So, if you’re like me, you realize at the last minute that an important occasion is about to happen for a friend or family member and you haven’t purchased a gift yet. Oftentimes, this can result in expensive first-class shipping costs and paying full price for something you could’ve gotten at a much better deal with a clearer head. I don’t think it’s “cheap” to plan things ahead of time and get a great deal on something you’d otherwise be shelling out big bucks for. So here are some strategies for gifting on a budget impressing recipients:
No present is complete without some sort of wrapping or adornment. Here’s another thing I’m really bad at – presenting my gift recipient with a beautiful package. In fact, I usually haphazardly wrap my gifts just moments before handing them over. But no more! I searched Amazon for all the foreseeably necessary materials in my quest to be a better gifter:
Purchasing all of these materials ahead of time through Amazon saved me from running to a specialty store and paying a huge markup. Amazon always has the best deals on things like this.
Amazon Wish List
So speaking of Amazon, they offer an awesome solution for saving ideas for later when you find the perfect gift but aren’t ready to purchase it just yet. By creating a “Gifts”-themed wish list, you can track pricing over time, and Amazon will even alert you when prices go down. Plus it takes the panic out of gift-giving when you’re passively collecting ideas over a period of time. Pinterest is also good for this same purpose.
Purchase for Yourself, Purchase for Others
So in addition to having a supply of the proper gifting materials, I also have been growing my supply of gifts to give. A good friend once told me that whenever she goes to the grocery store, she buys a bottle of wine. Not for herself – she attends a lot of parties and wants to bring an affordable/welcome hostess gift. What an awesome idea! Since a lot of the people I buy gifts for are women, I keep their tastes in mind as I shop for myself. Places like Baublebar have sales all the time. I could pay $10 for a piece of jewelry that’s normally $30-40. And it’s high-quality stuff! I buy it for myself all the time. So when Baublebar has these sales, I buy extra pieces for people who I think would enjoy them. You can apply this same line of thinking to any stores you enjoy that have awesome sales periodically.
Remember how I told you about the friend who’s always well stocked with wine? My final suggestion is a cool new company I recently found called Glassful. Glassful allows you to send a three-pack of wine to the person of your choice for as little as $45 including shipping (and going up from there). You can send all reds, all whites, or a mix. It’s an affordable way to celebrate someone and appear to be a classy gift giver.
Obviously this is not an exhaustive list of gift-giving possibilities. What are your tips for gift-giving on a budget?
Before we get started here, yes, I know you know about Ragstock. I know that’s where you get all your purple flannel shirts and American-flag-print tank tops. It has taken over as the number one place for twenty-somethings to go when they need new threads. And not for nothing—Ragstock features a great selection, friendly employees, and relatively low prices.
But you’re still spending too much if you do all your shopping there.
Yes, friends, it is possible to complete your quest for fresh menswear without the help of Ragstock. Come with me and allow me to expand your horizons, and save you money while you do it.
Your first step when buying clothing should be making a list. I know, it’s boring and lame and I sound like your mom. Do it anyway. Anybody who goes to Target for a case of beer and leaves with a gigantic beanbag chair, Captain America graphic t-shirt, and Pikachu piggy bank knows that having a plan can help avoid spending more than you have budgeted out. List off items you need, and then items you want, or could use more of. That way, if you see something you dig that’s off script, you can at least make a note of it and keep that kind of thing to a minimum.
The second step is optional, but before I go shopping, I usually make note of the color of some of my favorite clothing items, and take a look at a color wheel. This website goes over some basic color theory, and is worth a quick read, but suffice it to say that when figuring out which clothes go with each other, a color wheel can help a lot. Similar colors are next to each other, while complementary colors are opposite each other on the wheel. Contrasting colors are separated by three colors on the wheel. Again, having an in-depth knowledge of color theory isn’t necessary for you to look fresh, but it definitely helps.
So, where do you shop? Good question. Depends what you’re looking for.
