Chicago Museums for Free

Free

In the past year or so, I’ve been to just about all of the Chicago museums for free. When we went to San Francisco, we visited MOMA and a couple others for free too. All that is required is a little planning and a little research.

To start, I have an account at Bank of America. Did you know that they run a Museums on Us program where the first weekend of each month, the participating museums offer free admission just for showing your Bank of America credit or debit card. This is on top of any free admission days the museums already have.  The museums that are in on this are: The Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago History Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, and Adler Planetarium. Pretty good deal.

Also, as mentioned above, the Chicago museums all have days they are open to Illinois residents for free. Here’s a quick list of links to the museums’ free days for reference.

Free-pass

Museum of Science and Industry
Adler Planetarium
Shedd Aquarium
Chicago History Museum
Field Museum
Museum of Contemporary Art (they keep it simple – every Tuesday is free)
Art Institute
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum (also simple, free every Thursday)

Keep in mind, these free days generally apply to Illinois residents only (which you have to prove) and any additional exhibits/shows are not included in free general admission.

Don’t forget, Lincoln Park Zoo is free everyday, for everyone.

Enjoy summer in the city!

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A Savings Tally

The other day, I was checking out my savings progress sheet, and I became quite proud of myself.

Starting January 1, up to now, we’ve saved a recorded total of: $512.11!

All of that came just from couponing (clipping coupons from the Sunday paper and printing coupons available online) mixed with buying items when they are on sale. I was quite impressed.

Here’s to hoping for continued savings!

 

New Year, New Savings Tally

Well hello, 2012. You snuck up on me there, but I’ve gotten used to having you around.

Since it’s a new year, I’m jumping on the New Year’s Resolutions bandwagon.

1. Be healthier.
No reading labels, cutting out all sugar, or making sure everything I eat is made with 100% whole wheat grain. That kind of stuff makes me sure to fail. Little things like taking a mile long walk with Phoebe every day, adding more veggies to my diet, and hopefully making some better choices when I’m eating out (like picking the grilled chicken instead of the burger and fries). The less dramatic changes I make in my life, the more likely I am to reach my goal.

2. Make time.
I am constantly putting things off because I think I don’t have time for it. Why not? So I go to bed a little later or I make an easier meal for dinner. If it’s important to me, I’ll make it happen.

3. Stay organized.
I’m especially thinking of my closets with this goal. I’m pretty lazy when it comes to putting things back in their proper place. What’s the point of having bought baskets for the bathroom closet and organizing things by use if it never stays that way?

I have two more resolutions that aren’t really things I’d like to start, but instead, things I’d like to continue to do.

1. Keep up the weekly girls’ nights.
Sometimes it’s the whole group meeting at someone’s house for a dinner party, and other times it’s a quick dinner out. In any case, I’d like to continue setting aside Thursdays for the girls.

2. Keep up the saving.
I’ve done a pretty amazing job with my couponing efforts. It’s really paid off. When I started doing the tally to see how much I’d saved from August (when I started couponing, scanning sale ads, and sending in rebates), I didn’t really expect much. A few dollars per trip didn’t seem like it would add up. Then I got better at couponing and was almost always able to save at least as much as I spent on each shopping trip.

The way I did my final tally here was nothing special. At first, I kept receipts, but my drawer was becoming messy and full of paper. Instead, I started to write down the total amount saved from each shopping trip onto another piece of paper, which I separated by store.

Total Savings: $505.54

Extrapolating, if I had started couponing in January, I would have saved over $1,000! And that’s just on groceries!

Couponing, for me, also includes finding deals on restaurants, clothing, and any other items you need to buy. Dan often laughs at me because when he asks where I want to go to dinner, I’ll direct him to a stack of restaurant gift certificates and deals I’ve bought and I’ll tell him to pick from those restaurants.

Do you have any new year resolutions? Happy 2012!

Holidays on a Budget

Now that Christmas shopping is in full swing (for some of us who don’t wait until the last minute), I thought I’d share some tips that keep my holiday shopping budget in check during the rush to buy Christmas presents.

