders and help you proactively plan for your financial future.

Congratulations to Kristen Whirrett of Fort Wayne, IN; Ruth Schmidt of Willard, MO; Stephanie Woods of Sheperdsville, KY; Karen Power of Keller, TX; Rachel Morales of Victorville, CA and Kathy Hansen of San Diego! You guys had the questions selected by the producers of ABC NEWS NOW – GOOD MONEY show!

Ellie Kay
Americas Family Financial Expert (R)

How to Save $160,000 on Groceries!

According to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) food prices rose 4% in 2007 and 5.5% in 2008. This year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service (ERS), prices are predicted to rise as high as 3.5%. This means that shoppers will continue to look for ways to cut corners while still feeding their families and purchasing household goods. Our family has saved an average of $8,000 per year for the last twenty years (according to the USDA cost of food at home chart) or a total of $160,000!

Here’s how we did it as seen on ABC NEWS NOW – Good Money Show.

Q. So you’re saying that saving money on the food budget can make a significant impact on a family’s financial situation. Where does “food” generally rank in terms of expenses in a family’s budget?

Ellie: The greatest expense for most families is the mortgage and insurance, then there’s transportation and food ranks third. So if you can save money on the third largest bill you have in your family, then it can make a significant difference in your overall financial health. In fact, I fed our family of seven for only $200 per month during that first decade. According to the USDA’s “Cost of Food at Home” chart, I saved an average of $8000 per year. Since I’ve been doing this for 20 years, that’s a twenty year savings of $160,000. So it really adds up!

Q. That’s a lot of money you’ve saved, Ellie. We’re ready to hear about how your plan works. You say that “layering the savings” is the way to save 50% or more on grocery items. What are some of the savings layers?

Ellie: A lot of people think they are saving money by buying store brands or shopping the sales. While they may save a little here and there, I’ve found that the biggest savings are found when you combine or layer the savings factors. Here are some of the layers:

1. Shop the Sales
2. Use manufacturer’s coupons on brand name items
3. Shop at a double coupon store
4. Use a store coupon
5. Look for Value items – Items that donate to worthy causes such as Dawn’s Everyday Wildlife Champions
6. Get rebates
7. Get Cash off Your Next Shopping Order

Q. OK, let’s get a little more information on these different layers. I understand shopping the sales and using manufacturer’s coupons. But you lost me at combining a manufacturer’s coupon with a store coupon. How can you use two coupons on one item?

Ellie: In today’s example, I found a store coupon that made this $2.59 bottle of Dawn cost only .99. That is a store coupon. Then I used a manufacturer’s coupon for .25 off the same bottle. So this bottle of soap only cost me .74. And because it’s a higher end brand name, it lasts longer than a store brand (which has mostly water). Which makes it a “value” layer in our savings factors.
If you follow the funding source, then you’ll know which coupons can be combined. A “true” store coupon is one that is funded by the store’s advertising or marketing department. It is usually evident by the store name on the coupon and/or the store’s mailing address. If it has a manufacturer’s address on it, then it’s not a true store coupon. A manufacturer’s coupon is reimbursed by the manufacturer, not the store, so it can be combined with a store coupon.

Q. The other layer that can be a bit confusing is the “Cash Off Your Next Shopping Order” how do you earn that coupon, can you give me an example?

Ellie: In my example, I went to Albertson’s last week and found Post cereals, that were usually $2.89 on sale for only $1.69. I had a coupon for $1.00 off each box of cereal, which made them cost only .69 each. Post was running a promotional with Albertson’s and offered a $4.00 off your next shopping trip coupon for the purchase of 5 or more boxes of cereal. So, with sales and coupons, I paid $3.45 for five boxes of cereal and received the $4 off coupon for a net gain of five free boxes of cereal and .55.

Q. What about double coupons and even triple coupons, how does this work and what are some of the limitations that consumers should be aware of when double couponing?

Ellie: If you go to my website, and click onto the “resources” at the bottom of the home page, you’ll find a link to a list of double coupon stores across America. These are stores that will take the face value of a coupon and double (or even triple) it for the customer. So if you buy that Dawn soap, we talking about earlier, the .25 manufacturer’s coupon would now be worth .50. You need to check with the customer service desk because some of the limitations that might be included are: up to a limited amount, you might only be able to get one item doubled on any one particular product. So the first Dawn coupon would be doubled to .50 but the second one would be worth only the face value of .25. Another limitation might be on a “Buy one/Get one free” even though you are getting two products, they may only accept double coupons on the first product. If, however, the product will ring in at half price, then you could use two coupons.

