New Year's Resolution

Ali Bar

On the eve of the New Year we look back at 2010, and despite the economic woes, overall it was a good year in many respects. My family members held on to their jobs, I did well in school, I have good friends and I think everyone learned to be more frugal.  We can only hope 2011 will usher in a more solid foundation to build upon. I’ve begun to think about how I only have two more semesters left in school and will soon enter the real world no longer protected by my collegiate bubble. Economic worries that others have faced will soon become very real to me, especially as I begin searching for a job. That's why I can't stress enough that I really want 2011 to turn for the better. I've already started looking for summer internships in architecture. I'm hopeful I’ll get one, but the sad truth is most don't pay. And that really isn't an option for me. I need a paid summer internship and finding one will be my top goal for the first part of 2011. I may be somewhat limited in this search because if I find a job outside Miami, it’ll have to be in a city where I can afford to pay for room and board. By this time next year, I’ll be out of school and will need to make finding a full-time job my main priority. So my New Year's resolution is to find a job and, of course, to be frugal and not overextend my resources. When I land a job, I also hope to begin saving some money. I really have no savings cushion at this point because I spent last summer studying in South America, not working. So this winter break I’m networking and getting my portfolio ready to send out to architectural firms. Any and all leads are appreciated.

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Happy New Year! May your wallets and hearts be filled in the coming year.

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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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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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An Alternative to Buying Presents

Ali Bar

Considering my bank account has dipped quite low around this holiday season, I'm struggling to get gifts for friends and family. And while they may understand holidays aren't about gifts but about spending time with the people you love, I'd still like to treat them to something nice. In my case, that has to be something nice that also is low cost. Hard perhaps, but lately I’ve been feeling very DIY, so I’m optimistic.

In the past I've silk-screened T-shirts -- a skill I picked up in high school. Plain T-shirts at craft stores cost about $6. Since I already have the supplies, T-shirts have been really good gifts that are also quite personal. I’ve silk-screened designs of artists, and flying horses based on an Ecuadorian textile. If you want nicer T-shirts, try looking at amazon.com where you can get basic American Apparel shirts for half of what they sell for in the store. You can also stitch designs on T-shirts with different color threads –a technique that’s easier than silk-screening.

Handmade cards are also a good way to let friends and family know you care. Another idea I’m toying with is making a candle holder out of Rockite, a concrete-like material. I’m not sure how this will work out, but if it doesn’t, I’m only out the cost of Rockite, which isn’t too expensive. If I’m happy with the design, I’ll add a few tea candles and it’ll be ready to go.

Another gift that’s always appreciated is giving the gift of yourself – in other words, offering to help someone else with a bit of physical labor or a service. My mother wanted to rearrange office furniture, so I spent a few hours helping her push around furniture and I put her new bookcase together. In the past, I’ve painted the gazebo and a bathroom as a surprise. I found the paint in the garage, so the only expenditure was my energy. These are kind of nontraditional gifts but I think they mean more than just picking up something from a store. And, of course, you also avoid fighting the mobs at the mall.

If you have any other cost-saving gift ideas, post them quick so everyone will be ready for December 25.

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Finishing Up School on a Budget

Ali Bar

Amid final exams and projects and the stresses that go along with it, watching my spending was, well, let's just say I'm a little less frugal during those times. My time becomes more important than my finances. Case in point: Spending on food during finals week got out of control. Since this happens every finals week, you'd think by now I'd have some clever way of handling working really hard and eating on a budget. But no. I will also throw out there that I was plagued by the flu during finals week. While it felt like pure death at the time, I actually saved money due to my nonexistent appetite. I realize that sounds like kind of a pathetic rationalization. Hey guys, get sick. You won't want to eat, save money. Uhh, NO!

Let me tell you what I would recommend. First off when you are stressed out and feel as though you have no time and you just want to go to the super expensive French bakery downstairs, HALT. Do it once and you will eat there not just for breakfast but also for lunch and dinner. I’m sure you students and former students know exactly what I’m talking about. Just because you're super busy, doesn't mean you can totally throw your budget out the window – especially if you check your accounts as I did after the frenzy of late nights in the studio and realized my next credit card bill will be something I can’t pay in full. I’m particularly paranoid about paying off my credit card bill entirely each month. So slipping up a little here and owing a little more there is definitely a habit I want to avoid.

