A Financial Education Event

Twelve Summer Savings Tips

School is out for Summer! So it’s time to post my top twelve summer savings tips that can help you get through the summer with your savings and your sanity intact:

1. Use Cash, Save 20% – Use cash for three main problem areas: food, entertainment and gas. Put the budgeted money in three separate envelopes. When you go grocery shopping, go to your cash envelope and do the same when your family wants to go to a movie. The constant visual cash reminder can save as much as 20% in each area. And you avoid going further into debt by not using credit cards.

2. Book It – Entertainment.com offers a coupon book that is available for 150 metro markets and usually costs between $25 and $45 but is on sale for only $10! Preview the coupon booklet for your area (or an area where you will vacation) to see if the coupons are ones you will use. An added benefit: you’ll not only save on eating out, but you can also save on movie theaters, theme parks, dry cleaning, and at local shops. Average advertised total book savings—$17,000. To redeem only 25 percent is an annual savings of $4,250.

3. For Movie Fanatics – Check with your local theater for special discount days or about reward programs for frequent visitors, some of which may also offer discounts on food and even free future tickets. Some theaters offer “Summer Movies” that are designed for kids and can cost as little as $1. Be aware that you can often purchase the matinee ticket at discounted prices. Sometimes the difference in a full price and matinee price is only ten minutes (the 5:55 PM showing is cheaper than the 6:05 showing). Some theater chains have special purchases of multiple tickets (usually packages of 50) that can be redeemed over a specific period of time—but make sure you will actually use these in time in order to maximize the value of your investment. Your employer, credit union, credit card provider, alumni association or even your union may also offer movie discount values.

4. New and Improved Staycations – Replicate a “taking a vacation” feeling without going far by exploring your town or region like you never have before. Check out the “newcomers package” at your local chamber of commerce or visit your regional parks and recreation website to discover programs available for families. At www.FactoryToursUSA.com, search your area for fun tours for seeing how things are made. Many historic homes and governmental buildings, such as state capital buildings, also offer free tours. You might be surprised at all the fun things to do right in your backyard. And speaking of your backyard, why not stage a family campout? Your family gets to sleep in tents, tell scary stories and make s’mores (over a propane grill).

5. Eat New for Less – If you want to try a new restaurant but not pay full price, go to Restaurant.com, a site that issues coupons and gift certificates for over 6,000 eateries around the country. Our family picks a spot and pays $10 for a $25 gift certificate—we save over 50 percent in the process. The average restaurant bill for a family of four is $86. Our family saves $43 x 52 weeks = $2,236. Also watch for summer sales on this site, we recently bought $25 gift certificates for only $2 for a couple of local eateries.

6. Plant a Vegetable Garden or Try Community Gardening – Stake out a piece of the backyard or fill window boxes, barrels and tubs, urns or even pots and hanging basket with seedlings and starter plants for a vegetable and/or herb garden. Aside from the food bill savings, harvesting the bounty with your children will provide months of good taste and good cheer. Some neighborhoods offer community gardening where you pay $5 for your plot and get to know your neighbors while gardening. If you don’t have access to community gardening, but know a friend or colleague that loves to garden, offer to help with the cost of plants and seeds and care products in exchange for going shopping in their garden.

7. Big to Little Bag – Whether you’re wheeling around town or on a 300 mile road trip, avoid fast food joints and pricey convenience store traps by buying healthy snacks in larger quantities and then packing them in reusable containers and keeping them in your car. Any time you divide menu items from a larger quantity to a lunch bag size, you save BIG! For example, buying a two pound bag of mini-carrots and dividing them into snack size plastic bags, I’ve saved 40% over the prepackaged, smaller baggies of carrots. Do this for chips, cookies, nuts, fruit snacks, raisins, grapes, sweet snap peas, celery, cherries, and anything else your family enjoys!

8. Get Everyone Their Own Bottle – The same advice above applies to drinks. Instead of pulling over to buy expensive bottles of water, soda or juice, everyone in your family should have their own colorful, reusable plastic bottle filled with their favorite refreshment. Toss them in a cooler and take them along wherever you go and lap up the savings while being good to the environment.