Q. Are there any websites that can help me organize all these savings layers and let me know what deals are available in my area?

Ellie: Couponing can not only be time consuming and confusing, but you might not understand each store’s “rules” either. Thankfully, there are some outstanding websites that can help as they do a lot of the legwork for you. All you have to do is enter your zip code and they’ll let you know what is on sale in your area, what kind of manufacturer’s coupons should be out there on the product, what stores offer double coupons and even which stores might offer a store coupon in addition to the other sales. You can go to www.couponmom.com (free membership) or www.thegrocerygame.com (paid membership).

Q. What about saving money on food outside of the grocery store? Volunteer food programs have sprung up across the country, how do some of these work and are they cost effective for the consumer?

Ellie: There are a few different programs out there such as S.H.A.R.E that have been out there for quite a few years. SHARE is an acronym for Self-Help and Resource Exchange – is a program where people get a break on their grocery bills by exchanging volunteer time for the opportunity to buy affordable food. For each package of food purchased, we simply ask for two (2) hours of “good deed” time, whether at SHARE, other institutions in your community, or your own neighborhood. Food packages (worth up to $45) offer meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and grocery items. The price you pay is based on what you select from the menu but you can generally save about 50%. SHARE purchases the food from growers, brokers and packaging plants and is never donated, government surplus, or salvage.
For those who may not have access to a SHARE program in their area, there are other non-profits that have sprung up in response to the economic needs of families and they also offer boxes of food at bargain prices. Angel Food ministries offers $70 worth of food for $30 if you order it ahead of time and go pick it up at a central location. You can order online and it’s also a great organization to volunteer with as they have locations all across America. There are no income requirements and anyone can participate.

Happy Savings!
Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

Five Ways to Stay on Budget this Summer!

Summer means a lot of fun for the Kay Family, we’re going to get to see mini pilots flying in from overseas as well as an airplane hopping son in the deep old south of Georgia.

Recently, I was on ABC NEWS NOW, talking about how summer is a tough time for anyone to control spending, much less stay on a budget. With the kids out of school and summer vacation around the corner, it’s a time when people fall victim to the thought, “I’ll go on vacation now and deal with the bills later.”

But there are ways to cut back on spending to stay on budget before summer hits. The three areas that require consumers to spend money on a regular basis, that do not go away with difficult economic times: groceries, gas and family essentials (such as clothing, birthday gifts, etc). You can plan for summer and still stay on budget for these “little” areas that add up to big expenses.

Q. Ellie, we often think of the holidays as a difficult time to stay on a personal finance budget, but this time of the year is really is a difficult time to stay as well. There are end of the school year gifts to buy, vacations to plan and a summer clothes to get for the kids. We have to start somewhere, and you say the first step is to start with a plan?

ELLIE: Yes, it’s amazing how kids keep growing every year and the summer clothes they wore last season are two sizes too small this year. But having a plan is a good place to start and while the basic a plan is a budget, now is the time to break down the household budget into a plan for the more manageable subsections. This time of year, stores and websites are cleverly designed to get you to spend more than you intended. So it’s important to know what you are going to get and spend before you go to the mall or online. This plan will take into consideration past spending behavior and any impulse buys that tend to kick in while you’re in spending mode. Write down what you are going to spend in the little areas and be specific. If your two preschoolers need clothing, then conduct an inventory of what each of them has—including any hand-me-downs and the vacation gear they may need for the entire season. If you’re planning a vacation and find that you will eat fewer meals at home because you’re going to be away, then don’t budget the same amount for the grocery store. Otherwise, you’re adding spending upon spending when you should be cutting in one area and adding in another.

