Black Friday Hell

Written by Sam on November 30, 2006 – 10:41 pm -

I don’t know what came over me. I actually participated in the shopping frenzy called Black Friday and came out bruised and beaten. Actually, I do know what came over me. It was a 17″ LCD monitor for $80. The perfect excuse to upgrade to a dual monitor setup (“dual monitors have been scientifically shown to increase productivity,” I keep telling my wife). Never mind that I would have to be to Best Buy at 4:00 in the morning to get a ticket for their 5:00 opening time. 4:00??? YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! I have a hard time getting up at 7:30. To make it worse, I live about 20 minutes from the closest Best Buy which would mean that I would need to wake up at about 3:15 to get there in time. And yet, I succumbed to the siren’s call.

I really didn’t sleep, I just took a two hour nap. It eased the pain to look at it that way. I climbed in the car just after 3:15 fearing I would be one of a small group and feel stupid for getting there so early. My fears were unfounded. Instead, I was part of a very large group of stupid people who arrived even earlier than me. As I rounded the bend, the Best Buy parking lot was full and overflowing into the neighboring Home Depot. A line surrounded the store, almost winding back to the entrance. Why I didn’t just turn back then is beyond me. I’m sure the fact that it was quarter to 4:00 had something to do with it.

Because I hadn’t anticipated such a crowd, I also didn’t think I would end up standing in the cold for almost an hour and a half and didn’t dress appropriately. A short sleeved shirt under a medium jacket just barely held enough heat to make the wait bearable. The one piece of planning I DID do was to bring a book of Sudoku puzzles. But my choice of mittens rendered that piece of brilliance useless because I couldn’t write with them on, not to mention it’s hard to do a puzzle standing up.

I did have the good fortune of standing next to some friendly people and we entertained ourselves by chatting about the things that wouldn’t be available by the time we got in the store. Actually, there was really no need to entertain ourselves as there was plenty going on around us. The hot chocolate/treat cart went around, we had a guy on a little step ladder (I guess he was pretty short) preaching a sermon, and a number of foresightful, entrepreneurial-minded people handing out business cards. We even had a little fiasco with a car parked in the loading dock. Really, it was non-stop fun.

About half way through our wait, and still holding out hope for a ticket (kinda Willy-Wonka-esque isn’t it?), I noticed in the Best Buy flier that there was an interesting piece of information that had previously eluded me. Next to each item were two lines. One listed a maximum items per customer and the other listed a minimum items per store. At a glance I would normally gloss over these lines assuming they were both restrictions on how much a customer can buy. That’s expected for super-duper promotions. But on closer inspection I realized, in my foggy stupor that one line was a customer restriction but the other line indicated the number of items in each store. The number per store for my monitor read “5.” I panicked! I quickly started counting the number of people in line, estimating how many people there were in front of me. I estimated there to be at least 300. My chances of getting a monitor were about 1.6%?!?! And yet I stayed. It was no longer about the monitor. I wasn’t going to get up at 3:15 and wait in the cold for over an hour for nothing. If I didn’t get the monitor, I was going to get a great deal on SOMETHING! Hypothermia must have been setting in.

Well, I never even saw the ticket people coming around. I’m sure they ran out of tickets by the 114th person. Finally 5:00 came. By that time the line had grown another couple hundred people and I felt downright smart for getting there so early. As I entered the store, I would have run to the monitor section had there been space to run. Instead, I slowly inched my way there only to find my precious monitors taken. Unfazed, I figured I would at least get some of my shopping done. There were still some nicely-priced portable DVD players available and I could get a couple of movies for my son. As I got my items and went to get in line, the balloon of my early-morning enthusiasm finally popped. The check out line snaked from the front of the store through the music section, and ended, as far as I could tell, somewhere in the large-appliances section. I’m not quite sure because I never found the end of the line. I put my items somewhere in the mobile-phone department and left—defeated and tired.

