Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Framing is f***ing expensive

That's right - you know what I'm talking about. You're too old to be thumbtacking posters to your wall (no seriously - you are) but you don't make enough money to bleed hundreds of dollars on that nice print that deserves a good mat and frame. Isn't there some middle ground here on the framing thing?!

In fact, there is. And believe me - I dropped $300 on stunning wall piece that has a place of honor in my home, but i choked when the lady in the downtown frame shop told me the bill. Framing is a skill and it takes one person applying their labor to get it done, so that means the prices seem disproportionate to the product and they continue to go up, not down. And in a world where we're used to new technology products plummeting in price within a year or two, framing a simple piece carries a sticker shock that's particularly jarring.

BUT - there's still a way around it. And for god's sake - you DO need to frame that stuff on your wall or pull out that nice poster you've always wanted to hang and haven't gotten around to.

If you don't mind doing a little assembly yourself, there are websites where you can buy your custom frame and mat in the size and color you need and they send it to you to put together for FAR less than having the little old guy in the art and frame shop do it for you (sorry, little old guy. you're just too damn expensive).

Frames by Mail
appears to be the leader and it has thousands of options and even helpful instructions for putting your frame together when it arrives. It claims to have "The largest collection of Custom and Ready Made picture frames on the Internet."

On the website I assembled a frame for a 16x20 Modigliani print of mine that needs a better home. For a gorgeous black wood frame with gold accents, a 2 inch mat, and backing with plexiglass front, the total with shipping comes to $65.60. The interface is super user-friendly and automatically calculates the cost with each step - it also visualizes your finished frame so you can see what it looks like.

The print I paid $300 for is only slightly larger and the frame is more plain because I was scrimping. That is a HUGE price difference. You now have NO EXCUSE to not dig out that print you picked up in Europe in college or that great poster of your home state.

FBM also has a cool feature where you can upload a picture and have it framed and sent to you. Great for wedding pictures, the family reunion portrait, or that sweet picture of you and your partner.

Disclaimer: if you spend money framing a motivational poster, something sports-related, or anything by Monet, I wash my hands of you.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Beat shipping costs on online deals

Shipping costs are a bitch when you're shopping online, but I just found out about a website that can help you find shipping deals at hundreds of websites. captures the specials online stores are running on shipping. Most of them have to do with spending a certain amount to get free shipping. But it's a good place to check first before you go to a favorite website to get the coupon code or see what spending limits they've set for free shipping.

Of course remember to not spend another $50 just to save $10 on shipping!

via Prime Time Money

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Count the right things, not just the numbers

Chris Patten, last Governor of Hong Kong, talks about flat incomes in America and our cultural propensity to spend and run up big deficits. The answer to the question "can Obama induce a savings spree" is a definite NO. We would see an uptick if he made *all* savings tax free until used, not just certain retirement savings, but since that's totally unlikely, we're back to the definite no.

Many Americans are now reducing their debt and building up their cash savings in response to the pain of our contracting economy and the credit crisis. We don't need a President to "induce" this behavior. As usual, big-government types love to bellyache about "flat incomes" over the last 20 years. The problem with this observation, which is correct on the surface, is that it ignores and obscures the fact that our lives have improved dramatically with the technology and innovation that comes with American capitalism and globalization.

While the raw numbers of "income" may look flat, the quality of our lives has skyrocketed. The tech boom ushered in the era of FREE products and services, monetized in an entirely new way (or not at all, such as Twitter as of yet), shattering the per piece price paradigm. Stop and take a look around:

  • Staying connected is easier, cheaper, and more fun because of services such as Skype, Facebook, Google Video Chat, and others, not to mention the ease of text messages to accomplish things that used to require a full phone call.
  • Shake your phone to find the restaurant nearby that perfectly suits your craving.
  • Download any music, no matter how obscure, and play it wherever you go.
  • Effortlessly find a destination with portable GPS systems instead of fussing with paper maps, directions, and landmarks.
  • Have a case of wine delivered to your door at rock bottom prices, from a selection bigger than any possible store, instead of spending time to get it, paying for transportation, and hauling it yourself
  • Find almost any book and have it within days for a low price
  • Access a near-comprehensive DVD library for a few dollars a month instead of building one for thousands of dollars yourself - soon to be access online, on-demand, anytime instead of dealing in physical disks.
The list could go on and on - actually - let it go on. Add a comment if you think of another luxury we take for granted.