Q. So we have a plan, the next step is to not fall for questionable “deals.” What do you mean by this?

ELLIE: This time of year, you’ll see sales on summer clothing, electronics and even summer foods—all the things that people are thinking about as the school year winds down and vacation time starts to gear up. But not all sales are created equal and you may see a lot of $90 digital cameras and $100 GPS sales but there can be a huge difference in the models. So before you pick up a steal of a deal, do a general price search on the specific model at Shopping.com or PriceGrabber.com before you get too excited. Plus, if you go into the store and they do not have it in stock, ask for a substitute that is an upgrade from the model that is on sale. You’ll be surprised at how much you can save by just asking. It’s also important to read the fine print in a sale advertisement. If there is a “limited quantity” or “no substitutions” then that could impact your spending plan. Finally, look at the whole world of “price comps” this is where a store offers to match the price of competitors in any sale advertisement that you bring into the store. While one store may not have that GPS in stock and may not offer rainchecks, another store might match the sale and have plenty in stock. We’ve taken advantage of this kind of offer quite a few times, so much so that price comping has become a habit in our family. This can also save quite a bit of money and help to keep you on track in the “little” areas that can tend to torpedo the budget.

Q. So we have a plan, we’re not falling for questionable “deals” and now you say that the next step is “don’t miss any discounts.” How can this help keep us on track and what if there aren’t any discounts—especially for things like gas and other essentials?

ELLIE: Just because a store or website doesn’t mention a discount on merchandise or shipping on its site or in the ads doesn’t mean its not offering any. There is often a number out there in cyberspace that can be retried into either the promotional code box online or even a coupon code into the register at the mall. To find out if what you are buying has an additional discount, go to RetailMeNot.com on your computer or smartphone and enter the store’s name. Or you can go to CouponCabin.com, BradsDeals.com and you may find digital coupons that you can download from the store’s websites.
The same principle applies in the grocery store or when filling up your tank with gas. Go to couponmom.com to save in the grocery store and Go to gaspricewatch.com to find the best values on gas. Don’t forget to check and see if the gas station may offer an unadvertised free car wash, cup of coffee or soda. I just found out that I could have been a lot more caffeinated, for free, at my neighborhood gas station when the attendant asked me, “are you going to get your free cup of coffee?” Once again, if you just do your research you’ll find all kinds of freebies and these “little” things, when multiplied and combined will add up to big savings if you create this awareness level.

Q. You’ve covered a lot of areas so far, but what about those birthday, Father’s Day, and “teacher gifts” that we still need to buy this time of year. Does your next step give us some ideas on what we should buy in terms of gifts?

ELLIE: Yes, in our family of seven, I remember those days when all the kids were in school and we had to buy as many as 40 “teacher gifts” to say thanks to what these educators do all year long. It really added up. Plus, there are birthdays, anniversaries, and other special days that may happen in summer months as well.
I have seen that there is a trend toward necessities rather than luxuries that has emerged since the great recession. Consequently, practical gifts including cookbooks, exercise equipment and power tools are on the top of the list for gift giving. This doesn’t mean that its OK to give your wife a microwave for your 10th anniversary, unless this is on her list, but it probably is OK to get your husband a new power drill for Father’s Day.
Do the research we recommended earlier and comparison shop, combine the lowest price with free shipping and coupon codes and you’ll find that those gifts don’t have to bust your budget. Furthermore, I think that concentrating on the “multiple use” gifts is also a practical way to go.
These are gifts such as DVDs, music, cookware, etc. Gifts that will keep on giving year round.

Q. The final step you recommend in order to stay on budget in the little things is to use cash or debit cards. There are pros and cons to using debit instead of credit, what are your thoughts on this?

ELLIE: Yes, there is a time to use a credit card instead of debit when it comes to charges that you may dispute on your credit card or when you want an extended warranty or the added protection that comes from using a credit card. However, for these little areas, we tend to track the spending better by using cash or debit and consumers are far less likely to go into debt because people simply spend less when they are using cash according to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Applied. Store clerks have long found that it is easier to persuade people who are using credit cards to spend more than they were intending. And when it comes to shopping online, you dn’t necessarily need a credit card to have more protection than using your debit card online. One other option that won’t get you into debt is to research the layaway plan at your local retailer by going to eLayaway.com

Happy Summer!
Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

Your Summer Savings Questions: Drive or Fly? What’s SHARE? Kids & Budgets?

I recently appeared on ABC NEW NOW and answered your questions on summer travel, budgeting, SHARE for groceries and more!

