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A Stanford University student walks though the halls of the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif., in this February 2012 file photo. Checking your local university's events calendar is a good way to spot free concerts, lectures, and festivals. (Paul Sakuma/AP/File)

Free summer fun? Check your local college.

By / 06.30.12

One of my favorite things about college was the public lectures and presentations by interesting people. During my years, I heard fascinating talks from scientists and politicians and entrepreneurs.

The university would hold these on a central building on campus and just throw open the doors for everyone. You didn’t have to be a student or faculty member to attend these lectures. You just had to show up at the door.

One of my wife’s favorite things about college were the free open-air classical concerts that the university held several times a year. We were dating then, and the two of us would often pack a picnic meal, spread out a blanket on the grass, and lay flat on our backs listening to the music.

Again, these concerts were completely free. All you had to do was show up; no affiliation with the university required.

At these events – and many others – I couldn’t help but notice the wide variety of people there. There were college students, of course, and plenty of faculty, but there were also families with children, elderly folks, and blue-collar workers. It was a university event, but it was also a community event.

Even now, Sarah and I enjoy taking our family to offerings at local colleges and universities. There are free concerts, presentations, parades, children’s exhibits, and other things going on all the time throughout the year.

So, how can you find out what’s offered at your local college or university?

You can start by checking out their event calendar. The nearest sizeable university to me is Iowa State University, which offers a wonderful online event calendar. Many other universities offer very similar online functions. These make it incredibly easy to identify events on campus.

For example, on the calendar I linked to, there’s a free concert, a bookbinding workshop, and a children’s story time, and in the next couple of days there’s a floral workshop, a lecture on plant breeding, and several art workshops. Some of the events have a cost, but many others are free. Plus, this list just comes from the summer months, when activities are relatively slow.

You might also want to check out the school’s visitor’s guide, which can clue you in to interesting exhibits and other permanent things worth seeing and visiting at the school. Many major colleges and universities offer an online visitor’s guide, like this one.

Many universities have museums, art exhibits, walking tours, and countless other interesting things going on all the time.

Most universities and colleges also have special events and festivals where you’ll find an enormous variety of free and interesting things to do.

Again, in the case of Iowa State, there’s an annual festival called VEISHEA each April that includes a parade, tons of exhibits and demonstrations, a free food festival, and countless other things. We often spend an entire Saturday there without spending a dime while thoroughly enjoying ourselves.

If you live anywhere near a college or university, keep an eye on the campus. There’s an abundance of free and fun things to do there, even if you’re not involved with the school.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere

Mark Findlay and his wife Delores Findlay, of Indiana, read the morning newspaper inside their home at Limetree Park where they spend the winter months in Bonita Springs, Florida, in this March 2012 file photo. According to Hamm, CDs and Treasury notes are solid retirement investments as long as the interest rates remain high. (Steve Nesius/Reuters/File)

Retirement: What's the best investment option?

By Guest blogger / 06.29.12

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to five word summaries. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.
 1. Student loan struggles
 2. Highlights of South Dakota
 3. Air conditioning debate
 4. Is internet stuff “free”?
 5. Loan options
 6. Starting online businesses
 7. Tithing question
 8. Multiple credit cards
 9. Improving memory
 10. Saving options for retirement

Whenever I’m sitting at my desk to write, I usually have a podcast playing. If that’s the case, how can I actually get anything out of the podcasts?

Consciously, I don’t. What I find, though, is that if I listen to a podcast in my “mental background” a few times, I’ve usually picked up most of the useful information in the podcast. Thus, if I listen to informative podcasts, I usually find myself having a deeper understanding of other things that I see and hear in other contexts.

I used to listen to music a lot when writing, with much the same effect. I could find myself singing along to songs that I scarcely remembered listening to at all.

Q1: Student loan struggles
 I am currently a sophomore in college and recently filled out my financial aid papers for this coming year and was looking at the amount of money that is borrowed in my name. The amount that I have borrowed (after this next year it is about $13,000), after loan consolidation calculators and looking at repayment plan calculators, does look like an amount that can be paid off in the future. What I am worried about is the fact that, in the profession I have chosen, I will not be making a lot of money, especially not up front. This profession is also one that requires graduate degrees in order to get into. I won’t really have a career until I finish my doctorate and by then there will be interest added from when they were taken out and from deferment periods and more loans taken out to finish my undergrad. So what I’m wondering is how much more money in student loans would it be wise to take out in the 2 years following and what can I do to make sure that when all these loans come due, that I can pay for them?
 - Julia

If this is the career path you’re going to stick with, there are a few things you can do.

First, minimize the amount you borrow. This might mean working a part-time job to pay for some of your education and living very lean, but that’s part of college life. These are the years to live very lean.

Second, look for any opportunities for loan repayment. Does your career path offer any programs where your loans will be repaid if you commit to a challenging career path upon graduation? Teachers often have this option, where they’re assigned to challenging districts and have their loans repaid if they stay there for a certain number of years.