9. Breakfast for Dinner – Being creative is the key to cost savings and along that line you can have a “breakfast for dinner” night. My kids love it when my husband makes waffles on Sunday and we freeze the extras for a breakfast night–it saves time AND money.

10. Don’t Get Zapped – Electricity is a big expense in the summer, and some states are offering a special discount for those who are willing to restrict their use during certain times of the day. It can be as simple as raising an air conditioning setting during the day and running your swimming pool pump at night. Our family has a band on our air conditioning unit that saves us $150 per month, & we’ve stayed cool with temps as high as 115 outside! Check with your power company for details.

11. Flush Wisely – With bathrooms in use more with the kids home 24/7, save money with water displacement. Don’t put bricks, however, in your toilet tank to do so. They can break apart, clog pipes and cost you thousands of dollars in repairs. Instead, use a one quart plastic container that will not interfere with the toilet flapper valve and put this in the tank. It will save $150 per year per bathroom. In our house that is $450 per year!

12. Stop Doing Dishes! – Every now and then I give some advice that I really like! If you stop washing your dishes by hand and only run the dishwasher to clean your dirty dishes, you could save $1.50 per load. The reason is that it costs money to heat the water and pipes in your home, which is something that happens every time you wash a few dishes by hand.

Here’s the most valuable tip of all: hug, love, kiss and squeeze those munchkins as much as you can because they grow and go too quickly!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

Dead, Near Dead, and Drop Dead Gorgeous

I just got back from the Thelma Wells “Ready to Win” cruise for women where I was a featured speaker. My girlfriends, Brenda and Allison were drop dead gorgeous in their formal night clothing. But don’t let this photo deceive you, we survived some strange adventures before we ended up smiling in a photo!

Brenda and I had to come in the day before the cruise and stayed at a Hilton in Fort Lauderdale. TIP: I used an “best available rate” room special where you prepay, but save over $200 by getting the room cheaper than the local Hampton Inn. Plus, I get frequent stayer points & a free breakfast with my Hilton Honors gold card. When we checked into the room, it smelled like smoke. TIP: We knew you should always let management know and that by asking, we could possibly get a room upgrade. The hotel manager was great! He met us at our room with keys to the PRESIDENTIAL SUITE! The nicest room in the 8 story hotel! When he took us in, it was gynormous, featuring a table for twelve, a full kitchen, a private balcony and several sitting areas. The bedroom suite was off the main room. There was just one insey weensy problem.

He showed us around the suite, highlighting the amenities. When he got to the bathroom, he pointed at some stains on the tile, “Don’t worry about those stains, they are going to replace the tiles later this week. It’s just that a woman died here last night and there was a lot of blood. But they cleaned up all the blood and it’s really no problem.”

Then he left.

I looked at Brenda, “Did he just say what I thought he said and was he kidding?” Looking pale, she nodded her head and whispered, “He said there was a dead body in this room last night.”

We bolted off the main suite and barricaded ourselves in the bedroom area while dreaming of the Sixth Sense and “I see dead people.”
The adventure continued when we got on the cruise and reached our first port–Grand Caymans. We signed up for the kayaking and snorkel excursion. When we arrived it was sprinkling and they announced they only had 6 power scooters for 8 people, so if someone wanted to get 1/2 a refund on their excursion, they could forgo the scooter. TIP: It’s really easy to share a power scooter when snorkeling with a friend. In fact, it’s relaxing to just snorkel on your own, then take a turn with the scooter. We saved 50% in the process.

By the time we paddled out, it was a steady drizzle, but it didn’t keep us from enjoying the snorkel experience around the reef with beautiful tropical fish and bright blue waters! When everyone got back on their kayaks to go over to the shipwreck area, it was raining harder. Then–all of the sudden, the heavens opened up and we found ourselves in the middle of a STORM at sea! The guides were too far ahead of us and couldn’t see us. Visibility was limited and the rain felt like sharp pepples pelting down on our faces and legs. The kayak was taking on water and the waves were swelling bigger and bigger. We positioned the kayak to meet the ways head on to avoid capsizing. That’s when the lightening started. We looked down at our metal paddles and just kept paddling in tandem for shore. It was one of those surreal experiences when you find yourself wondering what your family would do if you were swept out to sea, struck by lightening or put in a psych ward because you freaked out over the trauma.