Q. A friend of mine is in a part of a food co-op called SHARE and she gets $45 worth of food for $20. How do these co-ops work and do you think that they can save you money on your grocery bill?
Angie from Temple, TX via facebook

Ellie: S.H.A.R.E has been out there for quite a few years and our family even participated with this when we lived in New York. SHARE is an acronym for Self-Help and Resource Exchange – is a program where people get a break on their grocery bills by exchanging volunteer time for the opportunity to buy affordable food. For each package of food purchased, we simply ask for two (2) hours of “good deed” time, whether at SHARE, other institutions in your community, or your own neighborhood. Food packages (worth up to $45) offer meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and grocery items. The price you pay is based on what you select from the menu but you can generally save about 50%. SHARE purchases the food from growers, brokers and packaging plants and is never donated, government surplus, or salvage. Just google “SHARE” and your city to find the program in your area.

Q. We’re driving from Arizona to Louisiana for a family reunion. It’s just me and my wife, how do I tell if it’s going to be cheaper to drive or to fly this summer?
Al from Scottsdale, AZ via online contact form

ELLIE: That’s a good question, Al, because if you were going solo, it would definitely be cheaper to fly. But the way to figure the costs is to first do a mapquest to get the exact number of miles you would cover in a car. Figure your gas mileage and divide it by the total number of gallons by getting the price for gas at gaspricewatch.com. Multiply the number of gallons you’ll use by the average price per gallon and be sure to add the cost of a hotel in case you need an overnight stay. Then go to bing.com to look at the predicted costs of flights or go to bookingbuddy.com to see the average price of flights. You also need to factor in whether you’ll need rental car if you fly. Once you compare air fare versus driving, don’t forget to factor in the time off work it costs you to take the extra two days (or more) to drive.

Q: I read on your blog, Ellie, that you can purchase gift certificates at sites like restaurant.com. You said that when they run on sale, you can get a $25 restaurant certificate for $2. Are there any restrictions or stipulations we should keep in mind when purchasing these?
Steffy, Birmingham, AL submitted via facebook

Ellie: When you go to restaurant.com, you’ll see that the restrictions vary from restaurant to restaurant. But all the stipulations are listed on the website before you. Most will not add in the alcohol to the minimum purchase and almost all will add an 18% gratuity based on the price BEFORE the certificate, just to make sure the server gets their full tip. So be careful not to double tip (adding yet another 15% to 20%) when you get the bill. You usually have to buy $35 in food to use the $25 gift certificate. You have up to twelve months to use the certificate. But if you do the math and if you spend the minimum $35, adding the 18% tip, then you’re paying $42 before the gift certificate and $17 afterward. Add in the $2 you paid for the certificate and you’ve paid around $19 for a $42 tab, which is a savings of over 50%.

Q. We are newlyweds and we’re trying to pay cash or debit for groceries, gas and entertainment, but still seem to go over budget. Do you have a secret for tracking how much we’re really spending? There are two of us and we don’t always know what the other is buying and before we know it, we’re over budget.
Joshua & Emmy from Fort Bragg

Ellie: My husband, Bob and I had this same problem when we were first married as well. It can get complicated when one partner is buying groceries and the other also stops in to get some essentials on the way home from work. Even though you may not be duplicating purchases (getting two gallons of milk instead of one), you may be overspending at the store, unaware of what your partner is spending. The easy solution is to get the cash you’ve budgeted for the week and put it in an envelope marked food, gas, entertainment. When you know you’re going to need gas on the way home from work, get money from the appropriate envelope. With both partners taking cash from the same source, you’ll soon see how quickly you’re getting to your stopping point and you’ll be able to more easily track your spending.

Q. We have three children ages 6 to 10 and when we go out to eat, they want to order the most expensive thing on the menu. Sometimes our eight year old has a more expensive meal than his father, and he never finishes it! How do we keep our kids on a budget so that we can afford to eat out more often?
Samantha Evans from San Diego

Ellie: I think that it’s important to get the kids in on the process of economizing and you can do it in a fun way. First, call a family meeting and discuss the fact that when you go out to eat (or to a movie, the zoo or a theme park) that you’re going to give each child a fun budget. You’ll pay for the outing, but they have an amount they need to stick to. If they come in under budget, they get to keep the extra money. That’s what makes it fun. When we did this with our kids, it was amazing how they suddenly wanted to order water instead of soda and eat ice cream at home instead of in the restaurant.