Finally, use cost as a major factor in where you go to school. While a prestigious school can help a bit with your career path, it’s not nearly as important as it once was and it’s trumped by a strong academic record and good contacts, something you can achieve at any school.

Q2: Highlights of South Dakota
 I’ve always wanted to see some of the national parks of the Great Plains area so I’m jealous of your trip to South Dakota and Wyoming. What did you think were the highlights?
 - Andie

My personal highlight was driving through the Badlands on the scenic loop starting at Wall, South Dakota. The overlooks were breathtaking and I dearly wished we had an opportunity to camp there for a night. I just kept looking in every direction.

The others I traveled with had different favorite experiences. My father loved the Crazy Horse monument, owing in some significant part to his American Indian heritage. My wife and children seemed most enamored with Devil’s Tower, which we all hiked around.

My mother’s favorite part was perhaps the simplest. She just enjoyed the scenery everywhere, particularly on the Swordfish Creek loop in the northern Black Hills.

I have a bunch of suggestions for free things to enjoy in the area, which I’ll post about in a few days once I go through all of the trip pictures.

Q3: Air conditioning debate
 In the hot summer, we keep our house at 75 degrees when we are home. We both work 8-5 during the week. I think it would be cheaper to keep the A/C off during the day and turn it on when we get home (we don’t have a programmable thermostat to do it on its own). It usually is 81-83 degrees when we get home using this strategy. She thinks it would be cheaper to leave the A/C set on 78 degrees all day so that it doesn’t have to run as hard when we get home to get the temperature down to 75. Who do you think is right?
 - Bill

It uses far less energy to turn it off during the day and then turn it on when you get home than to run it at a high temperature during the day.

The reason is pretty straightforward. On a hot day, your house is always gaining heat, but the rate of heat gain slows as your home approaches the temperature of the outdoors. If you leave your air conditioning on during the day, it’s going to kick on several times. Each time, it’s going to push the temperature of your home further away from the outdoor temperature, which means your home is going to take on heat faster than it would if your air conditioning never kicked on in the first place. You’re far better off having your air conditioner lower your home’s temperature from 81 degrees down to 75 once during the day than have it run several times to keep the temperature close to 78, then a final run to get it down to 75.

Note that this is in terms of energy use, not cost. Many areas charge more for energy during peak usage hours (say, between 5 PM and 7 PM). You’ll want to check your last energy bill for rates and, if it’s significantly higher during that time, it may actually be cheaper to follow your wife’s suggestion.

Another idea is to simply close the blinds and window coverings in every room before you leave in the morning. This will keep direct sunlight from getting into your home. Direct sunlight will heat things up quite a lot.

Q4: Is internet stuff “free”?
 A lot of times, when you mention stuff on the internet, you talk as though it’s “free.” How do you see it as being “free”? People do pay for internet access you know.
 - Jim

Since The Simple Dollar is an internet site, I feel pretty safe assuming that my readers have some access to the internet. According to the Q4 2011 “State of the Internet” report, the average American internet connection is over 5 Mbps, which means it’s reasonable to assume that readers have a reasonably fast connection, too.

If I hold these things as assumptions, it’s reasonable to think that there is no additional cost for users to visit other sites or use other internet services. Thus, in my mind, they’re essentially free.

Yes, users do pay for their internet service, but if they’re willing to pay for the sites they already use, then adding more sites to their list of useful sites is more or less a free bonus, and that’s a good thing.

Q5: Loan options
 I have $30k available for a 4% loan from my 401k. Option #2 appears the best to me but would like your thoughts.

1) do nothing and don’t touch the 401k; that amount of compounding can never be re-captured

2) get the 401k loan and apply it to Federal “Parent Plus” loan; current balance is $60k with projected $40k more, all fixed @ 7.9% (side note- $100k for 4 yrs of private college may sound pricey but we’d end up spending much more at a public state college where kids can’t get the classes needed to graduate in 6 years!)

3) get the 401k loan and apply it to “interest only” mortgage; current balance is $425k @ slightly adjustable 2.5% (disclaimer- our old tract house is nothing fancy but the cost of real estate near San Francisco is ridiculous!)