Despite my negative experience, I’m still a believer in great deals. I’ve frequently found great rebate deals in the Sunday Fliers or sites with electronic versions like But I will not ever again be caught dead participating in early-morning Black Friday mania. I sacrificed great personal comfort and sanity to try and save a mere $50. I could have earned that amount in less time by selling something on eBay, picking up a small freelance job, or working a little overtime. Had I not gotten caught up, I would have figured that out before I made a series of foolish decisions. I don’t know what came over me, but it wasn’t holiday cheer.

Posted in General, Spending | 5 Comments »

10 ways to save money this Christmas

Written by Sam on November 29, 2006 – 10:15 pm -

Another holiday post? Yes, Christmas shopping is on my mind. As my wife and I plan our Christmas budget, we’ve come up with several tips to help decrease holiday spending.

Christmas tends to be a very stressful time financially. Most people grossly underestimate how much they are really going to spend and often take on additional debt to pay for all the extra goodies. With a little planning and forethought, you can still have a full tree without taking on additional debt. Wouldn’t it be nice to not worry about money this holiday season?

1. Decide ahead of time how much you plan to spend on whom.

The first step is to create a spending plan on paper (or a spreadsheet) before you start shopping. By looking at all of your planned gift giving at once, you’ll make better decisions once you get into the thick of holiday shopping.

Sit down together with your spouse and write out a list of everyone you can possibly think of that you would want to give gifts to. Ideally, do this in a spreadsheet. Here’s a list to get you going.

  • Immediate Family
  • Extended family
    • In-laws
    • Cousins
    • Aunts and Uncles
    • Grandparents
  • Friends
  • Co-workers
  • Neighbors
  • Community/Civic Acquaintances
  • Church members
  • Include any people you want to send a Christmas card to

Keep adding people, even if you’re not sure you’ll give them a gift. The idea is to empty your brain and make sure you don’t experience the “oh, I forgot to get so-and-so a present” phenomenon. One of the reasons people overspend during the holidays is because they only budget for their family. Most people realistically buy many friends and acquaintances gifts as well.

Once you’ve completed your list, record how much you think you’ll spend on each person. If you don’t plan on buying a gift for a person listed, simply put $0. At this point, don’t worry about the total, just list what you’d like to spend. You’re estimates will be much more accurate if you think specifically what you’d like to get for that person rather than just putting a random dollar amount. List off to the side the item(s) you plan to buy. Of course, this process will be more involved when estimating planned spending for family members and may require multiple entries for one person.

Now add all the amounts together to see the damage. When my wife and I did this exercise, we were unpleasantly surprised at the total. It was way more than we were planning on spending.

Compare the total with the amount your were planning on budgeting for Christmas. Assuming the total exceeds your planning budget you need to either increase your budget or start cutting down your list. Keep reading for some great ideas at cutting your Christmas spending.

The whole point of this little exercise is to make your holiday spending explicit and conscious rather than spending blindly through the holidays only to find a very unpleasant surprise when the January bills arrive.

2. Give homemade gifts

It might seem cheap to give homemade gifts, but bare with me, they can be quite nice. When it comes to gifts for friends and acquaintances, it’s often the thought that counts more than the gift anyway. Here are a couple ideas.

  • Cookie/Cake mix – We’ve received this gift several times and always enjoy it. You just take a canning jar and fill it with the dry mix in the right measurements to make cookies or a cake. You can use either a store bought mix or “homemade” ingredients (flour, sugar, chocolate chips, etc.). You can spruce it up by putting a bow around the jar. Or, let your kids be creative and decorate the jar their own way.
  • Family history chart – We made our own 10 generation family history chart for my parents based on a design by Ancestry Circle. We printed it out on a poster-sized sheet and bought a $20 frame for it. It was a fair amount of work but was a meaningful and very unique gift. If you would like the template Adobe Illustrator file, send me an email. If you’re not looking to save money, Ancestry Circle will print a custom chart using your family history GEDCOM file for a reasonable fee of $79.95.
  • Make cookies or treats for neighborhood gifts. By simply giving a plate of cookies or brownies, you could give to all your neighbors for under $10.
  • Personalized Stationary – One year we made homemade stationary using Microsoft Word and a printer. We bought a ream of fancy paper and a box of matching envelopes. We had the paper cut in half at Kinkos and printed a design (using a word template) along with the person’s name on each sheet.
  • Pictures make great inexpensive gifts for family members. Do your parents and grandparents have your most recent family photo? There’s probably nothing they’d rather have.
  • Burn family photos or family history to a CD. Total cost: less than $0.10 each.
  • Give homemade gift certificates. You can give an elderly person in your neighborhood a certificate to mow her lawn or shovel her snow. Give a certificate for free baby sitting to acquaintances with children. Give your spouse a certificate for a massage. Your creativity is your only limitation on this one.

