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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Welcome Alpha Consumer readers!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Kimberly of the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog. The podcast is now available if you're curious about what I sound like. You'll also learn how I got started blogging and some of my best money-saving tips (although if you're a regular reader, you already know those!).

If you've found Chief Family Officer for the first time via Alpha Consumer, WELCOME! My favorite topics to discuss are family finances, cooking, and parenting. With prices on the rise lately, I've been working hard to keep my family's expenses from rising along with them. I share my tips here at CFO, along with recipes, reviews, and lately, my foray into Weight Watchers.

If you're interested in reading more about The Drugstore Game, which Kimberly and I discussed, you may want to read some of my recent posts on the topic. You can also read about the details of some of my transactions and pick up a few tips on playing the game over at my other blog, CFO Reviews.

And if that's not enough to keep you busy, you can check out the Best of CFO.

If you like what you see here, why not subscribe to new posts via RSS or email? You'll get the latest on CFO delivered right to your inbox or favorite feed aggregator. Thanks for stopping by!

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Drugstore Game Tip #2: Know your stores

My second tip for playing The Drugstore Game well is to know the employees at the stores you go to. It doesn't take long to learn which stores are coupon friendly, and which employees are supportive of your coupon use. I say "employees" because if you can, you should get to know the store managers as well.

I've found one Walgreens, one CVS, and one Rite Aid in my area that are coupon friendly and where the employees are super nice as well. They are my first choice stores, and I go there whenever I can. Maybe because LA is so big, or maybe because I don't go to each store every week, I've only really "bonded" with one Walgreens cashier. At the other stores, I seem to get a different cashier every time. But the Walgreens cashier immediately recognizes me when I walk in (with or without kids), knows that I will have coupons, and showers me with compliments on the great deals I get. If you have a favorite cashier, it can't hurt to share the wealth. The last time I went to Walgreens, I had coupons for a free bag of Corazonas chips. (Thanks to My Good Cents for the coupon link.) I used one coupon and gave one to the cashier, who mentioned that the chips were tasty.

I do hit the other stores in my area on occasion, when it's more convenient or when my preferred store is out of stock. I very rarely encounter any difficulties at the other stores, but I do feel they scrutinize my coupons more. It's just more comfortable shopping at the stores where I feel welcome.

Read all of my Drugstore Game tips.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

One recall today: Assorted wooden toys

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:

Wooden Toys Recalled by Earthentree Due To Choking and Strangulation Hazards - Click through for pictures of the other recalled toys.


As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Weight Watchers Week Two: So far, so good

The best part about Weight Watchers so far isn't that I've lost weight (although that's pretty awesome) but that the way I'm eating now is a way that I can live with for the rest of my life. Weight Watchers says they're not a diet, they're a lifestyle, and it's true. In the last week, I've eaten chocolate, pie, and some absolutely heavenly soppressata and Spanish chorizo. It's all about portion control, and I'm learning to eat my favorite foods while staying within my Points allowance.

In fact, I'm now eating the way I've always known that I should eat: mostly fruit and vegetables, with some protein and dairy, and small portions of treats. I don't know why I needed to join Weight Watchers in order to make this change, but it's really working for me.

The greatest difficulty is preparation, because my family doesn't eat the way I do. The boys will eat the same fruit, and Marc will eat (most of) the same veggies, but the boys won't, for example, eat a salad for dinner. So I am spending more time in the kitchen. I'm not too happy about that, so I am trying to figure out ways to streamline the whole process of making two dinners. Sometimes the solutions are obvious, like when I made beef nachos - everybody else got the nachos, while I topped a plate of greens and tomatoes with some of the beef mixture and a quarter cup of shredded part skim mozzarella cheese. I'm working on coming up with more easily adjusted meals like this.

I can't really assess the impact of Weight Watchers on our monthly spending yet, because I haven't been buying much meat. I've had a pretty good stockpile in the freezer, which we've been eating for the last couple of weeks. I don't break my grocery budget down by category, so I'm really just going to keep an eye on the trend of my spending at grocery stores. It goes without saying that even as I eat healthier, I want to keep my spending in check.

One of the best things about joining an At-Work program instead of meetings at a regular Weight Watchers center is that I have a built-in timeline. The At-Work program requires a minimum of 15 paying members to continue each 17-week session. The group I joined just barely made it to 15 members for the current session, so there's no guarantee that there will be another session when this one ends right before the holidays. Because of that, I feel extra motivated to reach my goal weight by the end of this session, and fortunately, I don't have that much weight to lose so my goal is pretty realistic. I don't think the same motivation would be there if I'd simply joined regular meetings with no (forced) end in sight.

Right now, my plan is to keep doing what I've been doing since it's obviously working. I just need to make those adjustments in the kitchen so that I can keep up the progress without losing my mind.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