But back on topic, what to do when you are stressed, busy, and don't have time to make lunch. Go to grocery stores for sandwiches and subs. They are most often cheaper than restaurants or cafes. And if you really are in a bind, go to the $1 a slice pizza joint, not the healthiest, but definitely the most budget friendly. Or find a place with good prices and big portions to extend a meal's life by having it for lunch and dinner. That way you also save time. I found a little Thai restaurant near my studio that had $7 lunch specials. I got the Pad Thai with four small egg rolls. That was good for both lunch and dinner
and at $3.50 per meal was definitely better than the $11 I would have spent at the French bakery.

Here’s another option: Work really hard, and then take a longer break that allows time to go home and eat dinner. Or try to plan the day so you begin your studies early, eat breakfast at home and then manage to get home for a late dinner. Hopefully this coming finals week, I'll follow my own advice. Of course, this will be easier said than done, considering I'll be in Rome for a semester abroad and will want to try every restaurant that I come across. But I'll restrain myself.

Despite my money woes, this semester ended very well. Now I'm back in Miami to revitalize and there couldn't be a better place. Oh, 74° how I missed you.

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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.

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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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Car Repairs Best Done Early

Amanda Bar

Here’s a bit of advice for the mechanically disinclined folks: if your car is making a noise, you should probably get that checked out.  And by probably, I mean as soon as possible because it just might end up saving you hundreds of dollars.

For several months my car breaks have been squealing.  I’m aware that this is usually an indication that something is wrong, but since I have little to no savings in my bank account I figured that the impending car repair bill could wait until 2011 (paid for with, hopefully, the X-Mas cash I would be receiving from my obliging relatives!).  However, my doting father would have none of it when I mentioned my car trouble to him, so off we went to Tires Plus.

Not only were my rear brakes entirely destroyed, but my front brakes were so worn down that the metal was starting to dig into the rotor.  If I had gone much longer before bringing the vehicle in for repairs they’d have to replace the entire rotor for an additional $400 on top of my already pricey repair bill.  Thankfully I hadn’t managed to cause any permanent damage to my car and they were able to salvage the rotor, but I still had to replace all four brakes as well as the rear supports.  My overly obliging father offered to pay for the bill at the expense of my X-Mas AND future birthday presents, and I was more than happy (and thankful!) to accept the deal.

Bottom line: cars are expensive, so heed the squeaks and groans of your vehicle and save yourself the hassle (and the money) by getting it checked early!  You might think you’re saving money by holding out a trip to the repair shop, but you’ll only be earning yourself a larger bill in the future.

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A Big Bag of Nothing for the Holidays

Amanda Bar

I think most people have a love/hate relationship with the holiday season.  It's difficult to come up with unique gift ideas for each family member and friend, and (especially this year) my cupeth doth not overflow with money like it did last year.  My solution?  Don't give presents!

Or to be more specific, and to appear less like the Grinch, don't give presents to your friends.  I don't have a huge circle of very close friends in South Florida (many are out of state) but I happen to have a rather large extended family; while I'm obligated by familial guilt to purchase presents for all of my relatives, with my friends I can always compromise.

I approached each of my good friends down here and laid it out for them: Look, says I, we all know that money is tight this year - if you're not opposed to the idea how about we agree that you gift me a big bag of nothing and I do the same for you?  Also, my birthday is in January so just think of it as a way of me saving you the burden of another gift purchase so close to the holidays.

Luckily all of my friends agreed that this was a great idea (naturally, for I am a fiscal genius!) and I wasn't called out for being the cheap miser that I am.  It's a win-win!

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Pricey Phone Plans and Added Fees

Amanda Bar

Several months ago I purchased an iPhone 4, not necessarily to jump on the hype-bandwagon but because my contract was up for renewal and my provider has always been AT&T.  That being said, I love the phone and I adore the various applications and internet do-dads you can access.  However, these gadgets can come with a heavy price and I’m not referring to the purchase fee.

Earlier this month I received a text from AT&T advising me that I was at 75% usage of my data plan.  For those of you not in the know, AT&T’s 3G service requires that you purchase a monthly data package that allots you a certain number of GBs for uploading/downloading information – if you have a connection to a WiFi network (whether at home or otherwise) internet access and data usage is completely unlimited.  The problem is, I’m not always in range of a WiFi service…especially at my job, where I find that I access my iPhone capabilities the most.

I tried to be careful with my usage in the following weeks, but it wasn’t long before I was notified that a $10 charge had been added to my AT&T bill for going over my data limit.  This is the first time I have encountered this issue in the four/five months that I’ve had the phone, so I suppose it can be considered a one-time fluke, but it is definitely something that I will make myself aware of from now on.  I’m already paying $90 a month for my cellphone service, I don’t need to end up in the triple digits due to web surfing!

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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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