Elliott Consignment is a great menswear place, offering name brand consignment items that skew preppier or more business-casual. You’ll find boat shoes, polo shirts, and shorts with little palm trees on them. Prices range, but since it’s consignment, you won’t be paying much more than $20 for a nice dress shirt. Plus, this is a great place to unload any clothes you want to sell.
If you’re looking for something more casual, Plato’s Closet and Crossroads both sell new and used items more geared towards everyday style, and in my experience, both offer lower prices than Ragstock for items that aren’t, like, old band t-shirts. The only issue is that the menswear department in both of these stores is fairly small. You may have to hop around a bit if you’re looking for something in particular. Both of these stores will also take in-season clothes off your hands and send you away with cash.
The problem with all of these options is that if you’re looking for something in particular, it’s always going to be a crapshoot. And while shopping for clothing online is always a bit more stressful, given that you’re never really sure whether or not things will fit just right, there is a time and a place for it.
Enter JackThreads. They sell all new clothing, so some of it will skew pricey, but once you sign up, you’ll start receiving emails from them to tell you that oh, by the way, all suits are 50% off today.
If you’re looking for, say, a mint greenshorts suit, it’s worth signing up for JackThreads’ email alerts, because more than likely, it’ll go on sale and you’ll be able to pick it up for like 60 bucks. I have personally bought 3 suits and 3 dress shirts from JackThreads and the total was a little bit over 200 dollars. Oh, and most of their items are fully returnable for either cash or store credit in case things don’t fit just right. If you can be patient, it’s worth monitoring your emails to see if the site is having a sale on something you need, because chances are, they will. Just know that if you’re looking for something super fancy, like a 100% wool suit, you’ll need to be prepared to spend a bit. They don’t really have much of it, and what they do have doesn’t often go on sale.
Or, hell, you can just go to Ragstock. I know you will anyway.
It’s a cliché on every dating profile ever written: “I love to travel.” But for most of us, it really is true. The big catch is that traveling is expensive. But it doesn’t have to be! The key is to take advantage of introductory offers that credit card companies use to get your business.
First, a caveat. This is only for people that can use credit cards responsibly. If you don’t pay off your bill every month, this isn’t for you. The interest rates on these credit cards will eat you alive. The credit card companies are counting on some applicants paying them a lot of interest—that’s why they offer these great introductory offers. But if you can trust yourself to use credit responsibly, there’s no reason you can’t travel for almost free. And travel in style.
The Best Credit Card Rewards for Free Travel
The 2 biggest expenses when traveling are usually airfare and lodging. Here’s how you can use introductory credit card offers to practically eliminate both expenses.
Like Sinatra said, Chicago is my kind of town. Besides street festivals, North Avenue Beach, and the Hangge Uppe, Chicago is also a hub for United Airlines (UA) and American Airlines (AA). This works out perfectly because those two have perhaps the best frequent flyer programs in the world if you want to fly internationally. The critical reason UA and AA have great frequent flyer programs is they don’t pass on fuel surcharges when you book an award ticket through them, even if the ticket is on one of their partner airlines (Star Alliance for UA, OneWorld for AA). On many other frequent flyer programs across the world, you can book a supposedly free roundtrip flight but still end up paying $500 to $1,000 in fuel surcharges. What’s free about that?
Collecting UA and AA miles is pretty straightforward with introductory credit card offers. These credit card offers require you to spend a certain amount of money within a certain amount of time in order to get the bonus. I would recommend getting the cards one at a time and focusing all your spending against the card until you’ve hit the bonus requirement. Then move on to the next card.
Length of Time
Chase Ink Plus business card
50K Chase Ultimate Rewards. Has been as high as 70K in past.
$95, waived first year
Chase Sapphire Preferred Personal Card
40K Chase Ultimate Rewards plus an additional 5K for adding an authorized user
$95, waived first year
Chase United MileagePlus Explorer business card
50K United miles
$95, waived first year
Chase United MileagePlus Explorer personal card
30K United milesplus an additional 5K for adding an authorized user. Has been as high as 50K in past and targeted offers of 50K are frequent
$95, waived first year
Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select personal card
50K American miles.