My Drugstore Game Philosophy

Now that I've been playing The Drugstore Game for almost six months, I've developed an informal philosophy that I thought would be worth sharing:
  • Don't chase every deal. It's hard to resist a great deal, especially at the beginning, but as we've discussed before, chasing every deal can lead to burnout. It's okay to spend a little more money if it means not driving yourself crazy.
  • Don't use intentionally misuse coupons. I'm not referring only to obvious misuses like altering a coupon. I mean, don't try to use a coupon on an item it's not intended for. One example is the Dawn 2 for $2 after ECB deal at CVS. Some shoppers were planning to use a $1 off Dawn Simple Pleasures coupon, even though Simple Pleasures was not part of the deal.
  • Be kind to the employees. Even if they have a bad attitude. I'm quite lucky, in that I have enough drugstore options that I can avoid the stores that seem to be unfriendly to coupon users. But even so, every once in a while, I'll run into an unpleasant cashier who huffs and puffs about my coupons. I try to be cheerful, even if the cashier isn't. I know I'm not doing anything wrong, so I don't have a problem standing my ground. If a deal didn't quite work, I politely inquire about it (for example, when my ECBs didn't print).
  • If I'm not satisfied by the store's employees, I can escalate my issue to the corporate level. Find executive information at the Consumerist and A Full Cup.
  • Experiment with your coupon organization. I started out with one multi-pocket folder and now I have two. But for the same reasons as Money Saving Mom, I am considering not clipping coupons I'm not sure I'll use and switching to the binder system. (FYI, A Full Cup also has a coupon database where you can look up coupon sources.)
  • I only keep as much as I have storage space for. Even if something is a fantastic deal, I don't buy it unless I have space for it. Unless . . .
  • I am donating it. I do buy many things I don't need or don't have space for if they are free or almost free and I have someone to give it to.
  • I will only play the Drugstore Game if I am having fun. I keep track of my savings in a simple spreadsheet, and I get a real kick out of seeing how much I've saved each month. But if it ever stops being fun, I'll dramatically reduce the amount of time I spend planning my trips and visiting the stores.
So that's my Drugstore Game philosophy. What's yours?

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Drugstore Game Tip #1: Set up a reminder for rebates

I'm starting a new series with tips on playing The Drugstore Game. Here's the first tip.

Rite Aid and Walgreens only allow you to request their monthly rebates once. That means that you have to wait until you've made all of your monthly rebate purchases before you submit them. You can enter your receipts online as you make your purchases, and then request your check once you're done with your shopping.

Walgreens will automatically submit your request if you haven't done it by the deadline. I don't know if Rite Aid will do the same, because I never wait that long. The deadline is usually a whole month after the shopping period ends, and I don't want to wait a whole extra month for my checkg. Instead, I set up a reminder to submit my request at the end of the shopping period.

I use Google Calendar to send myself email reminders, but you can use any system or program that works for you. And of course, this system works for all rebates. You can even send yourself notifications to act if you haven't received a check by a certain date. Now you'll never miss a rebate deadline!

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Four recalls today: Helos, rattles and magnets

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Weight Watchers Week One: Adjusting to the program

Thank you to everyone who encouraged, advised and supported me last week when I announced that I had decided to join Weight Watchers. I signed up on Monday and will attend meetings for the next 17 weeks. (The At-Work program is a 17-week commitment, but there are two Monday holidays during this session.)

This first week is a time of adjustment for me. Having never been on Weight Watchers before, I had to learn about the program and decided whether to do Flex or Core, and then figure out how I was going to track things. The Flex program is what most people seem to choose, and what you hear people talking about. Each food has a Points value, and you have a daily Points allowance that you are supposed to stick to.

I briefly but seriously considered the Core program, which in a nutshell allows you to eat as much as you need to feel satisfied from a list of permitted foods. I thought it would be easier to just eat off a list than to keep track of points, and figured it would actually be healthier anyway. But then I discovered that our family regularly eats foods that aren't on the list (like pasta), so I didn't think it would work for our lifestyle at all.

So I chose the Flex program and have been learning the Points values of different foods. The At-Work program includes the Weight Watchers E-Tools, which has an online Points tracker. I decided pretty much immediately that I would track my Points online, and am already dependent on E-Tools. I particularly like the Recipe Builder, which allowed me to input my granola recipe to determine the Points value. The initial results were frightening, but I tweaked the recipe a little bit. It didn't make a huge difference in points but it's a little lighter and makes an acceptable breakfast now. I'll share the revised recipe with you next week after I make it over the weekend. So stay tuned!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

One recall today: It's My Binky

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:

It’s MY Binky Recalls Personalized Pacifiers Due to Choking Hazard - Click through for a list of all of the phrases that were used.


As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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More on persistent frugality

A couple of months ago, I was running out of my moisturizer and wondered how persistent people generally are about getting the last of something out of a container. To control my rosacea, I use the moisturizer my dermatologist recommended, DML Forte. It isn't overly expensive, especially when compared with department store brands, but it's not cheap either - the best price I've seen is $11.49 at Drugstore.com. The real problem with it is that it's hard to get since most drugstores don't carry it and I have to go to the pharmacy at the medical building (although I'll keep getting it from Drugstore.com if I can get free shipping). This all explains why I was determined to get every bit of moisturizer out of the very hard plastic tube that it comes in.

Andrea offered the brilliant idea of cutting the tube open. It's so obvious and yet never would have occurred to me. A couple of days ago, nothing was coming out so I snipped the tube in half. And I'm still using what's left. I apply the moisturizer twice a day, so there were more than four applications left in the tube! We're still talking pennies worth of savings, of course, but since I use this moisturizer every day, year in and year out, those savings will add up. I open a new tube every two months, so if I get three or four days' worth of applications by cutting the tube, I will have saved myself a quarter tube or almost $3 every year. (Did I get that math right?) And that up over the years, and it's a real savings for minimal effort. Thanks so much for helping me get that remaining moisturizer, Andrea!

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Quick Giveaway: Luvs $1 off coupon

I signed up with Luvs a couple of weeks ago and they sent me some coupons, including a $1 off coupon to send to a friend. I will send it to the first person to email me at CFOblog[at]gmail[dot]com with their mailing address.

I've actually never tried Luvs myself, having found Pampers Cruisers to be so reliable. But one of the coupons that Luvs sent was for $5 off, so I'll be buying a package the next time I see them on sale. I'm not sure if the $5 coupon is still available, but you can still sign up with Luvs. Even if they're out of the $5 coupon, they will probably send out more coupons and offers in the future.

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Review: SwagBucks

Search & Win

Update 7/21/08: I didn't realize it when I originally drafted this review, but you can win $3 awards - I just got one. I also wanted to add that SwagBucks' search function uses Google and Ask.com, so the results are usually what you're looking for. If you signed up using my referral link, thank you and have fun!