It took us only fifteen minutes to paddle out but almost an hour to paddle back to the shore. The guides finally got a clue and came back for the other two kayaks that were still in the storm and attached a line to them to get them back safely.

The final day was our big parasailing excursion in Cozumel. We prayed for it to be singularly UNEVENTFUL. We wanted NO more dead bodies or “near death” experiences. Just the intrinsic thrill of flying tandam 600 feet above the water in a parachute. As you’ll see from the photo–we succeeded in our goal, putting the “death” theme to rest in peace!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

I’m in Israel!

Wow! I’m having a great time in Israel. I’m finding that it is really a good value as well. Once you get here, the attractions usually charge only $3 to $4 and the Spa at the Dead Sea was only $7 to get a tram ride to float in the sea, have access to the mud baths, swimming pool and sulfer pool. I indulged in a sea salt scrub, aromatherapy and swedish massage for an hour and it was only $58. More on how to get here economically later but in this picture on the right, I’m holding a smooth stone in the river bank of the valley where David met Goliath.

We started our tour in the wilderness (En Avdat, Nahal Zin) visiting En Gedi, the gravesite of Ben Gurion and hiking up to the place where Moses struck the rock and you actually see water flowing from that rock. In the photo on the left, I climbed these stairs that were cleft into the rock. We’ve also seen ancient roman civilization excavations, the Jordan river (where it’s so muddy, it’s only brown), and the sea of Galilee.

The food is amazing, the people are warm and friendly and we still have several days to go. Plus, I get to see some of our family who live here later this week–I can’t wait.

If you haven’t been to Israel, it’s time you plan this life changing experience. Three faiths were born here (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) and there’s evidence of all three. The food is completely amazing here. The hummus is heavenly, the cottage cheese is cheesier and even the salt tastes saltier–plus, they serve cheesecake for breakfast! Gotta run, we’re about to go to dinner and then take a night tour in a boat on the sea of Galilee.

Ellie Kay

Safe in Israel

This is an amazing photo. One of the notable things about Israel that you have to get used to is all the soldiers walking around with M-16s hanging off their shoulders. Some of my friends were concerned about my safety with the reports they read in the news but the crime rate for violent crime is lower, per capita, in Israel than it is in Palmdale,CA (where I live). I feel safer here than I do in America, especially after today’s sad headlines about major shooting sprees in FL and TX.
The photo you see is after basic training graduation, the graduates are presented with a rifle and a Bible. That was just incredulous to me!
We visited Masada and heard the story of the tragic end of the Jewish zealots versus the roman army. History tends to repeat itself in terms of violence. We also saw Capernuem, ancient Dan, ancient Beer Sheba, the sea of Galille’s shores where a 2000 year old boat was discovered and much, much more!

Gotta run,
Ellie Kay

Family Time in Israel

Israel is a great place to raise families? The American mom of the two children on the left made this statement to me. It may sound surprising, but I can see why she says it. As I blogged earlier, statistically, it’s safer here than living in California. But here’s the proof: children as young as five years old walk themselves home from school. They are from good families and have responsible parents–but there’s no need to fear for their safety the way I would as a mom in the US. That was one of the strangest sights in downtown Jerusalem and other parts of the country. I love America and have no plans to move to Jerusalem, but I do have to acknowledge the startling contrast in other cultures.

The photo on the right is me at Mt. Carmel, where Elijah battled the prophets of Ba’al and God allowed him to win the victory. The guide reminded us that according to the story, Queen Jezebel got so angry that she swore she’d take his life. Then he ran and got so discouraged that he sat by a Juniper tree and wanted to die. This is a good lesson to remember that when we battle our own “Jezebels” we don’t have to live a defeated life.