I think we’re ok in the other areas that usually concern you. Here’s some background info:
 - Mortgage minimum payment is currently $800. However, we pay $2,500/month and should have it paid off in less than 20 years, which saves a few years and a chunk of money compared to the traditional fixed mortgage.
 - Our side-business has a $18k loan for 3 more years; the interest is a tax write-off (we have no debt, other than mortgage, tuition, and business loan)
 - Both my husband & I have been working full-time for 25 years, make equal amounts of money, and have life insurance policies that would pay off the house plus have 8 years of that lost income (if it happened today, that would see our youngest child out of highschool).
 - We have 3 months emergency fund in short-term CD’s.
 - We both have “Long Term Disability” insurance for 60% of our income
 - 10% of our income is donated (church, non-profits)
 - 10% of our income goes to investments (401k, IRA, 529). Note- until college loans, we had saved 15% of our income.
 - We have 2 personal cars (we commute different directions and mass transportation is not feasible) plus 1 business truck which are all paid off, well maintained, and in good working order; they should last a few more years.
 - Our lifestyle is not extravagant, simply due to upbringing and personal choice. Many of the “frugal” suggestions in SD seem natural to us, such as central heating set at 65 degrees and only when we’re home, mow our own lawn, clean our own house, rarely eat out, use coupons, etc. There are some of your ideas on my “to do” list, i.e. make my own clothes detergent and shop at thrift stores. I firmly believe that cable is not a utility but cannot get rid of it until I find a way for my husband to watch live professional ball games (football, hockey, basketball, and baseball) at home so he doesn’t have to spend every evening at Applebee’s. ha!

Oh, and we would like to retire in 10-15 years so that we can pursue non-profit jobs, volunteering, some hobbies, and taking care of grandbabies.
 - Connie

I would agree with your assessment that the second option is the best one.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, I think it’s going to give you the best overall return on your money. Second, you have enough flexibility to cover that loan if the person from whose 401(k) the money was borrowed were to lose their job (you’d have to repay the 401(k) loan immediately).

If you were in a tighter financial position, I’d probably suggest option one. The thing that always worries me about 401(k) loans is that if you lose your job, you’ve got to repay that loan within ninety days and if you don’t have the resources to do so, you’re going to get hammered by the IRS at a very inopportune time.

Q6: Starting online businesses
 I am a teacher of 20+ years and am looking to get into a internet blogging as a business. I need tips and advise. How do you get paid, is my first question, if I may ask? Hope that’s not too personal. What would be helpful for me to get started?
 - Rachel

Bloggers typically get paid via the advertisements on their site.

The challenge, of course, is how you get paid. Most advertisements are paid via CPM, which means cost per thousand views. Typical CPM rates are $3 per 1,000 views. So, in order to make $3, you have to have a thousand visitors to a page.

Thus, the trick for most internet sites is simply generating enough traffic. A thousand views a month will only earn you $3. A million views a month will earn you $3,000.

You can, of course, have multiple ads, but if you have too many ads, you’ll drive away readers.

The real key? Have good content that people want to read. The key there is to write from the heart.

Q7: Tithing question
 My wife and I moved to a new community recently and joined a new church in this community. At our old church, there was almost no pressure to donate. They passed around a collection plate and that was about it and I felt good about putting money in it. At our new church, though, they talk about tithing all the time and send envelopes to our house seeking donations. Do you think it is necessary to tithe 10% of your income to a church?
 - Leon

It depends on the rules and requirements for membership in such a group. If part of the requirement for membership is a 10% tithing, then that’s their call.

Of course, you don’t have to be a member of such an organization. That’s your choice as well.

Should people give away 10% of their money as a religious requirement? Again, I think that’s up to individual belief. Sarah and I give away money to a variety of charities each year, but we don’t force ourselves to match a specific giving amount.

Q8: Multiple credit cards
 I’m 22. Trying to build my credit. It’s pretty low right now, but I’ve had a credit card for about 6 months. I’ve paid it off diligently and really just use it for small things to keep it going. I have now started getting tons of offers in the mail for credit cards. My question is will opening more than one credit card at a time build my credit faster? I know if I opened another card I wouldn’t have any problem paying it off or getting out of control with spending.
 - Donald

Getting another credit card can provide a small boost to your credit, but it won’t help as much as the first one. Your first card is the one that will really establish the length of your credit history.

This new card would only help your credit in terms of bolstering your debt-to-credit ratio, which basically means the amount of debt you have on all of your cards as compared to the total credit line on all of your cards. It can have a very minor impact in other areas, too.

Your best bet, if you were to get a second card, is to either get one and sit it in your closet untouched or get one that you use for a very specific purpose, like a card associated with your gas station of choice.

Q9: Improving memory
 I have a terrible time with short term memory. I always forget things I’m trying to remember, like the three items I need to get when I stop at a grocery store or the four errands I need to run. Any good memory tips?
 - Colleen

Over the last year, I’ve come to really rely on the “memory palace” tactic for such things. It’s a simple tactic, but it really works.

All you do is visualize a familiar place in your head, such as your home or the house you grew up in. Imagine yourself walking through that home. As you’re imagining it, imagine giant versions of the items you need or of the errands you need to run throughout the home. Absurdly giant versions, preferably with another absurd attribute related to it. Imagine a giant piece of cheese dominating your kitchen. Imagine a giant carton of milk in your living room that your cat is bathing in.

Walk your mind through this absurd version of your house a few times and you’ll find it much easier to recollect the items you want to remember in an hour or so.

Q10: Saving options for retirement
 I will make about $125-$130k this year, so I believe that I dont qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA anymore. My employer of 2 years now offers a 401k but doesnt offer a match (we are still in start-up mode). I’ve been contributing to the 401 anyways, just to make sure I am putting something towards retirement. In the past I did Roth’s as well.