3. Shop online and use RSS feeds to find great deals

It’s still not too late to find great deals online in time for Christmas. Learn how to use RSS feeds for shopping to be notified when an item you want goes on sale. Many online stores allow you to make purchases just days before Christmas and still have them shipped in time for the big day.

4. Buy used when possible

Using RSS feeds makes it easy to find items for sale on eBay or Craigslist. This is particularly great for younger children who don’t care if an item is used. Would you rather pay up to $50 for a Little Tykes basketball hoop or $5? For adults, electronic items can make great used gifts. People upgrade so often, you can find great deals on computers or mp3 players that are still in perfect working condition.

5. Give your “Favorite Things”

My father started this tradition and my wife and I have adopted the idea. By giving inexpensive items that you love and use everyday, not only will the gift be more meaningful, but the recipient will think of you whenever he/she uses the gift. By giving a gift with meaning, you deemphasize how much the item cost. Last year, my sister gave me a little packet of some of her favorite things that included her favorite gum, mints, and beverage. I loved it. It was neat for her to share those things with me and I could have cared less how much she spent.

6. Find great children’s gifts for under $5

Target, Wal-Mart and any dollar store have some great gifts for under $5 that kids love. Target and Wal-mart both have great generic-brand toy packages in $5, $10, and $15 increments. These toy sets include balls, play doctor kits, die-cast cars, doll sets, toy trucks, a velcro target and balls, and train sets.

7. Tell your family you’re trying to get out of debt

Let your family and friends know that you’ll be giving small gifts, or no gifts at all, because you’re trying to avoid debt during the holidays. Your family and friends will respect the fact that you’re aggressively trying to get out of debt and you’ll get the added benefit of their support. Of course, only do this if it’s true.

8. Make an agreement with others about gifts

The fact is, your friends and family are probably stressing about Christmas finances just as much as you are. Approach them with the idea of making a pact to not exchange gifts this year or to keep the gifts within a certain dollar amount. You’ll both be relieved to not have high expectations hanging over your heads about what to give and how much to spend.

9. Buy them Total Money Makeover for $10 a piece

Dave Ramsey sells his hardcover “Total Money Makeover” books for $10 a piece if you buy a pack of 10. Note: the link to his online store was broken as of this writing. I’ll keep checking and post the link when it’s working. While it might seem like a lot to drop $100 on books, you’ll actually be giving a $17 gift for only $10 while taking care of 10 people on your gift-giving list. Plus, books make the best gifts in my humble opinion.

10. Use cash and/or save receipts

I’ll admit that it’s tough to use cash when you’re making so many purchases in such a small time frame. Credit and Debit cards really are more convenient. But if you really want to guarantee you’ll spend within your means, you’re best off dividing up your Christmas funds and giving cash to each family member. Once they’re out, they’re done spending.

If paying cash is not realistic for you, be sure to save all your receipts. Empty the receipts from your wallet at the end of a shopping day and put them in an envelope for safe keeping. Before you wrap your gifts, you can review how much you spent and, if you’re over budget, you can decide which gifts to return. With all the gifts in front of you, it’s easier to make trade-off decisions about which ones to keep. When you’re at the store in a shopping frenzy, it’s much harder to make such a level-headed decision.