One of my daily reads is My Good Cents, which includes a weekly update on "extra" money. I saw repeated references to a $5 Amazon.com gift certificate from a site called SwagBucks, so when the author posted this review, I was intrigued and finally signed up last month.

Swagbucks is super easy to use. All you have to do is register, sign in, and use their search function. (I've bookmarked the search page, but they also have a downloadable toolbar. I've already got more than enough toolbars, so I'm sticking with the bookmark.)

Each search is an opportunity to win random "Swag Bucks" in the amount of $1, $2 or $5. Swag Bucks can be redeemed for various prizes. Obviously, I was interested in the Amazon gift certificates, which are 45 Swag Bucks, but there are quite a few other prizes as well.

I hit that threshold last week, almost exactly one month after I registered. I immediately redeemed my 45 Swag Bucks for an Amazon certificate, which appeared by email within a couple of hours.

It's pretty effortless for something I will most definitely use. (And I would have spent that money at Amazon anyway.) I've found that on most days, I can earn a SwagBuck in the morning and another one at night. I get at least one Swag Buck each day, and average about five searches per award. It's worth noting that only your first 20 searches each day qualify for the random awards.

When you sign up, you'll get 5 Swag Bucks to get you started. And if you'd kindly use my referral link, I'll earn a Swag Buck every time you do. Thank you!

One last thing to keep in mind: SwagBucks is part of a larger search and win network, but the bucks don't seem to be transferrable. Prizes at SwagBucks' other sites cost more, so My Good Cents recommends that you stick with the main site.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

The Jardine crib recall is being handled poorly

Before I get into the recall, I have to give you a little background. When Alex was 18 months old and I was seven months pregnant with Tyler, I decided to cross my fingers that Alex would continue to sleep in his crib for at least another six months and bought a new crib for Tyler. (Actually, my generous in-laws bought the new crib, just as they had bought Alex's.) Needless to say, less than two weeks after we set up Tyler's crib, Alex climbed out of his. But Alex's crib converted to a toddler bed, and that's what he's slept in since that fateful day.

Fast forward almost two years. A few weeks ago, I reported that Jardine had recalled over 300,000 cribs . It wasn't until last Friday, when I was reading Freebies 4 Mom, that it finally registered that Tyler's crib was made by Jardine.* I immediately checked the model and date codes, and realized it was part of the recall. I then completed the online submission form to receive a voucher for a new crib.

Of course, the remedy per the CPSC press release announcing the recall states: "Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled cribs and contact Jardine to receive a full credit toward the purchase of a new crib." So we decided to get Alex a "real" bed and re-convert his bed back into a crib. It took all Sunday, but we did it. And Alex is thrilled. (Tyler, not so much. I think he was hoping to get Alex's bed as-is.)

Meanwhile, yesterday, I received a UPS envelope from Jardine, directing me to send them the mattress support hardware and identification label back to them in the enclosed envelope in order to receive my voucher. I couldn't believe it. Nothing at their recall page alerted me to the need to save anything from the crib. We had dismantled the crib on Sunday, and left the final large pieces on the curb for oversize pickup yesterday morning. And while we might have saved some of the screws, we didn't remove anything else from the crib during the dismantling process. (A copy of the letter enclosed in the UPS envelope is available on the web site, but the link leading to it simply says "review more detailed instructions." Nothing about it alerted us to the need to keep any hardware.)

If I actually needed the voucher now, I would be irate. Fortunately, I don't, so I am just writing about this here to warn other Jardine owners not to act hastily if your crib is part of the recall. I can understand the company's need to protect against fraudulent claims, but they need to inform customers who are completing the online submission form that they will need to send in parts of the crib to receive the voucher. I can't be the only proactive parent who didn't want to wait for a voucher.

As a side note, the Baby Bargains Book Blog is reporting that Babies R Us will honor the voucher for online purchases, but you need to front the cost and then get reimbursed. (Read their post for more details.)

*I never liked the Jardine crib much anyway. You could tell it was $100-200 cheaper than Alex's crib (I can't remember what brand it is, but I know they don't sell the same model anymore). The rail on the Jardine never went up and down smoothly, so there was no hope of laying a sleeping baby down and then quietly sliding the rail up. The wood also came off the slats with the slightest scraping, so there were a few spots where I had accidentally scratched off some wood and paint with my engagement ring. It's not hard to understand why the recall was for possible breakage of the slats and spindles. If I could do it over again, I definitely would have chosen a more expensive, better-made crib.

Image credit: cpsc.gov.

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The Cupcake Courier is $24.99 at Amazon.com

For months now, maybe even a year, I've had my eye on the Cupcake Courier.It's a nifty container with three stackable trays that hold 36 cupcakes. You can even remove the trays and use it as a cake carrier.

The Cupcake Courier is $24.99 today at Amazon's Friday Sale.It's eligible for Amazon Prime or free Super Saver Shipping (just add a small filler or something you would have bought anyway). This is the best price I've ever seen on the Cupcake Courier. Amazon's usual price is $29.99, and the Cupcake Courier is priced at $32.95 plus shipping and handling at the manufacturer's web site. (Disclosure: I'm an Amazon affiliate.)

If you already have a Cupcake Courier, please leave a comment and let us know what you think of it. I really want one but am trying to decide if it's worth the space it will take up in my small kitchen.

Image credit: Amazon.com.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Frugality vs. health (or, I’m joining Weight Watchers)

I’ve tried losing weight on my own. Many of you can probably relate. I am less than 10 pounds heavier than I was as a teenager, but I was not a svelte teen. In other words, I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life and I’m sick of it. I’ve made some good changes in the last few months, most notably making time for exercise again. While I’m not working out every day like I was back in the spring, I do exercise 3 to 4 times per week. And I can run 2 miles without a problem.

However, I could use some a lot of help with my eating. I’ve tried FitDay and even SparkPeople after some readers recommended it. But I have to be honest, I fall off the bandwagon pretty quickly.