It's hard to quantify how these new products and services improve our lives, but they most certainly do. Sure they add new expenses - 99 cents per song, your Netflix subscription cost, etc - but they add massive new luxuries that we have never quantified before.

ChaChing is all about living well - not just scrimping to save but spending smarter. As 2008 comes to a close, turn off all the dour "experts" and reflect on how rich we really live, and how the relentless churn of innovation and entreprenuership that is every minute focused on solving our problems and making our lives better (the very definition of capitalism) will continue and is still in effect now, even in a time of uncertainty.

Happy holidays from ChaChing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

shopping online for glasses

My friend Jimmy recommended this guide for shopping for eye glasses online that details how much money you can save by doing so. I don't wear glasses so it's not something I've come across. It makes sense to divorce seeing your optometrist from buying new glasses. You can do this now, of course, because the Internets are miraculous.

You probably want to try on a new style in a store though and then look for the comparative one online. Zane's Blog links to for a comprehensive store.

I have always wanted some fashion glasses because I think glasses are hot, but my friend Ray recently chastised by comparing it to a nonhandicapped person riding in a wheelchair. ouch.

has become pretty ubiquitous because of their television advertising, but I hadn't been aware of a glasses alternative. Thanks Jimmy!

Anyone else have glasses tips?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ouch: data on female shopping trends

Mint has an excellent list inspired by data about how women v. men shop and what you can do to rein some of that wild spending in.

[Haha on use of "eve-olution" re: marketing]

You'll also enjoy the hilarious pictures.

my quick comments on each Mint bullet:

1. I agree on bypassing outlandishly priced beauty products. I've talked about it before here.

2. Organic food is a luxury item. It's not worth it unless the quality is decidedly better - on most things I find that it's not. My sister, a nutritionist, says milk and coffee are the two things you really want to buy organic because of the transfer of chemicals (is that right Ruth?). Buying local is a great idea if it's available, both for quality and price.

3. I disagree on this point. Stick to energy bars that have lots of PROTEIN - they're worth the $1-$2 a piece as a meal replacement or a healthy snack between lunch and dinner. You can never go wrong with extra protein.

4. I'll only repeat the adage: the lottery is a tax on dumb people. also known as a tax on the poor.

5. Pets are totally worth their cost in exchange for the pleasure they provide but for god's sake, don't buy them organic cookies from a doggie bakery or put wrapped Christmas presents under the tree for them.

6. On clothes - simply never pay full price. This will be a persistent theme on ChaChing.

Throw it open with open source

A reader recently suggested Zoho for an open source version of office products such as spreadsheets and word processors. They also have a ton of other products. Microsoft Office still dominates but at $400 it's expensive, particularly for home users!

Open source products can be a good alternative - the options become more numerous and better functioning all the time. Three years ago I used OpenOffice (i think the most popular alternative) but it didn't have the depth of function yet that i needed, particularly for spreadsheets. I also found it annoying on the clunky compatibility with Microsoft when you need to send documents around. It's probably better now. Three years in internet time is a century!

I am enjoying using Google Docs for quick views and edits, but again, deeper functions aren't there.

I confess I paid the big price tag for Microsoft Office on my recent laptop purchase. Is anyone using open source alternatives? How are they working for you?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Everyone should sign up for Obopay

Here's another great service that saves money and cuts down on your trips to the ATM!

