Roman Adventures

Ali Bar

In less than three weeks, I will start my journey to Rome.  And I do mean journey. My Aer Lingus flight leaves from Miami, goes to Boston, then Dublin and finally arrives in Rome. It was the most inexpensive fare I could find when I booked, and now at least I can say I've been to Dublin. Still, at $450 one-way, I wouldn’t call the fare cheap. Once I'm in Europe, traveling should be a little easier to handle financially.  First off, there is Ryanair Airlines. Browsing their website, I found that I can fly from Rome to Paris for 10 euros or around $13.  Because Ryanair offers such inexpensive tickets, it means that weekend trips to other countries should be feasible and that makes me quite happy.  Another place to look for inexpensive flights is easyjet.com. I also just got the news that I landed a job as a library assistant at Cornell University’s facility in Rome, so that means there will be some income available for short side trips – as well as food and other necessities.  Still, I have no doubt this will be my most expensive semester ever. It also will probably be the one I never forget. I will really need to watch my euros. If anyone has any tips about traveling in Europe on a budget or buying food, send them my way. It'll be great to start 2011 in a different country.  Hope everyone has a great New Year's. Ciao (practicing the Italian).

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Finding Warmth in the Cold

Ali Bar

Just before I left New York for Miami, I confess I engaged in a little splurge. It's one more thing that's going to make it more difficult to pay off my credit card in full this month, but I think it was totally worth it. The day I turned in my last assignment, I wanted to celebrate a bit and it was also really freezing outside. So a friend and I decided to head to the Wall Street Bath & Spa, a Russian bath in the financial district that had come highly recommended. It set me back $32.50, but had I wanted, I could have spent the whole day there defrosting. What does that $32.50 get you?  There is a Turkish steam room,  two Russian saunas, a plunge pool, swimming pool, and a jacuzzi.  Other spa services are available for an additional charge and you'll also find a restaurant and cafe area.  We spent around four hours there, which breaks down to about $8 an hour.  The smell of the stoves in the sauna was so nice, and the steam room smelled like eucalyptus oil.  We were warmed from the inside out.  I didn't even feel the cold when we left  despite the 30° temperature . I just felt toasty and relaxed. It's an experience everyone should try at least once. You end up feeling cleansed and all the stress that you've been feeling  build during  the week melts away.  That makes the price a bargain in my book. So if you're in one of the areas in the country where the snow is piling up this week, head to your nearest bathhouse. Your body will thank you.

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King Mango Strut

Ali Bar

For anyone looking for something enjoyable to do on the day after Christmas that will put an end to the streak of spending, I’d recommend heading over to the 29th King Mango Strut parade in Coconut Grove. The festivities start at 2 p.m. The King Mango Strut, which now has outlived the Orange Bowl parade, is all about humor – humor taken from the year’s top headlines. One year the high school girls behind the viral Chongalicious video on YouTube rode a float and performed. So sad to think that when I was in New York, no one seemed to know what I was talking about when I said chonga. The parade begins at the corner of Commodore Plaza and Main Highway. This joyful afternoon of satire is absolutely free. The only thing you might end up paying for is parking. My family and I usually head over to Scotty's Landing for lunch or dinner before or after the parade. It’s a little difficult to find since it’s tucked behind a boatyard, but it’s right on the water and offers a variety of reasonably priced burgers, sandwiches, and salads and, of course, there’s seafood. It’s nice to get together with your family one more time before everyone returns to work on Monday. Hope everyone had a very enjoyable Christmas. We ordered a ham and turkey breast, but my mom and I opted out of buying pre-made sides and made everything else from scratch from the sweet potato cheese cake to the corn bread – and even had homemade salad dressing. There are tons of leftovers and, in retrospect, we may have gotten a bit carried away with the menu but we had an excellent dinner and probably won’t have to cook for the next week.

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Holiday Festivities

Ali Bar

For those of you still scurrying around for last-minute gift ideas, today is it. For those in New York, there was the Union Square Holiday Market to make gift buying a little easier. I'd pass through it occasionally on my way to the subway, and, of course, I had to look at everything. I paused at the scarves and jewelry mostly. Some of the merchandise is reasonably priced; other items are quite expensive. On the bargain end, a find of mine bought a nice pair of earrings for $20. But it's definitely a cheery atmosphere and a great way to get into the holiday spirit. Being the eve of Christmas, it closed at 4 p.m. today. But keep it in mind for future shopping. It’s open from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. There are more than 100 merchants selling a variety of local and handmade gifts.  And even if you don't end up buying anything, it’s still fun looking. You can top it off with a cup of hot chocolate or warm apple cider and it adds up to a pleasant way to spend an afternoon in New York City.