My question is, what other options do I have to save for retirement considering my situation? I am not really well versed in investing so any help would be appreciated.

For what its worth my grandmother has been retired for about 40 years now and swears by CD’s and EE bonds and tells me its better to just save then to worry about the best return.
 - James

The big advantage that a 401(k) has for retirement is that it shifts the income tax burden from today until your retirement (when you’re in a lower tax bracket). It also allows you to change your investments without tax implications (within the 401(k)) and you can sometimes get an employer match. However, you’re usually restricted to a pretty small set of investment choices, many of which are going to be relatively substandard. A 401(k) is also inflexible when it comes to making career shifts. If you want to quit and use some of that money for starting a business, you can’t get a loan from it and you can’t withdraw from it without a huge penalty. I think a 401(k) works great for most people who intend to minimize their job hopping in the decades before retirement and don’t really desire to become self-employed or start their own business, but it’s not the only option.

It sounds like your grandmother saved for retirement outside of a 401(k), which certainly works. In fact, her plan for retirement savings would have worked really well at various points in history. There were times when savings bonds and CDs returned well over 10% and it wasn’t too long ago when they were still returning over 5%. Given the flexibility that they offer, that’s a pretty good deal.

The problem is that savings bonds, CDs, and treasuries are now returning below 3% – and most of them are approaching a 1% annual return. That’s just not a great return no matter how you slice it.

Assuming that you’re relatively young, if I were in your shoes, I would probably invest in a very large and very secure dividend-paying company, like Verizon. Buy stocks in that company and reinvest the dividends.

You’ll have to pay taxes on those dividends and you’ll also have to pay taxes on the capital gains you earn when you sell, but you’ll still get a better return over the long haul than you would with CDs and savings bonds right now.

Then, if the rates on CDs and treasury notes climbs in the future (above 5%, at least), I’d lock my investment down with those.

Again, this is what I would do in your shoes. I encourage you to do your own research and reading.

Got any questions? Email them to me or leave them in the comments and I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive hundreds of questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

The sign for the Buckaroo Motel breaks up the blue sky of Tucumcari, New Mexico in this June 2009 file photo. When planning your next big family vacation, our personal finance expert recommends considering traveling in a large group, to save money on hotels, gas and meals. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor )

Safety in numbers? Turns out there's savings, too.

By Guest blogger / 06.28.12

Last week, I traveled with my wife, my children, and my parents to South Dakota and Wyoming for several days. (I’m planning an article later this week outlining some ways to save money on a vacation to South Dakota.)

One of my big ideas for planning the trip was to look for ways to take advantage of the size of the group in order to reduce the per-person cost of the vacation without reducing the fun of the vacation for anyone.

I highly recommend traveling as a group for vacations. Even if you conclude that you won’t save a significant amount of money, the social opportunities make a vacation that much more fun. Consider vacationing with relatives and close friends.

First, a few caveats. We didn’t end up doing all of these things for various reasons, a major one being the health of my parents. Also, many of these tactics may work really well for some vacations and not as well for others. As always, evaluate the numbers yourself.

So, how can you take advantage of a group to save money?

 Hotel lodging is often the default choice for people when they travel, but it’s also quite expensive. I’m often hard-pressed to find a clean and comfortable room for a price that doesn’t make me gasp. If you’re in a group, this gets worse, as people consider getting either suites or multiple rooms to house a sufficiently large party.

When you’re traveling with a group, you’re in the perfect situation to look for housing opportunities besides hotels. Group camping can become a wonderful experience, with a larger group to split up the tasks related to camping meaning more relaxation for everyone.

Another option is simply renting a house or a cabin, which is a great idea for a large group. A house can perfectly accomodate a very large group (roughly one family unit per bedroom) and it can be significantly cheaper than a group of rooms or a suite at hotels in the same area. This has the additional advantage of making food preparation much easier, something I’ll touch on below.

 On many vacations, you’re either going to be driving to your destination or renting a car when you land at the airport. If you travel separately, that may mean two or three cars utilized on the vacation, which means lots of miles on lots of cars or lots of rental agreements. If you are with a sizeable group that packs reasonably, you can easily reduce that count by one or two cars, saving everyone money.

There are also additional savings that come from having a smaller vehicle count on vacation. A great example of this is entry into national parks and monuments. At many national parks, you pay per vehicle for entry if you’re not camping. In other words, the cost of driving a car with one passenger into a park is the same as driving a minivan with six passengers into a park, thus reducing the cost per person entering the park.

Meal Preparation
 For many of our lunches (and at least one of our evening meals) during this past vacation, we prepared picnic lunches out of simple, tasty fare. We assembled sandwiches and side dishes in the morning, packed them in a cooler, and headed out for the day.

This was far cheaper than eating out as a group, and because many of the meals could be prepared assembly-line style (sandwiches, for example), it didn’t take up that much time, either.