Obopay lets you send money by phone - you can text money to someone and it only costs 25 cents per transaction, no matter the size. And it's free to retrieve money! This is going to revolutionize money transfers. As an emerging small business owner, I'm starting to appreciate how much transactions cost, from cash, to checks, and especially credit cards. But I'm going to use Obopay for my business!

Read the easy tutorial on their website to find out how it works. You just link your phone to your bank account and money goes to and from there. One of their great ideas - when a group of friends is out to dinner and you're that guy that doesn't have cash, you can Obopay your portion to the person tallying the check so no one will have to spot you!

Obviously the more people using it, the easier it is. Spread the word!

Update: A TechCrunch post on Obopay.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Save time and money with Peapod

On my last Peapod order, my delivery guy immediately began barraging me with all the ways to save money with the service - to the point that it was aggressive and unintentionally funny. One thing he did tell me that I didn't know was that I get free groceries if I refer someone to the service.

Good news is - so do you!

I think this will work - enter this promotional code when you order:

And you'll save $10 off your order.

Also, they often send free shipping coupons in the mail so watch your mailbox for them.

Peapod is awesome because you can do all your shopping in like 20 minutes from your computer, you'll avoid impulse buys, and you save all that time going to the store, dealing with rude cashiers and long lines, and you don't have to haul your loot into your car and back home. It all costs the same, you just pay for shipping - generally about $8 depending on your order, or free with the frequent promotions.

Post a comment if you want to do it and I'll give you my email address to enter so that I get free groceries for referring you!

Remember to pick your delivery time first before shopping so you can get a good time slot.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Swaptree for trading books

There are very few good used book stores in DC, which you know if you live here. I hate clutter, so I prefer to get rid of books after reading them - particularly fiction ones. I wish there was a place I could go to exchange books - just drop off the ones I'm done with and pick up new ones to read. I currently use the Goodwill store out on South Dakota Ave for this, but it's not ideal.

Swaptree is almost what I've been looking for: it's a free online service that lets you exchange books, music, DVDs, and games, but you of course still have to pay shipping and schlep down to the post office to take your items (though it does have a label printing feature).

I was recently reminded of too for buying and selling used books - haven't used that in years. Amazon of course has a used market on top of its new one but it's totally saturated, so it is basically impossible to make money. Also the last few times I've tried it I haven't found buyers for my items and the listing has expired.

I haven't tried Swaptree yet but I'm intrigued. If anyone has given this a whirl, let us know how it is.

Via Frugal Duchess.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Don't ape the Fed

My friends over at the Technology Liberation Front have an excellent list of local projects that mayors are putting on their wishlists (from the WSJ) under the serious-sounding "infrastructure" spending that Obama is promising.

You and I may think of nuclear energy plants and an updated energy grid when we hear "infrastructure" - things we desperately need for national security and resources for the future. Some of our nation's mayors apparently hear "fat federal checks for that new tennis center I've been wanting!"

So while Americans spend less and save more in response to economic changes, our government opens the spending spigot to full blast.

Our paternalist federal legislators should simply and firmly say "no" to these silly Santa letters asking for ponies. They probably won't. But we can take a personal lesson from it and consider alternatives to our own sugarplum fairy dreams - or our high-spending habits - and put the savings difference into our money market accounts:

1. Don't buy the new car- go to CarMax and get one that's 4 years old.

2. Brew it yourself - get up 20 minutes earlier and feed your addiction in a real mug for about $.30 (if you bought a pound of beans) instead of paying $3 for the same amount at the store served in landfill material. Those coffeehouse stops add up shockingly high.

3. Become a saavier shopper - spend your monthly clothing allowance at places like and SmartBargains and save a boatload - or get twice as much for the same amount you'd spend in most stores.

4. Drink at home - stock up on beer from the grocery store and invite people over to enjoy your company in the comfort of your home. It's less loud and crowded and you'll spend as much on an entire six pack as you would have on your first beer at the bar.