1. Set a budget, and stick to it.
I set a pretty firm budget (meaning I will definitely stick to it), giving each person I know I’m buying for a total dollar amount I will spend on them. This allows you to control your spending down to the last penny. Also, you won’t have sticker shock when your December credit card bill arrives in your inbox. Whenever I come in under budget, I consider that a great accomplishment.

2. Pick out specific items you want to buy as gifts.
Do not just wander around Target looking for a toy that looks like it would be interesting to a two year old. If you do that, you’re less likely to score a deal on the item since you can’t do any background price checking easily. Spending time choosing what you will give ahead of time will save you, by allowing you to do #3 below.

3. Maximize your budget.
Look for deals. Deals = ability to buy that special someone more for less.

Example:
Your husband wants a specific book for Christmas. Price it out and see where it’s cheapest. A single book can be purchased at a number of places: Barnes & Noble, Target, Amazon, even half.com. See where you can get the best deal. Then, you can use your savings toward another gift for hubby.

4. Put those acquired couponing skills to good use.
You coupon for everyday items like body wash, chips, and canned soup. Why not use coupons around the holidays?

I find that couponing by store is the easiest way to go. Once you’ve figured out which items you’re buying and get an idea of how the item is priced, see if either the store has coupons or there is a coupon for that specific item.

Example: My sister-in-law loves Yankee Candles. I can price them out and see how the price stacks up at a Yankee Candle Store vs. Bed, Bath, and Beyond. I take into account that Yankee Candle usually has a coupon out that’s Buy 2 Get 1 or Buy 1 Get 1 Half Off, and Bed, Bath, and Beyond always has 20% off an item coupons, plus they have a Yankee Candle Scent of the Month on sale. Go with wherever gives you the better price.

5. Keep an eye out for sales.
Most stores have sales, sometimes big ones, in the days leading up to Christmas. Scan weekly ads to see if the items you want will be on sale. And remember, if an item you just bought goes on sale a week later, you can usually get a price adjustment, depending on the store’s policy. Same goes for coupons you find for specific items after you’ve already bought them. Just bring in your receipt.

6. Use store discounts when you have them, and take advantage of rewards when they are offered.

I’m a Kohl’s charge card holder, and just about every month, I get a mailing where I get either 15%, 20%, or the coveted 30% off. I get my coupon, wait for a sale, and make big purchases then. For Kohl’s, they also often run their Kohl’s Cash promotion where you spend $50 and get $10 toward your next purchase. This really saves you a bundle.

Example: Last year, in one trip I bought three toys, a bunch of infant clothes, picture frames, throw pillows, and candles – all gifts for others. I used my 30% off discount and I accumulated Kohl’s Cash. About a week later to buy more gifts, still using my 30% off and using my Kohl’s Cash. That second trip only cost a few dollars, but I was able to buy two wristlets and some jewelry.

7. DIY part of your gift.
I love giving coordinated gifts, and those lend themselves to DIY projects.

A few Christmases ago, I decided to partially DIY a gift to my in-laws. I gave them all they needed to host guests for an evening, wine, and store bought goodies like crackers and cheese spread, but I also DIY’d some things like baking them biscotti and putting together some hot chocolate mix. I threw everything in a basket and wrapped it up.

Anything goes here, be creative.

By following these tips, I’ve gotten some great Christmas gifts and have remained within my budget. Hope you can do the same!

My Best Deals

I wrote a post a couple weeks back about how to get stuff for free. Free things make my day.

Sometimes, getting something for free just isn’t in the cards. But, I still try to buy things for as close to free as possible. I thought I’d show you some of my best deals on nearly free items and tell you how you can get these deals too.

Purchase #1: Kohl’s

Five candles and a pair of earrings.

Grand total: $3.06

How’d I do it?

Each candle was regularly priced between $10.99 and $18.99, however, four of the candles were in the clearance section and cost only between $2.19 and $2.79. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: always check the clearance section! You’ll find great stuff for sometimes up to 90% off of the regular price. Combine a clearance item with a coupon and you are paying next to nothing. The earrings were also a clearance item.