Now I’m back in Miami, and the smell of backyard pig roasts hangs in the air. Even though I don’t like pork, it smells good. If you’re still not in the holiday spirit and need a cheap fix of cheer, check out the lights on 137th Terrace off 16th Ave. in North Miami. The whole neighborhood participates and lights are strung up into the lofty heights of huge live oaks. Check out the video and you’ll see it’s pretty special. The line of cars crawling down the street can be pretty daunting but it usually ends with a candy cane. You need to drive slowly anyways to check out all the lights. We used to go every year when I was a kid and I still enjoy the tradition. Merry Christmas

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Gifting Ideas for Kids

Amanda Bar

Being a new aunt (my nieces are 2 years and 6 months, respectively) I've had to become a child-friendly present buyer for the holidays, but sometimes its difficult to find something unique and fun to give when every other relative seems to be purchasing the same thing.  Honestly, how many stuffed animals can two kids have?  Taking a creative approach - and one that's neither hard to do OR expensive - you can come up with cute little gifts for any young relatives, without worrying about giving a gift that's already been given.

If you go to Target or Payless you can find plain white sneakers (Keds or any other brand will do) for under $10; then head over to any other craft store and purchase a jar of glitter glue and a bottle of glitter of any color (Martha Stewart products are my preferred brand and are available at Michael's), each of which should cost about $3.  Return home, clear yourself a work space, and set to work.

 Photo2

As you can see, I decided on gold for my color of choice.  I painted the shoes yellow in order to have the color "pop" better, but that's an unnecessary step.  Then you simply apply the glue & glitter a section at a time, and voila!  Adorable and unique little shoes that should only cost you about $15.  They're also comfortable, as I made adult-size pairs for myself & two friends for Halloween:

Shoes

Make sure you seal the glitter by adding a fews sprays of acrylic gloss or some other clear sealant, though these shoes aren't really made to last.  But they are fun, decorative, and thoughtful little gifts perfect for any child this holiday season.

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On my own for Thanksgiving

Ali Bar

Meal I really wanted to spend Thanksgiving with my grandparents in Buffalo, but after some of my transportation plans fell through and the alternatives kept getting more expensive or complicated, I ended up staying in New York for the holiday. I was very sad but was willing to make the best of it. After all, spending Thanksgiving in New York should be fun. On Wednesday a friend and I traveled to our nearby supermarket and purchased all the provisions for our Thanksgiving feast. Since I don't eat much meat, all of the dishes were vegetarian. I know, I know – a turkeyless Thanksgiving. But just let me share the menu: baked, buttered Brussels sprouts with walnuts; Portobello mushrooms stuffed with brown rice, lentils, onions, bread cubes and spices, and gnocchi with red onions and radicchio sauteed in balsamic vinegar. For two people, it was a ton of food and there were lots of leftovers. I’ll eat one of those leftover mushrooms today and figure I’ll use the rice and lentils that didn’t make it into the mushroom stuffing for some sort of soup. I had planned on making pumpkin dumplings to go with the red onions and radicchio but they failed. The gnocchi was a last-minute replacement. The grocery bill for the Thanksgiving meal – plus food for the next week -- was $80.

For entertainment I went to see the inflation of the balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in a staging area at W 79th and Columbus Drive.  Apparently 6 p.m. was prime time for viewing the balloons. There were so many strollers rolling over me and kids riding on their parents’ shoulders and tugging my hair that I didn't have the best time. Since the balloons were open until 10 p.m., I should have reversed my plan of going to see the balloons and then a movie. That way I would have arrived at the balloon staging area later when all the sweet children were blissfully asleep.

I hope everyone had a glorious and stuffed Thanksgiving. One friend of mine bought a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner for 8 to 10 people at Target for $60. The Target dinner included an Archer Farms turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole, cranberry relish, rolls, a 9-inch pie and a coffee sampler. It seems like a pretty good deal if you aren’t into serious holiday cooking but still want the comfort of a holiday meal.

For future reference, let me hear how you spent the holiday. I’m always on the lookout for ways to celebrate without spending lots of money.

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Thanksgiving Dilemma

Ali Bar

The big question -- how do I get to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving -- still looms. Although Buffalo is only about six hours away from New York, almost every option I’ve checked is EXPENSIVE. These are the times when having a microscopic income is really frustrating. But I've been doing odd jobs here and there so I’m optimistic my resource picture will be getting brighter. But let’s get back to the logistics of traveling to grandmother's house in the most economically savvy way possible.

First I looked at the bus, which was approximately $140 roundtrip. I found taking the train was a little cheaper, but my procrastination meant no train tickets to Buffalo were left. If I were smarter, I would have planned this out months ago and probably would have garnered some cheaper fares. The best, current price for air travel was $285, counting me out. That takes us to the last option: renting a car. Since I’m too young to rent one myself, this involved enticing a friend who is over 25, and therefore can rent a car, to make the trip with me. Since he had no plans for Thanksgiving, now he won’t have to spend the holiday alone and he’ll be fully stuffed by my grandmother's cooking and her abundant leftovers. With him on board, we started looking at rental car prices. Prices are absurd for a last-minute rental from an agency in the city. Try a day rate of $150. I saw my plans for a big Thanksgiving surrounded by family collapsing.