Camping or staying at a cabin or house makes such meal preparation easier, of course. It’s possible to do this in a hotel room, but most hotel rooms aren’t conducive to food preparation.

Visitor’s Bureaus
 If you’re in an area that has a welcome center or visitor’s bureau, stop in. These places can be a cornucopia of information about the place you’re visiting, helping you to identify interesting low-cost/free things to do.

While this tactic is true for any vacation, it’s particularly valuable for groups. The people working there can often help you quickly figure out things that will work well for a group of your size, help you identify things that match your interests, and sometimes even provide discounted or free passes for everyone.

Larger Groups
 If you’ve got a group of ten or more people, ask about a group rate with everything you do. If you’re flying, ask your airline about a group rate. If you’re staying in a hotel, ask about a group rate. If you’re going to a museum or a garden or an exhibit, ask about a group rate.

Remember, the worst that can happen is that you don’t qualify for a group rate and end up having to pay the same rate as before. All this tactic can do is save you money.

In a May 2012 file photo, Lois Bryden, left, supervises students from left, aQuinnlan McDonald, 12, Jeren Kellar, 11, and Hope Frank, 11, baking bread in her fifth grade class at Redding Elementary School. The class gives the bread made away as community project. This weekend, instead of going out to a pricey restaurant, try staying home and baking bread. It's delicious. And practically free. ( Aaron Piper/The Tribune/AP)

Challenge accepted: Try keeping your weekends money-free

By Guest blogger / 06.27.12

I used to truly relish the weekends in my life. I would get off work at 4:30 or so on a Friday afternoon and just be gleeful that I had all of those hours between then and 7:30 on Monday to do whatever I wanted. My job was often stressful, so those hours became a real respite from the stress. I’d try very hard to fill it with things unrelated to my work.

Usually, that would mean a big buying spree on Friday evenings.

I’d usually stop and pick up some special foods for the weekend – maybe a couple six packs of craft beers and some special (read “expensive”) items to grill. I’d hit the bookstore and buy a couple books to read. I might even pick up a new video game to play or a DVD to watch.

Saturday would usually find me engaged in some activity that cost money, such as a round of golf or a day out on the town with Sarah. Sunday afternoon would usually be spent consuming the rest whatever materials I had purchased a couple days earlier (but rarely actually getting through all of it).

As I became more conscious of my atrociously bad spending habits and the negative impact they were having on my financial state and my plans for the future, I couldn’t help but notice how financially disastrous my weekends often were. If I was burning through $100 per weekend, that’s $5,200 per year. That would cover payments on a fairly pricy car or cover a large portion of the mortgage.

Sarah and I decided to start challenging ourselves to have “money free weekends.” During those weekends, our goal was to not spend any extra money beyond what we would ordinarily spend with typical meals at home and time spent at home, too.

We didn’t do this every weekend, of course. At first, it was a monthly event.

Over time, we began to really appreciate the money free weekends. We always found interesting things to do that we hadn’t been doing before, and we certainly appreciated the impact that a money-free weekend had on our bank account.

Gradually, money-free weekends became more and more frequent, until the majority of our weekends were money-free weekends. They became the new “norm.”

Today, we don’t actively choose to have money-free weekends, but almost all of our weekends are fairly close to that, anyway. The activities and routines we discovered during those weekends were so enjoyable and had such a positive impact on our finances that we’d far rather spend our weekends doing low-cost or no-cost things than spending money like we once did.

Want some suggestions? Go introduce yourself to your neighbors. Write a letter to an old friend. Walk through your house and take care of any maintenance tasks you see. Learn about a new topic using OpenCourseWare (or similar tools). Make a loaf of homemade bread or a batch of homemade laundry detergent. Go hiking. Toss around a Frisbee. Read a book that’s been sitting on your shelf for a while. Go on a long walk through your neighborhood. Start a natural collection. Attend a religious service. Do some volunteer work. The list of ideas is nearly endless.

Want some more ideas? Here’s a list of one hundred things to do during a money-free weekend, a list I compiled a few years ago. I encourage you to immediately skip the 80 or so you find boring (after all, no two people have all the same interests) and focus on filling your next few weekends with the remaining 20 items.

An enjoyable day spent without spending any money is a great day for yourself and for your wallet.

Library Branch Manager Matt Beatty, center, helps a customer at a San Diego Public Library in this June 2012 file photo. Beatty has worked for the city as a librarian for more than 11 years. From books to films to community programs, public libraries offer a wealth of resources for the frugally minded. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Check out your local library: It's not just for books anymore

By Guest blogger / 06.26.12

The public library is my single favorite “free” resource in my community. In fact, I value it so much that I actually posted a visual tour of the local library I use the most on this site a few years ago.

(It’s worth noting that libraries aren’t truly free. While you don’t have to pay any money immediately to use the resources, libraries are usually funded by a mix of taxpayer dollars, grants, and donations. However, the value that most people get out of the library, if they choose to use it, far exceeds what goes into the library.)