I’ve thought about joining Weight Watchers many times. I considered the online program but felt my attitude towards it wouldn’t be any different that it was toward FitDay and SparkPeople. Yet as a mother of two young boys who works full-time, it’s impossible to find a minimum of 1 1/2 hours each week to attend a meeting without sacrificing something that’s very important to me.

And then I discovered that there’s a weekly meeting held in the office building where I work. I attended an open house session on Monday, and discovered that I liked the leader. The jury is still out on the other members - I was at least 10 years younger than the person closest to me in age, and more like 20 years younger than most of them, so I felt quite out of place. However, about halfway through the meeting, a woman about my age who looked fabulous came in, holding pictures of herself from two years ago, to show just how far she had come. It was inspiring, to say the least.

The cost for workplace meetings is different from plans held at Weight Watchers centers, so I’ll be paying $208 for 17 weeks, or $15 per session. That seems a little steep, but let’s be honest, nothing else has really worked for me. I’ve never done Weight Watchers before, and it’s obviously worked for other people, so I feel I have to give it a try.

Good health is one of those things I believe in spending money on. So I hope that this will be money that is more than well spent.

I was talking with a friend who is currently doing Weight Watchers and she mentioned something I noticed at the open house meeting: there’s an encouragement to eat whatever is low-calorie, even if it is fake or processed. Not surprisingly, the meeting leader was selling Weight Watchers food products, including nutrition bars and snacks. I was more surprised when she said she carries spray bottles of butter and salad dressing with her when she goes out to eat, and that she only buys low-fat, reduced calorie snacks for her children.

That’s not something I plan to do. I just need help learning to eat a few bites of cake instead of the whole piece. And I would rather have a few bites of the real thing than a big piece of fake cake. I also think the weekly meetings will serve as a huge motivator for me, which is what I need most of all. It’ll be a chance to re-commit each week to losing weight, with some guidance on how to make that happen.

One thing this means for CFO is more recipes. I don’t plan to change what I eat, except to add more fruit and vegetables, so I will have to focus on cutting back on how much I eat. And that means measuring, and that means I’m more likely to write down a recipe instead of just throwing it together like I usually do. I will probably also make more Cooking Light recipes, since I find them to be pretty reliable.

In the meantime, if you've done Weight Watchers before, I would love it if you would share your tips on making the most of the program in the comments. Thanks!

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rite Aid Single Check Rebate program update

As I mentioned earlier this month, June was the first time I took advantage of Rite Aid's Single Check Rebate program. I wanted to let you know I got my check today, about three weeks after I submitted my rebates. It's in postcard form, and arrived exactly when they said it would. I'm definitely using the SCR program again this month.

In fact, I've already picked up some free shampoo and toothpaste. And I'm going to stop by this week to get some Electrasol dishwasher detergent, which will actually result in a profit of $1.26.

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Review: Cranium Cariboo

For the last few nights at bedtime, Marc and I have been playing our first board game with Alex: Cranium Cariboo. He loves it and asks for it by name. We love it because it makes teaching him a little easier.

The basic concept is fairly simple. The "board" is a box with 15 small doors that flip open when you use a key. At the beginner's level, each door has one to four pictures in one of four shapes in one of four colors, as well as the word describing what's depicted in the picture. There are six small brightly-colored rubber balls that you put in the box; they roll around and settle under six of the doors. When you pull a card from the set, you'll get a number, letter, color or shape. You select a door that corresponds to the card, open it, and look for a ball. If there's a ball, you slip it into a tunnel on the right side of the board. The sixth ball causes the little treasure chest at the end of the tunnel to open, so whoever finds the sixth ball is the winner.

There are two sets of cards, one for "beginners" and one for "advanced" players. We've been playing with the beginner cards because they have the shapes, and Alex has been having a bit of trouble identifying a triangle.

When we started playing this game, Alex already knew his letters and numbers, so we'll be moving up to the advanced cards as soon as he masters the triangle. We have Alex spell out the words underneath the colors, shapes and numbers, so he practices his lower-case letters and the sound each letter makes while we play. However, I think you could also use the game to teach letters and numbers to a child who doesn't know them yet, it would just be a slow process.

Cariboo is for players age 3 and older. You can buy it for $16.98 from Amazon.com(I think shipping is $6.97). Or you can buy it for $16.95 from Drugstore.com, and shop through Ebates to get 6% cash back (making it $15.93). Drugstore.com also has a couple of free shipping deals. (Disclosure: I'm an Amazon affiliate. And if you sign up for Ebates and make a purchase by August 15 using my referral link, we'll both get $10. You can read my Ebates review for more information about my favorite shopping portal.)

Now that Alex is playing board games, we're looking for more. What game does (or did) your preschooler like to play?

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Sell your stuff at Amazon.com Marketplace: Part One - An overview

I wrote about Amazon.com Marketplace when I first started selling our used books there, but I thought it was time to revisit the topic since I've been selling there for three years now.

What is Amazon.com Marketplace? If you shop at Amazon, you've probably noticed the "Used & New" price option on most pages. If you click on that option, you're taken to a page with a list of sellers who are selling that particular item. The list includes each seller's price, the condition of the item, the seller's feedback rating, and hopefully a description of the item. This list is the Marketplace page for the item. And the sellers are usually a mix of businesses, who find customers at Amazon, and individuals, many of whom are like me and simply having their garage sale online.

My favorite thing about Marketplace is that you set your own price and wait for someone to decide to pay it. Unlike eBay, there's no listing fee, no auction, and no calculation of shipping costs. Amazon sets the shipping charges and gives you a shipping credit. The fees you pay to Amazon are higher than what you would pay to eBay, but with Amazon, you only pay a fee if your item sells.