$95, waived first year
CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select business card
50K American miles.
$95, waived first year
A few things worth pointing out in this chart:
Chase Ultimate Rewards are transferrable 1:1 to UA miles. They’re also transferrable to a lot of other programs (like Southwest) so they’re better than UA miles.
A few of these are business cards. The credit card companies are really lax about giving out business credit cards to people with not much of a business to show. Maybe you’d like to start walking dogs on occasion for a few extra bucks. That’s a business! Maybe you’ve started a blog that you intend to put advertising on someday. That’s a business! You don’t even need revenue yet. You can read more about getting business cards without much of a business here.
These cards all have annual fees, but they’re waived for the first year. Just be sure and cancel the cards before the annual fee is due.
If you were to get all 6 of these cards, the introductory bonuses alone would net you 95K Chase
Ultimate Rewards (which can be transferred 1:1 to UA miles), 85K UA miles, and 100K AA miles. Not to mention that all these cards also earn at least 1 mile/point for every dollar spent—that’s another 18K miles/points you’ll get from completing the introductory offers. Suffice to say, this is a ton of miles and can get you anywhere in the world!
Airfare is half the battle, but lodging can really add up, too. Especially if you don’t want to sleep in a 20 bunk bed dormitory where the smell can best be described as “sweaty dude mixed with cheap tequila mixed with broken condoms.” Fortunately, there are some great hotel credit cards that let you get your Z’s for free. Here’s a few of my favorites:
Length of Time
Chase Hyatt personal card
2 free nights at any Hyatt in the world
$75, waived first year
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest personal card
$65, waived first year
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest business card
10K Starpoints with first purchase and add’l 15K Starpoints after meeting minimum spend
$65, waived first year
Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve personal card
2 free weekend nights at any Hilton in the world
The Hyatt one is my favorite…it’s a low minimum spend and you get 2 free nights at any Hyatt in the world. There are several hotels where the rate you would pay is over $500 a night and sometimes over $1,000 a night! The Starwood cards are great, too. Starpoints are really valuable—you can often stay in nice hotels for 10K Starpoints a night (Starwood has such hotel brands as W, Le Meridien, Westin, Aloft, St Regis, and Sheraton). While the Citi Hilton card is limited to weekend nights (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday), you’ve got the same opportunity as with the Hyatt—stay in a really expensive, luxurious hotel you could never afford normally. The Hilton card does have a $95 annual fee that is not waived for the first year. I should point out that there are a few exclusions from both the Hyatt and Hilton free night list that you can find online—it’s unlikely this will cramp your style.
Putting it All Together
So this all sounds good on paper, but how about a real life example of how you could travel in style for close to free with just a few cards? Let’s say you and a companion want to go to Tokyo and Kyoto at the beginning of April next year to see the famous cherry blossoms. Each of you signs up and completes the introductory bonuses for the following 4 cards, all of which have their annual fee waived for the first year:
Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select personal card
CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select business card
American Express Starwood Preferred personal card
Chase Hyatt personal card
Just from the introductory bonuses, you each have 100K AA miles, 25K Starpoints, and 2 free nights at any Hyatt. You can fly from Chicago to Tokyo in business class for 100K AA miles during off-peak times (off-peak for Japan is defined as 10/1 – 4/30). I found lots of flight options when searching for 100K mile roundtrip award tickets—here’s one example.
You get to fly first class on the domestic flights between Chicago and Dallas and business class on the trans-Pacific flights between Dallas and Tokyo. If you’ve never flown business class, it makes all the difference in the world! You get good food, free booze, and a much bigger seat that reclines enough for you to actually get some sleep. In short, you can arrive at your destination without feeling like the piece of gum stuck to the bottom of some unlucky bastard’s shoe. The total cost of your ticket: $49.70 in taxes.