A good library isn’t some unique resource that you’ll just find in certain towns. Most towns have a library, even small ones like the one depicted below.

What value can you get out of your local library? I’m going to reiterate some of the items mentioned in my “tour” post above, along with some other value that libraries contribute.

Books Yes, libraries are a warehouse of books that you can check out for free. You can also find magazines, newspapers, tax documents, and other such printed material at the library, too. Beyond that, most librarians are quite happy to share their expertise in helping you find the right book for your needs and interests.

Music Most libraries have a collection of CDs that you can check out for your own enjoyment. Larger libraries even have musical discovery programs to help introduce you to new kinds of music that you may never have known about before.

Films Many libraries have DVDs that you can check out. Some libraries carry this further and show films at the library. Larger libraries even have a small auditorium which goes a long way toward creating a theater-like experience for free.

Cultural events Libraries often host muscial groups, speakers, and presenters of all kinds for the public to enjoy. At my own library, I’ve heard authors speak and bands perform. I’ve seen jugglers juggle and movie directors present their work.

Audiobooks Going on a trip? Your library likely has a good collection of audiobooks to check out that will make your travel a lot more enjoyable.

Meeting places Many libraries have rooms that can be used for meetings of community groups. I’ve participated in gaming groups and book clubs at libraries, and I’ve seen everything from gardening clubs to jester training (yes, jester training) at libraries.

Children’s resources Libraries often have abundant children’s resources. For example, right now my children are involved in a robust reading program that rewards them for summer reading with new books and other items, plus there’s a weekly storytime and other activities at the library for them.

Internet access Almost every library today offers computer use with internet access for those who do not have access to the internet at home. Many libraries offer wi-fi access for people who bring in their laptops and other devices.

Teen resources Many larger libraries offer teen programs, including rooms where teens can hang out together in a safe yet private environment. They also offer book clubs targeting teenagers.

Additional community resources Some libraries offer additional services beyond these. For example, some local libraries offer battery recycling. One local library near us offers free paper recycling for people who don’t have home pick-up.

Your local library has a wealth of resources right there for you to take advantage of. All you have to do is walk in the door.

A man walks by a row of newspaper vending machines on Boylston Street, in this May 2012 file photo in Boston, Massachusetts. Many of the papers are free. Our personal finance expert recommends perusing free community newspapers for tips for free activities and coupons. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor )

Seek out community newspapers for free activities and coupons

By Guest blogger / 06.25.12

One of my routines when I visit the grocery store is to stop by the entrance where there are a bunch of free newspapers available for anyone who wants to take them. I usually wind up taking one of each.

These newspapers cover the Des Moines area as well a a lot of the rural communities around Des Moines. They are perhaps the most useful resource available to me for finding interesting inexpensive and free things to do in my community and in the communities around where I live.

A great example of this kind of free newspaper is Cityview, a free independent newspaper that’s been around the Des Moines area for a couple decades. They have wonderful local political coverage, a very long community calendar, and usually an interesting feature article or two every single week.They usually have a fairly robust schedule of upcoming events for the communities they serve. As I mentioned the other day, I usually use the internet to find community calendars for my local area. The calendars I find in local newspapers usually have some overlap with the ones I find online, but they usually have some unique items as well.

Almost every time I leaf through a local newspaper, I find something interesting to do in the next week in either my own community or some community near mine.

They’re often loaded with coupons for local businesses. Newspapers like these tend to be supported by advertisements coming from local businesses, and these businesses know that the people who read free newspapers tend to be the bargain hunters.

Because of that, a very high proportion of the ads I find in free newspapers tend to have coupons attached to them. Because of these coupons, I’ve picked up some very inexpensive groceries, bought some gifts at a big discount, and I’ve even enjoyed some free meals. In fact, the last time I had work done on my Honda Pilot, I used a coupon from a local newspaper to knock some off the price.

They cover community news, often in great detail. Free newspapers tend to be a pretty good source for information about the community, and not just the cover stories, either.

I’ve found information on ongoing construction projects, notices of upcoming elections, auction notices, and lots of other little tidbits that I’ve found useful. In each of these cases, the local newspaper has either saved me time, made it easier for me to participate in the community, or saved me money by alerting me to something I didn’t know or had forgotten.

Take a look at the free local papers for your community and surrounding communities. There is a lot of value between the covers.

Karen Sussman picks up her mail at the small post office in Lantry, S.D, earlier this month. Hamm recommends checking the bulletin board at your local post office for yard sales and other free community events . Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File)

Bargain finds at your local post office

By / 06.23.12

About once a month or so, I find myself over at the local post office mailing packages. I’m selling something on eBay or shipping a gift to a relative or trading something by mail.

Whatever it is, I usually finish my visit to the post office by taking a long look at the bulletin board.

At my local post office (and at pretty much every smaller post office I’ve ever visited), the bulletin board is a crazy medley of local event announcements, items for sale, people looking for a group, and countless other things. It’s like a small town version of Craigslist, except with more variety and chaos.