My big splurge was the leaf candle that rang up for $8.54. It was so pretty and fall appropriate though, so I knew I had to have it.

I used a $10 gift certificate emailed to me, a $10 gift certificate that was snail mailed to me, and a 15% off coupon I got online. And yes, I was able to use all three discounts in one purchase.

Purchase #2: Shutterfly

100 prints.

Grand total: $1.07, including shipping.

How’d I do it?

The couponing blogs I follow alerted me to this red hot deal. They gave me a coupon code, only good until midnight of that day. I hurried home, uploaded, cropped, and got my order in by the deadline.

A little over a dollar for 100 prints and I don’t even need to leave my house to get them? Great deal in my book.

I was happy to finally print out my anniversary trip photos from San Francisco. I definitely want to do some craft project to create home decor out of a photo or two, but exactly what that will be is still TBD.

Purchase #3: World Market

Three bags of vanilla beans (six beans total) and a lettuce knife.

Grand total: $3.10

How’d I do it?

With a birthday coupon, of course. I received a $10 off $10 purchase email.

The beans were $2.99 per bag and the lettuce knife was $3.99. Don’t get fooled into buying the vanilla beans in a jar. One bean would cost $2.99. Buy the bag version and you get an extra bean for no extra cost.

I like using the my birthday gift to get vanilla beans each year. The seeds add so much to dessert dishes, but I know I won’t spend the money for vanilla beans if they’re not cheap, which they never are. I stock up with my free $10 gift.

Purchase #4: CVS

Two shaving creams, a salt and pepper combo pack, and a liter of caffeine-free Diet Coke.

Grand total: $2.16

How’d I do it?

The shaving creams were free after CVS having them on sale for $1.99 each, then stacking a -$1/1 CVS coupon and a -$1/1 manufacturer coupon. The combo pack was full price, and the pop was on sale for $0.99.

What was your best nearly free deal?

When Free Means Free

Who doesn’t like getting things for free? And I’m not talking about stupid things you’ll never use, like the neon 1980s style sunglasses they were giving out at a Chicago Slaughter arena football game.
Neon_glasses
No joke.

I’m talking about things like a free appetizer from Chili’s, a free one year subscription to Martha Stewart magazine, or a free $25 gift certificate from Macy’s. Free stuff you actually want and can use.

Have I piqued your interest yet?

Of course, I started with the super awesome stuff I’ve received. More often, I get freebies mailed to me like extra coupons and samples for everything from mayonnaise to face moisturizer to Kashi cereal. Nothing that would be considered really exciting, but small amounts of everyday goods. I do enjoy the sample sized toiletries which pack up nicely when we go on vacation though.

The good free stuff usually requires a bit more time spent getting the item (rather than just entering a name and address for the free samples). Here’s how to do it:

1. Sign up for birthday clubs.
Go online and enter your email address to enter yourself for birthday clubs at different restaurants. Most will give you a free appetizer or dessert for signing up, and then you get something bigger, like a free meal, around your birthday.

Free birthday stuff is actually what gave me the idea to write this post. My birthday is on August 20, so I’ve been getting my birthday free stuff for a couple weeks. 

I’ve gotten:
$10 gift card from Kohl’s
$10 gift card from World Market
$10 off the bill at Maggiano’s
Free Philosophy Vanilla Cake Shower Gel from Sephora
Free entree from Houlihan’s
Free dish at Noodles
Free brownie sundae from Chili’s
Free dessert from Buffalo Wild Wings
Free meal from b.d.’s Mongolian Grill
Free chocolate fondue from Melting Pot

Free drink from Caribou coffee

Pretty good haul for only a few minutes of time spent entering my email address.

Sometimes, nail or hair salons offer birthday clubs too. Every year, I receive a $10 gift certificate to my hair place. Just used it to get my hair cut last night.

Be advised, most birthday gift certificates can only be used in your birthday month, or you lose it.