Decide not to go into more debt this holiday season

Most importantly, make a decision along with your family not to go into additional debt during the holidays. You don’t want to be “experiencing” Christmas long after it’s over and the thrill of new toys has faded.

What do you do to save money during the holidays?

Posted in Budgeting, Cash, Finances, Money, Personal Finance, Saving, Spending | 11 Comments »

RSS Shopping Site Guide

Written by Sam on November 9, 2006 – 1:24 pm -

I reviewed and updated this list in Nov., 2009.

As I researched my post about holiday shopping using RSS feeds, I realized how convenient it would be to have a summarized list of all the shopping sites that offer RSS feeds. I also received some great suggestions for shopping sites I didn’t know about. In my previous post I failed to look at MSN shopping which offers RSS feeds for specific search terms and searches a large list of major retailers.

I decided to create a list of all the shopping sites I know of that offer RSS feeds. I’ve indicated whether the feeds are preset like “newest items” versus feeds that allow you to customize by search term. Feel free to bookmark this page and use it as your reference guide for holiday shopping. It’s everything you need right in one place.

I also had a commenter tell me about a nice software-based RSS reader called Snarfer that bridges the gap between web-based and software-based readers by allowing you to sync your feeds with I’ve tried it out and really like it. It may be my new RSS reader of choice.

Please post any sites I’ve missed in the comments section and I’ll add them to this list.

RSS Shopping Links
Site Preset RSS Feeds Feed for search terms? RSS Feed location Notes No preset feeds No N/A You can subscribe to feeds through other sites like Spendfish (see below). -Deal of the Day

-Hot Deals

-Gift Deals

-Deals under $10

-Custom feed builder (bottom of page. It was acting a little buggy)

-Top Discounts

-Top Savings

-Newest Deals
Yes   Features mostly deals. The RSS feeds can be buggy in Firefox2.0. Try using Internet Explorer.
eBay No preset feeds Yes Bottom of search results page  
Yahoo! shopping
-All RSS Feeds

-Popular Shopping Searches

-Most Popular Electronics Products

-Most Popular Computer Products

-New Releases: Music

-New Releases: DVDs & Movies
No RSS web page Newest Deals No Bottom of page Aggregates results from several of the top “deals” sites, several of which are on this list.
Baebo No preset feeds Yes Top of search results THIS FEED SEEMS TO BE DOWN RIGHT NOW. I’M GOING TO KEEP IT ON THE LIST IN HOPES IT COMES BACK UP. -New Items No Right Navigation They don’t have RSS search term feeds but you can get email notices for search terms. -Latest Headlines No Top of page The search results are powered by -10% Price Drops

-Last 25 price changes at

-Subscribe to search term

-Subscribe to Amazon Wishlist

-Last 25 price changes by category
Yes Whole site provides RSS feeds to track price changes of products. A very cool feature allows you to automatically monitor your Amazon wishlist. -New Deals

-Forum feed
Yes, for some terms At the top of the search results This site offers printable coupons, links to Sunday newspaper ads, and Forums. -Hot Deals

-Free Stuff


No Bottom right Forums, Wiki, Store Ratings -Newest items No Right navigation towards top Technology and General items -Newest items No In header below tabs Also offers coupons and promotions -Top 100 (one feed for each category)
No Bottom right  

Posted in Saving, Spending, Tools | 17 Comments »

Welcome Dow Jones Market Watch Readers

Written by Sam on November 1, 2006 – 9:24 pm -

I awoke this morning to a pleasant surprise; an invitation to do an interview with Frank Barnako of Dow Jones Market Watch. What an honor! He was intrigued by the idea of shopping for the holidays using RSS feeds. You can read his blog post and hear part of the interview here. It’s a little hard for me to listen to myself. But I guess for my first interview it was ok. I’ll have to practice. It’s been quite a week for me being highlighted by All Financial Matters and then the interview with Frank.

I’d like to welcome all of Frank’s readers and hope you find useful ideas about managing your personal finances. Please feel at home and stay as long as you’d like.


Posted in General | Comments Off on Welcome Dow Jones Market Watch Readers

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