When you get to Tokyo on April 5th, you can go straight to your hotel—the Park Hyatt Tokyo. This $500/night hotel was featured prominently in the movie Lost in Translation. You too can go live it up in the famous “New York Bar” on the 52nd floor, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s characters meet for the first time. Because you and your companion each have 2 free nights, you can stay at this hotel for 4 nights. On April 9th, having seen all there is to see in Tokyo (yeah right), you take the train to Kyoto, the spiritual center of Japan. Here you spend 3 nights at the Kyoto Westin, enjoying the chain’s signature Heavenly Bed, for 10,000 Starpoints a night—30,000 Starpoints in total. You and your companion have 50,000 points between you, so you’ve got more than enough to cover this.
The total cost for these hotels: nothing, nil, nada, zilch. All taxes are covered when using your Hyatt free night certificates or Starpoints to get a room.
On the 12th you take the train back to Tokyo and fly back to the US, again in business class. You’ve traveled and stayed in style in one of the most expensive countries in the world during one of its most iconic times of year, and the total cost for your flights and hotels was $49.70 per person. All for you and your companion each signing up for 4 credit cards and directing $10,000 of the spending you would have done anyway onto them over the course of up to 12 months.
A Final Note
A lot of people shy away from signing up for a bunch of credit cards because they are afraid of what it will do to their credit score. This is really an unfounded concern. Your score may go down by a few points for a short time after opening a card, but the effect is small and temporary. In the long run, most people who open up a lot of credit cards for the introductory offers actually have their credit score go up. I’ve opened 10 new cards in the last year, and my score with Transunion, where most of the hard inquiries on my credit were done, is between 790 and 800. Anything above 750 is excellent—you don’t get bonus points for having an 820 score instead of a 790. Opening up a few credit cards won’t jeopardize your ability to buy that dream house someday, just so long as you always pay your credit card bills on time!
So there you have it. The best credit card rewards for free travel. Domo arigato for reading such a long post. Sayonara!
Raise your hand if you’re paying more than you should for cable.
Ok, you can all put your hands down.
I ditched cable in my last year in college and haven’t gone back. Both my roommate and I weren’t home enough to reap the benefits for the price, and found other ways to catch up on our favorite shows. I’ve brought together some alternatives so you can still get your TV fix without breaking the bank.
I don’t know that there’s anyone who reads this blog who isn’t well-versed in Netflix. It’s a household name at this point. But for the purpose of this article, I’ll provide a brief description. Netflix is a video streaming service that is constantly updated with new TV shows and movies. Some are pretty strange and not things you would necessarily have found on your own. Regardless, it’s a solid media consumption platform with a lot of great features, like multiple users and queues for saving things that look interesting to watch later.
Hulu Plus is a little less popular than Netflix, but is the perfect complement to a cable-less household. Hulu Plus differs from Netflix in it’s main focus on TV shows. Hulu Plus collaborates with a lot of the big networks to provide almost-instant gratification to catch up on your favorite cable TV shows. It stores limited past episodes, so don’t get behind! The one thing that really annoys me about Hulu Plus is that you pay for it and can’t skip ads.
Free with an Amazon Prime Subscription of $99/year, additional titles available to rent or buy.
I wouldn’t recommend becoming an Amazon Prime Member just to benefit from access to Amazon Instant Video. It has a lot of the same catalog as Netflix, but less total options overall. It’s definitely a perk if you’re already an Amazon Prime Member, but I honestly use Netflix more even though I have both.
TV Channel Websites. Free, but requires good internet speed.
Many TV channels steam their shows online for free after their original air date. Here are some of my favorites:
Sling is one of the most interesting new possibilities for people who want a very basic cable package, but don’t want to work with notoriously difficult companies like Comcast. Sling TV allows you to stream live TV on various devices, without a contract! The base package includes the “best of” live TV and sports. You can add on additional packages based on extended sports, kids, and movie channels for additional $5-15/month charges. Sling offers some nice deals (how does free sound?) on streaming sticks and boxes when you prepay for at least 3 months of service.
Popcorn Time is not something I’ve personally tested out, but has gotten some rave reviews from friends of mine. Apparently it streams movies and TV shows from torrents – absolutely free. Doesn’t get better than that, although I’m not sure as to the legality of it’s existence…
If you bought all of these packages (although I wouldn’t recommend it), it would likely still be less than your cable bill right now. My suggestion? Pick a few that feature the channels or type of programming you most enjoy. Fill in the gaps with free options.