You can also ensure your profit by pricing your item accordingly. Amazon makes this easy by telling you what you will receive if the item sells during the listing process. The amount you receive from Amazon includes the shipping credit but not the actual shipping cost. More than once, I have gotten to the "confirm your listing" page and realized that after paying for shipping, my net profit would be so small, it would be a better use of my time to simply donate it.

My least favorite thing about selling on Amazon is that a sold item must be shipped within two business days. Shipping for me means a trip to the post office, since I sell only books, CDs, DVDs, and video games, and U.S. mail is the cheapest way of shipping these items. (If you're selling these types of items, you should definitely learn about Medial Mail rates.) Items over 13 ounces must be delivered to a post office employee, and can't simply be dropped in a mailbox or even left at the counter with adequate postage already affixed (unless your post office is different from mine).

Since heavier books require waiting in line, something that's not always convenient, I usually do a cost-benefit analysis when my net profit after shipping charges would be low. If the item does not require a wait in line, I'll usually complete the listing. But if I have to wait in line, my profit must be at least $5.

Another thing I like is that I can list an item whenever I want, put it aside, and wait for someone to buy it. Listings expire after 90 days, but Amazon will send you an email to let you know that a listing has expired and include a link to relist the item with just a couple of clicks.

When I first started listing books on Amazon, Marc and I went through our bookshelves and sold about half of our books. One corner of our office was just filled with stacks of books, but over a period of about six months, the stacks gradually disappeared and I had a few hundred dollars in the bank from the online equivalent of a garage sale. Ever since then, I've had a grocery bag under my desk containing the items that are currently listed for sale, and every once in a while, I'll get a "Sold, ship now" email from Amazon.

In Part Two of this series, I'll share some listing and shipping tips that I've acquired in the last three years, so stay tuned!

Update: Part Two: Listing Your Item and Part Three: Shipping.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Passport photos for pennies

If you've ever paid for a passport photo, you know that they can run $10 or more for only two little pictures. Enter ePassportPhoto.com. For no charge, they will take a picture that you've taken yourself and format it to create a 4x6 image file that contains six 2x2 photos. You can then print the new file as you would any 4x6 photo - and, as most moms know, you can print a 4x6 photo for as little as 9 cents. Just make sure you follow the directions for taking the photo, including specifics about background and white space. And if you're not an American citizen, check them out anyway - they can generate photos that meet the requirements of more than 60 countries. Did I mention that the conversion service is free?

I haven't used ePassportPhoto.com myself, but if you do, I'd love to know how it worked for you.

Image credit: NewBedford360.com.

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Not as good as homemade, but better than fast food

For years now, I've subscribed to The Dollar Stretcher's weekly tips newsletter and have collected quite a few great tips. I was a little surprised to read a tip from a mom who did a little price checking and discovered that "crust-less sandwiches" (I'm assuming she was referring to Smuckers' Uncrustables), tubes of yogurt, and juice boxes are a lot cheaper than fast food.

I've always avoided the pre-packaged foods for health reasons, but as I've admitted previously, we do end up getting fast food a few times a week for meals on the go - usually when the boys are extremely restless and it would be stressful to make them wait for me to prepare something healthy. I am going to be more open-minded now about pre-packaged foods, since I don't think they're less healthy than the fast food we've been eating, and I'm all for saving money. I can probably find really good deals since I'm using coupons more, too. Now I just have to figure out what my kids can/will eat.

I get free loaves of bread that are about to expire when I buy a certain amount at the bread outlet. I always make peanut butter sandwiches and freeze them (thanks, Cleverdude!), so I won't be buying Uncrustables. But I need ideas that go beyond PB&J since Tyler is still too young for peanut butter. Any suggestions?

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Three recalls today: A variety of jewelry

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Extreme money-saving tip: Cook in your car

Last year, I saw a Serious Eats post about a woman who baked cookies on her dashboard. And today, Serious Eats posted about a man who cooked salmon en papillote in his car's engine. Apparently, there's even a book devoted to this cooking method: Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine.

I have to admit, I'm tempted to try baking cookies in my car. The weather certainly gets hot enough here that I could do it. But I park in a garage almost all the time, so I probably won't go out of my way to do this.

On the other hand, if money was very, very tight, I would consider cooking in my car as a cost-saving measure.

Would you?

Image credit: BakingBites.com.

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Fake coupons cost everyone

For the last couple months, as I've really gotten into The Drugstore Game, I've been lurking on some coupon sites like A Full Cup and Hot Coupon World. They are wonderful resources, and I love finding out about deals and reading about others' great shopping experiences. But with the good comes the bad, and for each great shopping tale, it seems there's another tale of frustration or worse.

If you shop with coupons, you know what I'm talking about: cashiers and managers who don't know what the corporate coupon policy is* and even worse, employees who treat coupon users rudely. I've read some stunning stories about cashiers accusing customers with coupons of theft or making negative comments about coupons to other customers.

Companies need to make a greater effort to train their employees about coupon use. I can understand why they don't, because I don't often see another customer with coupons (let alone a folder full of coupons) no matter where I shop - Target, CVS, Ralphs, etc. In fact, the nicest cashier at my favorite Walgreens has told me I'm his most amazing customer, even though I know someone like Mercedes could do even better. It's not that cashiers act like they've never seen coupons, so I know other customers must use them. But in the big picture of corporate profits, proportionally we're not that big a group, so catering to coupon-wielding customers isn't that high on the priority list.

What does get upper management's attention is coupon fraud. Over the last two or three weeks, I've been reading about Target's evolving coupon policy stemming from the printable $5 off $25 toy purchase coupon that I posted over at CFO Reviews a few months ago. I noticed a month or so ago that the coupon was no longer available, so I took the sidebar link down but didn't think much of it. Then I read that someone had altered the toy coupon to look like a general merchandise coupon, and that was where all the problems had started. Target's powers that be have understandably ruled that the printable $5 off $25 coupons can no longer be accepted.