We’ve also seen the western wall, garden of Gethsemane, Via Delarosa, the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, Golgotha, the (empty) tomb, and dozens of other sites. The tour was put on for us by the Ministry of Tourism and they kept us (a group of journalists) busy 10 to 14 hours a day–we got the most out of our time away from home.

This whirlwind trip is about at an end and our small group was able to do twice as much in 1/2 the time. But after vising 50 sites, the photo on the left was the highlight of my trip, getting to see a precocious pilot and a pretty princess having fun in a restaurant. Their dad runs a great tour group site that will work with larger groups as well as families to help make this dream trip affordable.

So instead of planning a trip to Disneyland, consider visiting the center of three major world religions. It’s a trip that will forever impact your life!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert

ABC NEWS – I’m Answering YOUR Questions

Here are some of your questions that I answered recently on ABC NEWS “Good Money” regarding the blog I wrote called “The Road to Financial Heckie Fire.”

Q. I’m in my mid thirties and I haven’t had the problem of friends and family asking me to co-sign on a loan before. But in the last year, I’ve had three requests for this. What’s your advice on co-signing a loan?
Jill, from Bradenton, FL via facebook

Ellie: If you have a friend or relative who needs a co-signer, then that means their credit is so risky that no lender will give him money on his own credit history. The question is: why should you? The answer is that you should not! Even though it may come across as “helping a family member out” it’s still a business transaction and when you set the precedence of co-signing on a loan—be prepared to do it again and again. If not for the same person, then for another friend who may say, “well, you did it for Jennifer, why not me?” You have to assume you will be the one repaying the loan & you won’t have the associated asset, so it can’t possibly be a good business move.

Q. We are boomers in our early sixties and we were thinking of getting a reverse mortgage. Is this a good move for people our age?
Allison from Granbury, TX via online contact form

Ellie: Recently, you’ll see older actors on commercials offering these kinds of mortgages to seniors who are house rich and cash poor. They are portrayed as a viable means of getting a steady stream of income that is easy to obtain. But the fees and other costs associated with reverse mortgages can sometimes be considerably higher than on other loans. This is a bad money move unless you have no other income than social security and because of the high cost fees, it should be a last resort not a first resort. The better option would be a home equity loan. You could sell your home and move into a smaller, less expensive house. Or, you could sell the home to your kids and have a multigenerational family under one roof—this is a recent trend I’ve seen emerging. Your kids can use the inheritance to pay down the mortgage.

Q. I have $10,000 in Stafford Student Loans, an $8800 car loan at 9.99% and two consumer loans at $3500 and $3700, both at 12%. All my loans are current and I have $1000 to put toward one of these loans—which one should I choose?
Viviene via Ellie Kay’s blog

Ellie: It’s great that you are current with your payments and even better that you have an extra $1000 to put toward your debts. I recommend that you put the $1000 toward the $3700 loan at 12% in order to retire the loan. Then once you’ve paid off that debt, double up the payments on the $3500 loan. You will feel motivated by the fact that you’re paying off debts and you will also experience the “snowball effect” where you gain momentum in paying these debts and as you pay off one bill, you can put those monies toward the next bill. Before you know it, you’ll have all your debt retired!

Q. Last year, my teenage daughter couldn’t find a summer job and ended up kind of wasting those months. She tried hard, but there just isn’t much work where we live. Do you have some ideas that maybe we haven’t thought of in terms of summers for this age group?
Stephanie Corlew from Branson, Missouri

Ellie: Summer camps are a great place for kids like your daughter to plug into a summer job. My daughter, Bethany, found a job through the American Camping Association by going to www.acacamps.org/jobs (or just google “American Camping Association” and “jobs.”) She’s making enough for her college spending money and gaining the opportunity to impact the lives of young campers as well.
Another way to broaden a resume for this age group is to go to the local, state or federal political representative from your district and offer to intern in the office. My son, Jonathan, did this last summer as a high school sophomore and this summer as a junior as well. He only volunteered a few hours a week at Congressman Buck McKeon’s office (California) and it made such an impression on his resume that it helped him get into an exclusive summer leadership seminar at USAFA (United States Air Force Academy). His summer internship contributed to the community and it also has contributed to his future as he applies for college scholarships.