To give you an idea of the value of doing this, here are some of the things I’ve found on that bulletin board over the last several months.

I found a “moving to another country” sale, where the people were trying to sell the vast majority of their belongings. I wound up buying three or four items from them at a pittance.

I found an announcement about a free concert that was quite enjoyable. The event included a silent auction and several raffles for charity, where my wife ended up bidding on (and winning) some very discounted tickets for our family at the local zoo.

I found an announcement of a local book club that was starting up. I actually tried to join this, but the schedule of the club wound up conflicting with my own schedule too much.

In addition, I found about a dozen yard and garage sale announcements, a notice about an upcoming community festival, and a youth club in the area that’s looking for new members.

These were just the things I was interested in. There were vehicles and other items for sale, an announcement of a big party for someone I didn’t know, and tons of announcements of carnivals and other such community events.

Not only is this a useful resource for finding things, it can also be useful to post things as well. Want to privately sell a vehicle? Wanting to form a book club or host some other local event? Wanting to start a community group? Your post office bulletin board is probably a good place to start.

The next time you’re in your local post office mailing a package or picking up some stamps, spend a moment to look at the bulletin board that might be posted in there. You might just find a thing or two of real value to you.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

Pictured is a card game called "Magic, the Trading Card Game" that has been made into a computer game. Video and computer games are an entertainment medium that rival the movie industry totals of dollars spent annually. Playing Magic regularly requires a constant stream of new cards, and can be an expensive hobby. (Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor)

Hobby bleeding you dry? Might be time to put away the Magic cards

By Guest blogge / 06.21.12

When I was in college, I went through a long period where I avidly played Magic: the Gathering. For those unaware, Magic is a card game where a player (if they want to compete in tournaments) has to regularly supplement his collection of cards by buying new cards. In other words, sticking with the hobby meant buying new cards all the time.

For a few years (circa 2003 to 2005), I was an avid golfer. Golf means consistently buying balls, paying for greens fees, and paying for sessions at the driving range. Lose a ball? It’ll cost you. Play on a decent course? It’ll cost you. Bend a club accidentally? It’ll cost you. Work on your drive? It’ll cost you.

Around that same time, I acquired a large collection of DVDs. I wanted to have immediate access to lots of great movies and television series. Of course, when you’re chasing something as nebulous as “having all the good stuff,” there’s constantly something more to buy to sate your hobby.

Each of these hobbies cost me a lot of money over the years. I can’t tell you how many packs of cards for Magic (and its cousin, Netrunner) that I bought over the years. Let’s just say a lot. I can’t tell you how many buckets of balls I hit and how many Top-Flites I lost into the trees. I couldn’t even guess the total count of DVDs I’ve owned over the years.

In each case, I was into a hobby that (from the way I practiced it) required a constant influx of buying new things. That means a constant outflow from my already-difficult financial situation.

The solution to all of these cases was to simply recognize that these hobbies were running me dry.

For me, it was really effective to simply calculate how much the hobby was costing me each month and face that total. When I would see that I had spent more than $100 on DVDs or spent $300 on golf in a single month, I would feel nervous. When I’d multiply that by twelve to get an estimate of a year’s spending, I’d feel awful. Thousands of dollars on a hobby? That was enough to wake me up.

In the case of golf, I largely dropped the sport. I haven’t been golfing in years and, frankly, I don’t miss it. I’ve found other things to fill my time.

In the case of the other hobbies, I found limited ways to still enjoy them. With Magic, I simply assembled a small collection of cards that I could constantly draw on for fun games at the kitchen table. With DVDs, I simply decided to try to build a collection of my 100 (or so) favorite movies and, when I achieved that, I had to literally remove one from my collection in order to add a new one.

In other words, I found new ways to enjoy some of my hobbies that didn’t involve buying new things. Usually, this involves putting some sort of “cap” on the collecting aspect and choosing to stay within that “cap.”

In other cases (like with golf), I found other activities to fill my time. I started doing more volunteer work, mostly, as I’ve served on multiple committees, volunteered for other projects, and served as a youth sports coach several times.

If you have a hobby that requires constant spending, look for a way to cap that hobby or, better yet, find a new hobby with which to replace it. A hobby that requires you to constantly spend is a hobby that will constantly keep you from improving your finances.

A woman sleeps on a bench under the shade of trees in Beijing, in this June 2012 file photo. No matter where you live, planting shade trees is an economic and environmental win. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

The giving tree: Shade trees save money, raise resale values

By Guest blogger / 06.20.12

The house we live in now was built in 2000 and is sitting in an area that was open, flat farmland before that. The previous homeowners only planted one tree and it’s a slow-growing one. We’ve planted two trees since, but they haven’t grown enough to provide shade.