Unfortunately, many Target employees don't seem to understand the ruling and it looks like management isn't doing a very good job explaining the limitations. I've read many stories of cashiers and even managers refusing to accept any printable coupons, even if they are right off the Target web site. In fact, when I was at Target last week, the cashier took my printable Archer Farms frozen pizza coupons to a supervisor to make sure she could take them. (Archer Farms is a Target store brand, and I was eventually permitted to use the coupons.)

I just don't get the mentality of people who would blatantly try to defraud and steal from anyone, regardless of whether it's a person or a company. It took some serious forethought to actually alter that toy purchase coupon. Coupon fraud is becoming such a serious problem that ABC News just did a story about it.

It's probably not going to happen, but I hope that the person who altered that toy coupon is found and prosecuted. And I hope that the awareness of coupon fraud translates not into suspicion of coupon users but knowledge and understanding of how coupons work. That would make shopping at stores a lot more pleasant for both the cashiers and the customers.

*Encountering employees who just don't "get" coupons can be extremely frustrating. About two months ago at Target, the cashier flatly refused to let me stack a Target coupon with a Pampers coupon, insisting that I had to use one or the other. I would have asked her to call over a manager, but there was a line behind me, and Marc was waiting with the kids, so I just told her to take all of the items off my order. I ended up using my coupons at a different Target!

Image credit: MarthaStewart.com.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Movie Ticket Winner

Thank you to everyone who entered the movie ticket giveaway. Congratulations to the lucky random winner ...

[forfeited]

You have 48 hours to email me at cfoblog [at] gmail [dot] com with your mailing address.

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Dinner Making Tip: Use your slow cooker!

This isn't a new tip, but with the 100 degree weather we've had lately here in Southern California, it's worth repeating:

Your slow cooker is your friend.

On Monday, I made Turkey Sloppy Joes in the slow cooker. I bring this up because several of my colleagues were openly admiring the leftovers that I had for lunch on Tuesday. I adapted my usual recipe for the crockpot by browning two pounds of ground turkey on Sunday afternoon, draining it, and transferring it to the crock. I doubled the rest of the ingredients and added them to the turkey, along with 1 to 1 1/2 cups of chicken broth. (The sauce is thick, and I didn't want it to burn.) The I put the lid on and put the whole crock in the fridge. On Monday morning, I popped the crock in and turned it to low. The sloppy joes cooked for 11 hours. When we got home, I removed the lid to let some of the extra moisture escape. (The long cooking time is perfectly fine with this dish; the meat just gets really tender.) Because I made a double batch, three of us took this for lunch (Alex isn't crazy about this so he had leftover pizza from Sunday) and there was still enough left over to freeze for another meal.

This methodology works with many (maybe most?) slow cooker recipes, making weeknight dinners super easy.

And that's my Works for Me Wednesday tip: Use your slow cooker!

Incidentally, thanks to Mommy Making Money, I've discovered a very cool site called A Year of Crockpotting. Steph is using her crockpot every day this year and blogging about it, so she's got a ton of recipes on her site. (And she's on today's Rachael Ray show!) She's putting together a best-of list, but in the meantime, here are a few that she pointed out to me that I'll be making in the next few weeks:
For more Works for Me Wednesday tips, head over to Rocks in my Dryer.

Image credit: Amazon.com - West Bend 4-Quart Slow Cooker (affiliate link - I love this slow cooker!).

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sunscreen isn't enough protection - you need clothing too

Since my kids looooove spending time outdoors, and especially love being in the pool, I was rather disturbed by a report today that sunscreen isn't that effective in preventing sun damage. A study by environmental group EWG shows that the most popular sunscreens (Coppertone, Banana Boat and Neutrogena) are the least effective, and that the best protection is clothing. So, I'll be buying new sunscreen for the family, probably the CVS Sunblock with Zinc Oxide, which is on EWG's list of recommended sunscreens.

Am I overreacting? Probably, but we do have a bit of a history of skin cancer in the family, and we are all extremely fair. I'd much rather be safe than sorry. And even though we don't need new sunblock (I bought a couple of sticks last week during the Coppertone deal at CVS), at least their store brand is less than $5. And there is a deal this week for buy one, get one 50% off on CVS brand suncare. Plus, there is a $2 off CVS brand skincare coupon and a $1 off CVS suncare coupon that that can be used for the transaction.

Thanks to Mommy Making Money for the coupon links!
Image credit: CVS.com.

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City of Los Angeles Sanitation Department Open House

We've been to a lot of open houses since Alex was old enough to enjoy them, including three or four at various fire departments and one at a local airport. But the best open house of all was a couple of weeks ago at the Sanitation Department Depot in West LA. And I would be saying this even if Alex wasn't obsessed with garbage trucks and anything related to them.

The open house was a smash hit from the get-go. We arrived a few minutes before it was scheduled to start, because we're early risers and we wanted to make sure we beat the crowd. I was both stunned and delighted that they were actually ready for us and let us in without hesitation.

There were a variety of trucks all in a progressive line. A driver came over and acted as our "tour guide." He explained the different garbage trucks and let Alex climb up into the one that he drove and had a key for. We followed the line of trucks to a line of garbage bins, where someone explained how to get them repaired or replaced. Then we viewed the repair truck that goes out to rescue trucks and drivers with mechanical problems out on the road, and the man in charge of the mechanics and on-site garage gave us a little tour. There was also a set-up where the kids could push a button that activated the compactor in the back of a truck.

Once the tour was over, we headed for some information tables, where city workers explained about recycling and clean water and handed out goodies. Then, we picked up free hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, soda, water and cookies. And then we got in line to ride a small garbage truck around the yard.

I wish I had pictures, but we were so focused on making sure the kids were having a good time that we didn't take any. One of the best things about the open house was that all of the workers were just happy people. They clearly enjoyed their jobs - especially the drivers. I'd like to thank all of them for truly the best open house we've ever been to.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Is it good or bad to be a state employee in Utah?