Q. My grandchildren are teenagers and are coming to live with me for the summer. I wanted to know if you know of some jobs they can do where they could make some extra money, but still have time for fun, too.
Connie Green from Tehachapi, CA

Ellie: Connie, if you email assistant@elliekay.com, we can send you a file that includes 30 different jobs your grandchildren can do locally and make good money as well. Just ask for the “Kids Jobs” file. There’s also a list of safety items you should check out before they work for someone they do not know. For example, there’s job’s like Rent-A-Kid where there may be people in your church or neighborhood who need odd jobs done. There are also jobs like window washing, Garage Cleaning Service, Babysitting Services for summer groups that meet, Mail Checkers (for those who travel out of town), and even Pet Minders.

Q. Ever since I was a teenager, it’s been a dream of mine to go visit Israel
Is going on a tour with a large group the least expensive way to go to big tourist destinations? How can I save money on this trip?
Pamela from Acton, CA

Ellie: Tour groups with your church or community may not be the cheapest route to go since someone usually gets a free trip or two by booking a large group. In some cases, you actually pay more money to go to Israel with a reknown author or professor than you would if you go on your own. To help save money, go to the website GoIsrael.com and do as much planning as possible. Stay in a hostel, guest house, or a kibbutz, which comes with a free breakfast. Buy a pass for all national parks in order to save as much as 35% on the most popular attractions.

Q: Our company downsized and I laid off work. I’m thinking of launching my own homebased business, but there’s so much out there, I’m not sure what I should do. How do you know it’s a good business to get into and what should I keep in mind as I make my decision?
Nicole, Albany, NY

Ellie: One area of our economy that is thriving is direct sales companies (DSC) as people explore new ways to make money. As you are searching for the best fit for you in your homebased business start with following your passion. Do you love to cook? Then Pampered Chef may be a good option. Do you enjoy wearing the latest styles in jewelry, then try Premier Designs. If you follow your passion you are far more likely to succeed. But all DSCs are not created equal. Before you decide, find out what kind of inventory you have to stock. I know far too many people who went into debt to buy their inventory and then quit the business within a year—but kept the debt! Also find out the percentage you make on sales as well as the hostess plan that the company offers. Does the company take care of filing sales tax for you or do you have that job, too? For more information, email assistant@elliekay.com and ask for the “Homemade Business” file. Have fun pursuing your passion!

Please ask me YOUR questions!

Ellie Kay

America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

The Great Escape Plan – Vacation for Less!

There’s nothing worse than anticipating a much needed getaway only to discover a lot of unexpected fees, add-ons and additional expenses once you get to your dream spot. With so many sites and so many choices, how do you know if you’re getting the best deal?
Today, I was on KLOVE, with the fun-loving Scott and Kelli to make some recommendations that will make the process easier and more rewarding.

STEP 1: Be the Expert –
You may think you have a good idea of what a great price is for airfare to the Grand Canyon, but how can you be sure? By subscribing to a few travel alerts and newsletters, such as Travelzoo, SmarterTravel, Yapta are good as well as Bing.

STEP 2: Beware! —
You don’t want to show up for your dream vacation and find out that the “Five Star” hotel you booked looks more like the Professor’s hut on Gilligan’s Island. For videos of hotels, restaurants, and attractions, go to Tripfilms and take a peek from videos posted by other travelers. You can also look at families’ vacation photos of your destination at Flickr. Or read reviews by others posted at TripAdvisor.

STEP 3: Be Smart —
“A Wise man count the cost before he builds a tower” says Proverbs. When you’re searching for the best air fare, go to BookingBuddy, which will save time and money because it will search almost all of the OTHER airfare research sites (such as Orbitz, Expedia, CheapTickets, etc) to give you the best price. Also, find out the real price of your airline experience by checking Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide at SmarterTravel where you’ll find the cost of carryons, checked luggage, blankets, pillows or if you have to cough up $100 more for that extra leg room!