Happy Savings!
Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

Your Questions about Organics, Vacations & Broadway Tickets!

I was on ABC NEWS Good Money again this week, answering your questions!

Q. We are trying to feed my family a healthier, organic menu, especially when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables. But it’s making us go broke because organic costs so much. Are there ways to save in this area?

Samantha and Ted from Riverside, CA via facebook

Ellie: Yes, according to the USDA organic can cost as much as 50% to 100% more than non-organic. When it comes to fresh produce, spend your “organic” dollars on those products you have higher levels of pesticide residue, even after washing—such as any kind of berries, apples, potatoes, cherries and grapes. Then you could go with non-organic for pineapples, bananas, mangos, broccoli, onions, cauliflower and corn. Or, try to buy from Farmers Markets and local farms, for a list of organic farms, go to localharvest.org . When it comes to other products, look for store brand organics, buy in bulk or go to couponmom.com to find deals in your area on organic products.

Q. My husband says it’s going to be cheaper to drive from New York to our timeshare in Florida because there are fewer flights and the price of airline tickets is going up this summer. Once we get to Florida, we don’t need a rental car as everything is within walking distance and we’re mainly spending our time at the beach. By the time we pay for one night’s hotel each way on the drive down, I think it’s going to be much cheaper to fly. My husband said he’d go with your opinion.

Al and Sharon from Oxford, NY via online contact form

ELLIE: Wow, no pressure here! It’s going to be pretty easy for you to calculate who is right. Just go to costToDrive.com to calculate the mileage, gas, travel time and carbon footprint of anywhere in the US. You’ll also need to go to hotels.com to add that expense to your total. Then, go to bookingbuddy.com to find the best price on airfare. This site will compare the prices from other travel sites such as expedia, orbitz, Travelocity, cheaptickets and more. Do the math and the winner has to buy the loser an iced tea once you get there!

Q: We’re taking a big vacation to New York city later this summer and I’m really looking forward to it. We want to see some broadway shows while we are there. On one hand, I want to make sure we get tix for the nights we’re there at the shows we want to see, but on the other hand, I don’t want to pay full price. Should I buy the tix beforehand or should I take a chance and go to the Times Square half price ticket booth once I get there?

Audrey Dixson submitted via Online Contact Form

Ellie: Congrats, Audrey on an upcoming cool trip. I LOVE New York and try to go to the theater every time I’m there! If you go to the half price ticket booth, you’re going to save 50% but chances are good you’re going to “invest” about 3 hours of your time (or more) traveling to Times Square earlier in the day and waiting in line. Then, there aren’t any guarantees the show you want to see will be listed. You also have to pay cash. On the other hand, you can save 40 to 50% by buying your tickets online at broadwaybox.com or goldstar.com, which is where I always buy my tix. Most of the time I’m saving at least 40% (instead of the 50% I’d save at the half price tix booth). This translates into me paying $10 more per ticket. I also save three hours of my time in NYC. I figure my time is worth more than $3.33 per hour! So buy online and enjoy the show!

Q. What do you think of prepaid hotel rooms—the kind that are non-refundable? Is it worth it to “invest” in one of these ahead of time to save money? Or should I just wait until I get there and look around for the best deal?

Moriah Stephens from Allentown, PA

Ellie: I’ve purchased the prepaid rooms and it’s a good deal when: 1) rooms are going to be scarce or at a premium—such as a convention, sporting event or graduation and 2) the savings is at least 30%. To comparison shop, you can go to hotels.com, priceline.com and travelzoo.com .

Q. For the last few years, we’ve always bought the entertainment book that has coupons for restaurants, sporting events, oil changes, dry cleaning and more. We pay $35 for the book and I’m not sure it’s worth it because I don’t think we’re really using it that much. Do you buy these books?

Mike from Mechanicsville, VA via Ellie Kay’s blog

Ellie: Right now, Mike, you can get the 2010 book (which expires at the end of this year) for free when you reserve a 2011 book. If you use just one of the buy one/get one free coupons for dinner at an upscale restaurant, then it has paid for itself. Most offer $12,000+ in values and if you only use 1% of that, you’ve saved $120—less the $35 price of the book for a total savings of $85. Keep the book in your car, check it religiously and save righteously!

Ellie Kay

America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

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