2. Sign yourself up to receive communications from your favorite stores.

You know right before you finish a payment at a store when you’re asked for your home phone or email address? If you give it to them, you could be saving big.

For example, every few months, I get a mailer from Victoria’s Secret offering me a free panty. I stop in to get a pair when I’m nearby, like I was on Monday night.The ones available now are pretty fancy for being free.
Dscn2496
I’ve also gotten coupons for free items from Bath & Body Works, without having to make a purchase.

Just recently, I got my hands on a $10 off a $10 purchase from Pier 1. Many of their items are priced at exactly $10, which made them absolutely free – not even tax to pay. I was especially excited about that one, since Pier 1 coupons are few and far between. I showed my family and friends how to get it (liking Pier 1 on facebook) and we for some pretty nice stuff. Here’s a look at all of my free swag, which includes two chalkboard glass jars, a cow creamer, a kitchen timer, and three different candles.
Dscn2493

The best place to get free stuff for signing up for emails is Kohl’s. I got a $5 gift card for signing up, and now, every 4-6 weeks or so, I get a random email giving me a $10 gift card that I have to redeem within a week. A free $10! And I can still use any coupons I have for the store as well. With my $10 gift cards I’ve bought a dog bed, jewelry, a rug, a dress, table linens, and a large quantity of candles – all for free or very close to it.

Signing up saves money on restaurants too. Every once in a while, I’ll get emails for free food items like free salads, free appetizers, and free desserts both from big chains like Chili’s and smaller, more local restaurants and pubs.

3. Join rewards programs.

You already do it on your credit card, so why not at local restaurants and stores?

Many places have loyalty programs where after you buy a certain amount of items (like cups of coffee), you get one free. Ask if your local store had any kind of program like this.
Ulta is a good place to join their rewards club too. I don’t ever usually spend enough to get a really good item during their rewards time (like a straightener), but you do get free samples when you make a purchase. Last time I went to Ulta, I bought a Stila eve shadow/bronzer/blush combo and I got great goodies for free: Almay eye make up remover pads, blackberry moisturizing lotion, lip gloss, and hair spray.

4. Take surveys.
Stores love it when you take their surveys, and they usually give you an incentive to take them. I tend to skip the ones where you’re entered into a drawing to win something (they aren’t worth it), but I do take the time to answer questionnaires for coupons.

A couple years back, a friend and I had our once a week out to lunch discount down to a science. We’d head over to Baja Fresh, where they would ask you to fill out a survey on the receipt. We’d fill it out and get something like $5 off our next meal there. Since we went weekly, we were regularly paying only about $2 for lunch each time we went. On top of that, they had a loyalty program (see #3 above) and after ordering ten meals, you got one free. Pretty good deal there.

Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and Best Buy print out an survey opportunities right on the receipt. Take the survey, get a discount code, and you’ll get some money off your next purchase there. 

Don’t forget to pair your discounts with sales! Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret have huge sales twice a year – once in June, once in December/January after Christmas. I’ll go and make a small purchase at the beginning of their sale, do the survey which usually gives you $10 off a $30 purchase, and then go back to get more items I saw and wanted on my first trip.

Surveys are also what gets me those $25 Macy’s gift cards. I belong to e-rewards, which is an online survey company. They email me surveys a few times a week, and I get e-rewards money based on how many surveys I complete. I then take that e-rewards money, and “buy” things with it. For example, a Macy’s $25 gift card costs $45 in e-rewards money. There are also other things you can get like free pizzas from Pizza Hut, airline miles, or rewards points at various hotels.

When stacking the gift cards, coupons, and sales, you can really make out like a bandit. I bought a BCBG dress from Macy’s. It was $118 at the store, but was cheaper online (about $80). Using an online discount code and the 25% off promotion Macy’s website was running over the weekend, I ended up scoring the dress for $52 and free shipping! I used two of the free $25 Macy’s gift cards I’ve gotten and spent $2 out of my pocket for the dress.
 

