This may come as no surprise to anyone else, but I recently learned that the fastest and most cost-effective way to make mashed potatoes is to buy whole potatoes in the can. I store them in the pantry and can whip up a batch of mashed potatoes with no pre-planning. I love that!

All you have to do is heat up the pre-cooked potatoes, drain them, and add butter, milk, and/or sour cream and mash those babies up. Look, the recipe is even on the back of the can!

Canned Whole Potatoes

Sure, it’s cheaper if you buy a bag of potatoes, peel them, and boil them, but who has time for that these days? Even if I use two cans of whole potatoes (which serves at least 4 people) I’m still saving at least a dollar, if not more, versus buying the frozen Steam and Mash potatoes from Ore-Ida. Plus I’m not taking up valuable space in the freezer. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner!

There are tons of articles out there about how you’ll be happier spending your money on experiences verses material items, and I couldn’t agree more. But… I also see the benefit of buying items that will enhance your experiences. For instance, I own a nice digital SLR camera and a few lenses as well as some other accessories. These were acquired over time and were not cheap. But I love capturing moments and being able to look at them later. I love having a physical (or digital, if you want to be technical) representation of the experiences I’ve enjoyed over the years. There’s just nothing like it in the world and to me that is priceless. Feel free to visit my photography website, Perfect Pixels.

This is why I can completely understand why someone who is barely making ends meet still owns a smartphone. Sure, it may be because their priorities are out of whack, but perhaps it’s because they are a parent, or pet owner, and they use that phone to capture moments with their loved ones. Smartphones these days not only take great photos but video too. Who can resist and all-in-device that can enhance their experiences?

Another example is games. I prefer board games, but this could apply to video games too (assuming you’re playing them with others and not alone). I love discovering and trying new board games. I don’t go overboard by any means, and almost always buy when there’s a sale, but I still end up picking up 1-2 “new” board games a year to add to our collection. As for video games, we try borrowing most games from the library first to try, and if it’s a game we really like and know we would like to play frequently, we’ll buy it once the price drops or there’s a good deal online.

Side note: Half Price Books sells used board games, many of which are in excellent condition. Even though they are technically used, I recently purchased a game where all the pieces were still in their original packaging. You could tell it had never been played. And they carry video games too, not to mention CDs, DVDs, and vinyl records.

I could go on and on but I think you get the message. So while I agree that if you have the choice between a new “toy” and going on a trip, you should choose the trip, that doesn’t mean buying that toy is necessarily a bad thing. I guess it just depends on whether that new toy will enhance your future experiences or not.

Let’s talk about gift cards.

Acquiring Gift Cards

Where do most of your gift cards come from? For instance, we enjoy going out to eat, but we don’t enjoy the expense, so we utilize our cash back rewards on our credit card (Discover, which we love) to obtain gift cards. We haven’t paid out of pocket to eat at Chiptole, Panera, Red Lobster, or Red Robin in years. The nice thing is you get a bit of a bonus turning the cash back into a gift card. Typically for $45 of your cash back reward you can get a $50 gift card.

We don’t get many gift cards from friends/family, but when we do it tends to be for Target since it’s our favorite store. My mom gets a bit mad at me if I don’t spend the gift card on something non-essential, but I do it anyway and use it to buy groceries. Who cares when it all evens out in the end anyway?
Keeping Track of Your Cards

How do you keep track of which gift cards you have and their balance? Well, if you have a smartphone there’s an app for that called INSERT NAME HERE. For some retailers it’s able to obtain your balance automagically, but others you might have to manually populate.

Storing Gift Cards

Where do you keep all those gift cards? My wallet is only so big, so I keep the restaurant ones on me while the other cards I have live in a cute little metal card holder at home by my coupons.

Spending Those Card Balances

How do you treat gift cards you receive? Do you spend them right away, hold onto them for awhile, never spend them at all? If you do use them, do you buy something you really want, or just buy anything because hey, free stuff!?!

I find that I treat gift cards almost the same as I do my own money regardless of their source. As a result, I tend to hang onto them for awhile until there’s a purchase I find worthwhile. Case in point – I’ve got $31 of iTunes credit that has been sticking around since who knows when (probably several years ago when one Valentine’s Day my husband gave me a $50 iTunes gift card). I’m super stingy about spending gift card money in general. I view it as my money just the same as if I was spending from my own wallet, so I’m careful about what I buy. As for iTunes in particular, I’ve come to find there are very few apps out there that are worth purchasing when a free alternative works just as well. That being said, I have purchased apps before, and will again, but I’m very particular about it. As for music, I like the quality and price that Amazon offers. Needless to say, I’m willing to bet my iTunes credit will be sticking around for awhile.

If you have tips on how to acquire discounted gift cards, please share!

Recently I saw a deal for a reduced annual subscription to one of my favorite magazines, ShopSmart, which is issued by Consumer Reports. I always find some great tips in that magazine and truly enjoy reading it. I was tempted to purchase the subscription when I stopped myself. I can read this magazine for free at the library; I don’t need to spend $15 on a subscription for a magazine that takes me less than an hour to read and would quickly find its way to my recycle bin.

I think this is how people get themselves in trouble financially as little purchases over time do add up. Particularly subscriptions which tend to stick around far past their usefulness because it’s so easy to allow the company to keep deducting that amount from your account. This is why as tempting as it is I’ve been able to stop myself from buying a premium subscription to the streaming music services I like to listen to at work. Sure, the semi-frequent commercial interruptions can get a little annoying, but is it really so bad I need to add an unnecessary expense to my budget? I don’t think so.

What subscriptions do you have, and more importantly, are they still adding value to your life or would you be fine without them? It’s worth re-evaluating them to see if you can free up a little money in your budget if you’d like to save more.

iPhone6

I ordered the new iPhone 6 (which will arrive on my doorstep on Friday) and I don’t feel the least guilty about it even though I feel like I should. I’ve noticed a growing trend on finance-related blogs where the writer has switched to a lower-cost cell phone provider to save money. While I think that’s great, particularly if you’re barely making ends meet and/or are unable to save for retirement, I don’t get the impression that’s always the case. It’s almost more of a game to see how much one can cut their budget. And that’s admirable, for sure, but it’s just not for me because I love my iPhone way too much. I guess you could say for me it’s a priority, and if it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you cut back on the things that don’t matter so you can spend on those that do, like my iPhone.

Of course, I would love if my cell phone bill decreased. As it stands now I’m on a grandfathered plan that limits my text messages, but to change to a new plan I’d not only lose my unlimited data (although honestly, I rarely exceed 2GB of data in a given month), but more importantly my bill would increase. I’m trying to keep my costs to a minimum while still enjoying my iPhone. I would seriously consider switching to one of the lower cost providers at some point if some of my concerns were addressed, namely:

Phone Availability
I really really don’t want to switch to a Motorola smartphone, or any Android phone for that matter. I don’t care for the platform. Although if I was forced to make the switch, I think a Samsung Galaxy S would make it bearable for me.

Reliable Signal
I just don’t believe for half the cost of my normal provider I’m going to get just as good signal coverage, particularly because many of the discount providers use the Sprint network and in my area, at least (Chicago burbs), I’ve heard horror stories regarding dropped calls, slow speeds, and whatnot.

That being said, I will be keeping tabs on these other providers and would be willing to switch when my contract is up in two years. A lot can happen in that amount of time. In the meantime, I’ll be looking to sell my iPhone 4S to recoup some of the costs of the new phone.

What things are you willing to splurge on?