Our own fiscal discipline can do more for an economic recovery than any silly public project.

Declaring the War on Frizz

Alright ladies - I see so many women walking around with frizzy hair despite all the expensive products on the market meant to eliminate it. This drives me nuts because those expensive products aren't even worth it and no one should have frizzy hair. So I'm declaring the War on Frizz and revealing some big secrets.

Big Secret #1 not only saves you money on shampoo and other products, it's a great solution for smoother locks: DON'T WASH YOU HAIR EVERY DAY.

Unless your head manufactures enough oil every day to lubricate your vehicle, all you're doing by shampooing it is drying it out so that you have to compensate with fancy conditioners and a whole salon full of supplemental products. Forget all the hot oil treatments and uber-conditioners. REFRAIN FROM WASHING. That's it. That's the big secret that your stylist doesn't want you to know because then you won't buy the new $25 bottle of aloe-hemp-green-tea fad nonsense that they're pushing.

My hair is curly and fine - perfect combo for being FrizzQueen. I stopped washing it every day years ago; I cut my hair product collection in half and am never frizzy.

The How-To: on the off-day in the morning, wet your hair down with a spray bottle - just damp, not sopping. Rub your fingertips on your scalp and down through your hair to activate the natural oils that built up overnight and distribute them so your roots don't look greasy. This also reactivates the product you put on it yesterday. Add additional product as needed and blow out and style as usual.

Big Secret #2: NEVER END STYLING WITH BLOWDRYING. Finish the blow out and then get your hands wet again - snag a spot of a cream gel or a leave-in conditioner (not just gel - alcohol causes flyaways) and run through your hair to smooth it down (or scrunch it if you're curly). Freeze in place with some hair spray. That's it. No frizzies.

Believe me - your hair will look better and you'll save hundreds in needless products.

I like these two products from Garnier Fructise - Cream Gel and Soft Curl.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Urban elegant holidays for less

Everyone is talking about being more frugal this holiday given the economic situation (everyone but the government of course, which might give a generous $13 billion gift to companies that can't produce a product people want to buy). But I find most of the suggestions hokey.

Here's ChaChing's list for people who never considered buying inflatable lawn decor in the first place:

1. do your Christmas party potluck style - invite your friends over and have everyone bring a dish, dessert, or drink option. They'll enjoy the time just as much and you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on all the prep. Additional community feeling a bonus.

2. Skip the tree or get a table-top one for your urban place - hang ornaments around the house instead. I've got ones hanging from shelves, my bathroom light fixtures, and from tall glass vases filled with white lights that spill around cream-colored candles (see above picture). I bought a pack of 72 ornaments from Michaels craft store for $9.99. The really cheap-looking ones I pasted to gift bags for extra bling and threw out the glitter ones. For that price it's still a great deal.

3. if you have a big family, do a lottery on names so everyone gives one gift to one other person instead of having to give 8 or 10. Or set a gift limit - $30 gets some books off an Amazon wishlist or a nice bottle of wine.

4. brown paper packages tied up with string - skip the garish rolls of holiday wrapping and get a big roll of brown kraft paper and some jute twine from your local hardware store. Both are totally cheap and you've got a simple, elegant wrapping for all your gifts. Tie those extra ornaments 0n for flair.

5. Check for last minute deals on holiday shows in the area.

6. Keep several pounds of holiday coffee blends and 3-4 poinsettias around - they are easy hostess gifts for house parties you'll be attending.

Feel free to chime in with other ideas. Oh and happy holidays from ChaChing!

UPDATE: The Frugal Duchess also endorses having a drawing for gifts among the family.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wardrobe optimization

I absolutely hate clutter, and I also hate having to do big overhauls of chaotic places in the house. I prefer regular maintenance of things so they don't become a chore that hangs over you all the time.

Here's one strategy for closet maintenance that I've practiced for years that's SUPEReasy: hang your clothes in chronological order.