Any major players I missed in the quest to ditch your cable? Let me know in the comments!
While most of this blog focuses on Chicago deals and happenings, I wanted to take a step back and focus on deals in general. Or rather, shopping. Of the online variety. If you think my deal-scouting abilities can be contained within just one city, I’m about to blow you away.
Here’s my 5 step process to online shopping:
1. Get a credit card that rewards you.
I have 5 credit/debit cards in my wallet:
Chase Credit Card with Amazon Rewards
Victoria’s Secret Credit Card
Chase Debit Card
American Express Blue Cash Everyday Rewards Credit Card
Target Debit Card
Each one gives me specific benefits (minus the chase debit card, which is really just an ATM card). I won’t go into too much detail in this article, but if you’re not getting rewarded for your spending, you’re leaving money on the table. Just don’t become the type of person who uses their credit card as an excuse to spend more than you have. I never carry a balance more than I can easily pay off.
2. Check RetailMeNot for a coupon code and sign up for the retailer’s email newsletter
Here’s two easy opportunities to save big. RetailMeNot is a website that aggregates sales and promo codes from thousands of popular online retailers. As far as I’m concerned, if the promo isn’t on RetailMeNot, it doesn’t exist. Furthermore, many popular online retailers offer first time buyer promo codes between 10-25% off. Sign up for their online newsletters! You can always unsubscribe if you don’t want email spam. Or create a separate junk email account specifically for promotions and email signups.
On another note, if you have a favorite brand, Know their sales. Just like Victoria’s Secret has their popular semi-annual sales events, so does Lululemon and Athleta, who are otherwise notorious for almost never discounting their products. I found out about both by signing up for their email newsletters!
3. Activate cash back through Ebates
Ebates is not the easiest concept to explain, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try. Here’s the gist: You create an Ebates account and automatically get a $10 bonus giftcard. You enter your shipping address as part of your profile, because Ebates is going to send you a Big Fat Check when all is said and done. The next step is a habit you need to create. Before you purchase something online, you need to go to the Ebates website (Or install their browser extension to get a reminder whenever you’re on a partner’s ecommerce website). You click a button to activate getting cash back. Most participating websites offer 3-6% back, but frequently there are “double cash back” days. That cash comes back to you in the aforementioned Big Fat Check periodically, which is every 2 months or so. I just got one worth $140, after buying a Groupon Getaway by activating the Ebates cash back.
I don’t think anyone will argue with me about the fact that Amazon is a great one-stop-shop for deals. Whenever I’ve got my eye on a popular product, I always use the Amazon app or website to find the best price. Here are a few additional tools to find the lowest price through Amazon:
Furthermore, depending on the product, consider buying from the “used” section on Amazon. If there’s a book I’ve got my eye on, this is often the lowest-price acquisition strategy.
5. Before you make a purchase, buy a discounted gift card through Raise
Raise is a gift card reselling marketplace that was founded by a Chicagoan! While there are other lookalike gift card reselling marketplaces online, Raise is my favorite because it’s so easy to use. While it’s a great resource for reselling a gift card you don’t want (helloooooo Christmas presents), for the purpose of this article, let’s focus on it’s value in cutting down your online shopping bills. Once your shopping cart is full, find a gift card that covers the value of your purchase. That’s why it’s important that you save this step for last. You can usually save at least $10 by ending your online shopping experience with Raise.
Online shopping is one of my favorite activities, and by using this 5 step process, I have more money to play with in the rest of my life.
Did I miss any steps? Let me know your online shopping secrets in the comments!
Half expecting her to say no, she surprised me. We booked it.
My Groupon Getaways Experiences
I was actually working at Groupon at the time, and even the employees had their doubts that a discount vacation package would be worth it. I was excited to be the guinea pig amongst my group. My best friend and I departed just as the weather was starting to become unbearable in Chicago, and landed on the lush green paradise known as Ireland.