CNN/Money reported last week that Utah is putting state employees on a compressed workweek. Employees will work 10 hours per day Monday through Thursday and get Fridays off (with obvious exceptions, like police officers and prison guards).* Employees will get the same pay (which makes sense, since they're still working 40 hours per week), and theoretically, they will also save on the cost of gas since they don't have to drive in to work. But I suspect that much of those savings will be canceled out by the errands they run on Fridays.

The four-day workweek program is a one-year experiment to save $3 million in energy costs, which is .00027% of Utah's annual $11 billion budget. I guess it's $3 million that can now be spent elsewhere (or not collected in taxes), but it seems like a fairly paltry amount considering the impact it's going to have on residents.

Residents will no longer be able to conduct ordinary business with the state on Fridays - I'm guessing that means no driver's license renewals or visits to the state tax board, for example. And for the employees, it means their kids will be in daycare for two additional hours on Monday through Thursday, and possibly other inconveniences such as a longer commute due to driving at a time when there's more traffic. And a 10-hour workday can be exhausting.

On the other hand, wouldn't it be nice to have a three-day weekend every week? The article discusses all the things state employees plan to do on their extra day off, like golf or take the kids to the zoo. (The article doesn't say what adjustments are made for weeks when there is a holiday.)

So, would you be happy if your employer put you on compressed workweek schedule?

*Another exception to the compressed workweek is "state-run liquor stores," which will remain open on Fridays. There are "state-run liquor stores"?

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Drugstore Game Burnout

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago over at CFO Reviews that I had gone to CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid in one week, prompting Gina to caution me against doing too much and burning out on The Drugstore Game. She definitely has a point.

The Drugstore Game is a lot of fun, but it can also be a lot of work organizing coupons, studying the circulars, and reading deals online. And of course, after everything is planned, you still have to get to the stores. If they don't have what you planned to buy, you have to re-work your deals, get a rain check, or head to a different store.

For me, though, all of this is still loads of fun. It really is a game to see how much I can buy for the smallest amount of money possible. I get a real kick out of it. And as I've mentioned before, time isn't that big an issue with me. I clip and organize coupons while the kids are playing, I skim the deals when I'm on the computer anyway, and I usually hit the drugstores on the way to or from somewhere or when the kids and I need to get out of the house and go somewhere.

One of the many wonderful things about The Drugstore Game is that you can pick and choose how and when you want to play. You can focus on just the one or two stores closest to you, you don't have to go every week, and you can even take a break for a couple of weeks or months if you've built up a nice stash.

The key to avoiding burnout in The Drugstore Game is making it work for you.

Do you agree?

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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Using Rite Aid's Single Check Rebate program for the first time + this week's deals

June was the first time I used Rite Aid's Single Check Rebate program. At the beginning of the month, I bought two bottles of Head & Shoulders and one Aquafresh toothpaste. The Head & Shoulders were 2 for $8 with an SCR of $4, and I had a Buy One, Get One Free coupon from the June 1 P&G circular, making them free after SCR. The toothpaste was also free after SCR, and I had a $1 off coupon, so I'll actually make $1 after the SCR.

I submitted my information online and was extremely pleased with how easy it was. It took no time at all to register, and after I logged in, all I had to do was enter information from the receipt into three fields and click "submit" a couple of times. I then got a screen that said my check would be sent in two to three weeks. It really couldn't have been easier, so I was really impressed.

In fact, between the ease of the SCR program and the good customer service I received last month, I am a Rite Aid convert. I've been checking their circulars every week, and this week found three items that are free after SCR:
While you're at Rite Aid, keep an eye out for a magazine-size booklet. I can't remember what it's called, but it was on the back of the stand where the weekly circulars are. The booklet contains one page of Rite Aid store coupons that might come in handy.

And for more about this month's Rite Aid rebates, head over to Hooray for Free-bates.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy 4th of July!

One of our favorite books to read with Alex is the one pictured here: Lane Smith's award-winner, John, Paul, George & Ben.The art is great, the story is great, and it's somewhat educational. There is a short and irreverent vignette about each Founding Father - John Hancock, Paul Revere, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. John Hancock, for example, is shown writing his name in huge letters on a chalkboard in elementary school.

So yesterday, Marc was explaining the significance of July 4th to Alex. He gave a rough description of King George and taxes, and explained how Jefferson ("Independent Tom") wrote the Declaration of Independence. And then, as Marc explained that John was the first of many leading colonists to sign the Declaration, the courage of these men really struck me.

I probably haven't reflected on American history much since my U.S. History class in college. But it was truly remarkable what these men did, putting pen quills to paper and just daring the English to kill them and quash their independence. And after they won the revolution, they didn't stop. They went on to craft the Constitution and our system of government, which, while not perfect, is better than any other system out there. I'm so proud and grateful to be an American.

God bless America.

P.S. My sentimentality might be attributed to the novel I'm currently reading for my book club, Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club.It's a murder mystery set in the late 1800's, with famous poets as the main characters and Dante's Divine Comedy as a primary plot point. I'm about halfway through - the first 100 pages or so were exceedingly slow, but the last 100+ pages have gone quickly and I'm quite curious to find out what happens next.

Image credit: Amazon.com - John, Paul, George & Ben(affiliate link).

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Two recalls today: Toy chests & more jewelry

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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Bento Example #1: Chicken patty with grapes, cheese and animal crackers

A while back, I mentioned that I was going to stop buying school lunches for Alex and start packing his lunches myself. It's been going well, but I'm usually too rushed in the morning to grab the camera. I did manage to get a shot of this one and wanted to share how I put it together.