Instead of putting things in order of clothing type - shirts, pants, dresses, etc. - (or in no order at all) put everything clean as it emerges from the laundry or after you've just worn it on one end of the closet (the "recent" end) and pull from the other side (the "ready" end) for what you're going to where that day. This is helpful for a bunch of reasons:

1. minimize redundancy - depending on the size of your wardrobe it can be weeks before you wear the same thing again. At my last office job, I'd been there for about 6 months and the IT guy asked how big my closet was because he could have sworn I hadn't worn the same thing twice since I'd started. I most certainly had, but you get the idea.

2. minimize decision-making - since clothes will be clustered together in outfits, you can grab something from the ready end and it's already matched with what you paired together before, or is at least in close proximity to it.

3. purge more effectively - if you've got those 3 or 4 pieces languishing on the ready end because you're just never in the mood for them, you know it's time to put them in the Goodwill bag or in an underbed plastic tub for a while if you can't quite part with them yet.

Practice the six-month rule: if you haven't worn it in 6 months, give it away. This reduces clutter, optimizes what you have, AND - most importantly - leaves room for new acquisitions!!

You'd be surprised how many of the clothes you AREN'T using until you start tracking the positional "data."

Most importantly, make this work for you. It's not a rule that you have to pull from the very end of the ready end every time. If you pull something closer to the recent end, you just know it's one of your faves - no biggie. But for the most accurate usage, always hang things you've worn or cleaned at the end of the recent side.

That's it - then you never have to dread cleaning out your entire closet. You isolate the problem area and the whole thing stays organized simply because of where you hang stuff you just used.

Any other closet ideas?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Living well for less

The purpose of this blog is to share my ideas on making better decisions with your money. Unlike other personal finance blogs, I don't count pennies. I in fact hate pennies and refuse to receive them most of the time. (Read here about how they cost more than they're worth and why we should take them out of our currency system altogether).

My purpose is to have a nice life without spending a ton of money because it's possible. I have a great wardrobe, I have a bar fully stocked with wine, I have a beautiful place, I throw great dinner parties - and I live on about $3,000 a month in the heart of downtown Washington DC. I do this not because I have to, but because I can, and I'd rather make my money work for me elsewhere in savings and investments.

But part of my advice will be about NOT going overboard with trying to save money. Many things are not worth it - things such as clipping coupons for the grocery store or eating red beans and rice to save some bucks on dinner. I will often make these distinctions as I post on saving and what's worth your time and what's not.

[I will, however, advocate for red beans and rice as an excellent side dish or main dish (if you're a vegetarian - it's a complete protein). My brother and sister-in-law make an comforting, palate-pleasing meal of beans and rice, macaroni, and greens (collard if you like them or spinach or green beans). Fills your belly on cold nights and is savory and delicious. Mixes such as Zatarains or Mahatma are excellent.]

I share this aim of living well with Gwenyth Paltrow, whom you may have heard has a email newsletter and website called "GOOP" that shares information on "nourishing the inner aspect." It's about living a good life simply and with joy in things that matter.

Here are her Christmas gift ideas - most of which are quite affordable.

Spendless at Threadless

Stock up on edgy, funny, and clever shirts at the famous community shirt shop Threadless. They have a bundle of shirts for $5, $10, and $15 PLUS an additional holiday discount taken at checkout - $5 off $50, $10 off $75, and so on.

Great gifts for nieces, nephews, younger siblings and friends and they won't know you paid $5 instead of $18-25 for these hip, original tops.

The shirt pictured here.

Friday, December 5, 2008


One of my favorite things my Dad would talk about when I was a kid was negative ions (nobody wonders why i'm nerdy now). When you get that great feeling near a fountain (which is usually where he mentioned it) or down wind from a sprinkler, it's because of the additional moisture in the air. Negative ions are also the reason that the Ionic Breeze is the most successful Sharper Image product of all time.