But my friend knew about a train to Poughkeepsie and suggested that taking the train and renting a car there might be cheaper. The train to Poughkeepsie is $30 round trip. The day rate for renting a car in Poughkeepsie is about $40, a much more agreeable number. We plan on leaving Wednesday and coming back on Friday. So if you’re following, that’s $120 for the car and $60 for two train tickets. I figure we’ll need about $100 for gas and tolls but I hope I’m overestimating this. That means the trip will cost $280 split two ways or $140 – the cost of the bus. But we'll get there much quicker than the eight or nine hours it takes on the bus and be more comfortable. Plus since we’ll have a car, we’ll be able to run last-minute holiday errands for my grandparents and do a little Buffalo touring. Yes, this trip will be something of a budget-buster but I hope by taking on extra jobs, I’ll be able to pay if off relatively quickly. Besides sometimes you just can't put a price on visiting family.  But just before I charge the rental car, I might see if anyone from the city is driving to Buffalo on Craiglist (this could be an extremely cheap option).  If nothing's up, then perhaps I'll put a listing on Craiglist to get some more people on board to help with the gas.

If anyone has any better suggestions, send them my way – quick.

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All Hallows Eve

Ali Bar

Once again it’s the night before Halloween – and if you’re like me, you’ve probably waited to the very last second to come up with a costume for tomorrow’s parties. I’ve cut it very close. But if you’re in need of a quick – and cheap solution – I can help you out. 

CostumesHere are a few costumes I’ve tried in the past that can be whipped up in no time. Want to be lightning? So glad you ask, because that is what I was last Halloween. To start things off, I happened to find a steal at Target – a black, floor-length sleeveless cotton dress on clearance for $5. (Why spend major money on something that you’re probably only going to wear once?) I also bought some white sparkly felt that I cut into a lightning strike pattern and glued to the dress, which I hacked off to hit mid-thigh. I wore black
tights and black shoes. And then my very lovely friend painted a silver lightning bolt across my face a la David Bowie with rhinestones. Oh, and I painted my nails silver. For practically no money at all it was a pretty good costume. My friend, who had waited even longer than I, bought a purple shirt at A.C. Moore's, which was quite inexpensive, and also purchased various lengths of silver, purple and white string. He punctured holes in the shirt, pulled the cords through and knotted them on the reverse side. On the front, the cords cascaded down to his feet. He said he was Purple Rain. It went quite nicely
with my lightning costume.

This next idea may only be applicable to people who have access to plotters (large scale printers) but it also produces outstanding costumes. My friend and I found a high resolution image of a USB key, which we then plotted and printed. With spray adhesives, we attached the front and back images of the oversized USB keys to large pieces of cardboard. We added straps to hold the panels over our shoulders and side panels to keep the costumes rigid. It was difficult to walk, but everyone pretty much loved our people-sized take on a USB. We even made hats – the plug portion of the USB. I am thinking of being a lamp this year. Oh please, you may be saying. But I think being a very ordinary object is funny. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to do this, but,hey, I’ve got until tomorrow to figure it out.

Hope this gives you a few ideas on how to whip up cheap costumes quickly. Feel free to borrow. On a side note, while my friend and I were shopping in Whole Foods on Union Square, we were bombarded by a slew of zombies. It was quite funny and helped us get into the Halloween spirit. Many of them asked me for my brain. I politely declined. 

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Saving Money With Cash

Amanda Bar

My annual Disney trip was this past weekend, and I normally spend a lot of money between food and souvenirs each time I go.  This year, however, I tried to do something different - the room and Mickey's Not-So-Scary tickets had been reserved and purchased under my name, so when my friends coughed up their portion of the bill I had them pay me in cash as opposed to check.  While in the park I didn't pull out my debit/credit card at all, and instead used the $100+ in bills that I had.

By the end of the trip I had money to spare, and I hadn't put anything on my card.  I even managed to refrain from buying unnecessary knick-knacks to adhere to my cash budget!  History tells me that if I had asked for checks I would have ended up spending much more than I did by using cash alone, so I definitely plan on sticking to this option for future visits.

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Brooklyn Flea

Ali Bar

A couple weekends ago I went to the Brooklyn Flea Market, which I highly recommend. I wasn't all that thrifty, dropping $20 for a pair of earrings and $4 for a milkshake, but all in all, it was worth it. I met up with friends, and we just wandered around, looking, touching, picking up all the little antiques and handmade goods. I liked so many things. Some of them were pricey but I found lots of reasonably priced stuff too.  We went around lunch time and hopping to save a few bucks, I grabbed some food from home. But my friends didn’t bring such provisions. They had a choice of food stands selling everything from gourmet pizzas to grilled cheese sandwiches. I couldn’t resist a chocolate milkshake that turned out to be so rich it was an effort to finish it. On a side-note: Nate from "The Nate Berkus Show" was at the flea market filming a segment. He does a good job of showing off the place’ s charms and gives some good design advice too. Watch the segment here.

Brooklyn Flea Address:
Saturday
Fort Greene
176 Lafayette Avenue (between Clermont + Vanderbilt Avenue)

Sunday
The Flea at One Hanson (aka Williamsburg Savings Bank)
1 Hanson Place (at Flatbush Avenue)

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