STEP 4: Be Open —
It’s really a buyer’s market in some areas this year, especially if you are open to more than one vacation idea. For example, this year, according to the 40% to 60% off deals at Travel-ticker to go on a seven day Mexican Carribbean Cruise than it is for us to go to Disneyland. So we’ll feast on fajitas this year and leave the mouse ears for next year!

STEP 5: Be Social –
Do you want to know if that restaurant you’re considering is good or not? Then turn to your social media friends (and a smart phone) to find out! By using facebook and twitter, just ask your friends what they think. Or log onto Yelp to see what others are saying. By getting a free app with FlightAware you can track your flight within five minutes of real time.

Question of the Week from Georgina from Baker, FL – Ellie, I know you purchase $25 gift certificates when they go on sale at
Restaurant.com for only $2, but is there a “catch” or any restrictions involved?
ELLIE: Georgina, I find out that these are on sale by subscribing to the Top Twenty and I LOVE them! The restrictions are listed and usually include the fact that they will add 18% automatically at the restaurant for a tip (before the gift certificate, so don’t double tip) and you have to spend $35 to use the $25 gift certificate. Even so, we still save about 50% and it’s worth it!

More Sites for Savings

Hotels.com – Find best prices on hotels internationally and earn bonus stays
Ifly.com – terminal maps, estimates on how long security lines are, where to eat.
Otalo.com – vacation house rental deals
Tripkick.com – detailed info on hotels and specific room info
TVtrip.com – photos of lobbies, rooms and neighborhoods
Oyster.com – pros and cons of different hotels
Voyij.com – checks best sales, promotions and package deals from departure city
Seatexpert.com – guide to the best and worst airline seats
Have a Great Escape!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert

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)

The Family Road Trip

This week on ABC NEWS NOW, I talked about how to take a Family Road trip that won’t traumatize your children! I remember my dad stuffing us kids in the back of a VW bug and traveling from TX to IN, making about 600 miles per day. Need I say more?

Here are some ideas that will make your family trip a lot more fun and affordable.

Q. First of all, let’s look at a question that many families are asking: is it cheaper to take that long family road trip, or is it more cost effective to fly?

ELLIE: It’s all in the numbers including how far you have to travel, how many family members and how many nights on the road. It’s going to be pretty easy for you to calculate the bottom line for flying versus driving. 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. Don’t forget the rental car if you’re flying, you can research that on hotwire.com .

Q. One of the greatest expenses while traveling down the highway is for snacks, lunch and dinner. It can not only get pricey, but these purchases can also take a toll on health as there seems to be an emphasis on eating fast food while on the road. Do you have any ideas on other options?

ELLIE: If your children are little, the stops you make on the road are essential for them to be able to get out and stretch their legs—adults need that, too. When our kids were little, we packed a lunch for the first day on the road and stopped at roadside parks. It’s easy to plan these stops with the assistance of your GPS or your smartphone, just locate a parks along the way and plan accordingly. To save money on snacks, pack some healthy options in individual bags for each family member and include options such as carrots, grapes, cherries, pretzels or trail mix.

Q. One of the tips you share is to set realistic expectations. So how long can you realistically expect to travel in a car with a three year old?

ELLIE: I think that you shouldn’t try to conquer more than 300 miles a day with a preschooler, because they’ll arrive tired and cranky at your destination AND SO WILL YOU! You need to know your child(ren) and adjust your expectations accordingly. Are you one of those blessed families whose kids sleep as soon as you get in the car? Then you can probably handle a few more miles a day. Does any of your family members have health issues that require frequent stops, then add some extra time to your trip so you aren’t stressed. Setting realistic expectations will help you and your family have a better trip.

Q. Another challenge for families is keeping the kids occupied. Older children can use their Ipods to stay busy and everyone enjoys movies on the way. But even these options can lead to the inevitable boredom as kids start to get restless. You’re a mother of many, what do you suggest?