The contents are:
1 Ian's frozen chicken patty
1 container sweet & sour sauce (from fast food chicken nuggets)
2 packets ketchup
1 string cheese
halved red grapes
4-5 animal crackers

Alex likes these chicken patties, so I try to keep some on hand in the freezer for when I don't have leftovers to pack. I packed this one in a large paper baking cup (for jumbo size muffins), tucked the sweet and sour sauce container and ketchup packets next to it, and laid the string cheese right on top. Off to the side, I filled a silicone baking cup with halved red grapes, and put a few animal crackers into another silicone baking cup.

The night before school, I cut the grapes and wrapped the silicone baking cup in some plastic wrap to keep the grapes contained during transit. I packed the lunch in the morning in a basic reusable plastic container. It went into the refrigerator when we got to school, and his teachers microwaved the patty before giving it to Alex.

Alex would devour the grapes and animal crackers in a heartbeat, so I have a deal with his teachers that they give him the "main course" first. After he's eaten a decent amount of that, he gets his fruit and then "dessert" (the animal crackers). If he doesn't eat most of his lunch, he doesn't get the animal crackers.

I use silicone baking cups in just about every lunch that I pack for the boys. They make great dividers and really keep the food separate. I got a pack of one dozen at Target for $5.99 a few months ago.

Much of my bento inspiration comes from Lunch in a Box, so if you want more lunch ideas, I highly recommend heading there.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Giveaway: Movie Ticket


I won a movie ticket from a Dr. Pepper/Indiana Jones promotion, and I want to give it away to one of you! It's a Fandango ticket, so you just go to their web site, enter your zip code to find a participating theater, and claim your ticket with the code that I will give to you.

At least, I think that's how it works. I've never used Fandango before, but it appears that the code will work for any movie that's playing at an eligible theater. But I make no guarantees!

So, here's how you can enter to win: Simply leave a comment telling me what your favorite movie (or your child's favorite movie) is and why.

For an extra chance to win, subscribe to my feed via RSS or email and leave a separate comment telling me you have done so (or that you're already subscribed).

And for a third chance to win, write about this giveaway on your own site, then leave me a separate comment with a link to your post.
It's important that you leave a separate comment for each type of entry because each comment constitutes one entry.

The giveaway ends at 6:00 p.m. PDT on Monday, July 7. I'll use Random.org to generate a number that corresponds with the winning comment.

The winner will be announced here on CFO. The winner will have 48 hours to claim their prize; otherwise a new winner will be randomly selected.

One entry per type per person. Note that the ticket redemption code is not valid in VT, NE and NH. The code must be redeemed by 10/31/08.

Good luck!

Image credit: Amazon.com - Check Ticket Roll(affiliate link).

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Five-ingredient recipe: Pommes Anna

This recipe is adapted from a Cooking Light version. Alas, my version may no longer qualify as "light" since I found it necessary to increase the amount of butter. But at least it's absolutely delicious. I also make a Passover version of this recipe (with olive oil instead of butter).

Pommes Anna
Serves 8

1 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
5 tablespoons good quality unsalted butter, divided
3 pounds peeled baking potatoes, cut into 1/8-inch-thick slices
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, optional

1. Preheat oven to 450°. Combine salt and pepper in a small bowl.

2. Spread 2 tablespoons of butter on the bottom of a 10-inch cast-iron or ovenproof heavy skillet over medium heat. Arrange a single layer of potato slices, slightly overlapping, in a circular pattern in pan; sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt mixture. Drizzle 1 teaspoon butter over potatoes. Repeat the layers 5 times, ending with oil. Press down firmly to pack the potatoes together. (Note: You can also make this in a 12-inch skillet for a thinner, crispier pie.)

3. Cover and bake at 450° for 20 minutes.

4. Uncover and bake an additional 25 minutes or until potatoes are golden. Loosen edges of potatoes with a spatula. Place a plate upside down on top of pan; invert potatoes onto plate. Sprinkle with parsley, if desired.

Find more five-ingredients-or-less recipes at Rocks In My Dryer.

Image credit: MyRecipes.com.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Two recalls today: Sleepers & cars

If you think you have the following item(s), click through to the CPSC press release for more details:As always, I highly recommend signing up for recall notifications by email at the CPSC web site.

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How I paid zero dollars out of pocket at CVS in June

Yesterday, I revealed that I didn't spend any money at CVS out of pocket in June, thanks to gift cards and ECBs. Here's how I did it:

ECBs
The foundation of playing The Drugstore Game at CVS is, of course, ECBs, or ExtraCare Bucks. ECBs are store coupons that print at the end of your receipt when you've purchased qualifying products. For example, in June, Listerine SmartRinse was $3.49 and free after ECBs, meaning you got a $3.49 ECB at the end of your receipt when you purchased a SmartRinse. You could use that ECB on any future purchase.

Coupons
Coupons and ECBs really go hand in hand. Coupons can turn a good ECB deal into a "money maker," meaning that after you take the coupon and ECB into account, you will actually "make" money on the item. In the SmartRinse example above, there were $1 off coupons available, making the purchase price $2.49 with $3.49 in ECBs. You basically "made" $1 that you could spend on anything you wanted at CVS.

Gift cards
Free gift cards are a great way to avoid paying out of pocket at CVS. I've written plenty about MyPoints and how you can redeem points for CVS gift cards. You can also get gift cards with coupons when you fill prescriptions at CVS. Sometimes coupons print at the end of a receipt. Some stores accept competitor coupons, and transferred prescription coupons are generally easy to find (my Rite Aid circular always seems to have one for $30).

Pulling it together
Of course, the real trick to saving money at CVS is using all of the above in combination, along with sale prices. I rely on the sources I've mentioned before to let me know of upcoming sales and to give me scenario ideas. I've also become quite good at figuring out my own deals to buy the things that I want and need. It took me about two to three months to really get the hang of figuring out deals at CVS. I may not have saved as much money as I'm saving now, but I still saved a lot during that time. So don't expect perfection from yourself - just play The Drugstore Game and have a good time with it!

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