So here's a tip on both reducing your electricity bill AND saving you money on cold and flu remedies: buy a humidifier for heating individual rooms and keep the central heat at 66-68 degrees. The humidifier releases warm air, which makes you feel warmer than in dry heat, and it also preserves your skin, your plants, and keeps your clothes from getting all zappy with static electricity (positive ions!).

This is the one I have from CVS - it's about $40 (if you have a CVS card, wait until you get some ExtraBucks to get a few bucks off). Make sure to clean it according to the directions because the chemical residue from tap water builds up quickly on the heating element.

Notice on the CVS website that they advertise the point on heating: "Saves you money on your heating bills, since proper humidity lets you feel more comfortable at lower temperatures." AND they also back me up on the preventative effect: "The warm mist humidifier helps combat this excessive dryness, providing these benefits: Keeps your respiratory system moist, allowing it to fight off bacteria, viruses and pollutants."

So keep it chugging while you're present in the house and throughout the night. Saves you $$ on 2 fronts - smaller bills and less Kleenex and Nyquil!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Tax-Free Holiday

It's gimmicky, but it can add up - D.C. has a tax-free holiday from today to December 7, so load up on unique gifts at local stores and you won't be weighed down with the additional 5.75% sales tax.

Check out U street for boutiques and small shops, as well as the 14th st corridor between Logan and U Street. I like Home Rule and of course the bargain places like Filene's Basement and H&M.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Download savings on your tunes

Before you click "Buy" at the iTunes store, check out your selection at Amazonmp3. Many songs are available for $.69 per that are the standard $.99 on iTunes. Also, many albums are $6.99 that would be $9.99 on iTunes. The Amazon downloader is super user-friendly and will connect right to your iTunes interface or to any other folder on your computer.

The best part is, the songs are actual mp3s, so useable in formats beyond just iTunes and iPod if you ever need to expand beyond the Apple universe.

I'm thankful for technology that makes my life easier, more affordable, and full of luxuries!

Happy Thanksgiving.

UPDATE: Amazon also picks 5 albums every Friday to sell for $5. For the holiday, they're doing their 50 bestselling albums for $5 each. Check it out.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

SIGGnificant savings

Buy an eco-friendly SIGG bottle and carry it with you for regular hydration.

If you buy just 3 bottles of water every week, that's about $230 per year.

Calculate your current cost with the bottled water calculator here.

In addition to contributing lots of waste to our landfills, bottled water dehydrates your wallet!

A 33 oz SIGG bottle is just $24.99 - it pays for itself in about 17 fillings. There are many styles and sizes to fit your needs - and they're so pretty!!

Bring your SIGG bottle with you when you travel but be sure it's empty when you go through security at the airport, then fill it up at a water fountain once you're on the other side.

Reasons why staying hydrated is soooooooooo good for you.

Americans spent $15 billion on buying water in 2006.

Cork it

When you eat out, consider bringing a bottle of wine from your collection instead of purchasing one at the restaurant. Many places allow you to bring your own bottle for a corking fee, usually $15 or $20. There are many excellent bottles you can buy at the store for between $10-$12.

My favorite of the year has been the Folie a Deux Menage a Trios. You can find it as low as $8.95 in some places, or up to $11.99. Both the red and the white are excellent from his California winery. Buy a case so you always have one to grab on your way out to Friday date night. Even with the corking fee, it's still less than the average $45 you'd pay for a bottle as good from the restaurant's list.

Be sure to call ahead to your destination and ask for their policy on bringing bottles.

All the cool kids are doing it

While the government spends our money like a drunken sailor in order to save our asses from the consequences of us spending money like drunken sailors, we can be making changes to our behavior that does more to rescue our spiraling economy than all the megachecks the US Treasury can write.

But skip the spreadsheets and budgeting - boring! Spending less money isn't as painful as it sounds. Just small adjustments in your spending choices can make a big diff.

So check in here regularly and learn quick tips that can save you some scrilla. I'll hook you up. Cha ching.