ELLIE: I think this is where creativity comes into play. When our kids were all school aged and we had a long trip (or a military move), I shop ahead of time for small games, books, activity puzzles, little toys and other trinkets I knew they would like. Then I’d wrap these “surprises” in gift paper and put each child’s name on it. At the top of every hour, if they were good on the road, we would give them their individual present. Sometimes, a grouchy child wouldn’t get his because he wasn’t co-operating. He’d watch his siblings playing with their gifts and it would motivate him to behave. I also think that an adult should be in charge of not only disbursing the surprises, but also handing out the individual snacks at certain times as well. You can give them out at certain mile markers that the kids can look for and it becomes an effective way of passing the time.
This is also the time to develop your own traditions. My older kids liked creating Mad Libs and played slug bug or I Spy. But our younger kids developed a game called, “Name that movie line” which became a tradition in our family. We still play it when we get together and find it creates family bonding moments and is a unique Kay Family Tradition.

Q. How do you feel about souvenirs? Do you think that saving money means you just say “no” to the t-shirts, coffee mugs, statues and commemorative books?

ELLIE: I think that souvenirs are an important part of any vacation time but it’s also important to not overspend on these category. We give our kids a budget for souvenirs and let them choose. We also encourage them to pick things that are of a better quality and yet inexpensive such as spoons, shot glasses, or magnets.

Q. What if you haven’t taken a vacation yet and don’t know if you can afford it. Do you have any creative ways to save money on a place to stay on the family road trip?

ELLIE: If you have friends that you like a lot and think your friendship can survive the test of a family road trip and vacation, then double up with that family and cut your bills in half. For example, the normal price of a week-long mountain cabin rental with three bedrooms in Manitou Springs, CO was $900. If each family pays $450 instead of the full price, they may be able to afford a vacation that might not have been available to them otherwise. You can go to vrbo.com or www.findrental.com. Suite hotels that offer extra rooms are also an option such as the ones found at orbitz.com or cheaphotels.com. For those who love the great outdoors, sharing campsite fees or RV rentals can split the price of a camping adventure. At RVRental.com we found rentals across the country that ranged from $117/day to $385 per day. Depending on the owner of the RV, other charges to consider are hospitality kits, kitchen kits, and/or emergency road kits. Cleaning fees will apply if the RV is not returned in the condition in which it was rented.

Q. What about saving money on food and entertainment once you get to your destination?

ELLIE: I recommend you go to entertaimnent.com and enter the zip code of where you’ll be traveling in order to preview their entertainment books for that destination. These are currently on sale and you can find discounts on food, movie tickets, amusement parks, hotels and much more. Also go to restaurant.com and enter the zip code to get gift certificates for half price and while you’re there, see if they have any sales. I recently bought $25 gift certificates at that site for only $2. Plus, use your smartphone by entering the attraction’s name to see if there are any coupons or codes you can download on your phone and use on the spot.

Enjoy your Family Road Trip!

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

Valentines Dates- Part II – Taking Your Questions!

QUESTION: My boyfriend is a tech junkie, and while he never forgets to get the latest upgrade, he does sometimes forget special days like my birthday or our anniversary. Is there a way to help my high tech love realize that Valentine’s Day is around the corner?
Simmering Cindy in Cincinnati

ELLIE: There’s some good news for you, Cindy, there are quite a few apps you can buy for your romantically challenged love. The first one is only $.99 and is called CREATIVE ROMANTIC IDEAS: $.99, IPHONE, IPOD TOUCH, IPAD This app will give him ideas that are ranked by price and difficulty, from personalized M&Ms to more elaborate ideas that go beyond the usual candy and flowers. OPEN TABLE: IPHONE, IPOD TOUCH, IPAD, ANDROID, BLACKBERRY This app will help him from being caught without a restaurant reservation. This popular app lets him find restaurants that are nearby, check to see availability and make a reservation. Get info you need from restaurant profiles to menus, including for the budget-minded $$ ratings so you can stay in your price range. Finally, there’s a free app called CINEPLEX MOBILE: IPHONE, IPOD TOUCH, IPAD, BLACKBERRY, ANDROID. Useful for dates or any other occasion when he wants to find out what’s playing at a theatre near you. Read entertainment news and reviews, see trailers and buy tickets online. Cindy, by speaking his high tech language, you’ll find better results.