Bird_dress
Unfortunately, it didn’t fit. I heard the world’s smallest violin playing when I tried it on. Oh well. Luckily, when I returned the dress, I scored two Martha Stewart cake stands and a cast iron skillet for using store credit, and even had some money left over on the gift card.

Dscn2497
5. Subscribe to couponing blogs.
As I mentioned this in my (Not) Extreme Couponing post, I subscribe to both the Krazy Coupon Lady and Raining Hot Coupons blogs. They let you know the coupon match-ups at each store every week, and sometimes they’ll show you how to get something for free with the coupons that are out there. I have gotten Sharpies and Scotch tape for free this way.

They also let you know of small give aways here and there, like the samples I often get in the mail, but sometimes they tell you about some pretty great free stuff, like free note cards from Pear Tree Greetings, a free year of Martha Stewart magazine, a free year of Women’s Day magazine, or free downloaded songs from Amazon. Those deals run out really quickly, so you have to sign up pretty much as soon as you get the email.

What’s the best thing you’ve gotten for free? Can you think of any freebies you know of that I’ve missed?

 

July Couponing Savings Tally

A while back, I said I’d try to track how much was saved in the month of July due to my couponing efforts to try to answer the question I always get: Is it really “worth it”?

I did a sort of tally of savings overall by store. I’ll look only at the stores where I do the bulk of my shopping: Target, Walgreens, and Jewel. There might be a small produce run to a local store, but if we spend $15 there a month, that would be a lot, so I feel OK excluding that amount.

There was a trip to Costco thrown in fairly early into the month where we bought staple items: spinach, carrots, soy milk, dog food, frozen chicken breasts, frozen tilapia filets, etc. That trip, which we do every 6-8 weeks, costs an average of about $150. I find it difficult to measure exactly how much we “saved” by going to Costco. What should I compare the items we purchased to? The price at one of the three stores I usually go? The average retail price of the item in Chicago (where would I even get this information)? So, I’m counting it as an added expense.

I’ve tallied up my receipts and here’s what I’ve spent and saved in July:

Walgreens:
Amount Paid: $8.29
Amount Saved: $17.20
Best deal on an item: Skintimate Shave Cream for $0.49, which was 89% off the regular price.

Jewel:
Amount Paid: $45.71
Amount Saved: $53.86
Best deal on an item: Kellogg’s cereal for $0.99. which was 80% off the regular price.

Target:
Amount Paid: $86.67
Amount Saved: $49.86
Best deals on items: Sharpie pens and scotch tape for free! Savings of 100%.

As for meal planning, I just looked at what I had on hand, and made something from that. Those last minute trips to the grocery store really add up, so I avoid them like the plague. 

I purchased most items as I found them on sale, and I usually had a coupon or two to add even more savings. Since I have been couponing for a few months now, I do have a “stockpile” of food items that I can pick from when planning meals. For instance, I purchased a huge bag of frozen chicken breasts from Costco last month for about $20. I thaw that chicken and use with some of the newer purchases, like buffalo style dipping sauce for chicken nuggets, or cheese and tortillas for tacos.

I also have a growing stockpile of items like toiletries (like body wash, shave cream, and toothpaste), cleaning supplies (like Mr. Clean all purpose cleaner and magic erasers), and general home items (like tin foil, parchment paper, birthday cards, and Kleenex). All of these items have been counted in the totals above.

OK, let’s add it all up and see how much I saved. I spent $154.67 (adding up my totals from Walgreens, Jewel, and Target), plus an additional $75 (half the total from Costco) for a grand total of $229.67. This is all we spent in July, excluding any outside activities/meals. But, you know me, those activities and meals were also discounted due to coupons or other deals.

I saved a total of $120.92 for the month, which comes out to a 53% overall savings. If I keep this up, I’m on target to save about $1,451.04 per year. Not bad for only a couple hours of work per week. Of course, I could have done better if I treat couponing like it’s my job, but for a casual hobby, I’d say it’s paying off pretty well.

Have any of you been tracking your savings? What’s the best deal you got an a single item last month? Do you now agree that couponing can be “worth it”?