Our neighbors, however, have a beautiful shade tree behind their home. They planted a fast-growing tree almost the instant they moved in twelve years ago and it’s grown rapidly ever since. Today, it provides amazing shade for a large portion of their yard and, in the last year or two, a portion of our yard as well. During the early morning hours, it’ll provide shade over a portion of our garden, making morning garden work quite pleasant.

For them, it’s even better. For a good portion of the morning, the tree provides shade to the back of their house. It keeps the hot rays of the morning sun from going in their windows, enabling them to throw open those windows for fresh air without worrying about the heat of the sun and keeping them from running their air conditioning until a bit later in the day than they otherwise would.

Even from a neighbor’s perspective, I can see that the shade tree saves them money.

A shade tree is a giant sun blocker. It keeps the heat of the sun’s rays off of your home, keeping the temperature of your home naturally lower than it otherwise would be. The exact effectiveness of a shade tree in shaving money off of your energy bill is difficult to calculate as it depends on a lot of factors, but a properly positioned large shade tree can easily cut $25 off of your annual cooling bill.

Even better, a nice shade tree can increase your property value. A few shade trees in the back can significantly increase the curb appeal of your home when you choose to sell it. A few shade trees can add 10% or more to a home’s resale value.

It is important to note, however, that shade trees are a long term investment. You’re not going to immediately recoup your money on a shade tree. It requires many years to grow into its full size, and it won’t provide many of the financial benefits until it gets there. Planting a shade tree right now will see dividends in twenty years or so.

How can you go about this? The first step would be to contact city hall and see if they have recommendations for trees in your area. Not all trees work well in all areas. It’s best to trust the advice of a local arborist when selecting a tree.

You should also carefully plan where to plant the tree. The best place to plant a tree is on the east or west side of your home, preferably at an angle to maximize shade during the peak summer months. If you live in northern areas, this won’t be to the direct east and west of your home, but at an angle due to the sun.

You’re also going to want to avoid above-ground and below-ground utility lines when planting. Make sure you’ve contacted your state’s department of natural resources before you plant so that you know where the below-ground lines are, and use your own eyes to judge nearby utility lines. The more you can avoid them, the better.

If you’re going to be living in your current home for a long time, consider planting a shade tree or two. It’s something you can do today that will begin to slowly save you money in a few years and eventually increase the return you get on your home.

In this May 2012 file photo, construction workers work on a new house in Santa Clarita, Calif. While it's good news that the US housing market is recovering, our personal finance expert wants everyone to make sure they're buying a bigger home for the right reasons. (Nick Ut/AP)

Don't let past stuff get the better of your present's wallet

By Guest blogger / 06.19.12

A few months ago, my parents handed me a small tub of items that they’d found in their home. They had spent some time renovating the upstairs of their home to make it more comfortable for guests and, in the process, they cleaned out a bunch of old things that had been there since I still lived there.

They got rid of a few old bookshelves, cleaned out a closet or two, and tossed most of the items, but some of them were saved in a small tub and handed to me.

Going through that tub has been an interesting experience. My high school yearbooks were in there, as was a trophy from the regional spelling bee I won in eighth grade. There were a couple small boxes full of trading cards from my pre-teen and early teen years that my parents thought might be valuable. There were some belongings from my uncle that I was very close to during my childhood (and who passed away when I was in my early twenties).

My parents really did a very good job of compressing the remaining belongings of my life down to a small box. I’m glad to have all of the things that were in there.

The reality, though, is that when I left home at the end of my teen years, my possessions that I took with me only filled up a large bag and a large tub. That included all of the clothes I wore and my other miscellaneous possesions.

Everything I owned during the entire first eighteen years of my life was easily compressed down to two small tubs and a bag. The amazing part is that I didn’t really miss anything, either.

The lesson here? You don’t need the stuff from your past.

You don’t have time for it, for one. Your interests have moved on. You end up chucking it into desk drawers or closets and forgetting about it. If you’re not careful, your space fills up and you become convinced that it’s time to move to a bigger house.

You don’t need to keep housing all of the stuff that belonged to the person you were five or ten years ago, because you’re not that same person any more.

You don’t need a bigger house. So often, I hear stories from people that “outgrew” the apartment they were living in due to the accumulation of stuff. In other words, one of their biggest motivators for spending the enormous amount of money it takes to buy a house is simply to hold more stuff, much of which they’re not actively using.

That’s a big financial mistake.

Instead, take all that stuff in your closet, put it in a number of sensibly organized boxes, and label each one with a date that’s exactly one year from now. In one year, when that date arrives, get rid of the stuff left in those boxes. Have a yard sale, take it to Goodwill, give it to friends. If you haven’t touched it in a year, you don’t need it around. It’s something that your past self wanted that your present self doesn’t really have any use for.

What about the memories? Take your old photographs and scan them. If you don’t want to do it yourself, use a photo service. Scan in old documents as well. That way, they’ll exist forever instead of slowly degrading over time. Sure, keep a few mementos around, but don’t devote a lot of space to them. Memories exist in your heart and mind, not in objects.

Don’t let the stuff from your past overwhelm your present.

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