QUESTION: My husband has been off work for 18 months and works odd jobs here and there just to help pay the bills until he can find regular work as a full time welder. Do you have any ideas for Valentines gifts for people with NO money to spend?
Jessie Johnson from Detroit, MI

ELLIE: Trade chores for the day. Surprise your loved one by completing all of his/her chores. Clean the house for your wife or take out the trash for your hubby. Add a special touch by leaving heart shaped cookies in the home or a meaningful note in their car. No matter how small the chore, having someone else complete it will be sure to leave a smile on your loved one’s face.
Make a book of coupons. The coupons could include a massage, free pass for a girls or guys night out, cooking a favorite meal, or even promising a day of sports TV without any interruptions! Recognizing things that are important to your significant other will go a long way in showing how much you care. My husband just presented me with a 12 year old coupon that says, “good for a new corvette when I sell 100,000 copies of my book. I passed that mark several years ago and he just found the coupon when cleaning out a drawyer!

My fiancée is in the military and is overseas. Do you have any extra special ideas that I can send him via email. I already mailed a package, but I wanted to do something. Jason Sampson, submitted via facebook

There’s an app that costs $1.99 and is called VOICE VALENTINES: IPHONE, IPOD TOUCH, IPAD. You can impress your Valentine with a customized ecard that you can send by email, Twitter or Facebook. Design your card, add a photo and message and your Valentine’s Day love delivered in your own voice. Or you could get an app for $1.99 or under that is called BUILD-A-CARD, CUPID ADDITION: IPHONE, IPOD, $.99 AND $1.99 FOR IPAD. With this app you can create customized ecards to email, Facebook or Twitter. You can take photos from your camera, your album or your Facebook account to build a one-of-a-kind card.

QUESTION: I’ve been married three years and my husband and I have a very good relationship. The only thing that bothers me is that he doesn’t have any photos of me at work, he says he has them on his iPhone and shows people that way. We are on a budget and for Valentines Day, I wanted to give him a photo for his desk. Any ideas to make this gift not seem too cheap? Amanda from San Antonio, TX

ELLIE: By all means, Amanda, frame up all kinds of his favorites—not just photos. In the digital age, chances are good that your mate doesn’t have a hard copy of some of your favorite memories. If your man has a treasured baseball card or an old family photo, have it framed so he can hang in a special place. Then add a second gift of your best photos as a couple. You can get a customized collage for less than $5 at Costco.com or Walgreens and request same day or next day service. If you want to be less obvious, you could do the same in a mousepad or coffee mug for

QUESTION: My wife and I have been married for 25 years and we raised 3 outstanding children together. I love her very much. For Valentines Day, I like to give her chocolate because she likes it. The problem is that she’s been on a diet off and on for months now and if I don’t give her chocolate then she may think I’m saying she’s overweight and doesn’t need it. But if I do give her candy, she might go off her diet and blame me. What do you suggest? Anonymous but still in love in Destin, FL

ELLIE: This has the potential to be one of those no win situations, so you need to approach this carefully. If you buy your woman a 5 lb. box of chocolate in the shape of a heart, she’s either going to eat a few pieces and waste the rest or eat a bunch of it and feel guilty or sick.
I recommend that you find out what kind of candy she likes and get a small portion of that kind of candy. Since you’ve been married for so long, you could also include a mix “tape.” Burn a CD of your favorite songs or those that are special to your relationship. Create a personalized cover with photographs of the two of you and place it in a plastic CD case for presentation. You can also load a special mix onto your significant other’s MP3 player so you can share it together in the car or at home. The thot you put into the CD should outweigh any potential conflict from the candy and you should emerge unscathed. 

Ellie Kay
America’s Family Financial Expert (R)

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