I’ve actually been to Ireland before, but it was with my parents. Going with a friend was a completely different experience. She had friends who met up with us that she originally met when studying abroad. We started in Kilkenny, partied in Killarney, took it easy in Limerick, and ended it off in Dublin. The hotels ranged from a Days Inn in Kilkenny, to a classy boutique hotel in Killarney, to a modern installation in Limerick, and a fancy hotel in Dublin. Surprisingly, it was the fanciest hotel that charged extra for wifi and didn’t provide toiletries. As a whole, the hotels would’ve cost as much as the flight (or more) if purchased separately.
We had our own rental car, which gave us the freedom to go wherever we wanted. For the most part, we followed our four-city itinerary, but enjoyed making stops between cities to take in the beautiful landscape. A few things to consider when traveling via rental car:
Budget for gas
And for parking. And tolls
Be a good driver!
Nico is an amazing driver, so I let her take over. Ireland driving is on the “wrong” side of the road, which is not typical of Europe, but something to keep in mind!
To summarize, the sum of the parts would’ve cost way more than the whole package, but Great Value Vacation’s Ireland package on Groupon Getaways offered a major value for an adventurous traveler.
Fast forward to a year and a half later…
I challenged another friend when I saw an unbeatable price on a trip to China. Another Groupon Getaways package, this one happened to be with a different travel agency called Friendly Planet. This deal was about $1500 for 10 days – airfare, hotels, ground transportation, a tour guide, all breakfasts and some other meals. While the Ireland trip was very much DIY, this trip had a lot of oversight. I’ve had enough experience in Europe to want to push the envelope, but I had absolutely no experience in Asia.
Comparing the two – Europe is so similar to the United States in terms of food, language, customs, etc. Asia is the exact opposite. Most people don’t speak English in Asia, and the street signs are basically illegible. The food is not something you can prepare yourself for by eating Americanized Chinese. You have to conduct yourself a certain way you may not be used to, in order to respect the locals. I don’t think I could’ve navigated without a tour guide and a driver, or at least, I wouldn’t have gotten to appreciate the country as much.
Another interesting part of this tour was that you could opt in to optional excursions each day, like going out to dinner with the group with an acrobatic show afterwards, or guided tours of temples and silk worm factories (to name a few). For the most part, purchasing these optional tours was well worth the money. They included food, a tour, admissions, and transportation. Even if it was cheaper to plan on my own, it would’ve taken longer to get around, with imperfect knowledge of the area and attractions.
On the last day of the tour, we did a version of one of the paid excursions on our own. We didn’t go to all the tour spots and it took awhile, but we did save a fair amount of cash. So the moral of the story is – do your research. Also, you’re not missing out if you don’t do all the tours. Sometimes you need some time to explore a foreign place without any direction.
Traveling to an Asian country usually requires the purchase of a Visa. This is NOT something you cant put off until the last minute, and you must come prepared with all the requested documents. There’s a Chinese embassy downtown Chicago and walking in (as opposed to mailing it through an agent) saved me some money, but it was still $150. Plan accordingly. And on that note, make sure your passport is valid through 6 months after your trip.
A mix of guided and unguided
So the final Groupon Getaways tour package I’ve purchased is to go to Peru this September. Gate 1 Travel operates this tour, and I suspect it will be a hybrid of the two aforementioned trips. While my China trip consisted of an older crowd that was bussed from place to place, the Peru trip is described in terms of a lot of outdoor exploration. It was in the same price range as the China trip (~$1500) and includes many of the same features: airfare, hotel, guided tours, ground transportation, and some meals.
All the agencies I’ve worked with have handled the booking process in similar ways. Sometimes you can fill out all of your personal information online, sometimes you can do it on the phone. Either way, it doesn’t take long. One of their “upsells” is travel insurance. I’ve never purchased it because I’m cheap, but I think it’s usually $100 per person throughout the course of the trip. If you want to be able to reimburse the cost of your trip if plans change or are prone to emergency medical situations, it may be worth it.